Below the homes and below the streets there is a place where vermin dream, where castoffs live and work and breathe – where nothing is what it seems. Here is where the worst go to thrive, where fever dreams are kept alive. The hidden and mad go to ground and sunlight is beaten, broken, drowned.
The Get of Kingu conquered myth and tale, they devastated the sacred veil, bound those creatures to a treaty and placed their children in the Undercity. Down and down go these black roads and the secret stories only they know, the powers that were left to linger smothering every light bringer. Blood is shed and shadows swell and no one knows where bodies fell, they hold their secrets and this truth, they hold the end and blackened youth.
Some children of Kingu live down there, those whose power inspires fear – not powerful enough to hold their own they retreat into the dark and live alone. Or so they think and learn to dread, for here terror lives in waking heads – waking hours offer no respite and sanity doesn’t seem so right. The consequences of taking seed are the children no one ever needs and they are shoved down and left to die but still they breathe and still they strive.
From continents that were torn undone come those who fear the sun, eating dead flesh left to rot; and though they’re here you’d swear they’re not. Their tunnels are below your feet and all around you unseen they creep, a breath on shoulder never felt, the dead their only source of wealth. They fear the living and feed on death, bones knitted beneath their flesh – and though you might think you’re safe there is no escape from that which waits.
But worse that those that feed on death are those that seek to surcease breath, those that bathe in battle’s gore, they born from atrocity and war. Grey skinned they look and ill, muscle like wire driven by will, hair a pale fluttered gray until their knives cut away. It’s pain that feeds them and makes them rise, bathing in viscera freed by knives, covered in insides still steaming, devouring they that die screaming.
From emerald isles across a pond they came, for those called snakes they were to blame, their crimes carried beyond those who could to exile those who understood. Yet down in the dark they found a place and one born of them is their face, a champion anointed upon her brow, called Falciamar she stands unvowed. Her people are the Dearg Capini, the ones who rage and ravage cities, like bomb and mortar they come to kill, like knife and spear with blood to spill.
Yet even they respect the whispering dark, where the Sluagh perfect their art. Led by a coven steeped in rite and never caring for the light; the Sluagh dwell in the darkest places with rarely seen yet pale faces, gaunt and tragic and sunk of eye, they whisper hushes and terrible lies. How could you stand their gaze, they who see the ghostly ways? How could you find their meaning in whispered chalk scratch quiet screaming?
Below them all, the furthest down, the children of Mountain built their town. Brilliant and tied to the core of earth, strong as boulders below the dirt. They stand alone and they stand apart, gifting aid with their art, and those that come on bended knee can here find what they might need.
And past them all and past the stair, there’s one who stands everywhere – the one hunted broke on olden moors, of murmuring madness – the Lord of Doors.
Feeding on scraps and always in danger are the ones their gods made strangers; forever outside and never trusted, their existence makes other disgusted. Call them Goblins if you must, but whisper the word and check the dust. For while they walk about unseen they leave tracks in what’s not clean. So it’s said and so I’ve been told, and wisdom is age and I’m quite old.
They were hunted, hated, and cast down, unwanted by all in the undertown. Staying quite far and staying quite hidden, keeping their secrets and always unbidden. Outside of company and outside the light, not one soul trusting them to be right, their children in the darkness hide and sometimes you can hear them cry to lay the groundwork that others might grieve, so they might betray those who believe.
Give not a Goblin sympathy, for your slavery is what makes them free.
And to this fell Academy came two more Goblin children, two supposed innocents come to be better villains. They stepped into the southern lands and found someone to take by the hand, and one child trusted and one did not, and one become a slave while the other did not. They were not brothers, not age old friends, but Goblins learn to themselves defend, for they are weak and sad when young and those who took them were quite strong.
There is a place above the Undercity, the Academy where walk the pretty, and some of them seek to enslave others and revel in breaking one another. One trusting child to the breaking was took, the other beaten and left bleeding shook – that one escaped down into the dark, to mend the flesh that had been cut apart.
Maricurius was this Goblin’s name, and at that moment he did not know the game. He knew only that a child had been taken and that no one cared and so his soul was shaken. Not even the other Goblins cared, not even when they were made aware that one of their own had been taken for pleasure, that the shattered soul would be another’s treasure.
He begged for food that was not given and stole scraps and rags and plotted sedition: if none would help him save his own he’d venture forth and do it alone. He stole a knife from Falciamar’s pack and ran without looking back. He struggled for food and struggled to eat, found cracked concrete in which to sleep, stole old blankets and stole clothes, stole what he needed to the system oppose.
Stepping into the light he walked unseen, using a Goblin’s gift to fit the scene to scout the place where slaves were taken without alerting any of this break-in. He saw what was done and he saw the locks, he saw as much as he could without shock. He left the place and wretched and sobbed, but then he stood and his tears did daub.
“This is wrong and this will not stand. There must be one to lend a hand.”
But Goblins stand apart and are not to be born, and everyone knew they were forsworn.
He went to the pariahs who hid from their kin, but even they despised what he’d been. He went to the ones who ate the dead and was chased beyond the watershed, down into the depths and into the tunnels, escaping through the sewage funnel.
From there he went to Mountain’s children and they were not pleased with a guest unbidden. “At least that one’s wanted,” they said and smiled, “perhaps you should think on that awhile.” Dejected, he walked towards the slaughter where ruled war’s atrocious daughter. Falciamar saw he carried her knife and hunted him to take his life. He offered it back and offered his breath if she would but follow him into death, but even she would not take his oath and he escaped barely and still alone.
He next sought out the Lord of Doors and pleaded his case without succor. His own people would not give aid and no other could ever be so brave. And so Maricurius went alone to the place with a Goblin’s unseen grace; he steeled himself against every terror and caught the guards unaware. He fought and stabbed and found whom was lost, but too late and too late and life was the cost; all that rage and all that hate and because he was alone he’d come too late.
Dejected, despairing, he walked in lands of light, turning to the Academy’s center in the night. There, every name is writ on a wall and beside every name is a title to call, and Maricurius found to his surprise that his actions had made his name rise – someone was watching and someone approved of what he’d done in the interfluve.
That judge had placed him above his kin, had raised him as Goblins had never been. He stared and stared and got to asking how Goblins had lived in the masking – had they always lived in fear, or was there a life he could commandeer? He walked south towards stacks of books and peered in tomes and in finding looked:
A time had passed when Goblins stood without being beaten, and this time had been in every land and season. What happened was a story worthy of operetta, a tale of woe and bloody vendetta. There’d been a time when Goblins accepted hate, but those that acted upon it met their fate – a Goblin killed meant another life lost as Goblins sought vengeance regardless of cost.
This had ended when the others wanted peace and signed a treaty to make all sides cease the slaughter carried from generations towards a final destination. His people remembered what others forgot, but they’d broken their promise and the Goblins had not. He turned from the book to the knife in his hand, the knife that he’d taken and taken again.
So he moved away from the books and away from that treaty and took all his rage to the Undercity, and there he listened to Goblin’s cries and when he heard those that caused them died. He killed while being hidden and was never seen and the murderous debt was wiped clean, and other Goblins took note of his skill and bound themselves to follow his will.
It did not take long for the others to learn that when you kill a Goblin it’s you that gets burned, and when they sought to attack en masse they found that the Goblins had vanished and passed; who can fight an enemy you cannot see? Can you adapt when bullying is not free?
Maricurius threw the Undercity into uproar, where the powers that be weren’t powers anymore. “Why should there be a price for what we’ve always done? Why disturb what has always been fun? Don’t they know it’s meant to be this way? Why do those we hurt think they’ve something to say?” Abusers do not like to admit doing wrong and do not like to admit they are weak and not strong. The Goblins had found a better way to live and the Undercity shivered to find them combative.
“The natural order has been disturbed, the social contract and unwritten word – why can’t things go back to what they were, when Goblins trembled and we were assured that our way was true and our power was just, when we could satisfy more than lust? How can we show them back to their place when we can no longer see their face? The Goblins are missing, the Goblins are gone, and all this social disruption is wrong.”
Down and down and deeper to Mountain’s children, these abusers now turned their vision. They sought answers in the iron way but those children had nothing to say; they were not willing to pay the Goblin debt, the promise that was as much a threat.
“But your inventions could find the Goblins, yes?”
“Perhaps, but we now know what would come next.”
And Mountain’s children show the signs of pact, the vow’s markings on their back. The Goblins had gone into the depths first and there they’d bargained for what they were worth; Mountain’s children would not interfere and the others were angry to cover their fear.
The Slaugh wailed in their quiet way and turned their magic to saving the day, but they had more and more to dread as the Goblin price promised bloodshed. They could not scream above a whisper when Goblins came from yon and hither and they could not slip from Goblin eyes, whose irises saw through illusions and lies. The shadows could not offer safety but still they thought their secrets may be the way for them to stave off death and rob the Goblins of their breath.
Down in the darkest places they gathered, the coven using fell magics to shatter the will the Goblins had finally found and drive their hopes into the ground, but they never saw the flashing knives that slit their throats and took their lives. Maricurius stood among the dead and demanded that the Slaugh be led – that he would take them under his protection or kill them all for their provocation. And so the Goblin promise accepted, written in flesh and now protected.
“Finally,” said Falciamar of the Dearg Capini, “we have a target in the Undercity.” She led her people against the Slaugh’s kin and with ragged knives they opened skin, bathed in blood and wore their guts and fed their rage fueled by bloodlust, but Maricurius was as good as his word and came to the aid of those put to the sword. Goblins appeared around the Dearg Capini and slaughtered war’s children without pity.
“No, no, step out of where you strike and are hidden,” Falciamar demanded the Goblins be bidden. “Fight fair as I demand and come fight me now, there is no other outcome that I’ll allow!”
Yet the world was silent except for the killing, and the Dearg Capini found their courage slipping. The war was fought with savage pride and they that were mighty were barely alive. When Falciamar next demanded a duel for pact, Maricurius stepped out from where he’d been hidden at last.
“I accept your duel and here are the stakes – if I win then your people must hold and wait until I am dead or until I am gone, your people will slumber, your violence withdrawn.”
“Yes and alright, I accept your terms,” Falciamar said and was about to learn. She drew her sword and washed blood in her hair and so came fighting awake and aware, but Maricurius could not be seen and how does violence fight a dream? He cut her down over hours and hours, slicing her flesh and her fury devoured, but it was not until he threatened to her dismember that she accepted the terms of surrender.
She would face exile into nightmares and screams, her madness haunting sleeping seams – for so long as he ruled and drew breath she would not inflict any more death. Non-interference was the invocation that was demanded by the Goblin nation and Falciamar’s sole choice was to accept and so was driven without recompense.
And now Maricurius came to the eaters of death to discuss the matters of shibboleth. Their leader was a creature who’d learned to think ahead, sometimes taking those who were not quite dead and letting them stay chained and crude until his people needed them for food. Had Maricurius anything to offer they could not take, with patience and jaws and the promise of fate?
“Yes, I have, an offer you’d like,” Maricurius said, putting down his knife. “Bodies to be brought to you should you keep to yourselves, a zero-risk investment of your only wealth. And if you listen to what else I have planned there is no door from which you will be banned.” Curious, the death eaters listened to the plan and took Maricurius by the hand, agreeing to his idea and his terms and fading from sight not to return.
But of the dangers there was one more – the madness called the Lord of Doors.
Maricurius was going to see the wall that had inspired him to change the all, but that meant passing through the frame and that was when I took his name; your narrator was splintered on ancient moors, called Fhioscath to some and the Lord of Doors, and there was none that could stay my hand and my attention turns clay to sand.
He stepped from one place to another and was robbed of all his brothers, all he’d done and all he’d built taken as a sign of guilt. I surrounded him and him alone and kept him from his deserved throne, peering long into his mind and so all he’d hidden I would find – the eyes are doorways to the soul and thought a place where I might stroll.
I stepped inside all Maricurius could ever be and what I found set neither of us at ease – my wanderings had driven others insane but he just stood and learned my name. We walked through all his memories and came to know accessories; he would kill and he would in blood bathe to make a world he felt worthy to save and through his will this is what he’d done, a feat dreamed but never done.
How could I stand in the way of this? I anointed him with my kiss and brought him to the blackened wall where we saw his name would never fall; I promised that I would sleep so long as his will defined the deep. He was lord and he had risen, breaking what had been a cultural prison and from the grime and gore and gritty become the Goblin King of the Undercity.
Books & Writing
Below the homes and below the streets there is a place where vermin dream, where castoffs live and work and breathe – where nothing is what it seems. Here is where the worst go to thrive, where fever dreams are kept alive. The hidden and mad go to ground and sunlight is beaten, broken, drowned.
Kurtis Wiebe, writer of Rat Queens and Bounty and a host of other comics that we love, recently took the time to sit down and chat about his return to that title, his love of role playing games, the future of the Queens, and some of his other projects. It’s the sort of conversation that we’re delighted to be able to share, and so…
LMM: Hey, Kurtis, thanks for taking the time to do this with us. You’re back writing Rat Queens, one of the first – and, in our opinion, one of the best – dungeons and dragons inspired comics to feature anything other than male leads. Where did the original concept come from?
Kurtis Wiebe: Rat Queens was born out of the idea of taking fantasy in a direction I’d never seen before. I’d never come across a fantasy series, comic or fiction in general, that featured four female protagonists. I wanted to create a world where gender really didn’t matter when it came to career pursuits. So often when a woman is a warrior in these sorts of stories there’s always someone making a point of it. “You can’t do that, you’re a woman.” And then the story is about them proving that they can. I think it’s a fun concept that it’s just a universally accepted fact that a job is a job, no one questions the gender equation.
And I think it’s pretty obvious that there’s a huge element of roleplaying game nostalgia mixed in for good measure.
LMM: You had initially intended to kickstart the series. What was it like getting picked up by Jim Valentino before the funding went live? What was your reaction?
Kurtis Wiebe: I think it’s sort of telling in a lot of ways. I never expected ANYONE to read Rat Queens. It was a series in a genre that traditionally was a tough sell in the comic market. It didn’t even cross my mind to pitch to Shadowline until Riley Rossmo read over the pitch and said I should at least try to talk to Jim Valentino about it.
Jim responded within a few hours and greenlit it. I think Jim saw more in the series than I did at that point and took a chance. I was pretty surprised, honestly.
Kurtis Wiebe: Owen Gieni. I’d been talking to him for years about working on something together. We’ve known each other long before we both ended up in Vancouver a few years ago. (Though I’m no longer there, myself.) Owen and I met up and started hanging out in Saskatoon, Canada roughly seven years ago. We played RPG’s together, jammed on story ideas and spent a few nights around a campfire having drinks. Real classic small town Saskatchewan stuff.
I’d always hoped that Owen would come onto Rat Queens for a one shot at the very least, and I’d reached out to him about coming onto the series when Stjepan was unable to continue working on it. It didn’t work out then due to scheduling conflicts, but I’m so glad he agreed to join me for the relaunch.
You have to understand that Owen brought an energy to the series that reignited the spark for me. I had fell out of love with the series for a lot of reasons but I am absolutely loving working on it again. The best part is the level of collaboration we have. We will break story together, scene by scene. Joke by joke. This new take on Rat Queens is a real blending of our combined humor and storytelling.
LMM: You’ve got an interesting cast of characters to develop stories with. Who’s your favorite, and why?
Kurtis Wiebe: Tough decision. I think Betty has become the most natural for me. I know her inside and out and her ability to love anyone, despite everything, is an aspect of her personality that is a real joy to write.
LMM: Speaking of that cast of characters… everyone is a lot deeper than they look at first glance. Where’d you draw on the gender issues that confront Violet, where do you see her brother’s involvement in her life going, and is the rest of her family going to get involved?
Kurtis Wiebe: For Violet, it was more about family expectation. Tradition for the sake of it. Never questioning the history that came before. And the reasons her father gave her were never enough. She needed to be heard and her father, and Barrie to a certain extent, weren’t able to do so. So Violet set out to create her own traditions that were personal to her.
Barrie is already part of the new relaunch, and it’s evident he still doesn’t understand her choices. We will be dealing with that in upcoming issues and more with her family later on.
LMM: Violet takes care of her Queens and the Queens look like the biggest gang of heroes in Palisade – how do the people of Palisade feel about that, and how comfortable is Violet with playing politics? Will the various nobles try to use Violet and the nobles for their own ends?
Kurtis Wiebe: I doubt Violet sees herself as a hero, that would be more of a Hannah thing. But the people of Palisade are much more accepting of the Queens after they saved the town from a potentially devastating attack in Volume 2. We’ll get into that more in the series as well.
LMM: By the same token, you have a similar but different issue playing out with the half-orc, Braga. What was it like getting to explore her backstory, and what’s it like having her officially join the Queens?
Kurtis Wiebe: I love the one shots for that reason. We have an opportunity to tell smaller stories that reveal the history of our side characters in the series. As far as Braga, she’s always been a fun character to write. Her backstory is sad in a lot of ways, but fits in with the overall idea of found family. She never fit in with her own orcish people because of their backward violent traditions. There’s some similarities to Violet’s backstory, but Braga left to see a bigger, more beautiful world.
It was a natural fit to bring her into the fold of the Queens. It’s definitely a different dynamic, and it takes some getting used to for sure. But I’m glad we made that decision.
LMM: Hannah has dealt with a host of abuses in the past. Has she laid her demons to rest, so to speak, or are they going to come back to haunt her going forward?
Kurtis Wiebe: Hannah’s story is a very big part of our relaunch. I’ve said before that everything that happened in the series before matters and the relaunch is going to be a little jarring at first. I can’t say much more without giving a lot away. But, rest assured, Hannah’s history and her decisions are very much still echoing through the story.
LMM: Hannah’s infernal heritage has caused her a lot of grief and turned people against her not because of who but because of what she is. Do you see who she’s become as a self-fulfilling prophecy given the way she’s been treated?
Kurtis Wiebe: It can go that way. Or maybe it has. Or maybe it will. Or maybe it hasn’t. Secrets.
LMM: Dee’s religious background is interesting – an atheist cleric who has seen the face of her god is kind of amazing. Where did the idea of her faith come from, and are we going to see it explored further?
Kurtis Wiebe: Dee’s religious background is a fundamental part of her character and we can’t tell her story without some part of that playing a role. A lot of her experiences are based on my own. I came from a Christian family and later on became an atheist. Through her story, I’m telling my own. Even working out some of the struggles I’ve had because of it.
And Dee’s vision of her god will definitely play a large role in stories to come. For now, Dee is preparing for a career change which will be more apparent in our second arc.
LMM: How does Betty live on nothing but alcohol, drugs, and candy?
Kurtis Wiebe: Smidgen resilience to pleasure overload.
LMM: You’ve used Rat Queens as a means of poking fun at fantasy tropes while exploring modern issues of privilege, gender and sexual identity, and politics. A handful of comics have tried to echo what you built – how do you plan on keeping Rat Queens ahead of the pack?
Kurtis Wiebe: I don’t really see it as a competition. Rat Queens mirrors the community of people in my life and that’s where I draw my inspiration from. I plan to continue to be inspired by that community and try as best as I can to replicate those relationships in the world of Rat Queens.
LMM: Rat Queens betrays a love and knowledge of pen’n’paper role playing. Do a favorite system? What games do you play? Do you have a favorite character you’ve played in the past?
Kurtis Wiebe: I love RPGs. I play anything and everything. I think certain systems are good for specific genres or types of players. Want to introduce complete newbs to RPGs? D&D 5th edition. Want to run a deeply character driven but hilarious short story? Fiasco. It all depends on the mood and the group, in my opinion.
And, to be honest, I haven’t actually played a character in about twelve years. I exclusively run games. That’s my jam.
LMM: What are the future plans for Rat Queens? You’ve done some crossovers with Vox Machina from Critical Role – a live D&D show played by voice actors – and done some work for the video gaming industry in the past; any chance for a Rat Queens video game? Toys? Board games? Maybe an actual D&D expansion?
Kurtis Wiebe: Well, it hasn’t been announced yet but I’m working with Wizards of the Coast on a Rat Queens adventure supplement for D&D 5th edition. I’d love to make an RQ board game, something like a dungeon crawler miniature combat game with a huge splash of humor.
LMM: In the first issue of the new series, the Queens end up fighting a Giant Canadian Goose. The normal-sized ones are terrible enough, but… are there stats for the Giant Canadian Goose? For reasons of I need to inflict that on my players.
Kurtis Wiebe: No stats yet. And you can thank Owen Gieni for that one. In the script I simply said: Insert flying monster of some kind. The rest is all Owen.
LMM: There’s been a host of other projects that you’ve been working on, all tying into the same themes that Rat Queens draws so much from – titles like Grim Leaper and Debris coming to mind. Is there any chance we might see more of them?
Kurtis Wiebe: I’m focusing all my comic energy into Rat Queens right now. It is my number one priority and my goal is to ensure we continue to come out with fun, hilarious and adventurous stories that are also hitting their schedule. Fun fact. When issue 3 came out last month, it was the first time in the series history that we had 3 issues in a row that came out on time. That’s the goal. Consistency in schedule and quality.
Kurtis Wiebe: I wrote Green Wake while going through a divorce. It was the one place I could channel all those raw emotions and transform it into something that made sense of at least some of the pain. But it was entirely a creation of both Riley and me. It was an equal partnership in both storytelling and worldbuilding and I’m super proud of it.
LMM: While Rat Queens was on hiatus, you started working on the sci-fi series Bounty. What was that like, jumping from one genre to the next?
Kurtis Wiebe: I wanted to do a series for a younger audience that built on the themes I’d created in Rat Queens. I’ve received so many messages about wanting a Rat Queens style story that women could share with the girls in their lives that wasn’t R rated. And Bounty came out of that. Genre jumping wasn’t a huge difficulty, I have written in sci-fi settings before and narratively it was a world that was right in my wheelhouse.
It was a lot of fun to work on. Mindy Lee is an amazing artist. Her design sense is some of the best I’ve seen in comics and it was a real honor to work with her. It was one of those things where Bounty wouldn’t have worked under anyone else’s sensibilities.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Kurtis. If you’d like to chat with Kurtis you can do so on the twitters by clicking here or his personal page by clicking here. He’s good people. He also sometimes hangs out at Big Pete’s Comics and Collectables, where you can also buy Rat Queens and his other works. They’re also on Amazon, and you can find a helpful listing of his comics by clicking here. Thanks again to Kurtis, thank you for reading, and we’ll have more goodies for you as they crop up.
Keira stared at the hourglass shaped board in front of her, considering her options. She’d used a Surcess Opening, had been surprised when her opponent had not followed suit – she had thought he was planning something she might not expect but had found his subsequent moves efficient but easy to predict. It was a dangerous weakness to expose in a place such as this.
They were playing in the living room of an apartment in the eastern part of the Sengri Academy. She was Keira Turn, a recognized genius with dangerous friends. He was Lucio Amadus, the younger of twins, and it was his sister that had set this appointment in an effort to socialize her brother. Keira hadn’t liked the sister but had done her the favor anyway, mostly to sate her own curiosity.
Kinguim children were typically raised by their parents or by their parent’s servants, taught the rudiments of the world and left to discover what they wanted to on their own before coming to one of the six Academies at the age of nine. There, her people learned to harness the divinity in their blood and learn what it was to be the Get of Kingu.
One of the first things they learned was that there was no law against murder, either among the adult Kinguim or among their children here at this school. Within the first week, they were marched over to the Trypper’s Tower, where a withered old man named Pitch taught them that their souls would always return to bodies with Kinguim blood. He even showed them a method to see this happen, so there could be no doubt.
Keira had trembled, helpless to do anything but watch as Pitch slit the throat of two grown men from the outside world. They had been collected for just this purpose: the Adama had been screaming for mercy, but the Kinguim had smiled at the assembled children, had waved at them before Pitch killed him.
It wasn’t the first time Keira had seen someone die and it wouldn’t be the last. She’d likely see the exercise repeated that afternoon. It was just that she’d never seen someone willingly go to the slaughter like that.
Pitch showed them how to watch, to trick their eyes into seeing the soul of a thing. Five hundred children had gasped when the weak soul of the Adama fell apart and drifted away like flotsam on an ocean tide, but the soul of the Kinguim began to glow sapphire blue, sinking into a shimmering net to await a body to inhabit.
She’d been there when Lucia and Lucio Amadus had been exposed to this horror and neither of them had flinched. She wondered how Carmen would react, her finger tracing a path along the edge of the table upon which the board was set as she tried to distract herself from the time and studied her opponent and his consideration.
There was a piece in this game that could only eliminate other pieces. It was a useful piece but it was unable to touch the me, and thus unable to affect the single means by which the highest amount of points that could be collected. It was meant to show that murder was useful but ultimately wasteful. She could reach over the snap his neck and no one would punish her. The sister would be mad, but Keira could kill her, too. She knew that would make her enemies, make people wary of her, and that she would die at the hands of the Amadus line. Instead, she studied his slight frown, his narrowed eyes.
He was cute and of West African descent, younger than her but brilliant, younger than the person she was waiting for, his fingers thrumming a gentle constant rhythm that mirrored his decisions. She had offered to put on some kind of music but he’d asked her not to, favoring the soft percussion of his fingers. She might have found it annoying had his talent for music not far exceeded his talent for Rafael.
“It’s five minutes since the last time you checked,” Lucio said, not looking up from the board. She bit her lip, took a deep breath.
“There’s someone coming today,” Keira said, watching his fingers keep their steady pattern. She was eleven years old and he was eight but very bright, and the girl coming today would be all of nine. “Someone I’m looking forward to seeing very much.
“A sister?” Lucio asked, looking up, a flicker of interest passing through his features.
“My sister is older than I am,” Keira answered. He nodded sympathy; Lucia was, Keira had been given to understand, thirty-six minutes older than Lucio. Their parents had not been expecting twins. Keira knew this because she was inquisitive and liked to know things about the people she was going to have to deal with and she expected Lucio to ask her questions about her sister or the person coming.
Sitting, silent, he stared at the board and considered his next move. She could understand why the parents Amadus had sent their kids to the Academy so early. Lucia was gifted at getting people to do what she wanted, so much so that Keira now sat here playing Rafael with this strange boy. Lucio himself was a gifted mathematician and she could see how that played into his decisions even upon the hourglass between them.
Both twins liked music and languages. Lucia wielded all three like weapons. Lucio seemed to love them for their own sake, but there was an alienness to their gifts that frightened some of the other Kinguim. Keira was not so afraid; she, too, had talents that set her apart even from those with divinity in their blood, and while she did not like Lucia she felt a strange kinship for Lucio, a kinship the parents of these twins had not felt.
Lucia had told her all about it. For his part, Lucio seemed glad to be rid and distant from them.
For his part, Lucio seemed glad to be rid and distant from them.
He made a move. She countered. He frowned, staring at the board, moved again. She boxed him in. The two of them were still experimenting with the nuances of the game, both getting a feel for what the game said about themselves and one another. She offered Lucio’s scowl a shy smile, moved another piece.
She was thinking of trying the sport later that year, trying her hand at joining one of the wings that represented the school. There was power that came with being a celebrity but there was risk in becoming a public figure and she wasn’t sure yet how to balance the two. She wasn’t even sure what position she would try out for – a searcher, maybe?
Biting her lip, she checked the time again.
“Six minutes,” he muttered, staring at the board, frustration beat out in the gentle pounding of his fingers. He looked up at the ceiling, never once meeting her eyes, the hand not drumming on the table running through a complex pattern that she realized were all the moves he’d made so far. “I’d say your mind is elsewhere, but…”
“I’ve got a head for games.”
He moved again and this time she started eliminating his pieces, removing them from the board as she made her way towards his me. He struggled, but she could see his patterns now and was able to counter them – she wondered what he’d be like in a full game, but they had agreed on single rounds today, feeling one another out, getting to know one another and the game itself.
“My plan should have worked,” he said, once all his pieces were gone.
“You’re looking for perfect games,” Keira responded, “and you’re looking at the most amount of direct movement. You’re playing like a mathematician.”
“She’s looking to win.” Keira had a small apartment all to herself and she had made only two spare keys. One dangled on her chest, safely kept in waiting. The other belonged to the newcomer, a boy she’d known since childhood. His name was Christian Kennedy.
He was a tall boy, skim, filling out nicely as puberty set in. He wore his hair long, white pants and gray shirt, eyes gray and cold and patient, snake eyes, the sort of eyes that should have been a warning. He moved like he owned the world, opening her fridge and grabbing a drink, looking over at the hourglass as Lucio reset the pieces.
“You weren’t even here,” Lucio muttered. “How could you know that?”
“Because I know the two of you,” Christian answered. He grabbed some glasses from Keira’s cabinet, poured another couple drinks for Keira and her guest, all the time acting as if it were his home that they were in and not hers. He looked at Keira as he offered her the drink, giving her a smile that was anything but shy as he nodded towards the board. “Do the thing you do.”
She kept her face neutral as she turned to the board, silently asking permission from Lucio. He hesitated for only a moment, but his love of language extended to the silent words of stance and breath and he moved back, nodding.
Christian saying do the thing you do was a code; he was uncertain how to pronounce the word eidetic and probably couldn’t spell it, either, but he knew that Keira’s memory was exactly that and loved to take advantage of such. She went through the game they had just played, move for move, Christian studying the changing hourglass until the game she and Lucio had just played reached the ending.
“It’s weakness,” Christian laughed, sitting down on a chair between the two of them as he leaned in close to Lucio, careful not to touch him. “You think you’re playing with set equations, but the game is algebra.”
“Algebra?” Lucio frowned.
“You know what you wanna do and you know you want to win,” Christian explained, leaning back with a pleased smile. Tonelessly, tunelessly, he began to tap his feet on the floor. “What you don’t know is what she’s going to do, but you think you do and so you’re playing a game that suits what you think instead of what is. Solve for x.”
“I don’t understand.” Lucio actually looked him in the eye. “Isn’t that what we all do?”
“No,” Christian shrugged. “Everyone plays this game differently. I’ve only seen you do that, which isn’t good or bad, but it’s your perfection that kills you. Anything that’s perfect is perfect for a single moment in time. Then it stops and becomes imperfect. Like, what were their names?”
“Them,” Christian nodded, thanking her for remembering the object lesson when it came to failing despite the divinity of Kingu’s blood. “Don’t assume you know what another person is going to do, or what their game is. And don’t have any set game yourself. It’s easier to break a rock than it is to break water.”
“I don’t understand,” Lucio repeated. Christian turned to Keira, frowning, wondering if he was explaining this wrong. Now it was her turn to shrug, she moving and letting the other boy take her seat.
“Okay, tell you what… we’re gonna play a game, and then I’m going to walk you through why I’m doing what I’m doing and you’ll do the same, okay? Or you can just ask questions. Whatever you’re cool with.”
“You said okay twice.” Lucio’s eyes narrowed as he focused on the hourglass “You’re up to something.”
“Yes, but nothing malicious.” Christian smiled, making a steeple of his fingers and looking past them at the small genius sitting across from him. “Trust me.”
They started playing. Christian began explaining his actions at first, but quickly let those explanations slip when it became obvious that Lucio was not paying attention to them. Keira watched for a few more minutes as Christian began breaking his wing down, taking control of the board and smothering anything that Lucio tried.
“Do you even have a plan?” Lucio asked, frowning at the board and trembling.
“No,” Keira answered, Christian grinning and silent. “I reacted to your moves and forced you into circumstances that worked for me. He’s looking for weaknesses in your moves and then crumbling the support you’re using. You’re ignoring us both in favor of claiming the me.”
“Start trying to solve for x,” Christian added, resting his hands behind his head. “Don’t forget that your opponent is part of the equation, so you need to know your opponent to win. I like to think of it as turning numbers into fractions and breaking them down. That make sense, genius?”
“No.” Lucio actually growled.
“Well, we’ll let you think on it,” Christian said, standing up. He offered Keira a hand, smiling. She didn’t take it, and that just made him smile more. “C’mon, she’s nearly here.”
“Lucio…” Keira began, standing, but Christian cut her off.
“Let him stay and study the board,” he said. “We’ll be gone, what, an hour? Two?”
“Fine,” Keira muttered, not happy about leaving the strange boy in her home unattended.
“It’ll be fine,” Christian said. “Don’t burn the place down or anything.”
“I won’t,” Lucio said, his voice serious and his eyes not leaving the board. “Thank you.”
Keira thought about saying something, but bit her tongue and grabbed her jacket and sword, following Christian as he buckled his blade around his hips and stepped out the door before cursing herself, hurrying up to stand beside him instead. If I follow him, it looks like he’s in charge, she thought, if I stand in front of him, I’m exposing my back. Neither option was good; the best option was to stand beside him and hope for the best.
She didn’t lock her door, and her keys felt heavy in her pocket the further she moved away. She risked a glance back and Christian noticed, chuckling softly to himself.
“You really think he’s a risk?” Christian asked. “I mean, his sister maybe, but him?”
“I notice you’re in no hurry to leave people alone in your home,” Keira said, pleased with the primness in her tone.
“If it were him, I might,” Christian replied, shrugging. “Besides, we’ll know if he did anything.” Keira stared at him, the two of them continuing to walk.
“Did you leave bugs in my home?”
“No more than usual,” Christian grinned. That’s not a good answer, she thought. “No more than you have bugs in mine. And if he bugs your home, well, that tells us something about him and his sister.”
“And you’re willing for me to take that risk on your behalf?”
“No, no at all,” Christian said. “You have better self-control than I do, so if they do bug your home – and it would be the sister, not the brother, that would do that – you’re the one more suited to feeding them false information.”
“It’s still a risk.”
“Certainly,” Christian laughed. “But save the conversation – it’ll be a good introduction for our good friend, maybe help instill a healthy paranoia.”
“As if Pitch’s welcoming display won’t do that.”
“There’s a difference between a healthy paranoia and fear.”
“Fear? You?” Keira scoffed, kicking at a stray rock and watching it bounce ahead of them. “You’re staying behind to help check the place.”
“I’ll even grab dinner,” Christian nodded, agreeing. “Besides, it’ll be good to catch up with Carm and see where her head is at.”
They walked in silence for a time, watching the alleys and side streets, but no one seemed to be paying them any serious attention.
“You really think you’ll learn anything?” Keira asked.
“Not really, but it’s the thought that counts.” Christian slipped his hands into his pockets, a sign that he thought they were in no danger. “Besides, neither of us are that important, not yet.”
“Your brother runs the Academy.” Keira kept vigilant, her eyes on the people around them, a greater number of them heading south to greet the newcomers. “And your brother knows you, knows what you’re capable of.”
“Yes, well, I know him, too,” Christian shrugged. “Can you believe he’s not in charge? The Halkett Bloc. Pah. Have you ever even heard Jay speak? All he does is shoot things and look intimidating and wave that empty gun of his around.”
“I saw him shoot someone once,” Keira said, shuddering. She remembered the crack of the pistol, the way the teacher had fallen twitching to the floor.
“Let me guess,” Christian muttered. “No bullet was found, the wound was worse than it should have been?”
“Yeah,” Christian sighed, looking around. “Jay shoots entropy. Not sure if that’s something he inherited from his father or a gift of Kingu.”
“He’s not of the Old Blood.”
“It’s not just the Old Blood that sometimes have Kingu’s gifts,” Christian said. “And there’s other powers, like whatever Pitch is. Or Ashley.”
“I’m not scared of the elf,” Keira growled, fingers tightening around the hilt of her rapier. “Our people already conquered his. His being here is proof of that.”
“Right,” Christian smirked. “Nothing to worry about, then. And as for my brother, well, he’s got other things to worry about right now and I’m not exactly rattling a saber in his direction. He’ll leave me alone right now. Priorities and all that.”
They continued to walk south in silence, covering one another’s blind spots, keeping one another safe as the crowd got larger. There were maybe a few hundred people around them now and they kept towards the back of the platform where the Aswasi’atar would come, their backs to pillars in a small and defensible alcove.
Both of them knew that the chances of being attacked here were small. There were traditions that spoke against violence around the Aswasi’atar and there were eroseeqhi – Kinguim sorcerers – whose duty included the enforcing of those traditions. Challenging a sorcerer in his home was not a good idea, and breaking a tradition without good cause was a good way to draw all sorts of bad attention.
None of that made that tradition a law, though, and there were those that would risk anything to get what they wanted.
“How long has it been since you’ve seen her?” Christian asked. “A year?”
“You’ve been here as long as I have,” Keira said, shuffling and nervous, staring at the place the Aswasi’atar would come to. The eroseeqhi had already gathered, drawing their etchings on the ground, lighting candles and incense to keep the ground holy.
“Your memory is better than mine.”
“What? Yes. A year. It’s been a year.”
“Nine-year-old Carmen Rosencratz,” Christian said, crossing his arms and leaning back against the pillar. “This should be interesting.”
Keira wasn’t sure what to say to that and so said nothing. There was a smugness to her ally that she often found grating, and this was one of those times. She wanted to hit him but swallowed the bile in her throat and the rustling in her belly – they needed one another, their alliance a mutually beneficial one that had worked out well since they had been children.
Purple-pink mist began to swelter out of the aether on the platform and an excited muttering began to waft through the crowd. The massive and shining black scales of the Aswasi’atar began to solidify out of nothing, the creature pulled out of the soul of the planet and made real. The eroseeqhi approached the creature as it faded from dream to flesh, using hand signs and words that crawled along the skin like spiders, lifting scales the size of cars up and open and revealing the people within.
A gaggle of nine-year-olds spilled out of the creature that had brought them here, brushing past the Aswasi’atar. Some returning students, older than the others, also made their way out – they all looked much more certain, pushing past the assembled children without paying them any heed.
Keira scanned the mass, looking for any sign of the girl that was more precious to her than anything else in the world, but all the kids were dressed in shades of purple and few of them carried anything from the world outside. Their parents would have warned them about standing out in the early days, Keira knew – her parents had done the same. It was important to be invisible until you had some place to retreat to once those you never wanted to notice you, did.
“Do you think you’ll spot her with that thing you do?” Christian asked. Keira grit her teeth and ignored him; he knew full well that wasn’t how an eidetic memory worked but he also liked to tease out the weaknesses of others and she wasn’t going to give him that satisfaction.
Instead, she kept silent and continued to scan the crowd, in this instance no more skilled than anyone else might be when looking for someone important to them. She knew Carmen had always been on the small side, the slight side, and a small slight pretty girl coming alone to a place like this was a scary thing.
When she’d come here she and Christian had one another, had watched one another’s backs and had gotten themselves to the point where they were reasonably secure. The Amadus twins had come with one another and though their age had drawn interest, Lucia had been able to strike deals with people on the way in, deals that had served her well.
There’s an ambitious creature, Keira thought, smiling. I wonder what Carm will think of her…?
Most children coming to the Academy would have at least one ally, but Carmen’s difficulties kept her isolated mostly. The only people that she’d ever relied on that were her own age were Keira and Christian, and that was why Keira felt it important to be here and now and why Christian had come with her.
Carmen was all alone.
The crowd was noisy and nervous and a little scared. The eroseeqhi directed the kids away from the Aswasi’atar and the new arrivals would have had a chance to look over their pamphlets and maps and make their way to their new homes. Their parents and the pamphlets would have warned them to make alliances with others on the Aswasi’atar, to map a route to where they’d be living, to waste as little time as possible getting to the place they were supposed to be: Pitch’s people would be along in the morning to walk them through breakfast before taking them to the Trypper’s Tower to give them the same demonstration that still haunted Keira and had frightened Christian.
Better that, though, than some of the other horrors the Academy could offer. Custom kept people from attacking and nabbing the kids and the eroseeqhi would deal with violent offenders, but they could not be everywhere. Thomas Kiker, the person currently in charge of the slave pens, had some of his people here pretending to offer guidance to children that looked scared or lost. Keira could pick them out of the crowd easily enough, their smiling faces and gentle motions, the lies they spun to get kids to walk into the charnel house that Kiker called home.
She looked at the small groupings of frightened children that gathered around those faces, breathed a sigh of relief that she did not spy Carmen’s face among their number. She felt bad for that relief, though, and thought about saying something, doing something. There was a small girl with a cane who moved with halted half-steps, and the look on her face – the smile that curved her lips – was the saddest thing that Keira had ever seen, gratitude given to a slaver.
“Don’t,” Christian whispered, his hand brushing her shoulder. “They didn’t notice. We’re fine. There’s nothing we can do about it now.” She realized her hand had tightened around the hilt of her sword and she took a deep breath, slowly relaxing her fingers.
She realized her hand had tightened around the hilt of her sword and she took a deep breath, slowly relaxing her fingers.
A tug on her sleeve nearly made her jump out of her skin.
She turned, ready to draw her sword, a battle-cry dying on her lips as she took note of the person who now stood beside her, looking up at her.
“Keira?” asked Carmen, purple eyes wide. Her hair was a deep rust and she’d added a crimson streak to it, but she looked as good as ever had, looked better than she had in the dreams Keira told no one about.
“Carmen.” There was more warmth and wet in that single word than she’d meant to let out but in that moment she forgave herself. She let go of the sword, sweeping the small and slight frame into her arms, holding her, soaking in her scent. “I’m glad you’re alright.”
“I found you,” Carmen whispered, her fingers playing along Keira’s spine, her shoulders.
“Hey, I’m here, too,” Christian said. Keira let her friend go, let the two of them embrace as she took point, watching the milling crowd and some of the other people her own age who were watching with interest. She met their eyes, stared them down.
“We should leave,” Keira said. There was a milling group of five girls standing there, looking at them, girls that Keira didn’t recognize. Carmen let go of Christian.
“How do you always find us?” Christian grinned, ruffling Carmen’s hair as if she were a pet. It bothered Keira, the way Carmen pushed up into the ruffling.
Carmen had always been intuitive, always found her way around in the dark, always managed to catch up to people even when anyone else might have been lost. Her parents said it had something to do with her difficulties, but there was no sign of that in her eyes or stance right now and Keira had learned what to look for over long hours – a shadow in her eyes or a cruel twist to her lips or twitching fingers. Right now she was simply Carmen and that was all that mattered.
“I made some allies on the Aswasi’atar,” Carmen said, motioning at the five girls that were staring at them, looking nervous and fidgeting, keeping a polite distance from their small troika. Behind them, the eroseeqhi were preparing to send the Aswasi’atar on its way.
“Allies, eh?” Christian said, studying them with interest.
“I’m Keira,” Keira said, releasing her sword and stepping forward, keeping her tone polite and letting a little of the gratitude she felt slip in. “This is Christian. Who’re you?”
“My name is Michelle,” one of the girls said, pushing in front. She was pretty – some mix of European bloodlines, with an echo of the arrogance that Keira had come to associate with the Old Blood. “This is my bloc – Darcy, Jackie, Robin, and Helena.”
Keira smiled at the hubris of the statement; strong alliances at the Academy were called blocs: six individuals who tied their fates to one another, working to keep one another safe and further the interests of the group. Most people waited a year or two before committing to a bloc, if they ever did; she and Christian had been here almost two years now and the only close alliances they had made were with one another.
“You’re one shy of a bloc,” Christian noted, slipping his hands into his pockets and leaning back against the pillar, his eyes lazy and head tilted back.
He’s measuring them, Keira thought, looking for weakness.
“We make do,” the one named Jackie said, smiling. She had golden hair and a pretty face and stepped up with an easy familiarity. She was used to this, trained for this, and even at nine years old she was good at it. She drew attention like light attracting moths, but Keira had seen people more practiced at it than her and was able to turn away, to notice the way the small girl named Robin was staring at them, studying them with an intensity that mirrored Christian’s.
“It’s okay, guys,” Carmen said, but she had always been a little naive, a little confused, a failing inflicted on her by her unique circumstances.
“Your bloc,” Christian said, a lazy smile spreading across his lips without touching his eyes. He shook his head. “You just got here and you’re already talking blocs. You have any alliances? Know anyone else here worth knowing?”
“We have each other,” Michelle said, one hand on her hip, the other dangling uselessly by her side. “And we’re open to new faces.”
“There was someone on the Aswasi’atar that was following me,” Carmen said, tugging on Keira’s sleeve. “People my age, but they wanted… I had a feeling about them. When I ran I met these girls and they took me into their link.”
“You have a private link?” Keira asked, suspicious. “A whole link to yourselves?” That took a serious amount of wealth and pull, pacts with the eroseeqhi that were beyond the ability of even most Kinguim to grant. The sort of people that had their own links on the Aswasi’atar were dangerous and more than capable of setting up circumstances to fool poor slight girls who would already be nervous about coming here.
She thought about the people that had that sort of pull, the names of the Old Blood families cycling through her head. She didn’t know these girls, didn’t remember anyone of import named Michelle, didn’t know why someone just arrived would command the pull she clearly had on the other four girls.
“People that come here with a bloc in mind aren’t opening themselves up to new experiences,” Christian drawled, his tone keeping attention on him; she knew he was drawing their ire on purpose, letting her feel them out.
“We’re open to alliances,” Jackie said, her voice polite.
“What bloc are you?” Christian asked. “What title have you given yourselves?”
Michelle and Carmen both looked about to answer, but Keira realized who they were and beat them to the revelation, speaking the name out loud.
“Verene,” Keira said, staring, spitting the name as she spoke it. “These are the Verenes.”
“The Verenes?” Christian sneered and shook his head. “Kingu’s greatest failures? I didn’t realize there were any left.”
“Just us,” Michelle answered, but her eyes had narrowed, her shoulders tensing. “We make do.”
“Carmen, get behind me,” Keira demanded, holding up an arm protectively, her other hand going for her sword. One of the girls, bigger than the rest – Helena – stepped in front of the others. “It’s okay. Thank you for your service. You can go now.”
“Oh, by your leave,” the small girl, Robin, said. Her voice was mocking, her exaggerated bow an insult.
Keira paid it back with the exact amount of vitriol that motion deserved.
“Fuck you,” she said. The small girl looked like she might try something but Michelle put a hand on her shoulder, shaking her head when Robin looked back at her. Robin muttered something, shaking, as Michelle pulled her people back, eyes never leaving them as they moved away and into the crowd and were gone.
“Why,” asked Carmen, licking her lips, “why did you do that?”
“She wouldn’t have been good for you,” Keira said, taking her hand off her blade and looking at her friend, hoping that she could make the other girl understand. “Do you know the Verenes? Who they are? What they did?”
“No, but I know she kept me safe,” answered Carmen, hugging herself.
“It’s okay.” Keira brought her closer, held her, thrilled a little to feel Carmen’s small arms wrapping around her, hugging her back.
“I don’t understand,” murmured Carmen. Keira could feel her tears through the shirt she wore.
“We’ll bring you up to speed,” Christian sighed. He pointed with his eyes and Keira followed his gaze, noticing that Kiker’s people had taken a casual interest in them. “Come on, let’s get out of here. We’ll talk once we get back to my place.”
The boat was old, something they’d dug up from the mid-forties that looked more like a battleship than a commercial vessel, all sharp lines and doorways with wheels instead of handles. I squinted across the gangplank towards the party boat we’d rented for the weekend, my dreams of a picture-perfect first kegger party dashed.
“Where did Jason find this thing?” I asked my boyfriend, Justin. “It looks like a submarine fucked a sailboat.”
“I like it,” he said, wrapping his arm around my waist. “It’s bad ass. We don’t have to worry about breaking shit.” He grinned at Jason, who was in the process of exploring, opening doors and climbing up railings to look at the above deck. “Besides, we didn’t have to pay much for it, which means we have more money for beer.”
On cue, the rest of our party showed up: two teenage girls with a keg of beer between them, gasping from the weight.
“Hey Twins,” Jason called from his perch on one of the railings, his feet dangling over the water.
“Hey yah,” they said in unison, their voices strained under the weight of the keg. They set it down and studied the boat in front of them. They weren’t really twins; Puck was a year older than Pan, and they looked different enough that the non-familial connection was obvious. Ever since grade school, they’d been inseparable, though, and thus the nickname.
Jason ran off the boat and helped Justin take the keg from the women; “All aboard who’s going aboard. Welcome to your home for the weekend.” They walked up the plank, the dock bobbing under the weight of them and the keg.
“This looks safe,” Puck said as she joined me next to the boat.
“Safe like broken bottle,” said Pan. She hugged me before carefully walking across the black water below and onto the deck.
Puck followed her other half and left me alone on the dock. I looked over the side of the bobbing wood below me and into the inky black. I really didn’t like the look of any of this; it was all so different in my head. Nothing like how I’d been fantasizing all through school last week. I stepped onto the gangplank and started up to get ready for our gathering.
The walls were coated in faint scratches near the bottom and icy cold, the metal of the place quickly shedding what heat it had gained before the sun set an hour earlier. The upper deck had the wheelhouse, two bathrooms, a few sleeping quarters, and an extra room that was empty, probably for meetings. The bottom deck was a twisting maze of halls with a few more bathrooms and a galley that had a table perfect for our partying needs.
Justin already had the keg set up with a row of red plastic cups waiting to be filled ringed around it. I went to the cooler we’d brought along and began to help dishing out the food. Cupcakes, sandwiches, a few cliche party hats, and one big bowl of candy were soon spread out on the metal table.
As I unwrapped a Lemon Head and popped it in my mouth, I noticed Puck staring at something on the ceiling. There was a hole, the inside made of a of stained and slick looking synthetic cloth. I went to stand by Puck and examine it further.
“And more weird shit,” I said. “What do you think it is?”
“A garbage chute maybe? I don’t remember seeing anything upstairs though.”
Someone slipped their hands around me from behind and I smelled Justin’s cologne. He tightened his hug and nibbled on my ear. “What’s up, pup?”
My breath quickened. “Nothing. Just something weird Puck found.”
“Then come and have a drink with me.” He took my hands in his and led me to the drinks, giving me one of the red cups. I drank from it, the bubbly liquid making me blanch with its bitter taste. I kept drinking as Justin and I sat together on the floor, my head resting on his shoulder.
Across the room Puck and Pan were doing the same, the weird hole forgotten with drink and cuddling. Jason was eating a sandwich and watching an episode of some show on his tablet. I pressed myself into Justin and kissed his jaw before taking another sip of beer.
Sudden music came from Jason’s tablet, something by The Killers that was calm and frantic at the same time. He grinned as the Twins got up and began swaying to the music. I set my beer aside and stood, grabbing Justin’s hand and dragging him to his feet.
We danced, all of us together. Jason danced by himself, using the cheesiest moves he could think of. Puck and Pan, with fits of giggles, swayed next to each other in a way I was sure I’d seen in a cartoon when I was a kid. Justin and I took each other by the hand and started a fast paced waltz, his hand drifting slowly down as mine stayed on his shoulder.
The Killers gave way to the Gorillaz and the Gorillaz gave way to a techno song I’d never heard. Between the dancing, the eating, and the making out, we spent a few hours in bliss. My head felt heavy as I watched Puck kissing Pan, my face half pressed into Justin’s leather coat. Jason was on the table, lost in his own world as he continuously danced the grocery basket.
I smiled into my boyfriend’s chest and breathed deeply of his sweat-tinged cologne. I felt my way under his jacket to slide my hand along his stomach. Perfect night, perfect smell, perfect friends. I was glad Jason had found this place, glad for the music and the frothy liquid in my stomach. I leaned up to kiss Justin’s lips and let this perfect moment be even better.
A squealing came from the door at the far side of the room and over the music, I could hear the clunk of the lock falling into place. Jason stopped the song with a tap on his tablet and jumped off the table to inspect the only door out of this room.
“What the fuck?” Justin said.
“The door done locked us in, pard,” Jason said as he twisted the wheel inlayed in the door as hard as he could.
“Well shit,” I said.
“Is there another way out?” Pan asked.
Justin stood up and went to help Jason open the door as I went to look for another way out.
“Well, there’s the hole,” Puck wandered over to her discovery and stared up at it. “It’s got to lead to somewhere.”.
Justin and Jason walked over to the Twins and me, sweaty from the exertion of trying to pry open the door. We all stared at the hole above us, the opening looking yonic and wet.
“Who’s going first?”Jason asked
“Fuck that noise.” Justin hit Jason in the arm.
“I’ll go,” I said.
Justin boosted me up; his strong hands felt good and warm. I touched the cloth with my fingers and was surprised to find it was silky and dry. I grabbed a fistful of the lining and heaved myself into the blackness above.
The darkness pressed against me as I climbed, the cloak of cloth sliding against me and reminding me of the soft skin of my grandmother. The fistfuls of cloth made it easier than I expected and within a few seconds, I’d made it to another opening. Blue light met me as I climbed out onto the deck above.
Something was wrong with the light, the way it shone off the walls and the shadows it made. I stepped from the hole, my arms tired from the strength I had to use to ascend. I looked around for what was making that strange blue light and came up empty.
“You okay?” Justin called from below, his voice muffled and far away.
“I’m fine. You keep trying the door, I’ll look for a way out.”
I looked around the room I was in, really taking it in for the first time. It was like the rest of the ship, all steel and devoid of anything comfortable. Beside the entrance, I’d come from was an old-looking sledgehammer and a panel that would just fit over the hole, with a box of bolts beside it. Across the room was a door, the same as the others but slightly ajar.
“I found something,” I called down to my friends. “I’ll be right back.”
I stepped toward the open door, the blue glow strengthening as I fully opened the door. Outside was a hallway that stretched out in both directions, the glow coming from the walls. The steel of the ship had turned wrong, the rivets holding it together placed at random. I felt cold; the warmth from Justin’s hands still lingered on my hips and made the chill of the hallway more noticeable.
“Hello?” I called. Something answered, its whimpering carrying softly down the hallway from my left. I shivered at the inhuman sound, and anxiety spread through my stomach. “Is someone there?” I asked as I crept towards the noise.
The hallway curved in front of me and within a minute the door I’d come from was lost behind blue steel. I dragged my fingers across the wall as I walked, the steady bump of rivets keeping my tipsy mind focused on the task at hand. In front of me the whimpers continued, and seemed to be getting closer.
I stopped my march. I’d lost track of how much time had passed since I started but it didn’t seem possible for this hallway to fit in the boat I’d seen at the beginning of the night. Drunk or not, this didn’t feel like a good place to be. I had to find a way out fast.
The wolf stepped from behind the curve in front of me. Fire dripped from its lips as drool, spilling onto the floor to settle between its huge paws. It growled and moved closer as I froze in fear; a small gasp escaped my throat. I stared into its eyes, pupils square and black, as it tilted its head to let out a howl.
The howl was returned. From all around me the sounds of a wolfpack rebounded and turned my knees into jelly. From behind the wolf came a pack, each one as otherworldly as the one in front of me. They growled and I turned to run.
My heart thudded in my ears as I ran the way I came, the wolves close behind. I could hear their great paws thudding on the steel, echoing my footsteps. My leg muscles began to seize up as the dancing and drink of the night caught up to me. My vision started to blur, just as I saw the doorway peek out from behind the curve ahead.
Teeth clamped into my thigh and I fell. Pain spread from the bite, cold fire and needles. I kicked out with my good foot and felt the soft impact as the wolf let go. I was only a few feet from the doorway and — if I could get it closed — safety.
I pushed myself up, my leg screaming, and bolted through the doorway. I tried slamming the heavy metal shut behind me but it refused to close, the metal warped. I dragged over the box of rivets and braced the door as the wolves slammed into it. It wouldn’t hold for long.
“Tessa! Are you okay?” Puck called from below. They were still trapped down there, waiting for me to come back with news of a way out. Justin was still down there and if I ran the wolves would follow. I couldn’t let that happen.
I lifted the plate that I’d found earlier, the holes drilled in it matching up perfectly with holes ringing the yonic entrance I’d entered from. It slid into place and I put rivets into the holes; each one fit snug. I grabbed the sledgehammer and lifted it above my head, the wolves behind me growling.
The metal clanged as I brought the hammer down, slamming a rivet into place. Slam, clang. Another one home as the door creaked and began to move. Slam, clang. The door burst open, the box of rivets spilled out and across the metal floor. Slam, clang. The final rivet hit home as the wolves hit me in the back and knocked the hammer out of my grasp. I screamed as the wolves fell on me, their hot breath stinking of rotten eggs and grass. I began to cry as I waited for them to tear into my throat but instead I felt the soft touch of a tongue against my cheek. A wolf licked away my tears.
“Tess, come down! The door’s open and you’re scaring me,” Justin called from below. The wolves raised their heads and let out a singular howl.
I stumbled on the graveled shoulder of the road. My injured leg burned and throbbed. The last thing I remembered was the wolves howling as tears streamed down my face and then I was walking down the road to my house. I could almost believe it was all a dream except the blood still caked on my pants.
The first rays of dawn stretched across the sky as the cul-de-sac where my house was, came into view, the street empty save for two figures walking along the shoulder. I recognized them and started running. It was Jason and Justin. I didn’t know how, but I was glad.
I screamed his name as I ran, ready to hug him, kiss him, press my face into that ridiculous leather jacket he always wore. As I put my arms around him from behind, they passed through him and I felt them touch. He stopped and turned, his eyes wide.
“Jason. Did you feel that?”
“What?” Jason turned and looked around for what was bothering his friend.
“I felt really cold all of a sudden, like, really cold,” Justin said.
“Must have been the wind. Either that or you’re still in shock.”
I deflated, all of the joy I had a moment ago drifting off and replaced by dread.
“Justin?” I tried to say, but all that came out were whimpers. I collapsed to my knees and stared into my boyfriend’s eyes as tears started flowing. Then there was pain, all through my body. I reached out to him, my fingers shimmering and morphing as they brushed his shirt. I screamed but all that came from my throat was a dog’s whine.
“Come to me,” said a voice, and the sky glowed with the blue light from the corridor. The wind picked up, swirling my hair around my face and biting into my bare shoulders. I screamed and my voice became a howl, others joining in all around me.
“The fuck man,” Jason said,” We should get inside fast. The cops will be here soon and we don’t want to get eaten by the some wolf before that.”
Justin stood, staring at me, looking through me. I tried to reach out for him again but my hands were useless now, my fingers turned to pads. I felt heat in my mouth and the aroma of rotten egg mixed with grass engulfed me. I looked into Justin’s eyes and my tears dried up.
I turned and ran, the voice still calling and my boyfriend still waiting for something to happen.
Beyond the end of the world, the end of all the worlds, is a place where they all meet. All manner of creatures and beings come here; it is a place of refuge, of shelter from the storm. And there is always a storm somewhere.
Time passes here, though not always in step with the many worlds it touches, and even here there is change. Consider the proprietress, the young silver-haired woman all in white whose true nature is betrayed only by the small nub of shimmering ivory in the center of her forehead. She accepted the task when her predecessor tired of it, the latest in a line of innkeepers stretching back through time immemorial – the latest in a long line of beings who found so much solace in the World’s End that they chose to remain here for much of their lives, abandoning the worlds that birthed them. They had each their good reasons for doing so, each a past so riddled with sorrow or anger that ‘home’ lost all meaning.
The lands of the fey are very beautiful, as are many of the fey themselves. The lands of the fey are also deadly to the unwary, both in body and soul, as are many of the fey themselves. Even in lands of such magic and beauty, a unicorn is a rare thing indeed, and much hated by the darker fey for its purity of nature and its magical light. Most of them are for this reason shy and retiring, preferring to hide among the ever-present foliage in the Summer Queen’s Great Forest, but this one could not.
Dahlia Shining Sun named herself in traditional fashion for the flowers that grew around her birthing nest when she came of age, for unicorns are not born of unicorns, and no matter their good intentions, her sire and dam could never hope to understand their daughter. Dahlia was never by nature the sort of creature that could easily hide. She grew at first bored and soon deeply frustrated with the self-imposed exile, and craved friendship; more than that, she craved adoration.
And this is how she nearly lost her life.
To we outsiders, the fey seem capricious agents of mischief. And indeed they are, but within the chaos is a core of rigid order. All fey owe their unswerving fealty to either the Summer or Winter courts, to lofty Oberon and distant Titania, or to dreaded Cernunnos and mad Maebhe, and the main part of that fealty is war. The Summer and Winter courts have been at war for so long now that not even the Kings and Queens remember why, but it is a deadly and vicious war for all that.
Oberil Wheatwhistle was born to and was for many years a member in good standing of the Court of Titania and Oberon. Their orders were easy enough to fulfil until the focus of the War shifted to bring the fey of the Wheatwhistle lands into direct conflict. Oberil was and is a pacifist, claiming that choosing to harm another creature, even a vassal of the Winter Court, is the greatest sin there is.
Thrice did the Queen and King of Summer ask Wheatwhistle to take up arms for the Summer; thrice the refusal came. This was itself an honor beyond measure – not the order to battle, but the three times asking. The monarchs of the Fey brook no disobedience and have destroyed others on the spot for far smaller infractions. Oberil may have somehow been blood of their blood to receive such a favor, as well as the sentence passed: exile instead of death outright… though exile from the lands of Summer means only the realm of Winter, and death would still be the inevitable result.
In the Winter lands, the sun had not set thrice before the young elf noble encountered a disturbing sight. In a clearing were many lesser creatures of the Winter court, boggarts and redcaps and kobolds, trolls one and all, stood in a grand circle laughing and jeering. In the circle was the unicorn, battered and bloodied but unbowed; the creatures had found her in the Summer fields and lured her with promises of love and adoration to the Winter lands, where they began their terrible sport. Whichever way Dahlia faced, whichever way she tried to charge to end the torment and break free of her captors, the rocks and arrows and blades that harried and tortured her came always from behind; in front, she encountered instead pikes and torches that would drive her back to the center.
Oberil’s heart melted at once. Here was a better reason to take up arms than a thousand thousand years of politics. If protecting innocence was not a noble battle, nothing was. So the exile charged into the ranks of the trolls and scattered them to the four winds; they were no match for the singing blade of a full-blooded Summer Court warrior, exile or not.
This done, the elf went to render aid to the unicorn, but instead of gratitude was met with fury. Blinded with rage and terror, Dahlia charged her would-be savior, her horn cutting a furrow into Oberil’s side. Realizing she thought herself still under attack, Wheatwhistle ran; and when Dahlia gave chase, the young noble realized that after all this time in the dark lands, the only way to save the unicorn would be to lead her back to the light – despite the terms of exile imposed by the Summer Queen.
For three days and nights they ran, and whenever they met Dahlia inflicted another wound on Oberil before the elf evaded her and ran again. Oberil refused all this time to simply escape, leaving Dahlia still in the dark, until finally they burst into the Summer fields, where the noble collapsed.
Dahlia rushed in to destroy her quarry, believing this would free her once and for all, but at that moments the clouds parted and the shock of the bright Summer sun after all the darkness cleared her mind. The unicorn realized she was free, and it was her liberator she was about to kill. She fell to her knees instead and cried over the still form of the elf that risked everything to bring her back into the light.
They say unicorn tears can heal. Sometimes… they are right.
True love does not come at first sight, no matter what the stories say. But sometimes it is fated, and blossoms from even the harshest of beginnings. Oberil Wheatwhistle is an exile from two lands of the Fey that both promised an undeserved death, and finally found solace here beyond the end of the worlds. And Dahlia is here because there is nowhere else in all the worlds or beyond she would rather be than here, with the elf who proved more noble than Summer and Winter combined.
And she calls herself Dahlia Dearly Beloved now, because after all those years, she finally is.
In Vancouver we’re a little spoiled for choice when it comes to entertainment, especially indie-run live nerdy and comedic show. I’m definitely not complaining when there’s such excellent acts out there like Geekenders, the Fictionals, and West Coast Geeks vs. Nerds, just to name a few. Mockingbird Media Entertainment’s new offering, Content Warning: Erotic Fanfiction Deathmatch, fits right in with this community and promises a monthly competition over who gets to claim the title of Ultimate Smutmaster. As you might imagine, things get a little steamy…
The premise of the show is to have local authors create their best (or worst) smutty fanfiction along the month’s theme and these works of fiction are then read aloud for the crowd by professional actors. At the end, the crowd votes for their favorites, and then the Ultimate Smutmaster is crowned, to be brought back to defend their title at a later date. It’s a good, simple framework that ran very smoothly, even when this month’s voting resulted in a tie.
This month the theme was “Remember the 90s”, and the audience began the evening enjoying a playlist of 90s hits, often breaking out into spontaneous sing-alongs – Backstreet’s back, alright?! Seven Dining Lounge, which is a familiar haunt for a number of great local entertainment acts, was standing-room only by the time the show began. Our host, Jesse Inocalla, in purple gator-skin Fluevogs and a velvet jacket, made sure to check that we were all ready and eager to participate in some sexy shenanigans (emphatic consent!!) before ushering us back to the time of Saturday morning cartoons, neon patterned everything, and not-so-innocent fantasies.
I was a bit surprised to discover that the actors were going in to the readings cold, but despite the lack of practice ahead of time they all did quite a good job, adding voices and pauses and inflection to hit the right mood, and often their own shock and laughter over the content of the scripts added to the humour. Still, it might be worth considering letting them have at least one read-through, or if not the producers might at least color code the various characters’ dialogue so that it will be easier for the actors to switch appropriately.
With actor and writer set up on stage, the fun was ready to begin. The actors were encouraged to pause and interrogate the writer at any time. And both the writers and actors were given a chance to plug whatever other artistic endeavors they wanted to publicize, which I really appreciated. It’s always nice seeing the community support each other! The audience was given a chance to ask a few questions after each story as well, often with hilarious results.
Our first story was by Little Miss Tristan Risk – an untitled fiction starring none other than Wolverine. It was read by Ariel Hansen, who gave it a sultry quality that suited the story. Set in a small town in the Kootenays, our nameless protagonist was a cynical rock chick who decides to hit the local watering hole for a bit of fun… or trouble. The story had a lot of lead-up, describing the protagonist’s beauty routine with vivid imagery. As a piece of fiction it was well written, but it seemed to lose the crowd as they waited for the smut to begin. Wolverine, who “tasted like exotic masculinity” (apparently cigars and beer are exotic in small mountain towns?), may have a thing for the vanilla essential oil worn as perfume by the protagonist, but the crowd seemed to be craving a different flavor. We didn’t need to wait long.
The second story was by David Marino – another untitled piece featuring Goofy, Donald Duck, Mickey, and an unnamed protagonist. The protagonist is described as an important businessman, so in my head I think it’s Scrooge McDuck, but whomever you imagine will do. This was a story that had everyone in the room rapt and gasping for breath (because of the constant laughter, you pervs). Expertly read by deliberately foppish Seth Gordon Little, the story begins with our protagonist out cruising in a park where he runs into Goofy and Donald and Mickey, and after he “enthusiastically consented to [their] forthcoming merger”, he participated in a gay threesome (with Mickey creepily watching since he has about as much genitalia as a Ken doll). At the end, the protagonist “liquidated his assets” and the audience similarly exploded into thunderous laughter, applause, and a sincere standing O.
Story number three was titled “Holiday in the Evening”, written by Jenna Sokalski and set in the beautifully 90s world of Daria. Performed by Luchagore’s Gigi Saul Guerrero, it was transformed into a Latin-infused fanfiction that was surprisingly sweet and earnest. Gigi gave it a lovely quality as she added sound effects and laid on her accent as thickly as she could, easily selling Daria’s “ecsta-CI!!” in her beach encounter with Trent. The ending got a little confusing due to cameos from season 3 characters from Holiday Island, a little-known reference that won over the truest Daria fans. Overall, a tender teen moment that was surprisingly charming.
Gigi stayed where she was, ready to perform the next one. The fourth fic was written by Tanner McCoolman; a crossover romp with SpongeBob and Mojo Jojo titled “Sponge Monkey Mayhem”. The premise of the story was that Mojo Jojo had set up a not-very-convincing fake casting couch for a non-existent adult film company, and a broke SpongeBob auditions hoping to earn some money. The fiction began with pure psychological body horror a la Kafka’s Metamorphosis, as SpongeBob began fingering his holes and growing more arms and fingers to finger all of his holes. There was also a creepily pointed anti-child molestation PSA related to Bubbles the Powerpuff Girl and an off-colour explanation about how SpongeBob was intersex due to genetic mutation brought on by Agent Orange, but some moments were gold: the tsunami climax as they “Californicated” particularly stands out. Gigi’s performance of the voices for both Mojo Jojo and SpongeBob were also superbly on point.
With all of the laughter and smutty depravity, we all needed a break. After a brief intermission, we dove right back into the fray, with Seth Gordon Little returning to voice Lyssa Strata’s tale: “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Secret of the Ooze”. A sweaty summer training session with April and Michelangelo turns into a hilarious (and well-researched) birthday gangbang, eventually incorporating all four turtles and Master Splinter. Seth was the perfect actor for the job and as before the audience was howling with laughter as he expertly delivered the deliberately cheesy, reference-laden smut. Even Seth had to pause for another drink. After a gooey climax, many in the audience were on their feet again, clapping, and Seth delivered his heartfelt compliments both to Lyssa and David Marino for their excellent work on Seth’s favorite childhood characters.
The sixth fiction was a fantastic gay BDSM scene created by Zhora Kys; an X-Men offering titled “Savage Land” starring Professor X, Magneto, and Sinister. Performed by the delightful Draco Muff-Boi, it was a saucy romp realistically describing the experience from Charles’ perspective as a bottom, relishing the sting of whips. The dynamic between Charles and Erik was particularly believable to anyone familiar with the D/s relationship. It definitely left many in the audience feeling a little hot and bothered.
Next was Zachary Taylor’s “Too Blue For You”; another crossover piece starring Sonic the Hedgehog and Genie from Disney’s Aladdin. Ariel Hansen returned to perform the story, providing us with a hyper, youthful Sonic, and a creepy, fourth-wall breaking Genie. This was a 90s extravaganza as Sonic finds himself in a strange land: first passing through the LA riots before ending up in Disneyland. There, he meets Genie, who is, of course, a Dom. The audience soon realizes that you can’t make a wish while wearing a ball-gag, as Genie turns poor Sonic into his “living cock puppet”. Moments of humor, like the revelation that Genie’s “onmipodick” tastes like blueberries, were interspersed with uncomfortably graphic, stomach-turning scat-porn erotica. Laden with author’s notes and ending with Sonic’s “hog juice”, it was truly an example of the depths of depravity that fanfiction can feature!
The final offering of the night was a Buffy the Vampire Slayer story centered on Angelus and Spike. Written by a published novelist – Mistress Ivy – the tale was steamy and well-written. Titled “Troublemaker”, it was performed by Draco Muff-Boi who tried valiantly to use an Irish accent for Angelus and an English accent for Spike. In the story, fans were treated to a realization of their teen fantasies as Angelus showed Spike what trouble truly is. Spike made a good, bratty bottom, as the long tensions between the two vampires results in a sexy showdown where Angelus wins. I ship it.
All eight stories completed, the hosts collected the tiny voting slips. I couldn’t help but think there must be an app for that, but maybe they’ll have that minor wrinkle ironed out for the second show. The voting resulted in a tie between audience favorites David Marino and Lyssa Strata, so Jesse called for a cheer-off. I feel this was the perfect ending, as both writers provided the best entertainment of the night and deserved the feeling of recognition and pride (or shame?) by being called up for this final tie-breaker. The roars for both were deafening, but Lyssa Strata’s TMNT fiction had won the audience, and she was crowned the Ultimate Smutmaster. And with that, the first show came to a close, and, like many of the story characters, we felt satisfied… if a bit dirty.
All in all, Content Warning is solid entertainment, offering what people want: comedy, geeky references, and, of course, sex. I’m sure it will continue to be a popular addition to the local roster of shows.
Persephone had long retreated into the underworld, and Everett believed that the place she entered the underworld from was Toronto. Cold and polite, the gray apple, the chill in the air seeping into people’s minds and hearts. It’s why he liked Toronto; the sense of etiquette without thought, pity without relevance.
He’d known someone, decades ago, that had described autumn as a time of edges and scripture.
“What about winter?” Everett had asked that man.
“You’d have to ask Persephone,” the man answered. He’d died soon after, held in Everett’s arms.
Steam rose from gutters and carried the scent of waste and cigarettes and coffee. He nestled in his jacket, coffee close at hand. He’d just gotten back from Brazil and a new supplier, the coffee good and rich in his hands, down his throat, settling in his belly. Two cups, one for him and one for the lwa, as entropy tightened fingers on the throat of civilization.
Civilization was crumbling as it had crumbled before many times. He’d learned to enjoy whatever a civilization could offer before faltering in and dying, and this one had come so far. The stars struggled to find some place in the night sky, but the purple-orange haze of smog and clouds turned even the moon away.
The coffee grounded him. The candles littered around him, protected from the snow and still air, the dull haze of a hundred streetlights below. He stood on the roof of a building he owned – his home on the second floor, a coffee shop he ran on the first. Good cheap coffee, some tasty snacks, free wi-fi, open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, closed on Christmas but open for New Years.
Every New Year’s made him smile, the arbitrary measurement of time that this world is now obsessed with. He wondered what the next civilization would build itself on, once this one was dead and past and remembered only as another dark age. The arrogance of humankind, to think that whatever age they lived in was the apex of every possibility, that what they knew now was the only truth there could ever possibly be.
Cold and polite, he felt the soul of Toronto rear up and stare, nodding its head as it wandered the corridors of itself.
So many spirits out tonight, he thought. I wonder why.
He was having a moment, he knew, unable to remember whether this was the end or the beginning of winter. He knew where he was but after so long the seasons blended together, the decades, the centuries. He’d been told to remember and he did, back before sky had become earth, back before they’d won the war but lost, lost, lost so much.
What good was it to remember when everything he was had long since passed from breath into dust?
A shattering electric light flared into life beside him, the twinkling mire of a cell phone ring assaulting his ears. That grounded him a little; he was here and now. He stared, took a deep breath, let the sense of time wash over and through him. Call display showed no name but a long string of numbers, one of those strange equations that came from across the Atlantic.
He reached for the phone, tracing the edge of the small screen, his hand looking like a shadow against the light and the trickling flakes of falling snow, so gentle.
“Hello?” Everett asked, smiling at the sound of his own voice. The deepness of it, the richness, unmarred by centuries past and the present world.
“Hi, Dad.” Two words, the voice familiar. He’d had children in the past, watched them grow old and die. Some he’d sired and others he’d adopted and this voice was from the latter, a small girl left to die in the care of those who saw only someone to be used until withered. He’d bought her, a black man buying a Hispanic girl from white folks. From Rose Unwanted to Rose Stone and now, now, he’d given her away and seen her married, and now she was Rose Ketch.
“Hey.” He remembered her, the flash of her eyes, the crook of her lips when she smiled. The way she did her hair, the studious way her brow furrowed. Published, respected, he’d watched her grow and cultivated her loves, staring in awe at the women that unwanted child had become. “I don’t recognize this number. Where are you calling from?”
“Acco, in Israel,” Rose answered. Names cycled through Everett’s head, old names, dead names – Devinii, Kebara, Natufian, Meggido, Canaan, Kandar, Judea, Syria-Palestina, Palestine… He closed his eyes, took a deep breath. He’d spent a little time in the area, had avoided it for the sake of memory. “Are you okay?”
“You’re doing that breathing thing you do.” Rose sounded concerned. She knew him so well. “Are you having one of your… episodes? Do you know the year? The month?”
“It’s Toronto in winter time,” Everett answered, sounding stronger than he felt. “And I have a newspaper subscription on my phone. I’ve just been thinking.”
“Ah,” she said, and though she sounded reluctant she took the hint and let the matter drop. “How’s Toronto?”
“Cold,” Everett said, and now his smile was genuine. He was looking down at the few people wandering the city this late, the chill they braved so much more than mere weather. “How’s Israel?”
“Hot,” Rose answered, and he imagined the heat there was much the same. “Do you remember I was telling you about John’s dig? The new one?”
“No, dad, he finished with Surcess,” Rose sounded playful, and he could imagine the light of her eyes. “The new one.”
“Surcess would be enough for anyone else,” Everett said, but his tone robbed the words of their criticism. He liked John and always had, but something was tickling him. “Isn’t it pronounced Akko?”
“Or Acre,” Rose confirmed. “You know these places don’t translate well. There’s something like fifteen versions for spelling Hannukah I’ve seen in English alone.”
“I like Channukah.”
“The the one that starts with ‘ch’?”
“Did you know there are people debating Surcess’ authenticity?” Rose asked. She sighed, and he could hear her stand, imagined her walking through whatever house she was living in. Acco, he recalled, was closer to the sea. Western Israel. “It doesn’t help that a private investor bought the whole island.”
“The Verenes,” Everett said, nodding. Solaina, Robert, and… Lloyd. He narrowed his eyes, thinking of the latter. He’d never liked Lloyd.
“You remember them?” Rose asked as if he would ever forget. “They were very excited.”
“I’m sure,” Everett answered, trying to keep his voice mild. “I’m sorry I missed the party.” He’d never been to Surcess – he’d been touring what would become Carthage when he’d first heard the stories. A whole island of people who would do favors for others and eat those who would not pay them back as demanded. Monstrous, evil humans, their name living on through the ages and now dismissed as myth. The Hellenists had destroyed them, led by a woman who had claimed their island for herself.
“It’s alright,” Rose sighed. “The Verenes are turning the whole thing private, though, and without further investigation…”
“It’s making John look bad,” Everett finished the lingering sentence. He knew how hard it was to explain anything to people when it challenged their view of the world; the people of the earth always preferred the shadows in the cave to the world outside, so afraid to remember the sky.
He wondered if, living among them, he had become so guilty. Would he know? How often might it happen? He shook his head, sat down in the snow and cradled his coffee. It was still warm, scalding his lips, but he didn’t mind the sensation. He let it ground him.
“How’s John taking it?”
“He’s trying not to let it get to him, but you know how he is.” Rose paused, and he could hear the quickening of her breath. “And it’s killing Jack.”
“And so he’s brought you to Israel,” Everett asked, the words not quite a question. If people were challenging John about Surcess he would find it difficult to get more grants, more funding… “How are you feeling about that? How’s Mercy enjoying that?”
“She likes the oranges and the fields,” Rose said. There was something wistful in her voice, something sad. “So do I. I’m trying to be supportive, but the books aren’t doing as well as I’d thought they would and… well, at least there’s something calming about deserts and mountains, you know?”
“I do,” Everett said, looking at his own horizon, the towering gray spires of concrete and glass, the dead valleys of streets named by those long since forgot. “What’s he looking for now?”
“A group of people called the Devinii,” Rose was silent for a long time, and Everett realized he’ wasn’t breathing. He forced himself to, long slow breaths, in and out, in and out, his eyes open as the towers around him looked like outstretched fingers.
“W-what name did you say?”
“Devinii. Have you heard of them?”
That was a code; she knew about him even if she didn’t know how old he was. She was asking if they were real if he knew them to be more than a fable. He nodded, took another breath.
“I have,” he answered, hearing her breath catch in her throat. “Your husband is ambitious – I don’t think there’d be much left of them, though. They predate Surcess by several thousand years.”
“Thousand?” Rose sounded surprised. “Thousand? How old are they?”
“About as old as my people,” Everett answered, and he heard her sit down, heard her take a deep breath. He’d never told her about his people, the culture they’d built, the one he’d been powerless to stop from being destroyed. No one could understand those horrors except the others that had been there, the handful of ones that had been asked to remember, and of those few, he trusted even less.
“This is what I give you,” the Annanuki had said. “Life until death.”
“Don’t we already have that?” one of the others had asked.
Everett silently wished that he’d stabbed them both, then and there.
It was painful to think about how much had been lost, how sky had been bound to earth. He’d told her the tales instead, the old legends that his father and his mother had told him, tales echoed by whispering lwa. The Scarlet Angel. The Musician. The Purple Queen, the Blue Queen. The Weaver.
“Dad?” His daughter asked. “Dad, come back to me.”
“Sorry. Sorry, hun, I missed that last bit.” Everett held the cup of coffee steady in his hands, staring at it, forcing himself to study the minute details until the world around him was all that mattered, here and now, the cold seeping into his ass from the snow he was sitting in. He stood, dusting himself off with one hand, holding the cup steady in the other. He could see all the way to the horizon, knew every window along the street.
There were weeks, months, years where this happened, where memory drowned reason. He’d been told to remember and he never forgot and sometimes, rarely, he would act and bring the weight of himself down upon history and try to change the world.
“Is the Weaver out walking again?” Rose asked. “I can call back next week.”
“No. No, this helps.”
“If you’re sure.”
“I’m sure,” Everett said. He closed his eyes, took a single breath. He remembered the conversation, every breath from the moment Rose called, every word and pause and inflection. He opened his eyes, took a long gulp of coffee as he considered all of it and frowned. “What’s wrong?”
“We’re fighting over money.” He could hear the pain and embarrassment in Rose’s voice; she did not like admitting this, but few people ever liked admitting weakness. “When the Verenes bought the island, they stopped John’s peers from confirming his findings, and without confirmation…”
“People are branding him a crackpot,” Everett nodded understanding. “I’m sure Jack is thrilled.”
“Jack always had a firmer understanding of that sort of thing than John, and he’s done his best to keep the reality away from John, but…,” she trailed off, and he could imagine her biting her lip, closing her eyes, gathering her thoughts and her strength. He waited, patient with ages, patient with knowing. “John’s beginning to feel the crunch. We had to sell the house, and that’s why Mercy and I had to move out here.”
“You sold the house.” Everett frowned, looking in the direction the house lay. Even he couldn’t see it – the earth curved long before he might have, and there were cities in the way, but he still grimaced as he remembered every room and imperfection, the backyard and the garden, the ivy creeping up the side, the mint that grew along the back fences. “I loved that house.”
“So did I.”
“Let me buy it back.”
“Dad…,” Rose let the title hang between them, her tone uncertain. She didn’t want to ask and struggled with the idea of him doing this, the hesitation in her voice caused by a yearning for her old home and wanting to stand on her own.
She loved that house, he knew. They both did. To go from the bedlam and squalor of her childhood to those brick walls had been an impossible dream, and the two of them had made it their home together. Her harsh teen years, rebellion made worse by the pains of her childhood and the trauma he’d suffered in that decade, but they walked one another through it, walked one another beyond it.
He left it to her and John when he’d moved to Toronto. He’d always been a creature of cities, and he’d been glad when humanity had rediscovered them – living in Damascus, in Carthage, in al Hambra, in Kumasi, in Barcelona, in Toronto. He loved the lights, the whispers, the collective breathing of hundreds of human souls, the thrum of their heartbeats, the joy of architecture.
“You could have come to me,” Everett said. “You can always come to me. You know that, right?”
“Yes, I do, but John doesn’t,” Rose said, her voice very quiet. Everyone carried secrets, some shared and some not. Everett had shared his with Rose because he’d had to, but both of them had decided that John could never know – his obsession with the past would have broken against the length of Everett’s life, and they both knew it. “He likes you, but he doesn’t know… he doesn’t like asking for help.”
“No one is an island, Rose,” Everett said, the words as gentle as he could make them. “We’re all connected. Everyone accomplishes what they can depending on who they are and where they’re from, the relationships they build in and of the world.”
He didn’t need to add that he could afford it. He could afford almost anything, his riches grown through ages. He’d learned to diversify his holdings after Carthage was sacked, the lesson that no empire was eternal one that he’d learned slowly, but once he had, he’d taken the time to divide his wealth among different nations, different kingdoms, different places. This was a practice that had served him well.
When the idea of inventing wealth had finally occurred to the modern world he’d been an early buyer, and he was now easily in the one percent of the one percent, rich in a way that stripped the word of essential meaning. He owned the building he lived in, owned the seven blocks around it, ran a coffee shop because he enjoyed coffee and giving night people a place to go. He had grandfathered his investments into other investments, spending a year in every decade learning the ins-and-outs of different economic models.
It was better, he had found, to be wealthy than to be poor, and better to be free than to be a slave.
He frowned, remembering the early days of America, the rise of the Three Sisters, the… he blinked, let his thoughts settle.
Deep breath, he thought. Here and now.
He loved his adopted daughter. He liked John. He enjoyed his granddaughter, little Mercedes. She called him uncle and John thought Everett was Rose’s adopted brother. He looked at the stars trying to break through the smog cover and smiled, finishing the last of the coffee.
Sometimes, Everett thought, John could be more a child than Mercedes.
“Who’d you sell the house to?” he asked.
“A real estate firm for a down payment.”
“I’m going to buy it back and put it in Mercy’s name as part of a trust,” Everett said, his tone allowing no argument. “Keep the money you got from it. Are you comfortable?”
“Me? Yes. Of course. This place is, well, it’s lovely.” But it isn’t home, she thought, and he could hear those words in the slim shaking of her voice. “What do I tell John about the house?”
“Anything you like,” Everett said, letting her know that he’d support her. “Next issue is your finances. You want to handle this on your own, and I get that. The Verenes are why you can’t get grant money?”
“I guess. I mean, yes, kind of.”
“Then call the Verenes,” Everett said. “You got on well with Solaina, I seem to recall, and Robert seemed to get on well with John. If they’re so interested in Surcess, let them have it – but get them to pay John for what he found, and get them interested in what he’s currently looking for.”
“You think they’d be interested?” Rose asked, her tone light.
“If they’re interested in Surcess, they might be interested in the Devinii,” Everett shrugged, letting the motion flavor his voice – she would not see the motion, but she would know that he’d done it. “Call them. Find out.”
“Okay,” Rose said, and she sounded so much more like herself.
“Do you have a contact number?”
“Yes, Dad, from Solaina.” Rose paused, and he could hear her licking her lips, swallowing. Her voice dropped, became quieter, more frightened. “Do you remember her?”
“I do,” Everett answered. “From when the two of you were kids.”
“We were in our teens,” Rose’s voice turned warm, her recrimination playful. She was fond of those memories despite their horror, but the ability of adults to swim in their childish nostalgia had always amazed Everett, always left him wondering if his own memories were so tinted. He shook his head. Here. Now.
“Barely,” Everett said, his eyes rolling. He remembered young Rose, rags and bones, her eyes haunted and smoky, and Solaina’s anger and flashing sword. “Give her a call. Play on history and see if there’s anything there.”
“I’ll do it as soon as I get off the phone.”
“You might want to have Jack plant the idea in your husband’s head.”
“What?” Rose asked, surprised by the suggestion. “Why?”
“Because your husband, much as I love him, can be a bit of an idiot,” Everett said, smiling as he leaned against a wall, his eyes drifting over the city spires. “He might not listen to you, and he won’t listen to me, but a suggestion from Jack…?”
“Yeah, okay.” He could hear her grin. “Love you, Dad.”
“Love you, too,” Everett said. He let the words hang between them, enjoying a comfortable electric silence, breaking it only to ask, “Is Mercy around?”
“She’s out in the orchard,” Rose answered. “The property we’re on has an orange field. She spends her days reading, playing, or stealing oranges to eat.”
“Aright, well, let her know her Uncle said ‘hi.’”
He could hear Rose shifting her weight, making herself more comfortable, hear the way her breathing changed. Rose understood why they told Mercy the things they did, understood why they kept the secret from the eight-year-old girl – children traded secrets for candy, and Mercy might never know the full depth of Everett’s life, might never know that he could live forever.
Other children in the past had traded secrets bigger than that. Everett had seen it happen, had even had it happen to him. He’d had to flee Spain, cross a sea and flee further to escape the fires of Inquisition and the persecution of zealots. He’d ended up in chains, ended up blistered and shattered across an ocean, ended up in-
“Dad?” Rose asked. He took a deep breath. Here, he thought, now.
“Sorry, lost in thought again.”
“Hopefully, it’s a little more pleasant.”
“It is,” Everett lied. She knew that he had seen and been and done many things, and often it was the bad memories that dominated. She’d seen him when- he smiled, shook his head, laughed. “Iataad taohif aamgae.”
He asked her to call him when it was done, to let him know how things are and if there might be anything else that he could do to help. She said that she would and that she loved him and then she hung up and he stayed there for minutes afterward, staring down at a single girl staring back up at him.
She was young, this girl, pale as snow, with raven hair and emerald eyes. Her facial structure was that of someone that wasn’t human but was trying to be – lacking the small ticks that came from growth, the small changes evolution brought to structure and culture brought to stance. She was looking at him and she nodded, smiling, turned and vanished into the night.
There were powers older than he was and too large to easily comprehend. He’d seen some of them in the past, been there when they’d done their workings and changed the world. It made him shudder in a way the cold never could, to know that such powers were moving through the world again, were gathering, that one of them might think that the conversation he had just had was important enough to watch so closely.
He replayed the conversation in his head once more, all of it from beginning to end, felt something that he’d missed when he’d muttered the most ancient of prophecies: iataad taohif aamgae.
In the long dead language of the Devinii, it meant none may escape.
Beyond the end of the world, the end of all the worlds, is a place where they all meet. All manner of creatures and beings come here; it is a place of refuge, of shelter from the storm. And there is always a storm somewhere.
Among them, strangely even for this strange place, is a child. A girl of eight or nine in a nightdress, flaxen-haired and blue-eyed, the very picture of innocence. One might be worried in this place that she is somehow a trap, a monster hiding, but it is not so. Goldie really is a little girl, but she is a dreamer.
Goldie fell asleep one night. It was a strange falling asleep, but she remembers nothing more about it. Then the terrors began. Night after night, week after week. The teeth in the woods, the house of blood, the gray faces, each more terrible than the last, the nightmares haunted and tormented her. Even in sleep, there was no rest.
But time passed. It always does, even if it moves strangely beyond the veil of worlds. One can eventually get used to anything, and though Goldie really is a little girl, she had been a little girl now for a long, long time. One day, with the teeth snapping at her heels again, she tired of the chase. She sat under a gnarled, blackened tree, picked up one of the fallen branches, and waited.
The snarling and howling stopped the moment she sat, and in short order, intrigued, the nightmare appeared to her, taking the form of a tall, dapper man whose body seemed to be made of black fire.
Why do you not run? it said, the words being remembered without ever being spoken.
“I’m tired.” she replied.
But you are asleep, it said, For years now. How can you be tired?
“Not sleepy,” said she, “Tired. Tired of running. Why do you torment me?”
The nightmare paused. This was something it had never considered. How could it? Do fish wonder why they swim, or flames wonder why they burn?
Finally, it spoke, without speaking: I am your Nightmare, it said.
“Mine?” Goldie asked.
Yours and yours alone, it said, as long as need be.
The girl stood. “You… are mine? You belong to me?”
Confused, the nightmare nodded, for was that not what it said?
Years of darkness change anyone, even someone who really is a little girl, and there in the gloom and the dark Goldie smiled for the first time in years, and ran forward, embracing the burning man who did not really burn.
“You’re MINE!” she said. It was the first time she could remember that anyone or anything was truly hers, even from before the strange sleep began. And the Nightmare, for it was made of her dreams as much as her fears, to its surprise wrapped its burning but not burning arms around her and hugged her back.
This, gentle traveler, is how you may meet the dreamer who has been young for so long in the place beyond the end of the worlds. Beside her always is her traveling companion, her Nightmare, which brings her from dream to dream wherever darkness touches, teaching her now the joy and laughter that lives where light doesn’t reach, for it already taught her everything it could about fear and pain. The nightmare is itself, himself, young in many ways, and does not always understand the places they travel. But it knows two truths that are clad in iron.
Firstly, he is HER Nightmare. Without her, he does not know what he would be, perhaps the nameless dread in the dark again, and it would be awful to go back to that sort of nonperson after finding this richer life.
And secondly, he looks really good in that hat.
Iataad taohif aamgae. None may escape.
Those were the words her House had been built upon. The very first Vanir to bear their name had looked up at the stars and pointed, she had been told, and uttered those words. Years later they would hear them echoed among other nations, among the Swann, the Devinii, the Darroken. There was some ancient truth wrapped in those syllables, in that meaning. None may escape. She had sought to escape the prophecy of those words with her genius and her tools but now Veskur Wyrd stood alone and afraid, naked and revealed on the top of her tower. She had been undone, destroyed, her every tenant proved a lie by what the world had become around her.
Wind and storm and fire whipped the lands surrounding her home. Her nameless manservant had finally proven to be no fool; he had abandoned her, leaving her to her fate. His doing so had saved her the task of having to tell him to leave before the price of all that she had done came to claim her. No one else should have to pay for the consequences of her actions and yet so many had.
Her quiet valley, her refuge and solitude and all that she had ever wanted had been blasted beyond all recognition. There was no sign of the peace she had tried to cultivate. Soldiers and barbarians died all around her, their final screams waging war with the clash of thunder and steel, rain turning red as it met the sea of death that lapped at her tower. Hekro was out there, Risue, Jesam the first. Every hero of two nations had come here, at this moment, to take from her a power that they could not hope to understand.
Some among the Vanir wore gaurn on their left hands, tools that she had not made and had never meant to share. Jesam the First knew them for what they were but not how they worked. The Coeecians came to claim the Ethcinos Sciences for themselves while the Vanir came only to take the rest of what they thought she knew.
They none of them knew nothing.
Sometimes the price of knowledge was knowing.
Out there, somewhere, was Figo, lovely and light Figo Jera. The Rose Dragon. Who had loved him like she had? Who had cherished him, respected him, cared for him? No one. Thea had told her how he had given himself to Jesam the First, convinced that his sacrifice was noble. Veskur saw only the price of it: a holy radiance swallowed by darkness. She had told him again and again that he was perfect but he had always blushed and muttered dismissals of her description, claiming that no one could ever hope to reach the tiers she judged him worthy of.
“You idiot!” she screamed, her words echoing off the mountains and reaching the ears of the armies that even now waged war on her small home, Vanir and Coeecians thinking to wrest her knowledge from her while trying to kill one another. “You fool! I called you perfect because you were perfect even in your imperfection! You were the light that softened the edges of the darkness that I am, the joy that tempered the sorrow that I was so lost in that I could not even recognize it! I would have done anything for you, anything for you, anything for you, and this is where we are and this is what I have wrought! I miss you, miss you with everything that I will ever be, and there will never be another word for me, not from you, never from you!”
Thunder smashed the world around her keep as she slashed the very weavings of Creation itself with her gaurn, the nimbus that surrounded her tool burning with the intensity of a thousand suns and rendering the atrocity that had consumed her world in monochromatic silhouettes, either red or white or black. There was no mixture of color as two nations went to war with one another and with her, but as long as her tower stood, as long as she could keep herself in check, as long as she didn’t catch sight of the ones who had helped her become what she now was, it would not get any worse.
She weaved atop the stones of her keep, reeling like a drunk above the riot below her. She balanced herself on the battlements, staring down, counting the heroes that held their own: Hekro, Jesam, Risue, Leovi, Janwae, Darco. She knew they would fight until not one of their number was left, their clumsy groping violence as nothing compared to the horror she could unleash at any time, at any moment, if only she could find the will to do so.
Endrall Sahr would be out there somewhere. Ygg Sotaas. Possibly even Deeam Njiord and his fabled ahmr, smashing skull and heart with long arching swings, the deep baritone of his voice expressing only hatred.
Did it matter who won, so far as she was concerned?
Sotaas had told her of the rumors Endrall had spread above and beyond the taking of her name, knew that between her inherent strangeness and Endrall’s charisma that no one down there was fighting with her interests in mind; the entirety of the horror playing out below her was an action taken utterly without love.
She knelt, coated in a fine blanket of rain, clutching to the cold rock that made up her home as screams echoed throughout the world around her. She remembered Figo, how soft he was, how gentle, how kind. Veskur believed that he had been everything good and pure in the world but he was gone now, given up, driven to self-destruction by forces that she herself had crafted. She was responsible. She was accountable. The skeletal fingers of death that gripped the plains below her had been summoned by her, by the arrogance of her Science.
Perhaps, she thought, if she had been more careful or more subtle it would not have come to this. Perhaps if she had held herself in check instead of giving voice to her every wild imagining she would not have inflicted this final doom upon an undeserving world. Sotaas didn’t deserve this, or Hekro, or Risue, or even Endrall. And Figo, lovely lost Figo, well, the more Veskur thought about it the more she came to understand. She didn’t need Figo in her life, or Endrall, or any of them. She had lived alone and had been happy alone. She should have returned to her solitude. Instead, she had tried to weave herself into the lives of threads that were never meant to bear her weight.
She could fix it. With the power she could shape with her left hand she could fix all of it. She saw the plan unfold before her, the length of time it would take. She would have to remove herself from the equation but she wanted to do that anyway; she no longer wanted to be, to exist, to remember. All she wanted was quiet and emptiness. There was a place for her. Mathemagically speaking, there was a place that she could go that no one would ever be able to follow, another trick Sotaas had caught in her equations that she would have never noticed but had followed to finality.
Veskur Wyrd didn’t need to be a part of anything to win. All she needed to claim victory was for the people she cared about to be happy and she had never been able to view herself as a person.
She stood, brushing water from her shoulders, raindrops lost in the horror that painted itself below her, a landscape of entrails and screaming. No arrows were fired upon her, no one wanting to risk losing what they thought they were here to claim. She looked down upon them and felt an awful wrath set root in her heart, an anger that could never be undone, for upon standing she could see Endrall Sahr.
He stood in the midst of the carnage, walking towards her keep with a tingling disregard for all those that fell around him. He carved signs into the air with his gaurn, keeping himself removed from the conflict even as he moved through it, untouched and regal and all the more inhuman for doing so. She recognized him then, the true face that lay behind his beauty – a sadistic solipsist who hid behind the veneer of the humanitarian, the weapon crafted and honed for a heart’s battlefield by a bitter and childish father.
She should have been wiser. She should have known him for what he was.
“I trusted you!” she cried, the words torn from somewhere deep inside her, echoing down along the corridors of broken steel and shattered flesh. Endrall looked up at her, not even breaking stride.
“Then why did you leave?”
“You left me, remember?” Veskur screamed. “You left me! You used me as an emotional crutch and insulted me and insulted me and insulted me and then you got angry at me for being hurt, again, and you stormed out on me! I had to chase you down, to give you back your things!”
“You stopped speaking to me!” Endrall shrieked. “You replaced me and with what? Nothing? You stopped speaking to me without a word!”
Veskur stared down at the battlefield. Something broke in her, something that had been holding back the most terrible of whirlwinds. She slashed at the air, calling upon names and powers that she had only theorized but had never bothered to prove.
All of them answered her, all of them came at her word, and when she directed this collection of things that should not be into the world around her they hammered every soldier of two nations with an unthinkable onslaught, driving everyone to the ground until only she and Endrall were standing.
The energies she had called upon tore her skin and boiled her blood. Her world was agony but still she stood as those same energies tore at the fundamental laws of physics that held her together and scarred the crucible of her mind. She forced her will into her gaurn and rewrote everything that had ever been or could ever be – it was her destiny to be here and now, her destiny to have this conversation, and if it hadn’t been before it was now and it always would be.
More energies were called upon, more names. Endrall tried to shield himself from her wrath and maintained the structure of his poor Science. She might have been able to smash it but did not care to, instead wrapping her will around his and bringing him to her, dropping him on the roof of her keep so that they could stand facing one another.
“I thought that was an okay thing to do,” she whispered, releasing him.
“Why would you think that?” he spat, shaking, picking himself up on hands and knees.
“Someone told me it was okay.”
“That person was wrong.”
“That person was you!” Veskur cried. “That person was you! What makes it alright for you to treat me like that and wrong for you to suffer as I did? What makes it okay for you to hurt me, to dismiss me, to treat me like that? Are you even conscious of the injury and insult that you offer or is that behavior a fundamental aspect of the person you’ve become? Were you always like this? Did I just not see it or did I help twist you into this?
“Look around us, healer. Look at the world as we have made it, you and I in all our towering arrogance! Look what we have wrought and tell me that either of us could have ever been in the right!”
“You were wrong,” Endrall said, standing. “You were wrong. You were arrogant. This, this mess, this is what you made or allowed to be made. I didn’t make it and didn’t approve of it. This is always and ever your fault, just as everything is in your life is. All the miseries of Figo, all the miseries of me and of Sotaas, all of them are your fault. You could have made them better. You could have made this world better but you chose to make things this way and nothing you can do will change that now. You tried to make us all small. You wanted us to crawl before you, as if you were some giant or something worthy of love. You’re a monster. A process. Unworthy of trust and we were never friends.”
Veskur stared at her love for a moment and then stumbled back, laughing with a mania that frightened even her.
“Hypocrite,” she wheezed, spreading her arms. “Charlatan. You think I’m not aware of my sins? You think I don’t know what I’ve done, the mistakes I’ve made? You think I don’t know that every time death claims someone below us it’s my fault? I know this. I know what I have wrought. My choice not to decide has brought us here, but you… you’re every bit the monster I am. The only difference is that you don’t acknowledge the pain you cause. You’re not a person. You’re a weapon.”
“Coming from anyone else,” Endrall slurred, narrowing his eyes, “I might take that seriously.”
Veskur clawed at the air with her left hand, shattering every protection Endrall could think of with a fraction of the power that was hers to command. Energies rippled along her flesh, tearing it open, her blood bubbling out in steaming rivers, but still she stood straight and tall, a creature torn from the very fabric of nightmare.
A lifetime of anger at the ridicule and scorn she had suffered pushed its way to the surface, crawling out with talons tempered by the very fires of Hell. She was becoming something else, something both more and less than human, something indescribable to her shattered mind.
Endrall fell back, warding her fury off with his right hand, the gaurn on his left weaving patterns that rewove his wounded skin as soon as the backlash of Veskur tore it open. He struggled to do it, Veskur knew, and she could see the terror in his eyes – the knowledge that all the damage that he was suffering, the damage that he could only just repair, was only incidental. She smiled, feeling her body flaking into ash and held steady only by the Ethcinos Sciences that she knew better than anyone else could ever hope to.
She would not could not waver, not now.
A cry cut through the agonized orchestra below them, a single sound that caught the attention of them both. Figo Jera was down there, tied to the wrist of Jesam the First and held like an animal, his naked body covered in welts and scars. Veskur felt herself trembling to see the noblest man she ever knew reduced to such a whimpering state, felt her knees buckle, her right hand falling limply to her side.
Her left hand, however, cut her pain into the fabric of everything that could ever be.
Mountains trembled, brought low by fates they had not known moments before. Metal found flesh and released a whole new choir of screams, guided by destinies that had not been meant for them seconds before. As Veskur gave voice to the agony of a lifetime the world narrowed, the very idea of possibility and choice narrowed and thinned and culled until death hung in the air as a bone white haze, an entire field suffering for the unloved blame that Veskur had accepted as her own.
This was the world shifting, the monochromatic figures shifting color even as they watched. The gore that coated the ground fell white as snow, the Vanir bathed in the blood of their enemies, the Coeecian horde blacker than Endrall’s withered and unused heart. Veskur watched, stunned at the result of her power, and it took a few moments for agony to settle into her shoulder.
She turned and saw Endrall towering over her, a dryw in hand, the serrated double-edge of the weapon tearing into her flesh. She watched her own blood fall, covering her arm and shoulder, flecks of it painting Endrall. She stared at it in horrified wonder, not even wanting that part of her to touch the awfulness that she now knew him to be.
“I trusted you,” Veskur whispered, her voice cracking. “I trusted you and every word you said to me. I tried to get through to you, to let you know, and all you ever gave me was cruelty.” He struck her, sent her spiraling to the cold stone. She lay limp and dying on the ground, staring up at him as he panted above her, his eyes narrowing as he glared.
“How many times do we have to tell you?” He struck her with all his strength. “How many times did Figo tell you? Thea? River? Myself? How many times do we have to tell you that your feelings don’t matter, that you’re an arrogant and unworthy thing, a process more than a person, a concept more than an individual? You don’t matter and you never did! Any usefulness you might have had has long since passed. Die, Veskur. It’s all you have to do now.” He struck her at the end of every question, every statement, struck her until her face was as bruised as her soul.
She mumbled something, unable to make sense of the words that struggled to be heard through the blood she was drowning in.
“What was that?” Endrall asked, taunting. She glared up at him, left hand weaving furiously. It was not her destiny to die here. It was not her choice and death could only take her at a time of her choosing so long as she wore the gaurn on her hand.
“I said,” Veskur mumbled, catching Endrall’s wrist as his hand came for her again, “I said what a fool I am.”
She grabbed her levl and dryw as she kicked him off her and rose up, holding the weapons in a clumsy stance as she faced down the only enemy in her life that would ever matter. Endrall held a dryw in his left hand, keeping his right free to use the Ethcinos Science that she had given him. He was so much more graceful than she was, accepted by his House, trained to defend himself somewhat – but she was a power above and beyond anything that Midgard or any other nation would ever know.
“All this,” Veskur said, knowing that it was Endrall’s destiny to hear the words, “All this is because of you. I blame your father for twisting the person you should be into the person you are, and me for letting you define me. I gave you everything I had to give, everything you wanted, but you always wanted more. You were destroying me, unmaking me, turning me into something that I did not recognize and did not choose and I let you. Would you have been happy, then, with me dead? Is that why you brought two armies to my doorstep?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Endrall answered. The dryw in his hand was steady.
“I will try to end this quickly,” Veskur said, ignoring him. “I will try to set you free.”
She lunged for him, the damage her body had suffered not slowing her down in the slightest, but Endrall was so very fast and so very graceful. Every time she cut his flesh he used the gift she had given him to heal his hurt, mocking her all the while. He cut her right hand, stabbed through the back of the palm and kicked the levl away when she dropped it. She threw the dryw in her left hand at him but he casually batted it out of the way, falling back a step as he did so.
She did not have so much time to act in given the space between them.
Carving the air with her left hand, she began to call upon powers that would stagger even Endrall Sahr – but then he stabbed her, driving the dryw in his right hand into and through her ribs. Blood passed her lips, boiling into steam as it touched the air. He pushed her to her knees, laughing, pressing his boot against her heart to free the blade. She crumbled to the ground, whimpering as he put his boot to her, dancing up and down her frail fracturing body.
“Do you have anything else to tell me?” Endrall asked. “I can feel you dying. You don’t have much longer, so if you have any last words now is the time to speak them.”
A whisper lost to the rain passed her lips, a weak rattle before dying.
“What was that?” Endrall asked, voice cold and sure as he leaned down, holding his ear just above her lips. “I can’t hear you.” Veskur coughed weakly, cleared her throat, fighting to hold onto an ever dwindling consciousness.
“I still love you.”
Endrall fell back as Veskur pushed herself onto her stomach, pushed herself up on shaking elbows, forced her knees underneath her. Coughing tore her throat, spasms wracked her decaying body, but still she held herself, still forced her neck to turn so she could look up at him from hands and knees. He kicked her in the gut and she curled into herself, kicked her again until she fell onto her back and lay still.
“Why won’t you die?!” Endrall shrieked. “It’s the only thing left for you! There’s nothing else! Nothing else! You’re weak and pathetic and disgusting, a shell of a person, a rotten concept that corrupts and weakens and degrades with your presence! Filthy, disgusting whore! That’s all you are and all you’ll ever be!”
He stood over her, triumphant, feeling her heart falter and break, the pulse fading down to nothing. The woman below her was dead, a memory, and though a part of Endrall missed her and mourned her passing, he could not help but rejoice at the death of everything he knew was evil in the world.
“Enough.” The word came from below him, the steady voice that spoke it impossible. “Enough.” A force he could not name pushed him off the corpse of his enemy. He looked down and saw her eyes flutter open, her gaze boring into his soul.
“You can’t be alive!” Endrall cried. “I felt you die! I felt you die!”
“I don’t believe you.” Veskur picked herself up off the ground, the gaping wounds carved into her ignored. He could see tendons move within her, exposed muscle stretching with her every motion. “It is not my destiny or fate to die here. This world is what I choose it to be and I do not choose your reality. You think this is a fevered dream, a last ditch effort, and I know that because I put that thought in your head – you were fated to think it just now. Destiny and fate, the push and pull of choice and circumstance, are mine to do with as I will. I tried to play by your rules, I did, but I am done with your game.”
He wove shields around himself, drawing on the Ethcinos Science, but Wyrd broke his circuits, shattered his knowing, her will washing over the battlefield around them and crippling all those it touched. She rose into the air, eyes glowing with eldriss energies, her left hand burning with the fury of ten thousand suns. He screamed as his eyes broke, outlined images burned into his brain one after another as the world shifted, changed, broke apart and was remade as Wyrd desired it to be.
The stone they stood upon shattered, broken into dust that somehow held his weight for the span of a rapid heartbeat. He counted down those seconds, each as long as a lifetime before he fell through that dust towards the ground that waited to claim him. His bones broke as he struck the earth. There was no place to hide or flee from Wyrd, not now, not as she was. Her fury washed over the assembled nations and Endrall could only watch in horror as those around her were picked apart, skin and sinew washing away in a wisping cloud of white ash. Only the two of them remained untouched and whole and Endrall knew that this was not a mark of mercy.
He coughed up blood, forced himself to roll over as ribs strained and fractured under from the simple motion. Breathing hurt; his lungs were filling with blood, his fluids leaking out of holes in his body that should never have been. The woman watched him, still standing on the dust above him, her eyes alight with that same terrible energy, steam catching and reflecting the edges of her madness. His left arm twitched. He was too hurt to call upon the Ethcinos but still strong enough to use baser sciences to heal himself. He wept as his bones set and his flesh mended, whimpering as he rolled onto his stomach, forced his knees underneath him.
Calling upon the Ethcinos, he willed that energy into him, found a place where he was whole and unhurt and pulled that self to him, massacring even the possibility of anything else being there. He opened his eyes as phantom pains still assailed him, his real hurts now nothing more than dim flickering ghosts.
Veskur had reached the ground, now standing in a whirlwind of human ash. The rags she wore whipped around her, revealing flesh that was constantly being pulled apart and sewn together by the energies she had invited into herself. She stalked towards him, kicking up little clouds that had once been women and men, driving her foot into his chest as he struggled to stand, driving her heel into his heart as he lay on the ground and tried to remember how to breathe.
“Veskur,” gasped Endrall, trembling, looking up at the woman.
“There are no names between us,” the woman whispered. “The dead have no names.”
“You and me,” he said, tasting iron on his lips, “We can fix this. We can make it so it never was.”
“But this is what you wanted, isn’t it?” The woman looked around them, at the blasted landscape that had once been her refuge. Snow mixed with ash until it was impossible to tell the difference between them, coating ground and sky. She trembled, her every living moment an agony that she could not describe, mind-shattering and yet still not quite enough to dull the terrible ache this man had placed inside her. “Don’t you know that this is war?”
He quivered as she knelt down on top of him, straddling him, her fingers reaching for his flesh. He screamed and tried to buck her off him but it was no good – he knew with an awful clarity that it was not his destiny to escape her in such a way, that it was his fate to falter and die underneath her.
A circle of royal sigils burned into the snow around them.
Veskur looked up and screamed as searing light lanced into her from eight directions, thrusting through her skin and bone, holding her aloft. Endrall heard chanting – why had he not heard that chanting before? – and looked into the wilds. Freya, the Nauthiz Coven, Thea, and River were all standing there, using Science to bind the Good Lady and hold her in place, to inflict unspeakable pain upon her. It was only just holding her, their efforts, but Endrall knew that so long as those figures stood that Veskur would never break free, would never use her power before they ripped her apart.
He pulled himself to his feet, used his Ethcinos to finish healing himself. He walked around her in a circle, watching her suffer and smiling, taunting her with whispers that no one else would ever hear. He was so very careful not to touch the light of the sigils that were holding her, not wanting to risk her getting free, knowing what she could do with even a moment of liberty.
“You’re finished,” Endrall whispered, low and throaty, a tone meant for lovers. “It’s over and you’re done. Whatever plan lies within your heart will die with you.” She shuddered, her head lolling, and he saw that she was smiling down at him through narrowed eyes.
She flicked her fingers and there was a flash. For a moment, just a single moment, Endrall thought he saw a series of spiraling corridors that circled off into the infinite, winding corridors lacking any sense of floor or ceiling that nonetheless went off into forever. He saw as some of the heavy doors that were held in the oldest stones light into black flame and heard a terrible wailing from each, uncounted lives ending as each portal flickered and died.
The flash brightened as Veskur’s smile grew, the light becoming blinding.
When Endrall could see again the vision and the Good Lady were gone.
“Are you alright?”
Endrall looked up, realizing that he must have fallen in the Lady’s final moments. Thea was offering him a hand and he took it, letting the smaller man haul him up from the corpse-dust that had pooled around him.
“She’s gone,” Thea nodded, looking around. “She was driven insane and she had to be put down. I came up with the method of doing it, the Coven putting together the Sciences that would have to be enacted. A process for holding, a process for pain, a process to smother her actions, a process to destroy her, a process to banish her into a plain of infinite possibilities from which she will never escape.”
“You sent her to Yggdrasil?” Endrall asked, looking at Thea in horror. “Do you know what you’ve done?”
“I’ve cleaned up your mess,” Thea hissed. “She was perfect and you ruined her. Don’t tell me that you didn’t. She made the mistake of loving you over me and look what you did, what you brought her to. You’re a whore, a spoiled stupid whore who thinks only of himself. Do you have any idea what we lost in her, in her home?”
“Nothing of import,” replied the eldest of the Verra Coven. “We know how to make the tools of her Science, the gaurn, all of it. Soon all our nobles will have them and then where will the Coeecians be? Let them have a hundred Jesams, a thousand, and still we will meet them.”
“We should let her Science die with her.” River spat at the place where the Good Lady had vanished. “There are other ways, less profane.”
“You’re just angry because she never slept with you.”
“You never rode her, either.”
Endrall turned from their bickering, looking at the spot where his would-be lover had vanished. No one living knew Veskur Wyrd so well as he and that smile, that final smile, haunted him. The power and qualities that Veskur had known, Endrall knew, would not limit her from within a place that only she had mapped and theorized, a place that only she believed in.
The certainty of those around them was a lie.
The Ethcinos War had only just begun.
It’s over. The novella is done, and the novels still loom in the future. If you want something more to read, why not click here and try my novel? If you like the artwork, why not go and thank Meghan Duffy at duffyartdesign.com? She’s cool people. I’d like to dedicate this to her, AJ, Andy, Claire, Greg, Andrew, Kathleen, and Jaime. Thanks for reading, hope you liked it, and stay tuned for more original fiction here at Living Myth Magazine.
Figo Jera had always seen the world for its light.
In his eyes, everything was beautiful. Everything had meaning. There were darker shades but they were perversions, not true things in and of themselves. Most of those shadows were outside Midgard and therefore unimportant in the greater scheme of things, but there were some darknesses that would leak into even the brightest day, little black veins that touched the light and stood un-banished. Figo had known the edges of a darkness like that, having even come to love her for what she was, but he knew that the danger of losing himself to that sort of monster was simply too great to be borne.
He had not seen Veskur Wyrd for a very long time.
A figure from his nightmares had returned – the madman Jesam. He had been Figo’s proof of evil and arrogance, a figure so consumed by solipsism that the rest of the world was nothing more than a toy for him to abuse and break. Figo himself had been such a toy, left bleeding and pleading. He didn’t like to think of it. Light should have saved him from that darkness but instead a greater darkness had come and taken away everything.
Figo had discussed that at length with Endrall, Farrell, and the other nobles that he kept in his closest circle. He threw parties for them, hosted events for them, took care of their troubles and listened to their problems – and if they did not do the same for him, well, perhaps he had no problems worthy of that name or they trusted his strength to overcome the things that they could not.
He was strong, he knew that. The fingers on his left hand twitched as the fabric of the gaurn chafed his skin. His levl was secured along his back, the dryw he had carried no more than a memory. He had seen the hated tool drowned, holding it underwater and leaving it to the tides. He had not wished to carry something so traitorous with him. Many of his soldiers had followed this practice, taking to wearing shield-gauntlets on their left forearms as another echo of their commander.
“You’ve become an icon,” Hekro had told him, laughing. “Just like me. The Golden Champion and the Rose Dragon. What a pair we make.” She shook her head and clasped his shoulder. He wondered how much of that admiration was truly his and how much was a side-effect of his association with the Lady Wyrd, of the Science she commanded and the tool on her hand. He hated that he could not explain that to anyone.
He’d seen Wyrd thrice since abandoning her all those decades ago. Once had been at a public function; the two of them had resumed communication briefly over something silly and unimportant, sharing fables with one another. Figo had mentioned a time and place where he could be found, expounding on those details, but he had never meant for the woman to come.
She had anyway, keeping to the background. She watched with wide eyes, nervous as a colt, keeping to the back of the trees and looking lost, torn, and hurt. She had tried to approach him only once but had stopped immediately when Figo took a step back. She’s stared a moment longer, shaking, then simply waved and left, holding herself.
Endrall had heard of that moment, had told him that the woman was not to be trusted, that she was a monster and a foulness that needed to be kept at arm’s length. Farrell further drove that point home and Figo knew that if anyone would know these things and hold these things that it would be the two of them. Especially Endrall, who loved the woman in a way that Figo had once shared but now wanted no part of.
The next had been at random, sometime after Deeam had ascended to the position of Njord. He had been out at the markets of House Fehu when he had seen her, walking alone and shaking. He had caught her eye and seen agony writ there, a loneliness that he could not put a name to. She had looked at him and recoiled, had turned on her heel and shambled away like a corpse caught on a string. He didn’t like to think of that encounter. He didn’t like to think of that encounter at all.
What if his every moment since meeting her had been a lie, something she had created? Endrall was right; she could not be trusted and neither could anything that happened around her. Maybe she had set the entire thing up with Jesam the first time around, just so that he would accept her into his life the way he had. She was vile. She was a monster. She was completely capable of undertaking the actions that Endrall accused her of. Figo knew better than anyone that Wyrd was capable of anything.
But the look of her those last two times; the fatigue, the sense of defeat and longing. Figo was not certain what to make of that. He sighed and looked at the note that lay on the table before him, lit by flickering light suspended in the air through the application of Coeecian trickery. Vanir science could do similar things. Were they really so different?
Figo, the note before him read, Lovely Figo. You were taken from me so long ago that I have trouble remembering you – your face, your touch, the look of defeat in your eyes. I hear you’ve become a Lord and a General, a leader of the forces I fight, but we both know that’s a delusion born of the arrogance you’ve surrounded yourself with. The truth is and always has been this: you are nothing more than a whore, nothing more than my toy to use and abuse as I see fit.
Your mistakes are many but I, in my generosity, can be forgiving. You have some understanding of the damage I am poised to inflict upon your people, having seen first hand the advantage I have built myself since assassinating your previous king and taking advantage of the ceremony surrounding the crowning of your new one. Believe me when I say that the victories you have suffered are as nothing compared to what I am even now prepared to claim.
I make you this offer, my most precious whore. Come to me of your own accord. I am not saying that I will halt my plans – I will not – but if you come home to me I will cease my attacks for seven full seasons. Your people will have time to catch their breath, to mourn their dead, and you will have won that time for them. Come to me, whore, as I have commanded you. If you do not, then by the next turn of the moon I will have wiped your people off the face of your world, and still, whore, still I will take you for my own and you will not like what I do to you then.
Or perhaps you will. We know how much you adored the things I did to you.
This is the last choice that I will ever allow you to make.
For I am as I always was: Jesam the First.
Figo read over the note once, twice. The Vanir were losing – Jesam the First was an imposter, clearly, trading on the name of an old hero of his people, but his strategies were good ones. The Vanir were a hardier people but not quite so fast. The Coeecians fought brutal battles, digging in trenches and fighting for every inch of land. They cared nothing for actually winning, it seemed, striking at settlements, at civilians, at supplies, at anything they could and then running away at the first sign of trouble.
When Jesam the First said that he would end the Vanir as a people, Figo believed him. He remembered the way the first Jesam had claimed him, had touched him and used him. He remembered the illnesses he had suffered, vomiting every morning with the taste of Jesam and Farrell in his mouth, the dull throbbing ache that had dimmed the light of his eyes and shaken his spine and legs. He knew that if Jesam claimed that he could do a thing that he fully believed that he was capable of doing it.
He walked the length and breadth of his soldiers, silently naming them as he went. Many of them rose as he walked past and he smiled at them but waved off any attempt at conversation – there was no one he wanted to talk to at that moment and his men were wise enough to respect his desire for solitude. He reached the edge of his camp and looked south, into the far wilds where the collected marble that the Coeecians laughably called cities sat, tall and imposing. He thought of Endrall and Veskur, of Farrell, of Jesam and Hekro.
How many of his decisions were his own? Wyrd had always told him that she wanted what was best for him, that she wanted him to be happy. She had once explained that she didn’t need to be in his life to win – all she needed was for him to smile, to be the light that she could never be. He looked at his men again and felt like the sun, each of them a planet that reflected the light and warmth of he himself. Had Wyrd done that, too? Hekro had once said that the sort of charisma that he possessed was an inborn talent, that he had shined of greatness from the very moment that the two of them had met.
Wyrd could change that sort of thing if she desired. Figo knew she could.
Silent, he walked back through the camp. There was a way for him to win if he only possessed the courage for it, a way for him to escape all doubt while saving the whole of the Vanir nation. This method would not require him to stand and it would free him from the pain of thought, of choice, the horror that came with being a man.
He pulled the gaurn off his left hand, laid it on the desk and looked at it. How much of himself he had poured into such a complex tool and how simple it looked, a heap of inert fabric without his will to guide it. He unstrapped the levl from his back and laid it down beside the gaurn, staring at it – these were symbols, he knew, things that he would never surrender were the choice his own.
Whatever happened now was all her fault.
It took him longer than he would have thought, using Science without the gaurn to ease the process. He completed the circuit required for sending a message, directing it to what was left of the Nauthiz Coven.
To you what are left, he wrote, I have received word from Jesam the First that he is poised to destroy the whole of the Vanir as a people and to claim Midgard for himself. I believe that he is capable of doing this but he has offered to stay his hand for seven full seasons if I turn myself over to him. I am going to do this – but I am leaving you the key to our people’s salvation.
I know that you and yours have been eager to study one of the gloves that the Lady Wyrd has crafted, to study the limits of the Ethcinos Sciences that she has tapped into. I am giving you that chance; I will hide mine in a place that only one among you will think to look. Though it has been designed to work only for me, I will leave you some of my blood. Perhaps, you will discover its secrets. This is my wish.
In return for my sacrifice and my end, I ask only that you discover the secret of making and copying Wyrd’s tool, that you pass that secret to the rest of the nobility and that the Vanir, as one, stand strong against the Coeecian horde that threatens us and has now claimed me.
Endrall Sahr will be upset by my absence, as will Hekro Gherlid. I ask that you show this message to them, that they might know that I was thinking of them and that I loved them both for everything they had given me, everything that they meant to me. Tell them both that this is not their fault. Tell them both that this is my choice, made freely and of my own will.
He signed the message and sent it along with the note that Jesam the First had sent him, taking the glove with him when he snuck out of the camp but leaving his levl behind. His soldiers would find it. He hoped they would understand. His sentries stood to attention but they were looking without, not within – no one abandoned the Band of the Rose Dragon, all of them loyal to a fault. He felt a momentary twinge of guilt for abandoning them in this manner, but he knew they would all die otherwise.
Alone, out in the dark, he looked to the night sky and set the moon as his marker. He did not have much time. Shrugging out of the noble robes and leaving them and his birthright behind, he moved swiftly into the darkness of night and circumstance, the light within him guttering out with each step until there was no sign of anything other than the eternal black.