"I think that's the last of it," said Jason, tamping down the new wallpaper in the foyer. Flicker had tried to pay the boy for the job--it was the Sturtevanters, he pointed out, who were paying for the damage--but Jason apparently felt so guilty about leading them there in the first place he wouldn't accept the coin. Flicker understood about debts of honor, so he didn't push. "Flicker?" Jason added awkwardly, as he put away his tools. "Could I--could I ask you a question?"
Flicker had never understood the point of that particular turn of phrase. "Go ahead," he said.
Jason licked his lips. "Well... are you gay?"
"No," said Flicker, a slight frown twitching at the corner of his mouth despite himself.
"Not," Jason said hurriedly, "that you, uh, look gay, or anything... or that I'd know if you did... I'm terribly new at this all, which is why I was, uh, asking in the first place. It's just that I know so little about who I am now, and I thought that since you know, about my past, I mean... that if you were, maybe you could help me." He looked down at his boots, with an embarrassed flush. "And in Sturtevant, not that they've been right about anything else outside their borders, but they always said elves were homosexual. So I just thought I'd ask. It wasn't a pass or anything, honest."
There were a number of responses vying for attention in Flicker's mind, but Threnody's won. "If we were all homosexual," he said, "how would we reproduce?"
Jason flushed harder. "I don't know..."
Flicker laughed. "Sorry," he said. "No, I don't think our race is any more inclined to homosexuality than anyone else." He thought about it. "Well," he said, "I do have a friend who might be able to help you, but to be honest with you, I haven't seen him in more than a year."
"It's okay," said Jason. "I was just... wondering."
Away Upon That Foreign Shore, That's Where I'm Bound To Go
"Wait here," Otter instructed Callie. There were rocky islands surfacing from the sun-warmed shallows, and she didn't want the anomalocaris girl to get beached by a strong wave. On the island Otter could see humans moving around, fishermen, from the looks of them, rough-garbed, with curly hair. Now there was the problem of trying to communicate. Otter suspected the Fallen Ones had transported them to another plane somehow. It was unlikely the people who lived here would know Dalen, and Otter didn't know a tongues spell from a flintstone. She pushed herself up out of the foam and onto her feet on the beach with the slightly dizzy wrench of effort leaving the waters always came with and spread her arms in what she hoped was a universally comprehensible gesture of peace. "Good morning, friend," she said, in low and simple tones, heard her voice echo in the air for what felt like the first time in a very long time.
"Νυμφή!" cried the man she had approached, dropped his net, and fled inland.
Otter sighed. She could follow him and try to make her friendly intentions known, but it would mean leaving Callie behind, and after what had happened with the giant squid Otter was reluctant to split up in this strange place. -Any luck?- the anomalocaris lisped in her mind.
"Not yet," said Otter, sliding her long, lean body splashlessly back into the seawater it had come from.
Purer Than Pure
"Can you believe this new trade alliance we're in?" said Sherren, rolling his eyes.
"It's good for the country," Mardis said mildly.
"It probably is, but it's fucking embarrassing. My sister's friend got assigned as part of the foreign trade detachment. What the fuck kind of a job is that? Ambassador to New fucking Trade? What's next, ambassador to the Mikzyn Swamp? Ambassador of flies in the horse manure?"
Lihan was just leaning back against an elm tree, whittling a small piece of wood with his pocket knife. "There are miners who take oil from the Mikzyn Swamp," shrugged Mardis. "Why not goods from the kiljhac?"
"Yeah, but the miners don't make treaties with the lousy mud," said Kailan. "If we want their stuff we should kill them and fucking take it. Treaties with Cynystra. My ass."
"Kailan's father was killed by the Cynystrans," Mirlee explained.
Kailan muttered something dark, and Skitch nodded in sympathy. The war between Cynystra and Western Diaria had been a terrible thing, and Skitch had no doubts that it was all Eric Stupidhead's fault. "A Cynystran tried to use my mom for a science experiment," he contributed.
"I hope you kicked their ill-bred asses," said Kailan.
"I wasn't born yet," said Skitch. "My mom told me the story. She cast fireball at him and ran away."
"If it teaches the Cynystrans a lesson, I'm all for it," said Kailan.
"Yeah, but adopting barbarity to combat barbarity is bad, right, Akjhir?"
"Magic isn't necessarily barbarity," Skitch said faintly. "A lot of honorable Diarians used magic in our past."
"They were doing what they thought was right," said Lihan, without looking up from his whittling, "and so was your mother. But in the New Diaria, we should eschew those foreign arts. They weaken us as a people. They make us dependent."
"I think they make us stronger," Skitch argued. "We don't have to not use something just because the kiljhac use it. We should just use it better than they do. The Vyrag Code of Honor says to use every tool in the pursuit of knowledge and righteousness."
"That was all right for three thousand years ago," said Lihan, "when our culture wasn't in danger of being eroded by the encroaching barbarians. Today it is nothing but out of date."
"The Vyrag Code of Honor, out of date?" Skitch was horrified. "It is the backbone of Diari society!"
"God, you sound like a priest," said Mirlee, laughing through her hand.
"It was the backbone of a Diari society that fell to the barbarians," said Lihan.
"A Diari society that was great for... countless years!" protested Skitch, who still hadn't mastered the base-12 numeral system. "And will be again. It wasn't the Vyrag Code of Honor that messed it up. Maybe if we'd protected our brothers in West Diaria in the first place like the code says it wouldn't have happened."
"Are you criticizing the Great Emperor?" Sherren said quietly.
"Well, you must admit he's been acting like an idiot lately," Kailan put in.
"Kailan!" Mirlee covered her ears, looking frightened.
"I'm sure he had some kind of reason," Skitch saved lamely. "Maybe he was testing us. But if he was, we failed. Diarians shouldn't abandon each other. Ever."
"The dishonorable one was Talakan," Mardis tried to shift the conversation.
Lihan said nothing, only watched.
"I just get the feeling," Khyrisse said a little sadly, looking out the window, "that you'd be--a lot more proud, under other circumstances."
Ebreth paused. "No," he said, "no, I'd act a lot more proud. There's a difference. Khyrisse... don't think I'm not happy about this child. Happy, nervous, excited, proud, everything. I'm just..." He moved his hand inarticulately. "...not allowed to show it," he finally finished. "Of course I want to shout "We're having a baby" from the top of the Federal Building. I can't do that. Everyone knows I don't have the right." He shook his head. "There are a lot of ways I'd like to be acting, Khyrisse, but I have to stop myself because I don't have that right. I can't act like this baby's mine any more than you can. Just please don't take it to mean I don't care. This is hard enough."
Khyrisse shuddered. "I am so sorry I did this to you."
"It's not your fault," he said. "It's not Schneider's fault, either, even if I act like it is sometimes. It's no one's fault." Ebreth looked at their hands together on the sill. The look on his face was awful, and Khyrisse felt suddenly ill. "I'm sure I will," he said, "love her either way, I mean. I just can't let myself until she's born, because I won't know till then how I can. Do you understand?"
"I think I understand," she whispered, trying not to cry. "Ebreth... listen, is there anything I can do. I know this is horrible for you and I wish it hadn't happened this way but it did and there's nothing I can do about it now. Tell me what you need me to do to make it hurt less and I swear I'll do it."
He folded her fingers gently around his thumb with his forefinger. Her skin was so white under his. Get him out of our city, he wanted to say, but he didn't even need to think about that to know how wrong it would be. "Just give me other things to hang onto," he said. "If you can't call this my child, call us a family. Tell me you love me like you never loved Schneider. Say your life is that much better with me in it. If I can't be the father of your child, if I can't be the only man who touches you, then give me something else, make me feel irreplaceable somehow, Khyrisse."
"Irreplaceable," she said slowly, almost dazed. "Ebreth, the only one who ever made me feel the way you do was Eric, and he... he didn't do it very often." She bit her lip. "He was very, sparing, with his attention. Even our happy years, in retrospect, I spent a lot of time waiting on this or that sign of affection from him. I was fifteen. I didn't know any better. I'd never met you." She took his hand in both of hers. "Irreplaceable? Ebreth, it's taken me twenty years to find a man to fill Eric's shoes. It would take me at least forty to find someone to fill yours. You're the most important thing in the world to me, how could you possibly doubt that?"
He was quiet a long moment. "It's less that I doubt it," he said. "More that I--just need to hear it, sometimes."
Khyrisse turned around with a long, brittle noise and held on to him so tight her arms shook. "I'll try to keep telling you," she said, muffled, "if you'll try to believe me, dammit."
"Fair," he said softly, and rested his chin on her head.
Jack took a deep breath. "I'm--a math equation, Aithne."
"Right. Well, that's, uh, me. Only more, uh, complicated."
"What did you add?" Aithne said, her brow furrowing.
"The equation is, uh, much too involved to explain, Aithne... The important part is, I'm not really human."
"You are not human," Aithne said carefully, "instead you are add?"
"Not--exactly add..." This had been so much easier to explain to Val, thought Jack, and gave himself a mental kick for it. "I'm numbers. An idea."
"Ah!" A smile blossomed over Aithne's face. "Idea. Now I know. You are an idea?"
"Uh... yes," said Jack, wondering what she thought that meant.
"Okay. Good!" Aithne smiled blissfully, like she considered the matter closed.
"Uh," Jack tried again after a few beats, "do you, uh, have other friends who are ideas, Aithne?"
"The Mistral," she offered. "But he is more like a servant. My mother had idea friends, but it is very long ago."
Every once in a while Jack really had to step back and marvel at this alien girl's ability to parse the world around her. The Mistral was a magical construct, not a mathematical one, but it was close enough for Jack's purposes. "Right," he said. Jack paused. "So if you, uh, don't want to keep dating me, that's, uh, okay," he said, just to make sure.
"I am not scared of the ideas," she assured him. "I am queen's daughter. You do not afraid me."
Ghostwriting For Jeffy
Ralchar groaned and opened one eye. Two blurry Diarian faces resolved, with minor effort, into one. "Did--did anyone get the number of the truck that hit me?" he coughed, essaying a grin.
"I do not believe I understand," said Araiji, removing her hand from his with dignity.
"Is he going to be all right?" said Kit. "Geez, Mister Ralchar, you really had us going for a while there. I thought you were supposed to be the lucky one!"
"I am lucky," Ralchar pointed out, sitting up and feeling his head with a wince. "That thing could have broken my neck or something! Did you guys kill it?"
"Keep smiling, Ralchar," laughed Crandall. "We ran like a bunch of rabbits."
"My master always said running away was the better part of valor," said Kit, faintly. "Though it, uh, sounded a little better when he said it..."
"We must be more careful from now on, so that we are not... surprised... like that again," Dexy said quietly. "The Day of Judgment Mountain is... not a safe place for mortals to tread."
"Guess it doesn't get a lot of visitors, then," quipped Crandall. Everyone else looked at him. "You know," he said, "there not being any gods left, and all that?"
"Don't give up the day job," said Dexy LaRue.
There was an uncomfortable silence. "So," Ralchar finally said, "why did that guy kill himself, Kit?"
"Oh," said Kit, "it was a lighthouse. So when he turned out the light a ship smashed up. It's, uh, a better game when there isn't someone trying to paste your brain in." She shuffled her feet. "So what are we going to do now? Can we get to the pipes without that Guardian guy jumping us again? ‘Cause I don't know if we can beat it."
"Sure we can," said Ralchar, encouragingly. "We just need to prepare for it better. Is anyone a spellcaster?"
The five gamblers eyed each other in silence for a moment.
"Or does anyone have an artifact-level weapon, maybe?"
"I have these lich glasses," said Kit, waving them.
"I have a, uh, magic wand," said Crandall. "That shoots blasts of necrotic energy."
"I am not sure this Guardian is exactly alive Crandall," said Araiji.
"I have a bag of holding," Ralchar contributed.
"Well, that's useful," sighed Crandall.
"Perhaps," Araiji said thoughtfully, "it is not necessary to defeat this beast. Perhaps it would suffice to distract it. I have some Diarian spell spheres."
"I thought you said you didn't know magic," said Kit, squinting at her.
"I don't Kit. But nobody really tries to use Diarian spell spheres for magic anymore. They are much too unstable. However they are very useful for creating small explosions." Araiji grinned widely. "Let me show you what I have in mind."
"Did you hear about Sister Linjhi?" Sherren said with his mouth full. The other Edge members around the dinner table shook their heads. "The police caught her breaking the psi-ban. She's been taken off to Ekyarn."
"Really?" Skitch was aghast. Sister Linjhi was one of his favorite teachers. "What did she do?"
"I think she was using telepathic communication," Sherren said.
"Well, what's going to happen to her?"
"Does it matter?" shrugged Mirlee. "She's a criminal. The law is the law."
"No one knows what happens to those who break the psi-ban," said Sherren. "Some of them come back, and some of them don't."
Most Diarian viewpoints made a lot of sense to Skitch. The blind acceptance of whatever the government did did not. "We don't even know if she was doing anything or not," he said. "Without the Psicorps, there's no way for her to prove her innocence. People are being persecuted just for having the Gift anymore. This isn't right."
"Thank you, Emperor Akjhir," snorted Sherren.
"I--I'm sure the Emperor would say I am right, if he was here!" Skitch looked at Lihan. "The Gift is our covenant. Without it, without our Diari way... we're no better than a bunch of kiljhac."
Lihan didn't stop eating. "His girlfriend's father was an exiled priest," he said to Sherren, by way of explanation.
Skitch's face burned. "The law was wrong!" he shouted, standing up. "The Gift of Pysyri is sacred. It has been the Diari birthright for ages!"
"And your girlfriend's father knows our birthright better than our Emperor?" scoffed Sherren.
"No!" said Skitch, too agitated even to protest the incorrect characterization of the relationship between Lorrini and himself. "But he... his loyalty is to the goddess Herself. She's the heart of Diaria, even more than the Emperor is."
"Akjhir is right," said Kailan. "We need to return to the old ways. The Gift was what set us apart from the animals."
"If the Emperor doesn't want us to use our Gift right now, I'm sure he has a reason," Mardis said. "Pysyri has been Shattered. Maybe abstaining from psionics is the best way to restore Her. Or maybe if the kiljhac don't see our Gift for a generation or two, they'll forget about it and it will be easier to crush them. The new laws may seem strange to us, but the Great Emperor has been leading the country for 3600 years."
Kailan acquiesced to the older boy with an upward turn of his thin hand, a fundamentally Diarian gesture sort of equivalent to a kiljhac shrug. Skitch would have been content to leave it at that too, but Sherren wasn't about to let it go. "Mardis is right," he said. "Of course the Emperor has our best interests in mind. Intentionally defying the ban is a crime worthy of exile."
"Even if the Emperor made the law for the right reason," Skitch said heatedly, mispronouncing the word for ‘reason' and not caring, "the police are executing it wrong. They are arresting people for stupid reasons. Lorrini's father saw one of his colleagues arrested for wearing the wrong color on a Thursday! How can anyone trust the law when the police are behaving like... like kiljhac at the Significant Institute! Of course good Diarians are running away when they see this!"
"If he left the country rather than obey the Emperor, he is a traitor," Lihan said. Skitch made an involuntary fist, and Lihan flipped his fork around to point at him, a somehow very unnerving, very dangerous gesture. "You don't want to start that with me, lissij."
Lissij wasn't a bad word; it meant little brother, but the threat was clear, and Skitch felt his heart pounding, wondering how much he could challenge his powerful gang leader without getting killed, wondering how much he could back down without getting killed, wondering, with part of his mind, how far this could go without his losing something he couldn't get back.
Then a severe-looking Diari priestess came over to their table ringing her triangle and giving them the evil eye, and the kids scrambled to get rid of their trays and get out of the mess room. Whether you believed in the gods or not, those nuns were nothing to mess with.
But the confrontation did not leave Skitch's mind, and his dreams that night were restless.
What's Burned in the Heart
Khyrisse drew the blinds. "I was wondering," she said, glancing back at Ebreth in bed, "whether you might... whether it might be good if I tried using dream on you again." He flinched a little, and she bit her lip. "We don’t have to, s’parde-vois. I know the last time didn’t go so well, but I... I only want to help," she finished, her voice rather small. "You said, once... that it helped you. Knowing I was there. If it doesn’t, I won’t do it."
"It’s wonderful to have you there," he sighed. "It really is. It’s just--this was three days, that’s all. It’s not who I am. It’s not all I am. Maybe I’m too fucked up not to keep reliving it myself, but I don’t want you to."
"Of course that’s not all you are," Khyrisse said emphatically, taking his hand in both of hers. "That’s exactly why I want to help break those dreams, Ebreth!"
"I don’t want you to keep seeing me that way," he said. "At the time, pity is a godsend. It beats the pants off indifference. But I don’t want that to be the way you think of me. Do you understand? I don’t want these to be the images you have when you think of me."
"They’re not," protested Khyrisse. "I mean... I mean, of course I feel pity in the dream, Ebreth, how could I not? But in general, never. I think of you... when I think of you in that context at all, which isn’t even often, I just think of you as someone else who knows what it is to suffer. That’s all."
"Well, I want to keep it that way," he said. "I’ve got nothing to hide from you, Khyrisse, but I want you to see me as a man so much more often than you see me as a victim that there’s no chance of you losing respect for me, because I’d rather have the dreams." He paused, studying their hands together. "I’m afraid," he finally said, low and with obvious difficulty, "that the more I let you see me like that, the more likely it is you’ll eventually say to yourself My God, how did I ever desire that thing."
Khyrisse sighed and sat down on the bed. "Ebreth," she said quietly, "Look, I... told you about what happened to me, that time I nearly got taken back to Tremontagne. That I was raped, I mean. That I was beaten to death."
The tendon of Ebreth’s forearm had tightened, and his nostril flared a bit the way it did when something made him angry, but his voice for her was soft. "Yes," he said. "Yes, you did."
"Well, do you... think of me that way? Does it make you think less of me because I wasn’t able to keep it from happening?"
"Of course not," he said, frowning. "It makes me want to kill them."
"They’re dead already," Khyrisse murmured, running her finger along the nightstand. "I tried to track them down, later... they had all turned up dead. I always thought it might have been Karel..." She shook her head. "But that’s not the point, Ebreth. You know about all that, but it doesn’t make you look down on me... does it?"
"No, of course not," he said. "Of course not, Khyrisse, I--that’s totally different."
"It’s not, though," she said softly. "Not really. If that doesn’t make you think less of me, why should being tortured make me think less of you?"
"Because..." He leaned back into the headboard, pressing his hands into his eyes. "Because that’s not what I meant. I don’t think people are less just because someone hurts them."
"Then why do you think less of yourself?"
"Because if I was worth anything at all," Ebreth shouted into his hands, "how could they have done this to me?" The moment of shocked silence was heavy as a pealing bell could have been. "Tremontagne had something to gain by hurting you. It was a shitty reason, but he did it for a reason. Those goons who attacked you, well they had something they wanted too. I could accept it if they wanted something from me. If they were trying to get me to talk. I could accept it if they just enjoyed it. But they didn’t care. They systematically broke my spirit like they were stripping old paint from the wall. How could they do that if it had any value at all?"
"They’re not human, Ebreth," Khyrisse said after a beat, her voice very thin. "They’re devils. What do they know about value?"
Ebreth wrapped his right hand around the bedpost. "Did, I ever tell you," he said in a low voice. "They told me you came for me, but when you saw, what had become of me. You were so disgusted you left me there."
Khyrisse drew a sharp, strangled intake of air. "Ebreth, nothing could be further from the truth--"
"I know," he said simply. "That’s why I can say it, now. I just, I don’t think you understand how much they really took me apart, Khyrisse. They didn’t just break my body, they broke everything I had. How can I not feel like less than I was? It takes every ounce of arrogance I’ve got not to feel like a humiliating piece of trash all day." He closed his eyes again, his chest shuddering. Khyrisse slipped her arms around him, and he held her to him rather hard with his left arm, his right still gripping the bedpost. "I’m cold," he whispered, shakily, and let her pull the bedclothes around them.
Interlude: Another Truth Out
"Lord Tremontagne?" Wemble said unctuously, inclining his head before his sovereign. "I am so terribly sorry to bother you, but I'm trying to track down a Lieutenant Triskin, and he seems to be missing from our records..."
"Takai Triskin?" said Eric, without looking up from his spellcraft.
"Your memory is, as ever, perfect," Wemble flattered. "He has experience with the Little People which the State Department could sorely use."
"Then you'd better find a cleric. Takai Triskin was executed more than fifteen years ago." The archmage thinned a wire between expert fingers.
"Executed?" Wemble was surprised. "For what? It wasn't in the military log."
"Assaulting the Grand Duchess. It was internal."
Wemble blinked. "Didn't--you order that, Lord?"
"The orders were to beat her and return her to the city, actually." Eric affixed the gold wire meticulously to the Cesmili disk. "The circumstances of the thing hardly matter, though, Wemble. Do you really think I'd allow my own soldiers to go about my army bragging about having sex with my wife?"
"Triskin isn't going to be any help at all, then, is he?" sighed Wemble.
"Tell State to talk to Malisho Minarye. She's handled most of the commerce in Ti'Ashentes Province and she may have a better suggestion." Eric Tremontagne dismissed his minister absently and turned the disk over gently on his desk.
Sing Hey For The Life Of A Sailor
Callie watched nervously as the naiad hoisted herself up the flank of the behemoth. It was called a ‘ship', Otter said, and human people had ones like it in their home waters as well. Callie had never been this far surfaceward even back at home, so she guessed she'd have to take her word for it. It looked a little like a small, wooden whale. Humans couldn't swim, Callie gathered, and so they traveled in the bellies of such golems. Amazing that virtually in her own backyard had been such strange magic, and Callie had never seen it. "Hello," called Otter, bounding over a bar of some kind and onto the golem's back. "Hello, can somebody give me a hand here?"
The humans talked quickly and gutturally, moving rapidly towards her with their mouths open as if to bite. Otter was not in the water, so Callie could not sense what her reaction to this might be. They didn't produce weapons of metal or bone, as Otter did when she was very angry. One of them grabbed her by the arm, though. Perhaps they wanted to capture her, or perhaps they intended to make her leave. The others were standing around them, making short "huh, huh" sounds. "Take your hand off me," Otter said, and so Callie, picking the slenderest of the humans as the probable eldest and thus the leader, dutifully sent her message, -Take your hand off me.-
There was a consternation among the humans, with more jabbering among them, primarily between the slender human she had contacted and one with a furry face like a seal's. Callie realized belatedly that Otter's message had probably been meant for the one who was holding her arm, so she repeated it to him, and he let go of her as if she were an electric eel. "I come in peace," Otter said, pointing at the seal-face. -I come in peace,- Callie repeated psionically for the one Otter indicated, though he seemed to her one of the stockier humans and not particularly tall. Perhaps Otter thought it was better not to bother the commanding one.
"Who are you?" came the human's suspicious mental voice. Now Callie really had a problem, because she couldn't keep more than one link open at a time, so she would have to shut his to consult Otter. She decided to wing it. -I am Otter,- she explained by proxy, -naiad of the Younger Oceans. I lost my way in a... storm... so we'd like to know where this is, please.- Callie paused a moment, at a loss for what else to ask. -And if you know any spirit beings who control planar travel,- she added belatedly.
The human looked around with a quick sweep of his furry head. "Who is we?" he said keenly.
Callie winced at the slip. The last thing she wanted was for them to see her floating beneath the surface. Otter had told her that the humans might try to kill her if she startled them, since she could look like a monster to them. -Just me,- she said. -I am the only one here now... but my... family will desire my return.-
"What are they saying?" Otter demanded.
They hadn't said anything useful at all yet, so Callie stayed on the line. -So please answer my questions, humans, and maybe I can repay you,- she finished, hopefully. Otter had specifically told her to add that part.
"She's talking to me in my head," said the man. "Just like Mikros." He turned back to Otter. "I don't know anything about younger oceans or planar travel," he said. "I'm just a ship's captain. I don't think we can help you with any of that. But we... we can give you a ride as far as Corinth, if you want... maybe you should ask the Oracle at Delphi."
Something. Callie switched. -They say we should go to Corinth and ask the Oracle at Delphi,- she told Otter.
"That means nothing to me. Where are we?"
Callie switched back, feeling her psionic strength beginning to ebb. -Corinth?- she sent. -Where are we now?-
"The Aegean Sea," said the human. "Just off Cythera."
Callie blew a fluttering bubble and switched back to Otter for what would be the last time she could afford. -The Aegean Sea,- she said. -We are in the Younger Oceans somewhere. There is no more they can tell us.-
Know When To Walk Away, Know When To Run
"Hello!" yelled Kit, twitching her head back and forth nervously. Through Shalak's glasses the long-solidified lava flow and the overcast sky had a strange golden tint, but she didn't see anything special. "Hello, Mr. Guardian! Are you here? We want to talk to you!"
A dry wind blew. It was unnervingly warm up here--the Day of Judgment Mountain hadn't erupted in more than a hundred years, but you never knew with volcanoes. Kit turned her head back and forth, biting her lip. She'd played a lot of roles as an adventurer before, but "bait" wasn't one of the more appealing ones.
There was a very slight swirling of gold on the edge of her peripheral vision, but when she turned to look at it, there was nothing there after all.
"Hello?" Kit said tremulously, backing up a little.
Then the ground erupted soundlessly into the twenty-foot rock form of the Guardian, its huge obsidian fists raised to the sky. Kit backed up a lot more. "You, uh, wouldn't want to hear a riddle or something, would you?" she said faintly.
Its massive fist came pounding down at her, trying to squash her like it had Ralchar. Kit had the advantage of seeing it coming, but even so she barely dived out of the way, and the force of the impact shook a bunch of rocks off the mountainside and onto her anyway. "Ow!" she screamed. "Guys!"
There was the sound of a small detonation, and then another. The Guardian's obsidian head swivelled away from Kit and it swatted at the spell spheres Crandall was lobbing at it like a cat batting at fireflies. Kit pushed the volcanic rocks off herself in a hurry. They were very sharp, and she was bleeding. The young thief hurried up the trail past the lava flow she had seen the monster pop out of. Maybe, if they were lucky, it wouldn't be able to follow them too far from its origin rock. It hadn't chased them down the mountain, anyway. Dexy and Araiji were already there, but Crandall, throwing his spell grenades, was trapped on the other side of it... and though the explosions were definitely distracting it, they didn't seem to be doing much in the way of injuring it at all.
"That's it!" shouted Crandall, as the Guardian clapped its huge hands together on another sphere explosion. "That was the last one! Ralchar, get me out of here!"
There was a thundering sound, and then an avalanche of lava rock poured out of the twisted tree over the monster's head. It staggered twice under the sudden onslaught and then collapsed to its side. "Yaaaaaaaaah!" yelled Crandall, pelting for the pass where the others were. "Go! Go! Run!"
Kit didn't need to be told twice. The Guardian was already starting to shake loose of the five hundred pounds of rock that had knocked it down. Ralchar jumped down out of the tree with his empty bag of holding and took off after them. The Guardian noises quieted after a few minutes, and then disappeared entirely. "Holy shit," wheezed Crandall, stopping to lean on his thighs. "That worked."
"So it did," said Dexy quietly. "Perhaps... perhaps we are gamblers enough for this duty after all."
Land of Confusion
"So anyway, I was, uh, talking this over with a friend," said Schneider, "and she sorta pointed out that it was kind of, you know, pricklike to just ditch out if the genetics lets me off the hook. "Okay, whew, I'm free of that." So I wanted to, uh, apologize for that, and kind of, uh, let you know that I'll still be taking, uh, my share of responsibility, either way."
Every muscle in Khyri's body seemed to tense up. "What?"
Schneider backed up involuntarily. "Uh," he said, "I mean I wanted to tell you I'd still be there for you, for you and the kid, no matter what the DNA says--"
"GET OUT OF MY HOUSE!" screamed Khyrisse, the end of her rope reached at last.
Schneider did, more because she looked a hair's breadth away from fireballing him than because he had any idea what she was yelling about. "Khyri--" he tried one more time from the stoop, pleadingly.
The door slammed violently in his face.
"It sounded good when Siobhan said it," Schneider said to the closed door, in a little voice, and shuffled off sadly to the nearest bar.
Lie Down With Dogs
"Hey, Akjhir," called Sherren, as their math class emptied. "Wait up." Skitch did. "Pisser of a quiz, huh?"
"I got a C-," Skitch admitted.
"Could be worse," Sherren said. "I failed it." He flipped an apple out of his backpack and took a bite out of it. "Listen, there's something I really need to talk to you about. Have I told you my older brother is a priest of Rekzyr?"
"No..." said Skitch, wondering if this was intended to be a continuation of their argument or a reconciliation. He was quite sure he hadn't said anything against the House of Rekzyr. Rekzyr was Skitch's favorite Diari god, the incorporeal spirit of knowledge and honor.
"Well, he is," said Sherren. "He told me something very interesting about you."
Skitch's heart quickened, but he kept his cool. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. Something... secret."
"It's a long story," said Skitch, keeping his voice carefully nonchalant.
"I bet it is," said Sherren. "Mikzen says you used to be a kiljhac."
Bloody hell, thought Skitch, in Dalen. "It's a long story," he repeated. "More than Mikzen knows."
"It must be," said Sherren. "Cause the priests of Rekzyr don't do that kind of thing lightly. You must have one heck of a story to tell, Skitch. I bet the rest of the guys would like to hear it as much as I would."
"No!" Skitch grabbed at the fat boy's arm, his inexpert attempt at a poker face cracking in sudden panic. "No, don't tell them that, Sherren. I--I'll do your math homework for you." It was against the school code, but Skitch was desperate. This was more serious than the fear of losing his friends, anymore; Skitch was starting to think the Edge might kick the shit out of him if they found out.
"You're going to do a lot more than that, my friend," said Sherren. "I could use a little extra pocket money. Bring thirty memories with you to class tomorrow. That should keep me motivated to keep this very interesting story to myself for a week. We can talk about it again next week."
"Thirty memories!" Skitch was aghast. The rent for the dorm he and Lorrini shared was only two hundred and forty. "I'm a student, Sherren... I don't have that much money!"
"I'm sure you'll come up with it somehow," Sherren said, smiling his mean smile. "You came up with whatever you paid the Church to change you in the first place, after all. I'm sure you'll figure something out."
Skitch sat down dully on the grass and watched as Sherren sauntered across the quad.