Chasing Destiny

 Everyone wonders about the arm. Not so many get up the guts to ask, though. Is it guts or is bad manners? Eh, tough to say. 

That night — the night this all started — it was sheer bad manners. The guy was drunk, but not so drunk I couldn’t see the ugly gleam in the back of his eyes. I didn’t know what the gleam meant. The arm didn’t come with psychic powers, more’s the pity, and I didn’t have any of my own. But still, I recognized the ugly. 

So I lied. 

I’m an excellent liar. I like to think of it as creative story-telling, more than lying — bending the truth, not just deception — but the reality is, I’m a liar. I can tell a stone-cold lie, completely obviously untrue, and still get half my audience believing me. Of course, it’s the other half ya gotta watch out for. 

Anyway, back to this guy. He was big, but not enormous. Maybe outweighed me by 150 pounds or so, and I’m not a small girl. He had the pasty-white skin and bald head of a bred spacer, the kind who’d been evolving away from sunshine for a few too many generations, but the build of a heavy G ship lifer. Solid bones, that’s what my mom would have said. His eyes were a cold silvery gray, and like I said, there was a gleam in them that I didn’t like. 

He opened with a slurred, “How’d you lose the arm?” and a nod in the direction of my left shoulder. 

Now the truth of how I lost my arm and got a new one is a great story in its own right. It’s got drama and tension and plenty of surprising twists. But I don’t share it with casual strangers.

“Mining accident.” I gave him a big, bright smile and kept my voice super light and fluffy. The ultra-girl voice. Only an idiot would fall for me as a fluff-head — the arm, the clothes, the hair, the muscles, all ought to give away that I’m no such thing. But I had no reason to believe this guy wasn’t an idiot, so might as well give it a try. 

At best, he’d walk away fast. At worst, I’d walk away richer. “On Stanzia, you know it?” 

Stanzia was a hellhole. Not a fun place to live, and not the kind of place where a mining accident would net you a nifty cyborg arm. I personally had never been there. But out on this edge of the galaxy, no one else had either and most people had never heard of it. On the remote chance that he’d hit up the UD to check on me, though, it would pop as a real place, one with plenty of mines. 

“Can’t say as I have,” he replied with a twitch of his eyebrows. “Miner, huh?” He wasn’t slurring now, so maybe he wasn’t as drunk as I’d thought.

“Well, ex, now. My mining career didn’t last long.” I made my smile wider, brighter, and widened my eyes. “Six years of post-primary, but one little accident — totally not my fault — and they booted me out. Wouldn’t have much wanted to go back anyway, ‘a course, and the rehab took a while, and then there was that little bit about passing their damn drug tests.” I shrugged, making sure the movement lifted both arms equally. “Losing an arm hurts, and those pain pills were prescription. But whattaya gonna do? Can’t win against the man, am I right?” 

I have no idea who the man is. I’m not sure anyone does. It’s just one of those things that people say. A certain type of people, anyway; the young, stupid ones who might be willing to do something a little outside the law. The kind who might be so down and out that a drug courier gig could look like a good deal. 

And yeah, I wasn’t dressed right for that, but I’d just come into this dive bar to kill some time. I’d had no idea that opportunity might come knocking on my door. 

The ugly gleam deepened. But he didn’t offer the casual, “So you looking for work then?” that I’d been hoping for. Instead he gestured with his chin toward the bartender. “Let me buy you a drink.” 

It wasn’t a question. 

I kept my sigh internal. Dang. Well, a free drink, that was better than nothing, I supposed. But I’d probably have to put up with him while I drank it and something about him gave me the creeps. 

It wasn’t his clothing. His dark gray jumpsuit was standard issue attire, although it was a little weird that it didn’t have a single patch or insignia on it. Most folks in jumpsuits dressed them up with their ship logo, guild affiliation, even the games they played or followed on vid. The crap that identified them to their tribe, if you will. 

Of course, my own attire didn’t do much to identify me. I was wearing this cool black top with straps around the neckline. It was one of my favorite article of clothing, not because of the straps, but because it had this nifty mid-back holster that was so cleverly designed that your eye just skimmed over the weapon in it. Seriously, the sales guy had babbled a bunch of shit about the light-bending properties of the fabric, but I thought it was probably magic. 

Not real magic. Just kidding about that. 

The bartender poured two shots from a bottle off the shelf and the creep pushed one of them toward me. 

I blinked. 

My eyes were just normal eyes, no mods, so I couldn’t replay what I’d just seen. I had the usual interface chips but I didn’t run them on record full-time. The power drain wasn’t worth it to me. Plus I know there isn’t supposed to be a performance hit, but I always felt like the connection had a lag when I was uploading real-time vid. 

Point is, I couldn’t use replay to be sure what I’d seen. But I thought I’d seen a drop hit the surface of the shot. Just a tiny vibration. It might have been the movement, though, the bartender’s push of the glasses. 

The liquid was clear. I tipped my head to read the label of the bottle that the bartender had returned to the shelf; some kind of vodka I’d never heard of, maybe local. 

“Good stuff.” The creep tossed back the shot he’d kept. 

I pulled the other one toward me, lifted it, tilted the glass from side-to-side, looking into its depths. No sign of anything, no fizz from a pill, no traces of color from some added liquid. 

Well, what the hell, right? 

I lifted it to my lips, sniffed — the scent of pure alcohol acrid in my nostrils — then opened up. It burned on the way down, a harsh sizzle on the back of my throat, an immediate burn in my chest, but I managed not to cough. I did have to blink back some water in my eyes as I set the glass down with a sharp crack. “Hardcore.” 

The gleam was still there, and the creep had added a lift to one corner of his mouth. Still ugly, but now with an added hint of smugness. 

Oh, good. I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. 

Icewind Dale: Swearing an Oath

Crow stared into the fire and reflected on the day. He was a tall man, lean and wiry, muscular but not musclebound. His yellow eyes reflected the fire, which warmed his skin from its usual pallor. He would have liked to blame his complexion on the year without sun up here in the ass end of the Forgotten Realms. He scoffed to think about it. Forgotten. He’d never thought about Toril growing up, and only the vagaries of Fate had brought him here. Fate… and those damned creatures.

He sat in the common room of the inn, Buried Treasures, in the town of Bremen; one of the Ten Towns of Icewind Dale. He and one other were on watch. That other was a pale skinned dwarf, bald with tattoos on his head, and a bound beard. Skinny for a dwarf, but still huskier than a human of the same proportions would be. He knew the dwarf’s secret, but he and Ripper Cobb had worked out an understanding. They were on watch together, whiling away the middle hours of the night, the Iron Watch. The one that began with the Witching Hour.

It had been a rough day, to say the least. Burying the Fairedylns in their basement, swearing quietly while the wizard pretended not to hear. The taste of the words had hung on his lips. There was something holy about them. They were words he had sworn before, but somehow they had more weight.

Waiting, the boring waiting, the less… scary… members of the party tried to entertain the children.

The children, no, the orphans… gods. His own history played in gory detail behind his eyes. How many orphans were his fault?

And then the meeting. The White Druid and the tiefling spellcaster. Avarice was her name. They’d talked it out, decided that when the druid left they would take down the tiefling. She had been in charge of the bloody pumpkins. She was somehow part of the White Rat network.

That made the White Druid “number 15”. They had charged out, engaged the witch in combat, and then the fire. Flames eating at his skull, burning his flesh. Then darkness, for just a moment.

But in that moment. That feeling, when the blackness had claimed him… something inside… moving…

But the light, that gentle warmth that pulled him back. Warmth he had not felt since his home. And the girl was the source. Her face and her hair danced in his memory. So much like Xylomena. She could be a spitting image. But she could not be a reincarnation. Xylomena was only dead this last year, and the girl, Lumikki, had a much longer life than that.

Crow listened once more to the quiet of the night. The moose call had not repeated itself, but he was certain it was the White Druid’s moose. There was awareness in that thing. Similar to the poor White Rat. He chuckled.

“What are you laughing at?” The dwarf’s drawl, so different than the ones here from Kelvin’s Cairn.

“Just the symmetry of it. The moose, the druid, the rat. All white.”

“Hrm,” Ripper grunted.

Crow’s face itched, the left side, the one facing the witch’s spell.

“Time for another round. How long until we wake Zal and… Mal. Gods, they’d kill me if I said that out loud.”

“One might try,” Ripper laughed.

“Which one?”

“Money’s on the barbarian.”

Crow nodded.

“So the glass says half a bell,” said Ripper.

“Time for one more walk. I’ll be back.” Crow suited action to word and levered his lean frame up out of the chair. He prowled through the lower level of the inn, through the quiet and cold rooms, disturbing only a small mouse as he moved through the area. A pause by the rooms of the inn’s owners to hear quiet snoring. The matronly Cora seemed to be sleeping fitfully. He wondered briefly what the connection to the hag, the witch, and the supposed “black ice” that had been mentioned earlier. How much could he believe that story, if at all? Still, the woman was kind to them, and seemed to be almost a mother to Nikolai and Lumikki, and if the girl was going to trust this woman, Crow decided that he would too.

“What are you doing?” he muttered to himself. Xylomena was dead, and there was nothing he could do about it, except find her and kill her. He’d seen what she’d become. Nothing of who she had been was left.

And you’re next, his darkest fears taunted him.

With a quiet snarl Crow returned from his patrol of the lower level. Back in the common room he took a look at the dwarf again. A strange comrade, but Zak vouched for him. Why and how would have to be a future question, if any of them made it that far. Ripper Cobb was studying his hand, holding it up toward the fire, seemingly mystified by its appearance. It wasn’t the weirdest behavior Crow had ever witnessed in an arcanist.

At the foot of the stairs, Crow shucked his heavy boots, and went up. The heavy soles would cause him to clunk back and forth and maybe wake everyone else. He moved slowly through the halls, mouth slightly open and breathing deeply and slowly. First past Zalefrax and Malser’s room. The strange man was some kind of spellcaster. His sword was uncanny, to say the least, gilt and beautiful.

The barbarian was snoring softly. Another strange man. He had none of the tattoos common amongst the Elk tribe that Crow knew, his age indeterminate. He seemed eager for the fight, at least.

Next past Lumikki and Nikolai’s room. He heard one of the wolves shift to the door and snuffle at its base as he passed. Apparently his scent was acceptable, for the wolf yawned and lay down again, its bulk pushing against the door.

All quiet.

He returned to the common area and sat with Ripper for the next half hour. Eventually their watch concluded. They moved upstairs. Cobb retreated to the room while Crow opened Malcer and Zalefrax’s door. He cautiously woke Zalefrax, who was sleeping on his side, cradling his exotic sword like a lover. The human’s eyes snapped open and he locked eyes with Crow. Yellow eyes met yellow, and Crow felt a little of his soul stir. Something in those eyes unsettled him.

The spellcaster came awake without any of the usual sluggishness that most people had. The transition to from fully asleep to fully awake happened instantly, as though he had not been sleeping. “Time for watch?”

“Aye. Nothing happened for ours, just that damn elk squalled a few times. Could mean the that white druid is at it.”

Zalefrax considered Crows words for a moment, but nodded. “I’ll get him up,” the spellcaster nodded toward the gently snoring warrior.

Crow nodded, then left for his shared room. Cobb was already asleep, or whatever passed for sleep with the dwarf. Relaxed, he seemed… very still. Crow stared at him for a few moments, then shucked his boots and took off his armor.

“Ye look like a chicken without a head when you do that,” the dwarf mumbled. Crow growled and shook off the chainmail. He lay down on the straw mattress and pulled over the heavy furs. Three more hours of sleep. Maybe some rest would come of it.

He lay there, eyes closed, shifting every now and then, but sleep was elusive. Positive memories, maybe that would do the trick? Did he have any positive memories anymore? No, not really. Every time he thought of Xylomena he thought about the thing she had become.

“It’s your fault,” whispered a voice in his head.

Go away, Sathiel, he thought back. The presence retreated.

Sleep finally came over him. As the blanket of blackness closed in he felt it, almost dreaded it. Then he was out.


Then he wasn’t in his bed anymore. Soft, gray light without source surrounded him. At first Crow thought he was floating, but then details started to filter in. There was a stone floor under his feet; old, old cobbles, ancient grout made of ages upon ages of wear. The stones were smooth, worn under countless feet. Walls were next. They rose out of the gray light, but they didn’t move. They were there, and had always been. In front of him now was a wall, and two bonfires flanking a dais. An empty throne topped the dais.

White banners hung from the walls flanking the throne, only they weren’t banners, he realized. They were scrolls; scrolls with names on them. So many names… Hundreds, thousands… tens of thousands? He could not count them all.

“You are summoned, Son of Noldovir.” Two figures now stood in front of the empty throne, both dressed in dark plate armor. One male, one female. It was the woman that spoke.

She appraised him frankly, without rancor. Her hair was bound tightly behind her head, iron grey with streaks of silver, but still thick. She stood tall and proud, perhaps more so than her companion, and though her face was lined with age, her eyes carried the weight of experience. Here was a being that had stood her tests, faced her trials, and came out the other side with confidence enough to move mountains.

“How do you know my name?” asked Crow. He had not heard his surname in quite some time.

“Cormorant Noldovir, third son of Neris and Dasorin, from the island of Vedrian, on the planet Coliar. I am Lord Doomwarden Alcon Vex. I speak to you in a dream, as there is presently no way for me to get to you physically.”

Doomwardens! Hoar’s name had come to his lips readily, his pledges had been said in his heart. A divinity that seemed to desire what he desired: vengeance, justice, retribution… but how had he attracted their attention here, of all places. The Ten Towns were about as far removed as it was possible to get from anywhere on Faerun.

Vex turned up the corner of her lip in a smirk. “Your lips to Hoar’s ears, his wish on feathered wings to mine. I can see you have your own guide standing somewhere there, but she can’t interfere with this. Know then that Hoar has heard your prayers, and taken measure of your oath, but most especially he has noticed your willingness to die to see vengeance delivered. Your actions against the wizard this day cemented the decision of the Doombringer. Do you know who we are?”

“Knights of Hoar, carrying vengeance to the wicked.”

“Punishing those who do wrong. We are less concerned with the niceties than those spotless fools who bow and scrape to Tyr. We are not the arbiters of the law, we are its executioners.”

“And you know of those who have wronged me, whom I am pledged to destroy?”

“I do. I also know that you fear they have wounded you deeper than you know. Know then that your fears have merit. But then, you already knew that, or so I was told.” She paced a little and then turned to look at

Crow again. “I like what I see, I like what I have heard. You stood down a creature that by all rights was the death of you, but you have also shirked your duty in the past.”

Crow winced, then nodded. “And I was punished for it as well,” he admitted. Sachiel’s words of condemnation hung in his heart.

“The light has abandoned you, and your darkness reigns instead. But I can use that. Embrace it, Cormorant Noldovir. Feel that despair and turn that into rage, fury. That fury will burn away your foes, reduce them to ash, and dispense Vengeance where it is most sorely needed.”

He had already experienced this, and the power had been growing. More and more with each passing day until it almost felt to him that… something… something would come bursting out of him if he just let it. The thought scared him, yes, but it also excited him.

“I hear you, Doomwarden,” he replied, bowing his head to show his acquiescence to her advice.

She nodded and stepped back in front of him. To her left side, the man who had made the journey with her moved up toward the both, taking a position to her left, Crow’s right. He had a massive sword at his hip, far too large to be a longsword, sized more for a two-handed grip. Its crossguard was, now that he looked at it, remarkably ornate. As he looked into the man’s eyes he realized that he couldn’t really see the face. His eyes wouldn’t focus.

“Will you accept this invitation to join the ranks of the Doomwardens, fallen one?” Alcon Vex asked. Her words snapped his attention back to her. She intoned the words with great solemnity, an oath she had delivered many times before.

“I swear,” Crow said, feeling something stir within him, an excitement that grew.

“Will you be forthright and direct? When given the choice between two foes will you always fight the greater evil?”

“I swear so.” The stirring took on greater energy in his mind’s eye, but also the eyes of the man next to him seemed to gain a glow.

“Will you forswear mercy for the wicked, and never swerve from your duty to deliver vengeance to your sworn enemies?” Alcon’s head tilted up, and a fervor or zeal showed in her own eyes.

“I swear,” Crow replied. The knight to his right inhaled sharply, his left hand tightly gripping the sword at his belt.

“Do you swear to set aside your qualms and do whatever is necessary to exterminate your foes?”

Crow’s knuckles popped as he clenched his fist. “I so swear, enthusiastically,”

Alcon smiled a bitter, wintry smile at that response. The male knight’s presence increased yet again.

“When you foes wreck ruin upon the world, it is because you failed to stop them. Do you swear to help those harmed by the unjust, and the betrayers?”

“With all my heart, I swear so.”

The energy writhing in his mind popped, and he shuddered as it left raised hairs all across his body. The male knight breathed out a drawn out and ecstatic, “Yes,” and Crow felt what he could only imagine to be a bond between himself and the being, and the High Doomwarden.

Vex stepped to the side and the other knight took her place. When Crow looked on him now he saw the hint of great feathered wings beating at his back, emerald skin, and eyes of gold. “I am Thareniel, Warden of Hoar, Messenger of Vengeance. My voice carries doom to the wicked, succor to the injured, and death to betrayers. You have sealed yourself to the will of Hoar, aasimar. Break these oaths at your peril.”

Crow stood frozen under the weight of the angel’s judgement. Such power as he could scarcely have imagined washed over him, rooting him to his place in the dream. The sword was out now, springing from its scabbard with a high pitched ring that pierced Crow’s ears. The angel placed the sword first on Crow’s left shoulder, then on his right.

“You have taken your oath, and with your oath been made new in the eyes of Hoar’s Wrath.”

In a blinding flash the creature backhanded Crow across the mouth. Searing pain flared in his jaw and he collapsed to the ground. He groaned in agony, but pushed through the pain and looked up at the creature, anger flaring in his eyes and soul.

Joy suffused the angel’s essence, a white smile that looked as though the sun was rising split his face. “Good! That is the last blow you are obliged to suffer. None now have the right to strike you, ever again. Rise anew, paladin of Hoar.”

The High Doomwarden reached out her hand to his. Crow accepted the grip and with her aid rose to his feet.

Vex smiled at him, cold and fierce. “Rise anew, Doomwarden.”

SoL 1-2

“A story?” he repeated. She nodded. “And some food?” She nodded again, looking up to meet his eyes. She had the look of a puppy, almost, and it hurt his heart to consider turning her away.

Uallas shook his head slightly. Something about her prickled his senses, but everything he saw said otherwise. She was just a waifish girl, probably not more than fifteen years old, who had spent a very large amount of her life outside. Like him, she had simple shoes on her feet, the kind that would wrap around the toes and heels to keep the feet somewhat safe. In cold weather they could be stuffed with grass for insulation. She had a woolen wrap that made up the largest part of clothing he could see, and loose trousers that went down to her mid calf. She was slender, and almost seemed to shiver in the uncertain evening light.

“Well, it’s bad luck to turn away someone from your fire, especially if they ask,” he finally said.

She grinned at him and bounced a couple of times. He stepped back over to the fire stood for a moment, looking over the flock before he squatted down. Sealgair moved with him and settled nearby.

Miri stepped over to the fire opposite Uallas and Sealgair and sat down, crossing her legs, meeting his eyes from across the embers. In the red glow of the embers and the subtle light of the Eye her face seemed to glow as she waited.

“You know, first meetings by the light of the Eye aren’t always supposed to be the best,” he said.

She frowned and waved a hand dismissively. “Silly superstitions,” she said.

He shrugged. He generally believed that one. No one he’d ever met by Eyelight had been particularly nice. So far she seemed to be breaking the pattern, so Uallas felt somewhat relieved. Besides, Sealgair liked her. A lot. Dogs were great judges of character. He nodded and relaxed more surely.

“Food will be a little bit, it’s still warming up.”

“Sure, I don’t want to impose too much, I can wait.” She folded her hands in her lap, but as if on cue there came a small gurgle from her side of the fire as her stomach protested the wait. Her face fell and Uallas chuckled.

“It’s okay, it’ll come soon enough.”

She smiled brightly and briefly. Uallas dug in his pack for a bit of dried meat he had left over. Sealgair’s tail thumped firmly into the ground as he pulled it out. “You too, huh,” he joked to the dog. She shuffled in place and licked her chops. Uallas broke the piece of meat into three somewhat equal parts, tossing one out to Miri and one to Sealgair. The dog snapped her portion out of the air and loudly chewed it, while Miri caught hers and looked at it. Uallas tore a chuck out of the remaining bit himself and chewed.

Miri sniffed her portion and stuck out her tongue to taste it. Her face twisted up and she blinked her eyes a few times. “Ooh, salty,” she complained.

“Yeah, it’s jerked beef,” Uallas replied. Hadn’t she ever had it before?

“My grands didn’t use salt for this is all,” she apologized.

“Oh, sorry if it-“

“No, it’s good! I just surprised me is all.” She accompanied action to assurance and bit into the jerky. Sealgair looked on with a little disappointment. Uallas thought she might be hoping for Miri’s bit since the girl seemed initially to not like it, but then again Sealgair always wanted anyone’s bit–she was a dog after all. Miri chewed her mouthful with some concentration, and Uallas thought maybe a little bit of performance. He chuckled and offered his canteen.

Miri cocked her head and looked at the container he offered. It was covered in tightly knitted cloth, firmly stitched all around with a shoulder strap wrapped around it and a bright silvery metal top. Her eyes widened a little when she realized what it was and she reached out gingerly, mumbling an inarticulate “Thank you.”

The canteen was one of his prized possessions. He could probably get a lot of coin for it if he went into down one of the cities, but he’d found this a long time ago, before his mom had passed from the cough. She’d woven and stitched the covering, so like the linen cloth it was special. Miri took the lid off after examining it for a moment and then took a few sips of the water inside. She closed the lid and handed it back, giving him that brief, bright smile again.

“That was wonderful. Very clean.” She wiped her mouth off with the back of her hand and took another bite of her jerky, nibbling at it in that way that gave Sealgair ideas that the girl might not finish it and maybe, just maybe, toss the dog a morsel. The dog wiggled her rear end and her tail wagged while she gave Miri her best puppy eyes and lolling tongue.

“Easy there, girl. You don’t want too much, you’ll get fat,” Uallas said to the dog.

She looked up at him and he could swear he read disdain in her eyes. He imagined he could hear her saying to him, ‘No I won’t. I’ll just run it off. I’m a good dog!

“Yeah, you got yourself a vole this morning. Nice juicy fat one, too.” He countered the imaginary protest and scratched her haunches. The rear right leg immediately began thumping as he got ‘the spot’.

Miri giggled. “She really loves you, you know.”

“Ah, everyone’s dog loves them,” Uallas dismissed.

“No, no. You’re lucky. Lots of people have dog friends. Sealgair thinks you’re special. She really loves you.”

The dog’s head turned toward Miri and her ears perked up. Miri giggled again and the dog’s tail wagged once more. The girl took one last nibble of her jerky and tossed the remaining half of it across the coals to the dog. Sealgair immediately snapped it out of the air and chomped away at it, tail wagging victoriously.

“Wow,” muttered Uallas.

Miri shrugged, hitching her homespun around her a little tighter. “I have a way with animals,” she said, looking directly at the fire and away from his eyes.

“I’ll say,” he replied.

“What were you carving?” she asked.

He realized of a sudden that he’d let his whittling project get away from him. He looked around and found it on the trampled down grass near his fire pit, picking it back up and blowing off imaginary dirt and dust. He held it up to the light so she could see.

The back end was still a roughed out chunk of wood, but the front end bore the distinct resemblance of a wolf or dog. Uallas intended it to be a dog, at least. He hoped she saw that. He’d just begun carving out the gap under the belly when she’d startled him. Miri admired the wood and nodded. “You’re really good,” she said.

He blushed and murmured a thanks. He noted then that steam was escaping from the pot, so he pulled out from his back the little iron plate he used for a grill, unwrapping the somewhat greasy rag that covered it. He set it down on the coals and shrugged. Next came a little wrapped parcel of waxed paper. He unwrapped it, exposing a little bit of sheep’s milk butter, which he rubbed on the iron. “Sorry, I should’ve put that out sooner,” he apologized.

Lastly from the pack he pulled out a single loaf of flat bread, itselfwrapped in another linen cloth. He looked at it, and at his guest, then promptly tore the bread in half and put both pieces on the impromptu griddle.

While the bread began to sizzle Miri shifted in her stance, eyes bright as she looked at the food. Uallas sympathized. He knew what was in the pot wasn’t the best food he’d ever had, but darn it he was hungry. And now that he thought about it, sharing the anticipation of a meal with someone was a pleasant experience.

Soon enough he judged the bread to be done. He wrapped his hand in several cloths and fished the pan off the coals, laying it on the beat-down grass between them.  While she gingerly snapped up a piece of the bread  he used a pair of sticks to remove the earthenware pot from the coals and likewise set it down between them. He hooked the lid with one of the sticks and removed it, then fished inside with his utensils and pulled out a dollop of pottage to place on Miri’s bread and another somewhat equal portion to put on his own. He scrapped outwhat he could of the remainder and split that between them as well.

The food was essentially a vegetable mash, liberally seasoned, with some creaminess from sheep’s milk thrown in, and a few bits of chipped beef he’d bartered for on his last trip to the market. It was very savory and a little bitter, but it went well with the bread, and he was very hungry. He took a bite of his portion and savored it, lamenting only a little at the reduced portion. When he looked across at Miri and saw the simple joy illuminating her features, he felt fuller than the missing portion could have supplied.

Sooner than he’d have liked, the meal was concluded. Uallas leanedback against the ugly tree and licked his fingers clean. Sealgair thumped her tail so he laughed and held out his hand for her to lick off the rest. When she was done, Uallas washed down his dinner withanother splash of his canteen’s water, relishing the flavor. He’d filled it last at a natural spring nearby. Very crisp, and the metal of the container leant the water an even finer flavor. Certainly notthe dull tang of using a sheep’s bladder. He passed the canteen off to Miri, who took a longer pull from it than last time before she handed it back. A quick shake told him there were at least a few more pulls in it. He’d refill tomorrow while he moved the flock.

“That’s from one of the old places, isn’t it?” Miri asked. She nodded when he held up the canteen with his eyebrows raised.

“Yeah,” he admitted. “I found it rescuing Biddy over there.” He pointed to she sheep who just stared her level dumbest back at him. The sheep chewed absently.

“She got in trouble?”

“You could say that. Old dummy found a particularly juicy plant that she just had to eat over a small ledge. Kept going farther and farther, and by the time I noticed it she was down in the gully. I got down inside and found a bunch of old stuff, but lying under a rock was this skeleton.”

Miri shuddered, but he pressed on. “I know, really creepy. He… huh… now that I think about it I’m not sure if it was a he or not… anyway they were dressed in old scraps that must’ve survived for a really long time, but near the feet under some scrabble rock that Biddy had kicked up was this shiny bit of metal. Found some other tidbits too, turned those into some nifty coin. I really need that a few years later.” He stopped talking as a lump grew in his threat. He realized that he really didn’t feel like talking about how his mom died to Miri.

He glanced over at her and saw that she was looking down with her shoulders hunched up, and strangely Uallas felt that she might be reflecting his inner emotions. When he was quiet for a while she looked up at him and met his eyes. Those emerald green eyes dazzled at him across the fire. They were so alien. He’d never seen a person’s eyes do that. Of course, most people from the town didn’t like the dumb orphan shepherd boy, but still. She looked away.

“So, you said your favorite story was the Sword of Light, right?” she asked. She wasn’t looking him in the eyes, but rather away and at the sheep. Biddy stopped her chewing and locked eyes with Miri and sat still.

“Um… Yeah. My uncle used to tell it. About the Claíomh Solais. It goes something like this…”

Sword training

 The battles had become tiresome. 

Maybe that was because Lila knew they were all faked. She wasn’t really face to face with some nightmare creature with giant suction cups where its face should have been, slithering toward her across a gloomy swamp. 

She was standing in a simulation room, deep in the bowels of the Sword and Shield skyscraper, and lunch should have started twenty minutes ago. The cafeteria would be out of the delicious fried tubers if they didn’t let her out of the simulation soon. 

Or maybe it was because she always lost the battles. The other trainees had been fighting in these kinds of simulations since they’d been discovered to be Wielders, usually sometime around four or five years old. They knew exactly how to move, what to do, when faced with every one of the monster creatures ever discovered on Salazie or the worlds surrounding it. 

“Lila, are you planning on moving anytime soon?” The voice in her ears sounded as tired and as annoyed as she felt. 

“I’m supposed to throw something at it, aren’t I?” She asked, taking a wild guess at the proper technique for battling a creature with suction cups. “Pepper or something?” 

“What?” The annoyed voice sounded incredulous. “What would — have you even watched the lesson? Do you even know what this creature is?” 

Lila bit the inside of her cheek to keep from making the snarky response that would only have gotten her in more trouble. But which one of the eight thousand lessons in her queue was she supposed to have watched? Did any of the instructors ever consider that if she was in class and training twelve hours a day, sleeping eight hours, and taking care of basic human needs like eating, bathing, and dressing for at least a few minutes more of the remaining, it left her very little time to review the endless stream of instruction that the System had lined up for her. 

She’d started out approximately ten years behind the other students in her age range. At the rate she was going, she’d be twelve years behind by the end of the year. 

The voice sighed. 

Lila had no idea who the voice belonged to. The instructors were constantly changing, the assistant teachers rotating in and out according to some mysterious schedule known only to the System. Each of the full Swords and most of the Sword trainees had to take supervisory rotations. Lila wasn’t entirely sure why but apparently the System believed that human supervision was an important precautionary measure when teaching violence. 

“You are battling — supposed to be battling — an Ancortian merslug,” the voice said, with faked patience. “They’re very sensitive to sound. Turn on your aural amplifier to a frequency of 17MhZ and hit play, so we can get the hell out of here.” The patience was entirely gone by the time he reached the end of his instructions. 

Lila checked the belt at her waist. Aural amplifier, that was one of the little black boxes. Not one that she used often. Basically, it made a big noise to scare the monsters away and most monsters were not so easily scared. She pulled it off, the clip that held it in place releasing at her tug, and held it up to her face. Set to 17, that must be the little slider thing on the edge. A small square display should reveal the number, but the screen wasn’t the light up kind, and it was hard to see in the dim light of the swamp. She looked down, toward her cheekbone, and found the icon for suit controls on her interface. Calling it up, she let her eyes drift down until she found the vision icon, then chose the one for brightness. She turned it up, sliding it slowly until she could see the display on the device in her hands clearly. 

She moved the dial on the device up, then down, then up again. The lowest number the display showed was 80. The highest number was 180. She thought the voice had said 17, but he must have meant 170. Right? She hesitated, then gave a tiny shrug, and pressed the play button. 

The noise was immense. 

Lila screamed and dropped the device, clapping her hands over her ears. What the hell? What kind of lousy advice was that? 

The voice was yelling at her, inside her head, but the sound couldn’t penetrate the roar around her. It felt like she was standing in the middle of a thunderclap that just kept going and going and going. 

She knelt and fumbled for the device, turning it over until she found the button that had turned it on. She pressed it again to turn it off. 

Silence, but her ears were still ringing and not just from the yells of the voice. “Megahertz, megahertz, not decibels! Frequency, not volume.” 

She didn’t have the faintest idea what he was yelling about. 

In a decidedly grumpy, but quieter voice, he said, “Well, you’re dead. The merslug would have eaten you before you even found the controls. Fail.” 

Lila stayed kneeling. The simulation wasn’t so good that the ground felt like swamp. She could tell that she was just on the same kind of bouncy artificial surface that all the exercise rooms had for flooring. Which was good, because she really wanted to pound on it, and she really didn’t want mud splattering into her face if she did. 

Her teeth were clenched. These simulations were so very stupid. When would she ever be wandering around a swamp like this alone, anyway? The Swords never went out alone, they were always in teams of five people. And if she had to face some creature with giant suction cups, she would avoid it first and if she couldn’t possibly avoid it, she’d zap it with lightning. 

But why wouldn’t she be able to avoid it? She could levitate herself out of any such stupid situation and obviously would. 

Of course, the administration at the Sword Academy didn’t know she could levitate. They thought she was only an illusion wielder. But even then, if she faced a monster like this one, she’d make herself invisible and get the hell out its way. 

Why were they so determined to make every peg fit into the same round hole? Every trainee had to learn to use the same weapons, had to develop the same strategies, had to pass the same tests. It was so stupid. 

A tiny red dot started blinking at the edge of Lila’s vision. Resigned, she accepted the request for communication access. 

It was text, not voice. A meeting had been added to her calendar, for forty minutes away. Just about enough time to get cleaned up and, if she hurried, to eat some lunch, too. Lila sighed and stood. 

The voice in her head said, “I’ve put you in for a retest, but you’ll need remedial instruction first. You should have recognized that merslug immediately. They’re distinctive and common enough on Andolyn that you will encounter one at some point…” There was a hesitation, brief but noticeable, before the voice continued. “…if you become an active Sword.” 

Lila would have liked to make a rude gesture at the speaker. If she’d had any idea where he was located or where the cameras were that he was using to watch her, she might have tried. But he was just a voice in her head. 

She trudged toward where she thought the exit door was located. But the swamp moved around her, trees scrolling on endlessly. 

“Do you mind?” she said, waving at the scenery. 

“Ah, sorry.” The voice sounded apologetic. 

The swamp disappeared. A wall appeared directly before her, with the door only a few feet to her left. 

Lila tried to let the thought of fried tubers improve her mood. But whatever the meeting was that had appeared in her calendar, it would take up time that she was supposed to be using for classes and then she’d need to make up the classes in some moment of her non-existent free time. The fried tubers were going to have to be good, because she was probably going to miss the evening meal. 

Sword of Light 1-1

Green hills covered in scattered scrub and small ugly trees stretched in all directions and the sky was a beautiful dark blue, just on the edge of turning into night. To the west the Sun was setting, dipping out of sight and turning the sky there orange. Just over the southern horizon the Eye was just becoming visible, shining its dull red glow, and the vault of stars was beginning to shed its daytime cloak. The Moon glowed her usual white, with the Wound plainly visible.

A young man sat with his back against a stunted tree idly whittling on a chunk of scrap wood as he surveyed the land around him with clear green eyes. He had shaggy brown hair that hadn’t seen a barber’s shears in months and drifted down into his eyes from time to time when it escaped the leather thong binding it up in back. It wasn’t long enough to braid, and besides, he hadn’t earned that right yet. A staff with a gnarled knot at one end leaned against the tree, resting against his shoulder, retained by the crook of his carving arm and shoulder.

Around him a flock of sheep cropped grass and chewed their food, rich with wool as it was nearing time for their shearing. Soon, but not yet. They ate and looked around placidly, stupidly. His uncle Eachann often said that sheep were the dumbest animals in all of Creation, with the possible exception of Humankind. Whereas sheep were dumb and slow, they possessed none of the tenacity or downright meanness of geese, which his uncle maintained were the spiritual progenitors of Humans.

“Uallas, my boy,” the oldster would say, and the young man could hear his uncle’s thick Eastern accent in his memory, “Men are spiritual half breeds. We’re made of different stock from all the animals. We’ve the spirits of sheep and geese, and the ferocity of bulls, when we’ve a mind to it.”

It was a bit heretical, Uallas thought. He knew his mother always nervously looked around whenever Uncle Eachann would talk like that, looking to see if any of the proctors heard him, but the old man was unafraid of being thrown in the town stocks for a few days; as tough as old hickory he was.

He put a few more cuts into the piece he was working on, subtly nicking the wood and scoring it just so. He had nimble fingers and strong hands, good for a shepherd to have. He looked around again, making sure that nothing was creeping up on his flock. He changed his breathing to long, deep, quiet breaths and tuned out the noise of his body, straining to hear if anything hand changed.

After several moments he nodded absently, satisfied, and stood up. The nearest of the stupid sheep, a fat old one he’d named Biddy, shifted and eyed him nervously. He turned his knotted staff end for end so the crook was upward and stepped out walk a circuit of the flock.

Sealgair popped her head up as soon as Uallas stood. He whistled softly and patted his thigh. The dog, a smallish black and white mutt, trotted over and assumed a subservient position by his right hand side, just a little behind him and to the side. She looked up and he gave her a scratch behind the ear. She panted and gave him a happy dog grin. The two set off and circled the flock, with Sealgair keeping a ready eye out while Uallas counted the flock. He should have 37 of the placid little turd factories in his flock.

“Thirty-four, thirty-five, thirty-size, thirty-seven!” He exhaled in relief as he counted the last of the sheep and moved back toward the little ugly tree. He patted Sealgair on he head and gave her another scratch then sent her off to the other side of the flock once more. He knelt by the tree, and the small fire pit he’d constructed earlier that day, and set about building a small fire. There was just enough pottage left over from breakfast that he just had to heat up and it would make a fairly decent dinner.

He stoked the fire and got a few sticks of dried wood burning well, and sat patiently while they burned down to red embers, occasionally looking up at the sky.

The Eye always looked back. He wasn’t so sure that it was the symbol of Humanity’s evil that the friars said it was. He was never sure how people were supposed to be involved in a star in the night sky, but there were all sorts of stories about that.

He liked stories. Some people told great stories, some told awful ones. He poked the coals and fished out the sealed earthenware pot from his pack. It was wrapped tightly to keep the lid on, in an old linen rag that had once belonged to his ma, before she’d died of the plague a few years ago. It’d been a cloth, once upon a time, now it was a rag, worn and frayed, but still loved. He carefully folded it and put it away, then moved the earthenware pot with its scorched bottom over to the red coals and nestled it in.

One of his favorite stories-

“Is about the Sword of Light?” asked a small voice off to Uallas’s left.

His heart nearly stopped. He whirled to look, scrambling back from his position and grabbing his shepherd’s staff to get it between him and the… whatever it was. Sealgair reacted to her master’s sudden movement, standing to see over the settling grazers to see what was happening, and the nearest sheep bawled in indignation at the surprise. Uallas blinked.

Cowering away from him up against a thigh high wall of moss covered field stone was… well… a girl. She was small, he could tell that much.

“I’m sorry! Sorry! Please don’t hurt me!” called the lilting voice. The girl was huddled into a mass of clothing and hair, just peeking out with one eye, her face not visible at all. So much of her was brown, the brown of homespun, the brown of skin used to the touch of the sun, but her hair was a reddish color that Uallas had never seen before in his life. and the eye was so emerald green it seemed like a a jewel from the bishop’s hat was casting firelight back at him.

Uallas blinked, then stammered. “Um, I’m not… well I wasn’t planning on hurting anyone.”

“Oh,” she said, it sounded shaky, very unsure. “You seemed really, really ready to though.”

The girl unfolded a little bit, lifting her face up out of the folds of her brown homespun. In the dull light of the Eye and the dim glow of his fire he could make out that she had fine boned features, with a pointed chin and narrow face. After a fashion he supposed she was pretty, but pretty like a lady from a painting in a book, not pretty like Orlaith, the Miller’s daughter. She cocked her head at him, and blinked her large eyes.

“Um… well… you surprised me is all,” he said. It felt like a lamed calf when he said it. Pitiful, really. His voice felt coarse in his throat.

“Oh,” she said again. “I’m glad, I was pretty sure you were nice.”

Her words confused him. She was speaking nonsense. How long had she been there?

“Not that long,” she answered with a bright smile.

“W- wait… are you listening to my… my mind?” he asked, a dull dread creeping into his thoughts.

“Um,” she said, recoiling a little, very slowly, “That would be bad, right?” She moved like someone who was sure the dog was going to attack. Wait… wouldn’t that make him the dog?

“Well, I suppose so, yeah.”

“Then no, I am definitely not reading your thoughts.” She said it with such certainty that he wanted to believe it, but he wasn’t that dumb. Sure some folks in town called him the dumb one, the idiot, but that was because he didn’t like talking to any of them. They were all cruel, anyhow, and had been especially cruel to him and his mother after his father had died. He’d read that followers of the Church Eternal were supposed to be hospitable and welcoming to strangers, but apparently that hadn’t extended to his mom, or to her only surviving son.

“So,” Uallas said, drawing it out and relaxing his posture, “Who are you?”

“You can call me Miri,” she aid, uncoiling from her own defensive posture a little.

Sealgair chose this moment to come over and investigate the new person. As she came over, ‘Miri’ shifted her attention to the dog. Her stance became restless and she clutched her hands tight, but as Sealgair came closer the girl’s stance shifted. The dog loped in and Miri suddenly knelt down, a glowing smile suffusing her face. She wrapped the dog in a hug, one which Sealgair apparently relished, for she looked up to meet Uallas’s gaze while she panted happily.

Miri leaned back on her heels, breaking the embrace, and Sealgair marched over toward Uallas. She promptly planted herself on his right side and leaned into his leg, panting happily and looking up at him. He reached down and scratched her ears.

“Well, Sealgair likes you, so you can’t be all bad,” Uallas said.

Miri smiled brilliantly at him. “She’s a beautiful soul. She loves you very much. Dogs are excellent judges of people.”

That’s what he was about to say, too. When she smiled at him a pair of dimples formed. She smiled with almost childlike glee, eyes squinting almost closed, showing teeth and everything.

“So, Miri, what are you doing here, who are you, and… well… what are you?”

The girl’s joy evaporated and she looked up at him, biting her lip. “I just wanted to hear a story, and… maybe… share some food?”

The Dance – 01

Quiet and melodious tones infiltrate your existence.

Gently, slowly, you awake. It is the type of drifting into wakefulness that can only be achieved with modern technology and advanced chemistry, but you can afford it. It was part of the contract.

Your eyes open, and you stretch. You know the cameras are watching. They always are, for security purposes of course. The contract explicitly states that only limited AI may view the stream from the bedroom and that you have final approval on whether to keep of dump any footage.

Responding to your movement, the glass of your bedroom windows slowly shifts its polarization, letting in more and more of the morning light. Outside is the city.

Brilliant cerulean sky dotted with wispy clouds fills your vision. The thin contrails of aerodynes and airplanes are visible, and there, off in the extreme distance, is the faint vertical contrail of a delta slipping the gross bonds of earthly constraint. You try to trace the contrail and your eyes comply with your desire to see more clearly. Your vision zooms in, smoothly, as you search for the plane itself.

There! That brilliant flash of light, a speck really. Do you see it? Yes, there. You can just make out the triangular shape of the spaceplane. That’s from the Company’s spaceport. The people on board could be goin anywhere, but you know where they’re going, don’t you.

The Crystal Palace.

You sigh. You’ve always wanted to go there, but like every other earthbound schlep you can’t afford it. Even with all this luxury around you, you still can’t afford even a round trip ticket. Maybe a suborbital hop so you could see it with your company eyes…

You sigh and stretch again. Time to get real. Work will start in… query… one-point-seven-two-five hours.

Joy.

You experience a mild annoyance as you become aware of your system’s subtle offer of a mood enhancer to go with your thoughts, waving it away with a pass of your hand. Time to get up.

You get out of the comfortable bed and pad across the apartment toward the bathroom, glancing outside one more time. From your upright position you can see more of the City.  You aren’t in the tallest building, and you’re nowhere near the penthouse, but you’ve got one hell of a view. So many rooftops beneath you, with their green spaces and gardens, and a few even have recreational areas on the rooftop.

There are people there, you can see them from here, with the same clarity of vision that you picked out the delta with. Plebs. Going about their lives, living for now in their immediate pleasures. Some are beautiful, you think idly. Of course, anyone who can afford to play on a rooftop garden can afford to be beautiful.

Your eye catches on one lithe form, moving through the water of a rooftop pool. They are in excellent shape, almost sculpted. Probably are.

You divorce yourself from the view and move back to your preparations for the day. A shower first, after the morning necessities.

While you take care of business the smell of coffee begins to fill the apartment. You’re not sure really if it’s your bio monitor “helping” you out or if it’s really coffee in the kitchen. It doesn’t matter. It’s a better alert than having a flashing neon sign in your vision that says “Coffee’s Ready! (r)”, like one of the plebs.

You step into the shower and luxuriate in it. The water perfectly warmed to your preferences, the nine automated shower heads aiming the streams exactly where you need them, when you need them. You scrub your scalp the old fashioned way, with hands. You’ve read about AI manipulators that can do that, but that’s for the best of the best. The Old Lady on top of the company probably has that. No, strike that. She’s powerful enough she probably has a pair of full body conversions to do the job for her.

Everyone talks about freedom in America like it means something, but you work for the company, you know better. Power breeds privilege.

Enough idle thoughts. The shower is done and you exit the booth. You’d love to have a tub, to soak in, but the shower is more water efficient. It’s easier to recycle the water in the shower too, thus cheaper. With all the luxury around you sometimes its easy to forget how much efficiency rules the day.

Your absorbent bathrobe is already at the perfect temperature, a hot, warm embrace that enfolds you as you shrug it on after your brief towel dry.

Into the kitchen then, for a seat at the bar on the kitchen island. To your left is another view of the City. More distant though. You could go out onto the balcony, but then you’d have all the noise too. You don’t want that. Morning workout is coming, followed by a quick cleanse. But right now, coffee.

You cradle the steaming mug in your hands, smelling the steam, then take your first sip. The bitter and the sweet, the thrill of it. The warmth, just right. Just hot enough to be uncomfortable so you have to blow it it a little bit.

The AI chef has prepared it just right, exactly to your preferences, with just that little bit of randomness thrown in to give you the hint of human imperfection. If it were the same, exactly the same, every day, day in and day out, that would become mechanical. But it isn’t, it’s just a little different every time. Perfect. Isn’t technology is wonderful?

It better be. The amount of time you spent on getting a “perfect” chaotic principle to work with AI food prep is what landed you this job and this contract in the first place. You’d better enjoy the perks!

You savor the coffee and as you glance at the wall. The apartment’s computers read your interface and know you want the news, so there it is. Or what passes for news these days. The newsfeed doomscrolls as you browse headlines all while Net72–“The Last Real News Channel (r)”– plays in a feed to the right, your interface reading your response from the minute cues you give it subconsciously. 

Ah, there’s something interesting. Amidst all the glitz and glamour and sex and depravity and hate and murder (with occasional cute local ragamuffin stories at a 0.27% ratio) there’s another hint of poaching in your field.

Remember when they used to call it headhunting? Yeah, back then, when your grandma was worrying about the 2020s, that was headhunting. It was clean and legal and all (mostly) within bounds. But this one, oh that’s dark. Professional hit team. Well that’s a breath of fresh air, real professional. They only used bullets against the robots. Huh. Professional hitters with ethics? Weird.

With the last sip you finish off your coffee and put it in the boundary area for the kitchen AI to take care of. One more cup for afternoon break. That sounds like a reasonable bit of excess, doesn’t it? Yeah, it does.

You stand and move across the living space to the small home gym that’s included in this apartment package. This is the best part. It’s almost like a vacation before work. All the research these days says that creatives and code warriors work best when they are healthy and fit, and that chaos principle was a nice bit of work, so you get 30 minutes of workout a day on this baby. Lots of chrome on this model, makes it flashier. The seat is properly cushioned in the right spots, no hard spots for your workout. The resistance gear, the supports. No weights these days. Free weights are for people without money.

You change into your workout clothes. It’s a bit unnecessary, you think. No one can see you work out, not anyone except the AI and maybe your psychologist, but it just doesn’t feel right. It’s not a workout without the shorts and tank top. Who could handle bits of themselves flopping around without proper containment during a workout? That’s just uncouth.

Clothes–the right clothes–adorning your body, you move into the small gym and sit down. You pick up the little silver box on the side and open it, almost reverently. You can’t escape the anticipation of what awaits. Inside the box are the little chrome-covered bits and pieces. They’re beautiful work. Two ear buds, two nose filters, and four studs.

You slot the studs in your wrists, see the lights. Connection good.

You plug in the nose filters, always a little funny at first, but then the slightly oily scent of the machinery is replaced with a soft floral vanilla. Good.

Now the earbuds. They fit well, firm but not hard, their sili-gel ™ molding to fit your ear canals. The white noise starts and then you can’t hear much of anything. Also good, though a little disorienting.

Lastly the plug for your neck and the base of your skull. With the ease of long practice you slot the plug beneath your left ear, right behind the lobe. It settles in with a comforting click. Then the last one, the base of the skull in back. You move your hair to the side, feeling for the biogel cover. The nanotech moves out of the way and you slot the last stud, right into your central nervous system.

Now, where to go today?

You’ve been thinking about it since before coffee. When you saw the delta taking off for space.

Yeah, that’s it. The Crystal Palace. Patric-A just did a tour of the Palace for Skydance Virtual, and you haven’t been on this one yet. They always do such a good job with their VR sims, let you feel all the senses. Heck, they even work in enough sim so that when you want some direct motor control you can do that. That sounds about right.

Hovering in your field of view are all the choices of where you could go for this workout. A quick 30 minutes in the Palace would do wonders for your, wouldn’t it? Of course it would! You select the sim, roll your head left and right, and reach up to grab the gym’s handlebars.

The move is very assertive, direct, and you don’t really feel yourself doing it as the sim starts to take over. Maybe some bench presses today? Who knows. Your legs were sore after the last one so maybe today is arm day. Your vision begins to fade as the mechanical arm starts to push down and your begin your bench press. It feels so weird, this moment of disorientation as your arms and body do what the machine wants them to do, what your workout needs them to do, but you don’t.

Wait, are we going to question who you are?

What is you?

Nah. Too existential for your jaunt to the Palace. You fade to black quickly, and the next thing you know you’re in.

It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Looking out the window like this? It costs so much money to have a window seat in space. Most folks hitting the orbitals are stuck in steerage, but not you. You’re special. You can afford the window seat. And there it is, floating in space, a great spinning jewel with multiple bands of color, a wheel. No, really it’s more of a cylinder.

Oh, you’re in for a treat today, you’re coming in during the morning! The three giant panels that make up the radiators and solar cells are opening up, reflecting the sunlight down into the rotating cylinder, creating what you only hope to witness tomorrow morning, Sunrise on the Crystal Palace ™.


You come to consciousness sometime later. You are in your bed. Your arms hurt a little. So does your back. The lights are off, the room is dark. Your arms itch.

The lights aren’t coming on at your desire. They should, but they aren’t. You sit up in the darkness. Did the windows polarize? Why are you here? You should be on the bench. That’s where you wind up after every other virtual.

What’s that smell? You realize your nose filters are gone. You can smell… something… coppery? You reach up to rub your nose and realize that the smell intensifies.

“Lights,” you croak out. Nothing.

“Shades?” you try. Still nothing. Is the power out in the apartment? How is that possible? The building has its own reactor.

The windows rattle. Not just the windows, the entire room rattles, and you sense motion outside.

LIGHT!

Sudden! Intense light! As if God Himself spoke the words of creation in your ear, light!

The bright, actinic white is accompanied by the low buzzing orange/red/blue of the cops.

You look around the room, in shock.

This can’t be.

Why are your hands covered in drying blood?

Chapter Eleven

The doors to the carpet slid open. 

 My grip on the strap dangling from the ceiling did not loosen. I knew I didn’t need to be as scared as I was. The silence had been foreboding, but before the silence, Rye had been talking about foster families and generous stipends. Those words did not portend my doom. 

I was scared anyway. 

Harmony walked out, but Rye didn’t move. He gestured toward the door. “They’ll be waiting for us upstairs.” 

They? They who? 

Could he be more ominous?  

But I couldn’t cower in the carpet for the rest of my life, so I lifted my chin and stepped out of it. Our surroundings were simple, a room made of the same white material as the buildings at Domas, unadorned. There were no windows, but dark openings at either end were big enough for vehicles many times larger than our small carpet to come in and out. 

“We came in the back way,” Rye said, following me out of the carpet. “Usually Swords travel through the zones. It’s much faster, but we wouldn’t take a rotecionata there unless it was a real emergency. This area’s mostly used for freight.” 

Harmony was already waiting by a door that looked like it might lead to one of the giant dumbwaiters. She glanced back at us over her shoulder. “The front entrance is super posh, very elegant. But there’s always media hanging around out there, and we didn’t want to let them get any shots of you two. They’d start speculating like crazy — she’s so young and you’re so pretty — and coming in with Rye and me, well, we’re always in the feeds.” 

As usual, I understood only about half of what Harmony said. Feeds? Shots? What was she talking about? But I did catch the compliment. 

I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. In my entire life, had anyone ever called me pretty? Perhaps when I was a baby, too young to remember, but Ella was the pretty one. She was beautiful and charming, and I was… well, I was the scary one. Which wasn’t the worst of fates, of course. I wouldn’t have liked being known as the stupid one. 

We were in the dumbwaiter and it was moving before I decided that I felt delighted about Harmony’s compliment. Really, quite delighted. Obviously, I was not so superficial as to believe that my appearance meant anything. Being pretty was not nearly as important as being clever or brave or strong. But still, it was quite nice to know that Harmony thought I was pretty. 

“So pretty,” even. 

I stole a glance at Rye. I admit, I hoped he also thought I was pretty. He was looking straight ahead, however, a tiny line between his brows, and with the twitches that said he was engaged in conversation over the System. If he thought I was pretty, it wasn’t what he was thinking about now. 

The dumbwaiter was either slow or traveling a great distance. When the doors slid open, I knew it was the latter, because directly in front of us was a wall of glass, and the scene beyond it was immensely far away. 

My indrawn breath was sharp as a gasp. Shoshi stirred and I patted her absently while I followed Rye and Harmony out of the dumbwaiter and into a corridor, never taking my eyes off the view. 

I’d started levitating at perhaps six or seven. It wasn’t my first talent, more a minor addition to an already complicated repertoire. If I remembered correctly, in fact, the first time I levitated was in desperation after Ella clambered out of our bedroom window and onto the roof, where she promptly got stuck. Her attempt to build wings happened several years later, but her fondness for roofs started early. 

As a levitation talent, I would have said I had no fear of heights. I’d lifted myself easily thirty or forty feet in the air and I could control my rate of descent should such be necessary. 

That said, this was a height to which I had never imagined ascending. Through the wall of glass, I could see innumerable shorter buildings and a few of similar height, stretching out before me like a tapestry. In the distance, water sparkled in the morning sunlight. A harbor held ships as large or larger than the buildings nearest to them, so huge they seemed inconceivable. 

The wall of glass extended ahead of us and I surmised it went all the way around the building, but we did not proceed that far. Halfway down the corridor, Rye paused. A door slid open and Harmony and I followed him into a meeting room, smaller than the typical classroom at Domas but large enough to hold a large table surrounded by cushioned chairs as well as a smaller table against an inner wall. Three people were already seated at the table, engaged in a conversation that broke off as we entered. 

Two of them wore the black uniform of the Swords, while the other was in the red that the Shields wore. I recognized her immediately; she was the Shield I’d seen the first day, doing something with a device around the rift and laughing. 

 She leaned back in her chair, eyeing me and Shoshi appraisingly. 

“What are you doing here, Mira?” Harmony asked. 

“Way to say hello,” the woman in red answered. She nodded at each of them. “Harmony, Rye.” 

Harmony clicked her tongue against her teeth. “Sorry. I was just surprised to see you.

Rye gave a terse nod, his expression unrevealing. He might have been communicating via the System, but if so, he wasn’t making any of the telltale minor movements. 

Shoshi stirred again. She’d opened her eyes and was blinking herself awake. 

I stroked her wisps of dark hair and murmured, “Good morning, sweet girl. Don’t worry, it’s going to be all right.” I spoke in Tizain, of course. 

The Sword seated closest to us cocked his head to one side. His eyes narrowed. “No linguistic matches, according to available System data.” 

“You know that doesn’t mean a thing,” Harmony said. “Lucerne has dozens of languages, and even more dialects.” 

He smiled at her. It was actually a rather nice smile, affectionate and approving, as if her impudence pleased him rather than giving him pause. 

A door in the far wall opened and two more people came in, both clad in the black of the Swords. The woman was the oldest Sword I’d ever seen, her hair silvered, her dark eyes holding the look of one who had seen everything and was not inclined to tolerate tomfoolery. She carried herself, however, with the same air of grace and strength as the younger Swords. She reminded me a tiny bit of my mother, if my mother had worn a form-fitting uniform and had looked as deadly as most people thought she actually was.

The man with her did not have the same presence, but he spoke first. “Tell us about the incursion.” 

“It was an emergent manifestation, not an incursion,” Rye replied. “An illusion. There was no rift.” 

“Ha.” The woman in red, Mira, sounded triumphant. “I told you, when I seal a rift, it stays sealed.” 

The man’s lips pursed. “You’re sure? The folks at Domas who sounded the alarm seemed far more concerned than would be warranted by an emerging illusion crafter.” 

“Quite sure.” Rye tipped his head to the side. “Review 7.43 to 7.46.” 

Everyone in the room, except for Shoshi and me, stared at the wall in their own line of sight. I watched their expressions change. Mira caught her breath, then pressed her lips together as if ashamed of her reaction. The Swords at the table frowned. The older woman lifted a single eyebrow, then smoothed out her expression. The man with the pursed lips pursed them deeper, looking displeased. 

It seemed obvious that they were watching the monster bugs Shoshi had created and I had burned. I wondered whose eyes they were looking through. Could they see my lightning? Or the fire attack that had fizzled? 

Lying to Rye about my abilities had been instinctive. Was I about to get caught? 

Shoshi started to fuss. I couldn’t blame her. I would rather like to start fussing myself. She still wore her sleeping attire, including a diaper that had undoubtedly been used hours ago, and neither of us had eaten breakfast. She was understandably cranky. 

So was I. 

Perhaps I had simply been scared for too long, but my anxiety was rapidly turning into annoyance. I didn’t like the way these people were treating me. Oh, it was better than a quick death, of course, but where were their manners? They hadn’t even introduced themselves or invited me to be seated. I wished I could consult my etiquette instructor on the appropriate response to their lack of social graces, but under the circumstances, I thought equal bluntness might be permissible. 

I turned to Rye. “Going make us stand here forever?” 

He blinked, glancing away from the wall he’d been staring at. 

“Shoshi hungry,” I continued. “Need clean clothes. Drag us away, no breakfast.” 

I think there might have been a glint of laughter in his eyes, but I might have been imagining it. His face remained impassive as he said, “Of course. We’ll try to expedite this. Perhaps—“ He glanced at the man at the table, the one who’d smiled at Harmony. 

The man jumped to his feet. “My pleasure.” He held his hands out to me. 

I had no intention whatsoever of simply passing Shoshi over to a total stranger. But a wave of warmth and comfort and reassurance washed over me. It felt like sunshine on an early spring day or the coziness of clean sheets fresh from the line. 

Shoshi crowed with laughter and leaned out, arms extended toward the man. 

“What—?“ I managed. 

“Simon’s a projective empath,” Rye murmured. 

“And fond of the little ones,” the man said, scooping Shoshi out of my arms and beaming at her. “What do you think, Button? Some fresh bread with berry jam, perhaps? Would that taste good?”  

Fresh bread with berry jam? My mouth watered at the thought and my stomach rumbled in agreement. I hadn’t eaten anything except the crumbly squares since we’d arrived on Salazie. I didn’t even realize they had real food on Salazie. 

“We’ll bring some back for you.” Simon touched my arm in passing and the sense of well-being strengthened, then diminished again as he let his hand drop away and moved toward the door with Shoshi. 

She was making no protest. She barely even seemed to notice she was leaving me behind, her eyes locked onto Simon’s face. I would have liked to object, but it was impossible. 

“Don’t worry,” Harmony said. “Simon will take good care of her. He’s a great dad.” 

I looked at her, my expression perhaps conveying my opinion of this whole business, and she smiled. “Personal experience. He was my foster father.” 

“Impressive illusions,” the older woman finally said, interrupting us. “Especially for an emergent wielder.” She looked directly at me. “Where are you from?” 

My mother did not have Truesight. Even so, only a fool would tell her a direct lie. If you wanted to convince my mother of a falsehood, it could only be done with misdirection.

I hesitated, but finally said, reluctantly, “Country named Tizai.”

She looked into space for a few seconds, checking the System. “We have no record of it. And none of your rescue. Who brought you to Domas?” 

Obviously, they only had to ask the System the right questions to learn that I had not come to Domas alone. But perhaps they wouldn’t think to ask the right questions. It was all I could hope for, the only way I could keep Ella safe.  

“Brought self,” I replied. 

“Explain.” The word was a command. She made no attempt to cushion it with any polite niceties, but as resentful as I felt, I couldn’t bring myself to not reply. 

“Walking garden home,” I said carefully. No need to explain that we’d chosen to go through the rift. “Then in other place. Confusing. Many places, all—“ I gestured with my hands, trying to convey the enormity of that cold white space. “—jumbled.” I finally finished. “Walked and walked. Then saw littles playing, fell through hole. Za Kestrel find, say go school.” 

I tried to look innocent, not at all like the kind of person who’d deliberately ripped a giant hole in the wall of their world in order to enter it. 

I was probably not successful, because the man’s eyes narrowed. “Who told you of Domas?” 

His question was completely unexpected. I’d been anticipating that they’d ask me about Ella or the rift we’d opened, and I’d worried that Rye would mention the fires I’d been smothering when he found us in the forest. 

I shook my head, no longer feeling like I needed to pretend to be innocent. “No one.” 

“You expect us to believe you wandered through the interstitial zone until you randomly happened upon a safe haven for refugee children?” the man continued scornfully. 

Obviously, that wasn’t what had happened at all. Ella’s Truesight had led us to Domas. She’d known what she was looking for and her gift had obliged. But I wasn’t going to reveal that to these strangers, so I shrugged. “Lucky, I guess.” 

The man snorted. “Luck?” 

The older woman shot him a stern glance and he fell silent. 

No one spoke. 

I waited. I couldn’t detect any of the signs that indicated they were communicating via System, but if the silence was meant to encourage me to continue revealing more information about my background, they were sadly mistaken in their audience. I was well-used to remaining silent under questioning, albeit mostly because Ella would usually have been filling any silence with her bright persuasiveness. 

The door behind the older woman slid open and another Sword entered. This one was young, female, and extremely beautiful. She could have been Rye’s twin, with similar features, more finely sculpted, and the same eyes that held streaks of gold on a deeper brown. 

She was carrying a long, thin box, made of the shiny white material most often used for objects that were not magical and would not change shape. She set it down on the end of the table. The older woman opened it and turned it to face me. 

“Is this yours?” 

It was Father’s carving knife. 

I stared at it, mind racing. 

I should lie. Who went walking in their garden carrying a carving knife? What did it say about us that we’d been armed?

But the question almost had to be rhetorical. Obviously, it was ours. We’d come through that rift, and had been discovered mere moments later. Who else would have dropped a knife there? 

Ella would have managed some beautifully complicated story about people chasing us and our desperate escape and our need for sanctuary. Everyone in the room would have been enormously sympathetic before she was halfway through. 

I could do nothing of the kind. 

“Yes,” I said flatly. 

The woman indicated the handle with a single finger. “And this symbol? What does it mean?” 

It was Father’s sigil, not the de Winterhoffe crest, but I wasn’t sure how to answer her question. As far as I was concerned, the sigil meant, “Do not touch, lest the most fearsome sorcerer on Tizai take offense,” but that would be rather hard to explain to anyone who didn’t know my father. 

The helpful translator in my head didn’t seem to be providing the appropriate vocabulary, either. Did they not have the concept of monograms on Salazie? 

“Identification mark,” I finally hazarded. 

“What does it identify?” the woman asked. 

I looked her straight in the eye and widened my own, as if the question was mystifying. 

“Knife maker?” I said as if it were a question, not at all as if I was telling a bald-faced lie. Perhaps I had learned something from Ella, after all. 

“Coincidence, then,” the man next to her murmured. 

I had the impression that she would have sighed if she’d been a different sort of person. Instead she closed the lid of the box and pushed it aside. 

“However you came to Salazie, we are pleased to welcome you,” she said formally. 

I blinked. That… was not what I’d expected her to say. 

She gestured toward a seat. “Let us now discuss your future.” 

I swallowed. I no longer believed they were going to kill me. But I strongly suspected I wasn’t going to much like whatever it was that she did have in mind. 

She surprised me, however, for the first thing she said after I sat down at the table was, “Would you like to return to your home?” 

Yes! And… no. 

I must have looked as stunned as I felt, because she continued, “You’re not the first wanderer we’ve found. Our teams can’t always return the lost to their homes, but you’re capable of describing your world to us. Indeed, with illusion-crafting you can paint a picture far more vivid than most. We have path finders, although never as many as we need, but we could spare one for a few days to search for a route to your home for you. We don’t want to keep you here against your will.” 

Reader, I am ashamed to admit that my first thought was of tea. Delicious black tea, steeped properly, with a dollop of real milk. That thought was rapidly followed by images of fresh eggs, bacon, scones with clotted cream, and crisp apples straight from the tree. 

In my defense, I was hungry. 

Also in my defense, I’m sure it was only a few seconds before I thought properly of home. My parents, the rest of the family, the servants — all the people who would have been searching for us. The villagers probably hadn’t missed us, but Father was certain to be in a foul mood. They’d be relieved and grateful to have us home, if only to ease his temper. 

Us. 

My thoughts stopped there. 

Ella. 

The woman was still talking, but I couldn’t even hear her words. My sister would not be happy to be home. She loved it here. And she had so many opportunities here that were nothing like those she had at home. No one in Tizai was suggesting she go to diplomacy school or medical school or whatever the school of the day at Domas was. No one in Tizai was delighted by her eager intelligence. No one in Tizai… no one in Tizai deserved her. 

But if I went home without her… 

I interrupted whatever the woman was saying. “No, thank you.” 

“I — what?” She looked confused. 

“I not go home, please. I stay here.” 

I was not about to explain to my parents how I’d left Ella to fend for herself on an alien world. Not that I had the faintest idea how I’d help her if she needed help, given that the Swords had swooped me away from Domas like I was yesterday’s fish, but that wasn’t the point. 

Home was not an option. 

“In that case, you’ll need to be trained,” the woman said. She seemed pleased, in a grim sort of way. 

E&L – Chapter 10

Chapter Ten

Sadly for me, the scant few moments before the Swords arrived were not sufficient time to develop and execute some clever plan of escape. 

Running away to the forest had only grown more impractical as winter approached, and running away with a companion in diapers was even more unrealistic. 

Fighting was clearly futile: one of me against an unknown number of Swords and Shields was not going to end well for anyone, but most certainly not for me, and the consequences would undoubtedly rebound onto Ella. 

Hiding might be a temporary solution, but what good would it do in the long run? 

If Ella was also trying desperately to conceive of a plan, she did not share it with me. 

I’m sorry, I sent to her via the System. I’ll try to keep you out of it. Stay safe. And take care of Tycho for me. I toggled her line of communication closed. The light in the corner of my vision began blinking again, but I ignored it in favor of watching the Swords. 

They seemed to understand immediately that they were facing an illusion, not real monsters. Six of them were responding to the alarm, but four promptly levitated away, while two others dropped to the ground and began walking toward me. 

I let go of my illusion. Shoshi’s illusion was gone, too, perhaps because mine had distracted her or perhaps because she’d run out of energy. She wasn’t asleep, but she huddled against my chest in the boneless exhaustion of the very young. 

Of course, Rye was one of the two. Did the Swords have duty stations? If so, his must be near Domas, for this was the third time he’d been called to our location. His expression as he approached was inscrutable, but he looked as delicious as ever. His uniform fit him perfectly, as if it been designed to showcase his elegant musculature. Maybe it had been. I entertained myself for a moment by imagining his reaction to the formal robes he could have worn on Tizai. Would he recoil in horror from the velvet and gilt? 

The other Sword was a young woman with long, wavy dark hair. She looked vaguely familiar. She might have been one of the guards we saw on our first day. 

“Young to start illusion-casting, I’d say, but maybe that’s for the best,” the woman said cheerfully, holding out her hands. “I’ll take her now.” 

I did not let go of Shoshi. 

Instead, I glared at the Sword.

My glare was not well-practiced. I usually endeavored to avoid such expressions, as I’d learned early on that glaring at servants who already fear you might burn them alive accomplishes nothing other than ensuring cold tea while they bicker over who should deliver your tray. I’d mastered the art of the polite smile instead. 

My mother, however, has a glare so withering it can silence a crowded ballroom. I did my best to emulate her. 

“No, you not.” I jerked my chin toward the grounds. “Illusion mine.” 

The woman laughed at me. “And you’d be quite a bit too old to start with the illusion-casting.” 

I understood her words, of course, but the way she said them was subtly different than the way most of the adults at Domas spoke. They were softer around the edges somehow, even though her tone was gently mocking. 

“It’s hard, I know, but there’s no choice in the matter.” She stepped forward, hands still outstretched. “She canna stay here.” 

I did not shoot a lighting bolt at her, sorely though I was tempted. Nor did I set her ablaze, which was truly a sign that my control had improved in the weeks we’d been on Salazie. 

I did, however, muster the pettiest illusion in my repertoire — one practiced on my least favorite governess more than once in years gone by — and dangled a black, hairy spider in front of her on a strand of silken thread. 

She startled, flinching away from it, but she didn’t shriek. 

Point to her, I suppose. 

“Illusion mine,” I repeated, letting the spider disappear in a puff of sparkles. 

Somehow it pains me to admit that she was nice about it. I should probably have expected no less, but, reluctant though I am to confess this, I was scared and angry and upset. Having her smile warmly at me and say, “All right, love, that’s shown me, hasn’t it?” was almost more than I could bear. 

The corner of Rye’s mouth lifted, and he stepped forward, too. “Take them both, then, Harmony?” 

Harmony? That name I recognized. It had been a moment of disconnect in the System’s vision of the monsters, when a random word in the dialogue seemed out of place. Harmony, not a combination of musical notes, but a woman’s name. 

“Harmony?” I repeated. I dipped my chin to Shoshi, without relaxing my grip on her. “You rescue baby?” 

Her eyes widened a little. “Do you need to be rescued? Aren’t they treating you all right here?” 

“Not now. Then. When monster came Lucerne.” Not for the first time, I wished I was fluent in the language of Salazie, instead of struggling to build sentences one awkward word at a time.

“Oh. Aye, we brought them here.” She exchanged glances with Rye, her smile gone. 

How peculiar. Why rescue children if you were going to kill them when they demonstrated talents? Why not just let them die where they were? For that matter, why did she seem concerned about whether I thought I needed rescuing? Perhaps they weren’t going to kill Shoshi and me, after all. 

I wouldn’t say I relaxed exactly, but the moment of doubt was enough to let me breathe a little easier through the next interminable period of chaos and uncertainty. 

And chaos it was. Too many of the children had seen the monsters bugs, and the shortage of adults was never more noticeable than when frantic children were sobbing and hiding under tables. Other of the littles had seen the creatures burning and were over-excited, bouncing off the walls and wanting to know all the details.  

Za Reija would have liked to protest my departure, I think, but his hands were full with the littles. Za Qintha didn’t even try, although her frown when the Swords politely informed her that they’d be taking both Shoshi and me was unhappy. 

My last sight of Domas included Ella, standing outside by the doorway, with Za Kestrel’s hands on both her shoulders. She was looking pinched and dismal, holding Tycho, who was tangling both hands in her curls with delight. I would have liked to warn her that any second he’d start to pull, but if I opened a line to talk to her — well, neither one of us would want to cry before the others. 

But there was a gaping hole in my chest that the presence of Shoshi in my arms did nothing to assuage. 

The Swords had summoned a vehicle. The System translated the name to carpet, but it was nothing like the freight carpets we used at home. Our carpets chugged along, a few feet off the ground, carrying crates and barrels of goods. When people used them for transport, they usually sat on top of the cargo. I’d never ridden on one myself. We used gliders for our transport, which were far more comfortable.

This vehicle was sleek and white, but clearly not designed for comfort. We stood inside it, holding onto straps that dangled from the ceiling, as it zoomed along the ground. Shoshi had fallen asleep against my chest. She was heavy, but I didn’t dare use levitation energy, not with the Swords watching me so closely.  

“So, Lila,” Rye started. 

He remembered my name. I felt a thrill of pleasure, then promptly scolded myself for it. Of course he remembered my name; he would be a mannerless dolt if he forgot it so quickly and nothing about him said mannerless dolt. 

“There’s going to be quite a stir about you when we get back to headquarters,” he continued. “Most wielders are discovered much younger.” 

Wielders? I assumed he meant talented, although that was definitely not the word the System was using. 

“Can you do anything other than craft illusions?” His gaze was steady on my face. 

I didn’t hesitate, not even for a split second. Chin in the air, I met his eyes. “No,” I said flatly. 

He had beautiful eyes. They had golden lines in the brown, radiating out from the pupil, and a darker ring, almost black, around the iris. There were even tiny flecks of green. 

His mouth twitched. If I could read minds, I suspected his would be saying, “Liar, liar, skirts on fire.” But his expression remained impassive. 

“Rye.” Harmony elbowed him, as if he’d said something rude. She turned to me and said earnestly, “Ignore him. We don’t judge people based on how they manifest. Illusion-casting isn’t dishonorable, no matter what the Wigs say. It’s true it’s better if we find wielders young, but that’s at least in part because of the horrible messages society gives people about their abilities. There’s nothing shameful about what you can do. You should just ignore the Wigs.” 

Needless to say, I had no idea what she was talking about, but I doubted it had anything to do with hairpieces. Sometimes the System’s translation felt like it was just stringing one unrelated word after another. 

“Which pick-up were you in?” she continued. 

There was an awkward silence. Well, it felt awkward to me, anyway. What was she asking? 

Maybe it felt awkward to her, too, because she hurried on, “I don’t remember you from the first Lucerne incursion, but that was a year ago and there were a lotta young’uns. It was…” She paused, then continued. “But you would have been on the old side… well…“ 

She glanced at Rye again, looking uncertain. Then back at me. “You musta come later, anyway, or your language skills’d be…” She stopped speaking again. 

I had the impression that she kept almost saying things that she thought better of before the words escaped. I had no idea what her first few pauses meant, but I suspected her last sentence implied, “you’d be able to talk like an adult instead of a little.” 

“You’ll be from one of the recent rescues, yes?” She went on. “I remember Donovan mentioning he’d found a couple more survivors. Oh, I’m so sorry. I don’t mean to remind you of your losses.” 

My estimation of the chance that Harmony would be involved in my cold-blooded execution, much less Shoshi’s cold-blooded execution, was dropping by the second, from about fifty-fifty when we left Domas to something approaching zero now. I didn’t know where we were going or what was going to happen to us, and it might not be pleasant, but it wasn’t going to be fatal. 

My estimation of her age was dropping, too. I’d assumed the Swords were adults, but Harmony was too earnest to be much older than I was. 

“Harmony was one of the Swords’ first rescues.” Rye hadn’t looked away from my face. Under other circumstances, I might have been pleased. As it was, I was wondering whether I had a smudge on my nose or if he was trying to read my mind. 

“Years ago, of course,” Harmony said. “They found me in the eye-zee.”

“The ivy?” I asked, once again not sure what she was talking about. 

“The I. Z.,” she said, pronouncing the letters more clearly. “The interstitial zone. I musta gone through a rift but I’d wandered too far away from my own R. Z. to go home again. Sometimes I look for it, but I was awful little and I don’t remember much.”

My confusion was not lessened. But before Harmony could continue confusing me, Rye said, “You might like to see where we’re headed.” He must have done something with the System, because panels in the middle of the walls slid open, revealing windows. 

Outside the windows was a city. But a city unlike anything I had ever seen before, or even conceived of. The buildings were unimaginably enormous. They towered over us like mountains, if mountains had corners and windows and sparkled with light. 

I gaped like the most veritable hayseed new come to the city. Well, I suppose I was exactly that. The largest building I had ever seen was the government building where our father had his workshop and office. It was six stories high and covered an entire city block. These buildings were so much bigger that they made our seat of government look like a country cottage. 

I tried counting windows to measure the stories, but we were moving too quickly and I lost track before I’d gotten much past twenty, far less than halfway up the building I was looking at. 

Our father was universally acknowledged to be the most terrifying sorcerer on Tizai and it had never occurred to me to doubt that if he found us here, he would retrieve us with dispatch. Now, for the first time, I wondered. 

“Where taking us?” I asked. Perhaps it was a question I should have asked an hour or two earlier, but I think then I’d been too afraid of an answer that would cause me to lose all dignity. 

Harmony’s eyes widened and her brows lifted in surprise, but Rye responded after only the tiniest flicker of a blink. “Sword Headquarters.” 

He nodded toward Shoshi. “I’m sure they’re lining up to foster the little one already. The stipend for nurturing a wielder is generous and the prestige points toward full citizenship don’t hurt. You’ll go into training. Illusion-casting isn’t a lot of use in the zones, but they’ll find a spot for you, probably on a world-walker team. Illusions sometimes come in handy when interacting with the locals.” 

I opened my mouth, then closed it again. I had so many questions, I barely knew where to start. 

The corner of Rye’s mouth dented inward. His facial expressions were ridiculously subtle, but I was fairly sure he was restraining a laugh. 

Harmony leaned forward. “Don’t worry, you’ll be in training for years. Years and years, probably. No one’s gonna make you go into the zones until you’re ready.”

“The zones?” I asked. 

“The in-between?” Harmony replied, a question in her tone. “Where were you rescued from again?” Her eyes went glazed for a moment. The expression was familiar: she was reading material on the System. “Your file is —“ She stopped talking and looked at Rye. “Does this makes sense to you?” 

“It is a bit scanty,” he replied, voice dry. 

“There’s no background info at all. No team debriefing, not even the incident report. And no rescue justification. How did they get away with that? In fact…” She paused and her eyes did that thing again. 

I looked away, staring out the window. We were still in the midst of the enormous buildings, so there was plenty to look at, but I could feel heat rising in my cheeks. Shoshi stirred in the harness on my chest, perhaps feeling the tension in my shoulders, and I cradled her a little closer. 

“Kestrel? Who is that? Is that a new team lead from Albernia? But why would they bring a rescue to Domas? Don’t they have a sanctuary there?” Harmony seemed increasingly distressed. 

Rye didn’t answer her. 

Harmony didn’t speak again. 

I stared out the window, not seeing the city any longer. 

Shoshi made a fussy noise, a breathy whimper, and I gently rubbed her back, using the circular motion she liked best. She settled again with a sigh. 

I waited. 

And I waited. 

And I waited some more. 

All right, it was probably no more than two minutes before I gave in and looked back at Rye’s face, but it felt like the longest two minutes of my life. It lasted an eternity, I swear. 

He wasn’t looking at me anymore. He and Harmony were gazing at one another, their faces making the tiny muscle twitches that said they were communicating via the System. How annoying of them. 

 I looked away again. Oh, how I wished Ella were with me. She was a gifted liar. Literally. Her gifts made lying easy. But I was even less practiced with lying than I was with glaring. And I had no idea what tale would be believable and what would be simply digging a deep hole deeper. 

But Harmony asked me no further questions. We stood in complete silence until the carpet flew into a hole in the ground and along a deep tunnel, and finally came to a stop. 

E&L Ch9 – Let’s watch them burn

(Note for Tim: I added a few more lines to Ch8, to make this transition work.)

Chapter Nine

I blame the weather, to be honest. 

We’d arrived on Salazie in late summer. At the time, the grass was green and lush, the forest rich with the sounds of birds and the rustlings of busy small animal lives. The children played outside every day, both organized sports in the courtyards, supervised by the instructors, and the random games of childhood on the open grounds beyond the walls of the school building. 

But the seasons were changing as seasons were wont to do, the days growing shorter, the leaves dropping from the trees, and the weather turning colder. On my last morning at Domas, the ground was crisp with frost. 

I’d woken up at my usual time, taken care of the necessities, and hurried to the rotecionata halls, as was my daily routine. Za Reija and Za Kestrel were already there, helping the littles with their own necessities. 

“Ah, good, Lila, good to see you.” The circles under Za Reija’s eyes looked deeper than usual. He held a little on each arm. In the pack on his back, a third was sobbing, tiny fists clenched on Za Reija’s shoulders. 

The rotecionata had smaller sleeping pods, not built into the walls the way the roteciona pods were, but lined against them. Usually when I arrived in the morning, all the tops were open and most of the littles had already been moved into either the addie carriers used to transport them to the breakfast room, or to a circular enclosure on the floor which held soft toys and a central small play structure. 

On this morning, however, a solid quarter of the pods were still closed. In one of the nearest, I could see Shoshi, soundlessly crying, her face screwed up in fury, tears running down her face. 

“Bad night?” I asked, immediately crossing to her pod, and tapping the latch to open it. 

As the top slid open, the sound of her cries burst forth, a high-pitched shriek that filled the room. I saw Za Reija wince, as Za Kestrel immediately turned to check on the noise. 

Za Reija shook his head. A yellow light blinked in the corner of my vision and I acknowledged it, letting Za Reija open a line to my System. 

Terrible, his voice sounded in my head. I’m not sure what’s going on. I’ve checked and double-checked the medic alerts. Shoshi’s temp’s a little high, but nothing that should cause her serious discomfort. But she’s miserable, and it’s been contagious. They’re all upset. I’ve called for more assistance, but if you could take her, it might help. 

Just her? I asked as I lifted Shoshi out of her pod. Usually, I loaded up an addie carrier with four littles, the number it could comfortably carry, then escorted it to the breakfast room while carrying two or three more littles. While the first set of littles were being fed and supervised by one of the other instructors, I’d return for another load. 

Just her, Za Reija confirmed. 

“Shh, shhhh.” I tried to comfort Shoshi, rocking her in my arms, but she arched her back, screaming hard. 

Maybe outside? He suggested. Even his mental voice sounded tired. 

I nodded, and closed the open line. At night, the rotecionata wore soft sleepers with built-in diapers. In the morning, an adult or one of the older students would help divest them of their sleepers, then place them on a wardrobe pad in the corner of the room. Uniforms — exactly like all of the other student uniforms, except for their small size — would flow into shape around their bodies. 

But Za Kestrel was busy at the wardrobe pad with a line of littles and Shoshi was screaming so hard that joining the line seemed inadvisable. Instead, I headed straight for the door. It was not yet so cold that a few minutes in the fresh air in her sleeper would do her any harm. 

At the doorway, I almost bumped into Ella. She was yawning, her eyes only half open, her curls still tangled and sleep mussed.  

“G’morning,” she mumbled at me. “Here to help.” 

“Za Reija will be happy to see you,” I said through Shoshi’s wails. 

“Mmm.” Ella leaned into me, as if she’d fall asleep against me if I gave her the chance. 

I chuckled, adjusting Shoshi on my hip, and curving my arm around my sister. She’d never been a morning person. 

“No, no, no.” Shoshi sobbed, pushing Ella’s head away from me. 

“What’s wrong with her?” Ella straightened, opening her eyes wider. 

“I don’t know.” I patted Shoshi’s back. “Nightmare, maybe? We’re going to go for a little walk and see if some outside time helps.” 

“M’kay.” Ella moved aside to let us pass, but she frowned as she watched us go. 

When I accompanied an addie laden with littles, I used the giant dumbwaiters to reach the ground floor, but since I only had Shoshi, I took the stairs. They were hidden behind a door at the end of the hallway, but were nicely wide, suitable for the crowds of students climbing them daily. At the moment, a steady flow of roteciona was headed down them toward the breakfast room, with an occasional student moving against the flow of traffic to return to their sleeping hall for one reason or another. 

Shoshi sobbed in my ear, still inconsolable, but her cries barely penetrated the chaos of chattering voices and thudding footsteps. I returned the greetings directed my way absently, more focused on Shoshi than on my surroundings, but steered my steps toward the front of the building instead of the courtyard next to the breakfast room. It would be crowded this time of day, with students coming and going, and Shoshi needed peace. What could be distressing her so? 

“What’s wrong, sweet girl?” I murmured. “What do you need? I’m here, I’ll help you.” 

She turned her head and her eyes met mine. 

Shoshi was not the world’s prettiest child. Objectively, Tycho was far more charming, with darling round cheeks and the sweetest brown curls. Shoshi had wisps of straight black hair on a mostly bald head and pale skin that made her look sickly at the best of times. Her tears had left her eyes red and her skin blotchy, with yellow snot clogging her nose. 

None of that mattered. I loved her anyway. I’d been helping out with the littles for a solid two weeks before she smiled at me, but when she did, it was like finding the first snowdrop of spring, a tiny little miracle of Midwinter. 

“Bad,” she said to me woefully. 

“What’s bad?” I asked her as we neared the door. 

She let her head drop to the curve of my shoulder and neck. “Mama.” She whimpered, her voice so soft I could barely hear her. “Mama.” 

I stopped moving. 

No one ever spoke of the children’s parents. I still thought of my own sometimes, of course. And not always in fear of what they might do when they found us. Granted, my father was Tizai’s most fearsome sorcerer, and my mother could be both brusque and unkind to her daughters, but they were still my parents. 

Shoshi was so young, though. Could she really remember the people she’d lost? 

I started walking again. The door slid open at my approach and we stepped outside. The day was bright and clear, the air crisp on my cheeks. I thought it felt refreshing, but Shoshi disagreed. Vehemently. 

Her head lifted again, her eyes went wide, and she shrieked. “Bad! Bad!”

I was so startled, I jumped. My hold on her loosened, but I tightened my arms again before she could slip more than a bit. Then I froze and my grip turned into the vise-like bind of a drowning woman catching a far-flung rope. 

Monsters were emerging from the forest, hovering in the air across the expanse of land before us. If Ella hadn’t shown me the scene from the Swords on Lucerne, I might have thought them some strange version of a flying maintenance addie, but I recognized their bulbous eyes and protuberant spikiness. 

A rift must have opened beyond the trees. 

Domas had to have emergency procedures for such events, but no one had shared them with me. I had no idea what to do. My first instinct was the obvious: I wanted to run into the building, slamming the door behind me. But there would be children in the courtyard, lots of them, and the walls would do nothing to stop attacks from the sky. 

A great calm swept over me. Shoshi was still screaming, but the sound of my own heartbeat was so loud in my ears I could barely hear her. Without taking my eyes off the swarm of monsters, I pressed my lips against her forehead, then ordered my uniform to reshape itself into a harness. The material slid up and around her and I released my grip on her as my uniform shifted her to my back. 

Electricity or fire? Fire was my strongest talent, but always dangerous. The forest had only gotten dryer over the weeks we’d been on Domas and I’d hate to start a forest fire that could burn uncontrolled through the dry brush. 

Of course, electricity could also start a fire. But a lightning bolt might travel between the creatures, killing more than one with a single strike. I’d never had to worry about how much energy I had before — my issue was always control of my abilities, not power —  but more of the monster bugs were appearing with every passing second. It was not the time for halfway measures. Lightning would be deadlier, I decided, so lightning it was. 

I suppose you’re wondering why I didn’t simply use the System to call for help. 

An excellent question. 

In retrospect, it’s certainly one I ask myself. 

But I was the product of an upbringing where “trouble” and “in trouble” were usually one and the same. When I stopped Ella from testing her flying machine, we were both confined to the schoolroom for two solid weeks. When I prevented her from swimming to the underwater caves, we weren’t allowed to go near the water for the rest of the summer. Summoning an adult was a strategy of last resort for me. 

Also, and perhaps more to the point, it simply didn’t occur to me. I spent most of my time with the rotecionata and they didn’t have the System installed, so I rarely used it for communication. 

Am I making excuses for my own stupidity? Yes, of course I am. If I’d spent a fraction of the time experimenting with the System that Ella had, I would have sent out a System-wide alert, the school would have gone into lockdown, the Shields and Swords would have appeared in mere moments to defend us, and my story… well, in point of fact, it probably would have ended exactly the same way. 

Because I shot lightning bolt after lightning bolt at the monsters and not a bloody thing happened. They continued to approach, flying over the grass in a slow glide that seemed endless. My electricity went straight through them, then fizzled out in the air with a sharp crackle and the crisp smell of stormy weather. 

It was the crackle that made me realize the monster bugs were remarkably silent. Not that I knew what a monster bug should sound like, but I was well used to the quiet hum of bees and the annoying burr of flies in the forest and gardens at home. Insects like these, huge and winged, growing ever nearer, ought to be making more noise. I ought to be able to hear them over the sound of Shoshi’s sobs. 

The fog horn alarm I’d last heard weeks ago began bellowing, ruining all possibility of hearing the monsters. But I stopped shooting electric bolts at them and focused. I would try fire, just once, on the closest bug. I stared at its iridescent eye, a bulb the size of one of the balls the older roteciona played with, and pushed with all my mental might, forcing fire energy at it. 

It should have exploded into flames. 

It didn’t. 

On my shoulder, Shoshi’s cries were softening with exhaustion. “Bad, bad, bad.” She choked out the words through her sobs. 

“Bad, yes.” I agreed with her. 

The yellow light was blinking in the corner of my vision. I accepted the communication request absently, still staring at the monsters. They’d stopped moving. 

Ella’s desperate voice sounded in my head. It’s an illusion. Don’t do anything stupid. 

It was far too late for that. 

The monsters attacked Lucerne a year ago, at the turning of the seasons. Shoshi must have seen at least the beginning of their invasion. Somehow she was rescued, but this memory had lingered in the recesses of her mind. Had she dreamed of it in the night? 

She was young for her talent to manifest, but obviously not too young. 

I told my uniform to reshape the harness holding her in place again, pulling her back to the enclosure of my arms.

Illusion was simply a reshaping of light. Most illusion casters found it vastly easier to create an image that replicated a memory, and I was no exception to that rule. But I’d seen the bugs now and I’d certainly seen enough flame in my lifetime. It was no struggle to merge the two. Taking control of the illusion was as easy as overlaying my image on top on hers. 

“Look, Shoshi.” Perhaps it was a little bloodthirsty of me to set the monsters burning. Perhaps it would have been better for her emotional well-being if I’d transformed them into flowers or butterflies or something peaceful and beautiful. But if Shoshi remembered this trauma when she was older, I hoped the utter destruction of the creatures would offer her some satisfaction. 

It was certainly satisfying for me. 

I stood there, holding Shoshi while we watched the creatures burn, until the Swords began floating down out of the sky.