23 September 2012

ELVEHELM: Starmeadow XVI - Matters of life and undeath


            Cayless slid into the pool, closing her eyes and breathing a deep sigh of relief.  The house was abed at last.

            It had been a frantic three-day at Domus Casia.  First a royal wedding, and then the celebration; a dragon, and his daughter; the summons of her mistress and her new master to attend upon the Queen at Pax Lymphus, the royal retreat.  A royal visit the morning after; the explosion into existence of the tiny, fox-like being that called himself ‘Chorvat the Merciless’, looking strangely competent with his doll-armour and his toy sword; the strange, unbelievable tale of battle and death at the Gyrus Sparo (made credible only by the brief appearance, and then sudden disappearance, of a hunter of the wild folk in the House gardens); and the arrival of the new duo, man and woman, who were said to have come from Fair Dracosedes, the realm of the goddess Miros herself. 

            Winged demons, talking trees, nymphs, two-legged mushrooms...the elf-woman shook her head in silent disbelief.  Life in the house of the baroness of Arx Incultus had never been dull, but the past three days had been a glimpse into pandemonium.  If Amorda as a mistress hadn’t been so generous (or fun, she admitted to herself), Cayless would’ve long ago asked for her manumetium.  Although if she did, she reflected wryly, she would miss the –

            “Good evening.”

            Her eyes snapped open.  At first, Cayless scarcely registered the woman who stood at the pool-side; she seemed to blend into the shadows, absorbing the lamplight instead of reflecting it.  All she could see were the visitor’s eyes – bright, deep eyes of brilliant green.  Wondrous eyes.

            She blinked several times before she recognized the newcomer.  At last the threads came together in her exhaustion-addled brain.  Domina Astridaline,” she said, struggling to collect her wits.  “I’m sorry, I was...I was wool-gathering.” 

            Sliding to the edge of the pool, she began to lever herself out.  “Please, refresh yourself.”

            Astridaline held up a hand, motioning Cayless to remain.  “I did not mean to disturb you,” she said softly.  Her voice was low and musical, and it lit upon Cayless’ abraded nerves like a balm.  “And if it pleases you, call me Astrid.”

            The request was as good as a command.  “Astrid,” Cayless nodded, relaxing once more.  She leaned back, beckoning lazily.  “You’ve come a long way.  Join me, if you like.”

            “I thank you.”  Nodding graciously at the invitation, the visitor let her robe drop to the tiles and slid into the water.  She too sighed; but her sigh was deeper, earthier, more elemental.  “Wonderful.”

            Cayless was careful not to stare, but she could not help but notice the newcomer’s flawless physique, or the way her pale skin shone in the candle-light.

            This late at night, the caloriferum was diverted to heat the water to make it ready for early-morning bathers.  It was why Cayless always bathed at end of day; the heat relaxed her muscles and soothed her spirit.  She inhaled sharply, breathing in the steam, smelling the tea and laurel leaves that she had scattered into the water... 

…smelling, too, the newcomer’s scent – a light, heady aroma, a fragrance unlike anything she had ever experienced.  It was...glorious.  Intoxicating.   “Lovely,” she murmured, inhaling again and again, unable to taste the newcomer’s bouquet deeply enough.

            She glanced over at Astridaline through lidded eyes, and saw that the pale woman was regarding her intently.  There was something marvellous, entrancing, behind the emerald of Astrid’s orbs; they were like wells, deep and mystical, and Cayless found herself drowning in them.

            Astridaline slid closer, and closer still, until their shoulders were touching.  At the contact, Cayless shivered and sighed, closed her eyes, and laid her head back against the tiles, each breath coming as a quick, hitching gasp.

            The newcomer smiled, her lips parting in anticipation.  It had been easy, so easy.  It was always easy, here in the elf-realm.  Breathing heavily, her entire being quivering with desire, she dipped her head, pressing her lips against her willing victim’s throat, her tongue flicking out, tasting salt, tasting flesh

            – screaming in frustrated rage as her head was yanked back, flailing madly, clawing at the the fingers knotted in her hair –

            – and Cayless snapped from fascinated repose, shrieking in terror, thrashing, splashing the steaming, scented water about, the spell broken, seeing nothing more than the woman and her blinding emerald eyes, her outraged howls, her claws, and her teeth, her teeth, her fangs 

            – and the man, the warrior who had saved her, wrestling now with the woman-thing that had come so close to battening on her, dragging her out onto the tiles, hauling the creature’s head back by main strength, straining, struggling against the lamiata’s unearthly might, oh and the screaming, the screaming –

            Scrambling and spitting curses under her breath, Cayless tumbled out of the pool, barking her shin on the tiled lip, struggling to put as much distance as possible between her flesh and the thrashing, screeching horror writhing on the tiles, half in and half out of the water.  Before her, Vareq Necco wrestled with his lifemate, pitting his skill against her incredible strength, slipping past her claws, her fangs, twisting her arms back, back, until he had pinned her to the tiled floor, bearing down upon her with all of his strength, his weight forcing her to bend, to yield. 

            “Enough!” he hissed.  Enough!”

            The woman – his lifemate, his love, driven to madness and beyond by insatiable hunger – bared her fangs and snarled at him, hissing like a serpent lusting for satiation and death.  At last, denied her desire, she wailed, bemoaning her damnation and her loss.  It was a long, lone, heart-shorn shriek, and Cayless felt her flesh crawl at the pitiful horror of it.

            Vareq closed his eyes, accepting the inevitable with a weary sigh.  Without relaxing his grip, he tugged aside the collar of his robe; and, grasping his lifemate’s hair in his fingers, wrenched her head back...and pressed his neck against her lips. 

            As Cayless watched, her flesh crawling, paralyzed by utter horror, the woman relaxed...then, wrapping her arms and thighs around her love, she drew him to her and, clenching him in the vise of her desire, drank deep of his devotion, her lips working against his throat, his teeth clenched in agony and ecstasy as tiny moans of lust, pleasure and fulfilment split the night...




            Szyelekkan tugged her cloak more tightly about her shoulders.  The hall was chill, but it was less a consequence of the winter storms that howled beyond the high stone walls than of the sort of work that had gone on here for untold centuries.  This was the Priscossium, the College of Bone; the heart of the Ars Anecros on earth, and the lair of its mightiest mortal practitioner.  The wretched place always felt cold to her.

            The cloak helped, a little.  She had purchased it from a skald a few years ago, at a bargain price facilitated by the fact that she had been haggling with a dagger pressed into the hollow of the man’s throat.  It was multihued and exquisite, of fine, far-western silks interwoven with threads of gold and silver; but more importantly, it was warm, and it made her feel more confident.  She always wore it whenever she had to face her mother.

            Deeper, deeper; deeper still.  Beneath the ground floor, descending past the laboratories reserved for students, past the morgue and the mortuary, past the pots of preserved flesh that provided the raw material for newcomers to the Art.  Past the shielded summoning chambers, where more advanced practitioners wrestled with departed spirits, often with deadly results.  All of it made her shiver.  She had never had the slightest interest in her mother’s work; the fire that burned within her was of another sort, hot rather than cold, alive and dancing rather than still and silent; a force to be expressed through action, movement, her blade, and the light and glee of her spirit.  It made for a wall between mother and daughter; but there were other, higher walls between them anyway.  There always had been.

            To her credit, her mother had never tried to force her daughter down the necromancer’s path.  Szyel held no illusions that the Duchess’ forbearance had anything to with maternal sentiment; her mother, she was sure, had simply recognized the daughter’s incapacity in that area of the arcane arts, and had left the girl to her own devices, finally shipping her off to the Court less than a week after her sixtieth birthing-day, to spend the next seven decades among the Lilies.  Szyel, at the time a barely-nubile girl, had expected the transition to be traumatic; but truth be told, it had been little more than a change of climate and of scenery.  In Eldarcanum she had been alone, surrounded by grim shades and grimmer acolytes, students scrambling to curry favour and suckle at the teat of her mother’s wisdom; in Starmeadow, she was still alone, still surrounded by courtiers scrambling to curry favour, and to suckle at the teat of the Queen’s power.  Ælyndarka had even reminded Szyel of her mother; cold and distant, grim and correct, potent beyond all imagining, and above all militantly uninterested in the fate of a young girl enduring, stony-faced, an intolerable isolation, far from home.

            In one of the most crowded cities of the mortal realm – a place of light and splendour, of art and magic, the centre of a mighty empire and the crossing point for all the sages and nobles and wonders of the world – she had been alone.  But it was all right.  She was used to being alone.  And at least in Astrapratum, she hadn’t been cold all the time.  And once, for a brief period, less than a year in fact, she hadn’t been alone; she had felt so warm...

            Snarling, she shook her head, grinding her teeth to force back the bitter knot of gall that rose in her throat.  Her hands were shaking, and she had to struggle to still them.  It was no mere gesture of self-control; the thing she was carrying was dangerous, truly dangerous, and she had to exercise care.  She was strong; but the thing in her hand carried something that had slain stronger elves than she.  It had very nearly slain...

            She coughed that time, then spat to clear her mouth.  Enough.  She stalked on.  A final long, dark corridor forced her to mutter an incantation, granting her Dwarves’ sight.  Her mother’s slaves and servants, and indeed her mother herself, had no need of such augmentation.  But Szyel was not yet entirely given over to the shadow.  The fact that she still needed arcane assistance to see in pitch blackness was a comfort to her.

            Her preoccupation was such that she failed to notice that she had a companion until he had been there for some time.

            When she noticed him, she started slightly, then paused in her career.  The spectre that floated alongside her was wispy and indistinct; but he was easier to see with her enhanced vision than would have been the case in normal light.  An elf; cadaverous and badly scarred, bald, dressed in the ragged tatters of what had once been rich, courtly garb; and, to her eternal amusement, with a gold-rimmed monocle on a rich chain jammed in his right eye socket.  He was transparent, and legless, too; his substance seemed to peter off into tattered rags of smoke just below the waist.  He floated at about her height, the bottom edge of his ethereal form terminating a foot or so above the floor.

            Szyel nodded politely.  “Limbassor.  It’s good to see you.”

            “And you, Excellency,” the spectre replied with a formal bow.

            The girl laughed.  “Stop that!  You saw me birthed, fed me, and changed my clout.  Call me ‘Zelly’, like you used to!”

            “It would be improper,” her companion replied with extreme gravity.  “You are of age, and Countess of the city now, and mistress of much else besides.  I am merely a servant.”

            “You’re my mother’s right hand,” Szyelekkan corrected, “and a master necromancer.  You’re my one-time babbygard.  You’re dead.  And despite that, you’re the closest thing I’ve got to a friend in this maggot-infested bone-heap.  So call me ‘Zelly’, or I’ll...”

            The ghost grinned.  “Or you’ll what?”

            Szyel blinked.  “You know,” she laughed in sudden self-consciousness, “that’s a good question.  I don’t think I can cast any spells that would affect you!”

            “I know you can’t,” the spectre snorted.  “Whereas I, of course, can do this!”  He whispered a few swift syllables.

            Ndalu!” the girl cried, alarmed.  “Don’t you dare...ahhh!”  She stumbled backwards, throwing up her hands before her face.

            The ghost had transformed himself into a vision out of Szyel’s nightmares – a tall, whipcord-thin elf-woman with a severe face and long, graying hair caught back in a tight ponytail.  The vision held a birch switch in one hand.  Amo, amas, amat!” it shrieked, as Szyel cowered against a wall, chortling in horrified fascination.

            An instant later, the vision faded and the monocled spectre was back, giggling like an idiot.

            The girl was laughing too.  “You’re a fiend, you know that? Why Thuvista, of all people?”

            “I thought you might miss your old grammarian,” Limbassor shrugged.  “She had a special place in her heart for you.”

            “And a special place on my rump for her hickory,” the girl grumbled.  She rubbed her posterior unconsciously; the unpleasant illusion had brought back stinging memories.  “Whatever happened to her?  Is she still thrashing students into good diction, or did she finally retire?”

            “The latter, in a manner of speaking,” the ghost-wizard shrugged.  “She annoyed your mother once too often, and ended up as part of an experiment.  Several experiments, I believe.”

            Szyelekkan froze at that.  A chill rocketed down her spine.  “She’s dead?”

            The ghost, quite improbably, scratched an ear.  “It depends on how you define ‘dead’,” he replied clinically.  “Her carcass is pretty much gone, although I think one of her legs is still shambling around down below.  Part of a golem repair.  And her sieulu is still here, of course, locked tight in the Kínoz, with the rest of milady’s enemies.”

            The girl felt sick.  “Gods, why?”

            The ghost shrugged again.  “Your mother holds grudges, child.”

            They walked – or in Limbassor’s case, floated – for a long time in silence.  At last, the wizard said, “Something’s bothering you.”

            “You noticed?” Szyel replied, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

            “I’m dead, not daft,” the ghost replied.  “What is it?”

            The girl drew the cold, dank air of the dungeons into her lungs and sighed heavily.  “I have to confront mother about...something.”

            “I’ll prepare the Kínoz,” the ghost said distantly.

            “I’m serious!” Szyel snapped.  “She tried...she tried to kill someone.  Someone important.”

            “Hmm.  That’s novel.”

            “Don’t be flippant.”

            “I’m not,” Limbassor replied archly.  “It is novel.  Your mother doesn’t ‘try’ to kill people, girl.  She just kills them.  You’re implying that she tried to kill someone, and failed.”  The ghost shrugged.  “That’s the very definition of ‘novel’.  As in ‘something new and never before seen’.”

            Szyel grinned feebly.  “What, are you my grammarian now?  How would you hold a switch?”

            “Whom did she try, and fail, to kill?” the ghost asked, ignoring her.

            The girl was silent.  Her silence and glare, however, spoke volumes.

            “Ah, your former consectatrix,” the ghost breathed.

            “Her name is Amorda,” Szyel grated.

            “No, it’s not,” Limbassor replied evenly.  “Hold!” he added when she spun on him, rage colouring her face.  “Hold, Zelly! I’m not mocking you.  I’m just asking you to apply your wit.  Yes, she was your lover.  I know that.  And you know that she was much else besides. You also know why she took you...er...under her wing.  So to speak.”

            “I’ve heard all the arguments,” Szyel rasped.  “And they’re nonsense.  Yes, she’s a spy.  But she never spied on me, or on mother.  And...we opened our hearts to each other.  There was artifice there, I know, but no deception.  She loved me.”  Her eyes felt hot again, and she clenched her jaw.  Not in front of a potential enemy.  Never.  “I saw it in her eyes, Limbassor.  She loves me still.”

            “Possibly,” the ghost agreed.  “What does it matter?  She’s beyond your reach now.”

            “Why, because she’s married?” the girl snorted.  “Do you think there’s nothing I could do about that?”

            “There are many things you could do about it,” Limbassor shrugged.  “What you would do about it...that is another matter entirely.  But that’s not what I meant.  I meant that your...your friend is beyond your reach not because you are impotent, but because your mother smothered that flame long ago, and has forbidden a rekindling.”

            “That’s not all she’s done,” Szyel growled.  “She just tried to drown it permanently.  Assuming it was her.  It might’ve been you.”

            The ghost paused and turned a curious eye on the girl.  What might’ve been me?  What are you talking about?”

            “You tried to kill Amorda once already,” the girl snapped.  “With that planar banshee thing.  The one you called and sent through to attack her, when she leapt from Novaposticum to Domus Casia.”

            The ghost looked exasperated.  “As I’ve already explained,” he said with some asperity, “I didn’t even know she was part of that group.  Hells, I didn’t even know who else was part of it.  I was following the Cup.  It was the only thing that hadn’t been magically shrouded.”

            The girl looked perplexed.  “Eh?  Are you serious?  That lot...they’re not idiots.  The cup would’ve been the first thing I’d’ve concealed.  In fact, it was the first spell I cast when I snagged the damned thing last summer!”

            “You might have cast the spell, but it wouldn’t have mattered,” the ghostly wizard shrugged.  “Lagu himself wrought the thing, and it broadcasts his divine might.  As well try to conceal a forest fire on a mountaintop at midnight.  There’s no spell I could cast to hide the Cup from eyes that know what to look for.”  He shook his head in irritation.  “I’ve been having the same problem with the...with that other item that you brought back from the Vaults.”

            Szyel shuddered.  “I’m glad it’s your problem, not mine.  That thing makes my flesh crawl.  I’ve never been so happy to rid myself of a burden.” 

            Her eyes narrowed suddenly.  “So what you’re saying, then,” she said slowly, “is that you weren’t behind the rose?”

            “I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about,” Limbassor sighed.

            The girl raised her right hand.  There was a bundle of oiled leather wrapped loosely in it.  She twitched it open with her gloved fingers, moving with extreme caution.

            Within the folds of leather lay a single rose blossom on a short stem.  Its petals were wilted, and its leaves were browning and curled.

            Limbassor glanced down at the flower, then back up at the girl.  He cocked an incorporeal eyebrow.

            Rosa adiura,” Szyel whispered, not looking away from the thing.  “It’s...it’s one of the blossoms from Amorda’s promise rose.  From the last act of her lifemating to that...that halfblood.”

            The wizard looked perplexed.  “Why that tone? You don’t have anything against halfbloods.”

            The girl shook her head.  “No, of course I don’t.  I even... I can’t believe I’m even saying this, but other than his choice of lifemate, I don’t have anything against ‘him’ at all.  I even…I rather...I ...hells!  She struck her fist into the wall.

            Limbassor stared at the girl, stunned.  “What are you babbling about, girl?”

            “He’s a good fighter,” she said defensively, “and a reasonably decent caster, too.  He spared me when he had every reason to end me.  He seems like a...like a good man.”  She smiled quizzically to herself.  “Not that I’ve any standard to judge him by; between growing up here and at court, I don’t think I’ve ever met a ‘good man’.” 

            She shuddered, and not with the cold.  “I can even understand, I suppose, why Amorda...why she...and when I laid my farewell bouquet at their feet, I was half-hoping that...that they would ask me to...” 

            She shook herself, pressed her fingers to her temples.  “Gods, what’s wrong with me?”

            “How did you get your hands on it?” the wizard interrupted, eyeing the girl as though she might explode at any moment, and trying desperately to change the subject.  “Usually a bride retains her rosa as a keepsake.  Especially since it’s stained with her house’s new-mingled blood.”

            Szyel shrugged.  “I snipped it in Salus’ study at the Commanderie.  The rose was right there on the altar.  He’d left it with Salus and his mate, probably so Onyshyla could try to find out who’d done the deed.”

            “Did she?” Limbassor asked, curious.  “Ony’s very capable.  If there were traces to find, she’d find them.”

            “I don’t know,” the girl shrugged.  “But there were certainly traces.  The thing’s coated in wyvern venom.  Enough to kill a storm giant.”

            “That’s an unusual toxin,” the ghost mused.  “Very expensive, too.  Whoever tried to end your lover has access to forbidden substances, and the resources to buy them.”

            “Or the know-how to make them,” Szyel grated.  “Like mother.  Who also had the motive.”

            Limbassor ran a hand over his brow.  The gesture was so patently unnecessary for a ghost that it nearly made Szyelekkan giggle in spite of her wretched state.  “You are talking in circles,” the wizard sighed.  “Or in some higher-order polydimensional figure.  I can’t decide which.  Calm yourself and try to make sense, please.”

            Grimacing, Szyel held up the rose.  “Somebody poisoned this.  The half-elf was able to withstand the venom, but when Amorda pricked her finger to sign the register, she nearly died.”  She shuddered.  “Her...her new mate saved her.  So I owe him that, too.”

            “Ah,” the ghost nodded.  “At last, logic.  You think I did it.”

            “You, or mother.”

            “We did not.”

            Szyelekkan blinked.  “That’s it?  That’s all you’ve got to say to me?  ‘We did not’?”

            Limbassor spread his hands.  “What else do you want to hear? It wasn’t either of us.  Now that the Cup is beyond our reach, I have no further interest in your consectatrix, her new husband, or his friends.  And your mother is likewise disinterested; she has decided to use the Hiltshard to initiate the ritual, assuming she can figure out how to sunder its dread magic.  If she cannot, she’ll make do with the Butterfly Crown.”  He shrugged.  “Besides, she’s been so busy trying to maintain control over the envoy that she hasn’t had time for trifling matters like assassination.”

            The girl bristled.  “Murdering my...murdering Amorda’s not a...a ‘trifling’...”

            “Softly!” the wizard held up his hands.  “Softly, child!  My point is that we’ve neither of us any reason to trouble your lover or her mate.  Not anymore.  Provided they stay out of our way.”

            Szyel said nothing.

            “You know,” Limbassor, went on pensively, “if you could recruit them to your mother’s cause, we would have even less reason to harm them.  Every reason to aid them, even.  Amorda’s unburdened by an excess of scruple, and she’s a force to be reckoned with.  And Arx Incultus would be a valuable ally, especially if its new baron is a seasoned warrior, as you say he is.”

            “She’d never do it,” Szyel murmured.  “She’d never betray the Queen.  Nor would her...nor would the half-elf.  I think.”

            The wizard looked troubled.  “Then if you still care for her, or for them, perhaps you should convince them to flee the realm.  When your mother takes the throne, the Queen’s loyalists will be for the block – including your consectatrix, if she’s still here.  And doubly so for her mate, given his bloodline.  You and I might not hate half-bloods, but we both know how your mother feels about them.”

            Szyel nodded.

            “Of course, they’d only be in danger if they survive the envoy’s unleashed might, and the ritual,” the ghost mused aloud.   “If he still has the audacity to try to defend the Queen after the Duchess has levied her blow, she’ll boil him.  She’ll boil them both.”

            “Boiling would be a mercy, I think, compared to what else mother might do to them.”  Szyelekkan took a deep breath, willing herself to calm down.  “You’re usually a magnificent liar, Limbassor –” she began.

            “Thank you.”

            “– but not this time.”  She touched one of the rose petals gently, and winced when it fell from the stem and tumbled slowly to the floor.  She glanced back up at her old mentor.  “This time, I think I believe you.”

            “I should hope so,” the ghostly wizard smiled, “if only because it might keep you from barging in on your mother in the middle of her experiments.  I’d hate to see you broken down for golem spares.”

            “Your sentimentality is touching,” the girl said drily.  She glanced down at the rose again...then gently enfolded it in the oiled leather, touched the packet briefly to her lips, and tucked it away in her pouch.  “You know what I’m going to ask you next, of course.”

            Limbassor nodded.  “If not your mother or me,” he said, “then who?”

            “Exactly,” Szyelekkan breathed.  Who?”

            The wizard looked pensive.  “Have you considered that your lover might not have been the target?”

            The girl blinked.  “What?”

            “Well, the ceremony requires both lifemates to prick their fingers,” the wizard shrugged.  “And Wyvern venom is a pretty big hammer to use on a pampered aristocrat.  What if the poisoner was trying for...what’s his name?  Her mate?”

            “Bræagond,” Szyelekkan said.  Her voice was utterly flat.

            Limbassor frowned.  “With that kind of spite in your heart,” he said quietly, “I might well ask you if you poisoned the rose.”

            The girl glanced up at the spectre, her cheeks colouring.  “I told you, I don’t hate him.  Not really.  If anything, I envy him.  Besides, do you seriously think I’d take that kind of risk with her life?”

            “No, of course not,” the wizard said soothingly.  “But hate or no, you must admit, you have every reason to want Amorda’s mate dead.  You’ve even tried to kill him yourself.  I had to bring you back, remember?”

            Szyel barked a laugh that verged on hysteria.  “I know!” 

            To the wizard’s surprise, she sank to the flagstones and put her head in her hands.  “No,” she whispered after a long moment.  “No, I don’t want him dead.  That’s the hell of it, old friend.  I truly don’t.”

            “Sticking your sword in him over and over was an odd way to express that sentiment,” Limbassor said carefully.  “Child, you’re in quite a state.  Are you well?  I’ve never seen you like this.”

            “I’m not well.”  The girl sighed.  “I was out of my mind when I challenged him.  I thought he was using her; that he was just another climber, a shiftless, back-stabbing sell-sword trying to parlay a little fame into a chance at power.  Like there aren’t enough of that sort at court already.”

            Szyel wiped moisture from her eyes.  “I’ve had a chance to...to think about it, since then.  She loves him, and he’s clearly devoted to her.  That’s obvious enough.  He’ll protect her, too, with his life if need be.  That’s...that’s as much as I’d...

            “And there’s more.  Something between them...something deeper than lust or politics, or even love...”  She laughed miserably, shaking her head.  “I could see that much, even if the rest of those dullards at court couldn’t.  There’s a bond there, one that I can feel, even if I don’t understand it.  They are lifemates.  They belong together. 

            “And even if they didn’t,” she added, drawing a deep, shuddering breath, “I still couldn’t kill him.  Because he makes her happy.”  Tears were running down her face now.  “And that’s enough.  It has to be.”

            Limbassor stared gravely down at the girl.  “Had I not been present at your birth,” he said soberly, “I would seriously doubt that you were your mother’s child.”

            “Maybe she shouldn’t have left me dangling at court for seventy years,” the girl muttered, “with nothing to do but attend the theatre, read poetry, and watch that mob of inbred idiots flirt with each other.”

            “Maybe not.  Gods, Zelly!” he exclaimed.  “You’re supposed to be your mother’s vengeance, swift, hard and deadly!  What am I to do with you?”

            The girl shrugged and put her face in her hands.  The wizard watched her for a few moments.  Then he muttered a handful of words under his breath, concentrating carefully.

            Szyelekkan felt a gentle squeezing about her shoulders and looked up in surprise.  Then she broke out in giggles.  “What are you doing, you lunatic?”

            The wizard shrugged.  “You looked like you needed a hug.”

            “With Bigby’s Clenched Fist?”

            Limbassor looked offended.  “I’m incorporeal!  It’s the best I can do!”

            When her tears and laughter had calmed again, she wriggled her way out of the wizard’s arcane grasp and stood, bracing herself against the invisible force-field of the Fist to do so. 

            Brushing the dust from her gown, she said, serious once more, “So.  If none of us did it, then who tried to kill her?  Or him?”  She snorted.  “Or both of them?”

            “Well,” the wizard replied, “assuming it was him and not her that was the target, then I would say...someone with a grudge against the Queen.”

            “That takes us back to mother,” Szyel objected.  “Or any of the thousands that Ælyndarka’s managed to annoy over the past half-dozen centuries.  It would be nice to narrow it down a bit.”

            “What about someone with a grudge against House Æyllian?”

            The girl snorted in derision.  “That’s everyone in the Realm!”

            Limbassor’s brows drew together.  “Someone who hates rangers?”

            Szyelekkan looked skeptical.  “Who could possibly hate rangers?”

            “Orcs aren’t that fond of them,” the wizard shrugged.  “Wait, that’s an idea!”


            “No, no,” the wizard said impatiently.  “But someone else with a specialized grudge against this ranger.  Dragons, I mean.  Isn’t he a dragon-hunter of some sort?”

            The girl laughed.  “You think a dragon would use poison?  Instead of, oh, I don’t know, maybe breathing on him?”

            “Mmm,” Limbassor nodded.  “Good point.  Well, then, who else might...” A pause.  “Ah-hah.”

            Szyel frowned.  “ ‘Ah-hah’?  What’s that supposed to mean?”

            “Can you think of anyone in the capital,” the ghostly wizard said, smiling contentedly, “who hates half-elves?  And who wouldn’t want to see one in a position of power?  Certainly not one acknowledged by the Throne?”

            The girl’s eyes widened.  Ah-hah, indeed.




Kaltas was poring over the map spread across the makeshift trestle-table in the headquarters tent when a louder-than-normal bustle and commotion caught his attention.  Annoyed – he’d been on short hours of sleep and hadn’t really tranced for nearly two weeks – he glanced up to see a new arrival force his way between the two burly guardsmen standing abreast the open tent flaps.

To his surprise, it was a High Guardsman, cloaked and helmeted.  He motioned to the watchmen to step back, and nodded politely.  Ave, soldier.  Do you bring news from the palace?”

“Aye,” the warrior laughed.  “And much else besides!”  The newcomer doffed his helmet, ran forward...and the Duke’s staff were treated to the unfamiliar sight of their lord embracing, and locking lips with, another armoured myrmidon.

The kiss ended after a long moment.  Kaltas was the first to lean back.  Grinning, he whispered, “You’d best dismiss the spell.  I recognize you, but this still feels a little odd.  And I wouldn’t want my officers to get the wrong idea.”

The other man smiled broadly.  Winking, he muttered a few choice words...and his face shifted and transformed, growing softer and more feminine, his body changing shape, shrinking in some areas and expanding delightfully in others.  A heartbeat later, Princess Myaszæron stood in the midst of the Duke’s shocked battle staff, her arms locked tight around her lifemate’s neck.

“Greetings, husband,” she giggled, kissing him again.  Noticing his unusual reticence, she added, “You don’t seem happy to see me!”

Timeo Parcae, dona ferentes,” he murmured.  I fear the fates, even when they bring gifts.

“There’s naught to fear here, dear heart,” Mya murmured, laying her head against his chest.  “Not so long as you’ve been keeping your strength up, anyway.”

Kaltas laughed at that, shaking his head to banish the last of his worries.  “I thought it was too dangerous to leap the flux.  How did you get here?”

“The old fashioned-way.”  Another voice; another armoured figure, stooping to allow his plumed crest to clear the arch of the tent.  This warrior’s armour was far more elaborate, festooned with gilt piping, and bearing the royal escutcheon.

“Ira!”  Kaltas broke away from his bride, keeping a gentle grip on her fingers with one hand and extending the other.  They shook vigorously.  Kaltas glanced down at Mya.  “You flew, then?  How was it?”

“Long,” the princess grimaced.  “Smoother than riding, and faster; but cold.  And there was no one to talk to, either.  I guess Syelission spoiled me.”

“Gryphons are fast, nasty,  and tough,” Salus chuckled, “but they make poor conversationalists.”  He took off his helm and shook his silver-gray hair.  “They don’t speak, but if they could, they’d probably only want to talk about hunting.  And there was nobody else to chat with.”

“You came alone?” Kaltas asked, shocked.  “Just the two of you? No outriders?”

“This is an unofficial visit, my lord General,” General Salus replied gravely.  “Technically, you’re committing treason here, and now so am I.  And so is your wife.”

“The Codex excuses me, Ira,” Mya tittered.  “My duty to my lifemate outweighs all other considerations, as you well know.”  She winked.  “If you and Ony were to wed us bifamilia, you’d both be covered too.”

“Tempting, Highness,” Salus replied drily.  “But I’m afraid my good lady is a little too conservative for that sort of thing.” 

Turning back to the Duke, he said, “Kal, you’re behind schedule.  What’s going on?”

“Whatever do you mean?” Kaltas asked, all innocence.

“You’re moving with all the speed of honey in winter,” the cavalryman said bluntly.  “You should’ve been at Ferramoenia two days ago, and yet you’ve only just cleared Novaposticum.”  Salus tugged his gloves off and slapped them into his palm for emphasis.  “You ought to be twenty leagues north of here.  What’re you up to?”

“We’re short of draught animals,” Kaltas shrugged.

“Nice try,” the skyrider snorted.  “We circled before we landed.  You’ve got two teams to every wagon, and two horses to every knight.  The countryside is stripping itself bare to support the ‘Honest Duke’.  The High Guard itself isn’t as well-stocked as you are.”  He snorted in irritation.  “Maybe I should arrange to have myself proscribed, too.  It seems to have done wonders for your reputation among the common folk.”

“Politics are funny that way, aren’t they?” Kaltas shrugged, grinning.  “As for my speed...let’s say, the levies have been slow to come in.”

Kak!”  Salus spat; there was a collective gasp from the staff.  Mya simply grinned.  “Don’t yank my twig.  The city lords might be slow to muster; they’re worried about the Queen’s ire, and your lack of the royal blessing, and they’re terrified of the Duchess.  And justifiably so.  But don’t tell me our countrymen are loathe to march.  Every yeoman in the southlands strung his bow and packed his kit the moment you raised your banner.”  He grinned lopsidedly.  “There aren’t many in the realm who could claim that kind of loyalty.  You could make yourself king, if you wanted to.”

“I serve the Queen, and none other,” Kaltas snapped.  “Least of all myself.”  He motioned to his staff officers, and they left silently.  When they had gone, he turned back to his visitor.  “Ira, don’t even joke about that.”

The cavalryman held up his hands.  “I’m just making a point, old friend.  You’re loved and respected like no other lord in the Realm.  The people are giving you everything you need, and then some.  And you’re the most ferocious general alive.  The Kaltas that held the Priory for three days against odds of fifty to one, and who anchored Wartack’s line at Duncala on a redoubt built out of Hand corpses – that Kaltas would be hammering at Ferramoenia’s gates by now.  Not lounging about the riverbank like a fishmonger on holiday.” 

He banged his knuckles against his breastplate.  “This is me talking.  What gives?”

Kaltas rubbed his eyes wearily, then motioned the other general to a seat.  He held his own high-backed chair for his lifemate, and Mya lowered herself gratefully onto the leather cushion.  When he had seated himself on a camp stool, he uncorked a wineskin and poured them each a glass.  “She needs time,” he said.

“Who?” Salus asked, puzzled.  Then his face cleared.  “Oh.  The Queen, you mean.”

“Yes.  She needs time, my friend, to find an excuse to sanction what I’m doing.”

Ira nodded.  “That’s why you’re dawdling.”

“It is.”  Kaltas tried the wine, and grimaced.  “Sorry about this.  I left my cellar back at Eldisle.”

“After a day and a night in the bird-saddle, I’d drink ditch water,” Salus shrugged.  “What are you expecting to happen?”

“Well, I was hoping that mobilizing would draw Æloeschyan into some act of folly,” Kaltas grimaced.  “Like mobilizing herself, maybe.  Or, Protector willing, even marching southwards, if she were fool enough.  But evidently she’s not.  Unless my scouts are wrong, she hasn’t stirred from her valley.”

Salus shook his head.  “They’re not wrong.  She’s still locked tight in Eldarcanum.”

“I know.”  He tapped a nervous finger on the table.  “And I’m starting to think I know why.”

Mya frowned.  “Why?”

“She’s not going to fight,” Kaltas sighed.  “Or at least not the old-fashioned way, with knights and archers.  Not even with revenants, I’m afraid.”

Salus looked puzzled.  “Then what...”

“I went back to Auranitoris,” the Duke interrupted.  Raising his voice, he called, “Kalena!”

Another tent flap swept back, and the Hîarsk wizard appeared.  Her hair, normally caught out of the way in a rough ponytail, was tatty and frayed, and there were deep, dark pockets under her eyes.  “My lord?”

“Tell them.”

Kalena blinked like an owl.  She put a hand on the table for support.  Salus, ever the gentleman, leapt to his feet, caught her free hand, and guided her to his chair.  She collapsed into it without demur.  He dragged a camp stool over and perched on it.

“She’s been working dusk to dawn and back again,” Kaltas grimaced.  He poured another cup, pressed it into the woman’s hand, and waited until she had drunk. 

The wizard blinked at the taste.  “This is awful.”

Kaltas smiled.  “Go ahead, Kallie.”

Kalena nodded.  “We – his Grace and I – returned to the stricken town, to give it a final inspection before departing on campaign.  He thought we might have missed something.  I disagreed.  He insisted, fortunately.  We found something that we had overlooked during our previous visit.”

“Missed something?” Mya frowned.  “I was with you that first time, remember?” she said to Kaltas.  “We combed the place street by street.  Lallakentan turned over every cobblestone, and Kova did the same.  What did we miss?”

“We were looking in the wrong place,” Kaltas said gently.  “We were looking for people, so we looked where the people lived.  I wasn’t thinking.  We should’ve looked outside the town, to the southwest.  To the lucum sacra.”

The princess wrinkled her brow.  “The grove?  Whose, the Protector’s?”

“No.  Yours, my love.  The oak grove and stone circle dedicated to Hutanibu.”  Kaltas took her fingers and squeezed them gently.

Myaszæron felt a cold chill work its way down her spine.  “What...what did you find?”

“Hutanibu’s priestess,” Kaltas replied.  “An adept of the Forest Mother.  She is – she was – a peri laut.  A water-fairy.  A siren, in our tongue.  Her name was Licin Taat.  I’d met her once, years ago, when out on chevauchée with Rykki.”  He shook his head.  “She was a pretty little thing.  Soft-spoken, and clearly devout.”

Salus cocked an eyebrow.  “I thought they only lived in the sea?”

“They can live anywhere,” Mya shrugged.  “They prefer a water lair, but they’re not tied to it, like rusalkas are.”

“There was a lake near the grove,” Kaltas nodded.  “Mountain-fed, cold and still.  She probably lived there, before...”

Kalena interrupted.  “The point is, she was dead.  Murdered.  She appears to have been disembowelled atop her own altar.  At least, that’s what we think happened.”

Hara sacrus!” Mya cried.  “What kind of...who did it?”

“No idea,” the wizard said distantly.  “The body...”  She swallowed heavily, shaking her head as if trying to banish a particularly horrid memory.  “Determining the precise manner of her end was...not possible.”

Kalena was making an obvious effort to control her gorge.  Kaltas put a hand on her shoulder.  Glancing back at Mya and Salus, he said quietly, “She’d been bound to the stone, with vines it seems, before...before the end.  But there was no way to determine what had done it.  Her body was...there was almost nothing left of it but the shape.  She’d been entirely transformed into greenery.”

The cavalryman and the princess stared.  “Like the others,” Mya whispered.

“The same, but different,” Kalena spoke up, her voice quavering.  “It wasn’t like the rest of Auranitoris.  At the lucum it was obvious what had happened.  Even her...her blood, where it had fallen on the stone and the sward...more greenery had sprung up.  Moss, lichen, vines, flowers.  The place was positively covered in verdure.  It was as if...as if the whole of the glade had been drenched, with...with a new infusion of life.”

“That’s grotesque,” Salus said grimly.  He shifted in his chair.  “Were there no other clues?  As to what, or who, might have done it?”

Kaltas shook his head.  “Neither to the visible eye, nor to the special senses of any who possess them.  Shima was with us, and she didn’t feel anything at all.”

Salus frowned.  “Shima?”

“A friend,” Mya interjected.  “She’s the Forest Mother’s priestess, at the lucum in Joyous Light.”  She reached over and took the Duke’s hand.  “Shimantrea wed us.”

“And even she felt nothing?” the skyrider exclaimed.  “How is that possible?”

Kaltas shrugged.  “The horror at Auranitoris nearly broke her,” he said softly.  “But she opened her heart to it nonetheless.  At Licin’s grove, she said she felt nothing.  Nothing at all.  As if all that had happened there had left the appearance of the green, but none of its essence.”

“Her precise words at Auranitoris,” Kalena said harshly, “were ‘I see the green, but cannot touch or taste it.  This place is forever lost, to the Mother and to kesatuan’.”

Salus winced.  “That’s pretty clear, I guess.”

“It’s corroborated by Breygon and his friends,” the Duke shrugged.  “They had already gone over the town as well.  He’s no dullard, and despite opening his heart to the green, he didn’t sense the grove, or what had happened there.  They managed to uncover a few things of interest; a sprite, for example, who appeared to have happened upon the town after it had been destroyed.  A panther, one of the look-to beasts of a wilder clan that wintered regularly in Eldisle, and seems to have been caught in the...whatever it was.  They found a wilder-spear, too, and some small possessions of the clan.  And, a few leagues to the north, they found the remains of a dragon, one that...that seemed to have been transformed into a tree as well.”

“Cursed Seven!” Salus swore.  “This...this plague, or whatever it is...it’s mighty enough to affect a dragon?  That’s ill news!”

Kaltas nodded glumly.  “That’s an understatement.  In any case, the dragon’s residual aura was the only way they managed to find him; as I said, Breygon walked the green in spirit, and sensed something out of the ordinary.  The transformed dragon caught his senses, but the murder at the lucum did not.  According to Shima, the place – one of the holiest places in the Forest Mother’s faith – was empty.  It was ‘lost to kesatuan.’  Whatever happened there must have desecrated it for all time.

“The only other clue my nephews turned up,” he sighed, “was a hint from some sort of dryad avatar whom they met at the town itself.  She was cloaked as a forest walker, and called herself Hutana Membelas.  ‘Gift of the Forest’.”

“Did she see what happened?” Salus asked.

“No,” the Duke replied.  “She had come from elsewhere, after the fact.”

The cavalryman cocked an eyebrow.  “Really? Aren’t dryads tied to their groves?”

“This one wasn’t,” Mya interjected.  “According to our...to Kaltas’ nephews, she claimed to have been appointed personally by Hutanibu herself.  An agent of the Forest Mother, specially empowered, and tasked to investigate the catastrophe.”   The princess touched her sternum.  “She said that the Mother had implanted her bond-oak’s seed within her heart, allowing her to bear his essence with her wherever she went.”

Salus cocked an eyebrow.  “I’m usually a little sceptical when I meet folks who claim to be touched by the gods.”

“Aren’t we all,” Kaltas said drily.  “However, I’m inclined to believe her tale, even second-hand.  Those three – my nephews, I mean – are a big bundle of trouble waiting to happen, to be sure.  But none of them are dissemblers.  And they seem to have a penchant for stumbling into the paths of the gods.”

The gryphon-rider snorted a laugh at that.  “Yes, it’s probably not wise to doubt that sort of tale.”  A grin etched his cheeks.  “When young Bræagond paid his nymphaliceor with a devil’s blade, an ancient artefact of the Queen’s own house, and the Digger’s Cup itself, half the nobles in the Starhall nearly discorporated on the spot.  And then when he then went on to duel the Lady Szyel, and beat her, I nearly shat a kidney.  Nobody’s ever managed to lay blade on her before.  Hells, if he weren’t half a round-ear, I’d’ve adopted him myself on the spot, and piss on propriety.”

He blushed suddenly and tilted an apologetic nod at the princess.  “Excuse my tongue, highness.”

“I’ve been a soldier too, Ira,” Mya laughed.  “But you’re right, both of you.  There’s something about that trio.  I no longer feel the currents of kesatuan, but it would take a true dullard to miss the fact that those three have managed to entangle their fate with the gods’ own skein.

“As for the ‘half a-roundear’ question,” she added soberly, “if he’s representative of the type, I’d say the Realm could do with a little more round-ear blood.”

“And for my part,” Kalena said evenly, “I would be loathe to think that my mixed heritage meant that a general of the realm did not value my contribution to its defence.”  Her tone was calm, but there was an unpleasant glint in her eye.

“I meant no offence, Magistatrix,” Salus said quietly.  He shot a glance at the princess.  “Mya, you know I didn’t.  As you’ll recall, I opened the Commanderie to him, and performed the rites of lifemating myself!”

“I’m unlikely to forget it, Ira,” Mya replied.  “It was only three days ago.  And I wasn’t implying anything.  But you should know that grandmother feels the same way about him as I do.  And about the long-term benefits of bringing new blood into a stagnant line.”

“I suppose we’ll discover how that plays out in due course,” Kaltas shrugged.  “Maybe sooner rather than later.  Amorda’s been husband-high for a long time.  Her waistline will be expanding within the year, no doubt.”  He chuckled.  “Their child will be a ‘three-quarter elf’, I guess.”

“It will be a child,” Mya said softly.  “The offspring of Centang Lewat and his mate, and therefore doubly blessed and cherished by Hutanibu.”  She shot a narrow glance at Salus.  Whatever the shape of its ears.” 

The cavalryman winced, but said nothing.

Kaltas nodded.  He scrubbed a hand over his face, and Mya noticed for the first time how grey and weary he looked.  “You need rest,” she murmured, concerned.  “I’m taking you to bed.”

“In my experience,” Kaltas replied with a wry snort, “the latter precludes the former.”  When the princess coloured and looked about to retort, he held up a hand.  “One thing more you need to know, then I’ll go quietly, I promise.  Kallie?”

The wizard leaned forward, her elbows on her knees.  To Mya’s astonishment, she looked puzzled.  It was not an expression she’d ever seen on Kalena’s face.

“There was something else about the glade,” the half-elf began slowly.  “You know that I am, by profession, a diviner, yes?”

Salus shrugged.  Mya nodded.

Kalena’s eyes were downcast.  “I worked every enchantment I could think of in an attempt to descry what had happened.  All I could detect, though, were echoes of magic.  Someone – something – had bent the flux at Auranitoris, in terrible and unnatural ways.  Dark magic had been worked there, centred on...on the body bound to the altar.  Licin’s body.  It was truly black power I found there.  Necromancy, life-draining, soul-devouring...the bleakest and most evil kind.”

“The Duchess,” Salus grated.

Kaltas shook his head.  “Æloeschyan has no peer where the dark arts are concerned, true; at least, not in Anuru.  But she also has no skill with nature’s might,” Kaltas said grimly.  “She does not know the green, and kesatuan does not see her.”

Kesatuan doesn’t see Auranitoris anymore, either,” Salus muttered.

“Had this been purely a necromantic casting,” Kalena went on, cocking an eyebrow at the gryphon rider, “I would have thought as you do, general.  Who else but the Grim Duchess would do such a terrible thing?  Who else could do it?  The power necessary to blight an entire city...it is unthinkable!  Like nothing I have ever seen.  Kalestayne himself would be astonished at the might and mastery of the one who did this.  It is as if one of the Uruqua put her finger on Auranitoris, and erased it from the earth.

“But the casting was not pure,” she went on softly.  “It was mixed.  Blended. Whoever destroyed Auranitoris wove the Ars Anecros together with nature’s own might – the might of the green, of kesatuan, of the Forest Mother herself – to wreak the havoc that was wrought.” 

She drew in a shuddering breath.  “It was a dark and twisted perversion of the order of the world.  With one hand she blasted the city and all of its inhabitants; and with the other, she raised up the life of the forest on its ruins.”

“ ‘She’?” Salus asked, surprised.

Kalena shrugged.  “A habit of speech.  I found no clues as to the gender of the perpetrator.”

The cavalryman looked perplexed.  “So what you’re saying is...whoever did this, actually made life?”

“After first obliterating life,” Kalena replied pointedly.  “The perpetrator destroyed what was there, in favour of the new order.”

“That’s diabolical!”

Mya smiled lopsidedly.  “Not entirely.  It is the way of the green.  That which is must always wither in time, to make way for that which is to be.  And as a matter of history, of course, it has always been easier to destroy than to create.”

“Not anymore!” the cavalryman exclaimed, agitated.  “Now we can do both at the same time!”

“That appears to be the caster’s design,” Kalena husked.  Her fists were clenched and quivering.  “The power of such a spell terrifies me.  Life, and death; the warmth of the green, and the cold chill of unlife; the quivering thrill of kesatuan, and the still, silent breathlessness of the world beyond the world...these are opposed forces in the Universe, my lords.  They are as rigidly irreconcilable as good and evil, as order and chaos.  They are as immiscible as the Light and the Dark themselves.

“To do what was done at Auranitoris,” the wizard went on, speaking mostly to herself, “required that the caster bind the two opposites together and hold them in perfect balance throughout the working, simultaneously destroying and creating, slaying and giving birth, smashing down and building up.  All as a single wonderful, terrible act.”  She drew in a deep, shuddering breath.  “I cannot imagine how it was done.  I cannot imagine how it could be done. 

“Nor,” she whispered, “can I imagine how to stop it!”

Mya’s eyes narrowed suddenly.  “You said that whoever did this was able to bind necromancy and the power of the green together into one...one unified force.  Yes?”

Without looking up from her clenched fists, Kalena nodded.

Mya glanced at Kaltas.  “The dragons draw no distinction between arcane and divine power.  To them, the flux is as water, and it matters not what well it is drawn from.”

“It was not a dragon,” Kalena sighed.  “You forget, highness, what your three friends found: the remains of a wyrm who had been overcome by this magic, and turned into green life himself.  His strength, the strength of his body and his sielu, were, it seems,  sufficient to preserve some vestiges of his shape; but nothing more than that.  He could not resist the slaying, transforming power of this magic.  No hint of his divine essence survived.  It cannot have been a dragon.”

Mya spread her hands in confusion.  “I don’t grasp your point, Kallie.”

“Whatever fashioned this evil,” the wizard replied, speaking precisely, “ – and evil I name it – stood at the heart of the holocaust to work the magic, and yet was untouched by it when everything thing else around her was shattered, slain, and remade.  The change – we of the Art name it ‘polymorph’ – was potent beyond belief.  Yet whomever or whatever did this was proof against the change that was wrought. 

“And that, too,” she added with a sigh, “is incomprehensible.”

The princess deflated again, looking despondent.

“Were there no prints at the site?” Salus asked suddenly, looking pensive.

Kalena frowned.  “Excuse me?  Prints?”

“Well,” the cavalryman shrugged, turning to Kaltas, “you said that your nephew, young Bræagond, visited the place.  He’s a woodsman, and a canny one.  Found he no trace or sign?  Of the caster who might have done this?”

The Duke raised an amused eyebrow.  “I don’t recall anything about footprints.”  He turned to his bride, blinking in exhausted confusion.  “Did he mention anything about footprints to you?  Anything at all?”

Mya shook her head.  “Just the sprite, the sword, the dragon, and the dryad they met and spoke with.”


All eyes turned to Kalena.  “Sorry?” Kaltas prompted.

The wizard was blinking rapidly.  “He did say something.  Not about footprints; about tracks.  Tracks that...that passed through the city, and were lost in the woods.”  Her eyes widened.  “Tracks like those of a forest walker.  An enormous one, much larger than the shape that Hutana Membelas had taken.  Unlike any he had ever seen, he said.”

Kaltas frowned, then nodded agreement.  “That’s what I recall, too.  Yes.  I was thinking about...I don’t know. Animals.  Elves, maybe. 

“A forest walker.  Gods, what could that mean?”  He shook his head wearily.  “Why don’t you ask him, love, when you get back?  It might be important.”

That made the elf-woman sit upright.  “I’m not going back!” Mya objected.

“You most certainly are,” Kaltas retorted.  “Until the Queen sanctions my actions, I’m technically a rebel.  I’ll slow my advance to give her the time she needs to make the right decision, but lifemate or no, I’ll be damned if I’ll allow you to condemn yourself by association with me!”

“I swore the votum magnus!” the princess yelled.  “I stand or fall at your side, husband!  I’m staying!”

“You’re –” Kaltas made a visible effort to control his temper.  A moment later, he chuckled.  “This is what I get for marrying into the most bulette-headed family in the Realm.”  He reached over and took his bride’s hand.  She resisted for a moment, looking rebellious, then softened, and gripped his fingers tightly.  “We’ll talk about it in the morning, heya?” he said with a smile.

Mya nodded.

Kaltas stood, staggered a little, and caught himself against the table.  Mya leapt to her feat, steadying him on the other side.  “Ira, my adjutant will find you a bed.  Will your beasts be ready to fly again at dawn?”

“I’ll find a healer to tend to them, sire,” Kalena promised.  She prodded the cavalryman in the ribs with a knuckle.  “It’s the least this ‘half-roundear’ can do for a general of the High Guard.”

Shaking his head ruefully, Salus bowed an apology.  Nodding to Kaltas, he said, “Until tomorrow, old friend,” and slipped out of the tent, followed by the wizard.

When the flaps had closed behind them, Mya poked her husband in the chest with a slender finger.  “Bed.  Now.”

“I have a staff meeting in two hours,” Kaltas protested.

The princess’ eyes widened dangerously.  “Guards!” she shouted.

An armoured guardsman poked his head through the flaps of the tent, twisting it slightly to keep the mermaid crest from getting caught.  “Highness?”

Without taking her eyes off of Kaltas, she spoke over her shoulder.  “His Grace and I are going to bed.  No one is to disturb us until the Lantern has cleared the horizon.  Anyone who wants to try it should turn their helmet in to the quartermaster first, because they won’t need it anymore.  Ever.  Clear?”

The guardsman banged his knuckles into his visor with a steely clank.  “Clear, Highness.”

“Outstanding.  Good night.”  She winked, and added, “And try close your ears.”

The guardsman snorted.  “Good night, Highness.”  For good measure, he winked at the Duke.  “May the Protector keep you, your Grace, and lend you his strength.”

Rolling his eyes, Kaltas made a shooing gesture with his free hand.  The grinning guardsman disappeared.

Glancing down at his bride, Kaltas couldn’t help but smile.  “Well, you've made me look quite the doting fool in front of my men.  Are you happy now?”

Mya wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled his face down to hers.  “Yes,” she murmured.




            “You’ve been a naughty little lich.”

            Qaramyn, taken somewhat aback, raised his head and regarded the visitor with surprise.  He had been deep in study and hadn’t heard her enter the library – a damning oversight and, given where he was (and who his visitor was), a potentially fatal one.

            His expression of ‘surprise’ was, of course, novel; lacking facial muscles, an epidermis and eyebrows, he had found that he was no longer able to signal his emotional state through visual cues.  It was a potentially useful incapacity, he knew, and for the first few weeks, he had even found it amusing.  The novelty had swiftly palled, however; he no longer served others, but was served himself, and it was tiresome to keep having to inform cowering lackeys whether he was satisfied or displeased with their performance. 

He had briefly considered indicating displeasure by blasting underperformers into ash, but was reluctant to be so wasteful.  Instead, he was experimenting with altering the patterns of the flames that enveloped his naked, rune-carved skull, using the licking wisps of plasma to take the place of cheek muscles, lips, dimples and eyebrows. 

From the woman’s expression, it was working.  She noticed his surprise.  “A wizard,” she sneered softly, “caught off his guard?”

“I was reading,” he replied mildly, his flux-spawned voice reverberating ominously, underscored by the ever-present basso thrumming that emanated up through the floor of the place.  The river of molten magma that surrounded and ran under the dread palace at the heart of Negrenoctis leant a terrifying, vibrating undertone to everything.  “You should try it sometime.”

“Books are overrated,” his visitor laughed.  He registered her appearance without interest or emotion: a nubile, delectable figure on a woman nearly his own height; fair skin; delicate, even beautiful features; dark auburn hair, worn short; full lips; ears tipped with slight points; and deep, gleaming red eyes. She was wearing a gown of gray silk that clung to her like a thin film of oil.  A few months earlier, he thought wryly, such a sight would have caused his heart to race.  Now, of course, he had no heart.

She undulated over to the table, hips gyrating sinuously and generating sympathetic oscillations elsewhere in her anatomy.  There was no doubting it; she was a supremely sensual creature.  He registered that fact, too, absently.  “Don’t you find it warm?” he asked, gesturing to the smoking, sulphur-laden air of the tower room.

“It’s always warm here,” she shrugged. 

That was certainly an understatement.  Most of the books in the library had been inked using parchment taken from the hides of heat-immune creatures.  Those made with normal paper or mundane parchment were either alchemically treated, or magically shielded.

The woman raised an eyebrow at his frank inspection.  “Aren’t you going to offer me a seat?”

Qaramyn nodded.  A heavy, high-backed ebony chair, almost like a throne, leapt away from one of the walls and bounced gratingly across the floor towards them.  The woman smoothed her gown behind her – although, truth be told, the skin-tight garment was already so snug that wrinkles were a practical impossibility – and sat. 

The wizard, not speaking, regarded her with a combination of  analytical interest, paranoid wariness and vague regret.  Once – not all that long ago, in fact – he would have been overcome by emotional and physiological responses to her breathtaking beauty.  Now, there was nothing; nothing but a mechanistic awareness of her presence – her size, weight, race, age, physical condition and precise location relative to him – and a subtle, detailed and extraordinarily comprehensive assessment of the threat she posed to him. 

Almost without thinking about it, he knew instinctively that although her mastery of the Art was not nearly as developed as his own, her passion, force of personality and complete disregard of risks and consequences would make her a terribly dangerous opponent.  In a stand-up fight, he thought that he might have the edge; his new and growing status and innate powers posed formidable challenges to anyone attempting to penetrate his defences, and he knew that he possessed a range of knowledge far superior to her own.  But she was fast, she was potent, she was diabolically clever...and she was utterly without constraint or scruple.

And – this too he could feel in his bones – she was changing as well.  “I’ve missed you, Lyra,” he said evenly.  “What brings you to Negrenoctis?  Vacationing?”

“Working,” she replied with a sinister grin.  “The Lady has taken me on, as a member of her staff.”

He nodded, and flames flickered brightly around his skull – his version of a wry grin.  “Social secretary?  Or court jester?”

The woman laughed merrily.  “I’ve missed you too, Bones.” 

There was, he was surprised to discover, genuine emotion in it; her grin was broad, and her hair, lush and auburn, danced as she tossed her head.  He knew she was a passed master at dissembling, but Qaramyn didn’t think Lyra was clever enough to fool him.  “What did you mean by ‘naughty’?” he asked, curious.

“Eh?”  She looked puzzled for a moment, as if she had been thinking about something else.  Then her face cleared.  “Oh, that.  You don’t know much about demi-planes, do you?”

Qaramyn no longer had any eyebrows to cock; flames served that purpose now.  “I know everything about them.  To what are you referring, in particular?”

“Do you know what ‘iis’vara’ means?”

Nor had he any lips to purse.  “ ‘Supreme mistress’, no? In the celestial tongue.”

Lyra nodded.  “That’s the definition.  Do you know what it means?”

He spread his hands.  “Enlighten me.”

“Karventää did not merely occupy this plane,” the half-elf snorted.  “She created it.  From the raw stuff of the ætherium.  That makes her the iis’vara of Negrenoctis.”

“All right,” the wizard shrugged.  “How fabulous for her.  What does that mean?”

“It means that here she’s a goddess, more or less,” the woman sniffed.  “For all intents and purposes, anyway.  She knows everything that happens within her domain.  And as both a powerful sorceress and a priestess of the Dark Queen, she’s finely attuned to the currents of the flux.  Especially here.”

He frowned – which is to say, the flames that served him as forehead and eyebrows tightened and coalesced.  “Ah.”

“ ‘Ah’ indeed,” Lyra chuckled without humour.  “She felt your calling, my friend.  She knew what you summoned, what spell you used, what manner of being appeared, and where you sent it: to Anuru, to the Elfrealm.  To a human of a certain description.”  She winked.  “Joraz?  Or Breygon?”

“Why not Bjorn?” he shrugged.

“Bjorn’s in Jarla,” the woman replied with an evil grin.  “He found what he was looking for, and he’s heading southwards again, with the thing in his possession.”  She shook her head in wonder.  “He was easy to find.  To those with eyes to see, he – it – shines like a beacon.”

If Qaramyn had still had nerves, they would have twitched.  “So why not go find him, kill him, and take it for yourself?”

“Maybe I’ve got a soft spot for him, too,” Lyra smiled.  “Or maybe it’s because he’s managed to form a much more intimate link to his skyfire god.”  She gave the wizard a solemn wink.  “Be careful.  He’s tougher than ever now, and terribly dangerous.”

“I’m immune to electricity,” the wizard said thoughtfully, half to himself.

“But you're not immune to being beat on with a big hammer," she chuckled. "Besides, you paid a lot for that immunity.”

No lungs, no windpipe...no suction.  He couldn’t hiss in annoyance.  He settled, instead, for a burst of hot green fire.  Sjau feikinstaffr!”  He thought hard for a moment.  Karventää was clearly better informed than he had thought.  “And so she sent you to ask me why I tried to contact one of our former colleagues?”

“No, just why you called a flácaridracán,” the half-elf nodded soberly, “and why you sent it where you did.  The rest was guesswork on my part, though I’ll thank you for confirming my suspicions.  Be warned, though; I’ll need answers to give her.  Particularly to the first question.  I know you think that fire is your signature, but calling a flame-raver was stupid.  They answer to Riadal, Morga’s mistress.   Morga's an enemy. The Lady felt the raver arrive, and she won’t tolerate an enemy’s spies in her house.”  Her eyes bored into him.  “So what do you have to say?”

“How about, ‘Ergon did it’?” he asked, all innocence.

Lyra laughed.  As she did so, his eyes – both the orbs of arcane fire that filled his empty sockets, and the sensitive receptors that allowed him to feel even the most infinitesimal perturbations in the flux – caught something unexpected.  The pattern of flames around his skull twitched noticeably.

“What are you staring at?” she asked, her slender eyebrows drawing into a sharp ‘v’.

Qaramyn cocked his head; it was about the only natural gesture he had left.  “You’re further along than I thought,” he murmured.

What he had seen when she had laughed had been fire; a hot, pulsating fire, glowing deep down in her throat, where no Kindred could bear flame and live.

Grimacing, the half-elf nodded.  She held up a hand, and he could see that her slender, shapely fingers were tipped not with nails, but with, thick, gleaming ebon claws.  She regarded them for a moment; then, with the same hand, brushed the tumbled masses of hair back from her brow. 

Qaramyn nodded; a small nubbin of shining black horn showed through the skin just behind her right temple. 

“Nice, isn’t it?” she murmured.

“You’re becoming one of them.  And you’re trying to stop it,” the wizard said.  It wasn’t a question.

“Not stop it,” she corrected.  Control it.  I want…” she broke off.

He laughed darkly.  “You want the power, but not the shape comes with it.  Is that it?”

“Is that so wrong?”

He indicated his own grim, skeletal body with a wave.  “Sometimes form and function are too closely intertwined to be separable.”

Tcha,” she hissed, glancing away.  “Have you seen her? The Lady, I mean?”

“Of course,” Qaramyn nodded.  “She’s...magnificent.  In a way.”

“She’s repulsive,” Lyra shuddered.  “A bag of scabrous hide and grotesque flesh the size of a barn.”  Mastering herself visibly, she turned her eyes back to him and grinned; the old, mischievous Lyra grin.  “I want her throne, Bones.  I just don’t want to fit it.”

He shook his head.  “I heartily approve,” he replied.  “There’s a shortage of beauty in the world, my dear.  I’d hate to see yours marred by scales, fangs and wings.  Perhaps the price of this power is too high, eh?”

She snorted derisively, but smiled just the same.  “Price doesn’t seem to have stopped you.”

He let his lower jaw drop open.  It was as close as he could come to a grin.  “In my case,” he laughed horribly, “no aesthetic considerations applied.”  He tapped a bony metacarpal against the table.  “So, if you’re neither janitor nor concubine,” he mused, “then what does the Lady have you doing?”

Invigilatrix,” Lyra replied, suddenly serious.  “As I said, that’s why I’m here.”

Qaramyn ‘frowned’.  “I thought that was that horned devil Calon Tán’s sinecure.  He and the Lady’s son, Morowæth.  They performed the duties together, no?”

“They weren’t particularly good at it,” she sniffed.  “And though Morowæth was one of her offspring, she’s never trusted him.  Probably because he was one of her offspring.

“Besides,” she added off-handedly, “they haven’t returned from the Elfrealm yet.”

“That’s because they’re dead,” Qaramyn said stiffly.  “Breygon’s probably making a smoking jacket out of Morowæth’s hide right now.  Which you bloody well knew.  So stop playing coy with me, woman.”  He leaned forward, letting his eye-fires flare menacingly.  “If you’re here to confront me or to turn me in, then do so, and let’s have done.”

Lyra grinned again – but this time the gesture was impish rather than evil.  “Why in all the hells would I want to confront you, Bones?  Let alone expose you?  I need you!”

That set the wizard back on his tarsals.  “For what?” he asked, perplexed.

“I need your help,” she replied steadily.  “Do you want to know how far along I really am?” 

Sliding dextrously out of her chair, she approached him – and, before he could demur or withdraw, swarmed into his lap.  To his astonishment, she wrapped her arms around his neck and, disdaining the flames that blazed around his skull, gave him a quick peck on the cheekbone.  Then she leaned back and gave him a frank look.

Her lips were unburned, her hair unsinged.  She was embracing him, touching him, well within in the radius of the arcane fire that blazed eternally around him, but...

Faximmunitas,” he murmured, astonished.  “You don’t feel flame.  You are making progress!”

“If that’s what you call it,” she nodded.  “Qaramyn, the dragon is growing within me.  I need your help to make the most of it, and defeat it, too.  To keep the power, of course, but also to…to control it.” 

Reaching down, she took his hand – wreathed as it was in flames – and pressed it against her narrow midriff.  Through the thin, silken fabric of her gown, even with the blunt, bony stumps of his fingers, he could feel what was happening to her. 
Scales.  “Hmm.  I don’t know much about this sort of thing,” he confessed, staring vacantly over her shoulder.

“You can learn,” she urged.

“I can’t promise anything.”

“I’m not asking for promises,” she countered.  “Just try.  Help me, and I’ll give you what you’re longing for.”

The chortle that issued from his non-existent throat was positively bone-chilling.  “Too late for that, I’m afraid.  When the flesh goes, all that remains is the desire.  I don’t think you would enjoy the sort of attentions of which I am capable now.”

“How do you know what I might or might not enjoy?” Lyra laughed and winked.  “You never know ‘till you try, do you?  But that’s not what you really want, is it?”  She patted his ‘cheek’.  “Although I hope you won’t mind if I feel a little sad about your...incapacity.  Missed opportunities and what-not.  No, what you really want, my friend, is my aid.”

His ‘eyes’ narrowed.  “With what?”  How much does she know? he wondered.

“With the Lady, of course,” she replied, waving a hand around, indicating the Hall of Skins – and, without, the whole of the Tower, and of Negrenoctis itself.  “This is her domain.  She sees everything.  She hears everything.  If you were smart, you’d stay as far away from here as you could.  And yet, here you are, day in and day out.  Haunting her library like the spirit you’ve become.”

“I’m looking for something,” Qaramyn grated.

“I know,” Lyra nodded.  “I can help you with that, too.”

“Research?” the wizard laughed.  “You?”

The sorceress grinned.  There had been no malice in his humour; just recognition of reality.  “Don’t be silly.  But I can help you lie.  I can help you get in and out unnoticed.  I can keep her attention focussed elsewhere, and off of you.  I can answer her queries about you now, this time; and I can help you avoid them entirely from here on in.

“And…”  she added after a moment’s hesitation.  “I can help you with Ergon.  When the time comes to do what you’re obviously planning to do.”

Qaramyn exploded into laughter; it sounded metallic, harsh, and quite insane.  “Ergon?  Are you mad? I don’t even dream of that kind of power!  How could you possibly help me there?”

            For the first time, she looked nervous.  Leaning forward, she kissed him again on the cheek…and then, brushing her lips against the flame-swept hole in his cranium where an ear had once been, she murmured, “Because I know how Karventää forces him to serve her.”

            Qaramyn went rigid.  For the briefest instant, he lost control of his aura.  His cloak of flame shifted from blue-white to fiery, incandescent yellow.

            Lyra flinched a little.

            “You found it,” he murmured, stunned.  “You know…”

            “Yes,” she nodded, still holding him tightly.  “I know.” 

            “Say it!” he demanded.

            Her next words, hardly a breath of a whisper, set his mind afire.

            I know where Ergon’s phylactery is.




            When the gray elf, exhausted, shouldered his way through the beaded curtain separating his bed-chamber from the communal bathing room,  Cayless – dripping wet, clad only in a thin gown, and clutching a five-pronged silver candelabra in trembling hands – was waiting. 

She wasn’t alone; beside her, looking less damp and more warily alert, stood Tua.  He was still clothed, having only just finished locking the doors and gates; and while the weapon in his fist was odd – a clumsy-looking thing consisting of a sword-blade mated to a spear-shaft – he held it with easy competence.

“Where is she?!” Cayless growled, brandishing the candlestick.

            The tall, white-haired paladin sighed.  Avoiding sudden movements, he let the curtain fall back and, ignoring the watchful pair, stepped carefully down to the poolside.  There he knelt and, wincing, splashed water on his neck and shoulder, scrubbing the cloth of his tunic with his fingernails to release the congealing blood.

            Cayless watched him closely and hissed.  His neck was clean, unblemished.

            He heard their footsteps as they moved to follow him.  “If you’re thinking of ending me,” he said softly, “then this would be the opportune moment.”

            Behind him, Tua and Cayless exchanged a glance.  When she raised the candle-holder to shoulder height, the wilder elf made a calming gesture.  He set the butt of his sword-spear on the floor.  “Lewat says that while it’s safer to question a corpse, it’s harder to get answers out of them.”

            The paladin’s lip twitched; it might almost have been a smile.  “I can attest to that.”

            “I don’t think a silver dragon would send assassins into my lady’s house,” Tua went on, watching the gray elf closely.  “Nor would Svardargenta have sent a lamiata without good reason.  Or without…umm…sureties.”

            “I’m the surety,” the paladin replied.  He shook the water his dripping hands, checking to ensure that they were free of bloodstains, then held one out.  “Vareq Necco, of Silverstair.  Luxmyrmidon of Hara Sophus.”

            The wilder elf took the hand and clenched it briefly.  “Tua Sekop.  Satelles of the house. 

            “Warm,” he added with a glance at his distaff companion.  “He’s e’sHeno vampire, at least.”

            The newcomer shook his head. 

Tua nodded at the trembling elf-woman, who was still holding the candelabra poised over the paladin’s neck like a headsman’s axe.  “That’s Cayless.  Milady’s matrona.”  He grinned narrowly.  “Welcome to Domus Casia.”

            “I thank you,” Vareq replied gravely.  He glanced up at Cayless.  “Though I fear that my lifemate and I have made poor guests thus far.”

            “That’s one way to p-p-put it!” Cayless snarled.

            Tua shook his head and shifted into a more comfortable tailor’s seat, hissing as a knee-joint popped audibly.  When Vareq made as if to help him, the wilder elf waved the man away.  “Old age,” he muttered.  “Takes us all eventually.”

            “Only if you’re lucky,” Vareq replied.  With easy grace, he sat back on his heels.  “Ask your questions.”

            Tua blinked.  “You’re very accommodating.”

            “I have little choice,” the paladin shrugged.  “Venastargenta has ordered my wife to aid you, and where she goes, I go.  Better to allay your fears and suspicions now than to let them grow.”  He looked up at Cayless, who hadn’t lowered her guard.  “More than they already have,” he added glumly.

            The elf-woman said nothing.  But she lowered her improvised weapon fractionally.

            “I think you’ll agree,” Tua snorted, chuckling, “that Cay has reasonable grounds for suspicion.”  He laid his sword-spear by his side, the point diplomatically directed away from his guest.  He took a deep breath, then said, “Your…wife…” he jerked a thumb at the door to the bedroom that had been assigned to the newcomers.

            “Yes,” the paladin nodded.

            “She’s a vampire.”


            Tua took a deep breath.  “Okay.  Was that before, or…or after you…”

            After we were wed,” Vareq replied with a meaningful look.  “Of course.”

            “Of course,” the wilder elf sighed.  “Okay.”  He scratched idly at the back of his skull.  “Okay, I have to ask this.  How can you even touch her?”

            Vareq’s lip twitched.  “You mean, how can a servant of the light bear physical contact with a creature of the shadows?”

            “That’s exactly what I mean,” Tua nodded.

            The gray elf shrugged.  “She has not been taken by the darkness.  Not…not yet.”

            The wilder elf blinked.  “Excuse me?  What?”

            Cayless dropped to one knee and put the candelabra down with a clang.  “She drinks blood!  How, how is…is it possible…”

            “I won’t bore you with details,” Vareq said softly.  “Suffice it to say that while our love is eternal – in more ways than one –” he added with a wry grin, “we were…er, rather poorly matched right from the off. 

“She was – is – a thief.  A burglar.  I apprehended her in flagrante delicto, whilst she was engaged in robbing a nobleman’s house here in the capital.  But instead of turning her over to the guard, I let her go.” 

“I thought paladins couldn’t break the law?” Tua asked, puzzled.

Vareq shrugged.  “I sensed that there was more depth to her spirit than simple larceny.  Time has proved me right.”

“Love at first sight,” Cayless remarked, her voice dripping with irony.

“Perhaps,” the paladin shrugged.  “In any event, we became lovers, and were wed.  She plied her trade, and I mine.”  He smiled wanly.  “You must understand, I fully expected to be struck down by Almighty Hara for my delinquency in mating such a ne’er-do-well.”

“Why weren’t you?” Tua asked.

“I do not know,” Vareq shrugged.  “Believe me, that is a question that I have asked many times of Hara’s clergy and servants, especially over the long years since Astrid’s fall into darkness.  Perhaps…”

Tua knew what the gray elf was thinking.  “Perhaps,” he interjected, “the Forest Gods are tolerant of petty crimes, and overlook them in the name of love.”

Vareq snorted a laugh.  “I should’ve come to the wilder folk for wisdom long before now.”

The doorwarden nodded.  “How’d she come by the fangs?”

“She robbed the wrong house,” Vareq sighed.  “Even if you’re being sheltered by a love-struck fool, eventually a life of crime will catch up with you.  Her victim was a lamia playing a noble’s role.  He caught her in the act and slew her.  I intervened and killed him in turn.  That freed her from bondage to him.”

“But you were too late to save her life?” Cayless asked, interested despite herself.

“Yes.  Fate denied me that.  But it granted me a lesser boon.  I was not too late to save her soul.”

Cayless and Tua exchanged another look.  “What?” the wilder elf said at last.

Vareq spread his hands and shrugged.  “She had been slain by a dark power, yes.  And she had risen as…as one of them.”  He clenched his teeth at the memory.  “My lifemate, beautiful, more desirable than ever – but strong too, and terrible.  And cold.  I held her while she changed.”

“I still don’t understand that,” Tua said.  “How?  How could you even bear to touch her?”

“By walking the finest of lines, my friend,” the paladin sighed.  “The…evil, I suppose, for there is no other term for it…the evil of the lamia comes not from the being, but from the doing.  No taint of the spirit derives from having been slain by a vampire; nor even from rising in turn as one of them.  Evil lies in the act.  Had she once – even once – assaulted and feasted upon an unwilling victim, she would have been eternally damned.”  He shrugged.  “I prevented that in the only way I could think of.”

“How?” Cayless breathed.

“By offering her my life,” Vareq said soberly.  “My blood.  She sates her thirst on me, and has never taken an innocent life.  She has never tasted an illicit drop.”

“But she’s drinking blood!” the elf-woman hissed.

“My sacrifice is willing,” the paladin replied.  “That makes the difference.  She cannot take from me, for all that I have and am, I have already given her.  Out of love.  So she is not yet damned, for she has never harmed an unwilling victim.”

“She nearly did tonight!” Cayless objected.  “I sympathize with your plight, sirrah, but not to the point where I would invite your...your pet, to feed on me!”

“There have been close calls,” Vareq admitted, “and I apologize to you unreservedly.  You may demand of me any service that is within my power to perform.  But I swear to you, I have – thus far, at least – been successful in constraining my love to sate herself upon me, and me alone.”

“And that…that’s enough?  To keep her from turning all the way?” Tua asked, astonished.

“She has turned,” Vareq said darkly.  “Make no mistake, friend Tua; she is a lamiata, pure and powerful.  But she is not evil.  Not yet.  For despite her terrible estate, she has never once committed that fell act that would damn her, and sunder us from each other for all time.”

Tua fell silent, trying to digest what he had heard.  At last, the practical side of his wilder nature took over.  “Risky,” he muttered.


“I don’t mean to her,” the wilder elf said darkly.  “I mean to all those around her.”

“This is why we remain at Arx Dentis, in Silverstair,” Vareq nodded, “save only when we depart on our shared quest.  The Master’s help has been a boon beyond price.  Without it, I would have long ago failed in my duty to my lady.”

His eyes narrowed momentarily.  “Do not think I take this threat lightly, Tua-mas.  I am sworn by my oaths to Hara Sophus to safeguard the innocent.  Should I fail even once in my duty to my love and allow her to feast upon an innocent throat, it is not only she who will be forever damned.  I also will fall.”

“It sounds like you’ve a long row to hoe,” Tua murmured.

“It has been long,” Vareq replied soberly, “but I have developed certain…competencies at the task.”  He snorted wearily.  “I traded my youth for skill.  I was a young man when she turned.  She is still young – eternally young – while each day pares away what is left of my life.  I have been guarding and governing her for more than nine hundred years.”

Cayless’ eyes widened.  “I’m amazed she hasn’t killed you yet!”

The paladin shrugged.  “Venasta’s magic dampens the worst of her profane might,” he said, “and my command of my divine master’s power is sufficient to mitigate the harm that attends her kiss.”  He shuddered briefly.  “When I was younger and less experienced, it was more difficult.  Far more difficult.  When I look back, I am occasionally astonished that I survived.”

“And now…you serve Venasta?” Tua’s brow furrowed as he struggled to recall the conversations he had overheard.  “The Master of Silverstair?”

“We do,” Vareq nodded.  “In his position he needs retainers with certain skills, and my lady is most accomplished at what she does.  And her lamentable state, despite its many drawbacks, offers certain advantages for one in her trade.” 

His face fell a little, and took on a grimmer aspect.  “Also,” he said heavily, “I believe that Venasta feels comforted by the fact that his pet burglar is bound to a paladin who is obliged by love to keep her under control.”

“It sounds as if you resent him a little,” Tua said, cocking an eyebrow.

“I do not.”  Vareq shook his head emphatically.  “I do not.  No other master would have shown us the forbearance, the kindness even, that he has done.”  He grinned unhappily.  “What other master would even accept us?  Me, a creature of the light, and her, a thing of the shadows?  Venasta has been fair and generous.”

He sighed heavily.  “If I seem…ungrateful, it is only because I am tired.  I am tired of our quest.”

“What quest is that?” Cayless asked.

The paladin shook his head again.  “That is something that I may discuss only with your master.  I follow Venasta’s command in this; that I may explain my – our – ultimate goal only to the three that we were sent to aid.”

“Fair enough,” Tua shrugged.  Putting his hands on his knees, he levered himself to his feet with a grunt.  “Well, I’m to bed.  Do you need anything?  Food, water…”

“A stake?” Cayless asked.  But she was smiling as she said it.

Vareq laughed.  “You’ve taken this very well, all things considered.  Both of you.”

“You and your wife aren’t the strangest things to pass through Domus Casia in the past week,” Cayless shrugged.  She retrieved her candelabra.

“Truly?” Vareq asked, eyes wide.

Tua snorted a laugh.  He gave the paladin a comradely pat on the shoulder.  “My friend,” he chuckled, “you don’t even make the top ten.”