Tag Archives: Short Story

Weekly Free Short Story – The Captain’s Mad Plan

Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Each Saturday, I’m going to post one of my short stories for you all to enjoy! It’ll be up on my blog for a week before it gets taken down and a new story replaces it!

Enjoy!

The Captain’s Mad Plan

The Skyland of Fwelal, the Free Nests of the Soweral

Charele flounced into the smugglers’ den.

Her pink satin skirt swirled to a stop, the lacy hem clearing the dusty, wooden floorboards of the creaking warehouse by several fingerswidth. Her curly, blonde hair bobbed about her round, youthful face, bright dimples shining as her smile spread across her ruby-painted lips. Her cheeks possessed the ruddy glow of a young maiden only emphasized by the girlish squeal that burst from her mouth.

Even after a year serving beneath her, Varen found himself transfixed by her.

“Oh, I am so excited to meet you!” she gushed as she swept towards the leader of the smugglers, a wizened Sowerese hen named Straedris.

The old hen’s one good eye widened as the taller Human swept her up in an embrace. Straedris’s black-feathered wings thrust out from her side as her waxy-yellow beak opened wide then snapped closed. The dull-gray robe she wore hid the rest of her delicate body save for the dull-black claws of her feet protruding out the hem. The Sowerese were a race of Luastria, the bird-like beings who dwelled in the northern skylands above the Storm.

“This is . . . I . . .” chirped the hen. Her feathers rustled.

“You remind me of my own grand-mama,” Charele said, continuing in that breathy gush that made Varen shake his head.

The burly man watched the exchange as he leaned against a wooden support pillar, his brawny arms folded before him. Like Charele, he was a Vionese Human from the south, though his skin was a much darker shade of tan-brown than hers, his hair not quite as fair. His eyes squinted in the dimly lit warehouse.

Above, the rafters creaked.

Eyes watched. The rest of Straedris’s smugglers lurked, Soweral Luastria all. Varen caught glimpses of their clawed feet gripping the rafters, roosting up there like a flock of pigeons. Only pigeons don’t peck your eyes out if you offend them, thought Varen, staying at his ease as his breathy captain planted kisses on both of Straedris’s downy cheeks.

“Y-you’re the smuggler,” the old hen finally managed to chirp out, her voice a trilling lilt, musical even in her shock.

“I am!” Charele said, stepping back. Her flowery scent caught Varen’s nose. He shifted his stance as she planted her hands on her hips, emphasizing the way her dress narrowed about her waist and fit her torso with the snug intimacy of a lover’s hand. “I have been so eager to meet you, Straedris!” Another rush of giggling mirth spilled from Charele’s ruby lips.

Straedris glanced at Varen. Some looks crossed the species barrier, and the helpless gleam in her one good eye almost made Varen crack a smile. He shrugged his shoulders, his leather vest shifting across his broad torso.

“You’re truly Captain Charele?” Straedris asked again.

“Well, who else would I be?” asked the young woman, her sun-bright curls swaying about her face. “Captain of the Varele. Now, I believe you have a case of Fwelalin perfumes lacking those pesky custom stamps.”

“I do,” Straedris said. “Sorry to choke on my gizzard stone, but . . . I did not expect a . . . a . . .”

“Ravishing woman?” Charele asked, lifting her chin, her smile growing, setting off the dimples in her tan cheeks.

Straedris clucked her beak. “Yes, yes, that’s a word. My apologies, but Vionese is not my best tongue to speak.”

“But you do it so well.” Charele glanced over her shoulder at Varen. “Doesn’t she?”

“Yup,” he grunted.

“See, you do it very well.” Charele clapped her hands together. “Now, the perfume. I have to confess, I’m going to keep a bottle for myself. I’ve always wanted Fwelalin perfume, but it is so expensive in the Autonomy. Three sets of tax collectors really drive up the price.”

An honest merchant would sail his ship from Hreasrow, Fwelal’s capital, through the Free Nests of the Soweral, cross the skies of the Empire where another excise tax would be charged, and then finally reach the Autonomy where Varen and Charele hailed.

“I do not have the export stamps on them,” Straedris said as two Luastrians carried in the crate. They used their prehensile distal feathers on their wings to heft the crate. Unlike Straedris, these two were drakes, their brilliant, emerald crests contrasting with the raven-black of the rest of their feathers. Male Luastria always stood out, loving to preen.

“I can fake those,” Charele said, giving a dismissive wave of her hand.

The crate rattled with glass as the two drakes set it down before Charele, both clucking beaks and ruffling the feathers of their bare torsos. Straedris’s scaled foot appeared from beneath the hem of the robe. She grasped the edge of the crate and pried off the lid, the bone nails popping free. She uncovered the contents: rows of delicate bottles containing a pale-amber liquid.

“Oh, my,” Charele gushed. She darted her hand down, the lace of her cuff ruffling. She snatched up the bottle and worked out the glass stopper. Her dainty nose wrinkled. “Oh, Varen, this is true Fwelalin perfume. Care to sniff?”

“Nope,” Varen grunted. It’ll wreathe the ship in no time. Captain Charele loved her exotic comforts.

“Is it true that the base water the perfume is made from is precipitated out of the air via Mist?” asked Charele.

Mist was one of the four Blessings that the Goddess Riasruo bestowed, via the priestesses of her Church, upon every adult in the skies. Mist, Pressure, Lightning, or Wind allowed society to function in a world suspended over the ever-churning Storm. Ships sailed between lonely skylands propelled by powerful breezes summoned by Windwardens and held afloat by engines charged with Riasruo’s gift. With Moderate Mist, a person could manipulate the water vapor in the air, creating a fog or causing the moisture to precipitate out of the atmosphere and fill containers.

“They do,” answered Straedris. “But only at the fields of the Fwelalin roses, picking up some of the natural scents of the flowers and enhancing the final product.”

“Well, that is worth the price of a dozen emeralds,” Charele said. She glanced at Varen. “Bosun, if you please.”

Emeralds were the largest denomination, a holdover from when the Vaarckthian Empire ruled much of the skies. Coins, from sapphire pennies to emeralds, were made of porcelain impregnated with the corresponding crushed gemstone. The dies that stamped them were some of the most guarded objects in the skies. Varen reached into his vest and produced the purse. It clinked as he tossed it to the old hen. She squawked in annoyance, fumbling to catch it with her wing.

“Varen!” huffed Charele. “Manners.”

“Sorry,” Varen grunted, folding his thick arms again. His eyes flicked to the two drakes who still flanked the crate. They stood too close to Charele.

Straedris slipped the pouch into her robe’s pocket.

“Oh, you’re trusting,” Charele said. “I like that. There’s so much suspicion in the skies. Why, I was carrying this gentleman on my boat. He was a rather ravishing Vaarckthian with the most beautiful gray eyes, who thought I was trying to pry into his affairs when I just wanted to enjoy a cozy supper in my—”

“You can leave now,” clucked Straedris. “I don’t need to hear your blather.”

“But I haven’t told you why he was so suspicious about—”

“Leave!” snapped the hen, her voice shrill.

Charele sighed and shook her head. “Fine, fine. Bosun, if you would be a dear.”

Varen pushed himself off the post, but before he took a step, the two drakes slid between the crate and Charele, their clawed feet spread wide, their wings tucked in close to their black-feathered bodies. Varen’s skin grew taut.

“I see,” Charele said, the breathiness vanishing from her voice. “No trust at all.”

Straedris clucked her beak. As she walked towards the darkness, her claws clicking on the wooden floor, she said, “I’m allowing you to leave with your lives.”

“Not good enough,” Charele said. Her hand moved fast, darting to the lacy cuff of her left sleeve and grasped a concealed hilt.

The drake on her left hardly had time to chirp before she planted the hogbone dagger into his breast. Dark blood welled over the black feathers. She wrenched her dagger free, skirt swirling as she slashed the crimson-stained blade at the second drake. He swept a wing up before him to block her attack.

It was a feint.

She ducked low beneath his feathers, layers of petticoats swishing, and slashed the dagger across his belly. He squawked as his wings clutched his stomach, holding in innards as he stumbled back and collapsed.

Above, the Luastria cawed and shrieked with the ferocity of a murder of crows.

Varen built his charge in his fists as they descended in a mass of black feathers, leaping down from the rafters. Though Luastria were smaller than Humans, their hollow bones giving them a delicate build, they came equipped with natural weapons: slashing claws and jabbing beaks.

His fist slammed into the first Luastria’s head. His Blessing of Lightning discharged. Sparks flared from his knuckles. Feathers sizzled as he sent the lethal jolt of current into the smuggler’s body. Varen’s foe collapsed, scaled legs twitching.

Pink skirts flared, flashing white petticoats, as Charele slashed and stabbed with her knife, driving back her foes while a pair of black-feathered drakes advanced on Varen, one’s crest a brilliant green, the other’s the deep hue of rain-fed grass. Mist spilled from the first, a thick fog that swelled through the warehouse.

Not just Moderate Mist, but Major, the strongest form of the Blessing Riasruo granted. He sought to choke the world to disorienting gray, reducing Varen and Charele to a mere arm’s length. Like most, Varen had been gifted with two Blessings by the Sun Goddess: Moderate Lightning and Minor Mist. As the thick, wet curtains swallowed the warehouse, he peered through the vapor like it wasn’t there.

“Theisseg’s scrawny tail feathers,” cursed Charele. She lacked Minor Mist.

“Hold on, Cap’n!” he bellowed as the two drakes rushed at him.

He grinned. Lightning crackled across his body. He had nine more discharges left before he ran dry. His bare feet shifted on the floorboards. Claws scraped on wood. Wings flapped. The drakes launched themselves at him, sharp beaks flashing at his chest.

Heart pounding, exhilaration flaring through his veins, he darted to his right. Brilliant-crest’s knifing jab streaked past Varen. His hand lashed out at the second, sliding beneath a sharp beak to grasp the bird by the throat.

He discharged.

The fog lit up with the sparks arching out of his palm into the smuggler. Instead of convulsing, the bird hissed. Clawed legs lashed out while wings spread wide. Leather tore, pain flaring across Varen’s thigh. The bird also had Lightning, rendering him immune from electrical attacks.

Behind Varen, brilliant-crest’s claws scratched at the wood, coming around for another attack. Varen pivoted, swinging around the Luastria he clenched by the throat. The bird squawked, wings flapping hard. Fog eddied around them.

Varen thrust his living shield before him. A sickening crunch echoed through the swirling mist. The Luastria spasmed in Varen’s grip. The tip of a bloodied beak burst from the drake’s chest. Varen flung the dying bird to the side.

Brilliant-crest recoiled, cawing and shrieking, his compatriot’s gore clinging to his beak.

Varen’s fist crashed into brilliant-crest’s chest. The sternum snapped with a loud crack. Lightning flared. The drake hit the ground hard, smoke rising from his caved-in chest. A thick, black tongue protruded out of his beak.

“Charele!” Varen growled, casting his gaze through the chaos of the mist. Not all the Luastria could see. Some stumbled around, crashing into crates and flapping wings. Others lay bleeding, chirping in pain.

“I’m here!” Charele answered.

He spotted her by the perfume crate. A foot lashed out at her, but she used the air around her as a shield, compressing it with Pressure. The dense atmosphere blunted the Luastrian’s attack, slowing it and giving her a chance to respond. Her skirts swirled as she thrust her dagger forward, taking her foe in the throat.

As she wrenched her blade free, she snarled, “Grab the crate! We’re leaving.”

“How?” Varen grunted as he rushed for the perfume.

Charele favored him a wild grin, her tanned face flushed not only from her rouge. Sweat beaded her forehead, giving her a vital gleam. “I have a plan.”

No words terrified Varen more.

Chirps echoed around them, the Luastria calling out in the mist. Their language spilled too fast for any Human to understand. It was too lilting. Too melodic. The songs came from all directions. He caught glimpses of the drakes moving through the crates while others stalked the rafters.

“Let’s see,” Charele said as she shifted around. “This fog is making it difficult and . . . Here we are.”

As Varen hefted the crate in both his hands, grunting at the strain, he watched as she stared down at the floor. Wood groaned beneath her. Dust covering the boards puffed into the air. He frowned and then gasped as the wooden floor snapped and compressed into sawdust, the weight of air ripping through the boards.

She dropped through the hole, her skirts fluttering up, exposing dainty petticoats and a flash of bare calves.

“Theisseg’s bunghole!” Varen snarled, rushing at the opening.

“I’m fine! It worked!” Charele called from below.

He peered down into darkness, her face swimming out of the shadows as she stared up at him. She took a step back and beckoned.

The bottles shifted in the crate as he threw a look over his shoulder. Claws scratched across wood. Beaks clucked with ferocity. Cursing, he stepped into the jagged hole she’d ripped through the floor with her Pressure.

He bent his knees and grunted as he landed hard. Pain flared through his shin bones as his legs bent to absorb the impact. His cut thigh throbbed as he snarled in wordless agony. He leaned back against an earthen wall, heavy breaths exploding past clenched teeth.

“Good, good, the perfume appears unbroken,” Charele said.

“We have deadlier eels to worry ‘bout,” grunted Varen, glancing up. The pain dulled to a throb, exhilaration soothing it away.

“Indeed,” she said. She bit her lower lip for a moment. Then she darted a hand into the box and yanked out a glass bottle. A wistful look crossed her face. “I would have smelled beautiful in this. I suggest you stand back.”

The chirping and squawking grew louder. Mist poured down the hole, tendrils of spindly gray. Varen stepped back down the tunnel, his shoulder brushing the soil. Dirt cascaded off the wall and spilled over his arm. The earth was cold beneath, his toes curling into the hard-packed floor.

Charele slammed the bottle of perfume hard on the ground at her feet. It shattered. What had been a sweet scent now overpowered Varen’s nostrils. His eyes burned from the tincture’s fumes. Charele covered her mouth with a frilly handkerchief she’d produced from . . . somewhere.

“If you would use your Lightning and start a fire,” she said. “That should delay their pursuit.”

Understanding sparked through him. Nodding, he shifted his grip on the heavy crate. He guided his static charge down to his right foot as he extended it, his big toe nudging the puddle of perfume soaking into the earthen floor.

He discharged his Lightning.

An arch of white-hot plasma zapped from his toe into the liquid. Flames burst across the perfume’s surface. He yanked his foot back as the tongues of orange and red leaped into the air, reaching for the hole.

“Come,” Charele said, staring off into the darkness lit by the dancing flames. “This way.”

She placed her hand along the wall and marched forward with confidence, skirts whisking. Grunting, he limped after her, thigh throbbing with his heart’s heavy beat. He ducked his head as the tunnel’s height descended. The bottles rattled in the crate, his fingers aching as they gripped the heavy load.

“What is this?”

“Zalg tunnels,” Charele said.

Behind them, loud screeches echoed. The flames danced, causing his shadow to flit across Charele as she led the way. She rounded a corner, vanishing into the deeper darkness. Varen glanced behind him at the fire.

Water splashed down. Steam hissed and half of the light died.

Skin tightening, he followed her around the corner. “Zalg tunnels?”

“They built much of Hreasrow,” Charele answered out of the darkness.

He couldn’t see her as much more than a shape as she moved ahead. A shiver ran through Varen as he stumbled after her. More steam hissed behind him, the last of the firelight snuffing out. The little illumination spilling around the corner vanished.

Darkness pressed in on him. He could feel the weight of Hreasrow above him. He shifted his shoulders. He’d never trusted those furry, mole-like creatures. Zalg grubbed in the dirt. They didn’t sail the skies above the Storm. They didn’t spend their time bathing in Riasruo’s sun. They hid in the bowels of the skylands, always digging, worming through dirt and rock. Their skill at quarrying stone and shaping crystals were unparalleled, but . . .

How could they survive in this?

The blackness had a texture. He felt it against his skin, squeezing at him. A gibbering fear swept through Varen. He’d rather have been back in the warehouse, swinging his fists into the flock of Luastrian smugglers.

“Now we go left,” Charele’s voice drifted out of the darkness before him. “You still with me, Varen?”

“Yes, Cap’n,” he muttered. “You know the way?”

“Of course.” A girlish laughter swirled around him, driving back the oppression.

His shoulder rubbed down the wall until he felt the passage. He stumbled after her, chasing the sweet scent of her perfume and the rustle of her skirt. He gripped the crate to his chest, the weight something familiar against the terror of the tunnels.

His head scraped along the ceiling, soil spilling over his shoulders. It tumbled cold down the back of his vest. He shuddered. Sweat dripped from his brow, but not from the exertion. He shifted his grip on the crate, clammy palms slipping.

“Now another left,” Charele said, her words almost an illumination against the umbral weight. “Isn’t this thrilling, Varen?”

“Not my word for it,” he muttered.

Chirps echoed through the tunnels. Sometimes light would flash around the bend, the dancing of torches beckoning with the seduction of a friendly barmaid. Feathers rustled and scaled feet slapped on dirt. He almost wanted to be found. To fight in honest light, not skulking through the skyland’s guts.

“First left,” Charele chimed, her words drawing him through the heavy night. “Second left . . . And here we are. Third left.”

“You know where we going, Cap’n?” he asked, throwing a look behind him.

A ruddy glow danced in invitation.

“Trust me, Varen.”

“Did you know they’d rob us?” he demanded, his spine itching. He wanted to throw down the Storming crate, let her perfume rot, and charge the smugglers.

“When I was in the Navy, my warrant officer always taught me to expect a sunny day but plan for Theisseg’s rain to ruin it.”

“My pa shoulda paid heed to that one,” Varen grunted. The ruddy glow approached. So sweet.

“And now we go right,” she said. “I think.”

He froze. “You think?”

She laughed. “Oh, Varen, relax. You need to take the time to enjoy this. We’re skulking through Zalg tunnels being hunted by Sowerese smugglers!”

“I know what we’re doin’, Cap’n!” he snapped.

“Really, Bosun,” she huffed. “I expect better from you. Now, we just go straight here and . . . yes, yes, here we are.”

The chirps and squawks swelled louder and the torchlight burned brighter as they turned towards another tunnel. Ahead, the darkness looked different. He frowned, his head cocking, then he noticed the little glimmers in the sheet of night ahead, little gems that twinkled like . . .

“Stars,” he croaked. “Riasruo’s sun be praised.”

“Yep,” Charele said. He could see her silhouetted against them, her figure separating from the shadows as she marched forward. “The skyland’s edge. See the coral growing around the perimeter of the tunnel’s mouth?”

Varen’s heart sank. Skylands tended to have sheer cliffs for edges. Various species of coral, differing from skyland to skyland, covered the sides. They gave each one a unique look, some beautiful in the mix of colors, others a riot of hues that clashed so badly it made your stomach sour to look upon.

But it also meant this tunnel dead-ended above nothing. Skylands hovered over the endless Storm, Theisseg’s domain. The Dark Goddess tortured those who fell in it, or so Varen’s gramma had always said in her cackling voice. The coral along the side of skylands was too sharp to climb.

“Then we’re trapped,” he muttered. He turned around to see the torches approaching the corner. The squawks were almost on them. Relief filled him as the light came closer and closer. “Guess this is a good spot to fight.”

I don’t gotta die in darkness, he thought, Lightning crackling down to his fists.

“What are you talking about?” Charele asked. “That’s utter foolishness. There’s at least thirty of them. How much Lightning have you used?”

He shifted his shoulders as he glanced at her. She stood right at the edge, the wind stirring her blonde curls and the skirt of her dress. “They can only come at us one at a time. I’ll take enough down to give you a chance, Cap’n.”

“Varen,” she said, shaking her head. “That is the most foolish thing I have ever heard. Dying spoils all the fun.”

Then she leaped off the edge.

“Charele!” he shouted, his heart’s beat crushed by shock.

He raced towards the opening, bottles rattling. Terror had seared the image of her stepping off, her skirt flaring as she fell towards the Storm in his mind. Icy fear screamed through his veins. Behind him, the Luastria squawked in triumph.

He didn’t care.

He reached the edge, screaming, “Cap’n!”

“Varen?” she asked, a quizzical tone to her words.

She stood a few ropes down in a small boat that hovered beside the coral-coated sides of the skyland. Isan and Humith, a pair of sailors from the Varele, were at either end of the boat, both of them grinning up at him.

Varen’s jaw dropped as she shook her head. “Y-you . . . you . . . I . . . That . . .”

“Come now, Bosun,” she said. “Hurry, those birds sound like they’re almost on us.”

A loud caw cried out behind him. Feathers rustled. Torchlight danced along the walls. “Theisseg’s scrawny tail feathers!”

He jumped off the edge and landed in the boat.

It shuddered and sank, bobbing beneath him. Charele swayed with the shifting skiff, her skirts rustling, a merry smile on her face. She winked at him as the boat surged away from the skyland, propelled by the small wind engine in the back, the hiss of air crashing into the pea-green coral.

Varen’s legs quivered. They buckled and then he sank down onto one of the benches, the crate shaking on his lap. He trembled as he stared up at his captain. The smile on her face brimmed with triumph.

“You didn’t tell me?” he croaked. “You had this all planned out and . . . and . . .”

“Aren’t surprises fun?” Charele asked, clapping her hands together.

He shook his head as the longboat sped away from Fwelal. It rose into the air, the Luastrian city of Hreasrow gliding past as they headed for the harbor where their ship, the Varele, awaited, loaded with legitimate cargo to screen the illicit goods they smuggled.

“You’re mad,” he groaned, his eyes squinting at his captain.

Isan laughed as he guided the boat. “That she is.”

“I don’t know what you’re complaining about,” Charele said, eyeing the crate. “We got our merchandise.”

He groaned and shook his head.

With the wind whipping around her dress, Charele winked at Varen. She spun and marched to the prow, dressed for a ball. A slender woman, her hair styled and waving in the breeze, the delicate lace around her cuffs fluttering, a bloody dagger clutched in her hand. She stood proud of herself. She was the most ruthless captain, honest or not, Varen had ever served beneath. He clutched the crate of perfume to him, the bottles rattling inside, and groaned.

She’s going to get me killed from fright, he thought. Riasruo Above, defend me from her downyheaded plots. Keep my backside whole from her wild schemes.

Charele’s chortles rose above the wind.

Varen had a feeling Riasruo didn’t hear his prayers over his captain’s mirth.

THE END

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Weekly Free Story: The Assassin’s Remorse

Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Every Saturday, I’m going to post one of my short stories for you all to enjoy! It’ll be up on my blog for a week before it gets taken down and a new story replaces it!

Enjoy!

The Assassin’s Remorse

G’nite, Cerena,” Beshie said. “You be careful, you hear? All sorts of ruffians and ne’er-do-wells lurkin’ in them streets when the fog be rollin’ in from the Redmud.”

I’ll be fine, Beshie,” Cerena replied, slipping on her heavy, woolen cloak. It was plain, a deep maroon, and not the greatest quality, but it was the best she and her husband could afford.

I can have one of me boys walk you home,” Beshie offered her.

Cerena sighed, a little irritated at Beshie’s over-mothering. The matronly woman meant well, but Cerena had walked these streets at night for years and never ran into these “ne’er-do-wells” that Beshie always complained about.

The fog lay thick on the streets of Kash-on-Redmud. The town was called Kash-on-Redmud to differentiate it from the larger city of Kash, as well as Little Kash, Kash-on-Tumblewaters, and Upper Kash. She often pondered her ancestors’ lack of imagination. Surely, there were other names besides Kash.

Cerena shrugged the cloak tightly around her, trying to ward off the creeping chill of the mist as she trudged down the cobblestone street to her home. Exhaustion weighed on Cerena, her feet sore from standing for hours serving the homeless of the town their bowl of watery soup and heel of day-old bread. Every Whiteday evening, since she was a child, Cerena had come to the soup kitchen. She found the work rewarding; it fulfilled her Act of Compassion for the week.

She was a devout follower of the Seven Colours of Elohm, and strove with diligence to follow the Seven Tenets: Compassion, Patience, Forgiveness, Virtue, Honesty, Temperance, and Modesty. Each Tenant was represented by one of Elohm’s Colours: Compassion by Orange and Patience by Yellow. Green for Forgiveness and Red for Virtue. Honesty, White; Temperance, Blue; and Modesty, Purple. Only when all seven Colours are balanced in your life, can true freedom be found, the catechism went. Cerena liked to think she had a good balance. She wasn’t perfect, of course, no one was, but she tried her hardest and had been rewarded with a loving husband, a comfortable home, and fast friends like Beshie.

Her boots’ heels clicked on the pavement with each step. One click as her heel touched the cobblestone, then a second click as the ball of her foot came down.

Click-click.

Click-click.

It echoed through the empty streets, half-muffled by the thick fog that rolled in from the river. If it weren’t for the jewelchine streetlamps shining their soft, white light, she’d have been hopelessly lost. She knew her way home—six lamps to Ostler Way, take a right, then twelve lamps to Fishmonger’s Row, turn to the left, and four more lamps would see her to her tenement building.

Jewelchine lights were a marvel. Cerena could remember how dark the streets were as a child before they were discovered. The streetlamps were made using a diamond wrapped with a gold wire. Elohm, in his great mercy, had taught the secret of harnessing the powers of Gems and Metals. Just like there were seven Colours, there were seven Jewels and seven Metals. Each Gem had a certain property: Amethyst for security, Topaz for healing, Ruby for warmth, and Diamonds for light, for truth. Light is the purest form of Truth, banishing the darkness of Dishonesty, the catechism went. The wire provided the power. The purer the metal—with Gold the purest, Zinc the basest, and five others falling in between—the longer the jewelchine would last before the wire burned itself out and had to be replaced. For such an important task as lighting the streets, the Archons had decided to use the more expensive gold wire on the streetlamps, trading a short-term cost for a long-term gain.

There was the rumor of an eighth Jewel: Obsidian. Black as night, and used for only the most vile purposes. It had to be wrapped in the eighth Metal: Black Iron. The Metal found only in the hearts of dead stars that had fallen to the earth. Cerena shuddered at the thought. Only a man so deprived of Elohm’s Colours would dare to use such a thing.

Click-click.

Click-click.

Her contemplation of the jewelchine streetlamps slowly drifted to other thoughts as she confidently walked the foggy streets. She wondered how her husband’s trip to sell his leathers downriver to Ustervin progressed. A nervous pang entered her stomach; she always worried while Asht was gone. He was a tanner, and once a month he would make the day’s journey by pole-boat to do business with the leather merchants of Ustervin. It would take a day or three to sell his work, and then the two-day journey upriver. She missed him desperately when he was gone; their bed felt so lonely without him. But they needed the money his monthly trips brought.

Click-click.

Click-click.

Clack.

She frowned, stopped, and peered back into the mist. Was there someone else in the fog? It was so thick a fool all in motley could stand not three paces in front of her and she’d not even see him.

Hello?” she asked, her voice tight. Beshie’s warnings lit a small fire of panic in her belly. She clutched at her cloak, pulling it tight around her, and listened. She strained, trying to ignore the blood rushing in her head as her heart pounded to the rhythm of fear.

Nothing. Only the echo of her own words parroting back at her.

Slowly, she relaxed.

Get a grip, woman, she told herself. She suppressed a momentary stab of irritation at Beshie for planting the sparks of fear inside her. Cerena smoothed her cloak, reminding herself that Beshie was just concerned for her safety. Anger is black, is darkness, the very absence of Elohm’s Colours, she repeated the catechism to herself. Weighing down your heart like an anchor. Let go of hate, of all black emotions, and allow your heart to freely soar up into Elohm’s light.

With a deep breath, she kept striding through the fog.

Click-click.

Click-click.

It’s just my imagination playing games with me, she decided as she made the right turn onto Ostler Way. No one is following me.

She tried to gather her thoughts and focus on what needed to be taken care of at home before she could retire and seek the lonely solace of her bed. Asht should return tomorrow unless his business in Ustervin ran that extra day. She reminded herself to lay out her prettiest dress for tomorrow. Her cheeks flushed, thinking on the purple dress that showed just a hint of her bosom. It wasn’t, strictly speaking, within the guidelines of Modesty, but you could be a little immodest with your husband alone in your house; Asht was a passionate man after all, and she enjoyed it when was aflame with desire.

Click-click.

Click-click.

Clack.

Just my imagination, she kept telling herself. She quickened her steps. Only three jewelchine streetlamps before Fishmonger Row.

Click-click.

Clack.

Click-click.

Clack.

She peered over her shoulder. She saw nothing through the white haze except the fuzzy light of the last streetlamp. There were only two lamps to go. Her heart thudded in her chest.

Click-click.

Clack.

Was it getting closer? Another worried glance over her shoulder revealed nothing. Her stalker could be just paces behind her, cloaked in the fog’s white blanket.

Click-click.

Clack.

Her breath came in quick, ragged gasps as panic nibbled away at her thoughts. She reached the twelfth lamp and went left onto her street. Only four more lamps and she’d be home.

Click-click.

Clack.

She started to trot. Whoever followed her was closer.

Three lamps to go.

Click-click.

Clack.

Panic overtook her in a flash, like fire consuming dried tinder. She broke into a run, hiking up her skirt. She was beyond caring that a man might see her ankles and calves, beyond caring about Modesty; she just had to get away from that clack.

Two lamps to go.

She ran faster, her boots slipping on the damp cobblestone. She gasped, struggling to her balance, feet floundering beneath her. She gained sure footing, and raced forward. The last lamp was just ahead. She reached into the pocket of her skirt and grasped the amethyst bound in copper wire—the jewelchine key to the tenement’s building’s front door—tightly in her sweaty fist.

The last lamp flew by, a white blur in the thick mist. Her building loomed out of the fog, welcoming her with promised safety. She took the steps two at a time to reach the porch. She brought the amethyst key to the gemstone lock. A little arc of purple joined the two followed by a mechanical click. She threw open the door, darted in, and slammed it behind her. As she sucked in relieved breaths, she leaned back against the door.

Safe.

It took her a few minutes to regain her composure. She shook; tears ran down her face, mixing with the sweat. Twice, Cerena dropped her key—the crystal thunking on the old, wooden boards of the floor—before her shaking hands managed to put it back into her pocket. She was safe. Whoever had followed her in the mist wouldn’t have the key to the tenement building. The shaking stopped, her breathing slowed, and she wiped her face clean with a frilly handkerchief she produced from her skirt pocket.

It probably was just my own footsteps echoing back at me, Cerena told herself, feeling silly about the entire ordeal now that she was safely inside. She pushed off from the door and mounted the stairs; they creaked and groaned as she climbed, one hand grasping the banner. As she neared the second floor landing, she stepped over the loose runner near the top—the one the landlord refused to fix. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with it, Missus Ibsin,” he’d grunt to her whenever Cerena would bring it up. “So what if it wobbles some?” She hated talking with him. His breath always reeked of stale beer and his cheeks ruddy with proof of his less-than-obedient following of Temperance.

The floors creaked in front of Cerena. A plain-faced man stood on the second floor landing. Watery, toad-like eyes stared at her and lank hair fell about his forehead. He wore the slightly shabby clothes of a workman: dark trousers and a red waistcoat missing a button beneath a heavy, dark green coat that fell down to his knees.

Oh, hello, sir,” Cerena said, her voice neutral. She searched her mind, struggling to remember which one of her neighbors he was. “Um . . . I’m so sorry, I can’t seem to remember your name.”

Quite all right,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “It’s Missus Ibsin, right? Asht’s wife?”

Yes,” she answered.

His shove caught her completely by surprise. His hand pushed hard square on her right shoulder. Her feet left the steps. For a moment, Cerena was floating through the air. She seemed motionless, staring at the toad-eyed man in disbelief. Her hand reached slowly for the banister like she’d thrust it into thick molasses. Her fingers strained, desperate to grasp the railing and arrest her fall.

Why would he shove me?

Her fingers missed the banister, digits closing on empty air.

Then her back crashed into the middle of the staircase. Pain exploded through her. She grunted, the wind whooshing out of her lungs; her legs flipped over her head as she tumbled down the second half of the stairs. The hard, wooden steps bruised her flesh. She came to a rest sprawled on her back. Her left foot still rested on the stairs, the other lay twisted at a horrible angle.

What in the Black is going on? She was too confused to care about the vile curse. Her head rang too much to feel the pain of her broken leg. She blinked, her body struggling to move and her mind struggling with the stranger’s actions. The stairs creaked. The toad-eyed man descended, his face devoid of emotion.

Help!” she rasped, struggling to yell.

Surely, one of her neighbors had heard her crashing tumble. She balled a fist and pounded on the wall. His shadow fell on her, blocking out the soft, white light from the jewelchine crystal glowing from the ceiling. His knee came down between her breasts, crushing her lungs. She tried to breathe, desperate to suck in a lungful of sweet air. The entire weight of his body pressed down on her; ribs cracked like twigs. She clawed at his knee, struggling to push him off. She needed to breathe, her lungs burning and her head swimming.

He’s killing me, Cerena realized in utter disbelief. No! I can’t die! I don’t want to lose my husband! She kept pushing at his knee, using every bit of strength she could muster; her face burned as the blood pumped furiously through her veins while her body screamed for air. No, no, no! This can’t be happening! Please! Her husband’s friendly face swam up in her mind—sweet smile, loving eyes. Please, Elohm! I’ve followed the Tenets all my life! Please, give me this one thing! Let me live!

Her strength gave out. The world grew black on the edges, narrowing her vision. Her body ached for air, but it was useless. She could fight no longer. All she could do was stare up at her killer. Never in her life had Cerena hated someone more—a black, corrosive, heavy rage. How dare this man steal my life! It isn’t fair, Elohm!

His eyes were green.

As her heart began to flag, that one thing filled her mind. Green. The Colour of Forgiveness. She was about to die. How could she face the Rainbow of Elohm with hatred in her heart? With a weight dragging her down into the blackness? I can’t! I don’t want to be dragged into the black depths! She gathered every last bit of will she possessed, focused on her killer’s green eyes, and whispered three words.

And then she let go and was swept up by the beautiful, scintillating light.

* * *

Cerena’s lips moved, struggling to speak; her eyes focused intently on the assassin.

Liquid blue pools became black as the life fled her body.

The assassin kept pressing his knee into her chest. He counted calm heartbeats; when he reached one thousand, he was satisfied that she’d died. He studied her round face, the color fading from scarlet cheeks, leaving peaceful beauty staring sightlessly at the ceiling.

What had she tried to say to me at the end? His memory focused on her dull lips—no reddening rouge to brighten them, a modest woman—as they formed soundless letters. It wasn’t a damnation or a curse. The anger had melted out of her face and her eyes had softened right before she’d struggled to speak. A calm acceptance transformed her final moments.

Confused, the assassin walked back up the stairs, found his absorber—a yellow jewelchine that trapped sound in its influence, covering most of the stairwell—and slipped the Heliodor wrapped in Nickel into his pocket. She’d tried to raise a racket, but thanks to this handy jewelchine he’d invented, none of her neighbors had heard a peep.

He descended the stairs, taking care to step over the loose step that would be blamed for Cerena’s death. He paused at the bottom, studying her face—dead, beautiful, framed by golden hair—one last time, trying to puzzle out what she’d tried to say.

It doesn’t matter, the assassin told himself, pulling his gaze away.

On his walk to the tenement building’s front door, he slipped out his Obsidian blade bound in a Black Iron wire. The blade had a lot of nicknames: black tooth, shadowed death, the assassin’s wife. Death by focused light was the sentence for being found with an Obsidian jewelchine, particularly this one.

He touched the lock with the blade, tricking the amethyst jewelchine. It clicked mechanically, and he slipped out into the fog, carefully sheathing the blade. Despite being able to easily slip between a man’s ribs and find his heart, the blade was fragile and easily chipped. That would destroy it. The Obsidian had to be shaped just so, and the assassin did not have the skill to make a new one. The cost of a replacement blade would beggar him. It had taken years, and many deaths, to pay off this one.

With a staggering walk, he stumbled off into the fog, just another drunk coming home from the tavern. The mist wreathed him in a thick, white blanket smothering sight and sound. The assassin’s thoughts drifted—dull lips moved soundlessly; the plump kind that were nice to kiss.

What did she try to say?

He went two blocks too far before he realized he’d missed his turn. A momentary panic shot through him as he struggled to get his bearings in the thick fog.

Pay attention, Eljin, the assassin admonished himself. Plan, think, succeed. His mantra: plan carefully, think everything through, and you will succeed. Thanks to his meticulous care, he didn’t make mistakes, and thus commanded high rates for his work. So stop rainbow watching!

The lapse of situational awareness puzzled the assassin, his mental discipline weakening beneath the question of her final words. What could she have possibly been trying to say with such a calm, almost forgiving, look on her face? It annoyed him when he missed the second turn, and he grew angry at himself for walking past the third.

Plan, think, succeed.

His house was a narrow, tall building, built cheek-to-jowl with the other houses on the street. The assassin had inherited it from his mother when she’d passed away ten years ago. He’d lived in the house alone ever since. Inside it was neat, orderly. He took off his heavy jacket, hanging it carefully on the coat hook, his shoes placed precisely beside the door, and pulled on his felt slippers.

A trapdoor lay in his sitting room beneath a gray, oval rug decorated with seven lines woven in many intricate knots. Each line was a different color, giving the appearance of piety. The assassin gave little thought to the Colours and the uptight God, Elohm.

Descending the narrow, wooden ladder, he entered his dark, dry cellar made of smooth dirt walls. Wooden slats, resting on the hard-packed soil, creaked beneath his feet. By memory, his hand found the jewelchine light; the black was banished by white light. He hung his tools—his wife, the obsidian blade; the absorber; two emerald stunners, each wrapped in black iron wires; a pair of grip-gloves, and his pocket-torch—on a board of cork studded with nails, providing a spot for each tool to rest.

The assassin surveyed the cellar, searching for any minute thing that lay out of place. Plan, think, succeed. A spider formed a cobweb in the corner—wispy, spindly, untidy. He found a rag, killed the spider, and wiped up the clinging silk. Satisfied that everything was in order, he climbed the ladder, closed the trapdoor, and repositioned the prismatic rug.

He washed the cobwebbed cloth in his sink and left it to dry before he climbed the stairs and found his bedroom. He readied himself for sleep precisely. He dropped each article of clothing into his hamper before pulling on a clean nightgown. Then he drew back the quilted duvet and crawled beneath. Sleep came the moment his head rested on his pillow.

* * *

I forgive you.

The assassin jumped awake, nightgown drenched in sweat, heart pounding, lungs heaving. The dream lingered in his mind—dull lips struggled to speak; blue eyes widened black. Soundless words echoed in his mind.

I forgive you.

He stumbled downstairs into his kitchen and his hands trembled as he filled up a clay cup with water from his jewelchine kitchen sink. The assassin downed the liquid in a single gulp before filling another cup. His paroxysms spilled water as cold as ice, as death, across his hand. He concentrated, forcing his hand to stop shaking. He drained another cup, carefully placed it back into his cabinet, then climbed the stairs, and returned to his bed.

* * *

The assassin woke as the first rays of morning peeked into his room. No more dreams had plagued him after he’d returned to bed. Last night was just an aberration, he told himself as he dressed in his sober clothes before making his bed. To break his fast, he picked a tomato out of his garden, sliced it thinly, and fried it with two eggs. After eating, he cleaned his dishes, wiped down the counter, and took the leftover food to his mulch pile.

He had a short walk to his jewelchine shop. On the way, the assassin passed the same, familiar faces. He nodded to Master Tosner and Master Isthen as they sold their fruit and meat pies on the street corner, gave Ostin a polite nod while giving his nightsoil cart a wide berth, and shook hands with Master Hron as he smoked a cigar before his business, Property and Life Insurance. It lay next door to the assassin’s jewelchine business.

Often, it amused the assassin that none of these men knew the real person who lurked behind his mild-mannered mask. To them, he was just a jewelchine smith—boring, unremarkable, trustworthy—a paragon of Elohm’s Colours. He was honest with his customers, dressed modestly despite his apparently successful business, was temperate in his behavior, compassionate enough to give to soup kitchens, forgave other’s their trespasses, was virtuous in his habits, and only patience could allow a man to craft delicate jewelchines. He played the farce, mouthed their catechisms while thinking his own: Think, plan, succeed. A sloppy assassin was a dead one. Whether by treacherous associates, vigilant targets, or sorrowful executioner, the end was the same.

He unlocked his shop’s door and threw wide the drapes covering his storefront. He examined the shelves, making sure every jewelchine was in its proper place and in working order. Satisfied, he entered his back room and, with great care, set out his jeweler’s tools. First, he set about repairing a broken aquifer, carefully bending gold wires around a deep-blue sapphire. The wires had been damaged, stopping the gem from condensing water out of the air. It should only take the assassin’s practiced fingers half the morning to replace the delicate wire.

I forgive you.

Hands shook; gold wire snapped, ruining the morning’s work. Suppressing his annoyance, the assassin set his pliers down. Plan, think, succeed, he berated himself. He dropped the two broken halves of gold wire into a jar to be melted down later for new wiring, and snipped a new length from a spool. He took a breath then returned to the delicate work of bending the wire in the specific pattern to channel the gem’s power. The way the gem was cut and the way the wire was wrapped and bent instructed the jewelchine on how to manifest the inherent energy of the gem, channeling the power into useful tasks. It was an art form—figuring out the angle of the facets, the degree at which the wire had to be bent, and just where the wire would lay upon the jewel. The assassin had found moderate success at inventing a few devices to aid his nocturnal work.

By midday, though his back ached from bending over, his mistake had been repaired. He stretched protesting muscles while his stomach rumbled. He put his tools in their proper spots, locked up his shop, and walked to a small, open-aired cafe at the street corner. He bought his usual ham sandwich on rich, black bread along with the midday paper. Unfurling it, he scanned the headlines as he took a large bite—salty ham, sharp cheese, and spicy mustard warred in his mouth.

Woman found dead in tenement,” the headline read. He moved down to the article. “Late last night, Cerena Ibsin was found dead of an accidental fall in her tenement. Neighbors blame a loose step that her landlord had long refused to repair. Friends spoke of Cerena’s generous heart. ‘Every Whiteday evening she was helping out at my soup kitchen,’ a tearful Beshie Corvan reported. Cerena was survived by her husband, Asht, who . . .”

Pale lips, blue eyes. I forgive you.

Bile rose in his throat. Pushing back from the table violently, the assassin bolted for the gutter. In a trickle of dirty water, he emptied his stomach with three heaves. He watched the green-yellow chunks washed away in the filthy current with the other effluence.

You a’ight, Eljin?” the cafe owner asked, picking up the assassin’s chair that he’d knocked over in his haste.

Yes, yes, Kefin,” the assassin muttered. “I was out in the fog last night.”

The owner shook his head, red jowls swaying beneath his chin. “Gotta watch out for them bad vapors. I always wear a cheesecloth ‘round my mouth. Strains out the bad vapors, it does.”

I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you.”

Kefin handed the assassin a cup of water. He rinsed his mouth and spat the bile into the gutter.

What is wrong with me? After so many years, so many deaths, the assassin was at a loss as to why Cerena Ibsin would affect him even a little. He’d killed his heart years ago. What was so special about one housewife? She is hardly the first wife I’ve killed for a husband.

Blue eyes softening with forgiveness. Forgiving eyes widening into death.

A creak drew his attention, a wooden sign swinging in the breeze, a faded tankard painted on the splintered wood. Just one drink, he thought. What is the harm? The bar was nearly empty at midday, the proprietor snoring in a chair, his face ruddy with drink. Barley whiskey, cheap, burned the assassin’s throat after he’d roused the barkeep. The fire in his guts drove away those black-damned eyes. Slapping three brass glimmers on the counter, the assassin felt his composure restored.

Work went a little slower that afternoon. This wasn’t like him; he rarely drank and never in the afternoon. Maybe a touch of sherry to drive out bad vapors on a particular foul night, or a glass of port when his cousin visited.

I forgive you.

Why? he asked the blue eyes.

Pain flared; half-a-finger of tin wire stuck into the meat of his thumb. Blood welled dark-red around the metal then trickled down his digit. A bloody tear shed.

The bell tinkled, announcing a customer entering his shop. The assassin grunted as he pulled the wire out, his thumb throbbing harder. He wrapped his wound in a handkerchief and walked through the beaded partition to the counter.

Good day,” the assassin said to the man and a woman in the shop.

The man had a friendly smile as he sauntered up to the counter while a bored look filled the woman’s dusky face, her plush lips pursed as her dark eyes scanned the shelves of jewelchines. The pair couldn’t have been more opposite: the man dressed in the rough clothes of a tradesman, hands calloused from heavy work, his skin pale, a local. Her dusky skin named her a Terysian from across the sea, her clothes rich-red brocade, low-cut to display a magnificent bosom. Not even the whores in Ustervin revealed so much flesh. The assassin could not stop his eyes from admiring her lushness. Terysians didn’t follow Elohm and his Rainbow of Morality.

Hello, Master Ibsin,” the assassin greeted the man, his client. “How’s your day been?”

Sad,” he answered, though not a hit of grief afflicted his friendly face. “My, uh, friend and I returned from Ustervin this morning to find that my wife had a tragic accident.”

The assassin glanced at the woman, evaluating her: beautiful, expensive clothes, jewelry—costly to stay “friends” with.

May the Rainbow of Elohm carry your wife’s soul to the heavens.” The platitude sounded wrong when the assassin spoke them; a mockery of Cerena’s life.

Blue, forgiving, dead eyes stared at him.

Are you all right?” Ibsin asked the assassin; he sounded concerned.

A skilled liar, the assassin guessed. A heart as dead as mine beats in his chest.

Yes, yes,” the assassin answered, gathering his thoughts. “You’re here to pick up your pocket-torch, right?”

Ibsin nodded. “I believe we settled on two gold beams?”

The assassin glanced sharply at the woman, who was still browsing his shelves. Two gold beams, more than a month’s salary for a laborer, was far too much coin for a simple pocket-torch jewelchine.

Don’t worry about Jasymina, Master Eljin,” Ibsin said with a dismissive wave. He produced two large, golden coins and slapped them counter.

The assassin’s hand darted out, scooped them up and pocketed them. From beneath the counter, he produced a diamond gem wrapped in zinc, the cheapest of metals, and handed it to Asht. The “grieving husband” nodded then motioned to Jasymina.

She swayed to him as he marched to the door. “I bet you could sue your landlord for neglecting to repair the step, Asht,” she purred, taking his arm. “That must be worth as much as her life insurance.”

Ibsin laughed; it was rich, full of life. “You might be right. I know a barrister . . .”

The door closed behind them. Disgust filled the assassin, clinging like muck to his soul. Killed so her husband could support his mistress. The assassin froze. Why do I care about why he wanted her dead? He patted his pocket, feeling the reassuring weight of the two gold beams.

* * *

Cerena stared up at him, her blue eyes shining with forgiveness as his knee pressed on her chest. Her face was turning red as she struggled to live. She was beautiful in a natural way, lacking any enhancement by immodest cosmetics. Her face was round, nose dainty, lips plump, and hair golden silk.

As pretty as Jasymina.

The assassin pressed harder. Reminding himself, you were hired to kill her. Don’t go getting soft now, Eljin. Ribs snapped like dry twigs. Her dull-pink lips struggled, soundlessly speaking.

Only this time, sound issued from those pale, wriggling lips: “I forgive you.”

Why?” he asked her, pressing harder with his knee.

Coins clinked behind him.

Fear rushed through him, cold as a winter’s gale. His hand darted by instinct to draw his wife. He spun with the Obsidian dagger held low. Cerena stood behind him, a nimbus of rainbowed light surrounding her, two gold coins held in her hand.

Is this what my life was worth?” she asked, blue eyes glistening. “You stole my happiness, my future, for two little bits of metal?”

I . . .” The words died in his throat.

You stole me from my husband, my friends, my family. You stole me from everyone that cared about me, loved me. All for these coins?”

The assassin floundered as her blue eyes held his gaze, pleading for answers. “It’s what I do.” The answer sounded lame—unsatisfactory, insulting, cheapening—the moment it left his lips.

I see,” she sadly whispered. “I was simply a nail to be hammered? A fish to be gutted? A cowhide to be tanned?”

His mouth opened, but he found no words to speak, no excuse worth the cost. He never thought about why he killed. He was good at it, and the rewards supported his jewelchine tinkering.

Was my life so worthless you can’t even answer me?” The pain in her words tore at the assassin’s soul. Guilt—crushing, suffocating guilt—filled his heart, squeezing it with an iron grip, trying to arrest its beat.

It was your husband that wanted you dead,” the assassin gasped, clutching his chest as his heart warred to stay alive. “Not me. I didn’t kill you! It was your husband! I was just his tool—the hammer wielded by his hand. It wasn’t my fault!”

Was it my husband that pushed me down the stairs? Did he crush my lungs with his knee and stare me in the eyes while I died?”

The assassin bolted awake, his nightgown stuck to him with sweat. He raced downstairs into his orderly kitchen and tore open cabinets. He threw plates and crockery to the side to find his cooking sherry. He grasped the green bottle and didn’t bother with a cup. He took a long swig of the wine. Then a second deep swallow, the drink burning his insides, warring with the guilt crushing his heart.

It was your husband!” he sobbed at the blue eyes. “He killed you! Not me!”

I forgive you.

Then leave me alone! Haunt your black-damned husband! He killed you!”

I forgive you.

I didn’t kill you! I don’t need your forgiveness!” He threw the bottle at the blue eyes, striking a crock of honey. Both smashed into unsightly, untidy shards. The assassin didn’t care. He only shrieked incoherently at those eyes.

* * *

The assassin dressed in dirty clothes; none were clean in his house. Unsteady with drink, he grabbed the first pair of trousers he found on the floor and pulled them up his leg. He tottered on one foot, the room spinning around him, and fell back onto his bed. He grunted and continued dressing. He found a stained shirt and a greasy waistcoat and did the buttons up crooked. He stumbled down the stairs, catching himself twice before he tumbled head-first. He snagged a half-empty bottle of whiskey left on a shelf in the sitting room, took a swig, then kicked the rug aside that hid his cellar. Bottle in hand, he descended into the black hole, the drink weighing him down into the darkness.

As he stared at the cork board from which hung his assassin’s tools, he struggled through the fog of his drink to remember what items he would need for the night’s work. His wife, of course. He slammed the obsidian dagger into its sheath. Then he snagged his diamond pocket-torch, the absorber, and his pair of leather grip-gloves made with tiny Emeralds bound with Aluminum wire that adorned the glove’s palm and fingertips.

I invented these, right? The assassin asked himself, staring bemused as the light glinted in the emeralds’ facets. Pretty sure I did.

He made it halfway down his street when he realized he’d forgotten the igniter. Plan, think, succeed, he berated himself. He struggled to focus through the fog of drink. Part of him knew he shouldn’t imbibe the alcohol, but it shrouded him from those forgiving blue eyes.

No more mistakes, he berated himself. You need this job, Eljin. It had been the first nocturnal job he’d taken in the weeks since the Ibsin job—the assassin didn’t like to think about that one; the blue eyes always appeared when he thought of her. Desperation drove him to accept this one. I could make some money again if those damned, forgiving eyes would go haunt Ibsin instead.

He felt ill while he’d talked to Missus Kithan—the same roiling, nauseating inferno that consumed his stomach every time he talked with a potential client—but he needed the money. Creditors were pounding on his door: rent was due for his store, vendors needed payment for materials, and his customers demanded refunds for shoddy work. The two gold coins burned in his pocket, weighing him down with every step.

He should just part with them, couldn’t. Her eyes castigated him every time he tried.

He got lost on the way to Salmon Row. The helpful proprietor of a bar gave him directions, as well as selling him a bottle of cheap whiskey. Off lurched the assassin down the streets, stumbling from one side to the other.

An hour later than he’d planned, the assassin found the house. It was large, constructed of river stones fitted together with mortar. A tall garden wall encircled the house. Green tendrils crept over the top of the wall and hung down the bricks, reaching for the street.

The assassin pulled on his grip-gloves. With ease, he climbed up the wall. The problem came when he tried to hook his right leg over the lip. He balanced precariously atop the narrow wall, struggling to get his legs to cooperate. His foot kept catching on the stone lip. He gave a jerk and his leg lurched over too hard. For a moment, he flailed his arms in a useless attempt to maintain his balance before he fell heavily into a rhododendron bush.

Stems scraped his face as he struggled to escape the bush, lavender petals clinging to his clothing. He stumbled out, tripped forward, and fell onto soft grass. He patted himself as he stood and realized he’d dropped something important. With a grunt, he strode back into the bush with drunken determination to find the bottle of whiskey he’d dropped.

He found the bottle just in time, feeling the blue eyes nearing. He took a drink to ward them off. Then a second for good measure. The assassin tried to remember why he hated whiskey; it was such a marvelous drink. He whistled as he staggered to his target’s back door.

He found it locked.

He stared stupidly at the knob then twisted it again. It refused to turn, as stubborn as he was. He grunted, the metal rattling. He grunted. Now what? he asked his foggy mind. There were windows he could break. He frowned. That didn’t feel right to the assassin. Don’t I have a tool that can open doors for me? He patted his pockets, and felt something hard. Igniter? I could burn the door down. Absorber? It would keep anyone from hearing me break open the window. He touched the dagger.

Feeling like a motley fool, he drew his wife and casually touched the black tip to the door’s jewelchine lock. Purple light arced; the lock clicked. With a triumphant shout, he entered the house. A cat yowled and hissed.

The bottle fell out of the startled assassin’s hand and clattered as it rolled across the wooden floor.

He almost fell over trying to grab the whiskey. Once it was securely in hand—well, once he’d taken another deep, fortifying drink of the wonderful liquid—he peered around, trying to get his bearings.

Have to find the stairs, he remembered as the cat hissed from beneath a couch.

He tried to walk lightly, but his feet kept crashing onto the wooden floors no matter how much he concentrated on gentle steps. He was thrilled to have only tripped once while ascending to the top of the stairs.

His target, Missus Kithan’s husband, slept soundly in a large bed next to his young mistress. Both snored. Several wine bottles littered the room and a half-smoked cigar lay on the floor. The bed was rumpled, the occupants naked.

The assassin struggled to remember Missus Kithan’s instructions. “I want them to burn. Him and his hussy,” she’d cackled. “He’s always fallin’ asleep smokin’ his darkness cigars! Just set the bed aflame.”

That’s why I brought the igniter.

Pulling it out of his pocket, he concentrated. The gem glowed with an inner fire, reddening the copper wire that bound it. He bent down to touch the gem to the tangled blankets when the mistress rolled over, golden hair shimmering in the moonlight.

Round face, framed with gold hair, blue eyes staring up with forgiveness.

He froze. She found me. The assassin’s hand shook. Just touch the cloth, he ordered his hand. Do it!

The blue eyes held out her hands; a pair of gold coins gleamed around pale, dead fingers. Is this what my life was worth?

Why are you hesitating, Eljin? thought the assassin. Just do it! Touch the cloth. The hand refused to move. It’s not your fault. You’re not killing them, not really. It’s Missus Kithan and Mister Ibsin and all the others who hired you over the years. You’re the hammer. They’re the hammerer. If you didn’t do it, they’d just find another tool.

Was it my husband who pushed me down the stairs? the blue eyes asked.

No.”

The assassin fled, racing down the stairs. The cat yowled, scared out of its fur and whiskers as he barreled through the parlor. He burst out of the house, scrambled over the fence with drunken desperation, and pounded down cobblestone streets. Terror and guilt whipped at his heels, spurring him to race faster and faster. He ran until his sides ached to bursting and the whiskey in his belly rebelled, vomiting out of his mouth into the gutter.

I didn’t kill you!” he sobbed over and over, bile bittering his tongue, his soul whipped raw by the tempest of his guilt. “Your husband killed you! Not me!”

I forgive you.

The tempest dissipated. Those three words banished the storm inside him. A placid calm, the lull in a titanic storm, descended on the assassin. She forgave me. The assassin looked up at the sky, dark clouds parting. The green moon, Elohm’s Forgiveness, shone down on the assassin.

How could her husband have wanted to kill her? the assassin wondered. She was such a loving woman. She found the strength to forgive me. Why did he deserve to have happiness and love? Why did he deserve to live and not her?

Why did he deserve to live?

* * *

For days, the assassin stalked Cerena’s husband, her real killer. I didn’t kill her, he would tell himself, fixing his green eyes with mad fervor on the friendly face of Asht Ibsin—the mask hiding the callous monster from the world. The assassin didn’t need the drink any longer; he didn’t need to hide from her blue eyes in a haze of alcoholic fumes. He knew what the eyes needed: vengeance, justice.

Ibsin would die. Then Cerena’s soul would be able to rest.

It disgusted him watching Ibsin cavort with his hussy, Jasymina. They spent their days shopping, buying the disgusting slattern more clothing, more makeup, and more sweet unguents. Their nights were spent carousing in expensive wine shops, the ones the wealthy merchants or itinerant noblemen patronized. Ibsin had not a care in the world, his happiness bought by his wife’s murder.

For a week, the assassin waited for his opportunity, becoming more and more delighted with the slattern’s behavior. Ibsin had begun to bore Jasymina, her lustful gaze roaming to new conquests. He watched from the back of the wineshop as Ibsin walked in, looking for his mistress. He found her draped on a wealthy merchant’s arm. The assassin smiled; she’d found someone with deeper pockets. For the last few nights, drink’s fog had kept Ibsin from realizing his Jasymina was seducing her next lover.

The assassin padded after the dejected Ibsin, his hand wrapped around the hilt of his dagger. Swollen bruises marred Ibsin’s face from the chastisement he’d received at the hands of the merchant’s guard when he’d objected too vociferously about Jasymina’s abandonment.

The assassin wondered if the guilt gnawed at the tanner now. You killed your wife for that slattern and she tossed you aside like a torn petticoat. He wanted to laugh, to revel in Ibsin’s humiliation, but that might give him away.

Plan, think, succeed.

The assassin thought it was fitting to kill Ibsin in the very tenement stairwell where Cerena had died. Where Ibsin—through the assassin—had murdered his wife.

Ibsin reached the door, pulled out his key, and touched the amethyst to the lock. The soft, white glow of the jewelchine streetlights revealed no witnesses. Like a haunting ghost, the assassin drifted to the tenement. Ibsin pushed the door open. The assassin slammed into him, throwing the tanner into the tenement. Ibsin cried out in alarm, his foot tripping on the stoop, and fell into a heavy heap on the wooden floors.

The assassin drew his wife, sleek, black, gleaming deadly in the white light of the stairwell.

You?” Ibsin blinked drink-bleared eyes in confusion. He froze as the assassin fixed hard, green eyes on him. “W-wait! I can pay you more!”

He scrambled back before the assassin’s slow advance. The tanner pulled a thick, steel knife from his boot, a heavy blade used to cut hides. A single kick, aimed with care, connected the tip of the assassin’s booted foot to Ibsin’s wrist and sent the knife clanging to the floor.

I’ll pay double your rate,” Ibsin blubbered. An acrid-sour odor filled the air—nightsoil. The assassin’s eyes flickered down, the breach of the tanner’s pants mud-brown. Yellow piss puddled on the floor.

The assassin hovered over the murderer, his obsidian wife raised. Ibsin’s eyes fixed on the black blade. All he had to do was thrust his dagger, slip it between the man’s ribs, and find the monster’s treacherous heart. Then she shall be avenged! Then she shall stop haunting me.

You killed her,” the assassin hissed.

Who?” squealed Ibsin.

Your wife!”

N-no, you did!” Tears ran from his gray-blue eyes. “I didn’t kill her.”

Yes you did! You sought me out! Walked into my shop! You hired me!” Words paused for a ragged inhalation. “You used me like a tool! A hammer!” Spittle rained down on Ibsin’s face. “A hammer to pound the nail into your wife’s heart!”

B-but you killed her! I just gave you the money. I never would have hurt her myself! She was just in the way of my happiness! But I didn’t kill her. That was all you! Please! There’s still some of the insurance money left! And I have a settlement coming. My barrister tells me I have a huge negligence case against my landlord!”

I don’t want your money!” roared the assassin. “Cerena doesn’t want your money! She wants vengeance on the man who killed her!”

That was you! Not me! Please! Elohm save me! I didn’t kill her. I’ve never even harmed a freckle on her body!”

The words struck the assassin—the sound of ribs cracking filled his mind, hands frantically trying to pry his knee off her chest, a beautiful face turning red, Cerena fighting desperately to live.

It crystallized in an instant for the assassin. He never harmed a freckle on her face . . . But I did.

No, we killed her,” the assassin admitted. He felt something fall from his heart—a great weight. I killed so many, the Colours help me. There is so much blood on my hands. “You were the mind, the thought that swung the hammer, Ibsin. You wielded me, but I’m not a mindless tool. I’m not a hammer swinging with no control over where I land, which nail I pound into the wood. I could have said no. I could have stopped you or warned her. I could have done any of a hundred things. Together, we murdered her.” The tear welled in his green eye, rolling down his cheek. “I’m so sorry, Cerena.”

Blue eyes whispered back: I forgive you.

Eljin dropped the black blade. It tumbled, light glinting bright on its irregular surface. With a tinkling crash, it splintered into three large shards on the faded floor.

She forgave us,” Eljin told Ibsin. “I don’t know why. Elohm knows we deserve her curse, her anger.”

She was a kind woman,” Ibsin blubbered.

Fishing into his pocket, Eljin pulled out two gold beams, each stamped with Elohm’s rainbow, and dropped them next to his broken blade. Then he turned, and walked towards the door.

Cerena was a better person than me. All I ever did was take. Eljin knew it was time to find something else to do with his life, find some way to repay Cerena for what he’d stolen from her. Maybe this is why she forgave me, he mused, to teach me to be a better man.

Ibsin’s dagger slid easily into Eljin’s back, slipping through the ribs and piercing his lung.

You killed her, not me!” Ibsin howled as Eljin pitched to the floor. “I would never harm a freckle on her! Never!”

Cold stole over Eljin as he rolled over onto his back. Ibsin loomed above him. Gripped in his white-knuckled hand was his tanner’s blade decorated with Eljin’s blood. The chill swelled through him as Ibsin raved, wild-eyed. The words didn’t matter; Eljin was beyond them. Anger clenched his heart. I spared this man, and this is how he repays me?

Cerena appeared, riding down from the heavens on a rainbow of light, and stood above him—light opposing her husband’s darkness. A sad smile graced her lips as she stared down at Eljin with soft eyes. Her murderer.

How?” Eljin croaked to her. “How could you forgive me?”

How what?” Ibsin cackled. “What are you saying!”

Anger is black, is darkness, the very absence of Elohm’s Colours. It weighs down your heart like an anchor,” she answered. “Let go of hate, of all the black emotions, and allow your heart to soar up into Elohm’s light.”

That’s . . . it?” The words were growing harder to bring forth, his mouth coppery with blood.

That’s what?” demanded Ibsin; Eljin ignored the monster’s mad face, fixing instead on the plain beauty of Cerena’s.

That’s it, Eljin.” Her blue eyes were soft, forgiving, compassionate.

I robbed the world of an angel.

Eljin looked at Ibsin and spoke three words. The chain snapped. The anger plummeted into the darkness. Eljin’s soul rose up into the light.

The END

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The Assassin Remorse takes place in my Jewel Machine Universe!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

To save the skies, Ary must die!

If you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then check out my first ever Fantasy novel!

You do not want to miss out on this awesome adventure!

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Review: Untold Stories from the World of Myrrah Volume 1

Untold Stories from the World of Myrrah Volume 1

by Autumn M Brit

Reviewed by JMD Reid

A collection of short stories set in her delightful World of Myrrah. Fleshing out the world surrounding her two fantasy series Rise of the Firth Order and Games of Fire. They involve many of her main characters from before the first series and between the two. Stories of love and guilt, stories of growth and pain.

These were a fascinating collection of stories. Some are short and sweet, others have some real depths, and others full of action and suspense. The writing holds all of Brit’s charm. The stories reveal new facets of her characters and shows the events that shaped them.

Her world has so many corners to explore, and I was glad to enjoy it. If you’ve read Brit’s fantasy series, you have to read this. If you’re a fan of imaginative and exciting fantasy stories, there is plenty in here even for newbies to her writing (though the last few will spoil Rise of the Fifth Order).

I was glad to pick this up and thoroughly enjoyed returning to Brit’s World of Myrahh. I can’t wait for volume 2!

This book peels back more of her world and reveals the underlining pinning of it. This is such a fast-paced and fun book to read. The stakes have never been higher, and the emotions have never been stronger. If you haven’t started reading Brit, then you need to pick up Born of Water and start reading this amazing series!

Fans of fantasy will fall in love with the writing of Autumn Brit! I can’t wait to see what new and imaginative worlds she’ll create next.

You can buy Untold Stories from the World of Myrrah Volume 1 from Amazon!

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Weekly Free Short Story: Mutilated

Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Every Saturday, I’m going to post one of my short stories for you all to enjoy! It’ll be up on my blog for a week before it gets taken down and a new story replaces it!

Enjoy!

Mutilated

The scrabbling of claws on stone was his only warning.

Kan dropped his jewelchine torch, the red beam dancing through the air as he whirled. The sleeping girl—her head resting on his shoulder, her body held to his chest—gasped awake at the violent turn.

Steel rasped on leather as his right hand drew his resonance sword. He activated the jewel machine in the weapon’s hilt by rote. A hum, barely perceptible over the girl’s surprised shout, reverberated through the air. The emerald in the jewelchine sang with one of the Seven Harmonious Tones, the Earth Tone of Bazim, and channeled the echoes of creation into the sword’s steel.

The pulse of Kan’s blood pumping through his veins remained steady as the mastiff lunged out of the darkness.

Only the glint of diamonds gave Kan any warning and a target to attack. He thrust just below the glimmer of the mastiff’s eyes and rammed the straight, thin resonance blade down the massive hound’s gullet. The black-furred form crashed into Kan, impaled on three feet of steel.

The girl screamed in fright as the big man recoiled under the impact, his sword penetrating deeper into the hound’s innards. His footing lost, Kan didn’t fight to stay upright. He fell backward, cradling the girl to his chest as he sliced his sword upward.

The resonance blade, humming with the power of its emerald machine, had an edge that could cut normal steel like butter. It sliced through the hound’s spine and skull before cutting through the obsidian jewelchine that had replaced the mutilated mastiff’s brain.

Kan’s left side crashed through the scraggly twigs of a saltbush, the girl crying out in shock. He grunted as he landed hard onto the dry, desert ground. The mastiff, bigger than any breed he’d ever seen, fell upon him, its dead weight crushing his legs.

“Harmonious tones,” he cursed, the pulse of his blood as steady as ever, unchanging despite the pain spreading across his back from his fall.

Already, the topaz jewelchines soothed the hurt.

“Kan,” the girl, Alamekia, gasped, her scrawny, ebony face contorted in fear. She was almost all bones, starvation stretching skin taunt across the features of her skull, replacing the normal round features of a Shattered Islander with pitiful sorrow. “What is that?”

“Mutilation,” snarled Kan, kicking the jewelchine automaton off his legs.

He’d seen other beasts mutilated by the University, but hounds were a new depravity. The ancients had long known of the resonance of the Seven Harmonious Tones and the one Dark Discord with natural gemstones, a different stone tuned to a different Tone. But the discovery that they could be manipulated via metallic wiring and harnessed to power machines had transformed society. Gold wires worked best, but even cheap tin could conduct the power. Called jewelchines, these devices tapped into the echoes of the eight spirits who’d created everything. Each year, scholars across the world discovered new and diverse uses.

Some were even beautiful.

“Can you walk?” he asked the girl cradled still in his arm.

The girl nodded her head, her eyes wide. Red light painted half her face. The discarded jewelchine torch, a slender tube of leather with a colored lens at one end and a diamond jewelchine inside radiating light, survived impacting hard ground. She trembled on his arms. He felt the frantic beat of her heart through his heavy shirt. Kan, distantly, could remember that same frantic beat in his chest when the typhoon had ravaged his village as a boy no older than her.

“Good, move behind me and—”

He threw the girl to his left. She crashed into a saltbush with a shriek as the second mastiff bounded out of the darkness. The beast’s eyes betrayed its attack with silver-white flashes. The air in the desert was clear. The stars and moon provided a modicum of light to see by and to glint off the diamond jewelchines embedded in the creature’s eyes.

Kan swung his sword as the hound leaped at him, expecting the mastiff to crash into his chest, teeth savaging his throat. But the beast landed a few feet short of Kan in a dangerous crouch, its body illuminated by the discarded torch’s focused beam. Short, coarse fur covered its twisted frame. Nodules bulged beneath the skin, creating fierce bumps across the beast’s hide. Its mouth opened. Metal glinted in its gullet. A barrel.

Kan smelled the oily scent of refined naphtha.

“The Seven Harmonies!” He rolled to his right as fire burst from the hound’s mouth.

A sheet of orange flame rippled the air. Light blossomed. Heat seared Kan’s face. He grunted, rolling faster. The bush he’d thrown the girl into, though not touched, caught fire. The dry brush blazed into a bonfire.

They put a Tone-deaf firebelcher in the beast’s stomach?

The horrors of the University always shocked Kan, though they shouldn’t have. His depravity knew no depths. Kan’s body was a mutilated display of the bushy-eyebrowed man’s work. Kan’s wide-legged trousers and long-sleeved shirt hid the evidence from view. His broad-shouldered and deep-chested frame resulted from the University’s cruelty. He stood two or more heads taller than any he knew, making him seem a foreigner despite his dusky olive skin.

The end of his alpaca cloak smoldered as he gained his feet. Fiery death chased him. His pulse remained steady. He missed that frantic beating of his heart, the surge of cold danger through the veins, that feeling of life instead of the dull, rhythmic pulsing that circulated blood through his body.

The hound twisted its head, mouth open, fur burning around its muzzle from the firebelcher’s heat. Kan raced at a speed the fastest runner would envy, circling the beast before darting in for his attack. He dashed past the gout of flame, the heat billowing around him. His sword hummed in his hand. He prayed to the Harmonious Seven, but not their Dark Brother.

His cloak burst into flames. Heat soaked through his trousers. His skin cooked, the topaz jewelchines embedded in his flesh soothing away the pain as he closed the distance. The hound twisted, moving its bulk to bring its fire directly upon Kan.

His sword hissed down.

He severed the beast’s head from its body, cutting spine, wires, and the barrel of the firebelcher. The flames snuffed out as the beast’s head fell to the ground. Its body remained upright for five steady beats, blood and oily naphtha bubbling from the severed neck. Then it, too, slumped to the ground; the control signal from the obsidian jewelchine in the automaton’s head severed.

“What is that, Kan?” the girl asked as he ripped off his burning cloak. She moved forward on her hands and feet, crawling almost like a lizard. A scratch bled on her cheek, shiny in the roaring light of the blazing brush. “There are wires sticking out of its neck. And that smell.” Her small nose wrinkled.

“Refined naphtha,” he grunted, turning to face the direction from which the hounds had come.

Irritation stabbed through him. They’d been so close to the draw that led up the cliff. For two days, he’d carried the girl across the desert, moving from supply cache to supply cache. The precious water stored in them had allowed the pair to survive the soaring heat of the day. He’d rescued her from the slave caravan, saved her from the mutilation of his knives.

Flashes of pain, of screaming agony, wracked all of him while the delicate face of the bushy-eyebrowed man peered down at Kan. Those eyebrows were wispy snow, though not from age. His eyes smiled as he brought his knife down and cut.

The memories almost overwhelmed Kan.

“Are you hurt?” he growled to the girl, his eyes scanning the bejeweled night sky. He sheathed his resonance sword and drew his pistol from a leather holster on his hip loaded with a clip of three small darts.

“Fine,” the girl answered, still crouched by the dead mastiff. “Why would anyone make it breathe fire?”

“Because he could do it.”

There.

In the darkness over the desert, a shape occulted starlight as it drifted through the sky. A condor, swelled to immense size, carried the control officer. Jewelchine automatons had no mind, their brains replaced by an obsidian machine which channeled the Dark Discord and were controlled by harmonies broadcast by the officer—the fruits of the University’s work.

The University of Harmonic Research created monstrosities with their knowledge, soldiers for their client. The process was bloody and utilized the forbidden obsidian jewelchines, tapping into foul Nizzig’s discord. Most of the “subjects” did not survive. Caravans of children, on the verge of pubescence, were driven across to the University. To him. Out there, in the heart of the desert, agony lay. Granite buildings, baked by day, rose over the largest concentration of black iron in the world. Only with foul black iron could Nizzig’s discord be channeled into machines, violating nature with grotesqueries.

The Path and its Guides, founded by the Tinker, sought to rescue those poor children from their fates.

Kan and his fellow Guides knew the Depression. They scouted it, lived in it, planned their routes, learned how to avoid the patrols, all so they could rescue what few children they could when the caravans were at their most vulnerable. Kan had saved twenty-seven children. Of the Guides, he was the most successful. None had survived half as many Paths as him.

Trails could be erased from sight while paths walked across hard stone would leave no trace, but these new hounds changed everything. How could you hide from the keen nose of a hound? Ten other Guides were with him on the raid. Did they live?

Kan pushed questions from his mind and raised his pistol. At this distance, the odds of hitting the control officer were low if he were stationary. But if Kan killed the Tone-deaf bastard, any other automatons sweeping towards them would stand idle, lacking the control harmonics.

Then he would have twenty-eight successes.

Kan fired all three shots in rapid succession, his arm steady, his eyes aiming down the metal barrel, lining up the front sight with the two rear. The weapon hissed as the heliodor jewelchine channeled the harmonics of the Tone of Wind. Air propelled the slender, steel darts at high speed. They streaked through the night.

And missed.

Kan yanked the clip from the wooden handle of the pistol and fished the spare from his belt. He had six more shots. He had to eliminate the officer. If there were more automatons out of in the dark, they could see them even without the blazing fire. They would chase Kan and the girl up the draw, firing dartcasters and projectield launchers. The climb was treacherous enough without dodging attacks.

“Did you get him?” the girl asked, peering into the dark as she knelt, her bony face painted with fierce oranges and black shadows.

The hiss cut off his answer. The metal dart buried into Kan’s chest over his heart. A wet crunch and grating crack echoed as the projectile slammed through his ribs. The shock threw him back. He landed on the ground with a grunt, blood welling through his brown shirt.

“Kan!” she gasped, pressing low to the ground. The girl knew how to survive.

“I’m fine.” He grasped the steel dart. It was as thin as a finger bone. He grunted as he yanked it out. More blood flowed, but the topaz jewelchines soothed the wound. Already, it closed.

“That hit you in the heart.” Awe strained the girl’s words. “That kills. I’s seen it.”

“I don’t have a heart.” The words were reflexive. He thrust his pistol into her hands. She would escape. “There is a draw that climbs the cliff. Amo Ponthia will meet you at the top. She’ll take you the rest of the way on the Path.”

The girl didn’t argue. Survivors never did. The children who were new slaves, still holding out hope that they would again see mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, cried and sniveled. Alamekia darted away at a crouch as Kan rose, his left hand held out before him, fingers splayed in warding. He drew his sword with the right.

If I had a heart, it would be beating in terror and telling me to flee.

The moment he stood, the hisses came. Falling onto his back had dropped him out of the automatons’ line of sight. But now, at least two dartcasters fired at him, shooting larger projectiles and with more accuracy than his pistol.

They struck the curved dome of the amethyst energy projected from his left hand. The jewelchine embedded in his palm, the wires running between his fingers and connecting with the network of gold and black iron threads that wormed beneath his skin like a second set of veins and arteries, activated at a thought. It resonated with the Tone of Protection. The darts crashed into the curved shield’s harmony, and deflected. One hissed over his head, creasing through his blond hair.

Kan’s eyes stared at the dark shape in the sky. What are you thinking up there?

Only one of the University’s mutilations should possess Kan’s embedded shield.

The final dart hissed out of the darkness and crashed into his shield. The ricochet buried it in the dirt by his right foot. His breath quickened as he listened above the hum of his shield and the crackle of the burning brush for the automatons’ approach.

The diamonds in their eyes betrayed them.

Five pairs glinted red in the darkness. Kan took a deep breath, visualizing his enemy. They spread wide, preparing to come at him from five different angles. They would be swift, brutal. Their attacks aimed to kill him as fast as possible. Scenarios whirled through his mind. His hand tightened on the leather wrapped hilt of his resonance blade, the hum reassuring.

He tensed, ready to act.

The ball glinted firelight as it arced out of the darkness. Kan cursed, burying his eyes into the crook of his elbow. It landed at his feet with a dull thud and rolled against his boot. The light’s brilliance warmed his skin as the pulstun’s diamond released its built up energy. It bled through the skin of his arms and his eyelids. For a moment, his radius and ulna appeared as dark shadows amid red-glowing flesh.

He dropped his arm as the automatons attacked, his vision spared from the stunning blast while their jewelchine eyes were unaffected. These ones were humans, though it was difficult to tell if they were male or female after the changes to their bodies. They’d grown as big as Kan, dressed in gray uniforms, their faces a mix of dusky olives, browns, and one ebony; slaves brought from the corners of Democh and its neighbors. Each held their own resonance sword, hums buzzing through the air. Two were newly mutilated. Instead of heads covered by hair or even smooth skin, they had domed cranial plates of obsidian replacing the top halves of their skulls, their skin growing unevenly to cover it.

The sight of his almost future always stirred horror through Kan. He imagined having a heart fluttering as he gazed at them moving in for the kill.

He had to move faster. His only advantage was his intact brain.

With a grunt, Kan darted towards the automaton to his right, his legs enhanced by the network of emerald and helidor jewelchines which strengthened and quickened his limbs. His blade hissed in a quick arc. It took the automaton a moment to react to the blurring charge. Kan’s blade sang, a hard, vicious swipe.

The automaton’s head parted from its body in a spray of blood. Severed wires protruded from the cut. The body stood rigid for a heartbeat longer before collapsing with the head. Kan already moved, using the momentum to turn his body and meet a slashing sword. He parried.

The other four were on him, resonance blades swinging. Sweat broke out on Kan’s forehead as he whipped his blade back and forth. His left hand thrust forward, his purple shield pulsing into life to deflect their weapons. When sword met sword, the air hummed with vibration, emerald jewelchines flaring with verdant light. Violet waves rippled across his shield with every impact.

He retreated, stepping over the slain automaton. The world slowed as he fought, all his focus bent on keeping those four blades from finding his flesh. They would kill him as fast as he’d killed the first. He couldn’t stay still. He couldn’t let them surround him. He had to be liquid, always moving, embracing the Tone of Water. Adaptation was his only chance, changing, flowing with circumstance, surrendering to necessity.

Waiting for his opening.

Only a handful of heartbeats after the clash began, he spotted it. The automatons had funneled too close together as they’d followed his retreat. None of the four had paid much attention to the others, too focused on their orders: kill. Their shoulders bumped together, hindering their swings for a moment.

Kan didn’t think. He acted.

His sword took an older automaton, a dartcaster slung over its shoulder, in the upper thigh. The enhanced blade cut with ease through the thing’s leg and then bit deep into its torso. Despite the flowing blood, Kan knew it didn’t live. How could it when it had no mind? It was a husk. A weapon.

This was mercy.

The automaton folded up and collapsed mid-swing, its blade missing wide. Kan kept moving, stabbing downward at where its heart would be. His resonance sword pierced the thing’s ribcage with ease and then cracked through the ruby jewelchine, carefully shaped to pump blood through its body. The gem burst. Scarlet light flared through the crimson bubbling out of the wound.

The automaton went limp. Damaging the heart jewelchine or the brain jewelchine were the only ways to kill one swiftly. Blood loss wasn’t quick enough. They would feel no pain, and their network of topaz jewelchines would, given time, heal any wounds.

Pain flared in Kan’s left arm as he darted past his enemies. The tip of a resonance sword grazed him. The nick sliced through his thick shirt and two inches of muscle. But it missed any wires. Already, the pain soothed as his flesh healed. He turned, facing the three remaining automatons. They fanned out, ignoring their dead. Their eyes glinted bright.

A new model, crimson flickering on its obsidian cranial plate, lunged fast, the enhanced body moving swifter than a normal human. Kan deflected with his shield, his left hand angled to let its blade stab past him. At the same instant, he lunged a stop-thrust at the heart of the other new automaton charging in.

His attack was too fast for the thing to bring up its own palm to shield. It was standard for the automatons to have amethyst jewelchines buried in both palms. His sword knifed for the thing’s heart jewelchine, hissing through the air.

The purple shield blossoming across the automaton’s chest shocked Kan.

His sword struck the protective energy. The curve of the shield sent his blade sliding up and to the left, thrusting over the automaton’s shoulder. Kan gaped. The thing had an amethyst jewelchine buried in its chest as well as its palms. A new improvement devised by him.

“Harmonious tones,” Kan grunted, his footing ruined by the surprise. He stumbled past the automaton.

As he did, the enemy blade hissed. It sliced deep into Kan’s left side, his flesh providing almost no resistance. The sword reached a foot or more into him, severing the network of wires running on the outside of his skin and damaging organs. Blood streamed down his side, soaking into his shirt and trousers. His leg buckled as he struggled to regain his footing.

No soothing energy flowed to the wound. His left hand felt at his side, brushed the severed gold and black iron wires protruding from his wound, disrupting the left half of his network of jewelchines. He tripped over the severed automaton’s leg and fell on his face to the ground. Dirt stuck to the spreading blood as he rolled onto his back. The third automaton, an older model, pivoted smoothly, drawing back its sword to ram the point into Kan’s chest.

He raised his left hand between him and his attacker and tried to generate his shield. Nothing. Too many control wires were severed on the left side, disconnecting the obsidian jewelchines that gave him direct control over his protection.

At least the girl has a chance.

Knowing it was futile, he acted. He let go of his sword and raised his right arm, fingers splayed wide. Kan would fight against his cruelties to his last breath.

The darts hissed out of the darkness and crashed into the lunging automaton’s head. Sparks flew as the first pierced skin and struck the obsidian cranial plate beneath, leaving a long, bleeding gash across its forehead. The second scored the cheek; a flap of bloody skin fell dangling. The third took it in the eye, driving deep. A flash of white light burst from the cavity, the diamond jewelchine disrupted. The automaton flinched enough at the attack, conflicting instructions jarring through its obsidian jewelchine. Its downward thrust slammed into the desert floor inches from Kan’s side.

His right hand pointed at the automaton’s chest. He triggered the jewelchine buried in his palm.

He didn’t conjure a shield.

The beam of pure sunlight didn’t so much as fire from his hand as appear. A long shaft blazed out over the dark desert, searing through the chest of the automaton. It lasted not even a heartbeat and left behind a burning afterimage across Kan’s vision.

The Tinker had made his own adjustments to Kan.

Molten ruby poured out of the hole bored through the automaton’s chest and ignited its gray uniform. It collapsed into a smoldering heap, limbs twitching.

“How did you do that?” the girl asked, holding his pistol and crouching by the burning bush, eyes owl-wide.

Kan didn’t answer. He’d held the lightbeam back for emergencies. The jewelchine took days to store the Tone of Light, and its accuracy failed outside of a hundred or so feet. It was hard to aim precisely. His arm lacked the proper sights of a pistol or dartcaster. He hadn’t even considered using it on the officer flying on the condor.

The officer was closer now, watching the fight from safety of the air.

Kan put that out of his thoughts. He still had two more automatons to deal with. He grabbed his resonance blade. Despite the blood pouring from his side, he forced himself to stand. He did not have much life left.

“What are you?” the girl asked.

I thought you were a survivor. “Run!”

The girl ignored him.

The automatons came at him fast. His shield now useless, Kan teetered as he drew his resonance dagger with his left hand. Life drained out of him, soaking his trousers to his boots. He was dying, and his damned jewelchine heart pulsed at the same steady rhythm, uncaring. His vision fuzzed.

He parried the first blow with sluggish movements. The impact of swords jarred down his blade. He almost dropped his weapon, his fingers growing weak. The right side of his body was still strong, the jewelchines working, but the left’s network failed. His left leg dragged as he moved back, pressed by the automatons’ attacks.

“You have to run!” he spat.

The girl shook her head. Her scrawny hand picked up a fallen resonance sword. She held it in such a clumsy grip. She had no idea how to stand properly, how to fight with it. But she let out a fierce scream, her face almost demonic in the roaring light. All the years of torment, of fear, of hopelessness burst from her as she swung at the nearest automaton.

And cut through its back.

It staggered, turning and taking a clumsy swipe at the girl. Blood sheeted down the automaton’s back. Her cut had flayed it open, exposing part of the spine, severing dozens of wires. Its swipe caught her sword, knocking it from her hand. It drew back to strike again but lost its balance and fell backward into its partner, tangling their limbs.

Kan acted, swiped. His sword sang. The movement burned his side. He grit his teeth, fighting waves of dizziness that threatened to drown him with insensibility.

The wounded automaton’s head parted from its shoulders.

Kan’s breath exploded from him. He bent over, gasping, heaving. His lungs were natural, and they flagged. The world spun around him as he faced the last automaton, now untangled from the dead one. The girl scurried on hands and knees to grab her fallen blade. The automaton drew back its sword, and swung at Kan.

He parried.

His grip was too loose on his weapon, his fingers numbed by blood loss. The attack slapped his sword from his hand. It spun through the air before knifing into the hard-packed desert clay. Kan gripped his dagger as the automaton drew back one final time, readying the blow that would kill him.

He threw the resonance dagger with a thrusting-like motion, almost an underhanded toss. The weapon soared point first across the few intervening feet. Stone cracked as it punched through the automaton’s obsidian cranial plate and into its jewelchine brain. Dark unlight bled out around the blade as the thing spasmed. Every muscle in its body twitched. Without any direction, it stood rigid. Off-balance, it toppled to the ground.

“You did it,” Alamekia cheered, holding up her sword like a great prize, waving it over her head.

“Not . . . over . . .” he spat, turning, searching the sky. He wanted to collapse, to surrender to the agony. But now he needed to be like the Tone of Earth. To be strong. To resist. To draw on the harmony of foundation, stability.

“But . . . you got them.”

The condor soared closer. The officer would have weapons, and he’d have outfitted the mutilated, giant bird with either greatcasters that could shred Kan’s body with rapid-fire darts or with other exotic weapons from his perverse imagination.

With effort, Kan bent down and snagged the dartcaster slung over the shoulder of a dead automaton. He jerked hard with his right arm, still strengthened by emeralds, and ripped the weapon’s leather strap. He grunted, raised the long-barreled musket, and aimed into the dark.

His pistol had missed. It was a close range weapon. The dartcaster was not.

A flash of yellow light, a weapon fired by the officer, gave Kan his target. Without flinching, without knowing what hurtled out of the darkness at him, he pulled the trigger. Yellow light flashed out the end of the barrel, the dartcaster’s helidor propelling the thin, metal missiles into the starry sky.

A shape fell from the condor as a net crashed to the ground at Kan’s feet. The tangled wires flared with amethyst light, a purple shield engulfing the piled mess. He grunted, staring down at the projectield that had missed him. The weapon was designed to capture and restrain. The projectield’s net would entwine about the target, then its shield would trigger, engulfing the person in a cocoon from which they could not escape.

His grunt turned into a groan as he toppled backward. The condor was harmless without the rider’s control, falling into a circling pattern. It was over. He stared up at the brilliant stars, a sea just out of reach. The light from the burning bushes dwindled. The girl appeared over him, her eyes shiny.

“No,” she whispered. “No!”

He grabbed her wrist with his shaky left hand, pulling her palm to his bleeding side. He should be dead already. “Feel!” He jammed her hand into his wounds, dragging her fingers along the smooth cut. “Wires. Feel?”

She nodded her head.

“Join them. Have to . . . reattach.”

“Reattach?” Her tone sounded dubious, her forehead furrowing.

“Please . . .” His breathing hurt. His entire left side was numbing fire. His topaz jewelchines worked to replenish the blood flowing out of his side, but it wasn’t enough. The chill spread through his body.

“How?”

“Twist.” Every labored word hurt. “They’ll . . . stay together.” Hopefully.

Alamekia grabbed his wires, not caring about the blood. She’d performed dirty work before. Kan grit his teeth, grunting through the pain as she brought the wires closer and closer. There was slack in the wires, allowing his body to move and flex without tearing them. He felt the wires worming beneath his skin. A pair of gold touched. Healing flashed through his left side, twitching his body, and then it stopped. Tongue thrust through shrunken lips, she tugged again.

“Careful,” he groaned. “Gold . . . delicate . . .”

“Trying,” she muttered, almost an accusation. “Stop moving.”

He tried. It was hard.

The wires brushed again. He spasmed as she braided them together. She let it go, felt through his wound, found another wire, and joined the severed ends. Black iron, part of the control network. The forbidden metal hummed as the wires brushed. Power shocked through him. A purple shield flared from his left hand.

The girl squeaked in fright, flinching away as he clenched his hand, gaining control of the jewelchine again. The black iron networked directly into his body’s natural control system. Your nerves, the Tinker had called them. Natural wires spreading throughout your body. How your brain bosses your body about. But that brain’s too smart. Not good at obeying. It’s why you don’t listen and concentrate like I tell you.

His vision fuzzed. The soothing energy from the topaz jewelchines radiated through his left side. Flesh and organs knitted together. The blood flow stemmed as Alamekia worked around the wound, tying more black iron and gold wires together, repairing his mutilated body. Kan closed his eyes, drifting through dreams.

He screamed in agony, thrashing on the table. His bones throbbed and ground together. They ached like growing pains increased hundredfold. Thousandfold. He watched him as he writhed, eyes blurry with agony. He choked on the glass tube shoved down his throat, a white paste dripping through it to his ravenous stomach.

Always hungry. Always in pain.

Very good growth,” the bushy-eyebrowed man said to the Tinker. “Another one that will live.”

Another one,” the Tinker said, slanted eyes soft. A comforting hand on his forehead. “A fighter.”

Already a man’s growth.” There was an almost child-like glee in his voice. “The new technique is showing results.”

Indeed.”

The pain surged. They cut into him. They threaded wires across his body. Bloody wounds healed as he thrashed, skin growing over hard gems. He felt so big, immense, a giant. He was naked, his head moving, staring down his body at the thick, ropy muscles of his limbs, his chest deep, only smooth flesh at his groin.

He drifted through pain for six months. An eternity of agony. He started a child, he ended an adult.

Have to go,” the Tinker said, unbuckling the straps. “They’re doing it tonight, my boy. Tonight. You’ll never come back from that one.”

Sunlight warmed Kan’s face as he opened his eyes. He blinked. The girl stirred, rising. Her cheek was smeared with dry blood coated in bits of dust and debris. She rubbed her eyes then scurried to him, shaking her head.

“You’re alive.”

“I’m alive,” he said, feeling his side. It was coated in drying blood. Some flaked off while globs stuck to his hand like gunk. He felt no wound, not even a scar. More blood cracked as he moved his legs, flakes of powdery rust falling away.

“What are you?” she asked, touching him. She traced the wires running like a second set of veins beneath his skin, pushing beneath his torn shirt to brush a hard nodule—a topaz jewelchine.

“Mutilated,” he grunted, pushing her hand away. “Let’s go.”

“Go?”

He looked up at the escarpment looming above them, a jutting pillar of black rock thrusting out near the rim. “Up there. Amo Ponthia is waiting for us. She’ll take you farther.”

“Take me where?”

Kan shrugged. “Safety.”

“You don’t know?” Eyes widened, shocked.

He shook his head. “Can’t betray what I don’t know.”

He stood. His stomach growled, but his limbs were strong, all the jewelchines working throughout is body. Hands flexed. Powdered blood fell from ruined clothing like dust. He found his cloak; the bottom edge was charred.

“I don’t think you’re mutilated,” she said, staring up at him with such innocence in her eyes.

Did I ever have that look? Phantom pain tightened his chest. His body remembered having a heart. He would never have a child of his own staring up at him like that. All he could do was rescue them.

“You’re not like them.” She spat at the nearest corpse. The automatons lay still, their bodies pale now. Flies buzzed along the shattered eye of the one she’d shot.

“Mostly like them.” He scooped her thin body up into his arms. She was like air, almost weightless. He trudged towards the narrow, hidden draw that wound up to the top of the cliff.

She shook her head. “You’re like a hero.”

He grunted.

“I said like a hero. A hero wouldn’t have needed me to fix his wires. Heroes don’t take wounds.”

“So what am I?”

“I don’t know. Special.” She beamed at him. A sunrise over planted fields. “An almost hero. But you’re too strong to be mutilated. And you’re not ugly.” And then she hugged him, her thin arms entwined about his neck. Her face pressed into his chest. He cradled her, the pain increasing in his phantom heart as he felt hers’ rapid beat.

Climbing the escapement had never been easier for Kan, even carrying the girl, even going slow to avoid snapping his repaired wires. They could break again. He would have to see the Tinker, have them replaced. He hated that he needed them.

It took half the day to climb up the steep path. The rocks were loose. Avalanches cascaded down behind them, stones clattering and clashing as they bounced down to the Depression’s floor. He pondered the hounds as he climbed. They changed things for the Guides. Saving what few children they could would be even harder.

If I was a hero, I would save you all.

He reached the top. Amo Ponthia waited, wrapped in a cloak that almost blended in with the scrub lands of the hills which surrounded the Depression. Only her slanted eyes were visible behind the wool veil that covered her hair and face. Her eyes tightened at the sight of his bloody clothing. But she didn’t say a word.

The girl clung to his neck when he tried to pry her away. She let out a whimper, shaking her head. “No.”

“You’ll be safe with her,” Kan said, his voice gentle. “She will guide you to safety.”

“I want you to guide me!”

“I have to keep protecting you. Make sure they follow a different trail.”

Her eyes were wide. “Really?”

He nodded his head. “I’ll lead them away while Amo Ponthia takes you to your new home.”

“You will be happy, child,” Amo Ponthia said.

Kan hoped that was true. The girl was a survivor. He had no idea what happened to the children after he delivered them to the next leg of the Path, to the next Guide who’d lead them away from the Democh Empire’s cruelty. He’d saved one child today out of hundreds.

Twenty-eight out of thousands.

It wasn’t enough, but what more could he do?

He watched Amo Ponthia and the girl walk off into the hills, heat’s shimmers washing them out until they were dancing, watery blurs. He would hide their trail for two miles, then head off in another direction from the top of the draw, leaving an obvious path. He wondered what she would find. Where she would live. If she would ever smile again.

Alamekia was as safe as he could make her. In two months, there would be another caravan. Another chance to save a child. He set about his work. He would be looking for his lost automatons. Kan could afford no mistakes.

As he worked, he pictured Alamekia in a small farm following her new father through the muddy fields as the seeds were planted, a smile on her face, her limbs full and healthy. A tear fell down his cheek.

Mourning what could never be.

The END

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Mutilated takes place in my Jewel Machine Universe!

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To save the skies, Ary must die!

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You do not want to miss out on this awesome adventure!

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The Captain’s Mad Plan Audiobook

The Captain’s Mad Plan Audiobook

My first audiobook is out! If you’d ever wanted to try one of my stories, it is now an audiobook available from Audible.com.

If you like to hear it for FREE, then email to get a promo code! I have 25 of them! First come, first serve!

Can he survive his captain’s madness?

Once again, Varen’s flighty captain has plunged him into danger. In a den of smugglers, Varen and Captain Charele will need their wits about them.

Varen groans as Charele unveils her mad plan. With carefree enthusiasm, she throws herself into danger.

Varen is sure they’re doomed because they’re outnumbered. Facing the talons and claws of the deadly Luastrian smugglers, Varen is armed only with his fist and magic.

How can they escape a flock of deadly killers?

You have to read this exciting, fantasy adventure to find out!

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Free Weekly Story: Reflections of Eternity

Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Every Saturday, I’m going to post one of my short stories for you all to enjoy! It’ll be up on my blog for a week before it gets taken down and a new story replaces it!

Enjoy!

Reflections of Eternity

Rehman leaned against the statue of the great heroine Xella, wineskin in hand. He took a deep swig, the wine cheap and sour, but he was drunk enough not to care. The world was ending. Heljina’s song had quieted. The ground shook as Zarketh stirred, so the quality of his wine hardly mattered at all. A silent breeze—even drunk, it was strange not to hear the Goddess’s beautiful harmony upon the wind—ruffled his sky-blue acolyte robes.

He took another long drink.

Despite the fact that the world was about to end, it was like a festival on the temple grounds. All the temples were bedecked in their finery, from Heljina’s own, painted blue like the sky, to the temples dedicated to her daughter and son, Golden Felikia and Silver Bedko, and all the lesser shrines in between. All of the activity was centered round the Kurokin Stone. Every would-be hero and braggart for miles around had come to draw Bedko’s Blade from the sky-blue rock—to throw his or her life away to save the world. Rehman and his fellow acolytes had watched, and mocked, oaf after muscle-bound oaf heave and strain and groan until, cursing, they’d stumbled away, faces dripping with sweat.

After the third wineskin, Rehman and his fellow acolytes found the absurdity hilarious. He wasn’t too concerned about the world ending. Five hundred years ago, Heljina’s Song to her slumbering husband had also stilled. The brave Xella, whose statue he so unceremoniously leaned against, had drawn the first sword from the Kurokin, entered the Tomb, and never returned. The world hadn’t ended, so she must have accomplished something.

And if one of these moon-drunk idiots pulled the sword, Rehman was confident they’d do the same.

“Look at that one,” Dorrim laughed, taking the wineskin and pointing at the Kurokin stone.

At the stone. a burly man, perhaps a blacksmith’s apprentice, grunted like a rutting bull as he struggled to pull the silvered blade from the heart of the blue stone. The man’s face grew a bright red, his forearm muscles bulging, but the sword refused to yield.

“Doesn’t he know only the promised one can pull the sword?” weaselly-faced Vellin chortled.

“His muscles have squeezed out all his brains,” Rehman joked.

The apprentice blacksmith heaved and strained with all his might to rip the sword out. So great was his effort, that when his hands slipped from the silver grip of the sword, he fell back, landing like a sack of his turnips on his backside. Perhaps if Rehman had been just a little more sober, he would not have laughed so hard, but he was now on his fifth wineskin and his head swam with drink.

A shadow fell across Rehman as he grasped his knees, his sides aching with laughter. Dorrim gave him a sharp nudge in the ribs. He looked up; the apprentice towered over him.

“Worthy try!” Rehman exclaimed, failing to notice the angry shame flushing the apprentice’s face. “If only big arms and small wits were enough, then the sword would have been pulled already.”

The apprentice grinned dangerously at Rehman and seized his wrist with an iron grip. “Let’s see how you fare, little acolyte.”

“What?” Rehman protested as the apprentice dragged him forward, the man’s hands as tight as a jailer’s fetters. “Hey, wait!”

“Let’s see if a flabby body and a sharp tongue work any better!”

The hulking youth flung Rehman forward. He fell, hands braced before him, against the hard surface of the Kurokin. The blue boulder, the size of a large carriage, was warm beneath his touch. It pulsed with a slow, steady rhythm.

Beat, beat.

Pause.

Beat, beat.

Pause.

The Goddess’s hand had plunged most of the blade into the stone, leaving only the silver hilt and quillons—which swept downwards, forming a crescent guard—exposed.

“Draw,” the hulk ordered.

“Fine,” Rehman muttered. He grasped the sword and gave a half-hearted pull. “Well, guess I’m not the one.”

“You didn’t even try,” the apprentice glowered. He cracked his knuckles. “Give it a good pull.”

Rehman swallowed, eyeing scarred knuckles. Then he gripped the sword in determined hands and heaved with all his rather unimpressive might. He fell backwards, just like the blacksmith apprentice had. The ground smacked him in the back, driving the air from his lungs in a painful gasp. He lay stunned, barely aware of something gripped in his hand.

A hush fell across the crowd. Rehman stared in confusion at the apprentice’s paling face. Rehman sat up on his elbows, surveying the crowd through bleary vision. Men, women, and children gaped at him.

Why’s everyone looking at me? he wondered. He raised his right arm to rub at his sore back when he realized what he held.

By Heljina’s Song, I drew it. He held the silver blade in his hand, the edge rippling like gentle waves. Disbelief punched his gut. This can’t be happening. His thoughts whirled.

The world spun around him.

I can’t be the one chosen to defeat Zarketh. I’m just an acolyte.

Rehman gazed up at the statue of Xella, the maiden who’d drawn the golden sword five hundred years ago. The heroine was last seen walking into the Tomb to drive Zarketh back into his slumber. She stood proud, holding the golden sword, Felikia’s Blade, up high, her youthful face full of confident determination. She’d been a warrior, trained from birth in the arts of the sword.

I can’t even hold a broom right. How can I defeat the Lord of Earthquakes and save mankind?

“I am a dead man.”

Rehman fainted, the rippled blade still clutched in his hand.

* * *

Xella pushed through the men standing defeated around the Kurokin, her leather boots squishing upon the grass trampled into mud. The blue stone rested in an empty field near the rude village that the laborers dwelled in. There were grand plans to build a temple to the Sky Goddess near the holy Kurokin.

She didn’t care about any of that. As her father had always predicted, the world was ending, and someone needed to save it. None of the laborers or the men of her tribe had succeeded in drawing forth either of the swords. Now, they could no longer deny her the chance.

“Get back to your sheep, girl,” spat a leathery-faced man, three of his front teeth missing.

She ignored him. She was used to being shunned. They’d proclaimed her father a blasphemer, and his supposed sins against Heljina stained her, too. She reached the sky-blue stone, the warmth of the Kurokin taking the chill out of the autumn night. Two swords were thrust into the stone—one gold and one silver.

And twice shall come about the Song’s end,

With malice and hatred shall Zarketh awaken.

Two shall be chosen, separated by time.

Down in darkness will freedom be given,

Through death shall history transcend.

The words of the prophecy echoed in her head. Her father had believed the words and been ridiculed by these very men. “The song will never stop!” the tribe had declared. “Never.”

It had.

No longer did sweet melodies whisper on the wind. Instead, the ground rumbled beneath their feet. Zarketh stirred. Xella stopped before the large boulder, the Holy Tear shed by the Sky Goddess. Xella grasped the gold sword, Felikia’s Blade, and drew it forth with ease.

The mutters died.

The blade was long, both edges serrated with upturned teeth, as if the blade had been a single tongue of flame frozen in steel. The hilt was ornate, gold, a sunburst worked into the quillons. She surveyed at the crowd—the men who’d hounded her father to suicide and her mother to starvation.

They looked away.

“I’ll save you anyways,” she whispered, gall burning the back of her throat.

Her journey to the Tomb took the rest of the night; no one followed her—they were all full of shame and cowardice. Clear skies allowed Bedko to light the grassy hills with his silver countenance. The ground’s trembling grew more frequent as she crossed the grassland in her sheepskin trousers.

She lived on the plains, herding her sheep with her dog, Usti. She’d left him with the flock. Someone will claim Usti and my sheep if I don’t come back. They’ll be taken care of. Her feet strode across the plain with the confidence her heart lacked. She could walk these fields blindfolded. She knew the terrain intimately.

She knew to never travel in this direction.

A single, dead hill rose up at the center of a valley, a boil upon the earth. Nothing grew on the mound. The grassy plain ended at the base of the hill—the tomb of a slumbering god. When humans were created, Zarketh had grown jealous of the attention his wife, the Sky Goddess, had lavished upon them. He’d caused the ground to quake, toppling mountains to bury men and opening chasms to swallow them up. So Heljina had begun her Song, singing on the winds and keeping him asleep until two champions would arise, separated by centuries, to defeat him.

That part never made sense to Xella.

The hill’s earth was cold and clammy, staining her hands black whenever she slipped and had to catch herself. Behind her, Felikia brightened the horizon with the new day’s birth. The dark soil seemed to drink in the morning light, darkening instead of brightening. She reached the summit of the dead hill, a single spire of black stone thrust upward at its crown. An uneven opening had been cut into the spike, large enough for three men to walk abreast. A cold, stale air burst out of the hole in successive gusts.

Fear gripped her. She looked behind her, almost blinded by the rising sun. A figure stood at the edge of the hill, almost lost in the bright sunlight. Her heart beat faster. She raised her hands to shield her eyes and see who’d followed her.

No one. Just a trick of the light. She was always alone.

“I’ll save you anyways,” she whispered bitterly. “It’s what Father would have wanted.”

Xella faced death’s entrance and swallowed her fear. She surrendered to the chains of obligations pulling her into the darkness.

* * *

Rehman was breathing hard when he reached the summit of the dead hill, all his friends and family waiting for him. Everyone wanted to accompany him. He was the hero. He’d drawn the Sword of the Moon, Bedko’s Blade. Every girl he knew had kissed him for luck and every man had shaken his hand.

He desperately wished that anyone else had drawn the blade.

“I’ll just mess it up,” he’d complained to his mother.

“Nonsense,” she’d airily replied. “I always knew you’d accomplish greatness.”

His father had squeezed his shoulder. “I’m proud of you. You will not be forgotten.”

Everyone thinks I’m going to die. And why not? The great warrior Xella failed to return. What chance do I have?

“None,” he muttered as everyone watched him walk towards the uneven hole carved into the upthrust spire—the Tomb of the Sleeping God.

He wanted to run, wanted to throw the silvery sword away. He couldn’t. He had to save the world. Everyone’s expectations were chains about him, dragging him to the Tomb. His fear rooted him to the earth, trying to fight the pull towards the dark hole. The sun set behind the spire. Dying. Dead. Darkness fell.

Did Xella feel this same fear? Did she know she was going to walk into this hole and never return?

He pictured her standing at the entrance. A tall, slim girl, the Sword of the Sun held in her hand. He could almost see her peering into the dark portal, her black hair tied back with ragged strip of wool, form dressed in rugged leathers. She turned back, taking one last look at the world she was about to leave. He almost laughed; his imagination of her was plainer than her statue, not as graceful or beautiful, and certainly not as curvy. Just an average girl.

“What are you waiting for?” whispered Dorrim.

The image of Xella vanished. Swallowing, the sword gripped in his hand, Rehman took a single step towards the opening. Everyone stared at him, full of hope. He was supposed to save them. Rehman wanted to laugh. I can’t even sweep the temple right.

The chains pulled; another step.

I’m going to die.

A third step. All those eyes staring at him, ratcheting the chain tighter and pulling him towards the darkness. I have to die so everyone can live. My parents, my little sister, Dorrim and Vellin, my cousins, and aunts and uncles. The entirety of mankind depends on me.

“Skies above,” he whispered. “We’re all doomed.”

The portal loomed larger as if it had yawned open to swallow him. Cold air wafted out of the dark opening in short gusts that rustled his coat. It came in regular intervals, like something was . . . breathing. Rehman swallowed. The exhalations of a god washed over him. He trembled, his stomach twisting into knots like ropes of sausages.

He closed his eyes and stepped into darkness.

Everything went silent—the cheers of his friends and family, the beating of his heart. Deathly silent. He opened his eyes; the sword glowed silver, illuminating a tunnel that spiraled down into shadows. The rocks were dark, damp, and Zarketh’s breath washed over him.

Rehman looked back. There was a solid wall of sheer, inky darkness.

“Skies above,” he whispered.

No choice. He went down.

The tunnel seemed to spiral downward for eternity. Nothing changed. Always the same, uneven ground; jagged walls dripped with filth; spikes, like sharp teeth, hung down from the ceiling. He walked down a never-ending gullet, swallowed by Zarketh. When he grew thirsty, he drank from his waterskin. He had six of the heavy bladders in his pack, along with several days’ worth of tough, dried, and very salty jerky. When he tired, he slept, and felt even more exhausted and sore when he woke up.

His pack grew lighter. He discarded waterskin after waterskin, his food devoured. He kept walking. Am I dead? A corpse shuffling downward forever? The aches of his body faded, his throat grew less parched, and his stomach ceased to rumble.

“I’ve descended beyond life,” he’d mutter. “Isn’t that right, sword?”

The sword didn’t answer. It never did. It just shined its pale, silver light. When he rested, Rehman would stare at his reflection in the wavy blade. His eyes were sunken, his fat face had grown hollow, and his lips had become cracked lines.

“Withering away, hey, sword?” He laughed, shrill and cackling. “You never talk back. What a dull companion you are.” He stood up, bracing himself on the moist wall. “Well, I should probably keep walking. It’s what you do when you’re damned. You walk and walk and—”

He froze. The tunnel opened up. He’d finally reached the bottom. Something lay grimy white on the ground.

A skull.

“What do we have here?” he asked Bedko’s blade, cocking his head in curiosity. Before the journey down, this skull would have bothered him. Now it was something different from slimy rocks. It was novel.

He reached down and picked it up with his free hand. Clumps of muddy detritus slid off as he shook it. The skull was about the size of a large dog’s, but the mouth . . .”

“Skies above!”

He dropped it.

The jaws were fused together and its snout was elongated, sweeping out into a crescent blade—an axehead.

* * *

Xella blinked; something different lay ahead.

For days, she’d descended the tunnel, her body slowly growing leaner, more gaunt. She hardly recognized the pale face reflected in the flame-like blade of the Sword of the Sun. Her black hair was a tangled, grimy mess from the moist dirt caking the walls, and her cheeks were sunken hollows.

And the loneliness . . . She thought she knew isolation. She didn’t even have her flock or Usti for company. And though she’d been shunned by her tribe, they were something. But this endless walk down into the grave taught her the true meaning of solitude: hopelessness.

But finally, there was something new and different. The tunnel leveled and opened wide. She moved faster, laughing aloud. She rushed out into the wide room, throwing her arms out and spinning about. She could barely see the spike-filled ceiling above or the walls out to either side.

It felt like freedom.

Something scraped in the darkness. She froze.

“Is someone there?” she shouted.

“. . . s . . . omone . . . the . . .” Her voice echoed back, hollow and faint.

“Please, don’t be afraid!” Xella cried out.

The scraping grew louder. She whirled, looking for the source. Something moved in the shadows. A beast. Maybe the size of a sheepdog. Usti followed me! she thought with desperate longing. But that didn’t seem right. Hope ignored doubt.

“Here, boy!” she called.

“. . . ere . . . oy . . .”

“Come he—” Her words strangled in her throat. It wasn’t a dog. It was hairless, black skin stretched tight over bones. And its head . . . “Demon!”

It lunged, slashing at her with its axehead mouth. Xella swung her sword, shadows dancing as the glowing weapon arced through the air. Her blade cut the demon’s body. The corpse landed with a rattle, like it was nothing more than a sack of old bones. The head bounced across the floor, before coming to a rest at the tunnel’s entrance.

“Felikia’s fire!” she cursed.

A low, scraping sound came from behind her. Then a second. And a third.

And a fourth.

* * *

Bones lay scattered all over the cave, grimy white with scraps of black, moldy leather clinging like filth. Rehman kicked another axehead skull over with disgust. A clean cut had sheared through the back of the skull.

“Xella did this,” Rehman told his sword.

He could almost see her, dancing around the cave, her golden blade flashing. The axehead demons must have attacked her from all sides. She was gaunt like him, her long, black hair a tangled, filthy mess swirling behind her. She moved with the grace of a maiden dancing in Felikia’s honor, stepping light, her dirty face so alive. Rehman stood in the cave’s center, entranced by his imagination, turning to follow her as she sprinted, attacked, dodged, and tumbled.

Xella swung and sliced through his imagination of the demons—their bodies the size of a large hound, with bony limbs tipped with sharp, curved claws. Half of a corpse landed at Rehman’s feet, right where a pile of bones lay. His imagination was so real, so vivid. His heart beat faster. For the first time in what felt like an eternity, he felt alive. He cheered when her sword felled another demon, and winced when she narrowly avoided a sweeping slice from an axehead.

“Get him!” he shouted, his voice echoing in the cavern. “Yeah! Kill them, Xella!”

Sweat beaded his forehead. He held his sword up high, waving her on. Three axeheads cornered her. She faced them, her face flushed, red, alive. They leaped. Her golden blade swung, slamming through the first demon’s shoulder. She pivoted, the demon falling into a pile of moldy bones, and dodged the next monster’s leap.

“You can do it!” Rehman cheered.

She cut the second one down, then dashed across the cave. She passed through Rehman in a flash of warmth. The last demon followed. She spun around and slammed her sword down at the flying beast. Axehead met sword edge. He could almost hear the ring of steel on bone as her sword sheared through the beast. It fell in pieces around her.

“She did it, sword!” Drunk exhilaration filled him. It didn’t seem to matter to Rehman that this all was in his head. His hallucination was so real, he thought he could reach out and touch her.

Xella relaxed, bending over and grasping her knees as she struggled to catch her breath. She didn’t see the last axehead stalking behind her.

“Behind you!” he shouted. She didn’t hear him. She wasn’t real, just his imagination running wild after days, maybe weeks, of mindless boredom.

The demon stalked closer and closer; it crouched. Its crescent snout gleamed in the golden light from her sword. He didn’t think. Fear guided him, and he swung his silver blade at the beast.

The thing leaped, axehead streaking towards Xella’s unprotected back.

Bedko’s Blade bit into leathery flesh, the shock jarring his arm. His stroke passed through the demon, driving its body towards the ground in ragged pieces; they bounced and rolled to a stop at two piles of bones.

He stared at the bones in disbelief. “I reached into the past . . .” he whispered. “How?”

Xella turned and gaped at the severed body.

This can’t be happening. I can’t actually have killed the beast. Those bones have been there for five hundred years.

Xella’s dark eyes widened as she saw him. She spoke, but no sound reached his ears. She reached out; longing painted on her face. Her fingers were slim, feminine, filled with a desperate need for contact. Unconsciously, his own hand rose up, their fingers merged, the past reflecting before him as impossible to touch as his image in a pool of water.

She wavered and vanished.

* * *

The grimy man stared at her, reaching out to touch her outstretched fingers. His face was sunken, his skin hung loose, and his filthy clothes hung off his emaciated frame. His hair was short, dark, as tangled as a bird’s nest. He may have been handsome, but it was hard to tell beneath the streaks of dirt.

“I’m not alone,” she whispered. “You drew the second sword!”

Their reflections came together and. . . She passed through him. He vanished.

“No!”

She collapsed over the corpse the apparition had slain. Isolation crushed her, as oppressive as the weight of all the stone above her, imprisoning her in darkness. Ragged sobs shook her body.

“Please, no! I can’t be alone again!”

After a while, the tears stopped. Hope had died within her. There was nothing left for her to do but walk.

* * *

I affected the past.

Over and over, that thought wormed through is mind.

I affected the past.

Rehman stumbled on. After the axehead chamber, the tunnel narrowed again. It descended, but not as steeply, curving like the undulations of a serpent. I affected the past. I saved Xella. He drew strength from that thought. It breathed life back into him.

He almost felt like whistling. “I saved Xella, sword.”

The sword remained unimpressed.

Rehman shook his head. “Come on, sword. I saved her.”

“It was my edge that slew the demon,” Rehman answered, using a deeper voice to pretend the sword was speaking.

“I swung you,” he retorted back in his normal voice.

“Technicality.”

“A technicality I’m more than willing to cling to because . . .” Rehman paused, throwing his arms wide. “I saved Xella!”

The tunnel widened abruptly ahead into a vast sea of darkness. It appeared the tunnel ended in nothingness. Rehman approached cautiously, his left hand trailing against the wall and his right clutching Bedko’s silver-glowing blade.

It wasn’t the end of the tunnel, merely a cliff. Some great chasm, wider than his light could reach across, had split the tunnel in twain. When he looked down, he saw nothing but the rock’s face disappearing into darkness.

“How am I supposed to climb this?” he asked the sword.

He studied the cliff face, noting it consisted of the same dark rock as the tunnel, full of crevasses and cracks for purchase, but covered in damp filth. And its depth . . . The bottom could just be out of sight of his light, or could be miles below. Fear beat in his breast.

“I can’t do this,” he complained.

“What choice do you have?” he pretended the sword asked back.

Light blossomed below, golden as the sun. Xella appeared, climbing down this cliff. She was far below, little more than a dark form with a brilliant sword strapped to her back. Hope burned inside Rehman. She had the courage to do it, so why not him?

“What choice do I have?”

* * *

Xella slumped against the cliff’s base, exhausted. Depressed.

Forever cursed to be alone.

If she still had tears left in her, she would have flooded the Tomb and drowned the sleeping god. But she was dry; a desert of despair filled her. She clutched Felikia’s Blade in her hand, staring at its shining surface.

Maybe I’ll just stay here and die . . . Let all those who called Father a blasphemer be damned! They can save their own cursed hides!

Silver light bathed her, mixing with her sword’s golden aura. It was soft, rippling like light dancing on the surface of a pond. She looked up. The stranger was just above her head, climbing awkwardly down. He had Bedko’s Blade secured in a makeshift harness. Hope grew inside her. She fought it down, reminding herself that it was just an apparition.

An apparition that saved my life.

He wavered, rippling, and his light was gone.

“See,” she whispered. “There’s no hope. I’m all alone . . .”

The silver light burst into existence beside her. The man sat slumped against the cliff wall. He turned and smiled at her, nodding his head. Exhaustion melted from his face as his lips moved, but she heard no sound.

“Hello,” she said back, returning his smile.

She felt suddenly shy, like it was a festival and she was meeting a new boy from a distant tribe. Her heart drummed in her chest while warmth flushed through her. Xella reached out, knowing he wasn’t real, but needing to see, to feel, for herself. She brushed his shoulder; her finger passed through his reflection, tingling with life.

Who was he? Where did he come from? Was he dead? But he has Bedko’s Blade, and I left that sword thrust into the Kurokin. Did he come after me? His clothes were strange, not sheepskin leathers, but fashioned from some other material made with a fine weave. There were curious, round fasteners made of bone holding his clothes together instead of rawhide lacings.

Am I seeing tomorrow? Was this soft man the second champion spoken of in the prophecy? The one who would follow after me? But who he was didn’t matter. Only what he meant: she wasn’t alone. Her eyes closed; she was so tired. She leaned her head towards him. Her face tingled. She smiled, knowing his reflection touched hers.

Sleep came.

* * *

Rehman awoke alone.

He felt rested for the first time since venturing into the Tomb. He sat for a moment, the pulsing breath of the slumbering god washing over him. She’d seen him . . . And he’d seen her. He didn’t understand how the past was reflecting on the present, but it lifted his spirits. She was so strong and capable, and her strength rubbed off on him.

He stood up, stretched his sore back, and pressed on.

The terrain at the bottom of the cliff was a flat, wide-open forest—well, that’s the best way I can describe it—of rock spikes jutting up from the floor. Rehman wound his way through the spikes, using Zarketh’s breath to navigate. So long as the stale air blew against his face, he had to be drawing closer.

As he walked, Xella would flicker into being. Golden light would blossom, sometimes ahead, occasionally behind, but usually to his right or left. They didn’t walk quite the same path, choosing different routes to navigate the “forest.” She wouldn’t appear for long, often mere heartbeats. Long enough for them to meet the other’s gazes, nod their heads, and then she’d flicker away.

Every time she appeared, it filled Rehman with new vigor. Xella had survived this oppressive place and succeeded in defeating Zarketh. So could he.

The forest of spikes ended at another towering cliff face pierced by a huge, unevenly carved opening lined with spikes. For a moment, Xella appeared at the entrance, golden light painting the opening. He smiled at her; she beckoned him to follow.

* * *

Seeing Tomorrow, as Xella dubbed the apparition, flicker into existence as she threaded her way through the spikes kept her hopeful. He had a boyish grin plastered on his face every time he saw her, spurring her to keep walking.

The spikes ended at a sheer cliff that seemed identical to the one she’d climbed down, except a single, yawning opening pierced this wall. She studied the dark opening for minutes, maybe hours. Xella had come to savor the freedom of the spike valley where the ceiling was so high up it lay out of the reach of her light. She could almost pretend she was walking through a really dark night. That illusion was shattered, now; she trembled at the thought of reentering the oppressive closeness of another tunnel.

Silver light blossomed. Tomorrow was back. Strength rushed into her. She wasn’t alone. Xella motioned him to follow and stepped into the tunnel. His light died, but she knew he was following. Maybe not for tens or hundreds of years, but he walked the same, oppressive trail she did.

This tunnel spiraled in a tight, steep pattern. She feared another eternity-long descent like the first one. However, in what felt like only an hour, it flattened and widened into a large room. Relief flooded her. Open! The ceiling was well out of reach of her hands.

Just like the axehead room.

She tensed, scanning the room, straining to hear.

Silver light blossomed; Tomorrow manifested.

Fear twisted his face. His silver sword was swinging in a clumsy arc. A horrible, multi-legged thing leaped at him. Its body was black, bloated, and covered in thick, spiny hair. The demon almost resembled a spider, but no spider grew to the size of a large dog. And no spider’s legs ended in grasping hands with long, thin fingers.

Ichor spurted purple, splashing Tomorrow as his blade cut the thing in half. It fell to the ground, then wavered and vanished. His mouth was wide open. He screamed, terror filling his eyes. He swung his sword in a wide circle, batting a second spider away. More and more appeared around her, crawling on the walls and ceiling, scurrying on the floor. One passed right through her, leaving behind numbing cold.

“Watch out!” she shouted, forgetting he couldn’t hear her. He didn’t even notice her.

He fought, desperately slicing and thrusting his sword. Every time he killed one, its body vanished. She felt so helpless. She wanted to aid him. One leaped and landed on Tomorrow’s back, slamming him to the ground. The abominations swarmed him. Clutching hands seized him. One grabbed his throat, the fingers so long they wrapped around his entire neck, and squeezed.

“No!” she shouted. “You can’t take him! I can’t be alone!”

He saved me! The memory blazed in her mind; the axehead lying dead, slain by him. This has to work!

She swung her blade.

* * *

The spider’s clammy hand squeezed the life out of Rehman.

His vision grew fuzzy and black. He struggled to escape, but other spiders pinned him to the rough cave floor. Spindly hands grasped his arms, his legs, his torso, and his neck. Their grips were iron manacles, crushing him. I knew I’d fail. Why did the sword pick me?

Xella appeared, Felikia’s Blade burning with golden light and arcing swiftly down. It sliced through the demon. Cold ichor spilled across Rehman’s chest. The spider choking him fell dead. She swung again, severing three limbs on another. His sword arm came free. He stabbed and kicked and sliced. With Xella’s aid, he scrambled to his feet.

“I can do this!” he shouted, exhilaration flooding into him. Xella was with him. Together, they could defeat them.

More came skittering across the ceiling and dropped down at him. Rehman swung, parting a bloated body and raining more stinking, purple ichor on him. Xella danced past him, her glowing sword flashing from the past, killing demons in the present.

“Yeah!” he roared, brandishing Bedko’s Blade. “Which one of you spiders wants to get swatted next?”

Nothing moved. He blinked; they were all dead, hacked to pieces. Xella grinned at him, nodding her approval. Then she wavered and vanished. He exhaled, the excitement bleeding off of him. He struggled to wipe the ichor off his face. It tasted foul, bitter, and smelled far worse.

Through death shall history transcend.

The prophecy echoed in his head as he pressed on. “Is that’s what happening, sword? Is the past’s reflection merging with the present’s?”

The sword didn’t answer. It never did.

“You’re no help.”

Past the spider’s lair, the path narrowed, but went straight for a time, until it widened into another huge gallery. Only instead of leading to a cliff, the path skirted along a rock wall, with a huge drop on the right. The path was narrower than his feet were long.

“Well, Xella crossed this. So can I.”

He had to press his back against the rock’s face, sliding his feet sideways, his toes dangling over the lip. A bit of rock broke free, tumbling and echoing loudly as it bounced deeper, and deeper, and deeper until the sounds just faded away. He never heard that final, resounding crash of it hitting the bottom.

“Skies above!” he shivered, and looked up. “This is just like cleaning the temple’s roof, sword. Don’t look over the side and keep focusing on something else. It’s not so bad that way.”

Xella manifested, standing in thin air before him. He blinked as she stopped her leisurely stroll to look at him, a curious expression on her face. How can she float? He looked at her feet. A rocky surface surrounded them, fuzzing into haze after a few fingerswidth.

The ledge he perched on was jagged, crumbling. “The cliff’s edge has collapsed since you walked this path, Xella.”

She watched him, shaking her head, a playful smile on her face as he shuffled along.

“I’m so glad I can amuse you,” he muttered, fear squeezing his heart. “I guess this means you didn’t have to cross this way. Great.”

He shuffled. His foot slipped. His stomach lurched as his right hand tried to grip the wall and his left arm pinwheeled. He teetered over the edge, about to fall forever like the rock.

Xella caught him and shoved Rehman back. Warmth burst through him. She pressed him up against the wall, her body pulsing against his in a steady, rhythmic beat. A heart’s beat. He panted, staring into her dark eyes. Her lips were so close to his. A sudden desire gripped him. He leaned in to kiss her.

She vanished.

* * *

Tomorrow was with her more and more often. She could still feel the lingering warmth of his body when she’d pressed against him. She didn’t understand what had happened, but his foot had vanished through the floor, and it had looked like he was about to fall. She’d reacted and . . . touched him.

She wasn’t alone.

Time had lost any sort of meaning. Did they walk for hours between rests? Or was it days, or weeks, or only minutes? When they grew tired, they would lean against the same wall, just inches and centuries apart. When Xella woke up, he would be watching her, and she couldn’t help smiling winsomely at him. He was always talking, and she wished to hear his voice. She imagined it high-pitched and full of boyish enthusiasm.

The tunnel widened into another room, spikes teething the ceiling. Tomorrow was with her, his sword gripped tight in his hand as he scanned the room. She stood at his back, looking the other way. What sort of horrors dwelled here? And when would they attack?

Nothing came. They moved cautiously across the room, watching and listening. He moved strangely, like he was stepping over something. Fear tightened her stomach. He must be stepping over the corpses of demons that hadn’t yet died for her.

A great, rumbling groan echoed through the room. A strong breath of wind rushed past her. She flinched. Tomorrow didn’t react until he noticed her, then he looked around, bewildered. The groan returned, louder, almost a physical force that rattled her bones.

And it rattled the Tomb.

Xella was thrown off her feet, the ground writhing beneath her, and landed heavily on her side. Her sword slid away, still glowing, and bounced wildly across the floor. Tomorrow stood in shock, staring at her. He didn’t move. The ground heaved and rippled about his feet, yet he stood unaffected. With a splintering crash, a spike fell from the ceiling. It impacted the ground, bursting into rubble and spraying her face with sharp rocks.

“Skies above!” she screamed, and tossed about on the ground.

More spikes crashed down. She rolled onto her back, getting caught in a small crevasse. Above her, a stony fang torqued as even the ceiling shook. Her eyes widened in horror. I need to move! Felikia’s flames, I need to move!

Tomorrow grabbed her. As he hauled her away, a warmth flushed through her. The spike crashed down where she’d lain a heartbeat ago, leaving behind a mound of rubble. Another violent shake bounced her out of his grip and rolled her across the floor. He followed and yanked her clear of another plummeting fang.

It was like he knew where they would fall.

* * *

Xella slipped out of his hands, bounced by the shaking that he could only witness but not experience. She landed amid the ruins of a spike, her body passing right through the rubble. For her, the spike hadn’t fallen.

Yet.

He lunged, grabbed her, and pulled her clear.

Rehman dropped his sword, his other hand seizing her, and he pulled her upright, wrapping his arms around her. She clung to him, her body quaking in his arms as he struggled to hold on to her. She squeezed him tight. Silent screams ripped from her lips.

“I won’t let you go!” he shouted, his words echoing through the quiet cave.

She peered into his eyes. Some of her fear retreated.

“You saved me!” Rehman yelled. “I’ll save you!”

She was grimy, haggard, terrified—and beautiful. He kissed her. Her lips were warm, sweet. The pulsing between them grew faster, matching his racing heart. He’d kissed a girl or two before, but it had not been like this. There had not been this . . . energy. Life flowed between them, driving back the death haunting the Tomb. Her eyes squeezed shut and her tension melted away, banished by—

She was gone. He stumbled forward; arms wrapped around empty air.

* * *

Xella stood transfixed.

Her lips still burned with Tomorrow’s kiss. He’d vanished, but the warmth remained. A giddy, excited energy burst inside her. She’d never been kissed before. Every boy had shunned her when they had learned of her father’s supposed blasphemy.

She twirled in the cave, laughing. There was life in this dark, oppressive prison. And it burned with energy. She tripped on a piece of rubble, stumbled, and blinked. The quaking had stopped while they’d kissed. She strode with a bounce to her step to where the Sword of the Sun lay, glowing with its yellow light.

Tomorrow appeared at the mouth of the cave. He waited for her, smiling like a pleased boy. She blushed; his eyes . . . appreciated her. She joined him, her hand immediately reaching out to touch him. She passed right through him, leaving behind a pleasant tingle. Disappointment stabbed her. She wanted to touch him again, but she’d settle for just being with him.

The quakes grew more frequent. A great snort of wind and a rumble would always precede them. Sometimes it happened to Xella, and sometimes to Tomorrow. Fear would clench her as she watched him stumble and bounce around. She’d try to hold him, to keep him from being crushed by falling spikes or toppling off narrow ledges.

When the quaking struck her time, terror gripped Xella. She’d cling to him, letting Tomorrow protect her. She felt helpless as she was tossed about, and protected when he grabbed her and yanked her to safety.

They were drawing closer, their histories bleeding together more and more. He was almost never gone and even when the Tomb wasn’t shaking, she could sometimes touch him. She would be walking and her hand would brush his and, for a moment, it would feel solid, real . . . Then she’d pass right through him.

A loud wheeze began to suffuse Zarketh’s breathing. They grew ever closer to the god. Whatever she had to do, she was glad Tomorrow was with her. They kept trudging deeper into death. Sometimes, she wondered if she hadn’t actually died the moment she’d stepped into the Tomb. It must have been weeks since she’d eaten or drank anything.

Other demons attacked. Slithering serpents with two heads and no eyes; large insects with thick shells and pincered hands that scurried sideways; furry beasts that walked on their arms and attacked with short, nimble legs. A cavalcade of nightmares.

They defeated them together.

* * *

The path ended at an inky wall of darkness. The sleeping god’s breath rushed past Rehman like a stiff breeze, rustling his clothing and grimy hair. He rubbed his chin. Frowning, he noticed that his face was bare. He should have had a full beard, but not even a whisker had sprouted.

Time didn’t matter down here.

“Well, this is it, Xella,” he whispered.

“It is,” she answered.

He jumped, staring at her, wondering if his ears had deceived him.

“I guess I’ve caught up to tomorrow,” she smiled.

He nodded; his mind went blank and his mouth felt dry.

“What’s your name?” she asked. “I can’t keep calling you Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” he croaked.

She laughed. It was rich, sweet, and did not belong in the Tomb. A shivering quake ran through the ground. They both stumbled, catching a hold of each other. The pulsing warmth was gone, replaced by the feel of actual flesh, stringy muscles, and hard bones.

The shaking stopped. Maybe Zarketh only rolled over.

“It’s Rehman,” he answered.

“I’m . . .”

“Xella,” he answered. “There’s a statue of you in front of the Kurokin.”

She blinked. “A . . . statue?”

“You’re a heroine. You saved the world. Your statue stands at the center of the temple grounds. People sing praises to you every year.”

She mouthed his words, awe widening her dark eyes. “How many tomorrows are you from?”

“Five hundred years.”

“Felikia’s flames,” she muttered. “And I’m famous? Do I get showered with gifts?”

He hesitated. How can I tell her the truth? Neither of us are leaving.

Xella’s face fell. “I don’t return?”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” She forced a smile. “I think we died the moment we entered the Tomb.”

“Then why do I feel so alive right now?”

“Hope? Love? Intangibles that are beyond death?” She shrugged, “I don’t know.”

Love. Rehman wondered if he loved her. She’d come to mean everything to him, but what else did he have to cling to in this Tomb? She smiled at him; that made his heart beat faster. She leaned in and gave him a simple kiss on the lips.

“It’s time,” she whispered; the heat of her lips lingering on his.

He nodded, facing the darkness. They would have to pass through it. He could do it; Xella was with him.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she whispered. “It’s great not to be alone.”

She took his hand, so alive, and they stepped into darkness and death.

* * *

Cold plunged through Xella. The only warmth was Rehman’s hand clutching hers. Light exploded, gold and silver, pushing back the darkness and the cold. Their swords shone so bright, almost blinding. Hers with all the fierceness of the sun, his with all the gentleness of the moon. Rehman squeezed her hand.

She squeezed back.

Their light formed a bubble against the darkness that pressed against them from all sides. Every time Zarketh exhaled, his breath slammed against their light, trying to snuff them out. Xella held her blade up, willing it to shine brighter. She finally had someone, and she would fight to be with Rehman for as long as possible. Maybe they would die down here, but she wanted to savor every heartbeat of his presence she could. She poured her emotions into the sword: the joy of his companionship, the hope for the world above, and the love she’d discovered in the darkest pits.

“I am the world’s love!” she shouted at Zarketh’s oppression.

The darkness recoiled.

“The world’s hope!” Rehman roared.

Their light exploded out, banishing the sea of ink. It withdrew like a receding flood, leaving behind slimy, black rocks and spikes jutting across the broken ground. They stood in a wide cavern. Zarketh’s breath washed over them, and the ground shook with a rhythmic pounding, a pulse vibrating through her bones.

Ahead, darkness glowed black.

“Bedko’s water!” Rehman gasped. “What is that?”

Xella did not have the words to describe it. A black light pulsed ahead in time to the vibrations rippling through the ground. It was the darkest, blackest thing she’d ever seen. And yet it shone with some sort of . . . unlight. Her mind grappled with it, twisting about as she struggled to comprehend it. She was like a blind person being described the color blue.

This dark light was beyond her imagination.

VERMIN

The word groaned through the ground. She didn’t so much as hear the single word as feel it vibrating through her bones. A deep, black malevolence filled the grating vibration, chilling Xella’s blood. A god spoke to her.

SCRATCHING CLAWING DIGGING

Demons skittered out of holes in the ground, loped past spikes, or crawled across the ceiling. Axeheads, spiders, two-headed snakes. All the demons they’d fought. All the deformed and twisted mockeries of the life who dwelled free beneath the skies.

WHY DO YOU DWELL ABOVE UNGRATEFUL DISGUSTING VERMIN

“Run!” Rehman shouted. “We can’t fight this many!”

They ran to the pulsing, unlight, blades slashing and felling any abhorrent demons that threw themselves into their path. The cavern quaked, spikes dropped from the ceiling, cracks split across the cavern’s floor. They scrambled, leaped, stumbled, and kept running.

The unlight grew brighter as they neared. A massive, stone heart beat upon the cavern floor, grinding as it contracted and expelled the god’s breath. The beating stone was manacled to the ground by slimy ligaments of rotting, dead flesh.

VERMIN FREE TO SCURRY BENEATH The ENDLESS BLUE

HATE

“Free?” Xella whispered. “Skies above.”

Pity stirred in Xella’s heart. Zarketh was trapped beneath the rocks, buried in this tomb. All that weight of all that earth above crushing down, oppressing him. Imprisoning him. He hates us because we’re free. Humans roam beneath the sky. Beneath his wife.

KILL YOU ALL

BURY YOU BENEATH MOUNTAINS

OPEN UP THE GROUND AND SWALLOW YOU

HATE VERMIN HATE

Xella and Rehman reached the beating rock, the heart of a dying god. Demons raced towards them, mere moments from tearing them limb from limb. She wanted to do something for the suffering god, but what could she do? All she had was a sword and no time to think of anything else, to do anything else.

“I’m sorry,” Xella whispered to the suffering god. “But we have no choice.” He had to die. I can’t let those ungrateful bastards be destroyed.

Together they raised their swords and stabbed.

* * *

The demons raced in from every direction. Rehman raised the Sword of the Moon as Xella raised the Sword of the Sun, tips pointing down at the beating, black rock. This is how we die. Saving the world. He stabbed. His sword sank into the stone as if it was water.

Light exploded around him: silver, gold, black.

He reached for Xella, grasped her hand as the world folded. Everything became . . . more. Geometries Rehman did not even have the words to begin to describe filled his universe. Things bent, folded, or twisted into impossible shapes. He felt stretched, compressed, inflated. Everything merged, becoming a single point of existence, and yet everything also expanded, filling every fingerwidth of creation.

They were everywhere and nowhere.

Then Rehman bounced back into being, stumbling and falling onto his backside amid soft, wonderful, and so very alive grass. It was dark, a soft twilight bathing the world with a blue glow. Xella laughed beside him, stretched out on her back, luxuriating in the fragrant grass. Above, a black disk hung in the sky, ringed by blue fire.

“What is that?” Xella whispered.

Rehman recognized it. “A joining,” he answered. “Felikia’s Sun and Bedko’s Moon merging together.”

Daylight exploded as the moon and sun separated.

Before them lay Zarketh’s beating heart. Rehman’s eyes widened. No, it was the Kurokin with both blades embedded into it. He stood up, looking around carefully. Everything looked . . . familiar. The land had almost the same general features of the temple grounds, only more pronounced, unaffected by human will. There was the rise that Bedko’s temple would one day sit upon, and there was the slope that would lead down to the market and his parent’s dry goods store.

The wind gusted. Heljina’s beautiful song chorused on the breeze, filling Rehman up with its perfect harmony. Xella laughed and stood facing the wind, letting it blow her grimy, bedraggled hair.

“She’s happy!” Xella shouted. “Can’t you feel it? We reunited them.”

“What?” Rehman asked, confused. “Who?”

“Heljina! The Kurokin is Zarketh’s heart. We didn’t kill the god, we set him free!” Her smile almost glowed. It was infectious.

Rehman walked to the holy stone, staring at it. In his mind, he pictured it beating furiously, swelling here, contracting there. He touched it, and felt the blue stone’s warmth and its rhythm of gentle pulses—a god at peace. He and Xella had traveled into the past, stopping Zarketh before his depression could doom the world in the future. One day, maybe five hundred years from now, Xella would draw her sword and then he’d draw his, and they’d do it all over again. And again.

His brain hurt just thinking about it.

Xella threw her arms around him and kissed him. That helped to stop his mind from aching.

“What do we do now?” he asked her after their lips parted. He enjoyed the feel of her warmth in his arms, her life.

“Whatever we want. We passed through death. We’re free, Rehman.”

Free. He mouthed the words, savoring them. “Have you ever wondered what’s over those mountains?”

She grinned. “Let’s find out.”

The END

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The Assassin Remorse takes place in my Jewel Machine Universe!

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To save the skies, Ary must die!

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New Release: The Assassin’s Remorse

The Assassin’s Remorse

by J.M.D. Reid

 

I am proud to say I’ve published my first short story on Amazon! The Assassin’s Remorse is a tale close to my heart, drawing close to some of my personal beliefs. You can buy the Assassin’s Remorse from Amazon, Amazon UK, Amazon CA, and Amazon AU for $0.99. And for those who have subscribed to Kindle Unlimited, you can read it for free!

TheAssassinsRemorse2“What had she tried to say to him at the end?”

Cerena’s face transformed in the last moment’s of her life, the fear fleeing, and a strange, calm serenity overtook her. Her lips moved, whispering three words.

The Assassin was forever changed.

A decade of blood stained his hands. None of his victims had ever weighed down his conscience. He was merely the tool, the living weapon wielded by his employers. His victims had begged for their lives, had cursed him with their dying breath, and stared in uncomprehending disbelief.

But none had ever been calm in their final moments. None had ever stared up at him with such serenity.

Cerena’s blue eyes and her final words haunted the Assassin. Three simple words plunged his soul into torment.

Could a heart that had long been dead and desiccated beat with remorse? Can the Assassin survive against the crushing weight of his crimes?

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