Sang & Songsway

   Committing the page to memory Sang closed the book again and put it back in the saddlebag behind him. He pushed his steed forward to begin back down the path they came as Sang found he apparently chose the wrong direction. ‘I’ll double back and swing past the cliff face to the left this time following the river,’ he thought. Sang had assumed to perhaps make his way over the small mountain by passing near the peak and down the other side. The path had proved treacherous for even his trusted steed he was riding; Songsway, the over-sized albino mountain goat.

    “That’s okay,” Sang mused, “getting hungry anyway, perhaps we can get some more trout before the day dies, Songs.” He trotted along at Songsway’s pace as there was no other. Songsway could climb nearly any mountain trail, but he did at one speed: casual. Sang began going over the latest page he had read earlier remembering the curves in each letter, every punctuation mark, and the flow of the sentences throughout the writing. When they stopped for the night, he would transcribe the book to a more permanent piece of paper he could delve into more at his leisure. Sang could recall any written or a drawn image with immaculate detail for longer than he wanted. A skill which had proved immeasurably valuable and had given more than his fair share of advantages in life. Words had power, but some words had more authority in ink and less so sitting idle and useless in memory.

    Sang and Songsway made their way through the Lagartija forest towards the city of Egostrian. Egostrian is a highly religious sanctum for all faiths. A haven, if you will, of crossroads that pilgrimages all lead through, but never to. Sang had an individual Stavrophore monk to ask a couple of questions that concerned a book Sang had just come into owning. As the trees of the Lagartija began rising above Sang and Songsway, Sang found his thoughts retreating to Cozen, his favorite of cities, and why he had to leave his favorite of places.

    “Saaaaaaang, you just CAN’T be serious?! Again?!” The archivist wailed in an accusatory tone.

    “It wasn’t intentional! It’s not my fault the damn thing exploded when I read it!” Sang responded, despondent.

    “It was directional, and you were pointing AT the page!” He exclaimed back.

    Sang furrowed his brow, “Well, I figured that out after I finished reading it…” he responded back subdued. “Still! I can help you rework it. I memorized it remember?” He pointed to his head to help make his point.

    “That was a copy for students of the Curriculum, Sang. It’s fine. Just go! Go!” He waved Sang forward towards the door.

    “Wait! Hold on!” Sang extended out his arms in a motion of apology, “Just let me grab one more. Just one more! For the road, I need help unlocking a few key… locks!”

    “Out!” The archivist yelled, his patience thinned past breaking.

    Sang wheeled on wobbly legs out the double doors as the librarian pushed him the rest of the way out. He caught himself on the wall,  Sang shook and patted down his clothes, straightening them, “I’m okay! Thanks for asking!” Sang then made his way out the entrance of the library whistling an old tune he forgot the name of ages ago. He smiled as he made his way down the main street of Cozen and reached into his bag pulling out one of the random books he had grabbed from the archivist’s library. ‘Thank you, sir,‘ he thought as he turned it over in his hands to read the cover. ‘Egostrian Stavrophore Inquisition? Curious…‘ Sang thought as he tucked the book away again.

     Songsway was where he left him and was starting to gnaw on the wooden hitching rail. “Songs! Come now, stop that.” Square, sometimes rectangular, eyes turned to regard him. Songsway cocked his head to the side looking to Sang, ‘What,’ the albino goat seemed to say. Sang took his bag and slid it into the saddle bag as Songsway returned to nibbling on the wooden hitching rail. Sang sighed and untied Songsway before leading him away from the treasury of books and the irritable archivist. “Honestly, I don’t see why he was so angry. He just let those books collect dust anyhow,” Sang said to Songsway who collectively ignored him as he always did. 

Jesine

The crowd before the dais stood silent, listening attentively to the Chancellor project his voice over the large mass of people that gathered at the bluffs. The ocean over the cliff behind the stage was background noise as the speaker rose his voice at the end of his words, sending the crowd into a mix of pleased applause and cheers. A union was happening, a joining between lands to create peace between two entirely different peoples. The city of Jumirin celebrated today. There were two people, though, in the back end of the crowd sitting silently on the ground merely wearing smiles on their faces. She sat between his legs and him with his arms around her waist.
Leaning her head back to his shoulder placing her lips close to his ear while she absently traced her fingers across the skin on his forearms. She thought of the similarities of the gathering and her happiness. “It seems that this is indeed turning out to be a beautiful day.“ She whispered softly into his ear. He merely smiled at her words before placing a soft kiss on her neck.
“More than you know, love.” His thoughts playing at the secret he kept from her for the time being he slightly bit her neck, a soft sigh came from her throat as he did so.
“…and what is that supposed to mean?” She asked accusingly.
Laughing slightly, he shrugged against her before laying his head down on her shoulder and pulling his arms tighter just beneath her chest. Lost in her eyes, she listened absently to the still celebrating crowd around them. Almost oblivious to all the people she concentrated more on his slow and steady breaths against her back.
Grabbing his elbows, holding his arms she played with the thought of laying comfortably in bed with him, warm and finally not having to worry about their safety, for now. “Why don’t we go back home lie down. I’ll make you something, and we can relax for the rest of the day.”
“As nice as that sounds, I have somewhere I must take you first.” He whispered.
“You don’t think it would be fun to wrap up in one of our blankets and each other?” She asked in a teasing, but an alluring voice.
He smiled looking down to her eyes looking up at him with her head still resting on his shoulder. He thought that there might be a hint of mischief dancing within her. “Now, now… you stop that. I told you this morning. I have somewhere to take you.”
With a pout and look that would threaten to have him hold off his plans just to have her body encompassed in his arms, she finally conceded before he gave in thankfully.
“Alright, but it better be soon, or else I won’t let you make it up to me.” She said the last part of her words in such a voice it made his heart beat with anticipation.
“It shouldn’t be too long. It’s only a few minutes ride from here.” He replied to her despite his desire to forgo his plans to make right on making it up to her sooner rather than later.
With a light kiss and a playful nip to his ear, she stood, holding her hand out to him, “There’s no time like the present, love!”
With a smile, he nodded and took her hand before getting up. Staring into her eyes a moment as he lost himself in here eyes he thought of the moment ahead. He smiled again at her before leading her away from the still-applauding crowd that had begun chanting things like, “Hoorah!” and “Peace for All!” It wasn’t long before they finally made it to the edge of a cliff-face to extended far over them. He winked at her before releasing her hand made his way a suspicious patch of fern bushes and tree limbs. He pulled away from the loose tree limbs and pulled down the now visible rope that held all the fern bushes together. He untied the rope from a protrusion of rock, and he pulled it aside rolling up the fern in a bundle and set it on the other side of a hole in the side of the stone.
She squinted and looked at him curiously before tilting her head to him. “…and just what is that?”
“I found this awhile back and wanted to hide it so I could show you without anyone else finding it, so I hid it!” He responded back excitedly.
“You still have said it ‘it’ is, dear.” She smiled back to him.
“Oh well… yes, come! Easier just to show you!” He waved her over, and she went and inspected the dark crevasse. She had to stoop over and look up into the darkness, and she pointed at it, “…that, you want me to go into there?” She furrowed her brow at him.
“Trust me?” He asked raising his arms in question with raised shoulders.
“Hmpf… alright, but you go first.” She conceded.
He smiled and nodded to her, “Of course!” He stooped down and crawled into the opening in the cliff-face, “Don’t worry! It opens up quick to where we can stand.” Then he disappeared into the darkness.
She sighed to herself, “…the things I do for you.” She said to herself softly before following him into the rock.
She still couldn’t see yet her eyes adjusted quickly and she could see the faint outline of him as he scooted forward into the dark. True to his word he stood up but a short way in and she joined him. He pulled out an orb from his pocket, and she heard a soft, ‘click,’ as a soft glow encompassed them and lit up the scene around them. She could make out the rock walls and the hard floor, but not much else before she looked back to him. “It’s a beautiful cave?” She said wondering if this was what he wanted to show her.
“Maybe a little chilly,” he responded with a chuckle before turning and stepping to the side and pointing up ahead.
She could make out a circle of light ahead.
“That’s where we’re going, follow me.” He smiled at her and reached out his hand, and she took it. The darkness ended as they approached the opening on the opposite side. The sounds of the ocean began echoing louder around into the cave. The light was bright, and they couldn’t see past the opening of the rock until they were through. She blinked away the darkness from her eyes.
A gust of salty air blew her hair back as he looked at her and his breath caught as it always did when he was taken aback by how beautiful she was. She smiled looking out at the view, “Wow…” she breathed. It was an endless view of the horizon and mountain range to their left, which disappeared into a haze of clouds. The sun still being high up above the water it reflected off the white churning water of the waves almost two hundred feet below the cliff of which they now stood.
Smiling to himself, as well, he asked, “Well, do you like it?”
Still unable to let the smile fade she merely nodded saying, “It is beautiful, how did you find this place?”
“In one of my walks, simply happened to it. I guess not many decided it wise to crawl in small dark holes they find behind bushes.” He chuckled a bit to himself. He reached behind him and took the pack off his back that he had. Retrieving the thin wool blanket he made his way to the edge of the rock that protruded out before them. He leaned forward and looked down the cliff face towards the waters below. “Scary fall, though, don’t get too close to the edge!” He warned her before going back to her and laying the wool blanket on the ground.
She laughed, “I’m going nowhere near that edge, so don’t you worry about that, love.”
He pulled some light fare out of the pack and placed the food in the center of the blanket. “Snack?” He said looking up to her. She still looked around at the view but finally settled her gaze on him.
“Can we stay until sunset?” She asked smiling and sitting on the blanket with him.
He smiled back to her, but more ecstatically inside his plan has worked so perfectly. Absently he rested his hand on his thigh pocket before replying, “Of course we can.”
They mostly spent the day talking about plans, and things currently being done. Other times they let the warmth of the sun and themselves pass the hours into early dusk staring off into the restless water.
“I think this has probably been the best day I’ve had since last I remember,“ she said, still staring out to the horizon with a distant look to her features.
Smiling up to her having his head across her lap and looking to the sky above he responded softly to her, “Me, as well, love.”
After a moment she looked down to his still smiling face. A look of worry and fright crossed her features. His brow creased in wonder at her change in demeanor, “Spider… on your cheek,” she whispered, her voice soft with concern. He couldn’t feel anything on him so he brought his hand to his face before she could warn him not to.
To quickly rid himself of the nuisance he swiped his fingers up his cheek, but merely relocated the spider up to his temple. A sharp pain shocked through him as the arachnid bit down through his skin in defense. Instinctively he smacked the side of his head and killed the spider before sitting up and wiping the remnants off his face and fingers. “Ow! I can’t believe that just happened, how in the devil’s.” He said rubbing the sore spot where the spider bit him.
Placing a hand on his shoulder, he turned to her, and a slight gasp followed as she retracted her hand to her mouth. The bite mark was already red and beginning to swell from the looks of his face. The venom of the spider was quickly working its way into him. He looked at her, a look of worry crossing his features, “What? What is it?”
Her eyes began to tear up as she replied, “Your face, that looks serious love! We need to get to the doctor to look at it; it’s spreading so fast!”
He suddenly wished that they were closer to the town. If they weren’t so far away, it wouldn’t be such a big deal. It could be taken care of by medicine. They would be able to fix this, he knew it. They weren’t close to town, they had walked about an hour to get to the gathering, and nearly another hour to reach the secluded overlook. Two hours from town, he thought. The bite being where it was had him concerned, was it worse there, better? He had no idea, and he found himself growing angry at the little beast. That bastard, why on this day of all days! He screamed inside; he didn’t want to worry her, though. They had to go.
“We have to go then, I’m sorry, love.” He said sadly looking to her, “Every thing’s going to be fine, I just need to get to the healer that is all.”
With tears escaping her eyes she replied, “…but that’s so far.” He silenced her with a kiss.
“Let’s go.”

His temple throbbed, and he was much too cold as sweat ran down his forehead. The trail back seemed an eternity. They could only concentrate on not slipping or falling to slow their progress further. They had cleared almost the entire distance before he began feeling flushed and dizzy. With the dull ache in his temple spreading down to his cheek being a constant reminder to remain awake and alert. He was beginning to slow, though, and the sun had escaped them behind the mountains minutes ago leaving them covered in long shadows and a threatening darkness that was the night. He fell, tripping on a small rock he didn’t see.
She turned and saw him with his eyes closed on his knees with his hands on the ground. She leaned down beside him and ran a hand through his hair. He was slick with sweat, and his skin was burning. “Are you okay?” She asked, chiding herself immediately after knowing it was a stupid question, but she didn’t know what else to do. She knew that his well-being was going to deteriorate to nothing soon.
“I might be sick if I walk anymore…” He said in a whisper.
“Then you be sick and keep moving with me! We’ve almost made it. See?!” With words through choking on tears, she pointed to the lights of the town rising before them. She thought a faint smile had crossed his face before his face drained of color even more as he tried to stand.
His efforts met with another short tumble onto his knees. This time his right kneecap hit a rock just beneath the surface of the dirt. A sharp pain exploded up through his thigh stopping to wrench his stomach further than it already was. Unable to hold himself back he felt his stomach being ripped out of his throat as he let the pain flow out of hi body to the ground in from of him.
Tears ran down his cheek as the screaming ache in his cheek sent swirls of pain up his temple, and the throb in his knee threatened to overwhelm him. Darkness began to take over his vision as his thoughts turned even more fuzzy and distant. He felt her take his hand through the world closing in on him. Her breath in his ear transformed into words that were less heard and more felt.
“It’s okay, my love, try again, one more time… for me? Okay?” She asked, more pleading, even she couldn’t tell which anymore. She had to be strong, though, for him. He found himself feeling at the object in his thigh pocket, and he felt the pain push back into a distant corner of his mind as his vision slowly crept clearer back to him.
“I have to,” he thought, no matter how much it hurts, I have to. “Almost there,” he managed to say in more of a choke as he winced, slowly coming to stand again.
She wrapped her arm around him and pulled his arm around her shoulders. He noticed almost absently that he couldn’t see out his left eye anymore, it was swollen shut. They pushed forward, and she matched her feet with his helping him to move easier. Only being able to support half his weight, she still thought it better than none, she wrapped her arm tighter around his waist and tightened her grip on his wrist on her shoulder.
It took an eternity for her, but just a blur of time for him. She still fumed at the fact they passed so many people meandering the streets, but none offered more than a glance and a wide berth. The sign with herbs etched into it around the words ‘Tham’s Tinctures’ was such a relief she almost tripped on the first stair into the building. She shoved her shoulder into the door of the building, at first sight of a face, she started demanding answers and asking questions all in a confused blur. Sweat covered her as she strained to continue holding him up from falling. She just noticed that he was unconscious with his head draught low, she must have been supporting all his weight, no wonder she felt her muscles burning. Her tears and adrenaline were all that pushed her forward as a calming voice seemed to cut through the air towards her.
“Whoa now, my dear.” A weathered face said from behind the counter. Rising from his chair, Tham stood up and came to her taking the weight of him from her as she felt her body fail her. Slumping her knees to the ground, she let herself breath for a moment noticing she was breathing heavier than she suddenly realized. The older man took him through a hallway and into a separate room. She willed herself to stand and follow him. The man that was behind the counter set him down onto the bed in the room he had taken him to. He began to look him over as she entered the room, as well.
“His face…” she managed to say, “…a spider bite… I wasn’t able… to tell what kind before it died…” she said between breaths still winded. She looked to her love through still watery eyes, the left side of his face swollen and red. He seemed to be sleeping she watched his chest rise slowly before falling again. The other man was already looking over the area where the bite had happened, the flesh around the bite seemed to be withering away into itself. She didn’t know she had any more tears, but they came anyway. “Can you help him?! Please! Do something…”
He studied the wound a little longer before looking up to her and pointing to the stool beside the bed. “Sit, comfort him, but don’t touch the wound. I will return shortly.”
She obliged with a slow nod and sat beside the bed taken his hand. It was colder than she expected and squeezed it tighter to try and warm it. Maybe that would help, she thought, desperate to do anything useful. Then she waited. She replayed part of the Chancellor’s speech from earlier in the day to calm her thoughts:

“A dream can have so much terror, so many beauties, and so many unrealized points of interest and desire that we’re often more than confused by them. Many people, groups, and even nations follow false dreams leaving behind ones of truth and feasibility because of this confusion. That is the problem with assumption and misinterpretation.
“When someone feels so strongly about an individual subject, a given situation or a particular happening in time it is their dreams that will bend around their imagination; distorting fact by fusing it with creation.”

Greens and blues fused within one another, swirling downward in a spiraling fashion. The sight was dizzying, confusing. Vision, an unrecognizable image. He was holding onto something; there was no ground and only oily blackness all around. The cold touch of metal was his link to staying alive, a feeling of safety was what proved this to him, a sense of need and desire.
Necessity and desire pushed him forward even though his arms burned. He assumed that this was because he had held to this cold steel. “Was it a bar? No, it was sharp, a sword?” He followed the length of it, and he found it going inside him, through his abdomen and out the back of his neck. He didn’t know. He just knew he didn’t want to let go. A wave of pain shot into his arms running its course through his neck and into his spine. The pain stopped inside his temples just to throb with a searing burn beneath his skin. There was a scream, and the image pulled back away from his vision, and he could see his whole self in front of him hanging in the span of a circle. He squinted eyes he realized weren’t there then he realized that it was a ring around his hollow husk of a body. In this black world he clung to life and the only sense of reason his mind could hold. His love, and thoughts of his life outside of this blackness.

Her face flushed from the lack of sleep she had over the past two days, she only left twice to relieve herself, but she did not sleep. She had learned the that healer’s name was Tham and his words were a small comfort to her. She would wait until he woke up, or at least opened his eyes so she could tell him how much she loves him, needed him, and because in a rush to get here she didn’t get say it to him.
She faintly felt Tham’s hand rest on her shoulder. “Jesine, you’ll be no good to him half-dead yourself. Please, Jesine, help yourself to any food or water across the hall. You’re looking paler than him now.” Jesine didn’t know why, but those words of her looking more sickly than her love made her smile slightly through her weariness. She could only nod at Tham’s concern. “He will be okay while you rest yourself, too, dear.” A grin broke across his face as he offered a hand to her.
“Well, I could use some water if it’s not any trouble,” she admitted, “…but I still don’t want to leave.” She said looking back to his still sleeping form lying on the bed.
“The only trouble I see from that is that you think it is trouble,” Tham responded lightly.
Jesine smiled that half smile of hers to Tham before turning back to her still sleeping love beside her. Grasping his hand she leaned forward and whispered a silent, “I love you, Wylen” onto his still damp skin. She looked up to him again and to his other hand resting on his thigh pocket. Had his hand always been there? She thought to herself. He looked like he was clutching something, curious, she reached over and tried to move his hand away to see what it was he was holding. At first, his hand resisted any movement, but she was able to gently lift his arm away and lay it on the bedside next to him. She placed her hand on his thigh and felt an object in his pocket. “Was it circular?” She thought to herself. Thinking he wouldn’t mind, she reached in and took the object out to examine it. She gasped softly to herself, suddenly feeling invasive as she recognized it was his mother’s ring she had seen a hundred times before. “No…,” she thought her breath catching, “…he was going to ask?” She felt suddenly worse now that his plans were in ruins and on their head. He suddenly sighed and coughed hoarsely, and Jesine jumped looking to him. A rasping breath seemed to escape his throat, but then all was silent again. She gripped the ring tightly and ran out of the room yelling for Tham.
They entered quickly and set a glass full of water on the table next to Jesine looking from her to him, and back to her. “Yes? What is it?”
She pointed to him, “He breathed and coughed suddenly! The first I’ve heard!”
Tham looked back to her beloved before nodding to himself and going over to the other side of the bed. He lifted his arm and examined his skin and tracing it up to the wound. Tham pulled the bandage away from the bite on the man’s temple. The infection had continued to eat away the skin to the size of a large coin. The skin was still red and had green tints to it. Tham sighed to himself before pulling off the bandage and redressing it.
“Should it look better than that?” Jesine asked.
He knew it should, but comforted her with, “It will be fine, Jesine, you need not worry.” She smiles at him, and he returned the gesture half-heartedly feeling a guilt wash over him. “Are you sure I can’t get you something to eat?”
She shook her head and looked back down to him, “I am okay, thank you for the water.”
Tham nodded to her and left her to be alone again with him as he tried to think of a better way of dealing with a bite that seemed to be progressing more than he liked.
“The fever is gone,” he thought, “but the flesh appears to be still getting eaten away…” As he tried to think of something to help with her partner he found his mind wandering about the two lovers. He had his time, his love, every night since that day that she had passed on he would think of her in his nighttime thoughts so that he would have her still in his dreams. He would join her again, he knew, but that sting of loneliness would not cease. He was aware that the pain never would subside because of how much he cared for her, which is why he spent his days preoccupying himself with menial chores and helping others. As well as try to figure out different remedies of every sort that helped those in need.
Tham’s work had paid off earning him the title of a Master in his profession. “But titles are trinkets to what’s important,” he would say to those who acknowledged his new namesake. That look in the other room was why he did what he did, that look of relief and love was why it was all worth it. As much as it killed him not to be able to experience such a thing anymore, he knew he had his time. He relished in that thought, he was far from perfect, but that feeling of love and beauty that washed over him when he was with her had made his life genuine and meaningful.
Needless to say, she set him on the path to saving, now countless lives and bringing happiness to countless others. Every time his thoughts came back to her, and he would smile, remembering the way he would caress her cheek, run his fingers through her hair.
Tham didn’t realize at first that the moonlight outside was reflecting a tear making its way down the crevassed contours of his aging face. After he had seen those two lovers were back to getting a good rest, he would visit her grave again. The second time this week, once more than his usual once a week visits, but this was a special occasion he thought.
Not only had he saw an emotion he was all too familiar with and missed, but it was also their time again almost. Near the end of another passing hear was what they favored. The leaves of red that cascaded down through the air was their favorite to sit and watch. So it was just that time a year that his him the hardest. Even though it had been six years almost, it still didn’t dim Tham’s feelings for his wife. She would continue in his life as his love until that day when his dreams became forever.
A light hand graced his shoulder, “Are you alright,” a woman’s voice asked. It almost sounded like his lost love speaking to him, but he knew that to be fanciful.
“I am fine, Jesine, thank you. Have you reconsidered my offer of some food, dear?”
“He still seems so tired, are you sure he’s alright?” The worry in her voice was inescapable and all too evident.
Tham smiled to her, “Yes, it is just fine. The poison has run its course, but we must let the fluids we give him wash his blood clean of all of it.” He turned to face her fully, “…but for now, I have a cot in the closet where your beloved is and some hot food I made in the kitchen. Eat, and sleep. You will be no good to him if he does wake and you’re famished and red-eyed.”
“I suppose I can’t argue with the wisdom in that… but are you sure you’re alright?” She asked genuinely concerned.
Tham looked to her eyes a moment fading into memory before shaking the reverie clear. “I find, don‘t you worry, just let me get you some hot food, and we will get you some sleep.
“I don’t know how to repay you, or thank you, for what you’ve done for us. You have no idea. All this means more to me than you know.” She said the last lowering her eyes to the ground and closing them.
“I believe I know exactly how you feel…” Tham said softly, mostly to himself before bidding her off and goodnight. He took one last look out the window at the moon before turning to gather food for Jesine.
Tham was bringing the bowl of hot soup and bread to Jesine when he heard her yell. As blood-curdling and panicked as it was loud it stopped Tham’s heart for a moment before he began to run. As he made it to the room, he stopped and saw a scene his mind couldn’t quite comprehend. Blood stained Wylen’s shirt right below his sternum and pooled at the back of his neck. Golden smoky tendrils with hints of gray began seeping from the new wounds on Wylen. At first, the tendrils were slow moving rivers across his body before a dam seemed to break and with a rush of the wind the fog seemed to encompass the entirety of Wylen’s body. He could hear Jesine screaming at him to do something, anything, but Tham couldn’t make sense of what he was seeing. The golden glow seemed to brighten and flash brightly before them temporarily blinding them both.
As Jesine’s eyes recovered, she stared forward in disbelief at the bed where Wylen was and reached forward with both hands and grasped two warm handfuls of sand. The sand seeped through her fingers back to the bed below. Her mind seemed far away as her body once again screamed in the distance.

A voice filled Wylen’s mind; it was a long moment to realize it was his own, “A breath of wind can be called a kiss, a touch, a relief, or a momentary solace in life. Holding a love close can be compared to holding the most cherished thing in the world. In this person’s mind, nothing can replace what holds so much priceless value. I’ve been reading books that speak of so much sacrifice and love, doing nothing besides doing what’s best for the other, and doing what would make them the safest or happiest. It’s hard to do what is best sometimes, downright disheartening in some ways when you make a mistake that you know will turn out for the worst, but the important thing to remember is always to hold that one person above all else. Above what you think best sometimes even; not exactly best, but what would be, ‘happier,’ so to speak. I write a lot to you about love, happiness, and desire, but all you ever really ask me for is a story, a story to make you smile, a story to make you happy.”
Wylen could still remember Jesine’s smile when he wrote that to her and her response, “As long as I have you, we’ll create our stories,” she had said. Jesine screamed in Wylen’s thoughts, ‘No, it didn’t happen that way.’ He tried to speak, but couldn’t. Darkness crept into his vision and his mind, silencing thought and sight until there was only nothing.

Ennu

Three chalices sat in front of Ennu, two empty and the third cup filled half with a blackberry wine that had slight tremors across the surface of the fluid from the sequential little to index finger tapping of his fingertips on the table. His eyes were immeasurably distant as Ennu cursed the storm that held him here. The ship was delayed nearly an entire week, along with his shipment. A sour look stained his features, and if anything brought a sense of dissatisfaction with the world around him, it was unreliability, instability, and damned ship-stopping, money halting storms.
Ennu sat and listened to the raging winds rush past the window on the far side of the room. A whispering ghost at first, to a screeching banshee and finally a distant howl far away to join its other wind brethren hampering the manor walls. He raised his hand stilling his tapping fingers to rest on the edge of an empty chalice. “No, I cannot sit idly by any longer,” he thought to himself quietly. Pushing his fingers forward the cup tipped and then bounced with a loud arpeggio clang that quickly faded before rolling back and forth a few moments. Ennu’s eyes still stared off into the distance as he stood, done with waiting for the storm to heed his impatience. Standing, Ennu made his way to the wall hanger by the door and grabbed his thick earthen wool cloak and throwing it across his forearm before exiting out of his rooms to do something about ending this dreadful lingering.
As the door rattled shut behind Ennu, a book on the shelf behind his desk fell with a soft thump to come to rest on the pale white skull. Eye sockets hollow and staring incessantly forward into the door leading out of the room, the weight of the book began to move the bone through the dust of the shelf. Slowly, at first, then as if pushed the book slapped the wooden shelf shifting the skull off the edge of the bookshelf. The head broke into several misshapen pieces on the hard finished floor of Ennu’s reading room. Blood began pooling beneath the shattered skull spilling slowly in all directions and between the seams of the hardwood planks of which the broken fragments now sat.

“Ennu!” He sighed to himself as he looked at the door to the outside of the manor, his hand resting on the cold brass handle that seemed to leech the humid cold air of the storm on the other side into itself.
“Yes, darling, what is it?” A petite, fair-skinned woman with hair the color of ravens came bursting out into the hallway and pointing at him and then motioning Ennu to follow her.
“Eat! You must eat before you wander off into the night on whatever venture you’re getting yourself into now.” She turned abruptly, not waiting to see if he followed because of course, he would.

“Quit mincing your words and just get to the point!” Elandri said, aggravated at his meandering around the problem.
Ennu sighed, releasing his grip on the handle of the knife, “The only thing getting minced, or isn’t now, is this damned dinner!” Ennu muttered under his breath. Dropping the knife into the half sloughed meat, Ennu sat on the nearby stool and focused intently on her green-blue eyes bearing into his, “I am merely just upset at the amount of time that wasted away over the last couple weeks because of this foul weather we’ve been having. It has nothing to do with you, any unknowns, or anything else in this house. It is what is OUTSIDE,” Ennu pointed randomly through the far wall of the kitchen, “that is frustratingly unstable.” Standing, Ennu grabbed the knife again to finish trimming the fat off the slab, “Let me sort it out without your prodding, easier that way.”
Elandri spoke matter of factually, “You are a big boy, so you should know what you got yourself into.”
Once again he stopped and looked up at her, “Yes, I know what I… got myself ‘into.’ That’s not the point, now is it?” Ennu set the knife down once more and leaned against the counter crossing his arms over his chest. “There’s unpredictability in situations like these of how circumstances we’ve never experienced are going to affect us. There’s a selfishness to this particular kind of situation of course, but it is not as I have ever had the pleasure of smuggling before. It’s a new, unprecedented, worrisome, dis-honest…” Ennu trailed off and moved away from the counter and sat down resting his arms on his thighs looking at her questioningly. “Have you ever heard of Three’s Light?”
“Desperate times,” Elandri muttered under her breath before answering feigning her ignorance, “No, why don’t you fill me in, my dearest?” She said with humorlessly raised lips.

The taste of dinner still permeated his tongue as he made his way through the drenched city of Lastium, a robustly stable city. Some rabble tends to focus along the outskirts in towards the mainland, but that comes with cities that outgrow the land they started on. With the high volume of expensive items going in and out of the large city the dock merchants pay a hefty, and willing, tax to keep any disruptive kind away from their goods. Constables are heavy footed with any troublemakers, and there are one for every ten citizens within the city that houses over 10,000 stable residents and just as many transients arriving by boat all hours of every day. At least there were that many people when there wasn’t a storm battering the harbor in which currently put the business at a stand-still. Business for merchants that had arriving goods, or perhaps smuggled goods that left a typically predictable Ennu out of sorts. The inns, pubs, and discreetly hidden away alley banned brothels were teeming with tourists and residents riding out the sheets of water pouring down from the charcoal colored clouds above.
Ennu pulled his cloak tighter around himself as a carriage blew past him, and he cursed wondering who in the devil’s hell would be in such a hurry to get nowhere at this time of day. He then chided himself and asked himself what his business was, why was he so hasty? “Just want this miserable business over with,” Ennu thought to himself.
He could hear the harbor waves splashing against the wooden sides of the docks as he approached a well lit, and very bustling, alehouse with a colorful wooden sign that read, “Last’s Draw.” He quickly made his way into the building shaking off his wide-brimmed hat that kept off some of the rain before entering. Ennu wasted no time and waved down the man behind the bar.
“I need to get in touch with a Light, one that will help me get to a ship docked out north of the harbor. The ship’s name is Resplendent.” Ennu spoke quietly to the innkeeper behind the bar, the noise of the main room drowning out his words.
“Fast ship that one is, high priority shipments, you think they’ll risk letting someone aboard during rough seas, good sir?”
“That is not the concern. I just need a Light.”
The innkeeper nodded, “I know of a certain Light, ‘thee’ Light to be exact. He will cost you more than the average as he will most likely be the only one willing with this weather.”
“The cost isn’t a concern, either,” Ennu stressed, “where can I find him?”
“Goes by the name Three, he’s most usually out at the house off of the southern number twenty-two dock. Good luck, sir.” The innkeeper, Last was his name, nodded to Ennu and heeded the call of one of his patrons asking for another fill.
Ennu turned to head towards the exit before running headlong into a barrel-sized chest. Ennu felt like he’d been tossed back by a wall before blinking away the sudden confusion and looking up towards the man’s face. “Ah, Constable Jenry, I apologize I was stuck in a reverie.”
“Not used to seeing you about perusing with the people of the city, Ennu. What brings you to this storybook cold and stormy night?” Jenry’s voice was laden hard with a Lastium accent, thick and from the gut, that only lifers of the city obtained.
Ennu cursed his luck as he smiled warmly towards Jenry, “Just checking on some shipments, making sure they’re still waiting out the storm and haven’t decided to sail back on home with my goods.” Which wasn’t far from the truth, getting a shipment wasn’t anything out of the ordinary being in the shipping trade capital this side of the ocean of Rystan.
“Ennu, it’s spittin’ demons from the heavens, what package can’t wait until the light warms us with her presence again?” Jenry asked curiously with a half risen brow.
Damn your suspicious inquiries Jenry, Ennu thought, “To be frank, Constable, I’m as antsy as a drying out worm watching this storm go on for days. Needed to get out and feel like things were getting done.”
Jenry nodded, “Should take up arms in the city guard Ennu!” He bellowed humorously thick from his gut, “When it’s wet the rats prowl the streets thinking we’re afraid to get wet for a catch!” Jenry slapped a meaty hand on Ennu’s shoulder, “Watch yourself out there the roads are slick with Oiler’s milling about.”
Oiler’s were what the people of Lastium nicknamed the transients who stayed longer than their welcome. Trying to dig their way into the river of coins that came and went in the pockets, purses, or charity given freely by the soft-hearted throughout the city. The city guard did well enough keeping them out of sight, but where there is a city, there is an underbelly no matter how well kept scrubbed on the surface. Ennu smiled and nodded his partings to the house of a man named Jenry, before quickly exiting the Inn back into the shroud of shadow that was the night.
The number twenty-two dock extended towards the very end of the harbor, one of the first landings coming in from the sea. There was only darkness within the small building at the top of the dock. Ennu found it hard to fathom, but it seems that Three was already out on the water, ‘At least it was worth a shot,’ he thought. There was a way to call a Light in darkness at the dock’s end. The pitch black night was impossibly dark, but as Ennu made his way down the flexible ramp towards the float, the black soup of water seemed to suck the rest of the thin light that remained in the hours after the second Sun’s fall. Trying as he might to not tumble off the edge of the dock in the unlit darkness Ennu found himself nearly going for a swim with each gust of the wind that seemed to laugh and howl at him with each passing gust. “Damned wind demons! Leave me be!” Ennu cursed to himself as he finally came to the end of the float, a cylindrical pole rose from the water that anchored the dock in front of him. Ennu chided himself for not bringing his light to lead the way forward. Foolishly, he didn’t think he would find himself in complete darkness tonight. “There’s the end,” Ennu muttered, “…now where is…” Looking to his left, he found the bell-box that held the call for a Light lead. Ennu wondered for a moment if Three would even be able to hear the ring. The Innkeeper, Last, said he was out here so he would just have to try.
The rain decidedly ramped up its efforts to add to his misery seemingly wanting to drown him as he stood as he opened the box with the brass bell the size of his head and pulled it out. Lightning cracked across the sky, golden flecks in the brass bell reflected a green shine off its surface before thunder crashed into his ear drums moments after, making his heart skip a beat. Ennu sighed and then hit the side of the large bell on the edge of the box itself. The clang that the brass bell made seemed to drown out all the rain and echoes of thunder that permeated the air before softly fading. Again, Ennu cracked the edge of the box, harder this time against the metallic corner seams. The rain didn’t cease, but the wind did die down for a moment as he listened to the bell’s deep tang speed across the churning sea waters. Finally, a third crack of the golden colored bell that seemed softer, yet lasted longer, than the first two rings was his last call to Three. Ennu then waited, holding the bell at his side looking out towards the mouth of the harbor feeling the sideways drops of water pelt the side of his cheek.
For what seemed an eternity Ennu stubbornly glared out into the water past the harbor, he imagined where the Resplendent would be riding out the winds and doing it’s best not to get close to shore, lest it would tear itself apart on the rocks of the jetties that inharmoniously protruded out into the Rystan ocean. As short as the small rock protrusions were into the waters, they were aptly named the Devil’s Fingers. Doing what they must by breaking apart the swells of the water coming inland, but they were deathly when the Lighthouse found itself dark in the night for poor unfortunate sailors trying to make their way inland. Ennu was in a reverie of an incident many years prior, a similar storm when the Lighthouse did not come alive in the night. Some still argue that of trespassers, tampering, or even terrorists that broke the fixture in which housed the light. Blood covered the rocks below the Lighthouse, but there were also three ships full of crewman that found themselves swimming for shore, their wooden hulls shattered in the dark. Therefore, blood on the rocks wasn’t necessarily a surprise. Ennu squinted through the sheet of water covering his eyes before wiping them away to see clearer. “There,” he thought, “…there he is.”
A dim light rose and fell with the black swells that slowly made progress towards Ennu, the stormy waters not concerning themselves with care for the approaching skiff as it rocked back and forth. A hooded figure rowed silently, slowly, and with infinite patience as he made his way to the twenty-second dock towards Ennu. “So this is Three,” Ennu thought. He had heard of him in passing, but never had the chance to come face to face in meeting with the man. Ennu stared into the cowl of the cloak trying to get a fix on the man’s face. There was only blackness in the hood, though. Can’t say he blamed the man, Ennu felt bruises on his cheek from the constant barrage pelting his face. ‘Perhaps I should have put my hood up, too,’ Ennu pondered for a moment, ‘Idiot,’ he thought, chiding himself. He shrugged off his self-accusations as Three brought his small transport boat parallel to the dock itself. Ennu reached down and helped the landing ship bridge the last few inches into the bumpers on the side of the dock. He didn’t bother with a tie and stepped down into the rain-soaked planks of the boat, as wobbly as it was with the water he only almost fell out twice. Three pushed off the dock with his long wooden oars to head back the way he had appeared. When they got far enough out Three reached out to each side of the small structure and extended out what looked like wings on each side of the boat. There was a small long buoy attached to the end of each ‘wing’ that instantly smoothed the rolling of the vessel. Ennu furrowed his brow towards the contraptions and nodded approvingly. Oh the things I never paid attention to, it truly is all in the details isn’t it, Ennu mused to himself before looking back to Three. Ennu noticed that Three had set aside his single bladed paddles and was staring back to him with eyes he couldn’t see in the depths of his hood.
“The Resplendent is the boat I’m looking for!,” Ennu yelled over the winds and rain towards Three, “You know of it, and where?!”
Three only nodded his cowled head and gave Ennu a quick gesture of his thumb raised up in the air. Three then pointed to one of his outstretched gloved palms and then to himself, indicated he was looking for payment.
“Of course!,” Ennu once again yelled over the winds as a rogue wave splashed over the edge of the boat on onto Ennu’s thighs. Ennu cursed before reaching into his bag of coins strapped to his belt and pulling out two golden coins, inscribed on the surface of the coin was the image of two oversized lizards grasping one another in their gaping jaws, and handed them over on his open palm so Three could plainly see their value. Three waved the offer away with both hands. Ennu leaned back, “More?! Is it more you want? How much? Double? Just ask, I have it!”
Three traced his index fingers from the side of his neck to meet on his chest; he apparently took Ennu’s face for confusion as he repeated the gesture. “My necklace?!” Ennu said confused as he reached under his shirt to pull out the piece of jewelry. Three once again gave Ennu the thumbs up before reaching his palm out. Ennu was at a loss as he stared down at the silver chain around his neck which held only a stark white skull about twice the size of a large grape. Ennu furrowed his brow as the memory of where he got the jewelry came over him. He found himself shaking his head and looked up to Three, “I can’t! I can’t part with this, yet!” Three slowly pulled his hand back and reached to the oars once more. Ennu shook his head, “Double! I will pay you four of these coins for the trip!” He screamed over the roar of the wind in his ears as he shook his fist toward the darkness in Three’s cowl. Three began rowing back the way they came towards the harbor.

Ennu slowly shut the brass handled door behind him and stared at the closed door a moment, listening to the drips of water sounding off the entryway mat. He had his necklace in his hand. “How did he even know about this?” Ennu thought, staring at the hollowed out eyes of the skull and seemed to be waiting for it to reveal its secrets when a hand touched the small of his back. Instinctively he flinched forward, face first into the door with a loud smack. “Arg! Elandri, what the hell are you doing sneaking up on me like that!” He scolded before turning to face her.
“You were a statue for what seemed like minutes! And I did call to you, but you blatantly ignored me!” Elandri scolded back, “Serves you right, hitting your head like that.”
Ennu growled to himself as he removed his rain-sodden cloak putting it on the hanger by the door and clasped the necklace back around his neck, tucking it under the ties of his shirt. “This night has not gone as I would have hoped, Elandri,” he murmured. “Let’s get some rest, I’m exhausted and have accomplished nothing for the effort.” She took his arm in hers after he removed his boots and they retired for the night. Making their way past Ennu’s study, he stopped for a moment looking towards the door.
“Not tonight…” She pleaded, “Just come to bed.”
“If I…” he began before shaking his head, “Yes, too tired, let’s get some sleep.”
In Ennu’s study, the still shattered skull lay motionless on the hard wooden floor. The deep red of the blood surrounding the broken pieces of the head was dark and shone with a sheen that could just as well have been sweat perspiring down a runner’s forehead, morning dew, or misty mountain air. A skittering across the floor came as the first rat scurried in from a dark hole in the corner to sample the liquid staining the floor. As the rat drank from the motionless pooled blood on the floor, two other rodents joined him in drinking from the new source of food to quench their thirst. A few heartbeats after their first sips all three rats lay unmoving, lifeless on the floor with their heads still in the blood around the broken skull.

Lightning flashed in the distance outside. There was only a soft drizzle coming down outside as Ennu made his way through the early morning throng of fishers and sellers peddling their wares. They were all just arriving to set up shop for the day or the fisher’s getting their lines ready to grab their catch. The first sun hadn’t even risen so the sky was still dark and the last remnants of stars were only beginning to fade with the brightening of the horizon across the ocean. Ennu didn’t wait for Elandri to stir before he quietly made his way out this morning, he merely grabbed his thick earthen colored cloak and made his way out into the foggy morning air. He could hardly sleep in the night with his concern over the delivery he was supposed to receive, and his meeting with Three still bothered him. He eventually wrote it off to a strange boat man’s inexplicable actions. “Some things just couldn’t be explained and don’t make sense in life,” Ennu thought. Three must have just guessed Ennu had something more valuable than money and was being greedy having to ride in the stormy waters. “Just what was he doing out there already anyway?” The thought faded as quickly as it came as a fisherman with an armful of gear crashed into the back of Ennu knocking him to the side and nearly off his feet.
“Out the way, mate!” The fisherman growled at him with a gravely full voice that matched his appearance. Ennu glared at the retreating backside of the large man but knew he was invading what was usually a time reserved for laborers. He had no place here until the first sun rose. The boats should be on their way inland. The waters were calm this morning. The storm was far past on the distant horizon, the lightning flashed, and thunder cracked in the distance still, but the wind had passed for the moment. Even so, Ennu cursed the fading storm still as he approached the busy docks that had all manner of activity, none of which Ennu cared. He was waiting for the merchant ship Resplendent to sail in the harbor which should be just after the first Sun’s rise. His buyer would want his shipment sooner rather than later, and the truth is, Ennu wished this nonsense passed. The money was fantastic, but he didn’t think he could take the stress or these types of transactions.
Jenry was making his rounds along the docks and was coming straight towards Ennu. ‘This man never sleeps,’ he thought with frustration as Jenry noticed him smiling warmly, but with a curious expression.
“Beginning of the morning to you, Ennu,” Jenry said with that thick Lastium accent.
“…and you, Jenry,” Ennu responded.
“Did you ever find that package you were so damnably determined to risk getting hit by lightning and drowning all in the same night?” Jenry asked with a slight chuckle.
“No, turns out that you were right once again, should have just stayed in for the night.”
“You could have stayed with the rest of us and enjoyed a few passing hours at Last’s for once, too, Ennu! You’re always so cooped up with whatever business you’re on!” Jenry said.
Ennu nodded to Jenry, “Yes, yes I will, soon, promise.”
“I’ll add that to the list of times you’ve promised, Ennu,” Jenry said lightly before waving a goodbye. “Must be about, stay safe and good luck with that special delivery.”
Ennu couldn’t stop a wave of panic come over him. Did he know? Was that a suspicious tone? Damn your intuitions, Jenry! “Thank you, Jenry, and have a good day,” Ennu responded shaking off his worries. “I’m just ridiculous,” Ennu thought, “This transaction has me way too wound up.” Faster then he realized, he was standing under the number twenty-two sign that was next to the small hut of a house. “Three’s place, if Last told me right.” There still wasn’t any light coming from inside the house. All the windows were empty and only reflected the harbor. Ennu found himself growing curious, more curious then he should be as he looked over his shoulder to see if Jenry was in sight, but he wasn’t anywhere. Ennu made his way to the shut door of the small abode. ‘I still have some time before the first sun rises, I’ll just see if he’s home.’ He knocked softly on the door. The door slowly swung open having not been shut completely.
It was dark inside, and Ennu couldn’t make out any details, “Three? Are you in there? It’s Ennu from last night. A couple of questions, if you would?” A resounding silence was all that responded to him, and Ennu furrowed his brow. Could he possibly still be out on the water? Ennu shook his head and knocked softly on the door again, well-greased hinges swung the door nearly all the way open. “Whoops…” Ennu told himself he didn’t mean to do that, but his curiosity took away his better judgment as he stuck his head inside to look around. “Three?” Ennu asked quietly. It was then that Ennu noticed there was only an empty building to greet him. “I thought this was where he was staying? Last must be mistaken.” Ennu went all the way inside the empty building. There were windows on each wall giving a great view of the harbor and the Rystan ocean extending out endlessly into the horizon. The first suns rise was just peeking over the distant waters, and the form of a large boat was just beginning to take shape across the harbor mouth’s entrance. “Timely,” Ennu said as he walked forward to look out the far window at the approaching ship. The horizon and the surrounding sky was truly beautiful, Ennu found himself admiring the colors spreading quickly across the heavens as he stared out the window. The ship which he could only hope was the Resplendent slowly crept it’s way forward towards the docks.
A constant stream of fishing vessels passed by going the opposite direction with a flurry of activity on the decks of the boats with a crew busily setting up gear and nets of all sorts. Ennu studied the larger merchant ship approach the outer piers to dock at an unloading station across the harbor. The ship indeed had the name Resplendent marked on the bow and stern end of the ship. Ennu smiled contentedly and turned, “Time to retrieve that damnable package.” He stopped as the door to the empty building slowly shut in front of him. Ennu stared for a moment towards the hand on the doorknob before following the length of the covered arm up to the cowled head of who he recognized as Three from the night before.
“Three! I’m so sorry for intruding. It was empty in here. I thought nobody was here!” Ennu spoke quickly and apologetic. Three waved away Ennu’s concern with a motion of his hand. Three’s features were still shrouded in darkness. The sight unnerved Ennu now that it wasn’t at night in the middle of a storm. Three made his way across the room next to Ennu and joined him gazing out over the harbor. Three’s thin weathered digits moved as the air around them had turned viscous. When they reached his cloak’s hood, Three pulled it away from his face. Ennu studied the old man’s thick curly white beard that completely covered his lower features, but wasn’t long. Deep eye sockets sunk into his skull to an extreme that seemed unhealthy to Ennu. Leathery skin stretched taught over a bald tanned scalp. Fearsome looking he is, Ennu thought. “Would you… like me to leave?” Ennu asked slowly after an extended period of silence.
Three didn’t shift his gaze, but long thin fingers curled down, and he brought his thumb to his forehead and brought it down to touch the top of his other thumb down near his chest.
Ennu watched him for a moment before Three turned to make eye contact with those dark shadowed eyes studying him. Three repeated the gesture and added after touching his thumbs together with the same sign he had given him the night before, a tracing of both his index fingers around his neck to stop in the middle of his chest. A voice as weathered as the skin that stretched over nearly visible bone and dark as the inset eye sockets accompanied the gestures, “Remember the necklace?”
Ennu visibly stepped back a bit, “…how? How do you know about that necklace anyway, and what’s it to you?”
Three didn’t respond and only turned to look back out the harbor towards the ship Resplendent now unloading its goods. Three pointed a long thin finger out the window and lifted his head towards the ship. “You better get going, Ennu.”
Ennu followed Three’s gaze as he spoke, “Yes, of course,” Ennu responded before backing away slowly to the door. Three remained standing and motionless staring out the window to the harbor. He did not move or say anything more as Ennu opened the door and exited the small building and started making his way towards the ship to retrieve his delivery. His mind couldn’t escape from that man named Three. There was just something unnerving about him. ‘Hell does he want with my necklace anyway? It wouldn’t possibly do him any good anyhow. At least, it shouldn’t?’ Ennu shook himself and pushed those thoughts away to concentrate on finishing the deal. It had been too many weeks, and he wanted this transaction over.

“Cotton blankets! it was a stack of cotton sheets!” Ennu raised his voice towards the Captain, “Where in the hell are they?!”
“These are the only blankets, SHEETS, or stack of anything for that matter we have right here, and they fit the inventory sheet, sir.” The Captain responded patiently with a practiced patience.
“These… are… WOOL!” Ennu said accusingly.
“Not… my… problem.” The Captain said to Ennu threateningly, “I deliver the goods, not make them. Now, off with you!” The Captain motioned for one of his deckhands to escort Ennu off the deck of the ship back to the docks.
Ennu grabbed the stack of wool blankets before turning to leave, “I can find my way,” he said to the huge deckhand approaching him with a glare. Ennu stomped hard down the ramp to the dock. He knew that it wasn’t the Captain’s fault, and he merely picked up the shipment, but he’d be to hell and back if he weren’t going to take his frustrations out on him. Ennu was at a loss for what to do. The buyer was going to be furious. He had to think. He had to get home and sit and figure this out. Elandri would just scold him for being an idiot for doing this anyway. He would figure this out. The way home proved unsuccessful at easing his concerns. He hadn’t calmed down in the least bit. His mind ran faster the closer he got to needing to deliver the already purchased goods. As Ennu entered the house, he noticed Elandri had stepped out already, probably to get some fresh food for the day. ‘Good, good. I have time to think this through, anyhow,’ Ennu thought as he made his way to his study. After opening the door, his mind stopped as he looked down to the skull on the floor to the side of his desk. He looked up to where it should be and saw the book that must have pushed the head down. Ennu tilted his head, “You would think that would break falling from that height,” He shook his head and retrieved the skull, placing it back to where it should be, setting the book back up on its end.
Ennu sat, dropping the stack of wool blankets on the desk in front of him. One of his chalices were filled still with the blackberry wine from the night before. He drank it down and reached into a drawer of his desk to grab the bottle and pour another. Ennu looked from the bottle to the cup and decided to skip the pouring and just drank from the bottle. He hesitated to inspect the blankets. He knew it wouldn’t be there. They weren’t the right ones, why would it be there. After the fourth or fifth drink, he set the bottle down and began untying the stack of wool blankets. There was supposed to be items sewn into the fabric of the material, hidden from sight. Ennu wasn’t meant to know what, just get them here unnoticed. He turned each blanket over in his hand. There were two of them, Ennu sighed. These were only one layer, and there was nothing inside them, no seam to hide anything, just a single layer of fabric, a traditional woolen blanket. There wasn’t even three of them. There was supposed to be three double layered cotton blankets, expensively made soft fabric from the city of Amorine, the city that created the most wondrous of machines and products.
He leaned back heavily grabbing the bottle again and finishing it off before throwing it hard against the far wall. It was a thick glass bottle, and Ennu wasn’t the strongest, so the bottle merely bounced and landed on the floor before spinning in a circle.

“The road to hell remains paved with such things, Ennu,” Three said to the empty room without a hint of humor, “I found that out first hand.”

Cerene

“The still water’s reflection wouldn’t lie. Your actions will be a scar to remember. A scar that will taint your way by the people just glancing towards you and the ones that have known you throughout your entire life!” Jaspen seethed as he said the words.

“Who are you to say what it is people believe, think, or judge about another,” Fellion responded in a statement that emboldened his perspective of the traitor standing before him.

“Maybe then, I should give you another chance to change this perception you have about me?” A coy smile crossed Jaspen’s thin white lips stating his defiance more than angry words could ever accomplish.

“You are of an ill-begotten faith and traitorous views if you think disposing of me will change your fate in this world. You are bound to be tossed away like the filth your kind deserves, regardless of any actions I take,” said Fellion.

“Then explain to me just what my ‘kind’ is my supposed ‘ally’?” Jaspen mocked.

“Allies… ha! We were only serving the same cause, at least that is what I thought, until you! YOU!” Fellion pointed a finger absurdly forceful towards his opponent as he spat the last of his words, “Turned your back on everything pure you’ve ever known. Your kind is nothing less, and no more, then self-serving cretins!”

“You truly believe we are of false reason, that we are faithless and deceitful? Your wisdom became shrouded from a veil of self-delusion, my friend. This faith of yours is as diluted as the liquor at Spoken’s Inn.” Jaspen spoke the last with contempt and an issuance of hatred towards the man; doing everything with his words besides physically spitting in the man’s face.

Cerene sat silently watching the two men spout words like swords back and forth. Words amazed her, purely due to the fact she could not speak herself. Her fascination for words drove her to books, hundreds upon hundreds of books she had the privilege of having close at hand. Thanks to the city chapel in town that had taken Cerene in to teach and support her was such a luxury as literature so readily available to her there. At only four and a three-quarter foot tall and just shy of ninety pounds sopping wet, Cerene was merely a shadow buried deep within the darkness, easy to miss, which was perfect for her love of observing others. The fact she couldn’t speak left her used to being a ghost and ignored by most everyone around her.

These two men had a storied history,’ Cerene thought, as she stared silently towards them still spouting off to one another reducing common language to more animated hand and arm movements than words. Perhaps there would be blood this day, she mused. Despite how much she was enjoying watching an exchange of intelligently formed conversation she had somewhere to be. Cerene stood and turned on her heel and made her way back through the crowd that had gathered around the two men to loiter and watch. Cerene had to be back to the monastery to join the Respects with the people there. She quickened her pace through the throng of individuals and made easy work of the distance before slowing when the people thinned out. Coming in sight of the chapel when she was making her way past the graveyard next to the monastery she saw him again. Tham, she noticed, was here for the second time this week just before the setting sun. A pang of despair went through Cerene at Tham’s devotion to his wife’s resting place. She couldn’t help to feel conflicted at the beauty and sadness of such a thing, but Tham was always content and never hesitated to smile to her despite his obvious struggles that were far greater than hers.

Sometimes Tham spoke to the likes of Cerene, of course, he knew she couldn’t respond, but that didn’t stop him. That’s why Cerene felt a keen sense of respect for the man’s open honesty and kindness. It was hard to get used to how most would pretend she couldn’t hear as well as talk. No matter how much she told herself being a ghost to those around her didn’t bother her, or that she just didn’t exist because she wasn’t able to speak, she still found herself retreating within herself. These were things about her that she ignored for the most part, and in her latest years noticed more and more she could use to her advantage.

Cerene had made quick time to the monastery, and she was a bit early to the Respects. She would see if Tham wanted to visit before continuing in as the more frequent visits to his wife lately might have an interesting reason. Tham didn’t seem to notice her as she approached through the garden of headstones to sit near where he was. Cerene waited, quiet, and stared forward to the same headstone he looked on. She knew it was his wife that rested here and that, from the date of the inscription, it was only two passings since she left him.

“I have been thinking of a story, Cerene,” Tham said in his quiet, but soothing tone. Cerene wasn’t surprised that he noticed her approach without seeing her, but she couldn’t help be slightly offended. Cerene took quite a bit of pride when it came to how quiet she could be when she wanted. Cerene looked up to him, but Tham was still staring ahead, his hands clasped on the small of his back looking to his wife’s headstone. “Not an accurate, ‘story,’ per-say, but something I wrote that I used to read to her when she was in those final months.” He was silent for a moment, and Cerene looked away down towards the grass noticing a few dying and brown patches scattered around as the season changed cold. She absently moved her fingers out of habit in the language of the hand, a gesture that said only, ‘Love stories.’ Tham wouldn’t know even if he was looking, though, he didn’t know hand signs well enough for that one. She had been teaching him a few here and there in passing, and he had been catching on quickly enough. “Would you like to hear it?” Cerene looked up and noticed Tham looking to her now, and she brought her hand up in a fist raising and lowering it at her wrist and smiled to him as he signed back the letters O and K and returned the smile before making his way to seat himself next to her on the concrete sun-bleached bench.

Returning his eyes towards the resting place of his wife he spoke slowly at first before going on. “Combined existence…,” he nodded, the motion obviously meant for his thoughts, “I can’t say I ever actually understood that title until I lost her, she came up with it, you see. It fits, though, a good title. Let us see if this clouded mind can come up with words again,” Tham chuckled to himself looking at her. “Who am I kidding? I couldn’t forget if I wanted to.”

Tham sighed softly and began, “A silence solaced through sacred practice. Then a time unending foreboded an eternal waking. Misunderstood through concept and meaning, waning moons and crescendoed beats. Time fell away unbeknown to the fallen, and a love proved as unabated as a glacial fall carving canyons, shaping mountains. Unmoving as those monstrosities and unaware it never was, but the right to its beauty, it too slowly began to gain ground. The cascading mountain tops rose ever higher as this indefinite structure continued its growth, acting as if a shelter, not hindering to any. Light and dark were similar, for all contained that intrinsic value of constant desire and unknown fates. The only thing left was to be, exist and push on. For they were all blind, led by their love. Outspoken for any, and inwardly kept for themselves, the proof was, and is, in the rapture merely held in their embrace. Never replaced, and always to be held, life cannot truly be without the heart that belongs. Because then there would never be, that pull that pushes forward. For their life, it depends on that blood deep within.”

Cerene looked away from Tham as he finished and looked again on her headstone as he sighed softly to himself. “You better be off Cerene, the Respects begin shortly.” She nodded to herself and knew he was right. Cerene placed her hand flat near her lips and motioned a, ‘thank you.’ The action was a quick follow up with the back of her fist pushing forward from her chin letting Tham know she loved it, she also mouthed the words in case Tham didn’t catch the phrase, but he seemed to understand and smiled, signing back a, ‘thank you,’ of his own.

She wished she could stay, the Respects always took so much out of her, but it was what was due, and she couldn’t complain. Without the convent who knows what would have become of her, so Cerene carried off into the large open doors of the Monastery to join the others beginning the short trek to the gathering where the Respects began. Cerene made her way down the front halls between the meandering Monks towards the group.

“Samaneri!” Cerene stopped in her tracks hearing the Rassaphore call to her. It was Randal, she could tell by the accusing tone in his voice. “You’re late! Again!” She knew she wasn’t, but turned to face him. There were those she wished she was more invisible towards, and he was one of them. He was still a fledgling Monk having just been to his first Rain, the Upasampada, and gaining the Rassaphore title naught but a month or two ago. It didn’t stop his desire to loom the title over her as if she did him wrong in one of her past lives. She never understood what he gained out of bullying her, and he knew she couldn’t retaliate. Her Upasampada was still almost a year out for her to gain her Nun status.

Cerene held up her three fingers fist out towards Randal and then spun her fist back towards her before bringing her three fingers down in a fist all while mouthing the word she was signing, ‘What!’

“I said you’re late! You better start running, little runt!” Randal accused.

Some Monk you are making,’ Cerene thought to herself waving the offensive words away as she turned. Despite knowing she wasn’t late Cerene hurried her pace just to distance herself from him. The others were gathering, and she made her way to the other Samaneri novices and sat on her knees next to one of the other girls that smiled up at her. The  Samanera, or boy novices training to be monks, made up the other half of the gathering hall. These Respects were for the novices, and the Nuns and Monks were later in the evening. As soon as everyone gathered in the huge hall, a soft silence came over the room, as it always did. The giant golden statue at the head of the room was nearly a dozen feet tall. There was no gender that you could tell, and it was merely a person kneeling with their arms outstretched in front of them, head to the ground. A low thrum of chants filled the gathering hall from the elders of the group, the novices joined in and would continue to do so until the hour had passed. It was during this time that the novices would all meditate on the Ten Precepts. Halfway through the Respects a Great Schema, one of the lead Monk’s or Nun’s, would join the novices and begin reciting the Vinaya; the set of rules that this Monastery expected of their disciples.

Cerene did her best to focus internally and to the Great Schema, softly reciting the Vinaya countless times. She found her mind wandering as it often did, though, this time she found herself once again trying to remember life before the monastery. As thankful as she was for the people that took her in, she never felt part of this place, never felt whole here. There had to be something more, something else. She had never been too far away from the plot of land that the large monastery occupied. Sometimes the Nun’s would take her on walks into Egostrian to get food but never strayed from the path to explore. She wished to venture out. She wanted to see more than these walls. This place was not her. She did her best to give her all, but her mind often betrayed her. She found stories, stories in books and listened to passersby speak about places outside of the city. The Lagartija Forest, the far away land of the Ketsueki Desert across the Rystan Ocean. Her sense of purpose found meaning in a profound draw on her very soul to be free to explore the world. She had nothing, though, possessions were only minimally allowed and she had never owned any coin for herself. Cerene knew these were hurdles she had, but not her biggest. How would she bring herself to leave this place, away from the people that took her in, and would they ever take her back?

A sudden pain shot in her hand as her fingers crushed beneath the soft soled slipper of another Samaneri. Cerene winced and shook her fingers out to wave away the pain as she furrowed her brow at the girl that kept on walking with her friends without so much as turning to apologize. Cerene sighed, maybe the girl didn’t notice, she shook her head and stood. ‘Apparently, I missed the ending bell,’ she smiled to herself. ‘Lost yourself a bit more than usual this time didn’t you, Cerene?’ She thought before making her way through the throng of novices that headed to the meal, but she didn’t find herself hungry, and she felt the need to get some more fresh air again. I’ll see if Tham is still here. Cerene quickly made her way out of the Monastery to the tombstones out front that circled the side of the building. She saw his back as Tham was leaving. Clapping her hands to him to get his attention she then waved with a smile to him when he turned to her.

Tham returned the gesture, “Welcome back, little one. Care to join me for a walk?”

Cerene raised her eyebrows and thought about it, Classes and Respects were over, everyone will be eating, and the elders will be in Respects at least another hour after the meal. She smiled to herself before nodding to him and smiling as she made her way to walk next to him. Tham was a hair over six and a half foot tall, and with her four and three-quarter stature, they made quite the odd pair walking away towards the main throughways of Egostrian.

A Rassaphore Monk stared silently towards Cerene and the tall stranger through the entrance door as he leaned against the dark oak frame. Randal smiled a half-smile to himself as he chuckled a bit before checking over his shoulder to see if anyone was watching him. He nodded to himself when he only saw novice’s making their way to meals as he turned to slowly make his way down the stairs to follow the little runt to see where she was sneaking off too. Randal chuckled darkly to himself. ‘The little bastard girl is going to get it for sneaking off like this, perfect, just perfect,’ he thought.

It wasn’t the first time Cerene had visited Tham’s place. She loved listening to the uses of different herbs, what was best for certain sicknesses, how to stop a wound from infecting, preventing blood loss and all other sorts of aid. She had learned more from Tham than any teacher she had ever had, but perhaps that was the ease at which he spoke. Tham was just a natural at simplifying healing techniques that it was a wonder why everyone couldn’t do it. He let Cerene practice sometimes with concoctions letting her fail miserably and find her path to the right way to do it. ‘Many ways that you can prepare an egg, Cerene,‘ Tham would always say to her, ‘But if your customer wants sunny side up, you better know how to keep the yolk runny!’ He would joke, even though Cerene knew he was deadly serious considering his profession.

“Cerene?” She heard Tham call from behind the counter. Cerene turned to him and raised a brow. “Let me show you something. I was hoping to get your opinion.”

Cerene furrowed her brow, ‘My view on something?’ She wondered curiously before nodding to him. Tham smiled to her and motioned for her to follow as he left the entrance to a back room. Cerene followed and joined him in the back room that looked a lot like a room to treat patients. There was a big single person bed in the middle of the room, shelves, and cupboards full of all kinds of medicines and wrappings. Everything looked proper and in place except for what was on the bed. Above the sheets of the bed was a thick layer of sand, at first it seemed formless, but the longer Cerene looked at she swore it looked like the shape of a person.

Tham looked to her, “This is what I wanted to show you,” he said as he made his way to the bed. Tham grabbed a handful of sand and let it run through his fingers back onto the bed as he looked up to her, “I had a patient come to me a few nights back. I thought I had the issue figured out. It was only a spider bite. Granted the poison had spread quicker than I had seen previously, but the effort it seemed to take them getting here, that’s not entirely surprising. The harder you work, the faster your blood flow, the quicker things progress.” Tham looked down again at the sand on the table, “…but then there’s this.”

Cerene made her way to the table and ran a finger through the sand tracing the phrase, ‘They?’ in the sand.

Tham nodded, “This,” Tham pointed to the table, “was him. He had a partner, Jesine is her name. She is staying in the back sleeping area as long as she needs to.”

Wylen

Misty tendrils crept upwards out into the darkness from the sand that was still warm even this deep into the cold desert night. There was a smoky glow to the thin foggy air. The mist that rose was colored golden with hints of gray rising slowly from the sand. The tendrils wrapped themselves around the limbs of the cold flesh belonging to a man lying dead and broken. A nomad that came to an unfortunate end in the unforgiving land of crushed glass and dusty wind. Blood that had seeped into the area around the lifeless husk began rising as wisps of light and smoke to join the misty air rushing from below. It took but a moment for the corpse to emanate the soft gray and golden glow of mist as it consumed the dead man. A small river of fog began filling a wound on the back of his neck, slowly at first, and then a dam seemed to break as the rest of the combined misty air around him flowed into the wound with a rush of air.

The glow was gone, all the mist had disappeared, and all was silent in the starry night of the frigid desert air. The wound on the back of the man’s neck was still there, but instead of being covered in dried blood and sand as before, it was now clean and slightly bleeding. The wet, misty air seemed to cleanse the wound as it rushed into the man. Just moments later a slow and soft rise came from the blue flesh of the corpse’s back. The chest of the nomad fell, releasing steamy air from his nostrils out into the night. A small amount of breath also escaped through the wound at the back of his neck. His chest rose and fell again. It seemed the man was asleep with the blue of his flesh slowly fading to color the more breaths he took.

A voice spoke above the crowd. Wylen’s mind could hear the rumblings of a gathering with a man projecting his voice through the air.

“You are mistakingly distorting fact by fusing it with creation. Proof being put in visual form and into our dreams of what we want, leaving behind what we need. Today we hold true to our roots and gather here to show our progress away from desire and towards design. Away from greed and into the necessary! Leave behind corrupted wants and work together in actions of purity! Today, we bind two nations and welcome all who would join this union to attend.”

Bindunion…,’ these words stood out in Wylen’s thoughts. A ring floated in his vision, gone as quick as it appeared. Greens and blues fused within one another, swirling downward in a spiraling fashion. The sight was dizzying, confusing. The vision was an unrecognizable image. He was holding onto something, and there was no ground and only blackness all around him. The cold touch of metal was his link to staying alive, a feeling of safety was what proved this to him, a sense of need and desire.

That security pushed him forward even though his arms burned. He assumed that this was because his hand grasped this cold steel bar, was it? No, it was sharp, a sword? He followed the length of it, and he found it going inside him, through his abdomen and out the back of his neck. He didn’t know, and he just knew he didn’t want to let go. A wave of pain shot into his arms running its course through his neck and into his spine. The pain stopped inside his temples just to throb with a searing burn beneath his skin. There was a scream, and the image pulled back away from his vision, and he could see his whole self in front of him hanging in the span of a circle. When he looked harder, he realized that it was a ring. In this black world he clung to life and the only sense of reason his mind could hold. His love, and thoughts of his life outside of this blackness.

Wylen could feel eight sharp legs seeping into the skin on his cheek making their way up across his eye. His arms would not obey at first, and he suffered the itch of wanting to smack the creature away. Eventually, he managed to raise his fingers out from below himself and sand ran through his still slow to respond digits. Wylen reached his face in what seemed like an extraordinary amount of time and picked up the scorpion from his scalp. Doing so caused the beast to jam the spike on its tail directly into Wylen’s thumb. He only knew this because he saw it happen and could feel the pressure pushing into the bone under his skin. Curious, he rolled to his back and examined the scorpion as it danced furiously in his grip trying to free itself by stabbing into his fingers. Wylen shook his head before placing the creature back onto the sandy ground and watched it scamper off before examining the tiny droplets of blood coming from his hand. Wondering for a moment, Wylen had a fleeting thought of why it didn’t hurt or if he should be worried about the venom. He watched his hand absently for a moment, yet without pain or any visible changes in his skin’s appearance he laid back down on the sand looking at the brightening sky above. ‘ The first Sun rises,’ he thought to himself.

Wylen grabbed two handfuls of sand and sat up with legs still outstretched and let the sand run through his fingers to his pant legs below. He turned his hands over, and then over again. “What happened to my hands? I don’t remember my hands looking like this,” Wylen murmured. His hands were thick and calloused, dirty and full of old cuts alongside the scorpion’s barrage. Wylen shook his head and looked around himself at a small tent, cold pit for fire, a pile of branch wood and a pack full of something he couldn’t quite make out. Looking the opposite direction Wylen thought he could make out the beginnings to tops of buildings, but couldn’t be sure it wasn’t just his eyes playing tricks.

A deep thrumming began low and barely noticeable in his head making his temples ache, the slight pain turned into an itch that cascaded down to the back of his neck, and he reached up to scratch it. A shallow horizontal indentation sunk into the back of his neck further than he knew supposed to be possible. ‘What is that? When was that?’ The itch subsided, and he shook his head before standing and noticing for the first time the desert rags he was wearing. The thin garb did nothing to stave off the early morning air that sank a chill into his bones. ‘Where the hell am I?’ Wylen thought. ‘The last thing I remember… was… what?’ Wylen remembered everything about the things around here besides where he was, how he was there, or what he was doing in a place like this. ‘I am from Jumirin, but… what else?’ He was simply from Jumirin, nothing else stood out. ‘Ah, well it will come back to me, but how did I get so damn dirty and broken, how…’  he thought once again examining his hands. Nothing was bringing anything to the forefront of his thoughts, so he moved on to basic needs. Fire… I’ll make a fire then. I’m cold.

It didn’t take him long, but no matter the height of the flames it didn’t seem to do him any good. There was a deep chill in him that he couldn’t seem to shake. Frustration set in as the second Sun made its ascent and he decided to inspect the pack that sat next to the small raised tent. Wylen found a few pieces of dried meat, some useless trinkets and a folded up piece of parchment. Dumping the pack upside down there was nothing else, and he went to seat himself next to the fire again before unfolding the brown stained piece of paper. As he unfolded it there seemed to be just random lines drawn nonsensically across the journal, but when he saw it in its entirety, the lines came together to what could be a map of sorts. Arrows were pointing this way or that seemingly random without any context. Words written as notations yet they weren’t in any language he could make out. The only word he recognized was what at the top left of the paper which if he made it out right said, Knyaz. Knyaz was a city, he knew, a city famed for its thieves gatherings and being a hub for contractual arrangements that need remain anonymous. Wylen sat again next to the fire with the map, the only clue he had to anything at the moment.

‘What else do I do?’ Wylen thought to himself. It’s all I have right now. The desert’s heat was all around him only hours later, but he still didn’t move. Wylen sat unmoving, holding the folded parchment in hand and staring into the dying embers of the fire. He waited for something to come back to him, he tried to piece together anything that might have led him to where he is, but there was nothing. Just a distant knowing of where he grew up and that he had a home in Jumirin, but once again he thought the same thing, ‘Where the hell am I?’ Wylen stood and retrieved the small pack he dumped out earlier. He was able to fit the tent inside it as well before throwing it across his shoulder and looking towards what looked reminiscent of the beginnings of buildings in the distance. He would find his way to Knyaz, perhaps he would remember on the way how he came to be here, or there would be answers there.

He started towards the distant horizon. Wylen stopped when he noticed footprints leading away from the camp. The prints headed in the same direction, towards the buildings. Well then, wonder if it’s a friend I’ll find? He followed the footsteps as best he could. He didn’t know why he did as he could plainly see the city before him rising over the horizon. It gave him a chance to let his mind wander, to try and remember something. How had he got to that camp in the first place? What was that deep throb in the back of his neck and mind? Why was there a constant deep numbing cold no matter how hot the air around him became?

Annwe

A crowd gathered around the speaker, “They think we are step-stones from a bygone era! They wish we would just melt away with the hell they created because of their greed and lust for money and fame. They poisoned our air, our water, and our land to such an extent that it turned our world into dust and sand. Our air came to a boil, and still, they didn’t listen to sound science from us or any of our studies. They left us all to die in the mess they created with excuses that the floating cities couldn’t support us all. Excuses that the palaces they built in the atmosphere of Earth and Venus couldn’t sustain such a burden. The truth is that we all just couldn’t afford the ticket! We can no longer abide the lies of coexistence. Resist against their boot they use to try and crush us!”
Annwe looked away from the speech of the plainly dressed man that stood atop a wooden crate as the worker responded to her. “They’re all yours, kid.” The scrawny laborer said as he looked cautiously over his shoulder towards Resplendent which was a mid-size freighter ship while pushing the blankets toward her. Annwe knew she had overpaid for the blankets, but she was sick of not having the little luxury ever since that good for nothing thief made off with hers. She needed those blankets when the unbearable heat of the day continued deep into the night when the weather was most dangerous. When the nights sweltered as much as the days, she would douse her blanket in water and wrap herself in it. She hated the cold of the water, but she knew the dangers of overheating as her father had taught her. Annwe found herself replaying the events of the week before in her mind. There had to be something that she had missed that could help her get to him again.

“Daaad, just because I don’t talk nerdy doesn’t mean I can’t. Hyperthermia, which can also be hyperpyrexia, is a real danger of heat. Do not try to cool down by sitting in front of a fan that blows hot air, that makes symptoms worse. You need cold water and a colder environment. Hot air continuing into the night is the actual killer,” Annwe poked his shoulder as they walked. “Also, with higher humidity accompanied with warm weather, it means heat begets more heat especially into the night!” She smiled proudly up to him as he continued to watch straight ahead. “Besides,” Annwe said defiantly, “I’m not a kid anymore, I’m almost fifteen!”
Her dad looked down at her with that small smile of his that infuriated her without end, but that also comforted her when she was certain her world was crumbling all around her. “Not a kid anymore. Just make sure you drink your water.” He said the last putting a blue gloved hand on her head and mussing up her hair. Annwe growled softly before shooting him a glare. He continued to smile at her before wrapping a strong arm around her shoulders. As angry as she could get, he always made her feel safe.
Annwe gripped her dad’s oil stained white overcoat that he seemed to live in and held it tight as they made their way outside the gates of Amorine and out into the endless sands of the Ketsueki desert. The heat felt like a wall that pushed them back into the shade of the city. They pressed on, though. Waiting for them was a trio of dune buggies that could traverse the deep sands. They loaded their things into the middle Buggy with two other men. It was after they sat that Annwe noticed that all her father’s lab partners were with them.
“We are both going up this time, right?” Annwe asked rhetorically. She already knew the answer.
Her father looked at her and pulled a dark visor over his eyes before handing her one to wear, too. As the vehicle began to move forward, he replied, “WE are not going anywhere. You are going to the camp below the elevator while your dad goes to visit First Island for another one of his ‘experiments’ as you like to call them.” The buggy roared forward to full speed as she put on her shaded visor to save her eyes from the bright sun. Annwe watched the dunes dizzyingly fly by, and it almost made her sick before she remembered to focus on the horizon to keep her stomach settled.
Through the clouds above, Annwe could see the bottom of the floating city, Egostrian. In the distance, a shapeless chunk of debris fell and landed hard on the ground, spewing sand high into the wavy desert air. It was common for trash to rain down into the sandy wilderness. It seemed the city hovered above the entirety of Ketsueki at times. It was why Amorine didn’t extend out beneath Egostrian. The danger of discarded rubbish from the clouds was too frequent and unexpected to live below the city. Annwe grit her teeth, disgusted by the crunching of salty sand. She hated the taste. Annwe looked to her father and followed his gaze forward to their destination: a thin, dark, metallic elevator that extended to through the haze of thin clouds and seemingly to the stars above.

When they arrived, her father pointed up the endless tower. “That is where I am going.” He rested a hand on her head and turned it down towards a small building near the bottom of the tower itself. “That is where you’re going with the others. It will only be a few hours at most.”
“I don’t want to stay down here again!” Annwe pleaded as she pointed to the clouds, “I want to go up there with you!”
He smiled that stupid smile of his, “Someday Annwe, but not today.”
“Today is someday! Please?!” Annwe gave him her best pout, but she knew he wouldn’t budge.
“No, Annwe, I’m sorry,” he said, Now go. I’ll see you as soon as I am able,” he kissed her forehead and mussed her hair again before turning to join his lab partners near the base of the tower. Annwe glared at his back before silently resigning to another tedious wait reading her books. As she approached the building, she turned to see her father, but couldn’t see him or the others. Something itched at the back of Annwe’s mind. He didn’t promise to see her again. He always promised to be back soon. Annwe couldn’t shake the thought but eventually waved away the idea. He probably just forgot, she thought. Annwe looked to the building she was supposed to go to and then back up the length of the tower that stretched into the sky. She shook her head defiantly, “Not this time,” and Annwe ran towards the base of the tower her father went. She would see the clouds. For once she would escape the desert, sand, and the smell of oil. Annwe stopped at the doorway and listened. She could hear her father.
“Check your oxygen, no need to remind you that you’ll go hypoxic without it after the detonation and the elevator depressurizes. Let’s review. Jen?” Her father asked.
Jen responded, “The first explosive will be at the troposphere which determined to be 8.5 kilometers in elevation from our location, the second at the tropopause which has been found to be 18.8 kilometers in altitude. We have been over these numbers. We need to go. Now.”
Explosives?, Annwe thought. “Fine, fine,” her dad said. He sounded reluctant to Annwe. He was always the type to try the same experiment repeatedly to make sure all the details were worked out. “Let’s go.” Annwe glanced into the room. They were all wearing tanks and masks with backpacks. She could hear large doors to the elevator hiss as they opened around the corner. She didn’t want to be left out again. The doors began to close. Annwe ran. Before anyone could say anything, she barreled into the elevator as the doors closed in behind her.
“Annwe!” She heard her father yell, “What are you doing?! Stop! Stop the elevator!” It was too late. Annwe could feel the gravity of a slow upwards movement.
“If we stop it now, they’ll know, this might be our only chance,” Jen said. It was only then that Annwe noticed the blood. A uniformed guard lay unmoving in the corner of the large elevator floor.
“Dad, what’s going on?” Annwe asked, suddenly feeling foolish.
Her father took off his mask and sighed heavily, “Annwe, you shouldn’t have come.” Annwe looked down before meeting his eyes again, “I know, I’m sorry.”
“We can’t turn around now. Listen, I just want you to understand that it wasn’t always this way and it doesn’t have to be this way. We are done being only scientists and hypothesizing what could be. It is best to do something and risk being wrong than never do anything at all, Annwe. I want you to have an opportunity and a chance for growth. I wish you would have stayed where I asked. You should not be here.” He said sadly.
“7.5 kilometers, 7.7, 8, 8.2…” Annwe heard Jen count. The woman, Jen, opened a side panel of the elevator and shot an object through, “The first explosive placed.”
“What way? What are you talking about, Dad?” Annwe asked confused.
“I’m sorry for not telling you earlier. I was hoping to keep you from this.” Annwe’s father sighed again before removing his gear and motioning Annwe to turn around. She did as he asked and he placed his tank, mask, and backpack on Annwe making sure to tighten it to her size and that oxygen flowed correctly.
“Don’t you need a mask, Dad?” Annwe asked as she glanced around at all the others still in their gear.
“18.2 kilometers, 18.5…” Jen counted again before shooting another round through what appeared to be a square-barreled gun, “…second explosive placed.”
Her father gave her that infuriating smile again, “Don’t you worry about me, Annwe. Never forget that the sky is not a thing to be owned. We are going to bring Egostrian a message, starting with the elevator and First Island. They cannot ignore the desperate people they left behind any longer.” It was only then that Annwe realized the elevator began to stop and the doors opened.
“I don’t understand…” Annwe replied as she turned to face the large opening into the empty sky.
Annwe heard muffled to her ears as she looked out among an ocean of clouds and on those clouds buildings with luscious green gardens. Dozens of flying machines crossed expanses between floating islands.
“Annwe! Look at me!” She tore her gaze away, “Don’t forget to breathe. I love you.” He smiled that smile again and strangely he was falling away. No, she realized, it was her that was falling.
She screamed within her mask as the black metal of the elevator fell away then imploded below her before turning red and orange above her enveloping the entirety of the structure under where she was pushed out. The huge buildings directly above the elevator began to rocked and tilted from the blast and began to fall apart. Explosions were ripping up the side of First Island causing the whole structure to begin a slow, yet definite, descent downward. Annwe plummeted through the cloud line and her ability to see anything faded. She fell for what seemed an eternity. “Dad…” she thought as she felt the pack on her back automatically open and a round parachute opened above her, wrenching her painfully, slowing her descent.
When she descended through the thin layer of cloud cover, Annwe was stunned, speechless at what she saw. Through her watery eyes, the city of Amorine appeared through the haze of heat huddled against the acidic ocean water in the distance. The real scope of the Ketsueki desert was humbling. Sand as far as she could see. Annwe could already feel the heat enveloping her as she descended towards the bottom of the now broken structure.

A week after the massive elevator fell, Annwe made her way across the close-knit rooftops towards her hideaway she called Safe Perch. It was the flat top roof of an abandoned building that transients were in and out of, shady deals were made and broken, or even the occasional raccoon could be found sleeping the heat of the day away. Annwe cared nothing for what happened inside. She spent her time next to the half-broken gargoyles at the edge of the rooftop facing the endless view of the Ketsueki desert. The massive dunes were a landscape of red and brown, dotted with the occasional boulder that cast shadows across the windswept inclines. Annwe bundled up her new blanket for a pillow to sit on and leaned back against the broken stone torso of a gargoyle missing its head. Worth every coin, she mused.
Annwe reached into a gap beneath the statue to retrieve a dusty visor with thick goggle eyepieces. She pulled a small metallic Dragonfly from one of the eyepieces. She set the little insect drone on the edge of the rooftop beside her. Annwe then closed her eyes after sliding the visor over her head and began making a connection to the flier. From the leather bands crisscrossing her dirty blonde hair, she slipped earpieces down into her ears. The Dragonfly connected and Annwe’s vision became the Dragonfly’s view through the visor. Annwe listened to the sounds of the city streets below through the microphone of the Dragonfly and let her mind go as she lifted the drone away from the building to cascade down the side of the building.
The music of men’s quartet bellowed their song over the serenading hiss of steam whistles and the constant whir of engines all around the city block. A woman plucked a shamisen through a somber melody around the corner almost in tune with the men’s harmony. Her face hidden beneath long, strawberry hair and a wide-brimmed black velvet hat as she strummed away at a moderate pace on her fretless lute. Annwe flew her Dragonfly past the musician. Further down the dusty road, the sounds of the music died inside the factory where one man screamed, red-faced, at another man who sported a bulging vein above his eye. It was just another day for the workers who ignored the verbal quarrel and made their way to their duties. Beyond the laborers, a sauna amount of steam poured out a doorway with a descending stairwell. Not a man of woman didn’t shimmer with the sweat, grease, and dirt that came from making a living working in what the locals labeled Steam Hell. In the wetness above the steamy doorway was an engraving of a large ship firing off a launch pad. Most referred to the rocket as Desertion, but others knew the image more so as what was meant to be the homage to the last launch of the ship, “Venus’ Embrace.”
Annwe flew her drone she called Dragonfly through the entrance and down into the steam. It was a short distance to reach the old rocket platform after the tunnel. Her visor’s vision flickered as she descended into the steamy tunnel. When her screen cleared, her drone had already exited the tunnel, and she saw the deserted launch pad. In the distant sky, she saw shapes. Looking closer, about a mile in the air were circular parachutes descending through the haze of the desert heat above the still smoldering wreckage of Egostrian’s First Island and the elevator. Annwe ripped off her visor and stood looking towards where she saw the parachutes. “There!” She saw them, five of them, just like the parachute that she had. “Dad?! Please be alive. You need to be alive!” Annwe ran.

The sound of the plucked strings of the shamisen always reminded her of the ocean waves as the vibrato of sound moved through her. It was less the notes she played and more how they bounced off of one another as she fluidly moved her hand across the fretless lute. The sounds of hissing steam and random whistles across the city were a distant dream as she cleared her mind of the world around her and let muscle memory take control of the song. Her thoughts wandered towards the memory of a dinner plate sized spider crawling slowly across her skin.

Dival

“Been a long time, old friend,” Dival said to the empty air around him as he stepped out of the tree line following the still trodden path towards his destination and stopping to take in his surroundings. The charcoal colored walls were always overgrown, even tended they were overgrown. It was just how things were when life went dark, the buildings abandoned and the entire area goes into nothing short of a hibernation. Ice and Sin still dominated the cryptic feel of the area; two names that permeated storybook tales that some swear were just to scare children back to their beds at night. All stories lead back to a string of truth that most care not to believe. Dival looked to the black still waters of a deep lake to the right of the path towards the mansion. The wet blackness seemed to harbor a dark sense of foreboding merely staring into the water even from this distance.

In front of Dival rose a building, unlike any other structure he could compare. Even covered in shrub and ivy he could see the two tall spires facing towards him, rising story after story into the foggy mist above with opposing and dark stone that made up the entirety of the structure. Ivy and growth weaved in and out of nearly every window, balcony and doorway. There was no sound; muted even. The wind didn’t touch his cheeks, nor did the still water of the lake stir or ripple. There was only the crunch of ice from his steps, but even those seemed to cut off too short. He caught himself having to force away implanted thoughts and not to start to believe the rumors he’d heard and he hadn’t even stepped inside the clearing yet. Projecting on me, those bastards, Dival thought as he forced the feelings away.

His breath steamed around him in the frigid morning air. Ice crystallized mud and puddles crunched beneath his feet. The snow stopped at the tree line oddly enough and all throughout the perimeter of the grounds that could only be called dark and obtrusive to the land around it; some had even called evil back in the city of Devuh. Probably all just misunderstandings in all likelihood, he thought. Remembering all the talks of, “The devil lives there,” or, “Death even the bloodsuckers don’t go near.” Words to scare and the chatter of fear mongering that was most likely all huff and had no bite to it. Well, I’ll find out soon enough, he mused as another iced over puddle crunched beneath his feet.

Approaching the front of the building he noticed what resembled a statue on the edge of the deck that surrounded the exterior of the front of the house. Closest to the abode, he saw, what looked to be a cemetery that extended far into the backside of the house and to the dark lake’s edge. The statue looked humanoid of sorts but seemed to have a helmet some of the divers from the city of Amorine would wear. The resemblance stopped there as this helmet had long spikes covering where hair should have been. He could not see a face as the head drooped towards the wood of the decking of which it stood. All for the better, Dival thought, yet still found himself curious. He found his eyes drawn towards the two wide double door entrance of the manor. Vines were crawling their way out from the inside to scale up the thick wooden doors, but he could still see the engravings and wood carving of what Dival could make out to be Dragons. Once more another attributable reference to the city of Amorine. The citizens there are renown for their dislike of, “Those damned lizards,” as was the common consensus. There were dozens of factories there that were famous for their Stells, what the citizens referred to the Steam Hells as, each carrying the same namesake due to the boiling steam that permeates the lower quarters of the factories.

There were two of these lizards, one on each door, and they came to meet in the middle of the doorway in more spots than one. Even through the overgrowth, it looked to be a battle between the two. One attacking the other from above with long arms and legs with enormous wings, and the other reaching up from the ground with its snake-like body, small arms but huge head and jaws. The wood carving was truly a work of art; Dival would have to see if he could recreate the scene when he returned to his abode. It wasn’t the first time Dival had been in this area, but he had never taken a chance to appreciate the finer details. Unlike the last occasion when he had lost so much blood that he wasn’t coherent or aware of his surroundings, this time he was of sound mind and body. He found himself wondering where the occupants had gone. He supposed it could be anything as it had been nearly 15 years since his last visit.

Clearing away some of the growth Dival tried the door to no avail, and he shook his head. Would have been too easy, I suppose, Dival thought. As he turned a breath of icy air brushed his cheek which made him flinch back and look the way he came. At first, there was nothing and only the continued stillness of the area around him. Then a blade of long grass caught his eye as it moved, brushed as if by a soft breeze. His brow furrowed, eyes followed the breeze through the overgrown grass. It weaved back towards the broken headstones near the dark, unmoving waters of the lake before circling a particular headstone ‘it’ seemed to have a certain affinity. What… was all Dival had time to think before the wind hit like a clap of thunder.

Dival reeled away to put his back to the thick wooden doors. He could see the wind filled with mist and what looked like shapes, but he couldn’t feel anything. At first, it was only the sound of the wind that seemed to circle the manor and the entire grounds itself, but soon the wind turned to howl like wind does with underlying intermittent banshee screams to accentuate the roar of the misty fog now circling just beyond the deck that Dival now found himself trapped. That was when he saw her, at first just a shrouded shape formed into a woman with the obvious signs of being with child. She didn’t seem to notice him as she walked away from the stairway of the entranceway and towards the headstone he last saw the circling breath of the wind that kissed his cheek. The wind screamed again, and she was gone but reappeared just as fast crouching on the ground near the shore of the lake. Dival absently noticed the dark waters still did not seem disturbed in all the commotion before his attentions came back to the woman as she began screaming. Is she in labor? Dival thought as he looked towards her unable to look away, unsure if he was in shock, scared, or overcome with a fear he could not yet feel. She screamed with endless agony before once again fading away with the mist as the wind gusted with what once again felt as it should have toppled the building; and then it was gone, as silent as it was before. The only proof there was any wind at all was the tall blades of grass still slowly waving side to side before those too came to rest.

Dival watched each piece of grass come to a halt, in turn, unsure and too stunned to move, and as the last overgrown grass came to rest was when a cold metal hand came to rest softly on the fabric of his shoulder. Dival looked down slowly over his left shoulder at the metal shaped like fingers and what seemed like a bone between slowly spinning gears where knuckles should have been. He followed the same style arm up to the spikes that covered the helmet that he now realized was just the head of the creature that now stared at him through two hollowed out holes where eyes should have been and strangely humanoid jaw with the lips of a woman. Dival couldn’t help but silently stare, already emotionally drained as he noticed what was in its other hand. Is that a trumpet? He studied it carefully the hand on his shoulder resembling that of any normal bipedal, but her, or it’s, other hand had nearly ten fingers that held what looked to be a trumpet with just as many keys. His eyes came back up to its face which had soft alabaster skin from the neck to just below the cast iron eye sockets that held an uncanny emptiness. A feminine voice spoke.

“Welcome home, Dival.” He blinked as it released his shoulder and reached behind him to the large wooden doors. She, or it, released the hidden latch with a soft click and the doors swung slowly inward to a profoundly dark entry hall that he could not see further than a few feet. Home? Dival thought for a moment before being drawn forward with a desperate curiosity. He slowly entered into the darkness through the doorway leaving behind what he could only describe as an automaton of sorts. Perhaps from the city of Amorine? They were always building new contraptions and machines that some feared as being magic or evil. That was nonsense obviously, Amorine was just a haven for inventors, artists, and creators alike. Well, perhaps there were a few things indistinguishable from magic, he thought. Remembering a contraption that seemed purely of magic, Dival pulled out a small orb from one of his many cloak pockets. He twisted each hemisphere opposite of one another, and with a little ‘click’ a soft glow permeated the air around the device and Dival as he stepped further into the cavernous entrance hall.

He could not make out the ceiling as it remained cloaked in shadow, nor any walls beside the door behind him that he just realized had now closed. Dival grunted to himself, Well, here we are, he thought, let’s see what this place is all about. He followed the wall to his left with light in hand before he came across two dust-covered overstuffed chairs facing the opposite wall which held a fireplace. Perfect, he thought as he made his way over Dival noticed there was still some charred wood inside the hearth itself and a small pile of timber so dry next to it that it nearly crumbled when he grabbed it. Should light quick enough if it holds together, he thought. With flint and knife he had a fire going in no time, he warmed himself for a moment before building the flames up to get a better view of his surroundings.

Further down the same wall as the now lit hearth, there was what looked to be a bar, the bottles covered in so much dust they all looked the same flavor and vintage. Towards the head of the massive entrance hall it fell into darkness again, but within the gloom, he could make out what looked to be a huge table at the head of the room on the far wall opposite of the entrance. The table was of a thick oak in the shape of the symbol representing infinity. Only one chair sat silently at the far end of the table. The single chair emanated a foreboding feeling to Dival, a silent challenge that pulled at him to come closer to it. As he made his way past the dust covered bar he couldn’t help but stop and consider sampling some of the spirits himself. Aged makes for a better taste, does it not? He mused.

Shadows appeared in his periphery vision, and his heart skipped a beat as he turned towards the table again. A figure sat unmoving with a cold stare towards him. The man seated at the head of the table turned his eyes to Dival. Long, thin, straight black hair cascaded over and behind the apparitions shoulders. Eyes the flavor of night pierced through Dival with a catatonic gaze. A deep chill ran through Dival. He couldn’t break away his eyes. A vice grip held his vision as he could do nothing besides return the look into hard dead eyes as black as charcoal. No, that is a deeper color of black than I’ve ever seen, they consume the light it seems. Without pupils, those eye sockets could be hollow, but they aren’t. Dival could see the shimmer of the firelight from the hearth in the orbs within the skull of the man. The figure suddenly took in a deep breath, chest and shoulders rising. Dival could hear the soft breath of a sigh escape the thin lips of the pale-skinned man. At the same moment, a resounding echo of a door slowly opened with creaking hinges. The sound echoed through the entrance hall near the opposite side to the left of the table that dominated this end of the room. A weight seemed to lift from the room that Dival hadn’t noticed before, but now that it wasn’t there he wondered how he was even standing before.

Is that a smile? Dival questioned curiously still unable to break the gaze of the figure before him. Sure enough, the pale lips of the man curved into a half-smile; a smirk even. Dival noticed he could then see through the pale skin of the man to the high backed chair behind him. Then just as quick as he appeared the figure was gone, leaving the seat empty and silent. Dival shook his head to clear his scattered thoughts and once again was drawn to the bar to steady his nerves. Maybe they had some brandy, he thought to himself. “This place…” he muttered out loud as he ran his fingertips over the wooden surface of the table. The wood of the table was cold to the touch and as reflective as glass. Dival tried to make out the area where he had heard the door creak open just a moment earlier. Too gloomy still, he thought. The wood was so aged that the fire was quickly dimming as it burned too fast. Torches, there have got to be some torches around here. There, and there. He found their placements against the wall and made his way to each one in the entrance hall and lit them all from the fire he started earlier, bathing the room in light. Much better, he thought as he smiled to himself. The last torch he lit was near a now open door near the table at the back of the room.

Must be the door, inside was a dark blood red glow to the chamber. Dival could make out what looked like a desk against the far wall opposite the door. He hesitated, Just what is going to pop out at me now, he was getting a little skittish after coming across so many surprises and having just arrived. Perhaps those damnable rumors had more seeds of truth then I’d thought, he admitted to himself as he cleared the distance to stand in the doorway of the dark red-hued room. He examined the ceiling of the chamber and found the source of the red light. There were inlays of a dark red glow in and throughout engravings on the entirety of the ceiling. The etchings ran what almost looked to be a spiral, starting much further out and turning in on itself sharply and stopping before it touched the center point. Most of this decoration was inside the raised square of the ceiling itself. There was indeed a desk on the opposite wall with a thick overstuffed chair sitting empty behind it. Another plain wooden chair sat empty in front of the desk off to one side. The desk was clear besides a single book lain open and a writing utensil sitting next to an inkwell. Haven’t seen an actual feather and ink set in a long while, he thought absently.

Dival turned away from the room and looked around at his surroundings. There was the entrance door he came through the fireplace and chairs, the bar, the table that dominated the room, the room behind him, a large open doorway that led to stairs leading upwards and a closed door just to his left. Above the entrance he came in, there were two giant windows on each side of the door higher up the wall. Now that there was more light in the entry hall he noticed the marble floor that had a cloud of blacks and whites mixing and interweaving all throughout the lobby. ‘Gorgeous…’ he thought, ‘get this thick blanket of dust and cobwebs off of everything, and we’d be in business.’ He turned back to the room he could only deem as, The Office, and entered. It was only then he saw the third chair immediately next to the entrance door. It was wooden with a high back, a basket weave seat, and it was empty as the rest of the room. Dival made his way to the other side of the desk and wiped off the thick layer of dust on the seat of the well-padded chair and sat. ‘Comfy,’ he thought as he leaned forward to look at the half opened book on the desk. There was half a page written in the book and a map. The script was neat but quick and flowing and was hard to make out at first.

Dival pushed his horse forward through the heavy snow. The trail seemed to continue this way with the trees still lining the path to each side. The snow covered what would have been padded down dirt below, at least he hoped it still did. The book’s map clearly marked this trail towards a city with no name and a location he’d never heard of, the only label in the book was, “The first extreme hoarfrost, a massive wind of rime icing; ‘Rimewind,'” jotted down next to the drawing. Not for the first time, Dival wondered just what in the hell is a, ‘Rimewind?’ He had never heard the term and had no point of reference for it. Dival pulled out of his reverie as the sounds he heard starting changing. There was the crunch of snow below of his horse’s constant stride, but there was something else now. Are those? Other footsteps? Dival looked around and couldn’t make anything out through the thick frozen tree line, but he was sure now that there was another set of steps crunching in the snow around him. He stopped his horse slowly, and a stillness fell over the forest around him. The quiet that only a deep snow on the bowed limbs of evergreens could bring. Only snow was falling in the distance off of a faraway branch that finally released its grip on the white powder covering it.

Dival didn’t know how long it was there, but a steamy breath flowed out of black nostrils that were attached to a head the size of his horses own head. Grey fur accompanied the face down to a wide splayed array of teeth. A low growl emanated from the giant wolf’s snarling mouth. Slowly, Dival reached down with his left arm, the side of him that the wolf couldn’t see, and grabbed the hilt of his thick blade rapier. He held the gaze of the wolf with a face unflinching as to not provoke until he was ready, but the wolf gave him no time before his massive front paws stepped forward. In one fluid motion, Dival rolled to his left off the saddle of his horse and landed on the soft snow below with his sword drawn. The wolf surged forward clearing the last half dozen feet with a leap towards the side of the horse. Without time to think about it, Dival ran his sword through the neck of his spotted brown steed and pulled down hard through the front of the neck of the animal. The horse began to fall just before the wolf hit the side of the now dying beast.

Following the motion of his slicing thrust, Dival threw himself under the neck of the horse towards the direction of the wolf as the two beasts collided, the wolf having bit jaws down too high on the horses back from where it intended. The collapsing horse threw the wolf off balance with the unexpected shifts of weights. Dival didn’t hesitate and launched forward running the thick blade through the temple of his attacker. Everything went silent besides the gurgling sound of his horse twitching in its last death throes. His rapier dropped slowly as the wolf’s muscles went limp falling to lay on the horse with its jaws buried deep within the upper portion of the backside of horseflesh and saddle. Dival sighed as he pulled his blade free and wiped it on the snow before returning it to his scabbard.

‘Now what?’ He thought as he examined the wolf. Its fur was thick but ragged and patchy. He thought he could see the ribs through the smoke colored fur and a taught belly. ‘Alone then?’ He hoped, figuring if it had been a pack he would be dead long before now. He shook his head and began the process of retrieving what he needed from the saddlebags. Too cold to be walking around out here, he chided himself for not preparing for a longer trek. It was nearly second sun’s set, and he had to get food and a fire going before the chill was too much to handle even for him. He was used to the cold, so it didn’t bother him as much as others, but even his body would fail him if there weren’t something to warm the flesh. He studied the horse knowing he had saved him from a more painful fate letting the wolf bite into him, and then he studied the giant wolf. ‘Well, no use making any of it go to waste,’ Dival thought.

It was only a few hours past before Dival was cleaning the last scraps of blood and fat off the hide of the smoky gray fur. He hung the coat, hair side away from the flames to dry out next to the fire. Overcooked horse meat was dinner for him tonight. All things considered, besides the walking part, he was feeling pretty fortunate at the moment. Being alone never bothered him, in fact, he relished it more than most other things in his life. There were only a select few he could be bothered sticking around with for more than a passing hour or two. He spent most his nights and days researching, exploring and finding clues to an elusive history. Devuh was a fine city, one that he spent all his younger years in, but eventually, the walls began to feel constrictive about the same time he was old enough to start asking questions. The more he found out, the more he wanted to know. Dival found himself thinking of his parents and their intense frustrations the further he dug into his story. “Quit all this digging!” They would scream at him, “The past is gone, leave it dead where it belongs.” That is all he would hear when he tried to find out about his grandparents. Non-answers only sparked his fire to know more, the more he learned, the more curious he became. There was a story here, and he had to find answers to where, and more importantly why, the concealment began in the first place.

His thoughts flashed back to the present as the crunch of snow signaled that footfalls were coming near, they sounded far away. No, not far away, he thought …small. A feminine face came slowly out of the shadows the opposite side of the fire. Dival already had his rapier’s hilt wrapped neatly in his palm, blade down behind him ready to lash out. Her eyes held a wild look that was only accentuated by the fire, but her demeanor and features were calm and non-threatening. He furrowed his brow to her as she continued forward. Her skin was pink, and she was young from the looks of her. She wore a plain cotton top and leather breeches with boots to match. “That is plenty close,” Dival warned her. She nodded to him and sat continuing to look at him through the flames and smoke of the fire.

“Clara. She became consumed within herself,” the new girl murmured.

Dival cocked his head to the side, “Clara…?”

The strange young woman nodded to the hide now drying beside the fire. “Her, she was consumed by not just hunger, but her desires.”

He found himself gripping the hilt of his sword a bit tighter, “She was yours?”

She chuckled a bit, which threw Dival off with the friendly nature of the sound, “Oh no, there is no ownership here, we are our own in this world and only belong to ourselves; as should be for everyone. Very free we are,” the stranger smiled to him.

“Who are you?” Dival asked.

“You may call me, Kit.” Kit nodded sharply to him to punctuate.

“Okay, Kit, what are you doing out here by yourself so far north away from the city?” Dival wondered as he studied her features.

“Oh, we aren’t alone. What do I call you, sir?”

“Dival. I am from the city of Devuh. Not alone then, do we eat or bleed tonight?” He asked raising a brow to her.

“Both? That depends on you,” Kit said without pretense. “You killed one that was with us, yet Clara was going to be a problem for us all soon enough.”

Dival shrugged, “Sometimes our hands are forced, are they not?”

Kit nodded, “Exactly, which is why it is horseflesh you eat and not us you.” She smiled warmly at him. “Speaking of, may I? I’m starving.”

Dival furrowed his brow to her before nodding his head to the side of the fire. “Sure? I won’t be able to finish, and I can’t haul it all so help yourself.”

Kit smiled her thanks before slowly standing and making her way to the cooked meat. She winced biting into the horseflesh, “Not a chef in your previous life, Dival, I have to say.”

He couldn’t help but chuckle in disbelief. Who the hell is this woman? “Cooking’s not my strong suit.”

“I see that,” she said playfully before returning to where she was sitting. Slowly chewing on the food and holding the piece of meat up to Dival, “Thank you.”

“So, is this the part where you kill me and take the rest with one of your friends behind me?” Dival asked curiously.

She looked jokingly defensive, “Oh no, we would have waited until you were sleeping. Easier that way.” Kit smiled dangerously towards him.

Those eyes, Dival thought, there was a wild look to her indeed. How long had she been out here, or they out here rather? He tightened his grip on his rapier, but she seemed not to pay the action any mind. As it always did, his curiousness drove his questions. “’Rimewind,’ have you ever heard of that?”

Kit’s eyes looked to the flames, and he noticed her features become distant as she responded. “If you’re looking for that, trust me when I say there is nothing worth seeing touched by those kinds of winds.” She looked back up to him all sense of pleasantry escaping her features.

“I have no choice, Kit. I’m following a trail and hope to find answers. I found a clue, and I need to see where it leads.” He responded plainly.

The young woman, Kit, stood suddenly frowning to him, her wild eyes looking right through him, “Choice is the only thing we always  have. This path only leads to death, return to Devuh or some other place far from here. Thank you for the meal and thank you for freeing Clara, she was in more pain than she could cope with.” Kit turned and quickly disappeared into the darkness before he had the chance to respond. Dival took another bite of the burnt meat and once again returned his gaze to the fire. ‘Well, death is who I will ask my questions to then,’ he thought.