A Captain’s Duty Part Four

This is the final entry to A Captain’s Duty, the failed fantasy piece I was commissioned for. You can find the first three parts at A Captain’s Duty Part OneA Captain’s Duty Part Two, and A Captain’s Duty Part Three. At the end of the chapter, I’ll also break down where the other two parts roughly would have gone.
Chapter Four:

The Path of Man
   The Serpent’s Spine mountain range was dense with jagged boulders and considered largely uninhabitable due to the carnelian stones’ tendency to absorb and emit the heat of the sun. There were several known hiking trails but the best of them turned in circles. The worst led to a labyrinthine series of paths ultimately culminating in a dead end. For that reason it was widely regarded that these mountains were ones best to be avoided and circled if they needed to be passed.

   Mathias Kolter claimed differently. Upon waking, he maintained that there was a passage through that would shave days off of their journey. Korkarin did his best to ignore the human, but Bren took him aside before they left Trome to put some weight into the man’s words.

   “Let’s check it out,” she said.

   “What? No. Why should we?”

   “Because if he’s telling the truth, it will help us get to Wrane more quickly. We can use every little bit of extra time we can get.”

   “Sure, but what if he’s not telling the truth.”

   Bren rolled her eyes. “What does he have to gain from lying? If an ambush were in place, this would have been the place to do it. While we were coming. They could have just tossed our bodies in the pile with the rest.”

   “Who’s to say the idiot isn’t just making something up to try and appease me? You know how their kind are. Leeches, always looking for the first thing that might give them a little more. They always want more. More status. More money. More favors. Watch him lead us into some chasm simply because he can’t stop talking long enough to watch his step.”

   “Let’s go check it out, Tal. We’ve got to skirt the range anyway if we end up going around. We’ll see if it looks like the real deal. If we get a bad feeling, I’ll lead us out the way we came.”

   “We could lose half a day that was,” Korkarin objected.

   “Lose half a day and get rid of the extra baggage. That’s one outcome, sure. Or we save time and gain a new ally, chatty as he is. That alliance can be as long or short as you want it to be.”

   The captain scowled at her after a long pause and Bren smiled at his back because she knew she had reached him. That scowl was his go-to move when he refused to admit his defeat in anything. He had been using it since they were kids.

   Bren let Kolter ride behind her on her horse after a stern warning to watch his hands. Andigar’s disapproval was writ in his face, but he said nothing. He reminded himself that his place in this party was to follow. If his friend was okay with the plan, he would stand by her until the end.

   They rode with little conversation between them save for the human’s directions. It took just over half a day to reach the mountains. They ate as they traveled – dried and salted meat – and when they stopped, they treated themselves to some water. Kolter was allowed to partake and he thanked the group profusely until Andigar finally told him to shut his mouth.

   The Serpent’s Spine towered above them, all serrated edges and colored like dried blood on fine dirt. There was a faint whistle as the air slapped and danced through the peaks. It appeared every bit as unforgiving as the venomous creature that had given it its name.

   “Here we go,” Kolter said. “The pass doesn’t have an official name, but it has picked more than a few nicknames over the years. The Crooked Belly. The Swiftest Strike. I was always partial to Longtooth Pass just because it doesn’t make any kind of sense.”

   Tal narrowed his eyes and focused on the exterior of the mountains. “Where is it, Mathias?”

   “It’s right… hold on.” Kolter walked up an incline of loose rocks and directed both his arms towards what had appeared to be a solid cliff face. The human stuck one arm behind a break in the wall and the optical illusion became clear. “It starts here. The light gets you, right?”

   “I’ll be damned,” Bren whistled.

   “It still hasn’t proven anything,” Korkarin muttered. Louder he asked, “How’d you know about the passage?”

   “I’ve spent most of my life trying to make a living in Mekan, Captain. Things aren’t always easy for my people. We stab each other in the back about as often as we look out for each other. Sometimes we’ve got to get away from it all. Regroup. Remind ourselves why it’s so important for us to stick together and maintain our identity. This little traipse through the mountains, it’s one of the few things we have that is wholly ours.”

   “Is it dangerous?”

   “Isn’t everywhere? The pass isn’t any more dangerous than any other place.” Kolter grinned. “The mounts should fit fine coming through, as long as they’re doing so single file. The baunkar might be a tight fit.”

   “What did you say, you skinny little-”

   “Darian,” Bren said, placing a hand on Andigar’s forearm. “Easy. It was a joke.”

   The baunkar’s scowl relaxed and lost some of its flushed hue. “You’re… you’re right, lass. It’s the damn heat. It’s got my head all twisted up.”

   “Are you good to ride or do you need more water?” Korkarin has dismounted his horse and come up beside them.

   “I’m good, Captain.”

   “Then let’s go.”

   They walked their mounts up the incline and through the passage, following Kolter. It was a twisting, narrow entrance with the jagged edges of the canyon wall holding like jaws prepared to strike. Korkarin caught his sleeve on a rock around the third bend and came away with a thin slice. He hissed.

   “Tal?” Bren asked.

   “I’m fine. Keep going.”

   The sky was only just visible through the leaning walls. It was clear of clouds, bound to be another scorcher. A pair of spotted vultures circled overhead, their sizable wingspans casting nasty shadows. The vultures had once been exclusively scavenger birds, preying only on the dead and dying. A hundred years of adapting to desert settlers and more prepared travelers had led them to evolve into something much larger and much more aggressive. It wasn’t unheard of for a single bird to fell a grown man.

   They moved slowly and carefully, shuffling their feet. The hard rocks beneath their boots gradually transitioned into a fine tawny sand. The encroaching walls that boxed them in began to taper outwards. The light of day found itself no longer obstructed and fell upon them.

   After two hours of travel, the path had widened enough to allow them to walk three bodies across. The canyon walls remained rough but had smoothed out enough that they were no longer in danger of an accidental puncture wound. Four times they came to a fork where a second path would wind in the opposite direction. Kolter never hesitated as he led the group. He simply whistled a maadmi drinking tune, sweating profusely but otherwise merry. Andigar was nonplussed.

   “Here, hold on a second,” the baunkar called out. “You’re draggin’ us every which way through these mountains. How do we know you’ve got any clue where we’re going?”

   Kolter smirked and crossed his arms. “Do I look like I’m lost?”

   “You look like someone who hasn’t taken enough fists to the mouth.”

   The human laughed and walked back, past the group, past the animals. Bren sighed and ran to catch up with him. She grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around. Before he could say a word, she pushed into his chest, driving him back until he hit the wall.

   “Listen to me,” she said. She kept her voice low, keeping the conversation between the two of them. “I’m the one who convinced Tal that this little detour of yours was worth checking out. They could have killed you, abandoned you, or cut out your tongue. I made sure that didn’t happen. I made sure you were allowed to tag along.”

   “And I appreciate that. Cut out my tongue? That seems a bit harsh.”

   “It would have been to keep you from spreading misinformation about Trome.”

   Kolter blinked. “I don’t understand.”

   “Everyone in that village was killed. That’s what you showed up too late to discover. That’s why we were talking about dead men’s houses. We don’t know who did it, but whoever was responsible is still out there. They’re running around somewhere with their own plan, a plan we can’t begin to fathom. Tensions are a bit high with us. Do you understand that?”

   Kolter swallowed hard. “I do now.”

   “Good. Tal’s a nice enough guy on his best days. This isn’t one of those days. Darian, well, he’s not a nice guy on his best days. And today? You see where I’m going with this?”

   “I think I can piece it together.”

   “Figured so. The boys, they don’t think you’re too bright, but I see a light or two rolling around behind those big dopey eyes of yours. I would appreciate it if you stopped jerking us around and gave us a straight answer. One, hopefully, that won’t make me regret letting you have some of my water.”

   “I was doing that when you grabbed me. In order to properly illustrate, though you’ve got to follow me back a little bit. The next one isn’t for a while.”

   “The next what, Mathias?”

   He grinned. “Trust me for another hundred feet?”

   She didn’t like his smile. Part of it was just his face. The roundness of a human’s face made even the slim ones look fat. It added to their slovenly reputation. She didn’t even want to think about the way their ears resembled the cropping punishment reserved for sultani slavers. Humans were ungainly and unpleasant and a happy one just made her think of a hog in the midst of a mud bath.

   Kolter’s smile had another issue, though. It was too confident. Too free of burdens. It bothered her that they were plagued with so many questions and uncertainties while this degenerate seemed to be enjoying himself.

   Bren pushed his shoulder hard into the scratchy stone and then released him. To his credit, the human hid his wince. He brushed the dirt from his clothes and continued back the way they came. A flippant wave of his hand beckoned them to follow.

   Andigar and his pony stayed where they were (“I ain’t moving again until I know what’s going on or where I’m supposed to be heading”) but the sultani trudged after Kolter while trying to ignore the heat on their necks and the rivulets of sweat running under their thick clothes.

   They didn’t have far to go before their guide pulled up short and pointed up at the canyon wall. Bren spotted it first. She shook her head in mild confusion and then pointed it out to Tal: twenty feet or so above the ground, a small pattern of swirls and dashed had been painted. Whoever had left it there had used a coat only slightly more yellow than the rocks around it.

   “What does it mean?” Korkarin asked.

   “It’s human code,” Kolter said, waggling his fingers in exaggerated mystique. When he saw the dearth of amusement on his companions’ faces, he sighed. “It’s an instruction. A direction. It would take too long to teach you how to read it, but it tells me which crosspath to take and how many paces until I should keep an eye out for the next one. This travel route has been around for over six hundred years, Captain. Back when my people had more of their own to speak of. Some strong, enterprising men decided a little thing like mountains weren’t going to be enough to stop them from getting around easily. They carved their way through, set up some dummy paths, and made a code. It used to connect two human cities. Real cities. Time passed. Human influence faded. The cities disappeared. The path – and the paint, shockingly enough – remained.”

   “How did you say you learned all this?” Bren asked.

   “I didn’t say, but come on. Humans talk to each other, you know. We’re not animals. I read a lot, too. Love reading.”

   Korkarin’s brows rose. “Where did a human get books in Mekan?”

   “If we’re going to prostrate for you, or the maadmi, or the baunkar, or whoever else in hopes of landing a career and a real life, we better make sure we’re actually useful. That means education. Knowledge. A skill. Where did I get books? I’m a human, Captain, so I did what humans and sultani bureaucrats do: I stole them.”

   He winked and started back towards Darian Andigar. Bren and Korkarin looked away from the symbol on the wall to stare after him.

   “What do you think his skills are?”

   The captain shrugged, exasperated. “Whatever they are, being a nuisance has to be near the top.”
   It turned out the Serpent’s Spine wasn’t quite as devoid of life as they had been led to believe. Over the hours they spent moving through the mountains, the party caught glimpses of three different kinds of lizards, a short-eared hare and some type of rodent with long legs and large feet. The coos of a bird – Kolter had called it a club-breasted thrash – drifted softly through the air, but its nest was tucked away deep in a recess somewhere and they caught no sight of it.

   As they traveled, they kept conversation to a minimum. Bren and Darian would occasionally recall and share a memory from their time doing missions together. Bren and Korkarin would similarly bring up something from their childhood. Andigar didn’t speak to Korkarin. Nobody spoke to Mathias, but the human continued whistling mirthfully, unfazed. They kept to the shaded areas as best they could, but the heat found a way to beat down on them regardless. They rationed their water, staying mindful of their mounts. Andigar’s pony faltered once; they rested the beast and continued on fine from there, but it left them uneasy.

   It was almost a relief when the sun finally dropped and the moon, red-eyed and resolute, took its post in the sky. Korkarin pointed out a small compression in the canyon wall and they settled in there for the night.

   Their next obstacle was the cold. It was the desert’s great mystery that a place with such malicious heat could transition into a vindictive freeze once the stars came out to play. The drop in temperature was not unexpected but was no more tolerable for the knowledge of it. As Kolter’s supplied had been left behind with the dead horse he had abandoned (“I always planned on returning to get it once I found out what you were up to,” he had said. “Things obviously turned out differently.”), there were only three sleeping bags between them. Bren volunteered hers to Kolter and took first watch. Korkarin gave his to Bren during his own shift.

   Now it was Andigar’s turn to stand guard. Kolter snored softly by the animals while Bren and Korkarin shared the captain’s bag. The male sultani slept with his arm around his friend and the baunkar, draped in his own sleeping bag, marveled at the vulnerability his fellow mercenary was showing. He had known Bren Dendalion for several years; vulnerable wouldn’t have been in the top thirty adjectives he would have used to describe her.

   He had been a member of the Beryl Cavaliers for a couple years before Bren had sauntered into their camp. Her hands had been shaky and her skin pale, but when she spoke, it was with the assuredness of a veteran. She had demanded a place in the band, for less pay at first if necessary, but she guaranteed she would earn an equal share by the year’s end.

   Fellian – a sultani that had been cast out of Mekan for her past crimes and the founder of the Cavaliers – agreed to give Bren a trial, for amusement if nothing else. Bren’s swordplay had been sloppy, but even then she could beat anyone in an archery challenge. Fellian trained her in the areas she was weakest in. It took only five months before she was paid out the same as everyone else.

   They were a bunch of misfits, outcasts and former criminals trying to do some good. All allegiances to their races or any previous organizations they may have belonged to were severed. Racial hang-ups were disregarded. They were one group. A family.

   Even so, not all jobs they were hired to do required all members. They often found themselves mixing and matching groups to best fit the skill set needed for the contract. Additionally, some groupings paired better than others. Natural chemistry that led to almost precognizant compatibility on the battlefield.

   Bren found Andigar early on and clung to him. It wasn’t because she needed protection or because she wanted his help. She simply saw that he often kept to himself – even then, even among friends – and wanted him to have company. She had laughed off his gruffness and ignored his demands to be left alone. When he broke down and pleaded for her to go because of his troubles controlling his temper, she listened to everything he had to say. After he was finished, she refused again to let him stew in his lonesomeness.

   Once he finally decided to let her in, they became almost inseparable. They worked well together, often able to communicate with the slightest of physical cues. He trusted her implicitly, she who saw the worst sides of him and neither flinched nor turned away. He suspected that though she didn’t often speak of herself, her feelings or her past, she trusted him as well.

   She saved his life. He saved hers in return. He kept his mouth shut when she began a relationship with Gris Palmos, a fellow Cavalier. He continued his silence when it went wrong, when she took it out on their next targets, when she wept in his tent because she knew it was the only place none of the others would see her.

   It was the only time he had seen her with her guard down. It was the only time he could have used the word vulnerable. At least, until tonight. Until she had reconnected with Tal Korkarin and had dragged him into the sultani captain’s mission. There were years more between them, years unknown to Andigar. Then there was Korkarin. He was another thing altogether. It was obvious that the man had a code he stuck to, an idea of right and wrong that he stood behind. Beyond that, the man was nearly inscrutable, staying silent just as often as he pelted someone with questions. As fine a quality as that was, it also lent him a sense of condescension and superiority that Andigar doubted the captain even knew he had. Korkarin’s limited experience outside of Mekan had also bred an unsconsious racism. The captain had never benefited from a multi-cultural brotherhood. He grew up in the heart of sultani lands, with sultani practices and biases. It made him difficult to like.

   It didn’t help that the thing inside Andigar didn’t like anybody. It twisted up on itself, full of anger, full of rage. The beast inside him wanted out. There was a time when he could do nothing to stop it. He would lose feeling in his limbs, his body. The next thing he knew, he would be watching himself as if in a dream. He watched the violence unfold and when he came to, his hands would be awash in blood. Sometimes it would splash onto his chest or his face. It might go as far as elbow-deep, but his hands… his hands were always red.

   Two terrifying years passed from the first incident until he was able to bring it under some semblance of control. It still slipped out now and again, generally in times of great stress. His fellow mercenaries considered it fortuitous for a mission, though most kept him at arm’s length. They liked him, he felt, but didn’t trust him. They welcomed him but didn’t full accept him. None of them did. Except Bren.

   There was a noise in the distance that sounded like a rock being crushed. Pebbles rolling down the cliff wall, perhaps. Rocks being displaced as animals moved around, preparing for the day. Or… maybe something else.

   Andigar stood up and shed his sleeping bag. He glanced up at the sky; it was already turning a deep blue from onyx. Another sound floated forth, nearly identical to the first. He reached for his axe.
   The swords came together with a shudder and then slid apart as the two opponents moved past each other. They circled around, eyes on the tip of the other’s blade. They stood in stances they had seen others practice hundreds of years.

   Bren hooked her hair behind her ear with her off hand quickly before returning it to the hilt. “What was that, Tal? You’re going to have to step it up if you want to beat me.”

   “It’s not fair,” Korkarin said. His sword was almost comically oversized for the young boy’s frame. “You’re taller than me. You’ve got too much of an advantage.”

   “My dad said if you’re going to get into a fight, you have to create victory for yourself. You can’t blame me for you losing just because I’m growing up faster.”

   Korkarin stepped in quickly and swung his sword high. Bren ducked underneath it just to see his knee rising rapidly towards her face. She raised her left forearm up to block it; the force still sent her reeling backward. Her ankles crossed each other and she landed on her back. The sword was released reflexively.

   Before she could grab the hilt and scrabble back to her feet, Korkarin had kicked the weapon away. His own was pointed at her throat. His face was stretched into a wide grin.

   “Was that better?”

   Bren smirked. “Maybe a little. And you said you wanted to be a shopkeeper.”

   “I said it would be nice to have my own little store, and I still think so. I should know how to stop thieves, though, don’t you think?”

   “Yeah. We’ll see.”
   Several years later, he looked so handsome in his training uniform. The creases were all smooth, freshly pressed by Yana. His mouth was set in an expression of discomfort, but his eyes held boundless energy.

   “Who am I supposed to spar with now?” Bren asked, playfully tugging on his collar.

   “I have no doubt you’ll find a suitable replacement quick enough,” he said. “Try not to hurt them too bad.”

   “No promises.” Bren’s smile faltered and she sighed. “I wish your training weren’t so… isolated. I’m going to miss you.”

   “It’s only a year or two. You’ll keep busy. You always do.”

   She smiled and agreed with him, but her heart wasn’t in it. He was her best friend, had been almost since they were born. What would she do without him?
   It was five months after her father died that she demanded to be a part of the Beryl Cavaliers. It had been difficult seeing the man who raised her and taught her so much, the man she loved more than anything, waste away and die from a disease he couldn’t kill with a sword. Lungrot, the physicians had said. Her father had never smoked griproot. Second-hand smoke was the physician’s best guess and another twist of the knife.

   So she had sought the mercenary band out, wanting to surround herself with warrior types, tough men from all walks of life. People who spoke the same language she did, the one her father taught her. It was the same language Tal had spoken before leaving her to become a guard.

   It was harder than she had imagined. Even with good people there. Even with the smile she managed to plaster on her face to mask the pain. Even with, for a time, a man who had been a lover and a confidante.

   She could still remember the first man she killed. It had been with a blade, back before she had developed a fondness for archery even though archery had always come more naturally to her. Maybe killing a man with a sword is the reason why she began to prefer using the bow. She remembered the tears flowing down the man’s face. She remembered the hot tracks left by her own that night when she –
   “Fudrossi! Bren! Captain! Get up, we’ve got company!”

   Andigar’s words cut through her slumber as clear as a bell. Fudrossi. The baunkar word for “alarm”. Her eyes shot open and the weight of sleep evaporated as she rolled over to grab her bow and quiver. She caught glimpses in the edge of her eye of Korkarin and Kolter waking, but her attention was focused elsewhere.

   Ten figures – human men, all of them – were rushing down the canyon towards them. The blades they wielded were curved swords, similar to the maadmi make but crafted larger to fit the hands of the humans. Their eyes were wide, but they made no noise as sped forward.

   Bren rose up on one knee and pulled two arrows free. She nocked them both and let them fly. One hit the lead man square in the center of his chest. It sank in, but not as deeply as she had hoped. Whatever armor the man was wearing beneath his shirt kept the wound from being a fatal one.

   The second arrow had more luck, whistling past the first man’s face and sinking deep into the right eye of the swordsman behind him. He dropped like a stone, tripping up two others running behind him. Bren felt nothing, she wouldn’t until later. She simply pulled another arrow and fired it.

   Korkarin and Andigar were up and running towards the fight. The arrow sailed between them and hit the lead man in the foot, sending him sprawling. Whatever he had been wearing that stopped the arrow wasn’t enough to protect him from the baunkar’s axe when it came crashing down.

   “Mathias, who the hell are these people?” she snapped.

   “I have no idea! I was about to ask you the same thing.” Shadows surrounded Kolter’s wrists and ankles once more, but there were few places he would be able to jump to with the sun rising. He took a few steps back and eyed the frantic mounts.

   “Don’t you even think about it,” Bren said.

   She dropped her bow and drew a short knife as one of the swordsmen reached her. She dodged back from a swipe that would have taken her nose and blocked a return strike with her own blade. The man’s strength drove her back several steps. Bren bared her teeth and waved him in to engage again.
   Tal Korkarin’s sword deflected a thrust as one of their surprise attackers ran past him. He spared a glance to make sure he wasn’t in danger of any further strikes from behind; the assailant kept moving, bee-lining for Mathias Kolter.

   Interesting, he thought. Maybe they weren’t with the nuisance after all.

   He and Andigar were left with six violent, angry humans. They remained quiet still – save for grunts of exertion – giving no possible motive for the sudden conflict. Were these the ones responsible for the massacre? Were they trying to cover their tracks again by killing them now?

   Two blades came at him at once. He dipped his head to the left to avoid one and knocked the other aside with his blade. Something bit into his right thigh and he looked down to find a third man’s weapon digging into it. His teeth ground together as a sudden wave of pain surged through him.

   He slapped away the first man’s saber as it came towards his head once more and then lunged towards the third man, striking before he could fully retract his weapon. Korkarin’s sword punched through the human’s neck. The man spiraled away, dropping his blade and clapping his hands to the wound.

   “Hell,” Korkarin muttered. “This must be hell.”

   Trying to avoid the pain in his leg, the captain backed away in a circle, battling both men as best as he could. A quick slash opened up the back of his hand. Another tore open his left shoulder. He was scoring hits of his own, but his leg was growing numb. He would have to find an opportunity soon.
   “No, no. No no no.”

   Kolter never considered himself to be much of a fighter. He was a talker. He liked to talk. He was good at it. Sure, he would find occasion to throw a punch here and there. He even owned a knife that he had woefully left behind with his dead horse, so hurried he had been to catch up with the sultani. Still, he preferred trading verbal barbs to steel ones.

   When the other human broke away from the group after failing to land a hit on Korkarin, he charged towards Kolter instead. Tired, terrified, unarmed Kolter. Unarmed, but not defenseless.

   He wasn’t ashamed to run away from the swirling saber while he didn’t have something of his own to swing. The shadows cloaking his ankles swirled turbulently and he came out of the shade on the western side of the path. It was an effective evasive maneuver, but it only fooled the other man for a second.

   The human turned back towards Kolter, the latter stuck with no further place to run. The saber cut through the air with a soft whistle and slammed into Kolter’s side. A pale yellow flash sparked from a ring on his finger; the strike broke a couple ribs from the force but failed to cut flesh. The two men stared at each other.

   “You’ve got to love daevas, huh?” Kolter croaked before catching a fist to the face.

   The only thing keeping him upright while being pummeled was the canyon wall at his back. Each blow wore his daeva-infused armor down more. It came as a shock when the edge of his attacker’s blade finally broke through and cut a line across his forehead. It was even more shocking when the weapon was being pushed into his belly.

   Kolter flicked both of his hands up and outwards desperately. Blue sparks of force slammed into the other man’s face, breaking his nose and pushing him back. Kolter grabbed for the nearest loose stone and slammed it into the side of his adversary’s head until the man stopped moving.

   He was able to stay up close to thirty seconds longer than his foe. The pain in his belly grew harsher as he moved, so he staggered over to a large rock and sank down onto it. He pressed his hands to his abdomen and looked at the rest of the canyon.

   Korkarin was leaking heavily from a number of wounds but somehow was able to hold his own against the pair of men, despite their best efforts to wear him down. Bren had taken a slice high up on her breastbone, but her enemy was growing frustrated. As he watched, Andigar’s neck and shoulders grew translucent red scales. He held off two opponents by breathing fire in their direction. He swung and drove the spike on his axe into the chest of the third man facing him.

   It was so hot out. Fire seemed unnecessary. Kolter pressed his belly more tightly and sighed.
   The baunkar’s arms were wreathed in brilliant ivory bands, the same enhancement he had unleashed back in Mekan. He drove both of his living opponents back with powerful swings of his axe. Any attempts at flanking him were deterred by the tusks extending from his elbows.

   He barely saw them. He didn’t feel the injuries being cut into him. He just acted, attacked. He was violence. He was wrath.

   Andigar kicked one of his stocky legs into the pelvic bone of the man to his left. To the right, he used his axe and increased strength to shatter the curved blade of his other enemy. His own hands became empty. They grabbed the human by the shirt and shoved him to the ground. He began punching. Over and over, he struck. His ivory bands began to turn crimson.
   She didn’t see the knife. She wasn’t even aware he had drawn a second weapon until it was thrust between two of her lower ribs. Bren hissed and brought her elbow across to collide hard into the human’s chin. He fell off balance just enough for her to bring her sword back in a move that took the man’s head from his shoulders.

   Her hand found its way to the hilt in her side, but she didn’t remove it. That would be worse than keeping it in for the time being, no matter how it was grinding against the bone. Instead, she dropped her sword and retrieved her bow and quiver.

   Bren saw Kolter sitting on a rock, injured but alive and out of immediate danger. With effort, she adjusted to see the others. Darian Andigar was in one of his blood-rages. He wasn’t paying attention the man closing on him with wicked intent.

   “Arkhiang!” she yelled. Pivot.

   Andigar’s head snapped up and he stepped away to the right. The human creeping up on him missed his attack and stepped directly into the flight path of Bren’s arrow. She nodded approval at her own success and then turned to Korkarin’s ongoing battle.
   His arms were growing tired and his head was growing light. As the sun rose, the heat grew and it beat at him as relentlessly as the two thick-nosed humans. Sweat or blood rolled down just about every part of his body and he was finding it more and more difficult to spot openings where he could strike.

   Korkarin parried two more swipes but caught the tip of a blade to the chest. The man on his right stepped forward to seize on the flinch when two arrows caught him in the face and neck. The sultani captain capitalized on the surprise and ran through the last man standing. The human gasped – the most he had expressed himself since the attack started – and collapsed.

   No men remained, save for the one he had dragged along on his mission. Korkarin dropped his sword from tired hands. It stuck in the sand at a crooked angle, slick with red. He could see Bren on her knees. She had dropped her bow and sat with her hands turned upwards on her knees. She had her head tilted back towards the sky, breathing heavily in the aftermath of the fight.

   Korkarin shuffled over to a large rock across from Kolter and took a seat. He didn’t see Andigar, but his head was swimming too much for him to make a conscious effort to find him. The canyon walls seemed darker, but he chalked it up to his vision fading. The mounts… the mounts had gone, frightened off in the melee. Without a human to guide them through the paths, he suspected they would wind up lost and starving and dehydrated, just like them.

   He reached for his waterskin and found it empty, the contents having spilled out through a gaping hole in the side. He sighed and tossed it off to the side. Kolter let out a raspy laugh from where he was sitting.

   “What’s so funny?” Korkarin asked.

   “The water. Of all the things that could have been stabbed: your face, your heart, your lungs… you make it through all of that and the most devastating thrust is through the damn water.”

   “I fail to see…” The captain trailed off. Something about this was eerily familiar, but he couldn’t place the memory.

   “Brother, there isn’t any reason to greet the Reaper with a sour puss, if that’s what’s meant to be. Personally, I’m just hoping the afterlife has some ice.”

   A shadow on the ground caught his attention. Korkarin’s eyes tracked upwards to find the source until they reached the top of the valley. A figure stood atop, looking at them. It almost looked like a hariq, though the sun made it difficult to see any tattoos. After a long pause, the figure turned and walked away.

   The captain didn’t even know if what he saw was real. He had heard of mirages, illusions caused by the desert heat. The same intolerable temperature was sapping even more strength from him. His eyelids were getting heavy, and he wanted badly to take a nap. Who would judge him for a quick nap? He had fought so hard.

   As his chin dropped to his chest, he could swear that somewhere in the distance came the chiming of bells.

******************

So that was basically it. I wanted to end the first part on a cliffhanger to encourage people to want to pick up the second part. That part would begin with a group of gamla (basically nomadic camel people) stumbling across the group and nursing them back to health. One gamla leaves his tribe to journey with them, having found their mission to be worthy of going out and earning his True Name. He is immediately drawn to Andigar as the gamla – a person of peace – wants to help the baunkar find stability with the raging daeva he is host to.

Once they’re healed enough to travel, they head to an ever-shifting merchant city. Humans in this world do not have a particularly powerful culture and no capital cities like the solari (basically elves) or the baunkar (basically dwarves, who have carved out Roman-raquel cities in the mountains), so they’re resigned to making themselves useful in other ways, such as merchants, bodyguards, fools, or advisors. So the group finds themselves in this market and after asking around for information sources, they track down a suqur. The suqur are basically hawk-people, typically elegant, and I thought it would be awesome if this particular one – who hoards secrets and information and items of great worth – be obese, just a fat bird dude living life to the fullest.

This baron of sorts tells the group that the second village they were planning on visiting has been wiped out, razed to the ground. He’s still hiding information, and either refuses to divulge it or will only tell them if they pay an exorbitant price. Having been nearly killed in the mountain range, they have nothing and so they leave. Except Kolter notices an object (maybe something capable of a degree of divination) in the suqur’s tent and swipes it. The suqur notices its absence and sends people after them; the group escapes and Kolter admits the theft to Korkarin who nearly beats the shit out of him, but upon using the object, they get hints to head out to the mountain city of the baunkar.

The baunkar have a caste system of sorts with religious heads being top tier, but while they worship essentially ridiculously powerful, ancient daevas, daevics (those in a symbiotic relationship with a daeva) are persona non grata, which means Andigar isn’t exactly having a great time. The baunkar treat Korkarin and Bren fairly enough but keep them at a distance. The gamla notices this and recruits Kolter – who is hesitant after his previous experience with Korkarin – to figure out what it they’re hiding: evidence of collusion between the baunkar and the sobek (the gator people from the prologue, including the main antagonist) in building a massive war machine. The sobek steal the metal, the baunkar design and help build the parts.

Before the group can leave and warn the Singer of the Sands, the hariq (the secondary antagonist) arrives with a sobek retinue and combat breaks out during which the hariq reveals he can use arcane magic without daeva help our hindrance! They fight, the sobek are killed, the hariq is badly wounded, and the group escapes from the pursuing baunkar through tunnels those baunkar won’t or havent explored. Turns out they’re filled with horrible giant insect things with poison blood. They engage in a fighting retreat during which Korkarin is blinded by blood splashed into his eyes. They eventually reach a drop into a river (which has been done a thousand times, fucking sue me, there’s a reason this was never written). They jump.

They wash up quite a way down the river onto a mossy bed. They’re tired and beat up , and Bren tries to treat Korkarin’s eyes, which are right fucked, but it somehow awakened a daeva-enhanced secondary sight, tying in with the dreams and visions he’s been having. They realize they’re closer to the sobek than they are the Sultanate and decide collectively to try and sabotage the war machine. Kolter uses his tricks to help disguise them, but two sultani, a human, a baunkar, and a gamla are difficult to hide in a large group of gator people and they’re discovered

It is entirely due to daevic abilities and magic items that they’re able to hold off the army as long as they do, with Bren and Andigar heading straight for Graxxus. Korkarin, blind though he is, uses his newfound abilities to infiltrate and decimate the war machine with explosions. It costs him his life. Andigar – working with his daeva as opposed to Graxxus who has essentially let his take over- kills the sobek leader but loses an arm in the process. Kolter, Bren, Andigar and the gamla prepare to be overwhelmed and killed when Graxxus’ second-hand warrior stops them. Yes, Graxxus reunited the warring sobek clans, and yes, he had grand ideas but conquest had become too large a focus, and his unpredictable fits of rage and violence while he struggled with his daeva didn’t inspire many. The sobek allows the group to leave on the condition that Bren negotiates a trade arrangement with the sobek and tells them that they deliberately ceased an attack under their new, more stable leadership. She agrees, and the group leaves, taking Korkarin’s body home for a proper funeral.

There would have been some additional segments more fully fleshing out Graxxus and making him more sympathetic and nuanced, but… Yeah, there ya go. Hope you enjoyed.

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A Captain’s Duty Part Three

This is the continuation of a fantasy project I was commissioned for not only didn’t get picked up but that I hated writing from the first word, outside some details. I’m going to level with you: I haven’t read it since I finished it, and that was two and a half years ago, so I don’t even remember much of what’s here. Anyway, you can find the earlier entries at A Captain’s Duty Part One and A Captain’s Duty Part Two.
Chapter Three:

Steps Forward
   The air smelled of citrus. Oranges, specifically, though he couldn’t place the region. It hung around them, clung to their clothes, but it wasn’t unpleasant. It served to mask the pungent smell of kraga grass, though the second-hand effects from the smoke weren’t at all diminished.

   He squinted through the haze, ignoring the voluminous figure in front of him in order to take in the interior of the tent. The walls were alternating patches of red and bruise-purple, not that they were easy to see. Tables and crates were piled high with riches and artifacts of all kinds. Piles of elaborate finery were heaped messily on the floor and the occasional chest. Ornaments dangled from the coned ceiling; he had seen plenty of the gamla dream-snares before, though he had never laid eyes on any of the nomads who made them before leaving Mekan.

   “You can’t possibly keep track of everything here. Aren’t you worried about any of this stuff going missing?”

   “I’ve got four guards outside and two in here,” said the figure splayed out on his sea of cushions. “Who’s going to take something? You, sultani? This is the closest thing humans have to a real city, and they’re making the most of it. Anyone with pointed ears would find themselves in a precarious situation should I give so much as a whistle.”

   “That’s quite the influence. You said this was the human’s city, such as it is. What gives you so much authority?”

   “If you want power over people, Captain, you have to have what they want. I have everything. Everything, including the most important commodity of all.”

   “And that is?” he asked impatiently. His head felt light from the kraga smoke.

   “It’s the one thing everyone can use, of course: I have information.”
   His eyes opened to the stars above. A deep breath pulled in through his nostrils and swelled his lungs. He stayed like that for several heartbeats and then pushed himself up into a sitting position.

   Darian Andigar sat on the opposite side of a dying fire. He broke sticks in half between his thick, calloused fingers and tossed the pieces into the smoldering red. His eyes were shadowed. They looked right through him.

    “Does your whole friendly little mercenary band have problems with watching people sleep, or is it just you and Bren?” Korkarin asked.

   “It looked like you weren’t sleeping too good, Captain. ‘scuse me for being concerned.”

   “It’s well. I wasn’t sleeping well.”

   “I was always better with my hands than my words.”

   Korkarin grunted as he pulled himself free from his sleeping roll. Bren still lay prone in her own nearby, back turned to both of them. He could make out her soft snoring. Andigar pointed to her and the unconscious Kolter and put a finger to his lips.

   “Quiet, huh? I don’t remember her being such a light sleeper.”

   “Used to sleep together, did you?” Andigar grinned.

   The captain scowled back. “Not like that. We used to camp when we were younger. Back before…”

   “Before you got a stick lodged?” Andigar laughed and when Korkarin looked fit to snap, he waved the man’s anger down. “I’m just playing, Captain. Bren, she keeps to herself most of the time. She likes to joke around with us guys. She likes to fight occasionally, too. She’s a scrapper, that one. But talk? She prefers everyone else’s stories. She likes to hear about everyone else’s lives, keeps us together that way. When she does talk, though, rare as it is, you usually pop up somewhere in there.”

   Korkarin said nothing to that. He scooted closer to the dimming fire and moved the remains of the rabbits Bren had shot for dinner out of the way. He held his hands over the embers to warm them.

   “I don’t think she mentioned you by name,” Andigar continued. “Or if she did, I missed it. She definitely didn’t say you were a city guard, though she’d drop hints at connections in Mekan. You could tell, though, from what little she did drop that your friendship was something important to her.”

   “You can go to sleep, Darian. I’ll take my shift from here.”

   “Ain’t your shift, Captain. Not for a couple hours yet. Your nightmares woke you early.”

   “Then it’s your lucky day. Take advantage of the extra rest.”

   “I ain’t tired, neither.”

   Andigar leaned into the fire and blew softly, coaxing a little more life into the pit. Korkarin sighed and rubbed at his eyes. The last few dreams he’d had refused to fade away peacefully, and they were making him irritable.

   The first day’s ride had come and gone without incident. The captain had resisted looking back at Mekan when they departed, though his companions had assured him no one was following. That didn’t mean an ambush didn’t still lay ahead, but they were outside of the city now: nothing prohibited his use of daevas out here. He knew the baunkar had a relationship with the spirits as well, and Bren was a capable fighter in her own ways. That should have put him at ease. It did for a while. All it took was one more weird dream to get under his skin.

   “She ain’t, by the way,” Andigar said softly.

   “Huh?” The comment snapped Korkarin back to their cramped little camp.

   “A light sleeper. Bren ain’t one. Us mercs, we’re on the road a lot. We’re in the middle of a fight more often than night. You don’t know when you’re going to be getting your next rest, so when you can nap, you nap hard. The body does the rest. The right word cuts through that, though, pulls them back awake in an instant. I’d tell you what the words are, but…” He nodded over to her sleeping form.

   “Right. Tell me later. What about you? Are there different words for you?”

   Andigar smirked, though the mirth he had shown earlier seemed to have disappeared. He looked down at his hands. “Nah. I ain’t got any words, Captain. I always sleep light as a feather.”

   The fire crackled loudly as an ember found something to feast on. No further words were shared between them.”
   Trome wasn’t remarkable by way of appearance. It was a small village of hundreds, the kind where everyone knew each other. It was good when everyone got along and bad when a feud developed, the latter often leading to someone finding a new little town to start up in.

   The land was mostly barren when riding down from the north or in from the west. To the south and the east, however, the area was dense with rice paddies. Vegetable gardens existed in large quantities, but these were tucked between the boxing homes that made up the village.

   It was the paddy fields that were the most noteworthy thing about Trome, the thing that caught the attention of Mekan’s leader. Rumor had it that they added something to the waters in order to bring out the unique flavors that made their rice so desired. Rumor also had it that herbs and spices were packed into the submerged soil or that daevas were involved somehow. Only the villagers knew the truth behind the secret, and as it was a truth passed down through generation after generation, it was guarded fiercely. Attempts by visitors to find out were blocked at every turn. Even those that had been driven away refused to betray the prized recipe of their ancestors.

   According to all of Korkarin’s sources, though the villagers of Trome were firm in their ways, they were also remarkably friendly. It struck him as odd that as he and his companions rode into the main avenue that cut through the village, not a single sultani came out to greet them.

   Korkarin and Andigar held their reins in one hand and placed their free hands on their weapons. Bren dropped her reins completely and pulled her bow. She nocked an arrow but didn’t draw it back. Her eyes found Korkarin’s and the captain gestured for her to keep an eye on the spaces between the buildings.

   “Hello?” he called. “Citizens of Trome? We come bearing greetings from Mekan!”

   “Tal,” Bren said quietly.

   She left the question unspoken and he acknowledged it the same way, pointing towards one of the houses on the right. Andigar moved to the left with like intention while the captain stayed in the middle of the road. There was no movement either ahead or behind them. There were no sounds.

   Bren hooked her bow over her arm and drew her sword. With her left hand, she tried the door to the home. It was unlocked. Carefully, she pushed it open and leaned inside, leading with the blade’s tip.

   “Anyone home?” she called.

   The living room was empty. A chair lay on the floor with one leg cracked nearly all the way through. Two plates were broken next to it, the food that had been piled atop them, now smeared and rotting across the floorboards. Two other abandoned meals still sat atop the dining room table. A nearby hearth was filled with dark ash, the fuel for the flames having been consumed entirely.

   She stepped carefully through the rest of the house, poking her head into the different rooms. There were no bodies, living or otherwise, though she saw several dried, rust-colored droplets that indicated at least one person hadn’t left easily.

   With little else to go on, she exited the house and closed it behind her. She scratched a small ‘D’ into the frame to mark it as searched in case they were to perform a more thorough inspection through the town. She turned just as Andigar was finishing his own mark. Korkarin looked at her for answers.

   “It’s empty,” she said. “There are signs of a struggle. Some blood, dried. No bodies, though. Whatever happened did so a while ago. The food is spoiled. Several days, maybe as much as a couple weeks.”

   “Same on my end,” Andigar said. “Didn’t see no food or blood, but there are plenty of things smashed all to hell.”

   Korkarin dismounted and drew his own sword. Bren sheathed hers but pulled and armed her bow once more. Andigar held an axe, one side curved with a thick, polished edge. The other side held a stout spike sharpened to a wicked point.

   As one, they moved through the streets. Their mounts followed dutifully behind; they kept the beasts close in case a hasty retreat was necessary. Still, no one came. Still, the only sounds were the scuff off their feet and the soft clop of hooves.

   Andigar pointed out several details as they walked. Smithing hammers dropped away from their anvils. A child’s doll covered in mud at the side of the road. Several deep grooves leading away from the homes, towards the paddies.

   A powerful smell began to assault them as they neared. It was musty and reeked of spoiled meat. The air above the field was thick with flies and weevils, creating a soft roar as they worked at satisfying their insatiable hunger. At the forefront of the crop, a trench had been dug. It was long and deep and the cloud of bugs was thickest in and around it.

   “Stay here,” Korkarin told the others.

   Bren complied, keeping watch. Andigar ignored the order and walked to the pit beside the sultani captain. They both had an idea of what they would find. It didn’t make it any easier to actually see it.

   “Reaper’s breath,” Andigar gasped. A pressure swelled in his chest and pounded behind his eyes. His hands tightened around his axe.

   Bodies were stacked upon bodies, hundreds of them in varying states of decay. Their clothes were torn and soiled, though it was hard to pinpoint which holes had come from weapons and which had ripped open from being dropped in the cold, wet ditch. It didn’t matter what had killed them in the end. The result was the same: far too many bodies, in all shapes and sizes. Bodies that came far too small in some cases.

   “What is it, Tal?”

   “It’s-” His voice cracked. He cleared his throat and turned away. “It’s them. It’s the village.”

   Bren let his words wash over her like a coat of ice. “Even the-”

   “It’s all of them, lass,” Andigar snapped. “Every last one.”

   “By the Ebb,” she said. “Those poor babies.”

   “There isn’t anything that can be done for them now,” Korkarin said. “The paddy field is ruined. Murdering an entire village seems excessive just to keep the grain from the Singer’s mouth. This is a much more serious message.”

   Andigar huffed in frustration. “From who? Saying what?”

   “That’s the question, isn’t it? We’ve still got some light left, so let’s see if we can drum up an idea of what the real goal was. Maybe they left some equipment behind. Maybe we missed some kind of note.”

   “Maybe they ain’t trying to be figured out, Captain,” the baunkar said. “Maybe they didn’t leave no note.”

   “It might be that’s the case. If so, tomorrow we’ll start heading east. Wrane is several day’s travel from here and we’ll want to get there as quickly as possible in case they’re being targeted as well.”

   Korkarin’s horse whinnied and stomped its front hooves. Bren transferred her bow and arrow to one hand and grabbed the mount’s reins in the other. The beast shook its head in dismay.

   “What’s wrong with your horse?” she asked.

   “I’m not sure. Something’s upsetting her.”

    “We’re all upset, Captain,” Andigar pointed out. “There’s a bleedin’ mass grave right there.”

   “No, it’s got to be something else. She only gets upset around…” He narrowed his eyes at Andigar. The baunkar noticed and narrowed his eyes right back.

   “Around what, Korkarin? Your animal has been just fine around me since we set out.”

   “Are you using a daeva right now?”

   “What purpose do I have for-”

   “Be honest with him, Darian,” Bren said.

   “I am being honest with him, blast it. My daeva ain’t exactly-”

   “Then we’re not alone,” Korkarin interrupted. He turned away from the bodies and began to scan the houses he had thought empty.

   Shadows seemed to flicker at the edges of the buildings, in the open space between them. It started back near the entrance to Trome and worked its way closer. The pattern was unpredictable, sometimes moving in a straight row down only to suddenly appear across the street. The faintest outline of a body could be seen in the midst of the swirling darkness.

   Korkarin’s head moved in an almost imperceptible nod. Bren’s arm pulled back swiftly. Her fingers released the bowstring and the arrow flew free into the shadows. A loud curse rang through the air and a single man stepped into sight, one hand half-raised and the other clutching at the thin cut the arrow had sliced into his shoulder.

   “Whoa! Hey, hold on. Hold on, I’m not here for trouble.”

   “Human,” Bren sneered.

   “If you’re not here for trouble, why didn’t you approach in plain sight?” Korkarin asked.

   “Using the shadows is quicker. The page back in Mekan sold me a sick horse. Damn thing died three-quarters of the way here and it’s been hell trying to catch up since. He sighed and muttered, “I knew I should’ve waited for the stablemaster.”

   Andigar stepped forward briskly and slammed the haft of his axe into the center of the man’s chest. The stranger hit the ground with a wheeze and took his hand away from his wound long enough to beg the baunkar off. Andigar’s nostrils flared.

   “Who are you with? Why are you following us?”

   “I’m not with anyone, I swear! As far as I know, I’m the only one who lit out after you.” He glanced around and his forehead creased in confusion. “Where is everyone?”

   “Never mind that,” Korkarin said. “Answer Darian’s question.”

   “I told you, I’m not… look, my name is Mathias Kolter. Frankly, Captain, I’m here because of you. I want to offer my services to you to utilize however you wish in order to best benefit your career.”

   Bren snorted. Korkarin shot her an annoyed look.

   “Bind him,” he said.

   “Wait, that’s not necessary,” Kolter said. “I’m unarmed.”

 “Bind him anyway.” Korkarin shook his head and muttered, “Came after me for a job. Unbelievable.”

   “I can help!” the human protested.

   “Gag him, too. Darian, start searching houses again.”

   Andigar didn’t move until Bren had circled behind Kolter and prepared a coil of rope. The human sighed and placed his hands behind his back.
   Viskar sat with her legs crossed and her tail wrapped around her. Her hands rested on her knees, turned upwards. A thin, milky membrane covered her eyes, enough to keep them moisturized, not enough to keep the light of the candles fully out. Dozens of the waxen objects surrounded her, thin flames dancing with a carelessness that escaped her.

   Gnash. Tear. Crush. Grind.

   She couldn’t feel the heat from the flames. Not through her thick hide. Not with the daeva pressing up against her ribcage. It screamed in her mind. It begged to be released. She promised it would be soon. IN the meantime, all she wanted was a moment of peace.

   Bring them to their knees. Drive them forward. Make them crawl. Make them beg.

   The shrine to the Eroder was simple, a marble pedestal that started slim at the bottom and gradually grew wider as it rose. The powerful daeva’s symbol – a thin crescent laying on its rounded side – was carved into the surface.

   Viskar had always found a greater connection with the Eroder than any of the other major daevas. The Constant was far too passive for her tastes. It didn’t match her vision for the future. Erosion was equally inevitable but far more commanding. It was a force of nature. Something to be respected. Something to be feared.

   Break it away. Waste it away. Wear it away.

   “No,” she whispered through her teeth.

   Hers was a metaphorical erosion. A tearing away of the societal constructs that had kept her people at each other’s throats for hundreds of years. Land disputes and blood feuds. Resource wars and sport killing. Of course none of the other races respected the sobek. Why should they when the sobek tribes didn’t even respect each other.

   Until her. Until Viskar united them and resurrected the title of Nebkha. Her power was unmatched. Her ferocity unrivaled. She would usher in a new era of peace, prosperity and recognition for her race unlike anything that had come before.

   Yet even as she visualized tranquility for the sobek, for her sister Garrix and herself…even as she saw brighter days and bluer skies, she pictured skulls filled with blood and turbulent airs filled with the wails of the dying. She envisioned viscera dripping from her hands.

   Beat them. Bleed them. Slay them.

   The daeva inside her gripped at her heart. It kicked at her stomach. It plucked at every nerve from the base of her neck to the tip of her tail. She took a deep breath and tried to calm it, or at least push it down. Her hands clenched, her nails biting into the skin of her palms. She closed her main eyelids to block out the light, uttered a soft prayer and let her hands open one more.
   In the few hours that remained before the sun tucked in under the horizon, their search yielded few results, none of which were answers. They found peculiarities instead. Many of the homes had fireplaces, but the tools for them were nowhere to be found. Some places had been thoroughly looted while others had jewelry and other valuable strewn about. The crops were ruined in full. The buildings were largely untouched, save for a handful that had had their sidings stripped. There were no messages of intent nor any list of demands. It seemed to them to be mindless slaughter for the sake of it.

   Once darkness fell, the group reconvened and led Kolter and their mounts to a stable they had discovered near the outer edge of town. To their relief, there were no dead animals waiting for them. Whether they had been taken by whoever had laid waste to the village or had managed to escape on their own, they had left the stalls empty. The horses and Andigar’s pony found spaces of their own to relax and some left over grain to feed on. The rest of them bunched into a large stall at the end.

   Bren passed out dried fruit and nuts to Andigar and Korkarin. The latter fixed Mathias Kolter with calculating eyes. Kolter, for his part, had stayed quiet at the mention of a gag, though his arms had grown increasingly comfortable from the long hours of being bound. With tremendous reluctance, Korkarin unfastened the rope around the human’s wrists.

   “Thank you, Tal. Er, Captain, I mean,” Kolter said. He rubbed at the red marks the rope had left. “That feels much better.” He eyed the food with a hungry glint in his eye. “Do you think… you think I could maybe get a bite or two to eat? Just one bite would be fine.”

   “When’s the last time you ate?” Bren asked.

   “I finished off the rest of my bread yesterday afternoon.”

   “Then, no. You’ll live.”

   Andigar smirked and popped a slice of dried peach in his mouth. Kolter scowled at the baunkar in return but knew to argue was to continue a fight he would never win. He opted to change the subject instead.

   “Must we sleep out here? It smells atrocious.”

   “It’s a stable,” Andigar said.

   “I had managed to piece that together via an assortment of context clues, thank you. What I meant to say is that there are several perfectly good, perfectly warm, unoccupied houses we could be using instead.”

   “None of us are sleeping in a dead man’s house,” Korkarin said. “If you’re cold, tuck yourself under some of that hay.”

   “Or we could set him on fire,” Bren suggested.

   “Or we could set you on fire,” Korkarin said to Kolter.

   “It would keep the rest of us warm,” Andigar added.

   The human grumbled, “I prefer myself flameless. I’ll… see what I can do with the hay.”

   “Tal, what are we going to do with this guy?” Bren asked. “We can’t just drag him along with us. He’s a hindrance as it is, and I don’t trust him.”

   Andigar grunted. “We could ki-”

   Korkarin cut him off. “We’re not going to kill him. We’ll leave Mister Drunk and Disorderly here in the morning. For now, the three of us will take up watch shifts, same as usual.”

   Kolter perked up at that. “Hold on, you know who I am?”

   “It took me a bit to place you, but I remember you now. You were the man in the cell when I dropped off that boat thief. If your idea was really to track me down so I would use your services, you had to know that I would take a look at your record sooner or later when we got back to Mekan. What made you think this was actually going to work?”

   “I was only drunk and disorderly! That’s nothing!”

   “Assault was on your charge sheet, too, I recall.”

   “Those charges were dropped,” Kolter said. “I’ve never done anything but get by. Yeah, I’ve made a mistake or two, but you’re going to tell me you’ve never made a mistake in your life?”

   “I’ve never spent time in jail for my mistakes.”

   The human had a sharp retort itching to leap from his tongue, but he held it in check. Bren settled down onto her side and turned so her back faced the group. Andigar frowned in thought.

   “Captain?”

   “Darian.”

   “We don’t have time to take the human back to Mekan if we want to get to Wrane in a timely manner, and he ain’t exactly done a crime worth locking him up for anyway. If we don’t kill him, that means leaving him here. If that’s the case, you might consider how he could interpret, you know… the scene.”

   “What scene?” Kolter asked. The lack of mills? It’s strange, I’ll grant you that, but I wasn’t going to say anything. Besides, I can get you to Wrane more quickly if that’s where you’re going next. There isn’t any need to leave me and even less to kill me. I can help you!”

   Korkarin blinked. “Back up. One thing at a time. What did you say about the mills?”

   “There aren’t any. A village like this, with the rice production they’re famous for, it should have at least one mill constructed. Right? Big metal building? Mekan has some grain mills of their own that you’ve probably seen.”

   “I know what a mill is.”

   “So that’s weird, right?”

   Missing tools, missing siding, missing metal buildings,” Andigar mused. “I think I’m starting to get an idea of what they were after.”

   “Yeah, but the bigger question is who would need it? Who would kill every man, woman and child anywhere just to get it?”

   “There’s someone I know of who might be able to help you,” Kolter said. His face was earnest, his hands open. “If you’re going to Wrane, that’s, what, six days away? I know a path that can get us there in half that. On the way, there’s a merchant I can introduce you to. He knows things. He might be able to give you some answers.”

   “Nonsense,” Andigar scoffed. “There’s no passage to Wrane.”

   “Not directly, no. It cuts through the Serpent’s Spine. You could probably find it if you really looked for it. Really looked. Once you’re in though… you’d be traveling blind.”

   “Why haven’t I heard of it?”

   Kolter grinned. “Because you’re not human.”

   “I wake up every morning grateful for it.”

   “Alright, enough,” Korkarin said. “Get some sleep, Darian. I’ll take first watch. Bren’s already knocked out, so I’ll wake her up for the second.”

   “Should I take third or fourth watch, then?” Kolter asked.

   “Neither. You’re who we’re watching. I don’t trust you, Mathias. My suggestion would be to get some sleep. If you’re going to try and give me a reason to keep you alive and along, you’ll want to be rested.”

   Andigar smirked at the human and settled into the corner. Within moments, he was asleep in a seated position, his head nestled between the walls, his arms resting on splayed legs. Kolter followed suit, pulling hay over himself and muttering about the itchiness.

   Tal Korkarin watched until they had all drifted away and then stood to look out over the door of the stall. His knee popped and he considered that he wasn’t as young as he used to be. The sky above was dark and full of pearls. They cast an eerie light over the dead village, like a pack of ghosts or a funeral shroud.

A Captain’s Duty Part Four

A Captain’s Duty Part Two

This is a continuation of a commissioned piece for a role-playing module. My piece was never picked up, which is fine, because I hated it. You can find part one at A Captain’s Duty Part One

Chapter Two:

Preparations
   The Speckled Dragon was a one-story affair with a sign that slumped off the side of the building. It was likely an easy fix – a screw that needed tightening or a support that needed to be nailed back in – but this wasn’t the kind of place that concerned itself with fixing anything more than a lack of impairment.

   Wood chips covered the floor inside. It was unclear whether this was an intentional aesthetic or a byproduct of years of stragglers shuffling their feet through the door. Lanterns hung from the rafters at random intervals but were few enough in number that the tavern felt hours later in the day than the world outside. It cast an almost sinister glow on the forms hunched over their drinks. The brightest spot inside was a crescent-shaped bar in the back corner. The person tending it – human, in a rare occasion – had a fixed smile on his face, like a devil satisfied with the sins he was selling.

   Sultani and humans sat together in here. Korkarin saw a hariq at a table by himself, red tattooed arms crossed over his chest. A low buzzed passed through the room, two dozen mumbled conversations blurring into one.

   “You lying, cheating scum!” broke the monotony.

   The outburst came from a baunkar who had shot to his feet, so forcefully it sent his chair skittering backwards before ultimately overturning. He stood taller than most maadmi but would only come up to mid-torso on a human or sultani. Thick black hair fell off his head into a braid with several jeweled totems woven into it. A few days’ worth of stubble cast a shadow on his cheeks. His eyes blazed with anger.

   “You said you would give me a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. That was the bargain we both agreed upon, by the Prosperous and the Flow. You won’t welch on me now, boy! I won’t allow it!”

   “Calm down, little guy,” said one of three male humans seated at the table. He looked to his companions and smirked. “I appreciate the work, but I got to thinking about it all afterwards. I couldn’t find it in me to figure out a good reason to pay anything to… what do your people call the unclean? You know. I shouldn’t have to pay a chuta like you.”

   The baunkar’s face went blank. Something dark lurked behind his eyes and he stiffened. The others in tavern turned away for a moment, convinced the insult had been so publicly cutting that it would send the stocky man out the door.

   They couldn’t have been more wrong.

   The air sucked in towards the baunkar and seconds later his arms were wrapped in brilliant ivory bands. His elbows curved out into sharp tusks that glowed every bit as bright. His right forearm crashed down onto the surface of the table, shattering it more or less in half. The man who had insulted him now sputtered surprise as he jolted from his seat and backpedaled. His two friends fell aside, stunned.

   At the door, Korkarin swore and stepped forward, hand slapping down on the pommel of his sword. He made it two steps before Bren grabbed him by the collar and pushed him against one of the support pillars.

   “What the hell?” he asked.

   “Don’t, Tal.”

   “It’s against the law to wield veils within city limits, Bren. Let go of me before he really hurts someone.”

   “You heard what that guy called him.”

   “I could give a damn if some baunkar gets his feelings hurt by a little name-calling. He’s breaking the law. How would it look if I just stood by and watched this after the meeting I just had?”

   Bren tightened her grip and kept him against the pillar. “What that human said is more than just name-calling, Tal. You know that. You don’t just sling that word around.”

   Korkarin stopped and glared at his friend. Behind her, he could make out the baunkar punching the man who taunted him and immediately pivoting to headbutt one of his companions. The patrons that had been eating and drinking around them simply picked up their plates and mugs and made room for the fight.

   “What do you care?” he asked Bren.

   “I care because that’s the guy we’re here to bring along with us.”

   Korkarin froze and shot a look over to the baunkar. He had one hand wrapped the human’s throat, pinning him up against the wall. Korkarin turned back to Bren.

   “No way. Not a chance.”

   Bren scowled. “Don’t be like that, Tal. He’s good people.”

   “You said he had a temper problem. You didn’t say he was unhinged. He’s beating in the faces of restaurant customers in public with an illegal use of veils. I can’t not step in.”

   “Okay. Fine, but will you trust me enough to do this my way?”

   It was Korkarin’s turn to make a face. “I’m sure we can find a middle ground.”
   Darian Andigar was only peripherally aware of what he was doing. He could see the drops of blood flinging away from the man’s lips and nose each time his hand pulled back but he was unable to feel his own knuckles. There should have been some kind of sensation. A throbbing from the impacts. Pain, maybe, from catching the skin of his fingers on the man’s teeth, or a broken bone from landing a punch poorly.

   Instead, there was nothing. His arms glowed white. He recognized the veil. It was one he used often in the thick of battle whenever he was out of the city on a job. But he wasn’t on a job now. He wasn’t even out of the city, was he? So why…

   Something roiled inside his chest and coursed up into his throat and shoulders. His mind drifted to each part of his body. His feet were planted firmly with the left slightly forward in order to center his balance. His ribs heaved with breath. Not the breath of exhaustion, but that of adrenaline. His left hand had moved away from the human’s throat; instead, he crossed the arm across the man’s chest, bracing him against the wall. His right hand had stopped jabbing. It now gripped the man’s chin, forcing it down so the man could look Andigar in the eyes.

   Andigar’s neck was tight with strain and trembled violently as condemnations exploded from him. Heat radiated from his cheeks. His mouth was fixed in a snarl that exposed every one of his crooked teeth. His eyes itched and he looked out from them as one would peer through a window.

   He was angry. Furious, even. The words he yelled were his own, thoughts given liberation, but they contained a hateful fervor that seemed inappropriate. They were words better left unsaid. The thing in his chest twisted down into his stomach and he almost vomited. That sudden shift snapped him back into focus.

   With wide eyes, he stepped back from the man and let him slump to the ground. His arms, tired and sore, dropped to his sides. Unsure, the other two humans he had assaulted moved in to check on their friend. A buzzing in his ears gave way to someone’s shouted voice.

   “Darian Andigar! I say again, step away from those men and drop your veil!”

   The baunkar turned and saw two sultani approaching him. One, he recognized. Bren Dendalion wore a worried expression on her face as she walked towards him. Her hands flicked together in a series of patterns he recognized from reconnaissance duties.

   Relax, friend, she was saying. Cooperate and it will be okay.

   He flicked his eyes to the other one. He was a stern-looking male dressed in red with a Captain’s Crest pinned to his lapel and his hand gripping the hilt of a curved saber. Andigar released the veil around his arms; the ivory hue quickly faded back into nothingness.

   There was no resistance as Bren bound his arms behind him at the wrist. The other sultani checked to make sure none of the humans were seriously maimed or worse, then fished a folded paper from one of his pockets and placed it on the bar.

   “That’s a form requesting formal recompense from the Sultanate for the damages incurred to your establishment during the course of an official investigation. You have fourteen days to file it. On day fifteen, the form expires and the Sultanate will not be held liable for any repairs or compensation to you or this business. You’ll be out of luck. Do you understand?”

   “Uh, yeah…”

   The captain nodded. “Good. Fourteen days.”

   He returned to the baunkar and took one of his arms. Bren took the other and together, they led their prisoner to the exit. Andigar made no eye contact with either of them as he walked. He didn’t raise his head at all.
   The evening air was cool on their faces as they left the tavern, a relief from the musk that had lingered inside. Overhead, the sky was turning from blue to purple, frayed at the edges with reds and oranges as the sun crept down the horizon. Korkarin paid no mind; he was focused on steering the baunkar from behind, one hand gripped tightly around Andigar’s upper left arm.

   “Where are you going, Tal?” Bren asked.

   “Away from the Dragon,” he muttered back. “I’ve got to at least make it look like I’m doing my job.”

   “You might be the only guard who actually worries about keeping up appearances. Look, Darian is a good guy. You don’t have to jerk him around so much.”

   Korkarin said nothing. He pushed Andigar through a group of humans dressed in their finest clothing, ignoring their compliments and shaking his head so they knew that no, he did not have a second to talk about the future or anything else they were selling.

   “Tal,” Bren hissed.

   “What?” Korkarin snapped back. He stopped short, pulling back a little too tightly on the bindings around the baunkar’s wrists. Andigar grunted but said nothing.

   Bren came up close and spoke in a tight tone just loud enough for the other sultani to hear. “Darian is my friend. He has been a trusted friend for several years and I owe him my life several times over. You told me you trusted me, and I led you to him because he’s the one I trust enough to help you, too. Don’t be so rough on him. He came with you without giving you any trouble.”

   “If you hadn’t been there or it hadn’t been us who arrived, he very well could have killed that man. Or multiple men. Even if he hadn’t, unleashing veils in Mekan is illegal for anyone but city guards. Even for us, it’s a last resort.”

   “But it was us who showed up, and he did stop when we told him to.” Bren put her hand on Korkarin’s chest. “Friend to friend, you and me… you know I’m not lying when I tell you Darian is of better use to you by your side when we leave Mekan than he would be in a cell for roughing up some human that had it coming.”

   Korkarin looked down at her hand and then back to her purple eyes. Purple. Only ten percent of sultani had a color other than silver. It had been the topic of the conversation that started their friendship so many years ago. He sighed and felt some of the tension leave him.

   “Alright,” he said with a nod. He nudged Andigar forward. “Up here. We’re going left, down the alley.”

   The passage wasn’t far, nor was it occupied when they entered it. Tal pulled a small knife free from his belt and cut through the baunkar’s bindings. Andigar rubbed at his wrists and turned to face the two sultani. He kept his expression humble.

   “Much appreciated,” he said. “So. You’re a friend of Bren’s?”

   “My oldest friend,” Bren answered instead. “This is Captain Tal Korkarin of Mekan’s, uh, esteemed city guards.”

   Andigar snuffed. “I don’t understand you folks what want to pursue that line of work. You want to get your boots dirty, there’s plenty more freedom in the mercenary life.”

   Korkarin narrowed his eyes. “There wasn’t about to be more freedom. Not for you. It’s only by the grace of my history with Bren that you aren’t in a cell. You travel with her group, so I doubt this is your first time in Mekan. You know what the rules are.”

   The baunkar’s eyes flared for a moment, but the anger failed to take hold and embarrassment rushed to take its place. “Aye, Captain. You’re right. I weren’t myself. I got my demon to wrestle, same as anyone.”

   “If we’re being honest, most do a better job of wrestling it.” Korkarin sized Andigar up. “You don’t much look like the religious type, so I’d say vakla is out.”

   “Then there’s the kamagura, aye. You may know about my culture, Captain, but I’ve a feeling you ain’t know much more than the basics, stuck here in the capital as you are. Killer, priest, worker, or dirt. That’s how the folks back home like to square themselves away as, but it don’t mean much to me anymore. I’m out in the muck and the blood for the coin now, hear?”

   “Alright, boys,” Bren said, stepping between them. “By the Sower, are you done? We breathe the same air, don’t we? If we’re going to be spending a lot of time together, we’re going to have to figure out how to get along.”

   Andigar blinked. “I don’t follow.”

   Korkarin sighed. Bren shushed him. “Tal’s been tasked to look into some missing messengers and delayed shipments.”

   “Shipments of what?”

   “Rice. And, uh…clothes. Some clothing.”

   The baunkar blinked again. “…I still don’t follow, Bren. What part of that concerns me?”

   “It doesn’t,” Korkarin said.

   “Shut up, Tal,” Bren shot back. To Andigar, she said, “After discussing the situation, Tal and I have some theories that this little mission might need a few extra hands. In case something were to happen, you know? If something unexpected were to pop up? You get it.”

   “So get them. He’s a captain, right?”

   Korkarin said nothing.

   “Tal’s method of operation – that being that he follows the law pretty strictly – has left him without a surplus of friends. That’s another reason why sending him alone to investigate feels a little off. I volunteered to go with him on account of our history. I sort of volunteered you, too.”

   “You did what? Why would you do that?”

   “I told him I could trust you to be capable and reliable. We’re short on viable options in that regard. Tal doesn’t have anybody else and all my other friends from growing up are either dead or completely inept. I only know the people in our band and of everyone, you’re the one I put the most stock in.”

   Andigar scowled. “That was a mistake, lass. I’m in it for the money, same as the rest. As I’ve heard no offer from either of you so far, I’m assuming there ain’t none to be had.”

   “There isn’t,” Korkarin said.

   “There you have it, then. Why would I hang my neck out for some sultani I don’t even know?”

   “Because I’ll toss you into a cell if you don’t,” Korkarin muttered under his breath.

   “What was that?”

   “He’s kidding,” Bren said.

   “I’m not kidding.”

   “Don’t listen to him. Darian, please. You know we probably won’t get a good job so soon after getting back. This thing here? It’ll either be completely uneventful and you’ll have a way to kill the time, or maybe something will happen and I’ll need you there. I would like you there.”

   Andigar mulled it over a minute, chewing at the inside of his lip. He glanced over at the captain. “What’s your take on it, then? I ain’t going if you’re going to be hanging a threat over me the entire time.”

   Korkarin shrugged, looked at Bren, looked back at the other man. “I don’t know you, Darian, but your first impression leaves a lot to be desired. Even so, Bren vouches for you. Her word carries a lot of weight with him. I can’t offer you compensation, but if you agree to come… well, I could use an extra pair of eyes.”

   “Hrm.” Andigar rubbed at his temples. “Fine. For Bren, then, for keeping that scene back at the tavern from getting ugly.”

   “Uglier,” she grinned, and they shared a laugh.

   Tal Korkarin swallowed a sigh and checked either end of the alley. A pair of suqur cast curious glances their way as they walked by but said nothing.

   “We need to leave as soon as possible,” the captain said. “Enough time has passed without definitive answers for the Sultanate. The sooner we discover whether or not a threat is present, the better.”

   “Will three people be enough, you think?” Bren asked.

   “It’ll have to be. No offense, but I wouldn’t want to explain why I’ve recruited an entire band of mercenaries to tag along on a mission this important to the Singer.”

   “I can be ready by morning,” Andigar said.

   Korkarin nodded. “Then be so. Bren will collect you in the morning and we’ll depart then. If you can manage a week’s worth of supplies, pack that. If not, or if our sojourn takes longer, the Sultanate will provide for our needs.”

   “In that case, I seem to remember I’ve only three days of goods to bring with me.”

   “Don’t push your luck, Darian,” the captain said.

   Bren pushed past Korkarin and walked Andigar to the end of the alley. She gave him a tight hug. “Thank you,” she said.

   “Your friend’s a real pleasure to be around.”

   “In his defense, you did just almost beat some people to death.”

   Andigar looked at the ground. “Bren…”

   “Shh. I know. Look, don’t let Tal get to you. We’ll get together tomorrow, spend some time on the road. Before long, you two will be friends. He’s just got to get to know you better, and you need to do the same with him. He’s all heart.”

   “I couldn’t give a damn if he likes me, Dendalion. I’m doing this for you. Just see if maybe you can get me some compensation for my time, hmm?”

   She pecked her lips on the top of his head and patted his cheek. “Of course I’ll look after you. I’ll see you in the morning, okay? Get some sleep try not to get into any more fights.”

   Andigar scowled. He looked past her to Tal Korkarin and gave a short nod of respect. The captain returned it and turned away, starting towards the other end of the alley. After a moment, Bren followed. The baunkar watched them go, took a long, deep breath and focused on using it to quell the rage that still, that always burned inside him.

   Sleep, he thought. Right.
   It was tricky for most humans to get anywhere in life without dipping into an unsavory pastime or two at some point. Gambling, thieving, swindling; humans knew how to talk fast and to make that whirlwind proposal sound good. It was either that or spend their whole life on the street. Or worse: if someone couldn’t sell a lie, if they were caught in some kind of con, the consequences could be as severe as exile or some form of dismemberment.

   Getting caught was a dishonest man’s greatest fear. Whether it was by mumble-mouthing a scam or bumbling a pickpocketing or burgling an occupied home, the threat of prison, maiming or death was very real.

   Mathias Kolter wasn’t a dishonest man, though, not exactly. Sure, he knew how to make wool sound like silk and overripe food sound like a healthy alternative to ‘traditional’ diets, but he wasn’t really a liar. Not unless he had to be, which wasn’t always, and that’s what counted.

   He did know liars. He knew thieves. Thieves were the best friends he could have. They were always keen to buy a round or two, even dinner on occasion. They felt compelled to. Too much wealth after fencing a score would begin to look suspicious, so they bled their own coin purses and gained a few new allies in the process.

   Kolter knew the game and how it worked. He would tell a joke, share a story, and after everyone was getting along, he would pass on a juicy tip. Who was an easy mark, which houses were empty while the owners were out of town. He would let him know which areas of the city were being heavily patrolled and which lazy guards were on shift.

   These were honest tips, useful information. After all, getting caught was a dishonest man’s greatest fear and Kolter was a mostly honest man making sure that wouldn’t happen. That made him valuable. It was because of that that he had accrued a number of reliable friends.

   Well, not exactly friends. More like favor-owers. People that were more than happy to cash in their chits by point an arm or dropping a name, whispering a rumor, naming a street. It was a winding, conflicting road that took him most of the day, but he had found Tal Korkarin once again.

   The captain kept curious company. He had seen the man’s attractive friend and their captive baunkar storm out of the Speckled Dragon only to come together like old comrades not long after. He had watched as the three exchanged words, watched them go their separate ways.

   The whole interaction was deeply strange. A sultani hugging a baunkar? Even on its own, it wasn’t a terribly common occurrence in the capital, but coming on the heels of the altercation in the tavern, the whole thing reeked of conspiracy. Tal Korkarin might not be the clean wheel everyone thought he was.

   Kolter just had to know more.
   The sun overhead was dark orange and mocking. The air around him was shimmering from the heat, distorting the weapons that were strewn around haphazardly across the sand. His own sword was sticking out of the ground at an angle, tip down, blade slick with red. Bodies were scattered irregularly; most were still.

   Bren’s face swam in and out of focus. She was on her knees, sitting back on her feet. Her hands were turned upwards, knuckles just touching the ground. She had her head tilted back, eyes on the sky. Andigar was nowhere to be seen, though he may have been one of the bodies. It was hard to tell.

   They were in some kind of canyon with steep walls made of black stone rising up on either side. He was seated uncomfortably on a large, uneven rock, clothes clinging tightly to him with sweat or blood or both. A human sat across from him, back against the canyon wall, legs splayed out before him. He looked vaguely familiar.

   It was so hot. Why was it so hot? He reached for his waterskin and found it lighter than it should have been. He turned it over in his hands, head swimming from dehydration, and found a large puncture wound in the side. The man across from him let out a raspy laugh.

   “What’s so funny?” he demanded.

   “The water. Of all the things that could have been stabbed: your face, your heart, your lungs… you make it through all of that and the most devastating thrust is through the damn water.”

   “I fail to see the humor in that.”

   The human grinned. “Brother, if you want to greet the Reaper with a sour puss, have at it. Me, I’m just hoping the afterlife has some ice.”

   He didn’t answer. He tried to get up instead, but his body refused to respond. Too much pain, too little energy. Not to mention the heat. What he would give for some shade.

   His eyelids were getting heavy. That judging sun was sapping his strength. So, what? He had traveled a long way and worked hard. Who would judge him for a nap? Let them judge. They could take it up with the Sower later.

   He adjusted his position on the rock just a bit to keep the sharper edges from jabbing into spine. His eyes closed. His chin dropped to his chest. Somewhere in the distance, he heard bells…
   Korkarin jerked awake at the feeling of fingers in his hair. Bren smiled faintly from the edge of the bed. She pulled her hands back into her lap.

   “You were having a nightmare.”

   “What… how did you get in here?”

   “Yana has kept the spare key in the same spot for the last twenty years, Tal. Are you okay?”

   Korkarin rubbed at his eyes and sat up. The blankets bunched up at his waist; the breeze coming through the window felt good on his shirtless torso. If he felt uncomfortable being half-naked in front of his friend, he didn’t show it.

   “I’m fine now.”

   “Do you want to talk about the dream?”

   “Not particularly. It was just a bad dream, same as any other. A little bloodier, maybe.” He yawned. “What time is it?”

   “Near dawn. We should pick up Darian soon.”

   “Alright. Did you wake up my mother when you came in?”

   She shook her head. “She was already up. She said she had an idea that you’d be taking off on behalf of the Singer and couldn’t sleep. When I came in, she had already put together half a dozen meals for us to take with us.”

   Korkarin gaped. “Did she say anything to you?”

   “She told me to come check on you. Do you think I would just sneak into your room and watch you sleep without permission?”

   “I mean, kind of. It seems like something you would do.”

   “Heh. Maybe. Blame this one on your mother. She wants grandkids. Anyway, you’re up now, so let’s go. Get dressed.”

   He nodded and waited. When she didn’t get up, he looked at her pointedly.

   “Well?”

   “What?”

   He gestured toward the door. “Do you mind? I need to get dressed.”

   A coy grin played across Bren’s lips. “So get dressed, Tal. We’re all adults here.”
   They walked together in silence, eyes forward as Bren led him to the small inn where most of her fellow mercenaries had chosen to rent out rooms while in Mekan. Their packs were settled comfortably on their shoulders. Lazy birds rode the morning currents across a tangerine sky above them, no doubt looking for the worms proverbially owed them.

   Korkarin glanced at his friend and immediately regretted it. The smug look on her face had been there since leaving the house. It hadn’t changed even remotely, as if her expression had been frozen by way of a daeva. He made a noise of disgust.

   “Something wrong?” she asked.

   “It was cold.”

   “I wasn’t cold.”

   “You might not have been. The room was cold.”

   “Just because you had the window open doesn’t mean it was cold. Maybe it was fear-related. Were you scared?”

   “No, I wasn’t… what would I be scared of?”

   “I don’t know. You just had a nightmare.”

   He scowled at that. Bren’s look of satisfaction finally changed, though to Korkarin’s consternation, it did so by growing brighter. She was needling him on purpose. He reminded himself that being one’s friend for a long period of time didn’t necessarily mean you had to like them for all of it.

   They could make out Andigar up ahead. He stood next to a sturdy, black pony, his pack already tied tightly to the saddle. He was wearing banded mail with flat, heavy metal shoulder plates. His helm was tucked under his arm, a blocky gray thing that looked as if it had been carved from stone. It was ugly and marred by the marks of countless skirmishes.

   “You retrieved your mount already?” Korkarin asked once they had reached him.

   “You told me to be prepared,” the baunkar said. “So I am.”

   “So you are. Forgive us. Bren and I still need to visit the stables and then we’ll head out.”

   “Are you going to tell me where we’re going yet?”

   “We’ve got two villages to travel to,” Bren said. “One to the south and one to the east. The latter will take some time getting to, as there are no routes that we know of traveling directly to it. We’ll head south first, to Trome.”

   Korkarin nodded. “The nature of our journey may seem frivolous to you, Darian, but it is official business handed down from the most important member of my people. I would appreciate it if you treat it as such while we are gone, with the same discretion and seriousness that is expected of me.”

   “You want extra weapons, Korkarin, you’ve already got them. Ain’t my nature to be flappin’ my lips about the business I get up to. Even business I didn’t want any part of to begin with. Do me a favor, though, and keep your racism under the same lock and key, huh?”

   The captain’s eyes widened. “My racism? Listen here, you-”

   “Hey, hold on!” Bren said, stepping between them again.

   “You’re the leader,” Andigar said. “I’m willing to respect that, but most of your people don’t like most of mine. That’s a fact. Some of the things you said last night, some of the looks you threw my way, they still don’t sit right with me. I’ll follow all the orders you want, as long as they come from a place of respect. I ain’t sultani, but I ain’t dirt, either.”

   Korkarin had a half-dozen biting responses fit to burst from his mouth, but a pleading look from Bren made him swallow them down. He nodded and extended his hand. Andigar clasped it with his own and they gave a single, tense shake.

   “Fresh start. Yesterday never happened. I won’t mention any jail cells. We’ll set out today as… as peers.”

   Andigar grinned. “You practically choked on that, but it’s good enough for me.”

   Bren rolled her eyes. “Sower weeps, Tal, how many times are you going to measure that thing today?”

   “What are you talking about?” Andigar asked.

   “She’s not talking about anything,” Korkarin snapped. “Saddle up. We’re already losing daylight.”

   The baunkar smirked and pulled his helm over his head. His thick left leg lifted up and slid into the stirrup. One quick motion pulled him up and onto the back of his mount. The pony let out a soft neigh before clopping along the road. Just behind, the two sultani shared a look. The trip was going to be longer than its days.
   Muscles strained tight under Garrix’s dark green hide as she pulled, bringing the rope fully around yet another pile of logs. Was this her fiftieth bundle today? Her hundredth? She had lost track hours ago, but such things mattered little to her. However tiring the work might be, it was also necessary. That meant it was also rewarding.

   Once the rope had been knotted properly and the logs were sure to stay together, she used both hands to haul them to one of the waiting carts. Another sobek stood in the back, receiving the bundles and arranging them to maximize the storage capacity.

   “Garrix!” someone called. The sobek handed off her load and turned to see who.

   With long strides, Viskar was making her way towards her through the workers, her long, black tail swishing behind her. As the Nebkha, she struck an imposing figure, tall and thickset and covered in scars as she was. It looked as if her left eye was gone, but it was only sunken into the deep gouge that crossed that side of her face. Her vision remained perfect, something many warriors had made the mistake of doubting over the years.

   However, though Viskar’s appearance encouraged fear and though she was perhaps the deadliest fighter their race had ever seen, there was still one more distinction that set her apart: she was Garrix’s blood sister and her closest friend.

   “Well met, Nebkha,” Garrix said, embracing the black sobek.

   “You don’t call me that. You know that.”

   Garrix grinned. “Sister, then. It has been many weeks since I’ve seen you last. I feared something might have happened to you.”

   “If it had, would you have not heard about it?”

   “You have a point there. Where did you travel?”

   “To the lands ahead. I needed to know what will come next so that we might plan more precisely in our favor. I have mapped the terrain and plotted our course. It won’t be straightforward nor will it be easy, but we will not be blind.”

   “Will you be returned for a while, then? At least long enough to share a meal and tell me of the things you saw, I hope. Did you encounter anyone? Were there strange beasts? I long to taste something new.”

   Viskar laughed, a sound not unlike scraping sandpaper. “Patience, Garrix. Of course we will meet and converse. You would be no good as my general if you were never kept informed.”

   “In your absence, I have felt less like a general and more like the carpenter I never wanted to be.”

   “I thank you for that, my friend. It is all necessary, I assure you. The harvesting is going well, then?”

   “Mostly. We have more than enough wood and have secured a generous amount of oil, but we will need more iron and more steel.”

   “In time. Our ally is securing arrangements as we speak.” Viskar clapped the other sobek on the shoulder. “It is truly good to see you, and on such a beautiful day. Enjoy it. Take a break from this work and come meet me at dusk. At dusk, we will discuss the future.”

A Captain’s Duty Part Three

A Captain’s Duty Part Four

A Captain’s Duty Part One

A few years ago, I was suggested via a friend to and commissioned by a representative of Dreamscarred Press to do an original novel set in a brand new campaign world based around a module my friend was working on called Akashic Mysteries. I had helped my friend with a load of flavor text for the module (which I would go on to not be given any credit for, despite my friend’s insistence on my behalf) and had written three novels at the time, and so I seemed like a pretty safe choice. I would write the book, and they would either pick it up or they would sit on it and after a couple years, full rights would revert to me to use how I wanted.

I struggled with it for over a year. I didn’t fully understand the world sandbox I was playing in, and I didn’t really like the material I was putting together. I liked some of the characters, I liked some lines of dialogue and some of the settings I was creating, but for the most part it was a slog I wasn’t particularly proud of.

Eventually I put together 26,000 words of something semi-coherent, and then tapped out. I suggested that instead of a full novel, because the module was going to be released digitally, why not do three separate story sections, released intermittently at a reduced price.

I mean, that wasn’t what they asked for. They didn’t go for it, I didn’t hear anything else about it, I wasn’t given credit for the work I did on the actual module, and I’ve been sitting on this third of a fantasy story for quite some time. So now I’m going to share probably the worst work I’ve done, in four entries. Here’s the first:

Prologue:

Life After Death

   Nobody had ever told her how brightly blood would glitter when pooled under an afternoon sun. It was a startlingly beautiful detail amidst a mile and a half of raw carnage. The clawed footsteps that trailed her wound back amongst the dead and dying. Pained moans from the latter swept past her on a slow summer breeze. She paid them no mind. Her eyes were fixed on the horizon.

   Viskar held her left arm tight against her ribs. Deep gashes had been raked into her by one she had once called friend. They were serious wounds, but survivable. Likewise the nasty cut that crossed down her left brow and into her cheek. For a brief time, blood had crashed into her eye leaving her seeing nothing but red while she fought. She feared she would be blind on that side but after the battle had settled, she found the orb had managed to remain unscathed. The wound would only leave one more ragged scar. Such marks served to illustrate her capacity for survival, her fearlessness as a warrior.

   Ahead, she could make out the Gold Divide. The rich orange sand of the Caravel Desert mixed with the white of the Pearl Dunes. It was where the peace contracts between the sobek tribes were to be discussed and agreed upon. Things had turned out… differently.

   She saw promise in the aftermath of the convergence, however. Despite scores of crumpled torsos and despite the pain that crackled through every inch of her worn body, she envisioned a new age of solidarity. Viskar saw a future for her people and herself; she placed one clawed foot in front of the other to meet it.

   Each step fueled a fire inside her that would burn away the ache and replace it with unquestionable purpose.

Chapter One:

Wanted For Questioning

   There was a sharp clanging sound as Captain Tal Korkarin slammed the criminal’s face against the door of the prison cell. Inside, a man in dark green robes with gold trim cringed. The criminal’s nose began gushing blood and the prisoner scooted to the far side of the cell to avoid it.

   “Who is this?” asked a guard. He glanced up disinterestedly from a stack of papers. He held the tip of a quill against the top sheet.

   “Balos Farren,” Korkarin said. “You’ll find him in the bounty sheets. He’s a ship thief from the Dromys Channel.”

   “Mm. And would you like to collect the bounty for yourself or relinquish it on behalf of the Sultanate?”

   “What do you think?”

   “I have to ask.”

   “I know you do. I’ll take it and I’ll collect it from the bounty house myself after Balos’ identity has been confirmed.” Korkarin unlocked the cell and shoved the bleeding thief inside. The man already occupying the space eyed them both curiously but said nothing.

   “Guarantees proof of deliver that way,” Korkarin finished.

   “Come on, Tal,” the guard said.

   “You come on. If the Singer wanted more bounties turned over for the Sultanate to use, he would pay his agents more which, in turn, would leave them less likely to misplace the rewards. Believe that I’ll be keeping up on what happens with Farren here.”

   The guard grumbled but kept his response low enough that it couldn’t be deciphered. Korkarin locked the cell again and dropped the keys on the guard’s desk. Balos glared balefully at his back.

   “Off to the streets again, then?”

   “No, sir,” Korkarin said. “Dropping that one off was my last act of the day. I’m off to enjoy what evening I have left.”
   Mekan, the capital city of the Sultanate, was a thriving network of commercial interests. There was plenty of opportunity for merchants, smiths, culinary masters, craftsmen, and mercenaries of every race, provided a portion of all profits were given back to the city to use for repairs, maintenance, and expansion.

   Plenty of those funds wound up not being used on any of that. Instead, it was shoved into the pockets of bureaucrats and other city officials. What little was left was spent on frivolous decorations for Mekan: golden capstones for roofs, statue commissions for long-dead heroes whose legacies had been blown wildly out of proportion, elaborate stained glass windows in tax offices and similar buildings that wanted them more than they truly needed them.

   Alaric Thear, the Singer for the Sands and undeniable authority of the Sultanate, said nothing. He sat in his massive estate, taking meetings to address trivial things and seemingly ignoring any matter of circumstance that fell out of his personal interest. The ambivalence and corruption that ran through the sultani government couldn’t have been unknown to the man but he made no move to curb it or – for that matter – mention it at all.

   It was enough to make Tal Korkarin almost dread strapping on his leather armor and pale gold uniform each day. The gold star pin that denoted his position as an agent of the peace was regarded with disdain by his peers and disgust from the populace. He wore it with pride anyway, but it was a battered pride with more than a few cracks.

   Korkarin maneuvered through the streets at a casual pace, the long tail of his coat brushing lightly at the backs of his knees. The smell of spices and cooked meats drifted his way from grills set up on either side of the road. Peppered dune cats from the east, salted bay cattle from the north, several different aviary selections covered in a number of exotic sauces. He ignored the growls from his stomach and stepped lightly through the crowd and around shiftless carriages. A group of maadmi paused their bartering with a human merchant to give him a dirty look. He paid them no mind; there were few of the short, gray people that he trusted and they had long since passed into the next life. 

   A suqur florist beckoned him over with one winged arm. A small canopy over the stand had been erected early on to protect the flowers from the harshness of the sun, but it was pulled back now as the day wound down and the temperature cooled. The hawk-headed merchant waved his hand over a showcase of moon lilies and snake-petals. To the side of the counter several vases had been lined up with more varied bouquets prearranged inside.

   “Look around, Master Guard. I’m sure you can find something to catch your eye. Citrus blossoms for your window sill? Night orchids for your love?”

   Korkarin arched an eyebrow. The flesh at the base of the suqur’s beak stretched up in an embarrassed smile.

   “No lover, then. Apologies. Perhaps some ebon roses for a table arrangement?”

   “When I sit down to eat, I don’t want to feel like I’m at the funeral of the animal on my plate. I will take a half dozen moon lilies, though. Please.”

   “You have an eye for beauty, my sultani friend. I will ready them immediately.”

   Korkarin fished out a handful of coppers to pay for the flowers while the suqur wrapped them up. They bid each other farewell with the captain tucking the lilies loosely under one arm and the merchant resuming his calls for business.

   The road Korkarin walked along eventually forked into two directions. The right led to the Soulspark District where painters and sculptors would congregate to display the wares their inner passions had wrought. Mummers would occasionally put on performances while poets sang their latest masterpieces with great flourishes. The district was likely empty at this hour, with art and artist alike packed up and headed home for the night.

   He went right instead, following the curving path down to a long stretch of houses built along the Pale Dawn River. The river swept through the city under bridges and through a handful of neighborhoods. Daevic enchantments, some of the only few allowed within city limits, had been put in place a thousand years previous to keep the water clear and clean enough to drink. Even so, it was a crime to dump any sort of trash or waste into the river and the handful of unfortunate souls each year who had to have their bodies fished out were treated more with contempt than a sense of tragedy.

   The houses were traditional sultani fare, with squared edges and layers. Boxy things built in white, reds, and shades of cream. Several had porches that extended out towards the Pale Dawn. The very youngest of the homes was still three hundred years old and belonged to a retired art dealer and his wife who would travel up the hill to the Soulspark District twice a week to look for new pieces to hang on their walls.

   Korkarin’s house was an older one, golden yellow when he bought it but repainted powder blue since to help it stand out. It hadn’t come cheap but several areas required repairs, so he had received a deal all the same. More importantly, it was good for his mother’s aching joints to be near the water, so he had cashed in a good chunk of his savings from his years working as the law and signed the papers. The handywork around the house kept him busy in his down time and the sunrise on the water was worth every copper by itself.

   Two wide brass doors opened to the interior. He walked in without knocking and saw his mother across the living room and through a pair of sliding glass doors that led out to the patio. She had her back turned to him and was working diligently at her garden. It was a long box of color, full of flowers of all shapes and sizes.

   No moon lilies, though.

   He tucked the present behind his back, leaned against the door frame and rapped at the glass with his free hand. Yana Korkarin turned quickly, startled. Apprehension quickly turned to something warmer once recognition set in. Her mouth twisted into a grin and she rose from the deck. She wiped her hands on her knees and took her son’s cheeks in her palms.

   “Hello, honey,” she said. Her lips brushed against his forehead lightly.

   “Hello, Mother. I brought you these.”

   He presented her with the lilies. Yana’s eyes widened and she touched her fingers to her lips. She leaned in to smell them. Korkarin handed them to her and she took them gently.

   “What are these for, Tal?”

   “I thought you would like them, is all.”

   “Did something happen on your shift?”

   “What? No. I just thought they looked nice and you would like them.”

   “Are you hurt? What happened?”

   “Mother,” he said, exasperated. “I’m fine. I promise. I can get you nice things without having a brush with death, can’t I?”

   “Alright,” she said haughtily. “I just worry about you, you know. I wish you would do anything else.”

   “What I do paid for the house, remember? Besides, I’m not good at anything else.”

   “You could learn. You’re a smart boy.”

   Yana moved past him into the house to search for a vase to put the lilies in. Korkarin stayed where he was, watching the way the sun played across the surface of the river as it set. Purple streaks shimmered towards him; he smiled back.

   “Someone stopped by for you earlier, Tal,” his mother called from somewhere inside. He guessed the kitchen.

   “Oh? Did they say what they wanted? Did I win anything?”

   “It was a summons.”

   Korkarin narrowed his eyes and stepped back inside. He closed the glass doors behind him. “A summons where?”

   “To the palace. You’re supposed to meet with the Singer for the Sands at dawn.”

   Yana stepped into the living room. She had a green and yellow vase in her hands with the lilies positioned carefully inside. She looked around a moment before setting it atop the mantle over the fireplace.

   “Did they say what the meeting was in regards to?”

   “Have they ever said anything about what you get up to?” He had to concede that they did not. “That’s partly why I wish you would do something else. I don’t like all the secrets and the side-eyes.”

   He sighed. “I know, Mother.”

   “You’re my little boy, Tal.”

   “I haven’t been a boy for a long time, Mother.”

   “Don’t think I don’t know that. You’re still my boy. I just want you to be happy.”

   “I’m not unhappy.”

   Yana tutted. “Not unhappy isn’t happy. You need to find yourself a woman.”

   “Mother.”

   “What? You’re not getting any younger. Maybe if you had a woman in your life, you would find a more fulfilling career. Something safer. Become a carpenter or something. What about Bren? She was always a sweet girl. What has she been up to?”

   “Mother, Bren-” Korkarin stopped, closed his eyes and let out a deep breath. Composure regained, he leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek. “I’ve got to be up for a meeting at dawn, remember? It wouldn’t do for me to show up asleep on my feet in front of the Singer.”

   “No. I suppose it wouldn’t. Alright, go to bed, Tal. We can talk about this tomorrow.”

   I hope not. “Sure thing.”

   He gave her a small, one-armed hug and started for the carpeted staircase that led up to the second floor and his bedroom. He got to the landing before his mother called after him once more.

   “Thank you for the lilies,” she said. “They’re lovely.”

   Tal Korkarin allowed himself a smile. He nodded once and said good night.
***
   The jail cell was dark and quiet. A single lantern hung in the far corner of the holding area, out of reach of the prisoners and illuminating the guards’ desk where the sultani officer – more portly than his race was typically known for – was sound asleep. It was chilly as the cool of the desert night settled into the stone that made up their walls, floor and beds.

   Mathias Kolter settled as deep into his green and gold robes as he could. The cot he sat on was thin and too small for the rocky section that jutted from the wall. It wasn’t his first time in a cell, but it was the first time he had been arrested for getting drunk and slapping a bartender. His discretions weren’t usually so… overt. He had been blowing off steam, spending what few coins he had left after sinking the rest into yet another failed attempt to curry favor in the sultani court. It was to his dismay that he discovered the officials there were corrupt enough to rob him but not enough to look the other way while he throttled a man for watering down his ale.

   All the same, petty assault wasn’t nearly as heinous as ship theft. Boats good enough to navigate the twisted channels that led out to the Three Seas were highly prized, valued in the tens of thousands of golds at least. Whoever Balos Farren was, he had guts. No brains, apparently, but guts aplenty.

   He looked at the man – human, like him – sharing the cramped quarters. He lay on his side on the cot adjacent. His eyes were closed but he wasn’t sleeping. The nose he had broken on the cell bars restricted easy breathing and no doubt hurt like hell. Farren kept making snorting noises from a faced crusted with dried blood. It wasn’t a particularly good look.

   “Balos,” Kolter said softly.

   The man said nothing. A thick, wet rasp rolled out of his throat instead.

   “Balos,” Kolter said again. “I know you’re awake. Might as well talk to me. It’ll keep me from going crazy and might even take your mind off the pain.”

   The ship thief opened one and scowled. “I don’t know you.” His n’s came out as d’s. Kolter resisted the urge to snicker.

   “No. You don’t. But I know you. Balos Farren, right? The infamous master boat lifter?”

   “I ain’t lifted nothing. Don’t you accuse me of that. You don’t know me.”

   Kolter waved the man off. “Oh, stop. Look over there. You see our guard? It would take the Reaper itself to wake him. You don’t need to hide anything from me.”

   Farren sat up slowly and looked over towards the desk. The sultani seated behind it had his head leaned back against the wall. Deep, comfortable snores set his body vibrating. Shadows danced across his face as the lantern flame flickered. The ship thief turned back towards Kolter, pressed a finger gingerly against one nostril and blew hard, shooting bloody mucus across the floor. Kolter flinched and when Farren repeated the gesture with the other side, he flinched again.

   Still, he saw his opening. As the sultani let out another snore, he pushed a veil out towards Farren. It wasn’t a complicated veil nor a particularly strong one. He held it back some, letting it drift towards the other prisoner, less a manipulation and more a friendly… suggestion.

   “Feel better?”

   “No,” Farren said. “But I can breathe a little better. What’ve you heard of me?”

   “Just that if you want to get a quality craft – or the materials from one, anyway – there aren’t many in the business better than you.”

   “Ain’t nobody better than me,” the other man sneered.

   “Maybe not while you were out, but with you locked up I imagine somebody will be coming along with an angle for your reputation.”

   Farren turned his eyes down. “Yeah, well,” he said. There was a sullen tone in his words. “They got a ways to go.”

   “How’d they get you, anyway? A guy as good as you. That’s the real surprise, I think.”

   “It’s that Korkarin. Man’s got a sense to him s’almost unnatural. Almost caught me twice before with his sniffin’ around. I should’ve known better, but the money’s too good in Mekan to pass up.”

   “Too good to be true, more like. Who’s Korkarin?”

   “Tal Korkarin. You ain’t heard of him?” Kolter gave a faint shake of the head. “He’s one of the sultani ain’t taking bribes. A lot of these other guys, you can usually work out some kind of a deal. Korkarin, he don’t budge.

   You beautiful idiot. It was amazing what you could get out of someone just by using a bit of daevic persuasion and faking a little interest. Flattery worked for most. It certainly worked on the dim.

   “He’s important, this guy? I can’t imagine a novice on the straight and narrow would make it very long if the rest of his people were taking a cut.”

  “Yeah, he’s got rank. Captain, I think. Never mind him, though, because you’re right about me. I’ll get out of here, soon as I get a palm to grease. Won’t let them catch me again, I tell ya. This was a, whaddaya call it? A fluke. It’ll sort itself out soon enough, you’ll see. Balos Farren ain’t staying put for long.” The ship thief carefully scrunched his face up in thought. “What’d you say your name was again?”

   “Me?” Kolter laughed and lay back on his cot. “I’m nobody special. Certainly not a man of note like yourself. Me? I’m just a drunk. A drunk with dreams.”
***
   Tal Korkarin’s dreams faded once he woke but whatever they had been left him with an intense feeling of unease. He swung his legs off the side of the bed and rubbed at bleary eyes. The air of early morning filtered through his window and played coolly against his skin. Outside, the sun had not yet crested the horizon but the scarlet slivers over the hills had begun to creep ever upwards.

   He dressed quietly so as not to disturb his mother across the hall. He chose muted red formal wear for the meeting and strapped his sword further back on his hip than he would during a shift. A tight strap was fixed around the guard and through a hook on the scabbard, securing the weapon inside and preventing it from being drawn. It was one of the many safety requirements necessary when addressing the mighty head of the Sultanate.

   A bowl of fruits was positioned next to the front door and Korkarin grabbed an apple to munch on as he walked. The streets of Mekan were much quieter this early in the day, mostly empty except for a handful of merchants trying to get an opportunistic start on the competition. Stores were being constructed, grills and forges heated. Steam rose in ribbons; Korkarin liked the look of it amidst the gradually growing light.

   As he walked, others began to filter into the causeways. Humans positioned themselves strategically, aiming to curry favor with anyone passing by that looked important. Sultani inn-workers woke to relieve their peers of their shifts. A few maadmi made their way to oversee construction repairs on capital buildings, bridges and whatever new city projects they had been approved for. There were even some guards standing around. They looked awfully bored, but Korkarin knew they would be grateful later on that they hadn’t caught a shift with any real work.

   When he reached the Palace, the sentries out front waved him through. He offered to be inspected, to have his peace-knot tested, but they declined.

   “Tal, the day you decide to break the rules is the day a suqur becomes Singer for the Sands.”

   He had rolled his eyes at that, quietly frustrated. The lack of discipline amongst even the supposedly elite guards was frightening. He made a mental note to mention it during the meeting and continued on through the lobby to the receiving area.

   A sky bridge extended out from the palace proper to the beautiful silver and golden dome where the Singer would meet his audiences. The throne room had marble flooring painted in a mosaic commemorating some of the greatest accomplishments of the sultani race and even, Korkarin suspected, a few things that other races should probably have been given the credit for. Doors near the back would lead to servants’ quarters and an expansive home for the leader of the Sultanate. The Singer for the Sands would want for nothing.

   Korkarin knew all this from a past visit and he wasn’t particularly keen to be revisiting the room. It all seemed to be a bit superfluous to him. You didn’t need fancy trappings to earn respect. You needed to know your people.

   The sky bridge was constructed of reinforced glass. The floor was transparent and looked down into an expansive garden full of fountains and resting stations. The walls of the bridge weren’t as thick and rose high up before slanting into a pyramidal roof. When the rays of the sun hit it, the glass gained a pink hue, like a tunnel of quartz.

   Several cushioned chairs and small tables lined either side of the bridge. Korkarin took a seat near the middle and stretched his legs out, crossing them at the ankles. He closed his eyes and tried to conserve energy. The occasional soft footfalls of passing attendants threatened to put him back to sleep.

   His mind wandered to the meeting itself, but thinking did little to put him at ease. What could the Singer want from him? Were his colleagues complaining about his attitude again? Would he be demoted? Worse? A summons of this nature was not a common occurrence and he doubted he had done anything noteworthy recently enough to precipitate a positive meeting. He frowned.

   The frown deepened when he sensed a presence standing near him. He prepared to rise for a respectful greeting, but when he opened his eyes, it wasn’t the Singer’s vizier standing before him. Instead, a familiar woman posed with her weight on the right foot and her smirk slanting upwards on the left. A thin, horizontal scar crossed her left cheek a couple inches below her eye. Her sheathes were empty, as was her quiver, but he knew her to be no less dangerous without weapons. Her dirty blonde hair was tied and tucked back behind her pointed ears; this kept it from distracting away from her deep purple eyes.

   “Bren,” Korkarin said softly.

   She wore a black jerkin over a dark green, long-sleeved shirt. Her breeches were black as well, though he could make out several discolored spots. He looked up at her in alarm.

   “Is that blood?”

   Bren sauntered over to a chair directly across from him and plopped into it. “It’s not mine and it’s not new. The stuff is just difficult to get out of clothes once it gets in and there weren’t many times on the road to give it a shot.”

   “You were on a job?” he asked.

   “Got back this morning. I wanted to see if you were up to grab breakfast, so I swung by your house before changing. Your mother sent me here.”

   Korkarin groaned. “So you talked to my mother.”

   “I did. She looks well.”

   “She is well. Did she-”

   “Mention us getting married?” Bren grinned. “Aye, she did. I told her I’d consider it.”

   “Why do you encourage her?”

   “Because it flusters you, and flustering you amuses me.” She feigned hurt. “What, you don’t think we would be good together? Tal, you wound me.”

   “We’ve never been remotely more than friends. Besides, I’m-”

   “Married to your job.”

   Korkarin scowled. “Preoccupied most of the time.”

   “Oh, come on. You know it’s more than that. You live and breathe being a peace-keeper here. You’re good at it, Tal. You always have been. Certainly better than…” She jerked a thumb towards the entry to the bridge.

   “Yeah, I know. I’m going to say something.”

   Bren smirked. “You see? There’s no room for a woman in your life right now. You’re too busy being amazing at something that matters and irritating the people who aren’t. That’s probably why you’re here: a promotion. Am I right? Am I close?”

   “I suppose we’ll see.”

   “You don’t know? You’ve got to have some kind of idea, surely.”

   “I don’t,” Korkarin said, letting out a long breath. He looked towards the Singer’s throne room and saw a human woman in purple silk robes swishing her way towards them. “I think I’m about to find out, though.”

   “Captain Tal Korkarin?” the vizier asked once she had reached them.

   He stood up and smoothed out his clothes. “That’s me.”

   “The Singer for the Sands will see you now.” She looked over at Bren. “Your companion will have to stay here, I’m afraid.”

   Bren held her hands up and crossed her legs. “Fine with me. As much as I would love to know what got this guy out of bed so early, I’m not really dressed for the occasion.”

   “You don’t have to wait, Bren.”

   His friend grinned back at him. “I’m not going to have breakfast without you. That’s the only reason I haven’t slept yet and I’ve already waited this long.”

   Korkarin twisted his mouth, then nodded. He turned back to the vizier and gestured for her to lead the way. He didn’t look back; he didn’t want to give away that his heart was pounding in his chest. Anxiety wasn’t normally in his nature but extraordinary circumstances often led to abnormal reactions. It was bad enough that the woman could probably read him anyway, daevas or not.

   Two thick mahogany doors led into the throne room with a single bisected bar acting as a door handle. Inside, the marble floor was there with the mosaics still as clean as ever. The doors towards the back looked the same. Something about the room made it feel bigger than he remembered, though. He wondered if the walls had been expanded out further, wondered if that was something that was even possible. Several torches flickered in sconces set high up all around the circular room, enriched by daevas so that they shone a deep scarlet. They heated the room to an almost unbearable temperature.

   In the exact center of the dome was the throne itself, positioned on a podium set five stairs above the floor. It was a lavish seat carved from blackwood and engraved with the likeness of honeyvines. Platinum inlay defined the contours of the furniture and matched the silver cushions fitted for it.

   The elder sultani nestled comfortably within it, wrinkled hands clutching the ends of the armrests and looking no less spectacular. He was dressed in golden finery. A long, loose shirt covered his torso, buttoned up by rubies large enough to pay Korkarin’s wages for at least a year. His breeches were made of the same fabric and came down low enough that no skin showed above his slippers. A crown of emerald rested upon his brow, crafted to resemble the same vines in the throne. He was quite regal, though he appeared mildly bored.

   Korkarin swung his sheath behind him at an angle and took to one knee. The vizier walked past him and took her place at the right side of the steps to the throne. Alaric Thear, Singer for the Sands, leader of the Sultanate and its people, extended a flat hand with the palm up.

   “Rise, Tal Korkarin. We have much to discuss.”

   Slowly, the captain rose. He clasped his hands behind him, at the base of his back. He lifted his chin and looked directly at the Singer.

   “I am at your service, my lord.”

   “Though you may not enjoy it, I hear.”

   He tightened despite himself and he felt a flush creep up his neck. His words were considered carefully before he opened his mouth and even then, he had to clear his throat to speak them.

   “It is an honor to serve as an agent of the peace in Mekan. If you have heard of discontent on my part, it has nothing to do with my duty or with your rule.”

   “But you have concerns.”

   Korkarin hesitated and then nodded. “My colleagues don’t often share the same views that I do where concerns the law. Many of them are lazy. Greedy. Apathetic. Many turn the other way if there is enough money involved or if they’re not working while a crime is being committed. The security in the palace itself is laughable and dangerously so.”

   “Do you think the Singer weak?” the vizier asked. Her casual demeanor from the hallway had disappeared. Condescension was writ in her face now.

   “I would ask that you not put words in my mouth,” Korkarin shot back. He bowed his head respectfully to Thear. “I’m only saying that you are poorly defended by the people you pay to do just that. I can feel the imbuement in this very room. You have an incredible mastery over daevas. Even so, a sultani in your position – esteemed as it is – should not be so haphazardly defended by his own people.”

   The vizier’s eyebrows rose and she cast a sidelong glance at the Singer. Thear said nothing for several beats. Korkarin repeated his own words mentally and wondered if he had misspoken.

   “I have heard, Captain Korkarin, that despite your prickly nature amongst your peers you are an excellent investigator. Your apparent lack of the flaws you accuse others of has reportedly resulted in an impressively high apprehension record. Prominent criminals. Feared underbosses. Infamous fugitives. Do you not fear repercussion? From their allies, perhaps?”

   “I knew the risks when I began this career. I aimed to make the city safer for everybody. Not just myself. I am willing to sacrifice of myself for this city, but I will not sacrifice the integrity of the Sultanate.”

   Thear nodded and lifted his right hand from the armrest. His index finger pressed to his chin as he thought. There was a slight uptick of his lips in what might have been a smile. Something akin to a sudden breeze brought goosebumps to Korkarin’s skin and he recognized it as inquiring daevas.

   “I do not detect dishonesty in your words, Captain.”

   “I find dishonesty to be borderline villainous,” Korkarin said. “Lies, however small, are seldom done with good intentions in mind and even then, it almost always ends in disaster. Mistruths are the enemy of solutions and the mother of greed and rampant ego.

   Thear nodded again. This time he allowed some small expression into his features. Korkarin tried to place it but didn’t dare set his hopes so high as to assume it was admiration.

   “I am…aware that the Sultanate has its problems. I believe that the complacency and lack of compatibility among the peace-keepers has allowed an increase in crime throughout Mekan. I do recognize these things, though you may not choose to believe it. I also recognize that it is more difficult to stem the whims of a criminal than by subjecting them to an overnight scolding, which seems to be a common solution.

   “I admit freely to you – and you alone, this never leaves this room – that I have my own faults as well. I know the things that are said of me. Of the truths, I have a weakness for exotic wares. There are several villages outside of Mekan that cultivate or craft a great many wonderful things. Fabrics, foods, wines. I have an insatiable taste for these. My vizier would term it an addiction, which is precisely the moment I tune out her counsel. I am indeed guilty of that.

   “More than satisfying my base urges, though, these villages provide many goods for the cities of the Sultanate as well. They stimulate the economy and encourage an image of cultural diversity. Their provisions benefit everything the sultani have built over thousands of years, beyond my desire to be the first to own, eat or wear them. 

   “I bring this up because I have received some troubling reports recently, the subject of which has caused me no small degree of irritation. However, I also see opportunity here. I see where your reputation and my desires might walk hand in hand and – if this courtship should prove fruitful – I see your future becoming more profitable. Additionally, I may see fit to put my weight behind your ideas of reform. The changes you seek may be more easily attained than either of us had individually thought possible.”

   Korkarin felt his throat suddenly dry as harshly as the deserts. “If I may be so bold as to ask, my lord, could you please be more specific?”

   The Singer for the Sands sat up straight in his throne. He adjusted his crown with his left hand and looked the younger sultani dead in the eye.

   “I have a task for you, Captain Korkarin, and I believe it would behoove you to accept it.”
***
   Mathias Kolter’s legs hung over the edge of the cot, making it easy for the guard to kick him awake. The man sat up slowly, struggling to come fully awake. It had taken longer than he liked to fall asleep due to the wretched noises Balos Farren croaked out all night. Kolter cast a look over at the ship thief and thought he was dead until another agonizing snore ripped out of him.

   “What did I do? What do you want?” Kolter asked.

   “Get up. You’re out of here.”

   He looked at the guard suspiciously. “What does that mean? Where am I going?”

   “I don’t much care where you go. The bartender you jerked around decided not to press charges. I figure you maybe had a point about him watering his drinks down and he doesn’t want to cause much more of a stir than has already come up. Either way, I need that bed free for a vandal we’re bringing in, so get up.”

   Kolter rose reluctantly. Reluctant not because he was fond of the cramped little cell or the bloody man-shaped war horn he shared it with, but because he hadn’t even a copper to his name. He was exhausted and without any other place to sleep. The thin mattress, uncomfortable as it was, had still been the silver lining to his arrest.

   “Come on!”

   “Alright, alright! Although I hope you didn’t describe that rock as a bed to the next guy.”

   He shuffled out and was escorted upstairs. They passed by a booking area but as he had had no extra possessions beyond the clothes he was wearing and thus had relinquished nothing, he was taken directly to the entrance instead. He turned to the guard to bid farewell but the sultani had already turned back without a word.

   Squinting in the light, he made his way down the steps of the jailhouse and into the streets. Business had already begun and his stomach growled at the decadent sights and smells that greeted him. If he wasn’t going to get any rest, he should at least get himself something to eat.

   Not ten minutes later he found himself in the Listless Fisher, a favorite little tavern of his. Plenty of people passed through with loose tongues and poor gambling habits. The four corner tables always had a game going with the two nearest the bar operating high stakes.

   The sultani behind the bar was cleaning a glass when Kolter walked in. As soon as he saw him, the bartender’s shoulders visibly sagged. He put the glass away and laid the cloth on the counter.

   “Mathias, what are you doing here? I thought you got arrested.”

   “That wasn’t even half a day ago. Word travels fast.”

   “It does amongst bartenders. Don’t even think about touching me. I’ve never watered down my drinks, I never will, and you damn well know that.”

   Kolter snorted and took a seat on a stool at the bar. “When have I ever been anything but cordial to you, Rolf? You’re a good guy who treats his customers right. You’ve always done right by me, to be sure. Last night was a… well, an irregularity. You know me. You know that’s out of character. I was just having an off night and I wound up in the wrong bar and I got served a bad drink. Accidents happen.”

   “Accidents. Yeah. You just slipped and choked a man.”

   “Aye, I did. My back is a mess of knots from the chunk of granite or whatever the hell it was I had to sleep on. I figure that balances the scoreboard.”

   “What do you want, Mathias?” Rolf asked.

   “First thing I need is a drink and a meal. I’m a little short, though, on account of failed ventures, but you know I’m good for it.”

   “I don’t know that. My ledger shows you owing more than you’ve paid.”

   “Does it take into account all the times I’ve helped you preemptively stop a mess or a murder from happening in here? Hold on. One second.” His eyes closed halfway and a tinge of green lit up beneath the lids. He said nothing for a handful of breaths and then slowly turned on the stool. He pointed at a shaggy-haired man at the card table near the door. “There. That fellow is holding something special. The guy across from him suspects it and is just waiting for the right chance to catch him in the act.”

   “You know I don’t like anybody playing with daevas in here,” the bartender hissed.

   “If anyone asks, say I told you I had a hunch. Besides, I’m pretty sure you don’t like anybody cheating at cards in here, either. You probably like someone getting gutted for cheating even less. Just trust me. Check it out. See if it helps keep some of the drinks and maybe some blood from spilling.”

   Silence trickled between them as Rolf fought for a retort. When none came to him, he snatched up his rag and walked over to the gambler. Kolter watched as words were exchanged between them and smirked as the confrontation grew heated. He could imagine the conversation playing out: accusations of the gambler drinking too much, the gambler denying it in return. There would be no talk of the cards in the man’s sleeves; neither wanted it to escalate further than it already had lest the con be revealed and other tempers be ignited. Finally, disgusted, the patron snatched up his winnings and stormed out.

   “That went well,” Kolter said when the bartender returned.

   “Go to hell, Mathias. I don’t know why I even trust what you say.”

   “Because you know what happens to your tavern when you don’t. Now my friend, please, a drink and a meal.”

   The order was met with a scowl but delivered to the kitchen all the same. Kolter was given a stout cherry ale to wet his throat. Not long after came a freshly smoked meal of pork loins and potatoes. He would have been happy with less but he wasn’t about to argue. After every large, warm bite, he would wash it down with alcohol, letting it all settle softly and ease him into the day.

   “It isn’t healthy to drink this early,” the bartender said.

   “Nobody asked you. Although I do have a question.”

   “And so the real purpose of this not-at-all delightful visit comes to light.”

   “Don’t be crude.” Kolter took a long swig, emptying the mug. He set it aside and folded his hands on the counter. “What do you know about Tal Korkarin?”

   “Korkarin.” The bartender scrunched his face up some. “The name sort of rings a bell.”

   “He’s sultani. A city guard. He’s supposed to be a stand-up sort of fellow, the kind that’s a stickler for the rules but capable at his duties. He hasn’t ever come by here?”

   “A guard you say? That narrows it down some. I think I have an idea of who you’re talking about, but if I’m right, the guy’s got rank. What the hell are you doing looking for him?”

   Kolter laughed. “He just seems like the kind of guy I should associate myself with. The kind of guy who’s going places, if you catch my drift.”

   The bartender cocked his head and fixed Kolter with a keen look. “A guy like that, he’s never going to buy whatever it is you’re trying to sell. Mathias, of all the people you have set your eyes on, this one might possibly be the most pointless venture yet.”

   “Easy for you to say. You’ve got the bar. All I’ve got is my ability to read people and based on that, I think I’ve got a good chance.”

   “You don’t say. Have you met the man?”

   “Briefly. Sort of. I know what I’m doing.” Kolter leaned forward. “I need your help, though. So tell me everything you’ve heard about him.”
***
   Bren Dendalion couldn’t tell for sure if Tal had grown more pale since he entered the throne room to speak with Alaric Thear, but he had certainly grown more severe. Worry lines creased his forehead and the edges of his eyes and lips. She could still see the carefree smile of their youth buried deep in his face and wished there weren’t so many layers between that and what faced her.

   “Are you okay?” she asked, standing so they could talk eye to eye.

   “Never better,” he said, not even trying to mask the lie.

   “I take it no promotion was mentioned.”

   Korkarin ran a hand tightly over his face. She could see a slight tremor there but opted to say nothing. He was not the kind to shake easily. More like than not it was the pressure of being in the same room as the most powerful person in the Sultanate.

   “I’m trying to decide if a promotion was put on the table or if this is an elaborate prank by someone too rich to find something better to do.”

   “That bad?” Bren asked.

   “Maybe. I was given a task. One in my wheelhouse, I suppose, but it would take me outside of the city.”

   “You’re worried about how your mother would react to you leaving.”

   “I’m always worried about her, but only because she worries so much about me. There’s more to it, though. Going outside of the city means I’m also going outside of my jurisdiction. I’m a captain in Mekan. That doesn’t carry a lot of weight outside of the city limits.”

   “Well, what’s the task?”

   Korkarin shook his head. “Not here.” He flashed a quick grin. “Nothing works up an appetite more than being reminded how low you rank, and you are far past due for breakfast.”

   Bren smiled and nodded. “I thought you’d never offer.”

   As they crossed back over the bridge, he walked beside her instead of in front. It was an important detail to her, and not the only one. She had also found echoes of their past in his tone. After months of travel and violence and the occasional fear, it was this piece of a better age she had longed for. Her best friend had not yet been so fully lost to duty. It sparked a sense of whimsy in her that implied she wasn’t quite so lost herself.
***
   If the eatery they decided on had a name, neither knew it. It was a quaint little place with half a dozen tables set up and a board posted outside advertising fresh food. That was it. No catchy sign hanging above the door labeling the place. No fancy dressing. It was all they needed.

   They both ordered eggs and potatoes, prepared in different ways. Two glasses of milk were placed on the table to help wash everything down. The jokes came easy to them. Even to Korkarin, who had always been the more serious of the two.

   “So you went out with your group,” he said once they were well into their meal. “Was it dangerous?”

   “It wasn’t the whole group,” Bren replied. “There are eight of us. Half that, including me, went out for this last job. It wasn’t too bad. A month or two back we were hired to recover some stolen goods. We got everything back without any problems, so they gave us a nice offer to stay on for a bit longer, protecting their wares while they traveled around and sold them. It was easy work. We did see some action, but it was always pretty light.”

   “Hence the blood on your clothes.”

   Bren smirked and lifted the milk to her lips. “Hence the blood on my clothes.”

   “Is Gris Palmos still a part of-”

   “Yes,” she replied curtly.

   “Are you two still-”

   “No. He wasn’t on the trip, either.”

   Korkarin apologized. “It’s been a while since we’ve really had a chance to sit and catch up. I… well.”

   “You miss me,” Bren said triumphantly. “As you should.”

   “I miss knowing about your life,” he corrected, though they both knew it was more than that. “You’re my oldest friend. My best friend. The years haven’t exactly been kind to our relationship.”

   “You can always quit the local authority and freelance your heart out with me. It pays better and I’m fantastic company.”

   “That’s debatable,” he said. They both chuckled.

   They took a break in the conversation to finish their meals in silence. They smiled at each other, all the time that had passed since they last saw each other fading away as if it had been mere moments instead.

   Even that feeling had to end at some point.

   “Tell me about it, Tal,” Bren said. “What is this job that Alaric Thear gave to you?”

   Korkarin sighed and looked around the room for a long moment before answering. When he did, he leaned in so only she could hear him. She matched the move, unconcerned with what it made them look like.

   “The Singer for the Sands has tastes for exotic things. Things that aren’t necessarily sultani-made or grown.”

   “That’s not exactly a secret, Tal. It’s hardly even an eccentricity. The streets of Mekan are filled with maadmi contraptions, suqur foods, baunkar armor being sold by hariq. Hell, the humans would put something together if they spent more than half a thought on it. The only difference is that your average sultani doesn’t have the disposable income Thear does to have the exotic stuff imported.”

   “It’s not a secret, no,” Korkarin said. “It’s the beginning of my answer.”

   “Oh,” Bren said, blushing. “Sorry. Continue.”

   “Thank you. As I was saying, the Singer is a fan of his, I guess I would say adventurous, tastes and fashions. So much so that he keeps a fixed eye on them. He wears certain clothes on certain days. He eats certain meals the same way. Liver from a northern valley goat served with western sultani black beans at the beginning of the week, frost-burned artichoke with a rock hen at the end. That sort of thing.”

   “He has a routine that borders on compulsive, is what you’re saying.”

   “Exactly that. He is, as so many are, a creature of habit.”

   Bren caught on. “Something’s disrupted his habit.”

   Korkarin nodded slowly. “Indeed. Sometime last month their stockpile of… some kind of rice that he likes, it ran dry. The Singer sent a missive formally requesting to purchase more. There was no response. He thought perhaps the message got lost. Or the messenger did, as he never came back. There is a theory, also, that the messenger just left. Colleagues of his reported that he had been unhappy with his wages and his treatment by his superiors and was looking for some way to stick it to the Sultanate. As you said, the Singer’s tastes aren’t exactly a secret. The lost communication was written off as either a mistake or a snub intended to keep the rice from the man who loved it enough to buy it in bulk.”

   “But you don’t believe it.”

   “I don’t know what to believe. We’re still on what they had uncovered before ever even bringing me in.”

   “Okay, so… then, what? The first message was either lost, tossed or ignored. Why didn’t they just send another one?”

   Korkarin said nothing.

   “So they did send someone else.”

   “He disappeared, same as the first. Now it’s an issue. Before they can even put much thought to it, though, another stoppage crops up. This village, every season they develop a new line of garments and Thear would get first pick. Those choices stopped showing up. You would think the man has enough outfits but he noticed when he was unable to get any new ones.”

   Bren was quiet as she took in the information. Whatever the reasoning for the disappearances, it most likely was the beginning of something much larger. Political discontent? Signs of an assassination attempt? 

   “So what does he want with you? What does he expect you to do? Shake some folks down for information?”

   Korkarin shook his head. “Something a little bit more thorough. I’m to go out to the villages personally and report back what I find.”

   “You and who?”

   Korkarin said nothing.

   Bren scoffed. “He wants you to go alone? After two disappearances and everything else that has happened so far, I find that foolish, to say the least.”

   “I’m inclined to agree and I said as much. Thear’s vizier granted me the option to pick a small party of people I trust to go with me. It’s just that… well, they mentioned that I had a reputation around Mekan.”

   “For being skilled?”

   Korkarin rolled his eyes. “For being unlikely to be swayed from my duty.”

   “I told you that you’re married to your job,” Bren laughed. “Well, still. That’s a good quality, Tal. It means that they trust you.”

   “Maybe. They may trust me, but I don’t think Alaric Thear and his people necessarily like me. I voiced my concerns about the apparent apathy running through the Sultanate and especially amongst the city guards in Mekan. Tepid would be an optimistic word for the reaction I got.”

   “The Sultanate prospers which means the people in charge get to stay comfortable. I can see how someone with differing ideals might ruffle their feathers.” Bren shifted in her seat. “So what do you think? Is it all a sham? Maybe an ambush?”

   Korkarin shrugged. “That’s a hell of a thought, isn’t it?”

   “But it’s crossed your mind.”

   “I honestly don’t know. Whatever it is, whether it’s a legitimate problem or not, some element of it feels wrong. If it’s not on the level… would they let me pick my own people if they were setting me up to kill me?”

   “Uh, yes. Tal, that’s exactly what they would want to do. Get rid of you and everybody that thinks like you in one fell swoop.”

   To his credit, Korkarin didn’t swear. The thought seemed obvious in hindsight and it ate at him now, adding another layer to the worries that plagued him. He steepled his fingers and pressed them to his lips. His eyes bore holes into the table.

   “Do you think my mother would be in danger, if that turns out to be the case?” he asked softly and Bren’s heart broke a little for him.

   “Tal, look at me.” His eyes rose to hers. There was concern there, but no uncertainty. The man was iron inside. “Now, listen. We don’t know that you’re a target just yet. At least, not by our people. It’s just important that we consider all the possibilities. If you are, they won’t want to call attention to it. A mission is perfect for cover to get rid of you. Picking off your allies at the same time is an even better move. But murdering your family? That would be the most blatantly obvious, unnecessary action to take. If they want you dead, the mission is all they really need.”

   Korkarin nodded absently. He took his hands away from his face and smiled, almost bashfully. “Or it all could be nothing.”

   “Well, it’s got to be something. There are still missing people. Aren’t you supposed to be the investigator?”

   “You know what I mean,” he said. “Nothing about me.”

   “Right. Except that you’re the best man for the job.” Bren patted his hand. “You and those you trust. Do you have any ideas in that regard?”

   “Not even the slightest. There are a few guards I’m friendly with. Some that I’m not but who are good at their jobs. But people I trust?” He shook his head. “I’ve spent a long time in this job, but I learned pretty early on that I would need to rely on myself if I wanted to stick to the law and I’ve kept my head down while I did it.”

   “Surely you can think of someone you trust.”

   “I don’t think so, Bren.”

   “Somebody.”

   Korkarin looked up, frustration on his lips. He saw the way she was looking at him. Eager. A snake coiled to attack.

   “No,” he said.

   “Come on.”

   “I’m not going to ask that of you.”

   “You’re not asking! I’m volunteering. Anything for an old friend. Besides, who can you trust more than me?”

   “My mother, probably.”

   “Oh, aye? And you’re going to saddle her up, are you? Maybe give her your sword, just in case trouble pops up.”

   “You’ve got an obligation already. You have your band of merry freelancers to worry about. This mission, there isn’t even any real pay that I know of. There’s no definitive objective. It could be a deathtrap for me. I don’t want you involved in this.”

   The mirth left Bren’s face. “Tal, you’re my oldest and best friend. I would never let you walk into a dangerous situation without someone guaranteed to have your back. Ever. Now, the band is enjoying some downtime. We got paid fairly handsomely for the last few jobs. As far as future jobs go, well, not every job needs everyone involved. Each one of us does independent work sometimes. They won’t miss or need me and I won’t want for money. You are not going this alone, Tal. That’s not an argument that exists.”

   Korkarin sighed. He took her hands in his own. “I have a love for you, Bren Dendalion. A finer friend could not be asked for.”

   “Oh, shut up,” she said with a smile.

   “So then there were two. A magnificent force for truth and justice.”

   Bren cleared her throat and looked around. “About that. I know a fellow who would be likely to help us, that would bring that number to three. He’s one of my people and there are few I would rather have my back in a cut-them-up. I know where he should be and I’ll gladly take you there to meet him, but there’s just one thing…”
***
   Tall trees lined the mile-long Blue Morning reflecting pool, all trunks but for the elegant green mess near the top. Mathias Kolter sat on a bench, hands clasped between his knees, staring at the still water and the tall sentinels beside it. As sultani, hariq and maadmi passed by him, he thought to himself that Mekan really was a beautiful city, diverse despite the undercurrent of racial intolerance that existed in every greeting given, every transaction made.

   He didn’t care. It was a hard life to be human, but it was the only life he had ever known and he was not without his talents. As it stood, he had a belly full of warm food and drink and a lead on a future. Rolf had agreed to find more information to support what he had already given, and Kolter planned to return for that in a few hours. He could use a bath in the meantime, but he didn’t know how he would pay for it. No matter. Patience was a virtue, not cleanliness.

   Getting information through others seemed to be his best bet, though he still couldn’t help but feel unproductive. He had no idea where he would even start looking. Mekan wasn’t a small place: tens of thousands lived within the city limits, many of them sultani. The fact that Tal Korkarin was a captain of the law narrowed it down some, but he couldn’t just ask around about him. That kind of inquiry tended to raise a few eyebrows, especially when coming from a human. Especially when that human had just spent a night in jail.

   No, it was better to rely on the advantages that came from three decades of trying to eke out a living in the city. There was no shortage of humans stuck in the same position he was in, moving nowhere but sideways through life and occasionally finding themselves on the wrong end of the rules. They were a competitive race for sure, but if a favor granted could lead to a favor received down the line, they weren’t above helping each other out. A tip whispered here, a direction pointed there.

   Korkarin’s name would spark a cautious interest even among his own, but the ne’er-do-wells he knew were more trustworthy than the pointy ears in charge and could probably even drum up more information than his reluctant bartender ally, watered drinks or not. It was a good thing to have reliable friends in Mekan, but it was even better to have reliable information.

   Kolter placed his hands on his thighs and pushed himself up into a standing position. He cast one more glance at the bright and tranquil waters of the reflecting pool and then got back to work.

A Captain’s Duty Part Two

A Captain’s Duty Part Three

A Captain’s Duty Part Four

Whatever’s After

I was given a prompt to write about my perception of any kind of afterlife. This is probably a meandering mess of a thing, but I came up with this:

A golden city with jasper walls. Agates and sapphires, onyx and chrysolite, and whatever jacinth is.

I remember my first taste of Heaven, from under a down comforter in the middle of winter, snowflakes falling through my window with a backdrop sky so black it rang blue. I was young, borderline manic with an active mind, and so I had trouble sleeping. I’d rest my back against a cabinet set up at the head of my bed, one side of a sliding set of doors moved aside where rested a cassette player.

Classical music. That’s what helped me drift off at night. Elegant birds swimming through my mind to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Two lonesome lovers dancing in a dark, empty ballroom to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. A yearlong journey of whimsy and growth through Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The music played at my back, behind my head, through my ears, so gracefully behind the lids of my eyes.

Because of that,because I was such an imaginative child that I pulled things into my dreams, I often found myself also being affected by the books I read. Creepy crawlers terrifying me after the latest Goosebumps novel saw me to bedtime. Magic spells lighting up the sky like fireworks after tearing through whatever fantasy novel I ordered from the school book drive.

So yes, I remember my first taste of Heaven.

Twelve gates of pearl, and streets of gold so clear they may as well be glass. Eternal day that lights the paths of the pure.

My grandmother was a woman of God and wanted to bring me up on a path of righteousness, or – at the very least – general goodness. I was no stranger to prayer, though I struggled at keeping still with closed eyes while someone used their words to speak for me. I worked as a deacon in the church, collecting, counting and cataloging the weekly tithe. Most importantly (to me), I read the Bible nightly. No particular passages, but rather cover to cover (though I would regularly reread the stories that meant the most to me, or that I found particularly compelling). So I remember the winter night I first found myself in the book of Revelations, reading about this New Jerusalem, this city for the chosen loved of God while elsewhere burned a pit of fire. For the unrighteous. For the generally bad.

But in the city, there was no death, no sorrow.  No crying, nor any pain. I dreamed of these things, and this mountain city that was itself a divine temple. I dreamed of the crisp and clear air, and the laughter from within bejeweled walls.

But my fitful sleeping mind would take it further. I dreamed of walking to the cliffside, a dirt path laid out before me, surrounded on either side by snow that gave off no cold. I dreamed of looking down into a deep, green valley, one hand on a singular, twisting tree the rich brown of polished mahogany, capped with leaves of all different colors.

I dreamed that somewhere back behind one of those pearl gates, my always-absent parents were finally always-present and always-patient, waiting for me to return so that we could share just one meal together that didn’t end in yelling.

But I am not dead. And so that taste of Heaven, be it a true and wholesome thing, has yet to reach past the tip of my tongue.

And, undead, I have traveled through these years dipping my fingers into the afterlife whipped cream and licking celestial inevitability from them. I have sampled Sheol and its dead earth, feared the heat of Gehinnom. I have longed for the pleasures awaiting me after my second life and my second death, in olam haba. Or perhaps it would be a seat in the presence of Our Lord and alternatively a great nothingness should I not find the greatness necessary to fill my place beside Him.

In times of pain and anger, I’ve wondered if my struggles would qualify me for a seat in Valhalla should my eternal battle with depression finally trigger an aneurysm. I wondered how lonely the realm of Hel might be if not. Or perhaps it would be the realm of Hades, neglected and unfairly judged brother of Poseidon and Zeus. And after I take that journey across Styx, likely infuriating Charon with questions and observations, would Hades at least allow me the company of Persephone during the long winter months? Not for anything untoward. Just to talk for a while. Just to compare tastes in music. Would Handel be held favorably up to Amphion? Would Chopin be as admired as Orpheus?

These tastes of Heaven and Hell, of Eden and oblivion, of spectral realms and mead-filled halls, these tastes are exotic, they are ancient, they are unclear.

But I am not dead. And so these tastes leave my throat dry and my stomach uncertain of a meal.

Because maybe there is nothing. Maybe my good deeds and my mistakes and my pleasures and my sins will not be held accountable against a feather at the end of my life. Perhaps my heart is in no danger of being consumed by Ammit, forever damning me and barring my escape into the sun-lit fields of Aaru. Maybe my heart is destined only to be consumed by worms and I’m left leaving only memories for those still living behind me.

That would be a shame. That would be a shame, because it means I would have no chance to connect again with you. To see the way your right cheek dimples when you smile, and the way your eyes dart that same direction when you laugh. It would mean I never get to say sorry. It would mean I never get to tell you I love you every day until the very last star shudders one last flicker of light and the very last molecule stops its steady movement, freezing us in a picture we never got to take. One last still-frame before turning the lights off on the universe.

Or maybe we’ll resurrect. Resurrection is an option, too. And I feel I’d be a dung beetle, but maybe I’d turn into a caterpillar and you would be one too, and we could make a cocoon somewhere nice and safe and warm, melt ourselves down into a gooey pile of memories and love, reinvent ourselves as two beautiful butterflies and find each other again. Somewhere without nets. Somewhere without birds.

Maybe that will be our heaven, our Heaven, our Nevaeh (because after reading that Bible cover to cover, I read it back again): a cyclical chance to love and be loved again.

Because I can tell you one thing for sure: I don’t need to have died to know that life here without you is already Hell.

Read in Denver

There are crazy kinds of love. The lava-hot kind of love that steals breath and rubberizes knees. The kind that rushes in like a bullet train and turns common sense into metaphors (just like this). It’s the kind of love that can start at the sight of a sign in the middle of the sidewalk at nearly four in the morning.

You know, Auburn and Gabby’s kind of love.

Read in Denver is the story of small-town, increasingly introverted Auburn Parks, a moderately successful romance novelist who desperately wants to publish science-fiction. It’s the story of Gabriella Baker, an energetic but private artist strick through with wanderlust, searching for her place in the world by taking life day by day. This is the story of two hearts colliding, two minds exciting, that crazy kind of love.

And everything that goes with it.”

About a year ago, I got the idea for Read in Denver while writing an emotional farewell letter to someone I cared deeply about. Around ten months ago, unable to shake it, I set aside the science fiction novel I was working on and set about trying my hand at my first-ever long form love story. I wouldn’t call it a romance, though there are romantic details. It’s more simply just a story about art and love and messiness.

I’ve said to people before that this the most honest piece of fiction I’ve ever put to paper, and so it was difficult for me to push through and finish it. I invested a lot of real things that were said or done, overheard and felt, injecting a fictional narrative with what I hope comes across as authenticity.

I messed with narrative structure. I inserted a couple odd touches and made sure to play with callbacks and mirrors. I put together a soundtrack with and few suggestions but no real directions on how and when to listen to it.

In the end, I’m not sure what I got. Less a book, perhaps, and more an experience. Hopefully a good one.

You can find it for the Nook here: Read in Denver

You can find it for the Kindle here: Read in Denver
Or you can order paperback copies here: Read in Denver
If you decide to take a chance on the book, I genuinely hope you enjoy it. If you enjoy it, I hope you share it with your loved ones. Cheers.

Sun and Moon

​There was Sun and there was Moon. They were lovers, estranged because they had to be, because the universe had rules, and those rules placed a planet between them for all but a few days each year. This was how the universe was meant to be, with celestial bodies knowing their place.

But celestial bodies are bodies like any other, craving closeness and companionship.

For millions of years, Sun and Moon lived for those scant few hours. They spoke of comets kissing and the vastness of space and the glory of eternity. They told each other every time they could that everything felt less empty when they were face to face. Every once in a while, luck would lean in their favor and they would catch a glimpse of each other over the planet that divided them, but it wasn’t quite the same. It was never the same.

Their love was an old one, an ancient one. One that existed before paltry people came up with a vague idea of what love was, let alone a definition that could never live up to the actual thing. For millions of years, Moon loved with a breathlessness that matched his atmosphere. For millions of years, Sun loved with a heat that put her skin to shame.

At some point, they realized that they could be more than their collective existence. They could branch out from themselves – craft a body, an outlet – provided that their love and dedication was pure enough. It would be a risk. A gamble. So they hatched an idea together, as they watched the planet pass between them each day, hoping for a look at each other as Moon did his dedicated circuit around it.

And one night arose that the skies were clear and Moon was exposed fully to the planet. With great effort, a part of him pulled free and formed itself and slid down through the exosphere, the thermosphere, and each layer after, through the troposphere, until his feet touched  earth and he was able to look up to see the night sky from a brand new perspective. There were stars glittering out there, little pearls, pale glass, and none of them could ever measure up to his Sun. But he fell in love with the night all the same. He saw his body, the prison destined to circle the planet, and it glowed and he glowed with pride in seeing it.

And Sun. Sun rode the auroras. She lashed her whip around the shifting greens and purples and slipped down, around the magnetic curve of the world. She settled down and hooked her hand over her eyes as she watched the body she separated from hover in the sky, a constant, a promised heat, a light that flickered and flared with temper.

Sun and Moon had taken the hearts of themselves and infused them with soul and humanity. They left their bodies behind and allowed their love to create something grounded.

Yet.

Yet as accustomed as they were to vast space and the magnificence of the cosmos, they failed to take into consideration that – once they were reduced to a planetary level – the Earth could be a very big place. They did not know where they were, much less where the other was. They were no longer sentinels of the sky. They had become drops in an ocean.

Sun and Moon wandered the Earth aimlessly. They learned things. They loved things. The scent of flowers in bloom. The haunting notes floating from a street saxophonist. A little girl letting a stray kitten drink from her water bottle. A young man paying for the coffee of the elderly woman behind him in line. Sun and Moon learned. Sun and Moon loved.

Sun and Moon were so, so lost.

Sun took up the flute as a hobby, the piping sounds reminding her of the hours just before dawn, when dew still slept on leaves and the stags tread lightly through the forest. Moon took up writing, the obsidian sky beckoning his thoughts, begging them to become new constellations. They played and wrote with broken hearts. Millions of years barely spent together and yet the mere months apart upon taking Earthly form may as well have been forever.

Sun left the home she made for herself one day, left it for a beach, a foreign one, one where her body caressed the water line at night and she could watch herself paint deep colors across the evening wind as the day wound down. She walked across the sand, bare feet, grains between her toes.

That was when she saw him. Moon. Sitting there, just out of reach of the high tide, the waves lapping at his feet, promising to be cool, promising to be clean. Moon was writing poems, poems of love, of longing for the heart behind the body that left him at the end of each day. He had written many and saved them all, but he had been desperate to know where to send them, where to let Sun know he loved her.

Their eyes caught at dusk, across the beach, alone except for the waves, softly crashing, gently coaxing. Sun and Moon, face to face. Then body to body. Finally. Finally.

Celestial.

Infinite.

Eternal.