ficlet – Shadow Duty

Hi there!

If you follow me on social media, you might have seen mention of a FREE ficlet. Well, the time has come. This is a little something that popped into my head during my recent re-read of Incursion (Book One in my series, for the uninitiated.)

I hope you enjoy. 🙂

Thanks, and stay awesome,

Lauren


Shadow Duty

            Ganister kept her back straight and her gaze ahead, as sentinel protocol dictated. Her daggers and sword were polished to a sheen, and the hematite inlaid in her cured leather armor was clean enough to eat off of. She stood at attention while her new commanding officer, Captain Jonas, approached.

            “Welcome to Starwatch Bastion, Ser Ganister,” he said, his boots crunching in the snow. Fair haired and blue eyed, he was only a few years her senior—around twenty-eight summers—and his sterling reputation had, in part, drawn her to this remote location.

            Ganister saluted: crossing her arms before her chest and bowing deeply. “Thank you, Captain.”

            When he returned the bow, albeit less deep, Ganister realized that her new posting in Starwatch Province would be less-than-orthodox. In her experience, sentinel officers rarely, if ever, saluted their subordinates. Perhaps he read her surprise, for a small smile crept to his face before he sent it away. “You’ll find we’re not much on protocol up here,” he said, indicating the direction of a large stone building she took to be the mage bastion.

            Ganister fell into step beside him as they crossed the walled compound to the bastion. “I didn’t realize, ser. I’d thought…” She trailed off, biting the inside of her cheek before she said something foolish to her new captain.

            But he’d caught on. “You thought, because I was once in the High Commander’s elite squad, I’d be a stickler for rules and regulations.”

            She flushed, thankful for how her helmet hid most of her face. “Aye, ser.”

            “Sorry to disappoint,” he said, and she couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.

            Better to assume not. Ganister inwardly scolded herself for her misstep and tried to salvage the situation. She pointed to the stone buildings they were approaching. “That’s the bastion, ser?”

            “That’s the garrison,” the captain corrected, adding, “And the bastion.”

            It took all her training not to show her surprise. “They’re…”

            “In the same structure, yes.” Captain Jonas gestured to the surrounding, snow-capped mountains that loomed over the gray stone walls of the compound. “Livable space is hard to come by this far north. Close quarters with mages are part of life.” He slanted her with a look she could not read. “Is that a problem?”

            “No, ser,” she replied immediately. “It’s just… I’ve never heard of mages and sentinels living beside one another in this way.”

            “Ah. Well, you get used to it.”

            They reached the building, where two sentinels stood guard on either side of the door. Both snapped to attention at the captain’s approach, and his answering nod of response was completely proper. One of the guards unlocked the door and Ganister followed her new captain inside.

            There was a large main room with several fireplaces, all burning bright. Ganister half-wondered if the fires were mage-made, for the sheer amount of wood to keep such flames constantly burning would consume a forest, especially now that winter was nearly here. Tapestries covered each wall and lanterns hung from the wooden beams, giving the room a cozy feeling despite its size. Now that she was inside, Ganister could see that the interior housed two levels; the top level had a balcony along the interior perimeter, looking down over the main space.

            “The mages sleep up there,” Captain Jonas said, pointing at the upper level. “Our barracks and infirmary are on the ground floor, though we all share the common area.”

            Indeed, there were an assortment of tables, chairs, and benches in the main space that made Ganister think someone had mixed a parlor with a mess-hall. A few mages sat at one of the tables, sipping tea or speaking quietly. A single sentinel sat at another table, cleaning her gear. Both groups ignored one another, though the sentinel offered the captain and Ganister a salute and nod of greeting – respectively.

            The mages did not so much as glance over.

            “There’s our library,” the captain said, pointing to a small bookshelf beside one of the hearths. “And…” He trailed off with a sigh. “Excuse me.” He then strode past Ganister toward the hearth, where she could see a small, stockinged foot sticking out on the bookshelf’s other side. Perhaps it wasn’t protocol, but Ganister needed to observe how the mages were treated here, so she hurried after her new officer. Learn by doing, as the saying went.

            Captain Jonas stood before the foot and stared down at the child attached to it. “Young lady, you’re supposed to be with Mage Riyo, practicing healing.”

            A little girl, no more than eight summers, peered up at the captain through dark bangs. “But I hate healing. I want to read.”

            So she was a mage. Before the captain had spoken, and given how the sentinels and mages lived close together here, Ganister had not been sure this wasn’t a sentinel recruit. The Circle started them so young, after all. But the girl’s handspun clothes and messy braid also labeled her a mage, even if Ganister had not caught sight of the twin crescent moons tattooed on her little wrist.

            “Surely you’ve read that book a thousand times,” the captain replied.

            A grin split the girl’s face. “Aye, but this is a thousand and one.”

            “You must keep up with your lessons.”

            She fluttered the book’s pages, then beamed up at the captain again. “If I go to Riyo now, will you teach me the viol later?”

            “Not until you’re a little older, remember?”

            “But I want to play it now.

            The captain knelt before her and gently pried the book from her hands. “Kali, you must learn to control your magic. Do you understand? The One god has given you great power; you must use it wisely.”

            His tone was, to Gan’s thinking, a little too harsh, but the little girl only nodded. No doubt she’d heard this lecture before. “Yes, Jonas.”

            Jonas, not Captain, Gan thought. Strange.

            “You’re intelligent and strong,” the captain continued. “But you are easily distracted.”

            As if to prove his point, Kali looked over at Gan, and her dark eyes widened. “Who are you?”

            “Ganister,” she said, adding a small bow. “But you may call me Gan, if you like.”

            “I’m Kalinda, but you can call me Kali. I like to read.”

            Charmed by the girl’s enthusiasm, Gan smiled. “I can see that. Do you have a favorite story?”

            “All of them!” Kali considered the shelf beside her. “But I’ve read these over and over. We need more.”

            “I envy you,” Gan replied. “I can’t read proper Aredian like you can. Most sentinels can’t. We only–”

            Captain Jonas cleared his throat and Ganister snapped her mouth shut. He then held out his free hand to Kali, who accepted and allowed him to pull her to her feet. Gan hid her surprise at the captain’s willingness to touch a mage, gloves or not. Although hematite granted sentinels an immunity to magic, most would never lay a hand on a mage unless ordered to do so.

            “Do you need help getting upstairs to Mage Riyo?” Captain Jonas asked. Kali’s face fell and she shook her head. He seemed to debate something, casting Gan another glance she couldn’t read, then nodded to the little mage. “Run along, now, Kali.”

            The girl stepped away from him, and Ganister’s breath caught at the way she limped, as if each step took the greatest effort. “Bye, Jonas,” she said, waving to the captain. “Bye, Gan.”

            The captain watched as Kali reached the stairway and began what was surely a laborious process of clambering up each step. Ganister fought to keep still, following the officer’s lead, until she could tolerate it no more. “Ser,” she whispered to him. “Shouldn’t we help her anyway?”

            “She usually prefers to walk on her own.” The words were terse, but his gaze did not leave the little mage until she was out of sight. At last, he glanced back at Gan. “Right. Let’s finish our tour.”

*

            Four years into her posting at Starwatch, and Ganister was almost used to the winters here. Almost. The cold, she’d learned to tolerate, but she could not abide being snowed in. This winter, in particular, was the worst yet. Snow drifts piled to the bastion’s second story, effectively trapping mages and sentinels alike in their common building. There was only so much patrolling that Ganister could handle—the compound wasn’t that big—so when Captain Jonas had requested volunteers to drop off letters to the nearest fleet rider station, she’d eagerly volunteered.

Perhaps too eagerly. It’d meant a grueling day of slogging through the snow, but she’d finally mastered the snow-shoes and decided that biting wind was a small price to pay for freedom. Even so, by the time she returned late that night, her heart soared at the sight of the compound’s walls. All thoughts turned to shedding her gear and making use of the hot springs – one of the few amenities that little Starwatch Bastion could boast.

When Gan slipped into the bastion, silence met her. It was late enough that only the two gate-guards outside had been awake—huddling by their fires, poor dears—so she tiptoed to her quarters to drop off her gear before making her way to the side building that housed the springs. Divested of all but her soft clothes, Gan slipped out of her room on silent steps. When she entered the common area proper, she paused in the shadows cast by the blazing hearths. She was not alone.

Kali was curled on one of the larger padded chairs, wrapped in a blanket with a book splayed open on her chest. The soft snores the girl emanated made Gan smile, for Kali always insisted that she didn’t snore, and Gan was a sodding liar for saying otherwise.

Just as Gan was about to rouse the girl to send her to her room, she caught a familiar tread. The sound of Jonas—no, she scolded herself, Captain to you—made her pause. The officer emerged from the kitchens, a mug of tea in his hand, then caught sight of the sleeping mage girl. He glanced around; Gan shrank against the wall so he wouldn’t see her, though she couldn’t have said just why. Satisfied that no witnesses were about, the captain set his mug down and went to Kali.

He knelt beside her. The firelight cast his hair in platinum and painted a look of utter longing the stern planes of his face – longing, and love. Gan’s throat tightened. Carefully, the sentinel captain gathered up the mage girl—including her book and blanket—and rose, presumably to return her to her room upstairs.

But doing so would let him pass right beside Ganister. She couldn’t move without giving herself away, so she merely pretended to fiddle with her tunic, praying he wouldn’t notice and knowing it was a foolish hope.

Indeed, his footsteps paused just paces away. A warmth stronger than any hot spring flooded Gan as she reluctantly met her captain’s gaze. But to her shock, there was no reproach in his face, only a surprise that mirrored her own. Surprise, but also…

Fear.

He masked the emotion quickly, though, and frowned at her. “Gan. No one told me you were back.”

She saluted and kept her voice to a whisper. “Just returned, ser. All’s well. There weren’t any letters for us.”

            Despite her attempt not to look at Kali, her eyes slid to the sleeping child, and Jonas—the captain—straightened. “You should get some rest,” he said, his voice low. “You must be exhausted.”

            “I wanted a soak,” Gan admitted. “Does she do this often? Fall asleep with a book on her lap?”

            Whatever he’d thought she was going to ask, this was not it. Jonas’ gaze crept down to the girl in his arms, and Ganister swore his grip tightened a fraction. “Too much. But…” He took a shaking breath. “It’s her way. I don’t mind returning her to her room.”

            “I’m sure she appreciates it,” Ganister replied.

            Jonas’ mouth twisted in a wry smile. “Doubtful.”

            Then, because Gan was tired, and thus, foolish, she said, “She obviously cares for you. And I think you–”

            “Gan.” There was steel in his voice, and in the words he did not say.

            Ganister flushed again, but held his gaze. “I mean no offense, ser. Not that,” she allowed her eyes to flick between him and the sleeping mage in his arms, “there’s anything to be offended at. I see only a mage and sentinel; nothing more. Nothing worth discussing, at any rate.”

            He stared at her a moment longer, then, to her amazement, his shoulders relaxed a fraction and he offered her the tiniest smile. She tried to ignore how the sight sent her heart skipping.

            “Kali is…very dear to me,” he said quietly, almost too soft for Gan to hear. “I’ve known her since she was a babe.”

            It was as much of an admission as Ganister thought she’d get. So she nodded. “She’s a lovely child. You should be proud.”

            “I should be.” He shook his head and moved past Gan, heading for the stairwell. “But I can’t.”

*

            Seven years into Ganister’s posting at Starwatch, and she really should have moved on. She’d never stayed in one place more than a few years—she blamed her Sufani mother for her itchy feet—but Starwatch Bastion had come to hold more of her heart than she’d anticipated.

            It was two days before the midsummer festival, and the bastion buzzed with preparations. The sentinels didn’t bother much with celebrating the solstice, so the mages more than made up for any lack of enthusiasm in their armored guards. Some of Gan’s sentinel brethren grumbled at the fuss, but she loved flowers, mage-grown or not, so she didn’t complain.

            She was not, however, a fan of the dying-cat sounds of Kali’s viol.

            Even outside in the compound outside, engrossed in a sparring session with Taras, one of the newer arrivals, the shrieking sounds of Kali’s “music” assaulted Gan’s ears. Taras had not stopped scowling over at the teenage girl seated on the edge of the well, dragging a bow across the long-suffering viol strings.

            “Ea’s tits, that racket needs to sodding stop,” Taras muttered, wiping sweat from her brow.

            Gan rolled her shoulders, trying not to wince at the wrong notes. Gods above, the girl was either flat or sharp; there was no middle ground with Kali. “She’s gotten much better,” Gan said, adjusting her grip on her weapon and easing into another ready-stance. “Come on. Ignore her and focus on the woman swinging a sword at your head.”

            “I can’t think with that noise. Why doesn’t the captain put a stop to it?”

            “He’s the one who taught her,” Gan replied. “So I’d watch what I said about the girl’s musical abilities.” Or lack thereof, though, to Kali’s credit, she had improved a great deal since she’d started playing a few years ago.

            Taras frowned. “The captain…taught the moon-blood how to play the viol?”

            Gan’s heart seized at the slur and she reacted without thinking. She swept her blade at Taras’ boots, causing the younger sentinel to yelp as she jumped to avoid the blow – and promptly landed on her arse in a patch of mud.

            Ganister stood over Taras, leveling her sword at the burnie’s throat. “Keep a civil tongue in your head,” she growled. “Or else.”

            Taras stared up at her, defiant. “Or else, what?” Her eyes narrowed. “Why do you care so much?”

            “What’s going on?”

            Both women glanced over to see Jonas striding over in what Gan affectionately called his “captain’s walk.” But there would be no teasing now, not with his expression so steely. Gan stepped back and Taras scrambled upright, trying to swipe the mud off her gear.

            “Just sparring, ser,” Gan said, squaring her shoulders and willing Taras to keep her foolish mouth shut.

            Alas, no such luck. The burnie scowled at Gan, then jerked her thumb toward Kali. “Ser, how can we be expected to properly train with that din? What’s she even doing out here? Shouldn’t she be hanging flowers with the other moon-bloods?”

            Jonas stiffened at the slur and Gan sighed. Sodding burnies. I tried to warn her.

            “Mage Halcyon lives here,” Jonas said, adding, “And you will not use that foul term again, in my presence or otherwise. Is that clear, burnie?”

            But Taras’ blood still burned from that first big dose of hematite, which Gan supposed accounted for her stupidity. At least, one could hope. “It’s not fair, ser. The moon—the mages—shouldn’t be allowed the same freedoms as us.”

            The dying-cat sounds stopped. Gan risked a look over and realized that Kali, along with every other sentinel in the yard, was paying close attention to this conversation. It stung Gan’s heart more than it should have to realize how many of her fellow sentinels wore similarly annoyed expressions as Taras.

            Jonas must have realized it too, and Gan watched the familiar conflict play across his stern face. Only because she knew him so well did she recognize the dilemma within him, the one he dared not give voice.

            At last, he said, “Life isn’t fair, Taras. Keep your mind where it belongs.” In one fluid motion, he drew his blade and flipped Taras’ sword out of her grip, sending it skittering over the flagstones and into another mud puddle. “On the task at hand. That goes for the rest of you,” he barked, though he did not turn.

            His “captain voice” did the trick, and the others hurried to resume their sparring. As Gan waited for Taras to retrieve her sword, she glimpsed Kali by the well. The girl—well, she was nearing womanhood now—clutched her viol and stared at Jonas, then rushed inside as quickly as her bum knee would allow. Jonas watched her go, hands clenching, before he turned back to Gan and a muddy Taras.

            “Again,” he said to the burnie, holding up his sword. “This time, make it count.”

*

            “Fifteen years.” Gan skimmed her hand along Jonas’ chest.

            One blue eye cracked open to regard her. “Hmm?”

            The fire in her hearth had nearly gone out, so she pulled the blankets farther over her back, effectively shielding them both from the winter’s chill. “I’ve been in Starwatch for fifteen years, today.”

            Now he opened both eyes; her heart sank at the exhaustion in his gaze, and at how it never seemed to go away these days. “Has it been so long?” he murmured, toying with her hair. “Gods above…it feels like you just got here.”

            Gan smiled and leaned up to kiss him. Jonas returned the kiss with his usual enthusiasm…until he broke it off, grimacing, his body wracked with shivers. Every blanket she had was already piled on top of them, so Gan only hugged him close, willing her body heat to mask the incessant chill wrought by hematite.

            At last, his shivering eased and he pressed his lips to her forehead, his breath still short. Gan laid her cheek to his chest and half-listened, half-felt his heartbeat slow from its frantic pace. “Are you all right?” she asked when she thought he could answer.

            “No.”

            She pushed herself up on her elbow to better regard him. Although there were only a few years’ difference between them, he looked about twenty years older than he should. The lines around his face and mouth had deepened, and no amount of rest ever chased away the shadows beneath his eyes. But his eyes themselves were still a blue so clear it was almost painful, and his smiles, still rare, still surprised her.

            “How much longer, do you think?” she asked, her voice hoarse.

            He tucked one of her errant curls behind her ears. “I don’t know. Hopefully a few years, at least. It’s just…” He took a deep breath. “Hematite doesn’t burn like it used to. I need more and more to keep going. It’s not sustainable.”

            Her eyes burned. “You’re no cinder, Jo. You have time.”

            “Not as much as I need.” His hand fell and he stared up into the rafters of her ceiling. “Not as much as she needs.”

            “She’s almost twenty-four,” Gan started, but Jonas shook his head.

            “She’s just a girl.” He hugged Gan closer but she knew his mind was upstairs, at the bunk perpetually cluttered with books and scrolls. “I’ll be in my next life, one day, sooner than any of us would like. Then who will…” He paused. “Who will take over shadow duty for her?”

            Shadow duty; so named because the sentinel tasked with guarding a single mage must stick to that mage closer than any shadow, both to protect the mage from the world, and protect the world from the mage. Whatever the cost to either.

Gan glanced away to swipe at her tears before he saw, silently scolding herself at her lack of control. There would be a time to grieve; but not now. Hopefully not for a long time. She looked back at Jonas. “Here I thought you were smarter than that.”

            A blond eyebrow lifted inquiringly.

            She smiled; it was better than weeping. “I’ll take over when… When you can’t.”

            He stared at her, those blue eyes wide. “Will you?”

            “Do you doubt me?”

            He relaxed into her. “Never.”

            “I never had a daughter,” Gan said. “Not that I could, with the hematite. But I always wanted one. Until I met her. And now…” Flame rose in her cheeks but she pressed on. “Now I feel as though I do have a daughter, in some ways. And glad I am of it, of her. And of you. She’s…”

            He shook his head and pressed a kiss to her mouth. “Don’t,” he whispered when they parted.

            She made a show of looking around her room. “Aye, because we’re obviously surrounded.”

            “Gan.” The blue gaze turned hard, but briefly. “Please.”

            “Fine.” She playfully tweaked his chest, startling him into a laugh. “Have it your way, Captain.

            Strong hands wrapped around her waist, skimmed her up her spine to tangle in her hair. He pressed their foreheads together and stared into her eyes, as if he could will her to know his heart and mind. “Thank you, love.”

*

            Fifteen years, five months, two weeks, three days. Gan had lost track of the hours as she’d stood vigil with the others beside their captain as the hematite had finally claimed its sacrifice. Now Jonas was on his way to his next life, his spirit carried on the flames of his pyre. Tongues of fire leaped into the night sky, driving back the dark and the chill air, bathing the sentinels in warmth.

            Tears pricked Gan’s eyes again. Even in death, Jonas brought comfort however he could.

            Pinion, one of the younger lads, hugged her shoulder and she leaned against him, grateful for the solid press of his armored form. Gray and Taras, too, stood around her, close enough to keep the worst of the wind at bay. All of her fellow sentinels had rallied to her side, for they knew how much Jonas had meant to her.

            That was all they knew.

            Gan’s gaze crept to the bastion window. Grief struck her anew at the sight of the pale face peering out into the compound yard. The commander had ordered all the mages locked inside the building for the night, to allow the sentinels a chance to properly mourn their fallen brother-in-sacrifice.

            Around Gan, the others took up the all-too familiar litany: “Nox bring your spirits safely over the river. Tor guide your steps into the next life. The One keep you in all your days.”

            The words would bring comfort to most, but the mention of Tor stuck in Gan’s throat. Tor: the patron god of many sentinels, the god who demanded the utmost adherence to the sentinel oaths of honor, service, and sacrifice.

            Only that last one stung.

            When Gan could bear it no longer, she extricated herself from her brothers and sisters in service, pleading exhaustion, knowing they would stay to keep the night-long vigil as tradition dictated. But she had an oath all her own.

            She slipped inside the bastion. Warmth, light, and laughter met her, the latter jarring after the solemnity outside. The Starwatch mages—though Kali was not among them—had gathered by the hearths and opened several bottles of wine in what Gan tried not to think of as celebration. They did not fall silent when she entered, but the laughter dimmed and she felt their eyes on her as she went to the stairs. Once she was out of their sight, their talk resumed with the same vigor. Bitterness caught in Gan’s throat, but she tried to swallow it down and focus on the task at hand.

            Starwatch Bastion was too small for every mage to have their own room, so Gan went to the bunk that Kali shared with a few others, but it was empty. She considered checking the latrine, but Kali’s cloak hung on its peg by her bed, so Gan thought she was still in the building. The absence of Jonas’ viol confirmed her suspicion; Kali would not have taken it outside tonight.

            After a moment’s consideration, Gan made her way to a small storeroom upstairs, mostly used for spare linens and other assorted items. She listened at the door, hoping but not to hear any noise from within. But she was disappointed again—and again, not surprised—at the soft sniffles. Steeling herself, Gan rapped her knuckles on the door in the pattern that she’d learned from Jonas.

            Kali’s voice emerged somewhat strangled. “Gan?”

            “Aye.”

            Limping footsteps, then the door cracked open. Even the shadows could not conceal Kali’s red-rimmed eyes. How long had she been alone while Jonas succumbed to his chosen fate? None of the other mages knew the truth, either.

“What are you doing here?” Kali asked.

            Gan reached past the door to cover the girl’s trembling hand. “Shadow duty.”

            Kali stared up at her with that same, astonished look Jonas had worn whenever he met kindness where he’d expected cruelty. Her lips compressed and her eyes brightened, but she stepped back, allowing Gan entry. Gan shut the door behind her and took the girl in her arms, pressed Kali’s cheek to her armored chest. Kali hesitated, but only for an instant, only until Gan whispered, “If you know nothing else, know that he loved you.”

            Kali made no reply. Through the small storeroom window, Gan could see the funeral fires climbing higher, though from here they appeared little more than a candle flames. She hugged the weeping girl closer as her own tears formed anew, and they kept their vigil, together.

The End

on Heartfire

Hi there!

One of the best parts of storytelling is crafting worlds to suit your narrative. This doesn’t just apply to speculative fiction; every story is, in a way, its own world. It’s a place your reader can settle into like a favorite chair – or an iron throne, depending on what sort of world you’re building. 😉

Today is the Winter Solstice, ie: Heartfire in the world of Catalyst Moon. This is the longest night of the year, when the darkness is at its strongest. After tonight, though, the balance of light and dark will tip again, and the light will return.

What follows is a deleted scene from Catalyst Moon: Breach featuring the myth of Heartfire. I chose to remove this scene from the final novel in favor of weaving the myth into the narrative at various points, thus allowing the reader to find the story in their own time. But there’s something to be said in seeing it all laid out in one go.

Enjoy, and stay awesome.

Lauren


Kali toyed with the hem of her sweater, trying to remember how exactly the tale went, then took a deep breath and began. “They say the world was new. Back then, the gods walked among the trees like mortal men and women, though they were not mortal, of course. But they existed in much the same way as we do now. They quarreled. They laughed. They loved.

“They say Amaranthea, the goddess of all things bright, loved the god Tor. They say Tor loved her as well, deeply, and without reservation.” Of their own accord, Kali’s eyes flickered to Stonewall. He was watching her. She tried not to think about that and continued. “They say all was well for a long time…until the Laughing God saw Amaranthea’s light and wanted to snuff it out. The Laughing God dwells in darkness, you see, and wanted to shape the One’s world similarly.

“One night, while Amaranthea slept, the Laughing God crept to her bower and covered her. They say–”

“Wait,” Beacon broke in. “Sorry to interrupt, but I never understood that part. ‘Covered her?’”

It was Flint who answered. “He raped her.”

“He?” Milo said, frowning. “I thought the Laughing God was neither a man nor a woman, like the One.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Flint said darkly.

“Doesn’t it?” Beacon asked.

Flint shook her head. “The point is, the Laughing God violated Amaranthea. Her light faded. It doesn’t matter how. Now be quiet, frip, and let the mage finish.”

Kali had followed the exchange, but chose not to comment. “As Flint says, Amaranthea’s light faded after the Laughing God had finished with her. She lay alone in her bower for many days, such that the sky remained dark and the world grew cold. At last, Tor, having returned from a task that had sent him far away, came home to his love and found her in deep despair.

“’What has happened?’ he asked, dropping his traveling pack as he knelt beside her.

“Amaranthea, too stricken with grief and shame, did not reply at first, but his presence soothed her heart, and at last he coaxed the tale from her. Upon hearing her account, Tor’s face grew dark with anger and his fists turned hard, like stone. He rose from her side and strode away.

“’Where do you go?’ she called.

“He did not turn as he said, ‘To avenge you.’

“’I have no need for vengeance,’ she replied. ‘Please, stay.’

“But he left. He picked up his pack and journeyed far, all the way to the entrance to the Shadowlands, where they say the Laughing God lives. There, he–”

“Where’s that?” Milo interrupted. “The ‘Shadowlands?’”

“It’s not a real place,” Kali replied. “I think it’s a metaphor. Probably for the ‘darkness within,’ or some such.” Milo stared at her blankly, so she made a dismissive gesture. “It’s just a story. It’s a made-up place.”

“No, it’s real,” he said. “If it has something to do with the gods, it’s real.”

Kali fought the urge to roll her eyes. She had little desire to poke holes in the younger man’s beliefs. Likely, that would happen without any help from her, probably too soon. “Then it’s somewhere very far away from here,” she said. “May I continue?”

He winced. “Aye, of course. Sorry. Here,” he added, holding out the flask. “Your throat must be getting dry.”

She accepted; the whiskey burned her throat, but sent a pleasant warmth through her belly. She took only a small sip, then passed the flask back to him. Milo offered it to Sadira, who refused, though Beacon and Flint each took a drink. Stonewall did, too, after a moment. Rook declined. Milo didn’t drink any, either.

Kali continued the tale. “They say Tor traveled all the way to the Shadowlands alone, on foot, spurred on by the anger in his heart at what had been done to his love. They say he neither ate nor rested, only traveled until he reached the edge of the Laughing God’s home and bellowed a challenge into the black abyss. At first, silence was the only reply, so he called out again, urging the Laughing God to meet him in a fair and honorable fight. At last, a shadow seemed to separate itself from the darkness of the cave, taking the form of a woman with long, dark hair and skin the color of the deepest night.”

“Nox,” Flint whispered. Her blue eyes were very wide and round.

Kali nodded. “Aye. Nox came forth and beckoned Tor with her staff. But he stood his ground and met her eyes and said, ‘Where is your master? Where is the Laughing God?’

“Again, Nox beckoned Tor. Again, Tor demanded to speak with the Laughing God. The goddess beckoned him a third time. Anger had coiled about his heart like a serpent, but he kept his voice from betraying his feelings and instead held Nox’s gaze as he said, ‘I will go no further until I see your master for myself, so that I may avenge what was done to my soul-bonded.’

“He’d supposed that Nox would merely beckon him again, and so prepared to make his way forward without her guidance, but to his surprise, she relented. Nox bowed low and faded into the shadows. They say a voice emerged, then, a voice unlike any he’d ever heard. It filled him from the inside-out, turned his insides into ice and set fire to his blood. It was the Laughing God, whose words are ill luck to repeat and whose language is unknown to us now.

“But Tor heard and understood that the Laughing God had agreed to his challenge. All he had to do was step into the shadows, where the Laughing God promised to meet him in honorable combat. Though Tor had reservations, his conviction was strong as his blade, and he stepped forward until the darkness consumed him, utterly. And he…”

Suddenly it was difficult to speak, for her eyes burned and her throat tightened, and she had to clench her hands into fists to keep them from trembling. Why had this silly story affected her so?

“And he what?” Flint’s voice was soft, her expression rapt. She looked so young. Milo leaned forward intently, gaze fixed on Kali. Beacon watched her, too, as did Sadira. She didn’t look at Stone or Rook.

Instead, she took a deep breath to calm herself. “He was lost.”

Milo sucked in his breath and looked at his sister, who hugged her arms to her armored sides. “What happened, then?” he asked.

“Amaranthea found him, didn’t she?” Flint said, brow furrowing faintly.

Kali nodded. “But not for some time. Tor disappeared for a long while – some say days, others say decades. But eventually, Amaranthea came looking for him. She still grieved, but the thought of losing the one she loved was a worse pain than reliving her own grief in her mind, so she set herself the task of finding Tor. She knew his ways and knew where he had gone, so she journeyed far until she, too, came to the Shadowlands.

“They say she stood at the yawning chasm and looked into the darkness, gathering her courage, before she took a step forward. It was then that Nox appeared, holding her staff across the cave’s entrance as if to block Amaranthea’s passage.

“’Let me pass,’ Amaranthea said.

“Nox only stared at her with eyes like the void, then shook her head, slowly.

“’Please,’ the bright goddess said. ‘I have no quarrel with you. I only seek the man I love – my soul-bonded. Please let me pass.’”

“Again, Nox shook her head.

“Anger bloomed in Amaranthea’s heart. Anger for Tor, at what he’d set out to do so foolishly, so nobly. Anger at Nox, for hindering her path. Anger at herself, for not protesting more when the Laughing God had come to her. But above all of these was anger at the Laughing God, for rending her life so completely. Anger bloomed inside of her heart like the fire before us now, and she felt its power surge through her very bones.

“Amaranthea did not realize the light came from her until Nox reared back in shock, her dark face suddenly illuminated by an unfamiliar glow. Cast in such light, Nox looked older and more frail than Amaranthea had realized, and she felt pity for the other goddess. She glanced down and saw the bright glow burning from her heart – some say the light was gold, others silver, others say pink or red or orange, or all of them together. It matters not. Light poured from Amaranthea, illuminating a path through the Shadowlands. The bright goddess brushed passed Nox and went forward alone and unhindered.

“Time passes differently for the gods than for mortals, so we do not know how long Amaranthea traveled through that shadowed country. But they say it was long enough for her anger to fade; long enough for exhaustion to slow her steps and tug her eyes closed. She found no sign of Tor. She found no one at all–”

“No guards or anything?” Milo broke in. Flint elbowed his side and he winced. “Sorry. Shutting up now.”

Perhaps Kali should have been annoyed, but she could find nothing inside of her but pleasure at the knowledge that the story had captured the audience’s attention so fiercely. It reminded her of playing her viol to an appreciative crowd.

“They say the bright goddess met no others on her travels though the Shadowlands,” Kali went on, giving Milo a warm look to let him know she wasn’t annoyed. “But the longer she traveled, the more tired she became, and her light dimmed. The shadows grew thicker around her. The Laughing God’s desire had come to pass when she’d chosen to descend, for with Amaranthea’s absence from the world, all light faded and the shadows ran rampant.

“They say Amaranthea could feel the despair of Mara, Ea, Llyr, and all of the other gods. She could hear them cry out to her, ‘please return!’ Many times, she made to turn back. But each time, she thought of Tor, her soul-bonded, the love of not just this life, but all lives, and her resolve grew strong again. So she traveled. So her light dimmed and dimmed, and she grew weaker and weaker, until she crawled on hands and knees, groping through the darkness to take her next step.

“They say when her light went out, she collapsed, too heartsick to continue.

“But her hand, which had been extended to feel the way forward, touched something familiar: Tor’s traveling pack. Startled but hopeful, Amaranthea pulled the pack close and began to rummage through, searching for something that she might use. The contents had been crushed, as if under the weight of some heavy stone, so there was nothing but a single candle. It was enough.

“With a final burst of strength, Amaranthea lit the candle. It was a small flame, barely anything at all, but it drove the worst of the shadows back and revealed a trail of blood on the ground, leading further into the darkness. Despair clung to her for a moment, for surely Tor was injured – or worse – but she clutched the candle and began to follow the trail. It led her through the Shadowlands, into they very heart of the Laughing God’s domain. It led her to Tor.

“They say she found him lying at the gates of the Laughing God’s fortress. She thought him dead at first, until she marked the rise and fall of his chest; he was broken, bleeding. But alive. Amaranthea knelt beside Tor and tried to revive him, though she was certain the Laughing God would arrive at any moment and she was not strong enough to fight.

“’Tor,’ she pleaded, touching his face. ‘Please wake up. We must leave.’

“They say after some time, he opened his eyes and regarded her with wonder. ‘What are you doing here?’ he asked.

“’I came after you,’ was all she could say before a dark, echoing laughter filled the shadows around them, pressing down upon Amaranthea’s heart with dread. ‘Get up,’ she urged Tor. ‘We have to leave at once.’

“I cannot protect you,’ he said. ‘You should leave this place, alone.’

“But they say the bright goddess grew angry again at these words. ‘Enough of that,’ she said, helping him to his feet. ‘You are mine and I am yours. We leave together, or not at all.’

“He acquiesced and leaned on her shoulder, pressing his weight against her. The warmth of his body comforted her, so when the laughter came again, she was prepared. They say the bright goddess drew strength from herself and from Tor, and her heart blazed like the sun, shining upon the Shadowlands enough to cast them into light. They say she caught a glimpse of the Laughing God, who was not laughing now, in the moments before she and Tor hurried back the way she’d come. They say her candle was still lit, but it was love that showed them the way out of the darkness.”

Silence reigned for some moments until, to Kali’s surprise, Flint sniffed once, then swiped at her eyes, blinking furiously. “Ea’s balls, I love that fucking story.”

Catalyst Moon fanfic! (contains spoilers for Breach)

Hi there!

I’m thrilled to share this piece by a dear friend and fellow author who also happens to be a fan of the Catalyst Moon ‘verse. Without further adieu, here’s A Bird In Hand, by impoeia. (Who has kindly given permission for me to post this on my blog.) Please read and enjoy! 🙂

Oh, and there are some spoilers for Breach, (book 2), so you’ve been forewarned…


A Bird in Hand

 

to live

in the cage

both

bird and mage

 

“Here are the rules.” Foley is using a voice on her, the kind Eris well remembers from her nurses and governesses. It’s the tone of voice only achieved by adults parceling out the Words of Wisdom to children they know won’t listen, no matter what. The I-told-you-so is already carefully implied for the inevitable future, when Eris does exactly what Foley is telling her not to do.

She’s known the man all of ten minutes, and already Eris wants to throw something at him. Preferably her fists.

He must see some of this on her face, because….Well, she’s not trying very hard to hide her feelings. But he softens his face, and voice, as he continues to introduce her to her new life in Whitewater Bastion.

“It is important to accept and obey, Eris. When we follow the lives set out for us,” he places both arms on the table, the common room’s firelight dancing off of the crude hook that’s where his left hand should be, “life will be good for all.”   

*

sing

for the living

need

reason for giving

*

This is the stupidest thing she’s done since being loaded off at the bastion like a crate of rotten cabbages.

Eris doesn’t want to admit she’s homesick, because to do so implies Starwatch was any kind of home and she won’t. She’ll never give a bastion the dignity of the term, but she……She misses it. Misses the familiar scent of mountains and woods. She misses the quiet; there’s always people here, with the noise of the city and the White River pressing against the walls until she feels her chest constrict and she’s fighting for every breath.

She misses Kali.

 

Eris is lonely. Lonely and, for fucks sake, crying in the corner by the chicken coop, hoping by some small mercy no one is going to stumble on her. Especially a hemie. That will be the final nail in her coffin, right after she claws the rock-licker’s eyes out.

She bites her tongue against a sob, because isn’t that just a joke. Her actually killing a sentry. Might as well imagine flying to Seren. Either is as far out of her reach as the bastion’s high walls.

So what is the point of imagining at all?

If she gives in, becomes a good little mage like Foley and his crew, perhaps the constant burn in her stomach will go away and she’ll be able to breathe again. Get sent out on more missions. See the sky.

*

all

to the hands

to make

the demands

*

“Bastards!”

“Hold him still!”

“Get your fucking hands off of me!”

“Ea’s balls, grab him! Grab him!”

Eris runs towards the gates with the others. She’s not sure what to expect; a crazed mob calling for mage-blood comes to mind. What she gets is pure bedlam. 

He’s tall, dark-haired and skinned, collared and cuffed in hematite and it takes three sentries to wrestle the him down. One of them actually sits on his back, while another presses down on his legs so a third can cuff his ankles. The man is still writhing, his tea-colored skin turning bronze with the hot flush of the indignity.

He tries craning his head around, perhaps to throw more insults or bite at the hands holding him down, but the motion carries his gaze to the large gathering of mages on the other side of the gate. His dark eyes skitter over the group before meeting Eris’ head-on.

And just like that, he throws her a cocky grin before he’s hauled onto his feet and dragged to the hematite cells.   

That’s how she meets Gideon Echina.  

*

for

life and for love

on earth

and not above

*

“Oh.”

It’s a physical wrench. That small, startled gasp and all of a sudden, Eris plunges back down into a body that feels crushed by the weight of its bones.

Far away, she knows Gid drops to his knees besides where she’s half-slumped in a corner of the bastion walls. But she can’t tear herself away from the soft down that is slowly pressing itself back into her flesh. It tickles.

Then another hand thrust itself into her view. It’s large, the skin tea-colored and the palm calloused, but the fingers are gentle as they encircle her own hand.  

She is remembering another hot summer day; the shimmer of water and her grandmother’s disgust; the fear and shame of her family.  

Gid breathes the words, “You really are a bird.” He touches her hair with his other hand; tucks a loose strand behind her ear, before trailing his fingers down her cheek, over down that is little more than a soft fuzz now. “Prettiest bird I’ve ever seen.”

They are shrouded in the heady smell of the jessamine vines clawing at the wall and the thick summer heat.

There is awe in his eyes.   

*

and forget

the heart in chains

is only as free

as the cage it claims

*

She didn’t mean to say it; at least, not be the first to say it.

“I love you.”

The words slip out between one exhale and the next inhale; between the slide of lips and his hands on her thighs and suddenly, the whole world forgets how to breathe.

“I-I mean….” Eris chokes, freezes up right there, while straddling Gid’s lap, with the bedsheets pooled around her legs.

Gid blinks up at her, bemused, and for a hopeful moment, Eris thinks he might have been too distracted to register her words. Then that sodding cocky grin flashes across his face.

“Yes? What exactly is it that you mean, pretty bird?”

“Fuck you.” Void, she’s blushing. She can feel it in the tips of her ears all the way down to her bare chest. Just for good measure, she thumps her fist against his shoulder.

Gid laughs and catches her hand, then rolls them both over. That grin is still in place, though it’s taken on a definite lascivious curve. “I believe that’s what you were doing, love, before we were interrupted by your spontaneous confession.”

The grin is suddenly gone and the look he gives her…..There is nothing teasing about it. For the second time in as many minutes, Eris forgets to breathe.

Gid presses a kiss to her lips, then down her chin to the hollow of her neck. He imprints the words to the rapid pulse in her throat. “I love you, too.”   

*

to be free

of those tethers

the wind

‘twixt the feathers

*

“It…It’s the best we could come up with under, you know, the circumstances.” Marcen isn’t just nervous; he’s practically breaking his fingers, he wrings them so hard. At her continued silence, he throws a helpless glance towards Cai and the other mages.

“We know it’s not much.” Adrie breaks away from the group; goes so far as to put a hand on Eris’ shoulder. “He was a good man. He deserves more. He-”

Eris doesn’t wait to listen to the rest of it. She turns away from Adrie, from all of them, and the small collection of stones at the base of the large oak that is all that she has left of the man she loves.

No body; no grave which she can lay herself down beside.

Eris walks back to their pitiful little camp, leaving the other mages to their worried looks and whispers and cold stones. After all, she’s free of the walls now; free to go wherever she wants.   

*

is the crow’s

last cry

in the double-moon

sky

*

She waits until the others are safely asleep. The shift comes easily now; three breaths and she sheds all the weight of her human body, until she is light enough that the wind can easily carry her.

Eris’ first wing strokes are clumsy. It is always harder to take off from the ground, but once she is a meter into the air, the breeze catches beneath her wings and she is off.

She is small, as a crow, but her body has never felt stronger. Each downward stroke lifts her closer to the stars, until she is all alone, a single shadow flitting between pinpricks of light.

Seren’s misshapen body is the only one to dominate the sky on this night. She does not believe in omens, but it does feel appropriate – just her and the mage-moon.

Eris corkscrews higher until she is blinded by Seren’s glow, her tiny form swallowed up by the mage-moon’s presence.

Gid said she needs to live. No matter what. And she will, because he asked it of her, but first…

She lets out the cry she’s been holding in. Eris screams her grief to the mage-moon; let’s Seren’s broken face witness her shrill fury. Then she folds her wings.

Eris falls.  

*

to yearn for

flight

is both

bird and mage’s plight

*

Talon whirls away from the funeral pyre in time to witness a shadow pass over the mage-moon’s face. She has time to think an utterly insipid thought – Seren cries black tears – before the crow snaps its wings open.

“Shit!” The wind of its passage is palpable. Talon throws her arms over her head just as the crow passes over her head, claws reaching for her. The dagger is already in Cobalt’s hand, but the bird banks sharply to the left and disappears into the haze of smoke and sparks rising from Gideon Echina’s pyre.


impoeia is an amazing author! You can find this story on Inkitt’s site here, and find more of impoeia’s phenomenal work right here.

Take care and stay awesome,

Lauren

The Ambush – free ficlet!

Look who’s back with another blog post in a (relatively) timely fashion?! Yes, dreams do come true. I know y’all are excited.

I wrote this ficlet in autumn of 2016 and promptly forgot about it. Because that’s how I roll. It’s set during the final few chapters of Catalyst Moon: Incursion (book 1 of my series), which you can buy right here!

Note: There are probably some spoilers if you haven’t read Incursion, but nothing egregious. If you haven’t read the novel, I say read this anyway. Hopefully, it’ll pique your interest. 😉

Enjoy!


The Ambush

Kali leaned back on her hands, closed her eyes, and savored the day. A cool breeze rustled the nearby trees and rifled through her hair and tunic, and the sunlight warmed her skin. It was the afternoon after she and Stonewall had left Oreion and the Jessamin Inn, and they had just finished the meal the innkeeper had sent along.

Sighing, Kali pulled up her hooded cloak to cover her hair, and laid back so she could watch the spun-cotton clouds drift across the pure blue sky. They had many hours on the road ahead of them, still, so she resolved to squeeze every last bit of pleasure from this moment.

Speaking of pleasure…

She cracked one eye open to glance at her companion. Stonewall sat beside her, sipping the last of his honey-cider as he sharpened one of his daggers, his gaze constantly darting to the road, the treeline, the meadow all around them.

When he caught her looking at him, he raised a brow. “What?”

“It’s too nice a day to work,” she said, fluttering a hand at his dagger and whetstone. “Just relax and enjoy yourself.”

“We’ve been attacked, kidnapped, and chased one too many times on this journey,” he replied. “I can’t drop my guard now.”

“We’re nearly at Whitewater City.”

He shook his head and continued running the whetstone over his dagger’s edge. “Doesn’t matter. I’ve a duty.”

“Surely,” she smiled at him, “your duty can wait for a few minutes.” She spread out her cloak and patted it invitingly. “Come watch the sky with me.”

Stonewall squinted up at the clouds, then looked down at her. Just when she thought he’d argue, he sheathed his dagger, set aside his whetstone, and settled down beside her. The cloak wasn’t nearly large enough to accommodate both of them, but he didn’t seem to mind that most of his armored body rested on the drying evergrass that blanketed the meadow. Kali shifted her hips so that they touched his, and leaned her head against his shoulder. His gear, while bulky, was not unpleasant to lie against like this; she couldn’t suppress a thrill of joy when he reached for her hand and clasped it once, firmly, before tucking his free arm beneath his head.

Cicadas buzzed nearby, singing beneath an intermittent chorus of meadowlarks and quails; if Kali closed her eyes and concentrated, she could hear the faintest thrum of rushing water. If she leaned her cheek so that it rested a little higher on Stonewall’s armor, she could make out the soft, steady drum of his heart.

He shifted as if turning his head to speak to her, then swore. “Ea’s tits and teeth!”

The next thing Kali knew, she’d been knocked to the ground for Stonewall had scrambled to his feet, frantically twisting and shaking as he batted at his head, chest, arms, and legs with both hands, swearing nonstop. Dazed and a little irritated, Kali sat up and glared at him. “What in the void’s gotten into you?”

He didn’t answer, but shuddered visibly as he continued to brush himself off, pausing every so often to examine his gear from all possible angles.

Kali bit back a laugh and tried again. “Stonewall? Have you been possessed by a demon or is this some sentinel dance routine I’m unaware of?”

He shook his head, his chest heaving. “Neither. There was…” He trailed off, flushing, and looked away. “Nothing. Never mind.”

“Are you certain?”

He gritted his teeth and came back over to her, though he didn’t sit. “We should get moving.”

“We just got here.”

“We’ve eaten and rested. It’s time to move out.”

“Hmm.” She pretended to consider, then smiled at him. “No. Not until you tell me why you had such a fit.”

“I didn’t have a fit,” he protested. “I just…” He sighed. “There was…something on me. It caught me off guard. I’m fine now. Let’s go.”

“What sort of ‘something?’”

“Nothing.”

“Stonewall.”

He sighed again and glanced around the meadow – surely he knew they were alone! – then knelt beside her. “It was a spider, all right? I felt it crawling on my head.”

She stared at him. “A spider?”

“Aye.”

“Was it…poisonous?”

He scowled. “Does it matter?”

“Are you…” Mirth built within her like a soap-bubble waiting to breach the surface of a tub. She bit her tongue in an effort not to laugh. “Are you all right?”

“I told you,” his scowl deepened and he shoved his helmet back on, “I’m fine. But we should get going.”

She nodded, but did not rise immediately. “Yesterday, you faced three demons on your own. This was a spider. Was it a really big spider, or…?” She trailed off at the look on his face, and sighed. “Very well. Let’s go.”

He helped her to her feet. They collected their belongings and made their way across the meadow to their horse, whom Stonewall had tethered to tree so she could graze freely. Kali was silent as Stonewall repacked their supplies and checked the horse’s tack, before he offered her a hand getting into the saddle.

She smiled at him as she took his hand, then gasped in horror and pointed to his helmet. “Seren’s light…there it is!”

He swore as he ripped off the helmet and chucked it across the meadow, startling the horse and a pair of quails who’d been roosting in the grass. Kali didn’t see where they flew, for she was doubled over, overcome with laughter.

Stonewall grunted, though she caught a hint of a smile on his face. “You think you’re funny, do you?”

“Oh, no,” she gasped, swiping tears from her eyes. “That was the biggest spider I’ve ever seen! Really! No wonder you were so frightened.”

“I wasn’t frightened. Just startled.”

“Startled,” she repeated, nodding sagely. “Of course. Well, thank the stars you got rid of it so vigorously. That ought to teach it not to ambush unsuspecting sentinels in the future.”

He sighed and took her hand in his. “I don’t like spiders,” he said in all seriousness.

She chuckled. “Are you certain?”

“I’m not afraid of them,” he added quickly. “But I don’t like their…legs. They have too many legs. It’s unnatural.”

“Right.” She used his grip for leverage and pulled herself closer to his face, urging him to kiss her. To her pleasure, Stonewall responded beautifully, capturing her mouth with his, casting aside all thoughts of spiders or leaving this perfect place.

Until she fluttered her fingertips on the back of his head in an imitation of a spider’s walk, and he nearly jumped out of his armor. “Kali!”

“Another one!” she managed between laughs. “This sodding place is full of them! Almost makes me wish for demons.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” he grumbled. But his frown fell away as he studied her, and by the time he took her hands – both of them – in his, he was smiling. “You’ve caused me no end of trouble on this journey, do you know that?”

“Me?” She raised both brows in her best approximation of innocence. “Why, Serla Sentinel, I don’t know what you mean.”

“I’m sure,” he said dryly.

She leaned closer to him. “I’m not sure I understand. We should stay here a bit longer so you can explain.”

Stonewall glanced at the road, then back at her, and his smile broadened. “I suppose that’s the only fair thing to do.”

“Indeed, it is. In fact, I–”

She said nothing more, for he’d kissed her into silence.

preview of Catalyst Moon: Exile

Hello, friends.

These last several weeks, life has been crazy. (Which is putting it mildly.) Between an amazing vacation, a nasty cold, and a…tumultuous election, writing has been slow. But slow progress is still progress, and I’m moving forward on a project that’s been hanging over me for some time: Catalyst Moon: Exile. (Title subject to change.)

Exile features Atanar, a Canderi warrior who first appeared in an early draft of Incursion. Atanar’s story arc didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the book, so I cut him out and set him aside to bring back later. As it turns out, later is now. 😉

Catalyst Moon: Exile is a novella, sort of a prequel to Incursion.

Here’s a snippet:


Atanar soon found himself in the midst of another Canderi camp, a place he’d never thought he’d stand again. Several dozen men and women bustled about with evening tasks: cooking food over several scattered fires; grooming horses and herding children; securing the rounded tents made from animal hides. Despite the approaching storm, laughter and conversation rippled through the camp.

Kulkri, the lot of them, but for one moment, Atanar could have been back home.

Or it might have, had each kulkri’s eyes not marked Atanar for what he was, then narrowed to dagger-points.

The boy – Corvac – led Atanar through the others without a word to anyone, instead trotting toward one of the fur-lined tents in the middle of the camp. There, he paused and listened beside the entrance for a few moments before giving Atanar a look that was almost concerned. “Wait here. I’ll be right back.”

Before Atanar could ask what was going on, Corvac disappeared within the tent, leaving Atanar alone in a camp full of people giving him dark looks. Well, he could return the favor, particularly to a bunch of thieving kulkri such as these. Perhaps he was vorunn, but he had some measure of respect for tradition.

So Atanar stood straight and met each glare with one of his own, until movement to his right caught his eye. A young woman strode toward him; she was a few years younger than Atanar, perhaps in her twentieth summer. Her hair was neatly braided in the Aredian fashion; it was darker than most other Canderi but still streaked with pale gold, and, like the others, she wore a sash of red, yellow, green, blue and white, all woven together.

“Who are you?” she called as she approached.

Your name will be forgotten. As it should be. But he had no other to give. He shook his head. “No one.”

The moment she registered what he was, her stance turned even more hostile as her body became strung taut with tension. “Vorunn, then,” she murmured, halting just over an arm’s length away, one hand reaching for the claymore strapped to her back. “What, in Nox’s void, are you doing here?”

Atanar frowned over the strange word, Nox. The woman’s speech was Canderi, but was that word Aredian slang? Is that what happened to Canderi who left their home: they lost themselves and turned into those soft, weak folk? Ancestors strike me dead before that happens to me, he thought with a shudder.

He shook his head once. “Corvac brought me.” She scowled up at him and he could not help but add, “For supper.”

Her scowl deepened. “Corvac is a child. He has no say in who or,” she wrinkled her nose, “what comes into our home.”

“And you do?”

“Aye, as far as you’re concerned.” She pointed the general direction he had come, where he could now see a rudimentary sort of passage that wound through the tents and cooking fires. Beyond these, in addition to the large elk-like atsuula, there were a dozen or so scraggly Aredian horses, outfitted with Aredian saddles, bridles and other gear. In fact, most of the gear he saw was Aredian in make.

Atanar frowned. A sloppy affair, this kulkri camp.

“Leave, now,” she said, lifting her pointed chin. “Save me the trouble of dirtying my sword with your blood.”

“Quiet, Sivoy.” An elderly man slipped out of the tent, Corvac on his heels. Like the rest, the older man wore thick furs, though he leaned heavily on a staff and on the elbow of the boy at his side as he regarded Atanar curiously.

“He’s vorunn,” Sivoy said. “Corvac never should have brought him here. I’m within my rights to cast him out, Utu.”

“So you are,” her grandfather replied. “And so you may. But your word is not the only law. We are not like them.” He nodded in the vague direction of Cander, and Atanar bristled despite everything. “I advise you to learn a little more before you toss this warrior back into the storm.”

There was greater meaning in those words than Atanar could glean. Indeed, Sivoy frowned, but regarded Atanar with a new sort of speculation. “Very well, stranger,” she said at last. “I will allow you a chance to explain why we should not cast you away.”

Atanar frowned. Vorunn, he may have been, but these vagabonds did not deserve even his respect. He straightened and regarded Sivoy from his full height – considerable, even among the Canderi. “Your graciousness humbles me.”

Sivoy glared back, but her words were honey-sweet. “Corvac, please tend to our guest while I gather the others. I suppose supper will be delayed tonight.”

With that, she spun on her heels and marched away, disappearing within one of the other tents. Atanar looked back at Corvac and the older man, presumably the boy’s grandfather as well, given the resemblance between Corvac and Sivoy. “I have no need of your charity…”

The older man leaned on his staff and regarded Atanar with a shrewd gaze before he smiled; the expression shone through his white beard.. “That remains to be seen, my friend.” He nodded to the tent behind him. “Come, sit. My name is Tikaani. Rest easy, warrior, and eat your fill, for now you are among kin.”

Tikaani spoke the benediction with a familiar, musical cadence that Atanar had heard more times than he could count. But even so gently said, the words struck Atanar in the chest as would a thrown spear or a stray atsuula hoof. At once he was overtaken by an ache so deep and powerful, he could not speak. Beyond the camp, the sky darkened further still, and each gust of wind cut more bitterly than the last, adding to the ache. Vorunn. So it had taken almost everything from him – almost. It would eventually take his life. It should take his life. Very likely it would, if he tried to weather the storm without proper supplies.

Perhaps sensing his indecision, Tikaani said, “Outcast or not, cursed or not, you have no home. Share ours – even if only for a night.”

Kindness…perhaps. In all likelihood the old man had an ulterior motive. Nevertheless, Atanar nodded once. “I may as well get out of the wind.”


Apologies for any typos, grammatical errors, poor wording, etc. This is a rough draft, as-yet unseen by anyone else. I realize there are a few words that don’t make sense, and I’m okay with that for right now, though I think this novella will need a glossary of terms!

It’s been great fun to write a Canderi warrior; I’m proud of the culture I’ve created with these fierce people, and I hope you enjoy them, too!

Thanks for reading, and stay awesome. 🙂

Lauren

on mythology

Worldbuilding is an essential part of any speculative fiction author’s life. Your world should be a backdrop to the characters and their struggles, but in order for the reader to be fully immersed in that world, an author should strive to make it as rich and complex as they can. Of course, a lot of that worldbuilding should remain quietly in the wings, serving only to further the plot.

To that end, here’s a bit of mythology from the world of Catalyst Moon. This is actually a scene from Breach, (the sequel to Incursion), though I’ve cut away some of the spoilery bits. 😉 I’m still not 100% this scene will make it into the final cut, but it’s a fun read nonetheless.

Enjoy!


Kali toyed with the hem of her sweater, trying to remember how exactly the tale went, then took a deep breath and began. “They say the world was new. Back then, the gods walked among the trees like mortal men and women, though they were not mortal, of course. But they existed in much the same way as we do now. They quarreled. They laughed. They loved.

“They say Amaranthea, the goddess of all things bright, loved the god Tor. They say Tor loved her as well, deeply, and without reservation.” Of their own accord, Kali’s eyes flickered to Stonewall. He was watching her. She tried not to think about that and continued. “They say all was well for a long time…until the Laughing God saw Amaranthea’s light and wanted to snuff it out. The Laughing God dwells in darkness, you see, and wanted to shape the One’s world similarly.

“One night, while Amaranthea slept, the Laughing God crept to her bower and covered her. They say–”

“Wait,” Beacon broke in. “Sorry to interrupt, but I never understood that part. ‘Covered her?’”

It was Flint who answered. “He raped her.”

“He?” Milo said, frowning. “I thought the Laughing God was neither a man nor a woman, like the One.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Flint said darkly.

“Doesn’t it?” Beacon asked.

Flint shook her head. “The point is, the Laughing God violated Amaranthea. Her light faded. It doesn’t matter how. Now be quiet, frip, and let the mage finish.”

Kali had followed the exchange, but chose not to comment. “As Flint says, Amaranthea’s light faded after the Laughing God had finished with her. She lay alone in her bower for many days, such that the sky remained dark and the world grew cold. At last, Tor, having returned from a task that had sent him far away, came home to his love and found her in deep despair.

“’What has happened?’ he asked, dropping his traveling pack as he knelt beside her.

“Amaranthea, too stricken with grief and shame, did not reply at first, but his presence soothed her heart, and at last he coaxed the tale from her. Upon hearing her account, Tor’s face grew dark with anger and his fists turned hard, like stone. He rose from her side and strode away.

“’Where do you go?’ she called.

“He did not turn as he said, ‘To avenge you.’

“’I have no need for vengeance,’ she replied. ‘Please, stay.’

“But he left. He picked up his pack and journeyed far, all the way to the entrance to the Shadowlands, where they say the Laughing God lives. There, he–”

“Where’s that?” Milo interrupted. “The ‘Shadowlands?’”

“It’s not a real place,” Kali replied. “I think it’s a metaphor. Probably for the ‘darkness within,’ or some such.” Milo stared at her blankly, so she made a dismissive gesture. “It’s just a story. It’s a made-up place.”

“No, it’s real,” he said. “If it has something to do with the gods, it’s real.”

Kali fought the urge to roll her eyes. She had little desire to poke holes in the younger man’s beliefs. Likely, that would happen without any help from her, probably too soon. “Then it’s somewhere very far away from here,” she said. “May I continue?”

He winced. “Aye, of course. Sorry. Here,” he added, holding out the flask. “Your throat must be getting dry.”

She accepted; the whiskey burned her throat, but sent a pleasant warmth through her belly. She took only a small sip, then passed the flask back to him. Milo offered it to Sadira, who refused, though Beacon and Flint each took a drink. Stonewall did, too, after a moment. Rook declined. Milo didn’t drink any, either.

Kali continued the tale. “They say Tor traveled all the way to the Shadowlands alone, on foot, spurred on by the anger in his heart at what had been done to his love. They say he neither ate nor rested, only traveled until he reached the edge of the Laughing God’s home and bellowed a challenge into the black abyss. At first, silence was the only reply, so he called out again, urging the Laughing God to meet him in a fair and honorable fight. At last, a shadow seemed to separate itself from the darkness of the cave, taking the form of a woman with long, dark hair and skin the color of the deepest night.”

“Nox,” Flint whispered. Her blue eyes were very wide and round.

Kali nodded. “Aye. Nox came forth and beckoned Tor with her staff. But he stood his ground and met her eyes and said, ‘Where is your master? Where is the Laughing God?’

“Again, Nox beckoned Tor. Again, Tor demanded to speak with the Laughing God. The goddess beckoned him a third time. Anger had coiled about his heart like a serpent, but he kept his voice from betraying his feelings and instead held Nox’s gaze as he said, ‘I will go no further until I see your master for myself, so that I may avenge what was done to my soul-bonded.’

“He’d supposed that Nox would merely beckon him again, and so prepared to make his way forward without her guidance, but to his surprise, she relented. Nox bowed low and faded into the shadows. They say a voice emerged, then, a voice unlike any he’d ever heard. It filled him from the inside-out, turned his insides into ice and set fire to his blood. It was the Laughing God, whose words are ill luck to repeat and whose language is unknown to us now.

“But Tor heard and understood that the Laughing God had agreed to his challenge. All he had to do was step into the shadows, where the Laughing God promised to meet him in honorable combat. Though Tor had reservations, his conviction was strong as his blade, and he stepped forward until the darkness consumed him, utterly. And he…”

Suddenly it was difficult to speak, for her eyes burned and her throat tightened, and she had to clench her hands into fists to keep them from trembling. Why had this silly story affected her so?

“And he what?” Flint’s voice was soft, her expression rapt. She looked so young. Milo leaned forward intently, gaze fixed on Kali. Beacon watched her, too, as did Sadira. She didn’t look at Stone or Rook.

Instead, she took a deep breath to calm herself. “He was lost.”

Milo sucked in his breath and looked at his sister, who hugged her arms to her armored sides. “What happened, then?” he asked.

“Amaranthea found him, didn’t she?” Flint said, brow furrowing faintly.

Kali nodded. “But not for some time. Tor disappeared for a long while – some say days, others say decades. But eventually, Amaranthea came looking for him. She still grieved, but the thought of losing the one she loved was a worse pain than reliving her own grief in her mind, so she set herself the task of finding Tor. She knew his ways and knew where he had gone, so she journeyed far until she, too, came to the Shadowlands.

“They say she stood at the yawning chasm and looked into the darkness, gathering her courage, before she took a step forward. It was then that Nox appeared, holding her staff across the cave’s entrance as if to block Amaranthea’s passage.

“’Let me pass,’ Amaranthea said.

“Nox only stared at her with eyes like the void, then shook her head, slowly.

“’Please,’ the bright goddess said. ‘I have no quarrel with you. I only seek the man I love – my soul-bonded. Please let me pass.’”

“Again, Nox shook her head.

“Anger bloomed in Amaranthea’s heart. Anger for Tor, at what he’d set out to do so foolishly, so nobly. Anger at Nox, for hindering her path. Anger at herself, for not protesting more when the Laughing God had come to her. But above all of these was anger at the Laughing God, for rending her life so completely. Anger bloomed inside of her heart like the fire before us now, and she felt its power surge through her very bones.

“Amaranthea did not realize the light came from her until Nox reared back in shock, her dark face suddenly illuminated by an unfamiliar glow. Cast in such light, Nox looked older and more frail than Amaranthea had realized, and she felt pity for the other goddess. She glanced down and saw the bright glow burning from her heart – some say the light was gold, others silver, others say pink or red or orange, or all of them together. It matters not. Light poured from Amaranthea, illuminating a path through the Shadowlands. The bright goddess brushed passed Nox and went forward alone and unhindered.

“Time passes differently for the gods than for mortals, so we do not know how long Amaranthea traveled through that shadowed country. But they say it was long enough for her anger to fade; long enough for exhaustion to slow her steps and tug her eyes closed. She found no sign of Tor. She found no one at all–”

“No guards or anything?” Milo broke in. Flint elbowed his side and he winced. “Sorry. Shutting up now.”

Perhaps Kali should have been annoyed, but she could find nothing inside of her but pleasure at the knowledge that the story had captured the audience’s attention so fiercely. It reminded her of playing her viol to an appreciative crowd.

“They say the bright goddess met no others on her travels though the Shadowlands,” Kali went on, giving Milo a warm look to let him know she wasn’t annoyed. “But the longer she traveled, the more tired she became, and her light dimmed. The shadows grew thicker around her. The Laughing God’s desire had come to pass when she’d chosen to descend, for with Amaranthea’s absence from the world, all light faded and the shadows ran rampant.

“They say Amaranthea could feel the despair of Mara, Ea, Llyr, and all of the other gods. She could hear them cry out to her, ‘please return!’ Many times, she made to turn back. But each time, she thought of Tor, her soul-bonded, the love of not just this life, but all lives, and her resolve grew strong again. So she traveled. So her light dimmed and dimmed, and she grew weaker and weaker, until she crawled on hands and knees, groping through the darkness to take her next step.

“They say when her light went out, she collapsed, too heartsick to continue.

“But her hand, which had been extended to feel the way forward, touched something familiar: Tor’s traveling pack. Startled but hopeful, Amaranthea pulled the pack close and began to rummage through, searching for something that she might use. The contents had been crushed, as if under the weight of some heavy stone, so there was nothing but a single candle. It was enough.

“With a final burst of strength, Amaranthea lit the candle. It was a small flame, barely anything at all, but it drove the worst of the shadows back and revealed a trail of blood on the ground, leading further into the darkness. Despair clung to her for a moment, for surely Tor was injured – or worse – but she clutched the candle and began to follow the trail. It led her through the Shadowlands, into they very heart of the Laughing God’s domain. It led her to Tor.

“They say she found him lying at the gates of the Laughing God’s fortress. She thought him dead at first, until she marked the rise and fall of his chest; he was broken, bleeding. But alive. Amaranthea knelt beside Tor and tried to revive him, though she was certain the Laughing God would arrive at any moment and she was not strong enough to fight.

“’Tor,’ she pleaded, touching his face. ‘Please wake up. We must leave.’

“They say after some time, he opened his eyes and regarded her with wonder. ‘What are you doing here?’ he asked.

“’I came after you,’ was all she could say before a dark, echoing laughter filled the shadows around them, pressing down upon Amaranthea’s heart with dread. ‘Get up,’ she urged Tor. ‘We have to leave at once.’

“I cannot protect you,’ he said. ‘You should leave this place, alone.’

“But they say the bright goddess grew angry again at these words. ‘Enough of that,’ she said, helping him to his feet. ‘You are mine and I am yours. We leave together, or not at all.’

“He acquiesced and leaned on her shoulder, pressing his weight against her. The warmth of his body comforted her, so when the laughter came again, she was prepared. They say the bright goddess drew strength from herself and from Tor, and her heart blazed like the sun, shining upon the Shadowlands enough to cast them into light. They say she caught a glimpse of the Laughing God, who was not laughing now, in the moments before she and Tor hurried back the way she’d come. They say her candle was still lit, but it was love that showed them the way out of the darkness.”

Silence reigned for some moments until, to Kali’s surprise, Flint sniffed once, then swiped at her eyes, blinking furiously. “Ea’s balls, I love that fucking story.”

Free ficlets!

Note: This piece was originally submitted to the /r/fantasywriters May fiction challenge. It is set approximately thirteen years before Catalyst Moon: Incursion.

Enjoy!


Feathers

Eris clambered out of the pond. Water streamed down her legs, she’d soaked her nicest gown, and Mama would be furious that her curls were ruined. But all that meant nothing, for her amulet was gone.

The sun was so bright, it was blinding. Eris stood on the shore, water dotting the sand beneath her fine slippers, and tried to squint through the rippling glare of sunlight over the pond. Maybe, just maybe, she could find the little disk of hematite on its chain, the necklace she’d worn her entire life. Maybe then, Mama and Da wouldn’t be quite so angry as she knew they’d be when she came inside so bedraggled on the day her grandmother was visiting.

But of course, she didn’t see a wink of silver beneath the opaque water.

“Da’s going to kill me,” she said aloud.

She stood alone on the sprawling green lawn before her family’s home, a stately manor with a history to match. It was still morning; the manor’s shadow had receded in the hour that Eris had spent outside with her pet dove, Lucie.

Lucie! Amulet temporarily forgotten, Eris whirled around, pushing her soaking hair from her face as she searched for the dove. There! Lucie was a few paces away, beneath one of the spreading oak trees, head bobbing as she searched for fallen seeds. Well, at least one thing had gone right. Eris hurried to her pet, gently scooping the pearly gray dove into her hands and holding Lucie up to her face.

“Your wings are clipped, silly. You have food and water, and anything else you could ever want. Why would you want to fly away?”

Lucie, used to being handled, regarded Eris with inky black eyes until Eris sighed. “I guess I can’t really blame you; I’d like to fly, too. But don’t you know you’re safe here?”

A soft coo was Lucie’s only answer.

Despite the fact that Eris would definitely be in trouble for the morning’s adventure, she smiled and stroked Lucie’s smooth back. The dove’s feathers were so beautiful in full sunlight; tiny flecks of light and color gleamed in a pearl gray that faded into charcoal at Lucie’s clipped wingtips. Eris sometimes wondered where Lucie would go if she could fly. If she could stretch her wings and glide into the wind, with air rushing between each feather…

Something prickled along the hand that stroked Lucie’s back, as if Eris had slept on it funny and the blood was rushing back. Then, to her astonishment, a few pearl gray feathers grew from her fingertips, glinting with their own tiny rainbows in the sunlight.

Eris gasped, but did not drop Lucie. Not believing her eyes, she held up her trembling hand to examine it. Yes, those were real feathers. Carefully balancing her dove, Eris tried to tug them free, just in case they’d fallen from Lucie, but they were stuck in her own skin.

Heart hammering, Eris turned and ran for the manor as fast as she could. She didn’t give her amulet another thought.


Not bothering to stow Lucie in her cage, Eris tore through the house to the parlor, where Mama, Da and her grandmother were probably waiting. She paused outside the door to check that the feathers were still there, then burst into the room. The three adults were seated by one of the windows that looked out onto the long drive leading to the manor.

“Eris, where in Ea’s blessed world have you been?” Mama demanded. “And look at your dress! What did you–”

“I know, Mama,” Eris interrupted as she hurried over. She held her hand up so that the feathers were in full view. “But see? It just happened! Aren’t they pretty?”

Grinning, she met Mama’s green eyes, so similar to her own, but her smile died at the look of horror on her mother’s face. Eris’ heart began to race again, but with fear. She looked at Da, expecting him to seem amused at her mother’s emotions, as he often did, but he, too, seemed terrified.

Eris’ father was never afraid.

“Da?” Her voice sounded very small. “Mama? I’m sorry about the dress, but–”

“What is this?” The voice was her grandmother’s, but not. It was a voice Eris had never heard, full of hate and anger. Grandmother was at Eris’ side in an instant, wrenching Eris’ wrist so that she could get a better look. Lucie nearly fell and Eris protested the rough treatment, but her grandmother was strong for such an old lady.

“She has magic?” Grandmother hissed at Eris’ mother.

Mama had frozen in her chair, face white and eyes huge. She nodded.

Da did not move from his seat, either, but cleared his throat to reply. “Aye. But we’ve bound it with hematite…”

Heat flushed across Eris’ face. “I lost the amulet in the pond,” she whispered, looking down. Water dripped to the plush carpet beneath her ruined slippers. “I’m sorry.”

The grip on her wrist tightened as Grandmother straightened to her full height. Her black and white Circle cloak fluttered around her feet. “The One has cursed this child,” she spat. “And you have defied the One’s law by keeping her here. She must go.”

Clutching Lucie with her free hand, Eris looked between her parents. “Go where?”

They exchanged glances before Da shoved himself to his feet. “I’ll not send my only child to one of those prisons!”

Prison? Lucie’s little heart raced; Eris’ own beat in tempo. “I’m sorry,” she said again. “I’ll find the amulet! Please don’t–”

No one listened to her. Da glared at Grandmother. “We won’t do it. You can’t make us.”

Grandmother opened her mouth to reply, but Mama spoke first. “We’ve always known this day would come,” she said to Da, touching his sleeve. “We must follow the One’s law.”

Lucie struggled. It took Eris a moment to realize that she held the dove too tightly, so she forced her hand to relax. Were they really going to send her to prison for losing a silly piece of jewelry? She tried to speak, but her heart had wedged itself in her throat.

“How can you say that?” Da said to Mama. “Your own daughter!”

Mama glanced at Grandmother, and shrank further in her seat. Her eyes were wet but her voice was calm. “It must be this way, Gerald.”

Anger and fear flashed in Da’s eyes again. He turned from Mama and back to Grandmother, and ground out his words. “Who cares if she grows a few sodding feathers?

“Even you are not above the law.”

Something in her words made Da’s shoulders sink, his face twisting into bitter resignation. “The law,” he muttered. “You would, wouldn’t you?”

“I will do my duty,” Grandmother said.

“It’s for the best,” Mama added in a whisper, gaze on her lap.

Da shook his head, but he was already backing down. “She’s just a child.”

Grandmother’s voice was ice. “A child corrupted by magic.”

Magic? But they were just feathers! Eris could still feel the feathers prickling her hand. Were they evil? Was she, for having them? Ice swept through her veins to form a hard lump in her belly as she tried to see them through Grandmother’s bony fingers. Out of the sunlight, they looked dull and ragged. She wanted to rip them off, but Grandmother’s hand tightened again; would Eris’ wrist shatter in that iron grip?

This isn’t happening. She looked into her grandmother’s face, searching for something she recognized.

Only disgust looked back.


The sentinels came a week later. They looked fierce: five men and women in hematite armor and helmets that concealed most of their faces. Each carried a pair of wicked daggers and a sword that hung at their belts. One of them approached Eris and her parents, standing before the manor door.

“Where is the mage?” he asked.

Mama was sobbing, and could not answer. Da rested a hand on her shoulder, which Eris shrugged away. “Here, Captain,” he said.

The sentinel removed his helmet to tuck it beneath his arm. Blond hair so pale it was nearly white glowed in the morning light, and his blue eyes were serious as he regarded her. “How old are you?”

Eris only scowled at him. Her father answered. “Eleven. Twelve next midsummer.”

“Eleven.” A strange look crossed the captain’s face before it fled. He nodded and made a gesture to the others, who stepped forward to bind Eris’ wrists with hematite cuffs. They pulled her from her parents’ grasp, led her to the carriage they’d brought, and shut her inside.

Mama’s sobs seemed to echo through the morning, but Eris could not summon tears of her own. Not any more. She clenched her jaw and faced the sentinel in the carriage with her, and did not look back when the vehicle jolted forward.


A week later, Eris stood in the courtyard of Starwatch Bastion, with only the blond sentinel by her side. This far north, the mountains loomed close by and the air was chillier than Eris was used to, but she refused to shiver in the biting wind. She would be like those mountains: hard, unyielding, fearless.

“You’ve got her, Jonas?” one of the other sentinels asked him as she shut the carriage door.

Captain Jonas gave the woman a wry look. “I think I can handle the girl alone, Gan.”

With that, he took the chain that ran between Eris’ cuffed hands and guided her to a modest stone building, past more sentinels, past mages dressed in simple, warm clothes. No one spoke to her. She held her head high and kept her gaze ahead.

The sentinel led her down a dark stone corridor, with torches set into the walls. He stopped at a door near the end, rapped once, then opened it to peer inside. Within was a sleeping pallet and stacks of books and scrolls, and a small brazier meant to keep the room warm.

A petite, dark-haired girl had been sitting upon the pallet, a book in her lap, but at the sentinel’s entrance she got to her feet, clinging to a worn groove in the stone wall to help herself up.

“Kali,” the sentinel said as he brought Eris into the room and began to remove her cuffs. “This is Eris. She’s going to live here, too.”

Kali beamed at Eris. “Nice to meet you.”

Eris said nothing.

After Captain Jonas left them alone, Kali nodded to the door. “Are you hungry? They make the best honey-cakes in the kitchens here.”

Eris frowned. “Honey-cakes? Now? Isn’t it too late for breakfast?”

A wicked grin crossed Kali’s face. “Not if you know where to look.” She offered her hand. “Come on. I’ll show you.”

But Eris crossed her arms. “You’re really a mage?”

“I am.” Kali giggled. “So are you. That’s why you’re here.”

“Why’d he take the cuffs off?” Eris asked, jerking her head to indicate Captain Jones.

“We’re in a bastion,” Kali said. At Eris’ scowl, she rolled her eyes. “Mages don’t have to wear cuffs in a bastion.”

“Really?”

Kali nodded, then looked thoughtful. “Which bastion did you come from?”

“I didn’t come from a bastion.”

The other girl looked surprised. “Then…where are you from? Where’s your family?”

Heat pricked behind Eris’ eyes; she scowled and fought back the tears, as she’d done since leaving her parents’ home. “I don’t have any family.”

Kali looked into Eris’ eyes; hers were very dark, almost black. Like Lucie’s. “You do now,” she said softly, then offered her hand again. “Come on. I’m starving.”

Eris studied the other girl’s hand, then clasped it with her own, the one that held the promise of feathers. “Aye, me too.”