Chapter 13.3


The jail had a foul smell to it. It was stale sweat, and vomit, and urine.  They were collected together, like water at the lowest of places, into one odor that reminded vaguely of chicken–perhaps rotting and sitting out in the sunlight. The stone floor had stains to it, and the large room was brightly lit. The jails were just even squares quartered off with thick iron bars–some rusting and flaking. There were no walls separating the cells, no privacy afforded those unfortunate enough to wind up there. So as Quincy followed the guard, the attendant following behind her in a sullen trail, she saw the girl at the far corner of the room.

She stopped in her tracks. “What did you people do?” she demanded.

The guard slowed and looked at her. This man was broader in the head than the last gentleman she had the honor of spending time with.  She doubted it was because of a heightened intelligence. His eyes were baggy and there was a bit of green in one of his nostrils, but otherwise he looked fine. Then Quincy saw the claw marks that stemmed out from beneath his sleeve, up the back of his hand.

“What do you mean?” He asked, voice unusually light. She imagined something deeper for someone as tall.

“I mean that thing on Lethia Artaud’s head.”

The guard turned, scratching at the back of his hand. “Oh, that?”

“We put that on her as a precaution,” The attendant said behind Quincy. She turned to see him looking at her with disgruntled eyes. He looked dead on his feet. “She kept removing her blindfold, so we had to put that mask on her.”

Quincy gestured at the girl. “An iron mask. You couldn’t use a cloth bag. You had to use an iron mask.”

The attendant shrugged. “It wasn’t my call miss, nor this guard’s here.”

“Whose was it?”

“The marshal’s.”

The woman pursed her lips. When they came to Lethia’s cell, the girl was curled up in the far left corner, away from the others housed in the jail. Her beautiful blue dress was wrinkled and stained from the filthy ground. Quincy knew it wasn’t by choice that the girl was huddled and still.  The iron mask she was subjected to was heavy, and one that enclosed about her entire head, leaving only little slits for her to breathe, but not to see. The mask sat at the base of her neck, and Quincy imagined it would’ve been far too uncomfortable, even painful, to try and stand up and move whilst wearing such a thing.

The woman gripped the bars. “Lethia Artaud,” she called.

The girl did not answer. Her hands lay still in her lap, where her flared sleeves lay twisted and abandoned.

Quincy knelt down. “Lethia…I want to talk to you about that night. The night that Syria was taken into custody.”

Still no answer. The woman turned to the guard. “Can you please open the cell?”

The guard looked at the attendant, who shrugged. He took the set of keys from his waist and after a moments search, found the one he was looking for. He slid the cell door back and stepped aside as Quincy entered. The door rattled shut behind her. She came near to Lethia’s side, away from her legs and just out of reach–a precautionary habit–and knelt down.

“Lethia. There must be something you recall.  About that night.”

She heard the girl sniffle behind the mask. She shifted and the heavy item clanked against the cell bars. “Leave me ‘lone,” the girl mumbled.

“Your mistress is a good woman, isn’t she?” Quincy said. She shifted to sit on the floor, and leaned her back against the bars. “She helps people, right?”

The girl remained quiet. Quincy looked at her from the corner of her eye. “Doesn’t it bother you that she’ll be killed by the very people she tried to help?”

Lethia let out a strange noise from behind the mask, and she tried to curl into a tight ball–but the action made her head slip from its prop, and it dipped forward to hit the adjacent bar.  The girl cried out and whimpered through sobs as she pushed with both hands to try and lift her head, which was now pulled down at a harrowing angle.  Quincy jumped forward, taking the mask at both sides and pulling it back up.

Her eyes flashed to the guard.  “Take this thing off.  Now.”

“I can’t–” The man began.

“This girl must weigh less than a hundred and fifteen pounds–something this large and heavy on her is nothing short of barbaric.  You saw didn’t you?  She nearly broke her neck.”

The attendant waved at the guard.  “Damn it.  Go on, do it.  The wizard has that flat voice now, but just try dealing with her when she starts to get angry.”  He pointed through the bars, his eyes narrowing.  “But the mask goes back on when you’re done!  I’m telling you, it was the marshal’s order!”

The guard, grumbling, opened the cell.  He clunked forward, big boots sounding offensive in their approach.  Quincy’s eyes were little blades that fixed onto his, and the man glanced at her with licked lips.  After that, his actions were considerably less brusque.  Taking up an odd fat key, he pushed it into a little hole in the back of the mask at the base.  He turned it twice before there was a click.

“Alright,” Quincy said, rising up into a kneel over the girl.  She held the mask at the front and back.  “Go back out and shut the cell door.”  The guard did just that.

The woman struggled briefly, trying to get her bandaged fingers to fit into the newly opened crack of the mask.  “Lethia,” she breathed.  “I’m going to take the mask off.  I suggest you keep civil–or else it goes back on right away.  Neither of us wants that, alright?”

The girl said nothing.

Quincy pried open the mask, letting her other hand gently pull it away.  Lethia shifted to allow the mask to be pulled away completely.  The woman strained holding it with one hand.  She dropped it onto the ground where it fell with a terrible clunk.  Her gaze returned to the girl, and she saw what the mask had hidden.

Lethia’s oval shaped face was slick with sweat.  There were bruises on the cheeks and forehead, accompanied with dozens of little scratches from the corroded metal.  The young enchantress learned quickly that the iron mask was not only meant to humiliate and block sight–but to restrict movement as well.  The girl’s wheat blond hair lacked body, so that her ears protruded from their curtain more than usual.  Her pink lips were pale and thin, and her nose flared, sucking in the foul air as though it were the best she’d had.

The girl’s green eyes squinted.  They shifted, looking about the ground.  Quincy waited to see what the girl would do.  She tensed briefly when the girl turned her gaze toward her.  But Lethia’s eyes stopped at her chin.

“What do you want?” she rasped.

“I want to hear about the night they found the bodies.  It’s important you tell me all that you remember.”

“You can read what happened in the city records.” Lethia’s head rested against the bar, and she closed her eyes.  “M’tired…”

Quincy gripped her shoulder tightly.  “Lethia.”  Her voice dropped low, almost to a growl.  Her fingers started to curl, and she fought to keep from hurting the girl.  Lethia lifted her head again, face screwing up as she stared at Quincy’s hand.

The woman let go, her hand a claw, and pressed it to her chest.  “Lethia…you’re sensitive to mindscapes–shifts in the atmosphere from emotion and thought.  You must feel what has happened here.  The region of Albias is under some dark force.  Ethically, as people of power, you or I cannot let this continue.”

The girl sighed and sat up straighter.  She swiped at her red nose and tucked a lock of blond hair behind her large ruddy ear.  “I know what you’re talking about…As much as I’m upset with you, I can’t ignore this either.”

Quincy’s brow quirked at the girl’s use of “upset” versus “angry” or something more along the lines of “I hate you,” but she said nothing.  The girl was speaking now.

“What else can I tell you?” Lethia said, gripping her head.  Her hands shook and her eyes glazed, rolling left and right.  “I…I remember studying.  In my room on the third floor.  Syria was going to test me on alchemical mixtures, and how they can be implemented into a holistic regimen.  I heard a pounding downstairs, and shouting, even with all the wind howling outside.”  The girl sighed and pressed the heel of her palm to her brow.  “Argos came bounding up the stairs, telling me I should hide because there was a mob who had broken through the gate.  I told him I couldn’t.  I told him I had to be with my mistress.  So I went down to the foyer and saw her just as she came in from the study.  She scolded me and told me to go back upstairs, but I only pretended to.”

Lethia’s chin crumpled and she curled into a tight ball.  “I only wanted to make sure she was okay!” She squeaked.  Fat tears slipped from the corners of her eyes and she hugged her knees with a white-knuckled grip.  When she resumed, her voice was less mousy, but still shook and cracked now and again.  “I hid in the shadows, just as the stairs turn out of view, and watched as Syria tried to reason with the mob through the door’s sliding window.  One man spat in her face when she offered to help them with their pain.

“They just kept going back and forth like that.  The mob accused her of murder and black magic.  Syria told them that it was she herself who had reported to the marshal that these things were happening.  She tried to warn him that something dark had come to Albias.”

“What things?”

Lethia looked at her, blinking.

“You…didn’t read it?”  She frowned.  “For the last six months, Syria had double the number of cases than usual.  People were having nightmares and sleepwalking.  Belcliff and Dolmensk had become possessed.”


I laid back against the rocks, one hand over my face.  I was starting to feel dizzy, and my body felt like thin paper–fragile, weak, and on the verge of tearing.  Argos was a comfort, his large body next to mine.  He smelled a bit–musty fur and the stink of the potion Graziano had poured into his wound–but he was warm, and from him radiated a safeness that Paulo failed to generate.

The boy in question was lying, stomach down with eyes closed, on the back of the resting scultone he had ridden.  Argos and I had both come to the quiet little relief in the mountains riding different scultones–Argos having an understandable aggression toward the youngest Moretti, and me simply not wishing to find myself near him.  Our current place of rest blocked the wind and moonlight from us, giving us cover and respite.  The others had left to camp out the trail they thought Hakeem was most likely to travel by.  “He’s in a hurry–so he’ll take the road least traveled,” Arduino said.

When I heard the explosions in the distance, I sat forward, my eyes opening with some effort.  “I hope they’re okay…” I breathed.

Argos whined next to me.  He pushed up on his front paws and turned his great head, nose flaring as his dark eyes fixed on me with his ears turned gently back.  I looked at him, then smiled.  “We’ll get Lethia.  Don’t worry.”  I sat forward to scratch at his head, when I remembered which arm I was trying to use.  I looked down in a glare.  My Twin was tapping the dirt impatiently.

I hissed a sigh and closed my eyes.  “What is it?” I said in my head.

“Nothing,” She snapped.

I clenched my sapien hand and my expression turned ugly.  “Stupid animal, what do you want!?”

“Lots of things!  But for the last two days you’ve only ignored me! Me! Who saved your worthless arm!” She roared.  My feline counterpart limped around in my head.  My arm was in place of her usual paw, but I was too busy in the physical world to utilize it.  There wasn’t much to do there, anyway, except maybe push around at idle thoughts.

“I want something to eat.”  She eventually snapped.  “Ask the boy if he has something.”

“Fine.” I opened my eyes and turned my head.  “Paulo have you got–” but my breath cut short.  My Twin sat up as well, her hand raising with claws at the ready.  Argos looked at the same time I did, and he was up on his feet, a growl grinding from deep down in his throat.

“Paulo!” I said loudly.

The boy opened his eyes in a sleepy wink and glared at me.  “What is it?” he mumbled.

“Get off of the scultone and come towards us, as slow as possible.”

Paulo’s eyes flew open, and he gently raised himself up.  He tried to turn his head to see, but he was afraid to do it outright. “What’s there?” He hissed.

“I…don’t know.”

And I didn’t.

There were two monkey-like creatures with thick black fur, bright blue faces, and large wings on their back.  They blinked at us with round eyes like coal, lips puckered and nostrils flaring.  Long slim tails wrapped around spears of rock as they leaned over to stare down at us.  Argos was bigger than both the creatures combined–but I wasn’t sure if they possessed magic powers, so I was afraid to provoke them.

Paulo slid off the scultone safely, the large draconic beast not even twitching so much as an eyelid.  Its great chest continued to rise and fall steadily, head rested on its scaly forearms.  The teenager looked up as his feet touched the ground, hand reaching for a rapier that wasn’t there–his weapons were near the scultone’s tail, along with the rest of the Morettis’ belongings.  I could see his body tense up as he finally saw what was over him, and his gaze whipped to the side to his things.

Fottuto!” He cursed.

Then the monkeys jumped, screeching and whooping, lips parting to reveal yellow fangs that rivaled even Argos’s.


“What happened next?”  Quincy asked, trying to keep the girl going.

Lethia went on.  “The mob broke through.  Syria was bound and gagged and myself with her.  They stormed the tower.”

“That’s unlawful entry.  Discovery in this way would’ve–”

“The marshal allowed it.  He said the mob was acting under his command.”

Quincy’s brow tilted.  “Quite a thing to take responsibility for.  Why would he risk being held accountable for something going wrong?”

Lethia shook her head.  “Politics?  The region was worked up into a fury over the nightmares.  Two children even died from sleepwalking outside at night and being killed by monsters.  Who knows why he allowed for all of that…after what Syria had done for him, you’d think–”

“What did she do?”

Lethia looked toward the woman, brow bunching up in anxiety.  Then she looked at the guard and the attendant who listened nearby.  Quincy glanced at them, then patted the girl’s leg.  “You forget them.  Remember, this is to help Albias.”

The youth nodded and swallowed.  She ducked her head some so that her mouth was partially covered by her arms, but Quincy could hear her as she spoke.  “The marshal…he was once part of the Belcliff militia.  Said there was some conflict with the neighboring dwarven colony shortly before his election to the governing seat.  It ended badly.  The dwarves abandoned the colony, taking their gold with them.  It left Belcliff virtually poor.  You see, the dwarves were the ones who backed the coffers, and in exchange, they had Belcliffs protection and the right to mine in the mountains.  That first year as marshal left him with chronic insomnia and…um…some paranoia.  He was seeking Syria’s counsel for nearly two years until six months ago, when this started.  No one knew.”

“Mmm…” Quincy said, frowning.  She gestured for the girl to go on.  “So when the mob searched the tower, that was when they discovered the bodies stored on three slabs in Syria’s private room of sanctuary.  Correct?”

“Yes…but, I didn’t see what they claimed to have found.  They were babbling and wailing, saying that she was sacrificing men.”  Lethia’s fists clenched, and her swollen red eyes squinted.  “Such vile things to say!  I’ve lived there all my life and never left.  I think I would’ve noticed three corpses in my home!”

“But in the trials, you said you’ve never been in that room before.  Is that true?”

Lethia looked at her, green eyes wide.  “Ah.  Well, yes!  It’s true!  I’ve never been in there.  That was Syria’s room for meditation.  I was never allowed there, not even to clean.”

“During the trial, you were released on the basis that you were mentally unfit, and therefor incapable of committing those murders.  Later, they found evidence of your presence in Syria’s sanctuary, where the men were killed.  A strand of your hair, matched to you from one taken from your room.”  Quincy held up her hand.  “How is that?”

The girl straightened, her face going long.  The look in her eyes was more bewilderment than fear, however.  “What are you suggesting?” she breathed.

Quincy shook her head.  “I’m only telling you what the investigators have found.  Your actions in the past month have caused Belcliff to re-evaluate your innocence, leading them to re-analyze the scene, which in turn, led to the discovery of the strand of hair.  You’ll have to be honest with me…have you ever practiced an art of magic outside the realm of enchantment?”

“N-No!  Of course not!”

“Does Syria practice anything outside the realm of enchantment?”

“I’ve never known her to!”

Quincy sighed and stood.  “Then even I’m at a loss.”  She turned to leave, when Lethia grabbed at her ankle.  The woman looked down at her, brows raised high.

“What’s going to happen to me?” Lethia asked.  Her lip trembled and she looked ready to cry again.  Her eyes focused around Quincy’s waist–lower than necessary.  The girl was clearly ashamed on some level.

The woman answered her.  “The jury was quick with their verdict.  You’ll be put to death, along with your mistress.”  Quincy pulled her leg from the girl’s grip, which had turned tight at her last words.  She stepped through the prison door and did not look back as Lethia began to wail.

She was led back to the foyer by the attendant, the guard staying back to continue his night watch.  The young man looked at her as she fetched her cloak from next to the entrance.

“Miss,” he said. “I understand you were just trying to get on the girl’s good side–but we can’t go bending the rules anymore.” Quincy paused to turn and stare at the attendant.  Her hand twitched.  He couldn’t have been much older than Lethia.  Perhaps a few years.  He tugged at his rash-covered ear as he went to fetch his cloak from the chair behind his desk.

“If you want anything else,” he went on to say. “It’ll have to be conducted under the conditions given to you.  If anyone finds out that we took that mask off, the marshal could very well put a bounty out on you.  He’s done it for less than that.”  He stopped next to her, drawing his cloak about him.

“Okay, Miss?” he looked at her.

Quincy looked him up and down.  She thought about the iron mask, the girl crying behind the metal, and the attendant’s impatient sneer.  The woman flipped up her hood and opened the door, a chill of wind rushing to meet her.

“Understood,” she said.


The winged monkey creatures descended on the Morettis’ things, and Paulo, yelling, kicked at them.  “They’re batrengs!” He yelled at me.  One of the little monsters hopped, wings fluttering, his rapier in its hands.  He grabbed it by the tail and flung it at the rocky wall.  “The stubborn little cretins steal your things!  Help me scare them off!”

The one that had been flung at the wall was up on its feet in no time, and its blue face had turned a violent purple.  Its fur about its head puffed up, where feathers I hadn’t seen fanned out around its jaw.  It screeched and jumped forward, all fangs and claws.

Argos was quicker than I.  He made a great leap, a sharp bark ripping from his throat as he descended on the attacking batreng.  He let out a cry as he landed–his shoulder was still hurt.  I blinked, looking from Paulo to Argos and back.

“Don’t,” I heard Her say.

I took a step forward, trembling.  My legs started to lock as I saw the batreng beneath Argos claw at his legs.  The dog snarled and took the creature around the head by his mouth, one paw on its chest.  It let out such a horrible sound–like a cross between a chicken and a baby trying to scream but whose throat was being constricted.  Then there was a wet crunch, and for my one step forward, I took two back.

Argos had ripped the batreng’s head off.  Its bloody stump of a neck spurted blood from the heart pumping it out, but it quickly dribbled to a pathetic ooze that colored the floor in a dark crimson.  The limbs twitched, and when the dog let the collapsed head drop from his mouth, I saw where his fangs had sliced through the skin.  With the face turned away from me, it no longer looked like a head–just a dark matted thing of feathers and fur.

The batreng’s companion, seeing its brother dead, shrieked and took to the air by jumping off the rock wall and away from Paulo’s snatching hands.  At first I did not understand why the boy was trying to capture the monster still, but then I saw the round metal object gripped in its dark foot.

Paulo stooped to pick up his rapier, his face screwed up in rage.  “No, stop it!  Stop it!”  He pointed, shouting as I was forced to duck from the batreng’s violent course of flight.  My Twin raised her arm and swiped at it as it flew past, and I saw her strike true, cutting into the creature’s wing and down the back of its ribs.  It screamed in that horrible way, before it crashed down to the ground, tumbling for a few feet before it sailed over the edge of the relief and out of sight.

I stared after it, breathing fast, my heart rebelling in my chest.  Paulo cursed loudly as he shoved past me.  “Conio!  He has my father’s telescope, and you just let it go over the edge!!”  He skidded to a halt at the edge and stared down, his overgrown hair blowing in the cold wind, his body bunched in the back, and his fists clenched.  I jogged to his side, and heard Argos’s claws clicking after me on the rock.  We both looked over.

The batreng had been caught–but not by something good.  Dark vines wrapped around its body.  It was slowly being pulled into a dark hole in the side of the slope, where I knew a devil weed was waiting.

Paulo shook, veins appearing in his neck and arms.  “That telescope was my dead father’s…the devil weed’s acid will destroy it.”  I looked at him.

Don’t,” I heard Her say again.

I didn’t listen.

With a conflicted cry and a face that must’ve said something along the lines of, “What am I doing?”  I jumped.  My heart stopped, and my Twin lashed out with her arm, back toward the edge of the relief in the hopes of catching Us.  But when I twisted around, we were too far–so far that I wondered if I had jumped too hard.  On the way down, I saw that Paulo had turned around, hands at his lips, and my ears were visited by the sound of his whistling.  Listlessly, I realized that the boy was going to come down with his scultone–but it was far too late.  As I hit the slope, Her fist slamming into the dirt in a desperate attempt to stop our descent, I looked up at Argos’s barking form.

I glanced down and saw that the batreng was nearly in the devil weed’s hole.  Gritting my teeth, I shifted my feet to direct my slide towards it.  When feet away, I gave a short hop, and went sailing past the plant monster’s hole–which was bigger than I had thought.  I snagged onto one of its trailing vines, halting my descent with a painful jerk.  My Twin grabbed onto the vine too, but as I made to reach for the struggling batreng, She grabbed my arm.

She screamed at me.  “You idiot, you want us to die for that little bastard’s toy!?”

“It’s not for him,” I shot back.

I leaned forward and bit Her arm hard.  She let go of me, and in my head I heard her hiss in rage.  The feeling this caused brought a great sense of nausea and pain in my skull.  I gave my head a vigorous shake, and with glazed eyes focused on the batreng, already in the shadow of the devil weed’s home.

With scrambling legs and one arm, I pulled myself up, much like a frantic worm since She would not help me at all.  Within a minute I reached the devil weed’s home.  I hauled myself up on the edge, panting and with vision tunneling.  When my eyes focused to the change in light, suddenly my idealistic tenacity was lost in a great wave of terror.

A fat creature resembling an unblossomed flower bud with purplish leaves and a beaked mouth was hugging the batreng close to its body.  The little winged imp almost earned my sympathy, the way it was completely wrapped in the devil weed’s vines.  Fleshy tendrils erupted from the plant monster’s mouth, where they burrowed into the back of the batreng’s head, effectively ceasing its struggles.  But the devil weed saw me, thanks to the hundreds of little eyes surrounding its beak, and it gurgled with vines lashing out.

I yelled as my arm was snared by its terrible grip.  My Twin’s arm fought wildly, slashing at everything that it could.  In all my terror, my eyes lit onto the telescope still gripped in the now-dead batreng’s foot.

With teeth bared, I leaned forward quickly, setting my feet before me to better rock back with.  My hand snatched the telescope from the batreng, but as I pushed to lean back, I found I couldn’t.  To my horror I was pulled closer to the devil weed’s gaping beak, where its vampiric tendrils waited to burrow into my skin.

Then the mountain side trembled, and the devil weed–sensitive to these tremors–lessened its grip on me.  I didn’t realize how much I was fighting it, for as soon as it did so, I practically launched backwards, out of the hole.

I crashed down the side of the mountain, pain lighting through me like a flash fire, as dust and dirt clouded my sight.  Then my body slammed into something warm and fleshy, and when I felt like the world stopped spinning, I dared to open my eyes.

I saw great armored legs anchored by large claws in the dirt.  I stretched a hand out, felt the scales beneath my fingertips.  Shifting, I saw that I had fallen against the side of a scultone–but not Paulo’s.  Weakly, I sat up and craned my neck.  Seated on a leather saddle, both Elmiryn and Graziano looked at me.

Elmiryn smiled a crooked smile.

“Guess I can’t leave you alone for long, can I?” she said.


All was closed up.  All was quiet.

Quincy walked slow through the streets, her face blank as her phantom legs left shadowed impressions in the dirty snow.  Belcliff had many tall stone buildings.  It was strict, almost unfriendly.  Her azure eyes trailed up to the stone creations that leered down at her.  She thought of the gryphon statue she had leaned against earlier that day, its intense cry sent toward the heavens.  Her mind returned to the girl, Lethia Artaud, wailing in the jail.

The talk had been a waste of time.  The girl knew nothing of relevance–of interest, perhaps–but not relevance.  Added on top of that was the girl’s reputation as a severely absent-minded girl, given to fugue.  Whatever information garnered from her was worth less than salt.  It raised questions in Quincy, however–little toys of curiosity for her mind to mull over as the mystery of the dark influence over Albias was halted in its tracks.

Though the case was closed on both Syria and Lethia (prejudicially perhaps, but regardless,) Quincy wondered at the purpose of the supposed ritual killings, and how they were conducted.  She wondered what it was the marshal was hiding, and why he was content to let the region suffer from a power left unattended.

Without knowing, Quincy had wandered to the Merse’s–the only establishment she had found so far that was still open.  It was a small bar located on the southern part of town.  When Hakeem and Quincy had first taken up the marshal’s offer, Hakeem had gone there briefly to enjoy a drink.

Thoughts of her partner made Quincy’s eyes flicker in search upon stepping through the bar’s double doors, her hands rising to pull back at her hood.

The bar was empty, save for an old hag at the back who looked to be asleep at her table.  Behind the bar was a young man with dark chops and a shadowed jaw.  He wiped at the table, eyes on another pair of customers seated at the table nearest to the bar.

These patrons looked up at Quincy’s entrance, and promptly let out a ruckus.

“Aha!   I knew it was you!”  A large man boomed.  He was wearing a leather studded tunic and black fur vest.  He slammed his meaty hand on the table and stood, tromping towards her with a swaying gait.  At his sides swung small metal ingots of various sorts that were punctured at the top, where they were tied to his slim belt.  On his back was a broad saber, and his smiling mouth gleamed with silver teeth.

“Karolek.” Quincy said, stepping back as the man held out his hand.  He was a sorcerer, one that specialized in controlling metal.  Each sausage-sized finger of his hand had at least two rings on it.

Rather than be offended by her silent refusal to shake, the man only laughed and gestured for her to sit at his table.  “Come, come!  It has been so long since we have last seen each other!”

“Not long enough!” A voice squawked from behind the man.  Karolek turned with a roll of his eyes back at his companion–a thin, white-haired man with a goose neck and a funny squashed head.  He wore navy blue and white cream colored robes, a tassled hat atop his balding head, and thick round glasses.  Little hands danced along the handle of his fat mug–which looked to be almost bigger than his skull.  His scruffy face bunched as he jeered at Quincy.  “I dislike you!  Intensely!”  He snapped.

Quincy reached a hand up to rub at her face.  “Hello, Jetswick.”  Jetswick was an alchemist and a veteran bounty hunter.  The rumor in the adventuring community was that the man’s true age was twenty-nine.  It was said that he had breathed in one too many fumes, and had aged faster than a normal human being because of it.

The woman just thought he was crazy.

She considered turning around and walking right back out, but Karolek pressed insistently at the woman’s back, much to her disdain.  His “suggestive” touch was just short of manhandling.  She was forced to march forward and was thrust against the table, incurring a slew of curses from Jetswick, who had to lift his mug of drink to keep it from spilling.

“Sit with us!” Karolek said, his dark-tan face breaking into a grin as he sat down in his chair.  The seat looked hardly comfortable for him, but he leaned back anyway, his long braided dark hair sweeping back to hang towards the floor.

Quincy stood, frowning at the man.  She could kill him for laying hands on her, and he knew this…but she had also known him for far too long to let it all end over a bit of drunken zealousness.  In a sense, he was like a respected colleague–and that had its privileges.  Lips pursed, the woman pulled out the last free chair and sat down.  “Hakeem might come…so it couldn’t hurt to kill time,” she thought, as she looked between her new company.

“Do you want anything?” Karolek asked.

“No, I’m fine,” she responded.

“Never a drinker,” the man said, tutting.  He turned to the barkeep.  “Another one for me, then!”

“And me!” Jetswick cried.

Karolek gave him a reproachful glare.  “You’ve had too much, you old fool!  And you’re not even done with the mug in front of you!”

“Quiet, blade biter, or my acid flask might jump from my robes and onto your ugly face!”

“How’ve you both been?” Quincy asked, though the question held little interest to her.  She just didn’t feel like seeing the two men bicker.

“Well,” Jetswick drawled, wiping his mouth after a gulp from his mug.  “With devils like you and your mud man, I’m beginning to consider early retirement.”

Quincy ignored the racial dig at Hakeem and looked at Karolek.  “And you?”

The large man shrugged.  “I arrived late, and so, have reasoned to leave as such.  Aside from being beat out by you…again…I have been well.”

“That’s good to hear…”

“You still flashing around like a fairy?” Jetswick asked, leaning forward with one eye squinted.  “All show and no real bite?”

Quincy leaned to the side, to escape the blast of rum that hit her, but otherwise, only fixed the alchemist with a frosty stare in response.

Karolek chuckled.  “You wizards and your toys…you should take magic more seriously.  Devote yourself completely to it.  Your potential as a magic user is obvious to everyone.”

“Wizardry has its merits.” Quincy returned, eyes flickering towards the man.  “I’ve seen magicians and sorcerers alike kill themselves trying recklessly to attune to a magical item.  You can’t just pick them up and use them.  You have to become one with their energy.  …I will admit, however, that it is a faster form of magic to master than, say, temporal magic.”

Karolek leaned back as the barkeep set his drink before him.  “But your shortcuts carry a price.  Every magical item has its trade off.”

Quincy shook her head.  She crossed her arms over her chest and glanced at the old hag across the room.  She still hadn’t moved.  “Finding the right item is the first step.  Moderation and restraint are the next.”

“Buncha thieves is what you are, you wizards,” Jetswick snarled.  “Always raidin’ one a-nother for magicked goodies and spelunking tombs and ancient hideaways and such…” The old man hiccuped.  His eyes widened behind his thick glasses, making him look like a quivering old cockroach.  “Thieves!  Brigands!  Highwaymen! You plunder other disciplines, thinkin’ yer such hot shtuff, but the matter of it, Quincy, is that you’re just an ordinary human, playin’ with an extraordinary tool…”

“He has a point…crazy as he is,” Karolek said.  He took a deep drink from his mug, then rubbed his chin and smirked.  “Some years ago, I recall you using a rod that called forth lightning.”

“Quite unoriginal.” Jetswick barked.

Karolek nodded in agreement.  “Quite.”

Quincy turned away in her chair, nails scraping painfully along the rim of the seat.  Her jaw tensed and she forced her hand onto the table.  “I was young then,” she said.  “I used whatever I could get my hands on.”  She looked at the sorcerer sideways.  “…And I seem to recall you getting paralyzed by that same ‘unoriginal’ rod.”

“Which reminds me…” Karolek chuckled, hand reaching up to wipe at his eyes.  He grinned as Quincy turned to look at him with a bored expression.  “Do you still have that…that…” his shoulders shook as he tried to keep from laughing out loud.  He tried to open his mouth again, but he just threw his head back and howled.  Jetswick cursed as some of his drink spilled from the table rocking.

“What?” Quincy sighed.  She thought she knew what he was going to say.

“The wand!” He eventually managed, between fits of humor.  “The…The one that–” he couldn’t finish, as he was forced to double over.  He slapped at his knee, then pounded the table, causing Jetswick to jump and spill more of his drink.

“Oafish lout!” The alchemist shrilled, his smooshed gray head turning a shade of purple.  He then proceeded to try and slurp the drink from the table.

Quincy closed her eyes and turned away.  She didn’t know why she allowed herself to become engaged in such a loathsome conversation.

“And as a sorcerer, you find life more fulfilling?” She eventually said, when Karolek’s laughter started to die away.

“Of course!” He bellowed, striking his chest in pride.  “Metal bends at my command, and the spirits of forge and blade answer my call.  The power rests in my hands.  Not in some arcane sword or powered stick…”

“I feel no need to stick my head into your proverbial hurricane of a world, Karolek.”

“I think you do.  I think there are days you wish you could marry yourself to the sunlight and be the beacon in the shadow.”

“Don’t get poetic on me, you jingling tart,” Jetswick hiccuped.  He pulled out a bottle and began pouring its contents into his mug.  “I hate it when you start to get grandiose…”

“What’re you sucking on now?” Karolek snapped at him, his meaty bald brows pressing together.

“None of your soddin’ business!” The smaller man snapped.

Karolek waved the man away.  “You know what?  I don’t care enough anyway.”  He picked up his mug and drained it.  With a loud aah, he stood and wiped at his mouth.  “Well I’m off then.”  The sorcerer passed Quincy, metal ingots clinking as he went.

He paused near her and leaned down to murmur, “I see it in your eyes, you know.” The woman turned her head a fraction and met Karolek’s dark gaze.  “You can have so much more, Quincy…if you wanted to.”

“What makes you think I want more?” Quincy returned, brow quirking.

The man bellowed out a laugh and walked away shaking his head.

“Feh,” Jetswick said at the sorcerer’s parting.  “What a graceless twit.”

The woman turned to look at him.  “I meant to ask…haven’t you noticed what’s been happening to this region?”

The man shrugged.  “What? You mean the blackness?  People hurtin’ themselves without knowin’ it? The bad attitudes, the nightmares, the illness?”  Jetswick sipped from his mug, brows rising high.  He wiped roughly at his mouth, then sneered.  “Course I have.”

Quincy scowled at him.  “And you’re content to just leave it this way?”

“Miss, I’m a gods damned alchemist.  I don’t deal in the raw energy you lot do.  Your question was better posed to that fat headed baboon that just lumbered out…but you know why he hasn’t done anything as much as I do.”

“He doesn’t care,” Quincy finished, a note of disapproval in her voice.

“Which brings me to ask,” and here, the man leaned forward, both eyes squinting to slits behind his thick glasses.  “Why do you care?”

Quincy took a deep breath, prepared to list all the moral and professional reasons in a way that she had once recited to her teacher and mentor when asked the same thing.  But something caught her ear.  It was a loud explosion–a horrible force of sound that echoed through the streets and through the shabby walls of the little bar.  She stopped, head tilting to catch the sound better.  Even Jetswick paused mid-drink to turn and listen.

“Hmph…” he finally said.  “Seems there’s a commotion going on somewheres.”  He turned and frowned.  “Say, now that I think on it–isn’t Hakeem usually the first to arrive in the city?”

Quincy was up and out of the bar before the alchemist even finished his sentence.

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