Worlds Apart – 02

■ My submissions  

■ Partner’s submissions


Continued from Worlds Apart – 01

To hear that the journey was such a great distance brought about a mulish kind of resistance in her, the same unwillingness she felt when first presented with the idea of visiting Ronah. Parting with her home in its fragile acceptance of new rule made her fearful of what might come of it in her absence. Without their cruel monarch at the helm to guide his powerful forces, it was a prime opportunity for rebellion or some other play to tip the scales in the favor of the people. But, not for one second did she believe that the Conqueror would leave his seat so woefully vacant that defenses would be compromised. There was no way to know what devices compensated for his leave, and for that reason she was wary and uneasy. At the same time, the promise of intervention made her hopeful. Alora only wished she understood what was in store for her, whether salvation would come in the form of a well-planned rescue or more active involvement. Waiting was a small torture she was forced to endure . . .

“Well, we won’t argue with measures for safety.” Natalia chimed, a broad, beaming smile fixed to her lips when the King concluded his explanation of their traveling arrangements. It seemed that she was content to be close, even if she would not be cozy at his side. The events of the evening had fueled her with a palpable confidence, so much that it rivaled the very sun. By design it obscured the Princess, casting a shadow over her while she contentedly went about eating her meal, refusing to allow her to become a threat to her obvious favor. 

The King excused himself not long after finishing his breakfast, and Lady Leone rose courteously to bow. Alora did the same, albeit more slowly. She had grown accustomed to flagrantly disregarding formalities and etiquette to spite him, but the charade for Lady Leone’s sake had to be upheld. The more distance from the Conqueror the better, making Leviatha’s offering the perfect distraction to avoid his attention. Still, it was not a completely orchestrated arrangement. When Natalia was not vying for affection, she was surprisingly decent company. As they sipped tea, conversation flowed naturally and laughter was frequent. If it weren’t for punctual servants ushering them off to prepare to depart, they would have remained comfortable in their seats until lunch was being served. 

The yard was bustling, full of dutiful soldiers and attendants rushing about with crates, trunks, and barrels to load into strange carriages. She recognized them. They were not the horse drawn wagons she knew, but the indestructible, metallic beasts that forced their way into the kingdom. Apprehension nearly seized her entire being, rendering her still and motionless. Instead she slowed, anxiousness filling green hues as her stride lessened. Flanked by escorts, she was aware of how they adjusted their steps as well, careful not to make the mistake of walking ahead of her. 

“A marvel, isn’t it?” Natalia whispered low, but her enthusiasm was loud. 

How could she know what awful things the contraptions before them were capable of? She had not seen them violently spit deadly projectiles that shredded through stone and brick, or heard their deafening blasts. The mere thought made her heart pound so intensely that she could feel the pulsations in her neck and in her fingertips. Despite how she paled, Alora managed to nod in feigned agreement while she proceeded to spiral further. It was like a serpent had coiled around her chest, squeezing and constricting. Every breath felt too shallow to fill her lungs, the air too thin. By the time they reached the thrumming machine, she felt as though she were outside of her own body, a phantom of herself as she climbed the steps and moved down the narrow aisle. Alora was grateful for whatever defense mechanism directed her, steering her one foot in front of the other to find the inside of a private cabin. 

There, after the door slid shut behind her, she felt her own weight. A heaviness brought her down to the chair in the corner. As soon as she was seated the room began to spin. Alora became acutely aware of the sound of her own breath, the confines of the walls around her, and the gradual movement that carried them forth on their path. The urge to escape was all-consuming, an imperative she had to pursue. The Princess pushed herself up quickly, a faintness making her sway on her feet as she reached for the handle of the door– which wasn’t at all intuitive at first. After a series of wrong moves with trembling hands, tugging and pushing, she finally opened it.

There was no one in the elongated hall, no attendant at the ready to be at her beck and call. In her panic, she turned to the nearest door, knocking incessantly until a voice responded. Alora pushed her way inside, eyes falling on the King. Of all the doors . . . 

“We have to stop– I . . . I need to get out.” She announced around the lump in her throat, making her voice slight and wavering. “I can’t be in here– I need air.” Frantic and fearful eyes darted about, searching for a way out. The slightest movement caused her stomach to lurch. “ . . . Gods, I’m going to be ill.” She muttered as a fusion of dizziness and nausea overcame her. Leaning against the frame of the door she pressed a hand to her clammy head.

Xårełlęi at first lifted an eyebrow in response to Alora’s insistence through his chamber door, but her pale cheeks lit a spark of recognition and prompted him to action. Guiding her by the waist with his strength at the ready, the Princess was situated on the edge of his bed before she could possibly fall limp. He then knelt on his haunches in front of her, meeting her with level eyes as his height compensated for his bed’s elevated perch.

“Deep breaths, my dear,” Xårełlęi said as he demonstrated with his own, while his hands gestured the appropriate rhythm. “In… … and out. In… … and out.”

While Alora continued to collect herself, Xårełlęi tended to the air… condenser? Conditioner? Correcter?He couldn’t exactly recall what his engineers had labeled the device, but he knew his way around its dials and levers. Almost immediately, following the sound of a rumbling click, the heavy air of his chamber began to thin and cool.

The soundproof walls did well enough to muffle the sound of the engine’s pistons, but a lurch was felt below the king’s feet, indicating the departure of the flagship Steambreather.

Poor thing, the king thought as he prepared himself for potential requests from the Princess. His own experiences varied… from that bizarre, awful sensation of slipping forward, to his sense of balance being grotesquely tilted, to the overwhelming belief that the world was near its end…

“My physician calls them panic attacks,” Xårełlęi said aloud, as if to address an unasked question. “I suppose that rolls off the tongue a bit more elegantly than what my mother used to call them… terror tantrums.” Xårełlęi smirked softly as he recalled some distant memory from his childhood.

“She said that they ran within my bloodline, though her own episodes began after my father died, when I was just a little boy. My first ‘attack’ occurred as a young man, when a maiden placed her hand on my leg. We were alone in my quarters and… well… thinking back, I wasn’t ready.”

A thin film of condensation had coated the helmet of his armor, which stood like a watchful guardian upon a full-bodied mannequin. Absentmindedly, Xårełlęi drew his official signature, a glyph-like Xa with swift strokes of his finger, before allowing himself a brief sigh.

“I am the worst with women, I suppose.” He tried a smile towards Alora, expecting none in return.

“At any rate,” Xårełlęi said after clearing his throat, “I realize now that this voyage may be rather difficult for you. I’ll schedule a few stops with my captain so that you may have opportunities for air outside. I will also pull the platoon’s medic from horseback and station him in the empty cabin beside yours, so that he may assist you when necessary.”

The king then motioned towards the ceiling, where a wide, round skylight streamed a cylindrical beam of light onto his bed. “I’ve found that looking up to the sky helps as well. Should you decide to give that a try, don’t hesitate to pay me another visit. I’ll happily excuse myself and leave you in peace to steady yourself.”

The King waited on Alora for as long as she needed, then saw her out when she was ready. “You’ll make it,” he said encouragingly, and floated one last smile towards the Princess before gently shutting his door behind her.

“Remember, dear Alora… in… … and out,” Xårełlęi called through his chamber walls.

The evening came and went within the confines of the Steambreather, and Xårełlęi arranged to retire early. His candlelit reading was surprisingly interrupted by another knock at his door. A cloudless night peered through the skylight as he lifted himself from his armchair with a crack of his knees to answer his caller.

“My apologies, sir,” came the hesitant explanation of Colonel Blankenship, a slender, sturdy-looking man with a thin beard, gray eyes and spectacles. “But she insisted.”

“She?” Xårełlęi asked, expecting another frantic visit from Alora, but was instead greeted with the presence of Lady Natalia, revealed to him after the Colonel stepped aside.

“Ah yes,” Xårełlęi acknowledged. “She is certainly welcome to spend a night with me. Against the recommendation of Rolander, perhaps, but I certainly don’t see the harm with a night beside trusted company.”

Colonel Blankenship saluted his confirmation before allowing Natalia forward with extended arms. “Thank you,” she said with a slight nod before stepping inside the king’s cabin. Xårełlęi dismissed his colonel with a salute of his own before pulling himself away for the night.

Xårełlęi ‘s eyes settled upon Natalia, now making herself at home. She was wearing négligée that clung around her waist, with visible undergarments teasing their succulent wares. Without saying a word, Natalia spun around slowly, as if to showcase herself to a potential bidder. She then halted in place with a sultry smile and basked within her king’s longing gaze.

“My dear Natalia,” Xårełlęi mused with airy recollection, “you once offered yourself to me with a promise that I could enjoy you any way I pleased.”

Any way you please,” Natalia nodded intently, her voice an irresistible purr.

Xårełlęi pulled a welcome smile. “Good. I will hold you to that.” He then invited her with a gesture towards his bed. “Please undress and lay on your back,” he instructed. Natalia did as she was told without delay, and her thighs parted slightly in anticipation.

Xårełlęi moved to lay beside her, still wearing his nightly attire. His hand found their way to the nub between her legs and began to caress it with fluttery strokes. Squeaks and moans accompanied Natalia’s squirming legs, lifting and twisting as she rode the surf of sensation. Once the tide of ecstasy began its approach, Xårełlęi’s hand abruptly halted in place. Natalia’s ragged breath caught within her throat as her eyes opened in surprise, turning towards her king for explanation.

“You mustn’t,” Xårełlęi demanded, his voice firm, though still a whisper.

I mustn’t..?” The question was lifted above a desperate, fevered haze.

The smile on Xårełlęi’s face seemed to carry with it a stern warning. Natalia’s lips parted for further inquiry, but they were stilled with the placement of Xårełlęi’s index finger.

“Not with me. Not by yourself. Not ever.” His voice was still a coo, but there was a strange iciness to it… a tinge of seriousness that couldn’t be ignored.

“Fight against it with all your might,” Xårełlęi continued. “For if you succumb… if you ever succumb… you and your kingdom shall be severely punished.”

There was enough emphasis in his words to convey the intended gravity. Natalia’s eyes widened with a grim recognition, and a tremor quaked across her thighs.

Xårełlęi continued to roam and play, his mischievous fingertips slick with purpose, tickling and teasing. Natalia teetered on the agonizing edge of ecstasy for an hour or more, biting her lip, panting her pleas. Her moans rose and fell like aching waves denied their foamy crest.

Finally, inevitably, Xårełlęi surrendered to his pulsing urges. He withdrew his hand to yank his pants to his knees and rolled onto Natalia, sliding himself inside her with a fervent thrust. He lasted but a few moments before groaning his spasmic delight against her ear.

Not ever, he reminded Natalia once his blissful fog had lifted, wet lips against her earlobe. The finality was as potent as the threads of seed now deep within her.

That night, as Natalia shuddered and whimpered beside him, Xårełlęi enjoyed his best sleep in years.

The journey to Ronah proved itself uneventful. There were the scheduled stops in which Xårełlęi partook, indulging in brief excursions towards the nearby Shanthora river to fish and bathe. Daily meals were had in a rather cramped dining room towards the head of the, though the food was exquisitely prepared by a master chef who gathered exotic ingredients from the flanking forest.

Lady Natalia was as chatty and affable as always, but a closer examination might have revealed her flirtations to be a bit more… subdued. She still visited the king in his quarters on a nightly basis, but the soft reluctance was certainly noticeable to prying eyes. One particular evening was punctuated by her frenzied cries, possibly heard through the reinforced chamber walls.

Please, my king… I swear it… I swear to the Gods I didn’t!..”


Scattered remnants of loggers within the woodland’s edge offered the first hints of Ronah’s approach. The sight of a distant moat pushed the horseback solders ahead to secure the drawbridge and ready it for the arrival of the rumbling Steambreather. In the end it proved an adequate platform, though the creaks and moans of weathered planks caused a bit of sweat-trickled uncertainty upon watchful brows.

From there, the Steambreather made its grand entrance through the main road of Ronah’s broad municipality. Townsfolk, mostly fisherman, gathered at the road’s edge to watch the mechanical beast rumble past, made of what looked to be wood but most certainly wasn’t… its chassis was made of something beyond wood. Beyond anything they had seen in their lives, quite honestly. The chatter was prevalent, with points of fingers and stares of disbelieving eyes. Occasionally, an unwitting spectator stepped too close and would be yanked back by a roaming horseback soldier yelling a stern warning.

Onyx road led past the town and carved through a grassy plain like a part of hair. The sight of Ronah castle pulled over the horizon, with another residential crest built around its edge, presumable housing for dignitaries and soldiers. Finally, they would approach a smaller moat, bridged by a thin piece of land, where the first contact with Ronah’s kingsguard was made. A platoon’s worth had assembled to greet them, directing instructions towards the horses that weaved and trotted around their giant, wheeled host. The Steambreather grumbled to a stop, and its silence announced a journey’s end.


Chancellor Onyx had obviously been anticipating the arrival of his guests. His revelation came not long after Xårełlęi and his escorts had disembarked and savored the almost forgotten feeling of soft earth below their feet. He was a bald, pale man of average height with a noticeable belly peeking through his dragging, jet black robe… a stark sight against the green of a nearby tree, whose leaves had grown warm with the evening’s arrival.

An escort of four female servants stood silently behind him, hands clasped just below their waists. They too wore black attire that resembled bell-shaped voids against the light of day, with exotic hairstyles and thick, vibrant colors of eyeliner being the only distinguishing features between them.

“Welcome… welcome, dear king!” The Chancellor’s arms were opened wide as he approached Xårełlęi. Their embrace was brief before the king stepped back and offered a salute, prompting the enthusiastic Chancellor to do the same.

The Chancellor’s gaze wandered briefly and settled on the pair of Alora and Natalia, pulling an even broader smile on his face before turning his attention once again to the king.

“Come inside, come… ! Let us chat! We have much to discuss!” Onyx’s gregarious wave beckoned Xårełlęi’s party through the series of archways that led into the castle.

The exterior appearance of Ronah castle was not unlike the castle of Ŝhanthah, with its block foundation and selective greenery. Inside Ronah’s royal hall, however, the differences were almost appalling. On either side of the grand foyer were tall statues of mythical beasts, perched upon ribbed columns with scathing, downward glares. There were stained glass windows with muted colors, illustrating scenes of slaughter and mayhem with the occasional Ronah emblem situated above.

A statue of a lunging huntress, or perhaps a demoness floated overhead, suspended by thick wires… casting harsh, angular shadows over Ronah’s throne. Both her muscular arms were extended with daggers in hand, and fangs jutted from the bottom of her mouth, clasping a tree branch with batches of leaves on either side. Her skin was the texture of leather, and thin plates of armor protected her core and thighs.

Onyx sat himself upon the throne with a graceless plop before resting his hands upon his knees, looking like an attentive uncle to the guests that stood before him. Looking closely upon Onyx’s robe, one could see a skull pattern that glittered like mica against the orange glow of the wall lanterns. There was also the peculiar realization that the Chancellor wasn’t exactly pale… he was simply wearing makeup.

Between the pair of rulers, even with Onyx upon his royal seat, Xårełlęi seemed the more imposing, standing broad and tall in his suit of armor with his hands tucked behind his back. Their eyesights were level despite the shallow staircase upon which the throne was situated. A cursory glance of the strange statues preceded Xårełlęi’s first words within Ronah’s striking hallway.

“Well, it looks like you’ve made yourself quite at home,” he remarked with a brisk laugh. “I wasn’t expecting such… interesting decor when you were ordained to preside over Ronah’s territories.”

“Oh dear,” Chancellor Onyx said through a genuine look of concern. “Does my particular choice of aesthetic disturb you, my king?”

“No, no,” Xårełlęi said reassuringly. “Just a surprise, is all. I’m sure its charm will win me over in time.” A polite smile followed.

Onyx returned the smile. “Very good. I do realize my tastes may be… jarring to some.” He seemed to settle upon his throne, and crossed his legs casually.

“You’re of course welcome to stay in Ronah for as long as you please. I received word that your visit carries with it a purpose towards some sort of… public awareness campaign?”

“As a matter of fact,” Xårełlęi confirmed, “I was hoping that you could help me to arrange something along those lines.”

“Oh? And what might that be?” Onyx leaned forward in his throne with interest.

“Well, I haven’t ironed out the particulars in my mind, but… a Grand Council,” Xårełlęi explained as he thought aloud. “Open to anyone with can attend. Ronah has clearly seen major benefits with its quality of life since my arrival. Those with testimonies can come forward and detail just how their lives has improved to an audience ready and willing to scrutinize.”

Onyx mulled on the idea for a long moment. “There will very likely be dissenting opinions as well…” he remarked with an air of caution.

“Oh, I anticipate those, most certainly. But I am rigidly certain that they will be drowned out by those who would speak otherwise.”

Onyx continued to dwell on the proposal as Xårełlęi plucked at the ideas swimming in his mind.

“Questions can be asked without fear of consequence. Concerns can be put to rest. Transition is often difficult and unsettling, but a chorus of confidence and positivity will help to solidify Ronah under my rule, and place my conquest within the proper perspective.

“And also,” Xårełlęi concluded, “their testimonies can be transcribed and transmitted across a variety of mediums, and possibly put at ease the kingdoms yet to be graced underneath my benevolent umbrella.”

“Yes… yes, of course…” Onyx’s enthusiasm seemed to blossom the more he heard from Xårełlęi, and before long he gleefully clapped his hands together.

“Food and festivities would add to its appeal,” Onyx offered for consideration. “Merchants selling their wares, perhaps with discounts, made whole by Ronah’s treasury. Musicians and other forms of entertainment could be available as well–“

“In moderation,” Xårełlęi advised with a lift of his finger. “We wouldn’t want to undermine the primary purpose of the gathering.”

“Certainly, without question. Will you be attending?” Onyx asked with curiosity.

“Center stage,” Xårełlęi answered with a smile.

“Very good,” Onyx declared with satisfaction. “We will schedule the Grand Council for the upcoming day of rest, and begin arrangements immediately. Does that suit you, my king?”

“Yes indeed,” Xårełlęi said with a childlike whimsy.

“Excellent. In the meantime, make yourselves at home in Ronah. You are invited to join my dignitaries for dinner at the royal dining hall if you wish. If you’d rather rest this evening, my loyal servants will tend to any and all of your needs.”

“Your generosity is greatly appreciated,” Xårełlęi said with a slight bow. “I believe my escorts and I will see ourselves to our rooms, and determine from there what our evening plans will be.”

With that, Onyx stood to bow his dismissal, and the king returned the favor.

Somewhere on the outskirts of Ronah’s township, two cloaked figures met against the trunk of a large rooska tree, lit only by slivers of moonlight through the curtains of leafy shadows above.

There was a brief exchange of acknowledgment before the taller of the pair would speak.

“Xårełlęi is a problem,” a male voice stated, rich and baritone.

“Indeed he is.” The other voice was distinctly feminine but exuded leadership. “Shall we kill him?”

There was a moment of consideration. “No… we’ll postpone that particular solution. His entourage is immensely loyal, so there is not much to gain politically.”

The cloaked woman nodded, and reached into a pocket to pull out a sealed letter.

“Very well. In the meantime, hand this to the appropriate parties to move forward with our original plan. And please… for the sake of the Gods, have them burn it in your presence once they’ve memorized their instructions.”

“Of course.” The tall, deep-voiced man pocketed the letter securely within his cloak. With that brief exchange, the pair parted as quickly as they had gathered.

On the envelope, pressed into the wax seal, was the stamp of the Onyx.

Compliant as he took her arm, she allowed him to lead her away from the frame of the door that caught her while she battled lightheadedness. A swift rescue migrated her to the bed where she was safe from the danger of a nasty fall. Though the world spun like a topsy-turvy carousel her focus was trained on the Conqueror, still in her sights while all else was blurred and amorphous. Her dilated gaze met his intently while she struggled to mimic the rhythm of the deep, slow breaths he drew. A tight chest made her lungs feel small, full before they could expand to their potential and empty too soon, but persistent efforts gradually granted her some relief. Rapid and shallow breaths became more even, without the tremors of a strangled throat. With every inhale and exhale she felt herself calm, relief from the constriction of fear and dread bringing clarity to irrational thoughts. Her life was not in danger, nor was she at risk of harm within the confines of the metal beast. With that realization her body relaxed, hands and heart steadying little by little. 

As Xarellei rose to tinker with the strange devices within the cabin, she began to feel silly, like a child who had conjured a monster the image of a monster beneath their bed. Embarrassment brought some color to a once pallid complexion, a soft rose hue tinting her cheeks while she began to wonder what came over her. Light was shed on her sudden ailment when he spoke next, referring to the abrupt sickness as a “panic attack.” It was, indeed, a fitting name. While he filled in the silence with talk of his history with the condition, she was eased by the cool circulation that finally reached her, soothing her skin with cold caresses. 

Despite his hopeless assumption, she found her lips curling into a soft smile. Its natural brilliance was suppressed by fatigue, making it appear somewhat half-hearted but it was more genuine than she intended. Appreciation for his care and consideration made it easier to accept his gestures, preventing her from mischaracterizing sincerity for attempts at manipulation. Rather than a wall of cold indifference, there was some warmth as he offered her generous accommodation for the journey. Alora ignored the urge to reject comfort and protest to thoughtful measures, deciding to take advantage of them for her own sake throughout the journey. 

“Thank you . . .” She said, a ring of honest gratefulness in her tone as he allowed her the room. Further collecting herself, she reflected on his kindness– not solely isolated to the sudden onset of her panic. He had been insistent on her compliance, forcing her to be company at painfully quiet meals and into his bed in hopes of her affection, she supposed. Alora always colored his motivations with dark intent, but as reluctant as she was to admit, there was some decency in him. While she wouldn’t go as far as to applaud him for possessing basic morals, the belief that he was completely without them was becoming more and more difficult to hold onto. 

The Princess took a few moments to compose herself before she stood, testing her balance and stability with cautious steps forward. Upon reaching the door, she peered out into the hall, the Conqueror waiting there as promised.

“My gratitude once again, Your Highness.” Alora offered him her best bow in the narrow space. “I did not mean to intrude and burden you with my condition, but I am glad for your assistance . . . I’ll take more rest in my chambers.” The hard edges of her demeanor that were often so prickly were softer now as she addressed him. She excused herself, traveling the short distance from his door to her own to seek the comfort of her own bed. 

The coming days were easier. She was used to the cadence of hooves, hearing their footfalls thudding and clacking against the earth to pull along carriages and caravans. Uneven paths jostled even the sturdiest of cars made by the finest craftsmen, but the armored vehicle they traveled in was a steadier ride. The hum of its mechanics faded into the background eventually, and the smooth, continuous roll was less noticeable. A spacious interior granted more comfort and mobility, affording its occupants the luxury of small amenities. Even she had to acknowledge the benefits of conveniences that allowed them to enjoy hot meals and a restful night’s sleep, warmth and protection from the elements. Still, she was wary of it, an unhealthy caution occasionally fueling smaller episodes of panic she did well to contain. It helped to keep her mind off of weapons and the immense bloodshed they could cause. 

The Princess found escape and distraction in books, and kept her hands busy with the finer details of embroidery projects. On stops to maintain their metal monstrosities, she explored the lush, green forests under the careful watch of soldiers, gathering flowers to press or simply to brighten her room. When not off on her own in silent alcoves, she enjoyed tea and conversation with Lady Natalia, who was lackluster at times. Her usual vibrance seemed to depend on the day, as did her patience. Like a string wound too tight, even the slightest inconvenience made her liable to snap. Alora assumed that the trip was taking its toll on her, the wonderment of the marvels she admired no longer sparkling as they once did. Her interest was fleeting and fickle when it came to their activities, poetry, stories, and puzzles unable to stimulate her mind or hold her attention. Even her pursuit of the King had less enthusiasm, though she attributed that to security. With no competition, there was little reason to flaunt her affection or favor . . . Or, so she thought. 

Alora was awake, her back resting against the headboard of her bed with a book in her lap while she waited for the pull of slumber. The nights were often quiet save for the persistent purr of their mechanical carriage, but muffled sounds disturbed the silence. It was not the casual carry of voices in conversation, the distress too prominent to dismiss. She pushed herself up, undoing the latch of her lock to slide the door open. Her ears were greeted not by distress, though it was easy to mistake the cries of pleasure for torment. Had Lady Natalia not been so eager to please, she might have suspected something more nefarious, perhaps intervened in feigned curiosity and concern to spare her whatever cruel torture she endured. Instead, she stepped back into her room, away from the impassioned pleas so that her door could reduce them to faint, indiscernible noise. 

At breakfast the Lady of Leviatha appeared tired, despite a pleasant smile concealing tension so taut it was thin as a web.

Stepping off the metal beast and onto Ronah’s land, she took in the kingdom. It wasn’t unlike any other thriving territory at first glance. Alora expected something otherworldly, more unknown materials and gadgetry indicative of King Xarellei’s mark. Of course, she was not disappointed. In fact, it was somewhat of a relief that he did not see fit to transform it into something completely unfamiliar. She hoped it would make all that she came to know more digestible, just as it had with the dark, robed individuals that welcomed them enthusiastically– none more eager than the Chancellor to express just how pleased he was to host their visit. If the rulers and people of Ronah had ever been opposed to their new leadership, there were no traces of hidden animosity that she could tell as he waved them along, leading them into the castle.

The exterior was well-maintained but unfussy, while the interior was nothing short of gaudy. Alora did well to mask her repulsion for awe as they passed garish works of art– if one could call them that– and tasteless sculptures. Depictions of battle were a prominent theme in the halls of the castle, one more bloody and disturbing than the next. It was a wonder how anyone could consider it a home when surrounded with such unsettling imagery. Though she realized culture varied from kingdom to kingdom, it was difficult to tell how much of the decor was peacockery and intimidation, the ostentatious appearance of fearsomeness for the sake of theater. As she stood alongside Lady Natalia in the grand hall, staring upon perhaps the most curious of displays. While the men spoke, she wondered if there was a story behind the suspended demon warrior, or if there was any symbolism in her pose or the tree she was fixed to. 

Alora only managed to tear her gaze away from the peculiar fixture upon hearing that there would be a Grand Council, a meeting of inquiry with festivities intertwined. She did not miss the twinkle in the Chancellor’s eyes as he seemed to dream up more hideous decor to horrify his guests with. He was clearly a man who knew nothing of the moderation Xarellei spoke of, but it was decided; an event for testimony to validate claims of prosperity. 

“It is, quite possibly, the most awful thing I have ever seen,” Lady Natalia whispered. The door to The Princess’ temporary quarters were closed, but they were both careful to mind their voices as there was always the possibility that prying ears might catch their words floating on the air. 

“Indeed, it is.” Alora nodded, staring at a small but unsightly statue by the hearth. In the dark, but opulent room, it was not out of place. Among the thick, black bedding with silver embellishment woven into overly intricate patterns, and ornate furniture painstakingly carved to elaborate perfection, the gargoyle perched by the mantle was an appropriate touch. It matched the abstract paintings of a smoky abyss, where faces in anguish could be made out upon closer inspection.
“If it is any consolation, my chambers are no better.” She offered, suppressing an amused smile while she stroked the ends of her rich, brown hair. 

“Well, you need not worry about your own chambers. I’m sure you’ll spend very little time there.” The Princess quipped, a subdued smile of her own hanging on her lips before she caught a flicker of something flit across her features. “My apologies. That was in poor taste. I didn’t mean to imply–”

“It’s not that. It’s . . .” Apprehension or caution made her pause, an internal struggle causing her to think better of divulging the intimate details of her time with the King. “It’s nothing. I should be getting to bed. My own bed, I’ll have you know.” Lady Natalia gave her a playful swat. “I have been overwhelmed by all of this.” Her hands gave a vague gesture to their surroundings as the warmth of her smile returned. 

“I am as well.” Alora laughed softly, conceding if only to spare her trouble. “Good night.” She bid her farewell for the evening, watching as she traversed the broad hall to room across from her own. Hopeful that she was not ignoring anything cruel, she closed the door after a lingering stare of concern. The Princess tugged at the sash about her petite waist, letting the tie come undone so that she could shrug the evergreen velvet from her form. Though she thought to hang it over the ghastly gargoyle, she decided against it. If ash should leap from the crackling fire it could see to it that her room went up in flames. As she slipped between the blankets and rested her crown of blonde tresses on the pillow, she smiled at the idea that it might not be so bad if the ugly chambers burned. 

The hour was late. All the candlelight had dwindled and the scent of their burn had dissipated. Even the fire was nothing but glowing embers and coals, their hot radiance the only source of light that remained. Alora had gotten used to sleeping with the whitenoise of an engine, and every sound seemed to pluck at the strings of her consciousness; footsteps outside her door from patrolling guards, the shuffle of servants, and the breaths of an old castle settling. She was able to ease into the embrace of sleep easily enough, but a more deliberate noise made her open her eyes. 

“Princess . . .”

She thought she dreamed it at first. As she pushed herself up, bright orbs scanning the darkness that clung to the deep recesses of the room, she waited. Minutes passed before she nearly convinced herself that a wild imagination had invented false whispers that called to her. But, another breath beckoned her, sending a chill rippling down her spine. 

“Princess . . .”

It was her first instinct to hurry to the door, summon the guards to come to her defense. As soon as her foot came down upon the floor, she hesitated. 

”Do not fear. We are here to help you.” The words were so faint she did trust that she heard it right. Though all her good sense urged her to dismiss the disembodied voice, she stilled. In the silence she tried to pinpoint its origin, and when it spoke to her again she was certain . . . It was coming from the statue. 

”Do not fear. We are here to help you.” It repeated, the even inflection of its tone unchanging from the first utterance to the last. 

Alora left the warmth of her bed, slowly gravitating toward the mantle where it rested. She felt foolish contemplating her response to an inanimate object, but from what she gathered it was, indeed, designed for communication. It’s open mouth, between rows of sharpened fangs, was a small opening at the back of its throat; tiny perforations that allowed sound to travel through it. 

“ . . . How?” She asked finally, her voice so low she wasn’t certain if her message managed to flow through. The long stretch of silence made her wonder if she should repeat herself. 

”Burn it, behind the frame.” It said, cryptically. 

For a moment she waited, so confused that she was sure there had to be more. “I don’t understand.” She muttered, more to herself than to the talking gargoyle. Alora repeated the mysterious message over again in her head, puzzling together its meaning as she moved toward one of the paintings that hung on the walls. Lifting their corner to peek behind them, there was nothing until she came upon a picture sitting on a side table near an armchair. She took it apart quietly, finding a note within it. Putting it back together, she rested it on the table, trying to recall its placement. 

In the darkness of her room she couldn’t quite make out the red letters. Alora had to stoke the fire back to life as best she could before she could read it. 

When we strike on the day of rest, you will come with us. Know us by the color of the letter, and fear not.

As the voice instructed, she let the low flames eat away at the parchment, watching it burn to cinders . . .

The last night aboard the Steambreather, Xårełlęi was tending to a naked Natalia with his tongue as she writhed and squirmed, gulping back moans that rose like bubbles within her throat. Perhaps inevitably, her self-imposed discipline broke with a muffled whine and an arched back, nudged over the edge by a cruelly aware flick. She quickly realized her grave lapse with a lift of her neck from her pillow, and found her king’s stern, accusatory eyes below her waist.

“Oh no… oh no no no…NO!

Natalia’s head plopped back onto Xårełlęi’s bed with hopeless disgust and awaited his inevitable declaration.

“We shall discuss your punishment after we’ve returned to Ŝhanthah castle,” Xårełlęi decided aloud, as a dispassionate judge might deliver a verdict.

The whimpers of disappointment and exhaustion petered away after a time, freeing Natalia to pluck a final appeal from her lips.

“I beg of you… grant mercy upon me…”

Xårełlęi said nothing to Natalia’s plea. Instead he would lift and maneuver himself upward until their gazes were coiled and his bulge nestled perfectly between her parted thighs. The king’s weight pinned his muse in place as his mouth descended, and they kissed…

…kissed desperately, with muzzled breaths and tethered tongues…

Eventually and regretfully, Xårełlęi withdrew with an emphasized tug of her bottom lip, his locked arms propping a downward gaze. The mixture of lust and despair he would see spread across Natalia’s face was delicious.

There is delight in absolute control, he thought to himself, an enlightened note to a splendid evening.

A segregated portion of Ronah castle provided an amount of privacy to Xårełlęi and his companions, with ease of entry and exit through a bordering garden reserved for their own enjoyment. A lone soldier was stationed at a checkpoint that led into town, typically the trusted Colonel Blankenship or one of his lieutenants, and their attention towards dampening the bustle around the King’s arrival was duly appreciated.

Nothing aloud was said about the King’s tasteless accommodations. The chamber was spacious, the bed wide and blankets soft, but its appearance was loathsome. Black was everywhere, with occasional tints and silvery embellishments providing their pathetic attempts at consolation. A bust of what could only be described as a screaming soul was promptly removed by Colonel Blankenship upon request.


The King was studying his reflection upon a dresser mirror as his armor provided its silent opinion upon a nearby display stand. Dabs of gold dye methodically weaved their way through Xårełlęi’s damp hair, eventually lifting it to an amber shade. His stained glove was then discarded, freeing his hand to claim a pair of chocolate-tinted contact lenses. With some careful application and cooperative eyelids, he would find they did a fair enough job of disguising his recognizable indigo irises.

“I suppose this will do,” he said to himself with a consolatory shrug.

Under normal circumstances, the king would be too preoccupied for the stunt he once attempted regularly as a young man. The Grand Council was three days away with preparations in motion, and his participation required a number of recitals and rehearsals. Princess Alora tended to her own due diligence, with the occasional intersection offering casual conversations and lighthearted complaints. She seemed in a better mood since their departure from Ŝhanthah castle, but the King could never be quite sure.

And then there was Lady Natalia, once presented to him as a delectable dish might be presented without utensils. He initially was at a loss towards how to enjoy the alluring woman who dedicated herself to his pleasure, but experimentation wasn’t a foreign agent in his mind… it had aided him in war, and was now expanding the thresholds of his lust. It didn’t go unnoticed that there were slight circles under Natalia’s eyes, indicating a lack of sleep to the King. The sympathetic remorse was always there in his mind, as a riverbed of rocks might be seen despite the murky waters, but his cravings for domination simply drowned them out.

In fact, the King simply couldn’t help himself… the perpetual desperation he wrought upon the Lady from Leviatha was quickly becoming his favorite diversion. It had revitalized him in ways he couldn’t have expected, and initiated his current desire to revisit past habits.

The King donned his dark cloak and briskly departed from his room to push through the blooming garden. Colonel Blankenship had been forewarned at the checkpoint and offered no salute as Xårełlęi slipped out into the dusk-filled night.

Ronah’s town square was alive with lanterns burning bright upon streams of passersby. Xårełlęi ignored the invitations of lively bars and roadside musicians and kept moving towards the water’s horizon in the distance. Onyx road presented numerous opportunities to hone his skills towards a variety of greetings, including nods, hand waves and grumbled hello theres.

The King eventually found himself at a large pier. He would see living shadows minding their boats and nets along creaking wooden planks. There was moonlight, but it wasn’t sharp, perhaps a sliver’s worth offering little more than dim contours. The smell of salt and seafoam was prevalent, flaring the king’s nostrils several times with snorts of disdain.

A nearby tavern was built against a shallow cliff’s edge, soliciting onlookers with its lively murmur and bright-orange windows. A wooden sign lit by a pair of adjacent torches read: The Inn and Din. After a moment’s reluctance, Xårełlęi pushed his inhibitions aside and made his entrance through the swinging doors.

The rambunctious saloon seemed to shove its pestering energy as a drunk piano player pounded out clumsy tunes while a crowd danced and cheered around him. The crescendo verse of a limerick greeted Xårełlęi’s arrival with unabashed blatancy as his cloak was pulled back to reveal his unassuming face.

“In between a harlot’s legs lies the sweetest succor, but a look upon her morning face and you’ll wish you hadn’t fucked’er!”

Claps and laughter followed suit before the piano player fielded another round of requests.

From the looks of things across the tavern, fishermen were plenty and maidens were few. A wide-hipped, large-bosomed woman flirtatiously twirled her red hair as she roamed the crowds with an apparent hunger for attention. Her curious glance fell upon the King’s eyes, and he was quick to rip his gaze away before the exchange escalated further.

The mouthwatering smell of fish frying wafted through the air as he took a random seat at the bar. I suppose this will do as my adventure for the night, the King silently mused.

It wasn’t long until his presence was acknowledged. “What’ll have yuh?” came the question of a broad-shouldered, sun-speckled bartender wearing a server’s cap and a sleeveless shirt.

“Whiskey, neat.” Xårełlęi set a small silver coin on the table, which was clenched into a chafed palm before the apparent bartender sauntered off with a grunt.

The King allowed himself to soak the atmosphere for a few silent moments, until he was suddenly surprised by a voice beside him. “Hullo, gawjus,” the red-haired, well-endowed woman said, obviously drunk with the smell of her breath and slur of her words. Her lean across the bar table exposed a portion of her breast that delved near her nipple, with the loose drape of a dress strap speaking freely of its intentions.

“Hello there,” Xårełlęi returned with a polite smile. His drink arrived and was promptly lifted in a toast-like greeting.

“Ah saw yuh when yuh came en,” the woman said through a wink. “Tawl fellas lak you dun cum round hur much. Ef yah wanted t’guh upstairs…”

The smirk that sifted upon his face expressed its clear disbelief. Memories of past entanglements and experiments flooded his mind. After a moment’s consideration, his decision was made.

“Well, I won’t fuck you,” Xårełlęi stoutly expressed, evidently enjoying his participation in the colorful language flowing through the tavern. “But you can do what you wish with my neck.” With a maneuver of his arm, he draped his cloak across his shoulder, exposing his profile as an invitation.

The woman narrowed her eyes and furrowed her brow while drifting back slightly. “The hell yeh pullin’? Wah would ah want atcher neck?”

The king then planted a pair of gold coins the table before the woman. “I’ll sweeten the deal. Enjoy my neck and whatever you wish afterwards.”

There was a moment of hesitation before a broad grin spread across the woman’s face. “Wellum yes, I do beluv eh’ll take yeh up on that.” She wasted no time planting bites and spongy licks along his ropey tendons. The occasional twitch of the king’s cheek was evident when the red-haired flirt nibbled at his ear, an apparent weakness of his. There was an attempt at his lips, which was resisted and eventually abandoned.

Through the occasional slurping sound, Xårełlęi focused his attention on the chatter around him, and a nearby conversation between the patrons of several dining tables piqued his interest.

“What was with that giant, rolling dong, aye?” A tanned, burly fisherman floated the question as a starter.

“Xårełlęi was in it,” someone explained. “He and two Princesses, aye.”

“Who? Spaghetti, you say?”

Xå-rełl-ęi,” a gaunt, tattooed sailor enunciated as example.

“The hell kind of name is that?”

“Same fella’s supposed to be our king,” called someone within a sheet of shadow against the back wall. “D’jor dumbass think it was really Onyx who ran the show here?”

The portly fisherman shrugged. “Onyx road, Onyx auditorium, Onyx toilet seats…”

“This Onyx fuck is something else,” chortled a younger man with a stained apron, perhaps a server on his break.

“Full of oxshit, if you ask me,” Xårełlęi chimed, blending seamlessly with the chatter while earning a few laughs.

“Oh come off it,” came the opinion of a relatively well-dressed traveler. “Things’re shit before Oxshit and Spaghetti, and things’re shit today. At least now we have decent business.”

“Cheaper taxes, crikey,” someone declared in relief.

“And they leave us the fuck alone,” arrived another remark, reinforcing the sentiment.

Xårełlęi couldn’t help but smile. Alone you might think to be, though there’s eyes about that you can’t see. A fitting limerick to sing alongside the obnoxious piano, he thought.

At some point, Xårełlęi felt the dead weight of the rambling chatter. His neck withdrew from the red-haired woman’s attentions with a wet smack, and he turned to coil his gaze upon hers.

“We’re finished here. But, thank you,” he said with a strange sincerity, and planted a peck upon her forehead while cupping her soft cheeks.

The fiery-haired damsel with enticing breasts pulled a pouted look. “Well ah see you agun, stranger?”

“No,” Xårełlęi said definitively, “but be sure to attend the Grand Council. Mayhap you’ll recognize someone there.”

The redhead titled her head as Xårełlęi left the tavern, but not before leaving a gold coin as a tip.


His return on Onyx road was interrupted by the sight of a sign that was legible even through the persistent dark. Scrawled with bold yellow letters upon a wooden display read: SOOTHSAYER. Below it in smaller words read, 2 PENCE.

Ahead of the sign was a short path up a grassy mound leading to a brightly lit shanty. The soothsayer was obviously open for business.

Why the hell not, Xårełlęi smiled to himself. Two pence for a bit of fun to round things off.

He walked the slight incline towards the shanty, where the smell of incense became prominent. A pair of curtains constituted a doorway, which were parted for his entry.

Inside he would see an older woman at a table with mahogany eyes and thin facial features. Her golden brown hair was done up in a bun, with the occasional spider’s leg of gray coursing this way or that. A modest dress presented its pastel pattern of flowers, hung upon bony shoulders flaked with sunburn. Numerous jars of powders and liquids held steady around the shanty’s walls with shoddy shelfwork. Xårełlęi would accidentally kick a metallic can full of incense sticks, alerting the soothsayer to attention.

“Well hello there!” came her enthusiastic greeting as she shuffled a deck of cards. “Mayhap a reading for your troubles?”

Xårełlęi eyes roamed briefly before his response. “Most certainly,” he said while laying three pence on the table before the soothsayer. She nodded at the offering, but remained focused on the cards between her active hands.

Welllllll then! Let’s see what we have here before me! Gods bestow truth upon my still ears!” The woman plucked a card and planted it on the table, revealing an illustration of a jackrabbit.

“Huh! Interesting!” The soothsayer looked to ponder as Xårełlęi took a seat, thinking all while that he had already wasted his time.

“Well, well, well…” the woman seemed to settle on something, and then she spoke.

“I wasn’t expecting a visit from youmy king.”

Xårełlęi’s back stiffened. “What did you say?”

A cackling laugh left the soothsayer’s lips as her head cocked. “Believe in my powers now, do yeh? Dun worry, I won’t tell a soul.” A wrinkled finger pressed against her lips as she shushed a sound.

The wide-eyed King stood from his seat and shifted towards the door. “I should be off…

“Oh, enough of that,” the soothsayer quacked. “You were generous with your fee, now allow me the honor to assist a king. I promise to be quick…” she added with a wink.

Xårełlęi held in place as the soothsayer hummed to herself while deciding upon another card. The contoured drawing of a bear finally made itself known.

“Trying times ahead, though not necessarily dark,” the soothsayer reported after a focused furrow of her brow. “Conflict and resolution. All the while, a choice.”

“A choice?” Xårełlęi’s curiosity pulled ahead of his shock.

“Between the flames of passion within you, it seems.” Another card was presented depicting a pair of entwined snakes.

There was a weighted hesitation before he spoke. “I choose Alora,” he said to the woman, almost unconsciously.

“Do yeh now?” the woman cackled. “Well, I don’t know who this Alora is, but if she is to be yours in the way you’d care to have her, sacrifices must be made.”

Another pause. “What sacrifices?”

The soothsayer pulled a perceptive smile. “You know. Now off ye be, my king.”

With that, Xårełlęi’s thoughts held heavy as he exited the strongly-scented shanty.

Xårełlęi approached his quarters with his cloak pulled taut and his head hung low, attempting his very best at discretion. The King had just graced the shadow of his doorframe before he was ruthlessly yanked from his introspections.

“Evening, King Xårełlęi,” came a chorused greeting from behind him, startling his body’s hairs to attention. His eyes turned to find the Chancellor’s four servants standing side-by-side, dressed exactly alike with flowing black robes, save for their variety of eyeliners. Red, blue, yellow, and green. Each face was heavy with white makeup alongside negligible differences in their shades and styles of hair.

Before Xårełlęi could lift his voice to intervene, the introductions came in a wave.

“My name is Nah,” said the first.

“I’m Nana,” the second declared.

“You can call me Nih,” perked the third.

“Nini is me!” squealed the fourth.

Xårełlęi’s jaw was agape before he responded to the madness before him. “Very good,” he mustered out wearily. “How may I help you this evening?”

“We were sent here to help you,” one of the four said.

“Any help at all,” said another, alongside a suggestive a wink.

Something within Xårełlęi seemed to boil over. “Why do women keep throwing themselves as me!” he nearly yelled with rising exasperation.

The four attendants looked at each other with concern before humbly bowing their heads. “We apologize,” they said in unison.

“It’s fine,” Xårełlęi said hurriedly to deaden his outburst. “I was just… trying to keep my little excursion a secret. Stealth doesn’t seem to be my strongest—”

“We can help with stealth,” interrupted the blue attendant.

“Oh really?” Xårełlęi scoffed impatiently. “You can help me move about Ronah’s gods-forsaken town without being recognized?”

“We most certainly can,” came a voice from inside his chambers, twirling Xårełlęi on the hinge of his waist with wide-eyed shock.

“How in god’s name did you get behind me?!”

“We have our ways,” the green attendant said with a devilish curl of her lips. A pull of her cloak revealed a belted dagger not as a threat, but as a proposition.

The King’s whirlwind of thoughts began to settle, sifting an idea to the surface of his mind.

“I have a better task for you,” Xårełlęi announced to the four pests. “Each of you are to keep a close eye on Alora and Natalia. Report to me anything that seems out of place, anything suspicious. Keep yourselves far from sight, and refrain from informing the Chancellor as well. I will be the one to relay anynews of interest to him.”

“Understood, my King,” came the concert of acknowledgment. “Will there be anything else?”

“You’ll likewise be assigned duties during the Grand Council ahead.” The King folded his arms and shifted his weight onto his hip, appearing to relax. “Prove yourselves well, and you’ll be rewarded. Now allow me to be free of you, for I am exhausted.”

The four spies departed without another word, and Xårełlęi savored the feeling of shutting his door from the world, if only for a night.

The weather was fair, a cloudless azure sky unobstructing the gentle rays of a kind sun. The beams that it cast down did not generate a harsh heat, making the conditions of the outdoors a pleasant escape from the dark and hideous interior of the castle. Beautiful as the garden was, it was still not without touches of horrid decoration. Among radiant blooms and lush greenery were stone figures with claws and wings, fangs and tails. It was a more palatable juxtaposition than the carvings inside, which were surrounded by more violent and gloomy depictions of battle and calamity. While they had not completely escaped the reaches of grim, depressing decor, the well-groomed grounds proved to be a much needed respite as it uplifted their mood and offered the privacy to speak more freely. 

“You have been our company for quite a while now, Lady Natalia. Do you not miss your home?” The Princess was admiring bright, yellow florals, their scent carrying a subtle sweetness that she quite enjoyed. 

“Why do you ask? Are you trying to get rid of me?” She quipped, glancing over her shoulder toward the pale haired Princess with a teasing grin. 

“Not at all. If I’m being honest, I enjoy your company. It has been nice having someone to talk to.” At first, she considered the Lady of Leviatha a distraction, a shiny diversion to avoid unwanted attention. Though she was wary of her aggressive pursuit of the King, how her eagerness to please might cause her to act unkindly or duplicitously, she found her to be a wonderful companion. Like the flowers that obscured the garish sculptures, she knew that her claws and teeth were still there, but unprovoked she was harmless– and she didn’t plan to give her any reason to bare them. “I consider you a friend.” Alora admitted, meeting Natalia’s soft expression with a warm smile. 

“I’m truly touched. Since we are being honest with one another,” the brunette reached for the Princess’ arm, linking it with her own to continue their stroll through the garden. “I thought that I wouldn’t get along as well as we do. As you know, I was brought to Shantha as an offering to King Xarellei as a show of peace and goodwill primarily. I was under the assumption that I would have to contend with the renowned beauty of Princess de Anadan, the Jewel of the Kingdom. Surely you can imagine how intimidated I was?” Laughter rang from them both in a lovely harmony of amusement. “You have been nothing short of generous, and if I have been . . . audacious in my endeavor to please the King, you have my sincere apology. It has not been easy . . .” Her words trailed.

“No apology is necessary. I understand the pressures of expectation well. It can make anyone act uncharacteristically.” As she looked up at her she could see the relief in her dark eyes, though it was accompanied by some other unspoken weight. It reminded her of the evening they first arrived in Ronah. “In the spirit of our newfound honesty, I hope you would tell me if there was something wrong. I might not be capable of doing much, but I am willing to listen if there is anything wearing on you.”

Hesitance brought a swell of silence so palpable she thought the air had become heavy, like the atmosphere before rainfall. 

“I fear I have done something wrong, and have displeased the King. I have the worst feeling in my stomach– I know it is the dread of my inevitable punishment.” She admitted finally, her voice low but her tone every bit indicative of the fear she spoke of. “I cannot fail my country or bring shame to my name.”

Sympathy allowed her to overlook the absence of details and specifics. She didn’t need them to validate genuine emotion, but she’d be lying if she said she wasn’t curious. The King had done awful things to her in the past. Aside from invading her kingdom and overtaking the throne, her birthright, he had manipulated her by using her family as pawns and placed her in the difficult position of deciding the fate of the insurgents, her people. Alora could only imagine what kind of underhanded tactics he resorted to make Lady Natalia so fearful. Her advice, what she might have done herself, was unsound and potentially dangerous. Defiance had always served her well, but she realized she might have been a special case– that the pool of the King’s patience might be shallower where the Lady of Leviatha was concerned. 

“The King can be reasonable, I think. Perhaps you should express your remorse sincerely and help him understand how this has affected you. I’m sure if you try to appeal to his good-nature he might be more lenient, or show mercy. It could turn out better than you think?” A reassuring hand laid on Natalia’s arm. “At least you will have tried.” 

“You’re right. I think I’ve been too content to accept my fate.” A weak smile appeared on her lips. “Thank you.” 

The pair made their way through the garden, the path leading them back toward the strange robed woman who had led them there. She didn’t expect her to be waiting, looking all too pleasant as she welcomed them back to the castle. 

The sound of preparation could be heard on the levels below; the high traffic of footsteps clacking and thudding against the floors, carrying faintly to the guest wing where she was headed. Alora thought she had seen all the horrible works of art on their tour days ago, the exhausting activity of feigning interest and awe ensuring she slept well that evening, but as she ascended the stairs a piece on the wall caught her eye. 

It was not on the grandiose scale as the other fixtures, but its likeness to a reference stood out. She recognized the dilapidated towers in the bloody scene, the mighty weapon battle ax wielded by a humanoid boar with jutting tusks and bulging eyes. Its fur was covered in crimson spatter, hooves using the backs of fallen enemies as leverage for a fatal blow to the sword-swinging rat. 

“A magnificent painting, is it not?”

The Princess felt her heart leap and then sink to her stomach upon hearing the sudden voice. She pressed a hand to her chest as she turned, letting out the breath that plugged her throat. Behind her was the unnaturally pale face of the Chancellor, chuckling apologetically as he approached with his hands behind his back. 

“Apologies, Princess. I should have made my presence known more thoughtfully.” 

“It’s alright . . .” A dismissive wave of her hand rushed away his apology. “This . . . This is the Battle of Vilardi, is it not?” 

“Indeed, it is. How well-read and cultured you must be to recognize it?” The inflection of his tone was that of surprise as he moved closer to look upon it alongside her. 

“I’ve never seen this version of it before, but the towers and the weapons are famed references . . . I have to ask, why are the soldiers represented as animals rather than humans as they are in other works?” It was a theme that she hadn’t realized until now, that most of the art in the castle was bestial with sparse depictions of mortal forms. 

“I commissioned this piece as I imagined the warriors. Sir Rafael Dagon, the clever and resourceful disgraced Knight of Ollin, leading his horde of defectors. General Carlisle Bowden of Vilardi, the fearless and brave, leading his loyal horde to victory. I enjoy it more than the original, as I do most of my precious collection of interpretations. You see, we all try so very hard to separate ourselves from the animal kingdom, from the monsters and critters we deem ourselves superior to. But, we are all animals by nature.” He looked up at her. “Even the fairest among us can be vicious as a viper or docile as a doe, I believe.”

“That is more insightful than I thought it would be.” Alora admitted, her first genuine display of amusement hanging on her lips as she examined the painting with renewed appreciation. Inwardly she was nervous. Ever since she was contacted by the voice of the Resistance she often feared that everyone could see right through her. She knew that the less she appeared to suspect suspicion, the more unlikely it would be for others to see it. 

“I’m glad to hear that. My taste is not everyone’s cup of tea, I know.” Laughter rumbled in his chest, abruptly stifled when the distinct sound of plates breaking on the floor caused him to stiffen. “If you’ll excuse me, Princess. It seems I have some incompetence to handle,” rigid with irritation he turned on his heels. “I look forward to seeing you this evening.” Hurried steps carried him down the stairs. 

With one last look at the painting, she wondered what kind of animal she would be in one of the Chancellors works of art . . .

As she walked down the hall, she could hear the muffled rhythm of music behind the double doors she approached. When she was close enough, they parted to reveal a grand soiree– the very kind of “modest” celebration she would expect of someone with such extravagant inclinations. A black and white marble floor gleamed with proud polish, the pattern lending itself to showcasing the larger-than-life candelabras and dazzling, crystal chandeliers. Scantily clad women were painted as though they were statues themselves, gold and silver coating making their bodies shine while they balanced platters of hors d’oeuvres and glasses of wine. To the tune of beautifully whining string instruments and fluttering wind instruments, masked performers danced bewitchingly; expertly twirling fire or breathing it like stunning dragons. The Grand Council was more like an elevated carnival than a moderate gathering. 

Even with all the spectacle, the arrival of the Princess attracted some attention away from the overwhelming displays, conversations lulling as she entered. The deep, rich evergreen she wore a bold statement against her pale skin, and the glittering sheen of the fabric was a compliment to it– much like the flattering neckline that bared her shoulders and presented a tasteful view of an ample chest. Her pale, golden tresses were tamed into a low gather where a thick stream of soft waves flowed down her back. Strands were thoughtfully placed to frame her remarkable countenance, all while displaying simple adornments that did not so much compete for the spotlight as they did cooperate with her ensemble. 

Alora plucked a glass of wine from one of the balancing silver trays to still her nerves. Tonight was the night she would be free, and while there was some belief that it was too good to be true, she was hopeful. 

Lady Natalia greeted her, wearing a marvelous plum colored gown with his high neck and a low back. Her hair was up so as not to obstruct the view of her flawless flesh. The pair mingled with the guests, going about the formality exchanging pleasantries and formal introductions before superficial small talk ensued. Alora found herself more interested in the dancing rather than the conversation. Shantha had the most wonderful events, less grandeur but an equal jovial ambiance. The thought almost brought about a homesick feeling, but before it could settle into her expression a man entered their circle. 

“Lord Ezra, so good to see you emerge from your high mountain to grace us all with your presence.” Lady Whitlock– wife of Baron Thomas Whitlock, who she had met earlier– purred over her fan, a taunting gleam bringing out the fine lines around her eyes. 

“How could I refuse a Grand Council?” His smile was broad as he took the jab in stride. With brassy hair and greenish-brown orbs, a tall stature and broad shoulders, he was an attractive man. Judging by the charm of his grin, he was very much aware of it. “Or, pass up the opportunity to dance with the Princess of Shantha?” 

There was an invisible flinch among the group, felt more than seen as he extended a hand to her. Alora knew that there was some preconceived notion that she belonged to the King, that people inside and outside of the kingdom likely made assumptions regarding the nature of their relationship. The possibility that it was true had deterred men from showing even the slightest interest in her. Most men. She couldn’t help but be impressed by the boldness of his offer. 

“I’m flattered, Lord Ezra.” A smile curled onto her lips as she delicately placed her hand in his, watching as he gave a confident bow of appreciation. He led her onto the dancefloor, and began to lead them again in a graceful waltz to the floating harmony. 

“You looked so very bored, Princess. Ronah’s elite can be dull company.” He smirked. 

“Does that include yourself, then?” Alora quipped. She knew men like Lord Ezra from Shantha’s own court and nobility; the ones who ensnared women with ease, but enjoyed the hunt. She missed being difficult prey. 

“I’d like to think not.” As he answered he added flourish to their elegant steps, spinning her beautifully. He relished the glow of her smile and he brought her back into his embrace. “I’ll let you be the judge of that.”

“It’s impressive,” Xårełlęi admitted as he stood at the edge of the tediously-named Onyx Wharf. Before him, settled on the still waters, was a large, wedge-shaped boat the color of scuffed silver, stretching to the sky while casting a broad, early-evening shadow upon the concrete port pressing against its bow.

Director Renthall was at the King’s side, the designated Communications Administrator accompanying him throughout his rehearsals. He stood taller than Xårełlęi by half a head, with thin limbs and a square belly underneath his pleated uniform of gray, marked by deep blue insignias across his chest and shoulders. His balding scalp caught the sun’s beams with crescents of white light, occasionally reflected by the rims of his glasses.

The snout of the boat looked to be unfinished with a skeletal frame peeking out from a peel of its hull. A group of soldiers and sailors could be seen making rounds throughout the deck’s cabins. Across the front of its bow and near a series of roped cleats read its name in stenciled letters, the Revelation.

“It’s operational, you say?” Xårełlęi’s eyes roamed the Revelation with quiet examination.

“Indeed,” the Director affirmed. “Onyx River is some distance away from the Grand Hall, but the crowds will see it, aye. And hear it, as well.”

“Everyone shall bear their witness. Very good.” Xårełlęi paused for a moment of consideration. “Will Ronah’s former King and dignitaries make an appearance?”

“Yes, but only briefly,” Renthall explained. “To show our graciousness towards their former lives, but our emphasis must be towards pushing forward.”

“Arrange to have them executed afterwards,” Xårełlęi remarked flatly. The Director’s widened eyes were met with a heavy laugh.

“A tasteless jest on my part. See to it they are treated courteously.”

“Yes, of course,” Renthall said after clearing his throat nervously. “Were there any other questions or concerns you had regarding the Council’s agenda?”

Xårełlęi mulled back on the prior night’s briefing with Renthall and Chancellor Onyx. There would be three public micro-phones at the base of the grand stage, with a designated moderator between them to ensure an orderly distribution of questions and comments. The primary micro-phone at the head of the stage would be graced with his initial speech after his entrance, with speak-easys… speakers?.. being the tool to broadcast all voices clearly and crisply across the crowds. Behind him would be a hanging telescreen, ready to showcase moving images that complemented his opening address.

Knowing Chancellor Onyx , the dress and decorations would be ostentatious, but he hoped they would be tame enough to avoid undermining his overall message. The King himself would be wearing his traditional armor, with an additional layer underneath that would supply its own reinforced protection… a black, textured, heavy material that felt stiff yet delightfully malleable upon his fingertips. He couldn’t quite place the name of it, but he was almost sure his engineers had titled it something that began with a k.

“I believe all my concerns have been accounted for,” Xårełlęi finally answered. His and Renthall’s attentions were suddenly directed towards the Revelation as a soldier’s shout was heard before a loud, grumbling purr, perhaps a test of the boat’s engines.

“They’ll be impressed,” Xårełlęi mused aloud between he and the Director. “I look forward to finally flexing our proverbial might.”

“Before you awe them technologically, win them over politically,” Renthall declared as some sort of impromptu, eye-rolling life advice. “We have taken the proper course, my King. This I assure you.”

Xårełlęi nodded his agreement before excusing himself towards another obligation in his already busy day.

King Xårełlęi didn’t believe the extra steps towards discretion were necessary, but he would embrace another opportunity to don his cloak and escape his chambers. The four spies he had somehow enlisted were waiting ahead of him as expected, wearing their tenaciously identical attire, each with a name beginning with N... The King would title them the NO sisters in his mind. Their punctuality was a silently appreciated gesture as dusk pulled into night across an alleyway somewhere in Ronah’s town square.

“Do you have anything to report?” Xårełlęi couldn’t hide the hint of impatience in his voice.

“Not specifically on Princess Alora or Lady Natalia,” the blue attendant said… Nih was her name, if the King remembered correctly. “But we have reason to believe that something… amiss is otherwise in motion.”

“And why would you think that?” Xårełlęi asked while crossing his arms.

“A chance investigation in an abandoned tavern was almost overlooked until Nana’s clumsiness brought something to light…” The blue-eyed servant’s smirk was ignored as Nah lifted her hand to reveal a blotch of red outlining the delicate lines of her index finger’s print.

Red ink,” she explained with a nod. “A faint remnant found on the edge of a lone table, confirmed by one of your scientists. We’re certain it was once occupied for discreet operations not recorded on any Onyx registry.”

“And why is red ink of consequence?” Xårełlęi said, his curiosity rising.

“Its use is explicitly forbidden, save for thoroughly regulated and archived government documents.”

There was a moment of weighted, weary contemplation. “Is Chancellor Onyx behind this?” Xårełlęi asked with some hesitancy.

“We doubt it. He insists on black ink for his correspondence, and despises anything but.” The four servants smiled collectively.

“Hmmm…” Xårełlęi thought on the revelation, then drew the fidget of a smile on his face. “Secret communications. How charming. Two days away from the Council as well… yet another point to recognize.”

The four spies stood contemplatively until the green-eyed Nini broke the silence. “Shall we consider postponing the…”

“It could still end up as nothing,” Xårełlęi interrupted. “But we shall move forward as if we are expecting otherwise. Investigate all government officials and see if any clues can be unearthed to the potential identity of our secret red-ink enthusiast.”

Nah nodded her acknowledgment. “Will there be anything else, my liege?”

“The Grand Council will proceed as planned. You four shall remain close to my flanks on the grand stage. Reinforce my soldier’s positions and promptly mobilize yourselves at the sight of anything amiss. You have my authorization to use deadly force, if necessary.”

The four spies bowed their understandings, with the red-eyed Nah unable to help her smile.

“If something is to happen on the day of the Grand Council,” Xårełlęi said with a stout confidence, “we shall be ready for it.”

Xårełlęi answered the rap at this door to reveal Natalia wearing a socially prudent dress. Dusk had fallen before the day of the Grand Council, and the robed King had taken to his personal diversions for the evening.

“Come in,” Xårełlęi invited with his arm extended. The Lady from Leviathá would meekly walk inside his chambers with her arms folded across her chest, saying nothing.

“Now, then,” Xårełlęi exhaled as he moved to settle into his leathered reading chair. “You’ve asked to see me?”

“Yes, my King,” Natalia said softly as she took her own seat. “I wanted to…” Her voice trailed off into unspoken doubt.

“Mmm…?” The sound of curiosity purred from the King’s lips beside the slight narrowing of his left eye.

Natalia appeared to collect herself before starting again. “Yes, I wanted to… discuss my punishment,” she pulled aloud with some effort.

The King mulled on Natalia’s request for a short time. “Ahead of Ŝhanthah castle?” he’d inquire while crossing his arms. “Very well,” he decided with a nod. “How do you believe we should handle it?”

“Well, I…” Natalia looked down upon the palms resting in her lap, appearing uncertain. “I’m not sure, but I just didn’t realize I had upset you so…”

“Upset…” The King said the word aloud as if to process its legitimacy between them, until a slight smile appeared on his face. “You haven’t upset me, dear Natalia… quite the contrary. You’ve satisfied my needs and cravings beyond how I could have ever imagined.”

“Truly, my liege…?” Natalia’s eyes lifted with renewed hope.

“However,” he continued through a sigh. “The fact remains that you disobeyed a direct order from me. Your King.” His voice shifted with a stern, cold touch. “My satisfaction bears no stake upon this. You mustand will be punished.”

The Lady’s eyes flooded with desperation. “Xårełlęi, please,” she begged. The King was quietly shocked to hear her use his name without a title, and for the briefest moment it almost felt as disrespect.

“Now, this of course extends beyond anything you must personally endure,” Xårełlęi explained calmly. “Leviathá will be sanctioned as well, and—”

“NEVER AGAIN!” Natalia cried out in interruption. Perhaps surprisingly, the King took the disruption in stride.

“I promise, never again! Please, forgive me!” Natalia continued through her sobs. “Allow me the peace of mind! Allow me to sleep!”

A visible sympathy would wash over Xårełlęi. After some consideration, he stood from his chair and approached Natalia to kneel before her, locking his gaze upon her teary eyes.

“You will endure your punishment,” he cooed assuringly, “but perhaps I’ll allow its severity to stay in question.” He then kissed Natalia’s forehead affectionately while his hand softly cupped a breast beneath her dress.

“Continue the fight,” he said with a soft emphasis. “For your sake, as well as mine.”

That night, there would be whimpers and pleas, but eventually Natalia fell into a deep sleep, nestled against the chest of her King.

Delightfully, there was a late breakfast planned for the day of the Grand Council. The King awoke with the rise of the early sun, and as was typically the case, his cravings pulsed strongly as well. With a gentle series of nudges, he managed to rise Natalia into a half-sleep before rolling himself on top of her, his gaze perched with sturdy arms.

“You must remain still and quiet,” Xårełlęi demanded with a low voice, “or Leviathá will bear the brunt of your failings. Not a flinch, nor a squeak. Understood?”

Her eyes would not widen, her body refusing any twitches of fear. Instead, Natalia would steel herself and part her thighs on command as Xårełlęi maneuvered himself below her waist.

Her breath did occasionally catch as flowery folds pulsed around his tongue, but she remained hushed, remained diligent. The King sensed every shuddery ripple of gooseflesh, but he would forgive them, for they were but the flutters of a bird’s wings across a still pond.

After a time, the King found himself satisfied. He pulled back his lips and tongue and lifted his head to meet his gaze upon the rise and fall of Natalia’s luscious chest.

“You’ve done well,” Xårełlęi congratulated with a smile. “Though your personal punishment remains, your kingdom shall be spared its own penalties.”

Upon hearing the King’s absolution, Natalia couldn’t help the series of shuddery sobs that escaped her lips. Sobs of sheer joy and indescribable relief.

“Gods Almighty,” Xårełlęi said to himself as he rode with Director Renthall in a small, military-issued transport vehicle, accompanied by a pair of high-ranking kingsguard. The sight of Onyx Hall from afar had already exhibited all the indications of garishness, and the rising volume of band music further exhausted his patience as they approached the bustling throngs and egregious decortations.

The vehicle pulled to a stop on the paved inlet road, with curious onlookers gathering to point their fingers at its arrival. A contingent of troops rushed quickly toward King Xårełlęi’s door to take their posts before it was opened for him to step out. He was wearing his ceremonial armor, its contours glistening with the sun’s touch, and would join Director Renthall on a measured walk towards the grand hall’s entrance.

Upon its sight, the King would quietly concede to the Chancellor’s credit that the hall was indeed grand. He supposed it had to be, since it was intended to accommodate a rather large amount of Ronah’s residents. Its impressive expanse reminded him briefly of the hangars he invaded long ago, when he had first laid his eyes upon the stationed, metallic birds that delivered death from the skies…

Inside Onyx Hall, there was the sporadic mingling of commoners and dignitaries, but the divide was clear, with the well-to-dos collected near the base of the main stage and the less-to-dos pooling themselves back towards the hall’s entrance. Lines of watchful soldiers were stationed near the sills of windowed arches, nearly all of them curtained, as the late afternoon sun glowed through the draping fabrics with an orange warmth. A pair of broad archways flanked the hall’s entrance, offering a gorgeous vista that stretched towards the distant shoreline.

The sight of King Xårełlęi’s arrival prompted a rise of applause that seemed hesitant at first, but would satisfyingly round itself off. The crowds parted along the edges of the royal carpet leading towards the shallow staircase of the main stage as Xårełlęi walked with his director and a nearby perimeter of soldiers.

Xårełlęi’s curious eyes would shift from left to right as he approached the stage’s ledge. He took note of a fishermen’s hungry, distracted eyes upon a nude woman painted with gold. Towards the right of the stage, his eyes also caught Princess Alora with her brassy-haired companion, but there would be no time for jealousy. At least, not yet.

After walking past the angular shadow of the overhead telescreen and onto the broad, brightly lit stage, the King and Director would take their places near their designated micro-phones. The crowd’s murmur eventually hushed to silence, and Xårełlęi would permit himself a deep breath before he prepared his lips.

“Greetings to you all,” Xårełlęi began as his name boomed across the broad audience. “My name is Spaghetti… or rather, Xårełlęi,” he stated with a grin that almost seemed uncertain of itself.

A raucous roar of laughter and cheers started across the crowds, and he would wait patiently until it subsided.

“People of Ronah, hear me well,” he continued. “Though I am technically your King, the truth is I don’t feel much as one. I rather think myself more as an administrator, fair and personable, who wishes to share the wonders of a new age across this great land.”

“We have all gathered here today to enjoy ourselves, but more importantly, to understand.” Xårełlęi’s firm, steady voice carried with it a resonating bass. “Understand the immense blessing of our now conjoined kingdoms. Xårełl and Ronah, together.”

Moving images would appear on the large telescreen behind him, coinciding and attesting his declarations on timed cues.

“Doctors who can cure illnesses once thought terminal. Engineers providing the means for stores of frozen meat through the long summer months. Houses providing heat and cold on demand despite the merciless elements. We offer all of these wonders to each and every one of Ronah’s residents, near and far and in between.”

The King then pulled back to peer into the distance before once again engaging his micro-phone.

“You haven’t seen much yet of our advertised technological wonders in your personal lives, I’ll admit. But if you all would have a look behind you…” The King’s arm would motion towards the hall’s entrance, where the Revelation could be seen pulling past a forest’s edge on the water, announcing its arrival with the blare of its horn.

“Behold! A means to traverse the weary distance between kingdoms with speed and ease!” There was a murmur of awe and appreciation amongst the crowds, which lifted into a robust wave of claps.

“What a sight to see!” Director Renthall’s voice through his micro-phone would take command of the stage, which Xårełlęi relinquished with silent relief.

“We have much more to share, but don’t blindly take our words for truth. There are many from Ronah who have their own testimonies, are they are here with us today. But first…” Renthall motioned to the three micro-phones at the base of the stage. “Let’s entertain a question from the audience, shall we? By all means, don’t be shy.”

After a time, a well-dressed commoner weaved himself through the droves until he reached the public platform. He looked very similar to the man Xårełlęi eavesdropped at the Inn and Din a few days earlier.

“King Xårełlęi,” he began with a pull of breath. “There were preliminary talks towards Ronah’s sovereignty before Xårełl… insisted upon its integration. With respect, may I ask what happened to the initial prospects of a coinciding rule between kingdoms?”

“A very good question,” Xårełlęi answered agreeably. “It was Xårełl’s concern that an unhealthy discord would inevitably sprout from…”

Through the corners of the King’s eyes, dashes of black would rush past the stage’s flanks towards some sort of… disturbance, somewhere in the crowds. His gaze widened when he realized it was the NO sisters engaging a threat…

To the beat of uplifting melodies, her light movements were just as stunning as the smile she wore. Lost in the moment, Alora was just as entertained as the guests who looked on or marveled at the walking spectacles decorated in elaborate costumes. She couldn’t help but enjoy the unexpected, the syncopations that gave their rhythmic footfalls grace and flare. It was as though they were confined to their own atemporal bubble, where all the faces and decorations faded into the background as the world blurred at its edges, becoming more insignificant the more enthralled she was. She was too busy hanging on his word, engaging in lighthearted banter and flirtation while they swayed. As the orchestra’s music faded, strings ceasing their pleasant vibrations, the floor cleared to make way for the approaching King. 

Alora followed Lord Ezra’s guiding hand, leading them into the migrating crowd. Everyone, her dance partner included, seemed to want to get the best view. Eagerly they shifted among one another, fitting themselves into clearer sightlines with relatively polite regards. The Princess was more concerned with what she might hear than see. After all, their presence in Ronah was meant to offer her new perspective in Xarellei’s aim, his vision for Shantha and likely other unconquered lands. Though she was certain that she would not hear anything that might extinguish her distaste, she listened with an open mind– or as open as she could manage. All that he spoke of was good. She could argue with medicinal advancements or domestic improvements that resulted in less starvation and death. But, she was well aware of the cost. It was difficult for her not to feel bitter . . . 

She would have liked to think that such progress would have appealed to the reasonable minds of displaced monarchs, that power did not always have to shift into the hands of another to receive necessities. Instead, it came with conditions and not everyone could appreciate those essentials without tasting the same sour acid of loss. She could not be awed by blaring, futuristic wonders when they evoked fear and conjured harrowing memories. While all others chattered clamorously and applauded at the sight of the colossal ship, she forced a smile onto her lips. It fell away quickly enough as the floor opened for questions from the citizens. 

A response never came . . .

Onyx Hall began to flood with red robed figures, storming guards and soldiers suddenly from nearly every entrance and opening. The first weapon discharged, a loud bang cutting through the confusion. Collectively the crowd reacted, abandoning their places to flee with screams of terror while others ran for cover as more shots were fired. Though she knew they were coming, she was stunned all the same. Chaos was all around her, erupting in a matter of long seconds that seemed to take place in slow motion. Bodies soon hit the floor, pools of blood beneath their punctured, lifeless forms. Throats were opened with blades, familiar faces bludgeoned till they were unrecognizable. Alora was paralyzed, gripped so tightly by horror that she couldn’t even begin to will her feet to move. 

Until now, she believed that only the King and his men possessed such weapons, but the rebels wielded them as well– fighting fire with fire with all the same brutality.

“Princess–” A hand wrapped around her arm, pulling her along forcefully. Lord Ezra’s strength compensated for her stumbling, hoisting her up each time her balance betrayed her or some bloodied obstacle ruined her stride. 

She could hear projectiles whizzing past her, and though every instinct implored her to throw herself to the ground she remained as upright as she could while he led her through a pair of double doors. So disoriented from thundering weapons and screams she wasn’t sure where she was until she was out of the hall. They were in another, a long, arching corridor with shattered mosaic windows and more corpses. Alora ignored the contorted expressions of pain on their faces, the vacant looks of the slain. There were just as many red robes littering the ground as there were soldiers of Ronah. 

“Stop!” A voice barked before them, feminine but commanding. “Another move and I’ll blast you both to pieces.” Her threat was followed by the approach of two men, their weapons leveled between their eyes. 

Lord Ezra brought them to a swift halt, tucking Alora behind him. “What is it that you want? Money? Jewels? Whatever it is–” Silence came after a harsh blow was dealt to his temple, the blunt end of the weapon crashing against his head. He dropped to the ground with a pained grunt, but he was not rendered unconscious. Weakly he attempted to push himself up, just barely able to get his chest off the floor when the vicious weapon tore a hole through his back. 

“No!” Alora cried, moving to go to his side. She was intercepted quickly, thrown over the shoulder of a brute where she kicked and screamed. Through eyes glassy with tears she watched as Lord Ezra sputtered, clutching his shoulder with a bloody hand. The sight was short lived, gone as they carried her through one of the shattered windows toward horses that awaited them. “Unhand me! Let me go at once!” 

“We can’t do that.” The woman said calmly, climbing upon her mount. She made room for the thrashing Princess as both men made light work of getting her into the saddle in front of her. “We said we’d come and we did.” The robed woman whispered into her ear, taking the reins swiftly to urge her horse on. While her accomplices covered her, she steered them toward the woods. Towering trees soon enveloped them as they carved a jagged path, weaving between thick trunks and jutting roots. All the while Alora made her displeasure known, calling out for help while squirming incessantly. 

The woman was surprisingly strong, unsurprising since her statuesque physique was apparent even in her crimson robes. Her frustration came slowly, but when it did it was frightening.

“Is this not what you wanted?” Her arms squeezed her tightly, muscles overpowering her own. “Have we been wrong about you all this time?” She questioned through clenched teeth. 

“I didn’t . . . Not like this . . .” Alora believed that she would do anything to be free, to be out from beneath Xarellei’s thumb but so many innocent lives had been taken unjustly and callously. If she had known the price for her freedom would be blood she wouldn’t have entertained the offer. “There had to have been another way.” 

“Those people back there are Xarellei’s lackeys and sympathizers, sycophants without backbones of their own.” She said with a tone so cold it made her shiver. “They would rather bow down than stand up for what’s theirs. While I believe you have some fight in you, I now question your alignment. We risked life and limb back there.”

“I can still help–”

“How? You scare at the first sight of blood, passively go along with his every demand, and empathize with his converted flock of sheep.” Her hands tugged on the reins, bringing the horse to a halt. “I don’t think we can trust you to join our cause, which is a shame because you have been a beacon for so many. How disappointed they’ll be when they learn of your spinelessness.”

“I can help.” Alora insisted, glancing over her shoulder. From the dark depths of the red hood, she could make out some of the woman’s features; black curls and blue eyes like steel. “I saw no use in getting close to Xarellei before, but I believe I can get close enough to get you the information you need to gain the upperhand and overthrow him.”

“. . . It’ll be harder to reach you after all this. Risky for both of us.” She glanced over her shoulder. It would only be a matter of time before soldiers caught up. 

“Then, we’ll be more careful. Besides, Xarellei has too much leverage on me to turn on him now.” Her parents were still in his custody, held somewhere since Shantha was overtaken. 

“ . . . Three months. If you do not produce valuable information that leads to our advantage, I will personally come for you myself and make an example of you for all your disillusioned followers to see.”

The Princess’ throat went dry, the threat so serious she could only imagine what kind of gruesome public display she might make of her. 

“Now to send you back,” she sighed deeply. “Let’s see how real we can make this, shall we?” With a powerful push she threw the Princess from the horse, wearing a pleased smirk beneath her hood as she tumbled down a steep slope. She didn’t wait to see what came of her, not when the distant sound of hooves pounding at the brush alerted her. 

Alora rolled with a momentum she couldn’t quite control, slippery leaves and damp earth hastening her descent even as she tried to reach for branches and roots. They did nothing but slide through delicate palms, cutting and burning them. Rougher patches were not forgiving on her body, bumps and bruises forming the instant of impact. She only stopped when she reached the bottom, an unfortunate collision rendering her dizzy. It felt as though she might break apart if she moved, but she lifted a hand to her forehead. Her fingertips barely grazed the wound and a lance of pain radiated through her entire being. Before her struggle to keep her eyes open, she saw the bright red liquid trickle down the pad of her finger, and felt another as warmth slid down her brow.

There were the fond memories of Molly Anne, the noble maiden who was taken with the soon-to-be-King Xårełlęi many years before his worldwide conquest. There had been a joint rule between brothers for years, yet jealousy and distrust between the three princes had become more and more… pervasive, and ultimately obstructive. Through the challenges and uncertainty, she had been supportive of his standing, even as his blessing from Yamesha had fueled claims of undue predication and conspiracy.

Xårełlęi’s military trainings had instilled in him a certain discipline that spilled into his approach with the fairer sex. Timid as he once was, Molly would more than compensate with her persistence and insistence, with brazen flashes and seductive winks from afar as he conducted his business throughout his dead father’s castle. Her ripe chest and birth-giving hips, typically accentuated with a green Celtic-style dress, would ensnare Xårełlęi’s wandering eye, despite himself.

The night eventually came when Molly sneaked into his quarters, much to his ogling surprise. She was wearing a thin brown dress that complemented her hair and eyes, and her gaze was wanting. The expected panic would boil in the waters of his mind, but instead of Molly’s ardent hand at his knee, he would instead see…


A pair of shoves at the King’s shoulders would snap him back to the horror that was taking place before him. An invasion of red-robed insurgents had surged the Hall with indiscriminate rifle rounds directed at horrified guests. Screams and pleas saturated the air as two kingsguards rushed at his sides to scramble him to safety.

“No, you idiots! I’m fine, I’m FINE!” Xårełlęi wrestled himself free and assumed a stance upon the stage once again, blood gushing down his right shin. The fresh wound just above his knee had yet to register its pain, and he stood tall with his arms frantically motioning towards the fray. Surreal, ear-piercing screeches were heard through the speakers as the King’s dropped micro-phone translated the sounds of rifle fire.

“Move, move! Engage the intruders! Now, damn you!” An instinctive reach to the King’s side would conjure a bitter disappointment.

A pistol, a pistol… Ronah’s freedom for a pistol.

There was a glancing blow of fire against Xårełlęi’s helmet, then once again upon his shoulder as he retreated with a pair of steps. A momentary madness then overtook the King as his back arched and his arms reached forward and upward, towards the heavens.

“Kill me if you dare! My legacy remains forever! You’ve already failed!”

The rolling turrets of the kingsguard eventually brought Ronah’s forces the upper hand. The red-robed invaders were driven back with devastating rounds that shattered against marble columns with bursts of shrapnel. Many who fell back were hurled upwards with shrieking globes of fiery orange before landing with sickening thuds, each with less a limb, oblique, or head.

The King would tumble onto all-fours with the loud clank of his armor as the fracas slowly abated, with Ronah and Xårełl soldiers reinforcing positions across the Grand Hall. The bloodied bodies of the fallen were numerous, and sporadic groans of pain or sputters of death were heard alongside the marchings of boots.

Eventually, the King was addressed by a young lieutenant kneeling at his side with a rigid salute.

“My liege… are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Xårełlęi choked through a thickened throat. “Report?”

“Lady Natalia and Director Renthall are safe,” the lieutenant hurriedly explained. “But Princess Alora has been…”

The King’s eyes quickly darted to the fresh-faced soldier. “Been… what?”

Abducted,” The lieutenant forced through a swallow. “She was taken away on horseback. Our forces are following close behind—”

“Find her! FIND HER!” The King climbed to his feet with a wobble before grabbing at his neck to throw his helmet to the floor. His blood-shot eyes and bloodied nose perfectly emphasized the rage on his face, and for a brief moment, he resembled some sort of demonic horror.

“SAVE ALORA! GO! GO!” The lieutenant rushed to join a group of soldiers marching towards the rear of the hall.

After a few clumsy steps forward, his metallic boots would trip over a naked woman painted gold, her deadened gaze focused on a journey towards the beyond. He was once again on all-fours, and the King’s vision would haze…

Xårełlęi would wake in his quarters with a pair of kingsguard flanking his bed. His back was leaning against the headboard, with legs outstretched out and a thick bandage taped around his right knee. The platoon medic was at his side, administering a bag of intravenous fluid into his arm while a bustling furor was heard outside his chamber door, with stomping boots and terse orders.

“King Xårełlęi, you’re back,” a doctor’s voice said near his wardrobe. “You’ve been in and out for the last few hours.”

“Alora… the Princess,” Xårełlęi slurred through his lips. “Has she been found?”

“Yes, my liege,” the doctor affirmed with a nod. “She’s currently being treated at the castle ward. Quite a few gashes and bruises, perhaps a broken bone. But she will recover.”

“Whuh… what happened?” The King’s torso wavered before it was steadied by the nearby medic’s hands.

“She somehow escaped the clutches of her abductors and fell down the side of a ravine. All things considered, my King, she could have come away with much worse.”

The King stayed silent. May I see her? was the question waiting behind his lips, but he already knew the answer.

“There’s more, your Highness.” The doctor pushed through a moment of hesitation. “Chancellor Onyx is dead.”

King’s Xårełlęi’s eyes would blink at the news before pulling towards his knees. “Is that so?” he said with a low voice.

“Shot through the heart,” the doctor explained regretfully. “His death was immediate.”

“Hummm.” A wind of thoughts visibly coursed through his mind.

“Bring me Director Renthall,” Xårełlęi finally said.


Renthall would arrive shortly after his request. Upon sight of the King, his mouth opened towards pleasantries that were waved away by Xårełlęi’s hand.

“Director Renthall,” Xårełlęi began. “In light of Onyx’s death, I am designating you the new Chancellor of Ronah.”

There was a brief look of surprise before Renthall clapped his boots and saluted. “Understood, my liege. I will begin to delegate responsibilities towards cleaning up this unfortunate mess. Is there anything else?”

“Colonel Blankenship shall be your second. See to it that this is handled,” Xårełlęi said stoutly. “Utilize the violence of the red-robed intruders to your benefit. Their ruthlessness during a peaceful and receptive council should be spun to Xårełl’s advantage.”

“Absolutely. And what of you, my liege?”

“I suppose it would be wise to return to Ŝhanthah,” Xårełlęi thought aloud. “Once Princess Alora has recovered, of course. Directing a brigade’s worth of troops to reinforce this stronghold shall be my foremost task once I return.”

“Of course, my King,” Renthall said. “With respect, may I suggest the Princess remain here for treatment while you depart at your earliest convenience?”

“She always remains with me,” Xårełlęi said with a tone to close the matter. “Besides, I have plans that involve her presence in the castle she once presided.”

“Very good, my liege. Shall I begin preparations for the Steambreather, or…”

“The Revelation would seem our safest means of transport, yes? A day and a half by boat, another half-day by land, you’d say?”

Renthall nodded in agreement. “As a matter of fact, its isolation on the water is likely the most secure option. I’ll send appropriate communications for soldiers to wait for you at Ŝhanthah’s port.”

Xårełlęi took a moment to think before speaking on another weight in his mind.

“Also,” he’d say in conclusion, “see to it that those horrid decorations in the Grand Hall are appropriately discarded.”

The commotion had settled a bit into the wee hours of the morning, with Xårełlęi left alone in his quarters while soldiers were posted outside his door. He would be tinkering absentmindedly with something in his hands when Colonel Blankenship announced his arrival outside of Xårełlęi’s chamber door.

“My apologies, sir,” called the familiar, wavery voice. “But she once again insisted. I made sure to frisk her before bringing her here.”

“She didn’t need to be frisked,” Xårełlęi remarked with some impatience. He then inhaled slowly to steady his temper. “Allow her in.”

The Lady from Leviathá entered the King’s chambers wearing a modest, eggshell-colored gown. She moved to stand at the side of the King’s bed and waited for Xårełlęi’s greeting.

“Dearest Natalia,” the King would say gratefully. “Thank goodness you’re safe.”

“I was… whisked away,” Natalia recalled with her eyes widened. “By a robed woman with a white face. But I could still hear the… shots and the… screams.” A shudder trembled across her body. “All that death…

“They will have not died in vain.” Xårełlęi patted the bed beside him as an invitation for Natalia to sit. “I have plans to ensure all kingdoms come together in everlasting peace. I promise you shall never have to endure anything like that again, by your own eyes or secondhand account.”

The Lady nodded before she took notice of the strange item in the King’s hands… it looked to be a crescent shaped thing made of wood or tin with a sphere jutting from its center.

“May I ask what that is in your hands, my King?”

Xårełlęi took a breath before answering Natalia’s question. “In many ways, this little trinket has served as the key to my conquest. I keep it close to me at all times as a reminder of how far I’ve come… and how far I’ve yet to go.” He then took Natalia’s hand and placed it upon her palm.

“How does it feel, my dear?” the King would ask with eyes full of curiosity.

“It feels… strange,” Natalia said alongside a slight frown. She handled it tentatively, turning it over a number of times before the King gently plucked it from her grasp. Her hands immediately brushed the remnants of its touch against the skirt of her gown while her face puckered with a sour look.

“The key to the door,” Xårełlęi declared softly. “It weilds a certain power… thankfully, one that I alone am designated to control.” He then opened a nightstand drawer and tucked it away from their sights.

After a moment, Natalia drew closer to Xårełlęi with a scoot on the bed, and her eyes lifted to meet his gaze.

“Shall I be… still for you this morning, my King?”

The King would dwell on the proposal for a moment, before leaning towards Natalia to kiss her… a passionate kiss that smacked loudly upon the parting of his lips.

“I will regretfully postpone,” he’d finally say with a grin and a pat at his bandaged knee. “I’m not sure how satisfied we’d be together with this wretched thing in the way.”

“Your satisfaction is my satisfaction,” Natalia said, almost as an afterthought, before leaning her head upon the King’s shoulder. After a moment, the side of his face tucked against the earthy smell of her raven hair, and the pair would spend a time together in silence.

“Has he talked?”

“Not yet,” Director Renthall answered to the stocky man with clipped red hair and black overalls. He’d watch as a calloused palm waved itself across the eyes of their naked prisoner, hanging from the ceiling with shackled wrists that trickled beads of blood to scraped elbows. A sprawled red robe was beneath his feet as he dangled in a cell deep within Ronah’s castle dungeon, lit only with a pair of wall torches lighting the small group with curls of flickering orange.

“Hello, friend,” a friendly, masculine voice said in greeting. “My name is Morant. And you are… ?”

The sound of silence was cut with a phlegmy spit of blood that fell just short of the interrogator’s boots.

“Ha!” Morant laughed while planting his knuckles upon his hips. “I love when I get the tough ones! This should be fun.”

“Be quick with it,” Renthall said with some impatience. Morant turned towards him with a pouty look before engaging his mark once again.

“You know, friend, I have the distinct privilege of being designated as Xårełl’s official interrogator,” Morant stated happily. “I must say it’s been an interesting, enlightening adventure learning the most effective techniques to obtain what we need from… the stubborn types, y’see.”

“One of the things I’m proudest of,” he continued with a step to his voice, “is that we’ve moved past the shedding of blood and breaking of bones to extract information. There are far, far better ways to achieve that goal.” Morant’s smile persisted towards an ominous grin.

“My friend, have you ever heard of the tsetse fly?”

The nude prisoner said nothing to his question, and Morant continued with a glint in his eye.

“Hell of a nuisance, native to the deserts of the western lands. They attack and bite in swarms, and those unfortunate enough to be bitten always report an excruciating itch. One that settles itself beneath their skin, away from the relief of scratching fingers.”

Morant then reached to the floor and revealed a large jar of what appeared to be a beige-colored paste.

“Xårełl’s scientists are really something. I proposed the idea almost offhandedly, yet they managed to develop a paste that very closely simulates this itch upon contact with human skin.”

The jar was opened to reveal a brush attached to its cap, and Morant snickered before applying a dab of paste to the prisoner’s nose.

“You are absolutely going to loathe your life after a few minutes, friend,” Morant said while moving to his backside. “Even if you wanted to talk, I doubt we’d manage to settle you down long enough for coherent answers.”

The paste was generously applied across the entirety of the prisoner’s torso, limbs, and genitals. After a minute, there were sporadic wiggles. Another minute, and the true struggle began with desperate yanks against the shackles.


“You’ll need to scream a bit louder than that, friend,” Morant smirked with a cross of his arms.

Consciousness came slowly, weak intervals of awareness granting fuzzy glimpses of rushing shadows and incoherent voices before claiming her again. She couldn’t feel herself as she was lifted from the steep ravine, as she was transported from the rough bed of brush and branches to the comfort of a new one. Embraced by softness and warmth she finally relented, letting exhaustion prevail. Having succumbed to fatigue, she missed the helping hands of skilled physicians and nurses tending to her. When the veil of weariness wore away, and the cocktail of medicine subsided, she began to feel herself lift from her deep slumber. Lashes parted and her vision gradually sharpened to see the familiar, decorative ceiling molding of her guest chamber. A grateful sigh passed her lips, but as she stirred her body ached. Alora let out a soft groan, and despite the protest of her muscles and bones she lifted an arm to peer beneath the blanket that laid over her form. 

Beneath the plain, delicate nightgown she had been placed in, she could see the bandages wrapped around her torso snug on her petite frame. There were a slew of others, smaller white coverings that protected tender cuts and careful stitches. Where there weren’t dressings there was battered flesh, deep purple and blue marks. As she laid her eyes on each of them her body became aware of how they throbbed, but none compared to the soreness of her head. She wanted to see, and as she made an attempt to push herself up a lancing pain in her side made suck a breath through her teeth. 

The hard wince alerted the nurse at her bedside who had been dozing off, head bobbing again and again as she struggled to remain awake. She was alert and on her feet in an instant, springing forth to halt the Princess.

“My Lady, please be still. You are in no condition to move just yet.” With gentle hands she urged her back down onto the pillow. Satisfied with her position, she tugged the blankets back up. “You suffered a great fall. By the Grace of the Gods, you survived with minimal injury.”

“ . . . Minimal injury.” Alora parroted. “I feel like every bone in my body has been rattled.”

“Aye, only a rib was fractured. With rest, you will heal in time. The physician was here not long ago. You should be good as new in a months’ time with proper care.”

“A month?” She only had three to provide the rebel leader with information enough to deal a damaging blow to Xarellei’s forces. 

“At the very least, My Lady. I can summon the physician to explain–” 

The apologetic tone the nurse held in her voice made her realize that her frustration was misdirected. Had the woman who threw her from the horse been more careful, she wouldn’t have needed a month of recovery. “No, it’s alright. My apologies. It has been a frightening day . . .”

“I understand, Princess . . . The authorities have been eager to obtain a report of your account of the events of today. If you are too tired, I will happily send them away. The hour is late, and I would not fault you for prioritizing your rest.” She explained, ready to jump at her word. 

“I will speak to them, get it over with so that they can begin their investigation.” Alora nodded, knowing that she could lean on her trauma to respond to the unexpected. 

“You must have been so scared.” 

Natalia’s hand squeezed hers softly, with more care than she embraced her upon entering her chambers. She hung on her every word as she recounted the terrifying incident. Alora had repeated it so many times that she knew it by heart because, for the most part, it was true. Even as officials questioned her, she realized that she didn’t have to deviate from the narrative much at all. She and Lord Ezra fled to find somewhere safe to wait out the storm when they were intercepted. Lord Ezra was shot, and she was taken against her will. Alora was content to let everyone speculate as to why, but the general consensus was that the intention was to use her as leverage against the King. 

“I was, indeed. Who knows what they might have done to me if the soldiers hadn’t been so close behind . . .” It was another undifficult imagining. She knew exactly what would have happened if she had successfully escaped. With no real information to benefit their cause, she would have ended up like so many others who lost their lives in the brutal attack. The fearful expression on her visage was authentic, not a performance she had to put on. 

“You should have let them catch up to you instead of taking matters into your own hands. Now look at you,” the Lady of Leviatha tsked with concern as she looked her over. “Throwing yourself off a horse. You could have killed yourself.”

“Better at my own hands than some maniac.” 

“I don’t like to think about it either way, Alora. I’m just glad you’re alright.” She patted her hand gently. “I will visit you every day. You will be absolutely sick of me, I promise.” 

A soft melody was stifled. “Oh, don’t make me laugh.” She smiled through the pain that leapt up her side. 

“They say it is the best medicine, so there will be plenty more where that came from.” Natalia promised. “They also say that flowers are good for lifting the spirit. You’ve received plenty, but there are some glorious red roses I can’t help but be so curious about.” 

Her room was filled with them, all with well wishes for a speedy recovery and sympathies for her frightening encounter. Most were modest in color, light yellows and bright whites with dashes of lavender and pinks woven into the collection. The full red roses were in stark contrast to the bunch. The Lady of Leviatha pushed herself up from her bedside seat, moving to inspect them. 

“From Lord Tristan Ezra, I assume?”

“They are. I was so worried that he was dead.” The memory played out again in her mind, a vivid recollection that was paired with the same emotions that occurred in the moment. He had risked his life for her, and the act alone should have been enough to make her fall head over heels but she couldn’t entertain her feelings. She had to focus on the King, and with that came the realization that her relationship with Natalia would soon be in jeopardy. “How is the King? I heard that he sustained significant injury during the ordeal.” 

“He is well. If he was more mobile I’m sure he would have visited by now.” She mentioned in his defense. “He is strong so I suspect he will be much better soon, and he is in the best of hands. The physicians that care for him are so knowledgeable.” Natalia sounded like a hopeful and proud wife, boasting of his greatness in his absence. 

“That’s a relief to hear.” Not everyone was so lucky. Chancellor Onyx had not been. When she heard of his death she was more devastated than she thought she would be. As eccentric and strange as he was, with bizzare taste and an odd, but grand demeanor, he did not deserve such a violent end. “Give the King my regards when you see him next. I’m pleased he is well.” 

“Apparently, they are a collective of all the opposition of all the conquered lands. They call themselves the Red Dissent.” Lady Natalia whispered.

Normally she came with books or games, something to keep them entertained while they chatted about the goings on in the castle. The Lady of Leviatha came empty handed this day, and earlier than her usual arrival. Alora had to excuse the nurses that had barely just finished changing the dressings on her wounds after her bath. 

“And, they’re everywhere. They could be anyone, operating in secret to overthrow the King. Until now they’ve been biding their time, amassing a following and obtaining weapons to contend with his forces which is–”

Mad. There is no way that any group could rival the King’s arsenal. How do you know all this?” Alora asked, inwardly as surprised as she was nervous about her source. 

“One of the remaining red robes was captured and interrogated. He didn’t offer much, I assume because he was a nobody in their ranks, but at least we now have a name for this awful movement. Their motivations might be insane, but they will not succeed. Still, they’re not exactly harmless as we all know. We’ll all have to be more careful.” 

“We will.” Alora gave a solemn nod, hopeful that no more was said.

Xårełlęi entered Princess Alora’s ward leaning against a crutch, visibly hobbling through the doorframe. He presented a smile that felt genuine yet uncertain, flitting with the promise of a short visit.

“Good afternoon, Princess Alora. It pleases me that you seem to be well on your way to a full recovery.”

His attention then turned to the wide array of flowers in the room, their fragrant smell permeating across the air. His fingertips ran lightly across a particular bouquet of orchids with soft green gradients that reminded him of the uniforms he wore as a young man.

“It looks as though you have quite the admirer, Princess.” The brassy-haired gentleman, is it? the King ached to ask. His gaze lifted to Alora’s own before he forced an obvious cough from his throat.

“We shall depart on the Revelation when you’re ready,” Xårełlęi said with a bit of dryness to his voice. “Take as much time as you need. Once we have some time again together, I’d like to offer a proposal that will hopefully garner your utmost enthusiasm.” He would turn to leave Alora’s room afterward, the weight of his mysterious words lingering.

“Now that Chancellor is Onyx is gone,” the King explained, “you four shall now be assigned covert tasks under the appointment of my kingsguard.”

The four identical assistants nodded their agreements as they stood near the foot of the King’s bed. Xårełlęi was seated with his back against the headboard, his wounded knee clearly visible as brief bouts of discomfort lifted to his face while he settled upon the bedsheets.

“We graciously accept your royal assignment, King Xårełlęi.” The four bowed their unanimous thanks with eyes that locked themselves on the King’s own gaze. “But before we fully submit to you orders, there was a matter on our minds we’d like to address.”

“Very well,” the King responded, almost hesitantly.

“With respect, my King,” Nah said, “we’d ask you to partake in a candid conversation between us. A few questions to further strengthen the trust and understanding of our relationship.”

Xårełlęi’s eyes roamed curiously across the four spies before settling upon an answer. “You may proceed.”

“Firstly, my King…” Nah asked while crossing her arms. “Why is Princess Alora always under the constant shadow of your presence?”

“Is it because you seek relations with her?” Nana added as a supplement.

“What do you mean?” Xårełlęi asked, his eyes widening slightly.

“She means sexual relations, King Xå—”

“I know what you meant!” the King barked. Xårełlęi then backtracked the point in his mind. “My pointwas, whose to say I haven’t already?”

“With respect, it’s fairly evident the way you act around her, my liege.”

Xårełlęi looked as though he was physically slapped before his eyes pulled to his legs in embarrassment.

“And yet, you enjoy the Lady from Leviathá regularly,” Nini continued, a nearly transparent attempt to save the King’s face. “Why pine after the Princess when you have Natalia’s beauty at your disposal?”

“You obviously have no idea how the male mind works, Nini,” Nah said in response. Xårełlęi would silently thank the red-eyed servant for speaking on his behalf.

Nah then directed her attention to the King. “I suppose the question we’re trying to ask is, what exactlyis Alora’s significance?”

Xårełlęi thought for a moment as the blush in his cheeks receded. “It’s difficult to translate into words. I suppose I am determined to master her, like a seasoned breaker seeks to tame a mustang.” His eyes shot up to the four servants. “And no, not simply for relations.”

The four servants allowed a collective smirk before addressing the next obvious matter.

“Well, it must be disappointing to you that Alora has won the attention of Lord Ezra,” Nah posited. “He seems to harbor no inhibitions towards your assumed involvement with the Princess.”

Xårełlęi’s eyes flared with a brief, brilliant envy. “Yes, he has stones, that one does.”

“We could always kill him,” Nana posed suddenly. “Discreetly, of course. Perhaps a little poison in his tea…”

“We’ve seen enough death as of late,” Xårełlęi said, skirting past the horrific nature of the proposition. “At any rate, his presence might force my hand towards a full and healthy appreciation of Natalia’s affections.” His shoulders then shrugged with a visible defeat. “I suppose no King is without his failures.”

The spy sisters looked at one another before Nah spoke. “You obviously care about the Princess in ways we may not be able to comprehend. But that doesn’t mean we shan’t aid you towards your goals, in all the ways we are able.”

The King’s demeanor shifted upon hearing the words, and a grateful smile lifted to his face.

“What do we know about this Lord Ezra?” Xårełlęi asked, his tone more relaxed and receptive.

“Typical, good-looking, spoiled nobleman,” Nah said with a smirk. “He does seem to be a bit mechanically inclined, however.”

Mechanically-inclined, you say?” Xårełlęi briefly mulled on the revelation. “So he isn’t an absolute waste of flesh?”

“Apparently not,” Nah affirmed. “You might even be able to assign him duties on the Steambreather.”

“Truly?” The King was now lost in thought, taking a few moments of consideration before he spoke again.

“We shall invite Lord Ezra along on the Revelation. Be sure Princess Alora is alerted as well, through an indirect channel.” Xårełlęi leaned his head back onto his hands as he peered towards the ceiling. “I might be dooming myself, but what is life without an interesting amount of uncertainty?”

The four spy sisters smiled in collective admiration. It seemed the King had won them over on some unspoken level.

“If you ever needed a challenge that isn’t Alora,” Nana suddenly proposed, “you could enjoy one or all of us. We’d be more than happy to oblige.”

“I could hold a dagger to your neck as we made love,” Nah suggested with a slight lean to better expose her chest. “Or you could hold one to mine.”

Xårełlęi would empty his lungs with perhaps the deepest exhale of his life. “I’ll keep that option in mind,” he’d finally say, a bit more enthusiastically than he intended.

“Go now, loyal sisters of the King. You have your orders.” Their grins were pulled taut upon their faces as the four spies departed.


Xårełlęi found his quarters on the Revelation more comfortable than his experience under Onyx’s care, despite the smaller size and comparative lack of amenities. The decorations were modestly militaristic, a welcome diversion from the layers of black that seemed to beg for wails of sadness and woe. The bed offered coarse, olive-green blankets upon his specific request, and a large, circular window presented a horizon of water beneath the rippled glow of the sun’s gradual descent.

The King was laying above his bed’s covers and lost in his own thoughts before they were interrupted by a knock upon his door.

“Good afternoon, sir,” came the greeting of the fresh-faced Lieutenant Moon. “Princess Alora and Lady Natalia have boarded and are currently being assisted with accommodations. The company of kingsguard have taken their stations as well. We shall depart upon your order.”

Shall Lord Ezra be joining us? was the question left unasked at the King’s lips.

“Let us depart,” the King finally said with a breath. “We shall enjoy a dinner together in the dining hall, once Natalia and Alora are comfortable.”

Her mind was uneasy, often racing in her forced stillness. Each day that passed her by brought about feelings of frustration and impatience. Time was wasted waiting for tender wounds to mend, and the familiar emotion of powerlessness visited her as often as Lady Natalia. While she wove a yellow thread through a taut, white cloth stretched across a circular wooden frame, there was some relief, concentration offering her an organized thought process to distract her from things she could not change. But, if there was any benefit to resting it was the ability to plan, to focus on how best to deal with the potential obstacles she might encounter. There were many, and she was but one person. Alora could trust no one, most of all the one person who she would inevitably hurt the most. Try as she might to justify what she might have to do, her stomach still writhed with guilt and shame.

The Lady of Leviatha came to Shantha with the sole purpose of pleasing the King. She never asked, but she suspected that some of her overt affection for him was performative– not all entirely fake, but not all genuine either. It couldn’t possibly be when she was so fearful of the consequences of disappointment and failure; pressure from her family, expectation from the King, and the internal weight of that responsibility on her shoulders. Alora felt for her, and yet she knew that their friendship was similarly insincere. It was not unconditional, intact only under the circumstance that she was not also vying for the King’s favor. As she recalled their tense first encounter, there was no doubt in her mind that Natalia would go to great lengths to ensure she came out on top. She had to be prepared for the worst . . .

Her head lifted at the odd cadence in the hall. She looked to the door, brows raised with genuine surprise as the King appeared on the threshold of her room. Laying down her decorative project, she looked him over, more sympathy than she anticipated forming on her visage. Perhaps it was the memory of how attentive and thoughtfully accommodating he was in her moment of panic, or the knowledge that he was so determined to find her when she was taken that made her soften at the sight of him. Her more vengeful feelings surfaced quickly enough, snuffing out the little embers of concern with a douse of bitter ash. 

“Thank you, Your Highness. It is good to see you well, too.” She said, doing her best to smile. The brilliance of it was subdued, not how she would have liked for it to appear. It was going to be more difficult than she thought to feign interest when his better qualities were constantly overridden by her resentment. Now, with his eyes wandering to the bouquet of roses sent by Lord Ezra, she sensed his deflation. Before she could stop him from planting the seed in his own mind, he quickly changed the subject with an awkward clearing of his throat.

“ . . . Thank you, Your Highness. I look forward to it.” She hated the suspense, but she was glad to be returning home to familiar territory, where she would feel more comfortable. Still, she would be just as wary of the King. His surprises were often double edged swords, requiring her to sacrifice one thing for another. 


“You’re moving around quite well, Princess Alora.” Lady Natalia mentioned at her back while they moved down the Revelation’s narrow hall. 

The ship was so large that she could barely feel them move as they disembarked, shoving off from Ronah’s port. Alora had been on a ship before in her youth while traveling with her father to distant kingdoms. The vessel had been crafted well, but the rolling waves made her ill the first few days at sea. But, she expected as much from one of Xarellei’s modern marvels. Like the Steambreather, the Revelation boasted astonishing functionality and comfort, offering them much of the same luxuries they were afforded on land. Her room was spacious and comfortable, not far from common areas for her own ease. At first she worried about all the stairs and ladders, the heavy metal doors that required two hands to open, but it seemed her convenience was taken under consideration. 

“The nurses insisted that I move a little each day. It hurts every now and then, but I’m getting a sense of when to expect it.” Twisting or turning naturally always resulted in sharp aches. Even deep breaths elicited a painful response at times. “The only good that has come of my condition is being free of a corset for a while.” The Princess wore lighter dresses, made from material that did not hang so heavily on her frame. Breathing was easier without boning and tightly laced ribbons cinching an already petite form. The layers of flowing, pale blue chiffon was significantly less restrictive as it highlighted the allure of her natural silhouette. “I wince at the sight of one, and–”

Her words were cut short as the entrance of the dining hall came into view. A tall man ceased his pacing, pausing as the women approached. Alora had heard that Lord Ezra had been invited aboard the ship, but she dismissed it as a rumor; something inferred from their interaction at the Grand Council and the flowers he sent to wish her well. Pleased as she was to see him well, though his arm rested in a sling, his presence was both unexpected and problematic. But, the smile that he wore warmed her heart all the same. 

“Lord Ezra, what a pleasure it is to see you. I didn’t know you would be joining us for our journey.” Alora offered him her hand when she reached him. As he took it into his own he held it firmly, letting his earthy gaze meet her own. For a moment she thought he might bring it to his lips but he hesitated, most likely afraid to appear too eager or presumptuous. A dance was just a dance, but a kiss was an unmistakable gesture of affection– one that might have been disrespectful of his gracious host. 

“Princess, it is such a relief to see you. When you were taken I was so distraught, mostly with myself. I wish I could have defended you more fiercely.” He bowed, lowering his eyes as regret filled his voice. 

“Please, that is nonsense. You defended me with your life. How could you have done any more?” She shook her head, eyes soft as he straightened. “I planned to write to you to express how grateful I am to you, but since you’re here . . . Thank you. Thank you for your bravery and selflessness.”

“Of course . . .” There was a long pause where he simply held her hand, staring into her bright green pools as if bewitched by her. “And, Lady Natalia, it is also good to see that you are well. My apologies for not acknowledging you sooner.” Lord Ezra offered her a bow when he finally pulled himself from his daze, releasing Alora’s hand.  

“It’s quite alright, Lord Ezra. You have the gratitude of the King and I. We would have both been devastated had we lost the Princess.” Natalia was quick to draw lines even in Xarellei’s absence; she and the King on one side, and Alora on the other. The ecstatic grin she wore rivaled that of a Cheshire cat, pleased with the turn of events in her favor. Though some of it might have been real excitement over a blossoming new romance, it was likely also excitement for her own security– a sign that she was closer to success than before. 

She might have been right . . .

“Come, let us wait for the King. I’m sure he won’t be long.” Lady Natalia moved ahead of them, into the dining hall where a table had been set for them. She took her usual place to the King’s right, letting Alora claim her own seat to his left. “His Highness will more than likely thank you himself. He is quite fond of Princess Alora.” 

Her gaze flicked up to the Lady of Leviatha, wondering if she heard her correctly. 

“I believe he thinks of her as a little sister or something similar. He’s always fussing over her, fretting over whether she’s had enough to eat or looking after her if she’s too far behind. He’s very considerate of her.” 

“Indeed, he is.” Alora smiled into her cup, concealing her amusement. She almost barked with laughter at the assumption regarding their relationship. She wondered how she would react to knowing that the King manipulated her into his bed, that he turned her away to rest beside her.

It was a great story. Kelyn couldn’t help but smile, her eyes fixed on the road as she imagined him as a

The King found himself peering over the railing of the Revelation’s deck for hours at at a time. He quite enjoyed the when the river bled into the distant ocean’s horizon, especially when the sun floated near dusk with washes and ribbons of vibrant color. The sight invoked strange, ethereal sensations… something like fleeting glimpses from a past life. Xårełlęi might have once been a simple fisherman, free from the heavy weight of a powerful King’s ambitions.

A sort of mental malaise descended upon the King shortly after he took to his room on the Revelation. The brunt of it stemmed from the weight of disaster which abruptly ended the Grand Council… his Grand Appeal to occupied Ronah, and eventually the world. His forces ultimately prevailed over the Red Threat, but they were nevertheless caught by surprise, implying a crippling lack of foresight. Perhaps his kingdom’s unchecked arrogance was not quite the asset he had proposed to his generals. Perhaps he was misguided about other things as well…

There was also an exhaustion that coalesced from his practiced facades, and it had possibly contaminated his recent decisions. The King had invited Lord Ezra onboard the Revelation, but why? Some subconscious desire for penance? His weary mind likely saw Alora slipping away alongside the Grand Council, and sought to boldly test the creeping hand of fate. She and Lord Ezra shared glances along the lines of fledgling lovers, and had certainly graced each other’s minds at night. In a way, their embrace would be a relief from his own delusional pretense that Alora was somehow reserved for the King’s pursuit. But there would be repercussions, should Lord Ezra be the one to claim the Princess into his arms.

Rob me of Alora, Xårełlęi quietly dared, and my passion for her shall channel itself appropriately. My conquest will sweep across this world with a dominance that will last an eternity.

The King’s newfound spies were the welcome addition to his arsenal that kept his spirits afloat. They floated like ghosts on the landscape of a ship’s deck, prone to startle those who rounded corners or pushed through the shadows of hallways. Their dedication to Xårełlęi was evident, and they were refreshingly forthright through their discussion and consultation.

Xårełlęi couldn’t remember much from the dinner he spent with Natalia and Alora. Soon after the King took his place at the table, he felt his mind float to a corner of the dining room, as if to objectively witness himself detail his proposal. Ŝhanthah’s sovereignty was the first point, inspired by the well-dressed man’s question at the public podium of the Grand Council, moments before a sea of red robes drowned the King’s answer. Following this would be the reinstatement of Alora’s parents upon their thrones, with a transitory period involving his troops and dignitaries assisting with political and economical affairs.

I will leave Ŝhanthah better than I found it, the King vigorously emphasized… but there was a disappointing hollowness in his words. They somehow resembled the vacant promises of a politician.

The King was at a loss to recall Alora’s reaction, whether she was excited, thankful, concerned, indifferent… most likely she despised the idea of Xårełlęi’s residual influence upon her kingdom in anyshape or form. At this he would silently concede that there would be those whose hearts and minds he simply could not reach.

Of course, behind the veil of diplomacy was the truth which dare not leave his lips, yet another facade to perpetuate. Behold, Princess Alora, my attempt to win your favor towards spending another night in my bed.

He had previously dangled Alora’s parents to force her hand towards obedience. But her lack of willingness ultimately made her warmth upon his bed unsatisfying. He supposed Natalia had the near perfect blend of obedience and willingness that he quite enjoyed, once his experimentations bore the fruit of lust.

At this reflection, the King would visibly wince. Even with Natalia’s beauty, he had to experiment. As a young man, just the thought of her would have driven him mad with lust. His life was so complicatednow, and Xårełlęi supposed his tastes had evolved accordingly…

Perhaps in some parallel life, his spreading conquest was instead the bloodless crusade of enlightenment which he had conceived from the start. Perhaps in this life, he and Alora got along swimmingly and were on the way to their fourth child.


“Sir?” Lieutenant Moon interrupted his fog of thought with a look of hesitancy. “You’ve been standing here for a while… is there anything I can do for you?”

The King turned to him with eyes yet to return from some far-off place. Through the distance there was a glimmer of recognition… his officer looked so young, almost resembling a boy trying on his father’s uniform.

“How did I look to you, Lieutenant?” the King suddenly asked.

“Ah… sir?” Moon would tilt his head with slight confusion.

“My eyes just now, the way they looked. How would you describe them?”

“Ah… wellum sir, I guess you looked a bit…well… lost,” the Lieutenant said after carefully deciding upon the right word in his mind.

The King snorted a laugh as his eyes returned to the water. “Huh. Lost.” A peculiar smile lifted to his face, while Lieutenant Moon looked all the more mystified. Their conversation would hold in place as the King considered his officer’s choice of word.

“I’ve never been lost, Lieutenant,” the King finally remarked in such a way to close an argument. “I’m just charting a new course.”

A knock at the King’s door was eventually answered with Xårełlęi in pajamas and his face half-shaven. He would be greeted by Natalia in a flowing night gown, flanked on either side by Nah and Nana, or Nih and Nini… gods, he couldn’t keep them straight in his head.

“She persisted,” the pair said in unison before parting their separate ways. Natalia deliberately brushed past the King’s chest as she entered his quarters before finding his eyes.

“My King, you’ve seemed so… distant, lately,” Natalia said with some concern. “I thought the warmth between my legs might help ease your mind into place.”

The casual frankness of Natalia’s words lit a spark within Xårełlęi, but it would quickly fade. “You’re right, I have been distant,” the King agreed. “I doubt my ability to rouse myself tonight, but your presence is always welcome.”

Natalia looked disappointed as she sat herself on the King’s bed. “Your… fire was clearly evident when punishment was dangled over my own pleasure,” Natalia observed quietly. “Perhaps now I… wholeheartedly accept this dynamic between us.”

“Perhaps you do, Alora,” the King said with a smile.

There was a moment of silence before a series of blinks fluttered across Natalia’s eyes. “My King, did you just call me…

A flood of embarrassment would swiftly rise before it was rejected outright by the King’s brusque state of mind. A wave of sleepy relief would instead take its place.

“I did. I called you Alora.”

Natalia blinked once again, her ears pulled and eyes narrowed towards some semblance of accusation. “Why would you…

“I suppose I crave her company,” he explained with a shrug that rose from the deepest bowels of callousness. “Alora is beautiful, and I seek to bed her.” The truth felt magnificent upon the King’s lips, no matter the impending consequences.

Natalia’s mouth fell open as tears welled in her eyes. “But… I thought that…”

The King couldn’t help himself now. “Thought what? That you alone satisfied me? That the Princess somehow escaped my eye?” He’d shift on the bed while considering his next words carefully… ensuring his truth was accurately expressed.

“You do satisfy me, Natalia. This I’ve said, and now reassure. And yet, my cup runneth over with the desire of those beyond my reach.”

The pair sat silently on the King’s bed for quite some time. Natalia, her face flushed and her cheeks wet, would be the one to break the heavy air with a raspy declaration.

“You may, my King.”

“I may… ?” The King seemed to stir from the depths of a daydream.

Natalia steadied herself with a shuddery breath before speaking again. “You may call me Alora.” Her hand then reached for the King’s palm and guided it slowly to her breast.

“My heart aches…” A sniffle would catch her throat and start her words again. “It aches, but it will mend with time. For now, I am obliged to your satisfaction.” Natalia then leaned close to Xårełlęi and whispered near his ear.

Fuck me. I am your Princess Alora.

A white-hot lust swallowed Xårełlęi from head to toe upon hearing the words. He wasted no time tearing off the clothes between them before pinning Natalia below his weight. The King’s eruption quaked across his body after a mere moment’s thrust, looking down through his mind’s mask of emerald eyes and fair skin as he moaned the Princess’ name, soaked in absolute ecstasy.

General Rolander was a sight for Xårełlęi’s sore eyes. He was easy to pick out amongst the company of soldiers waiting for the Revelation’s arrival at Shanthah’s riverside port. The Revelation was waved in, docked and boarded, with escorts quickly assigning them to the King’s side, as well as Natalia’s and Alora’s. The King’s four spies were introduced to a curious Rolander, who eyed them with brief suspicion before allowing their presence alongside the kingsguard.

From the port, a smaller brother of the Steambreather would transport the King and his party to Ŝhanthah castle in a half-day’s time, where weary legs and minds could find their rest. An exhausted Xårełlęi had arranged for his night’s departure before Rolander intervened with his presence. A deep, measured breath would steady the King’s patience at his chamber door before allowing his general to speak.

“My apologies for interrupting you at such a late hour, my King. But I sought to confirm your Lieutenant’s report… you had begun talks towards Ŝhanthah’s sovereignty?”

“Yes, general, I had.” The look on Rolander’s face desperately wanted to ask why.

“I am formulating a plan, Rolander.” The King’s smile reflected a cryptic certainty. “One that will render these political games obsolete. One that ensures the world’s obedience, alongside its willingness.

Rolander’s gaze widened slightly at the King’s words before an unspoken understanding swept over his mind. He then excused himself with a slow, rigid salute and a clip-clap of his boots.

As the doors opened the casual conversation between dinner guests silenced. They rose as the King entered, waiting for him to take his seat at the head of the table. To Alora’s surprise there was none of the boastful pomp from the Grand Council, where he touted his success in conquest and innovation. She thought it might have been due to his injury, a limited mobility wearing on his spirit and stamina. Not even the likes of Natalia’s wiles seemed to tempt his engagement for long, a brush of his hand or an inviting smile only gaining his focus for a time before he appeared distant once again. Pleasant talk carried on without him, though it made for an awkward atmosphere. When Xarellei finally did break free of whatever fog clouded his mind, he revealed a most unexpected intention.

The Princess was stunned, so shocked that she was without words to express herself. There were too many emotions attempting to prevail, too many rapid thoughts to wrangle. At face value, it was exactly what she wanted; to be free of Xarellei, to take back Shantha, and restore power to her family. There was even the promise of all the betterment of his resources, the revolutionary marvels he deployed to offer solutions to the long-time gripes and troubles of the common folk. His modern wonders had improved quality of life by leaps and bounds, and despite the price that was paid for them she could never quite bring herself to scoff at their value. Depriving the people of things that would make their life easier would have been a selfish trade for independence and power. The hard decision was taken from her hands, and the relief that came in the absence of that weight was so immense that she couldn’t hide the gratefulness that appeared on her countenance. 

She wanted to ask why

The only possible reason she could think of was that he was, indeed, letting her go– releasing the idea that she would forget the hostile nature of their takeover, forget the manipulation and coercion, and the hope that she might fall into his arms. After all, he had invited Lord Ezra aboard the ship and seemed to acknowledge his admiration of her. If he truly believed that there was a chance he would not have placed himself in a position to compete with another, unless he had no intention to do so. Alora couldn’t be certain . . . In fact, she never could be sure of the King’s motivations, which made her question just how genuine the offer was; if there were strings attached to his gracious offer. 

“Thank you, Your Highness.” She managed despite her confusion. Her gratitude seemed to dispel any tension that had accumulated with her silence and his obvious disappointment. “I’m sure we’ll discuss the matter more when we arrive in Shantha, but your gesture is most kind, as is your thoughtful accommodation for the citizens of the kingdom.” Alora wore her best smile, ensuring that its warmth was absent of any quality that could be misconstrued as gloating or delight. As she went back to her plate, her food looked less appetizing. Even its taste has lost its bold flavors as suspicion began to set in. 

“I would have loved to see the engine and boiler room. I hear it’s an amazingly complex structure.” Alora admitted as she and Lord Ezra reached the main deck. The sky and the sea were just as vast, seemingly endless with deep blue, rolling waves meeting the azure hue of a bright horizon. Clouds were sparse, and the air was filled with a faint, pleasant brine. She enjoyed the ocean view from the nearest ledge, her hands resting on the rail for stability out of habit. The way the Revelation glided on the water made for a smooth journey even when met with rougher currents. Not once did she feel her stomach sink with nausea or her head become heavy with dizziness. 

“It is, but hardly worth straining yourself going up and down stairs and ladders, Princess.” Lord Ezra said, joining her. He leaned his back against the sturdy rail, his arms folding across his chest as he took in a view of his own. 

She could sense his lingering gaze, playfully insistent on her attention. He would look away the moment she turned to meet it, she knew. Alora had tried to catch him many times before; admiring her while she inspected strange wonders on the ship, or simply in passing as she went about her day. She got the sense that he received some satisfaction in drawing her eye, and as much as she wished to deny him the pleasure her competitiveness wouldn’t allow her to. Emerald orbs flicked up quickly, meeting his earthy, hazel stare. It was nothing short of smoldering, brimming with an unspoken desire that caught her off guard. Completely ensnared, she felt her cheeks bloom with color, a rosy tint becoming on her fair complexion. 

“Did you know the King and I were not involved?” She asked to cut the tension which was thick and palpable, like the air before rain. Alora found herself mirroring the charming smirk that favored one side of his lips. 

“No, not at first.” He moved closer, his gaze unrelenting. “I just wanted to dance with a radiant woman.” Briefly his eyes fixated on her golden locks, how her strands caught in the wind and ghosted around her lovely visage. “I thought to myself, ‘if I were in possession of such a beautiful woman, I would wear her on my arm so that everyone would know she is mine.’” 

The possessive nature of the word sent a ripple down her spine that left goosebumps in its wake. 

“His Majesty arrived on his own, not even the Lady of Leviatha on his arm. But, I am no fool. He covets the both of you, despite Lady Natalia’s belief to the contrary. I am more sure of it now with Shantha’s impending sovereignty. It is . . . unprecedented, and so I am left to assume that you are not as attainable as I’d hoped when I received the invitation aboard this ship.” 

The Princess lowered her eyes, his point resonating with the thoughts that kept her up at night. 

“I could be wrong,” his lifted a hand, delicately raising her chin to capture her bright green pools once more. The pad of his thumb gently ran over her lips, appreciating their softness, how lush and plump they were. “I hope I’m wrong because I have never been more enamored with anyone in my life.” 

In that moment, he began to lean in and close the gap between them. Alora wanted him to claim her lips with all the passion in the promise of his words, consequences be damned. She pushed herself onto her toes, her eyes beginning to shut in anticipation of the taste of his lips when a movement in her periphery made her pause. She pulled back a bit, able to see the material of a black robe pull around the corner. 

Those damn Weird Sisters.

“S-sorry,” she apologized, her voice faint with regret when she realized that she couldn’t risk his life or jeopardize her own mission with reckless, fleeting thrills. As she stepped away the warmth of his body dissipated, fading faster than she would have liked. “You’re right, it’s a complicated matter best unburdened by . . . more complicated emotions. If things were different–”

“There’s no need to explain, Princess Alora.” The young Lord didn’t appear too dejected, though traces of regret coalesced with the longing as he let the Princess have her distance. He turned, elbows resting on the rail to stare out to the expanse of the ocean. “But, if things were different, indeed.” A cheeky grin was all it took to salvage the moment, return them to contentment despite the remnants of passionate urges fueling forbidden tension.

*** ​
“I thought you would be joining us as a guest in Shantha’s capital.” Lady Natalia’s tone was oddly accusatory. Her displeasure upon seeing Lord Ezra pass off his belongings to his own staff was one of many off behaviors. Where there was once a vibrant and enthusiastic demeanor, there was now standoffishness. Her recent detachment wasn’t cause for alarm at first. Alora assumed that she was allowing her to spend time with Lord Ezra without the hindrance of her company, in hopes that they would grow close enough to blossom into lovers right before the King’s eyes so that she could become his one and only flame. The frustration that drew her brows down and wrinkled her nose seemed misplaced.

“Apologies, Lady Natalia. I would have loved to join you all, but I can’t leave my estate for too long. I have business to attend to, but I plan to visit soon.” His brow rose as the Lady of Leviatha conceded, bitterness still evident upon her features. 

“Of course. It’s just a shame. You were getting along so well . . . Safe travels, Lord Ezra.” She turned, not so much as a respectful bow to punctuate the empty farewell. 

“Well, Princess, this is where we part ways.” He smiled, taking her hand. His thumb brushed over the back of her palm. He had hesitated before, but he lifted her knuckles to his lips. He closed his eyes, pressing a lingering kiss to her hand. “I do hope we can see each other again soon.”

“You could very well be banished for a time if you don’t behave yourself in this moment.” Alora playfully admonished. The port was busy, bustling with merchants and sailors along with the King’s detail rushing to ready them for another short journey. Eyes and ears were attracted to more astonishing things, the spectacle that was the colossal vessel and the vehicles that hummed with life, but they would not be entirely overlooked. 

“As you wish, Princess. I will take my leave now.” He rose, releasing her hand finally. 

“Safe travels, Lord Ezra.” She turned, a lingering look over her shoulder as she was escorted to their vehicle. Sitting down, she felt a tug of loneliness. Lady Natalia had claimed a seat so far away, the iciness of her aura repelling her. Alora expected that she would want details, to hear of all the things they spoke about and shared with one another. The disinterest was tangible, aggressive even– so much that she didn’t dare look her way. If it was exhaustion that wore on her tolerance, the Princess was happy to allow her space. 

Her excitement to see the spires of Shantha’s castle made the short journey feel long. Alora was anxious to walk the familiar halls, take in the scents of home, and feel the softness of her own bed. She thought she might immediately feel the embrace of fatigue when they finally arrived. Instead, she was wide awake, an internal clock haywire from lack of routine. As she walked behind Lady Natalia, she wondered if a bit of rest had helped her mood. 

“Would you like to have a cup of tea before bed? I could get one of the servants to brew a relaxing chamomile . . .” Alora trailed as Lady Natalia continued to move ahead, blatantly ignoring her. “Are you . . . Are you upset with me? If I’ve done something wrong, I would –”

Nothing is wrong, Princess Alora.” She said firmly, turning on her quickly forcing her to pause. “I have been with you morning, noon, and night for weeks. Must we be joined at the hip always? Are we not allowed to be individuals?”

Alora flinched at the harshness of his words, but also at their validity. They had been spending quite some time together, and she had grown accustomed to her company– to a tiring degree, it seemed. “I’m sorry– of course. I didn’t realize I was not giving you sufficient space, and taking up all of your time. It’s just . . .” She never got the sense that she was a burden before. “Please, forgive me. And, have a good night.”

Xarellei. He had to be up to something. There could be no other explanation for Natalia’s sudden sour mood, just as he had done before when he threatened punishment. The Princess marched to his room, a fire burning beneath her heels as she passed guards and eventually came upon the pale-faced sisters. They flanked his doors, glancing between one another at the sight of her approach. 

“Princess of Shantha, do you wish to see the King?” One asked eagerly, excitement barely contained. “He is not here at the moment, but will be soon.”

“Yes. Soon. Please enter, make yourself comfortable.” Another chimed, opening the door to his chambers. 

She hesitated for a moment before stepping forward, crossing the threshold into his room. His space was prepared for him, candles lit and a fire crackling pleasantly in the hearth. Alora took a seat in a chair nearby, trying not to lose the fuel of her anger as she waited.

“We’d have to push farther,” Stafford said.

“Swim deeper,” Leonard added.

Xårełlęi sat at a table with his pair of senior scientists as he reclined leisurely upon his chair. A lone torch on the wall provided the only beacon against the absolute blackness of a windowless room. In his hands was the crescent-shaped toy he shared with Natalia a few nights before, traveling to and fro between fingertips that were intent on the strange texture that felt like wood but wasn’t… it was somehow beyond wood, as was the shell of the Steambreather.

They had approached him shortly after Rolander was relieved for the night… There was Dr. Stafford, with his bushy red hair and beard atop a lanky frame, with freckled skin and stone blue eyes that expressed a keen intelligence. Dr. Leonard accompanied him, a shorter, heavier man with a thick neck braced by a mason’s shoulders. His dark, yarn-like tufts and beady gaze were loud contrasts against his partner. They both wore off-duty uniforms hidden mostly away by white coats.

Despite the King’s exhaustion, the arrival of his scientists was a signal he could not ignore. Somehow, they had sensed his mental workings through some ghostly channel he wasn’t able to comprehend.

“You seek the Door again,” Leonard said with a low, confessing voice.

The King nodded at his doctor’s observation. And here they now were, an impromptu meeting that could not wait until the following day, with Rolander and a pair of his white-faced kingsguard stranding watch outside a locked doorway. In certain ways, the King knew the men in this room more intimately than any woman from his bed.

“We’ll push as far, and swim as deep through the Door as we need,” Xårełlęi said. “And we shall prepare appropriately.”

The Door imposed sensations that seemed unique to each individual. The King entered its hallowed gate with his scientists and felt an immediate excitement on the other side… an immense feeling of connectivity, as if the barrier of minds had been dropped. Coordinates were set beforehand to direct them to time periods most useful to their objectives… How they were set was another mystery, known only to Stafford’s and Leonard’s meticulous calculations.

It seemed to reduce its entrants to a vibration… an undetectable hum of existence that traversed mountainsides with a simple thought, climbed the sides of buildings with the ease of will… Obstructions such as walls became laughing matters, and their secrets were easily exposed. And thus the King’s scientists could watch engineers from other times with the intent to learn, tapping into their adjacent hum as one would place their ear upon a wall and listen to a conversation from an adjacent room… touching upon the focus of minds working collectively towards a single purpose.

The sensation as a whole was strangely, deeply, delightfully intimate… the King often wondered what his experience would be with Natalia or Alora at his side as willing escorts through the Door.

Occasionally, a physical specimen was obtained and brought with them through the Door, but their acquisitions were typically the sole knowledge and expertise to build and create… which was always more than enough.

“So then,” Stafford began. “My first suggestion is introducing an agent into a kingdom’s water supply that would ensure its compliance towards our goals.”

There was a moment to process Stafford’s thought. “So essentially, we’d be poisoning a kingdom into obedience?” Xårełlęi posited.

“That’s one way of putting it,” Leonard remarked with grim subtlety.

The look on the King’s face resembled a thoughtful grimace. “I’m not sure if I’m taking well to thatparticular approach. What other options are there… could be there?”

Leonard shifted in his seat as Stafford spoke. “There might be a way we can… broadcast the mandate of docility through the collective apparatus of unassuming towers.”

Broadcast. Xårełlęi considered himself a perceptive enough individual, but he did occasionally have trouble following the points of his scientists. The technical jargon they often used wore itself to exhaustion rather quickly. His mind conjured the image of a boat casting outward with broad waves upon the water…

Leonard could visibly see the King’s mental gnawing of the concept and explained it further. “Think of it as wind,” he continued. “A wind that caresses the mind with a silent, persistent command of obedience. Stretching as far and wide as our towers can carry the message.”

“And this wind wouldn’t… hurt anyone?”

Leonard smiled. “No more than a glass of whiskey hurts you by forcing your drowsiness.” Xårełlęi gave a slow, satisfied nod.

“Will Ŝhanthah be our initial observatory?” Stafford asked.

The King feigned a moment of consideration. “Out of my respect and admiration for the Princess, we shall designate her kingdom as exempt,” was the answer already waiting at his lips. “Ronah shall be our testing ground for the time being.”

“A week’s time?” Leonard asked for clarification. There were a pair of nods, from both the King and Stafford.

“I’m sure Director Renthall will be delighted to participate in such a project,” Stafford said.

“I’m sure he would,” Xårełlęi said with a curl of a smile.

And thus his scientists excused themselves the room… Dr. Stafford, with his technical terms describing sexual release as orgasm while he maintained his asexuality, and Dr. Leonard, with his fondness for chess and childhood toys… They both of course were acutely aware of the King’s weakness for the Princess, but dared not to speak of it.

The sight of Alora invoked feelings of warmth, curiosity, and uneasiness in equal amounts. Xårełlęi wasn’t sure why the Princess had come to visit him, but if she had questions to ask, the King doubted his ability to be tactful with his responses… especially after his enlightening experience with Natalia the prior night. The truth upon his lips, it seemed, had set his mind free, for better or worse.

And for better or worse, the urge towards a brazen proposal was more intense than it should have been…

I’ll happily entertain your presence this evening, Princess, if you share my bed once again.

“I’m glad to see you looking so well,” Xårełlęi finally said while changing into his robe and nightly attire behind a dressing screen. It seemed another consequence of his newfound enlightenment was an impatience that bordered on shamelessness.

“Now then, dear Princess. How may I help you this evening?” The King couldn’t help the eagerness in his eyes as he moved towards his bed, leaning upon its headboard with a steady arm as he engaged Alora’s audience.

Just like the flames that lapped and bit at the burning wood in the hearth, her irritation was sufficiently fed. She thought her temper might wane with time, feared that it would dwindle as the seconds ticked away. An irrational impatience only fortified her annoyance, and every moment that passed contributed to a sense of false urgency. Her inquiry could have waited till morning. Hours between now and then would have done little to deter her, even if it would allow her to organize her thoughts and suppress emotions that might detract from valid concerns. As the Princess sat fireside, tapping a restless finger against the carved, mahogany arm, she attempted to sort through a mess of implications and suspicions caused by a series of uncharacteristic gestures– particularly with regard to the offer of Shantha’s sovereignty. 

She wanted to believe that it was genuine, that he’d tapped into a tiny vein of decency; the same one that he used to calm her when her chest tightened frightfully, or when he visited her ward to wish well. Those moments were free of imposing pressure, thoughtful deeds done without expectation. While the King’s proposal was seemingly absent of devious intent, she couldn’t shake the feeling that it simply hadn’t been presented to her yet. It wouldn’t have been the first time he withheld information, revealing it when it suited him in order to tip scales in his favor. 

A twist of the door knob pulled her from her thoughts swiftly. 

The King crossed to conceal himself behind a partition. Alora could hear the rustle of fabric as it left his body one article at a time. She allowed him the benefit of the doubt, hopeful that he would not misconstrue the nature of her visit. Though he could have waited to hear out before readying himself to turn in for the evening, it was late and the day had been long. 

The Princess rose when he emerged from behind the partition, releasing a mildly exasperated sigh as his path led him toward the bed. She stepped forward but maintained her distance, wary of what ideas her proximity to his bed might conjure for him. 

“I’m concerned,” she admitted, a slight tilt of her head making a cascade of blonde locks sway. “And, I feel as though I have so many reasons to be concerned, Your Highness. I’d like to start with the fact that the Lady of Leviatha is now ignoring me, out of the blue it would seem. She is usually high strung after evenings spent in your bed, but as of late she has been particularly set on avoiding me. It is unfortunate because I’ve done well to ensure I am no obstacle in her pursuits for your affection. So well, that she believed that you cared for me just as one would care for a sibling.” Alora moved closer, her measured steps carrying her toward the foot of the bed. “I don’t suppose you would have some . . . insight as to why she is suddenly so irritated by my presence?”

The Princess’ inquiry somehow pulled a portion of brashness from the King’s demeanor. His ghost of a grin fell away while his hand rescinded its grip from the bed’s headboard and retreated into his pocket. In a way he looked liked a guilty youngster ready to confess some misdeed that would surely result in punishment.

Alora’s question had an obvious answer, but should the King dance around the particulars? Would he dress his reply to better suit some unseen audience?

“She is likely jealous,” the King sighed with a hint of regret. “Natalia grudgingly tolerated my preference of your name during our lovemaking. As a matter of fact, all my cravings of late have been rather… challenging for her.”

“And if you doubted my intentions in regards to your kingdom’s sovereignty,” Xårełlęi continued in an effort to immediately address all potential concerns, “I can reassure you they come with no strings attached. Your kingdom shall be free, and hopefully bettered with the legacy of my influence. I can only pray it becomes evident to you after the fact.”

The King then shifted his weight to his opposite hip, a sort of restlessness rising to his limbs. “Stay patient, Princess Alora. You’ll finally be rid of me, sooner than later. Now, was there anything else? Perhaps about Lord Ezra?” The last question seemed to almost slip out of the King’s mouth, accompanied by a fierce envy in his eyes.

Color blossomed across her cheeks, heat bringing about a pink hue that burned in tandem with the shock that froze her through and through. The King’s shameless reveal stole all thought from her brain momentarily, the gears grinding to an abrupt halt. The steam generated by her temper cooled, doused with a sudden gust. Alora couldn’t find the words to recover from the unexpected and despicable admission. It was no wonder the Lady of Leviatha shunned her so abruptly, that she could hardly look at her without bitterness singing her taste buds. Though she had been preparing herself to disappoint Natalia, she planned to be as tactful as possible– to try to salvage amicable feelings and avoid ill will. Single-handedly her hopes were toppled. 

The King easily predicted her next concern, attempting to lay her worries for Shantha to rest. Her green eyes searched him, honing in on every feature to try to detect the slightest hint of deceit. Despite no trace that he was intentionally being duplicitous, she couldn’t allow herself to relinquish that unsettling feeling that something was amiss. It was, perhaps, that she didn’t understand why he suddenly wished to release her from his hold. When she took his unusual appetites and obvious envy into account she knew she was right to suspect some sort of backlash for thwarting his previous advances. 

A smile tugged at her lips, a small curl that held an almost devious quality to it.

“Should I be concerned about Lord Ezra?” Alora had been content to keep her distance before but she moved toward him, slow steps carrying her to the side of the bed where he stood. “Or, should you be concerned about Lord Ezra? I don’t really think you are . . . Just like I don’t think you want me to be rid of you.” The Princess paused when she was toe-to-toe with the King, staring up at him with a provocative kind of curiosity that made emerald orbs glint alluringly. She lifted a hand, placing a palm against his chest where she could feel the thrum of his heart. 

“I think . . . You want to believe that you can just walk away, leave this kingdom without feeling the sting of loss or leave me.” Slowly her hand trailed downward, fingertips dragging along a trail that led lower and lower. “You are a conqueror through and through, so greedy for the world and everything in it. How could you spare me?” The hand that tempted his body halted at the sash tied about his waist. She let her slender digits wiggle into the knot, using it to pull him in closer so that he could feel the plushness of her chest. 

“You can reassure me all you’d like but I simply can’t believe you . . . So, what is it that you’re trying to do?”

The King folded his arms behind his back, his watch never wavering from the intoxicating green gaze of the Princess. Amidst her tantalizing touch, Xårełlęi steadied his thoughts as a focused, impassive sentry, despite the boiling hot excitement below his waist.

“As far as Lord Ezra,” Xårełlęi began after an awkward swallow, “I was the one who invited him on the Revelation. Partly as a gesture to ease your potential discomfort during the trip, but also as…” He paused to collect his words, and the expression on his face grudgingly allowed a type of humility.

“I suppose I recognized the opportunity to study him from afar. You seemed quite charmed with the fellow, and through my haze of jealousy I saw a way to learn and observe… my social prowess is admittedly limited, Princess. I know how to lead an army, how to command a soldier, how to direct an order…

The King’s hand reached for Alora’s enticing fingers and clasped them firmly but gently, lifting them to his heartbeat once more.

“I’ve previously manipulated you into my bed, and I’m resisting the ridiculous urge to order you there now. I am just…” The King closed his eyes and winced softly. “I fear my failure with my Grand Council has affected me in ways I couldn’t predict. I couldn’t focus on a damned thing with that weight on my mind.”

“And then there’s your kingdom…” The King’s hand gave Alora’s palm a sensuous squeeze. “Yet another frivolous attempt to somehow earn your favor in spite of myself. But that’s not the whole of it, of course…”

Xårełlęi steadied his indigo gaze and closed whatever gap between he and Alora. In his heart and mind, the King knew that the words assembling on his lips were folly… for they could jeopardize his goals in ways yet foreseen. And yet, due to fate or arrogance or both, he brazenly spoke against his better judgment. Alora’s warmth and touch had its way of loosening his guard.

“My scientists and I are developing a way to render my weapons of war obsolete… a bloodless method to bend a kingdom and its people towards their best interests. Politics will soon be a thing of the past, and my presence needn’t persuade a stubborn King, be it from his own castle or across the span of an ocean.”

The King then stepped back and straightened his shoulders, lifting his chin while maintaining the lock of his vision.

“Alora, you have my word that I shall honor my evacuation of your castle. Of course, I would seriously entertain any notions of remaining here as a guest, along with my kingsguard and perhaps a small garrison of troops…” The smirk on Xårełlęi’s face readily accepted the unlikelihood of that outcome.

“And now that I’ve bore my heart and soul to you, Princess, I suppose you’d be on your way for the evening.” Alora’s palm remained nevertheless clasped, and the King’s gaze held fast. And then, the inevitable proposition.

“If you spend another night in my bed,” the King said with a keen glance, “I would tell you more of this instrument of mine.” He smiled while releasing Alora’s hand. “The choice is yours.”

The King exhibited more composure and restraint than she expected, but he was not entirely without indication of struggle. While his demeanor was collected, cool and controlled despite an inciting hand, his speech informed her that he was a little more affected than he let on. Small pauses seemed to allow him to fend off temptation, awkward silences letting him gather his thoughts. But, her gentle provoking was overcome soon enough. As he reached for her hand and returned it to his chest, she could feel how steady his heart was– powerful still as it rapped in its confines, but absent of the erratic fluttering of dishonesty. His motivations were not betrayed by any disingenuous gesture; not defensiveness or avoidance. There was more sincerity in his expression than she anticipated, candor and vulnerability slowly extinguishing her doubts. Flawed as his reasoning was, she didn’t sense devious intent . . . Until the mention of his work with scientists.

Curiosity flared in her eyes once more as she tried to understand his cryptic plot to end war and conflict. It sounded like a utopian concept, one that she might have scoffed at if it came from anyone else. The contraptions and devices in his arsenal were frightening at times, but she recognized their usefulness and how effective they were for their purpose. There was little question of whether he would be successful at creating such a thing, but there was a question of how dangerous it was. 

The Princess believed that moment for honesty and openness had come and gone as Xarellei stepped back. Though he maintained a gentle hold on her hand, she anticipated that he would close the door now that her immediate concerns had been addressed. After expressing all the measures he’d taken to act on her wishes to be rid of him, she was caught off guard by his offer. Alora forgot herself for a moment, her features dulling at the shameless request. Without the pressure of a difficult task, she would have swiftly turned the offer down and retired to her own chambers for the evening. Her own self-preservation prevailed, and gradually an unamused visage turned to reflective thought. 

“. . . I will stay with you . . .” She agreed, far less disinclined than even she thought she would be. Alora knew more about the King now. He was far from a gentleman, but he had never forced himself on her– not even when the opportunity presented itself before. With that in mind, she felt confident that he would not overstep his bounds. More so now with his display of restraint. 

Alora moved over to the partition, concealing herself behind it so that she could reach behind her and tug at the bow behind her back. The material loosened around her petite waist, giving her enough room to lift her skirt over her head. With the delicate layers gone, she was left in nothing but a silk white undergarment, so fine that it was almost sheer. The thin and airy barrier just barely grazed her sensual silhouette, following her every sultry curve. A healthier appetite ensured that supple assets appeared fuller, volume in her hips and chest making delectable assets more prominent. When she emerged from behind the partition she seemed to realize just how bare she felt. Her nightgown before, while just as light, at least provided more coverage. Still, she was confident as she moved to the opposite side of the bed, removing the pins from her hair to let more of her glorious, golden waves free. 

“I’ve always been curious about your . . . attraction.” She started, striking conversation in hopes of distracting herself from her inner discomfort. “Surely it is not my defiance that causes you to want to earn my favor, or resort to using my name in your intimate activities. You know nothing about me,” Alora laid her pins down on the small table beside the bed before sitting down to remove her earrings. “And, there are plenty of beautiful women who would willingly satisfy your desires. Is this a common occurence of yours, fleeting infatuation?” For all she knew there could have been more unattainable Princesses and Ladies before her, conquered or unconquered beauties that managed to drive him to grand acts and great lengths. She pulled the blankets back, placing herself beneath their warmth.

The King scoffed playfully at Alora’s comment. “Curious, you say? I believe you’d sooner extinguish my pursuit by veiling yourself as a gargoyle than invest any sort of curiosity to my… attraction.” His glances towards the Princess seemed cautious, as if indulging upon her voluptuousness might abruptly forfeit his discipline.

Xårełlęi then joined the Princess under the covers, bringing with him a scent of sandalwood as he shifted and settled underneath the soft drape of silk. His dark hair was tousled and frayed, draping over his forehead and just above the deep blue of his eyes. An accidental brush of the King’s foot against Alora’s shin sent a shudder up his leg that he hoped went unnoticed. His arms eventually folded at his sides with hands underneath his head as he looked up to the ceiling.

“Why do you believe my infatuation with you to be fleeting? I’ve imposed myself upon you for months, and here I am enjoying your presence beside me, despite my awkward manipulations. I’ve previously posed the notion of you birthing my successor… much to your horror, I’m sure, but that would surely suggest my interest is far from fleeting.”

A deep pull of breath seemed to dismiss the expectation of Alora’s rebuttal, shifting to the matter at hand.

“Before anything else,” the King explained with a glance, “I must tell you of the Door.”

A pickaxe punched its way through a wall of bedrock, allowing a beam of light to pierce an ancient darkness left unperturbed for centuries. The hole was widened to allow the peek of a curious eye with the help of a lighted match, and an excited voice followed suit.

“Stafford! Leonard! I’ve found something!”

Prince Xårełlęi was quickly joined by his colleagues from either direction. A series of forceful shoves further widened the hole, revealing an ancient room with carved walls and a tented ceiling. Once they climbed inside, Stafford was quick to post a lantern into the floor and light it ablaze, and what they saw took their breaths away…

There were a pair of rectangular posts, some three yards apart and five yards tall, resembling polished rock with innumerable glyphs written upon them from some lost or unearthly language. The encompassing awe eventually allowed coherence to trickle into the trio of minds.

“Do you have it?” Stafford asked, turning his head to the Prince.

Xårełlęi nodded before reaching into his pocket to reveal a crescent-shaped object with a sphere affixed at its center.

“Very good,” Leonard said. “Now all we need to do is figure out what’s next.

The three slowly circled the structure, their eyes taking in more of its mystery while adjusting to the dark. The grooves of the glyphs reflected the lantern’s scant light like angular waves of water reflecting an orange moon. Chatter between the observers fell away against a commanding fascination that absorbed all questions into silence.

Finally, Xårełlęi’s tired legs would sit upon the cold rock floor with a crack of his knees. “How cruel that even an enigma such as this can grow tiresome,” he sighed.

“Your crescent is the key, I’m sure of it,” Stafford said softly.

“Yes, well… I’m not able to… ” The Prince’s words drifted into thought. Absentmindedly, his crescent toy was nestled with some effort upon a groove that jutted from the floor.

A sudden burst of light lit the room with startling intensity. A sheet of shimmering, translucent cyan materialized between the posts, bringing with it an unearthly hum that echoed upon itself and drowned the air with sound.

Gods!” Leonard cried as his arm lifted defensively. Stafford had backed himself against a wall of rock, his mouth agape and his eyes tearing from fear.

The Prince, meanwhile, was transfixed. He lifted to his feet and studied the ripples of shimmering blue before him. His mind was consumed by curiosity.

“No… wait!” Leonard’s warning was the last thing Xårełlęi heard before he slipped through the sheet of light…

He could hear the cries of terror from his colleagues, yet their mouths were still. A sudden excitement swept across the Prince’s skin, followed by a strange feeling of violation, as if his sense of being was now exposed. He rounded past the pair of rectangular posts and focused on the hole which led into the strange room from the wall of bedrock. Leonard and Stafford were no longer there, but the Prince felt no fear or concern. 

What should have been nearly an hour’s march to daylight took a fraction of the time. The mouth of the cave peered from a mountainside ledge towards a dusk that cradled the approaching night with layers of orange and violet. The sun appeared still, yet felt in motion. The Prince would chew on the sensation and try to decipher its relevance to no avail.

A glance to the right revealed the village of Xara, hazed by dust and distance between folds of hills. There was a thought, and the Prince suddenly found himself in the main square, draped by the saloon’s shadow. To his left was a blacksmith’s shop, and then he was inside to discover a short, curly-haired man with bulging, branching veins along his heavy arms. He was tending to his anvil with hammering blows upon a sheet of red-hot iron. Each blow offered a wealth of knowledge…

A moment of lucid objectivity offered the realization that the Prince couldn’t be seen or sensed, or was simply being ignored. He approached the blacksmith’s hum of focus and dedication to his craft with an outstretched arm, tapping into its vibration along forked fingertips. Decades of his profession were translated into a mind’s breath, absorbed like beads of sweat against a dry sun. The Prince could now smelt a broadsword as well as any man.

The blacksmith’s wife entered his shop with a glass of tea, and the love for her husband swirled like an aura, coalesced with the undying affections towards her past suitors. A spiraling, aggregate, eternal force, love seemed to be…

The ceiling of the shop offered no resistance of reality and presented the Prince with the view of a soaring falcon. A thought, and the Prince joined it in the sky. It was functioning on a hunter’s instinct brought on by an empty stomach, but there were also the foundations of complexity as well. Love and lust, fear and wonder, anger and compassion, they were all there, indiscernible to the shallow, arrogant eyes of man.

The clouds then parted before the Prince, offering the briefest glimpse of a world towered by glass buildings and millions of wheeled carriages without the burden of horses… and oh, the ferocity of weapons…

That’s enough for now
, the Prince heard through the wind that carried his mind’s wings. Those weren’t the exact words, but it was the exact understanding. A pull of incomprehensible force transported him before the Door’s watery sheet of cyan as it beckoned him back to the world from which he came…

His return through the Door swallowed him within the deepest silence and the darkest black. Leonard and Stafford were nowhere to be heard, and the Prince staggered about until he tripped his way to the cave’s primary tunnel through the trial and error of his mind’s map. Its ascent was an uncomplicated slope, but exhausting just the same.

Somehow, the Prince managed his way with heavy boots through Xara as onlookers gawked at him under the crisp light of the noon’s sun. He eventually trudged himself to the castle gate and collapsed at the feet of sentries whose eyes were widened with sheer disbelief.

Xårełlęi awoke sometime later in his bed, tended to by a lovely nurse by the name of Autumn. His crusty eyes pried open to find his colleagues at his side once again.

Prince Xårełlęi,” Leonard said with resounding relief. “Thank the Gods. We were certain to never see you again.”

Why… would you think…” Xårełlęi’s voice croaked through a torn, dry throat.

Stafford and Leoanard looked wearily at one another before they collected their answer. “You disappeared for three weeks,” Stafford explained through a swallow. “We had lost all hope for your return.”

“That was my first experience with the Door,” Xårełlęi said to Alora. “A story fit for a novel, I suppose. An adequate first chapter.” The King smiled weakly at his own jest.

“From there my scientists and I experimented. Simple tests at first, you see… but our knowledge expanded, and the Door’s accuracy was perfected. We found that not only could we explore our currentworld, but others as well.” The King sat on his words for a moment, as if to absorb their magnitude. “Some with varying degrees of similarity to our world, and some that are almost indescribably different.”

“Knowledge of weapons and tactics were acquired towards my goals of conquest, which I now recognize as folly. There must be a better way… my failure with the Grand Council has blessed me with a great awakening, Princess.”

“Which brings me to my great instrument.” Xårełlęi closed his eyes and exhaled while preparing his words. “An apparatus that coaxes all minds into collective acceptance and docility, thus allowing the freedom of clarity… its influence felt instantly across the span of all kingdoms.” The King’s hands spread apart to illustrate his point, then clapped together to punctuate it.

“The Red Dissent has taught me to push for more. A world rid of strife, focused without fear or prejudice towards its own betterment, its own perfection. All kingdoms as brothers across all lands. This needn’t be a fearsome transition, for I have witnessed the potential of this world and the accomplishment of others. That is what I strive for, Princess.”

The King then turned to his side and faced the Princess directly. Now more than ever, he wanted Alora to be still for him as he ran his tongue along the fork of her thighs.

“There’s something else from the Door, as difficult to explain as everything else…” The King sighed through his words as he considered each that passed his lips. “But I’ve felt… echoes that I’m certain represent the essence of you. Our entanglements from past lives, perhaps, or hints of our future, but…”

Without warning, he pulled towards the Princess and pressed a kiss upon her, awkward but affectionate, his tongue mostly sheathed. A moment’s astonishment would pass before the King relinquished himself with a look of regret and apology, grimacing as he turned his back to the Alora underneath the covers.

“I somehow feel that our fates are entwined, and yet there seems to be more evidence that this notion is untrue, that my predications are unfounded. Perhaps that is the delusion that I am cursed to bear.” The King’s limbs settled into harmlessness upon the mattress, and his breathing fell into a slow rhythm.

“If only you could experience the Door for yourself, Alora.” The King breathed his wish through a shudder of disappointment.

Did she part her legs for you?

Xårełlęi abruptly sat up in his bed in a bout of confusion. He couldn’t recall the pull of sleep before it took him, which rose a brief sense of panic. Looking to his right would reveal that Alora was not beside him. All throughout his chamber was a hazy, black mist that seemed to tug from the void.

“Hello, who’s there?” he called through the dark.

His four spies would suddenly materialize at the foot of his bed, side-by-side and hand-in-hand.

“Holy gracious…” The King drew back like a startled cat as his hairs stood on end.

Hello, your Highness, they greeted in unison.

A dawning realization quickly overtook his alarm. “Have you four somehow invaded my dreams?” he’d ask with a sneer upon his lip.

We have our ways, they chorused. Just as you have your own way of carelessness and arrogance.

Xårełlęi narrowed his eyes. “How do you mean?”

Your brazen divulgence to Alora of the door and its key, the sisters said with a seething impatience. You’d jeopardize your goals of conquest for the faintest chance of sexual succor with the Princess? 

“You truly believe that Alora would somehow use my secret against me?” The King asked, allowing a slight wash of concern across his eyes.

Nah folded her arms. Perhaps not deliberately, but she would almost certainly share it with someone out of her disregard or spite.

that person might share it with someone else, Nih added, to drive the point home.

Xårełlęi considered the prospect with a finger to his chin. Before long, his thoughts settled upon a satisfactory solution.

“There is nothing I can’t turn to my advantage,” Xårełlęi declared with a clear confidence. “The Door can be used as a trap, should I deem it necessary.” He smiled contently. “No one knows of its workings more than I.”

The sisters sat on his words with an exchange of glances before speaking again.

Perhaps you should be a little more careless with your key. To see who might have the inclination to steal it.

The King’s smile spread wider. “A facsimile of my key,” he’d add with a nod.

The four sisters appeared to be pleased at this notion. Very well, King Xårełlęi. Our loyalty remains with you, and you alone. The sisters then faded into the black mist, and the King fell back upon his bed to clear his thoughts before the onset of sleep.

Worlds Apart – 01

■ My submissions  

■ Partner’s submissions


This one was one of my favorites… with a very talented partner who elevated my style and effort. Sadly, all things must come to an end.

Kingdom Xårełl, and stalwart King with power craved.
Forbidden explorations through blackened magic’s aid;
Weapons stolen throughout the streams of place and time;
Helpless Gods against their own ancient blessing of mind.


The proud and enduring kingdom of Ŝhanthah was overrun in less than a day. King Xårełlęi’s forces charged forward towards its stronghold from perilous terrain serving as beds of bones for ancient conquests that fell woefully short. Castle walls were scaled with the ease of gravitational instruments; metallic birds rained fire with hellish shrieks to neutralize turrets; impenetrable tanks rapidly dispersed soldiers towards towns and villages. The brazen colors of Xårełl’s flag quickly claimed the winds once belonged to its displaced predecessor, reflecting the dominance of the invasion.

Despite the frightful domination by Xårełl’s military, there had been surprisingly little bloodshed. Ŝhanthah’s subjugation had been so swift that its defenses had desperate little time to grasp their dire predicament, much less alert and mobilize their armies. The sole exception to this mercy was the military. Ŝhanthah generals and other high-ranking officials were promptly executed, albeit in accordance with Ŝhanthah’s own humane policies.

Diplomatic tactics by Xårełl’s king were quickly implemented to best maintain order during the turbulent period of transition. Many of these were based around the emphasis on seamless integration of economy and culture between the two kingdoms. Amidst the shock of their kingdom’s hapless surrender, merchants were allowed to resume business upon submitting an oath of consonance to their district’s representative. Women and children were, for the most part, spared any maliciousness or exploitation.

Ŝhanthah’s stronghold, however, was handled with much more forceful discretion and tactical secrecy. There were many influential noble and political families who were quickly captured and escorted to unknown locations, meant to douse the flame of rebellion. Labour camps were presumed to be involved in their fates, or worse. The quarters of Ŝhanthah’s King and Queen were claimed and cordoned, with quiet rumors grieving a pair of hooded figures hastily marched towards the gallows.

Princess Alora de Anadan was one of the few nobles whose fate was privy to the kingdom’s general populace. She was well looked after, though rarely seen beyond the interior walls of her fallen castle. Escorts of soldiers always accompanied the Princess when her appearance in public was required. Her prepared speeches were always stiffly recited with seething resentment. Yet she served her purpose as an incumbent figurehead meant to express Xårełlęi’s intentions towards peaceful integration. Though King Xårełlęi arrived as a conqueror, his role now shifted inexorably towards peacemaker.

Indeed, as the dust of conquest settled, Princess Alora de Anadan proved to be an unlikely thorn in Xårełlęi’s side. Somehow, despite the strict regulation of publicized reports on the happenings within the occupied stronghold of Ŝhanthah, the Princess’ defiance kindled periodic rebellions and served to fuel an undercurrent of insurgency. This lingering nuisance prompted efforts by Xårełlęi to somehow bridge the chasm between them.

Mandatory evening dinners paired the Princess with Ŝhanthah’s new king in dining halls. Forced conversations soured far beyond their initial awkwardness, to the point of hopelessness. In silent desperation, King Xårełlęi decided he would alter his approach as his elite guard escorted her grudging demeanor to their evening banquet.

The dishes were exquisite as always, prepared by King Xårełlęi’s personal chefs. As the setting sun carved yellow lines through the castle’s barred windows onto the large, oblong table reserved for dining nobility, the Princess sat on the opposite end from Xårełlęi, shielding her eyes from his. She had refused to eat in stubborn protest, and now the delicate drape of skin across her neck distinguishing well-nourished royalty was gone, though her alluring figure remained.

King Xårełlęi, on the other hand, seemed to look more robust by the hour. Perhaps it was the glow of conquest and satisfaction. His resonating voice bellowed commands from afar to his storming armies; to those near and close, now that the war was done, his discourse rolled like distant thunder.

He was tall with a soldier’s physique, though many edges were softened with the spoils of victory and indulgence. Dark wavy hair trailed down to a thin beard that framed a square, chiseled jawline. There was a curious scar visible across his left cheek, trailing up to his left eye. His skin tone was a soft olive, reddened a bit from the sun’s summertime assault as lands were conquered and terrain was traversed. His indigo eyes matched the dark blue uniform adorned with buttons, cuffs and collars of maroon and gold.

King Xårełlęi, in an unconventional gesture, dismissed his dignitaries so that he and the Princess could be left alone in the dining hall. He then turned his attention to the matter at hand and with a sigh, began to speak.

“Alas, I believe these dinners weren’t the opportunities for civil discussion I hoped they would be.” His words offered concession and magnanimity.

The Princess remained still, staring blankly at her empty plate. “Civil? You?” she said with a scoff.

“I can be as such, yes.” The twitch of a smile emerged on his face. “As can my people. As can conquest be instead a blessing, coinciding with God’s plan.” Alora de Anadan said nothing. Xårełlęi continued.

“Your people are thriving once more. Only now, with the stability of my abundant empire backing them.” He gestured towards the window with his hand, palm open. “Famines and droughts will never again befall this land. Our efforts…”

“We were doing well enough without you.” The Princess looked up briefly after her curt interruption, her eyes ablaze with accusation.

“Were you? My agents informed me otherwise.” Xårełlęi shifted as he sat up in his seat, his eagerness to pursue the topic brimming to the surface.

“Agents?” The Princess hated the twinge of interest in her own voice.

“Quite a few, actually. All returned similar reports.” Xårełlęi leaned forward, clasping his hands together. “Hunger was becoming more and more prevalent amongst your people. Diseases came and went, only to come again.”

“Don’t you see the dire necessity of our integration?” Xårełlęi implored with the briefest crack in his voice. “If you can somehow look past…”

“Look past?” The Princess lifted from her seat with a shudder of anger. “Look past the atrocities your army inflicted upon my kingdom? Your facade as some kind of peacemaker is beyond embarrassing. Peacemakers do not impose themselves, do not displace families, do not execute Kings…” A tear welled with the last emphasis, her eyes meeting Xårełlęi with key ferocity.

Xårełlęi’s gaze flickered a realization, or perhaps a confirmation of suspicions. “Ah yes. Your father. I did suspect that I would never secure forgiveness for my necessary maneuvers to ensure the stability of our entwined kingdoms. But towards the latter point…”

He reached into his coat and retrieved what looked to be a small, sealed envelope. Alora de Anadan’s name was addressed in unmistakably fresh ink. That, and a familiar script… the unmistakable writing of her mother.

“Yes, she’s alive. Your mother and father both.” Xårełlęi reached towards the Princess with the envelope, offering it with the hesitation of conditionality. “Though far from here for the time being. You’ll see them again in time… if henceforth you cooperate with my kingdom’s goals.”

Her temper flared, anger simmering just beneath the surface of the veneer of her composure. The hair thin fissures threatened to fracture, to become torn faults to reveal the true depth of her feelings. Upon feeling the prickly sensation behind her eyes, the one that made her brilliant green hues briefly become glassy with sorrow, she quickly reined her emotions before they got the better of her. Alora released him of her pointed gaze, returning her attention back to the untouched meal before her. Her appetite had been lacking. With a stomach that was in knots constantly hunger pangs were lost anxiety and despair, outrage and helplessness. Though appealing to the senses, the food on her plate was treated with disinterest as her fork simply shuffled potatoes from one side to the other. Still, her beauty and allure remained. New handmaidens insisted on maintaining her appearance, no doubt by some directive to keep her well-kempt should she need to be in the public eye suddenly. 

Across from him she was a vision in red, her off-the-shoulder dress as vibrant as rose petals. The neckline flattered her abundant assets and the color was a compliment to her eyes, which were especially prominent since her platinum blonde locks were swept away from her face by an understated gold tiara. Lustrous, wavy tendrils cascaded down her back. The radiant gown fit her like a glove, accentuating a figure that was notably thinner. Her waist had always been petite, but the boning of the corset that cinched her was almost unnecessary. The fabric of the skirt that flowed to the ground was delicately voluminous, leaving no other indicators of her diminishing mass as it concealed the rest of her body.  

The Princess longed for the silence prior to their heated discussion, preferred it to the forced and often shallow conversation that she unwillingly endured. It seemed that silence would not return so soon.

A soft sigh passed parted lips at the sound of his voice traveling over the dinner table. Once again, Alora lifted her eyes to him. Rather than the glare of contempt or indifference, curiosity graced her countenance upon seeing the letter. Her heart stilled at the sight of the penmanship, the familiar strokes of ink that resembled her mother’s writing. She wanted to believe that it was some underhanded trick, a foul ploy to fill her with hope. But, the distinct curls at the end of the letters . . . It would have been a hard personalization to falsify. Alora set her fork down, her full and undivided attention on Xarellei as he spoke. His words hit her like a punch to the gut, and almost as though she couldn’t quite hold herself upright the Princess leaned back against her seat. She was overwhelmed with emotion, battling relief, confusion, excitement, and wariness all at once. 

Both her parents were alive . . . And she could see them again . . . It was almost like a dream– like being awakened from a terrible nightmare where she was all alone in the world, only to find out that her loved ones were still among the living. Immediately she became aware that there were details that she needed. More than that, expectations to manage. 

“My cooperation hinges on your agenda. I care deeply for my mother and father. I know them both well enough to know that they would be displeased if I used my sway and influence to further your ambitions for Shanthah and its people. I must consider what I know they would want me to do in their absence. Among those expectations, I believe they would not want me to allow myself to be used as a pawn for your objectives. So, surely you see my predicament?” Alora explained, leaning forward a bit now that her wits were about her. “Do not think me so sentimental that I would jump headlong into betraying the people of Shanthah just so I could see my family again. At the same time, I would be cruel if I did not consider your offer if it means sparing them pain or consequence.” She said, eyeing the letter again.

The day they were taken from her haunted her. It all happened so quickly, and yet every detail was seared in her mind. While her father commanded the army alongside the General, she and her mother were locked away with startled soldiers to guard them. She recalled the explosions, how loud they were and how the ground quaked beneath her feet. She had never felt so . . . powerless. Alora could do nothing as her mother was ripped away from her, presumably to be slain alongside her father. No amount of mourning seemed to lessen the hole left by their absence. 

“Are they well? Unharmed and healthy?” It would be a lie for her to say that she was unconcerned over their well-being, something she did her best convey. She wanted nothing more than to see them again, and the distant look in her eyes was indicative of her hope.

The large, barred windows of the dining hall offered an exquisite view of a lush courtyard as Princess Alora de Anadan inquired about the welfare of her parents. Streaks of amber light from the setting sun were now painting textured strokes across the coarse stonework, their fading vibrance solemnly declaring the imminent arrival of dusk. A bright sliver of light caught the cupid’s bow of King Xårełlęi’s pursed lips… lips that twitched alongside narrowed eyes in what seemed like a taken moment of offense. King Xårełlęi’s placid features quickly resettled themselves, however, before leaning forward in his seat to address the Princess’ questions.

“My intention was to arrive here as a conqueror… and not as a savage. Your parents surrendered amicably despite the turmoil infiltrating their kingdom… an admirable concession indeed amidst the wake of overwhelming uncertainty.” The subtle implication of the King and Queen’s prompt submission being the deciding factor in keeping their lives could not be ignored.

He then stood from his chair with a locked gaze upon the Princess, allowing his height and frame to impose an unspoken word of absolute authority before walking a short distance away from the dining table, his arms folded behind his back.

“Your parents have not been harmed. They are closely guarded and receive adequate care, with one of my trusted physicians assigned to their wellbeing.” Xårełlęi allowed his revelation a pause of silence before continuing.

“I will refrain from threatening their lives. To stoop that low would compromise my position of magnanimity. There are, however, certain agreements that could be arranged to allow for your visitation… perhaps even tonight, if you are so eager.”

A provision followed shortly after Xårełlęi’s proposal. “You’ll understand the formality of being accompanied by myself and my kingsguard I’m sure, but I’ll politely stay my distance as you reacquaint yourself with those you love.” He then turned to face again the visage of Alora de Anadan, with indigo eyes affixing themselves firmly upon his captive.

“Believe it or not, I understand completely your resistance and your reluctance. Honor runs strong in Ŝhanthah, proven with her people’s fierce dissent. Conquerors are almost never welcomed and seldom entertain mutual interests. But I say this to you now, Princess… Ŝhanthah will remain conquered and secured under my rule. How arduous that transition will be largely rests within your lap.”

King Xårełlęi then reached into his jacket to retrieve the envelope he previously unveiled, tossing it softly towards the dining table. It slid to a stop within arm’s reach of the Princess, with its warm reminder beckoning her eyes further. He nodded towards it as if to grant permission before taking his place at the table once more. 

“It would please me greatly if you had just a bite of your meal,” the King casually remarked while studying Alora de Anada intently.

There was a hint of something, a twinge of rampant reaction subdued by pursed lips. Alora took pride in that miniscule triumph, satisfied that her unyielding response landed somewhere on the spectrum of displeasure. It was not her aim to be uncooperative where her family was concerned, but she hoped that she made her point clear: he could not use heartstrings to puppeteer her like some spineless marionette to campaign in his favor. Not so easily, and not without pushback. The moment was swift, however. The King regained his composure within mere seconds it seemed. As he spoke, she continued to nudge the food on her plate that was growing colder with each passing minute. Unphased and aloof as she appeared, the Princess was not without her opinions. He spoke of amicable and admirable concessions, but she recalled it quite differently. Whether their quick surrender was the primary reason for being spared the painful death she imagined, she was still of mind to believe that he was, indeed, a savage.

He likely didn’t feel as such. With his forces armed with magical devices that defied all comprehension, he probably thought he was superior to them all– that he, a man of great power, couldn’t possibly be a brute. Even now he resorted to threatening tactics to bend her to his will, rising out of his seat and traversing the short distance from his seat to hers to tower above her. Xarellei was an intimidating man, his form solid and imposing. Even from a distance one could tell that he was of considerable stature. Up close he was far more formidable, inspiring the slightest bit of dread in her. 

Alora set her fork down, turning in her seat to face him. It was clear that he was attempting to assert himself over her, but she did not shrink like a wilting rose. She allowed him her full attention, eager to hear of her parent’s health and well-being. She was relieved, a layer of the rigidity in her posture falling away. It looked as though an immense weight had been lifted from her shoulders. The Princess was still processing the fact that they were alive, and to now know that they were well was yet another reality to accept– one that would have been made easier if she could see them.

Just as she opened her mouth to demand that she be able to confirm with her own eyes, the King went on to explain that she could visit that evening . . . As long as she was monitored like a hawk by the Kingsguard. It was a small price to pay, but she knew there were other costs to consider. Alora reached out her hand, taking the envelope gently yet begrudgingly. Her green eyes examined it, and unlike other letters of correspondence she received the seal was unbroken. It had not been screened for intel or conspiracy, for word of grand schemes to overturn the King’s foothold in Shanthah. 

She used the dinner knife to release the navy, wax stamped seal. Beyond the address on the exterior of the envelope, the letter within contained more of that familiar handwriting. The warmth of her mother’s words leapt through the parchment, embracing her in the comfort of knowing that she was, in fact, alive and well alongside her father. A lump in her throat formed as she read loving sentiments and well wishes. Continually she had to swallow it down to prevent herself from unleashing the floodgate of tears that threatened to spill down her cheeks. It was a feat made much easier upon reading her mother’s last words before her signature. 

Be strong.

The Princess laid the letter on the table, gathering her thoughts for a moment before addressing the King again. 

“Thank you.” She said, turning back to her plate to take a small bite of her lukewarm food to appease him, begrudgingly. Alora was a bit regretful that she did. The deliciousness on her tongue jump-started her appetite when she would have much rather refrained from eating when discussing terms. 

“I appreciate that you’ve spared my mother and father. While I know that it was not a gesture born from a bone of decency, but rather a manipulative one, I still believe that you are a barbarian. How can I think otherwise when only a shameless savage would allow a woman to believe that her loved ones are dead, reveal that they are alive, and then dangle them before her eyes to prey on her desperation?” Unable to resist she took another bite of her food, chewing thoughtfully before continuing.

“I’m no stranger to negotiation. I have something you want, and you have something I want so I am willing to hear you out. Are you looking for my cooperation in perpetuity in exchange for sparing the lives of my mother and father, allowing me visitation, and ensuring their well-being, or is this ‘gracious’ invitation a singular event? I’ll not blindly accept your request.”

The dwindling evening light caught King Xårełlęi’s lips once again, only this time they fought hard against spreading a smile across his otherwise placid face. His chin did raise slightly to indicate a trace of satisfaction, but that would fade as quickly as his prior displeasure.

“War is a messy business,” Xårełlęi remarked with a strange, cordial tone. “A mandate stands amongst my armies to conscientiously relay directives for surrender once an appropriate advantage has been established. However, an opportunity to overtake this stronghold materialized much more quickly than expected, and we seized it forthright. Our actions were hasty and brash to ensure victory… at the unfortunate expense of instilling fear and despair within the highest Ŝhanthah ranks.”

A soft sight pulled itself from Xårełlęi’s lips in response to his own confession, one that may or may not have been genuine. He then squared his shoulders for what came next, his tone and demeanor pivoting to the topic at hand.

“I will not attempt to pry any more speeches from you. Your cold recitals are hopeless enough for me to abandon that method of persuading submission amongst your peoples.” A brief, stern gaze almost implied an abandonment of compromise before he continued.

“Notwithstanding, I don’t see any reason why the visitations with your parents cannot be an ongoing affair… always duly escorted, of course. But I’ll need you to commit to an ongoing arrangement as well.” The King’s eyes feigned a lengthy drift of thought, but the proposal was ready and waiting at the tip of his tongue.

“You may see your parents whenever you please if you henceforth sleep beside me every night.”

The heavy implications of his words were promptly followed by a clarification to dissolve any escalating presumptions. “The arrangement stops at simply being a warm body in my bed. You have my word that I will not impose myself upon you. Exactly how barbaric you believe me to be will weigh into your decision I’m sure.” His elbows were on the table now, with both palms pressed flat in an almost prayer-like gesture, his fingertips rested underneath the rib of his nostrils.

“But keep this in mind… I expect and enforce my armies to be a reflection of my own ethical code. Despite the necessity of your fallen soldiers, no Ŝhanthahan women have been raped, no children have been abused… the Xårełlęian code of honor runs strong, even as we entrench ourselves in conquered lands.” A sense of pride ran along the last of his words as he demonstrated the control he possessed over his soldiers, strong enough to temper even their urges for indulgence.

“Take all the time you need to decide. Perhaps some further observations of my behavior will sway your assumptions.” Xårełlęi then sat back into his chair with the sound of his uniform’s crumpled cotton.

War was a messy business, indeed. Her father instilled that irrefutable fact in her mind early on. While it had been many years since Shanthah had been challenged or compelled to battle, it was not the first time the land had been an arena for conflict. It was, however, the first time that they had been blindsided by war. Unlike the times before that she had learned about in their history, there was no tension– no smoke or fire to indicate that they would be the victim of unprovoked callousness. There was no threat, no formal declaration, no grave trespass to warrant the abrupt siege that inevitably saw to their conquer. The King spoke of honor, but her appreciation for the measures he had taken to ensure the safety of Shanthah’s women and children was muted by feelings of distrust. He was a devious man. Even his acts of decency were duplicitous in nature. The Princess could not allow herself to be swayed by them. 

“That is a pity.” Her lips curled into a faint smile as he remarked on her lackluster speeches, the many unenthusiastic and half-hearted orations she was forced to recite. The people of Shanthah clearly did not believe her lazy performance, and as such were no more inclined to accept the new rule as she was. The Princess was slightly wary despite being released from her pesky duties. She had done as she was asked, but failed to inspire the hearts and minds of the citizens. Adored as she was, it would have been easy for her to persuade the people over time, dispel their trepidations and ease their worries. She simply didn’t want to. Thus, their loyalty did not shift much in favor of their new King. Now, the King had another ask. 

Alora reached for her cup, taking a small sip of the sweet wine within it when the King stated what he was after. Her throat tightened suddenly and she was overtaken by a brief bout of coughing. She took a deeper pull from the contents, letting it soothe her. The Princess’ hand shook as she set the cup down, anger boiling inside her. Before she could tell him just how despicable she believed he was, he offered clarity; that he was simply seeking a bed companion in the most innocent sense. Even when specified, she was resistant. 

“Further observations of your behavior . . . “ She nodded, still trying to combat the outrage. His boldness truly knew no bounds. There was a stretch of silence, a length of time where she leveraged to focus on dousing the flames of fury so that she could think more clearly. When finally reduced to irritation, she began to contemplate how to address his request. 

“King Xarellei,” she said after some time. “You may believe that your request is a . . . frivolous one, that the act of allowing myself to sleep beside you is simple and without harm, but it is not. Even if it were an easy act to perform, it does not change my circumstances.” Alora let her hands rest in her lap, her once revived appetite going dormant once again. “I understand now that prior to invading Shanthah that agents of yours fed you information. Perhaps their goals were simply to assess our strengths and weaknesses, our defenses and our militaristic capabilities. I don’t suppose they mentioned that I am engaged to be wed? I believe my fiance, Duke Warren Vanguard, is being held in one of your wonderful camps. I would hate to further upset him with whispers that I am being inappropriate or unfaithful in his absence. Surely, you can think of something else that I can provide that would be beneficial to you other than my company? It seems that you are attempting to make me chose between my family and my reputation. If that is the case, I need no ‘further observations of your behavior.'”

The look in Xårełlęi’s eyes must have seemed patronizing as his smile flitted rhythmically alongside the points expressed in Alora de Anadan’s confutation, surely betraying the air of generosity he was trying to convey.

Fiancé. Engaged. Reputation. Choose. His lips twitched upon those words the most.

With the Princess finished, a delay in response stalled the conversation with uncertain implications as the King shifted in his seat. He then stood from his chair, abruptly but calmly, and sauntered with heavy steps towards the ebbing glow of a nearby window. The last of the evening light painted Xårełlęi’s silhouette with strokes of deep violet across his indigo uniform, his arms folded behind his back. Some time passed before a sharp inhale of air offered the only warning to the weight of his reply.

“Your life as it has been is over. The sooner you accept and understand this, the better… for both our sakes.”

The flash of an eye grimly emphasized his following point. “If your situation would be better realized with an official decree nullifying all standing engagements, do let me know and it will be enacted without delay.”

Xårełlęi stood silent then, basking in the faint remnants of dusk while his words settled as they may. His shadow lengthened slowly along the stone floor below his boots, blending in with shores of night that crept forth from each crack and crevice. With a shrug and the pull of a breath, he withdrew from the sharpness of his stance, if only temporarily.

“Far be it from me to stop you from steering our negotiations. Perhaps you have some mysterious, vital asset in your proverbial back pocket to dangle as your trump card?” The skepticism in his voice was evident, teetering on the edge of mockery, before he pressed forward with addressing Alora de Anadan’s request for another offer.

“You could always bear me a successor to the throne,” Xårełlęi entertained with a voice that acknowledged the absurdity of the proposition from the onset. “That would earn your parents freedom outright. The act of copulation could be as dispassionate as you see fit. No exchanges or embraces beyond the necessary. Once you’re confirmed pregnant we could then…” The King trailed off with a dissatisfied grunt, seemingly discarding his own suggestion with a dismissive wave of his hand. His demeanor then seemed to shift again, towards some contemplative acceptance of the cross he himself had to bear.

“You may think me a monster. That’s to be expected, and quite understandable. Just know that I intend to be the last monster, the last necessary evil, before the dawn of a new golden age. One that unites allkingdoms under enduring, everlasting peace. One that does not intend to abandon the old traditions, but to reshape and perfect them, for the benefit of commoners and noblemen alike.” Xårełlęi allowed himself a pause to collect his words before continuing.

“Clinging to life as it once was, with the hope of assumed arrangements and habits persisting beyond necessary change… only serves to delay life as it could be… should be. But old habits die hard, as my father used to say… even with the promises of enhanced life so clearly evident and available. As cold as it sounds, now is not the time for hope. Now is the time for trust… and obedience. And that obedience begins with you.”

“Who knows,” Xårełlęi remarked with the tone of an impartial observer. “Perhaps wishing death upon my still, sleeping body at night might prove therapeutic for you. I care not about claiming or controlling the thoughts that float in your mind, but to enjoy your body’s warmth and presence, even if only on a superficial level.”

With the sun fully set, castle attendants lighted the candles and torches inside the dining room before tending to those throughout the adjacent hallways. Xårełlęi’s shadow now reemerged to dance and play alongside the flickering flames as he awaited what the Princess might say next.

Alora watched as the Conqueror rose from his seat for the second time, gravitating toward the window as though the response to her explanation was somewhere out there. He seemed to be searching for it in the last vestiges of a setting sun, in the breathtaking gradient colors of a magnificent twilight. The Princess waited patiently, hope swelling within her with each beat of silence. She wanted him to concede, relinquish the absurd desire for her to sleep beside him and replace it was a request that was palatable. Another speech, another appearance, another endorsement of proposals that washed away the old ways and ushered in the new. But, the words that finally came granted her no measure of ease, carrying with them barbs that punctured her inflated hopes. The air seemed thinner. The breaths that filled her lungs became shallow, so slight that she forgot the rhythm of inhales and exhales that sustained her. Her long lashes fluttered as a faint feeling overwhelmed her momentarily. 

It was the implication of his words that carried the immense weight that affected her so deeply. The gravity of her situation was far more grave than she believed. Rarely did she feel the sting of unfairness. From her position of royalty, affluence and privilege, she was nearly immune to the kind of hardships that could conjure the word where it applied to her. She found herself envious of the simplicity of civilian life. The impacts of Shanthah’s defeat were minimal to them. They could, and would, go about their lives once they accepted the new rule. For her . . . 

The Princess finally took a breath, beginning the slow process of composing herself when he spoke of bearing him a successor. Though she could sense the jest in his musings and the tone of his voice, it was still a thought that sickened her– just as much as the thought of trusting him and granting him the honor of her respect and obedience. 

The doors opened and dutiful attendants entered to allow the light now that darkness was further settling into the room. She wished they left it as it was, thinking it was an appropriate ambiance for the kind of doom and gloom that hung in the dining hall like heavy storm clouds. Although Alora felt the cruel impulse to deny him a second time with an audience, vehemently and bluntly, she decided against it knowing it would only be a poor reflection on herself. Instead, she pushed herself up and traversed the short distance from the table to the window where he stood. Her stride was as elegant as she appeared, possessing all the grace and allure of what one would expect of a well-groomed lady. Green eyes searched, like his, for the words to respond.

“I do think you are a monster. An entitled one.” She admitted, her voice quiet and mindful of the eager ears of curious servants. “If you think that by performing the barest acts of decency will earn you my trust and my obedience, then you are sorely mistaken. And, if you think that simply nullifying my engagement to the man I love will get me into your bed, then you are mistaken again. I have had men, of all walks of life, do more to deserve my presence. I would more willingly lay beside a humble farmer than I would a self-righteous Conqueror who attempts to manipulate me at every turn to further his own agenda and desires.” The Princess turned her cold gaze upon him. 

It was true that men admired her, showered her with compliments and set their hearts on her hand. They performed grand gestures, gifted her with exotic presents, and swore their lives to her– the Duke among them. But, her usage of the word “love” where he was concerned was somewhat of a stretch, a means of making herself unattainable to the King.

“I wish to retire for the evening. I’d like to send my regards to my parents since I won’t be seeing them, since I’ll not be sleeping in your bed. Please excuse me,” she said curtly, giving him a slight bow before she began to move toward the door.

The brief glance from King Xårełlęi suggested he was quite taken with Alora de Anadan’s approach to his side at the window; to an observer, it must have seemed that terms were reaching a point of amicability. It wasn’t long before the Princess pertly excused herself, however, eliciting Xårełlęi to arch his stance upon his heels while he hurriedly delivered remarks towards her turned back.

“It’s that fire in you which I admire most,” the King stated as a point of revelation before a sudden pivot. “Why send your regards when you can speak them yourself?”

With a sudden snap of the King’s fingers, two attendants emerged on cue from the shadowed seclusion of a hall’s archway, rolling a cart towards the King and Princess. On the cart could be seen a strange, small device; squarish with a metallic sheen that reflected the flirtatious dance of the orange candlelight. Protruding wires and various indentations added to the mystery.

Xårełlęi’s nod prompted the attendants to tend to the machine in a curious way, seemingly preparing it for use. A startling, crackling sound gave way to silence, and then a familiar voice found its way through the magic box, as familiar as the writing on the letter which had brought a watery glaze across the Princess’ eyes.

“Alora? Alora, are you there?”

The offering of the King’s open palm invited the Princess to partake in speaking with the ones she loved. He allowed their exchanges for around thirty seconds before a motion of his hand cut their conversation to a sharp, abrupt end. Silence filled the dining hall once more, interrupted only by the squeaks of the cart wheels as the attendants removed themselves in accordance with Xårełlęi’s unspoken command.

“My apologies for the rude conclusion,” Xårełlęi stated with a hint of genuine remorse. “I did not want to interject my horrid voice and press you towards a hurried goodbye. I find that sometimes, a swift end is the best end.”

“Believe it or not,” the King continued while collecting his thoughts, “I had hoped to arrange a device that would have allowed you to see your parents. Right herein this very hall. I believe my engineers called it a… telescreen?” The King drew a rectangle in the air with his fingers, an almost child-like whimsy overtaking his typical stern countenance, before he gathered himself with a straightening of his shoulders.

“Your parents…” A heavy sigh spent itself through the King’s lungs upon their mention. “Their flame burns bright. As does yours, I must say. It is both admirable and alluring. Ŝhanthah’s fairest maidens have been offered to me, and I’ve rejected them all because they simply lack that… flame.” The King reached out with a brief shake of his fist towards the window before slowly expanding his fingers, as if cradling a flame within his palm.

“I’m sure my ministers would enjoy seeing my own flame doused, seeing my necessity reduced to that of a figurehead,” the King admitted through a solemn sigh. “Once my conquest has reached every conceivable shore and kingdom, my work will have been done. I dread the time when it comes, as inevitable as it seems… the day when the flame is doused by complete victory. What will there be left to do beyond politics?” Xårełlęi shook his head with disappointment. “I am not a politician, as you may have gathered by now.”

“Until then, it’s that fire that drives me… and I sense a similar fire in you. Even if its flames are kindled in resistance.”

The King then pulled himself away from the Princess, towards a large joint of shadow bracing itself against the corner of the dining hall. He swallowed himself in dark with only his lower legs and boots visible before another pivot in his tone, one distinctly more dark and calculated.

“My minsters suggested to me that your parents be executed. I immediately rejected that course of action. I did not want them to die as martyrs, to fuel generations or more of rebellions and insurgency. A fine line exists between the Ŝhanthah people distinguishing Xårełl between conquerers or barbarians, and we had already ridden that line past the castle gates… it was a line I did not want to cross.”

“An alternative was then presented to me, with the endorsement of my engineers. What if they could die not as martyrs, but as heralds? A public statement fully submitting to my kingdom’s reign before they surrender their own lives, by their own hands. A quick, painless, honorable death.”

“…and yet, they would still be spared,” the King stated with resounding emphasis, his boot tapping an echo on the stone floor beneath it. “Bloodless, fleshless images of them would sacrifice themselves. Images that look and sound just as real and you and I standing here now.”

There was a pause as the strange implication of the King’s words settled.

“I countered that the Ŝhanthah people would surely not believe it, as proud and resilient as they are. They would simply reject the reality, as convincing as it could seem!..”

A pause then preceded a recital of words that seemed derived from the observations of his closest advisors.

“In the wake of being overwhelmed by machines they could never dream exist, the Ŝhanthah people are mentally at their most vulnerable state. They will swallow any lie, provided it is large enough. The lie would simply have to be convincing enough, the semantics rooted enough within the noble framework of Ŝhanthah culture…” The King’s voice drifted, as if he was entertaining other possibilities in his mind.

Xårełlęi emerged from the shadows then, facing the Princess with his head held high, as if ready to deliver a declaration to a waiting audience.

“If you will not share my bed tonight,” the King calmly explained, “the Ŝhanthah people will witness your parent’s deaths, effective tomorrow morning. You will then be allowed to speak with them for one last time before they never hear from you again… likewise for the people of Ŝhanthah.” And with that, the King excused himself past the Princess towards his chambers.

The Princess paused at the sound of the King’s voice at her back, mustering all her restraint to mute the exasperated sigh that threatened to come from her lungs raggedly. She wanted nothing more than to continue, ignore the meaningless declaration that sought to lure her in. It was the second time the Conqueror attempted to prey on her emotions, appeal to her desire to see her loved ones again. Indeed, Alora was no stranger to negotiation. She had set into motion one of the most important lessons she had learned; knowing when to walk away. In a matter of moments she had to accept the fact that she may never see her parents again, the only assurance being that they would not be harmed for the King said himself that he would not threaten their lives. Despite forfeiting the opportunity to visit, he offered another means of sending her regards. Before she could tell him not to trouble himself, a snap of his fingers summoned more attendants.

The curiosity that appeared in her green eyes likened her to a feline as she gazed upon the device, listening to the harsh noises it generated. She was wary of it, but she approached cautiously with the uncertainty if the black box had the ability to harm her. It was so alien to her she couldn’t fathom what it was capable of until a voice projected from it. The Princess jumped a bit, so startled that the familiarity was nearly lost on her. Through the crackling cacophony was her mother’s voice, clear and expectant.

“Mother?” She said hesitantly, uncertain if she could hear her. 

“Alora. Alora, my dear. Are you well? Are you hurt?” The questions kept coming, a slew of rattling curiosities that went on and on. The Princess couldn’t help but smile, hardly able to get a word in. She was overwhelmed with relief, waves of emotion stifling any one emotion from prevailing on her features. 

“I’m well. I’m alright.” She assured her, though it wasn’t quite true. She was miserable, but to say such a thing while they were locked away somewhere unpleasant would have been inconsiderate and insensitive to their situation. It was then that she realized that the King was still looming over her. The brilliant smile that curled onto her lips fell away as she glanced up at him briefly. “I wish I could see you. It’s just . . . It’s just that–” The crackling returned before silence fell over the dining hall once more. Alora blinked softly as the device was abruptly wheeled away. It was a cruel morsel she was given, the little taste of the warmth and the affection she had been starved of left her wanting more. But, the swift return to manipulation saw to the light in her eyes dimming further, darkening and deepening into repulsion as he spoke of her alluring flame– the very one he seemed so determined to stamp out by bending her to his selfish desires. Her uneasiness was further worsened by the devious plans of his ministers, how they schemed to use her parents as instruments to sway the citizens of Shanthah by means she couldn’t comprehend. 

And yet, she did not doubt that they were capable of that level of deceit. The magic devices and machines in their arsenal were powerful beyond her own imagination. In that moment he sounded so monstrous and so mad that she was . . . frightened. She felt powerless, and the defiance that blazed in her was doused, leaving nothing but smolders and feeble, glowing embers. 

The King left her, his footfalls growing distant until they disappeared behind the double doors. She hated the prickly sensation behind her eyes, the knot that gathered in her throat so tightly that she thought she might choke. Her teeth clenched and her fists balled, she couldn’t stop the warm tear that tumbled down her cheek . . . And she was furious. A mighty swipe of her hand sent a plate to the ground, shattered shards careening across the stone floors. Cathartic as it was, shame descended upon her quickly. She emerged from the fog of her rage remorseful, and she moved to pick up the scattered pieces just as the attendants came in to take care of it. 

“I apologize, I . . . I don’t know what came over me.” The Princess said regretfully, insisting that she help despite their protests. 

“Princess, please. We will take care of it.” An attendant told her, boldly taking her hands to cease her actions. 

The woman pressed a tiny square to her palm, and as her eyes met an urgent stare Alora finally relented. She wrapped her hand around the little object, rising to her feet with yet another quiet apology. The Princess returned to her room, her hand still clenched. She shut the door behind her, knowing that her newly appointed handmaidens would soon enter. Opening her hand she revealed the note, neatly folded into a square no bigger than Shanthah’s largest coin piece. In front of the hearth, she unfolded the parchment.


Behind the red letters was a symbol, one she didn’t recognize. It was not the insignia of any neighboring kingdom, nor did it belong to any noble house. The Princess had little time to think deeply about the meaning, not when she heard the footsteps of her handmaidens approaching. Quickly, she cast the note into the low flames, watching as the fire consumed the parchment and reduced it to cinders. 

Alora let the dutiful women enter her quarters as she did every night. They helped her out of her dress, removed her jewelry and accessories. It felt almost ceremonial as they carried out their tasks listlessly, a departure from the casualness she once knew. Her former handmaidens were social, gossips who spoke candidly and openly of the goings-on within the castle. She missed the chatter, the laughter, and the companionship. 

As they dressed her in her ivory nightgown and brushed the stubborn curls from her hair till they were long, luscious waves, she felt dread. With each executed preparation she was one step closer to the King’s bed, and when she was wrapped in the luxurious silk of a scarlet robe, she was literally taking steps toward the King’s quarters. Her footsteps felt heavy, as though bricks were attached to them. She could hardly bring herself to move when she was just outside his door. For a while she simply stood there, stone still. Alora tried to tell herself that it was only sleep, only laying beside him. But, so long as he held her parents captive, he had her right under his thumb. He could make her do anything . . .

She could only hope that the note meant something, that it was not simply encouragement but a promise of action. 

With that in mind, she raised her fist and rapped against the door. The knock lacked commitment so it was light, faint enough to be lost in the night calls outside the windows or the crackling of a fire.

“Your majesty,” came the voice of a burgundy-robed minister seeking audience with Xårełlęi as he marched through the doors of the dining hall. “I have reports to share regarding the rising levels of insurgent activity on the Western front.”

“Leave the issue with my generals,” Xårełlęi deferred with a flick of his wrist. “I will be retiring for the evening.”

Loose gatherings of servants and dignitaries watched with quiet curiosity as their King clapped down the main hall with heavy bootsteps, steps that indicated neither satisfaction nor displeasure, but purpose.

Once the echoed seal of a gated doorway ensured solitude within his chambers, Xårełlęi presented himself before his grand mirror as he often did, not as a gesture of vanity but of personal assurance. Amidst the devices blessed upon him that offered advantages beyond his wildest imaginings, he often sought the modest visage that he was still but a man, flesh and blood and bone, a simple mortal amidst the weapons afforded to him that were timeless, ageless, relentless.

After some time, a series of loud knocks came upon his door. A moment of reluctance was followed by a stiff exhale.

“Come,” Xårełlęi finally called forth, his voice echoing to the height of his chamber’s ceiling.

The broad doors pushed open to reveal General Rolander, Xårełlęi’s closest advisor. He boasted his gaudy military attire with medals and badges representing conflicts and battles won across lands that may or may not have existed in this realm. He didn’t resemble the appearance of a soldier however, with a slender frame and skin unburdened by the rigors of duty. It seemed his purpose might not have extended past the safety of orders given far behind enemy lines.

“My apologies, your majesty,” Rolander began with a subtle hesitancy before pressing the matter. “I know you’ve retired for the evening but… the rebels are intensifying their efforts, with more tactical precision than we could have anticipated. Our garrisons are stretched thin against the unpredictability of their attacks. I recommend a meeting with the field generals to determine the best ways to regulate our troops for maximum efficiency and reassert total subjugation.”

Xårełlęi’s shoulders rose and fell with a sigh. “Schedule a meeting in the war room to take place after breakfast tomorrow.”

He then closed his eyes for a moment before summoning his next response. “Things were always going to get worse before they got better,” Xårełlęi examined aloud with an air of reflection. “That was the point of designating Ŝhanthah as our first objective… to first apply our advances towards the most challenging tasks.” His eyes seemed to swim within his own words in a meditative gaze.

A nod of acknowledgment gave way to the pull of a smile on Rolander’s face. “A perfect segue to the good news of the night,” he proclaimed with an appropriate shift in tone. “Word is spreading that the neighboring kingdom of Leviathá has witnessed Xårełl’s unrelenting expansion and is already prepared for surrender. As a matter of fact…”

A snap of Rolander’s fingers prompted a woman to emerge into Xårełlęi’s chambers on cue, with a slow, sultry elegance in her stride as she presented herself.

“From the Prime Minister of Leviathá, he sends his daughter,” Rolander explained with a smug grin. “She’s eager to satisfy your every desire, and bear your children should you find it a suitable endeavor.”

The young maiden wore a translucent silk robe which clung against her curves, her bosom ripe, with dark hair and eyes complementing the pale bronze of her flawless skin.

Their eyes met briefly and the young maiden offered a nervous smile before dropping her gaze meekly to the ground.

A pang of lust was roused in Xårełlęi’s eyes, but faded quickly and inexplicably.

“It’s quite all right,” Xårełlęi said dismissively while returning his eyes to his reflection in the mirror. “I’ll do without for tonight.”

General Rolander frowned upon hearing Xårełlęi’s dismissal. “Your majesty,” the general cautioned with a lowered voice, “it would be rude to return her to Leviathá without… partaking in the offering of a submissive kingdom.”

“I will call for her another night,” Xårełlęi reassured through an impatient smile and a twitch of his lip. “Arrange a suite for her and see that our best attendants are assigned to her care.”

With that, Rolander and the maiden bowed and removed themselves, leaving Xårełlęi once more in contemplative silence.

The chamber doors opened slowly to greet Alora de Anadan’s arrival. She would find Xårełlęi waiting with a gaze that floated somewhere between expectation and soft surprise. He was wearing a flowing robe, burgundy in color with lime green embellishments. The smell of incense floated outward, exotic spices with tantalizing aromas. 

A lingering pause was interrupted by Xårełlęi clearing his throat. “After you,” he offered with an extended arm before following behind the Princess, the chamber doors closing shut behind them.

The royal wing of Ŝhanthah castle had been remodeled, with walls torn down between adjacent chambers to accommodate the spacious demands of the new King. Xårełlęi’s quarters were, as one might expect, lavishly furnished and decorated. A broad flag depicting the royal insignia of the Xårełl kingdom was suspended from the ceiling, with gold tassels flanking its edges. A large, centralized table seemed to depict the scaled model of a battle, with miniature soldiers and weapons fighting tooth and nail on rugged terrain. What seemed to be a ‘telescreen’ was showcased upon a wide pillar in one corner, its contents black and blank. 

And then there were the paintings. One chamber wall seemed dedicated to the spoils of elaborate and exquisite artwork claimed through conquest. Another wall showcased paintings of Xårełlęi and his generals, many with the similar theme of a captured flag held from to end to end for exhibition. The smiles and laughter on the victorious faces seemed strangely juxtaposed against the implications of how the flag was acquired. 

While the Princess was directed by the King, the placement of certain fixtures seemed strangely spacious before their context became clear. Where had resided an extravagantly wide bed was instead a bed much more modest in size, surely replaced on command to force the issue of proximity upon the King and Princess.

Xårełlęi allowed the Princess to choose her side of the bed before approaching his own, but not before draping his robe across a nearby privacy screen. She would now see him in a red nightshirt extending just below his knees, with gold buttons and other adornments. Attendants entered to tend to the torches, and soon the King’s chambers surrendered to dark, with a soft orange glow that traced along sheens and contours.

After pulling his curious eyes from the Princess, Xårełlęi climbed into bed and settled himself upon the bedsheets below the blankets. He lay on his side away from Alora, though he was not bashful with the amount of space he claimed for himself upon the bed. Once the sound of quiet had taken its place, his side rose and fell with the sound of his breathing, slowing after a time until it became the soft purr of a snore.

After some time, however, unexpected words were suddenly heard, sharply cutting through the silence of the room despite their soft-spoken delivery.

“Your response to my ultimatum disappointed me.”

There was not disappointment in the King’s voice, however, but curiosity. He would shift from his side onto his back, his chest and head hidden in shadow, but perhaps the Princess could feel his gaze upon her. 

“Despite the helplessness of your position, I expected you to counter somehow, to guarantee your vengeance, or simply hurl a scathing insult against my back… something!” His emphasis hung against Alora’s ears, almost beckoning her to fulfill the King’s presumptions then and there.

“You gave into the demands of the man who threatened your kingdom. And I must say, the curves of your body are quite enticing,” Xårełlęi remarked with a strange mixture of warning and reminder. “If I was not a man of my word, I’d have taken advantage of this situation further and indulged myself upon you.”

The weight of his words tensed the air a bit, but the King would shift himself away from the Princess to dissolve any assumptions.

“Leviathá offered me a woman, and I passed her off for another evening,” the King confessed with a shrug, as if to seal the promise of curbing his lusts. “So quick to surrender, they are. A resounding victory before our soldiers had even set foot upon their soil. I’ll now be expected to bed this maiden and sow my seed of unity. How many children will she bear me? Seven? Eight?” There was neither anticipation nor indifference in his voice, only casual observation.

The quiet crept in again, but the promise of more revelations loomed.

“You know, as a child,” Xårełlęi reminisced, the tone of his voice losing itself to decades past. “I competed in many games and activities. Horseback riding, swimming, many others. But the game which I competed the hardest, the same game which humbled me most as a boy, was chess.”

“It was me and about twenty other boys from noble families, you see. We played in tournaments and losers were whipped to ensure the utmost effort in games. No broken skin of course, we were noble kin. But it wasn’t a pleasant punishment for sure. I practiced every day with my uncle simply to keep up with those more talented than I.” The King’s hands were moving in the air above him, as if maneuvering imaginary pieces.

“I lost more than I won… it certainly felt as such, anyway. And there was one boy who I simply couldn’t beat… Brock was his name. The worst feeling in the world was making a poor move against him, which he always capitalized on. Always, always that one error, and then I knew the inevitable was coming… he would checkmate my king and then I would be sent away to the disciplinary wing for whipping.”

“The intensity was always there, the intoxicating feeling of relief and escape with every victory and the looming sense of dread and hopelessness with every defeat. My father said that it was meant to build character towards other aspects of life.” A twinge of doubt was unmistakable in the King’s voice.

“Despite the ferocity of those feelings, however, whether you celebrated in triumph or withdrew in failure, you always knew you’d keep your life, even if it meant a sore behind.”

“Not so with conquest.” Xårełlęi drove his story to a point that weighed upon his mind, punctuating it with his own prior quote. “War is a messy business indeed.”

The sound of a distant clang was heard outside the chamber walls before it faded against the ears of the King and the Princess.

“I’m sure you grow weary of my voice,” the King acknowledged, now laying on his side to face the Princess. “But I thought I’d share some other ideas for negotiation that have come to mind. Perhaps you’d like to discuss them in the morning.”

There was a shuffle behind the Princess as the King decided upon a course of action.

“If you faithfully bring a pleasant demeanor and a healthy appetite to tomorrow’s breakfast, you may excuse yourself to your own bed,” the King offered before an addendum halted any sudden departures. “But first, before you go, tell me about your most prominent childhood memory.”

There was a hint of surprise in the stony indigo hues that greeted her on the other side of the threshold, almost as though he hadn’t expected her to be standing exactly where he wanted her. Stepping aside the King welcomed her into chambers far more spacious than she recalled. Alora didn’t know why she expected it to be in the same condition as she knew it when it belonged to her parents, why she anticipated the colorful landscape painting of Shanthah at its earliest inception, back when the town was no more than unpaved paths and the land beyond was nothing but rolling emerald fields and long stretches of might trees. As she looked around she could see the room as it once was: her mother’s vanity with precious, glittering jewels strewn across it, rich velvety drapes the color of vermilion, her father’s desk covered from end to end with maps and documents. There was no trace of them anywhere. Their existence was overshadowed by an ostentatious flag, its insignia irritatingly boastful and offensive. She wanted nothing more than to rip it down, tear everything painting with mocking smiles from the wall, break every frame into pieces, and smash the staged replica of a battle scene on the table. The Princess was practically bristling with hostility.

It was the silence that allowed her to quiet the rage within her, perhaps even the calming properties of the fragrant wisps of smoke that soothed her temper. Once she was certain that she would not resort to destruction, her hands untied the silk cinched around her petite waists. Like liquid it rolled off her shoulders, down to her forearms and into her hands so that she could drape in on the back of a seat. The material of her nightgown was as delicate a gossamer, so fine and so thin that it was nearly transparent. In the light her silhouette was visible, delectable curves and sensuous lines that had tempted the covetous hands of men who had seen far less of them. They promised softness, suppleness. In motion they were far more spell-binding, effortlessly alluring as she moved toward the bed– to the side nearest the door. 

Untucking the blankets she slipped between them, bringing the warmth up to her shoulder as turned onto her side. The Princess felt as though she were balancing on the edge of the bed, body at the furthest reaches possible. Darkness slowly overtook the room before she felt the weight of the King’s body met the mattress. Alora believed that he would simply allow slumber to befall him without another word, but the rumble of his voice did breach silence. When it did, she found herself taken aback, deeply perplexed by his statement before frustration gripped her. Truly she didn’t understand, the King got exactly what he wanted and yet he was displeased with her reaction. Perhaps he wanted to be scolded for his underhanded tactics in getting her into his bed, or perhaps he wanted the satisfaction of seeing her furious and uncomposed. If it was a reaction he wanted, she was determined to starve him of it. Even when his eyes lingered lustfully on her back and he spoke of carnal desires, she remained still on her side. But, she listened. She was given no other option to. His presence, his voice, it would not allow her peace.

The only comfort, the only true comfort, she obtained was the knowledge that another woman would satisfy those cravings of his, bear his children, and be the pretty fixture on his arm he wanted so desperately. It made her giddy inside, so much that a smile began to form on her lips. Alora gently bit the inside of her cheek to contain her excitement. Though she wondered what his new gift meant for her, whether she would be banished to one of those horrid camps or kept wherever her mother and father were, she considered it a blessing to no longer be the sole object of his attention. And yet, she was still in his bed– still listening to him go on about his childhood.

It was hard to imagine him as a young boy, imposing as he was now. She couldn’t see beyond the Great, Unfeeling Conqueror, beneath the hardened exterior that might have contained anything other than the insatiable void he attempted to fill with acts of conquest in all its forms. Alora didn’t know why he was telling her about his early years, of chess games and discipline. Briefly she wondered if it was mere reflection, a message, or a lesson he tried to impart on her, but a loud metal clink disrupted her thoughts, reminding her that sooner she slept the faster morning would come. 

Even that hope was tainted by more talk of negotiations.

Alora rolled onto her back staring up at the ceiling with a sigh. Her brilliant, fair hair fanned beneath her, glorious waves like satin under her head. She was deep in thought, her green eyes blinking softly while she considered yet another compromise. The Princess wanted the comfort of her own bed and the solitude of her own quarters, and yet she was hesitant to indulge the King in his seemingly benign request. There was something about it that seemed intrusive, and something about his approach that seemed presumptuous. It could have been her own distrust that made her feel as though the King would continue to engage her in these little bargains, make her submit to claim small victories and triumphs so that soon the larger requests wouldn’t seem so troublesome. 

“You must think that because you shared with me an unsolicited moment from your childhood, that perhaps we would bond over distant memories together? What would be the point of revealing the fond highlights of my life? So that you can exploit them also? Use them to manipulate my family and I? Conjure false images on the black box?” Alora turned onto her side, finally facing Xarellei. The gentle maneuver made her sleeve slip from her shoulder, exposing flawless flesh. ” If it is an agreeable demeanor and a healthy Princess you’re after, then my prior statement at dinner remains. You have done very little to earn any of my trust and obedience, and even less my companionship. To be honest, I really do not know what it is you expect of me. Even less now that Leviatha has offered you a woman to cater to all that you desire, all the things I refuse to give you. Leviatha is but a small kingdom, not without its advantages, of course. An engagement would grant you loyalty and a stronger claim to rule. . . ” She mused, her finger tracing a shape into the sheets absently while her mind warred with conflict. “I cannot trust you with the simplest of things, and I’m not quite certain how we get past that.”

“I would tell you about my most prominent memory, but I wouldn’t want to disappoint you again with another lackluster response to one of your ultimatums. I know how you love to admire my defiance. I would be a fool to let you down again, my King. So, I will sleep here tonight, as agreed upon.” Alora pushed herself up, adjusting her sleeve back onto her shoulder. Her nightgown exposed the graceful and appealing line of her spine, before a cascade of lustrous gold covered it as she turned over onto her side again.

The aches of desire flared once more as Alora allowed skin to bare itself, tempting and taunting with its soft glow against the faint candlelight, its closeness offering promise of embrace. His hand had unconsciously began to reach for that first touch, but withdrew itself as his horrified eyes silently condemned his own momentary lack of control.

For Xårełlęi, Entire lands and kingdoms had been conquered and claimed through sheer grit and will, but women had always been a given… an afterthought amidst the spoils of war. Even as the exquisite pulses of rapturous release quaked across his body, there was the drive to reap, to earn, to win. That was the cruel irony seemingly staged by the Fates, that the Great Conqueror would balk at obedient beauty and crave that almost indescribable fire in concubines and lovers alike.

Thinking on Alora’s words as she turned herself away in his bed, only three seemed suitable for a prompt response.

“Well played, Princess.”

There was still that restlessness, however, that urged him not to abandon the topic quite yet. Xårełlęi would sit up in the bed and lean his back against the headboard.

“Would you consider an honorable exile with your parents?”

The question was posed calmly, yet carried with it a strange, faint desperation. “That course would reunite you with your parents and rid you of the man you despise so vehemently, all in one fell swoop.”

“There are many fertile islands on which to retire yourself,” Xårełlęi continued with a tone that attempted to dress the proposition more compellingly. “I’ve seen them for myself. A long, healthy life could be had with comfortable accommodations. I could also release your fiancé and any other family members to accompany you to make your transition more comfortable…”

“Of course, with any compromise comes sacrifice,” Xårełlęi pondered openly. “You would have to trust me to deal with your people as fairly as I have promised. Of course, as I’m sure you’ll understand, your absence forces a lack of persuasive speeches to keep your people in order.” There was more than a touch of sarcasm in Xårełlęi’s voice. “So I will be forced to deal with unruly insurgents the best… perhaps only way I know how.”

“Yes, I do believe a big-to-small approach might be effective towards earning your confidence. I believe the distant kingdom of Ronah would be a suitable example of how those have thrived under my mandates, if you wouldn’t mind a trip there to observe from afar…”

The silence of drifting words seemed to beg an alternative for the sake of choice. To Xårełlęi, his drowsy mind could think of only one.

“Or you could live the rest of your life in solitude,” Xårełlęi cynically suggested as he turned back within the sheets and away from the Princess. “Truth be told, I grow weary of our forced discussions, not to mention my own… woefully embarrassing attempts at building our rapport. The same displeasure in you is obvious. We can always leave our pieces where they lie and you can hate your conqueror with all you can muster in your corner of the castle, undisturbed by my appalling presence for the remainder of your days.”

Quiet crept in once more with the vacancy of the King’s voice, and his purr-like snore returned shortly after.

A shake of Xårełlęi’s shoulder woke him from a deep slumber, and a few blinks of irritability across bloodshot eyes gave way to a sinking realization that something must be amiss.

“My apologies for disturbing your sleep,” General Rolander submitted through urgency in his voice. “But the insurgents have made a play at the castle gates.”

Xårełlęi immediately sat up on the side of his bed at the news as sounds of commotion outside the chamber door reaffirmed the cold reality.

“A play… they’ve attacked, you mean?”

“Not very organized, but yes, those are the initial reports.”

Xårełlęi hopped to his feet as he shook off the stubborn remnants of sleep and reached for his robe. “God damn it,” he growled softly.

“Your majesty,” Rolander cautiously called as the King made his way to the door. “Remaining in your chamber would be the best course of action at the moment, given the current lack of intelligence regarding the scope of the threat.”

Ignoring his advisor, the door opened to have Xårełlęi bear witness to soldiers running down the nearby hallways with clapping boots upon the granite, taking positions and mobilizing into squads towards the castle foyer.

A nearby soldier, positioned against a nearby column caught the focus of the King’s eyes, and then his ire.

“This is no time for caution! Move your ass to the front line!” The sudden bark of Xårełlęi’s command startled the soldier into dropping his weapon with a clank on the ground. Xårełlęi reached for a nearby flagstaff and began to bang it against his chamber’s doorframe.

“Didn’t you hear what I said?! Move, move, MOVE! Reinforce the battlefront! Move now or I’ll have you hanged for cowardice!”

The soldier rushed ahead as ordered, and to a curious observer, the sight of the fiery King brandishing a flagstaff in his robe and pajamas must have seemed humorously out of place.

Rolander stepped in to the King’s line of sight as he peered down the hallway to make sense of the distant sounds of conflict. “Your majesty, if I may respectfully interject. The soldier was simply defending the royal wing from any stray threats.”

“I don’t need defending,” Xårełlęi sneered with narrowed eyes. “What I need is to whip my army into shape so that we can put an end to this stubborn nuisance.”

“Your majesty, I implore you, please remain within your chambers,” Rolander persisted with his arm acting as a barrier. “If you need comfort as this is sorted out, I can call for the maiden from Leviathá–“

“I DON’T NEED COMFORT!” Xårełlęi’s bellow seem to rise to the ceiling and back again. “I NEED THESE INSURGENTS DEALT WITH! ONCE AND FOR ALL!”

Eventually, as logic claimed a hold upon Xårełlęi’s mind, he heeded his advisor’s guidance, as frustrating as it was. Rolander stood guard at the door as Xårełlęi paced repeatedly, his furrowed brow making no secret of angered thoughts. He would finally snap his fingers after a time to direct his General.

“Leave us. You have my word I won’t leave here until your clearance is given.”

After Rolander had left, Xårełlęi took to clearing the miniatures from the central table and placed a large map upon it. Studying it closely, he used a piece of charcoal for markings and notes while immersed in thought. An idea then flashed across his eyes, seemingly related to his focus on the map, and Xårełlęi reached for a small device before pointing it towards the telescreen in the corner of his chambers.

Images began to play where the frame of blackness has once been. There were soldiers of Xårełl and their terrifying weaponry, sometimes from afar, sometimes close and intimate. After a time, one would realize the moving pictures being shown were of the advance towards Ŝhanthah castle, punctuated with the kingdom’s captured flag displayed by Xårełlęi and his advisors. Their broad smiles mirrored those depicted in exquisitely detailed paintings upon the wall.

For a brief time, Xårełlęi was fixated before his eyes turned towards his bed and then the Princess. A sudden realization gave way to a look of regret and embarrassment as he quickly returned the telescreen to blankness. He abandoned the map on the table and returned to sit upon his side of the bed.

“I apologize, most sincerely,” Xårełlęi offered with a low voice, faced away from the Princess. “That was truly a cruel and insensitive gesture.”

“I now can see how my utmost passion can be misconstrued for outright arrogance.” The King then meekly climbed into the covers, perhaps the first time the Princess had witnessed such a sight.

She should have known better than to expect to have the final word. The King always seemed to foil her attempts at ending a discussion, of thwarting his efforts and gestures in order to convey her distaste for his presence. His persistence was inexhaustible, and while she was irritated that he continued to negotiate the carrot he dangled before her eyes was a tempting one. The desire to be reunited with her family grew more and more with each passing day. Festering in isolation, even in the presence of obedient attendants and watchful guards, she was alone; a bone deep sensation that often threatened to submerge her into a black chasm of despair and depression. His offer granted her a glimmer of light in her darkness, and she found her heart reaching for it, yearning for it. Convinced that she didn’t need the dresses and the jewels, to be surrounded by finery and beauty, Alora was nearly compelled to accept until the consequences of her absence dawned on her. 

The Princess shifted gently as visions of a quiet and vibrant paradise, somewhere far away, turned grey. Birdsong turned to the clang of metal, swords crossing and cannon fire. Cries of pain and anguish tugged at her heart. The sound of her people suffering.It was obvious, even from her limited participation in the transition of power, she knew that there was considerable opposition to the Conqueror’s rule. The ominous implication of his words did not bode well for those who refused to accept him as their King. Though she was not so foolish to believe that her presence in Shantha was what was keeping him from brutally slaughtering her people, she hoped it had some sway on his approach. Uncertain as she was as to the loyalty of the citizens, whether they resented her for her cooperation or pitied her, Shantha was her home. Her hand clenched at the blanket, her fist tight. 

Shantha was hers, and she didn’t plan on leaving. 

She felt his movement against the bed, his body turning to relax into slumber. Alora was wide awake for hours, seething for the better part of her consciousness, but reiterating her ambitions with great intent for the other. But, the Princess soon succumbed to her fatigue. It felt as though she had only closed her eyes when she was awakened by urgent whispers. Her vision was muzzy as she turned onto her side, barely able to make out the figure standing over the King for a moment before her gaze sharpened. It was the General informing him of an attack. The mention of another play at the castle sent her heart racing as visions of the last filled her mind. In addition to the King’s barking her anxieties only heightened. She reached for the pillow behind her as she sat up, clutching it to her chest as she moved to the foot of the bed. On the mattress, sitting on her heels, she watched the scene play out. 

Alora was an afterthought, perhaps because she was in no real danger. Or, so she assumed. Her concerns about perceptions of her predicament made her worry. She feared that her people would have preferred bolder acts of defiance. Thus far her involvement had been in the form of speeches and appearances, and while it was easy to tell that she was displeased she went along with every step. They could have felt betrayed and let down by her spinelessness, no longer seen as the precious “Jewel of the Crown” and instead a traitor. Unlikely as it was that they would breach the gates, she couldn’t help but fear what might come of her if they did. A chill rippled down her spine, but she gathered every ounce of bravery in her body to remain calm– at least on the exterior, just as she did last time. It was harder now with the black box replaying the very instance her life was turned upside down in vivid detail, only it was a perspective she had never seen before.

She hugged the pillow tighter against her as she watched, and the images played out in her mind even after the screen when dark. As though she had come out of her state of invisibility, the King could see her again. Suddenly he became apologetic and embarrassed, something she had never seen of him before. Genuine sincerity. 

“It’s . . . alright.” Alora said softly, still uneasy as the sounds outside the door persisted; the rush of footfalls and the beat of armor. Her green eyes fixated on the door, concern invading her troubled expression. Despite the unsettled feeling that gripped her, she crawled up to the head of the bed with her pillow. Resting on her stomach she let her mind wander. 

“My birthday is in the Spring, and every year between the ages of six and eleven, my father would take me to the mountains. Not without escorts, of course. Six of his most trusted knights would accompany us.” She began, doing her best not to think about the fact that the strong, loyal men she had known all her life likely lost their lives in order to protect the royal family while under attack. “Shantha has the most glorious mountains, and naturally they are home to bears and wolves, moose– which I was very surprised to learn how very dangerous they can be.” A soft smile formed on her lips, her guard falling away as she retrieved the memory. “We would travel through the lower passes, in between the larger elevations. I always marveled at how green everything is that time of year, but more than that I enjoyed the valleys. When the wildflowers are in full bloom it looks like Eden, the colors are so radiant and lovely. We would stop there because I was compelled to make everyone flower crowns.” Distracted by joyful recollections the movements beyond the door went unnoticed. 

“All six of them would wear my little floral creations while we rode the rest of the way through the pass.” A mellifluous bout of laughter escaped her as she imagined how silly they must have felt. “Of course, they would take them off straight away on the way back before we reached town. If I were a cruel Princess I would demand otherwise.” Alora mused. “We never went very high. Any further than the lower reaches and it would be much too cold, but we always stopped to see Shantha from afar. It looks so small . . .” It was how she imagined the King saw the kingdom, just a small stop on his journey of domination. Not with the kind of love and adoration she looked upon it with. 

“After all the excitement I’d be exhausted. I would fall asleep on my father’s horse, or whoever had the patience carry me. When I woke up I would be somewhere between the castle gates and my room. My mother would be going on and on about the beautiful flower crowns I made for her and the handmaidens, but always something about them being too large and in need of adjustments. It was all tea parties and balls after that, but I wish I could have gone one last time.” The Princess could no longer hear the hurried shuffling beyond the door, though she knew the threat of danger still remained. She held the pillow a bit closer. “Would you like me to tell you about another?” Alora asked, prepared to give them both another distraction for as long as it was needed.

here was a lingering moment of annoyance that presided itself in Xårełlęi’s mind as he settled back into his bed, one that regretted his own allowance of softer emotions. The embarrassment was genuine, but it was also weak. Surely there was a better way to convey his own acknowledgment of error without being embarrassed. There was no time for a noble conqueror’s embarrassment, not when there were so many kingdoms left to win. 

Then, with his back turned to the Princess, a miracle happened. She began to reminisce of days long past.

The melody in Alora’s voice felt sweet against the King’s ears, and he lay as still as he could while listening, afraid that the slightest disturbance would derail her travels down the roads of memory. The details of her mother reminded the King of his own, a maiden born mute but not lacking in affection, always found with a floral dress and a warm grin. He would often confide in her tenderness after the rigors of his daily trainings that often left him tired, sore, and discouraged.

Once the Princess had finished, the King turned to face her, his gaze silent with curious admiration. 

“I’d very much enjoy another memory from your lips, yes.”

The Princess would not have an opportunity to partake in his request, however, before a knock was heard through the arch of shadows. The King puffed his cheeks in disappointment before reluctantly climbing himself out of bed.

“Good news, your majesty,” came the now-familiar voice of General Rolander to greet the King through the chamber door’s gap. “I’m pleased to report that the castle gate has been secured with few internal casualties.”

As Rolander spoke, a group of armed soldiers briskly jogged a short distance behind him and towards the castle foyer with focused intensity.

“Hmm. Are you sure about where we stand?” Xårełlęi asked with an air of doubt, peeking over Rolander’s shoulder towards the heavy rhythm of bootsteps as they faded with distance.

“Yes, absolutely. Of course, the castle is now on high alert as a perimeter probe is conducted. Ingresses are also being fortified to ensure absolute containment. You may rest knowing the threat has been fully neutralized.”

A soft sigh floated from Xårełlęi’s lungs. “Very well. Good work, Rolander.”

The King’s advisor presented a dutiful salute before being reminded of a paper in his hand. “Ah yes, there’s one last matter to address… the captive list. Shall we immediately process these insurgent prisoners for interrogation?”

A blank look on Xårełlęi’s face seemed to indicate his lack of concern before he turned his face to catch Alora in the corner of his eye. “The Princess will decide what is to be done with them in the morning,” he said loud enough for her to hear. “Until then, be sure that they are respectfully accommodated.”

A mild look of surprise on Rolander’s face gave way to another salute. “Understood. Until morning, your majesty.”

Once Rolander was excused, the chamber door was closed again, leaving both the King and Princess alone in the soft glow of candlelight. Xårełlęi gazed upon the enticing woman in his bed and his aches returned again… aches that pulsed beyond obligation or politics. Through his haze of lust, a dawn of realization reflected upon his appetite to bed Alora for his own pleasure. The purity of this desire reminded him of simpler times long gone and brought a strange curl of smile to his face. 

“Well then. I believe we’ve both endured quite a night.” The King climbed back into bed beside the Princess, claiming his usual ample amount of space.

“I hope I’ll have the privilege in the future to hear more tales from your childhood. They really are quite lovely.” A few moments passed as the King settled underneath the blankets before his voice was heard one last time.

“You know, you never did tell me your thoughts on taking a trip to Ronah.” A pause of consideration led to the King lifting his forefinger above the covers. He waved it back and forth as if to correct himself.

“Ah-ah-ah. Tomorrow, tomorrow.”

And with that, the slow rise and fall of the King’s ribcage accompanied his soft snore as he drifted to slumber.

“I’m game,” she offered back with a smile. “Besides, if anyone knows where to get the best take out around here, I am sure it is the FBI.” She flipped the notebook closed, stepping back into the kitchen.

The Princess propped herself up on her elbows as the King agreed to another story. Where there was apprehension before, there was a genuine willingness now to offer him a glimpse into the halcyon days of her childhood. There were many fond memories to choose from, perfect vehicles into the past where everything was right in the world. Gone was the march of purposeful footfalls outside the door, the scrape and scratching of metal that clinked discordantly. In her mind’s eye she was imagining the morning after the first snow, how the hills and plains were transformed into a glittering dreamscape. Never was she alone in her excitement. Her mother, the handmaidens, faithful guards, and groundskeepers all looked forward to the first dive she took into the deep drifts, thoroughly entertained while she made snow angels and snowmen. At the sound of a rap at the door, the picture faded. Alora pushed herself up so that she was sitting, an anxious gaze on the King as he conversed with the General.

There was a small sense of relief that came over her, a fleeting sensation of relaxation. It was soon replaced with a subtle sorrow. The castle’s victory over the insurgents– her people— meant that their lives were claimed by those harsh sounds, soldiers defending their greedy Conqueror. 

But, there were prisoners. 

Surprise claimed her features. The Princess did not expect that they would spare a single life for the foolishly bold act of storming the gates. She assumed that it was tactical, a means of extracting information or making an example of those who would dare oppose the new rule. Alora just didn’t expect to be the one to do it. Brows furrowed, she wondered what the King’s motivations were for granting her such a responsibility. The only logical reason, she suspected, was to vilify her in the eyes of Shanthians, ruin what little good standing she had left to erode the hope that one day the de Anadan family would return to the throne. A distrustful glare returned to her visage once again as the King returned to the bed, tucking himself into the sheets whilst expressing hopes of soon listening to more of her stories and travels to Ronah. 

She had so much say. And yet, exhaustion persuaded her to save the battle for another day. 

The Princess settled into bed once more, nestling into its comfort so that sleep could visit her. 

Green eyes fluttered open, her hazy vision sharpening as full consciousness returned to her. While there was still sleep between her long lashes she could see that the bed was empty, the blankets mussed where the King once laid. Alora would have celebrated the triumph of a night left untouched, a night that could have ended far worse than it had. But, the burden of doling punishment made the light that shone through the open curtains seem lackluster . . . Wrong. She would have preferred grey skies, dark and foreboding clouds, the pitter-patter of rainfall. As she pushed herself up, running her fingers through bed-tousled locks, she began to mentally prepare herself to make a decision regarding the lives of the imprisoned rebels. 

The Princess’ thoughts were occupied as she returned to her room, while she sat in her seat to be readied for the day by her dull, but skilled attendants. Just like them, she was going through the motions until she saw the opportunity in her predicament, a means of beginning to tipping the scales in her favor once more. It changed her demeanor, the gloomy and black shroud of impending doom began to lift, a glimmer of light winking through the darkness. She knew what needed to be done. 

Confidence and hopes restored, she moved through the halls of her home with a bounce and sureness in her step. The regal air about her commanded the respectful bows of guards and servants alike, acknowledging the passing presence of the elegant royal. Most graciously she returned their gestures with kind smiles and soft greetings, wearing her charm better than the shimmering jewels around her neck or the airy and flowy, faint pink dress she wore. Sheer, billowing sleeves draped off her shoulders, a heart-shaped neckline flattering a graceful and alluring décolleté. With each stride her loose, platinum curls swayed, brushing against her back as she made her way to the conservatory. 

Alora pushed the doors open to the glass structure that overlooked the garden, surprised to see a woman as groomed as she was rather than the imposing sight of the King. She was already standing, ready to present herself but she could see the realization in her dark eyes, the traces of disappointment she tried to hide. The Princess was caught off guard herself, obviously not expecting the company of the Lady of Leviatha to be joining them for breakfast . . . Occupying her seat at the end of the table, though it was no matter.

“Oh . . . Good morning.” The Princess said, shutting the door behind her to approach the foreign beauty. Unlike the muted color of her own attire, the Lady of Leviatha was bold in her presence though not garishly so; layers of fine citron material were wrapped around her tastefully, and against her rich, brown locks it was a lovely contrast. 

“Good morning,” she replied, offering up a half-hearted bow, seemingly saving up all her efforts for the King’s arrival. “You must be Princess de Anadan. I am Lady Natalia Leone of Leviatha. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I hope you don’t mind if I join you. General Rolander assured me that it would be alright.”

“It is.” Alora gestured to Lady Natalia’s seat, releasing her from the formalities so that they could sit. As Alora chose another seat, one that put her between the King and what would be the new object of his eye. 

It occurred to her that the General was not as charmed with her, clearly not under the same spell of her magnetism as so many were. In fact, she believed he thought very little of her as he often ignored her presence entirely. The evening before he practically looked right through her, offering the King the company of another as though she was not already occupying his bed. Even now he was determined to replace the King’s affection for her with another shiny temptation. A willing one. The thought brought a soft curl of a smile to her lips. 

“Welcome. I hope the journey here was not too strenuous, and that your stay– for however long–is a pleasant one. I’m sure it must have been very hard to have to leave your home.” Reaching for a delicate teapot, she poured herself a cup before one of the attendants could come from the camouflage of greenery that sprawled throughout the conservatory. 

“Not at all. I am happy to represent Leviatha’s promise of peace and loyalty to the new King as his ally in conquest. Is that not your role here? To represent peace and loyalty under his rule as a result of Shanthah’s defeat?” Natalia wore a shadow of a smirk, a mocking little taunt that plucked the strings of her anger. 

Cattiness among nobles and royals was not unusual, especially for the fairer sex. A perceived threat was dealt with using passive aggressive tactics, petty jabs and backhanded compliments to name a few weapons of choice. It was her specialty. She could have paired thoughtful and deceptively barbed words to elude to the spinelessness of surrender, but for the first time in a long while she had to resort to another means of defense. 



It would do her no good to perpetuate the idea that she would stand in her way.

“I have yet to understand my role here, but I admire your commitment. The King will be very pleased, I’m certain.” She explained as she lifted her cup to her lips.

“I know he will be. I will do everything in my power to ensure that he is very pleased. I assume he has a voracious . . . appetite?” The brunette leaned in, the volume of her voice lowering to a whisper.

The bold inquiry provoked a more genuine expression from the Princess; her brows raising as confusion flitted across her features briefly before the innuendo dawned on her. “I . . . I would not know.” She responded honestly, not daring to mention that she had visited his room the night before and had witnessed the longing gazes of indigo eyes. 

“Really?” Her brown eyes grew large with shock and amusement, a bit of laughter escaping her lung before she fully realized the inappropriateness of her reaction. “I’m sorry. I simply assumed . . . I’m just surprised. You are just as lovely as all the rumors say.” Even then she couldn’t quite seem to fully extinguish the patronizing quality of her voice. “Well, I suppose I will find out for myself.” Lady Natalia mused to herself, seemingly no longer inclined to treat the Princess as competition in the game for the King’s heart.

They strode out of Whole Life / Whole Health, Kelyn pulling out a pair of sleek sunglasses and sliding them on. “I doubt we will get much at the house. Great instinct with the hobby. I wonder if it it is a YouTube stalker thing. I’ve heard of weirder.”

Boy had she, but she wasn’t about to tell him that.

They piled back in his car and she pulled out of the spot and hopped onto the main roads, driving further from the highway. Commercialized strips of tiny stores and massive malls gave way to suburban mazes. The houses here were nothing to write home about, but they weren’t run down either. More solid than the pre-mods, build of actual brick and mortar with slightly sagging wooden porches and overgrown lawns. But there were children playing outside, dogs barking as they ran tracks through the thin grass and the occasional man or woman or both sitting on the front porch drinking coffee or tea or lemonade or something harder.

They found Jill Diaz’s home, a small single family with a well trimmed lawn, a few plants in pots, and a bright yellow paint job. Kelyn pulled the call into the driveway, killing the radio as the Red Hot Chili Peppers sang about Californication.

Kelyn slid from the car and strode up to the home, knocking confidently on the front door.

Xårełlęi slept, and there were dreams.

In a misty glade somewhere in existence, a pale sun’s warmth glinted across a stoic warrior’s helmet. The nameless soldier stood proud alongside many others, each seemingly plucked from the ends and in-betweens of the great Æarth, boasting their own distinct emblems, armors, scars and complexions. They were ranked in single file with shoulders squared, still and silent as Xårełlęi found himself pacing slowly beside them. They were all… familiar to him somehow, despite the mysteries of their origins. He had not faced any of their nations in battle. And yet, as the mist danced and played between each of them, Xårełlęi understood that he knew each and every one of them very well.

Xårełlęi eventually reached the end of the file and looked into the green, unblinking eyes of a decorated general, stout and stern in stature. The uniform’s colors were not altogether dissimilar to those of Xårełl’s own, and various emblems tugged upon the strings of recognition within his mind…

The flood of understand came all at once. The soldiers before him spanned well beyond the farthest lands and into ancient generations… and prior lives. A staggering sense of purpose, as well as culmination, then gripped him. Xårełlęi solemnly looked down into his hands with before an airy voice caught his attention with a sharp turn of his head.

Xårełlęi. Son of Xårao. Something was calling to him from the forest’s edge.

Yes? Who’s there? His thoughts spoke on behalf of his still lips.

Dark fibrous trails pulled from the trees in response and began to coalesce with twisting tendrils, until a pair of recognizable eyes emerged through black hair that curtained back to frame an elegant face. It was the visage of Lady Natalia Leone of Leviathá, floating ethereally through the mist.

Rightful King, the maiden hypnotically beckoned. Will you not fill me with seed and child? Shall not a quake of ecstasy spill generously from your loins as I lay panting beneath you?

A moment’s pause gripped itself upon Xårełlęi’s thoughts. The pleasures of flesh are fleeting, he declared as an answer.

Natalia scoffed her reply. And yet, you seek desperately to mate with the Princess of gold. 

The King’s eyes widened despite himself, and then narrowed to meet the accusation. I crave, but do not seek. I have forfeited my will to accommodate Fate’s own course between us. Surely that is evident.

A mocking laugh lifted from Natalia’s plump lips. Such arrogance. You feel as though your will or its absence has any influence on Fate’s direction?

Perhaps not, 
the King conceded, but I will continue to act as such, even if invisible strings guide my actions. My conquest has been sustained by such a creed thus far. And your kingdom is the latest to succumb to my whims.

Lady Natalia’s eyes flared their displeasure before her face receded behind the curtains of dark hair that flanked it. The presence then twisted and morphed until Alora’s features manifested where Natalia’s had been, with her long golden hair tied behind her crested crown. She seemed to immediately recognize the King’s surprise and pounced upon her advantage.

Oh, lustful King. Won’t your seed douse my flame? Alora taunted, her hair waving as if wagging a finger. The quality you admire most in me is quite delicate, you see.Climb upon me with carnal appetites and you likewise smother the fire that enticed you in the first place. Such a delicious conundrum. 

Xårełlęi hung his head slightly before turning his gaze up once more. We’ll see about that, he managed with a lack of resolution that quietly disappointed him.

Foolish ruler. There is but one suitable outcome between us, Alora haughtily explained. A compromise you have contemplated deep within your own heart.

The King knew indeed with eyes that glistened their awareness. He kept his mind as still as he could manage. Nonetheless, the undeniable truth pushed through and made itself known.

Bear my successor, Princess, and I will release your kingdom.

Alora’s face smiled widely as if a resounding victory had been won.

NO! The King bellowed as his head shook furiously. My destiny will not be forfeited. Not under any circumstance. Not for any compromise. The King took his place ahead of the stout general to emphasize his unwavering determination… and yet, the faintest hint of reluctance could somehow be sensed in the swirl of mist around him.

Then, oh King, come to terms with your own dissatisfaction, Alora advised with a smirk, before dissipating towards the forest’s edge behind them.

Xårełlęi awoke with a gasp caught in his throat as he lifted with a start from the mattress. As his mind lifted from the fog of sleep, he turned to see Alora asleep beside him, her ribcage delicately rising and falling. A portion of her shoulder was exposed above the covers, and the now pervasive feeling of lustful heat returned as a wave of goosebumps crawled across his skin. His urges were often strongest in the morning, and the King ripped his eyes from the Princess before they overwhelmed his sense of restraint. After wiping the last bit of drowsiness from his eyes, he lifted himself carefully from the bed so as to not disturb Alora and pulled himself to his feet.

A quick shower and shave was followed by a selection from his wardrobe before the King opened his chamber door. Two guards flanking the door stamped their boots and offered coinciding salutes as Xårełlęi emerged into the crisp light of dawn’s arrival. The bustle of the previous night’s events still remained with soldiers moving and maneuvering. And, of course, Rolander was waiting to greet him.

“Do you ever sleep?” the King remarked towards his general with a mild hint of exasperation.

“As your most trusted advisor, I approach my duties with the utmost urgency,” he responded with a salute before tending to the business at hand. “I wanted to brief you on the latest developments since our thwarting of the insurgent’s attack. I was also hoping to confirm your desire of entertaining the maiden’s presence in your bed this evening.”

“Spare me until after breakfast when I meet with my generals,” Xårełlęi instructed with his opened hand walling off further discussion. “And despite the constant strains and hardships of battle, am I to be pressured into making love on demand with an offering of peace as well?”

Seeing the concern in Rolander’s eyes, he added, “She will be pinned underneath my weight soon enough. Do not concern yourself about my intentions.” The King planted his palm upon his advisor’s shoulder as a gesture of reassurance.

“In the meantime, Alora is still asleep in my chambers,” Xårełlęi noted as he pulled his way towards his royal office. “See to it that she and the maiden from Leviathá are waiting for me in the dining hall.”

“Natalia is her name,” Rolander called after the sound of the King’s departing footsteps.

“Natalia. Of course. Now leave me be. I have a task to complete before breakfast.”

The King entered the dining hall wearing a buttoned shirt, eggshell in color with thin vertical stripes of maroon and gold tucked into his navy trousers, with golden seams traveling down to his low-cut boots. The broad slope of his shoulders was emphasized despite the casual attire, complementing the slight curve of his belly no longer hidden by his uniform. His reading glasses were a curious sight, giving the King an almost scholarly look alongside the slick of his hair, and his long sideburns faded to a clean-shaven chin.

Upon seeing the two women seated at the dining table, the King nodded courteously to them both. “Alora and Natalia. The best of mornings to each of you.” He then approached Alora with something in his hand.

“And I hope this further brightens your day, Princess. I proactively assumed your desire for a full pardon of the insurgent prisoners,” Xårełlęi explained while handing the Princess a pen and piece of parchment with the official Xårełl seal. “The order has been drafted, all it needs is your signature.”

Attendants began to enter the hall with dishes, and the intoxicating smell of freshly cooked food followed close behind.

“Now then,” Xårełlęi continued as he moved past a busy cook to sit himself at his seat. “I will keep business brief while my eyes are captivated by the indescribable beauty you both possess. But I felt it necessary to discuss my inclinations for a trip to Ronah.”

The attendants prepared a plate for the King and placed it before him, prompting a tuck of a handkerchief into his shirt’s neckline before he continued.

“I’ve admitted my lack of expertise as a politician, but I believe my empire’s relations can be improved with an observation of how Ronah has improved… or better yet, thrived… under its current occupation. My forces have helped to reestablish trade routes and a robust infrastructure has been implemented to ensure a lack of poverty.”

Xårełlęi then directed his thoughts towards the fair maiden to his left. “Natalia, once you see Ronah’s success with your own eyes, you can relay my promises of prosperity with confidence to the kingdom of Leviathá and help further facilitate a peaceful transition towards surrender. Of course we have… otherbusiness to address before you eventually leave my castle.” The King shot an eye of lustful promise towards her before turning his attending to the Princess.

“And Alora,” the King continued with a turn of his head, “perhaps some trust between can be established once you realize firsthand the fairness I implement across my conquered lands. We can then delve into the possibilities we’ve discussed regarding your parents, as well as the future of your role here in this castle… or elsewhere, should you desire it.”

The King then enjoyed a bite of his breakfast, savoring a chew with focused eyes upon the pair of ravishing ladies seated with him.

The conversation turned cordial between the two women, with talks of castle tours, leisurely garden strolls, and afternoon tea. An onlooker might have believed that the pair was getting along splendidly, that they were well on their way to friendship with the seemingly genuine laughter and smiles they shared in. But, Alora knew it would be foolish to trust the Lady of Leviatha, whose duty to please the Conqueror superseded all else. To the Princess, it made her more of an obstacle to avoid rather than an ally in her own efforts, a fact that was further emphasized by the wiggle of the door knob that silenced her. Lady Natalia rose to her feet before the King even set foot in the conservatory, abruptly ending their friendly chat to welcome him with all the subservient intent she conveyed in the low curtsy she greeted him with. “Good morning, your Majesty.” She said, her voice warm and sincere. 

Though Alora did not usually greet the King with empty formalities and kind regards, she did bring herself to rise from her seat as well– if only to downplay the strife between them. She uttered a salutation, pairing it with a nod of acknowledgement. Truth be told she was quite surprised by the King’s appearance. While her serene visage did not relent to express the shock brought on by a handsome face and his undecorated form, her green eyes did linger for longer than she would have liked as he approached her. She reached for the parchment and pen, curiosity and wariness surfaces on her features as they all seated. It was a pardon, a full dismissal of the charges and punishments that would befall the captured insurgents. 

The Princess tried not to look displeased by the admittedly thoughtful gesture. After all, it was what she truly desired deep down. The rebels that attacked the castle were her people, the adoring citizens who praised her name with admiration and loyalty. But, she could no longer protect them passively. Alora flipped the parchment over face down on the table, laying the pen atop of it as the attendants began serving breakfast. As knotted and tangled as her stomach was, rejecting even the thought of tasting food, she prepared to be on her best behavior for Lady Natalia. 

“Ronah . . .” Alora repeated as she gently and rhythmically tapped her finger against the parchment, a subtle irritation driving it down again and again as she thought. She recalled the King’s offer from the evening before. She hadn’t given it much thought, her mind too preoccupied with the matter of the insurgents to contemplate whether or not it would be beneficial to see the conquered land. Certain that it would not change her mind, she could have answered him then and there, but she was learning not to act on her first inclinations; the ones that had, up until now, robbed her of opportunities to turn tables.

“Thank you, King Xarellei. I’d . . . like to visit Ronah.” The words on her tongue felt like sand, grainy and gritty, hard to speak. “We can discuss arrangements for my parents and my role here at a later time. I’m sure you and Lady Natalia have much to learn about one another.”

“Indeed,” the brunette chimed, pleased to be given the opportunity to shine as she so wished. “Although Leviatha resides on the coast not far from Shanthah, we have heard of your successes in Ronah. I would love to see it for myself. I have the utmost faith that it is as prosperous as you say. We look forward to becoming a part of your great empire.” Lady Natalia continued to engage the King, a skill she was quite adept in with the way her deep eyes captured his. She hung on his every word, thriving beautifully on his attention, which earned him seductive smiles and flirtatious gestures; a ginger touch of his hand or a flick of her dark hair. 

Alora was quiet, though it was not unusual for her to be. On the other side of the King she silently nibbled at her food, not paying much attention to the conversation until Lady Natalia unexpectedly brought her into it. 

“The Princess was informing me before you arrived that the gardens are quite beautiful at sunset. Perhaps you and I might go for a walk before dinner this evening?” Lady Natalia glanced up at Alora, seemingly for her permission. 

“Oh, that’s quite alright.” It occurred to her that it was her invitation to take her through the garden at sunset that Lady Natalia was declining. “I wouldn’t mind in the least. I imagine I’ll be resting, anyhow. I hoped to see General Rolander about the attack last evening. While I appreciate your gracious offer, and the initiative you took in anticipating my desires, I’ve actually decided on a different course of action.” 

“I heard all the commotion. It was quite frightening.” Lady Natalia said, a hand to her chest as though her heart was still racing from the fear. “I nearly insisted on visiting you, but I was assured that the castle was well guarded.” Brown hues flicked up to the King, the brief look a promise of carnal pleasures. 

“It was frightening. It is why I believe a pardon is not a fitting solution. With your permission, I’d like to arrange a meeting with the General. I want to know more about the nature of the attack.” Alora explained, hopeful that the King would allow her the courtesy since it was he who granted her the responsibility.

The sporadic clink and clank of stacked dishes interjected itself across the conversation being had by the three nobles at the grand dining table. Cooks and attendants wordlessly busied themselves between adjacent halls and the cafeteria as dignitaries took their places at other tables, filling the air with lively murmur and occasional laughter. Soldiers were now stationed at their typical posts, seemingly indicating that the commotion of the early morning’s attack had mostly dissipated. The sun’s peering light had begun to warm the castle’s stone walls with strokes and bands through barred windows, signaling the onset of another ambitious day.

King Xårełlęi placidly enjoyed a bite of his breakfast as the Princess unveiled her odd refusal of the executive pardon. He then shifted in his chair as he wiped his lips with a napkin, as if to collect a response.

“That is certainly an unexpected dismissal of the order I prepared, Princess.” The King then returned to his plate and enjoyed another bite, chewing slowly as if to gather questions in his mind. After a swallow, however, the curiosity in his eyes seemed to elect against the pursuit of further inquiry.

“Of course you may discuss the attack with Rolander. He will provide you with any details you need.”

“As for our journey to Ronah, arrangements will begin today and we shall embark as soon as tomorrow. I anticipate a three day journey but our accommodations will be more than adequate… dare I say, comfortable.” Xårełlęi’s smile hinted at both anticipation and weariness staking equal claims upon his thoughts.

The breakfast continued without incident until the distant chatter of dignitaries began to fade with their departure, signaling other forthcoming priorities.

“I must excuse myself, fair maidens. An important meeting with my generals awaits.” The King lifted from his seat and turned a pair of steps from the dining table before a voice called after him.

“Shall I see you later this evening in your quarters?” Natalia’s question dangled loosely in the air, but her eyes were purposed and expectant.

Xårełlęi took a moment before turning his head towards the bronze-skinned maiden. “But of course. Rolander will inform you when I have settled for the evening. Until then, make yourselves at home.”

With that, the King left the table and disappeared beyond a pillar in the main hall.

Xårełlęi was the last to arrive at the strategy room as uniformed officials were already gibbering on various items regarding the night’s events. Numerous pairs of eyes shifted towards the King’s entrance as the conversation persisted without interruption. He casually took his seat at the large wooden table just as a general gathered a point.

“A prompt and vicious assault is the only appropriate retaliation,” General Swanson emphatically proposed, touching his eyes upon each and every officer around him. “We must crush any hope that lingers in those that oppose us. The rebellion’s robust spirit is what drives the insurgency. We must reassert our air of invincibility and instill once more the fear and awe amongst the insurgents. Only then will they fall in line.”

“And where would we find these insurgents?” chimed Field Martial Brock in rebuttal. “They wander undetected through roads and villages like ghosts. Not to mention that your… reckless approach risks eroding the progress we’ve made towards the kingdom’s assimilation.” A stern finger tapped upon the table beside every subsequent word. “Might I remind you all that any mistake we make will be punctuated and channeled into propaganda for further conscription throughout the villages.”

“Ah yes. That suggests the people of Ŝhanthah have yet to subscribe to our own pervasive propaganda,” sneered back Swanson with narrowed eyes. “Perhaps you, as an assigned minister of communication, could muster a better effort in expressing what benefits our kingdom could offer a subservient populace.”

“And perhaps your soldiers could manage to do their jobs and conduct proper investigations,” Brock shot back with a raised voice. “They’re much too comfortable, trying to woo the women and settle themselves into households instead of uncovering the whereabouts of those who…”

“Enough,” came Xårełlęi’s voice to curb the escalating tensions. All eyes from the bickering generals then focused on him. A moment passed as he drew in a breath before speaking.

“Loyal officers,” Xårełlęi declared with his arm extended towards the center of the table. “My kingdom is by far the mightiest that has ever existed. So it seems to me that only two adequate solutions exist towards dealing with this threat.”

“We either ruthlessly crush the insurgents without playing this silly game of politics and make an example of Ŝhanthah to instill fear and terror into our forthcoming foes…”

The King let his words deliver their impact before presenting his own counterpoint.

“Or we dip into a bottomless pool of patience and kill them with kindness.”

The generals looked at one another with uncertainty before Xårełlęi snapped his fingers to draw their collective gaze back to him.
“Nuisances aside,” Xårełlęi explained with utmost conviction, “we are ultimately impervious. They can poke and prod all they want, but be it months, years or decades, we will ultimately be victorious. So let’s begin to act as such. Arrogance in this instance is advantageous and may be the ultimate message we can send to those who oppose us.” A grin sifted to the surface of the King’s lips. “Sooner or later, we will win hearts and minds as other kingdoms fall and surrender. And perhaps that will make our triumph over Ŝhanthah all the sweeter.”

A series of rebuttals were shushed with a raised finger, signifying Xårełlęi’s insistence on the matter.

“We shall withdraw our field soldiers and muddle our intentions… if only for a time, and observe how they react. In the meantime, we can lay a few carefully prepared traps and see if arrogance begets arrogance.”

“Now if you’ll excuse me, gentlemen,” Xårełlęi stated while turning to leave, “I have other matters on which to attend. See to it that Rolander continues our preparations for Ronah. My goal is to leave as soon as possible.”

The generals stood wordlessly as their King removed himself from their presence before enacting his orders down the chain of command.

The day passed quickly, with King Xårełlęi attending several personal meetings and small ceremonies with his closest dignitaries. He managed to float throughout the castle grounds, occasionally causing a mild commotion with his disappearance before emerging again to dispel any concerns. Quietly, the King savored being alone but those moments were always sparse and fleeting.

As the sun began its descent behind the distant mountains, Xårełlęi eventually found himself back at his chamber to retire for the evening. It wasn’t long after he had donned his nightly attire until he heard a rap at his door.

“Come,” called the King’s voice in invitation as he stood from his bed to greet his guest.

His chamber doors opened to reveal Lady Natalia wearing a pearlescent gown that clung desperately to her curves, with skin that glowed enticingly through the translucent fabric.

“Good evening, my King,” she cooed through butterflied lips as she made her approach. “I pray that your day was productive and satisfying.”

Xårełlęi slowly pulled a smile alongside a curious, almost sheepish expression. “It was, very much so.”

A pause was followed by Natalia’s nervous eyes fluttering across the room before settling again upon Xårełlęi’s watchful gaze.
“I’ve been anxious,” she mustered after some hesitancy. “Eager for us to be… alone. I know I have been rather… zealous in arranging this encounter. I… apologize if I’ve proven to be a nuisance or overstepped my bounds.”

Xårełlęi’s hand lifted to cup the side of Natalia’s cheek and jawline. “You’re fine,” he stated softly with warm reassurance.

The gesture lingered as if Xårełlęi might pull in for a passionate embrace, but his lips settled upon her forehead with a peck of a kiss. Once again, Natalia found herself searching for a response until she was reminded of something else.

“I brought this,” Natalia said as her eyes shifted downward. She presented her hand with a clenched fist concealing what seemed to be an offering. Slowly her fingers unclasped to reveal what looked to be a cluster of small, grayish-green nuts.

“Seeds,” she explained while collecting her voice. “Yanshe seeds. In my kingdom they are commonly used as potent aphrodisiacs. They are quite popular and reported to immensely enhance sensations…”

The King’s eyes studied them through a moment of cautious curiosity. He then exhaled apologetically as his hand slowly clamped Natalia’s fingers back into a fist.

“How intriguing. Perhaps another time.”

A wash of emotion glistened across Natalia’s eyes. “My King, if I may be so frank…” Her voice cracked as if to choke back tears. “Why are you so hesitant with me?”

Xårełlęi’s eyes flashed concern before yielding into an understanding. A handful of seconds passed before his mind settled upon a response.

“My dear Natalia.” The King’s fingertips gently pried the seeds from her palm and guided them to her mouth, with an upward tap upon her chin as an instruction to chew. After Natalia had swallowed her eyes affixed themselves upon her King, surrendering fully to his lead.

“Very good. Now undress and join me in bed.”

Natalia’s dress fell to her feet before she followed the commands of her King.

The pair maneuvered and settled upon the royal mattress before Xårełlęi pressed himself firmly against Natalia, causing her to plant a sudden gasp against his shoulder. His hand meandered teasingly towards the valley between Natalia’s thighs until a sharp shudder indicated he had found what he was looking for.

His fingertips were rhythmic and methodical, closely tuned to the soft pants and whimpers that floated and flitted from Natalia’s mouth. Her own fevered palm grasped the King’s loins reflexively; the King’s breath conceded a groan, but he refrained from mounting the gorgeous maiden that beckoned him with succulent caresses.

For Natalia, the pleasure built slowly and exquisitely until a moan at last caught itself within her throat. Goosebumps blanketed every square inch of her skin as her limbs quaked and clenched.

“Enjoy your morsel of ecstasy,” the King whispered against Natalia’s ear. “There will be plenty more to come.”

Under the intoxicating influence of the seeds, her quivering body quickly fell asleep beside her King, and morning wasted no time with its arrival.

Natalia found herself alone in Xårełlęi’s bed as the sun colored the stone walls with the promise of another day. Her servants were quick to tend to her needs until she found herself at the breakfast table again, with the King and Alora awaiting her arrival.

“Good morning,” Xårełlęi offered with a nod and a smile. “Rolader has informed me that we are almost ready for departure to Ronah. Until then, enjoy yourself to a hearty meal.”

The hopefulness in her gaze began to diminish as the Conqueror pondered on her request. His expressions were generally difficult to decipher. Unless it was the outrage or the shadows of desire, it was near impossible to determine whether he would acquiesce or deny her in favor of his own terms. Alora half expected that he would question her further, perhaps seize the opportunity to place conditions around her request. Instead, she was pleasantly surprised when his consent came so easily. With a gracious nod of her head, she went back to nibbling at her breakfast so that the King could return to his talks of Ronah; the success story of his many conquests. As reluctant as she was to accompany him, she couldn’t help but be curious as to what made it so different from Shanthah– what made it so much better than the heights of its glory days, when the kingdom prospered and its citizens were thriving. True, Shanthah had fallen on hard times and had difficulty recovering when the lands were overtaken. It was hard not to dread that the entire trip was meant to underscore the failings of her family, and highlight the superiority of his strange ways.

The King departed after their meal, leaving the two ladies to their own devices. Alora played the part of hostess, taking the Lady of Leviatha through the castle to show her all its amenities and grand spaces. Though the palace no longer belonged to her family, it was easy to find the same natural enthusiasm for the opulent ballroom with its stunning crystal chandeliers; the same pride in the spacious banquet hall and the immaculate stone paths of the well-manicured courtyard. From the extensive library with towers of books from floor-to-ceiling, to the small, cozy sitting room where they rested and enjoyed tea, she spared no details about the history or fond memories. Especially when it came to her favorite location on the grounds: the garden. 

Lady Natalia was enjoying herself, it appeared, seemingly glad to be preoccupied while the object of her affection was away. They both admired the colorful petals in full bloom while they spoke of common acquaintances and silly whispers that brought about the first genuine laughter Alora had in a long while. Wary as she was of Natalia Leone, her presence brought a sense of normalcy. While they conversed and laughed, she almost forgot about their conflicting objectives and the decision she would soon have to make. That was until she spotted the familiar sight of the General passing between the stone columns of the veranda. The Princess excused herself as she was reminded of her task, leaving the Lady of Leviatha to explore as she pleased now that she was thoroughly familiar with the lay of the land. 

“General Rolander!” She called softly, delicately lifting the length of her flowing skirt to hasten her stride. The man paused, his expression unchanging as she approached; as disenchanted as ever. 

“Princess Alora. To what do I owe the honor of your presence?” He asked dryly, but not without a flare of curiosity in his dark eyes. 

She would have been intimidated had it not been for her determination to see an end to the awful decision. “I have been tasked with deciding how to deal with the insurgents from last evening’s attack.” 

“The King informed me that you might see me. Was the King’s proposal of a full dismissal of all charges not to your liking? I assumed you would be eager to see the hostages free.” His brow did raise slightly, though his visage was mostly neutral.

“Well, I believe a more lawful approach would be best if I am honest.” She admitted, clasping her hands in front of her lap. 

“Is that so?” Genuine surprise flickered across his features as he turned to face her completely, watching as she nodded to confirm. 

“If anyone attacked the royal castle under my father’s rule, it would be considered an act of treason– high treason if the aim was to harm a member of the monarchy. While the King’s gesture was made in thoughtful consideration of my sensitivities, I cannot help but feel as though outright forgiveness for such a trespass would only embolden the resistance. I feel terribly that my desire to protect a people that are no longer mine to rule has endangered us all.” Alora hid the half truth behind good reason and false remorse. Her motives were less pure than she let on while she dimmed her eyes to gather the heaviness of regret. 

“I couldn’t agree more, Princess.” The General moved closer, gravitating toward her vulnerability to seize her position before her conviction could waver. “The attack last night was much too aggressive to allow the insurgents to be released without consequence. I understand that it must have been difficult to come to that decision, but know that you are doing the right thing.” His dark eyes narrowed, softening subtly into an expression that she could only guess was meant to reassure her. Much like the King, the General appeared to struggle with conveying emotions. “I’d like to hear what you have in mind for punishment.” He gestured to the stony path before them that led to double doors ahead. “We’ve interrogated the captives thoroughly, offered them leniency in exchange for information. Of course, none of them revealed what their true objective was. I don’t believe there was one. I believe there was no expectation of survival.” 

“I suspect the same, although I do wonder . . .” She walked alongside him, lowering her voice to a whisper as she spoke her next words. “If there was an objective, what could it possibly be? My initial thought was possibly a distraction, and if not that perhaps there was some expectation that they might survive. If their plan hinged upon their capture, the only way to deal with the insurgents is to . . . eliminate them.” Alora did not have to rely on acting. The words were just as unpalatable on her tongue. 

“That was a theory of ours, yes. But, we believe if there was some attempt at a diversion it was thwarted in our retaliation. Either way, your command is sound. I will ensure that they are taken care of, Princess.”

“I was hoping that I might accompany you.” She asked quickly, before he could begin to bow and excuse himself. “ . . . Speak with them . . .”

The General was stunned by the request, perplexed even as he stopped by the doors. “I do not think that would be best. I can see how your decision weighs on you. To be present for such a sight would only further burden your heart. If you look those men in the eyes, you’re bound to change your mind. I don’t mean to imply that I do not have faith in your resolve, but . . . ” 

He’s not wrong. She knew that if she looked the men in the eyes that her heart might not withstand the distress or the sorrow. “It’s alright. You may speak freely.” 

“You do not strike me as the type to have made a decision like this before. Have you seen a man die before?”

“I have not. I simply wanted to see my orders through, to see if I could . . . live with myself.” Another half truth, though it was not far from the true reason. Alora hoped that she could speak with them, understand their aim . . . If it was their intention to reach her somehow. 

“Perhaps that is a test for another time, Princess.” The General said, a ghost of a smile playing on his lips. She would have found it charming had it not been so unsettling, like he found amusement in her newfound cruelty. “I assure you, this attack will not be the last, but with continued commitment to dealing with these criminal attempts consistently we should expect to stabilize the Kingdom under the King’s rule.” 

“Of course. I will do my best to support future decisions.” Alora nodded as he bowed and began to take his leave. 

“. . . I hope you don’t consider this an unmannerly of me to admit, but I was beginning to think you would never come around.” He said, stopping to turn and face her before he could disappear beyond the doors. “Your compliance may even quash further attempts to upend our foothold here.”

Alora knew that he hadn’t intended to sound ominous, but the cold chill from his words went bone deep. 

Nightfall came quickly. The Princess returned to her quarters, allowing the dutiful handmaidens to remove the precious jewels that hung around her neck and rid her of the lovely pink dress she wore. It was replaced with a simple nightgown, plain and uninteresting in comparison to the delicate silk that adorned her the evening before. Without all the pressure of forced interactions and hard decisions, she could feel exhaustion in every fiber of being. Alora gave in to the longing for the comfort of her bed once the handmaidens dismissed themselves. She flopped down on her bed, letting her body relax into the softness of plush blankets and pillows as she released a weary sigh. 

Hugging the pillow against her, her hand grazed against a small object. She curled her fingers around it, the small shape familiar against her palm. Alora pushed herself up, opening her hand slowly to see a folded piece of parchment. Though she knew that she was alone, she looked over her shoulder toward the door, listening for a moment to for movement outside. Briefly she attempted to replay the movements of the handmaidens who tended to her, wondering if one of them or even a maid planted it beneath her pillow.

She unfolded the parchment, eyes falling on red letters: “We await you in Ronah.

For a while she stared down at the note, her hand impossibly still as she tried to discern its tone. Alora didn’t know whether it was a threat or a declaration of a rescue effort, especially after her decision to sentence the insurgents to death. After some time she pushed herself up, moving to the low burning fire in the hearth. She let the parchment flutter to the flame, watching as it was consumed by heat and reduced to cinders. 

Rest did not come easy for the Princess. Till the early hours of the morning she lay awake in her bed, her mind unable to let go of the potential danger that might await her in Ronah or the possibility of freedom. Eventually fatigue got the better of her, slumber claiming her without her knowledge until the light of day trickled in through her window. Not long after her eyes opened her room was filled with attendants and handmaidens, swiftly gathering her things for the journey. Alora was suspicious of them all, green hues watching their movements behind her in the mirror while handmaidens tended to her hair. They all moved so expertly through her quarters that if one of them planted another note, she wouldn’t have noticed. 

The Princess arrived at the breakfast table, surprised to see the King already sitting in his place. Before she seated herself, she greeted him with a bow– less half-hearted than she normally would have. She flicked her pale tresses from her shoulders and sat down, busying herself with tea when Lady Leone arrived. Judging by the bright smile she wore, and the bounce in her step, she and the King got along well in bed. 

“Thank you, King Xarelli.” Natalia said as she lowered herself in the chair across from Alora. “Everything looks lovely.” She was content to eat in silence, but the Lady of Leviatha was much too pleased with herself to let a moment to boast pass. “Princess, did you have a good evening? I would have liked to spend more time with you, but I was preoccupied.”

“My evening was quite uneventful, and I was thankful for it.” Alora responded, a bit surprised at the bold innuendo as she sipped at her warm drink. “I would not have been very good company. Between the castle tour and my conversation with General Rolander I found myself very tired.”

“What a shame.” Lady Leone remarked, though her expression said otherwise. “At least you’ll be rested for the trip. Is it a long journey from here, Your Highness?”


The shaman sat cross-legged in the center of his thatched hut, his bony wrists resting upon knees with thumbs and forefingers pressed together at the tips, grinding ceremonial seeds into dust onto the dirt floor beneath his feet. He hummed and chanted with the occasional sway of his torso towards the heavy leaves and branches acting as a door into his less-than-modest residence. A semicircle of candles glowed ahead of him, their lively flickers rejecting the sticky dampness that lingered from the torrent of rain from the previous night. The gray skies above still threatened a downpour with swollen clouds, but the hut stood with stoic defiance despite the elements that could so easily remove it from existence.

Through the haze of his trance, the shaman sensed the arrival of a carriage drawing to a stop in the thick mud outside. The rain had indeed insisted, and glistening crosshatches traced the contours of the wheeled cabin with its silhouetted occupants. The horses huffed and tramped restlessly as a maiden climbed carefully onto the ground with three boys close behind. A pair of armored soldiers assisted with umbrellas and steady arms to help guide their escorts towards the hut before them. Branches were discarded until the glow of candlelight revealed an old man, naked save for the animal skin around his loins, sitting amidst his ceremonial candles. He looked almost emaciated, with leathered skin and pronounced joints. His gray beard drew to a point and complemented his smoky eyes, with widened pupils having mastered the task of enlightenment long ago, offering a greeting beyond words.

The maiden revealed herself into the hut, drawing back the hood of her cloak to reveal a flawless, fair-skinned face, ocean blue eyes and a crown that signified the highest nobility. The three dark-haired, well-dressed boys flanked her closely, with the youngest toddler clinging to her side, a look of fright balanced against quiet curiosity. The oldest did his best to look uninterested but his arched back and wide eyes suggested otherwise.

Yamesha,” the maiden declared as punctuation to a completed journey.

“My queen,” the shaman responded after a moment’s observation. His hands drew outward from his knees as a gesture to welcome the guests into his abode. “I must say that this is quite the strange reversal. Typically I am the caller as you sit comfortably upon your throne.”

“Believe me, I would have much rather that been the arrangement,” the queen remarked with an impatient glare that teetered towards resentment. The annoyance in her voice would then quickly recede and accommodate a sobered objective. “However, time is of the essence and your presence is needed.”

Yamesha mulled upon the queen’s words with quiet calculation as he swayed on the hinge of his waist. “Time, yes, yes, of course…” Then, what seemed to be a sudden moment of clarity spurred the shaman into speaking. “Ah yes. The king is dying and I am to bless his successor.”

The queen’s eyes widened in horror before narrowing into accusatory slits. “He is not dying,” she managed in retort. “This is simply a formality with an… urgency that I cannot understand. Frankly, I find it ridiculous. The royal physicians have full confidence in—“

“My queen,” the shaman interrupted with calm insistence. “In all my years alive I’ve spoken only truth to you, our king, and the late king before him. He’ll be dead by the end of the week.”

Enough!” The soldier nearest the queen drew his sword and focused its point near the shaman’s neck. “Such a proclamation is treachery… a capital offense! You should be dragged out of this wretched hut towards the hangman’s gallows!”

The patter of rain upon the hut dispelled the tense moment almost immediately after the soldier’s threat, with the orange candlelight dancing against the shaman’s impassive eyes.

“It’s all right,” the queen proclaimed with a touch of her hand upon the soldier’s extended arm. With reluctance, the soldier resheathed his weapon and snorted his displeasure.

“Well then. Come forth, successor,” the shaman beckoned with a motion of his hand. “Be not afraid.”

The eldest boy was nudged forward by the small of his back, and he stepped towards the old man hesitantly. Reaching behind him, Yamesha revealed a bowl of ground powder and stirred it with his finger. He then raised to draw a crude depiction of the X’aran insignia upon the boy’s forehead, chanting all the while. “Yasha menta algura teno yan.”

A handful of powder was then claimed from the bowl and placed into the boy’s open palm, with the shaman guiding the little fingers closed around the clump.

Yasha menta algura teno yan.” The smoky eyes closed and the eldest boy stood as still as he could, wondering about the old man that somehow held an all-important influence in his father’s kingdom.

Moments passed as the chanting continued, fading after each verse until a whisper, and then lingering silence.

“I cannot and shall not continue the blessing,” the shaman announced with finality, snapping his eyes open. “This boy will undoubtedly lead your kingdom towards generations of ruin.”

The queen’s mouth was agape as both soldiers reached for their weapons. Acting quickly, she swiftly stepped between them and the shaman.

“What is this game you’re playing?” she asked with exasperation after the tension had abated.

“No game at all,” the shaman stoutly replied with a shake of his head. “The Fates mostly offer hints and vagaries, but today they speak to me quite clearly.”

The queen searched for words but was halted with a raise of the shaman’s forefinger. The pair of gray ideas scanned past the middle child and settled upon the toddler, still clenched against his mother’s leg.

“What is this one’s name?”

The queen hesitated before plucking the name from her lips. “Xårełlęi,” she relented.

“Xårełlęi.” The shaman tasted the name slowly through a breath. He then took to his feet which revealed an imposing height and tightened the clench of the soldier’s hands upon the hilts of their swords.

“Xårełlęi, my boy” the shaman continued with renewed purpose, “You shall lead your kingdom towards riches beyond imagination. All lands will proclaim you as their ruler, through submission or subjugation.”

A bony finger carefully drew the X’aran symbol upon the toddler’s forehead as he stared with horrified fascination.

Yasha menta algura teno yan A RAGARA teman.”

The chant seemed to echo and rise itself above time and place, overlooking the queen’s distrusting gaze and her eldest son’s disbelief.

“And yet, even the master of the world will have his weakness.” The shaman directed his warning towards the queen and her soldiers, still wide-eyed and speechless at the old man’s machinations.

Yamesha then squatted before little Xårełlęi with a grunt and a crack of his bones. “Beware the Princess of golden hair,” he warned with a swaying finger that guided the boy’s eyes. “She will stir a raging fire within you with her own hands of ice. It may serve to drive you farther than even the Fates could have foreseen, or it may drive you mad.”

The little boy stayed silent as armored hands pulled the shaman away, doing nothing to discourage the jagged yellow grin on his face.

“Quite the interesting life you’ll live, Xårełlęi” the shaman stated with arms bound behind his back. “Do well to enjoy it.”

The smile offered to Lady Leone seemed almost to patronize her, but Xårełlęi’s visage weighed heavy with thought. There existed for years a strange sense of guilt following a night graced with a woman’s pleasure, as if precious time was forfeited against the planning table, or sharpening his mind in his library with literature on war tactics. The King’s chancellors were always proponents of strategically reinforced conquest with the weaving of royal bloodlines, advocating a plan of action easily deduced and thoroughly enjoyed. A necessary burden, they encouraged with solemnity.

“Burden, you say?” his younger, lascivous self would scoff with a tilt of his head.

Indeed, a burden, his mind now conceded. Though his carnal appetites were outwardly indistinguishable, the ecstasy of flesh was now relenting its importance to the satisfaction of his life’s goal, one etched into his being at an indelible age by triumphs and prophesies and alike.

The King snapped back to reality, his eyes widened slightly with embarrassment, not knowing how long he left Lady Leone’s question unanswered.

“Four, five days at the most, I’d say. The distance is considerable but the terrain is forgiving.”

A bite of salt and egg in his mouth did well to settle his roaming concerns, and Xårełlęi wiped the side of his mouth with a napkin before continuing his thought.

“Despite this, my generals have unfortunately insisted that I ride alone in my cabin throughout our journey. A tactical maneuver, you see, to mitigate any potential… encounters along the way, though rest assured we shall be thoroughly fortified with my finest soldiers and sentries.” A soft smile curled itself upon the King’s cheek. “If either of you wanted to push the issue with Rolander, I wouldn’t be adverse to it. As it stands, your cabins will be in close proximity to mine and my trusted kingsguard.”

The ham on the King’s plate was exquisitely prepared, and Xårełlęi savored every chew while entertaining any further comments or inquiries. Time passed quickly with the rising sun, and before long the bustle and chatter from nearby tables floated away as soldiers and dignitaries departed to their day’s duties.

“Feel free to tend to any business in the next few hours… we are scheduled to depart at noon.” With a slight bow and nod of his head, Xårełlęi excused himself from the table.


Morning shadows tucked themselves away as the sun pulled overhead to complement a crisp blanket of cyan, promising at least a day’s worth of steady travel.

Towards the end of the Ŝhanthah castle yard was a sight to behold, where the trees collected against the forest’s edge and the path into wilderness. The transport assigned for the King and his entourage resembled a large, elongated wagon, supported by three large pairs of treaded wheels on either side, with a driver’s station at the head. Four smaller vehicles manned by specially-trained gunners guarded the flanks, and formations of equestrian troops roamed between the front and rear. The strange contrast of conventional forces and technological advancement seemed almost incomprehensible to unfamiliar eyes, a storybook’s fancy somehow brought alive.

A short distance away, the castle gate was brimming with activity. There stood King Xårełlęi in a suit of armor, well-fitted but ostentatious, much to his quiet chagrin. Rolander floated nearby, relaying orders and communications, while soldiers took to their horses and secured the perimeter before taking stations beside their escort. Final preparations were almost complete, signaled by the sound of a distant engine roaring to life, startling a few Ŝhanthah dignitaries.

“Remind me again why it is necessary for me to endure this ridiculous precaution before boarding Xårełl’s mobile fortress?”

“Adherence to protocol, your Highness. Our most important asset must be protected throughout all vulnerable positions, especially in response to the strikes of emboldened resistance.” A glance from Rolander tried its hand at consolation. “Feel free to retire into something more comfortable once you are situated in your cabin.”

“I’ll have a chat with our stategists when we return,” Xårełlęi remarked to himself as much as Rolander. “It seems to me we are exhibiting the incorrect message with those who oppose us. I am not some… delicate artifact to be cradled.”

“Of course not, your majesty.” The tone in Rolander’s voice discarded the matter amidst the process of closing inspections. “It’s time,” Rolander announced as the arrival of Princess Alora’s and Lady Leone’s convoys signaled departure proceedings towards the royal command vessel. Its presence seemed to grow more visually imposing with their approach, rumbling with mechanical life.

A customary knock on the metallic hull by both Rolander and Xårełlęi preceded an exchange of salutes before the King boarded through the unlatched entryway, followed by the Princess and the maiden from Leviatha. High-ranking soldiers flanked the king before relieving themselves after he was safely secured within his chambers.

Within the King’s cabin was a compact rendition of the royal quarters, offering a spacious bed, wardrobe, restroom, and other essentials. Reinforced glass windows drew in plenty of light through parted curtains. Xårełlęi sighed before taking to the task of methodically unfastening his armor and assembling it piecemeal upon a sturdy mannequin. A more casual attire was welcomed upon chafed joints and induced a drowsiness he didn’t expect. A pull of force beneath the King’s feet overtook his balance, prompting a lazy collapse upon his bed.

The softness of silk blankets teetered the king on the edge of sleep before a knock at his door sat him upright with blinking eyes. “Yes?” he called after a moment’s hesitation, carefully masking the irritation in his voice.

Continued in Worlds Apart – 02

Scout’s Honor

■ My submissions  

■ Partner’s submissions

The rumblings of a fuel-starved RV carved through the stale air, sputtering along a trail of asphalt and paint which was slowly being reclaimed by the earth below it. Charles cursed under his breath and ripped a sigh through his teeth, knowing that his next few hours would be spent recharging the cells for his improvised engine sooner than he had planned. The rust-covered behemoth finally came to rest near a small patch of forest, which was less than ideal due to the fact that the lanky black… things which now roamed the earth were known to use trees as cover. He supposed that mounting a turret on the roof of the RV would prepare him for the worst if he needed to react in a hurry and defend himself. One could never take enough precautions in regards to what could be waiting outside the safety of a reinforced, improvised all-terrain vehicle.

Though it wasn’t circled on the calendar which hung above his fold-out bed, today was the seven-year anniversary since the extra-terrestrials launched a massive invasion of Earth, attempting to wipe out a species for reasons that the human race could only speculate. Despite the uncertainty regarding their intentions, however, the changes which were sweeping across Earth made themselves indisputably known.

For one, the wind seemed to blow from all directions at once in sporadic bursts. There was also a type of strange, otherworldly, creeping type of vegetation slowly swallowing the indigenous plant life in such a way that could almost be heard, if one stood still and listened close. The sky above always seemed to be a muted gray, with a pale sun prying its light through the thickened shroud of muddied atmosphere.

These changes, however, were not entirely the result of a ruthless otherworldly threat. In fact, humankind had halted the advance of the aliens with the desperation of hastily-developed weapons that were decades ahead of their time. There was no time to consider, however, the devastating consequences to the environment, wildlife, and everything in between.

This didn’t stop Charles from accepting his scouting assignment for a budding colony of post-war survivors, which had ballooned from six hundred to three thousand. He was tasked with roaming uncharted areas and uncovering survivors outside of the colony’s walls, if he could find them, and offer them the opportunity to start life anew. Most were not only willing but eager, and Charles made a number of life-long friends who proved their usefulness amongst the people back home.

There was a disturbing hitch in Earth’s fostering rebound, however. Rumors were spreading that a small group of humans colluded with the aliens after being convinced of their species’ need for removal. They accepted technological augmentations which granted them superhuman abilities, helping to ensure the success of the extra-terrestrial’s initial assault. These treacherous conspirators, along with the crawling black monsters, were the last remnants of the invasion that had lost contact with the alien species which controlled them. Unfortunately, they still operated on ingrained commands to neutralize all human life.

After a moment to gather his bearings, Charles set out and embraced the outside world with conquered reluctance. He emerged from the side-hatched door of his RV wearing his usual pair of blue jeans with a dusty leather jacket and faded Nirvana t-shirt. He never did much with his jet-black hair beyond slicking it back with his own saliva, as having to spend any time styling it seemed a pointless endeavor. Deep brown eyes kept a keen watch on movements near and far, ready to discern, demand, and react. Various indentations across his arms, and one faded scar across his left cheek, had stories to tell to ears who would hear them.

Hours passed, and Charles had assembled most of the large metallic receivers in a circular pattern around the stationary RV. Sunlight was now being collected, which would be transferred to the fuel cells of the vehicle after a standardized conversion. A few more hours of patience would result in several day’s worth of travel. After dusting off his hands, Charles decided to roam the perimeter to kill time and see what he could find.

A dilapidated shack in the distance had caught Charles’ attention since he ventured out from his RV. He approached slowly with the caution of a paranoid soldier before hearing a noise, which immediately set him on edge. Charles quickly determined that it wasn’t a crawler and put a hold on his instinct to flee. Quickly and quietly, he loaded a small pistol and readied it in his right hand. He positioned himself a few yards away before barking his command.

“Show yourself, whoever you are, or be fired upon!”

What was that old cliché; any port in a storm? Muted blues shifted from the ominously dark clouds rolling across the sky to the small weather worn building in front of her. If there was another option around, she certainly didn’t see it. A slight frown knitted a smooth brow as she mulled over the pros and cons of stepping into a barn that looked like a mighty fine home for all manner of creepy crawlies.

A flash of lightning abruptly seared across the sky followed by the predictable crack-boom of thunder. A quick breath was sucked in and every muscle in her body tensed in involuntary fear of that noise. What was it about thunderstorms that brought out the frightened child in us all? The impending storm, as well as the recent adrenaline rush, was instrumental in encouraging her to step forward to inspect the structure in hopes that it would be adequate shelter for at least an evening.

Rusted hinges loudly squealed out their protests as she used the scuffed toe of her boot to gently nudge the door open. It swung back slowly revealing exactly what she’d feared; cobwebs. One would think that in a world that had been turned upside down that something as trivial as a spider wouldn’t even cause her to her bat an eyelash but it did. Oh, but it did.

Old straw littered the wooden floor and further into the back, nestled along the wall, there were a few bales of hay barely held together by the loose bands of twine. A fat drop of rain fell on her forearm and she glanced over to it, watching as it began the slow roll off the edge of her arm. Another quickly splashed down across her cheek followed by yet another on her hand. The trepidation she’d felt earlier upon entering a den of arachnids was now replaced by the urgency to stay dry. Thus a tentative step was taken inside removing herself from the steadily increasing onslaught of rain. The mere action of placing the sole of a well worn boot on the floor stirred up dust that had long settled to swirl in the air.

The compound bow was lowered from its customary resting place on her shoulder to rest against the wall just inside the door. A backpack and knife belt soon followed suit and joined the meager collection of possessions. A deep breath was in haled then exhaled, disturbing a strand of pale blonde hair that had come loose from the hastily pulled together ponytail that crowned her head. It had been weeks since she’d even seen a mirror and quite honestly, she wasn’t sure she wanted to. It would take a bit of work to make it comfortable but at the very least, she’d be dry.


The storm had rolled through by the next morning and thanks to a small tarp that she’d stretched over one corner of the old barn, she’d been able to remain dry and relatively unscathed through night. Several bales of hay had been utilized as a barrier between her person and the hardness of the wooden floor. Although she felt the urge to break camp and press on, there were a few matters that needed her attention before the trek continued.

The needle was pushed through the thick canvas fabric and pulled through the other side until it was taut before the process began all over again. It was ironic that her mother had tried for years to get her to learn to do domestic tasks such as cooking and sewing; stating that one day she was going to be on her own and would have to know such things in order to take care of herself. One corner of her mouth twitched upwards into a wry smile. If she’d only known then what she knew now – she would have done so many things differently.

The final stitch had been taken and she brought the thread, along with the canvas backpack, up to her mouth to use her teeth to snap through the thread to separate the items. It was at that moment the foreign, rumbling sound of a distant engine cut through the familiar sounds of morning. Both hands stilled at their current task, her breath caught and held as she strained to focus all senses on that one reverberating sound. There was no doubt about it, it was definitely an engine. The knowledge was as equally exciting as it was terrifying. Who would have thought that it was possible for the human body to experience both excitement and sheer panic at the exact same exact moment? A part of her was elated to even ponder the possibilities of another human being in such a close proximity; the other part was absolutely terrified.

Unfortunately the demise of the old world structure turned some of those who had survived its collapse into ne entirely different breed of people. Most of them seemed just as frightened and lacking in resources as she was, but instead of choosing the softer side of humanity, many of them had elected to callously and cruelly take from others rather than make the effort to rebuild a civilized society. A quick little prayer was sent up on a whispered breath in the hope that whoever was chugging along in the motorized vehicle wasn’t one of these people.

As the sound of the engine drew nearer, she was horridly breaking camp. The tarp had been pulled down and was hastily stuffed into the backpack along with the lengths of braided rope that were utilized to hold it in place. The woolen blankets were rolled and soon joined the tarp. It wasn’t until after she’d finished packing and securing her things that she realized the sound of the engine had completely stopped. Had it already gone by? Where was it? The icy cold fingers of panic traveled down her spine as the reality of the situation made itself fully known.

There was no sound; no birds, no insects, nothing. The nothing was even more frightening than something. Panic had a way of jump starting one’s survival skills kicking them into overdrive. In one fluid movement the pack was dropped and she launched herself at the bow that had been left leaning against the wall by the door. It felt like her heart had suddenly grown legs and was actively trying to claw its way out of her chest and up through her throat. Nocking the arrow proved to be a much more difficult task when your hands were shaking rather violently.

A breath was inhaled and exhaled slowly through her nose in effort to mentally wrestle control back from the paranoia that her own mind had evoked. “It’s ok, Alex, you got this.” The whispered words of encouragement did very little to still her shaking hands.

Over time the worn boards of the barn had shrunk and pulled away from one another leaving gaping spaces between them. It was through one of these slits that the end of the arrow protruded, aimed for the tall figure of a man who had attempted to stealthily approach her current location.

Strangely enough she had no idea what clued him in to her presence but suddenly he was on high alert, a pistol cocked and aimed straight at her through the boards of the gaping boards of the barn.

Jesus! Was he really going to shoot her? For what reason? There was a moment of indecision before the metal latch on the barn door clicked and the rusty hinges once again did their part in alerting everyone that the door was opening. It seemed there was a brief moment of indecision before the bow was tossed out into the tall grass of the field, the quiver of arrows quickly following suit.

Two hands came out first, both raised slightly in a sign of surrender as well as a show of being empty as she stepped up and over the wooden threshold of the barn and into the grass just outside. A frown of concern currently marred her normally smooth brow, giving the diminutive woman’s delicate features a very somber look that currently matched her situation. Dark blonde, shoulder length hair had been pulled up tight into a ponytail to keep it out of her face and the muted blue eyes that stared spitefully back at him, as if this entire unfortunate situation was on his shoulders. Although she didn’t quite have the look of one of those hearty survivors, she certainly had the attitude.

“I don’t have anything other than what you see.” A lift of her chin was given in the general direction of the bow and the few arrows that remained. “Take them if you have to.”

At first, Charles was confused by the pleas that broke the silence after he voiced his warning. A wave of relief quickly swept over his mind, due to the fact that the worst of his fears were alleviated – there would be no need to use his weapon before making a hasty retreat towards his idling van… at least from his initial outlook of the situation as it stood. Charles remained motionless for a time, handgun still steadied towards the general direction of the barely-visible girl in the darkness of the barn. Soon afterward, a look of dawning comprehension claimed his features. He’d gaze at his own weapon-wielding hands with a tilt of his head before abruptly withdrawing it to his holster.

“It’s okay! It’s okay… I’m not here to hurt you!” A sudden acknowledgement of the stranger’s words would result in a gaze that seemed to add a rider to his claim of benevolence. So long as you’re not thinking of hurting me.

The lack of response from the blonde-haired female prompted Charles to perform a diplomatic gesture. He casually reached for his belt and unclipped his holster before presenting it to the girl in both palms, then parting them to drop the weapon towards his boots. His hands then retreated back to the air by his sides, furthering his point of concession.

“See? Nothing to worry about. I thought you were one of those crawlers I’ve run into before…” His voice trailed off, as if to correct his course of conversation. With a breath, Charles started again.

“I have food, water, a place to sleep. I’m a scout for a colony about a week’s journey south of here. I don’t usually run into people in the middle of nowhere like this, but…” Charles’ own words seemed to give him pause. Could this woman be trusted? The evidence at hand suggested that she privy to hunting… for food, for self-defense, for survival. But the war with the aliens brought out the best and worst sides of humanity. Many strays were simply raiders and looters whose instincts to survive seemed to be on autopilot, with seemingly no desire to reintroduce themselves into society.

“I’ll be on my way soon,” Charles began once more, adjusting his offer on the fly. “I need another few hours or so before my van’s batteries recharge. You needn’t make a decision now. I’ll assume you want to be left alone if you haven’t shown yourself by the time I’m ready to leave. If that’s the case, I promise I won’t disclose your whereabouts to anyone.” And with that, his silhouette pulled itself from the barn’s open doors after retrieving his holster, out of view from the blue-eyed girl.

It seemed as if every muscle in her body was knotted tightly in anticipation. There were so many ways all of this could go wrong and really only one teeny tiny way it could go right, if right was even a possibility anymore. Although she heard the words of peace and kindness that seemed to tumble so easily from the man’s mouth, they weren’t really believed. To her they were just trigger words utilized to weave a hopeful net fabricated with the intent of enticing their target into a false sense of security. The hardened edge to her eyes and the thin slash of red lips, pressed together in tension never altered, even after the good will shown by removing and laying his weapon down on the ground. It wasn’t as if the man didn’t have eyes and lacked the ability to determine the outcome of a physical altercation. The only that laying down his weapon did is show that he would prefer her to be alive for…whatever it was.

Food, water, a place to sleep. I’m a scout for a colony….those words, all of them, generated more emotion in one split second than she’d allowed herself to feel in weeks, probably months. A small surge of hope swelled in her chest and it was immediately squelched by the firm hand of caution that had been allowed to grow unchecked within her. Regardless of whether he noticed or not, a small breath hitched in her throat and remained there for the duration of his presence.

It wasn’t until the man had retrieved his weapon and began walking back to his vehicle that she allowed herself to exhale the breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding. Muscles that had been tensed were now quivering as the adrenaline rushed through her veins, unneeded now that the threat had moved away.

The bow and arrows that had been tossed out as an offering were quickly gathered by a shaky hand and yanked back into the open door of the small barn. The sounds of the squeaking door were heard as the door was quickly closed and latched, for whatever good that would do her. The shack itself was really no barrier, not even against a single man – if indeed he was just a lone man.

The man’s departure was watched through a sizeable gap through the wooden walls in effort to determine the location of his vehicle and in essence, the location of him. She could just barely make out the dark outline of the RV through the thin line of trees between them. Once she knew for sure that he was back within his own area and well out of hers, it was as if a dam broke and all the emotions she hadn’t allowed herself to feel came rushing forth, overwhelming the protective barrier. A sob escaped as she slid to her knees on the hay covered floor, her mind now free of the false bravado of adrenaline to go over the events, realizing how very close that situation could have been.

The tip of an index finger flicked away an unwanted tear that had managed to get past the barrier of her lower lashes. The little drop of moisture was quickly rubbed into the well worn denim of her jeans. The words she spoke were whispered to herself, as if speaking them aloud helped give them more authority. “Well that did not go as expected.” But really, what had she expected? Quite frankly she expected to be killed right there on the spot so any non-death outcome was much welcomed.

That little voice of reason in her head piped in reminding her that there was really no time to sit and deliberate over the events of the last few minutes, she needed to get moving. The voice, which had served her well enough over the course of the last few years, was obeyed and she automatically rose to her feet and began breaking camp to pack the few items she claimed as her own.

The knots that held the tarp in place were quickly unknotted by deft fingers as she allowed herself to mull over the implications of the man’s words. A colony? That seemed far too good to be real. But then again, why couldn’t it exist? Why couldn’t there be people out there that wanted more than to just exist from day to day? If going by her own wants and desires was any indication, then it was entirely possible. Again that little swell of hope began but this time; she allowed it to exist – just for a moment, just to see what it felt like. It was warm, like a little flame to warm your hands during the cold of winter.

But what if he was lying and there was no colony? Hell what if there wasn’t even any food or water? Another glance was cast to the wooden barn wall, as if she could see through it and straight to the intentions of the man who had caused this little bout of internal dilemma. What was worse? Being mired in the quicksand of being alone and knowing you aren’t going to make it or grasping at an offered branch, no matter how tenuous?

The last of her items were packed into the backpack and it was set aside while she sat and stared at it for what seemed like hours while she mulled over the endless number of possible outcomes; most of them quite horrible given the fact that she’d bore witness to some rather unpleasant things in the last several years.

It was all so quick she barely remembered how she’d gotten herself over the little hump of indecision. One moment she was sitting there contemplating the situation and the next she was on the move, the backpack was being hefted over her shoulder as she walked. Quick strides ate the distance between the location of the two points and in minutes she was standing well within range of the vehicle and the man to be heard. The end of the bow was lowered and rested on the ground, a similar show of his good faith from earlier.

It was difficult to keep the skepticism from her voice as she addressed him. “There’s really a colony of people?” Yes, she wanted to make sure they were people and not those other pseudo people. “Why would they send you out to bring more people back? Don’t more people mean more mouths to feed?” It was obvious by the way she carefully lowered herself into a comfortable sitting position that she had every intention of quizzing him until his batteries were charged and he was ready to depart.

The yellow eye of the sun was slowly inching itself towards the horizon, gazing obstinately at Charles as he retreated back to his RV. He wasn’t sure what to make with the encounter of the silent girl back at the barn moments ago… he almost had the feeling that a confrontation was averted by shifting gears with his approach. Despite having practiced his negotiation tactics in the mirror numerous times, he always found himself disappointed with his own performance. The feeling in his gut was that the blonde-haired stranger wanted to be left alone, which manifested only a few fleeting pangs of regret. After all, his job was to recruit the willing, not draft the unwilling.

Time passed as Charles busied himself with some minor repairs on the underside of the RV, halfway forgetting the blonde girl in the barn who was a yell’s distance away. Her voice would startle him out of a hum-filled concentration, almost hitting his head on a steel beam before rolling himself out upon a wheeled platform. There she was, bow lain innocuously at her feet, and she was asking questions. There was both curiosity and skepticism in her inquiries, which Charles quietly identified with. He was basically in the same situation a number of years ago, distraught and alone, before a chance encounter with his good friend Steven lit a flicker of hope within the cynical shroud which had overtaken his mind.

“Yes, a colony. Still working on a name, but tentatively called the Phoenix’s Nest,” Charles responded with a casual smile. “We’re always looking for people who’d like to join us and offer their skill sets. Even the unskilled can be trained, and we won’t turn our backs on the sick or injured.”

It was the truth. The Nest was dedicated to reestablishing humanity’s propagation upon the Earth through a community of hard work, ingenuity, and compassion. Everyone lived well under its care and everyone had a say regarding its direction. Politics played little part in decision-making and was hardly the contaminating influence that claimed prominence in the old world. That’s not to say that the Nest didn’t have its flaws, but an escalating wave of optimism propelled its purpose ever forward.

“We have farmers and scientists who have set up some impressive hydroponics,” Charles continued, trying to allay any concerns from the seated stranger ahead of time. “No one goes hungry, and we’re just now compiling a surplus to prepare for any future droughts or famines.”

Charles was somewhat at a loss, disappointed that his blue-eyed audience hadn’t perked up with any sort of optimism; hell, he’d even accept incredulity at this point. The sudden realization that he must be sounding like a pitchman reddened his cheeks slightly with embarrassment, knowing he himself personally detested salesmen. All the while, the desire to prove himself a harbinger of opportunity remained steadfast in his mind and fervent on his tongue. His mouth would open as if to continue before raising a forefinger to interrupt himself.

“I’m just about due for an update with the check-in station,” he stated with renewed determination. “I don’t think they’d mind me knocking it out a day ahead of time. Wait here and I’ll be back.”

He stepped inside the RV and returned moments later with a large radio that had two spiraling antennae jutting from the top of its steel chassis. A microphone was also attached to its side with a thin black cord which Charles held in his hand. He walked towards one of the sun-dishes before setting it down and fiddling with the dials.

“Chirping bird? Chirping bird? This is Scout 1, over.”

Static at first, but the sound was strong and encouraging.

“Chirping bird? This is Scout 1, over. Reporting in a bit early but everything’s just fine. Over.”

Static again, but a sound would soon bleed in, first as a wave-like distortion that quickly unveiled itself as a male’s voice.

“Scout 1? Scout 1, are you there?” A warm, friendly Southern twang accompanied the inquiry. Charles welcomed the voice with a triumphant exhale and a confirmation before it responded in kind.  “Thanks for checking in. Glad you’re doing all right. Any news to report?”

“I’m about fifty clicks north of the last checkpoint and I think I’ve made a new friend,” he’d respond with a gaze that never left the woman. “It seems as though I’ll be having a partner with me to introduce to the Nest when I make my rendezvous in a week’s time.”

“Well, if he or she is listening, howdy-do, sir or madam,” the voice cordially offered as a greeting. “Tell him or her we’ll be awaiting their arrival with open arms and a hot bite to eat.”

Charles smiled warmly and nodded to no one in particular. “I’ll push out a little farther after my cells recharge,” Charles continued as a shift from the formalities, not wanting to risk making the blonde-haired woman uncomfortable. “After that, I’ll be heading back with the supplies I’ve gathered from the town in sector seven. Be sure to tell the housing commission to make room for a new guest.”

“Sounds good, will do. Don’t head any farther than that, ‘cause it looks like the weather guys are sayin’ there’s some electrical storms headed our way… middle o’ next week, the way I understand it. Like those crazy ones from last year.”

Charles’ eyes widened just a bit at the warning, but he otherwise kept his poise. “Thanks for the heads up, Chirping Bird. Expect my next check-in at the normally scheduled interval. Over and out.”

With that, the radio fizzled back towards static before Charles turned it off. A look of accomplishment was on his face as he slowly walked towards the newcomer sitting before him, hand outstretched.

“It’s nice to meet you, stranger. The name’s Charles. And you are?”

To the outside observer the whole interaction was absorbed in silence and although she seemed to be somewhat at ease in her current crouched position, it was nothing but a very well crafted façade; in reality she was tightly coiled bundle of nerves set to spring at the first sign of trouble.

The multiple answers to her few questions were a little too perfect. Pieces and parts of his answers were mentally caught and held so that she could ponder the words as well as the possibilities: a community of scientists, hydroponics, no one goes hungry, preparing for future natural disasters…without sounding cliché, it all sounded a little too good to be true. But if it was, why would anyone carefully craft such a plan to lure in survivors? What would be the benefit of expending so much energy and so many resources to net a few straggling remnants of humanity? As far as she was concerned humanity wasn’t worth the effort it took to even set out those solar panels to recharge the vehicle.

Most of the people she’d encountered over the course of the last few years were nowhere near this level of civilized. It was if the alien invasion triggered some type of evolutionary time warp and humanity took a huge step back to the days of the Neanderthal. Warlords rose to power by bullying by taking from the weak, all the while beating on their chests proclaiming their dominance. They formed little pockets of misery set up to trap the unwary traveler and more than one unfortunate survivor had met their fate over something as simple as a fresh piece of fruit.

The announcement that he needed to check in with his base was actually met with a small twinge of enthusiasm that was certainly not revealed. It had been months since she’d conversed with anyone civil at all and now she got the opportunity to hear a conversation via radio? Once again the possibilities of his words swam to the surface of her consciousness.

Every single word of the conversation was heard and filed away as he spoke but instead of keeping her gaze fixated on him, she took to studying the vehicle in which he had arrived. If man was able to take a few giant steps forward to create this, why couldn’t she?

When the voice on the radio directed his words to her she couldn’t suppress the surprised reaction. One corner of her mouth ticked upwards in the slightest hint of a grin. That small action changed the entire demeanor of her face and it was clear from that tiny deed alone, that she’d finally allowed hope the freedom of sprouting within her.

When Charles finished his conversation and moved towards her, hand outstretched, she didn’t flinch or stand to take a few steps back to put distance between them. Instead she rose to her minimal 5’4”, hurriedly ran the palm of her right hand down along the fabric of her jeans in effort to remove any traces of nervous sweat and readily accepted the offered hand. One firm shake was given before she released. “Alexandria Morgan, but you can call me Alex.”  Although specific areas of the country had been destroyed or practically rearranged, the people that had called those places home were scattered but still retained traces of that former life. Alex’s origins were very clear in the manifestation of a hint of a southern inflection.

Although she wasn’t entirely afraid it had been quite some time since she’d been within such a close proximity to a person. Let alone a person as well armed as Charles. The anxious looks cast around them, the steps taken in place as she attempted to remain still, all these actions were attributed to a slight case of nerves rather than fear.

A quick cast of her eyes was given to his vehicle before settling back on him. “So how can I help?”

Kelyn’s Dilemma

■ My submissions  

■ Partner’s submissions

The knock on Charles’ office door was met with a terse invitation from a gruff, impatient voice. “It’s open.”

Deputy Chief Anderson slowly turned the knob and swung it open, revealing a tall man with short dark hair, deep brown eyes, and broad shoulders situated at a large desk. His sleeves were rolled up and his tie loosened past his collar as he typed away upon his laptop. There were polaroids taped to almost every square inch of an adjacent wall which were arranged in groups in apparent conjunction to various cases. The occasional drawing could also be seen amongst the crime scene photographs… profiles of suspect’s faces, overhead maps with detailed legends, and sequenced explanations of the theories behind available evidence. Apparently, Charles had a creative side.

“Good afternoon, Detective Brock,” Anderson said with a nod as he cleared the way for Kelyn to enter the office. “I assume you got my earlier message… I thought I’d introduce you to your partner, Keyla. She’ll be providing her expertise on several cases, especially the Solstice case.” Charles took a moment before finally lifting his eyes from his laptop towards Keyla. He mustered a weak smile which seemed to weigh against a preoccupied mind. Another moment would pass before opened his mouth to speak.

“It’s nice to meet you, Keyla. Have a seat, let’s chat.” He extended a hand towards a nearby wooden chair before quickly returning to his work.

It wasn’t the first time Kelyn had worked with the FBI in general and Deputy Chief Anderson in particular, but she was ready to jump of this Solstice case. She’d gotten the case files almost three days ago but had only accepted yesterday. It was compelling and ‘right up her alley’. The Chief’s words, not hers.

Kelyn strode in behind Anderson, instantly taking in the office, the Polaroids, the laptop and the man behind them. She stood strong and sure, dressed in a smart pair of slacks and a sharp burgundy long sleeved top. She was short, maybe five foot five and couldn’t have been older than twenty five, a pretty young face, skin the color of light caramel and red hair cut short in the back and long in the front so it framed her face. She was slender and elegant, lithe like a fencer and smiled warmly with pretty lips touched with a light rose lipstick.

She looked like a pushover and a bit of an airhead.

Until you got to her eyes.

A sharp and fierce intelligence stared back through pools of liquid sapphire. It was obvious that she assessed things in an instance and acted without hesitation. And there was something… else.

Something undefinable. Not any sort of feminine wile, not any kind of expression or mannerism.

Just something… different.

Whoever she was, she didn’t fit into the typical box someone of her appearance would confine themselves to.

Kelyn sat on one of the wooden chairs, crossing her long legs. She wore sneakers – clean, but well broken in. They rather contrasted with the sharp business wear. No jewelry either.

And wasn’t it hot out for long sleeves?

“Good afternoon, Detective. I look forward to utilizing our unique skill sets in a mutually beneficial manner.

She sounded just like a grown-up. Who would of thought?

“Yes, yes. I am as well.” Charles’ eyes never left his laptop as his fingers continued their clickety-clack barrage. Another awkward moment would pass before Anderson cleared his throat, which Charles seemed to take as some sort of cue. He interrupted himself with an exhale and turned to Keyla with eyes held up by bags suggesting strings of long nights that were perhaps catching up to him. His five o’clock shadow and an afterthought smell of cologne were also quick to confess his priorities. There was no meanness or malevolence in his gaze, however… only annoyance which was perhaps distilled with a healthy amount of passion.

“You can leave us, Anderson. I’ll be sure to get Keyla up to speed.”

After a moment of reluctance, the Deputy Chief nodded towards Charles before exiting himself from the office.

“All right, Keyla,” Charles began while leaning back in his chair. “Hours are 8 to 5 with an hour’s lunch in between. You’re welcome to pursue leads that aren’t approved by me on your own time, but otherwise, deviation from the lead investigation will be met with serious repercussions.” Charles’ voice was stale, as if he was reciting a set of mandatory guidelines.

“As partners, we should be able to reach each other at any time. As a matter of fact…” Charles turned to reach for his phone, offering it up as an indication to Keyla. “457-618-1103. Go for it.”

Maybe he has never worked with a consultant before… he had certainly never worked with her before. Kelyn’s lips pursed so slightly in frustration. Obviously Anderson hadn’t filled Brock in on Kelyn’s previous cases and how she worked.

Now didn’t seem the right time. Instead she snagged her phone, large and slender and typed in his number. She then called it, her number appearing on his own. That was solved. Sitting back in the chair, the wood creaking so slightly, Kelyn considered Brock.

He was obviously one-of-those. It wasn’t a bad thing, he honestly gave a damn about his job and the people he was trying to help, but too many long nights, too much coffee, and too much skepticism was going to make this a hard one.

Plus, he spoke to her the way one would someone fresh out of the Academy.

Kelyn suppressed a sigh. After the White Hall case, she was in limbo with the FBI. Yes, they had secretly saved the world and yes, she had to write a novel for her reports to make any of it believable. Terrorist threat and explosive had come up a lot. In reality, she had done a good job handling something no one else could have, and Anderson knew it.

The FBI paid her consulting fees without question and called her the next day – but she wasn’t liked or respected by any of the working men. Even Anderson was sketchy on what really happened with White Hall and had decided to keep his questions to himself – he liked sleeping at night.

Instead, Kelyn pulled out a file.

There was no way this man would take her seriously otherwise. It was an FBI asset file and it was hers. She laid it before him. “A little light reading for you, so we generally understand each other.”

The file lay waiting between them.

There was a moment of silence as the file lay like a brick between them. Charles would eventually reach for the file, but his eyes never left Kelyn, even as his fingers began to rummage through the papers encased within the beige file. Finally, he would pull his gaze upon what awaited him. It was sporadic reading at best – mainly focusing on the major aspects of each paperclipped case. His unwavering demeanor suggested insensitivity towards impressive credentials. Finally, with a grunt and a casual lean, he returned Kelyn her property, his eyes retaining their passive gaze.

“Very nice. I’m pretty sure you’ll be some help in the days ahead. But understand that, as consultant, you play by my rules now, and I generally play things by the book.”

His smiled returned, as vacant as ever, and his hands tented themselves above his lap. There was a brief moment of uneasiness… perhaps regret?… and Charles’ mind raced to actively pacify any brooding dislike between them.

“I’m not going to brush you aside like some kind of a-hole, Kelyn. I intend to use whatever talents you have to offer to their utmost capabilities. But there has to be an understanding that what I say, goes. Your advice will always be considered, I assure you. But there is an unfortunate amount of red tape which we all have to deal with, and rules which we have no choice but to play by.”

Charles hoped his explanation would enlighten Kelyn on his true intentions… he just wanted to solve cases, bottom line.

Oh boy. She hoped this case and any other future cases with him kept themselves squarely on the normal side of things. If they ever got deep into her ‘talents’, red tape would be the least of their concerns. There was a flicker of emotion again. 


Resigned comprehension.

A touch of anger. It was gone in an instant, as if it had never been there, her features once again young and open. “I have worked successfully with the Agency before and you can rest assured that I know the rules. I understand your concern and have at least an inkling of what drives them. Shall we talk about the case?”

Really? That was it? No pouting, no posturing?

She pulled out a binder in which she had organized her copies of the case files. Clean, elegant – not necessarily helpful but at least professional.

“I have been selected as the Consultant for this case due to my previous experience with missing persons. I was the consultant on the Red Tower Pointe case and the lead investigator recommended me to Anderson when he heard you had the Solstice case.”

Red Tower Pointe had been a disaster. Three Federal Judges had gone missing from the Red Tower Pointe hotel almost three years ago. It had been a very high profile case that had dragged on for almost a week with no leads before Kelyn had been called in.

Two days later the Judges were recovered. 

They had no memory of what had happened and could not account for their whereabouts for the missing interim. It was an ‘unsolved’ mystery for the department and one of those things Anderson never asked about.

“Obviously, there is still no apparent tie between the victims. Different ages, races, genders, occupations. No matching known associates. It went on for so long early on because no one noticed the Solstice connection. That hints at ritual killing, something serial or occult.”

She wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t already know. Testing the waters perhaps?

Charles has plenty of experience with renegades, hotheads and primadonnas in his past wheelings and dealings as detective. Most were assigned to him a need-by-need, case-by-case basis to accomplish certain ends which were beyond the scope of the average investigator. He developed a healthy dislike for these relationships, as they often led to extra paperwork and countless inquiries by anxious higher-ups.

But as he put his initial assumptions aside regarding Kelyn, she seemed… different, somehow. She had something to hide, he sensed, but he wasn’t sure why he sensed it, what it was or what significance it held. It could be nothing, maybe a blemish on her record or some weird OCD habit. With an effort, Charles abandoned his train of thought, deciding to pursue his analysis at another time.

For the first time, he fully took in Kelyn’s appearance. She had an obvious physical appeal, but likely did not have a boyfriend… the work involved to build her impressive resume made almost certain of that fact. She was well-kept, neat, but her worn sneakers implied she also had a practical side as well. Orange beams of sunlight which bled in from a nearby window painted themselves against her face, and for an instant she seemed almost… angelic. A warmth of acceptance appeared on Charles’ face, the first true sign of respect that he conceded towards Kelyn.

Charles lifted himself from his seat. The stream of orange light reflected off his skin for a moment, unveiling a slight olive tint which suggested Italian or Puerto Rican ancestry. His arms seemed ropey, chiseled and strong, even underneath the wrinkled shirt which otherwise disguised most of his physical traits. A slow nod confirmed that he agreed with Kelyn’s theory, but his eyes warned that a tangent of thought was imminent. Charles walked towards the window, and with a breath, he began.

“You know, I had a case, years ago. Five murders with the same modus operandi, five different states.. the 31st of each subsequent month. Different races and backgrounds, much like this one. I thought it was some religious nutjob who was driven by some wacky-tabaccey pattern, but I eventually solved the case, a year or so later. Turned out the killer was a truck driver who had his check deposited every month on the 31st, so he had some extra cash to spend on his spur-of-the-moment hobby.”

He turned towards Kelyn with a gaze that was lost in thought. “My question is this. What is convenient about the solstices? What advantages do they offer in terms of covering tracks?”

It wasn’t a bad thought. Maybe everyone was reading so much into the Solstice idea behind the case, but to date, it was the only known connection. She flipped a few of the pages in the binder, offering a chart that showed day of the week, numeric date, coordinates, weather patterns including degrees in Fahrenheit, precipitation, and the like. The chart crossed off a number of measurable variables. No notables holidays or celebrations, no proximity to birth dates or anniversaries of the victims and their families.


Never had a page full of information summed up nothing so concisely.

“I hear you,” she said softly, slender fingertips running over the page. “Just because everyone assumes there is an occult connection doesn’t make it true. But Occam’s Razor isn’t helping either, all of the most obvious answers have been ruled out, leaving only the more unlikely answers.”

He was looking at her, listening to her – as if she was a live human being. It was a vast improvement over the first five minutes of their conversation. And standing there silhouetted by the window, Kelyn noticed he was… handsome.  That was unusual all on its own and for it’s very own reasons. She picked at the cuffs of her long sleeve shirt, a nervous habit.

“I wanted to head over to Whole Health / Whole Life, then to Diaz’s home. What do you think?”

A curious look of relief climbed its way to the surface of Charles’s face through layers of carefully managed indifference. The consideration he tossed towards Kelyn was basically an afterthought, but she entertained it with due process without an ounce of condescension. Maybe they’d get along, after all. Charles’ biggest fear was his ten years on the force weighing against him in unexpected ways – for example, simply being personable was somehow becoming more and more of a chore with every passing year. The last thing he wanted was to devolve into some bitter gumshoe whose stellar reputation was an inadequate substitute for his lack of friends. Kelyn was young, talented, accomplished, driven – but not abrasive, at least upon Charles’ initial assessment.

Charles turned towards his desk, the afternoon sun now strong upon his back, and pulled open a drawer to retrieve something.

“We’ll use my clunker on official business,” he said with a curl of a smile before tossing Kelyn a set of keys. “And you’ll need to get used to how that piece of junk runs. So, take it easy the first spin down the block, okay?” After tucking an address book into his coat, he politely led her outside into the hallway, where loitering detectives would whisper and watch with eyes that asked undue questions.

Charles guided Kelyn through the back area of the building towards a doorway which led out into an adjacent garage. “I managed to get a spot in here today, but don’t get used to it… usually, this thing is out on the street.”

The pair would navigate through several archways until they approached an old, rust-colored Toyota Corolla parked alone in a corner. As they both climbed in his car, Charles buckled himself before offering the radio to Kelyn with a gesture of his hand. “Driver gets to choose,” he’d offer in concession, nodding his go-ahead.


What a difference! She couldn’t guess what she had done or said to change the man’s opinion, but something had happened. Something was different. She would take it without complaint. The pair strode from his office, falling into step and Kelyn became quietly aware of the other investigators looking at them. It wasn’t just a casual glance in passing. Kelyn frowned softly, toying with her long sleeves as if checking for… something. It was impossible to know what.

She breathed a sigh of relief as they stepped out of the building and into the parking garage to wander amid the cars there. It was a strange amalgam of luxury vehicles and clunkers all mixed in together like a box of chocolates.

She liked his car. It wasn’t pretentious or overbearing. It was a real person’s car.

She’d driven everything from an Al Camino to a Bugatti Veyron and they all got your from point A to point B. Yes, some were more fun than others, but they were all metal (or fiberglass) boxes with wheels.

Her green Nissan Altima would have matched any other car 99.9% of the time.

Kelyn slid in, buckling up, then blinked at him softly. “Radio privileges. I am honored. I promise, nothing obnoxious.” She flipped through the radio stations until she found something that bore a mix of 80’s ballads and 90’s light alternative. John Popper crooned through the speakers, then took up his harmonica.

Kelyn checked before pulling out of the spot, then headed north from the FBI headquarters toward the highway.

She was a pretty good driver. Not too defensive, not aggressive. He could just relax and let the car steal them away for a moment. “So why FBI,” she asked as Lifehouse Hanging By a Moment sang through the speakers.

It was Charles’ habit to close his eyes and peripherally observe his surroundings senses whenever he rode shotgun. In retrospect, he mused that he must look like an old man catching up on some sleep, or a monk squeezing in a quick meditation. Whatever the case, Kelyn’s choice of music was a good backdrop for casual conversation, and he took a moment to mentally prepare himself for some not-at-all-unwelcome small talk.

“My friend stole my action figure,” Charles abruptly recounted with a cursory sigh as an opening to his story. “Initially I thought it was my brother, who was a diabolical piece of work when we were growing up. But covert searches in his room would reveal nothing. Then after a few weeks, I noticed a drawing my friend did of the character in question on his textbook… well, not right on the thing. On a paper bag that protected it.”

Charles tried to illustrate the concept of a sleeve with his hands before dismissing himself in defeat. “You get it. Anyways, my instincts kicked in even at that young age… kids only draw crap that they really like.”

Charles’ lips pressed together in some semblance of a smile; it seemed like he took a small sense of pride in his deduction. “So, next time we were playing in his room, I did some investigating… and there it was, waiting for me in his chest. I smuggled it out and back to my house, but I was sure to not play with it out in the open. I didn’t want to start any arguments.”

A heavy exhale seemed to conclude the matter in his mind. “Little jerk,” he sneered through the corner of his mouth.

“But anyways. After that incident, I realized that I liked to search for clues, assemble them logically and solve mysteries. It probably seems like a frivolous reason to choose a career, but it’s stuck with me all these years, believe it or not.”

Charles opened his eyes, turning his head toward Kelyn with a look of invitation. And you? How did things kick off on your end?”

It was a great story. Kelyn couldn’t help but smile, her eyes fixed on the road as she imagined him as a child covertly searching his friend’s room. Except in her minds eye, he had a black light flashlight and a CSI kit. She chuckled softly.

Now, Kelyn should have known, should have guessed where his quesiton would lead, it was so obvious and turn about was fair play. “I knew very young that I was different. And that I was good at finding things, seeing details other people missed. And I liked helping people. It wasn’t a big stretch to get into the low end of the business.”

She wasn’t lying, but it wasn’t the whole truth either. It was impossible for him to know that, she spoke to light-heartedly about it. Her tone didn’t change, her eyes still fixed on the highway before them, but there was just a touch of sadness that colored her words.

She pulled off the highway and onto one of the main thoroughfares, glancing about as she sought out the strip mall that held Whole Health / Whole Life.

Taco Bell.

Pep Boys.


She saw the place too late and had to bust a u-turn to get there. It was a small place tucked next to a All natural food store. It bore a decal of a man and a woman standing together and the slogan, “Welcome to a better you.”

Kelyn pulled into a nearby parking spot, and flipped off the radio. “Any thoughts on how we…” she corrected herself with a touch of chagrin, “…you want to play this.”

Once again, the sense that… something… was conveniently absent from Kelyn’s response flagged Charles’ scrupulous instincts. He of course didn’t care to interrupt their momentum with an inquiry, as their rapport was growing by leaps and bounds with every exchange, but somehow understood that whatever her secret was, it would rear its head sooner or later. It might raise an eyebrow but he’d be sure to shrug it off… he was good at that sort of thing, and to each his own, as they say. He had his own crosses to bear, after all.

Upon arriving at their destination, Charles took a moment to process Kelyn’s self-enforced correction.

“’We’ is fine,” he amicably conceded with a smile. A snooping peer might spread the rumor that Charles was bending over backwards for the new recruit, but they were far from prying eyes… and truth be told, he was enjoying the impromptu breaches of protocol.

“I’ll have you take the lead this time – you’re around Ms. Diaz’s age, and her co-workers are likely the same. They’d be more apt to opening up to you, I reckon. Go where your gut takes you – start with the usual nudges and branch from there.”

Charles would commend his own decision upon entering the establishment, as he immediately felt out his element. Something about being at the mercy of unfamiliar hands was enough to give him goosebumps, and he suppressed an urge to shudder.

“Squeeze in a question about her hobbies at some point,” Charles whispered in Kelyn’s ear as they approached the reception desk. “Something tells me that’s worth exploring.”

Beside Whole Life, Whole Health sata Fresh Market grocery store, a dry cleaner, a french bakery, and one of those self serve froyo places. It was a nice enough looking place, a pretty fountain in the front and a wall of beautiful and slender women staring out with perfect thighs and perfect smiles, their gaze proclaiming the wonders of anti-aging treatments, regular chiropractic visits, and colon cleanses. A patient or two sat on the comfortable couches, playing games or reading on their oversized cell phones.

A slender latin girl sat at the front desk collecting money and smiling her pretty smile.

It was just another day at Whole Life, Whole Health – though slightly more hectic for the loss of their lead massage therapist.

It had been a rough few days without Jill and despite the influx of clients and the co-workers calling, stopping by her place, the brilliant therapist had yet to return.

The attractive and dark haired girl at the front blinked up at the pair of them for a moment. “Good morning, may I interest the two of you in a couples massage?”

Kelyn, who had been about to speak, snapped her moth shut with a click of her teeth, took a deep breath, and started again. “Not today, thank you. This is Detective Charles Brock and I am Kelyn SInclair. We work with the FBI and we are looking into the disappearance of Ms. Jill Diaz. We wanted to look around, perhaps ask some of her co-workers some questions.”

The pretty latin girl sat up straighter as the title of FBI (but then everyone did. It was one of the perks of being a consultant with a little FBI consultant ID. 

“Of… of course. We will do anything to help you find Jill.” She buzzed him into the small but lush establishment, doors open and closed on either side of the hallway. “Just this way,” she offered, nodding to one of the therapists, a shorter and heavy set man.

“The doctor is with a patient just now, and we don’t know anything more than we told the police, but we will… well… we just are all very worried about her. The patients have been asking for her and…”

She opened the door to to a small lounge area where four people sat, three women and another man. They all looked up in different stages of lunch, blinking at him. “Patients aren’t…” One of the therapists started.

“He is asking about Jill,” the sweet Latin girl offered softly. “I said we would help in any way we can.”

“We should record this,” a small Asian woman threw out. “That way we can play it back for anyone who walks in.”

“Tess!” A pretty blonde haired woman looked scandalized.

“What,” the Asian Tess shot back. “I like Jill and all but do we just pour out her and our life story to every one who walks in?”

They looked at one another with questions in their eyes, then nodded. The pretty Latin girl, Martina, spoke first. “We do what the FBI asks, Tess.” 

The group turned more curious eyes to the pair.”

“Let’s start easy,” Kelyn said, pulling out a notebook and pencil. Tell us how well each of you knew Jill?” 

Marian cleared her throat. “I started her a few months ago, so I didn’t know Jill that well. We shared lunch sometimes because we are both vegan. Bought something from the local Flaffel Pit and split it. She’s nice. Friendly. I invited her out to play pool with my fiancee and I, but she didn’t come.” She glanced over her shoulder at the sound of the door’s chime. “Excuse me.” She slipped out of the kitchen, closing the door behind her.

“I am Laura,” the blonde spoke up. She had a heart shaped face, large blue eyes and a soothing voice. “I started her not too long after Jill. Been here five years now. Everyone liked Jill. She was friendly, always listened, good news or bad. She could take the meanest patients and calm them right down. She just had that way about her. She never spoke of anyone.”

The man spoke up. He was dark skinned, tall, with a hint of an accent. “She mentioned her mother once, in New York, remember. Her mom was sick and she thought she would have to fly up there, but…” The man shrugged. “Guess she got better.”

“Or died.” Tess frowned at the lot of them as they turned wide eyed to glare at her. “What?” Tess questioned.

“Oh, come off it,” the final woman said from the far end of the table. “You are still just pissed that you were loosing clients to her. She wasn’t stealing your clients, Tess. You are just a bitch.”

Laura blinked at the woman, frowning between she and Tess. “Andrea, Tess, please. We are trying to help these people find Jill. She could need help, be hurt, and you are fighting.”

Laura turned to face him, her features soft. “None of us knew Jill really well. Whenever we asked about things, she quietly changed the subject. I know she just had a birthday last week.”

The rest of the group looked surprised. “I didn’t know that,” Andrea said.

“She didn’t want anyone to make a big deal out of it. She asked me not to say anything.”

Laura looked at Kelyn for the first time, blue eyes wide and deep. “Do you think she is okay? Honestly? She really is anything good person. Maybe you will find out more at her home, but she kept everything here very… calm and professional.”

“Well, it is too early to know anything yet,” Kelyn offered, “but we are going to do everything in our power to find her.” Her notepad was scrawled with details. “So no romantic partners that you know of. What did she do for run? Did she have any hobbies?”

“That music thing,” Tess said with a sneering sigh. The group glared at her again and the Asian woman shrugged. “What? She made Everyone subscribe to her Youtube channel, just to watch her sing and play the guitar. She was okay, but she wasn’t the next Joni Mitchell.” Kelyn wrote furiously. “Do you know the name of the Youtube station?” They all shook their heads slowly. “Excuse us for one moment,” Kelyn offered politely, then steered she and Charles into the hallway. “What do you think?”

The offer for a couple’s massage caught Charles completely off-guard, prompting an embarrassed bite of his lip while darting his eyes to the floor. A warm sense of pride pulsed in his chest, however – perhaps he wasn’t the old goat he thought himself to be. He saw that Kelyn reset herself with the most casual of hiccups, which was impressive… but Charles couldn’t help feeling the slightest bit of disappointment. Her response was so natural that perhaps she disregarded the secretary’s notion as absurd.

His eyes would glaze over as Ms. Diaz’s employees bickered back and forth, storing only a few bits of information away in his mind as potentially useful. In actuality, his primary focus was watching how Kelyn handled herself, and she seemed to be as advertised – professional and straightforward, which was a major relief, and certainly a change of pace from previous partners. The YouTube channel held the most promise, and he quietly congratulated himself with giving his own hunch the time of day.  

As Kelyn pulled him aside to discuss their developments, Charles would peek over once more toward the kitchen before locking his eyes with Kelyn’s.

“I think we’ve gotten everything we can from the peanut gallery, especially if Ms. Diaz only worked here part-time for a few months. I say our next move is to head over to her home and compare notes with any and all of her family members.”

A slow smile would then spread across Charles’s face. “If you’re up for some overtime, we can take a couple hours to try and uncover more about her YouTube thing tonight in my office. Social media was never really my thing.”

“I’m game,” she offered back with a smile. “Besides, if anyone knows where to get the best take out around here, I am sure it is the FBI.” She flipped the notebook closed, stepping back into the kitchen. “This is my card as well as Detective Brock’s.” (She must have grabbed a pile off his desk when he wasn’t looking. Trixy little thing.) “If any of you speak to Jill or think of something that might help us, please call. Day or night.”

They strode out of Whole Life / Whole Health, Kelyn pulling out a pair of sleek sunglasses and sliding them on. “I doubt we will get much at the house. Great instinct with the hobby. I wonder if it it is a YouTube stalker thing. I’ve heard of weirder.”

Boy had she, but she wasn’t about to tell him that.

They piled back in his car and she pulled out of the spot and hopped onto the main roads, driving further from the highway. Commercialized strips of tiny stores and massive malls gave way to suburban mazes. The houses here were nothing to write home about, but they weren’t run down either. More solid than the pre-mods, build of actual brick and mortar with slightly sagging wooden porches and overgrown lawns. But there were children playing outside, dogs barking as they ran tracks through the thin grass and the occasional man or woman or both sitting on the front porch drinking coffee or tea or lemonade or something harder.

They found Jill Diaz’s home, a small single family with a well trimmed lawn, a few plants in pots, and a bright yellow paint job. Kelyn pulled the call into the driveway, killing the radio as the Red Hot Chili Peppers sang about Californication.

Kelyn slid from the car and strode up to the home, knocking confidently on the front door.

Kelyn’s third knock was conclusively curt, and by then Charles’ right cheek would have pulled his lips in resignation. He reached into his coat and pulled out his relic of a flip phone, dialing a number and waiting for it to ring while informing Kelyn with a look to keep her ears open. Indeed, the faint sound of a phone ringing in the house could be heard before it reached the mumblings of a voice machine. Charles then put his away and seemed to resolve something in his mind.

“It’s a stretch, but we’ll use that as our fallback for taking the initiative and having a look inside. Gotta cover our butts, right?” He winked before waving Kelyn to follow him to the side gate of the home, leading into the horseshoe-shaped yard.

A brief survey of the house would reveal the back door, which was canopied by a small porch, to be much less restrictive. In fact, there was only a screen door blocking a glass-plated entryway with no curtains or other obstructions. A clear view could be seen throughout the kitchen and living room, and things did seem rather dead inside.

Charles would nod some kind of acknowledgment before pulling himself away from Kelyn. “Wait here,” he’d instruct while starting a jog back to the front of the residence. “I’ll be right back.”

Charles returned with some kind of awkwardly-shaped, hand-held device and situated himself in front of the back door. “Let’s see if this baby can work its magic…”

After some clamp-like maneuvers and a few manually adjusted settings, it would fully encase the stubbornly-locked latch. A few yanks from Charles’ determined hands were necessary before the endgame was reached. The door nudged open from its frame, albeit grudgingly, prompting Charles to prod it fully open with a grunt of success.

“Don’t tell anyone I used this thing,” Charles grinned with a wink towards Kelyn before entering the residence. “It’s supposed to be retired.”

Kelyn waited quite patiently at the back door, smiling softly to herself. Calling was a smart idea. Resourceful. She considered the little patio, a small pot garden ripe with tomatoes, onions, spinach, and a dozen different herbs. It was impressive what the woman had managed in such a small space and she obviously had a green thumb. If Kelyn walked to close to any of the plants, they would wilt and die out of sheer spite.

When he returned, she was still standing right about where he left her, her eyes widening at the device in his hand. “Well, naturally, I saw nothing, I have no idea what that is and am obviously not at all amazingly impressed that you happen to have one.” There was soft laughter in her tone.

Most ‘Suits’ would never use such a useful and law-line-skittering device. Kelyn faithfully looked away as the door loosed from its frame.

“It really is a shame that such a nice home would have such a flimsy and poorly constructed sliding glass door. When we find Ms. Diaz, we will have to advise her of the necessity of well fortified exterior doors.”

Kelyn let Charles take the lead in, considering the home around them. The kitchen to their left was small but well suited for one person. It was generally clean with a single dish and glass in the sink, water inside it. Kelyn checked the fridge. A half gallon of milk, a quarter full and expired. There was some tofu in a brick and some apples that looked a touch shriveled. In the freezer waited home made pre-packed single serve dinners. Tehy were all carefully labeled with the contents and the date. The trash can was empty. No scraps, no bag.

The living room sported a small tv, a worn rug and mismatched second hand furniture. A patina of dust covered all the flat surfaces.

The master bedroom boasted a comfortable looking bed with sheets all rumpled and soothing art on the walls. Clean clothing lay folded in a hamper to be put away and a small pile of assumed dirty laundry waited in a basket on the floor. The small trash can was empty.

The bathroom was well kept, the tub and toilet clean. Bottles of shampoo and conditioner sat half full. The trash can was also completely empty.

The other room had been converted from a bedroom to an office/studio. An electric keyboard sat in the corner, a guitar on a stand nearby and an empty stand beside it. Another guitar lay face down on the floor. The computer on the desk was off, the webcam perched atop the monitor like a patient bird. The trash can beside the desk was also empty.

Kelyn stood in the middle of the converted studio, staring at the guitar on the floor and then the guitar on the stand.

Charles politely took the reigns and combed the residence with keen eyes, starting first in the kitchen before the pair made their way to the living room. Though his focus was unmistakable, his real objective was once again to study Kelyn’s investigative techniques. Her periodic, intensive stops in unassuming areas and other curious mannerisms reminded him an awful lot of his own particular habits; it was a bit like looking into a gender-bending mirror.

There was the occasional drawing and painting of a guitar or guitar-related equipment hanging upon the walls throughout the residence. Charles was at a loss regarding their relevance to particular genres of music, but he imagined Ms. Diaz’s style having more a folksy rock vibe. The webcam in her room stood out to him like a sore thumb, and he mentally noted to explore the possible connection with the other relevant cases.  

“All right, so I’m guessing our strongest lead at this point is the music channel thing?” Charles absentmindedly ran his finger along the headstock of one of the guitars, collecting a bit of dust upon his fingertip. He knew now more than ever the importance Kelyn would play in this investigation, as his knowledge regarding popular trends across various types of media had become very rusty indeed.

“She must have friends that are into the same kind of hobbies… maybe we could reach out to a small handful once we get a handle on her YouTube account.”

“I agree,” Kelyn said from the middle of the studio. “But I think all of this is definitely connected.” She crouched before the guitar on the floor then took a closer look at the guitar on the stand.

Pulling out a pair of blue nitrile gloves, Kelyn pulled them on and carefully flipped the guitar over. “I thought so,” she glanced up at him. “The guitar on the stand over there is a DBZ. It costs about $135.00 and can be bought at most music stores and Walmart during the holidays. The guitar on the floor is a Conde Hermanos. They run between 2 to 4 grand depending on the model and quality of sound. Jill is a neat person. Clothes folded, freezer labled. Why is her very expensive guitar on the floor?”

She rose, weaving her blue gloved fingers together. “Did you see the trash cans? Nothing. Not even a bag.”

She quirked a an odd expression. “That’s weird.” She glanced slowly around the room. “I think whatever happened here happened fast, happened quietly, and then someone decided to take out the trash, which means we should care about what has been thrown away…”

Charles’ head would lean forward just a tad, as was his habit whenever he was listening intently to someone speak. Kelyn had brought up a number of promising points in a very short period of time, and he couldn’t help but be impressed, allowing himself a slight smile.

“Two-to-four big ones for a guitar? Yeah, I’d have that thing behind a plate of reinforced glass when I wasn’t using it. Something definitely happened here. I wonder if it’s too late to check the local dumpster and rummage through any bags that may fit the bill for our lonely trash cans. Let’s hope our potential perpetrator and the city itself are both lazy, hm?”

Leading the way down several adjacent houses, Charles would indeed find a dumpster area, with two large, green trash receptacles parked within a wooden alcove. He gave it a twice-over and realized that the bins were still full, though it was impossible to know from their vantage point if they held anything of relevance.

“There’s a variety of waste removal services in this area that compete with one another. Their collections occur anywhere from two days apart towards the back end of a week. Let’s hope these two are showing us the latter.”

Charles put on his own pair of FBI-issued handling gloves and set to tossing various bags upon the concrete foundation around them. “This should be fun,” he’d sarcastically mutter while wrinkling his nose.

“Any chance you have another pair of those high tech FBI gloves? I don’t know if my weak little nitrile gloves can handle this?”

She didn’t know if her stomach could handle it either but it had been a long time since breakfast and she was willing to do her portion. Gloves or not, once the bags started coming out, Kelyn couldn’t help but ‘dive’ in.

The first few bags were clearly kitchen garbage and contained meat. Couldn’t possibly belong to the vegan massage therapist.

The next set of bags was paper trash and required a more in depth look. She ruled out each bag by finding a piece of mail and checking the name and address.

Buy your car back!

Vote Republican!

2 for 1 bags of dorittos from the local supermarket!

Past due bills.

Not Jill Diaz.

Kelyn sighed and moved onto the next bag.

It was a solid hours worth of work, the sun pouring down as the pair dug through bag after bag. He had all but emptied the two dumpsters and they still hadn’t found anything.

Kelyn glanced at Charles to make sure he was deeply occupied in his current search.

She closed her eyes, rubbing her blue gloved hands together and Saw.

He would feel it like a pulse against his body, the deep beat of a dropped base.

Kelyn groaned. Dumpster diving. Naturally.

She opened her eyes and strode to the second mostly empty dumpster. Lever ing herself up, Kelyn climbed into the dumpster.

Squish. Tear.

The smell of rotting spagetti punched the air and soaked into her slacks.


Kelyn disappeared into the confines of the dumpster with only the sound of bags rustling and mild cursing. One. Two. Three bags flew out of the dumpster, one almost catching Charles in the shoulder.

Kelyn rose, moved towards the dumpsters edge and pushed herself up. It wasn’t graceful or elegant at all and it was dumb luck she didn’t land on her but surrounded by their various garbage bags.

“I have a good feeling about these.”

Again that pulse, that sensation of… something.

Kelyn tore open one of the bags. Jill Diaz’s discarded mail looked back at them.

Methodically sifting through the smelly garbage bags was an unpleasant experience, but Charles had certainly been assigned worse tasks involving various crime scenes in his past. He’d brace himself for another round when the first dumpster turned up no leads, but it wasn’t long until Kelyn uncovered something promising.

Though there was nothing overtly unorthodox regarding her discovery, Charles sensed the faintest indication of… something uncanny at work. His mind wouldn’t dwell as it often does in regards to these little revelations, but he’d file it away for future reference. The bags were there and ready, and they had better get to sorting before some expired bag of spaghetti slop was accidentally punctured, ruining any potential evidence.

Charles would arrange two piles upon the concrete floor; one which was dedicated to obvious pieces of useless garbage, and another to more promising articles of evidence. Once he was finished with his quota, he’d hand the relevant stack to Kelyn and stand beside her to join in an examination.

“Lots of papers, receipts and the like,” Charles would comment while filtering through in a casual manner. One torn envelope he’d initially dismiss before Kelyn reached to reintroduce it on the top of the pile. There was a return address written poorly in pen, and after some quick deciphering, it read:

50 Bryansford Road
Newcastle, BT33 0PT, UK

“Something catch your eye about this?” Charles would ask Kelyn, giving her his undivided attention.

It did. It certainly did but how could she explain it to him? Kelyn just knew this particular envelope was important. It was the reason the garbage had been emptied, she just didn’t know why. “Yeah. How much correspondence did she get from out of the state much less out of the country? It is definitely something that does not the pattern.” Her leg was stained with rotten spaghetti, her sneaker smelling rough at best.

She crouched before him, sifting through the papers.

It was the envelope. She knew it.

“I think we should take this, toss the rest back in and head back to your office. Fair?”

Ignoring the Canadian envelope was just a pseudo-test thrown Kelyn’s way, perhaps a change-up down the middle of the plate, but she nevertheless hit Charles’ pitch out of the ballpark. There was indeed something fishy about it, and though Charles initially found something peculiar about Kelyn’s confident proposal to proceed only with the envelope, he’d thumb through the pile one last time before nodding his agreement. She was obviously on some kind of intuitive roll, and who was he to needlessly throw his weight around and stop her? There’d be plenty of conversation and debate in the evening that lay ahead.

“Let’s get back to the house and clean you up a bit,” Charles would suggest before sealing the envelope away in a ziplocked evidence bag. “Then we’ll grab something to eat before we head back to the office.”

The stark orange line of the setting sun across the horizon was enough to reinforce their decision to retire for the day, at least regarding their field work.

Charles should have known that Kelyn would turn down the drive-thru run he’d initially suggest as a time-saver. It was for his own good, he’d reconcile in his mind… after all, he hadn’t been feeling all that great lately and had honestly put on a little extra weight, which he wasn’t pleased with. They decided upon a Noodles & Co. which was relatively close to the office and parked the car in a spot that was easily visible from the restaurant.

Charles and Kelyn would order their meals before claiming an empty table towards the back of the dining area, away from the hullabaloo of other patrons. On the way there, Charles took notice of a sticker on the glass exterior of the restaurant… Free Wi-Fi, it said.

“Wi-Fi. That’s internet, right?” Charles would ask Kelyn as they say themselves down. “Maybe you should do some of our internet research here on your phone as we wait for our food. The internet speed at the office isn’t the greatest.”

Ug. She smelled like rotting spaghetti. How horrible! Kelyn stared at the envelope, her eyes narrowed. Why would Ms. Diaz get a strange handwritten envelope from the United Kingdom of all places. She didn’t know the country abbreviations enough to know just where the envelope had originated from, but it was strange to say the least.

She used Ms. Diaz’s clorox wipes to scrub her shoe and the hem of her pants, so she ended up smelling of rotting marinara AND clorox wipes.


When Charles recommended they call it a day, Kelyn couldn’t agree more. It had been a long time since breakfast and she was starving, but all of the junk food places he recommended met with her vehement resistance.

She felt Noodles & Co was an excellent compromise, particularly since she didn’t have to compromise all that much.

She ordered the mongolian and a cup for water and they found a table in the back.

Kelyn sat with a quiet sigh. Scaling dumpsters, not what she had on the docket for the day, but it was successful on all accounts.

At least she assumed so.

When he mentioned the free Wi-Fi, she pulled out her phone, cocking an eyebrow at him. The way he asked the question betrayed a certain technophobia… no that was the wrong word. Just a lack of familiarity. Thinking back to his office, that actually made sense.

Kelyn’s first order of business – to look up the address. A quick google search showed her a red dot outside a big green park. Weird.

Zooming out far enough showed her a map she recognized.

“Huh… Ireland. Northern Ireland to be exact. Right next to a park called ‘Tollymore Forest Park.’”

She copied the name and three it into the google search, a bunch of pretty pictures popping up on her screen. “Nice,” she said, turning it to show him. A stone archway decorated in classic celtic design stared back at her.

“Does that look familiar to you?’

Charles leaned forward in his chair and studied the image carefully. Nothing about it triggered any inherent relevance in his mind, but a sense of momentum combined with the process of elimination from other dead-end avenues gave him hope.

“Unfortunately not,” he’d say while calmly finding Kelyn’s eyes with his own. “But I have a strong feeling that we’re on the right track. I’ll push through the paperwork ahead of time to expand our budget in case we need to head up there in the future.”

He hoped that his initiative would neutralize any discouraging aspects of the inevitable red tape they’d have to cut. Whatever we need to solve this damn case, his smile seemed to suggest as he nodded to Kelyn. Just point us in the right direction.

Their meals were delivered by a cute Asian girl who seemed to take a quiet interest in their endeavors. Charles accepted his plate with a gracious smile which was eagerly reciprocated with rosy cheeks before she retreated back to the register. Two-for-two today?Charles thought to himself before diving headfirst into his dish of Japanese pan noodles. Don’t get full of yourself, champ.

The arrival of their food naturally introduced a brief reprieve from their investigative pursuits, and Charles’ thoughts drifted once again. He was seasoned enough to know that a tapestry of interlocking clues was often too muddled to comprehend without some act of blind faith, but a sense of dread would sift its way to the surface of his mind. If the address they uncovered was a solid lead, it would be a royal pain to cooperate with the local governments, police officials and God knows who else. He wasn’t even sure if there was an extradition agreement in place between the United States and Ireland if things escalated to that point. They would have to proceed very carefully indeed to make the most of whatever discoveries that lay ahead.

Oh, mongolian! It looked amazing and smelled even better. They should have gotten edamame. Maybe next time. Kelyn, chopsticks laden with noodles half-way to her lips stopped for a second. Next time? Did she anticipate spending many an asian influenced dinner with her new FBI liaison. Oddly, the thought did not send her leaping through the oversized (and no doubt shatterproof) store windows. Whatever else she might have to say and forgoing their questionable introduction, Kelyn felt like they were getting somewhere.


As a team.

That was painfully unusual, especially when she had to deal with a suite. Private clients were so much easier and usually relied on her to use her own consultants for specialty work, which suited her perfectly. But if she was going to have to work with anyone, and if their progress today was any indicator, Kelyn might be adding Agent Charles Brock to her mental Rolodex of go-tos when it came to government and particularly FBI matters.

She glanced up in time to see a touch of red flush across his cheeks, the cute Asian serve sauntering away. A smile crept across her lips.

Kelyn sat back, her bowl empty. She was surprised she ate it all, but it was very tasty, the sauce in particular adding just the right layer of flavor and spice. For a moment the pair sat on the hard plastic benches, watching couples, families, and single people eating. “Want to play a game?” She said with a smirk.

A game?

Was she kidding?

“Far corner, couple.”

A sweet couple in their late thirties leaned toward one another, holding hands, their little metal holder with the humber 43 patiently displayed. He was blonde hairs with hazel eyes and wearing a button down polo and slacks. She was dark haired, dark eyed, chunky but not fat and pretty in a soft way.

“Two kids, one in school, young though. Kindergarten, maybe first, one still in diapers. He is an accountant or number cruncher of some sort. Probably usually works late but made it a point to get out early. She stays at home with the little one but runs something on the side. Ebay or Amazon, something to bring in a bit of extra money. They are tight, but content. He is up for a promotion of some sort and is nervous about it.”

What was she talking about?

It took Charles a moment to grasp the concept, but he caught on quickly and invested himself with a mellow smile.

“I’d say Businessman,” Charles would remark conclusively after a moment’s observation. “Or an assistant store manager on his way up. A large chain store like Wal-Mart or Kroger. His boss might be jumping to district manager so he’s the natural successor of the vacant position.” He’d pass a wink Kelyn’s way before scanning the restaurant for another specimen.

“She’s an artist,” he’d propose with a gentle nudge of his nose towards a young woman seated near the large window at the front of the restaurant. “She’d rather draw in her sketchbook than play on her phone. Though drawing alone at home gets lonely sometimes, so she’ll use dinnertime as an excuse to get out of the house.” As if taking a cue, the woman would pull a sketchbook and pencil from a messenger bag she set on the floor. “She might be here until the store closes. Loses track of time rather easily. I used to do that on occasion, back when I was a rookie detective. I wasn’t sure how my compatriots would take to my creative side, so I kept it under wraps for the longest time.”

The game continued until their meals were finished. Charles leaned back into his chair and stretched his arms only after surveying the area for prying eyes. Did his mental vigilance ever take a break?

“Carbs always make me sleepy,” he’d admit while stifling a yawn. “But our night really hasn’t even begun yet. We still have to explore this YouTube account back at the office. The internet speed should be okay since we’ll be one of the few staying late.” He’d reflect on his own comment momentarily before offering a look of apology. “That is, if you’re up to it, of course. Overtime is second nature for me, but I always forget to consider other people’s plans.”

“I’m open,” she flashed back with a grin having thoroughly enjoyed the game and the banter. He was smart. She liked that. It made everything infinitely easier in ways that were nearly indescribable. After all, intelligent people could be offered facts, figures, and logic and draw certain conclusions from incomplete data.

Considering that was the entirety of their job, it never ceased to amaze her how many detectives and agents she had consulted with lacked that basic (and in her opinion necessary) trait.

She toyed with the idea of popping into the self-serve froyo place next store just to sample a few of the sweet flavors out of the little paper cups, but decided that was enough playing for one night.

There was a case with leads and real people missing right now.

People they might be able to help.

“Shall we?” she said, gathering her plates and carrying them over to the little area set aside for dirty dishes and silverware, saving the server the trip.

The city was picking up, all bright lights, neon signs and people in a rush to be about their business. Couples hoping for a quiet night out, college kids checking out the newest club. Kelyn soaked in the buzz of the city as she drove them back to Headquarters, Bare Naked Ladies singing all about how it will still be two days till she says she is sorry.

“The Ireland thing is a real clue. Like you said, I can just feel it. I wish I knew more about it all.” She pulled into the parking garage which was much emptier than it had been and gave them a perfect spot by the elevator.

Kelyn passed over the keys after closing and locking the door. “I believe these are yours.”

Save for the distant activity of a few stray detectives, the walk through the station was almost eerily quiet. Charles would politely hold his office door open for Kelyn and follow her inside before offering her a seat at his computer desk.

“You can take the captain’s chair for now,” he offered while carefully typing his administrator’s password over her shoulder. He then pulled out a sketchbook from a desk drawer and settled himself near Kelyn after resituating the guest’s chair.

Truth be told, Charles had the urge to draw the strange archway since Kelyn presented it to him back at the restaurant. His hand took on a life of its own as he simultaneously vocalized his stream of consciousness.

“So, strange address in Ireland. Possible clue in a YouTube account. If there’s any sort of correlation between the two, I’d say we’d have a doozie of a clue.” A few minutes would pass before he completed a drawing which he casually presented to Kelyn. “Pretty place. Seems like a nice change of pace from the usual dusty city. Which reminds me…”

Charles stood up and selected a few forms from a plastic wall rack and began to fill them out. “Let’s get the ball rolling on our potential trip to Ireland. It’s usually tricky to get prompt approval on a business trip but…” His firm glance seemed to imply that a quick turnaround wouldn’t be a problem.

As soon as she had access, she searched both YouTube itself and run a general Google search with no luck. Oh, Ms. Diaz was a licensed massage therapist in good standing whose license was registered with Whole Health / Whole Life. She had a Facebook page, all private and very limited which offered no clues as to her YouTube channel.

She was also on LinkedIn, but it too was quite limited. Not as much of a social media buff as Kelyn had expected.

She frowned at the computer, the monitor light playing across her features, casting strange lights and shadows. Kelyn turned and considered the drawing Charles offered, quietly impressed on two accounts. Firstly, it was quite good. She shouldn’t be surprised considering the revelation at the restaurant and his naturally sharp observational skills, but he hadn’t looked at the archway that long, and yet there it was. Secondly, well, it was quite good. Most suite types she’d run across had no artistic slant whatsoever. They were all die hard Ooh-Rah boys that wouldn’t have the faintest idea what to do with a sketchbook. There was real talent in that drawing.

And the subject bothered here. There was something there for certain. Out-of-place International Envelopes didn’t just fall from the sky after all.

She would have to do more digging into that as well, but Diaz’s YouTube channel was calling her and she had to pull on that string and see where it unraveled.

“Ok,” she said slowly. “Now we get complicated. I am going to pull her IP from her ISP and then cross reference the recent uploads from that address. That should get us something.”

Her fingers flew across the keyboard as she opened another Google panel. Then a third. She flipped between them, information fluttering around her like so many flitting butterflies. It was strange to see her in this light. She’d held her own out in the field, more than willing to get her hands (and sneakers) dirty, but here she offered an obviously advantage. Even if everything she just spouted could well be utter nonsense.

“Got you,” Kelyn whispered with a soft and slightly wolfish grin. Suddenly, Ms. Diaz was on the screen before them, seated in her studio. There were seven or eight videos, each with a couple hundred hits. The most recently uploaded also had the most traffic at 756 hits. Everything else only had about 200.


“Well, here goes nothing,” Kelyn said and clicked the link. The video loaded full screen, buffering for a long moment.

“Hi everyone. Thanks for watching. This is the latest and I hope you like it.” Jill’s voice reached out to them from across time.

She was pretty in an unconventional way, on the slender side with that look that health nuts sometimes get. Strong. Healthy. She settled on her chair, guitar in hand and began to play.

The notes flowed, her voice rich and silvery against the deep bronze resonance of the Conde. Kelyn didn’t understand the words, a language she didn’t recognize but sounded slightly familiar.

It made her think of the Celtic Women she had heard singing at some Medieval Festival once.

It was beautiful, breathtakingly but painfully beautiful.

No doubt Charles would feel it too, the draw, the pull, the need to hear more. It swelled as the song continued, becoming more that just a need but instead a physical and tangible requirement.

It grabbed them both forcefully until it was impossible to look away.

It tore at them from the inside, as if invisible white hot claws sliced through their skin and shredded their vital organs.

It hurt.

It hurt beyond reason or understanding, as if something life-sustaining was being brutally ripped away.

There was no way to move, to speak, to even blink.

It was impossible to breathe.

There was nothing but the song and the pain, coming in waves, pouring from the computer screen and speakers.

Kelyn gasped with a pain filled hiss and there it was again, the pulse he had felt earlier. The one that seemed to emanate from Kelyn herself. It was stronger now. Deeper and sustained, a constant rumble like the bass of rolling thunder that seemed to burst from her, pouring out. It flowed over him and the pain stopped, leaving him cold, tired, and hurting. It hit the computer and sparks flew, the monitor, the speakers, the computer itself a dead black screen, smoke rising pitifully. The UPS beeped mournfully.

Kelyn turned slowly to look at him, her face pale, her features shocked. There was pain and fury there, as if she comprehended something inherent about what had happened and it infuriated her. And it must have been his imagination but through the cuffs of her long sleeve shirt and climbing up to her elbows he would swear he saw at blue patina of light filtered through the burgundy cloth in a courscating pattern. It faded away as he watched.

That wasn’t possible.

That didn’t make any sense.

There was a moment of trembling and shocked silence, then Kelyn rose so sharply she knocked the desk chair over. “I need another computer right now!”

But she has just destroyed the last computer, its husk a smoking and slightly melted ruin before them. All his files. All his work.

And there was a high percentage of likelihood she would destroy the next computer in turn. Perhaps it was time for some answers.

Charles’ assumption of a quiet, clue-hunting evening quickly unraveled itself in a few short moments. He stared towards Kelyn with widened eyes while barely comprehending the events that just unfolded before him. There was music, sublime with an almost unearthly resonance before the searing pain introduced itself without the slightest warning. He certainly wasn’t ready for the sheer intensity of it. It felt like his very organs were under attack, and his heart seized for a few terrifying seconds before Kelyn did… something. His vision would blur as he collapsed to his knees, forcing a few desperate breaths from his mouth before he managed to reclaim his senses.

“What… the hell?” Charles could only manage a few raspy words as he wrestled with the exhaustion which now claimed every muscle in his body. His instincts begged him to stand and prepare himself for the possible return of the force that, at the moment, he could only describe in his mind as pure… unadulterated… evil. His knees, however, refused to offer their support. The strange, bluish glow which pulsed through Kelyn’s clothing was just now registering in his mind. The smell of fried electronics soon followed. With one colossal effort, he willed himself to his feet.

“Kelyn… what… the fuh…”

His computer was finished, there was no doubt about it. Eleven years of case files down the tube. The most important information were backed up somewhere on the network but… Kelyn’s insistent voice carved its way through his fog of bitter disappointment.  She needed another machine, stat. Why, so you can annihilate it with your weird blue energy crap? Charles snidely thought to himself with a quiet snort. Somehow, though, he put aside his frustration and focused on the situation at hand. Something of immense consequence just occurred, and Kelyn had gained his trust.

“Two offices down on the left. It’s my spare computer. Try to be a little gentler with…” His attempt at humor was quickly lost. Kelyn was already out the door.

She ran.

She had to be in just as much pain, be just as exhausted, but Kelyn ran. She burst into the office, all but leaping into the seat and moving the mouse back and forth so quickly to awaken the computer that it nearly went flying from her fingers.

Her hands were trembling just a bit.

Kelyn sat before the computer, her fingers moving so quickly that the keyboard jumped with each strike. She was running a search on something while in another window she was deep into the bowels of Jill Diaz’s Youtube account. How exactly she has managed that she didn’t feel apt to share. She pulled a file and emailed it to herself, hopped back to the search. She was looking through Hospital and Insurance databases. Why in the world would she be bothering with something like that?

Kelyn frowned at the numbers, pulled open a wordpad and wrote a set of digits.

Back to the search.


She checked her email, opened the file and downloaded an audio stripping program, loaded the video and let it strip.

Back to Youtube, she deleted the link, the video, any connection to the primary file and all its back ups and redundancies.

Back to her search. Another Hospital Network.

More numbers.

Oh God. Kelyn was pale and furious.

Back to the video. She saved the audio as one file, naming it ‘Caution Audio’ and the video as ‘Audio Stripped Video Safe’.

She closed the Youtube browser, opened it again and went searching. The video came up missing.

Thank God.



She checked it, checked it. Checked it.

By link.

By name.

By keyword search.

It was gone.

She sat back with a shudder, pointing to the number on the screen. She turned, checking to see if Charles had joined her before speaking.

A bunch of numbers stared back at him.

“This,” Kelyn said slowly, quietly, “is the number of reported cases of comas, seizures that led to comas and the like reported in the last two weeks to the National and International Hospital Database.”

The number read 1534.

“This,” she said arrowing down. “Is the number of hits on Jill Diaz’s song.”

The number read 766.

“This,” she said, pointing to a list of odd numbers, ranging in blocks but all carrying the familiar number-dot-number-dot-number-dot-number. “Is the list of IPs that watched Jill Diaz’s video. This last one is… was the IP of that computer over there.” She glanced over to the smoking remains of the PC.

“How much do you want to bet if we cross reference the IP owners names to the people admitted for a coma, there would be a match, either the owner, family of the owner or friend of the owner?”

Charles rushed in behind Kelyn, taking his place over her shoulder while the most curious expression plastered itself all over his face.  He must have looked like a dog given orders by two different masters. One part of his being desperately wanted to hoist Kelyn up by the armpits and pin her against the nearby wall to demand answers while boring holes into her eyes with his merciless gaze. The other part knew that the momentum they had acquired was escalating towards some of break in the case which had stumped in for the last five years. There were wars and rumors of wars, battles and conflicts which took place in the very same soul which was somehow touched by some mysterious entity just a scant minute earlier.

In the end, Charles would dismiss his inner turbulence for the task at hand. Numbers. Kelyn was mentioning numbers and records and Charles barely, or hardly, could understand what they meant. The look in her eyes was undeniable, though. She was on to something, and he didn’t want to get in the way.

“Now… is there anything we can do about this now?” His voice was quavering due to some combination of excitement, confusion… and fear? It wasn’t Kelyn he feared, but perhaps the can of worms which seemed to be opening up wide before him… Charles prided himself on a solemn promise to be ready for anything, but evil music and weird blue glows from his partner? Was he truly read for that?

The commotion had drawn the attention of a detective who peered into the doorway inquisitively. Charles waved him off with the most reassuring look he could muster, but his glare towards Kelyn suggested that the matter was far from over.

You better be ready to explain yourself, missy.

“We did it,” she said softly pushing back just a bit from his computer to bend over and take a deep breath. Her hands were shaking. “The video. Whatever Jill Diaz was into, I think her video caused the comas and the like. Must be some sort of cyber-terrorism. Seizure inducing frequency modulation. I made a copy of it and emailed it to myself, then deleted it. No one else will just stumble across it and end up a victim.”

Oh, it sounded good. It all sounded very plausible and cyber-terrorism was such a go-to phrase at the moment, but he could tell she was lying.

Utterly and without question lying.

Kelyn knew more than she was letting on and for whatever reason, she wasn’t sharing. “Have cyber department look this over if you want. Have them check the broken links. Cross reference the IPs of the hits to the IPs of the coma victims. Something happened in that video, that song, Charles. I know you felt it.”

It was strange to hear her speak his first name, familiar somehow, though her tone held nothing but shuddering formality. If it was true and Kelyn knew more about the situation than she was letting on, it was terrifying her. Oh, she was trying to put on a calm face about it all, but just one look at pale features, that slight tremor that still hadn’t faded, the soft shiver in her voice as she spoke.

Kelyn was frightened beyond reason.

“I have just the video, audio stripped. We can watch it. I am… sixty-five percent certain that the danger was in the song, the audio. We can watch it on my phone if company resources are a concern.”

Was she teasing him or was she serious? It was impossible to tell. She seemed to see him suddenly, noticing the after-effects of the encounter that she was in turn suffering reflected in his own stance, tone, and appearance. “Are you alright?”

“Cyber-terrorism… right.” In a way, Charles’ skeptical response must have been some kind of relief. He was still visibly shaken, but his lack of reproach must have meant that a pursuit of the lead before them outweighed any desires for an inquest. Oh, he would ask questions, and plenty of them, when the time was right. But he knew the nature of the department he worked in and how the quietest rumors spread like wildfire. He didn’t want to throw Kelyn to the wolves, not if he didn’t have to. For now, he was playing off his gut, which hadn’t yet let him down.

“I’m fine,” Charles answered with eyes that immediately betrayed his words. Kelyn’s suggestion of presenting the evidence to the tech department was obviously some sort of ruse. What they experienced seemed… personal, somehow… intimate in a disturbing way… not likely to be replicated in another set of conditions. He nodded a conciliatory agreement as a matter of course before switching gears completely.

“Let’s call it a night for now,” he stated in a way that seemed more like a command than a proposal. He’d usher Kelyn up from her chair and chase her eyes in a manner that could only be described as… purpose. “Pack your bags tonight, we’re leaving for Ireland tomorrow morning. Budget be damned.”

Thank god. He wasn’t some warmongering idiot. She knew he wasn’t. Everything she had seen thus far of Detective Charles Brock had left her quietly impressed with his insight and his stoic acceptance of some crazy shit.

After something like that video, lesser men would have had a fit, screamed about a dead computer and kicked her out of the office.

Instead, she had gotten the video down. No more victims tonight.

She rose slowly from his chair, nodding softly to herself. Ireland sounded like a good idea, but they wouldn’t have the resources there they did here. She was all for going, but…

She stood at the door for a moment, her back to him and facing down the hallway before spinning to look at him. “I don’t know about you, but I am not going to be able to let this rest. Not how I am… feeling right now.”

So it had affected her too. She’d been stoic enough about it that it had been a passing question.

“I am going to watch Jill Diaz’s video. I am going to look into Ireland, most especially that park. I am going to keep digging because if those people out there in a coma can be helped, every second matters.”

She stood there for a moment, young but strong. Sure.

“It would be impossibly helpful if I had your eyes and your observation. I’m not letting this one go tonight, Agent Brock. With me?”

Well then.

Kelyn had said her piece. She could pack later if she had to, sleep on the airplane if the time came, but she did not want to go to Ireland uninformed and under-prepared, especially knowing all the things she knew and all the dangers they might befall.

Kelyn was right, of course. The ball was still rolling, and Charles knew that their impetus should be maximized before a wall was eventually hit. Truth be told, exhaustion was settling in after his recent spike of adrenaline, but the protocol in his mind was always to shrug it off and suck it up.

“Okay. Fine. But not here. My place.” The look on his face warned of prying eyes and ears amongst the remaining personnel in the building. He’d hand his car keys once again to Kelyn out in the garage with an apologetic shrug. “I like the way you drive.”

The ride to his apartment was awkward, to say the least. Charles refrained from saying much, save from the necessary directions pertaining to their route. Questions were clearly burning bright in his mind, begging to be asked, but still he refrained. It wasn’t until the door to his place was safely closed behind them that he let his lips fly.

“Okay, Kelyn. Just WHAT. The FUCK. HAPPENED back there?” Before Kelyn could even gather her thoughts, he’d pause her with his index finger and walk to his sound system to play some big band music from the 30’s. Charles would then plop himself down upon an office chair and offer Kelyn a seat on his couch with a wave of his hand, nodding his approval to proceed with her reply.

Charles’ apartment seemed small but cozy. There was a large couch which Kelyn was now familiar with. The doorframe to a master bedroom was easily seen behind said couch, and another door further down the same wall was likely the bathroom. A small desk with a laptop could be found with the sound system on a shelf above it. The obligatory big screen television rested upon a wooden stand across from where Kelyn was seated. A series of three small windows peered out towards the violet sky outside, offering the bland view of an industrial complex across the street.  And then there were the drawings. Many drawings of various subject matter were spread across the floors and walls of the apartment. Countless sketchbooks were stacked in a corner near the waist-high median of the kitchen area which greeted them through the front door. All in all, it seemed to be a modest bachelor’s den.

Well. She didn’t expect that. As Kelyn drove, following his directions, her mind raced. The case, the video, the sensation that gripped her body. She knew what it meant, she just couldn’t… comprehend it.

And Charles in the passenger seat, giving her occasional directions while Incubus reminded them to take the wheel and steer.

She was already deep in a Google search in her mind, wondering what she might find. Already ground through all the research and all the clues, all the madness and nightmares. She had already helped those people who laid still in their beds, family members gripping their fingers and speaking to them in comforting voices, trying not to let the fear show.

She pulled into the spot he indicated and stepped past him and into his apartment.


Covered in sketches.

He turned on her then and Kelyn sucked in a sharp breath, wide-eyed, only to have him silence her reply.

Well, good.

That would give her a minute to figure out what the hell she was going to say.

As he put on some music and indicated she should take a seat, she slipped her sneakers off, tucking them on the floor at the edge of the couch and sit indian style.


Still had no idea.

“I don’t know what to say, Charles, honestly I don’t. This case has been a disaster from day one. Not you now, I am talking 2010. No one has taken any of this seriously until now and now I know why. I don’t think we are the first people to put together the coma connection. Why else would they have called me in?”

What did she mean by that? What, pray tell, was so special about Kelyn Sinclair?

“I just know that video, that audio was hurting you. Hurting us. If it wasn’t stopped, our next trip would have been in an ambulance.”

She was scrambling. He could tell.

But she didn’t have a good answer either. He would know if she was lying and she respected him. She didn’t want to lie. She would just know what would happen if she told him the truth, the whole truth and nothing but.

“For now, and until we know more, we are just going to have to assume there was something about the audio that messed people up. If we watch the video, figure out the Ireland connection, then we can go from there. Fair?”

She meant it, her tone utterly honest and completely sincere.

Charles’ mind filled with the screeching chorus of alarms and sirens. Kelyn was treading water. Buying time. Hiding something. Never mind the evil presence brought on by a YouTube video which seemed to momentarily seize his heart and tear at his very soul. He also caught the briefest glimpse of a bluish glow which seemed to pulse though her clothing. And here she was, hoping to God… or whatever peered down from the skies above… that he missed that portion of the night’s events. Hmm. How to proceed from here? In his experience, he found it best, perhaps necessary, to place everything on the table.

“You’re lying,” Charles casually remarked, as if observing the conversation from a third-hand perspective. He’d lift himself from his chair and mosey on over to the fridge, passing Kelyn without the slightest glance. “Or at least hiding something. Something… big. About yourself, perhaps?” His question would linger in the air even as Charles nonchalantly retrieved a frosty beer. He’d rummage through a drawer to find a bottle opener and pry off the cap before knocking back a swig. Finally, Charles would face her from behind the kitchen’s median, which seemed to divide the pair of detectives in some weird, metaphorical way.

“I don’t blame you. Nor do I expect you to spill the beans. But give me a little credit. After all, we’re partners, right?” There would be another awkward silence, but Charles hoped that Kelyn could see the skeletal foundation of a bridge being built between them. “Help me solve this case, and your secret is safe with me. Just… warn me in the future when something like this could happen again.”

And that was that. There was finality in the way he delivered his request. Charles was no doubt ready to move on. There was plenty of work to do. “So, then. While I’m up… would you like something to drink?”

She paled when he said it. He would see the slow progression of hue shift not unlike watching a chameleon camouflage to its surroundings, except in Kelyn’s case, his words brought in her such a visceral reaction, she almost looked like she would be ill.

She didn’t respond.

She just listened. After all, she had always known in the back of her mind that one of these days she would meet someone, likely a suite, who was just as smart or smarter than she was. Who would catch on to the weirdness quickly and to whom she would have no good answers. She rested her elbow on her bent knee and her forehead balanced precariously on her fingertips, the long ends of her hair hanging down to frame her sharp cheeks and closed eyes.

She just listened because so far, all of this was salvageable.

Barely, but salvageable.

If there had been any other way, she would have taken it, any other means to stop the audio that had been carving at their souls, she would have done it.

But there hadn’t been. Not really.

It was just a drastically bad turn of events and she had gotten comfortable. Instead of watching the video on her own and avoiding this whole debacle, she had wanted his opinion. His insight.

And she still did, damn it.

She had the chance to walk out, take her car, go home and have a long hot bath and then tackle this thing from her comfy flat but no.

Kelyn was sitting on his couch having to decide just how much she had to share. How much would be acceptable but survivable.

And then he asked for a warning next time and if she wanted something to drink.

She started slightly, so surprised. She expected the full twenty question, demands and explanations.

And he wanted to get her something to drink?

“Um… just water, I think.” Dear god, she could use something stiffer, but that was dangerous territory. Kelyn was a light weight at best and the situation was too volatile for anything else.

“And if I had even guessed anything of the sort about the video, neither of us would have watched it, but I understand your point. I will do my best to give you a heads up when things are about it get…”


Oh god, she hated that word. Hated it with the passion of a thousand fiery suns. But it was the word.

The right and fitting word and it didn’t matter how much she hated it.

“… weird.”

She uncurled her legs, tucking them under her. “For what it is worth, I am sorry about your computer.”

Charles would hand Kelyn a chilled bottled water along with his laptop after fetching it from his desk. “Don’t worry about it,” he’d remark regarding Kelyn’s condolences, though the tone in his voice suggested his loss still weighed significantly in his mind. After a quick adjustment to the thermostat, Charles would grab a notebook and pen before resituating himself upon his office chair with his beer in his hand.

“Okay, down to business. But first, let’s talk about our trip to Ireland tomorrow.”

Charles would jot a few notes down onto his pad as he began to verbally examine their looming excursion. “Most likely, we’ll have to check in at the nearest station and fill out a few forms as part of a face-to-face interview process. Hopefully it won’t take long, but in my experience it may be a few hours. They may insist on having one of their agents join us during any official investigations, but let’s keep our fingers crossed. I don’t want any unforeseen hiccups to complicate any big breaks we may come across.”

A quick chew on his pen cap would precede his next point. “We’ll be leaving around nine in the morning, but our arrival will be closer to noon despite an eight hour trip. I suggest we catch as much sleep along the way to keep us fresh. I’d like to check that archway out the same night we arrive in the area. Bring enough clothes for a three day trip.”

One last flurry of scribbles would conclude his thoughts on the matter before Charles finally redirected his concentration. “Okay, now that that’s out of the way. Let’s iron out exactly what we know about this case, and what we should be looking for in the day ahead.”

He’d turn a page in his notebook before fervently staring into Kelyn’s eyes. “Tell me exactly what you stumbled upon back at the office, keeping in mind that I’m not the most technologically astute person in the world. It’s about time I touched base with the modern generation… with your help, of course.” His smile reflected the readiness in his mind.

He was very organized and he spoke with such authority and experience that Kelyn didn’t doubt a thing he said. She’d never traveled internationally on the government’s dime before and a certain amount of paperwork and red tape was to be expected, especially since they would be brushing elbows with another nation. She pulled out her phone as he spoke, texting notes to herself. 9 am departure, three days of clothes (she would bring 4, plus and extra pair of underwear and socks – no trip was every spoiled for having too many socks.)

She knew very little of Ireland’s National Security, but part of her was silently thankful leads hadn’t pointed them toward the middle east, Russia, or China.

That would have been infinitely more difficult.

She agreed that they should get to the park and check out the archway, but she also felt there was a lot more digging to do in that regard. She emailed something to herself, then set her phone aside as he turned toward her, requesting a clearer and less ‘tech-speak’ explanation of the events at the office.

Kelyn opened the bottle, taking a sip as she coalesced her thoughts.

“Every computer or device needs a connection to access the internet. In order to do so and not jumble up the words, Internet Service Providers or ISPs assign addresses to the computers, a lot like the addresses of buildings. They are called IPs, TCP/IPs or Transmission Control Protocol / Internet Protocol. Normally this only matters if something has gone wrong and you have to call up a computer guy to fix it, but it can be used, by hackers, corporations, and even the government to track traffic on the web.”

She took another pull from the water.

“Diaz’s video, you know the one, had seen a lot more traffic than any of her others and I was able to track down the ‘addresses’,” she offered the double quotes with her fingers, “of the people who had watched the video. It is an easy guess that they didn’t fare as well against it as we did.”

Mainly because they didn’t have a strange blue-glowing girl to blow up the computer when necessary.

“So I looked at the national and international hospital databases, which track certain diagnosis for the CDC and WHO. There was a spike in comas since Diaz put up that video, and I bet if we pulled the IP addresses of a number of those patients, they would match the IPs I pulled from the video link. Short answer, I think that video put about seven and a half hundred people into the hospital. I bet most of them are still there, in a coma. And now we have an audio stripped video of Diaz. I think we need to watch it.”

Pulling open his laptop, she opened his browser and dug into her email, pulling up the attachment, but not opening it. Her hands shook so slightly, come and gone so fast, it may as well have never been there. Kelyn may have played it cool in the office, but she was more than frightened by the concept of watching Jill Diaz’s video.

“Seven and a half hundred people.” Charles softly repeated the figure aloud with heavy disconcertion. His eyes fought hard against glazing over during Kelyn’s explanation, but in the end he understood it well enough. Now over seven hundred people had accidentally or purposely seen a video on YouTube and paid a heavy price.

“What are the odds that the audio was the only threatening aspect of the video?” Charles would ask, somewhat hypothetically, before continuing his train of thought. “Can you imagine if this video somehow went viral? If no one is immune to its effects, then we were looking at the digital form of the bubonic plague on steroids.”

His face soured, and a twinge of fear surfaced in his eyes before it was promptly discarded… or buried.

“I agree with you,” Charles concluded aloud with a nod towards Kelyn, folding his arms after setting his bottle on the nearby coffee table. “But we need to be smart about this. If the video portion is still dangerous, then only one of us should watch as the other is in position to intervene. Maybe with a finger at the ready to shut down the laptop at the slightest indication of things going awry.”

He’d sigh a bit before fidgeting in his chair, prowling his eyes around the room before finding Kelyn again with a steady gaze. “How about a game of paper-rock-scissors to decide who donates their eyeballs? Unless you think you’d naturally fare better in that arena…” 

Charles’ eyebrow raised just a bit, but his demeanor suggested a growing acceptance of his talented partner… whatever those talents may be.

“I would say… 85% certain it was an audio issue. I could… feel the music.” Yeah, she didn’t feel like explaining that one at the moment, but he likely understood her meaning. I was the music that had pulled at them, had divorced will from body.

“And I can’t help but think that the point of all of this may be a technological plague striking down people all over the world. I just have no idea why… or how.” She watched him for a long moment while he considered their options.

He was right.

One of them should watch the video, the other ready to shut it down if necessary.

“I’ll do it,” Kelyn said slowly with a deep breath. “Just be ready to close the laptop if things seem off…”

As if he would be able to tell.

They arranged themselves so she sat with the laptop’s glow highlighting her face, throwing stark contrast of white and red and blue in broad strokes across her slender features.

She looked up at him over the laptop, nodding softly with a tiny swallow the only indication of nervousness.

Kelyn opened the attachment, let it load, and pushed play.

Jill Diaz sat in her spare room with her Conde, looking exactly the way they remembered from the original video. She spoke, but no words came out.

She began to play, began to sing.

Kelyn tensed for a moment, the deep rumble emanating from her so low it was barely audible, but as Jill’s lips moved to the lyrics, none of that sensation, that need, that pain pressed upon her.

Kelyn exhaled, the tension releasing and that feeling, that deep base fell silent again.

Jill Diaz sang soundless on, her features transported and ethereal. She sang and played, played and sang.

Kelyn leaned forward.

Jill’s features twisted in pain, her mouth stretched wide in a scream with no sound.

It was actually more terrifying, waiting for the scream that never came.

She screamed on and on, then fell out of her chair and out of the frame, the Conde laying face down on the floor in the background.

For a minute nothing happened.

Motionless room.

Still and silent.


Kelyn leaned closer.

Suddenly Jill Diaz stood up.

Kelyn jerked back with a little yelp of surprise.

Diaz moved awkwardly, jerkily, like a marionette at the hands of a novice. There was no smoothness of motion, no semblance of normality there.

She turned and looked at the camera. Her eyes glowed a sickly yellow green. There was nothing human in those eyes. Kelyn swallowed sharply, her eyes narrowing.

Jill reached out and the video cut.

“Shit,” Kelyn hissed, taking another swig of her water. Her hands shook just a touch and her breathing was shaking, but she nodded to Charles. “You need to see this…”

Charles’ hand was strategically placed behind the fold-out laptop screen as Kelyn prepared herself to watch the video. He was awkwardly situated as his torso leaned towards Kelyn in his seated position, with his knee on the couch as his eyes stared resolutely towards the wall over the top of her head. Charles was primed and ready to shut the laptop closed upon a moment’s notice, and based on her reactions during her viewing, he was certainly tempted more than once. However, there would be no threatening ‘presence’ to attack the pair’s senses, and though his will was tested, he allowed the video to run its course.

Finally, Kelyn indicated its conclusion with a curse, and Charles breathed a sigh of relief. “Perhaps the most tense three minutes of my life,” Charles grumbled as his clammy hand retired itself from its duties.

His own viewing of the video would be an exercise in restraint as he tried to remain as placid as possible. Despite his efforts, however, his eyes widened several times and his breath would catch noticeably towards the end. “What the fuck?” Charles would question with a glance towards Kelyn as beads of sweat began to rise to the surface of his forehead. “Just what are we dealing with…”

Out of nowhere, a vision of the archway began to pound against Charles’ mind, prompting his eyes to turn away from Kelyn’s in contemplation. Why did that just pop in my head? It’s certainly a focus in our investigation but… The video. He’d scan back a few seconds, past the revelation of Jill’s possessed body for comfort’s sake, and survey the room around her. Game of Thrones. There was a poster on her wall, small but prevalent, showcasing several characters of the show.

Why is this jabbing at me? The only reason Charles knew about the show was because of someone he briefly dated a year back. She was a Game of Thrones junkie and would invite him over to her place for every new episode. Charles would politely pull the computer from Kelyn’s lap and place it upon his own. A quick Google image search of the show’s name revealed nothing of interest… cheesy character pinups with horrible fanart thrown in for good measure. Hmm. He’d add archway to the end of his search entry… and there it was. The very archway they planned to investigate was a focal point in one’s of the program’s episodes.

Charles took a heavy breath and folded his arms after handing the laptop back to Kelyn. “I think we have another breakthrough. Know anything about the show ‘Game of Thrones’?”

If she knew, really knew what they were dealing with, it would be a completely different matter. As it was, Kelyn had vague guesses at best and none of them were good. Watching the video a second time did nothing for her nerves and when he stole the laptop from her, she took another long pull from her water bottle, almost wishing it was something stronger.

He jumped through the video again (she gave him a bit more credit, she wasn’t sure how many times she could watch the damn thing and then it paused it. He had skipped the worst part, for which she was thankful and yet… Kelyn leaned forward, her shoulder brushing his. “What is it… just a poster from some show?”

But he was hard at work. She leaned over as best she could to watch what he was up to. So, she liked a show. There was no indication of any other connection to the show and…

He pulled up Game of Thrones archway and Kelyn almost fell out of her seat. There it was, the archway from her search, the one he had sketched. Thr one in the park the international letter had originated from.

“Yeah,” she said softly, peering at the image. “That is an epic neon clue if I ever saw one and I know nothing about the show, the books. Nothing. Sorry.”

But was the show even in production when the first disappearance occurred.

She swiped back the laptop, pulling up the IMDB. There it was.

Premiered April 2011.

They were well into production of the first season when the first disappearance occurred, June of 2010.

It was a connection. A real honest to god connection.

Kelyn’s fingers lay across her lips in silent shock. It was a real lead, not just a clue, but pointing without question to a place, a similarity. She looked at Charles, her eyes wide, a soft smile on her lips. “Well done, Agent. I would call that a break in the case.”

It wasn’t often when Charles felt older than he was, but the series of adrenaline spikes he had experienced in accordance with the day’s events had finally accumulated themselves into exhaustion. He was excited, surely, but his vision seemed to lag behind him whenever he turned his head, a surefire sign that his reset button needed to be pushed with a prompt round of sleep.

“Let’s back to the office,” Charles abruptly suggested, doing his best to mask his fatigue while casually shutting the laptop closed. “Something tells me we’ll need our forty winks to be at our best for whatever awaits us tomorrow.” Kelyn was sure to be surprised and frustrated at his sudden declaration, but Charles knew it was for the best. Cases that seemed to solve themselves were always trouble. Something was waiting for them… or perhaps just for him… at the end of the rainbow. Perhaps it was related to the strange abilities which his partner seemed to harness, but he avoided dwelling on that possibility for now. Staying in the moment was a philosophy which paralleled his inclination to trust his gut when the going got tough… or strange, as it were in this case.

Kelyn, of course, could barely contain herself in the driver’s seat during the car ride back to the station. Charles did his best to match her enthusiasm, but his mental resignation must have been evident at this point. The case file he’d find upon his desk back in his office would set him upon another roller coaster of contemplation, however. Aside from the curious psychiatric evaluations which Charles decided to explore in-depth at a later point, there were no parents or next-of-kin to speak of… and the only emergency contact was a facility called “The Institute.” He casually hid the file behind his back when Kelyn popped her head around the corner of his office door. Hopefully she didn’t catch his flushed face in the absence of light as they reasserted their plans to be ready to roll at 8am the next morning.

Charles cursed at his alarm clock when its sharp beeps shook him from his sleep at 6:45. The intense dreams he experienced throughout the night quickly gave way to the rising sun as it pried open his pupils without the slightest apology. All of them involved Kelyn, but the details ebbed away with each second his head parted from his pillow. He couldn’t shake the feeling of an impending showdown, however, where he would protect Kelyn from an evil force not unlike the one which assaulted him the afternoon prior… or wouldshe be the one protecting him?

His energy level quickly snowballed after a short shower, which was his personal gauge on the quality of sleep he received the night prior. Charles decided upon a luxury suit which was collecting dust in his closet for the day’s attire, as making a good impression on foreign departments was an unspoken priority which he picked up from his superiors. From the looks of things in the mirror before leaving his apartment with his duffel bag, Charles was sharply dressed. A scant ten minutes later, he was parked near Kelyn’s residence, where she herself was ready and dressed to kill.  

Kelyn was in no way becoming accustomed to Charles’s sudden shifts in attitude. She was still high on adrenaline and aching for answers. Yes, it was terrifying but it was also exciting and dangerous and she wanted more than anything to learn more.

Which she could not do driving back to the station.

Nevertheless the drive was made and the office quite this late. She knew nothing of the file left on his desk though she was more than aware of the contents. After all, they were the bold details of her life.

She confirmed the pick up time and drove home, rolling over all the realities, the things she had seen, the things she understood but had no way of telling him.

The things she had to hide.

Those were the hardest. The worst.

She packed up a bag with a few essentials with the intention of packing the rest in the morning. She laid down on her simple platform bed with her tablet in her hand, planning on doing some research, but fell asleep in the interim.

The alarm screamed at her at 5:45 a.m. and Kelyn dragged herself from her bed and threw herself into the shower. It was only after the super heated water had beat upon her for a good ten minutes that her mind began to engage again and her packing list raced before her eyes.

Kelyn made a quick breakfast, dressed and packed, settled her things and watered her plants.

She made a cup of tea for herself, resting in the comfortable round chair that dominated her living room and playing various logic and escape games on her cell phone.

She too was dressed sharply, but not her finest. After all, she wanted to look nice but they would be landing in Ireland in 1:00 a.m. No one to impress. She just hoped the Agency would have picked them a decent hotel close to the airport.

She glanced at the time, threw a backpack with a number of country patches sewn onto it over her shoulders and a simple rolling bag with her other items. Four days worth of clothing and essentials plus a few extra pair of socks and underwear.

A trip was never ruined by too much underwear.

Her cup of tea in hand and a cup she had brewed for him in the other, Kelyn strode down to the lot in front of her flat and stood waiting as Charles pulled up.

“Good morning,” she said with a grin. “Tea? It is my own brew so I can’t promise the flavor.”

By default, Charles wasn’t much of a tea guy, but the offer of a hot caffeinated beverage was too much to turn down.

“Why thank you, Kelyn. I’m sure it’s delicious.” He wasn’t accustomed to the flavor, but slurped most of it down anyway, even before the pair of detectives left her parking lot. With a laugh he stifled in his throat, Charles supposed that he wasn’t very cultured, either. But with all things considered regarding his current case, he quickly forgave himself for his lack of refinement.

The airport wasn’t too far away, and their passage through security was brisk with the flash of their badges. Before long, they were sitting beside one another while waiting for their flight to announce its passengers to board, an hour-and-a-half ahead of schedule. There was plenty of time for idle chit-chat amidst punctuated observations of the series of clues from the day prior. It was then that Charles fully took in Kelyn and what she was wearing. She was indeed an attractive young woman, and his face instinctively turned a number of times to obscure his flustered cheeks.

Easy there, tiger, he thought to himself. Solve this case first. Then we’ll see about wining and dining a woman as your reward.

Charles and Kelyn’s seats on the plane were naturally beside on another. As a stewardess conducted the usual pre-flight ritual regarding proper seatbelt buckling, Charles amused himself with the ridiculous catalogs where one could purchase a Darth Vader hood ornament or a Big Foot lawn statue. The plane slowly bounced from its parking area to the main runway, and took to the skies before Charles even had a chance to realize it. His previous anxiety regarding air travel were negated after years of routine and necessity. In a quiet way, he was proud of himself, having come so far from his green years as a rookie and up-and-comer in the Bureau… and now, he was likely on the cusp of solving the case which would define his career.

The tea was delicious, actually. A blend of mint and orange blossom and something else. Something mysterious and exotic and undefinable. Much like the woman who mixed it. The drive to the airport was short and uneventful, the trip through security laughable and the time they sat in the terminal surprisingly pleasant.

Kelyn wasn’t one for small talk, nor did she feel comfortable enough to ask any deep and burning questions. Any question would be fielded with one of his own and Kelyn was not ready for that. Instead, she found herself at the window seat with Charles beside her, all but pressing her face to the glass as they took off.

Obviously, she had no problems with flying. She turned to say something to him and caught him looking at her. Kelyn smirked a bit and decided not to say anything, turning her attention back to the shrinking landscape below.

As she stared out the portal, she thought not about what lay beyond the polymer window nor about the adventure before them but instead what she knew of Agent Charles Brock.

Well, he had impressed her. That was new.

He knew something was up, but hadn’t tried to bully answers from her.

He understood he was in unfamiliar water and was willing to let her lead, but all with a quiet air of confidence and authority that…

… well she could at least think it… was very attractive.

Kelyn shook her head softly. That way lay a dangerous road for both of them.

The flight settled, promising to be a long one.

Kelyn reviewed some case facts, shared a game or two on her phone, and basically whittled away the time on the plane.

They flew across the world, chasing the sun but never catching it. The world outside the window seemed made of clouds and endless sky which blossomed from light and crystalline blue to the reds and oranges of sunset, to a deep and brooding purple and finally to endless black.

A number of the passengers opted to sleep, so the cabin lights were off, but Kelyn kept her reading light on. They talked quietly, mainly about the case until the plane began its descent.

It was both the shortest and most pleasant 8 consecutive hours she had ever spent beside another human being, but now, tired, feeling grimy, and unable to get the cardboard taste of the chicken and vegetables they had served for dinner from her mouth, Kelyn was glad to depart the plane and take her first breath of Irish Air.

It still smelled just like any other airport.

“Hotel?” she questioned softly, backpack over her shoulder and wheeling bag spread behind her like a lounging guest. “And better food if possible.”

Charles revealed a neatly folded piece of paper tucked away in his suit coat, offering it to Kelyn for her examination. “I went ahead and made some arrangements before heading to bed last night. My boss owed me a favor after I took on a long series of stakeouts from a suspect he had his eye on.”

A slight smile curled upon Charles’ lips before he continued. “We’ll be staying at the Belvedere hotel, indefinitely, until we’ve milked everything we can here regarding our case. It’s three stars but should be a nice improvement from the usual motel arrangements for investigators like us.”

Charles’ focus shifted towards hailing a cab after claiming their luggage, which soon led to a chatty and almost certainly drunk Irish driver to request that they “get their arses on in here, whydoncha.” His terse responses to the driver’s nosiness left the door wide open for Kelyn to field his incessant inquiries. Charles was quietly relieved that Kelyn had no issue being the sociable one between them. He knew that his placidity was often misinterpreted as moodiness, which was another project on his self-improvement list he’d been meaning to tackle.

Their hotel room revealed two full-size beds which seemed to tease their wearied bodies upon their arrival. Charles immediately hung his coat and began undressing, ineffectively using a closet door as a makeshift barrier for privacy’s sake. He honestly didn’t care at this point after their long flight; they were both adults, after all, and nothing was revealed past his boxers… but a few scars on his legs and torso seemed to beg that their stories be told. He popped a melatonin pill to circumvent any jet lag after climbing into his nightly attire, offering one to Kelyn before hitting his head on the pillow and falling asleep almost immediately.

A plague upon life itself, Charles groaned in his mind as the morning sun hit his eyes through the window’s blinds, forcing him awake. He sat up in bed, stretching and yawning while mentally planning the day’s events. They’d have to visit the local precinct and fill out some paperwork before embarking on any clue-hunting adventures, but the thought didn’t annoy him one bit. Soon enough, they’d be hot on the trail towards solving the case once again.

“The Belvedere?” she questioned softly, looking through exhausted eyes at the slip of paper. She hadn’t heard of it, but Kelyn wasn’t the foremost experts of three star Irish hotels. How was it possible that sitting on an airplane playing cell phone games and talking about their case had so exhausted her?

She hauled her rolling bag into the cab, sliding in, and waded her way through the cabbie’s accent to tell him where they were going.

He shared all sorts of helpful and useful information in words she barely understood about the local pubs and who brewed the best beer and how one of the boys from the city had come up on the local football team and now had a chance at the World Cup.

He chatted aimlessly as if it wasn’t nearly 2 a.m. and as if his passengers weren’t dead on their feet.

Kelyn smiled and nodded and asked the pertinent questions at the right times, but she barely retained anything.

He pulled up before the hotel and wished them both a pleasant evenin’ before driving off into the pre-dawn darkness of NewCastle.

Kelyn fluttered an eyebrow at Charles.

It was a nice enough looking place, all white stucco and column in the classical style. The lobby was staffed by a single friendly clerk who welcomed them and issues their electronic keys.

As the pair wheeled their luggage down the slightly worn carpeting of the first floor, Kelyn realized with a burst of heat across her cheeks that the receptionist had only given them one room number.

She was sharing a hotel room with the quiet and dedicated and hard working and… interesting Agent Charles Brock.

The room was nicely appointed, neutral and calming tans and beiges with rich accents of dark green and blue and red.

Kelyn saw none of it beyond two beds which seemed to beckon with all the allure of a lover.

Sleep sounded blissful.

She changed in the bathroom, giving them both some privacy and after washing her face, brushing her teeth, and switching into a pair of shorts and a large t-shirt, slipped from the bathroom to the empty bed.

She was asleep before she had managed to wish him a good night.

The problem with going to sleep at 2:30 in the morning and wanting to get an early start was the lack of needed and restful sleep inbetween. Kelyn dreamed restlessly, as always, old Disney afternoon cartoons like Duck Tales and Rescue Rangers playing as a backdrop to cold stone walls, huge men in suits with no faces, the heat of a surrounding fire and the searing, stunning, luminescent azure light.

She woke only a few minutes after he did, roused by the sound of moment.

After all, Kelyn was not used to sleeping with anyone else in the same domicile, much less the same room.

She tore through her morning routine with a certain bitterness but appeared showered and dressed. A smart long sleeved burgundy top and simple black slacks, finished off with a solid pair of sneakers.

It would be terribly hot out at Tollymore and he knew Kelyn was smart enough to realize that, and yet she strode out the door to their room with only her simple backpack, bespeckled with various countries flags, seemingly unaware of future discomfort.

Another taxi brought them to the NewCastle precinct who held jurisdiction over the park itself.

Where they waited.

And waited.

Kelyn sat in one of the uncomfortable visitors chairs, made of plastic with a tattered pillow to offer some modicum of comfort.

She glanced to Charles, who looked unbearable calm, then scanned the tiny police station once more.

This was the part she hated. The reason she could never be what he was or do what he did.

She would have just gone to the forest and skipped all this jurisdiction nonsense.

After an hour and ten minutes they were presented to Captain Michael Kelly.

The man was a mountain, huge and agingly muscular, like a weightlifter a few years after retiring. He had a bit of a belly held in tight by a chipper brown belt, but his eyes missed nothing at all.
“So, what interest does the United States FBI have with our little park? Surely this isn’t about the purse snatching incident during that ‘Game of Thrones’ tour.”

Kelyn perked up a bit, but said nothing.

It wasn’t often when Charles didn’t have to shift his neck downwards while greeting someone. Captain Michael Kelly was just as tall as he was, maybe even a bit taller, with a bear wrestler’s physique to boot. Charles’s psyche was as fragile and envious as any other guy, so he imagined having to sprawl with such a physical specimen and couldn’t foresee a positive outcome under most circumstances. Maybe with a baseball bat and a tranquilizer dart, he could even the playing field somewhat.

“No, sir. Not a purse-snatching.” Charles offered his hand towards Mr. Kelly alongside a focused pair of eyes. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Captain Kelly. My name is Charles Brock, senior investigator for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Chicago, and this is my consultant, Agent Kelyn Sinclair.“ His hand segued towards Kelyn after the principle handshake, allowing her and the Irish Mountain of Man to exchange their own pleasantries. He couldn’t help but quietly study her body language, scanning for any sort of infatuation.

“We’re here because a trail of clues for an ongoing homicide case led us to this location.” Charles pulled out another folded piece of paper from his overcoat, a type-written document that looked official with highlights to emphasize particular sentences. He offered it to Captain Kelly, who accepted it after a moment’s hesitation.

The mountainous man murmured to himself as he read the document while listening to Charles detail their investigation to this point. The reading continued even after Charles finished his explanation, leaving a few long moments of silence between the investigators that bordered on awkward. Finally, with a heavy exhale indicating bad news was forthcoming, Captain Kelly handed back the piece of paper to Charles.

“Normally, foreign departments would initiate their negotiations with us months ahead of time.” His comment wasn’t posed as a complaint but as a matter of fact. “I’m afraid that matters like these require two weeks’ time before your investigation can be reviewed and approved by my superiors.” Instinctively, Charles butted the side of his shoe against Kelyn’s as a silent indication to keep her cool. Captain Kelly continued with a face of concern and apology, but in Charles’ mind, the look seemed artificial.

“I would do my best to push that time period down to one week or less, but please understand that I cannot guarantee such a turnaround.” Again, the promise fell flat on the floor at the detective’s shoes.

“But there’s even a bigger dilemma at hand, Agent Brock. There hasn’t been an extradition agreement between the United States and Ireland in nine years. Even if your investigation culminated with a suspect, we couldn’t detain him or her for more than seventy-two hours before we’re required to facilitate their release.” The way he winded down his sentence suggested that the matter had come to a close in his mind.

The steady look on Charles’ face never wavered as Captain Kelly delivered his sour news, with Kelyn being as cooperative as he had hoped.  Charles wouldn’t press the issue any further and instead nod his acceptance.

“I understand that your hands are tied, Captain Kelly. I appreciate your time and effort regarding this matter. We’ll be keeping in touch.” With that, Charles and Kelyn excused themselves and returned to their car. Once they were seated inside, Charles delayed Kelyn’s boiling frustrations with a raised forefinger while tending to his phone in his other hand. A number was dialed, and soon, Deputy Chief Anderson was on the phone.

“Hello, sir? Yes, yes. Everything went pretty much as we expected. Put me through to Senator Williams, please.”

A few moments would pass before another voice was heard on the phone, warm and welcoming.

“Bradley, buddy! How have you holding up, sir? It’s been a long time! How’s the family?” The way they were chatting it up, Senator Bradley Williams and Agent Charles Brock must have been good friends for a long time. There was guy talk for fifteen minutes, spanning everything from the latest superhero movie to tentative plans regarding their next cookout. To Kelyn, this must have been an excruciating intermission.

“Yes, yes, ha ha ha. That sure was one hell of a night.” Finally, the conversation seemed to be winding down, prompting an about-face in Charles’ tone of voice.

“Hey, listen, Brad. Regarding the Solstice case.” Bradley went quiet on the other line, suggesting he knew enough about the topic at hand.

“There were a few hiccups when we chatted with the local departments. I’m gonna need some kind of extradition agreement to be pounded out as soon as possible.” Mumblings about a rider to a bill about to be passed was mentioned, prompting Charles to gaze towards Kelyn with a look of accomplishment.

“Yes. Yep. Yeah. They said seventy-two hours. You’ll have it done in thirty-six?”

More chatter on the other line, seemingly to confirm the arrangement.

“Hey, Brad. Thanks. That really helps us a lot. Really, you’ve just saved our collective butts out here.” Senator Williams’ response was as clear as day. “Think nothing of it.”

“Listen, I better get Kelyn and I back on the road. I’ll call you if anything else comes up. Have a good one, buddy.” The click through the receiver concluded matters, and Charles turned his attention fully to Kelyn.

“Let’s change out this rental car,” Charles said with a tempered sense of urgency, “before we head to the forest. Just to be on the safe side.” He locked his gaze upon Kelyn’s now-enlightened eyes one last time before they were on their way.

There were a lot of things Kelyn expected from this Ireland Adventure. Being turned away at the door by Mr. Irish Spring was not one of them. Oh, she had smiled pretty and shook his hand, surprised at how small and delicate her fingers felt in his larger grasp. She had let Charles take point on this one – after all, he was the government appointed agent and while he had introduced her as a fellow agent (which would ease a lot of open doors on this investigation) she didn’t actually have a badge to back it up.

How he knew to nudge her sneaker with his own finer shoe right when she was about to say something that might not smooth their way, she did not know. Instead, she glanced for a long moment between the men, her lips pursed. She had nothing that would change the Captain’s mind and opening her mouth would only make matters worse.

However, she didn’t relish the flight back knowing they had gotten nowhere and unfortunately, because he had identified her as an agent (true or not) meant she couldn’t investigate on her own.
She wanted to ask him so many questions.

He kept stopping her.

She nodded in thanks to the Captain and strode out beside Charles, utterly confused.

That felt an awful lot like failure.

They climbed into the car, Kelyn’s lips already parted to barrage him with questions and again he stopped her.

This was becoming something of a habit.

And he was making a call to… a Senator?

She listened to the conversation, fuming silently at Charles. This was such a waste of time and they were no further along than they were. All the talk about movies and cookouts. This was bullshit.

What was he expecting, someone to pull an extradition treaty out of their…



Kelyn blinked at him, her features a study in surprise and… pleasure.

As he hung up the phone, Kelyn tilted her head just a bit, considering him.

That was… unexpected.

“Quite,” she offered, pulling out and heading back to the airport so they could change out the car.

For a long time, Kelyn didn’t say anything. She wasn’t sure what to say.

That was impressive.

Kelyn wasn’t used to being impressed, especially by… normal people, and yet Agent Brock just kept impressing her.

The black sedan was traded for a sport little green coup and seated in the airport rental parking, Kelyn pulled up her phone and Navi-ed their happy way to Tollymore Forest.

It was a good hour and a half drive, but ‘Agent’ Kelyn Sinclair didn’t mind and instead hooked her phone to the car’s bluetooth and fired up her Pandora. Music floated around them.

“Agent Brock,” she managed finally, as if it had taken her that long to cohesively construct her thought. “That was damn impressive.”

She meant it. He could hear it in her tone.

“So what do you think about this ‘Game of Thrones’ tour. I think we should book one or tag along if we stumble across one. As ridiculous as it seems, I can’t help but think something about the show is intertwined with the case.”

Outside, the city fell away, the countryside rolling along to the crooning Cranberries.

Charles couldn’t help but smile at Kelyn’s compliment. “Impressive, you say? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, galpal.” His subsequent moment of self-reflection flowered a mild epiphany, as Charles realized he was possibly more resourceful than he gave himself credit for. Senator Bradley Williams had come through in the clutch after a substantial amount of bro-chat, with Charles quietly relishing Kelyn’s impatience as she squirmed in her chair. It simply made his ultimate success much more gratifying and perhaps solidified their trust in one another more than ever before.

The decision to swap out rental cars didn’t originate from any frivolous reasoning. Charles suspected that the local police would be keeping tabs on a pair of renegade detectives desperate to make headway on a hot case, and had likely jotted down their license plate number. A simple exchange of cars could make their stealthy endeavors easier to facilitate. As they whizzed along the freeway towards Tollymore forest, Charles wholeheartedly agreed with Kelyn’s suspicions.

“Yeah. This Game of Thrones show is integral to the case somehow. I regret not having watched a few recent episodes before crashing last night to better prepare myself to deal with any characters we might come across. I was just too beat to do anything but sleep.”

He was also much too tired to bother being discreet with his clothes-changing, but he figured Kelyn accepted his unspoken apology.

The outside scenery became more and more scenic as they approached their destination. Irish air cleansed their lungs as Kelyn supplied a pleasing arrangement of alternative rock songs, half of which Charles recognized. Before long, a building which must have been the forest’s entrance for tourists appeared at the end of a long, winding road across a mountainside. A stout Irish gentleman was waiting to wave in their lumbering vehicle and greet them.

“Hello, sir and madam. May I see your identification cards, please?”

Charles nipped any complications in the bud by carefully leaning over Kelyn’s lap with his badge at the ready.

“Good afternoon, sir. My name is Agent Charles Brock and this is my partner, Agent Kelyn Sinclair. We’re with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Chicago, Illinois. We’ve actually been dispatched by the local precinct to conduct an investigation in Tollymore forest regarding a criminal case. It won’t take long and we’ll be out of your hair as soon as possible.”

The Irish forest ranger looked perplexed and slightly overwhelmed. He studied the badge and it looked official, and the pair of detectives certainly looked the part. After a moment, he seemed to respond to Kelyn’s well-timed smile and waved them through the gate.

“All right then, everything looks in order here. The park area closes in four hours, just so you know.”

The rental car lumbered forward and towards a carved patch of forest which quickly tapered in and closely flanked the asphalt road. Charles put his badge away and turned his attention to Kelyn.

“You aren’t bothered by me referring to you as an Agent, right?” He pulled a smile into his left cheek, watching her reaction closely. “Because any time I can use that distinction to our advantage, I plan to do so.”

Oh, Kelyn had understood exactly why they had swapped cars. In fact, she had pulled just such switches in the past back home, except she had actually paid someone to continue to drive her car and once even left her cell phone in the offending car because she knew it was being tracked.

Charles’s steal was not lost on her, but she didn’t feel like sharing that tidbit at the moment. Instead she nodded softly. “I wish I knew anything at all about the show. I read the wikipedia, but I am pretty certain something was lost in the translation between major hit drama and plot summary because I don’t see either the appeal or why in the world this ties to the case.

“I just know that it does.”

They turned down the final curve and up to the park entrance, an archway different but similar to the one Charles had drawn. Kelyn blinked softly as Charles leaned across her to greet the forest ranger, surprised by the little ripple of electricity that sparked at the base of her neck and rushed outward along her arms, goosebumps hidden beneath her long sleeves.

That was… new.

She stared for a moment at his features in sharp profile against the daylight streaming through the windshield.

Very new. Her features were a study in thoughtfulness when he spoke her name. Kelyn turned to smile at the ranger, her expression bright and winning and after a moment of hesitation, he allowed them in.

She continued along the winding lane, searching for a good place to park and his question caught her off-guard. “The first time, it surprised me. I have had the offer but never really considered the possibility. You have, I am sure, discerned that I am not very tolerant of the red tape and bureaucracy that comes with job. But I don’t mind if it gets us where we need to go expeditiously.”

She found a lot littered with cars and – even better- tour buses. One of them was emblazoned with the words “Game of Thrones Tour” with what she assumed were a few of the main characters looking quite stoic. They were still unloading.

Pulling into a spot, she nudged Charles gently. “Lucky us.” A quick hop out of the car and the pair seamlessly joined the mass of tourists snapping pictures and dressed in various degrees of fan gear.

Kelyn heard a few different languages from Spanish to Chinese to what she thought might be Swahili. Diverse fan base.

The tour plunged into the forest, leading them along a wide and well kept path that wound between ancient and massive trees. Everywhere greenery spangled the starlight, giving it a verdant hue as it poured through the canopy.

Everything looked so healthy. So lush.

It was actually spectacularly beautiful. Man-made and natural waterfalls, stone and wood bridges, a bubbling river, quick and leaping in places, wide and sedate in others.

Kelyn took a few pictures that had nothing to do with the case.

And she listened.

Listened to the tour guide drone on and on about this scene in the show where that character did… whatever.

Over and over, on and on. The tourists were eating it up.

Then they found the archway. It was bigger than Kelyn had thought and felt… old.

Not ancient in the way a place like Stonehenge might, but… old.

But this wasn’t it. She didn’t know how she could tell, she just knew. They were on the right path, but the Archway was the beginning, not the end.

“I heard that a number of the stars are in town,” one of the tourists chimed in.

“Yes,” the guide answered. “There is a gala tomorrow night at the Culloden Estate. Very exclusive. Plates were upward of $50,000.00 a piece. Supposed to be a very intimate affair with the cast and crew.

Kelyn glanced at Charles.

The guide droned on at the location of a particular pivotal scene, but Kelyn kept glancing over her shoulder.

Down there.

She twisted, sighting a tiny and overgrown path down a short ravine.

It’s down there.

She couldn’t explain, couldn’t even verbalize it. Instead, she tugged at Charles’s sleeve and as the group moved on, she started down the ravine.

It was rocky going, but the woman always wore sensible shoes and her sneaker-clad feet found easy purchase.

Branches tangled in their hair and bushes snagged at their pant legs, but Kelyn pushed forward.

She could feel it now, a some thrumming, a constant beat on the air.

It took ten minutes to find the cave entrance, tucked behind a pair of massive standing stones, weathered and mossy.

“Found you,” she whispered softly.

In retrospection, Charles’ conversation with the Irish gatekeeper should have lasted much longer than it did. He quietly cursed himself for not having prolonged it with aimless pleasantries, all the while steadying himself before Kelyn’s ethereal gaze. The intention of his lean across her lap rose from simple necessity, but the fleeting moments which followed were brimming with unspoken revelations. One of Kelyn’s breaths caught along the collar of his shirt and rolled towards his ear, prompting an awkward swallow along the flank of his neck. His mind held fast to one word which burned hot and bright within its grasp.

Was there a possibility for the pair of detectives following the conclusion of the Solstice case?

Perhaps there would be an encore of Kelyn’s breaths on his neck at some point in the future, but Charles refused to dwell on such possibilities unless sleep followed close behind.

The Game of Thrones bus was a welcome break, but Charles quickly found himself at a loss as he listened in alongside Kelyn, picking and placing tidbits of information from the tour group. He knew next to nothing of the show, aside from the sporadic episodes he watched with his ex which his brain only half-tuned in for.  Try as he might, he just wasn’t a TV guy beyond war footage programs and space documentaries on the History channel. But he filed away as much as he could, with the announcement of a forthcoming gala being the most tantalizing prospect.

The archway was a sight to behold. The pictures on the internet didn’t do it justice in the least, at least from Charles’ perspective. A casual survey of the stoned behemoth was meant to ingrain specific details for a future drawing, but Charles was stumped as to where to go from there. He stood quietly and pulled a half-hearted frown into his right cheek before feeling Kelyn tugging at his shirt. She was beckoning him to join her down a nearby, overrun trail which looked no fun at all for a guy with dress shoes on. A quick study of her eyes, however, would widen his own with dawning revelation. He had seen that look before. Kelyn was on to something, and he’d be wise to follow without hesitation.

The path through the ravine was inconvenient at best. Thorny bushes kept sweeping across his calves, drawing lines of red irritation through his tailored pants. A low-hanging branch almost knocked him on his ass, and an insect flew right into his mouth, prompting a spitting fit. It wasn’t too long, though, before Kelyn would abruptly stop in her tracks, seemingly to signal the end of their journey.

A few moments later, Charles would huff-and-puff himself beside Kelyn’s side once more. A quick study of her face seemed to suggest that she some kind of daze or trance. Charles would gently turn her by the shoulders and lock his eyes upon hers.

“I’m going in first. If things get hairy in there, get the hell out. I’ll be right behind you.”

A few grunts and groans later, the stones were moved and they were inside the cave. Charles had to squat down a bit just to fit himself through, but the interior quickly accommodated his height. The passage inside seemed naturally made but oddly symmetrical. A pothole filled with water caught Charles’ shoe after a few steps, prompting an echoed curse before he turned back towards Kelyn.

“Watch your step,” he advised before trudging forward.

Minutes would pass as the pair of detectives pressed forward for whatever awaited them. The guidance of the light from the entrance was quickly losing its influence against the swallowing darkness. Their trajectory was mostly straight, however, encouraging Charles’ and Kelyn’s chances in case they needed to make a quick getaway.

Finally, just as it seemed they were fully immersed in murky blackness, slivers of leftover light would trickle against the edges of a spherical room and the items within it. An altar, the features of which could hardly be discerned… a cauldron which seemed to be rusted through from either side… and a small, circular trinket with a spiral design. Charles would shift and allow Kelyn room to observe the items for herself.

“Well, it looks like we’ve found something, finally. What are your first impressions, Agent Kelyn?”

It took some ducking and squeezing to get through passageway and Kelyn felt a little odd standing by while the gallant Agent Brock moved the stones and put himself to the hazard for her protection. It wasn’t something she was used to and she wasn’t sure how she felt about it.

It didn’t matter though for once she ducked inside, everything changed.

It was dark, damp, and musty and as the pair pressed forward, at times stooped so as not to hit their heads and at other times basking in sweeping open spaces, they followed the simple and generally straight trail to its end.

It was very dark here, the meager light offering little in the way of details, but Kelyn’s eyes narrowed in the gloom.

Was that a…

She pulled out her phone and flipped on the flashlight, illuminating the ancient place with the bright and modern light.

The altar, the cauldron, the triskellion.

She lowered the phone slowly, throwing everything into sharp relief. The feel of the place.

The smell!

“Do you smell salt water?” It did, the aroma of seaweed and old fish, of salty sea breezes on the stale air. “We are too far from the coast but I smell it.”

It wasn’t all Kelyn was aware of but how could she explain the sensation pulling her to the altar, the glow lighting it with a dull blue phosphorescence.

“That is a triskelion, a symbol most often used in ancient druidic traditions. Considering the history, the area, the cave and the other artifacts, it makes sense. This could easily have been sacred place of worship for the ancient druids. Kelyn crept forward slowly, flashing the light pouring from her phone along the various items and artifacts.

She moved among the artifacts, careful not to touch anything. The smell was stronger here and completely at odds with the dank smell of the cave.

Kelyn stared down at the altar, then leaned in close. “Come look at this.” The altar was covered with mossy overgrowth except for a strangely shaped hole in the center where the moss was much thinner.

“I think there was something on this altar, which is obviously no longer here. I think this cave was a sacred place to the druids who may have left an artifact here and I think said artifact is now missing.

“How that ties into the disappearances I don’t know, but the solstices are very important to the druidic tradition.”

She rose, shining the light about.

Was that a shadow at the entrance?

The overwhelming smell of rotting fish, low tide, and fishing wharf washed over them.

The shadow spun and bolted, racing along the entrance.

“Stop!” Kelyn howled, leaping over the jutting rocks and slipping on the damp floor, her flashlight jumping and bobbing after the perpetrator.

The shadow disappeared through the brilliant sunlight at the end of the tunnel and then, to her horror, the light began to disappear.

A sharp rumble sliced through their world and all at once, the tunnel’s mouth collapsed, raining pebbles and boulders and dust. Kelyn threw her arms over her head, skittering to a stop before the pile of rocks.


No no no…

Charles was relieved that the dark would mask the look of his eyes glazing over at Kelyn’s explanation. Triskellion? Druidic traditions? He applied a colossal effort towards applying the information towards their clues thus far, but was mostly at a loss. At the same time, he was pleased that Kelyn retained such knowledge and was ready to utilize it when the opportunity presented itself. He scrambled across the confines of his mind to search for a question or comment that would serve to prove he was at least within Kelyn’s time zone of understanding.

Then things happened, fast. Much too fast.

Charles was slow to react and would only be turning his body as Kelyn’s flashlight slid and scraped across the rocky floor. He caught a glimpse of the shadowy character at the entrance, but only a glimpse before things went to hell in a handbasket. The unmistakable sound of rocks collapsing in upon themselves could be heard in the near distance before… silence. A tip-top-topping stone or two would drive the point of their predicament home. The pair of detectives were trapped.

Action always spoke louder than words in Charles’ mind, prompting his stride towards the entrance after helping Kelyn to her feet without any verbalized concerns. He’d near the pile of rocks that divided he and Kelyn from freedom before pulling out his ancient Razr phone to find that there was no reception. No bars. None.

Then, he was reminded of something, and managed a half-hearted smile. Could Charles play the hero again and impress Kelyn to the point of infatuation?

He had brought a signal-amplifying device which was purchased through ebay, $2.69 plus shipping, mailed via e-packet from China. His doubts about Ireland’s cell-tower capabilities had given him the foresight to bring it along for their exploits within the country, and it was now sitting in his pocket.

Untwist, discard. Twist, snap. Now hold up your stegosaurus phone as high as you can, Chuck… and let’s see.

Moments passed without any signal reception. Then moments more. Disappointment was now escalating towards despair.

Alternative possibilities began their climb to the forefront of Charles’ mind. They could perhaps begin the process of moving rocks and carving their way out, but such a process was likely to take hours upon hours. All the while, they would be eating up oxygen which was likely a precious resource, to be conserved at all costs.

Charles would walk dejectedly back towards Kelyn, only finding her by the sound of her breath. “I think we’re stuck,” he’d say with a hang of his head.

Soon after he said those dejected words, however, he was hard at work navigating himself around the altar room with his hand on the wall as a guide. Slow but sure footsteps would make the full circle around before he found himself before Kelyn again. No signs of a trap door or secret room were to be had.

“Well, at least if the cave paintings suck in here, we won’t know the difference.” Charles’ humor was likely lost on Kelyn but he felt the need to interject some lightheartedness into an otherwise dire situation.

Charles made his rounds in the altar room once more after a short while passed. Perhaps there was something he missed the first time, perhaps a switch or lever or…

The sound of running water?

Indeed, the faint sound of water could be heard from the northeastern corner of the room. Charles pressed his ear against the wall and was possessed to bang his fists against it as well.

“I think I hear something! I hear—“

Then things went to hell in a handbasket once more. Charles wasn’t ready for a portion of the wall to collapse inward a few feet, revealing an opening in the floor which he fell into without the slightest moment to prepare himself. A few loud thud sounds could be heard before a large splash preceded a return into relative quiet. Kelyn would find Charles in what appeared to be a nearby sewage tunnel with a rather large gash across the top of his head as he clasped his ankle in pain.

“I think I found our way out of here,” he groaned with a wrinkled nose and gnashing teeth.

Her breath came fast, her body tensed. Trapped.

Oh god.

She was back in that cheap hotel room, a pair of beds, the covers stained and threadbare. The clunky tv played Disney cartoons over and over, the cheerful theme song skittering over fast food wrappers and cold french fries.


Hands found her in the darkness, pulling her to standing and suddenly Kelyn was back in the cave.

In Ireland.

With Charles.

She crouched down, clamoring around for her cell phone and brought the flashlight to bear, illuminating tiny wedges of the cave one at a time.

There was a moment of hope, the signal-amplifying device torn from its packaging, such a modern device in such an ancient place. But… nothing.

She tried it on her phone, a slicker and far newer model, but there was no luck.

They were trapped.

Charles moved away and Kelyn faced down the pile of rocks.

There was no way of knowing how deep the cave in, how far from the entrance, but the lack of light creeping through the various cracks and wedges was not promising.

Kelyn had already seen the rest of the cave. She had looked. There were no secret passages, no hidden exits.

Which meant she had to do it.

Kelyn clenched her eyes shut against the darkness.

He wouldn’t understand.

He wasn’t ready.

Hell, she wasn’t ready, but there was no denying at this point. And there was no other escape.

He would look at her… that way, but it was better than starving to death. No one knew where they were. It would take days for his superiors to realize he was missing, even longer to mount a search party and then what? They would methodically search… Ireland?

No, the only way out was the way they came and that meant…

It meant…

She heard the pound of fist against wall, his words barely discernable and then the sound of shattering rock, a portion of the wall tumbling once more. Kelyn threw her arms over her head, fearful of another cave in and stumbled her way towards the sound, towards his voice.

“Charles?!” There was concern in her tone, clear and strident.

The smell hit her first and Kelyn skidded to a halt before the gaping mouth, the sound of flowing liquids echoing throughout the darkened expanse.



Kelyn pulled a face, but was silently relieved. Flashing the light through the hole, she pinned Charles with the beam, the blood on his forehead black in the odd light. She turned the flashlight off but left the phone with its screen illumination to cast a far weaker light.

He was holding his ankle. Shit.


Flowing on either side of him.

Training took over. Clean and bind in a toxic environment. Kelyn stepped cautiously through the gaping hole, sliding her cell phone into the space between her breasts to keep her hands free.

Useful storage space.

The smell was worse – something she should have assumed but couldn’t have prepared for. The scent whirled around her, making her momentarily nauseous. Her pack was in the car – that was stupid – and so were all her supplies. Kelyn crouched before Charles, pulling the hem of her shirt and tore it, the sound lost beneath the rush of liquid and solid waste.

Don’t overthink.

She tore the piece into two halves. The first she folded into a thick wad of fabric and leaned forward to press it carefully against the gash across his forehead. The light illuminated the pair at odd angles, carving the hollow at her cheek, her throat, the oddest highlights in her hair. She pressed the makeshift bandage against the wound, then took the other strip and tied it about his head to hold the bandage in place.

It looked ridiculous, but it did its job.

“Are you alright?” she questioned softly, glancing toward his ankle. She had to twist her body so the light followed, casting his injured limb in its light. She didn’t see any open wounds, which – considering the proximity to the waste – was one good thing.


Everything was in her pack which was in the car.

Damn it.

“We don’t have a choice,” she offered calmly, helping the man to standing and sliding beneath his arm to help keep him steady. Between the ankle and the head wound, she was worried he would pitch face first into the ankle deep sewage.

She felt soft yet steady against his side, her own arm around his back and hooking his opposite shoulder. Like a flowing stream, constant and relentless. Gentle yet oddly strong.
They had to move forward.

Step by slow and tortuous step they moved away from the cave and along the tunnel. Smaller pipes joined to the larger main, the flow creeping higher and higher until they were calf deep, knee deep.

And they thought combing through a week old dumpster was bad. Kelyn breathed through clenched teeth, her nose blatantly refusing any other option. The ground grew all the more precarious, the coating of waste making every step slippery. More then once they almost slipped and more than once, it was only the stable wedge their bodies created that kept them standing.

She was so focused, eyes forward and constant, one steady step after another, but every once and awhile, she would look up to him, cellphone light, showing a mixture of determination and concern across her features.

They trudged for what felt like hours, days, the featureless interior of the sewer main broken only by the occasional additional pipe, the sewage creeping all the higher and no end in sight. Waste splashed and splattered, soaking their clothing and filling their shoes. Kelyn felt infused by it, soaked through until she was sure she would never be clean again.

How far could this pipe go?

Where did it possibly empty and how could they not see any hint of light?

Her back ached from her slightly hunched position, her leg muscles burning from constantly fighting for stable ground.

It was the first tendrils of fresh air that brought Kelyn to a halt, her breath catching and suddenly hopeful. Bad idea. The stench rushed in and she gagged, swallowing acid.

There was literally no light at the end of this tunnel because night had fallen.

They trudged for what felt like another half an hour before the pipe opened, the sewage tumbling into a massive vat before heading for treatment.

To the left, were the sewage sped up before tumbling into the vat, a rickety and rusted ladder promised escape.

A ladder.

Kelyn glanced to Charles’s injured ankle, hidden beneath the flow of sewage.

Navigating cautiously to the ladder was hard. She wanted to spring forward, to be done with this feces-encrusted nightmare but one wrong step could send them both into that vat and Kelyn couldn’t imagine worse than that.

Closing the distance to the ladder took them ten minutes and when Kelyn grabbed the rungs, she felt a rush of relief.

Almost over.

It was almost over.

“You should go first… just in case.”

Retrospectively, Charles’ own reflexive reactions during dire situations were amusing to him on a subconscious level. He often recalled the time a few years back when he was cornered in a warehouse by two suspects wielding automatic rifles. Despite his critical situation, Charles felt as though he had an out-of-body experience of sorts, as if he was watching himself play a role in a movie… one where the good guys always won, no matter how much trouble they find themselves in. And somehow, some way, he did win, weaving through stacks of boxes and rounding corners at just the right times to turn the tables on his pursuers.

And now, even as the crumbling wall and floor sent Charles tumbling towards a debilitating injury or worse, his detective mindset was hard at work. Ah ha. So this was the joker’s back door out of here, should he ever get cornered within his creepy abode. I guess the thought of escaping through a thick pile of crap isn’t appetizing, but I’m sure it beats getting arrested for multiple counts of kidnapping. His unflappable analysis, however, would eventually give way to the pain of his turned ankle and the throbbing cut of his forehead. A sobering acknowledgement of his situation would seep into his mind all at once.

Oh, shit. I’m actually in shit.

Charles was pretty sure his ankle wasn’t broken, but it hurt like hell all the same. A trickling bead of blood found its way from his forehead to his left eye, forcing it shut. He was a mess, flowing shit-stream notwithstanding. The urge to force himself up with soldier-esque bravado was tempered by a sudden bout of exhaustion as his body processed the extent of his injuries with pulses of pain.

Kelyn would rush to his aid and finally get him back to his feet after a series of maneuvers within the shit-slop. They had found their way to freedom, but they weren’t out of the woods yet… or more accurately, out of the pipe. Charles tried extremely hard to refrain from any humor regarding the ridiculousness of their situation, but the occasional glance towards Kelyn’s ruggedly determined eyes suggested that she wouldn’t have heard him anyway.

Every step along their route would shoot a miserably intense, stinging sensation from Charles’ ankle throughout the rest of his body. Charles, however, simply refused to show any signs of discomfort and scrunched his facial features in an attempt to dull out the pain. Their journey was long and arduous, but the pair of detectives would eventually be rewarded for their persistence. A ladder offered itself as a beacon of freedom, teasing Charles and Kelyn with its vertical ascension.  

Charles nodded at Kelyn’s suggestion that he go first. He would climb the ladder with a series of ‘hops’ upon its rungs – neglecting to apply any real pressure on his bum ankle. He scaled it after an agonizingly long period of time, finally reaching the top to muster his strength against what appeared to be a manhole cover. Another long series of grunts would be heard before a trickle of light seeped down towards Kelyn’s eyes from the world above.

It would be another series of carefully-executed maneuvers until Charles found himself on the surface. A few heavy pants of exhaustion would precede a survey of his surroundings. It seemed as though he was in the middle of a desolate street with dusk close at hand, but a look to his left revealed a gas station within yelling distance. There was someone filling up on gas, seemingly unaware of the shit-covered stranger which had climbed his way to freedom.

“Sir! Sir!” Charles called with a strained voice, stumbling to his feet. “I’m with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and we need to commandeer your vehicle at once to aid our pursuit of a suspect.”

The man reacted adversely to the sight of Charles, widening his eyes before climbing into his car and speeding away with a screech of his tires.

“God damn it,” Charles sneered, but his voice lacked any real disappointment. He recognized the inherent silliness of his demands and shrugged off the setback. A payphone booth was visible, but certainly no sane cab driver would accept a pair of feces-covered detectives in his back seat, would he?

Then Charles saw it. A self-serve car wash, attached to the side of the gas station.

“Get up here, Kelyn!” he yelled down below into the sewer with renewed vigor. “It’s time to get cleaned up and on our way.”

Of all the things she expected, hearing Charles’s more upbeat call which tumbled down the ladder into the darkness that surrounded her was not one of them.

Exhausted, her back and arms and legs aching, Kelyn hauled herself up the ladder. It was only in this moment, while he waited above and she was alone in the wafting stench and darkness that she allowed herself to feel the frustration, the fear, the disgust and the anger.

Five rungs to go.

This was a literal nightmare, wading through untreated sewage.

Four rungs.

Hauling the pair of them through various tunnels for hours.

Three rungs.

The fear when the cave collapsed. The memory of a room, all pale gray stone. Locked in at night in a ten by ten cell.

Two rungs.

The cheap hotel room, too short to reach up and flip open the safety lock, even standing on a chair, her tiny child’s fingers reaching… reaching.

One rung.

Fire all around her, staring out the window to see her mother, clutching her baby brother, her expression horrified.

Kelyn emerged from the hole in the ground and hauled herself onto the empty roadway.

She took two breaths, one to clear her nose of the stench that had infused her and the other to clear the rush and clatter of memory.

Then she rose to stand at Charles’s side, watching sardonically as the driver all but peeled away.

Well, she didn’t thinks he would have stopped either.

The gas station was a welcome sight and Kelyn helped Charles towards it, digging through her pants to find a couple dollars.

But the symbol on the money slot of the carwash didn’t say dollars, it said euros.

Of course it did.

And the euros were in the car.

Along with everything helpful or useful or necessary in their lives.

“I have to change some money. I’ll be right back.”

She left Charles sitting at the curb and stepped into the gas station.

The smell of air freshener and the bright fluorescent light seemed almost alien after so long in the sewage.

The clerk, a young man about her age glanced up as she approached, grinned softly at her, and then was hit by the smell.

His eyes actually watered and he slid back a bit.

“Canna help you?” he questioned tightly.

“A first aid kit, some beef jerky, two bottles of water, and enough change for the car wash. Do you take Visa?”

There was one thing on their side, the card went through with no issues and Kelyn sprawled her signature across the digital pad, took the plastic bag with the items, the little thermal paper that gave her the carwash code and returned to Charles.

She was thirsty and hungry.

She needed to see to his head wound and likely splint or at least wrap his ankle…

…but if she was this filthy for one more second, she would loose it utterly. Kelyn laid the bag down on the curb beside the car wash, placing her phone (and his) in the bag, then tucked it in the bushes.

She punched in the code, pushed a few buttons, and the water came streaming out.

Clean water.

She wanted to run to it.

To drown herself in it.

Instead, she helped Charles stand and the pair of them moved cautiously across the slippery blue tile.

The water was chilly bliss and while she only intended to rinse off her legs, Kelyn couldn’t get the smell off her. Too much waste had splattered her entire body. She ended up drenching herself, soaked from head to toe, her hair hanging in dripping scythes, her long sleeves shirt clinging to arms and shoulder and chest and waist like a tired child.

It was chilly.

She didn’t care.

The water tasted of chemicals.

She didn’t care.

Kelyn washed herself and helped Charles in whatever way he needed – whether he wanted only his legs washed or wanted to drench himself as she had.

Again and again, she soaked herself, unable to get the feeling of slime and dirt and waste off her.

The water turned off before she was done, but then, she would have stood under it for hours if she was able to, certain she wasn’t clean.

In the end, she settled him back on the curb, both of them as clean as they could get given the circumstances, sat dripping beside him, and offered him a water bottle.

“Well… that sucked,” she offered softly, gulping down half the bottle before tearing into one of the sticks of jerky. It was awful stuff, salty and chewy, but it was high protein and would get them through until they made it back to the hotel and could get some real food.

Once she wasn’t dying of thirst and her stomach temporarily satiated, she pulled out the first aid kit.

His ankle wasn’t going anywhere, so with cell phone flashlight in hand, she knelt on the roadway beside him, dusk falling to darkness around them and checked his head wound.

Nasty gash, bleeder – all head wounds are – and she leaned carefully close to him, cleaning it gently.

It was as if they each offered up a slightly magnetized field and coming within a certain proximity triggered the reaction: this close, a soft flutter of electricity rushed from the back of her neck, skittering down her spine and out to her arms. She shuddered softly (from the cold – naturally) but her hands were steady.

The isopropyl alcohol stung something fierce, but she had to make sure the wound was clean. More than once she whispered a soft ‘sorry.’

More than once, she glanced down to him, but this close, she couldn’t hold his gaze for more than an instant, that magnetism, that electricity pulsing through her, as if in time to a steady if rapid heartbeat.

And just barely, as if in the distance, that deep thrumming bass began.

Kelyn actually started when she heard it, seeming utterly shocked. It was the first time he had ever witness her acknowledging the sound.

She paused for a moment, her fingers curling into fists to clench and then unclench. When she leaned forward again, the bass rumble was gone.

He was so close, if he turned his head just a bit, his cheek would brush her collarbone, and she could feel the gentle heat coming off his body.

She was so cold.

He was so warm.

Again that skitter of sensation, of electricity.

Kelyn crushed it ruthlessly.

She gently pressed the edges of the gash together and laid a trio of steri-strips to bridge the distance.

“All set,” she offered softly, her eyes meeting his again, her own exhausted features just inches from his.

The heat, the electricity spiked and Kelyn drew a long, soft, and breathless gasp.

One instant.

That was all she could risk.

She broke away, kneeling to sit on her ankles, her fingers soft on his leg. She carefully pulled off his soaked shoe, his soaked sock.

There was something oddly intimate about the gesture, though there was nothing intimate about the circumstances and again that soft shudder raced through her.

Kelyn showed none of it, the absolute professional.

In fact, she moved so cleanly, so confidently, and yet so carefully, it begged the question if she had medical training.

She checked his ankle gently, prodding here and there, and though it was moderately swollen, there were no black and blue marks. She could check it more once they were safely ensconced in their room.

Splint it.

Wrap it.

Get to the car.

Get to the hotel.

She repeated the mantra over and over as she pulled a pair of oversized and thickened popsicle sticks and with the ace bandage she wrapped his ankle until he couldn’t flex or extend it.

It actually felt better.

Once done, Kelyn settled on the curb again, a careful distance between them. She pulled out her phone, launched Uber and requested a cab.

“Ten minutes,” she offered softly, taking another swig of water. There was a moment of silence before she offered. “That was pretty Indy Jones of you, crashing through the wall like that. I might have preferred the big ass boulder though… for next time.”

Bag and Tag

■ My submissions  

■ Partner’s submissions

The ghost town of Bretham stood as a dilapidated monument of wells, wagons and dusk-lit showdowns. A convoy of jeeps—camouflaged with military patterns of beiges and ochres—approached from the west, traversing a forgotten road which carved through a sun-bleached desert that stretched for miles in every direction. Sergeant Brock sat quietly amongst a row of soldiers flanking him on either side within the canopied bed of the foremost jeep. His nose twitched as he sensed the transmission shifting down a gear—the objective in question was close at hand. He was rarely nervous during routine Bag-and-Tag operations, but his recent promotion was a game-changer, potentially setting the groundwork for a high-ranking government position in the future. An entire platoon was now under his command, and beads of sweat jostled upon his brow in accordance with the heavy bumps of the road. With a heavy exhale, he forced his mind to wander. His thoughts routinely drifted towards his small circles, and those circles almost always seemed to involve Jordan.

It was just a week’s time before their mandatory deployment to the Dravouth campaign, and Jordan had the bright idea of visiting the Claim Exchange as a sort of motivator to ensure their safe return. Jordan flashed his infectiously toothy grin at Charles as they casually strolled beside the gallery of Braces which were presented behind a vertical plate of one-way glass at the Claim Exchange. “Braces”—improvised vernacular for breeding sows—were prisoners volunteered for the various propagation programs that were offered to long-tenured soldiers.

There was never any shortage of Braces to choose from, since that was the only recourse for female captives to avoid relentless propaganda and sixty-hour workweeks at the Reeducation Camps. One particular prospect stopped Jordan dead in his tracks, and he’d approach the glass with hungry eyes while folding his arms behind his back. “I’ll be having one of those firecrotches under my thumb and in my bed every night after our dues are paid, Chaz. Just you watch.” Redheads always seemed to make him giddy, prompting him to jot the Claim number for each within the small black notebook that he always kept in his back pocket.

The odds of a soldier obtaining his number one choice were very low, of course, since Officers and MPs always enjoyed first selections, but it seemed any redhead would do for ol’ Jordy. He was a horny bastard, in spite of the mandatory anaphrodisial injections for enlisted soldiers, and this was always a topic of jest exploited by friends and foes alike. “I’ll never be doused,” Jordan would boast with an exaggerated wink worthy of a Warner Brothers cartoon. “Let it be known to every man, woman and child that I like to fuck.” Charles had a new set of responsibilities to uphold, since he was now an Officer in training, but he volunteered for the injections anyways. It was implied that claiming a Brace could hinder your chances at promotion, so he fulfilled his infrequent needs at the local whorehouses which were common on the outskirts of the barracks.

“Let it be known to every man, woman and child that I like to fuck.” Well, maybe just the women, Jordan might add as a humorous addendum, if he had it to say all over again. He was dead now, claimed by an artillery round fired from an insurgent’s bunker. It wasn’t until after he saw Jordan’s name flash across the KIA marquee in his visor that Charles realized that Jordan was his best friend… maybe the only real friend he had. Ol’ Jordy, who could make dead babies funny. Maybe there was a personal bordello of redheads waiting for him in heaven.

Charles took it upon himself to inform Jordan’s family of the tragedy. As gray streaks of light from nearby window blinds slid across his face, he barely mustered the news with a gravelly, dust-choked voice. Jordan’s father and mother sat stunned, but Jordan’s sister Andrea took it the hardest. There was yelling and screaming before she bolted out of the house, tears streaming down her cheeks. Andrea’s name was mentioned during a missing person’s broadcast a week later. A year after that, his parents were suspected to be rebel conspirators, tried, and hanged. It seemed that Jordy’s death would magnify its own misfortune tenfold in its wake.

Charles’s mind snapped back just as the jeep’s hatch swung open. Soldiers filed out and quickly claimed strategic advantages throughout the perimeter, reacting to Charles’ hand-gestured commands without hesitation.

Colonel Emmerson was already at work with his bullhorn, barking threats and ultimatums through a mechanical screech which seemed to disturb lines of dust from windowsills. “Attention, attention. This area is now under State control. Any insurgents are to surrender themselves immediately or risk being fired upon.” It wasn’t long until a response echoed between the rows of buildings which flanked the main street. Scattered pops from small arms were soon followed by sputterings of machine gun fire. Well, well,Charles thought to himself as he rushed for cover with the click-clack-click of ammunition belts on dust-colored fatigues. It would seem that intelligence was right about this one, after all.

All in all, it was a successful, if not dull operation to claim under his belt. Eight rebels were killed and another six were apprehended…in total, ten men, three women and a child, with no internal losses or injuries. Once they were rounded up and carted away, Colonel Emmerson assigned Charles and three other soldiers clean-up duty and final inspection as the rest of the platoon pushed onwards towards the rendezvous point. It was a duty which he hated, but he’d grit his teeth and take it. He was platoon leader, after all. The trio of grunts would engage in small talk as they dragged bodies out into the open street, but Charles quickly grew bored of supervising, letting his curiosity pull him away towards the opposite end of town.

The saloon offered a decent amount of shade from the relentless afternoon sun, and Charles would naturally roam around with curious eyes at the timeless relics which seemed to beg his attention. There was an upstairs floor, so he slowly climbed the creaky steps to investigate what it had to offer. One particular room caught his attention, as it offered a particularly deep recess of shadow, so he slowly approached the doorframe to enforce his position before taking a sideways lean for a look inside.

The sound of a shuffle would surprise him into immediate action. “You there!” Charles barked, readying his rifle towards a pair of legs emerging from a shadow in the corner of the room. “Hands up, now! Comply at once or…” The spotlight on his weapon revealed a pair of terrified eyes which quickly locked themselves upon his own. “Andrea?” Charles asked with an incredulous whisper as he lowered his gun to the floor.

Andrea is a placeholder name. Feel free to PM if you’d like me to change it. I intended your character to be feisty and strong-willed, at least in the beginning, despite her obvious disadvantage. She’d be taken as a Brace (after some red tape, of course) by Charles and the story would develop from there. I know this intro is fairly long, but I wouldn’t expect our responses to be nearly as intensive from this point forward. As always, I’m open to any other ideas you might have. Have fun!

In a message dated 5/4/2016 11:22:33 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

((Here we go.  I hope it’s good enough for your enjoyment.  I’m still feeling out a bit of the setting, so my quality will likely go up as I get a better feel for the character.))

She should have waited another hour.  Waited until it was fully dark, even.  The room’s secret little panic room was crowded and stuffy and uncomfortable, but at least it was relatively safe.  Nope, she had been lured out by the sounds of those military trucks leaving, baiting her into thinking it was safe to get moving again.

That was what Elise had been reduced to these days.  Not really part of one world or the other, but a shattered soul running around trying to avoid oblivion after her entire way of life had fallen apart.  Running, ever running.  Her brother, dead in the line of ‘duty’.  Her parents, labeled as traitors and murdered by the State.  Elise knew what that would mean if she was ever caught.  Guilty by association.  Whether she was a rebel or not in truth, she’d be considered one by the oppressive regime and treated as such.

Truthfully, she was tempted.  Tempted to join the rebels who fought back against a State that seemed ever more determined to stomp its own people out under its heel, when they dared to voice an opinion that wasn’t sanctioned or ‘correct’.  It wasn’t right.  It couldn’t be right.  Wasn’t humanity stronger when it listened to a plethora of different ideas, and discussed them like rational beings?

That was what those rebels she had met had been saying, had been asking, and it made sense.  Elise hadn’t committed to much of anything yet, because it was all so big, so over her head.  What could SHE really do?  On the other hand… she knew she was already damned in the eyes of the State.  No matter what she chose to do, she’d be tried and murdered if they ever got ahold of her.  That in and of itself was almost enough to decide her.  If you already carry a label to those in power, why not just grab the bull by the horns?

But now, it seemed like she’d not be given the chance to even make up her mind which side she was on, because her own moment of stupidity and flight response had led to now.  And now was a soldier’s booming voice calling out for her to stop and comply, as she’d been creeping from the panic room and across the room above the saloon, intending to be on her way before more soldiers arrived.

Her jaw clenched as the bright light of the spotlight splashed across her face, caught between terror and indignant anger.  She’d heard the trucks leave!  It should have been safe now!  Her emerald green eyes flashed as without realizing it, her chin rose a bit in almost a defiant arrogance.  Their fault.  Always making her run, flee, and fear for her life.  And then they had the audacity to trick her too.

Standing there in the dark room, highlighted only by the dimming light from the single covered window and now the spotlight of Charles’ weapon, Elise was a rather sorry sight.  When he’d met her briefly during his excursion to inform Jordy’s family of his death, Elise had been a very pretty young woman in her early twenties.  Long luxurious mahogany brown hair, sparkling green eyes, and an hourglass figure that was equal parts voluptuous with feminine curves and delicate in bone structure, standing an elegant five foot eight inches tall in bare feet.

Her year plus of disappearing off the grid had left her looking rather bedraggled.  That gorgeous long hair was now held back in a messy unwashed braid.  She’d lost weight, leaving her previously lovely natural curves somewhat diminished in the ragged utilitarian pants that cinched at her slender waist with an over-long belt.  The long-sleeved shirt she wore had a rip in the side that exposed a hint of too-thin ribcage, the sleeves rolled up to her elbows to keep them out of her way. 

And as she took a small step to the side, trying to put a table between herself and her aggressor, the thud of tread on the floor was telling that she was wearing sensible hiking boots.  Her hand, trembling hard, was tugging at the pistol she had stuffed in the wrapping of her belt.  Didn’t really know how to use it, but somewhere along the line she’d picked it up and it had worked wonders as a deterrent against less-desirable elements.

The fumbling half-draw of her weapon stopped short when she heard the surprised whisper from the soldier in the doorway crossing the dim gloom of the room.  Was that… had he said her name?  Emerald eyes squinted in the dim, but she was unable to really see past the lingering dots and dimples the spotlight had left clinging to her retinas when the man had shone the light into her darkness-adjusted eyes.

She couldn’t really see him, still half-blinded.  But she could somewhat tell that he had lowered his weapon, which didn’t make sense.  Soldiers just loved to point their weapons around directly at people.

“How do you know my name?”  Her voice echoed across the space between them, the same rich smoky tone he’d remember from so long ago.  Deeper than a typical female, a touch throaty but still exquisitely feminine.  And it only trembled ever so slightly, despite how badly frightened she was.  A show of strength.  Fuck him.  Maybe she could figure all this out.

A shift to bend her knees slightly, trying to let the table between them disguise the way she was once more trying to get her pistol free of the belt that held it.  Was the damned thing even loaded?  She couldn’t remember.

In a message dated 5/9/2016 10:58:59 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

(sorry for being a day and a half late, but here we go. I hope you’re still interested in pursuing this!)

An overlapping jumble of considerations flooded Charles’ mind as the situation unfolded before him. One of which being… if he was forced to kill the stray before him, then he most likely would have to write a lengthy report regarding the incident and submit it to Tactical Affairs for procedural analysis. He presumed that the prospect of losing half your next day off to paperwork was the State’s half-assed deterrent for the average soldier with an itchy trigger finger. His hopes were high that Elise would simply submit herself into custody without a struggle. His report to Colonel Emmerson could be sweet and succinct, and life could go on without a hitch after she was detained and carted away.

There was also the fact that Charles tried very hard to be a decent human being, of course. There were inherent limitations to when and how he could apply his generosity, but sparing lives whenever possible helped Charles to sleep better at night. His experience was that if the right peacekeeping tactics were properly implemented, killing could be avoided in the majority of close encounters. This would be the first time in Charles’ line of duty that he had an exchange with someone he actually knew, which strengthened his hope that no rounds would be fired between them.

“You’re Jordan’s sister, aren’t you?” Charles’ voice was human now, losing its mechanical harshness after he deactivated the built-in amplifier in his helmet’s mouthpiece. The bio readings on Charles’ scouter read that Elise was malnourished and weak, but otherwise healthy. He took a step forward into the room, allowing the light from outside the room to trickle contours of reflection along the various planes of his silhouetted armor. Charles stood tall, well past six feet, with his eyes offering no reflection from the available light, suggesting that they were a deep brown. A small tuft of black hair jutted from underneath the open visor of his helmet, a juvenile peculiarity to an otherwise imposing presence of armor and weaponry.

“Listen, I don’t know if you’re with the rebels or not, but I’m technically supposed to terminate you due to your lack of compliance from the earlier ultimatum.” Charles hoped that his tone suggested a preference against any bloodshed, but tact wasn’t his strongest suit… and as his words lingered in the air for an awkward moment, regret quickly set into his mind. He actively fought against his first instinct, which was to ask Elise a slew of questions and hopefully receive a slew of answers. There was no going back now, but perhaps he could reconcile the situation another way.

“I’m going to leave this building now.” There was a noticeable shift in Charles’ voice, as if he was beginning a set of instructions. “I will rejoin my men outside and mention nothing of our encounter. Wait five minutes, then head outside and walk towards us slowly, with your hands behind your head. I’ll apprehend you and see to it that you’re treated as fairly as possible.”

He took one more moment to scan Elise from head to toe before turning to honor his end of the bargain. Before fully disappearing through the doorframe, however, he paused and glanced back at her. “If I don’t see you in five minutes,” Charles warned, the soldier returning in his voice, “then I’ll hunt you down and kill you.”

In a message dated 5/10/2016 7:46:12 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

Fingertips slid over the handle of the pistol that may or may not be loaded as Elise tried to ease it slowly from the makeshift holster for which her belt was currently acting.  The table was shitty cover, but she certainly wasn’t going to stand there and be gunned down like a helpless animal.  If she went out, she wanted to face the afterlife being able to say she at least tried to save herself.

But all movement stopped, and her breath was held as the amplifier on the soldier’s mouthpiece was shut down, rendering his speech far closer to that of an actual living, breathing human.  It was so easy to forget the soldiers were men when their voices were mechanical and loud and booming with small cracks of static.  So easy to think of them as merciless machines of death and oppression.

His question reached her as he took a step into the room, Elise reflexively taking an answering step backwards without even consciously thinking about it.  Her hip bumped into the edge of an end table and she winced slightly, but didn’t take her eyes off the man who had just sparked a small flash of recognition in her memory banks by using her brother’s name.  Did she know this guy?

Her gaze narrowed in both suspicion and attempt to make out the man’s features as her thoughts ran quickly through possibilities. Who the hell had Jordy known that would also know her, and was a soldier to boot?  She’d never met any of his soldier friends.  A moment later, even as the guy continued to speak, throwing out a sort of veiled threat about proper ‘protocol’ for finding her?  It clicked for her.

He must be the one who had come to their house, who had told her parents about how their son was dead, about how she would never ever see her brother’s laughing face again.  It really wasn’t technically the messenger’s fault, and there were all sort of proverbs about not shooting the messenger, but right then Elise wanted to do it anyway.  She might have tried, if she could have been certain the damned weapon she had was loaded.

What was the guy’s name?  What was it?  She’s not exactly been in the best frame of mind when the news had been delivered, and names tended to be the first thing to flee her head in times of stress.  Carl?  Harley?  Charlie?  Even as her mind fumbled for the fragmented memory, she kept watching the man in utter silence.  Really, what the hell was she supposed to say?

“What?”  Popped out of her mouth before she could stop it, when Charles suddenly informed her he was going to leave the building.  Was he… going to let her go?  She didn’t even really notice the shift in the man’s tone in that moment, a sudden flare of hope swelling heat through her chest.  “Because… of Jordy…?”  The question that emerged breathily from her lips essentially answered Charles’ first question for him, and solved the mystery of her potential identity, even if she hadn’t really meant to be all that informative.  Hope softened her briefly, a quiet breath drawn into her lungs.

Then his real purpose for saying such a thing became crystal clear as he continued his ‘instructions’.  He wasn’t letting her go.  He was just allowing her the chance to get out of this alive and instead turn herself in… where a fresh sort of hell awaited her.  As hope died in her emerald eyes, Charles’ final look would see her body language shifting towards something harder, distant and insulted.  Her chin lifting in a prideful gesture as her back straightened ramrod straight.

His final warning was delivered, hard and cold as soldiers so often were, and Elise suppressed an urge to scream, launch herself at him and claw out his eyes.  Bastard.  Cold-hearted bastard.  He’d given her hope and then smashed it into pieces.  She HATED him.  Instead, she simply lashed out with words as he turned to go, her fiery temper that had always gotten her into trouble before shredding her better judgment. 

“What wonderful fucking choices.  Thank you soooooo much.”  Anger, disdain, fiery frustration flung at him as her hands curled into fists, though she held her ground like a snarling cornered cat… and had also entirely taken her hand away from that pistol at her waist.  “Any chance I can get some tea to go with my shackles?”

Shut up, Elise.  Shut up.  She knew she was being stupid, stupid and childish and was likely to end up with a bullet in her eye.   But she couldn’t manage to hold her goddamned tongue, though now she reined it in and just stared at him, waiting for him to actually leave.  Visibly shaking in her boots with the expectation of being gunned down for being a mouthy bitch, but determined to at least stare the fucker in the eye when he did it.

Leave.  Please let him just leave like he said he would. Then she could figure out what to do.  Captivity or death.  Which was preferable?  It was a hell of a thing to decide in less than five minutes.

((Enjoy!   If you can get a response to me sometime tonight, I can probably at least begin another reply of my own before I go to bed later tonight.))

—–Original Message—–
From: propagandapiece <>
To: TellingofTales <>
Sent: Tue, May 31, 2016 3:05 pm
Subject: Re: Post #3

Elise’s bitter sarcasm was hardly scathing; Charles had been subjected to much worse during previous military excursions. He wouldn’t actually kill her, of course, but the possibility remained that she’d be dragged kicking and screaming back to his outpost. Sometimes, acting like a hardened, blood-lusting warmonger was necessary to drive a point home. He could only hope that Elise would follow his instructions and choose surrender, if only to put him in the best position towards helping her make the most of her future.

He approached his squadron out in the dusty street as they were finishing the last tally of their corpse inventory. Their collective gaze upon their approaching commander was one of quiet curiosity, quickly alerting Charles that he was visibly reeling from his encounter with Elise. He obscured his wearied eyes and flushed face underneath a sheet of shadow with a casual tip of his helmet, and ordered for one last scan of the surrounding area before the final haul of bodies upon the bed of their canopied jeep.

Minutes passed. The soldiers were busy, and Charles kept scanning the area where he emerged from the saloon. His mind was pleading with fate regarding the eventual outcome of his tense exchange. Please, Elise. Make the right decision. I’m imploring you. Otherwise, I seriously cannot guarantee your safety. His loyalty to Jordan seemed to stretch from beyond his friend’s grave. Charles would not… could not have been as lenient with a stranger in that darkened room moments earlier. As the time limit approached and elapsed, Charles forced his gaze once more towards the bright orange streak which was hazing the horizon, hoping against hope that he’d find an approaching silhouette.

In a message dated 5/31/2016 9:27:50 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

As soon as Charles had left the room, Elise could feel the countdown starting.  Five minutes had never felt like such a long time, and paradoxically like no time at all.  The first thing she did once she knew he wouldn’t see was to drop to her knees and let her face fall into her hands.  A rock and a hard place.  That was now her life.  Capture or death.  There was no longer anything else she could aspire to achieve.  She had believed the soldier when he said he would hunt her down and kill her.  That was what soldiers did, especially those who worked for this regime.  Even if this one had known her brother, why should he be any different?

For the next minute, various possibilities ran through her head.  Thoughts of trying to flee anyway, a cycling of different strategems to try to make it work.  But it was fruitless.  Soldiers were still around the town, and she would be seen if she tried to slip away now.  She couldn’t stay here either, because Charles would just find her again.  Now that he knew her face, she might be put on a list of fugitives.  And being hunted like an animal was really not high on her list of things to do in this life.

The next minute was spent being absolutely enraged at the world.  The table was turned over and kicked soundly with the toe of her boot.  The wall was punched and a string of curse words escaped her lips that no proper lady should ever speak.  She was likely to have to control her fiery temper from here on out, so she might as well get it all out of her system now.  A loud crash as dishes went flying from the cupboard, smashing against the opposite wall, until Elise was left panting and breathless. 

Minute three had her preparing for her ordeal.  She was going to have dignity for it.  Screw them all.  She’d hold her head high and stare defiantly into every last pair of eyes who wanted to condemn her.  Water still ran in the kitchen area, so she took a few moments to wash her face.  The messy braid that kept her hair out of her face was quickly unraveled, and the long mahogany brown locks were brushed out as well as she could manage with her fingers.  They needed a good wash, but they hadn’t lost all of their shine.  A rough shake of her head let them spill more freely around her shoulders and down her back to their full length, which brushed just above the curve of her backside.  There was little she could do about her bedraggled clothing, so she didn’t bother.  The pistol (which upon inspection, did turn out to be empty and unloaded) was tossed across the room into the wall in her final act of temper.

Minute four had her descending the staircase of the building and walking out the front door into the failing light of the early evening.  Now that she had made up her mind, she did not drag her feet or draw it out.  Her head was held high, emerald eyes sparking with spirit and the promise that while they could capture her, they could not break her.

And as the fifth minute dawned, she appeared on the horizon that Charles was watching, walking with a stride that belied the way she was surrendering herself to capture.  She could have been prowling freely like a jungle cat in its domain for all the fear she showed.  One might almost think she was the predator here… until she came to a stop a short distance away, raised her hands and laced her fingers behind her head.  The fading sunlight caught in her dark tresses and almost gave her a halo as she remained where she was, and spoke firmly.

“I surrender.”

In a message dated 6/3/2016 7:14:23 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

(Again, sorry for the delay but at least you didn’t wait as long for this one. :))

Upon hearing Elise’s words, Charles quietly closed the distance between her stationary body and frisked her from head to toe. The soldiers, returning from their brief excursion around the perimeter of the town, had bewildered looks on their faces, possibly from the lack of Charles drawing his weapon as Elise approached. He’d wave them off after a satisfactory inspection before speaking. “This one is clean. Corporal Davenport, please get Emmerson on the horn so he can personally approve a direct transport to the camps.”

As the soldiers busied themselves once more with menial taskwork, Charles whispered into Elise’s ear while standing behind her. “Don’t worry. I’ll see to it that you are rerouted and processed at a recruitment depot, where we’ll explore our options. Take a deep breath and relax, we’ll be on the road soon.” Her smell, which caught his nostrils as he leaned in to utter his reassurance, was strangely alluring. Truth be told, he hadn’t been this close to a live woman in months. A juvenile part of his brain craved another frisk with more emphasis on particular parts of her body, which forced a slight smile upon his face. It was thoughts like these which he filed away as evidence that he was still human, at least for the most part.

Colonel Emmerson would arrive twenty minutes later on a jeep, flanked on three sides by soldiers who were obviously meant to shield him from any attempts on his life by snipers or shrapnel. He quickly jumped up and dismissed the grunts under Charles’ command before joining him and Elise in the middle of the street.

“Well, looks like you caught a fresh one there,” Emmerson began, smiling as he eyeballed Elise from top to bottom. “Good lookin’ one, too. Let’s take a closer look, hmm?” He gently seized her chin with his thumb and forefinger, guiding her face from left to right as he peeked in close on her features.

“Nothing obvious as far as viral infections… good, good. Open ‘er up, then.” He motioned for Elise to open her mouth and scanned top to bottom before humming his approval. “We’ll have a dentist take a profession look-see, but everything seems fine to me. Well then, friend. Shall I turn you over to the authorities as a criminal, my dear?”

Colonel Emmerson smiled at his own sudden inquiry with a focused gaze upon Elise’s face. Charles clasped her wrist firmly, a signal for her to keep her mouth shut. The silent moment which passed was likely delicious in Emmerson’s own demented mind.

“I’ll have my own favorite Commander make that call,” he finally snorted, shifting his eyes towards Charles behind her. “Cart her off and make sure she gets a Phase-B analysis. We’ll see if she’s any good to us as a breeder.”

One final nod from the Colonel seemed to finalize matters. “After dealing with this one, take the rest of the day off, Commander. You’ve done some good work today.” With that, the Colonel and the soldiers relieved themselves from the vicinity, leaving Charles to snap restraints on Elise’s wrists before gently guiding her to the idling jeep waiting for their own departure. Charles would whisper in her ear one last time before climbing in the driver’s seat beside her. “We’ll get you fed and we’ll get you safe. This I promise.”

In a message dated 6/4/2016 6:58:47 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

As Charles approached her, Elise’s emerald eyes focused on him intently, meeting his gaze without the slightest hesitation.  Chin held high and proudly, even as she held the standard surrender posture that was expected of her, fingers laced behind her head and elbows fanned out on either side of her.  There was almost a sort of challenge in those green eyes, that dared him to try and get away with anything she didn’t really want.

She had to be here, but she clearly didn’t think she had to behave like a victim. As his hands patted her down, she stood rigidly but did not flinch.  It was hardly pleasant to be frisked by a near-stranger, especially in such a situation, but she held her ground.  Inside, her stomach was knotted, and she had set her jaw so she wouldn’t tremble.  But she wasn’t going to break, or show weakness.  Not even a little bit, not even when his hands got a better feel for the curves of her body as they learned she did not have any weapons on her.

The whisper he murmured into her ear wasn’t what she had expected.  It wasn’t cold, or rude, or demeaning.  It was almost.. .compassionate, and it had her raising an eyebrow briefly, though she did not otherwise react.  The evening breeze was causing a few tendrils of her dark hair to flutter back against him, carrying the faint scent of her unique personal pheromone signature.  It’d been days since she’d had a chance to wash her hair properly, but it still carried a faint hint of warmth and sunshine to it.

Elise was quiet as they waited for this Colonel Emerson, not speaking a single word and maintaining her standing position without the slightest indication of fatigue or strain.  The only telltale sign that she was tiring was the slight droop of her spread elbows as the minutes ticked by.  Breathing was regular, slow and even.  But anytime one of the soldiers looked her way, he’d be greeted by a fierce glare of defiance from her otherwise statuesque stillness.

The arrival of the Colonel finally came to pass, and Elise knew she hated that man as soon as she saw him.  There was no stopping the angry flare of her nostrils when the military man eyed her like a piece of meat, and when his filthy hand came close enough to grip her chin so he could get a better look at her, it took every ounce of Elise’s self-control not to spit in his face. 

As it was, if looks could kill, the Colonel would have been laid out before her.  Her loathing was clear even as she submitted to his little inspection without a fight, obediently opening her mouth when he insisted so he could look into her mouth like she was an animal.  But her eyes… her eyes continued to wish Emmerson death and pain throughout it all.

She nearly lost it when the Colonel asked her if she should be processed as a criminal.  Her full lips parted and she was already drawing in breath for a sharp retort when she felt the press of Charles’ hand on her wrist, entreating her to silence.  Her wrist within his grasp tensed, twisted smooth skin through his fingers ever so slightly as if testing the strength of his conviction.  Then with a slow, slow exhalation of breath through her nose, Elise submitted once more to her captor, and remained silent.

If Charles had not given her pause before with his vaguely kind words, she would have likely gotten herself into a load of trouble right there.  The Colonel repulsed her, angered her, frightened her.  Men like that were monsters, and it was never proven more true than when the word ‘breeder’ came out of his mouth.  A breeder?  Jesus Christ, that was true?  This fucked up government really did that?  She’d always convinced herself that had to be propaganda by the rebels, to stir up hatred and fear of the oppressive regime.  The more anger and fear, the more people were willing to fight, after all.  It couldn’t be true.  It just couldn’t.  

But here it was, being spelled out as clear as day.  She very well may be on her way to becoming some whore for some stranger, expected to pump out little brainwashed soldier babies.  It was worse than her worst nightmare.  And it was that, that made it impossible to miss the slight tremble in her slender wrists when the restraints were slapped onto her.

Still, aside from the small tells that betrayed her fear, Elise did not falter.  She did not make a fool of herself nor did she beg for mercy.  She walked for the Jeep that Charles guided her towards with her head held high, her eyes sparking defiance, and her steps steady.  Only the slight heightening of her breath, the small heaving of her ample bosom gave away the signs of stress.

And when Charles whispered those intended-to-soothe words in her ear as they approached the Jeep, she couldn’t help her smart mouth.  Her head turning to the side so she could glimpse him standing just behind her out of her peripheral vision, and murmuring back sharply in her smoky tone, “Right, because I’ll need my strength for all that fucking I’ve got to do as a breeder, yeah?”

Again, her inner monologue told her to shut the hell up.  But the stress of the situation was making itself known.  She stared straight ahead as Charles climbed into the Jeep’s driver seat, swallowing slowly as she promised herself she wouldn’t cry.  A small shifting and clinking of the restraints on her wrists, as if testing them, but she made no obvious move to try and break free.

It was only when they were on the move alone that she spoke again, still staring straight ahead.  “Breeders?  Are you all batshit crazy?  Breeders???  Am I even human to you, Commander?”  The title the Colonel had used for Charles rolling off her tongue in clear derision, but also charged with emotion.  The wind caught her hair and fluttered it alongside her face and across, and Elise lifted both hands in their restraints to brush it out of her eyes.

“You knew Jordy.”  It wasn’t a question, and it was spoken in a slightly softer tone, though still defensive.  “You’re the one who told my family he was dead, right?  Is that why you’re being nice?  Well… nice being relative, of course.  You could have just let me go.  That would have been a lot nicer.”  A pause.  “Breeders.  Jesus Christ…”

In a message dated 6/6/2016 4:07:49 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

(Hello there, friend. I wanted to say that I really enjoyed your last reply and apologize for my flakiness up until now. Sometimes I think I seem aloof or indifferent to roleplay and that is not the case in the least. I promise to keep up the momentum I’ve established thus far with my stream of replies.)

From a soldier’s perspective, the mandatory encounter with Colonel Emmerson was an uncharacteristically painless ordeal, so Charles initially found himself at a loss regarding Elise’s complaints. As he started up the jeep and began their rocky journey to the processing center, he did his best to assume a more sympathetic frame of mind. Elise was distressed and angry, which Charles felt the need to manage with a frank but forbearing conversation.

“Your participation in the Propagation Program is a far better fate than the alternative,” Charles began, trying to voice his argument as matter-of-factly as possible. “Would you rather spend sixty hours a week in poor working conditions building weapons or digging tunnels? With plenty of mandatory films to watch about the State’s altruistic intentions?” As he explained Elise’s options, his voice trailed off in a moment of sobering enlightenment. It finally dawned upon him that she was truly jammed between a wall and a hard place. Women really were only objects meant to be utilized by the State for breeding purposes. They had next to no rights, especially the ones which were captured or uncovered during expeditions.

The town was now far behind them, and Charles fielded Elise’s frustrations as best he could. Every now and again, he turned his head and nod to acknowledge a particular remark, quietly seizing the opportunity to take her in with his eyes. A strange sensation was consuming his body… a warm, mild euphoria which fluttered across the surface of his skin. He was enjoying Elise’s company despite her verbal misgivings, and his mind began to tempt and tease.

He fantasized of a bold mutiny to divert the jeep from its current course to the forbidden zones which lay far beyond the State’s expansion territories. The pair of deserters would learn to live off their land and build their own shelter, far from the State’s influence. Children would be had after a countless number of sweaty, passionate nights. He would protect his companion and kin from all threats with the determination of a devoted father and lover. Life would be simple, satisfying, and free.

A snide inquiry from Elise snapped him back from his own self-indulgent fantasies. The processing center was dead ahead about a half-mile away, and several soldiers in white fatigues were preparing for their arrival atop a large retrieval bay. Their time together was coming to a close, which distressed him to the point of desperation. It was then that something possessed him, some primal craving that pulsed through his loins and emboldened his lips.

“Elise, I’m telling you that your agreement to be circulated with the Propagation Program is your best choice from an admittedly bad list.” A sputtery exhale whistled through Charles’ lips as he gathered the courage to press forward with his recommendation.

“There is one thing you can do to make your situation just a bit better. If you choose to waive your entry into circulation, you can instead nominate me as your benefactor.” He locked his eyes upon Elise’s own, unable to determine whether her gaze expressed interest or contempt. His mouth kept moving regardless.

“You’d be able to skip the physical tests and other red tape as you make your way through the system. And after two years of living with me, you’d earn basic privileges that you wouldn’t have otherwise, such as unsupervised excursions through market and recreational zones.”

Charles hoped that his last selling point didn’t do more harm than good. If Elise would only agree to these terms, then the road ahead would be relatively simple. Arrangements like this were frequently approved by the State without a bat from its collective eye. High-ranking officials rarely denied themselves the chance to portray rebels and their sympathizers as lost souls who only need a compassionate soldier to help them ‘see the light.’ Positive PR was a way, it seemed, to justify certain atrocities and pave the way for conquest.

Their destination loomed ever closer, forcing the discussion to its inevitable head. “I promise to help you live as normal a life as possible,” Charles said with as thawed a voice as he could manage. “And I’ll never take advantage of you.” He swallowed hard, an obvious nervous habit, as he anticipated Elise’s answer.

In a message dated 6/7/2016 12:08:34 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

((Hello!  I’m also really enjoying our back and forth.  I’m glad you aren’t annoyed by my playing Elise as rather unhappy about her situation.  There will be lots of time for attraction and softening once she’s had a chance to breathe and settle slightly, lol.  Also, I have never gotten an air of indifference or aloofness concerning RP from you.  I more get a vibe of dislike of/irritation towards OOC chatter.  I personally enjoy bring friendly and chatty with people I RP with (I’ve made a few life-long friends that way), but I also understand that some people prefer to remain more detached and businesslike, if you will.   So I don’t take offense.))

Elise was not privy to Charles’ thoughts on the matter concerning her choices in where she ended up.  She was oblivious to his little mental revelation about how much of a quandary she was in.  So she didn’t hesitate when her eyebrows shot up in clear disbelief of what he was saying.  And her smoky vocals rang back rather forcefully, “I’d PREFER having the freedom to choose something better for my life than breeding whore or labour slave, thank you very much!”

She really had no particular desire to look his way after that, and stared straight ahead at the road as they drove along.  Every now and then, the restraints about her slender wrists clinked as she sat quietly, her limbs twisting slightly as if secretly trying to determine if she might be able to slip them off.  She wanted nothing more than to slip those cuffs and make a break for it, as foolish as that would be.

The very idea of being passed off to some strange man and used for sex like some toy was nauseating.  She’d have preferred to break her neck trying to take a dive out of the running Jeep.  Every now and then, she did glance at Charles from the corner of her eyes, and she couldn’t help wondering how he had gotten to where he was. 

He didn’t strike her as an evil man, and he had shown bits of kindness and empathy now and again, sandwiched between his rather disturbing allegiance to a government that treated its citizens like so much cattle.  But whether he was a good man or not deep down didn’t much matter as long as he was taking her to be ‘processed’, as they had put it.  Action spoke louder than words or thoughts, after all.  So even if she couldn’t find it in herself to hate him, she wasn’t exactly swooning for him either.

And that meant he did get peppered with sharp, disdaining remarks every once in a while as the drive continued.

“Careful with the bumps in the road.  Don’t want to bruise the merchandise, right?”

“What a glorious master you serve.  How proud you must be to round up people like animals.  Such distinguished military service.”

But mostly, she was tired and frustrated, and was quiet.  There was only so much satisfaction to be had in throwing her barbs, and it wasn’t going to help her be any more free.  So after a while, she pretty much stopped altogether and just played with the restraints to the point of making her flesh red and irritated.  Sitting so docilely while being taken like this was making her slowly lose it.

She’d offhandedly made another remark about wondering how much really good pussy went for on the government market when the sight of the installation ahead came into view, and her stomach immediately tied itself into knots again.  Without even realizing it, she tugged futilely at her restraints once more and pressed her thighs tightly together in her sit, as if already fighting the ‘tests’ she was going to have to go through.

Then Charles suddenly started speaking, sounding distressed in a way and rushed, and that was enough to make her look at him more fully.  Green eyes fastening on his face and meeting his gaze went he sought to lock them.  But she wasn’t going to let him see what she was thinking, and her expression was unreadable as he laid out this new possibility. 

Make him her… benefactor?  He would see her lovely green eyes narrowing slightly as if looking for the trick he was trying to pull, though beyond that, she remained inscrutable.  Her mind was racing though.  So… she’d still be a breeding whore, but to him instead?  Her eyes broke from meeting his in order to glance over the details of the man’s face, as if determining whether he was worthy of such consideration.

He wasn’t terrible-looking, and she was relatively sure he wasn’t an evil monster.  For the moment, her sex drive was essentially null and void in the face of what she was about to endure.  But perhaps… if she was going to have to… it would be better to give into someone who at least didn’t seem inclined to treat her like a toy and who wasn’t utterly repellant?  Of course, he could change his tune the moment he had her truly alone and at his whims legally.  A risk.  A big one.

Her hands closed into fists and she flinched with a clench of her jaw when he mentioned her having such special privileges as market visits after two years.  Another reminder that she was essentially going to be a slave now, no matter what choice she made.  All that remained was exactly how cruelly she’d be treated, and by whom.  For a moment, Elise almost gave into the urge to punch him.

It was his final statement that decided her.  He said he would not take advantage of her.  She wasn’t sure she believed him… but she didn’t immediately NOT believe him either.  He’d known her brother.  He might have some sense of honor that extended that far, to not treating his ex-comrade’s sister like meat.  It… really was her best chance.  She hated that he was right.  But he was right.

And that was when she leaned in slightly, bending just a little across the gear shift of the Jeep so she could fix her emerald gaze firmly upon Charles’ own.  Challenge and spirit blazing within her as she spoke to him very quietly, a touch of her breath washing over his face from the nearness she had created.

“You will NOT take advantage of me.  I won’t let you.  I’ll kill you first.”  He’d threatened her life once already.  It was fair turnaround.  Her nostrils flared slightly as she inhaled sharply and lifted her chin proudly, then sat back once more in her seat and faced forward.  He didn’t have a terrible scent either.  One more minor positive in a world of shit.

“If you accept that, then fine.  You can be my benefactor.  Let’s get this over with.”

In a message dated 6/10/2016 11:07:28 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

Charles had no physical reaction to Elise’s warning as he downshifted the jeep a gear, mirroring the ebbing concern in his mind. Elise could talk the talk, certainly, but was she really as violent and unpredictable as she tried to portray herself? Somehow, he doubted that she’d committed any atrocities, regardless of any ties she may have had with the rebels. Charles supposed that he’d never truly know whether she was dangerous because he intended to avoid pushing her buttons as much as possible.

They were now seconds away from arriving at the processing plant, which on the surface looked very much like a small hospital. All the soldiers and personnel wore various arrangements of predominantly white attire with blue and yellow accents. The soldiers wore gas masks, which heightened their intimidation level just a tad, but otherwise had no weapons other than batons that were strapped to their belts.

Charles’s jeep sputtered slowly as it found its way upon a large steel platform with various markings indicating the precise area where it should stop. A sleek, crane-like machine jutting from the floor slowly encircled them, apparently scanning for something. A strange beeping sound seemed to indicate they cleared some kind of inspection.

Three soldiers then approached but seemed to hesitate when they were close enough to realize Charles’ rank. “I have this one,” he instructed with a wave of his hand which immediately resulted in their dispersal. “Leave us be.”

Charles exited the jeep and slowly made his way around the front towards Elise, gently lifting her from her seat by her shoulders. He then latched on her neck a sort of leash which was strapped to his wrist after retrieving it from a pouch on his belt. She certainly didn’t seem pleased with this new hindrance, but Charles tried hard to temper her anger with reassuring eyes.

“Just for a little while,” he explained quietly while testing the chain with a series of benign yanks. “It’s a protocol measure.”

Charles guided Elise through a revolving door leading into the main lobby of the facility. It certainly seemed to be a busy afternoon, with lines of detainees being escorted to and fro across various areas of the building. The prisoners, as they certainly seemed to be, were easily identified with their orange fatigues screaming out against the otherwise colorless surroundings. Soldiers occasionally hastened their march by using electrically-charged batons upon stragglers.

Charles was well-practiced in hiding his discontent as the other personnel in the building were no kinder than their gas-masked compatriots, shoving lines along while barking instructions. Despite his doubts that she’d believe him, Charles leaned in and whispered into Elise’s ear. “I loathe them as much as you do.”

Finally, Elise and Charles arrived at a small office where a plump woman with large spectacles greeted them behind a computer desk. “Hello, Officer Brock. How may I help you today?” Her lack of acknowledgement regarding Elise’s presence would have been unbelievably rude under socially normal circumstances.

“Good afternoon, ma’am. I’m here because my companion was adamant about making a statement.”

Elise grudgingly recited the terms that she and Charles had agreed upon earlier, prompting the desk woman to look up and study her with mild, narrow-eyed curiosity. The silent probe lasted a few moments before she withdrew her eyes.

“Requests for assignments like these are usually reserved for higher-ranking officers,” she remarked with a flat voice as her attention returned to the computer on her desk. Despite the rebuff in her voice, she typed away at her keyboard before printing a sheet of paper and presenting it to Charles.

“You do understand that this woman’s welfare is now completely under your supervision, Officer Brock?” He nodded his answer to the desk woman’s question and followed her instructions on where to provide his signature on the sheet of paper. It would be a series of forms later before the desk woman finally got around to creating Elise’s identification card. Not surprisingly, Elise didn’t smile for her picture.

“Your partner has now been assigned a designation number. There will be periodic inspections to ensure PA-4732‘s voluntary compliance in the Propagation Program,” the desk woman explained. “We’ll go ahead and suspend your monthly agamic injections to get your reproductive system back on track.”

A flash of embarrassment burned across Charles’ cheeks, as Elise now knew something about him which he tried hard to keep private. The thoughts in his mind recoiled before pushing forward towards the evening ahead, which was sure to be awkward at best. He regretted the inevitable discussion with Elise regarding the impracticality of not sleeping together, due to the fact that surveillance bots occasionally combed random domiciles and would find separate beds highly unorthodox, potentially placing their arrangement in jeopardy.

Once all the i’s were dotted and t’s were crossed, a soldier escorted the pair to the entrance of the facility where a shuttle was waiting for them.

“We’re being taken to the train station so we can go home,” Charles casually informed Elise as they situated themselves on a pair of leather seats near the front of the idling transport. Acting promptly within their newly-acquired privacy, he unfastened the brace from Elise’s neck and tucked it away with a look of apology.

Charles’ mind then explored the possibilities before him. He was seriously considering putting in a request to take the next few days off in addition to the evening which lay ahead. Furlough approvals for soldiers were few and far between, but Charles was long overdue for some personal time… and he assumed he’d need all the time he could get to tame and temper Elise’s frustrations.

In a message dated 6/12/2016 12:37:08 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

 ((The revised version is excellent.  Thank you again for being so gracious about it.  I replaced the original version with the revised in this email thread, so that we still have a consistent log flowing in one thread.))

The entire world became a fresh new sort of hell as the events began to play out upon arrival to the compound.  Elise had ceased talking in any way at all as soon as they had pulled onto the strange scanning machine, her jaw clenched tight as she adopted a rather distant, detached expression.  She didn’t want anyone knowing just how badly rattled she really was.  And she’d be damned if she gave ANYONE the satisfaction of seeing her tremble or cry.  Better to block out as much of it as possible, and simply endure.

As long as she was alive, there was hope.  She had to remind herself of that.  She’d get out of this eventually.  She’d find a way.  Though it was hard to keep such hope alive when Charles lifted her up out of the jeep and then snapped a goddamned COLLAR around her neck like she was some sort of animal.  Her green eyes burned angrily at him even as he tried to reassure her about it, and she had to fight back the urge to spit more verbal vitriol at him.

But to her own credit, she was once more unreadable and distantly cool as they entered the compound.  Everything Elise saw there was filed away in her head.  She would never forget it; it would haunt her at night.  But she wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.  NEVER.  And when Charles murmured to him about his apparent loathing of the situation, he would simply be rebuffed by a brief stare deeply into his own gaze, before the quiet brunette rather pointedly broke the eye contact and stared straight ahead, ignoring him entirely.

Her stomach was churning with nausea, but Elise remained utterly composed and outwardly indifferent to everything that happened during the booking procedure.  She spoke the words Charles had instructed her to say utterly deadpan, inwardly wishing pain and suffering on the receptionist who didn’t even seem to recognize that the prisoner was a living, breathing person who might appreciate being acknowledged as such.

But one thing broke Elise’s mask, if only for a second.  It was when the receptionist said, “There will be periodic inspections to ensure PA-4732’s voluntary compliance in the Propagation Program”.  What was said after that was actually lost in the shuffle of the sudden spasm in Elise’s thought process.  So she actually didn’t catch the part that embarrassed Charles and made him blush. 

Maybe he’d take some comfort in that down the line.  Because even as he was blushing about the personal detail being leaked, he was briefly being fixed with  a look of abject, utter hatred and horror in equal parts from his new acquisition.  Inspections?  Voluntary compliance???  What was that he’d said about not taking advantage of her?  Suddenly his lack of any real reaction to her defiance about not allowing him to do so made perfect sense.

He’d known.  He’d known all along that he wouldn’t have to take advantage of her directly.  The system would do it for him.  The threat was inherent right there in the words the receptionist spoke.  Without voluntary compliance, there would be consequences, probably awful ones.  Inspections to ensure she gave it up regularly, without him having to do much to dirty his own hands in the process.  He’d played her.  Utterly and completely.

It took every single ounce of self-control she possessed to not try to throttle the man right then and there.  After letting slip that brief harsh glare in his direction, Elise forced her features back into that cold detachment of before.  But now her jaw was clenched so tightly it ached with every step she took as she was led back out towards the transport that waited for them at the front of the facility.

Charles was not the only one to take advantage of their new-found privacy as soon as they were alone and away from prying eyes.  He reached to remove her collar, and she let him do that.  But the instant his eyes lowered so he could tuck away the restraints, Elise lashed out.  Unless he somehow managed to anticipate what she was going to do or stop it in some way, Charles would find himself the recipient of a rather hard punch right to his jaw.

She swung at him with every intent of cold-cocking the bastard right in his falsely apologetic face.  If the shot connected, he’d find that she had a good punch on her too.  This was no girly open-handed smack, but the solid strike of a woman who’d been in a few fights in her time.  And even as it (hopefully) landed, she was spitting words at him, the first tears she’d been unable to hold back in front of him sparkling in the corners of her eyes.

“You son of a bitch!  You knew, you KNEW about these ‘inspections’, the goddamned Big Brother boot on my back!  You knew all along and you let me think you might not be so bad, that you’d not take advantage!  You fucking COWARD!”

In a message dated 6/13/2016 12:29:52 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

Charles managed to catch Elise’s fist with the reflexes of a trained soldier, but the strength and momentum behind her punch propelled his own knuckles against his nose and upper lip. A strong tingling sensation immediately overwhelmed his sinuses, along with a small amount of blood which collected around the base of his nostril. For the briefest of moments, he look dazed and overwhelmed. He reacted quickly, however, with the realization that Elise could be preparing another blow as an encore to her first, prompting him to speak in a firm, methodical voice which was bolstered by desperation.

“NOTHING. NOTHING is going to HAPPEN. There are WAYS around this. Please, STOP.”

The initial result from Charles’s proclamation was positive, as Elise hadn’t raised another fist, but the look on her face refused to disclose its origins. His eyes began to water from the blow he absorbed, further obscuring the features on her face which he learned to quietly adore.

As it was, Charles had been looking forward to sharing his queen-sized bed with Elise. The thought of an accidental brush of skin was enough to flutter pulses of warm anticipation across the surface of his skin. Perhaps they could have the occasional conversation, maybe even share a laugh once in a while. They could learn to respect and accept one another despite the madness which swallowed the world outright… and perhaps, just perhaps, deeper feelings could develop between them. But the way she was acting now, seemingly determined to reveal him as an untrustworthy monster, quickly evaporated Charles’ hopes of a peaceful night’s sleep with Elise at his side.

The matter at hand, however, snapped his mind from lingering upon any regrets. Elise had to be reassured somehow, and Charles’ lips acted accordingly.

“I know it seems hopeless. But I can adjust readings, exaggerate testimonies and forge documents. There are things I can do to make sure I keep my end of the bargain. I KEEP my PROMISES, Elise.”

This was a half-truth, despite another pair of emphasized words. Charles knew the vast majority of ins and outs of regarding the State’s surveillance tendencies, but the Propagation Program was rather obstinate in ensuring the full dedication of its participants. They could possibly skirt and fudge for a few months at best, but sooner or later, after the inevitable sperm count and fertility test, tough questions would be asked by pushy personnel in white clothing. Elise would have a choice to make, and even if she decided to continue their arrangement, the mandatory consummation of intimacy that would soon follow didn’t interest Charles in the least.

As far as their conversation was concerned, there was momentum, rolling in some sort of direction, but Charles still felt he hadn’t satiated Elise. Perhaps she would never trust him, regardless of what he said or how he said it, and simply assume the worst under any circumstance. A thought entered his mind, one which beckoned forth another strategy that scraped its intentions from the bottom of the slimiest barrel.

“Listen. I wouldn’t be able to do anything to you anyway. The injections would take a week or two from now to wear off. That should give you enough time to plan the where, when, and how you’ll bonk me on the head and make your escape, right?”

He didn’t like the way that sounded, lingering in the air like some juvenile’s hostile attempt to push a parent’s buttons. But perhaps his comment would resonate alongside Elise’s cynical assumptions and calm her down. At this point, that was all Charles truly cared to accomplish. He was suddenly tired and weary, yearning for the sanctuary of home.

In a message dated 6/13/2016 3:47:17 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

Elise hadn’t intended more than one blow.  She just wanted the one, because she felt it was owed her after everything she had gone through.  After feeling like she had been lied to in order to coerce her into a terrible situation, surely one hard clock to the jaw was a reasonable penance?  She wasn’t by nature a terribly violent woman, but she also wasn’t a doormat to be kicked around.

So she simply sat and glowered at Charles as he implored her to calm herself, and said once more that he intended to keep his word to her about not taking advantage.  The look on her face, partially obscured by his watering eyes, was full of suspicion and a measure of disbelief in his claims.  But to her credit, she didn’t attempt more violence or call him a liar outright. 

A brow rose when he spoke of altering readings, forging things, and so on to fool the system.  Sitting back a little in her seat, Elise raised a hand again, but this time only to rub at her own face in frustration and a measure of her own weariness.  He was tired.  She was tired.  The fatigue was clear in her voice when she spoke more quietly this time around, and said simply, “You should have just let me go.  Why didn’t you just let me go?”

Slowly her hand came away from her face and she let it drop once more into her lap, closing her eyes and leaning her head back on the headrest of the seat.  She had to pull it together.  She was coming apart at the seams, and none of this was helping.  She really wanted to sleep for about a month, then try tackling all this again.  Could that be arranged?  She wanted to get off this ride now.

It was Charles speaking about her potentially ‘bonking him on the head’ and escaping that finally had her emerald eyes opening and looking his way again, again with a measure of exasperation.  She let it slip by that he supposedly couldn’t do anything to her anyway.  For the moment.

“Give me more credit than that, please.  I’m not stupid.  Trying to escape would only get me killed even faster, and even if I did somehow luck out at first?  I’d be on a list.  You have my picture.  I’d be hunted down like an animal.  I know the reach of your precious military.”  Her gaze fixed on him more solidly, and she continued.  “If I’m pushed far enough, I may just kill us both instead.”  An almost derisive little chuckle, a hint of a smirk on one corner of her mouth.  Had she just made a really dark joke?

It was impossible to figure the man out just yet.  He could be a lying monster.  He could be a decent person simply brainwashed by the regime.  She wasn’t going to take any chances either way.  Though she did have to admit that aside from keeping certain things from her knowledge until it was too late, he HAD been less brutish than he could have been. 

In this sort of situation, there was little reason for him to hide his true nature.  He already had her entirely within his power.  Unless he simply enjoyed that kind of mental torture, making a person have hope only to yank it away.  That would remain to be seen.  She… really did hope that maybe he wasn’t so bad.  It would make the coming days far easier to endure.

Glancing over at him again, she sighed and offered a tiny olive branch of her own.  Not much, but it was something.  “What the hell is your name, anyway?  Because I sure as hell am not calling you Commander Brock.”  And she still couldn’t quite remember what his first name was.  It’d been too long, and too much had happened.

—–Original Message—–
From: propagandapiece <>
To: TellingofTales <>
Sent: Fri, Jun 24, 2016 6:28 pm
Subject: Post #8

(Sorry for the delay! Things got in the way this morning but I punched them in the face until they moved!)

A thin trickle of blood trailed its way down from Charles’ nostril, which he wiped away with a nudge of his glove. He then turned his attention to a pouch which was strapped to his belt and pulled out two bars wrapped in wax paper, with the words Supplemental Meal Bar – For Field Consumption Only printed on its side in stenciled lettering. He placed one on the armrest which divided them upon their cushioned seat, with the assumption that Elise would eat on her own terms, before slowly beginning to unwrap his own.

“Charles,” he’d say after a moment and before a bite of his bar. “My name is Charles.”

The sound of an engine starting would accompany a stiff shake of the shuttle before fading towards a faint rumbling. Charles took another bite and sighed, squinting his brow above the bridge of his nose to help with tingling sensation that still lingered. He swallowed a little blood down his throat before addressing Elise’s other concern.

“I couldn’t just let you go, Elise. Even if I wanted to. There were surveillance bots everywhere, and if you decided to run, you would have been captured by another soldier or worse. Besides, there were orders to torch that place to the ground once all the once all the rebel bodies were accounted for.”

The full truth this time. Recent rebel victories had left a bad taste in Colonel Emmerson’s mouth, and after a period of intensive surveillance, he had finally located the hideout for a number of high-ranking rebel operatives. The State was determined to make an example and hit the objective hard, bending their own rules along the way if necessary.

The shuttle was pulling out now as all the passengers were situated, prompting Charles to close the door to their private compartment. The world outside through their window was beginning to move, offering promises of scenic vistas and other sights to behold. Charles finished his bar and turned towards Elise with a look of placation and an offer to make.

“What would you like for dinner tonight?” The bar only made him hungrier, and he licked the last of its taste off its lips before crumbling the packaging into a ball and discarding it into a nearby waste bin. Elise would not only receive a meal in the evening that lay ahead, but a shower and new clothes. Indeed, she would eat and sleep well as long as she was under Charles’ care, have access to adequate medical care, enjoying various forms of entertainment, and enjoy opportunities to visit exotic lands twice a year. That is, if she decided not to kill the both of them first.

She’ll live a decent life, Charles quietly justified in his mind. Better than most.

In a message dated 6/25/2016 11:48:14 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

Elise took one cursory look at the supplement bar that Charles placed onto the armrest between them in clear offer to her, then turned her face away and proceeded to stare out the window.  She absolutely was hungry, so much so that she hoped her stomach wouldn’t begin to rumble just from the nearness of food, but she wasn’t yet ready to accept anything the man was offering.  Besides, a military ration was the last thing she wanted.  Anything that reminded her of soldiers and her predicament made her physically ill at the moment.

“Pleasure to meet you again, Charles.”  There was a sour sarcasm to her words as she uttered the old polite expectation for meeting someone again.  The world was so much different now than when such things had been commonplace, when manners and polite society still reigned supreme.  Her emerald eyes took in the world outside the window, the woman still stoically ignoring the sounds of the wrapper as Charles ate his own ration beside her.

He succeeded in getting her attention again with the full truth of what was going to happen to the town she had been within.  At first she wasn’t sure she had heard him correctly, and when he returned from closing the door to their compartment, he would find those deep green eyes staring at him in utter horror and disbelief.  The dark brown locks of her mussed hair framing her face as she repeated softly, almost to herself, “Torch… that place… to the ground?”  A few moments as it set in real deep into her head, something within her eyes beginning to die at the horror of it all.

Then she couldn’t help herself, ignoring his question about dinner.  Even if it continued a bizarre pattern of whiplashing back and forth between moments of fatigued calm and furious outburst, Elise grabbed the untouched ration bar and flung it at Charles’ head, rising from her seat and putting as much possible distance between herself and him as she could manage.  It really wasn’t much, but she no longer wanted to be anywhere near him and wanted as far as she could get.

Her voice barely remained below the volume of yelling, her voice strained as she fought to keep it in check and not draw unneeded attention to their compartment.  “Torch it to the fucking ground??? Are you utterly insane???  Oh my gods!  All those people!!!”  She wanted to strangle Charles right then, her fingers flexing before fisting at her sides in a trembling harshness.  Turning away sharply, she stared out the window again as if looking to see what was happening to the place they had left behind, even though it was miles away.  Maybe there was smoke on the horizon?

“Not just rebels live there, you know!  There are CHILDREN.  OLD people who cannot run or fight!”  Her legs spread slightly to shoulder’s width apart, the better to balance herself through the movement of the shuttle as she persisted in standing and keeping as much distance between herself and Charles as possible.  Her slender body with all its womanly curves swayed slightly with the motion of the vehicle, the long locks of mahogany hair spilling down her back nearly to the curve of her bottom as she refused to look at him.

“I’m not even a rebel, you know that?  Though I suppose that doesn’t even matter to your fucking overseers.  Since I wasn’t waving a patriotic flag and screaming support for the overlords, I’m still an enemy.”  A heavy snort of derision as she leaned forward slightly to press her forehead to the window, closing her eyes again for a deep sigh before once more watching the scenery go by as they re-opened.  “DOES it even matter that I’m not a rebel, Charles?  Or is the fact that I’m good breeding stock more important than the truth?”

In a message dated 6/26/2016 8:28:30 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

A strong sense of hopelessness swept over Charles’ mind, which took him a moment to process with slumped shoulders and blank eyes. He shifted himself from his chair to reach for the meal bar which now rested across from his feet and placed it back in his pouch. His thoughts offered their last motions of rebuttal soon afterward. Should he make the effort to disclose the fact that the State did its best to round up any and all survivors before extreme measures were taken? Would Elise even care? Perhaps she shouldn’t, since there’d likely be casualties regardless of intent, if civilians were well-hidden and didn’t anticipate the peril of staying in their shelters.

With closed eyes and a shallow breath, Charles provided his stale reply. “I really don’t know what to say, Elise. Let’s just stay quiet until we get home.”

Charles would remain quiet for a long while, resigning himself to hear or not hear what Elise had to say or not say. Regret made its climb to the forefront of his mind. Perhaps he didn’t deserve a normal life. If Elise was simply going to hate him regardless of his efforts, perhaps he should have just let her go and seal her own fate. Deep down, though, Charles knew he was trapped either way. The thought of somehow betraying Jordan would have haunted him for the rest of his days, had he at least not tried his best. He’d drive himself mad every night, dwelling on the possibilities that were now unfolding before him.

There were other concerns as well, especially if Elise ever accepted her situation to the point of submitting herself to bearing children. The worry that something would set her off to flee during the night with their offspring would weigh incessantly on Charles’ mind. Or perhaps she would simply use the child as leverage for negotiations involving their escape or otherwise. These measures forced a heavy exhale through Charles’ nostrils and a subconscious shake of the head that he hoped Elise wouldn’t notice.

His mind explored every advantage that he could utilize regarding her situation. The State only required a minimum of one child every one-and-a-half years, so with proper testing, Elise could enjoy the majority of her nights not gritting her teeth underneath Charles’ panting weight. Perhaps they could even take things further and have Charles relay the necessary fluids to artificially meet their obligations and save at least some dignity on Elise’s behalf.

No. It was impossible. A surveillance bot would undoubtedly reveal such transgressions and immediately disclose them to the proper authorities. Elise would be removed from the Propagation Program in a heartbeat and made to sacrifice her body in other ways to other men.

Time passed. A stewardess was approaching down the center aisle with a trolley, waking him from an introspective daze. There were bottled drinks available of different varieties, and Charles would choose one bottled water at first, but double his request after a moment’s hesitation. Once again, a gesture of diplomacy was made by placing a bottle in the cup holder that was integrated into the armrest between them. His mind, as resolute as ever, was determined to try.

In a message dated 6/27/2016 1:24:32 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

Charles’ reply to her questions and fired vitriol was pretty much what she expected.  He had no answers, no justifications, no good reason for the horror he’d just spoken about.  Though, to her credit, Elise did acknowledge that he at least didn’t try to justify it any further.  He didn’t try to paint the regime as the good guys or excuse their behaviour, and that did actually mean something to the brunette.

For a while, Elise remained standing in silence, only shifting a bit to bend her forearm against the glass of the window so she could press her forehead to the opposite side of her limb, gazing dully out at the scenery as it flashed past.  Much as Charles was, she was lost in thought, though her thoughts had much less to do with trying to game the system, and more with analyzing what had happened thus far.

And she had to admit… he had been remarkably patient with her so far.  She knew plenty of men who would have lost their temper by now and smacked her around for acting out as much as she had.  Hell, she knew some who would have already tried to rape her within this very compartment.  Was she really being overly critical?  Could she really be blamed if she was?

Not for the first time, Elise had to fight back exhausted tears during the stretched out silence.  Part of why she remained turned away from Charles even after her rage had smoothed away once more into resignation was to keep him from seeing the pain on her face.  Though every now and again, she snuck a brief glance at the man out of her peripheral view, examining his own tired expression and worried demeanor.

The arrival of the stewardess with her trolley finally snapped both of them out of their dazes, though Elise remained where she was until the other woman had left again.  The movement of Charles placing the extra water bottle in the armrest between their seats was what finally prompted Elise to move herself.  With a heavy sigh, she stood up straight once more and shifted back to sit in her seat once more, avoiding direct eye contact with Charles as she did so.

Her hand reached for the water bottle he had offered and then opened it, her head tilting back as she took a long swig of the cool liquid.  It soothed her throat, and she swallowed slowly before lowering the bottle in her hand down to her lap.  Throaty voice murmured a quiet, “Thank you” as gratitude for his small kindness.

A moment of silence as she weighed her words, then decided against saying anything more.  Instead, she just closed her eyes and tried to relax.  Considering how the man had behaved thus far, he really didn’t deserve to have anymore attitude thrown his way, and while Elise certainly had a hell of a temper?  She did try not to take it out on people unnecessarily.  He’d been pretty patient, and she was more angry at the situation than him.  And it took energy she just didn’t have right now.

Time began to pass again, and soon enough Elise’s breath began to smooth out and soften as the exhaustion took over.  Unless Charles said or did something to stop the inevitable, the brunette soon fell into a fitful nap beside him.  She didn’t snore except for an occasional soft deeper inhalation, and gradually seemed to relax as her mind began to force itself to rest.

Eventually, a small bump in the compartment from the motion of the shuttle had her head turning towards Charles in her sleep, and as she shifted a bit in her seat to accommodate her muscles’ need to stretch slightly, her cheek came to rest on Charles’ shoulder as if it were a pillow.  Certainly not something she would have done while awake, but awkwardness happened when people sat next to each other and fell asleep.

In a message dated 7/2/2016 12:24:24 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

Elise had calmed herself after a look on her face suggested she had come to terms with something in her mind. Charles would mask his relief with the same blank eyes he offered during his dejected proposition. He really didn’t want to resort to raising his voice or physically imposing his will upon her, as his assumption was that such actions would only serve to make her angrier and the situation worse. His prevailing fear was a knock at the door of their private compartment by a shuttle conductor to ask what the noise and commotion was about. Attention was something Charles secretly deplored, a trait of his personality hammered into him by years of training within structured platoons that sought to diminish any sense of individuality amongst its soldiers.

She sat beside him once more, and time passed just the same. Charles would find himself almost afraid to say anything to Elise, lest he incur her wrath once more and ride the possibility of being investigated by a third party. So he stayed quiet and allow his mind to roam.

The sight of a checkpoint in the distance reminded him of the progress being made towards their destination, and Charles’ thoughts settled themselves on the near future. He reflected on the promotion that resulted in his acquisition of a domicile that was a staggering upgrade from his life in the barracks. Three bedrooms that he could claim as his own, a deluxe-sized shower, king-size bed, a living room whose north wall was entirely devoted to a high-definition telescreen. He was privy to services which supplied him with music and movies from eras past, at least those that were approved by the State’s Cultural Adherence Commission.
At first, he had no idea what to do with all the extra space, but soon found a hobby as a collector. He would visit quarantined areas outside of the State’s borders with special permission and collect artifacts. He had a fascination with the past and enjoyed piecing together trends within various cultures, before the Great War changed the landscape of everything.

At one point during their journey, Charles actually looked forward to sharing his hobbies and interests with Elise. Perhaps they could somehow bridge any lingering gaps between them and aid in the ease of her transition. But with the way she had acted since their arrival at the processing station… he wasn’t sure if she could reached with any means of hospitality at all. A reminder of the fact that a large State flag was hanging wide and proud within his bedroom would further dampen his spirits with a heavy sigh and furrow of his brow. Elise would almost certainly react adversely to that decoration, and Charles was not looking forward to managing that situation.

Tall, white buildings in the distance with layered patterns of glass were visible through the window now; Charles turned his head after waking and recognize that they were very close to their destination. He had somehow missed Elise’s head finding its way to his shoulder, which was a fascinatingly pleasant development that he dare not disturb with a jerk of his body. The shuttle was noticeably slowing along the route of it tracks, and would finally come to rest at a station ten minutes later after Charles opened his eyes. People could be heard shuffling outside of their private compartment in response to the conductor’s announcement of the shuttle’s arrival over the intercom.

With a gentle nudge, Charles rolled his shoulder to try and wake Elise. “Hey,” he said with a breathy voice and a warm smile. “Hey, Elise. It’s time to wake up and get off the shuttle. We’re here.”

In a message dated 7/5/2016 6:34:21 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

Elise dreamed as she slept against Charles’ shoulder.  Her tired mind and stretched nerves dreamed of happier times and places, took her for a stroll down memory lane when life had been simpler and more pleasant.  When her brother was alive and still teased her about stupid things, when her parents could still be counted on to gross both of the siblings out with open displays of affection.

Every now and then, there was a small twitch in her form as she napped next to her new companion, or a soft murmur of response to something happening in her dreamscape.  But overall, Elise was proving to be a relatively quiet sleeper, and didn’t stray too far into any of the more annoying habits that sleep could bring about.  There was only occasional soft snoring, and she didn’t flail or thrash.

If anything, there was a sort of peace to the woman right now that Charles had never seen before in her, the fire in her soul and temper smoldering beneath the quieter surface of her sleep rather than openly flaring up in his face.  Her dreams were taking her back to more pleasant times and places, and that reflected itself in the quiet persona she now adopted, with eyes shut and breath steady and even.

Finally, the shuttle seemed to arrive at their destination, and Charles’ shoulder rolling beneath her head was the first thing to make her stir slightly.  But it was only for a soft little sleepy groan at first, a sound that was quiet and exquisitely feminine in delivery as her mind fought against being awakened.  Some might even call it sensual, with the extra breathiness given to it by her current state.

His words finally had her stirring more completely however, and with a slow blink and another throaty groan, Elise lifted her head partially off his shoulder and murmured a quizzical, “Hmmm…?”  In this moment, it seemed as if she were a different person, someone less angry and defiant, less of a dangerous hellcat and more a sleepy kitten.

Then the first grasps of reality once more seeped into her mind, and her eyes opened more fully.  With a sudden inhalation of breath, she realized that she had somehow let her head drift down onto the soldier’s shoulder and she immediately rectified the situation.  A sharp jerk of her head lifted it sharply until she was sitting up straight once more, blinking rapidly to get the fuzziness out of her vision.

To her credit, she didn’t seem inclined towards getting angry at Charles for the sleeping arrangement, the more logical side of her mind recognizing that it wasn’t exactly his fault she’d drifted off into the position she’d adopted.  Instead, her emerald eyes simply looked him over with a guarded expression, trying to ascertain his intentions now that they had arrived at the station.

Her gaze locked with his for a moment, as if she were trying to read his mind, trying to see deeper into the truth that lay behind his eyes.  Finally, her gaze dropped and flickered towards his belt where he had previously stashed the collar apparatus he had used on her before, and she frowned slightly before speaking in a soft undertone.

“You’re not putting that collar on me again.  Don’t even think about it.  I don’t care what protocol or rules say about it.  I’m not an animal.  You can… you can hold my arm or something if you absolutely need to do something to show that you… I don’t know… claim me or whatever the hell your Overlords call it.” 

It hadn’t taken long for the defiance to flash back into her expression, especially concerning the matter she spoke about.  But for all her insistence, she didn’t seem on the edge of attacking him, either.  There was a sort of wary desire to get this all done with and get to their destination as seamlessly as possible.  She just really, really didn’t want to be leashed again, if it could be helped.

In a message dated 12/9/2016 11:30:35 P.M. Eastern Standard Time, writes:

(Whoooo-wee! Back on the saddle. It took a while to get back into the groove of writing, but… here it is. I hope you enjoy and cross my fingers that the rust isn’t too obvious.)

Charles curled a soft smile into his right cheek before offering his answer to Elise’s demand through a patient breath. “No leashes, I promise. Not here. No cuffs either, though you’ll have to stay within a few footsteps of me wherever I go.” There was a bit of emphasis on the latter end of his remark, because Charles knew all too well that there were security personnel chomping at the bit to apprehend and interrogate anyone remotely suspicious. Isolated women were, of course, the most common targets. Charles’ newly-acquired rank mitigated most, if not all of that possibility, but one could never be too careful underneath the State’s all-encompassing eye.

Charles and Elise’s exit from the sleek, white shuttle would unveil a broad, paved concourse which tapered off in the near distance towards a series of checkpoints and revolving doors. A tiled design depicting the State’s emblem of an eagle snaring a snake was on prominent display underneath a shallow, circular pool carved into the eggshell concrete. A marble statue of the Overseer floated about ten yards above the emblem, with no visible means of suspension from the ceiling or otherwise, wearing a soldier’s fatigues while having a rapier drawn and stretched to the heavens. Bronze figures of a man, woman, and child stood within its shadows near the pool, staring upward in wondrous contentment at their aerial savior. It was a strange monument, since it exhibited cultural characteristics of the past; the Old World’s traditions of family were methodically being replaced as thoroughly as possible by the Cultural Adherence committee.

Elise was led out onto the concourse and towards the bustle of travelers who were vacating or boarding their own shuttles. There were various personnel in white garb moving to and fro between bordering turnstiles, their minds numbly focused upon their forthcoming destinations. Soldiers were also present amongst the crowd; some alone, some with their Braces and some in groups. One seemed to be shoving his female partner by her backside as tears trickled and dried along the contours of her cheeks. Another Brace was being led along on a leash by her partner, and both seemed happy with the arrangement as they strolled towards a stairwell which descended into an underground level. Yet another gave Elise a hungry look before recognizing Charles’ rank and forfeiting his pursuit.

“The State welcomes your arrival to Zone 7-58A. Please have your papers or valid identification ready to be scanned and verified by the Authentication Officer. We appreciate your patience.” A pleasant, female voice chimed in proper protocols from overhead intercoms as Charles and Elise took their place in the shortest of a number of long lines leading into the province. Security personnel stood poised and primed to pounce at a moment’s notice along a nearby wall. It wouldn’t be long until a young woman fumbled a question at the front of the queue, prompting the zealous guards into swift action. They quickly converged even as her voice pleaded with the officer who refused to authenticate her. “No, please! These papers are good, they were issued yesterday! Please, let me THROUGH!” Her protests fell on deaf ears as the sound of dragging feet rounded past a corner before the sound of a door being shut ended the interruption. No one seemed to bat an eye at the occurrence, staring blankly ahead as the Authentication Officer continued with his stamps and scans.

Finally, after a time, the line ahead of them dwindled until Charles would approach the AO with a slight lean of his torso to present the military decorations that distinguished his rank. Everything seemed routine as a hand-held device verified as an officer of the State’s Republic with a series of beeps and a greenish color. However, the AO would halt any progress Elise might attempt.

“I’m sorry, I’ll need to see some sort of verification for this one. The bioscan is showing nothing as far as her registry and travel permissions.” A series of red lights flickered and flared underneath a thin, plastic archway which framed itself outward from the turnstile by several feet. Two guards who had replaced the earlier group tensed at the development, but Charles stared them down with a steely gaze before turning his attention to the Authentication Officer.

“Ah yes, my apologies. She is a recent registrant for the Propagation Program and probably hasn’t been circulated within the network yet. I have the paperwork here.” The AO officer nods after a moment’s contemplation in regards to Charles’ claims, accepting a paper from his hands which was acquired at the Processing Station.

After a moment to adjust his follicles, the Authentication Officer studied the paper with discerning eyes before scanning a thin barcode at the bottom of the page, shifting the red lights on the archway to a solid green.

“Schedule an appointment with the Registration Office before her next checkpoint so that she can be ran through without any hiccups,” the AO explained with a bit of impatience before waving both Charles and Elise off with his hand. “Next, please.”

With the checkpoint behind them, Charles casually lead Elise towards a shuttle bay not unlike the one which greeted their arrival. There was the picturesque visage of a city past a wide, shallow track meant to coordinate the arrival and departure of driverless taxi vehicles. They were sleek and white, similar in appearance to the bullet shuttles but much smaller and compact, floating along the same types of invisible track lines as their longer, bulkier cousins.

One taxi announced with a robotic voice, “Sector nine, complex thirty-six. On route to sector nine, complex thirty-six.”

“Here,” Charles called towards the taxi with a wave, prompting a light fixed into its side to shift from green to orange. Charles led Elise towards a vertically-latched door which opened as they approached, helping to place her upon a padded booth-like seat before he followed suit.

“Third quadrant, floor seventeen, please.” Charles spoke into a small microphone mounted into the wall ahead of them while sliding a State-sponsored identification card into a slot reader. A few seconds passed before the robotic voice acknowledged its approval through a speaker system. “Voice authentication complete. Welcome, Commander Brock. Travel time will be approximately thirty-seven minutes.” Charles would then turn towards Elise, taking the time to temper his excitement before speaking. “We’re almost home.”


Sent: 1/2/2017 10:49:59 A.M. Eastern Standard Time
Subj: Re: Post #11

((I am so very sorry about the looooong delay in getting my post to you.  The holidays were crazy.  From now on, I should be good to get back to my usual quick turnaround of a day or two!))

As soon as she was reassured that she would not be leashed like some kind of animal once more, some of the tension went out of Elise.  She was still far from relaxed, but it seemed her situation was slowly becoming accepted in some manner, so that she recognized that the courtesy of not being leashed was a good thing.  What sort of regulated Hell did she now exist within, she wondered.

when they exited the shuttle and began their walk through some of the Interior of the State’s grasp, the brunette was as good as her nod of acceptance to his condition that she remain close by his side.  As much as she despised all of this, and still to a large degree Charles himself, Elise did stay within a step of the man.  There was a difference between being defiant and being stupid, and all outright defiance would get her here was further punishment, degradation, and potentially death.

When she caught sight of the poor brace being shoved ahead by her… Owner?… in such clear trauma for the experience, Charles would feel a sudden pressure on his arm as Elise wrapped one delicate hand around his forearm as if to reassure everyone around that she did indeed have a place here.  Charles would feel the harsh bite of nails through his clothing as her grip was strong and agitated.  It was almost as if she wanted him to feel some physical pain as the other Brace was feeling emotional pain. 

But her mouth remained shut through all of what she observed.  Not a word was spoken, but Charles could so easily see that her quick, intelligent gaze was taking in every bit of what was around her, storing away the information for future reference.  She wasn’t cowering within herself and blocking it all out.  No, she was taking it all in, every disturbing moment of this pristine authoritarian society she now found herself in. 

Every now and then, her jaw tightened in clear unhappiness when people were dragged away or otherwise subjugated and abused.  But she also took in the sight of those Braces who seemed happy in their place, which lent her gaze a quizzical shift.  How could anyone be happy in this sort of place, under the heel of their oppressor?  Clearly it was Stockholm Syndrome in play here. 

Thoughts ran through her head quickly, mulling over numerous possibilities as she cast a sidelong glance at Charles’ profile.  He’d seemed rather harmless thus far, even kind in a way.  But would that persist?  Would he remain kind and amiable once he grasped exactly what sort of position he was in?  It was so easy for power over another to go to people’s heads.  Regardless, she had no intention of being a complicit victim, nor begging him for scraps.

The turn through the checkpoint was rather harrowing, and when it first looked as if there might be an issue, Charles would feel that hand on his arm once more, digging fingernails into his clothed flesh beneath as if she were silently telling him to FIX IT, in no uncertain terms.  Deep inside, however, that moment of uncertainty had Elise feeling her insides turn to jelly and a true wave of terror wash through her.  Was she going to be yanked away from Charles and sent elsewhere, somewhere worse???

Finally, they were through.  Her nerve endings felt like they had been strung tighter than those on a guitar, and the perpetual state of nervous readiness she’d set herself in was becoming rather exhausting.  She’d felt a bit refreshed after her nap on the shuttle, but all it had taken was a walk through this regulated dystopia to drain all the energy out of her all over again.

By the time they’d gotten onto the smaller travel apparatus, Elise allowed herself to be guided to the padded bench and slumped down onto it with all the grace of a sack of flour.  There was no attempt to be feminine or proper at all, her knees parted and her body slumping in the seat as if she were a guy sprawling in his favorite chair, though without the aura of comfort and relaxation. 

Leaning forward, she pressed her head into her hands and groaned softly, hiding her face behind the tousled sheet of her long mahogany hair as it flowed in front of her shoulders.  She heard Charles speak about them almost being home ,and she had to bite her tongue to keep from snapping at him about how this was not her home.  Seeing the reality of how precarious her fate was had at least temporarily, sheathed her sharp tongue.

Instead, all she had the energy to say, “When we get there, I want a shower and to sleep for a week.  And both of them WITHOUT COMPANY.”  Just in case he had any ideas of getting into her personal space.

Incubii’s Order

With one final, visceral thrust, Ohmon emptied himself into the woman pinned beneath him. A groan would climb it way from his lips, deep and primal, cut short by a heavy pulse from his exhausted loins as he looked down upon the extraordinary sight of whimpering royalty. Lady Hawke, heir to the throne of the Hawke Dynasty and braggart by nature, had encountered Ohmon by chance during an expedition to the lost mountains of Dratharan, where her sexual fate was sealed. She willingly supplied her thighs to Ohmon’s whims from then on, partially due to her own infatuation but mostly because of Ohmon’s meticulous incantations. She had already bore six of his children, and now there would be a seventh to carry on the necessary task of expanding his legacy.

With an effort, Ohman shook off the last remnants of his satisfaction and reach to reclaim his discarded clothes that lay haphazardly on the floor beside the bed. The surrounding visage of an extravagant suite was already beginning to trickle itself from the plane of existence, as if to mimic the receding tides of ecstasy ebbing from the Master who willed it into being. Exotic linens, flowing drapes, and finely-carved furniture were dissolving against the simple wooden cabin that lay underneath it as misty blue lines of energy crissed and crossed, claiming vibrant details from their place in reality. Even the bed soon disappeared as Ohmon stood beside it, with Lady Hawke still laying in a dreamy daze as her fingers set about caressing her bare breasts. She would float in space until Ohmon lowered her gently into a cot with a downward wave of his hand. Sleep, Ohmon would say with a voice that was out of place for the realm which he now prowled. Sleep well, Kelona Hawke, and accept my seed once more into the womb which has done me much service.

Ohmon stood tall at 6’5”, with piercing blue eyes, flowing black hair, and bronze skin which seemed to glow against its surroundings. Strong, sturdy shoulders tapered down to a softer midsection which had lost a bit of firmness due to many decadent dinners and leisurely sex-fests. Various tattoos were scrawled upon his flesh here and there, mostly related to the tenets of the Incubii order. A pair of wings were tucked tightly against his upper back, as if he was afraid or ashamed to disclose them unless absolutely necessary. His attire was always simple, by taste and by design, and rarely deviated from a blue button-down shirt which matched his eyes, a pair of black jeans which seemed to blend with every shadow, and leather boots that were strapped almost to his knees.

Once he was fully dressed, Ohmon exited the now plainly-decorated cabin of Lady Hawke and make his way to the deck of the airship. Dusk was falling outside, with broad strokes of pink and orange painting themselves near the horizon before fading quickly to a bluish black. The captain and several deckhands were tending to navigational coordinates near the ship’s wheel. Their collective hairs would stand on end, with one hand turning his head towards Ohmon as he walked leisurely by; nothing would be seen, prompting a shrug and a return to business. Ohmon smiled, an impossibly seductive smile, before he stopped himself at the bow of the ship. With a sigh that offered no contentment nor displeasure, he looked out towards the land which scrolled languidly, far below.

Oh father, dear father. Why won’t you accept my withdrawal from the Incubii Order? The last few years of Ohmon’s life had been a blur of disillusionment and despair, tempered only by the promises of his newfound quest. He was actively fighting against a fate which seemed so sure to claim his life and soul until the end of time, all the while indulging in urges which offered no solace to his dilemma. Old habits died hard, it seemed, but a wise old prophet at a temple would provide him with a tantalizing hope. If only he would discover a long-lost artifact and perform a long-forgotten ritual, Ohmon could possibly neutralize his need to seduce every woman that crossed his path. The concept of being sated by one, and only one lover was almost beyond his comprehension, but filled him with a burning desire to cull his desires just the same. And now, Lady Hawke’s ship was taking him to the next in a trail of clues which were escalating with trials and puzzles.

Ohmon’s father was having none of this, of course. Agents were being sent to intercept his progress, though they offered no physical resistance. Instead, pleas for his return to the Order were presented with intensifying robustness. Ohmon knew it would only be a matter of time before his father brought forth more drastic measures. In fact, he wouldn’t be surprised if…

His wandering thoughts would abruptly cease. Ohmon turned his attention sharply to the multi-leveled cabin area of the ship and narrowed his eyes. A series of lessons with a psychic had made more receptive to empathic changes in his environment. Someone… or something was waiting for him there, waiting for him to make a move. He didn’t know who, or what, or where, or how… but it wasn’t sent by his father, and it wanted him dead.

Slowly, surely, he reached a small dagger upon his belt and claimed it into his right palm. The feeling was getting stronger now, and Ohmon braced himself for the inevitable. Come out and face me, he growled with steely blue eyes that were ready to bore holes into his new enemy.

Main Page

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One Disillusioned Hero

■ My submissions  

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Charles’ knees throbbed their familiar aches as he trudged doggedly towards the end of Sa’avs Pass. His boots greedily clung to mud and clay as an animated crosshatch of rain traced the contour of his cloak. He had been travelling for days, stopping only to fetch water and relieve himself, and fatigue was finally displacing his perseverance. The weight of the cargo snugly strapped to his sides proved to be every bit the nuisance that Charles had expected. A tall glass of ale will be your reward once the transaction is complete, he reassured himself, and the promise of a warm bed at an inn fueled him for the last leg of his journey.

Crossing paths with nameless travellers became a more and more common occurrence as the town of Chuthan drew nearer. His thoughts drifted aimlessly, as they often would during long journeys, until the approaching sound of clacking hooves focused his senses with a jolt. His hand gripped tightly around the hilt of his concealed rapier as the silhouette of a horse-drawn carriage appeared against the lingering fog. It slowly lumbered past until the sound of rainfall overtook its creaky wooden wheels in the distance behind him. With a breath, he relinquished his weapon and allowed himself to relax.

How did things ever come to this? Charles often wondered, but never in a resentful way. It wasn’t much too long ago that he was dubbed the Shining Savior. Charles the Invincible. The Chosen Champion. These were the titles which helped to forge the path of his childhood towards his final confrontation with the evil Emperor Raven Da’Routh as a scant seventeen-year-old. He was victorious in the end, as prophesized. Bloodied but victorious. He observed with introspective analysis that his journey had almost felt at times like he was going through the motions. With the world’s confidence backing him, how could he fail? The celebrations were long and joyous, the erected statues grand and visionary, the women loose and insatiable. Yet his mind drifted even as his desires were thoroughly quenched, comparing the befores and afters of a world where ‘good’ prevailed and seeing no discernable difference.

What were you truly fighting for, oh Great Defender? His father might ask if he were still alive, the same bureaucrat father who wholeheartedly rejected his son’s predestination. The opportunity for people to govern themselves? Surely now you see how unruly the common masses are on their own. He shook his head with a snort, conceding a half-hearted agreement with the flesh and blood which abandoned him. The world was quick to dismiss their hero, of course, when Charles cynically exiled himself from the public eye. Now, many years later, he was smuggling drugs across arbitrary borderlines, earning his keep by ensuring the availability of a synthetic drug for wealthy socialites to douse away their sorrows. An honest dishonest living, he reconciled with quiet justification.

The unmistakable rumbling of a gas-powered engine tensed the air once again. A merchant’s motorcar this time, parting its way through the incessant mist. It carried a sense of looming confrontation, even as it disappeared behind Charles’ peripheral vision. His eyes and ears steeled themselves for the inevitable.

“Halt!” A voice commanded, disregarding the fact that Charles already stood frozen in his tracks. “Surrender yourself now. Forfeit your goods without delay and forego your death!” Charles’ shoulders rose and fell with a heavy sigh, prompting two cloaked bandits to rapidly converge upon his position with their weapons drawn. He sidestepped them easily and made light work of them with his rapier, their bodies collapsing upon the rain-soaked earth with a soft thud. He swiftly turned to meet the motorcar and was faced with a large cannon, still mostly covered in tarp, aimed at his center mass.

“Last chance!” the voice called again from somewhere within the humid dark. A grunt escaped Charles’s lips before he unsheathed his sword and swiped upward with one fluid motion—the same motion which felled the Emperor endless years ago—and the motorcar split into two with a smoldering crack. The scamper of footsteps fleeing into the woods finalized his victory, and Charles reassigned his focus while retiring his sword. The beady yellow lights from the approaching town beckoned, and his weary legs eased their demands. He sifted through the empty square towards the local saloon, passing a defaced, moss-ridden equestrian statue of himself without a second glance.

As a male in Rahven Rahz, you have the choice to be perpetually aroused, or not at all. Charles was reminded of his father’s narrow-eyed observation as two bubbly, scantily-clad waitresses flanked him in greeting within the saloon. Even as their breasts happily bounced against his shoulders, he maintained his blank, unrelenting stare. They asked in unison if they could tend to his cloak, prompting a slow nod of approval. His modest attire saw light for the first time in days—a faded plaid shirt, jeans with patches of discoloration, and brown boots cracking down the seams. Charles’ dark hair and eyes seemed understated against the wash of color prevalent amongst the other patrons of the saloon. Even his 6’2’’ frame was meager compared to other humans—and he preferred it that way.

He surveyed the area and made quick mental notes of his surroundings. A piano player in the corner. Two large ogres cornering a woman with ominous intentions. A large gathering of patrons, hooting and hollering around what seemed to be a sex show. Eventually, he spotted his contact. Charles nonchalantly seated himself at the bar beside a green-skinned Jhenaf, waving off a greeting from the bartender.

A moment passed, then another.

“You have what I need?” Finally, a gruff voice from the Jhenaf before he methodically lifted his glass to his lips.

“Yeah. You have my money?”

Slowly, the Jhenaf guided his hand towards a pouch strapped to his waist. He unzipped it slowly, pulling out what looked to be a bag of coins. Of course I have it, his glance seemed to say as he placed it resolutely on the counter between them.

Taking his cue, Charles loosened the straps around his chest and let the bags of pure Molly drop into his hands. He subsequently placed them beside the coins, on the side closest to the Jhenaf. “I guess that’s that,” Charles muttered, reaching for the coins before a firm shove interrupted his acquisition.

“No payment for you today, boss.” A weapon jammed against Charles’ back made its intentions irrefutably clear. The voice was quickly assessed and determined to be either a cyclops or an intelligent sasquatch. “Now leave and don’t look back.” Charles’ posture sulked, as if to prepare his meek departure from his chair and the premises. He then slammed his fist against his chest, causing a small, rippling explosion to flare out from his back, startling his assailant backwards a few steps. He swiveled hurriedly in his stool, prepared to engage his attacker before a compelling female voice commanded the attention of the entire saloon. “Stop right there,” it ordered emphatically, persuading Charles to lower his sword as a woman emerged from the shadows of an adjacent room.

(Here’s where you take over. Develop your character’s backstory as you see fit… gangster, law enforcement, saloon owner, fair maiden, anything you like. You definitely don’t have to write as much intro as I did. I admit I had a little too much fun with mine. Thanks for taking the (long) time to read, and I look forward to your reply!)

Half of the room looked her way and froze.  The rest clued in when the music stopped.  She had the half-man, half-beast dead in the sight of her mini crossbow.  Emi was much more comfortable with the accuracy (and more importantly the range) of her longbow but for an indoor job like this the piece of craftsmanship pre-loaded with four bolts and strapped to her right forearm was ideal.

“Keep playing,” she told the piano player without taking her narrow eyes off of her target.  “I like that song,” she said.  The music resumed but the chatter did not.

There was a curtain maybe ten paces off to the wet and well traveled human stranger’s right.  Emi had stepped out from behind it.  She was at a good safe distance with a table hosting two card players in between.  Standing rigidly braced with feet shoulder width apart, she wore dirty but well kept knee high boots and faded jeans.  A cropped jacket was buckled tight around her figure, neither fat nor slender.  A brown headscarf wrapped about her concealed her hair and neck, and black grease smeared across her high cheek bones and thin pointy nose.  She was all business.  On the other side of the drug runner was his customer, Zaanad, the Jhenaf.  Standing behind the two at the bar was the brute in the crosshairs.  It had removed its blade from the stranger’s back once she had got its attention.

“Go outside and count to infinity,” she told the man-beast.  “Oh wait, never mind.  How many fingers and toes do you have again?”  She took in a breath.  “My point being, get lost.”

“Stay out of this you little twat!” growled the whatever-it-was.  “It’ll take more than that puny thing to put me down.”

“I’m a pretty good shot,” she told him with utmost sincerity.  The brute produced a knife by its tip and the two card players dove away to either side as Emi kicked their table up and over.  The blade thunked into the wooden top as she pointed her weapon at the bulk of its body and flicked the latch with her left hand.  The first bolt buried into its lower abdomen causing it to grunt and wince.  Resetting the bow mechanically fed the next bolt automatically into place.  With the beast slowed by the wound, she took an extra couple of seconds to aim proper and put the next shot through its larynx, collapsing it into a heap on the dingy floor.  The faint of heart began to scatter and leave the room but a few remained.  With the third of four bolts now loaded, she turned her sights to the bar, hoping that no more ammo would be needed.

“Go ahead,” she nodded.  “Finish your transaction.”

Without taking his eyes from Emi, Zaanad slowly slid the money sack further towards the stranger and then at the same rate of speed pulled the dope towards himself.  Either the money or the drugs would have come out the same but Molly didn’t come in different currencies nor denominations, and also had the added bonus of being significantly tougher to counterfeit.

“All right, now that that’s done.  You.  Green guy,” she called to Zaanad.  She knew his name and he knew hers but Emi refused to show the two-bit criminal the dignity.  “I’ve come to collect.  Toss it this way.”  He complied with an easy underhand lob.  The sack, perhaps twice the size of her fist landed at her feet.  The impact popped open the threading at the top and a small amount of the fine beige-grey crystal spilled out.  Kneeling down, she dabbed her pinky in it and held it to her nose.  It smelled right, like burnt honey.  It was good shit.  Emi undid the top two buckles on her jacket and stuffed the sack inside giving her the appearance of having one large right breast.  “The other one,” she urged him, weapon still aimed at him.  Extending his skinny arm again, Zaanad tossed the next one and she stepped forward and caught it before it hit the ground.  It went into the left side of her chest evening out her now full and potent bosom.  A wolf whistle came from the other side of the room, causing her to smirk.

“As if.”

“Run if you want,” warned the Jhenaf in his gargly voice.  “But you know you’ll never get away.”

“You can keep the money,” she told the stranger, snubbing Zaanad completely.  “Buy yourself a new pair of boots.”

Emi’s eyes darted around for a moment.  No one was moving.  Even the sex show had paused.  Then she reached into her back pocket and pulled out a capsule.  “Bye,” she whispered and cracked the little smoke bomb on the floor at her feet.  Behind the white shroud she disappeared behind the curtain from whence she came.

It was a small store room, dimly lit.  She had left the cellar latch open for her hasty escape.  Skipping the ladder altogether, she sat on the edge of the hole and dropped herself down.  It was a maze of kegs and shelves of bottles and Emi zigzagged her way between to the four foot metal door in the back corner.  Pushing it open, she stepped into the pitch black of the sewer tunnel and closed it behind her.  Then feeling for where she had left the old rusty piece of re-bar, she stuck it in the crack at the base of the door to jam it shut.  If any pursuers were determined enough it would not hold, but it would easily afford her enough time to vanish.  With one hand she felt her way long the wall while she re-fastened one of the buckles to hold the goods in her chest while she moved along the narrow ledge above the slimy water.  After a few yards she could hear the drip-droop-drip trickling and then soon around the corner saw the faint grey light from the drain above.  Past the dripping water and the footstamps of the oblivious pedestrians on the metal grating above, the tunnel became a small squarely shaped cement pipe, forcing her to crawl.  It would be another forty yards in the pitch dark but she knew where she was going as Emi had the route pre traced several times.  The ground was wet and grimy under her hands and knees.  Soon the dim red glow from the open trap door was visible.  Once under it she could stand up through the hole and lift herself up, shutting and bolting the trap into relative safety.

The concrete room was tiny, about six feet by eight feet by six feet high, plenty tall enough for her five-foot-two stature, with no windows.  There was a bunk and a couple of stocked shelves mounted on the wall above it.  In the corner was the small lantern tuned to red.  Wiping the muck from her hands onto her jeans, she turned the dial to tune it light blue.  That was the signal.  Emi put the drugs down on the mattress next to her pre made pack, bow and quiver, and unstrapped the crossbow from her forearm.  Unwrapping the headscarf revealed a dusty blonde fringe that hung just above her amber eyes.  The rest of her locks fell down her back in a braid.  There was no telling how much time she had.  Zaanad may never have found her, or he could just as easily be crawling right below her with extra thug power in a matter of minutes.  She had to move quickly.  Removing all her clothes including her sweaty socks and underthings, right down to her bare nothingness, she pushed through the only other exit, the side door into the commode.  Emi washed the the remaining sewer grime from her hands in the basin and then scrubbed the grease paint from her face.  A brief shower would have been nice but it was just not safe to stay any longer than she had to.

Returning to the bunk cubicle, Emi gasped in wide-eyed surprise, crossing her arms over her small bare breasts and turning her hip to hide her bush.

Charles happily welcomed the exercise in restraint as the brazen newcomer introduced herself and assumed control of the fracas. He always appreciated diversions, especially those with inherent benefits, and his sword was respectfully re-sheathed even before the brute beside him was neutralized. A wry smile greeted the increasingly-attractive stranger’s suggestion to invest in new boots with the money she allowed him to keep. Had Zaanad’s forceful glare not prompted him to action, he would have allowed the smoky remnants of her escape to envelope his quiet commendation. She clearly was no slouch at covering her tracks, and Charles viscerally applauded the challenge as he sprinted forward to begin his pursuit.

The raucous saloon with its smell of stale smoke was quickly swallowed away as Charles descended the ladder into the cellar within the store room. After a cautious analysis of the small metal door in the rear corner, he dislodged the rebar after several attempts with a fierce ram of his shoulder. Charles took in the dank smell of the sewer with a slow breath, thoughts hazily drifting towards the dark tunnel before him.

Always the ears and nose, young one. In lieu of your eyes, these are your greatest tools… The teachings of his mentoring Uncle always seemed to apply themselves to the variety of challenges he often faced. Memories of hedge mazes remained constant within his mind, those courtyard labyrinths from his youth which were navigated with bound hands and blindfolded eyes, boots desperately skirting obstacle after obstacle, having no choice but to hone the pair of senses which were so ruthlessly advocated… Charles paused in the tunnel several times with an upheld nose, nostrils flaring to acquire the scent of Molly as his ears focused upon the after-echoes of the stranger’s footsteps. Before long, he discovered the trap door which harbored his quarry and focused the newly-acquired rebar on the appropriate pressure point, bursting it open with an upward thrust. Lifting himself into the small concrete bunker, he briefly surveyed the quarters before readying himself for the looming confrontation.

Charles patiently waited with both arms folded behind his back, his rapier slung harmlessly across his shoulders. A mild blush swiftly rose and fell upon his cheeks when met with the emergence of the unclothed stranger. His eyes focused towards the ceiling as a courtesy. “Hello again,” Charles said with the faintest suggestion of a smile. “Before I begin, I’d like to thank you for the help back there, even though I suspect it was an incidental aspect of your objective.” His face soured a bit, looking almost apologetic. “Unfortunately, I’ll need to ask for that merchandise back. I’m not the biggest fan of Zandoff myself, but he is one of my major suppliers of income.” A rumbling exhale hinted at his own reluctance in his demands. “You can have a moment to, uh… put something on before you hand over the stuff if you’d like.” Charles’ body tensed for a moment after his offer. Even in her compromised state, he sensed that the woman before him was still a threat to be reckoned with.

How the hell did he get in without her hearing?  He stood there before her backlit with an aura of aqua blue lantern light.  Speaking so casually, his air was blatantly smug as he asked for the dope as if it was his to take.  The two sacks were sitting there on the bunk next to her equipment.  He could have just lifted them and have been gone before she even exited the commode, unless he had missed seeing them, but she doubted that if he was observant enough to follow her that he wouldn’t be so blind.  Instead he stayed to tease her in this most vulnerable of states.  He probably wanted more than just the drugs.

“It’s not yours,” she told him flatly.  “You sold it to Mr Lizard and he paid you.  You’re out.”  Emi needed to stall while she thought of a course of action, still standing askew, shielding her privates.  “He owed me and I collected the debt.  So now that everyone’s square, you can all go home.”  She wanted to add ‘… and jerk off,’ but decided not to antagonize him while he had the upper hand.  She did everything she could to steady her breathing and at least appear calm even though on the inside she was ready to leap around the room like a cat on the slightest of notions.

Naked or not, Emi wasn’t handing over anything, her body nor the drugs nor any other shit he might feel like adding to the list.  She didn’t give a damn about the Molly itself.  The saloon wasn’t even some simple heist.  Zaanad had fucked her over and she just evened the score.  At this point the dope was leverage for something else.  Emi could not afford to lose it now, certainly not to some two-bit drug mule of that scumbag Zaanad.  The bow would be useless in here, but her sister had always kept a knife under the mattress.  Emi hoped that it was still there almost as much as she hoped that she wouldn’t need it.

“So do you want to use the back door,” she nodded to the trap in the floor, “or the front,” she asked as she stepped aside to give him a free path to the commode and the ladder upstairs within it.

Charles studied the stranger’s eyes carefully. He desperately wanted to avoid a confrontation, and her glare suggested that she was interpreting his attempt at cordiality for arrogance. He took one final glance at the Molly situated nearby on the bunk before finding the stranger’s eyes once more. “Very well,” Charles submitted with a slow nod. “It’s yours. I’m not going to risk getting either of us killed over a mere associate of mine. I’ll just report that you were too much to handle and sent me packing.” The corners of his lips twitched as if to fight off a smile before he shifted his focus towards the trap door, carefully avoiding the stranger’s bare body. “I’ll leave the way I came, thanks. Take care.” Charles withdrew slowly, kneeling down before disappearing into the sewer below.

A few moments passed. Then, with a look of alarm on his face, Charles reemerged through the trap door. “Someone followed me,” he confessed while hastily climbing back into the room with a grunt. “They’re almost here, and I’m sure they’re not friendly.” He quickly brandished his rapier and readied it ahead of his chest, assuming a wide stance between the opening in the floor and the nude stranger behind him.

A series of disconcerting noises clustered beneath the trap door before ceasing abruptly. Charles awaited the threat with a silent, fixated stare as it undoubtedly prepared to reveal itself. Without warning, an amorphous, purplish blob began to rise from the entryway, with several loose tendrils flailing themselves haphazardly along its flanks. “Charles the Champion!” A deep, gargling voice emerged from the creature’s center mass, ricocheting off the walls with a grotesque echo. “It’s certainly a surprise seeing you alive. I’m here to rectify that.”

The creature’s tendrils formed a pair of hands on the ends, clasping themselves together as a makeshift mace to knock Charles off his feet, careening him backwards towards the bunk with a crash. The sword was dislodged from his hand and flung toward his left shoulder, impaling it against the collapsed bunk beneath him. A cry of pain shot from his lips as his eyes clenched shut with a sharp wince. The hostile creature furthered its transformation, shaping a dragonesque head with a large set of teeth which grinned its barbaric intentions. Charles busied himself with a small pouch on his belt as the creature shifted towards him, sliding upon the concrete floor with a snake-like crawl. “Your time has finally come, hero,” it growled as it cast an ominous shadow upon Charles’ awkwardly splayed body, winding its arms towards another debilitating blow. With defiant eyes, Charles hurled a small grenade-like projectile towards the sardonic smile bearing down upon him. It unleashed an expansive net on contact which engulfed the creature, causing it to retreat with a surprised snarl.

Charles watched as the creature preoccupied itself with the net while collecting his mind. A brief moment of hesitation ensued as he clenched his right hand around the hilt of his sword, grinding his teeth before he removed the protrusion from his shoulder. “Jesus…Christ,” he yelped, tossing the blade aside for a moment before claiming it within his hand once again. “I hope you weren’t lying about that way out in the bathroom,” Charles spouted towards the stranger while stumbling to his feet. “Because we need to leave. Now.”

That was too easy.  The stranger went from cocking his head aside to fit himself under the low ceiling, to kneeling down and crawling back into the sewer.  His agreeable exit did not do anything at all to gain her trust.  Tracking her all the way through the dank underground, risking his personal safety only to turn back empty handed without a fight did not add up.  As soon as the lid closed Emi tossed her pack onto it, cursing that it wasn’t heavy enough to ensure his non-return.  Shoving the drugs into the top of the pack, she began to dress herself in a frenzy.  There was no time for underpants nor socks.  She slipped into black rain slick pants and pulled her arms quickly through the sleeves of the same buckle jacket.  Then grabbing a haphazard pile of clean garments already laid out, she stuffed a fistful on top of the drugs and clipped the pack shut.  Emi sat down to slip her boots back on but left them unzipped in her haste.  The quiver went over one shoulder and the bow over the other.  A tremendous urge to just grab the pack and start moving smothered her, but the crossbow still needed to be strapped on.  She could just carry it and strap it later.  No she couldn’t.  She needed both hands to climb the fucking ladder!  Then there was the poncho.  She should just leave something behind. “Fuck!” she cursed with a huff.

Everything had been ahead of schedule until this asshole had popped up through her trap door.  She cursed herself again for letting her nerves get into such a frazzle at the worst possible time.  She strapped the crossbow onto her forearm and reached for the pack.  Just as she lifted it, the trap opened again.

“Someone followed me.”

His re-emergence was the last thing that she needed.  He hunched over the hole in wait, but Emi wasn’t interested.  This was no time for someone else’s bullshit.  She had her own trouble to deal with.  Hauling the pack over her quiver shoulder and folding the poncho over her non-crossbow arm, she backed though the doorway into the commode.

The blob burst upward into the tiny room, knocking over the lantern.  Someone had not followed him.  Something had followed him.  The blue glow flickered out but was replaced by the creature’s own creepy fluorescent violet radiance.  From a larynx and orifice unseen, it uttered it’s sarcastic and ominous threats before quickly shapeshifting limbs into appropriate implements for knocking the man crashing back onto the bunk.  Emi heard his cries of pain on her way up the ladder and assumed that he was as good as dead.  Heaving herself up onto the floor above, she stood up straight and pulled her jacket closed to cover her bare chest but before she could start running she heard his voice again amongst the violent echoing racket below.

“I hope you weren’t lying about that way out in the bathroom.  Because we need to leave.  Now.”

She was already leaving and neither was she standing in his way to leave.  At that point it did occur to her that he wasn’t dead yet and she paused in assessment.  Stop getting sidetracked, Emi scorned herself.  Other people’s problems were other people’s problems and should stay that way.  Besides, this guy had been nothing but trouble from the moment that she’d set eyes on him.  Why should she give the slightest fuck?  That purple thing was doing her a favor.

“The ladder works!” she called down.  “But you’re on your own!”

Then she stepped through the doorway into the small abandoned storefront of her sister’s former enterprise.  The only light was the dull grey that seeped between the edges of the window boards.  Three quick strides between the half-empty merchandise shelves brought her to the front door.  Emi tossed the bolt aside and stepped out into the drizzle of the street.  She would not be coming back.  The cold wet draft on her chest gave her shivers and she clutched the jacket shut with a clenched fist.

“Hey baby, wanna party?”

“Fuck off!” she scowled and kicked the gnome swiftly in the groin.  Leaving him to double over in agony, she ran head down into the alley across the street to zip her boots and buckle up her jacket.

A trail of crimson began to trickle down Charles’s shirt and pool along the lip of his belt. He clenched his left shoulder gingerly with his right hand, watching as the strange creature before him cursed the net which seemed to tighten and expand defiantly against its struggles. Nuisance net, Charles confirmed with a reminiscing smile. You’ve bought me time many times before, and I better make the most of it now. He scuttled towards the commode, dodging a flailing purple appendage along the way, and hoped that the stranger’s words from above rang true.

The ladder didn’t ascend too high, but Charles’ injured shoulder refused to lift his left arm up past his ribcage. He jumped as high as he could and grabbed a rung with his good arm, pulling himself up with a heavy grunt before securing his feet and repeating the process. He eventually reached the top, bracing his torso on the floor of the room above as his legs dangled against the adjacent ladder. Before he could muster one final push, a searing arm latched onto his right calf and yanked downwards. He growled in agony as his hands clawed against the floorboards, slowing the creature’s pull, but not for long. “Where… do you think… you’re going?” A hellish voice inquired from below.

Acting quickly, Charles reached for a small vial on his belt, almost losing his grip in the process. He unscrewed the cap and tossed it haphazardly behind him…. and waited. An irritated shriek was enough to verify his success. The net which was still draped around the creature was dissolving into a glue-like irritant, an obvious chemical reaction to whatever was in the vial. The grip around his leg weakened, and Charles hauled himself completely over the edge with one final, desperate lift. His pant leg tore from the knee, and his boot slid off his foot, joining the purple beast beneath him. He laid upon his belly, grinding his teeth at the burning sensation around his calf.

It won’t be long until that creepy asshole comes at me again, Charles thought grimly. He willed himself to his feet and scanned the abandoned shop. Glints of light reflected off of bottles which must have been potions, prompting him to stuff several into his pockets in quiet hopes towards their antiseptic properties. He limped through the front door and took in the buildings around him for a brief, serene moment… this must have been the neighboring town of Luda.

A nearby gnome caught his attention soon after, one who was cradling his crotch and angrily limping towards a shadowed figure in the alleyway across the road. What happened next almost sent Charles into a state of shock. A feathery blur swooped onto the empty street just a few meters ahead, and the gnome was gone. Instinctively, Charles looked up in the sky just in time to witness two large, nebulous shapes, one rejoining the other as they streaked against the matte black sky. His eyes slowly widened with dread.

“Oh no,” Charles muttered to himself. “No, no, no.”

A sharply curtailed scream from above confirmed his fears. “Hellbirds,” he unconsciously whispered aloud. This must be Zanaad’s doing. Charles narrowed his eyes. Or one of his superiors. He shook off thoughts from his past involving the deadly creatures and turn his head towards the alleyway. “Take cover!” he yelled at the might-be stranger before stepping back into the shop behind him. A flash of feathers burst past his peripheral vision; he realized with sickly horror that had he waited a moment longer, he would have been seized by impossibly large talons and torn to shreds.

The birds were undoubtedly circling around in preparation to double back. Without a moment’s hesitation, Charles bent over to unlace his left boot as quickly as he could.  He unfastened his belt and pressed a button near the buckle, rigidizing it with a sudden snap. The ends of the lace were tied on opposing ends of the belt, creating a makeshift bow. He then focused on his rapier, hastily unscrewing the blade from its hilt.

The rapier blade was pulled tautly against the lace and stabilized against the solidified belt. Charles listened carefully to the noises in the sky above and made a few mental calculations. After a long, slow breath, he emerged from the shop and fired the blade which arced gracefully through the air before dissolving against the dark. A moment passed. Then a loud, animalistic screech. One dark shape in the sky dominoed against the other, careening both into the hillside just beyond the town’s skyline. He dropped his improvised bow to the ground and exhaled deeply.

“This isn’t the end of it,” Charles called towards the darkness of the alleyway where the stranger might still linger. “There’s more coming. A lot more. They’re definitely after me. I suspect they’re after you as well. If you follow me, I can take you somewhere safe.” And with that, he collapsed onto his right knee, panting heavily. You’re not in any shape to take anyone anywhere, he admitted to himself.

Even on such a miserable grey day the massive bird still cast a shadow on the street.  It caught her attention before the thrash of the wings gusted a breeze down the lane and the pervy little squat was snatched up in the talons and carried away.

One moment’s peace – that’s all she wanted – forty seconds or so to get herself prepped for the road.  She couldn’t even have that.  First this weirdo tracking her down for no apparent reason and now the birds.  She didn’t think that Zaanad had the clout to call them, although his boss did.  If they were to come after her she would have expected them miles down the road or maybe the next day.  Less than ten minutes of response time wasn’t right, unless they were after someone else.  In any case she needed them about as much as a cattle prod in her panties.  Speaking of which, she still wasn’t wearing any under her clothes.  Fucking hell!

They alley of refuge was too narrow for the hellbirds to reach her, unless they landed in the street (which was likely barely wide enough for that itself) and pecked their way in with beaks.  Emi had hoped to take a moment to throw on a sweater, but instead just rebuckled the jacket, slung her arsenal over appropriate shoulders, packed up and tossed the grey poncho overtop of everything. 

“There’s more coming.  A lot more.  They’re definitely after me.  I suspect they’re after you as well.  If you follow me, I can take you somewhere safe.

Somewhere safe?  Nowhere was safe with him.  This should have been so simple.  Get on a bike and take the dope down the road to Hainburn.  She’d be there within an hour and have herself a warm room at the inn.  Now with birds in the sky, the road was not an option.  Even if they weren’t sent after her, they were quite difficult to control once unleashed as their bird brains often tended to have minds of their own.  No one was safe.  She would have to trek it through the woods on foot and would hopefully be there before dawn.

Without a word Emi set off down the lane to ditch the guy for good.  The hellbirds could have him.  She had more important matters to take care of.  The narrow strip of clouds between the rooftops above were clear of birds even if the air was filled with their not so distant cries.  After a quick check that all was clear she dashed across the next street and into the next lane.  She knew it was there somewhere in the shadows, an open grate back into the sewers.  Two dirty scruffy humans crouched low scurried before her and disappeared into the dark.  The street people seeking shelter from the hellbirds above revealed the hole to her.  The metal rungs embedded in the concrete wall descended several feet underground.

She knew the way and had traversed it many times.  This was a common tunnel that stretched for a few miles with side ledges nearly three feet wide.  It was heavily inhabited and as such was periodically lit by small lanterns.  Voices chattered here and there.  People, human or not, made beds along the edges of the walls or in alcoves.  Now and then materials such as wood or metal plates were laid across from ledge to ledge forming dwellings bridged over the current in the trough beneath.  Emi moved quickly, resisting the urge to run as she needed to pace herself for the journey ahead.  People usually kept to themselves but sometimes there would be the odd pickpocket or once in a while someone would block the ledge and want to collect a toll to pass by, so she had to keet her eyes sharp for trouble.  Stepping over sleeping bodies and briskly passing panhandlers with a cold glare she kept moving on the slight downhill grade.

The dim glow of daylight and the source of the cool breeze drawing in, considerably fresher than the air inside the tunnel, was near.  A few more yards and she stepped her way through the loitering crowd at the opening to the outside world.  There were no hellbirds, just clouds darkening into night.  There was no following stranger, just several hours of wilderness between her and her destination.  Garrn was waiting for her at Hainburn.  ‘Just go’ she thought to herself.  ‘Just go’.  She needed no more interruptions nor delays.  There was too much at stake.  Despite the setbacks she was still going to make it.  Emi strode along the path stamped into the garbage of the waste yard and off into the sheltering trees at the other side.

His shoulders slumped as he watched her go, mirroring the defeat which was painted in broad strokes across his face. His bluff was an obvious dud, and now half his limbs were useless as the chances for escape rapidly spiraled towards hopelessness. “This is shaping up to be some kind of night,” he muttered to no one in particular, standing himself up with a near-colossal effort. Fate, it would seem, was bearing down fast, and he turned to meet the purple shadow bearing down upon him with a shrug of his shoulders as if to say,ya got me. The purple beast-thing swiped angrily with its arm and sent Charles flying towards the wall of a building across the street, slamming him awkwardly before he fell to the ground with a sickly crunching sound. Two Jhenafs waiting in the shadows of nearby alleys quickly approached his defenseless body, brandishing their guns at his head with satisfied smiles. “Not even a chance for some epic last words,” he regretfully thought as his vision faded towards an enveloping shroud of matte black. “Maybe next lifetime.”

Charles would wake up with a massive headache and sharp pain in his ribcage, strapped to a chair with his arms firmly secured behind it. His eyes adjusted themselves to a lone bulb hanging from the ceiling of a room with sharp yellow light that bled in through his eyelids. There were thick sheets of shadows surrounding the bulbous beacon of vision, and he sensed beings within them, squinting his eyes to try and distinguish their silhouettes. There was no way to determine how long he had been out; Charles’ mind was too groggy to theorize the whats, wheres and whys of his situation. He did, however, find that his ribcage was wrapped with bandages, as was his calf and shoulder. A door opened and closed behind his field of vison, giving Charles a strange wave of relief as he was happy to forfeit his attempts at playing detective. Footsteps approached, slow and methodical, until what appeared to be a well-dressed, humanlike figure with albino snake-like skin and beady red eyes revealed itself against the light.

“Charles the Champion! Finally, you’ve returned to us from your little nap.” Its voice was jolly and personable as a slithery smile spread across its face. Charles lifted his eyes to meet the creature’s arrival, then weakly shook his head in defiance. “Stuh… stop. Calling me that.” His voice was a gargle, somewhat choked in dried blood. The classy snake-thing smiled ever wider at his response and continued. “Ah, but you see, that is why you are still alive, my friend. We need someone with a sterling reputation, someone with many a battle under his belt who can help us achieve our ends. Someone who has experience with a wide variety of weapons and martial arts, someone who is perhaps looking for purpose after freeing the people from their oppressive tyrant…”

Charles shrugged. He didn’t know who the snake-thing was talking about.

“YOU!” The snake-thing bellowed in wide-eyed exasperation. “We need YOU. Believe it or not, even your most zealous enemies have an immense respect for you. Now, I wouldn’t call myself your enemy, but I couldn’t resist the chance to employ your services.”

The obvious question climbed out of Charles’ mouth rather easily. “What makes you think I’d be willing to do your dirty work for you? Even for a price?”

There was a nod from the snake-thing towards a corner of the room behind Charles, and a Jhenaf took his cue to emerge from the shadows. “I apologize in advance,” the snake-thing said with a half-hearted frown. Charles had no time to react before the Jhenaf placed something slimy, something… living on the base of his neck. “We can only conduct this procedure if you’re conscious, and I’m afraid it’s rather unpleasant at first. But you’ll get used to it, I promise.” Charles saw the wide, jolly smile of the snake-thing one last time before he felt… something… melt into his spine. Soon it felt like his consciousness was being cascaded by streams of foreign thoughts, and he realized in horror that these thoughts were in fact… instructions. There was no time to fight or struggle; his mind was quickly swallowed up with a will that wasn’t his own.

“Now, then. We have a great many tasks for you to complete… but. That woman you were fraternizing with earlier. I’ll peg her as your first objective, since she is fresh on our minds.” The snake-thing folded its arms, and the first true emotion of displeasure appeared on its face. “NO ONE steals from me, not the slightest bit of merchandise. An example must be made post-haste. You are to find her and neutralize her on sight. Retrieving the stolen goods is preferred but not necessary. Understood?” Charles nodded his head with a motion that indubitably expressed his full compliance.

The snake-thing reached into his overcoat and pulled out a small vial with bright-green contents, offering them to Charles which he readily accepted into his mouth. “That’s a healing potion. You already probably feel your pain fading away, but give it an hour or so to fully work its wonders.” With that, the Jhenaf released him from his binds, and Charles stood up from his chair with steely-eyed determination. “We also have something to accompany you. A bloodhound of sorts.” The snake-thing grinned as a small, orange, bat-like creature flew down from the rafters above and hovered nearby. “This little guy has an impeccable sense of smell. He should be of some use in your hunt for the woman.” Charles saluted his acknowledgement before inviting the bat-thing to perch on his shoulder. “Yes, Master Raleth. I live only to serve you.”

An hour later, Charles was revitalized, resupplied, and repurposed, slipping back into the night with grim intentions.

She trudged on through the night, over knolls and across gullies and ravines.  There was moonlight when it found its way through the foliage or when the route traversed sections of dead barren branches scorched by the chemicals and fires of various conflicts and enterprises over the years, but it did help that Emi knew the way.  For the first couple of hours she periodically checked over her shoulder for signs of a tail, even stopping briefly to listen for the rustling of footsteps that weren’t there.  Each time she noted no evidence and grew more and more confident that she had given him the slip.  The absence of hellbird cries was also a relief.  Pushing onward she had no time to lose.  There was no sense in rueing her detour.  All would work out in the end so long as she persevered.  Just one night of this would be worth it.  She would deliver the goods and it would be over.  It had better be over.  Emi wasn’t sure if she could take another twist in this unwelcome plot that she had been thrown into, so she forced herself to believe that the epilogue was finally drawing near.

Sometime around midnight she sat for a rest and to eat.  The clouds had cleared away and the rain had stopped and so setting down her packs, she discarded the poncho, escaping its sweaty confines.  Resting her bum on a fallen tree she tore off a bite from a protein bar and chewed quickly.  The rest of the bar didn’t last long and she washed it down with a long drink of water.  Her crotch had been chafing in the rain slick pants and she had spent the past hour or more constantly readjusting the chest of her jacket.  It was uncomfortable trekking through the woods with no underthings.

Unbuckling the jacket, she laid it on the log.  Then she leaned down to unzip and pull off her boots before standing up to slip off the pants.  With firm and sturdy thighs stark naked in the moonlight, she bent over to retrieve bra and panties from her pack and quickly stepped into the panties, pulling them up her thighs and over her hips and wiggling her bum into them.   Then she slipped the bra, a comfortable stretchy top, over her head and straightening it into place around her ribs.  Her breasts were not large enough to really warrant the support, but the covering would keep them from rubbing around in her clothes while on the trail.  In the distance was the chirping of a bat.  It came closer and circled around.  She looked up but could see nothing.  The chirping circled once more and then faded away generally in the direction that it had come.  Emi undid her braid and picked her dark gold locks loose with her fingers.  Then she took another drink of water, pulled on the pants and returned her bum to the fallen tree.  The fresh night air was soothing.  Her legs were tired and were content to be still.  Relaxation began to set in.  Shutting her eyes brought serenity.  Just a couple of more minutes wouldn’t hurt anything.  Perhaps she could even lie down.

Emi suddenly awakened with a chill.  It was cold out half dressed in the wilderness and she had nearly dozed off.  Sleep was the enemy.  She had to keep moving, keep the adrenaline pumping on until Hainburn.  She could do it.  She could suck it up.  She could rest when it was done.  Standing up straight, she tied her hair quickly in a knot bun.  Then she slipped her boots back on and buckled up her jacket.  Reshouldering her packs, she left the poncho behind and started moving.

A couple of hours later, scurrying down the slope of a dry ravine, she heard the chirping of another bat.  It circled above a couple of times and faded away just like the one before.  The moonlight softly crowned the round stones in the dead creek bed showing Emi the best footing.  She stepped her way across and clambered up the far bank to pick up the trail on the other side.

Hunger was beginning to rear its head once more but Emi didn’t want to stop.  She was making good time and was not interested in losing any momentum.  The trail was gently rolling downhill by then, which meant that she was within a couple of miles.  The orange glow of pre-dawn was in the sky to the left.  Her thighs burned and her feet ached but she didn’t care.  Eventually topping one of the knolls revealed a treeless dry plain with a silhouetted spire in the middle of the horizon against faint morning pink.  The sun was rising and she had made it.  Hainburn was dead ahead.

Picking up her pace, she could hear wheels and engines on the road coming and going from the town.  The sun, a stark orange ball of fire, rose to the east and Emi reached into her pack for dark shades.  As the town grew closer she could identify the buildings, and even hear the bustle.  Hainburn never slept.  There were no gates and there were no rules.  Emi maintained her determined pace straight into the square.  Humans, monsters, aliens, all kinds crossed from one establishment to another, in cars, on bikes and on foot, from tavern to whorehouse to casino and back again.  Off to her left two frogmen were wrestling an orc to the ground.  On the right a gnome and a human were engaged in hysterical laughter as they urinated on each other from about five paces.  Up ahead a jhenaf sat on the tailgate of a truck and facilitated a drug transaction as a human girl fellated him from the end of a collar and chain.

Directly ahead was the spire, a tall pointed monolith erected at the face of the cathedral beneath it.  Hainburn, once a center of virtue, was now a mecca of sin.  The stone beneath her feet was marked with huge arcs, once revered but now merely mostly legible.  There were thirteen of them, once for each lunar cycle of the year and as the sun passed over each day the point of the epic spire would cast its shadow along the arcs and tell the date and time.  The town square was a great clock and calendar.  It had become popular culture to deface the arcs, tagging them with personal events, birthdays, death days, rapes and other triumphs.  Historical events were easy to spot and always drew large gatherings upon their anniversaries.

Emi was there for none of that.  She had one piece of business to take care of.  It was all that mattered.  The cathedral and its thirteen steps stood just a few yards before her.  It was the destination.  Garrn was there.  He ran Hainburn and he had what she needed.

The frayed landscapes of war which bled out from Luda’s limits pushed outwards against the thickened shroud of night, presenting deep pockets of forest on a whim. Charles shifted and contorted his body with uncanny foresight to avoid the fallen branches which flanked his swift pursuit like outstretched arms. His black fatigues offered nothing to the moon in terms of reflection, save for two fastened rows of daggers trailing down his obliques, complementing the rapier strapped to the side of his hip. Four pairs of pockets also concealed trios of poisoned darts along the seams of his pants. His jet-black hair was neatly slicked back, and the sides of his face were freshly shaven, with a patch of beard on his chin as a soldier’s distinction. All in all, Charles was certainly dressed to kill.

His keen ears kept their focus upon the bat-creature whose chirp managed to carry from a considerable distance ahead. He kept an appropriate separation, knowing it would be key towards maintaining his strategic advantage. The girl he sought had business; of what sort, Charles didn’t know. But the closer she was to completing it, the more vulnerable she would be. 

After approaching a small clearing, Charles’ tenacious pace abruptly ceased. Raising his nose to the sky, he focused himself upon a particular fallen tree and paced its perimeter like a wolf encircling its prey. Eventually, Charles sat himself down with a look of satisfaction as he huffed and snorted the air around him. The conquering force which pulsed between his ears seemed to implement a strange set of enhancements to Charles’ inherent biology. Yes, yes. She was most certainly here. She exposed her flesh to the air. Such a sweet scent, she has. The consciousness of Charles’ true self, thoroughly oppressed to this point, suddenly swelled against his occupied mind, riding a wave of ravenous lust. No. We mustn’t find her. We mustn’t kill her. Turn back. We must turn back. With some effort, the foreign presence reasserted its control, quelling the last rebellion that Charles’ primal instincts could muster. Her death is necessary. Her death is imminent. It is all that matters. To us. To me.

The orange bat-creature finally returned over the treelines with erratic flaps of its veiny wings, spiraling its descent onto Charles’ left shoulder. It chirped and squeaked against its master’s ear, relaying the details of its investigation. Charles processed the information with a meditative thought before nodding his approval. “Excellent. We know now of her final destination. Our pursuit must be carefully coordinated to avoid detection.” The sun was beginning to rise against Charles’ back, causing bluish shadows to sift into existence amidst the muted colors of daybreak. He casually lifted himself from his seat, completing a few calisthenic exercises before setting back on the chase.

Charles emerged with tired legs from a thick morning mist towards a worn, faded sign which declared the outer limits of Hainburn. A drunken harlot lay sprawled upon its large wooden frame, limbs dangling towards the clayish mud on the ground. She would eye Charles’ approach and hiccup before rolling upon her side to lazily improvise a seductive pose. “Care t’ave a go, govnah?” she suggestively slurred, lifting her lacy dress past her belly button to reveal a slick fork of lines which contoured her loins. Charles continued past without a second glance and took position atop a nearby cliff which overlooked his objective in the distance. A downhill climb of a mile or so was all that remained before he would find himself within the center of town. The scent of debauchery was strong even from where Charles stood with blank, determined eyes as he surveyed the structures and landmarks. But the girl’s scent was stronger. She was close. Very close.

It wasn’t long until the raucous saloon of Hainburn beckoned. The sun hung just above the outstretched rise of buildings, casting a deep pool of shadow below Charles as he approached the hinged bat-wing entrance. He emerged inside to witness an ogre pinning a woman halfway up an adjacent wall with his crotch, finishing his business with a climactic groan that rippled down his back like a slithering watersnake. In fact, almost every square inch of the place was engaged in some lecherous or illegal activity, making Chuthan seem like a child’s playpen. After a quick inspection, Charles carved himself between two elves doing lines of pinkish powder on the bar counter, yelling towards the tapster who was himself zipping up the front of his pants.

“I need your help,” Charles stated impatiently, placing a tall stack of gold coins next to a forgotten glass of half-finished mead. Money certainly seemed to speak volumes here, as the tapster dropped everything and turned his full attention towards the stranger before him.

“I’m looking for someone, a woman. Jeans, boots, coat, gold hair. Seen anyone of the sort?”

The tapster’s eyes darted from the coins to Charles’ eyes as he offered a slow nod. “Yessir. My boys always keep tabs on who comes and goes. She was seen, all right, but can’t say where she ended up. It’s a big town, plenty of nooks and crannies, y’see.” The way his voice trailed suggested he had more information that could be bought, but Charles dismissed the bait. Instead, the bat-creature would depart from his shoulder yet again towards the world outside.

“My winged friend will find exactly where she is. In the meantime, those coins are for your ‘boys’ to pass the word along. I am not to be bothered during my business here… be it blood, sex, or death. Understood?” Charles left the tapster with a burning gaze before calmly retiring himself towards a darkened corner to wait for the bat-creature’s report. The game, it seemed, was quickly racing towards its end.

Ascending the steps to the cathedral, the chirp of another bat circled overhead.  Emi paused a moment to look skyward with a smirk but saw only the glare of the morning sun.  What were bats doing in town, and in daylight hours?  Continuing on, the large right side copper door was propped open for business. Emi entered into the front hall beneath the spire.  Gaudy artwork hung on the walls.  A prostitute was passed out on a dingy sofa to the left.  On the right was a counter top and several heavies stood guard at the door to the inner auditorium.

“I’m here to see Garrn,” Emi approached the scarred slab of a man behind the counter.

“You and half of Raven Rahz,” he growled back.  His dark hair was greying and was pulled back and seemed to be the same length as his well kept beard that hung to his belly.

“He’s expecting me.”

“He’s not here.”

“No bullshit,” she said tersely.  “I need to see him.”

“No bullshit.  He’s not fuckin’ here,” the man croaked without the slightest flinch.  “He’s at The Dom,” he said as he nodded towards the door.

“At this hour?” she prodded.

“His new ogre is fighting tonight,” he answered.  “He’s making preparations.”

“When is he coming back?”

“Garrn comes and goes when he wants,” he shrugged.  “Could be there all day.”

“Thanks,” Emi said with a healthy dose of sarcasm as she turned to walk out.  Back on the thirteen steps, Emi had to maneuver around a dead body that had not been there when she had entered a moment before.  In Hainburn this was not entirely unexpected.

“What ya got in the bag, pretty thing?” a froggy voice to the right stopped her.  An orc stood at the foot of the steps, scaly squatty and wide and outfitted in torso armor and a long coat.  Another, similarly clad, closed in from the left.  This one was female as Emi discerned by the shape of the chest plate.

“The Emperor’s ashes.”  Emi could not have been less in the mood for confrontation.  The orcs snickered at her little joke.

“Bullshit,” the first one said.  “Why don’t you tell us what’s really in there.”

“Your ass!”

With that she engaged in a pre-emptive strike and drew her dagger with her left hand, staring down the male as she raised her crossbow arm across her body and fired at the female without looking.  The orc’s wince from her left confirmed the hit.  Then Emi leapt up onto the stone railing and jumped at the male lining up the heel of her boot with his snout.  The monster jumped back out of the way and rolled.  As he took time to recover his stance, Emi turned to the female and charged.  Due to her lack of careful aim, the bolt had only lodged in the creature’s upper arm.  The female turtled behind her shield but Emi kicked her tumbling over and pounced.  The orc’s thick skin made slitting the throat difficult but Emi was determined and finished her off before swiftly spinning around and pointing the crossbow at the male who stood at about ten paces with shotgun drawn.  He stopped in his tracks, lowered his weapon and backed away.  After a few steps he turned and ran to the smattering of applause from the onlookers.

“We should see her in The Dom!”

“A hundred creds on the chick!”

Emi straightened herself up and the small gathering parted to let her past.

In more enlightened times The Dom had been known as The Vardossian.  It was a forum in the round and was a center of the arts.  Drama and dance were commonly performed there.  These days it was a combat arena and the matches within drew heavy wagering.  The capacity was about 4000 and the building was easily recognizable by it’s limestone domed roof which had a hole caved in just to the left over the front entrance allowing a certain fraction of the elements to periodically influence the events within.  Previous proprietors had renamed and remarketed the venue simply as The Dome and as such had affixed garish purple neon letters above the front gate.  Some years later the E ceased to light and was never serviced and hence the venture was affectionately dubbed The Dom by the general public.  The crowds in attendance often fought amongst themselves and it was certain that a handful of spectators would not survive a main event.  Even the combatants were occasionally known to kill fans, inadvertently or not.

Emi approached the building.  She had to find Garrn and get this over with.

Charles brooded with silent intensity as he sat quietly at his corner table, in contrast to the gluttonous excess which swirled around him. His arms were rigid and exposed, palms flat to the wood, as if to pacify some unseen interrogator. He turned away several two-bit solicitors eager to sell him drugs or sex with eyes that burned like hot coals. Finally, his patience would be rewarded, as his heightened senses clawed through the noise to fixate upon the bat-thing calling him outside for a rendezvous. Charles overturned his table with a swift brush of his arm before rushing himself out of the tavern, hand steadied upon the hilt of his rapier. The chase was on again, as was the certainty upon his face.

As he followed the winged, orange beacon flapping an erratic trail several feet above, Charles would come across a cathedral a half-mile across town. The holiness of the ground it stood upon was obviously tainted through years of blatant desecration and abuse. There was chatter amongst a nearby group, praising the exploits of a human female who effortlessly slew one Orc and sent another fleeing with his tail between his legs. Charles postponed his pursuit to accommodate an impromptu investigation, and quickly deduced that the responsible party must be the girl he’s looking for. Unbeknownst to him, trouble was brewing near the opposite side of the crowd, as three giant figures hastily approached Charles with malicious shadows. The group of onlookers redirected their attention to watch and whisper as he slowly lifted his eyes to meet the new threats which glared down from above.

“There you are,” a Cyclops gleefully bellowed while snatching the bat-creature out of the air with its hand, crushing it to death with one firm, bone-crunching squeeze. It was soon joined by a species of Jhenaf, one that Charles had never seen before, standing three times taller than its cousin; as well as some kind of hulking, horned demon with weird mechanical augmentations protruding from its arms and chest. “You were so kind to provide us with a bribe before, but I’m afraid it wasn’t enough. We now need everything you have.” The trio of Giants joined together in a chorus of mocking laughter. “In exchange for your life,” the demon-thing added in addendum, as if their intentions weren’t already clear enough.

This was certainly an unexpected development, and there was no time to waste. “Enough of this horseshit,” Charles growled as he claimed two daggers into his hands. He lunged at the giant Jhenaf, still recovering from its guffaw, and quickly clambered up its armor towards an exposed area of its neck to carve a deep, crescent-shaped wound between two vertebrae. A piercing yelp pried itself free from its mouth as the giant stumbled forward before toppling to the ground with a loud thud.

Charles leapt away from the Jhenaf to reestablish his footing before narrowly sidestepping a large hammer which slammed down with murderous determination from the Cyclops. His battle-honed instincts took control, realizing that the hammer’s weight would buy at least a moment’s worth of time to bury two fistfuls of poison darts into its exposed forearm. The Cyclops reeled backwards with a beast-like roar of pain as it desperately yanked the needles from its flesh. A few moments passed before it collapsed to its knees, then to its side, desperately gasping through the foam which collected across its lips.

Two giants were already neutralized; the demon-thing was all that remained. It wouldn’t move an inch amidst the escalating carnage, slowly charging itself with a loud hum. A bright-yellow pulse of electricity would finally shoot towards Charles from its palms, hurtling him backwards into the crowd that conveniently braced against a crippling impact. Onlookers would observe that he drew his rapier just in time, seemingly to absorb and redirect most of the shock, though his body still smoldered with hazy plumes of smoke. A moment to recover was all that he needed; as the monster powered itself again, Charles readied himself by analyzing the creature’s weakest points. Three airborne daggers would quickly embed themselves into its various mechanics with devastating precision. The demon-thing mustered an incredulous look before a loud screech blared outward from deep within its chest. Its robotic features burst apart in chunks of shrapnel, followed by a strange churning sound as it seemed to deactivate, leaving it to stand while its eyes stared lifelessly towards the ground.

One final inspection of the three fallen giants emphasized their apparent defeats. The Cyclops gurgled helplessly while languishing upon its side, prompting Charles to finish him off with the last of his darts directly through its heart. There was one final spasm of life before the Cyclops’s haggard breathing sputtered to a pathetic halt. Charles basked across the massacre that lay before him, retiring his rapier as he sneered with spiteful eyes. “Behold my works, ye mighty…” He interrupted himself with an abrupt shake of his head. This was no time to gloat or get carried away. The girl’s trail was fresh, but alas, his bloodhound was dead.

Charles turned to the onlookers and queried with a loud voice, “The girl who was here before. Where did she go?” A sea of still, uncertain faces met his request before one response broke the silence. “Most likely the Dom,” a voice called from the throng’s rear by a disgruntled Orc. “Only logical place for someone like her, in my eyes.” The crowd parted to clear the space between them. Charles studied the Orc’s vengeful eyes with his own narrowed gaze before nodding his acknowledgement. This one wasn’t lying. And it was time to go.
It wasn’t long until he arrived at the Dom. There was a sea of spectators pushing and shoving their way through long ticket lines amongst the place-betters and sharks seeking to doom their unwitting customers. Charles would regretfully reflect upon the death of his winged companion as he navigated through the obnoxiously loud crowds. He couldn’t believe his luck, however, when he inadvertently spotted the girl from afar with wide, incredulous eyes. His first instinct was to reach for a poison dart, but a curse escaped his lips when he realized there were none left to use. This would have to be an intimate encounter. No easy task, especially given the environment they both were in and the skilled warrior she seemed to be.

Quickly, Charles assessed the situation. She was here on some kind of business—and if he was smart, he could use that to his advantage. But, there was one self-imposed stipulation that would take precedence in his strategy. The girl’s life must be claimed by him, him alone, and no one else. He must be the one to carry her lifeless body to the welcoming arms of his Master to do with as he pleased. No doubt she had ties to unsavory characters who were quick to violence and prone to ambush. He followed at a safe distance, watching carefully to ensure she never left his sight.

There was a rough hubbub in the place even at this early hour.  The lighting was dim and so Emi removed and pocketed her shades before shifting through the crowds.  Lines of bettors of all shapes sizes and textures jawed over who the best combatants were and argued over place in line.  In the booths, the agents of bookies sat behind protective cages and logged the names and amounts.  Wagering was not Emi’s business.

Through the vomitory the ring stood empty – a perfect circle enclosed and topped by cage to keep the combatants within.  Emi approached the iron barred gate and addressed the guard.

“I need to see Garrn.”

“Line up with the rest of whores at the cathedral,” he said.  The man (most of Garrn’s employ were in fact human) stood looming large in a long coat with a shotgun, a few days of dark greasy stubble and a hairline receding well back.  Behind him dust hung in the bold streams of sunlight cast diagonally across the seating bowl through the jagged hole in the roof.  “But I’ll say that his tastes are much higher than you, so your chances are low.”

“I don’t want his dick,” she spat tersely.  “This is business.  He’s expecting me.”

“He didn’t mention any appointments.”

“He gave me a deadline and I’m here,” she persisted trying not to appear too antsy.  The gate guard paused in contemplation.

“Who should I say is calling?” he finally relented.

“Tell him it’s the bitch from Luda.”

The guard nodded to a skinny hairless fellow with an extremely round skull and pointy chin behind the gate, who returned the nod and took leave.

She had thought him long gone, but there he was.  On the other side of the far betting lines he was standing there.  The black clothes were new and he had cleaned himself up and shaved, but it was definitely him.  She tensed up at the sight of him.  Why would he come all this way for two lousy bags of molly?  The bastard had to be working for Zaanad.

“He says to come back here in an hour,” said the runner with the round bald head who had returned.  Emi looked at the skinny guy behind the gate and then back at her stalking stranger, then back to the messenger again.

“Fine,” she said through gritted teeth as her chin jutted out.  “One hour.  Right here.”

The guard nodded assuredly.

Emi exited the vomitory and returned to the concourse.  He was watching her.  He had to be even if he was acting as if he weren’t.  She felt confined.  There would be more space in the square.  There was always safety in the wide open.  Without breaking stride she made her way around to one of the side entrances, glancing once over her shoulder along the way.  Outside, she redonned the sunglasses and replenished the spent bolt in the crossbow.  Then she took to a quick jaunt out towards the summer solstice mark, turned and readied her longbow at ease.  She’d had more than enough of this guy.

Charles patiently gauged his quarry’s reaction after his position was compromised, and her response was indisputable in its intent. She was no doubt trying to lure him into an arena where she could secure some sort of advantage. In a way, Charles’ occupied mind regretted the inevitable showdown as he began to carve his pursuit through the mindless throngs surrounding him. So be it, then. Lead the way to your demise. I have no qualms with you dying on your own terms. It’d be a fitting end to such a worthy opponent.

As he approached the square near the cathedral, Charles noticed three horse-drawn wagons, one for each of the three giants he abolished earlier. Pairs of officers were systematically hauling their corpses upon the beds. Charles hastily took cover behind one of the wagons after taking note of his adversary’s relative position. A chorus of gasps and groans rose from the loitering crowds would command his attention as he contemplated his next move.

“The woman! There’s the woman who killed the orcs!”

Charles held his breath, anticipating the next inopportune announcement.

“Look! The giant-slayer! There he hides, behind the wagon!”

Well, there goes any hope of a surprise attack, Charles thought with a roll of his eyes while reassessing the situation. His quarry currently claimed an advantage with her long-range weaponry, and her proficiency would quickly unveil itself. The fluttery thwip of an arrow vertically penetrating the dirt several feet before him widened Charles’ eyes with incredulity. No fucking way. There’s simply no way that she could have arched that over the wagon with such accuracy. But there the evidence was, lethal in its implications. He had to move fast and think faster, or he was done for.

As Charles maneuvered towards another wagon with an approximate trajectory towards his foe, the fleeting sensation of pierced air was felt near his calf before he managed to climb into its canopied seat. Ignoring the commands of the officers, Charles snapped the reins, prompting the horses to gallop themselves forward. He had to dislodge her position and get her scrambling; somehow, someway. She was much too dangerous an opponent with a steady stance and halfway-decent line of sight.

Charles’ frame would be adequately concealed by a wooden lip as he leaned upon his side for cover. One final peek above his mobile foxhole would finalize his preparations as his rapier was drawn into his hand. He would leap out and rush her once she was forced to find cover and end this, once and for all. 

She saw him exit The Dom and the confrontation was obvious.  Even the onlookers knew.  Instantly he went for cover between the wagons so to keep him on the run she arched the first shot up and over, only missing him by a couple of feet.  Her second shot flung out as she caught a glimpse of his leg mounting one of the vehicles.  It was on the mark but she had failed to get the shot off quick enough for his dexterity.  Emi cursed her failure through gritted teeth.

He was aboard and soon he had the carriage stampeding her way, hastily lessening the distance between them and inconveniently providing him cover as well.  She couldn’t get a good shot at him, but she could hit the horse as easily as she could spit and hit the ground.  Emi drew and slung an arrow right into the muscle of its front right flank.  The beast reared up and neighed a hellish painful whine, spooking the other two horses as well.  The one of them jaunted a few strides away and rested but the other gave chase to the wounded steed, kicking up more dust.  The wounded horse bucked around wildly on three legs jerking its wagon and occupant about and Emi sprinted to her right to evade the chaos.  Then out of the dust of its hooves and wheels came the second charging horse galloping a straight line in a random course across the square cutting off Emi’s escape.  Lost in the dust cloud that overcame her she could see nothing but grey-beige haze that stung her eyes and forced forearm over her mouth and nose.

Sound was all that she had to go by so when she heard the hooves and wheels of the bolting second horse roll past and into the distance she headed into the direction of its wake until she could breath easier again.  Seeing her boots clearly under her dark lenses but nothing clearly through the lenses themselves, she realized that, much like the rest of her, her shades had been coated with a thick layer of the dust.  She took them off and squinted in the bright sunlight, then wiped them reasonably clear with her fingers and put them back on.  She turned to face the dust cloud churning behind her and heard her pursuers beast bucking in pain somewhere within it.  With a braced stance she drew her bow, but had no idea where her target was.

Charles was an unresponsive blank slate, staring ahead blankly as a cloud of dust danced around him. A trail of yellow-green ooze trickled down his left ear as he climbed with a concentrated effort to his feet. For the longest moment, he didn’t know when, where, orwho he was.

Slots of memories began to fill themselves in, one by one. In the bat of an eye, every memory since birth was sequentially realigned in its proper place, punctuated by his most profound experiences… such as the gaze of venomous hatred he witnessed while sliding his rapier through the Emperor’s heart, to a series of intensely passionate nights spent with a Healer named Andrea, to the time he was flung from a rampaging wagon onto the ground with an awkward thud.

Oh fuck, his mind would proclaim with an echo that tensed each muscle and tendon in his body. That just happened.

The protective cloud of dust which concealed his position was dispersing itself as quickly as it had formed. The sound of stampeding horses had by now became distant and inconsequential. Several yards away, he could see the muddled silhouette of the woman he was supposed to eliminate.

Now, why the fuck was I trying to kill her? Charles’ mind was scrambling to make sense of the black void that happened since…

Oh, hell. Oh, holy fucking shit. The snake-thing.

The sensation of something slimy slipping through the back of his neck clawed its way to the forefront of his introspective investigation. He had a hold of me, Charles almost said aloud in a flash of dawning comprehension. The snake-thing had a god-damned hold on me.

The dust cloud had now all but disappeared, and the archer woman would be pinpointing his position in a handful of seconds or less. Charles resigned himself to a series of arrows in his crotch and chest with a heavy, ironic sigh. The woman who was an integral part of his life since yesterday just didn’t seem the type to acknowledge the pleas of a desperate man who wasn’t under his own influence.

Then, he saw it. Someone, or something from the crowd had drawn a sword and was approaching the woman with a steady march. However, with the dust cloud’s dispersal, he didn’t exactly have the advantage of stealth. Charles was ready to witness the confrontation with a laugh, as the woman’s reflexes would undoubtedly kick in before he himself was laid down in a flurry of flesh-piercing arrows.

Something possessed him, however, some primal thing that could possibly be called pride, and Charles threw down his dagger defiantly into the ground behind him.

“Hey, asshole!” Charles called as loudly as he could through gritted teeth. “She knows you’re coming, and she’s too much for you anyway. Why not try me instead?”

The threat turned its attention towards the challenging voice with a frown. Charles could now see that it was a lanky Jhenaf with a pair of eyes that were controlled by something other than its own consciousness.

So, Charles concluded in his newly-freed mind. The snake-thing believed in insurance policies.

The pair of soon-to-be brawlers mutually closed the distance between each other, culminating in a piercing air attack which Charles side-stepped easily. He engaged an onslaught of blade attacks with a boxer’s stance, weaving and bouncing as the Jhenaf tried desperately to land a blow.

After a few exchanges, Charles saw an opening and landed a blow with his left fist on the Jhenaf’s temple. It immediately collapsed to the ground with a grunt of defeat.

Charles shook the pain from his knuckles while hovering over his fallen opponent. On its forearm was a tattoo that resembled the snake-thing which had claimed his mind the night before, confirming his suspicions.

“So, your asshole boss couldn’t trust me to do the job, huh?” Charles snorted his disdain as a drop of yellow-green slime fell from his ear upon the Jhenaf’s torso.

“The job gets done every time,” the Jhenaf muttered in his daze, sputtering bluish-gray blood through his teeth. “Every… single… time.”

With a sickly feeling in the pit of his stomach, Charles knew what was coming next. He saw that the Jhenaf was packing heat, confirmed by the cylindrical impressions underneath its cloak. He had a few seconds at best to do something before he and the archer woman were blown to smithereens.

The explosion happened in a series of pulses which sounded like lightning, leveling the nearby cathedral and clearing the area of onlookers in the process. There was a loud crack as the cathedral’s tower crumbled and snapped in two after hitting the ground. It took a minute for the dust and debris to settle and reveal the outcome of the hellbent Jhenaf’s suicide mission.

Charles and the archer woman were protected by a transparent bubble which could only be distinguished against the dust which circulated around it. With a sneer, Charles discarded a small metallic pouch from his hand displaying the words, ‘front toward enemy’ in stenciled lettering.

“He shouldn’t have supplied me with a damn disposable force field,” Charles muttered to himself with a shake of his head. “Villains, these days.”

“You’re both doomed!” A voice in the distance which couldn’t be immediately triangulated made itself known, as if the Creator Himself couldn’t stand one moment of looming peace in the restless town of Hainburn. “The Great One will hunt you both down, to the ends of the earth! Torture, pain and despair are all that you…”

The sound of an arrow launching and hitting its target cut the warning short. Finally, with a stiff exhale, Charles was able to face the woman who still held his life in his hands.

“Listen, I, uhm…” Charles’ voice was meek and heavy, knowing that this whole ordeal could still end with an arrow through his heart.  He offered a shrug as the trail of ooze along the side of his face glistened in the afternoon sun. “I, uhm, don’t want to kill you anymore.”

As the dust began to clear she spotted him and lined him up in her sight, but then to her flank was a new distraction.  Yet another jhenaf was making for her.  Emi turned to the threat but as she drew her bow taut the black stranger challenged him on his own.

”Hey, asshole!  She knows you’re coming, and she’s too much for you anyway.  Why not try me instead?”

He charged at the upright reptile and after a brief scuffle knocked him down into the dust.  They jawed at one another and then …


A series of massive blasts went off, the first straining her ear drums inward and just before the whirlwind of dust overcame them she saw the top of the spire tower tip and drop into obscurity, its own bulk shaking the ground again as it struck the earth.  Emi ducked down on instinct.  Then realized that she should not have been left standing.  Any shock that could knock down a stone tower that had stood for centuries should have wiped her puny flesh body right off the face of the planet.  Something must have protected her.

Emi uncoiled her prone self and looked up to a perfect opaque dome of smoke billowing around her and her unshakable pursuer, then heard the pattering of pebbles and debris as small bits of fallout dirt and shards of stone randomly and silently dotted its invisible surface and bounded away to strike the ground beyond unseen.  The persistent stranger himself stood at the edge of the newly formed crater.  He was short range, nearly point blank, so she raised her mini crossbow to him when she spotted his oozy ear and neck.  Then just when things could not be flung any further off the rails a deep voice thundered down from the omniscient shrouded sky.

”You’re both doomed!  The Great One will hunt you both down, to the ends of the earth!  Torture, pain and despair are all that you…”

The voice abruptly ended mid-proclamation.

After a moments’ silence the stranger began his weak explanation.  A purple shapeshifter, hellbirds, a night long trek through the wilderness, an orc ambush, a wagon stampede, a town-leveling explosion, and if that wasn’t enough, a foreboding threat from the beyond, and through it all being tracked down by this apparently reluctant bounty hunter.  At least the goo from his ear made sense.  She knew what it was, had heard of a handful of cases before.  At that moment she did not care.  Bewildered, Emi lowered her weapon as she rose to her feet.

“What … the … FUCK?” she screamed in complete frustration, a determined stride on each syllable, the last one punctuated with both fists hammering down in unison upon his chest, sending him tumbling back into the crater.  Then she peered down, ruing that the hole wasn’t nearly deep enough.

A thermal current of dust sucked towards the ground zero of the suicide blast.  It rushed past them as the protection of the force field began to fade.  Emi covered her mouth and nose with her arm once more and ran off into the cloud, trying to find the Dom – if it was still there, if Garrn was still there, still willing to see her – all that she had come for.  Panic set in.  The only bearing she had was general reckoning of her last sighted position in relation to the direction of the strong wind.  Emi staggered through the dust choking on the thick dirt being whipped through the air.  It was eerily quiet.  All she could hear was the sound of small stones dropping around her.  Emi cowered under her other arm praying that nothing big would land on her.  Her breath became ragged and she began to choke.  She was in hell and that voice must have been the devil, but she didn’t have time for that.  Her mission drove her on, kept her focused.  A few more steps brought on another coughing fit.  Her eyes felt sticky and dry from the dust.  A clump of dirt hit her in the back and a pebble struck her forearm forming a welt.  Emi forced her legs to press on.  The wind whipped at her hair and dust was so thick in the air that her surroundings were darkening.  She didn’t even see the stone wall that she had walked into.

She had found a building.  It was probably the Dom but there was no way for her to be certain.  Emi traced it with a palm along its surface and followed it.  There had to be an entrance somewhere.  Stumbling as she scurried and wheezed for breath she prayed to find an opening.  Another coughing fit forced her to her knees and she hacked up brown dust-thickened phlegm, wheezed and hacked some more.  Another small stone dropped onto her calf and she yelped out as it stung like an Ayndanarian horesefly.

In the silence there were muffled voices.  Emi scrambled to her feet and followed the wall a few more yards until she hit an abutment.  Around the pillar was an entrance.  Inside the air was more breathable but was still hazy and was terribly dark.  The voices were clearer but she still couldn’t make out any words.  They were shouts sounding like men taking bearings and barking orders.  Some voices were panicking while others seemed to berate the hysteria.  Emi stood still to straighten herself out.  Unbuckling her jacket she reached inside to clean the dust from her hand onto her shirt, then removed the sunglasses and with a fingertip carefully rubbed her eyelids clean so that she could try to see. 

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