Muddied Waters

With an oil-rag in one hand and a wooden countertop in front of him, Tobias was ignoring the rain.

It thudded against the roof, steady as an impatient customer’s drumming fingers. It ran and splattered from the eaves of the inn, audible even through the shuttered windows; and even the thick, cozy scents of warming liquor, hot mash, and woodsmoke could not hide the permeating smell of the drenching, soaking rain thudding so hard and thick into the earth that it left muddy, mushy bruises and deep, wounding gashes.

Tobias knew what he’d see, if he looked out there. The blackened fronts of the battened-down houses. The river that used to be a street, running slowly but steadily out of town to drown the fresh-started crops into uselessness; the sky as dark as lodestone, clouds hanging so low over the town that the surrounding mountains disappeared into them—two halves of a horrendous jaw, about to swallow the known world whole.

Tobias rubbed more oil into the stained wood of the bar, watching the color of the wood bloom to life under his attentions.

He knew what was out there, but he was ignoring it. He’d done what he could to keep his hotel from being swept away; now, they could only wait for the Thunderer’s anger to be worn out—or for the whole town to be demolished by the flood.

It was a madman’s wager, which would come first.

A crack of lightning sounded across the sky, flashing briefly through the shutters before it sizzled away in the space of a second. It shook the earth as it went. Tobias looked up, assuring himself that the roof was holding steady. It was. He frowned at it for a moment, distracted by the cobwebs.

“We know, ya great blowhole!” One of his guests shouted, pausing in his game of checkers. “Hush up and let a man think, would you?”

Tobias chuckled. Garrett was a farmer whose stead had been washed away in the rain. He, along with his wife and children, had found shelter in the hotel for lack of anywhere else to go. He hid his worry well, but if anyone had reason to be yelling at the Thunderer—it was he.

“Hush, Garrett,” the man’s wife hissed, leaning forward over her nervous knitting while Bryce, the second checkers-player, pretended to pour every ounce of his attention into the game. “Do you want to make him even angrier?”

“What’s he gonna do, Bette?” Garrett snapped back. “Rain on us some more?”

Tobias listened with a frown, wondering if he should step in. It had been a long three days, and everyone’s nerves were frayed. His hotel was not full—most everybody had stayed battened down in their homes—but the people that were here were worried and displaced, driven in by the storm as it had hit or by the loss of their home in the first few hours of the Thunderer’s rage.

Tobias had been running the Marquette Hotel for twenty years now, and he was good at his work. He knew how to calm people’s worries and settle them into a semblance of peace.

But it had been three days, and he was tired. He ignored the couple as they huffed and snipped at one another, rubbing the oil-rag in soothing circles.

The whole sky rumbled above them, shaking the earth, and Tobias grabbed the jar of oil to keep it from tipping over. The doors slammed open, and he jumped at the noise, believing for one idiotic moment that the storm itself had put skin and bones on to invade his little den of comparative safety.

It was not a storm. It was a person.

A slim, tall person, grinning the reckless grin of someone who had experienced the full wrath of bad weather, and survived. He took off his hat, sluicing water out onto the floor. It splashed and splattered on the floor, adding to the muddy puddles already made by the stranger’s soaked boots and dripping coat.

Freed from the hat, the stranger’s hair sprung up in a wild red nest on top of his head. It seemed to glow in the lantern-light, and his grin glowed with it as he ignored the questioning glances thrown his way and began to take off his coat.

“Quite the storm!” he remarked cheerily, hanging his coat up on a sturdy hook meant for lanterns.

“That it is,” Tobias agreed, setting an empty glass on the counter. “Local Thunderer, showing his strength. It’s a privilege of living in the sky, I suppose—not having to care ‘bout what happens to us here on the ground.”

He set a bottle down next to the glass as the stranger settled on a stool and planted his elbows on the bar.

“Liquor’s three cents a glass. You got a name?”

The stranger looked at the amber liquid with marked distaste.

“Do you have any cream?”

Tobias raised his head and fixed the stranger with a look that plainly said he was not someone who appreciated being jerked around. Cream, really?

The kid’s expression didn’t have a trace of mockery or sarcasm in it. Just a blank sort of hopefulness that made his mess of hair seem to stand up straighter than before. As Tobias held his gaze, that hope seemed to fade.

“I suppose not,” he said, with a dejected shrug. “That’s all right.”

“No,” Tobias put in, not wanting to lose business. “We’ve got it all right, but it’ll be four cents if you want it in a glass. Not many people want to drink cream, is all.”

The stranger was looking blank and cheerful again. “Many people,” he noted, “Are fools.”

Tobias snorted in agreement, making his way back into the kitchen.

Cream.

He shook his head.

* * *

The stranger got his glass of cream. Tobias went back to the bar, watching the wood soak in the healing oil, glow with the attention. Checkers clacked lightly from the far corner of the room, blending in with the clicking of Bette’s knitting needles in a futile attempt to drown out the sound of pounding rain and howling wind.

The stranger ran his finger around the rim of his glass, taking in the room with wide eyes.

“So,” he said, breaking the silence. “A Thunderer, eh?”

It was an awkward attempt at conversation, but Tobias nodded along, used to fielding all kinds of talk with friendliness, even when he wasn’t feeling particularly friendly.

“Sure thing,” he said, rubbing oil carefully into a deep gouge in the wood where, one interesting evening, a man with a hook for a hand had made an enthusiastic point. “They not have those, where you’re from?”

The stranger shook his head.

“Desert-born,” he explained. “We’ve got the thought-stealers and the jackal packs and the echobirds, but I’ve only ever heard of thunderers in stories.” He shifts in his seat again. “What’s it like?”

Tobias raised his eyebrows at the boy, and made an open gesture meant to indicate the current state of the outside world.

“Ruined crops and rampant hoof-rot is what it’s like,” he said. “You must have seen it, coming in. I’m impressed you even managed to get here, wherever you’re traveling from. Reckoned it’d be about impossible, by now.”

He was hoping that the man would reply with something at least vaguely enlightening—about where he came from, why he was here. But the stranger only shrugged his bony shoulders and said, with a smile scrawled awkward as an illiterate’s signature across his face, “I’ve got a knack for travel, I guess.”

Tobias nodded amiably, and scrubbed a little at a stain in the wood that had been there for years.

There is calm silence, for a few moments. It’s broken only by the click-clack of knitting needles and checkers tiles. The stranger is circling his finger around the rim of his glass—once, twice, three times. The glass begins to send out a soft, eerie hum.

“So,” the stranger said, suddenly, “As it turns out, I don’t have four cents.”

Tobias looked up.

“I don’t do business for free.”

As if to emphasize this point, another crackle and flash of lightning gave way to a deep boom of thunder. The stranger looked towards the window as the white light flashed outside, and for a moment, Tobias thought his eyes looked odd in the light. Too pale, too wide, reflecting the lightning back with a glow like a wolf glaring down a camp-fire.

It was over in a moment. He might not have seen anything at all. As the floor shook under their feet with the receding voice of the storm, the stranger looked back at him and tilted his head towards the shuttered window.

“Three days, and this storm ends.”

Tobias huffed a laugh.

“It’s a Thunderer’s rage,” he said. “No rhyme or reason to it. It’ll end when he’s worn himself out. Or died.”

Neither was likely to happen soon.

The stranger smiled at him, and lifted his finger from the glass. It stopped humming, abruptly, leaving an odd flavor of silence in its wake.

“Maybe,” he said. “Either way. For this glass of cream, I will see this storm ended in three days.”

Tobias frowned. First at the stranger, and then at the dripping overcoat, hanging up on its lantern-peg. For the first time, he caught the warm glint of silver protruding from one side of coat—a sword-hilt, if his eyes weren’t betraying him, wrought up in fancy and decorated with turquoise. It was exactly the kind of sword he’d expect from a young adventurer promising to slay Thunderers.

Tobias looked from the half-hidden sword to the boy’s beardless, hopeful face, and realized that the stranger was serious. He was going to fight the thunderer, and he was going to get himself killed.

In three days.

Another clap of thunder shook the inn, and Tobias sighed.

“Drink all the cream you want, boy,” he said, and dipped his rag in the jar of oil again.

* * *

“Are you really going to fight the Thunderer?”

The question came from a wide-eyed girl who barely brushed three feet. The stranger looked down from his place at the bar, considering her seriously.

“I’m going to talk to him.”

It was morning, though the sky outside was no less black than usual. He had taken Tobias’s invitatation to drink all the cream he liked seriously. He’d been sitting at the bar all night, nursing glass after glass and looking around the open barroom like it was the most fascinating thing he’d seen in his life.

Garrett and Bette’s daughter, whose name Tobias always forgot—he thought it started with an E? Looked even more awestruck.

“What are you going to say?” She asked.

The stranger got up from his stool and smiled at her.

“Things,” he said. The girl—Ellie? Scowled at him.

“What kind of things?”

“You’ll just have to watch and see,” he said. Bette realized where her daughter had gone off to and hustled over, taking her arm to bring her back. The girl let her mother lead her away, but she gazed back at the stranger, utterly ignoring Bette’s stern warning about being cautious of strangers.

Unaware of his admirer, said stranger took his now-dry coat from its peg and shrugged it onto his shoulders. The silver detailing of the sword-belt glowed in the dim light as he buckled it on, and Tobias leaned over the counter from where he was rubbing a set of glasses dry to get a better glance at the weapon. He saw the silverwork a little clearer, got a solid glimpse of the red and yellow leather wrapped in a strange pattern around the hilt, and then the stranger flapped his coat around himself and gave Tobias a smile.

“Wish me luck!” He said. Laughing like he’d said something clever, he exited the hotel, greeted by a low rumble of thunder as he left the double doors swinging in his wake.

He’d forgotten his hat.

With a grumble, Tobias stepped out from behind the bar, grabbing the hat from its hook and jogging to the still-swinging door, hoping to call the boy back so he wouldn’t have to go slogging after him through the mud.

He pushed the doors open, holding the hat up, and paused on the cusp of a shout.

The boy was striding down the road through the middle of the town, water swirling around his feet, the slicing rain plastering his wild, fire-red hair flat to his head. The wind beat his coat around his long, skinny legs, and as the boy walked, he tugged the sword free of his coat and of its sheath, raising it high over his head like a lantern to threaten the darkness of the clouds.

The blade was wide and straight, double-edged, the solid metal etched on either side of the deep tang with a pattern of raised wings, like an eagle’s first wild flap when it took off from its perch in chase of some recently sighted prey.

The boy held it up for a moment, and then lowered it carelessly to one side, squinting up at the clouds and blinking the rain from his face.

“Thunderer!” He bellowed, and Tobias jumped. The boy was almost as loud as the thunder himself. He felt a tiny press against his leg, and saw the brown braided head of the girl, her hand pressed to his thigh as she leaned around him to see.

A moment passed in which the boy got no answer, though the clouds above them swirled and trembled in deep shades of stone-black and steel-grey.

“If you do not stop this storm in three days,” he shouted, and now that Tobias was used to the impressive volume of his voice, it was easier to hear how it was dwarfed by even the lowest rumble from the clouds above, “You will die!”

There was another moment of silence.

Then, mission evidently accomplished, the boy turned on his heel and, sheathing the sword, began stalking back towards the inn.

Tobias stepped aside as he reached the doors.

“Was that it?” The girl asked skeptically. The stranger smiled at her.

“For today, yes. Oh, my hat! Thank you.”

Tobias let the hat be taken from his hand. The stranger replaced it on the lantern-hook, along with the sword-belt and dripping coat. This done, he resumed his seat at the bar and gave Tobias a sparkling smile.

“Do you have any more cream?”

* * *

Tobias spent the rest of the day mopping the floor, settling an argument that broke out over a game of checkers, and starting an account of how many glasses of cream the stranger was consuming. The tally was running high at one hundred and thirty-eight.

By the time the three days were up and the storm was still raging, Tobias was banking on the notion that the stranger’s bill would be high enough to demand his sword in payment. It was good craftsmanship, covered in precious stones and metals. It would be enough to begin rebuilding the town and repairing the damage from the storm.

All in all, it was a good plan. Tobias firmly believed that gaining a hapless adventurer, even one terrible at keeping his promises, was the best thing that had happened to the town in some time.

The next morning, Tobias came down to find the stranger’s coat hanging on the hook, but no stranger. The girl—Emma? And her mother were both huddled by the door, staring out. Tobias adjusted his eyeglasses and walked over to watch with them.

The boy was shouting at the sky again.

“—in three days, you will die!” He roared, holding up the sword.

The sky snapped and crackled in response, clouds swirling and roiling. Tobias thought he caught a glimpse of pale white in the black of the clouds—but in the next moment, it was gone.

The mud was up to the stranger’s calves as he trudged drippingly back, and the rain showed no signs of stopping. The boy offered them all a smile anyway.

“Not much longer now,” he said, and hung up his hat and sword before returning to the bar.

* * *

The morning of the third day, the boy seemed to have given up. He sat at the bar all day, drinking glass after glass of cream and seemingly ignorant of the resentful looks being cast his way by everyone in the hotel.

That evening, Tobias ordered his accounts and wrote out a bill for fifteen dollars and fifty-six cents—more than enough to demand the sword as payment.

Armed with the bill, he stalked out into the main room of the hotel, where Garrett’s game of checkers and Bette’s knitting had been joined by old man Harold determinedly trying to play a song on the hopelessly tuneless piano and a pair of young ranchers quietly drinking and playing cards. Bette and Garrett’s youngest two children, flying free of the supervision of their sister, were making a game of stealing cards and checkers on the sly and running across the room gleefully while the game-players were forced to get up and chase after them.

The stranger was watching from his habitual perch at the bar, nursing a glass of cream thoughtfully and smiling whenever the children ran wildly past him.

He turned that smile on Tobias as soon as he came near, and Tobias very pointedly did not smile back. He set the bill decisively on the counter and pushed it forward for the stranger’s observation.

The boy smiled at the bill. Then he smiled at Tobias.

All this smiling was beginning to set a prickling tension up Tobias’s spine.

“And this is?”

The boy’s questioning tone was so blankly innocent that for a moment Tobias entertained the notion that he was asking about the nature of paper and ink itself. In response, Tobias crossed his arms.

“It’s been three days,” he said. “The Thunderer’s still alive. Here’s what I’m owed for the cream.”

He was expecting shamefacedness. Bravado. Possibly protest. The boy, however, didn’t seem flustered at all. His smile did not falter, though it was tinged with a hint of confusion.

“It’s not been three days yet,” he said. “It’s not quite sunset.”

Tobias crosses his arms tighter.

“And you’re going to find and kill him in the next twenty minutes?” He asked. “Kid, that’s not—“

A flash of lightning shone white and blinding through every crack and cranny in the walls of the inn, bright enough to be blinding. The crack of thunder that followed on its heels shook Tobias’s bones and the very foundations of the inn. The bottles lined up behind the bar trembled and cracked against one another, several smashing down on the floor, and Bette let out a small shriek.

The inn was cast in a deeper darkness than before, the sharp ozone scent thick in the air. Tobias blinked, shaken, but the stranger merely set down his half-drunk glass of cream and looked up with a smile.

“Ah,” he said. “Just in time.”

* * *

“Pipsqueak!”

It’s a hollow, deafening voice, sizzling like lightning, rumbling like thunder. The stranger stood up from his stool, snagged his coat off its hook, and swept through the hotel’s double doors, leaving them swinging in his wake.

Tobias looked around the room, where everyone had stopped what they were doing. They were stiff as statues, staring at one another.

“Hello then! You’re almost late!” The boy shouted, his voice slightly muffled by the walls and doors; and as one, everyone in the room—Tobias included—rushed to look out the windows.

The street outside was all but unrecognizable. It had been battered, watered and churned so as to become a veritable sea of mud, running swift as a river. The boy was sunk into it past his knees, but he seemed unflustered by the fact. He stared up, unfazed, at the sky.

The sky had a face.

The sky, more specifically, had a skull.

The clouds had darkened, almost pitch-black, and they thrummed on every side like the beat of heavy wings. In the midst of the deep and wild dark, white bone shone, looking down through empty eyes at the stranger. Lightning snapped and crackled around the Thunderer’s teeth as he spoke, rattling back down the pale structure of his spine, crackling fissures in the oppressive dark.

“It is you who are late,” the hollow voice snapped. “It has been three days, and yet the storm continues, and I still live.”

Under the storm-heart of the Thunderer’s ribs, the rain had ceased, though it swirled around all the harder under the beat of his dark wings. The stranger stood in the relative quiet and set his hands on his hips with an air of petulance.

“Why is everyone in such a hurry?” He asked. “It’s not sunset yet. It won’t have been three days until sunset.”

A blinding flash of lightning threw the thunderer’s skeletal form into sharp relief for a moment, crackling outward, giving his wings and snapping tail brief definition, and Tobias flinched back from it, eyes burning. The world returned to the storm-dark shadows as the rumbling thunder of the creature’s laughter rattled its ribcage.

“It is not fifteen minutes until then, pipsqueak,” it said. “What—have you some concealed dagger? Will you take a mighty swing, and let it glance off my toe?”

He laughed again, and Tobias shut his eyes and ears, cringing from it; but when he opened them again, he saw the boy still standing, hands on his hips, looking up at the Thunderer as though he had never been obliged to look away.

When he spoke, he sounded sad.

“You’ve grown arrogant,” he said. “But there’s still time. You can still stop this storm. You can still live.”

The Thunderer laughed his deafening laugh again, and while the earth still shook with it, there was a heavy thud that Tobias felt trembling up his legs. The Thunderer had come down to earth, his great claws sinking into the mud. He took a prowling step forward, lowering his head to look directly down upon the stranger’s rain-plastered head.

“I? Arrogant?” He asked, blue electricity dancing around his jaws and flashing up through the empty sockets of his eyes. “What is arrogance, that it could apply to me? Have I taken more than is my due—I, who shake the earth with my wings? I, who scorch the sky with my breath?”

“Shake and scorch if you like,” the boy said. “The earth and the sky have been here before you. They will be here after you.”

The lightning flashed up bright and sharp in the Thunderer’s eyes, and with a tremble of air and a rattle of bone, he took a step back.

“Says a creature who sees the beginning and end of neither,” he snapped. “Do not preach to me, pipsqueak. It is you—you, who come threat-making and sinew-flexing—you who is arrogant. There is a price for such presumption.”

The crackling lightning was building, shining through the sockets of the Thunderer’s skull, a clear and present threat, but the boy only shrugged, raising his hands.

His empty hands.

Tobias’s eyes snapped from the boy, minuscule in the face of the Thunderer and his rage, to the sword, hanging sheathed and useless on its lantern-hook.

He needed his sword.

With no more thought than that, Tobias shoved through the small, terrified tangle of people who had gathered at the doors, sprinted the two steps to the lantern-hook, and tore the sword free of its sheath. The blade hummed and trembled like a living thing in his hands, but he had no time to wonder at it . He ran to the door, his guests parting like blown wheat before him, and out into the storm, sinking knee-deep in the mud within his first few steps. He would never be able to get to the boy in time.

“Seventeen seconds until sunset,” the Thunderer crackled, bending threateningly, and Tobias lost what little sense he’d managed to hold until now.

“Stranger! Your sword!” He remembered to roar in warning, and flung the blade in the boy’s general direction, and the Thunderer glanced up, surprised by the shouting.

He realized, as the blade left his hand, just how idiotic of a thing he was doing. The sword was heavy, it would fall. It would stab the boy. It would get lost in the mud.

The sword disagreed. It left his hand. It flew.

The blade rose, spinning, in an elegant arc over the boy’s head. The crackle of lightning flickered against the rain-wet metal as it hung, frozen, for one second in time.

Then it plummeted down, and the Thunderer had no time even to flinch away as the blade sliced into his skull and buried itself deep.

The lightning in the Thunderer’s mouth flickered for a moment. Then, with the shudder of a receding storm, the great frame of bones began to collapse, the swirling meat and matter of the Thunderer dying out and fading away.

He shook the ground one last time as he fell.

* * *

Tobias was knee-deep in mud when the sun reappeared. It set the west on fire, spreading orange and yellow and pink light over the mud-brown world in a way he hadn’t seen since a week past, when the Thunderer had first come down from his mountain.

He blinks at the monolithic skull, sunk to its jawbone in the deep-churned mud of the street and still managing to tower almost as tall as the storefronts. The pale columns of wing-bones arc up and over the buildings, with joints planted somewhere on the outskirts of town.

He’s only vaguely aware that there are people—coming out of his hotel, out of the houses, out of everywhere. They are slow, tentative, not quite managing any greetings just yet—just staring. They blink at one another in the unfamiliar sunlight.

Tobias does not think of the stranger until he catches a glimpse of the sword, shining like a perverted crown jewel in the very center of the dead Thunderer’s forehead. He turns, scanning the familiar faces.

The stranger is gone.

Epilogue

With a tube of polish in one hand and a soft cloth in the other, Tobias was spiting the dim light.

In all fairness, the sunset was being no more inconvenient than usual. The real inconvenience, or rather inconveniences, were the guests that had crowded the Marquette Hotel to bursting. Tourists, wanting to come see the remains of what is—what was—the very last Thunderer in existence. Fifteen years since he’d died, and still, the tourists came. They kept Tobias at the bar long past his usual hours, pushing his current task back until there was barely the light for it.

Squelching out a fresh dollop of polish onto the cloth, Tobias rubbed away at what might be a bit of tarnish, or possibly a shadow, on the silver hilt of the blade.

He can’t complain, really. The tourists pay well, even if they make more mess and noise than they’re worth. Even when they etch patterns into the Thunderer’s bones and climb up on his skeleton and try to tug the silver sword from his skull for a keepsake.

He huffs a laugh at the bent of his own thoughts, and squints at the sword-hilt. He’s getting old, and he should have brought a lantern.

“It’s after sunset, now,” a voice said from over his head. “Long past time to be done.”

Tobias jerked, and looked up.

Against the twilit sky, a sharp-edged, gangling figure is standing on the top of the Thunderer’s head, looking down at Tobias with his head cocked to one side. Tobias stares for a moment, and then settles, looking down at his work.

“Just one more grubby fingerprint, and I will be done,” he says. “And if you’d have remembered all your belongings for once, I’d never have had to come out here at all.”

It was far too dark to see what he was doing anymore. He tucked the rag into his pocket, but didn’t move to get up, looking up at the familiar silhouette.

“You going to take it back?” He asked. “If you don’t, one of these boys might actually get it loose someday and carry it off.”

There was silence for a few moments, as the stranger merely looked down at him. Thinking, Tobias assumed, though he couldn’t see the man’s face.

“Have you ever tried?” He asked, finally. “To pull it loose?”

Tobias huffed. “Why would I?”

The stranger shrugged. “To sell it,” he said. “To use it. Just to see if you could?”

“Can’t say I have.”

The stranger looked up, a profile against the deep blue of the sky, and once again, Tobias thought he caught an odd light in the boy’s eyes—a strangeness, gone as soon as it was seen.

The boy got up, dusting himself off.

“Well then, that’s for the best.” He said. “Whoever can draw that sword, can be assured—they will have need of it.”

Tobias nodded, as if this sort of proclamation was the kind of thing anyone might take their leave with. As the boy turned to walk back down the Thunderer’s spine, Tobias didn’t ask where he’d come from or where he was going. He called out,

“There’s a bottle of cream under the bar. Take it, for the road.”

The boy turned around, flashing a grin at him.

“You’re a true friend!” He shouted, and leapt down and out of sight.

Tobias huffed in response, and began to ready himself to climb back down off the skull.

He thought for a moment, before he did. The glint of silver was no longer quite visible in the dim light, but he knew where it lay.

He remembered the thrum of life in the blade. He remembered the ease with which it had flown from his hand.

It was a silly instinct, he thought, shaking his head at his own foolishness as he reached out, wrapping his hand around the solid hilt.

The metal hummed, trembling like the flank of an overexcited stallion under his hand, and Tobias felt his heart flutter.

He gripped the sword, and tugged.


Enjoy this story?

I’ve got a ton more. Why not take one of these out for a spin?

Bazar-Tek And The Lonely Knight

Of Stolen Gold And Princesses

Dragon-Slayer


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Last Chance and the Missing Knife (Last Chance, #3)

This work is part of a series. The first installment can be read here.

A ship.

A lumpy, ungainly, ugly thing. It hurtles at an enormous speed through the dark fabric of the universe, skirting gravity wells and skimming over swirling pools of matter. It passes the womb of a fetal star, soars under the tomb of a long-forgotten planet.

A ship, accruing a fine grey coat of silt. Raw, powdery stuff, crumbling at a touch. It is the ground upon which living things have walked; it is the dead remains of a star that once lit a long-forgotten System. The remains of so many places, with all their lives and wars and poems and stories; dust now, to be washed off at next planetfall.

A ship, pale and tiny against the all-encompassing black.

Pass inside it, through the thick steel plating of its skin. Pass the tough steel ribs filled with insulating foam. Pass the cords and cables, the veins that carry the ship’s necessary lifeblood—energy and information—throughout its small and hollow body. Pass the inner walls, to the interior—it is as dark as the universe itself, in here.

Here is the great belly of the beast, where reactors and injectors feed fuel into the fiery, closeted engine. Here is the cargo hold, where the dark shapes of boxes containing food and chrome and coffee filters lurk against the light-starved walls. Here is the cockpit, where the dials and screens provide a faint neon glow, tracing out the spare outlines of shapes in shades of blue and orange. Empty, worn chairs. A stack of papers topped by a small book.

In the upper part of the ship, just beneath the weld-scarred spine of the ship’s outer shell, there is a small room. It is located just above the cargo hold, slant-roofed in an architectural representation of an afterthought, and retrofitted with a small enclosed elevator to carry supplies up from the hold in order to save storage space in the room itself. It has empty counters, a small metal table, and a fold-down stovetop.

In the dark, the slight sound of hanging pots and pans clicking against one another in response to the ship’s shaky rumble is the only thing readily available to any human senses.

Just outside the opaque glass of the sliding kitchen door, a light flickers to life.

Unusual, for this ship. By UR time, the ship is currently experiencing 2400 hours—midnight. All is usually left quiet, undisturbed, for another eight hours at least.

The light from the hallway glows dully against the sharp lines of the table. The softly swinging pots and pans glint with it.

Voices—one bright with excitement, the other rougher and sleep-slurred—filter into the room. As the steady tramp of footsteps brings the two speakers ever closer, the voices grow louder.

The door slides open, sending the hallway light pouring in unchecked. Holding a stack of photographs, Ketzal barges into the room first, flicking the switch by the door as she enters. The room comes to life, bathed in a white glow.

Covering his mouth to stifle a yawn, Eli comes after her, and the door slides shut behind him.

Ketzal flings her photographs on the table, letting them spread out in a haphazard fan over its weathered, age-dented surface. Eli succeeds in beating down his yawn.

“So.” He makes his way fumblingly to the stovetop. “This guy.”

“Ma-Rek,” Ketzal supplies helpfully, as Eli folds the stovetop down and turns the dial to set it to heat. Among the pots and pans swinging idly above his head, he picks out a blackened kettle. Dislodged from its brethren, the kettle clanks and clatters in protest as he opens it, placing it in the small, efficient sink. The water turns on with a burbling rush, filling the kettle with a sound that is somehow both sharp and soft.

“Uh-huh. Let me see if I have this straight. He gets a ton of chrome,” Eli holds up one finger, as though ticking off items from a list, “hides it all, builds a map to where he hid it, and then—abandons his crew and flies into an asteroid belt?”

He keeps his four fingers up, holding them as though for inspection. Ketzal is unperturbed.

“Pretty much. Though the vampirism on Bleachbone might have been a part of his reason for abandoning the crew, if it happened before he left. Or, he could have just been being selfish, not wanting to share. He was a pirate, after all.”

“Share what? And when? He flew himself into an asteroid belt.”

Ketzal shrugs.

“I don’t know what he was thinking. Too many variables to guess, really. It’s wild, right?”

Eli yawns again.

“I’d go for ‘insane’, but sure.”

The kettle is full now. The water jumps up from the small opening at its top, burbling over the sides like a tiny but very energetic waterfall. He reaches back to shut off the water, pouring out the excess before putting the lid back on the kettle and setting it on the stovetop. The kettle hisses, indignant, at the sudden heat. Ketzal pulls out a chair.

“It might not be a treasure map,” he says, readjusting the kettle on the stovetop.

“How do you mean?”

Eli, circling back towards the table, hesitates briefly by the cabinets. Opening one, he pulls out an apple. Setting it on the counter, he begins to open drawers with systematic steadiness. He frowns, briefly, into each one before closing it again.

“I mean,” he says, to one of the open drawers, “It seems like he went into a ‘kill everyone’ stage, right before he died. He could’ve built that map to—I don’t know, a planet like Blue 12. Somewhere deadly enough that whoever dared to go hunting for his treasure wouldn’t make it out alive. A death trap.”

Ketzal sits, running her tongue over her teeth in thought.

“That’s actually really likely. I didn’t even think of it.”

Closing another disappointing drawer, Eli hums slightly in response.

Ketzal is still turning something over in her head.

“That would be so cool,” she says. Eli turns away from his search to direct a squint at her.

“You’d still go, wouldn’t you?”

“To find out the closest existing equivalent of Ma-Rek’s last will and testament? Of course. Whatever else it is, it’s sure to be fascinating.”

The worry lines imprinted around Eli’s pale eyes grow a shade deeper.

“You can’t be fascinated if you’re dead,” he says, slowly, giving weight and meaning to each word. Ketzal looks up, one eyebrow cocked, shoulders straight.

“You’ve got personal proof of that, or something?” She says, a little sharply.

He frowns deeper, and after a moment, she sighs.

“Sorry. It’s just—I’m not built to be cautious, Eli. I’m not made for being prudent or looking before I leap or—any of that. I have to find things out, I have to look, even if it’s dangerous. It’s just who I am.”

On the stove, the water simmers.

Eli is still frowning, but after a moment he nods.

“I guess I can see that,” he says. “I don’t get it. But I can see it.”

He directs his frown at the drawer for a moment, then closes it, and opens another. He frowns into that one too.

“Have you seen our knife?”

She sits up in her chair, squinting at the drawer he has open without actually being able to see into it.

“I put it in there last time I used it.”

“Well, it’s not here now,” Eli says. He shuffles the drawer’s contents a bit, as proof.

“That’s weird. Here.” Ketzal digs something out of her pocket. “Use mine.”

He turns around in time to catch the folded knife that tosses at him.

“Thanks.”

He frowns into the drawer one last time before shutting it again.

“So,” Ketzal says, shuffling her photos again, “It’s a death trap.”

“It might be.”

Opening the knife, Eli returns to the apple. He cuts it into neat quarters, carving out the seedy centers in a neat, precise series of movements.

Ketzal nods.

“Okay. So if you had to go somewhere that might be a death trap, how would you go about it?”

Eli returns to the table with two handfuls of apple slices. He places a small pile of them in front of her, and another in front of the chair just across from hers. Opening the incineration bin in the center of the room, he drops the core scraps into it, frowns at the over-full bin, and closes the lid, jabbing the button on its side. With a muffled rush of flames coming to life, the trash from the last few days is burned away to nothing.

“I’d get a good idea of what I was going into first,” he says, sitting down. “Take some time to assess everything. I’d have a plan to get out quickly, and I wouldn’t go alone.”

She nods thoughtfully, shoving an apple slice into her mouth. The water is boiling. Eli gets up again, going to the stovetop to pour out two cups of tea.

“Okay,” she says. “So, once we get to Red 16, do you know if there’d be anyone who would be interested in a possible treasure hunt/ death trap investigation adventure scenario?”

Eli turns away from the stove, walking back to the table and setting the two steaming cups down. He’s frowning again. Ketzal notices.

“What?”

“We’re still going by Red 16 first?”

She wraps her tea in her palms, soaking in its heat.

“Well. Yeah. You still want to go home, right?”

“Of course.”

“So, yeah. Red 16, then Ma-Rek’s treasure.”

Eli’s mouth is a flat line, and the crease between his brows is a veritable channel.

“I’ll pay you for the ship!” She says suddenly. “It’s mostly yours anyway—or you could keep it and I could buy a new one?”

Another silence.

“They do sell ships on Red 16, right?”

Eli bobs his head to one side, an inconclusive combination of headshake and nod that conveys no useful information about Red 16’s spaceship market.

“I do want to go home,” he says, “But not if it means leaving you to go shooting off alone to some pirate’s death planet.”

“I wouldn’t be alone, I’d—wait,” Ketzal gives him a piercing look. “You want to come with me.”

Eli picks his tea up and rolls his shoulders.

“I want to not leave you alone,” he says, after a pause.

Ketzal’s piercing look becomes sharper. It’s an expression she’s practiced many times in the mirror.

“You don’t have any obligation to keep me safe. Besides, I’d find someone to tag along.”

Eli’s shoulders fall.

“All right,” he says, reluctant. “Maybe I want to see this pirate treasure. If it is pirate treasure. Which I doubt it is.”

“Ha!” Ketzal shouts, snapping her fingers. “You’re curious.”

“I’m—I’m not—“ Eli splutters, which only makes Ketzal bend forward over her tea in a fit of laughter. Putting his tea down, he throws up his hands.

“Fine! I’m curious! You’re infectious.”

Ketzal chokes on her own laughter, and Eli shakes his head.

“It’s not that funny.”

“It is” she insists, face planted firmly on the table. The metal surface makes her sleep-deprived giggles reverberate through the whole room.

Eli shakes his head again and picks up his tea to take a sip.

Behind the mug, it’s impossible to see if he’s smiling.

* * *

Half an hour later, the lights are off. Two empty tea mugs sit, ringed with faint stains, in the sink. The ship has fallen asleep. Two of its inhabitants are asleep as well, tucked comfortably away and given over to dreams of treasure and discovery.

In the kitchen, a cupboard door creaks open.

Cautiously, an arm pokes out of it, then a head. Like an egg cracking open to expel a salamander, the cupboard spills a whole sprawling human figure onto the floor, one limb at a time.

They snap their gaze around the darkened room, gleaning what little they can from its shadows. Padding across the floor, they slide the door open. A knife-sharp wedge of light spills into the room, and they stand, a spindly silhouette, in the light.

Breek has a jacket at least a size too large for him on his shoulders and a paring knife in his hand. Wide-eyed, he looks around the hallway.

When no one jumps out from the bare walls to seize him, he seems to judge it safe enough.

The door slides shut behind him, and the kitchen is bathed in darkness once again.

* * *

It is 0800 hours and 12 minutes when Breek reenters the room. Peers inside. Frowns. Risking another backward glance into the hallway, he flicks on the light. He creeps into the kitchen, quietly opening a drawer and pulling out several cans—meat, and fruit, and potatoes. Enough to last a few days. He stuffs the food into his coat, looking around all the while, and silently pads away.

* * *

It is 0800 hours and 17 minutes when Eli walks into the kitchen and flicks the lightswitch.

The room, utterly contrary to expectation, goes dark around him. Eli blinks into it in confusion before flicking the switch again. The room flares up in friendly visibility. Eli scowls at the light switch for a moment, and finally shakes his head.

“We don’t need to save the ship’s battery!” He says, voice pitched a little higher than is usual for him. “We can leave all the lights on, all the time. I’ll just buy a new ship! I bathe in chrome and brush my teeth with silk!”

He stumps over to the counter, opening a drawer and frowning when he finds it empty.

“Could’ve sworn I just filled this.”

Grumbling at the delay of his breakfast, he walks to the side of the room, where the outline of a door is set in the wall by a panel of buttons. At one point, buttons had clear indicators of their function painted on them, but the paint has worn away, replaced by oily finger stains. Eli knows them by memory.

He jabs one, and the panel slides open for him. Rubbing his eyes irritably, he steps inside. The panel slides shut behind him, and the elevator descends with a rush of muffled mechanics.

* * *

It is 0800 hours and 19 minutes. Ketzal wanders into the kitchen, her hair tied in a messy purple pile on top of her head and a glowing datapad balancing on one hand like a waiter’s tray. She fills the coffeemaker and turns it on without glancing at it. Frowning down at the datapad, she makes her way, arm outstretched, towards a cupboard.

With a sharp crack and an exclamation of pain, her progress is jarred to a halt and she jumps back, rubbing her hip and taking her eyes off the datapad for the first time since her entry into the kitchen. An open drawer, all hard lines and sharp corners, stands in her path.

“Sheesh. How hard is it to close a drawer,” she grumbles, slamming it shut with her bruised hip and wrenching open the cupboard, retrieving a canister of dry milk and a mug. Clutching these awkwardly in her free hand, she makes her way back. The coffeemaker is burbling its last, the reservoir filled to the brim with hot brown liquid. Dumping a good amount of the dry milk into her mug, she returns to gazing at the datapad.

“Loris, colloquially known as Greyscape. Dry, rocky surface.” She reads. Coffee follows the dry milk, and she stirs the lumps in with one finger. “Mostly flat. Not a great place for a death trap.”

She takes a sip of the coffee and wanders back out the kitchen, leaving the canister of dry milk open and forgotten on the counter.

* * *

It is 0800 hours and 21 minutes. A slim figure slinks cautiously into the kitchen. Breek, glancing aside every few seconds, has a can of meat in one hand, and a marked lack of can opener in the other. Muttering to himself, he is quietly opening a drawer to search for one when returning footsteps sound in the hallway, and, cursing, he scrambles to duck behind the incinerator in the center of the room, curling his limbs up and out of sight like a startled spider.

* * *

It is 0800 hours and 22 minutes. Ketzal’s head pops through the door, and she bumps the light switch off with her half-empty coffee mug.

“You’re welcome, Eli,” she says, to no one in particular.

* * *

It is 0800 hours and 23 minutes, and Breek has gathered the courage to move from his hiding place. Gingerly feeling his way to the drawers in the dark, he resumes his search. Metallic shuffling and clinking sounds through the room as he shoves aside everything in the drawer that does not feel like a can opener.

The muffled sound of the rising elevator rumbles and screeches through the wall, and Breek shoves off from the counter with a curse. Something falls, hitting the floor and rolling with a loud clatter. Slipping a little, Breek flees. He is a dark shape in the doorway—and he is gone.

* * *

At 0800 hours and 24 minutes, the elevator door opens.

“Oh, for—,” Eli snaps as he is presented with the lightless room. He stomps meaningfully towards the switch, and the lights flare up again. Eli, arms full of canned food, turns around and stares at the floor.

It is covered with dry milk powder. An open canister lies innocently, apparently having been hurled at the tile and then left there.

“Why,” Eli asks the empty room, dumping his armful of cans on the table.

“Why.” as he sweeps up the mess and dumps the contaminated powder in the incineration bin.

“Why.” as he finds the lost knife also on the floor, lying on the drifts of dry milk like a sunbather on a beach.

And finally, “Why,” as his valiant search for the can opener is fruitlessly disappointed.

Having arranged the canned food in its proper place and scrounged a plastic meal packet that does not require a can opener from a cupboard, Eli leaves the room, shutting the lights off behind him with a decisive click.

* * *

At 1100 hours and 48 minutes, the door opens once more, and the lights come on. Ketzal and Eli both walk into the kitchen.

“Coffee is not breakfast,” Eli insists, shutting the door as Ketzal places her datapad on the table.

“I wasn’t hungry.”

Eli’s mouth flattens, but he doesn’t argue.

“I was thinking maybe soup for lunch?”

Eli nods, bending low to retrieve dry broth base from a lower cupboard while Ketzal reaches up for freeze-dried vegetables, meat, and spices.

“That’ll work. I still don’t know where the can opener went.”

“I didn’t do anything with it.” Ketzal says, holding up the meat packets in a gesture of innocence.

“I didn’t say you did. Things just keep disappearing. It’s unsettling.”

“Weird,” Ketzal agrees, pulling down the stovetop. The soup form a promising pile on the counter, and Eli goes over to snatch down the saucepan.

“So,” Ketzal says, “I’ve been taking a look at Loris, the planet that Ma-Rek’s map points to. If the surveys taken a decade or so ago are still accurate, it’s a sparsely populated planet. Carbon-heavy rock, mostly, with some caves and old mine shafts.”

Eli, filling the saucepan with water, turns toward Ketzal.

“Can I see?”

“Sure!” She says, tripping over to the table and tapping at her datapad. When it fails to light up at her touch, she frowns and makes a disappointed noise.

“It’s out of power.” She says. “I can show you on the cockpit computer”

Eli sets the pan on the stovetop, brushing his hands on his shirt.

“Sure.”

It is 1100 hours and 50 minutes when the door slides shut behind them both.

* * *

It is 1100 hours and 58 minutes when that same door opens again.

Breek stands in the doorway. He glances around the room, takes in the abandoned cooking, and hesitates—but only for a moment. Looking back over his shoulder and finding no one in the hallway, he enters the room.

He digs the can opener from his pocket, treading softly to the drawer where he found it and replacing it where it was—or, at least, somewhere close enough.

He glances at the door again—still silent—and bites his lip. Finally, he goes to the sink, turning on the water and ducking his head under the faucet, gulping down greedy mouthfuls. He stands up, wiping his mouth.

Another glance at the door.

Gaining courage, Breek begins to look through the drawers, shuffling through the utensils. Losing that knife has left him all but defenseless, and he’s eager to get it back. He’s gone through two drawers without finding what he’s looking for when voices sound in the hallway—close, and coming closer.

Breek jumps at the noise, casting about the room for somewhere to hide. Fingers outsplayed as though to grasp any hiding place that presents itself, he takes the room in with wide eyes, silently mouthing every curse he knows.

Footsteps, just outside the door. No time. Breek’s eyes settle on the incineration bin, large and shiny and completely enclosed, sitting in the very middle of the floor.

Without hesitation, he leaps inside. A cloud of white milk-dust puffs up around his head for a split second, and then—

The lid is closed, and the door is opening.

“So, I’m hoping that there will be some clue once we reach the surface about exactly where the treasure—“

Eli, a mere step behind Ketzal, shoots her a look.

“—or the death trap, whatever he left behind to be remembered by, is, because I can’t find a single thing from up here. At least, not unless we orbit Loris until our fuel reserves run out.”

“Going in blind,” Eli says dryly. “fun.”

Ketzal either fails to notice the sarcasm, or intentionally ignores it. Her eyes are alight with adventure, and nothing will dim them now.

“I know! It’s gonna be so amazing!” She spins in the center of the room, and Eli steps around her overexcited figure on his way towards the stovetop. This time, he doesn’t bother to hide his smile. It’s only a small one.

“Right! Soup!” Ketzal says, once she sees what he’s doing. She comes over to the counter, prying the lid from the canister of broth while Eli rips open a packet of meat to reconstitute in the the simmering water.

He’s busy pouring it when a sharp, muffled sound makes him stop.

“Did you say something?”

Ketzal looks at him, questioning.

“No?”

Eli frowns and goes perfectly still, straining his ears.

“Ahhhpssshhttt!”

That is not the noise the incineration bin usually makes. Ketzal hears it too, this time, and she gives the canister raised eyebrows.

“Psssshhhttt,” the bin declares.

They look at each other.

“Oh no,” Eli declares, loudly, while opening the drawer and pulling the knife free of it. He holds it loosely in one hand, at the ready. “It looks like the bin is full again.”

Ketzal catches on, reaching up to take a heavy cooking pan from its hook.

“We should probably clear it out!” She says, holding her pan at the ready.

Eli takes a step towards the silent canister. “I’ll just press the button,” he announces, in the exact manner that any right-minded person about to press a button wouldn’t.

At this, the bin pops open, and a spring-coiled figure leaps free of it with a yowl and a cloud of dust.

With a terrifying yell of her own, Ketzal starts running towards the figure with her saucepan raised. Startled by the noise and searching for an escape route, the coughing stowaway spins in a confused circle, standing right in her path.

Even draped over shoulders too narrow for it and covered in milk powder, Eli knows that jacket.

He reaches out and snags a handful of familiar material, tugging the kid out of Ketzal’s warpath just in time to save him from another concussion. Ketzal flies past them both, skidding to a halt just in time to keep from slamming into the wall.

“Kid, I thought I told you not to be stupid,” Eli says.

Ketzal spins around. “Wait, we know him?”

“Ketzal, meet Breek,” Eli says. “The thief.”

“Oh!” Ketzal says, “The vampire kid!”

In response to this introduction, Breek tugs himself out of Eli’s grip and goes for the door. Eli, not particularly feeling like chasing the kid all over the ship, steps forward and grabs him again. Breek tries and fails to pull himself free, twisting around like a caught warp-rat until he’s facing Eli and shoving him away with both arms. The kid’s eyes are red-rimmed and wild, snapping from the knife in Eli’s hand to his face and back again.

He’s afraid, Eli realizes. Of Eli, of the knife, and more specifically, of Eli holding the knife. His grip on the kid releases of its own accord.

Breek staggers back, but doesn’t run. Ketzal and her pan are in front of the door, cutting off his escape. He squares his shoulders and raises his chin, going for a stolid, stubborn look. It’s ruined, a little, by the fact that he’s still covered in dust and coughing miserably with every other breath.

“M’not a vampire,” he mumbles, through dust-choked lungs.

“No, I mean—you know what I mean.” Ketzal lets he pan drop harmlessly to her side in favor of making a vague explanatory gesture.

“Kid,” Eli starts, “What are you doing? Stowing away on a ship that belongs to strangers? For all you know, we could’ve been the types who’d really have turned that thing on with you inside. Are you really that desperate to get off of—“

Breek glares at Eli with red, accusatory eyes.

“I’d do it again,” he snaps. “And—and you can’t kill me. Not unless you wanna never find Malek’s treasure. I know where it is, there’s—it’s impossible to find, unless you know.”

Eli is unimpressed.

“Do you.”

“Yeah. Malek’s treasure, I’ll lead you right to it.”

“It’s Ma-Rek,” Eli says.

Breek takes a step back, eyes darting between Ketzal and Eli with painful wariness. “That’s what I said.”

Eli shakes his head.

“Stop digging while you can still climb out, kid. We’re not gonna kill you.”

“I’m not—“ he starts, defending his honor, but falters as Eli’s words sink in. He keeps his shoulders straight and his head up, thin and brittle as a dry sapling. “I’m not going back,” he says, instead. “I won’t.”

For a moment, Eli is ready to point out that, as a point of fact, Breek has very little ability to direct where he will or will not go; that, by stowing away and then letting himself be found before they made planetfall, he’d put himself almost entirely at Eli and Ketzal’s disposal.

But something stops him before he’s even drawn breath to speak. He looks the kid over.

Breek already knows all of that, he realizes. He’d already known he was powerless here; judging from the raw rage that has filled his every movement since the moment Eli’s first met him, Breek has been aware of his own helplessness for some time now.

Suddenly, Eli doesn’t want to be the one to remind him.

Instead, he turns to Ketzal, who is scrutinizing them both with the same thoughtful, curious expression that she turns on old manuscripts and artifacts.

“Well,” he says. “How do you feel about another member of this adventure party?”

She shook away the scholarly solemnity in the space of a second and grinned at him.

“Great.”

“I can stay?” Breek asks, surprise leaking past his bravado, if only for a moment.

“Sure thing!” Ketzal says. “Sit down, there’s soup. Want some tea?”

Watching the kid’s eyes grow a little wider with each word, Eli wonders when it was, exactly, that Ketzal’s easy friendliness had stopped surprising him.

Ketzal breezes past them both, hanging her pan back on its hook and turning down the now-boiling soup water.

Breek watches her, then glances at Eli, looking a little lost.

“You’ll get used to it,” Eli promises.

* * *

“I will be needing my jacket back.” Eli says, once Breek has gingerly sat on a chair. He looks for all the world like he expects it to be snatched out from underneath him.

“No.”

“No?”

“It’s not your jacket anymore.”

“It shouldn’t be anybody’s jacket, with all those holes,” Ketzal interjects, and is immediately met with two indignant sets of protests and a detailed outline of exactly why it was a perfectly good jacket, thank you, and how dare she suggest otherwise.

“Alright, all right,” she says, waving a set of bowls at them placatingly. “There’s some perfectly good soup ready, so hush.”

Epilogue:

A ship.

A small, fragile, unimportant thing, in the grand scheme of things. Soaring through such a small patch of space, locked tight in such a tiny swatch of time.

A ship, her walls built of iron ore dug up from deep below the surface of some distant planet—smelted and purified and hardened with carbon, cast and ground and riveted together to keep a few fragile lives safe, just a little longer, from the cold and the drift of the dark universe.

A ship, engineered over lifetime after brief lifetime by hundreds of thousands of thinkers, creatures with minds that could barely grasp what sort of thing a star might be, but who wanted to sail among those unfathomable giants all the same.

A ship that will be rust, and dust, and gone in just a few short centuries. A planet’s workday, a star’s lunch break. Inside it, an adventurer laughs away her fear of the unknown. A brittle boy slurps a spoonful of warm, salty soup. A man wonders, quietly, at a foreign feeling rising in his chest.

A ship.

The stars look on, and do not comprehend.

The Last Chance will return.


Enjoy this story?

You’re in luck, my friend! There are many more. Why not delve into one of these?

The Wolf Of Oboro-Teh

Brevian And The Star Dragon, Part I: Stowaway

Bazar-Tek And The Lonely Knight


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This Screaming Earth

Day 5

The sun was a hard-edged yellow disc in the sky, providing little light and less warmth, when Hamish looked up through frozen lashes and saw the temple.

It was huge, a great monolith of solid stone, rising out of the flat plains with the brutal grandeur of all large things. The pale sunlight made mirrors and abysses of its sharp-edged planes.

He stood for a moment, staring at it. The wind shoved at him, making him stumble a little—shaking the grasses, stirring the fallen snow up into fresh whirlwinds. Struggling over snow that slid out unhelpfully from underfoot, Hamish began to run.

He reached the doors and shoved at them, half-expecting them not to budge under his weak assault. They swung open easily, opening upon a dark cavern of space. He entered, boots clattering oddly against the smooth floor, scattering snow and bits of dead grass with every step.

The doors swung slowly shut behind him, and Hamish slumped against them with a hollow thump, raking greedy breath after greedy breath into his frozen lungs.

There were no more wailing people.

No crunching snow. No howling wind.

Just silence.

Day 1

Hamish sat in the straw of the prison cell, entertaining himself by fiddling with his chains. They were worn and slightly rusted, a testament to the prison’s long life.

“You have two options before you,” the scribe said. He stood outside the prison bars, holding a flat wax tablet and a sharp copper stylus. Hamish did not look up at him.

“Your first option is to appeal to municipal law, and consent to be tried before the county judge. This would likely result in a punitive amputation.”

Hamish did glance up at that. His fingers stilled over a link in the chain, prickling in protest.

“A what?”

The scribe cocked an eyebrow at him. “Your hand,” he said. “They’d cut it off.”

Hamish knew what an amputation was, damn it, but he hadn’t thought—he hadn’t thought what he’d done was that serious. Was it?

“What’s option two?” He asked, throat dry.

“Since it was a temple you stole from,” the scribe continued, looking back at his tablet, “You may apply to be tried by theocratic law, instead of a municipal judge. The priests would assign you a fitting penance. I’m told the most likely one is a temporary exile to the Wailing Plains.”

It was not really a choice.

Day 2

Hamish shifted from foot to foot, half in the temple courtyard and half in a dusty store-room, watching an equally dusty priest rummage through piles of liturgical necessities like animal pelts and brass censers.

“What are the Wailing Plains?”

The priest looked up from his search of the storeroom. The temple was evidently supposed to provide its exiles with supplies appropriate to their destination. Those supplies, he’d learned, included a coat, a scarf, boots, mittens, and whatever it was the the priest was currently searching for. No food. He was told he wouldn’t need it.

He hoped that meant it would be short penance. Somehow, he doubted it.

“It is a physical location,” The priest said, turning back to shuffle for the last of Hamish’s ‘supplies.’ “Though we have so far only reached it through mystic arts, so where it would lie on a map is unknown. Very few have been there, and returned.”

Which sounded less than encouraging, really. Hamish wondered how bad it could really be, life without one of his hands. He could get a hook, right? He could probably live with a hook.

‘Probably’ was not enough certainty to try and change his fate now.

“The few who have been there describe it as— not properly of this world,” the priest went on, finally finding what he was looking for. A flattish ebony box, inscribed with swirling, unreadable letters. “One grows hungry, but never starves. Grows cold, but never freezes.” He blew the dust from the box, and then turned, handing it to Hamish. “They say the true temple of the Silent God is somewhere on the plains,” he said, looking Hamish in the eye. “You will look for it. Should you find it, you may return.”

Day 5

Inside the temple, the air was close-knit and still. It was a balm on Hamish’s wind-worn skin and aching lungs.

He couldn’t stay here forever.

In just a moment, he would get up. Leave. Go back.

There were so many who wandered on these plains, so many whose ears bled under the weight of the eternal screeching. This place, whatever it was—he had to bring them here. He had to show them.

So he would get up, he would.

In just a moment.

Day 2

Hamish held his mysterious box, and again wondered if a hook would be so bad, after all.

“Open that,” the priest said, nodding at the box. Hamish did. Inside, lying on a bed of velvet, were two perfect spheres of black wax.

“You’ll need those,” he said. “There are…creatures, on the Plains. They will not harm you, but you cannot listen to them, not for one second.”

Hamish had never liked priests, or people telling him what to do. The combination of the two now was enough to loosen his tongue.

“What happens if I do?” He asked. If he was going to starve to death on an otherworldly hellscape, he would rather not do it with wax in his ears.

The priest’s gaze was soft, almost compassionate, but it allowed for no argument.

“You would become one of them.”

Day 3

The first thing he noticed was the wind.

It cut through his every outer layer, biting at his skin with no regard for his thick coat and stabbing itself into his finger-bones as though the mittens on his hands were mere prayers for warmth. Under the thick grey sky, thinly streaked with yellow by an indifferent sun, it whipped the brittle brown grasses and made intermittent whirlwinds of the icy snow—the refuse from the last blizzard, reliving its glory days by snapping hard icy pellets against Hamish’s face.

The third thing he noticed was that the priests had managed to give him a scarf of exactly the wrong size.

It was wide. It was long. But it was not quite wide enough to cover both his mouth and his neck and the awkward triangle of space where his coat didn’t quite button, and not quite long enough wrap around twice to make up for its deficiencies in wideness. He pulled it up to cover his mouth and keep the cold from entering his lungs, but that only let the cold in to slice, knife-sharp, at his throat. He shoved it back down to cover his throat, breathing through his nose; but he had already breathed on the knit wool and now it was wet and cold. His nostril hairs were frosting up and sticking together.

He growled, feeling the sound low and deep in his chest without hearing it. It was strange, not hearing his own voice.

The balls of wax in his ears were cold and itchy. His attempts to ignore them were failing.

Even with the ready distraction of his many annoyances, his attempts to ignore the second thing he had noticed was failing too.

They were everywhere.

Pale, ghost-grey things, with wide open mouths and cavernous eyes, solid as stones and—if their wild stumbling at every gust of wind was any clue—light as feathers. Milling around aimlessly, they didn’t seem to notice Hamish. He was glad of it.

More than once, Hamish caught himself being drawn in to look at their faces—the wide, pale eyes, the gaping mouths. Every time, he tore his gaze away again. The shivers that ran down his spine had nothing to do with the wind.

Look at them too long, and they might well look back. The wax in his ears itched, but he didn’t dare touch it.

Look for the temple, Hamish thought. It was a simple enough task. Or, it should have been. But the plains were flat as a skipstone, wide and wild, with a barely perceptible line for a horizon; and nowhere did Hamish see a temple. Not even the ghostly outline of one.

He squinted, wondering briefly if it was possible to build a temple underground. He looked down at his boots, half-buried in some dormant snow, and kicked experimentally. He took a step forward, still squinting at the ground.

Something solid collided with him, sending him sprawling on his back. Hamish caught a glimpse of wide, dull eyes and outstretched hands as the creature trampled over him, seemingly unaware of his existence; and then he blinked, and found that he was staring up at the sky.

That was when he heard the screaming.

Hamish sat up with a panicked jerk, turning to scrabble in the powdery snow in a vain search for the gobs of wax. He succeeded only in getting snow wedged into the gaps between his mittens and the ends of his sleeves. The snow was soft, and cold, and unhelpful. The wax was gone.

While Hamish was still on the ground, another of the stumbling creatures tripped over him. It did a sort of one-legged dance, trying to regain its balance, and then finally seemed to gather itself. It moved on, mouth open and face lifted as though it intended to drink the sky, letting out a wild animal wail as Hamish got up and brushed himself off.

Their cries were piercing, high and sharp enough to carve the moon into a harvest scythe. Remembering the priest’s warning, Hamish hastily stuffed his fingers into his ears. Another of the creatures brushed by his back, screaming almost directly in his ear, and Hamish flinched away, wondering if his skin was already turning gray, if he was going to start wandering aimlessly and screaming at the sky. He clenched his teeth shut to ward off that possibility as long as possible.

This wasn’t worth it, he decided. Not all all. He turned back—but when he swung around, he couldn’t tell if he was facing back the way he’d come or not. It all looked the same.

There was no way home.

His beating heart throbbed against his fingertips, doing little to dull the endless screaming, and Hamish swallowed the dull lump that clogged his throat.

The only way back was to find the temple. Wherever it was. If it even existed.

He wasn’t going to find anything by standing here. He started walking, dodging away from the grey bodies that wandered about so carelessly of his own and trying to ignore the spike of fear every time he tripped over the uneven ground.

Day 4

After one night without sleep, Hamish stopped stuffing his fingers in his ears. His arms were too tired, and the priests had probably lied about him turning into one of those creatures anyway. Lying, just to scare people, was what priests did.

His legs were jelly-soft, wobbling as he walked, and his whole body was aching under the oppressive weight of the wind.

It was shortly into this second day of exile that he began to recognize words in the screaming. Jumbled, garbled words, all being screamed over one another; but words.

He checked his hands frantically, wondering if he was beginning to go grey, if something about him was changing that he could understand the inhuman screams; but no, red-blooded flesh still laid beneath his mittens.

It was only a matter of time before the words became sentences in Hamish’s ears.

“Fire! There is fire, everywhere there is fire!” One cried, spinning almost into Hamish before spinning away again.

“Where do I go? Where am I supposed to go?”

“Floods! The rains are coming! The rain will kill us all!”

“I am beautiful! I am new! I am young and lovely!”

Hamish could have sworn it was enough to make his ears bleed. He walked as fast as he could, squinting against the flakes of snow that pelted his eyelids, trying to block out the noise.

Intent upon his feet, he didn’t see the figure until it collided with him. The solid body knocked him flat on his back, and he found himself looking up into a pair of pale, wide eyes, set into a long, sagging face. Irritably, Hamish got up, expecting it to wander off again.

The watery eyes followed his motion as he rose, and the keening, wordless cry died down a fraction. Hamish, occupied with brushing himself off, stilled. A spark of fear flared up bright in his belly as he realized that the creature was actually looking at him.

“Swords!” the creature bellowed, a hollow sound from hollow lungs. He watched Hamish without blinking, as though in expectation of a response.

“Swords, really?” Hamish said, trying to shake the snow out of his mittens.

“Swords! The grass is made of swords!” A gust of wind blew up, and the creature stumbled a step, but held his ground. The watery eyes stayed fixed on Hamish.

Hamish had spent so long carefully not looking at the creatures or their faces, only catching glimpses of the wide-wailing mouths. The thing’s face is strange, disturbingly solid and fleshy despite its ghost-gray color.

“The grass,” Hamish said, “is swords.”

“Old swords! Ancient swords,” the creature said, volume decreasing slightly as it spoke. It was as though the simple act of listening had created a thin shield around them both, blocking out the incessant screaming, if only for a few moments. The thing bent over, careless of the wind that nearly tipped him flat on his face, and plucked a bit of brown grass out from its bed of snow. It lifted it up, waving it in front of Hamish’s face.

“Blade!” It said, and then let out a wild whoop of laughter. “Blade! See? The grass is made of swords!”

Hamish blinked. He was cold. He was hungry. He was tired. He did not want to listen to a theory about the origin of grass, much less a theory based entirely upon a pun.

“Fascinating,” he said, even though it wasn’t. “I’m on my way to the temple, though, so—“

The man’s gaze snapped suddenly to his.

“The temple is empty!”

“It’s—you’ve been there?” Hamish asked. “Wait! Where—where is it?”

But the creature’s gaze had already slipped away from him, and when another snap of the wild wind made the thing stumble away, it began stumbling off aimlessly, once again screaming to the sky about swords—and grass—and swords. Once again just another dull figure in a horde of dull figures, all ears made deaf by their own shouting.

Hamish watched it go, heart pounding.

The temple is empty. That was what the creature had said. Not it’s gone, not there is no temple.

It’s empty.

There was a temple, then. There had to be. For something to be empty, it had to exist. And if that thing had found it, then Hamish could too.

The thought did not settle a sense of determination in his stomach. It did not invigorate his body with fresh energy.

Instead, his feet felt frozen to the earth.

The only thing that stirred them was desperation—desperation at the thought of an eternity of life like this, frozen to the bone, surrounded by the careless, screaming creatures with their blank eyes and drunken steps. He had to find a way out of this. He had to find a way home.

He took a step, hardly knowing where he went. At least he was going somewhere. Maybe, if we wandered long enough, he would stumble across the temple by accident.

He told himself that it was hope.

The sun slunk lower on the horizon, rebelling against the worldwide grey with a stripe of faded red.

Hamish’s limbs had stopped feeling the cold. He knew enough about cold to know that this was not a good thing, but all the same, he couldn’t help but be relieved at the lack of pain.

He could hear the words better now. When he listened to them, it made the screaming both easier and harder to bear. Parsing out the individual words distracted him from the fact that the cries made the very bones of his ears shake until they seemed about to shatter, but the words themselves were difficult to listen to.

The creatures, it seemed, were masters of truly terrible ideas. They screamed that the sun didn’t exist. They screamed about how unbearably hot the Plains were. They screamed that it was too quiet. They screamed so many inimitably stupid, false things that Hamish had to keep an iron vice on his tongue to keep from screaming back at them.

He clenched his teeth closed and stepped out of the way as one of the things spun past him, wailing that clouds were secretly made of bees.

“Curse the earth,” Someone said softly from right beside Hamish’s ear, and he jumped. He spun aside, turning to stare at the thing who had spoken.

No, not a thing. A girl.

She was small, fine-boned, with eyes set so wide apart that they seemed to be trying to make room for a third. Her flesh had not yet gone gray, and her fingers clutched at her arms, knuckles pale, as though trying vainly to keep warm. Her eyes flicked briefly over Hamish, seeming to take him in, before sliding away again.

“Curse the earth!” She said again. Not a scream. Not a wail, but a small-voiced, mourning plea. “There is blood in it. Curse me, for I have shed it!”

There were tears in her voice, and anger too. It was such a human voice that it caught at Hamish’s heart. He took a step towards her, and her eyes slipped towards him again. Instead of sliding past him, though, this time she fixed on him, her eyes suddenly intent. Hamish went very still.

“I have shed blood,” she told him. “Too much blood. It’s seeping from my feet. It fills my eyes. They sent me here to be whipped clean by the wind; but the wind is no cleaner than I am.”

Hamish could not tell if it was sorrow, or triumph, in her tone; whatever it was, it leaked out of her in the next moment. Her shoulders slumped, and her voice cracked with tears.

“Oh, curse the earth!”

“Why should I?” Hamish asked.

“Because it’s full of blood,” she said. “Can’t you feel it—surging beneath your feet? See, it’s starting to leak into the sky.”

Hamish looked at the sunset. It did look like blood, now that she mentioned it.

“That’s not—“ he began, turning back towards the girl, and his words caught in his throat. There was a living fire in her eyes, directed at the sunset; a wild, raging red; but the rest of her—

The rest of her was gray as a stone.

“I’m looking for the temple,” he said, mouth dry.

She looked back at him, unblinking. Her eyes had gone ghost-pale and watery.

“There is only the earth, and the earth is full of blood,” she said, unshakably certain. “Curse the earth!”

A strong gust of wind made her stumble backwards, almost falling. She wandered away, and as she walked, she began to wail. The wind caught at her words and tore them away, so that they reached Hamish’s ears as though it was the very air that screamed them.

“Curse the earth!” The earth itself reverberated, as Hamish looked down at his shaking hands and wondered when the color would leach out of them, when he himself would begin to wander, forgetting what he’d come here for. When he would stumble and scream his lungs raw at a sky that would never listen.

“Curse the earth!”

Day 5

It was early morning, the grey world made hazy by the new light, when his foot caught on something. There was a sharp pain, a sudden snag, and Hamish found himself splayed flat on the ground, taking panicked breaths through a faceful of snow.

After a night of sleepless wandering, every moment afraid of losing himself to the gray wailing plains, Hamish had to fight down the insane urge to start laughing. It was all so ridiculous. Sleepless and sore and starving, wandering to someplace that might not even exist, and he just had to trip. Fall flat on his face in a perfect farce, an excellent summation of his entire life up till now.

He wanted to lie where he’d fallen and just not bother to get up again. What would be the use?

Frightened by his own thoughts, he struggled to his feet and turned back to scowl vengefully at the thing that had probably left a throbbing bruise on his left big toe.

It was a stone. Low and square, half-hidden in the grasses. Hamish felt a jolt of rage for his still-throbbing foot and the snow that had been dumped down the front of his coat; who would set a stone like that out in the middle of nowhere, just for people to trip over?

Then, as sharp as the wind that cut into his skin: someone had set that stone there. It was too square, too clean-lined to be there by accident.

His head snapped up, and he studied the surrounding ground with renewed energy. There. Another stone, hidden by the grass, and another, just a bit farther from it.

It was a path. He set off, following it, and began to laugh. It was hysterical, his laughter; something that bubbled out of his lungs like vinegar fizz, sharp and sour, the product of sleeplessness and desperation and a wonderful, horrible relief that ran, soft and clean as soapy water, through his veins. He had a path. He’d had nothing, and now he had a path.

Just ahead , one of the screamers was stumbling under the force of the wind, a wild, unstrung dance. One of the pathway-stones caught at their feet, tipping them over in a sudden sprawl that looked like something out of a comedy play. Hamish hurried towards the fallen figure, laughing all the harder.

“It’s a path!” He shouted, even though the wind swept his voice away. The sprawled figure in the grass was still lying there, probably without the motivation to get up. “Follow it, don’t trip over it!” Hamish shouted, voice unsteady with the hilarity that bubbled up in his lungs. He knelt by the figure, tapping them on the shoulder, offering his hand to help them up.

They made no move to reach for it.

He touched their shoulder again, gingerly pulling, turning them over.

Their eyes were blank, mouth frozen open. On the grey skin of the heavy-boned face, a thin line of bright red marked where their skull had cracked against the frozen ground.

Hamish was still laughing, lungs seizing with it as though they had forgotten how to stop. His hand, where it rested on the human creature’s shoulder, was a cold and stony gray.

He slapped a hand over his mouth, trying to force himself to be quiet. He felt sick inside.

Laughing at this forgotten someone, someone who had been wandering just as he wandered, tripped just as he’d tripped, but—had not been given the chance to get back up again.

Even though all hilarity had left him, even though he had no desire to laugh any more, his clutching lungs and shaking throat too far too long to settle, seeming to have gained a will of their own. He got up and stumbled away, hand still covering his mouth, ribs trembling with his efforts to keep them still.

Hamish hated the path. He followed it, clutching his hand to his chest as though whatever warmth still thrummed through his heart could return the color to the changed limb, but he hated it. The sharp, stubby ridges of rock. The way they hid in the grasses and the snow, almost malicious as they lay in wait for someone to trip on them, careless of their deadly power.

And yet—if the screamers would just stop shouting, and look—they could find their way, they could get free of this place.

Thinking that, he almost hated them.

In the end, hatred was useless. He let it slip through his fingers. He followed the line of rocks again, keeping an eye on the stumbling men and women. He ran ahead to pull the them back whenever they seemed likely to trip. They yowled at him in response, never listening when he tried to explain, but they also didn’t die.

He didn’t laugh at them, or himself, again.

Day 1

“Well then. I’ll alert the court of your decision, and you’ll be remanded into the custody of the priests by tomorrow, if all goes well.”

The scribe tucked his stylus into his sleeve, clapping the wax tablet closed. He looked up at Hamish, his eyes unclouded for the first time, and gave a single nod.

“I’ll offer a prayer for your well-being,” he said, with a sincerity that made Hamish stop fiddling with the shackle that was beginning to gall his wrist.

“What have you to gain from that?” He snapped.

The scribe shrugged.

“Peace of mind, I suppose.”

Hamish shook his head. “Silent god,” he said, scornful. “With all that silence, how are you supposed to know if he’s answered your prayers or not?”

“I won’t.” The scribe said, simply. “But I hope you will.”

Day 5

The doors of the temple were solid and smooth against Hamish’s back. The warmth was making a slow but determined foray into his ice-numbed bones, sparking stabbing pains that ran up his arms and sliced through his joints. It was excruciating, but good. A living pain instead of a dying one.

As the shivers began to subside, one deep breath caught in his throat, making a hitching, soft sound that sounded like blasphemy in the stillness. His face was wet. His hands were shaking.

How many wanderers were there, he wondered? How many lost?

He could go home now, if he wanted. The priests would take him back. He’d found the temple, completed his penance.

But how many had been left unfulfilled?

He could go home.

But he wouldn’t.

He would drag every last one of them here, by force if he had to. No one was going to be lost on those lonely plains again if he could help it.

So yes, he would get up. He would get up, and go out, and start bringing every last screaming human thing here until the only wailing on these plains was the lonely wind.

The silence, the stillness, was like a healing balm on his skin.

He would get up.

In just a moment.


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Last Chance And The Rings Of Ma-Rek (Last Chance, #2)

This work is part of a series. The first installment can be read here.

“The thing is,” Ketzal said, after pausing to take a breath, “They were the very first interplanetary maps ever made. At least, the first usable ones.”

She swept her hair back over her shoulder as she talked, the pale light of Bleachbone making the deep purple pigment flash a pale lavender. She’d dyed it again the week before, itching for something to do while they navigated away from Blue 12 and towards Eli’s home world, Red 15.

She’d been the one to insist on stopping at Bleachbone. In her defense, the Last Chance had badly needed the repairs. She and Eli had been able to cobble together something spaceworthy out of the scraps of their two ships and the dismantled bot, but that had been functional for short-term use only.

The fact that the nearest trustworthy mechanic happened to in hiding on the dark side of a moon with a fascinating history was just a coincidence.

“The maps shouldn’t have been possible to create,” she went on, wrapped up in the fascinating glory of the past. “So much of the war effort at the time was a race to make some kind of readable navigation system for the stars. The best minds of the century had already tried and failed, but here was this lowbrow pirate captain, just making these maps like it was nothing. He’s been a stumbling block in the intellectual community for years, but that’s not even the weirdest part of his story—one day, he holed up here for an entire year, all but using up his ship’s oxygen tanks in order to survive, and built that.

She pointed towards the sky, where the Rings should have been sparkling over them in all their mysterious and improbable glory.

Following her own gesture, she saw nothing but grey smog.

“I see,” Eli said, amused. Ketzal, with a faint jolt of surprise that he’d actually been listening, looked over at him. For once, his flat, worry-lined face was not twisted up into a scowl. As he glanced down from a sky and back her, his mouth even flicked up a little in a smile.

She looked away, grimacing up at the pale smog.

“I’d forgotten about that,” she admitted.

The smog was a part of Bleachbone as necessary as the bright UV lights that turned the town into a glowing white speck on an otherwise black and sunless landscape, or the synthetic bubble that provided the dead moon with a breathable atmosphere. It hid the tiny community from prying eyes. Those who lived in Bleachbone did so because, for one reason or another, they wanted to avoid being found.

“Darn. I wanted to show you the Rings.”

“The spinny things?” Eli asked. “We saw them as we came in.”

Ketzal shook her head. “They’re meant to be seen from the ground.”

She had an image in her mind, solid as if it was real, of Ma-Rek—old, and war-weathered, with graying hair, sitting down on the surface of a foreign moon and looking up at his creation—the one final thing he would leave to the world before his death. A sculpture in the sky, facing the dark side of a moon orbiting an untamed planet. It was a perfect mystery.

“Okay,” Eli said. He did not sound convinced. Ketzal ignored him, squinting up at the sky. She really wanted to see those Rings.

“I think I’m going to have to find higher ground,” she mused.

The smog had to be heavy. If it hung low enough, one of the moon’s plateaus would top off above it, and the rings would likely be visible from there.

“I’ll need my camera,” she said. “And some climbing equipment.”

Ketzal stalked back towards the mechanic’s, mumbling to herself about ropes and carabiners. Bemused, Eli followed her. Ketzal didn’t really talk to him so much as she just—talked. It didn’t seem to matter whether he was there or not. He’d learned more about history in the two weeks he’d spent aboard ship with her than he’d ever thought there was to know, and promptly forgotten most of it.

Inside the shack, the air smelled like iron-tainted oil and dry dirt. Rust-red dust covered most of the shop and flickered in the air, turning the glaring UV light a warm orange. It was a harsh contrast from the pale, corpselike world outside.

In the middle of the hollow shell of a building, the Last Chance stood in all its disconsolate and partially-dismantled glory. Ketzal made for it, manually opening the entry hatch. Eli lagged behind.

“Girlie, you are goin’ to just about kill me.”

Pax, the mechanic, stood in front of an open panel on the Last Chance’s side, giving the wiring an empty-eyed look. He gestured roughly at the ship.

“Did you build this in a scrapyard? These wires are using at least three different systems of energy measurement. Half of it’s burnt to hell, and I don’t even know what this—” He pulled out a rusted peice of hardware— “Is. Much less where it’s from.”

“Sorry, Pax!” Ketzal yelled back, voice reverberating a little from the inside of the ship. “Got into a bit of a scrape.”

“Sorry, she says,” Pax grumbled, dropping the bit of machinery on the floor and kicking it under a table. “You better be paying me double for this!”

Eli had a sudden vision of a bill neither he nor Ketzal could scrounge the funds to pay, a life spent on this sorry carcass of a moon, working off the debt.

“You know I’m good for it!” Ketzal’s voice echoed back to them.

“In chromium!” Pax shouted.

“Sure thing!” Ketzal sounded distracted. Careless. Like she promised away unknown amounts of precious metals every day.

Pax shook his head.

“Rich people,” he said, addressing Eli for the first time since they’d landed. “I swear they sell their sense for cash.”

Eli’s blank stare must have made his confusion clear, but Pax only shook his head again, apparently exasperated, and turned his attention back to the ship.

Just then, Ketzal jumped out of the entry hatch, a full pack on her back and a StrapCache around her wrist.

“Alright. Climbing gear, flashlight, camera, notebook—think I’m all set,” she said, and looked up at Eli with a grin. “You gonna be okay here for a bit?”

Eli was still processing the fact that his—their—ship was apparently carrying enough chrome to pay a mechanic for extensive repairs without his knowing about it. On top of the old surprise, this new one took a moment to settle in.

“I’m not coming with you?” He asked.

Ketzal did a slight double take, as though the concept hadn’t even crossed her mind.

“Do you want to?” She asked, looking worried, as though she thought that he might actually want to accompany her.

Eli did not particularly want to go mountain climbing, no. He did not want to look at things that were evidently supposed to be interesting by mere virtue of being old. He did not want to stray very far from the Last Chance, torn apart and helpless as the ship was.

But—

“Isn’t it dangerous? You shouldn’t be alone.”

Ketzal’s shoulders straightened a little.

“It’s just dark.” She said. “I can take care of myself, I’ll be fine.”

She looked very small. Very young.

Eli told himself that she was right, though. She had been perfectly safe for however many years she’d spent recklessly hurling herself at things she found interesting, all by herself. She would be perfectly safe now.

“I don’t care where either of you go,” Pax shouted, “As long as it’s not here! I’m in the mood for chucking something, and you both have enough holes in your skulls as it is.”

* * *

The two idiots scuttled away, as Pax had found most people tended to do when sufficiently shouted at. He snorted, turning back towards the peice of work that was their ship, telling himself that no matter how frustrating it seemed now, Ketzal was a good customer. She paid on time and never bickered with his prices. This would be paying for his meals for the next few months, at least.

He wasn’t sure it was worth it.

“By the way, stay in the light!” He shouted.

He was yelling at an empty room.

Ah well, he thought. They didn’t need his advice.

What kind of fool would venture into the dark in a place like Bleachbone?

* * *

“Close your eyes,” Ketzal said, doing so, “And count to twelve.” She rippled her toes in her boots, assuring herself that the ground underfoot was steady. “Your night vision will kick in any minute now,” she assured very calmly, opening her eyes again.

As it turned out, she was a certifiable liar. Everything was as black as pitch.

She’d left the glaring lights of Bleachbone behind, which—for her purposes—was good, but it was difficult, this seeing in the dark business. She tapped her StrapCache, flicking through the applications until she found the one for topography. A small holographic map of the immediate area sprung to life, flickering vaguely green, from her wrist.

“Okay then,” she said. “So, we’ve got flat, flat, giant pit, flat, flat.”

She told herself that it did not feel odd, talking when no one was there to pretend to listen. Talking with no one listening was something she did, something she had been doing since she was very young and first realizing that the only person who wanted to hear her rambling explanations of strange historical facts was her.

Still, she’d grown used to Eli. He was always just sort of—there. He was quiet and large and occasionally made appreciative humming noises when she talked about the origins of interplanetary archeology.

As it turned out, she had vastly underestimated the conversational value of appreciative humming noises.

Not that she couldn’t do without them. Preferred the silence, even.

“Flat, flat, flat,” she sang to herself, moving off in a random direction, since she could see absolutely nothing useful and and the topography app overpixelated and shorted out when she tried to push its range past twenty yards.

Flat, flat, flat, and—

“And there you are,” she said. A perfect plateau, just waiting to be climbed. She made for it, happy to forget the absence of appreciative hums in the face of a new adventure.

* * *

Eli took a lungful of the pale air. The silence here was penetrative, sinking soul-deep in a matter of moments.

Housing units, low to the ground and constructed out of plates of scrap metal covered over in a pale white paste, were spread out in a wild sprawl, the spaces between them too wide to be roads and too small to be unclaimed lots. A spider’s web of wires was supported on poles over the whole space, hung heavy with wide-mouthed lamps.

The light was as white as the earth, and the combination was blinding.

Occasionally, the houses would have a clear-sided shack with bright green life sprouting up inside it, and once or twice a pale lizard scuttled away as Eli walked too close to its hiding place; but other than that, the signs of life were few. Eli wandered in circles, never straying far from Pax’s shop, never getting all that close.

After two weeks of close quarters with Ketzal’s near-endless chatter, the silence felt foreign. Lonely.

The quiet was as all-encompassing as the overwhelming white; the sudden whisper cut into it like a strikethrough of ink on a perfect sheet of paper.

“—distract them?” A voice hissed from somewhere out of sight. Eli stopped, holding himself still.

“Distract them how, Jay?” Another voice returned, coming from the opposite side of the shack Eli had been passing. “No, we’ve got to do this right. It’ll be easy, they’re probably asleep. Just remember—straight in the heart, all right? Straight in the heart, you take one while I take the other, easiest cash we ever made. Or do you want to live in this dump forever?”

Quietly, Eli shifted so that his back was pressing against the wall, turning his head to hear the whispers more closely.

“No, I don’t, but can’t we think about—“

“What’s there to think about? It’s pure chrome out there, Jay, free for the taking. More than enough to get us both out of here. Why should those bloodless bastards have what we don’t? It’s not like they need it.”

Eli was hearing someone plan a murder. Two murders. For money.

“If they had any money, why would they be here?” Jay asked. “Come on, Breek. I don’t like this.”

“You don’t have to like it.” The second voice—Breek—snapped. “Thought I’d give you a chance at a cut, is all. Either you help or you don’t, I’m going either way.”

Eli had done a lot of things for money. Some of them, he wasn’t all that proud of. He understood desperation, he understood pain.

But he’d never killed for it.

It wasn’t that the idea was unthinkable; the mines had lost almost as many workers to plain murder as it had to poison air or cave-ins. It was not all that uncommon for the morning to find a miner or two dead and stripped of his valuables. The more you earned, the more vulnerable to thieves you became. That was part of the reason no one ever got free of the place.

Eli had worked hard for every cent, and held his pick-axe close while he slept. The idea of anyone else having to live in fear of that made his fists tighten as though he had that same old pick-axe in hand again.

He had to stop this.

“Come on,” Breek said, and from the sound of it, the two men were moving off, towards their victims.

Eli did the only thing he could think of.

He followed.

* * *

“There’s no way this is natural.”

Ketzal slid her hands over the solid surface of the plateau. It was smooth as oceanstone, with faint ripples that seemed alive under her hands, cold and still as they were to the touch.

“No way at all. Unless—no, storms wouldn’t do this. Or would they?”

She was going to pick up a book on geology one of these days, she swore it on her soul.

She looked up at the tall smooth surface. It was a pale pillar towering up to a pale sky, the ground and the smog both reflecting the distant light from Bleachbone.

It did not look climb-conducive. With a huff, she pointed her StrapCache outwards in hopes of finding another plateau, hopefully not a carefully sanded one.

There wasn’t anything in the topography reader’s range, which didn’t mean much. Ketzal hesitated. She was a good climber—a skill picked up by necessity, since most of the things that interested her towered so high above her head. However, she was less than confident in her ability to climb a smooth rock face.

She would likely have to go out in search of another plateau. Which was irksome. there was perfectly good piece of rock right here, after all, and—

There was a tiny clicking sound, and her whole body jerked upright as the stone she’d been leaning on gave way.

There was another click, and then a slow, gravelly scrape of stone upon stone. Below the obvious noise, Ketzal thought she heard something shuffling.

The shuffling something was, while mysterious in all other ways, decidedly not made of stone.

She was, suddenly, no longer content being left in the dark. She reached back to her pack, fingers dancing over rough canvas, and grasped the hanging metallic cylinder. She unclipped it hastily and flipped the switch, all but blinding herself with the sudden beam of blazing white light, and swung the flashlight around to point it at the cliff face.

A hand wrapped around her wrist, halting the beam of light halfway along its path. A patch of scattered rock to Ketzal’s right glowed, casting harsh, sharp shadows, while the rest of the world was solid black in comparison.

The fingers around her wrist were thin, cold, and preternaturally strong. Ketzal’s tongue was sticky and still behind her teeth. She did not move.

“What brings you out beyond the light?”

The voice, when it spoke, was not deep or hushed. It was a voice that belonged on the dockyard of a StarPort, clear and unsophisticated, with a faintly clipped accent that Ketzal couldn’t place. A woman’s voice.

Ketzal had a thousand questions to ask, and most of them had to do with why and how this person was living inside a solid stone plateau on the dark side of a small moon.

But. In spite of multiple allusions to the contrary by past friends, teachers, and random strangers overly vocal with their unsolicited opinions, Ketzal did, in fact, have the ability to focus. She had priorities.

Priority one at the moment was to get the saliva flowing in her mouth again so that she could actually reply.

“I’m looking for a place where I can view the Rings.” She said. “The smog’s hiding them. I figured if I could get up high enough, I could get above it. Sorry, I didn’t realize this was your house.”

There was a short pause.

“You can see the Rings from space.”

Ketzal’s shoulders slumped. Not that again.

“And you can see a painting from behind, technically, but it’s not the same.”

Another pause.

“Step inside,” The woman said, finally.

“Um,” Ketzal said. “I’d love to, really, but I—“

“There’s a pathway to the top. I will take you to see the Rings, if you want to look at them so much.”

“You’re kidding!” Ketzal said. Once she’d seen the Rings, she really, really had to find out what this place was and why it was here and why it was so darned convenient. She flicked off her light, but kept it in hand. “That’s awesome! Lead on.”

And, still gripping her wrist, the woman did.

The stone door swung shut behind them both.

* * *

Eli made his way over stones and ridges on the ground as quietly as he could manage, holding himself low and ready to dart for cover. Luckily, the two robbers evidently weren’t worried about being followed. They never glanced back.

As they passed out of Bleachbone’s glare and into the blackness of the country beyond, the need for cover decreased. Eli followed the whispers and tried not to stumble on the uneven ground.

His eyes adjusted to the dark slowly, but surely. The land itself was a dark grey void, but the smog-heavy sky reflected back some pale light—table scraps left over from Bleachbone’s veritable feast.

One such scrap of light glinted up from the ground ahead of them, and Eli squinted. He recognized the sharp, square lines of what had to be a roof. Two darker, shifting shapes were silhoutted against it, moving slow and cautious.

They had found their victims.

Eli picked up his pace, forcing his silence-stilled lungs into a shout.

“Robbers!” He shouted, hoping to startle whoever lived in the lonely hut to action. “Get up! Robbers!”

The interior of the hut flared with yellow light in response to his shouting, casting the two surprised robbers in sharp relief. Eli sprinted, barreling into the nearest shape. The wiry body stumbled, then fell with a startled noise. Eli kicked him once to keep him down, his boot cracking against something round and brittle.

“Breek!” The second thief—Jay—shouted, and Eli swung on him. He had a weapon in his hand; Eli grabbed for his wrist and twisted it, getting a fist thrown at his face for the trouble. They scuffled for a second before the kid jerked away, leaving his weapon in Eli’s hand. Eli’s eyes flicked down to it, expecting to find a pistol, or possibly a knife.

He blinked in confusion.

It was a wooden stake.

There was a solid thunk, and Eli looked back up in time to see Jay crumple to the ground.

The faint orange light from the shack was now making the whole clearing visible, casting long brown shadows that splayed out until they met and melded with the surrounding dark. Outlined in the fiery glow, a figure with a shovel stood over the boy’s body.

The stranger was pale and tall, looking down on Eli with dark eyes. He was holding a shovel. It was in intruder-bludgeoning shovel, Eli realized, at about the same time he realized that it would be a good idea to avoid looking like an intruder.

He got up slowly, weighed down by the stranger’s rightfully suspicious gaze.

Nodding down at the groaning figure on the ground, he began to explain.

“I heard them planning to rob you. Just wanted to stop them, before—“

The house—or shack; it was just a few metal panels propped together in a vague shelter-shape—produced another pale figure, slight and feminine. Eli watched her pad silently up to the still form of Breek and prod him with one toe.

To Eli’s relief, the kid groaned, twitching in a weak effort to get up. The girl planted her foot on his back and shoved him back down, pinning him with apparent ease. She looked up at Eli. Her eyes, dark and expressionless, made him look away.

Still eerily silent, the man with the shovel made a vague gesture that Eli read, after a moment, as ‘back away’.

He obeyed. The stranger leaned down, picking Jay up by the back of the neck. Pulling him upright, and held Jay out from his body, as though the kid were a dead creature who might be carrying fleas. The kid’s eyelids fluttered, and his head lolled to one side like a doll’s.

“Leave,” the stranger said, without looking at Eli at all.

“Um,” Eli said, his grip shifting on the stake in his hand.

Something was wrong here—wrong even by Bleachbone standards. He was not at all sure that leaving now would let him out on the right side of it. “You’re welcome.”

There was no response, unless you counted the stranger taking a step back, pulling Jay with him towards the shack. Eli took a step after him.

“Where are you taking him?” He asked.

The stranger halted, his shadow long and still where it shot out and away from his feet, and looked at Eli. His eyes were not only dark; they were black. Totally, completely black, harshly so against the washed-out white of his skin.

“Leave,” the creature said again, and Eli caught a glimpse of white teeth, too sharp where his lips curled back to show them.

Eli’s gaze traveled from those even, jagged teeth down to the wooden stake in his hand.

He had made a very terrible mistake.

* * *

“How long have you lived here?” Ketzal asked. The woman had let go of her wrist, and so she was busy rubbing the blood back into it.

The dark room she had first been pulled into had to have been some sort of antechamber. Where it had been pitch-black, the upper room the woman had led her to was lit, albeit faintly, by a soft moss that glowed a luminescent green, showing a floor littered with fascinating things. There were small chromium coins, cast in molds that Ketzal had never seen before. Books, ancient and paper-bound, stacked and scattered and laid messily on their spines. Lumps and tangles and piles of what Ketzal guessed to be fabrics, perhaps bedding.

She ached to pick the things up and study them, but the woman had snapped harshly when Ketzal had bent down to pick up a coin, so she kept her hands to herself, soaking up as much as her eyes would allow as the woman led her on.

“Years.” They left the green-glowing chamber and started to walk up. Ketzal’s feet told her they were ascending a ramp, and she guessed from the closeness of the air that it was inside a sort of stone tunnel.

“How many years?”

“None of your business.”

“Were you born here?”

“No.”

“You like to read.”

“You like to ask too many questions.”

They walked in silence for a while. Ketzal bit her lip, considering.

“Did you build all of this?”

When the woman finally answered, her exasperated tone was gone.

“There were others,” she said. “At first.”

Which only gave Ketzal more questions. The woman deigned to answer none of them, leading them both along in silence.

Finally, they reached the top.

One moment, Ketzal was in the tunnel, inhaling dust-laden lungfuls of stale air, and the next—the next, the sky was alive with light and with color. The winking fire of distant stars sparkled like a dancer’s dress. The whole universe was just one giantess in an evening gown, twirling eternally across an infinite polished floor. Taris, Bleachbone’s sister moon, shone bright above them. She was a crumpled oblong shape, made lovely by an edge of reflected light from the Trachydene System’s central star. The cautious glow made the stone surface of the plateau gleam like tarnished silver.

The air up here was clean and clear, untainted by the plasticine scent of the smog. It was a touch too chill, and a tad too thin.

And up over her head, closer even than Taris, shining against their backdrop of stars, were the Rings.

They were bright in shades of copper and aluminum, flashing as they spun. The delicate pattern of repeated concentric rings started low in the center and rose upon either side, like wings. Every part of it was in constant, even motion, each ring spinning in its time without jamming any of the other rings. The genius that had mapped the universe at work.

From space, the Rings were just that—rings. Sparkly rings, but no more meaningful than a sculpture commissioned for a municipal park.

But from the surface—

Ketzal had been right.

The Rings were a perfect re-creation of the Seven Systems. They started with the Solar system—the central set of rings—and stretched out in either direction, as far as the Tasman system to the left, and the Iridos system with its twin stars to the right. The whole universe, as far as Ma-Rek would have known at the time. In a twist of artistry that no one could have expected from a robber and a pirate, the array made the Systems—things that spanned more space than the human mind could comfortably comprehend, even now that they travelled so far beyond—into something delicate. Something lovely in its perfect balance, breathtaking with the way it always seemed to teeter on the edge of collapsing into disaster, and yet—never did.

Ketzal blinked against the prickling heat that was trying to build up behind her eyelids. She wanted to absorb this sight unmuddied by tears.

“Awfully dramatic, aren’t they?”

Ketzal startled a little at the woman’s voice, and turned slightly, enough to see the woman’s pale face upturned towards the sky.

“He never could be content with what he had,” she continued, watching the Rings with an expression unreadable in the dark. “Couldn’t just have his holographic maps, no. Had to stick it up in the sky for all eternity—undeniable proof that he’d done what they never could.”

Ketzal blinked. The woman seemed to shake herself out of some reverie.

“Are you happy now?” She asked, “Or are you going to stare all day?”

Ketzal was very happy. She’d rarely ever been happier.

“I’m going to stare all day,” she admitted.

The woman nodded, a pale blur of a face wobbling, ghostlike, and slowly turning away.

“Well, I’m not about to stand around and watch you. Come back down for a drink when you’re done, won’t you?”

“I always assumed that Ma-Rek left the moon with his crew aboard,” Ketzal said.

The woman stopped.

“At least, that’s what the history books imply.” It was, quite carefully, not a question; but Ketzal waited for an answer anyway.

“The history books ever mention what happened to him after that?” The woman asked, not moving.

“They say he likely went insane. Drove his own ship into an asteroid belt.”

A soft chuckle sounded in the dark.

“Well,” the woman said, “That sounds like him, doesn’t it.”

And with that, she left, taking the answers to a hundred unspoken questions with her.

Ketzal looked back up at the Rings. They were still spinning, new and sharp as they must have spun when they were first built—over a thousand years ago.

* * *

“You came to warn us,” the girl said. “We are not ungrateful. Leave.”

Breek was moving, trying to rise, but she held him down without any apparent effort. Eli got the distinct feeling that the ability to leave with his life in his hands was, in her mind, a gracious offer.

He had just wanted to stop people being killed, he thought irritably. That should not have been a complicated task.

Frustration with the world in general settling deep in his stomach, Eli plastered a smile on his face. He had a good guess what the pale, not-human creatures were, and the idea made his stomach shrink inside him.

They might outnumber him. They might even have some twisted notion of justice on their side.

Still, he couldn’t leave.

Because he’d given himself a job here, and his job was not done.

“Yeah, anytime,” he said, and heard the insincere cheeriness loud and clear in his voice. “I’ll just take these boys back, then, won’t I, Bleachbone has plenty of laws against robbery, so—“

The girl snarled at him, and the man pulled Jay behind himself and bared his teeth.

His very sharp, pointy teeth.

Eli was pretty sure he was only still smiling because his face had temporarily lost the ability to form new expressions.

“The only law between Bleachbone and ourselves,” the not-man said, “Is this: what is in the light is theirs. Whatever is so foolish as to pass into the dark,” he shook Jay in his grip harshly, “Is ours.”

Eli shifted his stance, mouth dry. He was within arm’s reach. That was good.

“Go back while you still can,” the girl advised.

Eli’s grip on the stake in his hand was sweaty, which was bad. He was surrounded. Also bad. His limbs felt shaky and uncertain of themselves. Again, bad.

“You know, that’s amazing advice,” he said, trying to calm his heartbeat down enough so he could hear over it. “But the thing is,”

He glanced at Jay’s face, twisting up sluggishly as he regained consciousness. He heard Breek cursing behind him. And he became—not calm, exactly. But still. He dropped his shoulders, feeling the straightness of his spine where it rested between them, and gripped the stake in his hand.

“Thing is,” he said again, “I can’t do that.”

His arm snapped out ahead of him, pulling him slightly off-balance as it drove the stake hard and true into something solid that squelched.

He looked up into the wide, eyes of the creature. The not-man blinked its dark eyes at him. Jay, gasping, tore out of its grip and began to stumble away into the dark.

The girl shrieked. Eli spun to see her staring, watching the not-man as it slowly collapsed. Her gaze rested on the corpse for a moment, then traveled upwards to the stake in Eli’s hand. Finally, it rested on his face.

Eli gripped the stake. It crackled in his hand, and he looked down at it.

Black blood was smeared up it, bubbling as it ate away at the wood. As he watched, it dissolved entirely. He was left empty-handed.

The girl shoved off from Breek and began striding towards him. Backing away from her advance, Eli tripped over a stone, landing hard on his back, and began to scramble backwards, kicking up dust.

She followed him, murder in her steps.

His eyes could, would do nothing but stare as she passed the lantern sitting on the ground, her shadow swinging around in a determined arc, a minute hand ticking backwards.Her shadow swung around over him and she became a towering silhouette, her shape inhuman where it blocked out the light.

Eli’s elbow cracked against the wobbling wall of the shack. Without thinking, he’d cornered himself.

A cold hand wrapped around Eli’s ankle and tugged. His back slid against the gravel as the girl began to drag him out of the sorry shelter. Desperate, Eli kicked at her face, but she only caught his other ankle and tugged harder. He dug his fingers into the rough ground. It wasn’t enough to slow him down. He saw the glint of reflected lantern light flick over her loose hair, saw the pale, ash-white sky sliced across with the sharp black shape of the rickety roof.

The idea came to him almost faster than thought. It was an instinct, a clawing need for survival that drove one to action before anything else. One moment, there was nothing in his mind but terror.

The next, there was the roof.

It was sharp, and it was heavy, and the angle at which the girl was straining to pull him out of the shack placed her neck right under it. Eli reached for the flimsy wall of the shack, tugging at it with all his might.

There was a metallic screech as the structure swung to one side. With a scream of scraping steel, the roof slid down and sliced into the dirt, true as a knife to its sheath.

The next moment, the world was silent.

The grip around Eli’s ankles was loose and lifeless. He kicked free of it, breathing hard. A cloud of dust wafted over him, and he coughed at it. His hands stung where the stones had bitten them. Sweat trickled like a cautious finger down his spine.

He was alive.

Part of the wall had come free and was pressing up against his side, weakly attempting to squash him.

A cautious crackle of footsteps over the scattered rock-and-gravel ground made Eli tense, hands forming into stinging fists.

The panel was shifted off him by unsteady hands, and he found himself looking up at the wide-eyed form of Breek. He blinked at Eli, reeling back slightly.

“You kicked me in the head,” he stated, talking around his tongue instead of with it.

Unintentionally, Eli could have pointed out. However, he didn’t feel like arguing details. And besides, he was not in the mood to be guilt-tripped by a teenager who’d intentionally gotten himself into a confrontation with vampires.

“Yes, I did,” he said instead. His own voice was a little wobbly, which he resented. His legs didn’t want to help him stand, so he stayed where he was.

Breek shared none of this instinct for recovery. He let the wall panel fall to the side, stepping over the body of the girl to try to reach into the bowels of the shack and rifle through them.

“There’s got to be chrome in here somewhere.”

Eli blinked, shifting out of the kid’s way. Breek wasn’t addressing him, talking to himself, as though to convince himself of something. “They’re rich as hell, everyone knows they’re—“

He was reaching over Eli, groping blindly.

In any normal situation, the idea of unclaimed chrome coin ready for the taking would have interested Eli enough to join him; but the recent terror, the pair of bodies lying sprawled in the dirt, the ramshackle home that had been reduced to a ruin—it all made the mere idea of looking for treasure sickening.

He got to his feet, a little unsteady.

“Kid,” he said. “Stop.”

Breek kept sifting through the stuff in the shack—some extra clothes, a small and intricately painted music box that jangled when the kid tossed it aside.

Eli reached out a hand and gripped the back of the kid’s neck.

“Hey!”

“Kid. Stop.” He said, pulling the boy back. Aside from the sick feeling that rose in his stomach at rifling through what belonged to the dead, the dark was making him nervous. ‘What lurks in the dark belongs to us,’ had not sounded as though the creature had had only himself and one other to talk about. Who knew how many were out here?

“Come on, kid,” he said, turning around and marching them both back towards the distant glow of Bleachbone. The light, cold as it was, looked immensely welcoming.

“Hey!” Breek said, struggling, but Eli gripped him harder and walked faster.

“What were you thinking?” He snapped.

Breek blinked at him, not seeming quite able to focus on Eli’s face. Concussed, Eli thought a little guiltily.

“Firstly,” he continued, the guilt doing nothing to keep all the adrenaline and anger and relief from the fight hitting him at once, “You do not go off robbing people. You just don’t. How would you like it if everyone felt free to slit your throat and take your coin, hey?”

He walked as he talked, letting the kid stumble along beside him as best he could.

“I don’t have anything!” Breek insisted.

“You’ve got your life,” Eli retorted, “You’re lucky as hell you didn’t get yourself and that other kid dead. They weren’t gonna let either of you leave alive. Don’t you ever do something that stupid again, you get me?”

He was talking partially to calm himself down, and partially to ward off any other pale, hungry shapes that might be lurking in the shadows. In spite of this, he found himself meaning what he said.

Breek and Jay could have died tonight. Died bad, for nothing but desperate greed, and alone, away from whoever cared about them. If they did have anyone to care. They could have died bad and alone and unloved.

“You’re the one who warned them, we would have been fine without you!”

Eli didn’t bother arguing. Maybe it was his fault. Maybe that was why his heart wouldn’t stop beating like he’d just fallen down a mineshaft.

He pulled the kid close, steadying the boy against himself and slowing his pace to something a little more manageable for Breek’s drunken-footed gait. The kid’s heartbeat was driving hard and fast enough for Eli to feel through his ribs.

“Don’t be stupid, kid.”

Breek cursed at him, but Eli didn’t let him go.

* * *

Ketzal adjusted the lens of her camera and clicked another photo. It looked exactly like the thousand photos that preceded it. Unlike the last thousand photos, though, this time she realized the fact.

She checked through them, clicking through photo after photo. None of them did the Rings justice. For that, they would have had to take in not just the Rings, but the whole sky, and the pale plateau and the dusty moonlight.

Her notepad was open and filled with scribbled impressions and sketches, providing the human observation to balance out the photographs. It had been a successful data-gathering expedition; she felt replete, strangely free of the restlessness that usually buzzed through her bones.

There was no real reason to stay, but she looked up, watching the Rings glitter for a moment, giving herself one last vision to keep. They were so beautiful.

Oddly enough, she suddenly wished Eli had insisted on coming along. This sight was too lovely not to share.

She pictured him being stuck on top of this plateau with her for the past two hours, and the idea fizzled out as quickly as it had come.That would not have ended well.

She turned to pack away the last of her supplies, and found herself looking at the open entryway of the downward ramp. Biting her lip, Ketzal wondered about her chances of going back that way and getting out alive.

If her assumptions were correct, they were slim.

It was unfortunate, really. She wanted to ask the woman so many questions—someone who had lived on the dark side of this moon for years, likely centuries, who had all but claimed to have known Ma-Rek himself. Ketzal was itching with curiosity. She hesitated for a moment.

A slim chance was still a chance, after all. She had never talked with an immortal before—only heard the speculations in the medical journals, the demonizations in the stories. There was a chance, albeit small, that she’d live. Whatever else the experience would give her, it was bound to be an adventure.

Eli was waiting for her, though.

Pax needed her to pay for the repairs he was making on the Last Chance.

They both worried easily, and somehow, the idea of Eli wondering where she’d gone and what had happened to her was more painful than the notion of actually dying.

Ketzal wondered when she’d started letting the mundanity of living get in the way of her adventures. More than that, she wondered when the idea of letting anything stand between her and excitement had become something other than detestable.

Most of all, she wondered if the climbing ropes she’d brought would be long enough to let her rappel down to the ground. She secured the line to the edge of the plateau and looked over. Nothing was visible down there except for the pale grey sea of smog, lit from above by moonlight.

Well, she thought, and clipped the the line to her belt. There’s only one way to find out.

There had, as it turned out, been almost enough rope to reach the bottom. The drop hadn’t been that long, luckily, and her ankles hadn’t twisted.

Sore and satisfied, Ketzal swung open the door to Pax’s shop.

She was greeted by yelling.

“I don’t care how dangerous it is!” Eli shouted from the inside of the ship. Pax, one hand on the edge of the entry hatch and the other on his hip, was peering up into the belly of the ship with evident resignation. “I’m going after her!”

Ketzal raised her eyebrows. She glanced at the third figure in the room—a young man, sitting slumped in a chair and holding a freezepack to the side of his head. He was wearing Eli’s jacket, which Ketzal could have sworn hadn’t been that dusty when she’d left. She gave him a questioning look, to which he responded by scowling at her and slumping further into his chair.

“You’ll only get yourself lost or killed,” Pax pointed out, bringing her attention back to the conversation. “Besides, she does what she wants. Believe me, if I chased her down over every reckless, idiotic—“

“Chased who down?”Ketzal asked, shrugging her pack off her back and plopping it on the floor.

Pax stopped talking and swung around. He nodded at her in greeting.

“She’s back!” He shouted.

There was a loud crash from inside the ship, and a second or so later, Eli jumped out of the entry hatch. He took her in, eyes wide.

Ketzal opened her mouth. Before she could ask what had happened, Eli crossed the short distance between them and wrapped his arms around her, holding her tight. He smelled like dust and dry sweat.

Slow with uncertainty, she reached up and patted his back. His muscles were tenser than bridge cables. It felt as strange as hugging a statue.

Going up on her tiptoes, she managed to catch Pax’s amused look over Eli’s shoulder.

“What happened?” She mouthed.

Pax only shook his head and walked away.

* * *

Ketzal’s hair still carried the chemical scent of the dye, and she was tapping his shoulder cautiously.

“Is everything okay?” She asked, and Eli had to tell himself to let her go.

“You’re safe,” he assured himself, before he could. “You’re safe.”

She looked back at him, clearly confused, and he drew a shaky breath.

“You don’t know what’s out there,” he said. “Those things—“

“The vampires?” Ketzal asked.

Eli stared at her.

“Everyone knows about the vampires,” she said. “But I didn’t know where they came from, before, and now, I think—“

“You went out,” Eli interrupted, “In the dark. Alone. When you knew there were vampires.”

She shrugged.

“I had my UV flashlight the whole time,” she said, as though that would make everything all right. “I was fine.”

I didn’t know about the vampires!” Eli burst out. “And that is not fine! You can’t protect yourself with a flashlight! Those things almost killed me! They almost killed—“

“You went into the dark without a light?” Ketzal asked, as Eli swung around to the chair where he’d left Breek.

It was empty, except for the freezepack.

“He stole my jacket,” Eli noted irritably.

“You went into the dark,” Ketzal was saying, “On Bleachbone. With no light.”

“No one told me there were vampires! Besides, I had to stop a robbery,” Eli explained.

They took a moment to stare at one another. When they spoke, it was as one.

“I am never leaving you alone again.”

Epilogue:

The ship shook softly, rumbling like a house in a thunderstorm as it hurtled through the vast expanse of space. Bleachbone was a day’s travel behind them, and Red 16 lay who knew how many days of travel ahead.

Outside Ketzal’s quarters, the hallway was dark. Eli had shut off the lights ‘to conserve energy,’ he’d explained, with a roundabout description of how it—somehow—could make the ship’s energy core last longer. Mostly, Ketzal only understood that turning the lights off at night made him happy, so turn the lights off they did.

Her own chamber was glowing, every overhead fixture turned up to its highest capacity, and the photos and notes she’d taken of the Rings were spread out in neat rows on the floor.

In the center of them all, her tablet whirred, displaying cross-referenced images of a model of the Six Systems with the images she’d taken of the Rings.

They fit together perfectly. Ma-Rek had intentionally, painstakingly, made the Rings to be a model of the whole universe as he knew it—spinning and alive.

Why, she had yet to find out, but there had to be a why. There just had to be. Some instinct in her insisted that Ma-Rek—soldier, pirate, mapmaker—had not spent two years and who knew how much precious metal to make something that was only a pretty piece of art.

The photos were beginning to bleed together in her vision when one of them caught her eye.

She frowned at it, sifting it out of the general pile.

She blinked at it for another moment, processing, and then leapt to her feet and let out a whoop.

* * *

Eli was quite happily asleep, thank you, when someone started banging on the door to his quarters.

“Nnnn” he said, to the world in general and the banging in particular.

“Eli! Come look, you have to look!” Ketzal shouted, her voice muffled by the door. “It’s so cool!”

‘Cool’, Eli thought, as he reoriented his aching bones into a sitting position and gave his blankets a sorrowful blink. ‘Cool’ meant it was probably not an emergency, which—conceivably—meant that he could lie back down, if he so chose.

He flicked on the lights instead. Squinting against the stabbing sensation in his eyes, he made his way to the door.

Outside, Ketzal was holding a sheave of papers and a glowing tablet. She handed him one of the papers, and Eli squinted at it blearily. There were blurry shapes. They did not enlighten him.

“It’s the Rings!” Ketzal explained. Which was helpful, because Eli’s eyes were currently in a state of rebellion against being awake.

“See that?” Ketzal asked, poking at a segment of photo.

“I see your finger.”

“It’s a mark! Right on the outermost ring of the Sobera System! The whole sculpture is of the Six Systems, and the mark is right where the planet Loris would be!”

Eli blinked again.

“Right,” he said, in a tone that he hoped betrayed how little of that he had absorbed.

It must have worked, because Ketzal took a breath, slowing herself down for him.

“It’s not just a sculpture,” she said, eyes sparkling. “It’s a treasure map.

The next work in this series can be read here.


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Last Chance and the Lonely Planet

Saphed Maut

Death Wish


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Wings

   Soldiers would be coming soon. Icanthus had yet to see them, however often he turned to look over his shoulder; but they were coming. He knew it in his bones.

   It was dawn, and butter-yellow light was shining, jewel-like, on the thick sheen of frost that covered the world. The light was warm, but not quite warm enough to cut through the bitter cold that had kept Icanthus walking and shivering all night long.

   He cursed the sunrise. Sunlight meant daytime, and daytime meant people, and people meant capture. He had to hide.

   He’d reached the foot of the mountains the night before, and made his way up a narrow goat-herder’s path along the mountainside. In the high altitude, the wind groaned around the solid, frozen rock, shuddering through the sparse growths of misplaced foliage. Between the solid rock on the one side of him and the steep drop-off on the other, Icanthus could see nowhere to hide. Even if he did stop and try to get some sleep, in the freezing wind he suspected that it would be a much longer, more final sleep than he wanted.

   He could go back. Perhaps it would be all right. In any case, it would be better than freezing to death.

    He gave the unworthy thought a feral growl, and tugged at his cloak, feeling the sharp spike of pain as the fabric moved across his ragged back. A small trickle of blood dripped, pleasantly warm for the two seconds before the cold got to it, from a freshly opened cut. Icanthus gritted his teeth. He would not go back. He would not turn around.  On the other side of this hellish peak, the lands of the Robber King, where there were no slaves and no masters, lay as a promise of freedom. He would not turn his back now.

    Even if he froze to death here, he would still be free. Slave-tattoos or no, he had no master now, and he never would again.

   The fiery words did not make the wind bite less.

   His empty stomach twisted, and a sudden spasm of dizziness hit him. Icanthus reached out a hand to steady himself on the cliff face, leaning heavily.

   The rock that was supposed to meet his fingers did not, and he fell. For a split second, his overtired brain wondered if he was falling down the mountain; but then he hit the ground and wasn’t dead.

   He was in a cave. A cave where the rock was dry and, though far from warm, protected from the biting wind. Moss grew sporadically, and was the softest thing Icanthus had felt in days.

He didn’t bother to get up. He was weary to the very bone and no longer cared if he froze to death. Too tired even to shiver, Icanthus curled up under his cloak and fell into an exhausted sleep.

*   *   *

   A muzzy-headed world of dreams held fur cloaks, hot spiced wine, and blazing fires. Icanthus woke to darkness and a dry throat. He blinked, worked his tongue fruitlessly, and looked at the pattern of shadows on the cave walls. Moonlight, he thought, reluctant to get up. Time to strike out once more towards freedom.

   He did not want to strike out towards freedom. He wanted to go back to sleep. It was comfortable, sleep. Warm. Pleasant.

   His slowly waking mind caught on a thought, tugging at it like a stream at an intruding branch. Sleep. Dreams. Comfortable. Warm.

   With a dull click of facts fitting together, Icanthus suddenly realized that there was something soft and solid resting against his back, and that whatever it was, it was breathing.

His shoulders stiffened. Other than the soft rise and fall of silent breath, the thing was motionless. Asleep? He eased himself away from it slowly, slowly…

   Getting to his feet as quietly as he could, he turned to look at the shape in the dark. The lumpy ridge of a powerful back, the dark gravity of a huge head–

   It growled softly in its sleep, and every muscle in Icanthus’s body went taut.

   It was a lion.

   A huge lion. A great mass in the dark, large as five men–a giant.

   Away from the beast’s warmth, Icanthus’s own heat was draining quickly. Shaking with equal parts cold and fear, he began to back out of the cave. It was just his luck to stumble across what was probably the only ginormous mountain-dwelling lion in the world. Just his luck.

    Please don’t wake up, please don’t–he sang inside his head, hope and prayer both.

   The great form shifted, a head rising up and turning until the moonlight glinted off of two great yellow eyes.

    It was a wonder that Icanthus’s heart didn’t stop. It raced in his chest, panic-weak, and his mind refused to do anything at all but order his feet to keep walking back, back, slow and calm and steady, as the beast stood up and began to follow, step by step, until they were both bathed in moonlight and Icanthus knew, with an odd certainty, that to step back any further would send him hurtling off the mountain. He stopped.

   The beast was tall as a young tree, and towered over him in a startling outline of silver. A lion’s eyes stared down at him, and a lion’s mane trembled softly in the bitter wind. The beast yawned, stretching out great wings that showed up bright against the bitumen night.

The gryphon shut its yawn with a lazy clack of teeth and tilted its head to look down at Icanthus, regarding him with the same air a housecat might regard a small bug that could be a suitable snack, plaything, or both. Trembling, Icanthus didn’t dare move.

   And then, with a low keening sound, the great beast laid down at his feet. Its head swung around, nosing with pitiful gentleness at a place fear the base of its wing, then back to Icanthus, expectant. The moonlight made the scene a silent one, despite the moaning of the wind.

   If the gryphon had eaten him, Icanthus would have been annoyed. But only mildly so, and only for a very short while. It was expected of monsters who showed up at midnight to eat people, however inconvenient. But the creature was looking at him as though he was supposed to do something; and, tired and cold as he was, doing something sounded much more unpleasant than being eaten by a gryphon. Frankly, Icanthus wanted to go back to sleep and not have to wake up for another day or two. 

   “What is it?” he finally asked aloud, snappish from cold and annoyance. His limbs still shook with fear, but his mind was too tired to bother. The gryphon jerked its head around to the base of its wing, snorting impatiently. It wanted him to look at its wing. He did not want to look at its wing. However, with the great forepaws on either side of him and only the sheer cliff face behind, he didn’t have much choice.

   It keened again, petulantly.

   The wind nipped at Icanthus’s very bones, making his fingers feel like dry twigs and his feet turn into lumps of useless stone. The gryphon huffed again in soft impatience, and the gust of warm air washed over him like an all-too fleeting taste of heaven–if, that was, heaven smelled faintly of freshly slaughtered meat.

   “Don’t eat me,” Icanthus ordered, taking a step forward. He had to climb over its great forelimb to get close to its wing, and it shifted–ever so slightly–as he did. Iron-hard muscle rippled under him, and needles of visceral caution prickled inside his chest. The attractive option of running away as fast as he could tripped briefly across his mind. 

   Then he saw the creature’s side.

   “Oh. Oh, gods,” he whispered.

   He’d thought that the smell of meat had been on the beast’s breath. It had only made sense.

   But there, not quite hidden under a wing that had lost a good chunk of its feathers–

he couldn’t see it well, in the dark, but the smell turned his stomach. Great patches painted black, sticky and gelatinous to the touch, trailing tatters of skin and fur. The gryphon trembled when his hand came too near it, and Icanthus didn’t blame him. The wounds on his own back were a pinprick, a parchment slice, compared to this.

   “What did this?” He asked. The gryphon only stared back at him, dull gold eyes alive with expressionless personality.

   Who did this,” he amended, looking at the sick mess. He almost wiped his face with his hand, then realized there was blood on it, and let it down again. The beast shifted with a soft noise of pain, and Icanthus wanted, suddenly, to do something.

   “I don’t know anything about doctoring,” he said aloud. Partly to the creature. Partly to himself. The only thing he knew about doctoring was that it involved hot water and bandages, and he had niether.

   A sharp wind blew along the cliffs, and he shrugged his shoulders into his cloak absentmindedly.

   Then he thought again, and fingered the soft, thin fabric for a moment.

   The gryphon blinked at him, slowly, as he took the cloak from around his shoulders and began to tear it into strips.

   “You’d better appreciate this,” Icanthus mumbled, through chattering teeth.

   When he finally tied the last ugly knot on the makeshift bandage, his fingers had gone mercifully numb. To make up for it, sharp pains were jabbing from his knuckles up to his wrists at every movement. He stepped back, wrapping ice-cold arms around his stone-cold chest. The cloak had not been warm, but it had been keeping him from freezing completely. The gryphon turned its head to nuzzle at its freshly covered wounds, curious.

   “You’re w-welcome,” Icanthus said. He was feeling snappish, and felt as though he had a right to.

  With a throaty rumble, the beast swung around, pressing its head into Icanthus’s chest. Warm breath huffed softly around his feet. Surprised, Icanthus reached up a cautious hand to stroke the rough fur on the creature’s forehead. With a rumble of pleasure, it pressed his head into Icanthus’s hand, then shook free and licked his arm.

   “Ow! Stop that,” Icanthus protested, flinching away. The gryphon’s tongue was sharp as a razor. A lot of razors.

   Abruptly, the gryphon’s happy rumbling stopped. It looked up, staring out into the blackness beyond the moonlit cliffs. Mouth half-open, it huffed at the air. Icanthus realized, with an odd sense of shock, just how huge and wild and dangerous the creature was. It rose slowly to its four paws, and he took a step back, remembering to be afraid.


   The gryphon turned on him, looking at him with dark, animal eyes. Then it made that keening sound again–soft and almost friendly–and bent down again, extending a paw to him.

Icanthus, with only half a sense of what it wanted him to do, took another step back and the beast huffed with impatience. It stood and lumbered up to him, and Icanthus was paralyzed by the thing’s very hugeness.

   He remained so until it reached down and clamped its teeth over the back of his shirt. It picked him up, kitten-like, and Icanthus suddenly realized just how fond he was of having his feet on the ground.

   “Hey!” he shouted at the creature. “Stop! What–”

   It let him go, and he dropped heavily into the soft fur of its back. There was a man-sized hollow where the creature’s wings met the space between his shoulder blades, and Icanthus’s half-formed plan to clamber off its back began to lose its luster as the beast’s warmth began to seep into his own frozen bones. Its wings folded like shutters over him, keeping out the wind, and Icanthus blinked. The gryphon started walking, but he couldn’t get himself to care whether it took him across the mountains or back to the tramping soldiers who hunted him. He was warm.

And in another moment, he was asleep.

*   *   *

   Voices woke him. Icanthus burrowed deeper into a bed of fur, not wanting to wake up. The world was too bright and too loud to do anything in it but sleep. 

    His eyes opened, and he stared up at the golden light that drifted through his roof of feathers, listened to the rough voices that surrounded them both. Daylight. And people. He froze, digging his fingers into the gryphon’s fur and praying that whoever surrounded them would leave. Soon. Or that the beast would live up to his fearsome looks and chase them off.

   Instead, the treacherous creature sat down. Still weak-limbed from sleep, Icanthus’s grip failed him; he tumbled bruisingly down its back and into blinding morning sunlight. Something large loomed between him and the light. Icanthus squinted at it. A rough face, bearded and scarred with eyes as clear as shattered glass, squinted back at him.

   “Aye, Decimas. What big lice the beast’s got.”

   Icanthus stared up at the face, and edged away until he felt the gryphon’s solid bulk against his back. He was surrounded by amused faces and men with weapons in their belts, and he could feel the slave-tattoos like a firebrand on his skin. These were not soldiers. Somehow, the fact failed to make him hopeful.

   “Look at his wounds!” someone exclaimed. “It’s a wonder that he’s alive.”

   “Alive and fighting. He’s brought us a bounty,” someone else said, from nearby. “We’ll get some coin, I think, for a runaway slave.” 

   Tired or not, Icanthus’s hands fisted and he jumped to his feet. His legs trembled under him, and he felt the hopelessness of running like an abyss in his chest. Bitter bile in his mouth, he cursed the gryphon, cursed it.

    The man called Decimas was looking at him bemusedly, and in the midst of hating him, Icanthus saw that the gryphon wasn’t the only wounded one. Decimas was covered in cuts and bruises, and held himself carefully, as though some unseen wound pained him.

   Looking around at the gathered company, Icanthus realized that no one was walking undamaged. The clothes the men wore were worn thin and ragged by long use, and often stained with blood. For all the weapons in their hands and the swagger in their words, these were men who had suffered defeat recently, and not a clean one. Which made them at once ten times more pitiable and a thousand times more dangerous.


   With a great, comfortable huff, the gryphon shrugged his wings and began to clean one of his paws.

   “Tom, go get Hemas.” Decimas said, and the bearded man who’d called Icanthus a louse straightened up.

   “You’re certain? He’ll be asleep by now.”

  “I know. He’ll want to see the beast.”

  Tom left.

   “That,” Decimas turned his attention back to Icanthus, “And we’ll need him to figure out what to do with you.”

   The gryphon seemed more than content to sit and lick his paws. Icanthus backed against the beast as much as he dared, seeking a dim idea of protection from the prying eyes around him. Closed in on himself and wondering dully about his fate, he did not hear the faint rustling of movement and voices to one side of the human circle. He didn’t notice anything until the gryphon suddenly got to its feet–a sudden, careless movement that sent Icanthus half-sprawling.

The beast was keening joyfully. Icanthus turned, blinked, and saw a man. Tall and dark, with hollows under his eyes and a caution in placing weight on his left leg, he was grinning up at the great beast like a prisoner might grin at a glimpse of sky. The gryphon bent its head to him, pressing into the man’s chest, keening and purring by turns. The man, obviously tired and in pain, nonetheless reached up a hand, knotting it in the creature’s fur.

   “Aye, and you’re back to us,” he half-whispered. “You’re back, Cornibus.”

   “And he’s brought us a gift,” Decimas called out, aiming a pointed nod at Icanthus, who was now alone in the midst of the horde of men. The tall, shadowy man glanced up, his gaze crossing Icanthus with a faintness of feeling belonging to the very sick and the very tired.

   “A man?” he asked, with evident confusion.

   “A slave, and a thief too, if my guess is right,” Decimas said, with harsh practicality. “He must’ve tried to steal Sir Giant here, and was stolen himself.”

   Icanthus was indignant.

   “I didn’t steal anything.” Not even a slightly thicker cloak from his master’s house, when his master was a man not worth what a camel could spit. He’d taken what was his and nothing else. “He found me and he all but sat on me until I bandaged his side. I thought he was going to eat me.”

   This brought a flicker of a smile to the tall man’s face, followed by a frown as he stepped back, checking the gryphon over.

   Decimas was less amused. “Ah, yes,” he said in a careless deadpan. “And you were so terrified of this monster–” he gestured to Cornibus, who was purring loudly and trying to lick the Hemas’s face– “–That you decided to sit on his back. Or did he make you do that too?”

   “Actually,” Icanthus began.

   Behind him, there was a thick inhalation of breath, almost a hiss, that drew Decimas’s attention and Icanthus’s along with it. They both found Hemas, looking at what Icanthus knew to be the gryphon’s wounded side with an expression of consternation. He looked up, finding Icanthus’s eyes and holding them with an odd kind of magnetism.

    “You did this?” he asked. Icanthus, thinking at first that he meant the bloody mess, shook his head vehemently.

   “No, it was like that when–oh, the bandages. I did those. They’re not very good, I didn’t know what I was doing.”

   Hemas went back to studying them, crooning softly over the beast, petting it as though he could heal the creature by touch alone. Icanthus realized, with an odd sense of space, that the surrounding hooligans had trickled off, one by one, to settle around campfires, talking in low tones. It was a largish camp, and Icanthus didn’t stand a chance of running, even with no one watching him. Decimas was looming over him, anyway, standing with the mountains at his back like a posse of armed guards, keeping Icanthus from the Robber King’s lands.

   “We’re going to have to sell this lump, I’m afraid. I know you don’t like it, Hemas, but with the losses we’ve taken…” Decimas began, but Icanthus stopped listening, looking instead at the mountains, at the glitter of sunlight along their peaks, and feeling an odd tearing in his soul between the wild dreamer who longed to be free, and a dull, practical, half-human thing that, though hardly himself, was likely to survive for a very long time as a slave. He was too tired to feel anything very definite about the division, except that he didn’t like it and he couldn’t do a thing about it.

   “Need their feed–mutiny otherwise–” Decimas was droning, and Icanthus realized that the mountains looked wrong. In a sudden, wild flash of inspiration, he realized that they looked wrong because he was on the wrong side of them.

   He snapped his gaze back to the camp. A robber’s camp, and–he looked sharply at Hemas, whose tired eyes avoided his own–a robber king. Icanthus had done it. He’d crossed the mountains, and he was exactly where he’d set out to be.

   And the Robber King, champion of the poor and downtrodden, was going to sell him.

   Hemas seemed to have been taking in Decimas’s words, but his gaze had never left Cornibus’s side. Finally, as Decimas’s twelve-part presentation finished hammering out in excruciating, convincing detail exactly why Icanthus should be sold, Hemas looked up. Without hope, Icanthus had nonetheless gained a great deal of last-minute insight. Hemas was the Robber King. He looked so like the legends painted him, and yet so unlike. Like a statue battered by time, or simply a man drained by weariness. He looked at Icanthus for a moment–judging just how small a bag of coins he was worth, probably–and then to Decimas.

   “No,” he said.

   The same word lifted Icanthus’s head that slumped Decimas’s shoulders.

   “Sir, the men need–”

   “Food. I know, Decimas. We’re all hungry.”

   Decimas pressed. 

   “For food, we need money. And for money–”

   “One slave won’t fetch enough in any market to feed the whole camp, Decimas. Ten slaves wouldn’t. We will find food, or we will starve, but we will not sell anyone.”

   Decimas was quiet, and Icanthus felt his hopes, which had been slowly sinking into a pit of muck, somehow rise out of it all, dripping and dirty, but whole. It was a great deal more than he had expected. He looked up at the tall, reedlike figure, uncaring as Decimas stumped off in a huff, muttering about idiot ideals and fool’s dinners. 

   Hemas followed the man’s shoulders with his gaze for a moment, then dropped it once again to Icanthus. Dark eyes, but bright. Almost fever-bright, and the way he held himself did not seem entirely healthy, but the set of his mouth was kind enough. Icanthus didn’t dare look away.


   “It’s cold on the mountains at night,” The Robber King commented. “Not many would dare take the cloak from their shoulders. Certainly not to bind the wounds of a beast.”

   Icanthus didn’t know what to say.

   “You’re sure–the money–” he finally began, confusedly.

   “Quite sure. You’re free, boy, welcome to stay or go. Though if you stay, I warn you, you’ll be hungry. Food is scarce in the mountains these days.”

   Cornibus made a low rumble of assent, and ruffled his feathers. Icanthus stared at him, able to think only of the twin facts that the Robber King needed money, and that the Robber King was not going to sell him.

   “Aye, food is scarce.” Hemas said, patting Cornibus’s head softly.

   “But, then again–so are bandages.”

 

Enjoy this story? There’s more where it came from. 

Why not take one of these tales out for a spin?

Desert

Saphed Maut

Land of Ghosts

 

Jester

   

Her name was Jester; but she had the look of a sea-dragon. 

It was not the first time Theophilus Quinn had thought this. The scarlet fanned sails with their wingish ribs made the analogy inevitable. But after the years he’d captained her, Quinn knew Jester better than most, and she was a dragon in every sense of the word. She sliced through the water with the skill of a sea-serpent, hunting her prey with fire in her belly and dagger-teeth in the hands of every crewman, gorging herself on gold and captives alike. Iron-armored hull. Red-silk wings. A love of treasure to rival any fairy-tale drake.

   Theophilus smiled, feeling the well-worn deck undulating under his hooves, and took a deep breath of salt air. His dragon.

Captain Quinn

   “Perhaps we’ll find some plunder for you today, eh girl?” he said, laying a hand on the ship’s side.

   “Is the port bow getting a share now?” a purring, lazy voice said behind him. “I’m jealous.”

   He turned to find his first mate looking at him with cool amusement. Sphynx had a knack for hearing everything she wasn’t meant to hear, and nothing that she was.

   “Yes,” Quinn replied seriously, as Sphynx padded forward on lion paws to join him. “I’ve been recalculating the shares based on who does the most work around here, so I’m giving her yours.”

   A smile fluttered across Sphynx’s face.

   “Ahh,” she said. “Keep it up, Captain, and you may develop a reputation for wit.”

   “Develop?” Quinn returned, with appropriate indignation. Sphynx folded her wings against her tawny back in a kind of delicate shrug, staring out into space and yet somehow completely present. Half-human as she was, there was a lionish, indifferent grace even to her human half.

   “One witty comeback out of two attempts,” she noted. “Better than usual.”

   The base of Quinn’s horns began to itch, and he scratched them irritably, stamping a hoof on the solid wood of the deck. He squinted at Sphynx.

   You’re a witty comeback.”

   Her ethereal smile widened.

   “Why. Thank you, captain.”

Sphynx.

   With a sigh of defeat, Quinn looked out to sea as well. The shore of Griza, a small and relatively ill-armed nation squashed between the larger countries of Sykar and Bresh, was just visible on the horizon. Quinn didn’t like venturing so close to lawful shores, but Jester had been out to deep sea for some months with little action and less plunder. The legend of the Jester and her crew had risen quickly, swept across the sea–and frightened enough traders off the open ocean that it seemed like to strangle itself.

   “That merchantman yesterday had a smuggler’s hold somewhere.” Sphynx said, as if following his thoughts. “We could have looked for it.”

   “Yes,” Quinn admitted. “And judging by the state of that ship, it might have held a penny’s worth of old rugs. Besides, he wasn’t about to give it up without a fight, and did you really feel like running a poor old man through?”

   Sphynx looked at him askance.

   “Perhaps not so drastic as that. Still, I wasn’t exactly about to gift him with a purse of gold either.”

   Quinn stiffened. He’d been so sure no one had seen that.

   “It was from my own share.”

   “As if I wouldn’t know that.” Her tone was one of easy dismissal. “But a warning, all the same; keep that up, and you may develop a reputation for compassion. That is far less desirable than a reputation for wit.”

   Quinn turned to find her golden eyes looking directly at him for once. Half-mesmerized by them, he attempted, without success, to form a reply.

   Thankfully, they were interrupted by Mixen, one of the crewmen, zipping between them on miniature pixie wings.

   “Sail to Second Hour, off starboard!” his pitchy voice shouted at them. “Looks rich too, Cap’n. Kingdom vessel, I’d say, and probably lost.”

   “No escort?” Sphynx asked.

   “None!” the pixie chirped in cheerful affirmation. “I say we go at ‘em with bloody cutlasses!”

   This was punctuated by a flourish of a sword as large as a toothpick. Behind Mixen’s back, Sphynx raised a single eyebrow. Her comments on his reputation still rankled, and Quinn gave the pixie a devilish grin.

   “Raise the flag, Mixen. Bloody cutlasses it is.”

*   *   *

   As it turned out, the flag was somewhat too large for Mixen to manage, and Horace the hawk-man had to raise it instead. But the flag was raised, and that was all the mattered as Jester’s sails were punched taut by a sudden turn into the current of the wind, and the sea-dragon of a ship flew over the water, speeding towards its slowpoke prey.

   “That is a royal ship,” Quinn said when the thing was slightly larger than a breadbox on the horizon. “But not Grizan royalty. It looks like…”

   “Sykar?” Sphynx, just back from rallying the crew into fighting order, suggested.

   “Perhaps–any particular reason for that guess?”

   “The name. Sea Centaur?

   Centaurs. The proudest beings on the planet. And thankfully for Quinn, some of the richest.

   “That would definitely be Sykar,” he said, in a swing of good humor. “Your eyes are better than mine. I’m surprised it wasn’t subtitled, ‘P.S. This belongs to Sykar.”

   Sphynx snorted. “They probably wrote that on the far side.”

   A smile snaked across Quinn’s face, then disappeared as he watched the ship. It was anchored, careless of their approach.

    Jester slowed, then stopped, bumping lightly against the Sea Centaur’s side.

   Half-planned war cries died in throats as the pirate crew, Quinn at their head, stepped gingerly onto the over-quiet ship. Not a single sailor was visible on the decks. No yellow plague banners fluttered from the masts to give its apparent abandonment a reason.

   “Did it…sail off on its own?” a faun asked, after a few moments.

   “Don’t be an idiot.” Horace the hawk-man replied, incredibly articulate for someone who had to speak through a beak. “Ghosts sailed it. Now that we’ve boarded, we’re all dead.”

   “Shut up, the both of you,” Sphynx hissed. “Captain’s thinking.”

   Quinn was tapping his fingers thoughtfully.

   “Actually,” he ventured, “I’m listening. You all hear that?”

   Everyone stopped, blinked, and pretended to listen.

   “Voices,” Quinn explained. “That way.”

   With a blustering, half-timorous crew behind him, Captain Quinn set off in the direction of the cabin. One mighty kick from one of his hooves, and the door flew open. Someone screamed.

   “Oh, what is it now?” another voice  grumbled. 

   Inside the cabin, a huge centaur and a tall but stick-thin elf were standing on opposite sides of a table mounded with paper and ink-pots. One of the ink-pots had fallen on the floor, making the whole cabin smell like a printer’s shop.

   “Don’t tell me,” the centaur said, resting himself lazily against the desk. “You’re here to sell baked goods.”

   Quinn had been about to say something suitably threatening, but his mouth closed in surprise. He would have made some kind of lordly retort, but the centaur was talking to the wide-eyed elf now.

   “Or is this a mighty band of fearsome warriors, here to assassinate me?”

   “Of course not!” the elf snapped, drawing himself up to his full delicate height. “This bunch of jokers is much more in your line.”

   Ever the enthusiast, Mixen flew into the cabin and brandished his toothpick wildly.

   “That’s Jesters to you!” he roared. Or, he tried to roar. His warlike mein might well have been terrifying to another pixie, but to the gathered company, it was rather too squeaky to strike terror into anyone. The centaur even went so far as to raise his eyebrows.

   “Hold on a moment,” the elf said. “Did you actually hire jesters? I know you’re not taking this discussion seriously, Lucius, but really–”

   I’m not taking this seriously?”the centaur, evidently called Lucius, boomed. “you’re the one who keeps quoting his grandmother!”

   At this the elf only drew himself up higher.

   “I will have you know that my grandmother is an esteemed philosopher with many apropos insights–”

   “To Hades with your grandmother! You’re a king, man! Kings don’t listen to their grandmothers!”

   “MAN?” the elf spluttered. “Are you downgrading to plain insults now?”

   Quinn realized with a small jolt that he and his fearsome crew had been forgotten. While he did not, perhaps, enjoy the customary terror of a vessel’s inhabitants upon realizing that that they were faced with legendary pirates, he realized suddenly that he’d grown accustomed to it.

   Being ignored was discomfiting. In fact, he resented it.

   The elf, half-way through a particularly sizzling jibe, suddenly realized that a sword was being held to his throat.

   And I–ah–hmm,” he coughed, looking at Quinn as though suddenly deciding to take in the meaning of his appearance–the scarlet lines inked over his face, the rings of stolen gold and silver haphazardly twisted to hang from his ears, his satyr’s horns etched with the symbols of the Thieves’ Guild. Then his eyes flickered to Mixen, whose tiny blade was tarnished with use, and Sphynx, with her blood-splattered coat and unsheathed claws.

   Lucius was slower to realize what was going on.

   “Bravo, goat-boy! Been wanting to do that all evening, but there aren’t any weapons allowed on this bloody ship, under the rules of the…”

   And at that point he stopped, realizing that there were, in fact, weapons on the ship–and none of them were in his hands. This balance of power was new to him, and it provided Quinn with a silence that was his to break. He grinned.

   “Allow me to introduce myself, gentlemen. I am Theophilus Quinn, captain of the Jester. This is my crew.” Quinn spoke quietly, but evenly. He’d never quite got the hang of officious shouting, and the calm tone seemed to carry more authority anyway.

   Of course, the sword helped too.

   The centaur’s eyes narrowed.

   “Quinn.” he stamped a heavy hoof, rattling the floorboards. “The pirate. I have sworn to bring you to justice.”

   “As have I!” the elf declared, glaring in turn, and Theophilus grinned further.

   “If ‘justice’ is shorthand for having me publicly dismembered, then allow me to wish you both the most tragic of failures,” he said, with a bow.

   “Ah, Captain?” squeaked a voice. “I think I know what’s going on.”

   Mixen was struggling to pull something free from the stack of papers on the table, and with a nod to Sphynx and Horace to watch their two captives, Quinn strode over to join him.

   “Have a look at this, captain.” Mixen delivered the paper into Quinn’s hands, and Quinn scowled at it. It was once been scribed over in excellent calligraphy, most of which was scratched out or blotted over. Only the superscript remained legible. It read,

   ‘Being a Treatie Betweene King Lucius Amon of Sykar and Lorde Berwen of Bresh’

   Quinn raised his brows, and Mixen was jittering with excitement.

   “Kings, Cap’n, both of ‘em!” he said. “I’ve searched the ship for gold and there’s none, but–they don’t call a fortune a king’s ransom for nothing!”

   Quinn was thinking.

   “Horace, what do you remember about the protocols for a legal parley?” the hawk-man had been a lawyer once. He blinked once at the odd question, but listed off the facts dutifully.

   “Must be held on neutral territory, with only the two parties involved present…no arms or men of war within fifteen miles. Or maybe fifty miles.” He shrugged. “Why d’ye ask, Cap?”

   Quinn caught a knowing glance from Sphynx, and grinned. She already knew. Whether it was fifteen miles or fifty, it hardly mattered; the Jester could fly free of this place in heartbeat, with better plunder than any pirate had ever claimed before.

   “There’s no gold for us on this ship,” he announced, and watched his crew deflate at the familiar news.

   “No, we have something better than gold. Ladies and Gentlemen, we have captured a pair of kings.”

*   *   *

   Amidst the ruckus of cheers, Quinn heard the plaintive voice of Lord Berwen.

   “Wonderful work, Lucius. You’ve gone and gotten us captured by pirates.”

   “This is my fault?”

   “Well, if you hadn’t insisted on a royal ship!–”

   Quinn smiled. Their bickering would quiet down soon enough, he wagered. No one could keep up a fierce argument for more than an hour or two.

   Five hours later.

   “Captain,” Horace said wearily. “Please tell me I can just conk them over the head so they’ll stop.”

   The voices of Lord Berwen and King Lucius were audible even on deck. Both locked in the brig, they had begun by trying to discern whose fault it was that they had both been kidnapped by pirates. This had taken them into a deep discussion of their respective countries’ methods of boat-building, and from there Quinn had lost the train of thought. At the moment, they seemed to be occupied with insulting one another’s great-aunts.

   “You could,” Sphynx purred, “But then we’d have to execute you for mutiny.”

   Quinn turned in time to see Horace’s feathers ruffle.

   “I assure you, captain, I meant no–” he began to stutter, but Quinn waved a hand.

  “Never mind, Horace. Sphynx enjoys morbid jokes.”

  “We could always try separating them again.”

   “And have them shouting insults across the entire ship? At least now they’re relatively quiet.”

   YOUR GREAT-AUNT BERTHA WAS A TASTELESS HAG!” a voice belowdecks bellowed.

   Quinn sighed. “Relatively.”

   “Captain!” a blur of wings squeaked, flickering down from the mast-tops. “Sail on the horizon!”

   Sphynx’s brow furrowed.

   “Coming to bargain already? We haven’t even sent out our list of demands yet.”

   At the suggestion, Horace’s dejected countenance transformed into one of the purest joy.

   Quinn sympathized.

   “Perhaps they’ve simply noticed that their kings have disappeared,” he offered, as Horace began a wild dance of victory across the deck.

   Sphynx looked at the fast-approaching sail and cocked a doubtful eyebrow. “Perhaps.”

   “In any case, we’ll only find out what they want once they’ve approached.”

   “Sage observation. Best to look dignified and intimidating, eh?” she looked out over the ship and roared, “Horace! Stop baltering about and roll out some cannons!”

   The approaching craft turned out to be less of a ship, and more of a boat. It drifted toward the Jester with all the caution of a kitten approaching a tiger. There were soldiers on deck, dressed in a drab mess of several different uniforms–Sykurian and Bresh alike, with a Grizan or two mixed in for good measure. Add in an official-looking minotaur and his two satyr attendants, and the boat was well crowded.

   Quinn had intended to speak first, but the minotaur evidently had no time for pleasantries. He adjusted his spectacles and peered up in the vague direction of Sphynx.

   “So! Is it done?” he shouted, in a voice that had taken on a bureaucratic reediness in spite of his massive form.

   There was a very long list of questions that, under the circumstances, Quinn might have expected. This was not one of them.

   He frowned down at the minotaur quizzically.

   “Is what done?”

   “Don’t mess with me!” the minotaur said, sweeping the spectacles from his face and glaring up at the ship. “You know what we agreed. Are they dead?”

   “I don’t know–what? Is who dead?”

   “King Lucius!” a Sykurian soldier burst out, stepping out of ranks.

   “And Lord Berwen!” an elven archer joined in, stepping free as well.

   One of the satyrs was desperately trying to get the minotaur’s attention, but the minotaur only brushed him away.

   “We have paid you handsomely to eliminate those two embarrassments, and handed them to you on a practical silver platter, so–oh, for heavens sake what is it?

   This last bit was hissed to the nervous attendant, who whispered into the minotaur’s ears as he directed wild gesticulations at Jester

   “Oh,” the minotaur said, replacing his spectacles and squinting at the gold-lettered name on the ship’s side.  “Apologies, my friends, but you seem to be the wrong batch of pirates. Have you seen Captain Barrow of the Breakwater Saint anywhere?”

   Quinn blinked. Every soldier had been happily nodding at the minotaur’s chilling speech of treason.

   How were they supposed to hold two kings for ransom if no one wanted them back?

   He would have simply given them back, glad to be rid of their bickering whether he turned a profit or not, but if their own countrymen wanted them dead–

   It looked as though the royals would be staying aboard Jester a while longer.

   Unless.

   Half a plan was formed in Theophilus’s mind, and he snatched it up eagerly.

   Setting a rakish hoof against the ship’s rail and resting a lazy elbow on his knee, Quinn pretended to pick something out of his teeth.

   “Captain Barrow, eh?” he said. “As a matter of fact, I have seen him. I’d love to say he said ‘hello’, but there was a bit more screaming than talking at our meeting. Unpleasant business, but…” he trailed off, shrugged. “These are my waters. Can’t have trespassers now, can I?” he grinned down on the minotaur, who seemed nervous. “So, you’ve killed your kings, eh? Good for you. I’ve always fancied killing a king. Or being one.”

   He turned to Sphynx. “D’ye suppose there’s a vacancy for ‘king’ anywhere around here?”

   “Hmm,” the minotaur said, now looking decidedly uncomfortable. “How lovely. I wish you the best, sir Jester, but desire to take up no more than is absolutely necessary of your precious time–”

   “Hold on!” Quinn said, as though striking upon an original thought. “You’ll be needing a king, won’t you?”

   This halted the slowly retreating little ship in its wake. Everyone on board had the sense to look nervous now.

   “Actually, we were thinking about starting a unified oligarchy,” the minotaur posed, quaveringly.

   “What?” the elven archer interrupted, before Quinn had a chance. “I thought we were going to be a capitalistic democracy.”

   “I wished to return to the ways of our ancestors!” a Sykurian soldier shouted, stomping a hoof. 

   “Communism!”

   “Republic!”

   “Anarchy!”

   “Hmm,” Quinn said, tapping his chin. “It seems you really do need a king–to organize you. And to, ah…what else do kings do?” he turned to Sphynx, who was wearing an edged smile.

   “Collect taxes, mostly. And build roads,” she supplied.

   “Taxes!” Quinn declared. “Ah, yes, lots of those. And was it building roads, or building tolls on roads?”

   “Oh, certainly tolls. That’s what I meant, of course.”

   “Of course,” Quinn turned to the now quite jittery boatload of citizens with a magnanimous grin. “Being king’s a difficult job, but I’m more than happy to offer my assistance.”

   The minotaur blinked up at the ship, its looming cannons, and the sword-bearing pirate crew, and thought with a flash of rare insight that he had exchanged two simple fools for one cruel tyrant. If he had not yet considered the Jester as a sort of metaphorical sea serpent, he certainly did now; and he felt her coils wrapping, inescapable, around his throat.

   Then–like the voice of a saint from the grave–the song of a bird from midwinter–he heard a familiar voice, crying:

   “I do not bake moldy muffins!”

   The slumped shoulders of the elven archers straightened.

   “They taste as though you made them out of rubbish-heap findings and acorn shells!” shouted a second voice, and the Sykurians raised their heads and swished their tails.

   “With your tastes, that’s a compliment!”

   “We’re saved!” the minotaur shouted. “Sir Pirate, we have no need of a new king–ours are right there, alive on your ship!”

   Taking on an appearance of offense, Quinn huffed.

   “If you want them back, you’ll have to pay for them,” he said, folding his arms.

   The minotaur beamed.

  “Anything!”

  Epilogue

   “Your share,” Sphynx said, padding into Quinn’s cabin and plopping a bag of gold coins on his desk. He looked up at it, then at her.

   “Not bad for an evening’s work.” He put down his pen and spectacles. The ship’s log lay open on the table, the entry for the day still blank.

   “Not bad at all,” Sphynx yawned, sitting gracefully and wrapping her tail around her paws. She stretched her wings, folded them, and Quinn realized that he was paying unwonted attention to her magnificently glossy feathers.

   “Perhaps even…good,” she admitted, as he forcibly refocused on her face.

   “Good enough to earn that reputation for wit?” he was attempting a devilish grin, but she wasn’t in a gaming mood, for once.

   “For a second, I thought you were going to actually try out being a king.”

   Quinn snorted.

  “Fearsome thought, eh?”

   She stood up as gracefully as she’d sat down. “I think you would have made a good king.” She ruffled her feathers, announcing the conversation over.

   “But a better pirate?” Quinn asked as she began to stalk out the door, putting a small cough at the end of his words to hide the stutter that had begun them, and Sphynx halted, looking over her shoulder with a small smile.

   “Just don’t spend all that on pitiable old merchants,” she said.

Mixen.

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Justice and Sandwiches

Bazar-Tek and the Lonely Knight

Of Stolen Gold and Princesses

The Wolf of Oboro-Teh

 

Lord Shiram Reuben blinked at the room that surrounded him as though it were a new and unexpected thing. Somehow it was, though he’d been sleeping there for years.

More to the point, he’d been dramatically failing to sleep there for years, which was all the more reason the chamber should seem familiar.

   He sighed, sitting up and trying to pinch the last vestiges of the dream from the bridge of his nose.

   “Lord Reuben?” A cautious scuff of feet in the doorway accompanied a cautious voice. He looked up to find one of the housemaids squinting sleepily at him past the glare of the candle she held. “Are ye all right?”

   Shiram stared at her a second, tried to remember her name. Failing, he shook his head.

   “I’m fine.”

   His own yelling. That was what had woken him–and evidently others, as well. The household staff should be used enough to these nightmares to stop checking on him.

   The maid yawned, pulling her shawl closer around her shoulders.

   “All right, m’lord. Is there anything else ye need, long as I’m here? Cook’s got cakes cooled in the kitchen.”

   Cakes were not the furthest thing from Shiram’s mind, but they were near it. He stared for another moment, mustering a reply.

   “No…Madalena, you can go.”

   He hoped he’d gotten her name right. Not that she’d feel free to tell him if he hadn’t.

   Possibly-Madalena nodded, barely keeping her eyes open, but managing a sleep-soaked smile.

   “Ye’ve the bell to ring should ye need anythin’, then. Wishin’ ye good rest.”

   She turned, plodding down the hall by the light of the single, slightly guttering, candle.

   “Thank you,” Shiram told the open air, unsure she’d hear him. The faint flickering of candlelight in the hall receded, leaving him alone in the equally uncertain light of a dying fire.

   The dream had coiled around Shiram’s insides, pulling death-tight and jolting him awake. Even now, shifting tendrils of it seemed to lurk in the shadows. He closed his eyes, aware both of how tired he was and how impossible sleep would be.

   It had not exactly been a dream if remembering–though those were bad too. Shards of memory, rather, disconnected and slice-sharp. The scarlet smile of a queen and the scarlet spills she smiled at; the curiously wet scent of iron-tainted air and the odd heaviness of a knife in his palm. It had left his stomach sick and his mind reeling with things he would rather have forgotten.

   He took a deep breath, opening his eyes in a cautious attempt to draw comfort from the solid, warm-lit stone of the walls around him and the tattered tapestries that adorned them.

   Shadows shifted rhythmically in the firelight, and a bed, a great feather-stuffed thing Shiram had never quite got the hang of, sat in the middle of the room, casting the biggest shadow of them all.         

   Shiram, surrounded by perfectly comfortable furs, lay on the floor.

   The warmth of the fire was slowly ebbing, allowing the biting midwinter chill to leach in though the stone walls.  Not caring to freeze, Shiram rose achingly to feed it.

   Orange flame rose, sparking, until it licked at the new wood with tongues of white. Shiram kicked a log, watching sparks dance up the soot-choked chimney, then flick out as the cold killed them.

   He’d have to tell James, the steward, that the chimneys needed cleaning.

The thought came uninvited, from a world so very far from his late dream that it made him laugh. There had been a time, before the scarlet-smiling queen, when Shiram would have scoffed at the thought of commanding a castle. He still scoffed at it, so strange it seemed.

   It wasn’t as though he hadn’t earned it. His Queen was not one for superfluous generosity; he had earned this–earned it in ways that gave him screaming knife-blade nightmares, ways that made him see a fire and expect the scent of burning flesh.

   Survival, he’d called it. Loyalty. He’d wanted very much to survive, when the world was a cruel place.

   He thought of Madalena and the cakes cooled in the kitchen.

   The world was kind now; but he was not.

   He closed his eyes, more tired than anything, and the nightmare crept eagerly into the dark behind his lids, snapping him awake.

   The firelight was bright enough to hurt, but he stared into it anyway, wondering if survival was worth all that much after all.

*     *     *

   The next morning, the Lord of Oboro-Teh informed his steward that the chimneys needed cleaning, and announced his own intentions to go riding. James took both facts in stride, assuring his lord that the fires would be kept burning to await his return.

   If the steward noticed the oddly quirked smile that was Shiram’s only response to this declaration, he did not mention it.

*     *     *

   

   The air was bitter. Shiram halted for the third time in the past half-hour, keeping his horse from sweating, and the beast pawed at the snow, frustrated by their slow progress. Leaning forward, Shiram gave its shoulder an absent pat. Though his eyes were glazed over by cold and carelessness, he couldn’t keep them off of the thick pine wood ahead–his goal, if this ride had a goal. There was something about the darkness, the twisting branches, that seemed like a comfort in comparison to the age-blemished expanse of powdery white that surrounded him now.

   Without the dull whuff and scrunch of the horse plowing through snow, another sound–just as quiet–was vaguely audible in the clear air. Voices. Some distance away. Shiram blinked, trying to make out what they said; frowned when he found he couldn’t.

   Noting that the horse had cooled down, he turned it in the direction of the sound. The beast shook its head in disapproval at his indecision, but swung obediently aside.

*     *     *

   As they grew closer, Shiram realized that the voices were shouting. Cresting the slight hill that lay between himself and the voices, he saw–but did not understand–what they were shouting about. 

   The scene was a wild amalgamation of people, sheep, and piled brushwood. Shiram halted, watching in confusion as some of the people rounded the sheep into one great wool-ridden, bleating mass, while others handed out weapons of all kinds–makeshift weapons, rakes and pruning tools and one rusty sword that must have belonged to someone’s great-grandfather.

The brushwood was being pulled into great heaps that might have served either as fortifications or a battlefield funeral pyre. They were working themselves harder than Shiram had dared work his horse, and Shiram felt the faintest twinge of guilt as he wondered why.

   A few of the peasants noticed the newcomer, glancing and nodding to one another without ceasing their work. Eventually the glancing and the nodding reached a white-haired man with work-hardened hands and a work-crooked back, who gave Shiram a long and calculating look before brushing his hands to approach him.

   “M’lord.” he said, giving a respectful nod. Shiram returned it.

   “Goodman.”

   “Thaddeus,” The man supplied. Shiram nodded again, this time towards the general turmoil.

   “Are you preparing for a festival of some kind?”

   The man named Thaddeus shook his head.

   “Would it were something that friendly, M’lord. It’s wolves we’re preparing for–or a wolf, rather.” The shepherd shrugged his shoulders, a slight involuntary movement protesting the cold. “It’s been stealing the sheep–not many, but there in’t much to go around in the first place, what with the taxes and the–ah–” he looked at Shiram, realizing he may not have picked the best person to complain about taxes to, and attempted to amend.  “Not that I won’t give my sheep to feed our queen in a heartbeat–but there’s none left for wolf-fodder.”

   The implied comparison was as unfortunate as it was unintentional. Shiram concealed a smile and gestured to the brushwood barricade.

   “You’re setting up a fire ring,” he noted. Set alight, the wood would burn long and bright–and wolves cared little for fire. 

   “Ay, and a night watch.”

   “No hunting parties?” Shiram asked, realizing the question was idiotic even before Thaddeus shook his head in denial. Hunting bows were not common among shepherds; the Queen discouraged them. Still, they could have come to the keep and asked for a band of Shiram’s men-at-arms. 

   If it came to that, there was no need for them to go to the keep at all.

“One wolf, you said?” Shiram had learned his hunting chasing fugitives and traitors–the queen’s enemies, and occasionally his own. A wolf would be a welcome change.

   Thaddeus was nodding, but without enthusiasm.

   “It’s said…and this may just be peasant’s talk, M’lord…but ‘tis said that it’s no normal wolf. More like a demon, according to the few who’ve seen it. Glowing red eyes and a cry like a banshee.”

   “A demon wolf?” Shiram raised his eyebrows, and Thaddeus gave a half-ashamed gesture, shrugging off the warning. “As I said. It may be the fear talking, and not good sense.”

   Reuben frowned.

   “It may also be poachers, or a clever thief. I’ve known a few to do the like–act the monster or the demon, scare people off their scent.”

   The horse shifted under him, tossing its head, and Thaddeus set an unthinking hand on the beast’s shoulder, calming it.

   “Of the two, M’lord, I’d rather have the demon.”

   “Less destructive?”

   “Less pitiable. I wouldn’t mind seeing a demon drawn and quartered.”

   There was a small fire in Thaddeus’s eyes, though it died quickly again. Shiram suppressed a grimace–he’d carried out the Queen’s laws often enough to know how unforgiving they were. Necessary, from a political perspective. But in the eyes of human beings who knew what it was to be hungry…cruel.

   “Well, there’s a good chance it’s only a lone wolf. Lost its pack, maybe, and turning to easier game,” Shiram said. “Has it left its tracks anywhere?”

   Thaddeus looked surprised.

   “Everywhere.”

   “Show me.” 

*     *     *

   The old shepherd led him to a place where the wolf had made its kill. The tracks were muddled and indecisive, mixed with blood and the plundering hoofprints of a panicked herd, but there was a clear enough path out of the mess.  A trail of blood led up and into the woods; he intended to follow it.

   “It seems a dangerous thing, hunting it,” Thaddeus said, as Shiram remounted his horse. The statement held an inquisitive twist that Shiram did not particularly like, and he shrugged.

   “It seems a dangerous thing, living in these hills,” He returned, indicating the blood-patched snow and still-shouting melee of shepherds. 

   “Ah,” Thaddeus said with a slight chuckle. “We cast our fortunes on the will of the holies, for sure. ‘Course, it’s hard to tell how completely we cast them, for we always expect ‘em back again–but the holies, they come through.”

   He returned his gaze to the snow-frozen blood.

   “Sometimes,” He amended.

   Satisfied, Shiram set to evening his reins.

   “If you ask me, M’lord, any man who goes to fight even a single wolf alone is hell-bent on suicide.”

   Shiram looked down to see the old man giving him a piercing gaze, which lowered as Thaddeus reassumed his place.

   “If you ask me,” he said quietly, with the implication that of course no one would ask him, and that his words were of no import. Shiram only nodded, letting the old man return to his work.

   It was not suicide, he thought in belated self-defense. He was simply…casting his life on the will of the holies.

   He did not expect it back again.

*     *     *

   The woods deepened and the clouds grew darker as they plodded on. Lowering his head, the horse huffed a soft breath at the snow–more warning than frustration–and Shiram found himself reaching for his sword more than once.

   Five minutes–or perhaps it had been half an hour–later, the mouth of a cave gaped before them, darkly visible against the pale-glowing snow. The blood trail spattered in frozen drops over its threshold.

   Snow flew up in a gust of cold as Shiram leapt off the horse, absently looping its reins around a flimsy branch. The horse could make its own way home; Shiram would not be needing it much longer. The beast snorted, a cloud of white in the still air–the dark air. It was near the end of evening, and he would be missed soon–but not for long. Oboro-Teh would find another lord, in time. Perhaps a better lord.

   And this cave would be the grave of at least one monster tonight. Two, if Shiram’s blade held true. With a lightly pounding heart, he drew it and stepped into the dark.

Something cracked under his foot. Looking down, he saw the tiny skull of a rat, crushed under his weight. The cave floor was strewn liberally with other tiny bones, stripped clean and sucked of their marrow, and Shiram frowned.

   This did not look like the work of a wolf.

   There was a shifting, almost a scuttling, in the dark; Shiram jumped back, half-believing he’d heard a whisper of a voice in the biting air.

   He held his sword close and ready, listening as well as he could past the beat of his own heart. The things moving in the dark sounded…small. His mind conjured a horde of rattle-boned ghouls, a contingent of bat-size demons.

   Something pattered past him, brushing his leg. It was out of reach before he could even see it. The thing was followed by another–who was not so lucky.

   Shiram moved like lightning to snatch a handful of hide, jerking the scuttler-in-the-dark backwards and into the light, twisting his sword to run it through.

   He stopped just short of killing it. The thing staring up at him with terrified eyes was a child.

   Shiram stared back, too shocked to lower the sword, and the boy bit him. He dropped it with a surprised yelp; scrambling to his feet, the boy began to run.

   “Stop!” he shouted, but of course the boy didn’t. Shiram, used to hunting men with much longer legs, caught up with him quickly. The child stumbled, and he grabbed the back of the boy’s neck–holding him tight and gingerly, as he would a snake. With a wild-man yell, the boy pulled a knife, opening a stinging cut on Shiram’s arm.

   “I’m not going to hurt you,” Shiram growled as he wrested the little weapon away. He was not very convincing, and the boy tried to bite him again.

   “I’m not going to–ow.” something hard bounced off of Shiram’s back, and he spun to face the new attack.

   If the boy was wild, this girl looked wilder. Her grease-grey hair contrasted with her tiny stature, and her knuckles had gone white around the slingshot she held. A tiny bird-skull was looped inside it, as ammunition.

   “Jess, just run! Get out of here!” the boy struggled as he spoke, evidently wanting to follow his own advice. Jess turned a steely frown, originally meant for Shiram, on him.   

   “I in’t leaving you, stupid,” she said, as yet another child–a tiny, wide-eyed thing in a tattered dress–peered out from behind her skirts. Shiram found her–and indeed everything–unsettling.

   This was not a wolf, not a demon, and it was not death. He felt cheated.

   Another bird skull bounced off his shoulder, doing nothing to improve his mood. He swung the boy around to act as a shield from any further missiles, and ignored the warm trickle of blood dripping down his arm.

   It was poachers, then, as he had feared. What had Thaddeus said?

   I wouldn’t mind seeing a demon drawn and quartered.

   But these were not demons. The boy in Shiram’s grip felt brittle enough to shatter from cold alone.

   “Let him go!” the girl shouted, fingers fisting tighter on a sling they both knew was useless.

Shiram wished he could.

   “I was expecting to find a demon wolf up here,” he ventured. “It’s a good ruse. I’m curious to know how you carried it out.”

   There was silence.

   “Whose idea was it?” Shiram watched the girl’s face, but it was the boy who spoke.

   “Mine,” He snapped, twisting in Shiram’s grip, trying to face him. “Just mine. We all needed the meat–but I’m the one who took it.”

    He sounded as though he was admitting to treason. Given the laws on poaching, he might as well have been.

   The laws of the scarlet-smile queen were just, from her own perspective, but in the eyes of those who knew what hunger was…Shiram had known hunger, once. Had he forgotten that?

   “And blamed it on a red-eyed demon,” he said, watching the boy’s face. “How’d you manage that?”

    The boy clenched his jaw.

   “None of your business.”

   Shiram raised his eyebrows, recognizing the hardness in the boy’s voice. Men became hard, when the world was cruel–and the world was cruel, unless someone bothered to make it kind.

    Glancing at Jess, he countered her frightened scowl with a small smile.

   “Well then,” he said, thinking things through. He looked back the cave mouth, to the set of tracks in the snow–thought back to the shepherds, all convinced of what they’d seen–a demon-wolf with glowing eyes. “There’s no sheep here. No wolf either.”

   He eased his grip on the boy, and the child dropped, scrambling out of reach to stand between Shiram and Jess–but he didn’t run, and the suspicion on his face was beginning to show eggshell-thin cracks.

   “Perhaps the wolf’s dead,” Shiram ventured, sheathing the sword.

   Slowly he realized that Shiram was not here to bring him to the law. He took another step back, suspicious again.

   “Thank you, sir,” he managed. “The wolf’s dead–and he won’t be stealing any more of your sheep.”

    Jess nodded in agreement. “Bless your heart, sir,” she added.

   The boy turned with cold-stiff shoulders to lead them away; and Shiram found, quite suddenly, that he did not want his heart to be blessed.

   “Wait,” he said to the trio of retreating backs.  “Do you expect I’ll leave you out here to freeze to death?”

    Kindness was as soul-seizing as cruelty, once given into. He shook his head.

   “Come back with me. I’ll see you fed, at least.”

   He would feed them for as long as they cared to stay. Perhaps it would not make up for the lives he’d ended, the laws he’d carried out. He did not much care; there were three lives, at least, that need not be snuffed out today–and that was enough. 

   None of the children moved, and even in the deepening dark he could see disbelief twisting across the boy’s face.

   “And in return for all this?” he asked, his voice tinged with something like sarcasm. It sounded ugly, coming from one so young.

   Shiram had asked the Queen the same thing once. ‘Loyalty,’ she’d said. She had meant his soul.

   Shiram shook his head.

   “Nothing.”

   Just his own soul.

Epilogue:

   The boy’s name was Steven, Shiram learned; and the little wordless girl hanging off of Jess’s skirt was called Hanna. The ride home was long, but they were met by friendly kitchen fires and Cook’s cakes. Madalena–for her name was Madalena, as Shiram was proud to discover–was the one who finally made Steven smile. It was a small, brief smile, but it was a beginning.

   Shiram sat farthest from the fire, keeping the nightmare shadows away from the now-happy group. The cold had wearied him to the bone, and he was almost considering going to sleep. 

   A tiny hand seizing his sleeve stirred him, and he looked down to find Hanna giving him a mostly toothless grin. He was too surprised to protest as she pulled herself onto his lap and curled up like a cat, falling asleep in matter of minutes. 

  Shiram blinked–first at her, then at the stone walls. No nightmares lurked there, for once. Just firelight, and kindness, and home. A kind world, in which he hardly seemed to belong. He would have gotten up to leave, but for the lightweight anchor asleep on his chest.

   Lord Shiram Reuben of Oboro-Teh dared a smile.

   Cast your life on the will of the holies.

   For maybe, just maybe, they would give it back again.

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Death Wish

 

Jax had never intended to end up as a live-action wish-granting genie. It wasn’t a career choice many made–none, in fact, which was the main reason the Star Foundation didn’t make it a matter of choices. Unless, of course, you wanted to get technical and point out that ‘do this or die’ is a valid choice, if a rather unpleasant one–but Jax didn’t care for technicalities.

Technicalities seemed to be rapidly taking over this train of thought, and he gave it up for lost, absently checking his wrist. He frowned, tapped it, and the string of numbers that had replaced his iDent patch flickered to life, glowing green through his skin and shifting as they ticked off a countdown.

“Four hours left.” he said, to no one in particular.

Tig hummed to life at the sound of his voice.

“Four hours to mission complete.” the hoverbot agreed in a mechanically toneless voice, whirring up by Jax’s shoulder. “Return to Star 42 in four hours on pain of immediate execution.”

Jax fixed it with a glare, the expression wasted on the sightless robot.

“Very helpful, Tig.”

The machine bleeped inarticulately, spinning on its axis, and Jax sighed. A year ago, he’d tried to cheer himself up by painting a bright yellow smiley face on the robot’s surface, and had spent the next twelve months violently wishing he hadn’t. Given Tig’s usual mode of conversation, the smile was often more ironic than cheerful.

He looked out at the planet they’d landed on, surprising himself by wishing he was back aboard his star again. The tiny ship seemed like a prison–was a prison, really–but it was a great deal more pleasant than a Ciloan city. The barren planet that had somehow managed to be the capitol of the entire Firusian Federation wasn’t known for its pleasant climate in the best of times, but in the midst of the city with the energy of a thousand generators, airboats, street lamps and restaurant-ovens radiating through the air, it was a hellish nightmare.

It wasn’t even midday yet. Barely past morning, in fact; the moons were still fading away in the north. But he had to wait.

“Do you require a countdown?” Tig buzzed helpfully, startling Jax out of his thoughts.

“I’m not dawdling.” Jax retorted. “I can’t do a thing until he arrives, anyway.” he gestured to the open square in front of them, where a small crowd was beginning to filter in before the famed Platform One, ready to hear the Emperor’s blessing. From the anticipation that buzzed through the growing group of people, you’d think this was a bicentennial event, and not a daily one.

“Your tone indicates a reply in the negative. Confirm?”

“Confirm.” Jax wondered if the robot could always pick up the emotions behind his voice, or if it simply picked up on the ones it needed to.

He wondered, perhaps a little pointlessly, if Tig knew that he was afraid.

He shouldn’t have been. The Star Foundation had gotten him on thousands of missions before this. Any prayer, any hope, any half-spoken dream that through chance or design reached the sensors of Star 42, Jax was commissioned with granting. Usually, it was children with simple requests (though on one occasion, a little girl asked him to remove the teeth from all the bears on her home planet. That mission had been a bit of a nightmare).

Today was something very different. Something illegal, possibly even wrong. Something that made Jax’s heart beat a sickening tune of worry in chest no matter how hard he tried to calm it.

Today, someone had asked him to kill the Emperor.

Jax had intended to be a smuggler. Good pay, low risks, new city every few weeks. Barely a month on the job before he’d been arrested and given the choice that was not a choice–death, or life-long employment with the Star Foundation.

Of the two options, the second had seemed infinitely more appealing. Magical wish-granting powers, his own private star. Not dying.

Well, not dying on the condition that his missions were completed on time. The Star Foundation prided itself on dedicated employees, and since their only employees were those already sentenced to death… the words ‘immediate execution’ were tossed around more than Jax would have liked.

Tig, apparently, had forgotten his request not to give a countdown.

“Return to Star 42 in three hours forty-five minutes on pain of immediate execution.” the robot whirred helpfully.

“I know. I can’t exactly shoot the emperor while he isn’t here, now can I?” Jax argued, attempting to reason with the bot, and succeeding only in reminding himself of the ridiculousness of his situation.

The Star Foundation didn’t endorse the killing of emperors. But, with the thoughtless innocence of bureaucratic administration, neither had they anticipated that their services could be used as someone’s personal assassination squad. Perhaps, if Jax mailed in a complaint, it would be read in a week or two.

But by then, Jax would have been forcefully decommissioned and left as a forgotten pile of smoldering ash until Star 42 was cleaned out in preparation for a new occupant.

Granted, going through with this assignment was high treason and would probably end with him dead as well as the emperor. But going through with it gave him time, and he was riding on the hope that once again, the law would let him slip quietly through the cracks and keep up some kind of existence.

After all, it was his only option.

Official-sounding trumpets blared, tinnily amplified through a complex myriad of speakers set into the four corners of the courtyard–a system to ensure that every citizen could hear every word of the Emperor’s Morning Blessing.

There were an awful lot of citizens, Jax realized suddenly. He’d chosen at first to take up residence in a small alcove, from which he could see the tiny podium atop Platform One without being within sight of anyone standing there. A crowdful of heads milled about now, occasionally obscuring the podium from view. And while Jax had hardened himself to the idea of killing an old and powerful man to ensure his own survival, the idea of accidentally killing some innocent commoner in the process made him sick to his stomach.

Taking an ennobling breath, he plunged into the crowd, fighting his way towards the front. It would be hard to run away out of the melee once the deed was done, he realized; but there was no time.

The Emperor was arriving.

The base of Platform One rose up and opened itself, the various sections chuffing mechanically, unfolding like the petals of some reluctant flower. The crowd pressed Jax even harder. He saw, without exactly looking, a thin, pale-looking figure rising out of Platform One and waving listlessly at the people; but by then Jax was at the front, ignoring as best he could the bodies shoving themselves against his back. Tig had stopped the countdown; in truth Jax didn’t need it. He knew how much time he had–just enough to finish this and perhaps get away. Forgetting would take longer, he suspected; but he was on his own time for that.

“We greet and bless this morning, that dawns on our great city–” A reedy voice began, catapulted through the speakers to deafening effect.

Jax pulled the hand-pistol from his coat, checking for the fourth time that there was a bullet in the chamber. A glass shrapnel bullet, filled with an oozy green substance. It would shatter on impact, spreading the poison everywhere, filling the vital organs with tiny cutting shards, assuring death–a nasty weapon. A nasty job.

Jax drew another breath. Someone would see the second he aimed the weapon; he would have to fire as soon as he could, and retreat into the crowd again. Perhaps the shot would panic them enough so everyone would flee; in that case, he should be able to escape fairly easily.

He still hesitated, holding the pistol half-drawn from his coat and trying to still his shaking hands.

Perhaps he was looking for a distraction. In any case, a tiny movement, far off to his left, caught his attention.

Someone stepping out of the crowd–a girl, her dark brows determined, glaring up at the still-speaking Emperor with undisguised scorn. A blue satchel hung over her shoulder; still staring at the emperor, she tossed it at the base of the platform, mouthing words Jax couldn’t hear before she turned on her heel and disappeared.

Something about the oddity of this tugged at Jax’s mind, speaking of danger; he struggled to comprehend it.

Before he could, an explosion rocked the ground.

Jax knew only bits and pieces of what followed. Rubble flying, shocking the air with its very bulk; dust–he himself being knocked flat on his back–but other than that initial flash of panic and light, he could never recall anything but a dull, open blank of time.

Some seconds–or perhaps it was some minutes–later, he found himself unexpectedly alive. Half-buried in dust and scattered rock, adrenaline flooding and muscles quivering–but alive all the same.

He blinked, trying to clear blurred vision. A great dust-grey panel of metal–one of Platform One’s many petals–hung above him, suspended.

No, not suspended, he realized–broken. The rubble was supporting it, keeping it from crushing him–and trapping him in  a veritable cave of debris.

Where was the light coming from? Jax pushed himself up, ignoring his jarred and aching body, and saw Tig. The little bot had gone into its Night settings, glowing a yellowish-white. The painted face showed in ghoulish backlight; Tig had sustained no damages that Jax could see, but the bot was rolling on the ground in an uncharacteristically insipid manner. Jax picked him up, worried, and the bot’s light flickered.

“–M–iss-i-on–” Tig stuttered, trying to say something.

“Workaholic,” Jax muttered at him. “Can’t you worry about something else as you’re dying?”

“Ret–urn to stARr F-f-f-” the audio began to jabber and finally fizzled out, before adding clear as a bell– “On pain of death.”

And with that, the bot left Jax in the midst of a deadening silence. He stared at the darkly smiling face, resolving not to give in to panic. He couldn’t panic now–not yet.

Someone groaned. A thin, reedy kind of groan, followed by a faint cough.

Jax spun around, shining Tig in the general direction of the voice.

It was a man.

He was half-buried under a pile of rubble, blinking at Jax with watery eyes. Wisps of white hair clung to a scalp dotted with age spots.

“Help.”

“I’m coming.”

Setting Tig down, Jax knelt to examine the rocks that seemed to be crushing the man to nothing. The sight made him realize just how lucky he’d been.

“Get–get it off.” the man pleaded, apparently in reference to the several hundred pounds of rubble that had settled on his chest and legs.

“I will.” Jax promised, hesitating. What damage would removing them cause? Some foggy idea of misplaced organs and blood welling unwelcome in lungs gave him pause. The man groaned again, and Jax decided that whatever happened, it surely couldn’t be worse than slowly being squished to death.

“Alright,” he said, steeling himself to haul the stones away. “Alright. You’ll be–” he hefted the first hunk of rock off the man’s chest, almost dropping it again at the man’s scream. Instead he managed to stagger several feet away with it, dropping it on the ground beside Tig. The little bot rolled listlessly, making the oddly strewn shadows of the cave dance.

The man was lying still, making small sounds of pain. When Jax returned to his side, he shook his head wildly.

“No. Leave them. Didn’t–think.”

If there was a way to help, Jax didn’t know it. The sense of despair he felt at that surprised him.

“Not to worry.” the old man said, almost lightly past his pain. “I’m sure they’ll all come rushing to save me.”

Jax wondered at the assurance in the man’s voice.

“No doubt. You’ll be second after the Emperor, I’m sure.” he said, half in imitation of the man’s lightness, half in an idiotic bitterness that sprung from the knowledge that however it may be with this man or the Emperor, no one would be coming to save Jax–rushing or otherwise. The old man looked at him sharply, making Jax realize just how stupid his feelings were.

“The Emperor.” the old man managed. “Would he really be the first on everyone’s minds? Is he really that beloved?”

Beloved, Jax thought. Odd choice of words.

“He’s… important.”

The old man nodded. “Important.” he repeated dully, staring up at the unwelcome roof. The silence that followed was deathlike, and Jax checked the numbers across his forearm in discomfort. The green figures were ticking away softly, rhythmically, but the time they represented sent a wave of panic. Forty-two minutes left?

No rescue crew, rushing or not, would be getting here in a mere forty-two minutes.

Jumping up, Jax searched the walls of rubble for a weak point. Finding none, the panic began to take over and he scrabbled at the piles of rock, prying stones free with his fingers. He could feel the old man’s eyes boring into his back as his attack on the wall grew ever fiercer, to ever-diminishing effect. A layer of rubble, displaced by his efforts, tumbled to the ground in a bruising cascade–only to reveal another wall of rock, tighter-packed than the first. Heart pounding furiously in preparation for a flight he could not take, Jax sagged against the stone and tried to ignore the useless chorus singing in his head–trapped, trapped, trapped.

He forced breath into unwilling lungs, trying to think. What was the worst that could happen? Tig was in no condition to decommission him. He would just have to not return to his star. Go on the run. He could do that. He could survive…

Until the Star Foundation caught up with him. There would be no explaining, after that, no consideration of his case.

“Seeing as we’re both going to be stuck in here until someone comes to rescue us, you might as well introduce yourself.”

Jax  let his eyes glaze over as he stared at the wall separating him from his star, processing the old man’s words in tandem with the realization that he was going to die, very soon, and there was nothing he could do about it. The revelation did not make him feel conversational.

The cycle of his panicked thoughts was thrown off course by a new idea.

Why shouldn’t he feel conversational? He had less than forty minutes to live. And for the first time in his life, he had no secrets to keep. No consequences to fear. He could be utterly and freely truthful for a whole–he checked the numbers on his arm again–thirty minutes, starting with his name.

He turned on the man and tried to smile.

“Jax Cortas,” he said flamboyantly, as though he was announcing the name of a saint or a brigand. The old man blinked up at him, unimpressed.

“Ereb,” he offered simply.

“I’m an assassin,” Jax said, high on the recklessness of honesty. Ereb’s eyebrows shot up, and Jax grinned at him, walking to sit with his back against the wall so they could speak face-to-face. “Sent to kill an emperor. Not my usual line of work, but–”

Jax had grown used to spilling his thoughts and feelings in their unadulterated entirety on the unresponsive Tig. In the throes of habit and revelation both,  he poured his whole story out, beginning with the impossible choice and ending with the girl and her backpack.

“Come to think of it, she was probably the one doing the wishing,” Jax said, as he finished. “Didn’t even know she’d hired me.”

Aside from a few initial expressions of surprise, Ereb had been as unresponsive as Tig–though his immobile expression was much less cheerful. As the story ended, the old man frowned.

“Surely you could have refused,” he said, rather stiffly. “They can’t penalize you for not breaking the law.”

“Not knowingly,” Jax agreed. “But their systems are automated. By the time it was realized what happened–” he shrugged. “I’d already be dead.”

With that cheery reflection, he looked at his clock. Nineteen minutes. He wondered if Tig would repair himself in time for the execution, or if some other hoverbot would take his old friend’s place. Not that it mattered. He forced his wrist down, forced himself to look away. Ereb wasn’t doing too well either, he realized. The man was breathing weakly, face wrenched into an expression of pain.

“Are you certain I can’t–” Jax began, moving to try and shift the rubble again, but Ereb cut him off.

“Don’t be an idiot,” he snapped. “I’m gone, whether you move them or not.” his voice, strong at first, became a choked whisper by the end of the sentence. This helpless fading pricked Jax to something like anger.

“Help’s coming, and you’re alive yet. Don’t give up so easy,” he said, not gently.

Ereb looked at him, eyes bright and suddenly clear.

“Fine advice. You should follow it yourself.”

Unable to reply to this, Jax looked down and found himself staring at the numbers in his wrist again. Fifteen minutes. He wasn’t giving up; he was facing the facts.

“Stop looking at that!” Ereb blustered, wheezing and struggling under the rubble. Jax tried to get him to stop, then realized Ereb was peeling something off his arm.

“Cover it with this,” he said, sounding very petulant and old. “No point staring at how little time you’ve got.”

It was an iDent patch–the man’s entire identity.

“I won’t be needing that anymore, anyway. Make good use of it, hey, in– the–” he coughed, the sound reverberating deep in his lungs– “In the time you have left.”

Precious little time that was. Still, Jax didn’t have the heart to refuse.

“More time than–I have,” Ereb said,  as if answering his thoughts.

Jax darted forward as the old man coughed again, sputtering blood this time. Unsure what to do, Jax held up his head, and in the idiocy of fear alternately demanding that he not try to speak and that he say something–anything.

There was no one shining or horrible moment of death. There was only the fright, the struggle for life–and then the realization that, quite suddenly, the thing he was holding was a man no longer, but only the empty shell of one.

Not long after, a drill broke through the ceiling, opening a portal into the cave. Light streamed in, and Jax blinked. A pair of hoverbots were the first to enter, whizzing curiously about the room.

Jax’s time had run out long ago, and he steeled himself against the inevitable–but the bots seemed uninterested in him. Waiting out of respect for the dead, perhaps.

Emergency responders were the next on the scene. They had none of the hoverbot’s dawdling complacency, racing forward the second they hit the ground. Jax, still cradling the old man’s head in his lap, shook his head at them.

“He’s dead.”

The first responder scowled at him and knelt beside Ereb anyway, scanning him, opening his eyes, feeling for a pulse–as if somehow, one of the tests would show a different result from the rest. Jax edged away from her efforts, slowly standing up. When she finally gave up and sat back, it was with an expression of complete and utter tiredness.

“How long has he been gone?”

Jax checked his wrist. The iDent patch Ereb had loaned him had blurred the lines to the point of unreadability, but there was no green glow visible beneath it now. His time had run out, he wasn’t sure how long ago.

“He’s been dead at least fifteen minutes,” he said, taking a safe guess as he wondered again why the hoverbots waited. The second responder stepped forward, kneeling over the body, and Jax stared at the open hole in the rubble. He could clamber through it, leave… and spend his last minutes running, shot in the back instead of the front.

The difference wasn’t worth the effort.

“We’ll have to be the ones to carry the news, won’t we?” the second responder said dully, removing his mask. “He’s really dead.”

Jax stopped staring at the listless hoverbots to look at the responders again.

“He had a family?” he asked, wondering who they would be reporting to. The second responder looked vaguely surprised to hear him speak, as though he’d forgotten Jax existed.

“Sadly, no,” he said, matter-of-factly. “The Council will be hard pressed to find an heir.”

“Hard pressed! More like overjoyed and at each other’s throats,” the woman replied, scowling at her scanner and tapping it on the concrete floor. “Damned thing won’t work,” she muttered.

“What? Let me see.”

“It keeps telling me he’s not in the system–and that can’t be, the Emperor of all people is sure to be in there.”

“Surely,” the man said, fiddling with the scanner in complete oblivion to the fact that Jax was struggling under the weight of an impossible revelation.

Ereb. Emperor Ereb-Claren, ruler of all Cilos–and he had died in Jax’s arms.

The second realization was almost upon him when the responder put it into words.

“His iDent patch is gone!” she exclaimed. “How can it be gone? Only he could have removed it, and where–”

Jax was staring at the thing on his arm–a gift given so flippantly he’d never realized the import of it. An identity–a new identity, free from the Wishing Star Foundation and all its penalties. Not just something to distract him from his own inevitable death–life.

The responders had fallen silent as well, and Jax looked up from the patch on his arm to their incredulous looks as they all realized the same thing. Suddenly he felt the weight of the dust, the dirt, the blood that covered him; the cheap tattoos that marred his arms seemed to be burning on his skin as for a second, he saw himself as they must be seeing him. A criminal. A commoner. A dirty stranger.

The woman, still with a dazed expression, pointed the scanner at him. It whirred, clicked–and announced, in automated tones–

“Identity confirm>Ereb-Claren the Twenty-Fifth, Emperor of Firusian Federation.”

“Well then,” the second responder said, shaking his head. “Long live the emperor.”

And, in spite of every doubt, he did.