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Chapter One

“Okay, I am all about EV’s, but people driving them need to realize we can’t hear them creeping up. I am not going to die with Tesla tire tracks on my back.”

“Every morning.” Claire shook her head and tugged at the waist of her sweat pants which kept traveling sort of west to east, around her waist as she ran down Duane Street toward the reservoir.

Santiago glanced at her. “What, every morning?”

“Every morning you have some complaint.”

They ran on, coming to Silver Lake Boulevard which, at 6:15 AM was just starting to get busy with those hoping to avoid traffic to come. There was a light and a crosswalk which was why when Santiago and Claire took their morning run they always came this way. Running across Silver Lake Boulevard without a light was an excellent way to get flattened by Angelenos in a hurry.

Directly across the street, at the southernmost end of the reservoir was a dog park. A pug was huffing and puffing, trying to keep up with a Labrador who had the advantage of much longer legs and rather more lung capacity. The dog owners, a woman in her seventies, gray hair in a bun, and a thirty-something guy with a hairline in full retreat and wreathed in vape clouds, stood on opposite sides of the dog park, ignoring each other.

The reservoir, what some were pleased to call a lake, came in two sections. The main reservoir was shaped a bit like a hair dryer, with the handle at the bottom. The second reservoir was much smaller, an irregular trapezoid tacked on at the northern end. All in all, it was an ugly thing, really, with sloping concrete banks and absolutely no concession to aesthetics. A big, ugly, cement bathtub that Los Angeles politicians were forever promising to improve and make beautiful, but which remained an eyesore.

Surrounding the reservoir on three sides were green hills covered by gentrified homes with lots of windows and terraces and the occasional red tile roof. The southern end opened onto flatter terrain leading to the distant skyscrapers of DTLA – Downtown Los Angeles.

The residents of the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, were invariably referred to as hipsters, despite that term having long gone out of vogue, and being inaccurate besides. Silver Lake had two distinct classes, divided by altitude. In the hills: writers, actors, cameramen, artists, all the Hollywood types that could not yet afford Los Feliz or Santa Monica, let alone Beverly Hills. There were non-Hollywood people, too, but the general vibe was about ‘creatives’ who’d gather at various coffee shops to create, or at least sit with furrowed brows and stare at laptops.

At lower altitudes, down in the flats, down in the boulevards and avenues, were humbler homes, mostly occupied by working people hanging on by their fingernails until the gentrification wave inevitably swept them away.

The crossing light was against them so Santiago and Claire jogged in place. Claire waited, knowing her boyfriend wouldn’t be able to let her snark just drop. She counted down in her head. Ten, nine, eight. . .

“Okay then, what did I complain about yesterday? Hmm?”

Like it was a challenge. Like she wouldn’t be able to come up with anything. She could see the smug, ‘so there’ expression forming.

“Yesterday you were bitching that there should be a pedestrian tunnel. The day before that it was about the chain link fence. The day before that–“

The light turned and they headed across. Santiago shot a scolding look at a Porsche with its nose halfway into the crosswalk. The man behind the wheel made an impatient, ‘go around’ gesture. Probably someone important. And certainly someone who believed himself to be important, a common state of mind in LA.

“– the day before that, it was how come they don’t have closed trash cans for the dog poop bags.”

“Yeah, for the smell,” Santiago insisted. “Dog Park equals dog crap equals dog crap smell, which is probably not good for you. What, it doesn’t bother you? At least there should be a law or whatever that says you have to tie a knot in your dog shit bag. I mean, come on.”

“Excellent suggestion, Man Child. LAPD could enforce that ruthlessly, what with them having nothing better to do.”

Man Child had become her term of endearment for Santiago. It suited him. Sixteen years old, with a child’s naive delight in novelty combined with an old man’s eye for things which should be corrected. Things like un-tied dog poop bags.

“You know, when you call me Man Child it just gets me all hot, right?”

“Here it comes,” Claire said.

“Just saying, my Mom’s out of the house by now, we could just, you know. . .”

Claire and Santiago had been a couple since ninth grade. They’d been going for morning runs together for most of a year, during which time Santiago had made similar suggestions at least every third run.

“I mean, we could skip the run and get right to the shower, because I’m, uh, kind of cramping up.” He affected a limp. “Oh. The pain.”

His smile was one of several things she liked about Santiago. It was more on one side of his mouth than the other, which caused one eye to squint and made it seem he was about to speak Pirate. It was a snarky smile, a challenging smile, a smile that said, Okay, your turn, whaddya got?

“Best thing is just to run through the pain,” Claire said. Not that his suggestion was unattractive. No, the idea of a hot shower and some alone time to be followed by another shower, was certainly more inviting than finishing the two and a half mile run around the reservoir. Santiago’s family had a very nice home, and the master bathroom was an HGTV wet dream. The shower had multiple jets at various strategic heights, and windows looking east toward the mountains.

But against that was the fact that Claire had signed up to run a 5K for some charitable cause. Homelessness? School library funding? One of those. Anyway, she needed the practice if she was to avoid embarrassing herself. And it was looking like the start to a beautiful day. The sun was not yet up, it was gray dawn, and it was chilly, but only chilly by SoCal standards. The forecast was for seventy-two by 11:00 AM, and mostly sunny. Claire was a native Angeleno, and like all of her fellow natives, firmly believed that sunny and seventy-two was the only right and proper sort of weather to have.

Santiago stopped. Claire ran on. Then she ran back to him.

“Seriously? You’re going with the whole pulled muscle thing?” But, no, that wasn’t it. Santiago was staring. At the reservoir. She followed the direction of his gaze. Mist rose from the water, not unusual, but then again, not like this. Mist normally rose in patches, this was the entire reservoir, and the mist was so dense she couldn’t even see the surface of the water. Like it was steaming. Like someone was trying to cook the ducks who stopped off at the reservoir from time to time.

“Huh,” Claire said.

“Yeah. Weird, huh? “

They trotted on more slowly, going counterclockwise, past the dog park. And then they stopped.

“Okay, that is not right.”

The thing which was not right was that the chain link fence that circumscribed the reservoir went into the mist and disappeared. The mist wasn’t just rising off the water, it looked like it had spilled over, extended across West Silver Lake Drive, the road that defined the western side of the reservoir.

In fact, the mist seemed to have not just covered the road but had swallowed up dozens of houses. As they watched, a car came around the corner, heading north and drove right into the mist. Which had the effect of making the mist seem less unreal, somehow.

Santiago shrugged and Claire shrugged too, and they set off at a moderate jog into the mist. After all, if it was safe to drive through, it must be okay.

It was very quickly not okay.

The first thing Claire noticed was that the concrete running path beneath her feet was gone. They had run onto dirt. An orange dirt, like something you might see in a movie set in Georgia. Red clay.

“What the serious fuck?” Santiago said, and they both stopped.

Claire looked back the way they’d come, but there was no seeing through the mist, it wrapped around them, too thick, too dry, too opaque. She could see no further than the ground beneath her feet.

At that moment, barreling through the mist behind them, a UPS truck appeared. It went on for a few dozen feet, and then it rolled to a stop. No engine sound. The movement of the big truck swirled the mist and created a small zone of visibility. In that clearing was a blue Mercedes. Also stopped.

The driver, a middle-aged man, opened his car door. The UPS driver, a woman in her thirties, stepped down from her truck. The two drivers looked at each other. Then at Claire and Santiago.

Another car, a blue convertible with the top down, arrived, lost power and rolled into the back of the UPS truck with a loud bang and crunch. Steam rose from under its crumpled hood. After a few moments a groggy young woman stepped out. Her forehead was bleeding, the air bag had not deployed.

“What the hell?” asked the UPS driver, angry that the woman had hit her truck.

“I. . . where am I?” the convertible driver demanded.

Claire noticed that the mist had thinned around them, creating a cocoon of visibility, albeit with an eerie light that seemed less like filtered sunlight and more like a feature of the mist itself. Like the mist was radioactive.

“Anyone know what is happening?” This from the Mercedes driver.

Claire and Santiago shook their heads. In a low voice Claire said, “Man Child? Are we sure we’re awake and not dreaming?”

“I’m not sure of anything, babe. But I think maybe we should turn around.”

“I’m with you.” To the three mystified drivers, she said, “We’re going back that way.” She pointed in case there was some doubt about where ‘back’ might be.

And that was when three large, blue-tinged creatures who could only be guys in costume – this was LA, after all – appeared, coming from the direction of the reservoir. The reservoir which was. . .no longer there.

The three costumed guys, obviously, obviously made up for some science fiction movie, (because how the hell did any other explanation make sense?) wore prosthetics that made their heads triangular and topped by parallel bony crests, arcs sweeping front to back. Their eyes were oversized, a lovely royal blue where they should be white, with irises of such a dark blue they looked black. They wore interesting, stylish armor – the work of a talented studio wardrobe department, no doubt – which covered their torsos but left their arms exposed. The exposed arms were covered in tattoos.

At their sides hung scabbards. Claire was not a gamer, not particularly a fantasy fan, but she knew a scabbard when she saw one. And had there been any doubt, the curved swords in the hands of the three. . . actors? Men? Random cosplaying loons?. . .would have settled the issue.

The Mercedes driver did the smart thing and jumped back in his car. Claire saw his focused expression, focused on pushing the start button. But no sound came from the car’s engine. Not a rrrr-rrr-rrrr sound of an engine starting. Not even a click.

The UPS driver was more forward. “Who are you three supposed to be?”

Her question was not answered, but it got a response. One of the blue-tinged actors stepped toward her and with practiced ease and impressive accuracy, swung his sword sideways. The blade hit the UPS driver in the side of the neck. And it kept going through flesh and sinew and the bones of her upper spine until her head fell from her neck to the ground, where it rocked back and forth before coming to a stop.

Chapter Two

The Mercedes driver was protected by expensive German steel. The convertible driver was not. She screamed, turned and ran.

Claire and Santiago hesitated for seconds, only a very few seconds, the proper way to react to a decapitation not being something either had pre-loaded in their brains. The UPS driver’s body stood during those few seconds, blood spilling over the sides of her neck, red wine from an overfilled glass, darkening the collar and shoulders of her brown uniform. Then her knees buckled and she collapsed, falling beside her body. Falling where her as yet still-open eyes could see the white end of her spinal cord and the collapsing hole of her esophagus.

Then Claire and Santiago ran. No screaming, no conversation, just a sudden screaming voice in their heads yelling, run!

They ran and as they ran the mist cleared around them, as if they were carrying their own force field. It cleared around them, but not far ahead or far behind. They had originally run no more than a dozen steps into the mist, but the way back was longer. Too long. They ran for a full minute then Santiago stopped.

“Are we turned around?” He asked.

“How could we be? This is the way we came!”

They ran another dozen steps and stopped again. The only sound was the beating of their hearts and the rasping of heaving lungs.

“The fuck! What is happening?’ Santiago raged. “It’s got to be. . . It’s. . . fuck!”

They turned, they swiveled their necks, and all they saw now was a small pocket of visibility, four, five feet in every direction. But every direction was just more mist. No UPS truck. No body. No sword-wielding movie extras. Then Claire looked down.

“Those are our footprints!” She stepped back to see more. “Are we going in circles?”

She looked to Santiago, expecting a response. But Santiago was clutching his stomach. “I feel–” He bent over and vomited.

Of course he was sick, Claire thought, what we’ve both just seen? Of course he’s sick. But he did not seem to be recovering. He fell to his knees, retching horribly, then fell forward, palms in the red clay.

“Are you okay?” Stupid question. She squatted beside him, put her hand on his shoulder. “Can you walk? We have to get out of here.”

Santiago gave her a sickly half smile, brought his knee up as if to stand, and failed. “I’m too. . . what’s happening? I feel just. . . my head is just, like, all over.”

Claire reached around him, encompassing his back, and tried to lift him along with herself, but her legs were not up to it. She stood, reached down and said, “Give me your hand.”

And he tried. She could see that he tried. She could see his brow furrow in concentration, and his right hand came up off the dirt, and he held it out. But not in her direction. Had he gone blind? Was he having a stroke?

“Come on, Man Child, give me your hand!” She had to reach for his hand which kept moving randomly, flailing, almost as if it was in spasm. At last she captured his right hand, then stood in front of him and hauled back with all her strength, trying to lever him up.

But he was too big, and not helping, so all she managed to do was drag him a few inches into a puddle of his own sick.

“I’m calling 911.”

She pulled her phone out of the pouch in her sweats and held it up for facial recognition. Nothing. Blank screen. She tapped it. Nothing. Blank screen. Had she turned it off? No, she never turned her phone off. Had the battery needed charging? No, it had been plugged in all night.

She pressed and held the side button, praying for the familiar white apple to appear. Nothing.

Until this moment Claire had felt shock. Now she felt fear.

“Okay, I’m going for help,” she said. “I’m not leaving you, I’m going to get help. Okay? Stay right here.”

She backed away, eyes on her boyfriend who lay now on his side, eyes open, breathing heavily, but not moving. She had to stifle a sob.

“Don’t lose it, don’t lose it, Claire,” she said, her voice dulled by the mist.

Suddenly there were hands on her waist and she felt herself lifted off her feet. Lifted and then slammed, face down in the red dirt, knocking the wind out of her, leaving her gasping for breath and helpless as a rope went around her ankles.

Claire screamed. Even as she screamed she realized she’d never actually screamed before. Not even in a nightmare, and surely that’s all this was.

Hands on her ankles flipped her over, so that she was face up, hands with too few fingers, too few, too long, and not a color any human had ever been. A rope went around her wrists. She struggled but those wrong hands were very strong.

“Let me go! What are you doing?”

She saw him clearly then, him or her or it or. . . A figure that loomed over her, a body with arms and legs and a head, all where they should be, but all nevertheless wrong. One strong hand grabbed the rope that bound her ankles and dragged her. Dragged her over the red clay. Her shirt rose and it was bare skin being hauled over cold dirt and.

“What are you doing to me? Let me go!” Better than screaming. Screaming was weak. Screaming was for helpless victims and even terrified Claire would not see herself as a victim. “Hey, asshole! Let me go!”

No response. No reaction. He – or she or it – kept dragging her, taking long steps, moving fast. Claire held her hands where she could see them. The rope around her wrists was knotted. Just rope, just a knot. Strange that her captor didn’t tie her hands behind her back. She brought the knot to her mouth and got to work with her teeth loosening it.

None of the three whatever they were, none of them watched her. Dragger as she named him, plowed ahead. The other two, though, were less focused. One wandered off to the right. Dragger made a sound.

“Harrif!”

Was it speech of some kind? Claire spoke English, some high school French and a few words of Spanish Santiago had taught her. Not useful words, not words you used outside of an intimate relationship. But her captor’s noise was like no language she knew or had heard.

Wanderer shook his head as if refusing, but meekly returned to walk beside Dragger. The third of the trio did not wander, he plodded on, but kept craning his neck, looking up, down, from side to side, and from time to time would emit a gutteral, “Efnichk, efnichk.”

“Hey, asshole, you got me tied up, let me stand up and walk!”

No reaction, except from Mutterer who aid, “Efnichk, gurat, gurat.”

Still, none of the three spared a look or a word for Claire. Her back was slick with mud. She had been dragged a distance that could not possibly fit within the geography of the reservoir. There was the reservoir itself, the banks, the fence, the path, the road, the houses across the road, and she had encountered none of them. Just the endless, chilly, glowing mist that parted before them and closed behind them.

“Chihuh chihuh chihuh chihuh chihuh!” Mutterer had kicked it up to a new level. He sounded excited. Or scared. Or. . . how was she supposed to know what chihuh chihuh meant? But it got Dragger’s attention in a hurry. He released his hold on her ankle rope, a relief as her socks had raveled down and the rope was digging into her flesh now.

Dragger drew what could only be a weapon. Not a sword, it was more the size of a knife, maybe as long as a Bowie knife, with a thin blade that curved like a scythe. Dragger rattled off more sounds, clearly speech of some kind directed at Mutterer, but still it sounded more like animal noises than an attempt at communication.

Claire did not lose a moment. She got the wrist knot in her teeth and pulled one strand free. From there it was simple to wriggle out. She did a quick sit-up and went to work on her ankle rope.

Meanwhile Dragger and Mutterer were chattering back and forth with increased speed, talking over each other. It was as if they were arguing, but without angry inflection, just rapid-fire talk.

Dragger glanced at Wanderer and said something that to Claire’s ears suggested he was asking for help. But Wanderer was, true to his made-up name, wandering away.

Dragger called after him. No response. Now it was clear that Dragger was torn. Deal with Mutterer? Go after Wanderer?

That moment of hesitation was all Claire needed. She kicked off her ankle rope, levered herself up off the ground and ran.

Chapter Three

Claire ran. The mist parted, then closed behind her.

In her head she had a rough map of the area. The reservoir. The fence. The road. The houses. There was simply no way she could run for more than a minute in any direction without encountering one of those obstacles.

And yet. . .

A nightmare, just a nightmare!

“Santiago! Can you hear me? Santiago!”

The only sounds were the impact of her shoes on clay, the dull thud of her heart and her gasping, heaving lungs, part exertion, part panic. A steady, analytical corner of her mind kept running through the vague memories of nightmares past. She didn’t dream much, or at least often didn’t remember her dreams, but she was sure no nightmare had ever lasted this long. Yet it had the features of a dream: a mist that didn’t behave like a mist, a light that seemed to glow around her. . . strange creatures.

Had she pulled those blue-tinged creatures from her memory? Had they featured in a Star Wars or Star Trek? Were they creatures she would immediately recognize upon waking? Would she be laughing that she’d been frightened by some movie creation devised by make-up artists? Hah, I was scared til I realized they were Star Wars aliens, hah hah.

“Wake up!” she shouted, the words ragged and desperate. “Damn it, Claire, wake up!”

But if it was a dream, why was her back still slick with mud? If this was one of those nightmares of helplessness, why had she been able to easily undo her ropes?

She came to a stop, leaned over, hands on her knees and sucked air like a drowning person who had just surfaced. Her throat was raw, her chest hurt, but she knew she had not run nearly far enough to cause her to pant and wheeze like this. This was not a 5K, it wasn’t a 1K. It wasn’t half a K. The difference, she realized, was panic. Panic was burning up her reserves of energy.

“Okay, so stop panicking,” she ordered herself. Her own voice was flat, seeming to die in the mist, but for all that it was nevertheless reassuring. She could still think and reason and speak.

“Santiago!” she shouted at the top of her lungs, but the mist swallowed that as well. She was perilously close to crying out of sheer frustration, but she choked that down. Not the time for self-pity. Where was Santiago? Where was she? What had happened to the world?

Then, to her great relief, a figure appeared in the mist to her left. “Santiago?” She moved toward the figure, but instinct warned her that something was wrong with the wreathed figure. Not the right stance. Not the right proportions.

“Who are you?” she demanded, sounding more confident than she felt.

The mist retreated revealing not Santiago, but Dragger. She had been running in circles.

Don’t panic, don’t panic!

“Hey! I’m talking to you. Who are you?” She’d almost asked, what are you? But if she was going to avoid panic it was best, despite appearances, despite instinct screaming silently in her brain, to assume that this was a person. A regular person, just in costume. Made up. And walking toward her with a step that too fluid, too sinuous. Mincing. A swift, tip-toeing movement.

He, she, they, it was clearly visible, not ten feet away. Tall, basketball center tall, definitely at the upper end of human height. It – she was going with it for the moment – it had two legs and two arms, all where they should be. The long-fingered hands had three fingers and two opposable digits, like thumbs, but no shorter than the other fingers. The three fingers ended in claws, like a sheathed cat’s claws, the thumbs had none.

Its legs were long relative to the rest of the body. Again, not impossibly long, just improbably so. The feet, covered in boots the color of Spanish tile, were narrow, too narrow, but again not so narrow as to definitely be not human.

Most of its body appeared to be protected by something like chain mail, but with crude interlocking rings. She had the sense that this was odd – surely any Hollywood wardrobe department could come up with something better-made.

But it was the head that was strangest, hardest to characterize as human. People were sometimes said to have triangular faces, but those were only barely so while this head was unmistakably too narrow at the jaw and too wide at the brow. If it had a nose she couldn’t see it. And the eyes, well, yes, those were impossible to consider human. The blue was shocking, rather beautiful, really, the color of Mediterranean water in every travel poster from Greece.

“I’d really appreciate an-” She began and choked the question off as the. . . whatever it was. . .drew something from the belt that also held the scabbard. At first glance it was like a snake uncoiling to five or six feet as he drew it out. He, it, twirled this snake-like thing, this bullwhip, around its wrist and with a flick sent it flying toward her as it spoke again. “Murrit da!”

The snake thing flew through the air, and dropped to the ground. The creature stared down at it with an expression that might have been surprise. Without pausing to explain, it bent down, picked up the object, repeated the twirl around his wrist, said, “Murrit da!” more loudly and threw it.

Again, it fell to the ground, inert. And again the creature aimed its blue-in-blue eyes down at it and seemed at a loss.

But it’s mystification did not last long. It leapt suddenly and was at her side. Its strange hand grabbed her, completely encircling her arm. She pulled hard and almost broke away, but the creature’s grip was like steel bands.

“Let me go!” Claire shouted and aimed a punch at its face. The punch landed, but without much effect. The creature seemed to consider this for a moment, puzzled. Then it threw its own punch. Claire felt the blow, felt her head snap back, felt her knees buckle, felt herself falling backward, and then felt nothing.

Chapter Four

Aurkitu the Unmarked, Sotar of Renju, second offspring of Embless the Complete, contemplated the creature lying bound and unconscious on the stone altar.

It belonged to no race he’d met or even learned of. In shape it seemed roughly similar to his own body – two legs, two arms, a head at the top, eyes at the front, a mouth. But it had as well features common to the aquatic Valtimir, with smooth, pale skin and teeth better suited for grinding plants than tearing flesh.

But the differences outweighed the similarities. Chief among these, and most disturbing, were the fibers or perhaps weeds that hung from the top of the creature’s crestless head. Aurkitu extended a tentative finger and touched this feature then leaned close to observe the thousands of impossibly thin, perfectly pliable, and non-reactive strands that slid like liquid through his fingers, all an amazing yellow color.

“Have you. . .?” Aurkitu wondered aloud.

Del, his Maar, advisor, companion and personal mage, shook her head slowly. “No, I have not. Nor has any such creature appeared in any of the texts.”

Aurkitu was unmarked, but well-educated by the standards of his class, Sotars not generally being scholars, unless it was the scholarship of war. But Aurkitu had never been much interested in fighting, still less interested in dying, and had defied his father, Embless the Complete by studying the ways of the Sky Seers and the Witches and the Maars.

For their part, Maars were not meant to educate the Sotars they served in the knowledge of their guild, but Del and Aurkitu were well-matched and had become friends. Neither had much patience with custom, neither had ambition to rise in their respective hierarchies, and neither was capable of ignoring a mystery. Neither would keep a secret from the other.

“I believe it is wearing a garment,” Aurkitu said.

“Yes. The flesh is uniformly pale, which clearly differentiates it from the garments which are boldly if unpleasantly colored.” Del slipped a finger beneath the sleeve of the creature’s coat. Then she moved her focus to a long, metallic strand that ran down the front of the garment. “Look closely at this, Aurkitu. Here the strand separates and becomes two and you can see that it is made of hundreds of tiny, interlocking teeth.”

“It seems very impractical, it would take the better part of a day to fasten it.”

Del touched the zipper’s slider. “I think. . .” she began. Then she held the slider between her forethumb and first finger and tugged at it. The result made them both gasp, for the movement separated the two strands, unlocking the tiny steel teeth.

“Such craftsmanship,” Aurkitu said, admiring. “Have you ever seen work so delicate, so intricate?”

Del had not. “This is no mere beast,” she said.

“No,” Aurkitu agreed. “No beast is capable of magic.”

That brought a frown to Del’s face. She closed her eyes, held her hand over the zipper, and in a crooning, sing song tone, spoke words that could never be spoken except by a Maar. Aurkitu had tested this on several occasions, attempting to repeat one of Del’s spells, but the words had never formed properly and had had no effect.

Del took a step back. She and Aurkitu had been Sotar and Maar long enough to know each other’s emotions even though the Maar suppressed her olfactory reflexes and color shifts, as Maars generally did. Even without scent cues it was obvious that Del was alarmed.

“What is it?” Aurkitu asked.

“My lord Sotar, I sense no magic here.”

Her use of his title and formal address signaled that this was no jest. “How do you mean?”

“I mean exactly that.” She turned to meet his gaze. “Aurkitu, there is no magic. Not in the metal attachment, not in the garments.” She took a steadying breath, amazed by what she was about to say. “And no magical potential in this creature.”

“But that’s impossible. Valtimir, Dragons, Lumar, even Trolls, our own Viri, any aware race is capable of magic, at least to some degree, awareness and magic are inseparable. You taught me this, Del.”

“So I did,” Del muttered. Irritated, she said, “I have never claimed to be infallible or omniscient. Bring that torch closer.” That last was for the servant who stood silent against the wall and now sprang to action, lifting a torch from a wall sconce and carrying it to stand behind Del. The Maar began a close inspection of the creature, narrating as she prodded, stroked and manipulated.

“The flesh is quite soft. . . the knees only move in one direction. . . these claws are non retracting and seem almost decorative rather than useful. . .rate of respiration is not far different from our own. . .” She lay her head on the creature’s chest, listening intently. “It circulates blood from some organ presumably similar to our own hearts. . .”

At that the creature’s eyes snapped open and it sat up suddenly, hands striking wildly at Del’s head. “Get off me!”

Del took a step back. “Consciousness has returned.”

“So I see.”

“Get off me! Where am I? What are you doing to me?”

Aurkitu was always reluctant to ask Del any question that might puzzle his Maar. By the standards of her arrogant guild, Del was relatively patient and even a little humble. But it was her purpose in life to explain, to guide, to answer, to provide knowledge and wisdom where Aurkitu might be lacking. She did not like having to admit she didn’t know. But the question had to be asked.

“Do you understand its speech?”

“No, I don’t understand its speech!” Del snapped, which brought a tolerant smile to Aurkitu’s eyes. “It’s trying to stand.”

“Let it. Let us see how it behaves.”

Aurkitu and Del both stepped back, as did the torch bearer, to avoid hemming the creature in, and to stay at a safe distance just in case it had powers they did not understand. The very notion of an aware creature devoid of magic was disturbing. Who knew what else it might be capable of?

Now alert the creature continued its inexplicable speech. “Where am I? What are you doing to me? Where’s Santiago, do you have him, too?”

“Is there no way to understand it?” Aurkitu asked in frustration.

“There are two ways,” Del said. “I can spend some days, weeks even, learning its ways, pointing at objects and hoping it teaches me its words, and in turn teaching it our words – assuming it is capable of learning. Or. . .” She sighed.

“Or?”

“Or we can take the creature to Linna Renju and convince Amal to work a spell allowing us to understand it and it to understand us.”

“Ah,” Aurkitu said. Amal was a great Mage and had once been Del’s teacher. Amal had recognized Del’s talent but had never much approved of her and had pawned her off to a less exalted teacher. Del was, in Amal’s opinion, too convinced of her own brilliance and had a stubborn and rebellious nature that Amal had predicted would make her unfit to work with just about any Sotar. That Del had ended up paired happily with Aurkitu who was, in theory at least, the third most powerful person in Renju, had left the old Mage muttering dark predictions of peril.

As for Aurkitu, he had his own reasons not to wish to return to the capital, and his elder brother, the Sotar Ekkinen, not to mention their father, Embless the Complete. Ekkinen was openly contemptuous of Aurkitu whose talents ran in very different directions from his big brother. Ekkinen was known to be able to hurl a spear cleanly through a brass ring no bigger than an eye from a distance of fifty paces; Aurkitu was known to be able to hurl a spear that would not only miss the target, but quite possibly veer so far off it endangered the lives of innocent spectators.

As for his father, Aurkitu had never been and would never be his father’s favorite. Embless’s entire body, save his face alone, was covered by the tattoos of his many, many vanquished foes. Embless was Complete, and in all of Renju, indeed in all of the wider world of the Seven Islands of Vaul, there was no higher status. Impitia herself, though she was far richer and had a far larger army and navy, would bow her head when Embless entered a room. In all of recorded history, just eight warriors had earned the sobriquet, ‘Complete.’

Ekkinen, just two years older than Aurkitu, already had arms fully-inked, as well as the face of his first kill on his chest. And Aurkitu was unmarked. His one and only battle had shown him to be brave but inept – he’d been knocked from his war steed and had woken in a Physician’s tent, after battle was done.

As these thoughts went through Aurkitu’s head the creature stood gesticulating and speaking indecipherable words. It was not large or dangerous, at least not so far as Aurkitu could tell. The creature was shorter even than Del and a full head shorter than Aurkitu himself. Its limbs were thin, barely fleshed-over bone.

Suddenly the creature leapt and tried to snatch the torch from the servant’s hand. It failed at this but quickly adapted and ran for the doorway.

“It’s quick,” Aurkitu observed.

“Shall I seize it, my lord?” the servant asked.

“No, let us see what it does.”

They followed the creature out the door.

Chapter Five

Claire ran through the door and froze.


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