Dragon’s Night

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As promised, here’s a moment of Elmiryn’s past…

-Illise M.


The Fiamman kingdom covered the entire south-west of the Sibesona continent.  Kingdom of metal and glass–they were the sun-lovers, with warm hair and light skin.  Halward’s fist.  Feared by the heartlands, and resented by the frosty north.  It was divided into four provinces.  Ebinus, home to the farmers and the largest military forts and training camps; Ethea, where the merchants and artisans outlook the Maelic Bay; Eurevius, the province of the scholars and magic users; and Engus, home to the royal family and the noble community.

It was good to be back, good to find reprieve from war life.  Not that she couldn’t handle it.  There was something delightful in the mud, the cold, the death–and she meant that entirely without irony.  All her life she had trained to be a warrior.  Discomfort and stark reality was hers to keep.  As was the thrill, the freedom, the wine, the–

–smooth rose lips, balmed so that they caught the candle light.  Seated on a plush couch, somewhere in the city of Malvene, Ethea.  She was vaguely aware of shouting, but she was in a bar.  That was to be expected.  She paid it no mind.

“They say you’re a silken warrior.  Never touched by a blade,” the youth whispered.

Elmiryn’s fist rested near her temple.  She brushed back a honey lock of hair.  “Where’d you hear that?”

“Captain, you know that everyone talks!”

Everyone!”  Elmiryn touched a hand to her chest.  Her face pulled into a look of shock.  “I had no idea!”

A playful shove.  The young girl laughed.  “Stop teasing!”

“…Then would you like to see?” Elmiryn’s lip curled into a smirk.  She pulled at the girl’s wrist, and wide-eyed, the youth did not fight.  Her other hand snaked around the girl’s back.  Soon she was over Elmiryn’s lap, leaning onto her chest.  No name–that was lost already.  No conversation, so the woman didn’t bother.  Instead, she savored the softness of the girl’s body, the smell of light powder on her baby skin.  She took the girl’s hand and pressed it to her breast as she kissed her…

“Captain!”  A fly in her ear.

The woman broke the kiss, at the protest of the girl, and leaned in so that their cheeks touched.  “…Yes…Lieutenant?” Elmiryn’s head turned to stare over the back of the love couch with enough ire to kill a man.

Saelin, her second-in-command, batted his mint eyes at her in fear through the metal posts.  He stood, plumed helmet in one hand, on the stairs leading down to the first level of the bar.  “Sir, there’s a situation outside,” he said in a quiet murmur.

The woman scowled.  Saelin wasn’t incapable of handling a rowdy soldier.  How bad was it that her help was required? She turned to her company.  “I’m sorry, little thing.  I’ve got to take care of this.” When the girl was off her lap, the woman stood, her eyes as blades.  “What the fuck is going on?” She seethed.

“Just loudmouths sir.  Only…the villagers are getting really riled, and our men won’t back down.  Some feel it’s an issue of pride.”

“My ass it is…” Elmiryn grumbled as she sidled past the maiden to join Saelin at the stairs.  “How did this get started?”

Saelin spoke quickly, easily keeping up with her quick steps as they went down.  He was used to it.  He could keep up with her in the middle of an active battlefield.  “Lake had gone out for a breather when a man came up and started harassing him.” He gestured vaguely, his eyes rolling.  “First he laid into Lake for his foreign looks and dark hair.  Then he started to put down the army in general.  Said we didn’t know what we were doing, that the Fleabiters should have been squashed already.  He worked up into a rage, and started blaming us for the death of his brother.  Said Lake wasn’t half the soldier he was, because of his foreign blood.”

Elmiryn blasted through the entrance door with a bang. Outside, the heat sweltered in the breathless city.  The high lanterns, through clear glass, shone brightly down onto the paved streets.  Curved mirror bowls with the centers cut out reflected the enchanted candle light.  The created effect made the evenings a warm world–a place to blister in.  The men in her unit were truly of the solar kingdom, but she wished they had better sense.  Their passion was meant to burn others, not themselves.

“You’re cowards!  Swine!”

“I’ll have you come here and say that, peasant!”

“Look’it ’em!  Lined up like a bunch of prisses!  Are you going to dance, ladies?”

“On your face?  Gladly.”

In front of the posh watering hole, a small mob had gathered.  From the size, she guessed the number at twenty to thirty men.  They faced off with her dragoons, about forty of them, who stood collected in off-set lines, shoulder to shoulder, with rabbles of supporters about them.  This formation was done perhaps in instinct or conscious defense.  Weapons had not been drawn yet, but the men held their sword hilts.  Some, the rowdy ones, Elmiryn could recognize by voice.  They argued irascibly with the commoners.  Others stood as stoics, but their eyes held a murderous fury, usually only reserved for battle.  A push, a pointed insult, a tossed rock–that was all that was needed.

They were the sons of the suns, her dragoons, but Elmiryn could not let this escalate.

“So after that, this happened?” She looked at Saelin, arms crossed over her chest.

“Oh no, sir!” Her Lieutenant shook his head, his eyes clearly saying, “Give us more credit than that!”  But then he tugged at his ear and turned his gaze elsewhere.  “You see, that just caught our attention.  Everyone was fit to drag Lake away when…” Saelin faltered.

She looked at him, a light frown on her face.  “Well?  What else, Saelin?”

He sighed and pointed at the man with the unshaven face and overgrown brown hair at the front of the mob.  He had a near-empty bottle of rum in one hand.

“That drunkard, the one who started this all, started to mock you.  After that, people started taking sides.”

Elmiryn bit on her tongue.  Looked from Saelin, to the drunk, and back.  Some part of her wanted to laugh, but the greater issue still demanded attention.  Loudly.  “Where the hell are the guards?”

Saelin snorted.  “The guards are just commoners with swords.  When they saw the moron baiting Lake, they figured it would have been taken care of.  They didn’t count on this.”

“In other words, it’s my problem now.”The Lieutenant looked at his boots, hands clasped behind his back.  Elmiryn chuckled with a sardonic grin, her head shaking.  She looked skyward.  “Halward, I give you five acres of Ailuran land, and you give me eighty angry drunks!”  She laughed again, and kneaded her brow.  “Ugh…Forget it.  Let’s just get this over with.”

As she moved forward, her polished leather boots made sharp clicks on the stone paved road.  From her gut, the woman let out a loud kai that stopped the shouting matches.  Her men snapped straight with their arms at their sides, eyes forward. The commoners sneered, “Mutts scramble at the howl of the queen bitch!”

Elmiryn looked to the mob.  They quieted as the leader, the one who had started it all, came forward.  He brandished his bottle of rum at her, and the stench that hit her was an offense in of itself.

“You…the…the fuggin’ lapdog of Lord Westley.  Daddy Warner’s lil’ girl.  Yer…juss…juss a curs-ed gimmick.  A sh-show for them nobles…ta…laugh at!  Meanwhile, g’men get killed.”  He took a quick swig of his drink and spat it in her face.  There were cheers.

The drink felt warm, and stung her eye.

Elmiryn, without much thought, snatched the bottle from his hand and smashed it over his head.  Then she took him by the front of his clothes, and with the broken end of the glass, stabbed at his face.  Once, twice, three times, as hard as she could.  There went an eyebrow, the lips were split, a chunk of the chin gone, the nose slashed, the cheek now a tattered hole that wept blood.  The man screamed, and the sound squelched into a disturbing wet wail.  It was like he was drowning in himself.  The brave commoners started forward in outrage, but the unified drawing of swords from her dragoons stopped them.  Many of the folk were unarmed.  Simultaneously, they all reared back at the sight of possible death, faces drawn and white.  The commoners on the side of the dragoons had all fled out of sight.

Elmiryn threw the bottle to the ground, where it shattered in crimson pieces.  The drunkard’s body started to go slack, but the woman pulled him close, the strain of her muscles hardly the worst she had felt.  The man must’ve weighed less than a hundred pounds. “And what would you know about good men, poison sucker?” she hissed.  His face was a mask of red that hardly resembled a human being.  She let him drop, and he fell to the ground, still with the shock.

She eyed the crowd before her, her lips a displeased line.  “My men and I fought, and will continue to fight, for the benefit of bottom feeders like you.  We’ve seen friends torn apart, had family die while we were struggling to make them proud, had our limbs snapped, skin torn, hearts made black.”  She marched before the crowd.  Some tried to flee the other way, but more soldiers blocked them.  The group was surrounded now.

Elmiryn resumed speaking.  The snare of her pacing boots was louder than everything now. “The punishment for disrespect toward a soldier of any rank is typically death, but I find that’s far too kind.  Not when the insult is this great.  You wish to lay shame on us, today? Our first day of rest?  Fine.  I’ll make your life a living shame.  I’ll forever mark you, as I did this man…assuming he lives to see tomorrow.”  She gestured at her dragoons.  “Grovel before these soldiers, and you fuckin’ hope to all of heaven that they leave you unscathed!”

Some were quick to oblige.  The older men, the infirm, the drunk, and persuadable.  They kissed the boots of the front line dragoons and wept, shaking.  The younger ones, the prideful ones, stood, hackles raised, at the back.  The soldiers that blocked their escape, closed in, swords up.  This last intimidation worked.  The youngsters scurried to make amends.

Elmiryn looked to her dragoons.  “Satisfied, men?  Have they earned your mercy?” The dragoons looked at each other, smirking.  Mischief danced in their eyes.  When they looked back at Elmiryn, however, they saw her face dark and humorless.  The smiles fell away.  As one, they answered.  “Yes, sir!”

The woman waved the commoners away, not even looking at them.  “Fuck off.”  Before the last could sprint away, she shouted and pointed at the man at her feet.  “And take this shit eater with you!”  Two teenagers came running, and with one frightened look at Elmiryn, lifted the drunkard by the arms and dragged him away.

Saelin handed her a handkerchief, which she used to wipe away the blood and rum.  She licked at the drops on her lips.  It made her thirsty.

None moved.  The soldiers knew better than to leave formation when no had excused them.  She waited for the commoners to be out of sight before she turned to regard her men.  Her hands clenched to fists.  Her cheeks were a bright pink.  “You idiots!

Elmiryn paced before them, rubbing her face.  Then she gave an impatient wave.  “Demerits.  ALL of you!”

Lake, the dark-haired youth who was in the center of the front line, gave a start.  He was younger than she and Saelin, but had a profound chin and cheek bones that made him seem much older.  “Sir–!”

The warrior fixed him with a look of pure murder. “Answer me just one thing, Lake.  What the fuck were you thinking, getting into an argument with that man?”

“He was disrespecting me, sir.”

So correct him.  FAST.  In the only way these people understand! They’re gods damned Fiammans, same as you.  If you argue with them, they’ll argue back!  But are they in the position to argue with you about fuck all?”

“…N-No, sir.”

“Exactly.  But you’ve disgraced yourself.  ‘A wise man who argues with a fool, is a fool himself.’”  She looked at the others.  “And this applies to all of you.  This shouldn’t have gotten to the point it did.”

Elmiryn took a deep breath.  She looked at Saelin who gazed back at her with a thin mouth.  The woman rubbed the back of her neck and placed a fist hand on her hip.  “You’re dragoons. Act like it.  If a peasant wrongs you, give him your sword or your fist, but never spare time for words.  Leave that nonsense to the politicians.”

“We couldn’t abide their slanderous talk, sir…” someone muttered.

The woman’s shoulders bunched and the scowl returned to her face.  “I don’t need anyone to fight for my honor.”  She glared into as many faces as she could.  “If anything, fight for your own.” She turned and began to walk back toward the bar.  Onlookers gasped and hurried out of the doorway, retreating back inside.


Elmiryn turned to look at Saelin.

He shuffled and glanced back at the men, still at attention.  “Are we to return to the barracks?”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Elmiryn gestured toward the bar.  “This is our first night back in over a year.  If all of you go back, have to go back…but I’m not going anywhere until my rubyfruit’s been taken care of.”

Saelin smiled, clearing his throat.  “Ah…Y-Yes, sir. Of course, sir.”

Elmiryn re-entered the bar, finally letting out the laugh she had been fighting down that entire speech.  All hell nearly broke loose over something as abstract as her ‘honor’.  Before she was up the stairs, she heard her Lieutenant bark at her men.

“You heard the Captain.  Dismissed!

Continue ReadingDragon’s Night

The Sand That Falls


His heart was ahead of him–ahead in the sense that he felt it leaving him, over the meadows of singing crickets and swaying blossoms that whistled. He moved as fast as he could, calling on his legs to conquer the ant hills, the sheets of tall grass, the uneven terrain that shifted as he crested the slope.  His lithe form was swallowed in the sweltering embrace of the tropical forest.  As the world sang to him, his ears burned with the warning from the ship captain.

Ya’ good at’cha keepin’ track an’ all, aren’tcha boi?  Den count dis.  You gots an hour, strong, to get ja mweze. I’s tired of dat chile’ games.

An hour. An hour. An hour.

“Tai’undu,” he cursed. “Quincy, wikan tai’undu!

He took a blind leap over an eroded ledge and gave a shout of surprise as he crashed into mud.  He was on all fours, the mud in his mouth, eyes, nose, ears–soaking up his thin cotton pants and staining it.  The flaps of his vest hung heavy, dripping with filth.  He made a clumsy effort to stand, and his bare foot sunk deeper into the mud, up to the knee.  He cursed.  A sinkhole.  He grunted and scraped at the edges of the mud pool, his lean muscles straining with the effort.  He managed to catch the naked root of a tall ginger tree and pulled at it.  With a yell, he was out of the mud, panting.

Though his eyes burst with stars, Hakeem pushed himself to keep going.

The last he saw of Quincy was at the fisherman’s village, speaking with a traveling minstrel.  He’d been busy with an errand for the captain, buying vegetables from farmers, but noted that the girl looked intensely interested.

Swiping the mud from his eyes, the boy burst through a collection of burrflower trees, their fat leaves streaking through the mud on his dark skin.  The mud dried and flaked to a pale brown and left him striped.  Little Savage, the locals called him.  Flitting through the dark of the jungle, he began to believe it.

He was almost a full man, but still so little of life was in his hands.  The few things he possessed, he fought for…Quincy being one.  Though her sentimentality sometimes irked him, Hakeem would sometimes catch himself staring at the sunset, or searching the stars.  …Sometimes he caught himself staring at her.

He had never been shy when it came to the opposite sex.  Since he was much younger, the thought of marriage seemed wondrous to him.  Though the exact details were still treated as a mystery, he had gathered marriage as a mark of status, a happy partnership, a way of having someone else wash your underthings.  To a young boy, it had seemed ideal.  Now it seemed…

Even better.

Living with pirates did much in the way of removing childish ignorance.  He had seen men disembowled for having the wrong ‘look’, seen adults fuck in drunken stupor, seen the elderly beaten to death in blind rage.  His hands had been employed to snatch away jewels from honest workers, and his feet ordered to kick a crying child in the face.  So far, no life had ended because of him, but no life had ever stretched longer from his effort, either.

…None but hers.

As a child, he had considered her a possible candidate for a wife–even though she was ‘too pale’ and ‘spoke funny’.  Now, he thought of no other.  There was no mystery to the union of a man and a woman anymore, and it left him wanting.  Quincy was a good friend, but he didn’t want a sister.  He wanted more.

With the possessive nature of his shipmates rubbing off on him, Hakeem had already attributed the word, “Mine,” to her (behind her back of course).  It was not a threat, so much as a promise to any of the lustful scoundrels that eyed Quincy’s creamy limbs, her feminine curves, her peach bow lips.  “You can’t have her, she’s mine.  Bwa-mweze,” My wife. “I’ll kill the bastard that gets too close!”

They laughed at him. “Oh!  Demi kuhzwala!” Look at the big man!

But they kept away.  Hakeem knew it was a combination of things.  The captain had ordered that neither adolescent be touched, if only to keep the peace.  There was also some awe surrounding their origins, and some were hard pressed to try their luck.  Others were simply superstitious.

A Fanaean virgin’s promise was considered magic in of itself.

Hakeem didn’t believe this, but he let the men carry on thinking what they would.  He wasn’t even a virgin anymore.  It was luck and an instinctual caution that had kept Quincy and him safe for the time being.

…Except now.

Leaning against the young smooth trunk of a palm tree, Hakeem caught his breath.  He willed himself to stay upright but his spine curved in rebellion.  “Quincy!” He shouted hoarsely. “Bwa-mweze!  Quincy!

An irritated voice answered him. “Great job.  You scared away all the song birds.”

Hakeem slipped down the slope of exposed red clay, wincing at the way the rocks and rough edges jammed into the soles of his feet.  He swatted a mosquito from his breast and went to the place he tracked the voice–somewhere behind the tamarind tree.  The forest floor was littered with them, and they made a funny smell.

He rounded the trunk, shoulders bunched and his expression livid.

They had twenty minutes to get back to the ship.

“Quincy, have you lost your gods damned mind?” Hakeem snapped.  His voice cracked.  This incensed him further and he cursed under his breath, kicking at the ground.  Why did that always happen when he was trying to sound tough?

His ferocious entrance ruined, Quincy smirked up at him.  “Bwa-taika, how upset you are!”

The boy stopped, and his entire body flushed red.  He looked at her, mouth open.

The girl laughed, and tucked a russet lock behind her ear.  Azure eyes squinted at him in mirth.  “Of course I know what ‘mweze’ means, stupid.  I’ve lived with you long enough to pick up that much, for heaven’s sake.”  She stood and dusted the clay from the rear of her shorts.  Some of it had even stained the exposed soft under flesh of her butt.

Hakeem couldn’t help but stare.

She caught him, and her smile turned coy.  “Want to get the rest of it, Taika?”

Taika.  Husband.

Stupid girl.  She had no idea what she was doing to him.

He glared at her and turned away.  “That isn’t funny.  C’mon.  We’re late.  The ship is going to sail.”

“I’m not going.”

He stopped mid-step, then turned slowly to look at her.  His eyebrows were raised high and wrinkled his forehead.  “…What was that?”

Quincy had her arms crossed, and her tanned face was set in a frown.  “I said I’m not going.”

Hakeem stared at her as if she’d turned a funny color.  The lust was gone.  Now all he felt was dumbfounded irritation.  “You can’t be serious.”

“I am.”

“Well you can’t stay here!

“I won’t.  I’m going to find another way out.”

How!?”  Hakeem shouted, advancing.  “That ship has been the only thing we’ve had for the past three years!  If it weren’t for them, we’d be–”

“Better off!” Quincy screamed in his face.  She’d always met his dares, and had stepped forward as he came towards her.  Now they stood, toe to toe. “I can’t believe you can even talk about them like they’re our family!  I hate those men!  I hate what they do!  I hate what they make us do!  They’re turning you into one of them, and I can’t take it anymore!  I’d kill them all in their sleep if I could!”

“What’s gotten into you?  What did that mkundu of a minstrel tell you!?” Hakeem grabbed her arm in a rough grip.  “Quincy–”

She punched him in the mouth, with all her might.  Quincy knew how to ball a fist, and even better, how to throw it.  He reared back, his grip on her lost, his hand at his bleeding lip.  “Tai’undu!

Quincy seethed, red-faced. “Don’t you touch me like that.  EVER.

Hakeem wiped at his mouth and let the blood flow, his eyes squinted dangerously.  “Why are you doing this!?  We’ve got less than fifteen minutes to get back there now!”

“Because our time with them is done.”  Quincy swept back her brown hair with an imperious flip, and glared at him with squinted eyes. “Do you really think we can stay with them safely and not expect them to turn on us? …Do you think I can?”

“I wouldn’t let them hurt you,” His voice was a growl. Everything in him bunched, just at the thought.

Quincy’s eyes turned soft. “You don’t understand. I don’t want you to protect me anymore.”

Hakeem snorted, crossed his arms and glared at the treetops. Her words burned him, but he drew up in anger. Stupid girl, silly girl. Swords were not meant for her hands.

“And what kind of life would you have instead?” He said angrily. He still refused to look at her. “You want to be a hero? Have sonnets to your name?” He cursed under his breath and kicked at the ground again. He went to the ginger trees and felt their bright crimson leaves match the feelings that swirled inside. It was true, their life was not a happy one–but it kept them alive, it kept them going. “The champions are dead. People don’t want heroes anymore, Quincy.”

He turned to look at her, his eyes dark. “If you want to leave Tulki and his ship, then at least wait until we arrive somewhere better–a port city with jobs and places where we could live–”

“I’m not interested in playing house anymore than being a hero, Hakeem.”

He sighed and looked at Quincy, head tilted back far so that he looked at her down his nose. “What did you have in mind then?”  Another dare.

Quincy’s eyes shone and she shifted her weight to one foot, her hand at her hip.  A slanted grin blossomed on her pretty lips.  “We can’t stay on Tulki’s ship because he’s going West, and I want to go to Crysen, which is East. It’s on the Kilemare Coast.”

Hakeem frowned. The Kilemare was a notorious coast line, avoided by all with enough sense. It was riddled with dragons, malicious spirits, and other magical creatures. It was also a magical hotspot, and where some of the best practitioners in the world trained. “And what are we supposed to do there?

“Learn. I’m tired of having no control in my life. I want to be independent. I want to be strong.”

Hakeem rubbed his shaved head with both hands, mud flaking off as he did so. He was just getting used to the seafaring life, just beginning to find his place in the crew. He hated those men, held no pride in his work…but what he didn’t want to admit was that he was scared. Scared of being completely uncertain of his future, at the mercy of life and the wiles of Fate.

Quincy saw right through him. “Hakeem…how much worse off could we be? Really?

He let out a rush of breath and let his hands fall to his sides. He gave her a sidelong look. “Okay. Fine. I was getting tired of taking orders from that toothless mkundu Tulki anyway.”

Quincy grinned at him ecstatically and ran forward to give him a hug around the neck. “Bwa-taika, sekaiku!”  My husband, thank you!

With his hands at her waist, he pushed her back gently, far enough that he could look into her eyes. She gazed at him, still smiling, but with a puzzled look in her eyes. “What is it?”

“I’m not…kidding…when I say that, Quincy.” He reached up to hold her chin. “I don’t think we’re too young. Sometimes I’m sure I’ll die tomorrow, but one thing I know for certain…is that I want you there with me.  Always.  As…my wife.”

Her eyes turned lidded. She stood on her toes and brushed her lips against his. His hands flexed on her waist, and his heart was fit to burst in his chest. When Quincy pulled away, her smile was warmer.

“Stupid boy…I wasn’t kidding either.”

Hakeem grinned, forgetting that his lip was still split, that he was covered in dry mud, and that he was supposed to be angry. He grabbed Quincy and lifted her, kissing her full on the lips. When he set her down, she slipped from his arms, laughing, and looked at him over her shoulder with a mischievous grin. He watched as she tied her sword belt around her waist. The thing looked far too thick and brought a masculine quality to her appearance. Hakeem eyed it unfavorably.

Then something occurred to him.

“We now have less than eight minutes to run three miles back to the ship.” And here he crossed his arms, a sardonic grin on his lips.

“…So what’re we going to do about MY things?”

Quincy froze. Her azure eyes flickered to him as a russet strand of hair slipped into her gaze.  Her lips twitched into a nervous smile.


Continue ReadingThe Sand That Falls

Cold Burns


He sighed and tilted his head back, watery eyes fixed to the jagged horizon. He sat outside the local hostel, a squatted pile of architecture, fashioned from mud cement and baked brick, that nested an unpleasant scent in his sensitive nose from the damp atmosphere. Across the road, which was churned and sloshed with ice and mud from merchant carts and caravan marches, was a one-story building built from redwood lumber.  Icicles hung from the eaves of the gray tiled roof. Through the open shutter windows, the rough guffaws of drunken men made his lip curl. It was not their humor that put him on edge–it was the slim degree between fun and danger that caused the friction to his nerves. She had said to wait, so he’d wait–even though he’d told her that it would be better if he had gone in with her.  But she was insistent.

“No, Argos.  You’ll put everyone on edge!  I’m just across the way, so don’t worry about me, okay?  I’ll be back within the hour.”

The dog’s eyes shifted and he let out a great long exhale.  The three suns had crawled along the sky, but not quite far.  An hour had not passed yet, though he felt it near.  He shifted on his haunch, lifting his large paws one at a time to gnaw away the frost that formed between his toes.  His thick fur kept him warm, and he was used to the cold–but he couldn’t run as well if his paws were frozen.

Satisfied that both paws were freed of their frigid adornments, Argos’s dark gaze shifted once more to the building across the way.  It had no sign.  Many of the places here didn’t.  They tended to get destroyed within a night.  Dolmensk was little more than a cultivated camp filled with rough adventurers and shady brigands seeking respite from their “work”.

He thought about trumbling in, unannounced.  But Lethia had said to wait…

So Argos waited.


She was seated at a planked wooden table, so poorly slapped together that she lost a fritter through one of the great gaps.  Her lip pouted at this loss as she eyed its descent to the sticky floor.  She sighed and sat back in her squeaky chair.  She adjusted the spectacles on her nose and gave the older man across from her as confident an expression as she could manage.  Adults tended to respond better to someone who sounded like they knew what they were talking about.

“So, as I was saying, sir…there’ll be a sizable payment for your help.  I can offer some of my possessions as collateral, and you would later receive your money in whatever fashion you wish.” The girl smiled after saying this, feeling pleased with herself.  For a moment, she thought she sounded like–

“What can you offer as collateral, little one?”  The man asked, scratching at the blister on the corner of his mouth.  He had a swarthy face and red eyes with funny yellow blossoms on the whites.  His shirt was possibly white once, but sweat and dirt had stained it a foul sort of tan.

At the man’s question, Lethia faltered.

“Umm…I have a number of alchemical items, as well as valuable casting tools that, in the right market, are quite–”

“You haven’t got anything.” The man said, bored.  He stood, taking up his tricorn hat from the table.

Lethia stood, stammering.  “N-No!  Wait!  Please, I’m sure we can work something out!”

The man paused, his hat hovering near his head.  He turned, his gaze now a leer.  “Well, miss…there’s always your natural assets to consider.”

The girl moved back, her face turning repulsed.  “I’m just a girl!”

The man crossed his arm, looking her up and down as he licked his purple lips.  “I know, miss…but just to be sure, you’ve never been with no one, eh?”

“Shove off.”

A young man came between them, his head tilted back so that he looked down the length of the his nose at the other man.  He had dark wavy hair that was swept back, and bronze skin.  This appeared somewhat comical as the youth was at least five inches shorter than the brute.  But his hand gripped the handle of a rapier, and Lethia blushed at the strength that tightened his back.

The thug reared back, his horrible eyes turning to circles.  “Oh…Paulo…hey…sorry.  Sh-She with you?  I-I didn’t know.” He put on his hat and backed away, both hands up.  “Sorry.  It won’t happen again.  You tell your brothers I said ‘lo.” He leaned over to the side and bowed awkwardly at Lethia.  “My deepest apologies, miss.”  Then he turned and fled out the door, knocking a drunkard over in his haste.

Laughter followed him.  The young man turned around, an amused smile on his face.  The girl’s heart skipped a beat.  “Ha!  Did you see that snake run?”

Lethia smiled at him nervously.  “Yes…You had such an affect on him!  Are you well known around here?”

“Yeah, you could say that.  Me and my brothers have a bit of a reputation.  People know not to mess with us.”

“And you came to my rescue!  Goodness, I’m lucky!”  Lethia giggled, and tucked a strand behind her ear.

The young man tutted, his eyes squinted in mirth.  “No.  I wouldn’t say this is luck…”  He gave a low bow.  “My name is Paulo, as you might have heard.”

“Lethia,” the girl said, giggling again. The girl offered for the young man to sit, and he did so, his smile broadening.  “I’ve…been asking around.  I really could use with some help–only…well, I keep running into men like the one you just scared off!”

“You need help?”  Paulo quirked an eyebrow and leaned forward.  His hand concealed some of his mouth as he rubbed at his chin with his ring and pinky finger.  “…With what, lia?”


Argos yawned, bored at having to watch the unwashed denizens tumble back and forth through the icy road.  He licked away the icicles that clung to his muzzle and was about to shift again to pass some gas, when his ears perked to two male voices down the way.  They were low murmurs, and he would have otherwise ignored them, but certain key words caught his attention.

“…he comes out with Syria’s apprentice, we’ll head out right away, alright?  You make sure to keep your hands to yourself and your mouth shut.  Understand?”

Argos turned his head, dark eyes blinking.  He saw two men not far off, a set of crates separating him from them.  He couldn’t smell them, they were downwind.  Both were armed with rapiers, the younger looking one also equipped with a pistol, which he kept one hand on at all times.  The young one kicked at the ice on the ground, though the action held little conviction.

“Dist’agea, ya!” He said with mild exasperation.  But there was laughter in his voice. “Me teshié! I am not some idi’ute, y’know!  This isn’t the first quarry I’ve snatched!”

The older one, the one with meaner eyes and his hair pulled into a short tail in the back, smirked at him.  “Oh? Last time, that girl with the jablongos certainly did a number on you.”

At this, his brother scratched at his jaw and shrugged. “Ah well…what can I say?  I love my lias…”

“Tch…just make sure this lia has eyes only for Paulo.  Between the two of you, the world’s women would be doomed.”

The younger man turned and looked directly at Argos.  His large smile lessened, and he turned back to his brother, thumbing over his shoulder.  “Ey…it was good we found that mongrel, ya?  I would’ve hate picking through this pit of a village town.”

“Certainly hard to miss, isn’t he?  Even with the white fur?”

“What do you think happened to him?”

“Who knows?  Not even the marshal had an answer.”

“Think we can make some coin off of him, after the lia is locked up?  Maybe we can pawn him off to some research guild.”  Argos tensed up, but tried to keep the growl from slipping his lips.  They didn’t know he understood what they were saying.

The older one shook his head, waving the thought away.  “One thing at a time, brother.”  He slapped lightly at the young one’s shoulder with the back of his hand, his eyes alighting on the bar doorway.  “Eh.  Look.  Here they come.”

Argos smelled them before the man saw them, thanks to a breeze that lifted up from the East.  Lethia was on Paulo’s arm, giggling, her cheeks pink.  The boy looked close to her age, perhaps older, with her large pack on his other shoulder and a large smile on his face.  He reared back at their scent, then pushed forward into a trot, a woof coming up his throat as his nose flared.  The girl smiled at him and knelt to say hello properly, but the young man took a large step back, his smile wiping away.  Argos stared at him, then looked back at Lethia.  He could smell it between them…

The girl held him at either side of his head, lightly scratching behind his ears.  “Argos,” she breathed. “I’ve found some people to help us!”

The dog bumped his nose against her chin, whining.  When their eyes locked, he felt something tickle at the base of his neck and around his sinus.  He spoke to her, in the only way he knew how.  Images, feelings, simple thoughts that echoed and skipped between them.

Bad Men.

That pistol aimed at…

[you like him?]

…the both of US!

They know, they know,

[you LIKE him?]

they know about

mistress Syria!



about “quarry”.

Just down the way.

Look, look, look–

down the road,

they look just like

[why do you like him?]

This Boy.

Lethia’s hands stilled in his fur, their touch sliding down to lightly rest against his chest.  The dog sighed and tilted his head to the side.  When crouched, the girl actually came a little shorter than he did, but she seemed to sink in on herself, losing an inch as her eyes misted and her lips bunched and quivered.


No. No. No.


They can’t know!

They think I’m a normal dog.




Lethia nodded and turned to look at Paulo’s knees.  “Can I see my pack for a moment?  I want to put on some cream.  The cold, it’s horrible.”

“Oh.  Sure.”  Paulo shrugged off her bag and set it down next to her.  “Um…is…is your dog friendly?”

Argos growled pointedly.

Lethia laughed, though the sound grated on the ears.  “He’s just…y’know.  Protective.” She opened the flap, her green eyes shifting to Argos from the side as she reached in with trembling hands and rifled through her belongings.  There was the clink and chink of some of her alchemy tools and dining pieces.  She soon pulled out a small, circular tin case.  Next she took up her waterskin which hung at the side of her bag by a leather tie, and dashed water over her hands.

“What’re you doing?” Paulo asked over her.

Lethia glanced up at his chest, her glasses having slid down her nose to leave her eyes exposed. “The cream I have is actually a thick paste–an odd elven mix.  I have to use water to activate it.  Keeps from spilling in my bag.”  She opened the tin case and scooped out a small amount of what looked like soft white clay into her right palm.  The girl then closed the tin, gingerly, trying to keep the paste in her hand from smearing, then put the little item away.  When her hand came back out of the bag, it looked as though it were still holding something.

The boy didn’t notice.  Argos guessed from the quizzical look on Paulo’s face that the boy knew nothing of feminine toiletries.  The young man just gave a confused smile and looked to where his brothers were, waving them over.  “My brothers were waiting for me outside.  They’re just down there.  Let me introduce you.”

Lethia looked Argos in the eyes, her breathing quiet, but fast and shallow.  “Now?” she breathed.

The dog gave a jerk of a nod.


Lethia took the match she had concealed and struck it against the rough of her bag strap.  The match lit with a spit of fire.  She then rose to her feet, twisting her body to face Paulo in full, her hand which held the incendia–a white clay used in starting controlled fires–offered up, open palm, as she brought the match to it–all of this done in one fluid movement.  The clay ignited into gray and white flames, just a fireball held in her hand, which was kept safe by the water she had doused over her skin.  Lethia was careful to make sure her long wheat locks were no where near her hand when she inhaled, and with all the force her lungs could manage, she blew at the flames.

Paulo’s face drew blank, and he reached for his rapier reflexively, but his countenance was lost behind the curtain of white fire.  He screamed and jerked back.  Lethia’s heart hammered against her chest, but she didn’t stop to see if he was okay.  Taking up her bag, she pushed into a run.

As this went on, the girl saw her dog out of the corner of her eye–saw him barrel into two men, who had been approaching them.  They shouted and she heard metal ringing.  As she fled down the road, feet sloshing through the dirty ice, past the new onlookers who stood in her way, she heard screaming, and she faltered in her run to look back over her shoulder.  Argos was on top of one man, young, whose arm seemed pinned between himself and the dog.  The dog also had the other man, the older looking one who had tried to crawl away to his lost sword, by his boot.  He was pulling and tugging, white fur ruffled as he worried his catch now and again.

Lethia stumbled to a stop, even as she saw Paulo, eyes unfocused, bits of his hair and one eyebrow smoldering, turn and begin to tumble in her direction.  He looked dazed, but livid, and the ring of his rapier made the girl take a large step back.  But she couldn’t let Argos get hurt.  She couldn’t leave him behind.  “Argos!” She screamed, hands clasped to her chest, body doubling as she put everything she had into her call.  “Argos, stop it! Come on!”

The dog let go, his head popping up as he looked her way.  Then with a booming bark, the dog reared back and pounded his paws into the back of the young man beneath him.  The unfortunate fellow let out a great “Oof!” before his head fell against the icy ground, still.  The dog bounded off of him, and next trounced on the older man, who had once again sought to retrieve his lost weapon.

Then the dog turned and with great reaching bounds came running to Lethia, whose attention had returned to Paulo.  When the boy was close enough, he brandished his rapier and snarled.  “You could’ve killed me!”

Lethia’s face grew hot.  She screeched at Paulo, her hands clenched to tight fists.  “How dare you!  After the way you tried to betray me, losing an eyebrow was the least that–”

But her words were cut short when Argos rammed into Paulo from behind, his head dipped low to better scoop his body up when his legs flew out from underneath him.  The young man shouted as he tumbled over the dog, and Argos slowed to bark at Lethia.

The girl quickly obliged, but not without one last glance over her shoulder.


Bursting through the little crowd that had gathered to watch, the pair veered off the main road to take to the alleys–through dripping pathways, iron gates, and garbage.  Away from the buildings of timber and brick, with black smokestacks and churned roads of ice where chickens roamed, and the destitute slept against crates and barrels.

Evening came and the village town of Dolmensk was well behind them.

Lethia gazed back at it, her lenses held delicately in her hands as her green eyes traced the outlines of the shadowed buildings with mixed feelings.  “Where are we going now, Argos?  Who will help us?  We have less than three weeks before…” she stopped, her voice made into a ghost of fog that drifted off with the wind.  The dog woofed, and Lethia knelt by him, startled out of whatever reverie she’d slipped into.  Her eyes fixed to his.


By Witch’s Alley.

Dangerous, but fast.

Bad if we take the merchant road.

Worse if we stay.

The girl nodded, shivering as the flashes of thoughts flew through her brain.  “Okay.”  She stood and buttoned up her winter coat.  She adjusted her collar to better conceal her face from the wind, fingers numb and clumsy.  Then she scratched Argos behind the ear and smiled as she put her glasses in her pocket.  “It’s a good thing I have incendia.”  She started to walk, toward the almost snow-covered road that dipped down into a narrow pass between two great bluffs.  “I haven’t used any of it yet–so we should be good for a long while.  Right, Argos?”

The dog remained quiet.  Lethia looked back at him, confused.  “Argos?”

Argos sighed and trotted to catch up with her, then bumped the girl in the side.  He looked up at her, and she smiled at him again.

“Looks like it’s just you and me, Argos.”

His mind flashed to Paulo, smiling.  To Lethia, smiling back.

The dog grumbled.

Yes…For now…

Continue ReadingCold Burns

Sons and Daughters…

“I got a hand
So I got a fist
So I got a plan
It’s the best that I can do
Now we’ll say it’s in God’s hands
But God doesn’t always have the best goddamn plans, does he?”


In dreams, she made sense of the drips and pieces and parts of emotion that fell on her cheeks–much like a person made sense of a broken vase.  But the question persisted.  Where, where, where…

Where had all the heroes gone?

It was at times such as these that the girl could feel her Other Self pacing.  She had become good at ignoring it–and controlling it when necessary.  But during these moments, these quiet intervals that whispered of fears and haunts and memories filled with blood and gore, the girl could feel Her lurking.  The beast seemed to feed on her unrest.  With a conscious effort, she suppressed the creature and her mindscape turned still.

Nyx turned and twisted under heavy blankets.  The first snow of the winter season had yet to fall, but the nights still nipped at poorly covered appendages like dogs at the heels of cattle.  Hurried by this impatient chill, the youth reached over the edge of her bed, and plucked her wool socks from the floor.  She pulled them on beneath the covers, a shiver blasting through her and sending her hands into clumsy pawing.

Her eyes flickered to the ceiling.

Heavy lumber–like a naked skeleton–loomed at a slant to her sideways gaze.  The circular window over her bed was left uncovered, letting a shaft of moonlight displace the shadows.  Her room was simply furbished, if a bit messy.  Books stacked from the floor in growing towers that threatened to fall, with papers as a sea about their intellectual roots.

The curtain of beads at her bedrooms entryway clattered just as Nyx pulled on her last sock.


She looked up through mussed hair to see Atalo peering shyly at her from the shadows of the entryway, one hand holding back the curtain.  His eyes were wide and his shoulders hunched as he twisted the hem of his cotton shirt.

“…I didn’t wake you?” he asked, voice just skimming the waters of a whisper.

Nyx sat up and shook her head.  She wiped at her eyes and smiled.  “No.  The cold is to blame.  …Are you alright?” she added, sitting forward.

He scratched at his cheek and glanced behind him.  He looked at her with a soft sigh as he stepped further into her room, the curtain of beads swinging forward to reclaim their place.  Beyond, the hallway loomed black.  Atalo’s face was depressed into a solemn expression.

“A-ma isn’t sleeping well.  I can hear her crying through my walls.  I went to check on her, but she went back to sleep.  I didn’t want to disturb her…”  He rubbed at his arm, tawny eyes turning to the wood floor.  “I’m worried about her.”

Nyx sighed and pulled away at her covers.  She scooted to the edge of her bed and held out her hand.  “Koen, come here.”

The boy obliged, though he took small steps.  He flumped onto the feather stuffed mattress and looked at her sideways.  Nyx put her arm over his bony shoulders and pulled him into an embrace.  He felt cold.  Her hands tangled in his hair.  She closed her eyes and whispered something for the both of them.

“Everything will be alright…”


Nyx was busy in Tosmai’s village center, copying supply orders made by the Ailuran military.  Her hand was cramping from writing down all the information.  It was late evening.  All had left, save for the village leader, Orestes, who was in his quarters.  Now was her chance.

As a private secretary to Orestes, Nyx was required to dress appropriately.  She wore a white cotton blouse with a black embroidered collar and a forest green suede vest–usually with each polished silver button fastened closed, but with the day drawing to an end, she left her vest open.  On her feet were rich brown boots, made of deerskin, which came high over the ankles.  White leggings could be seen sprouting from them before her thick cotton trousers swallowed them at the knees.  Her long hair was pulled back and tied once with a black ribbon, six inches from the tips, then again, two inches from the tips.  The hair on the sides of her head were braided to the back, where the ends were then twisted into a simple flip.  Her unruly hair alone took an hour out of her morning.  Before, her mother would have to help her.  These days, it was Atalo.

The girl’s brow wrinkled as she tried to finish her work.  She wanted to be done with this task before someone–

“Hello, Nyx!”

The girl looked up with a start, hand slapping over the parchment she had been writing.  She grimaced when she’d realized what she’d done, and lifted her hand, which was now stained with ink.  The copy she had been writing was ruined.

“Oh, uh…sorry…about that…” the newcomer said.

A boy with a pointy chin, curly umber hair, and warm honey eyes looked down at her apologetically.  He wore a black jacket with gold cuffs, the inner lining a silky velvet, and the collar high and stiff.  A brass button at the top, just above the collar bone, was the only thing bringing the jacket together.  Under that, the boy wore a black vest and white cotton shirt, with black leggings and buckled leather shoes, polished to a gleam.  The traditional attire for a priest-in-training.

Her mind, no longer preoccupied with her work, finally paid mind to the soft smell of roasted almonds and incense that she knew to belong uniquely to the boy.  She smiled at him wearily, pulling the handkerchief from her vest’s pocket.  “Hello, Ampelos…”

“I’m here delivering a message from Urian,” he said, holding up a wax-sealed scroll.  “Is our leader in?”

Nyx nodded and stood gesturing down the large hall.  “Yes.  I believe he’s just reviewing his speech for this year’s harvest festival.” She tossed her handkerchief onto the table–making a point of placing it over the documents she had been reviewing.  “I’ll announce you.”

Together they walked, Nyx in the lead, her deerskin boots softly clicking on the wood panel floors.  The hall was curved in an arch, the ceiling made of baked brick and supported by visible beams of strong oak wood.  The walls were sandy brown, embeveled with Ailuran art that harked back to the earliest of days.  Behind her, Nyx could hear Ampelos fuss with his clothing.  As they neared the double doors leading into Orestes’ office, the girl stopped and turned to look at the boy with an exasperated smile.

“Amp, what’s the matter?”

The boy looked at her, his eyes widening.  He cleared his throat and touched a hand to his collar.  “Huh?  Oh, nothing…just nervous about seeing–”

“You’ve delivered messages to Orestes’ dozens of times.  Is there something else on your mind?”  She crossed her arms and looked up at him with raised eyebrows.

Ampelos blushed.  “I…I was thinking of asking…if you’d like…ah–”  The boy stared at her, face flushed.  Then he let out a loud, frustrated sigh, and looked down at the ground.  “Y’know, th-that isn’t fair.  You didn’t give me a chance to ask you properly.”

Nyx blinked and pulled her hair over her shoulder.  She fussed with the ends and felt her own face turn hot.  “Um.  Ask me what?”

“I was going to ask if you’d like to go with me to the festival.”

The girl winced and turned her head to the side.  She had known Ampelos since she was young.  He had been the only one, besides her friend Taila, who had not shunned her for her dissenting ideas.  But with the years, he had grown differently, and his affections for her had become exceedingly apparent–even if Nyx wasn’t so quick to pick up on his advances.

Guilt twisted her insides and she bit her lip.  Ampelos was shaping into a good man.  He was sweet, intelligent, and had a positivie future ahead of him.

…But she could never see him that way.

“I…I’m sorry, Amp.  I can’t go with you,” she said quietly.

Ampelos looked down at the scroll in his hands, which he turned slowly.  “Oh,” was all he said.

They stood there awkwardly for perhaps another minute before Nyx began to backpedal towards the doors.  “I-I’ll go announce you, now.”

She opened the double doors with sweaty hands.  In her head, she thought she heard Her chuckling–but that was impossible.

“Ampelos, son of Ourias, brings you a message, sir…”

The boy delivered his message quickly, then mumbled his goodbye.  Nyx watched him go, feeling tired and somehow, disappointed with herself.  But she had more important matters to deal with.  With a fresh roll of parchment, the girl set to finish what she’d started.  This copy was sloppier than the first, but it was still legible.  Nyx was more upset about her blouse.  Ink had gotten on the sleeves, and she couldn’t afford to replace it.

With her duties finished, Nyx left the village center, feet lithely coming down the stone steps.  She walked briskly, face forward, her hands gripping her knapsack with a white-knuckled grip.  Pulled over her blouse and vest was a thick smock-frock, to protect from the cold.

Tosmai was the second largest of the six Ailuran villages, which, along with the various forts and farm settlements, comprised the Ailuran nation.  The buildings here were of timber, cement, animal hide, and shingle, with stone foundations and circular design.  ‘Daikut’ as the architectural style was called.  The daikuts wound and wound in a swirl to the heart of the village, where tread earth was conquered by red stone tiles.  To the North, of the square was Tosmai’s center, and Nyx’s place of work.  At the center of the square was a small wooden stage, where leaders spoke to the citizens.  Around the square, bright colored streamers flapped in the wind, and buildings were decorated with strings of copper crescent moons–meant to bring good fortune and good health for the winter.  Smoldering ash left in dishes near doors were meant as wards from hungry ghosts, known as pretas.  They were said to come during the winter, sucking away the joy and love in the lives of the living.  Nyx’s family had a dish of ash near their door as well.

The harvest festival was only three days away.

Nyx walked as though she were returning home, nodding respectfully to those she passed.  Many nodded in return, though the action lacked warmth.  Others coldly ignored her.  The girl was used to it.  Many felt she was trouble to her family, and while her position as Orestes’ Private Secretary earned her some level of respect, there were many who still tutted after her in disapproval.  Orestes’ had done her a great favor in letting her work for him.  He had been fond of her brother Thad, and there were even times she suspected he was interested in A-ma.  He didn’t pamper her, but he was kind.  She lost sleep, knowing that her actions could bring him great harm, politically…but she could not stop.

…Not after what happened three years ago.

Nyx without a backward glance, deviated subtly from her route.  Her detour took her through some of the smaller, more run-down daikuts of the village, to the West.  At last she came to an empty shack behind the village storehouses.  The wind picked up, chilling her through the wool of her smock-frock.  Her nose flared at the scents of wheat and oats from the buildings behind her.

Then, a man came toward her, as though birthed from the darkness.  She hadn’t sensed him, as he was downwind, and he had made no sound.  His face was covered with charcoal and dark paint.  His clothes were similarly dark and unremarkable, but the girl noticed he had no shoes on.  “Have you brought them?” he asked in a low voice.

In answer, Nyx opened her knapsack and pulled out the scrolls of parchment she had been copying the military documents to.  “It’s all there.  I also overheard Orestes’ mentioning the body count from the recent battle in Uktace.  We’ve lost almost 300 hundred soldiers to Fiamma.”

The man hissed out a curse.  “Too many lives lost!”

Nyx nodded gravely.  “And recruitment is down.  They’ll be drafting soon.”

“And they’ll be calling our children to arms.” The man spat.  “We have no more men.  Most have gone to war…or died.

Nyx stepped closer, looking over her shoulder.  “Listen,” She gestured at herself.  “I want to do more.  Copying documents and pulling the wheels off of chariots isn’t enough!”

“…He’s already given you your answer, kitten.  He tried to train you, but you haven’t a stomach for violence.”

Nyx hissed from the back of her throat.  “What use does violence bring us when the ones we harm are of the same spirit!?  I can still be of more use than this!  Let me prove it!”

The man seemed to gaze at her a long time.  Then he nodded.  “Don’t go to bed early tonight.”  And without another word, he left.

Nyx stood there, her breath shaky.  She listened to the world shiver and felt her heart thrum anxiously beneath her breast.  Slowly, she turned and left.  She was careful not to be seen on her way back.

Back at her home, Nyx shed her smock and vest.

Her mother, known as Fotini to those outside the family, was stirring a pot in the kitchen, face lit underneath from the fire of the stove.  Her hand was slim and pale, the bone and veins showing unnervingly underneath.  Nyx bit her lip and set her knapsack on the stone table.  She went to her mother and took the spoon from her.  “A-ma, please sit.  You aren’t feeling well,” she said.

Her mother looked at her.  Her face was a little broader than Nyx’s and Atalo’s, and her chin had a small dimple (which the girl always thought curiously charming).  Streaks of white and gray sprinkled her dark hair, locks feathering about her shoulders.  She was already dressed in her nightgown, and her eyes and nose were a raw red.

Nyx guided her mother to the table with firm but gentle hands.  She felt her throat tighten at how easily her A-ma was persuaded.  The girl remembered days when she feared the pinch of her mother’s fingers about her ears (usually for hiding in Thad’s room when he was off to war, or from stealing the toys from bullies as retribution) but nowadays…

The girl went to the pot, stirring what looked like rabbit stew.  “How was your day, A-ma?”

The older woman sighed and rubbed at her face.  “Tiring.  I wasn’t able to meet my quota today.  The weave-master was furious…”

Nyx bunched, her eyes flashing.  “Did he hit you again?”

Her mother shook her head.  “No.  Orestes’ spoke to him already about that.  But…” the woman’s face crumpled like paper, and suddenly she seemed so much older.  “…I…I can’t…”

Nyx stopped her stirring and crossed the room in three quick strides.  She enveloped her mother in a hug, holding her close to her chest.  “Shh…A-ma, it’s okay.  Orestes’ said he was happy with my work.  We’ll be getting more grain and silver the day before the festival.”

The woman shook her head, muscles quivering.  She felt hot under the girl’s touch.  “My Nyx…My dear, dear Nyx.  It’s more than just pay. Those men out there…they need their armor.  When their leather gives way, the last thing to save them is our weave!  If my work is poor, then another mother could lose her…” The woman couldn’t finish.  She broke into sobs, gripping Nyx all the tighter.

The girl caressed her hair, silent tears slipping down her cheeks.  Her voice was thick when she spoke.  “Shh…A-ma…shh…stop that…”

“What would Thad say?  What would he say?”  her mother wailed.

Nyx stiffened, and her hands turned to claws against her mother’s back.  “Nothing.” She bit out, with more force than she’d meant to.  “He’d say nothing.  He loved you.  He loved all of us.”

There was a sound from the hallway.  Nyx turned her head to see Atalo crouching and peering around the corner.  His eyes shone in the firelight, and the girl could see her brother struggle to keep his lip stiff.  She held out her arm.

Atalo ran over to embrace them.

That night, the stew burned, and they were left with crackers and water for dinner.


Not much later, whilst reading in bed, Nyx heard a ‘clack’ against her window.  Her breath stopped in her throat, her copy of ‘Mysteries of the Animus Revealed’ falling flat against her lap.  She dog-eared the page she was on, then set the book aside and stood on the mattress, stepping up on the head rest to stare out the circular window.  Nyx saw nothing.  She squinted her eyes and opened the latch, pushing the window out a crack.


“Nyx, daughter of Fotini?” a voice whispered.

“Aye, I am she.” Nyx said, heart thumping.  She strained to peer farther out of her little window.  “Who’s there?”

“I bring you a message from the Ipogius.  Travel fast, to the Kreut Forest in the East.  Our company awaits you tonight.”


“Yes.”  There was a rustle, and Nyx saw a shadow on the ground move in the scattered moonlight.  “Wait!” she hissed.  The shadow paused.  “You can’t mean tonight!”

“Yes.  Tonight.  But if your dedication wanes, then by all means, resume your recumbency daughter of Fotini.”

Nyx cursed.  The shadow was gone.


She slipped from her home and out of Tosmai.  She avoided the main road, taking to the wilderness with all but the stars as her guide.  She knew she arrived at the Kreut Forest when the trees grew tall and the underbrush thick.  Here, the forest was black from the work of dwarves in the overshadowing mountains, and it was said that the forest was enchanted–host to wily fairfolk and a home to many spirits.  The frosted earth snarled beneath her feet.  She came to a clearing, and paused, her nose quivering as she sensed others.

The beast inside her snarled, and Nyx grit her teeth as she banished it to the dark.

Shadows moved around her, and she with them–body turning to find that she was surrounded.  Her mother had always said, she was a child for the dark.  Now she was one with it.

“Nyx.  You’ve come, and quickly, too.  This is good.”  A man stepped before her.  He was a head taller than her, and his voice was so deep, it rumbled in her ears like a bear’s.

Nyx bowed, her breath short.  “Myrk.  You honor me with this chance.”

A heavy hand landed on her shoulder, and she let out a squeak as she nearly toppled over.  “Nyx, the formality isn’t required.  We are the Ipogi!  Not the government.  I fought with your brother, Thad.  You are as my own, kitten.”

Nyx straightened.  “Th-thank you, Myrk…”

The man’s shadowed face nodded.  She couldn’t make out the details of his clothes.  Somehow the darkness of the Kreut forest was harder to pierce, even for her Ailuran’s eyes.  The most she could gather was that he was wearing a smock and fitted pants.

“Will you let me go deeper?” She asked, face tightening in anticipation.

“You know that I must test you, first.”

“What would you have me do?”

“Farther north of here, there’s an abandoned dwarven settlement.  There’s a two-story tradehouse there.  You have to sneak into the settlement, break into the building, and get the red ribbon without anyone seeing or hearing you,”  The man said.

Her voice was a fog.  “Where will the ribbon be?”

“On the second floor.”

“…That’s all you’ll tell me?”

Chuckles around her.  When Myrk spoke, she could hear the smile in his voice.  “There will be many times when the most you’ll know is what village your target is in.  Be happy I give you this much.”

Her hands clenched and she squared her shoulders.  “…When is my time done?”

“Kitten…you already know…that both for this test and any missions you may be given afterward…”

The other shadows moved away, off into the inky world.  Only the man remained.  If she focused, she thought she could see the fire of his spirit, glowing deep in his eyes.

He spoke again, and this time, she heard no smile.

“…Your time is done when you’re caught.”


Three days later.

The villagers crowded Tosmai’s central square.  It was the day of the harvest festival.  An emissary had been sent by the Illuminati of Himitahl, the nation’s capital.

The emissary, a tall man dressed in navy blue embroidered robes, raised both hands and boomed out.  “Sons and daughters of Aelurus.  Cast your attention this way!  I bring important news from your great elders.”

Nyx frowned as she came up near the stage.  The crowd pressed in, forcing her into intimacy with those around her.  A sea of heads and shoulders afforded her a limited view of the messenger, whose jade stone eyes swept over his audience.

“The Fiamman devils proceed to tramp upon our lands,” he roared, spit flying from his pale lips.  “They rape these sacred forests and swallow herds of cattle with little thought.  They press and they press…but the children of the moon remain strong.  In all the years, they have not taken a settlement, nor have they ever been close in damaging our great spirit as a nation!  At this very moment, our brothers fight for the good of us all, and the Fiammans quell at the might of Ekilluos!  It is a vicious struggle, one filled with its share of tragedy and torment…but there is glory and honor as well.”  He gestured grandly, with arms spread out as though inviting an embrace.  His eyes narrowed.  “Now!  Children of Aelurus!  Now has come the time to show your commitment to your elders, to your kin, and to your goddess!”

Another man came near him, holding a large scroll.  He unfurled it and held it up high for all to see.  The messenger gestured at it with one hand.  “Here!” he cried, “Is a list of positions that require those of able body and mind!  You need not be a warrior to aid in this war!  You too, can stop the Fiamman menace from their unholy crusade!”

Nyx felt something press into her back.  She stiffened, and turned her head just slightly.

“You’ll apply for the position as Permanent Secretary with the Senate.  Today.”  A deep voice murmured.

Nyx looked forward again, but her eyes were glazed.  She swallowed and whispered.  “My reputation precedes me.  If Leander finds out–”

“He won’t.”

Whatever was pressed into her back slid down to fit into her open palm.  She gripped it in her sweaty hand.  It was a small roll of paper.

“My family–”

“Will be fine.  Go.”

She turned her head.  The faces of many were turned up, to the messenger, who had gone on quoting scripture.  Her messenger was gone.  She placed the note in her pocket, her finger brushing against the red ribbon she kept there.

“‘And the Mother looked upon her children with a face filled with glory.  She held out her hands–hands of great creation–and She bade the brave to take on greater vitality in the name of Her and the Powers That Are and Always Shall Be. ‘Hark!  The light it calls! Draw up your pride, and remind thine ghosts who is master!’


She folded her last shirt and placed it carefully in her pack, amid her other belongings.  Atalo sat on the bed, feet kicking, but his face long.  “How long will you be gone?” He whispered.

Nyx glanced at him and swallowed.  “I’m not sure.  If I’m chosen, then I won’t be returning right away.”  And by that, she meant, she could remain there for the rest of the year.  “If that happens, I’ll send you and A-ma money and food.  I’ll be earning gold, not silver.  You’ll be able to afford so much more.”

The boy scowled at his knees.  “I don’t want gold.  I want you to stay with us, Koah.”

Nyx bit her lip, her eyes burning.  She reached over and touched his shoulder.

“I…I know, Koen.  …Please, take care of A-ma for me, will you?”


At the Senate building, in Himitahl.

“I’m surprised to see you here,”  Said Svette, Chancellor under the Illuminati.  He stared at the scroll of names in his hands, then looked back at Nyx.  His bald eyebrows pressed together.  “I’m really surprised to see you here,” He exclaimed again.  “As I recall, you had quite the reputation for running that mouth of yours in Tosmai!”

Nyx looked him in the eyes.  Svette was a slim faced Ailuran with a pinched nose and coral-colored eyes that appeared too close together.  To her misfortune, he was one of Leander’s closest companions…and Leander, as her old teacher, hated her.

The girl fought to hold the Chancellor’s stare–his focused, prejudicial stare–even as she felt the heat creep up her neck, felt her heart beat so fast it were as though it were trembling.  She resisted the urge to curl her back and dip her head in submission.  Her Other Self felt threatened.  She could feel the beast clawing at the surface.  She was almost certain Svette could smell the animal beneath her skin.

But she fought it, cursing her inner demon and pushing Her away.  Nyx drew herself up as tall as she could, taking a deep breath so as to make herself look larger.  She thought of Atalo and her mother.  Her heart calmed a fraction, and the beast became muted.

“My conduct in the past is irrelevant,” she said, voice flat and hard.  “The pain in my family, in my heart now, is what matters.  Those human swine have hurt me and mine enough already.  My mother is struck ill with grief, and my Atalo is too young to take to arms.  I myself am no fighter.  This is the only way I know to contribute.”

“You do have top marks in dictation and writing.  Orestes’ also speaks highly of you,”  Svette said, looking down with pursed lips.  “Our witnesses agree, you are an intelligent girl…if a bit misguided.”  The man turned to the elders at the back of the room, who sat shadowed behind a long polished oak table.  “Wise ones…is the child fit to serve?”

The phantoms beyond the table leaned over to one another, conferring.  Then the one in the center sat forward.  Beetle-black eyes and a craggy face hidden beneath an olive-brown beard shifted into the light.  The elder gave a nod.

“Daughter of Fotini, sister to the warrior-hero Thaddeus…We would have you as our Permanent Secretary.”

Nyx straightened her neck as much as she could and gazed toward the ceiling.  She felt like her heart was trying to punch its way out of her body.  “Yes, great one!”

“This is an honor for one so young… Please tend to the public accounts, and mind the expenditures of our divisions.  There will be three aids under your guidance.  Leave behind the poisons of your past.  As a daughter of Aelurus, your future depends on it…”

Yes, great one!


Nyx was in a daze.  She sat on the bed of her new daikut–a small building meant only for a single occupant–but it was freshly built.  The girl could tell from the fresh smell of the wood, and the way the bricks still held the scent of the ash from the oven that baked them.  Her bed was soft, and the sheets clean.  The wood furniture was recently polished.

…The girl wished she were home.

Next to her on the bed were her new clothes–given to her by the Illuminati.  Her new uniform.  A dress.  She was to wear a dress. A white one, with gold laces and a silky blue scarf.  Only women of high-station had the luxury of dresses.

“Sweet Aelurus, what have I gotten myself into…?” she moaned, burying her face into her hands.

It wasn’t the work she was scared of.  She could handle the record-keeping, divisional supervision, and even having people working under her.  Nyx was used to handling things of varying complexity all-at-once.  She did it for years at her home, since her mother’s health had begun to decline.  She wouldn’t have to speak much with those in other offices, and she would never have to speak with the public.

But…she hated Himitahl.  The temple was too large and unfamiliar.  Even the food seemed to taste differently.  Nyx shuddered at the thought of her first full moon there.  The village felt more like an overgrown town, and the mentality of the capital disagreed with her on a deep and fundamental level.  Tosmai had its fair share of propaganda and overt military displays…but here, it was worse.  So much worse.

…And what would happen if she were caught?

Nyx lifted her face to stare at the small note that sat atop her new dress, the one she had received the day of the harvest festival.  She recognized the messy scrawl as Myrk’s.

“Let the night come early.  Track the needs of the pretas.  Meanwhile, your eyes must be keen and quick.  Find the Names of the Damned before the suns swallow us all.”

The girl burned the paper in her small stove, and sat staring at a wall for the rest of the night.


The first week was exhausting, and the girl hardly slept.  She didn’t realize how much standing, approving, disapproving, and reporting she would have to do.  The tedious correspondence alone made Nyx want to scream.  Her aids, she realized, were a terrible obstacle in her espionage efforts.

They were three young men–only a little older than she–who were unhappy answering to a young girl, but earnest in their work.  She mixed their names up on a daily basis.  Nyx couldn’t be bothered to get to know them.  Her mental capacities were taken up just doing her job well enough so that she could do her real job.  Hours dragged on longer than necessary, because she had to memorize information without writing it down.  She could not afford to write anything down.  It was enough risk carrying the package the Ipogi had given her, she could do nothing else that may lead to her discovery.

At the end of the week, she received a message to meet an agent of the Ipogius outside of Himitahl.  In the dark, they met, and she told him all she could remember.  He said nothing, only handed her a small package, then left.  It made the girl feel cold to know that even her peers felt distant in her new surroundings.

The second week fell into a smoother rhythm as Nyx became accustomed to the pace of her work.  The third week even started to feel routine.  At the end of each week, she reported to an agent of the Ipogi.  At the end of each week, she sent a letter home to her family.  Her first full moon was spent alone, away from the other villagers.  It seemed even the beast disliked Himitahl.

It wasn’t until nearly a month went by that Nyx had every inch of the Senate building memorized–atleast, the areas she could access.  There was one hall she was barred from, unsurprisingly, as it was the way to the Chamber of the Elders.  But it was unneeded.

Shortly after the end of her first month as Permanent Secretary, her moment had come.

“A bulk order on weapons and armor?  Has recruitment improved?”  Nyx said one afternoon, holding up a leaf of parchment.

One of her aids glanced at her distractedly from his desk.  “No, miss.  The Illuminati passed an order last night.  Each village is to produce 200 sons and daughters by the end of the week.”

“…Each village?”  In her mind, the girl knew this to be disproportionate.  At this rate, the Illuminati would be asking not only for the able-bodied…but the very young…perhaps even the old.  She sat back, her lips and fingertips tingling, her skin feeling cold.  She stared forward, over the sea of papers, and wondered if the elders were really just “defending the nation”, if they were even just pursuing land and possible mineral deposits.

That evening, when she went to turn in her reports to Colec, the Cabinet Secretary, she saw the man sign his name at the bottom of a scroll, where other illegible signatures could be seen.  He looked up at her, his long sunflower hair tied back into a tail.  He stood, his robes rustling as he did so.  “Ah, Nyx.  Your timing is impeccable.  The Senate requires your signature here.”  He pushed the parchment across his desk.

“What is this for?” She asked, as she took the quill Colec handed her.

“The authorization for the draft list.”

Nyx froze.  Her eyes rolled up to stare the man in the face.  “…They…require…our signatures for this?”  The quill tip lowered to the parchment.  Sweat broke out over her skin.

“The Illuminati aren’t so much asking our permission,” he explained, “As asking the divisions if it’s possible.  You’ve been keeping meticulous records over the last month, yes?  Do you think we can afford this influx of troops?  If you look, it details the estimated number of new soldiers and the funds needed to equip and transport them.”

Nyx’s mouth felt dry.  Could she stall?  Could she flat-out refuse?  Her hand twitched on the parchment as she looked down and speedily read the document.  She felt sick as she gave a nod of her head.

“…Yes, sir.  We do.”


The girl fought to keep her hand steady as she signed the document.  “…Has…the draft list been completed?”

“Quite speedily, yes.”  Colec reached over and took the scroll from her, rolling it up.  “Excellent, madame.  Yours was the last signature needed.”  He came out from behind his desk, boots clicking on the tiled floor.  He patted her shoulder, a large smile on his face.  “Might I say, that your work here has been incredible.  Especially given your age.  You would do Thaddeus proud.”

Nyx heard the man leave the room.  She stared forward, eyes burning.  Her fists clenched to the point of drawing blood…

She had to do something.  Soon.


Night time.  New moon.  In a storage closet.  Through guile, the girl had managed to hide there well after her work had finished.

The Senate building was empty, save for the guards patrolling the hallways.

The package Nyx had received from the Ipogi contact contained all that she needed.  She was now dressed in a one-piece cotton suit, dyed black, with simple black shoes, and wore a black mask that concealed half of her face.  Tied around her waist was a belt of dark cloth, where a small knife hung holstered on her right hip, and a leather pouch on the other.  The pouch contained a vial of sleeping drought, a vial of poison, a vial of acid, a roll of string, and a simple lockpick.  She didn’t plan on using the knife to fight, but it could still serve as a useful tool.  As for the poison…

Nyx prayed to Aelurus that it wouldn’t be necessary.

When all outside her door turned quiet, the girl dared to emerge.  She knew the patrol routes, knew when the guards shifts ended.  But most importantly, she knew where the draft list was.

Nyx moved with purpose, her slim form a wraith in the dancing torch light.  She needed to get to the sub-level, where the room of records contained all the original government records.  The problem was, there was a guard stationed there at all times.  Fortunately, she knew the guard liked to have tea during his break.

She slipped into the building’s kitchen, to the rear of the Senate, an off-shoot that was purposefully built with a high ceiling to make it less stuffy for the servants who made lunch for the officials each day.  Nyx had come in the room only once, but she remembered one thing, common in Ailuran architecture…

Bare rafters.

It was a simple matter of getting onto the counter and running up the wall, where she was able to grab onto one.  Safely straddling the heavy rafter, the girl took out her string and began to unroll it.  Nyx was over the table that held the herbs and spices.  The guard, when he came, would eventually come directly beneath her to steep his tea.

Sure enough, within the hour, the guard appeared, his leather armor griping as he fished out a teacup for himself.  Nyx watched as he heated a kettle full of water till it squealed.  Then he came beneath her.  The man, carefully picked his tea leaves, placing them in the strainer, which he then dipped into the water-filled teacup.  He even added a small amount of spice with it.  These simple tasks done, he gave a cough and turned his back  to the cup, leaning back against the table with a bored expression.

Overhead, Nyx carefully lowered her length of string until it was over the unattended cup.  Then taking her vial of sleeping potion, she carefully let the liquid trickle down the length string.  She let a few drops fall into the drink, then quickly reeled the string back.

The guard turned around after a time and took the strainer out.  Then he added sugar, stirred it, and drank the tea.  Nyx watched the man drink and held her breath.  With time, he drained the cup, then turned and left the kitchen.

The girl waited an extra moment before letting herself drop down.  The hall was clear, as she knew it would be, and she proceeded with hastened steps to the stairs leading to the sub-level.  Down below, she found the guard, asleep in his chair.

Nyx ignored him, knowing that he did not have the key, and went to the heavy steel door.  She eyed the intimidating lock and immediately knew that her lockpick would be of no use.  Instead, she pulled out her vial of acid.  The vial was different from the others, as it was not contained in glass.  Instead it was held in a special metal that kept the acid from eating its way out.  She guessed the acid had been harvested from a foreign monster.  Gingerly, she opened the vial, then carefully poured the dangerous liquid into the keyhole.  Some dribbled down the side, and she cursed as she avoided it.  The metal hissed and bubbled.  The keyhole expanded, and Nyx could see it eat away at the mechanics.

She tried opening the door, but panicked when it didn’t open.  She bit her lip and crouched down to peer into the keyhole.  The torchlight was poor, even with her good vision, but she could still make out some of what was inside.  The acid seemed more or less gone, having drained away from the keyhole.  Nyx took her lockpick and jammed it at what she guessed to be the piece keeping the door stuck.  It moved less than a centimeter.  The next fifteen minutes were spent stressfully scraping at the hunk of metal until it tumbled out of the keyhole and clattered to the floor.  Nyx froze at the noise, and looked at the guard.

The man was still fast asleep.

With a sigh, she pushed her way through the door.

The room beyond was dark–too dark for her to look for the draft list.  The girl came back out to grab the torch from its place and carried it back into the room.  She gawked at what was illuminated.

Inside the room of records, the girl found herself in a sea of musty parchments and scrolls.  There were dozens of aisles, categorized by division and year.  She was careful to keep the torch away from the documents–there were birth and family records there too.  Nyx didn’t want to accidentally wipe out a family’s history.

With a bit of perusing, she came to discover what she was looking for.  Sitting fresh, atop older scrolls attributed to military actions and orders, was the draft list.  She recognized it by its size–a mammoth collection of names nearly twenty feet long.  Nyx took it in her hands, a sense of awe coming over her.  So many lives, so many Ailurans to send to early deaths.  With the list, the Ipogius could warn the families, could thwart the military’s drafting efforts by showing the people just how much their leaders were really asking of them, there were even some Ipogi members who were soldiers, who could confuse the military of where the draftees lived–


Nyx’s heart froze.  She whirled around.  A guard stared at her through the spaces of the bookshelves from the door way, dumbfounded.  She’d taken too long.  Thinking quickly, she backed away, to the center of the room, and dropped the torch.  The girl hurried away from the reach of its glow.  The guard ran forward, hand reaching to draw his sword…but even an Ailuran’s eyes needed time to adjust in new light.  When he reached the torch, he squinted, head swiveling about the room.

The girl cursed to find her way blocked.  This was her mishap.  She’d lost precious time fighting with the door and looking for the draft list.

She knew she had seconds before the guard’s eyes adjusted to the dark.  To her advantage, the mustiness of the room was so pervasive as to conceal her scent from immediate detection.  But there was no other way.  She’d have to knock out the guard–for if she didn’t, he’d warn the whole building…and then she’d never get away.  The beast inside thought of claws and violence.  Her joints and muscles ached, and heat swept over her–amidst her cold fear.  Once again, Nyx suppressed Her.

Carefully, the girl drew her knife and set the draft list on the ground.  She could not even entertain the thought of killing, but the blade handle was thick and heavy, and when struck against a weak point, made for a passable blunt weapon.  Nyx’s mind flashed with memories of Thad, shortly before he died.

“…Tell me, kitten.  Where are a warrior’s weakest points?”

“The top of the head, the temple, the eyes, the nose, and uh….”

“The throat.”


“Notice where they all are?”

“The head.”

“Yes.  Good.  Most of the time, these places will be protected in war–but outside of the battlefield, most people prefer not to go running around with helmets on all the time.  They’re uncomfortable.  So your best bet in an average fight, is to attack these points.  Atleast…if you want the battle to end quickly.”

The guard turned, so that his back was to her.  This was her chance.  Nyx sprinted, her throat tight with fear and a desire to scream.  With a hop she went toward a bookcase, then pushed up with the ball of her foot against a shelf. Her body launched up and forward, over the man, as she raised both arms high and gripped the knife with both hands.  The guard turned, his eyes widening, his sword swinging low to strike up…

Nyx felt the hilt of the knife crack against the top of the man’s skull.  He went down without a sound, his body falling over the torch on the ground.  The girl tumbled over him, panting.  She turned and noted with horror that the flames lapped at his sides.  Panicking, she rolled the man off the torch and patted the fire out with her hands.  Her skin stung and blistered, but Nyx was glad to see the flames go out.  She didn’t want the man hurt anymore than he was.

Her threat removed, the girl stood and swayed on the spot, the room shifting unnervingly.  She had to pause and catch her breath, her body shaking, the sweat drenching her skin.  When the stars left her eyes, the girl stumbled back to retrieve the draft list, then ran out of the room.  The guard outside was still asleep.  She tiptoed past him, then bounded up the stairs to the main floor.

Nyx was off schedule.  She didn’t know where she was in terms of time, and therefor, didn’t know where the other guards were.  Irrational fear set into her, and for a mad moment she thought about running out the front doors.  But guards were stationed outside.  She may have escaped one by sheer luck, she doubted she could do it again.

The girl fumbled to recall her original plan.  It was all she had to go by.  Feet making the faintest of sounds thanks to her soft soles, Nyx ran to her office.  She’d left it unlocked when she pretended to leave for home, and never had she been happier to see the cramped little room.  She took the key from beneath the rug and locked the door on her side.  Placing it in her pouch, she went to the window behind her desk and opened it.  Outside, the path beneath her window was clear of any patrolling guards–but she didn’t know for how long.  Nyx slipped out to the ground, shutting the window as she went.

Her last obstacle was the Senate wall, which went around the perimeter of the building.  It was fifteen feet high.  Nyx took a deep breath, touching the ground with her free hand and bending her knees.  Then she pushed into a full run, at first running parallel with the wall, before curving towards it.  With a great jump, she ran up the stone, her legs pumping furiously as they fueled her ascent.  Then with a grunt, the girl twisted and grabbed onto the ledge with her one free arm, her legs swinging wildly beneath her from the abrupt stop.  She thought she heard something rip, and her shoulder blade screamed in pain.  Grimacing, the girl pulled herself up and over, adrenaline fueling her.  She landed clumsily on the other side.

Then Nyx ran.

Later, snow drifted down in dreamy fashion through the dark, making her damp and numb.  She was hidden in the shadow of a statue of the Unnamed One, in a small court far from the Senate.  Her lungs were on fire, her limbs like ghosts to her as the white of the world coated her bit by bit.   Nyx knew she was to report immediately to the Ipogi.  She knew it would be foolish to try and read the list then.  The snow could even damage the scroll.

…But she had to know.

Nyx pulled her mask from her face with clawing fingers and opened the scroll, rolling it at the two ends until she came to the list for Tosmai.  Quickly her eyes ran down the list.  She saw childhood peers, schoolmates, honest, gentle workers, husbands, even wives, all flash past her gaze in a blur of memories and ink.  Then the girl stopped, her grip turning knuckle-white.

27.  Atalo, son of Fotini:  INFANTRY

Nyx closed the scroll slowly, her face a numb mask.  She leaned back against the cold stone and stared at the dark sky, the length of the statue that loomed over her a grotesque, alien thing to her sight.  Tears clouded her vision.  The girl let the scroll fall from her hands to clasp her mouth.  She sucked in one gasp of air, through dry fingers, then another.  Suddenly she couldn’t breathe.  Sobs wracked her body.  She couldn’t breathe

It wasn’t fair.  It wasn’t fair.  At his age, the most Atalo should’ve had to worry about were chores and doing well in his lessons.  Not fighting for his life against trained soldiers, fighting for the greed of indifferent leaders, fighting for the chance to be happy.  It wasn’t fair.

Nyx felt hands on her and screamed, her body trembling so bad she could hardly keep her limbs in control.

It was her contact from the Ipogius.  His face was concealed as always, but his eyes held fury.  “Cajeck!”  He snapped, shaking her roughly.  “Don’t you know they’re looking for you!?  Come on!  We have to run.”


The word echoed in her head as her nameless comrade dragged her through the streets of Himitahl.  He would take her to a hideout, he said, atleast until the morning.  After that, she had to go back to work as usual.  Otherwise, they would know.


But Nyx didn’t want to go back.  She didn’t want to spend another minute poring over financial records and fiscal reports–dry bureaucratic drivel that did nothing to show the struggle experienced on the battle field, nothing to show the cost of burying a soldier whose remains were so mangled he was hardly recognizable, nothing to alleviate the pain and horror experienced by those fighting and those praying for their safety.  She didn’t want to sign any more death warrants…didn’t want to pretend to be a part of the process anymore.  Couldn’t.

All she wanted to do was go home…

…Go home, and save her little brother from the madness of hungry ghosts.

‘Dear Sons And Daughters Of Hungry Ghosts’ by Wolf Parade, from the album ‘Apologies To The Queen Mary’. Sub Pop, 2005. []

Continue ReadingSons and Daughters…

High Walls, Small Gates


Springtime chased dreams into her solemn march–and cerulean eyes followed a butterfly over the glades. The carriage shuddered over the bumpy road, eliciting grumbles from the silk-coat passenger who looked as though he had shit up his nose. He pulled the window of his curtain shut, and she heard the nobleman sneeze. Her lips curled up at the corners, and she wanted to crack a joke, but Saelin looked at her sideways and gave her a tense shake of the head.

Sir…please don’t!” He hissed out of the corner of his mouth. His mint green eyes were wide like a spooked deer’s.

Elmiryn glanced at him with a mild expression. They were marching side-by-side, two others following in similar fashion behind. Four more soldiers would be on the other side of the wagon, with two at the front and rear. Excessive–but it was part of the show. All of this was just part of a show.

“Private!” she cried softly. “Are you frightened of a round-assed noble?” But she said this low.

Her companion looked at her with horror. “Lieutenant, I’d very much like to be promoted, if it’s all the same to you! Your last comment turned Tiedby’s face purple. My ascension is dependent on him being safe and happy, so please–!”

“How dull,” she interjected with a click of her tongue.

“You know you could have a chance to be promoted too? Aren’t you even the least bit concerned?”

Elmiryn reached a dainty hand up to tap her chin, her brow dipping low and her lower lip pushing up as she gazed thoughtfully at the blue sky. Her companion let out a long-suffering sigh.

Nevermind, sir!” he said with a wave of his hand, but as she glanced over at him, the woman saw the corner of his lips twitch.

Elmiryn grinned and looked forward. Leading this team of glorified bodyguards was Duncan, Major to the famous Olimer, and one of Lord Westley’s most prized soldiers. He wore polished plate armor, with horned shoulder guards that came up over his ears–to protect from projectiles and high strikes from the side. He lacked a helmet, as the one issued to him was an impractical creation, closed with a grate in the front to allow for breathing and small cuts for the eyes, the dome fitted with curved horns taken from a ram and gilded with gold. If he was to aid in keeping a lookout, he couldn’t even bother with such a thing, which was something their superiors didn’t seem to understand. The chest plate was specially molded to his form, yet his hands wore heavy gauntlets that the woman imagined to be stiff and inarticulate. The shiny metal was decorated with strips of gold alloy that were made to resemble Fiamman flames–an artistic motif that Elmiryn thought simplistic yet brilliant all the same.

She and the other men, however, wore less interesting armor–actually being the body of the escort, after all. They wore a combination of things. Chainmail tunics that came down to their wrists. Over this they wore thick quilted tunics of cotton and wool that fanned out over their thighs with a triangle cut in the front to make running easy. However, this made marching a pain in the ass due to the heat, but the white and gold tunics were meant to show their loyalty to the Fiamman kingdom. They all wore standard issue leather boots, dragon hide, with brass buckles around the ankles and calfs.

The men had chainmail coifs, too, but Elmiryn, being of a higher rank under Duncan, was made to wear a coppergate helmet instead. The helmet had two cheek plates that came down to brush against her collar bone, a chainmail curtain over the base of her neck in the back, and a long nose-guard. The helmet was decorated with warm brass, which lined the edges and fanned around the sides in the usual flame design, similar to Duncan’s armor. It was a small benefit as her long hair disagreed with the coifs, and often times the metal would pinch her if she turned her head too fast.

Their mission was a simple one. Guard the noble Tiedby during his journey to Tiesmire and his property. Following behind the carriage were two canvas-covered wagons with great wheels reinforced by steel. Prized minerals, southern spices, and eastern cloths were the cargo. It was a gesture of goodwill to the King of Tiesmire (a title used with a note of derision in Fiamma–the city-state’s leader was an opportunistic businessman, not a true noble or politician.) Elmiryn had never seen King Brice, but she’d heard of his ten concubines; of his mansion that he dared to call a castle; of his personal guard, orphans taken and trained since a young age, who were notorious and feared throughout the East.

The warrior eyed the forest as they passed, knowing that their emerald treachery would soon be rid of the moment the trail rounded the bend. With time, they’d be in view of the Hellas ocean. She’d never seen it before. The company had made its way along the southern seaboard to avoid crossing through the Torreth Mountains and Ailuran lands. The southeastern tip of the Sibesonan continent was controlled by a large and powerful clan of Lycans, but the Fiamman kingdom had made a deal with the therians to allow for safe passage.

Two nights ago, the woman thought she had seen a pair of glowing eyes watching their camp from the dark of the woods, but when she went to investigate she found nothing. Each night, they heard howls in the distance. Tiedby hated it.

“These horrid flowers all in bloom, spreading their awful pollen to make me sneeze! This bumpy road and these horrid cushions that do nothing for my delicate rear. And those horrid savage monsters out there, making such a racket at night! I’ll be glad when this is over!” He’d complained.

“Sir,” Elmiryn had said with a mild tone. “The Lycans have a trade agreement with our kingdom. They will not harm us. But in that same agreement, there are rules we must abide by, which include not tampering with their forests, and staying no longer than two days in any given acre. Their howls serve the dual purpose of communicating with each other, and also, to remind us of their vigilance.” She disliked the stuffy tone she spoke in, but it was something her mother had taught her. Nobles refused to listen to you unless you sounded like a scholar or a delicate ninny. With time, Elmiryn had practiced her speech to fit somewhere between the two. Her woman’s voice permitted little else.

“I’ve no idea why we don’t just stomp the bloody beasts out…” Tiedby muttered. They were in luck, for it seemed no Lycan scouts had heard him. That didn’t mean such talk wasn’t dangerous. Duncan, being the only man of standing allowed to do so, advised Tiedby to watch his fool mouth. (Not in those literal words, but if Elmiryn could have, she would have said worse.)

Today, finally, they would be on the Eastern side of the Sibesona.

Elmiryn bumped Saelin with her elbow. “Hey. Once we arrive at Tiesmire, we’ll be floating around for atleast three days waiting for Duncan and Tiedby to handle their affairs. Why don’t we have some fun?”

Saelin looked at her, his cool mint green eyes shining with trepidation. “But…But sir, we have to check in with the local authority for a debriefing!”

“And how long do you think that will take?”

“Then after that, we’re supposed to work with the city guards! It’s a gesture of goodwill on behalf of our kingdom!”

Elmiryn threw her hands up into the air. “Oh for fuck’s sake! This whole thing is a ‘gesture of goodwill’. They won’t miss you. No offense, but you’re just a Private.”

Saelin scowled at her. “And you’re a First Lieutenant!! They’ll care if you’re gone!”

“Oh, please. You think that Duncan, our illustrious leader, is going to waste his time patrolling streets that bear no meaning to him? You think any of the others here will? Look, we’re going to do the debriefing, but as far as I know, the whole ‘make nice with the Tiesmirian government’ was strictly on the shoulders of Tiedby, who isn’t even that important in our royal courts. This whole thing is bullshit, and I’m not playing along. So are you coming or not?”

The blonde pressed his mouth with lips rolled inward so that she couldn’t see them anymore. Then he let out a rush of air that he’d been holding. “Okay…fine! But I’m not getting drunk with you again, not after last time!”

Elmiryn pouted. “Why not?”

The man’s face turned a shade of pink and he glared at her. “Because I don’t feel like fishing my underthings from the tavern cauldron again!”

The woman smiled.

“Oh fine…”

She would never admit to anyone how much she enjoyed the night. It was cool and crisp with a lingering scintillation that harkened from the receding day. Dusk buried limitations in warm confidence, which allowed the breezy expanse of thought and feeling. Elmiryn refused to let on, even to herself, how much the starry sky filled her with wonder and fear–a delightful mix that tasted of mystery. She asserted that the heavens themselves were conquerable, and if she were patient enough, her arrows would soon pierce the veil that kept the gods hidden. These were blasphemous thoughts, and she trembled, aroused by her audacity to trail so far from society’s clearly marked paths.

Reflection turned on the nature of her life and gradual ascension she saw as a soldier. It was thanks to her father that her superiors ever gave her a try, but it was thanks to her peers that she fought so hard. Not to protect them, but herself. Sometimes Elmiryn wondered if she resented this. Her cerulean eyes blinked skyward, and she scowled at how the sky suddenly seemed to bend to her gaze–like a curved plate. If Halward wished, could he crush her? If He pushed down, could she push up?

…No, she decided, she didn’t resent her situation at all.

The combat, the oppression, the danger–it was what made her life, both in content and in substance. The woman adored fighting, adored overcoming obstacles, adored the chance and gamble that cut and hardened her, for it spoke of value. Namely that she had it. Elmiryn had something to lose, or else Life wouldn’t struggle to take away from her so. This viewpoint, though lonely in nature, was what drove her onward.

It was what made her free.

Her sword perhaps served to the benefit of the Fiamman kingdom, but Elmiryn knew its highest master rested in her heart. She saw with eyes unclouded, and while the path of honor and strength was difficult, it was hers to blaze.

Toward the main campfire, the woman saw Saelin sitting with the other men. They were eating rabbit stew, laughing about something or other. The Major stood as he responded to a question called out by one of the men.

“You want the real story? How Tiesmire got started?” He said, looking around. The men made affirmative noises, nodding their heads. Duncan shrugged. “Well I’ll give it to you then. The city, originally, was just a plot of land where thousands started to gather for international trade, throwing up tents and digging holes and shitting in bushes. Then some just started building there. It was Brice’s family, all merchant class dwarves, who strong-armed the different groups into harmony,”

Major Duncan’s deep-set muddy eyes flickered with shadows as he gazed around at the shadowy forms of his men. His gaze lingered on Elmiryn, sitting on the border into pitch black night, before he continued. “They knew nothing about large scale development or security. It hasn’t crumbled yet, partly out of luck. Brice had satyrs come in, sniffing out gold, and they told him how to bring Tiesmire out of the organized chaos it writhed in. But how much could they do? You’ll all see soon enough. You’ll see dwarves next to elves, and humans next to therians. The main roads lead toward the heart of Tiesmire, and there, at the center of it all, is the Brice mansion, which is heavily fortified. All other roads in Tiesmire are as confusing as a rat’s maze, and if you stray from the main roads, you will get lost. So my advice? Travel smart, and explore at your peril.”

At the city gates.

Elmiryn tilted her head back far as her cerulean eyes took in the thick walls–as wide as small buildings–and the heavy steel gates that loomed over them as they passed down below. The suns seared around the stone as the sky opened, and the woman turned her gaze with a squint.

“That’s where the Tiesmirian guards stay,” Saelin said to her as they passed the second arch.


The man pointed at the thick walls. Elmiryn stared at him. “They live in the walls?”

The blond nodded. “Yes sir. All around the perimeter.”

The woman clicked her tongue. “I wonder what it’s like to live like a rat? I guess they aren’t worried about outside forces attacking them. Sure it does good for handling internal problems, but you get an army with catapults and cannons and they’ll kiss half of their men goodbye!”

“You’re ignoring the landscape, sir. Open fields all around, and the city sits on elevated terrain. They’d see a threat coming even at night, I bet.”

“Whatever…I still say they’re like rats in the walls.”

The ground shifted beneath their feet as they walked–little more than pebbles in dirt. Elmiryn’s left the chatter alone as she became much more aware of the potential threat such a crowded street presented to their charge. The other soldiers seemed to see this too, and so closed rank and kept their hands near their weapons. Some commoners didn’t move out of the way fast enough, and the woman had to shove some of the rabble out of the way.

The city was just as Duncan had warned. A great salad bowl of cultures tossed together but no more blended than oil in water. She saw architecture she couldn’t readily name, and people so odd-looking that it even set her on edge–and how queer this was, considering she always thought of herself as open minded. Large eyes, dark skin, furry faces, long fangs, pointed ears, and hooved feet. Food that didn’t look quite right–like the critters were still alive but bleeding out all over the grill–or odd plants being dipped in hot batter–or a brightly colored dust being sprinkled over uncooked meat and served as it was. People in silken clothes, people wearing great big furs, people barely wearing anything at all it seemed. Streamers crissed and crossed her face with thin shadows overhead, while flags and banners of different clans and nations flapped in the coastal wind.

Ah, and the noise!

Elmiryn was no stranger to din and chaos, but how disorienting it all seemed! It rivaled a Fiamman festival, the way so many languages contended with each other in her ear. And it wasn’t so much the noise, or the sounds, or the smells that put her on edge…but the rudeness of it all–as though people were fighting to be heard, not caring who they tread upon, not caring…just not caring. She could ignore this selfishness on a smaller scale, like in a tavern or at a military campsite, but for it to be everywhere all at once with no reprieve?

They arrived at the gates of King Brice’s mansion and the woman was glad.

The gates were high and gilded in gold, winged muses sitting at the top; one side displayed a robed muse bearing a cornucopia of food, and the other bore a scythe. Without the aid of anyone she could see, the doors creaked open, inward, and the caravan rolled in. Elmiryn and Saelin had to press close to the carriage as the entryway seemed narrow–like it wasn’t meant for so many and so much to come in at once.

Over the tall brick walls the sounds of the city rolled in like dull waves, but it wasn’t as overwhelming now, and the woman felt the knot between her shoulders ease knowing much of the threat to Tiedby was gone.

The noble stepped out of the carriage, his jowls jiggling as he fixed his silk hat and his gray eyes glared out beneath bald eyebrows.

Elmiryn grinned as she eyed the man’s plum robes. She turned to Saelin and lifted her hand, letting it go limp at the wrist and crossing her eyes as she did so. The man knocked her side hard, but his lips pressed together hard and his eyes held mirth. A soldier behind them snickered. When the noble looked their way, the woman snapped to, her grin vanishing as she gazed back at the man with as serious an expression as she could manage. Tiedby eyed her suspiciously before he allowed himself to be distracted by the welcoming committee.

The noble swished away with them, his round backside bouncing as it went. Elmiryn was back to grinning.

Major Duncan approached them, his short, dark tan hair mussed from his helmet, which he kept balanced on his side. With him was a man dressed in dark studded leather. He didn’t look native to any part of the Sibesona, instead, more likely from the Santos kingdom. Elmiryn straightened, her grin lessening as she took in this tall newcomer. She got the sense he wasn’t to be trifled with.

“Men!” Duncan barked. “Lars, captain of King Brice’s men, will debrief us personally.”

All the soldiers gathered, forming two neat lines next to the caravan. Behind them, Elmiryn could hear servants taking the wagons to storage. Lars jerked with his head. “Follow me,” he said, lacking the accent the woman expected. His expression seemed bored as he led them, with Duncan at front, to an off-shoot of the mansion.

Inside the cottage-like building, the man were cramped, and all were forced to pull out their scabbards from their belts so that they could be gripped in hand and not knock anyone’s legs or chairs. Elmiryn sat near the back, and with a rough tug of suggestion, so did Saelin.

The room fell quiet relatively quickly as Lars took his place before them. He cleared his throat. “First I want to thank you all for being here. You have the respect and appreciation of the Tiesmirian government and the personal gratitude of King Brice,” But even as he said all this there was a knowing look in his eyes, as though he didn’t care nor expect any one of them to remain long once the debriefing was done. As such, the man didn’t bother taking much time. They were instructed not to admit to anything beyond Tiedby’s presence, or their Fiamman origin. They were prohibited from making comment on the Fiamman-Ailuran war, or whether Tiesmire was in any way going to become involved. They could not make comment regarding Tiedby’s noble standing, nor could they comment on Tiesmirian politics.

In short, they couldn’t say a damn thing.

Lars dismissed them with hands behind his back, Duncan coming out of his glazed stare to stand at his side. The Major instructed them to report back to him at “the earliest convenience” to help with local patrols.

As they shuffled out of the building, Saelin looked at Elmiryn in confusion. “At the earliest convenience? That isn’t very specific!”

The woman threw an arm around his shoulders. “That’s the point.” The men were lead by guards of the estate to the servant gate back to the city. She gestured at them with a curled lip. “They don’t want us around, really. We cramp their style, and they can’t match ours. So tonight, we have some fun! We’ve done our share of the work!”


It became a race to find a decent place to hole up in. There were taverns featuring tits, and taverns filled with tits. There were belly dancers, and men singing songs, and women with blades. There were Satyrs who smoked sitting on barrels, and Elves playing mandolins and panpipes. There were card games and dice games with money and sex as prizes. There were hundreds of drinks–mixed or pure. There were places that were run down, and places that were expensive. The shifting road seemed to bare them all these possibilities.

But Elmiryn stopped only for The Howling Goblin.

It was a tavern located in the northwestern part of the city, far from the mass of noise and bodies that streamed along the main roads. It was a sturdy brick building with a thatched roof, with large low windows and no visible guards to impede on the fun. When they entered, the smell that hit the woman’s senses was warm and heady–sweat and ale and seasoned steak. She breathed this in deeply and felt at ease.

From the outside, the woman judged there to be three floors. The first floor had a high ceiling and there were long heavy tables that stretched across the room, like a lodge. The bar was average enough, save for the collection of liquor that decorated the entire wall behind it. A large torch wheel hung from the ceiling, lighting the room, with small candles giving a more personal glow. The crowd was diverse, yet the tavern wasn’t cramped–a good sign as this meant they likely had rooms available for the night.

Elmiryn turned to Saelin with a satisfied grin. She gestured in front of them with the hand that held her helmet. “This looks like a great place. And just in time too! I think the curfew is about to set in.”

The man nodded, but his expression was reserved. His coif was pulled off and hung over the back of his tunic limp, leaving his sun bleached hair matted down and sticking up at the back. “It seems fine, sir.”

There was no one to check their weapons, and none came forward to show them to their seats–a notable difference from the other taverns that Elmiryn liked just fine. She and Saelin crossed the main floor, eyes following their unhurried walk to the end of the table opposite of the bar. Drunken conversations floated to them, smelling of ale. The woman saw a dwarf eyeing her and returned the stare without pause. He turned away, mumbling to his friends.

Given their armor, Elmiryn figured attention wouldn’t be hard to find. Sure enough, once they took their seat on the bench, a dark-haired man with a dusty lined face came to sit across from them.

“Fiammans, eh?” He said brushing his chin.

“No,” Elmiryn said with a shake of her head. She smiled at the man and held up her helmet. “We’re soulless golems, clearly!”

The man blinked at him, then turned to look down the table, where the dwarf that had been staring and atleast two other men stared back. Then he turned to the woman and chuckled.

He held out his hand. “Meh name’s Soot. I work the smithy down the road.” He jerked his head to the others. “Them’s meh friends. Oster’s the dwarf, Galic is the one with the buck teeth, and Willy is the darkie.” Soot leaned forward and whispered confidentially behind a gnarled, dirty hand, “His name ain’t really Willy. He’s from Fanaea, but none here kin pronounce his name fer shit, Halward help the boy–so we’s given him a proper name.”

Elmiryn looked at the man, his companions, then at Saelin. The Private looked at her with raised eyebrows. The woman grinned and placed a hand over her heart. “I’m Elmiryn. This is Saelin.” She turned and bellowed toward the bar, where the tavern master looked up with a start. “And I want a round for us and our new friends!!”

The men cheered.

The night went well enough. The tavern hall cleared as patrons either retired for the night or left to return home before curfew. Elmiryn, Saelin, and their new drinking buddies, however, went on conversing.

The conversation topics were kept light, mostly by the Private’s efforts. They didn’t discuss politics, nor the Fiamman-Ailuran war, which was no small feat because Oster was quite pushy about it. Instead, the conversation fell on Tiesmire’s diversity and how it started.

“It’s fine, I suppose,” Elmiryn said with a shrug. “But fuck me, it’s a zoo out there! I like how this place seems so much more together.” She took a deep drink of her mead, then slammed the goblet down onto the table. She swiped at her mouth with a satisfied sigh, then gestured toward the street with a jerk of her chin. “I see barbarism out there–dirt and slime rutting on streets that are of dwarven make. Humans sit in towers, apart from the fuckin’ noise, and it’s a good thing too–I’d hate to be patrolling this place! It’d be so easy to miss something, and it’s so easy to get bowled over. Omatts trying to jump on your back, therians nipping your ankles, ogres shaking you down for coin, and goblins trying to rip off whatever you’ve got left–I’d rather wrestle with a shaggip then deal with that every day.” She held up a goblet. “Here’s to the poor bastards who do!”

The men mirrored her action, and they each took a drink. Oster, a forgettable man with dark eyes and ashy hair, frowned at Elmiryn. “What’s a shaggip, though?”

“A wild ogre from the Indabe. They’ve got sticky hair that move like limbs to grab and trap you.” Saelin clarified, at the men’s confused looks. “She’s never seen one, but she likes to pretend she has.”

“I did see one!” the woman argued, turning to the man with a furrowed brow. “Don’t you remember the adventuring troupe that came to Engus? They brought a shaggip for the arena last year!”

“I don’t remember that at all,” Saelin sighed as though he weren’t very concerned about the matter. He looked sadly at his empty goblet.

Elmiryn rolled her eyes with crooked smile. “At any rate, I’d rather fight one of those then be forced into the company of so many assholes for so long. Don’t get me wrong. Tiesmire has it’s good points–but I’ll be glad when we’re marching home.”

“Sir, it isn’t that bad,” Saelin said, his fist planted in his cheek, which was sliding up. “You speak as though you’ve lived here long. At any rate, I saw you eyeing the halflings in the brothel we saw on the way here. What was the name of it?”

“Madame Eros House of Heaven!” Galic burped, sloshing his drink as he lifted up his goblet. Willy knocked him hard in the ribs, glaring at his now-wet sleeve then back at his buck-toothed companion.

Soot laughed at the man. “Ha! You could walk there in your sleep, you dog.”

Elmiryn shrugged again, but this time only one shoulder. The movement made her slump to the side and she bumped against Saelin, who started to chuckle for no reason. Her body felt heavy, and her skin was warm. It was a shame there wasn’t any there to share the night with–all the beautiful women had gone. But it was fine enough, she supposed, just being able to rest her swollen feet.

“They’re half human. That doesn’t count,” she half-mumbled through a smile.

The Private burped loudly in reply, and the woman set to giggling.

The hour turned and the others retired to their beds. Elmiryn stayed in the hall, even after the tavern master extinguished all the candles and torches, leaving her with the moonlight from the windows. He didn’t have the gall to force her to her room, but he had just enough to strongly suggest the idea. It didn’t matter, really. She had her key for her room that night. The woman stared at it, turning it in her fingers as she sucked down the last of her mead. When tilting her head back as far as it could go produced no more drink, the Lieutenant decided that perhaps it was time for sleep.

Elmiryn stood and swayed, both hands planted on the table for support. She stepped over the bench, the tip of her boot catching and making her lose her balance for a moment. She caught herself, giggling. Then, with slow, swerving steps, the woman made her way to the stairs. Once at the second floor, she tried to move as quietly as possible with moderate success. She was nearly at the second flight of stairs (her room was on the third floor) but stopped when she heard a familiar laugh come from the door on her left.

The woman stopped and frowned. She stepped closer and pressed her ear to the door, hands on the frame to keep from face planting into the wood.

She heard Saelin’s voice.

Down on your knees.

Elmiryn’s eyes fluttered. Slowly she kneeled down because her legs were unsteady and she felt tired, but the parallel wasn’t lost on her. She held her breath as Saelin spoke again.

Slower…Slower, I said! I want to feel the back of your throat.

At this the woman’s eyebrows went high. What came next was a mixture of unintelligible moans and whispers. She hadn’t realized the Private had found a wench to spend the night with, but gods! The redhead snickered, a surprised smile on her face as she listened to the lovemaking through the door. How assertive Saelin was in bed! She turned and leaned against the wall next to the door, her eyes turning lidded at the sounds of a squeaking bed frame and loud gasping.

Then before she knew it, Elmiryn fell asleep.


Usually, when the redhead woke, it was with a gradual consciousness. Information would trickle in, bit by bit, and the woman was reminded of reality and her place in it. But there was nothing gradual with how she was awoken this time.

She felt pain at her legs, and her eyes snapped open, bleary at first, but it only took a second to realize where she was. Her hands had come up, curled as fists, and the woman sucked in breath as she sat up. She was still in the hallway, still next to Saelin’s door, only now–

–Now there was a black man draped over her legs.

Elmiryn stared at him, sleepy confusion falling away as she put together the pieces. Willy, Soot’s friend, stared at her in horror, his dark face taking on a warm shade as he blushed. He was bare-chested, with his shirt and shoes bundled in his arms. The woman blinked at him, then turned her head to look toward the door. Saelin stared down at her, pale as a sheet, his jaw loose.

“First Lieutenant…” He said weakly.

Willy gathered himself up, bowing and muttering apologies that were flavored in his Fanaean accent, then he turned and bolted up the stairs. Elmiryn rubbed at her eyes roughly. Judging by the sting of her eyelids, it was still fairly early. She dropped her hands and stared up at Saelin with a frown. The Private ran a hand through his light blonde hair, his green eyes wide and misty. “…Sir, if you’ll let me explain–!”

The woman held up a hand and stood to her feet. She gestured towards the man’s room. “In there,” she said tersely.

They entered his room, and the man shut the door behind them. It was a simple room, small and furnished only with a bed and a small dresser. The window looking out onto the street was covered with a curtain. Elmiryn’s nose flared at the smell of sex in the air.

She turned to her companion. “You son of a bitch,” she said in a low voice. Her fists curled at her sides.

Saelin started to tremble, he held his hands in front of him. “Wait!”

“You fucking bastard!” Elmiryn launched toward him.

The Private flinched and stumbled backward, as though meaning to fall to the floor in a fetal position. His arms flew around his head and he turned away.

The woman hugged him and squeezed tightly. “Why didn’t you tell me!?”

Saelin continued to tremble, but after a moment, his arms came away from his head, and he blinked at her with eyelashes clumped by tears. “Wha–ah–that is to say…p-pardon!?”

Elmiryn shook him with a large smile. “I said why didn’t you tell me before?”

The man shrugged weakly. “I…” he straightened, and the woman let go of him. “Sir…I just thought–I mean–you come from such a powerful family–”

“And in all the time you’ve known me this meant what, exactly?”

“And, well, you’re a redhead.” Saelin finished lamely. He gestured at her hair. “I always thought…I mean it’s different for you.”

Elmiryn raised an eyebrow at him.  She paced a few steps in front of him, her eyes narrowing a degree as she let her initial annoyance pass.  She hated when people brought this up.  “I know Fiammans believe in the story of Diokles and his horny redheaded descendants, but do you think this makes people any less uncomfortable around me?”  She stopped and glared at her companion.  “I had to fight to become a First Lieutenant, and I imagine I’ll have to fight even more if I ever hope to advance in rank. The only real reason people seem to accept me is that they believe I’ll someday get married. To a man. I’d just as soon fall on my own sword!”

Saelin looked down at the floor at his bare feet, pink around the toes. He scratched at his cheek and looked at Elmiryn shyly. “So…you don’t like men…at all?”

“No. Not at all,” the woman said. The woman let a mischievous smile play across her face. “Why? Were you thinking of laying with me?”

The Private went cherry red and shook his head emphatically.

Her smile turned into a hook.  “Oh? I’m not good enough for you, Private?”

Saelin ran his hands through his hair. His eyes were watery and he tried to force his mouth to speak. “I–Sir, that isn’t what I meant–!”

Elmiryn took the man by the shoulders, chuckling. “Relax!  I was teasing you. In fact, I think you’re feelings are exactly why I…” her voice trailed away.  Her hands flexed on the man’s shoulders and she frowned.

The man gazed at her apprehensively.

The redhead cleared her throat and stepped back.  Her fingers trailed Saelin’s skin and they tingled a little.  She squeezed her hands to fists to make the sensation go away.  “Anyway, you have to learn to trust me, Private. You should’ve known I wouldn’t have had a problem with your preferences. Heaven knows, mine are hardly accepted, even given my preferential treatment.”

“I’m…sorry, Sir. But…we haven’t discussed anything quite so personal before. I had no way of knowing.”

The woman sucked at her teeth. Then she shrugged and looked down at the floor. “I’spose not.” Elmiryn looked at the man again, without lifting her head. “…You really think this is weird?”

Saelin shook his head, his mint green eyes holding incredulity. “How else am I supposed to feel? My closest superior just found out my deepest secret. There aren’t words for such a thing!”

The woman placed her hands on her hips and grinned. “Then I’ll give it words. For the both of us. This is really fucking bizarre! …Yet we’re fine.”  Her grin started to slip and the woman forced it to stay, giving it a fixed look.  “We’re fine,” she asserted.

Saelin didn’t reciprocate her attitude.  He just moved to his bed and sat down heavily, wiping at his eyes and sniffing now and again.

The woman turned somber. She gestured between them. “Saelin, we’ve guarded each others backs since our first training day together. You’ve been an excellent comrade. This means you can eat off my plate without my killing you. You don’t have to call me ‘sir’ when other soldiers aren’t around. You can even tell me you’re a homo! Rank be damned, you’re the one I can trust. Do you not trust me, Private?”

The man stiffened and scowled, as though offended at the idea of the contrary. “Of course I do!” he snapped.

“So then relax, and know that your secret is safe with me.  I know what would happen to you if our superiors found out–hell, if our peers found out–so I won’t let that happen.  Alright?”

“Alright…” he looked up at her and smiled weakly.  “Thank you, sir.”

“Saelin, we aren’t in the company of the other soldiers.  Call me by my name.”

The man faltered.  “Um…”

Elmiryn smirked. “Well?”

Saelin blinked and rubbed his neck. “But calling you by your name wouldn’t feel right!”

“Go on, try it.”

He bit his lip and squinted his eyes, as though contemplating it. Then he opened his mouth. “…El…mi…miryn.”

Elmiryn rubbed her brow, and shook her head. She spoke in a slow humoring voice, like a nanny to a child. “Goo-od…now say it like you aren’t a simpleton!”

He gave her a dry look. “Elmiryn.”

The woman clapped her hands together slow as she nodded in approval. “Fantastic!”

“Sir, if it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll stick to the honorifics.”

“Fine, if it pleases you. Oh…I’m sorry, I’d have to get on my knees for that, right?”

The man closed his eyes, a suffering expression on his face. He pointed toward the door. “Out, sir!”



Elmiryn woke with a jerk, her mouth like cotton and her back sore. She rolled over and felt her head throb just a bit from the light. Hangovers weren’t a frequent occurrence in her life, but she loathed them just the same. Eyes still swollen from sleep, the redhead gazed about her small empty room. There was a draft coming from the window. She grit her teeth as she shifted from it, and she eyed the light coming from the crack beneath her door. Shadows passed it, voices floating through the walls, and the woman felt…

Spread apart. Picked apart. Far apart from…


Elmiryn grudgingly admitted she was jealous of Saelin’s ability to find company for the night. She thought of the light-haired soldier, gazing at her with fear. Why did he think she’d shun him. Why didn’t he trust her? The woman, her mind still storming, rose from the bed wearing only her tunic, and pulled on her pants. She tied her hair back with a bit of string, so that it hung in a low ponytail. She left the metal armor in the room, but took her sword, and locked the door.

Downstairs, she saw Willy, and the man stood, his eyes on her like she were a predator on the hunt. He was guant-looking, with a pronounced brow bone and a wide nose. His skin was a deep, deep brown–almost ruddy in nature. His black hair was kinked and short, his limbs wiry but his chest broad and showing small black curly hairs on the sternum. She didn’t find this very attractive, and she was baffled as to how Saelin would find this even remotely desirable, but Elmiryn went to him anyway.

“Have you seen Private Saelin?” She asked.

Willy shook his head, his brow bunched and his dark skin shiny with sweat. When he spoke, it was with a thick accent. “N-no, miss. I don’t know where he is.”

Elmiryn nodded and turned to leave, but paused to look back at the man.

“What’s your real name, anyway?” she asked.

Willy blinked at her. Then pointed at himself. “Onye-Ka-Chukwu.”

Elmiryn stared at him, waiting for him to tell her what that meant. The man remained silent, staring apprehensively back at her. Then she realized she didn’t care enough to hear about it, and resumed walking.

“I think I like Willy better,” she said without looking back.


The woman stepped through roads, her dragon hide boots clicking along tiles before poverty tore at her surroundings and made her path to dirt and pebbles again. Slowly, she went–the morning suns heating her flushed skin. Fire was eating her from within. She pressed the heel of her palm into her eye and paused to vomit at the side of the road.

At first, she thought she were searching for Saelin. But this lie was discarded quickly, and she felt cross with herself for even bothering with it. The suns rose high overhead, signifying noon. Elmiryn squinted her eyes as she gazed up at them.

When her feet stopped, she realized she had stopped in front of Madame Eros House of Heaven. The redhead stared up at the sign. The building was a two-story, the facade painted blue, and the windows were small and all were closed with curtains. She could smell pumpkin spice and roses drifting from the open doorway. Elmiryn quirked her eyebrow, but turned as though she meant to leave.

“How easily dissuaded you are! I haven’t even delivered my pitch yet!”

The redhead paused and turned her head.

A petite girl with sharp yellow eyes and long braided black hair smiled at her. She wore a thin cotton dress with piece of jute twin around her waist where the fabric bunched then fanned out. She was barefoot, with dark flowery designs painted onto her skin. These designs were also on her hands, which she used to beckon Elmiryn closer.

Smirking, the redhead came near, a hand on her hip. “You’re going to proposition me?”

The girl mirrored her smirk. “Do you want me to?”

Elmiryn’s eyebrows rose high and she rubbed the back of her neck. Her eyes flickered to the girl’s ears and noted the bump at the tips. “You’re a halfling,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest.

The girl laughed. “Yes, I am! Very astute of you.”

The dark-haired beauty leaned on the door frame as two of her peers exited from the building, flowers in their hair. They batted their eyes at Elmiryn as they passed, and the woman followed them with her eyes. She looked back to the youth before her.

She tilted her head to the side. “So if you’re not going to proposition me, then why should I pay you any mind? Isn’t this the point of your job?”

The girl shrugged, playing with the ends of her hair. “If you see only that, then your view is limited isn’t it? I don’t offer just bodily pleasure, though that is one thing I can offer. Only…you aren’t really looking for that, are you?”

Elmiryn blinked at the girl. “I don’t understand.”

“Come in. Let’s have tea. Speak your mind.” The girl didn’t pause as she took the woman’s hand and pulled her in. And the woman didn’t fight her either.

They entered a warmly lit room where a few sofa chairs were arranged against the walls. There was a man sitting with a human girl on his lap, and they were both giggling about something. There was a guard standing near the door that lead to the back rooms, and he eyed Elmiryn with surprise and possible disgust. Behind the high counter, a child looking no older than twelve handed the halfling a key. The youth took it without a word, and with a look over her shoulder, led the woman past the guard and through the door.

The back hallway was an L-shape, and was wide, allowing for wooden chairs outside of each room. They took a left down the hallway, and as they passed the doors, the redhead could hear dubious sounds coming from inside the rooms.

Elmiryn tugged on the halflings hand. “How much will this adventure cost me, little thing?”

The youth stopped at a door in the middle of the hallway. She unlocked it and pushed in without answering the woman’s question. Inside, the woman noted the four glass lamps in each corner of the room. They ascended in height so that one was near her waist, whilst the tallest was nearer to the ceiling. The flames flickered behind curved glass, the bottoms being curved reflective bowls that carried the light upward…

“These are Fiamman lamps.” The woman noted with surprise.

The halfling girl smiled as she let go of the woman and sat at the foot of the bed. The bed itself was large enough to fit two people, but a tad short length-wise. Then again, this wasn’t a place where people were expected to stay long.

“Sit here, next to me,” the youth said, patting the spot next to her.

Elmiryn crossed her arms again. “You didn’t tell me what this would cost. I owe nothing as I haven’t agreed to anything.”

The girl sighed and played with the hem of her skirt, her pretty hawk eyes flashing in the warm light. “Fifteen silver for fifteen minutes. Three gold for thirty minutes. Five gold for an hour.” She droned this, as though she’d said it a thousand times.

The woman nodded. She uncrossed her arms and sat next to the halfling, her long hair brushing the back of her arm. “You haven’t told me your name yet.”

“Eris,” the girl said, eyes still turned toward her lap.

“My name’s Elmiryn.” She took the girl’s chin and turned it toward her. “How old are you, Eris?”

Eris stared unblinkingly into the woman’s eyes, and the fire illuminated sharp highlights and muddy parallels in her complex gaze. “Old enough to understand a woman’s need to talk.”

“I thought you wanted to talk to me about something?”

“What have I got to talk about? ‘I laid on my back all day yesterday and counted the cracks in the ceiling. Oh, and I did the exact same thing the day before!’ Awfully boring.”

“Do you normally speak this way?”

Here the girl let loose a dazzling smile. “Never.”

Elmiryn sat back onto her hands and laughed. She covered her mouth as it occurred to her that making too much noise may be bad, so she took deep breaths to calm herself. Then she gestured around the room. “So this was your master plan? Get me into this place to remind me of home, then act charming and hope I’ll just relax and not notice?”

Eris shrugged and sat back onto her hands as well. She kicked her feet and her smile turned into a hook. “Is it working?’

The woman mirrored the expression. “Possibly.” Her eyes flickered to the girl’s feet. She pointed at them, then at her hands. “Those markings you have. What are they for?”

“Oh. These?” Eris paused and held up one foot so that they could look at the top of it. The dancing light made the designs seem like they were moving. “They’re for customers.”

“What do they tell them?”

Eris smile faded. “It lets them know if we’ve been taken that day. Some customers are so particular, they want to be the first to have lain with a girl. It has nothing to do with virginity just–”

“It makes them feel valued. Like they could keep up the illusion that a girl was waiting just for them.”

“Yes, exactly. They purposefully smear the paint. It’s the only opportunity they have to leave any sort of mark on us. They aren’t allowed to bite.”

“Ah. And what of the girl out front? She looks far too young to be here.”

“That’s a daughter of one of the women here. Madame Eros let her stay. I think she’s meaning to groom the girl to be one of her prize companions–possibly to be offered up to King Brice.”

Elmiryn pursed her lips. “And you? How did you end up here, if I might ask?”

Eris frowned. “I’m certain you have your ideas. How do you think I ended up here?”

The woman leaned forward again and rubbed her chin. “Your parents were compelled by a debt, to forfeit you.”

The halfling giggled. “Aha! I knew it!”

Elmiryn looked at her, confused. “What?”

“You Fiammans think so alike! I behave out of the ordinary, and your first thought is that it was beyond my power to refuse this life!” Eris shook her head and fell back onto the bed, and the low neck of her dress shifted to show the soft flesh of her breast. The woman turned her head and smirked at the girl, her eyes not missing this detail.

“Did I offend you?” the woman asked.

The youth looked at her, then grinned. “No. That’s fine. You just didn’t know. Everyone on this planet needs a way to react to something new and mysterious if they want to keep from getting overwhelmed. I imagine you’ve been doing that since you’ve arrived here. What do you think of Tiesmire?”

The woman’s smirk wiped from her face, and she turned her head away. “Your walls are too high, and your gates are too small…that’s what I think.”

She heard and felt Eris shift on the bed–a sigh on the quilted blanket, and the woman closed her eyes at the feel of the girl running her fingers down her back. “I’m afraid I don’t understand what you mean,” the youth said.

Elmiryn clenched her jaw and tried to sort her thoughts out. When she spoke, it was through tight lips. “There’s too much,” she sighed and rubbed at her face. “Too many different things, different people. And none of them care or respect who or what you are. They’re just…rushing by to do their errands or gods know what. All pushing, all shouting, all running.” The woman turned and stared at a lamp in the corner. Her eyes teared from the bright light. “Everyone’s out for themselves. I understand that much of life. I do it all the time. Only…”

“It’s as though the world doesn’t acknowledge you as anything more than something to brush by,” Eris breathed, her fingers pausing on the woman’s back.

The woman nodded, closing her eyes. “And because you aren’t acknowledged, you cannot contend. And if you cannot contend, you’re just a spectator. But why should I want the respect and attention of the rabble outside? Those people are so different from me, so apart from anything I’ve ever known. I should trust in the things that are mine and familiar, right?” Elmiryn rubbed her brow as her mind flickered with images of Saelin. “But…what if those things turn out to be more distant than close? Foreign and unattainable?”

The youth said and sat up. She scooted behind the redhead and took hold of her shoulders, gently kneading the muscles. The woman relaxed somewhat, but her frown deepened. “Well?” she pressed, turning her head to look at the girl from the corner of her eye.

Eris shrugged, her expression mild. “I told you before. It’s fine to have your initial ideas, some way to cope with things unknown. But if the shield is too heavy and blocks your sight, why keep using it?” She took hold of a lock of Elmiryn’s hair. “Can I braid it?” she asked. “I haven’t got a comb, but your hair doesn’t seem to need it. It’s very easy to part.”

The woman nodded once, and the girl undid the tie. Eris worked very gently behind her, and Elmiryn mulled over the girl’s words. At the time, she had been positive and supportive of Saelin, despite a quiet feeling deep down that bothered her. She knew, in a way, that what she was feeling was silly, and could easily be done away with…if only she wished to. But did she? Could she accept that not all the world wanted to play the audience, but rather, be the spectacle themselves? Could she accept that not all roads were open for her boots to tread?

Before she knew it, Eris patted Elmiryn’s shoulders. “Done!” she chirped.

The woman stood and pulled the braid over her shoulder. It wasn’t perfect, but considering what the girl had to work with, it was impressive. She ran her fingers over the work and quirked her eyebrow. The style required more effort from the woman, but it meant her hair would stay out of her way in battle and wouldn’t snag as much on her armor. She made a note to learn how to do the braid herself in the future.

Elmiryn looked at Eris and smiled. “Thank you.” She reached for the coin pouch looped onto her belt, and the girl placed a hand on her arm.

“You don’t give it to me. You give it to the girl at the front,” she said.

The redhead looked at her, then gently pulled the girl’s hand away. “Okay.” She resumed untying the pouch and pulled out a gold coin. Eris blinked up at her, her brow furrowed. Elmiryn took the girl’s hand and placed the coin in her palm. She curled her hand over it and leaned down to plant a kiss at the girl’s forehead. “Goodbye,” she murmured.

The woman walked to the door, her hand on the doorknob. She didn’t turn it. She felt annoyed with herself. Conflicted even. She disliked this. Heat and desire was a demon coiled within her, and Elmiryn would’ve been more than willing to pay the extra coin just to lay with Eris a while. But after their short conversation…it no longer seemed right.

…And this really annoyed her, because she was horny.

Grumbling, the woman left the room and proceeded back out to the front, where she paid a gold coin and three silver (apparently a minute cost a silver each). She left, rejecting the idea of finding a new wench to pass the time with. Elmiryn wondered if meeting Eris had been a good idea, as now she felt so emotionally keyed. Sentimentality prevented her to even consider the possibility of finding fun elsewhere, so the woman decided to return to the Howling Goblin.

There, she found Saelin at last.

“There you are!” They both cried in unison.

Elmiryn went to sit next to the man at the middle table, near to the entrance. She clapped him on the back and eyed his plate of lamb’s leg and sourdough hungrily.

“Sir, I was worried! I’d thought you’d gotten lost in the city!” he said around a mouth full of food.

The woman snatched up his bread and took a large bite of it. After a moment of chewing, Elmiryn spoke around her food too. “You think I’d go wandering around until I got lost?”

The man smirked at her, and the woman hit his arm hard.

Saelin took a drink from his goblet and frowned at her. “But really, where were you, if I may ask?”

The woman shrugged. “Madame Eros House of Heaven. Doing the last thing I thought I’d ever do.”

The Private stared at her, not following. Then his eyes grew big and his face went slack. “…You were with a man!?”

Elmiryn punched him again. “Smart ass. I was talking. With this really young halfling girl.”

“…She wasn’t pretty?”

The woman had taken to staring ahead, and looked at the man with a start. “Huh?”

“I asked if she wasn’t pretty.”

“What? Yes. Gods, yes! She was gorgeous. Exotic even.”

Saelin blinked and looked at his goblet as though checking how much he’d had. Then he looked at Elmiryn with squinted eyes. “And…you just talked to her?”

The redhead’s smile was not far from a grit. “Saelin. If you thought the last two punches hurt, just wait for this third one!”

The man held his hands up. “I’m sorry sir!” For a moment the woman thought he was serious, but then the man grinned. “…Only, you have to admit, it sounds like you’ve been drinking enchanted potions. Have you, sir? You know you can tell me anything.”

Elmiryn smiled and took another bite of the man’s bread. “Wow, you really are a smart ass.”

They spent the day, speaking with the locals, drinking, and eating. Elmiryn still felt odd, as though she were fighting off a head cold, but she ignored it in favor of doing a jig to a dwarf’s fiddle. As the suns crawled across the sky, she and Saelin met a Talmorian sailor named Piccolo who’d lost his arm fighting mermen off the Kilemare coast. They also met an Indaban dancer named Gati, who did a special dance at Elmiryn’s request. The woman tried to persuade the dancer to stay the night, but the Indaban was strong-willed as much as flirty. Later they met three Satyrs by the names of Vick, Joel, and Ian, who were “traveling west in search of Lekeid.”

“Good gold there!” They chorused.

Elmiryn liked the Satyrs best. They bought her and Saelin drinks, and by the time evening came, the woman was quite giggly.

It was after her fourth drink that a shadow loomed over she and Saelin, and the woman looked up to find a broad man, average height, staring down at them. He had long, warm brown hair and tanned ruddy skin. His face was round and his nose pronounced, giving him an animalistic look. A therian. Judging by the light color of his eyes…what was the word again?  Something starting with an “A”….an…Avian. Yes…yes, yes. What else could he be with a nose like that?  It was hooked…wasn’t it?

“S’cuse me,” He rumbled, pointing at their seats.

Elmiryn turned and exchanged a look with her companion. The man’s mint green eyes were wide and his eyebrows high. “Sir…?”

The woman looked back at the man. “Yes?” she said sweetly.

“You’re in my spot,” the man said, leaning down, his body bunching.

Your spot?” the woman looked at where she sat, then looked up again. “What do you mean your spot?”

The man came closer, leaning on the table so that he was practically hovering over the woman.  His eyes narrowed.  “I’ve been comin’ here ten years.  This here’s my spot.

Saelin bumped Elmiryn in the ribs. “Sir? Can we not–?” The woman shushed him.

The woman stood, swaying a bit. She touched a hand to her chest. “Tell you what…Let’s have a drinking match. If I can drink you under the table, you cover me and my friend’s tab. If you win, I move, and pay for your expenses tonight.”

The man stared at her, stony face. Then grinned. “Okay, human.”

The woman nodded and shouted toward the bar. “Two drinks here!”

Saelin stood and whispered harshly in her ear, “Sir, you’ve already had four drinks!  This isn’t some watery swill, these drinks are strong.  That, and he’s a gods damned therian. I think he’s an–”

“An Avian, right? They’re bird-men. They can’t drink much at all.”


“Not now, Saelin! Just be a good partner and back me up, would you? We could get away with a free stay here tonight!”

The man groaned and pressed a hand to his head. Elmiryn sat down again, and the newcomer sat across from them. Their goblets were placed before them, and a small crowd gathered, laughing and cheering. The woman took her goblet and the man mirrored her.

“I’m Elmiryn,” she said.

“And I’m your biggest mistake,” the man said, smiling fiercely. Then he threw his head back and sucked down his drink in less than a minute.

Elmiryn blinked, shrugged, and did the same.

Next round.

“Okay, really. What’s your name?”

“Sol. My name’s Sol. Shut up and drink.”

Third round.

“Sol…Sol, like sun?”

“Yes. Like sun.”


Fourth round.

“Y’know, I don’t know what my name stands for. ‘Elmiryn’. What does that mean. What do mean?  Ailurans pay attention to that shit, why can’t Fiammans!?”

“…You’re still talking?”

Fifth round.

Her face against the table. Faces swimming around her. She managed to recognize Soot, Willy, Ian, Piccolo, Oster, and Galic. She grinned stupidly at them, waving a hand. “It’s fine! I’m fine.” She felt hands at her back trying to force her upright. She knocked them away. “Saelin, ger’rof, ah’said m’fine!”

Sol just chuckled before he drained his goblet.

Sixth round.

Elmiryn saw the cup placed before her before she fell backward onto the floor. Everything went black.


The woman opened her eyes and moaned. Her head was pounding, and her stomach felt swollen and sore. She tried to roll over and winced at how much her body protested the movement, how the shaft of light from the window lanced her eyes, and how the smell of the bed made her feel ill. The intimate brush of the blankets told her she was naked. Elmiryn covered her head, then peeked through the cracks between her arms. She was back in her room. And sitting next to her was…

“Saelin…?” she croaked.

The man looked up, his eyes tired and bloodshot. He was wearing his tunic–now a bit wrinkled and sporting a grease stain on the breast. He smiled weakly at her. “Morning.”

The woman closed her eyes, trying to will the pain away. “Wha…happened?” even speaking made her feel nauseous, so she didn’t bother speaking above a mumble.

Saelin reached over and patted her shoulder. “You lost, is what happened. I had to give Sol all your coin. You didn’t have enough so I made up the difference. We’re broke sir.”

Elmiryn sighed and turned her face into the pillow. She made an unintelligible groan and the Private patted her again.

“The waitress is doing you a favor and washing your clothes. You vomited all over them.”

“Did you undress me?”  The woman gave him a sharp look.

The man frowned at her.  “Sir, my…‘preferences’ aside, I’m still a gentleman!”

The woman grinned softly.  “Eh.  It’d like being touched by a eunuch I suppose.”

“I’m fully equipped, thanks,” he said in a dry tone.

Elmiryn would’ve loved to have continued teasing if only her head would stop hurting her, and that horrible feeling in her stomach wasn’t so strong.  She closed her eyes and waited out a sudden wave of nausea and dizziness before she looked at her partner again, frowning. “How many did I have?” she asked, words still a mumble.

Saelin grimaced. “Including what you had before Sol showed up? You had atleast ten drinks that I know of.”

“Wow. I didn’t know I could have so much.”

“Neither did I. I’m surprised you aren’t dead.”

“I’m kind of wishing I were!”

“By the way,” the man added, grinning sarcastically. “Sol wasn’t an Avian.”

Elmiryn blinked at him. “He wasn’t?”

The Private shook his head. “No, sir. He was an Arktan. A bear-man. Which makes him capable of atleast three kegs of liquor, once you factor in the regenerative ability. He told me so himself.”

The redhead looked at him, dumbfounded. Then laughed. Then she immediately stopped because that hurt.

Saelin paused and scratched at his cheek. He ran a hand through his hair, then winced as he spoke. “And…Um…We march this afternoon, sir.”

“…What?” Elmiryn lifted her head just enough to fix the man with a vicious stare. “What do you mean, ‘we march this afternoon’?”

The man quailed and held up his hands. “How else can I put it? We march at the crack of noon! I just heard from one of King Brice’s men.”

The woman sighed. “Halward help me…”

Though it took a few hours, the woman was sitting upright again and even managed a small light meal before she and Saelin reported back at Brice’s mansion. As they stood in formation before the gates with their fellows, the woman took a moment to glance back at the King’s private estate. In all their stay, she had not seen nor heard the man they had traveled so far because of. She found herself resenting this.

The march brought back her headache with a vengeance, but the woman pressed on, even energetically–for every step they took brought her closer to home. Now and again, she had to take a moment to spit out bile, but she couldn’t stop to do so. Duncan would notice, and she would be disciplined for breaking formation. Tiedby was back to bitching as usual, but it took all the woman had not to just collapse on the road, so he was spared any of the usual ridicule. When the city was a smoldering dot in the distance, the woman stood apart from camp and watched it. Howls echoed from the South. Elmiryn thought of Eris, and her gut twisted.

She wanted to believe that the heavens themselves were conquerable, and if she were patient enough, her arrows could soon pierce the veil that kept the gods hidden.

…But until the time in which high walls and small gates no longer kept her barred, the woman would have to wait.

Saelin appeared next to her, a fellow shadow in the dark night, warmth a flicker at his back as he smiled at her. “Lieutenant, are you okay?”

Elmiryn blinked at him, noting the gentle slope of his jaw, his fine-shaped lips, his light green eyes. There was something unattainable in him, as a friend. He was a man who preferred men, and the woman felt silly she hadn’t noticed it before. But the difference between them didn’t seem as vast anymore. Smiling, the woman took him by the shoulder and steered him back toward camp.

“Yes, Private. I’m fine. Actually, I wanted to talk to you about our upcoming promotions–”

“Sir, they haven’t guaranteed those yet.”

She smiled, showing all teeth.  “…Not yet.

Continue ReadingHigh Walls, Small Gates

Short Term Solutions

“One mistake in a subtle way
Like I’m walking again, all on me
Step slowly, you know that you fall between
Dark places, what a simple web we weave

We sing the nightmare of the lies that you speak
The beast that I lie beneath is coming in
We sing the nightmare of the lies that you speak
The beast that I lie beneath is coming in”1


Live steps.  Wired steps.  Livewired steps that shocked from the soles up the shins to the hips to the heart to the mind to the fingertips and back again.  She held her sword in her right hand around the scabbard, and tapped it against her leg.  She flashed along flagstone floors and compacted dirt trails that weaved in and out of the rocky mountainside.  Roots and vines weaved with statues, and fallen leaves flushed cold hallways.  She tucked a russet lock of hair behind her ear and hummed.  The ocean roar was a soothing presence all around and it set her in a good mood.  Somewhere, she could hear a chorus of people speaking in unison.  The carved, open windows looking outward onto the faded rooftops and white crest waves were stolen for the moment as she rounded the corner, heading eastward further into the mountain.  The commune was entirely based inside the looming mountain that overlooked the city of Crysen.  It was said that sorcerers had carved their place there, in the earth.

Torches lit the hallway she stepped through.  She flashed her eyes on younger pupils and they skittered out of her path, mouths agape, clutching at each other’s robes as she swept on by in a rush of lilac.  Then she paused at the archway at the end of the hall, the cold stone breathing around her from the draft of coastal air just ahead…

Quincy turned around and smiled, her left hand resting on her hip.

“Boys, where are you going?” she asked the two children huddled wide-eyed against the wall.

The two exchanged looks.  One stepped forward, barely four feet tall with gingery hair.  The shorter one behind him pulled his hood up and slouched.

“Alchemy lessons with Madame Igora…but it’s our first time, miss.  We’re lost.”

“Your masters?”

“We’ve got the same one, miss.  Master Fendrel.”

“Oh, I see.  Sorcerers, huh?”

The boy blushed and looked down at his tanned shoes.  “Not yet, miss.”

Quincy’s smile widened.  She jerked her head toward the archway and beckoned with her hand.  “Well come on, then.  Igora hates tardy pupils.”  She turned and started to walk, not waiting to see their reaction.

She heard the boys run to catch up.

They followed a little bit behind her as the hall led out onto the open courtyard, where a group of apprentices were stretching in lines.

Quincy looked at the boys over her shoulder.  “How’d you two end up at Crysen?”

“Our lord wishes for us to get training, so that we can protect him from any threats when we’re older.  We were escorted here by some of his personal guard.”

“Your lord must be powerful to get two boys so young to the Kilemare Coast.  Most of our newcomers are atleast entering their teens!”

The redheaded boy puffed his chest out and tried to square his shoulders.  “I don’t look like a teenager?” he said, voice strained from holding his breath.

Quincy giggled and stopped to ruffle the boy’s ginger mop.  “Don’t worry, you’ll strike others with your presence soon enough.”

The boy couldn’t seem to decide if he liked this attention or not.  Then his eyes lit up and he touched his head where her hand had been.  “…Miss, is it true you and sir Hakeem came to Crysen by yourselves and killed a full-grown dragon as a way to earn tutelage in the collective!?” he said this all quickly.  His little friend looked up from beneath his hood, his expression one of awe.

To earn training at the magical collective, one had to offer something of value to the master in question.  Some students, like the two boys before her, were sponsored by wealthy people of high standing.  She had even heard of certain students being the payment themselves–from previous students who had promised their first born child to their master.  While the masters ran their studies independently, arrangements often sprang up between them for collaboration, creating a sort of “school” environment without the proper system for it.  There was no headmaster and no detentions here.  The relationship between master and pupil was a personal one, and many masters residing at the collective still lacked students of their own.  Part of it was the dangerous location of the city.  The other part of it was that more than half of the prospective students died trying to prove themselves.

For those still awaiting training, idle minds delighted in twisting the truth.  Mystery and rumor was a staple of the commune, and Quincy found she was no more safe from it than a beach from the waves.

The girl scratched her head, a dubious grin spreading her lips.  “Um…”


Quincy looked up as Hakeem jogged toward her.  He wore thick boots meant for conquering rocks and mud, and loose cotton pants that draped over his shoes.  Normally he wore his special chainmail tunic, but at the moment he wore just a sleeveless shirt with a stained apron.  The teenage boy frowned at the two youngsters in her presence, then looked at Quincy again.

“Emiline told me to find you.  You’re due at the soup kitchen for lunch.”

The girl scowled.  “Now?  I can’t go now! I have to meet with Master Saerth!”

“If you don’t go, Emiline says she’s going to fire you without pay.  We won’t be able to pay Tegin for the room if this happens.”  Hakeem’s face was drawn and tense.  “Mweze, please.  Do this for me.

“There has to be another way.  Didn’t you try to talk to her?”

“Of course I did!  But do you think that mkundu listened to me?”  He pointed at the sword in her hands, sneering.  “If all you’re going to do is another useless session with that rusty sword, then please forget it and get over there.”

Quincy pursed her lips and gave him a leveling stare.  “I was told to meet with my master.  If the purpose just so happens to be for my sword, then it’s none of your flaming business!”  But her expression sobered and she gestured at the two boys.  “Look…Can you help them to Madame Igora’s?  I need to get this handled before I go.”

“So you will go?”

“Yes, yes!  I will, I promise.”

Hakeem glared down at the boys and the two shrank visibly.  He sighed and rolled his eyes.  “Fine, I’ll take these two then.  I have a bit more time before Emiline expects me back.”  He looked at the boys and jerked his head.  “Let’s go.”  He turned and started to walk away.

Quincy nudged the boys along and they stared at her pleadingly.  “Go on,” she said around her grin.  “He’ll only break your knees if you keep doddling!”

At this the boys ran to catch up with Hakeem, and when they did, they bumped into his back.  The man turned to stare at them with annoyed confusion.  “What’re you doing?

The brunette bit her lip, trying not to laugh as she turned to resume her original trip.  When she found Master Saerth, it was in his study, at the far corner of the collective.

Master Saerth looked up, his eyebrows raised.  “Quincy!  You’re early!  This is rare!  There were no tornadoes?  No runaway dragons?  No surprise attacks from assassins?”  He was only a little taller than her, with a short gray bushy beard, a shiny bald head, and shrewd deep blue eyes flecked with emerald.  When he stood from behind his desk, the room seemed to expand, as though to accommodate for his strong presence.

Quincy blushed before bowing low.  She was never late, but she did have a tendency to arrive just in the nick of time–and usually with a long tale as to how she nearly didn’t make it at all.  “No, Master.  Not this time.  Just some boys who needed my help.”

“Oh, well I suppose I can see how that wouldn’t deter you quite as much.”  The man came forward, hands behind his back.  Unlike some of the other masters in the collective, he wore thick wool pants and a white tunic without a belt.  His boots made sharp sounds on the stone floor as he came near.  “I do, however, get the impression that your punctuality was brought about by some pressing matter.  What’s happened?”

The teenager still didn’t rise from her bow.  “Sir, I face a financial dilemma.  As you know, I work at the local soup kitchen to pay for my living and training expenses.  Even though my husband and I have managed all this time, Emiline has served me an ultimatum–either I go to work for her now, or I lose my job and do not receive my pay for this week.  We owe our landlord in just a few days time, sir.  I face losing my home and a means to fund my studies.”

“So you came here first, seeking some sort of guidance?”

The girl tensed at the steel in her master’s voice.  “…Yes, sir.  If you’d be so generous as to advise me…”

Quincy heard nothing for a time, then a hand on her shoulder made her look up.  Saerth’s eyes were narrowed but his lip was turned into a sort of smirk.  “Raise yourself, Quincy.”

The man turned and returned to his desk.  He sat down again in his chair with a sigh.  “Given your circumstances, I appreciate your speaking with me first.  Today you may go,”

The girl straightened, her face beaming.  “Thank you, Master, I–”

However,” Saerth sat back in his chair and ran a hand over his bald head.  “I’m familiar with Emiline.  If you give her this today, she will ask for more until you are unable to meet both her demands and your obligations here.  This solution of yours is temporary, Quincy.  You will have to figure out a better way to resume your stay here if want to fulfill your aspirations.  I cannot give you the answer.  Part of being a wizard is being clever enough to work things out on your own.  My only advice is to put your true strengths to use.  You came here when you were, what?  Fifteen, sixteen?”

“Sixteen, Master.”

“Now you’re older, and you’ve learned much.  A soup kitchen is not befitting someone of your caliber anymore.”

Quincy blinked at him, then turned her eyes to the ground.  “Yes, Master.”

“When you next return here, I expect the matter resolved.  If not, then you no longer have the right to be my pupil.”  He blinked, then looked mildly at the long horned skull sitting at his desk.  “Even if you did bring me the head of a dragon hatchling.”  He poked the skull with a stubby finger, blinking once more.  “…I get to keep this no matter what, by the way.  I hear Igora can make some mean potions just with the skull alone.”

“Um…yes, Master.  Of course, sir.”


Quincy walked slowly through the hallways, her eyes holding a storm.  Other pupils passed her by, some glancing at her curiously.  Usually the brunette was tearing through the halls in a rush, but now she walked slow contemplative steps.  She and Hakeem had been at the magical collective for almost two years now, and it truly felt like home.  The turnout was high here–many hopefuls came, seeking the tutelage of the masters that resided at the impromptu school, but the lessons were hard.  Only the true seekers of knowledge remained, and Quincy had been certain that nothing would endanger her and Hakeem’s studies.  Except now…

She had left the commune and wandered down into the city, towards the beach, where she now sat in the sand with her sword in her hands and her russet brown hair whipping about her.  The wind had picked up, now that night approached, and even though she loved the sight of the ocean, the girl loathed the strong winds.  With every gust that buffeted her, Quincy expected him to appear.

“Jack…if you come…I’ll kill you.”  Tears trickled down her face and dripped onto the scabbard.  Quincy pulled her sword out partially and glared at the rusted blade that appeared.  “I’ll kill you with everything you ever gave me, do you hear?”

A familiar voice met her ear.  “I wish you’d talk to me before making these decisions.”

Quincy turned with a start and saw Hakeem approaching her, his fists clenched.  She hadn’t gone to the soup kitchen, like she’d said she would.  Her rebellion likely caused the boy to be fired as well.

She turned and bowed her head.  “M’sorry,” she mumbled.

Hakeem sat heavily next to her, his jaw clenched tight.  “Why do you always do this?” he muttered.

“Do what?”

“Throw things away when you think it doesn’t suit you anymore.  You never think about me.  How might feel.  You didn’t like living in the jungles when we were young?  You stole from pirates and get us caught.  You started to hate living with pirates?  You lured me away from the ship where it ends up sailing off with all of my belongings.  Then I go along with your plans to come here–risking life and limb to get a gods damned master, a home, a job–and you’re threatening to piss it all away again!” the boy punched the ground. “I’m tired of being at the mercy of your whims!  I know things are hard, but sometimes you just have to stick things out, Quincy!  If you want to make a change–fine! But don’t cut away everything without something to fall back on!  Don’t make those big decisions without talking to me!”

Quincy swiped at her eyes and sniffled back the snot that had been teasing her nostrils.  She stared forward and didn’t look at Hakeem, though she could feel the anger rolling off of him.

But when he spoke again, he sounded tired.  “…If you can’t take our marriage seriously, then atleast take me seriously as your friend.  Talk to me.  Trust me.  Or else…why are we even together?  Are you going to throw me away too?  Do I…not suit you anymore?”

The girl looked at him, fear striking her heart as the boy stood to his feet.  “Hakeem!”

The boy didn’t stop as he walked away.  He continued trudging back toward the city with bunched shoulders.

Quincy stood and ran forward several steps.  “Hakeem!  Please!”

Hakeem paused but didn’t turn around.

The girl trembled, her sword forgotten in the sand where it had tumbled from her lap.  “Hakeem…I love you.  I’ve always loved you…it’s just–it’s just that–”

The boy whirled around, his face contorted with anger.  “No.  No.  Enough, Quincy.  There shouldn’t be an addendum when you tell me that.  I’ve sacrificed everything to be with you.  It’d be nice if you’d return the favor and quit placing our relationship as second on your priority list!  I don’t even know what it is you’re looking for, and quite frankly, I’m tired of waiting for you to tell me!!

Quincy watched as he left, her eyes clouding again.  She let her head fall, shivering as the wind shoved at her from all sides.

She started to speak, her broken voice rushed away by the breath of the world.  “…It’s just, that I never want to be at the mercy of anyone else again,” she watched as her tears fell into the sand.  The brunette raised her azure eyes to the sky, and her throat tightened with a desire to scream. “Jack…if you come, I’ll kill you with everything you ever gave me…because when you come, I’ll finally be the master of my life…answering to no one…untouchable…and when you and Tobias are dead, I’ll be free…”


He heard the melodious chime of a bell singing into the evening air.  Here, even on the coast, it was warm, so the night’s approach felt muggy at best.  He liked this weather.  It reminded him of home, of the village he came from, where they lived with nature instead of trying to conquer it.  Quincy had been brought to his family and left in their care when they were young.  His father had known her father, was the terse explanation.  Things had been peaceful, up until…

Hakeem didn’t like to get sentimental.  He preferred getting mad.  Being angry made it easier not to think on how much he missed his family.  How much it still haunted him, seeing them burned to death and hacked to pieces by marauders.  Even as children, they knew, it was because the marauders were looking for something.  For someone.

Even when it was beyond her control, Quincy seemed to take so much away from him.

He didn’t blame her for the massacre, she was just a child.  But surrounding the girl was a leeching aura that demanded still more from him to be with her.  More sacrifice.  The boy didn’t know what else he had to give, and this made him angry.

At the market.  Hakeem glowered at the assortment of vegetables before him.  He figured he could make a stew tonight…the final good meal to be had in a while it seemed…

“Say, friend.  Why the long face?”

The boy turned to see a young man–perhaps early twenties–smiling at him.  He had dark tanned skin, short cropped hair, and was freakishly tall.  A large metal saber was strapped to his back.  Around his waist, a belt jingled with dozens of metal ingots.

Hakeem turned his face trying to ignore him.  “I’m deciding what I want in my dinner.”

“Oh?  You want to know what that says to me?  ‘Girl trouble’.”

The boy turned and glared.  “Leave me alone.”

“Yep, girl trouble.”  The man came to stand next to Hakeem.  He leaned against the vegetable stand with a smirk. “A real man should never make his own dinner.  It’s against nature.”

Hakeem shoved at the stranger with both hands, sending a few vegetables tumbling to the ground.  The merchant yelled at him, but he ignored him.  The teenager bared his teeth and advanced, full of murder.  “Stupid mkundu!  Keep running your mouth and I’ll smash your face in!”

The stranger laughed and held up his hands. “Woah, woah! I wanna help you!”  He thumbed over his shoulder.  “I know you come from the commune.  You’ve got a teacher right?  Or…what…a master you call it?  So you must know a thing or two about magic, right?”

Hakeem turned and started to walk away.  He had nearly gotten into a fight, and this would’ve gotten him in trouble with the local authorities.  If his master had heard, he would’ve been punished.  “Tai’undu!  Leave me alone already, you big ape!”

“Wait,” the man caught up with him and blocked him off.  “Now hold on!  I happen to know for a fact that you were fired from your job at the soup kitchen–”

The boy gave him a weird look, “You’ve been following me?  What are you?  A queer or something?”

The man thumped his chest, looking angry for the first time.  “Of course not!  My name’s Karolek, and I’ve got a proposition for you!”

“A proposition?  Definitely not interested.”

“…What?  No! I told you I’m not like that!”

“Move, or I’ll move you myself.”

“Listen, listen.  There’s a bounty out there worth five hundred gold,”

“Fine, I’ll count to three.  One…”

“It’s an easy catch–sort’ve.  I just need some help,”


“Look here, I have the wanted poster–”


Hakeem buried his fist into Karolek’s gut, just as the young man reached into his back pocket.  Then he backhanded the man with all his might.  The oaf stumbled to the side, coughing.  The boy gave him a final shove out of the way, and Karolek was sent to the ground, still cradling his stomach.

“Idiot,” the boy mumbled as he stalked past.


Quincy had left the beach in a melancholy, the waves of people heading back to their homes buoying her forward.  Home

“Soon I won’t have one, and it’ll be my fault,” The girl sighed.  Then she stopped in the middle of the road, slamming the heels of her palms into the sides of her head, much to the consternation of those she forced to walk around her.  “Aaah!  Quincy, not now!  You can’t fall apart!”

When her head started to throb, the girl opened her eyes and turned her head.  She stared wide-eyed out into the night, the sky overhead now a deep plum with the stars peeking out from their vast blanket of the universe.  Colors blended together in a cool palette that made definition hard to come by, but her eyes lit onto one thing that stood out starkly in the growing moonlight.  A piece of parchment nailed to a tall wooden post.

Quincy drifted towards it, and her heart started to hammer at the sight of the words “REWARD:  500 GOLD”.

The brunette snatched the parchment off the post and examined the large charcoal sketch of a man with a long face, rounded cheeks, and thick mutton chops.  A pair of goggles dangled from around his neck, and his expression was bewildered, as though he couldn’t believe the artist had drawn him on a wanted poster.  At the bottom, smaller text read, “This reward is offered for the apprehension of Kollin Endrick Montbrai, found guilty of selling illegal narcotics, polluting the water supply, public drunkenness, and besmirching the good Lady Rosalinda of Santos.  The above reward will be paid in part by the Lord Adalberto of Santos and also the city-state of Gulley upon his delivery in good health to the offices of Marshal Fuller.  ADVISORY:  Suspect lost his left hand, either purposefully or by accident, and uses an arcane hand crafted from steel as a replacement.  This hand is said to boost the strength of his entire left arm.  Suspect has been known to make and sell magical weapons, and so may be further armed.  He is well versed in the ways of alchemy.  Exercise extreme caution when dealing with him.  Rubber gloves and a cotton mask are advised when in close proximity.”

“Looks promising, yes?”  Quincy jumped and turned to see a tall young man with short-cropped hair and metal ingots on his belt.  He was sporting a bruise on his dark-tanned face, but he smiled at her charmingly.  He pointed at the poster clutched to her chest.  “If you’re wondering…I happen to know where Kollin is now.  But I need help catching him.”

Quincy frowned at him, glancing at the poster, then back at the man before her.  “Who’re you?” she eventually asked.

The man gave a short bow.  “My name is Karolek.  I’m a metal sorcerer.”  He straightened and wagged a finger at Quincy.  “Now…I think I know who you are…you’re Quincy, aren’t you?”

The girl raised her eyebrows at him, and her grip on her sword handle tightened.  If she swung hard enough, the scabbard would fly off and expose the blade, sparing her a second to catch him by surprise, but could she press an attack with just one arm…?

“I’ve seen you around here a few times with your boyfriend–”

Husband,” She corrected, tensing her sword arm.

Karolek held up his hands, his look surprised.  “Oh!  Wow, you’re…so young!”  The man scratched the back of his head, “Gods…well, I’d heard you and your husband killed a full-grown dragon to get yourselves a master–”

Quincy rolled her eyes.  “Look, about that–”

“–And I was just thinking I could really use the help of someone as strong and capable as you.  Catching Kollin will be easy with the two of us working together–won’t even take us a day.  I’ll split the reward with you 50-50.  I bet you can think of something you can use that gold for, right?”

The girl paused to think, her lips puckering.  She and Hakeem owed their landlord a hundred gold.  The reward from the bounty would float them for almost an entire season, and they’d have gold to spare for supplies and food…

“…Do you need to talk it over with your husband?”  Karolek asked carefully.  There was something teasing in his eyes.

Quincy blinked, her eyes widening as she looked at the man.  She shook her head emphatically.  She could easily imagine Hakeem’s reaction to this idea of hers–

“Bwa-mweze, wikan a thusa katsul ko zini-jyan!?”  My wife, why do you have such wild ideas!?

“No.  He’s busy.  When did you want to go after Kollin?”

Karolek smirked.  “Tonight.”

Quincy gave a nod.  “Let me get a few things and I’ll meet you by the city gates.”


He came home tired, and with a satchel full of fresh vegetables.  The house was dark and cold.  Hakeem set the bag down and frowned.

His search was done with a single sweep of his eyes, for everything was forced into a small square space of masonry.  Their bed to the left was empty, the quilts still neat and folded.  The kitchen counter was clear and the stove dark.  The table to the right, however…

Hakeem cleared the distance from the door in two large steps.  On the table was a parchment.  His heart started to palpitate, and wild ideas sprang into his head.  “She really did throw me away…”  But then he saw from the poor moonlight that filtered in through the front windows what the parchment said.

“REWARD:  500 gold”.

The teenager’s jaw clenched and he went to the wardrobe adjacent to the door.  Tearing open the door, the boy saw that it lacked Quincy’s cloak and traveling boots.  The boy slammed the door shut with a shout.

“Quincy wikan!


They traveled on foot eastward, away from the coast and toward the savannah of the Talmorian continent.

“I grew up there, y’know.  At Gulley,” Karolek said, trying to make small talk.  “It’s my hometown.”

Quincy glanced at him from the corner of her eyes.  She stifled a yawn.  Normally she’d be asleep by this hour.  “Oh, yeah?” she really didn’t care to hear his life story.

The man put his hands behind his head, the ingots on his belt clinking together.  “Yes!  I know that city like the back of my hand.  All the shortcuts, all the best restaurants…” he smirked at her.  “Would you like to see these places, after we turn Kollin in?”

The girl gazed at him frigidly.  “No.”

Karolek laughed, throwing his head back and crowing into the night.  Quincy winced and glanced as she saw a rabbit peal away through the tall grass.  Was this how a person went about catching criminals?  By being as obnoxious as possible?

“No wonder you need my help…” Quincy muttered.

“What was that?” Karolek asked, oblivious.


“Say,” he went on, much to the girl’s annoyance.  “Where do you come from?  Your Common has a curious accent.”

The girl shrugged.  “What do you think I am?” she sighed.

Karolek rubbed his chin.  “Mmm…Fiamman?”

Quincy nodded.  “Sort of.  My ancestry is, anyway.”

“So then where did you spend your childhood?”


“Ah, that explains it…You speak Fanaean don’t you?  With your husband.  Is he a chest-thumper like most Fanaean men?”

“You know most Fanaean men, I take it?”

Karolek sputtered.  “I’m not queer!”

“Hey, you said it.  Not me.”  Quincy kicked at a rock on the path.  “Anyway, can we not talk about my husband?”

“Oh…You two had a fight?”


“Then can I ask–”

“Let it alone, already!”  Quincy snapped.  “Tai’undu!  You talk too fucking much!”  She stormed ahead, her cloak swishing behind her stiff back.

“Glad you’re not my wife…” She heard Karolek mutter.

Quincy, with little pause, scooped up a rock and threw it at his head, her face tight with outrage.  After that, Karolek finally stopped his inane chatter.  They walked for miles that way, the journey spanning nearly the entire night.  Finally, as the hours crept into the early morning, the girl could see burning lights on the horizon.

She yawned, stretching.  “Gods, finally!”

Karolek glanced at her, grinning.  “Tired already?  Do you want me to carry you into town?”

Quincy snorted, her arms crossing her chest.  “If I weren’t getting 250 gold for this, I’d have struck you with a bolt of lightning by now…twice.”

“It’s nice isn’t it?  Not having to pretend to be friends when there’s gold involved?”

“Shut up and lead the way, already.”

“My, you’re such a refined young lady!”

“Oh look!  That rock looks nice and sharp…”

Well! I guess we’d better get going.  Don’t want to miss Kollin, now do we? …gods what a bitch…”

When they entered the town of Akii, Quincy immediately recognized the sort of people she was about to encounter.  The buildings were still lit, and people stumbled through the dirt roads, wide-brimmed hats jilted on their heads.  There was shouting and loud laughter.  Dogs made a mess of the garbage, scattering it into the roads where carriages crushed and squished it with their wheels.  Quincy pulled out her four foot lightning rod, which she had kept tied to her back.

Karolek put an arm over her shoulders, and she was about to punch him in the face for getting so fresh, but then the man leaned down to murmur, “Relax.  Put the damn rod away.  If you keep acting this way, people will notice, and if people notice, so might Kollin.  If you stay close to me, no one will bother you, I promise.”

Quincy shrugged the man’s arm off.  “Fine.  But keep your hands to yourself!”  Still with a sour look, the girl slid the rod back into its strap.

“Why do you have that and your sword?” he asked.

“This sword never leaves my side.  It’s magical, but it won’t respond to me.  I keep it around just in case that might change.  The rod actually works, and was given to me by my master.  It calls forth lightning.”

“Wow,” Karolek led her to a one-story building with a flat roof.  He held the door open for her.  “Do you have any other goodies with you?”

Quincy passed him, entering a smoky bar.  When they were both inside, she responded, “A wizard always has an ace in the hole.”

Karolek nodded thoughtfully.  “Something to keep in mind, then…”

They sat at a table nearest the bar, because all the tables near the wall were taken.  A waitress came by and Karolek ordered a mug of beer.  Quincy asked for a glass of water and was reminded snippily that she was in a bar not a gods damned restaurant.  Then the brunette told the waitress to come back with some manners and fresher breath.  The sorcerer kicked her under the table as the waitress left in a huff to fetch their orders.

“Idiot!” he snarled.  “I told you to relax!”

Quincy kicked him back, harder.  “I like rude people even less than self-absorbed snoops like you!  Kick me again, and I’ll kick you so hard in your uchango you’d think you were a queer!”

The sorcerer winced, reaching down to rub his leg.  “Gods, girl!  Your inferiority complex is fierce!

“I don’t have a complex!”  She kicked him again, catching him on the hand.  That time it just felt good.

Karolek bit his lip to contain the yell that came up his throat as he cradled his hand.

Quincy turned her head, and her eyes widened.  “Oh!”  She looked away, toward the bar, her face turning pink.

A man appeared at the entrance, a bag slung over his muscular shoulders and a pair of dark goggles drawn over his eyes.  He had thick mutton chops and a length of straw between his lips.  He wore suspenders and a sleeveless blue shirt, with baggy brown shorts and untied leather shoes that stopped around the ankles.  His belt was weighed down with tools–a hammer, a wrench, a screwdriver, a pair of tongs, and other things she couldn’t name.  And on his left hand, or rather, replacing his left hand, there was a metal claw that occasionally hissed with steam around the wrist.  It clicked and whirred with bare mechanics as he flexed the fingers.

“‘Oh’ what?” Karolek grumbled, his eyes teary as he rubbed his swelling hand.

“‘Oh’ as in, ‘Oh, our subject of interest just walked in!’”

“Then, shh!” he hissed, slouching forward.  He glanced only with his eyes over the girl’s shoulder.  Then nodded.  “Yeah, that’s him.”

“What do we do?”

“What else?  We wait till he’s piss-ass drunk, then follow him to wherever he’s staying.”

“That’s it?”

“He’s a well known drunkard, and his brains are fried from all the fumes he’s breathed in.  I told you this would be easy.”

Quincy frowned and fisted her cheek.  “It seems too easy to me…” she mumbled.


He was marching through the savannah, a lightly packed bag against his back, his eyes staring forward like harsh knives in the dark.  He was heading to Gulley because it was the best he had to go on, given what the poster said.  He didn’t know the first place to look for Kollin, and therefor didn’t know the first place to look for Quincy.  But when he found Quincy…when he found her…he was going to…

Without warning the boy kicked at an ant hill, cursing rapidly in his native tongue.

“Mweze, when I get my hands on you, there’s finally going to be order in this marriage!  You will be my wife and nothing more!  No more magic, no more get-rich-quick schemes, no more swords!  You’ll behave like a woman should.  TAI’UNDU!!  I should’ve done what my Uncle did with all three of his wives, and just tied you to my bed!!  AARGH!!  When I get my hands on you, you’ll cook, you’ll clean, and you’ll wash my under things–all at our home, where you’ll never leave and send me running after you again!” he stomped at the ants, his dark face taking on a ruddy shade, “Like. You. Were. Sup-Posed.  To. ARRGH!”

The boy fell to his knees, and screamed to the night sky.

Why did I fall in love with a white woman?  What the FUCK was I thinking!?

Then his eyes bugged and he jumped up, slapping at himself.  “Shit, those were fire ants!!”


“This is boring…” The girl muttered, struggling to keep her eyes open.  Her entire body felt heavy.  She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been up so long.  There had already been a few times when she’d nodded off, but a loud noise in the bar always woke her up.  The last she had looked, Kollin was still pinching the asses of women that passed his table, but he appeared surprisingly sober.  “Is he, like, almost drunk yet?”

Karolek snorted awake, his head having fallen back against his chair.  He wiped the saliva from the corner of his mouth and blinked at her.  “…Huh?”

Quincy sighed and turned her head to look herself.  Then she shot upright, her eyes bugging open.

“Tai’undu!” she exclaimed, jumping to her feet.

Karolek followed suit, startled.  “What, what!?”

“He’s gone!”

They spilled out onto the street, harried and cursing and blaming one another.  People stared as they barreled by.

“You big idiot, he’s gone now!”  Quincy scanned the streets and buildings, her face flushed.

Karolek glared at her, scandalized.  “How is this my fault!?  You were the one awake, why didn’t you notice he’d left?”

“You shouldn’t have fallen asleep to begin with!  What kind of man are you!?”

“Right.  Like you hadn’t caught a few minutes napping either!”

Whatever! Just help me look for him!”

Then she was running as fast as she could, everything on fire, the swing of her arms like blades cutting through the wind.  Clearly, the city of Akii wasn’t known for paved streets–in fact, the golden earth was hard and riddled with potholes.  Quincy struggled to keep her vision clear as they tumbled through the growing morning crowd–merchants and buyers out for the early market setup.  It was getting harder when she had to check her path to keep from falling and breaking her ankle.  The rod staff across her back didn’t help with matters either.  She knocked a man in the head with the tip of it, and the blow jerked her back a beat as the strap that held the staff cut into her chest.

The girl stumbled forward again, her eyes turning to gaze at the man in the fez hat apologetically.

“Ih-shun!” she cried.  “Sorry!”

The man shouted angrily at her, brandishing his fist.

“Gods damnit!”  Karolek grabbed her hand and forced her to run faster.  “Your Talmas is horrible!  How long did you say you’ve been living in Crysen!?”

“What’d he think I said?  I was trying to apologize,” Quincy panted, her cloak flapping behind her.  With her exhaustion, it was feeling quite heavy.

“You have to put more phlegm into the word next time!  ICH-shun!  Right now, you just called that man an ass fiddle!  It’s one of the gravest insults you can give, and coming from a woman, it’s even worse!  Now we have to run just to keep from being stoned!

Quincy glanced over her shoulder.  Sure enough, the man and some of his companions were chasing after them, their silk shoes and light clothing making agility seem effortless.  Then the girl slid and tumbled to the ground as Karolek made a sharp turn.  He jerked her up painfully by the arm and she had but a moment to prepare for the flight of stairs they jumped over.  They flew some five feet down, and the shock that hit Quincy’s soles made her cry out, but the man didn’t let her stop.  Behind them, the angry men followed.  They weren’t as weighed down by weapons and heavy clothing as she and Karolek were.

Quincy felt close to tears.  “I just…wanted…to make things up…to Hakeem!” she wheezed through a tight throat.

Then she had an idea.

“Leggo of my hand!” Quincy shouted, wrenching out of Karolek’s grip.

“What’re you doing!?” he snapped, looking fearfully over his shoulder.  “I don’t want to have to fight these men!  It could set the whole community on us!  I live in this area, damnit!”

Quincy pushed herself to continue running as she fished for the leather pouch she had tied to her hip.  Holding it before her, she rubbed the bag between her hands.  “Come on, come on…” she breathed.  Something long and thin grew beneath her ministrations.  The girl quickly loosened the opening and pulled out the item.

Karolek did a double-take, sweat rolling down his face.  “Is that…a wand?


“What’re you going to do, pull a rabbit out of your ass!?”

“Shut up and get back!”  Quincy skidded to a stop and turned to glare at the men that charged after them.  She gripped her wand tightly in her right hand, the long smooth piece of wood barely weighing a thing.  The one in the fez hat led his five companions, men dressed similarly, possibly members of a guild.  He pointed at her angrily, shouting something in Talmas.  Gripped in his other hand was a large rock.

Quincy pointed the wand at him and said loudly, “Exorior Gerbillinae!!

The Talmorian men flinched back as she shouted this, their eyes bugging.  Clouds of dust rose about their feet as they skittered to a full stop.  Everyone stopped, waiting for something to happen.

Quincy looked around too, nervous.  She had wanted to transform the man into a gerbil, but nothing was happening.  Had she used the right words?

Then they heard a sound.  It seemed to rise up in their ears as a crackling and scratching first.  Then they heard the high-pitched squeals.

“Quincy…” Karolek said slowly.  He looked at her with his eyes, knees bent and his hands held out.  “What in the nine hells did you do?”

“I…uh…” she pointed at the man in the fez hat with her wand, who was staring around in confusion still.  “…turned him into a gerbil?  Or…or…tried to?”

“I don’t think it worked.”

The sound grew louder.  The squeals, the squeaking, the scratching…

Quincy’s face drew long in horror.  She stumbled backward, stepping onto her cloak, and falling onto her rear.  “I–I think I know how I m-messed it up!” she stammered.

From all around, flooding over the stone and the wood and the dirt, hundreds of little bodies flooded forth, their fur shining in the early morning sunlight.  Their tails were long but furry.  If she hadn’t cast the spell, she would’ve erroneously thought them to be rats.  But they were gerbils.

Exorior Gerbillinae.  Gerbil appear.  Apparently that wasn’t the phrase for transforming someone then…

Karolek cursed and took off running without her.

Quincy scrambled after him, “Hey, wait!”  He didn’t look back.  Quincy stubbed the tip of her boot on an uneven piece of ground and fell to the ground in a nasty crash.  Her left knee scraped the ground painfully.  Her eyes teared up and she screamed at Karolek’s retreating back.  “Damnit, wait for me!”  He still didn’t look back.

Behind her, the men screamed.  She glanced back and saw the little creatures clawing up their legs, the men writhing in pain before they fell over into the growing swarm that followed her.

The girl pushed herself to her feet.  She limped a few steps before she forced her left leg to work–then it was a matter of ignoring the sharp sensations that shot up her thigh from the knee.  With fear’s claw around her heart, she managed to double her pace from before, and within a minute, she outstripped Karolek.

“Woah, hold on, wait up!” His voice cracked as he reached out and tried to grab her.  The girl danced out of his reach.

“Fuck you, mkundu, you were gonna leave me!  We’re through!” she screamed over her shoulder.  She stumbled around the corner, her hip crashing into a fruit stand.  She limped a few steps again, bracing herself on an eroded wall, before she bared her teeth and tumbled clumsily onward.  Russet locks stuck to her sweaty neck, and she spat strands of hair from her mouth.  Down an alley, through a wide street and into another alley.  She didn’t know where she was running to.  She didn’t know this town.  Maybe she shouldn’t have left Karolek behind…?

She glanced behind her.  The gerbils, shockingly, were following her.  More than that, they were keeping pace with her.  She was certain it was because of the magic–gerbils couldn’t fucking run that fast.  Could they?

Then up ahead she saw a man in a cloak opening a heavy wooden door with a key.  The building had no windows that she could see and it was a small one-story.  She sprinted towards him just as he opened the door.  Quincy slid and bumped him inside with her hip, then nearly fell through the door herself.  She kept stepping on her cloak in a panic, but managed to get to her feet again.  Snatching the key off the floor, she turned around, slammed the door shut, then locked it.  Then the girl looked around, drawing out her rod staff.  The building was dark, but she thought she saw hooks and chains and springs hanging from the ceiling.  The two tables in the middle of the room was riddled with unnameable miscellany.  At the back, she thought she saw a messy bed.  There were two windows high up on the right and left, but they were small and closed shut.  She doubted the gerbils could climb up the bare stone walls…right?

“S’cuse me, sir.  Sorry, sorry,” she said quickly, turning her attention to the man she had bumped into.  “Ich’shun, Ich’shun.  There’s a swarm of rodents on its way here and I needed a place to hide.”

The man on the floor groaned, his head still covered with his hood.

Quincy bit her lip, kneeling.  “Sir…sir, are you okay?”

Then came the scratching.  The girl froze as the squeals and squeaks grew louder all around, turning into a hissing sound as the gerbils surrounded the building.  She kept on eye on the windows, just in case, but they didn’t seem to reach.  It didn’t seem to stop them from trying, however.  She could hear them clawing up the stone, the sound setting her teeth on edge.

The man before her sat up.

“Wow…you weren’t kidding!”  He pulled the hood back with a steel hand, one that hissed out steam at the wrist.

Quincy did a double-take.

Kollin Endrick Montbrai pulled the goggles off his eyes and blinked at her, white as a sheet.  When he spoke, all she could smell was beer. “Thanks, kid!  I can’t stand rodents…Say, what’s your name?”

The girl blinked, and stared at him.

Then she struck him across the face with her rod staff as hard as she could, little sparks of lightning flying into the air.  The man’s head snapped to the side from the blow, and his eyes rolled into his head.  He fell back, limp.  His cheek sported a mild burn.  Quincy brushed back her hair and smiled, eyes filled with wonder.

“Wow…that was easy!” she giggled excitedly.


The girl spent the rest of the day waiting out the gerbil swarm.  She considered using her wand to make them vanish, but she was afraid she’d get the wording wrong again.  Quincy hadn’t trained much in linguistic prescriptivism–figured it had nothing to do with the magic items she wanted to use.  She made a mental note to correct this in the future.

By the time the gerbils were gone it was already the afternoon.  Quincy found some bread in Kollin’s cupboard and ate it quickly.  Then she took out her magic pouch and put in other food–some jerky, a cheese wheel, some fruit.  They all vanished without the pouch becoming full once.  Next, she rifled through the assortment of items on the tables.  There were gloves that gave off static energy, blades that were stained red, an assortment of bottles likely filled with illegal potions, and–

Quincy plucked up a small white box, frowning at it.  It was the only package on the table, and seemed unusually “prepared”.  Was it an item for a customer?  The girl opened the box cautiously, peering inside.  She raised an eyebrow.  Sitting in the box was small reflective orb with a slip of paper.  The teenager pulled the paper out carefully, not wanting to touch the orb–she didn’t know what the item did.  Opening the slip with one hand, she squinted at the scrawled message.

“Brom.  This is the Orb of Ilkmar.  I nicked it off this elf I drank under the table down in Gulley.  I’m scared.  I think he was just a delivery boy for someone powerful, and now I have this heat down my neck.  I want you to take it and keep it somewhere safe.  This thing is rare.  It helps you remember stuff you’ve forgotten, helps you find what was lost, and brings you to whatever it is that you desired.  If you’re in a bind and have NO CHOICE, then say these words when holding the orb, ‘I see, so you see.  I hear, so you hear.  I know, so you know.  Illuminate this for the eyes of the blind.  Reveal what is hidden, bring forth what is desired.’

Quincy’s heart hammered.  Her azure eyes flickered back to the orb, and she saw her face reflected back at her, smiling slowly.


She kept her head down as she pushed the wheelbarrow through Akii.  It had taken her nearly an hour to clear the wheelbarrow of spare parts and to load Kollin’s limp body into it.  For good measure, she wrestled a chain around him too, and (as per the wanted poster’s suggestion) used a pair of rubber gloves she’d found to do it.  As she tied him up, she found he had five flasks of acid, a bottle of beer, a flask of oil, half a bottle of ether, and atleast six different knives hidden beneath his cloak.  Exhaustion bit at her, even as her preparations were done.  She was approaching 24 hours with hardly any sleep, and all the adrenaline was gone.  The girl forced herself to keep going.  With Kollin covered by a thick tarp, and the hood of her cloak pulled up, Quincy left the little impromptu home and tried to remain as inconspicuous as possible.

All around her, people were dealing with the damage wrought by the rabid gerbil swarm.  Many sported cuts and gashes, little chunks missing from faces old and young alike.  Quincy felt her heart twist in guilt as she passed one little boy, who was still screaming from the pain and trauma.  His dusty face was streaked with tears and blood, a piece of his ear missing, and scratches all over his face.  He was the worst she had seen, however–most of the damage seemed superficial.  Still, his one face was enough to haunt her the rest of the way.

She paused only to buy water and get directions.  She wanted to keep moving, lest Karolek see her.  She was certain the man still thought the alchemist was in Akii, and that suited her fine.  She’d done most of the work anyway.

As it turned out, Gulley was almost five miles away.  Though the wheelbarrow was a necessity, it also slowed her walking rate down by half.  If she stopped frequently, she’d be there in two hours.  Ideally.  That, of course, didn’t take into account the terrain.

Sweat stung her vision as Quincy fought to conquer thick plant growth and hard, clay-like earth.  Kollin awoke, not even an hour after she had left Akii.

He banged his head against the bed of the wheelbarrow, screaming.  “Aah!  Aargh, you bitch, lemme go!”

“Shut up!” She snapped, panting as she powered the wheelbarrow over a rock that had been blocking her for a full minute.

“Don’t do this!” Kollin begged, squirming out from under the tarp.  He squinted up at her, his scruffy face covered in grime and dirt.  “Please, you don’t understand what you’re doin!”  He tried to inch off the wheelbarrow, grunting.

Quincy set the wheelbarrow down, and ran around to the other side.  She kicked the man back on.  “Bastard.  Stop it!  I’m taking you in and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

Kollin yelled and curled away from her.  She could see his left arm straining against the chain.

“That won’t work,” she said, going back to take the wheelbarrow’s handles.  She resumed pushing forward.  “I don’t care how strong that claw makes you.  You haven’t got the leverage to break out of chain.”

The man ceased his struggles, panting.  The tarp had fallen off of him, and he stared up at the afternoon sky, tears streaking from the corners of his eyes.  Quincy faltered as she saw this, her brows pressing together.

“C’mon, kid,” he said, his voice thick.  Kollin looked at her pleadingly.  “C’mon–Jes’ lemme go.  You don’t know what those men’ll do to me.  They won’t just kill me, they’ll make me suffer!

Quincy squeezed her eyes shut and tried to push the wheelbarrow up a hill.  “I’m not listening!”

Her foot slipped on the sand and she squealed, nearly losing her footing entirely.

“Fuck you!” he screamed, spit flying from his mouth.  He thrashed wildly again, his face turning purple.  “Fuck you, I wish you’d fallen flat on your whore face, you bitch!  I can’t believe you’d do this!  You’re just a stupid kid, how can you be so cruel!?”

“I said be quiet!!” Quincy screamed, grunting as she tried to crest the hill.  But her arms were shaking, and her feet kept sliding on the dirt.  Finally, she gave up and let the wheelbarrow roll back slowly.  It was almost as tiring keeping the thing from running her over.  With a heavy sigh, she set it down with a bang and sat on the ground.

“I have to do this!  I have no choice!”  Her eyes teared up.  “I wish Taika were here…” she mumbled next, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear.

“Bitch…” Kollin said again, but his voice sounded as tired as hers.

Neither said a word for nearly fifteen minutes.  Then Quincy turned her head, wiping her face dry.

“Hey…who’s Brom?”  She would’ve been content with sitting in silence, but the question had been niggling at her since she’d left Akii.

The wheelbarrow shuddered as Kollin twisted around in it.  “How do you know that name?” his voice had an edge she hadn’t heard before.

She decided to play coy.  “A little birdie told me.”

“Were you going through my stuff?!”

“I wouldn’t be a good bounty hunter if I didn’t, now would I?”

“Have you got the orb?”

Quincy bit her lip and shrugged, even though the man couldn’t see this.  “No,” she lied.  “I left it there, along with all of your other stuff.  Your note was addressed to someone named ‘Brom’.  Who’s that?”

To her frustration, Kollin ignored her question again.  “You know the Orb of Ilkmar can lead you to whatever it is you truly want, right?  Just take it and let me go!  If you return me, they’ll torture me until they get the orb back!  It won’t even matter if I tell them!  That’s what this whole thing’s really about!”

The teenager got on her knees and twisted around to stare dryly at Kollin.  “So this is all just about the orb?  Meaning you didn’t poison Gulley’s water supply?”

The man actually blushed.  He swiped at his ear with his shoulder and stared at the bed of the wheelbarrow.  “When you’ve had two bottles of whiskey, inhaled clouds of witch smoke, and took a sip of ether, those things jes’ tend to happen…”

“I bet.  I’m surprised your list of charges weren’t longer.”

“So will you take the orb and let me free?”

“Why?” Quincy returned, drumming her fingers on the edge of the handle.  “So that I can have the state of Gulley coming down on my head?  No thanks, I’ve seen enough vengeance seekers in my lifetime,”

“Yeah, I guess a bitch like you’d piss a ton of people off,” Kollin muttered sullenly.

“It wasn’t my fault,” the girl said coldly.  “It was my father’s.”

Kollin glanced at her sideways.  “…That so?”

“Yeah.  That’s so.”  Quincy sat down again.  She leaned back against the wheelbarrow.  “Who’s Brom?” she asked again.

“…Brom’s my son.”

“What!?” the teenager sat forward some, her ear cocked to the side.  “You’ve got a son?  How old is he?”

“Fifteen now.”

“Gods, you barely look older than twenty-five!  How can that be?”

“An’ how old’re you?” Kollin returned hotly.  “I’m not that young.  I know I’m a fuck up, but I’ve been around.  You think I don’t know what ‘taika’ means?  How’s a kid like you married?  Was it arranged or somethin’?”

Quincy’s brow furrowed and her fists bunched in her lap.  “We were in love,” Then she corrected herself hurriedly.  “Are in love!”

Kollin let loose a sardonic chuckle.  “Uh-huh.  Yeah.  Well, so was I!”  He sighed heavily.  “An’ Brom was the only thing good that came out of it.”

“I bet you’re a lousy father,” the girl snapped, suddenly feeling angry.  She felt emotionally exposed somehow, and this set her on edge.  “Your choices will haunt your child for the rest of his life!”  She glared at the ground.  “I know from experience…”

“Whatever, kid.”

Silence followed.  Quincy spent another five minutes, taking a moment to have a snack from her magic pouch, before pressing onward.  Kollin struggled more, but there was less exchange between them.  The man seemed to writhe simply on principle, as though to illustrate his desire to be free.  Quincy watched him as he did this, thinking of his son, Brom.  She tried to imagine what the son would look like.  Probably like his father–and the boy probably wished he’d taken after his mother.  Quincy often found herself feeling the same way when looking into the mirror.  She thought of all the times Kollin must’ve failed to do his part, too busy running illegal deals and getting high off of his own concoctions.  The father had likely arranged a meet up with the boy, to give him the orb.  Would Brom show up at Kollin’s place tonight, only to find his father had disappointed him again?

Quincy disliked thinking of herself as somehow the reason for this.  Kollin’s life unfolded as he saw fit to shape it.  It wasn’t her problem if the man was going to be tortured over stealing the Orb of Ilkmar, or if he’d possibly never see his son again.

But the man’s face displayed an animal sort of desperation–an undying need to fight and struggle despite his hopeless situation.  Quincy watched with morbid fascination as the man kicked and strained against his chains to the point that the metal cut at his skin, making him bleed and bruise.

Eventually, she couldn’t take it anymore.

The girl stopped and produced her wand from her magic pouch.  She then went around to the end of the wheelbarrow where Kollin glared daggers at her.  The setting suns scorched the savannah in a warm glow as evening approached.

Quincy pointed the wand at Kollin.  “Stop doing that, now.” She swallowed the lump in her throat and willed her eyes to stay dry.  “Stop struggling, you’re hurting yourself!”

“Fuck you,” Kollin muttered, setting his head back against the wheelbarrow bed.

The girl bared her teeth, giving her wand a vicious shake.  This got the man’s attention, and his head shot up as he gazed at her in alarm.  “Hey, don’t go waving that thing at me!”

“This thing is the Wand of Beasts.  I’ll turn you into a turtle and carry you back to Akii under my arm if I have to!  You won’t struggle so much then!”

“Hey, hey! Come on, don’t play around!” Kollin looked panicked now.

Quincy squinted at her wand.  “You know, I wonder what I’d have to say to make that work.  Last time, I conjured up a gerbil swarm by accident.”

“That was you!?”

The girl blushed and pointed the wand at the sky as she placed her other hand at her hip. “Look, I didn’t train with this thing that much, okay?”

“What kind of shitty wizard are you?”

“One that gets her power phrases mixed up!” A faraway voice shouted.  Karolek’s voice.

Quincy paled, looking up.

The man was not far off, and speeding ever closer.  He tossed away a sandy-colored blanket, which he seemed to adorn with grass to make his camouflage better.  But what marveled Quincy was the object he was riding.

Karolek was standing on a round rectangular piece of metal, only a little longer than his arm.  It wasn’t hovering over the ground, but still sliding over it, propelled by some force she couldn’t see.  Quincy didn’t specialize in sorcery, but her interest in magic was enough that she had read about it.  Sorcerers could achieve something that, by appearance, was similar to gravitational magic, but still inherently different.  Sorcerers were masters of physical nature, and they interacted with these elements through their animus, which acted like a pair of ghostly hands that shaped the materials in question.  It didn’t matter if Karolek had been following this whole time, or if he’d just caught up.  With his camouflage blanket, he could have manipulated the metal ingots on his belt to make the board he rode, and thus, silently slide along the savannah as though he were gliding over air.  The metal was quiet and so was the power he used to push it forward.

And now the man was going to use this power against her.

Karolek jumped off the board some twenty feet away just as Quincy drew her lightning rod with her free hand.  The sorcerer drew his saber and pointed at her, his expression livid.

“I’m taking Kollin back!” he shouted.

“I did all the work!” Quincy shouted back, brandishing her wand.  Both Kollin and Karolek ducked as they wand tip turned their way.  “I even pushed this idiot all the way out here alone!  You can’t take him!”

Karolek spat on the ground, and behind him, the metal board lifted into the air.  It broke into two halves, then morphed into crude looking hammers.  The young twenty-something may have needed work on the finer details of elemental mastery, but the hammers still looked quite capable of caving her head in.

Quincy cursed and tucked her wand in her belt.  She placed herself before the wheelbarrow.  “Karolek, let’s not do this!”  But beneath her determined voice she was clenching in terror.  She’d never been in a magical fight before.

“This was going to come one way or another, Quincy!” Karolek barked.  “I was going to bail on you in the end anyway!  Atleast I can say it wasn’t my fault this time!”

The girl stomped her foot, her face turning red. “Bastard!  You didn’t contribute to this catch at all!”

Karolek charged forward, his saber drawn back.  “Who was the one who knew where Kollin was!?”

Quincy tensed and pointed her rod.  She willed lightning to shoot forth, and as quickly as the thought entered her mind, the rod staff shuddered, crackling briefly with tendrils of energy.  But Karolek anticipated her attack when she brought her arm up, and had one of his hammers drift before him.  The hammer caught the lightning, effectively absorbing it.

The man had never broken stride.  He tensed his arms, prepared to swing, and the hammer that had caught her lightning bolt rose in the sky, the heavy blunt end tilted back like a hand were holding it as well.  Quincy instinctively struck the ground with her rod, and a small explosion of lightning and energy shot forth, covering the area around her.  Karolek slid to a messy stop, but his other hammer, which had hovered dutifully behind him, shot forward like a bullet.

Quincy heard the hammer from above whistle down as well…but she was ready.

The girl thrust the rod toward the sky, yelling from her gut.  All around her, the remnant energy from the lightning surged and hummed around her.  She felt the all her hair stand on end as a faintly glowing field of magnetic energy formed around her in less than a second.  The two hammers struck the field, and they groaned, straining against it as Karolek tried to push his way through.  Quincy growled, jerked the tip of her rod to the side.  Both hammers were sent smashing into the ground as the magnetic force redirected them.

Quincy unclasped her cloak, her face drawn tight as she set her eyes on Karolek, who rose to his feet again.

Off behind them, Kollin squealed.  “Hey, hey, hey! Shit, wheel me away first before you go at it like that!!”

The girl ignored him, charging toward Karolek as the man brought about his saber and roared at her.  She feinted with one end of her rod staff, towards the sorcerer’s head.  He moved to block the high attack with his blade, but left his chest exposed, and here, Quincy shifted and struck with the other end of the staff.  She caught him hard in the ribs and a blast of electricity shot forth, entering his body and scorching his clothes.

Karolek let out a strangled scream, stumbling backwards as he tried to keep his convulsing limbs in his control.  His face turned a deep crimson, and veins bulged all over his neck, arms, and face.  Then he keeled over and fell still.

Quincy hesitated, her eyes widening.  Did she put too much into the strike?  She didn’t want to kill the man, much as she disliked him…

“Karolek?” she tried tentatively when he didn’t move for a full minute.

The man let out a wheeze.  “That…hurt…” he panted.  His breathing sounded labored.  His limbs were arranged in an unnatural manner, like he were a doll on the floor.

Behind her, Quincy heard Kollin shifting and grunting around in the wheelbarrow again, but she didn’t turn to look.  She stepped toward Karolek with a wrinkled brow.  “Hey you big idiot, stand up!” her voice was shrill.

“I can’t!” he snapped his arms twitching into movement.  He clutched at the tufts of grass near him and pulled himself over so that he didn’t stare up at the sky anymore.  He looked at his body in a sort of numb shock.  “My…my legs aren’t working,” he mumbled.

“What do you mean!?”

“I mean your lightning attack went through to my gods damned spine, and now my legs aren’t working!”  He pulled at his hip, turning the rest of his body over.

“…You really can’t stand?” The girl’s hand reached up to brush back her hair, but her hand was shocked and she winced, shaking it out.

“No!  I can’t!”  The man twisted around to stare at his legs.  He sounded on the verge of hysterics.  “Gods, what if I’m like this for the rest of my life!?”

Quincy’s eyes bugged.  Now she felt on the verge of hysterics herself.  “It’s…It’s just the magic.  If it were a real paralysis, a real spinal injury, you’d have passed out or something.  I’m certain you’ll recover!”

“Oh yeah.  Sure.”

The girl froze at the unexpected voice.  It was right behind her.  Slowly she turned around.

Kollin smirked at her, his chains in his human hand, his steel claw drawn back in a fist.  It seems he’d finally gained that leverage he needed.  “And I’m sure you’ll recover too!”

Then he punched her with his metal fist, and everything went black.


When Quincy woke, she was tied up in chains.  She felt a body against her back and twisted around.  It seemed not much time had passed, because the suns were still over the horizon, though that was to change within the hour it seemed.

“Karolek?” Quincy called softly over her shoulder.

“What?” the man grunted, shifting behind her.

“Oh.”  She sighed and hung her head.  “I just wanted to see if you were awake.”

“Yeah.  I’m still awake.  Still paralyzed too, y’know.”

“You sound pretty cavalier about it.”

“Oh that’s just to stave off the rage and panic inside.”

The woman sighed heavily.  “Please don’t start raging or panicking.  My body’s sore from pushing that wheelbarrow.”

“I’ll be sure to stay still then.  I mean, that ought to be easy considering I can’t move anything from my chest down.”

Quincy let out a sound of frustration, kicking at the sand.  “I’m sorry, I’m sorry it was an accident already!”  Then she thrashed backward harshly.  “But you know what?  You brought it on yourself!  You tried to smash my head in with those hammers!”

Karolek threw his head back, catching her in the back of her skull.  “I wasn’t going to actually do it!  I just wanted Kollin back!”

Quincy cried out, curling forward.  “That hurt!” she whined.

“Don’t fucking complain to me!  I’m the one whose legs won’t move!  I might never get it up again!”

“I’m certain your boyfriends will be crushed…” Quincy muttered.

Karolek threw his head back again, this time harder.  Quincy turned livid and tried to twist around.  “Mkundu!  I’m going to gnaw your face off, I don’t care if you’re gimpy!”

“Crazy bitch!  Stay away from me!”

Then without warning, Karolek fell out from behind her, and Quincy teetered off to the side.  She blinked, feeling around with her hands behind her back.  The man wasn’t near her.  “…Karolek, we weren’t tied together?”

“Of course not!  Kollin just used strips of your cloak to bind my wrists.  I’d say he was considerate for propping me up against you since I can’t sit up on my own, but now I’m thinking that was just sadism on his part.”

Quincy rolled to her side so that she was facing Karolek.  The man had fallen over and was now facing away from her.

When she spoke next, it was in extreme exasperation.  “Dummy!  You’re a metal sorcerer.  He put chains on me.  Use your power to get them off!”

Karolek didn’t say anything for a moment.  Then he twisted his head around to look at her.  “Oh yeah.”

The chains shuddered around her.  This startled Quincy, who imagined them tightening, or turning into blades…but sure enough, the links came apart and quietly fell away from her as though they were a blanket pushed back with gentle hands.

Quincy sat up, rubbing her wrists.  She glanced down quickly at her hip and saw that her wand was still there, as was her sword and magic pouch.  At the sight of the last two items, she sighed in relief.  Then she gazed at Karolek.  She could leave him out here, in the savannah.  Gulley was just a mile away, after all…

Only the girl truly felt guilty for his predicament.  It was one thing to leave the big oaf when chased by a swarm of gerbils–he was capable of taking care of himself then.  But now he was completely vulnerable, and there were animals and monsters that would take advantage of his misfortune.  The girl stood, dusting off her pants.

The man glared at her warily.

Quincy leaned down and took him gently by the shoulders.  With a grunt, she sat him up.  “C’mon.  Let’s get you onto the wheelbarrow…”


The teenager was beyond exhausted.  He’d walked ceaselessly from Crysen across the open plains and had been stopped by a rukh–a giant winged monster, similar to an eagle, with pure white plumage that reflected the glare of the suns and a reptilian head.  The fight against it had taken a while.  Everytime Hakeem attacked using the power of his magic armor, the bird would fly away again, circling around for another strike.  Eventually he was able to convince the monster that he was too troublesome to be prey, and it flew away.  He was left exhausted from his efforts and so his pace slowed.  Oddly enough, he was paused again by a swarm of gerbils, foaming at the mouths, but the man waited out their passing with a few deterring blasts and a gravitational shield.

“What in the nine hells…” he muttered as the last of the little creatures scurried away.

He walked on and on until Gulley was within his sight.

But as he picked up his pace, he thought he saw lightning flares, off to the north of the city.  Hakeem stopped and frowned, then slowly redirected his path to head to that location.

It wasn’t long before he saw a man approaching him in a jog.

The man had a long face, rounded cheeks, and thick mutton chops.  A pair of goggles dangled from around his neck, and his left hand was wrapped in a familiar dark cloth…

“Hail!” Hakeem called, holding up his hand.

Kollin Endrick Montbrai stopped and looked up from the ground, his eyes wide and spooked.

The two men stared at each other.  Hakeem started to lower his hand.

That was when Kollin took off running.

Throwing his bag on the ground, Hakeem gave chase.


She sighed as they entered the city.  She wouldn’t have made it pushing Karolek in herself, but the sorcerer proved that he was capable of some ingenuity.  Using his sorcery, he covered the wheels of the wheelbarrow with his metal so that all Quincy had to do was keep it from tipping forward while he rotated the wheels.

“Okay…” she said, guiding the wheelbarrow to the side of the road, where she sat on a low wall.  Gulley, unlike Akii, was turning quiet with the aging night.  She appreciated the calm that surrounded them.  “Where do you want me to take you?  A healer?  To Marshal Fuller to explain what happened?  Maybe we’ll get compensated for providing information…”

“That doesn’t sound like a bad idea.” Karolek said, shrugging morosely.  His saber was laid across his lap, like a broken toy.

Quincy nodded and stood again, taking the wheelbarrow’s handles.  “Okay.  Then afterward, I’ll take you to a healer.  I’m certain they’ll be able to–”

“Just forget it,” Karolek interjected.

The girl scowled down at the top of his head as they moved over the brick road.  “Look, I’m trying to help you.”

The man leaned his head back and sneered up at her.  “And that’s what I don’t get!  Supposedly, you hated me because you thought I was a nosy, talkative fool, then you hate me because I tried to save my own skin after you call up that wave of rodents–”

“–You forgot ‘dimwitted creep’ among your list of adjectives–”

“–Then you really hate me because I tried to take back Kollin–”

“–You had no right to him to begin with–”

“–And nownow you’re HELPING me after you could’ve finally been rid of me!  You make no sense, wizard!”

Quincy stopped and glared at the man with narrowed eyes.  “Karolek…regardless of what I think…you are an asshole,”

“Your kindness still strikes me with awe.  By the way, that makes no sense.  Opinion isn’t fact–”

“But whilst I may be inclined toward awkward fits of rage, I am not a complete bitch.”

Karolek blinked up at her.  Then he grinned and pointed up at her.  “You just called yourself awkward.”

Quincy took her elbow and dug it into his scalp, stopping only when she ran out of insults to rain down on the sorcerer.

They reached the marshal’s building.  Luckily, the entrance was a double door, so they were able to push Karolek in.  As they entered the torchlit room, they were both met with a surprising sight.

Kollin was being dragged off through a doorway to the left, his body limp as though he were unconscious.  Quincy could see jail cells before the sight was closed away from her.  A man dressed in an official-looking uniform–set with a black cape, black gloves, and black polished boots–was shaking the hand of–

“Taika!” Quincy exclaimed, dropping the wheelbarrow with a bang.

Karolek glared at her resentfully.

Hakeem turned to look at her, his brows rising high just as the man before him held up a filled coin bag.

“Quincy.”  He looked down at Karolek, and his expression turned dark.  The sorcerer held up his hands, grinning uncertainly.  “So it was you…” the boy seethed, stepping forward.

The girl hurried forward, “Wait, wait!” She stopped the teenager, grabbing him by the shoulders.  “I would’ve gone with or without Karolek.  I was desperate for the gold!”

“That doesn’t excuse what you did!” Hakeem snapped, brushing her hands away.

The official behind them cleared his throat.  “I’m sorry to interrupt…but…your gold?”

Hakeem turned around, “Sorry marshal.  Thank you, sir.”  He took the gold and returned to glaring at Quincy.

Quincy looked down at the ground. “Um…” she took a lock of her hair and rolled it between her fingers, turning her gaze to the ceiling next.  “So…I softened Kollin up for you!”  She smiled nervously and gestured at Karolek.  “And look!  I brought you a pet sorcerer!”

Leave me out of it,” Karolek barked. “I’m already paralyzed, for gods sakes…I don’t need anymore injuries.”

Hakeem pointed a finger at her.  His entire body was bunched.  “Mweze–”

She quailed as his voice broke off.  “Yes?

The boy seemed to struggle with what to say next.  Quincy watched him anxiously.  Any other time, and she would’ve been in his face, arguing her case.  But this time, she was aware, that perhaps she had crossed a line.

Hakeem let out a rush of air and gazed at her tiredly.  “Don’t…do this to me again.  I was worried.”

Quincy nodded emphatically, hugging him around the neck.  “Samahani…” she whispered into his ear.  Sorry

Then the girl sought his lips, and at first she was shy and careful, but his receptiveness bred bravery in her heart, and Quincy clutched at her husband hungrily.  She was sorry, and she wanted to show him just how much

There was a loud ‘harumph’ behind them.  The girl pulled away, hissing in irritation.

“This all would be very stimulating, if only I weren’t experiencing bodily difficulties,” Karolek griped.

Hakeem and Quincy stared down at him.

The boy looked at her, frowning suspiciously.  “You’re the reason he’s stuck there aren’t you?”

Quincy rolled her eyes shut.  “Well…”

“And the swarm of gerbils that passed me by on the way here?”

“Gods, you saw that?”

A sigh.  “Mweze, is there anything else that you did?”

“Um…nothing like the dragon incident.  Or…or the rukh breeding.  Or the possessed broom.”

“But there’s something else,” Hakeem deadpanned.

Quincy bit her lip and looked at him tentatively with one eye.  “It isn’t really that simple.”

The teenage boy covered his face with his hand.  “Tai’undu!  When is it ever with you?”


The girl promised to explain once they were safely home.  But first there was the matter of Karolek.  As promised, she took the man to a healer, and there they were assured that the sorcerer was indeed just suffering lingering magical effects.  He would be walking within a few days, with all of his…functions…returned.  In an attempt to ease her guilt, Quincy gave the man fifty gold, much to the protest of Hakeem, but the girl was able to reason that Karolek had earned atleast that much.  Then they started back home.

Once back at Crysen, their talk was further postponed when Quincy faced an immediate summons from her master.  Master Saerth had heard of some of the ordeal through one of his sessions of divinations.  He was pleased that Quincy had figured out a way to pay her landlord, but he ordered her to, “Fix the gods damned gerbil problem.  Immediately,” as punishment for her brash actions.  She was also forbidden from using her Wand of Beasts again…Ever.  Or atleast until he could train her to use the item properly.

Finally, when the landlord was paid and all other matters settled, Quincy and Hakeem sat in their home and talked.  She told her husband everything.  From the gerbils, to the talk with Kollin, to the fight with Karolek.  She took her time however in mentioning…

“The Orb of Ilkmar.”

“The what?”

“Here, look.”

Quincy took out her pouch and rubbed the sides quickly.  A round object grew between her palms, and she squeezed out the reflective orb, handing it to Hakeem so that he could see.

“The alchemist pinched it off of an elven courier,” She explained.  “I think it was meant for that Lord of Santos the wanted poster mentioned.  Kollin seemed to think it was the real reason he had a bounty on his head, anyway.”

“So now you have it?” Hakeem said, staring at her.  “Do you realize how much trouble this could bring us if they find out we have it?”

Quincy plucked the orb from his hands.  “But they won’t find out.  When they’re interrogating Kollin,” You mean torturing, a voice in her head corrected.  She tried to ignore it.  “He won’t know what really happened to it.  It was in my pouch the whole time, and Kollin must’ve thought the pouch was empty.  He’ll think I left it at his place back in Akii!”

Hakeem frowned at her.  “How does it work…?” he said cautiously.

“Don’t look so scared!  You act as though I’m going to blow something up!” She said crossly.

“That’s because you’ve done that before…”

Anyway,” she kissed the orb and smiled at it.  “It’s pretty simple.  All you have to do is say these words:  ‘I see, so you see.  I hear, so you hear.  I know, so you know.  Illuminate this for the eyes of the blind.  Reveal what is hidden, bring forth what is desired.’”

The orb flashed in her hands, filling the entire room with white light.  Both she and Hakeem jumped to their feet, chairs knocking back onto the floor.

Then the light was gone as quick as it had come, and both stared at each other.  Hakeem turned his head slowly.  “I just remembered…a bunch of things…”  he touched his head, then frowned at Quincy.  “Are you okay?”

Quincy was staring at her wrists, at the purple veins that could be seen through the creamy skin.  She looked up and smiled shakily.  “I’m fine.  That’s what the Orb of Ilkmar does.  If you’ve forgotten something, it’ll help you remember.  If you’re looking for something, you’ll find it.  If you’re trying to figure something out, it’ll bring you…to the…answer…” her voice trailed off and she stared down at the ground.

Hakeem touched her shoulder.  “Mweze?”

She looked up.  Then stepped into his embrace.  “Taika…let’s go to bed…”

Quincy hated it when Hakeem was mad at her, but she had to admit–make-up sex was incredible.  They weren’t through until morning, and then and only then, did Hakeem fall asleep next to her.  The girl kissed his cheek, one hand on her chest where she could feel his heartbeat.

Without a sound, she slipped out from beneath the covers, the cool air caressing her naked body in a way that made her shiver.  Quietly, she tip-toed across the floor to the cabinet where she took out a cooking knife.  Then she crept to the far corner to the right of the door, where leaning against the wall was her sword.  She knelt before it and took out the blade.

The rusted metal felt rough against her fingertips, but she knew the blade was too dull to cut effectively into her skin, so with bared teeth, she pressed the tip of the cooking knife into her palm and dug in.  Blood pooled in her hand and trickled down her wrist.  Carefully, the girl trickled this onto her sword.

At first nothing happened, and Quincy sighed.

Then she felt the blade glow warm, and the girl let out a small gasp.

Her blade started to glow through the rust with a soft golden light, highlighting Quincy’s features from below.  The girl trembled and held the blade up to her face.  It pulsed like a heartbeat in her hands…

…And a grim smile spread across the brunette’s face.


1.‘Dull Life’ by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, from the album ‘It’s Blitz!’. DGC/Interscope, 2009. []


Continue ReadingShort Term Solutions

The Performers

“You are mere flesh. I–I–I–I am utter flesh, density of desire, the gravity of skin: what makes the engine of creation run. Not physics but ecstatics makes the engine run. The body is the garden of the soul.” — The Angel1

“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” — e. e. cummings

She thought she saw Halward in the back of her eyelids. 

Images in the misty recesses that existed when the world was shut out; like precious opals, fleeting songbirds in the corners of her thoughts, and delicate rays of light dancing behind the curtain to her perception.  These made her think heavy things–like birth and death and the cost of breathing.

Usually when she was knocked flat onto her back by Thendril, her unrelenting trainer, she’d just think of something pretty and inviting.  Nothing quite so grand, abstract, and out of range for a twelve-year-old.  Her mother’s smile.  A painting she liked.  Happy music.  A cute puppy.  Today, however, she was training with Warner, her father–a rare occurrence of which had only happened once before–when she’d first started her training at the age of seven.

“Up, Elmiryn.  Now.”

She envisioned Halward, the All-God, reaching deep within her, and the girl choked on the sudden recall that hit her mind.  She remembered her mother, looking very young and pretty, working on a painting on the balcony overlooking their estate.  The girl had been small then, with an infant’s vocabulary and grabby hands.  One pull and the lip of a paint can tipped, sending red paint all over her.  She didn’t remember what her mother said exactly–but she recalled the woman being upset, even unto tears.

“You turn thirteen in just a few days,” her father said. She heard Warner begin to pace around her.  “My condition was simple.  Either you defeat me in combat before this coming birthday, or you’ll spend the rest of your training locked away here until you’re ready to serve in the king’s army.”  Her father paused, and the absence of his voice was heavy.  When he spoke again, it was with a low tone.  “Don’t you want to see your mother again?”

Elmiryn’s eyes snapped open, and all she saw was sunlight.


Years ago, when Elmiryn was seven.

In her mother’s chambers, sitting on the edge of a massive bed.  Fiamman lamps in each corner lit the large room in a warm glow, making the crimson velvet curtains seem deeper and richer in shade and texture.  Candles at the bedside table flickered from the breeze drafting in through the one open window.

Brianna brushed her daughter’s hair carefully, using a silver brush with a mirror on the back, humming a song as she worked.  Elmiryn glowered at the paneled wall, her arms crossed over her tiny chest.

“I don’t want to wear it,” she mumbled.

“This isn’t a discussion,” was her mother’s smooth reply.

The girl let her lower lip pout even more.  “It’s itchy.”

“You haven’t even worn it yet, Elle.”  Her mother was the only person in the world who called her this.  It brought the girl immense pleasure.

Her face brightened at the nickname.  “I can tell the future,” was her riposte.

A small sigh.  “You cannot tell the future.”

“I can tell the future.  And when I wear the dress, I’m going to think that stupid thing is itchy.”

“Okay sweetest, if you can see so much, then what am I thinking?”

Elmiryn twisted around to grin shyly at her mother.  Brianna’s cerulean eyes held mirth. The woman had long, warm hair–not quite red and not quite brown, but a shimmering shade in-between.  She had an expressive mouth–long and curvaceous–and a slim button nose.  The woman had sent away the attendants, opting to help her daughter get ready for the ball herself.  Because of this, she still wore her domestic evening clothes, a lavender silk dress and a thin cotton robe with beaded slippers.

The seven-year-old puffed out her cheeks and stared up at the coffered ceiling as she tried to conjure up an answer.  Then an idea came to her, and she doubled over, giggling, her arms rising to cover her blushing face.  “Umm…’Elmiryn is the most beautiful girl in the world?’” she managed through her smile.

Her mother gasped, dropping the brush and feigning a look of shock.  “Oh my goodness!” she reached around and started to tickle the girl, sending the child into a squealing fit.  “You were able to read my mind!!


The game stopped immediately at the stern voice, and both mother and child turned to see Warner standing in the doorway.  He was tall and slim, with an angular face and hard gray eyes.  His bright red hair was swept back neatly.  At the temples, the strands were paling into a sort of platinum blond.  Tonight, he wore his soldier’s dress uniform–pleated gray pants and a thick wool coat with polished golden buttons.  Pristine white gloves on the hands.  Draping his back was a short, blue cloak, meant more as a symbol of status than protection.

“Stop playing with the girl and get ready,” the man said, already turning and walking down the hall.  “We’re due to leave in less than two hours.”

His footsteps echoed farther and farther away.

Elmiryn stuck her tongue out after him.  Brianna gave her a whap on the forehead that stung.  “None of that.  Your father’s right.  We’re late.” But as she picked her daughter up and moved to the dressing screen where the girl’s dress awaited on a hook, the mother couldn’t help but add with a slight grin, “Even if he is a stick-in-the-mud…” and they shared a conspiratorial giggle.

Two hot, itchy, and irritable hours later, they were at the Aimeri’s Ball.  The Aimeri House was strong in the royal courts, playing a part in nearly every major decision of the kingdom.  Their estate made those of the Manard’s, Elmiryn’s family, seem tiny in comparison.  They had acres to their name, and their home was second only to the royal family.

Elmiryn didn’t understand these functions at all–and fortunately neither did her mother, something she confided to her daughter during the carriage ride over.  Both were dressed in their finest, hair coiffed, cheeks powdered with rouge and eyes lined with black pencil.  Elmiryn wore small diamond stud earrings and a light-blue dress with white ribbons.  She felt like rolling on the ground to get at the persistent itch all around her.

Her father vanished upon arrival, stating that he had business to take care of, and since his departure, the mother and daughter were left to make what they would of the night.

They had come through the loggia out into the perrenial garden where some of the most powerful lords and ladies of the Engus province complained about the help, discussed the finer points of fashion, and debated political matters.  It sounded like drivel to Brianna.  To Elmiryn, it sounded like gobbledygook.

“If you don’t like it, mother, then why do you pretend?” Elmiryn whispered inquisitively as Brianna gritted a smile at the Lady Poratel, who waved at them from across the thorny rose bushes.

“Because, sweetest,” the woman explained.  “It is expected of me.  We are members of the royal court.  We must act accordingly.”

“But you don’t like it!  You told me so yourself!” the girl frowned up at her mother.

Brianna looked at her daughter, chagrined.  “Even so, I have no choice.  If I were to behave as I wished, it would shame your grandparents and your father.  It’s difficult for you to understand, but this would bring us much trouble.”

“But if you thought someone’s hat looked funny, why can’t you say so?  Maybe they’ll think it’s funny too?”

“Ahh…you’re thinking of that time you commented on Lady Mirabellum’s new hat?”

Elmiryn puckered her lips, her brow dipping low.  “Father got so angry with me that time…”

“You see, Elle, you must pretend for the sake of yourself as much as for others.  Your words brought you misfortune!  You can be yourself when it is safe, when no one would expect otherwise.  That is why I tease and jest in quiet.  But until that time of freedom, you have to just…go along with how the world works.”

The girl blinked and stopped walking.

Brianna stopped as well and smiled at her daughter.  “Hmm?  Was there something else, dear?”

Elmiryn squinted her eyes at the woman.  “I’m trying to see.”

“See what?”

“If you’re pretending to be happy with me.”

The smile fell from Brianna’s face, and she dropped into a crouch.  She grabbed at Elmiryn’s shoulders tightly and gave her a shake.  “What a thing to say!  Of course I’m not pretending!”

“But you pretend with father all the time!”

Brianna moved her hands to gently cup the girl’s face.  The woman’s eyes teared up and she looked at Elmiryn, wounded.  “You…think I don’t love you?”

At the sight of her mother’s tears, she immediately felt sorry.  She caught the woman in a tight hug.

“Mama!” She’d been told not to say this word, because it was a peasant’s word not befitting a noble.  But Elmiryn found her ability to speak reduced to simple consonants and vowels as she became emotionally gripped. “M’sorry!”

Brianna hugged the girl back, wiping at her eyes carefully.  “There, there.  I’m sorry too, sweetest…I didn’t mean…you just…do what makes you happy.  I suppose you’d be predisposed to such behavior, given your father’s bloodline…”

Elmiryn pulled back, her little hands cupping her mother’s cheeks.  Her face was tight with anxiety.  “You won’t cry anymore?”

“I wasn’t crying dear…”

The girl puckered her lips and frowned critically at her mother.

Brianna blinked, then laughed.  The sound was melodic.  She gently gripped Elmiryn’s wrists.  “Ah…I suppose I was!”

“Why do you laugh when you were just crying?” The girl asked, now even more puzzled than before.  “You smile when things aren’t funny, too.”

Elmiryn was about to add, “That’s really weird!” to her statement, but thought better of it.  The child had decided her mother was a bit emotionally sensitive, and didn’t want to set her crying again, even if she herself sometimes forgot the various ways one could upset a person.  This self-censorship made the girl start.

…Was this what her mother had meant about “pretending” until the time was right?

Brianna fussed over the girl’s appearance, tightening bows, smoothing wrinkles, and brushing back rebellious locks of auburn hair.  “Because, my little Elle.  One must always find a reason to laugh,” she smiled, but the expression seemed crooked somehow. “It can get you through the toughest of times, because you appreciate life, even at its thorniest.”

After the exchange was done, they admired the garden in peace, away from the others, the mother managing to avoid some of the chattier gossipers.  But a chime from the northern clock tower had the woman pulling her daughter along, her white gown and heavy beaded throw shining in the smile of the waning moon.

“We need to hurry sweetest, or we’ll miss the main event!” Brianna explained in response to her daughters complaints.  The girl would have much rather had stayed out in the fragrant garden, watching the trails of snails along the stone and the way the ants made the ground seem alive.

They rushed, not quite running but not quite walking either.  Their forms cast shadows along the limestone walls.  They returned to the focus of the evening, the ballroom, through large marble archways that kept the space cool despite the number of party goers.  Musicians let their sound crawl along the space–magnified by the concave ceiling painted with pastel depictions of the various gods prominent in Fiamman culture–chief among them Halward, the All-God, the Creator of the Universe and the Star Ruler.

Elmiryn blinked up at the ceiling mural, at the god king that sat half-naked, surrounded by his subjects.  He had a handsome, but stern face, with strawberry blond hair and a short beard.  Covering him was just a white sheet around the waist that came near his knees.  The girl wondered if he was cold up in heaven.

Her view to the dance floor was forested by an audience of nobles, but they had a reserved table near the front of the ballroom, close to the music.  Once there, Elmiryn sat on her mother’s lap and was able to see the orchestral sway of dancers along the polished floor.  It interested her for all but two minutes before her attention turned to playing with the cloth napkin on the table.  She’d seen the servants dancing in their quarters, and knew for a fact that real dancing involved alot more grabbing and kicking of the feet.

As such, the girl was very glad she wasn’t passed off to an attendant that night, because Brianna had a special eye for things, and she often shared what she saw with her daughter.

“Look, look,” the woman breathed into the girl’s ear as Elmiryn made a hand puppet of her napkin.  Blinking curiously, she followed where her mother pointed across the dance floor at a young couple that looked as though they were being tortured.  “The boy,” she went on, “I think he’s from the Winnolm’s House, he keeps stepping on the girl.  But the girl, from the Satorett’s House–you played with her little brother once–she’s doing the same to him!” Brianna giggled.  “They can hardly stand it, but the poor dears are being made to dance by their parents.”

Elmiryn didn’t know the Winnolm’s, but she’d been to the Satorett’s and she remembered that particular girl as being quite the priss.   When she was through giggling into her hands, she calmed down enough to turn and ask, “Why?”

Her mother smiled at her gently.  “Why what, dear?”

“Why are they dancing?  Why do their parents make them do it?  Isn’t it s’posed to be for fun?”

“SU-pposed to.  Don’t cut your words, Elmiryn.” Then Brianna’s brow wrinkled in thought.  “It’s…difficult to explain, why.  The simplest way to say it is that they want the two to marry.”


“Because they think good things will come of it.”

“…Like what?”

Brianna’s face turned flushed and she frowned at the girl.  “Elmiryn you’re being awfully persistent tonight!  Be a good girl and just enjoy the evening as best you can, hmm?”

Elmiryn puckered her lips and swung side to side in response. It had been on her mind in the latter days, ever since one of her attendants had brought up her sex life in detail whilst watching the girl play in the courtyard.  She’d thought the youth was out of earshot and had called over one of the water maids to gossip.  Elmiryn had learned early that adults tended to mention the most interesting things when they thought no children were around to hear them.  So the girl, meanwhile, had pretended she was hunting the evil Ailuran named Felix (really, just the house cat napping on the lawn–this was before the Fiamman-Ailuran war had started in full, and the trend of killing cats on sight had become popular in the kingdom).

Brianna winced and grabbed the girl by the shoulders, ceasing her movements.  “Dearest?  Your bottom hurts mother when you do that,” she smoothed out the girl’s dress.  “Remember what we talked about?  All your lessons with Lady Priscella?  Don’t fidget and–” Brianna sighed as she stopped Elmiryn from scratching at her back, “Never scratch.”

“I told you I wouldn’t like this dress…” Elmiryn muttered sullenly.

Brianna shushed the girl.  “Look!  The Duke is coming.  He’s promised us a grand show.  I’m sure you’ll like it.”


The girl sat up as quick as she could, but winced as she moved.  Her father was a shadow over her, backlit by the morning light.  They were in the courtyard, where the blue sky was open to them, even as they were still in the confines of her father’s private training grounds, located in Ebinus.  She placed her hands over her head against the dirt, curling them back so that the fingers were directed toward the body.  She pushed next with her legs, digging in with her heels.  There was a twinge in her right ankle, but she could still put weight on it.

With a breath, Elmiryn kicked up from the ground hard, and as her body rose into the air feet first, she tucked her legs in and pushed at the ground with her hands.

The girl sprang up and landed on her feet with a decisive snap.  Her fists were before her, clenched and sweaty.  She glared at her father for a second, but let her eyes flicker to the ground behind him.  She’d lost her training sword in the last assault.  Though she was quicker than her father, she’d need the extra reach.  That, and while the conditions for victory required her only to incapacitate Warner, she knew hand-to-hand would be nearly impossible for her.

“Excellent,” her father said, nodding once at her quick recovery.  “You move like a true warrior.  Now think like one!”

And they were back to fighting.


The head of the Aimeri House, Duke Dreton Aimeri, gave a speech about the new year, about the good omens coming, and his contributions to the community.  Elmiryn started to nod off in Brianna’s lap, but a sharp pinch from her mother made the girl sit bolt upright.  She pouted at the woman, who gave the girl a warning stare.

Then, as promised, the performers came.

This had been all the buzz in the kingdom as word had been that the Aimeri’s had hired acrobats all the way from the Higashi Kingdom.

They appeared on the center of the cleared dance floor, ten men and ten women all dressed in close-fitted clothing, cool in color–unusual for Fiamma who was used to seeing warm shades.

The acrobats, with little fanfare, started their show.  They flew through the air without mechanical aid, graceful bodies arcing, perfectly poised, landing with confidence each time.  They made human sculptures of taut muscles, which built a brilliant sight to Elmiryn’s young mind.  These people looked so different from herself.  They had pearly skin and thin, jet black hair.  Their eyes were dark and narrow.  It was the first time she had ever seen people from outside the kingdom.

The finale was to be a human tower, consisting of twenty people.  The one to stand on top?

A small figure jogged across the dance floor to the gasps of many.  Elmiryn sat forward, pulling her legs up so that she could raise herself higher.  Brianna smiled with mild exasperation as she craned her head around her daughter.  She thought to pull the girl down again–she wasn’t carrying herself in a proper manner at all…but none were looking their way, and the girl seemed so enthralled with the sight before her that it seemed far too stern to interrupt.

The new performer, a young girl with bobbed hair, conquered the perilous mountain of limbs and shoulders in less than eight seconds.  When she reached the top, atleast fifteen feet in the air, she raised both hands and smiled winningly.  To make certain all in the ballroom could see, the members on the top shuffled to the left, creating the appearance of a revolving platform.

Elmiryn smiled, her eyes wide with wonder.

All around, the crowd clapped as the tower disassembled and the performers gave their final bow.  The general murmur was positive, but reserved.

“Wasn’t that just darling?”

“What a curious performance.”

“Why, they’re so like little dolls!

Brianna stroked Elmiryn’s hair.  The woman was smiling openly, showing all teeth.  “Did you like that, Elmiryn?”

The girl looked at her, and mirrored her smile.  But someone approached from the corner of her eye, and when they turned to see who it was, their smiles waned.  The child quickly sat on her bottom, smoothing out her dress as she gazed up at the newcomer through her bangs.

Elmiryn’s father stood, hands behind his back.  He raised his eyebrows at Brianna.  “I need to speak with you.  Unburdened, as it were.” His eyes flickered to Elmiryn.

Brianna frowned, even as she gently displaced the girl and stood.  “Warner, dearest,” she said in a low voice, “Surely whatever you have to discuss with me can be done in public?  If not, couldn’t this wait until we’re home?  We haven’t seen you all night!  You promised me we’d spend the evening as a family.”

The man’s lips thinned and his gaze narrowed a fraction.  Elmiryn wondered if her father ever pretended like her mother did.  If the coldness and strictness that shrouded him were really natural.  “Brianna,” the voice held steel.

The woman gazed back at him quietly.  Then she bowed her head.  “Let me find Julianna, then–”

“No need.  The Aimeri’s are kindly providing us with their child attendant.”  He stepped to the side and gestured at a short woman with platinum gray hair and wrinkled eyes that stood behind him.  He looked at Elmiryn.  “This is Eneste.  Elmiryn, I expect you to be on your best behavior.”

The girl resisted the urge to wrinkle her nose at the older woman.  She smelled like cabbages.  “Yes, father,” she said instead.

Eneste held out her liver-spotted hands, and the girl reluctantly stepped toward her.  She looked at her mother, pleading silently with her eyes.

The woman nodded and smiled, though the expression was subdued somehow.  “Go on, sweetest.”

Elmiryn craned her head as Eneste took her hand, her grip cold, and led her through the crowd of nobles.  The seven-year-old could hear her mother’s voice, even when she’d lost sight of her face.  “I’ll come find you soon…”


She rose to her feet, coming out from another nasty fall.  She brought her fists back before her, her eyes flickering once again to her sword.  Her father had effectively kept her from retrieving it.  In truth, she knew he was dragging the fight out–wearing her down.  She’d trained every day since she and her father had last fought.  Elmiryn wanted to show her father what she could do.

She wanted him to see Halward in the back of his gods damned eyelids.

The girl bared her teeth and charged forward, kicking up dust as she rushed to engage Warner once again.


Eneste liked to talk about all the children she’d once cared for.  She followed Elmiryn through the perennial garden, talking, her voice reminiscent of dead dry leaves.

“Ah, she was so darling!  You’re almost as pretty as she was, dear.  Lady Aimeri was such a special girl.  Once, she’d played the harp for my birthday!  Do you know how to play any instruments, dear?  Oh, Lady Aimeri knew so many…”

And it went on and on.

Elmiryn didn’t even try to listen.  The woman was slow and annoying.  She wanted to get away from her.

She pointed excitedly down one of the pathways and cried, “My mother’s coming!”

Eneste turned to look, squinting her eyes.  “Oh?  Where?”

The girl had pretended…until the time was right.

Elmiryn pulled away from the woman with a wrench of her hand, and ran in the opposite direction.  The attendant squawked as she realized what had just happened.  “Lady Elmiryn, wait!”

But the girl did not wait.  If anything, she ran faster.

Nobles stared after her, gasping and glaring as she pushed past dresses and cloaks and furs and legs.  She knew better than to return to the ballroom–if she were caught by her father…well in truth, she didn’t know what would happen.  Elmiryn had never done something so blatantly defiant before.  She wasn’t behaving as she should, and the pressure that pushed on her was immense.  There was so much indignation from the lords and ladies, so much open shock and so many appalled expressions.  Servants moved to snatch her up, but the little girl dodged them easily.  They would be poor opponents in a game of tag.

She decided she liked not pretending better.

Giggling, the girl ran through empty hallways, where guests were scarce.  As she came across guards and servants, she moved carefully, avoiding them.  She realized she was moving into an area she was really not supposed to be, but Elmiryn figured it was all a part of the adventure.  Her mother liked to tell her stories before bed, and they were much like this.  Certainly, she’d find something of interest…?

Elmiryn hopped down a short staircase, entering a peristyle–a columned porch that looked over a small garden.  At the back was a man-made pond.

Seated at the water’s edge was the little acrobat girl.  Elmiryn could hear her weeping from where she stood, and she stopped, transfixed in the shadows.


She was a noble girl, no matter what.  Her father wouldn’t risk cutting her, wouldn’t risk damaging her face.  Appearances were everything.

That didn’t mean he couldn’t bruise her in places hidden.

Elmiryn cried out as she fell again.  Her body hurt with every strike of his sword.  Baring her teeth, she struggled to sit up again.  Her limbs quivered.  They’d been at this for more than ten hours and she had yet to have eaten.  Warner may have looked old, but he certainly didn’t act like it.

The man gazed down at her with imperious eyes. “Are you done?” his lip curled.  “All those years I put into you, and you’re already done? Maybe it’s just as well, then.  You would have been torn apart by the Ailurans, and it would’ve upset your mother beyond the point of return–”

“Shut up!” she screamed.  The girl pushed to her feet, swaying.  Sweat stung her eyes, and the strands from her ponytail stuck to her damp neck.  She fell into a fighting stance.  “Stop talking about her!”  She hated hearing Warner speak of her mother.  He objectified the woman, and vilified her.  But Elmiryn knew better.  She knew what Brianna had really thought of her father’s plans.  “You’re just pretending!”  Then the girl’s face drew blank and she stared at her father as though seeing him for the first time.  “You’re…pretending.” She repeated slowly.


Elmiryn stepped forward quietly, the moonlight swathing her in a cool light.

“Hello?” she said.

The girl yelped and spun her head around.  The sudden movement made her hands slip on the wet stone, and she tumbled back into the pond.

“Iya!” she cried, flailing.

Elmiryn winced and hurried forward, her scuffed shoes squeaking as she bent and creased them in her run.  They had never been meant for such hurried movement.

At the pond, the youth wrinkled her nose at the smell of still water.  The acrobat girl had ceased her struggles, and stared up at Elmiryn with dark almond shaped eyes bewildered, wet locks of hair clinging to her porcelain face.  She shivered, dressed only in her thin performer outfit, and hugged her knees to her chest as she took in the sight of the redhead standing over her.  This made Elmiryn feel self-conscious, and she took a hesitating step backward.

She felt scared.  Her heart was loud in her ears.

Blushing, the redhead tried to summon her courage and held out her hand.  “Let me help,” she said.

The Higashan blinked up at her.  Then gingerly, she took Elmiryn’s hand.  With a grunt, she was out of the pond on her feet.

Up close, the seven-year-old saw that the young performer’s eyes were swollen and pink.  There were also tell-tale qualities in the way her expression shifted from that of fear to reservation, the gravity with which she carried herself…the acrobat girl wasn’t Elmiryn’s age.  She was much older. (“Much”–in her child’s mind–being some two years at the least.)

The girl was even an inch taller than her–a detail revealed only in proximity.  Elmiryn became even more bashful as she stared down at the ground.  Her left thumb flexed against soft wet skin, and she became aware of the fact that she was still holding the Higashan’s hand–

“…Hanasu, chi nu hai.”

Elmiryn’s eyes raised again and was met by the Higashan’s irritated face.  “Hanasu!

Then she wrenched her hand away from the seven-year-old.  The girl gave a start, stumbling back until she’d fallen on her behind.

“Gáau ngóh!” the Higashan shrilled, stomping her foot.  She turned her face away quickly then, but Elmiryn saw her face start to crumple in that familiar way she’d seen her mother’s whenever the woman was upset.

The girl stood up, her palms throbbing and a little scratched from taking the brunt of her fall.  She wiped them on her dress to rid herself of the rocks and dirt.  “What’s the matter?” she asked.

The Higashan didn’t even look at her this time.  She just waved a dismissive hand at her.  “Cheh-cheh! Gáau ngóh!”

Elmiryn bit her lip and stared upward.  “Umm…I dunno what that means.”  Then she corrected herself, remembering what her mother had said.  “I do not know what that means.” She didn’t want the Higashan to think she was stupid.

She peered at the acrobat, her brows pressing together as she took in how the girl’s shivering had gotten worse.  The night was a cool one, but a dip in scummy pond water was certainly enough to turn the breeze into a frigid wind.

Elmiryn lightly touched the Higashan’s shoulder.  She thought of hugging the girl, as she didn’t have her shawl with her, but the acrobat shrank away from her, hissing.

The redhead let her head drop. “I’m sorry I scared you…I didn’t mean for you to fall into the pond.”  Then her eyes brightened and she looked up with a grin.

The Higashan girl, named Ting, had run away from her performance group after her mother had attacked her with a switch for not climbing the human tower faster.  But now she was lost in the labyrinth that was the Aimeri estate.  She had been certain she would receive an even harsher beating for this, but had decided that she’d rather die at Fiamman hands for trespassing than suffer the tyranny of her mother any longer.  But instead of the guards Ting had expected, this little girl had come–and how troublesome she was!  Now to add to her misfortune, she smelled like pond scum.  Why was her life so hard and miserable?

Ting heard a splash and was drawn out of her angst long enough to turn around and see Elmiryn beaming up at her, her dress soaked from top-to-bottom with smelly pond water.

The redhead plucked up a lily pad, placed it on top of her head, and croaked out, “Ribbit!

Ting didn’t know what to make of this.  At first she stared at Elmiryn as though she were a lunatic.  Then, unbidden, she started to laugh.  She kept laughing until her ribs hurt.


Warner shook his head, scowling at her.  “You’re speaking nonsense.  I never pretend.  Brianna was my wife before she was your mother.  You think she didn’t know about my plans for you?”

Elmiryn smiled slowly.

The man’s face took on a puzzled look.  “She’s weak-minded your mother.  She needed someone strong like me to guide her.  She needed me to protect her from those pirahnic fools that plague the royal court.”

The girl started to giggle, losing her fighting stance as she doubled over and leaned onto her knees.

Warner slashed the air angrily with his wooden sword.  “Insolent girl!”  He stomped forward, the weapon drawn back.  “If you wish for it, then I’ll punish you for your carelessness!”

When the man was within striking range, Elmiryn tipped her body forward and rolled off to the side.  Warner grunted as the blow he expected to connect fell through open air.  This left him off-balance for a second, and it was all Elmiryn needed to distance herself from the man.  Springing out of her roll with a newfound energy, the twelve-year-old recovered her blade from the ground and swung around into a charge.


Names were easy enough to figure out.  Both girl pointed at themselves, stating their names emphatically, and the messages were well received.  On the other hand, it took a fair bit of miming on Ting’s part to explain her situation to Elmiryn.  The redhead delighted in this round of charades, seeing it as a sort of game.  Finally she thought she had it.

“So…you were attacked by your pet monkey and was looking for food to make it less grumpy?  Is that how you got lost?”

The only thing Ting got out of this was “monkey” and “food”–both Common words she’d learned one way or another–but she suspected it was quite far from what she’d been trying to say all along.

The Higashan face-palmed and waved the answer away like it were a lingering cloud of smoke.  “Mei!  Mei!” No!  No!

Ting sighed and pointed to the southern part of the estate.  She mimed running away by jogging in place and looking fearfully over her back.  Elmiryn looked to the North, where she’d come from, and back at Ting, who was pretending to run the opposite way.

Realization dawned on her young face.  “You…you’re running away?”

Ting nodded emphatically, touching her chest and pointing to the South.  “Run!” she said, her accent making the word seem thick in her mouth.  “Ting!  Run!”

Elmiryn bit her lip.  In her mind, she saw her actions like a stack of building blocks.  First, she’d run away from Eneste, second she’d trespassed into private areas of the Aimeri estate, and third she’d ruined her expensive dress.  Would helping a foreigner run away make things any worse?

“Hey!”  Both girls gave a start as an adult voice cut through the garden.  A servant carrying a basket of cloths pointed at them.  He’d appeared from the same hall Elmiryn had.  “You’re not supposed to be here!”

Elmiryn grabbed Ting’s hand and pulled her into a run, across the pond and into the cool hallway heading South…


Warner turned around just in time to see his daughter’s face vanish within the blink of an eye.  What had really happened was the girl had dropped into a perfect split, and she jammed the tip of her sword into her father’s crotch.  The man curled in, dropping his sword as he stared at her with a purpling face.

Elmiryn smiled up at him briefly before she swept her back leg forward, hitting the back of the man’s left knee.  When he fell into a kneel, the girl thrust the edge of her sword into her father’s neck.  She pushed forward with all her body, and her father gurgled as the object pressed into his windpipe.  He slammed into the ground and stared up at his daughter, brows raised high and veins bulging.

“Mother taught me that,” she breathed, smirking. “Sometimes, you just gotta laugh.  And sometimes, you just gotta wait till the right moment to quit faking it…”

Her father said nothing for a minute.  Then his lips spread apart in an alligator’s grin.

Elmiryn straightened and clambered off her father, her face turning somber.

Warner chuckled deeply as he pushed himself onto his elbows.  “Good…very good, Elmiryn.  You finally used your head.  You’ll need that guile when you get older.”

“Are we done?” The youth pressed, her brows knitting.

Warner straightened and nodded his head once.  “We’re done.  I’ll have the servants ready your bath.”


Elmiryn didn’t know the estate any better than Ting did, honestly.  But together they managed to slip past more servants and guards.  They entered the backwoods, and here the Higashan stopped, turning to Elmiryn with a smile.

“Kam sia.  Tank-yoo, xiǎo jie Elmiryn!”  Ting gently pressed at the girl’s back and pointed back North.  “Ting go.  Elmiryn go.”  She took her hands, palms pressed together, then separated them.

Elmiryn immediately understood what the Higashan meant.  The girl looked at her, pained.  “But…aren’t you scared?”

Ting blinked at her.  “Ss-scarred?”

“No.  Scared.  Afraid.”  Elmiryn mimed biting her fingers anxiously.  “Scared!  Aren’t you?”

Ting giggled and nodded, pointing at herself.  “Yesh!  Ting, ss-scarred!”

Elmiryn pointed at herself shyly. “Elmiryn…go?  With Ting?”

The Higashan shook her head emphatically.  “Mei!  Xiǎo jie Elmiryn home!” She pointed at the ground.  “Stay!  Fiamman!”

The girl’s eyes teared up, but she sucked at her lower lip to keep it from trembling.

Ting patted her head.  “Ja, ne?”

Then they heard someone speaking, and heavy footfalls on stone.  Both girls turned to see two figures emerging from the gates that protected the main grounds.  They ducked, hearts hammering, and as the men drew closer, they heard what they said to one another.

“One of the servants said they saw two kids run out this way.  But what kid in their right mind would pull a stunt like this on Aimeri land?”

“Who knows.  But we have to check, or we could get into even more trouble for letting them get by!”

Ting turned to look at Elmiryn fearfully.  “Iya!” she breathed.  “Chi nán dù!  Bad!”

Elmiryn grabbed at the girl, and carefully, they scuttled together behind a bush.  One of the guards drew closer, and his shadowed face peered their way.

“Did you hear that?” he whispered.

Elmiryn could feel Ting trembling next to her.  She looked at the girl, her heart like a humming bird in her chest.  She blushed when she realized how close the Higashan was.  She smelled…sweet.  And her body was warm.  But the look on her face twisted Elmiryn’s guts.  She decided she wanted to make the look of fear go away.

“Ting!” Elmiryn whispered.

Ting looked at her.

Elmiryn kissed her cheek quickly, making Ting’s eyes turn wide.  The redhead’s face was burning.  “Bye!” she breathed, before bursting out of the bush and running between the surprised guard’s legs.

“Woah–hey!  You!  Wait!”  He chased after her.

Elmiryn ran back toward the main grounds, her little lungs burning.  She ran until she felt hands snatch her up from behind.


The Fiamman lamps were cold in the corners.  The bedroom was dark with the velvet curtains drawn closed.

Elmiryn stood in the doorway, her eyes on the mountain of blankets seemed to collect in the center of the vast bed.  She stepped into the room, aware that it was the first time in nearly five years.  Back then, she’d been such a small thing, with arms like noodles and a limited understanding of what it meant to have a father who was a high ranking official in the Fiamman military.  She’d worn dresses and stiff shoes, powdered her face and worn earrings.  Now she strode in pants and fresh leather boots, with a sword belt around her waist and a body that would shame even the fittest boy.

Elmiryn went to the curtains.  She stood before them, her body tensed like she were waiting for an attack from Thendril.  Her throat was tight.  Then she tore the curtains to the sides and whipped around, all smiles.

“Mother!  Rise and shine!” she cried.

The bed squeaked as Brianna startled awake, her eyes glassy but wide as she stared around.  Her hair was a veritable bird’s nest–quite a rare sight, as Elmiryn recalled her mother always being careful with her appearance.  She was always so careful with her appearance…

The newly-turned thirteen-year-old jumped onto the bed, making the woman gasp and sit bolt upright.

Elmiryn smirked at her and tilted her head to one side.  “Mama…are you happy to see me?” she asked, her voice teasing.


Elmiryn felt a little ill as she was presented to her father and mother in a private room somewhere on the estate.  Unbeknowst to her was that Warner had promised Duke Dreton a fair bit of gold and a large favor to keep the matter quiet.

Brianna was in tears.  “Elmiryn, you foolish child, what were you thinking!?  You had me so worried!”

The girl looked down at her ruined shoes, scuffed and stained with dirt.  “I’m sorry…”

“Just wait until we’re home, young lady,” Warner seethed, his face purple as he glared down at her.

The girl hunched her shoulders around her ears.  Brianna moved to hug the girl, but her husband stopped her, his eyes flashing.

“We’re going home.  Now!” he snapped.

And sure enough, they were home within the hour–the carriage driver pushing the horses at Warner’s order.  Once there, the girl was denied supper, and instead, was sent to take a bath.

After her attendant’s had scrubbed her skin pink and the last of the pond scum was gone from her hair, Elmiryn emerged from the bath wrapped in a small robe.  Her attendant led her into the hallway, and there, the girl heard her parents arguing in their bedroom down the way.

“Warner, please don’t do this!”

“Brianna, the matter is settled.  I’ve decided that the girl leaves tomorrow.  She’s shown the final signs.”

“It wasn’t a sign, it was childish antics–nothing more!”

“No noble child in her right mind would have done as she has.  This isn’t the typical youthful rebellion.”

As Elmiryn was led to her room, she pulled at her attendant’s hand, slowing their progress.  She stared, wide-eyed at the bedroom doors, and saw her father’s figure flit past the narrow opening before her mother stopped into view.  She was red in the face and looking frantic.  The attendant tugged at her arm, whispering that the girl had to follow, but Elmiryn only wrenched away and ran to the doorway, her slippers smacking over the polished floor.  She slid into a crouch outside her parents bedroom, the light that filtered through the door crack like a line dividing her down the middle.

“You base so much off the word of a seer,” her mother shrilled,  “What of me!?  Her mother?  Your wife.  Don’t I have a say in this destiny you keep going on about!?”

“I will not argue this further.  I’ve already sent a messenger to Thendril.”


No response from her father.  Elmiryn felt a sense of dread pool into her stomach as the attendant caught up with her and dragged her back to her room by the robes.

Warner!” she heard her mother scream.

The next morning, Elmiryn was sent away to begin her private training as a warrior.  She cried for a full year before she remembered how to pretend.  It took another year before she remembered how to smile.  And once she did, it seemed hard not to laugh.  And when she started to laugh, it was especially hard to stop.

“One must always find a reason to laugh.  It can get you through the toughest of times, because you appreciate life, even at its thorniest.”


Brianna stared at her daughter, mouth agape.  The five years had not been kind to her.  She seemed so much older now, with gray hairs appearing at the roots and faint lines around the eyes and mouth.  Her skin no longer seemed so radiant, and even her bosom seemed to yield to gravity.

The woman’s lips twitched.  Then her face flashed into a wide smile, showing all teeth.  “My sweetest Elle!  You’re home!”

Elmiryn mirrored the expression.  She couldn’t resist a smart response, however. “Oh, we’re home?  I thought father had tricked me into walking into a dungeon.”

For all her combat training, Elmiryn hardly expected the sharp whap on the forehead from her mother.  She also received a strong hug afterward, and she stared at the paneled wall across the room.  She grinned, but her eyes watered, even as she tried to keep herself from choking up.

“Elmiryn you’re incorrigible…” Brianna hissed.  Then she added quietly, “I missed you so much, dearest.  Really.”

Elmiryn squeezed her mother around the shoulders and closed her eyes, two tears leaking out of the corners of her eyes.  “…I missed you too, mama.  Really.”

 From the HBO miniseries ‘Angels in America’; directed by Mike Nichols; written by Tony Kushner; produced by Celia D. Costas; first aired in 2003; starring Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Patrick Wilson, Emma Thompson, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeffrey Wright, and Justin Kirk. []


Continue ReadingThe Performers

Tooth and Nail

To purchase the newly revised e-book Tooth and Nail, please click here to visit its Smashwords page! Now available in multiple formats! 

–Illise M.


No!” she shouted, scuttling back farther beneath her bed.

“My little night shard, please come out.”

“No!  No, no, no! I don’t want him to see!”

Her mother narrowed her eyes at her. “Nyx, your brother misses you.  I hardly think he’ll care if–”


Fotini hissed, a sharp and long sound from the back of her throat.  The young girl squeaked, trying to press harder back into the wall as though it could swallow her into safety.  She bumped her head on the bed in her struggles, and her eyes immediately teared.  Nyx, seven-years-old, covered her head and started to cry, her wails audible even as she tried to smother the sound.  A hand grabbed her by the ankle and she was pulled out from under the bed with one strong tug.

A sigh.  Nyx was gathered up in warmth and soft wool.  She turned her face into her mother’s bosom and clutched at her.  The soothing smell of her filled her lungs.

“My little girl.  My Nyx of the night.  Haven’t you learned yet?  Your struggles hurt you in the end.  Ehna, ehna, shhhh…let A-ma see.”  Fotini took her head and brushed back Nyx’s hair, to see the scratch at the top of her head.

Nyx sniffled.  “Is it gone yet?”

“Yes my darling.”  Fotini kissed her forehead.  “It’s gone.  It was only a scratch after all.”

Just then a small kitten came tumbling through the door way, batting at dust.  At the sight of them, it began to mewl.  Her mother let out a low growl.  “Atalo, you were to wait for us!”  Like lightning, the woman snatched out and caught the kitten by the scruff of the neck.  The kitten went limp as she picked it up and glowered at it.

Nyx snickered even as she wiped away the last of her tears.

Fotini pinched her ear and the girl squealed.  “M’sorry, m’sorry!” she cried, tears cropping up anew.

“Don’t think you’re free, Nyx.  You will run with us tonight.  All of us.  Last month you made me look the fool, disappearing like you did.”  The woman gave Nyx’s ear a tug as she was forced to her feet and led out of the room.

“I don’t know why you’re making such a fuss.” The woman went on to say.  “I, for one, think it looks lovely.”

Nyx whimpered as she was led to the kitchen by the ear.  “I look stupid!

“You do not.  You look beautiful.  There are plenty of other girls that have manes.” The woman paused, releasing the girl after guiding her into a chair. “Oh…well I suppose there aren’t any in Tosmai…” she admitted reluctantly.

“That’s because only boys have manes.  Why do I have to have one?”

Fotini sighed.  “Oh, Sweet Aelurus, this child is so tiresome!  Nyx, leave the matter alone.  At the least, I can assure you, you didn’t get the trait from me.  You must’ve gotten that from your father.”

“I’m going to shave my head,” Nyx mumbled glaring at the table.

“Enough!” The woman snapped. She started to rifle through the cupboards.  “Focus on something else.  Help me decide what’s for dinner tomorrow.”

Nyx sighed and laid her head down, gazing around the kitchen. “Huckleberry bread and white honey,” the girl said.

Fotini smiled patiently.  “That’d be good for dessert…What about dinner?

“Fried vegetables.  And…” Nyx thought for a moment. “Beef,” she said decisively.

The girl hopped up from the chair and stepped over her little brother, who’d taken to rolling on the floor.  She hefted herself up onto the counter with the aid of her mother and pointed at the brown sugar.  “I read somewhere that if you rub the raw beef with brown sugar and let it sit overnight, it tastes good.”

“Where’d you read this?” Fotini asked, frowning.

Nyx blushed.  She’d used her allowance to buy books from an elven merchant that had been coming near the village.  One of the books she’d bought was a cooking book, since her mother was always making her help in the kitchen.  “From one of my classmates,” the girl said hurriedly.

Fotini squinted her eyes in suspicion.  “It’s another one of those elf books, isn’t it?”

Nyx swallowed and bowed her head, instinctually covering her ears.

The woman helped the girl down.  “Nyx, it’s fine that you want to read.  But why can’t it be Ailuran books?  Aren’t they interesting?”

The girl frowned.  “A-pa said they lie.”

Fotini sighed and covered her face with her hand.  “Sweet Aelurus…Alvis…even now your actions haunt us…”

The mother turned and knelt down.  “Nyx, listen to me.  I can understand reading a cooking book.  Your tip was very good.  But please my little nightshard…try and appreciate our culture a bit more.  There’s nothing wrong with reading about your own people.”  The woman stood, her long dark  hair sweeping.  “Now run along and get dressed.  We leave in less than an hour…and no more fussing!


Nyx carried Atalo in her arms.  He was still in the form of a kitten.  She glowered at him.  “Why don’t you get your ears pinched?  Why is it always me?

As if answering her, her brother pressed his paw against her nose, making her look like a pig.  The girl cuffed him on the head.  “Cajeck!” she snapped.

The cat yowled at her, biting at her purple gambeson with tiny teeth.

“You two behave,” Fotini warned.  Her mother was dressed up in her finest set of clothes–a tanned leather shroud with the hood down, the hide embroidered with black silk thread.  She had on fur boots, and a beaded belt.  Her long dark hair was pulled back with an obsidian clip.

“Aren’t you going to make him shift back?” Nyx asked, still glaring at her little brother, whose drool was soaking the lapel of her gambeson.

Fotini shook her head as she grabbed her large sling bag off the hook.  “It’s far too close to Night.  Remember your lessons?  Shapeshifting too much back and forth can tax your spirit.  It’s safer if he remains as he is.”

“But I read somewhere that if he stays like this too long–”

“Nyx!” Fotini gave her a warning glare.

Nyx sighed as she followed her mother out the front door and down the steps of their daikut.  Outside, there were many people hurrying along the road, anxious and excited.  The evening seemed so electric.  Despite herself, the girl gradually came out of her sullenness.  At the main square, there was much jubilation.  Flag bearers bore the symbol of the nation high over their heads, a full moon and three tear drops falling from it.  She could smell barbecued pork and roasted nuts and felt hungry.

“A-ma, can we get a snack, please?” Nyx asked, tugging on her mother’s sleeve.

“Not now, child.  The procession comes!”  Fotini craned her head, trying to see over the crowd.  The woman gave up, looking frustrated.  “Oooh…I can’t see a thing from here!  But maybe you and Atalo can get up closer.  Just don’t go wandering too far!  I’ll be right here.”  She gave the girl a small push forward at the back.

Nyx slouched, glaring through the forest of bodies down the road leading into the central square.  Sure enough, she could see a large body of people marching toward them in the distance.  The sulk on her face faded a portion as Nyx moved to the front of the crowd.  There, many of her peers from school stood waiting.  They turned and regarded her with varying expressions–most negative.

“What’s Nyx the Nitwit doing up here?”

Nyx turned and glared at a boy nearest her.  He had dark hair flecked with brown and narrowed hazelnut eyes.  Kilen, Leander’s nephew.  He smelled like fresh cotton and dirt.  The two children stared each other down.  Meanwhile, the adults around them remained oblivious of the blossoming exchange.  People cheered as the marchers drew closer.

“Kilen, you’re an ass,” Nyx said, rolling her eyes.

The boy mimicked her voice. Then he pointed at her and jeered, “Go stick your head into a book, weirdo!  This is for true Ailurans only!”

Nyx smiled at him coolly.  “Then I’ll be sure to let your dollies know you’re coming home early!”

Kilen’s face turned pink as the children around them giggled.  He stomped his foot.  “Stop it!  If you laugh with her, then you aren’t coming to my birthday party!”  The laughter stopped.  The boy flashed his eyes at her victoriously.  “Your father was a freak and so are you!  No Ailuran girl is supposed to have a mane!” He turned to those around them.  “Come on, let’s get away from the freak.  Her evil might rub off on us.”

The children migrated, following the boy as he left to stand near his uncle Leander, who was speaking with Orestes.  Nyx sighed and watched them go with a growing sense of defeat, not even caring that Atalo had pulled the top button off her gambeson.

“Kilen’s got fleas in his brain.”

Nyx blinked and turned.  An older girl with two dark pigtails and amethyst eyes grinned at her.  Behind her stood a slouching boy with flushed cheeks, warm-honey eyes, and curly umber hair.  “Don’t listen to him, ‘kay?  Not everybody hates you.  And not everybody’s a’scared of that cajeck.”  She held out her hand.  “My name’s Taila.”

Nyx hesitated.  She’d seen Taila before around the village.  She was a very tomboyish girl and very strong headed.  She was nine?  Maybe ten?  No…twelve.  Rumor had it that she had a crush on Nyx’s older brother, but the girl didn’t trust such talk.  There was also a rumor that Taila had once tamed a wild unicorn, after all.  Nyx had read enough to know that unicorns had gone extinct more than 200 years ago.  That was just one of the many discrepancies in what was locally known as the “Taila Tales”.  But the girl didn’t like the idea of being impolite, so she moved to greet Taila in similar fashion, but then her brother took to wiggling.  She couldn’t get a hand free to shake with.  “Ah, um…”

Taila giggled and reached over to pet Atalo instead.  Nyx inhaled softly.  She picked up the scent of honey.  “This is your brother Atalo, right?  He takes the same lessons with my little sister.”  The girl pointed over her shoulder.  “And this is Ampelos.  He’s shy.”

“Hi,” Ampelos muttered, staring down at his shoes.  His scent was overpowered by Taila and those around them, even as the girl tried to catch a whiff of him.

Nyx nodded, smiling nervously.  “Um, hi!  Nice to meet you.  My name’s Nyx.”

“We know!” Taila took Ampelos’ hand and waved with her other.  “‘Kay!  We gotta go find his mother.  Talk to you later!”

The sudden departure left Nyx anxious and even more uncertain.  “Uh…”  The two children were gone, and the girl bowed her head with a sigh.  “Yeah…bye…”

She turned and was conscious of how isolated she felt.  Even the adults seemed keen on giving her space.  Nyx shifted Atalo in her arms and wiped at her eyes.  She felt her sleeve come away damp, and this detail seemed enough to send her into all out crying once more, but the people around her began to cheer.  She gave a start, damp eyes blinking away the last tears as she looked forward.

There was a great fanfare, and energetic drums.  Cymbals crashed and people clapped as the Ailuran soldiers returned from their second tour.  In this battalion was–

“Thaddeus!”  Nyx whispered, ducking a little.

Her older brother marched at the end of his row.  He had medium long hair, dark like all of her family, and it was tied back in a low ponytail.  The fourteen-year-old marched with eyes forward.

Nyx turned to find her mother approached, gently pushing to the front of the crowd.  When she was close enough to speak and be heard, the woman was out of breath.

“I saw him, A-ma!” Nyx said, pointing.

“I think I did too!” the woman said, face flushed.  She took Nyx’s hand.  “Come on, they’re going to do a speech and then the men will be released to the families!”

Nyx started to fuss with her hair, brushing it back with sweaty fingers.  “He’s going to laugh at me, I just know it!”

“Child you are so odd! Weren’t you just excited to see him?  Can’t you leave your fears and just be happy that our Thad is home?”


“Shh!” Fotini held a finger up to her lips and pulled the girl close by the shoulders.  Together, the three ventured into the gathering crowd near the central platform.  They didn’t need to wait long.  Orestes appeared to the cheers of many.  He raised a hand and smiled.

“My dear people of Tosmai.  Long have we awaited the return of our precious sons…Tonight, they come to us in good health, filled with pride for their service to our nation.  I will not keep you long, for the Eye of Aelurus is upon us as Night draws close, but hear me now, my good people.  These men have sacrificed much, and for some that price was great.  These few have returned to our glorious Mother, shrouded in honor and love.  Let us take a moment to pay our thanks to those who gave their lives so that we may stand here whole and happy tonight.”

Nyx covered Atalo’s head as she bowed her own.  Her little brother, though Changed, seemed to understand the situation enough to sit still beneath her hand.

They remained that way for one full minute before Orestes spoke again, bringing everyone out of their silent prayers.

“Thank you, and thank you to the families of those lost braves.” He gestured behind him where the soldiers had stood, waiting quietly.  “Come forward, my sons.  Your families await you!”

There was a cheer as the soldiers moved to find their beloveds.  Fotini gripped onto her daughter tightly, and Nyx couldn’t help but tighten with fear the way the crowd seemed to smother them in their haste to get by.  She turned to look behind her, feet stumbling as her mother dragged her forward.  The girl knew she could find a space free of the mad hustle if only her mother would let her go, but as she gazed past the villagers, she saw a woman staring toward the stage, tears streaming openly down her face.  She stood alone, and her gaze turned to the sky, her dark hair lifting with the breeze.  Nyx blinked and craned her head as more people came, but within the next instant her view of the woman was gone.


Nyx turned her head forward again.  Fotini hugged the girl around the shoulders, and Atalo fought in her arms to raise himself up higher to see.  The villagers parted and Thaddeus stepped forward, his broad face smiling fully.  He had tawny eyes, like she and Atalo did, but his were muddier.  But the dimples in his cheeks, his round-tipped nose, his expressive eyebrows, the messy black hair…all the same.

“Hello everyone!” was all he said.

Fotini laughed as she snatched the teenager up in a bone-crushing hug.  Atalo mewled loudly, extending a paw and struggling to push out of Nyx’s arms.  The girl just stared at her brother, shoulders hunched, eyes wide with awe.

Thaddeus was home.


The forest’s belly was full with them, it seemed.  They crossed the earth with steps that the wood and grass seemed to respond to.  As the population passed the limits of the village into the wild, guards stood watch over those passing.  The Cerrite.  They were criminal hunters, domestic guardians, and enforcers.  As it was the middle of autumn, they worse deer skins for camouflage.

Nyx stared as they passed one, and his milky eyes turned her way.  The Cerrite were specially trained both by warriors and priests alike.  This one had a stony face, smeared with charcoal.  Chosen at birth, these men’ spirits were marked with unbreakable magic that gave them unique abilities.  For instance, they could resist the Change when the full moon came.  They protected the village whilst the populace honored the Blessed Mother each month.  It required a unique strength, as the magic that made this possible could kill anyone who was too weak in spirit to bear it.  The Cerrite were both admired and feared among the community.  It was said that their divine sense of justice was so acute, that they could sense their prey even unto the future.

Nyx ducked behind her mother’s legs as they followed the crowd down the familiar path.  The trees cast shadows over them as the suns slowly pulled back the blanket of their warmth from the sky.

The feeling of being watched didn’t leave her.

There was a designated field, not far from the village.  Here families chose their respective areas for the Change.  Nyx’s family found a place still near the woods, but with a soft patch of ground and high grass.  Fotini dropped her bag with a sigh.  The woman hadn’t always made a habit of bringing a bag with her…but last year, Nyx and Atalo had thought it would be fun to play with the folded clothing whilst in their animal forms.  What resulted was half of their belongings being torn in half from tug of war, the rest being scattered around the forest in a game of chase.  The trouncing that came afterward was forever coined by Thaddeus as, “The Great Kitten Clobber.”  Nyx and Atalo didn’t think it very funny.

Fotini fussed over her eldest son, ruffling his hair in disapproval.  “You need a cut!” she sighed, shaking her head.

Thaddeus ducked away from her, his eyebrow raised.  “A-ma, please!  I’m a soldier, remember?  We don’t have much time to fuss about those sorts of things on the field.”

At the mention of the war, Fotini’s face turned tense.  “Thad, you haven’t been made to fight, have you?  You’re still just scouting, right?”

Thaddeus’ expression turned reserved as he pulled off his shirt.  His limbs were wiry now.  “We’ll talk about it later.  The moon is almost out.” He sat on the grass and proceeded to remove his boots.  As he worked, his eyes flickered to Nyx, who hadn’t budged from her position sitting in a tight ball. “Koah, you okay?”

Nyx shrugged and looked over at Atalo, who was having fun knocking over stalks of grass.  She didn’t want to Change.  She didn’t want her brother to see, and somehow, she had fixed it in her mind that if she refused to prepare for the night, then the transformation simply wouldn’t come.

Atalo came cantering over, his ears perked.  He hid behind a rock, the thing nearly completely concealing him.  He peered at her over it, his ears flattening and his eyes holding a tell-tale shine.  The girl scowled at him.  “Don’t,” she warned.

Her little brother didn’t listen.  He ducked out of sight for a moment before popping over the rock and launching at her, claws extended.  He landed on her shoulder and bit at her ear.  It was quite an impressive jump, for such a little thing, but Nyx wasn’t amused.

She snatched her brother up by the scruff of his neck, and instinctually he went limp.  She hissed at him from the back of her throat, and if she had been in her animal form, her tail would have been lashing angrily.  “I said leave me alone!”  She threw him away, literally.  Her brother skittered along the dirt in a loud yowl.

Fotini’s eyes flashed at her, and Nyx flattened herself on the ground, like a cat who’d heard a loud sound.  “Nyx!” the woman shouted, standing.  She’d already stripped off her shoes and top, leaving her only dressed in her pants.

Thaddeus was already nude.  He didn’t stand, but simply leaned over.  Nyx tried to move out of his reach, but the boy was fast and she was still flat against the ground.  He grabbed her by the back of her neck, pinning her down, and the girl couldn’t resist the relaxation that went through her body, setting her still.  Even in sapien form, the pressure point still worked.

“Koah,” he said over her.  Then he cuffed her hard over the head.  “Be nice!”

Her older brother let her go, and Nyx rolled away from him, baring her teeth.  With each passing second, animal behavior was becoming more and more natural.  Night was turning thick about them, igniting an ancient magic that none present could resist.  Some of the villagers had already shifted.

Nyx let out a spitting sound, her fingers digging into the dirt.  “I just wanna be left alone!”

Fotini went on all fours, glaring at her.  She mirrored Nyx’s bared teeth and her head bowed forward.  The girl recognized the stance.  The woman was going to rush forward and topple her.

“Nyx, if you don’t stop this–”

No!”  but the sound was choked.  Anxiety was bringing about a premature Change.  Nyx let out a cry of pain and curled in on herself.

She heard movement through the grass and lifted her head enough to see Thaddeus and her mother at either side before her.  Their eyes had gone cat, and their teeth were changing to fangs.  Nyx watched, shuddering as she saw their features change smoothly.

“My little nightshard, stop fighting it.  Don’t you see your struggles hurt you in the end?” Fotini breathed gently.

Nyx looked anxiously at Thaddeus.  “B-But I don’t want him to see!”  Her eyes teared up and her face crumpled.  She ducked her head, her body shuddering as she fought to keep her form.  “I look like a freak!” she choked through sobs.

Nyx hugged herself tightly and looked at her brother, pained.  “I missed you!”  she tried to speak, even as the pain grew worse.  “I jes’ wanted–you to–to–think I was–growing into a good girl!” the girl wailed, pressing her forehead to the ground as he hugged herself tighter.  She was trying to keep her ribs from expanding.  “But I’m wrong! And everyone hates me ’cause of it!”

Thaddeus bopped her lightly on the head.  The girl looked up at him in confusion, tears streaming from her eyes.

Her brother smiled at her, just as Atalo came around him, eyes peering curiously.  “Cajeck,” he murmured, ruffling her hair.  “I’m just happy to see you!”

Nyx swallowed hard.  “You…mean it?”

Thaddeus nodded, and together she and Fotini made the girl sit up.  Their faces had gone cat.

“You see, child?” Fotini said gently as she peeled away Nyx’s gambeson.

Thaddeus pulled her legs forward and pulled off her boots.  His fingers had claws.

“Go on, Koah,” Thaddeus said with a smile.  “Stop fighting it, and let the Change happen.  We’ll be with you in a second.”

Nyx didn’t need telling twice.  She relaxed her body, and gasped as she felt the transformation hit her in a rush.  Her mother held her around the torso and guided her back to the ground as the girl’s body seized up, bones and muscles shifting.  The process was faster this time around, as though a great dam had burst.  It felt…euphoric, and the girl sighed as she felt herself fall into a place that was cool and safe…

Then she opened Her eyes.


[Thaddeus immediately started laughing.  As she kicked away the dead skin of her Other Self–those “pants”.] “Wow! Nyx has a mane!  Is that what she was fussing about all this time!?”

“Thad, your sister has been agonizing over this for ages.  Please don’t confirm her fears!”

“Okay…but I mean…” [and here he snickered.] “Wow.”

[Funny words.  Sapien words.  Words didn’t mean much to Her like this, though somewhere, far away, she thought she could remember some sort of meaning to them.]

[The cat raised herself up and shook her fur out.  The dark tresses fell into her eyes and she gave her head another shake.  Atalo mewled at her, and she answered him.  She was larger than her brother by at least a few pounds and stood an inch and a half taller than him, but when compared to Thaddeus or her mother, she still looked so small.  The girl’s nose flared, taking in the unique scent of her family.  She felt safe.]

[Without much preamble, she pounced on Atalo.  It was time to get him back for all his pestering.  The two wrestled in the dirt as the rest of their family shapeshifted near them.]

[Then the mother raised her head, and she looked right, and Nyx raised herself from her play long enough to meow at her.  Fotini padded near and with mouth slightly parted so that the tips of her canines showed, let out a huff of breath that caressed the kitten’s face, startling the locks of her mane.  This was the silent way of saying hello.  Nyx butted her head beneath her mother’s chin purring.  Atalo pounced on her from behind, gnawing on her hide.  She turned and batted at him with her paw.]

[A shadow fell over her.  The cat turned to see her eldest brother, nearly as big as her mother and with a mane of his own, gazing down at her.  He gave the customary greeting before he buried his face in her neck.  Her spine curved, but her muscles tensed.  She recalled another group of cats her age attacking her and pulling her by the mane once.  Kilin and his companions.  This memory brought up hazy recollections of embarrassment and fear of judgment.  But this was family–he wouldn’t harm her.  Right?]

[Thaddeus let out a sharp snort, growling as he withdrew.  Then with his great paw, he pushed Nyx down by the back.  The kitten hissed, ears drawing back at this physicality.  But what came next startled her.]

[Her older brother started to groom her.  His tongue swept over her mane, which in truth, was messier than his.]

[Atalo sat before her, a curiously sapien expression of smugness on his furry face as he watched his sister mewl in protest.  This didn’t last.  Within the next instant, the younger kitten was caught by his mother, and both Nyx and Atalo glowered at their paws as their elders groomed them.]

[This done, the family played in the grass.  Fotini played chase with her litter, her graceful form loping through the field.  They greeted other families, reacquainting themselves with their individual scents.  As Fotini became intimate with a young tom, her children drifted a bit in boredom.  Some of the other kittens, playing nearby, started to chase Nyx, hissing and yowling.  Atalo tried to defend her only to find himself easily knocked aside.]

[Nyx found herself buried beneath three others, whose bites and scratches were rougher than necessary.  She hissed and tried to swat them away, but their eyes peered at her like she were a mouse in the corner.  She recognized one by the smell of cotton on his skin, and she locked her tawny eyes onto his hazelnut ones.]

[Then Thaddeus stood before her and roared.]

[The kittens startled back, slinking low to the ground as they scuttled away through the tall grass.]

[Nyx purred her thanks, rubbing her body along the length of his leg.]

[The rest of the evening was spent running in the nearby forest and over the field.  They hunted squirrels and gophers.  Nyx managed to catch one of the latter and she devoured it happily.]

[The night ended with the family sleeping in a close huddle, back where they had originally Changed.]


The soldiers were to return to war in three weeks time.  Until then, Thaddeus was once more a part of the household.  He told funny war stories that delighted Nyx and Atalo, but made her mother stiff and anxious.  The creaks and squeaks of the house were fixed by the teenager with a new set of tools.  As he was older now, he’d even decided to give his siblings some of his old toys and books (…actually, just the latter to Nyx, who was practically dancing around the house–she wasn’t allowed into Thaddeus’ room while he was away and so receiving his books felt like winning at a raffle).  Nyx wasn’t beat up at all in the week as her brother scared away her tormentors by his presence alone.

…There were not so good times too.  One night, Nyx awoke to Fotini and Thaddeus arguing in the kitchen.  She’d sneaked out into the short hallway and peered with wide eyes as Thad demanded to know who the “lecher” was that her mother had been seeing every other night after “the little ones had fallen asleep.”

“Don’t you care about A-pa at all!?” he’d hissed, his hand a fist on the counter. “What if he comes back?  What if he–”

Fotini’s face was pink and she stood from the chair she’d been sitting on. “Child, you talk of things you don’t understand!”

“I’m a man now.  I provide for this family, I think I have a right to–”

“You are still my son, Thaddeus.  Your father has vanished, and let’s face it, he wasn’t around that much to begin with!  He was too busy chasing his ideals, his dreams–”

“Weren’t you the same way once!?”

“His talk fascinated me, and his passion inspired me–but I never lost sight of what was important.  My family!”  The woman stared down her son, and the boy looked away after a moment.  The animal in them was always present, and to stare too long into the eyes of another was considered a challenge.  Thaddeus may have become a man, but he still relented when it came to his mother.

“I have always cared for my family, Thad,” Fotini said quietly.

The boy laughed harshly.  “Really, A-ma?  If you’re so certain that A-pa is never coming back, then atleast find a partner that provides for you.”  The boy slammed his fist into the counter. “I hate the thought that I risk my life for this nation, for my family, only to find out that some boy pretending to be a man comes and reaps the benefits!  The gold I earn is only for you, Nyx, and Atalo!  Not some lecher that vanishes with the suns rising!”

“You cannot shame me on this, Thad.  I may not be the best mother, but I try.  I’m…I feel so alone.  I miss Alvis, truly.  You’re old enough to understand this, yes?  Can’t you be more compassionate for your A-ma?  Whereas other wives have a husband who supports them, I have no one.  You tell me to find someone who will provide?  With more of our men going to war, none are left to stay with the poor abandoned Fotini and her strange, wild children.  I have no one…”  The woman’s last words became thick, and she turned away, covering her face.

The boy bowed his head and rubbed the back of his neck. “You have me, A-ma…”

Nyx blinked away tears, and trying to keep her sniffles silent, she crept back to her room.

You have me too, A-ma…


Market day.  Atalo carried the list that Fotini had written up, while Nyx carried the basket.  She didn’t want to carry the basket, but after the full moon, she’d been trying her hardest to behave extra good because she felt bad about how much of a fuss she’d made.  Thaddeus, meanwhile, did the haggling.

“How much for the corn, sir?” he asked a merchant.  He glanced down at Atalo, “Hey, A-ma wanted corn, right?”

“Yes, Koen!” he said, excited that he was in some way a part of the process.

Nyx resisted the urge to yawn.

“One silver each,” the merchant said.

The girl frowned, coming out of her dull stupor.  She knew for a fact that Fotini purchased corn from this man at three copper.

“Okay,” Thaddeus said, picking up the corn off the top.  He didn’t even bother to inspect them closely.

Nyx couldn’t help it.  She tugged on his sleeve.  “Koen…” she breathed, glaring at the merchant, who stared back at her.

“Not now, Nyx,” the boy said, squinting at an ear of corn that was clearly lacking in kernels, but he added it to the basket anyway.

Nyx gazed at him as though he were an idiot.  “Thad.”

“Those don’t look good…” Atalo said, scrunching up his nose.

Thaddeus shrugged.  “What’s the big deal?  You guys are just kids, relax and let me handle things.”

Nyx crossed her arms and pouted.  “I did this by myself for a year and I’ve done better than you have in an hour!

“Yeah!” Atalo cried, crumpling A-ma’s paper by accident.  The boy disliked being left out.

The teenager sighed and glared at his two younger siblings.  “Hey, who’s the oldest here?  Raise your hand.”  Nyx and Atalo exchanged looks as Thaddeus raised his hand, which held another funny-looking ear of corn.  “Okay…who did A-ma ask to get the vegetables?  Raise your hand.”  He lowered his hand only to raise it again.

Nyx sucked at her teeth and looked at Atalo.  “Who’s got half a brain?  Raise your hand,” she said whilst nudging her little brother.  Both children raised their hand and glared at their elder.  Actually, Atalo raised two.

Thaddeus turned red in the face, gripping the ear of corn like it were a rock he was preparing to throw.

“These are no good!  They’re shriveled and stuff.  And you’re paying too much!” Nyx explained fast, her courage failing at her brother’s expression.

“Those are excellent ears of corn.  I don’t sell bad food!” the merchant snapped, rising from his seat.

“Nyx, you’ve insulted the man,” Thaddeus said, narrowing his eyes.  “Apologize.”

Nyx scowled.  “But he’s a liar.  A-ma paid three copper for the corn last time, not a silver piece each!

Thaddeus turned and fixed the man with a stare.  “Is this true?”

The merchant faltered.  It was one thing to shout down a seven-year-old.  Quite a different thing to shout at a recently returned soldier.  He’d be vilified forever, and there were customers watching.

He held up his hands, like a man who’d just been assualted with tears and sob stories.  “Okay!  Okay! I’ll give you these for five copper each.”

Thaddeus grabbed him by the front of his shirt and jabbed the tip of the ear of corn under the merchant’s chin.  “Make it one,” he hissed.

The merchant nodded, though it looked more like he were trembling.  “One copper each is good!  Very good!”

Thaddeus let the man go, glaring for a second more just to drive the point home.  Then he turned to Nyx.  He grinned, the expression a mixture of embarassment, gratitude, and apology.  “Go on, Koah.  Pick the best you see!”

Nyx smiled, thrusting the basket into his hands.  “Hold this!” she giggled.


Night time.  New moon.

Thaddeus peeked his head into Nyx’s bedroom.

“Koah,” he breathed.  “Are you ready?”

Nyx sprang upright in her bed, fully dressed.  “Yes!” she whispered as she slid to the floor.

Her brother pressed a finger to her lips and gestured for the girl to follow him.  As she went into the hallway, she saw Atalo leaning against the wall, his eyes slipping shut.  The boy wasn’t used to staying up this late.  Quite frankly, neither was she, but she’d been so excited she could hardly wait.  She went to her little brother and took him gently by the shoulders.

“C’mon, Atalo!” she said quietly.

Together the three siblings backpedaled, eyes on their mother’s doorway at the end of the hall.  Thaddeus took exaggerated steps, as though he were tiptoeing over giant barrels.  Nyx and Atalo tried to keep from giggling too loud as they mimicked him.  Within a few seconds, they were in the cool night air and dashing through the sleeping village, laughter still caught in their throats like a bird in a net.

They entered the forest.

There, Thaddeus led them at a carefuller pace, his eyes scanning the trees for dangers.  An owl hooted not far away.  The teenager stopped, holding out a hand to his siblings.  Then he cupped his hands and returned the call.

Then another teenage boy appeared, out from behind a poplar.  Nyx couldn’t make out his features.  With the new moon upon them, even their therian eyes struggled in the dark of the forest.  What the girl could make out was that he had puffy, dark hair and was dressed much lighter than any of them.

“Myrk!” Thaddeus cried jubilantly, holding out a hand.  The boy approached and shook it, then he looked at Nyx and Atalo, who huddled together at his attention.

The boy crouched down slowly and held out a hand to Nyx.  “Hello, Nyx.  Thaddeus has told me alot about you!  My name’s Myrk.”

Nyx blinked and took the teenager’s hand.  Her hand was swallowed in his rough grip, but he shook her arm gently.  “Nice to meet you.”

The teenager nodded, then turned to Atalo next.  He thumped his chest and he gave a shadowy smile.  “And the mighty Atalo, we meet at last!” He put out his hand and the boy shook it eagerly.

As Myrk straightened, Thaddeus clapped him on the shoulder.  “Myrk comes from the capital!  We met when our battalions unified in a charge against the Fiamman army!”

Nyx looked at her brother, the shy smile on her face falling away.  “Wait!  You said you didn’t fight while you were away!”

Thaddeus faltered, looking at the ground.  Myrk glanced at him with a somber face.

“Thad?  You…lied to A-ma?”  Nyx bunched the end of her smock, her eyes turning wide.

The older brother shook his head.  “I never said I didn’t fight.” Then he turned and stalked forward, leaving Myrk with the two children.

The teenager cleared his throat.  “Ah…” he jerked his head.  “Come on, you two, let’s get going!”

Together the four traveled until they came to Ebon Lake.

Nyx exhaled softly, feeling her breath like it were an extension of herself in the night.  But it would be a while longer before the true cold descended, and all warmth turned to chill in the world.  She rubbed at her arms, shivering in the wind, but smiled as she saw Atalo run forward, yelling after Thaddeus, who had proceeded to take off his clothes.

When her older brother had invited her along on the night time adventure, she’d turn down the opportunity for a swim, preferring simply to be in the company of her siblings.  Myrk, she was happy to find, was rather amiable and easy to be around.  He laughed and talked casually, like he’d been acquainted with them all since birth.  The girl looked skyward, and her smile waned as she took note of the starry sky.


The girl’s eyes snapped forward, and she saw that Thaddeus was calling her over.  He was down to just his underpants, his wrists pinned beneath his underarms as he hunched in the face of the cold.  Atalo had stripped down too and was hopping up and down, beating his bare chest like an ape.

“Koah, come on!  Swim!”

She shook her head mutely, sitting on the ground as if to illustrate that she could not be persuaded.

Thaddeus gave her an exasperated smile, then turned to Myrk.  “She gets like this sometimes, especially around new people,” he explained in a low voice.

“She doesn’t like the water?” Myrk asked.  Then without waiting for an answer, he turned and shouted the question to her.  “You don’t like the water?”

“Nyx loves the water,” Thaddeus said, smirking.

“Once our A-ma thought that Nyx had died!” Atalo chirped, leaping in front of Myrk.

“She had swum to the bottom of the lake and decided to see how long she could hold her breath,” Thaddeus elaborated with a laugh.

“How long was she under for?” Myrk asked.

“Two minutes!” Nyx called, unable to contain her pride.

The teenager laughed and clapped.  “By the gods, that’s pretty good!”

The girl drew up her legs and smiled into her knees.

Thaddeus smacked Myrk’s arm.  “Hey, let’s hurry up and jump in, before it gets any colder.”


The boys counted to three, then sprinted into the water, screaming.  Atalo made it as far as his ankles before he turned around and sprinted back the way he’d come, shivering.  He crashed down next to Nyx, or rather into her, his teeth chattering loudly.

“It’s too cold!” he whined.

Nyx hugged him around the shoulders with a lopsided smile.  “Cajeck…you don’t need to pretend to be a tough guy just because Thaddeus is here.  You’ll be big and strong someday too!”

The girl helped her little brother back into his clothes.  Then the two entertained themselves by making grass boats and seeing which sailed out the farthest.  Nyx’s beat Atalo’s two times in a row, and the boy was frustrated to tears.  Feeling bad for him, the girl secretly punched a hole in her leaf, and when they raced again, hers sank after floating out no more than an inch on the water.  Atalo screamed and jumped wildly at his “victory”.

Finally, after the siblings cheered their brother on in a water wrestling match against Myrk (their brother won) the four decided it was time to head home.  Nyx and Atalo sat together while the teenagers dressed, and the girl could hardly keep her eyes open.  When she decided she’d just close them for “a second”, Thaddeus was already shaking her awake, fully clothed and his hair dripping.

“Come on Koah, I’ll carry you home.”  Then Thaddeus gathered her up in his arms, and this was the last thing the girl remembered before she awoke in her bed the next morning.


Nyx ran as fast as she could.  It was the last day of the month, and Marq, the elf merchant, was sure to be at the outskirts of town.

She’d saved and saved since his last visit, and now had a hundred copper, worth exactly one silver coin.  It wasn’t enough for a large book, but a slim volume perhaps.  Or maybe a strange trinket, like the ball and chain that whistled through the air when she spun it.  (Her mother had asked what she was doing with that “tea strainer”–but the girl was certain it was far more special than that.  It looked too interesting.)

Out of breath and pink-faced, the girl came to a slow stop just past the border flags that marked the village’s perimeter.  She looked right, then left.

“Marq?” she said.

“Over here!” A voice said in Common.

The girl turned and her face split into a grin as she saw an elf emerge from the shade of the local grain shed.  He was a tall elven man with short, pale lilac hair, dressed in a worn out poncho, beige canvas pants, and leather shoes.  His ears were two inches long at the tips and pointy.  He had a soft cleft chin, short slashes for eyebrows, and a pinched nose.  He grinned lopsidedly.

“Hullo there, kitten!” he chirped.  He gestured for her to come near, and the girl did so with a skip.

“Why are you hiding?” she asked, her words stiff and over-enunciated as she struggled with the sounds.  She was still working on getting rid of her accent.

“Oh, uh…” the man grinned, looking embarrassed.  “There’s some people…who really want what I have.”  He turned to pick up his large bag, and the girl thought she heard the man mutter something about “thugs” and “gold”.

Opening the flap, he knelt down and pulled out some books.  “Yer lookin’ for more books, eh?  Here I have some new ones that should be easy for ya to read!  By the by, did I tell ya your Common has improved a bunch since we last saw each other?  Yer gettin’ better every time I see you, kitten!”

Nyx beamed and leaned over to examine the titles.

The Life and Times of Edmund the Eerie; Alchemy in Daily Life; So You Want To Be A Demon Hunter?; Bauble Art and You; Arcane Couture – Magical Fashion for Magical People; Penelope’s Guide to Cherry Popping, etc….

The girl reached for Penelope’s Guide to Cherry Popping, her thought being, “I like cherries!”

When Marq saw what she was going for however, he let out a sound akin to a dog being turned inside out.  “Aaaa-ah’m sorry little one!” he smoothly swiped the book away, tucking it deep within his bag.  His face had gotten sweaty and he tugged at his ear hard.  “That…that book isn’t quite for you.”

“Is hard read?” Nyx said, frowning in disappointment.

“Let’s jes’ say…that it’d be hard for me, for you, for ever’one with half a’ ounce of moral grain ta read…” Marq said, his voice cracking a little.

The girl gave him a weird look.

Aware that the man was just trying to change the subject, the youth was a hard sell on Marq’s suggestion in place of Penelope’s Guide.  With long slim fingers, he picked up Alchemy in Daily Life and handed it to her.  It was a small book with barely over a hundred pages.  Each page seemed to consist of a short recipe for various potions.  It would be easy to hide, as she didn’t have a bag to put the book in–and she was certain her mother wouldn’t approve of her having it.  Thaddeus even less.

“This is a good book!” Then Marq seemed to think about it.  Then he added, “Good so long as you’re good.  Yer good, right kitten?  You won’t use it fer anything bad will ya?”  His brows crashed together.  “Please tell me ya won’t.  I don’t need anyone else trying ta kill me!”

The girl glanced off to the side.  Then she looked back at the elf.  “Ah…No?”

The man seemed to think about it.  Then he shrugged.  “Alright!  That’s fifty copper!”

Nyx frowned shrewdly at him.  “Thirtyfive!  Three-Five!”

Marq tutted.  “Come now, you just got a good deal!”

“Fine.” The girl stood up and made as if to go.

“Hold on, lil’ one!”

Nyx smiled slowly and turned around.  “Yes, Marq?” she asked, voice full of honey.

The elf glowered at her as he held out the book and an open hand.  “Yer gettin’ far too crafty for your own good, kid.  I’ll sell it to ya for forty, and not a coin less!”

The girl thought about it a moment, then nodded.  “M’kay!”

She fished the coin bag out and counted forty copper pieces into the elf’s narrow palm.  He handed her the book and gestured at the rest.

“No more for this month?” he asked.

She shook her head, then gave the man a wave.  “Bye, Marq!”

The man chuckled.  “Yeah…bye kitten!”

Nyx walked back the way she’d come, calmer now.  She flipped through the pages as she walked.  Not all the words she understood, but her father had left her a large tome which he’d once used to translate Common into Ailuran.  She read from it every day.

One recipe caught her eye.

“One batreng tooth, pinch of floor dust, one therian nail, pinch of sea salt…”  The girl’s eyes brightened.  “I have all these!” she held up her hand and giggled.  “I even have five of one of them!”

“Oh really?  I have five of those too.”  Kilen’s voice.

Nyx looked up just in time to see his fist fly into her face.  The girl fell onto her rear, blood splattering the page of her book.  Leander’s nephew stood over her, smirking.  Behind him were two other boys, nameless in Nyx’s mind, but whom she recognized as members of Kilen’s gang of friends.  They were in a less traveled part of the village, where spare parts for building repairs were kept.  Nyx liked to cut through here, to save time and avoid trouble.  But it seemed her secrete route was finally discovered.

The boy snatched the book from her hands, smacking her hard in the forehead with its spine.  “Nyx the Nitwit, at it again!”  the children laughed.

Nyx glared up at him, even as tears clouded her eyes.  “Kilen that’s mine, I paid for it!”

“From that shady elf that gets chased away every month?  You’re pathetic!”  He kicked her in the leg, hard.

The girl cried, eyes closing in pain.  She heard ripping.  Then through her tears and the glare of the suns, she saw Kilen tearing out page after page…

“No!” she screamed, her heart wrenching as she launched at the boy.  His cronies intercepted her, both tall for their age, and shoved her back down.  But the girl saw movement in the corner of her eye.

In the next instant, a piece of lumber sailed over Nyx and hit both boys in the chest.  Both stumbled back, knocking into Kilen.  The assailant…?

Nyx stared agape as Taila, holding the wood like it were a sports bat, hissed at the three younger children.  Kilen glared at her, daring to take one step forward.  “Taila, go away!  This is none of your business!”

“Shut up, runt, or I’ll knock your face in!  Both my mother and my father fought for the army, so don’t think I can’t kick your ass!” the girl snarled.

Kilen didn’t need much more than that.  He was one of the many believers of the Taila Tales.  Dropping the book, he turned and ran, his friends quickly following him.

Nyx flinched as Taila turned her fierce gaze on the girl.  She decided the girl was scary…and sort’ve…


“Cajeck,” the older girl said.  She held out a hand.  “Have you got fleas in your brain?”

Nyx took Taila’s hand, and with more pull than was necessary, Nyx was on her feet.  She turned her head and saw that Ampelos was nearby, trembling, draped in towels as though he’d used them for hiding.

“Don’t come this way anymore,” Taila said, jabbing a finger into Nyx’s shoulder.  “Your brother can’t keep you safe all the time!  It was just luck that we ran into you at all!”

Nyx bowed her head.  “Sorry,” she mumbled.  Blood still dripped from her mouth.  She glanced at her shirt, then groaned.  Some of her blood had stained the fabric, and she was certain to be quizzed about it once she returned home.


The girl blinked as a short-sleeved shirt, a little sweaty, but still smelling of honey, was thrust under nose.  She looked up and her face flared to see that Taila was shirtless.  Ampelos quickly threw a towel at her, making a dry, panicked sound, but Taila didn’t even look at him.  As she wrapped herself with the towel, she nodded at Nyx’s shirt.  “Go on!  You’ve got blood all over that one.”

Nyx blushed.  “But…”

Taila raised an eyebrow at her.

Mutely, the girl did as she was told.  When she was done, Ampelos was holding her book out to her, the torn pages stacked ontop.

“H-Here,” he said, head ducked.  “I think I got all of ’em…”

Nyx’s face crumpled as she saw the book.  She hid her face behind it to try and hide the tears that fell.

Then without warning, she felt someone hug her.  The girl looked up with a start to see Taila looking down at her sadly, her breath a warm flutter over her forehead.  “Don’t worry, Nyx.  We’ll get back at them.  I promise!” the girl said.

Nyx seized up, feeling her skin grow hot. “But I…I don’t–”

“You have to fight back!” the girl said, giving Nyx a shake.  “You can’t let them just get away with this.  It isn’t fair!

Nyx sniffled, her brows pressing together.  Taila was something of an outsider herself.  Her family was poor, and scraped by through honey farming.  It was true that both parents had served in the Ailuran military, and she seemed to recall Thaddeus mentioning that it was Taila’s parents that had backed up their father when speaking at the village council meetings.

But the girl saw a vast difference in herself and Taila.  While the older girl had managed a level of respect through her extraordinary reputation as a strong and capable person; Nyx, on the other hand, was considered a freak and a subverter waiting to happen.

Taila stepped back and grabbed Ampelos, who turned redder by the second.  “Look, why don’t you come with us for a swim at Ebon Lake?  Maybe you’ll feel better then?”

“I have to get home.  My mother’s waiting for me.”  Nyx found herself sorry to say this.

Taila shrugged one shoulder.  “Then next week!”  This was a statement, not a question.

Nyx scratched her head and smiled.  “Um…okay!”

“‘Kay, bye!” and the older girl strode away, Ampelos close behind.

“Bye,” Nyx breathed, waving.  She glanced at her bloody shirt, then tossed it away.  If she were lucky, her mother wouldn’t notice she was wearing a shirt two sizes too big…


“Why are you wearing a shirt two sizes too big?” Fotini demanded, her body blocking the hallway leading to Nyx’s room like she were some sort of gate keeper.  Atalo peered at his sister from between her legs, eyes curious.

Nyx slouched before her mother, feeling on the verge of tears again.  “I…was attacked…again…” the girl bowed her head.  “Kilen.  It was Kilen.”

Fotini growled, her fingers curling like claws.  “That’s it, I’m speaking to his parents now!”

When Nyx had come home, Fotini had been handling a situation with Atalo, who seemed to think butter was excellent lubricant to make his toy carts go faster.  Thaddeus had followed the girl in after fixing a squeaky window in Fotini’s room from outside.  Now everyone gathered in the kitchen for what seemed to be yet another episode of family drama.

Fotini grabbed her cloak from the hook on the far wall.  “That boy is always picking on you!  I’ve spoken to Leander, but it seems these people need someone to make them care–”

Wait A-ma.”  Thaddeus blocked her way.  He gestured at Nyx, “She has to learn how to defend herself.  You can speak to Kilen’s parents all you want–but Nyx needs to face this head on.  I mean, you said it yourself, talking it out before didn’t work.”

Fotini scowled.  “This is just a squabble between children!  It hardly requires us to draw arms!”

“Even children need to know what it means to fight.”  Thaddeus drew himself up, and he swallowed audibly.  “I did.”

The silence that fell over the room was like a hammer.  Atalo hugged Nyx around the waist, trembling a little.  Nyx hugged him back, her body tense as she waited for her mother’s reaction.

“You’ve killed…?”

“You can’t say you didn’t expect this…” the teenager said slowly to his mother.  “It’s war.  I’m old enough now, and we’re losing men.  I was much more useful in battle than I ever was as a scout!”

“You’re far too young…to take lives…to risk your own…” Fotini’s voice was a shaky whisper.  From where they stood, Nyx and Atalo could see that their mother was fighting to contain her tears.  “You’re a boy.  You’re my son!”

“Who happens to be a soldier!”  Thaddeus thumped his chest with one fist.  “I’m proud to serve my nation!  I don’t want any of you falling into danger!  I’ll fight to see this won’t happen!”

This proud exclamation seemed enough to make Fotini verklempt.  Her son guided her into a chair, where the girl could now see silent tears falling.

Thaddeus pointed at Nyx, fire in his eyes.  “And I won’t let my little sister get beaten by thugs!  Koah, I’m going to teach you what I know!”

Nyx’s face tensed with apprehension.  She didn’t know if she liked this idea…

Atalo raised his hand, jumping.  “And me too!?”

Thaddeus laughed. “And you too, Koen.”


Her mother was making cake from scratch for the first time using a recipe Janus, their neighbor, had given her.  There was a taut feeling of peppiness as everyone seemed determined not to think of the coming days.  Soon Thaddeus was to return to the battlefield.  When Nyx had asked where he was going, the teenager just chuckled and said, “Far, far away, Koah.  But you don’t have to worry about that.”

Nyx chewed off her thumbnail.  She was in her room, feeling the need to be alone, and decided she felt like giving the recipe from the alchemy book a try.  She’d already raided the cupboard for the other ingredients.  The sea salt was easy.  What took more time was the tooth.  She finally found a small bag of them at the bottom shelf, behind the large jars of herbs.  She knew her brother Thaddeus had bought them a year ago because of a rumor he’d heard which said that if you snorted ground up batreng teeth and red peppers on a crescent moon, it’d make you stronger.  What’d happened instead was the boy was sent straight to the village healer.  Somehow, the bag of teeth hadn’t been tossed away.  At her mother’s inquiry, the girl had explained that she was looking for sweets, then fled.  The floor dust was easy.  She had plenty in her room alone.

Using a mortar and pestle, the girl ground up her ingredients into a fine powder.  It was harder than it looked.

“Stupid tooth…” the girl grunted, smashing the pestle into the mortar.

“Hey, Nyx,”

The girl turned to see Thaddeus in the doorway.  “Yes?” she asked nervously.

“Let that alone for a minute.  Come outside with me, I wanna show you how to throw a punch.”

“I thought A-ma said she didn’t want us doing that!?” the girl stood, gripping the pestle in both hands anxiously.

Thaddeus sighed and marched into the room.  He stooped down and grabbed the mortar.  “What is this?” he asked.

Nyx swallowed.  “Um…”

The boy held up a hand.  “Wait, if it’s something weird from those elven books, like cleaning powder or something, then I don’t want to know.”  He started to pull his sister along.  “Let’s go.”

Nyx tried to grab the mortar.  “Koen, wait!”

The teenager held it over her head.  “Forget it, Nyx!  You aren’t getting out of this!” he shoved her toward the door and set the mortar onto the table.  “Look, it’s safe here.  A-ma,” he said, turning next to their mother.  “Don’t touch this thing here, alright?”

Fotini didn’t turn around as she was busy trying to figure out the measurement for sugar from the messily scrawled recipe.  “Uhn….” she said, holding up a hand.

Nyx, surprisingly, wasn’t reassured.  “A-ma, don’t–” but she was out the door at her brother’s insistence.  Or rather, his manhandling.

The seven-year-old wondered if she could use his training to knock him in his thick head, atleast once.

“Why doesn’t anyone listen to me when they need to…?” she thought.

Two hours later, they were back inside.  Nyx sat at the kitchen table, her face sullen.  Thaddeus looked far more pleased however.  “She can punch straight now!” he announced.

Fotini pursed her lips.  “Wonderful.”

“Yeah, wonderful,” Nyx muttered.

Thaddeus thumped her on the back.  “Cheer up, Koah, you’ll get it.”

The girl glared at him, wiping sweaty bangs from her forehead.

“Cake!” Atalo came running down the hallway, barefoot.  He pulled at his mother’s dress.  “Cake, A-ma!  You said the cake’d be ready!”

Fotini sighed.  “Sweet Aelurus…” gently, she displaced her son.  “Atalo, just give me a moment will you?  A-ma is tired from stirring and figuring out Janus’ terrible handwriting.”

“Stepping over him must be pretty tiring too,” Thaddeus added with a smirk at the boy.

Nyx allowed a small grin to spread her face–but this small look of ease vanished when she saw that her mortar was empty.  She grabbed it and tipped it over, sending over a small speck of powder to the table.  “A-ma, where’s my–”

There was a muted ‘crack’.  Nyx squealed as something gunky and soft hit her in the ear and side of the face.  Thaddeus cursed, knocking his chair over.  Atalo screamed and fell to the floor, covering his head.  Fotini stared blankly at the pan she gripped with her mitts, the oven open behind her.  Her eyes slowly rolled to Nyx, and the girl slunk out of her chair to duck behind the table.  She covered her ears with her hands.

The entire kitchen was covered in…cake.

“A-ma!” she said weakly.  “I tried to tell you!  I tried to tell you and Thad both, but no one ever listens to me!”

“What was it?” her mother hissed.  She stood frozen, but her face tightened and grew pink at the cheeks.  “What book did you read this time?”

Thaddeus turned slowly and stared at her.  “Nyx…!” he seethed.  He scooped a glob of frosting from his nose.

Nyx’s voice trembled. “A-Alchemy!  Easy stuff!  It was just a powder mix to make pellets you could step on and hear them snap and crack!  For fun.  That’s it!

“Snap and crack!?” Fotini threw the pan down, where it hit the floor with a loud ‘clang’.  The woman thrust her arms out at either side of her.  “The cake exploded Nyx!”

“It…it must’ve been a’cause you b-baked it!” Nyx ducked down so that only her eyes could be seen over the table.  “Please don’t pinch my ears!

“I think you earned a little more than that…” Thaddeus growled, moving to grab her.  Nyx screamed and tried to get away.  Their struggles shoved the table over to the far wall, and there was much kicking and grabbing.

“Atalo!” Fotini cried.

Brother and sister froze–Thaddeus trying to grab a hold of Nyx around the back of the neck, and the girl on her back with her foot against his face.

Both turned to see Atalo had climbed onto the cabinet and was now reaching for the cake on the ceiling with a long wooden spoon.  He stopped and blinked at them all, his head covered with bits of frosting.

“But it’s cake,” he said with an unconcerned smile.


Luckily, Fotini had set aside a small batch of cupcakes with the extra batter she had.

At her two eldest children’s skeptic looks, the mother explained (for Atalo didn’t care either way,) “I just thought the powder was extra flour, so I dumped it into the main bowl.  I didn’t put it in this one.  It’s safe to eat, I assure you.”

She also assured Nyx and Thaddeus that if the kitchen wasn’t cleaned by morning, she’d show them both why she still wasn’t an old woman.

“Why am I doing this with you?” Thaddeus grumbled as he reached with a rag around the cabinet.  The cake had gotten everywhere.  They’d been scrubbing and wiping surfaces for the past hour while their mother and Atalo washed up.

“Because!” Nyx snapped. “Aelurus felt sorry for me.  I’m always taking the blame!”

“Why would she feel sorry for you!?” The teenager returned.

“I’m the middle child,” Nyx said simply, sweeping cake crumbs from around the stove.  “No one ever listens to me!  No one ever takes me seriously!”

Her brother stopped to give her a look.

“What?” she said crossly.  “It’s true!”

“…You really think that, Koah?”

Nyx hunched her shoulders as she swept the last of the crumbs onto the dust pan.  “Yes.  Sometimes,” she mumbled.

Thaddeus paused and looked at her.  “You’re…right, aren’t you?”

The girl did a double take as she threw the crumbs into the mop bucket near her.  “What’d you say?” she asked.

Her older brother swiped at his nose and leaned against the cabinet.  “I said you’re right.  You help alot.  You do…more than I did when I was your age.”

Nyx glanced down at the dust pan in her hand.

“I cause trouble, though,” she said sadly.  “I don’t know how not to.”  She rubbed her eye and felt her palm come away moist.  “I just want to be good.”

“Koah, you are good.”

“Then why am I so different from everyone else?” Nyx bit out.  She threw the dust pan to the floor.  “You tell me to fight, Taila tells me to fight…but what if I want to do what A-ma says?  What if I don’t want to fight back?  It always hurts worse when I do!”

“Don’t you love A-ma?” Thaddeus asked quietly.

Nyx blinked at him, startled by the question.  “Course I do!”

“And Atalo?”


“What about me?

Nyx stomped her foot. “Cajeck!  Yes, I love you all!”

“Then you don’t really want to be left alone.  But you can’t run Koah.  So fight for the things you love!”  Thaddeus touched a hand to his chest.  “I love you all, so I fight to protect us.  But while I’m away, you have to keep supporting A-ma everyday.  Help her with Atalo and the house.  It’s up to you and me, understand?”

Nyx nodded, wiping her nose on her sleeve.

Thaddeus jerked his head.  “Alright, come on.  Let’s get this done before A-ma rips off our ears.”

The girl paused, her brush hovering over the crumb covered floor.  “She’d do that?”

“Oh sure, didn’t I tell you about that time my ear grew back over a week?”

Her gut did a somersault.  “…Koen, stop it!  S’not funny!” she snapped.

He looked at her, perfectly blank faced. “Who’s laughing…?”

That night, Fotini set on her son with a wooden spoon after she found out the reason why Nyx wouldn’t stop covering her ears around her.


The final day came.

He hugged and kissed each of them, his bag of things slung over his back as all around them families said goodbye to their loved ones. He smiled, his muddy eyes winking in the sunlight.

“Bye, then,” was all he said.

And then…

Thaddeus was gone.

His room was shut up and dark.  The house seemed larger somehow, but not in the good way.  In the way that one felt as though they had too little for something that was meant to have more.  Atalo didn’t laugh, run, or scream.  Fotini didn’t care much for scolding them or taking care of the kitchen.  Nyx stared at her books but opened none of them.

The first night, both children slept with their mother.  Nyx traced circles into her mother’s stomach as she listened to her heartbeat and the grumbles of her digestive tract.  Atalo curled into a fetal position and didn’t move.

By the end of the first week, Nyx wiped her tears, rolled up her sleeves and did the dishes.  As the months passed, she did more and more.  She swept the floors and made the beds.  She helped Atalo with his lessons, and started dinner for her mother.

“Sometimes,” she said to Taila, one day at the lake. “I’m not sure if I’m good…But if I’m not good enough, I can fight for everyone else instead.  It’s easier.”

The older girl blinked her amethyst eyes at her.  Then she punched Nyx in the arm.  “I think you’ve got fleas in your brain.”  But she smiled.  “They’re good fleas.”

Nyx scrunched up her nose as Ampelos snickered on her other side. “Um.  Thanks.”

She waited for Thaddeus to come every year, and when he did, he made a point of thanking her.  “Thanks Koah, you did good while I was away.  You really helped out, A-ma says…but…” he sometimes got on her case, though.  “You saw the gods damned elf again!?  What did I say about him?  He’s no good!”

…Then one year, Thaddeus didn’t come back at all.

His room was shut up and dark.  The house seemed larger somehow, but not in the good way.  In the way that one felt as though they had too little for something that was meant to have more.  Atalo didn’t laugh, run, or scream.  Fotini didn’t care much for…anything it seemed.  Nyx stared at her books but opened none of them.

The first night, both children slept with their mother.  Nyx, fourteen years old, stared at the ceiling as her mother laid her head on her chest and traced circles into her stomach.  The girl felt her tears, cool and damp on her skin.  Atalo curled into a fetal position and didn’t move.

By the end of the first month, Nyx wiped her tears.  She rolled up her sleeves and did the dishes, swept the floors, made the beds, helped Atalo with his lessons, and made dinner for her family.  She fixed the creaks and squeaks of the house with the old tools they had.  She made trips to the market, sometimes with Atalo, but never with her mother.  She turned down the opportunity to join a traveling scholar’s company, and instead tried to find work in the village.

She kissed her mother’s forehead one night when the woman had awoken in hysterics.

“A-ma,” she whispered to a sleeping Fotini. “Sometimes, I’m not sure if I’m good…but I can fight for you.  You have me…”

Continue ReadingTooth and Nail

The Lizard’s Toll

“Oh, Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the winds
Whose breath gives life to the world, hear me
I come to you as one of your many children
I am small and weak
I need your strength and wisdom

May I walk in beauty
Make my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset.
Make my hands respect the things you have made
And my ears sharp to your voice.
Make me wise so that I may know the things you have taught your children.

The lessons you have written in every leaf and rock
Make me strong——–!
Not to be superior to my brothers, but to fight my greatest enemy….myself

Make me ever ready to come to you with straight eyes,
So that when life fades as the fading sunset,
May my spirit come to you without shame.”

— A Sioux prayer translated by Chief Yellow Lark – 1887


Heavy was the world upon her.

The wind muttered something, whisking away her reservations as she garnered a scent reminiscent to freedom.  Fingertips spread, head tilted back, tongue parched–she let out a breath and asked the universe to take what it would of her.  The sunlight lanced into her sensitive eyes and she closed them, seeing their warmth through her eyelids.

It was late afternoon.  Winter had passed, as did Spring.  Summer had just started.

She could see that the northern hills tended shadows amidst their parsed greenery.  But her surroundings were cold and grey, the environment not harboring darkness but being the essence of darkness itself–undivided, unconquered, and stifling.  The Kreut Forest drew harsh divides between the thriving life of the northern lands and its black corruption.

Nyx had just risen from sleep.  She’d crawled out of the den she’d found to answer some of the baser calls to life…but her intention was lost as she became aware of herself.  The creaks of the dead oaks and elms were like accusations.  Her thoughts turned to her past and the decisions she’d made.  The long and twisted road that had led her to this accursed place.  How misguided she had been!  How short-sighted!  She should’ve known the true cost of her actions.  It wasn’t wealth, or comfort, or even honor that had been at stake…

What tethers did she have now, without her family?

Nyx sucked in breath, aware that she’d stopped breathing.  She registered the burn in her lungs and the ache along her throat, as though she’d been running for ages.  It certainly seemed that way.

The girl, feeling the bite of the earth as she rocked forward onto her knees, slammed the edges of her fists into the soil and screamed with all her might.

The sound echoed from the dark reaches of the forest, over the rippling emerald hills, and across the vast valley until the wind snatched it up in its wispy fingers.


Two months ago.  In a small and drafty daikut.

“You’re…different now.”

Nyx froze mid-motion at the unexpected voice, her bag in one hand, her figurine of Aelurus in the other.  The girl turned her head, her heart in her ears.  Winter was coming to a close in sleepy Tosmai.  The night was warming, but it still held a frosty bite.  She risked death from the Cerrite just for returning–but she knew their patrol routes.  Had memorized them prior to her mission in Himitahl.  She was able to infiltrate the highest offices of the nation, she could certainly manage to slip into a few homes to take back the things that had been auctioned away.

She’d first retrieved the list of assets from the local auctioneer–who wasn’t supposed to have taken it from the village center, but the man was well known for bending the rules whenever it suited him.  It was a simple quibble–what could possibly happen to the documents in the hands of someone so meticulous and shrewd?  Well…

Nyx located the winners of the auction without trouble.  She already had the few things she wanted.  Her mother’s gambeson, the amulet of the three suns she bought in Himitahl, her Atalo’s ring.

The last thing was her jade figurine of the Blessed Mother.  The problem…?

Taila had been the auction winner.

“I knew you’d come for it,” her friend said quietly, her voice like an extended hand.  It came from the doorway behind Nyx.  “I would’ve gotten it all…but you always knew what my situation was like with money.”

“I know…” Nyx said as she put the figurine into her bag and let her head fall against her chest.  Her entire body was tensed.

Neither said anything for a moment.

Then she heard Taila sniffle, and when she spoke again, her voice was choked with tears.  “Yeah, I knew you’d come for those gods damned things…you were always…you were always the sort’ve person to risk everything for something so sentimental.  I always said you had fleas in your brain.”

“You did,” the girl affirmed with a nod and a weak smile.

Silence again.

Nyx debated on whether or not she could turn around.  Whether or not she could turn and look her friend in the face.  Her body locked up and she stared at the wall instead.

“I’m sorry, Nyx…this is…it’s hard for me.  You’re my friend, but I can…” Taila broke off as she sucked in air with a shudder.  “…Sweet Aelurus, I can feel the Mark on you!  It makes me nervous!  It’s like everything in me is saying you’re wrong…”

“It’s the magic…” Nyx said.  Her voice was hollow and quiet.  “It tells the spirit in you that I’m…” her voice trailed away.

“The strange thing?  I still can’t–I can’t bring myself to hate you like everyone else does.  I know what they say–but I can’t believe it.  You loved Atalo.  How could you ever…?  And–And it’s not just me, it’s Ampelos too!  He feels the same way!” Taila sucked in air sharply.  “Ah!!  I’m sorry–I didn’t mean to–”

Nyx closed her eyes, tears leaking down her face.  Ampelos had been the one assigned the task of carving the Mark in her.  His hesitance had made the process longer

“It’s true, it’s true!  Ampelos can’t sleep, he didn’t want to do it–” She broke off with a sob.  “Nyx,” and then, suddenly, the steel was back in her voice, “Nyx turn aroundand fucking look at me–!

Nyx finally turned around.

Taila was standing in the doorway wearing cream white pajamas, her round face already damp and blotchy from her silent weeping.  She didn’t look right.  Her spine was curved, her shoulder-length hair mussed and frizzy, her amethyst eyes red and puffy.  Her hands were tensed like claws at her sides.  Frustration?  Or the Animal in her demanding blood from the spirit traitor?

Hejka et Ool.  Hejka et Juek.  Hejka et Lunés.

Kill the monster.

Nyx took a step toward her friend before she stopped.  She took one slow step back, then another.

In all her life, she had never known Taila to look as she did now.  She had been strong and forceful.  She had been tough and determined.  Now…?  It was because of what Nyx did, it was because of what she was that the older girl was made to seem so torn.  Her blighted hands could not comfort Taila.  She had to leave, before she hurt anyone else.  She had to leave now.

“Taila,” Nyx swallowed through a tight throat. “I have to…go.  Gods, please forgive me…”  She held up her hand, fingers curled lightly, palm facing up as though pleading.  “I can’t do this!  Please forgive me!”


Nyx took another step back, toward the window she had come through.  “Take care of yourself.  You won’t…see me again, okay?  I can’t come back.  I won’t.”


“I know you loved him!” Nyx blurted out suddenly.  She was trembling.  She stopped, one hand on the windowsill, the other gripping her bag like it was the only thing she had left in the world.  And it was.  “Thaddeus.  I know you loved him.  I know you…you became friends with me so that you could become closer to him.  I appreciate…that even after he died you didn’t leave me alone.  It helped me, knowing I wasn’t completely hated.  But…I don’t want you getting in trouble because of me.  I don’t want you hurting because of me.  So I have to leave now, Taila.  Do you understand?”

Taila stared at Nyx, her brows crashing together.  “That’s what you thought?” she breathed.  “You thought I was only friends with you because…?”

“Goodbye, Taila!” the younger girl turned and jumped through the window in one smooth motion.

She heard her friend hiss from behind her as she sprinted away.  “Nyx…Nyx, stop!

Since they had become friends, Nyx had always listened to Taila.  She listened to her because the girl was charismatic and kind. While the older girl could be pushy, she never asked Nyx to do something she wouldn’t do herself, even if it took a bit of encouragement.  As the years went by, it had gotten to the point that the younger girl wondered if there was ever anything she really wouldn’t do for her friend…

Except now.

Nyx of the night was lost in the shadows, and Taila stared forlornly into the hungry darkness that stole her friend to a future uncertain.


She lay on the stone, on her side, dust tickling her nasal passages until mucus filled these and she was forced to breathe through her mouth.  She was naked, her belongings tossed somewhere nearby.  There was something evil in offering any sort of special care to folding her clothing, to protecting her trinkets.  Broken, worn out things like so much that had come to her hands.  She was feverish, and the boots and pants felt stifling.  Her undershirt and gambeson were equally offensive, as they irritated the raw Mark on her back.

It had been months since she’d received it, but the arcane brand had only stopped bleeding some two weeks ago.  The brand itself was like a continuous attack on the skin.  The natural regenerative ability all therians possessed made any permanent change to the body very difficult.  Because of this, soldiers had to train ceaselessly in order to increase their base strength.  As the Mark was essentially damage to the tissue, the magic lingered for atleast half a year to ingrain itself into the therian’s body.  The regenerative magic would take it as the new norm, and once a body was deformed, it was impossible to turn back.

Nyx was at the final stages.

The constant pain made her ill and weak.  Her first full-moon after receiving the Mark had been…traumatic.  Neither she nor the Beast within her could walk after the transformation, and it was all the teenager could do but drag herself somewhere safe.  Out of mourning, the girl had fasted the first month…but then a deepening depression made eating seem a disgusting prospect altogether.  It was perhaps only because of her animal counterpart that she was still alive.  The creature, since their first full moon, seemed overtaken by some mindless drive to keep going. It was a long slow decline that took her to the brink each month. Sometimes, she thought the animal cursed her from the shadows, but she wasn’t sure. She heard lots of things whilst in the grips of fever and hunger.

Like small claws scuttling over rock.

Nyx’s eyes rolled to see a lizard the size of her hand peer at her from a few feet away.  Dead in thought and will, the girl chose to focus on the sight of the small creature, as it was so apart from all that she felt.  She watched as it crept forward, inch by inch, black tongue flickering.  It had blotched skin that alternated between black, brown, and orange.  The soft flesh of its eye was a crimson red, but the pupil itself was a golden yellow.  It tweaked its head to the side as it took in Nyx’s face.

The girl stared at it for a moment longer before her eyes slipped shut.  She fell asleep.

When she awoke hours later, she was aware that the lizard had scuttled even nearer, pressing against her side. She hadn’t moved at all in her sleep, it seemed. Still, she thought the reptile rather bold. It rested beneath her rib cage, its scales cold against her bare skin.  The creature was using her to harvest warmth.

Her body hurt from the lack of movement.  Her tongue was parched and her stomach eating away at her.

Nyx’s hand twitched once against the rock, but this was her only reaction before she fell asleep again. Fell asleep or lost consciousness–it was hard telling the difference anymore.


Two months ago.

The girl fought her way up a hill, the village of Tosmai a lonely burn on the horizon.  Her hands snatched at tufts of grass as she crested the steep incline to appreciate her view.  It was early morning.  She wanted to be somewhere safe, and daylight was anything but.  The area surrounding the village was still crawling with Ailurans.

Where could she go?  If she went too far North, she’d arrive at the halfling settlements, and they’d chase her away surely.  The halflings couldn’t sense the Mark, but the full-blooded elves that lived there could.  They were beings of spirit as much as therians were and while the effect wasn’t quite the same, they still knew better than to let an outcast into their midst.  Farther North it was too cold–the land an ever-wintery place where dwarves toiled deep in the mountains.  If she could even survive the treacherous land, who was to say that the dwarves wouldn’t attack her on sight–never mind that she had the Mark?  They weren’t reputed to be very friendly.

South was clearly not an option.  The Ailuran Nation controlled half the heartlands, and Fiamma the other half.  Between the two nations stretched acres of battlefields.  If the Ailurans didn’t kill her, the Fiammans would.

East?  …It was possible, but the way was treacherous on her own, and she’d heard of severe prejudice on the East coast.  Ailurans were hated even more than Draconians or the lowest human criminal.  It was also a land ruled by money–of which she had none, and she doubted she could earn any through legitimate means.  She wasn’t keen on starting a life of crime.

…There was no place for her but the Kreut Forest.  Ailurans and travelers with sense avoided it like the plague.  It was said to be haunted by lost souls, and even guarded by angry nymph spirits who attacked any bearing signs of civilization on their person.  The forest had been covered in soot which had drifted down from the mountains where the dwarves had once worked.  The trees there were dead or twisted.  Ailuran priests worked to restore the land, but they only ventured as far as the outskirts.  It was a black place for wild spirits and dead souls, and even their holy work was overwhelmed by the forest’s suffering.

She’d feel right at home there, she was certain.


The girl started awake, screaming.  The lizard sprinted away, hissing as it vanished into the shadows of the den.  Outside, the suns heralded the coming of Night by the sensuous glow that streaked her limited view of the sky. Her vision was blurred and the girl’s cries died out to feeble whimpers in her throat. She winced and shifted to her other side, limbs barely able to keep her upright.

“How much longer will I do this?” she wondered–her first coherent thought in…she couldn’t even remember when. “I don’t want this anymore.”

Words came trickling back to her slowly as she attributed phrases to her feelings. It was like sweeping cobwebs out of corners–

…I failed.  I failed…

…I don’t deserve to exist…

…I’m dying slowly...

Fragmented thoughts for a fragmented monster.  She chuckled emptily into the dark.  Then the quiet came again and the girl stared at the wall.

Nyx let the tears slip down her face. “What’s the point of this? Who am I doing this for? My family or myself?”  She tried to run a hand through her hair, but the long tangled mane caught on her fingers. “A-ma, Thad, Atalo…They’re in the Lunamare.  Their spirits will go on.  Meanwhile…I’m just living in vain, aren’t I?” Her hands curled to fists. The words echoed painfully in her heart.  “I’m living in vain, I’m living in vain, I’m living in vain…”

A new thought hit her, and her eyes shocked wide, more tears spilling forth.  “Is it a sin? …To want to stop the pain? Aelurus, do you hate me that much–or am I bowing to the judgment of mortals? Is this…is this the real sin?  To puppet myself at the satisfaction of society whilst you would have me wiped from life completely?”

The yellow eyes of the lizard glinted at her from the dark.


She sometimes had hallucinations.  Sometimes she smelled fire.  Sometimes she thought she were caught in a torrential rain when she was deep within the den.  Sometimes she saw people in the rocks and the dirt and the dead bark.  Sometimes she heard voices cursing her.  The latter could’ve been real–she was in the Kreut Forest after all.

The nymphs didn’t help.  She couldn’t venture far from the den without them throwing sticks and rocks at her.  The shriveled little creatures, with their black eyes, pale skin, and thinning gray hair would leer at her as they ate the skin that peeled from each other’s backs.  They had taken a special interest in this outsider, this Ailuran outcast who had made their hell her home.  She wondered if they were trying to kill her.  The thought didn’t frighten her that much.

She had alot of fever dreams.  She dreamed of giant reptiles swallowing her whole; of drowning her family members one by one in a tub of her own blood; of decaying rapidly into a ghoul at the touch of moonlight.  She’d claw at herself in her delerium, and then she’d weep over the healing wounds, repentant.  Self-harm was a sin against Aelurus.

…But was she a true Ailuran anymore?  Was she not condemned beyond help?

The days stretched to weeks, the weeks to months.  She stopped recognizing hallucinations for what they were.  She stopped weeping over her self-inflicted wounds, and instead, started seeing answers


It was daylight.  She wasn’t sure how much time had passed since she’d crawled out of the den on all fours.  She was naked still, her hair a tangled mess, her eyes bloodshot and her skin the palest it had ever been.  She’d only had the presence of mind to grab her cotton bandages as they fit into the goal in her mind.

She moved with little thought to consequence.

Her bandages were around her neck and a high oak branch kept her body upright.  The branch was gray and dead, and it squeaked as her weight pulled it down.

Coldness swept over her.

Her vision started to blur.  She wasn’t sure if she was hallucinating, but the girl thought she saw something move down the trunk and peer at her.  It was gray and small, like a domestic cat, but had hands and feet.  A forest nymph.  It scuttled on the bark with all four limbs, and its large black eyes turned her way.  Then it shot up the tree and settled on the branch where her bandages were.  The thing smiled at her, rows of razor sharp teeth where moss and splinters of wood were caught between.  It giggled as it pulled at the bandage, increasing the pressure, and the girl let out a dry sound.  Her eyes rolled and she could see nothing for a moment.

There was a hiss, and without warning, the pull at the bandage was gone.  Nyx’s eyes fluttered open, vision rippling and blurred to the point that all she saw were smudges.  She saw enough however to see that the forest nymph was gone.

Yellow eyes flickered her way.

A voice entered her ears.  It sounded far away.

“Nyx?  …Öctér!”

The girl let out one final gasp before her eyes went black and she was lost to unconsciousness.


She started coughing.  Her entire body seized up and her throat felt like it were being torn apart.  Her lungs felt starved.  Someone reared back, their breath a rush over her.  She thought of her mother’s feline face peering at her in the moonlight, greeting her with silent love.

The world tumbled as she felt hands on her.

“Hey, kitten!  Hey!

“Thad…?” she rasped, eyes opening blearily as she saw a shadow over her.

“Nyx?  Gods, ya lil’ idiot, what were you thinkin’!?”

“I…” she frowned, a hand going to her throat.  She started coughing again and didn’t stop for a while.  Her body started to feel tired from the effort.  Nyx felt something cold and wet fall onto her skin.  Like a rain drop.

The girl opened her eyes against the sunlight, and was visited by a surprising sight.

Marq, the merchant elf, was staring at her with eyes wide.  She hadn’t seen him in over a year.  Since her childhood, the man had aged, gaining wrinkles around the eyes and mouth.  His hair seemed paler too, and his face looked gaunter.  He no longer wore his poncho.  Instead he seemed to be using a long and dusty leather jacket, cracked and faded at the seams.  This he used to cover her naked body.  One more tear fell from his gray eyes before he wiped at them both quickly.  “Gods!” he said shakily, patting her on the cheek.  “You scared me good!

Nyx blinked at him.  “…Why are you here?” she asked.  Her voice was rough from lack of use.

The elf glared at her.  “Why’m I here!?  A fine question, kitten, considering I just saved yer life!  I was jes’ passin’ through when I saw you strung up like a fresh kill!”

The girl swallowed, staring at him.  “Let me go.” she said, pushing at him gently.

“Hey, hold on, now–”

“Lemme go, Marq!”  Her struggle turned fierce.

The man gasped as Nyx tumbled out of his arms.  She hit the ground and tried to raise herself, but found her vision ripple away from her in a surge of grey and white.  Her head felt light.  Deep within her, the Beast snarled.  It couldn’t seem to grasp the concept of suicide, such things didn’t exist in Her wild world, but she understood enough to know that they’d nearly died.

“I didn’t want to be cut down…” Nyx spat.  The Beast’s anger was fueling her.  She turned her head to glare at the man.  “And for your information you didn’t fucking save me.  Didn’t you see the Mark on me?  Üle cajeck!”  Nyx’s face crumpled and she hid behind her curtain of long hair, her head swinging down so that her forehead hovered near the ground. “Üle cajeck!” She screamed with a hoarse voice.

She felt ashamed…and angry.  She hadn’t wanted anyone to see her that way.  She’d just wanted the pain to stop.  But faced with the eyes of another, even an outsider, the girl couldn’t lie to herself about what she’d just try to do.

Another sin, another crime–she was a despicable creature.

“No one can save me!” She screamed through her tears.  She slammed a fist onto the ground as her bones and muscles started to ache.  “No one!”

She felt a hand on her back and flinched away, her head snapping up to fix the merchant with a bestial hiss and a wild glare.

Marq pulled away quickly, his face drawn long in something akin to horror.  Then he settled back and pulled at his earlobe.  “I knew you were Marked before I even saw yer back.” The man’s voice became thick as he struggled through his next words.  His northwestern accent became even more pronounced. “But…I know ya, kitten!  I known ya for years.  An’…An’ tha’s enough fer me…alrigh’?  I couldn’ jes’ leave ya…”

Nyx couldn’t answer.  She turned her face away and focused on wrestling back her animal counterpart.  The creature fought her, causing sharp twinges of pain down her spine and limbs, but in the end she was victorious.  The Beast fell silent.  Nyx’s tears ebbed away, but a heaviness came over her.  She lay herself down and didn’t move.  Couldn’t.  The shock of what she’d nearly done, coupled with her shame and her effort to control her Animal’s reaction was too much.  She stared at the dirt ground, her thoughts turning disjointed as the gravity of the situation pressed on her in full.

They seemed to stay there a long time.

Then she heard Marq gather up her things from the den.  When he came and picked her up with his long arms, the girl still did not move or speak.  The sky passed overhead as her arm dangled free through the air.  After a time, her eyes fell shut.


She smelled meat.

The Beast in her snarled, its paws heavy on her mind as it started to pace.


Nyx opened her eyes, her body laid out on a soft bed roll and a fire painting her sleepy thoughts a hot burn.  The forest canopy was a warm halo that framed the starry sky.  By the healthy branches and green leaves, she knew immediately that they were no longer in the Kreut Forest.

She felt weak, she felt tired, she felt nauseous.

She decided she was feeling too much.

Marq had dressed her, so she now wore her pants and her mother’s gambeson.  The cloth stuck to her Mark, where the puss had dried to the clothing.  With both arms, the girl covered her head and curled up into a ball, her body protesting even this slight movement as she tried to hide herself from the world that had so craftily drawn her from the place of dark ether.

“Aaah…yer awake!”  Marq’s voice.  His boots crunched on the forest floor as he came near.  She heard him kneel and was aware of his nearness by the scent that tickled her nose–old leather and sweat, with…apple cider?  A hand on her shoulder shook her gently.

“C’mon, kitten…aren’ ya hungry?  I fried some bacon.”

Nyx shifted her arms just enough to allow one eye to glare squintily up at the elf.  The man shrugged and stood.

“Suit yer’self!” he said.

He went to the otherside of the small campfire where he carefully removed his frying pan with a thick cloth.  From his bag, he took out a tin plate and a fork and started to serve himself some of the bacon.  Nyx couldn’t help it.  She sat up, despite the waves of pain that churned her head, and gazed hungrily at the food.

Marq glanced at her with a smirk.  He held up the plate.  “You wan’ a bread roll too?”

Nyx turned her eyes downward and fiddled with the neck of her gambeson.  She nodded once.

Within the next few moments, she was sitting up and shoveling her food into her mouth with little pause.

Marq watched her in amazement.  “Wow, kitten.  Do you have’ta practice so that ya don’ choke when eatin’ that fast, or what?”

Nyx didn’t answer.  She finished her plate, licking up the grease and crumbs.

The elf chuckled.  “Yeah, y’know, when yer plate’s empty, that usually means ya gotta get more.”

The girl looked at him, her face burning.  “Can…can I have more?” she asked tentatively.

Marq nodded, taking her plate and going back to his frying pan.  “Sure ya can.  I already ate anyhow.”  He paused however as he returned to her.  The girl stared at the plate in anticipation.  “Hey…but we gotta talk.”

Nyx’s eyes snapped up to his face.  She looked away.  “I don’t want to,” she muttered.  Her face sagged and she felt her eyes start to burn.  “I just wish…you hadn’t seen me like that.”

“I’m glad I managed to find you,” Marq said without hesitation.

“What…?” the girl asked, thinking she’d heard wrong.

The elf shrugged and handed her the plate.  Nyx took it in her hands slowly.  “If I hadn’a gone by, I wouldn’ have been able to stop ya.”

Nyx blushed.  She held the plate close to her as her body curled, but she stared at the food like it were a plate of maggots.  Suddenly, she wasn’t hungry anymore.

“Hey,” Marq said, patting her on the arm as he sat near her.  “I’m not gonna make ya talk about how ya got to where ya did if you don’ wanna.  I jes’ wanna know what yer gonna do now?”

“Try again?” Nyx said with a weak chuckle.  But it didn’t sound right even to her, and she regretted it.

Marq didn’t laugh.  “Be serious, kitten.”

“Then take me serious, Marq!” The girl snapped.  She found it easy to make her shame and discomfort into anger.  “Stop calling me kitten!  I’m not a child anymore!”  She blinked down at the plate.  “I’m not…I…”

The elf frowned at her.  “What?”

Nyx’s face was green when she looked at him.  “I think I’m going to be sick!

When she was through tossing up the food she’d just ate, the girl tried to rise up and leave.  “M’sorry about the food, m’sorry.  I wasted it.  I shouldn’t…you shouldn’t…it’s…the food’s wasted on me.” Her head felt like it were filled with water, and her vision rippled.  The air felt cold against her skin.

“C’mon now, you know I can’ jes let ya go like that!”  Marq steered her back to camp and the youth found she could hardly resist.  That didn’t mean she didn’t try.

“No,” she ground out, fingers digging feebly into his arms.  She tried to kick him away, but the man seemed unfazed.  “Leggo!”

Her weakness was such that even as she put in all she could, Marq was still able to overpower her.  He swept her up and sat down onto the ground with a ‘fwop’.  His large hands tightened around her wrists and she couldn’t get free.  He pressed her legs between his arm and his thigh and she couldn’t kick.  The man was not a warrior, he was just an elf merchant.  It wasn’t supposed to be that easy.  It was pathetic and they were both aware of it.

Marq gazed at her with pity as he sat at the campfire, Nyx in his arms, snarling and writhing.

“Leggo! …Lemme go!”  She hiccuped, her eyes burning.  “Marq!  Please! I’m sorry about the food!  I’m sorry!

“Nyx,” the man said, his gray eyes watering.  “I don’ care about that.  Ya need help.”  His lips pressed together as his chin crumpled.  “Yer worse than I thought ya were.  Yer stomach can’t hold the food, and you can’t even…” his voice trailed away.

Nyx grew tired.  She let her head fall back against the elf’s arm, his scent filling her as she saw the heavens through her tears.  She swallowed and begged one more time.

“Please let me go.  Please let me disappear…


The days went by.  Nyx tried to leave, and every time, Marq stopped her–even going so far as to sit on her once.

“Shiva’s breath!  Who would ever have come to think that chaining a person to a rock would be seen as an act of mercy!?” The man panted, trying to avoid Nyx’s flailing limbs.

The man tempted her with small cups of soup, and the girl refused at first, afraid she’d throw it up like before.  Then one day, when the pain was great and her fevers back to their peak, the girl took the soup with little thought.  Later, Marq would tell her he saw the Beast in her eyes, intent on survival.  “Some part of ya wants ta keep goin’.  Right now, that aspect of you is my ally.”

“Be careful what you wish for…” the girl muttered darkly.

“It isn’t like ya ta threaten a person, Nyx,” the man said with a critical frown.

The youth turned her face away.  “I’m not threatening you.  I’m trying to spare you.”

More days passed, and the girl’s portions increased.  She was still reluctant, but she was cooperating, much to Marq’s delight.  He gave her drops of a tonic every night, “To give back what ya been missin’,” he said.

Nyx started to feel stronger.  It felt…good.  But she felt guilty.  She wasn’t supposed to feel this way.  She was supposed to rot away, forgotten by the world.

“You shouldn’t be doing this,” she told the elf one day.

The man just snorted.  “Oh, an’ I’m supposed ta lose my most valued customer?”

Despite herself, Nyx grinned.  The expression was short lived and she wiped at her face.  “I’m getting stronger.  And when I’m strong enough, I’m going to leave you.  It’s…for the best.”

“Then what’ll you do, Nyx?” Marq asked quietly.

Nyx sighed, closing her eyes.  That accursed question again.  What did he want from her?

“I don’t know,” she said after a moment.  It was completely sincere.

The elf nodded, a note of satisfaction to his face.  “…Okay,” was all he said.


Another day gone.  Night was upon them again.

Marq’s voice was a drone to her.  He’d been going on for the past hour, resigned to the fact that the girl was not going to reciprocate his desire to hold a conversation.  Nyx was more interested in splitting her ends.  The fire light made it hard to see what she was doing though, and she started to feel impatient.

“You have’ta think beyond right and wrongdoing.  You have’ta think how yer goin’ta exist for the tomorrow.  If ya gotta, look at nature around us.  You wanna know the real reason the Kreut Forest has yet ta be restored?  It’s because the nymphs have allowed themselves ta become all mixed up on the idea of morality.”

This made Nyx look up.

Marq was cutting meat from a rabbit he’d killed with his slingshot.  Without his bag and big coat on, he looked slim and lanky.  There were scars all over his arms, and the peak of his chest, just under the collar bone, revealed just a portion of what looked like burn scars.

Aware and enthused by her sudden attention, the man continued, speaking faster, “They don’t think of balance, only justice.  But does their justice come ridin’ on the waves of their anger and loathing?  The trees are black, and it’s their fault.  They suffer continuously.  I think that’s the real reason that place is so dead.  But nature knows death an’ its own form o’ destruction, doesn’it?  Yet it keeps goin’.  A hawk that kills a mouse for food don’t live in sin because it is seekin’ ta survive, and its survival returns to the world around it.  Kitten, ya have’ta think beyond right and wrongdoing.  Take what ya need, but nothing more, and give back to the life that sustains ya.”

Marq tore off a piece of raw meat and threw it onto the ground.  Nyx gasped as, from the shadows, the lizard scuttled forth, tongue flickering, its eyes on her and the elf.  Then with a mad dash it went to the meat, gobbled it up, then darted back out of sight.  The girl blinked in amazement, her eyes turning to Marq.  The man just smiled.  The fire danced in his eyes.

“That lil’ guy’s been followin’ ya for a while now!”

Nyx turned and gazed at the last place she’d seen the creature.  “It isn’t malefic?”

“…Uh, what?”

“Bad?  It isn’t bad?”

Marq laughed.  “Öctér! No, no, that’s good.”

“I can’t see how that’s a good thing.”  Nyx sighed and leaned on her knees.

The elf’s expression turned somber.  When he spoke, his voice was soft,  “If yer existence truly upsets the balance of life, then nature itself will destroy you and return ya to the basest aspects.  For now, ya gotta keep goin’.  I can’t speak for the gods, but the gods can certainly speak for themselves.  Our world is their instrument.  Death beyond our efforts is divinity, I think.”

“Was it divine then, that my entire family died?” Nyx bit out, her face turning red.

Marq held a sad smile instead of the look of shock or embarrassment she expected.  He gazed down at the ground, “Yes.”

“Fuck you,” the girl snarled, rising.  He rose with her, his face tightening.  He’d stop her if she tried to leave, just like all the other times.  Was this his idea of compassion?  Keeping her like a prisoner?  She was a little stronger now…could she take him?  “Am I fulfilling some sort of dream for you?  Easing some sort of guilt?  I’m sorry to ruin your fallacious fantasy, but I’m Marked, and I will be until the day I die.  One day I’ll leave–”

“To what!? Kreut Forest?  That graveyard?” The elf snapped, throwing his cooking knife to the ground.  “Destiny will find ya, whether you want it to or not, Nyx.  You think that jes’ driftin’ through the days like ya been is any better than tryin’ta kill yourself?  Do that and yer no different from those damned nymphs, sittin’ black an’ ugly in their dead trees–”

“And what about you!?” the girl returned shrilly.  “With your past of debts and crimes and poor choices?  Are you moving on?  Are you meeting your destiny?  You still live like a vagabond–no home and no one to answer to!  I know my place, Marq.  What about you?”

Marq turned his head, his eyes narrowed at the floor.

Nyx snorted and lay on the ground, her back to the man, ignoring the bedroll he’d laid out just for her.  It was petulant, but she didn’t want anything that came from him.

“Yeah…?” he said after a while.  She heard him spit.  “Well…maybe I’ll get it right someday.  The difference ‘tween you an’ me kitten is that I can still believe in tomorrow’s salvation…what kills me is that yer right there next to me, but yer jes’ facin’ the wrong way…lookin’ backwards…Ya have’ta…shed all that.”

There was a hiss as the man poured water over the fire.  He’d given up on dinner, it seemed.  “You have’ta shed yer past to see yer future.”


The following day, they didn’t speak.  Nyx was already working out how to flee from the man.  It had been almost two weeks already.  She was done playing along.  She decided she’d try to slip away from him in the night, when he’d fallen asleep.  First, she wanted to catch some rest for what was certain to be a taxing ordeal.  After dinner, she laid down, and this was faced with no complaint from Marq who knew how easily her feeble body left her exhausted at the end of the day.

But that evening, to her bewilderment, Marq roused her from sleep.  It was dusk, and Marq’s face was drawn and pale.  The fire had recently been put out, sand kicked over it instead of the usual water.  His things were gathered up.

“Nyx, we have to go!” he hissed.

The girl blinked at him, irritated and confused.  “Wha–?”

“We have to go, we have to go!!” He snapped, dragging her to her feet and pulling the bed roll out from under her before she was completely steady.

Nyx, dizzy with drowsiness, let out a cry as the elf threw her bag of belongings at her.  She caught it to her chest, and her eyes blinked open wide and glassy.  “What’s the matter with you!?”

Marq opened his mouth to speak.  Then there was a sound that echoed throughout the forest.  It blared, warm and sharp–a hunter’s horn.  Birds startled from the trees as in the next instant, they heard barking.

The elf shoved the girl forward, his teeth bared.  “C’mon, we gotta run!”

Nyx didn’t need telling twice.  She turned and broke into a sprint, her limbs feeling shocked and electric as her heart went into overdrive.  She was still weak, and so she grew tired quickly, but Marq kept pulling and pushing her.  “C’mon, c’mon!

They were clumsy in their effort to escape.  They broke branches and burst through huckleberry bushes.  The forest floor was a treacherous way that shocked their soles.  Nyx knew better.  This wasn’t the way to lose their pursuers.

She tried to grab at Marq’s sleeve.  “Marq!” she panted.  She missed at first, the man apparently too intent on just putting distance between himself and the animals behind him.  Her second try however, she managed to grab him by the crook of the arm.  “Damn it, stop!

The elf did so, but only after stumbling forward a few more steps.  He danced on the spot, his bag jingling as he tried to peer through the trees.  “Nyx, they’re comin’!

“I know that, but the way we’re tumbling through, we may as well be spilling paint behind us!”  She doubled over as she pointed up a maple tree.  “We need to climb this tree!”

The elf gave her a dry look.  “Look, I know you Ailurans are cats an’ all–”

“Just do as I tell you!”  The girl turned and clawed up the tree, pulling herself up on the lowest branch.  The man snorted but followed suit.

Soon they were both nestled in the reaches of the maple tree.  Nyx pressed a finger to her lips as the dogs barking grew closer.  She judged their distance to be some half mile.  The thick forest, coupled with the dogs need to stop and rediscover their scent had given them time.  But that time was drawing to a close.  The girl froze, feeling the wind through the branches.  It was coming…from the South.

Nyx gestured for Marq to follow her.  An oak tree with long thick branches was at war with the maple for sunlight.  The oak’s branches were near enough that Nyx could lean over and crawl into its reach.  The branches squeaked and dipped frighteningly for a moment, but the girl cleared to the other side.  She didn’t pause to wait for Marq.  She moved quickly, slipping and stumbling only a few times as she crossed to the otherside of the tree.  From there, she crossed onto another oak.  She managed this one more time, making it to an elm tree.  She’d crossed twenty-five meters from where they’d started.  Marq was still on the oak behind her.  Unfortunately, the dogs caught up.

Her keen eyesight in the growing darkness granted her basic details.  The dogs were three large shepherds, with black faces, creamy bellies, and large ears.  Nyx held out a staying hand, her face paling.  Marq looked at her, trembling.  The girl shook her head and mouthed, “Don’t move!”  She wasn’t sure if the man could see her, but she didn’t dare do more.

The dogs paused, noses to the ground.  One growled and pawed up the oak tree, its nose quivering.  It whined, then barked.  The others did the same.  They spread out, sniffing the air.  Nyx held her breath.  Hopefully, they’d moved downwind enough that the dogs wouldn’t catch their scent.

To their fortune, the shepherds didn’t venture far from their last known scent trail.  Voices neared.

“Aw great…they lost ‘im again.”

“They didn’t lose him last time.  You just became frightened.

“Can ya blame me?  That damn Kreut gives me the creeps!”

“You have me.  You would’ve been safe.”

“Against them evil spirits?  No offense, but not even Ailuran priests can get in, and they specialize in–”


Two men, one with a northwestern accent like Marq, the other with an accent she didn’t recognize.  Nyx tried to peer through the trees to get a look at them.  She only managed to see one.  He wore a poncho, like the one Marq used to wear, and he had shoulder-length blond hair.  By the looks of him, he seemed human.  At his far hip, the girl made out a wide sword.  On his nearest hip, she saw the horn he’d been using, made of an animal’s horn.

His partner, still out of view, spoke.  He sounded eerily calm, “He’s here somewhere.  He didn’t vanish.  The tracks stop at this tree.”  She heard the crunch of dirt as whoever it was walked slowly.  She also heard the chink of armor.  The girl’s mouth went dry and she stared at Marq, who was squeezing his eye shut.  Sweat was trailing down his slim face in thick rivulets.

…What had the man gotten himself into now?

As quiet as they could, the both of them huddled down, behind the cover of their respective trees.  More footsteps told them both that the second hunter was traveling ever closer.

“Winnamer.”  The first hunter.  He sounded impatient.  “Hey, it’s gettin’ ta night and I can hardly see.  Les’ jes’ go, huh?  We’ll get ‘im in the mornin’.”  It was true.  Since they’d started running, the stars had come out.

When ‘Winnamer’ spoke, it was with a gentle sigh, like a parent dealing with an impatient child.  “If we give up now, than I doubt we’ll catch them before the end of tomorrow.  Didn’t I already tell you my contract had a time limit?”

“Hey, we’ll get ‘im!  And you’ll get the other half of the gold once that happens!”

“And if not, then I keep the first half and continue on my way.  I have bigger things to deal with.”

“What’re you in such a hurry for?”

“This is where I ignore you and instead choose to answer your former, more reasonable request.”  Footsteps again.  Faster.  Heading away.  “I’m done for the day.”

Nyx’s fingers dug into the bark as she saw the man known as Winnamer walk into her view.  It was only for a brief second.  He had long black hair down to his waist and slate blue scale armor.  On his back was a heavy billhook, and on his hip a wicked black hook.

The first hunter cursed.  His face scrunched in frustration as he watched the other man walk away.  Then he turned his head and whistled for the dogs to follow, and they did so eagerly–already bored without a proper trail to follow.  They waited until the men and dogs were gone.  Then they waited some more.



“Nyx, look–”

“Gods damn it!”

“Nyx,” the elf rubbed his brow as he leaned back against the oak tree he’d just climbed down.  The darkness was heavy around them.  “Look, I didn’ think they’d follow me after the Kreut Forest, alright?”

“And you just forgot to mention that you were in trouble again?”

“I was a bit preoccupied, y’know?” the man snapped, gesturing at her.  “And don’ go judgin’ me kid, considerin you–” the man stopped with a hiss.

Nyx took a step from him, unable to keep the hurt from her face.  “Yeah…” she laughed but it was a humorless sound.  “I should know better.  I’m sorry.”

“Aw hell, Nyx m’sorry!  I just…Shiva’s breath!” the man kicked at the ground.

The girl had already turned and was walking away.  “Goodbye, Marq.”


She didn’t welcome the solitude, but rather, accepted it.  It was where she was supposed to be.  The wind in her hair, the night on her back, the uncertainty of her path–it was all familiar.  Loathed, but it was familiar.

Nyx wiped away silent tears.

The next few days were spent trying to get a grasp of her new surroundings.  She was in unfamiliar territory, and it set her on edge.  She wanted to head westward again, but she didn’t want to run into the hunters.  Frustrated, she tried to find somewhere safe where she could hide until the trouble passed and she could…

But the girl paused, coming to a slow stop in the forest.  Around her, the forest was dim and sleepy–but light was beginning to filter down through the thick forest canopy.  She realized…she didn’t want to go back to the Kreut Forest.  She didn’t want to wander through the dead, black trees.  She didn’t want to be like the disgusting nymphs that crawled over the dry bark.

Nyx bowed her head, her body trembling.  “What’m I supposed to do now…?”

Then she heard the hunter’s horn, and her head snapped up.

She ran.

Nyx’s breaths were knives, and every long draw cut at her.  She blinked away sweat, beads collecting on her brow and nose, and droplets swooped over the hollow of her cheeks, which were sunken from her starvation.  Nyx clenched and unclenched her hands.  She heard the dogs and sobbed.  She was alone now.  Alone and tired, because she hadn’t slept.  The girl slowed to a jog, her eyes scanning for a good tree to climb.

She found one.

But the dogs found her.

One of the shepherds slammed into her from the side, knocking her to the ground in a flash of fur and fangs.  The animal clamped its mouth around her right forearm and worried it, spit making her gambeson sleeve wet as ropes of saliva fell from the creature’s mouth and landed on her face in light of the ferocious movement.  The other two dogs soon joined it, snarling and growling.  One took her by the ankle, the other her left wrist.  Nyx screamed and tried to defend herself, but the dogs were fierce.

“Release!” a familiar voice shouted.  The man from before.

As soon as the dogs let her go, the girl curled into a ball, sobbing so hard she could hardly breathe.

“There’s the other one!”  the man said, “You think you can use her?”

“We can’t use her.”  Winnamer.  She heard his armor chink as he came closer.  He drew a blade and she curled into an even tighter ball.

“Why not?  What’s wrong?”

“You don’t know.  You can’t feel it.”  Nyx felt a blade brush back her hair and she trembled.

There was a whistle as Winnamer drew back his weapon.  “This is a Marked Ailuran.  She’s too dangerous.  But her head will earn me prestige with my temple–”

Leave ‘er alone!”  Marq’s voice.

Nyx peeked from beneath her arms, her breathing fast and shallow.  Winnamer was wielding his billhook.  The human hunter had his sword drawn.  Both men turned, looks of puzzlement passing their faces as behind them, the elf merchant appeared.  He was without his pack and lacking his usual jacket.  The hunter turned and pointed his sword.

“Finally!” he crowed.  “The slimy bastard shows his rotten face!”

Marq was sweating profusely, and his skin was flushed.  He gazed at Nyx with knitted brows.  Then he turned to the hunter.  “Let the girl go, Oriel.  She has nothing to do with this.  I’ll…I’ll go with ya.”

“And my gold?”

The elf’s face turned hard.  “Ya know I don’t have it…”

Oriel clicked his tongue, brushing back his blond with an exaggerated swish of his hand.  He pointed at the ground with his sword.  “Down on your knees and hands behind your head.  Then I’ll let the Ailuran go.”

Marq pressed his lips together so that they turned white.  His cleft chin quivered, but he did as he was ordered to.  Nyx raised herself slowly.  The dogs growled as she moved, their muscles taut as they awaited any reason to attack her.  Her eyes flickered to Winnamer, who was gazing at her with cold black eyes.  His long black hair lifted with the breeze, and the girl saw that the strands were braided at the top.  There was a black mark tattooed on his neck, just over the jugular, showing a box-shaped design with a slash through the middle and horns at the sides.  Nyx felt sick.  She knew what that symbol meant.

Winnamer was a paladin, and part of a controversial order that specialized in very ‘offensive‘ magic.  The Order of Khnum.  They weren’t known for their mercy, and other temples accused them of committing evil in the pursuit of good.  They’re motto may as well have been “the ends justify the means”.  They were famous for the spell said to “return souls” unto the very world they took from, leaving the animus to unravel with every exhaled breath of the subject, turning them into clay statues.  She’d read about it a long time ago, and the information came rushing back without trouble.

As if to confirm her fears, Winnamer turned his head and said to Oriel, “Comrade.  You have promised to let this girl go.  I’d not make a liar of you.  But for the second half of my payment, I’d deny your gold and ask that you lend me your dogs today instead.”

Oriel was busy tying Marq up from behind.  The elf started to thrash at Winnamer’s words, but by this time he was securely bound.

“Hey!  I said let her go!” he shouted.  The hunter bashed him in the back of the head with the hilt of his sword, and Marq fell over, his eyes rolling into the back of his head.

Winnamer didn’t look at him.  “Oriel, the girl can go.  I’m asking for your dogs.  Atleast until tonight.”

“Shit, fine.  Take ’em.  You want me to tell ya how to–?”

“No need.”  Winnamer turned his head forward again.  Nyx scuttled backwards, her lips trembling.  The paladin pointed at her with his billhook.  His eyes started to glow and when he spoke again, it was…ethereal…layered as though there were more than one person speaking.  “Ailuran.  You will run now.  If I catch you, you will die.  If you refuse to go, I shall take it as your waiving your chance to freedom and have my prize now.

The dogs snarled, snapping their jaws.  They jockeyed one another, bumping shoulders and shifting position along an invisible line.  Their eyes started to glow, as Winnamer’s did.

Nyx stared wildly at them, then at the paladin, then at Marq–who lay face down on the forest floor.  She should save him, she shouldn’t leave him behind–

In her head, the Animal was yowling.

Run Run Run Run Run Run

The driving fear overtook her and the girl turned and ran, her body like a scythe that cut through the unknown forest.  She ran less than half a mile before her vision rippled the world away, and exhaustion made it so that even breathing took great effort.  The girl tripped and crashed onto the roots of an ancient bay fig.  Her eyes rolled and her gasps for breath were long and desperate.  Her hands crushed leaves and dirt in her hands as she tried to claw her way along the ground.

The tree groaned over her, as though protesting her clawing hands against its bark.  It stood nearly two hundred feet tall, and its trunk was as wide as five people.  The roots, where it had wrapped around and overwhelmed its host (a now dead elm tree) started around Nyx’s height, then buried into the ground.  Between some of the roots, there were small spaces where animals had taken shelter.  As she could barely raise herself up onto all fours let alone stand, the girl crawled up the tree and into one of these nooks.  She just managed to fit, but the space felt claustrophobic.

She waited there a few minutes longer, her eyes slipping shut against her will.  She was so tired…

The roots shuttered, and a loud growl rattled her as hot stinking breath rushed past her face.

Nyx screamed, jerking awake, her head snapping back against the tree.

All she could see in her daze and incoherent fear were glowing eyes amidst black faces and snapping jaws.  They had caught up with her–and this time they didn’t bark or howl to announce their presence.  They were driven by something else–some magic force that Nyx couldn’t understand in her terror.  The dogs couldn’t get in all the way, but they were still far too close for comfort.  The girl shifted, trying to scuttle to a place where they couldn’t get to, but even as she tried to move beneath the weave of thick tree roots, the dogs followed.

They stayed like that for ages it seemed.

The girl covered her eyes and curled into a fetal position, the hellish barking making her flinch every time.

If this is what you want, then why do you cower?

The voice seemed to come from nowhere, much like the loud screech that filled the air, effectively silencing the dogs.  There were yelps and whines as the dogs battled whatever it was that had appeared.  Nyx wasn’t sure if she should lift her eyes.  She wasn’t sure if she wanted to.

The world fell quiet.

She remained there a long time, unmoving.  Night came.

Finally, Nyx raised her head, her bloodshot eyes blinking.

The dogs were gone, and Winnamer was nowhere in sight.


She started to walk, not really certain of where she was going.  Her feet hurt, and her stomach snarled at her from under her gambeson.

She heard someone sigh and raised her eyes from the floor.  She was back to the place she had fled from before.  The sight that met her didn’t surprise her, but her throat tightened and she fell to her knees.

Marq was tied to a tree, half naked, his body covered in blood.  His ears had been cut off, and his face was bruised.  His left shoulder seemed at a funny angle, and there were cuts all along his chest.  Now that he was bare chested, Nyx could see the burn marks he had in full.  From his collar bone a large twisted burn spanned down to his belly button.

Unable to take the sight anymore, the girl bowed her head.  “Marq…” she sobbed.

“Hmm?” The girl gasped and stared at the man as his swollen eyes open to slits.  “Ah…kitten.  There ya are…” the man mumbled, his swollen lips barely moving.

She scooted closer.  “I…I don’t know what to–” she glanced over her shoulder as a thought suddenly hit her.  She started to shiver and her tawny eyes went wide.  “Wait, are they still here? Those men!?”  Then she felt guilty as it occurred to her how selfish this was, and she looked back at the elf, pulling at the front of her gambeson.  “I mean…I…do you want me to cut you down?  Can you move?”  Despite her shame, she couldn’t discard the desire to run.  She didn’t want to be there.

“Kitten…” The man exhaled, then his face twitched into what could be called a smile.  “Hey…I’m dyin’, y’know?  Winnamer…cast Argilla on me…ya heard o’ that spell, m’sure.”  he let out another long sigh.  “…Don’ feel bad for wantin’ to run.  Yer right, I’d jes’ hold ya back…”  He coughed and groaned, and the action seemed so painful even Nyx winced.  “I wan’ ya to know…that I really didn’ do anythin’ this time…so please don’ think too badly of me.  Please?  Oriel got greedy…he…he went back on his word…wanted more for the merch I bought from ‘im.  Turns out, he was jes’ another thug.”

“But why!” Nyx sobbed, tugging harder at her gambeson.  “Why did you try to save me?  I’m not worth it!  If you were innocent then you should’ve just let them kill me!”

Marq shook his head softly.  “No, Nyx.  You was right.  I…I was livin’ like a vagabon’, not wantin’ ta answer for my past mistakes.  All those times…I jes’ got lucky.  Scraped by with the skin o’ my teeth.  I never really learned from my mistakes, never really knew what it meant ta wash my soul clean.  I think…I think the gods sent Oriel an’ Winnamer for a reason.  I have ta give back what I took.  Same as you did, when ya got that Mark.”

“You aren’t making any sense!” the girl screamed.  “Üle cajeck! Üle kinzcht nedret!  You gods damned miscreant, I can’t cry for you too!

“So don’, ya lil’ idiot.  Whose askin’ ya to?”  Marq coughed and Nyx let out a startled hiss as she saw his hair turn stiff, then crumble away into the breeze.  His chest started to take on a dull, muddy shade.

“Ah gods…no…no, no, no…”  she stood to her feet.  “Marq you’re turning into clay–”

“Nyx, hey.  Look’it me.”

The girl stared in horror as she saw his chest turn stiff, as parts of his flesh flaked away.


She snapped her eyes onto Marq’s gray ones, and she noted something fiery in their stare.

“Go East, kitten,” the man whispered.  The edges of his face started to turn dull.  Spidery cracks appeared along his cheeks and temples.  “Go find those incredible deserts and jungles and cities you been readin’ about.  You have’ta keep goin’.  Think beyond right and wrongdoin’ and jes give back to the life that sustains ya.  It doesn’ look it, but I’m doin’ that now.  I was long overdue, so don’ you mourn me.  Don’ya dare.  This was my choice, my destiny.  But if ya wait as long as I did ta give back to the world, you’ll end up payin’ the same price, one way or another…”

Nyx just shook her head.  “But…” her eyes lowered and she frowned.  With a shaking hand, she reached forward toward Marq’s left breast, where up close now, she saw beneath the crusted blood a faded tattoo.  It was shaped like a lizard.  Her fingertips brushed over it gently.  “Marq…are you the one who…?”



“My full name,” he wheezed, barely audible.  “Is Marquis.  Take care in who ya trust yerself with, kitten.  Alot can be had…in jus’ta name…”

As soon as she removed her touch, the man seized up with a gasp.  He threw his head back against the tree, and there was a sick cracking noise as his body transformed completely into clay.  His last expression was that of great shock.  Nyx gasped and jumped back, her eyes spilling tears as the man’s body crumbled and fell to pieces.

“Marq!” She screamed, though she backpedaled away.  “Oh gods, why?

“He spoke to the truth.  It was his payment, for his past sins.  He had quite a bit.  Most of which I’m sure you were unaware of.”

The girl jumped and spun around.  Her legs grew weak as she found herself face to face with Winnamer.

The paladin narrowed his eyes at her.  “Something powerful killed Oriel’s dogs.  I felt their deaths in our connection.  They never saw what it was.”  He clenched his fists, his brows clashing together.  “What power did that elf use?  And why would he waste it on you?

Nyx couldn’t answer.  She swallowed through a tight throat and tried to think of how to get away.

Winnamer sighed and looked to the forest canopy.  “Oh, well…I can’t kill you, now.  So it doesn’t matter.”

The girl couldn’t help it.  “What?” she squeaked, twisting the hem of her gambeson.

The paladin raised an eyebrow at her, but didn’t lower his head.  He stared at her down the length of his nose, his hands relaxing at their sides.  “Marquis was a sinner, but he was repentant.  He gave his life for you.  I also learned that Oriel was as much a sinner as Marq had been.  Perhaps worse.  I made him pay.  I cannot be associated with such types.  As such, the manner of our meeting taints the honor I would receive in taking your head to my temple.  So I’m not going to kill you.”

Nyx blinked.  “You’re…letting me go?”

“Not necessarily.”  Winnamer folded his hands behind his back.  “I’ll give you till the rest of this year to leave this region.  If I ever find you again, you can be certain I will not hold back, regardless of how or where we meet.  That I can promise you.”

Nyx started to back away, her eyes on the paladin.  He belonged to a class of magic users who took oaths and promises very seriously, but somehow, she still feared betrayal through some insidious loophole.

“Ailuran,” he said.

The girl paused, tensing.  “…Yes?”

“What is your name?  For posterity’s sake.”

Nyx narrowed her eyes.  “I’d rather not say.  I mean,”  She glanced off to the side, then back at the man.  “Is Winnamer even your real name?”

Winnamer blinked at her, then he chuckled and bowed his head.  “Mmm…fine.  Until next time, little one.”

The girl hissed at him, feeling something of her animal self pushing at her skin.  She turned and ran, and the paladin’s eyes felt like weights on her back.


Eight months later.

In a garden shed.

The girl sighed, fussing with her newly cut hair.  The shears she’d used had been too big.  She’d cut off large chunks, leaving the locks uneven.  To make matters worse, a fox in the garden had startled her, making her cut her bangs at a funny angle.  At that point, she’d given up.  Anymore attempts, and she was certain she’d behead herself.  The itch of hair was already driving her mad.

“By the four winds, that had to be one of my stupidest ideas to date,” the girl muttered to herself as she passed the garden and approached the humble thatched house that shadowed it.

Nyx peered in through the window of the dark little home, scratching absently at her neck.  Here, a family of three lived.  A mother, a father, and a little boy.  With her hands shifted to claws, the girl pulled open the window.  Earlier that day, she had slipped into the house when the trio had gone to the back of the home to admire their vegetable garden.  They had left the door open allowing her a quiet entry.  The problem was, she’d only had enough time to break the latch before she had to slip out again.  Now that the family were asleep, she could slip in and take what she needed with more leisure.

She slipped in through the window, her cat eyes adjusting easily to the darkness.  From her visit previously, she knew where they kept the grain and salted meat.  Within the next few minutes, she had a pound of raw beef, wrapped in white paper, and a small bag of grain.  She usually preferred to take from those who wouldn’t notice it–but the family was doing well, so she didn’t feel as bad.

Nyx started to go back the way she’d come, her bare feet making no noise on the stone floor, but a hiss stopped her.

Slowly she turned her head.

Yellow eyes peered at her from the dark of a wood stove.  A black tongue flickered into the light, tentative.

The girl blinked, not moving for a whole minute.  Then slowly she crouched down.  With careful hands, she unwrapped the meat and tore off a small piece.  Then with a light toss, she threw the morsel towards the creature in the shadows.  She turned her attention to wrapping the meat again.  When Nyx looked back, the piece of meat was gone, as was the creature.

Without another pause, the girl left the home, shutting the window after her.

In just a few more weeks, she’d reach the Torreth mountains…and from there…

Nyx didn’t know.

…But she’d paid a toll, and all she could do was keep moving.

Continue ReadingThe Lizard’s Toll

In Good Company


He was the only one with a collar.  It had a silver plate on it where a name was stamped–“Five”–and the body of the collar was made of genuine dragon hide leather.  The satyr had said it was a gift in confidence from his client.  The puppy didn’t understand the implication of it, naturally.  Just that the others didn’t have a collar and he did and that was that.  He DID note that he had grown bigger than all of his siblings, and he took advantage of this when he could.  It was nice being big.

The puppy at the bottom of the dog pile felt his brothers and sisters roll and nip at him and he nipped back, a tumble of comforting smells and warmth found amidst the cold of the cellar.  He was with his mother and his siblings and it didn’t matter that bars fell over them in shadows.  Such things were beyond his animal mind, his young and spirited attention.  It was play-time.  Then it would be nap-time.  Then it would feeding-time, then play-time, then nap-time.  Such was Life.

His mother was a beautiful dog with long shimmering white hair and a large brown wet nose speckled pink around the edges.  She was grooming one of his siblings, trapping the puppy beneath her wide paw as her purple tongue swept over short fur.  A lantern next to the cage was all the light they had.  The cage was in a cramped room of damp stone.  It smelled of alcohol and spice and old wood.  A rat squeaked from the corner and he forgot his game long enough to canter to the bars and woof at it.  Across from the cage was a staircase leading Up.

The door at the top of the stairs opened, showering the light from the UpWorld.  The old satyr’s silhouette was there, as always.

“Mmm…Number 5?  Come on now, Number 5,” his old voice croaked, the sound like crickets under water.  The man hobbled down the stairs, nearly taking a full minute.  The stub and clack of his cane and his hooves made the puppies and their mother stop and sit up.  The man was a graying satyr with short horns and large round glasses.  Behind him flicked a short brown tail.  He wriggled his nose as he appraised the cage full of dogs.  “Dotti, old man Polichus needs Number 5 now.  You be good, you be a very good girl.”

Dotti, the puppy’s mother, growled at the satyr.  The young dog didn’t understand everything the man was saying, but he knew that he was ‘Number 5’.  He also knew that when his mother growled that way, it meant get behind her.  So he did, his rump against the bars in the back of the cage.

Polichus sighed, his olive colored eyes glowering from baggy, moled lids.

“Dotti…” the man’s voice was low.  Tired.

Then in a flash, he jabbed at the mother with his cane through the bars, knocking her hard against the cage.  Dotti snarled and cried out, scattering her pups as they tried to avoid being crushed be her.  Then the mother fell silent and still, her body slumping.  Polichus sniffed delicately and jerked his cane back.  From the blunt tip, a long needle dripped.  There was a click and it shot back, out of sight.

Polichus pulled a key from his vest’s pocket and unlocked the cage door.  “Stupid bitch.  It’s the same thing every week.  She fights, then I knock her out.  Aren’t these things capable of pattern recognition?”  He opened the door with a squeak and poked his head in, one finger shoving his glasses up his nose.  “Oh well.  C’mon Number 5.  You’ll be capable of it soon enough.”

The puppy growled and barked at the satyr, dodging.  His brothers and sisters were hyper with anxiety.  They yipped and tried to lick and nip the satyrs hand.  The man shooed them away.  “No, no, not you!  Number 5!”  He plucked him up with his gnarled hand and pulled back quickly, locking the cage door.  “There, finally!”

Polichus raised the little dog to his face and glowered.  “Troublesome!  That’s what this is!  The moment you’re old enough, Dotti goes!  Hmm?  You must be good for the old man when she does, my little Number 5.”  The dog bared his teeth, but the man just rapped his nose, making him squeak. “None of that!”

Then they were going Up, and the young dog fell quiet, his tail between his legs and his body shivering.  He didn’t like going Up.  He didn’t like it at all.


Her quill froze over the paper, and the nine-year-old stared forward, her green eyes blinking.  “Ummm…”

Below her paper was a bit of parchment where a question had been written in beautiful calligraphy. “Name three reasons a subject has nightmares.”

Lethia Artaud bit her lip and swung her feet under the table.  “Um, um, um…”  Her brow wrinkled and she sat back in her chair.  She squeezed her eyes shut and made the sound again, louder, as though this could bring the answer to her.  “Ummm–!!

“My sweet girl, you’re making quite a bit of noise for someone who should be studying!”

The girl’s eyes flew open and she slouched in her seat.  Outside her bedroom door stood Syria, her mistress, her pretty face free of the usual make-up and her hair pulled up into a messy bun.  She had a broom in her hands and small spectacles on the end of her nose.  She tucked one strand behind her ears before placing a hand on her hip.  “Well?” she said, her eyebrow raised in criticism.

Lethia blushed and looked back at her paper.  “I’m sorry mistress!”

Syria came to stand next to her, one hand resting on the back of the girl’s chair.  “What are you stuck on?”

“I just started on nightmares.”

“Mmm…” the woman leaned down, her eyes narrowing as she read through the narrow scope of her glasses.  “We went over this last night.”

Lethia’s blush turned worse and she fixed her eyes on the edge of the table.  “I know…” she mumbled.

Syria smiled gently and stroked the girl’s wheat blonde hair. “Don’t worry, dear.  Just look at your notes.  Where are they?”

The girl frowned as she tried to recall.  Her feet swung back and forth a few more times.  Then her eyes brightened.  “On the new scroll you gave me!”

“Which is most likely to be…?”

“On the shelf!” Lethia said, a proud smile spreading across her face for remembering.

Syria nodded and patted her head.  “There you are.”  She turned and walked toward the door.  “I’ll be cleaning in the kitchen if you need my help.  Try and do your best!”

“Yes, mistress!” Lethia cried as she slipped from her chair to receive the scroll from its mentioned place.  The scroll was a small one, but with four ornate handles made of polished cherry wood, with large discs that was a mix of both copper and wood.  Stamped into the copper, the words “Nightmares, Dreams, and Imaginings,” could be seen.  The girl pulled this from the shelf and rolled the parchment open, rolling the other end so as to take up the slack.  The parchment was mostly bare as Syria hadn’t finished her lectures.  But when she was done, Lethia was supposed to have a complete scroll of notes.

The girl read to herself out loud, slowly, as the words and the sentence structures were hard for her to say.  “Many confuse dreams with nightmares.  Dreams are simply mirrors reflecting an indy…indy-vid-ual’s life as-is.  A nightmare, however, is a fig…fig…” Lethia let out a frustrated sigh as she struggled with the word.  She started to migrate back to her chair as she sounded it out.  “Fig-yur-ra-tive tool used by the animus to catch the attention of the inty–intill–urgh…in-tel-lect.  People have nightmares for many reasons.  Though the nightmare may frighten or disturb–this does not mean its only purpose is to warn of immediate or future danger.  It could simply be an attempt on the part of the animus to bring about a fundy…fundy-mental change in the intellect.  It could also be an attempt by the animus’ to answer what the in-tel-lect cannot.”

The girl set the scroll down and picked up her quill, a dark feather from a wild turkey making whimsical shapes through the air.  She had garnered two reasons for nightmares from that paragraph, and copied the notes word for word.  “Bringing about a fundamental change in the intellect, and attempting to answer what the intellect cannot.”  In many ways, the concepts still eluded her, but Syria had said that recognition was the first step in learning, so Lethia didn’t fret over implicit understanding.  She was more concerned about making ink blots on her paper, and also wondered what the final reason for nightmares were.

The nine-year-old brushed the tip of her quill over the ridge of her large ear.  Her feet swung under the table.  Her attention started to wander, eyes sweeping about her small room.

The stone room had a wooden ceiling as above Lethia’s room was Syria’s.  Heavy rafters bowed over her with steel reinforcements.  The girl’s room overlooked the East, with a window that opened to afford her a beautiful view of the distant ocean.  Her bed was a warm wood frame with a tall headrest that resembled a rising sun.  At the foot of her bed was a chest where her toys were kept.  The bed and chest were adjacent to the door and window.  On the wall to the right of it, towards the far wall, were the shelves where her notes and books were kept.  Further down the wall, on the other side of the window, was her wardrobe where her dresses and coats and shoes could be found.  Across from her bed, just out of the doorway’s direct path, was her work desk.  Over this another shelf had been put up, holding yet more books.

The minutes stretched by, and Lethia felt herself clench up in frustration.

Taking her paper, the girl hopped off her chair and left her room, entering the winding staircase outside.  Her shoes pattered down the stone steps as she carefully descended to the bottom floor, where things were quiet.  Lethia frowned, her green eyes fluttering as she stood in the foyer, glancing left then right.  To her right, through the arched entryway was the den.  To her left, the kitchen.  Syria had said she’d be in the latter, so the youth tiptoed that way.

“Mistress Syria?” she called, beginning to feel nervous.

The girl stepped through the entryway, into the small kitchen, where herbs tied with twine hung drying over the counter.  Yesterday’s pick from the garden.  The pots were cold and the windows covered with simple curtains.  Sitting at the table with her head in her hands was Syria.  Black locks feathered out between her tense fingers.  Her glasses were on the table.  With the sunlight blocked, the back of the kitchen looked…dark.  Impenetrable.  Lethia couldn’t make out the woman’s face.

“But I’ve already planted it…” she heard the woman murmur.  “I’ve already planted it…wasn’t that enough?  You’re condemning her to–”

Lethia froze on the spot, holding the paper close to her like it were a shield from the disturbing sight.  “Mistress?”

Syria shifted, her hands relaxing some and moving to cover only her face.  She sat back in her chair and let out a shuddering sigh.  When she dropped her hands, a tired smile was on her face, dark eyes squinted as she took in the sight of the girl.

“Hmmm?  Yes, child?” she said, like she’d just been sleeping.

Lethia looked at the windows.  “Why did you close the curtains?”

The woman chuckled, a deep throaty sound.  She stood from her seat, smoothing out her teal cotton dress with one hand as she reached and grabbed the broom with the other.  “Just another migraine, dear.”

Lethia frowned.  “You’ve been having those alot lately!”  The girl opened her mouth to say something else, but she shut it with a snap and looked at the ground.

Syria came closer and leaned down, a soft hand touching the side of the girl’s face.  “Hmm?  Lethia, what is it, dear?”

Lethia rolled the weight on her foot to her ankle and back again.  “It’s just…that you said Isleen the Indomitable had lots of migraines before she died from a brain fever…”

The woman’s smile turned wry.  “Now I’m certain that wasn’t what I said!”

The girl pouted and looked at her shoes.  “But I remembered right!” she mumbled.

Syria placed a finger beneath her chin, forcing the child to look up.  Her look was chiding.  “Don’t mumble, dear.  And stop looking so sullen.  I wasn’t saying you remembered incorrectly–I’m saying you misunderstood me.”

“Yes, mistress.” Lethia said, struggling to wrestle her expression to something neutral.  She didn’t like displeasing Syria.

“Now what was it you needed help with?”

The girl held up her paper.  “I need one more reason for nightmares.”

Syria squinted at the paper.  Then she clicked her tongue.  “Give me a moment Lethia dear.  I can hardly see.”

She took the paper and went to the window near the table.  With a quick swipe, she threw back the small curtain and frowned at Lethia’s answers.  The youth bit her lip and rolled her weight onto her ankle again.

Syria glanced at her with a smile.  “Ah, my dear,” she sighed, the words warm and pulsing with affection.  Lethia ducked her head a little, but a grin spread her lips–though she wasn’t entirely sure what her mistress was smiling about per se.  The enchantress held the paper out to her pupil, shaking her head.  “You are so odd!  You have everything except the most famous reason of all!”

Lethia blinked, her green eyes squinting as Syria shifted to the side, allowing for more light to filter in through the window.  With the light in her eyes, the girl couldn’t see Syria’s face anymore–she was just a silhouette, lined hot by the glare, but no less striking for the loss of her features.

“Nightmares are most commonly known as warnings against impending dangers,” the enchantress said, a smile in her voice.

NUMBER FIVE__________________________

He urinated on the third shock.

He had been in the UpWorld for six hours.  He knew it to be this because Polichus had taught him to read a clock, and the clock said so.  Clocks had Numbers and Lines.  These were easier than the other things the man tried to teach him because the meaning for the numbers and the lines were unchanging and could easily be illustrated.  Pictures were still his primary form of thought–though he sometimes thought of letters as images alone–floating in a white sea.

Polichus gave him Special Water that tasted like dust and bacon.  The Special Water made him feel funny.  Polichus said the Special Water was important for the dog to understand the UpWorld.  The puppy still didn’t get a lot of things.  The UpWorld consisted of lots of bookcases sagging with books and papers and scrolls of parchment that seemed to spill out onto the flagstone floor.  There was a table across the room that held menacing tools and bizarre looking bottles and instruments.  The puppy knew that those things were for the satyr’s Work.  He never knew the man not to be Working.  An entryway led into a sort of living room, of which he’d been carried through many times, but had never actually been left much time in.  Next to the entry way, was a door that led to a place he’d never been before.  The door to his Home and his mother and siblings was in the living room.

Polichus sighed, setting down his wand.  He reached for the towel on the floor with a gloved hand.  “It’s a good thing we’re not on the kitchen table…”  The satyr started to mop up the piss, the puppy shivering and unable to make his legs move.  The man shoved him to the side, making the dog roll over onto its back in its weakness.  “Move over!”  Then he paused noting the semi-catatonic state the puppy was in.  The satyr cursed, throwing the towel onto the table.  “At this rate, I’ll have worked through another one…” he muttered.

He stood from his seat and with a stub and clack moved to the door behind them.  “Stay there, Number 5.  Old man Polichus is going to give you something to make you feel better…”

The puppy let out the tiniest whine, his limbs twitching as he struggled to regain control of his muscles.  There was a small rope on his collar tied to a metal rung on the table.  Just above his head was a thick card whose corner kept poking him.  It was one of The Cards.  Polichus had been quizzing him with those.  He would show a card and ask the puppy which was Bad and which was Good.  The greater reasoning behind the test still eluded him, but the puppy understood enough to know that if he didn’t choose correctly, he would be shocked with the wand.  If he got it right, he received a treat.

He had yet to get it right.

The dog, though still quivering, felt control return to him.  He flopped and twisted until he was on his paws again.  He sniffed the cards, then growled at them.  One was a picture of a short dwarf with a crown on his head.  Beneath it were the words, “King Brice.”  Another card near it depicted a mean-looking human with a hood over his head and a knife pointed at the viewer.  Beneath this picture was the word, “Enemy.”  He knew what they said because Polichus kept pointing at them and saying them over and over.  The dog couldn’t read, but thanks to the Special Water, he finally understood that the Squiggles meant things.

The puppy swiped at them, knocking them off the table.  He hated The Cards and their Squiggles.

He looked to the door where Polichus had vanished through.  With perked ears, he could hear the old satyr sifting through things.  There was the chink and clink of bottles and ceramics.  The dog snorted.

He wasn’t going to wait.

He went to the metal rung and began to gnaw at the rope.  It was a simple enough knot.  The dog managed to get a tooth beneath one of the threads and pulled, snarling under his breath.

There was a crash, and the puppy froze.  “Gods damnit!” Polichus voice.  He’d broken something…which meant he’d take a long time cleaning it up.

The dog finished pulling at the rope until it came from.  He gave a shake of his fur and panted happily.  Trotting to the edge of the table, the puppy jumped down onto the chair Polichus had been using.  When he jumped down onto the floor, he tumbled, yipping.  Despite his size, he was still only five weeks old, and he lacked good coordination.  There was another crash from the behind the door.

“Number 5!?” Polichus cawed.

Now trembling in fear, the dog ran as fast as he could to the living room.  Whimpering, he went to the door that led Home and scratched at the wood.  But he heard the stub and clack of Polichus hooves and cane and he dropped to the floor, his ears drawing back and his tail tucking between his legs.  He thought of his mother and how he would hide behind her body.  When he hid behind her, he couldn’t see Polichus.  The puppy didn’t want to see the satyr, but his mother wasn’t around.  He went for the next best thing–a large high back chair near the fireplace.

Stumbling over his own paws, the dog went to hide.

He heard Polichus enter the room.  The satyr seemed to be on the verge of panic.  “Number 5?  Come now, little pup, old man Polichus has just the thing to make up for those nasty shocks!”  The man went around the room, grunting.  He was likely trying to look around the furniture.  The puppy trembled, certain he was going to be found again.  Something Inside was hurting and he didn’t know why.

There was a scratching behind him.  The puppy’s ears twitched to it, but his attention was dominated by the slow approach of Polichus who was working his way around the room.

“Number 5…” the man snarled, rage suddenly tainting his words.  “You worthless mongrel–after all I put into you I won’t let you–!!”

The man was cut off by a screech.  The puppy dropped to the ground, his head and ears tweaking toward the fireplace.  There was a scritching and scratching, like claws along brick.  Soot tumbled down the chimney.

Then without warning a horrible looking monster tumbled down onto the ashes.  It hopped up, on its hands and feet, wings shaking the ash and soot from the feathers.  Black eyes blinked amidst a blue face.

Polichus shouted, his cane dropping and his hands going to his head.  “I forgot to close the damper last night!” he croaked.

The batreng bared its teeth, its voice like a marble rolling along thin wood as it contemplated its situation.  Then a noise came at the windows, rattling them and sending shadows along the floors.  Polichus cursed.  More of them, outside–they were calling to their fellow, who screeched and hooted back at them.

Then the Batreng’s eyes turned the puppy’s way.  The young dog backed into the chair, a whimper building in his throat.  The batreng hopped up once, sending soot and ash into the puppy’s eyes, and before he knew it, the monkey monster had him by the collar and was hefting him up, and he squelched at the pressure on his windpipe.  His claws skimmed the floor.

“Number 5!”  Polichus.  There was the scrape as the man picked up his cane from the floor.

The puppy’s eyes teared and carried away the ash that had blinded him.  His vision was still blurred, but now he could open his eyes somewhat.  He felt the impish creature jerk him up, so that his paws no longer touched the floor, and for a moment he was granted a feeling of weightlessness as he found himself staring parallel with the uneven ceiling.  Then the ceiling was falling away from him just as he started to feel gravity’s grips on him, his fur ruffling, the sound of wings beating the air, and the dog wheezed, his neck giving a painful twinge as he swatted against the batreng’s leg.

Polichus’ stick narrowly missed him.  The man was having a fit as the batreng flew, across the room, the puppy in its grip.

“Get back here, get back here you little demon!” he squawked.

The puppy pedaled his paws in the air, and with the motions of flying swinging him side to side, the dog could hardly twist around to bite at the batreng that held him captive.  The creature whooped, sounding like a crone, as it called to its brothers through the windows.  With a whoosh the monster evaded Polichus’ cane swipes and entered the study that the puppy had originally fled from.  The young dog whined, its eyes clear enough now to see that the stupid imp was landing much too fast amidst the table filled with odd glasses and sharp instruments–

The dog cried out as its hindleg was cut on a menacing star-like cutting tool.  The batreng, fascinated with the shiny things–started to shift through the items, eventually settling on a polished blunted tool that the puppy had once seen Polichus use to crush minerals for his potions.

The satyr in question came hobbling into the study, his weak knees knocking together as he gripped onto the entryway for support.  “Beast!  Cretin!  Out with you!”  he brandished his cane at the batreng, who just screeched back at him, its tail lashing and knocking over bottles.  “Beast!  You filthy beast!”  The old man lurched forward.  For all the strength that remained in his arms, his legs were his undoing.  The batreng dodged him easily, wings batting at the air in slow, unconcerned flaps.  The puppy let out another squelch, blood dripping from its hind leg as the batreng flew across the other end of the room to the high circular window.

Polichus face drew long as he slammed into the corner of the instrument table.  His cane fell from his hands as his legs stuttered beneath him, hooves scraping along the floor through broken glass and spilled potions.  “No!  Please!” He bleated, not ironically.  His right hoof caught on a snag on the floor and he fell to his knees, glass cutting into him.  He peered around his work table, his glasses having slid far down his nose.  The batreng narrowed its black eyes at him, its lips spreading to bare teeth in what could be interpreted as a fiendish smile.

The impish monster then raised the blunt instrument, cawing and hooting with triumph, before he swung it at the window.  The glass shattered, the falling shards catching sunlight and ringing onto the floor like a song that heralded freedom.  The puppy didn’t understand.  The puppy was finding it hard to stay conscious, after all.

Polichus screamed as the batreng flew out, and in his place, his brothers clammered about the open window, cutting themselves on the jagged edges as they fluttered in, excited and eager by the sight of all the shiny things that they could snatch and break…


The girl was in a panic.  She was still in her thin cotton dress, her long wheat blonde hair drawn up in a sweaty tail, house shoes still on her feet.  Her mistress had said they would have a trip to Belcliff today if she managed to finish her assignments, but she hadn’t.  She had the list of questions Syria had written her, so she set about starting.  But she was near to tears.  Trips outside of their small home were special.  Lethia had missed out on a chance like this only once before, and she’d cried herself to sleep thinking she’d have to wait ages to see the world outside.  The simulations Syria created for the sake of their lessons were in no way as satisfying as actually seeing it all in the flesh.

Lethia’s legs swung hard under her table, as though the excited fidgeting would make her brain work faster.

“Name three reasons a subject has nightmares.”

The girl bit her lip and rubbed her brow.  With her fresh piece of paper, she set to writing… “Subjects have nightmares for three reasons.  1)  As warnings against danger;  2)  To answer a question the intellect can’t;  3) To–” Lethia paused, her eyes widening.  She lifted her quill before the ink started to feather and tried to resist the urge to beat her head.  Syria said that hurting herself would not make problems easier.

The woman was perhaps right–but the girl didn’t know any other way to get out her frustrations.

“Lethia, dear?”

The nine-year-old jumped with a whimper.  She looked to the doorway and saw Syria there, in her heavy winter cloak and a fine burgundy dress with a cream blouse.  A small wicker basket was held in her hands.  The enchantress frowned at the girl, her arching brows nearly meeting.  “Child, did I not say to get ready?  We waste daylight!”

Lethia’s chin crumpled and she set her quill down.  “I know, mistress.  I’m sorry, mistress.”  She swallowed the lump in her throat and bowed her head.  Her face turned hot as tears blurred her vision.  “I didn’t…I didn’t…finish…” the girl couldn’t go on.  She let out a small sob before she bit her lip and tried to swallow it down.

The woman sighed and swept into the small room, her clothes swishing as she switched her basket to one arm and looked over the girl’s shoulder.  She blinked, and an exasperated smile spread over her rubious lips.  She stroked the girl’s hair.


The girl sniffed and looked up.  She tried not to slouch, even though she really wanted to.  “Yes, mistress?”

The woman’s smile broadened and she pointed at the girl’s paper.  “Child, you’ve already finished your assignment.  And you did an excellent job, I might add!”

Lethia stared up at her, then she wiped at her face and beamed.  “Really!?”

Syria laughed, the sound deep and warm.  “Yes, yes!  This is why we’re going out today!”  The woman set her basket onto the desk and floated to the wardrobe.  “Now that’s straightened out…what would my dearest like to wear today?”

NUMBER FIVE__________________________

The batreng landed on a cliff face not far from Polichus’ cottage, grumbling as it fingered the puppy’s collar.  The satyr’s home was nestled down in a small valley, and swirling over it was a swarm of the flying imps, all cawing all hooting all screeching.  They could’ve come for the magical fumes that Polichus polluted the air with, or perhaps–through some twisted form of word-of-mouth, the monsters (with their limited intelligence) had heard of the shiny things the satyr kept so poorly guarded.  But these possibilities were beyond the puppy who had much more pressing matters to deal with.

The batreng set the dog down, the wide pad of its thumb scraping over the silver plate of his collar.  The pup, dizzy and panting, tried to writhe out of the creature’s grip, but the batreng just screeched at him and wrestled him still.

At one point the monster leaned down to bite at the puppy’s collar, and the dog cried out as it felt its fangs scrape against his neck.  Before the batreng pulled away, the dog managed to twist around and bite him on the shoulder.  The batreng jerked back with a shriek, the blunt tool that it had stolen from Polichus rising in the air for a strike–

But the instrument caught the light, drawing the attention of its fellows.

Another batreng swooped down at top speed, knocking into the first.  They tumbled over the puppy, off the cliff face, hooting and shrieking as their wings beat at each other.  The dog lay there shivering, its watery eyes peering over the cliff to see its captor go.  Then he whined.

His peace was not to last.

A shadow fell over him, and the dog tensed up just before yet another flying imp grabbed him around the middle.  This one seemed smarter than the puppy’s previous captor.  Rather than tempt his brethren with his new prize, the imp flew into the air, warbling as it traveled away from the growing chaos that befell Polichus.  It soared over the mountains and hills, and the puppy trembled in its hands, deciding it was perhaps a better idea not to try and fight his captor at such an altitude.  If he hadn’t already emptied his bladder, he would’ve done so now.

A city came within sight.


She held Syria’s hand as she looked around the local jeweler’s.  They had stopped there for an errand, but Lethia didn’t know what.  She didn’t mind, she liked looking at the jewelry.  There were diamonds, pearls, rubies, garnets, sapphires…such pretty things.  Such bright and precious metals.  The nine-year-old gazed through the cases in wonder, her breath fogging up the glass.

“Hello Beryl,” Syria said to the woman behind the counter.  “I was wondering if I could speak with Daedalus a moment?  Is he in?”

“Yes, Lady Syria,” the round, gingery woman said.  She bowed slightly.  “Allow me to get him for you.  It’ll be just a moment!”

Syria smiled pleasantly as Lethia glanced at her.

“Mistress, may I ask a question?” The girl said.

The woman nodded at her.  “You may, dear.”

“Where do these jewels come from?”

“From the dwarves, dear.”

The girl frowned.  “But I’ve never seen any in town!”

Syria pressed a finger to her lips as Daedalus came through the door.  He was a tall elf with long, smooth ears, short-cropped black hair, and electric blue eyes.  He had the faintest lines about his mouth and eyes, and his throat was beginning to sag.  He bowed deeply. “Lady Syria!  How nice to see you!  I don’t think I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing you in my shop.  What can I do for you today?”

Syria curtsied with a slight bow of her head.  “Greetings Daedalus!  It pleases me to see you in good health.  Your shop is delightful.”

“Thank you, Lady.”

“I come to you today in the hopes that you may fulfill a need of mine?”

The man nodded, his hands folding behind his back.  Beryl, his assistant, sidled past him, bowing.  “Yes?” the man said, his eyes appraising. “What would you ask of this elf?  I would meet your request to the best of my ability.”

Syria smiled.  “Thank you, sir.  I was wondering if you could fashion a pair of wire frame glasses…” then the woman placed a gentle hand on Lethia’s shoulder, making her look up in surprise.  “For my apprentice if you’d please.”

Daedalus nodded, looking at the girl.  Lethia blushed and looked down at the floor.  “Mmm…well, we’d need to get some measurements–but that will only take a moment.  Bring her around the counter.  Let’s see how we can make this work.”

Lethia felt Syria press her shoulder gently.  “Come, dear.”

As they turned to go around the counter, the nine-year-old glanced out the front windows to the streets outside.  The roads had been cleared of the snow, leaving clear pathways for citizens to walk.  People went by, bundled up.  They kept to themselves.  Belcliff wasn’t very boisterous–even Lethia knew this at her age.  She was just about to look away, the sight failing to hold her attention, when a large shadow crossed the street toward the building.  The girl paused, her eyes widening.

Lethia had spent a great deal of time looking out her window back home at the tower, and she could recognize the local birds by shadow alone without trouble.  That was not a bird.  That was a–

“Mistress!” the girl said, tugging on the woman’s hand.

Syria glanced down at her as she steered the girl through the doorway leading to the back of the store.  “Yes, dear?”

“Outside just now!  I saw something!”

“Oh?”  They followed Daedalus past the messy desk which held records and designs and notes.  Together they went up the winding stairs to the second floor, where the man’s work station was located.  The sturdy table was brimming with various tools and spools of metal, boxes of jewels and various crafting materials organized by type and color.  Over the desk, a large window filtered in light from outside.  The elf sat down in his cushioned chair, and it groaned beneath his weight.  He pulled on a pair of magnifying goggles, carefully pulling it behind his long ears where the contraption rested on his forehead.

The man gestured for Lethia to come near and Syria urged her forward.  The youth bit her lip, wishing to press the matter further, but being overly persistent about something usually made Syria cross.

As soon as she was before him, he took a measuring tape and held it before her eyes.  It took her a moment before she realized the man was measuring the width of her head.  “Hmm,” he said before taking the tape and wrapping it all the way around.  He nodded, turning to his materials.  “Let me see, here…”

As the man scribbled on a scrap of paper, the girl’s ears perked to the sound of chittering.  She frowned and glanced at the window.  “Mistress…” she said slowly.

“Shh…” the woman said behind her.

Lethia’s frown deepened as she heard something whimper.  The girl went around the desk, to the right, standing on her tiptoes as she tried to peer out the window along the building’s ledge.  Her eyes bugged.  “Mistress Syria!” she cried loudly.

Both adults looked at her, startled.  Syria crossed her arms, her eyes narrowing.  “Child, what has gotten into you!?”

The girl pointed frantically at the window, hopping on the spot.  “Outside!  There’s a batreng and it’s killing a puppy!

“What?”  Daedalus stood as Syria came closer.  They leaned over the work table as far as they could go, heads craning to look out the window–but Lethia was already running for the staircase.

Her mistress turned, dark eyes blinking.  “Lethia?”

The nine-year-old ran as fast as her legs could take her, bounding down the steep staircase two at a time and slamming into the wall.  Beryl cried out in surprise, throwing papers up into the air as Lethia pushed past her through the door.  “Pardon me, ma’am!” the girl cried over her shoulder as she pushed through the front door out into the snowy street.

She squinted her green eyes against the glare of the white world, cringing as she slogged clumsily through the growing snow bank on the side of the road.  Before she even stopped moving, Lethia twisted around to look up the building face.  Sure enough, there was a batreng there, pawing and grumbling at the collar of a large puppy.  Within that instant, the collar came away, and a silver plate glinted on it–likely the prize it had truly been seeking all this time.  The batreng warbled at it, pleased.

…The puppy wasn’t moving.

Clenching her fists, the girl squeezed her eyes shut.

All around shut out quiet as she reached with things unseen to the intellect of the batreng.  It pulsed with bright images of food, and treasure, and violence.  The girl could see the thoughts of Beryl and Daedalus–but not Syria.  The woman kept her mind protected at all times.

With a psychic spear of thoughts (“Go away!  Leave it alone!  Shoo!”), the girl attacked the batreng’s mind.  Her thoughts were puissant white words, searing through the dark sea that bore them through the static dark space of their world.  It lanced through the batreng’s mind, and the imp’s thoughts faded, turning smoky and lost.  She heard as it fell to the snow.  Her heart dropped.  She had only meant to scare the monster away–did the puppy get knocked down too?

Then she felt a hot presence scalding her from the front.  Her power was forcefully pushed back, causing a dull ache in her head.  The girl withdrew the rest of the way, shuddering.  Her eyes snapped open, and there stood Syria, her eyes narrow slits, arms crossed high over her chest.

The girl bowed immediately, trembling.  “M’sorry mistress!  The puppy needed help!”

Syria’s voice was hard.  “You risked tainting the greater intellectual cluster.  You risked harming your own mind.  You weren’t dealing with a sentient–you were dealing with a monster.  Nevermind that I haven’t trained you in dealing with the matrices of normal animals.”

Lethia swallowed hard.  She dared to raise her gaze enough to stare at Syria’s knees.

The woman sighed and brought the girl upright by the shoulders.  The child looked into her mistress face with wide eyes.  Syria gazed at her, stoic.  “Well?  You risked so much for this poor thing, you may as well take to it!”

Lethia blinked up at her.  Then her mouth set into a somber line, and she gave a nod.  Together they went to the snow bank where the batreng had fallen.  Daedalus had already slit its throat, his dagger in his hand.  The creature’s blue face was a navy blue, like it’d been choking.  Neither of its hands held the collar.  It must have fallen from its grip as it fell.  The nine-year-old paled at the sight of the monster corpse, but the elf was quick to stuff it into the burlap sack he had brought from inside.

“Damn these things!” the elf panted as though he’d run from the second floor all the way down.  “There’s more of them this year!  And they keep coming to my shop of ‘shiny things’!”  He stood and went around to the alley to dispose of it properly.

With the harrowing sight taken away, the girl turned next to Beryl who had just come from the building.  She knelt carefully in the snow, gathering up her dress as she inspected the puppy that lay still.  Lethia knelt by it, gathering her dress up in similar fashion.  Her eyes started to burn.

“Did it die…?” she breathed.

“No, child,” Syria said over her.  She was frowning.  “I can…hear it.”

The girl turned and frowned at her.  “…Mistress?”

The enchantress looked to Beryl, her eyes suddenly wide and sharp.  “Beryl, dear, might we borrow a blanket of some sort?”

“Gods, of course!”  The woman rose to her feet with a small grunt, her round body hurrying to the door.  “Halward help the poor creature!  It’ll need more than a blanket,” the woman muttered as she went through the doorway.

Lethia’s lip trembled as she scooted closer–her empathy leading her to forget to care about whether or not her dress touched the dirty snow.  She reached forward and touched a hand to the puppy’s hind leg, where blood and puss crusted in the soft fur.  The dog’s ears perked, and it turned its head to fix one watery eye on the girl, but it took no other action other than to settle its head back down and closed its eyes.

Beryl came back with a wool scarf.  Her chubby cheeks pink.  “I hope this’ll do!  It was all I could find.”

Lethia took it from the woman’s hands eagerly.  “Thank you!”

The woman looked at her, eyebrows raised high.  She looked at Syria as though to ask silently if it were okay for the child to handle the task, and the enchantress only held up a lax finger.

The nine-year-old, oblivious, pinched her tongue between her lips as she gathered the puppy up into a bundle with the wool scarf.  The dog whimpered some, but its eyes slipped shut.  They took it inside.  Once there, Daedalus checked the dog’s hind leg.

“Flesh wound,” he said, wiping at the fur with a wet cloth.  “I’ll wrap it, to keep it clean once I wipe away this dirt, but once you’re home you’ll have to remove it.  I’m spreading some medicine over it–to prevent fever, so there shouldn’t be any trouble.”

At the mention of taking the puppy home, Lethia turned and gazed at Syria imploringly.  The woman arched an eyebrow at her.  “My dear, of course we’re taking it home.  You chose to save it.  It is now your responsibility.  But do not think I’m forgetting about what you attempted!  We’ll discuss your punishment once this matter is dealt with in full.”

Lethia had started to grin, but at Syria’s last words, she tried to smother her joy with not a lot of success.

They were taking a puppy home…


The next few days, the girl cared for the puppy as best she could.  There were no trained animal doctors in the region as there was no great amount of livestock, and as such all owners were expected to treat their own.  This didn’t seem a problem as Syria owned a book on animals that covered a wide variety of species.  Though the information wasn’t very specific, there was enough there about dogs that they were able to figure out a proper diet for the puppy.  They tried to feed the puppy a mixture of milk, and ground up meat.  They kept it warm and checked its wound.

Still, it didn’t seem to get stronger.  It didn’t play, it didn’t even move its head.  It refused food and refused drink.

Lethia lay in her bed on the third night, weeping.  The dog lay in a makeshift bed on the floor near her.  “Puppy…puppy, what’s wrong?” she whispered in a dry whine.  “Why won’t you let me help?”

The dog didn’t move or make a sound.  The girl curled into a ball and after a while, she fell asleep.

…Whilst in repose she came across a way of sound that begged her to dance, so she did.

Her feet touched upon stars, skimming belts of light as though she were a weightless feather soaring on the currents of the wind.  She was–she was–she was–


Then, suddenly her parents were there–faceless beautiful voiceless loving lifeless golems that kept ahead of her always in the dark plum skies–their definitions were the offspring of expectations threaded carefully through the eyes of children’s hopes and dreams.  Speaking was not allowed here, so she uttered not a cry or a greeting to the phantoms that drifted at a fixed distance before her.  She would not speak, would not speak.  Would not dare to ask, “Why are you here?  Why do you have me chasing you?”  The girl only wished the way of sound went faster, and tried to move along the stars and belts of light so as to catch up with her faceless beautiful voiceless loving lifeless parents–but ah the wicked reaches of space and time left the tips of her hopeful branches still all too short.  Her parents were gone.

The girl wept tears of sticky yellow sap, and her feet burrowed into the stars and the belts of light as she ceased her fervent dancing, swallowing the way of sound so as to end the path forever more.

Lethia Artaud rooted herself in the heavens and her world turned dark.

Then she woke up, gasping.

Lethia swallowed, mouth dry, blinking away tears as she stared down at her hands half-curled in her lap, the heavy blanket over her legs feeling too stifling.  She kicked it away and moved to sit at the edge of her bed.  The puppy still hadn’t moved from its place.  The girl carefully slid to the floor and leaned down over the small dog, her breath bated as she tried to focus in the clandestine darkness.

“Puppy?” she breathed, thinking of her dream.  No…her nightmare.  She thought of her lessons on the subject and pressed even closer, pressing her forehead to the dog’s.  “…Tell me what’s wrong.”

Syria had said that the girl had taken a great risk in stunning the batreng.  She had said that such enchantment required special training, for monsters were even more difficult and dangerous to read than animals.  …But if Lethia could see and affect the batreng’s mind–what challenge did a puppy’s mind present?

Nevermind that she’d knocked it out versus shooing it away.

Lethia’s eyes slipped shut.

It took a moment, but in her mind’s eye, she saw the glow of the puppy’s thoughts.  This alone wasn’t very shocking.  Each animal, however simple-minded, was capable of some form of thought.  What made Lethia gasp and draw back was that–

The puppy was thinking of words.  Human language.

The girl swallowed and closed her eyes again.

The puppy’s thoughts were a cloud, much like most minds were.  As such, she knew the most pressing or currently focused thoughts were near the center of the cluster.  Gently, so as to not harm his mindscape, the girl probed gently into the cloud, using low amounts of her power–what Syria called “ishin”.  Ishin was measurable, but invisible to the human eye.  It was not incorrect to call it a sixth sense, but this implied that it was a passive trait that could not be actively utilized.  As an enchantress, Lethia had to learn early what ishin was, and how to turn it into a tool she could utilize whenever she wanted to.  She didn’t have much experience piercing other mindscapes on her own, so the girl moved forth slowly.

As she did, she marveled at what she saw.

On the glow of the puppy’s outer thoughts, the girl garnished finer understandings of what the images meant.  What truly awed her was that the images of words weren’t just disconnected memories of odd symbols.  They had understanding, they had definition…much of it being incorrect or overly-simplistic (“Squiggles?  Does he mean words?  …UpWorld? What?”) but they meant something to the dog.

There were more images than words, of course.  There were thoughts of his siblings, thoughts of a dark place that looked like a cellar, thoughts of a cage, thoughts of food and sleep and play.  Thoughts of a large dog–likely his mother.  She got a name from the latter–Dotti.

Lethia stopped her advancement as a large dark phrase hovered before her, like a wall blocking her path.


It was a name, she knew from the manner of its use–and there were images too–an old satyr living alone in the frosty region of the Torreth.  It was also a name drenched in loathing.  All around it pulsed negative emotions.

Polichus, bad.  Polichus, hurt.  Polichus, bad.  Polichus, hurt.

Swallowing, Lethia went around this thought.  She’d have to tell her mistress about this person.  He didn’t sound like a good man at all.

Finally she came to the center of the cluster, and the nine-year-old felt a pressure on her head.  Going in this deeply often caused the mindscape to resist against the foreign intellect.  The matrices of the puppy’s animus were closing in around Lethia, and she took a deep breath.

Vibrating and buzzing and pulsing were the puppy’s most pressing thoughts and concerns and desires.  Lethia was surprised to find many of them were the word-images she encountered before.  Towering above the other thoughts were the words:  Home, Pain, and Family.  Surrounding these were smaller images, like flies around fruit, zipping and flashing in and out of sight, fuzzy at the edges and sometimes transparent.  Lethia focused on the puppy’s concern with Pain, and bared her teeth as she tried to hold onto her connection long enough to see something useful in all the confusing mess that surrounded the thought.

There.  His neck and throat.  The puppy was finding it painful to swallow.  Of course!

Lethia withdrew, the ghostly images flashing by her in a rush as the puppy’s mind shut her out completely.  She felt something snag on her, but she couldn’t stop.  Being engrossed in another mind took effort, and her ishin still wasn’t strong enough to stay connected that long.

The girl opened her eyes, feeling excited.  She considered waiting till morning, but she figured as there was a life at stake, her mistress wouldn’t get too upset over her intrusion.

She was partially right.

“My dear, you have gotten quite audacious these past few days!  Never have you been this impetuous.  This whole matter vexes me!” Syria cried as they traveled down to the kitchen.  The woman slammed and banged things as she gathered what she needed.  She was barefoot and dressed in her sleeping gown, hair messy and pinned back, her face a bit ghoulish from the poor light and the shock of suddenly being roused from deep sleep.  Lethia had told her of the puppy’s problem, and her mistress seemed to know just what was needed, though she didn’t impart this to her apprentice.  The woman was too busy ranting.  “Did I not tell you that training was needed when dealing with mindscapes that aren’t sentient?!  Yet you deliberately disobeyed me!”  The enchantress slammed the mortar and pestle onto the counter next to the astragalus root, sphinx bezoar, and white chalk. “Clearly your new chores and writing assignments haven’t been enough for you!  Perhaps I’ll have you clean the cow’s stable as well?”

Lethia paled.  She bowed deep with hands at her sides.  “M-Mistress!  I’ll never do it again!  I–” but the girl paused and bit her lip.

Syria stopped, crossing her arms.  “What, child?” she asked flatly, her baggy eyes narrowing.

Lethia raised herself enough to blink at Syria’s knees.  “The puppy thinks…in words.  I saw a name in his head.  Polichus.  I think…I think he was the puppy’s owner.” The girl waited to hear Syria’s reaction.

“Go on,” the woman said, her voice reserved.

Lethia resumed in a rush.  “Polichus is an old satyr who lives in the area.  The puppy hates him, mistress.  He hurt him.  And he’s got the puppy’s family still–locked in a cellar in a cage!”  The girl’s fists clenched.  “It isn’t right!”

Syria said nothing for a moment.  Then she shook her head and returned her attention to the items on the counter.  “Very well…we shall see about this satyr.  I promise you nothing, however.  We may even be required by the marshal to return the dog to its owner.”

“But he hurt him!” Lethia cried, straightening.  Her little body trembled.  She wouldn’t let the puppy go back to that terrible man.

“Do not shout at me, girl.” Syria said, pausing with an air of danger as she turned her head just so.

Lethia quailed, bowing again.  “My apologies, mistress…” the girl mumbled.

Syria sighed as she chopped up the astragalus root.  “My dear…focus on helping your little friend first.  These things will come in time.”


A week later.  In her bedroom.  On the floor between the bed and her work desk.

Lethia watched in delight as the puppy carefully chewed up the ground meat.  They had to shave away the fur around its neck–something it greatly protested–but after Syria had applied the salve she had made, the dog immediately started to show improvement.  It was still experiencing discomfort, but now the dog was eating again, and the nine-year-old couldn’t be happier.

“It’s good isn’t it, puppy?” the youth giggled as she gently scratched its back.

The dog gazed up at her with eyes blinking.  Then it thought:  Good?  Food!  GOOD food!

Lethia’s hand froze against the puppy’s back.  Her green eyes widened.  “…Puppy?” she breathed.

The puppy perked its ears, its tail wagging.  Girl?

The girl shivered, touching her head, then her large ears, then her mouth.  “I–but I’m not–my ishin isn’t–”

The dog resumed its meal, small jaws taking up pieces of the ground up meat.  Girl.  Squiggles.  Number 5 hate Squiggles.  But Number 5 love Girl.  …But Number 5 HUNGRY.  Stop Squiggles now.  Good food!

Lethia’s young mind thought of several possible actions.  She could panic.  She could panic and start crying.  She could panic and start crying and run to find Syria.  OR…

The girl started laughing, her face turning red.  “I can hear you!  And you understand me!”  Lethia jumped to her feet, her hands clapping as she hopped up and down.  “I can talk to animals!”  The girl paused, a frown coming over her features.  “Wait…you call yourself ‘Number 5’?”  She scrunched up her nose.  “That’s a stinky name!  Let me get the mythology book from downstairs.  We’ll pick something better for you!”

As the girl fled the room, the puppy grumbled after her.


Lethia jumped down the stairs, her entire body shocked and jittering with excitement.  Syria was in her sanctuary, meditating.  As she entered the foyer, she tried to contain her bubbling giggles.

But her concern didn’t seem to matter.  The woman emerged from the room, her cheeks flushed, and her eyes bright.  Syria brushed a stray lock behind her ear as she fixed her eyes on Lethia.  “Child, what are you up to?”

The girl froze, feeling oddly guilty.  “I was getting a book…” she said, pointing.

“Did you finish your assignments?”


“And your chores?”

“Yes!  I swept and mopped and did the dishes.”

“…And the stable?”

Lethia looked down at her shoes.  “I was feeding the puppy.”

Syria pursed her lips, one hand resting on her hip.  “Very well.  But afterwards you take care of that stable!”

The girls shoulders sagged.  “Yes, mistress…”

The woman drifted to the door, her brows knitting.  “And don’t slouch!”  She beckoned for Lethia to come near.  “Here…is the puppy still eating?  Will he be okay?  You really ought to choose a name for him, dear.”

Lethia pouted.

Syria went on, oblivious. “Come with me a moment, we’ve a visitor at the gates.  I sensed their approach just now.”

Lethia perked up at this, her eyebrows going high.  It was always exciting when someone from the outside came to their tower, but the youth knew all of Syria’s patients and none were scheduled to make an appearance now.  The enchantress pulled on her heavy cloak and when the youth came near, she plucked the girl’s cloak off the hook and did the same for her.  Together they went outside, trudging through the snow hand in hand.

Surrounding their tower were high walls meant to keep out most animals and monsters.  Syria’s power was such that she needed only the power of her mind to sense the presence of a visitor at the outer gates.

As they neared, they saw a familiar elf waving at them from the other side.

“Hail, Daedalus!”  Syria called.

“Hail my Lady!”  He held up a package.  “I have finally finished them.  I hoped you received my messenger pigeon?”

“Yes, yes, I’ve been expecting you.  Please allow me to open this.”  Syria pulled a lever at the side of the gate and the mechanism shuddered and creaked as the gates pushed through the snow, swinging inward.  Daedalus bowed and stepped through.

“Hullo, Lethia.  How’re you this fine day?”

The girl blushed and curtsied.  “Very well, sir!  Thank you for asking!”

Syria smiled and placed a hand on her shoulder as the gates swung close again.  She gestured toward the tower.  “Please sir, this way.  I’ll make you some tea.”

“Thank you, Lady Syria.  I would be very grateful,” the man said with another slight bow.

Once back at the tower, Syria made the tea as promised.  They were in the kitchen, Lethia sitting at one end of the table as Daedalus did the other.  Normally she was to tend to any additional needs of guests, but the man was content to wait for his tea in peace.  The enchantress handed Daedalus a cup, and the man accepted it gratefully.  She took another, smaller cup, and served Lethia some as well.  The girl accepted it with a grin and a quiet, “Thank you!”

The elf closed his eyes as he tasted the drink.  Ginger with lemon and honey.  “Mmm!”  He set the cup down and nodded with a broad smile.  “I see you are quite talented!  Tea making is sullied by the crass.  There are few left today who understand the art of it!”

Syria bowed her head.  “I am honored you would think me worthy.  You must have sampled some of the best teas in the world.  Lekeid is quite famous for it.”

Daedalus chuckled.  “Yes, the Higashans, try as they might, still cannot match the Elven ways,” he pulled the package on the table to his lap.  It was a box covered in parcel paper and bound with twine.  “So, onto the business of those glasses you had me make for you.”  The man stood and presented the package to Syria, who took it with both hands.  “I hope they are to your specifications.  The lenses were what took the most time–I had to scrap a pair and start over as they weren’t good enough.”

Syria unwrapped the package carefully.  Lethia craned her neck, the steam from her tea curling around her face.

The woman pulled from the box a pair of glasses with dark, round lenses.  Lethia couldn’t see her face as the woman spoke.  “Ah…good.  I was getting worried.”

Daedalus frowned, tilting his head to the side.  “Worried?  Whatever for?”

Syria turned and drifted to Lethia.  Carefully, she leaned down and held up the glasses.  “Oh, you see…my dearest Lethia has a condition.  It’s quite unfortunate.  We’re still working on a solution.”

Lethia blinked, a small frown coming over her face.  She took the glasses from the woman and slowly put them on.

“Remember, dear?” the enchantress said to the girl, tilting her head to one side.  Her eyes were wide and dark. “You have a condition.  You can’t look directly into other people’s eyes or you’ll steal their thoughts!”

The nine-year-old started to feel a crawling sensation along her skull.  Her eye stalks started to hurt, and sound began to feel like it filtered through thick cotton.

Lethia nodded, feeling numb.  “Oh…yes, I remember now…”


The satyr was dead.

She had known this after Lethia had first mentioned the man.  Upon returning to bed, she’d swept through the region, combing the the greater intellectual cluster to discover his thoughts were still present but feeble.  By the time help would arrive, he’d perish from his injuries.  Still, the woman sent a messenger bird as soon as she could to the local authorities.

The records stated that he was killed by a swarm of batrengs that had invaded his home. Syria felt there was something greater at work.  She didn’t know the cause for the population spike, but told Marshal Sanders of the trouble and requested that a team be sent to handle the beasts.  The colony was likely near the satyr’s home.

She liked Marshal Sanders, but he was set to leave office soon.  There was a soldier from the militia campaigning for the future position.  He was a brash and greedy man.  What was his name again…?

Daedalus had been right–there were too many of the monsters lately.  She’d recently had to chase a gaggle of them off herself.  The puppy had nearly re-injured his neck barking at them all.  He’d always hold a hatred for them, it seemed, as she was sure he would always hate satyrs for as long as he lived.  Lethia had been the first kind person to him.  Syria saw his idolization of the girl begin, much like Lethia’s had begun years ago toward the woman.

Ah, but she had to ask Marshal Sanders what became of the dogs.  It seemed the satyr, Polichus, had been using them for alchemical research.  He didn’t have a permit for it, and as such his work was illegal.  Much of what he did was morally reprehensible, but Syria confessed a curiosity over his findings.  It certainly seemed to have an affect on his primary subject, “Number 5”, newly named “Argos” by her apprentice.  The dog was exhibiting unnaturally rapid growth and development, and his ability to comprehend and learn complex concepts were astounding.  But Syria’s interest was purely for sport–as she concerned herself with sentient minds, not animal minds.  Lethia seemed to have quite an affinity for it, but she would have to learn such things elsewhere when she got older.

Polichus’ research was burned and the dogs he kept–spared from the wrath of the batrengs by their entrapment in the cellar–were to be given away.  The mother had been quite over protective, she recalled the Marshal telling her in his last letter.  “I fear,” he wrote, “We may have to put her down.  It’s quite sad.”

But Argos seemed to forget the plight of its...his family as he grew closer to Lethia.  The days had gone by, and though she lacked the connection the two shared, she sometimes caught whispers of their conversations.  (“They’re not squiggles, they’re words.  And my name’s Lethia.  LE-THI-A.“)  Syria wasn’t much for pets, but she confessed a sort of affection growing at the sight of Argos and Lethia studying together–an absurdity not lost on the woman.  When the enchantress asked her apprentice what the dog thought of their tower, the girl giggled and said, “He calls it Home now!”

…But after last week, she had to make sure Argos wasn’t in the room during tests.  The dog, in an attempt to help the girl at a hard question, had tried projecting the answers to her.  Lethia hadn’t asked him to, the woman knew the girl’s integrity was far greater than that, but Syria wasn’t beyond chasing the dog away with a broom–intelligent or not.  Now he always cowered whenever she did the cleaning.

These were the things Syria thought of as she sat alone in the darkness.

She was in her sanctuary, a room beneath the spiral staircase with the entrance adjacent to the kitchen entryway.  The location didn’t seem very ideal–but in truth it was fixed in a position of power, lined up perfectly with the constellation of Seer, the goddess of sight and mind.  Sweat rolled down her neck, and her eyes rolled beneath their closed lids as she pressed the boundaries of her ishin outward.  Lethia was still young, so she couldn’t do this and wouldn’t be able to for years to come.  But Syria was a master, and could cast about a net of awareness that told her of all the goings on in her land.

Currently, Lethia was playing with Argos.  The woman’s hand turned to a claw on her knee.  They were playing around her linden tree.  She had planted it exactly nine years ago, away from the tower and just to the side of the stables.  That was when she’d first adopted Lethia into her life.

…She hated the thing.

The tree grows.  It feeds.  The girl grows…and she blossoms.  Keep her tended and pruned and she’ll not overrun you.

Syria swallowed as the wordless melody carried forth these thoughts.  Her eyes opened to slits in the dark, and she stared at the light coming in from beneath the door.  “My dearest Lethia…will be isolated after what I’ve done,” a tear fell from her eye as a pained smile spread her lips.  “But I will let her keep this strange new friend.  That way…she’ll always have someone to keep her company…in the dark.

Continue ReadingIn Good Company