Chapter 10.3



They were gone.

The guards gave chase, of course–and their backs, in turn, were chased by flying bottles and slurred insults.  The woman had threatened to kill the guards comrade–they would not let that go.  …But the tavern master should’ve been wiser.  It was a stupid idea, putting friends together at the same location.  Had the injured guard been any other man, the mystery woman would not have had any leverage.

Personally, he hadn’t given the pair any thought when he saw them come through the doors from his seat near the bar.  He was counting ticks in his head, marking the passing time.  He was a man of clockwork, a man of rhythm.  Under the flow of drink, the tempo slowed, but forever would it progress, and forever would he be mindful of it.  It was his barrier.

–Tick, tick, tick–

It didn’t take much for the tavern to go back to its drinking, its music, its other licentious activities.

He passed through the main entrance, his dark eyes trained on the bobbing heads of the guards over the crowd.  He wasn’t so broad, but his dark skin and black doublet made him seem slimmer than he truly was.  His shoulders held power.  He gave them a roll as if to shake off the feel of the tavern, his chainmail sleeves ground like teeth.  Eyes darted this way and that before he crossed the road, against the flow of the crowd, to the other side, where he slipped into a small alley between a tailor shop and a bakery.  Midway through, he stopped and waited, one hand reaching up to brush along his shaved head.

–Tick, tick, tick–

A moment later, a rope cascaded down, and the man took a quick look around before he set to climb against the building face of the bakery, coiling the rope as he went.  At the top, he pulled himself onto a tiled roof, where the early evening sun made a wraith of him in the shadow of the chimney.  Waiting for him stood a cloaked figure overlooking the street.  They were crouched, with their hood up to block out the wind.  They did not turn as he pulled himself nearer to the chimney, where the rope was tied.

He had long ago stopped trying to convince his companion to join him for his brief visits into average society.  It was repulsive and unnecessary to them.  In truth, it was repulsive and unnecessary to him as well, but sometimes he feared the thought of losing touch with the world altogether.  Sometimes, he feared missing something worthwhile.  He shared none of this.  He had long ago stopped trying.

–Tick, tick, tick–

“Please don’t tell me you were behind that commotion I just saw.” A quiet voice.  His partner was an individual who, like him, strove for control.  It chilled him to say, that they were better at it than he.  Much better.

The man shrugged off the coil of rope and moved away from the chimney, to escape from the smoke.  “There were two women–”

“We already have a quarry, Hakeem.” This time the voice held more force.  He focused on his counting.

–Tick, tick, tick–

“Why would you risk detection?  Tell me your reason.”

“…Because they mentioned the chronicles.”

The hooded figure turned to cast their shadowed gaze his way.  Peach lips barely moved as they spoke.  “…That’s impossible.”

The cold words were gaining warmth.

–Tick, tick, tick–

“I heard them.  The whole tavern heard them.  They mentioned the characters by name.”

“But how would they know those stories?”

“That’s what I figured you’d want to find out.” He gazed levelly at his companion as he pulled out a black lacquer pipe, lined with a carving of a dragon on either side.  From his vest pocket, he stuffed the pipe with tobacco, then procured a match.  Striking it against the tiles, he lit the tobacco, puffing gently.  The smoke that rose from his mouth curled before it seemed caught on a sudden breeze.  But rather than fade away, the smoke created a moving figure–the woman from the Canon’s Punch, carrying her companion.

When this image was fully formed, Hakeem gave one last long exhale.  Against the direction of the wind, it slithered northward before dissipating.

His partner said nothing.  Then they asked, “How formidable are they?”

“One is a therian, but a young one, and not very confident.  The other one, the redhead, looks like a trained fighter.  She mentioned escaping a kingdom.  There might be a bounty on her.  Took down a guard twice her size and dazzled the whole tavern with the claim that she and her friend were behind righting Gamath.  With the whole room on their side, the guards were too afraid to do anything, so that they slipped away through the main entrance.  They left some of their belongings in their hurry.”

The hooded figure nodded.  “Alright.”  They pulled a medium sized pouch from within their cloak and tossed it over.  Hakeem caught it with one hand, the jingle of coins tickling his ear.  “Pay the guards and the tavern master to keep quiet.  Get those belongings.  They might hold a clue as to who they really are.  When you’re done, meet me at the marshall’s.”  Then his companion added quickly, “And get better tobacco.  What’s the point of a pipe like that if a drunkard can see the smoke in a hazy room?”

“What will you do?  What about our original target?”

“I’m going to head the women off.  I think I can manipulate this situation to our advantage.”  They held up golden rings.  “We should put these on.  We won’t achieve without these.”

Hakeem’s brow furrowed and his fists clenched.

–Tick…tick, tick–

“I dislike these. They’re dangerous.” He pulled out a similar ring.

“I know, but they’re necessary.”

“…How long this time?”

“Three days.  Maybe four.”

“That’s pushing it.”

You’re the one who told me about this!”

Hakeem’s jaw went tight.  That change in pitch, that sudden outburst…maybe this wasn’t a good idea?


The figure bowed their head.  “I’m sorry.  I know I’m asking a lot, but please.”

The man sighed.  He slipped the band onto his ring finger.  Resisted the jolt that kicked through his nerves.  He clenched.  Growled deep in his throat.

His companion did the same.  They were better at concealing their discomfort, but if their hood wasn’t up, Hakeem would’ve been able to see the pain in their eyes.  The immediate sacrifice.  He was tired of these toys and trinkets.  But it was their life.

–…Tick, tick, tick–

“I’m off then.” The figure moved to jump down onto the street.


His partner paused.  Looked back at him.


This was different.  This was all different.  Already, they were out of harmony.  Already, they were deviating toward an uncertain end.  What was wrong with wanting everything to be okay?  What was wrong…in saying as much?

“…Come back to me.”

The other didn’t move.  Then they reached up to lower their hood.  A young woman with a creamy complexion and round azure eyes peered at him, their clear depths illuminated not by the light, but something Hakeem could not name.  Her golden hair, that faded to honey at the ends, was pinned back in an impatient flip whose lifespan only continued thanks to the hold and protection of the woman’s hood.  Her eyes, bright, even in the tired evening, shone curious and warm.  A rare show.  The peculiarity of this situation was certainly not lost on her.

She offered him a small smile, though she might as well have reached out and squeezed his hand.  Such was the power of her congeniality.

“I will,” she breathed.

Then the hood was up, and Quincy was gone, just an illusory shimmer in the dying light.

–Tick, tick, tick–


They had to stray from the main road, because if they didn’t, then the guards would have caught up with them.  A tipped merchant cart, a thick stream of people, and a discreet slip down a small road was all that it took to lose their pursuers.  Not that hard, not in this big a city, even while under the influence.

The real issue, Elmiryn quickly found, was that she found it damn near impossible to track her way back.  Exhaustion caught up with her fast.  The warrior, with one hand gripping the sword belt so that Nyx seemed only to rest on her arm than actually be held, slipped onto a shadowed stoop of someone’s home.  The door was shut, the narrow, crooked street quiet.  She leaned against the building face and felt the peeling sky-blue paint scratch at her cheek.  Nyx was in her embrace, back to the wall, her bag of meager belongings pinned between so that she couldn’t sink in all the way.  Her head was curled beneath Elmiryn’s.


The woman hadn’t realized she had closed her eyes.  The shadows and the black of her exhaustion seemed one and the same.  Blinking her eyelids open, she shifted her head to gaze blearily at Nyx.  Her eyes were dark slits, but her lips moved.

“Elle, I’m thirsty.  I don’t want to sleep.  I’m thirsty.”

Elmiryn kissed the girl at the hairline.  Felt the sweat against her lips.  “I know, kitten.  So am I.  It was all the excitement.  It disagrees with the wine.”

“You don’t feel well either?”

“No I don’t,” The woman wrapped her arms around Nyx and sighed. “Bu’thas okay.  Because we’re okay.  …’Kay?”  Her eyes started to fall shut again.  She was feeling nauseous.  Faint.  Perhaps she had drank too much.  Elmiryn couldn’t remember the last time that had ever been the case.

Nyx shifted in her arms, her petite hand clutching at the front of Elmiryn’s clothes.  “Elle, what happened? Tell me what happened!  Why’d you have to hurt that guard?  Why did…I–I just don’t understand…”

The woman pried her eyes open.  No, no, she couldn’t fall asleep.  It was good to talk.  Even if she felt like vomiting, it was good to talk.  They couldn’t fall asleep here.  “Shh.  Don’t get worked up.  Yer’ half-awake and your memories are making it into a scary dream.  Scarier than it really was.  Here, straighten up and I’ll tell you what I saw.”

The girl did just that.  Elmiryn smoothed back the girl’s hair.  “When I was reaching down to pick you up, I saw a rope wrap around my arm.  Or, well, it could’ve been a snake.  Or a centipede.  Or a–”

Nyx frowned.  “You mean you don’t know.  You thought you knew.  But you don’t.”

Elmiryn rubbed the back of her neck.  “I guess not.”

“What convinced you?  In your mind, what made you believe it was dangerous?  That it was even there?”

The woman breathed deeply.  Saw people in her mind, devoid of particular detail, and tables lit by fire in containers she could not recall in the slightest.  She recalled ribs, beards, goblets.  Then she saw the rope, the snake, the centipede make its way up her arm, swirling.

“It moved too smoothly.” Elmiryn finally said.  “Like it knew where it was going.”

Nyx nodded and leaned back, her eyes now wide open and brows pressed together in worry.

“…And why would a rope know to slither towards you?” she murmured.

Elmiryn shrugged.  “Or maybe I’m just crazy.”

The girl shook her head.  Rested her head high on Elmiryn’s shoulder so that when she whispered, the woman could feel it on her neck.  “You’re not crazy.”

She leaned her head to the side a bit to give Nyx a sidelong look.  The girl squirmed when Elmiryn didn’t look away.  “What?” she whined.

“I’d kiss you right now, but I’m pretty sure you’d taste like vomit.”  Nyx went crimson red and turned her face into Elmiryn’s shoulder.  The woman grinned.  “That said, I think we should find a water trough.  We both need it if we want to get out of the city tonight.  Can you walk?”

The girl peered at her shyly.  “I think so.”

“Then let’s go.”

Upward.  Onward.  Elmiryn felt more like she were floating, which was appropriate, in many ways–many multi-faceted, complicated, convoluted, ass-backwards sorts of ways that made her head hurt–and to the heavens, and on to the hells, she swore, if her eye stalks would just quit aching, she’d be just fine, but–

Upward.  Onward.  Downward.  Vomit, clear and runny, all over the cracks and crags of the pebbled ground.  Her along with it.  Nyx along with her.  More recycled wine–such a horrid smell.  Yes, yes.  She had too much, and by that token, so had Nyx.  Poor girl.  Elmiryn had over done it.  Stupid desperation and confusion (wordsmashingtogether ” sans;syntax and holy-helly-heaven-Halward where was the punctuation when you needed it



windows and light

night had come and Elmiryn was on and on in a cloud that suffocated

Here, Elle

Here what?

A bucket of water Smells okay Let’s in

And in they went

It sobered her. The stark sensation.  It did what she forgot to do in her tiredness, in her illness.  It was cold common sense.  Water in her sinuses, made her head ache.  But things, simple things, well known facts that had slipped away in the mystery of her afterthoughts returned.  Sensibility.  Science, and rationale.  Years of training and certain living. Living.  Living.  Living.

That’s right.  She was living, and as a living thing, she could no more drift through walls than she could her own existence.

“Fuck.  Fuck, I’m back.  From where ever I was!” Elmiryn gasped, thrilled–not for her return, but for her incredible departure.

Who knew there was a place beyond definition?

Nyx’s head was submerged in the large wooden bucket.  Water sloshed over the edges. She emerged, head whipping water, gasping like a fish.  Nearly looked like one, the way her eyes seemed to bulge and her mouth made a great oval of an orifice.  “Sweet Aelurus, that was cold!  Is this water enchanted!?”

“Possibly,” Elmiryn said, pinky wiggling in one ear.

Nyx shook her hair out, splashing everything.  The woman only shut her eyes to the assault.  “Phew,” the girl sighed, smiling.  “That felt good.”

“Too bad we didn’t think to drink a little before sticking our slimy heads in.  It would’ve been good for the dehydration.”

The girl’s shoulders sagged and she stared into the water.  It swirled, cloudy now.  “That’s right…” she muttered.

Elmiryn chuckled and stood.  “Don’t worry, Nyx.  I could’ve said something too.  We’ll find somewhere to drink, just fine.”  She still felt like her limbs were a bit hollow, but she had better sense of herself–better energy.  She could keep going and not stop.

Nyx stood with her.  “Let me get up this building and try to find which way we’re supposed to go.”

“You sure it’ll be alright?”

“I’m only taking a peek,” the girl said with an unimpressed shrug.  With a great jump up the brick facade, she had a grip on the edge of the flat roof.  Hoisting herself up with a bit of effort, the girl peered up and over.

Elmiryn smirked and crossed her arms.  She didn’t get how Nyx couldn’t see the bravery in this action.  Didn’t she know that the guards were armed with crossbows?

Maybe she forgot.

Soon she came down, scalp intact, but a little breathless.  She pointed toward the building before them, and to the left.  “That way is north.  I can see the main gate.  We actually aren’t that far off.”

And they kept on, keeping to the shadows, where the guard towers could not see them.  The girl led the way, not by request, but as if the situation brought her to the fore like a string to the front of a child’s toy cart.  All the city had gone dark, and while there existed no curfew, only the seediest lurked about.  These individuals were typically harassed by the city militia on principal.  In light of this, Nyx did not move slowly, but kept her pace at a mindful speed, treading on the balls of her feet and with knees bent.  She ducked when an armed guard, on patrol, would pass by, and Elmiryn would follow her lead, a shadow, an admirer, a pupil in her own right.  The woman had her moments of stealth and espionage, but Nyx’s body was a poem that moved with such fluidity that Elmiryn felt crude in her attempts to read along.

Her favorite passage possibly came, when Nyx slunk low on a set of cool tiled stairs, and peered with all the cautiousness of a cat in foreign territory.  Her body was taut, one hand hovering in contemplation over the ground as two guards, young but jumpy, conversed ahead.  They slipped by without incident–all it took was a well tossed rock and light feet–but the beauty of the moment was in the slope of the girl’s back, the grace and self-control that had come over her body as she willed every muscle still.  There was the feline in her that showed through the skin, even when she insisted on the separation of her sapien self and her bestial twin.

Elmiryn smiled as she and Nyx arrived at the Northern wall.  They joined the thin crowd through the first archway, then the second, both heads down.  When Tiesmire was a twinkling phantom behind them, both stopped to admire it.


The woman turned to look at her companion, her eyelids turned low.  The girl wiped at her mouth and grimaced.

“I’m still thirsty…”

Continue ReadingChapter 10.3

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

Chapter 11.3


Pieces, disordinate as a smashed pathway leading home.  He saw, he knew, in the rhythm that spoke to him in the lengths of moments that passed between the far away caterwauling and obnoxious humor.  Here.  Seated.  In a chair that held his level of control like a measured cup of fine wine, the man did not move.  Not even as the shadows grew along the plainly furnished room.  Not even as the creaks of shuffling feet outside begged rest.  Then begged wakefulness.  Then begged more rest.

Hakeem rubbed his chin at the display before him, indifferent to all but what he saw.  The world did not weigh on him–did not drag, did not pull.  Things washed away in the darkest reaches of his eyes where the waning candle light could not reach.  Time marched on.  The musty dark curtains soon blocked the morning suns, who laid a weak sliver across his pondering countenance.

He had spent the entire night, eyes fixed to blades, rope, a flask of oil, a grindstone, blankets, a bow and quiver, a change of clothes.  There were small pieces of burnt meat in a wrap, and in the inside of the large bag he had found these items, he’d found bread crumbs.

Pieces, disordinate as a slashed painting.

He was in the last available room at the Cannon’s Punch.  With the items spread out on the stained white bedsheet, the dark-skinned man gave each a dedicated amount of attention.  He was finally at his last.  Carefully, he sat on the edge of his seat so that his knees pressed into the bed cushion, and picked up the long sword with both hands, open palmed, at either end.

It was a Fiamman long sword.  The jeweled pommel and the style of the crescent guard were unique to them.  The blade was military issue, if he recalled correctly from his last visit to the kingdom.  Etched into the guard was a phrase in old tongue that he did not recognize.  He was certain Quincy would know the meaning of it.

Hakeem tested the sword’s weight, lifting his hands, then dropping them softly.  He tilted it one side, than the other.  It was heavier at the hilt, but extremely light by combat standards.  The blade was well cared for, judging by the shine and sharp edge.  He but touched it lightly with his thumb and found himself nicked.  The sword did not like his foreign hands.

Hakeem gave a rumble of approval as he set the blade down again.

The guard was lightly scratched.  The user had found themselves at odds with others quite often.  When the man eyed the hilt, he noted the soft change of the metal’s color towards the end.  This sword was old–so old that even the sweat from the user’s hand had begun to affect the metal.  It was the unavoidable fate of a frequently used sword, no matter how well cared for.  The true interest for Hakeem, however, came in the shape of the stain.

It told Hakeem that the user turned the blade and held it along their arm.

The cross-guard did not prevent this, but it would force the person to hold the flat of the blade against their skin.  Hakeem stood from his chair and took up the blade by the hilt, the way the user would have held it.  The hold, despite the lightness of the blade, required a great amount of wrist strength.  The man turned his head, eyes narrowed as he saw how the blade extended far from his elbow.

The person would have to hold their arm up and out.  What character of person would choose to fight in this way?

The smallest hint of a smirk appeared on Hakeem’s lips.

…The kind that waltzed out of a room filled with hostiles with nary a scratch.

Hakeem went to the center of the room.  He swung his arm back and forth, slowly.  His dark eyes were trained on the sword tip and the light traces it made through the air.  His gaze burned with the after-image from the light that caught the blade.  Hakeem swung his arm faster, letting it travel loosely.  His eyes narrowed at the after-image that now burned his eye.

A tree–devoid of leaves.

When several more swings produced nothing he could recognize, the man decided that the sword was on to him.  It was loyal to its mistress.  He placed his feet beneath his shoulders and smiled fully.  A very good weapon–a shame it wasn’t his.

Hakeem returned to swinging his arm back and forth slowly.  He closed his eyes, eyelids still lit with the bizarre after-image, and focused on the force that went through him as he moved.  With the shock of a blow being absorbed by the reinforcement of his arm, Hakeem realized the potential the blade had for serving as a makeshift shield.  The metal was strong enough for it.  Such a hold required bracers to prevent from accidental injury, but it was indeed possible.  However, he still felt the offensive potential of such a grip.

Testing this theory, Hakeem slid his right foot back.  With the sword held behind him, he let out a sharp kai, then snapped his elbow forward in a wide, high arc.  Intrigued by the results, the man adjusted his grip to hold the blade against the underside of his arm instead, an action that barely took a second, so that the sword faced parallel with the floor.  He swung again, and this time, rotated his wrist forward mid-swing, so that the blade swung free.  It whistled through the air and he imagined the shocked look of his opponent as the sword tip slashed the exposed neck.

He loosened his grip toward the end of the arc, then with a light jump of the hand, turned his hand to hold the hilt the traditional way.  He swung again, the other way.  An unexpected follow-up.  His execution was sloppy, and took too long to switch back to standard sword handling, but he imagined the original owner had mastered that switch years ago.

There was something bloodthirsty about using an offensive item for defensive purposes.

The person was strong, highly trained, and had a taste for danger.  They didn’t mind a gamble, and thrived on their opponents being unprepared or disadvantaged by surprise.

Pieces, disordinate as raindrops to glass…but it began to come together in a single stream–a single picture–a certain path.

“I have garnered more about you from these items, than I ever would have speaking to you,” he thought.

The owner was a self-sufficient person, and very resilient, considering their belongings.  There was nothing of sentimental value, only necessities.  This could have been due to a coldness in the heart–but somehow, he didn’t feel this was the case.

Exhaling, Hakeem straightened and brought his feet together.  He held the sword up to his eyes.  Nice as the single-handed handling was, he imagined another blade was perhaps necessary.  He didn’t see the fighting style being used when the opponent was dancing cautiously out of reach.  It was meant for extreme close combat, when the swing of a long sword could not be executed satisfactorily, if at all.  The man turned and eyed the array of items on the bed.  The other blades were common tools–for skinning game, for woodcutting, for medicinal use–but one blade, six-inches long, glinted at him in the narrow shaft of sunlight that slipped through the curtains of the eastern window.

The dagger was meant for combat use, judging by the point of the blade.  The user could draw it, and while holding the long sword against their arm, could fence with the other.

There weren’t many that would employ such a combat style, least of all in the Fiamman military.  Part of their strength was in their no nonsense fighting and their unity.  There was only one unit Hakeem could think of that would tolerate such an individualistic method.

The dragoons.

Feared the world over, the dragoons were the Fiamman army’s greatest offensive force.  They tackled impossible objectives and were masters of horseback fighting, long range assault, and close-quarter combat.  They were versatile, ruthless, and as he heard it…unruly.  One of the more notorious troops Hakeem had heard of was led by a woman, daughter to a general and an aristocrat.  He could not recall the woman’s name, and this annoyed him.

He vaguely recalled hearing snatches of talk among the well-traveled.  The Fiamman king had put a bounty out on one of their own military leaders, a person of a respectable rank and notorious reputation.  There was no doubt in his mind, now that the evidence was gripped in his hand, that the woman he had seen was that same person.  Fiammans were not known to travel far from their kingdom without good reason.

Taking up the dagger, the man tossed it lightly in the air.  He tested the weight.  A little heavy, for his tastes, but this woman would need something with the mass to back up the force she’d likely use for her offensive maneuvers.  Hakeem turned to the side, tossed the dagger once more, and just as it came down, withdrew his hand at the last second.

The dagger, as though stunned by this betrayal, did not stick neatly into the floorboards, but rather, let its tip smash into the ground like a man’s nose before it hopped up once more to swivel and fall to its side.  Hakeem rubbed his chin and shouldered the Fiamman sword–careful to keep the blade away from his neck.

Swords as loyal as this one was not likely to respond well to macharomancy.

He counted on the dagger to let its guard down more.  The blade was not nearly as old as the sword, and as far as blades went…daggers weren’t the brightest.

Hakeem went to the window and threw the curtains aside with his free hand.  Then he returned to the spot where the dagger had fallen, and knelt down.  He brushed the dagger aside and shifted to allow the sunlight to fall onto the mark in the wood.

The man scowled deeply.

Nauthiz…” he breathed.

A bold line with a light downward slash through the center.  The dagger was not native to Fiamma, though Hakeem could’ve guessed it by the square pommel.  Nauthiz was a runic symbol used in divinations to the far Northwest.

“Your owner…needs something?”  Hakeem frowned.  “Or has she already found it?  Is it not enough?”  He closed his eyes, grumbling.  The after-image of the tree still remained.  Hakeem’s eyes flew open and he straightened.  “Tai’undu!  That woman actually wants…no but that’s impossible!  Why would she possibly want to go there?

Hakeem grabbed the dagger and stood, his body now tense with his new revelation.  He replaced the dagger and sword back on the bed.  Despite not having slept since the day before, the man knew exhaustion would not visit him until this new task was done.  He minded the time.  He and Quincy were under a limit, and there was much more at stake than just reputation.  His new conclusions only brought further questions, and they did nothing to shed light on the strange therian girl.  Who was she?  Why was she with the Fiamman?  What were they really after?

Hakeem set aside his findings.  Perhaps Quincy would be able to interpret them better.  She always caught what he didn’t see.

It was time to seek the bar waitress who had claimed to know one of Gamath’s citizens.  He needed to learn more about the Fiamman woman, as well as her companion, before he could set out.  Hakeem put the items away, save for the bow and quiver, which he shouldered.

Without a backward glance he left the room, bag in hand.

…Hakeem didn’t know if time was on their side anymore.


I squinted in the dim tunnel.  My feet slid disconcertingly, and I placed both hands on either wall beside me.  Down below, I heard someone shout, and there was the dull sound of something hitting the ground.  My heart clenched, and I froze.

“Sweet Aelurus, what was that?” I breathed, feeling the blood drain from my face.  I looked back over my shoulder, my first thought being to flee.  But I could not leave Elmiryn.  I took a deep breath and crept forward, trying to comfort myself.  “Elmiryn is alright.  Whatever happened, she must have taken care of it!”

I came to where the tunnel turned into a lit chamber.  Scarcely breathing, I peered around the corner.  My stomach dropped.  Elmiryn was on the floor, mouth open, her eyes rolling in their sockets as she looked around in a clear daze.  I saw the shaggy dog trot to her, whining, its wet nose quivering as it pressed against the woman’s ear.

Then I heard someone whispering.

Creeping out further, my eyes fell on a young girl, with wavy wheat blond hair and large green eyes crouched on the ground feet away, her body turned adjacent to us.  She wore a soft-blue dress with a low v-neck that revealed a white top, laced with black ribbon down the middle.  Her sleeves flared and pooled in her lap.  At the front, the skirt cut open at the waist, where I saw that the girl had on brown shorts and high brown boots.  The girl had her hands at either side of her head, and she looked at Elmiryn with an expression of anguish, rocking back and forth.  I caught snatches of what she said, and my fear grew, along with my befuddlement.

“Slash and parry.  You can’t…you can’t just cut through them.  They aren’t…they live.  They just want…And the men.  What about the men! What about–” The girl sobbed and shook her head.  She squeezed her eyes shut tightly and fat tears leaked out from the corners.  “Saelin!  Watch your back you idiot!”

Trembling I crept out into full view, hands held out before me.  I can’t recall if I meant to show that I wanted no trouble, or if I was trying to be prepared for it.  Either way, I moved forward, feeling my heart ready to leap from my chest.  My eyes fell on the frying pan on the other side of the girl.  The dog glanced at me, ears perked.  I saw its lips twitch and I half expected it to begin growling.

The girl’s eyes popped open, and upon seeing me, she began to scream.  The sound split my skull, and I winced and crouched as though lowering myself could somehow avoid the sound.  The youth scrambled backwards, her flared sleeves and the tail of her dress trailing through the dirt.

I’m sorry!” She shrieked through tears.  She stepped on her skirt more than once, and seemed to go mad in her attempts to flee more quickly.  “I’m sorry–I’m really sorry!  Please don’t hurt me–”

I shook my head, my expression anxious and confused.  “I–I don’t know–I mean, I don’t want to hurt–”

Elmiryn began to speak.  Muttering something.  She started to shift and I went to help her up.

“Elmiryn are you okay!?  What happened?” I asked, eyes flickering back to the young girl.  She had made it to the other side of the chamber, where she pressed her back to the wall.  Her pink face glistened with her tears, and she continued to babble under her breath.

“Where are we?” Elmiryn asked with a great exhalation as she sat upright.  She squinted and frowned as though her head hurt her.

“A cave.  We followed the dog.”  I gestured toward the dog with my hand.  The woman followed my pointing and blinked.

She reached for her sword.  “What on Halward’s plane is that?

I stopped her in alarm.  “No, no!  Stop!  It’s the ‘Mangy Beast’.  Our meal ticket, as you put it before.  We’ve been following it all day!”

“We have?”

“Yes, Elle!  We have!”  I scowled at the woman and took her face in my hands.  “What did that girl do to you?”

“I didn’t do anything!” The girl interjected from her place.  She was hyperventilating.  “I mean I did, I did, I did–but it was such an accident!  A REALLY big one.  M’sorry, M’sorry!!  It’ll go back. It’ll all go back–I don’t know when but it will!”

“What’ll go back?  What in the nine hells are you going on about!?”  I snapped.  My sudden ferocity came riding on my intense horror.  Elmiryn was behaving strangely, more than usual, and the girl’s cries didn’t help.  Elmiryn’s mind was already in such a delicate balance. What if the girl–whatever she had done–had tipped it beyond the point of return?

What did you do?” I screamed, feeling my eyes burn in frustration.

The dog snarled, lips curled back as it leapt before me.  Its hackles were raised and its dark eyes flashed a warning my way.  I didn’t realize it, but I had shifted as though I were about to leap forward.  I settled back quickly, my breath catching in my throat from the aggression the dog radiated.  Elmiryn grabbed my arm.

“Damn…that thing looks like it could eat you,” she murmured with a twitchy grin.

“I gathered that, thank you,” I returned acerbically, my wide eyes on the dog.  The Mangy Beast had settled back already, ears still perked, but its fur had settled and its tail was still.

I looked at Elmiryn out of the corner of my eye, my body trembling worse now.  I imagined I looked like I were in an earthquake.  “Elmiryn, how do you feel?”

“Sleepy,” she replied, dull in voice.  “And still a bit confused.  Did I drink that much last night?”

“We’re a few miles north of Tiesmire.  This girl says she did something to you.”

Elmiryn glanced at me, grumbled something unintelligble, than stood.  Her shoulders sagged, but her eyes flashed as she gazed across the chamber to the girl.  “Like what?” she asked quietly.

The girl looked as though she were about to start screaming again.  Her oval-shaped face drew long and her chest rose and fell rapidly.  With great effort, she began to speak.  “I-I-I t-took your memory.  By accident!  By accident!”  She pointed at her head.  “It’s–It’s just bits and pieces!  I thought you were one of the bad men!  They’ve been chasing me all month!  But then our eyes met–it was such an accident–and I took some of your memory!  I can’t control it!” The girl let out a shuddering sob, her large eyes squinting and letting two more tears leak down her face.  “I mean it!  When Argos came down the tunnel and told me someone was coming, I didn’t have time to grab–”

“Wait, wait,” I interjected.  I closed my eyes in disbelief.  “Did you just say, ‘Argos told me’?  You mean the dog told you?”

I looked as the girl faltered.  “I…I mean…well, yes.  The dog.  My dog.  Argos.  He told me.”

“How?” Elmiryn asked next.  She crossed her arms over her chest.  She seemed like she were about to start laughing.

The girl began to twist her right sleeve.  She looked at us both.  I frowned as I realized something.

The whole time, the youth had avoided looking straight into our eyes.  Rather, she looked at our shoulders, or our shoes.  It made her look as if she were blind.

The girl started to speak, and though her voice was tired and hoarse, she had calmed down enough to stop stuttering.  “I’m a journeyman enchantress.  I’ve trained all my life to master magic of perception and thought.”  She sat up and gestured at Argos, a warm smile blossoming on her still blotchy face.  “The study of animal minds is a path all its own in enchantment.  I don’t specialize in it, but I’ve always had an affinity for it.  Argos is my chosen familiar.  I’ve had him since he was a puppy.”

I stood to my feet, mouth partially open.

The girl paused and her face turned pensive.  She looked towards Elmiryn.  “I saw your memories, Elmiryn.  You’re a Fiamman soldier.  You were following Argos hoping that I’d pay you somehow.  I don’t have much…but…”  The girl shook her head, frowning.  “You’re different. Your memories aren’t right.  They feel like they’re going to break apart if I stop paying attention to them.  It’s unnatural!  Something has happened to you, hasn’t it?”

Elmiryn looked to me.  Her face was blank, but in her eyes I saw her ask me what to do.  I looked at the girl.  With a sigh, I nodded.  She knew enough already.  There was not much to hold back.

“I’m cursed,” Elmiryn said.  The remark seemed far too casual.  I gripped Elmiryn’s arm and the woman’s head bowed a degree.  Her voice grew quieter.  “Things I see seem unreal, and my memories are weak.”

The girl made to stand.  She dusted herself off with quivering hands and straightened.  She gazed at the wall just above us.  “Nyx.  You’re an Ailuran, an outcast from your people.  Elmiryn cares for you, very much.  You try to help her as best you can, don’t you?”

I gave the girl a startled look.  “Um…Yes.  I do.”  I wasn’t sure where this was going.

The blond smiled, one that rivaled Elmiryn’s in width and vibrance.  “I’m so glad!”  The girl bent over and patted her bare knees.  “Argos!”

The dog woofed and with its tail wagging, practically bounded to the girl.  The youth ruffled his fur and cooed.  “I’m sorry I didn’t stop to listen to you!  You were trying to tell me weren’t you?”

She looked up at us again.  “Y’see, I can communicate with him.  He’s a dog, so he doesn’t think in words, even though he understands them.  I have to actually focus on him to get his whole meaning.  When he came down, all I let him tell me was that ‘strong people were coming’, and then I panicked!”  She giggled.  “It’s been a very hard few weeks, so you can imagine how I felt!”

Elmiryn cleared her throat.  “Ah…this is all very interesting…but I feel it’s a little unfair, you knowing our names and us not knowing yours.  Care to enlighten us?”

The girl bit her lip and straightened.  She looked at us both, or rather at our chests, and wrung her hands.  The dog barked, its body hopping up to lightly paw at the girl’s thigh.  This seemed to decide it for her, and she shrugged with a nervous laugh.

“Yes, yes, you’re right of course!  It isn’t as if their magic users…so what’s the harm?  I’m being so rude!”  She spoke to the dog.  I struggled to keep my face straight as Elmiryn had to clamp a hand around her mouth to contain herself.  It felt a little mean, but seeing her talk to it was sort of humorous.

The girl drew herself up, then gave a low bow.  Her wheat colored hair swept forward to conceal her face.  “My name is Lethia Artaud, apprentice to Syria, the Enchantress of Albias.”

I sputtered.  “Syria!?”

Elmiryn turned and frowned at me.  “Who’s she?”

I looked at her excitedly.  “One of the most well-respected magic users in the world!  She’s rivaled only by Gaduman of the East, but he…well…went insane.  I’ve read some of Syria’s work.  Her theories on cognitive matrices in the animus were incredible!”

Lethia blushed and looked at her shoes.  “She wrote that when I was four years old.  I was her subject of study.”

I probably should have guessed this, but I was so surprised that it didn’t occur to me.  I ran my hand through my hair and gave an excited laugh.  “You were?  What was it like when she conducted the simulations?”

“I…can’t remember.”  Lethia gestured vaguely at her head as she went to the log.  Behind it was a pack, which she began to rifle through.  “Syria says that the mark of any true Enchantress is in her memory function.  The inherent magical power can greatly affect how it works.  In my case, it’s completely sporadic…and dangerous.  I can steal others memories, but…”

Lethia froze.  Elmiryn slapped a head to her head and cursed.  Then she went quiet too.  I looked at them both, alarmed.  “What happened, Elle?”

The seconds ticked by.  Neither moved.  Unnerved, I reached out and lightly touched the woman’s back.  “…Elmiryn?”

Elmiryn took in a shuddering breath, as though she’d been underwater for a long time.  She swayed and I steadied her, my expression turning fearful.  She placed a hand on her chest, and looked around with glassy eyes.

Lethia had slumped to her knees.  In her small hands, she held a funny pair of wire lenses.  The round-cut glasses were tinted dark.  She didn’t move right away, but when she did, she put on her glasses with slow, uncertain hands.  They completely concealed her eyes.

When she looked our way, she squealed and fell backward.  “Who–Who’re you two?”

I stared at her, flabbergasted.  “You don’t remember?”

Elmiryn stared at the girl, then at me.  “I’m…missing something, aren’t I?  Is that the Mangy Beast’s owner?”  Then her body tensed, and she went to grab her sword.  “Shit, did you see where the bastard went that tried to hit me with a frying pan!?”  Lethia let out a hysterical shriek.  Argos let out a great heaving sigh.

I groaned.

Oh for heaven’s sake!

Continue ReadingChapter 11.3

Chapter 13.2


The world whistled.  She’d heard about these moments in stories–the lulls between excitement, those scenes filled only with ellipses, suggesting the unspoken question…

What the fuck would they do now?

Elmiryn went back and forth in her head–quickly laying out the realities and separating them from her desires.  Her muddled feelings toward Lethia aside, the girl was now key to a question that begged answering.  If Meznik’s power had been booted out of Gamath, where had it gone?  How far? Given what she was told about Syria’s situation, the enchantress of Albias had been charged with black magic long before Elmiryn and Nyx had restored the river guardian’s sanity.  This being said, the only thing left was that Meznik was somehow in more places than one–orchestrating horrors in simultaneity.

But was it Meznik?  The mentioning of a tree by a mentally unstable boy could be utter coincidence, and the fact that Syria had been charged with the same crime as Elmiryn could be completely unrelated as well…

However, coincidences could only go so far, and the warrior felt compelled enough by the evidence to pursue her answers–regardless of the fact that things still remained largely circumstantial.  The woman called “Quincy” had left her with a direction…even an idea of how to travel.  The redhead didn’t think it was a slip.

She was being baited.

Elmiryn looked between the Moretti brothers, her cerulean eyes darting as she traced their handsome features–shiny with perspiration and marred, she found, by an exhaustion she had not noticed before.  The moments drew on.  Argos grumbled behind them as Nyx came to hover somewhere near Elmiryn’s right.  Her breathing was rough and slow, and now and again she thought she heard the girl murmur incomprehensibly.  The Moretti brothers would occasionally break eye contact with her to glance at each other, and now and again they would shift, like they wished to back away, but couldn’t.  Their proximity to one another, shoulder to shoulder in some unconscious attempt to draw strength and security, made it hard for Elmiryn to separate them as individuals.

Finally, the warrior let her sword dip and let out a loud scoff.  “Can you morons separate yourselves a little and take the sticks out of your asses?  You look like you’re posing.”

“We are not!” Paulo snapped, but he and Graz both took steps away from each other with guilty glances. Arduino gave a small eye roll at his brothers reactions.

The woman smirked.  “So now what?”

“I don’t know, lia.”  The eldest narrowed his eyes.  “We have no reason to quarrel with you, ya?  So we can just part ways right now.”

“What? Like before?  Aren’t you even a little angry that the wizard just stole your bounty?”

Arduino sighed through gritted teeth.  He let his rapier drop to his side.  Reluctantly his brothers lowered their weapons as well.  “That woman can travel at the speed of light.” He said, voice low.  “My brothers and I are purists–we do not use magic at all.”  The man sheathed his sword and turned away in disgust.  He waved his hand in a dismissive manner and brushed roughly past his brothers.  “There is no competing with her.”

Paulo and Graz backpedaled, not so keen on turning their backs.  They stared at Elmiryn and Nyx with wary eyes.  Graziano was the only one who put away his weapon.  His younger brother seemed keen on keeping his ready–perhaps rattled at how he had come to lose it before.

Elmiryn frowned.  “Hey.”  When Arduino didn’t stop, she shouldered her sword and let her free hand rest on her hip.  “Hey!”  Still nothing.

With a sigh, she stooped down and scooped up a rock.  Then, without pause, the warrior chucked it at the man’s head.

It connected with a thud.  “Conio!” He shouted.  His hands flew to the back of his head as he doubled over.

Graz drew his pistol, his face screwed up in incredulous anger.  “Lia, you want to be killed, don’t you!?”

“You won’t shoot that pistol.” Elmiryn stared hard at him.  Her smile turned predatory and she began to walk forward.  Nyx grabbed at her arm, but the woman pulled away with a jerk, her eyes not leaving the man’s.

“Elle, stop it!” The Ailuran cried.

“You had plenty of opportunities to shoot any one of us, but you didn’t,” Elmiryn said, ignoring her.  “You pull that stupid pistol out when you think it’ll make a good show.  I’m no expert on firearms, but just looking at it, I can see you hardly use it.  That’s because you’re afraid of that thing.”

Graz blinked at her.  Elmiryn stopped when the barrel was pressed to her chest. “You won’t shoot that pistol,” she said again, lips curling.


His horse galloped past the caravans and cloaked travelers, giving them wide space. The first opportunity he had, he would part from the merchant road to one with lighter travel.  He was late–he had taken longer than he had intended, and he knew Quincy would be displeased.

He let out a yell as he urged his horse to go faster. On his back was the large bag he had acquired from the Cannon’s Punch. He’d had to trade horses once, at the expense of a few gold coins–a purely lucky circumstance as he was passing a rancher on the way to Tiesmire to sell his own steeds. The first horse, a strong and beautiful creature, he had acquired through less honorable means.  He was pressed for time, and felt it like a knife at his temple as he counted.

–Tick, tick tick–

He figured the gold he left for the owner would be enough.  Hakeem had some money left over from the Cannon’s Punch–the tavern owner hadn’t been that shrewd in his haggling of the Fiamman’s belongings.

Aside from his change in horses, Hakeem did not pause in his riding.

He broke from the main road, along the smaller trail that he and Quincy had come by when following their lead to Tiesmire.  He kept his eye out for devil weeds.  The moonlight was feeble, and the shadows of the cliffs were long and stark.  Night time, in its contemplative silences, was something he could greatly appreciate.  The flow of persons, their voices over his ears, were lost on the wind and swallowed by the hills and mountains.

Three days without sleep, without food or water.  The morning approached, but he knew there would still be some time before the sky turned rosy.  It was to his good fortune that Belcliff was not lost deep within the Torreth.  As he entered the snowy region, his ears popping at the change in altitude, he saw the looming mountain city on the horizon. Its lights brought warmth to the cold north of the Torreth.

But as he galloped, breath stinging from the cold air–his eyes caught a flash of something great along the  mountain tips, to the side.  Hakeem turned and tried to see if he could catch whatever it was.  A monster perhaps?  He scowled.  But why so close to a settlement?  He turned his eyes forward again.  His gaze fell onto the ring on his finger winking in the moonlight, and his jaw tightened.  Time was drawing to a close.

The trail widened.  Beneath him, his dark thoroughbred snorted, both ears flattened against its head.  Not wanting the horse to fail him, Hakeem eased it to a slower trot.  His path breathed open to the left into a small frosted valley.  To his right, a tall bluff blocked the moonlight.  Hakeem slipped into shadow.

Then the earth came alive, dirt and rock bursting, and Hakeem was thrown off his startled horse.  As he sailed through the air, he closed his eyes and took a breath…


“What do you want?” Arduino bit out.  He stepped forward to land one hand on his brother’s shoulder, the other checking to see if his head was bleeding.

Elmiryn looked at him, eyebrow tilting.  “That woman mentioned you guys know of shortcuts to Belcliff.”

The man shook his head.  “You wouldn’t be able to take them.  They aren’t the sort of trails you can just walk.”

“I don’t care.  I have to get there before Lethia and Syria are executed.”

“It’s possible,” Graz began, his expression nervous.  He took a small step back and raised his pistol finger shifting off the trigger.  “You’d need a special steed–”

“Graz…what’re you doin’, eh?” Paulo looked between his brother and Elmiryn, his face pale and sweat-slicked.

“Graziano, we’re done.”  Arduino barked, jerking him to the side by his shirt.  “Keep your mouth shut, lest you drag us all into something we can’t handle!”

Graziano knocked his hand away and shouted at him, spit flying from his mouth.  “Olsemia! Ya, la poletatrio cos nostaron!  Paulo isn’t the only one who’s been affected!  If anyone can be accused of dragging us into something we can’t handle it’d be you!”  Then the man holstered his pistol.  His hazelnut eyes were shiny, and the apple in his throat bobbed as he swallowed and looked to Elmiryn with a furrowed brow.  “Before we became bounty hunters, we worked with monsters.  We killed them, tamed them, even bred some in a small ranch.”

Paulo wiped at his face and muttered something under his breath.  Arduino turned a dark shade, veins popping in his forehead and neck as he bunched like a livid animal.  “Graziano…” he warned.

Graz ignored him and pointed over the hill, where he had appeared from.  “This way, there are three grayback scultones sleeping against the mountain-side.”  He held out his hand.  “If you can promise me answers, lia, then I will–”

That was when Arduino hit him.  He launched his whole body into the strike, his fist just a blur as it connected with his brother’s jaw.  Graziano went down without a sound, but the look of pain on his face said it all.  Paulo was startled, and shouted things in his native language so fast, that Elmiryn couldn’t catch any of it.  He dropped his rapier and tried to grab his oldest brother from behind, but Arduino threw him to the ground.  He turned and kicked at his youngest brother as he scuttled, hair coming out of his tail.  “Idi’ute!” he barked as his foot connected with the back of Paulo’s right leg.  The boy cringed and covered his head.

While he was distracted, Elmiryn stepped forward, punching Arduino in the gut.  She followed up, pulling her fist back for a fast backhand across his cheek.  The man grunted, hand reaching for his face as he was forced to take a step back from the blow.  His hazelnut eyes burned as they fixed on her.  “We are done!  You won’t take my brothers with you on your suicidal mission!” he shouted.

Elmiryn snapped at him, hair loose about her face as her amusement in the scene gave way to annoyance.  It was starting to feel like a bad joke that’d went on too long.  “It’s their choice, not yours.  I don’t have time to go back and forth with you.  Either go along with it or get the fuck out of the way!”

Who are you to demand such things!?

Graziano rose to his feet, his shirt and pants dusty and his hands covered in dirt.  He shoved at Arduino with both hands, his throat a deep instrument turned crimson as he roared with a frustration that belied his charming appearance, “She is the only one who seems to have any idea why it is Paulo has those nightmares! Why he feels so ill!  Why me and you feel so tired and afraid.”  He wiped at his face and glared at his brother.  He spat blood on the ground and pointed at Arduino.  “You’re too thick-headed to admit it, but all this time you’ve been on edge.  And it all started when we went to that damn tower!”

“She’s just spouting nonsense, brother!” Arduino cried, gesturing at Elmiryn.  His expression turned exasperated…perhaps even sad.  Elmiryn felt like the expression didn’t belong on his face.  “It’s this life.  It’s all these magic users dominating everything.  We see them taking so much from us, and it has started to get to the point where all the world seems ruled by their tricks.  People like us cannot keep up with them anymore.”

“I don’t believe that.” Graz shook his head, fists clenching.  “No.  We were doing fine.  Maybe we had to step things up a tad, but otherwise we were doing okay.  Paulo was really getting the hang of it before all of this–”

“But to keep up with the other hunters, we have to spend more gold.  To spend more gold, we have to earn more, and we haven’t.  Admit it, Graziano.  It’s over.”  Arduino’s voice became tired and rough.  He wiped at his eyes and bowed his head.

Elmiryn interjected loudly, “Gentlemen, you can discuss your professional future later.”  She gestured at herself.  “If you want answers, I can offer you some explanation–but the real solutions are at Belcliff.  We have less than a week to stop those two women from being killed.”

“What do they have to do with anything?” Arduino asked.  “Why would risking our lives, save our lives?”

“Maybe not your life, but Paulo’s.”  Nyx spoke now.  She gripped her shifted arm (or the Twin’s arm, rather) but there seemed to be no struggle.  Elmiryn wondered if, in the time she faced with the Morettis, she had come to some sort of truce with the animal within.  “He mentioned dreaming about a tree.” The girl continued.  “Well, Elmiryn and I can tell you that it isn’t something unrelated.  It’s a part of something huge.  Recently, the Medwin’s river guardian had been suffering a delusion of the same sort, believing that a tree was sucking away at the life of her land.” The girl paused, biting her lip as she looked at Elmiryn.  She looked back at Paulo, who was helped to his feet by Graz.  “Paulo…have…have you heard a song?  In your dreams?”


The air felt gracious to him.  His eyes fixed to the heavens for a brief second–all that he allowed himself–before he closed his gaze to the inner spaces of his mind.  Collected there were moments branded in sense and number.  A series.  His life a series that ran as far as the hour.  But he didn’t need to go back that far.  He only needed…

Five ticks.


His arms burned.  The chainmail sleeves turned bright, as though the metal had returned from a blacksmith’s flame.  The wind sucked away.


He fell, continuously–longer than what was possible.  Hakeem made certain to keep his eyes closed.  The ground had vanished.  He slowed, felt the weight of himself no longer pull at his back, but down into his legs as though he were upright.  Then he came to rest as though he were seated on the horse again–and he was.  He shifted, moved his feet from their stirrups and leaned forward onto the horse’s back.


He pushed up and back, calling on the strength in his arms, in his shoulders, in his torso, and he hopped off the horse.  He landed on the ground in a kneel.  Still he kept his eyes closed.


The heat on his arms peaked, reaching a point that scalded him.  He flexed his arms and heard the energy that built up unleash in a sharp cry.  He heard metal slide over the chainmail sleeves, felt more weight press on his arms–felt his hands become enveloped in warmth. He felt the metal slide to cover his chest, over his doublet.  He stood, fists clenched.


Hakeem opened his eyes.  His horse galloped off the trail, braying, fleeing from the newcomers–three strangers riding what appeared to be a breed of scultones.  There were two of the beasts, two riders on one, another riding alone.  They were great reptilian monsters of the draconic family–larger than a full-grown horse, but long and slim at the torso, with gray and mud brown armored skin and broad horned heads.  Their long tails thumped behind them, and they screeched into the cold air, revealing hundreds of jagged teeth and a long purplish tongue.  Dust billowed about them, large debris riddling the trail where the great scultones had landed.  Their eyes glinted at him in flashes of white.

Hakeem raised his fists before him, and they were sheathed in black gauntlets with gold trimmings and studded knuckles.  They were fluted and pierced, articulate enough that the man was able to adjust his fingers and rotate his wrist without problem.  His arms were covered in similar armor, as was his chest.

“You guys could have mentioned he does that,” said a voice, a woman, though they sounded more amused than upset.  He’d heard their voice before.

“He must have reset things,” a man answered her.  He knew that voice too.  It’d been a while.

“He what?

Hakeem’s arms hummed with energy as he slid his left foot back and bowed his knees.  He pulled his left hand back, palm flat and perpendicular with the earth as his fingers curled at the second knuckle.  He took a deep breath.

“Look out!” Said another voice.

Hakeem let out a kai as he struck out in a straight line with his left hand.  The air rippled, dust startling into the air as a scar tore into the earth yards long.

–Tick, tick, tick–


“Paulo…have…have you heard a song?  In your dreams?”

Upon hearing the question, Elmiryn’s face tightened and she gave Nyx a warning look.  Had she forgotten the incident before Gamath so quickly?  The girl winced and mouthed with an anxious look, “It’s the only way!”

Paulo paused as he thought.  “Yeah,” he mumbled.  “I don’t remember how it goes, but–”

“Don’t.” Elmiryn said shaking her head.  “Don’t try to remember it.  It’s enough that you recall there was a song, you don’t need more than that.”

“Right…” Nyx said, bowing her head.

“So what is it about all of this?  I don’t understand.” Paulo said, looking between them.  “You say it’ll be for my own good if we save the enchantresses…but aren’t they the ones causing this?”

Elmiryn gave a terse shake of her head.  “Not from our experience.  So far, we’ve seen this sort of power in other places.  Every single time, the same thing was behind it.”

“What ‘thing’?”

The woman smirked and shrugged.  “That…”  She looked at Nyx who gazed back at her with somber eyes.  “We still have yet to learn,” she finished.

Graziano looked at his older brother.  “So, Ard?  Are you still going to object?”

“I still have plenty of reasons to…” The man returned, crossing his arms. “This can ruin us.  If Belcliff’s marshal finds out we’re involved, we’ll be the ones hunted.”

Elmiryn kneaded her brow.  She was becoming tired with all this talk.  “Is it better to turn away in defeat?  You said it yourself.  Your time as bounty hunters is just about over.  If that’s the case, you have nothing to lose,”  She lifted her head and gestured at Paulo. “…Nothing but your brother’s sanity.  Possibly his life.”

Arduino and Graziano looked at each other, lips thin.  Paulo let out a loud “Humph,” that caused all to look his way.  “Don’t I get any say in this!?” he exclaimed, striking his chest with his fist.

“And what do you want to add, Baby Moretti?” Elmiryn chuckled.

The youth glared at her.  “Cosci iolete, lia.  I want to know what that girl did to me!”  He pointed at his head.  “Why me?  Why am I being targeted?  Did you know she burned my eyebrow off!?”

Nyx gave him a hard look.  “So you want vengeance…for your eyebrow.”

Elmiryn bit on her lip to keep from laughing out loud.  Trust in Nyx to make a scene interesting again.

Paulo rubbed at his face and shook his head.  “No, no…”  He sighed and tugged at his overgrown hair.  “I…she’s always in my nightmares…her and this weird tree.  I lose time, and I wake up weaker, and I keep…”  He faltered.  His face screwed up and he grit his teeth.

Arduino touched him lightly on the shoulder.  “Choi…”

“My vision gets fuzzy,” the boy resumed, staring at he ground.  His eyes glazed as he looked down the road, the way Elmiryn and the others had originally been going.  “All save…for a certain direction.  I feel like there’s something in my chest…that…that pulls that way.  If I sit still long enough, it’s like I start to fall asleep, and my whole body tingles, and I can hear that song again–”

“Okay.” Elmiryn said, loudly.  She stepped forward and snapped her fingers in front of Paulo’s eyes.  The boy looked at her like a doll whose head was turned.  She paused and gazed back at him, her eyes fluttering as something occurred to her.  “Is…” She squinted her gaze.  “Is that…how I look like?  When I’m out of it?”

“Sometimes…” Nyx breathed behind her.  Elmiryn looked at her, her throat growing tight.

“So what do you want, Choi?” Graz asked him, hands at his hips and his expression tight.

The boy looked at him.  “I want to go to Belcliff.”

“There.” Elmiryn nodded.  “Even he wants to go.  So you swear to help us?” She said to Graziano.

The man nodded.  “I swear.”

“Okay, but what about Argos?” Nyx said, jerking her head at the dog, who had managed to roll onto his stomach to watch as they talked.

Graziano looked at the dog, who seemed to glower at him through the fur about his eyes.  “That wound on the dog, I can heal it.  The medicine we have for the scultones is potent–meant to seal wounds on armor-like skin.  He’d need just a drop of it to seal his hurt shoulder.  He’ll still limp for a while, though.” Then he added, scratching at his chin. “Actually, I was a tad more concerned about your arm, lia.”  He raised an eyebrow at Nyx.

“It’s her Twin,” Elmiryn said, sighing.  “That arm belongs to Her, so Nyx can’t control it.  The cat inside her does.”

The Moretti brothers looked at her as though she were insane.  She giggled at them.  They were right in suspecting that, perhaps, but not in this case.  This put Elmiryn in a good mood, and so struck away the thoughts of glass eyes and doll heads.

She looked at Nyx.  “It seems things are decided.  Will She be okay?”

“Yes I think so.” The girl sighed.  “But she says it’s unfair to deny her some freedom after she saved my arm.”

“And you’re okay with that?”

“Not at all!” The Ailuran looked at Elmiryn, offended.  “But I haven’t got a choice.”  Nyx’s face soured as the Twin raised her arm, smugly flicking her thumb over her flexed claws.  “She says she figured out how to push herself in one way, but not the other.”

Elmiryn crossed her arms. “You must be joking.”

“She tricked me.  I was scared and she took advantage of it.  I’m not even sure if what she was telling me was true, about the regeneration.”

The woman stepped forward, cracking her knuckles.  “Tell her, either she gives your arm back, or I break hers.”  Nyx paled.  This caused the warrior to pause, and she rubbed the back of her neck.  “…You won’t feel that, right?  If I do that?”

“Elle,” The girl took a step back.  “P-Please don’t talk to me about breaking limbs in such a casual tone.  Especially if those limbs happen to be attached to my body.”

“What is it?  Don’t you want your arm back?  I thought you hate–”

Of course I hate it!”  Nyx shrilled.  She gestured at the Twin’s arm with hers, her face screwing up.  “It disgusts me!  Why do you think I’ve avoided looking at it so long!?”  The girl then stomped her foot, chin crumpling.  “Sweet Aelurus, what in the nine hells do you want me to do!? I’m TRYING to force her back, but she’s…stuck.  How can I explain something like that to you–a human?  It’s not like shape shifting is a lever I can just push one way, then back!”

Elmiryn nodded, grabbing Nyx’s shoulder.  “Okay.  Okay. Deep breaths.  I got it, alright?  Is she at least willing to cooperate?  I mean, she can’t see, right?”

“She has a dream-like view of the world.  The most reliable thing she has to trust in right now is her sense of touch–which helps–but I have to guide her.  Unless she wants to get hurt she’ll have to listen to–”  The Twin’s clawed hand swiped to the side fast, slapping Nyx on the cheek.  The girl stuttered, rearing her head back in shock.  Then she grabbed her wrist, livid tears in her eyes as her face turned pink.  “That isn’t funny!  Stop laughing!” she screamed.

Elmiryn had to bite her hand to keep from laughing herself.  It was a losing battle.

Arduino spoke dryly behind her.  “These are they ones you want to follow, Graziano?”

“I don’t know, brother,” Graziano returned.  “After the way you just punched me, maybe my need to piss you off was knocked into the place of my common sense?

There was a smack, like someone striking flesh with an open hand.

“Idi’ute!” Arduino snapped.


The scultones jumped to the side, their great claws leaving deep gouges in the ground.  The one on the right was now pressed with its back against the cold face of the bluff, the other with their back to the open field.  The two riders from that beast dismounted, and as they came out from the shadow of the bluff, Hakeem saw that it was the Fiamman from the Cannon’s Punch and Arduino Moretti.

He pushed forward to meet them, saw the woman pull out the iron longsword she had stolen, saw Arduino draw his rapier.  The Fiamman had her sword raised high, hilt pulled back against her cheek as Arduino, on her left, whipped his rapier back, prepared for a broad strike. He did not pause to wonder at how the two had joined in union.

Instead, he counted.

His arms burned again.  Three ticks passed in his head as he gave a great leap forward, then dropped down.


The world turned black, cut away like light blocked by curtains.  He slid along the ground, the high snarl of his armor against the rock and dirt loud in his ears.  Arduino side stepped, forced to adjust his approach–but the Fiamman let out a yell as she jabbed down with her sword.  Then…


They were gone.  Lost in that second.  Instead, the sound of his slide along the earth was dominated by a dull roar.  He felt the air swirl about him.  He rocked forward with his entire body, pushing against he ground with his elbows, and was up on his feet.  When he turned to look over his shoulder…


The world faded back into focus.  He was in a different place, in a different time–exactly three seconds back.  He saw himself, his past self, run forward as the Fiamman and Arduino moved to engage him.  Turning, he saw the other scultone, its rider still mounted.  Closer now, he could see that it was Graziano Moretti.

Hakeem said nothing as he brought his left hand back, just as before.  He bended his knees and took a breath, pulling in with his diaphragm.

Where’d he go!?

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the others whirl around.  Startled, they made to meet him.  “Graziano,” Arduino bellowed. “LOOK OUT!”

Hakeem roared, putting more force into his push than before, willing all the power he could into the blast that ripped the earth and sent the bluff cracking down its face.  The energy hummed through his arm and out, generating into a traveling wall of soundless force.  Slabs of rock fell, causing the ground to tremble, and the din that came from the destruction was deafening.  Hakeem held his breath and skipped backward as quickly as he could to avoid the great thick cloud that rose to engulf them all.

When he was free of the confusion, he watched, waiting to see what had become of his would-be attackers.


“You swore you’d help us.”  Elmiryn warned, wagging a finger at the men.  “No backing out now.”

“Well let’s get going then.  Will she be okay?”  Arduino added, frowning at Nyx.

“She’ll be fine,” the woman said, grabbing the Twin’s arm.  She turned, and without warning, dipped and bit down on the furry forearm.  Hard.  The arm jerked away from her but she pointed at it, glaring.  “Behave!”

“You just bit Her,” Nyx said, stunned.  “That…” Her nose wrinkled.  “That’s so grotesque!  I didn’t feel it at all!  I mean, of course I wouldn’t, but–but–”

“Yes, it’s weird.” Elmiryn said nodding.  She thumbed at the Moretti brothers who had already begun scaling up the slopes.  “We can scratch our heads about it later.  Let’s go.”

The girl gave a slow nod, then muttered something under her breath again.  The warrior suspected she was speaking to her Twin, but she wasn’t sure.  Looking at her closely now, she saw how the girl twitched now and again, as though she were fighting trembling outright.  Perhaps she wasn’t dealing with it as well as the woman had initially thought.

They followed the Morettis up the skree and rock.  Nyx bickered briefly with Her, mouth moving fast as the inward conversation commenced.  Elmiryn paused to watch this for a moment before the girl proceeded to climb–with the aid of her bestial Twin.

At the top, the Morettis waited.  Graz pointed down the other side, which dropped down what seemed as much as a quarter of a mile.  “There they are.”  He slid down, to a small relief where a rope was coiled, its end fixed with a hook that was snagged onto a rock.  At the base of the rock was a bag that spilled with what looked like dead rabbits.

Elmiryn squinted, craning her neck.  All she saw was rock and more rock.  “Where are they?”

Graziano just smiled at her as he took the rope and slid down.  He gave a whistle.  Suddenly, the ground shifted, dirt unsettling to reveal a large armored beast with white eyes and slits for nostrils.  It reared its massive head and let out a low shriek.  Arduino slid down to the relief, and taking up a rabbit, he tossed it to the creature below.  The scultone snatched the morsel without losing its footing, claws buried deep into the ground.   It growled in what appeared to be content.  The ground at either side of it shifted and two others appeared, shaking away the rock and debris.  Arduino cooed at them, smirking as he tossed them their treats.

“Sweet Aelurus…” Nyx breathed, gripping Elmiryn’s arm.

The woman turned to Paulo.  “How far is Belcliff, exactly?”

“From here?  Almost four days.  But our scultones can halve that, because they aren’t restricted to the trails.”

“But you have a problem, lia,” Arduino called as he fished out two more rabbit corpses.  He quirked an eyebrow up at them.  “Quincy will not allow you to simply walk into Belcliff.  She’ll be there, waiting–it’s typical practice for bounty hunters to hang around.  You’ll be lucky if you’ll even make it to the region’s prison, let alone to where Syria is being held.”

“We can handle her.  We have to.”

Arduino chuckled as he tossed the scultones their treats.  “Ah, but if it were only as simple as facing off with her…”

Nyx gripped Elmiryn tighter.  “What do you mean?”

“Quincy doesn’t work alone.  She has a partner.  A dark-skinned man named Hakeem.  He, also, happens to be a wizard.”

Elmiryn sighed.  “Okay…so where is this guy?  Hakeem?”

“He wasn’t with Quincy.” Paulo said.

“Well, I could see that.”

“And he wasn’t up North,” Graziano added below as he scratched the scultone in the middle beneath its chin, where its soft flesh wobbled in pleasure.

“So…” Elmiryn held up her hand.  Her grin had a slant to it.  “Where the hell is he?”

“He’s likely riding to meet Quincy at Belcliff,” Arduino finished.  He dusted off his hands then crossed his arms high over his chest.  “If we want to get by Quincy…we’ll need to deal with Hakeem first.  If they meet…then we’ll be in for some serious trouble.”


The cloud swirled.  Hakeem, his breathing deep from his effort, watched with narrowed eyes for any sign of movement.  Then the ground beneath his feet trembled.  He frowned, hands clenching at his sides.

Then a scultone burst from the clouds, dust trailing its sleek form as it speared toward him.  The man tensed, mind briefly going blank as the beast rammed into his torso, scooping him up, then flinging him back.  Hakeem felt the air rush out of his lungs, felt every inch of his body ache.  Were it not for his armor, he would have suffered worse.  But this thought brought little comfort to him as he began to descend back to the ground.  He thought listlessly that he should perhaps count back to the moment before the scultone caught him unawares, but his concentration was lost.  How long ago did that attack happen?  How much longer before he hit the ground?

Too late.

He crashed into the earth and went tumbling for several more yards through the frosted weeds before he slid to a halt.

He faded out of consciousness.

When he came back to, he was turned on his back with a foot planted on his chest.  A dark face swam above him.

“Hold him down, so that he doesn’t pull that stunt again!”  Someone exclaimed.  The Fiamman, he thought.

The person above him spoke.  “Don’t worry, lia.  Hakeem can’t teleport unless it is along those energy blasts he sends–and he won’t be able to reset back to when my scultone hit him.  Not while I’m holding him in place.”

“Well you guys handled that a great deal better than you did the other one, didn’t you?”

“We weren’t prepared then.”  Arduino.  He sounded winded and grumpy.  “So far our only competition was a loopy alchemist and a gung-ho sorcerer who specializes in metal.  Not quite as overwhelming as someone like Quincy.”

“Speak for yourself!” Said the man over him.  Graziano, Hakeem surmised.  “You weren’t cornered by Karolek’s blade spirit!”

Hakeem tried to shift his right arm inconspicuously as they spoke, so as to throw Graziano off of him.  But another boot came down to pin his arm to the ground.  A new form stood over him, this person of shapely form.  The Fiamman.

“I’m really starting to dislike wizards,” she said.  “Can we take that armor off of him?  That’s what’s giving him his power, right?”

“This armor is bound to me.  Try to remove it…and face the consequences,” Hakeem said, his voice gravelly and deep.

The woman knelt down quickly, and Graziano removed his boot as Hakeem was jerked upright by his chest armor.  The face of the Fiamman focused into view as she pressed in close.  Her lip curled upwards into a vicious smile, and her cerulean eyes winked.

“Is that a dare?”  She asked delightedly.

Continue ReadingChapter 13.2

Chapter 14.3


Hakeem exhaled deeply, and felt the chain on him shift down a portion. He did not look up as he moved his fingers, which reached achingly around the bulge of his numbing palms.

His middle finger managed to curl underneath the rope.

“You realize, of course,” The wizard said, leaning back to look Arduino fully in the face. “That the likelihood of this plan succeeding is not even in the double digit percentage range?”

Hazelnut eyes narrowed at him, and the crossbow in Arduino’s hands raised a fraction. “Quiet, calgato,” he snapped.

Hakeem raised a brow at him. “You want your brothers to rot in a prison for the rest of their lives?”

Arduino did not respond but for the tightening of his neck. Nearby, Argos turned to look at the wizard, but his interest quickly waned, and he rest his head on his paws again. The dog’s shaggy face was drawn in melancholy as he faced the mountain ranges. It had been in a state of depression since the Ailuran (Nyx, they called her) and Paulo left without him. The creature disliked this inaction. So too, Hakeem guessed, did Arduino.

The wizard dug again. “Your youngest brother is ill, cavorting off with a therian of unstable mind. Your second-youngest has ventured off with a woman reputed for her violence and radical behavior. And did you stop to consider that Holzoff’s Tower is the most renowned of all the prisons in the world, topping even the facilities of the Higashi Kingdom?”

The man snorted and turned, walking a few paces toward the opening of the relief. Hakeem took this opportunity to shift his body and arms. Now he had four fingers forced between the ropes. It pinched and burned, but he could work his way to the knot now. He slowly inched them along–his hands, wrists, and forearms straining with the effort.

“And did you know,” Hakeem went on, just as Arduino turned to look at him again, his brows pressed tight. “I imagine there must be at least 200 men on duty in Belcliff alone. Do you know how many are stationed at Holzoff’s Tower?”

“I said quiet!” Arduino barked, spit flying from his mouth. His face had turned a dark color.

Hakeem did not stop. He gazed at his captor with cold eyes. “Arduino, you know that Belcliff’s marshal is a wrathful man that cannot see past his own problems. Do you think he’ll have any mercy when he sends your brothers to death?

The Moretti lashed out with a yell, running forward to bury his foot in Hakeem’s gut. The man grunted and doubled over, his breath rushing past his lips. His abdomen spasmed in pain. As he moved forward, his arms pulled at his hands. It felt as though they were being squeezed off, but when he straightened again, he found the ropes were looser.

Arduino panted over him, his hair now loose from his tail. His fists were clenched, and his face was contorted with fury–but Hakeem saw fear in the man’s eyes.

Without another word, the oldest Moretti turned and went to the resting scultone. He whistled sharply and the beast raised its head, eyes blinking open. The wizard watched as Arduino climbed onto the creature’s back, his crossbow resting in his lap. With a shake of the reins and a guttural yip, the man urged the scultone to rise into a slow amble toward the edge of the relief. Argos rose to his feet, his ears now perked and his weepy eyes wide beneath the shag of his fur. He whined and barked sharply, blocking the scultone’s way.

Arduino hissed at the dog and waved his hand at it. “Shut up, mutt! I have something to do.”

Argos didn’t move. He bowed his head and growled, lips pulling back to reveal his yellow canines. Hakeem could see the fur along his spine raise, too.

The Moretti sent a growl in return. “Either you move, or I run over you. I don’t care either way.”

The dog seemed to consider this ultimatum. His head lifted and dipped as he let his eyes take in the massive scultone with hundreds of teeth and claws nearly the size of Argos’ head. With a snort and a grumble, Argos padded off to the side.

Arduino nodded at him. “Good boy. Now watch this wizard, and wait for me to come back.” Then the man let out another yip, and with one great bound, the draconic beast vaulted over the edge and out of sight. Hakeem listened as the sounds of the traveling scultone grew fainter. Then he pulled at his ropes.

Argos turned and saw this, and within moments, he bowled Hakeem over–his head ramming into the wizard’s side. The dog stood over him, fur tickling his skin, and the animal’s foul breath hot against his face. It bared its teeth and growled low. Hakeem grunted as he looked up at the dog, one arm pinned beneath his body.

He spoke, his voice strained. “Arduino will not be coming back. Not for me, not for you. He’s straying from all your plans.”

Argos snapped his teeth at the man, another growl tearing up his throat. Drool landed on Hakeem’s cheek, but the wizard did not turn away. He stared into the dog’s eyes.

“Arduino is going to betray all of you. He’ll betray you to save his brothers from the marshal. You know this.”

The dog stared at the man. Then he sat back on Hakeem’s legs and looked down at him imperiously. “Explain why I should trust you then,” the dog seemed to be asking.

Hakeem shrugged. “As unlikely as it is that any of you will succeed–there’s also a possibility that Quincy could get hurt. Arduino will try to frame me. He’ll say that I was conspiring to free the enchantresses. Just from me being here with you, just for my absence, just for the commotion that is happening in Belcliff this instant. He’ll try to turn the marshal on me and my companion, and the marshal…I cannot say for sure whether he’ll believe the man, but I’d rather err on the side of caution. …And…I have an interest in the warrior and the therian. I need them to stay alive. This…matters more than the bounty on your mistress or my perceived innocence.” Hakeem said the last words slowly, a frown coming over his face.

He realized he wasn’t just feeding the dog a line. And it wasn’t just Quincy either. He wanted Elmiryn and Nyx to stay alive. He had to know what they knew about the chronicles. He had to know what their future held for them–for it was great, as his divinations had foretold. Not only was it that…it was an event, a force, an element that would likely affect both he and Quincy both.

…And at any rate, the bounty on the Fiamman would make up for all the trouble–and then some.

“Well?” The man challenged. He dared to shift beneath the dog. “If that isn’t enough to convince you, then you tell me how you plan on getting down this mountain! Can your paws do anything to aid you?”

Argos growled at the movement…but after a moment’s consideration…He slowly climbed off the man.

Hakeem sat up with some effort, and let out a sigh. He gestured behind him with a jerk of his head. “Now…if you could help me with these bindings?”


Paulo looked at me as the three of us skipped backwards in unison, preparing to escape Karolek’s attack. “Lia,” he said, “Please tell me you have some life-saving Ailuran trick up your sleeve!”

Karolek unhooked another ingot. This too turned into a sharp disc–the glint of its intention like a spark to my fuse.

I looked at the boy, my face bunched with tension. “Oh yes, Paulo. I have a trick–” I turned, pulling Lethia with me as I broke into a sprint. “It’s called running!

Paulo didn’t need telling twice.

We managed a short distance before I looked back in time to see the metal blades whistling toward us. I let out a shout and pushed Lethia aside. The blades changed course mid-air. One struck low, the other higher.

I screamed, a wrenching sound that threatened to turn my throat inside out.  In pain, I fell onto the icy ground. The sensation was so severe that I was rendered paralyzed, not completely sure of what had happened. I saw Lethia skitter to a halt, Paulo reluctantly doing the same. The girl came to my side, pale and trembling, her green eyes flickering to my legs as she gripped me about the shoulder and armpit. My Twin’s claw scraped at the ground, frantic.

“Fottuto!” I heard Paulo spit out as he drew his rapier. He slashed with it, the blade slicing through space with a sharp clang.  Sparks erupted and another metal disc embedded itself into the ground yards away.

Almost numb with the agony now, I forced myself to turn around, shifting onto my side. My left foot was turned at a harrowing angle–the boot sliced in the back. My tendon…was cut.  I let out another sharp cry, my voice turning hoarse.  Tears came to my eyes, blinding me.  My calf spasmed, muscles aching as though they knew something vital was damaged. The side of my thigh also screamed, as though it were being sawed into…I saw my life pool out onto the ground in a dark ooze. The culprits–Karolek’s slim disc blades, were lying not far from my leg–the angle of their trajectory leading them to slice into the ground instead of remaining in my wounds. They were bright and clean. Whimpering, I squirmed, reaching down to grip my leg. Blood came dripping out onto the snow from my boot as well. I could feel more trickling around the skin of my foot. When I looked up, Karolek was walking toward us, calm as ever. Something of his eyes seemed to brighten, and that horrible smile broadened, catching some light.

“Children, you may as well yield. Resisting me will only bring more unpleasant things!” He said, drawing the massive blade on his back. He held it before him with one hand, dressed in many rings. The weapon was a broad saber, red ribbons tied to the hilt. “Come with me quietly, and you’ll be imprisoned with all your limbs intact.”

Lethia’s eyes narrowed and she straightened. “Do you enjoy hurting others, you vulture!?”

The man laughed. “Hurting others? No, my dear. I enjoy getting what I want. But this end need not see any more violence.” Karolek unhooked four more ingots with his free hand. The man held up the pieces and the metal rose into the air as before…but this time they did not turn into discs. Instead, they melted together, their forms turning into one large amorphous blob that continued to shift and ripple. He kept unhooking ingots until nearly all the ones on his belt were gone.

Paulo came at my side, his free hand pulling at my gambeson. Sweat trailed past his eyes, wide with fear. “Nyx…Lethia…he’s going to–!” The boy’s voice cut off with a choke.

“What’s he doing?” I gasped, feeling more and more faint. I tried to stop the bleeding at my ankle, not certain if an important artery had been sliced, or if my tendon had even been completely severed. With my other hand, I clawed for a grip, preparing to move.

The boy’s voice was a hoarse whisper. “He’s summoning a blade spirit!!

My eyes widened and I fought to push myself up, my vision rippling and my arms shaking. I’d only heard of those things from stories. It was a sorcery spell, one that brought forth an angry spirit to possess metal. But my leg…was not healing. I was losing a lot of blood, it seemed, the way my boot became hot and wet about my ankle and heel. My arms gave out and exhaustion swept over me, heavy like a blanket. My adrenaline was spent. My body was in shock. I tried to force myself again, and felt everything lurch.

The sounds around me…faded, and I became still.

I felt Lethia’s touch leave me.

Above me, like a fly buzzing in my ear, Paulo snapped at her. “Idi’ute! What’re you doing!?”

“…I’m…I’m fighting back.”

I barely heard Lethia’s answer–just as I saw Her running over our mindscape, her talons digging deep–and I vanished completely in the cold, glad to be away from the pain.


Argos wiggled in his embrace. Hakeem grunted and let the dog go. They crashed down into the dirt, clouds billowing about them as they went head over heels. The wizard rolled over onto his knees, panting. He looked at the shaggy animal and scowled. “I told you, if you move when I teleport, then you could kill us both!

The man rose to his feet, eyes squinting. He had once again reactivated his armor, and felt glad to feel its heat surrounding him. He clenched his hands, dressed in their fluted gauntlets, and looked back the way they came. The rip in space that Hakeem had created faded from sight, all the way back to the place in the cliffs they had previously been staying. He turned his head and looked through the small mountain pass to the city of Belcliff. The suns peered through a crack in the clouds, letting a shaft of light drape the city.

He gestured for Argos to follow him. “Come on. If I can speak with Quincy, we can avoid anyone getting hurt.” Hakeem walked briskly, the dog beside him. He counted ticks in his head, watching as this curious development unfolded before him like a great blanket. He did not believe in fate, but he believed that chance favored a ready mind. No one could have guessed that a routine bounty would have resulted in something so extreme, so life-threatening, so bizarrely fortuitous as to escape Hakeem’s understanding at the onset. But conversely, so much could be lost–

A haunting scream sledgehammered his thoughts, freezing the man in his steps. Ahead, he thought he saw an explosion of light–clawing past the dark stone buildings–barely lasting ten seconds. Then the spectacle was gone, and all it left behind were rising clouds of dust. Mouth open, Hakeem took a step forward.

That light, it only meant one thing…

“No,” he breathed, shaking his head. He raised his hands to his head, the cold metal of his gauntlets bringing no comfort to the feeling that sprouted within him at an alarming rate. The man shook his head again. “No, no…wikan…Bwa-mweze, wikan songu? You said…you said you’d never do that again…”

Quincy must have pierced herself with her sword.

All within him bunched. The armor about him grew hot. Argos whined next to him, his dark eyes gazing at him uncertainly. The man’s vision clouded as he felt tears trickle down his tense face, and his hands turned to fists against his head.

Argos skittered away with ears flat and tail tucked in as Hakeem fell to his knees.

Mweze, wikan!?” he screamed.


The girl felt like she had to pee. In fact, she was certain she may have done a bit of that already, but such things became unimportant when staring down a sorcerer the size of the Torreth. “Take Nyx somewhere safe,” the girl said, her voice quivering as the gravity of the situation pressed down on her in full. Her eyes were on Karolek’s knees. Inside, her heart rebelled against her, fighting against her ribs.

Lethia could hear Paulo struggle with the unconscious therian. “You’ve lost it if you think you can do anything!” But even as he said this, the sound of his retreat tickled her ear.

Karolek paused, the shifting metal still hovering before him. He regarded the enchantress with mirth. Lethia started to tremble, but she tilted her head back, raising her gaze to the man’s shoulder.

The sorcerer chuckled. “Little one, what are you doing?”

“I won’t let you do this,” Lethia said. She let go of the club and the weapon fell to the ground.

The man brandished his sword. “And you think you can fight me, with your skills in enchantment? Are you going to make me think the color blue is green? That you’re just a rabbit, and I, just a wolf?

Lethia’s jaw tensed and she thought about Syria, alone in Holzoff’s Tower, and she imagined the enchantress as still refined, still dignified, still unbroken. She thought about Nyx, someone she had known for such a short time, but who was willing to risk life and limb to save her and her mistress both. She thought about Argos, crossbow bolt buried in his shoulder, and his eyes still burning with the desire to fight

The girl’s eyes raised, and they locked onto Karolek’s dark gaze.

The world blew away like sand about her. The sorcerer’s mouth froze just as he opened it to say something else–but it was not that he paused, instead, more that time slowed down. The man, the only thing left, was black and gray, but he broke apart slowly in flickering tiny shapes that separated with susurrations. These little phantom voices narrated things to her, growing louder as the pieces of Karolek’s being came closer to her mind.

Cold blue animus….singing….I loved her, dearly….but they didn’t stop to look…think…run…all it…no, NEVER…breathing in…cairun…inkol…polsech…weary feet that…lanuse co remana…cairun…cairun…NEVER! CHILD, THIS POWER IS…cairun, cairun, inkol polsech…YOU CANNOT CONTROL IT! THE METAL IT…cairun, cairun, inkol polsech, lanuse co remana, cairun, cairun…YOU TEMPT FATE!!

The black and gray shapes quivered, then began to grow, smothering her. Lethia heard herself scream.


Lethia flew backwards, her body crashing into the ground and skidding along the dirt. Her back and shoulders pulsed with pain. Vision came back to her eyes, and she gasped, back arching as her mind swirled heavy with things foreign. She heard Karolek roar. Breath coming in choppy gasps, the girl sat up, her wheat blond hair clinging to her sweaty cheeks.

The metal blob solidified into a large ball, a blue halo surrounding it and reflecting off the smooth surface. Then, spikes appeared all over it, and they grew longer. Without warning, the spikes broke off, and began revolving around the orb. They drifted farther out, and a chaotic array of small, razor thin blades appeared on the orb’s surface. These separated from the ball of metal, just as the spikes, and they began to revolve around at a faster speed. Hundreds of these little things appeared before the orb was reduced to a ball that could fit in Lethia’s hand. It blurred in and out of view behind the revolving spikes and tiny blades. The blue halo grew stronger, and the girl thought she saw a pair of eyes staring at her.

This…was a blade spirit.

Karolek pointed his blade at her, his face twisted in dark rage. “Get her!” he shouted.

The blade spirit, with a ghostly moan, shot forward with incredible speed.

Lethia stood to her feet, her green eyes wide, her hands held up before her. The spikes were so close, she could almost feel them–

–Then the blade spirit stopped, spikes and blades shuddering to a halt. The halo of light flickered, and there was a hiss.

Karolek sputtered, slashing with his saber. “What…what did you do!?”

“You were right, Karolek.” Lethia said, her voice faint. But her eyes held an edge of ferocity. “I can’t control all of your power–and there are some things I just cannot take from a person. But…”

She waved her hand, and the light of the blades pulsed, then rose and gathered into a wisp above the metal. It swirled, then shaped into a head. The blade spirit opened its mouth and emitted a groan–like gears grinding together–before it vanished completely.

With the host gone, the metal was mundane again. Lethia called to it, her animus–her soul–holding it aloft by sheer will. With a slight nod, the spikes and blades broke their formation, all turning so that they pointed straight at Karolek. The man took a step back, his face turned ashen. Lethia’s eyes narrowed, her hand raised.

“I don’t need all your power to fight you!” she cried.

Then she let her hand drop, and the blades went flying.


My eyes opened.

I was back. Back in that place in my head…that alien domain I had visited two days ago, that left me feeling numb and immaterial. Back in that place of cold rock that sometimes pulsed transparent to show me creatures caught between sapien and animal forms. Back in Her home. Skeletons, twisted flesh, mouths open with pain. I sat up and found my Twin sitting next to me as a maned, panther-like feline. Her head was held low, and her tail lashed behind her–back and forth, back and forth–

“We’re dying,” She said. Just as before, her mouth moved to speak, like a person’s. It looked odd to me.

I blinked and stared at her, my breath a fog. “…What?” My head turned and I looked at my leg. My left foot flopped to the side, despite my efforts to have it pointed to the sky like its companion, and my pants were torn at the side. I could see to my thigh, where a dark slash was on my skin. “These cuts…” I breathed.

“They won’t heal. Not as you are. And because they won’t, we’ll bleed to death.”


“This isn’t like before!” She screamed, making me cringe from her. Her eyes were wide and she pushed up onto her paws to get into my face. Up close I could see her whiskers tremble, and I realized…she was scared. “You passed out because you’re bleeding, and fast. Not because of the pain! You won’t wake up again on your own!”

“How do you know this!?” I shot back in a shrill voice. I scooted farther away from her, my head shaking. “What if you’re just trying to trick me? Like before!?”

“Then you condemn us both!”

I stared at Her. She gazed back at me, the pupils of her tawny eyes wide and dark. I saw myself reflected in them–saw her fear…as my own. I looked away, breathing heavily. “If…If we shift here–NOW–we’ll be left vulnerable. Karolek will kill us!”

My Twin shook her head. “It needn’t take…that long.”

I looked at her in confusion. “What do you mean?”

She bowed her head lower, and her tail turned still. Her ears twisted back, but did not fall flat against her head. She was trying to show herself as docile. I sat forward a little, astonished.

“Borrow my fur and fangs. We’ll be as one in the grace of Aelurus’ crescent of birth. We’ll share the world…for a little while.”

Continue ReadingChapter 14.3

Chapter 15.1


Elmiryn stumbled, her eyes watering and coughs tearing up her raw throat. She wasn’t sure, but was there blood on her tongue? The woman wiped at her brow as she trudged back the way she came–away from the site of her incredible battle, which still smoldered in its destruction. Then wraiths rounded the corner of a tradehouse. They had great, shining sharp teeth and eyes as white as scultones. Their mouths were angry maws and their limbs immaterial reaches of ink.


A voice…A voice? Was it the wraiths? They sounded so far away, it seemed, Elmiryn thought it a pity to find this most basic mode of expression drowned in the after-roars of her battle. She took her left hand and, with her pinky, dug into her ear…

…Or it could’ve been the fact that her ears were ringing like a bitch.

As she inspected her finger (“Shit, is that blood on there?”) she heard the far away voice call to her again. “You! You, woman, stop now!”

The woman did just this and turned slowly on the spot. Her eyes were dull as she looked at the wraiths as a person regarded an insect they’d just noticed. (“Yeah, I think it was these things that were trying to call me.”) Their forms were smoke and whispers that trailed across her mind.

“Oh…hi,” she said, voice barely heard in her head. She raised her right hand to wave, but felt the pain spider along her breast and shoulder, and with a wince, she lowered it again quickly.

The wraiths appeared fully before her as cobalt reptiles–(“No!”)–toy soldiers–(“No!”)–bad ideas–(“Mmm…okay, I guess that’s what you’d call these things.”) with eyes of fury.

“Down on your knees and put your hands on your head!” One bad idea barked.

The woman snorted. “You want me to do what?

On your knees!”

Elmiryn chuckled. She rubbed at her face and stepped forward, her eyes sweeping over their surroundings, back to the hot destruction that clawed at her back. Her lips began to curl at the ends as she reached for her sword and looked at the bad ideas, dressed up in their chainmail.

“You think I’m weak. That’s…that must be…that’s gotta be what you think. Right? You think you can just crawl into my head and make me misstep? You morons! You…you fucking bastards! Ha! HA!” The woman started to laugh loudly. She drew her sword and brandished it, her humor making the blade tremble in the air. The bad ideas jumped back, spooked, pale faces dripping and running long to show their weakness.

“I’ll kill you!” she cried, between her harsh guffaws. She pulled her sword back, her shoulder protesting but doing little to persuade–

Shots. Sharp thunderclaps that ripped through the space of hushed silence. The ideas ducked in alarm, but Elmiryn just turned her head in curiosity, her weapon paused in the air.

Graziano came down the way, his triple-barreled pistol aimed and smoking. “No, my friends.” He stopped and pointed the gun straight at the guards. He smirked and narrowed his eyes. “Why don’t you get down?”


I looked away from Her.

This creature asked so little of me, but it felt like so much. It felt monumentous. Like a boulder, pressed against my back, my voice curdled and and begged for its removal. But claws I’ve had, and fur I’ve had—and not long ago, either. In Toah, I had dressed myself in Her skin, could even admit freely that I enjoyed the sensations, the smells, the strength…the freedom. Only, this way had been lost to me, through the screams of rivers and the tainting dreams of demons that were betrothed to my closest companion’s every word. My Twin had become more abhorrent. More disgusting. More of a disgrace. I could feel her, always, in the back of my mind, setting me on edge, running my mood afoul.

And yet She asked so little of me.

What did this home of hers reveal but torment and fury? I gazed around, a girl haunted in the images of beings twisted in pain, trapped beneath cold rock that concealed them like a beating heart. And where did this poeticism come from, but from MY expression, stolen like money from a till by a heathen who…who…

Who was getting maddeningly better at it with each passing minute. For every sentence she constructed, my wayward sister was fast catching up—pressing and pressing. But until now, she had shown me little more than base desires, so shallow and primitive as to hardly gain a second thought from me, save to curse it to the blackest parts of my mind.

…Yet suddenly, in suggestions, in questions, in sudden requests, she was making a fool of my conceptions. A name? A name? And now…a truce?

And yet She asked so little of me!

I was loathe to the idea, even now, with time’s hand at the back of my neck like a blade. Her claws, dripping with Atalo’s blood, still haunted me in sleep and in waking. The trauma was an endless aftershock that made even the briefest and smallest contact with her a battle. This could all be rationalized, surely. Survival. I pulled at my left boot, pain absent in this ghostly realm, and found that my tendon was indeed completely severed, going so far as to reach the ankle bone. Such incredible force, for such a little blade! I thought, detached, numbed now on an emotional level as much as a physical one. I reached over and pulled and pushed at my foot, face growing long at the sight of my own blood pumping out onto the ground like it were a pump at a well.

Then I paused, and looked at my Twin with such a fury as to dwarf all my previous dances with the emotion.

“What game are you playing, creature?” I snapped.

She looked at me, her furry brow bunching in a pathetic mimicry of human emotion. “What are you talking about?”

“This is your home. You have control over all around us. How do I know you aren’t just making me see things?” I gestured at my left foot with disgust. “How do you know what my ankle looks like right now? Not even I know!”

“This isn’t a trick!” She cried, ears swiveling forward. She rose to her feet and her tail set to lashing again. “What a dimwitted fool you are! Have you no sense!?”

“I have plenty! I have enough to know when you’re just trying to get what you want, and I won’t let you! Not after what’s happened with my arm. Not again!”

“You’d let us die for your hate and stupidity!”

“I’d let us die for everything you’ve done! Everything you’ve taken! I’d let us die just to spare the world your plague!” I screamed this last part.  I paused, heaving, sensation coming to my spirit as anger gnawed at the edges of myself. I forced myself to my feet and turned my back to her, my body teetering as, even in this poor reality, I was at the mercy of her illusions.

“I’d let myself die.” I limped forward a few steps–toward nothing, I realized. Nothing. Beyond our space of dirt and dust and rock existed a sea of absence that I could hardly pierce. I stared into it with baleful eyes. “I’d…I’d let myself die, just for…just for letting this shadow take the form of a monster,” I said, wearily. “Just for letting you…let you. Just for letting you let–” I frowned. Clutched at my head. “Letting you…letting us…letting us let you let me, let…”

“It’s getting harder to think, isn’t it?”

“I’m just…”

“One can hardly expect eloquence when one is bleeding out through a wound so uncommon and barbaric as a nearly severed foot. I’ve only got a bit of you here, with me. You’re still at the helm, sister. So you’ll descend first…then I, cursed to be with you, will follow.” I heard the cat snort. “So you just continue letting us, letting you, letting me perish. Perhaps this is what you always wanted.” When she spoke again, it were as though she were traveling away from me, her voice sending in the opposite direction. “And damn it all, I’ve sullied myself in even thinking, for a moment, that you could look beyond our past. Even at death’s door, you spit in my fur!”

“Me spit on you!?” I whirled around, like an unstable toy. “Every moment since you’ve learned to speak, you’ve spent it cursing me, insulting me, conniving to rip away the little pride I have left! How dare you!” I stalked forward, my body feeling not physical sensation, but the ring of emotion, like a gong of war. “You’d cut me away, as if were the cancer, as if were the murderer!!”

The beast roared, the sound coming from all around to hammer me onto my knees. I gasped, shuddering, unable to comprehend the force of loathing that battered into my spirit.

Idiot! Weakling!” She screeched, teeth bared and her furry face bunched. Her tawny eyes held me with murderous contempt. “I hate you! Yes! I loathe you! Yes! But I care more to survive than to let your transgressions drag me into the Lunamare!”

“My only transgression was in allowing you to exist, you disgusting creature!”

“And you had no hand, none whatsoever, in allowing Ekilluous out!?”

“No, of course not, I–” I paused, my face screwing up as I sorted out what She had just said. “Ekilluous? That monstrous form is in no way a part of me. That was always your curse!”

“…Sister.” The beast sounded weary. I hated that she sounded weary. was weary. I was spent from all the years lost fighting with her.

“I am not your sister,” I snapped acerbically.

A snort. “Nyx, then!” I’d never heard her use my name. I’d never heard her admit, even indirectly, that it WAS my name. My jaw tensed and my scowl turned suspicious.

She sat again, but her head was bowed and her ears pressed flat against her head. Every muscle beneath her fur was coiled as though she were prepared to pounce on me. “Have you considered, even for a moment, that I’ve no more an idea of what is beyond this darkness surrounding us than you do?”

I blinked. I turned and looked over my shoulder, into the sea. Then I gave our surroundings another sweep. It occurred to me, how…reclusive this place felt…

…How trapped.

“I…admit, I haven’t,” I said, now looking at Her with uncertainty. “I’ve had no reason to!”

The beast sighed, looking to the stormy sky.

“…Then I’m afraid you are very, very stupid.


Elmiryn would have gone to sleep against Graziano’s back were it not for the bumping and gallumphing of the scultone. Still, there were unsettling moments when the world turned sideways, and she’d feel the man claw at her to sit upright on the saddle.

“Conio! Will you snap out of it!?” Graziano snapped, pulling Elmiryn back for the third time.

In truth, the woman didn’t quite get it either. Her wound had been cauterized shut, and she’d suffer no other serious injury. Perhaps it was exhaustion and a bit of dehydration, but did those things make the sky a silver plate she wanted to smash? Did that make the blood in her mouth turn to candy? Did that make them jesters, running comically on a giant ball of a world, struggling to keep from falling off?

The woman groaned and squeezed her eyes shut. Too many paper houses. Too many paper people. She felt like paper. Paper at the mercy of an angry wind.

Elmiryn jabbed Graziano in the side. “Stop,” she bit out.

He looked over at her, the head of the scultone dancing in and out of view as it galloped powerfully over the plains.

“What?” he shouted.

With teeth grit, the woman reached up, like a snake striking out, and had the man around the throat. “Son of a bitch, I said STOP!”

He gurgled, his hazelnut eyes wide as a little spit dribbled out the corner of his mouth. The Moretti pulled at the reins, and the scultone reared back, screeching. Both Elmiryn and Graziano were sent tumbling to the ground.

Elmiryn landed on her back, air leaving her lungs to leave her gasping like a fish. She stared up at the ceiling (“…No, damn it, the sky.”) It didn’t take long before she started to feel the world press down on her. She whimpered and rolled to her side, clutching her head. Any moment now, she was going to throw up, she was certain.

“Lia mas idi’uta al terrano!” Graziano spat over her. He had stumbled to his feet, and was now a shadow that towered into the sky. Elmiryn looked at him with squinted eyes.

“M’sorry,” she mumbled.

“Sorry? Sorry!? You could’ve killed us!”


“What’s the matter with you!?”

“The best way I can describe it is…is like a hangover…or somethin’. I dunno. I’unno, I–” Elmiryn retched. She rolled over onto her stomach and pressed her forehead against her arm. “Gods damn it…”


She retched again, then again, more violently. The woman raised herself up on her good arm just in time to let the bile splash out onto the ground. She wiped the little she had left on her lips and rolled onto her back. She closed her eyes with a frown, panting.

She heard Graziano kneel next to her. The scultone warbled and Elmiryn heard the creature amble off.

“Oye…lia…did that wizard do something to you?”

Elmiryn shook her head. “Besides stabbing me? Not that I know of.”

“What do you think it is, then?” Graziano asked nervously. The warrior opened her eyes some to see the man looking at her with a wrinkled brow. “I’m at a loss.”

Then the woman smiled humorlessly. “Hey…Graz…do you feel…a pressure at your eyes?”


Hakeem stared into the dirt, his hands on his thighs as he flexed them and unflexed them. He thought about counting. Counting all the way back. Counting back to Tiesmire, when Quincy had gotten that look in her eye. He thought about counting back to when he had first seen the warrior and the therian. He thought about counting back to when they’d first arrived at Belcliff to accept the marshal’s bounty. He thought about counting back…and back…and…

Argos barked in his ear.

The man jerked, all muscles tensed and quivering as he looked at the dog with fury. Argos, taller than the man as he kneeled, shrank back, his moist eyes blinking.

Hakeem sighed and he relaxed.

“My quarrel…is not with you.” He shook his head. “It’s not even with your companions.” He scowled darkly and stood.

“I’m not even sure it’s with Quincy.” Hakeem began to march toward Belcliff, his eyes narrowed. They entered the city limits. He resisted the urge to visit the site of Quincy’s battle–for there was no doubt in his mind that she and the Fiamman had been involved. The sound he’d heard…

The pair crossed a small park where statues of famous Legends stood amid evergreens and shrubs. The man eyed the faces, something akin to contempt flaring within him as he clenched his gauntlets. He had trained hard to keep his emotions in check…but damn it all, if Quincy wasn’t like a storm to a lone torch. And these statues of crusaders, of warriors, of heroes. He knew none of them, and yet how they ruled his life! Where was his chance for calm? When would he ever reach a point that the scream of a dying star did not haunt his dreams?

“Tai’undu!” Hakeem cursed suddenly. Argos looked at him sideways.

Quincy’s primary tool as a wizard was her sword.


Hakeem had seen all manner of enchanted weaponry–each with their own cost. Some were magicked to guarantee victory in battle, but did not guarantee you’d survive. Some had to be fed blood from its owner just to stay sharp. Some took your memories for every wound you inflicted. In the case of Quincy’s sword…it sought unification. On the surface, someone unlearned might find this completely innocuous. Some warriors even dreamed of living in complete harmony with their weapons of choice.

But for Quincy, Tonatiuh, the Wicked Blade of the Sun, wanted there to be no degree of separation. It wished to be one with her–to be her heart, and her its mind.

Even small displays of power caused Tonatiuh to come closer to the core of the woman, closer to her soul, closer to her life essence that gave anchor to the physical realm. The explosion he had heard, the great boom that was as death to him, was the sound of energy being released. Quincy had trained years to master the use of the Wicked Blade of the Sun, and her tantamount power was to scatter into the light, a being turned immaterial. …Quincy, as he knew it, was…gone.

The salt of her, the richness of her eyes, were ghosts that made it impossible to steel himself. He felt his fury pulse inside of him like a black heart. Then…like bile up his throat, horrible thoughts came unbidden. Hakeem thought about killing Argos by bashing his head in with his fists; he thought about destroying the marshal’s home while his family were still in it; he thought about choking the life out of Quincy–the light out of her eyes.

Hakeem’s steps slowed and he held out a hand to Argos, who stopped next to him. The dog peered up at the man uncertainly, his tail giving a tentative wag.

Hakeem looked at Argos with squinted eyes. “Do you feel that?” The dog stared at him blankly.

The wizard turned his head and blinked. He squeezed his eyes shut when he thought he saw one of the statues move. They were nearly out of the park. He thought about going back, but his thoughts were soon flooded with images of burning huts. He could taste ash on his tongue, and spat, grimacing. Somewhere in the distance, he heard someone screaming. Then in another direction, angry shouts and wild hoots.

Hakeem chewed the corner of his lip, biting hard, and tried to focus his thoughts. He tried to resume his counting, but his nose itched at the thought of finding the Fiamman and beating her within an inch of her–

Hakeem turned, still chewing on his lip. A manic look had taken over his eyes as he stalked one way, then another. Argos stared at him, confused. He woofed once–twice–but Hakeem didn’t even look at him. When the man tasted blood from his lip, he wrenched himself back in the direction they had come.

The dog didn’t follow immediately. He barked after the wizard, whines acting as bridges to his sharp calls. Eventually he went after Hakeem, snarling. Hakeem turned, fist pulled back in warning. “Argos, stop!” The dog skidded to a halt some feet away from the man. His lips were pulled back and his eyes seared a question.

“I’m not betraying your trust,” Hakeem said through grit teeth. “But we have to leave the city. There’s something here, floating through the streets. A taint. A curse. Something. It wasn’t here before. Or maybe it was, but not as strong.” The man gestured at himself. “It’s feeding off of my emotions. I imagine the recent battle may have something to do with it as well.” He pointed behind him. “The quickest way back out is the way we’ve come. Then we’ll go around. We’re more likely to find your companions like this anyway–the scultones were too large and conspicuous to take into the city. If need be, we’ll use my magic to catch up to them.”

Argos considered this, then he relaxed, fur settling. He gave a nod and Hakeem returned it. Instead of walking as they had before, the man took to a sprint, the dog easily keeping pace. They had to leave the city before the capacity to choose that option was lost.

It was the wizard’s new belief that the dark influence over Belcliff had made Quincy pierce herself with Tonatiuh’s fang. The warrior, the Fiamman, knew something–was related to this somehow. Had been from the start–before any of them had even been aware of what was going on. Hakeem had to find her. He’d gain their trust by aiding in the rescue of Syria, if need be. The enchantress was involved somehow, too.

Something had to be done.


“Why is taking some of my strength so reprehensible to you!?” My Twin snarled. “You took my arm without so much fuss, why this? Now!?”

“Because!” I shouted back. I opened my mouth, then closed it. I was starting to feel…faint. Thin. “Because!” I tried again. I frowned and rubbed at my eye, sighing. “Because…be…because…”

“I suppose our survival can wait while you sort yourself out,” the beast offered drily.

I glared at her. “…B-Because, I thought I’d have your arm for o-only a short time. Not…Not two days! What happens if we…if we…if…if we get stuck again? I may still be in control, but it’ll be…with your fur, and…and your fangs, and you p-p-practically a constant p-presence in my…our…my mind!”

“No more than now?”

I looked away. Tears were in my eyes. The formation of my thoughts came with great effort, and I was beginning to feel…immaterial.

The great feline padded toward me cautiously, her head bowed low. Around us, the shadows seemed to press in. “Nyx…we have no choice. Hate me as much as you’d like, but our time draws short. I fear we may even be too late!”

I looked at Her, my lips thin, my chin crumpled, my heart wrenching in disgust and loathing and fear.

I stretched out a transparent hand to touch her fur…

Heartbeats. Light, invasive, darkness fleeing, and…all image and sound was torn away by a din that heralds change.

How terrible to forget something like that. How much more horrendous to remember it!

…Shapeshifting…the pure agony of it!

My muscles tore and pulled–ligaments snapping and bones shifting painfully beneath skin. Sweat. Blood in my mouth made me incensed and I gurgled out a scream. My chest expanded, filling my large tunic. My gambeson moved with my transformation, thanks to its enchantment. My skin tingled as fur sprouted, and heat swept over me. I wailed, then hissed, then released a bestial scream as my spine reassembled into its new form–my tail forcing its way out of the special opening in the seat of my pants. My feet tore through my boots. I clawed at the dirt, ears sprouting at the top of my head just in time to hear Paulo shouting in shock and surprise (possibly horror.) I gnashed my teeth, the pain in my gums giving way to a feeling of strength.

I opened my eyes.

The world was different. I exhaled, shamefully acknowledging…how much I loved being in this form. It was the one form of the Lunar Hall that I still felt in control–but best of all, I was stronger. As always, eyesight became fuzzy around the edges and color became dull. My whiskers, sprouting from my fleshy chops, quivered from the breeze.

The first one I saw was Paulo. The boy was some inches shorter than me now, and he pressed back into a building, scowling at me apprehensively. It appeared he’d dragged me to safety, behind some sacks of rotted vegetables, where my blood had pooled onto the ground. He’d tried to wrap a handkerchief around my leg to stem the bleeding, but from the looks of it, it had been futile. The boy had his sword drawn, and he held it uncertainly as though he wasn’t sure he needed to turn it on me yet.

I decided to ease his fears.

While I had taken a very humanoid form, my mouth–with its fangs–made speech much more difficult. When I spoke, I had trouble hitting my consonants, and I sounded as though I had a lisp. “Paulo…dun’ be afray.” I touched a clawed hand to my chest. I resisted the urge to smile (that would likely make him panic.) “I’s me…Ny’ks!”

His scowl deepened, but he gave a nod. He turned and pointed down the way. “Lethia, la loca, is fighting Karolek using his own magic!”

My ears turned flat against my head and I twisted around, claws tensing. “She’s wha’!?” I hissed. My tail whipped angrily behind me. “An’ you le’d her!?”

“I didn’t have much of a choice with you bleeding out and me being virtually no match for that giant calgato!” The boy shot back. “And if you haven’t noticed, lia, it’s a little hard to jump into the fray right now!”

He was right.

It was a flurry of metal–sparks flying everywhere, the din it caused awe-inspiring–with blade deflecting blade, and bullet paths warping to miss narrowly by inches. A stray spike flew our way, and the boy and I ducked as it made a crate explode into splinters from the impact. We dared to look again. Karolek and Lethia were standing yards apart, sometimes shifting feet or ducking, but largely remaining in place–their hands orchestrating the chaos in a flurry. The scene was almost too much to follow.

Lethia, through some trick of her power no doubt, had somehow learned how to wield Karolek’s power of sorcery. It took more out of her, this much was clear from where I stood (I could smell the exhaustion on her, even) but she was holding her own, manipulating the metal that flew through the air like she had been doing it for years. I had seen her do it when she stole Paulo’s skill in fencing. I was shocked (and delighted) to see that she could use this same power for certain skills in magic.

But then the girl cried out, and she fell to the ground, hand at her shoulder from a cut no doubt. Karolek pressed forward, his expression triumphant.

My Twin, whose presence was so clear as to make me feel as though she were peering with my eyes, let out a war-like scream. Then I realized that I was screaming, too–with Her. Karolek froze, his eyes locking onto me. The triumph on his face evaporated.

Always more apt to violence than I, my Twin prodded at my muscles. “Forward, sister! Attack now!” she hissed.

With Paulo at my side, I did just that.


Elmiryn was on her feet again, her eyes glassy. Graziano had his hand on her back as he frowned with worry.

“Lia…you look terrible! Like Paulo did just a few days ago!”

She chuckled. “I’m not surprised.” She wiped at her runny nose with her sleeve and gave a sniff, her eyes looking around them. The frosted fields, a palette of gray and white, cracked in her eyes as glass did–bits of dark grass and the shadows of hillocks giving stark contrast in the pale view. They were closer to the northern mountains, the city a dark mass behind them. Graziano had pressed the scultone into full gallop (“The militia already know about us–no use trying to be subtle. They’ll never catch up with their horses, anyhow.”)

“Holzoff is not far from here. We’ll rendezvous with the others and set forth with the second part of our plan.”

Elmiryn nodded, turning her head. She squinted as she saw something black fuzz out of view, then back. This happened again, and the thing, whatever it was, became closer. The woman blinked. And was that something white and shaggy flashing with it?


The man looked at her as he prepared to mount the scultone again. “Yes?”

“…Is that our prisoner teleporting toward us, or am I hallucinating again?”

Continue ReadingChapter 15.1

Chapter 16.2


In order to explain the loss of my boots to Elmiryn, for she wouldn’t leave the matter alone, we had to retell the events that lead to it.  At first, Paulo and Lethia tried to help–even going so far as to mime some of the parts of the story out.  But the warrior’s eyes took the shade of the bonfire, becoming masked in a hot and disconnected glare as her brow bunched over her gaze.  As soon as I saw this, I knew that their efforts were in vain.  I stepped between them and the woman, a hand raised, and shook my head somberly.  They fell silent and looked at each other in confusion.

I turned on the spot and took a breath.  “Elmiryn…it went like this.”

I didn’t mention the shadow that surged in me, the visions that danced along my skull, the surge of power and the violent polarity of debilitating illness–like I had a migraine, indigestion, blood too thick flooding my heart–or the scent of memories horrid and strong.  I didn’t mention these things…and yet I was certain she was aware of them.  My words were embossed with bewilderment, disgust, and fear.  Elmiryn’s cerulean eyes weeped light from the fire, something only I could see up close.  She wiped these away, concealing the motion with brushing her stray locks back behind her ear.  Then I saw a muscle in her jaw move as she pursed her lips, and nodded.

The woman drew her dagger with a fierce jerk.  Then she took Paulo’s blanket from me and began to cut it up.  She didn’t even hesitate.

The boy wheezed, and I looked at him fearfully, something of the noise bringing memories of my mother ill in bed.  I could see he was straining to keep his back straight, and his breathing was disconcertingly labored.  “That’s mine!” he managed to bite out, taking a step forward.

Graziano began to move forward too, his hand held out as if to grab Elmiryn.  “Yes, Elmiryn, what do you think–”

What, Graziano?” The woman said, turning the dagger his way.  The woman’s voice didn’t raise, nor did her face show anything more to me.  But her eyes were as sharp as her blades.  I remembered those eyes being turned on Sedwick, when he tried to keep my Twin from going with them to the river guardian’s cave.  A tingle shot through me, not unpleasant, but I didn’t understand it.

“Lia…” Graziano said slowly as he stopped and held his hands up.  “Do you really want to do that?  After all that has happened?”

Elmiryn resumed her cutting as though she’d never been interrupted.  “Maybe you should contemplate your own words.  Better yet, ask your little brother what he wants–because that’s all he seems to care for.”  She had a strip cut free.  She handed it to me.  “Ring it out and hold it over the fire, so that it dries a bit.”

“Graziano!” Paulo complained.  But Lethia had a hand on his arm.  As I went to follow Elmiryn’s directions, I saw the girl glance my way.  Her brows knitted together in anxiety, but I saw no condemnation in her eyes.  Then I realized she was looking at my feet.  I stopped and looked too.

They were a rich shade of blue.  And when I wiggled them, I became aware that…I couldn’t feel my feet anymore.  At all.  At first it were just my toes, but everything up to my ankles had turned completely numb.  It was terrifying to consider the degree with which I could ignore certain injuries, given my regenerative abilities.  My natural power had staved off the frost bite for much longer than any other sentient being could stand.  But…it could only go so far.  My right toe was even beginning to tingle, like it were on pins and needles.

Elmiryn began to speak behind me.  “Not only has Nyx recovered something precious to Paulo at risk of her own life, but she’s also saved him twice in the span of an hour.  It’s about time the boy stopped acting like a brat.  He’s not the only one who is suffering.  We all are.  But somehow, we still manage to be decent people.”  I glanced over my hunched shoulders at her.  Elmiryn had another strip of the blanket over her shoulders.  Graziano had his hands down, he was looking at his brother now with a frown.

“So I don’t care if the idiot dislikes it,” Elmiryn said evenly.  “I’m using his things to make Nyx some temporary boots.  This isn’t even adequate repayment considering she needs her feet to be of any use in rescuing the enchantress he needs so fucking badly.”  Her eyes flashed to Paulo.  “I should kill you, just for this disrespect.  Nyx is my ward.  But more importantly, she’s my friend.  You wrong her, then you wrong me.”  Elmiryn stopped in her work, her dagger held up as she raised an eyebrow at the boy.  “Well?  Do you want me to kill you instead?”

I grit my teeth and bowed my head.  “Elmiryn, stop!

Graziano stepped before her, he looked livid.  “That’s enough, Elmiryn.”  But then he turned his angry eyes on Paulo, who shrank in surprise.

“Idi’ute!  Vergance lo no dismé!  El saben no causa ni gunío prolem.  Ni gunío!” The man snapped.

“Pér es mi saben!” The boy snarled back.

“Distagea, ya!

Paulo made a noise from the back of his throat.  He wobbled back to the place he had sat before and slumped down sullenly.  I looked at him with as apologetic a look as I could muster, but the boy refused to look at me.  Graziano turned back to Elmiryn.

He sighed.  “Elmiryn…you speak true.  Please.  Use whatever you need, and on behalf of the Moretti family, accept my apology.”  Then he did something that nearly made me drop the cloth into the fire.

Graziano bowed to her.

Elmiryn tilted her head back, her eyes turning narrow, as though she were considering the apology.  Then she shrugged and gestured my way–to my discomfort.  “I know what I said before, but it really doesn’t piss me off like you think.  I just want the best for Nyx.  Your apology is best directed her way.”

The man straightened, as though confused by this statement.  Then he looked my way, and slowly his look of surprise softened to something I couldn’t name right away.  I looked away, my face flaring.  I heard the crunch of snow as he came closer.  From my peripheral vision, Lethia shifted away to give him room.

“Nyx.  I’m sorry for my brother’s behavior.  He’s…” His voice dropped lower so that Paulo couldn’t hear.  “I’m not trying to make excuses, but just understand that with our parents early deaths, Arduino and I have had a hard time raising our brother.  It’s true, we could’ve done better.  He does mean well.  He’s just…an ass, and doesn’t know how to act sometimes.”  I couldn’t help it, I snickered at the last part, and I think Lethia did too.  I heard the smile in Graziano’s voice as he continued.  “Thank you for what you’ve done.  I owe you a proper pair of boots when this is all over.”  The man started to bow, and I turned, grabbing him by the shoulders.

“No!” He looked at me in bewilderment.  I shook my head.  “No, Graziano.  Don’t bow to me.  I’m not a person to bow to.”

I could see Elmiryn give me a look from behind Graziano, but I didn’t care.  To have someone bow to me made me terribly uncomfortable.

“Look I,”  I looked at Paulo and bit my lip.  “I…ah…do need something better to cover my feet.  Their numb now.”  I wiggled them just to test the veracity of that statement, and was frustrated to find that I could not feel a thing.  It felt terrible. “But I do think he meant well.  He let me use his blanket, after all.  But I appreciate the gesture.”  I could see Paulo glance at me from where he sat, but when I looked his way again, he was back to staring at the snow.

Elmiryn measured my foot using a piece of string.  I didn’t feel her hands as she cut the piece a little longer than the length of my foot.  Graziano helped her find what else she needed.  With all of her pieces ready, she set to work.  As my new “boots”, made from wool, pieces of leather, and cotton, were being finished by her, the discussion made the awkward transition back to the matter at hand.

“We need to send someone to get some daesce skins,” Graziano said, tapping his arm.

Elmiryn nodded as she stitched the side of the last boot.  She was quite good with such things, it seemed.

“We can’t send a group of people in there, or else we risk bringing too much attention,” he continued.

The woman nodded again.  She cut the thread with her teeth, then looked at her handiwork.  The boots were…horribly ugly.  All bunched in odd places and looking as though they’d hardly last a week.  But they weren’t meant to, I reminded myself.  As I put them on, I let out a delighted sigh.  It didn’t matter that they were ugly…they were warm.  My feet throbbed, though finer feeling still had yet to return to them.  I sat near the fire, eyeing Elmiryn’s handiwork.

“So who do we send?” Graziano finished.

Elmiryn grinned.  She went to Graziano’s scultone, where she opened the small pouch resting against the side of the beast.  The creature didn’t stir–perhaps accustomed to our presence by that point–and pulled out Hakeem’s pipe.  She tapped the item against her temple with a smirk.  All eyes turned to the wizard, who crossed his arms and stared back guardedly.


Hakeem shrugged deeper into his makeshift jacket.  It wasn’t really an act of kindness on Elmiryn’s part when she cut out a piece of the cloth for him.  There were spare scraps from the pieces she’d used for Nyx’s impromptu boots, and she handed it to him with a look that dared him to say anything about it.  He needed to keep warm to be functional.  He needed to keep warm to survive long enough to be useful.  He understood this.

The man stared at his wrist where the smoke of his dragon pipe had bound to him.  It was the first time the item had been used on him.  He…disliked it.  But it was an item of low magic, meant really only for tracking purposes.  A traveler’s tool.  Which was part of the reason Elmiryn could use it without preamble.

Hakeem moved as quietly as he could through the snow, down into the valley where even the moon seemed wary to reach.  He was heading down a slope that steadily grew steeper, the snow here like negative space that was all he had to orient things as to the nature of himself with regards to the world.  Hakeem always thought it amusing how much night could skewer a person’s perspective when it came to the sky, the ground, relative distance, and the moral cup of an individual–the latter phrase being what the man used to call a person’s basic understanding of right and wrong.  Where did such things go when one’s face became a mask?  Where did such things go when one’s understanding was swallowed by the ink of the indefinite?

Snow.  Nearly up to his knees.

Hakeem was used to extreme conditions and could adapt accordingly, and he was also physically fit (a necessity given his line of work), but no amount of mental readiness and physical training could make up for how his body was unaccustomed to fighting to walk through so much dense snow.  This was one of those environmental obstacles that locals had long since become used to, but for anyone outside of such a world, the task was monumental.

A small shiver blasted through him as he reached the first crop of rocks, like earthen teeth cutting up through the pristine ice.  He had already activated his magic armor, the gauntlets reaching out like claws as he steadied himself against a cold rock.  He had to go deeper still.  The screams of the daesce heralded the danger ahead.  Closer now, the tower loomed so high, he couldn’t see the tip anymore.  Hakeem pressed on.

Something coming, behind him.

His body tensed and he turned, fists raised.  White moved in white.  Argos came trotting up next to the man, managing to be quieter than Hakeem had been despite his speed.

“So for help, they sent you?” The man said dryly.  Or more like a watchdog, he thought, no pun intended.  He looked the dog up and down, then turned. “How kind of them.”

Argos growled, and for a moment Hakeem thought the dog was going to bite him.  Then the giant animal sprinted forward and took to the air with a powerful jump.  He collided with another body, a white one, with flashing eyes that seared pale and hot yellow.  They slammed into a rock further down the slope before sliding to the ground, and he saw shadowed claws flailing, snow flying, the beginning of a screech–before it was suddenly silenced.  The bodies grew still and all was quiet.

…Argos raised his head, the dark dripping throat of a daesce in his mouth.

Hakeem straightened and nodded with a half-smile.  “So for help, they sent you,” he said again, with a tone of approval.

The dog just snorted.  Hakeem went down to drag the creature some of the way back up the slope.  As he came near it, he was able to make out some of the features in the dark:  the flat face, the jagged fangs, the stained claws.  The man took the dead daesce beneath the arms and began to pull it along.  If he came back the same way, he was certain he could find the corpse again.  Some yards back up the slope, the man let the monster’s corpse fall from his hands.  His nose wrinkled as the ranks smell of the monster’s blood hit him.  Argos came up behind him.  Hakeem gestured at the monster, who lay belly up in the snow.  Its mouth was still open, and now and again the claws twitched.

“Try not to swallow too much of their blood.” He warned his four-legged companion.  “It could make you ill.  They’re spiritually twisted, after all.”

The dog nodded.

Tick.  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.

Back down the slope, into the heart of hell, it seemed, but Hakeem had to if he was to have the trust of his new wayward companions.  He pierced through unknown spaces that gnawed at him, and he was tense from the waves of revulsion that seeped deep, deep, deep down beneath the skin.  It was the spiritual taint, he knew, and the lingering spirits of the slain–whose blood had stained the earth of this place.  They went parallel with the bridge leading toward the tower, but neither the wizard nor the dog dared go too near to the curtain of black beneath the bridge.

The wails, a chorus, so near now.  Hakeem felt the hailing voices taunting his principles as a man and a human being.  Argos slowed in the snow, and so did he.  Neither were eager to meet their next opponent.  The man thought he felt a snowflake touch the base of his neck, and he reached back to wipe at it, his armor forcing him to twist his torso in a strained effort to reach.  It was at that moment that the man saw…

Slammed.  Launched backward.  He landed on some rocks and winced from the impact that rattled the teeth in his head, but his armor protected him from major harm.  The man grunted, his eyes straining to make sense of the shadowy form over him.  A dark face framed by a white mane of hair, with dark eyes peering from the folds, and a mouth opened as a bellow that reminded of an angry child deafened him.  A daesce.  Hakeem tried to buck the creature off, but it was even larger than the one Argos had felled.  The beast, in the blink of the man’s eye, had its arm drawn back, claws spread in the air.  Its face, so twisted, reached down like a hook to the man’s mind.  It was…truly like a human, despite its horror, for the daesce wore a rictus grin and its eyes seared with triumph…

Hakeem had just enough time to marvel at its speed when Argos tackled it from the side.

The man sat up, and with little pause, he began to count.

Nine ticks.

One.  Two.  Three–

His armor grew hot.  There was a vacuum of air and sound as the world vacated to some Other Place.  All became dark, and he was left alone with the sensation of his power coursing through him.  Cold and hot all at once.  He closed his eyes and relaxed his body–felt the ground fall away.  He was falling now.

Four.  Five.  Six.  Seven–

The unnatural heat of his armor’s power began to reach its peak, feeling painful.  The man’s arm reached back to his neck, just as he had before, with his body twisted.  His feet touched the ground.  It were as though he were liquid fitting into a mold.  He felt the wind again, felt the heat of his armor lessen, blessedly.  He kept his eyes closed, for sound still had not come to him.


Hakeem took a breath.


The crunch of snow, the low pant that he had missed hearing before.

The man opened his eyes and twisted his body completely around, letting his knees buckle from beneath him so that he dropped quickly to the ground.  A body sailed over him.

“Argos!” The man bit out, but the dog was already moving.  Hakeem rolled from his awkward position on the floor to the balls of his feet and his hands, ready to spring in any direction.  He had reset the recent events, changed the end result of the confrontation so that he had successfully avoided the daesce’s ambush.  The act did in fact change the way of time, but only Hakeem knew of the new changes–for others, they still recalled the events as it had originally happened.  That was the thing about the magic, it affected only him–thus the great danger in its use.  For each time Hakeem used the armor to change the course of his life, he essentially folded time over himself.  When going back only seconds or minutes, the cost of such an incredible power seemed little.  But Hakeem had already lost three years of his life using his armor’s power.  He knew this…

He had counted them away, after all.

But here, the cost, he felt, was more than justified.  Relief washed over him, as he saw Argos had managed to get a hold of the daesce’s shoulder with his mouth.  He started to move forward, for with the monster pinned beneath the massive dog, he could deliver a killing blow, only…

Three white phantoms, out of the corner of his eye, came flashing over the snow from beneath the bridge, yipping and howling, and the man had just enough time to swing his right arm–sending out a single wave of force.  The snow exploded as the space was torn open by unseen magic.  Of the three incoming daesce, it cut the one in the middle clean in half.  The other two were blasted to the sides, the one on the right slamming into a tall but slim rock only feet away, body wrapping around it with such force that blood burst from the creature’s mouth, and there it fell, dead.  The third and last daesce was lucky.  It pinwheeled through the open snow, grunting.

Hakeem didn’t wait for the creature to stop moving.  As soon as he saw the fate of its fellows, he charged after it, his legs pumping furiously through the snow.  As he came near it, the daesce finally came to a stop, and it dazedly tried to stand, its ugly pug face hidden behind its filthy locks of hair.  The wizard screamed as he jumped up into the air, his hands pressed together like a club.  The air around his hands rippled.  As he came down, he slammed his hands on the daesce’s head just as the monster looked up, and felt the skull collapse.

That’s when he became aware of Argos crying out in pain.

The wizard turned, his body lurching into a run.  The daesce was free, with its eyes flashing in the dark, steam curling from its hideous mouth, claws snapping together like jaws themselves.  It had kicked the dog away somehow.  There was a dark stain blossoming through the snow between them.  The creature rolled to its feet, blood staining its pale fur from the right shoulder, and the saliva that dripped from its mouth was dark–but the man wasn’t sure if it was Argos’ blood or its own.  He didn’t care.

He roared in fury, drawing the daesce’s attention away from the dog’s still body.  The monster returned his challenge with a scream.   The man drew back his right gauntlet as he came near.

The air rippled around Hakeem’s armored fist…


Elmiryn turned the dragon pipe in her hand, a scowl on her face.  The item was an item–a redundant statement but one that meant all the world to her, for as she held it, some sense of immaterialism entered her.  She had seen smoke curl from the chamber of the pipe and move with purpose.  A curiosity to her eyes that beheld a setting comprised of building block pixels, all stacked together in complimentary shades with voices and concepts as their threads.  That smoke, that snake, that thing of ghostly being had trailed through that space she had found herself forgetting about in the face of Nyx’s luminous smile.  The unthinking wisps were at her will–was it an extension then?  Of her will?  Of her desire to know where Hakeem was at all times?

The redhead took a piece of feathered wood that had fallen from the fire, still burning at the tip as the end of the flaming wood curled up and away from the hungry cold snow.  With some tobacco in the pipe, the woman lit the fibrous fillings and took a few puffs.  Smoke curled from her mouth–but she was not alarmed by it, for she knew that the smoke had somehow become a part of her, but it was a bad part, and that it was good to be rid of it. (Though the expulsion of the acrimonious agent would not have been needed had she not desired to see what Hakeem was up to–a need, for a need, for a necessity.  In short, the vicious cycle was unavoidable.)  The smoke danced in the air–seeming to defy the air currents that came crawling around the rock at times–and with a swirl and a sigh, it took the shape of her subject of interest.  The wizard was battling daesce at the moment, as shown by the smoke-man’s struggle against an ape-like monster, no doubt with Argos nearby.  The pipe’s vision was corroborated by the chilling sounds that echoed from the direction of the tower.

The concern about Hakeem’s possible betrayal grew less and less in the face of the man’s actions.  He was taking unnecessary risks–that is, unnecessary if his intention were to turn on them all at the most critical moment.  But the wizard could’ve also been vying for their trust, and it was this simple fact that made Elmiryn’s suspicion a persisting presence.  Hakeem could prove useful to their needs, and she had to admit, she just thought the new alliance was amusing.  But the suspicion was there, and it would not fade easily.

The woman looked over at Graziano, who rested against the side of his scultone, his arms crossed over his chest, eyes closed, and his head tilted forward.  She knew the man was not really asleep.  He was, perhaps, caught between that space of dream and waking that threatened to keep her each time she slipped into repose.  Elmiryn wanted to rest.  But she didn’t want to be lost in the Other Place when the time came for action.

Next to her, Nyx shifted, mumbling.

Elmiryn looked at her, and she strained her eyes to take in the sight of the girl, resting.  Her companion was leaning against her shoulder, a warm body that fended off the cold.  The woman wondered if the girl felt warm near her, and began to feel somewhat guilty–for the warrior wasn’t certain if Nyx was receiving any benefit from the contact.

Elmiryn reached over and brushed a lock from the girl’s forehead, her finger trailing along the skin.


A young voice.  It took the woman a minute to look away from Nyx, and another to associate sound with name.  “Yes, Lethia?”

The teenager was adjacent to her, on the left, hugging her knees.  This was the first time she had made a sound since Argos had left to keep an eye on Hakeem.  Up until then, she had been engrossed in her own thoughts, a worried look on her face.  Now, she took a light lock of hair between her index and thumb and began rolling it back and forth.  Her green eyes flickered to the sky and her forehead wrinkled as her brows strived to reach her hairline.  “Ah…”  Lethia coughed and shifted, sliding her feet a little more outward so that she hunched over more.  “You and Nyx…you…”

Elmiryn smirked and waited for the girl to continue.  Some tickle of impatience came up within her, and she resisted the urge to make a sarcastic remark.  The youth, for all her naivety, had shown herself to be quite resilient and determined.  At the very least, the woman could respect this.

“I don’t understand your relationship,” Lethia finally said.  She bit her lip and stared down at the snow.  “I mean…that is to say…oh, gods, I hope you don’t think I’m being nosy!”  She rubbed at her brow, which started to furrow.  “I just…”

“You were sheltered.  You don’t know,” Elmiryn finished, her smirk widening.

The teenager looked her way.  “Um…yes.  That.”

“Lethia, there isn’t really much to say.  And whatever I could say, you’d just get more confused.”


Elmiryn let out a throaty chuckle that blended with a sigh.  She raised an eyebrow at the girl.  “Look…I don’t mind the question.  I think I know what you’re asking, even though you haven’t actually asked me yet.  The answer is…well, I don’t know.”  The woman shrugged her free shoulder.  “Honestly.  What do you want me to tell you?  That I’m really a man?  Would that make it less weird for you?  What if I said I was an Ailuran man?  Would that make it okay for you–?”  But the woman stopped herself short.  Her words were gaining an edge, and it was uncalled for.  The girl was being rather open-minded, all things considered.  She didn’t deserve the aggression.

Lethia still managed to wilt under this subtle barrage, however.  “I apologize.  I wasn’t trying to offend.”

The woman sucked at her teeth.  Now accompanied with the impatience was a sense of guilt.  “Gods damn it…you’re like Nyx.  Not as good at the guilt tripping, but almost.”

“I wasn’t trying to guilt trip you.  If you feel guilty, then it’s because your heart knows your actions are misguided,” Lethia suddenly quipped.

Elmiryn looked at her with eyebrows raised.

Lethia turned her face away, her oval-shaped face a ruddy shade. Even the tips of her ears, which peeked through her curtain of hair, managed to gain a pink tinge.  “I don’t think it’s fair for people to construct the nature of my motivations.  I have no ulterior motives, and as far as I can tell, my will is good.”  She said this through tight lips, but the woman could see her body trembling a little.  “It isn’t fair.”

Elmiryn tilted her head to one side.  Her ear brushed against Nyx’s mane of hair, and her smirk shifted closer to a kind smile.  “Do people do that often?”

The enchantress gave a mute nod.

“I’m not sure the reason, really.  Perhaps because of who my mistress is.  Maybe because I don’t know what’s become of my parents.  I think…I think people assume I’m angry.”

“You?  Angry over something so petty?”

“I don’t know if it’s petty…”

Elmiryn gestured at the girl with her chin.  “But Syria’s taken good care of you, hasn’t she?  You said it yourself.”

Lethia nodded emphatically.  “Oh my goodness, yes!  I…but I do wonder what’s become of them.  My real family.  All I have of them is a surname.  Artaud.  I know in some kingdoms, the only humans who have surnames are those of good-standing, but not in all places.  They could be peasants, merchants, warriors for all I know…”

“But you’re not angry that they’ve never checked up on you?”

The girl looked at her with a crooked smile. “Now when you put it that way, it sounds like I should, shouldn’t I?  But…no.  Not really.  Maybe they fell on hard times?  Maybe they were…ashamed?  Or maybe they really didn’t love me.  But none of that matters, because I had Syria.  Have.”  Lethia scowled as she corrected herself.  “I have Syria.”

Elmiryn puckered her lips in thought.  Then she leaned back against the rock and emptied the pipe into the snow.  Smoothing some ice over the smoldering tobacco, the woman glanced at the teenager from the corner of her eye.  “But people like to make assumptions with you.  Because of who you are, and where you come from, and what you do, and you dislike this.  Did Syria teach you to be so forthcoming, or what?”

Lethia slowly shook her head.  “No.  It’s just my personal feeling.  I guess it’s all relative, but I’m not a sponge that soaks up all that Syria teaches me.  I’m…more like a cup, that is filled up to a certain point, but otherwise retains the nature of its being.  The cup doesn’t become softer, larger, or more precious just because it is filled.  You can overflow it, maybe, or leave it empty, but the integrity of the cup is maintained.  My integrity as a person is maintained, despite what I’m given.  People don’t understand that.”  The girl scooped up a small handful of snow and flung it sullenly out into the darkness.  “I love Syria because she gave me the means to be a good person, but she isn’t why I’m a good person.  In the end, that was my choice.”

“No offense, but don’t you still depend on her a great deal?  Because of your mental…um…thing?”

The girl shrugged.  “I see that differently.  It isn’t something I can help, but with time, I can learn to deal with it on my own.”

“…Aren’t you doing that already?”

Lethia blinked and looked Elmiryn’s way.  A slow smile crept over her face.  “I guess so!” she said with a small laugh.

Elmiryn nodded.  The little worm of impatience was gone.

“To answer your earlier question,” the woman went on to say.  “I…care about Nyx a lot.  Does that involve desire?  To be blunt, sure.  Yes.  I won’t speak for her, you’d have to ask Nyx yourself, but…I just care for her.  She’s become a good friend.  I can’t say it any other way.”  She looked at the Ailuran in question. “My interest in women has been around since as long as I can remember, and I never bothered hiding it.  You see, in Fiamma, we have a legend about a demigod with flaming red hair that was a champion in battle.  His name was Diokles, and he was said to come from the loins of Halward himself.  He enjoyed battle, almost as much as he enjoyed beauty.  He lay with whomever he desired, despite age, gender, or standing.”  Elmiryn rolled her eyes and looked at Lethia with a sardonic grin.  “It was all just symbolism on the part of the scholars.  They always try to make heroes out as having a light and dark side.  Anyway…long story short, there’s a belief in Fiamma that those with ruddy hair and light eyes are inclined toward violence and beauty without discretion.  This is why I was allowed to become a soldier, because of how I looked.  Love between same sexes are frowned upon, usually, in all forms–but people tend to let it be if a redhead is involved, even if it makes them uncomfortable.  I always thought it was a load of horse shit, but it made my life easier.  I wasn’t given much trouble for wanting the things I did.  And…that’s how it’s been for me anyway.”  The woman looked back at Nyx and brushed the side of the girl’s face with her hand.  The girl felt warm under her touch.  Elmiryn’s grin widened as a sense of relief washed over her.  She, a ghost, a being of smoke, could make the girl feel warm.

Elmiryn’s voice became soft as she continued.  She wasn’t sure if Lethia was still listening, but she didn’t care.  “If you’re looking for me to say the ‘L’ word, I’ll just get annoyed.  I don’t know if I’ve ever felt that, and I’m not sure I’d recognize it if I did.  I just want what I want.  And for a long time, I never wanted anyone to stick around.  But I want Nyx with me.  Not…just because of my curse…or my quest.  No.  Not just because of that.  I just…want her with me.”

In her peripheral vision, the warrior could see Lethia give a slight nod.  But the woman didn’t turn to look.  Instead, she strained her eyes to take in the sight of Nyx, resting.


Hakeem came trudging up the slope.  His chin was cut, and his left shoulder blade was bruised, he knew, from falling on the rock when the daesce tried to ambush him.  But he still managed to carry one daesce corpse (the smaller one, the one Argos had killed first) over his right shoulder, while his other hand dragged another corpse through the snow.  The wizard stopped as soon as he recognized the giant rock formation that the camp was hidden behind.

“Hail!”  He called, panting.  “I’ve returned.  Now someone come help me with these.”

The light that danced beyond the rock shifted with shadows, and a moment later, he saw Elmiryn and Graziano come out into view.

The Moretti had his pistol drawn.  “Hakeem?”

“Yes,” The wizard said, raising his free hand.  “Come help me.  These are heavy.”

Elmiryn came toward him, but Graziano didn’t move.  It seemed he needed the wizard to come into the light before he rested at ease.  Not unreasonable, the man supposed.  The woman came toward him, arms swinging a little as she fixed him with a grin.  “Wizard!  You’re alive!  You know you made quite a racket, didn’t you?”

“It couldn’t be helped,” Hakeem said with a shrug.

The woman laughed.  She took hold of the other corpse with both hands beneath the armpits, and lifted the daesce up with aid from her right knee.  When she had the corpse over her shoulder, they proceeded together back toward camp.  Hakeem saw that now, along with Graziano, there was Paulo, Lethia, and Nyx.

The enchantress came forward, her face long.  “Where’s Argos?” she demanded.

The man blinked.  “I’m sorry–”

Lethia’s eyes teared up, and her chin crumpled.  “You left him–?!”

Hakeem looked at her with a frown, annoyed at being cut off.  “Girl, you didn’t let me finish.”

“Watch your tone,” Elmiryn said, her voice hard.

The wizard looked at her, then shook his head.  “But she misunderstands.  Look, over there,” and Hakeem pointed back the way they came.  Something white and furry displaced the pristine white snow.  It had no eyes, no mouth, no head–

That was because it was Argos’ backside.

The dog was dragging a daesce corpse backward by his mouth.  As though sensing he had an audience, he let the body fall, head turning as his tail wagged.  He let out a happy bark as he laid eyes on his mistress.

Lethia squealed, pushing past them all to reunite with her four-legged companion.  Nyx let out a sigh of relief, and Elmiryn and Graziano laughed a little.  Hakeem shook his head after the teenager.  “What a silly girl,” he muttered.

But the corner of his lips twitched suspiciously.

Continue ReadingChapter 16.2

Chapter 17.2


Elmiryn crunched through the snow as her eyes swept through perceived palaces of gray fortification–little imaginings of architecture that existed as phantoms before her face until vanishing in the truth of spacial cognition.  A person can’t walk through walls.  But a ghost?

A minute of contemplation made her aware to the fact that her eyes were really just seeing the wisps of frost carried on the wind, kissing the juts of rock that climbed and melded with the formation that served as Holzoff’s roots into the world.  The dark of the rocks and shadows and muddied snow shifted with shaggy figures and flashing eyes, that marked her with inquisitive attention.  The warrior mirrored her surroundings, crouching in the filth and shrugging deeper into her daesce hide.  The thing stank something terrible–and the woman wondered if it were necessary anymore–but she kept it anyway.  It aided her mind’s sense of ferocity.  If she could keep it with her when entering the tower, she was certain it would serve a decent mental weapon.  What soldier would want to face an enemy dressed in the skin of their worst nightmare?

But a way up.  She had to focus.

The cold was making her sleepy.  Her adrenaline was running down from her fight with the daesce, and the pain of her left arm was turning into a grinding ache, wearing her down.  The woman saw her breath curl through the air in a cloud before dissipating into the night.  She closed her eyes and bowed her head, ears perking now and again at the sound of claws scratching against rock.

Then she heard screaming.

The woman stood and turned her head, toward the tower gate, or as much as she could see of it down on the ground, and–

Lethia standing on the ledge, her back pressed against the stone.  She looked like she were in hiding, waiting for her moment to jump out, but she had nothing of unraveling fear in her eyes.  Elmiryn blinked and tried to find the source of the sound.  She moved back toward the bridge, and through the veil of darkness, she saw the daesce ripping apart the beast she had just slain.  These were the young ones, the weak ones, the sick ones–the weaklings of the sordid community–who were getting their revenge.  Or getting their first meal in days.  The woman’s jaw tensed as she saw two of the little bastards rip off a limb and proceed to fight over it, bloody tendrils sliding along the ground as it was dragged hurriedly.


Beautiful, velvet ribbons dancing and trailing through black night air, then wrapping along fur and limb in decoration–how chic!  The daesce were celebrating, hooting, giggling as they took the ribbon, clearly of a cheap pastel, and smeared it.  How rude of them.  Messing up the picture.  But they did it anyway, biting into the desert, tossing up streamers and confetti and–

bits of flesh : bits of blood : bits of fur and yellow piss where one had found the bladder and bowels and : the spine with effort was out out out out out : and then the others were sticking things in in in in in : revenge was semen and spit and defilement–

Elmiryn closed her eyes and turned away, gagging once before she steeled herself and sat hard on the ground.  Her ears perked again as, through the horror that floated across the way, she picked out the sounds of conflict.  Shouts and metal hitting stone as though a weapon had fallen.  The warrior gave her head a shake.  She couldn’t slip into another episode.  The world couldn’t feel too large, nor her too small, because she had to be with Nyx.  The woman strained her eyes, making them ache, ignoring the pain in her arm from her inconsiderate movements in favor of–

“Fuck it, just start somewhere,” the woman muttered to herself.

She went to the stone, noting how it was at something of a slant.  She found one gash in the rock by the weak moonlight, like Nyx had found before, and proceeded to climb–a wounded caterpillar forced to favor her right side for every foot she gained.  The woman grit her teeth and cursed, knowing that whatever was happening on the bridge would be done with before she made it there.  What bothered her was that she didn’t know what the outcome was.  The woman thought about the others at camp as below her chased the sounds of hell, and she wondered if they were having as good a time as she was.

Then Elmiryn nearly fell, because she started to laugh.


Quincy was…brighter now.  The shade of honey her long bangs still held had been swallowed in a near platinum blonde, and her skin had a radiance to it that made the camp a tad bit more illuminated.  These were the effects of Tonatiuh’s use.  Hakeem pulled back at the woman’s collar to reveal the skin of her chest, and just over her heart (it took a pointed glare to make Graziano stop trying to get a look) revealed to him the blended scars from all the time Quincy had taken the blade into her soul.  She had done it four times in her life.  The man was glad that the woman, his partner–his wife–had returned from her journey into the light, but the stakes were raised too high now, and she couldn’t afford to gamble her soul again.  If he could, he’d take the blade away and destroy it himself, but it wasn’t that simple.  The sword and the woman were bound together, and by the woman’s changed appearance, now so more than ever.

“Why does she look like that?” Paulo asked warily.

Graziano stood over them.  “Yes, Hakeem.  Have we anything to fear, beyond the usual from you two?  Will the woman…explode?”

The man looked up at the Moretti.  “She isn’t a bomb waiting to go off.  This is just an aftereffect of using her magic.  You have nothing to fear.”

Graziano didn’t seem entirely satisfied with this explanation, but he didn’t press the matter, and went to sit near his brother.

Hakeem returned his attention to his partner, and it was at this point that something hit him.  Hard.  The jubilation truly fled him when it occurred to the man that Quincy shouldn’t be sleeping.  At all.

He seized up and took to shaking the woman.  She could sleep into death, and there’d be nothing he could do about it.  If things were still as he thought they were, then his attempts were futile, but still he tried.  With both hands, the wizard shook his wife with all the strength he had…

What he got in return was a mouthful of knuckles and an old Fanaean curse he hadn’t heard since his mother first washed it from his mouth.

Azure eyes burned a hole in him, bright and angry with the luminescence of a lit sky.  The man sat back–and laughed out in relief.  Then he looked at the hand Quincy used to wipe at her eyes, and frowned, his happiness fading to consternation.

“Your ring!  Where is it?” he asked.

The ring of the Living Death.  He still wore his since the day he had put it on at Tiesmire.  It gave the user the ability to move through the days without sleep, food, or drink.  The tradeoff was that upon its removal, the user slipped into a death-like sleep for the same amount of time the ring was worn.  The worst of it was that all the strength the ring gave, it took away.  So not only did one slip into an unbreakable hibernation, their body still suffered the effects of starvation and dehydration. When pressed with time whilst pursuing a target, the ring was a fantastic tool–but this particular venture of theirs had gone on too long.  For his part, the man didn’t know if he could ever take the ring off again.  This wasn’t a solution, either.  Eventually the power of the ring would turn him into an empty shell, soulless and yet stuck in continued existence.

…But how had Quincy avoided the effects?

“What?” the woman mumbled, frowning at her hand.  Then her look turned sour.  “Tai’undu!”  She sat up and looked at him.  “I’ve lost it!”

“But you were wearing the ring when you pierced yourself, didn’t you?”

“Of course!  But…”  The woman blinked, then held out her arm.  Tonatiuh, which had vanished the moment she fell asleep, was now back in her grip in a flash.  It pulsed with a warm glow, as though sensing it was the focus of attention.

Hakeem scowled.  “It took it, didn’t it?  Your ring of the Living Death?”

“I imagine…” Quincy shook her head, frowning.  “I imagine it was like the third time.”

“What do you mean?”

“The last time I took His fang into my heart, Tonatiuh consumed the staff of lightning I possessed.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this?  I thought you’d traded the item away!”

Quincy tapped her lips, her focus on her weapon.  “When I returned that time, I was restored in full health.  It did it again this time, and I came back with all my injuries healed.  Only it took the ring from me…as payment.”

“Or a tradeoff.” Hakeem said, crossing his arms.  “To restore the energy you used up.  It explains why you do not suffer the usual effects from removing the ring.”


The woman drew her cloak about her as she stifled a yawn.  Her hood came low over her face, leaving only her pink bow lips showing.  “Hakeem, now that we’re together again and you have so rudely rouse me from sleep, do you mind explaining to me in detail why it is you’ve decided to help these people?  I heard the marshal say you were helping the enchantresses and came looking for you along the main trail.  I admit, I’m surprised at how much those claims were true.”  As she said this, her head turned in the direction of Paulo and Graziano, both resting against their scultones, the older Moretti with his loaded pistol in his lap.  He glowered at them over the flames.

Hakeem sighed and looked at Quincy.  “It wasn’t entirely my choice.  The Morettis captured me with the help of the warrior woman.”



“And then?”

“And then he found us again when we split up, after Elmiryn defeated you,” Graziano dug.

Quincy grew hot beneath Hakeem’s touch, but her voice remained level.  “She didn’t defeat me.”

Graziano sneered and Paulo managed a weak laugh through his cough.  “You retreated,” the man said.

“Arduino was going to abandon me and the dog on the mountain with no food or warmth,” Hakeem interjected loudly.  “I did meet up with Graziano and Elmiryn, but only after I realized there was foul magic suffocating Belcliff.  From what I learned from the warrior’s items, I concluded that she was involved with it somehow.  She…spoke of bizarre things–”

Crazy things…” Graziano muttered.

“Astral demons and the like.  But at present I still do not know the exact nature of what is going on.  I only know that the enchantresses are the best means to stop this trouble.”

Quincy shifted next to him.  “Hmm…given my recent actions, your prolonged absence, and our accuser, the marshal has seen fit to condemn us both.  Something has him scared.  I think he fears that Syria will reveal his secrets.  Things that could ruin him.  Her apprentice, Lethia, told me that the enchantress had been seeing the marshal secretly for therapy.  This started some two years ago, after the dwarven colonies left Albias due to disagreements with the local city-state.  And there were discrepancies in the case files I viewed for the murders.  The damage done to the bodies required two spellcasters to achieve, and Lethia doesn’t have the skill needed to achieve the level of magic required.  Yet they sentenced her to death as well.  I’m no longer certain either woman is guilty of anything.  There’s something rotten in this region, and my vows compel me to find the answers.”

Compel you?  I didn’t think anything compelled you Quincy save for the sight of riches.”  Graziano sat forward, stroking the neck of his pistol.  “My dearest lia, have you a moral compass in that super nova chest of yours?”

The woman gazed at him coolly.  “That’s quite arrogant of you, Graziano.  Tell me, did your nethers burn when you realized you had left me to face the Torsheks alone whilst you lay passed out at the brothel with gonorrhea?”

Paulo looked at his brother.  “Chuso!  Graz is that true?”

Graziano looked at his brother in alarm.  “I never abandoned her!  I was fourteen years old and my culebre ate my horse!

“Your excuse is your pet dragon ate your horse?” Quincy deadpanned.  “Do you have the mind of a child, Graziano?”

Paulo waved this away with a floppy hand.  His sweaty face broke into a grin.  “No way, brother.  I know you left Quincy to deal with those giant beetles alone.  I’m talking about the gonorrhea.

“Bruja!” The man mumbled at the woman.  “Now he’ll never leave me alone about it!”

“But for what reason would the marshal want Syria dead?”  Hakeem said, bringing Quincy’s bright eyes back his way.

“I don’t know.  But he’s become unhinged, and I’m afraid our fellow bounty hunters are all too glad to oblige his demands for our heads.  I killed off some of the rabble that were traveling with the marshal on their way here, but the more formidable ones I knew to be in the city were notably absent.  Karolek, Jetswick, Tennim, Winamer, Arduino–I haven’t the slightest idea where they could be, and that isn’t good.  They should’ve been with the marshal’s group.”

“You didn’t see them when you watched in secret?”

“I was following the marshal, trying to see if he’d give anything away while I was one with the light.  But he revealed nothing.”

“So doing just what Arduino is accusing us of could clear our names.  Amusing.”

“Yes.  Possibly.  But I hope you managed to bargain up something nicer to ease this stress?”

Hakeem smirked.  “Of course.  We get a fourth of whatever the warrior receives from the enchantresses, as well as all the information they have on Tobias.”

Quincy nodded.  “Excellent.  Then I approve of this.”

“So glad to have you on board…” Paulo wheezed sardonically.


I slowly rose to my feet, knees bent and my claws tensed.  Jowan came nearer, squinting at me.  Then his eyes turned big and he took a step back.  “Great Halward, you’re an Ailuran!”

Two more guards appeared behind him, wielding swords and shields.  Jowan held them back with hand.

I thought about how my performance for the daesce had saved our skins once.  I decided to give it a second try.  In my travels, I had learned that of all the therian races, the Ailurans were probably hated the most next to the Draconians.  Even the Draconians seemed better liked–gods knew why.  But who was I to sit and weigh popular opinion amongst humans when my own kind was liable to throw rocks at me on sight?

Funny, the things one thinks before plunging into danger.

I breathed in all the air I could muster, ready to let out another fierce roar.

Then a blow to the back of my head reminded me, quickly, that not everyone froze at the sight of a bloodstained therian.

I went down, my face knocking into the hard stone floor, scraping at my cheek and pulling my right eyelid down.  My nose hurt, badly–so much that I could hardly see for the tears that came flowing.  Then I was hoisted up a few inches by the collar of my tunic.  I gurgled.  The fabric felt like it were cutting into my throat.

“She’s Marked.”  Freck grunted over me.

Jowan spoke to him.  “Didn’t the messenger bird bring an official warrant for the head of any who tried to break into the tower today?”


I heard a blade and I started to squirm.  Freck sat on my lower back with all of his weight and pulled my tunic back so hard I heard some of the fabric tearing.  I could hardly breathe, and my neck burned where the collar cut into me, just under the chin.

“Woah!  Are you really–?”

“I’m retiring from this shit job soon, damn it.  I’m going to get something out of this hell hole, even if it means cutting off some kid’s head!”

“Mm…alright.  But I want some coin too–I distracted her after all!”  Through my blurred vision, I saw Jowan look up and smile.  “Oh, Farrel!  You’re alright boy!”

Then I heard a muffled slap and Freck let me go.  I hit the ground gasping, but I didn’t sit and dwell on my pain.  I could hear Elmiryn in my head, urging me to capitalize on this sudden turn around.  “Fights don’t give you second chances!  Move, or die.”

I screamed and scrambled into a charge, knocking Jowan over as I went.  He knocked into one of the guards behind him, and the man fell with the bald guard over his legs, successfully pinning him down.  The second guard jumped back in surprise, but I sensed in his lack of proaction a man unskilled in combat.  I could feel the cartilage in my nose shifting, and the stinging at my throat and the skin of my neck fade away.  I blinked away tears as I disentangled myself from Jowan’s flying fists.  A sixth sense feeling, a heat up my back, inspired me to lean back far, and I saw a blade flash past me, down onto his armor.  The swing was at a poor angle, so it didn’t pierce the armor, but this misstep made the novice guard, who had attacked without much thought, very fearful, and I saw him dance back again with uncertainty in his eyes.  As I leaned forward again, I mustered up all my strength raised both my hands and brought them down on Jowan’s ribs.  This was a thing to be seen, as even with his armor, I heard something snap, and Jowan curled beneath me with a purpling face, hugging his ribs.  I hit him with as hard a right hook as I could muster, and the man was knocked out, blood trickling from his mouth where I imagined his teeth had cut the inside of his lips.  I stood, clumsily and from the corner of my eye, I saw the guard at my left attack again.

I ducked, feeling the blade soar over me.  My eyes flashed his way, and I saw an opening in his armor, at the armpit.  Already I was moving to strike, stepping to the side to better reach his exposed flank, my claws extending as far as I could make them.  I felt them bury into his flesh, felt them drag through his skin and muscle.  As far as I knew, the place I hit him lacked any vital artery, but his pain would not be small.  Sure enough, the man stumbled back with a scream, his hand flying to his new wound as his shield dropped from his grasp.  Unaccustomed to the pain, he did not look as though he would dare rise and attack again.  Still, I knocked him out with a clean kick to the head.

But there was still his partner.

With his legs freed, the other guard was up on his feet, and I could see by the way he held his sword and shield that he had more experience than his partner.  He strafed slowly, crouched low behind his shield with his weapon at the ready.  I mirrored his movements, waiting for him to strike so that I could counter.  The man jabbed toward me, and I leaned away, but didn’t take a step back.  He was testing my resolve and skill.  I saw his eyes, beneath the dark of his nose guard helmet, turn hard with resolution.  He rushed forward, and I tried to evade him, but his kite shield was broader than I thought, or maybe he just moved faster than I thought he could, because, the guard managed to bash into me with it.  I lost my footing and fell backward hard onto the ground.  The soldier moved to jab at me, but I kicked at his left knee as hard as I could.  It didn’t snap the other way–a terrible thing to hope for, I suppose, but he’d hardly die from it, and I was fighting for my life at the time–instead it bent far to the right.  This made the man loose his balance, and he screamed out as his body crashed over mine.  I let out a shout as I slammed my elbow into his head, near the back of his right ear.  The man went limp, and the weight of him was tremendous.  I grunted as I shoved him off me.  My eyes looked to his knee, and I realized that while I hadn’t broken his leg clean in half, I had still broken his kneecap.

I turned, hands raised, ready to engage Freck next when I was met with a shocking sight.

The archer was kneeling next to Lethia, checking her pulse and her breathing with hands that bled at the knuckles.  He looked out of breath, and there was a fresh bruise on the right side of his face.  Next to him lay Freck,  his face bloodied and swollen, his dagger kicked from his hands.  The man looked up at me, and I took a step back.  I bared my teeth at him, feeling a primal intensity burning in me.

“My name is Farrel,” he said, sounding different than when he had spoken before.  In fact, to my astonishment, he sounded like Lethia.  “You’re…Nyx?”  He gestured at the girl in question.  “This girl saved me, even though she didn’t have to.  I’m very grateful.”  He stood and touched a hand to his chest.  The arrows in his quiver clacked behind him as he stepped over Lethia and toward me.  I took another step back, hissing at him, and he froze his face turning wary.  “Please.  My mother was an elf, and I was taught to repay these acts of kindness.  You have nothing to fear from me.”  He turned and went back to the girl, where he scooped the teenager up into his arms with only a mild bit of effort.  He looked at me somberly.  “Yes, I repay my debts. That…and I can’t really stomach such barbarism from my companions.  They were going to slit your throats, even though you spared their lives.”

My mouth fell open, but no sounds came out.

Now that the threats around me were removed, my focus was entirely devoted to the man before me.  Surprising the things one could miss in the heat of the moment.  Like how his eyes were wisterian, a light shade of purple, or how they were larger than the average human being’s; or how his ears stuck out, like Lethia’s, but had a bump at the tips; or how his arms seemed a little long, atleast in terms of human proportions.  Of course, given his revelation regarding his mother, there was no doubt.  The man was a halfling.  This fact comforted me, somewhat.  Partly because I was familiar with the sub-species, perhaps moreso than humans, for they visited my village to trade and I would see them in my forays into the forests.  Partly because I knew they had similar beliefs and sentiments regarding honoring debts.

Partly just because it felt nice meeting someone who wasn’t human…or atleast entirely so.

“Are you going to come with me or not?”  The man asked, bringing me out of my thoughts.  “I’ve got the key to the medicine cabinet on this floor.”

“Um,”  I pointed at myself and Lethia.  I could almost see Elmiryn face-palming in my mind, but I had to ask. “You realize of course that we’re breaking in to your tower?  To save Syria? Your high profile prisoner?

Farrel smiled at me.  “Is this supposed to be worse than the marshal’s idea of ‘community service’?”

I looked at him, bewildered.  “Community service?  You aren’t–that is to say–you didn’t–”

The man shook his head, his face twisted up in derision.  “Volunteer?  Sign up?  Öctér! Why would I want to end up in this hellhole!?  Half the guards here are serving sentences themselves for misdemeanors!”  He started walking toward the door.  “Come on!  Help me shut the gate.”

“Wait!” I said, hurrying after him.  “My friend is still outside!  I can’t leave her out there!”

Farrel paused at the doorway.  “That stretches things, therian.  I am in the debt of both you and this girl for your mercy, but to leave the gate open invites disaster!”

I straightened my back.  The warmth that curled from the doorway was enticing me, but Elmiryn was still clawing her way up the rocks.  I couldn’t abandon her.  “If you really mean what you say, then you’ll honor my request!  For my part, it is what I would ask as repayment!”

The man looked at me, conflicted.  “I…suppose I wouldn’t really be doing you a favor if I left your friend out there, would I?”

My heart lifted.  “No.  You wouldn’t!  So will you leave the gate open?  If you’ve some rope somewhere, I can bring her up faster that way.”

“You’d trust me with your friend’s life?”  He gestured at Lethia with his head.

I looked at him with a somber expression.  “Have I much choice in the matter?”

Farrel glanced over his shoulder, then looked at me again.  He shook his head.  “Not much.”


She was only half way up.  The warrior paused for the second time, resting her temple against the rock with a sigh.  At first, she was confused and annoyed by her growing exhaustion.  Then she remembered that she’d been awake for nearly 24 hours, and had been in three very demanding fights with people and creatures of high caliber.  Once she accepted this fact, it didn’t seem so unreasonable to ask for a moment to rest, to close her eyes and…

Something knocked gently against her left side.

The redhead jerked awake, her eyelids burning with desire for sleep.  She leaned back far, head whipping this way and that in search of the offending object, whatever it was, that had touched her.  Then she kept moving.  Kept falling backwards.  Then she was just…falling.

Elmiryn’s stomach dropped and she cried out, her right and swiping wildly through the air when a dark line passed her sight.  She grabbed at it.  Rope.  She stopped with a jerk and bit back the scream that bounded up her throat like an over eager dog.  So much pain in her left arm and shoulder.  The woman blinked and tried to focus her blurry eyes, and above her, she saw Nyx’s wild mane of hair.  She was little more than shadow, but the woman could just imagine the look on her face.

“Sweet Aelurus, are you alright!?” The girl whispered loudly.

The woman chuckled weakly.  Her heart was still doing a marathon in her chest.  “Oh y’know…” she tilted her head to the side.  “Just hangin’ around.”

When Nyx spoke again, her voice turned critical.  “…You were sleeping, weren’t you?”

“Ghosts don’t sleep, Nyx,” Elmiryn said as the girl vanished and began to pull her up.  The woman sighed and held on as best she could.  “We just fade away…”

As she came up near the ledge, Nyx grabbed onto her arm and pulled her the rest of the way.  The woman looked around, noting the four guards lying on the ground.  She knew they were just unconscious–neither Nyx or Lethia had the stomach for killing–but the woman considered offing the men, just in case.  It wasn’t very honorable, but they would pose a threat otherwise.  She considered this…except her thoughts were usurped by a realization.

“Nyx, where’s Lethia?”

The girl was coiling the rope around her arm, a good idea if still time consuming–they could use the rope later.  But at the question, the Ailuran’s face twisted in discomfort, and she turned her eyes downward.  “Um…well, as you might’ve heard, there was a bit of a scuffle up here.  It seems the guards were anticipating us.  I managed to knock out three of the guards, but–” the girl paused, biting her lip.

Elmiryn waited impatiently for her to finish, one hand on her hip.

When Nyx resumed, she was looking at the warrior with imploring eyes.  She started to speak in a hurried voice.  “Oh Elle, please stay calm when I tell you this!  Like I said, I’d knocked out three of the guards…but there were five of them!  The fifth one was the one that Lethia borrowed the information about the tower from, only she took too much and the man couldn’t breathe, so she tried to put him right and she did–only–only–that is to say–she, ah, passed out. I thought I was done for, but then the fifth guard, he woke up and he knew what Lethia did for him so he saved me and her both by knocking out the fourth guard.  So–So Farrel–I mean–That’s the guard’s name–he’s tending to her wounds now!”

Elmiryn already started walking before the girl even finished, and Nyx chased after her.  Her face felt hot and her body was a promise of violence.

“Elle…Elmiryn, wait!” Nyx’s words hit her back like water to glass.  It just slid right off.

The warrior entered through the doorway, and into the foyer, where warm torches made her face dance with shadows.  The room led into a perpendicular hall that curved out of sight at both ends.  The woman had to wait as the girl closed the door behind her, then slipped into a side door she hadn’t noticed.  There was a “clack” and she heard gears turning.  The Ailuran had closed the gate outside.  The guards still outside the bolted door were atleast protected from the daesce if not the cold.

With the girl finished with her task, Elmiryn rounded on Nyx, her eyes sharp.  “What way did they go?  Do you know?”

The girl looked at her with wide eyes.  “I–Yes…they, they went that way, but–”

Elmiryn went down the left hall as Nyx had pointed without waiting to hear her.  If the girl had been so concerned about Lethia all this time, then why, why, why would she leave the youth in the hands of one of the enemy?

The woman drew her sword with her right hand, her expression darkening as she came to the only open doorway.  She stood in the frame, her cerulean eyes flashing, her sword raised–and stopped.  The woman stared.  Then she rubbed at her eyes and looked again with a bewildered frown.

Nyx squeezed past her and stood before her with arms spread wide as if to stop her.  “There, do you see!?  Please don’t try to hurt him–you could bring the other guards if you do!  The others are sleeping further down the hall.”

Lying on a low sick bed in a room cramped with ten more, was Lethia.  At the other end of the room was another man, but he was asleep and lacking an arm and leg.  Next to the enchantress, crouched down onto his knees, appeared to be the guard Nyx had mentioned.  He looked at Elmiryn like a rabbit caught in a predator’s sight.  What did Nyx say his name was?  He had funny looking ears and pretty purple eyes.  They reminded her of flowers.  The kind of flowers she saw rabbits peeking out from underneath.  She half expected him to have buck teeth.  She couldn’t remember his proper name, and he clearly wasn’t human.  But what a pleasant change of pace!  In the Rabbit’s wide hands, he held clean bandages, and on the bedside table next to him was an assortment of bottles filled with things the warrior couldn’t readily name.  She blinked and shouldered her sword, but didn’t put it away.

Elmiryn smiled slowly.

“…Who on Halward’s plane would’ve thought that a rabbit would have the balls to do something like this?”

The Rabbit looked at Nyx in confusion.  “I’m confused…What does she mean?”

The girl sat down on the bed next to him and looked at him wearily.  “I think she thinks you’re a rabbit.”

“Not a rabbit.  Just Rabbit. The Rabbit,” Elmiryn corrected, shutting the door behind her.  “There’s a difference.”

“Oh!  Um…Well, my name’s Farrel.”  He held out his hand and offered a smile.

Elmiryn raised an eyebrow at him.  “Is it?”

The man’s hand and smile faltered as he looked at her in confusion.  “…What?

Nyx patted the guard on his arm with a sympathetic expression.  “You have a bit more to do, right?  I might as well explain it to you…”

The warrior snickered.  “Oh sure.  You can try.”

Continue ReadingChapter 17.2

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

Chapter 27.1


Her seat was an uncomfortable piece of lumpy root from the great central tree.  The roots were at their most tangled here, making it an unideal place to set up a merchant spot.  This left the area clear for the two women to talk in peace.  Elmiryn would have preferred the forest, where there was no one but the nymphs, but she was certain the dryads wouldn’t take kindly to her presence.  Her forehead was still throbbing from their last encounter.

Nyx was pacing before her, her arms crossed over her chest and her head bowed.  Her steps weren’t hurried, but there was a tension in her movements, like the muscles were seized up and refused to move.  Elmiryn sat and watched her, her cerulean eyes tracking back and forth, back and forth.  Her elbows dug into her knees.  Her palms felt sweaty.  The giddy feeling was…gone.

She felt caught in a circle song, certain that this was a tune of life she’d played before.  Where?  When?

Nyx stopped, raising her eyes to peer at the woman through her bangs.  Elmiryn’s brows pressed up and together, wrinkling her forehead.  “I’ve told ya everything.” She lowered her eyes.  “I even told ya ’bout how Meznik spoke to me.  I…couldn’ tell the others.”  She spread her hands.  “There’s nothin’ else…”

The girl didn’t say anything for a time.  She sniffled, making the woman think she was crying, but when Nyx turned her face fully to her, Elmiryn saw no tears.

The Ailuran shrugged and looked down.  “I appreciate that you’d trust me, Elle.  I feel honored, even.  But it doesn’t make me feel better about the matter.”

Elmiryn sighed.  “Yeah.  I know.”

“It isn’t as much of a surprise as you’d think.” The girl said, smiling ironically.  “The way your hands have been shaking all of this time.  The way you deflected the blast from Tonatiuh’s fall.  The way you looked in the Somnium…it all makes sense.  I’ve already known you were changing into something.”  Nyx sighed and rubbed at her forehead.  “I just didn’t think it was this…”

“What do you know of the fae?”

“Probably no more than Quincy does, and I’m certain the wizard knows more.  I may read a lot, but that’s still a layman’s knowledge.”  Nyx stepped close, brushing her fingertips over the warrior’s forehead, as if trying to smooth out the worry lines.  “Fae aren’t inherently evil, Elle.  They’re just…different.  They see things in a different perspective, live life at a different rhythm.  You can still survive this with your mind intact if you just try.”

“And trying’s the thing, isn’t it?” Elmiryn snapped, grabbing Nyx’s wrist.  “You have to have the will of a fucking god to get over this, and…” the woman sighed and released the girl.  She hung her head.  “An’ I’m not a god.  I’m not.”

The silence stretched on between them.  The redhead saw her friend crouch before her and glanced up at her face.  Tears were in the girl’s eyes, but they had yet to fall.  They glistened like emerald’s from the glow of the trees.

Elmiryn’s first thought was, “She’s beautiful.”

Then… “I’m upsetting her.”

The girl took hold of the woman’s face.  “You’re right.  You aren’t a god.  Yet you have conquered all obstacles that have come your way.  There is no reason…no reason for you to think that this problem will not meet the same end.  So don’t you talk like that…okay?”  Nyx smiled shakily.  “You are Elmiryn Manard, the Demon Hunter, famed Dragoon Captain, and much-loved Savior of Gamath.”

“Much loved by who?” Elmiryn asked quietly, touching the girl’s hand.

Nyx bit her lip and stood.  Her fingers left the woman’s skin tingling in their wake.

“Let’s…find a place to rest before supper,” the Ailuran said, pulling at the warrior’s hand.

Elmiryn slowly stood, following the girl down the tree roots and back onto the dirt.

Nyx seemed intent on returning to the medicine man’s hut, which was understandable as he was one of the few who could speak Common and the only Lycan in the entire village who had showed her any amount of civility.  But Elmiryn’s heart was loud in her ears as she stared with wide eyes at the back of her friend’s head.

That warm sound in your voice…

“Nyx.” The warrior tugged the girl’s hand, bringing her to a stop.  The girl didn’t turn around.  “Nyx, say it to me.”

The Ailuran bowed her head.  “Elle, I’m tired.”

“Kitten, please?”

Nyx’s shoulders hunched around her shoulders.  “I won’t.  I won’t…” she hissed.  She turned and looked at the woman with anguish on her face.  “I am a vermagus, and you may hear what you will, but the Words are still mine and I shall keep them, do you understand?”  The girl looked away.  “I’m…not a fool, Elle.  I know your nature, and I wouldn’t dream to change you.  But it’s for that reason that I say the words are mine…”

Elmiryn stepped forward and gently hugged the girl around the shoulders.  “Are ya so afraid that I’d hurt you?” she whispered.

Nyx laughed and shook her head.  “It’s not about whether or not someone gets hurt.  It’s about accepting the consequences.”

“And what consequences are ya ready to accept?”

The girl bit her lip and started to backpedal away.  “Share my bed and I might tell you…”

Elmiryn’s eyebrows went high at that.


Hakeem emerged from the medicine man’s hut with a sigh.  He had been counting the seconds as they passed, waiting for that precious moment when he and Quincy would be reunited.  Truth be told, his vision had been much less spectacular than the reality.

Was it right to say that Quincy was different?

…Or that Quincy had been restored?

How ironic that she seemed a ghost to him, and he, a ghost to her.  What happened to them that they could become such shadows of themselves?

Hakeem blinked and looked down at his hands.  They lacked the callouses of years, the scars of time.  He flexed the fingers and marveled at how small they seemed to him.  It was like awakening in his new body all over again.

“Can’t quite get used to it?” Sedwick said from his seat.

Hakeem looked up at him in surprise.  He’d forgotten the elemental was there.

He recovered with a shrug.  “As the years have gone by, I’ve learned that things happen, and sometimes all you can do is go with it.”

“Like water.”

The wizard looked at him curiously as he took a seat beside him.

Sedwick elaborated with eyes looking into a past unseen.  “Water flows to the basest places, slowly carving its way through the earth.  It can take the shape of whatever container it is in.  You go with this flow.  I can already tell.  Any other person would be raging against their circumstances, screaming about how it isn’t fair.  Maybe even hiding in shame of it.  Yet you live as if nothing has changed.” Then the man glanced at Hakeem.  “I hope you don’t think I’m being too presumptuous.”

“I’m a hard person to offend.”

The elemental chuckled.  “As expected!”

Hakeem smirked.

They sat in silence, and the wizard was grateful for the chance to mediate on all that had happened.

When he’d woken up in the Lycan forests, it had been a shock.  That had been…

336 hours—20,160 minutes—1,209,600 seconds ago…

Hakeem awoke with a start, his heart beating so hard in his chest that it almost hurt.  He wheezed and shot upright, his skin sweat drenched.  All around him was dark.  It took him a while for his eyes to adjust.  Even before they did, he knew something was wrong.  He felt heavy things blanketing him.  His hands and feet were covered.  The wizard lifted his right hand to see that it was swallowed in his chain mail sleeve.  His eyes widened and he looked at his legs next.  His pants were more than a foot longer than his legs.

From that point, Hakeem had realized he had somehow been made smaller, though it wasn’t until he stumbled across a Lycan hunting party that he realized he’d also been made physically younger.  He’d been forced to abandon all of his clothes, except for his enchanted chain mail of course.  Walking through the forest naked with a piece of armor that weighed close to twenty pounds was hard.  Not an incredible feat for an adult, but more-so for a boy moving through dark and unfamiliar territory.  The Lycan’s had nearly killed him for collapsing in their path.  They’d thought he was the monster they’d been hunting.  Luckily for him, they had refrained.

The hunting party had been led by Halian, one of the hunting captains that lead the men and women into the forest.  Just as the Lycan had done with Quincy and the others, so he did with Hakeem, bringing him before Artemis herself.  The goddess had not been a little surprised to find him, and had quizzed him at length about why he was there.

At first, being in such intimacy with an immortal had been unsettling for Hakeem.  But after a while, he became used to it, and could even understand how the Lycans were so familiar with the goddess.  She didn’t put on airs, didn’t seek to awe.  She was just a mother who loved her children, and wanted to keep them safe.

Hakeem told her about the events that led up to his arrival in the strange other dimension, and she was satisfied.  She offered him a temporary home in one of the huts near the village edge.  It was once the home of a young warrior who had died in the hunt for the evil beast.  Back in Fanaea, the people would find such a home to be cursed with bad luck.

Hakeem went to sleep peacefully in it.

The next few days was spent trying to puzzle out the nature of his condition with the medicine man, Eidan; getting the Lycan children to realize he was a man on the inside, and so could beat any of them senseless with his skills alone; and learning what his limits were in his young body by training with the Lycan warriors.  They’d laughed when he picked up a spear.  After a week, they clapped him on the back.  On the eighth day, he sought to join the hunt.  After beating back all who would disrespect him, none tried to stop him.

The other members of his hunting party were nervous.  As coincidence would have it, Halian was his hunting captain.  Hakeem had been careful not to cross the man before.  He was a hotheaded Lycan who was skilled in combat and unafraid to challenge anyone that would dare question his authority.  The captain’s eyes looked out at them all and he growled something in their native tongue.  Then he looked at Hakeem.  “We’re moving in hunting formation…do you know it?”

Hakeem nodded.

The man scowled.  “Then keep up!”

And the boy did.

The night had been uneventful, but his ability to keep pace impressed Halian enough that he requested Hakeem be assigned to his party a second time.  The second night had seen more action in the form of a rogue rage spirit, but they saw nothing of their intended target.  Some parties would suffer casualties and report not seeing the beast at all.  Other parties had to be found in the morning, torn to pieces out in the woods…

That Quincy managed to come through the forests unharmed made the wizard glad.  He’d seen what the beast did, and it was a horrible thing.

His thoughts simmered as they roved over the memory of Quincy’s azure eyes filled with such emotion, the sweep of her russet brown hair, the sound of her voice choked with anguish.  It had pained him to see her so hurt…but how long had it been since he’d last seen her shed a tear?  How long since she’d last said that she loved him?  Fanaean or no?

He hadn’t been lying when he told Quincy that he didn’t mourn his condition.  In a way, it was nice to feel so young again.  It reminded him of so many good things…but at the same time, its timing was unfortunate.  The woman he loved had come back to him, truly come back to him…

And Hakeem was not a man to greet her.  To hold her.  To love her.

He sighed heavily once again.  “I don’t suppose you have any idea how I could be returned to normal?” he asked Sedwick.  It was an offhand question, one that he wouldn’t have even bothered asking two weeks ago, but he couldn’t help it.

The elemental looked at him. “I…don’t rightly know.  I can tell you that getting off this shard is likely the right step.  Elmiryn and Quincy both had to travel to other places to find what had been lost.  So you probably have to do the same.”

Hakeem rubbed at his head.  “Mmm…well, I suppose things worked out for the best.  If I’d left two weeks ago, Quincy and I may not have found each other.”

Sedwick gave a nod.  Then his head turned and he smiled at someone coming down the trail.  “Back so soon?”

Hakeem turned his head as well.  It was Elmiryn and Nyx.


I waved at Sedwick and gave a slight nod to Hakeem as we neared the medicine man’s hut.  Elmiryn and I were still holding hands.  When had this become a habit?

“We were hoping to find a place to rest.  Do you think the medicine man would let us use a bed?”  I fought to keep the blush out of my cheeks.  I just realized I’d said ‘bed’ in the singular.  Gods, why did I have to be so transparent?

Hakeem stood, and I blinked at him.  My mind was still trying to wrap around his child-like form.  Remembering the broad-shouldered man from before, it was hard.

He gestured for us to follow him.  “Come.  Eidan doesn’t have the room to spare right now, but I have a hut that you two can use.”

My eyebrows rose and I looked at Elmiryn.  She looked at me and shrugged, her eyes at half-mast.  She was starting to sway a bit and the fear of her passing out on her feet seemed very valid.  With a sigh, I threw her arm over my shoulders and grabbed her by the waist.

“Come on, Elle.  You  need to lie down.”

“M’not sick…” she mumbled.

We started to walk, but Sedwick was on his feet and in our path within a moment.  He grabbed Elmiryn’s chin, forcing her eyes onto his.

“Sedwick!” I exclaimed, giving him a glare.  “What are you doing?”

The elemental’s eyes narrowed and he leaned in with a sniff.  He recoiled and let the woman go.  “Where did you get it?” he growled.

“Fairies,” Elmiryn giggled.  She pointed at the bump she had on her forehead.  “They gave me this too.”

“One of the Lycan’s must have given it to her.  Now Sedwick, can you please move?” The warrior was starting to lean on me, and she wasn’t light.

The elemental’s pale eyes snapped my way.  “Nyx, has she told you?”

I frowned, glancing at Hakeem down the way.  The wizard seemed aware of the personal nature of this conversation and was respectfully keeping his distance.  I was very grateful.  “Yes.  She told me everything.”

“Then you know she can’t be doing such things!”

“I know that!” I snapped.  “Now please!  We’d just like to get some rest!”

I tried to guide Elmiryn around him, but Sedwick just blocked our way.  He held up his hands, his expression softening.  “I’m sorry.  I’m just…I’m worried.”

I sighed and adjusted my grip on Elmiryn, her eyes had fallen shut and her head lolled onto mine.  “I know, Sedwick.  I’m worried too.”

“Then please, keep this in mind.” He leaned in close, his voice dropping to a whisper.  “Elmiryn is changing…but she isn’t a full fae yet.  She can still fight this.  The spiritual addiction isn’t as strong now…but the more fae she becomes, the hard it’ll be.”

I looked at him, my brows pressed together.  “Okay, Sedwick.  Alright.”  Was this really the time?

He held up his hands again and stepped away.  Awkwardly we started to shuffle past him.

“Do you want me to help you?” the man asked as we went.

I shook my head mutely and I heard nothing more from Sedwick as we followed Hakeem down the trail.  It wasn’t all that far off.  A minute or two later we were at a small animal hide hut, and the wizard was holding back the doorway curtain for us.  With a thanks, I guided us both through.

Hakeem poked his head in through the door.  “The latrine is out in the woods.  There’s a ribbon over it to mark it.  The dryads can point the way too, if you’re lost.  Don’t be afraid to talk to them.  They’re more likely to throw rocks at you for relieving yourself in the wrong spot than for you asking for their help.  Also, feel free to use whatever you find in here.  Nothing here belongs to anyone.  The owner died sometime ago, and the villagers use it as a sort of in-between home for visiting Lycans.”

I nodded, already eyeing the blanket of furs and hay I saw against the side wall.  “Thank you.”

“I’ll come get you when it’s time for dinner.”

As I laid Elmiryn down onto the makeshift bed, I turned and called out, “Wait!”

Hakeem poked his head back in.

I bit my lip and wondered if I was looking a gift horse in the mouth, but I had to ask.  “Why are you being so nice to us?”

The wizard smirked and looked at the ground, seeming to gather the words.  When he looked up, he was smiling openly.  My eyebrows went high.  He had a nice smile.

“Because,” he said. “You gave me back the real Quincy.”

When he turned and left, I was still blinking after him.  “The…real Quincy?”


I turned as I felt Elmiryn touch my hand.  Her cerulean eyes rolled open and she frowned up at me.  “Who ya talkin’ to…?”

I sat on the edge of the bed and stroked her cheek.  “Hakeem.”

“The…mud man?”

I hissed, giving her a shove.  “Don’t call him that!  It’s offensive!”

The woman giggled, her eyes falling shut again.  “Mmmm…sorry…meant mud boy…”


“Hey, hey!” With eyes still closed, she held up her hands.  “I like ’em folks jes fine!  Warner…my non-existin’ father, he owned a few Fa…Fanay…fa…aw, fuck it.  Those darkies from the South.”

My brow knitted.  “Owned?

“Yeh.  Owned.” Elmiryn rolled onto her side. “Nobles tend ta own things, Nyx.  Cludin’ people.”

“That’s horrible!”

“If it’s any con-sol-ashion, I never owned any slaves.”  The woman yawned and started to struggle out of her coat.  With pursed lips I helped her.  “Mother never liked it either…she use’ta give ’em money so’s they could buy their freedom, but tha’ jes made ’em stay.  Where tha hell else were they gonna find someone to treat ’em so nice?  Turn ’em loose in the kingdom, and they’d jes get caught an’ sold again…and prob’ly to a master that’d beat and rape ’em…”

Elmiryn freed her arms, her face turning into the cotton pillow with a satisfied groan.  She rolled back onto her back and was gazing off at something I couldn’t see.  “Ya gotta un’erstan’.  We didn’ have ’em cuz they were what they were.  We had other kinds too.  But they were the ‘least ‘spensive, so we had more of ’em than the others…”

“The lighter the slave, the greater the cost?” I growled.

The woman shrugged, her expression unapologetic. “I didn’ make the world, Nyx.  I grew up with this stuff, and that was jes how it went.”

“And when you were an adult?”

“Look…maybe I coulda done more once I got older.  Wha’dya want from me?  I was more concerned with gettin’ my military pro-mo-shions than freein’ a buncha slaves.  The people who fought against that sorta thing…they were pariahs.  Nobody wanted ta have anythin’ ta do with ’em.  You can’t get ahead that way.”

“That was all that mattered to you?  Getting ahead?”

Elmiryn’s eyes narrowed at me.  “Yeah.  It was.”  She rolled away from me.  “Not ever’body has a bleedin’ heart, Nyx.  The way I saw it, those people let ’emselves get caught, and they let ’emselves stay slaves.  I didn’ think it was my pro’lem.”

Her voice was turning low and her words more and more obscured, but I didn’t care.  I was too insulted to let this conversation die out.

“Those people couldn’t help themselves, Elmiryn!  Do you know how slavers catch their product?  They raid towns and villages late at night, when people are sleeping!  They overwhelm people, then break them so that they have no will to fight back!”  I shook the woman’s shoulder, my anger rising at the thought of her not hearing me.  “Elmiryn!  Elmiryn!  Gods damnit, not all slaves were like the ones your family owned!  If given that gold, they would’ve run at the first opportunity!”

The warrior sat up fast, startling me so bad I flinched and cried out.  She grabbed me by the shoulders, her grip tight, and hissed, “What…do…you…want…from…me?”

I stared at her, my mouth falling open.

The woman let me go, her cerulean eyes half-narrowed and her brow bunched so that the little wrinkle appeared once more on her forehead.  “Gods Nyx.  All I can tell ya is that I was a shitty person.  ‘Kay?  I didn’ know how slavers got their…their fuckin’ product, till jes’ a lil before I was cursed.  I guess I was stuck with the things I assumed as a kid.  That slaves jes’ walked onto slave ships.  That they fought the slavers in broad daylight, then jes’ gave up.”

The woman lay back down, and I started to feel an anxious guilt begin to tighten up my chest and abdomen.

…What had I been looking for?  An apology?  Why couldn’t I separate my anger at slavery from Elmiryn?  To stand up for slaves would have been difficult for her as a noble.  There was a lot of pressure to be a certain way.  I only understood that in a superficial sense.  After all, wasn’t I always outside of the norm?  I had grown up an outsider, already hated and despised.  I had nothing to lose but my family, but even then, I lost everything…

I turned my face, feeling suddenly lower than a worm.

Elmiryn continued, unaware of my disquiet.  “Things changed for me durin’ the war.  The Fiamman army was gonna launch a new attack on yer people, called the Nu-ran-ian Offensive.  We were gonna use a new long-ranged cannon.  My dragoons were ta lead the infantry inta battle on horseback.  I was sure this was my final test ‘fore I was ta be promoted ta Major.  But things went wrong.  The cannons were out of alignment, an’ when they fired, they hit our men instead.  I lost halfa my dragoons, and I was forced ta call a retreat.  As we were ridin’ back, I saw who had been mannin’ the cannons…” here the woman trailed away.  I still couldn’t bring myself to look at her.

After a breath, the woman continued, but her voice sounded tight.  “They were all Higashans.  They’d been chained ta the cannon carriages, but the wheels had been taken off.  Turns out, the cannons were made by them.  The cannonballs ’emselves were meant’ta explode on impact, and handlin’ ’em was dangerous.  Rather than risk losin’ some of our men, the generals ordered the slaves to be the handlers.  Problem was…the Higashans made the gun, that didn’ mean they were good at firin’ it.”

“Were you angry at them?” I asked, still looking at the other side of the room.

“Naw… Some of my men wanted to resume the retreat, but I decided ta help the slaves out of their chains.  They didn’ have any weapons, and were weak from abuse.  I didn’ think it was right that they couldn’ even run away.  My men helped me, and we got the slaves free.  By that point, we had no chance of outrunnin’ the Ailurans and were gearin’ up fer a las’ stand.  But then one o’ the older slaves hobbled up ta me with the help of one o’ the younger men.  The man started ta speak to me, and the boy translated for ‘im.  He said that the cannonballs could be made to s’plode with enough heat and ki-net-ic force.  So my men and I, along with some of the healthier slaves, rolled the cannonballs out all along the field and fixed ’em close to the barrels o’ gunpowder.  When the Ailurans came to attack, we lit arrows on fire and fired them at the barrels.  The big s’plosion they caused made the cannonballs nearby fire, and it set off’a chain reaction.  The Ailurans were devastated.  With my men, we beat ’em back.  The Higashans ran away in the confu-shion.  People called us heroes.  The generals called us deviants.”


“Cause we set the slaves free, and destroyed all their shiny new cannons.  Turns out, those Higashans were gee-niuses, and we’d just cost the army one of its prized resources.”  Elmiryn sighed and I turned just in time to see her finish a stretch.  She batted her eyes and looked at me.  “When I go an’ say it all like that…s’no wonder I never made Major.”  She closed her eyes and grinned.  “Guess I do gotta bleedin’ heart.”

“But if you hadn’t set those men free, then they would have died!”  I couldn’t feel happiness over what the warrior had done to my people, but she’d done it to survive, and freed innocent men in the process.  That, I could get behind, and it made me mad that she’d been prosecuted for it.

The woman held up her hands and chuckled.  “S’politics, Nyx.  The generals’d been lookin’ for a reason ta stop my a’vancement fer ages.  It really riled ’em that a woman could make it in the military at all.”

I grit my teeth.  “It isn’t right!”

“Lotsa things aren’ right, kitten.”

And I blinked at that.  Wasn’t that what we’d been essentially discussing this whole time?

Again I felt foolish.  “I’m sorry, Elle.  I…I seem to get emotional over things without really looking at it from all angles.  I should just let you rest.”  I rubbed at my eye.  “Heaven knows, I need it too.”

“Jes’ shush and come over here, you.”

Elmiryn grabbed me around the waist and pulled me to her.  I laughed and settled in next to her, laying my head on her chest and my arm over her stomach.  My legs brushed intimately with hers and I closed my eyes.

Then a thought occurred to me, and I raised my head.  “Elle…?”

The woman’s eyebrow quirked up, and she let out a sound of acknowledgement.

“What did…the Fiamman people call…Ailurans?” I asked.

Elmiryn’s eyes opened at that.  She looked at me critically.  “Wha’dya wanna know that for?”

I bit my lip and looked down shyly.  I fiddled with the top button of Elmiryn’s vest.  “We called you…ginger weeds.”

The woman erupted into a hoarse laugh, sending the sound echoing through me.

“Ginger weeds?” she exclaimed.

I giggled and leaned over onto my elbow. “Fuchsig krut, in Ailuran.  It basically means ‘ginger weed’.”

Elmiryn smirked as if she couldn’t get over how silly it sounded.  “We called you guys fleabiters.  One word.”

I grinned and shook my head.  “By themselves those words sound so stupid…”

“But put them in the mouth of someone who hates you, and they take on a whole new meaning.”  We both sobered up at the thought.

I hugged the woman around the middle, my face nuzzling into her neck.  “Elmiryn, you don’t…you don’t mean it that way when you say those things, do you?”

The warrior didn’t answer me right away, and after a while, I thought she had finally gone to sleep.

Then she started talking, her voice a low, husky mumble. “I once had a wash maid.  Her name was Lunielle.  Real shy, but re-al pretty.”  I raised my head enough to look at the woman’s face.  Her expression was quiet and peaceful, and her eyes were closed.  Her lips barely moved as she spoke.  “I like teasin’ people now, but back then, you could say I was a real bully.  It wasn’ that I liked hurtin’ people.  It was that I liked gettin’ a reaction out of ’em, same as now…only back then, I had been stuck in my father’s trainin’ grounds and I didn’t get to see people a lot.  I was attention starved, I guess.  So tha’s why I was the way I was.  But Lunielle always ignored me.  It got on my nerves.

“She use’ta hide her hair under a han’kerchief cos’ otherwise it’d puff out into this big soft ball.  One day, when I was takin’ a bath and she was scrubbin’ my back, I pulled the han’kerchief off her head.  She got real mad, and her eyes went wide—wider’n I ever saw ’em—and she tried to get her han’kerchief back.  Her face got all red, making her skin even warmer than it was before.  She kept babblin’ at me in her language, and I started staring at her lips.  Next thing I knew, I kissed her.  After that…I wanted her.”

The woman smiled, and I frowned, feeling my wickedness stir.  Elmiryn resumed, oblivious.  “I didn’ force her.  I told her if she didn’ wanna be with me, than I wouldn’ say anythin’ and I’d leave ‘er alone.  I was gonna be leavin’ for home soon, anyway, an’ I wouldn’ see her again after that.  But Lunielle ended up kissing me back, and we ended up having sex in my room.  It was my first time.”

I sat up, still frowning.  “Why are you telling me this?”

Elmiryn’s eyes creaked open and they rolled to fix their light gaze on me.  “Partly jes ta answer yer question.”  Then she smiled crookedly.  “And partly jes ta see if you got jealous.”

I flared red and went so far as to punch the woman in the shoulder.  “You’re terrible!”

Ow!  That was close to the boob!”

“You deserved it!”

The woman laughed, grabbing me and pulling me over her body.  I struggled, but she straddled me, pinning my arms up over my head.  My breath caught as Elmiryn leaned in close.  “Got you!” she said in a sing song voice.  She kissed my cheek, then nuzzled my ear.  There, she whispered.  “When I say those things, I don’t say ’em in hate.  I don’t have anythin ‘gainst what’s different from me.  I like different.  Prefer it, even…an’ I prefer you, Nyx…over everyone and everything.”  Her tongue traced the edge of my ear and I shivered.  “I fear we may have started something, kitten…”

Elmiryn raised her head and her cerulean eyes pierced into mine.  My mouth parted, maybe with the intent of saying something, but then the woman leaned down and kissed me, and all my thoughts fled, including my desire for rest.  She freed my arms, and I wrapped them around her, body arching to meet hers as I eagerly returned her kiss.  There was that fruity taste in her mouth again, and it struck me as familiar, but with my mind clouded by the haze, the capacity for such concerns were lost.

All I wanted was for us to be lost in this feeling forever, because nothing felt as good, nothing felt as right, as when I held Elmiryn in my arms…

…And that was a consequence I could deal with.

Continue ReadingChapter 27.1