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.

Chapter Eight

Sayn Cerupeen, boy, but you need to learn to tell a story better,” is the first thing that Culnor says, when I finish. "There’s a horrible tentacle monster, and you spend all this mopey time talkng about how sad it was for those elves to meet you. Do you realize, Jaspar, that you are never the hero in your own stories? Your father would disapprove.”

I snort. “You and my father were the only heroes in any story I've ever known. Everybody else has just been... people.”

He laughs. “You think your father and I were some kind of heroes? Piffle! We wrote the stories, boy, think about it! Hardly going to say, ‘and right there, facing that dragon, I pissed myself in terror,’ am I?”

You pissed yourself?”

No!” he bellows. “Well, yes, lots of times, but alcohol was involved. My point is, spice it up some. None of that whiny stuff about deciding to let your partner die! You saved her! You killed the monster! Be the hero!”

It was luck,” I counter, slumping. “By all rights, she ought to be so much dust right now.”

Doesn’t matter,” he says. He looks me in the eye. “Do you think I look back on my years of adventures and remember all the times I got lucky? No! I remember the times I got filthy rich, had throngs of people adoring me, and diddled some princess!”

So you do remember the times you got lucky,” I snicker.

Not. All. Of. Them.”

I throw up my hands. “Okay, okay, you win. The elf-girl didn’t die, we fucked like bunnies, and there aren’t cephalopodic demons suddenly taking an interest in the affairs of those outside of their oceans.”

Better story,” he growls, but then sighs. “If only.”

Yeah.”

We sit and stare at nothing for a moment.

Did I mention that one of them attacked me on my way over here?”

He sits bolt upright. “What?

I tell him.

He lets out a low breath. “So that’s what happened to you. You’re lucky I was at the Club.”

He rises heavily, and for the first time I can see the years on him. His first few steps toward one of his massive bookshelves are tentative, as if they pain him. His back is as ramrod straight as ever, but it’s pride that keeps it that way, pride and stubbornness.

A minion,” he says, and hands me a tome.

It is thick, and seems to be bound in iron. I brace as the bigger man hands it to me; this thing must weigh twenty-five pounds. A hinge hangs open on one side, with a slot to accommodate the matching loop on the thing’s cover. I peer under it as I accept it from Culnor.

It takes a lock?”

This book and that scroll you found share certain subject matter,” he says. “This one’s a rough translation, instead of the real thing, but you can never be too careful with Those Below.”

I peer at the page. It’s an illustration of the thing that attacked me -- well, one of them; it’s been that kind of night -- rendered with careful detail and geometric precision. It’s written in Old Calish, which I don’t read, though I can make out a word here and there. “Demon”, it reads. “Weak”, “slave”.

Ieander,” I murmur. “If that thing was just a servant...”

Turn the page,” rumbles Culnor. I do so.

The next page shows an image of what look like armies clashing, except they aren’t human. They seem to be insectoid... the Crawling Ones? And on one side, each soldier has one of these minions covering its face. The other side doesn’t seem to be faring that well. Storm clouds are moving in from the winning side, and the picture just fades off into darkness there.

The Battle of Ix’Thn’kkul,” says Culnor. “Where the Crawling Ones fell.”

He takes the book back from me and locks it as he explains. “They were once not that dissimilar from ourselves: a powerful race that covered the globe, masters of all that they looked upon. But they did something -- no one knows what -- that raised the ire of Those Below. They were obliterated for it. A handful only was saved by their gods, spirited to the Crawling Lands to serve as what we now affectionately refer to as the Dukes of Hell. Those Dukes were the only survivors of Ix’Thn’kkul, when the last of the Crawling Ones fell to the armies of Those Below.”

And these minions... they controlled them?”

Yes. A spore barge -- a kind of giant, flying jellyfish -- would fly over, blow its sacs, and soon the place would be coated with little pods, each containing a minion. Thousands of them at once would burst out of their pods, and go affix themselves to the nearest sentient. But...” he pauses, brow creased. “The texts make it seem like they aren’t really intelligent, themselves. Just a channel for Those Below to exercise their will. There’s certainly nothing about mentalism.”

I snort. “Did lots of people walk away from encounters with them?”

You may be the first.”

Then you said it yourself: look at who was writing the stories. If they were this unstoppable force, then the only people who could put pen to paper and describe them would at best have seen them from afar. Don’t believe everything you read. Especially when it was written by the Dukes of Hell.”

He harrumphs in a scholarly way, mutters something about a distant relative, but gazes off into space. When he comes back, he says, “So... a field of a thousand of those things, just as you describe them...”

They’d wipe us off the map. One almost did me, and I’ve got God on my side.”

Yeeeessss...” he tugs at his moustaches, “about that. You said that God Revealed to you how to kill the minion... and Holvelak, too. But His other tricks didn’t work against Holvelak, at least, and you had a hell of a time with one tiny flying octopus.”

Both seemed to be mentalists. Holvelak talked to me about things that were only in my mind, that I hadn’t said aloud. Come to think of it, Fat Lonnie did, too.”

But if he was reading your mind, Holvelak also had plenty of time to see what you were planning to do with that sword of yours, and the pyrotoxin. Maybe...” he paused. “Maybe mentalism can’t read the words of God. But maybe Divine Revelation isn’t perfect, either. Maybe God can’t see every outcome, which is how He steered you straight into getting pummeled by Holvelak.”

Or maybe that was exactly His plan all along. I certainly seem to get my ass kicked often enough to suspect that maybe He prefers to lull His enemies into a false sense of security.” I sigh. “Look, I’m not claiming to be an expert or anything, but I am the one with the voices of angels in my head. And I’m telling you, trying to puzzle out the mysteries of the Divine Will... forget about it. I like your theory about mentalism, but every other time I’ve tried to figure out what’s what with Him, I just wind up making myself crazy. I mean, look at what I’m wearing -- thanks for the threads, but a good priest I am not. I think it’s what He wants for me... but maybe I’ve just given up the pleasures of the flesh for no good reason.”

I sigh again. “He’s mysterious, Culnor. It’s part of the schtick.”

Culnor claps me on the shoulder and laughs. “You’re right, boy -- it’s all certainly made you dreary, if not crazy. You need to unwind.” Then his eye gets that twinkle that I’ve come to dread, the one that spurred old Mernick Fellthorn on so many adventures and earned Culnor his long succession of wives. Anyone else would welcome it, but he’s too much like a second father to me for that look to mean anything but trouble.

You need the Lady of Mysteries,” he proclaims.

I groan in protest, but he’s already sprung to the table, scribbling something on a piece of paper. “For God’s sake, Culnor, really?” I ask. “Lousy or not, I’m a priest... and you want to hire me a prostitute?”

He drops his pen with a flourish, all smiles under his whiskers. He looks like a giant schoolboy, giddy, though he can’t help but take a moment to lecture me. “She’s not a prostitute, Jaspar. She’s need made flesh. She doesn’t leave you with a fuzzy feeling and an itch that starts three weeks later. She fills you up where you’re broken.”

He shakes his head. “Maybe she won’t even sleep with you. Don’t get me wrong, I hope that she sleeps with you; you’ll be much less grouchy. But when she comes for you, she’ll fix you, plain and simple. I assure you.”

The tone in his voice catches me, the way he promises it. Clearly he’s seen her himself, but he’s not just remembering lusty bouts between the sheets. He certainly doesn’t defend the honor of any of his wives that way. She’ll fix you.

My voice catches in my throat as I try to protest again.

Ashara,” he whispers into his hands, which are cupped around the piece of paper. “Ashara. Ashara.”

The paper flares up with an indigo flame, and is consumed. I stare after it, blinking.

That’s it?”

He keeps grinning. “It’s done, boy. Enjoy her.”

You just wrote something on a piece of paper, said her name three times, and that’s that?” I shake my head.

I didn’t just write anything. It had a lot of zeroes on it.”

I can’t help but laugh. “Great, so you bought me a high-class hooker for Frostmath. I’m still just getting you another cravat.”

You paid me one hell of a secret, boy. To know that Those Below are returning... I still owe you, by my reckoning.”

I pause. “You said...” I start, and lose my nerve for a second. There’s a lump in my throat when I rasp out, “You said something to Tanner about my father. About him not having to die like that... like it hadn’t already happened. And you’ve been reading my father’s books, the later stuff, the stuff that didn’t sell because nobody wanted to read it, even from Mernick Fellthorn. You’ve been mapping his voyages. What do you know, old man? That’s the secret I want in return.”

He gives me a look that lingers into the future that he sees for me, a future that his eyes tell me is full of pain. I almost prod him for a reply when he finally speaks. “Yes, of course it is. To be honest, I think it’s really yours anyway: love him though I still may, I’m not his son. And though I might undertake this journey out of that love,” he heaves another sigh, “I’m not the man I used to be. I might fail, where another would not.”

I move over to him, and put my hand on his shoulder. “Old age hath yet his honor and his toil. / Death closes all; but something ere the end, / Some work of noble note, may yet be done, / Not unbecoming men that strove with gods.”

Don’t quote Lord Aelfred at me, boy,” he chuckles, “I have to look at his smug face every other week at Lady Culnor’s soirees.” He seems mollified, though. “It’s a good poem.”

Because it tells the truth,” I offer. “Your days aren’t done. And I’d still be honored to have you at my side.”

All right, all right,” he says. “I’ve been flattered by better than you, but I appreciate it nonetheless. I’ve a tale to--”

The door bursts open. “M’lord,” pants Tanner, “come quick! It’s the Count.”

The lycanth is bristling fur and teeth and fury... and fear. He’s down on all fours; for short distances they can outrun horses, and it looks like Tanner has really had the spurs in him. His face is slightly distended, jaw enlarged with canines poking up over his lip from beneath. Patches of hair have sprouted from the backs of his hands, and no one would call those things at the end of his hands anything but claws.

Where?” Culnor snaps.

The Black Library,” pants his not-quite-a-manservant. “We thought it had the best wards.”

I start for the door, but before I get three steps, I hear a lever pulled, and an electric crackle splits the air. Lightning arcs to the ground in front of me, and splits, two near-vertical beams sweeping in a circular arc left and right in front of me. Where they pass, the library where I was just talking to Culnor vanishes, replaced by another, of a darker stripe. Here, all the books are chained to the bookshelves, and their covers are black, or the red of blood.

No... not all the blood coloring is coming from the books. My nose tells me that in my second instant in the Black Library. Even overpowering the ozone smell of Culnor’s thaumaturgy, the scent of blood is so strong I can taste it.

Mother of Mercy,” Culnor whispers.

The Count is hanging from the exposed rafters of the room, not moving. He is borne aloft by some kind of slimy cord wrapped around his arms and under his armpits. He is covered in blood, but it isn’t his own. His hair is lightly mussed, though it’s slicked to his head by the redness that coats his body. His eyes are open, but his face is calm, as if he didn’t even have time to register any surprise.

His head is screwed on backwards.

The murderer hasn’t gone far. Fat Lonnie is lying on the ground near the Count, blood smearing his hands and pooling around him. His abdomen is a gaping mess, and a ropy string of intestine trails from it, leading up to the rafters, and back down to the Count.

Culnor pulls out a handkerchief and covers his nose and mouth. Crouching next to Fat Lonnie, he lifts up one blood-covered hand. He peers for a long while at the wound, and then stands up slowly.

He pulled his own guts out and strung the Count up with them,” grimaces the big man.

But... look at the body,” I stammer. “He broke the Count’s neck, killed him clean. Why then do... that?” I make the sign of the star.

I’ll be God-damned if I know,” he sighs. He waves a weary hand at the dangling body. “Jaspar, could you...?”

I nod. Between me, Tanner, and Jorngnir, we lower the Count to the ground.

M’lord,” Tanner whispers, eyes wet. “Can ye... or is it...?”

Culnor’s voice catches in his throat. “I... no, Tanner. Even the Church couldn’t do more than send his soul on its way to the Core.”

He starts to rise to his feet. “All this blood... I’ve got to get--”

No,” Culnor orders. “Stay. Let’s pay him some respect.”

I murmur a prayer, and then we stand in silence for a while. The darkness of this room is oppressive, stifling, but at least it means we can’t see the blood, and you can just about ignore the intestines hanging from the ceiling if you don’t look too closely. As my brain unclenches, I start to hear little noises from all around, tiny shuffles, almost as if the books are fidgeting. My companions don’t seem bothered by it, so I try to ignore the shudder that creeps up and down my spine.

What is this place, Culnor?” I ask.

The Black Library,” he rumbles. “Where all the worst things I’ve found in my years have come to be buried. That scenograph you gave me will end up here, once I recalculate the warding diagrams.”

And you brought Fat Lonnie here because you thought They wouldn’t be able to get to him here.”

At the time, I didn’t know what it was I was dealing with. If it were just a skinwalker that had been in him, we’d have had it out of there in no time. Nothing can transubstantiate or engage in mental projection, not in here.” He hangs his head. “Damn it, I didn’t know that it was Them.”

And now... there are only... three of you... who do...” When Fat Lonnie speaks, three battle-hardened men damn near jump into one another’s arms.

It’s... amazing... what these bodies will... do... if we push them.” The body just twitches a little bit, flopping an arm towards me. “So much red... all over... like an apple tree, in the fall... Do you all... scream... like that?”

Then he is still.

I don’t realize that I am moving when Culnor grabs my arm, jerking me to a halt. “Jaspar, no,” he warns. “It’s a trap.”

Get. Your. Hand. Off. Of. Me.”

To my surprise, he does. He even takes a step back, and throws up his own hands in mock self defense. “All right, boy, all right--but listen first. They know how to pull your strings, so you have to pull back.”

I’m a ball of clench-fisted energy. I’m ready to tear through the door and anybody who gets in my way. Like an apple tree... They killed the one who uttered those words. They aren’t going to get Corwinne.

But...

They know you’re going to go tearing out of here, straight to her. They’re playing you, Jaspar. They can’t control you, can’t read your mind, so They’re just grabbing you by the balls and pulling.”

I take a deep breath. “I’m listening.”

He shakes his head. “Your father was the one who was good at this kind of thing... always used to be the one pulling me back from the brink of charging into something stupid. So let me do it for his son. What do we know?” He pauses for a second to let me review, but not long enough to reply. “Those Below wiped out the last civilization to cover the globe, and then vanished for long enough to let us crawl out of the primordial ooze they left behind. There’s reason to believe that They are somehow involving themselves in a war effort that has been bleeding us dry... but until very recently, They haven’t made any overt efforts that anyone has lived long enough to tell about. You’re the first person who has encountered Them and walked away.”

When Those Below finally crushed the Crawling Ones, it wasn’t subtle. They haven’t yet shown that sort of force. No one outside of this room even really believes that they exist, except maybe a handful of elves. They need it to stay that way. They aren’t ready yet for the world to know that They’re coming. But there are those of us who do. So what’s the first thing they do?”

Separate us,” I grit. “Pick the Count off, because who knows, maybe he put two and two together after spending time with Lonnie. Do it in a way that makes Tanner want to get out of here: blood and viscera clogging his nostrils, that’s got to be switching on every fight or flight instinct that a lycanth has got. Then pick me off, by threatening... Ieander, I really am protective of her, aren’t I?”

Boy, you might just yet live to be your father’s son.”

Not if they kill me when I go after her.”

Borhafir’s bloated beard, did you not just hear what you yourself just said? They want you to do that. They’ve seen how you are with her. They’ll see you coming a mile off.”

I shake my head, mind tingling with a divine touch. “No. They’re not going to see me coming at all.”

But I’m going to need a few more zeroes. This time in cash.”

Chapter 8 Excerpts

In the below, Lord Culnor gets on Jaspar's case about being too down on himself:

“Sayn Cerupeen, boy, but you need to learn to tell a story better,” is the first thing that Culnor says, when I finish.  "There’s a horrible tentacle monster, and you spend all this mopey time talkng about how sad it was for those elves to meet you.  Do you realize, Jaspar, that you are never the hero in your own stories?  Your father would disapprove.”

I snort.  “You and my father were the only heroes in any story I've ever known.  Everybody else has just been... people.”

He laughs.  “You think your father and I were some kind of heroes?  Piffle!  We wrote the stories, boy, think about it!  Hardly going to say, ‘and right there, facing that dragon, I pissed myself in terror,’ am I?”

“You pissed yourself?”

“No!” he bellows.  “Well, yes, lots of times, but alcohol was involved.  My point is, spice it up some.  None of that whiny stuff about deciding to let your partner die!  You saved her!  You killed the monster!  Be the hero!”

“It was luck,” I counter, slumping.  “By all rights, she ought to be so much dust right now.”

“Doesn’t matter,” he says.  He looks me in the eye.  “Do you think I look back on my years of adventures and remember all the times I got lucky?  No!  I remember the times I got filthy rich, had throngs of people adoring me, and diddled some princess!”

“So you do remember the times you got lucky,” I snicker.

“Not. All. Of. Them.”

Later, Culnor sets Jaspar up for a meeting that will change his life:

Culnor claps me on the shoulder and laughs.  “You’re right, boy -- it’s all certainly made you dreary, if not crazy.  You need to unwind.”  Then his eye gets that twinkle that I’ve come to dread, the one that spurred old Mernick Fellthorn on so many adventures and earned Culnor his long succession of wives.  Anyone else would welcome it, but he’s too much like a second father to me for that look to mean anything but trouble.

“You need the Lady of Mysteries,” he proclaims.

I groan in protest, but he’s already at the table, scribbling something on a piece of paper.  “For God’s sake, Culnor, really?” I ask.  “Lousy or not, I’m a priest... and you want to hire me a prostitute?”

He drops his pen with a flourish, all smiles under his whiskers.  He looks like a giant schoolboy, giddy, though he can’t help but take a moment to lecture me.  “She’s not a prostitute, Jaspar.  She’s need made flesh.  She doesn’t leave you with a fuzzy feeling and an itch that starts three weeks later.  She fills you up where you’re broken.”

He shakes his head.  “Maybe she won’t even sleep with you.  Don’t get me wrong, I hope that she sleeps with you; you’ll be much less grouchy.  But when she comes for you, she’ll fix you, plain and simple.  I assure you.”

The tone in his voice catches me, the way he promises it.  Clearly he’s seen her himself, but he’s not just remembering lusty bouts between the sheets.  He certainly doesn’t defend any of his wives that way.  She’ll fix you.

My voice catches in my throat as I try to protest again.

“Ashara,” he whispers into his hands, which are cupped around the piece of paper.  “Ashara.  Ashara.”

The paper flares up with an indigo flame, and is consumed.  I stare after it, blinking.

“That’s it?”

He keeps grinning.  “It’s done, boy.  Enjoy her.”

“You just wrote something on a piece of paper, said her name three times, and that’s that?”  I shake my head.

“I didn’t just write anything.  It had a lot of zeroes on it.”

I can’t help but laugh.  “Great, so you bought me a high-class hooker for Frostmath.  I’m still just getting you another cravat.”

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 Seven

Let me tell you a story...

Her cheeks flushed, almost crimson in charmed embarrassment.

"Corporal, you're just too--do you really think my eyes are like starlight?"

I prickled slightly, I'll admit.  I mean, she was laying it on a bit thick.  But so was our church liaison officer... our married liaison officer.

"Miss Corwinne," he smiled earnestly, ignoring the promotion from Lance Corporal she’d just given him,"I'm paying the stars a compliment, really I am."  He nodded for emphasis.  "And your hair is just like the leaves on this apple tree we had outside my window growing up... in the Fall its leaves got this beautiful shade of red.  In the mornings, in the dew, they'd just shimmer in the light...  That's what your hair reminds me of, Miss Corwinne."

Oh, I could just eat him right up.

She was looking good tonight, I had to admit.  It would be unfair to call her “grimy”, but Corwinne normally sports a slight patina of thaumiol and sweat, and is more at home with a spanner and her ether goggles than with the collapsable fan and corset she'd slid herself into for the evening's festivities.  Her long leather jacket had been traded for an auburn evening gown that offset her hair just so, and she seemed as at home in her creamy, elbow-length opera gloves as she'd normally be in their insulated workman's cousins that normally covered her fingertips.  A diamond-studded necklace with a massive ruby pendant completed her outfit, as well as her cover as a baroness of the Fanelands.

Her attempts at a Fanish accent when we'd practiced had been nothing short of apocalyptic, so "raised by the Church in Noldon" had been the cover we'd finally adopted.  The festivities thrown in honor of the visiting Church dignitary--that'd be me--had been meager, but the sight of her had certainly made the effort worthwhile for every NCO in the battalion.

She giggled, then sighed wistfully, leaning on the arm of her escort.  I didn't prickle.  Much.

"Ah, Corporal, you're sweet.  I don't suppose I'm very likely to meet a nice gentleman like yourself anytime soon, though, spending my time here on the front."  Then she turned and gave me a huge stage wink, pointing a gloved thumb at our escort and shaking her head imperceptibly, a huge, "will you get a load of this guy?" grin on her lips.  Walking several paces behind them, by dint of my red collar an honored guest of the 27th Thaumaturgical Brigade, I suppressed a laugh.

That was my girl.

We made our way down from the officers' mess, where by now drunken NCOs were expounding upon what they would enjoy doing on or to various parts of my partner’s anatomy.  The welcoming party thrown by Leftenant Commander Holvelak--whose augustness I had yet to lay eyes on, telling me all I needed to know about his feelings toward the Church--had essentially been a debauched drinking binge, though with a single female in attendance, it had devolved into increasingly non-hushed depictions of the extreme sexual prowess of all those in attendance--myself thankfully excepted.  Corwinne had been like a wrinkle in the fabric of reality, projecting a zone of rapid shushing wherever she arrived, and having the irresistible pull on the eyeballs wherever she’d left.  Me, no one quite seemed to know what to do with.  Certainly every officer in the room was a devout churchgoer--he’d hardly be elevated to officer without checking off that box--but by their profession and nature, these were none of them holy men.  I was both the distant authority figure they all longed to please, and a goddamn annoyance that prevented them from completely eye-fucking the only woman they’d seen in months.

I was largely ignored, which suited me fine.  I wasn’t here to socialize.

Having plead my partner’s tiredness, we now meandered our way down gently corkscrewing ramp of our conquered elven village's Mother Tree.  Each tread of my ceremonial slippers sank ever so slightly into the ancient leather that wound around its trunk, held aloft by branches that the elves had coaxed to grow just so from the massive oak's girth.  Relaxing as my partner distracted her smitten Lance Corporal--though able to distinguish between seven different models of thaumagical battle dress already, I was pretty sure Corwinne wouldn’t have known the difference between a Lance Corporal and a Captain--I marveled at the 27th's new base of operations... or rather, at the remains of the millennia of elven patience that had crafted what we then stole.

The Mother Tree had been the center of the village, and its arboreal common areas would once have featured court hearings, religious ceremonies, and carefree revels.  It stood taller than any tree I had ever seen, its upper reaches no less than five hundred feet from the earth, and from what I'd heard over more than several bottles of the Leftenant Commander's wine, it was a piece of kindling by comparison to what could be found farther into the elvish lands.  That thought was enough to make a city boy like me feel a certain awe at our enemies, and a primal regret that any of this war was necessary.  The Mother Tree's leaves were five feet wide, and when she gave them up, the elves wore them as armor that was lighter and sturdier than most of our thaumaturgically-reinforced leathers.  Any people who could create such amazing bounty out of nature, whisper to it like a consort to her lover, telling him just what he needed to hear--

Just like that, my reverie snapped.  Like an emphasis laid down over my own internal monologue, an image highlighted in my imagination, came the Revelation.  Most in my order pray daily for signs from God, for spiritual guidance and help in troubled times.  They would happily sacrifice their worldly wealth for a glimmer of soothsaying from on high.  Self-flagellation isn't unheard of, in an effort to purify themselves to accept the holy oracle.  Suckers.  Revelation means only one thing in my life: someone would die soon.

My senses in overdrive, I cast my too-human perceptions out into the night, hoping to catch any sign of what we were about to face.  Elves, it had to be.  I’d heard that they just vanished when our troops approached: no one had seen a single elf.  That didn’t mean they weren’t around, though.  Given the string of minor, coincidental disasters that befell the men of the 27th as they made their way towards the elf village--disasters that cost the lives of nearly two dozen men and rendered inoperable the heaviest weaponry in the brigade--I suspected elf-magic at work.  No way had the elves just given up their village and fled.

"Lance Corporal, I don't mean to rush you, but is there any way we could pick up the pace a little?  I've got... er... these robes aren't much protection against the weather, you know."

Corwinne heard it in my voice, and her hand went immediately to her belt... which wasn't there.  I saw her stiffen from behind.  She wasn't one to give much credence to "ancient superstition", but she trusted my nose for danger.  Without her tool belt, though, she wasn't packing her usual bag of tricks.  "Defenseless" was a strong word, but it didn't look like she'd be laying much smack down tonight.  Great. Her would-be suitor caught none of this, however, and cast a frown back at me.

"It isn't so cold out, Father.  Still, if your holiness is uncomfortable..." he sighed.  "Certainly, Father.  We'll be to your quarters soon.  Commander Holvelak thought you would be more comfortable at ground level, and we're almost..."  He stopped, trying to follow my frantically-darting gaze.  "I'm sorry, is there something that you're looking for?"

There was, and I spotted it a fraction of a second after it found the Lance Corporal's neck.  Crimson and yellow mixed as the arrow took him through the throat.  It tore through his larynx, flying off into the dark, and he crumpled, clutching at the breaths that were mixing with the blood that poured from his body.

Off into the dark?  The arrow had come from...

The elf seemed to step from the Mother Tree itself, the bladed end of his war bow slashing down at Corwinne.  There was this sort of crevasse, a curious fold of the tree's bark that had served both to hide a mud-painted infiltrator and to cause my eye to just glaze right past his hiding spot.  Even seeing clearly the hideaway from which he'd stepped, I could barely force my eyes to focus on it.  Such was the magic of the elves, if you could call it that: they spent their centuries carefully shaping the trees, breeding the animals, and moving even the earth itself to serve their precise needs.  And we’d had the gall to invade one of their carefully-shaped cities?  The whole of the natural world seemed to obey their every whim!

One of those whims appeared to be my partner's death.  God and I had other plans for her.

We were both moving before our escort's knees had hit the leathery floor.  Corwinne's hand bent strangely, releasing the contents of some hidden pouch in her glove; these she flung at the Lance Corporal.  Shimmering blue and silver motes sped through the air with a speed borne of purpose.  Corwinne called them "metamorphic bio-pattern perfectors", which seemed to be her way of saying that they'd fill in the gaps of you that for some reason had gone missing.  Victim of many such gaps, I knew them all too well.

Just as I knew her, and her infuriating penchant for self-sacrifice.  Dodge out of the way of the blade aimed at her throat?  Oh, Jaspar, I couldn't, not if it would make a difference in saving the life of some--

My internal monologue took a moment to compose itself as I barreled into her, hitting just at the waist so as not to knock the wind out of her.  As her head whipped forward, the elf's  blade sliced through a lock of her hair, but Corwinne's haircut was the least of my worries at the moment.

I deposited her a few paces down the ramp, and turned to face our attacker.   The elf was lithe and quick, a new arrow already nocked and drawn.  His leaf-armor was coated with a thick mud, but as he stepped into the moonlight that filtered down through the thick arbor, his skin began to glow softly, emitting a cool blue radiance.  By every appearance, he had me dead to rights.  But he didn't have God on his side.

How can I describe it, fighting with divine guidance?  It's like everything in the world goes black-and-white, except the thing that I absolutely have to focus on, which shines with the brightest color.  Sometimes I'll see things, flickering ghosts of the Divine Will, showing me What Must Be.  When I say that the Lord guides my hand, I mean just that: He shows me the way.  It isn't as if He takes the reins, and I've certainly enough scars to prove that I'm not always worthy of the advice He offers... but it does mean that I'm liable to spot things that no one else sees, and make judgments just that fraction of a second faster than anyone expects.

It also means I'm a bastard to hit, especially when you're sure you've got me covered.  The elf let his yellow-fletched arrow fly without even so much as a "die, outlander"--which just goes to show that they have no sense of the dramatic--but I was already in motion, sliding into just the right position, not through any great battle instinct of my own, not by watching the elf's all-black eyes to know where he's aiming, but because I could see a Jaspar-shaped emptiness in the air that cried out to be filled.

I filled it, and the arrow's breeze tousled my hair rather than its tip spattering my brains.  The elf's black eyes betrayed him for only a second, but in that time he saw a feral grin, and a blade slide into my hand from a hidden wrist-sheath.  I felt Jorngnir swell like an erection, the Butcher's Blade eager to taste new meat... and then, with an electric sizzle, the elf pitched forward, thin streams of smoke curling from his pointed ears.

"Damn it, woman," I groused, "I even had a witty one-liner.  I swear, you take all the fun..."

I turned, breath catching just a little.  "... out of the job," I finished, weakly.  There she stood, her red evening gown clinging to her body, her arm cocked with some sort of oversized lightning pistol pointing casually towards the sky.  Her breasts rose just slightly in her corset and her face was flushed with adrenaline.  She put one hand on her hip and I swear to God she blew the smoke off from the muzzle of her gun.

"It's cute of you to stare," she chirped brightly, "but I think I'm probably going to need scary-fuck-you-up Jaspar, not I-have-these-pelvically-frustrating-vows Jaspar, mmmkay?"

"I wasn't staring.  I was pouting."

"At your woefully inadequate sex life, I know.  Now's not the time.  Scary Jaspar!"  She bared her teeth and made a claw with her empty hand, to show me what she was getting at.  “Rrrrr!”

"I was pouting at... come on, one-liner!  Those don't happen every--  Ahhh, wait up!"

Before I could gather my wits enough to ask her where she'd gotten that pistol, given the anatomically-accurate nature of her current attire, she strode past me, tearing her necklace off with a hard motion.  Her body shimmered, glittering silver for a moment, and then she stood revealed as the Corwinne I knew so well: battered leather jacket, insulated workman's gloves, boots and breeches, and more pockets than could be picked by all of Sayn Agaetha's Reformatory for Wayward Lads.

"You weren't really wearing.. you just glamoured yourself!" I sputtered.  "I'm in ceremonial slippers, here!  With the full frock, and this cord that's got tassels on it!  Tassels!"

"He's very grouchy when I'm cleverer than he expects, Corporal.  How's the neck?"  She was helping our escort to his feet, which was made a bit of a chore by the way that he was lying in a pool of his own blood.  Very slippery, those, especially when combined with the wooziness of blood loss.

The man was clearly dazed, and he pawed at his neck in confusion.  Where torn flesh ended, a shimmering blue substance had coalesced, and as he probed it, it bent and flexed under his fingers, just like the real thing would.

"Don't pick at it," his guardian angel scolded.  "Your skin will grow back around it, and you'll be good as new, with barely any scarring or anything.  Metamorphic bio-pattern--ph, never mind; it's maaaa-gic.  See?"  She held up a lens from her goggles so that he could see his neck reflected.  "Sparkly!"

"... and therefore magic," I finished, grabbing one of the Lance Corporal's arms as she took the other.  I jerked my head toward the elf's smoking corpse.  "Let's do a little more magic and disappear before that guy's buddies show up."

We escorted our escort rapidly back to ground level, and by the time we'd hit the forest floor, he seemed to have regained control of his legs.  Talking did not seem to be a faculty that had returned to him yet, which I took to be a mercy as I strained to listen for the further dangers I knew lurked in the night.  My Revelation hadn't yet been answered, which meant that the dying had only just begun.

"I'm wearing makeup," Corwinne hissed loudly.

"What?"  I was genuinely taken aback.

"You're not talking to me, which is what you do when you're mad at me.  So I asked myself why you would be mad, and I figure it must be because I was just wearing a glamour and you had to wear your stuffy ceremonial robes, which I suppose must not be very comfortable or particularly combat-ready.  And then I said, 'Ah-ha!', because you hate not being combat-ready, so not only are you mad because you're the only one who's been uncomfortable, but also because you're questioning whether you'd have gotten that guy if you were just wearing your regular robes instead of these ones, which reminds you that you're mad about me not really wearing a dress."

I stared at her, but for a different reason than last time.

"Sooo I thought I'd point out that only my clothes were glamoured, and I really am wearing makeup, which is a total bitch-and-a-half to put on, you have no idea, so I really did have to suffer just like you did and you shouldn't be mad."  She waited for a reply, fidgeting slightly under my baleful look.  "Maybe a bitch-and-three-quarters?"

"Sayn Ieander," I spat, failing to repress a grin.  "I swear I wish I could stay mad at you."

She grinned back. " 'Your makeup looks very nice, Corwinne.' "

"Your makeup looks very nice, Corwinne."

" 'And I like what you've done with your hair.' "

I sighed.  "And I like what you've done with your hair.  Can we--?"

She was on a roll.  Even the Lance Corporal was grinning at me.  " 'And I'm sorry I never take you to nice places where you can wear dresses for real, and maybe dance with you a little.' "

I dropped and spun low, Jorngnir's haft catching them both at the backs of their knees.  Three arrows whizzed just overhead, and a fourth nicked my shoulder, drawing a streak that neatly matched my banded collar.

"We'll talk about this later," I gritted, pushing to my feet in a sprint toward the closest of the five elves who'd just seemed to spring up as if the earth had belched them up at us.  This one had a massive sword, easily as long as he was tall, and he whipped it around as I approached with an ease that told me the blade was not weighted like steel.  The others were armed with bows, which made them Corwinne's problem.  Big guys with long, pointy things were my territory.

He cried out in Elven and matched my charge, blade a whirling blur.  "Mine's bigger," I hissed as we closed, casting Jorngnir out like a spear to get myself the extra several feet of reach that my longer weapon afforded me.  He dodged aside without slowing, his sword sweeping around on the side where Jorngnir wasn't, a blow meant to be impossible to parry.  Probably it was, but if I relied on my weapon for everything I'd have been in real trouble long before this.

I heard a spitting sound come from behind me as I sprang inside the sweep of his huge sword, blocking his arms with my body and putting my face right up against his.  His all-black, expressionless eyes didn’t waver, to his credit.  I’d already seen the dagger at his side, outlined brightly to my Revealed sight.  One hand snaked toward it...

And then I shoved him hard, my leg hooked around his ankle, and he staggered backwards, flailing his way right into the path of Corwinne’s thaumiol spray.  I waved brightly at him as we both heard the sharp click! of Corwinne's igniter.  There was a green fwooosh! and he was gone, along with the rest of our assailants.

Whoops, no--I’d missed one in the sudden burst of flame in front of my eyes.  Her bow leveled at the clearly-greater threat, she made ready to send Corwinne after her fellows to the Crawling Lands.  My fingers traced arcane pathways in the gloom.  A whispered word, an invisible dagger flung, and a little murder in the night, and my partner would live to see another day.  I looked over to get some credit for the save, but Corwinne wasn’t yet in a grateful mood.

“Jaspar, look around...” she hissed.

Well, my partner might live to see another day.  Elves where everywhere all of a sudden.  It was if we had been magically whisked into the middle of their village at noontide, on a day when they were not being overrun by thaumagically enhanced human hordes.  Except, that if anyone was doing the overruning, it seemed to be the elves right now.  I saw dozens: men, women, even a few children armed with slings and shortspears.  Not a one of them had anything more advanced than a longbow, and it looked like they were about to completely wipe the floor with one of Calisar’s most decorated thaumechanized battalions.

I heard an explosion, saw a flare of green light bend the shadows malevolently.  One of the 27th’s Animated Personnel Carriers had just exploded, peppering the night with shards of rune-covered elephaunt bones.  While I shared the elves’ distaste for the animated dead--it was one of the few parts of military life that operated in flagrant disobedience to God’s Will--it didn’t bode well that its thaumiol tank had been blown.  Not only did that mean that its guards were dead, but any bits of that bastard creation that were left over would no longer be bound by the restraining enchantments... yep, there were the screams.  “Irresistible craving for the life force of the living” qualified as a good reason not to mess about with the undead.

My cold satisfaction at our enemies’ miscalculation was disrupted by the body that landed in a pulpy mess at my feet.  I saw officer’s bars amid the wreckage, and looked up barely in time to throw myself out of the way of another of my erstwhile drinking companions as he plummeted to the earth.  Rolling into a crouch, I grimly assessed the situation.

It didn’t take much Revelation to see all the many pointy things that were aimed in our direction.  And though I couldn’t see them well, I knew that more bodies were being hurled at us from above, as elves cleared out what had just been the officer’s mess.  None of the elves near us was in any danger of being crushed by falling human--it seemed only Corwinne, the Corporal, and myself had that worry--so if we weren’t crushed, it looked as if we had a bright future of bloody perforation in store.

I looked at Corwinne.  She looked at the Lance Corporal.

I prayed for us.

The night thrummed with the Divine Will and the hum of Corwinne’s battery packs.  I felt a sharp prick at my back, accompanied by the faint scent of her perfume.  A metallic whisper from the homing dart she’d tagged me with crackled, “Go get ‘em, tiger.”

I ran, letting grace and Revelation guide my steps.  Jorngnir, fully grown, pulled me forward, more of a buoy than a weight in my hands.  More bodies landed around me, but my path was true.  Arrows whizzed as I roared a battle challenge; I felt only faint scratches.  Limned in a corona of pale radiance, all of me was wrath.

The first elf I reached flinched as I approached, and some part of me could tell that she wasn’t a warrior.  Her stance was wrong, too tall, and no practiced archer would fire from out in the open like that.  She was just some elf, defending her lands from human aggressors.  In another time, we might have amiably debated elven polytheism, or at least agreed to mutually dislike one another and leave well enough alone.  But the bow in her hands and the blade in mine drove us down a different path.

The light of grace surrounding me seemed to concentrate on Jorngnir’s edge as the runeblade slashed down.  She tried to stumble out of the way, but my blow tracked her step, speeding for her heart.  I felt the keening of the Butcher's Blade in my hands, gritted my teeth, pulled... and when my swing was complete, her bow fell in two neat pieces to the ground, and Jorngnir remained unbloodied.

Her black eyes locked onto mine, not understanding it, either.  Then I spun, slamming the blunt haft of my weapon into her temple, and she dropped to the ground.

As she fell, the light washed away from us in all directions, flashing over half a dozen other elves who were standing within twenty feet of our position.  The light infused them, and by the looks on their faces, I could tell that God had Revealed death to them.  He took them then, transporting them perhaps to see a vision of the Core for only a split-second as the world continued to turn beneath our feet.  First there, and then simply vanished, the elves who had been caught in the light then reappeared, bewildered and blinking... a dozen paces behind me.  Where human soldiers were falling even still from the branches of the Mother Tree.

I didn’t hear any screams, just wet thumps, but I could see the looks on the faces of the elves still assembled.  It was hardly fair.  They were here to defend their home from human soldiers.  Instead, they’d found me.

Corwinne found them, too.  I’d heard her whispering words of power through the audio link on the homing dart, and with a crack of thunder the air split open in front of me, catching the next ranks of elves in a shockwave that knocked them off their feet.  Winds whipped into dust devils, sending funnel clouds back along the edges of the assembled elves, tossing those they caught ten or fifteen feet back, clearing even more of a path for us to make our escape.

There came a hiss of static from the homing dart in my back, and another crack of thunder, and Corwinne was at my side.

“What about-” I began.

“I’ve got him,” she finished.

We ran.

We didn't get far.  Galloping through the hole we'd made came a twenty-foot high monstrosity of gore-spattered bone.

"Oh..." breathed Corwinne.

"... shit," I agreed.  "The APC."

Made from enough elephaunt carcasses to weave a tight cage around a complement of a dozen or so soldiers, its colossal torso was smeared with gore from elves unfortunate enough to meet its tusks.  The skeletal beast’s eye sockets glowed an angry red as it swept its head from side to side, slashing the steel blades attached to its bony protrusions to and fro, rending limbs where it could.  Where an elephaunt might have been slow, the APC wasn’t encumbered by flesh, and it whipped about with surprising agility, kicking out with a hindleg and sending another unfortunate elf sprawling.

“Hey!” Corwinne shouted at it, stepping into the clearing.  “Hey!”

I stared at her, slack-jawed.  It made no sense.  We’d just gotten the distraction that we were praying for--well, that I was praying for--and there she was, trying to get attention on us.  Well, on her.  I’d just been killing these elves.  Now she was trying to save them all of a sudden?

The elephaunt skull swung round toward her.  The red eyes flickered.  Behind them, I could feel the hunger there, the desperation for her warmth, her flesh, her spirit.  Some undead come to understand and accept their condition, the wracking yearning they felt for the life that they lost.  Existential agony is a bit much to explain to the patched-together remains of a bunch of animals.

It let loose a soundless roar, and came at her.

Upper lip curled in a snarl, I sprang in front of it.  The cogwheel of Sayn Ieander grew warm on my chest.  “Come on, blaspheme,” I whispered, “and let me show you the Face of God.”

The burst of light tore into the skeleton, lancing through it cleanly.  I could see a cogwheel-shaped hole straight through its chest and spine where the beam had hit it, but the damned thing didn’t even slow.  It hit me like an explosion: I pole-vaulted over its tusk swing and tried to bring Jorngnir up to slice its skull in half, but it rammed its thick head into my leaping body before I could even get the blade aloft.

I went crashing back to the ground, my own bones grinding.  No way could I hold onto my weapon; it went God knows where.  When you are rammed by an elephaunt, you don’t “roll with it”.  Too much of my body was screaming at me to decide if anything was broken; I scrabbled desperately backward.  A leg crashed down where I’d just been, and I threw myself to one side as a tusk-blade followed suit.  The APC reared up on its hindquarters, readying to smear me into paste.

BOOM! came the wave of thunder, and it was its turn to go sprawling.  The immense beast rolled fully over, and then somehow dug its feet into the earth and pushed itself back to its feet in a way that made my flesh crawl.  Nothing of flesh and blood could move like that.  Corwinne stood solid in a shooter’s stance, oversized pistol outstretched, and hit it again.  It was braced this time, and shrugged off the attack.

“Priest!” came the ragged breath, and I dragged my head around in time to see the Lance Corporal send Jorngnir hurtling through the air at me.  I swallowed hard: the Butcher’s Blade had its way of tasting flesh at every possible opportunity.  But his aim was good, and the blade buried itself in the ground a few feet from my position.  Dragging myself to my feet, I staggered over to it.

Wrapping my fingers around its haft, I felt the weapon purr at my touch.  It knew me, and knew that my desires matched its own.  I gave it an upwards tug, and it slid free of the earth as if I’d drawn it from an oiled sheath.  I greeted it like an old, sadistic friend.

“Come on, you bloody bastard, let’s remind this thing how to die.”

I took one step, and then another.  They started coming more and more easily, pain fading from my limbs.  The APC pushed forward under Corwinne’s fire, pushing closer despite a barrage of every form of energy she could think of.  Fire, lightning, thunder, nothing kept it at bay.  It slowed, but never stopped, pressing inexorably forward, like the tank it was enchanted to be.  I pressed harder.

By the time I met it, Jorngnir arcing high overhead, I was at a full run, buoyed by a divine energy flooding my limbs.  I saw the perfect place to strike, shearing my blade through its sternum.  The impact of the strike jarred my arms, and I winced, but the blow was true.  Its spine already severed from my initial assault, when I cleft its chest plate, it had nothing left holding its back and front halves together.  The front took a few more staggering steps--as did the rear, and I had to dodge to and fro, evading the tree trunk-sized limbs as they galloped over me.  Then it fell, coming to the earth in a thunderous crash.

I looked back at my handiwork, grinning.  The thing lay in so many pieces, animating force gone from it.  For myself, I felt strong, powerful, filled with the heady wash of victory... until I saw Corwinne’s jacket spilling out from under the wreckage, where the bulk of the thing’s weight had landed on her.

"Ieander, no..." I whispered.

A lancing bolt of dark energy hit me square in the chest, knocking me off of my feet.

"Traitors!" screamed the man covered in bone and brass.  His coat and--let’s say “membership in the human race” instead of “humanity”--marked him unmistakably as an officer of the Army of Calisar.  Judging by the sheer amount of decoration his jacket held, I guessed I had just been blasted by my host, Leftenant-Commander Holvelak.  His lower half, however, was more similar to my own garb: a flowing black robe with a silver belt in the style of a human skull.  Over his shoulder, he wore a bandolier of pouches, and hanging from his back I could see a pair of mismatched cylindrical canisters.  One looked like a scroll case, while the other was made of iron, and was covered in runic script.

"Commander," the Lance Corporal croaked, but he didn't seem to have anything to follow that up with; he just stood with an arm partially outstretched toward me.  Then he seemed to think better of it, and dragged himself into a salute.

Holvelak ignored his soldier and held his ground, but I could see him poised for another spell.  Running on divine favor as I was, I could probably take another hit like that... but no good warlock brings his biggest spell to bear on an unknown opponent.  I had no idea what he had in store, and I surely wasn't keen on finding out.

"Before I execute you, priest, would you mind explaining why you and your trollop would destroy a weapon that was doing such an admirable job of slaying, heh, the enemy?"  He laughed weirdly as he asked it, as if calling elves "the enemy" rather missed the point.

I tensed.  I could play for time, but he'd already announced his intention.  Could I avoid his spells long enough to close the twenty-odd feet between us?

"God suffers not the undead, and evidently neither does my trollop.  You don’t deny either of them without consequences," I offered, searching the periphery of my field of vision for anything that might help, trying not to betray my own plans with roving eyes.  There... was that...?

He twisted his fingers, and suddenly I was wracked with pain.  Of their own accord, my limbs locked outstretched: I was dancing to his gestures like a marionette.  Damn him, he'd had his claws in me with the first spell, after all!  My vision started to fade as the agony washed over me in waves, and I prayed that God would just let Corwinne be all right...

"Pathetic," he sneered, his voice much closer.  But the pain vanished, as abruptly as it had come on.  I flexed my fingers experimentally.  "I saw the look on your face as you took down that carrier.  That was no, heh, divine joy behind your eyes.  You like what you do, priest.  Say it.  Admit that your tastes are as dark as the cloth you profane, and tell me the real reason a man like you, heh, would pit himself against a military weapon that was aimed at the enemies of his country.  Don't lie to me again, or, heh, you will be reminded what sort of man I am."

The weird little laugh peppered his speech, at odds with his crisp, military precision.  I'd known warlocks to come unbalanced, dealing as they did with dark beings the rest of us would shun.  But this was... subtler.

And anyway, I only needed another ten seconds.  Because behind him, bleeding from the temple, an elfmaid stood with borrowed bow nocked, gathering her strength and her aim.  I was a little woozy, but I was pretty sure she wasn't aiming at me.

Which was... weird.  Why the hells...?

Understanding hit me like a revelation... sent not by God but from the woman under that pile of bones.  "The Lord works in mysterious ways, and through strange vessels.  Maybe He has a purpose for these elves.  Or maybe..." I paused, fancying I could hear the creak of taut bowstrings.  "Maybe good people don’t just stand there when the little guy gets picked on.  No matter who that guy is."

There was a hiss through the air.  Then another, and another still.  The sound of arrows in flight went on for a long, terrible moment.  When it ended, none of them were sticking out of me.  I let out the breath I had been holding, and caught the eyes of the elfmaid on me.  She touched her hand to her temple, and it came away sticky with blood.  Then she gave me a little wave, and turned away from this place.

A life for a life, I supposed, though I felt like somehow she still managed to get the last word in--how do women always do that?--and that I was an asshole.  But maybe one she could live with.  Or at least agree to mutually dislike, and leave well enough alone.

Holvelak still stood, his torso the final resting place of a dozen yellow-fletched arrows.  Blood poured from his lips, but they were pulled back in a sneer.  He staggered, but did not drop.  He giggled.  Slowly, maniacally, he reached behind him for the rune-scribed cylinder.

I was on my feet, racing for him, when more tentacles than I could count burst out of his torso, bearing him high aloft and lashing out at me with lightning speed.  I saw God's Revelation, saw where I Was Supposed To Be, and I pushed myself into the space shown by my divine sight... and caught a rubbery tentacle square to the jaw. I went down in a heap.

"... the hells?" I spat, blood spraying from my lips.  That had never happened before.  Sure, plenty of times I'd failed to live up to  the  Divine Will, but never, never had God shown me a false path.  What was this thing?

But of course, I knew.  Powerful as the Crawling Ones were, they had never mustered enough might to best God at the Revelation game.  But there were Those who I'd been sent he to find, Those who had been old long before God was young.  That cylinder contained a relic from Those Below, and it had twisted Holvelak into something monstrous.

Or else he'd let it in.  That was what warlocks did, wasn't it, made deals with devils?

I tried to get to my feet, but the writhing masses that seemed to pour from Holvelak's body wrapped around my limbs and pinned me, spread-eagled, to the ground.  I fought and squirmed, but I had no leverage, and the disgusting, pink tendrils were deceptively strong.  I heard the hiss of arrows, and could see more tentacles flailing through the air.  I thought for a moment that the elves were doing it, that they were sending this monster back to the hell it had swum up from... but then I saw that it was catching the arrows in mid-flight.  With a seemingly casual toss, it flung one back, and I heard a cry, and a groan.

The mass shifted, and suddenly Holvelak's face was very close to mine.  His body had vanished into a cloud of pulsating appendages: no arms, no legs, just the face, and the undulating extremities.  The tentacles swam over one another like a nest of vipers; I couldn't see a torso at all anymore, nothing to hit even if I did have a weapon.  Blood drizzled onto me as he spoke.

"Like the deal I made?" he grinned.  "They'll do it for you, too, heh.  Just say the word."  He shifted closer, whispering in my ear.  "But you have it wrong, priest.  The relic isn't in this canister--" he held up the metal one in a meaty tendril-- "but in the other one.  Would you like to see what our people have devised for these 'little guys' you love so well?"

I hadn't said any of that aloud, about Holvelak making a deal, or about the canister.  It--I could no longer think of this thing as a "he"--it had known.

And I didn't need to see what was in the canister.  I also knew.

"Get back!" I screamed, hoping that someone out there spoke Calish.  "Run!"

It picked me up, dangled me by my arms a good fifteen feet over the forest floor, legs flailing helpessly.  I could see a dozen or so elves determinedly firing their last arrows at the Holvelak-thing, black eyes betraying no hint of fear.  They should have been afraid.  One or two of the arrows got through, and I saw a piece of tentacle drop toward the ground every now and then.  But as they fell, the severed appendages would cast out a thin, fleshy tendril that buried itself into the main body of the thing, and in an instant bulged with new life.  The stump that had been severed regenerated just as quickly.  For every bit of damage they did, the monster only grew.

But all monsters can be killed.  That wasn’t what the elves had to fear.  I heard a series of beeps as Holvelak keyed in the release sequence on the canister it held... and poured a long draught of pyrotoxin onto the ground before snapping the cap over the rest of the foul brew.

Instantly, the malevolent stuff began to spread in a ring: in a second’s time, it had swept outward a dozen feet in all directions.  It was viscous, and thick, and where it passed, nothing living remained.  The ground itself bubbled as lichen and twig were reduced to ashes.  The closest elves didn’t have a chance.

I saw her, as the vile stuff that humans had brought into her land took her.  The elfmaid who’d tried to save me just stared at me now, accusing... until she, too, crumbled away.

The Holvelak-thing, meanwhile, was clinging to overhead branches and avoiding the filth it had released with ease.  It laughed as I cursed it in the name of God, for we both knew how empty that threat was to its masters.

“Watch,” it whispered, giggling, “as we cleanse this wood and build something worthy of the true masters of Raiusha.”

I didn’t have much choice, dangling helpless as I was.  I could feel the touch of God on my mind, Revealing to me all the many ways that Holvelak could get to meet Those masters face-to-tentacle, but there was nothing, no way for me to...

Oh, no.

The Lance Corporal had known, when he first saw the canister wielded, what it meant.  I spotted him now, from my vantage point, with Corwinne’s inert form unearthed from beneath the wreckage of the APC and slung over his shoulder.  He was making ready to run like the hells themselves were after him--which for all intents and purposes, they were--and he was far enough ahead of the oncoming wave that he just might outpace it if he got out right now.

He could also reach Jorngnir, which lay between him and the oncoming tide.  If he could get it to me, I could stop this thing.  I could maybe even stop the pyrotoxin.

But not before it got to him.  And to Corwinne.

Of course, if I didn’t stop the pyrotoxin, it was going to get everyone.

“Lance Corporal!” I croaked, telling him just what he needed to hear.  “I can save her!  Throw the glaive!”

He turned, saw me screaming at him.  Saw the wriggling thing that had been his boss fouling the world behind me.

Do it!” I pleaded, choking a little with the lie.  “I can save her!  For the love of God, do it now!”

His eyes flicked to the woman on his shoulder, whose hair reminded him of the apple tree outside his childhood home.  Then to me.  He knew.

With unbearable gentleness, he put her down, and raced for the blade.

A tentacle slid over my shoulder, groping profanely for him.  I screamed, and pulled my body up to kick out at it with a flailing boot.  I poured myself into the kick, willing God to take what He needed from me, just to grant this one prayer...  I felt a rubbery sensation beneath my boot, saw a silver flash... and felt my prayer answered, the bargain struck.  Strength sapped from my limbs--I’d not be pulling off another kick like that any time soon--but as I watched, the tentacle began to dissolve.  It flaked away on the night air, and for a moment, I thought that maybe I’d done it, and that the whole wretched creature would peel away into nothing.  But that wasn’t what I asked for, and it wasn’t what I got.  The tentacle sloughed into nothingness, only to be replaced seconds later by another.  I hadn’t gotten much for my prayer, but I bought the Lance Corporal the time for one more throw of the Butcher’s Blade.

He heaved it.  As he did, he shouted, and a chill took me.  My eyes fixed on the arc of Jorngnir towards the Holvelak-thing, I never saw the pyrotoxin take him, as he knew it would.  But I heard his words.

“You made a promise!”

And then his words were all that was left of him.

His words, and a flying glaive.

The Lance Corporal hadn’t been a big man, but Jorngnir had its way of helping out when there was death to be dealt, and it raced fast and true towards the center of the mass of tendrils.  Of course, it couldn’t match the speed of the arrows that Holvelak had so effortlessly plucked from the air.  I hung limp, watching as a tentacle wrapped almost casually around its shaft, stopping it cold.

But then, a curious thing happened.  One wouldn’t expect if, if he hadn’t known Jorngnir quite so intimately as I.  The Butcher’s Blade hadn’t earned its title by just quitting before the job was done.

It twisted in the tentacle’s grasp.

It wasn’t much, but it sent Jorngnir’s knife-edge clean through its meaty captor.  A brief spurt of blood raced the weapon to the ground, spattering on the last of the toxin that was spreading out from the dropped canister while the runeblade buried itself, satisfied, in the pyrotoxin-covered earth.

A severed tentacle landed beside it in the pool of death.  A little tendril of flesh had already thrust forth from the amputated limb and had buried itself in Holvelak’s body.  It swelled to full thickness just in time for the pyrotoxin to race up the reattached end of the tentacle, along the new flesh, and begin to engulf Holvelak, tentacle by disgusting tentacle.

“Wha-- no!” Holvelak cried, his face shifting as far away as possible from the ooze that was racing along his mutating form.  Tentacles kept sprouting, only to be coated in more toxin that was sucking greedily along the pathway that Jorngnir had made for it.  There were so many of them now that the spread of the stuff across the ground had actually ceased, and it was starting to creep back inwards, needing more and more to coat the monster faster than he could recover.

Of course, with all that disintegrating going on, he wasn’t exactly focused on keeping me aloft.  His grip loosened, the tentacle spasmed, and then I was falling.

As I fell towards the pyrotoxin-covered ground, I focused on a leaf, just in front of my face, floating gently to the earth.  By the time it reached the ground, there would be nothing left of me, just a holy symbol of Sayn Ieander to mark my passing.  Except, wait... the leaf was still in my sight a moment later, when I should have dropped past it as it wafted to the earth.  Because it wasn’t right in front of my face... it was just vastly out of proportion to my eyes’ expectations, a good five feet across, drifting almost to the ground just below me.

The Mother Tree had given up one of her leaves.  I landed on it feet-first, dropping into a crouch.  My limbs were leaden weights, but I had to go.  I could hear the leaf sizzling as the pyrotoxin moved along it, but the toxin was having trouble, as if some force in the leaf were resisting its hellish appetite.  While it should have engulfed us in a second, instead I had time to take a breath, and leap...

My hands closed around Jorngnir’s haft, briefly, and I used it like a pole vault, propelling myself towards the receding edge of the pyrotoxin’s boundary... and sprawling out onto my back, the barren dirt still warm from the toxin’s passage over it.

“Ow,” I told the world.

Holvelak’s long, final scream was my only answer.  And then, just the sigh of the night’s breeze through the leaves, high above.

“Thank you,” I whispered sincerely, to all those who might be listening.

“Ohhh...” came a groan.  “No need to thank me, just trying to save your did a giant skeleton land on my head, is why it hurts so much?”

“Corwinne!” I cried, and then I was on my feet, skidding to her as she sat propped up on one elbow, rubbing at her temple.  I hugged her fiercely.

“Woah, hey there!” she started.  “It’s, ah, good to see you, too.”

I remembered myself and pulled back, flushed.  “Just... had a tense moment back there.  Thought maybe I’d forgot to save you.”

She laughed, and swatted playfully at my arm.  “Jaspar, don’t be ridiculous.  You always remember to save me.  Even if sometimes it’s by accident.”

I helped her up, a bit unsteady myself.  “Definitely more on the ‘accident’ side this time, I’m afraid.  I’m... I’m really glad you’re all right.  Really.”

She whistled low as she looked around.  The ground was a barren crater for dozens of feet in every direction.  The edge of the pyrotoxin’s reach, inches from where Corwinne had been lying, was a blackened ring, and a fine white ash coated the soil inside it.  I was coated in the stuff, and I tried not to think about who it was composed of.

She looked back at me, brow wrinkled.  “We did win, right?”

I bent down, and picked up a rune-scribed canister.  “Get your scenograph and let’s find out.”

Chapter Seven, Part 3

Full Chapter  

The front took a few more staggering steps--as did the rear, and I had to dodge to and fro, evading the tree trunk-sized limbs as they galloped over me.  Then it fell, coming to the earth in a thunderous crash.

I looked back at my handiwork, grinning.  The thing lay in so many pieces, animating force gone from it.  For myself, I felt strong, powerful, filled with the heady wash of victory... until I saw Corwinne’s jacket spilling out from under the wreckage, where the bulk of the thing’s weight had landed on her.

"Ieander, no..." I whispered.

A lancing bolt of dark energy hit me square in the chest, knocking me off of my feet.

"Traitors!" screamed the man covered in bone and brass.  His coat and--let’s say “membership in the human race” instead of “humanity”--marked him unmistakably as an officer of the Army of Calisar.  Judging by the sheer amount of decoration his jacket held, I guessed I had just been blasted by my host, Leftenant-Commander Holvelak.  His lower half, however, was more similar to my own garb: a flowing black robe with a silver belt in the style of a human skull.  Over his shoulder, he wore a bandolier of pouches, and hanging from his back I could see a pair of mismatched cylindrical canisters.  One looked like a scroll case, while the other was made of iron, and was covered in runic script.

"Commander," the Lance Corporal croaked, but he didn't seem to have anything to follow that up with; he just stood with an arm partially outstretched toward me.  Then he seemed to think better of it, and dragged himself into a salute.

Holvelak ignored his soldier and held his ground, but I could see him poised for another spell.  Running on divine favor as I was, I could probably take another hit like that... but no good warlock brings his biggest spell to bear on an unknown opponent.  I had no idea what he had in store, and I surely wasn't keen on finding out.

"Before I execute you, priest, would you mind explaining why you and your trollop would destroy a weapon that was doing such an admirable job of slaying, heh, the enemy?"  He laughed weirdly as he asked it, as if calling elves "the enemy" rather missed the point.

I tensed.  I could play for time, but he'd already announced his intention.  Could I avoid his spells long enough to close the twenty-odd feet between us?

"God suffers not the undead, and evidently neither does my trollop.  You don’t deny either of them without consequences," I offered, searching the periphery of my field of vision for anything that might help, trying not to betray my own plans with roving eyes.  There... was that...?

He twisted his fingers, and suddenly I was wracked with pain.  Of their own accord, my limbs locked outstretched: I was dancing to his gestures like a marionette.  Damn him, he'd had his claws in me with the first spell, after all!  My vision started to fade as the agony washed over me in waves, and I prayed that God would just let Corwinne be all right...

"Pathetic," he sneered, his voice much closer.  But the pain vanished, as abruptly as it had come on.  I flexed my fingers experimentally.  "I saw the look on your face as you took down that carrier.  That was no, heh, divine joy behind your eyes.  You like what you do, priest.  Say it.  Admit that your tastes are as dark as the cloth you profane, and tell me the real reason a man like you, heh, would pit himself against a military weapon that was aimed at the enemies of his country.  Don't lie to me again, or, heh, you will be reminded what sort of man I am."

The weird little laugh peppered his speech, at odds with his crisp, military precision.  I'd known warlocks to come unbalanced, dealing as they did with dark beings the rest of us would shun.  But this was... subtler.

And anyway, I only needed another ten seconds.  Because behind him, bleeding from the temple, an elfmaid stood with borrowed bow nocked, gathering her strength and her aim.  I was a little woozy, but I was pretty sure she wasn't aiming at me.

Which was... weird.  Why the hells...?

Understanding hit me like a revelation... sent not by God but from the woman under that pile of bones.  "The Lord works in mysterious ways, and through strange vessels.  Maybe He has a purpose for these elves.  Or maybe..." I paused, fancying I could hear the creak of taut bowstrings.  "Maybe good people don’t just stand there when the little guy gets picked on.  No matter who that guy is."

There was a hiss through the air.  Then another, and another still.  The sound of arrows in flight went on for a long, terrible moment.  When it ended, none of them were sticking out of me.  I let out the breath I had been holding, and caught the eyes of the elfmaid on me.  She touched her hand to her temple, and it came away sticky with blood.  Then she gave me a little wave, and turned away from this place.

A life for a life, I supposed, though I felt like somehow she still managed to get the last word in--how do women always do that?--and that I was an asshole.  But maybe one she could live with.  Or at least agree to mutually dislike, and leave well enough alone.

Holvelak still stood, his torso the final resting place of a dozen yellow-fletched arrows.  Blood poured from his lips, but they were pulled back in a sneer.  He staggered, but did not drop.  He giggled.  Slowly, maniacally, he reached behind him for the rune-scribed cylinder.

I was on my feet, racing for him, when more tentacles than I could count burst out of his torso, bearing him high aloft and lashing out at me with lightning speed.  I saw God's Revelation, saw where I Was Supposed To Be, and I pushed myself into the space shown by my divine sight... and caught a rubbery tentacle square to the jaw. I went down in a heap.

"... the hells?" I spat, blood spraying from my lips.  That had never happened before.  Sure, plenty of times I'd failed to live up to  the  Divine Will, but never, never had God shown me a false path.  What was this thing?

But of course, I knew.  Powerful as the Crawling Ones were, they had never mustered enough might to best God at the Revelation game.  But there were Those who I'd been sent he to find, Those who had been old long before God was young.  That cylinder contained a relic from Those Below, and it had twisted Holvelak into something monstrous.

Or else he'd let it in.  That was what warlocks did, wasn't it, made deals with devils?

I tried to get to my feet, but the writhing masses that seemed to pour from Holvelak's body wrapped around my limbs and pinned me, spread-eagled, to the ground.  I fought and squirmed, but I had no leverage, and the disgusting, pink tendrils were deceptively strong.  I heard the hiss of arrows, and could see more tentacles flailing through the air.  I thought for a moment that the elves were doing it, that they were sending this monster back to the hell it had swum up from... but then I saw that it was catching the arrows in mid-flight.  With a seemingly casual toss, it flung one back, and I heard a cry, and a groan.

The mass shifted, and suddenly Holvelak's face was very close to mine.  His body had vanished into a cloud of pulsating appendages: no arms, no legs, just the face, and the undulating extremities.  The tentacles swam over one another like a nest of vipers; I couldn't see a torso at all anymore, nothing to hit even if I did have a weapon.  Blood drizzled onto me as he spoke.

"Like the deal I made?" he grinned.  "They'll do it for you, too, heh.  Just say the word."  He shifted closer, whispering in my ear.  "But you have it wrong, priest.  The relic isn't in this canister--" he held up the metal one in a meaty tendril-- "but in the other one.  Would you like to see what our people have devised for these 'little guys' you love so well?"

I hadn't said any of that aloud, about Holvelak making a deal, or about the canister.  It--I could no longer think of this thing as a "he"--it had known.

And I didn't need to see what was in the canister.  I also knew.

"Get back!" I screamed, hoping that someone out there spoke Calish.  "Run!"

It picked me up, dangled me by my arms a good fifteen feet over the forest floor, legs flailing helpessly.  I could see a dozen or so elves determinedly firing their last arrows at the Holvelak-thing, black eyes betraying no hint of fear.  They should have been afraid.  One or two of the arrows got through, and I saw a piece of tentacle drop toward the ground every now and then.  But as they fell, the severed appendages would cast out a thin, fleshy tendril that buried itself into the main body of the thing, and in an instant bulged with new life.  The stump that had been severed regenerated just as quickly.  For every bit of damage they did, the monster only grew.

But all monsters can be killed.  That wasn’t what the elves had to fear.  I heard a series of beeps as Holvelak keyed in the release sequence on the canister it held... and poured a long draught of pyrotoxin onto the ground before snapping the cap over the rest of the foul brew.

Instantly, the malevolent stuff began to spread in a ring: in a second’s time, it had swept outward a dozen feet in all directions.  It was viscous, and thick, and where it passed, nothing living remained.  The ground itself bubbled as lichen and twig were reduced to ashes.  The closest elves didn’t have a chance.

I saw her, as the vile stuff that humans had brought into her land took her.  The elfmaid who’d tried to save me just stared at me now, accusing... until she, too, crumbled away.

The Holvelak-thing, meanwhile, was clinging to overhead branches and avoiding the filth it had released with ease.  It laughed as I cursed it in the name of God, for we both knew how empty that threat was to its masters.

“Watch,” it whispered, giggling, “as we cleanse this wood and build something worthy of the true masters of Raiusha.”

I didn’t have much choice, dangling helpless as I was.  I could feel the touch of God on my mind, Revealing to me all the many ways that Holvelak could get to meet Those masters face-to-tentacle, but there was nothing, no way for me to...

Oh, no.

The Lance Corporal had known, when he first saw the canister wielded, what it meant.  I spotted him now, from my vantage point, with Corwinne’s inert form unearthed from beneath the wreckage of the APC and slung over his shoulder.  He was making ready to run like the hells themselves were after him--which for all intents and purposes, they were--and he was far enough ahead of the oncoming wave that he just might outpace it if he got out right now.

He could also reach Jorngnir, which lay between him and the oncoming tide.  If he could get it to me, I could stop this thing.  I could maybe even stop the pyrotoxin.

But not before it got to him.  And to Corwinne.

Of course, if I didn’t stop the pyrotoxin, it was going to get everyone.

“Lance Corporal!” I croaked, telling him just what he needed to hear.  “I can save her!  Throw the glaive!”

He turned, saw me screaming at him.  Saw the wriggling thing that had been his boss fouling the world behind me.

Do it!” I pleaded, choking a little with the lie.  “I can save her!  For the love of God, do it now!”

His eyes flicked to the woman on his shoulder, whose hair reminded him of the apple tree outside his childhood home.  Then to me.  He knew.

With unbearable gentleness, he put her down, and raced for the blade.

A tentacle slid over my shoulder, groping profanely for him.  I screamed, and pulled my body up to kick out at it with a flailing boot.  I poured myself into the kick, willing God to take what He needed from me, just to grant this one prayer...  I felt a rubbery sensation beneath my boot, saw a silver flash... and felt my prayer answered, the bargain struck.  Strength sapped from my limbs--I’d not be pulling off another kick like that any time soon--but as I watched, the tentacle began to dissolve.  It flaked away on the night air, and for a moment, I thought that maybe I’d done it, and that the whole wretched creature would peel away into nothing.  But that wasn’t what I asked for, and it wasn’t what I got.  The tentacle sloughed into nothingness, only to be replaced seconds later by another.  I hadn’t gotten much for my prayer, but I bought the Lance Corporal the time for one more throw of the Butcher’s Blade.

He heaved it.  As he did, he shouted, and a chill took me.  My eyes fixed on the arc of Jorngnir towards the Holvelak-thing, I never saw the pyrotoxin take him, as he knew it would.  But I heard his words.

“You made a promise!”

And then his words were all that was left of him.

His words, and a flying glaive.

The Lance Corporal hadn’t been a big man, but Jorngnir had its way of helping out when there was death to be dealt, and it raced fast and true towards the center of the mass of tendrils.  Of course, it couldn’t match the speed of the arrows that Holvelak had so effortlessly plucked from the air.  I hung limp, watching as a tentacle wrapped almost casually around its shaft, stopping it cold.

But then, a curious thing happened.  One wouldn’t expect if, if he hadn’t known Jorngnir quite so intimately as I.  The Butcher’s Blade hadn’t earned its title by just quitting before the job was done.

It twisted in the tentacle’s grasp.

It wasn’t much, but it sent Jorngnir’s knife-edge clean through its meaty captor.  A brief spurt of blood raced the weapon to the ground, spattering on the last of the toxin that was spreading out from the dropped canister while the runeblade buried itself, satisfied, in the pyrotoxin-covered earth.

A severed tentacle landed beside it in the pool of death.  A little tendril of flesh had already thrust forth from the amputated limb and had buried itself in Holvelak’s body.  It swelled to full thickness just in time for the pyrotoxin to race up the reattached end of the tentacle, along the new flesh, and begin to engulf Holvelak, tentacle by disgusting tentacle.

“Wha-- no!” Holvelak cried, his face shifting as far away as possible from the ooze that was racing along his mutating form.  Tentacles kept sprouting, only to be coated in more toxin that was sucking greedily along the pathway that Jorngnir had made for it.  There were so many of them now that the spread of the stuff across the ground had actually ceased, and it was starting to creep back inwards, needing more and more to coat the monster faster than he could recover.

Of course, with all that disintegrating going on, he wasn’t exactly focused on keeping me aloft.  His grip loosened, the tentacle spasmed, and then I was falling.

As I fell towards the pyrotoxin-covered ground, I focused on a leaf, just in front of my face, floating gently to the earth.  By the time it reached the ground, there would be nothing left of me, just a holy symbol of Sayn Ieander to mark my passing.  Except, wait... the leaf was still in my sight a moment later, when I should have dropped past it as it wafted to the earth.  Because it wasn’t right in front of my face... it was just vastly out of proportion to my eyes’ expectations, a good five feet across, drifting almost to the ground just below me.

The Mother Tree had given up one of her leaves.  I landed on it feet-first, dropping into a crouch.  My limbs were leaden weights, but I had to go.  I could hear the leaf sizzling as the pyrotoxin moved along it, but the toxin was having trouble, as if some force in the leaf were resisting its hellish appetite.  While it should have engulfed us in a second, instead I had time to take a breath, and leap...

My hands closed around Jorngnir’s haft, briefly, and I used it like a pole vault, propelling myself towards the receding edge of the pyrotoxin’s boundary... and sprawling out onto my back, the barren dirt still warm from the toxin’s passage over it.

“Ow,” I told the world.

Holvelak’s long, final scream was my only answer.  And then, just the sigh of the night’s breeze through the leaves, high above.

“Thank you,” I whispered sincerely, to all those who might be listening.

“Ohhh...” came a groan.  “No need to thank me, just trying to save your did a giant skeleton land on my head, is why it hurts so much?”

“Corwinne!” I cried, and then I was on my feet, skidding to her as she sat propped up on one elbow, rubbing at her temple.  I hugged her fiercely.

“Woah, hey there!” she started.  “It’s, ah, good to see you, too.”

I remembered myself and pulled back, flushed.  “Just... had a tense moment back there.  Thought maybe I’d forgot to save you.”

She laughed, and swatted playfully at my arm.  “Jaspar, don’t be ridiculous.  You always remember to save me.  Even if sometimes it’s by accident.”

I helped her up, a bit unsteady myself.  “Definitely more on the ‘accident’ side this time, I’m afraid.  I’m... I’m really glad you’re all right.  Really.”

She whistled low as she looked around.  The ground was a barren crater for dozens of feet in every direction.  The edge of the pyrotoxin’s reach, inches from where Corwinne had been lying, was a blackened ring, and a fine white ash coated the soil inside it.  I was coated in the stuff, and I tried not to think about who it was composed of.

She looked back at me, brow wrinkled.  “We did win, right?”

I bent down, and picked up a rune-scribed canister.  “Get your scenograph and let’s find out.”

Chapter Seven, Part 2

"Sayn Ieander," I spat, failing to repress a grin.  "I swear I wish I could stay mad at you."

She grinned back. " 'Your makeup looks very nice, Corwinne.' "

"Your makeup looks very nice, Corwinne."

" 'And I like what you've done with your hair.' "

I sighed.  "And I like what you've done with your hair.  Can we--?"

She was on a roll.  Even the Lance Corporal was grinning at me.  " 'And I'm sorry I never take you to nice places where you can wear dresses for real, and maybe dance with you a little.' "

I dropped and spun low, Jorngnir's haft catching them both at the backs of their knees.  Three arrows whizzed just overhead, and a fourth nicked my shoulder, drawing a streak that neatly matched my banded collar.

"We'll talk about this later," I gritted, pushing to my feet in a sprint toward the closest of the five elves who'd just seemed to spring up as if the earth had belched them up at us.  This one had a massive sword, easily as long as he was tall, and he whipped it around as I approached with an ease that told me the blade was not weighted like steel.  The others were armed with bows, which made them Corwinne's problem.  Big guys with long, pointy things were my territory.

He cried out in Elven and matched my charge, blade a whirling blur.  "Mine's bigger," I hissed as we closed, casting Jorngnir out like a spear to get myself the extra several feet of reach that my longer weapon afforded me.  He dodged aside without slowing, his sword sweeping around on the side where Jorngnir wasn't, a blow meant to be impossible to parry.  Probably it was, but if I relied on my weapon for everything I'd have been in real trouble long before this.

I heard a spitting sound come from behind me as I sprang inside the sweep of his huge sword, blocking his arms with my body and putting my face right up against his.  His all-black, expressionless eyes didn’t waver, to his credit.  I’d already seen the dagger at his side, outlined brightly to my Revealed sight.  One hand snaked toward it...

And then I shoved him hard, my leg hooked around his ankle, and he staggered backwards, flailing his way right into the path of Corwinne’s thaumiol spray.  I waved brightly at him as we both heard the sharp click! of Corwinne's igniter.  There was a green fwooosh! and he was gone, along with the rest of our assailants.

Whoops, no--I’d missed one in the sudden burst of flame in front of my eyes.  Her bow leveled at the clearly-greater threat, she made ready to send Corwinne after her fellows to the Crawling Lands.  My fingers traced arcane pathways in the gloom.  A whispered word, an invisible dagger flung, and a little murder in the night, and my partner would live to see another day.  I looked over to get some credit for the save, but Corwinne wasn’t yet in a grateful mood.

“Jaspar, look around...” she hissed.

Well, my partner might live to see another day.  Elves where everywhere all of a sudden.  It was if we had been magically whisked into the middle of their village at noontide, on a day when they were not being overrun by thaumagically enhanced human hordes.  Except, that if anyone was doing the overruning, it seemed to be the elves right now.  I saw dozens: men, women, even a few children armed with slings and shortspears.  Not a one of them had anything more advanced than a longbow, and it looked like they were about to completely wipe the floor with one of Calisar’s most decorated thaumechanized battalions.

I heard an explosion, saw a flare of green light bend the shadows malevolently.  One of the 27th’s Animated Personnel Carriers had just exploded, peppering the night with shards of rune-covered elephaunt bones.  While I shared the elves’ distaste for the animated dead--it was one of the few parts of military life that operated in flagrant disobedience to God’s Will--it didn’t bode well that its thaumiol tank had been blown.  Not only did that mean that its guards were dead, but any bits of that bastard creation that were left over would no longer be bound by the restraining enchantments... yep, there were the screams.  “Irresistible craving for the life force of the living” qualified as a good reason not to mess about with the undead.

My cold satisfaction at our enemies’ miscalculation was disrupted by the body that landed in a pulpy mess at my feet.  I saw officer’s bars amid the wreckage, and looked up barely in time to throw myself out of the way of another of my erstwhile drinking companions as he plummeted to the earth.  Rolling into a crouch, I grimly assessed the situation.

It didn’t take much Revelation to see all the many pointy things that were aimed in our direction.  And though I couldn’t see them well, I knew that more bodies were being hurled at us from above, as elves cleared out what had just been the officer’s mess.  None of the elves near us was in any danger of being crushed by falling human--it seemed only Corwinne, the Corporal, and myself had that worry--so if we weren’t crushed, it looked as if we had a bright future of bloody perforation in store.

I looked at Corwinne.  She looked at the Lance Corporal.

I prayed for us.

The night thrummed with the Divine Will and the hum of Corwinne’s battery packs.  I felt a sharp prick at my back, accompanied by the faint scent of her perfume.  A metallic whisper from the homing dart she’d tagged me with crackled, “Go get ‘em, tiger.”

I ran, letting grace and Revelation guide my steps.  Jorngnir, fully grown, pulled me forward, more of a buoy than a weight in my hands.  More bodies landed around me, but my path was true.  Arrows whizzed as I roared a battle challenge; I felt only faint scratches.  Limned in a corona of pale radiance, all of me was wrath.

The first elf I reached flinched as I approached, and some part of me could tell that she wasn’t a warrior.  Her stance was wrong, too tall, and no practiced archer would fire from out in the open like that.  She was just some elf, defending her lands from human aggressors.  In another time, we might have amiably debated elven polytheism, or at least agreed to mutually dislike one another and leave well enough alone.  But the bow in her hands and the blade in mine drove us down a different path.

The light of grace surrounding me seemed to concentrate on Jorngnir’s edge as the runeblade slashed down.  She tried to stumble out of the way, but my blow tracked her step, speeding for her heart.  I felt the keening of the Butcher's Blade in my hands, gritted my teeth, pulled... and when my swing was complete, her bow fell in two neat pieces to the ground, and Jorngnir remained unbloodied.

Her black eyes locked onto mine, not understanding it, either.  Then I spun, slamming the blunt haft of my weapon into her temple, and she dropped to the ground.

As she fell, the light washed away from us in all directions, flashing over half a dozen other elves who were standing within twenty feet of our position.  The light infused them, and by the looks on their faces, I could tell that God had Revealed death to them.  He took them then, transporting them perhaps to see a vision of the Core for only a split-second as the world continued to turn beneath our feet.  First there, and then simply vanished, the elves who had been caught in the light then reappeared, bewildered and blinking... a dozen paces behind me.  Where human soldiers were falling even still from the branches of the Mother Tree.

I didn’t hear any screams, just wet thumps, but I could see the looks on the faces of the elves still assembled.  It was hardly fair.  They were here to defend their home from human soldiers.  Instead, they’d found me.

Corwinne found them, too.  I’d heard her whispering words of power through the audio link on the homing dart, and with a crack of thunder the air split open in front of me, catching the next ranks of elves in a shockwave that knocked them off their feet.  Winds whipped into dust devils, sending funnel clouds back along the edges of the assembled elves, tossing those they caught ten or fifteen feet back, clearing even more of a path for us to make our escape.

There came a hiss of static from the homing dart in my back, and another crack of thunder, and Corwinne was at my side.

“What about-” I began.

“I’ve got him,” she finished.

We ran.

We didn't get far.  Galloping through the hole we'd made came a twenty-foot high monstrosity of gore-spattered bone.

"Oh..." breathed Corwinne.

"... shit," I agreed.  "The APC."

Made from enough elephaunt carcasses to weave a tight cage around a complement of a dozen or so soldiers, its colossal torso was smeared with gore from elves unfortunate enough to meet its tusks.  The skeletal beast’s eye sockets glowed an angry red as it swept its head from side to side, slashing the steel blades attached to its bony protrusions to and fro, rending limbs where it could.  Where an elephaunt might have been slow, the APC wasn’t encumbered by flesh, and it whipped about with surprising agility, kicking out with a hindleg and sending another unfortunate elf sprawling.

“Hey!” Corwinne shouted at it, stepping into the clearing.  “Hey!”

I stared at her, slack-jawed.  It made no sense.  We’d just gotten the distraction that we were praying for--well, that I was praying for--and there she was, trying to get attention on us.  Well, on her.  I’d just been killing these elves.  Now she was trying to save them all of a sudden?

The elephaunt skull swung round toward her.  The red eyes flickered.  Behind them, I could feel the hunger there, the desperation for her warmth, her flesh, her spirit.  Some undead come to understand and accept their condition, the wracking yearning they felt for the life that they lost.  Existential agony is a bit much to explain to the patched-together remains of a bunch of animals.

It let loose a soundless roar, and came at her.

Upper lip curled in a snarl, I sprang in front of it.  The cogwheel of Sayn Ieander grew warm on my chest.  “Come on, blaspheme,” I whispered, “and let me show you the Face of God.”

The burst of light tore into the skeleton, lancing through it cleanly.  I could see a cogwheel-shaped hole straight through its chest and spine where the beam had hit it, but the damned thing didn’t even slow.  It hit me like an explosion: I pole-vaulted over its tusk swing and tried to bring Jorngnir up to slice its skull in half, but it rammed its thick head into my leaping body before I could even get the blade aloft.

I went crashing back to the ground, my own bones grinding.  No way could I hold onto my weapon; it went God knows where.  When you are rammed by an elephaunt, you don’t “roll with it”.  Too much of my body was screaming at me to decide if anything was broken; I scrabbled desperately backward.  A leg crashed down where I’d just been, and I threw myself to one side as a tusk-blade followed suit.  The APC reared up on its hindquarters, readying to smear me into paste.

BOOM! came the wave of thunder, and it was its turn to go sprawling.  The immense beast rolled fully over, and then somehow dug its feet into the earth and pushed itself back to its feet in a way that made my flesh crawl.  Nothing of flesh and blood could move like that.  Corwinne stood solid in a shooter’s stance, oversized pistol outstretched, and hit it again.  It was braced this time, and shrugged off the attack.

“Priest!” came the ragged breath, and I dragged my head around in time to see the Lance Corporal send Jorngnir hurtling through the air at me.  I swallowed hard: the Butcher’s Blade had its way of tasting flesh at every possible opportunity.  But his aim was good, and the blade buried itself in the ground a few feet from my position.  Dragging myself to my feet, I staggered over to it.

Wrapping my fingers around its haft, I felt the weapon purr at my touch.  It knew me, and knew that my desires matched its own.  I gave it an upwards tug, and it slid free of the earth as if I’d drawn it from an oiled sheath.  I greeted it like an old, sadistic friend.

“Come on, you bloody bastard, let’s remind this thing how to die.”

I took one step, and then another.  They started coming more and more easily, pain fading from my limbs.  The APC pushed forward under Corwinne’s fire, pushing closer despite a barrage of every form of energy she could think of.  Fire, lightning, thunder, nothing kept it at bay.  It slowed, but never stopped, pressing inexorably forward, like the tank it was enchanted to be.  I pressed harder.

By the time I met it, Jorngnir arcing high overhead, I was at a full run, buoyed by a divine energy flooding my limbs.  I saw the perfect place to strike, shearing my blade through its sternum.  The impact of the strike jarred my arms, and I winced, but the blow was true.  Its spine already severed from my initial assault, when I cleft its chest plate, it had nothing left holding its back and front halves together.  The front took a few more staggering steps--as did the rear, and I had to dodge to and fro, evading the tree trunk-sized limbs as they galloped over me.  Then it fell, coming to the earth in a thunderous crash.

I looked back at my handiwork, grinning.  The thing lay in so many pieces, animating force gone from it.  For myself, I felt strong, powerful, filled with the heady wash of victory... until I saw Corwinne’s jacket spilling out from under the wreckage, where the bulk of the thing’s weight had landed on her.

"Ieander, no..." I whispered.

To Be Continued!

Chapter Seven, Part 1

Let me tell you a story...

Her cheeks flushed, almost crimson in charmed embarrassment.

"Corporal, you're just too--do you really think my eyes are like starlight?"

I prickled slightly, I'll admit. I mean, she was laying it on a bit thick. But so was our church liaison officer... our married liaison officer.

"Miss Corwinne," he smiled earnestly, ignoring the promotion from Lance Corporal she’d just given him,"I'm paying the stars a compliment, really I am." He nodded for emphasis. "And your hair is just like the leaves on this apple tree we had outside my window growing up... in the Fall its leaves got this beautiful shade of red. In the mornings, in the dew, they'd just shimmer in the light... That's what your hair reminds me of, Miss Corwinne."

Oh, I could just eat him right up.

She was looking good tonight, I had to admit. It would be unfair to call her “grimy”, but Corwinne normally sports a slight patina of thaumiol and sweat, and is more at home with a spanner and her ether goggles than with the collapsable fan and corset she'd slid herself into for the evening's festivities. Her long leather jacket had been traded for an auburn evening gown that offset her hair just so, and she seemed as at home in her creamy, elbow-length opera gloves as she'd normally be in their insulated workman's cousins that normally covered her fingertips. A diamond-studded necklace with a massive ruby pendant completed her outfit, as well as her cover as a baroness of the Fanelands.

Her attempts at a Fanish accent when we'd practiced had been nothing short of apocalyptic, so "raised by the Church in Noldon" had been the cover we'd finally adopted. The festivities thrown in honor of the visiting Church dignitary--that'd be me--had been meager, but the sight of her had certainly made the effort worthwhile for every NCO in the battalion.

She giggled, then sighed wistfully, leaning on the arm of her escort. I didn't prickle. Much.

"Ah, Corporal, you're sweet. I don't suppose I'm very likely to meet a nice gentleman like yourself anytime soon, though, spending my time here on the front." Then she turned and gave me a huge stage wink, pointing a gloved thumb at our escort and shaking her head imperceptibly, a huge, "will you get a load of this guy?" grin on her lips. Walking several paces behind them, by dint of my red collar an honored guest of the 27th Thaumaturgical Brigade, I suppressed a laugh.

That was my girl.

We made our way down from the officers' mess, where by now drunken NCOs were expounding upon what they would enjoy doing on or to various parts of my partner’s anatomy. The welcoming party thrown by Leftenant Commander Holvelak--whose augustness I had yet to lay eyes on, telling me all I needed to know about his feelings toward the Church--had essentially been a debauched drinking binge, though with a single female in attendance, it had devolved into increasingly non-hushed depictions of the extreme sexual prowess of all those in attendance--myself thankfully excepted. Corwinne had been like a wrinkle in the fabric of reality, projecting a zone of rapid shushing wherever she arrived, and having the irresistible pull on the eyeballs wherever she’d left. Me, no one quite seemed to know what to do with. Certainly every officer in the room was a devout churchgoer--he’d hardly be elevated to officer without checking off that box--but by their profession and nature, these were none of them holy men. I was both the distant authority figure they all longed to please, and a goddamn annoyance that prevented them from completely eye-fucking the only woman they’d seen in months.

I was largely ignored, which suited me fine. I wasn’t here to socialize.

Having plead my partner’s tiredness, we now meandered our way down gently corkscrewing ramp of our conquered elven village's Mother Tree. Each tread of my ceremonial slippers sank ever so slightly into the ancient leather that wound around its trunk, held aloft by branches that the elves had coaxed to grow just so from the massive oak's girth. Relaxing as my partner distracted her smitten Lance Corporal--though able to distinguish between seven different models of thaumagical battle dress already, I was pretty sure Corwinne wouldn’t have known the difference between a Lance Corporal and a Captain--I marveled at the 27th's new base of operations... or rather, at the remains of the millennia of elven patience that had crafted what we then stole.

The Mother Tree had been the center of the village, and its arboreal common areas would once have featured court hearings, religious ceremonies, and carefree revels. It stood taller than any tree I had ever seen, its upper reaches no less than five hundred feet from the earth, and from what I'd heard over more than several bottles of the Leftenant Commander's wine, it was a piece of kindling by comparison to what could be found farther into the elvish lands. That thought was enough to make a city boy like me feel a certain awe at our enemies, and a primal regret that any of this war was necessary. The Mother Tree's leaves were five feet wide, and when she gave them up, the elves wore them as armor that was lighter and sturdier than most of our thaumaturgically-reinforced leathers. Any people who could create such amazing bounty out of nature, whisper to it like a consort to her lover, telling him just what he needed to hear--

Just like that, my reverie snapped. Like an emphasis laid down over my own internal monologue, an image highlighted in my imagination, came the Revelation. Most in my order pray daily for signs from God, for spiritual guidance and help in troubled times. They would happily sacrifice their worldly wealth for a glimmer of soothsaying from on high. Self-flagellation isn't unheard of, in an effort to purify themselves to accept the holy oracle. Suckers. Revelation means only one thing in my life: someone would die soon.

My senses in overdrive, I cast my too-human perceptions out into the night, hoping to catch any sign of what we were about to face. Elves, it had to be. I’d heard that they just vanished when our troops approached: no one had seen a single elf. That didn’t mean they weren’t around, though. Given the string of minor, coincidental disasters that befell the men of the 27th as they made their way towards the elf village--disasters that cost the lives of nearly two dozen men and rendered inoperable the heaviest weaponry in the brigade--I suspected elf-magic at work. No way had the elves just given up their village and fled.

"Lance Corporal, I don't mean to rush you, but is there any way we could pick up the pace a little? I've got... er... these robes aren't much protection against the weather, you know."

Corwinne heard it in my voice, and her hand went immediately to her belt... which wasn't there. I saw her stiffen from behind. She wasn't one to give much credence to "ancient superstition", but she trusted my nose for danger. Without her tool belt, though, she wasn't packing her usual bag of tricks. "Defenseless" was a strong word, but it didn't look like she'd be laying much smack down tonight. Great. Her would-be suitor caught none of this, however, and cast a frown back at me.

"It isn't so cold out, Father. Still, if your holiness is uncomfortable..." he sighed. "Certainly, Father. We'll be to your quarters soon. Commander Holvelak thought you would be more comfortable at ground level, and we're almost..." He stopped, trying to follow my frantically-darting gaze. "I'm sorry, is there something that you're looking for?"

There was, and I spotted it a fraction of a second after it found the Lance Corporal's neck. Crimson and yellow mixed as the arrow took him through the throat. It tore through his larynx, flying off into the dark, and he crumpled, clutching at the breaths that were mixing with the blood that poured from his body.

Off into the dark? The arrow had come from...

The elf seemed to step from the Mother Tree itself, the bladed end of his war bow slashing down at Corwinne. There was this sort of crevasse, a curious fold of the tree's bark that had served both to hide a mud-painted infiltrator and to cause my eye to just glaze right past his hiding spot. Even seeing clearly the hideaway from which he'd stepped, I could barely force my eyes to focus on it. Such was the magic of the elves, if you could call it that: they spent their centuries carefully shaping the trees, breeding the animals, and moving even the earth itself to serve their precise needs. And we’d had the gall to invade one of their carefully-shaped cities? The whole of the natural world seemed to obey their every whim!

One of those whims appeared to be my partner's death. God and I had other plans for her.

We were both moving before our escort's knees had hit the leathery floor. Corwinne's hand bent strangely, releasing the contents of some hidden pouch in her glove; these she flung at the Lance Corporal. Shimmering blue and silver motes sped through the air with a speed borne of purpose. Corwinne called them "metamorphic bio-pattern perfectors", which seemed to be her way of saying that they'd fill in the gaps of you that for some reason had gone missing. Victim of many such gaps, I knew them all too well.

Just as I knew her, and her infuriating penchant for self-sacrifice. Dodge out of the way of the blade aimed at her throat? Oh, Jaspar, I couldn't, not if it would make a difference in saving the life of some--

My internal monologue took a moment to compose itself as I barreled into her, hitting just at the waist so as not to knock the wind out of her. As her head whipped forward, the elf's blade sliced through a lock of her hair, but Corwinne's haircut was the least of my worries at the moment.

I deposited her a few paces down the ramp, and turned to face our attacker. The elf was lithe and quick, a new arrow already nocked and drawn. His leaf-armor was coated with a thick mud, but as he stepped into the moonlight that filtered down through the thick arbor, his skin began to glow softly, emitting a cool blue radiance. By every appearance, he had me dead to rights. But he didn't have God on his side.

How can I describe it, fighting with divine guidance? It's like everything in the world goes black-and-white, except the thing that I absolutely have to focus on, which shines with the brightest color. Sometimes I'll see things, flickering ghosts of the Divine Will, showing me What Must Be. When I say that the Lord guides my hand, I mean just that: He shows me the way. It isn't as if He takes the reins, and I've certainly enough scars to prove that I'm not always worthy of the advice He offers... but it does mean that I'm liable to spot things that no one else sees, and make judgments just that fraction of a second faster than anyone expects.

It also means I'm a bastard to hit, especially when you're sure you've got me covered. The elf let his yellow-fletched arrow fly without even so much as a "die, outlander"--which just goes to show that they have no sense of the dramatic--but I was already in motion, sliding into just the right position, not through any great battle instinct of my own, not by watching the elf's all-black eyes to know where he's aiming, but because I could see a Jaspar-shaped emptiness in the air that cried out to be filled.

I filled it, and the arrow's breeze tousled my hair rather than its tip spattering my brains. The elf's black eyes betrayed him for only a second, but in that time he saw a feral grin, and a blade slide into my hand from a hidden wrist-sheath. I felt Jorngnir swell like an erection, the Butcher's Blade eager to taste new meat... and then, with an electric sizzle, the elf pitched forward, thin streams of smoke curling from his pointed ears.

"Damn it, woman," I groused, "I even had a witty one-liner. I swear, you take all the fun..."

I turned, breath catching just a little. "... out of the job," I finished, weakly. There she stood, her red evening gown clinging to her body, her arm cocked with some sort of oversized lightning pistol pointing casually towards the sky. Her breasts rose just slightly in her corset and her face was flushed with adrenaline. She put one hand on her hip and I swear to God she blew the smoke off from the muzzle of her gun.

"It's cute of you to stare," she chirped brightly, "but I think I'm probably going to need scary-fuck-you-up Jaspar, not I-have-these-pelvically-frustrating-vows Jaspar, mmmkay?"

"I wasn't staring. I was pouting."

"At your woefully inadequate sex life, I know. Now's not the time. Scary Jaspar!" She bared her teeth and made a claw with her empty hand, to show me what she was getting at. “Rrrrr!”

"I was pouting at... come on, one-liner! Those don't happen every-- Ahhh, wait up!"

Before I could gather my wits enough to ask her where she'd gotten that pistol, given the anatomically-accurate nature of her current attire, she strode past me, tearing her necklace off with a hard motion. Her body shimmered, glittering silver for a moment, and then she stood revealed as the Corwinne I knew so well: battered leather jacket, insulated workman's gloves, boots and breeches, and more pockets than could be picked by all of Sayn Agaetha's Reformatory for Wayward Lads.

"You weren't really wearing.. you just glamoured yourself!" I sputtered. "I'm in ceremonial slippers, here! With the full frock, and this cord that's got tassels on it! Tassels!"

"He's very grouchy when I'm cleverer than he expects, Corporal. How's the neck?" She was helping our escort to his feet, which was made a bit of a chore by the way that he was lying in a pool of his own blood. Very slippery, those, especially when combined with the wooziness of blood loss.

The man was clearly dazed, and he pawed at his neck in confusion. Where torn flesh ended, a shimmering blue substance had coalesced, and as he probed it, it bent and flexed under his fingers, just like the real thing would.

"Don't pick at it," his guardian angel scolded. "Your skin will grow back around it, and you'll be good as new, with barely any scarring or anything. Metamorphic bio-pattern--ph, never mind; it's maaaa-gic. See?" She held up a lens from her goggles so that he could see his neck reflected. "Sparkly!"

"... and therefore magic," I finished, grabbing one of the Lance Corporal's arms as she took the other. I jerked my head toward the elf's smoking corpse. "Let's do a little more magic and disappear before that guy's buddies show up."

We escorted our escort rapidly back to ground level, and by the time we'd hit the forest floor, he seemed to have regained control of his legs. Talking did not seem to be a faculty that had returned to him yet, which I took to be a mercy as I strained to listen for the further dangers I knew lurked in the night. My Revelation hadn't yet been answered, which meant that the dying had only just begun.

"I'm wearing makeup," Corwinne hissed loudly.

"What?" I was genuinely taken aback.

"You're not talking to me, which is what you do when you're mad at me. So I asked myself why you would be mad, and I figure it must be because I was just wearing a glamour and you had to wear your stuffy ceremonial robes, which I suppose must not be very comfortable or particularly combat-ready. And then I said, 'Ah-ha!', because you hate not being combat-ready, so not only are you mad because you're the only one who's been uncomfortable, but also because you're questioning whether you'd have gotten that guy if you were just wearing your regular robes instead of these ones, which reminds you that you're mad about me not really wearing a dress."

I stared at her, but for a different reason than last time.

"Sooo I thought I'd point out that only my clothes were glamoured, and I really am wearing makeup, which is a total bitch-and-a-half to put on, you have no idea, so I really did have to suffer just like you did and you shouldn't be mad." She waited for a reply, fidgeting slightly under my baleful look. "Maybe a bitch-and-three-quarters?"

"Sayn Ieander," I spat, failing to repress a grin. "I swear I wish I could stay mad at you."

She grinned back. " 'Your makeup looks very nice, Corwinne.' "

"Your makeup looks very nice, Corwinne."

" 'And I like what you've done with your hair.' "

I sighed. "And I like what you've done with your hair. Can we--?"

She was on a roll. Even the Lance Corporal was grinning at me. " 'And I'm sorry I never take you to nice places where you can wear dresses for real, and maybe dance with you a little.' "

I dropped and spun low, Jorngnir's haft catching them both at the backs of their knees. Three arrows whizzed just overhead, and a fourth nicked my shoulder, drawing a streak that neatly matched my banded collar.

"We'll talk about this later," I gritted...

To Be Continued!

Flarph Against the Zombies

When your name was Florian Aglethorp Rosicroun Persimmon Hacklebee the Third, you did not expect to be eaten to death by zombies. Well, Flarph supposed, probably no one expects to be eaten to death by zombies, at least, not until several moments before it occurs.  But I will definitely be the first Hacklebee to hold that distinction.

He was unenthusiastic about the possibility, which was why he was now holding an empty drawer, knee-deep in Maid Felicity's lacy underthings.  Which, as it turned out, proved to be quite distracting.

He envisioned Felicity returning at just that moment, and an awkward conversation played out in his head.

"What on--?"

"No, I can explain!  Please don't, er, do... whatever it is that device does... to me?"  The last came out as a kind of question, more for the oddity of the thing that the imaginary Felicity was holding in her hand.  He held the drawer like a shield before him.

"This," imaginary Felicity explained impatiently, "is a hair curler.  It was the first thing that was at hand when I discovered someone was in my house.  Which you are, standing amidst my underwear, while zombies are trying to break in."  That last came out as a statement that implied a question, with a certain sort of dangerousness to it that suggested that, depending on his answer, he might discover heretofore unimagined uses for said imagined hair curler.

"Yes, well, you see," he shuffled, dislodging something that contained a large amount of black lace except that it didn't contain large amounts of much of anything, "I got back to my house in time to put out my ancestor candle which then tried to attack me and I wound up hacking it to bits with a fireplace poker and felt very good about myself until Vincenzo Caiaplante burst in the door missing half his face and groaning and then he tried to attack me and the fireplace poker didn't do much good and so I ran out the back and fell down the embankment and was sure I was going to die but landed on one of the Bancourt's cheese wagons and--"

"Which explains why you smell like Gorgonzola," imaginary Felicity smiled with bared teeth, holding the hair curler in what looked like a fencer's grip.  "Now.  Skip.  A.  Bit."

"Your house is the last one in the village!  I was covered in cheese and had nothing to keep me warm and figured I could hide here for a while and get my bearings!  We have to get out of here," he added breathlessly.  "I think those shades that tried to attack you turn people into zombies when they kill them.  Most of the village... maybe all of them..."

She softened.  "Mister Hacklebee," she said, "you have to escape.  I am a figment of your imagination.  I am really on a steam-powered airship, flying far away from here and forgetting all about my unfortunate life here.  Though I would be very sad about the village, if I knew about it."

Flarph sighed, and the image faded from his mind's eye before he could finish explaining why he had been rifling through her underwear drawer.  "Rifling" was the wrong word, anyway.  "Frantically dumping on the floor" might have better characterized the activity, though Flarph did have to admit that he'd been taken aback for a few moments by the myriad straps and strange buckles and tiny things held together by string.  He hadn't encountered such wonders firsthand before, and wished that he had a bit more time to make a study of them before he died.

Maid Felicity certainly had a diverse collection of bedroom attire, though he had never heard of her needing the opportunity to use them with any man in the village.  Perhaps her imagination was as inventive as his own?  Where had she gotten all of these, anyway?  And why --

-- fingers, tracing their way along the shoulder strap, tickling a little as they went.  The blonde woman giggles, and nibbles at his neck while he plants a finger one one side of the bra and uses his others to unclasp it and pop it off with a deft motion --

Flarph shook his head, alternately hot and then cold.  He looked around: the room was still empty: no blonde woman, no lover, though at least no zombies.  That hadn't felt like his imaginary Felicity, and he had never met the blonde woman he'd just seen so clearly.  He had smelled her, all sweat and perfume and pheromones.  That hadn't been his imagination, because he was sure he couldn't imagine what a woman in the throes of passion smelled like, nor would he have even thought to do so.  That had been like... a memory.  His fingers mimicked the movement unconsciously, and a scent lingered in his nostrils...

One that would get him killed if he pondered it for much longer.  He could hear groans from the street now: low, aimless moans that communicated only an empty hunger.  He gulped, and peeked out the window of Felicity's upstairs bedroom, hoping for a good view of the street below.

One of the shades was flying by, hunting.  Who it had been, Flarph couldn't guess.  Its whole body was engulfed in flames, the flesh blackened and unrecognizable.  When it saw the flicker of movement, its whole body turned, bit by bit: first the head, then the shouders and torso, and then the legs, as if it were made up of parts that all moved independently of one another.  Then it flew at him.

Flarph flung himself aside, landing on the bed and bouncing straight off of it onto the other side.  The shade came through the window with a crash, scattering shards of glass everywhere and bringing with it the reek of sulfur and death.  Its pounce brought it straight into the pile of Felicity's underwear, and it seemed to slip on something, getting tangled in the mess of straps.  It thrashed and screamed, and Flarph scrambled on all fours past it through the door and into the hall.  He pushed himself to his feet and half-ran, half-plummeted down the stairs at the end of the hall, into Felicity's living room.

The contraption the he'd been assembling there was not much to look at.  It amounted to a wicker yard chair bound with dozens of yards of twine to a patchwork canopy of burlap sacks and floral-stitched dresses sewn together with the same twine.  It wasn't exactly Tailor Soukin-quality work, but Flarph had been working feverishly, and had to use a crochet needle in any case.  He'd run out of dresses about two-thirds of the way through, and had been in Felicity's bedroom searching for something else he could use to make his getaway.

Floating underneath the canopy were balloons, dozens of them.  Each was filled with a green gas that sparkled and pulsated, which had made Flarph nervous at first.  It didn't help that they seemed to pull towards him; he'd only had to reach up with a hand and one drifted through the air of its own accord and pressed itself into his hand.  Rounding them up had been child's play; hacking together a balloon chair to make his escape had taken maybe ten minutes.  Some of the balloons had a greasy, green residue on the outside of them, and it had tingled when it had touched his fingers.

He'd heard Felicity mention something about "thaumiol", back in the village square, before the strangers had come.  He knew that thaumiol was magical fuel, but not much else.

As he careened down the stairs, one of the balloons slipped out from under the unfinished canopy, and flew at him.  He staggered into it, and with a nosy BANG! it popped, coating him with the stuff of magic.

It tasted like cinnamon.

-- the man wore robes of woven gold, smooth as silk against his skin.  With a wizened hand, he added a handful of powder to the flame beneath the glass bauble of the precious green liquid.  The flames flared, and soon the contents of the glass were beginning to emit a green haze.  Carefully, the wizard reached out a candle over the sparkling smoke...

The resulting explosion destroyed the majority of his laboratory and several priceless volumes of magical theory from the Third Interregnum.  His robes were untouched, but several hairs on his beard were badly singed.  The explosion had penetrated even his mystic shields.  Most interesting...

Flarph pulled himself back, more consciously this time than before.  The vision of the woman had ended abruptly, leaving him dizzy and confused.  This time, he was able to end it, pull away from the scene playing out in his memory of a thing that he had never witnessed.  He could still smell the singeing of his beard -- no, the wizard's beard -- and his mind felt flooded with strange knowledge.  Much of it was slipping away already, spells and incantations and the names of demons, but one thing remained.

Fire.

And there was a flaming shade, just upstairs, that any second would be coming for him.  Unless Flarph got him first.

He reached out his hand, pulled another balloon out from under the canopy.  With a whisper whose meaning faded from his mind even as he was uttering it, he released it, and the thaumiol-filled balloon flew with a purpose up the stairs, moving as if a gentle breeze blew behind it.

The front door crashed in.  Vincenzo and half a dozen other undead villagers fell through it in a heap, moaning and eyeing him with hunger.  Flarph jumped into his wicker chair and tugging loose the knot that had held it to the ground.  The chair jerked up toward the ceiling, which wasn't very high.  A few of the thaumiol balloons slipped out from under the unfinished canopy, and Flarph made a grab for the burlap edge, but couldn't reach it without pitching from his chair.  Vincenzo was getting up, staggering towards him.

This was going to be close.  Either he was going to die very quickly, or...

With a deafening roar, the shade met the balloon.  The explosion tore the roof off of the house and sent timbers from above crashing down onto Flarph's balloons.

"No!" he cried out, as he watched his escape torn away.  Jagged wood beams crunched downward, tearing through his canopy and bursting the balloons left and right.  Flarph saw Vincenzo and the others pinned under debris from the collapse of the second story, and barely had time to register that the thaumiol gas from the balloons was pouring into him, being drunk in by his skin like a sponge soaks up water.  He felt swollen with it, but had no time to appreciate the feeling as another timber came straight for him...

... and he woke up, somewhere else.

  Flarph will return.  "Flarph and the Marvelous Mnemonic Mystery Machine", coming soon!

Fairy Tale

"Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten." ~ G.K. Chesterton

Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Kieran.

Every night, The Bad Thing would happen to him. His parents - loved and trusted - would abandon him inside a wooden cage, to fend for himself against the Night Visions. He would lay there, curled into a little ball, trying to be brave while the blackness of the room crept over his eyes and into his mind and it all began again.

Inevitably, he would wake up, visions of teeth and sharpness scampering away, promising to return as soon as his wails died down and his parents left him again.

"You can't escape us," they would say. "We are where you go when you sleep."

His parents, well-meaning but bumbling and clueless idiots with no idea what terrors lurked in the dark, were of no use. They would barely make it through another night as serpents and scorpions hissed and stung all through the gloom, and would wonder, bleary-eyed, at how after no sleep Kieran could seem so happy to see the day break again.

One night, instead of the usual cautionary tale about not eating rotten breakfast products with a goat on a boat - in which the protagonist without fail gives in to peer pressure and suffers a massive hallucination when the tainted dairy short-circuits his visual cortex - Kieran heard a different story.

"Once upon a time," it began, "there was a little boy named Kieran."

As it turned out, in this story, the hero - who had the same name as the little boy! - found himself every night in a dark maze, with a terrible monster. The monster would chase the boy through the maze night after night, and only barely miss gobbling the boy up because he would wake up just in time. The little boy in the story was certain that one night, he would not wake up in time and would get gobbled up, and he was terrified.

"But," he said to himself, "if I just knew my way out of the maze, the monster couldn't get me."

So one night this little boy in the story that Kieran was hearing took a ball of string to bed with him. When he wound up in the maze, he did not run in a panic: he just tied the string to a rock and started letting it out behind him as he went. Whenever he came across a string in his travels through the maze, he doubled back and turned the opposite direction at the previous intersection. In no time, he was out of the maze, leaving a hungry monster behind to howl in impotent anger. When he woke up late in the morning, his parents were mystified at how their child had slept so late, and why there was a ball of yarn all tangled up throughout his crib.

Kieran liked this story very much, especially the part about the boy getting away from the monster. That night, his Night Visions were as bad as ever, but he got a thought: maybe I can get away.

The next night, he heard another new story, this one about an evil witch who chopped up little boys and made them into soup. But he also heard about how to trick the witch, and to escape from her. Night after night, he heard new stories, many of which were scary, but he listened hard, because he was sure that these were tales that would help him fight the monsters.

Then, one night, he found himself in a maze.

He panicked at first, because he certainly didn't have a ball of yarn. But he had heard another story, one involving breadcrumbs, and he discovered to his delight that he had a cache of Cheerios in his diaper. He laid these down as he went, and he was out of the maze in no time. He never even heard the monster.

He slept like a baby. The kind you read about in stories.

This story is a fairy tale, but one that I hope can be true nevertheless. In the meantime, sorry about the semi-erratic posting schedule. I'll try hard to stick with regular Wednesday posts, but please forgive me if I'm too tired to get up at four in the morning regularly when I'm up for three hours in the middle of the night.

-JDMB

Moon's Children

Moon was very sad, because she had no children of her own. Earth had the dwarves, stocky, solid, all mirth and curiosity.  And Tree had elfkind, wispy and full of dream.  Sun had humanity, who were so real that sometimes it hurt to watch them.

"At least," Sun said to her once, "you do not share the fate of poor Oceana."  And then he shook his gleaming head.  Moon agreed.  Better to never have had children, then to face what had happened beneath the waves.

Or so she told herself, but she was lonely.  She would visit her siblings by day, and laugh and tell wonderful tales about things she had seen in their childrens' dreams while she watched them sleep.  Sun marveled at his humans' ingenuity and creativity.  Earth rumbled with joy at the creations his dwarves had yet to build.  Tree just smiled and nodded, because she knew well the dreams of her children, but she liked hearing Moon tell of them, because Moon told the best stories.

Then, every night, she would rise, and watch over her nieces and nephews while they slept, peeking in their windows or peering through gaps in the treetops, or just feeling the rise and fall of their chests while they slept in dark barrows far beneath the sky.  She loved them, as a good aunt did.  They were fun, and charming, and so beautiful, each in their own special way.  Sometimes they would look up at her, and marvel at how pretty she was, at how she always wore a new face every night, at her soft glow, and her steady presence.  They missed her, she knew, on the one night each month that she took for her own purposes.  They always looked relieved to see her when she returned.

But still, she was sad.  And so she went to visit her other sister.

"Oceana," Moon curtsied, entering her eldest sister's chamber.  It smelled of a salt breeze, and seemed to go on forever when you looked around, always filled with shadow and mystery.  And uninvited guests, which was why Oceana's siblings did not often come to call.

Moon's sister did not turn, or acknowledge her, just sat on her coral throne and held her head stoically erect.  She had been there so long, Moon doubted that Oceana would ever be able to rise again: her throne had grown around her arms and legs, and it cut her whenever she moved, so that Moon could see little trickles of her sister's blood running in red streams off into the dark.  When she did not make an effort to drown it out, Moon could hear the lapping of strange tongues off in the darkness.

"Sister, I am so fortunate, to be spared your pain," she began, and regretted it when Oceana winced.  "I see them, you know, every night, your children.  I watch them struggle and my heart breaks, because I love them too."  Moon shook her head.  "I cannot imagine what it must be like for you, their mother, to know what they go through down in the deeps."

A tear trickled down Oceana's face, but her sister said nothing.  Moon faltered.

"I want to," she said, simply.

Oceana's head dipped then, for the first time that Moon could remember.  Another tear fell from her downcast face, and then more followed it.  Moon was startled.  Ever since... then... her sister had held her head high and refused to bow, no matter the pain.  Could it be that she was wrong, that it was too hurtful, that children of her own would destroy her?  She was carefree, always changing, quick with a laugh or a story, always there to lend a gentle hand to show the way in the dark.  Would children of her own hurt her so?

No.  She wanted this, and faced her sister, even knowing what had happened to Oceana's babies.

"Oh, Moon," whispered her sister.  It was strange, hearing that voice for the first time in so long.  It rippled, like a stone cast into the water, but even in a whisper it was deep and powerful.  "Oh, sister, you know not of what you speak."  Moon waited, and her sister did not raise her head.

Then: "But you could not."  Oceana was impossible to read, had always been so.  In times before, her moods could strike from nowhere or be absolute calm in the face of a world on fire.  Oceana rarely gave counsel even then, and these were more words than Moon had heard from her in eons.

"Wolf.  He misses you still.  I hear him sometimes, and his voice haunts even me, my sister."

Moon shuddered, remembering Wolf's touch.

"But do not stop with Wolf," instructed Oceana.  "My mistake was to dally only once.  You wear many faces, and can have many children.  Go to Wolf when he needs you most, in the fullness of your most radiant gown.  Touch him once, and his children will never stop honoring you."

"You must also visit other hunters of the night.  Bat, and Owl, and Panther.  Show each of them a different face, and they will love you, sister, and their children by you will love you as well.  Go to Boar as well, for of all animals he hates death most fiercely.  His children will not honor you, for he honors no one, but sister, no one will ever pull you down from the sky for fear of what Boar's children would do if they found you thus."

Oceana trembled convulsively then, and writhed in her chair, howling in fury.  The chamber shook, air reverberating with anger.  More blood poured away from the mistress of the waves, and Moon watched in impotent pain as her sister struggled.

Finally, after Oceana's wrath was spent, she raised her head, locking eyes with Moon.

"Because, sister, I will not last here forever.  Those who have sought to overpower me will someday do so.  And then they will come for you, and Earth, and Tree, and Sun.  They will come for all of our children."

"The others, and myself, we were not prepared.  Our children are not prepared.  Sister, your children must be fierce and terrible, the things of all dark dreams.  They must make Those who seek my downfall fear to emerge from the waves."

"No," started Moon, "that's not what I--"

"Do you see me?" screamed Oceana.  "Do you know what they have done to me?"  She raged on her throne again, thrashing and throwing herself against her bonds.  Moon backed away in fear as the room shook, unable to bear it, and took leave of her sister.

Oceana's last words followed her.  "Do you know what they have done to my children?  They will do it to yours."

And that, children, is why we must fear the things that go bump in the night.  Because they keep Those Below safely beneath the waves...

First Contact

The wedding had been fine, very fine indeed, reflected Florian Aglethorp Rosicroun Persimmon Hacklebee the Third.  The bride had been radiant in her mother's gown -- altered tastefully by Tailor Soukin to bring it more in keeping with current, high-collared fashion, but preserving the classic pouffed shoulders and man-length train that Princess Francesca Amanova had made popular in, what was it, the Year of the Gryphon?  Yes, that was it.  Ahh, those were the days, with knights and pegasi and damsels, just as the tales said, not like the days you had today, no sir, although Florian Aglethorp Rosicroun Persimmon Hacklebee the Third had to admit that Miss Delia Bancourt nee Crepinhook was indeed fair, and her husband did have a sort of knightly straightness to his nose, if he was only a cheesemaker. "Hey, Flarph!" called Vincenzo Caiaplante, making Florian Aglethorp Rosicroun Persimmon Hacklebee the Third wince at the sound of his nickname.  Vincenzo was only a cobbler, but his great grandfather had invented the double "D" buckle that practically every citizen of Highmont wore on his or her clogs these days, and his wealth gave him a sort of cheap respectability.  At least he could tell a white wine from a red.  By his breath, he hadn't been so discriminating tonight, however.

"Must you be so forward?" Flarph harumphed, but Vincenzo simply clapped a meaty arm around his shoulders and began to steer him back in the direction of the festivities.

"Flarph, I've told you since we were boys, nobody knows your whole name.  There's a Parsnip in there somewhere, right?"  He waved away Flarph's attempt to dignify an answer.  "Never mind all that, Flarph is a perfectly good name.  And, aaaaand..." he wiggled his eyebrows gleefully, "Maid Felicity was overheard admiring the cut of your doublet this very night.  Clearly, she's had a bit too much sacrament, buuuuut..."

The night was crisp and thrilling, and a late snow had left the tips of the trees and tops of the houses frosted with white.  The ridge of the mountain loomed high and close over their town, and the town square was festooned with the first flowers of spring, woven into floral braids and bound into neat bouquets placed at each of the five cardinal directions around the edge of the square.  (More of a wobbly oval, really, but they were on the side of a mountain, for God's sake, and nobody wanted to gather in "the town wobbly oval".)  Fat family candles snickered in the windows of all the homes lining the road, so that the ancestors might see the joyous occasion as the processional had ascended from the lower edge of town up to the square where the Church loomed, overshadowed only by the mountain, and by God.

Well, candles lit every window except one.  Maid Felicity's window, down near the edge of town, had only a small gas lamp.

"It is most unkind, sir, for you to say such things about a respected lady of the community.  Despite her," Flarph coughed, "uncertain parentage, Miss Felicity has built kites in the classical Highmont style, just the way Master Quince taught her, for long enough to have proved her stature to our humble town.  Additionally, my doublet is in the style of the third Lord Byrun, a man much prized for--"

"The third Lord..." interrupted Vincenzo, whose family emigrated to Highmont in his great-great grandfather's day, and so he didn't appreciate some things.  "Didn't he die two centuries ago?"

"Three.  It is a classic style," corrected Flarph, which caused the other man to laugh and laugh.

When he could draw breath again without giggling, he declared, "Flarph, you are a classic, crooked teeth and all.  Now, go talk to Maid Felicity, and try to get lucky."

Somehow, Vincenzo's arm had navigated Flarph to within several paces of Maid Felicity, who mercifully wasn't looking in their direction.  Flarph prayed that she hadn't heard Vincenzo's drunken exhortation: he was certain that the luck of which the other man spoke had been of a lascivious nature.  He took a tentative step toward Felicity, who was waving one arm in an animated discussion with Annabelle Bancourt, the bride's young sister-in-law.

"And then you heat the solution to a boil, which releases the thaumiol in gaseous form into the containment vessel -- the balloon -- but I'm not quite sure yet the best method for storage.  I've got dozens of the dratted things floating around my ceiling, which I'm pretty sure is a recipe for disas--"

"Good evening, ladies," Flarph interrupted, a bit shaky on the details of what he was hearing, which made him nervous.  "I, er."

"Oh!"  Felicity gave a little start, and then giggled girlishly.  Her companion -- who, at thirteen, had not yet mastered the art of politely extricating oneself from a conversation -- heaved a sigh of relief, and with a mumbled curtsy, bobbed off to find her sister.  The slightly older woman, whose age Flarph guessed was perhaps closer to Annabelle's than his own, tucked a dark curl back behind her ear, and gave Flarph an unpracticed curtsy as well.

"I crave your pardon, miss, I did not mean to startle you."  Flarph waited for his apology to sweep her off her feet.

"Ah.  Well.  Good," she began, "it would be very rude if you had meant to startle me.  What did you mean?"  Her brown eyes sparkled quizzically.

"What did I... hah!" laughed Flarph, managing to add, "What a strange question!" before realizing that she actually meant it as a question.

Indeed, it wasn't the sort of question any other woman in the town would have asked.  Perhaps there was more that set Maid Felicity aside from them than her unblond hair and unblue eyes.

"I, er," Flarph repeated.

"And I surmise that you probably weren't coming over to have a chat with me about methods of thaumiol extraction, which is what I was talking about just now.  You are aware that it's rude to interrupt?"

"Young lady, I--" Flarph tried, but her eyes lampooned him.

"And now a lecture from an elder?  What a delightful way to spend an evening!"  Suddenly, she laughed merrily.  "Ah, me, Master Quince tells me I mustn't be so incorrigible.  I corrige wretchedly, though."  Flarph thought that maybe she would reverie long enough for him to escape, but her eyes fixed on him again, pinning him once more... but gently, this time.

"You don't have a lot of experience with women, do you, Mister Hacklebee?" she asked, not unkindly.  "Would you like to start over?"

At the mention of his proper last name, Flarph got a jolt of hope.  Perhaps there was a chance!  After all, he was one of the only eligible bachelors in all of Highmont...

With an ear-splitting shriek, Miss Delia Bancourt nee Crepinhook burst into flames, and came flying through the air at him, arms outstretched, fingers like daggers.

It was hardly just.

A lancing bolt of energy from the sky caught her just before she reached him -- or perhaps Felicity, it was hard to tell with his eyes closed -- blasting her into a million pieces and leaving a crater in the cobblestones of the town square.  Flarph was knocked off of his feet, skinning his palms as he landed.  Ears ringing, mind ablaze, he looked up to the sky, whence the blast had come.

A strange creation swept in.  It looked to Flarph like a steel balloon, with windmills attached to either side.  These were spinning like mad, kicking up a hellacious gale that whipped at his face and tore at his clothing.  There appeared to be all manner of cogwheel attached in odd places, for no fathomable purpose that Flarph could discern.  Over the din, he could just barely make out a hiss, and he saw puffs of steam emerge from a series of vents along either side that looked like a row of enormous trumpets.

Emerging from the thing's underbelly was a ramp, and on that ramp stood a man... or possibly a yeti, for Flarph could tell even at a hundred paces that he was a monster of a man.  He would have had to be, in order to hold a weapon that big.

Flarph had never heard of a Light Amplification Searing Excrutiation Ray, but there was no mistaking the sleek barrel, fitted grips, ammo tube leading to a shoulder-mounted power harness, or the smoke pouring from its dragon-shaped mouth as anything but weaponry.  He gulped.  Then he thought about the cloud of dust nee Miss Delia Bancourt nee Crepinhook, and gulped again.

The balloon-craft swooped in low, and the ramp extended downward.  The man with the enormous weapon clomped down off of it.  He had a strange set of goggles over his eyes, with opaque lenses and small wire rims that extended back over the ears, where a normal man would have a leather strap.  He swept his hidden gaze across the courtyard, and suddenly, the place was bathed in dozens of spotlights emanating from the craft.  Flarph could see his fellow townsfolk staggering under the gale emitted from the ship's windmills, clutching at their clothes, and shielding their eyes from the bright lights.  The flowers that had festooned the square moments ago were blown into the night, and the family candles were all--

That was odd.  Despite the gale, the family candles were still lit.

There was another shriek, just as before, and Tailor Soukin also burst into flames.  He leapt into the air -- no, he sort of flew up, under his own power, but with no wings to speak of -- and then dove down at Felicity.  The man with the goggles heaved his weapon to bear, aimed, and squeezed a little trigger on the handle, and BOOM!  Soukin evaporated.

"Wh... what is going--" began Flarph, but the man stomped over and interrupted him.

He reached his hand out for Felicity.  "Come with me, if you want to live."

Her eyes flickered to Flarph, whose eyes were watering with incomprehension and a little bit of atomized tailor that had drifted in from the corners.  She held out her hand to the stranger.

Then she socked him hard in the mouth.

"You are aware," she grimaced, "that it is rude to interrupt?"  She glared at the newcomer, and added, "And also to kill people."

Laughter echoed down the gangplank of the ship.  A voice followed it.

"You know, Culnor, I think she is the right one.  You owe me twenty quid."

The personage that followed it, emerging from the glowing interior of the ship with a flourish, was much leaner than his counterpart, with an academic bearing that suggested that he might at any moment deliver a lecture on the lesser species of brain weevils infesting the upper reaches of the River Irsa.  He wore a double-breasted waistcoat, slacks, and carried a cane adroitly in one hand.

The big man called Culnor chuckled and rubbed his jaw, evidently not in the least perturbed that he'd just been punched in the mustaches.  "You may be right, my friend.  But I think you were right about our timetable, too: we need to get out of here before those candles let any more shades loose."

The other man had ambled up to Felicity, and was eyeing her intently.  She met his gaze, defiant... but Flarph thought perhaps a little less so than she'd been just a moment before.

"You're different from them," he pronounced, not bothering to gesture back at the townsfolk beginning to gather together in protective huddles.  "You've always known that.  You have wild ideas, flights of fancy... dreams that will not go away."  Flarph could feel the intensity with which his eyes bored into Felicity, and he cleared his throat to try to speak, but she answered before he could get anything to come out.

"... yes," she whispered.

"You've wondered where you came from, who you truly are--" Culnor coughed pointedly-- "yes, yes, I think I'm making my point, correct?  Mind always over the next horizon, strange hobbies, feelings of displacement?"

"Er, yes?"

"Sorry for not sticking to the script, but we're in a bit of a hurry."  He smoothly took her by one elbow and started ushering her toward the vessel's gangplank.  "You see, you're a princess, abandoned at birth by your parents in order to protect you from the Grand Vizier--with me so far?--and the time has come for you to return to reclaim your rightful heritage in a distant kingdom.  We're just going to pop aboard my ship, the Kailee here, and take a little trip, and we're going to do it before any more of the candles that these completely, utterly ignorant villagers have been burning for the last several centuries or so burn out, releasing the shades of the original town fathers from their prisons.  Who were put there by your great-grandfather several times over, I should add.  Sad story; I'll tell it to you sometime.  Devil worship, funny hats.  I'm sorry," he paused.  "I forgot to introduce myself.  I'm the Doctor."

"Doctor who?" asked Felicity, looking a bit swept away but not resisting.  Flarph wanted to call out to her, but he was completely dumbstruck.  The family candles... what was this doctor saying about them?

"I told you nobody has heard of you," growled the big man.  "Let's go, already."

"Doctor Mernick Fellthorn, at your service."  He doffed an imaginary hat, and then gestured vaguely with his cane.  Frost crystals began to emerge from the ground beneath one of the town burghers, encasing him in a block of ice in a matter of seconds.  Just as the spell had taken full effect, a fiery burst came from within the ice block as yet another of the family candles burned itself out.

"Right, on our merry," cheered the Doctor.  "The rest of you, sorry about the mess, but you really brought it on yourselves... ask questions, people, don't just bow to tradition!  If I were you, I'd be asking myself how quickly I could get home and blow that candle out..."

Felicity took one long, sad look back down at him as she boarded the gangplank with the two men.  Then, as the platform started to rise up into the sky, she shook herself slightly, and shouted, "Run, Mister Hacklebee!  Run!"

Then, with a blast of wind from the Kailee, she was gone.  Flarph looked around, saw the shocked looks on all the faces around him.  Saw a frenzy of activity inside of a melting ice block.  Saw, in his mind's eye, about how much candle he had left burning in his own home.

Flarph ran.

Flarph will return.  "Flarph against the Zombies", coming soon!

H.P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow over Innsmouth"

I turn another year older today, and between that and having run 13.1 miles on next to no sleep this past weekend, am claiming the right to skip my regularly scheduled post this morning.  I'll be back next week, I promise.  In the interim, however, I leave you in the not-so-tender hands of one Howard Phillips Lovecraft. "The Shadow over Innsmouth" is probably my favorite Lovecraft tale.  It actually has nothing to do with Cthulhu (yeah, I accidentally left out an "h" and now we're stuck with that spelling), but is a true masterpiece of personal horror.  You really do have to read until the absolute end, but once you get there, you will realize what a fucked-up master this man was.  Pound for pound, this tale is scarier than The Exorcist.  At least there, you don't have any sympathy for the Devil...

His works are public domain and I could post the whole thing here, but I believe in good internetizen behavior and am linking to it instead.  To whet your appetite, here are the first few paragraphs.  Keep reading.  You'll thank yourself.

Except for the nightmares--for those you can thank Mr. Lovecraft.

The Shadow Over Innsmouth By H. P. Lovecraft ------=-O-=------
I.
During the winter of 1927–28 officials of the Federal government made a strange and secret investigation of certain conditions in the ancient Massachusetts seaport of Innsmouth. The public first learned of it in February, when a vast series of raids and arrests occurred, followed by the deliberate burning and dynamiting—under suitable precautions—of an enormous number of crumbling, worm-eaten, and supposedly empty houses along the abandoned waterfront. Uninquiring souls let this occurrence pass as one of the major clashes in a spasmodic war on liquor. Keener news-followers, however, wondered at the prodigious number of arrests, the abnormally large force of men used in making them, and the secrecy surrounding the disposal of the prisoners. No trials, or even definite charges, were reported; nor were any of the captives seen thereafter in the regular gaols of the nation. There were vague statements about disease and concentration camps, and later about dispersal in various naval and military prisons, but nothing positive ever developed. Innsmouth itself was left almost depopulated, and is even now only beginning to shew signs of a sluggishly revived existence. Complaints from many liberal organisations were met with long confidential discussions, and representatives were taken on trips to certain camps and prisons. As a result, these societies became surprisingly passive and reticent. Newspaper men were harder to manage, but seemed largely to coöperate with the government in the end. Only one paper—a tabloid always discounted because of its wild policy—mentioned the deep-diving submarine that discharged torpedoes downward in the marine abyss just beyond Devil Reef. That item, gathered by chance in a haunt of sailors, seemed indeed rather far-fetched; since the low, black reef lies a full mile and a half out from Innsmouth Harbour. People around the country and in the nearby towns muttered a great deal among themselves, but said very little to the outer world. They had talked about dying and half-deserted Innsmouth for nearly a century, and nothing new could be wilder or more hideous than what they had whispered and hinted years before. Many things had taught them secretiveness, and there was now no need to exert pressure on them. Besides, they really knew very little; for wide salt marshes, desolate and unpeopled, keep neighbours off from Innsmouth on the landward side. But at last I am going to defy the ban on speech about this thing. Results, I am certain, are so thorough that no public harm save a shock of repulsion could ever accrue from a hinting of what was found by those horrified raiders at Innsmouth. Besides, what was found might possibly have more than one explanation. I do not know just how much of the whole tale has been told even to me, and I have many reasons for not wishing to probe deeper. For my contact with this affair has been closer than that of any other layman, and I have carried away impressions which are yet to drive me to drastic measures. It was I who fled frantically out of Innsmouth in the early morning hours of July 16, 1927, and whose frightened appeals for government inquiry and action brought on the whole reported episode. I was willing enough to stay mute while the affair was fresh and uncertain; but now that it is an old story, with public interest and curiosity gone, I have an odd craving to whisper about those few frightful hours in that ill-rumoured and evilly shadowed seaport of death and blasphemous abnormality. The mere telling helps me to restore confidence in my own faculties; to reassure myself that I was not simply the first to succumb to a contagious nightmare hallucination. It helps me, too, in making up my mind regarding a certain terrible step which lies ahead of me.

Read on...

With thanks to The H.P. Lovecraft Archive for making this and his other stories publicly available.

Motherhood [Mature]

She lay atop the sheets, sweat and blood cooling her naked skin. A hand wiped across her brow left a red smear across her forehead, and she heaved a satisfied sigh. The children would be happy tonight.

Thinking back on it, she ran one hand down her breasts, and gasped as her fingertips grazed her nipple, still hard and tender. Her lover had been merciless with the whip, one of the sort who needed to tell her what she was while he hurt her.

"Harlot," he'd panted. "Slut."

It bothered her, sometimes. Not what he did to her body, not the bruises he'd left nor the welts on her breasts, back, buttocks... those never got to her, though her lover tonight had been rougher than most.

It wasn't the hypocrisy, either, as he called her "filth" while his cock was rammed down her throat. She'd barely had time to get his flabby body out of the priest's frock before he'd twisted her arms behind her and thrust himself into her, snarling "whore".

It bothered her that she liked it.

It was heady, exciting, taking her lovers to places like this. Every dark desire, every corruption, the things that they would do to her that they would never imagine doing to anyone else, not to wife nor betrothed nor anyone... these made her ache inside. She loved it, wanted it, needed it; she had to hollow them out of all their goodness, of all their humanity. Let them spend their frustrations on her, indulge their worst, basest needs until there was nothing left of the men they were.

Because her children were hungry. And mama needed to feed them, yes she did.

He'd just been on the cusp of finishing, his bulk pinning her to the bed, tongue panting out obscenities in her ear as he yanked her head back by the hair with every thrust, when she could take no more. He could feel the change inside her, paused for a moment. Casually, she'd slipped her hands from the manacles he had used on her, thinking her tied helpless to the bed. She caressed the side of his puffy face.

"Shh..." she said, "mama's here."

And then the screaming started, the pulling and flailing as he desperately tried to pull himself out from her. But her legs were wrapped around him, and tiny as she was, her strength was many times what it should have been. He gurgled and moaned and plead and coughed blood, and through it all, she just crooned to him, over the gnashing sounds emerging from within his body, and stroked his face.

"Hush now, little ones. Eat well. Mama's here."

And eventually, when it was all done, and her newest baby was flexing itself into the sack of skin that was left behind after it and its still-unborn siblings had eaten their fill, she sang to it in a tongue long forgotten by those who should perhaps remember. She told it of their people, and of their fall, and how the humans had usurped their place in the world. She watched as its movements gradually became smooth and natural, and she fussed with its banded collar and smoothed over its hair.

She'd done well, she could see. The memories her baby had eaten from the meat sack it now occupied would not taint it with any feelings of brotherhood for the humans around it. The darkness in this one had been palpable to begin, and letting it work itself to an animal frenzy on her had left a perfect hollow for her baby to fill. She smiled, and told it that she knew it would make mama proud.

It was only after it had left her, going out in the world to spread misery and despair to the humans and hasten their own fall, that she had begun to feel the ache in her limbs.

How many was it, now? Dozens? Hundreds? She hadn't kept count, but she remembered each one, their faces, their scents. They were out there, her children, doing their good work. She would not see them again. She missed them terribly.

That's the curse of motherhood: you love them all, so much.

Checking out at the Library

The Book was bound in black leather, gold, and iron. The leather and gold formed the cover. The iron came in the form of a chain, with links each as thick around as a man's thumb, and a lock that would have taken a carnival strongman to manipulate. The keyhole suggested that its mate might double as a walking stick, given its obvious size. Which was why Poor Temmy was so surprised when he found The Book open and unbound as he brought his cleaning cart into the Necromancer's Wing of the Geinodes Club on his evening rounds.

The Necromancer's Wing was the last stop, in every sense. Poor Temmy had only to get in and out, knock the wads of obvious dust off of certain very well-marked bookshelves, and he could head home for the night.  The hunched-over cleaningsman always told himself that he shouldn't save it until the end -- maybe do the Thaumaturge's Wing last, which was well-lit and full of wonderful clockwork creations and made no suggestion that its dark places would swallow him whole of their own volition. But that fruity little dhampyr was the only one who was ever around late, and Poor Temmy did not hold with that, no sir.

Of course, he didn't hold much with being consumed by dark nothingness, either, so the Necromancer's Wing usually got only the a series of increasingly erratic of wipe-downs before his hand shook so badly he could no longer hold a duster, and he fled in a near-panic from the place. Every night. It never got better.

Tonight, though, the dark was different. Yes, it was filled with the patina of rot and with shadows that bent after you when you passed, but tonight even the shadows were on good behavior. The Book was on its customary stand, which Poor Temmy was Not To Touch, but whenever he scuttled past it, nothing cold and insubstantial wisped after him. Elsewhere in the Wing, the night held onto every one of its terrors, but near The Book, the dark was just... empty. Empty of light, and of everything else that Poor Temmy had ever imagined it contained.  All those terrors that might have been hiding in the gloom... they simply weren't there.

Poor Temmy lingered.

The Book was... "beautiful" was the wrong word... enthralling. Its pages were each trimmed in gold filigree, and the writing inside was crisp and firm, as if its author were possessed of some absolute clarity. Poor Temmy had never been absolute about anything in his life -- a sin to which he faithfully confessed every sevenday, more from a vague sense of unease than actual fear of the Lord -- and though he had no idea what the strange lettering might say, the straight lines and perfect arches looked as if they'd been planned by an architect.  They made him feel awed, as if looking at a mighty cathedral. They were even easy on the eyes: rather than a harsh black on white as he'd seen elsewhere in the libraries of the Club, these words were a dark brown, on pages almost sepia in coloration. They looked thick, too, those pages, satisfying. They weren't paper, he thought, but something more... human. Poor Temmy imagined that turning one of those pages would feel like an accomplishment.

When he found that he was right, he was not sure what baffled him more: how the almost sensuous crinkle of the page made his spine shudder in delight, or the fact that he'd dared touch The Book at all.

What did not seem in the least odd to him was that the next page was perfectly readable to him. It also seemed quite natural, when he flipped back to the previous page he'd just found to be incomprehensible, that he should be able to understand it with ease.

That is not dead which can eternal lie...

It bothered him for a moment, as his fingers lovingly caressed the pages, when the words began to slide off of The Book and onto his flesh.  It hurt, the way that they tore his skin open to allow fresh blood to seep out to trace those straight lines and perfect arches.  It hurt, but oh, how he wanted them.  They deserved fresh blood, not the dried stuff that had caked those pages.  As he watched them carve themselves onto his flesh, fleeing the bindings of The Book for human skin far more supple than dead leather, he could also feel the words burning themselves indelibly into his mind.

... and with strange aeons even death may die.

His posture straightened.  His thoughts expanded.  His sense of being Poor Temmy, the orphaned boy who'd grown up in the streets of Industry and taken every beating that had been his lot with pathetic pleas of "I'm sorry, I'm sorry"... it seemed very distant.  Distant, insignificant... hard to understand.  The world was so much more than just a flimsy, meaty shell moving about on a rock that fled the inevitable doom of the universe through space and time.

It had order.  It had meaning.  It had the words.

Blood-runes welling all across its body, the thing that had been Poor Temmy approached a glass display case containing several scrolls, vials, and a ceremonial dagger.  For a moment, a cursed language appeared faintly on the glass, which then burst outward from the case in suicidal horror.  The thing reached for the dagger, and methodically cut the scraps of clothing away from its body, revealing the runes to the world.  Gathering clumps of hair in its blood-slicked fist, it cut them away down to the scalp, so that no word should remain hidden from the world.

It turned the dagger over in its hand.  For now, blood smeared only its hilt.  The words... they were not meant to be kept to itself.  They were meant to be shared.

It would share them with everyone.

Blade readied, it strode out of the Necromancer's Wing, to begin.

A short time later, after the first screams began, an unseen hand possessed of absolute clarity commenced tracing straight lines and perfect arches onto the empty pages of The Book, in a wet, red ink.

Alone

The room is drab and gray and cold. Uneven floorboards speak of age and disuse. The corners are empty: not even spiders come here. The only light comes through a window at the room's center, filtered yellow through curtains that had not been drawn open since they were put in place. In the center of the room, there is a chair. Atop it sits a girl, wearing a severe gray dress, white stockings, and hard, black shoes. Her skin is very pale, the tone of one who rarely sees the sun. She is almost perfectly still, her knees drawn up to her chest. The only motion is her fingers, toying with her wispy red hair. And her lips, whispering something to herself.

There is a scratching sound at the door.

The girl's lips pause for a moment, and then continue their rhythmic workings. The sound comes again, from down low, but she does not stir. Silence reigns for a while.

And then the scratching returns, multiplied, insistent. Something--several somethings--bump and claw at the door, rattling the handle. The girl's blue eyes go wide, fingers twirling more insistently through her hair, but she does not move from her perch. There is a clattering commotion from beyond the portal, and the door jumps again and again.

The handle turns.

She hears the click of the latch, and her eyes jam shut, knees go tighter into her chest. Her fingers twist themselves into her locks, and she curls up into a ball atop the chair.

Into the room spill an assortment of oddities. There is a teapot with a doll's head and wheels made of old gears, with a pair of tin forks that click together in a pincer motion behind it. An old boot rides atop a quartet of saucers, each attached to a spindly leg made of knitting needles, clock parts, and twine; it makes a high, tinkling sound as it walks. A child's ball rolls to and fro of its own accord, starting and stopping and changing direction, as if there were something inside it, running up the walls.

Altogether there are almost a dozen of these little creations, cobbled from clockwork and children's toys and objects pilfered from kitchen and garden. They are led by a little homunculus of a man-thing, with legs made of a hand-rake and a salad tong, and two arms crafted from long keys affixed together. The head is a hairbrush, with a face made from buttons and string locked in an eternal smile.

Slowly, awkwardly, the little bits of animate detritus form a circle around the girl and her chair. As they approach, a ring of symbols on the floor, nearly invisible before, begins to glow a faint blue, limning the strange creatures from beneath. She opens her eyes, then crams them shut once more, and her tightening fingers suddenly snap in half a worn-down piece of chalk in her left hand. The animates do not cross the symbols, but surround her chair with careful insistence.

There is another sound from outside the room, like something man-sized hitting the floor. Then there is a heavy footfall, and the sound of grinding metal begins to grow in the girl's ears.

The assembled creations fidget as the footfalls clank closer.  Her lips still moving, the little girl's eyes shoot open again, and her head whips around toward the door.  It is now open, but has fallen back so that only a crack is visible, leaving obscured her view of the hallway beyond.

She turns back to face front, and can feel the little homunculus staring at her.  Its button eyes do not blink, nor does its hairbrush head incline in the least, but she knows it is watching, waiting.

She shuts her eyes and chants harder.

CLOMP.  Whirr... hiss.  The sounds grow louder as the thing takes the stairs.  The ring of symbols around the girl's chair has begun to pulse now, in time with the rhythm of her whispered words.  The little creatures that surround her have stopped their small movements, and seem to wait for what is about to arrive.

When the footfalls stop just outside the door, her chant falters.  When the slow creak of the door stabs through her, she draws a sharp intake of breath, and the chant stops.

The thing that comes through the door is metal and gears and pistons and blood.  Its torso is built from an old boiler; its arms are long iron bars with fully-actuated joints, ending in hands that have long, clever fingers comprised of painstaking clockwork and bits of metal hand-crafted to their purpose.  Its head is an antique armored helm, like a knight would wear.  The face shield obscures whatever lies beneath, but there is a pair of flickering green lights from within.  The thing looks like an armored man, and it moves like one: slowly, with murderous purpose.

Blood coats its knuckles, and the girl can see a reddish smear where a hand slid down the thing's chest.  From one hand dangles a man's belt, its buckle wet.  In the other is a scrap of a flowered nightgown.

The girl chokes back a sob, but only just; her eyes sparkle with tears and anger.  The thing doesn't move, watching her.  Carefully, she stands up atop the chair, bringing her close to level with the slit in the thing's visor where its eyes should be.  Her arms end in clenched fists, and now that they are not clutched to her, the welts on the inside of her forearms show clearly.  They are the same width as the belt in the thing's hand.

"Why, Mister Nice-Man?" she croaks, pointing an accusing finger.

The thing holds up the belt.  The smaller creations that surround the girl all stir at the movement.

The girl points again, emphatically, at the thing's other hand.  "Why?"

It lowers the belt hand.  Cocks its head.  Shrugs.  Takes a step forward.

In an instant, it is swarmed with lesser creations.  There is no battle cry, no sound except the clatter of footfalls of the improvised detritus that forms the other mechanical beings.  They crash into it like a wave, clambering over one another to claw and beat at it with whatever limbs they have been given.  The girl gasps as the little hairbrush homunculus makes a tottering leap off of the back of the boot-thing, sailing through the air to land on the larger creation's shoulder, where it starts trying to pry off the helmet with its little key-hands.

The man-sized creation staggers for a moment under the assault.  It takes a step back, and one more, trying to right its balance while dolls and teapots and childrens' toys hang from its limbs and fling their weight about, trying to bring it down.  It totters... and catches itself on the door frame.

For a second, it stands there, unmoving, while the other things batter it.  Then, regaining its balance, it stands erect, and takes the hand that held the scrap of nightgown across its body to grab the doll-faced creation, crushing it with a clench of its fist.  Bits of teapot tinkle to the floor as the thing carries on, flinging the boot across the room so hard that its knitting needle legs snap apart when it hits the wall.  Where the small constructs are just toys and scraps, it is solid metal, crafted with patience and genius and fury.

Just as it finishes, the homunculus finds a chink, wedges one of its key-arms into the neck, and pries hard.  The helmet stays on, but the faceplate springs open.  And then, with two quick movements, a hairbrush and a hand rake and a salad tong and a set of keys falls, inert, at the edge of the circle around the girl's chair.

She stares.  "You aren't Mister Nice-Man," she gasps.

The thing makes no answer, just strides through the refuse at her.  Suddenly, it comes up short, as if it had run into an invisible wall.  The runes on the floor pulse brighter.  The girl does not flinch.

"You aren't Mister Nice-Man," she continues evenly, "but you're in him.  I made him... and I can un-make him."

The thing gives out a silent howl now, and its fists beat at the air, pounding at the invisible barrier that separates it from the girl.  They make no sound, aside from the whirring of its motors and gears, but its posture is one of frenzied anger.  Or panic.

The girl begins to speak again, in a strong, clear voice.  Her words seem to vibrate the very air around her, and with every syllable, the thing's fists work faster.  The runes on the floor dim, strength draining as blows rain down, but the girl does not hurry.  She chants on, until a tiny spark of light appears on her outstretched fingertip.

And then the runes give way, and a heavy metal hand lashes out, wrapping around her throat and picking her up off of the chair.  The thing peers into her face, the strange apparition behind the visor seeming to relish the thought of choking the life from her.  It draws her closer.

She reaches out her finger, and touches it on the forehead.  In an instant, all life goes out of it, and it drops to the ground, inert once more.

The little girl rubs her throat, and stands shakily to her feet.  She looks around at all of the components scattered across the room, bends down, and picks one up.

"I'm sorry," she whispers to the hairbrush.  "Thank you."

And then she walks out into the house, head heavy, alone again.

Chapter Six

The bath brings me closer to God than anything today yet has, and that definitely includes doing His will.

The Geinodes Club is a place of learning, and of money. The intersection of these two forces birthed a labrynthine tangle of rooms of all sizes, sealed beneath the earth like an emperor’s catacomb--fitting, considering the place was carved out of an ancient sewer system. The rooms range from closet-sized to cavernous, and each one is a library. Books line every available vertical surface, excepting the seventh walls, which instead display maps of every corner of the globe. Most of the libraries are open to any member, with long study tables and comfortable, high-backed leather chairs. They smell of pipe-smoke and old paper.

The hallways connecting one room to the next are lined with lacquered cherry bookshelves, each one bearing an inscription or small brass plate denoting the patron to whom it belongs. I’ve got a few of them squirreled about the place, in fact, mostly filled with musty spellbooks I’ve sworn to master, just as soon as I have a year or two not occupied by the charitable donation of puncture wounds.

If a single patron owns every shelf in the room, however, he is allowed to declare it a private collection, and admit only those he wills. I’ve not bothered to purchase the secret of how the shelves are allocated, so I’ve no idea how one would go about obtaining a library all his own, but I know there are internecine wars of almost bladed hostility in order to secure prime spots or junctions. Lord Culnor is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant of the Club’s tacticians, because he owns not fewer than twenty private libraries, including a suite of ten that are all found right next to one another. It’s called the Thaumaturge’s Wing, and it’s where I’m having the finest bath of my life.

The tub is a septagonal construct of brass and copper, decorated with pinpricks that form intricate swirls of ivy and fey creatures. When Tanner led me into the library--the books here are all protected from the steam by thick plates of glass across the shelves--he went first to an orb embedded on the top of the tub, next to the set of stairs leading into the thing. He’s not a big man, and he had to reach to shoulder height in order to run his hand over it. As he waved his hairy paw across its surface, a mist inside the orb swirled to life, and a warm red-orange glow began to emanate from beneath the basin. The same color of light spilled out from the many pinpricks in the side of the tub, turning the leafy pattern into a fall-colored panorama of yellows, oranges, and reds.

“How hot d’ye want it, lad?” he’d asked, bowler hat cocked quizzically.

“Hot,” I answered. “I’ve got a lot of bug to scrape off of me.”

He spun the color up to more of a red, and then walked along a six-inch-wide copper pipe that disappeared into the wall. He pulled down on an enormous, leather-wrapped wooden lever sticking out from between volumes thirty-nine and forty of Edrammij’s Concise History of the Glorious Tyrenian Empire, which set a cascading series of brass gears to turning along the surface of the wall, beneath the bottom of the bookshelf. They terminated with a valve attached to the copper pipe, with teeth that fitted neatly into the last of the gears. As it squeaked open, a roar of gushing water nearly as loud as the gyro-rotors on the Falkoj poured from the tub as it began to fill. I had peeked over the edge, and seen the water rushing in with enough speed to knock over a rhinoceros.

Tanner had grinned, showing slightly-pointed canines, and waggled his bushy red eyebrows. “M’lord’s got a whole ‘nother library through there,” he shouted over the noise, “just so he could have enough room to put his Water Pumping And Heating Engine!”

Now, all is blissfully silent, but for the occasional trill of droplets as I lift an arm out to snag a grape, or one of those little pastries with the mint leaf and smear of melted chocolate on top. The water is scented of lavender, and it has done an admirable job of rinsing the soot and grime from me. Some kind of built-in filtration system has shunted the dirty water away and replaced it with new, and has kept the temperature to near-scalding. My ruddy skin tempts me to use the control orb to lower it just slightly, but the mostly-empty bottle of wine that had been full of a smooth, spicy red when Tanner brought with my dinner isn’t making me want to rush into anything.

Well, God, this is an unexpected little delight. I guess I’ll keep serving You a little longer, after all.

God and I share a little laugh at this jest. He hadn’t bothered to ask my permission to start me down this road; I sincerely doubt I get to just tell Him to bugger off when I’m tired of it. Right now, though, He’s taking good care of His servant.

Sure, I’ve got a care or two. The thing with Corwinne still tastes sour, for one. And there’s the matter of Fat Lonnie. And I owe Culnor a secret.

But mostly, right now, my main care is whether or not I should ask for a second bottle of this stuff.

Tanner comes back in, bringing an exotic smell of smoke and honey with him. “Hookah?” he asks, and then catches my slow smile. “I’ll take that as a yes, then.”

He busies himself for a bit attaching the metal pot to several nozzles in the tub, and then hands me the pipe end. “M’lord likes a bit of pipe in the bath every now and again, so he added a proper circulator and heating element to the bath. Just ring if you need anything else.”

I take a tentative puff. The honeyed scent fills my mouth and nostrils, and I feel a tickle at the base of my skull as it starts to work. This isn’t really my sort of thing, more as a practical matter than anything else: when you spend as much time getting attacked as I do, keeping your wits about you is strongly advised. I tell Tanner as much.

He laughs. “I’m doubtin’ you’ll face too many who’re trying to punch holes in ye here, Fellthorn. M’lord, maybe, if he doesn’t like your tale, but he’ll not be letting anybody else do his dirty work for him.”

My brow wrinkles. “Yes... he seemed a bit tense. Want to tell me what’s been going on? I’ve only been gone a few months.”

He shows me his teeth again. “I could... how’s a fifty quidder for that?”

I snort smoke and roll my eyes. “You’re full of shit, lycanth. Ten, and I’m only offering that because I’ve been drinking your lord’s wine.”

“Now lad,” he begins again, eyes full of hurt, “ye mean to suggest that I’d not play you fair? I am wounded, I swear by me mum. Do I need to call old Shelnoc in here to adjudicate?”

“Leave the Historian out of this. Your kind, play fair? Pull the other one.”

He prickles, and I fancy I can see hackles rise. “Didn’t think ye had such a problem with lycanths, church man.”

I wave him away and put on a reedy, high-pitched voice to match his accent. “I meant Eirans, ye vicious little leprechaun. ‘Tis known t’all that ye’r descended from the Fair Ones. Stolen away any babies lately?”

He guffaws. “Only from the church, lad, and only because I was right starvin’.” He meets my gray eyes with his yellow. “Fifteen.”

“Done. How’s this: though the Count will swear up and down that he’s not had a draught of the red stuff since before you were a little green twinkle in your old man’s eye, it happens that there’s a certain whore he visits upon once per year on a night of great personal significance to him. She lets him have a pint or so, then sends him on his way.”

I can tell by the twinkle in his own eye I’ve struck gold. “A she? Now, that is an interestin’ little tidbit. Not his usual sort. What’s the name of the lady?”

“Fiver.”

He doesn’t blink. “Done.”

“Ulina Maefoun.”

He frowns. “Sounds Frankish.”

“Bayounian, actually.” I grin, waiting for the next question.

“Where does she haunt?”

“Five more.”

“Curse ye, I’ll find that one myself for yer prices.” He nearly spits and then just glares. “And ye had the nerve to suggest that I might not play ye fair.”

“Ten for the rest.” I show my own teeth. “The date... and why. You know you want it.”

“Fine! And fie on yer whole church, too.”

“Eleventh day of Midwinter. Often as not one of the coldest days of the year. Sun’s low in the sky when you can see it at all... even the whores aren’t out wandering the streets much. Nights are long, the kind of long not everybody makes it through. Especially not little old men with debts to the Captains, in this case. Debts that the Captains didn’t know he’d used to set up a little insurance policy against ‘accidental’ death...”

“His death-day!” Tanner exclaims, gleefully. “Oh, lad. Ye’ve made a happy man out of me. Man keeps his secrets tighter than a nun’s knickers, but I’ll have the whole place festooned in black ribbons and balloonery, just you wait!” He rubs his hands together, even; I didn’t know people really did that. “Aye,” he nods. “I’m a happy man. Even owing you fifteen quid ‘o secret tales to tell.”

“And a tale about your lord,” I remind him. “How about it?” I settle down into the water as Tanner shakes his head.

“He’s been in a foul mood, yer not wrong about that. For months now, it’s gone on. I thought at first it was the latest Lady Culnor, but the Count, he sussed it out straightaway.” Tanner adds a lisp to his lilt. “ ‘Dead things, young son, you mark my words.’ That’s what he said. Told me he could smell it on m’lord. I didn’t smell nothing funny, and I said as much, but if that little fairy wasn’t right all along I’ll shave my back.”

“This story is depressing. Less about back hair, wolf-man.”

“I braid it,” he grins, teeth bared. Before I have time to object, or throw up in the back of my mouth, he carries on. “It’s yer old man.”

Suddenly, the water is too hot, I’m too full of sweets, and my head is too fuzzy for the room. “Damn it.”

We both make the sign of the star, reflexively.

I sigh, and put the hookah down. “I think I knew that already, but thanks for the confirmation.” I shake my head. “But why would that get old Culnor all depressed? He and my father were old adventuring buddies. ‘Get out, see the world, meet new and interesting people, kill them, and take their things!’ I’ve got a place down by the docks where I keep the junk of the poor saps who greeted dear old dad and the Thaumaturge when they stepped down off the airship. Boxes of it. Culnor got rich, and dad got...” I sigh again. “... obsessed.”

Tanner nods. “Yer pa, he was an intense one, at least by the time I came on the scene. Scary, sometimes. But that’s just the thing. M’lord’s found something. Something about all those trips Mernick made, even after m’lord stopped going with him.”

I wince. “I remember those days. Your boss was none too popular in the Fellthorn home. My dad always said it was his wife--the first one--who finally caught him by the-- well, you can imagine. Dad didn’t like it.”

Tanner shrugs apologetically. “M’lord had a few choice names of his own for yer pa. It wasn’t a happy time. Two old bears shouldn’t feud like that.” His face contracts shrewdly. “I think m’lord thinks so, too, now. He thinks he never should have left yer pa to go it alone.”

“Why? Does he need more money to pay off wife six?”

“Fer love of yer old man, boy,” spits Tanner. “He feels guilty. I’ve heard him say so. Says no one should have to die like that.”

I share in Culnor’s feelings for a moment, and then something Tanner said catches in my mind. “Wait--don’t you mean, ‘should have had to die like that?’ ”

“Ye should know better than to question an Eiran on the wagging of our tongues, lad. We’ve the gift of truth-telling, don’t you know?”

I shoot to my feet. Since I’d been crouched up on an interior stair at the tub’s edge, all of a sudden a lot more of me is getting gooseflesh than I’m used to.

“I... I’ve got to... pants,” I finish, more decisively than I started. “Pants, please.”

Tanner’s grin is all canines. “Still think it wasn’t worth fifty quid?” He chuckles. “How about a towel, first?”

I take the proffered cloth and tie it around my waist, and then attempt to make a graceful exit from the tub. There’s not really any way to do it without exposing Tanner to the sign of the star all over again, but after another long grin--a different sort of grin than his partner would be giving me, I realize, and thank God for small favors--he turns and busies himself at a table by the door. I scramble out of the tub and start for the hallway--then stop, as Tanner holds up something on a coat hanger.

“Er... a leather jacket?”

“Not pants, I realize,” he offers, “nor the proper regalia of a priest, but the Count was sewing up a fit, and you’ll insult us if you don’t at least try it on.”

There’s more than a jacket; there’s a red silk undershirt with a high, banded collar like the one I’m used to. My sash has been cleaned, which as far as I’m concerned is another act of God, considering what had been on it not an hour before. I balk for a second at the long skirt that he hands me next, but he does finally hand over a set of matching black pants with it, and points out that the skirt has been done up in the style of a cassock, but has slits all the way up either leg.

“Hell of a lot better in a fight than that dress you usually wear,” he says, and I’m hard-pressed to disagree once I’ve got it all on. Plus, I note in the mirror as I button the black leather jacket up and push my middle and ring finger through the loops on the ends of the sleeve that keep a diamond-shaped strip of leather tight against the back of my hand, I look awesome. If any a priest were ever going to kick someone’s ass, it would be this guy.

“Boots, leather jacket, collar... I’ll forgive you the skirt,” I say. “You guys did good.”

Tanner just grins.

“Now,” I grit my teeth, “let’s find that boss of yours. I suspect he’s got good reason to feel guilty.”

I’m all fired up to confront Culnor, but like most of my plans, this one doesn't bear much resemblance to what actually happens.

Tanner drops me off at yet another library of Culnor's, this one filled with books whose titles were eerily familiar. The Quest for Rix'th V'asha had been a favorite of mine as a kid, back when I still wanted to be just like its author and protagonist. Culnor looked pretty dashing in it, too, as I recalled, but when I was eight, I had eyes only for the real hero of the book. It looked like whoever had assembled this library had been channeling my eight-year-old self.

We'd had one nearly identical in my house, growing up, albeit much less ornate. "Ornate" wasn't a word used in conjunction with the Fellthorn home, unless heavily prefaced with words like "almost" or "unpretentiously" (my personal favorite). Dad's idea of an investment had been new engines for the Kailee. Why buy a nicer library--or a nicer house in a good neighborhood--when he wasn't going to actually be in it for any longer than it took to refit his airship? He never let the place get run-down--that would hardly be proper--but I can't say I'd have minded living in a part of town where I didn't get beaten up once a week by the other kids on our block for not quite living up to my father's appetite for fisticuffs. I preferred my adventures to come in book form. Some people just aren't cut out to be heroes.

Caught up in reverie, the steam I've built up to let Culnor have it evaporates. Before I know it, there's a glass of whiskey in my hand--from the husky smell, a glass of a vintage a good sight pricier than any I'll be permitted to approach any time soon without a respectfully averted gaze, and possibly making the sign of the Star. One whiff and my buzz from earlier is back in force: a long, easygoing high that uncurls my toes and makes me sigh despite myself.

Culnor clinks my glass. "To adventures," he cheers.

"Adventures," I echo. "A nice way of saying 'good times involving buckets of blood, lots of it your own'."

"Little stomach for the war front? Prefer to do your bloodletting back here in Noldon?" A savage grin. "I hear you're winning your little contest with Darkleaf."

I groan. "Not my contest. You should know me better."

"Don't be so bashful, boy; I do know you, and your judgment. Are you telling me they weren't righteous kills?"

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 look down at my drink for a moment, and then drain it in one go. "That's not what I said." Truth, but...

Culnor perhaps catches my mood, or perhaps is simply impatient. "Nothing's black and white in war, m'boy. And you've the fresh memories to prove it, don't you? Three months ago, you promised me a secret. I assume you're here to honor that promise?"

I reach into my sash, and draw out the scenograph. It depicts an eerily-crisp image: Corwinne, her thick leather gloves tarnished by spatters of a dark liquid, holding up a scroll as wide as a man’s forearm is long. The parchment is thick, and the scroll is wrapped around a pair of human femurs. She’s showing it to the lens, and the strange script seems to writhe and twist when at the corner of your eye, as if it were loath to be contained in such a way. The original text hadn’t been so fussy, but words like these have a mind of their own, and a scenograph is no way to treat them. I hand it over without looking at it. Culnor smiles.

“Ahh, a classic. Your father always preferred these to photograms, and I have to agree: you can’t beat them for detail.” He doodles the paperlike sheet of silver with his fingers, and I know he is manipulating the image, zooming in and looking at it from all sides. Scenographs capture not only the image in front of the lens, but all around the device, to a radius of maybe five or six yards. You can see the front and back of objects, observe tiny details, look at nearly anything you want. You just can’t see the camera, its operator, or anything in the distance. Corwinne could explain why--something about thaumic resonance, no doubt--but she’s more studious about this sort of thing than I am. If it has a lever, I’m useless; give me a musty tome and I’ll work a spell that’ll peel the paint off the walls. This scroll, though...

Culnor’s eyes twinkle. “You’ve done a stellar job capturing the scene--the focus is perfect--and Miss Corwinne looks simply ravishing, unfurling the scroll with an archivist’s care. Did you know that your ladyfriend wasn’t wearing any underwear?”

“How can you... you dirty old sod, give me that!” I make a lunge for my partner’s decency, but Culnor is way ahead of me.

“Now, now, I think I’ve earned this graph, as well as the tale behind it.” His grin pulls his drooping mustaches wide apart.

“Curious choice of words. You’re the second who I've found lusting after it tonight.”

“Perhaps you should say the third. She’s a lovely creature.” He cuts off my protest with a wave of his hand. “I’ve heard it all before, lad. Comrades-in-arms you may be, but you’re still allowed to be a man.” He sighs, manipulating the scenograph once again. “Marvellous quality, as I said. I do miss the color of a photogram, though.”

“The equipment’s a bit bulky,” I reply, trying to unfurrow my brows. “And besides, the scroll wasn’t in color, anyway.”

“You’d be amazed what you can tell from a little bit of color,” he chides. “If you can gauge the ambient light and the material, the yellowing gives you an idea of how old it is. The pigment of the script can tell you what it was written in. No, there’s a lot to be gleaned from a spot of color.”

“As for the pigment,” I say, “no mystery there. Brownish, even on the leather. I didn’t need the Count’s nose to tell me it was blood. I’d wager you the worth of the tale I’m about to tell that it was human, just like the skin it was scrawled on.”

“Then... not the Crawling Ones?” Lord Culnor’s face has lost all its good humor, and a good deal of its color.

“No. They’ve no use for skin; it means nothing to them. You need something meaningful to bind words like that.” I sigh. “But Those Below aren’t covered in insect chitin.”

We both make the sign of the star.

Culnor recovers his composure quickly. “As you say; I'll dispose of this graph properly, lest we find these words escaping it." He sighs. "Such a find, and on the war front. I imagine it was dearly-bought. If it’s what I think it is, it could cast doubt on who the real enemy out there has been all along. Can’t have made you very popular with the brass. Generals and commandants don’t care for shades of gray.”

I nod. “Yes, Leftenant Commander Holvelak had some starkly black-and-white views on topics ranging from elves to God to pyrotoxin. And he paid dearly for them.” I settle down in my chair, and raise my glass for Culnor to refill it.

“As for the war... that was in color.”

Chapter Five

“Look, I don’t care who you know,” the seven-foot constructed bellows at me, straining his facial stitching, “you can’t come in here with a prisoner!”

His sewn-together face is a waxy green under the many gaslights of Industry that flicker up the shallow slope behind me to the base of the Damsels’ Drop. Mismatched eyes glower down at me and Lonnie, whom I’ve got in a half-nelson and who has degenerated to spouting horrible-sounding syllables in an alien tongue, with only an occasional flailing of limbs to indicate that he’d rather be elsewhere.

“Especially not that one,” he finishes, crossing his borrowed arms.

“Look, just send someone into the Club,” I accent the word heavily, “and have them ask for Lord Culnor. You’ll find that he’s actually quite keen on seeing me.”

Not that it’s any great surprise, given the rest of my night, but gaining entry to the Geinodes Club is not going smoothly. Between the Falkoj crashing down and rumors that some idiot let loose an air elemental on the Damsel’s Drop, the doorman outside the Lunatic Fringe is giving me hells. I could take him out without losing my grip on Lonnie, but that’s not the point. That isn’t How Things Are Done when it comes to the Geinodes Club, not even at the Lunar Entrance. There are standards.

Lonnie squirms in my grip as I try to sound reasonable. “I am sorry about jumping the line,” I offer, “but this is kind of important.”

One green and one blue eye narrow. “Pal, what’s important is that you get the hells off of my doorstep before I screw your head off and get me some replacement parts. I could use a new jawbone; this one’s getting a little mealy. Yours ain’t much to look at, but it’s square enough to work.”

Sandards be damned, there are courtesies, too. Headbutting this guy into next week is looking more and more tempting when I catch an acrid scent, quickly masked by perfume and pheromones so thick you can chew them. Involuntarily, something twitches in my groin. A hand slides its way across the constructed’s bare chest from behind, tracing the long stitch running from his hip to his shoulder. Exquisitely-painted nails dig in ever so slightly, and I see the reanimated man shudder.

“Oh, but Bexton,” the voice drips, “Jaspar would look ever so much less handsome minus that adorably square jaw of his.”

The constructed is held rapt for a moment, until the hand leaves his flesh as its owner slinks into sight from behind his bulk. “S-sorry, Melina,” he trembles. “I didn’t know--”

Her eyes lock onto mine, drinking up the rest of the world. They are red, with slitted pupils like a cat’s. “Oh, of course you didn’t,” she moans, making a gasping chirp at the end, as if someone had just touched her somewhere that she hadn’t expected, but quite enjoyed. I feel the twitch grow into more of a throb. “But pleeease, let Mr. Fellthorn come, and enjoy himself fully inside.”

It’s the way she pauses as she says it, the exact choice of words she makes with her perfect lips... my mind goes to some very un-hallowed places. I tear my gaze away from the plunging neckline of her barely-there and wholly scandalous black dress, ignoring the way her ruby lipstick is smudged at the corner of her mouth, as if she’d just been working that mouth up and down--

“Melina,” I grit my teeth. “So good to see you.”

She giggles in delight, sliding herself up next to me to grasp my arm at the elbow in a strange parody of a man escorting a woman. We must make quite the sight: her perfect sexuality, my battle-torn grime, and Fat Lonnie wedged on my opposite side like a meaty accessory. We glide past the doorman--well, Melina glides, and I grunt and drag my prisoner--and sink into the shadows of the Lunatic Fringe.

It’s like plunging into a cool bath: the darkness is palpable, dense enough to bottle and sell to tortured adolescents, and completely shuts out the noise of Industry behind us. Even scents fade away, leaving behind only Melina’s cinnamon perfumes. A staccato beat pulses through the darkness and into me as we walk down the long, carpeted hallway. It’s impossible to see anything but the glow of the concealed lighting that runs alongside the carpet, a redness that trickles into perception just far enough to allow you to see your own feet. Far ahead are the heavy curtains theat separate us from the Lunatic Fringe. A faint image of a red moon glows across their front.

Every nerve on my left side is tingling, and the state of my groin is making walking more of a chore than usual. Got to focus on something, because my body is well on its way to making some terminally poor decisions.

I choke out some words. “Nice to see you, Melina. How’s business been?”

She laughs carelessly, sliding her hand up my bare arm. Gooseflesh erupts in its wake. “Oh, good all around. I’m breaking in a pair of twins lately; a little light between the ears, but they can do the most amazing things with their tongues...” I hear a rustle from somewhere down, and keep my eyes fixed ahead. I’m pretty sure I know where that other hand went.

“Mmm,” her sigh confirms. I hear a wet sound: a tongue running over sumptuous lips. “Looking forward to continuing their education. Those boys are so eager to please. Care to watch?”

My throat tightens, and I cough to clear it. “Sorry, maybe next time. I’ve got other business here tonight.” Watching Melina break in her newest concubines--can men be concubines?--would be educational, but not the kind of knowledge I need right now.

Good. Staying focused.

“Not with that slut Ashara, I hope?” She almost hisses. “I’d feel extremely jealous, especially after I just slid you in past Bexton back there.”

I cock my head, intrigued. “The Lady of Mystery? Melina, it’s not like you to give away your hand like that. Been having unwelcome competition?”

“Oh, nothing I can’t handle,” she assures me. “But one or two of my regulars haven’t been around in a while. Good customers. One of them was always so imaginative with a riding crop...” She sighs. “I miss him so.”

I snort. “And his coin-purse.”

“And his cock, Fellthorn. You should know better.” The flirtation is gone from her voice, replaced by something more dangerous: uncertainty.

I do,” I reply carefully. “I wasn’t sure I’d have such a warm reception, considering.”

I feel her shrug imperceptibly. “You can keep a secret.”

“Every secret has its price,” It spills out unbidden, without me thinking, and I regret it immediately. But of course, Melina knows that, too.

“Yes,” she sighs, “your little Club’s motto, no? Well then, consider me grateful that you haven’t found a buyer yet. You haven’t been looking very hard, from what I hear.”

“For a society of secrets, some of them certainly aren’t kept very well.”

“I have many ways of learning secrets, Fellthorn,” she says, and several of them flash unbidden to my mind. “One that I’ve not been able to uncover is why mine is still kept. Particularly given your penchant for slaughtering my brethren whenever you have the opportunity--or whenever you can manufacture one.” She sniffs daintily. “If I’m not mistaken, I smell their blood on you even now.”

I swallow, and keep walking. Melina won’t attack me--her kind aren't the type to go for open confrontation--but I’m not at my best, and her little insinuations are having more than their usual effect. I’m sure she’s well aware that I’m as hard as a tree trunk: hatchling ichor isn’t the only thing a succubus can smell. Succumbing to her charms would be a wonderful way to ensure that her secrets got kept... permanently.

“I’m sworn to fight the Crawling Ones, yes,” I answer, with a bit more care. “And you’re certainly no angel.” She laughs, but a little uneasily to my ear. “But you’re also not quite the devil that you could be. There aren’t too many innocents, down here in Industry. You want to swallow up a few of the Captains of Industry every now and then to satisfy those... appetites? That’s almost a public service.”

“They aren’t all Captains, Fellthorn. Some of them are maybe the sort your lot likes to take in and keep warm. Your parishoners, even.”

I shudder. I’m not exactly sure how it all works--the texts are rather squeamish on the details--but a succubus’s methods of feeding definitely belies her sultry demeanor. “Why are you telling me this?”

We’re to the doorway into the Fringe proper, and the beat has a moaning undertone to it that does nothing to ease the feeling between my legs. The darkness parts slightly, and I can see her face, framed by her indigo hair. Her red eyes glow with concern.

“I want to know where I stand, church man. You going to put the word out on me when you hear about someone a little too pure who heads straight from my bechambers to the Crawling Lands?” She spits the word like the meaningless aphorism it is, in her world.

I sigh. “We’d all like to know where we stand, insect girl. Let me make it real simple for you: if I come for you, your secret getting out will be the least of your worries. So keep on doing what you’re doing, and we’ll see how that goes.”

She gives me a long look. Then she smiles, eyes not leaving mine. Her smile widens, spreading across her whole face with a look of delight. She hops back, and grabs the bottom of her skirt with both hands, like for all the world a happy little schoolgirl. She squeals: “I think you liiiiiike me!” She claps her hands together excitedly. “I think you like-like me!”

Dammit, my grin flashes before I can even help myself. I don’t even know what I say, something stupid, and she’s suddenly pressed up against me, lips very close to mine. I’ve lost track of Lonnie; my hands are on her hips as she grinds her pelvis up into my cock. Pleasure shoots through me; I can feel her all the way down to my toes.

Not everyone who beds me regrets it, Fellthorn.” Her voice is low, and her breath smells of cinnamon. I can’t move; no, I won’t move, even though a distant part of my brain is screaming my own bloody murder at me. Her hands around my neck, she arches her back, tilting her head away from me and pressing her breasts into my chest. Her dress is nothing, and I feel her nipples slide across--

With an inhuman hiss, she leaps away from me into a half-crouch. A smell: burnt meat. Her cheeks bulge out with black mandibles that click together in front of her teeth; her red eyes have gone multifaceted, distending her face into something alien. A warmth, on my chest... the symbol of Sayn Ieander around my neck is glowing white-hot! I feel it only faintly, but as she backs farther away, I see how the symbol has burnt itself into her, leaving a charred cogwheel imprinted between her breasts.

We both swear in unison. I shake my head, cursing my stupidity, and snag Lonnie with one hand while keeping an eye on Melina. Sure, succubi don’t tend to go for out-and-out violence... but it looks like that probably hurt.

Instead, she’s laughing. With a ripple, her blackened flesh smooths out and her face returns to its pristine countenance. She doesn’t come any closer, but the teeth she’s showing me are all pretty smiles.

Oh, church man... you’re none of you immune. You’ve just got more attention from the Man downstairs.” She turns and lifts the curtain into the Fringe, dress somehow pulling up of its own volition to show off the tiniest sliver of cheek. The look she gives me is exactly the one she’d have if her face were buried to the hilt between my legs. “Not all of us from the Crawling Lands have the same idea about our duties here on your world. Offer’s still good. Hells, keep your little wheel on if you like. If that’s the worst your God can do, well, maybe you could fill in for my dear, missing Rodrigan, no riding crop necessary. You know where to find me...”

She steps out into the club, and it swallows her whole.

I shake my head, cursing myself again as I pull Lonnie through the curtains after her. That nearly ended up... how? What, exactly, would have happened, had I just let myself go? Lord knows it’s been a while... I took my vows over five years ago. And while celibacy is more a Church thing than a God thing--near as this sinner can tell, anyway--I’ve honored it. What would’ve...?

Lonnie is staring at me, black eyes unreadable. “You’d have escaped us, Fellthorn,” he answers. “She’d have taken you, drawn you up body and spirit inside her to feed her unborn, and you would never get to find out what we’re doing this very moment to your precious little C-urgk!”

My arm is an iron bar across his throat as I slam him up against the black velour wall of the Fringe, and Jorngnir is sword-sized and a hair’s breadth from that black eyeball, unwavering. Several person-shaped holes appear in the air nearby, evacuated by formerly-dancing occupants perhaps off-put by a sword whose surface area is best measured in square feet.

You don’t say her name, filth,” I snarl. “You’re lying. I know better than to trust demons, and I know--”

Whatever it is I know gets lost in another coughing fit. I spit more blood; I’m sure someone here must have a taste for it, if they’re not too picky about eating off of the floor. My vision swims--God, I must’ve made it here on adrenaline; now I just feel empty. I dry heave violently, and waves of pain radiate out from my intestines. Oh, God... this isn’t...

The thing behind Lonnie’s eyes is watching me, impassively; the black eyes stare out unblinking over his still-bloody face.

Sweet Cerupeen! Mother of Mercy, Fellthorn, we’d heard you were here!”

A pair of hands pulls me up, firmly but gently. Another set steadies me from behind. My blurry vision can just barely make out a hirsute man in a bowler hat and black armbands like a bartender would wear, and a severe-looking wisp of a man with an undertaker’s coat and gray skin.

Tanner, Count,” I mumble. “Top of the morning...”

Things get a little confusing. Hands pull me along; I flail. “Don’t forget... prisoner...”. Someone gets too close, and the little gray man known as the Count blurs, and then that someone goes flying through the air over the obsidian bar. Tanner winces as dozens of bottles of expensive whiskies shatter, dumping their much-beloved cargo onto the floor.

Woo. Fumes plus delirium equals... probably not actually an elephant; what the hell was in those--ooh, a pony! I’m carried through throngs of people--well, basically people--who are all swimming through tapioca and pink brandy with skimmer the vorp whipple...

Bleurgh.

It goes like that. The Fringe is always a psychedelic experience, with its pumping rhythms and ever-swirling light show, but this time it's making a special effort on my behalf. I think I lose consciousness at some point, though not enough to avoid feeling several well-intentioned slaps in the face from the Count. They hurt a lot more than you’d expect from someone so skinny. “Hey now, none of that,” he lisps. “You’re not quite ready for that trip yet, young son.”

The noise fades after a while, and the light changes quality. “Hold his head,” comes a familiar voice. A face wavers in front of my eyes.

Sorry, m’boy,” comes the fatherly murmur. “This is going to hurt like a bastard.”

Something pours down my throat, and the voice is not wrong. It’s exactly like drinking a bolt of lightning. Little explosions of pain blossom in my mouth and down into my belly. An electric surge ricochets around my stomach, and my howl has a reverberation, as if I am screaming with a dozen voices. Something crackling happens inside me; I feel things move around down there, tissues sliding over one another and back together again. I’m just starting to worry about what’s going to happen when this shit makes it all the way through my digestive tract when it fizzles out.

I belch, emitting a tiny crackle and a puff of smoke.

Lord Culnor,” I wheeze. “Please make a note never to save my life again.”

Nonsense, m’boy!” An arm possessed of more meat than the Count has on his entire wiry body wraps around my shoulders and gently lifts me upright. Lord Barrick Culnor squints through his monocular at me, and I see a giant eye blink across its lens, an inch off of his face. “Your father would come back from the dead, murder me, and then rail at me throughout all of Eternity! May our dear Lord spare me such a fate; I listened to enough of the man’s ranting while he was alive.”

He takes a step back, causing Tanner and the Count to scramble hastily out of his way, and casts his eyes respectfully downward. “May God keep his spirit.”

I take a look around, wondering briefly at Culnor's quaint way with words. Probably something he got out of one of these books. We’re in one of the Geinodes Club’s many private libraries, probably one of the dozens owned by Lord Culnor. Books of all manner of dark provenance line six of the walls and lay all across the central table on which I’d been deposited. A map of the world covered with pushpins and colored twine dominates the last wall, its ceremonial position letting me know the direction of True North. The map stretches all the way to the ornately wood-paneled ceiling, a good twenty feet tall, and someone has been scrawling all over it with a wax pencil. The room is well-lit by electric torches and the glow of some infernal engine of Culnor’s in one of the corners. It sparks periodically with an acrid puff of ozone, and I glare at it for a moment, suspecting it to be the origin of whatever hellish potion I just imbibed.

Culnor is looking at me expectantly, and I wave the sign of the star at him, wearily tossing out the more traditional: “May God rest his soul. Wherever it is.”

Now, lad, don’t be that way. The Lord wouldn't let as devoted a follower as Mernick Fellthorn out of His sight for long."

If only to make sure he didn’t get bored and wander off,” I shake my head, sliding down off of the table and onto my feet. My body feels good, solid. Whatever my father’s old adventuring companion gave me, it worked. “He was never one to stick around anywhere for long, much less forever.” I wave at the map. “How many of those trips are his?”

Culnor is frowning at me. A frown from a man that big requires added musculature: his face muscles have sprouted extra muscles just to get them into position. He could tear Bexton back into his constituent body parts without an iota of perspiration. The crags in his brow as I casually dismiss his dead friend would rightfully worry another man, but not me: Culnor has been more of a father to me than my old man ever was.

His eyes don’t even flicker towards the map. “All of them,” he growls. “Your father’s explorations put details on maps like this one that had never existed before.” His look softens. “I’ve been making a study of them, lately.”

I raise an eyebrow. “Revisiting history isn’t like you. What’s torn you away from your workbench? Wife number four giving you heartache?”

Wife number six, boy,” he leers. “The new one’s a mite younger than you, I’ll wager. Blonde thing, amazing curves. Bit of a natter; at least at the Club I can get some peace. Did you know the Librarians were considering admitting women? By God, I’ll have to find the seventh Lady Culnor!” He sighs. “They just don’t last like they used to. Costs me more and more to pay them off, but I’ve got more than I need.”

I frown at him. “And the Church blesses all of this?”

He sighs. “The Church isn’t always what it would have you believe, m’boy. You don’t go in for half its nonsense, I know that, so don’t give an old man grief for his few remaining pleasures. Certainly your High Fathers don’t, when I donate enough coin to their personal coffers.”

I snort. “I’d say something about your heresies if I could do it with a straight face. Not a surprise.” I make the sign of the star again, but a bit more reverently. “May He show us His way, and guide those who are wandering. Speaking of,” I gesture to the many voyages depicted on Culnor’s map, “you were about to tell me a tale about reliving the past?”

He smiles at me, but it lacks the warmth I am used to. “Many tales need telling, m’boy. I believe I’m owed one from you.” He gestures to his attendants. “Tanner, get young Jaspar here freshened up, and find him a hot meal. Count, see to this ‘prisoner’ of his. Unless I miss my guess, our boy here has got quite a story to spin. After that,” he turns his gaze back to me, “we’ll talk about your father. And your future.”

Chapter Four

The cab ride to the Geinodes Club is not my best time ever. There’s no chance in any of the hells that I’d be admitted in through the Solar Entrance, looking as I do, and so I tell the driver to take me to the Lunatic Fringe, and step on it. He obliges, hands fidgeting nervously as if I’d just confirmed his worst fear about his new passenger. There’s a mirror hanging across from where I’m slumped in the back, and I get a chance to take a look at what the cat dragged in.

Hells, Darkleaf was right about one thing: I do look like shit. Naked from the waist up, covered in suspicious-looking filth that’s started to streak off my body from the rain, and sporting a fairly obvious weapon strapped to my now-sleeveless wrist, all I can do is send thanks to God for clouding this guy’s judgment long enough for him to let me in his cab. As he cracks the lightning reins over the elemental engines and motivates the cab to a bone-jolting start across the cobblestones, I grimace and continue my inspection.

All the bad I’m seeing isn’t just because I’m dirty and had a hyper-intelligent calamari rework all my internal plumbing. I’ve been living hard. I’m too skinny--Ieander, when was the last time I actually had a meal made from something resembling food?--and my face is starting to look hollow. The bags underneath my eyes say that I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since I was a teenager. I’m several months overdue for a haircut. At least it’s all still there, and the same nut-brown it’s always been... frankly, I would have thought I’d have a few grey hairs by now. I mean, I’m almost thirty.

Life’s been crazy, lately. I’d blame the war, but it was crazy before the war, and that’s been on for at least two years now. Asking “what the hell happened?” is a game my brain likes to play just to hurt me, but I haven’t got the energy for it tonight. Still, there was a time, not so long ago, when I was at least an OK-looking guy. I wasn’t having chamber maids calling me “dreamy”, maybe, but looking in the mirror didn’t make me wince.

It’s not the job--or at least, it never used to be. Striking down an avatar of the Crawling Ones, or even a trumped-up drug lord with delusions of adequacy... you feel righteous. Burning the corpses of kids who’d just died in the name of a ridiculous war that we deserve to lose?

Not so much.

Maybe it is the job. Nobody ever said being a justicar of the Divine Will would be easy.

Crazy night!” tries the cabbie. He’s got an accent that I mark as probably River District... he’s one hundred percent Noldonite, that’s for sure.

You have no idea,” I grimace. I’m not really looking to get sucked into a conversation, here... but I probably don’t have any choice, knowing Noldon cabbies, and maybe a little human contact wouldn’t automatically end in tragedy.

Yeah, I saw you, and I said to myself, ‘Self, are you gonna let that poor guy get picked up by the Lightning Rods for a Decency Violation? That’d just be wrong.’ Hard to argue with that kinda logic.” He grins at me. “So here you are.”

I smile back, meaning it. “I appreciate it. A run-in with the coppers is the last thing I want tonight, I promise you.”

You get caught in one of them fires, burning ship and whatsit?” he asks, falling into cadence. It doesn’t matter what I say; he’ll just riff off of it and keep me talking for the ten or so minutes it’ll take to get us to the Fringe.

Nah,” I say, forcing myself to look at least a little bit relaxed, “I caused them.”

Oh, really?” he says. “I had an uncle, liked to start fires. Real quiet guy, but man, you just never know, eh?”

You sure don’t.”

You ever heard of a place called the Mitterheim Academy for Studious Youth?” he continues, not missing a beat.

Mitter--are you telling me your uncle was Crazy Rastick?” This does perk me up. “The Alchemicals lector who burned the place to a matchstick?”

Yeah, totally--though we don’t call him that in the family! How’d you know Len?” In his mirror, the cabbie gives me another cautious look. Friends of Crazy Rastick probably weren’t the kind of people you’d wish were in the back of your cab.

Scholarship boy. Class of ‘twenty-six,” I grin, and watch the tension ebb out of his shoulders. “That was my third year.” I laugh. “I was in Thaumaturgical Engineering, and I’d just managed to get the sprocket off of the hex wheel I’d been taking apart.”

Ooh,” he winces. “Bad timing.”

Bad timing, nothing! I looked up for half a second and my not-so-stiff-upper-lip-after-all lab partner dropped the containment chant. That bastard wheel went caroming straight out of the classroom and down the hall! Last I could tell, it was headed towards the Parazoology Lab.”

He’s nodding his head, slowly but picking up steam. “The coppers said that a bunch of salamanders got loose, but they didn’t know how. Probably coulda contained the mess, except there were a bunch of lizards running around breathing fire all over.” It’s his turn to laugh. “Maybe they shoulda locked you up, and not my Uncle Len!”

He did start it,” I point out. “It was that crazy laugh of his as he went running down the hallway that distracted me in the first place.”

Eh, I never liked Len that much, anyways. He always thought he was just a little too clever.” He stops himself just a second too late. “Er, beggin’ your pardon, sir.”

I snort, and wave him off. “Look at me; how do you think my fancy education wound up for me? Half-naked in the back of a cab, covered in squid guts, hoping like hell a crazy old bastard who hung out with my dad will stitch up my innards because I’m too full of myself to go asking for--ah, never mind; it didn’t work out is all I’m saying.”

I clam up for a minute, fuming at myself and gritting my teeth as something clenches again inside me. Bizarrely, he doesn’t fill the silence, and I stare out the window into the rain.

The sky is pelting to match my mood, and my breath fogs the pane. I see the halo of gaslights as we pull under them; they cast a green aspect over everything as the thaumiol combusts. More traditional, reddish fires flicker in the distance, and my mouth turns down at the evidence of my handiwork.

Not my handiwork, the logical part of my brain interjects. Someone else rigged those charges. Whoever filled those soldiers full of bug figured he’d spread them as widely as possible.

You were there, the rest of me responds, filled with gloomy certitude. You missed something. You could have stopped it. There was a time when you would have stopped it.

I wipe the fog off the window and let my brain duel with itself, taking as much of me out for a scenic drive through the middle-city of Noldon as I can manage. In the green glow of the gaslights, streets that by day would be lined by severe black awnings over arches of grey stone take on a pallor of malice. Shadows bend at weird angles, the result of too much magic being burned up in a small space. You get used to it, mostly, but nights like tonight, it’ll send a shiver right down your spine to see one of them lengthen for no reason, and twist at you like it’s hungry.

The hum of the two elemental engines deepens as the driver navigates us carefully down the winding Cafdan’s Way toward the edge of Industry. The Way hisses snakelike down the Damsels’ Drop, a charmingly-named monster of a hill that used to be the trendy place for unmarried lasses of the ripe old age of twenty to toss themselves down to their destinies. There was some idiot story about one such old maid who found her charming prince when she slipped and fell down it; nobody remembers that she died just after they kissed, presumably from her head being screwed on backwards thanks to her trip. Times may have changed, but stories are sticky. These days, the bodies that you’ll find at the bottom of the Drop will be no less broken, but that’s what you get when you screw around with the Captains of Industry.

The long, cylindrical engines at the front of the cab that took over for horses at some point in my great-grandfather’s day thrum even lower, and the air elemental bound to the cab’s base fidgets restlessly, jolting me a bit. Even though nobody’s had to actually ride over rough cobblestones on wheels since I-don’t-know-when, every now and then the elementals get a little testy and like to inform you just how much they love being forced to stare at their stony opposites all day and all night. I tap the cabbie’s window in irritation; just because we’re almost there is no reason to relax on the elemental’s thaumiol feed and leave me jangling.

Violently, his face mashes into the thick glass plate that separates us, pounded in by an invisible hammer. His eyes are pitch black, no whites at all, and he moans deep. His hands flop up to the window and claw at the glass, like he’s trying to dig through it at me.

Fell-thorn...” he intones, “we see you...”

My skin crawls, trying to get away from the possessed driver as best it can. “God damn you,” I cry out. “Leave him alone!”

In response, he smashes his face into the glass pane, and then again. Blood gushing over his lips, he groans, “We see you!”

Something jerks. We’re on a hill that’s nothing but curves all the way down, and nobody’s driving.

“Hoi!” comes the call from ahead of us. “Fat Lonnie! I hear you ain’t paid your dues recently, and you want to be coming down to Industry?” I can hear the incredulous voice shaking its head. “Best be slowing up a bit so we can chat proper, yeah?”

The Captains. When we don’t stop, this cab is going to get riddled with gunshot.

Fat Lonnie” is busy braining himself on the thick glass that separates us, oblivious to the commands of the thugs ahead. The window is smeared with blood: I can’t see how many of them there are. I feel Jorngnir vibrating in its arm-sheath, ready to taste flesh again tonight. I start to move my arm in response, ready to drop the blade into my palm, but by Ieander, I’m tired. Hasn’t there been enough blood spilled tonight? Haven’t I been party to enough death?

My knife catches him in the soft spot just under his chin...

“... we see youuu...” Blood-flecked teeth show in a rictus smile. “... and we see her...”

My lips curl back as I alternately blanch, and then rage. “You motherfuckers. I will kill you.” I shift, preparing myself; Jorngnir flashes, and the glass pane separating us shatters. Fat Lonnie surges through it... right into my waiting headlock.

“... but I’m not killing him,” I finish.

The possessed cabbie squirms in my grip, but I’m in the zone now; I’m switched on. Pain fades away. Jorngnir guides itself under my hand, maneuvering itself easily through the tight space with a mind of its own, and I smash out the back window of the cab with another effortless swipe of the ancient blade. I drag Lonnie through it as I hear cries ahead to slow down, and then another:

Hey, what the--?”

Lonnie is laughing now, bubbling deep in his throat, but he isn’t fighting me. Not sure if that’s a good or bad sign. He just laughs.

The crack of gun blasts tearing into the cab splits the night, and I throw myself down on top of him. The cab is still jerking forward, but the Captains have flanked it, still firing--but one has definitely spotted the two of us, and is waving at his buddies, bringing his own gun to bear. There’s no cover anywhere in sight, just a steep embankment on one side, and a steep drop on the other.

But there is a pissed-off air elemental sitting underneath that cab, and I’d cut the thaumiol line powering its containment circle as we were making our exit.

There’s a sound like a thunderclap as the elemental blasts out of its bindings underneath the cab. A compression wave hits us and we go skidding across the cobbles; I’ve got Lonnie’s ears covered and I’m howling, praying my own eardrums don’t burst. Wind whips around us furiously; all I hear is a high-pitched whine in my ears from the blast. I roll to one side, just in time to watch the cab come smashing back to the road from a height of at least thirty feet. Its splinters are caught by the cyclone of the elemental’s form, slicing through the air like daggers. The elemental engines, freed from the cab, take off like cannon-shot: one slams itself into the bluff in a blinding flash of electrical discharge; the other spirals dizzily off into the air, until I lose track of it somewhere over the river.

Only two of the Captains are in sight, thrown a dozen feet away from where they stood. Neither is moving. The other two are probably on their way to the bottom of the Drop right now. The elemental, though...

The funnel drifts to and fro, flinging more debris every which way. I work my way to my feet, putting myself between it and Lonnie. Jorngnir is in my hand, fully extended to halberd-size; I don’t know when that happened, but it feels good. I feel the thing’s eyeless gaze turn to me.

You’re pissed, and I get that,” I shout through the gale, “but you’re free. I got you there, and this man’s with me. Bugger off, and you can stay that way. Stick around, or make one move towards us, and we’ll both find out how well I remember Basic Elemental Binding.”

It wavers. It’s a moderate-sized elemental, and on my best day, maybe. Right now, it would be all I could do to escape it with my life, and no way am I getting Lonnie out of here too. Still, it’s hesitating...

I dredge my memories, and start the words to a basic binding chant.

There’s another howl, and pieces of cab come flying at me. I hit the deck as Jorngnir deflects the first of them. A few splinters pepper me, but the elemental isn’t pressing the attack; they sting, but nothing more. When I roll to my feet, polearm braced in front of me, the funnel cloud is gone, and the only sound is the ringing in my ears.

I look to the two remaining Captains. The gang members are stirring now, but won’t be going far anytime soon. I take a half-step towards them to end them with steel before they can recover, but stop.

No. This isn’t divine justice. This isn’t the war front. They’re gang toughs; leave them for the coppers.

Jorngnir doesn’t like it, but I grit my teeth, and thumb the control to shrink it down to dagger-size. Its form wavers, hesitating for a moment--its ancient magics want blood, and resist Corwinne’s gadgetry--but after a moment, the Butcher’s Blade complies.

Good. God knows, I don’t need another fight tonight.

A sound behind me; I spin around. Lonnie is at the edge of the road, his too-black eyes staring at me. “Trying to save him?” asks the thing behind those eyes.

Then it throws him off of the Drop.

My legs are moving before his question even hangs in the air. As I fling myself into empty space, I can hear Corwinne’s voice lilt through my mind: “We’ve talked about this...”

Arrival

Lance Corporal Linus Kolgriv stood as ramrod straight as he could muster. ‘Twas more than arrows could get you killed, in this man’s army. The man in question was Leftenant Commander Holvelak. Kolgriv supposed that the Commander must have a first name, but he was sure that he didn’t know anyone who’d dare tell him, much less speak it aloud. Everyone just called him “The Commander”, out of sheer self-preservation. There was power in names, and Kolgriv would bet his paltry wages that the Commander would hear any words spoken after his name was mentioned aloud, unless spoken in church, or under a new moon.

That was the way, with witches.

“Where,” came the sibilant hiss, “do you suppose they went, then?”

Kolgriv studied the air in front of him with the fervent intensity of a schoolboy whose lector has just called for a volunteer to enumerate the organs of female reproduction. He was damned if he knew, in any case. The bloody elves had just disappeared, leaving not a trace of their passing. A whole village of them.

And he had to admit, he wouldn’t have been able to do much to pick out the organs of female reproduction, either. Might have saved himself some trouble, though at least his sudden new wife was a good Church girl, and Powlish, to boot. That had made things easier on his poor mum.

Hmm… Svelkie should be due soon. Assuming that the Commander didn’t pick him out of the line for—

“Sir,” called out Major “No-Shit” Thunder, whose cheery obliviousness was extreme even for the 27th Thaumaturgical Brigade. “I respectfully submit that they have gone to link up with the main contingent, sir, in the face of the 27th’s overwhelmingly superior force!”

The sneer was obvious, even to those like Kolgriv who determinedly avoided looking at it. “Your sobriquet is well-earned, Major.” The Commander turned, and looked down over the fern-strewn descent into the quiet elf village that he and his men had been inexplicably sent to “pacify”.

Even in the full light of late morning, the forest floor basked in an arboreal twilight, broken only by the flickers of white balefire at their backs that formed a perimeter around the elf-city. The scent of two hundred meters of charred forest tickled at Kolgriv’s conscience, but only a little. Good Church upbringing or no, it took a lot more faith than he’d brought with him to insist that a little bit of calculated destruction of the Lord’s creation was against His will, not when so much of that creation seemed to be trying to kill you. The Commander had ordered the perimeter razed “so that even a mole might not cross unnoticed.”

With its usual battery of flame and lightning, the 27th had followed orders with nervous intensity. Two hundred feet of verdant forest now more closely resembled a volcanic plain of barren earth and still-burning fires. At the outer edge stood a twenty-foot wall of unearthly white balefire that had risen up behind the Commander as he had walked the perimeter, forming a blazing shackle around the elf city.

If there were any moles left, Kolgriv was sure that they had better sense than to burrow through that strip of hell.

The Commander laid it out. “We lost twelve men in full thaumechanical battle dress to a hive of bumblebees, Major. A hive that just happened to be obscured from sight by the reflection from a brook just wide enough to catch the sun for the two hours in the afternoon that an advancing force would be likely to arrive, given the only sensible encampment within a day’s journey. A hive that just happened to fall in such a way that those twelve armored men, in an attempt to avoid the bees, stumbled onto a bank of moss so unusually slippery that they lost their footing and plunged down a hill, which just happened to have at its base a quarry of razor-sharp quartzite.” The Commander spat. “Do you happen to remember how long those men struggled to free themselves, before we stopped hearing them cry out?”

“Or,” he added ominously, “perhaps you just happen to remember how we lost the battle tank?”

Despite himself, Kolgriv gulped. He remembered what had earned him that field promotion. He hadn’t had time yet to add a rocker to the single chevron that his uniform had come with.

“No, Major, the elves did not flee us.” The Commander’s voice was flat. “But I submit that you should organize some men to find them, before we learn where they went in some equally grotesque fashion. Lance Corporal Kolgriv!”

Kolgriv’s sphincter puckered. He’d been so close! “I have learned that we will be having guests, on the morrow. A priest. See to it that I am not bothered. I have… other matters to attend to.”

The Corporal stammered out an assent. A priest… might not get him killed. You never could tell, with Church men.

His relief was mixed with a new dread. He had been unable to avoid the Commander’s eye just then, and he had seen something there that he’d never seen before.

Fire. Excitement. Lust.

The balefire that trapped them all in this place crackled at Kolgriv’s back. He eyed its creator, a shudder running the length of his spine. Whatever that mage’s mysterious business, Kolgriv was certain of one thing: the destruction behind him would pale by what else this madman had in mind.