Chapter Nine (unedited)

So I'm a big believer in the editing process.  When I first started writing, at age six or seven, I refused it entirely.  I thought that somehow, changing what you'd written was dishonoring it.  It isn't.  Leaving it in its nascent stage, like someone who never grows out of childhood, that is the true disservice.  Normally I try not to post anything without a fair bit of editing.  But I've pumped out a whole chapter this week, and I just don't have the time to give it the treatment it deserves.  Soon, perhaps as early as next week, I'll go back through and revise, and you'll see what a difference there is between a draft and even a self-edited revision. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy Chapter Nine.  I've been writing it in my head on and off since Chapter Five.  Ashara is a major character, and I'm thrilled to finally get a chance to meet her.  It turns out that she's a lot more like the initial vision that I had for her than I had thought she would be.  As spunky as these characters are, it's a pleasant surprise that one of them is falling in line.  Then again, Ashara is eager to please.

I'm also a little dissatisfied with how neurotic Corwinne is coming across.  She's not some sycophantic obsessive; she's just in love with Jaspar and has been pushed in both of the non-flashback chapters where we've seen her (Two and Nine) into uncomfortable positions.  I hope that her portrayal in Chapter Seven, the flashback story, gave a bit more color to her character, which I think is also critical.  You're supposed to be a bit charmed by Corwinne, even when she's pitching a fit.  Jaspar is, and it's his story, so you should be, too.

Without further ado, Chapter Nine:

It takes me almost two hours to get back to my place, but paranoia has suddenly become a decisionmaking factor in my life. I borrow a hood from the late Count’s collection -- with Tanner’s blessing -- and blend right in with the crowds of revelers in the Lunatic Fringe as I make my exit. Black top, black bottom, black hood: it’s practically the uniform here. I spot Melina as I’m making my way through the throngs of revelers, but she’s working her charms on some other poor sap, and I’m back in the zone, anyway. Unconsciously, people make way for me, and I pass through the orgiastic masses without so much as a casual bump.

Part of me -- a big one -- wants to let old Leatherface the doorman have it on my way out, but a shift change spares me the need to worry about whether or not to be discreet. The current bouncer is a burly lycanth who I don’t know, and he doesn’t so much as spare me a glance as I sweep past him.

The route from Industry to my apartment in the shadows of Grenornac can’t help but avoid the Damsel’s Drop, unless you want to detour through the docks... and those are the Captains’ turf if anywhere is. I imagine that they aren’t feeling well-disposed towards me as it is, and there were enough of them left alive to describe a priest in league with an elemental who kicked their asses for my name to be on the lips of people who give orders. I’m known in these parts.

So it’s stealth mode, sticking to alleys and side roads and doing my best to avoid the unsavories who skulk in them. This is more Darkleaf’s strength than mine: you’d think a guy who wore black as a matter of course would be better about being sneaky, but it’s just not my strong suit. I always see the loose stone that I’m about to kick into the middle of the crowd of thugs, or the twig that I’m about to snap as I’m trying to avoid the goblin patrol in the fringes of civilization... I always see the danger, but that doesn’t mean I don’t step straight onto it. God likes to see me work, I guess.

Trying to deny Him the pleasure of seeing me paint alleyways red means that I spend a lot of time crouched in shadows, waiting for some odd bunch or another to pass well out of earshot before sprinting across a gaslit street and into another pool of darkness. Climbing up the Drop isn’t a hell of a lot of fun, either -- note to self: really, you should take the road sometime -- but I get to the top of Cafdan’s Way without incident, which is when I blunder straight into the Lightning Rod patrol.

“Hey!” one of the trio yells at me. “Halt!”

Coppers. You’ve gotta love them. Am I doing anything wrong, officer? No, just out for an evening stroll. Why yes, I do have a permit for that runeblade strapped to my wrist, is there anything else that you’d like to try to indict me for? No, I don’t really think it’s practically a Decency Violation to be out this late, unless you three are also perverts...

My temper is short and my mouth gets me into trouble, which means it takes me a good ten minutes to extricate myself from their clutches. They’ve really got absolute zero on me; after Culnor worked his magic I don’t even look as if I’ve been in a fight tonight. Plus, I am a priest, even if I am dressed a bit unconventionally... After a third time trying to play that card, I tell them that they had fucking better either arrest me or let me be on my damned way, and in either case their precinct -- seven, isn’t it in these parts? -- could expect a visit from the justicar’s office in the morning. Between the swearing and the invocation of a higher and much less pleasant power, they finally decide to stop harassing me and let me be on my merry.

Then, that nails-on-chalkboard voice again: “Fellthorn... we found you...

I spin around. Three pairs of all-black eyes stare unblinking at me from down the sidewalk. They make no move, so I stare them down.

You had to find me... so you don’t know where I am at all times. Also means you don’t know where I’m going. Interesting.”

We know you are going to her, Fellthorn. And we cannot wait for you to find her...

Jorngnir warms as my blood boils, but I’ve got a job to do, here. I turn and run.

After six or seven blocks of lung-burning sprinting, I turn back to see... no one behind me. Not good. They didn’t even try to chase me, which means that either They do know where I’m going, or else They know where Corwinne is, and maybe They aren’t just playing me. I shove that thought aside.

Those Below probably have the possessed coppers off setting kittens on fire, but... I shake my head and send that thought to the same place as the last one. I don’t know how to cast Them out, and so my choices were either to kill the hosts, or make sure They knew how desperate I was to get to Corwinne in time. Anything other than that, doesn’t matter.

It’s probably an hour or two until dawn: nobody is on the streets except those who have to be. I’m a half-dozen blocks from my apartment, which sits atop an old warehouse not far from the Holy Temple, but I’m shaking. Home isn’t likely to be where the heart is, unless it’s the one out of Corwinne’s chest, sitting in a jar... Ieander, my night is just full of thoughts that are out to get me.

I’ve got a plan. Even better, He has a plan. It isn’t often that I get Revelations that don’t lead to someone’s immediate disembowelment, so I’m taking this one all the way to the bank. I need to get my bearings.

Most of the buildings here are two and three-story houses and shops, and it’s high-rent enough that they used rough-cut stone, to match Grenornac’s own surface. Between window ledges and the occasional jutting block of stone, scaling one is child’s play, and in a matter of moments I’m crouched in the shadows atop a tailor’s shop, just another gargoyle in a city full of them.

What would dad have said? Think it through, son. No one else is going to, so it might as well be you. Know what they’re going to do before they do, and you can already have an answer ready for them. Full of great platitudes, my old man. There’s another one about goats or cows or something, probably relevant but I did my best to tune him out when he got all lecture-y. Still... what do I know?

Ancient evils from before the dawn of man are coming back, it looks like to kill us all. Check. Nothing new there, though this is a bit bigger than usual. They want to kill me. Again, not at all out of the ordinary. These seem to know everything there is to know about me, though, like they picked me apart from the inside. How did they do that? They’re mentalists. Get up close to you and they seem to know what you’re thinking before you do. Can they do it from far away?

I ponder. Those Below have been tormenting me with the idea that they’re doing all manner of nastiness to Corwinne, because they know it’ll make me act rashly. But They’ve been up close and personal with me, or at least Their servants have. If the servants are linked to the masters, it stands to reason They’d know how to twist the knife. But why are They tormenting me? Because They want to kill me, because I know what They’re up to. They want to stay in stealth mode, themselves, for a bit longer. They’re worried that if word gets out too early, They could be stopped. So They have to shut me up... me, Culnor, and Tanner. I made the two of them swear not to leave one another’s presence until I returned. They’re tough bastards; unless one of those spore barges actually shows up and dumps those minions all over town, they’ll be fine.

But if they wanted us dead, why didn’t they just take over our minds and order us to slit our own throats? Because they couldn’t. And why not?

Why, indeed? Fat Lonnie and those coppers had been taken while I was standing right there. Both times, they acted as if I’d just been found. So They have to look for me... They don’t just know where I am. Presumably, if They did, there’d be hordes of possessed out for my blood at every corner. They don’t know I’m up on this roof. That also means that They didn’t start out knowing where Corwinne was, either. It seems like They can surf behind peoples’ eyeballs, look out from all the eyes in Noldon at once, and see who they can find. Then, They move in. If Corwinne went straight home, she should be fine. If she went off to go get a drink...

I really hope The Boss knows what He’s doing. Then again, His interests and mine don’t always line up. If it meant keeping me alive, He might well sacrifice Corwinne. He’d always let me save her before, but I’d had too many close calls not to question His motives. Full of mercy He may be, but when You’re relying on oh-so-fallible mortal servants to effect Your will, You can’t win them all. Sometimes You have to make choices.

I sigh. Whether or not They know where Corwinne is, I don’t, and I can’t look for her, either, or They’ll find her for sure. I have to go with the plan, and the fewer people who are aware of my presence, the better for them. There might be a crowd of Fat Lonnies waiting for me at my apartments, in which case I’ll lead Them on a merry chase and we’ll all have a great time, away from Corwinne. Otherwise... I’ll improvise.

After all... I want Them to have some idea of where I am. If They think They have me, then they don’t need Corwinne.

By the time I key in the rune code and let myself inside from the roof entrance, crouching on the catwalk overlooking my apartments, it’s pretty obvious that the crowd I’d been half-expecting isn’t going to materialize. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there’s a light on. I’ve been gone for months. Either this is a highly-unusual coincidence and I’m being randomly robbed tonight, or They felt like They didn’t need to send a crowd to do the job.

Jorngnir in hand, I move like a ghost along the catwalk and down the stairs. It’s quiet in here, except for a faint hissing that I can’t quite place. My apartments are just a bunch of walls thrown up on the second story of the warehouse; they don’t have ceilings, except for the few where it really counts to keep warm during the winter, like the bedroom and washroom. The light is on in the kitchen, but not the usual gaslights; I see candles lit down there, and a lantern burning real oil. There’s also an aroma... a pleasant one, of lavender. And... fresh bread?

I don’t see anyone moving as I creep down the stairs that lead to my back storage room, so whoever it is must be in the bedroom or washroom. Or they’re invisible, which would really suck, but I keep my mind clear and ready for any life-saving Revelations that God wants to send my way. None come, and I creep slowly across disorganized piles of some of the odds and ends that I’ve collected over the years -- here, a grappling hook, there, a two-foot quartz prism -- and make my way towards the door that leads into my living room. It leads to kitchen, bedroom, and wash, and I listen hard, trying to place where the hissing is coming from, just as it stops.

I tense suddenly, and feel my elbow brush up against something round and cool, a glass ornament that Corwinne got me at Frostmath two years ago, with a rustic-looking village at winter, and a slight enchantment that caused snow to seem to fall continuously down on it. I almost sigh as it hits the floor and shatters loudly, and I charge into the living room, Jorngnir held aloft in both hands.

Corwinne comes spilling out of the washroom, hands braced in a fighting stance. In the faint light that makes its way here from the kitchen and the room she just left, I can see that she’s dripping wet... and naked.

Jaspar!” she shouts, covering herself awkwardly. “Fuck! Turn around!”

I, ah... turning, turning, sorry...” I mumble, feeling lightheaded as the sudden rush of battle heat leaves me. The sight of Corwinne right there leaves me with a slightly different sort of heat, but I’m too busy feeling weird about it to let it go much further. I hear her scamper back into the washroom, and start to fumble around in there.

Where do you keep your--?”

Top shelf, on that thing over top of the toilet!” I hear her sigh slightly as she stretches to reach, and I imagine her slender form lengthening as she gropes along the top shelf. I hope I left something up there.

Étagère,” she replies.

You’re welcome?”

She comes out of the washroom, now wrapped in a towel, using another one to dry her hair. “No, silly,” she grins. “It’s called an étagère. The thing,” she continues as I stare, “over your toilet. It’s Frankish.”

I, uh... I have Frankish furniture?” The sight of her, limned in light, lean body hidden just out of sight beneath a towel wrapped over her breasts as she casually bends over to run a towel up and down her legs... I shudder. “Does... does that make me classy?”

A classy guy would put the sword down, Jaspar,” she says, without looking up. “I promise, cross my heart, that I won’t attack you.” Then she does look, and she gives me the warmest grin I’ve ever seen. I love the way she smiles: her whole body goes into it. Her shoulders tilt just so, her head cocks, and her whole posture says, “It’s cool that you’re waving a sword at me. I get it. Heck, I’d probably do the same thing.”

I shake my head, grinning back, and thumb Jorngnir back to dagger-size. I turn to a wall switch and a few light crystals bloom into brightness. A few are burnt out, I notice, but I never seem to get around to changing them.

Real classy guy.

I turn back, and she’s upright, much closer, her pale blue eyes soft and sad. I’ve been her partner for years now, and I still am nowhere close to keeping up with her moods. “Jaspar,” she whispers, eyes dipping for a second, “I’m so sorry about before.” She takes my hand, squeezes it, and kisses it oh-so-briefly. A tingle goes down my spine. “I don’t know what got into me back there... I said things... I’m...” she pauses, and regains her composure. “Please don’t hate me. Please.”

Almost in a dream, I reach out and touch her face, as gently and briefly as her kiss on my hand. It feels right. “I couldn’t hate you,” I whisper, “no matter what you’d said. Forget about it.”

Oh, good,” she brightens. “Because I’d baked you a loaf of apology bread and everything and it would really suck if you were still mad because I’m kind of hungry and here are some flowers...” As she’s speaking, effervescent once more, she’s taken me by the hand and led me into the kitchen... which does smell of fresh bread. There are candles all over the place, flickering and bathing the place in a warm glow. There are flowers, yellow and red and white, which look for the life of them like they’d adorned someone’s window box until a few hours ago, but they are delicately arranged amidst the candles and are in all likelihood some of the prettiest things that have ever graced my rooms.

The shuttered lantern is open on only one side, illuminating the oven, and with a deft move with hands covered by her second towel, Corwinne bends over and retrieves a steaming loaf of bread. As she does so, the one she’s wearing rides up ever so slightly over her backside, and I cast my eyes elsewhere in hurried desperation. When I look back, I see her with eyes focused so firmly on the bread in front of her that I know she caught me looking, but whatever her thoughts on the matter, she keeps them to herself.

In a few quick moves, the bread is sliced and served. Corwinne watches as I take a bite, and grins as I quickly take another. It’s delicious, warm, almost buttery, and just... perfect.

I had no idea you could bake,” I mumble between mouthfuls.

She laughs easily, and tells me, “There’s a lot you don’t know, Jaspar.” The words hang in the air for a split second without either of us moving, and then she tears off a piece of bread and takes a dainty bite.

Well,” I grasp for something to say, “it’s damn good.”

What if this is all a dream?” she asks suddenly. “Me being here, this bread, everything. What if it’s just a fantasy in your mind?”

Then it’s a welcome one,” I answer without thinking. It’s a weird question, but Corwinne never fails to surprise me. “This is a lot better homecoming than I was expecting.” Then suddenly, I remember what I was expecting. I straighten. “Ieander, we’ve got to get...”

She crosses the space between us in a sinuous motion, towel slipping off of her as she moves. Her pale skin is aglow in the warmth of the candlelight, caressing my mind with every curve. With both hands, she pulls my face down to hers, and her lips meet mine with a hunger that blows away all thoughts of anything outside this room, outside this moment. She presses herself into me and I press back, hands sliding around her hips, up her back.

She pulls back for a second, eyes drinking my attention. “Stay in the dream with me, Jaspar. Don’t leave me tonight.”

I kiss her back in passionate reply, and that is exactly how Corwinne and Darkleaf find us.

Funny night,” he chortles as he wanders in the front door, Corwinne slung over his shoulder. “I get a call from old Jaspar Fellthorn and a contract on his life, all within about two hours. And as long as I’ve been waiting to top you, I have to say that my curiousity hell-o!”

At the same time, Corwinne is squirming and kicking and cursing. It’s unmistakably her, dressed just as I’d left her, with a slight patina of smoke that suggests that she was indeed rescuing old ladies from burning buildings. “... me down you psychopath! Who were those people, other friends of yours? No way do I believe that Jaspar put you up to what. The. Fuck.”

Staring ensues, punctuated by some outright goggling. I’m not sure whose eyes pop more, mine or Darkleaf’s. I blink, and look again: he has in fact just deposited Corwinne in a confused heap on my kitchen floor.

Slowly, I turn and look at the woman that is in my arms.

She stands a good six inches taller than Corwinne, and her hair is raven black, perfectly-placed in cascading waves around her head. Where Corwinne is slender, this woman is voluptuous, curves accentuated by a flat belly and just the hint of power beneath them, muscles the perfect balance between frailty and mannishness. Her eyelashes are long and dark, and her makeup is flawless. Intricate designs adorn each fingernail, the sort of thing that takes a team of artists hours to accomplish and is ruined by a single chip. Rings adorn several fingers, gems sparkle along her neck, and gold encircles one ankle. This woman in my arms is the picture of any man’s dreams, the sort of creature that even a priest would kill to possess...

... need made flesh,” I whisper. “Lady Ashara.”

Charmed,” spits Corwinne, slapping away the hand that Darkleaf offers to help her to her feet. “Does the Lady of Mystery come with clothes, or aren’t those worth paying for?”

I feel an indignance rise, and then feel it bitten back, and it takes me a moment to realize that it isn’t mine. “I’m very sorry to have troubled you all. This was not meant for any but the one named by Lord Culnor. I do have clothes. Give me just a moment--”

Culnor!” explodes Corwinne. “I might have known, that old pervert! Finally, finally you tire of your vows, and I’m sure he was eager to set you back on the highway to heavenly bliss, wasn’t he?” She is red with rage, pacing unconsciously in a tightly-wound arc. I start to try to say something, but Ashara wordlessly lays a hand on my wrist as she stands back up, adorned once more in a towel, and I pause.

Ashara casts her eyes at Darkleaf, who blurts, “Woah, kitten, let’s put the claws back in. I mean, I kidnapped you and you weren’t this mad at me! Though I did save you from that pack of ravening brats back there, and I did it all in my own masculine-yet-gentle--”

Corwinne’s eyes narrow, and she speaks a Word. It reverberates in my head, bouncing around like an echoing infinity. Immediately, I have a splitting headache, and I hear the woman next to me hiss as she massages her temple.

Darkleaf is knocked on his ass. He can’t quite seem to figure out how to work his limbs properly; standing is a thing for other people at the moment. I see blood trickling from one pointy ear.

He paid me to...” he mumbles.

Corwinne turns on me, incandescent in fury. The candles gutter as her hand whips out with a pistol from nowhere, wavering somewhere between me and Ashara. There are tears streaming down her face, but the look in her eyes is more crazed than I’ve ever seen her.

What’s going on, Jaspar? Are you trying to drive me insane? Is this the end result of your many years of careful planning to turn me into the crazy cat lady? We get blown out of the sky, attacked by bugs, I spend all night trying to put out the fires that we started all by myself and then I get kidnapped by a murderer who seems to be saving me from a gang of street urchins who were saying the strangest things about you and then you are here with this whore and I don’t even know you right now? Are you Jaspar, my partner, the man I--”

She sees Ashara’s hand on my wrist. “You.” The gun comes up, but suddenly both of us are moving.

That’s enough,” I say, stepping in front of the barrel.

That’s enough,” Ashara hisses, spinning in a lithe movement, suddenly next to Corwinne with her hand on the smaller woman’s wrist. I lock eyes with Ashara, and I can’t read a single thing in them. Perhaps... puzzlement.

I have to separate the two of them. I try to reach for Ashara to pull her away, but she shoves Corwinne’s gun-hand up, blocking my move with Corwinne’s weapon before it’s half-completed. Fine; I flip my hand over, close my it around Corwinne’s wrist, and pray...

The world rotates for a moment, leaving Darkleaf and Ashara behind. Now it’s just the two of us, breathing heavily, Corwinne’s gun still leveled at my chest.

Her eyes are on me, hurt, confused... I want nothing in the world so much as to take away the accusation in them. But what can I say? Would it make it any better to say, “I thought she was you?”

The sigh is almost audible in my mind. Just tell her you’re sorry, Jaspar. Those are the only words that matter right now.

Ashara.

“‘Winne... I... I’m sorry. Things got really confused, and... I’m sorry for this.” I heave out a breath. “Please believe that.”

I... don’t know what to believe,” she whispers. “This is all like some kind of bad dream...” The gun drops.

A nightmare,” I agree. I feel a sting, like someone has been slapped, and I immediately regret my words.

Corwinne pulls away, but at least the gun gets holstered. “Don’t you agree with me,” she snaps. “And don’t follow me for at least ten minutes. And yes I can see in your eyes that you’re about to tell me it’s dangerous but I’m just going to go up on the roof and not have to look at your sorry sack of skin for a while and maybe you had better send Darkleaf up just as soon as he can walk so I can make sure I didn’t do anything permanent.” She looks me hard in the eye. “Ten. Minutes.”

She stomps through the back room, mutters something that sounds a lot like “figures” when she sees the snow globe, and is gone.

I sink down into one of the chairs at my kitchen table, and put my head in my hands. Shortly, a clothed Ashara appears tentatively in the doorway of the washroom, hesitating as she sees me.

Nightmare?” she whispers.

I’m sorry for that, too,” I mumble. “I have that effect on the ladies.”

She sighs, and comes to the table to sit next to me, patting me amiably on the shoulder. “You’re not such a bad sort, Jaspar. You’re just confused.”

About a great many things,” I agree. “Don’t take this the wrong way, because I’m bone-tired of being the asshole tonight. But why are you still here?”

You’re expecting that I love you and leave you,” she says, no hint of scorn in her voice. “That’s often how it works. But there hasn’t exactly been much love yet.” She’s smiling, and it’s warm, and comforting. “Do you want me to go?”

I... I don’t know. It might be easier if you did.”

She nods, rising. “I’ll go as far as the liquor cabinet: you could use a drink. Yes, thank you,” she interrupts, before I can point her in the right direction. “Whiskey, straight up.”

She sets the glass down in front of me, and I stare at it glumly. “It will be difficult with her, no matter what. I am sorry for that, I truly am. My gift is not meant to divide, but to complete. I set out to offer your heart’s desire. I haven’t done a very good job of it.”

Her eyes flutter just a little too long. “What aren’t you telling me?” I ask.

I am the Lady of Mystery. If I give you everything you ask for, there’s not much to keep you coming back. I’m going to help you, Jaspar. I’ve caused a bit of a mess in your life, and I shall do my very best to fix it.” She slides her hand over mine. “Please, let me do this.”

You’re crazy, lady,” I snort. “You’re a mentalist, you’ve made that much clear. Tell me that a woman like you enjoys having possessed kids and things with tentacles coming after you. Then pull the other one. I have to imagine you prefer to keep penetrations of your flesh to certain very specific areas.”

She laughs easily, brushing aside the jab. “I was rather hoping you’d let me give you a massage. You seem to have plenty of firepower in your corner. Besides, a pretty thing like me? I might break a nail.”

I pause. “You’re far too agreeable. Are you trying to tell me that you can fight your way out of a paper sack?”

In my line of work, there’s no one on a white horse to come to your rescue,” she nods. “But I’m serious: I will help you, because I owe it to you. I’m not planning to get caught up in your crusade.”

Some crusader,” I snort. “I can’t even save a cabbie.”

You try, Jaspar. And you’ll keep trying. That’s why you’re dangerous. ” She rises. “Drink. I think I’ll join you.”

She pours herself easily as much as she dropped in front of me, and sips at it daintily. “Not a bad blend, though I prefer single malts. Still, it’s... rustic.”

I think you mean ‘cheap’. And good for its intended purpose.”

Her flattering demeanor cracks ever so slightly. “Getting drunk?”

I raise my glass. “Killing demons,” I toast, and I down the whole mess in a single swallow.

They don’t stand a chance,” she grins, and I can’t help but like her as she does likewise.

Daaamn,” drawls Darkleaf, staggering out of the bedroom with a hand on his temple. “I like a woman who can kick my ass. Where’d she go, anyway?”

Right here,” answers Ashara with a sweet smile. “But the redhead is upstairs, through the back. Don’t kill anyone on your way out.”

He opens his mouth, and closes it. When he dumbly turns and heads after Corwinne, I can’t help but laugh out loud.

You,” I address the woman across the table, “are far too likable. To me, anyway. You’re also a mentalist, and a whore.”

My likability is in inverse proportion to the number of times that you call me a whore. If you must, I prefer ‘courtesan’.”

Too many syllables.”

Stop pretending to be a lower-class dullard,” she counters. “It doesn’t become you. One moment you’re suggesting that a word as complex as ‘suggesting’ is too much for you, and in the very same moment you use the word ‘syllable’, which I’ll bet you can spell.”

Touche.”

Not yet,” she grins. “At least, not for nearly long enough.”

I flush, and I feel a little trill of victory from her. “I can feel you in my mind,” I change the subject. “Why? I couldn’t, before, when you looked like...” The image of Corwinne, nude, hangs heavily in the air between us, and I feel a surge of disappointment. I don’t know whose it is.

Couldn’t you?” she asks. “You wanted me desperately. I’m a mentalist, as you say. I feel you, Jaspar, not just when we touch. Can you imagine what it is, to know when you are arousing such passion in someone else? To feel their ecstasy, as if you were experiencing it yourself?”

And you call me dangerous,” I say. “If it were me, I’d be hard-pressed not to be addicted to it. And to know where they ended, and I began.” For the first time, I feel an honest pang of sympathy between us. “I’ve taken confession,” I tell her. “I may be lousy at it, but I’m still a priest. You’ve got this other person in there with you, who entrusts themselves to you, who is telling you the most intimate details of their lives... often the very kind of stuff that you secretly wish there were more of in your own life. You grant them absolution, and then pray for it yourself. At the end of a long day, it’s tough to tell where their stories end, and yours begins.”

She sniffs, and for the first time since I’ve met her, I can see past her facade of pleasantries and compliments. “It’s not stories, it’s life. We each figure it out on our own. Even those of you with a map have to figure out how much you’ll stray from the path.”

My father was Mernick Fellthorn,” I counter. “A life like his is nothing but stories. I never wanted to be like him, but I always wanted to be like him. I was just getting a lecture this very night about making sure I understood my life with the right story. I want that story to be mine. Not anyone else’s.”

I can feel her pull away like a blanket yanked off of me on a cool winter’s morning. Nothing in her demeanor changes more than a blink of her perfect eyes, but suddenly she is gone, and I am all alone in my own head. She is very far away when she says, “A story needs a storyteller. Who will tell yours?” I think perhaps she’s asking that question of someone else, and there’s only one other person in the room besides me.

We... look at one another. I shiver. It’s cold, with her so distant.

I realize I am not thinking about Corwinne at all.

And then, mercifully, ninjas attack.

Once Upon A Never: A Playground Tale

This playground never existed, but it might have. Introducing: Ashara, Lady of Mysteries. Sort of.

"Heave-to, lads, we're almost to the Lost City of Gold!"

There comes a tiny grunt, like a child straining under a weight. "Corwinne, this weighs a ton and you keep squirming! Quit moving around so much!"

"Jaspar, stop being so grouchy. It's not like it's just you down there."

"Yeah, but Darkleaf keeps kicking me in the shins and then sticking his tongue--OW, he did it again!"

"Did not," comes the retort. "And anyway, I'm always happy to help carry a Sky Captainess' airship around."

"There's no such thing as a 'Captainess'. And anyway, it's just a wooden crate--OW!"

"Less complaining, ye scurvy dogs, or you'll feel my lash again!"

"Corwinne, if you hit me with your belt one more time, I'm totally going to drop you."

"Aww, is widdle-baby Jaspar gonna cry? Is he--OW, hey!"

"No more of that talk, Mister Darkleaf, or ye'll walk the plank to yer doom!"

Whispers: "Can we dump her?" "Yer goddamn straight we can dump her. She used the end with the buckle!" "Well, you were being mean." "Not to her, jeez!" "Yeah, you're always really nice to her. You know she doesn't like you, right?" "Does too!" "Does not!"

"I think you should dump her." The voice is somehow older than its body, feminine. "Come on, Jaspar, I want to play princess."

"Uh, hey, Ashara. Um, I'm kind of..."

A shrill screech from above. "Ahoy! It's the vile kraken, lifting its hideous tentacles from the deeps and trying to steal away my crew! Row faster, lads!"

"Ugh. Corwinne, you're such a sky cadet."

"Oh yeah? And what's 'playing princess'?"

"Jaspar likes it when I play princess."

"Does not!"

"Ugh. I'm leaving. Jaspar, are you coming?"

"I, uh..."

"I'll stay and play Sky Captains with you, Corwinne. OW, what the hell?!? Seriously, what is with the buckle?!?"

"I hate you, Ashara!" A crash as an airship becomes a wooden crate on the ground, and the sound of small feet running away.

"My, my, I didn't think she'd tear off sobbing like that. Now I feel just terrible."

"You don't look like you feel terrible."

"Jaspar, I swear, you are such a grouch! Are you going to be my prince or not? Well?"

"It's not that I don't want to, it's just that--ah, dang it, Ashara, wait up!"

"Nice going, grouchy."

"Shut up, Darkleaf. You suck."

"Maybe, but Ashara still needs a prince. See you around, loser."

Chapter Three

The coughing kicks in by the time I’ve made it down to the gaslit streets at Grenornac’s rocky feet. My body bends over double as convulsions spike through me; a gang of sea urchins explodes in my belly. I spit blood and something greasy onto the alley wall, and curse... and then feel a wave of guilt wash over me as I realize that wall belongs to God’s home here on the surface world. Weakly, I try to wipe it off with what’s left of my robes, but only succeed at leaving a bloody smear down the temple wall before I collapse in another fit of coughing.

This one brings up less than the first, and I lay still on the ground for a moment, letting the rain cool my fevered skin.

This isn’t good. I’ll be the first to tell you that internal injuries are bad news, unless you’re really excited to die slowly. Whatever that thing did to me up on the roof, my body’s not taking it well. But I’ll be God-damned if I’m going to die from some pink octopus, psychic or not. I’m lying right next to Grenornac, for God’s sake! If you’ve the coin for the rituals, they’re better than any chirugeon’s ward. I’d really rather avoid the chirugeon’s ward. That place gives me the willies.

On the other hand, I believe Patriarch Juniar’s last words to me had something to do with “working on your excommunication.” He’s not going to do me any favors--holy brotherhood or not. And I don’t have any money with which to press the issue.

But I do have something that’s worth a lot of money, to the right people. I just need to make it to the club. Lord Culnor wouldn’t dare stiff me on this. Besides, he likes me. I think.

Well. There is one other option. Corwinne could patch me up, no doubt about it. She’d have some elixir or another, I’d swallow it, and in seconds my innards would be knitting themselves together under some process of arcane rejuvenation. I’d ask, knowing better, and she’d prattle on about sub-microtic phosphalgia or thaumic resonance induction, and after a minute or two of watching my eyes glaze over, she’d explain that it was magic, and I should just relax while she made me a nice cup of tea. She could definitely help, and wouldn’t charge a dime.

As I slowly get to my feet and start to press towards the club, I tell myself that she might not have gone home--probably helping someone get a kitten out of a tree, or saving someone’s grandmother from a burning building or something--and then I’d just wind up going to the club anyway. It’s the most logical choice, really it is. Absently, I stroke the gear at my chest.

Wait--no, I don’t. It’s missing. I remember the stench of death--suddenly its remaining fourth hand tears the Cogwheel of Sayn Ieander from my neck, flinging it out into space. The hatchling... the second one with the squid-thing on its face. The squid had crawled off of it, but I never knew where that stinking bug went. I didn’t remember seeing another body on the roof... it must be out there, somewhere.

Seven hells,” I mutter weakly. “If I ever find you...”

Frankly, finding it should be a priority, but I’m in no shape to do anything except vomit blood at it. Impressive as that might be, I doubt I’d survive the rest of that encounter. My cogwheel, though... it belonged to my father. I eyeball the distant roof of the temple from where I’m standing. Chances are good that the wheel is within a couple of blocks of here, depending on the wind. I could--

I could just see it, directly across the alleyway from me, pinned to the wall by a black-bladed dagger with a jagged edge.

Darkleaf.

Fuck.

“I’m in a really bad mood,” I call out, straightening up and trying not to look like my insides have been recently pureed. “Let’s just get this over with, all right?”

I wait for several heartbeats. The alley is pretty typical for this area of Noldon: gray, littered with refuse, shadowy doorways aplenty, smelling vaguely of piss and cleaning elixirs. It’s dimly lit from either end by the gas lamps along the main thoroughfare, but there are shadows everywhere here. They seem to sway and move closer as my vision blurs from pain and injury... or is it something else? One of the shadows is just slightly darker than the rest...

The shot rings out from the cloak of darkness, but I’m already moving--not a hell of a lot, mind you, just a little sidestep and lean, but it does the trick. The shadow solidifies, and I see his cheshire grin. And the smoking muzzle of his pistol.

“You look like shit,” he says smoothly.

“You aim like shit,” I retort.

Ferian Darkleaf is tall--my height, I guess, about six-foot-one--and has a lean, muscular build. His shaved head reveals skin that’s a creamy brown, like the People of the Crescent; a gift from his father. His large eyes--I overheard a chamber maid once call them “dreamy”--and slightly-pointed ears come from his mother... an elf. You don’t see too many half-elves around, especially not these days. Most try to pass for human to avoid the hassles, but not Darkleaf. He wears his heritage like a badge. He even uses his mother’s name, in keeping with elvish tradition.

He glides past me without further threat, holstering the gun as he moves. It disappears somewhere on his body, concealed by his strange costume. It’s the only garb I’ve ever seen him in: tight black leather that seems to drink in the light, with a cloak of some material that looks like nothing so much as a solid shadow wrapped around him. You can’t see its contours, just a featureless black shape in space; if a part of it folds over another part, it is lost to sight entirely until it unfolds. It conceals his form perfectly, hiding the array of weapons I know lurk there.

“I’ll get you one of these days,” he smirks. “Still, not bad. Thought for sure I had you this time. You love that stupid wheel.”

I pull the dagger out of the wall and fling it in a single motion, letting the Cogwheel of Sayn Ieander fall into my other hand. The blade quivers in the ground at Darkleaf’s feet.

“You’re cocky. You think I wouldn’t notice one of your signature daggers? Might as well announce it with a speaking ring. I mean, come on,” I shake my head, “pinning it to the wall? Real subtle.”

He laughs easily. “I don’t do subtle, Fellthorn. I like people to know that I’m coming.”

“Then you’re never going to get me,” I shrug.

“Who’s cocky now?” he rejoins. “You think I’ll never manage it.”

“If I doubted that, then this little game of yours would get a lot more serious, wouldn’t it?”

We face off for a moment, eyes locked. Out on the edges of my perception, I’m aware how still his hands are; how close they are to his belt. I’ve returned Jorngnir to its dagger form, and it’s strapped to my wrist, but detecting the chance for mayhem, the blade grows warm in anticipation.

Then something spasms in my gut, and I’m doubled over coughing again. Damn! (And, ow.)

That casual laugh again. “Yeah man, very serious.” I feel his hand on my shoulder, steadying me. I look up as my gut un-clenches, and he’s proffering a tissue.

I take it, shaking my head as I daub my lips. “I don’t get you. You’re trying to blow my head off one minute, and now you’re helping me clean myself up.”

“You know, just practicing. At some point, you’re going to piss off someone enough that they’ll want you dead. I may as well know all the ways to kill you that won’t work.” His eyes betray no emotion; he’s not being cocky now, not trying to knock me off my game. He’s talking about future attempts to murder me with less vigor than he’d use to describe a bowel movement.

“As for the handkerchief, it’s not mine. You can keep it, but if I were you I’d look to being sure that the constablery didn’t catch it on me.”

I recoil from it in disgust... another of his damn games. I hadn’t paid much attention as he was handing it to me; I’m definitely not sure that all the blood on there is mine.

“You’re repulsive,” I spit. “How much did you get for this one?”

“That’s privileged info. I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you. Besides,” he sneers, “how many people did you kill today?”

“I don’t keep count,” I lie. I drop the twitching corpse onto the deck, wiping myself clean on his uniform... There wasn’t a choice, I tell myself. He would’ve tried to stop me, and I barely got the pyrotoxin off as it was. I had no time!

“Did you know,” he asks casually, “that the Society has a pool going? About us? Who earns more kills before the end of the year, is how I hear it.” He sniffs.

I have heard about it. Last I heard, I was losing. Happily. “You’re not a member of the Society,” I dodge. “Where do you come up with these nasty little rumors?”

“Oh, come off it. You know it’s true as well as I do. You’re their most notorious member. You don’t have to be born with a silver spoon stuck up your ass to find the challenge... interesting.”

I shudder. “A challenge? We’re talking about people here--real, dead people.” The hairs on the back of my neck stand up as I feel its tip scrape the inside of his skull. Warmth gushes down over my hands... “I don’t do it for the pleasure, or for money. I do it because I have to.”

“No pleasure?” He arches his eyebrow, his elven blood making it a gesture as subtle as a slap. “No religious ecstasy as you send the damned to their reward? No battle high as you fight the wicked?” He sees his words hit home, and presses on. “Yeah... that’s what I thought. Don’t get self-righteous with me, choir boy.”

“I’m doing the work of God,” I whisper.

I don’t see much difference between doing His work and doing the work of any other sack of shit with the coin to give you what you want. He gives you super powers, and you kill for him. Neat deal.”

“I don’t have to stand here and take this from you.” I turn, heading out of the alley.

“Hey man, at least I don’t think you’re just a psychopath.” I pause, not looking back. “I’ve seen too much weird shit in this world to tell you you’re crazy. That said, you’re sure as hells not getting a good deal from Him. Lots of little hidden costs.”

“Costs?” I echo, softly.

“Maybe you haven’t noticed, but people tend to die around you. Not,” he cuts off my interruption, “the same way people tend to die around me. Heard you were supposed to be on the Falkoj. Funny coincidence, that it’s falling down around our heads even still.”

I clench my teeth, half-turn to glare at him from the corner of my eye. “What’s your point?”

“Just making a little observation. I see a lot of death, Fellthorn. I know him well. He hovers over you like the clouds over Noldon. Today it’s a ship full of soldiers. That orphanage, last year? That wasn’t a pretty sight. Yeah, yeah--demonic possession. Even your good buddy Juniar said it was legit. But the body count keeps creeping up, doesn’t it?” He lets the corpses stack up invisibly between us. “People around you keep dying. Makes you wonder how long that pretty little redhead of yours is going to last.”

“She’s not mine,” I mutter to myself, eyes downcast. Nothing gets lost on those pointy ears, though.

“Oh no? You know, we’ve never been properly introduced, her and I. Maybe I’ll see if she’s looking to upgrade her black-clad accessories.”

I manage to keep a lid on the threat that instantly bubbles to my lips. Instead, I snort, “Try using proper grammar when you pop in, then. It’s, ‘she and I’. She’s not into gutter trash.”  Ugh.  Weak comeback, Fortis.  Grammar?  Not that I’d know what Corwinne’s into--I’ve never seen her with a man. Or a woman, for that matter.

“Thanks for the tip, academy boy.” Damn him, he’s too smooth to bristle. “I’ll tell her you said.”

My eyes flicker back to him, but they’re too late: all that’s left in the alley are lengthening shadows. I start to call on God’s light to banish them--let’s see how well he hides when the divine is illuminating his sorry backside--but instead I just sag. It doesn’t really work that way, does it? You don’t get to call on God when it’s convenient for you, or because you feel like it. You’re just an agent of His will. He calls, you answer, occasionally checking back in for a bit of advice and maybe a wee bit of help here and there. Whatever Darkleaf’s many sins, God hasn’t seen fit to call me to cleanse them.

I make my way out of the alley and into the greasy light of the gas lamps, hoping He’ll at least see fit to help me call a cab.