Author Archive

HUMAN: Native of Earth in the Sol System

Homo sapiens

Identification: Adults average 5-6 feet. Live birth.
Color varies. Form: Head, trunk, protrusions
at shoulders and hips called arms and legs.

Similar Species: Nothing on Homeworld.

Voice: Wide range of inflection, limited hissing.

Range: Entire planet although not naturally aquatic.

Comments: Apex sentient. Exterior covered in skin
with patches of hair; no protective scales.
Legs restricted to locomotion;
useless for sitting, unlike coils.
Arms used for carrying and eating, although
our mouth tentacles function better for both.

Note: Planet also supports a beautiful
creature of sleek and elegant design
that can swim, crawl and fly effortlessly.
They call it snake.

 

— Lauren McBride

 

Lauren McBride finds inspiration in faith, family, nature, science and membership in the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA). Nominated for the Best of the Net, Rhysling and Dwarf Stars Awards, her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in dozens of publications including Asimov’s, Dreams & Nightmares and The Grievous Angel. She enjoys swimming, gardening, baking, reading, writing and knitting scarves for troops.

 

Editor’s Note: This catalog poem—a field guide of sorts—is symbolized by a Hominoidea lineage tree (Dbachmann) and silhouettes of the evolution of man (clipart max) and a snake (kisspng).

 

Tessellation

Bounding a finite space
with an infinite line,
the pattern repeats itself,
regularly, predictably,
endlessly;

the same ratio between divisions,
the same angles
proceed from the macro
to the micro;

the corrugations of a brain,
the shape of synapses
coiling within the skull,
the fragile fractal shape
of nerves swaying
in a serotonin storm
the way that tree limbs
dance in a hurricane.

Each life is tessellated,
curved and arced and planed
to fit snugly beside another
like jigsaw tiles;
each piece a part of the other,
a part of the whole
chaotic system—

none of us can stand
far enough outside
the fractal boundary
to see the patterns to it all,
to see that
we are the tree in the storm,
we are the raw and aching nerve,
we are each other,
pieces in a mosaic,
only whole when we’re together
in this world.

 


— Deborah L. Davitt

 

Deborah L. Davitt was raised in Nevada, but currently lives in Houston, Texas with her husband and son. Her poetry has received Rhysling and Pushcart nominations; her short fiction has earned a finalist showing for the Jim Baen Adventure Fantasy Award (2018) and has appeared in InterGalactic Medicine ShowCompelling Science Fiction, and Galaxy’s Edge. For more about her work, including her Edda-Earth novels, please see www.edda-earth.com.

 

 

Editor’s Notes: Tessellate: from a late 17th century Latin verb tessellare meaning to decorate (a floor) with mosaics. And in mathematics, it’s to cover (a plane surface) by repeated use of a single shape, without gaps or overlapping. The accompanying image is that of Hippocampal neurons (green) and glial cells (red). Scale approximately 90 microns. (Image courtesy of Paul de Koninck, Universite Laval) from Fractals in Nature (https://fractalfoundation.org/OFC/OFC-1-6.html): Our brains are full of fractals and couldn’t function were it not for fractal geometry. The human brain has 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses possible only because of the fractal nature of neurons.

tell me the reason for the theft

tell me the reason for the theft
stolen hours, days, and centuries
bubbling underneath your cauldron

 

what is it in the blood that you desire
that you couldn’t find in your own?

 

what kind of thief is it who lives inside?
tell me how to separate us:
head from body, spirit from flesh

 

so we can burn you into powder and cast you into space

 

— Robin Wyatt Dunn

 

Robin Wyatt Dunn was born in Wyoming in 1979. He is a graduate student in creative writing at the University of New Brunswick, Canada. You can read more of his work at robindunn.com.

 

Editor’s Notes: The abstract artwork, “Blood And Tears” by Anyzamarah.deviantart.com (Patricia Maschke is a German fractal artist), has texture that goes with the poem.

The Ghosts of Culloden: 1746

Can you hear them, can you see them
Marching proudly across the moor,
Hear the wind blow thru the drifting snow,
Tell me can you see them, the ghosts of Culloden.
—Lines from “The Ghosts of Culloden” by Isla Grant

A savage lot, you say,
wearing kilts their women wove,
the dyes set by their lasses’ piss.
Look close to see the weave
their tartans fine as any noble’s vest.

Can you see them rising up again
with their claymores dipped in red,
but when the smoke of battle clears
they fade into the mist.

And all to unify the clans,
return the Stuart line
to England’s throne.
Such a waste of lives—
their Bonnie Prince Charles
was a fucking arse.

Climb to the Highlands
to find the standing stones,
make passage back in time,
then feel the thunderous entry
of their passing souls—
and you can worship down.

There is a bloodied page
in this history tome I hold.
I am a daughter
among the many daughters.
We’d have fought too,
if such were allowed.

We carry the weight
of suppressed rain,
the loss of lands,
the seasons of death
etched in the planes
of our faces.

You may on this page
scribe your many lies,
but no pen can change
nor words rearrange
what happened at Culloden.

 

— Marge Simon

Marge Simon lives in Ocala, FL. She edits a column for the Horror Writers Association Newsletter, “Blood & Spades: Poets of the Dark Side,” and serves on Board of Trustees. She is the second woman to be acknowledged by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association with a Grand Master Award. She has won the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Poetry.

Editor’s Notes:  “The Battle of Culloden (Scottish Gaelic: Blàr Chùil Lodair) (16 April 1746) was the final clash between the French-supported Jacobites and the Hanoverian British Government in the 1745 Jacobite Rising. Culloden dealt the Jacobite cause—to restore the House of Stuart to the throne of the Kingdom of Great Britain—a decisive defeat.” Read more here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btJzi8_GrUE and listen to Isla Grant sing The Ghosts of Culloden. More information can be found here: https://clan.com/blog/folklore-thursday-the-ghosts-of-culloden-battlefield and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Culloden#/

 

 

The image is a Woodcut painting by David Morier of the Battle of Culloden first published just six months after the battle in October 1746.

The Closing of St. Aloysius Hospital

One by one the doctors let their leases
expire at this cathedral of the hurt.
Hallways spider like mazes. Addition
after addition. Sisters of Mercy
begging to the blessed, Please we need more room.
Who’d resist them? Their pure, white uniforms,
their rosary prayers said over victims
of The Great Flu Epidemic. Warm cloths
laid on children’s legs, on soldiers blinded
by numeral’d wars. Sirens were silenced.

 

I stand beside the Patron Saint of Children

 

behind a chained door never locked before.
We’re obsolete, Aloysius and I.
George Thomas, the first baby born here, died
of old age a decade ago. My heels
echo down the polished hall, and I whirl
to groans and cries: chorus of agony,
a choir of praise. Thousands left this launch
headed for worlds far away. I am left
to empty rooms, hear the last rites of ghosts.
My bones now lie in corners, specks of dust.

 

— Ann Thornfield-Long

 

Ann Thornfield-Long, a co-author of Tennessee Women of Vision and Courage (edited by Crawford and Smiley, 2013), has poetry appearing in Artemis Journal, Riddled with Arrows, Silver BladeAbyss & Apex, The Tennessee Magazine, Wordgathering, Liquid Imagination and other publications. She won the Patricia Boatner Fiction Award (Tennessee Mountain Writers, 2017) for her novel excerpt “The Crying Room” and was a finalist for her fiction in the 2017 Chattanooga Writers’ Guild Spring Contest. She was nominated for the Pushcart, Best of the Net and Rhysling awards, and awarded a 2017 Weymouth residency. She edited and published a weekly newspaper for six years. She’s a retired nurse and medical first responder.

 

Editor’s Notes: Though not immediately apparent, the two 10-line verses are structured with decasyllabic lines, while the one-line central verse has 11 syllables, and is pivotal in the poem. An image of Creedmoor State Hospital’s Building 25 (founded in 1912) is overlaid with a rusted chain (Jooin) and a woman ghost (pngimg). The great influenza pandemic in 1918 killed over 50 million: https://www.cdc.gov/features/1918-flu-pandemic/index.html

The One Who Was Lost

They found him on the riverbank,
full of holes, full of dark spaces.
They found him on a Sunday morning,
rolling in the arms of Jesus,
a husk being absorbed back into earth,
a shell the soul discarded.

 

Angels hovered in the morning light.
They bathed his unquenchable wounds.
They ran their fingers through his hair.
They pressed the good light upon him–
the one who walked away from life,
who joined in the sleep of the once living.
Who shut his eyes and saw everything.

 

— Bruce McRae

 

Bruce McRae, a Canadian musician currently residing on Salt Spring Island BC, is a multiple Pushcart nominee with well over a thousand poems published internationally in magazines such as Poetry, Rattle and the North American Review. His books are The So-Called Sonnets (Silenced Press), An Unbecoming Fit Of Frenzy (Cawing Crow Press) and Like As If (Pskis Porch), and Hearsay (The Poet’s Haven).

 

 

Editor’s Notes: The image is from the Spiritual Inspiration blog (spiritual-awakening.net). The poem is arguably a highly subverted sonnet.

Lambswool Tea

 

Yes miss please and thank ye. Lovely plate if I do say so myself, the missus would die if she saw me dirtying this with my greasy fingers, she’d give me a fair rump of it, but if you say all’s fine, then who am I to say naught against it?

 

The biscuits are lovely, mum, baked them yourself, now did ye, ah well, that’s too much kindness for the likes of me, my wife takes good care of me, despite the grousing, so I’d not want you to think I’m wanting anything as far as that goes.

 

The tea? Well, mum, I must say I’ve had nary a taste of something what made my mouth go quite as edgewise as this, I mean to say I love the taste, but my lips want to give a quiver once it’s past, if you pardon my meaning. It’s very good. I think I might need a quaff more, though, to judge its true quality.

 

Begging your pardon if I don’t hold the teacup rightly, I’m a rough man, mum, with flat fingers, comes from shearing the sheep, not fit for finer things, my pardon, pray forgive me, the missus says I’m not fit for proper conversation, but we seem to be getting on all right, what with my roughness and all.

 

Haven’t seen the Mister around lately, mum, and that worries me, what with the loss of that lamb last week, and the howls of the wolves lately. Bad business for the sheep, mum, even with me carrying my rifle into the hills every night. My missus hardly sees me at all these days. Not that she complains, mum, not that she complains.

 

A bit more tea, if I’m not being forward. Thankee, mum, but seems there’s something missing in the taste, not that I’m blaming you, mum, you know your tea, you and your people, but there’s something not right here, let’s try this, again begging your pardon, but the missus makes a fine tea herself, I carry some with me for the times when I’m tending the sheep and the Mister forgets I’m there. It happens, mum, but I’ll never say a word against him, he’s a very busy man.

 

Just a touch, missus, there you go, sip slowly, ah!  No, don’t take a sip of your own brew, just let this play about your mouth, let it linger. We call it lambswool tea, the missus and me, just a laugh for us when we look at the fields and flocks and remember that they once belonged to us and now we can’t even afford enough fleece for a sweater.

 

Lambswool tea. Big laugh, mum. We can’t afford tea, and we can’t keep the wool. So we make the tea out of whatever’s handy. And free, mum, and free. Oh, but nothing’s free now, is it, no, its all part and parcel, all bought and sold, all bartered or battered or stolen.

 

Your mister loved lambswool tea, mum. He told me so himself, right after his first taste of it. Did I mention the missing lamb, and the wolves?  Sure I done so, mum, you must remember. Only they weren’t so much wolves as big dogs, I’d guess. Hungry dogs what would never touch a lamb. We trained them that way, have done for centuries, mum.

 

How’s the tea, love? Bit too much of the Irish in it, is there?  Oh, you look all tuckered of a sudden, mum. Begging your pardon, though, but before you go to napping, tell me—can you hear the dogs howling? They sound right near to me. Very, very near.

 

— Mikal Trimm

 

Mikal Trimm has sold over 50 short stories and 100 poems to numerous venues including Postscripts, Strange Horizons, Realms of Fantasy, and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

Editor’s Notes: The symbolic collage of teapot and wolf seems to fit the flash-poem, a delightfully horrific tale.

Zero Plus One

by Daniel Horowitz Garcia

Now

Peliru avoided the road and walked through the forest. The forest was faster and had less people. They were complicated, people. They said something but did the opposite. Humans especially. Humans were an unsolvable riddle. At least Sungura had a tradition, one Peliru understood. Humans changed with the winds. They hated him until he healed them. Then they gave him shiny coins instead of information. He needed to know about the slavers, but all the humans said was avoid the forest. It took days before he realized that’s where the slavers traveled. All he needed was a straight answer.

Before he heard the camp he smelled the smoke. Loosening the sword at his side, he approached then paused when he heard a roar. He then heard laughter. Minotaur roars and human laughter didn’t mix. He blended into the shadows of the late afternoon and moved closer.

Hiding behind a tent Peliru saw the entirety of the camp. A dozen humans surrounded a naked minotaur tied to a post. The beastman roared again and the humans laughed. They drank from bottles and jugs while piling wood around the minotaur. Peliru felt good. These were slavers, and that meant he was on the right track. Time for answers.

Peliru closed his eyes a moment. Although he was a skilled fighter, twelve was a lot. One lucky hit and he’d never find his answers. His spells cast, Peliru stepped into the camp. He kept a hand on his sword but left it sheathed. No reason not to start friendly.

“Hello slaver humans,” he shouted. “I have some questions. Answer them and I promise you a quick death.”

This should have gotten their attention, but it didn’t. The humans kept laughing and drinking. Finally, two men, human gender was so confusing Peliru couldn’t be sure, on the opposite side of the fire saw him and shouted. Peliru waited until all looked his way.

“Yes. Good. As I said, I have some questions. I promise you a quick death if you answer truthfully.”

“Well this one’s got a pair on him doesn’t he?” said a small human close to Peliru. “Didn’t think the rabbit men grew ‘em that big.”

Peliru’s ear twitched. Talking was difficult, but he needed answers. “I don’t know what two things you’re talking about, but that doesn’t matter. Tell me where you take the captives. Be as precise as you can. I also need to know how many slavers will be there and how well armed they will be. If you know any secret ways in, that will also be useful.”

The minotaur roared again, but none of the humans laughed. Peliru took his eyes off the small human just long enough to look at the minotaur. Based on experience, he didn’t think he had much time.

The small human dropped his bottle and faced Peliru. “Maybe I can draw you a map. Would that be better?”

Peliru thought on this. “As long as it doesn’t take too much time. I cannot grant pardon to a slaver, but I guarantee your death will be quick if you do.”

None of the humans looked like they were going to draw a map. None had paper or charcoal. In fact, most were holding their weapons. Peliru sighed. “Fine,” he said. “I will kill the others first. Then you can draw me a map.”

Vines burst from the ground at every slaver’s feet. The vegetation wrapped itself around their legs, their torso and arms, and finally their throat. Every slaver, except for the small one, was pulled to the ground, choking. Vines immobilized the small human but did not choke him. Peliru walked up to him and removed his weapons. “I will find paper and charcoal,” he told the human, “then you will draw me that map. You will have a quick death, unlike the others.”

The minotaur roared again. This time his hands came out as the beastman broke the bindings. Peliru had underestimated the power of this one’s blood rage. “Correction. I will take care of the creature first,” he said. “Then we will work on the map.” As the Sungura turned to the minotaur he noticed something odd.

The minotaur had four breasts.

Things were getting complicated.

Then

A rich Sungura family is still poor by human standards. Sungura lands are not mineral rich so metal is gained through trade. Swords are not easily obtained, but that isn’t why they are so valued. A sword represents a tradition of protection and responsibility going back generations up to and including the liberation of the people from slavery under the minotaurs. The Gambitfoot sword, a finely crafted longsword built solely for function and aesthetically pleasing because of it, represented a large portion of the family’s wealth. Yet, to the Sungura, the responsibility it symbolized is much more valued.

Peliru never touched the blade, not even on accident. His father wore the sword everywhere. It sat next to his bed at night. It hung by his side while he ate. It was within reach while he bathed. At least, it had been. One day Peliru came home and saw his father without the sword. Peliru asked no questions, it could be in only one place. It was buried, laid with one of his ancestors. The spirit would cleanse the blade and make it ready for the next generation. This day was inevitable, and it was inconceivable. Peliru wasn’t ready. His father, standing without a sword, had acknowledged his mortality and passed his responsibilities to a new generation. The elder Sungura was not dead, but he was less alive than he had been. It was too much to take in, so Peliru left the house and wandered.

The reality could not be denied, but it could be ignored. For a little while. A day later his father came to him.

“We have never solved a difficulty by ignoring it,” his father said. His voice patient and kind, making the moment even harder. “Come with me.” His father took a cloak and staff and walked out the door.

Peliru thought of going back to his room. Instead he grabbed his cloak and followed his father. They walked in silence to the burial ground, Peliru’s anxiety climbing with each step. He took glimpses at his father’s face hoping to gain insight but knowing he couldn’t. Every face was unreadable to Peliru. Laughing, crying, anguish, or ecstasy didn’t matter. He couldn’t tell what people felt, and he couldn’t fathom what they thought.

They stopped in front of the gate. Many Sungura burned their dead to insure the soul’s freedom. The Gambitfoots, guardians of the Burrow for generations, buried theirs as an act of defiance. Even in death they stood guard. Peliru and his father looked on lineage of warriors, shamans, and Wardens. Protectors all. Peliru’s father spoke, “It’s in here. Find it but don’t touch it.”

Peliru walked into the cemetery and immediately felt pulled to his left. He followed the urge without thinking, he let his feet go where they will. The living were incomprehensible but not the ancestors. They spoke directly, without subtext or obfuscation. He knew how to communicate with his ancestors, and he knew they loved him and wanted him to succeed. He walked to the grave of one of his great, great aunts. He stood there, looked down, and whispered thanks.

“Now, claim the sword,” his father said. He stood opposite Peliru by the grave. Peliru didn’t look up. He stared at the grave and focused on his breath. Eventually he knelt and reached out a hand.

Digging in the dirt, Peliru pushed until his elbow disappeared in the soil. Then he felt the hilt, grabbed, and pulled. The sword came free with ease. It shown as if newly polished, clean of all dirt. He marveled at the blade. Then he felt, truly felt, the sword. He knew this was his. His father’s sword had been buried. This weapon was his.

“You will need to attune to it,” Peliru’s father said. “It will take some time before you can use its full power, but there is no rush. Or is there?”

Peliru stared at his father and struggled to understand the question. He failed. “I’m leaving for the border at the next moon. You know this.”

His father’s shoulders sagged. “You can do so much good here. For the family, for the Burrow.”

“I will have to marry.”

“Of course. We can still arrange something with the caravaners. The union would be a good one. It would help us all prosper.”

“I don’t…I cannot do that father. I will keep the family vow and protect the Burrow but not that way.” Peliru continued looking at his father who continued looking at the grave.

“Tell me this isn’t about love.” His father didn’t ask a question. “We do not choose our marriages based on love. We choose based on what is good for the Burrow.”

Peliru thought on the subject. “In part I think it is.”

“You think so? How can you not know? It is love or it isn’t.”

“How long have I been your son? How long before you see me as I am?”

“Don’t play victim with me. Your ‘condition’ doesn’t factor here.”

“Of course it does. It always does because it’s not a condition. It is who I am. You ask me a question, I answer it. I don’t dissemble. I cannot. If you don’t like my answer, don’t ask me questions. Better to have silence between us than mockery.”

His father looked up then. Peliru saw the elder’s face change but didn’t know what it meant. “Mockery? You believe I stand here and mock you?”

“You ask me how I cannot know emotions. How could I? What have you seen in my life that leads you to believe I could? The only thing more confusing than figuring out how I feel is attempting to figure out how others feel.”

Holding Peliru’s gaze, his father remained silent for a time. “Do you understand his feelings?”

“Gavin. His name is Gavin.”

“My question.”

“No. I ask him all the time.”

“Then why is he so special you refuse to marry? Why choose to wander alone in the woods away from your family?”

“I don’t refuse to marry because of Gavin.”

“Then why?”

“Gavin is special. I ask him how he feels, and he tells me. No matter how often. He tells me the truth, always the truth. No one does that. I don’t have to struggle so much around him because I can just ask. I can relax. I will not marry, I’ll be a Warden, because I can’t live with that constant struggle. I’d rather be alone.”

Peliru’s father continued looking at him. His face moved, but it meant nothing to Peliru. He saw a tear slowly make its way down his father’s face. “I will miss you,” he said. “You will make your ancestors proud. You already have.”

The elder Sungura walked away. Peliru stayed at the site, waiting for his father to make his way back. Peliru would walk alone.

Now

Peliru cleaned and sharpened his sword to calm himself. The weapon could not be stained, the ancestor’s bound to it wouldn’t allow it to dirty or dull. Yet, he sat on a stump and meticulously wiped the blade with an oiled rag, but he was still furious.

The map was useless. The slaver either lied about his knowledge or was particularly stupid for his species. Peliru had promised the man a quick death and had given him one, but instead of answers he had corpses.

And then there was the minotaur. She lay sleeping and wrapped in vines. Intellectually he knew females existed, he just never thought he would see one. It also surprised him that the women were capable of the blood rage. More than capable, she was strong enough to break the slavers’ bindings and even resist his sleep spell, for a time. He didn’t want to kill her, at least not until she answered some questions. He continued cleaning a clean sword.

She woke up more than an hour later. Peliru still sat on the stump cleaning the weapon. He stopped when he noticed her wake.

“I have questions,” he said.

“And I have a headache,” she responded. Her voice sounded as deep as any minotaur, not that he was a great judge. This was the longest conversation he had ever had with one of the beastmen.

“You speak Common. Good. It will make this easier.”

“Untie me, rabbit. I need water and food,” she said. Her voice rose as she came to wakefulness. “Get me my pack while you’re at it.”

Peliru sat on the stump. “Yelling will be bad for your headache. Why are you here? With the slavers?”

“Why do you think? Because the forest is lovely in spring and slaver tours are so affordable.”

“I do not believe you were on vacation. Tell me the truth.”

She turned her head and stared at Peliru. He held her gaze and saw nothing that made sense to him. “You are serious,” she said. Her mouth opened and then shut once before she found her voice again. “Don’t the rabbit people have sarcasm?”

Peliru nodded. “We are no more rabbits than you are cows. And yes, we have sarcasm. I don’t know why though.” He broke his stare and looked into the forest. If only a face were as easy to read as a path.

The minotaur sighed. “I am Liriope. I have been a captive of the slavers for some days. You have freed me.”

“Why were you traveling alone? I thought minotaur females were not allowed in public.”

“We are not. I left my home a few months ago and been traveling east.” She looked at Peliru until he met her eyes. “What will you do now?”

“I have questions, about the slavers.”

“Yes, I will answer them as best I can. I mean what will you do after that.”

Peliru stared at Liriope. She said nothing, and when he didn’t respond she nodded. “So be it. I will not die on my back. I will sit up. And put a sword in my hand.”

“You expect a duel?”

“No, I will not fight you. You have freed me, and I owe you a life debt. I will not harm you, but I will die with a weapon in my hand as a true warrior.”

“I thought minotaur women were not allowed to be warriors.”

“I decide what I am,” she said. Then, in a softer voice, she added, “A warrior’s battles are fought on many fields.”

Peliru leaned back on the stump and thought about what she said. “I suppose so. Where do the slavers take captives?”

“They have a way station further to the west. Maybe three days hard walking. They drop off captives there and prepare them for the markets.”

“You have been inside?”

“Yes. I was held there myself for a time,” Liriope looked away for the first time. Even Peliru couldn’t miss the gesture.

“You said you would tell me. Tell me.”

The minotaur sighed. “I walked into that encampment by accident. I am not comfortable in the woods and didn’t know what it was. They overpowered me.”

“Was that when you escaped? They were you held captive here?”

Again the minotaur sighed. “These humans caught me when I was sleeping.”

Peliru looked at the minotaur a moment, then he chuckled.

“I will not be mocked,” yelled Liriope. “No one can stand against me in honorable combat.”

“That may be so, but slavers don’t fight honorably.”

Liriope looked at Peliru, stunned. Then she tilted her head back and roared laughter. “Well said rabbit warrior.”

Peliru continued chuckling while the minotaur laughed. Eventually he continued his questions. “How are you a warrior?”

Liriope ceased laughing and stared at the Sungura a moment. “I was visited by a Valkyrie. She said she saw my heart. If I stay true, she will bring me to Valhalla where I can join my sisters.”

“The Valkyrie taught you combat?”

“No. She gave me a message. I’ve spent my life gathering information where I could. From stolen books or from secretly studying men train. I hoped to gain formal training after escaping from the males, but that is not to be so. No matter. I will die a warrior.”

“But not a trained warrior.”

“I only need to show the Valkyries my heart is true, that I have done what I could. My soul will join them. Once I am with my sisters, I will never be alone again.”

Peliru turned away. The idea of never being alone disturbed him, but not as much as the thought of always being alone. “You believe them?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Faith.”

The conversation stopped. Peliru was stalling. There was only one real question left, and it was his to answer. He wasn’t ready.

“What is a life debt? I’ve never heard of it among the minotaurs.”

“It is not from our culture. You saved my life, so it is yours. I will honor that.”

“You’re saying you just made it up.”

Liriope furrowed her brows. “I’m saying I recognize the honorable thing to do.”

Peliru walked to the minotaur, his mind made up. He waved a hand and the vines fell. Liriope sat up and rubbed her arms but otherwise did not move. She was still naked, the brown fur from her head ending at her shoulders. Her torso and waist were human, but her legs ended in hooves and bent backward.

“You should find some clothes first. The slavers may have something you can make fit,” he said.

“I need only a sword. Will you allow me to be on my feet? That is the best way to die.”

“You can get on your feet. Then you should find clothes as well as a sword, some water, food, and other supplies. We have some days of hard travel ahead.”

Liriope tilted her head. “I don’t understand.”

“You said your life belongs to me. I accept it. You will travel with me to the encampment so I can kill the slavers.”

Liriope stood but didn’t move. “There is no love between our kind. Minotaurs kept your people for food, still do in many places. Why let me live? You take a great risk.”

“Why would you stand there and not fight me?”

“That is about honor.”

“Then so is this.” Peliru stood and watched Liriope look at him. She was right. This was stupid. He had no way of knowing what she would do, but he knew he couldn’t kill a slave in cold blood.

Liriope looked at Peliru, but he didn’t understand what he saw. She stared at him and then looked at the sky. Walking away she said over her shoulder, “I will need an hour. Maybe two.”

Peliru watched her sort through the slavers’ weapons for a while. Finally, he started looking for food. He hoped they had honey cakes but doubted it.

Then

Peliru couldn’t stop staring. Even he knew it was rude, but he couldn’t stop. He would force himself to focus on something else, anything else. He tried admiring the jugglers. He looked at clothes. But his gaze always turned back to the bowyer. Peliru studied his face, then realized he was staring again. The cycle repeated.

It was too much. He turned away and decided to walk in the woods for a while. His father’s meeting with the merchants could last for days. Even if everything concluded immediately, they would still stay the night. This village was larger than home and far away. The market square was bigger than any Peliru had seen before, with people moving back and forth in a giant, stressful horde. Perhaps that stress was why he needed to focus on something, or someone. Like the bowyer, who bent carefully over his work. It was fascinating. The way the scar over his left eye scrunched up when he concentrated on a difficult section. Looking at the bowyer helped Peliru block out the crowd. But it was rude. So he looked away. He needed to get to the woods, but he didn’t move.

The tap on Peliru’s shoulder scared him witless. Sungura generally aren’t surprised by anything. The least observant can usually see and/or hear whatever can be seen or heard. Peliru was more observant than most. As long as it didn’t have to do with how other people felt, he noticed details. But the tap came as a complete surprise. He gave a little jump and turned around. It was the bowyer.

Peliru stared at the Sungura and did nothing.

“Name’s Gavin,” said the bowyer. His voice was rough, hoarse even. The words were clear but Gavin sounded like he’d been talking all day. Yet Peliru hadn’t seen him talk to anyone all morning. “It’s time for midday meal. I’m going to go eat a bowl or two of soup. I’d rather you share some with me than stare.”

Peliru stared. Gavin’s fur was gray, unusual but not unknown. The bowyer’s leather vest was worn but serviceable, and so were the pants. Peliru still said nothing. Gavin snapped his fingers in front of Peliru’s nose.

“I see I may have lead with too much,” said the bowyer. “I’ll start slow. What is your name?”

“Peliru. Peliru Gambitfoot.”

Gavin nodded. “Good. This is working. Will you share midday meal with me Peliru Gambitfoot?” Peliru nodded. “That’s also good. Follow me.”

Gavin started walking through the market, past his now closed stall. As they walked Gavin spoke, “How long has your family had a name?”

“I’m the sixth generation.”

Gavin nodded. “That’s impressive.”

“We’re mostly Wardens. My ancestors fought the minotaurs.”

“You a Warden?”

“No, not yet. I mean, I don’t know. I make the decision this season, but I don’t know.”

“What’s not to know?” Gavin maintained his stride and didn’t turn as he talked. Peliru found it easier to talk if he matched the pace and looked straight ahead.

“I like the forest. I’m good on patrols, have some ability with mana. It’s also good to have a clear purpose. Wardens help those in need and kill whatever threatens our home. It’s simple.”

“Sounds like you do know then.”

“Yeah, but it’s so…I don’t know. Being a Warden is for life. It’s living in the forest for life. That’s a big decision.”

Gavin stay silent as they made their way to the end of the market. They got to a small building that smelled wonderful. Gavin stopped and turned to Peliru. “Is it the idea of doing it for the rest of your life that bothers you? Or something else?”

Peliru couldn’t look Gavin in the eye and he couldn’t look away. “What do you mean?”

“That answer makes me think it’s something else then.”

“It’s just…Wardens live alone. They’re alone all the time.”

“You don’t like to be alone?”

“That’s just it. I do like it. If I become a Warden, I don’t think I would do anything other than be alone. I want to do something I like, something I’m good at, but I don’t want to be trapped.”

Gavin nodded and stared. Peliru didn’t know what it meant. He hadn’t intended to say so much to someone he just met. It seemed strange to be so open, but it felt stranger to hold back.

“You need a honey cake. Maybe a few.”

“What?”

“Honey cake. It’s a specialty of Gurmier, the baker. This is the only place that makes them. They’re delicious and will help you think.”

“How can a pastry help me think?”

“Damned if I know, I just know it’s good. I also need bread. You got the family name so you’re buying. I’ve got the soup.” Then Gavin walked into the shop. Peliru stood in front of the door trying to process everything. A second later Gavin came out.

“You’ll need to come inside to pay.”

Peliru went inside. He bought bread and a dozen honey cakes. Afterward they walked back to Gavin’s home, a small house with a garden in the front and workshop on the side. The soup was simple but flavorful. They ate and talked about everything and nothing. Peliru tried the honey cakes.

They were delicious.

Now

Liriope was ready within an hour, but Peliru told her to take a little longer. Yes, they were in a hurry, but it meant they needed to spend their time wisely. There would be no stopping. The duo planned to walk until they found people they would kill.

While Liriope scrounged for better equipment, especially a shield, Peliru looked for honey cakes. Gavin had been wrong. Every village in or near the forest made them, even the humans. None tasted as good as those from Gurmier, but a bad honey cake was still lovely. Of course, he didn’t find any. The idea of raiding slavers maintaining a secret stash of pastries did seem odd, but one could hope. He did find what he needed to finish the job himself. Within two finger spans of the sun he had the ingredients together. Laying them out on a semi-clean cloth, he concentrated on them and spoke a few words in the casting language. In moments he had a batch of honey cakes, and he couldn’t resist eating just one. He had meant to save them all, but it would be bad form if the spell hadn’t worked properly and he arrived with something awful. They were thoroughly average, but, proving his theory, the mediocre pastry was still delicious.

Peliru wrapped the cakes and put them in his pack before looking for Liriope. The minotaur had scrounged a good sword and shield. She had even pieced together sufficient armor. Peliru found her packing bits and pieces of supplies into a scavenged pack. He noticed blood on her mouth and arms. “Are you injured?” he asked.

“Of course not. Why do you ask?”

“The blood.”

Liriope wiped her mouth and looked at her hand. Seeing the blood, she licked it off before replying. “Sorry. Always was a messy eater.”

“Do I want to know what you’re talking about?”

“Relax. Unless you’re acquainted with these slavers, this is no one you know. You rabbit folk can live on grass and twigs, but a minotaur needs meat.”

Peliru said nothing, only turning around and pretending to study the path ahead. He knew about the minotaur diet. They didn’t need just meat but also the brains of sentients or they turned into feral beasts. He knew this like all Sungura knew the habits of their enemies, but he had never seen a minotaur eat before. The idea of eating meat disgusted him, but the idea of eating a corpse was too much. Peliru focused on his breath to calm his stomach. Liriope sat behind him, loudly smacking her lips and chuckling to herself.

“It’s time to go,” he said. He hadn’t turned from the forest. “I hope you can run on a full belly.”

“Don’t worry,” she said as she stood and shouldered her pack. “It was only a light snack. I’m hoping to find someone truly tasty at the encampment.” The minotaur jogged into the forest, chuckling under her breath. Peliru followed, thankful that running took his mind off food. Even an underwhelming honey cake deserved to be kept down.

They found the slavers in less than two days but waited until nightfall to scout. Despite her size Liriope scarcely made a sound and the pair got close enough to easily map the camp, count their foes, as well as determine where the captives were being held. It helped that the slavers were profoundly sloppy. Guards were more interested in dice than looking out for trouble. Within two hands of sunset most of the slavers drank themselves unconscious. Peliru and Liriope retreated to plan their assault.

“I don’t see how this can be difficult,” said Peliru once they were back to their own bivouac. “I should be able to get in, free the slaves, and fight out. The most dangerous part will be the moment the pens are open but before all the captives are armed. I’ll save my mana to summon some support.”

“What will you need me to do then?” asked Liriope as she sat across from him.

“Your part is done,” said Peliru. “Thank you for the help. The blood debt is paid.”

“It’s amusing you think yourself competent to judge a blood debt.” She then tilted her head. “But you don’t make jokes, do you? You were speaking out of a sense of honor?”

“I am. There’s no need to risk yourself. You can go.”

“I see. The odds are overwhelming and so you wish to show mercy. Noble, but unnecessary.”

Peliru grew frustrated. “I mean I can do this myself.”

“Oh, I know. You and I together greatly outnumber these fools. By sending me away you hope to reduce the number of dead slavers, yes? As I said, you are being noble but unrealistic. I not only have a blood debt to you, I must avenge the slight on my honor. The slavers must die. That means an unfair fight, but that is their fault.” Liriope could no longer maintain a straight face and began quietly laughing to herself.

Peliru stared at her, their faces less than two feet apart. “You are joking with me?”

Still chuckling, Liriope replied. “You are learning Sungura. Although I am serious when I say I will kill them all. Come. We have to create a real plan now.”

Then

He sensed the call but didn’t understand it. Peliru knelt by a tree, slowing his breathing slowed and expanding his awareness of the forest. But the call came from the sword not the physical world. He understood the message from his father, “You must come. There has been an attack.”

Through the message he knew the location of the skirmish. He knew it was over. He also knew his father was hurt.

Peliru put his hand on the tree and asked it for help. The complex spell took time to cast but was well worth the extra effort. He disappeared into the tree, then its roots, and then passed through the hidden network of nutrients and water connecting all plant life in the forest. In half a day he traveled farther than a week’s worth of walking and exited out of a different tree near the site of the attack. He took a moment to thank the forest and gain his bearings before heading out.

Blood, sacks, and other items covered the path of the trade caravan. Bodies, human bodies, lay scattered as well. Peliru noticed hoof prints crossing over the path and disappearing into the woods. Cautiously, with his hand on his sword, he moved forward looking for danger or survivors. He found a group of injured Sungura gathered around a fire. His father walked from one individual to another speaking words of encouragement and looking at wounds. Every person eased back on their bedroll after the attention.

“Father, I heard your call although I don’t know how,” he said. “Does anyone need attention?”

Peliru’s father looked up. He embraced his son who, as usual, awkwardly reciprocated. “The sword bonds you to your ancestors, all of them, in physical ways,” said the elder. “Anyone who has wielded it can contact you if the need is great.” His father took a step back.

“Thank you father. What of the injured?”

“I may not be a Warden, but I can heal. Those here will recover.”

“What do you mean ‘those here’? What has happened?”

“Raiders. Human slavers. None of them looked well nourished, and they didn’t fight well. But what they lacked in quality they made up for in numbers. We were able to fight them off. Mostly.”

“Tell me everything. How many? Which direction did they come from, and which way did they run?”

“It was a sudden raid with most of the attackers on horseback. They probably thought to quickly overwhelm us then go through the spoils at their leisure. They weren’t able to take much, but they got a few people.”

“They have captives? How many?”

“A dozen or so were taken. They headed south, likely to the river and on to human lands.” His father shifted his feet and took a deep breath.

“There is something else. Gavin was here. He was on his way to deliver some bows. He fought like a demon, Peliru, saving many lives. But one of the slavers hit him from behind, pulled him onto a horse, and took him.”

Peliru felt cold, then hot, and then cold again. “Was he alive?” he whispered.

“They wouldn’t take him unless he was alive. They are slavers. He and the others won’t be treated well, but they won’t be killed as long as there’s profit to be made.”

Peliru looked south as if by will alone he could see Gavin across the distance. He turned back to his father. “Why are you here? This isn’t a normal business area.”

His father nodded his head. “No it’s not, but I’m hoping it will be.” The elder Sungura sighed heavily and then clutched his side, wincing in pain. Peliru rushed to offer assistance but his father waved him off. “It’s nothing,” he said. “One of the humans got in a lucky hit, but I healed it. This is a cramp. It happens when you get old.”

The merchant, patriarch of his family, turned toward a different wound. Still holding his side, he spoke in a whisper so soft Peliru had to strain to hear. “Other things happen when you get old. Things like worry. Not worry for yourself but for those around you. You worry about the safety of the people you love. Worry if they’re making the right choices. Worry they’ll make the same mistakes you did.”

His father turned to Peliru. “Sometimes this worry takes over. You can’t listen or trust when the worry takes over because you’re afraid. I didn’t want you to be a Warden because I was afraid you’d be alone. I was afraid the family would be alone. That I would be alone. But the day you took the sword showed me I was wrong. Being a Warden means you’re away, but you’re never alone. We are family and always will be.”

Peliru’s father took a step closer and put his hand on Peliru’s shoulder. “I came to see Gavin. He was going on a delivery so I came with him, to set up some trade but really to see him. You are a good son. If you love him, he must be special. I have walked with him, fought with him, and you are right. He is special. So are you. Go find him and the rest of our people. Be the Warden our ancestors saw in you.”

Peliru looked at his father. “Thank you.”

“I love you.”

Then Peliru ran south. Despite his forest skills he couldn’t catch up to the mounted slavers. He lost them at the river. It took days but he tracked them to a new forest. He made his way through the woods until he found a camp. It wasn’t the group that attacked his father and took Gavin, but it showed he was on the right track. In that camp he met a minotaur.

Now

Peliru and Liriope made final preparations in the hours before dawn. Their plan relied on surprise and superior fighting skill as well as Liriope’s strength. When they had done all they could Peliru sat on the ground sharpening his sword, worrying.

“How strong are you?” he asked Liriope.

“I have never met anyone stronger than I am.”

“Victory could depend on how many people you’ve met.”

Liriope didn’t answer. She looked down at the camp and planned her route to the gate. The biggest danger was being surrounded and then overwhelmed, but Liriope turned risk into advantage. They planned a series of surprise attacks. She would charge the gate while Peliru slipped inside and freed the captives. Anyone capable of fighting would be armed and then the force would attack the slavers from behind after Liriope drew them outside the encampment. She argued her strength could open the gate so Peliru didn’t need to accompany her. The truth was she wanted to be alone. With no allies nearby she could focus solely on killing. Peliru worried about being swarmed by slavers. Liriope counted on it.

Just before dawn Peliru slipped out to his position and Liriope began a slow count. At the 100 mark she charged the gate, trusting the Sungura was at the fence nearest the captives. She stayed as silent as she could while running in full armor. The duo had wagered the slavers’ lackadaisical attitude regarding camp security would get her at least partway unnoticed. She ran the entire distance unchallenged. She stood by the closed entrance shaking her head. Either the slavers were supremely arrogant or monumentally incompetent. She put her shoulder to the gate and watched in shock as it swung open. Not locked, not barred, not even guarded. This was just too much.

Liriope’s roar was Peliru’s signal. He leapt the fence. Expecting to see a flood of slavers running to the gate, he instead saw a few humans wandering to water barrels and horse troughs where they dunked their heads. Most of two score of slavers, however, were sprawled on the ground still sleeping. Peliru threw himself into the pre-dawn shadows. Eventually he heard a voice rally the humans. The conscious grabbed whatever weapons lay nearby and kicked the unconscious into action.

He made his way to the slave pens. Although he longed to shout for Gavin, he stayed focused on the plan. He would take care of any remaining guards, arm whatever captives could fight, and then come to Liriope’s aid. But there weren’t any guards. All the slavers had run to the gate, meaning Liriope faced much greater odds than originally thought.

Peliru’s sword made quick work of the lock. Soon he had a group of able-bodied captives ready to fight. The slaves, mostly Sungura but with a significant number of humans, grabbed what they could as the troop of about 15 made their way to the gate. Most had poles and sticks serving as makeshift quarterstaffs and clubs. A few had blades. Peliru hoped they wouldn’t have to fight. The slavers were incompetent and hungover, but they were also better fed, rested, and armed.

The fight was almost over by the time the group arrived. Liriope stood just inside the gate. She held a sword and shield, hacking her way through what little opposition remained. The slavers had apparently put up stronger resistance earlier because the minotaur was surrounded by the dead and dying. She roared and then charged parts of the semi-circle around her. At each charge one or two slavers fell. Liriope then leapt back into position, preventing anyone from running through the gate. Alone she surrounded the entire camp.

One of the slavers turned and saw the coming reinforcements. He yelled a warning to the others then threw down his weapon and raised his hands. His brethren took in the situation and soon all the slavers surrendered. It was less than a finger span after dawn.

Peliru cast a quick spell the new prisoners. He walked to Liriope cautiously. The blood rage blinded minotaurs to allies, and if she were still under its influence the troop may yet face a fight. With the battle over so quickly it was possible Liriope hadn’t had time to quiet her battle lust.

“How are you?” asked Peliru. “Liriope, can you hear me?”

“Of course I can hear you,” she shouted. Peliru stopped and put a hand to his sword. “I am greatly disappointed. Cooks preparing a midday snack have faced greater threats. These are no warriors. These are vermin.”

“Do you see me, Liriope? I am your ally. Peliru.”

She turned her gaze to the Sungura. “Do you think I used my blood rage? With this filth? I’m just angry. I had hoped to prove myself in honorable combat. Instead I faced idiots.” She snorted her disgust.

“Oh, I see. Sorry for that, I guess. Maybe next time.” Turning back to the troop, Peliru noticed the former slaves had not relaxed. The Sungura especially were picking up fallen weapons and facing the minotaur.

“Don’t turn your back on it,” yelled a brown-furred woman in the front. “Are there more Warden? We should close the gate.”

Peliru didn’t understand. More what? The battle was over. Why all the tension?

“She means me,” said Liriope. “She sees me as a threat, and I can understand that. She shows honor though. Ready to meet it head on. Good to see that.”

Peliru nodded his understanding. He sympathized with the group’s reaction since it had been his own, but his patience wore thin. He wanted to finally find Gavin. “Yes,” he said, “about that. This is Liriope. She and I are….” He paused while searching for the right word. He could only think of the one he already used. “We are allies. She helped me free you all.”

“I ‘helped’?” Liriope said from behind him, and not quietly. She snorted again. “Minotaur or rabbit, a male is a male.”

Peliru ignored her and continued. The crowd still held their weapons, and he was out of patience. “You recognize me as a Warden? Would a Warden put you in danger? No, you don’t understand, but your understanding isn’t necessary. There are injured to care for, supplies to gather, and prisoners to deal with. Go. Now.”

They relaxed, but the troop didn’t break up. He had raised doubts about the minotaur threat, but they weren’t convinced.

“You know me,” said a human woman. She walked to the front of the group. “We have been in the pens together. You all know my abilities. The minotaur is no threat. I would know, just as your Warden knows. He is right. There is much to do. Let’s do it.”

That was enough. The humans walked off to take care of tasks. The Sungura joined them, but not one turned their back on Liriope. If she noticed, she didn’t say anything.

The human walked to Peliru. She stood in front of him and spoke. “I thought you were coming at night,” she said.

“Pardon?” Peliru asked.

“I must have read my vision wrong,” the human said. “I thought you were coming at night.”

“We scouted last night,” answered Liriope. She stood in the same spot wiping down her sword.

“That explains it then,” said the human. “Visions are hard to understand, especially those of the future. No matter. I am Vladina, and I understand you are looking for someone.”

“Gavin,” said Peliru, so relieved and anxious to start his search he never thought to ask how Vladina knew. “He has gray fur and a scar over one eye. Do you know where he is?”

“I know he was in the pens, at least until a few days ago. He was hurt, and I healed him. He kept fighting the guards. I don’t know where he is now. I will help you search after I’ve tended to the injured. I will ask about Gavin.”

Peliru nodded his thanks. He barely acknowledged Liriope closing the gate and moving outside as he ran off. He searched the camp twice. He asked every captive, but they all said they hadn’t seen Gavin in days. He questioned the slavers, beating more than one more severely than intended, but they were useless. Finally, after hours of searching, he decided to turn to his ancestors.

He found a quiet spot in the camp away from the others and took out his sword. Closing his eyes, Peliru meditated. First he focused on his breath until his conscious mind filled with nothing else. Then, when he had full awareness of his surroundings, he asked his ancestors to take him to Gavin. Just like that day in the cemetery, Peliru let himself be pulled. He walked to the gate, pausing only to open it. Liriope asked him a question, but he shook his head and walked on. He walked away from camp about 100 yards off the main path. There the sword pulled him to a large patch of dirt. The sword plunged into the earth.

Peliru realized what this meant. He screamed and began digging. He didn’t notice Liriope digging with him. He just screamed. He yelled Gavin’s name over and over even though a part of him knew it was fruitless. He found Gavin buried with five others.

Then

The walk to Gavin’s village always seemed long. Peliru never could make the journey fast enough, but this trip seemed especially long. He thought about what he would say. He practiced his speech and then realized it sounded silly. He started again. When he finally arrived at the cabin he still didn’t know what to say. And he realized he forgot the honey cakes.

Gavin, as usual, opened the door before Peliru had a chance to announce himself. Peliru smiled and Gavin smiled back before saying, “You forgot the honey cakes again.”

Peliru said nothing. He broke eye contact and looked down. Gavin sighed a reply. “It’s a good thing you’re cute.”

They went inside. Gavin got the tea ready while Peliru put his stuff down. They sat at the table.

“I have something to tell you,” Peliru began. Then he stopped. He stared at his tea and said nothing.

“Take your time,” said Gavin.

Peliru still looked down. He fought to hold back tears and failed. Gavin knew how to give him space. He knew what he needed, and he enjoyed, honestly loved, providing it. In that moment Peliru understood what he was giving up.

“It’s OK, Peli,” said Gavin as he grabbed his hand. “Whatever it is will be OK.”

“This is a tough one, Gav.” Peliru wiped his eyes and looked at Gavin. Still holding hands Peliru took a deep breath and began

“My family won’t sanction the marriage. We performed the rites, and the ancestors said this bond wouldn’t help protect the Burrow. It’s been interpreted as breaking the family vow.”

“Who interpreted it?”

“My father. And the shaman.”

Gavin looked at his tea. “Is it because I’m a craftsman?”

“Maybe. Probably not though.” Peliru took another deep breath as the tears came again. “I’m sorry. It’s our vow. I can’t…I can’t forsake…I can’t….”

“Of course you can’t,” said Gavin. His head whipped up, and his eyes grew hard. “You don’t just leave family or walk away from an oath. That’s a type of suicide. You don’t give up on those bonds, Peli. Especially not you.”

“But then I’ll have to give up on this. On you.”

“No, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Ancestors said marriage to me breaks the vow. Did they say anything else? You need to marry someone else?”

“No. My father wants me to marry into another merchant family. But that’s his idea, not the ancestors.”

Gavin sat up a little straighter. “Is it that caravaner’s kid? The one with the skinny ass?”

Peliru looked down again. “I don’t know. Never really noticed.”

“Sadly, you’re telling the truth.” Gavin rubbed the other’s hand. “Do you want to marry someone else?”

Peliru’s head shot back up. “No! If we can’t be married, then I won’t marry at all.”

“Why’s that? Why would you give up the happiness of a family just because it’s not the exact happiness you want?”

Peliru knew that none of the words he practiced would help. Only the truth would answer this question, but it was a truth he never told anyone. A thought he never spoke aloud. Every time he thought this thought he promised he would never speak of it because to say the words would give them too much weight. The mass of the thought would crush him. But that promise didn’t mean anything in this moment. The thought was already crushing him.

“Do you know about zero?” he asked Gavin.

The other Sungura’s face changed. A moment later Gavin replied. “Sorry about the face thing. I was trying to say I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’m talking about the concept of zero, the number. I learned the history from a tutor when I was much younger. Zero means emptiness. It makes it possible to calculate all kinds of things. Because of zero we can represent all the numbers we can think of using only ten symbols. It’s a placeholder making other numbers more meaningful.

“I thought about that for a long time. I came to believe it applies to people as well as numbers. Some people are not here to do much. Some are here to fulfill one job and nothing else. I thought that was me. I thought my purpose was to fill a spot so that others wouldn’t have to. So that others could be more meaningful. I thought of myself as an emptiness. That’s why I can’t understand people. I’m not supposed to understand because I don’t need to.” Peliru stopped, closed his eyes, and bowed his head.

“By the gods that’s awful,” whispered Gavin. “It means you’re barely even alive. Peli please tell me you don’t believe this anymore.”

“Not exactly,” he replied. He raised his head and looked at Gavin. “I love you. You love me. That’s not possible if I’m zero. I won’t marry someone else because I don’t have to. I know you exist. I know the love exists, and that means I’m not empty.”

Gavin looked at Peliru. “You move in small steps, don’t you? You aren’t empty. And love doesn’t have to be in just one place. You can build it everywhere and anywhere you want.”

“This, what we have, is a lot for me, Gav. It’s wonderful, it is, but it takes a lot.”

“I know. Everything wonderful takes a lot.” Gavin refilled their tea even though it didn’t need refilling. “Let’s focus on one thing. Let’s just try to add one thing at a time. That may work.”

They stayed together all that day. They cried a little but laughed a lot more. Eventually, they got the honey cakes.

Now

Peliru woke up in a tent. He had no idea how he got there or even when he fell asleep. He looked out the flap into the night. Then he thought of Gavin. Gavin was here, and Peliru needed to find him. Only when standing did he remember he had found Gavin. He remembered the rotting corpse buried in a pit alongside other Sungura.

The memory consumed him. A tide rose, steady and unstoppable. It swallowed his heart, it swamped his brain leaving nothing but loss and guilt and fear. Gavin was gone because Peliru wasn’t fast enough to save him. Gavin was gone because Peliru wasn’t strong enough to save him. Gavin was gone because Peliru left.

I left him alone, Peliru thought. I left him alone and now he’s dead. I have killed the only one who thought he could love me.

Peliru didn’t realize he was shouting. Hands, human hands, gripped his shoulders. A human voice yelled at him over and over until Peliru focused on it.

“Hear me Warden,” the voice said. “Hear me! You must be here. Focus on my voice and come back here.”

“Why?” he asked in a whisper. “What is here? My failure? What is there to come back to?”

“That question must always be asked.” The voice belonged to Vladina. She looked tired, and some part of Peliru was surprised he knew that. After a moment she continued, “Now is a good time to ask those questions but not a time to think of answers. The shock of grief must be lived through before meaning can come.”

“Don’t talk to me of grief or meaning. Don’t talk to me at all.”

Vladina stood. “We will talk later then. There is something we must discuss. It will wait.” She left the tent, and Peliru was alone.

Some hours later he still sat in the tent. He hadn’t left to eat or drink although he needed both. The effort to move was greater than the discomfort, so he sat. He thought if he was still enough, if he was silent enough, perhaps existence would forget and move on without him. Vladina interrupted the experiment.

She came into the tent holding a jug of water, bread, and cheese. These she put in front of Peliru and then sat on the floor. She wore a tunic, breeches, and sandals. Her black hair tied into a tail behind her head. She was older, or at least he thought so. Humans were difficult to judge, but her eyes had lines creasing her brown skin. Dangling from her neck he saw a leather strip holding a wooden swan.

“You’re a priest?” he asked.

“A little more than that. At least I think so. Priests are not required to do much of what I do.”

“What is it you do?”

“Like you, Warden, I go where I am required when I am needed there.”

Tears came to Peliru. “Don’t. Don’t pretend or patronize. I was needed here, but I wasn’t. He is dead because I wasn’t here.”

“There’s nothing I can say that will change your mind, so I won’t try. I don’t need to say anything to you other than this offer. Please, let me tell you everything before you answer. Can you do that?” Peliru looked at her and nodded, unsure and uncaring of what she meant.

Vladina continued, “My goddess wanted me in this forest. While here I was captured by the slavers. Originally I thought my purpose was to fight them. Then I had visions, ones where I saw you. Just before you came the goddess told me what I needed to do. I am here to offer you a chance at a conversation. It will be short. I’m sorry but the power required is enormous. But it may help you.”

Peliru shook his head. “Your offer is to talk with me? Or do you want me to speak with your goddess? Neither of those proposals interest me.”

“No,” she answered in a patient, almost monotone voice. “The conversation I offer is with your mate, Gavin.”

He was silent. Vladina didn’t move, and Peliru studied her. “If you are tricking or toying with me, I will kill you.”

“I do neither. This is a single offer. I have been given the ability to do this ritual once and only for you.”

He studied her face and remained confused. “Why?”

“I honestly don’t know. All I’ve been told is that you are needed, and this will help you do what you must do. The gods are not allowed to act directly in our affairs, but they can nudge and assist. They can also make deals with others. I believe the forest you defend is important to us all, and my goddess wants to make sure this loss you suffer doesn’t stop you from doing your duty.”

“I don’t know what goddess you worship, and I don’t care. Why would she care about me?”

“As I said, the gods make deals. She needs the forest protected, or she needs you to do something only you can do. I don’t know. Whatever the reason, it is important. That is why I am here.”

He couldn’t think of a good reason to say yes. If she was lying, the crush of disappointment would be too much to bear. Yet, he knew he would accept. The odds were against him, but if there was any chance to say goodbye he had to take it.

“Yes,” he said without feeling or conviction.

Vladina cocked her head and nodded. “Would you like to be in the tent or somewhere else?” Peliru shrugged a reply. “We will stay here. I will need an hour. Do not move once I begin. Let me know when you’re ready.” Again he shrugged.

Taking that as a yes Vladina lit a candle and placed it between her and Peliru. She closed her eyes and chanted. He sat looking at her and the candle and trying not to think or feel. Time passed and it meant nothing. The touch on his shoulder scared him witless.

“Hello Pelli.” Seated next to him was Gavin with the scar over his left eye. Gavin sat on the ground, not in the dirt. His skin wasn’t rotting off and vermin didn’t eat his flesh. Peliru said nothing.

“I’m proud of you,” Gavin said. “You did so well. Even made a friend with a minotaur. That was really something. Unconventional but effective.”

“How can you say that?” muttered Peliru as the tears fell again. “How can you be proud of me? I killed you.”

“Stop Pelli. Stop this. It’s not fitting for you. Self-pity is unattractive.”

“I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there when they took you. I didn’t get here fast enough.”

Gavin grabbed Peliru’s hand, hard. “Listen to me. You are here. You defeated the slavers. You saved scores of people. You didn’t kill me, the slavers did. I knew it was a risk, and I chose to take it.”

“What? What are you saying?”

“I knew you would come. But it wouldn’t be enough to rescue me if the slavers escaped or if others were sold instead of me. You needed to end the threat. So I had to make sure the threat stayed in one place. I did everything I could to sabotage the camp. I broke the gate lock as well as the one on the liquor stash. I provoked the guards so they would focus on me and leave a larger fighting force for you. I drove away their horses so they couldn’t leave.”

Peliru was furious. “You could’ve escaped. You could have left here and met me. You could be alive now. We could be together. You unbelievable asshole.”

Gavin slouched a bit. “That was my plan. I was going to meet you, but they caught me. I got cocky I guess, and it cost me. Cost you too. I’m sorry.”

“It’s just…It’s hard enough being a Warden and away from you. At least I knew you were there…How will I…Now you’re…I….” And he cried again.

Gavin embraced him, and they both cried. Peliru thought the crying would never stop. The ache a hole in his soul with tears pouring out for the rest of his life.

“Please,” Peliru begged, “let me go instead. You stay and I’ll take your place. It’ll be better. You’re better than me. No one will miss me. Please.”

“It doesn’t work like that, even if I would agree to it. I don’t like the idea of being apart any more than you, but I’m done now. I did well. I want you to know you did too.”

Gavin grabbed Peliru’s head in his hands. “You did well. Please, don’t give up. You’ve opened yourself up a little, and it was the right thing to do. You’re better for it. I need to know you won’t go back to being alone. You aren’t zero, Pelli. You never were. I see it. Others do too.”

“This hurts so much, Gav. I can’t risk this again. It’s so much.”

“It is. But being zero hurt too, remember? Just add one, Pelli. When you’re ready, just add one.”

Gavin kissed him. It wasn’t long. It wasn’t enough. When Peliru opened his eyes, Gavin was gone.

“Good bye, Pelli,” said the disembodied voice of someone who loved Peliru Gambitfoot. “I love you.”

He didn’t yell or shout, and that was progress. He lay down on the floor of the tent and cried himself to sleep.

 

 

Morning came and Peliru walked out of the tent. Vladina kept a respectful distance. He wondered if she had witnessed his conversation or not but decided it didn’t matter. He had nothing to be ashamed of. He awkwardly made eye contact, walked over, and thanked her.

Vladina was the only human Peliru could see. The other Sungura moved around the camp making food, taking care of the injured, and getting ready for the long journey home. He was wondering about Liriope when he saw her leave a tent and head his way. She held two bowls, her shield strapped to her back and her sword at her side. Peliru noticed how all the Sungura stopped their activities and turned toward the minotaur. None grabbed weapons, although all had them close, but they focused their full attention on Liriope as she made her way to him. She stopped in front of him and gave him a bowl.

“You should eat,” she said. “Then have a bath. Maybe two, your stench is quite intense.”

Peliru took the bowl and began slowly eating the stew. “I just woke up. How did you know I’d be here?”

“I didn’t. Both of these bowls were for me, but when I saw you I figured you needed one.”

Peliru froze. He stared at the stew and wondered what he just put into his mouth. Then he wondered if he really wanted to know.

Liriope laughed and more than a few Sungura jumped at the sound. “Don’t worry warrior Warden, the stew is all vegetable. Your brethren made it. I tried it out of curiosity and can tell you it is good. The hot peppers add great flavor, but it does need something to be more filling. I have not added my ‘special ingredient’ so you are safe.” She went back to eating, chuckling all the while.

Peliru stared at his bowl a moment and then took a spoonful. The stew was quite spicy, but the peppers enveloped and enhanced rather than overwhelmed the other ingredients. Soon he was done.

“Let’s go get some more,” she said. “Then walk the perimeter with me.” She turned and Peliru followed.

They refilled their bowls and ate as they walked out the gate. When they finished they placed the utensils by the fence and continued around the encampment.

“I thought you said I needed a bath,” said Peliru.

“You do, but I thought you may need to talk more. Or, if you don’t want to chat, then a nice walk in the sun is also good.”

“Is this supposed to make me feel better?”

“No, nothing will make you feel better. You have suffered a great loss and that will always be with you. There is no better, there is only learning to live with it all.”

“You are almost as bad at talking with people as I am.”

“Maybe so. You and I do not coat our words with honey. We say what we see and expect others to do the same. The truth can be difficult to face but lying to oneself doesn’t make meeting the challenge any easier.” She stopped walking and turned to face Peliru. “Everything I ever knew was in the minotaur empire. I was taken care of. Life was not easy, but it was a life I understood. I could have stayed, but I knew if I did I would never be a warrior. I knew I would never be true to myself. I refused to lie to myself and that made the choice clearer. I chose, and I regret nothing. Even if I die because of my choice, I regret nothing. I am who I wish to be.”

“And how does that help me?” he spat. He knew it was ungrateful, but he said it anyway. His anger felt comfortable, like a thick cloak guarding him against the weather.

“My experience is my own,” she answered. “What is yours?”

“Gavin is dead!” Peliru shouted. “That’s my experience! They killed him, and now he’s dead!”

“He fought, didn’t he?”

“Yes,” said Peliru, at a much lower volume. “He…he…yes. He fought them.” The cloak around his anger loosened some.

“He didn’t have to fight. He could have accepted his fate as a slave, but he didn’t. His choice cost him his life with you. You should mourn that, but only that. The slavers took that future, but they couldn’t take him. When he chose to fight them, he kept himself.”

Peliru stood next to a slavers’ encampment in front of a minotaur, an enemy of his people for as long as his family had existed, and felt his heartache.

“Tell me,” continued Liriope, “do you think your mate, Gavin, would regret his choice?”

“No,” he answered without hesitation. “I spoke with him last night thanks to Vladina. He doesn’t.”

The minotaur nodded. “What else did he tell you?”

“He told me not to give up.”

The minotaur nodded again. “Will you?”

To his surprise Peliru considered the question. “I honestly don’t know. I don’t think I will, but I want to. It would be easier if I did. Does that make me a coward? Am I betraying him?”

“I think it makes you honest,” she answered. Liriope turned and started walking again. “Come. Let’s finish our patrol.”

He followed her. They were silent for two finger spans of the sun, then he asked her a question. “Have you ever loved anyone?”

“No,” answer Liriope without hesitation.

“Never? Not anyone?”

“I am female. Love wasn’t an option. Not offered, not given.”

“What about your parents? They loved you, yes?”

She pondered her answer. “Female minotaurs serve one main function: to produce males. We also run the household, some of the bureaucracy, and a thousand other duties that make the empire possible. None of that matters. Until we give birth to a male, we have not served our purpose.

“My mother wanted me to serve my purpose. She prepared me as best she could. I believe she did that out of a kind of love. I have refused that purpose, however, so I guess I have also refused that kind of love.”

They walked on a bit. After a time Peliru spoke again. “What will you do now?”

“I continue east. There will be more slavers, and I will kill them. I have heard of a city, Halraah, where minotaurs live. I will go there and see if I can find a place.”

“So our blood debt is paid then?”

“No Warden warrior. That will always exist. If you need me, I will aid you.” Liriope turned to Peliru. She pulled a dagger from her belt and slit her palm. Holding her bleeding fist in front of her, she continued. “I swear I will not hurt you or your people. I swear this on my blood and on my honor.”

He looked at her and didn’t know how to process this information. “Why?”

“I have learned much walking with you. Although I was ready to die, you taught me to be ready to live. A lesson on mercy. I sought my own freedom, but I watched you risk all for others. A great lesson on honor. Most of all, I saw you mourn with all your being. I have never known love like you have known, and I mourn that loss. Having seen this other kind of love, I wish to know what it’s like. That is a lesson on hope.”

Peliru nodded, not knowing what to say. They continued walking around the camp and came back to the main gate. They walked back to the tent and Peliru asked Liriope to wait outside. He went into his pack and removed the honey cakes. Returning to the minotaur he opened the wrapping. “I don’t know if the minotaurs have these,” he said. “If they don’t, they should.” He gave her one.

Liriope bit into the pastry and her eyes widened. “This is fantastic.”

“Yes it is. Gavin taught me to enjoy them.” He silently ate one of the cakes himself. “I don’t have a concept of a blood debt, but I’ll still make a promise. If you ever need dessert, I will help you find it.”

Liriope looked at Peliru a second before bursting into laughter. The surrounding Sungura fled at the sound but the duo never noticed. They sat outside a slaver’s tent and ate all the honey cakes.

They were delicious.

 

< < < < > > > >

The Monster Maker

by Loren Cooper

 

“…I bid my hideous progeny to go forth and prosper…it was the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words…”

— Mary Shelly

 

 

Three travelers rode through the gates of Setan in the clear light of a bright spring morning, but a pall hung over that place as if a cloud had passed across the face of the sun.

“Feel that?” Cyril asked.

The three of them rode unobstructed by traffic.  The few pedestrians on the streets walked in small, well-armed clusters.  Women or children were either not present or concealed well enough in the midst of the armed clusters as to not be evident.  People on foot gave the travelers covert glances, but no direct challenge or comment came to the armored riders.  The iron-shod hooves of the horses struck sparks from the flat Jodan paving stones as they rode into a landscape of privacy walls and towers.  Structures built of the perfectly fitted, apparently mortarless stonework that were the Jodan trademark rose around them.

“The governor has lost all control,” Rhea said grimly.  “It’s worse than Frederick indicated.  Worse than he must have known.”

“Janaki’s a politician.  He’s not equipped to deal with an incursion of the Children of Night,” Cyril responded, his head swinging as he scanned for possible threats.

“No one’s well equipped to deal with the Children,” Oslo said mildly.  “If that’s the problem.”

“Look around,” Cyril countered.  “Something’s turned this place from a center of commerce to a ghost town.  More than the plague explains.  People don’t carry weapons and group together for mutual protection against plague.  Fear of plague is one thing.  Whatever this is, it’s more than fear of plague.  It has the flavor of a more tangible menace.”

“Something has happened here,” Oslo admitted.  “Or is happening here.  Let’s wait until we know more before we jump to a conclusion.”

Cyril snorted, but said nothing after a sharp glance from Rhea.

“How often have you encountered the Children?” Rhea asked Oslo.

Oslo looked up at the rising white towers of the old Jodan fortress where Governor Janaki kept his household.  He led them deeper into the ancient city, using the high towers as his guide.  “I’ve met them face to face twice.  The second time occurred when I found and burned out a nest.  This feels different from what I’ve seen, and from all I’ve researched.  But I don’t have sufficient information to draw any certain conclusions at this point.  All I have are my instincts.”

Rhea smiled at Cyril, but the slight mockery in her face never touched her voice. “Two more encounters than either of us.  That makes you the resident expert.”

“I hope not,” Oslo said thoughtfully.  “I hope Yousib is still here. I’d value his perspective.”

“A friend of yours? Another hunter?”  Cyril’s tone brightened perceptibly at the prospect of another knowledgeable hunter who could provide reinforcements.

“Not exactly,” Oslo said as he pulled up before the open gates in the outer wall of the governor’s residence.  “Yousib is more of a scholar than a hunter.  But few know more about all the ancient arts than Yousib.”

“Ah,” said Cyril, distaste and discontent evident in his voice.  “Sounds like a charming dinner companion.”

“We’re not here for wine and dancing,” Rhea said tartly as Oslo dismounted and approached the gate guard.

“Maybe not, but a little wine and dancing wouldn’t hurt,” Cyril grumbled under his breath as Oslo introduced the party.

The guard in turn rang a silver bell to announce the visitors. Shortly after grooms had taken the horses into the care of the governor’s stables, they crossed through the inner courtyard and followed a young page into the depths of the residence, the incongruous echoes of the bell lingering in the silence of the empty entrance hall.

 

***

 

“First the plague, and now this damned infestation.” Governor Janaki set his fork down by his plate with an elaborate gesture of disgust.  A fleshy man, the governor had the stylish clothes, neatly trimmed nails, hair, beard, and mannerisms of a courtier.  “The plague hit us lightly.  Many people, including myself, give Yousib credit for that.  He worked tirelessly in the early days, only withdrawing into his estate after the worst of it had passed.  The effort wore him out, I suppose.  You know him, I understand?”

Oslo nodded.

The governor turned his wineglass in his hand, watching the play of light on the crystal.  The jewels in the rings on that hand glittered more brightly than the crystal.  “The people were coming back into the city.  The markets were opening again.  The plague had fallen away.  Then rumors started circulating.  Desecrations in the graveyards. Rituals in empty houses.  People started disappearing.  You couldn’t be sure who ran out of fear, and who had been taken, but enough signs remained that we knew some were being taken.  It became more than rumors at that point.  People began barricading their houses at night.  Arming themselves.  Leaving the city.  More than had even during the plague.  Now the harbor is empty, and the marketplace is the unchallenged domain of rats and ravens.”

“The disappearances began after the plague, not before?  And you said there were signs?” Rhea asked.

“It was noticed after the plague had died down.  It could have started before that.  Who would have known?  But certainly no one saw anything on the scale of what we’ve seen this last month.  Barricades have been smashed down, entire families gone, the inside of the houses covered in blood and worse.  I’ve had hysterical reports of everything from shapeshifters to walking corpses.  My men are so infected with fear as to be virtually useless.  To be truthful, I don’t know what’s happening, but I mentioned the Children in the report I sent to Frederick, knowing that would get his attention.  Though Frederick speaks highly of you in his message, to be frank I had hoped for more.  I confess that I would have been happier to have seen a column of troops at your back.”

“Men are in short supply,” Oslo said. “You don’t need soldiers.  You need to understand the problem.  Once you understand the problem, then you can find the right solution.  Has Yousib advanced any theories?”

“I don’t know.” Janaki shifted in his chair uncomfortably and refused to meet Oslo’s eye. “No one’s heard from him since he shut himself up in his house.  After the plague, no one breaks into an empty house.  No one except for these mystery raiders.”

“Even Yousib would have had limited resources against the plague,” Oslo said thoughtfully.  “The plague was strong, the cures difficult, and every struggle against the sickness consumes a man’s strength, even a man as wise in lore as Yousib.  I can understand his need for isolation.  I am concerned that no one’s heard from him, though.”

“He might have gone away in the late days of the plague,” the governor admitted. “There was so much chaos.  And he had sent Kara away.  He might have followed her.”

“Kara?”

“You didn’t know?  Yousib married shortly before the plague struck.  A beautiful young thing.  He was besotted with her.”

“I’d like to talk to him, if he’s still here,” Oslo said.  “And I’d like to see the most recent abduction scene.”

“I’ll have one of my men escort you to the Captain of my household guard,” Janaki said. “He’s investigating a scene from last night.  He’s been trying to run this down since the first rumors surfaced.  He knows more about this than anyone.”

“Will he resent our presence?” Rhea asked.

“He’s the one who suggested I call for outside help,” Janaki replied, his gaze lingering on her.  “He’ll be glad to have the benefit of your expertise.”

Oslo pushed his chair back from the table.  “We should get started as soon as possible then.”

Cyril drained his wineglass, wiping his mouth as Rhea and Oslo rose to their feet.

“I would have sent you earlier had I thought it would make a difference,” the governor said defensively.  “But perhaps you have the right of it.”

The governor clapped his hands.  The young page who had guided them through the grounds stepped through a hanging curtain and stopped at Janaki’s elbow.  “Abdah, take the hunters to Captain Ismail.”

The travelers trailed Abdah out of the dining room with the governor’s reassurance following after them, “I’m sure that Ismail will be duly grateful for all of the assistance you can provide.”

 

***

 

Ismail couldn’t keep the evident disgust from his face, not that he appeared to be exerting much effort to do so.  “Three of you are worse than useless.  You’re an insult.  I need soldiers, not noble dilettantes.”

Oslo had to tilt his head back to look directly into the swarthy face of the massive captain.  “I sympathize,” he said mildly.  “But we’re all the help the Young Dux has been able to send.  Don’t make this a wasted trip.  Let us take a look.”

Ismail glared down at the smaller man.  His sharp gaze tallied the scale mail Oslo wore under his silk surcoat, the twin long knives that crossed at the small of his back, the Jodan script visible on mail and the hilts of the knives, and the unflinching calm that met his angry glare.

“Fine,” Ismail said at last.  “Go in.  Tour the site. Perhaps what you find there will convince you to send back to the Young Dux for the troops we need.”

Oslo inclined his head, then walked past the captain and the brace of sentries to the shattered remains of a heavy iron-bound door.  Fragments of wood still hung from the iron straps.  Broken lengths of plank three inches thick and eight inches wide lay in the doorway.  A stench of rot rose from the shadows of the door into the soft, slanting afternoon light.

Cyril covered his nose and mouth with a handkerchief.

Oslo drew one of the long knives at his back, held the blade to his lips, and whispered a single word.

Ismail and the sentries flinched as the blade lit with an inner glow strong enough to be visible in the light of day.  They watched Oslo kneel carefully in the doorway and run a gloved fingertip across the fragments of the door.  Rubbing thumb and forefinger together, Oslo raised the glove to his nose and sniffed cautiously.  Then he rose to his feet and crossed the threshold, Rhea at his heels.  Cyril took up the rear, the handkerchief still clamped across his mouth and nose.

Light from Oslo’s blade banished the darkness.  The entry hall of the house became a mélange of harsh shadows in the unforgiving light.  Dark stains spattered walls and floor. A shelf hung awry; another had been cast to the tile floor and shattered.  Fragments of pottery mixed with the remains of the door.  The gleam of metal caught Oslo’s eye.  He paused at two small, polished jade figures.

“Hanish luck figurines,” Rhea said.

“Not lucky enough,” Cyril remarked dryly.

“We can rule out robbery,” Oslo said. “If we still had any doubts.  One of those would be worth a season’s wages to a working man.  I’m almost surprised that none of the soldiers picked them up.”

“Almost?” Cyril asked.

“Would you want anything out of this house after you had been inside?”

“No,” Cyril said.  “But I know those who wouldn’t give it a second thought.”

“Perhaps,” Oslo conceded.  “But most of those would have quit the city before now. Or been careless and succumbed to the plague. Why do you think Janaki and Ismail have manpower problems?”

Oslo didn’t wait for a response.  He made his way deeper into the house, Cyril and Rhea close behind him.  Rich wood paneling (broken and split in places), paintings (for the most part untouched by destruction), and the intricately patterned floor tiles (stained in spattering black) spoke of the house’s former inhabitants’ wealth and taste.  Oslo paused at every trace of destruction, each stain, each mark in the paneling.

The living area and kitchen were almost pristine—unmarked by obvious signs of violence.  The shutters on every window had been nailed closed and barred from the inside.  Stocks of food in the kitchen lay as they had been stored, untouched.  Knives hung in racks from the walls.  More knives lay on the floor, under empty hooks.  In the back of the house, two of the three bedrooms had the appearance of hasty desertion, but were otherwise unmarked.

The stench in the house thickened at the shattered doorway of the third and largest bedroom.  Torn and spattered velvet bedclothes were strewn across the floor, furniture had been smashed to kindling, and black stains covered floor, walls, and ceiling in long ribbons of darkness.

Cyril coughed and gagged even with the cloth covering his mouth.  “For once I wish I didn’t think perfumed handkerchiefs effeminate.”

“They made their stand here,” Rhea said softly.  “They heard the pounding at the door, so the family retreated here.  And when the bedroom door had been broken down…”

“They fought,” Oslo finished for her.  “They fought and lost.”  He pointed out a cleaver from the kitchen lying in a thick pool of black fluid.  The pieces of a makeshift club lay nearby.  Not far from that he paused and brought the light close to a black lump.  Drawing his other long knife, he bent and flipped the lump over with the tip.  Wrinkled skin and pale, clenched fingers lay bared to the light.

Cyril took a startled step back.  “A hand?”

Rhea pulled a necklace from under her shirt, kissed the stone, murmured a Jodan phrase, and let the necklace settle to the outside of her clothing as the stone began to glow.  She vanished through the bedroom door.  Oslo examined the hand closely, prying at the fingers with the blade of his knife, prodding the skin with the tip.  He looked up when Rhea came back into the room holding a small leather sack.

“From the kitchen,” she said.  “We’ll want to examine it further.”

“Speak for yourself,” Cyril said in a strangled voice.

“Yousib should see it at least,” Oslo said, ignoring Cyril.  Sliding the tip of the knife between palm and clenched fingers, he tipped the hand into Rhea’s sack.  Rhea drew the string at the mouth of the sack tight, and they retreated out into the light of day.

Ismail met them at the doorway, eyeing the sack suspiciously.  “What did you learn?”

“Tell me something,” Oslo said.  “Do all of the attacks take place at night?”

“So far as we know,” Ismail replied.

“Any witnesses?”

Ismail shook his head.

“Tracks?”

“A few,” Ismail admitted.  “They fade quickly, despite all the blood.  Whoever they are, they take pains not to be found.”

“Any center to the attacks?  One side of town or another?”

“No,” Ismail said grudgingly. “We thought of that, but the attacks are distributed across neighborhoods. All in the core of the city, though.  Inside the walls.”

“And no one saw anything,” Cyril commented, disbelief evident in his voice.

“The Children of Night are said to be able to cloud minds,” Ismail said defiantly.  “But remember, people here were barricading their doors against strangers when the plague ran through town.  That practice only became more common after the abductions started.  There were early tales, but none were helpful.  Few were credible.”

“Given what you have here, the range for the credible should be wide, I would think,” Oslo said mildly.  “And the Children of Night can cloud minds.  But I doubt that the Children are at the bottom of this.”

“Oh?” Ismail’s tone dripped skepticism.  “What’s at the bottom of this if not the Children, then?”

“Something different.” Oslo said thoughtfully.

Ismail gave Oslo a sharp look, as if he thought the hunter were mocking him.

Oslo didn’t appear to notice.  He squinted at the late afternoon sun and said, “Shouldn’t we see if we can find Yousib and ask his opinion?”

Ismail sighed.  “Why not?  I don’t expect any success, though.  I don’t believe he’s there to be found, or he would have come to us by now.”

Ismail himself led the way to Yousib’s manor, after first taking the time to have the guard detail seal the site.

“Would you scry to discover the details of what happened at one of the scenes?” Ismail asked with grudging deference.  His original hostile opposition had faded to silence as they walked through the nearly empty streets of Setan.  Evidently the exercise of Jodan runecraft by at least one of the party had given him new insight into the nature of the aid the Young Dux had made available.  A sanctioned practitioner of the mostly lost Jodan arts was considerably more rare and difficult to find than even a small army of troops.

“I’ll scry if I must,” Oslo replied.  “Bending the stream of time is an arduous task at best.  The knowledge I could gain of a single attack might well not be worth the days of preparation and recovery.  If I had a better idea of where to look and when to look to obtain truly key information, and I had exhausted all other alternatives, then I might attempt to scry.  At the moment the cost is too high, the possible benefit too low.”

“Have you known Yousib long?” Ismail asked.

“We met a long time ago,” Oslo said.  “He came to the Fane to access their library.  I was a student there at the time.  We shared some of the same passions for history of the Empire.  And we were sanctioned as lore masters by the Church at the same time.  I haven’t seen him for years.”

They walked for a moment in silence, continuing toward the outline of two squat towers that had begun to grow in prominence on the horizon.  The streets had emptied of traffic as the sun continued to sink toward the horizon, until it seemed as if they walked through a city devoid of population.  If much more time passed without a solution to the abductions, Oslo reflected, that appearance would become reality as the people continued to flee.

“Those towers mark Yousib’s residence,” Ismail said.

“Jodan work,” Althea commented.

Yousib nodded. “Like the governor’s residence, and like most of the structures in the city. With his interest in all things Jodan, Yousib could hardly resist the lure of Setan, with the many old Imperial residences available in the city.  A high cost acquisition before the plague, since his manor still had intact connections to the old aqueducts and sewers.  Such a place is much easier to find, these days.”

A wall encircled the manor, crystals at the surface of the white stone glittering in the evening sun.  Black iron gates loomed to half again the height of a tall man.  Loops of black chain coiled around the center of the gates.  A large bronze bell hung from the wall at the left side of the gate.  Oslo considered the chain, then proceeded to ring the bell with furious enthusiasm while Cyril and Ismail cast nervous glances up and down the empty street.  The manor remained obstinately quiet.  The visible window locations had been covered by the simple expedient of storm shutters nailed over the openings.  Beams crossed the front door, evidently nailed in place from the outside.

“He’s dead or gone,” Ismail told Oslo. “We’ve assumed that for some time.  He answered none of our messages these last few weeks.  So many went missing during the plague.  Even a man of Yousib’s prominence can vanish unremarked in the chaos of the plague.”

“We need to know what happened to him.  I distrust this vanishing.”

“What do you have in mind?” Rhea asked, her eyes alight with sudden anticipation.

“Nothing firm,” Oslo said. “But Ismail and Janaki should have heard from him before this.  Unless he did fall victim to the plague.  It can happen, if he expended his strength trying to stem the tide of sickness.”

“He did help, early on,” Ismail conceded.  “But he was only one man.  His strength only went so far.  And the plague was not so easy to cure.  It could have happened that way.  Indeed, if any of us spared a thought for him during that time, it is what we thought.  Many tried to help against the plague.  Many died in the attempt.  After a while, people began to look to their own.”

Oslo tested the chain and the lock securing the gate and frowned.  He studied the house, then grasped one iron upright and set a foot in a lower crossbar.  He swarmed up the gate with surprising ease for a man wearing mail.  Ismail, Rhea and Cyril watched as Oslo dropped to the other side, then walked up the overgrown path to the main house.

No tracks were visible in the dust and leaves that had begun to encroach on the neat pavestones of the path.  At the front door, he could find no more sign of visitors than he had seen on the approach.  Fading on the wood of the door marked a weather line behind the beam that indicated it had not been moved for some time—probably since it had been nailed across the jamb.

As he looked closely at the door, Oslo caught a hint of musky decay at the hinges.  The sound of a step behind him interrupted his thoughts, and he whirled, one hand dropping to a weapon hilt.

Rhea smiled at him.  “Jumpy today.”

Oslo looked past her to see Cyril and Ismail standing on the other side of the gate, equally unhappy expressions on their faces.  “Cyril decided to stay?”

“I told him to stay.  If we’re going to split, better to have someone watching your back.  It’s getting late.”

Oslo glanced up, watching the bottom arc of the sun touch a distant rooftop.  “Let’s make a quick circuit.”

Rhea followed as Oslo made his way around the grounds, examining the shutters on the windows.  He found no signs of a forced entry, but twice more caught a faint whiff of decay.

“We’d best be getting back,” Rhea said finally.  “We shouldn’t be out on the streets after the sun sets.  Not without more preparation.”

“I know.”  Oslo’s voice was slow, thick, distracted.

They turned back toward the gate.  “I’d like to find the men Yousib hired to seal his house, but I doubt they’d be able to tell us anything.”

“What are you thinking?”  Rhea asked.

Oslo made a saddle of his hands, and boosted her to the top, then swarmed up after her.  He didn’t answer until he had dropped to the ground.  “I’m thinking we need to go in that house.  And I’m thinking I’d like to ask the captain to spare us a small squad for support.”

Ismail stared as Oslo climbed over the gate.  He considered Oslo’s comment, and shrugged expressively.  “Why not?  We’ll come back in the morning and lay the issue of Yousib to rest once and for all.  Then perhaps you can send a messenger to the Young Dux and have him send some troops.”

Oslo paused to examine the manor through the bars of the gate before turning to follow the Captain back toward the governor’s residence.

“Ready to send for more troops?”  Cyril asked lightly.

“Depending on what we find tomorrow, more troops might not be a sufficient answer,” Oslo said mildly.

Ismail’s head whipped around.  “What do you know that you aren’t telling us?”

“I don’t know anything yet,” Oslo said.  “I have suspicions.  Hopefully tomorrow will confirm one or more of those suspicions.  I can tell you this, though.  I don’t believe you have a problem with the Children of the Night.  I do believe that you might well have a problem that’s much worse.”

Ismail didn’t appear to have an answer for that.  The remainder of the journey passed in silence as they raced the setting sun to the relative safety of the governor’s residence.

 

***

 

“What makes you think it’s not the Children of the Night?”  Governor Janaki’s dark gaze darted around the room, settling nowhere, assiduously avoiding the severed hand Oslo had pinned to a low table for examination.  Oslo had carefully and patiently peeled back flaps of skin to expose muscle and tendon.

“The Children are psychic parasites.”  Oslo looked up from the hand but could not catch the governor’s nervous eye.  “They rarely kill in their feeding.  They kill only when they raise a new Child, or for amusement.  Otherwise, they feed on hopes and dreams.  Communities where the Children feed have a high death rate—from suicide.  The Children have never been known to smash down doors and take whole families by force.”

“What does behave in such a way?”  Ismail spoke without the obvious impatience of the governor.  He had been avidly following Oslo’s examination of the hand.  “You said earlier that this hand you found came from nothing human.”

“True,” Oslo said.  “But only partially true.  The hand once belonged to someone as human as you or I.  But that person had become something else.  The flesh and skin and bone have a higher density than a man’s flesh and skin and bone.  Had the owner of the hand been struck by anything but a heavy meat cleaver, probably wielded with the hysterical strength of someone in fear for their life, I doubt the hand would have been severed.  And the hand is almost empty of fluid, as if it had been desiccated.  When a man’s limb is severed, the blood settles in the veins.  Without the heart to provide pressure, the blood has no force to impel it from its natural channels.  This hand was virtually empty of blood before it was severed.”

Oslo paused, noticing that the governor’s face had taken on a greenish cast.

“So?”  Ismail prompted.

“So it’s been through a change.  Do you remember the stains and stench all over the house today?”

“I’m not likely to forget any time soon.”

“It wasn’t blood,” Oslo said.  “At least most of it wasn’t.  The rot.  The decay.  Too soon for human blood.  The smell is different with day-old blood.  And you told me this had happened in the night.  The outside of the door was covered with this black ichor.  As if whatever smashed the door in was covered with it.  Or was secreting it.”

Janaki flinched as Oslo tapped the hand for emphasis.  “That’s inconsistent with the hand.”

“More than one kind of monster,” Rhea said quietly.

“Perhaps,” Oslo admitted.  “I’ve been leaning that direction.  But it’s too early for a conclusion.  I’ve never seen anything like this before.  I’ve never read of anything quite like this.  I wish I could have talked to Yousib.”

“You don’t think we’ll find him tomorrow,” Cyril said bluntly.

“I don’t think we’ll find him alive.”

That effectively killed the conversation.  Shortly after the last of them left, Oslo turned back to the hand, considering the process of death, and the nature of man.

 

***

 

Later, long after the shadows had swallowed the streets, Oslo took advantage of the governor’s hospitality to bathe in hot water and change into clean clothing.  Then he made his way toward the heights of the governor’s towers.  Guards patrolled the halls restlessly, and lights burned both inside the residence as well as at the tops of the walls. Janaki wanted to present as formidable a target as possible.  And to the governor’s credit, Oslo had seen signs that the governor had taken in refugees to provide what protection he could.  Oslo thought about what would happen when the last of the city dwellers had gone.  If Janaki had not pulled out of Setan by then, his fortress would become a trap.

Oslo stepped out onto a high balcony overlooking the city.  The lights of the guards were distant.  The city had become a playground of geometrical shadows and soft light.  He looked up into a sky of deep velvet, the starts diamond pinpricks in the tapestry of night.  A touch of light perfume, a nearly soundless tread, and Rhea joined him on the balcony.  Oslo didn’t look away from the stars as she leaned on the balustrade beside him.

“It’s beautiful,” she said.  “How many in the city will notice, do you think?  Besides us?”

“A few.  Those who haven’t been mastered by their fear.”

“You give them credit,” Rhea said.  “Even without the vanishings, how does the love of everyday beauty survive the death of innocence?”

“You’re too hard on them,” Oslo said, smiling.  “Innocence survives, though it may be lost for a while.  The child lives on in the man or the woman.  Oh, the burdens of life have a way of lulling the child inside to sleep.  I’ll grant you that.  But it’s there to be awakened.  Look at lovers.  Why do we smile when we listen to a fool in love?  Because the child in that fool is awake again.  All adult caution is cast to the wind.  The adult, for a moment, surrenders to the child.  Fear can fade to wonder when the shadows lift.  The world is big enough for both.”

Rhea laughed, caught his hand in hers, and squeezed.  Oslo’s smile faded as she stepped closer, her grip on his hand tightening.  Rhea was a tall woman.  Oslo didn’t have to bend to kiss her lightly on the corner of her mouth.  Regret touched his face as he pulled away.

Rhea kept her grip on his hand.  “Why do you keep running from me?”

Oslo freed his hand carefully, traced a line from her cheekbone to the corner of her mouth with a gentle finger, and sighed.  “Ah, love.  I’ve never been any good at surrendering.”

He cast a glance out into the deeps of the darkness and took a cautious step back. “We should get some sleep.  It’ll be a hard day tomorrow.”

Rhea turned away from him without a word, vanishing into the depths of the tower.  Oslo followed slowly after.  In his room, Oslo stared mindlessly at the patterned tapestries covering the stone walls, and thought about all those things he would never know, understand, or master.  He considered the nature of his own particular frailties, and he was ashamed.

Shaking himself loose from creeping paralysis, he dug into his pack and produced a small box of thin wafers of unleavened bread.  Fighting melancholy with deliberate intent and focus, he worked into the small hours of the night, carefully scribing symbols of protective power on a double handful of wafers.

When Oslo and Rhea joined Cyril in the courtyard at first light, Cyril looked from one to the other and visibly decided to say nothing.  That silence hanging over them like a pall, they met Ismail and a squad of six men at the gate.  As they set off toward Yousib’s manor, the two common elements dominating the group were a fervent desire to come to grips with a tangible enemy, and fear.

 

 

 

 

***

 

The black chain securing Yousib’s gate resisted all frontal attacks, but the hinges of the gates could not resist the coordinated effort of ten determined and well-equipped invaders.  Oslo led the way to the front door, which also succumbed to the careful application of overwhelming force.

Old rot and decay breathed out of the depths of the house as the door came down.  Ismail and his men shifted uneasily at the associations those odors brought to the surface of their minds.  Oslo ran an approving eye over the heavy axes and heavier armor that Ismail and his men had brought.  The Captain had obviously decided to take no chances after the conversation about the hand.  Cyril and Rhea both wore armor and carried the broadswords both habitually used, but Cyril carried a small shield as well as the dueling dagger he more generally used, displaying unusual caution.

Oslo stepped into the house.  He turned to face the rest of the group still standing around the door.  “Before we begin,” he said, “I’d like to offer any and all here a few words of advice as well as something more tangible.  Fire and light are our chief allies against something which moves only in darkness, but in these enclosed spaces, fire is as much our enemy as whatever we might face.  If we come to grips with a tangible enemy, try to avoid as much direct contact as possible.  The fluids in that house we looked at yesterday carried a taint of death more virulent than the blood of a man dead with the plague.  I’ll give you a protection against this virulence, but do not try its potency.  If you touch anything, wear gloves.  Keep your gloves away from your mouth if you have touched anything.  Touch as little as you can.”

“This protection,” a burly man at the back of the squad said nervously.  “It’s from the Church?”

“Jodan,” Oslo said flatly.  “My own work.  Sanctioned by the Church.  If any wish to refuse I understand.  But I would not ask you to follow where we may lead without offering some protection.”

Faces paled; expressions tightened; feet shifted.  In the end, none of them refused as Oslo opened the small box containing the wafers he had worked on in the small hours of the night.  Even Ismail opened his mouth to receive a wafer on his tongue.

Oslo felt the hot touch of each man’s life as his power embraced them.  Rhea took the protection last.  He felt her power, half-trained as it was, join his own in a jolt of sudden intensity.  His eyes widened at the unexpected strength of the bond, and for an instant he paused, caught outside himself, Rhea’s surprise and fear and pleasure mingling with his own.

Then he closed down the connection, tore his gaze from hers, and turned back to the dark hallway.  He could feel her smiling behind him, and he swore silently at himself, knowing better than to allow any distraction in his focus when working with the power.

“Are we ready?” Cyril asked dryly.  “I’m all stressed up with no one to choke.”

The men laughed, even Ismail was smiling as Oslo glanced back at them.  Then Oslo drew a knife, whispered to the blade, and brought forth white light.  Rhea called light from the blades of both her knife and sword, which she held unsheathed and ready. Everyone else lit small lanterns and hung them from their belts, comforting themselves with the touch of their weapons.  The squad brightened perceptibly at the signs of friendly power in the hands of their allies, though in no way could they be described as cheerful as they followed Oslo into the entry hall of Yousib’s manor.

Boot heels clicked on the stone floor of the ancient Jodan residence.  The roof of the entry hall soared above them.  The walls opened out into a space that swallowed the small group.  The door stood wide open behind them.  A current of warm air flowed past them out the door.  The scent of decay rode the current.  Oslo heard gagging behind him.  Ignoring it, as he ignored his own instinctive response to the odor, he waited and watched and listened as the men quieted down.

He heard nothing stir in the darkness.  The men continued to settle, the small sounds of their breathing, the gentle rasp of mail that accompanied each small movement, the breeze toying idly with dried leaves in the entryway behind them, all faded into a tapestry of sound for the hunter.  Beyond that, the house rewarded the hunter’s patience with nothing but more silence.

At last Oslo led the way forward, his step light, slow and cautious.  Burnished hardwood inlay glowed richly in the light, providing a backdrop for patterns of Jodan sigil tiles.  Varying in width from the palm of a woman’s hand to the length of a man’s forearm, the angular tiles held a variety of symbols traced in flowing Jodan script.  Oslo paused, studying the patterns structured on the walls.

“A collector?  Not a surprise given his background,” Cyril commented.

“A creator,” Oslo corrected gently.  “These are new.  He was experimenting with the relationship between the tiles, locking each element into a greater whole, treating each tile and bound element of power like a colored stone in a mosaic.”

“To what end?” Ismail asked.

“Privacy.  Yousib appears to be keenly interested in his privacy.”

“These tiles provide protection against scrying, you mean?” Ismail asked. “For the house?  How solid a defense?”

“The power that Yousib has assembled here would probably interfere with scrying over the entire city.  I know of little that could break past the barrier.”  Oslo didn’t sound particularly happy as he said this.

As the implications hit, most of the expressions grew more grim.

“So you think Yousib…” One of the men in the back began.

Oslo cut him off.  “Don’t jump to conclusions,” he said roughly.  His mouth had tightened to a thin, hard line.  “But be ready.”

He turned and led them deeper into the ancient house, the echoes of their footsteps loud in the silence.  The entry hall opened out into a great room.  Other halls opened out from it.  Above, the ceiling rose to vaulting, open beams.  Long tables stood at the sides of the open space, decorative crystal glittering in the light, holding withered bunches of dying flowers.  Another table stood in the center of the room.  High walls of close-fitted stone rose into the shadows, the gleaming squares of sigil tiles locked into careful patterns that filled all the empty space.  Black trails crisscrossed the floor.  The faint sweet perfume of the flowers gave the heavier sent of decay a cloying mask.

Oslo heard retching behind him as he eased into the room.  He had smelled worse in his day, but the deliberation of the flowers chilled him.  He studied the unfamiliar patterns of the tiles that stretched across the walls.

“How much privacy can one man need?” Cyril asked dryly.

Oslo grinned in spite of himself and glanced at Cyril as Rhea answered.  “These aren’t a protection against scrying.”

“This is what Yousib was trying to hide,” Oslo said.

“This is where he made them,” Rhea said.

Oslo’s grin had faded.  “Something isn’t right,” he said as he studied the tiles.

It came on them in a rush, bowling out of the darkness of an empty hall.  Oslo’s words died in his throat as he drew his other blade with his free hand and turned to meet the threat.  Some of the men standing behind Oslo froze, but two went out to meet the threat, while two more turned to watch the other corridors warily.

It moved in a crouching run, hands occasionally assisting its progress against the stones of the floor.  A black, shriveled figure, the distorted outlines of its flesh looked like clotted lumps melting from a wax doll left too long in the sun.  In spite of joints grotesquely swollen to the size of gourds, the thing’s lunge was faster and more powerful than a man’s could have been.  Its mouth opened and closed mindlessly on the jagged stumps of shattered teeth as it moved.  Its flexing hands were gnarled and twisted like the grasping roots of ancient trees.  Tendons stood out from its flesh like the ropes of a terrible machine.  It reared up as it neared the group, and Ismail swatted it to the floor with his axe.  It flopped back.  As it hit the floor, a second man stepped in and took a two-handed swing.  The heavy blade bit into the figure’s chest with a solid sound, as if the axe had struck hardwood.

Oslo ran forward as it struck out from the ground, swinging its arm in a horizontal arc, knocking the feet of the second man out from under him.  As he fell with a crash of mail and a hiss of expelled breath, Ismail stepped close and took the creature’s arm off with his axe.  Dark fluid fanned out across the floor, spurting out of the cut and then subsiding.  A smell of rot mushroomed in the room. Ismail stumbled back, gagging.

The thing rolled away from Ismail and rose to its feet.  Oslo sheathed his weapon and spoke a word in Jodan.  The black figure stopped, turning its head toward Oslo.  Oslo shouted a phrase in Jodan, his voice rolling through the great room, growing beyond natural volumes as the tiles amplified his voice.  Multicolored sparks of light flared to life and rolled in waves across the face of the sigil tiles on the wall at his back.

The thing bent its legs and launched itself at Oslo.  Cyril met the flying attack with a body block that drove it off target and back to the floor.  His sword fell across its head and shoulders like a whip as it tried to rise, using its single arm to lever itself up from the floor.  It ignored Cyril’s blows, though the white of bone showed through several deep gashes.  It rose to its feet as Oslo’s voice reached a crescendo.

For an instant, the entire room incandesced in a massive burst of light.  Everyone turned instinctively from the intensity of the light.  Then with a roar of protest, every tile in the room shattered.  Darkness swept over the small band, covering even the light of the lanterns and Rhea and Oslo’s less natural lights.  When the darkness lifted, only Ismail, Oslo, Cyril, Rhea, and one lone guardsman remained in the room with the fragments of hundreds of sigil tiles and the huddled black shape of their attacker.  Fading shouts and the falling echo of men in full armor sprinting for their lives announced where the others had gone.

Oslo sagged to his knees.  He cradled his head in his hands and breathed with the deep, irregular rhythm of a distance runner at the end of his resources.  Cyril stepped closer to the unmoving form of the attacker as Rhea approached Oslo.  Cyril prodded the body with the tip of his sword, watching for the slightest sign of movement.

“You did it,” Ismail said disbelievingly.

Oslo looked up at Ismail, his eyes sunk into deep hollows, but he said nothing.

Rhea pulled off a gauntlet and laid a hand across his mouth.  “Shh. Rest.”  She looked up at Ismail.  “We should pull back.”

Oslo caught Rhea by the wrist and gently pulled her hand from his mouth.  “No,” he said.  “We can’t.  We have to push forward, find the center.”

“I don’t…” Ismail stopped in mid-sentence, turning toward the footstep they had all heard from the largest passageway at the end of the hall.  A tall, thin figure strode into the room.  He wore a loose white robe of fine silk, but enough could be seen of the wasted figure beneath the gown to indicate the emaciation of the body that wore it.  A gaunt man, his body seemed to have been purged of all excess flesh.

When he spoke, the skin of his cheeks drew tight against the teeth underneath.  “Oslo. It is good that you have come.  The master hopes you will join him below.”  His voice was a weak, arid breeze.

Oslo rose wearily to his feet.  Cyril was edging closer to the newcomer, his weapons still at the ready.

Ismail raised his axe and started in that direction as well.  He glanced at his remaining man before looking back at the newcomer.  “Othre, back me up.  What kind of man would live in this house of death?”

Othre nodded, and took up a position to Ismail’s left.

“Look at his eyes,” Oslo advised softly.  “This is no man.”

The newcomer kept his unblinking gaze on Oslo as the hunter approached, apparently unaffected by the light still shining from Rhea’s weapons.  Cyril cursed aloud as the light revealed gray, withered balls in the man’s eye sockets.

“I am my master’s herald,” the newcomer said.  “My days as a mortal man have ended.”

Rhea pulled her gauntlet back on as she walked beside Oslo, but her eyes never left the face of the dead man in front of her.

“Who is your master?” Oslo asked.

The herald cocked his head.  “You must know.  Why else would you be here, in the Master’s house?”

Ismail’s hands flexed on the haft of his axe, but he looked back at Oslo.  “What do we do?”

“We follow,” Oslo said.  “The herald proves this isn’t over yet.”

The messenger turned and led them deeper into the house, to a dry cistern.  In the bottom of the cistern, a hole gaped where the drain had once been.  A passage led down into the earth below the cistern, sloped away into the darkness until rough-hewn stone opened out into a large passageway of the familiar mortarless Jodan stonework.

“The sewers,” Ismail said with a curse.  “That’s how they could move unseen.”

No one answered him.  Everyone was busy watching the movement at the edges of the shadows created by their lights.  The messenger guided them along narrow walkways over the streams of sewage, through long passageways and up stairs cut into the stone bedrock.  Cyril nudged Othre, pointing to black forms as they passed, floating in the sewage or lying at the edges of walkways, apparently having dropped in mid step.  “They failed when Oslo shattered the tiles.”

“Sure,” Othre said.  “But what about our friend up front?  How many like him does his Master have?”

“Did you expect Oslo to do all of the work?” Cyril asked mildly.  “We’ll have the opportunity to earn our keep yet.”

If Othre or Ismail met this pronouncement with any enthusiasm, they concealed it well.

The messenger led them up until they came out into a vast chamber, ringed with torches.  Oslo stopped, scanning the chamber, noting the runes carved carefully into each stone.  The pattern of the power in the rooms shadowed the patterns in the room above. Oslo studied the arrangement, roughly estimating at least ten times the number of runes and a corresponding power an order of magnitude beyond what he’d seen above in the house.

The edges of the light flicked across shivering ripples of disturbed water without ever revealing the source of the disturbance as the messenger led them down a long central walkway toward a large raised platform at the back of the room. Given the size of the room, the torches hid as much as they illuminated, bathing the room in a half-light of shadows everywhere but where the lights of the group banished the darkness.  They came to the platform.  The messenger stepped smoothly aside.  Oslo spotted an old throne in a recess in the back of the chamber, behind a long low table or altar that had been covered in black silk.  He stepped up on the platform.

A figure stirred in the shadows lying across the throne.  “Oslo.  I’m glad you’ve come.  I need your help.  I’m close, but I’m still missing the key.”

“Yousib,” Oslo said, his voice flat with pain.  “What have you done?”

“Learned much.  But not enough.  Not yet.”  The voice rising out of the darkness rustled like autumn leaves.  Yousib did not so much sound like an old man, as he did not truly sound like a man at all.  Had a dry, cold wind been given a voice, that voice would have been indistinguishable from Yousib’s.

A splash and sloshing displacement of water echoed through the chamber, then died away to the murmuring stillness of the sewers.  Oslo drew one of his knives, spoke a word, and held the glowing blade high.  The shadows around the throne stubbornly refused to flee.  Yousib’s face continued to wear a mask of darkness.  “Why did you make them, Yousib? Why have you done what you have done?”

“I needed to learn.  I didn’t know enough.  I was afraid.  I spent so much of my strength on them during the plague.  I saved lives.  Surely I could take a few back when I needed.  And I needed them so badly.  I needed to know.”

“You were a great man,” Oslo said. “A scholar.  Why would you pervert your knowledge this way?”

“Perversion?  My work here is no perversion.  Call it rather an extension.  Death itself falls before the light of knowledge.  I know that to be true.”

The sounds of more movement in the water ran through the chamber. Oslo paused as the echoes faded.  “Where is Kara?”

The figure sprawling on the throne said nothing.

“She didn’t go away, did she?”

“She went away,” said the voice out of the darkness sheltering the throne.  “But she came back too early.  I was weak.  Too weak to help her when the sickness came.  I tried.  Forgive me, but I tried everything.  And she went away again.  But I’ll bring her back.  Once I know enough, I’ll bring her back.”

“You know as well as I that the Jodan themselves never conquered death.  Let her go, Yousib.”

“No!”  The vice became a howling wind.  Echoes rippled back and forth through the chamber.  “Look at the Children of Night,” Yousib continued in his dry voice once the echoes died to murmurs.  “They came out of that time.  They conquer death.  Save when you hunt them.”

“They feed on the innocent to sustain themselves,” Oslo said.  “What kind of life is that?  Are they truly alive?  What rises is only a shell of the person that fell, a mask of memories over a shadow of death.  They are not what they once were, Yousib.  You know that.  Would you make Kara a monster?”

After a moment of silence, broken only by the drip of water, the voice came again out of the shadows.  “I will succeed where the Jodan failed.  I’ll learn from their mistakes and my own.  The process will be perfect before I bring her back.  I would never harm her.  I love her.  I can’t live without her.  I won’t.”

“Yousib…”

“No.”  The figure on the throne jerked upright to its feet, like a puppet pulled by strings.  “I had hoped you would help me, Oslo.  But I can see that your mind is closed to me.  I’ve learned much.  I can’t let you interfere.  Walk away.  Don’t make me hurt you.”

Cyril poked Oslo in the back.  Oslo felt the poke even through his armor.  He didn’t take his eyes from Yousib.  “What?”

“We have company.”

Oslo could hear them without looking around.  The murmuring of the water had increased as more of Yousib’s creations made their way into the chamber.  If he looked around, he knew he would see pale, withered faces, expressions avid with a hunger for the life that had been denied them, edging into the light.

Oslo walked steadily toward the throne.  Rhea and Cyril followed.  Yousib paced slowly toward them.  Behind them they could hear the sounds of the circle tightening.  Ismail and Othre turned to look back at the gathering dead, their weapons at the ready.

The shadows fled at last from Yousib’s face.  Oslo flinched at the black eyes, and the pale, gaunt features.  “What have you done to yourself?” he asked.

“You know,” Yousib told him mockingly.  “I tested the processes first on the dead, as I developed them.  Doing no harm.  But I needed fresher and fresher dead as I perfected the process.  I needed to know, you understand?  How could they grudge me their dead when I had spent my strength protecting as many of them as I could?  And in the end, when I felt myself weakening, and I had the process so nearly in hand, I knew that I had to take the final step.  I had to learn on the living.  And so I did.  Did I cost them more than I gave them?  At last, I knew I had to assure myself the only way possible that the process would work.  Then once I had conquered death, I realized that I still had more to learn.”

One claw-like hand pulled the silk covering back from the altar before the throne, revealing a glass-topped coffin.  Through the glass Oslo saw the pale features of a beautiful woman, just past adolescence.  She could almost have been sleeping.

Yousib’s hand caressed the glass over the woman’s face.  The long nails clicked against the transparent surface.  “You see how I have preserved her.  But still, the process must be perfect.  I cannot sacrifice her beauty.  It is all that sustains me.”

Oslo lunged in that moment, but fast as he was, Yousib caught him by the wrist, holding him effortlessly.  His face empty of expression, Oslo drew the other blade from the back of his belt and struck underhand.  Yousib’s free hand caught him by the wrist in a grip like a band of iron.

“You see?” Yousib asked, his voice pitiless.  “I am more than human, not less.  I am not bound by the same laws that bind you.”

Oslo felt the grip tighten on his wrists and closed his eyes.  He spoke a single word in Jodan.  The blades of both knives, which had been burning with a bright light, incandesced and burst into white, searing flame.  Yousib flinched.  In that moment Oslo broke his opponent’s grasp and struck, plunging one blade up, under Yousib’s ribs and into where his heart once beat, and thrusting the other blade into his throat.

Yousib opened his mouth to scream.  White flame vomited forth.  His eyes burned from within.  White flame ran down his cheeks like tears.

Oslo swept Yousib’s feet out from under him as he convulsed under the cleansing flame.  He knelt on Yousib’s body, holding him down as he writhed and twisted and the flame devoured him from within.  Behind Oslo, Rhea and Cyril held against a rush of Yousib’s creations.  Rhea shouted Jodan words into the darkness, and a brilliant light rose like the sun in that dark place.  The creatures drew back, hands raised to block the searing light, but the stopped where the light faded, prowling through the shadows.

“They’re still moving,” Cyril shouted.  “Would have been nice if his creations fell with him!”

Oslo rose from a dark outline that had burnt into the white stone of the platform.  The blades of his knives had faded to their former glow.  Soot blackened his armored shins and thighs.

Oslo looked at the wall, studying the power framed through the structure of runes.  He knew he didn’t have the strength to use brute force to overload the runes as he had in the lesser room above.  Even Yousib would have found it difficult to focus the power held in that room.  “He must have bound his power into a keystone,” Oslo said slowly, thinking out loud.

He measured the movement in the shadows.  After a moment, he turned his attention to the coffin.  One hand trailed streamers of light across the glass top, and the light spread, blossoming in intricate patterns.  Oslo studied the patterns in silence.

“Oslo?”

Oslo blinked, shook himself, then looked down at Rhea’s concerned expression. “It’s beautiful,” he said softly.  “I didn’t expect that.”

“Is it the key?”

Without answering, Oslo reached down to the patterns crawling with illuminated traces of power.  The patterns shifted under his hand, blending with the runes scribed on the transparent surface of the coffin.  Beads of sweat appeared on Oslo’s forehead, though his expression remained serene.  The patterns continued to shift, though they moved ever more slowly.  Lines of light became visible, stretching out to the stones and to the prowling undead in a vast glowing web.

At last the patterns ceased to move.  A trembling pulse came into the light, like a faltering heartbeat.  Oslo looked through the glass at the perfect features held at the moment of death, then one gauntleted fist smashed through the glass and the runes of light that covered it.  The light flashed.  A thin wail could be heard as the light snapped out of existence.  In the silence that followed the bodies of the undead could be heard dropping into the water like so many loads of rotting meat.

Rhea murmured in Jodan.  The light burning from her weapons faded to more tolerable levels.

Cyril sighed and began cleaning his blade.

Oslo drew the silk covering back over the shattered coffin lid and the empty shell that waited inside.  “We’ll need to come back,” he said.  “The runes here must be eliminated, the stones broken, the power erased, lest someone else find this place and take up Yousib’s work.  But not now.  We need to rest.  I need to rest.”

Ismail led the way toward the light.  No one in the party stepped lightly among the fallen bodies.  No one looked too closely at the cost of one man’s obsession.

“I’m not sure I want to meet any more old friends of yours, Oslo,” Cyril said as they began the long climb back toward the city.

“He was a great man,” Rhea said.  “He spent his strength trying to save people from the plague, and lost the one he loved because of it.  When do you think he became a monster?”

“I think it was when he stopped loving Kara,” Oslo said thoughtfully.

“But he loved her even after she died,” Cyril protested.  “You could see that he did what he did because he loved her.”

“He wanted her,” Oslo disagreed.  “Maybe he always did, and mistook the wanting for love.  He wanted to possess her, to own her beauty.  He stopped loving her when he began to see her not as a person to be loved, but rather as a thing to be possessed.  Love became greed.  Greed became fear of loss.  It was a natural progression from seeing her as a thing to be owned to seeing everyone else as things to be used.  He became a monster the day his love died, and his fear of losing his prized possession possessed him in turn.”

Cyril didn’t have anything to say to that, and Rhea seemed lost in her own thoughts, so they climbed on in silence, back through the empty house, until at last they came into the street.

When the three of them stepped into the sunlight, tired and filthy from their descent and return, they saw soldiers ranking themselves into lines of battle on the grounds of the manor.  Some or all of Ismail’s deserting squad had evidently contacted Janaki.  Janaki had responded.  He met the group at the doorway, incongruously clad in chain mail and carrying an axe.

He stopped Oslo with a hand on his shoulder.  “Is it done?” he asked gently.

“The worst of it is over,” Oslo said.  “But post a guard.  We’ll need to cleanse what lies below, and that won’t be a short or easy task.”

Janaki nodded.  Ismail began detailing men to guard the manor.  After what the city had been through, Oslo doubted that many would want to descend into such a place any time soon, but he believed in taking no chances.

As Janaki and the rest of his men escorted them back through the city streets, Rhea caught Oslo’s left hand, removed his gauntlet, took off her own glove as they walked, and twined her fingers through his.  Oslo did not resist.

That night, the city slept behind doors still barred against the unknown horrors of the night, but when the morning light came, everyone in that place could feel the difference. The shadow had lifted, and the city knew freedom from the taste of fear again, if only for the moment.

And for the moment, it was enough.

 

Alcon Blue

by Noah Lemelson

I lived my life, alone, among men and rats in that filth-bearing nest they called a city. My father, a fool, had found his cold place in the earth when I was a child, and my mother, mind gone, soon followed. My sister took work driving the plains, and I found myself toiling in dim rooms for men I had never met, for days and years, until my face grew saggy, my bones tired, my ears began to ring, and my eyes blurred.

The only woman to ever touch me with warmth had demanded more than I could give. Children’s cries had brought smiles to her face, and to me, a knowing look, yet I discovered that my loins could provide for her only dust. Soon she faded, leaving me with nothing, and with that nothing I sat amid the decayed farmhouse of my childhood years, waiting to rot alone among forgotten rye.

That is, until the night the heavens gave me my daughter.

 

Her birth was from a storm, there was none like it; the night sky a lavender glow, the air rushing with the scent of rotting flowers. She came from the stars, of that I am sure, the ground burst at her birth. Yet she lay unscratched, warm, round, and wet.

I held close the child, a gift of life far beyond my worth. I took my daughter in, I made her a bed, I fed her, I bathed her. I loved her.

 

She grew as fast as my delight. Her arms were strong, her hair long and flowing, her stride wide as she danced ripples among the fields. She jumped and ducked in a playground I had built, dashed and swerved among the poles and stones. When she sang dogs howled to meet her.

When night fell, I would take her head upon my lap, her skin azure and cool, her arms engulfing me. I stared up above at the sparkling black and told stories I had long forgotten, of my past and things before it, of people and places I had never seen. At times I did not know the words that left my mouth, but my daughter understood, shimmering all the while.

 

My sister came to visit and I hid my daughter. I spoke nothing of her new niece, and only groaned out to the intruder my old complaints. I feared this woman, who would not understand, could not understand.

I froze when she asked about what I had created outside, of the poles and ropes, titled steel slopes and patterns of smoothed stones. Creations whose form had been gifted to me in dreams. For this I laughed my only lie:

“Art,” I said, “Just a lonely old man and his art.”

 

First I fed my daughter with meat from a store down the road. When my funds withered, I fed her the remains of the farm. I gave to her my parent’s old cows and senile pigs, one by one, as my daughter grew and grew.

When none were left, my daughter would leave to hunt for hours, then days. I would sit by the window, mad with worry, until I heard her crawl through the door, covered in the browns of dirt, the greens of crushed leafs, and reds.

 

The stories in the paper lay first in the back pages, of missing dogs, then sheep, then cattle. Soon they traveled to the front, of a missing child, of a man stripped to bone, of a house wiped clean of every living thing. I held my daughter and wept, but I could not allow her to starve, and soon her feet, stepping in threes, would be out the door and into the dark, her long stomach rippling from hunger.

I went to town to hear the stories for myself. The people spoke with fear, with hate, talk of fleeing or fighting. Some thought it a bear, but a bear could not break down a door. Some thought it a madman, but who could climb to such high windows, or slip through cellar cracks?

I fled when they began to speak of the police, and then, of the National Guard.

 

I slept that night with my head nestled in my daughter’s back-spines. She stroked me, our roles reversed. I whispered for her to leave, to run. To flee to the mountains where they she could get lost among the trees, or into the darkness of some sewer. My daughter could fit into surprising places.

She rumbled and cooed, and spoke images of far-off places, of cities that floated, of rivers of metal, of spheres that danced in forests of gems; of horizons of purples, of towers of skin, of a world so beautiful that it made me scream.

Then it was I heard a shout from outside, fear in the voice of my sister. Perhaps she had heard the stories, perhaps her visit was only curiosity, but my pleas could not keep her hand from my door.

Her face was pale, her voice cracked as she glimpsed my daughter. Her hand went to her holster and I dashed, but my daughter was faster still. She no longer needed me to protect her.

 

I wept at the feet of my sister’s skin, ripped in clean lines, flesh scooped away. My daughter cooed, and lifted me up in her dozen hands. She held me close to her back, and carried me from that sepulcher.

Out we went, through fields of rye, past abandoned towns, through forests where the trees bore her mark, into a hole, deep through the earth.

There I blinked in the shadows, hands pushing blindly through mucus and dirt, voice silent, until I saw movement.

I fell to my knees, neither laughing nor crying but both. My daughter was not of my flesh, she did not inherit my dust. For there, resting a sublime peace in cots of skin, lay my granddaughters, warm, round and wet.