In the Caverns of the Rock Lord

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 In the shadows, on a massive throne of obsidian sat a creature that looked as though it had been carved into a bloated, grotesque mockery of a human form. The Stonewights, his underlings, stood about him with axes and bent swords at the ready.
And the Stonewight who sat upon the obsidian throne was the greatest and cruelest in this clan. For this he had been elevated to the status of Rock-Lord.
He knew how to fashion the armor and weapons his guards presently carried—and out of his disobedient underlings, no less!  Any Stonewight who opposed him was held down by the Rock-Lord’s massive hands around his throat. And as they struggled against his grip, he would take a hammer, a pickaxe, or any other tool made for fashioning weapons, and begin to carve the underling into a new weapon for more loyal Stonewights.
Axes, swords, daggers, tongs, and instruments of torture, this Rock-Lord could fashion better than any other, and it was for this reason that all of his underlings feared him.
Presently, as the Rock Lord leaned forward his movements made a sound of crunching gravel that reverberated across the cave walls. Slowly, like the air was made of tar, he reached down to grasp the underling bound at his feet, who tried to utter pleas for mercy. Yet he had dared to speak against the Rock-Lord, and the Rock-Lord was not known to tolerate such insolence.
The Rock-Lord tightened his fist around the underling’s throat, raised a hammer overhead and pounded down.
The underling let out a pitiful howl, and the other Stonewights stirred at this.
After several minutes of this, one of the Stonewights approached, and, in a tongue full of harsh consonants and sounds from the back of the throat, asked, “Why do you do this? This underling was a trusted advisor. Is this truly necessary?”
The Rock-Lord did not reply, yet the longer his underling stood there, the heavier his hammer began to beat down upon the underling like the warning of a war drum.
The Stonewight thought it best to make an addendum to his question: “That is, should you wish to tell me. I would never question your authority.”
The Rock-Lord’s hand clasped even tighter around the underling’s throat. His hammering had wrought it into the shape of a curved sword. The underling was silent, now, save for the occasional pitiful groan of a dying creature.
The Rock-Lord still did not answer the Stonewight’s question. He did not look up, and when the weapon was finished, he felt a strange power surge through the lifeless underling and into his hand. He drew back, as though the newly-wrought weapon had turned red hot.
“My Lord?” The Stonewight said, “My Lord, what ails you?”
The Rock-Lord swatted the Stonewight away. “I have sensed a powerful presence. A presence one so lowly as you cannot feel through the stones of the land.” The Rock-Lord breathed heavily, for he knew that presence. He had been waiting for it for a long time. “And he is not far,” the Rock-Lord hissed. “Yet he has woven a powerful magic—strong enough to keep the Ever-Changing Land from shifting the area. I must drive him out, and back into these lands.”
“What man is this who wields the power to still the Ever-Changing Land? And why would you seek to bring him here?”
The Rock-Lord looked up to match the Stonewight’s stare. His hand tightened on his hammer with a sound like grinding boulders. He did not need to say a word to make the Stonewight cower. “Because I have met him before, and I am overdue for my vengeance.” He turned his gaze on the rest of the underlings. “Send word to the Traveling Dark—bring me Dyvian Gray.”
Dyvian Gray finished paying his debts to the local innkeeper, Phira. He bowed to her. “Thank you for allowing us to stay the night.”
“And thank you,” Phira said, tapping her foot impatiently, “For stilling our town.”
“You’re quite welcome—oh!” Dyvian reached into his purse and brought forth five more gold coins. “I hope this will pay for the damages. I apologize for the inconvenience.” The words had scarcely left his mouth before Phira snatched up the coins.
By inconveniences, Elegia knew he was referring to the gaping hole in the side of the inn.
Elegia, being only half Forest Spirit, had little to no control of her abilities. As a Forest Spirit, she could bend trees, roots and anything wrought from wood to her will. Yet she could only do this in the midst of a panic, or during other times her subconscious mind was allowed to take over.
 Last night she had dreamed the branches outside her window had made a bed for her, woven out of its own wood.
That morning, she awoke to find herself cradled by that very same tree, and turned to see the wall of her room reduced to rubble. But Dyvian had told her not to worry. He would pay for the damages, same as always.
Elegia was a raggedy girl. In fact, she did not look like a girl at all. In her threadbare clothes it was plain to see she was a bit taller than most, with broad shoulders, and a freckled face with a flat nose. But what truly set her apart from other women was what was inside her trousers. Many told her that she was not a woman because of what was in her trousers, yet Elegia felt more like woman than a boy in all regards. She had the mind of her mother.
At least, that’s what Dyvian told her. Her mother had died when she was little, waylaid by highwaymen and used for firewood. Her father died of grief upon hearing the news, and Dyvian took her in a few days later.
They had been wandering ever since, for everyone knows that a Wizard never stays in one place for very long. They are always contracted to still the Ever-Changing Land for human settlements.
Elegia had just finished packing her travel sack when Phira furrowed her brow at the Half-Breed. “Well,” she said, tapping her foot. “Are you leaving my inn or not?”
Dyvian open his mouth, ready to assuage her anger, but before he could speak, a knock pounded against the door.
            Elegia scrambled for the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the stranger, but the moment she put her face against the glass, darkness began to spread across the outside world like frost on the windowpanes during a snowy morning. The outside world went black. She ducked beneath a table, perspiration collected on her forehead like dust to a cabinet.
“Don’t open the door,” she said to Phira. Her voice was barely above a whisper.
            Phira looked at her, her pupils dilated and her face red, sweaty and piggish. It was though the unnatural darkness spread a fear that permeated throughout the room. “I don’t plan to,” she said, hoarsely.
            Elegia noticed that Dyvian was studying the windows. He seemed to be the only one who could do so without being overcome by fear. Yet a rivulet of sweat ran down his temple. “Damn it all,” he muttered. “I never thought they’d get out of the caverns.”
            “What’s going on?” Elegia whispered.
“We’re being hunted by three siblings,” he explained. “They are called the Traveling Dark.”
            The knock resounded again, this time the door rattled. “Let us in,” a breathy voice like wind on the windows. “We are three weary travelers who seek food and shelter. Will you not show kindness to a stranger?”
            “Don’t let them in,” Dyvian said to Phira. He came towards her, towering over the woman. His lean, gaunt face reminded Elegia of the goblins she’d read of in storybooks. “Look away from the walls and do not heed their voices. It is wind on the windows. Nothing more.”
            The creatures continued to speak, and Elegia closed her eyes and told herself that is was just the wind.
            “Why do you help me?” Phira asked, “What do you want? What—” but the sorcerer cut her off.
            “Have no fear. These things do not come for you.”
            “Then why are they here?”
            “Excuse me,” Elegia interrupted, consciously tuning out the dark presence all around them. “But what do we do?”
            “Hush, child. I’m thinking.”
            “Now is not the time for thinking!” Elegia hissed in a strangled attempt to shout.
            “Of course. You’re right,” Dyvian said. “Forgive me.” He turned to face Phira. “You are safe. This I swear.” He took her by the shoulders. “Which makes what I have to do all the worse.”
            “What—?” was the only word Phira could utter before Dyvian pressed his lips to her ear and whispered something that Elegia could not hear. Phira collapsed, and Dyvian lowered her gently to the ground.
            “What have you done?” Elegia whispered.
“A small magic. She is safe from the Dark for now, at the expense of her consciousness. Now follow me—out the back door.”
            Elegia did so, following him through the kitchens, where Dyvian picked up a boiling pot of water. He braced his hand on the doorknob. “When I open this door, you run. Do you understand me? Do not falter and whatever you do, do not look back. Have I made myself clear?”
            Elegia nodded, and Dyvian flung the door open, throwing the boiling water into the air in the same motion. He ushered her out in front of him. “Go! Go!
            The empty pot clattered to the ground, and something sounded that was either a hiss or the rustling leaves.
            Away from stilled lands they ran; into the Ever-Changing Land did they went, cloaks trailing behind them. Elegia felt three presences chasing them, like the echoes of one’s footsteps in the dead of night.
            Only now the offbeat footfalls of their pursuers felt more like three destriers breathing down the back of her neck.
Beyond them lay a valley, and beyond that, a forest. Elegia felt a tug on the hood of her cloak and for a moment thought the Traveling Dark had caught her. But when she turned to look she saw Dyvian, who righted her off the path.
            “Where are we going?” Elegia asked through heavy breaths. “You’ve taken us off the path!”
            “Taking a path is the best way to ensure your own capture. You cannot follow a steady route to your destination. Not with creatures like this at your back. And especially not when the land itself is not linear.”
            Elegia felt pinpricks in her side, and fought to keep running. “How much longer?” she shrieked.
            “As long as it takes. Think not of what is chasing you. Only the road ahead.”
            “Or lack thereof.”
            They duo crested a stony hill, cloaks snapping like war banners. Dyvian urged her down towards a ravine laced with gullies. They kicked up explosions of water as they ran through the stream.
            Laughter chased them.
            “You cannot escape us,” another voice said. A second one, like horses galloping along the gullies. “Surrender to us, sorcerer, and we will spare your friend.”
            Elegia pushed herself to go faster, so that her legs were numb and moving of their own accord. On the edge of the ravine was a sparse forest. As they drew near it, Dyvian used her hood as though it was a horse’s reins. “Stay where you are, child,” Dyvian said. “I will not let them harm you.”
            The Wizard straightened sauntered back toward the ravine. Three trails of black, cylindrical smoke raced overhead, swirled above Dyvian and then crashed to the ground, where the smoke curled away.
            Beneath it were three figures that were not figures. They were part of the darkness that surrounded them, and did not seem entirely there. Elegia only caught glimpses of their visage when they moved.
            A third voice spoke in a voice like the craw of a far off raven. “Give into us, and we will spare the Half-Breed.”
            Dyvian reached beneath the folds of his cloak and drew a gleaming sword. He leveled his blade at the darkness. “You are liars, all three of you. I know your true purpose. Leave this place. This will be your final warning.”
            The second voice spoke again. “You burned me—”
            “You had to take form to attack. Do not fault me for taking an opportunity when I see one. You of all creatures must respect that.”
            “I was willing to let this slight pass, if you surrendered. It will now be punished.”
            The Darkness drew their blades with a sound like shrieking wind. Their sword strokes came swift; Dyvian looked like he was parrying lightning. Every time his blade met his foe’s, Elegia caught glimpses of an image in solid form, yet it vanished too fast to mark anything about it.
            Two rows of black smoke circled Dyvian as he fought his opponent. He stumbled back through mud and muck, using sword to block the Darkness’s attacks. The circles of black smoke kept him confined.
            “Yield, and I shall let you live,” the second voice said.
            “Leave this place!” Dyvian shouted. “This is not your ground. You are in no place to make deals.”
            The Darkness leapt forward, forcing Dyvian back. Explosions of water kicked up from what few gullies remained in the clearing.
            All three voices spoke as one. “You dare to claim what ground is and is not ours? You will die for this!” They struck, sending sparks skittering off Dyvian’s blade.
            And all at once, Dyvian was defending himself from three sword strokes—three bolts of lightning-that-was-not-lightning. “Bravado is easily uttered,” he said, “But you will find it hard to proof.”
            He did not attack this time, he merely parried blow after blow. Sparks flew from his sword, and he shouted a spell that sounded mostly of vowels. Upon utterance, the sparks on his blade turned to lightning and crashed down behind Elegia, who threw herself to the ground, and when she turned, she saw a tree hewn in half at the middle, its branches on fire.
            “Defend yourself!” Dyvian shouted.
            “Take the Half-Breed!” the second voice commanded, and the Darkness pulsed at Elegia. “Take him!”
            Two clouds of darkness flew over Dyvian, who was too busy defending himself from the second sibling to assist Elegia.
            Elegia was acutely aware of her own trembling. “Back off, you!” she shouted.
            The third voice spoke, patiently. “My quarrel is not with you. Stand down, and you will not be harmed, boy.”
            “Don’t you call me that!” Elegia shouted. “Don’t you call me a boy!” She lunged at the darkness, which passed through her as easily as fog. She crumpled to the ground.
            They closed in on her. She backed away on all fours until she hit the hewn tree. They were almost upon her when she outthrust an open palm. She closed her eyes and awaited their killing stroke.
To her surprise, nothing came. She opened her eyes to see the Darkness was reeling back from a coil of fiery wood that had lashed out from the burning tree. The Darkness retreated, screeching.
            She snapped a branch from the tree and swung as the Darkness, and daylight peeked through what might’ve been their torsos. The Darkness shrank back, ready to retreat.
She was dimly aware of the second voice speaking. “My siblings. What have you done to my siblings? It lashed out three more times, and then the darkness receded like a wave sinking back into the ocean.
            Dyvian sheathed his blade beneath the folds of his cloak. Elegia noticed he had been wounded. The Wizard had been cut along his torso and left arm, though the lacerations bore no deep gashes, the way Dyvian moved suggested it stung. He looked at her with a face as blank as stone.
            Elegia dropped the flaming stick. “Did I kill them?”
            Dyvian shook his head. Between labored breaths he said, “Can light kill darkness? No, it only scatters it. You have wounded them, and that shall serve. This way, child.” He pointed to the sparse forest. “We have to move before the land shifts.”
             “The land is shifting? Why so soon?”
            “All I can say is that it is due to sorcery of the master to the Traveling Dark.”
            “Why would a sorcerer force the land to shift? It does that of its own accord. And what happens when a shift is forced?”
            Dyvian did not answer.
Elegia gave in to her the Wizard’s silence, and walked with him. Weariness made her muscles awkward, as though there were lead in her kneecaps. She followed him as if the coercion of his willpower dragged her forward.
As they traveled, she became an expert on Dyvian’s back. He never compromised, nor slouched to admit a doubt about his authority. Her walking became rhythmic, after a while
“Will you answer my question?” she asked.
“No.”
The absence of emotion in his denial spread a contortion across Elegia’s face. Yet Dyvian’s back compelled her like an ultimatum: keep moving or die; I permit no other alternatives. He stalked ahead of her like a silhouette walking through a nightmare.
She was so consumed by her thoughts that she did not notice Dyvian stop. She thudded into his back and fell to the forest floor. He scanned the horizon as Elegia pulled herself to her feet.
 “Elegia,” Dyvian said, “Do you want your question answered?” When he finished speaking, there was a rumble in the distance. She scanned the horizon behind her. Trees toppled and then disappeared, as though the ground had swallowed them up.
“Is this your doing?” she asked.
“Do you want your questions answered?” he asked again.
“Yes.”
“Then I’d like to ask a favor.”
“What’s that?”
“Run!”
And she did.
Thick trees snapped at their ankles like breaking bones. Stones emerged all around them, jagged, like the teeth to the gaping maw of giant rising from the ground.
 “You’re not running fast enough.” Dyvian growled. “Do you want to know why this is happening? Do you want to know about the Traveling Dark? Do you?”
 “I do!”
“Then run, Elegia!”
Dyvian’s seized the hood of her cloak and hauled her out of the woods. He followed close behind; twisting so that his back felt the brunt of the impact.
When Elegia looked back, there was a mountain in place of a forest. It rose from the ground, breaking trees as it did so. What few did survive dotted the precipices. “The shifts,” she said, “They’ve never been that dangerous.”
“That is so,” Dyvian said, through labored breaths. It was the first sign of fatigue that the sorcerer had shown. “Not to worry. The land shall right itself in good time. As for your questions—we are being hunted.
“No, that is not right. I am being hunted by a creature I once knew long before I met your mother, and longer still before I took you in. He is known as Grold the Rock-Lord. When I first met him, he could track anyone as long as they walked along the stones of the land. He was powerful, and began to conquer the Ever-Changing Land so that it was stilled into nothing bought rock and stone. Other clans still do this, but they know by example that there are consequences for conquering in excess.
 “I sought to right Grold’s reckless march across the Ever-Changing Land. Our encounter reduced his power to a fraction of what it once was, and I cast him and his followers into the deepest caverns below the Ever-Changing Lands. This included the Traveling Dark.
“It would seem the Ever-Changing Lands has brought those caverns close enough for him to find me, even in his weakened state.”
“Then let’s go,” Elegia said, “We have to keep moving until we find this Rock-Lord, right? Either that, or he keeps chasing us until…” Elegia did not like the end of that thought.
Dyvian nodded, “That is so.”
So the two continued onward. They came down a winding path as the sun was setting.
As they wound down the path. She noticed the fields of grass opposite the road looming taller and taller. She looked to Dyvian for some kind of warning, but the Wizard did not seem to notice. The ground rose on either side as if it were about to swallow them. She wiped a sheen of sweat from her brow and prepared herself for the worst.
And then the land stopped. “Dyvian?”
            “What is it this time?”
            “We’re in a gorge.”
            “I noticed.”
            “But we’re not going downhill.”
            “The land is changing.”
            There was a rumbling in the distance, but Elegia could not see what caused it over the depths of the gorge. All she saw was a cloud of smoke rising into the air as though from a giant’s hearth.
The road had widened, and they were walking through a large basin now. “What was that?”
            “A mountain just crumbled,” Dyvian said, matter-of-factly.
            “Oh.” And after a span of three heartbeats, they crested the gorge and came to a marsh, cut in half by a twisting file of wet, compact sand.
            Mist curled about pools of muck and water. Elegia followed Dyvian down the sandy path that kept them above the murky waters.
            And then he stopped abruptly, so that Elegia almost rammed into him.
He caught Elegia by the shirt before she could fall on her back. “Tread carefully. The Mudwights just won a battle against Icewights for the rights to this section of the Ever-Changing Land.” He peered through the marsh. “This may mean trouble.”
            “Mudwights?”
            “That would be us, dear boy.” It was a voice from behind her.
Elegia turned to see a group of six creatures crawling from the muck and onto the path. They looked vaguely like humans, if humans were made of dirt and mud.
            “The dirt-men,” Dyvian explained. Elegia saw the truth of this. As their leader advanced on them, she saw mud slough off of his jaw, and the dirt of his shoulder crawled up his neck to patch the gap.
            “I will admit we are not the best with names,” their leader said. “Mudwightmakes us sound like a cruel, sadistic people.”
            “A fitting warning, then.” Dyvian said.
            “You little—” their leader smacked Elegia aside, and his fist exploded into clumps of dirt. Elegia fell, and the mud crawled off her cheek like a thousand tiny worms, inching their way toward the leader’s wrist. She sat in the mud and as the leader seized Dyvian by his collar and pulled him close. “I ought to kill you for those words.”
            “Like you killed the Icewights?”
            Another one spoke. Elegia hadn’t noticed him creep up on her. “The boy’s a Half-Breed!” he shouted.
            The leader turned and gave her a look that made her feel naked. “Half Forest Spirit,” he growled.
            “I’m not a boy!” Elegia interjected. “I am a girl! And yes I am a Half-Breed—what of it?”
            The leader crouched to be at eye level with her, and stroked the leftover flecks of dirt off her cheek, unaware of the new line of sand he had created. “My apologies, my lady,” he said. “My name is Grollek. And because I have erred, I will in turn forgive your crass remark. Mudwights and Forest Spirits are not known to get along well. They use our soil for their trees, and our murky waters kill their trees in turn.”
            Elegia chose her words carefully. She spoke slowly, as if talking to a child. “I am not affiliated with the Forest Spirits, and I am sorry for any wrongs my kin have done to you.”
            Grollek turned to the others. “This one has manners, unlike the other.” His followers laughed at that. “I admire your respect, girl. Tell me, and be honest—are you afraid?
            Elegia nodded. “I am.”
            “I’m not surprised. You are not the first to say so. I will not deny my people are easily provoked, and quick to violence. But you have done me no ill. Yet. Therefore I have no cause to mistrust you. Yet. May I ask a question?”
“You may.”
“What brings you to my domain here in the Ever-Changing Lands?—ah-ah! Do not look to your companion for help. Tell me the truth.”
            Elegia’s could hear her blood pumping. She breathed deep and said, “The Traveling Dark.”
The Mudwights exchanged glances. Some of them shifted from one foot to the other, while others growled or balled their fists.
“They were hunting us,” Elegia continued. “I used a burning branch and I—I think I hurt one of them.”
            “Hurt?” Grollek said, as if the word were foreign to him. “Hurt the Traveling Dark? I did not know such a feat was possible. And that’s forgetting the fact that they haven’t been seen since old Grold took his tumble down the caverns.” He turned to his followers. “Did any of you know this?” Sarcasm laced his voice. “Centuries I’ve fought with you lot, and not one of you has told me that the Traveling Dark can be hurt?”
            The others laughed, which only served to make Elegia’s heart beat faster.
Grollek locked eyes with Elegia. “Why were they hunting you?”
            Elegia grinned “You only asked permission for one question.”
            Grollek nodded slowly. He smiled his approval. “Clever girl,” he mused. “Clever, isn’t she?”
             The others murmured their agreement.
“You have spoken the truth, and have been most kind in doing so. Fortunately for you, I am not without my own sense of honor. Six of my men will guide you and your companions to safety. And if you truly are hunted by the Traveling Dark—well, I see you are weaponless.” He waved one of his companions into the water, who obeyed the command.
            “Do you have any experience with a blade?”
            Elegia shook her head no.
            “Pity.”
            The Man o’ the Muck resurfaced, carrying a sword made purely of ice. It was a great cleaver of a blade, yet parchment thin, and when the creature turned it on its side to sheath it, the blade seemed to disappear.
            Grollek took it. “This used to belong to an Icewight. It is enchanted. May it serve you better than it did her.”
            “Many thanks,” Elegia said.
“And thank you, girl, for your honesty.” He turned to DMudwightyvian and growled, as if to make a point. After helping Elegia to her feet, Grollek waved six followers along to escort the duo
Grollek watched them go, and smiled. “Safe journeys.”
The file of sand went ever on and on, as they marched along. Marsh water slapped against either side.
            The Mudwights brought them to the end of the sandy path, which yielded to a forest where sunshine and blizzards fought with a sound like whips cracking in the sky. Grollek’s men stopped on the edge of the file. “Our protection ends here,” one of them said.” Be on your w—”
But before the Man o’ the Muck could finish the sentence, an axe bit through his neck and he crumpled into a pile of dirt, deceased.
            Behind him was the wielder: a Stonewight. As the five other Mudwights advance on the enemy, another sprang up from beneath the sandy file, as though the ground were an attic they’d crashed through. The Stonewight cut down two more with a hooked blade. And before the Mudwight could prepare for these two attackers, a dozen more had sprung up from beneath the sand and below the depths of the murky pools, and, waylaid, the Men o’ the Muck fell, with six piles of dirt to mark where they had once stood.
            The Stonewight advanced on the duo. “Dyvian Gray,” one of them said, “The Rock-Lord would have words with you.”
            “What of the other one?” an underling grunted.
            “He is of no use. Dispose of him.”
            And the creatures were upon them. Eleven Stonewight assailed Dyvian, while a single underling raced for Elegia.
            Elegia backed away, swerving through the wilderness. In her panic, she was dimly aware of the wooden web she left in her path as tendrils sprang from the trees as she passed them.
            She did not stop to think how she did this, for she knew that it was only through her panic that this was possible—to let her subconscious mind take over and bend the wood to her will.
Elegia came suddenly upon a patch of snow and ice. She slipped, fell, and landed on her stomach, driving her breath out of her body.
It was slow work, getting to her feet. Vertigo held her down before she managed to regain her breath. And when she did, the Stonewight was upon her. He had hewn his way through her web and he readied his axe.
 As he swung, Elegia slipped, backing away from its arc. Her head reeled from the second icy impact, and she rolled out of the way as the Mudwight brought the axe down where had just fallen.
            As she stood, she remembered her blade, and ripped it from its scabbard and leveled it at the Stonewight. It felt awkward in her hands. Swords never looked this heavy. “Don’t come any closer,” she warned.
            The Stonewight laughed at this, with a sound like marbles rattling in the back of his throat. He took another swing at her.
            Elegia blocked the blow, and the impact of the two weapons vibrated her blade and made her hand sting. She thrust her blade forward, stabbing the Stonewight through the chest.
            The creature’s face quickly turned to shock as ice crept along his body. He craned his neck in an attempt delay his own demise, but within seconds the ice had completely covered him.
            Elegia tore the sword from his chest and he crumbled to pieces.
            And then she remembered. “Dyvian,” she muttered, and she raced back, ducking and dodging through her wooden web. She passed lashing winds and sticky heat until she was at the clearing again, whereupon she saw the bodies of six Stonewight hewn about the ground.
            Then she saw the tracks along the sand and she knew where Dyvian had gone. By the look of it, the Stonewight had dragged him through the sand and into one of the marsh-pools.
            Elegia dove in, and swam downwards. The murky waters clouded her vision. Her heart rattled in her ribcage. Her throat burned with the need for air when she saw the tunnel at the bottom.
            She entered the tunnel kicked her legs harder, now. The roof of the tunnel compelled her to push forward. Blackness rimmed her vision, until at last she saw a way up and followed it. She surfaced, gasping for breath. She caught the ledge and hauled herself over. She landed on her back, coughing and sputtering and wishing she could lay there forever. “Of all the times…to lose your Wizard…” she gasped.
            The words had scarcely passed her lips when, a hand reached out of the water, grasping the ledge within a finger’s breadth of her face. Its sandy form compacted as it drew itself up and over the ledge.
            Elegia had only the energy to roll out of the way of this new arrival. When he had hauled himself over the edge, she saw that she was staring at Grollek. “What a time to lose your Wizard?” he echoed, “What a time to lose my followers!”
            “What are you doing here?” Elegia asked.
            Grollek brought himself to its feet. “I found my followers slain amongst the Stonewight I could not be sure who was responsible; you, or the Stonewight. So I followed this path, and told my followers that if I do not resurface within half an hour, they are to follow me to ensure my safety.”
            The Man o’ the Muck looked about the dank cavern. “I believe I now know who is responsible for this slight—this is Grold’s lair, or I am the Wood-Lord himself.”
            “You know Grold?” Elegia asked.
            “I know of him. Everyone knows the tale of the Grold and Dyvian Gray. Come,” he gestured for her to follow, “We can talk as we walk. I have a debt to settle with the Rock-Lord.”
            Elegia followed. “You didn’t seem to get along with Dyvian too well in the marshes.”
            Grollek looked Elegia over, the way people did when they tried to decide if she was a girl or a boy. “Are you telling me that the man you were traveling with was Dyvian the Wizard? One who has stilled the Earth? And Conquered the Conqueror? And—”
            “And raised a girl named Elegia,” she interrupted, thumbing her chest. “He’s the very same.”
            Grollek chuckled, mirthlessly. “Why does he hate us so?”
            “His encounters with your people have been…less than pleasant in the past.”
            Soon after this they came upon the mouths of two caves, forked left and right. “As our conversation ends, so does the trail,” Grollek remarked.
            Elegia looked from one tunnel to the other. “Which way?” she asked.
            Grollek frowned, peering down both tunnels.
            “Should we—”
            “We are not splitting up,” Grollek said, before Elegia could finish. “Do you know what happens when people do that?”
            “I do,” she said, “Which is why I was going to ask if we should check for spells and enchantments in the tunnels.”
            Grollek smiled at that. “You’re just full of surprises, aren’t you? Maybe Dyvian didraise you.” And with that, Grollek peered down each tunnel in turn. “Grold will have set traps for both caverns. The trick is to find out which trap he’s more likely to use to prevent access to his throne room.”
            “So tunnel with the deadlier spell is the one we have to go through?”
            Grollek nodded.
            “And how do we find out what spells protect each tunnel?”
            “Easy,” Grollek said. His left arm fell to his side, and as two fingers sloughed off his hand, he sent them worming down either tunnel. The two watched as the fingers inched along either path.
            And when Elegia could barely tell his fingers from the real worms in the tunnel, they witnessed the spells.
            In the left tunnel, the cavern shook, and rocks rumbled. In a span of three heartbeats, the tunnel had collapsed, blocking the entrance.
            And as the left tunnel collapsed, the second finger continued on, inching forward until it vanished around the corner.
]“No trap,” Grollek said. “That doesn’t make any sense. There must be–ow!
“What is it?”
“Something stabbed the other finger.”
The two looked at each other, and then down the tunnel. “The right tunnel,” they said in unison.
They followed the cavern, treading as though each step could spell their doom. The two rounded corner to find themselves in a chamber upon which the walls, floor and ceiling were all inlaid with scale-like jewels.
The chamber was empty, bathed in the jewels’ pulsing glow. Elegia noted a curious design along the length of the ceiling: a set of four green diamonds that stretched the length of the chamber, yet did not gleam like the others.
Ten paces opposite them was another tunnel.
As they approached the tunnel, Elegia drew her ice sword. Grollek, too, had drawn its axe.
Elegia blinked the sweat out of her eyes and started forward when death struck at her soundlessly.
 The shadow that swept across the gleaming floor was her only warning, and her sidelong leap all that saved her life. She caught a flashing glimpse of the hairy black and green horror that swung past her with a clashing of frothing fangs.
Grollek swung back, axe at the ready, when it saw the horror strike the floor, wheel and scuttle forward with appalling speed. The Wayward Muck was facing a gigantic spider.
The monster advanced on Grollek and the Wayward Muck swung its axe in an arc that bit into one of the spider’s eyes. It scampered away, screeching. “So you took my finger,” Grollek muttered.
Elegia started forward to help Grollek, but by the time she raised her weapon the spider had slammed the Wayward Muck into a wall and turned around, ready for her. She backed away from the snapping pincers and swung wildly. The beast recoiled, evading her blade. Then it jumped forward, lashing out again with deadly pincers. She jumped out of the way and let loose another untrained swing. Again she missed, but her swing was close enough to send it scuttling back.
“It’s not a club, you fool!” Grollek shouted, “It’s a sword! Don’t swing it like–agh!” Grollek let out a cry as the creature’s pincers cut through the muck of its torso. Grollek brought its axe down on the spider’s pincers and the beast shrieked, releasing the Wayward Muck. Grollek fell to one knee, sand trailed from its wound.
Thoughts tumbled through Elegia’s mind as the monstrosity surged toward her. It had backed her against the jeweled wall, pincers snapping. One of its pincers stabbed her hand, and the sword clattered to the ground. Blood ran down her palm, stinging her hand. She could feel her pulse in her fingers.
The creature lurched forward, and with a burst of adrenalin Elegia grabbed its pincers. There was a coarse feeling brushing her wounded hand that made it sting It took all her strength to keep the thing at bay. Her muscles burned from the exertion.
She released its pincers and dove forward in the same motion, so that she was under it. The spider wheeled around, expecting her to have run, but she’d seized her sword and ran it through its belly. Blood and things she didn’t want to think about rained down on her as she slid out from under it.
The spider did not even let out a death-screech before its lifeless body crumpled to the floor.
All was silent. Elegia sheathed her sword and approached Grollek, who was still on one knee its breaths came heavy, and Elegia helped the Wayward Muck to its feet. “I have decided,” Grollek proclaimed, “That I would very much like to kill Grold.”
The two stepped over the fallen beast. As they entered the mouth of the tunnel it had guarded, Elegia heard voices echoing far behind them.
Grollek seemed to read her thoughts. “Have no fear. They are my followers, come to aid me.”
“Are you sure?”
“No. But thinking so calms the nerves, does it not?”
They entered the cavern.
It seemed to stretch on endlessly. Elegia lost track of time walking, until, as they came closer to the other side, they heard a voice echoing harsh and dry. “I have waited ages for this,” the voice said. “If you will not willingly break your spell that binds me to these caverns, I have other ways of convincing you.”
“I will tell you one more time, Rock Lord,” said a voice Elegia knew belonged to Orym. “You must let me go. I will consider releasing you, should you make peace.”
“It’s too late for that, sorcerer,” Grold boomed. The Rock Lord’s husky voice echoed off the cavern walls. “This is my ground! You made it my ground when you cast me into these caverns! I have nothing to fear from you.”
“I made it your place?” Orym echoed. “I was righting your wrongs I’m not proud of what I’ve wrought–”
“YOU HAD NO RIGHT!” The Rock Lord boomed. “No right! One thousand years I have been trapped beneath the earth, because you, Orym Tar, decided to forego diplomacy. Because you saw no other way to right the situation than eternal imprisonment. And for what? Glory? Who gave you the right?”
“I could ask the same of you!” The Wizard shouted back. “You were conquering and Stilling the land. What would you have had me–?”
“So you rushed headlong into pitched battle with me?”
“Grold, I was a newly-made Wizard.”
“I take no pleasure in this,” Grold said. “Truly I don’t. But it has been one thousand years. Release me.”
Elegia came to the mouth of the tunnel, with Grollek just behind her.
Before her stood Orym, bound hand and foot, and flanked on all sides by Stone Soldiers. And Grold sat in his obsidian throne. He looked as if he were trying to stare the Wizard to death.
“Grold, I understand your desire. But your lust for vengeance has made you blind. You have angered many people. You sent the Traveling Dark to herd me like cattle into the Ever Changing Land–”
“–and they were successful.”
“Perhaps. But it has been a long time since the Traveling Dark have been wounded. They will not take kindly to that.”
“You put your faith in something like the Traveling Dark? Who was the one who wounded them?”
“Your pride has made you arrogant. Your Stone Soldier killed the Wayward Muck on their own ground. Listen to me, if you are so keen on diplomacy. I failed once. I don’t wish it to do it again.”
“What can the Wayward Muck do?”
“They are quick to anger, and do not forget a slight. They will find you. Grold, you must make peace–”
Elegia turned to Grollek, and saw that its followers had arrived. She did not realize how great a force it truly possessed. The Wayward Muck seemed to blend together, as if the cavern was brimming with dirt.
 Grollek put a finger to its lips.
Must I?” Grold exclaimed. “No one would dare seek to harm me on my ground! I will not ask again. Release me!”
Orym smiled. “There is a reason I’ve cautioned that it is only me that you should not fear.”
Attack,” Grollek roared, and the Wayward Muck were upon the Stone Soldier, cutting them down from behind before they could realize they what fate befell them.
Grold came to its feet, seized a battle axe and, with a cry like the boom of a landslide, the Rock Lord threw itself into the fray.
Elegia ducked and dodged between clashing blades and the clangor of weapons. With her ice-sword drawn, she wound across the battlefield towards Orym. As she did this, she saw two Stone Soldier still flanked the Wizard. When he spotted Elegia, he called forth the ash he had packed away in his bag. It wisped into his hand and he threw it in the Rock Soldier’s eyes. The two had not a chance to react; they staggered back and hit the ground.
Elegia met Orym, who muttered “Making good use of that sword yet?”
“Remind me to thank Grollek,” Elegia said. She swung her blade down on the iron that bound his hands and feet. The enchanted blade formed a layer of ice around the chains. Orym tugged with his wrists and his bonds shattered. She did the same for the chains around his ankles.
“We need to get out of here,” he said.
She greeted that statement with a slap. “What about Grollek? We can’t leave–”
“Elegia, trust me. Head for the tunnel. Now.”
“Trust you? After years with you, you forget to tell me this, and now you ask me to trust you?”
“I take no pride in this!” He swung his arms toward the battle all about them. “But we must go.”
“Why?”
Orym went grim-faced. “The Traveling Dark are coming back.”
The two darted for the mouth of the cavern. The Rock Lord bellowed from behind them. “You will not escape me, Orym Tar! I will have my vengeance!”
As they entered the mouth of the cave a Darkness crept through the tunnels. It was not before. At least then she could see her hand in front of her face. Now it was as though she’d entered a void.
A voice resounded off the cavern wall. “Sorcerer. You burned me. You wounded my kin.”
“Actions we took to preserve our own lives,” Orym reasoned. “Do not tell me you wouldn’t have done the same in our place.”
The tension was thick enough that Elegia felt she could pluck it as easily as a lute string.
“Who sent you out to harrow me?” Orym continued, “Who bade you find me and bring me to the Ever Changing Land? I presume Grold promised you a reward, no?”
“We were promised freedom.” the Darkness said.
“Then make your peace!” It sounded more an order than suggestion. “You have been misled. I will free you, should you desire peace.” He unstrung his sack of ashes and tossed it to the ground “I have said what I must. Now do what you will.”
“Orym?” Elegia whispered, “What are you doing?”
 “Atoning.”
The Darkness seemed to stare down the Wizard and the apprentice assessing the situation. “You are but pawns in the Rock Lord’s game,” the Darkness said.
Orym could not keep the quiver from his voice. “Please, don’t.”
 “And I don’t concern myself with pawns.” The Darkness passed. Elegia looked down the length of the tunnel as though a veil had been lifted from her eyes. She looked back and saw Darkness spread throughout the Rock Lord’s throne room.
“We will meet again, Orym Tar.”
Orym walked through the tunnel as though he had all the time in the world. “My friend! My friend, you have come to aid me! Thank you–no. What is this? What is? What are you–?”
The Rock Lord’s scream was like marble scraping steel. Agony laced its cries. And as Elegia followed Orym out of the tunnel she knew that the Rock Lord was no more.
It did not feel like a victory.

Lord of the Greenwood

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We could never agree on where we’d first met, nor when. I thought we were eight—he said we were four. But we both agreed that I’d been older then him.
He’d been an impish, fey little boy in the beginning, safe in the knowledge of his parents’ protection. He knew he could throw rocks at me without reprisal—or did he throw sticks, as he’d insisted years later?
I remembered playing with him every day, every summer, though he insisted it was only on holidays and feast days.
I do remember long periods of time spent trapped in his manor while my parents doted on his. It was my duty to learn to weave and sew and dance and speak horribly-accented French.
But we were friends—that much I remember. And we agreed on that. Our friendship began the day he first to lead me into the greenwood. He dragged me by my hand, painfully pulling through dark, knotted trees. He was resolute, dragging me through as the thorns and brambles scratched at my legs.
The woods was supposed to be a terrible place.
I remembered the stories my parents would tell of witches and werewolves and dark, evil things. They hid in the forest waiting for children like us. They would snatch us up and nobody would find us again.
I wanted someone to find us.
He led me into the woods that day, my clinging desperately to his. If there were truly some evil thing out there waiting to consume us, it would have to take us both.
I wasn’t going to be gobbled up without him.

Continue reading “Lord of the Greenwood”

Taskmaster

I wrote this story three years ago, and now it is online for you to enjoy and compare to the more recent stories I’ve written.

The lowborn girl could smell the woman’s rose-petal scent the moment she entered the room. Another Highborn client. She wished she could say she was surprised.
The woman spoke. “The King can put me to death for asking this of you?”
“Yes.”
“Why?”
“Only his Magi are allowed to stick their noses in magical affairs. It’s treason to execute the Magi’s authority without their approval…if they can prove it.”
Silence, then, and after three heartbeats she spoke. “And your price?”
“Sixteen tokens a day. And then, depending on how difficult your task, the final sum is up for negotiation.”
“…”
“I’ll let you think about it.”
The Highborn woman left the girl alone in the back room, muttering something about the smell. She dismissed it. She knew she’d be back tomorrow to accept her terms. The Highborn didn’t come to Water’s End unless they were out of options.
She shuffled through organized the parchments the woman had given him, words scrawled in such superfluous cursive that it was almost illegible. She numbered the pages and made for the door.
The woman kept her free hand on the hilt of her dagger as she left the Inn of Nine Rings. She felt the innkeeper’s apprehensive eye on her. “Casrein,” the innkeeper said with a nod of his head.
She wouldn’t have been able to set up her practice there if the innkeeper didn’t owe her a favor. She’d saved the man’s daughter from the Magi and their King’s Justice
And still the man quivered in fear of her. It’s the price I pay for being one of the only adults to have magic, she thought. For being one of the few not stupid enough to use it all up while I still learning to shave.
Did nobody understand the concept of finite?
Casrein rounded a corner. Her cloak snapped behind her. In the distance, she spotted a bonfire glowing like dying embers. Just kids playing with fire magic.
She neared an outlying village in Water’s End. Home, to her own shame. She passed a few beggars on the street. Mere paces from her hut she spotted a man trying to sell his glass eye for food.
Casrein slammed the door behind her. Her home had one rickety room with two beds in one corner, opposite a kitchen.
“Annis, I’m home.”
“Mother!” Annis called from the table. “Did you get a task?”
“Why didn’t you go to bed?”
“You said I could stay up till dark.” Annis pointed to the fire in the distance. “It’s not dark, yet.”
“You know what I meant,” Casrein said. “Go to bed.”
“Did you get a task?” the child asked again.
“I might tell you in the morning if you go to bed!” He’s more stubborn than I was at eleven.
“But I’m not tired.”
“I don’t care.”
“I don’t want to sleep,”
Casrein flinched at that. Annis would be developing magic, soon. Three years, at best. It wouldn’t be pretty. It was hard enough when children didn’t have magic. How would Annis react once he did have it?
Casrein’s bed moaned under her weight. “Do what you want,” she said with a wave of her hand. She pinched the corner of her eyes. “I’m sleeping.” Maybe I’ll ask that highborn woman to take care of him when she accepts my terms…

It was midday by the time the woman came to meet Casrein in the back room of the Inn of Nine Rings.
She had never gotten a good look at the highborn lady the night before. She always kept the first meetings dark. In a profession such as hers, anonymity was key during first meetings.
She was tall and blond, with the kind of girth she had come to expect from highborn women.
“I accept your terms,” the highborn lady said.
She meandered about the room. “I’ll need the particulars. Your name, for starters. Who you want me to find, your relation to them, appearance, things like that.”
The woman wrinkled her nose at the comment. “You don’t know me?” she asked.
Casrein laughed. “People with my abilities tend to avoid the highborn. Too much politics and Magi Councils”
The woman’s jaw dropped. “How dare you—”
Casrein held up a hand for silence. “You’re highborn, my lady,” she said. “All you lot are involved with the Magi. Whether you know it or not.”
“And you know this how?”
“Who do you think trained me in my profession? The Magi are everywhere. You just don’t know it.”
The lady’s eyes widened. “You’re one of them.”
“Was, yes. Not anymore. I lost my titles a while ago. He was only a kid, and they called it the King’s Justice. “I’d rather not talk about it. We still haven’t discussed your name or your predicament. What task would you have me do, my lady?”
“I would have you find my daughter.”
“Kidnapped?”
“Fled.”
“Hm. Did she have her blood recently?”
“Yes.”
Casrein shrugged. “I don’t know how you didn’t see it coming,” she said. She ignored the look the lady gave him. “Most girls get their magic shortly after their blood. And a girl who grows up around the Magi Council, well, I imagine they told her how dreadful it would be once she got magic—how she’d better not break the rules or else. Stop me if I’m wrong.”
The lady said nothing
“So she runs away. And you want me to find her. Only I need to know her name.”
The woman started to speak. Casrein cut her off.
“The pins on your shoulder—three red leaves—they’re the sigil of House Herald. But House Herald already had a daughter who used up her magic a few years back. You’re in disguise because you’re worried people might follow you.” Under her breath, she added, “They probably have,” and then continued. “Yellow hair—not so common a trait among the highborn, is it, my lady? Three houses are yellow haired–House Nir, House Layre, and House Hallow.” She paced around the Baroness. “House Nir is comprised of Dukes and Duchesses. That leaves House Layre and House Hallow.
“House Layre called their banners against House Herald a few centuries ago, and neither have forgotten, am I correct?” She did not wait for a response. “I’m correct. However, House Hallow is a close ally of House Herald. Close enough, you might say, to allow a fellow Baroness into their humble abode where she could steal pins with their sigil on it.”
The Baroness scowled at Casrein and stepped back. She attempted to speak, but the words caught strangled in her throat.
“The Lady Marys of House Hallow, am I correct?”
The woman nodded. Her face darkened. “You will not repeat this,” she said.
Casrein bowed. “You have my word as lowborn scum.”
Marys struck her, and she stumbled back, wiping the blood from her split lip.
The Baroness held fury in her eyes. She creased her eyebrows. “This is not a game!” she said, in a strangled attempt not to shout.
Casrein nodded. “Agreed. This is a puzzle with glass edges. Much more dangerous.”
“I’m paying you to find my daughter,” Lady Marys said through a clenched jaw. “Not to sit here spewing idle banter. Sixteen tokens a day, am I correct?”
Casrein nodded. “Indeed.”
Marys produced a purse from the fold of her gown and plucked out the sixteen coins. She tossed them at her, letting them scatter to the floor. She stopped in the doorway. “My daughter’s name is Kerri Hallow. Find her. Or I’ll get the Council involved.”
“Be sure to check in daily,” Casrein called after her. She slammed the door closed without a response.
Casrein waited a few minutes to leave, hoping no one would make the connection. Stupid, she thought. She came in here dressed as a noble. A sigil, silks and everything! Does she want to die?
The autumn air bristled Casrein’s skin. She had to get back to Annis. They were short on food, and with tokens she could buy the two of them food enough to last a few days.
“Casrein,” a familiar voice said, “How have you been?”
Casrein turned around to see a man in shining white armor and a golden cloak. He smelled of brine, the latest fashion among highborn men—or so she had surmised by her recent clients.
“Gerna,” she said with a slight bow, “How can I help you?”
Gerna was the head of the Magi Council. The King’s force of adult warriors who still had magic. He’d led the Council on a number of tasks over the years doling out the King’s Justice to keep magical rebellions at bay.
“I hear you have a client,” Gerna said. “Take another task, did you?”
Casrein smirked. “Oh, Gerna, you know how much I hated the tasks on the Council. Why would I seek it as a profession?”
“Don’t ask me,” Gerna said. He circled her. “You’re the one who loves the business.”
Casrein arched an eyebrow. “Of course I do. That’s why I left the Council, right?”
Gerna laughed. “I saw the lady who left that inn of yours. No lowborn girl, that one. Far too pretty.”
“I’m flattered you’ve been keeping an eye on me, really, but I must reject your advances.”
Gerna sauntered forward until they were nose-to-nose.
“Allow me to rephrase that last sentiment,” Casrein said, “Fuck off!” She turned away. And a meaty hand landed on her shoulder. She gripped it tight. “Was I not clear?”
“That was unladylike.”
“Only I’m not a lady. Lowborn, remember?”
“Come on, Casrein, let’s see some magic.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
Gerna’s hand tightened on her shoulder. “You know, the Magi have a bet amongst ourselves. Some of us are starting to think you’ve run out of magic. Care to prove us false?”
Casrein tugged on Gerna’s arm, pulling his belly close to her back. With enough leverage, she could send him over her shoulder. “I’d love to,” she said, “But everyone on the Council knows how much I love preserving, so I’ll assume you’re lying to me.”
Gerna put his free hand around Casrein’s neck. “Come on. Give me a hex, at least.”
“You mean a reason to fight me, right?” Casrein said. “You’ll be getting no hexes from me. And before you try that spell you’re thinking about, I want you to know I can feel the warmth in your hand. If I may speak freely, I think a spell would be a bit too costly for you. Magic is finite, you’ll remember.”
The unnatural warmth receded from Gerna’s hand. Casrein released him and turned to face the Magi leader. “Try a hex, next time. It’s subtler.”
Gerna’s furrowed his brow. “I will not forget this.”
“I should hope not. Now let me make this as clear as possible. I am finished undertaking tasks. I leave that to you and the Council. Myself? I have a meal to buy my son.”

Annis dug into the chicken as if he hadn’t eaten in months. Which was almost true. The food Casrein had been able to afford of late was scarcely better than none at all. He tore the meat apart with the ferocity of a starving wolf.
Casrein ate her food slowly. Bit by bit. She was tempted to tell her son not to eat so greedily, but held her tongue at that thought that she would’ve done the same thing at his age.
“Mother,” Annis said with a mouthful of chicken.
“Swallow.”
He did so, then asked, “Are you going to kill anyone?”
Casrein froze with a piece of chicken dangling from her hand. “Why do you ask that?”
“I’ve heard rumors all around Water’s End. People say you killed a child undertaking your last task. Are you going to do it again?”
She waved the notion aside with a gesture. “People like to talk. That doesn’t mean it’s true. Don’t think of such things, Annis.”
“But are you?”
Casrein bit her lip. “No,” she said. “I’m not.”
“People say you’re going to. They say you always kill children with magic.”
That’s the Council’s job. “You should not listen to such lies.”
“I heard they aren’t lies. Mother, are you going to kill the girl you’ve been sent to find?”
“I told you.”
“And I don’t believe you.” Annis stuck his tongue out.
That stung. This isn’t a game, child. “If I give you my food, will you change the subject?”
Annis beamed at the notion. He nodded. Casrein dumped her chicken onto her son’s plate. Annis soon started rambling about the other children had told him about magic, and what he planned to do once he got it. Casrein barely heard a word. She was lost in her thoughts.
Her stomach grumbled at the smell of chicken. She did her best to ignore it.
Casrein waited until her son was asleep before leaving the hut.
She grabbed her cloak, pulled her hood overhead and went out into the streets. Her boots thudded along the cobblestones. She walked as though possessed, with surety in each step. She knew where she was going. It was the first place she went after every task.
She rounded a corner and went down an alley, her cloak trailing behind her. At the end of the alley stood a trap door. Most thought it led to a wine cellar. Few could open it. Fewer still cared to. Those that tried found that there was a padlock that would not come undone by the mightiest of methods.
Casrein put a finger to the padlock and concentrated the smallest amount of magic to the tip of her finger. The lock came undone and she clambered down the steps. She could hear the padlock reset behind her.
Blue flames illuminated the hall that awaited her. They flickered, yet gave off no smoke. Her footfalls were faster now, until she saw someone with a boulder of a chest, who warbled, “Take off your hood, stranger.”
Casrein obeyed. “It’s me, Faegen.”
The fat man barked a laugh. “Why’d you have to go wearing a hood for, Casrein?”
“The Magi are onto me. I can’t have them following me.”
Faegen’s face darkened at that. “And how do you know they didn’t.”
“I know.”
“How?”
“Which one of us still has magic?” She walked down the hall to meet him, and the two proceeded the rest of the way. “I can tell if I’m being tracked by Magi.”
“Fair enough,” Faegen grunted. “Now what have you come here for this time?”
“Same as always. I need a name.”
“Is this one of those names I’m not allowed to repeat?”
“Her name is Kerri Hallow.”
The two reached an opening, and two-score children looked up at once. They regarded Casrein, measuring her intentions. She had come to know some of their faces, but none of their names. Most came in and out rather quickly. Only a dozen or so stayed with Faegen.
“Any of you named Kerri Hallow?” Faegen barked into the crowd of children. When no one responded she asked again, “Anyone?”
“She’s not here,” Casreyn said. “Let me know if she stops by. Remember her name.”
“I will,” Faegen said.
Casrein slipped a loaf of bread from under her cloak. “For the children,” she said. “Let’s hope their parents forgive them. Or they’re brave enough to tell them.”
“Should’ve given me a glass,” Faegen said. “I could drink to that.”
Casrein smirked. “I’ll see myself out.”
“Good luck in your task, Casrein. Let me know if you need anything else.”
“Don’t I always?”
“Aye,” Faegen said. “Aye, you do.” Casrein turned to leave when Faegen spoke again. “Casrein—I thought you should know. The kids here—they appreciate what you’re doing. Even if it doesn’t help them. They least they could do is offer their thanks.”
“It is much appreciated,” Casrein said. “Send them my regards.”

Come morning, Casrein wandered off to the Inn of Nine Rings to meet with Lady Marys. I should hope she wasn’t stupid enough to wear another sigil, she thought.
She passed the fearful bartenders, and the innkeeper who always regarded her with those suspicious eyes, and entered the back room to the greeting of the scent of brine.
“I told you, Casrein!” Gerna said, “I told you–no more tasks!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Casrein closed the door behind him. Gerna was already turning heads.
“I know you’ve been meeting with Lady Marys.”
“I spoke to her during my days in the Council. No doubt she has heard the rumors of my practice. I assure you she has not come to visit me.”
“Of course she hasn’t,” Gerna’s tone implied he did not believe that. “Well, someone came to visit her,” With a wave of his fingers Lady Marys appeared in a cloud of blue smoke. He casts teleportation idly, Casrein thought. But when it dissipated, she backed away from what stood before her.
The highborn lady looked at her with glossy, hollow eyes. She did not blink, and she did not seem to see anything. Her lips were twisted into a grotesque mockery of a smile that would not go away. “Kerri,” she muttered through a clenched jaw, “Kerri, you’ve come home. It’s wonderful to see you again. We’ll be together forever, won’t we, dear? And you’ll never have to worry about magic again…”
“My god…” Casrein whispered.
“You should have brought her to the Council!” Gerna said. “We could have helped her! We could have found her daughter.”
“And then this would have happened anyway.” Casrein countered. “And her daughter would be dead for her actions.” He glanced at Lady Marys and her frozen smile.
“This is Council business. This is of no concern of yours.”
“Then why have you come?” Casrein snapped.
The Councilman bowed his head. His voice was no less stern. “We…we were not always enemies. I offer you a warning. We’ve found Kerri Hallow. We’re going to kill her. You have not interfered with our task, and it was not your task that brought this upon her. You will not be punished…if you remain complacent.”
“I swore I’d find her,” Casrein said, dropping her farce.
“And now we have. The Magi will handle this.”
“Because you’ve done so well with this in the past,” Casrein growled. “Tell me where she is.”
“Must I repeat myself? This is Council business.”
Casrein drew up her hood so that Gerna would not see her eyes go black. “I will not ask again.”
“You will,” Gerna said. “You will ask, and you will ask, and you will ask. And I will tell you nothing.”
Casrein inched closer. “Then I will pry it from you.”
“Torture?” Gerna chuckled.
“No. Something else.”
Casrein extended her arm to a finger’s point. She touched Gerna’s temple and pulled her hood back to look into his eyes. Visions flashed across the black orbs of her eyes. Twelve men from the Magi Council besieged House Hallow’s castle, Hallowhold. They stood around the entrance to the crypts. Waiting. Talking.
Casrein released her hold on Gerna. The black fading from her eyes. A feeling enveloped him. As if her foot fell asleep and the feeling spread up to her ears. But it would fade.
“You—you still have magic!” Gerna’s eyes flashed yellow and a bolt of pain rocketed through Casrein. She fell to her knees. “I can’t let you interfere. I wish it hadn’t come to this.”
Through grunts of pain, Casrayn muttered, “Stupid…you always….attacked…too heavily.”
“What?”
“Too….reliant…on spells….” Casrein unsheathed her dagger and dragged it across the back of Gerna’s knee. The pain flooded away.
Gerna fell to one knee, while Casrein pulled herself to her feet and drove her heel into his jaw. The Magi fell to the floor, unconscious.
She wiped her dagger on her breeched and then turned to Marys.
“Kerri, we’ll be family again. That horrid, accursed magic will never come into our lives again.” She laughed. The mirth set Casrein on edge. “The Magi will cure you. You’ll be safe.”
The Magi cannot cure your daughter. You, on the other hand… Casrein looked into her eyes. His own flashed red. “Sleep,” she said, and Marys crumpled in her arms. She left her on the floor next to the unconscious Magi. He checked the window for more Councilmen, but all she found was Gerna’s horse.
She could use a horse…

Casrein booted Gerna’s horse onward toward the gates of Hallowhold. Her cloak trailed behind her like a war banner. They’d have Magi at the gates. She knew this.
Her predictions were right. Casrein squinted at the two Magi on horseback, blocking the way to Hallowhold. Both had notched longbows in hand. “I know you two,” she muttered to herself. “I served with you. Do not fail me now.”
She galloped up to the gate and spread her arms wide. “Brothers! Fellow Councilmen! I come with good tidings!” The two hesitated. They expect a trap, she thought. They’ll get one….more or less.
When she was close enough, Casrein leapt off her horse and tackled one of the Magi off of his own. The two fell in a tangle of limbs.
She heard the twang of bowstring and pain exploded in her back. She bit her lip. “Idiot!” Casrein roared. “You blasted idiot!”
“I’m under orders to keep everyone away from Hallowhold,” the Magi said.
Casrein grunted to her feet. She clutched the side of the entrance gate for support. I can use this…I can work with it. “Let me see Kerri Hallow.”
“Did you not hear me?”
“I heard you! I just thought you might be decent enough to grant a woman her dying wish!”
The Magi raised an eyebrow. “Dying?”
“Yes, dying. You shot me.”
“That wound is not fatal.”
“Infection is.”
“And because of this I should send you to see the heir of House Hallow? You concussed one of the Magi.”
“And in return I got an arrow in my back. Fair’s fair.” Casrein grunted. She looked to the castle. “The crypts are on the other side of that tower. Twelve of you there are, and I’ll bet not one of you has entered yet. You’re scared she’ll kill you.”
“You dare—?”
“Her magic exceeds yours,” Casrein continued, as if she hadn’t heard. “So let me go down there. Let me talk to her. If none of you will, then let me do it. Grant me that much, at least.” She stumbled toward the Magi, sparing a cursory glance to ensure the others were sufficiently busy.
And then she seized his bow and used it to haul him off his horse face-first.
She snapped the arrow shaft and worked to unlace the unconscious Magi’s clothes and armor. Only a Magi was allowed in the crypts. So she would become a Magi once more.

The steps to the crypts smelled like moss and lake water. She hadn’t said much to the Magi present, only that she would volunteer to be the first to go down. The others, in their state of fear, did little to object to the notion.
“Kerri,” she called. Her voice was hoarse. “Kerri Hallow. I know you’re here.”
Silence was her only answer. She could feel her heartbeat in her wound. “Your mother sent me,” she said, and then added, “I can’t imagine how many people have told you that, today. Your mother paid me—lowborn scum from Water’s End—to find you.”
He fell to his knees. Mustering her strength, she shouted, “Get out here, damn you! Or shall I call the Magi?”
Kerri Hallow jumped out from behind the statue of a dead ancestor. Her eyes glowed yellow, and an unseen force sent Casrein skidding across the floor.
“Nice to see you, too,” she groaned.
Kerri was a shapely woman—much like her mother. She looked to be thirteen. She scrambled towards Casrein. “Ohmygod! Ohmygod I’m sorry! Please don’t kill me! Please!”
“It’s all right,” Casrein said. “You were scared. Just save your magic. And don’t kill me. I’ve already got that taken care of.” She hauled her breastplate off and showed the girl the arrowhead. “A gift from the Magi, if your still convinced I’m one of them.
“What’s your name?” Kerri asked.
“Casrein. Your mother hired me to find you and bring you home safe.”
“I am home.”
“I can see that. Now if you can do me a favor?”
“What?”
“Get this arrow out of my back. And maybe heal me?”
Kerri jumped back as if Casrein had drawn her dagger. “What? No! I can’t do that.”
“Sure you can,” she said.
“No,” Kerri muttered. “Magic is evil. Magic hurts.”
“Magic heals,” Casrein interrupted.
“Then heal yourself!” Kerri snapped.
“That requires energy. Energy enough to kill me in the attempt.” Casrein herself was not sure if she was bluffing.
“But I can’t heal you,” Kerri whimpered. “I can’t do that. Magic only hurts.”
“Magic can heal, magic can hurt.” Casrein said. “One just happens to be easier than the other.”
Kerri knelt beside her. She shied away from touching the woman, as if she were made of molten lead. “How—how do I do it?”
“Work through the pain.” Casrein said. “Work through the panic. Focus on what you want to do. We can start by getting this arrow out of my back.”
She had to bite her lip to stifle her scream. Bits of dead flesh draped from the arrowhead. Kerri tossed it aside. “Put your hands over the wound and focus on what you want on how you want to heal.” Casrein grunted. Blackness was etching the edges of her vision. “It’s like falling asleep, darling. You just have to let it happen.”
She closed her eyes and awaited the worst.
But her strength returned. Her wound tingled as flesh knitted itself together, and Casrein stood, helping Kerri up as she did so. “See?” she said. “Not so hard, is it?”
“Not so hard,” Kerri echoed. Her voice shook more than she did. “But…the Magi are out there…how do we leave?”
Casrein closed her eyes and thought of home. “Hold on tight,” she said. “You’ve done enough magic for one day. Allow me.” Her body went warm, and when she opened her eyes, they were in Water’s End.
Kerri’s jaw dropped. “This is your home?”
Casrein nodded. “It’s no Hallowhold, but it serves.”
“Hallowhold…” Kerri’s breath caught, as if the magnitude of her crimes had just struck her. “Can I heal my mother, too?”
Casrein said nothing for a moment. “I can get you a horse. From there, you must make a decision. One will be easier than the other. You can attempt to go to your mother to heal her. You could succeed, but if you do, you will most likely be caught and hanged. If you fail, you will be caught and hanged, and your mother will remain insane.”
“And what’s the other option?”
“Leave the Kingdom with your life—in the hopes that the Magi decide to heal your mother. She has done nothing to them. It is not unlikely.” She handed her the horse’s reins. “The choice is yours.”
Kerri nodded. She mounted her horse. Casrein lost track of time staring up at her. She stared off into the distance, contemplating her choice.
She tugged on the reins, and gave the horse her heels, and the horse went south. Hallowhold is east from here.
“Mother!” Annis called. “Mother, did you complete your task?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Casrein answered, “I did. Come outside, Annis. You need to come with me.”
Annis had burst through the door a moment later. “Where are we going?”
“We’re going to a secret place, with lots of children your age.” She knelt to look her son in the eye. “A place where we’ll be protected from the Magi. I’ve told you of a man named Faegen, yes?”
Annis nodded.
“We’re going to see him. For a long time.”
Annis frowned. “Oh.” He looked at the ground. “But doesn’t that mean you failed in your task?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes,” she said, and she took her son by the arm and led him through Water’s End, wondering which of the two choices had been easier for Kerri.