Arynn Shima carefully poured the rat’s blood into a small phial, corked the top and then shook it around, checking for consistency. He placed it back down on the table once he was satisfied, and made a small mark with his quill on a parchment. He pushed what was left of the rat off the table and into a small waste basket sitting on the floor.
He didn’t enjoy it, but killing small animals and extracting the blood from within was a chore he’d gotten used to. Recent times had seen him in dire need. He hadn’t had a client in weeks, but that very morning a young nobleman had arrived at his doorstep, pale with sickness. It hadn’t taken Arynn long to get past his queasiness over killing a rat, especially when faced with a sackful of coin. A man had to feed himself, after all.
The nobleman had been bitten by a Shoal Snake, a small, banded serpent that lived primarily along the shorelines of northwestern Halen, near Kura. Any good herbalist could have whipped up an anti-venom in moments, but then, herbal cures were often chancy. That was why he had come to Arynn. He was well known in Cilasia among the nobility for his willingness to do what was asked on demand, and keep the information to himself. That particular noble would have gone to the Alchemist’s League, but apparently the reason he had been near Kura was to spend time with his mistress, a fact that his young wife would have eventually learned.
Arynn had graduated from the Alchemist’s Academy in Shavi ten years earlier, and had risen to stardom in the Halish Alchemist’s League quickly. There was a time he was the most sought-after alchemist in Cilasia, perhaps even the whole of Halen, but that had ended nearly three years earlier.
Arynn had been removed forcibly from the Alchemist’s League. He had been hired by a local noblewoman to help her conceive a child. He had followed the instructions needed for a fertility tonic perfectly, making certain to let the right oils sit for the right amount of time. He was confident that next time she lay with her husband, she would end up with child.
Instead, the woman died. She turned a color of sickly green soon after taking the tonic, and within the day, her heartbeat had ceased. Arynn still didn’t understand what had happened. The woman’s husband had demanded Arynn’s life be forfeit, but then King Nadus stepped in. He instead decided it be best that he be removed from the Alchemist’s League, and forbidden from practicing alchemy.
If he had ever been discovered by the Alchemist’s League to still be practicing, he would be put to the sword, which left him with a very few select clients he could work for.
Work still came, but not with the regularity and reliability as it had when he was a member of the League. His clients were limited to thieves and unfaithful noblemen, but his strict moral code prevented him from seeking more lucrative business, concocting poisons and drugs to befuddle and enthrall.
He opened his desk drawer and picked out three small empty beakers, each with corked tops, and a measuring glass, and lay them on the table. He needed to allow the rat’s blood to congeal, and that would take a couple of hours. After which time, he would need to extract a specific oil from it by heating up the vial, which would separate what he needed from the blood, after which time he could scoop out what had risen to the top, and then proceed with the making of the tincture.
A knock came to his door abruptly. He nearly jumped out of his skin. Rarely did he ever hear the door knock, and now it was twice in one day. Since he’d moved away from the Alchemist’s Apartments near the palace to the dilapidated streets behind the marketplace, the only visitors he ever received were usually beggars. He quickly grabbed the vial of rat’s blood, and placed it in his desk drawer, making sure to hide anything he might have that would allude to him still practicing the art.
The knock came again, louder this time. “Just a moment!” he exclaimed, then made a final check, making sure his glass jars and phials were safely hidden away. By the time he finally opened the door, he almost felt his heart stop.
“Arynn,” a young, black-haired girl at the door greeted, smiling. “You are a hard man to find.”
“What do you want, Astara?” Arynn asked. He wore a look of annoyance. She was the last person he had expected to see. He hadn’t seen her since before he had been expelled from the League, when she had simply disappeared, leaving nothing behind. Not a note, not an article of clothing. Nothing.
“A fine greeting for an old lover, isn’t it?” Astara asked. She set a foot inside his door. “May I enter, or shall we have it out here in the street?”
Arynn just stared back at her for a moment, debating whether or not to allow her entry. Finally, he relaxed and opened the door, allowing her inside, and closed it behind her.
Astara walked into the room and looked around. “A big difference from your old apartment at the League, wouldn’t you say?” She draped her arms over his shoulders.
Arynn immediately felt suspicious. He knew Astara well enough to know that she wouldn’t have acted that way unless there was something she wanted. He had known her for years, since she was just a little waif of a girl, living on the streets of Cilasia. She had once been caught stealing apples and bread at the marketplace, and Arynn had defended her when the shopkeep had threatened to beat her. Astara had been shouting back at him, calling out obscenities that no young girl should have known to speak. He’d thought he was rescuing a young girl from harm, but it wasn’t until afterwards that he had realized he had in fact saved the shopkeep from much worse. Astara was a powerful fighter.
But she had become attached to him, made curious by the strange man who had stuck up for her and asked nothing in return.
A year later, she had seduced him, and the two shared a bed on many occasions. She would often disappear for months at a time, but would always return to Arynn’s doorstep sooner or later. That is, until he was accused of murder. It was around that time that she left and never returned.
At least, until now.
“Why are you here?” he demanded, pulling away from her embrace.
“Why Arynn, with that tone you’d think you never missed me,” she said, then leaned in and stroked his face. “You look thin, haven’t you been eating well?”
“It’s hard to eat well when you’re forbidden from practicing alchemy,” he said.
“Forbidden, bah!” she threw a dismissive hand in the air. “If I recall correctly, you and I have done many, many things that were forbidden.” She winked at him seductively.
“I have work to do, Astara,” he said, then moved past her. He didn’t have time to deal with her. He still had to prepare the tincture.
“Fine, fine,” she said. “If you must be all business, then here.” She pulled a phial from her pack, and then handed it to him. Inside was a clear fluid, with a tint of yellow color.
“What’s this?” he asked, then uncorked the top and smelled it. He reeled away from it and coughed. “It smells horrible.”
“It grows on you,” she said, winking. “I rather like the smell. I’m not sure what it is, that’s why I brought it here.”
He looked through the vial in the sunlight that poured through his window, then smelled it again. “Where did you get it?”
“From a red gourd,” she said. “Made of some strange material I’ve never seen before. Very light and strong. As far as I can tell, it’s used to propel a machine. They call it gasoline.”
“Machine propellant? Gasoline?” Arynn asked. He shook his head. “Impossible. Machines can’t be operated with fluid, they must be operated by hand.”
“Not this machine,” she said. “It had four rubber wheels, and a man could ride atop of it while the machine took them to their destination. I learned what I could from the ones who brought it, but there’s much even they didn’t understand about its operation.”
Arynn only stared back at her. “Impossible,” he said. “No such machine exists. How would you know where to start?”
“I want to know what you can find out about this,” she said, closing his fingers around the phial. She kissed him on the cheek. “And tell no one,” she whispered in his ear.
With that, she turned around and walked to the door. She gave him one last glance and flashed him a wanton smile. A moment later, she was gone and out in the street, the door closing behind her.
“Hey, you. Erma, right?” Ryan asked, poking his head out of the doorway of his bedroom. He’d just taken one of the most comfortable baths of his life in his own private bathroom, attached to his guest room. Just one of many within the House of Roses.
“Yes, Sire?” she asked, her face turning red as she looked to the floor. She must have noticed that all he was wearing was a towel.
“Uhh… Where are my clothes?” he asked. “I left them sitting on the bed here, and now they’re gone.”
The girl looked up. “I took them to be cleaned, Sire. They were very dirty.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I figured it was something like that, but you took my shoes, too.”
“Very sorry, Sire,” she said, curtsying. “Is there nothing in the wardrobe you wish to wear instead?”
“You can drop the Sire thing,” he said. “I’m no nobleman.” He then thought on what she’d said. “Wardrobe?” He ducked his head back in and looked around. He saw another door, but nothing that resembled a wardrobe. He walked to the other door, still holding his towel around his waist, and opened it.
He dropped the towel.
The room was as big as his apartment, and filled with clothes. All made of fine materials, silk, satin, velvet, even some materials he didn’t recognize. He saw plenty of shoes and boots, but most would have looked more at home on a woman’s feet. Or a clown’s. Not finding anything suitable, he opted instead to put on a pair of clean blue jeans and a fresh t-shirt, this one proclaiming his love for A Perfect Circle. He got dressed quickly, and then bounded out into the hallway. He noticed Erma farther down the hall, tending to the dust on a tabletop. “Hey!” he said, waving at her. “Can you bring my shoes back? I’m going to need them.”
The girl nodded. “Yes, Master. Gladly.” She turned to hustle and squeaked loudly as she nearly walked into a tall dark-haired woman.
“Watch where you’re going, Erma!” the woman barked. Ryan turned to get a better look. She was wearing a very fine black dress, a sleek little number that would go over well in Dunsmith, like an evening gown. It was something he imagined a girl would wear going down the red carpet. The woman looked over to Ryan and her eyes flashed. “Hello there,” she said, batting her eyelashes. “Now you would be one of Nalya’s friends, wouldn’t you?”
“Uhh. Yeah,” Ryan said. “I’m Ryan. Ryan Stills.”
Erma deked past the woman, and hurried to her tasks. The woman tilted her head to one side, and seemed to study Ryan for a moment. “My name is Delora,” she said. “Nalya is my cousin.”
Ryan nodded. “I’ve heard,” he said. He wasn’t sure what to make of her. Nalya had warned them about her, cautioned them to walk lightly in her presence. She was attractive enough, but if she had been responsible for Nalya’s exile…
“I’m sure you have. I imagine my cousin has spoken many a glowing word about me,” she said. She walked closer to Ryan, slowly. She still seemed to be studying him. Ryan suddenly felt like a piece of meat, being sized up by a butcher.
“Where do you hail from, Ryan Stills?” she asked.
Nalya had mentioned that she wasn’t to be trusted. However, there wasn’t much he could tell her that she couldn’t find out on her own. “A town called Dunsmith,” he said. “In the Disputed Lands.”
“Disputed Lands?” she laughed. “A Freeman in the House of Roses? How the societies will talk.”
“I’m not a Freeman,” Ryan said. “I’m Canadian. We’re not originally from the Pactlands.”
“Oh?” she said. “Then just where are you from, Ryan Stills?”
Ryan shrugged. “Hard to say. Let’s just say you’ve never heard of it and leave it at that.” She was starting to make him feel uncomfortable. The way she looked at him was more akin to a hungry cougar than the young girl she appeared to be. Even if Nalya hadn’t told him to be careful, he wouldn’t have trusted her.
“Very well, then,” Delora said. “If you will not share that with me, perhaps you will share the reason my cousin has returned from the Disputed Lands with such haste.” She glanced at him sideways. “She wasn’t due to return for some time.”
“I think you’d better talk to Nalya about that,” Ryan said. “It’s not my place to say.”
Delora laughed. “Of course,” she said. She moved in closer to him and placed her fingertips on his chest, then looked directly into his eyes. “Nalya’s warned you about me, hasn’t she? She’s told you that I was responsible for her exile.”
“Are you?” Ryan asked.
“Indirectly,” Delora said. “But it was her own doing. Has she told you of her crime?”
“What do you mean?”
“Ahh,” Delora said. “Then she hasn’t told you, has she? Why she was really exiled from Rasza?”
“Delora!” came Nalya’s voice, sharp and quick from down the hall. Ryan looked over and saw Nalya stalk up the hallway towards them. “Leave him alone,” she demanded.
“Why cousin, whatever for? Surely Ryan is old enough to choose who he would exchange words with,” she gave Ryan a sly smile and a wink.
“He’s no concern of yours, cousin,” Nalya said. She shot an icy glare at Delora.
Delora simply ignored it, and then looked to Ryan. “Perhaps this conversation would be better received at a more… private hour?” she asked.
Ryan only stared back dumbly. Delora gave him a delicate wave and ran her hand along his shoulder as she stepped past him, and then disappeared down the hall.
“What the hell was that about?” Ryan asked.
“I told you,” Nalya said. “She can’t be trusted.” She turned around and started to walk away, but Ryan lashed out and grabbed her by the hand.
“Why were you exiled?” Ryan asked. “She said you committed a crime.”
“It’s my business,” Nalya said, purposely looking away. “I would not burden you with it.”
“Burden me anyway,” Ryan said. He thumbed a shoulder in the direction Delora had walked off in. “Because if you don’t, she will, and I bet she’ll have plenty of other things to add to it.”
Nalya violently shook her hand from Ryan’s grasp and shot him an angry look. “And you would trust her?” she demanded. “You would take her word, a liar’s word over my own?”
“I didn’t say–”
“No, but you thought it!” Nalya accused. She glared back at him, but after a moment, dropped her defenses. Her shoulders slumped, and she sighed. “Several months ago, my father was killed,” she said.
Ryan only looked back at her, his face expressionless. “I’m sorry,” he said, but Nalya put her hand up to stop him from speaking.
“It was an accident. A horrible accident,” she said. The tears were starting to well up in her eyes. Ryan could see she was having trouble speaking.
“Listen,” Ryan said. “You don’t have to–”
“No,” she said. “You’re right. It’s better you hear it from me than… her.” She took another deep breath. “He and I had been in the mountains bordering Rasza and the Disputed Lands. We were… searching for something. My father was always one to seek out the truths to old legends. I’m not exactly sure how it happened, we were climbing and… I lost track of him. I’m not sure how long, but when I went to check on him… he wasn’t there. He’d slipped off of his rope.” She shook her head. “He fell. It was my fault.”
“No, no. It was an accident, you said so yourself,” Ryan said.
“When I returned to Telemenn with the news, Delora accused me of murder,” she said. “She said that I must have arranged for his death. I must have cut his rope.” She started shaking uncontrollably. “I defended myself the best I could, but Delora’s father had rallied the entire family against me. Even my own mother…” she sighed. “I was found guilty. Afterwards I was placed in exile. Bayne was the only one who remained loyal to me. He was the only one who would believe me. I was at my end, ready to take my own life. He pulled me out of it and brought me to Halen. The last place I would find solace.”
Ryan only remained silent, listening.
“I had nothing left for me in Rasza. Halen was my only choice. I had an uncle here, the Seer, as you know. He’s my mother’s brother. He believed in me. If not for him and Bayne, I’m not sure I would have survived. That’s when I petitioned the King for a title,” she said.
“So you’re not actually nobility?” Ryan asked.
Nalya shook her head. “No,” she said. “But Halish law requires that whether they be man or woman, anyone seeking the title of nobility must prove themselves capable and brave. It was nearly a month ago when he gave me command of a thousand men and sent me into the Disputed Lands to spy on Vector. Keltz and I went to school together, and he volunteered to join me.”
“So… wait, I don’t understand,” Ryan said. “You left them behind. You didn’t complete your quest.”
Nalya nodded. “I know. But something far more important came up.” She looked to Ryan. “You.”
Ryan was taken aback. “Wait, you dropped all of that to help us?” he asked.
Nalya nodded. “The mission isn’t over,” she said. “Only the details have changed.” She wiped the tears from her eyes and looked up.
Ryan stood, speechless. He was searching for something to say, but came up empty.
Nalya took a deep breath and smiled at Ryan. “It feels good to tell someone,” she said. “Thank you for understanding.”
“It’s a rough situation,” Ryan said, putting his hand on her shoulder. “You shouldn’t be afraid to tell me anything. You can trust me.”
Nalya nodded. “I know. You’ve proved that to me already,” she said.
“Good, now stop crying,” he said. “Delora might see you and go tell her noblewoman friends. And you know how they like to talk,” he joked.
Nalya laughed. “I do indeed.” She cocked her head up and looked around. “The hour grows late. We should start preparing for the Harbinger’s Ball,” she said. “The King will be surprised to see me back so soon, if he hasn’t heard already. I think Delora may be here to try and sabotage my petition for a title. I can only hope she hasn’t done any irreparable damage.”
“I don’t know if it would help, but we’ll vouch for you,” Ryan said.
Nalya smiled. “It just may,” she said, then turned. “I still need to bathe and dress. Find the others and have them get ready. We’ll leave for the Palace this evening.” She looked him up and down. “You aren’t going to wear that, are you?”
Ryan shook his head. “No,” he said. “I plan on wearing shoes, too.” He smirked.
Nalya smiled back at him, and then walked past him into the bathroom. “I’ll see you soon,” she said, and then closed the door behind her.
Boomer leaned over Raine and shook his head. “I told you to be careful,” he said, checking the large gash down his leg. He had been struck by a wayward piece of stone launched by a young geomagi. From what little Boomer knew of First Aid, he knew it was unwise to move him until he had been tended to by a healer. The two of them sat in a small forest clearing while Boomer radioed Lily to have her send Marcie Cullen, the mobile healer for the red team.
“Hey man,” Raine said. “I didn’t expect her to shake the ground out from under me.”
“Good,” Boomer said. “That means next time you will expect it.”
The cut ran from his knee all the way down to his shin, cutting a hole in his jeans. Blood flowed ceaselessly from the wound. “Does it hurt?” Boomer asked.
“Of course it fucking hurts,” Raine shot back. “It’s not exactly a paper-cut –”
There was a slight rustle in the bushes nearby.
“The hell was that?” Raine asked.
“Marcie?” Boomer called. That was fast, he thought to himself. He had only just made the call.
There was no reply. Boomer stood up and looked in the direction of the bush. He furrowed his brow. Something didn’t feel right. He could feel a presence. Closing his eyes, he reached out with his mind, trying to find Marcie. Within a moment, he could sense her– she was still fairly far away, but he could tell she was making her way towards them. He opened his eyes again.
If Marcie was still en route, then who…?
Suddenly, the bushes behind him rustled. Boomer swung around and looked, but saw nothing.
“The hell is that?” Raine asked. “Hey!” he exclaimed. “I’m injured here, I’m out of bounds!”
“Shut up,” Boomer said. “That’s not one of us.”
Raine looked back at Boomer and frowned. He held his hand in the air and set it aflame.
“Who’s there?” Boomer demanded.
The bushes rustled again, this time directly behind Raine, and Raine found himself spinning around. He launched a fireball into the bush.
“Hey!” Boomer exclaimed. “Take it easy, we don’t know–”
All at once, the bushes around them exploded in a flurry of movement. Boomer was caught completely off-guard, and barely had time to avoid the attack coming from both sides– he didn’t have time to look, but from Raine’s surprised grunt, he knew that whoever or whatever it was had already gotten to him. He dived to the ground, then rolled onto his back. Something was standing over him, leaning down to face him. It had a large snout, crested with feathers, and one of its eyes seemed to be made of pure silver.
“Smell like Wildsong,” it said. “Friend of Wildsong?”
Boomer only looked back at the thing. It reared up and allowed him the space he needed to sit up. From behind it, he could see three more. “I’m.. I don’t know what you mean,” he replied. He couldn’t believe it– if he hadn’t already seen a T-Rex, he wouldn’t have believed it. But here it was, right in front of him. A talking dinosaur. A raptor, covered in feathers.
“Wildsong,” it said, then lowered its head down to Boomer’s face and took in his scent. “Wildsong and Bloodflower and Sharpsight.” It turned around and barked loudly at another, raptor, and it stepped forward, producing something in its hand.
Boomer’s eyes popped open as he recognized it. It was a plastic lighter. A Bic. He looked back at the creature. “You mean Ryan? Ryan and Terra?”
The creature hopped about excitedly. “Wildsong! Wildsong and Bloodflower!” He turned around and barked at the others, and they barked back. “You is friend of Featherclaw!”
The creatures backed away from Boomer, allowing him the space he needed to stand. “You’ve met them? You’ve seen them? Are they okay?”
“They is okay,” the creature said. “My is name Silvereye. We come for blood harvest. Wildsong goes north, to country of men.”
Boomer didn’t know what blood harvest meant, but he didn’t like the sound of it. He looked down at Raine. “Is he okay?”
“He firebringer,” Silvereye said. “He almost burn Sharpscent. Lots of firebringers in woods. Lots of waterbringers and earthbringers. He okay. Is just sleeping.”
“We’re magii,” Boomer said. “We were training.”
“For Southmen? For fight against Southmen?” Silvereye asked.
Boomer nodded. “Yes. Vector.”
“Vector,” Silvereye said. “Vector vector vector. Yes, Wildsong say Vector,” Silvereye looked up to Boomer. “Featherclaw is here to help. Featherclaw fight Southmen.”
“You’re here to help us?” Boomer asked. Christ, what did Ryan and the others say to them?
“Wildsong is friend of Featherclaw,” Silvereye. “You is friend of Wildsong. Smell him on you. You is friend of Featherclaw.”
Suddenly, there was more rustling in the bushes, and the three Featherclaw seemed to ready themselves for whatever was coming. When Marcie poked her head over the bush, she stopped dead in her tracks. Boomer looked back at her.
“Hold on, Marcie,” he said.
Silvereye looked to Marcie, then back to Boomer. “Is friend?”
Boomer nodded. “Yes, all friends,” he said. “We’re all friends here. She’s a healer, she wants to help him.” He pointed at Raine.
“Then she is friend to Featherclaw. You is all friend to Featherclaw.”
“What’s going on?” Marcie inquired.
“Help him,” Boomer said, motioning to Raine. “He’s bleeding pretty badly.”
Marcie nodded and then tenderly crossed the path between Boomer and the raptors. She laid her hands on his leg and after a moment, took them away smeared with Raine’s blood. His wound had closed up, but blood still stained his clothes and skin. She looked back at the raptors.
“Don’t worry,” Boomer said. “They’re here to help.”
“If you say so,” Marcie said. She didn’t seem convinced.
Boomer picked up the radio and spoke into it. “Hey guys,” he said. “It looks like we may have to cut this short.”
“What?” he heard Lily demand. “Why? What’s wrong?”
Silvereye looked at the radio in Boomer’s hands in alarm. “Speaks without speaking!” he said excitedly. He barked at the others.
“It looks like we’ve got some company,” he said.
“What kind of company?” Arie asked.
“Featherclaw,” Boomer replied.
“Featherclaw?!” Arie exclaimed over the radio. “Are you okay? Where? Do you need help?”
“No, no. I’m fine. Apparently they’re the ones that are going to help us.”
“Hold on, what’s a Featherclaw?” Lily asked.
Boomer rolled his eyes. “I think it’s better to just show you,” he said. “Meet me at the entrance, I’ll bring them with me. I think they’d better speak with the committee either way.” He looked over to Silvereye. “Would you come with me? I’d like to introduce you to our leaders, if that’s all right.”
Silvereye nodded. “Leaders. Yes. Leaders of your village! We help! Featherclaw bring honor to your village! Bring honor to Featherclaw!”
Boomer would have laughed if his skin hadn’t still been crawling. Meeting Tam had been an experience, but this was his first non-human intelligence. He’d heard of other races littered around the Disputed Lands, but hadn’t expected a dinosaur. In fact, it was the last thing he had been expecting.
Raine started to stir finally, he opened his eyes and immediately started to scramble against a tree. He set his fist alight before Boomer waved his hands at him.
“Raine, chill!” he exclaimed.
“What. They– I–” he stammered.
“They’re friends. They know Ryan and Terra,” he said.
Raine only looked back at them, shocked. He let the flame go out. “What the hell is going on?”
Boomer only looked back at Raine. “I’ve got no bloody idea,” he said, then looked back to Silvereye. “But I bet we’re going to find out.”