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Archive for July, 2015

The Palace Guard

The Palace Guard

Taurock put the last stone on his brother’s cairn and wiped the tears from his cheeks. What came next? Someone needed to say the words that would open the Veil and send Eliar on. Taurock had been to hundreds of burials. Why could he not remember the words?

Distant shots rang out, faint and far away. He scanned the ruins for movement. He was ten kinds fool. With the rebel patrols combing the rubble at the edge of the immense molten crater that had been the center of a battlefield only hours before, he was on the verge of being discovered and the opposing forces were not taking prisoners.

He could hardly blame them. The Loyalists had been losing this battle. Taurock, posted on the ridge with his artillery battalion, had watched with growing dismay as the rebels surrounded his generals and took them down one by one. General Far Ranger’s pennant had still been flying when the world turned to fire and light and the fist of god had descended from the heavens to consume them all.

Tauroc was still confused about that. Had it been a Loyalist weapon, saved from the days when the Ancellians still ruled all of human space and the high tech industries of the royal planet were still intact? Or had the rebels discovered some dark piece of magic that they did not understand before they released it upon so many hapless victims?

Whatever had happened, they were incensed by their losses and unable to understand how their ultimate victory had been snatched out of their grasp at the last minute. Now the remaining rebel troops were taking their revenge on the only people available: the last remaining members of a once vast Loyalist army.

Taurock’s battalion had been given no chance to surrender. Eliar had died, a mortar to the back, trying to save his gunnery boy. The round had peeled his powersuit open like a tin can, leaving carnage in its wake. By the time Taurock rolled him over, Eliar’s eyes had already gone glassy.

He should have run, then. But where would he go? This had been a last stand for the Loyalists. Eliar’s blind stare had been an accusation.

You promised, Elair’s ghost had said.

Yes, yes he had.

Taurock had used the power of his suit to lift his brother, still in his own armor,and carry him near a mile to this protected alcove. Laying his brother down gently, he began the task of interring him, stacking the slabs of broken concrete on top of him, placing each stone with the care and skill of a Master Mason to keep the grave robbers at bay.

Taurock put his palm on the top stone.

“Our cause was righteous, little brother,” Taurock whispered. “But the gods are on no one’s side. Hurry. You have far to travel to get to the Hall of Inerod. Greet the God of War for me.”

Something whizzed past his ear and exploded into the wall by his head. Taurock cursed and threw himself to the side. “Seal Up,” he barked. His face shield snapped closed and his suit powered up again.

Warning. Battery is at 2%, the suit intoned. The batteries were powerful but they were not meant to run all out for days on end. Taurock did not have time to wait for it to recharge. Picking up his rifle, he placed a few shots into places that looked like they might hide a sniper before galloping away. Blood trickled down the side of his face and pooled in the collar of his helmet. Shrapnel from the wall. He had not felt it. He had not felt a lot of things lately.

Something large went screaming by overhead. The wall in front of him turned into a hail of shards that pinged off his suit. Taurock veered away. He needed to find cover before they started using the bigger stuff, the stuff that could actually hurt him even through all his armor.

Taurock zigged and zigged again, putting more walls between himself and his pursuers.

Somewhere down an alley between two intact buildings, he stepped on a mine. The ground heaved under his feet and sent him slamming into a wall. The suit groaned in protest as the joints absorbed the energy.

Warning. Battery is critical, the suit said.

“No shiat,” muttered Taurock.

Between one step and the next, the powersuit turned from a weapon into a hundred pounds of dead weight. Taurock cursed and hit the emergency release button on his chest. The suit opened up along its seams and disgorged him. Taurock fell forward, leaving a hollow shell behind. Now it was good only as a target. He was in desperate need of any time it would buy him. Taurock rolled to his feet and raced down the alley, praying that his feet not find any more mines.

The sound of an artillery drone made him snap his head around. Time had just run out. Rounds began hitting the ground with great booming concussions. Taurock dodged to the right. Without the mask of his suit, he was a beacon of body heat. The robotic ship followed him, its thermal sensors tracking his every move, its logic matrix guessing which way he would dodge with unerring accuracy and conveying the coordinates back to a rebel artillery unit.

Taurock stopped and dropped to one knee, his rifle up and trained on the drone. It was an impossible shot and standing still only made him more of a target. Taurock held his breath and pulled the trigger, cursed, and then took aim again. The second shot caught one of the thopter blades and sent the drone careening out control. It slammed into a wall and then fell to the ground.

Another round exploded near Taurock followed by the sound of shrapnel slicing through the air. The gunners had his position locked in now. The next round would find him. Taurock snarled at the sky and dodged again. He heard the high pitched whine of the round just before it hit. With a desperate twist of his body, he threw himself over a low wall, hoping to gain a little bit of cover.

The world turned into light and chaos.

He fell into darkness.

Taurocck woke to find himself in some sort of basement, the ceiling open to the sky above him. He tried to move and caught his breath as the pain came near to blinding him. Gritting his teeth, he rolled over and somehow managed to get to his knees. That was good enough for now. He began to crawl towards the dark corner, hoping to find a spot to hide from prying eyes and thermal sensors.

It took forever to cross the room. He had to rest every five feet or so. The joint in his hip felt funny and the front of his jersey was soaked in blood. Something hot trickled down his left leg.

A deep groan from some hurt creature made Taurock pause. The sound came from the shadows at the end of a long corridor. He was not alone down here.

Taurock crawled to a wall and pulled himself up, gaining his feet at great cost. When the black spots faded from his vision he pulled his long knife from its sheath on his thigh and advanced slowly into the darkness.

Taurock paused. Darkness. He had a solution for that. He patted his jersey and found the wormlight he always kept there. Pulling it out, he shook it hard to anger the bugs inside the glass, then clipped it to his belt. The blue light revealed a corridor lined with boxes. Someone had used them as target practice and now their guts spilled out onto the floor. Drifts of paper made the footing precarious.

The floor ramped down gradually. There were drag marks in the dust. Whatever was down here, it was in no better shape than himself. A hundred paces down the hall a form lay still in a nest of paper.

It was a broken powersuit, now empty. A small body sat propped against the wall nearby. Taurock hobbled past the suit, glancing down at it. It looked like it had gone into hell. The outer casing was seared clean of any markings or rank insignia, the faceplate melted and gone milky from intense heat. The power of a concussion had cracked the armor like an eggshell. This suit had survived the cataclysm that had created the crater.

Taurock did not want to see what had been inside that armor but he kept on hobbling, clinging to the wall for support.

It was just a boy. Young and beardless, his ebony hair shorn close to the head to accommodate the helmet. His eyes were closed but he was still alive. Taurock could hear his breath as it tried to bubble out of fluid-filled lungs.

Taurock unclipped the wormlight and used it to study the rank insignia on the boy’s jersey. He recognized the shoulder patch. Far Ranger’s battalion.

“Boy? Boy? Where is the general? Did he survive?” Taurock asked, touching the boy’s shoulder.

The boy opened his eyes. They were milky white, as white as the melted faceplate. Taurock swore softly. The shockwave of the explosive might have done that. But how did he get here, so far from the epicenter of the battle?

Taurock slid down the wall. He needed to rest. The paper offered no resistance, slipping out from under him. He tried to save himself but ended up falling the last few feet. Pain washed through him, turning his vision black. He passed out.

He woke to the flickering of a golden light. Taurock blinked. The boy had built a witch-light on the end of his fingers but there was a puzzled look on his young face.

“My magic has failed. It is still dark.”

Taurock touched his wrist. “Your magic is fine. It is your eyes that have failed. Let go, boy. Do not tax yourself,” he said gently. “Tell me. Where is the general?”

The boy released the witch-light. It drifted away to hover over their heads up near the ceiling. The young man frowned, as if trying to remember. Taurock waited, content to sit here and not move while his body warned him of all the things that had been torn apart in the last explosion and fall. When the boy finally spoke Taurock had to remember the question he had asked.

“I built a shield around them,” the boy said hoarsely. “I had to draw down the fabric of the world to fuel it. We were holding, there, in its center.” The boy shook his head, trying to understand what his mind could not fathom. “They had an Un-Making globe. Must have stolen it from a powerful wizard. Before they killed them all. Fools.” The boy coughed wetly and then gasped and stopped, forcing his lungs to relax even as he lay drowning.

“Why were they fools? What happened?”

“My shield was the stuff of the universe. I planted its feet in the Dark Mother and drew down the power of the stars. They thought to un-make my magic but they un-made the universe instead. I could feel the planet coming apart under my feet as I dissolved it. The energy released was only a tiny fraction of what was trying to climb though the Veil.” The boy looked up at Taurock with his milky eyes. “Did I stop it in time?”

Taurock thought of the giant molten crater. It would take a day of hiking to cross it. He patted the boy’s hand. “Yes. It’s fine.”

The boy caught at that hand and grasped it.

“I am Red Moon, Assassin. Far Ranger’s guard.”

“Taurock Gar, Sergeant, 3rd Artillery battalion.” Taurock said. “You look too young to be an Assassin.”

“I am older than I look. I smell blood. Are you hurt?” Red Moon asked.

“The rebel’s are sweeping the ruins, killing any Loyalists they find. Their drones can see through walls.”

“Ancient Ancellian technology,” the boy nodded. “They must have salvaged it before they destroyed the factories.”

“Are you a wizard as well as an assassin?” Taurock asked.

“All the wizards are dead,” Red Moon said with a sigh as he closed his blind eyes and let his fingers trail up Taurock’s thigh. There was a strange heat to that touch as it hovered over Taurock’s hip before moving further up.

The boy’s fingers found the wounds in his side and pressed deep.

Taurock threw his head back and tried to breath past the pain. He grabbed the boy’s hand and pushed it away. “Leave me be. Let me join my brother in the Hall of Inerod.”

“The God of War has his hands full with those who have gone before us. Someone must live to tell the tale of this day,” the boy said. He did not cough again but his breath bubbled in his chest. The witch-light cast a warm golden glow on the boys pale skin. His lips were gray from lack of oxygen.

“There was a Gar,” the boy said, dreamily, his milky eyes near to closed, ”who was captain of the Palace Guard the day the Usurper opened the gates and let the king-killers into the inner wards.”

“My great grandfather.” Taurock said. “You know your history. I am impressed. There had been a Gar in the Royal household for ten generations. My father was proud of that. He said that great grandfather held the stairway up to the nursery long enough for the Queen to take the children to the helipad. They say his ghost still hangs in that cursed stairwell, challenging the bureaucrats who have taken residence there.”

The boy laughed breathlessly. It was a bitter sound and contained no humor.

“You do not believe in ghosts?” Taurock asked, wanting to be angry but could not find the energy. It was either getting cold down here or he was going into shock.

“You mistake me, sir. I laugh at the Furies who keep me imprisoned here and will not let me pass through the Veil, despite my injuries. I challenged them for the ownership of the Oneverse and thought that I had bested them. But lo, as punishment they have brought me the one person I would come back from the dead for.”

“Hush, boy,” sighed Turock, shocked at this sacrilege. Death made everyone talk crazy. “If we are to die here, then let us do it with grace.”

The boy fingers reached out and dug deep into the flesh of Taurock’s arm. “Aach, no, we are going to do something far worse. We are going to defy the gods, the rebels, and the Oneverse, and live.”

Taurock wanted to ask what that meant but something akin to vertigo swept through him. He passed out.

It was quiet when next he woke. The sound of the boy’s bubbling breath had ceased. The witch-light still hovered above them, but it was fading. The silence could mean only one thing.

“Ahhh, shiat,” he breathed out sadly, turning his head. The form beside him was still. He took the limp hand resting on his arm, meaning to transfer it to its owner’s lap.

He jerked his fingers away. The hand was as hot as a bake stone left out in the sun all day.

The old warrior sat up and put his hand on the boys cheek. The boy was on fire. Some strange fever had taken hold of him.

Taurock shifted. He had been sure his pelvis had been broken but in that movement he realized he felt no pain. He got to his knees. Everything worked. He lifted his jersey. The shrapnel wounds were gone. Not just healed. Completely gone, without a scar. Taurock touched the side of his face. There were no wounds there either. Even the old scars from a knife wound received months before was gone. The boy was definitely a wizard of some sort. Another impossibility. The rebels had killed all the wizards only last fall.

But something had healed Taurock. He scowled down at the boy. Just like a wizard to throw magic about without asking permission first.

“Boy, what have you done?” Taurock said, shaking the boy by his shoulders in his anger. “I was to go to meet my brother.”

The boy opened his eyes.

A strangled sound came out of Taurock’s throat. The eyes. The eyes were molten, like tiny suns burning inside his skull. The heat rolled off them, singeing the very air. When had the boys lips blushed to crimson? Even as he watched, the blush spread down his chin. Things clicked inside Taurock’s head. The family tales came flooding back. Ten thousand years of service to the Ancellian dragons had left their mark on his childhood.

“You are Ancellian,” Taurock accused. “That is impossible. The Crimson Eyrie is extinct. The Dragon Masters hunted them down and killed them, to the last one.”

“They must have missed one,” Red Moon whispered. “Maybe we should ask them. Oh, no, wait. They are all dead.” the boy laughed only to pinch it off and gasp in pain. “Gods, it took too much to heal you. Leave me be, Taurock of the Gars”

“Why? Why did you do it? I did not ask for your intersession,” Taurock said, lifting the boy away from the wall and laying him gently down in a bed of paper.

“But you saved me. Your great grandfather did, at any rate. You let my mother escape. I owe you.”

Taurock shook his head. “All the bodies have been accounted for. The Queen Mother. The children who escaped with her. Their skulls grace the great hall of the Palace.”

Red Moon cursed. “And yet another thing I must seek retribution for.”

Taurock stared at the crimson lips. Things half remembered floated to the surface of his mind.

“You are female,” he breathed in wonder. “Your lips mark you as a Queen. How is any of this possible?”

The girl stared up at the ceiling, seeing things that were not there.

“She was brooding, my mother,” Red Moon whispered. “Do you think she knew her fate long before the Usurper came knocking? She was Queen. Could she allow her race to be snuffed out? She fled, landing on a god-forsaken human planet long enough to lay the egg that held me, set a guard to keep me safe and then she led her pursuers away. I was hatched already an orphan,”

“That was a thousand years ago,” Taurock said, shaking his head in confusion.

“The Zendally race is not the only long lived race in the universe.”

“Yeah, but our five hundred years does not compare to you.”

“I have heard that we can live to be ten thousand years old. But them none of us have ever lived that long. Being nearly immortal is like having a target painted on your back, apparently.”

“The history of your race is long,” Taurock said sadly.”Longer than human memory. But the rebels have spent the last thousand years erasing the records of your existence.”

“Yes. I am finding that out,” she said, her eye lids closing over those awful eyes. “I know only what I have deduced.”

“I know something of the Crimson Eyrie,” Taurock said. But Red Moon had fallen asleep. Taurock touched the skin on the back of her hand. It was still hot but perhaps not as hot as it had been. She was healing herself. Taurock laid down beside her, careful not to touch her but close enough to shield her from any who might come down the hall seeking the owner of the empty powersuit he had left up in the alley.

He watched her face as she slept. Now that he knew who she was, it was easier to see the fine bones of her face as alien and not just exotic.

“I can teach you. I know a thing or two about your people, Lady,” he whispered. “There has been a Gar in the service of the Crimson Eyrie for a thousand generations. It would make my old da weep with pride to know that I could carry on that tradition.”

As the fire of her healing completed itself, the crimson stain retreated back to her lips and then faded. Soon she looked human. Well, human enough to pass.

Taurock smiled. He had given up hope but the gods had given him this gift.

“Eliar,” Taurock said. “Brother. Perhaps the gods do listen. Here, before me, lies the tool of our vengeance. She will consume those who have transgress against us. I shall send my enemies before me into the Hall of Inerod so that they may bow down before you. May our journey be long and bloody.”

Red Moon, busy negotiating with the Furies, did not hear him but if she had she would have smiled. Bloody, indeed.

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The Cleric

The Cleric

“Is not human history replete with the same story? Of carpetbaggers co-opting the plantations and using rare crystal as spittoons? Of the powerful politicians fresh from the cow barns and mud fields shitting in the fountains of Versailles? Of fundamentalist freedom fighters destroying ten thousand year old statues of a prophet that embodied peace and enlightenment? Of freed slaves eating the talking dogs of Palmetterville despite all their protests that they were not food? Why should we be surprised by this,” Red Moon said.

The soft, unconcerned tone of her voice belied her body language. The little theif was staring down at the delicacies laid out on the great banquet tables, the knuckles of her fist white where she gripped the hilt of her long knife.

Taurock looked down at what little of her face he could see underneath her cleric’s disguise, only her eyes visible between the priest’s cap above and the privacy veil below. “That is Ancellian they have shaved fine and served to us on dragon scales. And an Ancellian child they have boiled alive in its egg. Ancellians. A sentient species considered to be one of the First Circle species,” Taurock reminded her.

Red Moon seemed frozen in place, her eyes on the resplendent and lushly dressed fools who were using their long silver forks to pluck gobs of meat from the neatly cut eggshell.

“Moon,” whispered Taurock, touching the back of her hand.

Red Moon glanced up at him. Her golden eyes burned hot. It was a sign that she was near to the edge of her control. Taurock hissed in dismay. She was getting ready to kill someone. He glanced around, setting the exits in his head and deciding who he would take out first should they need to fight their way clear of this place.

“Find out where the slaughter house is,” Red Moon said, her voice inhumanly serene, her self control almost absolute. Except her eyes. She could not control that.

The thief in priest’s robes turned and made her way across the great ballroom. Taurock went in search of the caterer.

Moon leaned against the wall near the banks of glass doors that led out into the gardens and sucked in the fresh air. Something was blooming out there. It gave the air a sweet smell. Moon set the smell in her mind as a trigger and memorized every face that she could see for future reference in case she decided to come back and kill them.

She had, on purpose, put a half a room between herself and the raw Ancellian served on its bed of ice, the cold making the meat turn a metallic blue. Red Moon could not shake the sight of the egg from her memory. It was more than a sane being could bear.

An impeccably dressed gentleman with a pencil-thin mustache and a cold stare settled near the doors and lit up an expensive looking hash pipe. The smoke that drifted her way smelled of cherries and pine with a hint of something acidic underneath. Whatever he was smoking, it was not hash.

“Jack?” he said politely, as he held out the pipe.

Red Moon shook her head. She did not want to know what jack was. There were far too many dopers and trippers in this city.

“What do you think of our fine circus?” he asked.

“The war has changed much,” Moon said after a moment. “I would fear for the artwork and the crystal but none of these people seem to know their value or show any interest in finding out.”

The man with the hash pipe grunted, nodding as he puffed on his pipe. “It might as well be children’s finger-paintings and cheap glass. Were you here before the Occupation? You hardly seem old enough.”

Red Moon glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. “My gran told me stories of when she was a girl. She was a spit girl in the kitchens. The staff shared all the secrets of the House of the Crimson Eyrie.”

“Yes, well. A hundred years of occupation will change just about anything beyond recognition.”

“Too bad they executed all the Crimson Clan,” Red Moon said with studied carelessness.

“Do you pity the old ruling house?” the man asked smoothly. It was a loaded question meant to entrap. Was he a member of the Inquisition? One could not be too careful in these times when a careless word could put you in the gallows.

“Hnnn,” Moon said with a shrug. “No. Just saying. Could have put them in zoos or the circus. Seems a waste, really.”

The man laughed and turned a dial on his pipe, extinguishing the smoke. “Speaking of circuses. Take a walk down to the lake. Follow the song. You will see something to write home about.”

Red Moon nodded. “Thank you. You are too kind.”

The man laughed again. It was a mirthless laugh. Red Moon watched him saunter away, suddenly convinced that she should have killed him while she had the chance.

“What did he want?” Taurock asked as he watched the slick man leave.

Red Moon managed not to jump. She was used to him popping out of the woodwork like that.. For a big man, Taurock could be singularly silent. Red Moon shrugged. “We were talking about the finer points of art appreciation.”

“He is the head of the secret police. You’d best be more circumspect about who you talk to.”

“Is he?” Red Moon breathed. “That makes what he said all the more interesting.”

“What did he say?”

“He said we need to go visit the circus.”

“That makes no sense. Now I am feeling nervous. Let’s get out of here. I got what you wanted, by the way. An exotic meat market down on the lake front.” Taurock growled, scanning the room.

“Good. We can stop there on the way.” Red Moon said, pushing off from the wall.

“On the way? Where?” asked Taurock.

“We are going to the circus. Did I not say as much?”

The Dao priest and her Zendally bodyguard strolled through the gardens and then slipped out the gate into the lower city. No one commented on their presence nor their absence. The end of the Thousand Year War had brought people of every sort to the capitol city, all of them intent on extracting what wealth they could find as the bones of the old ruling house were picked clean.

Rich houses surrounded the palace, some still showing the scars of war. As they walked down towards the lake, these gave way to luxury apartments and these in turn became high end shops selling all the splendors of the human universe. Somewhere in the chaos of tightly packed shops and sidewalk vendors they picked up a shadow.

“We got a tail,” Taurock said out of the corner of his mouth.

“Small boy in the gold shoes?”

“That’s him,” Taurock said.

“Let’s see if he sticks after the butcher shop,” Red Moon said softly.

The butcher shop was one of those gaudy affairs meant to attract the nouveau riche and the wannabe’s trying to claw their way to the top of the social food chain. There was a small water dragon swimming in a tank behind the counter. Red Moon could not tell what clan it belonged to because it was ill, all its scales faded to gray.

She stopped in the doorway, unable to come any closer.

Taurock approached the counter to talk to the clerk while Red Moon turned to check the street. The boy with the gold shoes was nowhere to be seen. She closed her eyes and tried to build a wall against the misery radiating from the animal in the tank.

The dragon grew quiet. Red Moon turned. It had pressed itself against the glass, its great golden eye fixed on her. It had no sunlight, no fresh air, no clean water. She wondered how it still survived. A being meant to swim the limits of an ocean now coiled around itself in less than three cubic meters of putrid water. Red Moon shuddered as a wave of horror washed over her. She hated herself for feeling this about her own kind. Hated the humans for making her feel this. Hated her small dragon cousin for being so weak. Red Moon snarled silently behind her veil. Hate was for fools. She let her fury rise up inside her, instead, setting it to burn like cold fire in her heart.

The shop owner came out of the back and caught her staring at the thing in the tank.

“Are you interested in dragons? I can get you one. They say they sing when they are happy.”

“Does this one sing?” Red Moon asked, her voice a low purr.

Taurock threw up his head at the sound, his hand going for his sword.

The fool laughed. Taurock flinched, expecting him to die.

“No. This one is worthless. Good only for the table. You have a taste for dragon sashimi?”

Taurock turned. It was a clumsy move that sent him careening into Red Moon. “Ah, sorry. Too much wine at the High Council’s bash, I fear,” Taurock laughed, his fist clamped tight over Red Moon’s hand where it clutched her knife hilt. “Why don’t we go get something to eat? Clear my head.”

Red Moon stared at him coolly, her eyes now incandescent. Taurock pulled her around and threw his massive arm around her shoulders. He laughed as if she had told some droll joke and pulled her out into the sunlight. When they were well away from the butcher shop he let her go. She pulled her knife. Taurock danced away as the tip whistled past his nose.

“Calm down, Red. The bone breakers and head crushers would love to take a crack at us. They do not need any more of an excuse than public brawling.”

“Yes? What do they think of a public execution? That man needs to die.”

“They are ignorant savages. You kill one, a dozen more step up to take his place. Do you plan on purging the entire planet?”

“The thought has crossed my mind,” Red Moon hissed but she slid her weapon back into its sheath all the same.

“By all that is …,” Taurock swore. “I knew this was a bad idea. You are not ever going to find what you are looking for here. It has been over a thousand years. If it wanted finding, it would have been found by now.”

“Do that again,” said a small voice at her elbow.

Red Moon looked down. It was the boy with the gold shoes. He was staring at her like she was a steak and he was a starving dog. He had one blue eye and one gold, and the golden eye burned bright and hot in the sunlight.

Red Moon looked up at Taurock. The giant warrior eased near to see what she was seeing.

“How is that even possible?” Taurock breathed.

Red Moon shook her head. “Where is your father, boy?”

“Don’t got no Ma or Pa. Missy Cilla takes care of me. Do you want to go see her? She will tell you your future for five sou.”

“What?” snorted Taurock. “Five sou for a fortune teller. High robbery. What do you think we are, boy? Outer rim hicks fresh off the ship?”

“You are a Searcher. All the Searchers come to Missy Cilla in the end.”

Taurock’s fist shot out and caught the boy around the throat. “What do you know of our business, you little gutter whore?”

“Nothing, good sir. Nothing.” he squeaked. “But you bleed your need for any who can hear such things.”

Red Moon took the boy away from Taurock. “And you can hear me?” Red Moon asked, touching a finger to the brow above his golden eye.

“Not all the time. But if you know how to listen for it, you can hear the song.”

“Song?”

“Yeah. Like the golden dragons in the lake.”

“There are golden dragons in the lake?” Red Moon breathed out in wonder, tracing a pattern with her finger down the side of his face. The boy’s eyelids drooped in pleasure.

“…. and they sing,” nodded the boy absently.

Red Moon let the privacy veil slip off her face as she bent down to look into his one gold eye. “Do they? How wondrous,” Red Moon whispered against his cheek, her scarlet lips like butterflies on his skin.

“Missy Cilla says I can hear stuff because I am part dragon. How can that be, I wonder? Can a dragon mate with a human?”

“Shall I tell you a secret about dragons?” Red Moon said, sliding her fingers around his skull.

“Yes, please,” the boy said sleepily.

“We can shape-shift.” Red Moon said into his ear as she tasted his flesh and sent a coil of light and shadow down his spine. The boy threw back his head as if to howl but his breath only rattled silently in his throat.

Red Moon let him go and stepped away. The boy with the gold shoes looked up at her with two golden eyes. “Take me to see Missy Cilla, boy,” she said, tossing him a gold eighth.

Catching it adroitly out of the air, the boy grinned at her and darted away.

Red Moon replaced her veil and jogged after. Taurock caught up and settled into a long stride beside her.

“That was not wise,” he growled.

“No.” agreed Red Moon.

“People will wonder why. He will tell them about you.”

“He is a clever boy. He will figure it out before that happens.”

“You risk too much. And for what? A memory of a brother lost at the beginning of the war?”

“I have family somewhere. The boy proves it.”

“It only proves that ten thousand years ago your great grandda couldn’t keep his pants buttoned.”

“Crude,” Red Moon sniffed. “I mean to find what I am looking for.”

The boy darted down a dim alley and stopped in front of a storefront with a picture of a hand outlined in neon in the front window. A woman, dressed in be-ribboned skirts, lacy shawls, and ten pounds of cheap jewelry, stood in front of the door, calling out to the passing crowd.

“Really?” sighed Taurock in resignation.

“I will initiate this meeting. Just follow my lead.”

The boy said something and the woman studied his eyes before looking up as the duo approached. She stared at Red Moon in wonder before remembering herself. Shaking back the bangles on her wrists, she threw her hands wide. “Seekers,” she cried loudly. “Come to Missy Cilla for advice. Let me be your guide.”

“I would rather my business with you be private, good woman,” Red Moon said.

“Your money is no good, here, Priest. I cannot help you find God,” Cilla proclaimed. The boy giggled and ran away. People in the crowd laughed.

“I would buy the boy from you,” Red Moon said, following his path through the crowd with her eyes.

“Ach,” cried Cilla, “A priest is a priest no matter what the religion. Are you a molester of boys, then, Father?” Some of the crowd laughed but some muttered in outraged.

“By the sacred Tree, you are going to get us killed,” growled Taurock softly as he grabbed Red Moon and shoved her into the woman’s storefront shop.

“Never fear, I shall get to the bottom of this,” Cilla yelled to the crowd. Great gales of laughter follower her as she sailed into the shop and closed the door. “Sorry about the theater. I did not want to give them a hint to your true nature,” she said, steering them into the back room.

A young girl was busy measuring out powders into an array of tiny bottles.

“Ilene, watch the front while I read for these fine gentlemen.”

The girl wiped her hands, giving Red Moon a lascivious once over before strolling out, her hips swaying like a ship at sea. Cilla snorted, amused. “She got no sense of the underworld, that one, otherwise she would be setting her sights on your friend and not you. I only keep her around ’cause she looks good behind the counter.”

Red Moon raised an eyebrow and then shrugged, pulling the priest’s cap and the veil from her head, and ruffling her long, ebony hair with her fingers. Her lips had faded but their was just enough of a lingering blush to mark her as part of the Crimson Eyrie.

Cilla grunted, nodding and then settled into one of the chairs that surrounded a round table covered in a purple cloth embroidered with gold thread. Red Moon sat across from her. Taurock stationed himself behind his friend, his eyes sweeping the room. his fist on the hilt of his long knife. Cilla watched him for a moment and then let her eyes settle on Red Moon.

Red was busy studying the cloth. “Do you read Ancellian, then?” Red Moon asked.

“Aach,” said Cilla. “No one reads Ancellian anymore, nor have they for nigh on a hundred years. I copied those symbols off the walls of a temple ruin before the High Council had it razed. Bloody waste, that. But I don’t need to ask how you recognize these runes, do I, Highness?”

“There is no throne nor throne room in which to put it, lady,” Red Moon said. “You can call me Priest. It is closer to the truth. Or you can call me Red Moon, for that is my name.”

“It is not what your mother would have named you, had she lived long enough to do so.”

The woman knew things or just guessed over much. Red Moon leaned across the table, her eyes hard and glittering. “No more games. What do you know of my quest?”

“The boy said you seek family.”

“The boy is part Ancellian. Sell his contract to me.”

Cilla shook her head. “I found him in the trash when he was but hours old. He is mine. More son to me than cousin to you. He is happy here. Leave him be. What little power he has will not keep him safe in your company but with me, his gift is of use. If it is a lost relation to keep you company in the long, lonely nights, go down to the circus. The golden ones do not have a serious bone anywhere in their bodies but there is a dark soul hidden in the mountain. You will find what you need there.”

Red Moon waved her hand as if to shoo away the woman’s annoying words. “Ancellians should be raised by Ancellians. The boy should know his people.”

Cilla slammed her palm down on the table. “They are extinct, your people. What would it serve to teach him something that would only get him killed? He is mine. Leave be.”

Red Moon glared at her. Cilla sighed and shook her head. She dug a deck of cards out of her pocket. “Come. Let us complete this charade. I will tell your fortune and you will leave and no one will be the wiser. You are a Seeker. The boy said as much. Whom do you seek?”

“A boy. Well, he was a boy when I was but a babe.”

Cilla held out her hand. Red Moon blinked, not understanding the gesture.

Taurock swore and slapped a fiver-note into her hand. The money disappeared into one of Cilla’s pockets. She nodded and shuffled the well-worn deck. Without any other preamble she dealt the cards in a pattern Red Moon did not recognize. Cilla studied the spread and then scooped the cards up again only to repeat the process twice more. The fortune teller gathered the cards up one last time and put them in her pocket.

“Well?” Red Moon asked.

“Well, I am beginning to understand why it was necessary to kill you all, down to the last babe. Hell, I heard that they even killed your servants.”

Red Moon sucked the air in around the darkness that threatened to turn her blind. Taurock clamped his huge hand on her shoulder, the pain giving her focus. She blinked back the rage and was surprised that Cilla still walked among the living.

“Watch your mouth, witch,” Taurock rumbled.

Red Moon held up a finger to silence him.

Cilla stared at Red Moon as if she was only just now seeing her.

“Ancellians. Terrible are your rages but devastating is your grief. One should never wound the heart of an Ancellian, they used to say. I did not understand that until now. They broke your heart one too many times so you sucked the light out of the world and turned it into ice. For how long? Ten thousand years? A hundred thousand? What was the name of that planet?”

“I am ghost ridden by past lives,” Red Moon said serenely. “You confuse me with someone who does not exist anymore.”

“Yes? Just so. What of this life? It is said the High Council ordered the Ancellians wiped from existence and when it was finally done those great men went mad. A convenient madness if one were to look at it from an Ancellian point of view.”

“I am looking for any who might have survived as I have.” Red Moon said, trying to divert her attention.

“A hundred years ago, the High Council declared a great holiday and invited all the wizards to the capitol to be rewarded with money, titles, and land. The doors of the hall were sealed and hot, boiling oil was poured in through the ceiling vents. Then they threw in torches and lit the oil. Any wizard or sorceress who was not part of that genocide went into hiding and ceased all practice of magic. Most of the magic passed out of the world that night. There are no Dragon Masters anymore. Hell, those who call themselves witches are barely that. Is it you I must thank for that?” The witch could barely hid her rage.

“He was in that room,” Red Moon said softly. “The Dragon Master who turned me to stone and made me watch my husband and children die. I could not even scream and when I was free there was nothing for me to bury. I stood on the roof of that room and listened to him die. It was not enough. I have lost the taste for revenge.”

Taurock snorted. He did not believe it, either.

Cilla stared at her coldly. “Go. What you seek is hidden under the mountain.” The mystic rose and held open the door.

Red Moon had no choice but to leave. Once again, Red Moon and Taurock found themselves out on the bright street, Moon’s disguise back in place.

“That was a waste of five sou. Now what?” Taurock asked.

“I promised you a circus. Come on then,” she said, stalking down the street towards the lake, her rage bleeding out into the broken stone and making the world shudder at her passing. Taurock grimaced, loosened his weapons in their sheaths, and followed.

It cost them twenty sou to get into the circus. Red Moon ignored the diversions along the way, passing through them as if they did not exist. The singing drew her on, down to the lake’s edge where someone had built an amphitheater, the stone seats carved out of the bedrock of the shore, each rank of seats stepping down to the next right down to the very water’s edge.

Red Moon found a seat on the very highest rank and studied the things frolicking joyously in the sun-dappled waves. Golden water dragons. It was hard to count how many, their long, bright bodies coiling in a playful dance above and below the surface.

Their song was beautiful, if you were human with human ears. If you were Ancellian, the super-sonic and sub-sonic ranges told a dark tale of pain and loss and suffering. The bright tones were the tones of hope. Red Moon snarled at the foolishness of that emotion. What hope had these creatures? Even from Red Moon’s vantage, the steel mesh net that held them in this cove was visible, though there had been an attempt to disguise it behind walls of cheaply painted canvas depicting wild scenes of oceans and verdant islands and snow covered mountains. Someone had run a pipe up to the height of one of the mountain paintings so that the painted stream actually spouted a cascade of water.

Red Moon sat and listened to the singing as the sun crossed the brilliant blue sky. Taurock went in search of food and came back with spicy sausage rolls and a fermented fruit drink. Red Moon turned her head away. Taurock shrugged and ate his meal and then hers for good measure.

“What did she say?” Red Moon asked as the sun sank low in the sky.

“Who?”

“Missy Cilla. A mountain.”

“What you seek is under the mountain,” Taurock said, nibbling on a plate of fritters.

Red Moon rose and shook out her priest’s robes. “Up for a climb?”

Taurock looked around. “Climb what?”

Red Moon nodded at the five story scaffolding that held the mountain scene. “That.”

Taurock froze and let his eyes scan the surrounds. “I do not see any security.”

“There is none. Have you not heard? They won the war.”

“More fools, they,” grunted Taurock, putting down his food.

“Precisely,” Red Moon said, strolling down the promenade that ran along the top of the amphitheater. Taurock followed, studying the scaffolding.

“Are you sure that will hold my weight?”

“It holds up things a thousand times weighty than you, my friend,” Red Moon said.

They made their way to the base of the painting and when no eyes were turned their way, they slipped behind it. Divesting herself of her disguise and all her weapons save for the handful of throwing knives secreted about her underclothes, Red Moon began to climb. Taurock stripped down to his loin cloth, put a long knife between his teeth and followed her.

There was a room at the very top. A glorified pump room, the machines that pulled the water up out of the lake thumping loudly. The door was not even locked. It swung open soundlessly, revealing a windowless darkness.

“This is embarrassing,” snorted Taurock in disgust. “Where are the thieves and the villains of the world, to keep these people on their toes?”

“They are the thieves and the villains,” Red Moon observed. “There is nothing to guard against any more.”

She held up her hand and let a witch-light grow off the ends of her fingers. Holding it up high, she searched the room. Back behind the thumping machines and the power relay boxes and the racks of tools and spare parts she found a stack of wooden packing cases.

“My life for a crowbar,” Taurock said, trying to pry the lid off one.

“Step away. Get behind something,” Red Moon said, sending the witch-light high overhead so that she could free up both hands. Taurock dived behind the pump and peeked around it.

“Try not to kill yourself, please,” he said.

Red Moon held her hand over the box as her eyes began to burn and her lips turned scarlet. The screech of metal parting company with wood was all the warning Taurock needed. He crouched low and covered his head with his arms. Not a second later, the nails and screws in every packing case whipped across the room and attached themselves to the metal machines. She had just magnetized every piece of metal within twenty paces, half of them positive and the other half negative. He had seen that trick of hers before but it never failed to impress.

The pump gave a chunk and thump and then it ground to a halt, its guts full of shrapnel.

“Whatever you plan on doing, do it fast,” yelled Taurock as he rolled clear of the dying machine. “They will send up a crew to fix this and I’d rather not be here, if you don’t mind.”

“Help me,” Red Moon hissed impatiently as she tossed pieces of packing crate aside.

“Statues?” Taurock asked, clearing the rubble of one box. “Stone idols? We risked our lives for massive stone idols? I am going to have a hard time getting these down the scaffolding. You might have picked something smaller to steal.” Tauroc leaned in closer as the witch-light glittered off the stone. “Holy shit.” He looked up at his Master Thief. “Did you know they were carved from semi-precious stones? This one here is jade. That one looks to be ruby. The one on the end is surely one great big solid emerald. Maybe we can break off a small chunk. Get enough to pay for passage off this cursed planet.”

Red Moon ignored him. Instead she placed her palm on the first idol. After a moment, she grimaced and moved on to the next one. She tried all the lesser stones and approached the ruby idol last. When her hand touched the stone, the witch-light flickered and blinked out.

“Red Moon?” Taurock whispered tentatively into the dark when she did not renew the light.

“What?”

“Is this what you have been looking for all this time?”

“No,” she said softly. Taurock caught the faint glow of something out of the corner of his eye. Was the ruby idol glowing? “But it will do,” she purred. The stone grew brighter and hotter. Taurock began to sweat. “Stay behind me, Tau,” Red Moon whispered sharply.

Taurock did not need to be told twice. He put her between himself and all that heat. The stone began to morph and shift. The eye of the idol began to burn gold and incandescent. A great serpent head formed around that eye and the serpent uncoiled and lifted its massive head.

“Old Mother,” Red Moon said to the ruby serpent.

The snake opened its mouth and a scarlet forked tongue slithered out, tasting the air. “Daughter,” hissed the snake. Its eyes found Taurock. “I hunger.”

Taurock tried to shrink his height below Red Moon’s head without any success.

“Do not eat this one,” Red Moon said. “He is old and mean and will give you heart-burn. I have a gift for you. Look beyond this room. The city is a smorgasbord laid out for your pleasure. I have killed all the wizards and the wielders of magic. Our enemies now lie defenseless. If you move quickly you will be able to eat your fill before they wake and flee.”

The great snake lifted its head and swung it from side to side as if sniffing the air. “Good eats. Join me, daughter.”

“I will. But I must rescue the rest of our brethren, first.”

The snake uncoiled and slithered towards the door. The floor creaked ominously under its weight.

“Oh. You are brilliant. I love you,” crowed Taurock in admiration. “While the snake creates havoc, we steal into the Palace and pocket the Crown Jewels.”

“There is no such thing.”

“Then some of that priceless art just laying around ripe for the picking.”

“Not yet. I have a pool full of golden dragons to set free. Then I must kill a butcher.”

“Alright,” nodded Taurock. “I am not greedy. After that, can we steal something amazing so I can have something to boast about when I return home to my wives?”

Red Moon smiled. “Sure. Why not?”

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