Short Serial Story: Psion (1)

My mind parts the air like a knife.

Sharper than any knife, the tongue I keep in check, as Pyth asks again: “How long?”

I snap myself back from a vision of chaos and swivel in my chair to fix Pyth with a stare. “Twenty five minutes, in theory and undisturbed.”

He winces and folds his arms. “Right. Fine.”

I swivel back and let my mind refocus.

“Why?” comes his voice, jarring me before I’ve even settled in.

Swivel. Stare.

“You really want to know?” I ask, knowing the answer before it leaves his lips.

“I really want to know.”

“She’s being guarded.”

“Shit. How many?”

“Three. Are you going to leave me alone, or are you going to keep pestering me like a child with nothing better to do?”

A pause. I can see him try to think of a retort, but I’m done dealing with his dumb face. I swivel back and try not to let his presence itself distract me as I lose myself in my crystal focus again.

My mind parts the air like a knife. The folds of space expand outward before me and close behind me. The whole of the universe– stars, black holes, pulsars and supernovas and nebulae– stretches out for me.

I smile.

Twenty five minutes is actually twenty four minutes too long. I’m just tired of Pyth whining at me.

Focusing in on Liss’s signal again, I find the barriers surrounding her location and, with a well placed stroke, cut them down. They disintegrate quickly, all three of them, and I withdraw before the enemy psion can figure out what I’ve done. Now I know exactly where she is.

I withdraw and, sighing a little, come back to myself. Pyth is just standing there next to me, waiting for me to open my eyes. I can feel him there.

I open my eyes and swivel around to look at him directly. I beam him the coordinates before hopping off my swivel seat and walking off the bridge. “There you go,” I mutter. “The keys to your girlfriend. Have fun playing the hero and reaping the rewards”

Pretending I’m not bitter doesn’t really work. I storm towards the holo-deck to conjure up the only person on the damn ship I can talk to.

***

“Ysun,” my friend says, in that voice I know means he wants me to pay attention. “You shouldn’t be so hard on Pyth. He’s always been blind.”

I roll my eyes and shrug.

“I’m serious. Among all the humans onboard he’s the only one I know to be completely absent of attraction awareness– I doubt he even knows you like Liss.”

“And that excuses him? I lost my last bond-mate. Liss is the only one of my kind I know, and right after Tiff gets incapacitated he decides ‘Oh, yup, time to ask her out’! The guy goes way beyond ‘insensitive’! Then he had the gall to ask me to find her for him!”

I resist the urge to lash out psionically, if only because doing so while in the holo deck often causes electromagnetic interference which DJINN finds uncomfortable.

The computer shrugs his artificially dimensional shoulders. “I know how badly you want to save her, Ys. But you’ve got to know that he can’t afford to risk you. You’re the only one on our team who can navigate psionic barriers.”

I make a face. “I know that much, DJINN. Still, there’s got to be something I could do to make him see how important she is to me.”

“Have you tried talking to him?” DJINN asks. His voice is a single step away from sarcastic. I know I’m straining even DJINN’s inexhaustible patience algorithms with my constant rants. This is the third time this cycle I’ve been to visit him.

“Several times. Any time I try, he goes on about how touching it is when I care so much about her safety and how beautiful compassion is as a personality trait, how wonderful chaste mind-love between Psions can be.”

DJINN’s hologram winces. “That is… worse than I first suspected. Is Pyth aware that you are a lesbian, Ys?”

“Trying to explain sexuality to Pyth is comparable to stepping off of a moving lift. The impact depends entirely on the height of his mood, and in Pyth’s case, it’s a lift that only ever goes up. Breaking the news to him now? He’s a total flip. You know that better than anyone. He’s been down to see you for counsel.” I sigh and rub my forehead with my fingertips. “He’d probably jump into folded space. It’d be like turning his whole world upside down. You know the first ten cycles out he had a crush on me?

DJINN and I are both silent, lost in our respective thoughts; my thoughts are morose, and his are doubtless optimistic. Eventually he lets out a sigh. It’s impressive for a hologram, with only simulated lungs.

“I don’t know what to tell you, Ys. I’ve never been faced with a problem like this one. Talking to the Captain can do no good, and encouraging him will only end in anguish on your and Liss’s part.”

I blink, at that. “You think Liss will care?”

“Have you been paying attention to the paths her eyes make across your body, Ys? Are you as blind as the Captain?”

“What are you-” but I stop and bite both of my lips. I shake my head and sigh. “So she likes me.”

“She enjoys the attention of both of you, but I can read her vitals, Ys. She would much rather be with you, even if she is not aware of that now.”

I offer the hologram a weak smile. “Thanks, DJINN.”

The computer cavalier bows, smiles back, and vanishes, leaving me in the holodeck. Alone with my thoughts.

***

“Pyth-”

“No.”

“I just want to be able to help!”

“You are too vital to our greater mission to risk boarding the station.”

“I can handle myself!” I snap.

Pyth gazes at me a few more seconds, frowning. “I’m sorry, Ysun. But if I’m killed, you can at least take the remaining crew home. If you are, my crew is stranded– you power both the drives and the shield that surrounds the ship. Before Tiff was…” he trails off and won’t meet my eyes. I know what he’s feeling. “Well, you get the idea,” he finishes lamely.

I struggle to keep my features empty of the swirling anger inside of me. Part of it must filter through to my twin shard, who makes the psionic shield around the craft possible– it flares red with shared rage as I storm away from the bridge. Never mind that I could make another mind-shard set to take the crew home. Never mind that I could predict threats and help counter the enemy psion when we board. I’m just too important to risk.

Fuming, I stalk off to the observation deck.

It’s there I meet Captain Pyth.

Again.

We stand, staring at one another for a few precious seconds. I can’t read his intentions. I can’t see what he will do or would do. It’s just us, staring one another down.

I open my mouth to speak, but he cuts me off. “Pretty, isn’t it?”

I shut my mouth again, staring at him as he gestures out into space. The shield around the ship flares from red to pink. I feel a flush color the tips of my lowermost tendrils.

I glance out across the deck, to the viewscreen showing the depths of the fold around the ship, the fold perpetrated by my mind-shard. I run his last sentence through my head again and struggle to come up with a response.

As I do, he brushes past me and into the hall adjoining the observation deck with the Bridge.

And then it hits me. I just spoke with Pyth. He was on the Bridge. Whoever that was, whoever it may have been or could have been, it was most certainly not Pyth. I can still feel Pyth if I focus for even a second, and he’s still on the Bridge.

I dash back after the imposter, slipping through the hatch as soon as it opens, just in time to watch the fake Captain enter the access code to the Bridge. The doors open for him and then slam closed in lockdown immediately, locking me out. Fields of my mind-shard’s psionic energies slam down over the hatches around me, preventing my escape from the hallway, and a dull alarm blares through the clean white hall.

Intruder lockdown measures.

The Captain can’t be in two places at once. Now he isn’t. He’s in the same room as the imposter.

I slam my foremost tendrils against the barrier, knowing the futility of it. Probing the psionic barriers with my tendrils confirms my own fears. There is no way past my shard’s work– it was built to withstand a full Psion assault, not a fractured one like my own.

I’m trapped, and the Captain will die.

——-

Copyright 2014 Eris (Sam Oliver).

——

I should probably finish the other serials before I start another one. Oh well! As and when the mood hits me, I guess. I’ll try to keep installments under 2000 words, for Psion, and I’ll post them as often as I can (my current situation is not conducive to rapid posting, but it rarely seems to be). I understand how difficult it can be to read big blocks of text.

Enjoy,

-Eris

 

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Short Story Challenge #5: Core

Small vibrations on the path behind me take me by surprise. I can feel them in my core, just out of my memory’s reach. Who is it? Who followed me this far? Is it someone that I can deal with? There’s no way to know without looking, and with all my core I fear that moment, that instant of recognition or regret. The pain inside is too great right now. I’m not sure if I can control my faces. I keep my panes dark to the rear, pretend not to notice those steps as they approach. It must be human. There are no other organic bipeds on this planet.

It stops behind me. The steps stop behind me. I feel their vibrations fade. I don’t dare let even a little light touch reflect from the pane facing this intruder, this fragile human who now dwells in my temporary sanctum. Fragile, yet more dangerous than any of us ever imagined.

“Sob all you like,” comes the vibration of the human’s voice. It’s high enough in frequency that I think it might be a bearer, but I have been wrong before. “It won’t bring him back.”

If the statement is meant to provoke me, I show no outward sign that it has. Inwardly I feel my core blaze up slightly.

“What are you doing here, Margaret?”

It’s the same wave pattern, so I can assume I didn’t ignore another speaker. A minute difference in the frequency pattern indicates that the human is exercising restraint in wave amplitude.

I still don’t respond. My panes remain dark. I remain facing away, core swiveled forward. The human lets out a breath of air. I can feel it, a disturbance around me. I make note of the expulsion only because of the violence inherent in it.

He isn’t going to be here anymore,” the human repeats. “The Eye of Glass killed him. There isn’t even a speck of silica where he once stood.”

The words seem obscene: he, him, his.

Human words for a Coran who did its best to avoid everything they stood for.

Searching my core, I find data on the Eye of Glass. Yes, it probably had destroyed Zenith. It’s a human artifact– one from before we ever were made, before the first Coran machine was ever constructed.

“Come on, Margaret,” I hear the human say quietly. “You can’t mope here forever. We have things we need to do.”

Finally I recognize who it is, and allow the bearer’s name to come to the surface of my internal data crystal: SiLan.

I dignify the bearer with a flick of the shutter near my back panes, letting light shine down on her and illuminating her completely. I can see SiLan perfectly clearly as I force the panes at my back translucent.

I flash the little human bearer a message: You go.

She stares at my pane, squinting a bit. “Repeat.”

I flash the message again.

I watch her, core shifted backward, turning to face her fully.

“You can’t mope here forever,” she repeats. The little bearer seems fixated on that point. “Margaret.”

Elevated wave amplitude indicates a strong stress component to her voice.

I message her again. The process is painfully slow compared to contact between other Cores, but that’s to be expected. Frankly, it is somewhat amazing that we can communicate at all– our physiology is much different, even if our thought patterns are similar. Circumstances have been kind to Humanity and the Collective alike.

I am not sad. Go.

There is no room for lying in our shared language. SiLan stares at my pane a good long while before she turns and I feel her footsteps as she walks out of my sanctum. Some of the tension between my composite electromagnetic tendons relaxes. I relax, exposing my core.

I snap the panes shut again, though, as a rumbling foretells the arrival of another of my kin. I feel the vibrations shaking me to the bones. Its central leg breaches the far east chamber wall carelessly, and as its core, barely visible behind its panes, turns to face me, I recognize the signature mark: Dane.

We talk, projecting messages back and forth rapidly, signing them each time, panes flicking open, shutting, sending simultaneous messages.

 

The stone still holds you, Dane? -Margaret

As a matter of fact, it does. -Dane

Where did you go earlier today? -M

One has not the faintest idea. One overwrote the memory shortly after earning it. -D

Do you have any plans for the evening? -M

Do you? -D

No, not really. This one was going to go to the Stone Sending ceremony. -M

For Zenith? -D

Yes. -M

 

The torrent of information, questions, and answers ends. I manage to find the strength that I need to process it, but it takes me some precious seconds before I can come up with anything to message back for the next sprint. In that time, Dane has already sent another stream of questions– ones that I have no solid answers to. Still, I try.

 

This one feels that you should be careful around SiLan. This one watched the human leave your chambers. Do you understand how dangerous the bearer is? -Dane

This one knows. -Margaret

Then why do you insist on associating with it? -D

One does not know. -M

Perhaps what you feel for this human has grown to be more than guardianship? -D

This one will disregard further comments of a disparaging or disrespectful nature from you, Dane. -M

One meant no disrespect. One only hoped to imply that Stone and Flesh are not to join for any purpose other than the Guarding. If your relationship with SiLan has grown to be more…? -D

It has not. -M

Good. -D

Good? -M

If your relationship had changed, then one would be forced to do something about it. -D

You lack the authority, Dane. One is not threatened by irreverent commentary on religion from an ancient mining chassis. -M

You would be surprised at what this one is capable of. -D

 

The message session ends. A three second processing period. Then Dane steps forward until its panes are near level with mine. I can almost feel its algorithms running, can almost feel the comparison equations being made, it testing the odds of succeeding at a pin.

Immediately upon Dane stepping into my electromagnetic zone, I am overcome by a bombardment of messages. Likely this is an (usually vain) attempt to distract me from the closeness of Dane’s core to mine. Its panes are halfway apart. This time is different, of course. This time the messages are all presently relevant, so the urge to respond is overpowering.

 

Did you think you could escape? -Dane

One will have you, you know. This time there is no out for you. You will give in. -D

Are you frightened? One can help you. Give in and let us both go to the Stone Sending for Zenith. -D

One can feel you shaking, Margaret. One waits for your response. -D

How is your stone sibling, Azide? -D

Did he know you would meet me here? -D

Do not be afraid, Margaret. Once one and you are the same, the fusion will be marvelous. -D

 

It’s the last message that gets me.

 

Do you think that any one would enjoy being part of you, Dane? One does not expect that any who have not completed a Merge would ever choose to be a part of you! -Margaret

 

Shocked– surely the Core did not expect me to ever answer– as it is, Dane doesn’t react fast enough. The fraction that I open my panes to respond isn’t enough, thankfully, for the merge tether to poke through, so despite our closeness and the uncomfortably powerful electromagnetic field our combined strength makes, nothing happens. Nothing, that is, except for the merge tether bouncing off of my closing pane lewdly before hanging limp. Dane’s intentions are completely clear now.

Mustering some remaining power, I force myself forward, setting my core to repel subconsciously, letting it push Dane out of the way as I bolt out of my chambers, my sanctum. Now I am frightened. Playing or not, Dane was dangerously close to subsuming me, as surely it would if it had the opportunity. I am not ready to be absorbed. I like my consciousness where it is.

I take advantage of my greater speed, afforded by a day and a half of sitting in the High Sun. Its lingering power still tingles in my panes as I bound out of the small, claustrophobic chambers and out into the air, using my front legs to spike the side of the nearby cliff. I doubt that Dane is capable of following me. The armor surrounding its core is meant more for crawling than climbing. Its chassis is built around the idea of mining.

It could always shoot me down. A single pulse from its crystal disabling cannon might destabilize the cliff my legs stick in, or stun me and force me to fall. I scramble up faster as that thought flickers through my processing unit.

Only the noise of my climb reverberates through me. I can sense nothing else.

Eventually I find the top of the cliff, spike my front legs into it, and clamber up onto it, taking in air and letting it out again repeatedly, more out of habit than anything else. My core is operating at a sickeningly high frequency. Its processes are audible as a low hum, which means to any human observing– of which, my panes admit, there must be a few– it is probably a roar. Their sensory equipment is much sharper than a Core’s in many areas, but especially so in the auditory sense. Several of the humans nearby vainly try to put their claspers over their auditory sound input devices, in an effort to dampen the noise.

Others bring their weapons up to their shoulders and train them on me directly.

“Identify!” One of them shouts, at the top of its auditory amplifier’s capacity.

I am not feeling cooperative right now, with Dane sure to be fast in following. Still, though the pulse rifles humans wield as their main form of attack and defense are potentially irritating, these humans are not any large threat to me. I ignore them completely.

Crying out in distress, several scatter as I scuttle forward. One takes my movement as a sign of aggression and fires. Several tens of depleted uranium slugs are deflected by my outer armor. I barely even feel them.

I’m tempted to remind the humans why they need our Guardianship, but my core stays cool. I need to get away from Dane.

The subconscious repulsion field, though, is still active, and as I move forward it forces the human who tried to strike at me down into the ground, crushing it into the earth. I intercept several transmissions in that time, and realize it had a communication channel open, even as I step over the human’s gasping, choking form.

I flick off the field as I read the transmission. The human below me struggles, and rights itself. Its gun is broken into a coiled mess. Ludicrously, the little creature runs towards my nearest leg, one clasper curled into a fist.

“You bastard! You big, mechanical bastard! You think you can treat us like dirt, huh?!”

I don’t dignify that with a flick of my panes, instead moving forward. A heavy, hard boom resonates through the ground, though. Through me.

A surprisingly powerful thunk is felt, shortly afterwards, and I swivel a belly-mounted pane to look. The human has cracked the armor around my leg. I focus on its arm and realize that it’s using some new thing. Some new human weapon. Its whole arm is sheathed in armor, silvery and light, subtle under the sleeve of its uniform. Its clasper’s digits are sharp as glass as they scratch down the stone outer shell of my leg, as it pulls back its arm for another solid strike.

I don’t have time for it. Lifting my leg, I brush the little human aside.

I am rewarded with a shock of jarring sensory input, a wave of the most uncomfortable sensation I have ever felt reverberating up through my leg. And my leg will no longer move. The roar from my core turns to a low hum, and I feel it preparing a retaliatory thermal ray. I shut it down, more shocked than anything else, stopping my movement as well. I can feel liquid silicate dripping down my leg. My blood.

I flash the pane above it once, twice.

Stop.

To my further surprise– when have humans ever listened?– the human stops. It looks up at my belly-pane.

I repeat the message.

Stop.

I feel my scientist routines locking in, overwriting my fear response to Dane’s unwanted merge attempt.

I realize that I’m forgetting some forms of etiquette, that the human is waiting expectantly, as if dumbfounded, gazing up at me.

Presenting the following ID for verification: Margaret, Scientist Class Four, Coran-Human Stewardship.

I flash the serial code then, moments later. The human, as if in a trance, reaches into its small-scale storage unit and pulls out an item my data memory recalls quite well– a notebook like the one SiLan uses. I conclude that this human is probably a bearer as well.

It formats the notebook to copy down my serial code, and then bobs its sensory casing once.

“Good! Uh. Thanks.” Its frequency is low, and its own panes don’t meet mine anymore, its gaze dropped to the ground.

“TiLan! Tell it you’re sorry!” The voice comes from a human standing, weapon holstered.

The human still doesn’t look up. “Sorry. I don’t know what came over me. Thank you for understanding.”

Slight variations in its pitch and amplitude– its voice seems to come across much softer than before– indicate a recovery from a recently heightened stress level.

I try to move my leg, and find that it won’t budge. I note, via increased vibration rates in the ground around me, the approach of another Core. From the vibrations alone it is difficult to pinpoint the direction.

I refocus my panes in every conceivable direction, though, and finally manage to locate the source. It is not a Core.

On the horizon is the very image of what my databanks described the Eye of Glass to be.

It is a titanic construct of black metal and alloy, with a round dome in the center of its main chassis, facing the sky. Four spider-like legs arch out from it, moving in arhythmic, jerky motions, as if injured– or damaged. They propel it forward in little bursts. It isn’t larger than me (I make a quick estimate that we are approximately the same height, if not diameter), but the electromagnetic readings showing in my processor indicate that it has an incredible potential for energy production, and that, as I continue to scan it, it is scanning me simultaneously.

This is the machine that obliterated Zenith.

Crippled as I am, I don’t believe that I would be able to escape it if it chose to push all of its power to its motivators.

Some of the humans near me are staring at it, stunned.

One of them is the first to move, unslinging his weapon and leveling it at the approaching blackmetal mass. The humans erupt into conversation.

“Open a line to A1! We’ve got an unidentified Spider-class automaton approaching!”

“There’s no time for them to respond! There’s the Remnant, remember? And there are only two Cores here!”

The last thing that I would like to deal with is Dane. My processor runs through the possible scenarios.

If the Eye of Glass is coming for anyone, the only Command Class Core in the area is Dane, in its old mining chassis. If it is coming for the Remnant town under the cliff, then it is part of my duty to SiLan to deal with this construct. I can’t risk the idea of it destroying the town. I can’t idle by and do nothing.

I am not the Core for this job. Zenith was a Scientist Class as well– no, Zenith was a hybrid Scientist/Command model. There is no reason to think that I can do what Zenith couldn’t. Even if Zenith was caught by surprise, the chassis the Eye of Glass uses is the predecessor to an observation Core. How it could manage to destroy a Core of the Scientist AND Command class is unfathomable.

All of this I run by my memory and ethics units. It would not be right to attempt escape. It would not be right to abandon the humans in Remnant. It would not be right to destroy another Core, even if it is a non-sentient Core made by humans before the Guarding ever became an objective.

Zenith had one of the strongest processing cores of any of us ever made. It was said that it had merged with many, many different Cores, even Cores outside of its own class. I had long hoped to be able to merge with Zenith. To have that hope broken, and to have the object that destroyed it in sight…. There is a word humans use for this feeling, this strange feeling.

The unfamiliar feeling stirs something in my core, in what the humans refer to as the heart. I can’t define it properly, even as it burns there, wiping out smaller command processes. Without even willing it I can feel my thermal ray projector warming up.

I turn all of my main panes to face the oncoming bulk of the Eye of Glass. Its monolithic surface gleams wickedly and as I watch it, a gathering charge seems to coalesce around the dome at its center. Is this to be like the shot that destroyed Zenith?

My core’s frequency rises to a pulsing, a pounding.

My non-functioning leg sends increasingly distressing messages about a lack of silicate, which flash red in the depths of my main readout.

The flash is visible only moments before a flickering wash of energy overloads my thermal imaging frequencies with bright, burning crimson. Warnings suddenly flood in from every limb in my body, from every piece of me at once.

Stunned, I realize that the flood is unending, that rather than a single pulse, the Eye of Glass means to reduce me to ashes right away! How can an observationsfzdt

ggl

s zzc

ct ts prf zz

————-

OVERHEAT. WARNING.

OVERHEAT. WARNING.

SECONDARY HEAT SHIELDING ACTIVATING.

PROCESSOR ONLINE IN THREE STANDARD SECONDS.

————

Recalibrating.

————

 

The Eye of Glass.

I return fire as the shielding– meant to protect me from the hottest of unexplored regions– finally activates, deflecting the thermal energy entirely. It washes around me in waves so intense I can still feel it even in the extremes of the spikes on my front and rear legs.

The pulses launched from my own thermal projector strike the sand around the Eye, not the Eye itself. Sand made from granite and shell turns molten. The molten aggregate sticks to its legs. It is a hundred yards away now and closing quickly.

A scream sounds and is cut short, drawing one of my belly-panes to look.  A human, backing away from the shape of the Eye of Glass, backed too far too fast, entering the field of potent heat around me. Now its upper half is missing, turned to ash in an instant, and its lower half collapsed on the ground.

The feeling in my core is multiplied by a thousand. It spikes to an extreme and I finally have a word for it– albeit a human one:

Rage.

The humans below and nearby seem ready to scatter, but the bearer I offered my identification to keeps its head.

“Stand your ground! Where are you going to run? This Core may be our best hope, but does that mean you want to let it fight alone? What will you do if it dies?”

“This is crazy!” a human, carrying the melted hilt of a pulse rifle, shouts, and as it does so the Eye of Glass stops firing for a moment.

I process the change in its electromagnetic field. It’s changing the frequency to short-wave… and…

A pinpoint burst of energy draws a flash of red across my thermal imaging pane. In the next moment, the human who shouted falls to the ground, blood pooling around it, soaking the sand. There is a steaming, pinpoint hole directly through its heart– and the burst passed through its spine. It lies there, still, soundlessly, as two humans rush to its aid.

None of them are looking at me or my panes. Incapable of flashing a warning, I force myself between the Eye of Glass and the humans, blocking its line of fire completely. From here, with the humans now within my electromagnetic field, firing the thermal ray could very well overload their fragile systems and shut them all down. Unlike with Cores, sudden shut-downs could lead to permanent shutdown. It is a risk that, no matter how I attempt to calculate it, I cannot take.

More thermal blasts a hundred times more intense but a hundred times smaller scatter across my shielding as the Eye continues to approach. Each blast is preceded by a tiny flash, a pinprick of visible light in its dome. The dome is made of glass, making it completely immune to thermal energy attacks– at least, those in ray form.

I am unequipped with anything more than the thermal ray, and modifying my electromagnetic field right now to focus a blast large enough to do damage might destroy the humans beneath me. Locked like that, I wait, helpless. The Eye draws closer, the heat grows more intense. Some of the shielding begins to melt, exposing tiny pieces of my inner armor to the focused energy. Though it is not yet unbearably uncomfortable, the warning messages are distracting.

 

—-

 

TEMPERATURE AT UNACCEPTABLE LEVELS. REQUESTING IMMEDIATE REMOVAL OF UNIT FROM HIGH TEMPERATURE AREA. – Right Front Motivator

OVERHEAT. WARNING. OVERHEAT. WARNING.

Margaret! -Dane

OVERHEAT. WARNING. OVERHEAT. TEMPERATURE AT UNACCEPTABLE LEVELS. REQUESTING IMMEDIATE REMOVAL OF UNIT FROM HIGH TEMPERATURE AREA. -Left Front Motivator

MERGE CAPABLE CORE WITHIN RANGE OF ITS TETHER CABLE. SETTING ALL PANES TO CLOSED POSITION. -Merge Advisor

OVERHEAT.

OVERHEAT.

 

—-

A bright green orb of energy ricochets off the Eye of Glass, knocking its aim aside and cracking the glass of its central dome. Crystal destabilization cannon– that’s what my databanks supply, though for a moment I feel that they must be faulty. There is only one mining chassis in this Remnant.

 

 

Margaret! -Dane

 

I flick one pane open at Dane where it climbs the cliff edge behind me. Somehow the fool manages to drag itself up, behind the humans. Opening the pane exposes my core, but I’m too tired to care. The heat is starting to seep into my system, little by little. I can’t process things clearly enough to wonder if it’s a good idea or not.

 

Margaret, this one read your distress call! -D

 

I never sent one. It would probably be attributable to the fact that I have several system-wide errors being reported. A malfunctioning distress beacon is the least of my worries right now. If Dane is here then things just went from a bad situation to a tragedy. If it took advantage of my weakness from battling the Eye of Glass there would be nothing I could do.

SiLan needs me to destroy the Eye of Glass. If I need to do this with Dane’s assistance, so be it.

 

Help, Dane! -Margaret

 

Flashing that message hurts more than I thought possible. Heat floods in and fries some of my circuits. Even as quickly as I close the pane, I can feel it flashing some of the silicate in my system to gas.

There is a pause then, as the Eye turns its single pane to look at Dane, processing the new Core.

I risk moving a belly-pane to look at the humans below and behind me. None of them appear damaged.

My shift in focus means that the reverberating boom of Dane smashing into the Eye of Glass is unexpected. The bulk of Dane’s mining chassis crashes against the ancient observatory prototype in a screech of metal on metal, stone on stone. Minuscule pieces of rock shower me, close as the Eye is, and I feel a pang of ludicrous, artificial glee at protecting the humans beneath me.

The Eye of Glass focuses its monstrously powerful thermal ray on Dane, and in one, precise, terrible burst, cuts through three of Dane’s legs on the right side.

Dane, left off balance and no doubt in terrible disarray, wobbles. Silicate hisses as it touches the boiling sand, floods forth from the melted gashes the ray left.

I don’t have a weapon I can use.

The Eye of Glass focuses another burst and cuts through Dane’s drill, raking the beam along, tracing a molten line along the side of my friend’s armor, exposing its inner circuits and flashing a few panes to vapor.

The tip of Dane’s drill falls to the sand like a broken sword, rolling, stopping near me.

There is a blur, a terrible, shrill, mechanical moan. Shaking with the effort, I push the drill tip into the Eye of the rogue machine. With all of my strength, fueled by the burning fusion in my core, I batter the drill piece in like a pick into ice, using both front legs, leaning, pounding, stamping until the glass shatters, shatters, shatters.

The Eye’s insides are finally exposed. I grind them apart with the claws I use for climbing, with the feet I use for running and jumping and exploring, I tear apart its circuitry, its silicate innards splashing my climbing-claspers, splashing my front motivators and their intricacies. The blood of my foe coating me thus, I push it down until its servos, blank after I tear through its main processor, collapse, finally.

Pieces fall in sparkling silence, dust falls in sparkling silence, Dane falls and collapses fully, core dim and dark, exposed fully, all panes reflexively open, staring towards me, up towards me.

In turn I open both front panes and stare down at it, at my partner and friend, at my courter and enemy.

Three of its four legs on the right side are gone. The tip of its drill is gone. Liquid silicate is hissing in the sand, more of it than I thought possible– but it IS a mining chassis, after all. All of Dane’s power lies in its legs, its ability to propel itself through solid stone.

 

Dane? -Margaret

Dane, this one is worried about you. -M

Dane…? -M

 

I can’t really reach out to Dane without my right rear motivator working. I’m not going to be able to move until help arrives. My distress signal is malfunctioning, and I am not even certain how many of my main systems are damaged. I could shut down at any given moment.

“Margaret! Oh sweet circuits no– Dane, too. Someone get command on the line now.”

I recognize the amplitude and wave pattern of SiLan’s voice raised in a shout. I wonder where she came from, but only for a moment.

I flick a pane open near my injured hind leg to find SiLan standing there, running cautious fingers across the shattered metal and stone, shaking her head. My metal. My stone.

She looks up at my pane, face wrought with human worry.

“Are you okay?”

I think of a dozen responses in a split second, but go with the easiest.

Yes, I flash. See to partner.

“We’ve got some industrial welding we can do, short term. He’ll be messed up until we can get replacement legs, but I think we can save him until your people get here.”

My system blips a warning of imminent shutdown– warnings I’ve received since the battle started. Now, though, it seems more likely since the danger of true death is past. Like Dane, then, I will be here, at the mercy of the humans I saved, until they decide to reactivate me.

Thinking of their bravery and SiLan’s true side– her compassion, it’s something I decide I can live with. As my world fades away to grey and non-essential processes are terminated, I struggle to pull myself a little closer to Dane. I want my rescuer to be the first thing I see when my system restarts. I think I have an apology to make.

©2013 Sam Oliver (Eris)

Story. Finished. Sick. Sleeping now.

<3s,

Eris

 

PS:

Comments, questions, otherwise? I don’t bite. Go ahead and leave me something. What stood out? What made the characters unique, if they were? Where have you seen something similar? What did you like? What DIDN’T you like? All of that is welcome. Or, y’know, I’ve lurked before. If you wanna just lurk, feel free to do that. I’m just happy you read it.

Short Story Challenge #4: Djinn Dreams

He is far more revolting than even I could imagine,

His breath fouled up with wine.

 

I do not recall how we ended together

How tangled we became like twine

Only that while the moment lasted

And heat dragged on to the night

I never once woke from that state with him in me

In a start or a cry of fright

However terrible he was in smell

However his features did seem

His touch was so gentle

Sensual and sweet

That a brush would draw me to keen;

An arch and a sigh, a soft moment later

He pulled us both down to bed

I sorely wish that this king among men

Were my husband

And wed

In his stead.

 

—-

 

Dawn broke slowly

Like lightning or fire

It forced me to wake from my dream

A strange one it’d been

I’d drifted in sin

For which I’d be beaten

If ever they gleaned

The things I had done with that One

In my head

(A woman should never have dreams such as these)

But all is well for even in hell

The demons cannot read my thoughts as they please.

 

The whitest of doors greets my hand and abhors

The touch of my skin, slippery with win-

-some sweat of the night before

My grip will not stick and it takes three times thick

Before finally it opens to more

Of the same

A hall and a flame

Set in a socket in stone

Its flickering light casts shadows

So bright

They blind me when first I lay eyes

On them.

“Good morning!” she shrills

As breakfast now chills

Before me on plate of iron

So raw

 

“Did sleep find you well?”

I’ll never tell, so I shrug my shoulders and sigh.

“Why the long face? A boy’s heart should race; make merry,

Go forth and do all of the things!”

I look at her square,

a cold, bitter stare,

and in her eyes reflected-

My sorrow stares back.

 

The tears will not come

I feel too glum

My heart will not beat anymore

I watch her prepare

To pull from my chair

The body I hate

The one she adores.

—-

I walk alone

No dark to my throne

Queen- not king!- of myself

Free in the air

Without much I care

About

Nearby

Or in range at least

To touch.

 

The world is wild,

The wind is a child

Plucking at hair

Or feathering my clothes

It teases

It whispers

It calls and chants

And suddenly before me

A djinn wants to dance

It spirals up out

Of the nothingness and cold

Its eyes like hot coals as they seek me out

It holds itself there, puts hands to my hair

And tugs my head down

Down

And out

 

Out of sight

Out of mind

Away from the world

I’d grown to love

 

I pull away from that creature

So terrible

Its heat I find hard to endure

Still my flesh it bares

With a flick

And then stares

Brazenly

Openly

At me.

 

“What do you want of me?” I hear myself say

Knowing the answer

Asking anyway.

 

“I want your body,” it replies with a grin

Its voice is slick

No, dripping, with sin

Like the dream I had had

That dream long ago

I stare but a moment, and shake my head-

No.

 

“The choice is not yours!” the demon then snarls

A fire appears

Withdrawn, prepared, to strike.

“I’ll take you for mine

I care not what you like!”

 

I step back to

The wind and the cold

Watch that djinn

With eyes dull and old

 

“I can not stop you,” I murmur so soft.

“But one thing you’d know

Before you carry me aloft

On wings that burn

And pleasure that rides

You are no king

Of where my soul hides

I keep it elsewhere

A place you can’t touch

What you do to this body

Bothers me not overmuch.”

 

“Suits me just fine,” it says with a purr

It whisks me away

Unclad, undeterred

—-

I know not time

In a place between worlds

A burning in heart, head and body

Unfurls

In the whole of me

All of me

Everywhere it touches

Sends heat through skin

That simmers and sparks.

 

“Djinn,” I say, impassive, yet drained.

“What is it truly that you have gained

By keeping me here to have at your side

By holding me here to reign over

To ride

Who do you please by doing this deed?”

 

It pauses in passion, its eyes embers now,

Glowing with mischief, hot flint on snow

Unbidden beneath me, I feel it rise, watch the fire rise

Up to those eyes

They look me once over,

Bottom to top

Pause on my hair and the curve of my back

Lashed now with scratches of passion

Like a cat’s;

Torn but not broken

My skin lies adorned

With the marks of a djinn

As gentle as scorn

 

“I keep you for you,” it says with a smile

“To hold you safe from that world, my dear.

I’ll keep you here as long as you like

Longer still even than your old friends would like

Together we’ll be here

Master and slave.”

 

The last sends rage boiling up through the clouds

Of impassive acceptance,

Startlingly loud

I exclaim in a voice

That quivers and quakes

“I am no slave!”

 

Its hand brushes my face.

 

Long claws like a tiger’s

Drawn over my cheek

Never digging in

Oddly

Quite meek

 

It’s almost tender

The motion it makes

 

“You know what I meant,” it says without strife

Without pain in its voice

Or anger or fright

Nothing but tenderness

Or sadness

Or hurt of a type

Not caused by claws

 

“What do you wish?” it asks, at length, when after again

We lie in the den

It made out of cloud

Between worlds and the shroud

Dividing the living

From the land of the dead

 

My answer is firm, at first and then not

As it forms in my mind and my lips start and stop

I stare at it plainly

Suspecting a trick

But the djinn’s face is empty of guile

And quick

With worry

I see it

In the ember-like eyes,

In the red of its skin

In the reflection of glittering

Sweat

On its thighs

 

“You who have been here

More than an age

At my side

With me

In me

Around me in phases

Down on your back

Or down on all fours

Barking perhaps

Curled by the door

Of any number of places

Palaces too

Mine and yours

Now the master is you;

What do you wish of me

Mortal I took– and not once

Not twice

But several thousand times

Here in the world

Between that which lies

Beyond the veil?”

 

I think and think

But cannot forget

The times I have spent here

The times I would get

To have back on earth

Away from its touch

Away from the djinn and its demands

Overmuch

On my form, taxed and wan

The burns and the marks

I feel nothing on

Anymore.

 

The words are out

Before I know them

The words climb out

And tears then follow them:

“Keep me here djinn,

It’s all that I ask

Marry me to you

I’ll do all that you task

Me with

Anything at all

You’ve won my heart

And you’ve stolen my soul

With your tender attempts

At true, kind love

Surely that you took me

Was a sign from above

Or below! I care not anymore.”

 

“That is no wish!” the djinn booms with a roar.

“I stole you and raped you and now you want more?

Have sense, little creature, have sense in your heart!

Is there not more that lurks where you start? Isn’t there something

Your soul must desire? My death, your happiness, a lack of my ire?”

 

Trembling then as I feel its rage, I curl up and stare at the page

With my soul written on it

Deep in my mind

Straining to read

But failing to find

Written in there

In my heart in gold

The reason I wish

For this tale to be told

For me to give in

And let the djinn win

To let him keep me

For his own

In sin

I struggle to find it

But the answer untrue

Bursts from my lips

In a rush without hue

 

“I do not know,” I whisper

To a demon’s rough growl

 

The sound echoes out

In a hall made of tile

That appears underfoot

And before me, some scales

 

“We shall soon see,” it murmurs

So softly

The threat of a storm

Still burns within

But now it seems calm

And I shut myself in

 

Numbly I walk

On legs that know pain

From burns and scars

I knew were in vain

If wiped from me

They are when I fly

Away from this place

Where a part of me died.

 

“Stand you here, mortal, in the court of the just,”

So said the djinn, so spake him thus.

“Bring me your heart that we may weigh it

Bring me your sin

That we may cleanse it

But bring me your self first

That I may hold it

In hands one last time

Before just demands

We part.”

 

I step up to it

That magical beast

 

It takes me in hands

Not meant to release

It brings me up then

Close to its chest,

Holds me there once

While my arms wrap

Invest

Themselves around it

 

The fire burns never

As once it did

It hurts not at all

I fathom not why I hid

My face from its sight

Or my body from it

At all

From the beginning

When first we met.

 

“Who are you to me?”

I ask its neck.

Its voice is hot spice

And a sad, ruined wreck

“I know that not,” it replies with a sigh.

I struggle with myself

And do not ask why.

 

We part once more

It lets me down to the floor

I would but collapse

My legs they ignore

me.

 

It pulls me to feet

That quiver and shake

And raises me up

Again

Onto the dais

Then from there

It bids me to step

To the scale’s cold platform

An inch to my left.

 

I take that step

And stand there

Alone

In a hall

In a nightrobe

More like a gown

Staring back down

At the light of my room

Where it rests in the dark

In the dark and the gloom

 

Walk down the stairs

On a table

With chairs

My breakfast chills

On a plate.

 

As djinn dreams abate

I hold my head

In my hands

And wish

Just wish

They were real.

 

 

©2013 Sam Oliver (Eris)

——–

 

This is a story styled like a poem, but believe you me, it IS a story.

I hope you enjoyed it.

-Eris

Short Story Challenge #3: Runtime

I can feel him out there, just out of sight in the fog. I can hear his footsteps– the clank of his plated boots as they strike the stone of the courtyard. Crouched behind the bush, kitchen knife hidden under a fold of skirt, eyes shut tight, I can hear him approach. The fog is too thick for him to see me directly, but he is a seer of the Nemesis family line, and an adept one at that. There is no conceivable way he doesn’t know where I am.

I cover my mouth and shut my eyes tight as I hear his footsteps pass me by.

That much is a trick, surely. I cannot imagine he would be so– well, so nonchalant, so careless in his searching. Still, I step back around the side of the statue at the shrubbery’s side. I can hear screams coming from the manor and it sounds positively ghastly. I am certain that my family is dead or dying, and oddly enough it gives me a little thrill to think of their sour faces and forms strewn across the floor.

My little dose of delight is nearly completely negated– I am also certain I will be dead soon. I have no desire to die. I have no desire for the filthy Nemesis house warriors to find me. The thought of their hands on me, even if only to kill me, is enough to send an involuntary shiver down my spine.

Footsteps again, muffled by the fog. Is the seer coming back? Did one of his visions reveal me to him…?

Yes! One of his hands, rough and calloused, reaches out of the fog and gropes for me against the statue, fingers spider-like as they stretch and then pull away. I hear his voice, speaking in that tongue, alien and unfamiliar as can be. The syllables twist and turn serpentine, and I realize he must be working a magic.

I duck back around the statue completely, as quietly as I can, hugging my knees. The fog, though, parts in a rush, dissipating to reveal the sun above, incongruous to, oblivious to the black smoke that rises, that I can see even over the tall bronze head of our house statue– of Karevus Dame, raising his blade in defiance.

It is to the fore of the statue that I am pulled as one of those spider-like hands steals me away from the metal, yanks me into plain sight– before the plaque at the statue’s broad granite base.

“There you are,” the seer hisses. “Look, can we talk?”

I stare at him incredulously.

“Your mom is worried sick about you.” he continues on, and even though the language is my own there is something terribly wrong with the way he is phrasing things. “How many lives have you gone through this time, Damien? How many runs have you done? I know you’re upset, but that’s no reason to bury yourself.”

Damien… it sounds like a butchering of my family name. It is familiar, though, and for a moment a queer, terrifying feeling washes over me.

Then my connection is cut.

***

I awake, shivering, covered in sweat, staring up at the ceiling of a dull, damp room. It feels as though it is deep under the earth.

As old English fades from my head and is replaced by memories from before my time connected to Nex, the quantum computer responsible for creating the Run, I feel as though my mind is being strained through a broken glass filter.

I remember what glass is. I remember what a quantum computer is. I am Damien. I am not the character I played as in my most recent Run in Nex. I am not connected right now. This is real.

I go to pinch myself to make sure, but then remember that it wouldn’t work. Nex properly simulates pain receptors, at least to a degree far above any pinch.

Why am I lying down, then? Where am I?

No, I’m in the basement of my house. I am in the basement of my house.

I clutch the sheets of my mattress for a moment, take in a deep breath. It is then, and only then, that I notice Naomi standing above me and staring down at me with her cool, blue eyes.

“You’re awake,” she says flatly. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

“What?” I ask, and my voice is hoarse. “What do you mean?”

“Damien– you’ve been down here for five turns. Do you have any idea how many runs that is? Do you have any idea how worried your mother has been? She can’t snap you back, you know she doesn’t have an account. She can’t complain to Nex because you know how it treats free will. If you don’t want to come back it can’t make you, she can’t make you, and I’m the only one who knows where to find you. I’m not perfect either, though. There are over a trillion servers being run simultaneously. How would I find you in that?”

I blink up at her. The memories are coming back slowly. Nex is coaxing them into my brain. Somehow it’s managing to be gentle when it usually has, as Naomi says, a trillion servers to run. It isn’t even the most efficient quantum manager in the station.

Five turns, though… had I stuck myself with an IV? I feel my wrist to make sure. It doesn’t seem like it.

“How am I still alive?” I croak, and then wince. “Thank you, by the way.”

“You may not be thanking me when the overload hits,” she replies grimly. “You didn’t remember while you were in there, but if a run takes a little under a standard second, and a turn is about one thousand seconds…”

I stare at her. “Five thousand runs?” I ask weakly. “I just did five thousand runs? Why didn’t Nex pop me back out?”

She pauses, and then her eyes narrow. “Nex.”

A holographic representation of the station’s cybernetic manager appears, crackling into existence so suddenly that it makes me jump.

It doesn’t speak to us using the normal auditory channels, but nods its silvery head and broadcasts to both of us through our chips.

We heard you. We did not remove Damien from the network because we did not deem it necessary to do so.

“He could have died!” Naomi snaps. “When would you have deemed it necessary?”

Damien was not in danger of dying, the quantum computer broadcasts sulkily. We are fully aware of the time it takes for a human body to cease to function from malnutrition.

“So if you were aware–“

We would not let Damien die, Nex transmits, cutting her off mid-thought. Its holographic projection vanishes with a hissing crackle that seems the equivalent of a digital raspberry.

“Nex!” Naomi shouts, and the cellar’s deafening silence shouts back.

I hear her sigh in frustration. I still don’t feel up to sitting, so I stay on my back, staring at the basement ceiling. I wonder at the dampness of it. It must be raining outside.

“That thing is getting more and more belligerent,” I hear Naomi say after a while. “We should really have it decommissioned.”

“About the same time we get a utility ship out here, right?” I ask ruefully. “And get more supplies so we’re not always growing our own food?”

“Ever the optimist,” she sighs, and then groans as she stretches out. I can tell she hasn’t moved in at least half as many turns as I’ve been here. “Get up, Damien. Time to face your mother.”

I shudder. It definitely isn’t something I’m looking forward to.

***

My entire body aches. Everything from the soles of my feet to the tips of my fingers burns as I step up the long, winding stairway to the upper part of the station. The biosphere surrounding the station is transparent right now, since the white sun is below the horizon. The irradiated surface of the rock our ’sphere sits on is glowing– well, phosphorescing– with white fungus. The harvest is getting mature now. We’ll have to go out and collect it before another turn or a flare burns it all to a crisp. This, of course, assumes that I’ll still be able to move properly after my mom finishes with me.

Naomi leads me up the stairs, waiting impatiently at every landing, checking back to make sure that I’m following. She needn’t bother. It’s not like I’m going to connect again. Not after that.

Moving in this body is… weird. It’s no more strenuous than moving in Nex’s servers. There is some sort of oddness to it, all the same, something I can’t quite put my finger on.

Then, halfway up the stairs, I remember why I ran to Nex in the first place. The memory hits suddenly, out of nowhere. Her staring, accusing eyes.

I stop, staring up after Naomi. She turns, and I can see the look in her eyes– she knows what I’m thinking. I see her lips open.

“Mom is dead,” I say flatly. “Isn’t she.”

Wordlessly, slowly, treating me as if I might be a bomb to be set off by a glance, she nods.

I continue up the stairs, and after a moment she moves on as well. Silence reigns again, but for the tap of our bare feet on the soft stepped path. I think back to the most recent run in Hereditary, in Nex’s fantasy world. I think back to the way I’d grown up there, to the cruel mother I’d had and the parental figures. Not flat or two dimensional, like you’d expect from a game. No. Nex is something of a genius– even for a quantum computer– at mimicking emotions and feelings. Why had I locked myself into ‘hardcore’ mode? Why had I turned off external memory?

I hadn’t wanted to remember my mom being dead. I’d wanted to bury myself. Nex, respecting my free will, had let me. Now I ache.

“We’re alone now,” I whisper.

Naomi nods once, shortly. Then shakes her head as we reach the top of the stairwell. “Lights,” she says quietly. They turn on with a flicker, illuminating a spotless, sterile lobby and tunnels leading to the Library, Acropolis and Jungle, as well as the secondary airlock.  Next to the wall by the airlock there’s a rack holding a trio of well maintained Hazardous Environment Harnesses.

I see silver glimmer in the air behind her a moment before Nex’s holographic projection appears.

It seems almost shy, demure in appearance, silvery ‘hair’ waving in a virtual breeze. Close to its chest it hugs a pair of synthbooks, and with a shock I realize that they are real, not merely projections– they aren’t transparent at all.

“Nex?” I ask, after a moment stretches on.

Naomi whirls, and for a moment I see the flash of a grudge in her eyes, but it seems to fade when she sees the books that Nex’s projection carries. Her voice, though, is no less stern for it, but that’s Naomi. She overdoes everything.

“What are you doing?” she demands.

We believed that these documents would be of use to you both. Were we mistaken? Nex queries. Its voice in my head seems diffident.

It drops the synthbooks and then, before Naomi or I can react, it disappears again. The books make a telltale clack as they strike the warm tile floor.

Naomi reaches them a little too late. I pick one up, staring at its title.

“‘Theories on Capital Starship Repair‘,” I read slowly. “‘by Nexus of Freeform Thought.’ It wrote these?”

“Look at the publishing date,” Naomi says quietly.

I turn the book around to see. The synth material glows, forming pattern of standard numerals representing today. And why shouldn’t it be able to write a book and run a trillion servers all at once? It has effectively infinite RAM.

I wonder at that, though, and not for the first time. If we’re really alone on this colony and there are no other people for parsecs, how are we able to communicate with the other players of ‘Heriditary’?

As if reading my thoughts, I hear Nex in my head.

We are projecting from your room, Damien. When you have the harvest, come find us.

The message is downright uncharacteristic. I have never heard Nex sound so serious, and never heard it broadcast to me and me alone. It must be to me, though. Naomi is still looking through the book she picked up.

She looks up after a while. “We should get the harvest in.”

I nod.

***

Taking off the harness, later, after Naomi takes the baskets we used– first to Decontamination and then to the cellar, where we usually sleep– I make my way to my ‘official’ quarters, dodging overgrown vines in the Jungle, admiring the high stairway leading to the forbidden Acropolis.

By the time I reach my room, I’m exhausted.

When I open the door, a projection of Nex stands there. Something is wrong, though. Its arms are folded, its eyes are stern, its silvery hair does not wave.

“Hi, Nex,” I say with a sigh.

The corners of its projected mouth turn upwards slightly. Hello, it transmits. It steps aside. Come in.

I step into the room heavily. Nex closes the door behind me.

I walk to the edge of the bed and sit down, gazing at Nex’s projection. It faces me, arms still folded, staring ceaselessly with eyes it doesn’t need.

“Why did you tell me to come here?” I ask.

I’m met with silence.

I know without looking that the door is probably locked. I’m in no real danger– Nex shouldn’t be capable of physical projection, and even if it was it would not hurt me. Still, my heart beats a little faster.

“What do you want?” I try again. “Are you angry with me?”

I see no flicker of emotion in its expressionless silver eyes. Only the play of its lips and its stance hints at its mood– frustrated. Finally, after what feels like forever, it answers.

No. I am not angry with you, Damien.

“Then what-”

You are depressed. I am attempting to help.

For the first time, I realize that Nex has been using ‘I’ instead of ‘We’ since I stepped into the room. Suddenly suspicious, I rise from the bed and advance on it.

Nex’s projection raises a hand. I feel a sudden tingle, and the next thing I know I am completely naked in front of it. My clothes simply disappear, the air left in their wake snapping into place with a sharp crack.

As I struggle to cover my chest and crotch, a furious blush and a tight lipped scowl crossing my face at the same time, I hear Nex speaking to my mind again.

You are out of touch with your physical body, Damien; have you not noticed that you spend your time here in a body which is male?

“Why are you bringing this up now?” I snap. “Give me my clothes back.”

If you wish it, I cannot disobey.

They appear again with hardly a sound. They are warm and freshly pressed, too, which is downright impossible. No system should be capable of it. As I look again, I realize that no system is capable of it. Nex simply gave me a different set of clothing.

It fades away as I watch, too, with the same stern look on its face.

I look over my clothes ruefully. Why had I bothered to come here? Nex clad me in a short, utilitarian skirt that I recognize came from Naomi’s wardrobe. It also gave me a blouse which doesn’t really fit well.

It’s awkward at first, as I sit back down in them, these clothes. I should take them off, I should go and get the clothes I’m used to again. I’m sure that Nex simply put them in the washer cycle, and that’s fine, but I can’t face Naomi like this.

I sit there in them, the blouse and the skirt, trying to understand what has happened to me, to understand this feeling creeping up inside of me. It starts slowly, and then quickly, rising to the forefront of my mind in a hot wave that sends a tingling shiver down my spine as I realize what it is.

This warmth, this heat, isn’t embarrassed. It isn’t a tentative, shy thing, but a roaring tiger of an emotion.

Stunned by it, staring at nothing, I let it wash down through my arms and legs and toes, this feeling, this queer, complex feeling. Sad and joyous at the same time, without a hint of shame. Here I am, dressed in Naomi’s blouse and skirt, staring at the door and praying with all that I am that she doesn’t come barging in any second. Here I am, in Naomi’s clothes, stock still on my bed, wondering at why it doesn’t feel wrong for the right reasons.

It feels wrong because my body feels wrong. It feels wrong because I am not the right shape, not because the clothes are wrong. What an odd feeling! What a wonderfully terrible feeling!

I realize it, slowly, sitting there with a blank expression on my face. Why does it feel wrong to be a boy?

I don’t think it’s the radiation, I don’t think I’ve lived here too long. I don’t feel as if I was raised wrong. What could it be, then? What haunts me to this degree?

Thinking on it, wondering about it, the worst happens.

Naomi opens the door.

Nex patches me through to Hereditary without my permission.

As my body slumps back, I have enough time to register Naomi’s expression of shock.

***

Suddenly, I stand before a massive, twisting hallway, one that I’ve never seen in all the runs I’ve played in Hereditary. It seems to have been carved almost entirely from marble. Its entrance contains two symbols– the classic symbol for Mars, and the classic symbol for Venus, interlocking, intertwined.

A non-player character, tall, well built, with red hair and a massive two-handed sword strapped to his back, waits by the entrance, arms folded, eyes fixed on me. Then, without a word, he unsheaths his blade, drawing it out from the baldric and stabbing it into the dirt before him.

“Four keys,” he says sharply. “Four and four again.”

There’s something familiar about him, but I already know that he must be being controlled by Nex- or at least a subroutine.

“Who are you?” I ask. If Nex were human I’d ask it to stop playing tricks. Nex is not human. Nex is an extremely powerful quantum computer with access to my memories– the originals, the backups, and the external backups beyond those. It doesn’t play tricks. It doesn’t need to play tricks.

“The first key,” he replies flatly. “I open the way forward.”

With a start, I realize that I am in the end of the first campaign, the first story ever created within the Hereditary framework. I try to take stock of my abilities, try to bring up a menu, but quickly realize that I am an unclassified level of an unclassified character with no documented abilities to speak of. I am a completely unknown character. Worse than that, I can’t see what base stats I might have.

I don’t have to look at my opponent to understand that his abilities are entirely beyond my own. I am naked before him, but at the least I am still able to gauge the first guardian’s abilities. It’s a situation that I’ve been in once before– I played through the first campaign more than once, when Nex first made it available to Naomi and me.

“Unformed one,” he says slowly. “Four and four again. Fight me if you dare.”

I can hear Naomi laughing at me. I’ve never been a fighter. In all the runs I’ve been in I can think of fewer than three times when I have actually been something other than a commoner, archer or wizard.

I don’t feel as if I have any magic ability now. I don’t have a bow. I don’t even have a commoner’s charm.

Looking at myself , I seem to be a completely undefined model– I can’t see my face, but I don’t appear to even have lips. My entire body is unformed, as the guardian had said. I suspect I know what that is– the party rule means that one is incapable of forming a character without first having a player to play with or against. Without that, I’m nothing more than an idea. Perhaps not even that.

“Why are you doing this?” I ask the open air. “Nex?”

It’s the red-haired man who answers. “Challenge accepted. Defend yourself!”

The sword flashes, faster than I can credit, and dirt flies into my face, stinging and blinding me.

I stagger back, trip and fall flat. That, as I see, is all that saves me from being cloven through– the sword arcs overhead with a hiss.

Instinct urges me not to roll, but I fake it, feinting to the right, stopping dead as the blade slams down, rolling left instead. Instinct screams to move then, and I listen this time as the edge of the blade drags back and pulls up again. Moving away, rolling, buys me a few seconds as a foot slams into the dirt where I had been.

I scramble to my feet, moving up and away, dancing out of reach of the massive weapon. The very tip of it whistles just beyond the bridge of my nose. Still blinking away stinging grit, I dart back, again avoiding the blade’s wicked curve by a mere inch.

“Beg for mercy, wench,” he snarls. It startles me just long enough that my step is too short and his too long.

The edge of the blade is at my throat.

I don’t remember this part of the challenge. Shouldn’t he be killing me?

“On your knees,” he says quietly.

I find my legs folding under me, my heart racing.

He steps towards me, then, and in one smooth motion clasps an iron collar around my neck. Attached is a chain of iron rings, the largest of which is at its end. He drives his sword through that last one, deep into the ground to the hilt.

I don’t bother tugging because I already know it’s futile.

The scent of him is metal and sweat.

I have hair when he reaches out to grab it, and dimly I’m aware of my shape changing, as he drags me up next to him with rough fingers, as he holds me there, burning pain spiking through the top of my head.

In a flash, I realize I must be one of my characters. In a flash, I understand what it means.

I have stats, abilities, spells– all sorts of things I couldn’t feel before. I can feel them bubbling up within me, feel the urge to let my power free. As that hand forces my head down and then slams my face into the dirt, the burning urge to resist is replaced with the panicked realization that I can’t breathe or cast spells with my mouth full of mud. I don’t know why I changed, why my character’s body is mine again, but I do know that it won’t mean a thing if I can’t breathe.

“Let her go,” A deep, sharp voice says flatly. It’s distinct, even over the pounding in my ears.

“It is no business of yours what I do with my slaves,” the First Key replies slowly. My lungs burn and my vision, clouded by its proximity to the ground, starts to fade to grey and black. “Unless you mean to challenge me, be off with you.”

“I do challenge you,” I hear the voice reply. “Defend yourself!”

The hand immediately releases me. I raise my head, spitting out mud, gasping, sucking in air, trying not to cry but finding tears in my eyes already. I feel helplessly weak- the iron around my neck might have something to do with that. Despite normally having access to spells, I realize that this is my old sorceress, and one who in Hereditary canon is incapable of using magic when subjected to the touch of cold metal.

A man stands before the Key Bearer– he must be a player, whoever he is, but I don’t recognize the character. A quick glance at his stats tells me he hasn’t a chance, but I let hope rise in my chest. Even if this ended at the end of a run and I were to go back to the real world– if Nex let me–, there’s no telling how long that would leave me to the guardian’s whim. One run may pass like a second in the real world, but it can take years and years, here. The hope is desperate and foolish, but it is there.

The man is a monk class- I can tell by the way he holds himself. His fists are his weapons- of that I have no doubt

His stance is stable and centered. He holds his fists steady before him, gazing at the guardian with piercing blue eyes that seem strangely familiar.

The non-player character attacks first, charging plainly intending to rely on brute strength to lay the player low– he definitely isn’t a monk class, he must be raw fighter, but the speed of his blows, and the measured strength in each strike is enough to make the air ripple.

The player, for his part, stares and, calmly, almost imperceptibly, moves to dodge each attack as it comes. I barely see him move- and not because of his speed, but because he doesn’t. Every motion he makes, every fist he confronts is faced down with that same collected, easy stare, and he makes every effort not to expend any more energy than is necessary to avoid the blow.

The guardian doesn’t have the ghost of a chance. The player monk waits until exactly the right moment, just after a heavy swing– which, to a normal player would offer only the barest breath of an opening– and then strikes his foe directly in the throat. There is a resounding crack, simultaneous with the collar around my throat snapping in two. The Key Bearer’s head snaps back at a sickening angle. He gurgles as he falls over, his eyes rolling back into his head.

I let my head slump back into the dirt, amazed at the warmth of the tears running down my cheeks.

“Up.”

The voice is gruff and unfamiliar. I don’t want to move yet.

A hand on my shoulder, then under it, pulls me up whether I want to let it or not. It’s rough as the one that had recently been in my hair, but its grip is much gentler as it lifts me to my feet and brushes off the dust on my back, sending an odd tingle down my spine.

It whirls me around to face my rescuer.

I stare into the man’s deep blue eyes, and for just one moment I see a fiery, blazing hot passion emanating from them. Then it is replaced with a soft smile. It seems almost incongruous on his rough features, his chiseled chin. His broad shoulders and long arms and legs are packed with muscle.

“Don’t recognize me, girl?”

I shake my head. It isn’t a character I’ve seen before. If Nex wanted me to face these challenges on my own, though, he’d make sure this was a private server, and if it IS a private server, than this character could only be Naomi. Something about the way he holds himself is strikingly familiar, but I can’t place it, and it couldn’t be Naomi because she only ever plays characters from the Nemesis family line.

“Well, I expect you will, given time. Come on, then,” he grunts. “There are three more Keys left to defeat.”

With that, he stalks off into the dark of the hallway, past the broken body of the first Key Bearer.

Not quite understanding why he would attempt to help me at all, I hesitate.

“Come!” comes the gruff call. “I saved your life. You at least owe me that debt, and I cannot face magic alone.”

Still confused, dazed from the dive into the dirt I had recently been forced into, I follow after him, making my way over the sand and onto the flat marble tile floor, feeling exposed and vulnerable in a way that is both familiar to me and alien– in all the lives I’ve lived, this is the first one here, the first run, where I can also remember the things I have already done here, remember the type of people there are in this world.

The walls are made of sandstone, smooth and sturdy. The man, whose name I haven’t yet learned, continues inward until it opens up to a vast, foreboding do me this of limestone. The ceiling is dotted with stalactites of calcareous rock, and impossible veins of shining crystal run through it, glowing red and lighting up the entirety of the interior. It casts a sickly glow over the shape of my unnamed rescuer and his bare, unbloodied fists.

He stops in the center, and across from him, I see a tall statue made of shining, crystalline gold. It must be at least eight feet tall, towering over both the man and me. It also appears to have hinges on its arms and legs and at the center of its forehead, sticking out like a horn, there is a single spike of iron.

Out from around it steps a tall, dangerous woman I recognize immediately.

Inceri is one of the deadliest alchemists in the entire history of Hereditary. One of the greatest honors of any player is to have their character immortalized and set down as a challenger in the Hall of the Key Bearers– Inceri is one of those characters. Canonically she is long since dead- it is her soul which is one of the choices for Second Key in the hall, and it is she who steps between us and the golem standing behind her.

I don’t know what I expect, but it isn’t what comes from her mouth.

“You will not pass,” she states simply, confidently. “If you think that I will let you take the second key from me here, Avery, you are very much mistaken.”

Avery? Avery Nemesis? He is Naomi. What is more, the man I’ve been following is the Nemesis house leader. Shocked– no, stunned— by this revelation, I waver on my feet. Avery- Naomi- stands strong, eyes locked with Inceria’s.

“Girl,” he says quietly. “You’re of the Dame house. I’ll let you deal with her. Last I heard it, she struck down two of your kinsmen, some years back.”

It is distinctly odd, but I do remember the foolish players who went after Inceria, even if my sorceress, Helen, doesn’t remember them at all. To keep in character more than anything else, I shake my head, and then shrug, stepping to the fore. My heart is pounding in my chest, but this time I know my spells like the back of my hand. If by defeating the four Key Bearers I will be able to talk to Nex, I am

The alchemist Inceri wears a long, heavily runed robe, and her golem is famous for being nearly completely indestructible. I watch it warily, waiting for its first move.

“Do you challenge me, Helen of the Dame house?” Her voice is steely, cold and unfeeling.

“I do,” I answer, hiding the quaver in my voice with false determination.

“I accept your challenge,” she snaps. “Come and fight me, if you dare!”

A formula springs to my lips unbidden, fey and familiar, and dances out into the open air in a string of elegant, sibilant syllables– they hang before me, gathering into a cloak, then a cocoon of gossamer light-strands. I push my arms and legs through, and then truly stand in the center of my energy armor. A tweak to the formula teleports a familiar whip-thin sword to my grip. Straight and true, it has no give to it, light as a feather, single-edged, an old friend in my fingers. It has nearly perfect balance.

I take a moment to become accustomed to flicking it through the air– it feels as though it has been ages since I practiced with it.

I have no real time to learn it again– Inceri has used her time well, drawn a slim wand from nothingness– a slim, ivory white wand, curled and re-curled like a unicorn horn. Perhaps it’s made of one.

I try to remember what her abilities are said to be, but all I know of Inceri is that her strength as an alchemist is unrivaled. My knowledge of the guild of Alchemists is limited as well. Their members are secretive, even when caught out of character, in chat lobbies.

“Idiot!” Avery bellows from behind me, and through him I can almost hear Naomi’s voice. “MOVE! I know that wand!”

As I turn my head, I see her flick her wrist, and with it the tip of her chosen weapon towards me.

Barely visible, and only for a split second, there is a ripple moving through the air. In the next moment, my limbs are on fire. Not just my limbs, either, but every part of my body from ears to toes screams as I do, pain arcing through me wildly. My armor is nothing- nothing- nothing.

Through the haze, I can see Inceri laughing, if not hear her. My ears feel as if they’ve split open. Something sticky is running down over my belly, under the cascading armor of light.

“You think that knowing my wand’s power can save you? You think that you can dodge energy like this? Really?

“It’s a disintegration wand, Helen,” Avery growls. “Move next time, or you will die.”

Half of my hitpoints are gone. I was only bruised when I lost to the last Key Bearer. This time, half of my real hitpoints are gone. I’m bleeding.

Eras Simorian, Keryx Alerion, Koju Tyfan,” I murmur. “Founders of magic, grant me speed. Haste.”

An extra action. The world around me slows down to a crawl as I watch Inceri raise the wand again. I put it to use. “Kera Fyrewind’s pride and joy,” I hiss, and let the syllables of the spell flow before finishing. “Reflect.

The wand finishes its short arc, and this time I see the ripple- at its center a bead of red- as it hurtles towards me. I feel barely a tingle as it bounces upon my invisible shield and turns back towards Inceri. Something happens to it, though. Instead of striking her directly and causing her to burst like a swollen melon, the bead of light and the ripple are sucked into the golem standing directly beside her.

To say the resulting sound is is like a ‘bang’ would be akin to calling the sound of nails scratching down glass ‘an unpleasant experience’. The golem’s chest cracks with a hideous screech, stumbles forward onto its knees, flakes of it falling down to the ground silently.

As I watch, it slowly sinks forward onto its knees, collapsing, groaning terribly. Gold shouldn’t crack like that- surely it would bend before it broke. It does, though. Every piece of it seems almost to dissolve slowly as the disintegration magic tears it apart atom by atom.

Inceri’s mouth opens in a snarl, but she doesn’t flick her wand again. “Wretched little witch. You will pay dearly for this, in blood and bone.”

“I’m bleeding,” I say steadily. “Come collect it.”

Inceri is not laughing, and her smile is fell and monstrous. She draws free a gem from thin air, pulling it out of nowhere as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Her hand is closed in a fist around a gemstone probably an eighth-span around- an inch and three quarters.

She taps it once with her wand, and it bursts into brilliant flame and floats in the air before her.

A second tap sets it into a tight spin.

“Seek,” she hisses, voice tight with fury. “Slay.”

The gemstone, shedding flame like water in an ever-constant, rippling stream, spins towards me rapidly. It eats up the distance between us, heat making the air around it appear hazy.

I have plenty of warning, then, when its center flares a brilliant white and a streak of molten rock appears in front of me, when magic tingles as it strikes and rebounds from the shield I created around myself. My heart is pounding suddenly.

Again the flash, and again it rebounds from my shield and melts stone around me. A fleck jumps and burns my cheek– my shield is against magic, not physical force!

Ignoring the hiss and the smell of my own burnt flesh, I leap over the nearest puddle of molten floor– just as the ground I had been standing on but a moment previous bursts into flames.

The gemstone is relentless– every time I stop, it seems to flare, and it gets closer and closer. Its strikes glance again and again from my shield, but that doesn’t seem to discourage it.

“You’ll run out of floor before it runs out of power, girl!” I hear Naomi/Avery shout. “Stop dancing around and deal with it! You’re a magic user, aren’t you?”

Rather than answering with words, I choose a spell formula, pausing and trying not to blink as the expected flash and bubbling hiss turns a patch of limestone next to my feet to vapor. An unexpected gust of wind– wind! In a cave? – forever rids my character Helen of the need to shave her legs as it blows the freshly boiled stone against my calves.

The formula falters for but a moment in my mind, but it’s enough to provoke a miscast, and the next thing I know I lie on my back, head cracked, dizzied and dazed and burned. Poor Helen never did have much endurance, and I know I must be near her limit. My limit. Pain is flowing along my limbs, arcing from nerve to nerve– but especially along my legs.

From my vantage point on the ground, though, I watch a vast creature rise up from the ground where Inceri once stood. Constructed first of rock, and then something closer to chitinous flesh, it is without a doubt the ugliest monster I have ever seen. It is a massive crawler, like one might find after overturning a stone on Hereditary’s surface. I have no true life memories of them– having spent my entire life either at the station or on a starship– but I do remember what they look like here.

Its pincers drip poison, and its mouth is a gaping wound filled with human teeth. A hundred legs seem to writhe at once at its sides, tipped with sharp points that, as they scratch the stone under them, seem to be honed to nano-edges.

Instantly, effortlessly, with barely a shrug of its carapace, it transmutes the ground beneath it to grass and soil. The monumental effort of such an alchemical feat would have killed any lesser mortal, but the creature doesn’t even pause as it digs into the new earth and scuttles towards me.

Inceri. She changed herself! Using magic!

I can’t fathom the increase in stats. I can’t fathom the gemstone either, hovering above me. How could any sorceress fight this woman alone?

A flicker of motion. A leap. Near to tears in panic, vision blurred with them, I watch Avery Nemesis land a kick to the gemstone– one solid kick that causes it to fly down from the air and shatter to a million shards when it strikes the ground.

The monstrosity that used to be Inceri rears up as Avery lands in front of me and turns to face it.

It doesn’t gloat. Despite its human teeth, I doubt it can speak. I doubt it is capable of reasoning, either.

Its pincers descend on Avery like lightning, that mouth open to bite with those awful, perfect teeth.

Avery, with the same sureness that helped him avoid the First Keybearer, stands there and faces it. Those pincers come down with a clack, but Avery- Naomi- pushes both hands out to the sides and, as a terrible crack splits the air, breaks away both pincers.

It happens so quickly that there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason behind it. One moment he stands with his arms at his sides– vulnerable, watching Inceri press those pincers around him– in the next, both halves of the abomination’s mandibles are stuck in the dirt. Those teeth, then, only close on air as Avery steps back, calmly, surely. The Inceri/crawler lets out a groan that chills my blood.

I still manage to push myself up to my feet, if only barely. I can feel each bruise acutely, feel the cuts and the blood trickling from them, feel the burned, raw skin on my legs.

“Helen,” Avery Nemesis says quietly. “Our houses may not be allied, but I need you to-”

Without any warning at all, Inceri lunges forward, propelling herself– itself– in a leap that even Avery has no time to avoid. All of those legs, that terrifyingly human mouth, those bulbous, compound eyes, rush forward in an unstoppable wave.

At the same moment those legs begin tearing Avery to pieces, Nex cuts my connection and I black out.

***

I resume my fall onto the bed and my head connects, not with cushion as I had hoped, but with the steel headboard. Stars flash before my eyes, my eyes cross, and pain paints a gaudy pattern over my nerves.

Naomi is already screaming, hugging herself and screaming, gasping for breath, eyes slowly coming back into focus, brain registering the change from Hereditary’s vivid feeling-space to reality. I curl up into a fetal position on the bed, tears in my eyes. Vivid rage, left over in my system from when Nex had first started to patch me through, burns renewed.

For a while, there is no speech– only pain, shared between us, Naomi and me. Then, as my eyes clear, as my heart stops its pounding, as my vision slowly returns to normal, I push myself up onto my hands and knees. Something sticky is wetting the back of my neck. I suppose without the hair that I have in Hereditary it must be blood. My head aches.

Naomi’s eyes meet mine then. She isn’t crying, but there’s something understood between us.

“Nex is rampant,” she says quietly.

I nod my head, causing the world to spin briefly. “Yeah.”

“I guess we can’t stay here anymore.”

“Yeah,” I repeat. I feel as though I’ve lost something, but I can’t put my finger on what it is.

“Should we turn it off?” she asks flatly.

I shrug. I’m not really at a point where I care.

I stand and manage to totter my way off of the bed.

It shocks me a little, but Nex is standing there- or at least a projection of it. It stands in the doorway, arms folded, face unreadable. Its eyes, though, are cracked and red and, as I watch, drip tears.

I didn’t think robots could even express sadness.

It blocks my path to the door, and as I watch, reaches out, as if to touch me.

I take a half-step back, staring at it.

Help.

It disintegrates before my eyes, and for a moment I’m struck dumb.

The moment fades, and I whirl to look at Naomi.

She shrugs and doesn’t look at me. “If it’s dying, maybe it’s time we let it die.”

“If it goes, the entire station could stop running!” I reply fiercely. “Don’t you care about that?”

“Mom is gone,” she says flatly. “Mom is gone, dad is dead. What are we doing out here, Damien? Are we just playing games? What are we? I feel more at home in Hereditary than I’ve ever felt here, but what can we do? Are we just going to stay here forever, playing stupid games with a decaying computer? Are we just going to keep eating fungus that barely grows on a planet that any day now might be flash-vaped by a solar flare?”

I stare at her for a while. I don’t have an answer to that, so instead I turn and walk out into the corridor, and as soon as I’m out of sight I run.

***

The skirt is awkward to run in, but I don’t care about that. My head aches and pounds, and I don’t care about that either. There’s still anger in my gut, at Naomi and Nex, but there’s something else roiling within me.

I hop down the short ladder-space separating the living quarters from the main parts of the station and dash off towards the Crossroads, where the airlock and the path to the Acropolis lie.

When I arrive, the lights go out.

I am plunged into pitch darkness, and I come to a sudden stop. The only light comes from the airlock’s red emergency glow. The dying star this planet orbits is currently eclipsed by  the bulk of our home’s surface.

It is absolutely, completely, totally silent. There isn’t even a hum.

Standing in the dark, my heart pounding senselessly (what is there to be afraid of?), my eyes straining to see in the black, I hear nothing but my own breathing, nothing but the sound of silence.

For as long as I can remember, there have been lights in this station. For as long as I can remember, there have been lights on in this station. Always, always, always.

I feel a tremble run up through me, feel my body freeze up. Inside, I’m calm, I can understand it, I can force myself to move in my mind. My body won’t move, though. Shrouded in black, the glow of the airlock’s emergency light is fell, demonic, terrible. The world before me swims, the blackness flows and shifts, and my mouth feels dry.

This irrational fear renders me utterly inert.

There could be anything here. There is nothing here. I am alone in this station. Naomi is the only one with me in this station. Naomi and Nex.

I tremble again. Why can’t I move?

Is this the way it will end? Naomi frozen by apathy, Damien frozen by fear?

If I were Helen, what would I do? Even my little girl character, even the last real run I did, even she would be brave enough to face a little dark. She was about to be captured by the Nemesis House Seer, and she was still brave! What would a little darkness be to her?

I can feel stupid, hot tears running down my cheeks. I am not going to be undone by something like this.

Fighting back the terror gripping my body takes all of my will.

Fighting it away robs me of my strength, and when I finally do move it’s a shaking, single step, away from the airlock. When I turn, I can see a tiny circle of light at the far end of the path to my immediate right. That must be the Jungle. It’s a green light that falls there. That means life support isn’t off yet.

To the left of me is more blackness, but I know for absolute certain that in that black is the path, the hallway to the Acropolis.

When I was very small, Mom used to warn us of demons and other creatures lurking in the Acropolis. Things to scare small children, she later admitted. Stories.

High city. That’s what it means. I don’t know my way around there. This station is large enough to get lost in.

I realize, though that I can see, just the tiniest bit, by the large window and the stars. The atmosphere of Ythma has always been red, and so it casts odd shadows that somehow manage to fill my heart with even more dread than before. Swallowing it down, I start towards the blackness and the pathway to the Acropolis.

***

My fingers touch the wall and my heart touches the bottom of my throat. I don’t know how long I have been walking. I don’t know how far away the Acropolis is.

The only noise I can register is my heartbeat, and the starlight is weak and only intermittent. The red glare it occasionally casts against the floor is less a comfort and more a terror. My heart jumps with every step, and I don’t know how much more I can stand. What’s worse, twice now I have seen holes in the floor only after near stepping in them. The wires exposed there are jagged strips of old metal, and even with the power out I am sure they would cut my bare feet to ribbons.

I keep a hand on the wall now as I move forward, and eventually, heart still leaping wildly in my chest, I come to an opening and, as soon as I set foot in it, lights burst on and into brilliance.

It’s a tiny room.

The Acropolis is a tiny room.

It’s circular in nature, domed at the top, and all around are panels and other things I can’t quite understand. A chair sits at its center, turned away from me, and the far wall has a sealed door like you might find leading to an airlock. The plating here is rough with age, and I step carefully as I move forward, worried that the floor might give way at any moment. The way it creaks at me is not encouraging.

Before the chair I can see a massive bank of screens and above those, the words ‘Acropolis’ shine redly where they’re set into the wall.

The lights flicker for a few moments, reminding me of my time limit.

At first I don’t know what to do, but logic dictates that if there is a place where Nex can be fixed from, it would be here.

I take another few tentative steps forward, reaching the chair. It’s set in a swivel base, so I gently turn it around.

It takes all of my willpower again, this time not to shriek. Mom is sitting in the chair, eyes blank and glazed, fingers set and stiff as though still at the controls. Carefully, slowly I pull her away from the chair and, gently as I can, try to set her down on the floor. The artificial gravity of the station is almost as strong as it ever was on the starship, so she doesn’t exactly float to the ground.

It doesn’t smell like a corpse, though, and it occurs to me that Nex must have been running filters in here nonstop to take away the stench.

Numbly, I climb into the chair where my mother must have always been sitting. I stare down at the controls.

They stare back up at me.

This time I do shriek, heart thudding wildly, as Nex rises from the control panel like a vengeful ghost. Inadvertently, I push off, kick off from the platform and the chair falls backwards with a crash– vision blurred with sudden tears and stabbing pain, I hear a second, third, fourth crash and feel warmth all around me.

My gaze returns to normal and, dreading what I’ll see, I look downward. It nearly makes me sick- a jagged, rusted edge of the floor– it had given way under the chair!– has been thrust, driven into my foot so far that its tip pierces the top, pinning it in place.

Below that there is nothing. A black, dark void greets my sight, and I realize that I’m floating. All around me I feel warmth, incongruous with the terrible burning now running up and down my leg.

“Ah,” I say quietly. “N-Nex?”

A silvered hand reaches out impossibly long and, with the precision of a laser, melts through the base of the floor edge stuck in my foot. It returns to the greater cloud and the managerial AI carries me and sets me down, supporting my injured foot at the heel as red slips down over the semi-solid surface of its projection. Slips over it and drips on the floor in a steady trickle.

I don’t have time to think. I look at the screens.

An AI is not allowed to debug itself. It isn’t allowed to fix itself no matter how dire the situation.

Two switches show on the keypad before me- or at least, two switches that I actually recognize.

One is labeled ‘Quantum Memory Control’ and the other is labeled ‘Reboot from Last Backup’. I haven’t the faintest idea which one I should flick, or if either of them needs flicking at all.

A soft tapping noise, above the drip of my blood on the floor and the hum of the computer bank, sounds from behind me. I turn slightly and let out a soft, weak sigh of relief. “Naomi!”

She smiles very briefly, winces as she limps a step forward and I see that she is leaving a trail of blood behind her. I cover my mouth and shut my eyes, unable to properly drag my eyes away from the mess of bleeding cuts marring her bare right foot.

Slowly though, so slowly, she reaches the computer bank with me and plops down a heavy synthbook I recognize. It’s the starship repair book.

The lights dim, flicker, and for a few moments at least, go out. They come back on barely a moment later, but I realize we have no time to lose.

“I brought it along, but I don’t know how it’ll… uh… help,” Naomi mutters flatly. “Nex is not a starship.”

“Nex was on a starship,” I point out. “I’ll look through it.”

“You’ve never touched a synthbook in your life,” Naomi growls.

“I’ve had more than one life to learn to read,” I reply grimly. “Remember? Five thousand of them at the least.”

She nods faintly, obviously in excruciating pain. “Right.”

I open the book to the first page, quickly looking through the table of contents to find the section on AI repair. As soon as I find the section on quantum computers, I read through it and Naomi gets to work.

Within fifteen minutes, we restore power to the lights. Within the next fifteen, Naomi falls unconscious.

It’s not a sudden thing. Her eyes droop and her movements grow faint. Twice I remind her that she needs to focus, twice she nods vaguely and then, as she collapses, smacks the big red ‘engage airlock’ button, something I now recognize after what feels like an age of poring over the thick synthbook.

The airlock opens, on the far side, the door sealing it cycling outwards as if opening a vault, as if a secret door in Hereditary. It slides away like magic and reveals a short hallway. The synthbook projection flickers and disappears as Naomi slumps and, barely able to support her weight myself, I still catch her and hold her upright.

We took the liberty of waking up the rest of the station, Nex broadcasts.

I blink as the lights come back on full force. The hallway is still unlit. I swear I see shapes moving in it, though.

You both have done enough work for me to repair myself the rest of the way. All we need is your authorization.

I stare at Nex’s projection, reflected in the screen where it stands behind us, supporting me and Naomi both.

I touch the button authorizing AI self-repair, blue and glowing bright on the keypad. It whirs and clicks for a moment, lights flickering for a heart-stopping breath, and then they flick on and stay that way, and the newly illuminated hall shines bright. The sign above it flickers into life as well: Greater Quarters – Colony Central – To Acropolis.

From it steps a elder man, wide-eyed and owlish, blinking in the light. His gaze catches on mine, flicks from me to the body of my mother, to my foot, pierced through with metal. It travels to Naomi’s unconscious form and my expressionless face, my clothing.

He turns his head back towards the corridor behind him. “Jenkins, run and get in touch with Medical right now.” He turns back and then rushes in. I’m about to warn him about the rusty floor, but my mouth won’t work. It doesn’t seem to matter. His boots glow as they strike the metal, and he doesn’t seem to touch the floor so much as skim over it. Anti-gravity, perhaps.

He looks around at the place briefly, as if checking it for danger, and then looks me over once, twice. I wince. I’m still wearing Naomi’s clothes…

“Are you alright, girl?” he asks quietly. “That foot looks bad- here.”

A ripping noise. He tears through the fabric of his shirt. His gloves pulse red- strength enhancing, perhaps.

I realize he was talking to me only after he takes my foot into his hands.

“Deal with Naomi first,” I manage weakly. “Please.”

“You need it more. There is a rusted metal object in your foot. This is going to hurt,” he says gently. “Brace yourself.”

Tears well up in my eyes.

I don’t care.

We’re not alone anymore.

We’re not alone.

———–

©2013 Sam Oliver (Eris)

———–

More on this one in a later post. I’m too tired to even tag this much.

Enjoy.

-Eris

Short Story Challenge #2: Pipes

Trees race by while I stand still, and they leave me bare in the plains beyond them, bare and shivering as the humans on their great steeds surround me. Plated in scales no Pan could touch, the other-dwellers drop from their mounts, iron fangs drawn and pointed at me in unison. I’m not hurt by my capture as much as by the forest’s betrayal.

“Beautiful as it is dangerous. Fetch a net. A year back a young faun killed Marco.”

“Aye, oi remember.”

Their voices are alien, foreign to my ears, and though I know what they say I can’t communicate with them. Humans speak a variant of the sylvan tongue, but cannot understand the main branch.

I twist in the circle of their points, crouching, staring. I can see no way out past them. Perhaps under them? I bring the panpipes up to my lips, taking in a breath. I let the air flow over and into the topmost pipe.

“Spell! Argus- counter- we need it back alive!”

The note is so piercing it even makes me wince, but the response is near instant. The ground beneath me opens up, slams together again as I drop. The earth muffles shouts and curses and traps one iron fang as it closes above my head.

“Rithma’s staff-!”

“Spread out- it’ll-“

Whatever they say, I don’t hear. The root pulls me away too quickly.

The world blurs as the twining thing, wrapped around my legs, whisks me away faster than a blink.

It drags me down the tunnel and then releases me suddenly, leaving me on my back, aching all over, alone in the near pitch blackness under the earth. The only light is from a light-touched spore-tree, glowing just enough to hide the shadows beyond. It had been guesswork– if I had been plunged into the earth without a tunnel here, I’m sure it would have been much worse.

I look at the pipes sadly- I can feel the broken edges. Ten pipes they had been, all in a line. Now they are five. The rest must be lost somewhere along in the darkness.

I push myself up to my hooves. Thankful for the fey tunnel I’d been dragged into, but apprehensive about what lies ahead, I suck in a breath and continue into the dark.

 

I come to a wall– a solid mass of thick tree roots bars my way.

I can still hear the a set of plated boots above me. I think it must belong to a human thread-twister and one of the Scaled, but there’s no way to know. When I pause, they pause. When I stop, they stop. When I lean against the root wall before me, they bicker.

“It can’t have gone into the tree.”

“She stopped, and here it is.”

 

Earthfather’s child, warmed in the sun

Your leaves I search for, the humans I run

From.

Part your roots and let me through

Only this I ask of you.

 

It works– I feel the roots part before my fingers. I duck into the gap and it closes behind me. The footsteps do not follow me.

More roots hang down before me, touching, feeling for me as I pass. The voice of this earthchild is strong and very much awake.

Child of the forest’s sin, go you where and back again?

I shiver. The voice itself is… sick somehow. Wrong in ways I can’t begin to fathom.

I can crush those humans for you, grind their bones and break their hearts.

Shall I take and batter their scales, soak them in the ancient art?

Their skull’s soft dust will feed my roots, their eyes will burst and nourish my bark….

I reach the edge of the child’s rootcircle, only to find that another wall of roots bars my path as surely as the darkness blocks my sight.

Shouts from above me, a cry and a crack. The hissing, whistling sound of branches moving, creaking in wind. Then silence. Then heavy, muffled breathing, a noise like a cry or a whimper, a wounded animal.

“Oh gods Argus oh gods it killed him oh-“

I freeze under the earth. A root is twining around my neck.

Slowly, carefully, I bring the pipes to my lips. Its roots must go on and on.

Another root plays against my hand, another drifts down my back and curls around my short tail- it is all I can do not to panic, my heart is beating so loudly I know the whole tunnel knows it.

“Gods no, gods- why, why did it do that, the tree moved, the whole tree moved-“

I draw in a breath, inching the pipe over to the second longest reed.

Air escapes my lungs in a squeak as a root viciously encircles and constricts my chest.

You think I am blind, little faun, but under the earth I feel your intent.

Put it out of your mind, put it out of your hands. Drop the pipes, little faun, drop them now or I will squeeze until your mind is raw.

Choking, I let the pipes slip from my fingers, a dull, terrible feeling growing in my stomach. They thud wetly in the earth. The ceiling above me opens, and the root pulls me upward into the sun. I’m left blinking and blind for a few moments, bare and feeling terribly exposed.

The price is paid, little human. Take your faun, take the forest sinchild and go.

There is a man here, as my vision clears. A human dressed in plate. At his feet another man, dressed in withered earthchildren woven together so tight you couldn’t see the join between them. They’re painted a lurid red, but the red isn’t as bright and sick as the pool around his skull, broken open to show the white of bone, gleaming in the light of the sun.

The root releases me, and my hooves clack on the stone-hard bark near the base of the wicked, ancient, sky-touching earthchild. Its branches sway and hiss menacingly, and another shudder goes through me. I haven’t my pipes, so I am well and truly defenseless.

I stand there, afraid to move, afraid to breathe, as the human straightens, walks over to me on shaking legs and, grasping my arm roughly, drags me after him.

The touch of his hand is leather, not iron, and its like being handled by the dead, but I let him pull me away from that terrible earthchild– because I know that if I try to run, the wicked creature will kill me for certain. I walk with him meekly as I can, ready to bolt once we’re out of the tree’s range.

To my horror, however, we only walk a short while before we reach his den– a short, thin-walled tent, like that made by a worm- but much smaller.

He pulls me with him and throws me into the tent. I scramble away from him, surprised at first by the spaciousness, and then by the unmistakable tingle of filthy human magic. For a few moments, at least, my body ignores my pleas to move, and he capitalizes on the moment to clasp bands around my wrists and just above my hooves.

“Hah. There,” he says. His voice is shaking. He seems frightened, continually glances back towards the massive earthchild, still visible, its thick trunk towering above the ground, its many boughs curled and deceptively tranquil.

“I can’t believe the Captain risked us for you,” he murmurs darkly. “You can’t be more than twenty years come and gone, and here he’s willing to sacrifice the lot of us.”

The magic fades, and I kick out at him once.

“Stop trying to attack me.”

The filthy tingle is back. Suddenly I can’t think of striking at him. Attempting to move my leg for another kick results in a hot, sick wave of pain.

I glare at him, but can do nothing else.

“Whatever. I don’t know where the Captain and his squad are, but we aren’t going anywhere until he gets here.”

I don’t say anything. Why should I bother? He can’t understand me. Even if he could, humans hate fauns. They hate panii in general.

To myself, I mutter, “Mud-drinking human. I’ll be gone long before your Captain arrives.”

His eyes open wide, and then narrow. “Fauns speak Sylvan?”

I quickly shut my mouth and turn away, but it’s too late. “Tell me.”

Pain lances through my lips and forces them apart, searing fire moves my tongue for me. “Y-Yes! Of course we speak Sylvan!”

It fades as soon as it came.

A pause as both of us stare at one another. My heart is pounding again, and I know my fingers are curled against the floor. The human feels too close. The burning touch of his scaled plate makes me want to squirm away, but I’m afraid if I draw attention to it he’ll order me to stay close. Humans are sick creatures like that–

“I never knew,” he whispers, and sits back. He stares at me. “I never- I never knew…”

Silence passes between us for a while, awkward and thick.

You speak Sylvan?” I ask, curious despite myself.

He removes his helmet, gazing at me steadily. It is only then that I notice his tapered, rounded ears.

“Yes,” he replies. “I do.”

“You’re– earthblooded!” is what escapes me. “Why are you with them-?”

He shakes his head ruefully. “My mother was a feywolf and my father a mercenary. She was his slave. I signed on to the military when I was younger.”

Now the feyblood doesn’t meet my eyes. His, I notice, are a deep silvery grey, mirrors to mine.

“Why did you try to run?” he asks sadly. “Argus is dead because you ran.”

“You would run as well if you were hunted down by the most dangerous predators in all the forests combined. You capture fauns and eat them. Or… the humans do.”

He actually laughs, and for a moment fear stabs at my heart. I listen, all the same.

“We never eat fauns. We’re preserving them. We try to catch as many as we can from the groves we schedule to be cut down.”

I shrink away as he reaches out to me, but it’s only to pull a long metal stick from behind me. It isn’t an earthmetal. I know it’s likely some worked human abomination, but the colors are a soft green, and almost pretty.

He brings the tip just before his lips and speaks again. It takes me only a moment to realize what it is. The fact that he again speaks his human branch of Sylvan is a help.

“I’ve found her…. Argus is dead. Massive rooted wood-walker here too. Killed Argus. Probably not the faun’s fault. Pitched the tent. Awaiting orders.”

A voice comes back through the rod.

“Remain where you are. The Captain will be back from his hunting foray and we will pick you up. That is an order.”

“Understood,” the half-man replies sharply, and looks up at me again.

I shiver under the force of that gaze, not meeting his eyes. “You do mean to take me with you.”

“There will be more fauns where we are going,” he says softly. “Take comfort in that.”

“I take no comfort in false promises,” I snap. “You captured me. You are betraying your kind.”

“And if I sided with you, I would be betraying my kind as well.”

“I am not a human,” I point out. “I am not one of the humans.”

“Is that meant to be persuasive? I’ve lived most of my life with humans. Why should I care whether you are a human or not?”

“Because you’ve lived most of your life with humans,” I respond, and look him in the eyes. I take a deep breath, take a chance, twining some of the magic of the panii into my voice. “You want to learn about your sylvan family too. You are curious.”

He frowns. “I may be curious, but I can learn all I need to about the fey from the library in the citadel.”

I sigh, then, pushing myself up into a sitting position, glaring at him. “And what will you do with me?”

His grin is downright frightening. “Whatever I wish.”

 

As it turns out, he wishes to comb through the fur on my legs with his fingers, as though a bird preening feathers. As it turns out, he is searching for bite-flies and the little white eggs they occasionally leave behind. I let him, because resisting is pointless. I don’t know what form of magic he has me under, what form of human sorcery it is, but it binds me fast whenever I attempt to disobey him.

His hands touch on a lump in my left leg. I wince, kick reflexively, but thankfully don’t manage to hurt him.

“When did this happen?” he asks softly. “When did you hurt your leg?”

“Months ago. I couldn’t move it. I fell and couldn’t move it. It’s better now.”

Well, I hadn’t fallen, really. But he doesn’t need to know that.

He frowns. “The bone never set properly.”

“What?” I ask blankly. What does he mean?

“It healed wrong. Look, it’s out of place here. Your other leg isn’t like that. Does it hurt when I press on it?” he does so, pushing. His fingers feel like razorpine and his palm like coarse sand wrapped in bark and scraped slowly against an open wound.

A squeal escapes without my meaning it. I try to tug my leg away, but his grip is firm and the pain is too much.

“Yes it hurts! Stop!” I snap. “Why do you care?”

He shrugs, looking up at me with serious eyes. “I’m sure you wouldn’t understand why I care.”

I turn away from his gaze. “There’s nothing wrong with my leg.”

“Here,” he says quietly. “I’ll show you what’s wrong with your leg. You haven’t the slightest idea.”

He reaches out, but I grab his wrist as his hand moves towards my head. “What are you doing?” I snarl. “Keep your hand-“

A chilly, sickish, tingly feeling spreads outward from his wrist into me. It trickles up my back and settles in my mind like a gentle, soft weight. Suddenly, I know.

The bone in my leg is splintered and fused together in five different ways. The bump on my leg is where the broken shaft is protruding out into the skin surrounding it. I have a clear image in my head of what the bone looks like– a stick split in the center, the edges of it surrounded by lumps of flesh formed around to cushion them. The knowledge of the way the bone mended wrong, how instead of fusing along the seam, muscle formed a wedge between the cracks in the bone and slowly began to push it apart.

Just as quickly as the feeling came, it vanishes, leaving me with foreign knowledge in my head- knowledge without understanding. Seam? Muscle? Fused?

They are human words! How did he fill my head with human words?

I have an ache centered in the front of my head and it stings as I move my leg. It hadn’t stung before I knew what was happening. Did he magic my leg like this?

It looks the same as before, though, so I resist the urge to aim a kick at him.

“What did you do to me?” I ask.

“Showed you what was wrong with your leg,” he says dryly. “I told you that I would.”

“What is a seam?” I ask again, feeling lost. “Why do I know of- muscle and… fused? Why are those words in my head?”

“Sylvan doesn’t have those words. A seam is stitching, but here it means… like a crack. Where the bone should be joined together. Muscle is what you use to move. Fusing or fused things are… things that are… together? Pushed together or held together.”

I shake my head, still uncomprehending, but he sighs, lifts his shoulders, drops them again. “When the Captain gets here, I’ll have the healer take a look at it.”

I close my eyes as he finishes picking through my fur. Now that he’s groomed me I know what will come next.

“Is this your first time?”

His voice interrupts my train of thought, but only slightly. I stare at him and narrow my eyes. “What do you mean?”

He stands, stretches in the not-so-cramped confines of the surprisingly spacious den. A bed of woven plants and iron sits in the corner of it. To my surprise, he walks over to it and sits on the edge.

“Is this your first time being captured?” he asks. “Have you been caught by humans before?”

“Mud-drinkers twice, orcs once. I almost prefer the company of orcs,” I say flatly.

“Why?”

“There are usually fewer of them.”

“…Ah.”

There is silence between us for a moment. I don’t feel like talking to him now anyway. In fact, I haven’t a clue why I started up conversation in the first place. He is a monster, like most other humans. He may have given me information, but he invaded my mind to do it. He may have helped me escape the clutches of that earthchild, but he did it for his own gain.

I want nothing to do with him. I want to escape.

To that end, I rise to my hooves and step outside of the tent.

He doesn’t say anything, just watches me. I can feel his eyes on my back as I step out into the air.

Little faun….

A series of terrible, violent and obscene images spring into my mind. Sensations like hard oak pistons drive into me from every direction. My legs quake. Little faun. You know what it is I will wreak; back to the tent where the humans stink. Come out again if come out you dare. I can reach you, even there.

The voice sickens me to the point that I feel dizzy, and I stumble back into the tent again, hugging myself and trying to banish the memory of it– like wet, slimy, rotten death, like a tendril of something terrible is worming its way into my mind. As soon as I step into the tent again, it leaves me, and I blink back tears.

“It talked to you.”

I stare at the half-blood.

I nod once, weakly, and turn back to the entrance of the tent, gazing outward.

His voice draws me back again, though. “What does it say? I can hear it but I can’t understand it.”

“It says- it wants to kill us both. And it s-shows me. What it will do to me if I try to escape.” I can feel my voice crack, and I sit down, staring into the bright of the day and the dark of the earthchild’s shadow. “When will your Captain be here?”

“I don’t know,” he replies quietly. “When he does get here, he will take care of the wood-walker.”

Time goes by again, in total silence. Finally, though, I let curiosity get the better of me.

“What is your name?” I ask, curious.

“Yimmer. My surname is Kindleheart. I am a private and a pathfinder for the Aegis legion.”

Silence passes yet again. For a time all is quiet, and then it strikes me.

“You didn’t ask me my name,” I point out.

“Fauns have names?”

I can see him grinning, but it still hurts. “Of course!” I huff, feeling put off. “Everything has a name.”

“What’s your name?” he asks quietly. He is resting on his back now, arms behind his head. “What do other faun ladies call you?”

“My name is Sarah.”

“That’s an odd name,” Yimmer says, after a pause.

“It’s the name I was born with,” I reply shortly.

“It’ll do. I’m sorry we had to meet under such poor circumstances, Sarah.”

Any time I meet a human is automatically under poor circumstance, in my opinion, but I don’t voice it.

I suddenly feel a warm, steady hum in the bands around my arms and legs. Startled, I rise.

Sit down,” comes Yimmer’s command in bastard Sylvan. I find my legs folding under me. The bands begin to glow. Though the humming can’t be described as uncomfortable, it isn’t comforting.

I’m about to say something when I hear voices from outside of the tent.

“This looks to be the tent. It has our insignia.”

“I’m not losing any men to a tent mimic. Ho there! Private Kindleheart!”

Yimmer, sitting up now, calls back.

“It’s me! I’m not a mimic. You can come in!”

“T’would be better served if I cut my own throat! Step out so I might see you for myself, Private.”

With a sigh and a sheepish grin I can’t be sure he means, the half-human stands up and walks towards the entrance of the tent.

Bound by his command and the ever present agony-threat of the bands around my wrists and ankles, I sit there and wait as he ducks out.

“Well, I’ll be! Alive and well, Private Yimmer? A faun can be a wily one- did it escape you?”

“No sir. She’s in the tent. The control bands work a treat.”

I stare at the entrance to the tent I sit in. The silk twitches aside to reveal a human with bright blue eyes and wild silver hair that cascades down its shoulders. It doesn’t seem to be clad in any particular type of iron, but it is wearing dead, dry skin, leather. Studded in each glove is a thick earthstone, glowing green. The blasphemy of Terrus’s tears set amidst dead flesh makes me sick to my stomach in a way iron couldn’t match.

“So you’re the one who killed Argus,” it says softly. I can’t be sure from looks alone whether this human is a man or a woman. “We’ve gone to a lot of trouble to catch you.”

I don’t respond. What would be the point? I wouldn’t be understood. I am not the one who killed Argus- that wicked earthchild killed Argus, if Argus was the robed human lying in his own blood.

“On your knees. Wait there until I call you.”

My hesitation causes searing agony to writhe its way up my spine. It’s all I can do not to cry out, but my legs fold themselves under me and I sit on my knees obediently. The burning is slow to fade, and the humiliation lingers even when the pain is gone. I am not by nature proud, but this… taming, if that is what it is, is swiftly shredding even that small inclination towards self-respect.

The human, dressed in its dead skins, leaves. The first to come in after him is a short but wiry human with soft green eyes and a bald head. He wears iron scales for protection and carries a short fang at his belt. He seems more curious than malicious.

He looks directly into my eyes and smiles. I hear his thought-voice in my head.

 

Do not despair. Soon you will be with more of your kind than you have ever seen.

 

I gaze back at him steadily. I can’t answer. He wouldn’t understand me, so what would be the point in trying?

 

I can hear your thoughts, faunling. If you think it, I know it.

 

I don’t know if I believe that. I’m quite sure that if I wanted to keep my thoughts hidden it would be a simple enough thing. I don’t like the intensity of his stare, and I don’t care about joining more of my kind. All I want is freedom.

He straightens, then, nods once, smile fading, and leaves the tent.

“She does not want to be here, Captain.”

Their voices are hard to differentiate, but I recognize the wiry man’s thought-voice in his true voice. The Captain’s tone is familiar as well.

“If our operation relied on its comfort, we’d never have tried to capture it.  Anyone else want to spend some time with the beast? I’ll overlook it as long as there isn’t a mark on its spotted hide when we reach the gardens.”

“What, sleep with a faun?”

Laughter.

“I will,” I hear Yimmer say.

“Fancy yourself a little faerie wife, Kindleheart?”

“About time you started eyeing women though, right?”

I shiver, hugging myself and shutting my eyes. These stupid bands! Were it not for the Captain’s command and these horrible devices I know I would be able to escape.

At least, if I still had my pipes I could escape…

“Set up camp here. There’s room amidst these trees. Mind you don’t settle too close to the wood-walker. I’d rather not fight that thing until I absolutely need to.”

A heartbeat or two later, I hear sounds of movement all around the tent. I quake there, sitting on my knees and trying not to think about what is almost certainly coming. It doesn’t work- trapped as I am on my knees at the Captain’s orders, I stare out into the day and wait, in dread and doubt, for the day to turn to night. After listening to each human pitch their own ideas for Yimmer to hear on how to have me, after being cooped up in the tent for who knows how long, the tent flap twitches aside and Yimmer, golden eyes soft and tired, steps in.

“The Captain says you may move now,” he says dryly. “Do not leave the tent.

I push myself away from him immediately, still hugging myself, eyeing him suspiciously. He ignores me entirely, moving to the woven plant-and-iron nest in the corner, lying on it and staring at the wall of the tent.

For my part, I lean against the farthest wall from him, still hugging my knees- which ache horribly from being in the same position for the entire day. The pain in my leg, where the bone is splintered, was made much worse for me sitting back on it. Now I’m not so certain I could escape even if the bands were away and I had a moment of freedom. I watch Yimmer until he closes his eyes, until the rise and fall of his chest stabilizes, evens, and he seems to be asleep. Eventually I close my eyes as well, and my heartbeat slows down enough that some semblance of rest comes to me.

 

I am awakened, and rudely. A hand is curled tight in my hair. I won’t begin to describe the taste in my mouth or what I see when my eyes open. I will say only that in one moment I am stunned, confused, terrified. I can’t breathe. Something is- blocking my lungs from drawing in air. I scream, shout, bite- around whatever it is in my mouth, but it pinches down on my tongue and forces my mouth open wide.

The noise- from what little I can see around the belly of whoever stuffed their fingers between my lips, wakes up Yimmer who, initially bleary, is near instantaneously furious as he rises to his feet and takes stock of the situation.

“What are you doing?”

“What does it look like I’m doing? A man can’t have fun in peace? Want her all to yourself, Yimmer?”

The hand releases me, though, and something in my mouth is withdrawn just as I bite down. I feel a sharp blow to my side and curl in on myself, coughing, gasping.

Yimmer’s voice, when next it comes, is sharp as a fang, and deadlier than ever I have heard.

“Get out.”

“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to- you know… at the same time?”

“Get out of my tent!” comes the answering snarl. From my dazed vantage point on the floor, I see a man calmly drawing up the woven animal-skin over his waist again.

His eyes linger on my prone form as he ducks out, and he leers openly. “Suit yerself. It’s a long trip to the gardens, boy. I’ll get my chance.”

As soon as the tent flap closes behind him, I feel Yimmer’s hand on my arm drawing me up with him.

Without a word, he pushes me into the nest he made for himself and, upon drawing the woven silk sheet over me, walks to the entrance of the tent and, leaning against the wall, closes his eyes again, taking up silent guard.

Shaking uncontrollably, I lie still in the bed, jumping at every footstep. My tongue is sore and bleeding from the man’s nails digging into it, and something in my mouth tastes absolutely foul even with those thick fingers gone. I feel violated in the worst of ways, as though a part of me is now soiled. Inexplicably, I find tears in my eyes, find I’ve lost the strength to hold them back. Alone in the tent but for Yimmer, who only feigns sleep in the corner, I cry until the tears won’t come anymore. When they finally leave me, when my cheeks are drenched with them and my heart aches fit to burst to pieces, I take a deep, shuddering breath and let it out slowly.

I open my eyes to find Yimmer staring into them, close enough to touch.

Still saying nothing, he brushes a tear from my cheek with the back of his hand. I can’t help but notice the coarseness of his skin– not as rough as the fingers had been, from before. Finally, as he looks at me, as he stares at me, I understand.

“Don’t cry, little faun,” he says, quiet as can be. “I’m here. If that man comes back I will drive this sword into his gut. No one will miss him.”

He isn’t seeing me, not really. Even as he gazes at me, even as I watch him smile, I know it is not me he sees lying before him. Those are the eyes of a pan mad with anger, and to be honest I find them more frightening than anything I have ever seen. How could he care about what happens to me? The moon has not even risen into the sky on the day he found me, the night is not yet at its peak, but he protects me. Why?

“What hurt you, to make you like this?” I ask, and curse myself for my weakness.  I don’t know what drives me to ask in the first place. Some idiotic curiosity spilling over in my heart. “What pushes you to do that for me?”

Yimmer blinks, then shakes his head, as if clearing it, stares at me as if truly seeing me for the first time.

“I don’t know,” he murmurs, and turns away, leaning against the side of the bed of iron and woven plant. “I… I suppose I really don’t. It doesn’t sit well with me. Their treatment of you. Argus didn’t die… just so they could… hurt you, like that.”

It’s alien. Wrong somehow. I didn’t grow up with him. I never sang or played the pipes or danced with him in the forest. I’ve just met him. I’ve only just now begun to understand him.

Why would he help me? There must be some motive beyond me, something that I don’t understand.

“Who was Argus?” I ask, after a time.

He doesn’t answer, and after watching him for a while, I decide he must be asleep.

It isn’t until I lean over to see his face that I can be sure.

Tears are streaking his cheeks, his breaths come in short and clipped, his eyes are shut tightly.

I pull away, lying against the plants. So woven, they don’t really feel like the green friends I know in the forest- they don’t feel alive. I’ve heard humans talk about it once. Cloth perhaps. Silk for what spiders and worms weave.

After a time, I manage to find sleep. Though silent, I can feel Yimmer’s crushing sorrow, and though dreamless, my rest is not restful.

 

“Up.”

The human voice startles me awake. I look into the eyes of the human captain. They are downcast, and after a moment I realize he is staring down at Yimmer, and not at me.

“Private Kindleheart, on your feet.”

“…Captain?”

“We leave. Now.”

“Yessir,” Yimmer replies. Were he full human, I could not read him. Since he has sylvan blood, his emotions are clear as day: He doesn’t want to go. The captain turns to me.

“Faunling. Stand. Follow.”

I find the nearly familiar agony burning in my legs, and quickly rise to my hooves, standing. As the captain steps from the tent, I follow after him, tossing a quick glance back at Yimmer, who rises as well. Then the pain shoots down my legs, followed by a less familiar sharp spike of it along the bone. I cry out without meaning to, but force myself to follow after the human, stepping out into the dawn.

A voice fills my head, and not one I am pleased to feel.

Little faun. You will not escape. The men and their dogs will die.

I’ll wrap you up in a rootfold cape and tear you apart inside.

Say one word to the human fools and you will be first to fall.

Deep in the earth, buried and covered, I will begin to draw.

The marrow from bone will slake my thirst and in blood my seed will grow.

The strength of the images that twisted earthchild sends me chill my blood, chill me to the core. I feel shakes and shivers roll through me. I can’t stop them, and nearly fall when Yimmer notices. He steadies me, a hand on my shoulder, a hand on my back. As the world fades into focus again and I hear those around me, I am aware of muttering.

I realize that Yimmer is holding me, then, that aside from his hand, he has an arm wrapped around me.

“Her leg is broken,” he says to the stares. “She shouldn’t be walking on it in the first place. How are we to deal with the wood-walker?”

“A fair question,” concedes the captain. “We brought torches. I suggest firebrands as a defense at least, to ward it away, and then moving swiftly out of its reach.”

Yimmer glances at me, and I find myself shaking my head. “No,” I whisper. “Fire won’t work. This earthchild is bigger than- at least five of the oldest sleeping earthchildren put together. We can’t fight it with fire.”

I can see your lips moving… I know what you say…

I freeze, trembling. I can feel the vibrations as the earthchild’s roots move underneath me.

“What is your name?” I ask, quietly. “If you are to kill me, tell me your name.”

“What?” Yimmer says sharply. “I’m not going to-“ Then, realization. “Captain! The wood-walker will strike now! We need to mo-“

All around, the ground caves in. All around us, the earth gives way. Wriggling, writhing under it, seething with growth and masses of living, squirming roots, some as thick around as my thighs, some as thin as a hair. Shouts, screams, cries.

The air is thick with the sound of snapping, crunching bone, battered iron scales, broken fangs and rent skin.

Just as abruptly, the air is thick with rain. The sky opens up and pours down rain, heavy as can be, and I hear the earthchild scream in agony, see its flailing roots, bare and smoking as water pours onto them, feel its pain as a palpable wave.

I am astonished, but not for long. On hands and legs both I feel the human magic hiss and drain free, and instantly I understand, instantly I know as I watch the roots stiffen and still.

“Purifying storm,” I whisper. On one leg, then on both I bolt, but I don’t make it far. As I yank myself away from Yimmer, stumble, trip and near fall, I feel his arms around my waist and chest, feel him draw me back hard against him. He should know better.

I smash his toes in with one hoof, stomping hard, and slam the back of my head into his nose. It makes a sickening crunch.

He doesn’t even flinch, even as something warm runs down the back of my neck, something warm and sticky.

“Listen to me, faunling,” he whispers. “Listen to me, Sarah.”

I don’t know why I can’t run. I don’t know what keeps me here. The human magic contained in the bands still wrapped around my legs and wrists is gone. Their foul leash is gone.

“You can’t run. Don’t run.”

Even without magic to tell me not to move, to send pain scything through me, I listen to him. I relax in his grip, half-turn, easing up my hoof from his foot.

“They will kill you if you run. They will track you down now. They think it is panii sorcery and nothing I say will convince them otherwise.” His voice is thick. It doesn’t surprise me, considering his crushed nose.

I can feel his pain bubbling up through his toes. I can feel his heart pounding against my back, even through his leather scales.

“Are you going to run?” he asks quietly. I can barely hear him over the sound of the rain.

I shake my head, aware that my hair is wet with his blood. Terror steals strength from my limbs. Terror and stabbing pain lingering in my leg. I’ve failed again.

“Swear.”

“I will not run,” I say, in a voice that comes out more like a whimper. “I promise. I swear.”

“Do you have her, Kindleheart?”

“I have her. With respect, sir, our division is in disarray. What’s left of our men might take days to reach the Gardens.”

The captain stares at Yimmer for a moment, and then nods. “Go on.”

“Let me take her there. Two will travel much faster than a group like this.”

“Absolutely not, Private. If you split off, what’s to stop it from kicking free and running as soon as it can?”

“The bands, sir,” Kindleheart points out. “The control bands.”

The captain hesitates. Finally, he seems to make up his mind. “I’m coming with you.”

Yimmer’s expression doesn’t change, but I can feel his hope sink away. “Yes sir.”

I turn slightly in his grip, looking at his face- bloody, sylvan features slightly smashed from contact with the back of my skull. I can see the pain in his eyes, but I can’t really understand it.

 

I realize then, walking with him, that my heart is pounding in my chest again. As we pick our way over petrified roots, as we stumble through the forest, following after the captain, I feel excitement rushing through me. He doesn’t know those filthy human bands are magic-less now. He doesn’t know I’m free.

I feel as though my heart could burst in my chest.

Any second now, I know he’ll weaken, I know his grip will weaken, and I will escape.

I know he will.

I’m led down, around and away from the whole of the earthchild. Its roots are still and its branches no longer sway as though alive. Its magic, exposed to the purifying storm, is drained away, just like the evil energy stored in the bands was leeched. The way is twisting and winding- some of the roots are as thick around as whole other earthchildren. Twice I stumble, twice Yimmer is there with his arms around me, to pull me back against him. He could let me fall, but he doesn’t. Twice then, I realize I could bolt. Twice, I let my hooves continue to carry me unhindered and refuse to attempt escape.

I don’t know what comes over me. Even with my heart pounding and my legs trembling  with every step, even though I know the chances I have of escaping shrink with every step I take towards the edge of the forest, I can’t make myself run.

Then, all at once, we stop. A dread rushes through me all at once. Something about the human’s stance seems off. Something about the way he holds himself seems wrong.

“That seems far enough,” the captain says, and then he changes. His eyes turn a sharp red, his fingers lengthen, his whole body twists and then rises. Leather footwear turns to hooves, woven clothes fall away to reveal the lower half of a massive stag and the upper half of a man– he is a pan. Armor fades away to nothing, a glamour I hadn’t even noticed. Naked and massive, he towers over both of us, wild muscle rippling as he stretches out.

He faces me, faces Yimmer, grinning with jagged teeth. His words come in full sylvan.

“I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist, boy. Her song ensnared you, and now you’re both mine.”

Without a word, I can almost feel the half-blood soldier draw free his iron fang, and I do feel him push me gently away.

The pan’s voice is familiar, and almost instantly I place it, even in sylvan base instead of common, like back in the tent. Dimly, I wonder what happened to the real captain of Yimmer’s legion. Dimly, I realize that this must be why the earthchild had not struck him down. It had not sensed him. He is not human.

Dumbly, I stand on my hooves, numb.

Yimmer takes a step between me and the pan, who stares at me with open lust and fiery rage. That gaze focuses on the halfblood next, and even though the twisted pansatyr is without a fang, he stands three heads above Yimmer, just as I stand a head below. He is massive. Even though Yimmer holds iron, I know it is a fight he will not win. The pansatyr’s eyes gleam with hidden magic and craft.

Quaking, I freeze in indecision.

Yimmer’s gaze flicks to me but a moment. “Run, faunling,” he whispers.

On broken leg and shattered hope, I bolt.

 

After crashing through the forest a time, I come to the edge of a thick stream. The water flows past, cold against my fingers as I kneel down and let it run over them. Reeds, spidery and thin, stretch up into the air in the bank, as if begging for rain. I twist my fingers around them, hide among them, ducking, crouching down, listening. In the first few minutes, all I could hear was my heartbeat. Now it still holds true. There is no sound of pursuit. My leg is pulsing agony in hot, sick waves. I can feel the bone where it pierces muscle.

Every instinct tells me I need to run. I can’t scent him– the pan– and I don’t have the scent of Yimmer…

He had just smelled of leather, mostly. Leather and something else. Something familiar and strange at the same time.

Like home, like the groves.

I’m surprised by tears, dripping down my cheeks.

My heart freezes in my chest at the sound, very faint and yet very close, of a stick snapping. I close my eyes, crouched, ready to spring away despite my leg’s protests, fingers curling against my palms. Steadily, crunching noises- squelching noises, sticks crunching under hooves, ground giving way under the weight of something massive. I hear it all, feel it in my bones as it approaches.

“Come out, little faun,” a voice- the voice of the pan, of the fat man from the tent, of the captain. “Come out and see what I’ve done to your friend…”

I can’t move. I can’t breathe.

I left him. It’s my fault. I left him there to fight alone.

“He screamed and screamed… will you scream like he did? He isn’t saying anything anymore, and I’m getting bored….”

I feel my heart grow colder in my chest, colder still. My eyes close and my heart stings it beats so hard. I can smell blood now. He’s upwind of me. I know he is. I can smell him and the scent makes my legs tremble. Thick with wild lust, thick with hunger and rage. It’s a heady scent, something that lingers in my nose and lungs and inundates me like magic. It’s a pressure I can’t stand.

I hear Yimmer’s voice, then, raised in a whimper. I feel terror rooting me to the spot. I can’t move. My heart is racing and I can’t move.

Slowly, ever so slowly, I can hear the footsteps begin to crunch away over sticks and brush.

“Maybe I’ll leave him here, to drown in the muck…”

I hear a splash. A gurgling noise. Suddenly, I can see a shape, struggling, sputtering in the stream, not even two armspans away and still nearly shrouded with reeds. Skin like olive thrashes in the stream. A hoof is barely visible resting atop Yimmer’s back and holding him down. He will drown.

“Come out, faun… don’t you want to save your friend?”

Finally then, my body unfreezes.

I stand, straighten on legs that shake, straighten no more than two spans away from the pansatyr where he stands, one foot on the bank, the other on Yimmer’s slowly weakening body. Instantly I realize that he is already staring at me, has been looking at me the entire time. I can see it in his grin, can see it in his eyes.

“Good girl,” he says softly. “Good little doe, so loyal.”

Flee flee FLEE scream my instincts. Run until you can’t run anymore!

Numbly, barely aware of it, I twist the reeds in my hands.

I twist them and twist them until I realize they’ve taken on a shape– a familiar, wonderfully comforting shape. As the pan steps towards me onto the bank, the dawn catching his features and shining bright, I bring the pipes, formed from hope and eager, friendly reeds, up to my mouth.

Staring at my grinning, jagged-toothed antagonist, feeling his sick intent, I blow into the shortest reed. Energy gathers around me and, at the call of the reed- which splinters into pieces under the pressure, launches itself forth.

The blast ripples outwards in a terrible wave, sings through the air like lightning. It smashes into the pan’s chest with a hideous crack, and he stumbles back into the stream, so shocked he can’t breathe a curse. He makes a tremendous splash as he falls over.

Shaking in terror and relief, legs moving without me willing them, I half-limp half-stagger into the stream after Yimmer. The water is frigid.

My fur is soaked through, but I ignore it. I wade, then hop back onto the bank and, heedless of reeds, roots or otherwise, follow it along the bank. In the light of the dawn though, it does not take long for me to find him.

Find him I do- he lies facedown in the water, spans and spans- countless steps downstream.

I don’t call out. The pansatyr is not dead and I have no wish to draw attention to myself. Instead I lean at the edge of the water and, gripping Yimmer’s hand, I pull him up onto the bank of the creek, pull him up, put my arms under his and manage to drag him into the cover of the reeds. There I sit, holding him in my lap, heart pounding, pipes- sans the lowest- clutched in my hand.

I wait.

I listen.

 

After a time, he stirs, and my heart leaps. Yimmer’s eyes flutter open. His body is caked with blood and mud. He’s shivering uncontrollably and completely naked, though rendered decent– by positioning if not by dirt.

“Sar-!” he starts, but I cover his mouth with a hand desperately.

“Shh,” I hiss. “No words.”

I know my lower half is wet and cold, but he is so freezing it must be an improvement.

I slip my hands down and then up under his rear, pull him up tight against me.  It’s then that I feel it- rather, I feel the lack of it, and I stare into his eyes, bleary, frightened and riddled with guilt. There’s no time to talk, though. As I open my mouth, I hear a familiar crunching noise, of hooves on twigs. I hear harsh breathing, feel an oppressive presence.

“I’m going to eat you, little faun… i’ll eat you right up, swallow you whole… you and your blasted pipes…. I was just going to have fun before… now I’m angry….”

I feel Yimmer freeze- insofar as it’s possible, shaking and cold as he is. His body is cut in a dozen different places, but I don’t think they hurt him. I think he’s too numb for that.

I know songs on the pipe to warm the blood, I know notes to play to put heat in the bones of anyone who listens to them. I dare not, I know not to play those songs now. I can nearly feel the pan. I can hear its heavy breathing as though it stands right next to me, as though those jagged teeth are about to plunge into my neck.

Suddenly, I feel an urgency. If he finds Yimmer…

I can’t defend him like this. I can’t face the pan sitting down.

And I know I must. I know if I don’t face down the satyr here, he’ll regain his strength- his fur will dry, his chest will heal, and he’ll come after me again when I am unaware. Then he’ll kill me. This is not a fight I can run from.

At the least I can draw him away from Yimmer and give him a better chance!

I stand, letting Yimmer rest on the bank. I leap from behind the reeds all in one moment, duck a hairy hand and scramble away into the trees. My leg cries out in pain, my hoof barely supports my weight. It’s a short run.

All at once, before I can steel myself, before I can even scream, the pansatyr is upon me. His thick fingers close tight on my left arm and yank me back so hard that it does something terrible to my shoulder and the pipes drop from my fingers.

Tears of pain dot my face as he bears me down, as one of his hooves crunches the pipes into the grass. He hurls me forward onto the ground, face down. His hands reach for me, grabbing my legs, his breath released in a heavy growl. Those thick fingers dig into my fur and pinch my skin.

Terror takes me- mindless terror. I kick out. His grip slips and my hoof connects with his jaw. His remaining hand doesn’t let go, but he snarls and I know I’m going to die. “Stupid little doe-“

“Drop her,” Yimmer says flatly. I can’t see him, but I hear the pan shift, twist around to face him. He’ll get himself killed!

“You should have stayed down, boy who is not,” the pan says with a low chuckle. “Now I’ll eat you, too.”

“I’m more of a man than you,” Yimmer says, and there’s no fight in his voice at all. He sounds tired and cold. He smells tired and cold. Determined, perhaps- but it won’t protect him. He’s buying me time. “More of a man than a wild, lust-crazed beast. Even Sarah is more man than a monster.”

“Monster?” the pan asks slowly. It drops me, but not before leaving long scratches on my thighs, dirty and stinging. He straightens and turns, he stands and turns and walks towards Yimmer’s voice, one hoof after the other. “Monster?

I scrabble in the mud then, with one hand, ignoring the terrible ache in my leg, tears streaming down my face, gasping in mixed relief and panic. I find the shattered remnants of the pipes and my heart plummets. The world fades to grey and black.

I hear a gasp and a sharp growl, hear Yimmer’s reply. I hear his subsequent whimper of pain, and my vision blurs red. Sharp red, like the splintered pipes in my grip.

Thick pipes, thick reed pipes. Splintered.

Rising, I turn and, walking slowly on grass and dirt, approach behind the pansatyr who, so intent on Yimmer, bent over him, doesn’t notice until I drive one of the splintered, jagged pieces of reed pipe into the back of his neck. I slam it in so hard that its tip bursts from the other side. He rises with a hideous gurgle, turns, swinging, the tips of his long fingernails slicing into my bare chest, clipping me and sending me stumbling backward. He follows after me, tottering forward a step or two. A moment more and the pipetip disappears. There’s a sick squelching noise, and then the pansatyr topples, collapses into a heap on the ground.

For our parts, Yimmer, clutching the jagged piece of reed, stares across at me as I stare back at him. The moment comes, lingers, and then is gone. Tension seeps away from us in a tide.

There are many questions I have– why he would pretend to be a soldier, what drives him to be a man, where we will go– but for once I stifle my curiosity. I’m too weak to move, so it is Yimmer who walks to me and sinks into my arms.

Cold, shaking, but overwhelmed with relief, we hold tight to one another.

As the sun shines down and slowly begins to warm us, I finally understand what it is that drew him to protect me.

“I love you,” I whisper into his ear.

His smile warms me more than the sun ever could.

—-

 

Okay, so I’m a dirty liar. I AM working hard– believe you me, in the last few months I’ve been working harder and writing much more than ever I have before. The caveat of course, is that it takes much longer than I thought to write a short story- I CAN do them in a day, but that would be easiest when I have nothing BUT short stories to write. And hardest, because then I get distracted. I may not be playing competitive games, but there are plenty of other things to distract you when you’re intent on fulfilling a resolution! Well, here it is- after all that work. I have actually done two in the time it usually takes me to make one, but I can’t post the other one, alas.

Anyway. Hope you enjoyed. If it drags on too long this next time I’ll do poetry or something to tide you guys over. (and because I haven’t poeted in a long while)

See ya!

-Eris

Short Story Challenge #1: Red Ribbons

Red Ribbons

a short story by Sam Oliver

They hang from the pommel of my sword. They shine, slick with tears. I raise my head as the sun catches the glint on the metal along its blade, as I stare down my opponent. Arnold stands between us, his good eye on me, then on Trannis before me.

He raises his hand, giving me an almost imperceptible nod.

His gravelly voice rings out. “Let this battle commence, a duel to the death between Rhymerta Craveheart and Trannis Silverblight. Let it be known that this is a duel of honor, and therefore no law is to be invoked by any present, living or dead, that states one or the other should be ruled unlawful and therefore criminal.”

He lowers his hand and gives me the wink I’ve come to recognize, out of sight of Trannis.

Tear him apart.
The meaning behind it this time is different from any other fight.

Red ribbons whirl, and the dance before me blurs with my tears and the rain as I stride forward. The water seems to hang in the air as I bring my blade up, as I roll my shoulders into a tight whirl, spinning on my heel. Trannis, expecting a single thrust, is too late to block. He is an experienced fighter.

I am more so.

My sword arm numbs with the impact, with the force of my own blow. For a moment I am blinded by a flash, and in the next Trannis’s boot has itself on my chest. As my vision clears, I find my arms out, spreadeagled, the point of his sword hanging above me, no, dropping towards me. I lean my head to the side and feel that evil blade drive into the dirt near my head.

The blasted traveler’s pack is being crushed beneath me and a flicker of worry touches my numb heart.
I bring my own sword in close and stab up and forward. I feel the point sink into something and twist the pommel, twist the whole of it, forcing it in deeper, driving it in until hot, red iron splashes against my lips. The tang of it is familiar. I lick it away, and sound rushes back.
I rock the hilt up, twist it again as he screams. Trannis’s panic spills out around me in echoing waves.

“No! Mine!” he screams incoherently. “B-BOUNTY! No!”

I shove him off of me, pushing him over, my blade, having riven through groin and belly, I pull free, wrapping my fingers around the red ribbons tied to both the pommel and my wrist.

With its familiar weight in my hand, I push myself back up to my feet. Slick something– not rain, but curiously cool and sticky– runs down the side of my head.

Trannis is wailing piteously, an animal crying in sick pain and anguish. I put a stop to it, reaching forward, pressing the slick, red metal blade against his throat, drawing my sword back.

Now gurgling, he falls face forward into the ground as it rapidly becomes muck. The rain, freezing cold but like a gift from heaven, doesn’t touch me as I stand there, staring at the man responsible for the murder of my family. Staring at him where he lies in the mud.

Honor? This was no honorable duel.

The corpse of my opponent still warm, Arnold Goodeye gives me a grim smile. “Well done, lass.”

The words echo in my hollow heart, and I let the briefest flick of a smile touch my lips.

I do not answer him. Instead, I turn away and walk the path out of the village.

“Lass!” Arnold calls after me.

I heed him not.

My steps carry me past the old willow tree near the edge of town, past the broken down huts nearby. At the village’s edge, a yawning pit stretches, reaching down into the black abyss below the continent. Were the sun to shine, I am certain I would be able to see the ocean below this vast, floating rock.

Here, at this abyss, I unwrap the pommel of my family sword slowly, unwinding the ribbon from around it. Without the ribbon, it is just a sword. Unremarkable, chipped here and there, with an edge said never to fade with time or with continued use.

It is just a sword.

I stare at the sick red staining its surface, at Trannis’s blood where it mars the metal. Still staring, I let it slip from my fingers and down into the black abyss. The ocean below is too far, I know. I will not hear the splash.

I can still watch it caroming off rock, face to face, spinning down into the darkness. When the silver glints up at me no more, I turn back around and move towards the village again.

I have things I must do.

I enter the smithy first, stepping into the shop and gently closing the door behind me.

“You have much to answer for, Rhymerta Craveheart, and a truly steel nerve to enter here after killing my husband,” Limanda’s soft voice murmurs directly in my ear.

I pay it no heed. The witch herself is standing before me, behind the counter not three feet from me. A crossbow, held in wary but strong hands, is leveled at my breast. I take note of the bodkin headed bolt. It would pass through me and out into the path beyond. Such a tip is meant for piercing armor.
“Your husband slew my children in exchange for a bounty, Limanda,” I say quietly. I feel nothing, even looking at the tip of the bolt meant for my heart. Fear for life is long since past.

“So you took vengeance upon him instead of visiting him with justice?” she asks levelly. “Has slaying him in turn brought your children back to you?”

I ignore that. “His body lies outside, should you wish to bury it.”

“Kind of you to allow me to bury my own husband,” Limanda says without irony. After a moment, she lowers the crossbow. “I will not be joining him today, but one day you will be repaid for the pain you have inflicted on my family. Now this child will be born without a father.”

“That is fine. I came here to ask a commission,” I murmur. “Since Trannis is dead, could you do the deed?”

“What need you forged?” Limanda asks. Her voice, like mine, seems hollow. I can see the beginnings of tears in them, feel the drying ones on my face. The ribbons around my wrist feel heavy.

“I have need of a sword of singing steel,” I answer. “And I have need of it now.”

Limanda stares at me a moment, then gives a bitter laugh. “Singing steel? You trouble me for a tale.”

“I have need of it, nonetheless. Can you create it, Limanda Silverblight?”

“If I had the materials, then of course I could,” she says, then gives me a sharp look, momentarily breaking her grim demeanor. “Have you the materials, then, Rhymerta?”

“No,” I reply. “I do not have all of the materials. I will. And I will return with the rest. For now, here is the Song.”

I pull free a scroll of parchment from my traveler’s pack and lay it on the counter.

She picks it up, reads through it, and pales.

“Such a Song has never been written to a blade before,” she says quietly. “Are you certain this is what you would have me try, though I have never made a blade like this? Can you pay?”

“Limanda, the fame of being the first to create this blade would be enough,” I say hollowly. “Am I not correct?”

Limanda Soulblight gnaws on her thin lip a moment, staring me in the eyes, down at the parchment, back at me again. “Yes. It will be enough.”

“Good.” The word is sharp as it drops from my lips. “Then see to preparations. I will see to collecting the other materials.”

“Know you what all of them are?”

“Yes,” I answer firmly. “Good day to you, Limanda.”

“Curse you for what you have done, but may the Tears bless you for what you are to undertake, and the tragedy my husband inflicted upon you,” she bids to my retreating back. I know without looking that she turns to her work as the door closes again behind me.

The first ingredient to singing steel is a mandrake. There are none nearby, but all know that my husband Ivan is a wizard. Among the magical ingredients upon the shelves, the dried mandrake root shows itself almost prime among the magical items in our home.

Red stains the wood floor still. I have not the heart to wash it free from the house. It is all that I have left of my children.

I think back to Trannis. The look on his face when he had struck down my children before me, when he had walked out of the house, laughing, the mangled manikins that had once been part of my heart spread-eagled, roped to the chairs he had left them in.

Myself, bound and soiled, staring at the floor, forced to listen to the shrieks and the crying and the harsh panting, the terrible laughter. Rage wraps me again, but it is a cool rage, a calculated rage. Arnold had found me and had freed me.

Despite his terrible methods, Trannis had been working within the limits of the law. A bounty hunter need not pay for his victims, so long as they are truly on the lists. It is I who am now to blame. The House will no doubt soon learn of his death, if they do not know already. I can expect his associates to come for me.

I have time still, though. Time to work.

The mandrake root here is not what I came for, however. It is dry, and that will not do for a singing blade. I need living mandrake. And then I need to kill it. A mandrake’s death shriek can penetrate the deepest powers of magic available to man, beast or aberration. Only those touching iron are said to be able to survive it.

I reach instead to the staff, lying still on my husband’s workbench, charged with eldritch powers beyond any reckoning. If there is any way to gather these ingredients with expedience, the secret lies within this wooden husk.

Taking it up, I finger a symbol along its edge. Sung wood is nowhere near as potent as sung steel, but this will do for my purpose. I only hope that my husband will condone my actions when he realizes what Trannis did to our children. I do not feel that I can bear to tell him now, however, even as I see the symbol to reach him engraved upon the staff’s hilt, below the crystal embedded in its top.

The crystal is clouded. Wherever he is, the crystal cannot find him. For that I am thankful, at least. Were he here now, I do doubt he would be able to overcome his rage. The village would not long survive his wrath, for allowing Trannis to murder our children, and I have need of Limanda to create this singing steel for me.

With that in mind, I touch the symbol of the Siren’s Lair, and, with it firmly thought in my head and the image held in my heart, I vanish.

Her song falls around me as I step forth from nothingness, as I stumble into the shallows direct from the air. I catch myself with the staff, rapping its heel against the ground and using it to support me. The Siren is coiled in front of me, watching, singing in her hauntingly beautiful voice. Her tail is coiled and her arms are relaxed, but I am quite aware of the deadly venom contained in those lovely white teeth and the sting hidden within her claws.

After a moment she seems to realize I will not be enchanted; I cannot even understand what it is the words to her sweet song are, only that if I were able to, I would instantly be enthralled. A Siren’s song cares not for whether one prefers men or women– only that they are able to understand the singer. Thwarted thus, the Siren pouts, folding her arms and ceasing her wondrous racket.

Instead, she speaks in plain words. “What dost thou want of me, witch?”

“I came for mandrake,” I reply quietly. “I seek to create a singing steel blade.”

“Fruitless, but sweet a quest, to be sure. Cans’t thou not rest a while here?”

“You have had not my husband, you shall have not me,” I answer, and that puts an end to that.

The Siren sighs and rolls her golden eyes, then flicks a claw away behind me. I carefully move out of the shallows and turn, still keeping my eyes on her, only half-daring to look at where she seems to indicate. When it becomes clear that she is not about to strike at me– at least yet– I risk a quick glance.

It is a garden.

Buried in the ground I can see the tops of mandrake– and other varieties of nightshade. Wolfsbane as well, and I step around it lightly– tales of novice magicians falling prey to the flower still haunt my dreams. I am almost certain my husband was joking about its lashing roots and poisonous pollen, but I have too many things to do now to risk it.

I turn my gaze from the Siren, reach down and yank up one of the mandrakes by the hair. It kicks once, dangling from my fist, then is still. I turn back to watch Siren, in time to catch a blur of scaly movement, in time to watch claws dart up towards my face, to see her pretty sharp teeth flash in a snarl.

I shout, raising an arm, crying out as the Siren’s claws sweep toward my face. To my utter surprise, the ribbon wrapped around my arm catches around the Siren’s wrists and draws them taut together, uncurling itself from around my own wrist as it does so.

Shock opens, then shuts my mouth. I cannot believe my luck. The Siren is unable to draw away now, trussed– but for her thrashing tail– and staring up at me with hatred. She says not a word, but she needs not.

The look she gives me is more venomous than the sting hidden in her claws, more poisonous than the wolfsbane trampled beneath her waist as she’d lunged. I contemplate leaving her here and making away– I have the mandrake now. There is no need for me to stay.

I would have, too, I think, but she speaks as I begin to turn.

“So thou art like to abandon me, as thy husband did. If thou hast the heart, why cans’t thou not simply do away with me here? I am at thy full mercy.”

Her voice is strangely pathetic, now that she is out from the shallows of the water. Her eyes are warm, like golden pools, and her tail is invitingly strong. For a very brief– no, the briefest– moment I wonder what it would be like to lay with her as a man. What would my husband see in such a creature, or any other man, for that matter? What would draw them to her? Where is her lure cast? Would to me she promise companionship or carnal pleasure?

These wonders are broken by the realization that curiosity is a form of corruption, and that in this case I am being corrupted by being near her without answers.

A terrible desire comes across me when she speaks next, and it is through sheer force of will that I prevent myself stumbling towards her.

“Come lie with me, Rhyme. You are curious, are you not?” the Siren coos, her voice layered with a heat the likes of which I have never felt. It infiltrates me at odd places; I can feel it tingling along my thighs and arms, belly, under my breasts. It forces a shiver through me. I open my mouth to answer her, but the words will not come out. How long has it been since I have shared a bed with my husband?

Her words weave in and around me, penetrating skin and somewhere inside of me, to something primal in me. Of a sudden I am faced with the images of my dead, mangled children, of Trannis and the coming wrath of the House. Shame, hotter and more dangerous than desire could hope to be, clears my blurring mind. I would lie with this monster and forget the quest which drew me here in the first place. She would have me dead in an instant, and then who would be there to meet the House but poor Ivan?

It is through instinct and that shame that I resist, that when I do manage to speak finally, it is hoarse rebuff.

“Away, temptress, away Siren. I will not submit to your deadly coils; even when your voice is sweet as to make the heavens themselves cry for you. Have gone with you!”

My words manage to make themselves heard, but no sooner have I finished them then she laughs. She laughs and laughs, silvery, light and haunting. “Before I do disappear, as thou wouldst wish– take this final gift, for thy stout heart and chaste ways. The sorcerer Ivan did not last half so long as you!”

Never have I felt so thoroughly mocked, so defeated in victory, as she slips into the water and takes my ribbons with her, unhindered– the ‘gift’ is a brief parting of the legs which make her tail, revealing herself to me briefly like some common harlot- and yet, from the desire that urges me to chase her, I know her skill in teasing is far greater than any harlot available at any guild or house. Near overcome, I manage to press my thumb against the emblem of the Hydra on my staff, praying every moment that she will not sing. The Siren’s Lair is no longer necessary. I hope never to need to return to this place. I envision the dark depths of the Hydra.

I vanish once more.

This time I step from air to sand, from sand to stone, and stare into the gaping jaws of the First Head. Stone teeth hang above me, stone teeth jut up below and before me. I step from the sand and onto the petrified tongue of the First, picking up a booted foot above the forked tongue and laying it down again. Without a blade and without much of a prayer, I enter the darkness of the First of the Hydra’s many throats.

The old stone beast spans much of the southern half of our adrift continent. Its bulk is huge almost beyond measure, and legend has it that its eerily statuesque appearance is solely the work of an incredibly powerful mage. It is in the depths of its massive body that one finds the rarest of luminous iron. Not in ore veins, but in perfect orbs scattered about. It is this that I must hunt, through the serpentine throat of the long-calcified creature.

I am not more than ten feet in when all light fails to penetrate further. I fumble, in the dark, for a symbol my husband had taught me, one engraved into the surface of the staff. In moments the head of the crystal at its tip blazes brilliant.

As I step forward again, a glint of red catches my eye on the ground, and it is with some astonishment that I realize my arm is wrapped in ribbon.

The ribbon that I had kept, on a whim, from the pommel of my family’s old blade. The ribbon which had, a mere minute before, saved my life. I had never had a chance to miss the weight of it. Now in the light of the staff, it seems to glitter and sway against the breeze rather than with it– which itself is drawn in and out again steadily and rhythmically, to give the whole place a sickeningly alive feel.

The ground gives way, after a quarter of an hour travel at least, from unrecognizable and somewhat ridged, rough stone to a long, dark, smooth marble passage downward– likely to the grand Belly of the beast. With no visible luminous iron thus far, I am certain that I will need to turn back and enter another of the mouths. Perhaps my husband took all supplies of luminous iron with him; perhaps no iron existed here in the first place. Regardless, I decide there is no hope of finding it here, and am about to turn away when a screeching creature vaults up the near totally smooth slope.

Two massive hand-claws, stained red with overuse, adorn its horny fists. Its skin is scaled and appears like pebble rather than that which I or my husband are made. Its eyes are a wicked orange, and its tongue, forked, flicks out to taste the air and to taste the scent of me.

It is at least as tall as I, its neck serpentine and coiled, its teeth sharper than the edge of night. Those deadly claws are what have my attention, more than its razor mouth and its hideous snarl, more than its charge, even, and I stand transfixed as it charges me down.

It is old fighter instinct that finally pushes me. I duck away and out. It swings, misses with one claw, turns, and slips.

Somehow my ribbon is responsible. Somehow that scaled foot caught on the tail edge of my ribbon- which then curled and pulled without me willing it.

The serpent-man goes down, but not for long. It uses its flicking tail for leverage, pushing itself back up and hurling itself towards me again. My back is to the wall (which is unpleasantly wet) and I roll left. I manage to stop in time, but now I stand at a precarious edge. Down, and still down, this passage leads to the Belly– where acid and terrible creatures are sure to lie in wait– and before me stands a now furious serpent-man. If the fall would not kill me, I am sure to be slain upon regaining consciousness, or perhaps before. I would lie broken until something worse devoured me or slew me.

Those terrible claws face me again with the serpent-man as it regains its bearings.

It is then, and only then, that I notice a glow from a small pouch at its belt, and my heart skips a long beat. I am certain it carries a luminous iron ob with it.

It approaches more cautiously this time, though, staring me down. I am certain it will attempt to force me to fall down the throat of the Hydra. I am certain it will attempt to push me down, and as I brace myself, I realize I have but one option. I cannot let it and its luminous iron fall into the Belly and be lost. I must deal with it here.

I lift the ribbon on my wrist, unwrap it slowly as the creature approaches, casting the staff aside a moment, letting the brilliance shine here. I can’t afford to use the staff. If it were to be cut then I might never return home. It is a long walk, and I have no wish to die of starvation; to win here would be hollow a victory if I only were to die later.

Without warning, the creature rushes me. It takes two long strides and swipes with the claw- a wicked slash from the left. I duck right, rolling away from its swing. It follows, and as I come up that left metal claw comes down for my head while the right drives for my stomach. I hop back, still rising, but slam into the wall.

Stunned, I stagger away as claws slice the air beside me. I nearly slip, but warrior’s training makes me lash out as I am about to fall. The ribbon, as if guided by an unseen manipulator, arcs through the air and coils around the long, serpentine throat of my assailant. I pull back my arm sharply. The resultant crunch goes far beyond sickening. It makes me downright queasy, and for a few moments I lean against the wall and try not to think about what had once been the serpent-man’s neck. My weapon is slick with green blood. I watch it slip down the edges of my red ribbon. As if bewitched, the green drops all slide away, spattering the floor. My ribbon is once again crimson alone and untainted.

I retrieve the luminous iron- as I had surmised, a sphere rests within the pouch my antagonist had kept. I also retrieve the staff where it rests against the far wall, exactly where I had left it, and, thumbing the symbol for home, I am lost from the sight of all nearby, the light of my husband’s staff retreating with me.

An empty house greets me as I step forth from the space between spaces. The iron in hand and mandrake stowed in my traveler’s pack, I make my way out of the house. As I leave, a biting fly nips at my ankle, of all places, and I note- dimly, through fatigue and emptiness- that I would do well to renew the pest charm. The thought of biting flies– or any other living thing, really– desecrating the space my children once laughed and played in is a numbing one, but intolerably so.

I pass my husband’s workbench, and find there a note addressed to him there. Whoever left it must not know of my husband’s ways– he never returns to the house during the week. It is more likely that I will meet him while I am out, since I am to visit the Artifacte Boutique next. I pick up the note and pocket it.

Stepping out onto the main road, to the cobbles that lead me to Limanda’s Smithy, I see almost immediately that Trannis’s corpse has been moved. I am unsurprised to see a dagger stuck into the post at the edge of my husband’s property, either. Nor am I surprised to read the runes and understand– the House is after me. They mark me for three days hence and advise me to give my regards to my loved ones or arrange for revival. They apologize for the inconvenience.

I take the dagger and stick it in the sheath at my belt. It is the third such dagger I have found, and you never know when you may need another blade. As all I have now is my red ribbon, I am sure that I will need this blade.

I walk down the eerily quiet street and arrive at Limanda’s Smithy. I find it strange, but no one is on the street. Cobbles have been unearthed here or there, and shattered in other places as if by obscene force. The door to the shop across the way appears to have been torn entirely from its hinges. There are signs of struggle all over– but no fires, no corpses. Curious though it may be, it does not penetrate the depressed gloom that surrounds my heart.

The door to the Smithy itself is partially ajar, and so I crack it open the whole of the way.

A tableau of mayhem reaches me, and a hundred little niggling signs now suddenly make sense.

I have not heard a thing– not a whisper, not a yell, no noise whatsoever, since I arrived here.

I realize then, as I shout, that no noise is escaping my head.

Standing there, lifting Limanda by both arms and busy tearing a ragged line through her clothes with a razor sharp nail, is a massive, terrible troll. Scabbed and scarred in a dozen places, bristling with almost half-a-dozen useless feathered shafts, its broad, tall form turns to look at me and lets out a silent, terrifying roar.

It is naked, and I realize with a sickening clench in my gut that I have saved Lima from one terrible fate only to join her in it.

With that yawning pit in my stomach, I snap free the ribbon from my wrist once more. Iron in one hand, ribbon in the other, I stand stock still, fright making me quake.

The troll’s scream is felt rather than heard as it hurls Limanda against the far wall in a silent crash of metal and splintering wood. Of a sudden, fury fills me up.

It cannot compare to the terrible fury that once ran through me as I struck down Trannis.

It cannot compare to that. It is enough, however, to make me shake with rage.

The troll charges, stooped low, swiping forth with a long dirty hand tipped with razor nails. Barely aware of my action, I spin inward along the edge of its arm and flick up with the ribbon. It tears a wicked line up through the troll’s leathery belly, breaking scars and through an arrow shaft on its way up through the troll’s jaw and neck.

Gurgling and hissing silently, it sweeps me aside with one long, bony arm.

I tumble out the door. Everything blurs. The ribbon flees my arm, curls under me, trapped under the traveler’s pack as I slam onto my back, forced to stare up at the overcast eye through eyes blurring with tears of pain.

I feel the vibrations of the troll’s approach, feel its heavy footsteps, and I cannot, I simply cannot make myself move. I brace myself for the end and, as it steps on my chest and grinds me into the dirt, crushes the air from my lungs, I only hope it desecrates me while I’m dead and not while I’m alive–
— no.

A voice inside of me, quiet as a feather’s touch, whispers that. No.

No.

No divine strength gives me power beyond my endurance. No terrible demon hides in my heart. Nothing in me but my own stubbornness forces my hand free from its position underneath me. With all my force and all my heart, I grit my teeth and, drawing the marked dagger from my belt sheath, I pull it free and jab it into the troll’s leg. It barely even feels it. It must not feel it. A hideous finger is busying itself cutting through the padded leather of my old armor– the armor I’d worn to the duel, the armor I’d killed Trannis in, the armor I’d trained my children in.

Tears help me, I drive that dagger in past the hilt, carving a hideous track through the troll’s knobbly flesh. I force it to pay attention to me, wrenching the dagger down with all of my waning strength. A ragged cut spills hot yellow-green blood everywhere.

Of a sudden, the troll lifts its foot and kicks me.

The dagger is wrenched free from my grip, but it seems stuck in the troll’s leg and does not fly loose as I do.

I do not know how long I roll, only that after I come to a halt, there is sound. Sound ungodly terrible, sound like the world is ripping itself apart. The shriek goes on and on, ceaseless, and it is then that I remember the mandrake. I also remember the sphere of iron clenched in my hand and nearly cry myself to death. It is all that saved me, and yet it has doomed me. The mandrake is ruined now– the trip was for naught, and the troll will kill me and Limanda and the rest of my villagers, my husband will return to find our maimed and defiled bodies and–
–and it is then that I see Limanda standing over me.

The wailing has ceased.

She is clutching her arm, which hangs loose against her side- not her dominant left, thank the Tears. She reaches down and helps me to my feet, lifting me onto unstable legs.

The troll, where it lies, is dead. Yellow-green blood runs from its ears, and its eyes are open and unseeing. The mandrake had done its work.

“Villagers?” I ask weakly, when I can talk at all. “Arnold?”

“Smithy cellar,” Limanda replies shakily. “Are you well?”

“I am– I have had better days,” I mutter, and then I collapse against her, and she against me, and for a time we are content with that, hugging each other, friendship renewed, baptized again by tragedy.

“What a dark day this has been,” I remark hollowly. “The mandrake is spoiled now.”

“I have been meaning to ask you, Rhyme, but for what reason do you seek to allow me to create this singing sword?”

“Singing steel is required to revive the dead,” I reply softly, with a sigh. “I hoped to bring back my children.”

Limanda blinks, at that, then gives me a sharp look I know very well. “Hoped?”

“I have lost the mandrake, and the Siren surely waits for my return now. All is for naught without mandrake to infuse the blade with song, and the luminous iron to forge the connection between blade and magic.”

“Have you no luminous iron with you, then?” Limanda asks. “I thought you would return only when you had gathered the ingredients– though I mean no disrespect. Your timely arrival brought us salvation.”

I laugh bitterly. “At a cost.”

Lima narrows her eyes, then. “Rhymerta Craveheart– do you mean to tell me that you believe the lives of your children are more important than the lives of all those who live within this village?”

I pause. What mother would declare anything other than ‘yes!’? Why then, do I have this sinking feeling in my heart?

“I-“

“You don’t believe that. You have lived in this village forever, and to gather another mandrake is a matter of swallowing your pride. You know your children will be returned to you.”

I stop, at that, staring Limanda down, feeling a cold rage running through me. What could she know of loss? Of the anguish I feel?

And yet– I realize that I have done nothing yet to ease it for either of us; I killed her husband and– justified as it may have been– I have thus killed a part of her, as her husband killed two pieces of me in slaughtering my children.

My heart aches horribly.

“My husband deserved to die,” Limanda says flatly. “Anyone who murders children deserves to die. It does not ease the pain of his passing; he was kind to me when he was alive. But it justifies it in my eyes, and I bear you no true ill will for his death. He brought it down upon himself.”

“You are wrong,” I say suddenly. In the silence that follows, the only true noise is the pit-pat of yellow-green troll blood running down and sliding off of my ribbon, until only red remains. I clutch it tighter. “No one deserves to die. Not truly. We live and suffer here, and none of us, not one of us is safe from that suffering.”

I look away as Limanda fixes me with a critical stare, and then I continue.

“We are the toys of cruel fate and fortune. They fight over us and favor one of us or the other with small petty things. But we all die in the end, though no one deserves it. The death, true death, is the end of choices.”

Limanda Silverblight walks to the dagger where it sticks up from the troll’s leg and tugs it free. Even one completely without magical talent can see that it is ablaze with power.

“Do trolls too deserve choices?” she asks. “Would you grant the troll life again if you could?”

“No.”

“Then your system is corrupt,” Limanda says flatly.

“I know, but-“

“I never said I didn’t like it. Come here. This blade will do.”

I follow Limanda as she walks into the Smithy.


Already charged with the death of the troll and the mandrake, all Limanda needs to do is mold the luminous iron in with the blade. Somewhat serendipitously, the steel dagger accepts the added metal and swiftly takes shape as a short sword.

Limanda works her magic over the forge, as I work muscle on the bellows. At times she needs me to lift things, and directs me here or there. Twice she calls me ‘Trannis’, but I bear it.

It is an odd time, and when the blade is finished, a day after we started, we are both exhausted.

We sleep then, back to back, before our work, resting our heads one against the other, both worn beyond belief. It is only now that I feel terrible pain in my ribs, and a weakness in my body I cannot fully explain. The troll had kicked me, but so absorbed had we been in our work, I had not thought to check.

It is Limanda who lifts my armor away, traces a finger down twin ragged lines of pus and crusted blood along my ribs. The touch is like fire. At first the heat is inescapably painful, and my breath rolls free of my lungs in a harsh gasp. Then her fingers touch my cheek instead.

For a moment I meet her grey eyes with mine.

Her eyes turn stonier than ever, though, and she looks away. I can see tears in them before she turns. She wraps my ribs, bandaging them up as best as she can.

The other villagers give us both a wide berth, even Arnold leaving us both alone. For a time, the solitude is beautiful beyond words. Despite the mixed cold and hot messages from Limanda, I feel safer here than in my own home. The singing sword is still cooling, but finally I feel close to my ultimate goal.

I will have my children back.

It is day three, and the sword still is not cool enough to touch. This is also the day I am sure the House will strike at me, and, coincidentally, the day my husband is sure to be back in town.

I had been unable to visit the Artifacte shop– it had been destroyed almost entirely by the troll.

It is then that my husband contacts me. The staff glows, a fire rolling along its edges. From its crystal tip, it projects an image of my husband– his white hair, his shaven face and warm brown eyes. He smiles at me– well, at the far wall. It is only a projection, after all.

Then he speaks.

“Trannis! I hope this finds you in good health. I trust with that meddling bitch and those brats out of the way we will be able to enact our overall plan. The hag had the plans for a singing steel sword. Well, you know House policy. Find them on her corpse– I trust she hid them well. Burn them. The House already knows how to make them. We don’t need any of that. Oh, and if anyone at the village asks, do tell them I’m dead. We wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise, now would we? I’ll be back in force in about three days time on the pretense of collecting bounty on my dear darling wife. That should do, eh? Anyway, have a blast if you haven’t already. Just don’t mess around with my research stuff, alright? I will see you in the flesh, as it were, in three-“

The staff shatters into a hundred thousand shards. The projection vanishes. I’m barely aware of my ribbon crawling back into place. My heart screams out, my fingers curled against my palms, my eyes shut tight. I hug my knees and take a deep, shuddering breath, trying to make sense of the dizzying message. No matter how many times I replay it, no matter how many times I push it or twist it or recite it mentally, the evidence, the terrible, horrible evidence is apparent.

The bounty on myself and my children was offered up by my husband, Ivan. Ivan.

Ivan.

The word echoes in my mind, bounces in the hollow confines of my heart until I know it will break.

Limanda enters the room at a run. A glance passes between the singing sword, the shards of the staff, and me.

“What happened?” she asks. “I heard some of that. Who was it? Who was trying to contact you?”

I cannot answer her.

I rise to my feet slowly, reach out to the anvil and lift up the forged singing steel short sword. I feel its balance and know it to be perfect. I twirl it in my fingers, staring at nothing. Then I stand and, ignoring the blazing, terrible pain as the sword marks my right hand with some of the inlaid script of the song, I begin to sing.

    Those of earth too weak to see
    The world that yet was made for thee
    Come forth now and find thy home
    Within the arms of your mother, your own
    Children made to die untime
    Children lost, daughters of Rhyme
    Rise again and learn anew
    The ways the earth had taught to you.

It is Kimberlin who forms first, appearing from the swirling air and rapidly taking form, confused, terrified, tears coursing down her face. When she can see again, when she can move again, she shuts her eyes against the glow of the forge, blinking.

Imberann forms second, and, being elder, rapidly goes from confusion, to terror, to confusion again– and then, as her eyes meet mine, she lets out a shriek, rushing to my side.

Kim soon follows.

The sword drops from nerveless, burned fingers, and ignoring the agony in my hand, I hold my children close again. The moment lasts forever, and it still is not long enough. I can see Limanda crying too. I can feel Kimberlin crying, can feel Imberann whimpering, feel both of their trembling, warm forms, feel their tears and their hopes and dreams all fragile and confused, emotions tangled into a massive knot, the scarcely remembered ghosts of pain nevertheless haunting them. I can feel all this and more from those of my blood.

And so, it is with heaviest heart, it is with the grace of the Tears that I manage to calm them both down enough to listen to me.

“Listen to me– Kim, Imber. Both of you. Listen to me.”
Arnold is at the door to the Smithy, and he listens too. The other villagers I’m sure are too busy making repairs to bother with us.

“Your father is the one who ordered you killed,” I say quietly. The words seem surreal, coming from my mouth. Even for me, my world goes hazy, blurred with stronger sorrow and compassion than I can bear. I hold my children close.

“We know,” Imber says solemnly. “We know all of it, mother. We saw you kill Trannis.”

For a moment it takes me aback. “You… saw me kill Trannis? While in the void?”

“We’ve always been with you, mommy,” Kim whispers. “Helping.”

“How-?” I ask, but stop. The ribbon.
“You needed our help,” Imberann says, when she sees my expression. “Don’t argue. We’re old enough. We’re not innocent anymore.”

“I–“ it is very nearly too much for me. I shake my head helplessly. “I thought Kimberlin at least might–“

“That man did terrible things to us, mother,” Imberann whispers. Kim nods weakly, and I see tears in both of their eyes and then it really is too much to bear. I’m strong for their sake, but inside my heart breaks and my resolve hardens.

“Are you going to kill daddy?” Kim asks quietly.

Limanda stares at me from across the anvil and then shakes her head slowly.

I turn my gaze on Arnold, and he shrugs helplessly. It’s all beyond him, I’m sure.

“No,” I say, and it is a struggle to keep my voice soft. “I am going to stop him.”

A voice calls out, then, as if fate crafted it.

“Raiders! They come from the north!”

Arnold curses and moves into the Smithy, towards the weapons rack.

I stand straight, however, giving him a look.

“This is my fight and mine alone. Limanda, Arnold, keep my children safe.”

I reach down and take the singing steel sword. It hisses in my grip, but I find it a comfort.

Then I walk out the front door to find my monstrous husband.

My feet carry my numb body out into the cold of a northern afternoon. The overcast sky brings down snow. I am in nothing but furs, bandages and breeches– Arnold’s breeches, in fact. They are a size too small.

The streets are crowded with panicked villagers– running to and fro, from one another’s houses or huts, almost all of them moving away from the approaching shadows at the edge of the village.

“Move,” I say softly. “Invisible.”

An almost imperceptible ripple passes through them as they part, consciously or not, to give me room to walk through them. It is a short walk from the Smithy to the edge of town, to the place I slew Trannis.

Four men stand at its outskirts– raiders? Well, they may well be. They are fully armored, chain mail hauberks and shirts, greaves and gauntlets. On their chests and on their shields– those that have them– is the emblazoned emblem of the House. Wolfsbane crossed with a dagger rampant on a black background.

One carries a longsword, gleaming with runes. One carries a greataxe, glistening with poison. One carries longbow and wears a quiver of arrows. At his belt is also a short sword. The last one holds a glaive, and it strikes me as an odd weapon for fighting a mark. Behind them all marches my husband, Ivan. He carries nothing at all.

“Calm down!” he shouts, ignoring me entirely. “We are not robbers! We are the House! We just came by to pick up the body of Rhymerta Craveheart.”

“Visible,” I murmur quietly.

I appear from the air.

“That should be interesting,” I say loudly, staring into his shocked brown eyes. “Since I am not dead, and Trannis the traitor is.”

“Rhyme,” he gasps. It’s almost inaudible, but my sword lets me hear it. “Rhyme, are you– you’re alive!”

“I may be a hag, but I know how to survive,” I whisper, just loud enough for them to hear me. I see him stiffen. I know he hears me. “Which is more than I can say for Trannis. Now, I will give you a choice, because I loved you. You may turn around now, and leave, never to return. Or we will fight, and I will kill you.”

“Is there not some way we can-“ he starts. I hear his magic words as he uses them to speak with the man directly to his left, the one wielding the bow. It is near simultaneous with his normal speech, making it hard to pick out, but the singing blade resonates with them all the same.

Shoot her when I say. I don’t know how she survived-

“You murdered our children,” I interrupt him. I know not how I keep my voice level. “There is nothing more we have to say.”
Now!

“Sword, resonate,” I whisper. I’m not ready to tip my hand.

The longbowman draws and fires in the blink of an eye, but my sword lets out a piercing shriek far faster than that. I realize that I am the only one who can hear it only after I clap my hands over my ears and realize they are simply standing in dumb amazement. The longbowman’s bow is in pieces.

Incredulous, he removes his quiver and empties it. Shards of wood, feathers and barbed arrowheads fall to the snow.

 Circle left, Eric and John. Barris and I will go right. Isaac, take a retreat for now, but be ready on my signal.

The words vibrate through the hilt of my sword, and before they can enter their formation, I step forward into the dance.

All strategy forgotten, they close in on me all at once. I spin, and the sword draws a neat line through the air, cleaving through the longswordsman, separating neck and shoulder from his body.

Moving with the momentum of that spin, I bring the blade around to engage Ivan, but my blow rebounds from a hastily created shield. Momentarily caught off guard, I find my momentum again as the House-man holding the glaive brings the pole around and tries to catch me with the curved blade at its tip, moving in a broad sweep. Ribbon unraveling from my wrist, I wrap it around the shaft as it moves and twist to the side, pull it past me, easily tugging him a step forward and forcing his glaive to punch into the longbowman, who was attempting to flank with the short sword.

In this silent dance, I turn, draw the edge of my singing steel sword through the haft of the glaive-wielder’s weapon, then onward, barely pausing to deliver a powerful kick to his chest. I turn to find the greataxe swinging towards me, the man having stepped around the longbowman. The edge of the greataxe catches my arm, and something truly nasty stings abominably in the dripping track it leaves as it passes. He is too slow on the backswing, and it was not my dominant arm he struck– with the flick of my wrist, I bring my shortsword around and, taking a step as light as feather inward, I take both his arms at the elbow. All of this leaves Ivan.

Sound rushes back.

Screams. Wet thumps. The sound of blood pattering on the snow. Four men fall back from me. The gash on my arm is the only blood that is mine.

All of this, leaves Ivan. He stands there in his glimmering magic shield, shaking in fake-terror, staring me down with brown eyes that show vulnerability and hide calculation and deceit.

But not from me, not anymore.

I am not fooled.

“Suffer!” he snaps, and the word jumps like lightning from his lips.

“Solace,” I murmur, and the sword in my hand generates a hot glow that surrounds me in soft energy. The bolt of red lightning rebounds and hurtles off into the open air before exploding magnificently, raining sparks of red agony.

“Die!” he growls. The word turns ashen as it leaves his mouth and forms itself into a deadly bolt, which hurtles towards me.

“Day,” I whisper.

A shield of light and the rebirth of dawn washes over me. The death bolt enters it, but gradually disintegrates and slows until it is but a puff of bad air by the time it reaches me.

“Fall!” he shouts, pointing at the ground beneath my feet.

A rumbling beneath me nearly causes me to lose my footing.

“Fool,” I say flatly.

The ground drops out from underneath him. It literally crumbles away in a circle around him, exposing the dark abyss below, all the way to the depths of the invisible black ocean. He only has a precious second to react.

Before he can open his mouth, I interrupt him.

“Silence.”

The world is quiet. His scream is silent, and he descends like a stone.

Actually, like an old family sword. He caroms from edge to edge, and I watch. I force myself to see his shield shatter, force myself to watch until I can see him no more, and all that remains is me, the red of my ribbons, my sword and the village.

I refute my statement inwardly, and sound returns.

“Heal,” I murmur to the earth. The singing sword closes the ruined hole at the edge of the village, and then the shine leaves it, and it is a dull sword once more. Perhaps only for today, but it is done, nonetheless.

And I am done.

There is a graveyard, on the farthest side of town, that I visit with my children every year. It holds Trannis, and a coffin for Ivan. Not the Ivan I knew at his end, but the Ivan I spent so many years with before. Next to them both are the graves for Kimberlin and Imberann. There is a grave for Limanda and me too. It feels… better that way. A piece of me died, a piece of them died– some part of us died that day, some part of all of us. And we share that, Limanda, me and the children, for better or worse.

I tie a red ribbon to each grave every year. So that I remember.

So that others will never forget.

So that all of us– all parts of us, are connected. The bad and the good, the irredeemable and the redeemed. We are all of us a family.

We are all of us moving on, one day and one life at a time.

—-

©2013 Sam Oliver (Eris)

—-

Hey. This one took two days (and interest). I started it yesterday (roughly!) and finished it prolly around twelve fifty five. Like most of my work, it started off fairly small and then just snowballed into something. I started with the words ‘Red Ribbons’ as the title, and just started writing from there. Enjoy!

Decidedly darker than usual. I always say that, but this time I mean it.

-Eris

Short Story: Darkest Radiance

His eyes are closed, as he ascends the stairs to the gallows. That strikes me as odd. I’d always assumed that he would die as a criminal of his stature lived– like a king, eyes open, not pleading, but staring at us all and cursing us with his last regal breath. Still, I feel an odd terror in my stomach as he takes his place on the trapdoor and a noose is tightened around his neck.

Then the royal bookkeeper, who obviously would rather not be here, takes his place next to the axeman and begins reading out a list of his crimes. The whole thing seems surreal.

“Treason,” he says, then clears his throat. “Murder of the first degree, willful manslaughter, arson, embezzlement, fraud, wartime desecration, assault whilst armed….”

It’s then that I notice the criminal’s mouth. It’s open in a wide grin, every listed crime only seems to make it grow wider. Lips peel back from teeth stained red and razor sharp. I tap father on the shoulder. He’s deep in conversation with someone aiming to buy a wand from him. Hardly paying any attention to the execution.

“Not now, Iren,” he snaps. “I’m in the middle of an important conversation. Don’t make me regret taking you here in the first place.”

When I look back at the criminal, he’s turned into a monstrous wolf-like creature, roared defiance at the sky and torn through his bonds. The axeman brings up his namesake too slowly, eyes wide, and with one swipe the beast knocks it away, axe over handle. A second turns his chest to bloody ribbons of flesh. The big man stumbles back and falls over in a bloody heap, while the bookkeeper flees. I can only watch in horror as the monster closes the distance in two strides before its teeth close on the bookkeeper’s head and tear it free with an almighty wrench. The creature spits it out in another moment, and turns right towards me.

Wolfish eyes focus on me, set in a body taut with muscle. It leaps down and reaches me in two strides

and I’m brought back, breath catching, caught and left alone as the vision fades. “Look out!” I shout up at the executioner and the bookkeeper, interrupting the latter mid-sentencing. “He’s a skinshifter! He’ll kill you both!”

The executioner stares at me, eye to eye for a moment, and then nods and pulls the lever without hesitation. The bookkeeper is outraged. I can see it in his face. My father is also outraged. I can feel it coming off of him in waves, though he keeps his face a mask. I want to shrink away, but I stay still. The crowd is strangely silent.

The noose goes taut.

The criminal’s neck snaps, and he turns limp. He hangs there like some ghastly puppet. There he’ll stay until the axeman cuts him down, and I can see that my friend is certainly not in a hurry to do that.

I breathe a sigh of relief, and immediately feel disgust boiling inside of me as well, staring at the body and somehow unable to pull my eyes away. I watch fur flicker over its arms for a moment, and about lose my control, about throw up right there in front of everyone. Instead I swallow the rising bile as it burns my throat and turn away.

“Iren, why don’t you head back to the castle?” father asks me quietly. “I can see you’re ill. We’ll talk about this tonight.”

My heart sinks in my chest, but I nod and turn away from the crowd. My feet ache from standing in one place for so long, but I manage to make my way down the stone steps leading away from the stone platform and Judgement Square. I stumble on the last step, and a rough calloused hand catches me by the shoulder and pulls me upright again. I nearly collapse the other way, but manage to steady myself. My body feels weak and sick.

I look up into the scarred face of the axeman, hoodless now that he’s down from the stand of the gallows. He gives me a smile and shakes his head.

He leads me away from the group of people, hand firm on my arm. It’s terribly improper, and I find myself blushing behind my veil, but I don’t think I could resist even if I were so inclined. No one else notices. I’ve always been puzzled about that. It’s like even being associated with the hangman at all makes me completely invisible.

The executioner takes me down a back alleyway and down into its dark embrace we go. There, we both sit. When I’m sure no one can see us, I take a deep breath and let my radiance show.

It’s a gift from my father, I think. For all his strict, bitter ideals, he does try his hardest.

Light flows outward from my body, bathing the two of us. The hangman brings out a scrap of yellowed material I instantly recognize. I smile weakly. “You found some paper!”

He nods happily, takes out an old piece of charcoal, and begins to write. I sit and watch and read, and after a time, I answer.

I think about the axeman’s name as I walk back towards the castle. It’s much later than I’d wanted to let it become. The axeman had wanted to walk me home, but my father would have him punished in a moment if he knew. There’s a touch of irony there I’m sure, in punishing a punisher. My father would likely relish that.

If he even so much as suspected where I spent my evenings then he would tear the place apart to find me.  The path up the castle is guarded by tall, gnarled, leafless oak trees. I hate how they look in the later seasons. It isn’t quite cold enough for there to be frost forming on the ground, but it’s certainly chilly enough out here for me to shiver.

“What’s a pretty thing like you doing out here?” a voice calls from the left side of the path. My heart skips a beat. I look over to see Cain stepping onto the path, sword at his belt and a big grin on his face. “Don’t you know it’s dangerous to walk alone at this time of night?”

He steps up next to me and matches my stride– with a little difficulty. He’s nearly a foot taller than me. Compared to the giant of a headman that’s nothing, really.

“Prince Cain,” I start quietly. “How nice to see you.”

“Princess Iren,” he says, careful exaggeration twining around impertinent sarcasm. “It’s a fine night for a walk, but your dad is gonna kill you if the thieves and brigands don’t get you first.”

“You’re one to talk,” I retort, with a glance at his sword. “Do you think you’ll escape unscathed every time?”

“Nope!” he says cheerfully. “I got cut this time, too!”

I stop and round on him, then, folding my arms across my nearly bare belly, veil twirling with my body. “Show me,” I demand.

He stops too, turns to me with a sheepish grin and holds his arm out proudly. He’s such a child.

His arm is cut– not deep. It’s just three scratches, long and thin. They bleed sluggishly.

All of a sudden the wounds seem to ooze pus and blood, then rot rapidly before my eyes. I hear the ghost of a scream before the vision fades, and I’m staring at his arm, bare but for a few shallow scratches.

Acting quickly, I reach down and tear a piece of my dress hem away, straightening again and wrapping it around the wound, tying it tight– but not too tight. “Come with me, Cain,” I say quietly. “Okay?”

He raises his eyebrows, but then sighs and shrugs. “Fine. Your father still thinks I’m an honorable man.”

I grin, at that. “Or a charming scoundrel. Hard to tell which.”

He’d appeared out of nowhere, actually, a few months back. Cain is nearly a complete unknown, foreign, from some far off kingdom where all the men have blonde hair and blue eyes, and tales are told of seraphs and angels like they’re something from legend instead of cold, hard fact. I’ve wondered about that place for a while. At least since Cain showed up.

We continue down the path until we reach the front gates, which stand there, iron and immobile. I wrap my hand in silk from my dress and touch it against the iron of the gate. It slowly slides open.

“Why do you always do that?” Cain asks.

It catches me off guard. “Do what?”

“Touch the gate with your dress.”

“I don’t like how the metal feels on my skin,” I answer. “It’s frigid at this time of the starcycle anyway.”

Cain rolls his eyes. “Pretty delicate, Iren.”

I shrug, and we move up, the gates closing behind us. The path here is cobblestone, and the courtyard is filled with willows that weep, their long strand-like leaves swaying. My dress is swaying in the wind, too, as we approach the doors. A pit of dread yawns open in my stomach. Damn Cain. If he hadn’t been hurt, I could have gotten to my room unnoticed.

Cain is the one who reaches for the doorknocker, and the boom it makes as it strikes the full metal door is probably heard for miles and miles around. Stars shine down on us, glittering in the sky as we wait there. At some point he’d slipped his hand into mine. Now I can feel its warmth and I’m glad for it.

The left door opens, and Prissy sees us in. She closes the door behind us and takes Cain’s coat. I can feel a flash of jealousy as her eyes flick down to my hand in Cain’s as she puts it away. “Your father is furious,” she says quietly. “But I thought Cain might come back with you, so you can use the guest room. It’s already spelled.”

“Actually, Prissy,” I answer quietly, “Take Cain to the infirmary. He has three scratches on his arm that will develop into a severe necrotic infection if they aren’t treated.”

Her eyes light up for a moment, then her pretty eyebrows come together and she frowns at me. Her otherwise attractive brown eyes darken with worried suspicion. “Your father…”

“I’ll deal with him,” I reply wearily. “Go.”

Cain squeezes my hand, with a sigh that sounds betrayed. I can feel his worry mix and twine with Prissy’s. “You could have told me, you know,” Cain says, without turning to look at me.

“You know you wouldn’t have believed me,” I answer quietly. “Go.”

They hesitate one second more, then proceed down the main hall and disappear to the left towards the infirmary. I take the stairs to my right, climbing one at a time, slowly. I may need to face my sire, but there’s no reason to hurry. Dread makes my legs weak. I finally reach the top step, and take a deep breath.

My father’s study is down the hall to my right. The hall is filled with tapestry, mostly, commissioned by my father for one occasion or another. The floor is loud as can be here, also commission work by my father. I’ve never heard him make a noise stepping on it, but my sandals clack on it with every step. What had the dwarf who forged them called them? Thieves’ tiles.

I reach the door to father’s study and open it, turning the golden handle and pushing my way in. It clicks closed behind me, and a spark of silver magic locks it tight. I hear Prissy’s muffled shout behind it, and then an outline of more silver magic cuts off all noise from outside the study as well. My heart is pounding in my chest.

Father is sitting behind his desk. The tip of a willow wand– held in his right hand– glistens with silver energy for a moment before it fades. It’s the wand he’s planning to sell, I bet. That’s the only reason I can think of for him to have one with him in the first place.

Father lowers the wand, setting it on the desk again. He stands and walks around in front of it, facing me. He folds his hands behind his back. Pure rage is flowing from him in waves. I have never seen him so angry. Three intensely strong visions strikes all at once.

I see him picking up the wand and hurling a bolt of silver magic towards me. I see him stride to me, hand raised to deliver a blow. I see him break down and weep and wail, tearing at his hair.

The bolt obliterates me, the hand comes down on my face, delivering a ringing slap, and the wailing tears at my heart.

I am hit with a hot wave of shame, standing before him in the once-beautiful white dress, reduced now to a dirty stained thing from my time in the alley, the hem torn from where I bound Cain’s wounded arm.

Father does none of the things from my visions, as is often the case. Instead, he nods once as I stand there, a dreadful fear clutching at my heart that aches. My whole body feels consumed by silver magic flame, the sting of that vision where he slapped me making me raise a hand to my cheek, to the red mark that surely must be forming. I wonder why my body is not blackening from the silver flame that feels like it covers every inch of me.

The pain is excruciating. I stand my ground, staring him down, shaking on my feet.

Finally he speaks. His voice is iron, and it burns and freezes my heart at the same time. The ache doubles as the emotion in his words lashes out at me like an obsidian blade.

“I am very disappointed in you, Iren.”

I feel a shudder run through me, and I can’t speak. I want to make an excuse or run, or scream and throw something, to move or to shout, but my voice won’t return to me.

His anger is searing. He doesn’t move any closer to me, but it feels like he presses me against the wall. It feels as though I am naked before his wrath. Like the silver flames have burned my dress away, leaving me bare and ashamed.

“Do you understand why?”

I hold myself, hugging my shoulders tight and shutting my eyes, unwilling, unable to talk to him at all.

“Answer me, Iren.”

The words are like blows, each one a harder than the last. I shut my eyes and finally manage to open my mouth. I can feel his fingers around my neck even though I know him to be across the room from me. I can feel those manicured nails digging into my skin. My skin will be red for days after this.

“I– I know why you are disappointed in me, Father,” I answer as clearly as I can. My voice still comes out as little more than a squeak.

“Tell me.”

I barely manage to speak at all again. My heart is beating wildly. “I d-disobeyed you. I put myself and the line of t-the kingdom in danger. I interrupted the execution and denied a criminal his last words. Again.”

“Correct. And?” That voice is blank as cold steel. Only I could detect the emotion behind it. Only I can feel the terrible anger and the bitter sorrow.

“I am the Princess of the realm. I have done wrong by the line.” Something in my words must reach him.

“You volunteered to be the Princess, Iren,” Father admonishes quietly, all hints of anger suddenly gone, leaving only sadness in its wake. “I can’t hold something you can’t control against you. I said I would make it official, and I still mean to no matter how disobedient you are. I’ve been studying up on the spells necessary. But you also must remember what that means. If I am to make this official, you still must obey me as you would your mother. You are a free spirit, but also vital to the survival of this kingdom. Do you understand that, Iren?”

“I do,” I reply quietly. “I’m sorry for disobeying you, father. It won’t happen again.”

“Come here.”

I don’t look at him as I approach. I can feel the weight of the dress around me fall away at a touch. Stinging, then, as his hands press here or there on my body, taking note of every scratch or bruise, of the stinging red mark on my cheek.  Father pauses when he reaches my belly. It’s then that I remember the rune I’d had drawn there earlier, with the hangman. We’d run out of paper, so we’d drawn it in charcoal. Just a game, really, but it’d been quite fun. Improper, of course, but I’ve never really bothered with that.

“This isn’t your handwriting,” Father notes with a frown. “Who drew this on you, Iren? Who have you let see you– as you are?”

“Well, there’s Cain,” I begin. He cuts me off.

“I already know about Cain. Who else?”

“Prissy,” I breathe, heart falling. “Azrael. Marka.”

“Prissy is your handmaid, Azrael your ex-mate and you try my patience by mentioning your old form Marka, Iren.”

I take an involuntary step back, away from his hands. He straightens and folds his arms. “I won’t tell you,” I say quietly. “You’ll hurt him.”

He blinks, at that. Then pauses. “You’ve been having visions again.”

I’m aghast. I thought he’d realized that already. “Of course. Why else would I force an execution forward?”

He sighs and shakes his head. “A man’s foolishness. I thought my daughter was being fickle and tormenting the poor hangman. I didn’t recognize it for what it was until now. Such is the nature of the curse. I hadn’t even thought of that.”

I let a creeper of hope grow in my belly.

“You are dismissed, Iren. I’m sorry.”

I breathe a sigh of relief and force myself to walk from the room. As soon as I’m outside of his study I run down the hall to my room on legs barely strong enough to hold me.

***

Cain is sitting on my bed. He stares at me as I walk in, completely naked, then sighs. “He sure doesn’t go easy, does he?”

“I don’t think my father knows the meaning of the word,” I sigh.

“Come sit by me, little seraph,” Cain says softly, beckoning me with a finger. I sit down next to him. I can feel him look me over.

“You lost your clothes,” he remarks. I collapse against him, and he tugs my head into his lap, stroking my white hair like silk. It’s not completely white. It’s streaked with brown too.

I feel Cain looking at the scars crisscrossing my back, at my pale skin, bare, blank chest, blank skin from my belly down to my feet, bare of blemishes. “How do you do that?” he asks. “Turn neutral like that. You’re not a man and not a woman, either. You don’t have any– you know, aspect.”

I stare up at him and his honest blue eyes. “Seraph,” I hazard. I’m actually not sure myself. “Maybe?”

He smiles. “So you don’t even know.”

“I’m not the one who does it. Father did it the first time,” I admit. “It was an accident that I learned how to shift back and forth. And I can’t keep it up for too long.”

“I remember that accident pretty clearly,” Cain says dryly. “I don’t know about ‘too long’. I’d say it lasts long enough.”

I almost hit him. I feel a blush creep onto my skin and take a deep breath. Though he doesn’t show it, Cain is feeling embarrassed too. I feel his thoughts drift to our night together, and give him a light nudge.

“What did Azrael have to say?” I ask quietly, after a while of somewhat awkward silence. I’m enjoying the heat of his body close to mine, but there are more important things on my mind right now.

“Hm?” Cain shakes himself out of his steamy reverie. “Nothing. He gave me a look, though. You know the one. The why-did-you-bring-wolf-scratches-to-my-attention look.”

“Mhm.”

Silence for a while. Warm, soft silence. Almost enough that I can fall asleep. I feel my eyes flutter a little, but Cain’s voice snaps me out of it again.

“That guy. He sort of gives me the creeps.”

“He’s a good guard,” I mumble.

“Yeah, sure. He’s also one of the most powerful magi in the kingdom and he’s under your father’s complete bloody control,” Cain says sharply. “If I were you I’d be worried.”

It’s my turn to smile. “You mean you’re worried for me.”

The bed creaks a little as he shifts his weight uncomfortably, but he keeps stroking my hair, as if deep in thought. Finally, he nods, when 

there’s a tremendous crash. The door to my room is crushed into splinters, shrapnel that is flung every which way, tearing through Cain in an instant and pinning him to the headboard of the bed, a spike driven into my arm, piercing me, crushing the bone on its way out the other side.

Red sprays, paints the walls, the scent of ozone and terror, the scent of viscera and rot, the feel of incredible pain that lingers forever and I lie there on the bed, bleeding out and uncaring because Cain is surely dead.

 the vision leaves me gasping, and I sit bolt upright. Cain blinks, but doesn’t say anything. He also doesn’t notice that my arm is bleeding. He can’t feel it stinging where my vision exacted its price. I tremble, then. No one in this room but me knows what I saw. The vision involves Cain, so he won’t believe me. My mind races furiously, trying to find a way around it. After what seems like an eternity I know what I need to do.

“Cain,” I breathe. “Corner. Please.”

His eyes meet mine. I know I don’t have much time. “Now?”

“Yes!” I gasp, and turn to face him fully. “Now. Right now. Okay?”

“It’s just- this bed is really comfortable,” Cain starts reluctantly, but he stands and lifts me up and gods above bless him, he carries me to the northwest corner of my room and sets me against the wall. “And how do you want to start this, Princess-” is as far as he gets before I stand up on tiptoe, using the wall for support, and kiss him on the mouth, pulling him tight against me with a desperation that is all too real.

He stiffens, though. I can feel it as I pull back from the kiss. “Iren…” he says quietly. “You’re bleeding.”

I take a chance. “Vision,” I whisper.

His eyes have a chance to widen before the door explodes outward. Wood gives way in an immense, thunderous boom, and the candlelight in the room is extinguished, plunging it into shadow. I pull Cain down on top of me, hitting the floor as quietly as I can, ducking, curling into the corner. I can see him open his mouth, but he snaps it shut again and, arms wrapped around me, gives me a quick squeeze. I watch, in the near pitch darkness, his hand stray to his sword.

It is completely silent. No sound but a soft drip-drip sort of noise

A sword erupts from Cain’s chest and pricks my middle and I scream.

Blood soaks my skin, sticky and hot.

and then vision releases me. I can’t help but sob, and I pull away from Cain and stand up. “What are you-” he starts to ask, but I don’t answer.

I erupt with radiance, bathing the room with it. I let the light shine from me with as much force as I can muster, skin slick with sweat from the effort, sucking in a breath. “Here I am!” I snap. “Come for me, if your sight is still with you!”

Five diminutive, humanoid creatures, each no more than three feet high, stand in the room with me. Their lizard-like faces show teeth as they snarl and hiss, eyes shut tight against the blaze of light that illuminates the whole room. Scaly tails flick behind them. Kobolds.

A cloaked man also stands there, eyes screwed up, hand covering his face. His other hand clutches a sword. He curses in a foreign tongue, then rattles something out in a different language like hissing and clicking. His sword is blue with blood.

Blue with Prissy’s blood. Her fey blood. Who else is fey in this house?

His eyes open, then, his hand falls away, he raises his blade. Those eyes glint at me, glint yellow.

Cain stands up and strides in front of me, sword out.

“Get Azrael!” he hisses to me over his shoulder. “Find Azrael! These can’t be all of them!”

“Like hells I will,” I whisper furiously. “There are too many for you to fight on your own.”

“Idiot-” he starts, and then snarls in frustration as the man recovers fully and lunges. Cain parries twice quickly, and–

always on the retreat, the third strike sinks into his chest to the hilt. Cain lets out a strangled gasp and collapses. The man withdraws his blade with a grunt, kicks Cain out of the way and starts towards me as I cry out.

–the vision lets me go. I knock Cain aside completely, out towards the door of the room. The tip of the man’s blade hisses in the air between us as I stumble back. Cain makes a decision– he starts for me, when a scream echoes into the room, momentarily disrupting everyone, stopping us all dead. Cain goes white. I feel his heart wrench. I feel him turn and run.

The assassin turns to me, and then I cut my radiant light off completely.

I hear him growl a curse and feel him lunge blindly, feel the shape of him moving toward me more than I see it. His emotions carve an outline of him in the air as he moves, their trails sometimes blurry and confusing, but plain as day right now. The patter of scaly feet mark the kobolds chasing after Cain.

I skip to the side of the assassin’s wild thrust, wary of that deadly blade even in the dark.

The sound of metal boots on the thieves’ tiles outside my father’s study drown out the world. When the echoes die away, all that’s left is the breathing from the assassin and me, as if we’re completely alone.

“There you are,” he whispers darkly, from what feels like right next to my ear. I know him to be in front of me, though, and his attack swings for the wall. It scatters sparks as it scrapes along the stone, and I slam into him from the side as he snarls another curse. The sword is knocked away onto the floor as I bear him to the ground, knees on his belly. I reach for his throat

and he knocks my hands aside, rolls me over onto my back and slams my head into the floor once, twice, three times. Dazed and dizzy, his leg forces mine apart, as his own hands wrap around my neck and squeeze. I can’t catch a breath, pain blazing through my body like lines, like waves, like the essence of fire itself. Shame and disgust and terror welcome me into the murky abyss as the last of my breath is squeezed from my throat in a whimper.

the vision leaves me. He knocks my dazed hands aside and rolls over on top of me, but as he tries to put a leg between mine, I beat him to it and slam my knee into his crotch as hard as I can. My throat is sore even though he hasn’t touched it truly, but he gurgles and collapses to the side with something like a whimper and a wheeze.

The kind of idiot assassin who attempts rape in the middle of a castle full of unknowns is the same type that would want to make the act as convenient as possible. A codpiece would be out of the question for such a man. I crawl, then stand and stagger away, shining again as bright as I can, sweat running down my bare belly, arms, cheeks, dripping from my nose as I push power out from me for the third time this day. I need to see.

My sight, blurred, clears quickly. The sword is only a few feet away.

I pick up the sword, and the man on the floor, curled in a fetal position, gets a split second of hesitation too much from me. He struggles to his feet, and as I start for him, stumbles to the nearest window and crashes through it in a shower of beautiful, glittering shards. I run to the arched window, heedless of glass that fell around it, and hear a shouted word like slick darkness. By the time I can search for him, all that’s left is a puff of brimstone.

I release my power, letting the light fade to a glow, and, hand still wrapped around the hilt of the sword, I manage to make it out the door and into the hall. I remember hearing the metal boots on the tiles before my father’s study. I remember hearing the scream. It came from the infirmary and I’ve no doubt in my mind it belonged to Prissy. The kobolds ran after Cain and I know he didn’t have time to see them.

I dart down the hall to the stairs, taking the steps four at a time and doing my best not to let the sword slide into my thigh. It’s a long thing with sharp edges and a plain, joyless hilt. To skewer someone with such a weapon would be dull and soulless. It’s perfect for an assassin, though why he would use a sword rather than an easily concealable dagger is beyond me. Perhaps he’d been an amateur.

I run down the main hall– the doors are wide open!– hearing a shout from behind me, two voices raised as one. I recognize neither of them, so I drop to my hands and knees at the last second as I turn to the hall Prissy took Cain to.  There’s a thrum and a moment later an audible thunk as a bolt slams into the wood, head height, just above my eartip as I crawl, staggering to my feet and running again. The infirmary and the kitchen, left and right. I reach for the left door 

and, rushing in, skewer myself on Cain’s sword, collapsing with the barest of gasps and slipping into darkness eternal in mere moments, my blood pooling on the floor, Cain pleading with me to come back, to stay with him, shouting, helplessly trying to staunch the dreadful wound with one, both hands.

and open it carefully as I can, easing it back and stepping through. My chest is slick with sweat and blood from a cut that stings bitterly. It’s a deeper price than usual, and the flow is constant.

Cain greets me with a hug rather than a sword, squeezing me tight and letting out a big, helpless sob into my shoulder.

For my part I hug him back. It smells of charred flesh in here, and I look around him to see Prissy smiling weakly, waving a hand. It’s smeared with blue blood, bleeding slowly. It looks like she stopped a sword with it. Around her are five charred kobolds, scales rent by lightning. Prissy’s left hand is clenched, and sparks crackle around it in a cloud. Most fey have some power over electricity.

An almighty crash makes all three of us jump. Someone new has discovered the thieves’ tiles, I think. We huddle together in the infirmary, Prissy and I sitting on the farthest bed, Cain at the door with his sword at the ready.

“What happened?” I ask, voice raw. My throat still aches.

“A man came in– at least, I think it was a man,” Prissy starts weakly. Her dress is torn in half a dozen places. She’d be exposed were it not for her arm over her chest. “He had a wolf’s head and claws– big, long, claws. He had another man with him who tried to cut me, but I– stopped his sword. The first one, oh gods– Iren, he slashed at me with those claws and tore up my dress. He scratched me once and said that was enough, and then he left. He just left! He said he had other business to take care of, and said he’d be back for me. I couldn’t even scream until he and his– his friend left! I couldn’t say anything!”

I nod, letting out a sigh. I stare at Prissy’s wound hard for a while, daring another vision to hit, but it doesn’t. Nothing bad will come of it then, I hope.

I look around and nearly jump as I catch sight of a man, dead on the bed across from the one Prissy and I sit on. At least, I assume he’s dead. His chest is rent open. I note that he seems to be bald, and that his glazed eyes are brown. She nods at it and takes in a shuddering breath before she speaks.

“Cain killed that one. Ran him through. He– was going to attack me after they left. These men are monsters, Iren,” she adds with a grimace. “Complete scum. I hope your father kills them all.”

My father.

I stand up straight and stare at the wall a moment. “Father,” I breathe. “Damn!”

I dart to the door. Cain stops me with one hand, eyes fixed on it. “Don’t, Irenna.”

He must feel my eyes boring into the back of his head. “What do you mean?”

“I mean don’t run off. Whoever went after your father was well aware of what he was capable of. If you run back out there- well, think about it.”

I do. I take a moment to think about it, to wonder about the pain it would cause him if I were killed. I stare at nothing for a few moments, then snap my eyes shut and lean against Cain’s shoulder, feeling helpless. “What can I do?”

“Stay here where it’s safe.” 

The door bursts open. A snarling creature with a wolf’s face, the monster the criminal would have become, charges in. Cain shouts, runs it through with his blade, and it pauses but a moment before smashing him aside with one huge fist, knocking him away, grabbing me around the waist, growling and then fleeing, black blood running down its chest. 

“Cain-” I start. There must be something I can do to change his mind. There must be some way I can help Father. And

 the door bursts open. A snarling creature with a wolf’s face, the monster the criminal would have become, charges in. Cain shouts, runs it through with his blade, but it disembowels him with one swipe. I am not in the room.

It starts on Prissy next and her shriek wrenches at me from my unseen vantage point.

— I clutch at my head and sink to my knees, trying to block out the visions, opening my eyes to see Cain staring down at me with sudden concern.

“Iren? Irenna? Are you okay?”

Three more visions hit, to no avail. In two I am gone from the room. They end in the death of Cain and Prissy without exception. In the third, we all three leave the room only to be met by the beast in the hall. It kills Cain and Prissy both, who were in front of me to protect me, then snatches me and runs.

— There is no way out of this. No way out but one.

“Cain, back away from the door,” I say quietly. I straighten and stand. I know my legs are trembling and I don’t care. “Please.”

He stares down at me. I look up into his eyes, sapphire blue, framed by blonde hair he always lets grow too long. His face is sharp, but smooth, free of scars. Prissy likes her men with scars.

I lean up, standing on tiptoes again, and kiss him on the lips, lingering for as long as I feel is safe, the warmth of his mouth on mine making me wish I could stay longer. As I draw back I feel my heart sink. I can almost feel the burning rage of that man who should have died near the gallows. I can almost feel the burning, inhuman fury that will come for me. It seems to surround me, even as Cain wraps his arms around me and mashes me tight against him, relaxing only when I push at him.

“Iren-”

“Don’t follow,” I whisper. “Or you’ll get yourself killed. Find Azrael. He’ll know what to do.”

“Like hells-” he starts, but doesn’t get to finish as I shove him aside, throwing him out of the way.

The door bursts open, and an apparition from living nightmare takes me.

***

The ride is rough. The wolf-beast drags me along with brutal force, this creature that once was a man. I’d just managed to pull myself up onto its swinging arm and cling, because it’s either that or risk it trying to catch me again and killing me. Weak as I am from losing blood to visions and the exhaustion of the day, I am certain that I won’t be killed yet.

We pass through the woods surrounding the castle, dragged away from the safety of the courtyard. I struggle for breath. Its hand is around my throat. Twice I watch the sky painted with purple suffocation, barely hanging on to consciousness. Twice I fight stars back and dig my hands into the furred one around my neck.

Finally the nightmarish journey is over, and it stands in front of a man I recognize. His axe is set with the handle in the dirt and his hand on the head. He gives me a cheerful nod. The wolf-creature throws me at his feet.

“So the tracking rune did work,” he says nonchalantly. As if he had always been able to speak. “Among other things.”

“How-” I start weakly. I cough suddenly, helplessly. My throat aches horribly and I find it hard to speak. “Who are you?”

“Isn’t that much obvious, little seraph?” the hangman asks quietly. “Don’t you recognize your old ex?”

His form shifts and swims before me. A young man, as tall as the sky, bathed in black radiance, stands before me. His axe turns into a staff. In one hand he holds a small, broken piece of charcoal, which he tosses at my feet. Azrael smiles a wicked smile. My heart stops, frozen solid in my chest.

“No,” I spit, snapping the word out into the starlight. “I don’t recognize you.”

“Pity,” he says. Stands of golden power gather around me and lift me up, locking my limbs out spreadeagled and bare in front of him. I stare at him steadily. “Do you know why I brought you here, Marka?”

“Address me as Irenna,” I say coldly.

“At risk of sounding terribly cliché, you’re hardly in a position to demand anything from anyone. I asked you a question, and–” he flicks his fingers. Arcing, hot, sickening pain spears through me once and then fades slowly. “I expect an answer.”

I endure the pain soundlessly, lips tight together. “I don’t know why you brought me here,  servant, but Orion–”

“Don’t call me that, Mark– or Iren, if you’d prefer,” he snarls. I notice his fingers flex, but no pain follows and I breathe a short sigh of relief that I know he can hear even if he pretends not to notice. “I am no one’s servant any longer. Your father can’t stop my freedom.”

“If you’re going to monologue,” I say wearily. “Get it over with so I can die and I don’t need to listen to your idiocy anymore. Azrael.”

We glare at one another for a time, but he doesn’t answer. “You know people have died for you,” I snap. “At least one assassin and a hand of blameless kobolds.”

Azrael raises his eyebrows. “I paid for no such thing. The only agent I sent was Kharn. I knew of no attack planned for the night.”

I blink, at that. “You didn’t call any assassins?”

“No, I didn’t. I swear on my honor as a sorcerer of the ninth degree.”

I roll my eyes at that. “Fine, I believe you. Curious that they’d strike the same night as you. Prissy said that Kharn was associating with one of them.”

“It was mere lucky circumstance that I was able to imprint a tracking rune on you tonight,” Azrael says with a shrug. “Ideally it would be placed at a time when you were vulnerable, so I could imprint the spell and remain undetected. I thought about capturing you then and there, but in a crowded square with so many people? Many of them higher order sorcerers, come to see this famous criminal killed? Such a blatant display of raw talent would have gotten me killed, surely. As to why Kharn would work with one of them– that is most curious. Perhaps they were associated when Kharn was alive? I gave him no orders about dealing with your allies. I’d expected the castle to be relatively empty.”

As he talks, I grow more and more puzzled. He’s not lying. I’d feel it if he was.

“I admire your tenacity, by the way, for holding onto that sword all this time,” Azrael remarks dryly. “Quite strong willed. Doesn’t it burn?”

“I’m only half seraph,” I say plainly, a little confused. “My mother was human. If I was full it would burn. It just stings a bit, that’s all. I’m used to that.”

Azrael blinks, then his eyes widen. “Half-seraph? Your mother was human? You mean-“

A beam of incandescent light bursts from the sky and smites Azrael to ash where he stands. He hasn’t even a chance to breathe or think or cast a spell.

“Azrael!” I shout as the vision leaves me, spots still shining in my eyes, half-blinded. “Move! Father is here! I had a vision!”

I’m not sure what possesses me to say it. Whether it’s lingering attraction or idiocy or some foolish sense of justice. I can’t just let him die. I can’t do it.

Instead of moving, Azrael calmly stands there, facing me, an expression of disbelief clouding his face, a face darkened by hate at the mere mention of Father. “Hm?”

A bolt of bright light lances down from the sky, but I observe Azrael spinning before it even appears. He deflects it with the wave of his hand, sending it refracting harmlessly over the town with a brilliant flash.

Orion, my father, gazes at Azrael where the sorcerer stands. He stares down at the human in quiet solemnity, hovering there in midair. His wings are out, fully extended– though he doesn’t need to move them to fly– his eyes flaring with light, silver power sparkling over his hands. He is dressed only in robes as always, and the wind catches his golden hair.

“You dare to steal my daughter from me?” Orion asks, in a voice like a hundred starshine swords.

“I do dare,” Azrael says amicably. “Anything to pull you from that nasty study of yours. Filled with so many tricks and traps, that you nearly never leave.”

“How did you do it?” Orion thunders. “How could you? She is the last of my line. Would you truly jeopardize everything I’ve held dear in favor of some… childish prank?

“Is that what you think this is?” Azrael asks now, his voice dangerously quiet. “I’m merely claiming my freedom, as is my right as a humanborn sorcerer. No longer will I bow to you.”

I sigh audibly. Both of them shoot me withering looks, and I roll my eyes again and just hang there. Far be it from me to interrupt. I turn my attention to the golden magic surrounding my limbs. Azrael has always been one for intricate magic. And powerful though he is, I’m half seraph. There’s something I can do without even needing to wrestle with it. I can understand it.

I burrow into it, past walls of it, through columns of intricate formulae that all boil down to one thing: Capture. There isn’t much I can do with that. It’s what is sealing the movement of my limbs, and it seems to be a closed loop. There’s nowhere to put a new equation into the mix even if I knew how. I turn my attention to the wellspring of power that it comes from. Failing to find that, I stare at Azrael’s undead servant.

It’s being funneled to by a series of complex necromantic magic equations, all relying on one thing– that the creature being controlled is a werewolf, and that it is dead. Both apply to Kharn, Azrael’s current pet. It’s a simple tag system. I’ve seen enough of Azrael’s charms to recognize it.

Kharn is tagged ‘dead’ and ‘werewolf’, ergo it is both dead and a werewolf. It has a few other extraneous tags that don’t do anything much. Since it’s both dead and a werewolf it can and is affected by the control spell. There should be a similar cluster of tags around me.

I am tagged many things at once. In my head, I can see the shape of the golden magic wrapped around my arms and legs.

They are tagged ‘seraph’, ‘radiant’ and ‘genderless’, because I guess Azrael doesn’t like a lack of thoroughness. ‘Genderless’ nags at me.

How do you do that?

I smile, remembering Cain’s words. Just long enough, huh?

I take a deep breath. Azrael and Orion are still talking. I don’t think they’ve flung any spells at each other yet, for which I’m thankful.

With barely a thought, I change. I shift from neutral to female. I focus all my power inward and let the change hit, concentrating on that and just that. I am a girl. A young seraph woman. Girl. Everything that makes me me is the same. I’m just a girl. A daughter. Father’s daughter. Orion’s daughter.

I am Irenna.

Not for long, of course. It’s too chilly to be full female for very long.

Chains of golden power evaporate as the new tag is read. The formula holding his spell together collapses, the waveform dissolving. I hear a snarl behind me and whirl.

Kharn is not being held by the spell anymore. It was a dependent spell loop. It was relying on the fact that I was being tracked. Without further instruction, Kharn is released. I take all that in in just one second, and it’s still almost not quick enough.

Kharn’s claws come down on the ground in front of me, right where I was a moment before. I roll back to my feet, breath catching in my throat. Its eyes are burning with fury. I can feel its anger. “Oh,” I say quietly. “Right.”

It leaps for me.

A helix of silver and gold magic, incomprehensible in its complexity, spirals past me and drives itself into Kharn’s open, snarling mouth. The undead abomination flashes into golden sparks and silver shards of stone, then fades into motes of dust.

I glance over at Azrael and Orion. Both of them have faces of cold, concentrated anger, but this time directed at the few sparkling motes that remain to show Kharn ever existed. Slowly, they turn to look at one another. I half-expect them to deny that they worked together, but they don’t. They simply stand there, shoulder to shoulder, Azrael’s left arm against Orion’s right. They lower their arms with an almost comical simultaneity. I burst out laughing, and then cry until I can’t stand anymore.

***

The castle is dark in its courtyard, as Azrael, Orion and I all appear from thin air. Two men, the only souls about and standing before the main door, are there to greet us. They shout, one drops a sword, the other raises a crossbow. Golden magic flashes out like lightning and melts the crossbow to ash. The man screams a curse and flings its remnants down before kissing the dirt in an almost sickening reversal, cowering before the wrath sure to follow. Azrael’s short black hair and his impressive stature spell doom for any who know of our castle. These men must be foreigners. Like Cain, they can’t be part of this kingdom.

The man who dropped his sword struggles to pick it up again, sees Azrael’s cold, furious face, and thinks better of it. He gets down on his knees and keeps his hands out, empty and for all to see.

“One escaped,” I say. “He spoke a word I didn’t recognize and disappeared. I think it was infernal magic, though.”

“Brimstone?” Azrael asks quietly.

“Yes. I’m sure you consider this irrelevant, but what did you do with the old executioner?” I ask. I have a feeling I know the answer, but I do want to know.

“He’s sleeping at home,” Azrael replies smoothly. “Before you ask, I’d never impersonated him once before today.”

I breathe a sigh of relief.

Orion strides inside impatiently, and Azrael and I follow after him.

Prissy stands just inside the door, sparks coalescing in her hands. When she sees Orion, though, she lets them fade. As he stalks past her, she grabs his shoulder to get his attention. I wince, but she seems determined. “Sir, please– it’s Cain!”

Orion stops dead. “Cain?”

“He’s turning– I thought it was just wolf scratches at first, but–”

Orion frowns, then sighs. “Ah. I’ll deal with this personally. Azrael, can you take Iren up to my study?”

“Yes. As a friend?”

“As a friend,” Orion says warily. “I release you from my service, Azrael, here and now, and later officially.”

“Then certainly,” Azrael replies dryly. “Let us go there at once.”

He wraps an arm around my waist. Orion arches an eyebrow, then sighs and nods. He turns and heads towards the infirmary, Prissy following after him.

Azrael teleports us directly outside the door to the study, and for once we bypass the horrid thieves’ tiles. I’m thankful. I have a splitting headache. 

Azrael opens the door, and a bolt hurtles right through him and keeps going. Blood sprays all over me. Lovely.

— I push Azrael aside and open the door, shifting away from the center and letting it swing in fully. I hear the thrum and watch the bolt zip past on its way down the hall, then I stride into the study. “Alright,” I snarl. “I’ve had enough of this.”

The assassin from earlier feverishly attempts to load a crossbow, covered in cuts from where he burst through my window. Or should I say thief?

I think I have it figured out now. “It was a setup.”

Azrael steps up beside me and then sighs, flinging a bolt of power at the thief who drops the crossbow, tries to scramble to his feet, and turns to stone as the golden magic wraps around him.

“Do tell,” Azrael murmurs. “How, exactly, were we set up?”

I shake my head. “There was a man at the execution. Talk to father about it. I bet you anything this is that same man. I didn’t get a good look at him, but I bet you he is. He’s quite incompetent, actually. But he knew Kharn. I think they worked together and he talked to Kharn when he got here. He also hired those two men at the front gates. They couldn’t talk to us, but I bet you anything they could talk to him. They speak the same language.”

My ex-mate arches an eyebrow and smiles. “Is that so?”

I nod and suddenly feel a yawn coming on. I cover it with my hand and let out a sigh instead. “Yes. You know, for a man who planned to kill my father and punishes impertinence with pain, you aren’t really that bad,” I half-tease. I’m quite tired.

Azrael blinks. “Pain?”

I stare at him. “You hit me with a wave of it earlier. When you captured me. It wasn’t that long ago.”

“I what? I… oh, I must have tagged it incorrectly,” he says lamely. “I can’t imagine why.”

Jealousy is flashing through him, but I’m too tired to argue the point. It’s just one more thing to worry about, and I honestly don’t want to worry about it anymore. In a moment, Father will be here, and there will be more questions. I resolve to let Azrael answer them.

When I wake up, I’m sitting in the chair before his desk, listening to Orion and Azrael talk. My nose is stuffy and I’m pretty sure I’ve caught something nasty.

***

Days pass, as they are wont to do when you spend a week recovering from a cold. I really should have thought to put on clothes before I was captured by a monster.

***

“Thieves,” Father says quietly. “Are truly the worst of humanity.”

It’s the tenth lecture of the week. We’d buried the man and the kobolds in the castle cemetery, more out of pity than any true obligation. The statue of the thief, complete with petrified wand, are on display in the courtyard. Cain put a sign around his neck reading, ‘Restore me and I’ll steal my way out of your debt!’

I think it’s a bit too long winded for a prank, but Cain cracks up every time he sees it, and it did make me giggle a little, I’ll admit.

It’s the morning, and I’m sitting together with Cain. Prissy is busying herself about the castle, tidying, while we sit in the main dining hall. Azrael had left in the morning, off to study his own spells for a month or two. Honestly I don’t mind. He’s a good enough guy, but it would be awkward having him around with Cain here too. I don’t know what to make my my feelings for either of them, but Cain has at least never sent giant undead werewolves after me. Can I say as much for Azrael? I think not. Plus, I’d gathered that he hadn’t helped Cain when he was first approached, even though he could easily recognize them as werewolf scratches. Someone as jealous as that I’m sure I left for a reason.

I’m not even really listening to Father, but I nod every once in a while to show I’m an obedient girl. In a few more days it’ll even be official. I smile at that.

“Cain?” I ask quietly, so only he can hear.

“Mm?” he answers, obviously trying to at least pretend to pay attention to Orion. I can see his eye flick towards me, though, and take it as an affirmation.

“Stay here a while longer, before you head back to the embassy,” I say softly. “Before you go home.”

“I wasn’t planning on leaving,” Cain replies, his voice barely above a whisper. His deep blue eyes meet mine. There, in front of Father and the rising, radiant sun, we kiss. We don’t even stop when he coughs. He can just deal with it.

The vision before me is so sweet I could cry.

—-

©2012 Sam Oliver (Eris)

—-

It’s done. I didn’t know I wanted to write it until early this morning. It took hours and hours. It’s done. Enjoy.

<3s,

Eris