The New Thunder, Chapter 20

New to the series? Start at the beginning!

Year 47 AR


As they bore closer to Trouperde and encountered no signs of life, the three of them had silently gravitated toward a shared apprehension of what they would find when they got there. Now, here they were, and what stood before them was no longer a village, but the site of a massacre.

The small town consisted of about twenty houses, or what was left of them, circling the edge of a man-made clearing. The homes had not merely been breached, they had been torn asunder, rent open and had their insides turned out into the clearing, as if to showcase the people that had been pulled from them. Even the air was vile, not quite the sting of wet rot, but a stagnant decay that parted with its odor only after she had breathed it in.

Blankets, clothes and upholstery mingled with shattered pottery and utensils across the jagged edges of the broken walls and windows. They had been meant to keep them safe, now they were lined by wooden teeth capped with crusty browned testimonies of the people that had been dragged through the gaping holes. As she walked among the wreckage, Auri saw that the walls and dirt were riddled with tracks. They were gouges so deep that they looked recent, despite the sickeningly stale smell telling her that the site was over a week old. Not human, not animal,  they were not like anything she had seen before.

No matter how savage wild animals could be, while their teeth and claws were part of them, they were not the point of them. The thing that had left these grooves in the ground, and the gouges in the walls of the buildings, was a far simpler and more alien creature. Its prints looked as though its proportions had been inverted – all claw and all teeth, even more than the massive weight could have possibly justified. A thing made to kill and nothing more.

“No,” Basia’s voice came through in a breathless whisper behind her. It sounded like he had come to the same conclusion. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck…”

She hadn’t heard this timbre from him before, and the moment she spent parsing it for what it was cost her the chance to confront him about it. As he pulled back from them and into the thicket around the village, stomping off outside the line of houses and muttering to himself. He was afraid. She could smell it, even over the nauseating tang that permeated the air, and it was infectious. She resented him then, leaving her a fading trail of expletives as the same restless dread came over her, and she had nowhere to go.

“What do you think happened?” Talem’s voice pulled her back into the present.

“We were too late.” The words hurt to say, weighed down with the knowledge of how comfortable their pace had been. If she had known she would have run the whole way.

“We’re here now,” came the reply, and she latched onto it.

As Talem began to move along the inside of the perimeter, she fell into step behind him. Crusty brown stains of dried blood were everywhere, and the sick odour grew so thick she could feel it stick to her skin. They found bodies in the first house they checked, but the state of them made it difficult to say anything about who they had been. They couldn’t even tell how many of them there were, because the state of the remains left so few whole pieces, and because the pieces that did remain varied so much in size. They were spread about the walls of the cabin, scattered as if though had been discarded for some other purpose.

“Children,” Talem said quietly, hunching down next to one of the piles of human debris. “These were children.”

“It took their heads.” She tried to take a walk around the room to avoid lingering on any one spot for too long, but new details wouldn’t stop coming at her, and before long she ended up having to step away from the building entirely to avoid throwing up.

“Not just the heads.” Talem’s words came out in terse, haunted breaths as he followed her out. “It… cored them.”

The central space of the village hadn’t fared any better than the buildings that surrounded it. While there were no more bodies, it was still a site of decay. It had been set up with tables and chairs, and crowned by makeshift wool banners suspended from tall poles. Most of the tables had been upturned or simply smashed, but the ones that still stood carried wooden plates and chalices stained by traces of food and wine that the local wildlife had long since taken care of. The banners were sagging where they weren’t torn, but they still managed to emphasize the two racks that sat near the middle of the circle they made, which were holding what remained of two goat carcasses. They had clearly gone foul before any of the local wildlife had a chance to get at them, and by the looks of things, before any of the villagers had too.

“I think it was some sort of appeasement. Those racks look sacrificial, and no one has touched the meat. I guess whatever it was they were trying to mollify, it didn’t work.”

“Where do we even start?” She found the idea of having to sift through each house, each scene repugnant. At the same time she knew she needed to do something, to stop being a witness and act.

“There’s something over there.” Talem was pointing at a house just like all the others. The fact that she couldn’t make it out for herself made the approach feel more daunting, filling her with an irrational fear that what did this might be hiding just around the corner. There was something absurd about that. They were the cavalry, and here she was, aching to act yet frightened at the prospect of actually finding what they were after.

Stepping over the shattered threshold of a door that only went up to her knee, she saw that there had been three rooms. On one side was the bedroom, promising another scene like what they had found in the last house. She went the other way so she wouldn’t have to see it again, and was rewarded with a moment of relief as she came across something new.

“Talem come see this.” She waved him over and shunted his wondering look over with a nod. In front of her was a large round hole in the floor, and inside it a cleanly severed section of ironwood. “Does this look familiar to you?”

“You were right,” he said, nudging the piece of log with one of his feet. “Some kind of swapper, then? I guess the poor bastard made a bad switch. What the fuck kind of creature does something like this?”

“I believe it was a fiend.” Basia’s voice chimed in from behind them, making both of them jump. “One of the Adversary’s creatures. A reaper.”

“What did it do to them?” Shaking his head, Talem was just about to give the piece of ironwood a firm kick, when Basia’s voice made him freeze.

“It collected them.”

“Wait,” Auri cut in, giving Basia a shocked stare. “Glaivians? One of the Adversary’s fiends did this? That’s not possible, not this far from the front.”

“Reality does not agree with you. Follow me. I have found something else.”

Basia lead them to a cabin outside the circle of the village proper, a building that stood out for several reasons. The most obvious was its location, outside of the main circle that composed the hamlet proper, and unlike every other building it had two floors. It was torn open like the rest, but rather than speak of home and family, its spaces were covered in wreaths and bundled herbs, bottles of all shapes and sizes, only some of which had been smashed in the breach. The ground floor had a small bedroom and a big pantry, most of which had been scavenged by the scrounging critters of the surrounding woods. This was the abode of a wise woman or medicine man of some kind, even Auri knew enough about traditional cures to see that much.

Access to the second floor by way of the stairs had been cut off, but not by the same carnage that had gutted the other buildings. Instead it was sheared off in the same clean lines as the chunk of ironwood from before. That meant they had to climb in order to ascend. Despite the heavy damage to the house’s exterior, however, once they got upstairs they found that the room itself was more or less pristine. Whatever had smashed its way outside through the walls and doorway had left this part of the house alone. Stranger still, the single bed inside the room wasn’t empty. The monster had left someone behind.

He was tucked into several layers of blankets and quilts, so all that protruded was a chubby face that had turned blue from exposure. It held a peaceful expression that looked completely out of place with what had happened to the rest of the village. She found it difficult to make sense of, and somehow more unsettling than the gore they had already seen. This one was whole enough to still be a person. More than that, he had been right where it had all started, and yet not only was he seemingly untouched; the creature had avoided his room altogether.

“What is he doing here?”

“He may have already been dead when the monster showed up,” Talem offered.

“I don’t think so. The body is much too fresh. This child died recently. There is another possibility, however. Remember the tree?” Both her and Talem nodded at him as he managed to get one of the covers loose, and reached into the bundle. As soon as he found what he was looking for, and pulled out a small, pale foot. As he turned it over, she saw that there was an imprint of a bony, long-fingered hand wrapped around its ankle, puffy and discolored, like burns caused by a terrible cold.

“Shit,” said Talem, for the both of them. “Those fucking things are real!?”

“Yes,” Basia let go of the foot and rubbed his hands on his clothes, making an uneasy frown. “There is only one explanation. A fiend did this.”

“How can you be so sure?” Auri was uncomfortable with the amount of conjectures that were going over her head, and being faced with just how much more experienced both of her companions were. They were eliminating implications that she had not even considered, and it made her feel like a child.

“Fiends stay clear of Osa. It would be wary of the lost sister that had latched onto the boy. The same does not make sense if the sorcerer we are after did this themselves.”

“That was an option?”

“Everything is an option until we have proven otherwise. Now we have a different problem.”

“How do we track someone who can instantly cross large distances,” Talem said, running a hand through his hair as he thought out loud. “I can try. The swapped locations do stand out, but I can’t see past the horizon. We’ll have to get close.”

“That is not all.” Basia shook his head, his sour expression furrowing further. “We can’t assume the sorcerer and the Fiend are both in the same place. That means we now have two targets.”

“Wouldn’t the fiend have done to them what it did to the rest of the village?”

“No. A mere fiend can’t subvert a sorcerer. Even a Glavian could not do such a thing. Only the Adversary.”

“Then we have to split up.” Auri hated the idea as soon as she said it, but there was no other way forward, and she wanted to contribute. “Talem can track the sorcerer. The two of us can deal with the fiend.”

Basia glanced at her and opened his mouth to speak, then shut it again. His eyes lingered until they had transitioned into a hard stare, and when he finally spoke again she felt as though she had been weighed and somehow found wanting.

“No,” he said, and there was something in his voice she couldn’t quite place. A dour sort of determination. “We cannot. You and Talem will go after the young sorcerer. I will go after the fiend. I have hunted these beasts before.”

“That’s a bad idea.” Auri looked at Talem for support, but he avoided meeting her gaze. “This thing is dangerous, Basia. You shouldn’t go alone.”

“You should not go at all,” Basia snapped. “If I had known there was a Fiend, I would have gone alone. I would have been here sooner. I will not make things worse by making you face it. You will find the young sorcerer, and I… I will do what needs to be done.”

“But you did,” Auri said, her restlessness and bitterness merging into a sudden fury in order to get the better of her. “You did put me here. I have been facing it, and now you won’t let me do anything about it. You want to send me off to safety, but I’m not scared, I’m angry! We were too late, and I need to help make it right.”

“That is why you can’t come with me.” Rather than be upset by her words, Basia had managed to find his composure. It infuriated her, but he did not give her any space to reply. “They are still alive, Auri, still living this moment inside the fiend. There will be no heroism, no closure there. It is just a funeral.”

There was no way he could have known what his words would do to her. She flinched as if he had jabbed at her with a knife, backed off until she struck a wall and sliding down against it. It was as though he had opened a door, and all the conclusions that had been flying past her before landed like slaps. Their target had discovered their sorcerous truth just like she had, and like clockwork, the gift had hurt everyone they loved. Meanwhile Auri had taken her time, loitering her way here like she was going camping, confident that she would show Basia how it was done. As if he had been the reason it had all gone wrong, as if he hadn’t showed up after the fact. The truth was, it had never been his fault, it was hers. She was the one who had to make amends, and just like him, she had been too late.

“You want to make it right,” Basia crouched down by her side, hovering a hand near her shoulder in an aborted gesture of support. “Find the one we are after and take them home.”


The New Thunder, Chapter 19

New to the series? Start at the beginning!

Year 60 AR

Sinan was an abrupt change of scenery from the scattered  destitution of the rag road. The city was tall, consisting mostly of three-story stone buildings in a mix of sandstone with streaks and details of dark granite and shale. A great deal of thought had gone into their crafting, and each building’s faces bore large glyphs, house emblems and other heraldry of significance to their builders, sometimes going centuries back. While its official moniker was the city of wells, many knew it as the city of masons. The thin topsoil that crusted the rocky fundament of northern Dema meant there were no forests, but ample supplies of rock and clay.

Because trees would not grow here on their own, making them grow anyway had become a symbol of status. Even the most paltry properties offered at least some kind of greenery, and the more exotic they were the better. In the more prosperous parts of the city, closer to the Ducal palace, buildings were more scattered in favor of open spaces and blooming gardens. It was through such a neighbourhood that Zarie was currently pushing Iri along in his new wheelchair, on their way to the bazaars of the main street that wound a single spiralling loop around the entire city.

“Is it not very strange,” Zarie mused, “How the people here cultivate such gardens not because they belong here, but because they do not?”

“I think it strange that all the men here wear those ostentatious codpieces, Zarie. I have to admit I stopped questioning their choices after that revelation. Any man who puts that much color on his crotch knows neither fear nor reason.”

“I believe the men are not the ones in charge in Dema,” she stated matter-of-factly, “only women may own property here.”

“I know Deman women are powerful, but it seems a stretch to think it extends all the way into men’s clothing. Particularly their, you know… Sub-inguinal fashion.”

“Does it?” Zarie asked with a condescending chuckle. “Here the women are austere, and the men on display with their codpieces and long stockings, tight hosen and nominal shirts. It is the opposite in Artan: Dour men in boring garb, and women in wonderfully impractical skirts and dresses.”

“I suppose that may have some truth to it, but I never saw any women wearing cups back in Astia. This seems a bit much.”

“I think perhaps my sir may have been looking in the wrong place. Women do not have that much down there to cup, so I believe my sir would have to look up from his books for the analogy to work. What else could be the point of a corset?”

“Well, still,” Iri fought the urge to adjust his britches, suddenly very aware of how the wheelchair was making them climb up. “I can’t imagine I’d ever accept such a thing, regardless of who was allowed to own what. A man must be in charge of his own groin, I say.”

“I do not believe that is ever the case, here or anywhere else,” Zarie said with a mockingly sweet tone. “Perhaps the main difference is that in this place the loins are relegated to mere middle management.”

Iri snorted and threw a glance back at her to catch a well hidden smile, before he squared himself and cleared his throat. “You seem very cavalier about this, Zarie, but honestly I find the entire affair a bit off-putting.”

“My sir is equally cavalier about Artani customs. Perhaps it is wiser to admit that, from a Broshan point of view, they are both quite strange.”

“Well you just said that men think with their crotches in Broce, too.”

“Yes, well, truth does not wait on political expedience, sir Iri. It is how it is. Perhaps the mind is not so instrumental in thinking as we like to believe, whether it is regarding men or women.”

“Right, well, I believe the events of the last half century have largely served to genderize Broshan society as well. Otherwise, why do you insist on wearing dresses?”

“This is true. Many places struggle with the refugees, even though they can hardly be called refugees anymore. Though they adapt to their new homes, their homes adapt to them in turn. The cultures of the Kingdom are not nearly so monolithic as they once were. Is it a bad thing? It is a thing. And speaking of things, which part of the bazaar specifically is it my sir wishes to visit? We are nearing the main street.”

“Let’s consult my crotch, shall we, it seems to be the one in charge here,” Iri exclaimed dramatically, turning his head down into his lap with a look of exaggerated curiosity. “What’s that? She’s allowed to use personal pronouns? Well what about the bazaar- stay on topic! I say stay on topic sir, we need to know where to go.”

Zarie gave a rolling laugh that was genuine enough that it made her rattle the wheelchair and jostle his braced arm and leg. Despite the ache, the sudden motion broke his veneer of mock sincerity and made him break out into laughter as well, interspersed with racked coughs when his ribs became too loud to ignore. It only got worse when he pointed out between gasps and pained guffaws that, “it seems to be leaning in that direction.”


Genital navigation notwithstanding, as their direction veered toward where Iri had been indicating and their route came to intersect the Sinan bazaar, their surroundings lost that gardened atmosphere in favor of walled yards and buildings stacked close together. The streets became narrower and more numerous until they felt like mere alleys, until then they suddenly opened up into the sprawling mess of the Sinan grand market.

Sinan’s main street was like a wide river that looped around the city center, over a hundred yards across, banked with stands and shops and filled with a teeming stream of people flowed and surged in emergent pulses all in the same direction.

People swarmed around stands and under colourful canopies offering a temporary respite from the glaring noon sun above. Smells of spices, sweet teas and more exotic drinks, and the gritty stench of metal being worked, the resounding clangs of hammer and anvil.  While the Deman men with their colourful clothing and meticulous mustaches were overwhelmingly represented selling, buying, strutting or guarding, there were also a great number of islands of other cultures, like spots on the coat of the crowd. The part of the street they were in was dedicated to craftsmen of all sorts, primarily smiths and jewelers, showcasing their wares on the other side of the milling throng.

To their right, a number of dark Muriadin sat together around a small round table, puffing on a hookah while they talked excitedly in their strikingly deep-voiced language, apparently taking a break from the heat of their forges. They were enjoying cups of api that mingled cinnamon into the strong fruity scent of their communal smoking. Iri worried that despite the press of people, they had arrived at some sort of common noontime respite and would have to wait if they wanted to find what he was looking for. Further down to their left, he saw a mixed group of Shundese and Gallian men and women were sharing a bowl of sarabba that was suspended over a brazier with smithing tools sticking out of it. One side had characteristically tight blue turbans and long, embroidered coats that transitioned to twisted tassels hanging all the way down past their knees. The other wore simple red and orange bandanas that somehow succinctly implied they had descended from their southern neighbours’ more formal headdresses. Aside from their different clothing, the two peoples looked almost exactly the same, which made sense when Iri considered how Gallatth had only gained its sovereignty from Shunda a mere century or two before both nations had been wiped off the map.

“I wonder, are there any like you and your sister out there,” Zarie commented and broke him out of his reverie.

“What do you mean?”

“Her highness said that your eyes placed you all the way from Calodon, but I have seen many Calodonians, and none of them have eyes like yours. Here we are with all the peoples of the world, and still nothing.”

“That’s because our mother wasn’t Calodonian, she was Ushei. Partly, at least. I don’t think there are any others left.”

Zarie blinked at that, “Ushei? I thought that place was only a myth, some Calodonian fairy tale that followed them here.”

“It’s not a place, it’s a people. I don’t know any more about them than you do. It’s just blood with no anchors. All I know is what’s in books, that they made impenetrable fortress cities in the Calodonian mountains in their pursuit of peace, seeking to escape the world. That they mined, but never iron, and smithed, but never weapons. When the Adversary came to Calodon, they closed off their cities rather than run away, trusting their walls to keep them safe. It would be nice if their gates had held, and somewhere out there in some deep mountain hall, me and Auri have long lost family but I’m not hopeful. Better to focus on on the here and now.”

“The two of you, you are most unusual,” she said in a wistful voice. “The two last siblings of a lost people, a scholar and a warrior, a builder and a destroyer.”

Iri winced. “That’s not true. She isn’t- She’s just lost her way.” He turned to look up at Zarie, who met his eyes, and then looked away before continuing, his voice growing heavier with each word until he had trouble keeping a steady breath. “She was so small when he took her, and then he pointed her at a target that is so much less than she should be. She has spent a long time searching for herself in the wrong places. No more.”

“Who is he?”

“The King.” The syllables came out with all the weight he had been building, a quiet boom of a fury so deep it hurt him to acknowledge it.

“You sound like you hate him.”

“I never hate,” Iri snapped back into a frigid equilibrium at the reminder. “Hate is a parasite. It has no place in human nature. Just because it can grow there, does not mean it belongs. No, nothing so pitiful as hate.”

“Then what is it?”

“Fury.” The statement was so cold it send shivers down across the skin of his arms as he uttered it, and he could feel Zarie shift her weight behind him in response. It felt as it had felt with Auri a few days before. A purpose that formed through endless frustration and moments of revelatory elation, crystallized not through circumstance, but through sheer persistence. He knew everyone thought he was aloof, but he had kept the same thought in his mind for twenty years, and he was finally seeing it come to fruition. “What he has done to her, I will undo. I don’t think he’s cruel, only mistaken. They say he will sit the Throne until the war is over. I will help him end it, then, and be rid of him.”

Zarie remained silent for some time, and when she did speak her voice was muted, afraid that speaking any more words would turn the intention treasonous. “You want the King gone?”

Iri shook his head, and slumped down, and he could feel her relief at the reply. He knew people thought he was aloof, that his mind wandered, and that they were largely right. That alchemy had made his mind both sharper and more slippery, and weakened his focus even as it unlocked new venues for him to focus on. There was still that one thought, however, that he never let go of, that he had held on to for over twenty years. Ever since he pulled her out of their father’s gristle and saw, despite power, how helpless she had been. Saw the uncomprehending terror that only children can feel, and felt it gouge so deeply that it had wound its way into every dream he had dreamt since. “I want my sister back.”


“You already have her, no?” Her voice was a mix of curiosity and sadness, and he found himself touched by her show of empathy.

“No,” he said, taking a deep breath and then turning in his seat once more to face her, putting on a shaky smile. “Not all of her.”

“Then,” she continued, carefully as if she could break him with her voice, “if you do not mind my asking… Why are we here while your sister is away?”

“I don’t have super powers Zarie, I’m not even particularly skilled. I just know how to use one to get the other. So we are here to buy ourselves a blacksmith.”

“You know, only women can own property in Dema, Iri. You cannot buy a smithy, or a forge.”

“I didn’t say smithy. I said smith. The kind of forge we need does not exist yet. I didn’t invent it and I can’t built it, but both those people exist, and I intend to introduce them.”

“You seem uncharacteristically focused, if you do not mind me saying,” Zarie said, and he felt vindicated by the surprise in her voice. “Usually, you tend to meander.”

“I’m in a lot of pain,” Iri quipped back, squirming slightly to indicate his braced arm and leg, both fastened to the chair and unable to move at all. “I think it’s keeping me sharp.”

“If you do not know what yet you are building, then why did you bring these things along?” She indicated a pouch that was hanging off the back of his chair, filled with a small number of round objects slightly bigger than a clenched fist.

“They’re prototypes for something else. I need to find someone who can understand their construction well enough to copy them.”

“What are they?”

“I don’t have a name for them yet. They’re for the witch hunters. I’m open to suggestions.”

“Well,” she began to move them forward again, toward the other side of the street, through the people milling by. “What do they do?”

“Oh, nothing, yet. I’m still missing a way to set them off, but if I can figure that bit out-” Iri was cut off by a sudden boom, like a crack of thunder, a sound so loud and fast it skipped the present entirely and left him reeling in a deafening silence. Anarchy unfolded across the marketplace like a ripple, and his chair crashed to the side by the shockwave, giving him desperately needed cover from the debris and gore that rode it past.

There was a glaring white light at the source of the explosion, one that flicked out like a whip in quick beats, and caused other, smaller blasts wherever it touched. He was still stuck to the chair, and that made it impossible to get a proper look, but he could feel a storm building inside him at the memories it stirred. Now there was no pain in his arm, or his leg, just the overwhelming beat of his heart and sickening feeling of bones shifting unnaturally as he pulled them free of their straps, and drew himself up against the chair to get a better look. He passed into the eye of his own tempest as soon as he found his mark, and felt an absurd quiet come over him. He had seen those flames before.

>>Next chapter

The New Thunder, Chapter 18

New to the series? Start at the beginning!

Year 47 AR


A week had passed since the sheer wall of the Atasian cliffs disappeared behind the pine canopy of the Broshan lowland forests. Tall masts now speared into the sky, barren except for the very top, and leaving only a trickle of light for the ground far below. This meant the deep woods had little room for saplings, and instead there was a long gap between the glittering crowns above, and the thick bushes and undergrowth far below. Auri thought it looked so neat in the distance, as if it went no higher than the ankle or knee, as easy to cross as tall grass. Cutting through the dense and flexible branches, the prickly briars and sticky leaves, she knew that was an illusion caused by the scale of the trees all around them.

“I don’t understand how you could have seen this through the trees,” Auri said, poking a loose plank her foot. “I can’t even see thirty feet in this mess.”

They had come to a clearing some fifty yards wide and completely round. The old ironwood tree that had once stood tall at the center lay on its side, just shy of reaching the edge, and had fallen recently enough that its leaves were still littered among tall grass around it. Auri was standing near its stump, or where its stump should have been. It was missing, sheared cleanly through and leaving only a round crater that was filled, perplexingly, with a section of wooden flooring. The planks had been crushed as the mast, cut with the same clean edge but clearly much higher up, had plunged straight down rather than toppling sideways.

“Watch out,” Basia said, “that you do not get a sapling on your shoe.”

“The what now?” Talem was poking the ground with his bone spear as he walked the perimeter of the clearing.

The lost children of Osa,” Auri cut in. “All Ironwood trees come from Osa, or so they say. They grow much bigger there, stronger and older than here. Sometimes, though, they show up in other forests. Always deep in the woods, and there’s always a clearing-”

“That’s just the roots,” Talem stabbed downward with his spear, and there was a solid thunk as it struck something hard just under the surface. “This thing has big roots. It’s squeezed everything else off its turf, barely even enough space for the weeds here.”

“Everything has deep roots in Osa,” Basia rumbled with his deep voice. “That forest is the size of a nation, and the trees are citizens. They say if you look long enough, every forest is in there. You might come out on the other side of Mar, if you come out at all.”

“Yeah,” Auri continued, stepping back from the wreckage and crossing her arms. “Like it all connects somehow. Ir- My brother used to read me stories. Sometimes pieces are stranded, trees like this one, and the spirit inside wants to go back. But it’s a spirit, so it can’t let anyone see it, or it loses its magic. So it grabs hold of travellers who come by its tree, hoping they will take it home.”

“They are small, frail and cold outside of their trees,” Basia was walking up and down the length of the fallen tree, studying the gnarled white bark, a stark contrast to the dark trunks of the surrounding woodland. “So if you get one on your boot, and feel the weight like a child holding your leg, do not turn around or stop walking. Turn toward Osa and hope you can make it there. It will drain your heat until you die, then return to the tree so it can wait, and try again.”

“Spooky,” Talem quipped. “Real spooky, but I’ve never seen any kind of spirit.”

“Maybe,” Auri looked at him with a somber expression. “That’s just because they aren’t as weak as us. That’s what you see, isn’t it? Weakness? Maybe that makes them invisible to you.”

“I guess that’s a decent word for it, but no, that’s not how it works.”

“How does it work?”

“I can’t explain it. I don’t remember what things look like without it.” Talem sounded wistful, almost sad at the admission. “So these lost children, you think one might be around?”

“No,” Basia shook his head. “This tree has been dead for some time. Maybe a month. The spirit would have died with it, if it hadn’t made it home before that.”

“The tree disappears if the spirit reaches the great forest,” Auri mused, without looking away from Talem, who was kicking the dirt where he had disturbed it with his spear. “Can I ask you something?”

“Don’t, Auri. Knowing makes it worse. Let’s change the subject.”

“I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

“It’s fine, you didn’t. Let’s just talk about something else. Like how Basia believes in ghosts.”

“They are not ghosts,” Basia objected. “They are spirits. Magical beings-”

“We’re magical beings,” Talem interrupted. “Me and you and Auri. We’re here, concrete, and we have magic. You can throw fire, Auri can shape metal with her mind, I can see that there’s a stone in your boot.”

“That is just a nail come loose.”

“No, it’s a stone, try looking with your fingers.”

Basia began to grumble incoherently as he sat down on the fallen log and began to undo his boots. Auri took the chance in the momentary silence to pick up a plank from the pile of debris to inspect it. It was cleanly cut, without a sign of scoring or even a splinter left behind by a serrated edge. Auri knew sharp edges, and even she could not have cut so cleanly through it, without even disturbing the wood, as if whatever it had once been a part of had simply ceased to exist.

“I’ve never seen anything like this. It has to be the one we’re after, there’s no way this could happen naturally. There’s no burn, not a mark, it just stops.”

“So what kind of ability do you think does something like that?” Basia asked, turning his boot over and shaking it a few times then sticking his hand inside to feel around with a skeptical expression on his face.

“I think perhaps this portion of the tree was switched with a part of a house. The floor, specifically, and the empty space above it. It’s the only thing I can imagine that makes any kind of sense.”

“Good work, Auri, and I agree.” Basia withdrew his hand, shaking his head and looking at Talem. “It was a nail. Talem was mistaken.”

“Was I? Or is my true power the ability to make you take off your boots in the middle of the forest?” Talem grinned and began to speak, but Auri stepped between them and snatched the boot from Basia’s hands. She stuck her hand into it like Basia had, grimacing at the warm and moist leather while she searched for the errant nail. When she found it, she used it to make a wire that snaked its way between the sole and the boot in a tight seam. Once she was satisfied that the boot was repaired, she handed it back to him, suppressing a chuckle into a wry smile.

“I think we’re close. If I’m right, and our recruit has the power to swap things like that, we should be careful not to startle them.”

“Yes,” Basia grunted as he put his boot back on, taking a moment to wriggle his toes inside it appreciatively before sitting up. “You should not be so flippant, Talem. These places can be dangerous. Old spirits, witches, there are many things out here in the woods that even kozan should respect.”

“There’s nothing here, old man. These trees don’t stop me from seeing, if anything was after us I’d know.”

“Maybe it is not seeing too little that you should worry about, Talem.” Basia got up and adjusted his uniform and backpack, then walked toward the edge of the clearing. “Perhaps it is seeing too much.”

“I don’t know,” Auri chipped in. “He’s pretty dense. I think he doesn’t see as much as he likes to pretend he does. Otherwise he’d wonder why the tree was still here.”

“What do you mean?”

“Ironwood is valuable, and this one was felled weeks ago.” Auri waved Talem over with a backward nod, and then stepped out of the clearing to fall in line with Basia. “We’re less than two days from the village, so there’s no way they don’t know about it.”

“So if your theory about the missing section is true?”

Auri turned her head to glance back at Talem, who was striding briskly in order to catch up to her with thoughtful expression on his face. There weren’t a lot of landmarks in the forest, but a clearing like this would be one of them. If the villagers were superstitious they may have been wary of entering, but there was no way they didn’t use it to navigate. With the tree fallen, even the fearful should be racing to salvage the wood.

“Why haven’t they come to pick up the remains yet?”


>Next Chapter



The New Thunder, Chapter 17

New to the series? Start at the beginning!

Year 60 AR

An expectant silence hung in the air, following the duchess’ revelation of her purpose in the region. Every eye in the room was on Iri, pinning him to the bed as surely as his injuries did, and he was horrified to find that he was entirely unprepared for whatever it was they wanted him to say. Had the duchess thought that he had some punchline in mind that would wrap this all up? He had barely woken, and now he felt as if somehow he had contributed to the setup of what he liked to call one of those moments. Ones that started something big, like a small stone rippling a large pond, where he could feel the world momentarily brace itself in the warning of something huge to come.

Ten years ago, one of his professors had invited him to the showing of the world’s first printing press, and from it had flowed manuscripts that by now informed almost every tutor across the entire Kingdom. He remembered his own mentor Andrus Mab, who had proudly declared its unveiling as the dawn of the age of the proliferation engine. Now wisdom, too, will have an army, Andrus had said. That man had known exactly what he had as soon as the idea had rooted in his head, and he had been right, Iri had felt the sharp intake of fate holding its breath as soon as he saw the machine. Tossing one tiny stone off the peak of a mountain, he had triggered an avalanche of knowledge that still swept across the realms today, and he had known it.

In a way, it had inspired what would eventually become Iri’s own breakthrough. Not the machine itself, of course, but the idea. That the secret to mankind’s success was not some lost arcane power, nor some terrible secret weapon, but another proliferation engine. A wall was made up of individual stones, after all, and an army of individual soldiers. Even with the power of magic being what it was, the key to strength was not concentration, but distribution. Now, here was his own unveiling, and all he could think of was the pulsing pain in his head, and the terrible ache of his shattered bones.

“Then the lesser truths will be our stepping stone to a greater victory,” Iri said and felt extremely pleased with himself. “I think we see the same thing. A wall is made of stones, an army of soldiers, the sea is made of… fish? Fuck, nevermind, bad analogy.” The self-contentment quickly gave way to panic as he remembered why he generally avoided speeches. He took a small pause to center himself. “This isn’t a single weapon. I am going to arm your soldiers, and make each of them a legitimate force. You’ll help me do the same across the Kingdom. The enemy is fat from sheep. I’ll make us all into wolves, and you will be first.”

His hopes that he had managed to get through his speech with his dignity intact was maintained by the Duchess grinning as he wrapped it up.

“Then it seems, my friend, that despite your injuries it was I who was lucky in the finding.” She stepped up to get closer to him, and extended her hand, as if she were making a deal with an equal.

“You humble me, your highness,” Iri replied, feeling very conscious of the fact that the arm he should have been accepting her shake with was broken. He hesitatingly moved to reciprocate the gesture with his other hand, and the result was an awkward handshake that made him wonder, for a moment, how detailed the history books would be about this moment. Watching the duchess pointedly ignore the fumble, he pondered if despite her station they might be thinking the same thoughts.

“I am not entirely convinced that is possible, my sir,” she gave him a wry smile. “And a good thing it is, as our venture is not for the sake of your humility.”

She was a powerful woman, there was no doubt of that. At the same time, here was his sister and himself, Salanar and even Zarie, all of whom were accomplished people in their own rights. Were all of them just putting up brave fronts in a joint conceit of confidence, or was there a true juggernaut among them?

“Iri,” Auri’s voice cut his thoughts short, “I think we should continue this later. You just woke up, you may not be completely lucid.”

“Nonsense,” Iri began to shake his head and then froze in apprehension at a wrench of pain that never came. “It seems madame Zarie’s tea is doing its job as well.”

“That isn’t what lucid means, Iri,” Auri sighed. “I think we should wait. I’m not allowed to get involved in politics, my job is to protect you. Right now, I think that means making sure you get enough rest. There will be plenty of time in Sinan to plan, since we can’t move on until you’re healed.”

“You’re worried about me.”


Iri smiled, and then turned his attention toward the other people in the room. Auri had become such an unreadable stone that he had been afraid that behind her impassive exterior there was nothing left of his sister. The concern, possibly mixed with the effects of the tea which was even now making his skin tingle in a way that radiated down through the muscle, made him feel as if though his project may succeed after all. These people, after all, and their affairs were important, and their cause mattered to him, but his goal had always been to reconnect with her. This was the first time it felt like a shared goal.

“Is that alright with your highness?”

The duchess looked at Salanar, who had taken on a slight scowl. He was an officer, and wanted to get done with business.

“Whatever your highness wishes,” he said curtly, his mouth forming a thin line.

“We will reach Sinan in two days. I think it is not such an unreasonable request, considering, and perhaps the city is a more appropriate forum for these talks. We are agreed upon our partnership, yes?”

“Yes, your highness,” Iri nodded. “What remains is only to ascertain what I can do to help.”

“Zarie will stay with you until you are healed, and assist you with what you may need.”

That meant babysitting, Iri knew. Making sure he did not get involved in anything that could risk his utility to the duchess, which was fine, considering he had no intention to do such a thing in the first place. Zarie actually perked up at the order, smiling radiantly at Iri as if she were genuinely pleased to become his assistant.

“Gladly, your highness,” she said, catching Iri’s eyes for a second with a glimmer that he did not quite recognize. He smiled back, awkwardly.

“Very good,” the duchess finished. “Once you are back on your feet, I hope you will join me for supper, Iri.”

“It would be an honor, your highness,” Iri tore himself free from Zarie’s stare to acknowledge the duchess. “If I may, sir Salanar, I have a request.”

“What is it?” Salanar stood perfectly still, but he was obviously tense and waiting to get out of the tent.

“I seem to have some time on my hands. If you have any manuals about witchcraft, witch hunting, as well as your current equipment I should like to have a look at them. Could you have whatever materials at your disposal brought to my quarters? ”

Salanar blinked slowly at him, his tight lips quirking ever so slightly in approval as he nodded. “Yes sir, we have comprehensive documentation of our processes. I will have an introductory volume brought to you. Hopefully you may peruse it before our meeting.”

Iri shook his head once. “That isn’t what I asked. I’ll need whatever you have on the subject, as quickly as possible please.”

“We don’t have everything with us, but even the field library is over thirty volumes, and we need to consult them ourselves. How long will you be needing them for?”

“Until the meeting.”

“That’s only three days,” Salanar raised a skeptical eyebrow.

“I’m just going to read them,” Iri pointed out. “Not copy them.” The response did not dampen Salanar’s disbelief at all, if anything pushing it toward exasperation.

“Iri…” Auri interjected with a warning tone, and the duchess nodded at her as if they had reached some unspoken agreement.

“It was a pleasure speaking with you Iri,” the duchess said, waving at the others in the room as she straightened herself to walk away, “but it appears your sister wants a word. Zarie, Salanar, leave with me. I have business to discuss with the two of you, as well.”


As they walked out, Iri looked up at Auri who was still clamping down on his shoulder, a grip that had gotten steadily tighter as the meeting had progressed. She did not meet his eyes until they were alone, but as soon as they were, it became clear that she was not altogether pleased. Iri found this a bit strange, since he considered the meeting a great success considering the state he was in. He was about to ask her what was wrong when she began to speak in a fierce whisper.

“What is wrong with you, Iri? Are you trying to get yourself killed?”


“You almost died, and now you want to paint a great big target on your back for everyone to see. Even the front is safer than politics! What were you thinking?”


“I can’t get involved in politics Iri, you know that. Kozan are not allowed to interfere with the ducal thrones unless specifically ordered to do so. I can’t help you solve these situations, and the way things are going, I don’t even know how I’m going to keep you safe.”

“I don’t think-”

“That’s what I mean! You don’t think! Or you think too much!,” her whisper had been gradually changing volume until it turned into a growl. Iri could feel his own Ire rising in response, especially with the constant interruptions. “The King wants to humor your attempt at a weapon because he wants to realize the benefits of the academy, but this is the real world, it’s not something you can learn about in books!”

“That’s-” Iri raised his voice as she tried to stop him from speaking again, “Stop! Stop posing questions you don’t want me to answer. I’m not the one who doesn’t understand what’s going on, Auri. You are-ow!”

Her hand clamped down hard on his shoulder, and if it hadn’t been for the soothing effects of Zarie’s tea, he would have had a fit as he twisted away from her even as he found that her hand was unyielding, like a shackle. She held it for a moment longer than necessary before she released.

“I’m the one who doesn’t know!?” Any pretense of whispering was out the window, and Iri couldn’t decide whether he was angry with her condescending lecture, or grateful to witness the first real emotion his sister had shown since they had met, but the effect of her fury was strangely calming. His little sister was afraid, and so he could not be. “I’ve seen things you can’t begin to understand, Iri. I’ve seen what lies beyond the front, what we’re up against. I’ve seen what people do to each other to survive out here in the world, past your marble walls, where there’s not enough shelter or food, not enough water, not enough future for everyone. You think I don’t know what’s going on?”

“I don’t,” Iri said. “Because I do know. Maybe I’m the only one who truly does.”

Auri shook her head, turning away from him with an exasperated breath. “You’ve been twenty years in that place, and just like every other scholar, you think you’ve figured everything out.”

“No, that’s just it,” he said. “It’s not that people can’t supply answers. It’s that nobody is asking the right question.”

Auri paced a few steps away from him, fidgeting uncharacteristically with her fingers, and stopped near the stove at the center of the room and bowing down to sort through one of the boxes there.

“What do you mean, not the right questions? How to defeat the enemy, isn’t that what you’ve been talking about?”

“That isn’t it. Well, not the heart of it.”

“Then what is?” She did not look at him as she kept rummaging around, and he recognized some of the things she was putting aside as supplies from their carriage. So, she had actually manage to salvage some of his things. He put the thought aside.

“What is the enemy?”

She stopped, stood and turned toward him with a look of bewildered shock, as if he had just asked the single dumbest question in the entire history of human interaction. “There is a swarm of monsters just past the front. Of all the world, all that remains is one little kingdom in the eastern flank, and even we remain only for a fluke of geography and the sacrifice of millions of soldiers. This is what I mean,” she sounded close to tears, “You don’t know. You haven’t seen. You couldn’t possibly know.”

“It’s not the Adversary,” Iri tentatively pointed out, bracing himself for the torrent of protests he thought he was going to get. Instead, his sister folder her arms over her chest, and looked at him blankly. The disappointment he felt from her threatened to break his heart, and would have if he hadn’t been so certain he was right. “The Adversary is gone. What remains is the mess, and it’s not contained to one side of the front. This isn’t some war where there is some great evil waiting for the right hero to come along, Auri. We had that war, sixty years ago. How many sorcerers like you, how many wizards, died at the final battle at Dannatth?”

“At least ten thousand,” Auri murmured bitterly. “That we know of. Anyone who could fight. And over a million common soldiers besides. The Gallant reports say the corpses were piled into hills near the end, before he burned it all.”

“Right, the only gifted who made it through were those too injured to fight, and the Dordoron. You sorcerers and wizards faced down the Adversary with an army that unleashed magical powers unlike anything before it, that may have shattered the whole continent if Osa hadn’t been there to buffer the effects, and you won. In sixty years, there has been no sign, no indication that the Adversary lived. Osa has retaken Gallath, its trees cover that whole nation now, and have swallowed up whole hives in the doing. But that victory was not as final as they had hoped, was it? A last stand to stop their advance, and it did, but that was all. With the Adversary gone, the swarms of his creatures stopped moving, but they didn’t go away. What was lost then is lost now, and there aren’t enough of your kind left to reclaim it. Meanwhile mankind rots away in this place; too many to live, too few to fight. Spectators to our own demise.”

Auri had been tending a growing frown as he spoke, and when she answered, her voice came out in a flat, hateful tone. “What’s your point?”

“My point is, the storybook war is over. The great retreats, the last stands, the final battle, the endless sacrifice, it’s all over. The gifted heroes rose up, and fought, and died, and won their war. What we have now is not that, what we have now is what the storybooks always skip.”

“And what’s that?”

“The real world, Auri. The crowding, the helpless masses, famine and disease and desperate human nature. Crime and poverty and the selfish stupidity of the well-to-do. Those behemoths past the front took our claws out, and for half a century all anyone’s been able to do is wait for demigods to fight and die and fail for them, thinking the problem was out there. The great fight for mankind’s survival is here, and it is a vicarious battle. The real fight is not out there. It’s in here, with  us. We need new claws, ones that fit everyone, and we need…” Iri’s speech faltered as he searched for the right term.

“A savior? You think that’s you? Someone to grant us deliverance? To restore faith in the future?”

“No,” Iri shook his head. “We need to build aqueducts to water fields and open new lands for farming. We need cures for disease, and techniques for healing. New ways to farm, to fish, to breed livestock that can feed everyone. Even after sixty years of constant famine, there are still over twice as many people in the Kingdom now as before the cataclysm. For industry to return, and work to occupy the masses. We need to build weapons that even the battlefield and make the fight personal again. I’ve done the math, Auri.” He put his thumb and forefinger on the bridge of his nose, taking a moment to blink the dryness out of his eyes. “It takes a hundred men to bring down a single monster, if there is no sorcerer there to help them, no gifts they can take advantage of. Even then, people are used as fodder to get the killing shot, and if the monster escapes with prey it multiplies. We need to make our soldiers useful. We don’t need a hero, we have millions waiting for their chance to fight but lacking the ability.”

“Ok, how do we get all that?” Auri’s tone had quieted down considerably, and he knew she was beginning to sway, even if her voice was still stubbornly skeptical. “You want to teach them witchcraft, let them create monsters in turn? You know witchcraft always ends up going badly. That art has a will of its own, it wants to destroy, and it always succeeds. That’s why the King bans it.”

“No,” Iri shook his head, pausing for a moment to meet her eyes. “We don’t need magic, Auri. We need engineers. Probably a lot of them. But someone has to be first.”

“So your cannon…?”

“It’s not just a weapon, it’s hope, Auri. It is not beholden to you gods and demigods, it belongs to us. The little people. And there’s more, a lot more. I know it works. I’ve known for a long time, what I need is a place to show it to the world. I thought that would be the front, but-”

“But it might as well be here,” she sighed, her voice turning to resignation. “Oh, Iri. You’re going to get yourself killed. You almost have already.”

“Not a chance. That’s what makes me special. I have something no one else does, and that’s why I have to be first.”

Auri raised a brow at him. “What’s that?”

“I have you.”


>>Next Chapter


The New Thunder, Chapter 16

New to the Aliud? Start at the beginning!

Year 47 AR

“Alright, you two. I think it’s time to go,” Basia said.

Basia paced along the table that Talem was currently perusing. It was full of trinkets, weapons, pieces of armor and strange-looking devices. Here was a wooden stiletto that somehow maintained a gleaming point, there an ivory comb inlaid with jewels, and even a mirror that bent to follow the contours of the table it had been discarded on. Pretending he didn’t hear, Talem reached for the final item: a straight, white short-spear in one solid piece, about five feet long and so thin it looked frail. His face settled into a calm smile as he hefted it once and stabbed it through the air, and nothing further happened.

Of all the artifacts he had tried out, the only two that were still in his possession were a simple silver bracelet and the glove that Auri had stuck to him earlier in the day. Other items were being carted to and from the table by apprentices. They had been replacing his discarded items with ones that they did not know the function of, and pestering Talem to try them out so they could get a better idea of what they did. There were black scorch marks, patches of crystalline residue from strange blasts, and one of the apprentices had blue hair from the tests he had been putting them through. Now he had that same look on his face as when he found the bracelet, and Auri knew he was going to keep it.

“You choose items that require a commitment,” the Constant said.

“These two aren’t as cheap as the other ones — they have character. Can’t fake them out or use them for cheap tricks maybe, but I also don’t have to pretend.”

The Constant shrugged dismissively, her eyes swarming for a moment among the apprentices who were stowing things away.

“We see. You will take the Ostelum and the Madathi. We assume the swashbuckler’s grip will also remain in your possession. That is acceptable to us. Have you no interest in trying again, Basia?”

“No,” Basia said. “One round of rejection is enough. I am too old to be learning new tricks.”

“You are not a dog,” the Constant smiled at him. “Perhaps you feel more ancient than you really are.”

“Maybe I do. Right now I just feel impatient.”

“There is no change in your mission,” the Constant said to a look of somber acceptance from Basia. “A week has passed, and you may be right to feel thus.”

“Then we should move.”


He looked first to Talem and then to Auri. Auri had just been watching her friend for the last few hours, amused at the childish glee he found in pranking the apprentices. She thought it was absurd, to be in a place such as the Dordoron, watched over by one of the most powerful individuals in the entire world, surrounded by artifacts that were usually kept under careful guard because of their capacity for chaos, and he was using them for jokes. Regardless, she had laughed along when he found a ventriloquist’s flute that could imitate any sound and throw it to any location, and then proceeded to use it to make it seem as if people were farting, all the while staring at it in mock confusion and insisting that it did not seem to be doing anything at all. Watching him twirl his new spear reminded her that despite his nonchalant demeanor the man was trained for killing, just like her.

“Why?” Auri asked, coming up beside Basia.

“You are here to become proper Kozan. The Constant has more to show you before we can be off, and our mission has become more pressing.”

“You still haven’t told us anything about it.” Every time she had pried, he had dismissed her; this time he stopped to look at her..

“You are right. I have not. We are recruiting.”

“You want me to do what you did,” she had to squeeze the words out because she was gritting her teeth, her metal fist clenching and unclenching in response to remembered heat.

“I want you to see why it was necessary.” He sounded cold to her, and she found herself sneering at the condescension.

“That’s low.”

“No, it is our purpose. I need you to understand-”

“I understand just fine, salamander,” Auri spat. “We need recruits, that doesn’t mean we have to burn them.”

“The situation is not as simple as you are trying to make it sound-”

“Some kid is having a shitty day,” Talem had cut in behind her. “And you want to show up and make it shittier. What’s not to understand?”

Basia shook his head, closing his eyes for a moment. “You have not thought it properly through. How many times do you think I have done this?”

“Not too many,” Auri shrugged. “At least I fucking hope not.”

“I have abided your anger until now,” Basia growled. “Because it was justified. Now it flies in the face of our mission, and so it is your turn to listen. Out there is a scared child who has just discovered a powerful magical ability. We do not know what it does, or what the circumstances that prompted the power to manifest were. All we know is that if the situation was not traumatic, then it was likely made so by the magic appearing, and that the child is caught in a manic compulsion to travel west.”

Auri gaped for a moment. She had forgotten about the intense compulsion to travel east. Or, not forgotten, but gotten to used to it that it hardly even registered anymore. At his mention, however, she could remember how for the first days of her new existence, she had hardly been able to think of anything else.


“No, no more you!” Basia snapped at her, causing her to clamp her mouth shut. “People are in very real danger, and we are the only ones who can help. We do not yet know who we will be helping, so we will be cautious, and will not make sentimental assumptions about what we are going to encounter. That is what you must learn — it is not about you. Not now, and not then. We serve the Kingdom, it does not serve us.”

Auri stayed silent for a long moment as she processed what had just happened. Part of her wanted to stomp her feet, to scream at him until he caved in to the sheer volume of her insistence. Another part of her, a colder and more cunning voice, argued that he had a point. That even if she had one too, it was not a point that would be piercing their current conversation.

“So why has it suddenly become more pressing?” She hoped that she could plie him with a change of tone, and perhaps show that there was a more peaceful way to resolve the confrontation they were headed for. What they were recruiting was a person, not a disembodied gift.

“Because two weeks have passed,” answered the Constant. “Gifts appear randomly anywhere, at any time, all over the kingdom. There is no way to predict them, or even to detect them consistently when they do appear. So we search, we record the news that travels along the roads, and the reports that are filed through the officials all over the Kingdom. We give word to both the Kozan and the local authorities. They have two weeks to send word if there is no magic afoot. No such message has arrived.”

“A village called Trouperde and its surrounding hamlets have gone suspiciously silent, enough so that an alert was sent to the Kozan two weeks ago,” Basia sounded worried as he filled in the gaps in the Constant’s description. “In response to this a number of soldiers were sent out from a lesser lord who is the steward of those lands. As there has been no more news so far, we will be heading out on the assumption that something has gone wrong. If something has gone wrong, then it will still be going wrong as we speak.”

“Then why are we wasting time stopping by here, first?”

“Every Kozan must visit the Dordoron before they can enter the field. We are not an old order, so we do not have many rituals. Only the Vigilant’s test, the gifts of the Dordoron, and the Constant. We cannot deviate from these three.”

“The Vigilant is the steward of the future,” said the Constant in a level voice. “It is they who decide whether you may train to join the order. We guard the past, and show you what you have trained to do. The Gallant serves with you, out there. Them you will meet last. For this purpose, we have but one thing left to show you. Bring your friend and follow us.”


With that, the Constant turned away from them and began to walk toward the bronze portal they had come from. Auri turned to collect Talem, but he was already on his way toward them, being ushered by a chain of apprentices who had changed their demeanor abruptly from peppering him with questions to merely pointing at their master when he looked at them. Basia did not even bother to check on him, following in the Constant’s steps before them. Rather than wait for Talem to catch up, Auri put in a brisk pace so she could catch up with their guide before she reached the brass cap.

“Show us what?”

“What you are fighting for,” she answered without turning. Then she was over the edge, back in the foyer of the Dordoron.

Auri had to brace herself for the transition, the jarring transformation of her surroundings from the hollow spherical cave to the almost mundane dressings of the entry chamber. A single step flipped her forward so suddenly that she had to fight her own impulse to stumble forward and put her hands on her knees. Instead, like her host, she kept her composure.

“I thought we fought for the kingdom,” she said, but there was a question where her conviction should have been.

“Do you know what the Kingdom is?”

“The last bastion of mankind,” Talem cut in as he swung into the room over the edge of the portal just behind Basia.

The Constant followed up his comment with a sweeping gesture that rotated the display on the bronze portal in front of them back to the room that had been there when they first entered. She kept shifting it a few more times, until it landed on another room. This one was not like the others. Before them stretched a bridge of clear glass that extended into the center of the chamber, where it ended in a wide, circular platform with a white pedestal in the middle. While the chamber itself looked as empty as the one that had come before, here the walls were painted blue in place of the smooth grey rock that had surrounded them earlier. She headed down the transparent pathway, and when Basia immediately followed, both her and Talem fell in behind them.

“As far as we know, the very last,” she finally said once they were all across the threshold. “That means the Kingdom represents more than its own self.”

As they walked, Auri marvelled at how the blue around them seemed to shift, glittering in the eerie lighting of the Dordoron and forming an illusion of waves covering all of the walls. Below them, carved into the rock face, was a huge map. It did not look like any map Auri had ever seen before, and at the same time, there was something disturbingly familiar about it. It occupied only a tiny fraction of the spherical hall’s surface, and yet it still somehow seemed unfathomably vast.

On one side of the landmass, an arm extended outward, forming a gulf between itself and the continent proper. That small formation was the entire Kingdom, Auri realized. It was barely a fifth of the total mass of a continent that was than a mole on the surface of the world itself. The Atasians divided Broce and Dema along their lengths, capped by the wetlands and plains of Astia on the northern edge. The map was meticulously detailed, she could even make out the capitals if she looked closely. As she followed the Kingdom south, she came to the black scar. It marked the end of the Principalities, of civilized lands, and the beginning of the Pales and the Front.

Her attention continued westward from the southern border, into the Pales, a depressingly thin slice of land reclaimed by the Kozan since the end of the cataclysm almost fifty years ago. There were no cities marked beyond that border. There were no cities to mark. Instead, there were a number of softly glowing red dots placed on every part of the world that did not fall within the Kingdom itself. Within the island kingdom of Muriad to the far west, there were even a few such spots placed in the sea. As she raised her head to ask about them, she noticed they had arrived at the central platform,  and the Constant spoke up.

“This is the world as we know it. It is carefully constructed from the sum of our archives, reflecting all that we know for certain of its shape and lay. We suspect other lands exist, such as Shah to the south-east, and perhaps other continents beyond the sea, as great as Mar itself or greater. Once, before the Adversary, mankind’s destiny stretched out from this little island we occupy, and promised a future filled with discovery and wonder. When the Adversary appeared, that destiny was stolen from us. Now we huddle here,” she pointed to the area Auri had correctly identified as the Kingdom, “crushed into a corner by an enemy that denies us victory even after its defeat. We are all that remains. After a toll of a hundred million deaths, still we tithe thousands of lives every year keeping but the single Glaivian at our border away.”

She turned her attention to the white pedestal before them, and indicated a worn piece of stone that rested upon it. It was vaguely triangular, with two smooth edges and one fractured one, and in rusty red lines upon it were drawn simplistic shapes. The form of a human was standing inside of a circle, itself inside of a triangle. One corner of the triangle ended in a line that trailed off the broken edge of the tablet. Another swept out, and curved around, as large as the circle around the man but curving inward to terminate in a spiral. The corner was connected to a straight line that angled abruptly into a line running parallel to the triangle and spiral both. Its simple strokes, carved into the smooth surface and filled with red residue, held a gravity all their own. They were primal, basic, and she could not shake the feeling that something about them was fundamentally wrong.

“It was made over fifty millennia ago. Its meaning is lost to the ages, though we believe it is part of a larger plaque that describes the Aliud itself. Now it serves as a symbol,” she turned from the tablet to face them. “Our enemy wishes to wash clean fifty thousand years of history, culture and human experience. Everything that ever was, and that ever will be. We may be trapped in our little Kingdom, but make no mistake. Our fight is for the future of the world.”

“Forty seven years ago, mankind gathered the greatest army it had ever known. Over a million soldiers. Thousands of gifted warriors, hundreds of wizards, every order that had managed to escape the onslaught of the Adversary so far. There we met the Adversary and his Glaivians in a final battle, at the ruins of Dannatth, on the border of Shunda and Gallatth. His creatures were beyond count, and the Glaivians walked among them. When the Adversary fell, they were unbound. Most of them wandered off, scattering across the realm with some strange symmetry. Only five were slain, eighty-three remain, and each one is a red dot on the map below. Thus, it shows the true state of the war. We are losing.”

“I thought we were on the offensive?” Auri’s voice was quiet, caught up in the overwhelming scale of what the Constant was showing her. The last fifty years of battle at the Front, the fighting stalemate that killed thousands of soldiers and at least one Kozan every year, was arrayed against a single hive. A single Glaivian beast, and the monsters it produced. At the compound, the tone tended to be far more optimistic. When the war was spoken of at all, it was in terms of victories won, and of crises averted. No one ever voiced the opinion that the effort itself may be a lost cause.  “We are planning to lay siege to the Glaivian hive at the Front next year.”

“No,” the Constant replied just as quietly. “We have no momentum, there is no offensive. Many will die in the coming siege, the cost will outstrip the gain by far, but the King believes it a necessary sacrifice. As it stands, something needs to change in our favor if this war is to be won, and the King must turn time to our side until that change comes.”

“But there are so many of them. What if another attacks while we recover? If we are at a stalemate, why risk defeat over a pyrrhic victory?”

“Because he does not fear the Glaivian most of all. He fears the waning of hope itself. The spoils are not of progress, but proof.”


The Constant’s eyes clouded into a blackened swarm, and then every single one of those unsettling motes gathered into a tight pinprick focused directly on Auri.

“That progress can be made at all.”


The New Thunder, Chapter 15

Year 60 AR

A scent seeped into the tent, like the posies Iri’s mother used to treasure, of lotus, narcissus and peony. It made him think of roads in the woods, far away from the dusty hillside of the rag road, where flowers sprinkled the shoulders and their auras wafted through the air to mingle with the earth, bark and leaves. He felt relaxed, until he noticed that the odor had a very different effect on Zarie and the other servant girl, who stiffened and stood up, watching the door expectantly. That explained it, he thought — it was perfume.

The bouquet that had heralded the duchess had made him think of a gentlewoman, a queen out of story. He knew she was his age, and a widow, that she hid a disfiguring scar on her face with a mask, but he still pictured her as a straight-backed lithe woman, the picture of a Broshan lady that tipped along in a tight dress on tiny feet, trailing a small umbrella to shield her skin from the sun. It was no wonder, then, that he audibly gasped at what came barging through the flaps.

Duchess Chartagne did not look like a lady at all. She reminded him more of a toad than anything else, with a wide and flat face, thick jowls and a powerful jaw. Her body was broad and flabby, hidden beneath silken robes like a man might wear in alternating layers of black and red. It was all embroidered with golden flowers in a design that wound up toward her shoulder, set to match the gilded quarter-mask over her left eye, behind a lovely flourish that gave her a perpetual half-grin. She sniffed the air when she entered and looked around until she spotted Iri, and then her look of determination melted away as she completed her mask’s expression.

“Sir Iri!” Her voice was low and jolly, and she drew out her r’s like a raspy underline to everything she said. “I just received word you were awake! How glad I am to see you up and about! Well, up!”

“Y-your highness,” Iri stuttered when it was clear no one was going to help him out. “I would bow, but it seems I’m quite fractured. I hope you will settle for my regards, and my heartfelt thanks for your assistance.”

“Nonsense!” The duchess waved him off with a dramatic gesture. “No, it is I who should be thanking you, Sir. It appears you have saved my life, and that of my entourage as well, with your brave intervention in that murderous plot at the Bellows. I owe you my gratitude.”

“I…See, your highness. Well, to be quite honest, neither me nor my sister were aware that you were travelling this way…”

Her grin turned vulpine at that, a wide mouth splitting apart to reveal white teeth that seemed somehow too numerous. “So modest. Please, you may address me as Duchess, I will not have formalities get between me and my brave savior. Perhaps you did not, but that merely makes you all the braver. To intervene because it was right, not knowing they were after me!”

“Ah, I do believe they were-” Iri grimaced as Auri clamped down on his shoulder. They exchanged a brief look, and then he cleared his throat. “I do believe they were.”

“I have heard of you before, Iri,” her expression did not waver for a second, though he did feel like she must have noticed. “You are quite accomplished for a man of only thirty years. A Master Alchemist, and a fellow of five societies besides. How many are there again?”

“There are eleven of them.”

“A child of Broce herself, or mostly at least,” she paused for a moment and Iri felt painfully aware how much paler he was than even the duchess, for though she spent little time in the sun, her complexion was still fundamentally Broshan. “Nurtured by her bosom, and now perhaps one of the most accomplished scholars of our time. And now you have averted a political assassination. That means something to me, Iri.”

Her face fell into a somber expression, and she reached up to the golden mask and traced its edges with a finger. “It means more than you might think. This is not the first attempt on my life, and it will not be the last. I lost my husband, you know.”

“I had heard,” Iri said quietly. “I am sorry for your loss.”

“It is a long time ago,” she said. Then she put her nail under the edge of the mask and peeled it off her face to reveal a wrinkled, melted scar. Iri’s breath caught in his throat as he recognized it — there was only one thing that caused such marks. He had seen it work back at the tavern. “They were a cult of witches. Men of noble blood who thought they could claim power.”

“I’ve felt that burn myself,” Iri admitted, and noticed Zarie nodding at the duchess next to him. “But nowhere so personal.”

“Then you know. To make a trusted friend — that is why I despise magic.” The duchess spat, twisting her mouth into disgust. It only found footing on the unblemished half of her face. Nerve damage, Iri thought. That explained the mask more than the burn itself, and he found he respected that she defied letting herself be defined by a mark placed by another. “It is fitting that they tried to use magic to kill me once more, and more fitting that they failed, considering why I am here. You have done me a great service, Iri. I want to repay you.”

“I’m honored,” said Iri, “your gratitude is more than en-”

“Nonsense!” She carefully replaced her mask, and then smiled. It really did work wonders; its brow sat somewhere between expressions, letting the rest of her face fill in the blanks. “I will not hear it. It will never be said that the Duchess of Broce does not honor her heroes. No, I intend to make you my charge. I wish to be your patron, Iri, if you accept.”

If you accept. As if an offer of patronage from the duchess herself was something that could be rejected. Patronage was, after all, the end goal of most academics — an entry into the gentry alleviated many of the jurisdictional concerns that often hindered research, and lead the way into the kind of work that had serious practical application. It usually involved a very significant stipend, as well as funds allocated from the royal treasury, and in that pursuit Broce was by far the principality that had the highest regard for scholarly work. Twenty years ago, when the King had launched his decrees and campaign for an age of knowledge, Broce had embraced it wholeheartedly, and though she had been very young at the time, age had only steeled her resolve in the years to come.


“I am already serving the King,” he said, and then clamped his mouth shut. “I can’t accept a conflict of interest.” It was a snub, although an acceptable one. He had dropped the one title that bore weight in a situation like that, but throwing the crown up against a ducal seat made him feel so small he thought he just wanted to sink into the pillows and disappear. The duchess, however, kept smiling.

“I understand, of course, Sir Iri. I think we can still come to some understanding. There is a path that serves all three of us.”

“How’s that?”

“I want you to hear my offer before you answer, and then tell me what you think.” Her eyes, shrewdly narrowed and locked on him made him think of a haggler at the bazaar, and he gulped.

“Why?” Iri narrowed his own eyes right back. He was getting the feeling that the duchess knew more than she let on.

“That I cannot tell you unless you accept. Now, you will hear my offer, and then we will talk.”

He nodded at that, and cast a glance up at his sister. She had not moved a fraction of a muscle since the last time, standing there as if she were a statue somehow clad in skin.

“You will assist me in a project of my choosing. It is one which the King himself has made it clear to me that he supports completely. I will allow you to support it in such a way that you do not create a conflict between my patronage, and your current service to the crown. In return I will make you my charge. I will recognize you as part of the gentry, with the title of freeman, with the option of promotion to the title of viscount should you wish to pursue a further arrangement with the ducal seat. As my charge, you will be given a one-time grant of six thousand Royal gilder, as well as an annual stipend of one hundred Royal gilder for as long as you live. What say you?”

Iri was speechless. He was a scholar of high order, and every month they paid him in tin. He doubted the sum of his salary throughout his career would add up to more than ten Royal gilder in total. What she was giving him was the kind of fortune for which one could buy land. While the wage was probably not such a big thing for the Duchess, even for her, a grant like that was an investment that eschewed other ventures. It meant she wanted him to do something only he could do. And, if his time studying commerce was worth anything, that his bargaining position was strong.

He took a breath. Iri had never wanted riches, he wanted to make a difference. For his sister, for the kingdom, for the people on the rag road despite the fact that they had just tried to kill him. He wanted to change the approach to the war, wanted to even the battlefield and give the common man a way to fight back. He wanted to make certain such a thing could never happen again. He studied the woman in front of him. She was tough, and determined, and he thought perhaps for a moment that he saw something of the same in her. Wondering if perhaps he had found an ally in his vision, he found that he had to put it to the test.

“I assume you want me to build you a weapon.”

The Duchess merely glanced sidelong at nothing as her grin receded into a clever smile, giving a noncommittal shrug.

“Well, if we are bargaining, may I make a counter-offer?”

She nodded at him, a comfortable gesture that combined with a slow blink to put him at ease.

“I do not need the grant.” Iri couldn’t believe what he was saying, and from the slight squeeze of her hand on his shoulder, neither could his sister. “I need to get the mines in the Pales operational for my plans with the King to work. I accept your patronage, and will do your project, as long as it does not interfere too much with the my service to the King. In return I want you to support my effort to reopen the mines. Men, necessary resources, and a personal stake in their operation equal to yours. Other than that you are free to bargain with the King, considering the Pales fall within his direct jurisdiction.”

His host tightened her lips into a thin line, raising a hand to feel lightly along the innermost of her robes where it met her skin on the collar. Her eyes closed and and her face lowered so that when she opened them again, she was looking at the ground. She tapped her fingers on the silk several times, and then squared her shoulders and lifted her chin, giving him a balanced, regal look.


“Really?” Iri was a bit astonished. The Kingdom needed iron, and he needed it for his cannons. The King had been trying to get investors for the mines in the Pales for some time, but the political situation in the Kingdom made the prospects grim until the front was moved further ahead. The venture was an expensive one, and due to the King’s enforced monopoly on steel, not something that would be profitable for some time to come.


“I could have asked for more,” Iri sighed.

“Yes. By far. The deal is struck, however.” She spoke matter of factly, and that shrewd smile crawled back onto her features. “I have you. You have entered the grand stage, Iri, and I will be the one to pull aside the curtains. Which reminds me — now that we are agreed, you should consider your second name. For me to name you into the gentry, you will need a family name. Commonly, it is the name of your father, or your birthplace, but you are free to choose for yourself.”

Iri shook his head, and for the first time since she entered he was reminded that his ribs weren’t all where they should be. “I’m confused. How can you guarantee operation of the mines when no one else has been able to?”

“She can’t,” Auri answered. “It’s not her project. It’s yours. You will have to solve the problems involved, she merely has to put her resources at your disposal.”

“Your sister is quite sharp. She is correct, and it will cost less than six thousand gilder. Your stake in the mine, however, is worth far more if you can make it work. Do not feel foolish, Sir Iri. You are a cunning bargainer, just inexperienced.”


“Well, now that’s settled,” Iri broached, not wanting to dwell on the waste.  “Will you tell us why you are here, and how I can help?”

Taking a moment, the duchess wrapped the long sleeves of her robes several times around her forearms, and then pushed them part way up to her elbow. Then she looked to Zarie, who was still standing at attention, and nodded. While they exchanged no words, Zarie made her way to the entrance of the tent and disappeared outside.

“I will, but first, I would like to tell you a story. By your own words, you know of the attempt on my life by a group of witches from the nobility. A circle of men who begrudged my inheriting the ducal seat at only ten years old, and thought me a naive little girl for embracing the King’s rally to academia. Who grew jealous at my choice of a husband not from one of their great houses. What was worse, as time passed, it was successful. Broce is the richest of the principalities because I chose to invest in our people, even those who were not of Broshan blood, like you.”

Iri smiled at her. This much was true, Broce was by far one of the greatest places to be from when it came to scholarly pursuits. It had a great amount of grants, offered many jobs and occupations previously held to the nobility. Iri could see how the Duchess’ upending of the traditional, aristocratic ways of the country would have upset those with vested interest in maintaining them.

“So it was that their coven gathered and brewed an insidious poison. One meant not to kill me, for that would have been too obvious even for them. No, one that turned my men mad, and set them upon one another and myself. Over one night, my house became a killing field. My husband succumbed to the madness, but me and my son were spared. My physician wounded my face, as you have seen. It was my husband, however, stirred into maddened anger who stabbed me and wounded my soul.” She took a deep breath, and stood still for a moment merely blinking although Iri could not see any tears. He wondered for a moment if perhaps she was not able to due to the damage. “I dragged myself and my son into the sewer below, and we made our way only by blind luck.”

“I am sorry, your grace.” He knew it was inadequate, but could not find any words that suited his sympathy. That did not mean he could not empathize at all — if anything, the memory was still fresh in his mind of what magic had done to his own family.

“Sorry,” she spat. “I was not, am not sorry. No, I was angry. I still am. Once I was safe, I tracked down those men. I found them, but I did not kill them. For years, I drew from them every breath I could, drew from them every secret of their cult, screaming, whimpering or crying.” She radiated hatred, was almost snarling at the end. The switch in tempo was so fast that Iri was relieved when she paused to collect herself, as it gave him a chance to do the same. “I hired every witch hunter I could find, and I began to hunt them.” There was a rustling at the flaps leading to the tent and she indicated the new arrival with an offhand gesture. “It is to that end, I would like to introduce you to my good friend Salanar Habesh.”

The man who entered was short and thick and covered in scars. He wore a leather vest with thin bronze splints, and had a bandolier filled with crossbow bolts and throwing daggers strapped over it. Loose cloth pants rang with the tell-tale clatter of sewn metal rings when he moved, his boots went up to the knee, and he had a thin sabre hanging from his hip in a worn leather scabbard. Iri thought he looked like a mercenary, but his pants and the shirt he wore under the vest were striped with the Duchess’ black and red, and her floral insignia was carefully stamped over his heart on the leather armor.

“It is an honor, Sir Iri,” Salanar greeted him and gave a salute, stomping a food on the ground as he stood to attention. Iri nodded at him, and he fell at ease.

“So,” Auri said. “Your first class has graduated, I take it. Congratulations.”

Feeling like he was the only person in the room who did not know what was going on, he looked from Auri to the duchess to the soldier, and even Zarie slipping quietly into the room behind him. Meanwhile, the duchess was studying his sister, who met her gaze without a hint of deference.

“First class of what?”

“How many Martial Academies are there in Broce, Iri?” The Duchess asked, and it was clear from her tone she already knew what he would say.

“Two, the Ecrue and the Bataile.”

“No,” she smiled at him, confirming that it was the answer she had been after. “There are three. I opened a new one in secret five years ago. A witch-hunters academy, one that trains soldiers to deal with magical dangers. Salanar is the captain of the very first company to graduate from the Lyses.”

His eyes widening, Iri felt a thrill tense his body enough that it ached. Rather than exhilarate him uncomfortably, however, it came with the deep calm of a blooming hope. He was not the only one who resented the unevenness of the modern battlefield. Now he thought perhaps he had found someone who could help him smooth it out.

“So the reason we are here-” he started.

“Is to hunt witches.”


>>Next Chapter


The New Thunder, Chapter 14

Year 47 AR

“Are we there yet?” Talem groaned as they trudged up the seemingly endless staircase.

It had started to get cold several thousand steps ago, and for the last few hundred, a thin layer of white powder covered every available surface. Snow was not common in the Kingdom, except in the mountains. Even in the coldest nights of winter, when frost tipped the grass and crusted the leaves, it never fell from the sky. Here, it spun through the air in dervishes that moved along the contours of the mountainside, both the textured peaks that rose up above them to the right, and the jagged drop into the misty drop to their left. The trees had stopped hours earlier, now it was all grey and white. Low clouds swallowed up the ground, leaving only a blue expanse over a bulging landscape of rolling white wisps.

“Just about,” Basia answered.

“You’ve been saying that for two hours. It better get true real soon, old man. It’s like every mason in the entire world had a contest to see who could build the worst fucking stairs and they all won.”

Auri snorted. “You’re whining, Talem, they’re just stairs. This is nothing compared to what we do every day back at the compound.”

“I guess. But they won’t let me complain about it.”

“I’ll have to ask them how they do that.” Auri pulled up next to Basia, who was studying a portion of the sheer stone that the stairway had been carved into.

“How they do what?”

“Make you shut up.” She threw him a smirk before turning her attention back to Basia. “Is this it?”

“Is what it?”

“Shut up, Talem.”

“You shut up.”

“Both of you shut it,” Basia snapped. “This is it. Twelve thousand steps.  Are you wearing your tabards?”


He glanced toward them, and when they nodded, he stepped through the stone wall. It molded itself around him, parting reluctantly, as if molten, then crawling together across his back to reform into the flat stone face. The stairway continued on, out of sight, far away from the entrance. Auri moved up to the step Basia had been standing on and took a breath, then leaned in and gingerly stepped forward. It did not feel like its syrupy consistency implied. Rather, it was like a fine powder or an impossibly heavy gas, the sensation she imagined from the cottony cushions of heavy morning fog that sometimes floated on the ponds of the royal gardens.

She moved through that strange substance in a slow advance, surrounded by absolute darkness and total silence.  It lasted long enough that her lungs began to ache for breath. She wondered if perhaps she had gotten turned around, or entered on the wrong step, or there was something wrong with the seal on her tabard. Then the mass parted, and the Dordoron appeared before her.

She stood in an entry hall like any other, on a dais with stairs leading down to a carpeted path. It was made of stone and mortar, there were banners along the pillared walls in the colours of the king, as well as a myriad of other flags. There were no shadows, nor torches or lanterns or any apparent source of light. Just an even glow, like a late dawn. It was not the eerie illumination that caught her breath, however, but what unfolded less than twenty feet ahead. The sides of the room curved outward; floor, ceiling and walls fell away to an expanse like nothing she had ever seen.

The Dordoron was not that paltry entrance. Instead it was a sphere carved into the heart of the mountain, hundreds of yards across, so vast that despite the strange lighting its furthest recesses teetered on the edge of obscurity. The stunning expanse of the room, with five immense bronze discs that stuttered the rounding hollow at even points along the circumference, as well as the top and bottom, served to emphasize the scale of the surface itself. It was all one great floor.

From above, she looked upon an enormous library, a winding maze of racks, shelves and stands for everything from books to scrolls and even rock slabs. No matter where she looked, up or down or side to side, she was staring at the top of thousands of acres of archives standing on ground that defied gravity. What was more, the reflections on the bronze discs were not only imperfect, they showed different rooms altogether, repeating into the distance until they became too small to see.

“Woah,” Talem exclaimed.


“Welcome,” said a gentle woman’s voice. “To the Dordoron. We are The Constant. It is good to see you again, Basia. It has been twenty-three years and eleven minutes since the last time you were here. We appreciate your punctuality.”

Basia stuttered at that, eventually deciding to just keep his mouth shut as he looked around like the rest of them to figure out where the voice was coming from. Before them a feminine figure in robes of radiant purple rounded the corner of the room where it bent into the hall beyond. She was swept up in silks of every gradient from violet to magenta, a luxurious display of wealth that failed to distract from the strangeness of her appearance. Her silhouette remained perpendicular to the floor on every step, but the transition was so abrupt that she seemed to flip absurdly into an upright stride toward them.

She was young, but far too odd to be pretty. Huge eyes, like that of a child, almost popped out of her head, and were unsettlingly misaligned. They were just like the Vigilant’s; no whites and all iris, golden brown gemstones within which moved a throng of black specks. They sidled around, forming brief swarms every now and then to indicate she was looking at something in particular. She was pale, and her hair was tied into an unkempt bun that let loose wiry stragglers to dance in front of her when she moved. Even dressed as glamorously as she was, she looked as if someone had swept a beggar girl from the streets and dressed her up in the farcical likeness of a queen. It was almost cruel, Auri thought, that no one had seen fit to tell her. Then those dark motes came together on the woman’s eyes until it was clear her attention was completely on Auri, and she understood why.

“You are Auri,” she said, and Auri noted that there was no echo despite their surroundings as the woman’s gaze flitted to her companions. “And you must be Talem. We are very excited to meet you both.”

Talem opened his mouth to respond, but the woman silenced him with a straightened finger, and then gestured for them to wait. Turning away she splayed her arm straight out to her side, and then as if running it across some imaginary surface, she swiped it sideways in front of her. Then the entire chamber before them rotated away and was replaced with another, almost identical copy. She repeated the gesture, each silent swipe of her hand turning the world before them to a new spherical chamber, slightly different from the one before.

“This is Our repository, Our record of what once was. Here We keep the memories of the world, and make certain the past is unbroken. For you who have chosen to serve, We offer a piece of that past, to take with you into the present. A piece of the past to shape the future. At the Ruin of Dannitth, when the Host of Man was destroyed, We were left with many things. As it is with humankind, however, so is it with magic.”

Auri  was having a hard time paying attention to her, feeling the wobble of seasickness at the constant shifting before them. As the procession continued, she could see that what was rotating in were the brass discs she had seen capping the edges of the circular chambers.

“Magic is a bridge to the High Truths, and once built the bridge may not be broken. Though each is their own walkway, oft we make pillars in the building. These artifacts remain hence their makers, and it is left to Us to find them new uses.”

“I don’t understand,” Auri started.

“They have lots of magical items and they want to give us some,” Talem offered.

“You are almost exactly correct, Fox,” the Constant continued as she kept up the pace, shifting the space before them. “But items such as these may not be given. They must be… paired. We have spent some time studying the two of you, and have prepared a selection of candidates for your perusal, and for theirs. Should you find one another, you may adjoin. Ah, here we are.”

The cycling motion stopped as her hand abruptly dropped to her side, and the view came to rest on an entirely empty room, its smooth grey surface interrupted only by the burnished flats on each of its side. It seemed to Auri as if the bronze was the true edge, and the rounded rock walls were merely decorative. The wizard gestured for them to follow, and began to walk forward, and Auri’s thoughts about what might happen if she dug far enough down into the rock were interrupted by the sudden shift of perspective as she went over the edge and into the chamber.

It turned out not to be entirely empty after all. Instead, a dozen or so apprentices in robes of mottled colours were lined up by two long wooden tables, each holding an assortment of items. She did not have to wait for the Constant to indicate which one was for her — the one on the right did not hold a single metallic item, and she assumed that they did not want her gift interfering with whatever power the artifacts possessed.


Coming up to the table, the first bauble before her was a simple sash of undyed linen cloth that was slightly frayed at the edges. She hesitated, and gave a look to the young man standing nearby, who smiled nervously at her.

“What do I do?”

“Oh,” he said, clearing his throat. “You just try them on. I can tell you what they are supposed to do, most of the time.”

“I see, please do,” she smiled at him and picked the garment up, holding it before her for a moment before tying it around her waist.

“This is a tattered sash. We do not know who owned it or how it was made, but used properly it keeps things clean. Well, sort of. It seems to absorb any dirt that should stain the wearer, so it actually becomes very filthy. Very, very filthy. Try the charcoal stick on the table once you’ve put it on.”

Auri wasn’t quite convinced she even wanted something like that to work. Filth had taken on a whole new meaning over the last year, as her body had begun to mature. The more she thought about it, the more certain she was that this was not an item for her at all. Shaking her head, she dropped the cloth back onto the table and gave the apprentice an apologetic smile. Then she turned to the next item, a leather bracer with an intricate, carved design.

“Ah, we call that one the swashbuckler’s grip. As far as we can tell, it sticks to just about anything.”

“I suppose that could be useful,” she nodded and put it on. It didn’t feel any different. She tried to grasp the table, but it just felt like leather to her.

“It seems you are incompatible. Don’t worry, that’s quite normal. Actually it’s quite rare for the gifted to match with any artifacts at all. That’s why we brought so many. I’m sure at least one of them will work for you.”

She found she was not really that disappointed. As far as arcane relics went, a sticky glove felt lackluster, and once she had put it back on the table she wandered a few steps along the display rather than simply moving on to the next thing in line. There were leather bracelets, a stone amulet, a bone dagger, but what finally drew her attention was a round piece of glass.

“That one we call the marksman’s monocle. It helps with aiming at very, very long ranges. We do not know exactly how it affects missiles, nor how it is able to magnify distant objects to the extent that it is. The glass is not curved like a regular spyglass would be.”

Auri was intrigued by the concept of a perceptive power, ever since she met Talem. He saw the weaknesses in things, or at least that was how he explained it, though it seemed to her that his power often gave him quite detailed information. It made her think that both people and things were more defined by their weaknesses than they cared to admit, but she never asked him what her own was. Picking up the glass, she was disappointed to see that the world looked no different when peering through it. She tossed it back on the table and turned around to find Talem right behind her with a wide grin on his face.

“Hey Auri, check this out,” he said and poked her gently in the ribs. When nothing appeared to happen, his face sunk into a pout. “Aw man, it was working just a second ago.” He proceeded to slap his own wrist a number of times, and she saw that he was wearing a new leather glove.

“What is it supposed to do?”

“It’s supposed to shock you,” he was still preoccupied with studying it as if there was some way to see what was wrong.

“You already matched with an item, and you tried to use it to shock me?”

“Yeah. I already know I match all of them, even the ones on your table, but this one is the most fun of the ones I’ve actually tried so far. Let me try one more time,” he narrowed his eyes at her and held his hand up as if it was a weapon.

Auri reached behind her to find the bracer from before. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” she warned as her hand closed on it. She already knew why the shocking glove hadn’t worked, but she wasn’t about to share her secret when it gave her an upper hand.

“Or what?” Talem taunted, and she lobbed the leather bracer at his face. He caught it effortlessly, raising a brow at her motives.

“That’s it?” he asked, and then gestured to throw the glove back at her. His face went sour when he realized that it was stuck to his hand. “Oh you little bitch,” his voice became a growl as he began a game of picking it off one hand only to find it stuck to the other. “How do I turn it off?”

“Beats me, I don’t even know how to turn it on.”

“Talem,” Basia interjected. “Stop fooling around and get back to selecting an item. I think the apprentices are having a collective stroke.”


That was how the next few hours passed, as Talem eventually gave up on getting rid of the bracer and just stuck it to the side of his head so he could continue testing the various items gathered before them. He matched with every single one, but Auri was dejected to find that there was not one trinket here that would have her. The apprentice who had welcomed her in the beginning stuck by her, but every other person in the room was gathering around Talem, who had taken it upon himself to wear every single item he could find and had veered into discussing how fashionable they were. She finished before he did, and sat down to watch the spectacle as her friend fired colourful sparks from a wind-up box into high into the air above them and deftly avoided giving any real answers to the questions posed by what had to be at least a dozen apprentices congregating around him.

“Don’t beat yourself up about it,” Basia said in a comforting tone of voice as he sat down next to her. “I didn’t match with anything either.”

“It’s not fair,” she whined. “He gets to match with everything and I don’t get a single one?”

“Yeah that’s astonishing actually,” the old veteran admitted. “Even the Constant seems to be impressed. Talem’s special, though. I think his gift is telling him how they work.”

Auri grunted at that, and then straightened up as the Constant turned away from the crowd gathered around Talem and approached the two of them.

“The salamander speaks the truth,” she spoke with a wise smile that looked strange stretched over her young features. “We believe your friend is enjoying the attention. Actually, Auri, We have a special gift in mind for you. It may not be magical in the sense that these artifacts are, but We believe it speaks more to your particular talents than anything on display here. Jubian, would you be so kind as to bring the parcel?”

“Yes mistress,” came the voice of the apprentice who had stayed by her, and he scuttled off to the other end of the table, where some boxes were stacked.

“Tell Us,” said the Constant. “Have you heard of the Three Plinths of Mith?”

Everyone had heard of them. That was the problem — heard of was exactly right. She knew they were a feature of Antion, the first city, but that was nearly all she really knew. Before the war, people had made pilgrimages to see them, because it was believed that the Plinths were somehow a window into God itself. That it was from there humankind had first spread out to settle the world, although the event was so ancient no records, nor even means of keeping records, yet remained to confirm the claim.

“No more than anyone else.”

“The bridge to God, or so it is believed, it symbolises Earth, Water and Sky. The first Plinth is set upon the firmament, and was there to give man solid ground in the ever shifting desert of Antus when he first set foot upon this world. The second is an unending spring, once our only source of sustenance in that barren land. Finally, at its peak, the Eye of of the Sleeping God itself. A jagged circle facing all of us at all times. Even now, though we are thousands of miles away, it is facing each of us. You felt its gaze upon you when you first received your gift. Felt the Aliud drawing you to it, for in that brief moment you had God’s undivided attention. It stirred in its slumber, and noticed you.” The Constant paused for a moment to accept a large shape wrapped in cloth from the returning apprentice, and then sat down beside Auri and Basia, smiling eerily as she began to unwrap the parcel. It was the size of an anvil, but though the apprentice had struggled to carry it to them, the wizard handled it as though it were nothing but a bundle of cloth.

“Now it is smooth, a polished gem in the long sands of Antion, but it was not always thus. Once, in the beginning, each Plinth was as jagged as the Eye itself. Over countless millennia, it has been worn down, and from that wear Our order collected its dust. We know little of its properties, save that it is a metal, and that it is nearly unbreakable. For its strange colours, We named it Prismith.”

As she finished speaking, the final folds fell clear of what she had been holding. It was a lumpy, deformed mass of a material unlike anything Auri had ever known. It was as though someone had trapped a rainbow in ash-stained glass; black when she looked right at it, but as its edges curved and wound around each odd angle reflected a different, darkened colour. She took a deep breath, and realized she could smell it, could feel pulsating it just beyond her reach. It called to her, as if it had been waiting all this time, as if it actually had the capacity to wait.

“All Our efforts to shape it have failed, but never before have We seen your gift in this world. So We bequeath it to your use, Auri Ateri. All that We have in this repository. We would give you more, but the old world is lost to us. Do not lose it — its worth is… It is priceless. Irreplaceable.”

Auri reached out at the offered knot of metal, and as before, the metal reached back to her. As soon as her fingers made contact, it streamed up around her, pushed itself inside of her, displaced her old alloys of alum and steel and bonded with her. It hurt, and she found herself screaming as it boiled upon her skin, and burrowed into her eyes and ears, underneath her nails and through her very pores. Her voice was cut short as the flare of pain abruptly subsided, and she found herself sitting in a mercurial pool, looking down at a new arm — her old arm. Prismith was special indeed, because it had replicated perfectly that which she had lost. A burned, sloughing mess of wounded flesh, the metal had imitated the colours perfectly to look as if her loss had been but a moment ago.

Basia flinched at the sight, and she could see him open his mouth and shut it. She wondered if he wanted to apologize again, and something told her this was her last chance to choose how to answer. Centering herself, she forced the apparition away, let her arm melt until its likeness disappeared into a murky, liquid shape. That part of her was gone, and she did not want it back. Instead, she called upon her memories of her mother’s clocks, and closing her eyes she began to build. She lost track of time as she constructed it, piece by piece, a fractal lattice approximating naked muscle. It was a mechanical design, and as she moved her arm it would respond, naturally enough that had she covered it in skin, it would have looked human. She knew that the prismith would let her do that, but as she opened her eyes and looked at it, she decided to go with silver instead. This arm would serve where her old one had failed, and the Prismith’s raw desire to merge with her made it feel more familiar than her flesh ever did.

“Incredible,” murmured the Constant, her wide eyes appearing almost human for once, with the dots coalesced into a focused point directed at her flexing arm.

Basia said nothing. His eyes were locked on hers, and his nervous smile spoke only of relief. She smiled back, and shared it with him.


>>Next Chapter. 


The New Thunder, Chapter 13

New to the series? Start at the beginning!

Year 60AR


The tavern was quiet but for a whispered murmur that seemed to have no discernable source, and a steady clatter of wood on wood. Iri found himself standing in the doorway looking in, at the odd illumination that left the perimeter covered in a surreal darkness. It was an odd sight, because the room was bustling with activity. Waiters and patrons were walking around, sitting at tables, having conversations and dancing to music that Iri could not make out but for a ghost of a whisper.

He walked among them, and somehow they always cleared out of his way without acknowledging him. As they veered aside, a path formed before him toward the center of the room, and as he saw it he had to stop for a moment at the sight before him. It was Auri, seven years old and all skin and bones and mischief, rolling a wooden wheel in a circle using a short stick. It was a children’s game they had played many times, to spin faster and faster trying to keep the wheel in check until it became impossible.

He wanted to run forward and hug her, but then the light caught her skin just right, and he saw that she was just a statue. She moved with the same whimsical grace he remembered, but there was no flush to her skin, and when she looked at him there was no green in her eyes; just blue steel, as cold as the earth. She smiled at him with an openness that made his heart want to leap from his chest, and in her moment of distraction, the wooden wheel trailed away.

Her eyes snapped to it as it hopped along the wooden floorboards until it bumped into an unwitting server and clattered to the floor. The man froze, and then as if some spell had been abruptly broken, turned to stare at Auri. For a moment, Iri thought he looked familiar, though his terrified face could have belonged to anyone, watching as the little girl skipped toward him. Others were weaving around him too, now. He had fallen out of their world, and into whatever unseen place it was he and Auri now occupied, and the shock of it held him fast.

Once his sister reached him, she stopped and stood up straight before him in a moment of almost theatrical inspection.

“Rules are rules,” she sang in mock apology, and then gingerly leaned forward and handed the man a little metal flower. As his hand clutched its tiny stem it began to grow, and as it did it began to whirr with a sound that Iri had heard before. In the space of two heartbeats it was the size of a grown man, and it lunged from his hand into his body. An agonized scream was all there was time for before the grinder had eaten him up, then shrinking back to its former size and coming to rest on the pile of gristle and gore that he left behind. A gleaming tombstone for a victim of a nonsensical game that he was not even been aware he had been playing.

Auri smiled as if she were pleased with herself, and turned back to him. Her steps still had a skip as she made her way over, stopping only to pick up the wheel and stick from the ground as she came across them. A few seconds later she was before him, but she did not speak a word. Instead, she simply held the wooden toys out to him as she had done so many times when they were children, and though he felt his throat tighten, he saw himself accept them both. Setting the wheel down to the ground, he began to lead it around using the rod, trying to keep its path aligned with his spinning.

It did not take long for him to lose traction with the stick, and for the wheel to roll along into the crowd once more. As he saw it bump into another man, he felt a weight in his hand and looked down to see a smooth glass filled up with fuming liquid. Then a wave of pain unlike anything he had ever felt washed over him, so intense he could hardly breathe, and the vision fell away, replaced by a strobing bright light.


Iri sputtered awake, trying to sit up and finding himself bound down. A headache was hammering over his eyes in tune with his pulse. It was difficult to breathe, as though a large weight had been sat upon his chest, and once his eyes adjusted to the light he found a host of unfamiliar faces staring down at him.

“Whah-” he started looking around at them. These certainly weren’t the thugs who had attacked them earlier. For one thing, they were all women, their skin had the deep bronze of Broshan heritage, and they were clean and well-dressed. One was wearing a dress that would not have been amiss at a ball, and the other two were covered in shirts and long skirts of crimson and yellow. “Where’s Auri?”

“Quickly,” the woman with the dress told one of the others in an accent Iri hadn’t heard in a long time, “go inform her Highness, and fetch his sister if you can.” As one of the servants excused herself out of sight, things clicked into place for Iri despite the throb in his head. Crimson and yellow were Broshan colours. Not only weren’t they thugs, these women were part of a noble entourage.

“My Sir,” she was looking at him now, speaking in the more familiar pidgin of the common folk. “You are safe, please remain still. I am Loraime, her Highness’ handmaiden.”

“I-I see,” Iri replied to keep a guffaw from escaping. “Where is my sister? Where am I?”

“Apologies, my Sir is in her Highness’ camp. Gravely wounded in his battle with a monster. Her Highness has had her personal physician look after my Sir during his recovery in gratitude for your sacrifice.”

“Her what? Her- oh.” Not just any noble, it seemed, though the situation raised as many questions as it answered. There was only one ‘her Highness’ in Broche, and that was the duchess, but he could not remember seeing any royalty at the tavern before he burned it. After a few moments to mull it over, he responded in fluent old Broshan. “I’m sorry, my Lady, I’m feeling a bit discombobulated by the sudden change in circumstances. How long was I out?”

“Dame,” Loraime corrected him. “My Sir came to our caravan with my lady Kozan two days ago.”


Iri let his tension fade out and melted back into the soft pillows of his bed. Nobles travelled in style, he noted, and even here in the camp there was a level of quality to everything that most people could not even conceive. The tent, if it could be called that, looked like it was made from a brown velvet. There were golden details embroidered into the seamwork, and bronze tassels hanging down at every corner as if to show where the wooden frame should go. It had to be big enough for twenty people to fit inside, but he could tell from the sounds that it was just him, the lady and the servant girl.

“Please, my Dame, call me Iri. I’m not in any shape to do the third person thing.”

“As you wish, Sir Iri. You may call me Zarie, then,” she said congenially, ushering away the remaining servant with one hand. “I am her Highness’ physician. How are you feeling now?”

“I think I may have broken something,” Iri pointed out when he found himself at a loss for comparisons to make. Zarie Loraime had two names, and in Broche that meant she was noble born — a true lady. That was why it surprised him a great deal when she gave a most unladylike snort.

“Yes, I think you may have,” she laughed. “Almost everything. My Sir is very brave to be so nonchalant about his pain. I would like to make you a tea to dull it, would that be alright?”

Iri blinked dumbly at her. “That would be extremely alright. May I ask you some questions first?”

“Yes you may, Sir Iri.” Already rising from the bed, she left him staring at her for a moment as she smoothed out her dress. “You may ask while I prepare the tea, we have everything we need right here.”

“I-I see. Well, first question: Why are you calling me Sir? I am just a scholar, you are a Dame by blood as far as I can tell. Why am I even here? Does the duchess normally pick up stragglers?”

Her response was to giggle as she turned her back and made her way to the stove that marked the center of the tent. A stove, in the tent, he marveled for a moment. While the Royal Academy was well funded, he had not been aware just how ridiculously separate the world of the endowed was from the common folk.

“That is more than one question, Sir Iri. I will address them as well as I can. Her Highness does not normally pick up straggler. You are here because your heroics at the Yellow Bellows has saved her Highness from an ambush that was doubtless planned to befall her, and because you are a scholar of the highest order.” As she spoke, her deft hands darted between various jars and crockeries stabled around the stove, gathering various herbs and spices into a small woven pouch. “As for your first question; I think you will find you are quite mistaken, but this is not my place to say. Her Highness will see you soon.”


That left him silent for long enough that she could finish the tea. While the room they were in was ostentatious, it seemed largely unfilled.. Most of the pillows in the room had been gathered up around him to make sure he was comfortable, but there was bedding for another three people prepared along the velvet walls of the tent’s interior. Suspended along its canopy were embroidered purple silk curtains meant to separate the sleeping spaces when night fell, falling just short of the cast iron stove in the center. There were several bowls of fruit, and near the door, three large pots for holding water as well as a small assortment of wines on a bizarrely short table. Even as he studied it, however, the opulence of the room was not what concerned him.

For her to call him a Sir meant that she viewed him as a peer of the nobility. The last time he checked, the orphaned son of a clocksmith and a refugee woman garnered no such acclaim. Scholars were highly regarded in Broche in general, but not to the point of being granted the status of an actual highborn. That meant that something had changed, or was about to. Before he could appreciate the exact details of the implication, however, there was a rustle at the entrance as Auri slipped inside.

She looked at him for a moment, and then her face warmed into a genuine smile that he had not seen since they were little. It wrenched on his heart as the childish expressions from his dream flashed before him, and he remembered how stoic she had looked before she had almost dismissively dismembered half a dozen men back in the tavern. He was still in her world, it seemed, and now that he had fully crossed over her armor was melting away.

“You’re up!” She said, still grinning at him as she crossed the room in a few busy steps. She opened her mouth as if to say something else, then closed it and just kept smiling.

“I’m up!” After a few moments of hesitation at the abrupt shift in her temperament from before, he decided to just go with it and smile back.

“Are you alright?”

“I seem to have broken my everything,” he said to a snort from Zarie, nodding toward the bandages covering most of the right side of his body, including the broken arm and his leg. “But I appear to be in good hands. How are you, were you injured?”

“I heal fast,” Auri told him, and he was reminded of the sight of her body rearranging itself after she had been thrown through the wall during the fight. “I was more worried about you. After I missed the first shot, I thought I had killed you.”

“How do you mean?”

“You rode in the wrong direction,” she said. “I had to chase after you. I wasn’t fast enough, so I tried to shoot the golem. I think I may have hit you by mistake.”

“That was you!?” Iri began to grin as he spoke in mock indignation. Finally he wasn’t the only one to make mistakes. “You shot me!?”

Her smile died away and she glanced off awkwardly, suddenly looking much smaller than the soldier he had been getting so used to. “Yes, well, it was my first time shooting anything.” Rather than stick with the embarrassment, her voice trailed off into actual concern as her eyes found his once more. “I’m so sorry, I was afraid I had killed you.”

“Oh well in that case,” he rolled his eyes. “You know this is going into the annals of history, right? The very first cannon was fired in the year 60AR, when the kozan Auri used it to shoot her own brother off a horse as he fled a terrifying monster.” He began to laugh, and then almost immediately to wheeze as his cracked ribs flared up inside his chest.

“That’s not funny,” Auri scowled at him. “But yes. That is what happened. I found you unconscious by the cliff’s edge and carried you back to the road, where I met the duchess’ envoy and they agreed to take you in.”

“Come on, Auri, it is a little bit funny.” Iri was too busy trying to laugh through his cough to respond immediately. She met him halfway with a sensible chuckle, shaking her head as they waited for his amusement to die down to an ignorable simmer.

“I could have killed you,” she said when his breathing had quieted back down. “I don’t think that’s funny at all. But I’m happy you aren’t angry with me.”

“You saved my life,” he answered. “That it wasn’t flawless just makes you human. It’s what makes it brave.” He meant every word, and he could see that as she straightened her posture back to its normal attention she appreciated having him say so.

“So if it’s flawless, then it can’t be brave?” His sister raised an eyebrow at him, giving him a condescending look as she waited for his reply.

“Bravery is found in danger, flawlessness in routine.” He didn’t take offense to her tone, considering the kind of person she had become. Despite her training to prepare for situations such as these, however, he was quite certain that this was one thing he knew better than she did. “Valor is an attribute of the damaged shield, not of the pristine. They may not be entirely exclusive, but are certainly not the same.”

“Sir Iri is quite the philosopher,” Zarie chimed in. The woman had finally finished pouring a cup of tea and was simply standing to the side waiting for the two of them to finish so she could administer it.

“A scholar and a gentleman both it seems.,” Auri’s voice took on a more official cadence. “Speaking of bravery; the duchess is coming to see you. She believes we, and you principally, just saved her from an ambush. That you are a hero of the ducal crown, and must be rewarded. She has a proposal for you.”

“She does,” Zarie replied before Iri could get a word in edgewise, having crossed to sit next to his bed as Auri spoke. Handing him the cup, she didn’t quite let go, but instead guided it up to his lips with gentle insistence. Their eyes met briefly before the hot liquid took his attention, and he noticed an almost dangerous gleam there as she finished speaking. “One that you should not refuse.”


The New Thunder, Chapter 12

Year 47AR


Rain crashed into the canopy of Artani conifers and pines in slick, fat droplets. Torn to pieces by the spines, they sprayed across the brush and shrubs of the forest in a thick drizzle, drenching everything in a constant stream of lukewarm water. More importantly, it was soaking into every part of Auri’s clothes, making them stick to her skin and impede her movements as she crawled along the ground on her belly, trying not to make a sound.

She had her eyes on her target, and her arm cocked back behind her, bent at an angle it should not have been able to reach. Since there was no flesh inside that twisted gauntlet, however, the rest of her gave no concern to the apparent agony she should have been in as it rose out of her shoulder blade like a scorpion’s tail. Talem and Basia were both close, but she could no longer hear or see them, her whole attention was on her target.

Her noise was shielded by the steady pour that pattered into every available surface, it had not heard her. Instead it was eating peacefully from one of the many shrubs that grew around them. Auri only needed its attention to stay there for a few seconds more, enough for her to get into range. This time she would not hesitate, she would not stand for another one of Basia’s grating chortles. Every time she failed he repeated his lessons of hunting, as if the problem was she did not remember what to do. Even worse were the apologetic glances from Talem; the implied agreement with Basia left hanging in the silence when he didn’t speak up.


Taking a final breath, she inched ahead, and as if the two of them had been waiting for the exact same moment the doe perked up and flinched toward her. Its eyes wide, it body was tensed into that instant of panic before its instincts could fly it to safety. Auri did not so much sling her arm as command it to flow forth, to stream through the air like an arrow trailing a wire of steel and alum alloy behind it. She felt it connect, split the hide and flesh and bone until the animal was impaled on a spit going from her shoulder into a trunk behind it. It did not die immediately, but it was over all the same, speared by a material which was as soft as water to Auri, but to everyone else it was unyielding steel.

“You did it!” she heard Talem should behind her. “It’s a big one, too!”

“She did,” Basia chimed in, “but she is not done yet.” He was much closer, so close that if he hadn’t spoken up she might have jumped when she looked around and almost collided with him. “You have to finish it, Auri. Don’t let it suffer.”

The deer seized as she sent a spike out of the lance and into its heart, then it collapsed in place. She found it was easy to kill now that her mind was made up, not like the first times when the gravity of it had stayed her. How fragile flesh was, she reflected, before reeling the material of her gauntlet back in and let it coalesce back into the shape of her arm. Still covered by gristly spikes and jagged lines, it was a metal sculpture of the blaze that had consumed her limb before. Basia did not like how it looked. Sometimes she caught him looking at it, and he would flinch miserably.

As soon as she was close enough, she picked up the animal and tossed it over her shoulders. She could feel the fibers that coursed through her go taut as they helped her carry it. Every time she was hurt she could feel her gift replace another little piece of her, repair her hurts with silver lining, argent veins that ran along her bones and sinews. While she had not told anyone, she suspected that Talem knew. He had a talent for noticing things like that, and for someone like him, the subtle tracery on her skin would be a dead give-away.

“I forget how strong you are, girl,” Basia said, following close behind her and apparently in the process of getting ready to help her carry it. She noticed the tremors in his hands as he was tightening the strap of his backpack, a shivering that never really left him. Even when was riding, his hands moved more than the horse could account for. He sounded chipper, though, and for the first time she didn’t really mind. “That thing is bigger than you are!”

“She’s damn tough,” Talem answered in her place. “That’s why He called her the Ratel.”

“What, some kind of rat? I guess they-”

“No, you ass!” Auri looked down to hide a smile as Talem kept talking. “I guess you’d know it as the ateri. Tough little fuckers from Muriad, my cousin once had one for a pet, til it bit his finger off.”

Basia laughed at that, and Auri had to take another look at him. She had thought his dark skin, almost black, had been a side effect of his power at first but now it suddenly made sense. He was from Muriad, or one of its islands to the far west of Mar. That was as far away from the Kingdom as you could get, even further away than her mother’s homeland. Most of the Muriadin lived in Dema, making up the majority of the people on the rag road. Was that the hole he had crawled out of?

“You’re saying the King himself named her after the honeybadger?”

Talem was pulling up alongside her now, so she could see him shake his head. Some day she would figure out how he managed to move so quietly. Even when he was talking he was hard to keep a bead on.

“No one sees the king,” he said almost sincerely, “but yeah, pretty much.”

“What about you?”

“What about me?” Talem looked at Basia. He was heavier, more solid, but Talem was significantly taller than him. Somehow the grizzled old soldier still made him look like a boy.

“What did he call you?”

“Tilki,” her friend answered, and she could hear the pride in his voice as he said it. For a Deman, that was about as lucky as nicknames could get. “The Fox. How about you?”

“Oh, Talem Tilki and Auri Ateri. Well, if that isn’t just the stuff of legends…” Basia was taking a moment to stretch his back, and had begun to look around, probably trying to get a bearing on their camp for their walk home. “You two were lucky. I got a damn lizard. Basia Beshandram. Basia the Fucking Salamander. Sometimes I think he just likes making alliterations. Nice when you get something neat, but not so much when you get a lizard that drops its tail and runs.”

“I don’t know, Sal, I think it fits pretty well.” Talem was grinning now. “I mean, the Turtle’s always in his castle, and I am quite clever.”

“Yeah,” said Auri, “and there’s no denying I’ve got mettle.”

Both of them turned toward her at that, and there was a moment of packed silence before the three of them broke into laughter. She hadn’t forgotten what had happened before, but out here they were all together. They’d tracked and taken down dinner, and Basia had sold himself as a pretty good chef when he had proposed the idea. After four days of traveling together, sleeping under the open sky, sharing rations and the heat of a bonfire, everything that had happened before seemed very far behind. It took a few minutes for the laughter to wind down, but when it did they were all still smiling.

“Alright,” Basia finally said once it became clear no one had a good follow-up. “Let’s get back to camp and I will see to getting that thing cooked.”


As they walked back through woods that gradually changed from the tall masts of the deep forest shorter and stouter maples and cypresses. The underbrush shifted as well, going from bushes and shrubs to tall straws and wide ferns. Walking through it was a slog, but Auri found she enjoyed it nonetheless. The sheer anarchy of life competing with itself filled it with a wonder entirely unlike what she felt in Kaplen’s carefully tended garden. Though she had always liked it there, out here there were no walls or doors, none of the makings of a prison.

Four hours later, the sun had disappeared past the trees surrounding their camp, and orange light was filtering through the spaces between them. Basia was finishing up their dinner, and Talem and Auri were busy making fun of his fussing.

“Be careful with those peppers, Sal,” Talem was saying, “we know you like things hot but keep an eye out for the rest of-ow!”

Auri jabbed him in the ribs with her elbow and gave him a dirty look that quickly transitioned into a smile. When she looked back at Basia, he was carving the meat and grumbling, and she wondered how steady his cuts would be given how his hands were shaking. In the end, she supposed it did not matter. Talem could mock him as much as he wanted, but it smelled incredible, a mix of charred game and curry spices. She also thought it was kind of sweet that he was using his gift for controlling fire to make sure the meat cooked just right. He had told them when he started that if there had never been a war, that would have been all he’d ever use it for. If there was anything that she resented about him, it was that the man so poorly fit the image in her mind.

Basia did not take a bowl for himself. Instead, he sat down across from the two of them and began to rummage around in an oilcloth bag, clearly looking for something. When he looked up, his voice had taken on the cadence of a storyteller. Apparently, he wanted to provide entertainment as well.

“Have you ever heard of Dread Marches, and the Bannerclans?”

“Everyone has,” Talem was droning and making theatrical gestures of exasperation with his arms that kept being interrupted by his quick mouthfuls of food.

“I haven’t,” Auri intoned, and she could hear Talem deflate beside her as Basia began to smile. He was still rummaging around inside his bag when he began telling his story.

“Muriad was not like any other realm on Mar. It was a thousand island tribes kept in check by the fleet of the mainland empire. A tough land and a tough people. There was constant civil war between the island tribes. We were really only a nation if something attacked us from outside.”

Basia finally managed to get what he was looking for, and drew out a strange contraption. It was a deflated bladder, attached to a set of pipes and a nozzle. The pipes were strapped together, one short with a multitude of finger-holes, and one long pipe with no holes at all.

“There we go,” he said and took a moment to check that the bag was tight. “This is a gaita. When I was young we used to joke that it was a starting instrument for bards, because if the crew threw you overboard, you could use it to float.”

“Wait,” Talem had perked up at the appearance of the strange instrument. “Are you saying you’re actually from Muriad? That you were there? That was over sixty years ago!”

Like Kaplen, Basia looked middle-aged, but she knew that for Kozan that could mean a lot of things. Some wizards were rumored to live to be hundreds of years, and they still looked young. Something about the magic that gave them their gifts also invigorated them, kept them healthy and let them train their bodies to endure more than what they should. She wondered what she would look like at that age.

“I am,” Basia finally answered, “and I was. I was twelve when the hordes first surged out of the Antus desert and began to overrun the villages on our borders. They moved so fast, no one knew we were under attack until they reached the city of Imazi. We did not know of the Adversary then, just that monsters had come from the sands, killing soldiers and dragging people back into the desert. I was not there for that first attack, or the second. I was born on an island called Jola, so I did not hear of the attack before the refugees started coming to the coast.

“How is the food?”

The question was so jarring that it took the both of them a moment to get their wits about them enough to answer. Auri hadn’t even touched hers, even though she was starving, so she sheepishly drew a piece of meat through the rice and sauce in her bowl and wolfed it down. Talem hadn’t been kidding about the food being spicy, and she felt the burn on her lips the moment it touched them. Too embarrassed to make a point out of it, however, she just kept chewing and nodded so Basia could get on with his story.

There was something  cosy about sitting here with her best friend, and even Basia was slowly beginning to grow on her, even though the admission chafed her. The smell of meat on a spit and the small pots of rice and sauce next to the fire, the sound of Basia’s deep voice sharing an experience very few people alive today shared, the gentle wind that kept them from being too hot, and the rhythmic flapping of the tarp that kept them from getting all wet. As if they had built an island in the forest, and brought everything they needed to stay.

“It’s delicious,” she admitted as soon as she finished chewing her second bite. Then she stopped to think for a moment. “Thank you.”

“I am happy to hear that you like it.” Basia finally straightened back up, and began to arrange the pipes and nozzle of his instrument on his lap.

“I also think it’s delicious,” Talem pointed out with some indignation, “in case anyone was wondering.”

“Yes, very good. Now where was I?”


“I believe you were about to start running away.”

Auri couldn’t be quite sure, but she thought she may have seen Basia scowl at Talem’s quip, so she gave him another elbow for good measure.

“Please keep going. I want to hear the rest.”

“Yes, by all means,” grunted Talem and gave her a piqued glance.

“The refugees began to appear along the Muriadin coast. They told the people they met of how monsters had overrun the mainland. Their descriptions were incoherent, terrible creatures drawn from the depths of nightmare, creatures like nothing found in nature, or if they did resemble some animal, they were twisted perversions. The people begged for help to flee, and a call went out across the islands. For over a month every boat in Muriad ferried whoever they could. Then we saw them for ourselves.

“I believe you have seen pictures, but there is nothing that can truly prepare you. Once they appeared, every day saw fewer boats coming to help. We were relieved at first, to see they stopped at the shore. I suppose, coming from the desert, they did not know how to swim. At least not until the Glaivians appeared.”

“Glaivians?” Auri had stopped eating again. She thought perhaps some of the cosiness had given way to the tension in Basia’s story. The kozan at the compound were always reticent of sharing too much of the Enemy, whether to spare the cadettes or because they simply did not like to speak of it.

“The Hives, during the war, they still moved around. We named them for what they were, behemoths that reaped mankind as wheat. They did not fear the water. It was then things began to change. Our boats would go missing, men dragged screaming beneath the waves by the drowned dead.” He took a deep breath, shuddering visibly at the memory, and she could see his hands pick up that ever-present tremble as he clutched his instrument.

“We learned that there was no defeating this enemy, and that we had to flee. Many refused to go. Others had no way of doing so. Most of those who left went to the north, around Thrand. I think it was the wise choice in the end, I know many of them made it safely to Dema. Me and my brother went south. Had I known a Glaivian would follow us, we would have sailed out to sea until it swallowed us instead.”

“What happened?” Talen asked.

“After five days at sea, our boat sank near Ushei. We swam to shore there and crossed the mountains into Domar. There we tried to warn them, but they would not listen to boys. So we ran west. We had no horses, so progress was slow. Some soldiers caught up with us a few days later, and asked us to tell them of the creature from the sea and how to fight it. My brother laughed at them and told them: ‘If we knew how to fight it, we would not have run.’”

He chuckled at that, and as he closed his eyes to savor the memory his hands quieted down over his instrument for a moment. Then their soft quaking returned as he came back into the present.

“This time they listened. It still took us over a month to make it to the border of Shunda, and by then we were part of a vast stream of people. That was the Dread March. All of Mar retreating east, as far as the land would take them. I told my brother we had to stop running. That we had to stand and hold them back, to buy time for the women and children.”

Basia trailed off for a while, and returned to adjusting his pipe, and Auri and Talem spent the pause exchanging a meaningful look.

“He died during our first battle together. That was when I discovered my gift of fire. I would have died, if by coincidence I had not also been discovered by the Gallant and his Bannerclans. It was the Gallant who told us what the Enemy was using the prisoners for, though we had suspected as much: That every person saved, or even killed before they could be dragged away, was a monster we would not have to fight. Have you met him?”

Both of them shook their heads. While the wizard Vigilant was nearly always at the compound, the Gallant was usually found at the front. Auri knew he had duties relating to both the War and the Dordoron, but she did not know that much of what wizards actually did or even could do.

“The Gallant is true to his name. The Bannerclans were just an idea. They were nothing more than a set of thirty banners the kings of the east had made up, that gave its carriers the right to requisition resources, and to recruit men in the name of the king. We skirmished monsters, bought time for refugees and granted mercy to those we could not save. When our numbers became too low to keep fighting, we fell back and replenished them from the people who were running. They recruited me in that way, and I in turn recruited many more.”

“Did they just volunteer?” Auri put down the bowl. While the food was good, the story had killed her appetite.

“We sang for them,” he took a moment to breathe into the bladder on his lap, and it began to rise. “They were often hungry and cold, out of food and short on supplies. We had both. We would invite them our camp, and sing for them. They knew what we were asking, and enough of them always joined our song.”

“I’m not going to sing with you,” she said. Breaking the ice was one thing, but she could not stomach the thought of making some sort of pact with the man. “I’m already kozan. That’ll have to be enough.”

“You are, and it is,” he nodded, and took a last breath into the nozzle of his bagpipe, until it was sitting taut against his stomach. “The Bannermen were always just an idea. That was their beauty — they only need one person to survive, and to pass it on. That is why I want to sing it for you. I would like it to survive me as well.”

“Who says anyone is going to die?” asked Talem, who had not lost his appetite at the story judging from the empty bowl at his feet.

“Come winter, the kozan and the rest of the king’s forces are attacking a Hive,” Basia stated grimly, and his arms jerked enough that the pipe released an off-key whine. He ignored it, and tightened his grip on the pipe and nozzle. “I have seen a Glaivian in battle before. I had hoped I never would again. Many will die, and I will be at the front of it.”

Basia began to play, his instrument producing two simultaneous tones: a low and constant hum from the long pipe, and a pitched whistle from the shorter one. Despite his unsteady hands, his fingers were quite deft across the holes of the flute, and the music that came out was a somber and melancholy melody that made Auri think of loss. Basia’s voice was soft and low as he sang, and he formed the words in the practiced manner of someone who had sung them a hundred times before.


Fellow, shelter here
Fallow, we have room to spare
The road is long, the night is cold
Take heart in the fire’s fold
Follow come the morn
Follow all the Three Kings’ horn

Fellow, last to join
Fallow, now last to remain
The war is long, the iron cold
Take to heart the battle’s mould
Follow ere your clan
Follow aft our bannerman


When he finished the atmosphere of the camp had been distilled into an air of quiet reflection. His story had given the sun time to complete its journey past the horizon, and Auri’s preemptive refusal did not leave room for conversation. As the night sunk in, and the story wound into her memory to inform her dreams, she pondered that perhaps Kaplen had been right. That she may not always appreciate this life, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t good. She would be content leaving behind a story like Basia’s. So as she closed her eyes, she let her mind repeat the song inside, and in those final waking thoughts, joined in.


Author’s note: Be sure to check out my blog post if you like the song!

>>Next chapter.


Prologue: The New Thunder

Record of the Master Wizard Vigilant

Address to the Dukes’ Conclave

Cirka year 55 Anno Regia


A long time have We lived, and many wonders witnessed. Ages come and go, kingdoms rise and fall, for no castle may stand fast upon the shores of time. Such a swell have We seen ere, by the limit of that sphere, of waves relentless surging, sweeping, drawing then to now and there to here. We have faced its shadow long and its current wild and strong, and known: Now everything will change.


Once, We stood upon the fields of Shunda and Gallatth, the Adversary’s swarm oncoming with grim guise and gruesome wrath. That darkness creeping cross the distance of nightmares daunting reminiscence, called by The Foe into existence, a ridge surmounting all resistance. For years its tide had built, nothing aft its wake but wilt, its waters swept the realm of man, washing clean the ancient land. Then that tidal force fell back, and casting a new shadow black, there the Three Kings stood with all mankind, a bulwark made of steel and arcane mind. So it was We then beheld, a crash colliding with itself, and knew: Now everything will change.


Much has shifted, more has stayed, no Adversary yet remains, nor Three Kings standing fast in Mar’s embrace. For though the Snake’s head is no more, its body still does wage the War, the holding holds but will restore nothing of what was before. Those waters have been still, stale from many decades passed, and yet We find ourselves once more upon that wonted shore. Here we see again that shape that shifts domain and age, a swell anew within our view and casting shadows this time neither king, nor soldier, nor mage. A thing unknown though knowing makes it, what winds within the whitecap’s wake is this: Now everything will change.


>> Chapter 1