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L I V S A V E L L


27 | F E M A L E | A U T H O R / E D I T O R | L & S F A B L E S





| P U B L I S H E D W O R K S |


Vassal (Call of Calamity Book I)
Goddess (Call of Calamity Book II)
Shepherd of Souls (Shepherd of Souls Book I)
Death Seeker (Shepherd of Souls Book II)
The Thistle Queen’s Thorns (Kindle Vella)
The Last Contender (Song of the Lost Book I)
Emissary to the Frost Wolf (Song of the Lost Book II) Available Summer 2023

❖ Co-Author: @Sterling

| R O L E P L A Y S |


Cradle of the World 1x1 with @KaiserFranz
Black Lace: A Cyberpunk Rp 1x1 with @Shu
Shades of Sulfur Script 1x1 with @Penny
Shattered 1x1 with @Shift
Oriflamme hosted by @Force and Fury
The Sunday Group hosted by @Penny
A Thousand Legends hosted by @Shu

| O T H E R |


L & S Fables Podcast For writing tips and tricks!
❖ Instagram: @lsfables
❖ Website: lsfables.com

Most Recent Posts



Saint-Jean de Glane


Interacting with @Jasbraq @Force and Fury





The Bishop’s garden was in full, verdant bloom, the scents of pistil and pollen thick in the warm air so that even the bees wandering there seemed to do so lazily, resting often in the throats of flowers. Osanna turned her gaze away from the busy gardener and weighed both the rose and the coins in her hands before slipping them into the pockets of her sadly misused cloak.

Duke Wulfric of Kressia. Rarely had Osanna been set to such an important target, but she felt less nervous than she had settling into her position as a spy in the Eskandr keep. She did not understand what he had meant by tools and assurances, however.

“Is there anything else I should know? Anyone I need to check in with?” she asked.

His Eminence smiled beatifically. “I know you are under no illusions as to the danger of this task that Mother Echeran has set before us, but know also that Father Oraphe has set an Angel at your shoulder to guide and protect should it become necessary.” He reached out where they sat and patted her gently on the hand. “You will know more when it is prudent,” he added reassuringly, if not a bit cryptically. Meanwhile, the flowers continued their Stresian bloom, and the gardener continued to clip away with his shears, hardly looking up from his task.

Osanna just stood and bowed. She would get no more out of him, and pressing a leader of the church for information wouldn’t do her any good. She didn’t know that Oraphe even saw the little dark pawns of Death, but she had escaped in hard circumstances before. “Thank you, Your Eminence. I will go at once.”

At those words, the gardener rose and placed his shears aside. With little more than a silent smile and gestures, he led her through the verdant maze he had created at the Bishop’s behest and out to a small gate and stables. A horse awaited her there, and a narrow back street beyond.




Osanna did not like the horse she’d been given at the bishop’s residence. He was a gelding, tall, young, and high-spirited, and though the streets of Saint-Jean de Glane were thick with people, he pressed constantly for more speed, tossing his black mane and worrying the bit in his mouth. There was, she supposed, something rather on-the-nose about being given a black horse, but she much preferred one that had to be urged to go over one that needed to be constantly held back. It was enough to make her miss her gray mare, Shade, left with King Arcel’s army before she departed for Meldheim.

That felt like a lifetime ago now. Osanna was young, still, but getting old for a Black Rezaindian. It was not a calling that often led to long life, and neither was it something one might retire from, though she had heard of black-cloaked siblings who took to other branches after injury or illness. She had most of a decade of experience as an assassin and had occasionally served as a spy or burglar as well, but never in all that time had a mission affected her like this last.

She had made too many mistakes, been discovered, and come so close to death that it was a wonder Aun-Echeran had not plucked her soul purely out of the temptation of having it so near. In the wake of that near calamity, she felt altered, as though the fire that had burned her skin and eaten away her hair had left marks that a healer’s magic could not entirely erase. She now looked the same as she had before, if a little thinner from seasickness and tattered from the journey. It didn’t quite fit. Like she should by all rights bear some outward sign of the inward change.

Exactly what made her different now, Osanna did not know, but there was no more room for blunders. The fact that she was still alive was a blessing from her god, another chance to serve and serve well. Echeran had given her a place and a purpose in this world, and she meant to repay that kindness until her body could no longer perform the work.

Osanna said a soft prayer beneath her breath as she tied the silly gelding to a post in Saint-Jean’s small mercantile district and went about her rounds, exchanging her old flame-scorched cloak for a new one as well as buying traveling supplies, food, a change of clothes, and the ingredients to make her poisons. It took rather less time than she expected, even navigating the crowd, and she soon turned the horse’s head to the docks, where she dismounted and paid a boy to take him back to the bishop’s abode, promising more coin upon his successful delivery. Benedict would have it to spare.

The docks were every bit as lively as the rest of the town had been, less touched by the war than she had expected except, perhaps, for the influx of common people fleeing from more war-torn areas of the country. It did not take long to find the woman she was looking for. There was so much bustle between the ships that her stillness gave her away long before her features did, but even though she matched the description the Bishop had given, Osanna hesitated.

Heathen indeed. The blond woman was tall and statuesque, more like one of the famous Eskandr warrior women of the past than the Drugundzean her accent said she was. She was pale, her long hair loose but for a few braids, and she wore two swords with her plate. Osanna had fought her in the Battle for Relouse, and at the time, Hildr’s blades had dripped red for Eskandr.

She gritted her teeth. No Bishop would have sent her to meet this woman unless she had turned to their side, but that did not mean she was now trustworthy. Who knew what she had done to convince them she could be trusted? Still, Osanna was not so stupid as to show she felt any discomfort. She was to travel with Hildr, and she didn’t want to wake up to a knife in her back.

The rose was a little rumpled when she drew it from her pocket, but Osanna smoothed its petals and made her way to Hildr. She bowed low before the taller woman before proffering it to her like a gift of riches to royalty, a crooked smile skewing her features. “I do believe we’ve met.”





Hildr the Hopeful




The Drudgunzean knight still did not know why they’d asked her for help. Had they done it out of trust? Or was she perhaps a useful asset for the time being? Not that it mattered. She was asked. She would help. The voice of the other woman combined with that smile pissed the knight off, though.

“Are you the one I am meant to escort?” Hildr asked plainly, rather irritated by her assignment.

“Escort?” Osanna Lenoir, because that’s the name she’d given on the battlefield, only grinned wider and tucked the rose that Hildr hadn’t taken behind her ear. “I am, though I’d not have called little me important enough for so lofty a task. Escort indeed. Well, I suppose you know where we’re off to?”

Hildr’s left eye twitched. “I suppose I know indeed.” The knight spat on the ground. “This better reward well enough… To think I have to help out that imbecile Otto. Wulfric was bad but this is even worse.” She was too busy in her own thoughts that she did not even realize she was speaking aloud. “But yes, I will be your escort for the time being.”

“Hmmmmm. It’s been a long time since I’ve been anywhere near our destination. Can you tell me what Wulfric and Otto and the other Dukes have been up to?” Osanna waved her on and turned towards the north end of the docks where the river barge waited.

“That Wulfric is just kissing up to Hrothgar at this point, or he might just be scared. I’ve known the man since I was a child, but I can never truly figure him out…. And Otto has just been riding his righteousness of being the only duke of your religion.”

“My religion? You’ve taken our side without converting?” Osanna’s brow rose, her look more frankly curious than teasing for once.

“Taken your side?” Hildr’s expression was one of confusion. “I did not convert, all I know is that the Father abandoned me when I needed him.”

“And that is why you are aiding Hrothgar’s enemies?”

“They left me for dead. I have no reason to aid them any longer.” Hildr looked somewhat conflicted by her own words. “Besides, the only reason I am willing to aid you is because I am indebted to one of your own.”

“Well, if that’ll keep you from slitting my throat in the night I’ll take it.” They had reached the barge, and as they approached, its captain hailed them and welcomed them aboard. It was a simple craft—more raft than ship— but sturdily built and manned by a handful of people who had the look of professionals. They stepped aboard and stowed their things in the simple passenger cabin—little more than four bunks and a table. Osanna turned and stretched out her hand. “We might as well start off on the right foot, don’t you think?”

“I have no reason to slit your throat. It would be honorless to kill outside of combat.” The knight grinned as the other’s words piqued her interest. “And besides, I think slitting someone’s throat at night is more your thing.” Hildr grabbed the hand and shook it. “Might as well.”

Osanna laughed and let it ring through the cabin. “A girl disappears one time… I offered you an honorable fight, didn’t I?”

The Drudgunzean sighed. “It was only once… but it still pissed me off. Next time, none of that illusion stuff, you hear?”

“Not a chance, friend. Not a chance.”
Bashira vomited again in the corner of the throne room. No one noticed, just like they hadn’t paid her any attention when she came inside. They were too busy fighting for their lives in knots of bloody struggle tumbling through the rich, red room like dice in a tavern. Why had she come here? Escape in this tumult would be so easy, and wouldn’t it feel better to run away? To start over, instead of trying to understand this chaos?

She pressed her back against a column and closed her eyes, an island of still in all this insanity (wasn’t she?). It was so loud, the clank of weapons—they only rang in stories— the shouts, the screams of dying. Everything smelled of blood and shit and piss, and some sweet, after-smell, like the throne room had once been full of tendrils of incense smoke, now overpowered.

Her eyes opened. A woman dressed like a peasant stumbled towards her, hands wrapped around a bloody sword hilt, and tried to run Bashira through. She slipped out of the way, and instead of unsheathing her sword, she grabbed the woman’s head and threw her into the column, her forehead connecting with a sharp, horse-whip crack that filled Bashira’s mouth with the hot taste of salt. She swallowed, trying not to vomit again.

Now, to find him. That’s what she had come for, wasn’t it? Her father. She had loved him before. Until the war started and then again for a long time. Even after her mother got fed up and left them both. Even after the bruises. Bashira squeezed her eyes shut against the self-loathing. Why had she let herself stay so long?

Most of the fighters paid no attention to her weaving through them, locked into their own survival. She didn’t get involved either unless she was attacked, and then she put an end to her opponents as quickly and effortlessly as she had the first. None of the caliber of the long-haired man challenged her in here, and she did not draw on Bad Luck to dispatch them.

“Shinxi!” she yelled over the tops of their heads. “Shinxi!”

He didn’t turn or answer, but she saw him all the same, slipping into the throne room from a side hall with a man with long hair. He wore a ragged cloak and an oni mask, only unlike the one hanging from Bashira’s belt, his covered the entirety of his face. Its eyes gaped like empty sockets, and one cruel horn was crooked above its snarling teeth.

General Shinxi looked at that masked fiend and gestured toward the center of the room. “There’s the emperor.”

The masked man barely looked at him, just tuned and strode with unerring purpose towards the emperor. As he went, the shoddily clothed attackers seemed to gather strength and reform. Guards fell, lamellar armor pierced, and welling blood against an already slick floor. Their heads rolled, still attached to their glittering helms, and the defenders around the emperor began to falter.

Bashira let them. Her father’s face was still, almost bored, his eyes on the masked man tearing away from him. He did nothing to stop any of this, just sat back and allowed it to happen, like he wasn’t the same man who had stood in her door that morning—had it really happened such a short time ago— and told her that she needed to give back to her empire. He was a part of this, part of the attacks, the deaths.

She unsheathed her sword, and found a cocky smile to hide behind. “Hello, General. It looks like you’ve kept this position for an even shorter time than the last.”

When he turned to look at his only progeny, his expression didn’t change. “You might have avoided all this, you know. I offered you an out. Come with me before the duel, or never duel again.” He laughed. “There won’t be a city to duel in after Wakuno is finished.”

Bashira came to a stop a few feet away, the tip of her sword stretching out before her toward the floor. Her palms were slick, her fingers trembling so that she had to press her right hand against her thigh to keep her blade still. She looked back up at her father. “Why?”

“What do you mean why? They discharged me! For—for nothing! It ruined all our lives. Mine, yours, your mother’s. We could have had something.”

“I think I like my life how it is.”

“Look at you! Are you drunk still, or is this just the aftermath, the withdrawal of a body so used to alcohol that it can’t quite function without it? You need something to fight for, girl, and I’m going to give it to you.”

“Better a drunk than this slaughter.” Listen to her taking the fucking high ground! She should have just left, just stolen away in the dark like her mother. This wasn’t going anything like what she had expected. She needed to ask him, to ask— “Did you do this to me?”

“Do what, make you a drunk? You might blame that on me, daughter, but you’ve made your own choices since you left.”

“No,” Bashira gasped, pressing her fingers to her temples. “The duel. The blood. Hiuping. Did you trick me into killing him?”

“You killed your dueling opponent?” Laughter cracked from his mouth like thunder. “Why the fuck would I have needed to? The city was going to burn either way. You know your mother was a bit crazy too. I guess it just runs in her family.”

“No… no, no…” Bashira shook her head. “You have to have done it. There was the light in my eyes—a mirror?— I couldn’t see him—“

“What? Were you drinking, Bashira?”

Her grip tightened around her sword, and she glared up at him through the dark hair falling over her face. She hadn’t been drinking. Not since the night before. He was lying. Trying to fuck with her head. She just needed to breathe, to figure all of this out.

“Everything will be forgiven if you join us. You’ll have something to work for, to believe it. You’ll be able to save yourself.”

He sounded so reasonable, so trustworthy. Just as he always had when she was young. Do this for me, Bashira, and everything will be better. She’s fallen for that lie a hundred times, but she was older now. She’d made a name for herself, hadn’t she? Before it all came crashing down. She could find her way again.

“The only person I’ve ever needed saving from is you.” Bashira raised her sword and launched forward, but there were more peasant warriors rising to stop her—had they been there all along?— and by the time she fought them off, her father was gone.
|D U E L I N G T S I O B U|

with @Shu


Tsio Bu moved in the direction of the great stairs, steering away from the scattered fighting and dodging those who ran past him. As he neared the first stone step he looked to his right and found himself facing an armored woman bearing a great sword and wearing the frightful visage of an Oni - a half-mask. At her feet lay three dead Folk, all brethren of Tsio Bu. The long-haired swordsman grimaced and took a firm hold of his blade with both hands. The woman’s sword was easily twice the size of his own but Tsio Bu had fought larger still. The red armor she wore was resemblant to that of the Imperial Guard, but this woman was no guardswoman. A blade for hire? A brigand? Or just someone with a weapon that decided to interfere?

Regardless of her motives, the dead brothers at her feet made it clear enough that this woman was the enemy, and like all his other enemies this night, Tsio Bu would kill this one all the same.

The mask hid her expression, but Tsio Bu cared not for that. He merely took a fighting stance and waited for the woman to attack or address him either. His blade glimmered in the light of the surrounding inferno, and his empty, solemn face and posture were that of a calm and ready fighter.

Up close, he could see that she looked unwell. Sweat beaded at her temples, a tiny rivulet of it running down to pool, briefly, on the lip of her mask. Her red-brown eyes were wild, and her chest heaved. “Why have you come?” she asked, and she did not move to attack.

“To free the world.”

Tsio Bu said nothing more, for he did not need to. In a few moments, this woman would be dead, and her soul returned to the heavens as all the others fell this night would be. They would all understand soon enough as they stood before Qunyi and the rest of the gods to be judged. Tsio Bu eyed the woman up and down, wiggling his toes against the bottom of his shoes with anticipation. The metallic smell of blood made his own heart beat faster, and his hair stand on end. He ignored the darting shadows and shapes around him and drowned the clang of metal and cries of agony from his mind.

Focus.

With a sharp snort Tsio Bu lunged forward, blade raised. With any luck, he could land a quick fatal blow or at least knock the woman off balance for a quick end to this bout. It took five long strides for Tsio Bu to close the gap between he and the armored woman, and with a sharp thrust, he aimed his blade tip right for her lower stomach just above the groin.

The woman attempted to dodge, but Tsio Bu managed to land a mark - albeit barely. The tip of his Honfo blade cut into her thigh enough to draw blood that began to stream down. This did little and, if anything, would only spur his opponent to a vengeful counter. Tsio Bu recoiled and took up a defensive position, preparing to block the incoming counter in response to his first strike.

Instead, she laughed, a bewildering, head-thrown-back cry like the short, sharp crack of a mag dog. And then her sword did move, faster than he could fix his stance or change his block, and the sharp tip slid into his skin.

Tsio Bu could not suppress the outcry that burst from between his teeth and thin lips. A red-hot flash erupted through his core as searing pain raced down the bloody wound that now reached down his left arm. The woman’s massive sword had cut his entire sleeve off at the shoulder, and a deep red slash reached from the side of his upper left arm down to his elbow. Blood poured down his corded forearm and dribbled from his fingertips. It took all of Tsio Bu’s will not to drop his blade from the pounding pain, and he was forced to grip his weapon in one hand.

His opponent lunged forth, hoping to press her advantage against her staggered foe. Reminding himself he had been wounded worse and shaking off the pain, Tsio Bu quickly deflected a thrust aimed at his core then made a sharp inward cut at her neck. The masked woman ducked quickly and scurried back - Tsio Bu acting on the drive of instinct as he took a sharp inward step and swung again, this time down at her pricked thigh in hopes of bringing her to her knees this time.

Tsio Bu hissed in anger as his strike was ricocheted aside, just barely at that - the tip of his foe’s blade striking against the side of his own and sending it away. His foe immediately tried her advantage, making a hard two-handed arcing cut towards his midsection, Tsio Bu twisting around, narrowly avoiding the blade’s edge. He retaliated with his own strike immediately, not surprised as it was like the first block. The swordsman took a deep breath and a step back, steadying himself as he readied himself for an attack, planning for a quick dodge or parry and then an easy counter hit. This time. he thought to himself.

Her sword came, and Tsio Bu leaped past the arc of the blade, a glint in his eye as he saw his opening.

But no, not this time either.

The woman in the demon mask blocked Tsio Bu's blow with the easy counter of someone who had done little but wield their weapon for years and years. It was like an extra limb, and she seemed to move it without conscious thought. All reaction and flashing red-brown eyes, her dark hair loose and wild around her shoulders. She didn't look quite human in the light of fireworks exploding against the roofs above their heads, the palace steps lined with the bodies of the fallen.

Their sword blades met again in a series of sharp, short metallic clangs. He attacked. She blocked. She swung. He dodged. It was a mad dance of flashing steel that she seemed to be reveling in. Sweat beaded at his temples, and she darted forward again, his sidestep a little too late, his sword arm slow to block. The cutting edge of her two-handed sword nicked his uninjured arm, and then he shoved it away, darting in to lay another cut on her thigh, a vibrant, bleeding X against milk-pale skin.

The demon woman grinned as he dodged her counter. "That'll be fun to show off. Why don't you leave behind attacking innocents and take up dueling? I could get you in with a decent sponsor."

Tsio Bu did not try to explain his calling to this cackling mad woman but dashed in to land a blow that fell only on empty, ash-ridden air. Before he could turn, find her, attack, anything, she was there again, one pale, blood-spattered hand closing around his injured forearm, the pain a short, bright fire-burst shock. She yanked him forward, stumbling and lightheaded, and then pain lanced his back, blood splattering against the stones below him.

"Nevermind... you spend too much time standing still."

The world was awash with inarticulate sound, a vicious wave roar that blocked out anything but the disparate drops of crimson on stone. Tsio Bu was panting now, his teeth gritted against the pain. What was pain, really? Nothing but a byproduct of his mortal form. He was greater than it, stronger-willed. Tsio Bu launched himself forward again, forcing his arms to follow the forms he had studied so carefully.

The woman slipped easily aside, laughing, her form swimming before him. She attacked in a blur. He couldn't track her. And then her great, two-handed Miao Dau was slicing through his guard, and viscous red spurted from a crimson slash across his chest.

Tsio Bu fell backward - arms up, sword hold slipping through his fingers. His body came down hard on the bloody stones of the ancient square. The blow against his back caused pain to ring through his entire form, and yet another scream tore through his lips. The black and orange sky above was hazy, and Tsio Bu’s vision was blurred. Just before him, he could see the towering shape of the masked woman who had so easily reduced him to the fallen blood-soaked wretch he now was. His shirt was shredded, his hair matted and haggard, and his arms, chest, and back stained crimson. His head pounded and grew light at the same time, the loss of so much blood threatening him with unconsciousness. If this warrioress bled him anymore it could mean death.

No - it would mean death. He would lay here amid the corpses around him for the rest of the night, no doubt. His heart would give out and his soul would peel itself from his body as it was thrown into some waste pit or a pyre. And then he would stand to be judged in Aniyat, the world beyond - reward or punishment awaiting him when next he came to this world. This troubled, forsaken, empty world of mortals.

If I am to die I will do it on my feet, not wallowing like a beaten child.

Tsio Bu strained to rise up, his savaged body protesting, his head beating like a drum. He found himself gasping through the pain, knees shaking as his arms and shoulders trembled. His only driving force his labored resolve and the last strength he had to give. He unsteadily reached for his sword and took it within his right hand, the woman before him making no move to stop him. She did not need to, after all, Tsio Bu was all but beaten, and one final strike across his frail form would surely finish him. It will be an honor to die standing fighting for my god than let myself be sapped away lying on the ground.

Tsio Bu raised his blade up and took one forward stride through the pain and blurriness as he swung at his opponent. She blocked it easily, slashed toward him again, and Tsio Bu only barely got his sword up to stop the sweep that ought to have decapitated him. He was panting, his limbs growing cold in the awful, seeping heat of blood against his torso. He lashed out with desperate, stumbling force that she turned away, but the woman wasn’t smiling anymore. If anything, she looked tired and sick.

“Remember that you chose this,” she said and slid her blade through his heart.




Bashira let the man slide off her blade and wiped it clean on what little unblooded fabric there was left on him. Around her, the square was still in chaos, fireworks bursting against the roofs of the palace and surrounding buildings, people dying on the streets. Bashira sheathed Bad Luck and turned her back on all of it to climb the palace stairs.

The doors were blown open, the palace open and vulnerable before the onslaught. A few knots of desperate guards fought savage attackers, and somewhere, the great edifice was burning. Bashira took a deep breath and crossed her arms to hide her tremors before shouldering her way inside.


E S C A P E F R O M M E L D H E I M





A S I E R


With a brisk pace down the catacombs, Asier finally found his way along the path set by Osanna. The smell was musty and thick with charred remains of incense used in the frequent burial rites. The collapse of the ceiling brought the dust up as it billowed throughout the chambers, each breathtaking in hundreds of years of Eskand’s long-dead ancestors as the fog obscured the exit.

Osanna was currently set over his shoulder. Her wounds were patched up in a quick and simple manner that only the situation and timing could afford. He could save her life, the rest would simply be a bonus. Snorri followed behind the both of them, carrying Asier’s spoil-filled burlap sack for him, not making any efforts to escape the situation or too frightened that came along cowed. It wasn’t long till they made it to the fateful ladder which went up into the back alley, and Osanna was starting to come around.

“The timing cannot be better, champion.” Asier smiled widely as he placed the box by the wall. Allowing the illusion of respect without the potential embarrassment of her awareness of having been carried.

Asier looked over towards the boy, who appeared to be keeping a distance. “Not going to hurt you, son,” though clumsily translated in simple terms into the Eskand tongue, “Ingen Skade - No Damage,” which did not reflect reality.

The sound of chaos was definitely rung overhead as there was screaming, shouting, and loud footfalls. From what he could make out, there were cries of fire, and this was an omen for distraction. He moved to find the ladders stored away as she brought them to the opening for their escape.

Osanna’s breaths were loud and labored in the catacomb gloom, but she gestured up at the latched exit. Asier had to help her out, but Snorri scrambled up with all the ease and energy that a nine-year-old could muster. The city around them was chaos, smoke hanging over the heads of screaming, fleeing people as their world tumbled around them. The streets were a flood of soldiers and commoners. The sky was a thick and miasmic gray. “The harbor,” Osanna panted and turned in that direction, reaching out a hand to Snorri. He took it, wide-eyed, but didn’t cry or shrink back. His eyes seemed to be trying to swallow everything he saw.

Later, Asier would remember little of that desperate flight down the curving roads that lead out of the city and down to the far embankments where their escape lay waiting. It was like a fever dream. All sweat and stench. People are running with buckets and using what meager magical abilities they had to start drenching their homes in water. A more organized effort looked at tearing down homes, to the cries of protest and anguish. Meldhiem was on fire as thick smoke rising from the Gromtemple signaled the end times of the Eskandr gods. Not even the capital of the Eskandr Empire was free from the touch of war.

Then, like a sunrise after a long night, the harbor materialized out of smoke and fog and there, waiting at the end of its long, ragged docks, were three familiar craft.




O S A N N A


“Hurry! Get on board!”

Osanna stumbled down the docks, the wood seeming to sway and shift beneath her with each slap of waves against its thin, age-nibbled planks. Every movement hurt. Her skin was awash with fire, tight against the right side of her skull where hair had once been and now showed only blistered skin. She could see it on the backs of her hands too. The undersides of her forearms. Her side and right thigh. At least one of her ribs was broken. Maybe two. And still, she struggled on, heart and breaths and wind loud in her ears as the screams of the city had been.

They reached the boats, and she pushed Snorri in front of them and got him safely to the hands of waiting allies before allowing herself to be bundled aboard to cries of “Maud! She needs aid!” and “What the hell did you try to fight, girl? A bonfire?” Like they hadn’t seen mage wounds before.

Osanna found herself lying near the bow, not far from Asier and Snorri, the mage-girl Maud leaning over her to inspect her injuries. The binding didn’t hurt, didn’t feel like anything but the slow cessation of pain. Almost like numbness, the occasional prod of Maud’s fingertips as distant as Parrence’s friendly shores.

She began to feel drowsy, lulled by the stamping of booted feet, and yells as they prepared to make way. Osanna didn’t see if any other allies made it aboard, but in the last moments before her eyes sank closed and she drifted back into unconsciousness, she felt the knarr begin to move. Headed away from enemy shores. Headed home.



M E L D H E I M C A T A C O M B C H A S E





A S I E R


Ási continued to make his rounds around the palace on the first day of the job. Everyone tended to keep to themselves, simply giving each other knowing glances and exchanges. There was a clear hierarchy as certain areas were patrolled by the house guard, a station above his own, and these tended to patrol the most important regions of the throne.

After going around once, he proceeded to start doing specific paths as he tried to find a suitable path toward the royal treasury. Through the different corners, he started to place small seashells as they formed a route, rather like bread crumbs. Piece by piece, he mapped out the most suitable route, then left a little pile of the shells opposite the door. The guards stationed outside peered at him piercingly, so he continued to pass them into the hall.

The hall, on the other hand, was almost perpetually populated by one person or another, other than for a brief occasion during meal time and the changing of the guard. It is on this occasion he managed to enter the majestic place as he bore witness to the throne. It was difficult to understand where the throne ended, and the tree began. The tree was positioned perfectly as if sculpted to have a throne shape as opposed to one being cut within it. He had overheard the guards discuss that each fruit represented the prosperity of the Ekandr people, and the more it grew, the more prosperous they would be. Ási approached as he drew his axe to use the fine edge to slice the fruit and nuts from it, giving it a healthy trim. There was not much fruit to be had, but a bad omen might cause a few of their true believers to panic. He couldn’t resist the urge to find a suitable spot to leave a marking of his own upon its sacred bark, “Asier était ici”.

As the signal arrived as intended, he made his way out of the hall, nodding towards the guards as they came onto shift, making his way over into the kitchens to complete the rest of the task ahead.




O S A N N A


When the signal came, Osanna was standing in the center of what she had come to think of as her classroom. Her palms were pressed flat to the smooth wood grain of the table, cool and impersonal against her skin. Her eyes were closed. Pain prickled behind them in little lighting flashes that echoed into the bones of her skull.

She had found the hidden sea entrances to the catacombs and nearly gotten lost on the way back, but they were open and a single carefully half-shuttered lantern sat in each. She had let in her ally. She had prepared her plans for escape.

Osanna had not slept more than an hour or two in four days.

When she felt the tug on her ear, she was half-sure it was hallucination, but Osanna had never had delusions before. She was sane of mind and strong of body. She would not imagine a false signal.

“Ositha?”

Osanna straightened at once, taking in the sight of her two royal charges framed in a doorway surrounded on all sides by a fortune in paper and wood and leather and horse-hoof glue. She smiled. “Today, we’re going to do something a little bit different.”

On the way down to the kitchens, Osanna began her prepared speech on the importance of the language they would use at state dinners with dignitaries from foreign nations. She explained how the wrong turn of phrase might give offense or destroy a previously hoped-for alliance and how their actions—good or bad— would reflect on their family.

It filled up the whole walk—Osanna standing between the two to keep them from fighting when they got bored— and soon, they were standing in the warmth and bustle of the kitchen near the pantry that held her precious escape. She put them through their paces, asking for translations at a break-neck speed to keep them from getting off-topic, laughing when she stumbled over the words. Echeran keep her, the world was starting to blur on the edges, and her heart was beating a rapid, strangled tattoo in its anxiety. When would the news come? Were her comrades able to complete their part of this plan? Would they get away safe?

It seemed to take hours, but the news finally did come. It arrived in the form of a breathless messenger, having run straight down after telling the nobles (nobility always did underestimate the knowledge of their help). Chaos had erupted in the city.

Osanna looked at Snorri and Inga and let her fear show on her face. Where was Asier? She needed to get him out too.“We need to get you to safety,” she said. “Have you heard of the Catacombs beneath the palace?”

“Those are just old stories!” declared Inga.

“Every story comes from a truth,” retorted Snorri. “Magister Hostein used to say it.”

“Not every one,” Inga replied. “Even if they were real,” she continued, perhaps a little bit intrigued now, “how would we find them?”

“What if I told you I knew how to get inside?” Asier stepped into the kitchen, and Osanna immediately relaxed. He had made it. They were going to get out of here. “Are you two up for an adventure?”




D I E T R I E C H


Suspicion had been building in his brain ever since the last meeting with that teacher. He had thought of how he might act on it without jeopardizing his mission or endangering his station at the palace. It was one thing to know something, it was another to convince others of it, and he could not imagine the royal would take well to him arresting a member of her employee on a whim. Perhaps it was good fortune then that when he was at the apex of these thoughts, that there was chaos in the castle, and Meldheim was under attack. He wasted no time and rallied two of his most trusted men, seasoned Sturmknecht, and set out to save the children from the likely agent.

First, Dietrich ran to the classrooms. Perhaps they were still there from the chaos. The children could be obstinate, but no. There was no trace. It was a given they wouldn’t be in the throne room, so he decided to search around other likely locations. That brought him upon the kitchen and from there into the pantry, where he heard stifled voices that sounded all too familiar. He burst in with his guard taking the lead. He feared the worst and gave a whispered order to the sturmknecht, who shouted at Osanna, “Stopp akkurat der kriminelt avskum!”

Ositha paused at the top of the ladder, looking up towards Dietrich and his guards. The children must have been below. Her shoulders relaxed, and she let out a sigh, lips twitching upwards in a tremulous smile. She entirely ignored the accusation from his guards, as though she didn't understand it. "Lord Dietrich! Something has gone horribly wrong in Meldheim and the children are going to hide in case of a breach. Will you help us protect them?"

Dietrich walked forward tentatively, his guard still posted in front, before looking down at 'Ositha'. He observed with every ounce of his being, his heart beating fast from the adrenaline of the situation, for were something to happen to those kids, there would be more trouble than a mere beast assaulting the capital. He sensed this agent was much more malicious, for she had far more intent and purpose behind her actions. He would act now, or perhaps two very valuable hostages would be seized by foreign raiders. A terrifying proposal.

"You might have fooled the queen and the other members of this court, but not me. Be still, and I may stop the Eskandr from nailing you to the front of a longship." He spoke with authority in a language he detested, Parrench, as he pointed his scepter at the woman and switched to Drudgunzean."Seize her. If she resists, slit her throat."

Ositha dropped into the dark and disappeared, no trace of her face or hands, not a wisp of dark hair or swish of cloak. From that depth, darts came flying, striking the guards with portentous whomps. “Run!!” she yelled. “We’ll get no help here!”

Dietrich was not as surprised as his soldiers at the sudden assault. A quick draw of the kinetic force of the darts heading his way caused them to drop to the floor, and he gazed into the darkness, frustrated at the circumstances. "Nach ihr!" he bellowed as he used his gift to attempt to sense the energies of Osanna and begin to draw. As quick as she might be, she was no noble, and he was betting that she did not have a strong enough gift to resist an offensive draw, moving closer to the darkness and awaiting his men to take the lead, not wanting to jump into the jaws of an assassin without backup.

The guard, known as Ási, was rebuffed as the woman disappeared into the darkness. "Dritt!" he cursed under his breath as he tried to look around for her unsuccessfully. The children started to become confused and frightened. He approached them and looked over them protectively as he had his back towards them, preparing to place himself between them and the intruder.

Dietrich, seeing that the draw was effective and that this infiltrator was on her last legs, descended, using a little kinetic energy to dampen any fall he might have taken. Nodding to the guard that was already there to handle the matter of the children, he redirected his gaze toward the false tutor. He still had plenty of juice from the draw and was ready to unleash it upon the would-be assassin, no mercy in his eyes as he spoke his spell into existence. "Iram patris!" before a stream of crackling lightning came from the ivory scepter, making its way toward Osanna. After this was dealt with, he would see to the children's safety.

Only, he couldn’t quite see her. Where the woman had been leaning against the wall there was only shadow, and there came no scream of pain or thud of a body hitting the floor. The guards stumbled away from the latter, and suddenly there she was again, turning away from what ought to have been a killing blow by one of the guards. They exchanged a couple blows, but no party made headway.

Ási heard the children as they panicked and cried, the fresh sounds of battle rung around them. He kneels down as he placates them with reassuring hushes. He used his skills as a parent as he brought them in close and gave them a light hug to settle them. After he took a hold of their hands, he started to gently back away slowly out of the combat area. Dietrich glanced in his direction, he gave him a knowing nod, those unspoken words of I’ll take care of them; you have got this. He gestured towards the children “Gå, Gå".

​​Dietrich, surprised that the blow did not finish the assassin, was surprised at her ability to tangle with two fully armoured Sturmknecht after the fact. He felt no pity, but he did feel a manner of respect for her warrior spirit. Still, something made his brain tingle. Why was she content to stay and fight here instead of running? There must have been something else afoot. He had little time to waste on this affair if this were to be the case, so he would once again attempt to finish it. Drawing from the kinetic energy of the clashing of steel, and converting it to thunder, he prepared a lance of lightning to fire straight for the assassin's center of mass. Once again, she disappeared, but he could smell burning. She had not completely escaped him.

The fighting continued, and the ferocity increased. The children appeared to be too scared to move or too enthralled with the display, irrespective of their safety. Ási acted stronger in his encouragement, shouting towards them, "Gå! Gå!". He started to push the children deeper into the catacombs and further from the fighting, covering the retreat to prevent any bad from happening to either of them. The erupts continued around him, the ceiling starting to crumble as stone gave way; he couldn’t keep at this slow pace longer. He grabbed the children under his arms, carrying them down the corridor with great haste and hopefully out of the catacombs. He tried to recall Ositha’s directions in his mind, attempting to choose the right plans out of here.

Inga protested immediately. "I'm not a lil' kid! I'm almost twelve! Put me down, and I'll just use magic, you big dumb ox!" Snorri was more circumspect in his approach, merely frowning and accepting his lot in life... for now.

Ási dropped her down next to him, taking her hand as he tugged her along. ”løpe”. As he tried to pull her along, Snorri started to whine, slowing them down, pulling on his leg to go back to help Ositha. “I can use the Gift too, and they’re going to kill each other! For Father’s sake!”




O S A N N A


Osanna felt herself relax, and the shadows melted her form into obscurity once more. She gave the guards a cursory blow that they defended well enough and sank into her easy darkness. This didn't matter. Not anymore. Asier was getting away. He would find the Parrench or his sea people, and she would have fulfilled her duty, done as her God and her church had instructed. All she had to do now was live long enough for this to work.

She almost didn’t manage that. The damned lightning mage unleashed another burst of ferocious power, light searing her eyes and heat searing great swaths of her skin. Her cloak had all but burnt away. Her cheeks were rough with blisters, and her nose was full of the rancid smell of burning hair. She called the shadows again, an act that usually felt like slipping into cool water and now was more like trying to cover herself beneath tons of dirt. She hurt. Her breaths were coming too fast, too painful.

In the aftermath of her second near-death of the night, Osanna used the cover of darkness to turn on the guards. The one nearest her was a brute of a man—a full head taller and dark-haired. He swung at the shadow of what might have been her or a dream or his own paranoid imaginings, and in that second of unbalance, she sliced open his throat and stole his sword. Echeran keep her, it felt amazing to have a sword in hand. It was too heavy and too short, but it was an actual blade! No more butcher’s weapons. She turned immediately to the second guard and thrust, but her magic had failed her again, and the blade hardly nicked him.

Osanna had to dodge another funerary strike, and she growled, turning on Dietrich like a feral animal. She struck out with her new blade and tore into his arm, feeling the delicious resistance, the spill of hot blood on the floor. She couldn’t tell if he looked surprised or afraid.

"Du wirst nicht alleine sterben, Freund,” Dietrich said.

Osanna was shaking. Fever from the burns she had received raked her limbs. Adrenaline and exhaustion fought for prominence in her shredded mind. She hoped she'd done her duty. She hoped her people would survive this war. She was glad she’d served her God well.

“I am never alone,” she said, and the next blast of lightning hit her and flung her back hard against the tunnel wall.

For a time there was nothing. Pain. Light. The smell of flaming hair and skin and fabric like burning feathers and cooking meat and a wildfire all at once. There wasn’t enough air, or else her lungs couldn’t find it. A woman dying of dehydration steps from clean water.

Osanna groaned. She hurt everywhere. Light danced in from the opening overhead, spilling dustmotes, spinning across her vision like the turning of stars multiplied by about a million. She couldn't hear anything at first, but the thrumming of the tunnel crystalized into boot falls on stone, and she rolled away just as a sword tip dropped down to skewer her. Osanna kicked at the knees of her attacker, and he fell onto her stolen blade with a wet sound like meat hitting a stone counter. She struggled to her feet.

Osanna was done. There was nothing more she could do here, burned and broken and shaking. She asked shadows to cover her once more and limped into the darkness.




A S I E R


Asier had grown impatient with his charges. “Avancez”, he cursed under his breath. This was the wrong remark, as this outed him as a Parrenchman and not one of the house guards. Inga broke away, kicking viciously at his shin and shouting as she ran down back to where the fighting was going on. “Non non…”, he chased after the girl. That necessitated releasing the boy, and he broke away too.

Voices echoed down the darkened corridor in languages that the plainsman didn’t understand, and he raced toward them, fearing that it was all undone, all for naught. He passed Snorri and tried to hold the child back. “She there,” the boy said in quiet broken Parrench, gesturing, and Asier didn’t have enough time to make sense of where his younger charge stood. There was something subtle just ahead, though: a shadow that didn’t fall quite right in the near dark, but Inga had reached Dietrich now and her silhouette was frantically pulling on his sleeve, her words quick and animated, lost to the Tourrare.

“Snorri!” She shouted urgently, “Skynde sig! Løb hen til mig!” Her head turned to Dietrich, but his eyes were fixed on the moving shadow. He had spotted Osanna, and Asier realised that by going back for her - not his original intent - he had just jeopardised the entire mission.

The Drudgunzean stalked forward, and Asier ran that way, drawing whatever scant energies he could in this Oraphe-forsaken place and hoping to get there first. “Snorri,” Inga cried, “kom. her.

“Jeg kan ikke!” the boy replied. “Undskyld.”

Asier reached Osana just as her cloak of shadows evaporated, dissipating into the dim, musty air. He looked up, prepared to shield his ally behind his body and use the energy he’d gathered to fight if need be, but his would-be opponent seemed too slow, to draw up short.

“Kujon!” Inga screamed, pounding ineffectually at Dietrich’s side.

Asier could feel her drawing, and the girl was much stronger in the Gift than he’d imagined. Snorri hesitated and began walking towards her, arms spread. “Søster, gør det ikke!”

The Tourrare made his move just as Dietrich seemed to have recovered his nerve. He threw everything into the ceiling of the tunnel between where they stood, rushing forward and grabbing Snorri by the only thing that he could get ahold of: the boy’s collar.

Chunks fell, and the ceiling rippled back further than any had anticipated. Inga’s eyes widened in fear, and she turned to run, but she was too slow. Then, there was a small burst of magic as she glanced back over her shoulder, and the siblings locked eyes, but it was Snorri’s instead of hers, and it was not directed at Asier. Instead, Inga was shoved backward out of the way of the falling stones.

Then, the tunnel collapsed, and dust billowed up in a massive wave. Asier coughed. There was no seeing through to the other side. Snorri stood there, shielding his small face with one arm. “Jeg er ked af det, Inga,” he said solemnly. “Pas godt på dig selv. Vær glad.” He glanced at Osanna, unconscious, and stepped over to place a pair of fingers upon her neck. “She okay,” he said in broken Parrench. He spared a long glance back at the collapse behind them and then looked up at Asier. “You hold she.” He gestured in Osana’s direction. “We need go.”
Bashira needed a drink.

She leaned against the smooth wood of a creaking mid-city home, the alleyway around her dark and empty. Everything was so loud in this withdrawal confusion. The Emperor’s voice seemed to boom above the crowd gathered to hear him, screaming into the night, the people screaming back in cheers or anger, she couldn’t tell. It reverberated around her skull the same way a blow to the temple did. To say it hurt would have been an understatement—Bashira’s head was an agony of splintering bone-chip explosions.

The guards were probably still looking for her, but she’d lost them back in the southern quarter, not far from the platform where Long Hiuping’s death had been arranged. They’d never find her in this press—not with so many people and costumes and visitors. Even her unusual height would fail to give her away next to the towering forms of Mokeu and Zauri festival-goers. She was safe. But only for this one precious night.

One night to find the General and clear her name.

And her body was shaking, trembling against the wall she was half-using to hold herself up. Gods, she knew it wasn’t that cold, but her teeth were shaking, her hands numb at the tips of her unsteady fingers. Bashira had to clutch her hilt to keep her hands still, had to clench her teeth to keep them from chattering. She had already emptied the contents of her stomach in a similarly queasy dark alley.

Come on!

Bashira pushed herself up from the wall and jumped at the sound of her decorative pauldrons scraping against the side. She was all razor knife-shard edges, a volatile collection of open nerves. Fuck, she just needed something to blunt this barrage, to deaden the pain and the impossible whetted points of the world around her. But if she did, if she turned from her quest to save herself this pain, then she would never complete it. She’d be lulled into comfort or misplace time, and her opportunity would be lost.

She shivered and shook her head, forcing herself to breathe, to stop panting like a goddamn dog on the palace steps. Fuck! She didn’t want to have to do this! Why did the General have to intervene? Why did that idiot noble boy have to die?! She swallowed down a sob and shook the tears out of her eyes and berated herself for being such a goddamn child. She wasn’t her father. She could do this.

Bashira plunged into the crowd, flinching at every accidental touch from a raving stranger or every glance of a uniformed guard. She had let down her dark mass of black hair and hung her demon half-mask from her belt, but she still felt too fucking recognizable in this awful red and black dueling costume with all its ribbons and silk and gold-colored edges. And she was so cold—must have been blue-lipped by then— and why was she doing this anyway? What use would finding the General even be? He had wanted this to happen. He had promised something would, that if she stepped on that platform again she would never duel again. He’d gotten what he wanted. He’d not clear her name.

She ought to have just run, gotten out of the city, made herself a name in some other place with some other ring of fighters. She’d cut her hair short. Change her name. She just needed a drink first, something to cut down all this fucking noise, and she’d be able to get herself free.

But the crowd changed. Arrows zipped like bees overhead, screams rending the air from the direction Bashira had been heading in, the direction of the emperor and the general and all the nobles and officials who’d gathered close to hear the speech. A bolt skittered off her left pauldron and sunk deep into the meat of a young boy’s back, his yell choked off in an unceremonious gurgle. It bobbed, that bolt, a dancing, feathered end blooming red around the shaft in widening concentric circles. The woman next to him keened, low and horribly animal, and she scrambled at his shoulders, his arms, trying to hold him close but losing the battle against his rapidly sinking weight.

The crowd devolved into chaos, frightened spooked-horse-eyed people screaming names, running in different directions. They buffeted Bashira like debris in a riptide, and she stood in the center of it all, trying not to shake, trying not to let her teeth chatter. Was this real? Had the world sloughed off all its rules like dead skin, or would she wake again, reach for the bottle, shatter it into a gray-lit room?

There was a flash of weapons. A man rushed Bashira, and she moved off instinct, off the muscle memory of a decade of professional swordplay and the long years before that of agonizing practice. She unsheathed her sword. “I don’t want to kill anyone!”

The man smiled, mouth too wide beneath eyes of serpentine green. His voice came like a symphony of hisses, and he moved like the weighted end of a whip. “Then die!”

Bashira flipped her sword from its guard position and let him run himself into the point. His body made it heavy, blood slick. It was too loud to hear the dripping. She stumbled forward, and the crowd surged, and this time, Bashira was caught within it, borne along in this writhing wave.

More fighters came at her, people in peasant dress that hung ill-fitting from wiry frames. Bashira killed them, too, because she still didn’t want to die. She craved a less permanent annihilation—only half out of her body—and her city had lost so much definition to smoke and flame and darting blade that none of this felt quite real. These people—were they people?—weren’t trying to kill her, weren’t dying. Any moment she would wake, and it’d be exhibition day with its forms and procedures, comforting even in its decline.

The palace steps rose up before Bashira without her entirely knowing how she had reached them. She was shaking more now, less from cold and more from hypersensitive adrenaline that had never touched her fights before. She was bleeding—was she?—down her left thigh.

And where they came for her—did they?—they died.
“That’s what I always say, isn’t it, Debbie? Rough times and rough people.” Liam Peterson fumbled for something in his pockets, pulling out a lighter and a crumpled cigarette. “No, wait, is it rough times make tough people? Doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter.”

He tried to light it several times to no avail and then put the single cig back into his pocket. Jaelle missed smoking even though, evidently, people had realized it was bad for you now. They’d probably poisoned it with over-manufacturing the way they had chocolate and soap.

Or that’s what she’d read, anyway. It was hard to know for certain when you couldn’t try things out yourself.

Mrs. Peterson had trained her eyes on the wreck of the gas station, the wafting smoke, a few fires still burning half-heartedly within an explosion of candy-colored heart attacks. It smelled horrible. Like melting plastic or burning hair. “You said you didn’t see Carol? How could she have gotten out?”

“She probably ran into the woods, same as we did,” Liam said and shuffled. He didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands.

“But how would she have gotten out? They were blocking the front door?”

Jaelle was pretty sure that if someone didn’t think of something to say soon, Debbie was going to turn hysterical. She glanced at Mal, wondering if he had anything to add to the unknown fate of the woman who’d been tending the counter, but thankfully, Liam noticed his wife’s distress and wrapped an arm around her shoulders.

“You know Carol! That fiery girl knows how to take care of herself. She’s probably hiking over to the old Broussard property behind us.”

Jaelle was about to volunteer to go check when Eleanor’s car pulled into the gas station parking lot, looking a little worse for wear but still functional. She relaxed considerably, and because she didn’t want to deal with the trials of being incorporeal in a moving vehicle, she volunteered to look anyway.

“I’ll see if I can’t find Carol,” Jaelle said cheerfully. “Someone needs to catch up with emergency services when they get here anyway.”

And she really would look in the few moments she had before slipping invisibly back into the red world of Mal’s scepter for the ride back to headquarters.
Bashira called her sword Bad Luck because it was the only thing she believed in. It was in every face she met, every turn of fate. More prevalent than the touch of any god’s hand.

But men like the one climbing the opposite side, well, they believed in a little bit of everything. Mercy. Benevolence. Self Control. Another half-dozen fancy words for slaughter. He was lily-pale and dark-haired, tall and swaying as bamboo. If he was here for anything, it was on a dare—strings pulled, coins in the right pockets. He probably called his sword Stiff or Blade-Up-My-Ass, and dreamed of building a collection of heads.

Well, he could try those dreams against the Demon of Bianwei if he wanted, but she wouldn’t have bet his blue-silk robes on them. Noble men often stepped onto the platform against her, and few of them left with anything to show for it.

Around the platform stood stands of wood draped in vibrant red and purple pendants. It was late afternoon and a festival day, so they were packed, the air thick with eager bystanders and the scents of fried dough and bean paste. More people stood at the edges of the platform, their eyes wide, round faces upturned, so many that they could not have possibly all been from Bianwei. The city was swollen, bloated—overflowing with the empire’s folk fluid. More even. There were tribespeople and Mokeu and Hofo among them as well.

Bashira’s opponent waved and bowed to the crowd, his face split with a beatific smile, but Bashira made no move to acknowledge anyone at all, her eyes forward, on this man and the space between them. She stopped five paces from the edge of the rectangular platform and stilled. Her heel hurt. Her stomach still gurgled in unhappy complaint from the alcohol she’d consumed the night before. Still, she felt strong, limber, ready. Just as she had before every other fight for the last decade.

She was half-suspecting that the general would show and find some way to stop this. It was impossible to say how he’d reached that position, how he’d dragged himself up from the mire of self-pity and senseless aggression, but the knots on his well-fitted dress uniform didn’t lie. Somehow, her father had acquired the resources to stop her, even if she didn’t quite want to believe it.

An announcer stepped onto the stage waving a bright festival banner, and the crowd quieted as much as any group that size could quiet, an ocean murmur rather than a roar. Bashira took a deep breath. Anticipation was stirring in her belly, spit pooling beneath her tongue. She was ready to move, to test her strength against this stranger’s, to cheat the kiss of a well-sharpened blade. The press of her demon half-mask was hot and damp, her breath caught by hardened leather smelling slightly of sour wine.

Still no army.

“Long Hiuping against Shinxi Bashira, The Demon of Bianwei!” The announcer’s shout faded into the screams of the crowd, their cheers, their disgust. These days, they liked to support Bashira’s opponents, the young golden boys against the older demon woman. Fuck them and their characterizations and whoever had decided this was about more than simple swordplay.

The general was out of time.

Hiuping bowed and drew his sword; Bashira did neither. In the space of quiet left by the crowd’s surprise, she flung her head back and shrieked, the sound a rough harpy wail that tore the edges of her throat and shot through the arena like a flight of arrows. When she was young and new and more full of herself, great swaths of the crowd had screamed with her, a chilling echo. Not anymore! Technically, the match had already begun, but Hiuping didn’t attack while her neck was bare to him. None of them ever did.

A pity, really. Lost opportunities.

Then, a series of exchanges. Hiuping charged first, but Basira had her sword unsheathed before he reached her, shifting with a careful economy of movement—only enough energy to be in the right place, at the right time, at the right speed. Charge. Thrust. Parry. The swords didn’t so much slice through the air as flicker, flashes of silver light.

Official matches went only until the first glistening red smear of blood down a long silver blade, a cut on the arm, a scratch of the thigh. The first person to land a blow took the winnings. Noble, they said. Civilized! It was still just two bodies, each striving to come out on top.

Hiuping’s body was a gallery of openings, his sword forms big and showy. Every move telegraphed in his elbow or shoulder. She side-stepped his thrusts, parried his slashes, tore long rents in his flowing sleeves. And her heart was singing. This was where she belonged. The only place in all creation where she knew precisely what to do.

They had moved around the ring, sliding, light-footed like dancers. Hiuping was fast for all his flashiness, and sweat pooled beneath the tight wrap around Bashira’s chest. Hiuping’s hair had fallen forward, a dark strand cutting the center of his forehead, flying back as he struck at Bashira’s calves. She leaped over his blade, panting, her stomach in gurgling knots. Perhaps the alcohol was getting to her after all.

Bashira rushed him, sliding her blade down the length of his to cut his hands or collar or gain control of his throat. He side-stepped the move, breaking away and turning to face her. She turned as well, their positions reversed again, and the piercing shine of the sun’s fading light caught Bashira’s eyes. She shook her head, eyes squinting. She wasn’t stupid enough to look away.

There was a flash of silver, a falling half-moon, and Bashira reacted on instinct, her heart pounding in sudden fear.

She didn’t want to die.

Blood sprayed her face, warm and sticky. No longer could Bashira smell the must of last night’s wine. Just sweat and salt and iron. She’d killed him. No. She couldn’t have, couldn’t have killed him, so why was his head lying gurgling at her feet, blood pooling around her sandals? She hadn’t felt the resistance, the subtle push-back of bone against a highly sharpened blade. Her sword wasn’t bloody, was it? No. No, look. Just spatter, just the spray, smeared by movement.

“Look,” she turned to a truly silent crowd. She wanted to tell them to look, to see that she hadn’t done it, that she hadn’t killed him, but their eyes were on her anyway. For a second, she saw herself through their eyes, the demon they had made her, the demon she had pretended to be, that they had rallied behind at first and then grew more and more wary of through the years, watching the fall, watching, expecting her to break.

City guards shoved past them, pushing towards the stage, and Bashira knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that she couldn’t go with them, couldn’t, or she would be guilty even though she hadn’t done this at all. It had been a setup. Hadn’t her father warned her? That coward. She had to find him first, force him to admit to doing this to her. She wasn’t guilty. They would have to see.

Before the guard reached her, Bashira leaped from the platform and into the crowd, heading towards the palace. No one stood in her way.
“You smell like death.”

Jaelle stood above Mal, half-impaled by a steel rod she couldn’t feel and framed by a halo of fallen insulation. She wrinkled her nose at him, at once relieved and remarkably irritated. He’d basically gotten himself killed, and if the aura pouring off him was anything to judge by, clawed his way back into the mortal plane and his body. The lucky bastard. She was so glad he hadn’t left her behind.

“I think that was the worst idea you’ve had in a while,” she said, crossing her arms. “Just wait until you have to fill out the report.”

He looked surprisingly whole, considering that he’d just about left earth forever, his nice suit tattered but miraculously still hanging onto him. When Mal suggested they hop right back over to headquarters, she stared at him like he’d grown two heads. Of course, to be fair, he had just dealt with a rather forced out-of-body experience—even if he’d done it to himself. Jaelle supposed that could be the sort of thing that might make someone completely forget why they’d gone somewhere in the first place.

“And leave the Petersons stranded in the woods to get offed by the next bunch of creepy magic-resistant weirdos? Come on, Mal. Call Eleanor and get someone to pick us up the mundane way unless you want to file more reports about moving normal people through the folds of inter-dimensional space.”

She knew that probably wasn’t the word Mal would have used for his portals, but she liked it. It had a nice ring.

While he secured their transport, Jaelle trudged back out to her witnesses. Both Liam and Debbie Peterson were still crouched against the ground, huddled together and looking a little worse for wear. Liam’s face was smeared with dirt, and Debbie had a twig in her hair.

“It’s alright,” she told them. “There wasn’t a bomb. I think a stray bullet hit one of the pumps, and there was an explosion. My partner made it, but at least one of the attackers did not.”

“What about Carol?” Mrs. Peterson looked horrified, and Jaelle blanked for a long moment before she remembered the woman that had been standing behind the counter when she came in, the one with curly hair pulled severely back. Her heart sunk.

“I’m not sure,” she admitted, hoping that the woman had managed to run or take cover. “Please come with me. We’re arranging to have you transported somewhere safe.”
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