Story: Aposiopesis (all chapters)

Authors: Teris24

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Chapter 1

[Author's notes: The rating will change for later chapters.]


Lina stretched her arm high over her head and reached for the next available outcropping of rock. Grasping her fingers around the jagged protrusion, she hauled herself up another two feet along the frozen mountain slope. Pausing then for a moment, she sniffed and tugged up the collar of her cloak further around her mouth. To be able to use Raywing would have been nice, but also highly dangerous at such an altitude with wind speeds as high as they were.

“I’m getting too old for this,” she muttered to herself, carefully resuming her precarious climb.

At thirty-five she was not exactly ‘old’, but rather easily classified as a mature adult who by that point in her life had a pretty good idea of what she was doing, at least most of the time. No matter how many years passed by for the hot-headed sorceress, one thing she had not learned was that money wasn’t everything. The scent of a potential profit was still enough to catch her interest and drive her all the way to the highest, most remote peaks.

One well-calculated hoist after another, she ascended the rocky gradient until at last her next grip landed the palm of her hand against a strangely flat surface. Her fingers inched forward, followed by a full extending of her arm until she was once again able to pull herself up. This time she did not meet with the perpetually vertical mountain wall, but instead a nicely laid ledge that was wide enough for her to crawl upon.

Slumping onto the ledge, she laid on her side and curled an arm over her head. Just a bit further and she would be able to set up a camp before it got too dark. If the weather got too bad or the temperature dropped much more, it would be no problem for her to simply turn back, but she was not ready yet. She had come too far and was not ready to give up on the troves of orichalcon that were rumored to be buried within the mountain caves.

Once she had caught her breath, she climbed up to her feet and dusted the snow from her hair and cloak. Looking about, she saw that the ledge she had climbed on actually extended a good distance to her left and right.

“Odd,” she murmured and rubbed the back of her neck. If she hadn’t known any better than she would have labeled the ledge as a trail.

Drawing her cloak tighter about herself, she headed towards the right of the cliff to see just how far it extended, but no sooner did she take the first step than suddenly there came a soft, distant sound from somewhere behind her. The sound was heavy and continuous, not like the sound of footsteps or the sound of wind. It was lumbering and had a physical quality, an odd mixture of thuds and creaking.

Lina turned towards the noise, one eyebrow arched and her right hand held open at her side just in case the approaching effect turned out to be a threat. She was in no mood for a fight and could only hope that every other living thing in the vicinity felt the same way.

From amid the whiteness of snow flurries, a large outline came gradually into view. The form was of considerable size, and only when it had completely rounded the bend was Lina able to make out the familiar gait of two lazy cart horses followed directly by the cart and driver they pulled.

“All right!” she shouted with a bright smile, not yet thinking to be angry about the fact that she had taken the absolute hardest way up the mountain.

Lina waved her arms back and forth to get the driver’s attention. If she was fortunate then she would be able to get a ride to wherever the driver was going, which had to have been someplace close.

To her luck, the driver slowed his cart just in front of her. As the cart came to a stop, Lina saw that the back of it was filled with several large packages all covered with a thick tarp. The horses that pulled the cart were large draft horses, one black and the other brown and white. Their manes and harnesses were dusted with snow and their tails had been folded and pinned up. They looked like strong, healthy animals, but by the way they hung their heads it was obvious that they had been pulling the cart for quite a ways.

The driver himself was wrapped from head to toe in thick furs and leathers. Only his eyes were left exposed amid the scarf that was wrapped around his head. When he edged the scarf down, a full beard and mustache were brought into view from beneath it.

“Need a ride?” he exclaimed in an unnecessarily loud voice, his smile more heard than seen from behind his bushy brown facial hair, “Plenty of room up here!”

Lina grinned and brought a hand to the back of her head in a modest gesture.

“If it’s not too much trouble, I would appreciate it,” she replied happily.

“Sure, come on,” the man said and scooted over to make room for her on the driver’s bench.

Approaching the cart, Lina set her hands to the ledge of the seat and hopped up.

“What’re you doing all the way up here with this cart and these horses?” she asked, “Isn’t it a bit dangerous?”

“I was about to ask you what you were doing up here without ‘em. Hardly anyone ever bothers to come this way, but when they do they usually come prepared for the trip.” the man chuckled and offered out his hand, “By the way, my name’s Grei.”

“Lina,” the sorceress replied, seating herself on the bench and taking the man’s hand for a brief shake, “Lina Inverse.”

“Serious?” Grei arched an eyebrow as he readjusted his scarf back up around his face. With a flick of his wrist, he snapped his whip at the two horses who then continued their gradual pace up the mountain trail. “I think I heard some stories about you some years ago. Strange, though. From the way I remember them, I always imagined you looking like some kind of a girly little boy!”

“You watch your mouth!” Lina shouted and nearly shot up from her seat at the insult. It had been a long time since any mention of her girlish appearances had been made. She was now a grown woman, and even though she had never quite developed the breasts she had always been longing for, she had at least filled out with a nice hour-glass shape.

“All right, all right. I don’t mean to offend,” the man chuckled and lifted his free hand innocently, “Those stories couldn’t have been accurate anyway. They also described you as trouping around with an unlikely bunch, but apparently that wasn’t true either.”

Lina pulled the hood of her cloak up over her head and decided against making a reply to the mention of her previous traveling companions. For most of them she had parted on understandable terms, excepting the blonde swordsman who had been the subject of her elusive affection.

“At any rate,” she none-too-casually digressed from the subject of her celebrity, “Where’re you heading to anyways?”

“Back to my home village to deliver some supplies. We’re getting ready for a festival that we hold every year to celebrate the continuing peace and prosperity in this area.”

“Oh? Was your village involved in a war?” Lina inquired with a hint of genuine interest. She had never been anywhere even remotely close to this area in her entire life, so far beyond the barrier it was.

Grei shook his head. “Not exactly, but we were under attack. I actually wasn’t living here at the time, but I’ve heard a bit from my neighbors. A powerful entity swept through the entire city and almost everything was burned right to the ground. Many lives were lost, but it’s really not something we like to talk about. We celebrate the recovery, not the tragedy itself.”

“I see,” Lina nodded and redirected her attention to the road ahead, “Do you know anything about the caves in this mountain?”

Grei laughed and slapped his hand once to his knee.

“Is that why you’ve come up all this way?” he nearly shouted through the thick barrier of cloth around his mouth. “Guess I shouldn’t be all that surprised. Yeah, I know something about ‘em. I know they’ve been lost for a good many years and that no less than three adventuresome gold diggers die during each of those years in pursuit of ‘em. How they die, I don’t know. I just know that once they head up the Northern pass from our city, they never come back.”

Lina smirked and folded her arms over her chest.

“That just means that the treasures of the caves are probably still there. A little threat of death from exposure isn’t enough to stop me.”

“Suit yourself,” Grei replied, “At least those parts of the rumors were true. Your appetite for gold is as big as your one for food. Speaking of which, how would you like to join the city for our festival? There’s guaranteed to be good food, drink, and dance, all of it free of charge.”

Lina immediately perked from her slouched position as the ‘food factor’ of her brain went haywire with activity. The neurons shot and buzzed their energy, sending a message at the speed of hunger to the rest of her body that caused her eyes to light up and her lips to pull back in an endlessly happy smile.

“Well if you absolutely insist, I suppose that I can spare a day or two and do my part as a fellow peace-loving citizen!” she exclaimed brightly. After several days of living on nothing but trail rations, the thought of a decent meal would have been enough by that time to make her forego even a direct profit. Postponing her journey for a bit would definitely be no problem.

“Great! The festival starts tomorrow. We’ll arrive there tonight just in time to get you set up at an inn.”

Upon arriving at the city, Lina was rather surprised to see the size and density of it. For being so secluded and in such a difficult location, the city’s population was large enough to require urban expansion for several miles. For the most part, the buildings within the city limits were not spaced out, but rather built within close proximity, allowing room for only the occasional alley between them. The roads were cobbled with stone and seemed to run on a peculiar grid system. Towards the outskirts of the city, the roads ran horizontal and parallel, but further towards the center of the city they began to curve and form a pattern of inlaid circles.


Grei dropped Lina off at one of the local inns. As he watched her climbed from the cart, he pulled his scarf down and waved to her.

“Hopefully I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said, “Don’t forget to visit the city shrine and pay a service to our symbol of triumph!”

“Sure,” Lina smiled and waved at the driver with no real intention of doing such a thing. The city’s victory had nothing to do with her and she therefore had no homage to pay. Turning, she made her way into the tavern with thoughts of food items dancing ceremonial circles around her head.

The tavern was already bursting with life. Nearly every table was filled, as were the seats at the bar. By that time in the evening, anyone who had gone to the tavern with the intention of getting drunk had long since reached that goal and was gradually approaching the line to either physical aggression of unconsciousness.

On her way to an empty table, Lina brushed past a group of men who were engaged in a game of cards. Judging by men’s behavior and the conversation they presently shared in, it was obvious that the exact rules of the card game had been lost some time ago. The men hardly looked at the cards that were placed, and the only time a round was called was when one man ran out of cards to front.

“I said I’d kill her, that’s what!” one burly man with more hair on his arms than Lina had on her head slammed his hand to the table and tossed his cards out, face up.

“Come off it! She’d blast you into a thousand pieces before you took your first step!” another man, just as large as the first but dressed considerably better in a thick grey tunic, laid down one of his cards and took up another from the hand that had been tossed, “You have the strength, but you don’t have the motivation!”

“The Hell do you mean? My house and my job weren’t motivation enough? I lost everything!”

“But you had no family to lose. My brother and my daughter were killed.”

The third man at the table, shorter than the other two with more muscle than pudge, sighed and leaned back in his chair.

“Why are you guys arguing about it? It doesn’t matter!” he said.

“Like Hell it doesn’t matter!” the first man shouted, “You know what Lord Silos said! He predicted that it could happen again, and so far his predictions have been right!”

The second man interjected. “Look, if it happens then it’s not gonna happen in our life time. You know how that kinda stuff works.”

“But if it does, I said I’d kill her and that’s what I’d do. None of this symbol crap.”

“Me too.”


Curiously Lina eyed the men as she sat down at a table near the bar. Pulling back the hood of her cloak, she then unfastened the cloak itself and removed it from around her shoulders. From underneath the article, her black cape and dark green tunic ensemble were brought into view. Over the years she had not changed her style of dress much. Tunics, pants, and boots were what she was most comfortable in and she wasn’t going to risk buying anything flashier only to have it get in the way when she got into trouble, which was still more frequent than she would have liked to admit.

Her interest in the conversation of the three men lasted only until a waiter, a lanky blonde man no older than twenty years of age, approached to take her order.

“Welcome,” the waiter said, pen and pad held at the ready as he came to the side of her chair, “What’ll it be?”

“Three large dinner plates and a tankard of ale please,” Lina replied without hesitation.

“Huh?” The waiter blinked, his grip on his pen somewhat faltering.

“I said three large dinner plates and a tankard of ale please,” she repeated happily, casting upwards to the young man her smile of innocent hunger.

The waiter quickly shook his head and scribbled the order down.

“Sure. It’ll just be a minute,” he said and walked off towards the kitchen.

Lina folded her hands behind her head and leaned back in her chair, basking in the tavern’s warmth that permeated through to her skin. Closing her eyes, she directed the attention of her ears back to the table across the way where the three men had finally given up on their card game.

The first man pushed up from his seat and rested his hands to the table’s surface.

“I’ll say this much,” he rumbled in a half drunken stupor, “We have a lot to owe. A debt we’ll never be able to pay off for as long as we’re still alive.”

“Right,” the third man said as he also got to his feet. “It’s borrowed time, but ya know, it’s almost a shame.”

The second man had shuffled the cards together into a neat stack and then slipped them into his pocket.

“What is?” he inquired of the third man as he stood and grabbed his coat from the back of his chair.

“That none of the other women in this town look as good as an evil sorceress.”

The first man roared with obnoxious laughter and slapped the shorter man on the back.

“My thoughts exactly,” he exclaimed, “If we got her, maybe killing her off right away would be acting a bit too hasty, yeah?”

“Gotta admit that’s something I’ve always wondered, you know what I mean? That damn icon!” the second man chuckled as he made his way to the door.

“Yeah. Me too.”


Lina peered open one eye and watched the men as they shifted and stumbled their way from the tavern.

“Evil sorceress?” she mumbled to herself.

Her presence in the city was proof that even people who were more dependant on magic could have made their way there if they really wanted to. However, if the other citizens were like the three men in that they equated ill-intended magic users with physical beauty, then they obviously hadn’t been exposed to very many sorceresses, evil or otherwise.

When the waiter returned with her order, she straightened and grabbed up her knife and fork, watching the three plates as they were placed on the table.

“Thanks!” she exclaimed, already digging into the first plate before the jug of ale had been set down.

The waiter looked a bit wary as he watched the red head begin to scarf down the food as though it were nothing.

“Call if you need anything else,” he replied as politely as he could.

“Oh wait!” Lina suddenly dropped her knife and turned to grabbed the elbow of the waiter’s shirt just as he started to step off, “What do you know about evil sorceresses?”

“Sorceress?” the young man stopped and canted his head in confusion. Tucking his serving tray under his arm, he averted his gaze for a moment before suddenly snapping his fingers and smiling. “Oh! You mean Etra?”

Lina swallowed her mouthful of food and let go of his shirt. “Um, I guess. Yeah.”

“Yeah,” the waiter replied, his eyes growing bright like those of a man speaking of his favorite kid, “She’s at the shrine in the center of the city. You should go and see her! She’s a great source of inspiration to all of us during this time of year.”

Using his elbow to pin his tray at his side, he reached into the pocket of his apron for his pen and pad. He wrote a series of lines and arrows onto the paper before tearing it from the pad and offering it out.

“Here are the directions to the shrine,” he said.

Lina took the paper and examined what had been written. A small box depicting the tavern had been drawn in the upper left hand corner, and by way of a few arrows and street signs, it was connected to another box towards the center of the page. Written next to the second box was the name ‘Etra’ with a little smiley face and several hearts. Lina looked at the hearts and then slowly turned her gaze up to the young man who flashed a goofy smile.

“All right,” she sighed, “Thanks.”

She tucked the paper into her front pocket. The shrine must have been the same one that Grei had told her to visit, but Grei had not mentioned anything about a sorceress. A supposedly evil sorceress who was seen as a ‘symbol of triumph’ and a ‘great inspiration to all’ was definitely worth a small detour for her own reference.

An hour and a half later, a very full and satisfied Lina Inverse pushed open the tavern door and stepped out into the cold night air. Refastening her cloak about her shoulders, she gazed upwards and squinted against the glare of a nearby street lamp. The sky above was partially clouded over, but beyond the clouds she could see a background of hundreds of thousands of stars. The weather would have been perfect if not for the gentle snow that had just recently begun to fall.


By that hour of the evening, the streets were mostly empty. Merchants had packed up their carts and removed them from the market centers, and everyone who worked away from home had long since made the trip back to their houses.

Bringing out the map that the waiter had drawn for her, Lina unfolded it and held it up to the light of the street lamp. Taking a moment to gauge her position, she looked about for the appropriate road and then set off. She could have waited until the following day to visit the shrine, but if the festival was really going to revolve around the idea of Etra, then she could only assume that the shrine was going to be overflowing with people going in and out of it. If she was going to visit the shrine for the sake of getting a good look at it, then she preferred to do it when she wouldn’t have to deal with crowds.

Walking through the streets, she took particular notice of the buildings that made up the city. All of them were fairly simple as far as aesthetics were concerned. There were no designs inlaid to the wood beams or stone stairwells, but what the buildings lacked in artistic appeal they more than made up for in durability. Each of the buildings looked as though it had been raised on a platform of cement blocks and then sunk down into the center of the platform, creating an added barrier that rose about four feet. The architectural technique gave the buildings a layered appearance. It was Lina’s best guess that if she were to actually take a look, the door frames of the houses would be very thick in consistency with the buildings’ depths.

Upon rounding the first block, Lina looked ahead to see that a large banner had been strung above the street between two rooftops. Across the banner, the words ‘Long live the Savior Silos’ had been written. Further down the road, other banners and posters of similar messages became a more frequent sight. They were hitched to lamp posts, appeared in windows, and on large placards at almost every intersection.

At the last turn on the map, the road that Lina had been on suddenly connected to a large, polygonal courtyard. The courtyard measured about one hundred yards across and seemed to serve as a meeting point for the city’s main streets. At the center of the courtyard there was another building, significantly larger than all of the other establishments and of a very different quality. Instead of being squared and made of wood, the structure had a circular base and was made of carefully chiseled stone. The building was several stories higher than the average house with a lot of the height being owed to its domed top. There were four entrances to the structure, none of them with doors. They were taller than the average doorway and faced directly North, South, East, and West. Above each entrance was a symbol that had been carved to indicate the direction in which they faced.

Lina stepped into the courtyard and looked up towards the top of the temple. No doubt that this was the shrine she was looking for. By default, people tended to put more effort into projects that had more omniscient significance.

At that moment, three forms emerged from the South end of the shrine, the side that the Lina stood facing. The forms were those of a mother and her two children, a boy and a girl, one held by each hand. In their free hands, each of the children held some kind object made out of folded paper. One looked like a small pyramid and the other looked like two pyramids that had been connected by their bases.

“She didn’t wake up!” the girl exclaimed happily to her mother, “It’s good luck this year again!”

“That’s right,” the mother replied, “Now let’s hurry on home so we can get up early tomorrow for the festival.”

As she passed by with her children, the woman smiled to Lina and nodded her head in a silent greeting.

Lina grinned and returned the gesture before looking back out to the courtyard.

The moonlight shone down into the open area and cast a shade of transparent blue across every tangible object. There was no one else around to be seen, no other movement occurring besides the gentle drift of falling snow.

Lina continued on to the path that soon brought her to the temple’s South entrance. There she paused and rested her to the thick frame of the opening, the sound of her last step echoing up into the shrine itself. Slowly she allowed her gaze to follow the sound, starting first at eye level and then working upwards.

As exquisite as the temple looked on the outside, the inside proved to be even more elaborate. Around the vast room were eight white pillars, each measuring about four feet in diameter. On the wall between each of the pillars were paintings of landscapes and wildlife, most of them baring an image of an attractive man in a brown robe with thin gold rings around each of his wrists. The man looked to be in his forties, and in each of the pictures that portrayed him he was shown with a gentle smile and open arms. There was a kindness in his gaze, a certain gentleness that Lina, for reasons that she couldn’t quite pin point, had not expected.

At the ceiling, in the very center of the dome, a perfect circle had been carved out and left open. At three spots around the circle, three thick chains had been secured. Those three chains connected at a single iron link, and from that link a fourth chain dangled down into the room.

Looking at the focal point of the temple, Lina’s eyes grew wide and she couldn’t keep her lips from parting gently. The object at the shrine’s center was a pedestal consisting of three stones blocks placed on top of each other, decreasing in size from bottom to top. On top of the smallest block was a life-size statue of a woman.

The statue portrayed the woman as being dressed in a skimpy ensemble that looked like a two-piece bathing suit. The woman was on her knees with her legs parted by several inches and her back arched at an odd angle. Her head was thrown back and her arms were extended fully above her, one wrist crossed over the other and tied with rope. Connected to the rope was the fourth chain that hung from the ceiling. The woman’s eyes were concealed with cloth and her mouth was similarly bound. Around her neck there was a thin collar and at her feet there was a pool of material. Presently, the statue had accumulated a thin layer of snow along the tops of its shoulders and thighs due to the hole set directly above it.

The detail of the statue was ineffable. Every fold of cloth and separation of hair had been created with nothing less than absolute realism in mind on the part of the sculptor. The flesh of woman’s obnoxiously endowed breasts was seen to expand slightly over the material of her top, and a direct difference of texture could be seen between the cloth over her eyes and the one on which she knelt. Even the form of the body itself seemed to have been molded with the intention of conveying a specific idea. Attention had been paid to the tendons in the woman’s neck and the muscles of her arms and stomach. One could tell that the woman was not tensed, but merely hanging like dead weight held up only by the good grace of the chain secured to the ceiling. Her shoulders were synched up against the sides of her head and her fingers, instead of being tight against her palms, were curled inward with the natural position that fingers took when the person was unconscious.

“What in the name of…” Lina whispered, her already softened tone fading to nothing as she stepped forward.

Coming right up to the base pedestal, Lina canted her head to get a better look at the features of this oh-so-revered icon that looked more like an image out of a dirty magazine. She could only assume that the woman depicted in the statue’s form was Etra, the supposedly evil sorceress of whom the waiter had spoken, yet within the first moment that she had looked upon the statue, the name of Etra was not the first one that had come to her mind.

Risking a heavy amount of trouble, she climbed up onto the base pedestal and brought herself directly in front of the statue. Eyes narrowed pensively, she dared to reach forward and place her hands to the sides of the statue’s face.

With as much detail as was given in the piece, the important parts of the woman’s true identity were concealed. A more appropriate determination of Lina’s suspicions could have been made if only she could have seen the woman’s eyes, or even her mouth.

Carefully Lina mapped the stone contours of statue, running her fingers over the hair and down the jaw line, then up the arms to feel over the wrists and the rope that bound them.

“This isn’t…” she whispered with a slow shake of her head, “This can’t be.”

She would have been stupid not to pick up on the similarities of Etra and another certain ‘evil’ sorceress with whom she had been acquainted in her early teen years.

Over twenty-two years had passed since she had last set eyes on Naga the Serpent. Unlike most names and faces that came and went with a person’s everyday experiences, the image of Naga was not one that faded with time. Were Lina to think hard enough about it, she would have been able to recall many details about Naga including hair and eye color, approximate height, stature, personality, favored accessories, habits, and above all, that ridiculously obnoxious laugh.

Every detail that she could see of Etra was an exact equivalent to Naga. The only things missing were the spiked shoulder guards, the cape, the earrings, the headband, the leg band, and the bulky skull necklace that Naga had been so fond of. Etra wore only some kind of a collar around her neck. Since it was very possible for Naga to have simply removed her accessories, there was no other evidence to say that Etra and Naga were two separate people.

After a few minutes, Lina jumped down from the statue and propped one hand to her hip, pinching her chin with the index finger and thumb of the other.

“What’s going on?” she muttered. She couldn’t decide if the statue was one of the most gorgeous pieces of art she had ever seen, or if it was a ridiculous symbol for a town to center itself around.

“That sounds like a question!” an ecstatic voice replied to her musings from the other side of the statue.

Lina started and whirled around to face the voice, a small flame of pinkish energy appearing at the palm of her right hand.

“Who said that? Come out!” she demanded. It made her angry in the first place when she was given reason to believe that she was being spied upon, and it pissed her off even more when she failed to realize when she wasn’t alone.

From around the pedestal, an elderly man peered out and smiled at the red-headed woman.

“Just me,” the old man said, “My name’s Forn. I’m the keeper of this shrine.”

Forn came out from behind the statue and smiled. Looking to be in his seventies, he was dressed in a ceremonial white robe, complete with grey belt and simple brown slippers. His beard was long and had been tied into two braids, as had the remainder of his hair at the back of his head. He didn’t walk with a cane, but rather a short staff made partly from wood and partly from metal.

Eying the old man from head to foot, Lina hesitated a moment before finally deciding that he was definitely no threat to her.

“All right Forn,” she straightened and set one hand to her hip, pointing her other hand at the statue, “Perhaps you’d be kind enough to tell me who served as the model for this statue?”

Forn chuckled and brought his staff in front of him, gripping it with both hands and leaning his weight to it slightly.

“Sorry, but there was no model for it,” he replied.

“You mean the sculptor created this from an image in his head?” Lina smirked dubiously.

“Not an image,” Forn said, his voice rising suddenly. He lifted his staff and held it aloft in a grand manner, giving it one perfectly executed butterfly spin before slamming the base of it back down to the stone floor. The snap reverberated off the shrine walls as he shot out the palm of his left hand and confronted the woman with a large, toothy smile. “A prophecy!”

Hardly impressed with the display, Lina arched an eyebrow and scratched the back of her head in confusion.

“Huh?” came her appropriately short response.

Forn’s dramatic pose wilted and his eyes went wide.

“You mean you don’t know?” he nearly gasped the words in utter disbelief, his haughty countenance fading.

“If I did, then I would be spending the time to-“

“Well then stand right there!” the old man interjected, “Everyone around here knows the story so I hardly ever get to tell it anymore!”

Forn stepped up onto the base pedestal and turned to face Lina. Rolling up the sleeves of his robe, he cleared his throat and took a deep breath.

Lina watched him with a vague sense of anxiety. Judging by his actions, Forn looked as though he were about to deliver an entire lecture on the status of every single modern society, and really she did not have that kind of time.

“Wait a second, sir,” she said and held up her hand to stop him before he got going, “I didn’t-“

“Shh!” Forn silenced her with a finger to his lips. Closing his eyes, he frowned and bowed his chin to his chest to gather his thoughts.

Lina sighed and shifted her weight to her right foot in the hopes that her assumptions were wrong.

Suddenly Forn shot his head up and looked Lina directly in the eye. He stretched out his arm and swept his hand, palm down, in a horizontal line through the air as though to lay out a scene from his mind.

“Many years ago,” he began dramatically, “before the birth of my father or his father or his father, this city, the prosperous city of Potegia, had been under auspicious favor. The peace we enjoyed was continuous. Our harvests were good, our families were healthy, and the reign of our king was just.”

Lina fought the urge to roll her eyes. The words that the old man spoke were obviously those of a script that had been memorized long ago and practiced to near perfection. She only hoped that the script had been less than three pages in length.

“But one day,” Forn continued, seeming not to notice the redhead’s desire for a quicker response, “when my great grandfather was still a very small boy, a sorcerer named Hume came to Potegia seeking food and shelter. Hume had no money and he was too old to work, but in exchange for comfortable surroundings in which he could live out his last remaining days, he promised that on his last day he would give the city a wonderful gift. The people were suspicious of this, and it was only by the kindness of an outcast miner named Cant that he was given a warm place to stay.”

Finally Lina waved her hand to get the man’s attention and asked “Is all this really necessary? I just asked a simple question!”

“Don’t interrupt!” Forn shouted, clenching his hands tightly.

“But I just-“

“Well, fine. If you really don’t want to know then I’m not going to waste my time.”

Forn hopped down from the pedestal and rolled his sleeves back down to their original state. He grabbed up his staff and turned to make his way from the shrine.

“Hold on!” Lina said and rushed to grab his arm, “I give, all right? I’ll listen to the story!”

Forn paused and looked at the gloved fingers that had clenched into the material of his robe. From the grip he looked scornfully up to the sorceress, and finally shrugged her off.

“All right, but just be quiet and listen!” he said, resuming his place on the base pedestal.

Lina stepped back and folded her arms. If she wanted to get her answers, it looked as though she would just have to bite the bullet and get them the long, hard way.

Forn cleared his throat again and continued. “About a month went by until one day Hume called the miner to his bedside and said that he didn’t have much longer to live. Cant had been a good host, and in exchange for the hospitality, Hume gave him the gift he had promised. He told Cant that one day the entire city would be destroyed by an evil sorceress seeking the power and wealth hidden within these mountains. Cant asked how he knew this, and Hume said simply to trust him. Cant then asked how they would know this evil sorceress, and Hume said that they would recognize her on sight. The sorceress would be a woman dressed unabashedly in clothing as shameless as her trade. Her eyes would freeze any who caught her wrong and her voice would burn any who dared to oppose her superior skills.”

“Now wait just a second!” Lina broke in, “You mean the city actually believed that? How do you know that Hume guy wasn’t just looking for some gullible person to take advantage of?”

Forn frowned at the woman and snapped back “Of course there were skeptics! The town was practically divided in half because of it! Some didn’t believe it at all, others did, but in the end we all know what happened. It happened only twenty years ago that a sorceress, Etra, did indeed come to Potegia with the intention of locating the mountain’s wealth. At once we had known her to be the sorceress that Hume had spoken of. Just by looking at her one could tell that she was evil to the core. She demanded the submission of the townsfolk, and when we refused she set upon the city with horrible, destructive magic. She blazed buildings with her words and froze villagers with her eyes just as Hume had said she would! She then erected massive golems that crushed entire districts. Anyone who got in the way was killed off instantly. However, Potegia was not completely unprepared for her appearance, for by that time we had been fortunate enough to have acquired a sorcerer of our own, the great Lord Silos. Master Silos had been living in Potegia for several years at the time. When he had gotten wind of the destruction, he immediately set out to confront Etra. There was a terrible brawl, but at last he overpowered the witch with a spell so strong that it instantly knocked the sense right out of her! She collapsed unconscious, and it was then that Lord Silos bound her and brought her to the ceremonial plate that had once stood in this very spot. In front of hundreds of surviving witnesses, myself as well, Etra was stripped of her armor and weapons, and not only her physical ones. Lord Silos severed her ability of speech with a magic collar that he himself had designed. Her eyes and mouth were also bound as a precaution of Hume’s prediction to ensure that she would not freeze or incinerate another individual ever again. At last Potegia had wormed out from under the black cloud that had been hanging over our heads for so many decades. Now every year we celebrate this wonderful change. No longer do we have to fear the coming days or worry for the future of our children. Hume’s prophecy came true, and by the good power of our great Lord Silos, we can live in peace.”

“That’s great,” Lina said with another roll of her eyes, “but I didn’t ask you about all that! I wanna know who made this statue and more importantly, who served as the model!”

“I told you before, there is no model. After disuniting Etra’s senses, Master Silos chained her up and touched her forehead with one of the gold rings from his wrists. In an instant, Etra was gone forever and the town was instead blessed with this statue of her as a memorial of the dark omen we had overcome. If you want to speak in terms of creators, you could say that Lord Silos is the craftsman to thank.”

Lina blinked and looked back up to the stone form.

“So the statue is Etra?” she said more to herself than the old man.

“The very same. Hasn’t moved one bit for twenty years, and Lord Silos willing, she’ll remain that way even when my great great great grandchildren are old and withered like me,” Forn laughed as he climbed down from the pedestal.

Lina frowned and stepped towards the statue once more. That the statue was really the petrified form of an actual woman explained the incredible detail of it. What it didn’t explain was why Etra looked so much like Naga. However, if Forn’s story was accurate, it would make more sense to believe that Etra and Naga were different people. Lina remembered Naga well enough to know what she would not have intentionally destroyed an entire city and killed so many people.

“Hey,” she turned to the old man who had made his way to the Northern exit.

“Yes?” the keeper replied, looking over his shoulder.

“Have you ever heard of a sorceress named Naga the Serpent?”

“Hm,” Forn paused and stroked the braids of his beard for a moment, “Can’t say that I have. Why?”

“Just wondering.”

Lina frowned. Perhaps she really was mistaken. She knew that Naga couldn’t have been the only woman in the world with long hair and huge breasts, and who walked around in skimpy clothing. Actually she knew that it was rather a guarantee. She would never be able to forget the clones that had been made of Naga, and the shadow reflection of herself for that matter. Still, Naga’s clones had been mere shells, unable to perform many tasks beyond those of eating, drinking, and laughing, and Naga’s shadow reflection certainly wouldn’t have lifted a finger to anyone. Whoever Etra was, one fact remained the same. She was not Lina’s problem.

With the weight of confusion lifted from her shoulders, Lina turned and exited the shrine through the South opening. She still planned on attending the festival the following day, but not for any purpose beyond that of free food and drink. The festival did revolve around Etra’s defeat, and while she was happy that the city had overcome their dark prophecy, she herself would not be paying any kinds of a respect to such a symbol, especially one that looked like Naga.

From the courtyard area Lina walked, taking a more casual pace now that she wasn’t searching for anything. Thinking about Etra subsequently turned the direction of her thoughts more towards her old traveling companion. It had been many years since she had even conjured the name of Naga the Serpent. At the very least, Naga had been expendable, often to her own advantage.

Naga had been downright shameless in her attempts to get ahead. Even when she fell so tragically behind, she never so much as missed a step, as though losing face was what she had planned on all along. Despite this annoying inability to be insulted, not all of the memories that Lina had of Naga were negative. Naga’s love of food, drink, and money matched Lina’s own in a way that served both of them. They had not been natural friends but had instead created their own definition of a working relationship. They cooperated when it came to gaining profit, always with the understanding that it was only for the money and not for the friendly association. Lina had hardly cared what happened to Naga, and the same had gone for Naga to Lina.

Returning to the avenue on which her tavern was located, Lina suddenly paused when she heard the sound of shifting snow caused by something other than her own two feet. Glancing over her shoulder, she scanned the main road and the entrances to all of the connecting alleys, seeing no shadows except those caused by the two rows of street lamps, and no motion except that of falling snow.

After a moment, she smirked and mentally admonished herself for making assumptions.

“Stray dog,” she grumbled and turned back around.

Her right leg extended to take the first step but never got the chance to connect with the ground. The motion that should have carried her forward was immediately halted when her face ran into some kind of surface that had not been there one second before.

Instantly she jumped backwards, one hand held to her injured nose and the other raised over her head with a giant orange ball in the palm of it.

“What the freaking Hell!” she shouted, one split second away from burning her potential offender to a rude little crisp. Looking ahead, she saw that the object she had run into was actually a man.

Standing straight, the man couldn’t have been anything less than 6’5”. His rather unshaven face was chiseled from time and his unkempt hair that had probably once been a healthy sheen of black was now mostly grey. Dressed in simple pants, a long sleeved tunic, and an armored vest that had definitely seen better days, his hard, gargantuan frame suggested that he had once been, or perhaps still was, in the business of saving or taking lives. His forehead was deeply creased with frown lines and his blue eyes were pale with consternation. Gripped in the muscled vice that was his right hand was a thick spear adorned with several leather ties around the base of the blade. The blade was chipped, but still noticeably sharp and there were notches carved into the wood below it. Connected to the leather ties was a series of beads and a few tattered feathers, blue and black in color.

“You’re Lina Inverse,” the man said and stepped towards her, his voice not as gruff as one might have expected from someone of his rustic appearance.

Lina snarled and clenched her fingers tight against her palm, diminishing the small flame ball she had created.

“Who the Hell do you think you are sneaking up on me like that!” she shouted, “What’s wrong with just tapping me on the frickin’ shoulder!”

“Shh!” The man scowled and brought a finger to his lips. “This is the only chance I have to speak with you and there’s not much time. I know this is sudden but I must make a demand for your help.”

Lina bristled visibly to the man’s audacity. Over the years it had been made apparent to her that she was preceded by her reputation in almost every area that she visited. All the time she was approached by people wanting her help for something or another. Sometimes the requested tasks were menial, and other times they were rather impossible. Still, with a few convincing words and enough money given up front, she was willing to try her skill at just about anything. This is did not, however, apply to individuals who mistook her for a common hand for hire. Helping others was not her job at all, but rather something she just happened to end up doing while in pursuit of her own goals.

“Like Hell I’m gonna help you!” she gnashed, “I didn’t come to this place looking for a job, so just don’t even bother!”

Giving one last rub to her nose, she stepped around the stranger and continued on her way.

The man turned and glared at the woman’s retreating back. His jaw tightened and his teeth bore just slightly. The leather wrap around the pole of his spear squeaked with the clenching of his grip about it. The last thing he had wanted to do was to get on the sorceress’s bad side, but at that moment he was teetering at the ledge of a heavy despondency that had been festering for two decades.

“It’s about Naga!” he called after her, cringing inwardly to the feel of the name as it left his lips.

Lina paused dead in mid step, feeling as though the name had crashed right into the back of her head. Just the sound of the word seemed to have been tugged directly from her memory and left open in the air, ringing into her ears and instigating a slew of dreadful thoughts. The first of those thoughts was that the stranger knew Naga. The second of those thoughts was that he knew of her associations with Naga. The third and worst of those thoughts was the realization that her previous recognition of the similarities between Etra and Naga was possibly based on something substantial.

“What did you say?” she inquired hesitantly, even though she would have preferred to end the conversation right there.

Seeing that he had at least caught the sorceress’s attention, the stranger took several steps towards her, the heavy mass of his body causing the snow to crunch and separate out from beneath the weight of his boots.

“You heard me,” he said, “I listened to what Forn told you, and I’ll tell you right now that it’s not true. At least not all of it. I don’t know who Etra is, but I can definitely tell you who she isn’t. The woman in the statue is Naga, and if you’ll just cooperate with me I can tell you of a way to release her from the-”

“Stop!” Lina snapped, swiveling on her heel to face the man sternly. She had heard more than enough gibberish for one night and was very close to disregarding the entire thing altogether. She had come to the secluded mountain range for one reason and only one reason, that being to profit from the hidden caverns of orichalcon. She was not there to celebrate anything, nor was she there to dig around in the past, even if it was in some way related to herself. If she heard nothing else for the rest of her time in the city, she would be able to move on with her life quite happily and never reflect on it again.

“Before you say another word,” she said calmly as she approached the stranger, “I want to know who you are, what you’re doing here, how you know Naga, how you know that I know Naga, and how you know that Naga is the woman in the statue!”

“There’s no time for me to explain all of that!”

“You’re right. I don’t have time to listen to it anyway,” she said with a shrug. Without a moment of hesitation she turned and started to walk off.

“Wait!” the man called after her.

Lina paused and glanced over her shoulder with an expectant frown. The man had not wanted to play games and neither did she. If she was going to lend any kind of assistance, it would be done on her terms, and those terms included sufficient information.

“I’m listening,” she stated.

“All right,” the man growled, “My name is Trek and I live here in the village with my wife and son. I know Naga from a very long time ago and it was through her that I know she was associated with you, ok?”

“No, not ‘ok’,” Lina turned back around to face him and set her hands to her hips, “If the woman in the shrine really is Naga, why do you want to free her? If she was the sorceress who destroyed this village then I say that she’s right where she belongs.”

Trek became visibly riled to the sorceress’s comment and for a moment he didn’t know quite how to respond. He had approached Lina under the assumption that she would have cared enough about Naga to help him, but this didn’t seem to be the case. He stepped forward, his free hand balled into a fist.

“It wasn’t her,” he said, now having to make a conscious effort to keep his voice down, “If you really knew Naga then you would know that she wouldn’t do anything like that!”

“And pray tell, old man, how do you know it wasn’t her?” Lina asked disbelievingly, even though she herself had already conceded that Naga was many things, but not a murderer.

Trek sighed. He had been hoping that he wouldn’t have to resort to bribes, but if Lina’s interest in Naga wasn’t enough to motivate her into helping him, he knew of one other thing that definitely was. There was only one thing that could have brought the world famous Lina Inverse to such a small and insignificant city, and presently he was so far beyond desperate for her help that he was willing to make whatever sacrifice of information that he needed to in order to obtain it. Everyone had their price and he was glad that Lina’s was notoriously easy.

“Look,” he said, doing his best to maintain a hold on his temper, “I wasn’t kidding when I said that I don’t have time to explain everything right now. Would you help me if I told you that Naga would know where the orichalcon caves are located?”

The mention of the caves did indeed catch Lina’s attention and hold it hostage, though she didn’t let onto it so easily.

“And how can I trust your word on that?” she asked.

“What if I gave you three hundred gold coins up front?”

“Three hundred coins when and where?”

Trek reached around behind him and unclasped one of the belts from around his waist. Attached to the belt was a thick red sack that he threw down onto the ground between them. The sack split open at the top and out poured his entire life’s savings, sheens of little golden discs that spilled onto the snow.

Lina stared at the coins and was unable to stop the dumbstruck grin that always plastered itself across her face when she was confronted with considerable sums of money. She leaned down and reached for the sack but was stopped suddenly by the butt of Trek’s spear that slammed into the ground between her and the object of her attention.

“By accepting my payment, you agree to help me tonight,” he said gruffly.

Lina only smirked and reached around the spear to gather up the sack and the coins that had fallen from it. Standing back up, she slung the sack over her shoulder and smiled.

“It’s a deal. But once we get Naga, she’s your problem.”

“All right. Meet me at the Eastern gate of the city in fifteen minutes,” Trek said. He swung his spear up across his shoulders and turned his back, heading in the direction from which he had come.

Lina scratched her head and watched the man until he disappeared around the street corner. Whoever Trek was, she couldn’t help but feel a small bit of curiosity. Anyone who preferred the real Naga to the stone one had to be a little bit touched. For a moment she wondered if three hundred coins were worth the price of having the one true Naga once again roaming the earth. Looking at her left hand which currently clenched the top of the coin sack, she realized that apparently it was.

“Whatever,” she sighed and headed on her way to deposit her funds into her room at the tavern. With any luck, in a few days she would be rich with orichalcon and this entire event would be set behind her.

Chapter 2

Chapter 2

Trek muttered a curse as he paced from one end of the Eastern gates to the other. Presently his spear was strapped across his back and in addition to the spear there was now a sword and scabbard at his left side. Over his shoulders he carried a bundle of items that he had taken the time to grab from his house. The bundle was a single sheet of maroon colored material that he held onto like a backpack, inside of which there looked to be several bulky objects.

For the hundredth time that evening, he glanced up to the clock that stood off to the left of the gates. Lina was now ten minutes late and he wondered if perhaps he had made a mistake by giving her all of the three hundred gold coins up front. Though he had heard the rumors about Lina’s habits when it came to money, not once had he heard that she was downright untrustworthy.

Suddenly from behind him he picked up on the sound of footsteps moving at a casual pace. He whirled about to face the incomer, and frowned when he saw that it was the redheaded sorceress he had been waiting for.

Lina came to a stop when she rounded the corner onto yet another intersection. She looked to the left, seeing nothing but more roads and faded street signs, and then to the right, there spotting Trek in front of a set of massive wooden gates. She offered the man a nonchalant smile and started towards him.

“You’re late,” Trek called out in a low voice, trying to be mindful of the people sleeping in the houses nearby.

Lina only shrugged as she approached him. “Don’t bitch to me about a measly few minutes unless you’re concerned that the statue is gonna get up and walk off somewhere. What’re we doing here anyway?”

Trek sighed and ran a hand back through his hair, deciding at once to let the matter drop. A difference of ten minutes didn’t really matter in this particular situation, but he only hoped that Lina’s sense of punctuality wasn’t always so lenient.

“There,” he replied to her question and pointed further Eastward up the mountain slope.

Lina followed the direction of the finger and looked at the area in question.

The snow clouds covering moon caused a particular lack of light that had turned the mountainside almost completely black. Only the top outline of the surrounding forest could be discerned along with several bits of flickering lights that shone out amid the shadows in the distance.

“What’re those?” she asked, squinting her eyes at the lights.

“Your destination,” came the brusque response, “Now come on. The wind’s picking up.”

Without a further word, Trek turned and jogged out through the gates, holding tight to the pack over his shoulders.

Lina scowled, but nonetheless took off after the old man. Usually she would not have accepted such a vague response, but she had taken her payment up front and now needed only to abide with her part of the deal.

About fifty yards out, the trail from the Eastern gates forked with one path side-winding up the mountain precipice and the other leading down into a steep ravine. Trek followed the trail to the left that headed upwards.

The trail led the two further and further away from the city, first snaking around rocky terrain until it reached the edge of the forest where it then smoothed out. The packed dirt and lack of vegetation on the path suggested that it was often used, but by nothing other than people. There were no cart or hoof tracks, and at times the trail grew much too thin for anything more than one person to pass by at a time.

About two hundred yards into the forest, Trek suddenly veered from the path and made his way to a notch in the snow that had been created between the bases of two giant trees. Looking back to Lina, he motioned for her to follow.

Lina paused and looked ahead, seeing that they were hardly at the halfway point to reaching the flickering lights. As she followed Trek from the path, she pointed her thumb over her shoulder and frowned.

“Hey, I thought you said we were heading for those lights,” she said as she crouched down beside him.

Kneeling in the snow, Trek set down the bundle from his shoulders and unwrapped it. Reaching into the material, he pulled out a piece of rolled up paper.

“I said it was your destination. I’m going to wait here,” he said.

Lina blinked and then bared her teeth in an angry glower. “Wait a second,” she shot back, slamming the tops of her fists into the powered ground in front of her, “If you’re so bent on helping Naga then why are you sending me out to do all the dirty work?”

“It’s not dirty work. It’s work that I can’t do,” Trek replied matter-of-factly, handing her the paper from his pack, “Those lights are those of Silos’ mansion and there’s no way that I can get to it now. Even if I could, I wouldn’t be able to stand up to his magic if I got caught.”

Lina ‘humphed’ and snatched up the paper that was offered to her. “What’s this?”

Trek sat back and retied the top of his pack. “Over the years I’ve been in the mansion several times by invitation. Social gatherings and stuff like that. That’s a map I’ve compiled, and I think that it’s pretty accurate. I tried to mark all of the rooms as well as the patrols of the guards.”

“I’m not worried about guards,” Lina said. She unrolled the paper and raised up her left hand, casting a spell of illumination to get a better look at it.

Trek’s frown grew suddenly dark. He stretched out his arm and slammed his hand flat to the center of the map to keep the sorceress’s attention.

“I don’t doubt your ability to take out every single person inside that mansion,” he said, “but I do doubt your ability to do it quietly. This’ll be a lot easier if we can avoid drawing any attention to ourselves, so try not to use any magic! Silos was the one who cast Naga to stone and if he gets wind of what you’re trying to do, I don’t know enough to say that he can’t cast another spell that’ll turn Naga’s statue to dust! No risks, you hear me?”

Lina rolled her eyes and tugged the map out from under his hand. “Yeah, yeah. So what do you want me to do?”

From a pocket in his vest, Trek slipped out a small, folded piece of paper.

“These are the items you’re looking for,” he said. The paper was flimsy and wrinkled, and its edges were feathered with the extent of its use. He unfolded the sheet and handed it to her.

Lina took the paper and studied it. On the page, an image of two rings had been carefully inked. The person who had drawn the picture had obviously no artistic talent, but the basic idea of the rings was still conveyed. The ring on the right side of the page was nothing more than a smaller circle inlaid to a larger one with a curving design traced out in the space between them. The ring on the left was also a circle with a smaller one inlaid, but the design was jagged and jarred.

“They’re the rings that Silos wears around his wrists,” Trek continued. “With any luck, he takes them off at night. If not, you’ll have to figure something out. You really only need to get the left one, but if you can get them it’ll be all the better.”

She tucked the paper into her pocket. “All right. And how are these going to help us get Naga?”

“It took me years to research it, but I’m pretty sure if we can just touch the left ring to the statue, the spell will reverse.”

Lina stood back up, one hand propped to her hip and one eyebrow arched. “And your research bases this on what?”

“Ugh…” Trek’s gaze averted for a moment. He reached over his shoulder for his spear and swung the weapon from its strap, shoving the blade into the snow. Using it as a prop, he hoisted himself up.

“What was that?” she asked louder, canting her head towards him with an impish grin.

“Speculation, all right?” Trek snapped, meeting her gaze. “I don’t know a lot about magic, but I think that Silos constructs incantations in pairs, or maybe opposites or something. I don’t know. If it doesn’t work then I don’t know what else to do but right now it’s the only thing we have to go on!”

“Sound unlikely, but whatever,” Lina sighed. It was not her problem whether Trek’s hypothesis was right or not. In her opinion, Naga was better off as a stone statue that couldn’t tromp around acting stupid and embarrassing any traveling companions she might have had.

Trek decided not to argue over the credibility of his theory. Lina knew a lot more about magic than he did. If she said something was unlikely then it probably was, but it didn’t matter to him. He had to try something, and if this current plan didn’t work then he would just have to figure out something else, no matter what.

“I’ll be right here,” he said, stepping further into the shadows to lean back against one of the tree trunks. He readjusted his spear to hold in both hands with the blade pointing up in a defensive position.

Lina removed her cloak and cape and set them on top of the bundle that Trek had been carrying. If she was going to be sneaking around then she didn’t want any excess material causing unnecessary motions that could give her away. Stealth mode really wasn’t her thing, and if the three hundred gold coins had meant that she could complete her objective by any means necessary then she certainly would have. However, if the gold rings were any indication, she couldn’t say that she was very familiar with Silos’ method of constructing magic. If something did end up going wrong and Silos did somehow end up shattering Naga’s statue, she admitted in a very small way that she would have felt rather disappointed, and perhaps even a tad bit guilty.

With her extra clothing articles temporarily discarded, she folded Trek’s map three ways and slipped it into her pocket before turning and heading back to the main path. The night air easily bit through the material of her remaining layers, but she didn’t plan on spending very much time outside.

“Don’t get too comfortable,” she said. If she were able to do things her way then she would have stormed into the mansion, demanded the rings, and been done with the entire thing in less than half an hour. Trying to obtain the rings while remaining undetected would be considerably more difficult and time-consuming, but not impossible by any means.

Trek didn’t reply, and it was only when Lina was out of sight that he expelled the breath he had been holding. The iciness faded from his expression and he closed his eyes, touching his forehead to the flat side of his spear blade. The very thought that this current plan would prove futile was enough to grip him with strong anxiety. Releasing Naga would invoke the wrath of an entire city, but worse than facing death at the city’s hands was dying a natural death many years from now with Naga’s statue still standing cold and silent as ever, a life-size reminder of the terrible wrongs he had done to her.

All of his hope against this kind of future was now placed with Lina Inverse. He could only anticipate that she had enough integrity to complete the job without blowing up everything within a three mile radius.

The very first thing that Lina noticed as she neared the mansion was that the closer she came to it, the less she was able to see of it. The flickering lights that shone out of the mansion windows disappeared one after the other from lowest to highest. At first a bit confused by this odd phenomenon, she discovered the answer when she cleared the edge of the forest and saw a great stone wall blocking the path to the mansion. The wall extended up and down the mountainside and rose no less than fifty feet. Along its top edges she could make out two small silhouettes of people she could only assume to be guards.


For some reason, a mansion completely surrounded like a stone fortress was not what she had imaged Lord Silos to be living in. Protective measures like guards and walls were indicators that the person who had them felt a specific need for them. As the savior of Potegia it was odd that Lord Silos too felt this need, but then again it was not her place to mull over the possibility of defensive measures versus a mere preference of style.

Keeping low in the cover of the underbrush, she watched the movements of the guards at the top of the wall. She waited for the first guard to complete his circle and swivel back the other way. His back now towards her position, she waited until he was out of sight to emerge from the forest. In a half crouch, she rushed across the open gap between the forest and the wall.

By that time the snow had begun to fall harder and patches of it had accumulated on the ground. The temperature had dropped, and even though Lina was near freezing without her more protective articles of clothing, she was grateful for the added cover that the clouds kept over the moon.

As soon as she reached the wall, she used Raywing to lift herself up the fifty feet and land on the other side on a small ledge that ran along the entire inner circumference. On that ledge in intervals of twenty feet there were small pedestals on which were placed softly glowing torches. She had fortunately not landed too close to any of these pedestals and was able to crouch down in what thin shadows were offered.

Peering over the ledge, she looked down into the courtyard and saw a most strange sight. Where she had expected to find a terrain similar to the one she had just crossed, instead she saw a turf of thick green grass that extended all the way around. No snow had accumulated on the grass, and the only break in it was the stone path that led from the mansion’s front doors to the gate of the wall.

The mansion itself had been built directly into the mountainside. It had to have been about three stories high with peaked roofs and what looked to be two distinctly separate wings branching from the main building. Though not exactly symmetrical, there were two towers at the East and West ends and three small balconies that Lina could see from her vantage point. Every window was barred horizontally, and each door was reinforced with metal brackets.

Lina frowned, quickly scanning the area for a possible point of entry. In the courtyard below she saw one guard just beginning to come from around the mansion’s south side. To her left was another scout, fortunately walking away from her, and looking to her right confirmed a similar scene. Whatever she was going to do, she estimated that she had about ten seconds to decide before one of the scouts on the wall turned around. If she tried to cross into the courtyard from where she currently crouched, the guard on the ground would no doubt see her.

Taking an extreme risk, she shot up and ran as fast and quietly as she could towards the guard to her left, the one more towards the North end. At the last moment, when she came within a stone’s throw of the man, she looked over her shoulder to see if she had gained enough distance around the wall to place a corner of the West tower between herself and the vantage point of the guard below. She couldn’t see him, and it was a good bet that he couldn’t see her.

In an instant she jumped off the inner ledge of the wall and used Raywing to get herself down into the courtyard. Once on the ground, she aimed for the door that was closest to her, a small entrance tucked between the West tower and the stone outcropping of a balcony. Flattening her back to the wall beside the door, she reached over and tentatively tried its handle. A simple twist and push, and the door creaked open slowly, much to her surprise.

For a moment she waited, listening for any footsteps from inside. Hearing none, she then leaned around the door frame and peered inside.

The room that the door led to had wooden floors and long, wooden counters that ran along two side walls. There were two separate island counters, above which were racks of dishes, mixing bowls, and other cooking utensils. Off to the right was a great stone oven with several coals still glowing in the bottom portion. At the far end of the room on the left side were two large folding doors, one of which was partially open to reveal shelves full of dry food items. To the left of the pantry was another entrance without a door, and beyond that entrance there was a short hallway.

Slipping into the room, Lina closed the door behind her and made her way to the opposite entrance. There she took out Trek’s map from her pocket, using the light from a nearby torch to see.

At this hour she could only assume that Silos would have been in bed. Every bedroom on the map was marked as being on the second floor. She located the kitchen on the map and traced out the quickest path from her position to the first bedroom. The path would take her through the main hall, up the stairs, through the library and into a separate corridor on the East side.

Quietly she tucked the map back into her pocket and took one step out into the corridor. She remained still for a moment to listen for any sounds of activity, but the only one to be heard was a clock ticking somewhere at the other end. On the hallway’s left side was a large set of doors that she crept towards, making sure to keep to the carpeted areas of the floor.

The double doors lead to the main area of the house, a great circular room with second and third floor balconies running the entire length about it. A wide staircase sloped down from the second level and ended in the middle of the first floor, and the only light in the area came from two torches perched on tall stands at the base of the staircase banisters. Hanging from the ceiling were several tapestries depicting different kinds of flowers, and around the room Lina could see several large paintings as well. In each of the paintings there were no less than three people depicted in the foreground, and the landscapes they were shown in ranged from forest, to desert, to snow plain, to odd terrain the likes of which she had never seen. The most curious aspect of the room’s design was the rectangular emblem on the floor just at the base of the stairs. The piece was a great marble slab inlaid to the ground with an image of two interconnecting rings carved into it. It was uneven with the rest of the floor, rising higher by only a few centimeters, and the visible edges of it were scratched as though fitting it into its space had been no easy task.

With plenty of shadows to use for cover, Lina snuck into the room and made straight for the stairs. She took them up two at a time, then pressed herself back against the closest wall on the second floor.

There were four doors on the second floor, each one placed directly in North, South, East, and West positions. Knowing that she had entered the house from a Northwest angle and that she now stood facing South, she chose the door to her left that would bring her into the Eastern wing.

Coming to the door, she tentatively tried the handle and was again surprised when the door slid open without resistance. All of the inner doors were reinforced with thick metal beams just like their outside counterparts, but a closer look revealed that they didn’t even have locks. Where the locking mechanism should have been was nothing but a smooth, metal plate. Not about to stand around and contemplate this fundamental flaw that actually made her task easier, she slipped through the door and shut it quietly behind her.

Once inside the hallway, she paused again to check her map. From the corridor she needed only to take the second door on the right that would bring her into the library. She then needed to exit the library on the opposite side and she would then be in another short hallway, each room of which was marked as a bedroom. Again she slipped the map into her pocket and continued on.

On the walls of this new hallway there were six portraits, three on each side right across from each other. In between the portraits, the walls sunk back into semi-circle indentions. Set within each of these indentions was a strange robe on display, numbering four in all. All of the robes were hooded and secured around the middle with a golden rope, but two of the robes were smaller, deep blue in color while the larger two were brown.

Passing by the displays, Lina noticed that all six of the paintings portrayed the same three people. There was a little girl and boy about seven years of age, both with brown hair and green eyes, and a beautiful young woman with blonde hair and grey eyes. The first picture on the left side showed the boy and girl sitting on a bench beneath a large apple tree with a vast expanse of grassy hills in the background. The second showed the woman in a lovely white dress standing in the midst of a barren wasteland, holding a delicate golden circle in her cupped hands. The last picture on the left side showed the woman sitting together with the two children in a row boat. The water in which the boat sat was black and ended at a bank of brittle earth. On the bank was a forest of white, leafless trees that extended forever into a grey horizon.

Lina stopped to consider the last painting, but suddenly her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a door being opened further down the hallway. Withholding a gasp, she looked to see the library doors swinging outwards and two guards just beginning to emerge from beyond them.

“So then I said to the guy, ‘If you’re not gonna eat it, give it to the Mazoku!’” the first guard was saying.

The second guard laughed loudly and shut the door behind them. “What’d he say then?”

“He said something like ‘No one talks to me that way!’ I mean this guy was huge so when he got up from his seat he damn near flipped the table over! He threw some punches, but he’d had so much to drink he just landed flat on his ass!”

“Your wife musta had a fit when she found out.”

“Who said she found out?”

The two men erupted into a round of laughter as the first one made for a door just across from the library.

The second guard continued towards the main hall, waving over his shoulder.

“Tell me the rest later,” he said.

“It gets better, trust me,” the first guard replied, exiting through the door.

The second guard chuckled as he passed by the paintings and displayed robes. He reached the doors to the main hall and swung one of them open.

Lina didn’t dare make a move until she had heard both sets of doors close. When the hallway grew silent, she slipped from her hiding place in the shadowy nook behind one of the robes.

Too close,” she thought, peering out to look both ways.

She darted from the crevice and made straight for the library doors, being careful not to make too much noise when she opened them. Quickly she stepped into the library and turned to slide the doors shut, emitting not so much as a scrape or click.

Once the doors were shut, she sighed and leaned her forehead against them to catch her breath. If she had been spotted, her best option would have been to take the guards down in some way, and then she would have had two unconscious bodies to deal with.

As she looked down, the concern on her face was slowly overcome by one of confusion. On the floor where she might have expected to find carpet or perhaps stone or wood, she instead saw a scattered patch of clovers.

Forgetting her narrow escape, she turned to follow the growth pattern of the clovers and saw that they spread further into the room. Gazing up into the area, her eyes went wide and at once she knew that she had stumbled into something beyond the scope of her understanding.

The library was a vast, rectangular space with a second-level running along the far and side walls, all of which were shelved and filled with books. Facing Lina on the first floor were the ends of ten separate book shelves, five on each side of a wide pathway. The clover patch on which Lina stood extended into the room until it blended with a turf of soft grass just like the kind she had seen in the courtyard. The grass grew in full expanse across the floor and between the bookshelves like wall-to-wall carpet. At the center of the room it rolled upwards in a hill dotted with more clover patches and tiny, multicolored flowers. Over every bookshelf there was a myriad of blooming vines, and a glance upward revealed a gentle snowfall that disappeared at the base of the second level. The library would have been completely dark if not for one very strange source of light.

At the very top of the centered hill there grew a stout tree with gnarled roots that clawed into the ground. A bluish-purple light emanated amid the green of its leaves, and all around it there floated separate dots of light that seemed to have minds all their own.

“By the gods,” Lina whispered, somehow unable to maintain control of her curiosity. Cautiously she approached the tree to get a better look.

Hanging from the lowest tree branches were several red fruits, or rather objects that almost looked like fruits. They were round, but a closer examination revealed that they weren’t exactly solid. Each of the fruits had a texture that swirled like liquid in a glass.

Standing at the base of the tree, Lina tentatively reached up and touched her index finger to one of the churning globes. The tip of her finger dipped into the sphere, and when she pulled it back some of the red liquid came right along.

She brought her hand down and circled her finger and thumb together, confirming that the substance had a smooth texture. A quick sniff also confirmed a faintly sweet scent.

“Stop,” a voice suddenly spoke up from right above her.

Lina started and wiped the substance on her pant leg.

“It wasn’t me!” she exclaimed as she stumbled away from the tree. She came back to the bottom of the small hill and stopped to look for the voice’s owner. Several moments passed and there came no response. After several more moments she wondered if perhaps she had been imaging things.

She looked down to spot on her pants where she had wiped her finger. The crescent-shaped streak continued to swirl and shift just like its spherical parent.

“Hello?” she called out softly, looking back towards the tree.

“You’re making a mistake,” came the reply.

Her eyes narrowed. She wasn’t about to let some coward tell her that she was doing something wrong, and whoever it was had now become an endangerment to her mission. She approached the tree again, this time with a small bit of orange light dancing just at her finger tips.

“Is that so?” she called back, “Maybe you’d like to come down and say that to my face?” She looked up into the tree branches, but found no one sitting among them.

“Leave the witch where she is,” the voice said.

She circled around the base of the tree and was surprised again when she found no one there. The voice was not coming from any other point in the room, though she scanned between the bookshelves just the same.

“Who are you?” she asked.




“What are you?”


Trying to follow the sound of the voice to its origin, she ended up back in the spot where she had originally stood. “Could you try making a little more sense?”

“I am sense.”

“What’s your name? Are you human? Demon? Elf?”


Her gaze finally landed on the red sphere she had previously touched. The sphere was still swirling and red as though she had never interfered at all.

“Right,” she said, reaching up to let her fingers hover an inch from the globe. “Are you talking?”

“Are you listening?”

“Why would I ask if I wasn’t listening?”

“If you’re listening, then I have to be talking.”

Lina scowled and dropped her hand to her hip. “Whatever. So what is the ‘what’ in you?”

“A synthesis.”

“Uh huh,” she replied, rather unimpressed. Speaking with a ball of energy was hardly enough to make the top-ten list of strange things that she had encountered in her life.

“You’ve made it here, and my job is to give you one chance to turn back,’ the sphere said.

“Or else?”

“My purpose becomes quite different.”

Lina scoffed and dismissed the notion with a flick of her wrist. “Purpose shmurpose. Why am I making a mistake?”

“I don’t know.”

“When you said ‘witch’, were you referring to Naga?”

“I don’t know.”

“Right then. What do you know?”

Suddenly the sphere warped into calm shade of blue.

“A path has closed,” it said. “In the hollow of this tree there is a glass bottle. Take the bottle and place me inside of it.”

Lina stood and waited for the sphere to answer her previous question, but when it said nothing more she sighed and placed her hand to the tree trunk. She felt around until her fingers contacted a hole that seemed to have been deliberately carved out, then reaching into the hole, she located the glass bottle and brought it back.

The bottle was small, no bigger than the palm of her hand, and flat like a flask. The top of it was plugged with a specially designed cork that was secured with a hinge.

Lina popped the bottle open and lifted it towards the sphere. “And why am I doing this?’

“A path has just been shut. By design, I have been formed into a potion of life for another to open.”

“Potion of life? You mean that if someone dies, I can use you to bring them back?”

“No. I simply bring them back from the verge of it. There is enough of me for one use.”

Lina touched the rim of the flask to the sphere and in an instant the liquid funneled into the container. She secured the cork, then secured the flask to her belt. A life potion could come in handy, though she hoped that she would never have to use it.

“Anything else?” she said, eyeing the other swirling masses to see if they had anything to say or turn into. When there came no reply, she turned from the tree and made her way down the path that led to the far end of the room. She had already meddled enough and didn’t want to leave anymore proof of her presence within the mansion.

At the end of the path was a step ladder that she climbed to the second level. There she took the only available door.

Beyond the door was another hallway with large double doors at both ends and three single doors on the opposite side. The single doors must have led to the bedrooms that had been marked on the map, and one of them had to belong to Silos.

With no way of knowing which room was which, Lina started with the door on the left. She came to it and gently turned its knob, pushing it open just a crack to peer inside. Her eyes took a moment to adjust to the darkness.

Design-wise, the room seemed to have been divided in half. There was one bed against each side wall along with a little table and chair and a clothes dresser. The far wall was taken up by large windows with the curtains drawn, and in the center of the room was a large, circular rug with an image of a rather sweet-looking dragon. The room was musty and didn’t look as though it had been occupied in a very long time. The beds were made and there were no candles anywhere.

Lina closed the door and tried the next one down, once again straining herself to be as quiet as possible.

The second room seemed more promising with a single large bed at the far wall, the side table which held a lit candle that had almost burned down to nothing. The rest of the room was taken up by larger tables, all of them piled with papers, books, glass bottles, vials of liquid, and other pieces of equipment the likes of which Lina had never seen. From the bed there came the soft sound of snoring.

Lina crept into the room and shut the door behind her, beginning her search for the rings with the tables closest to where she stood.

All of the books she flipped through were filled with equations, definitions, formulas, and different lists of items. The loose papers were notes of all kinds, ranging from daily journal entries, to descriptions of people, to others that seemed to be outlines for experiments. One vial of green liquid she picked up had a torn sheet of paper tied around its neck. On the paper, several lines had been scribbled.

Subject Entry: Oblique transference incomplete.

Result: Dramatic decrease in overall size.

Another vial she picked up read:

Subject Entry: Transparency Substantiation.

Result: Unstable. Terminated.

Several more vials confirmed similar notes, but she did not have time to read them all. She set the second vial back down and scanned the other tables. There was no sign of any rings, or of anything else that might have been used as a container for rings.

Wondering if she had gotten the wrong room, she decided to approach the bed and see just who was sleeping there.

The person she found was a man laying on his back with his arms folded on top of the sheets. His long hair was thin and tied in a pony tail, and by his face he looked to be about Trek’s age.

If the images from the shine in the city were any indication, Lina could confidently estimate that the man was Silos. He looked older than he did in the images, but he had the same large nose and high cheek bones. In sleep, his brow was creased and he seemed to be frowning.

Remembering the pictures of him, Lina looked down at his hands. Just as she could have expected, there around his wrists were two glowing rings of gold. It was only fortunate that his hands had been folded left over right.

Biting her tongue between her teeth, Lina lifted her hands and hovered them just over the left ring. Centimeter after centimeter, she brought her thumbs and index fingers to pinch to the sides of the ring before stilling herself and glancing up at her victim’s face. Silos continued to snore peacefully, sometimes parting and closing his lips.

With infinite care Lina began to pull the ring forward until it reached the base of Silos’ hand. There, the outward curve of his thumb caught the side of the ring and prevented any further free motion. Lina hesitated, then moved the ring one side at a time trying to wedge it over the base.

Suddenly Silos groaned and turned onto his left side. In her shock, Lina forgot to let go of the ring and was nearly pulled across the bed. Maintaining her hold, she was left balanced on her toes with her stomach muscles clenching with the effort of keeping her upright. One more inch and she would have fallen forward, but to let go of the ring would have meant to drop Silos’ hand and possibly wake him up.

In this awkward position she remained for several moments, her mind racing to sort out her possible options. Her cheeks grew flushed and sweat formed along the ridge of her brow. She couldn’t drop the man’s hand any more than she could give one forceful tug backwards. Confrontation was inevitable if he woke up, and she knew hardly anything about how powerful his magic was.

Just as her muscles began to weaken, Silos turned onto his stomach and pulled his left arm with him. The ring popped free of his hand and Lina was quick to stumble back from the bed with it.

After regaining her equilibrium, she examined the ring and then took out the drawing that Trek had given her to make sure that she had gotten the right one. The jagged design on the left ring in the picture matched the one of the ring she now held.

All right,” she thought. She tucked the picture and the ring into her pocket and crept back to the door. If Trek’s plan did end up working, Naga would owe her a lot.

Back in the library she descended the ladder from the second level, thinking that the entire mission had almost been too easy. She had thought that the high walls and guards had been simply preludes of more difficult obstacles to overcome, but instead she had found only strangeness and questions.

She had nearly made it to the tree when suddenly there came a dull thud from somewhere in front of her, as though a blunt object had been dropped into the grass. She stopped and scanned the area, but the tree’s light had waned significantly and caused the shadows to grow thick.

“Hello?” she ventured just above a whisper. Looking up at the tree she noticed that the small lights that had previously been dancing about it had all stilled. They hovered in place as though watching her intently, and suddenly she got the feeling that she was very much not alone.

The first thud was followed a few moments later by a second one, and then a third and a fourth. The sounds came from all around the area and Lina stopped counting them after twelve.

By the time the sounds stopped, the tree’s light had diminished to nothing. In the darkness there came a cacophony of scrapes and scuttles that slithered over grass and scurried over bookshelves.

Lina inched backwards until she felt her back press against the tree trunk. There she felt the first of several things brush by her legs.

She remembered that she had been given direct instructions not to use any magic within the mansion, but there was no way that she could abide by that now. She unfurled her hand palm up.


Trek packed together a snowball and set it on top of the previous two he had made. Adding a few pebbles and the only twig he could find, he then sat back and looked at his little creation of a snowman. The snowman didn’t look so much like one as it did a fat, lop-sided golem with no mouth and one arm.


Sighing, he slammed the heel of his boot down onto the figure and rubbed his hands to his face to keep himself awake. The snow was falling hard and the wind had been gradually picking up over the hour. To fall asleep in such conditions would have been dangerous for more than one reason.

“Come on, Lina,” he groaned. As of yet he had not heard any sort of explosion from the mansion, but he wasn’t sure whether that was a good or bad thing. No explosions meant that Lina was either in the process of completing her mission without conflict, or that she had been somehow subdued.

The sound of approaching footsteps on the main trial brought him from his thoughts. Instantly he jumped to his feet and grabbed his spear, holding the weapon in both hands and setting himself into a position ready to fight.

The footsteps ran closer and then passed by. It was several moments before they came back and stopped on the trail several yards before him.

Trek tightened his grip on his spear and kept absolutely still like an animal ready to pounce. He may have been old, but he was by no means defenseless. What made him dangerous was more his strong willingness to resort to physical fights rather than his combat skills alone.


Lina’s voice broke him from his predatory trance and his shoulders slumped. He exhaled and quickly fastened his spear across his back, then bent down to gather the items at his feet.

“Finally!” he said, trudging from his hiding place. “Did you get-“

“Here!” Lina shoved the ring into his hands at the same time that she snatched back her cloak and cape. In a frenzy she donned the warmer clothes and then grabbed the man by the collar of his vest. “Come on! They’ll be after us!”

Trek’s overwhelming joy at the feel of the ring in his hands was cut short as he was dragged into a run.

“Were you spotted?” he asked, tucking the ring safely into his vest pocket.

“No, but they’re gonna know I was there!”

“What’d you do?”

“I’ll explain later! Let’s just get to Naga while we still can!”

To that suggestion, Trek had no arguments. He adjusted his makeshift pack over his shoulders and picked up his pace.

Chapter 3

Chapter 3

At a mad dash, Trek followed Lina from the forest. As soon they cleared the tree line, he extended the length of his strides and brought himself up beside her.

“Hey, what the Hell happened?” he panted.

Lina only ran faster. “I tripped his security system! They’re right behind us!”

Trek looked over his shoulder. In the distance he could see the mansion lights, but he didn’t see any torches emerging from it. Brow now furrowed, he looked back at her. “You mean the guards?”



“No! Run faster!”

“What’re we running from?”

The trail sloped down and the two skidded to the bottom. As soon as they cleared the dip, Trek checked behind them again. At first he saw nothing, but a moment later he had to blink and recheck his vision.

The forest ended about twenty five yards behind them. Nothing emerged from the trail, but the shadows began to extend beyond the reach of their trees, sifting like a dark film. They spilled across the trail and rippled up in a coagulated mass, reminding Trek of the black mess that had spilled from the wound of an old acquaintance who had suffered an arrow to the liver.

“What is that?” he shouted.

“I don’t know!”

Without missing a step, Lina raised her hand and whirled around to hurl a fireball at the mass. The flames impacted the darkness, but the effect was like trying to hack up a shadow with a sword.

The mass didn’t make a sound as it swept over the terrain, nor did it disturb any of the dried shrubs that it blew through. It bubbled like water on a crocodile’s back before suddenly something about the size of a cannon ball exploded from the front of it.

The ball was a small section that landed several yards ahead of the main flood. More tangible than the mass itself, it hit the ground and rolled before it split at its equator. The slit yawned open and two rows of elongated, silver teeth protruded from within. Four legs formed beneath, and a pointed tail formed at the end until the ball had taken more of a teardrop shape. The resulting creature, though it had no eyes, ears, or nose, gained instant cognition and began to sprint after its two targets. It snarled and snapped, thrashing its head from side to side as though a bug had entered its head.

More segments ejected from the mass, transforming moments after hitting the ground and racing ahead with the same goal in mind. It wasn’t long before the penumbra was gone and instead replaced with a herd of the gnashing little fiends. The creatures moved easily as one body almost as though they had never separated at all.

Lina didn’t even have the mind to curse the situation. She barreled down the trail at full speed, not even slowing down when she felt Trek tap the back of his hand to her arm.

“We can’t go back to the city with these things on our tail,” he shouted.

Lina glared at him. “Why the Hell not?”

“Because of the people of course!”

“Screw ‘em! Every man for himself!”

“If you go back there then you can kiss that orichalcon good bye!”

“Then what do you expect us to do?”

“Head ‘em off somehow! Do you have any ideas?”

“Actually I do! Raywing!”

Trek watched in disbelief as Lina took off into the air. “Hey!”

Lina waved him on. “Just keep running! Take the trail down into the ravine!”

“That’s a dead end!”

“I know!”

Trek growled and shook his head. He didn’t exactly trust Lina not to fly off and leave him to get eaten, but in this situation he had no choice unless he wanted to lead the creatures into the city. When the trail forked, he bypassed the connecting V and leapt directly from the high road to the lower one that zigzagged down into the valley. Instead of following the path, he took the slope straight down, sometimes skidding and sometimes falling. Rocks loosened and followed his decent along with sheets of dirt and gravel. There were hardly any trees to speak of, nothing to swerve around or act as a possible pacifier of the momentum he picked up.

Lina flew down ahead into the bottom of the ravine. The heavy winds made flying a precarious task and several times she was nearly thrown into the mountainside.

At the bottom of the valley there was a river half hidden under snow banks. She dropped herself down onto one of the banks, or rather collapsed ungracefully with her lack of control, and looked up to gauge Trek’s position.

Trek was nothing but a dark blur making its way down the mountainside. Chasing after him was an array of smaller blurs that combined to make one large black cloud that reminded her of locusts. Giant, mutant locusts.

She raised her hands and closed her eyes.

“Darkness beyond twilight…” she began her conjuration of Dragon Slave.

As usual, she didn’t think much about Dragon Slave’s consequences on the surrounding land. She only knew that there was a problem to be dealt with and that, disregarding the concept of ‘overkill’, she had the means to do so. In the course of one night, her casual quest for wealth had turned into a near death confrontation. She wasn’t going to stand by passively and let Silos, or his monsters, make attempts on her life.

“Crimson beyond blood that flows, buried in the stream of time…”

Half way down the slope, Trek tore off the first creature from his neck. He kicked another one into a boulder and nearly tripped over one that had gotten ahead of him. The herd was gaining on him and there was not much else he could do to stay ahead except fall faster. It was in these situations that he wished he could be more agile, but after having spent so many years packing on muscle he was more like a lumbering grizzly bear running away from a nest of bees. Looking ahead he could see a faint, pinkish light begin to expand in the river below. As he came closer he could see Lina standing with glow forming between her hands.

Please be another fireball,” he prayed.

He had never seen Dragon Slave, but he, along with many others, had heard stories of its destructive power. If Lina were to use the spell it would surely get rid of the creatures, but it would also take out the entire valley and possibly even a chunk of the city. If that happened then people would wake up. Silos and the authorities would close in and all of their efforts would be for nothing. He couldn’t speak for Lina, but he knew that he would be caught and executed, probably even his family as well. He had caused enough trouble by that point that the townspeople would hardly feel compelled to take pity on them.

Lina timed herself carefully. She wanted the brunt of the blast to hit the creatures and it would be a pity if she caught Trek as well. If he died then she would have to do some more asking around about the orichalcon.

“…is where your power grows,” she continued, constructing the magic carefully as the energy began to push her hands away from each other.

Trek went white. That was no fireball.

“Lina, no!” he hollered, but was still too far away to be heard. Foregoing the sliding method from the next boulder he landed on, he took a running leap and free-fell a good one hundred feet further down the slope. His ankles gave way when he landed and he ended up rolling another fifty feet.

Lina kept her eyes shut in concentration. The snow fall began to swirl into a miniature cyclone that swept up and surrounded her. Several rocks shook slightly before levitating several inches from their spots, followed by smaller pieces of gravel that hovered straight up.

“I pledge myself to thee, to conquer all the foes…”

The distance that Trek had put between himself and the creatures was swallowed up only too quickly. Several creatures descended upon him and finally he had to grab his boot dagger for assistance. He took a slice at one of the monsters that pounced on his shoulder and was glad to see that the blade had an effect. He deduced that the creatures were solid only as individuals. When they collected, they formed an insubstantial congregation.

Lina’s hands drew further apart. The pinkish glow between them turned orange and several vaporous streams began to writhe up from the ground and wrap themselves into the whirlwind around her.

“…who stand before the mighty gift bestowed upon my unworthy hands…”

Despite the possible breaking of his ankles, Trek took another leap and tumbled down another two hundred feet until at last he landed hard against the slope that would eventually form into the river bank.

“Lina,” he shouted, his voice now unable to reach its maximum volume due to the extent of his fatigue. He gave up trying to get her attention and instead focused on a more direct approach.

The monsters remained relentless in their chase. They fell upon his back and latched onto his legs. Their teeth sank into his armor and finally he forewent trying to fling them off one by one. He purposefully stumbled down into a roll that ended up crushing several of the creatures that had attached to his legs.

Lina shifted her feet apart and raised her hands over her head. “Let the fools who stand before me…”

A monster landed on Trek’s shoulder and bit down into his collar bone. He grabbed it by the tail and slammed its head into the edge of a rock as he dashed by. He was close to the river bank now, running along an edge set roughly twenty seven feet above the water at a sixty degree angle.

“…be destroyed…”

His legs protested as he dropped from the edge and collapsed into a sliding position that landed him by the water. The pack he had been carrying had been lost upon his first descent into the ravine, for which he was now grateful. He was weighted down by at least eight little wriggling balls of teeth and legs.

“…by the power you and I possess.”

He lunged from the bank onto a rock protruding from the water. He couldn’t spare the time to give thought to his speed and the further injuries that would result from his actions. He hurled himself from the rock and made directly for Lina.

Lina’s eyes shot open. The massive ball of energy in her arms she shifted to the side and prepared to launch forward.

Dragon Slaaaa-“

The last syllable was severed when she was suddenly slammed with the force of a charging three hundred pound mass of man and monster.

Trek tackled the woman, both of them falling backwards into the freezing water. The swarm of creatures followed right behind, some scattering along the riverside while the majority pursued their would-be prey into the rushing current.

The river was deep and it wasn’t long before it swallowed up the entire disturbance. The creatures on the riverbanks came to a halt. Having lost track of their target, they dispersed gradually and scoured the immediate area in search of a trail. When none was located, they stood still. They had no reason to move without a target to follow.

It was a full fifteen seconds before a section of the river exploded into a pillar of water. The water gushed high, and along with it there spewed bits and pieces of bodies that had previously been monsters. A leg here, a lower jaw there, all rained down.

The monster parts didn’t stay solid for very long. Moments after landing, they sizzled and then dissipated into a film the likes of which they had originated.

The water pillar dwindled back down just as the center of it began to bubble. A few moments later, Trek floated face up to the surface. He was beaten and bleeding to a good extent, but he was alive and his condition wouldn’t prove fatal. He had stopped Lina and saved himself, and the city, a heap of trouble. People would have lost their homes and he would have ultimately lost his life.

To the presence of air he coughed and took several deep breaths. His body rose fully to the surface of the water, but then it rose even higher until it seemed to float in mid air. He ascended until suddenly from beneath him, two hands emerged pressing into his back.

If impending doom had a face, it would have looked like Lina Inverse. Too infuriated even to curse, the fiery sorceress exhibited her super-anger-induced strength when she hoisted Trek up out of the river and slammed him down into the first hard object she spotted, that being a rather large boulder at the water’s edge.

Trek grunted as he landed against the rock. If not for his armor, the impact would have probably broken a few ribs. He managed to get his arms around the boulder and hold on to it as he caught his breath. Even though Lina was something beyond enraged, but he couldn’t bring himself to pay it much attention. He was too busy hurting.

Wheezing angrily for breath, Lina stormed from the river one step at a time. The remaining creatures took immediate notice of her, though no sooner did they gather than they met a quick, collective death with one fireball. After dispensing with the pests, Lina then turned and stood shivering, watching Trek with a particularly refined sense of animosity.

Trek laid still for several minutes. He didn’t care if Lina hated him. He never regretted doing the things that he felt he had to do, which was why he had asked for her help in the first place. After a moment he cracked open his eyes and dared to lift his head a notch.

“I think we-“

“Mega explosion array!”

The entire earthen section of the river bank on which he lay exploded into a thousand pieces. The concussion sent him flying into the air and he landed some yards away.

Lina said nothing more. She was aching, but more than that, she was freezing. Unable to control the shivering of her body, she headed slowly past Trek and back up the ravine. It was going to be a long walk.

“Hurry and get up, you want to get Naga so bad,” she growled.

Trek groaned and rolled off of his injured arm. He didn’t know if he had suffered any broken bones or internal bleeding, but his body wasn’t really wasn’t his primary concern. His first thought was to check his vest pocket. He rested his palm against it and grinned when he felt the outline of the bracelet.

Lina led the way back to the city with Trek following some yards behind. Trek had gathered the pack he had dropped and it wasn’t until they reached the shrine that he thankfully let it fall from his aching shoulders.


“There,” Lina said, falling against the side of the pedestal, “Do your thing and let’s get out of here.”

“What happened back there? Where’d those things come from?” Trek asked, his fingers trembling from cold as he took the ring from his pocket.

“The library. I don’t think that I was seen by any guards on my way out, but don’t take my word for it. Now hurry up, I’m freezing!”

Trek climbed up to statue. He dusted the snow from its head and shoulders and then, taking a deep breath, held the ring between his thumbs and index fingers.

“Here goes,” he muttered and lowered the ring to the statue’s forehead.

Lina watched and hugged her arms around herself. Despite the cold, she was still on edge and the slightest disturbance would have been enough to provoke a Fireball or an Explosion Array from her. The entire ordeal had already put a serious damper on her plans and now she wasn’t even sure if it would be safe for her to sleep in the city.

Seconds passed and there came no change of the statue. Naga remained set in her slumped position, dead to the world as life-size symbol of degradation.

Trek tried again by touching the ring to the statue’s shoulder, and then to its hair, and then to the chain connected to it. Each attempt resulted in the same effect.

“Dammit!” he shouted at last and slammed his foot into the side of the pedestal. He turned and raked one hand into his hair, slumping down onto the step. “It’s not working.”

“I see that,” Lina replied as she watched him, “Maybe it’s because you’re not a skilled user of magic.”

“Good thought. You try.” Trek stood and handed her the ring.

Lina slipped the ring onto her wrist and climbed up to the statue. While Trek moved behind the statue, she came to the front of it and flexed her hand a few times.

“Hm…I don’t feel any kind of power coming from this thing whatsoever,” she said. She placed her hand to Naga’s head, specifically making sure to let the ring contact the stone. “What else have you done to try and break the spell?”

Trek sighed. “I’ve only managed to get a few magic users up this far. They tried every kind of healing spell they knew. Recovery, Flow Break, Dicleary, and I think one tried Disenchant.”

Lina slipped the ring off and examined it more closely. Turning it from one palm to the other, she noticed an odd distribution in its weight. It was heavier on one side, but the weight transferred as soon as she flipped it.

“Wait a second,” she murmured, bringing it to her ear, “Do you hear something?”

Trek frowned. He took the bracelet from her and shook it by his right ear. Hearing nothing, he then tried shaking it by his left. It was a moment before his eyes widened. “There’s something inside!”

“It sounds like fluid.”

“Maybe that’s the trick, but how do we get it out?”

“Here.” Lina took back the bracelet and raised it over her head.

Trek sputtered and shot his hand out to catch the woman’s wrist just before she slammed the ring against the statue.

“Don’t break it!” he snarled, seizing it from her, “There could be anything inside there!”

Lina scowled and attempted to snatch it back. “Well what else do you expect us to do?”

Trek turned his back and held the ring up for a closer examination. “There’s got to be some kind of switch or something. Maybe something in the design, or on the inside that we have to find.”

“Well then it’s a good thing that we don’t have a sorcerer and his army of flesh-eating monsters on our tails, otherwise we’d be a bit pressed for time!” Lina retorted sarcastically, “Now gimme that!” She reached over the statue.

Trek stretched his arm up and kept the ring out of the shorter woman’s reach. “You’ll ruin it!” he snapped back, “And be careful of the statue!”

Lina circled around the top of the pedestal and grabbed the man’s vest. Trek pulled from the grip and then side-stepped to keep the statue between himself and Lina, but Lina grabbed onto the statue’s chain and used it to swing herself around and meet him from the other direction.

“Do you want Naga to stay like this or not!” she said, reaching her free hand again for the bracelet.

“That’s why I’m being careful!” Trek dodged her advance by ducking under Naga’s arm.

“You’re not being careful, you’re being stupid!”

“And what if you’re wrong! There might be acid inside this thing!”

I was the one who got the ring so I should say how we use it!”

“You don’t even need to be here! You’ve already been paid so get out of here!”

“You said that Naga knows where the orichalcon caves are!”

“I lied!”


Lina tackled the man and they both tumbled from the pedestal in a mess of flailing arms and kicking legs. Trek rolled over and pinned Lina who then leaned up and sank her teeth into the side of his neck where there already existed a set of teethmarks. Trek roared and yanked back, holding her down with his left hand while his right hand held the ring high.

Lina strained for the bracelet, but Trek’s size and strength were too much in a physical confrontation. Foregoing the physical methods, she stretched her arm up and opened her hand.


“Wait, look at that!” Trek suddenly stopped and pointed at the statue.

“-ball!” Lina hurled her hand forward. The heat that had accumulated in her palm was sent flying directly into Trek’s face.

Trek yelled as his entire form became engulfed in a sheet of flames. The impact knocked him backwards and landed him on the other side of the shrine.

“That’ll teach you to wrestle with me,” Lina muttered and dusted her hands together. Trek should have gotten the message by then that no one got away with disrespecting her, especially in the physical sense. She got up and turned to Naga’s statue to see if his surprise had been genuine or simply a farce meant to distract her.

Naga remained exactly as she was, but at her left shoulder there was now a small patch where the stone seemed to have receded and been replaced with flesh.

Lina approached the dais and rested a finger to her lips. “Odd.” She hadn’t cast any spells, and as far as she knew, the ring had done nothing special either.

Trek, ashen but largely unharmed, scrambled up from the ground and stumbled to the pedestal. At least that in having been engulfed in flames, he was no longer cold. He clambered up and stood at Naga’s left shoulder, staring at the spot of flesh as though it were the most beautiful treasure that he had ever seen in his life.

“What’d you do?” he cried.

Lina only shrugged. “I didn’t do anything. The ring is still intact.”

“Well something happened!” He circled around the statue like a mad dog picking at a porcupine. He took the ring out and tried again touching it to the stone to see if it helped.

Lina climbed up to the statue and pushed Trek aside to get a better look. The patch of skin was only about four inches in diameter, but it was gradually spreading. She pulled the glove off of her right hand and poked the spot with her index finger. The skin was cold, but it was soft and lenient just as she could have expected it to be.

“Wait,” Trek blurted, pointing out a bit of red substance at the edges of the expanding area. “What’s this?”

Lina looked and squinted at the substance. There wasn’t much of it to be seen, though it shriveled the stone like fire would to paper. She had to lean in close in order to make out the slightest bit of a swirling movement within it. At once she snapped her fingers and smiled.

“Ah, it’s this!” She lifted her leg and pointed to the red smear on her pants.

Trek looked at the smear. “What’s that?”

“Stuff from some kind of tree in Silos’s library. It must have rubbed off on the statue when I was standing by it.”

“Well dammit, woman!” Trek shouted, grabbing for Lina’s pants, “Wipe the rest of it off!”

Lina backhanded him and snagged her cloak around herself. “Excuse you!”

Trek recovered from the blow. Instead of retaliating he simply pointed at the statue. “Just hurry!”

Feeling a bit awkward, Lina wiped off as much of the substance as she could. She managed one streak to the side of Naga’s face and one more to her right shoulder before there was not enough left to transfer.

The three streaks ate gradually away at the stone. Trek watched each area carefully as though he expected all of them to stop at any given moment. In an instant he would have returned to the mansion for more of the matter if he had to, but of course it wasn’t his first choice. Even if his plan didn’t end up working out entirely, just being able to see Naga’s flesh and reassure himself of her life as a warm-blooded human was more than he could have ever asked for. Many times he had almost resigned himself to the possibility that Naga was already dead, but to believe that meant that his own life had no further purpose.

Once the task was completed, Lina stepped down from the pedestal and waited. Now she didn’t regret having disturbed the strange tree. There was no telling how long Trek would have futilely toyed with the ring.

The stone eventually dissolved across Naga’s face, reviving the soft texture of her skin and also the material of the cloth over her mouth and eyes. Trek could hardly control himself as he watched the transformation. As the substance ate its way up into Naga’s hair he carefully rested his hands to her cheeks, letting the pad of his thumb graze across her skin. He then rested a finger under her nose. Suddenly his shoulders grew tense.

“She’s not breathing,” he uttered, his voice breaking.

Lina blinked.

“Of course she’s not breathing,” she said and pointed at Naga’s chest, “She doesn’t have lungs yet.”

Trek looked and saw that Naga was still solid stone from her collar bone down. The limited amount of the substance made its progress lethargic. He said nothing but nodded vigorously, realizing that he had just caught himself on the verge of tears for the first time in his adult life. Quickly he cleared his throat and smoothed a hand back over his hair.

Lina made a face as though she had just tasted something awful. “Are you-“

“No!” Trek wiped his palms to the tops of his thighs. “I’m just nervous right now.”

Lina, not buying his claim, scowled. She had never seen anyone get seriously emotional over Naga and she couldn’t justify such a thing happening.

“You know, you never told me how you know Naga,” she said.

Trek forced a chuckle and refrained from turning his head. “I thought you didn’t care that much about her.”

“Oh, don’t get me wrong about that,” she replied with a shake of her finger, “If Naga is dead then I personally think that it’s for the better. I just want to know what kind of person, especially a grown man, gets all serious over a greedy, self-centered air-head who lacks basic intuition.”

Trek sighed. It wasn’t the first time that he had had to listen someone complain about Naga, though at the moment he found it strangely nice that someone knew Naga well enough to complain about her at all.

“I’m not going to stand here and tell you that you should like Naga,” he replied softly, “Just don’t be so quick to judge her. It’s my fault that Naga the Serpent ever existed at all.”

Lina felt her eyebrow twitch.

“You’re not…You’re not her father are you?” she asked hesitantly. The very thought made her blood churn.

Trek shook his head. “No. We’re only six years apart. Or at least we used to be.”

“Then who are you?”

“I was a hired hand of sorts.”

“What kind of work?”

He didn’t reply. He knew that Naga had been very secretive about all aspects of her past and he wasn’t about to reveal anything about himself that would in turn reveal something about her.

Lina waited, but when it became clear that she wasn’t going to receive an answer she sighed and turned her back. Trek was right anyway. She didn’t need to step into their business and she didn’t care about Naga. She had enough problems of her own.

Silence settled between the two and it was in this manner that they stood, each sinking into their thoughts.

When Naga’s arms were fully restored to their natural state, Trek lifted his hands and gently closed his fingers around her wrists. He pressed his thumbs to her pulse points in the hopes of locating a heartbeat.

“Lina, do you know where the nearest stables are?” he asked without turning around.

Lina looked over her shoulder and eyed him carefully. Something had just transpired, though she couldn’t say exactly what.

“I could find them,” she replied.

“I’ll pay you extra if you go get us a couple of horses. Take the West exit and follow the road to a cul de sac. There are stables at the end.”

Lina looked back ahead and nodded. Witnessing Trek’s supposed attachment to Naga was a little bit more reality than she had been prepared for, and she was grateful for an excuse to leave. To her, Naga was the type of person whose death shouldn’t have brought sadness to anyone but her parents. Even the concept of Naga having parents was strange enough. After several encounters with the vacuous woman, Lina had convinced herself that Naga was the misshapen result of an odd bacterial growth that had accumulated in some scientist’s Petri dish. Naga’s ultimate demise would most likely end up as comedy relief to someone else’s adventure, no more significant than the popping of a balloon.

“All right. I’ll be back in a minute,” she said and headed off.

Trek waited until Lina was gone before he let go of Naga. He jumped down from the pedestal and looked outside to see that the snow flurries had grown rather thick. He couldn’t remove Naga from the shrine without first finding something warmer to dress her in.

Even though he had once seen Naga brave a snow storm in nothing but her two piece outfit, he was sure that she had only been acting out of pride. She had smiled the entire time and pretended that she couldn’t feel a thing, but this time would have to be different. He wasn’t about to risk losing her to hypothermia after he had gone through so much to get this far.

He went to his pack on the floor and crouched down to untie it. Opening the pack, he then set out the items from inside: Naga’s shoulder guards, headband, necklace, and all of her other accessories. It had taken him a long time, and in some cases a lot of money, to acquire them, but he hadn’t stopped until he had gotten every last piece.

After removing the items, he stood to shake out the cloth in which he had wrapped them. The cloth, maroon on one side and black on the other, was soft and just thick enough to be warm in the snow. This was with good reason as the clasps at the top of the cloth revealed it to be Naga’s cloak. He spread the cloak on the ground and then stood to recheck the statue.

Naga continued to hang lifeless from the chain, now only petrified from the sternum down. The snow had melted from her shoulders and her hair now shifted freely with the breeze that blew through the shrine.

Trek returned to the top of the dais and took a seat. He had waited so many years for this, but now that he was down to the last final minutes he was having difficultly grasping the reality of the situation. He had been so obsessed with undoing Naga’s curse that he hadn’t thought much about what would happen afterwards. He was not the same man that he had been twenty years ago and now his intentions had to be quite different.

He didn’t know what Naga would be like once she woke up. He imagined that she would be angry with him. More than angry with him. She would probably end up killing him on the spot once she found out what had been going on, but if she decided to do it then she would be more than justified.

His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of something wooden clattering against the ground. Suddenly cold, he shot up and turned to see the shrine keeper standing at the South entrance.

“What in Silos’ name is going on here?” Forn exclaimed as he retrieved his cane from the floor. His gaze grew icy as he caught sight of Trek on the pedestal. “You! Get down from there! How many times do I have to tell you to stop hanging around here?”

Trek unsheathed his spear from his back and leapt down in front of the pedestal.

“This is the last time, one way or another,” he replied. He and Forn had gotten into more than their fair share of confrontations. None of the arguments had gotten very far since Trek had acknowledged that the keeper was only doing his job. This time, however, he would not refrain from killing Forn if he had to. He would not let anything come between him and Naga.

Forn came forward.

“What’re you doing here so late? That wife of yours finally kick you out?” he chuckled.

Trek’s gaze darkened. “Leave Livy out of this. You don’t know what the Hell you’re talking about.”

“So you say, but you know people are beginning to wonder if she’s still alive. You spend so much time here instead of taking care of her.”

“I said shut up about her!” Trek roared and thrust his spear up to hold at the keeper’s throat. Any comment about his wife was usually enough to provoke a violent response from him. Livy was a good woman who loved him despite his pariah status and she had always done well to ignore the comments and rumors about their relationship.

Forn raised his hands and took a step back, having not expected such a hostile reaction. Usually a few fighting words were enough to get Trek to leave, not instigate a fight.

“All right, all right,” he said more gently, “Shouldn’t you go-“

His train of thought was derailed suddenly as he caught sight of movement over Trek’s shoulder. Squinting, he broke eye contact to follow the motion.

Trek held his breath as he watched Forn’s expression. The old man’s frown faded into a look of confoundedness and then into fear. His arms drooped and he seemed to forget about the spearhead pointed at his neck.

“Et…Et…?” Forn wheezed and was unable to complete the name.

For the first time all night, Trek smiled. He didn’t need to turn around in order to know what Forn was seeing. It was nice to finally see that look on someone’s face. At last there was someone else who understood that things had been going the wrong way. Everything that the city had come to base itself on was a lie, and Trek was only too happy to destroy the illusion.

“Her name is Gracia,” he replied proudly, “Princess Gracia Ul Naga Saillune. And as I’ve been trying to tell you for the past twenty years, she’s not an evil sorceress.”

Forn shook his head and took another step back. “What have you done?” he cried.

Trek found it almost a shame that he couldn’t let the old man live to tell everyone of what he had seen. Then again, everyone in the city would know something or another by the next day. They would come to the shrine with the intention of celebrating their farced victory over Naga only to find her long gone.

Without bothering to answer Forn’s question, Trek lunged forward and shoved his spearhead through the old man’s throat.

Forn could hardly react in time. The triangle of steel punctured the V of his neck and seemed to pop his carotid artery. His legs gave way and he crumpled, dropping his cane to grasp at the head of the weapon. Spurting blood made for a slippery grip and his attempts to dislodge the blade were futile.

As much as Trek disliked Forn, he had never wanted to kill him. Even now as he gave the spear a sharp twist into his spine, he didn’t particularly relish the act, but he couldn’t risk having the old man run off and wake the city. Even knocking him out and tying him up wouldn’t have provided enough time for a getaway.

Forn’s eyes turned red and blood leaked from his nose and mouth. It wasn’t long before his grip on the spear weakened and his body began to convulse. With a few resounding gurgles, he spit up one last ounce of blood before his eyes stopped focusing.

When he was sure that the old man wouldn’t be moving anymore, Trek stomped on his shoulder and yanked his spear back up.

“Sorry,” he muttered. His regret was genuine. He couldn’t remember the last time that he had killed anyone, but the feeling was the same: power and guilt. Wiping the blood spatter from his cheek, he turned to make sure that Naga remained undisturbed.

Naga had been returned completely to her natural state. Her legs, no longer stone, no longer supported her and she had shifted to the side. Her weight hung completely by the ropes around her wrists.

Trek dropped his spear and rushed to top of the pedestal. He clamped an arm around Naga’s waist and lifted her, then with his free hand he snatched his dagger from his boot and deftly sliced the rope from her hands. As Naga’s form slumped against him, he tugged up the cloth from over her eyes and pulled down the one from over her mouth.

“Naga?” he whispered and rested a hand to her cheek in an attempt to rouse her.

Naga’s eyes were motionless behind their lids. Her legs made no attempt to straighten, nor did her arms show any signs of energy or strength. Her skin was cool to the touch, but her heart was beating and her chest was moving with breath.

The simple signs of life were more than enough to satisfy Trek. For a moment he found himself relieved almost to the point of choking. He hugged Naga closer and brought her head to his shoulder, resting a hand to the back of her neck. After so many years of watching her statue, he could hardly believe that he was being given another chance to hold her again, to feel her the way that she was supposed to have been all along.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured by her ear in the faint hopes that she would be able to hear him. If anything else happened, if Naga’s human state was only temporary or if she were to die soon after coming back alive, the only thing he wanted was the chance to apologize to her sincerely. He shut his eyes he pressed his mouth to her hair. No one else would ever see such emotion from him.

After a moment he shook his head and straightened. Now was not the time to let himself get carried away with past events. Carefully he slipped an arm under Naga’s legs and lifted her. He stepped down from the pedestal and went to the cloak that he had spread on the ground. Lowering to his knees, he laid Naga on the material and then positioned her with her legs straight and hands folded on her stomach. He then wrapped the cloak around her and secured it with the clasps. Crouching beside her, he looked at the items that he had spread on the ground. He couldn’t leave them there, but he wasn’t about to try and dress Naga in them either.

Glancing around the shrine, he spotted the cloth on top of the pedestal that Naga had been kneeling upon. Like Naga, the cloth had once been stone but had now returned to its original condition.

He got up and grabbed the cloth from the pedestal and then gave the material a good tug. The cloth was thin, but it would be durable enough to suit his purposes. He returned to the ground and began packing the items up.

Lina snatched away the end of her cloak that had once again found its way into the mouth of the brown horse behind her.


“I said that’s not food!” she snapped and gave the horse’s bridal a sharp tug.

The horse snorted and jerked his head up. As though in protest to the blunt treatment, he stopped and looked at Lina as if expecting an apology. In effect, his black and white counterpart also stopped and perked his ears forward.

Lina suddenly found herself pulled to a halt. She turned and frowned at the two horses, giving a few insistent yanks to the reigns. “Come on, I don’t have time for this!”

When neither of the horses budged, she brought her hand to her face and growled. She had never been much of a horse person, having always preferred to walk whenever possible, or when she was in a hurry then she preferred to fly. Horses were noisy, smelly, stubborn, and sometimes just downright stupid.

“I’m calling both of you Gourry from now on,” she muttered.

Her gaze averted for a moment before she suddenly got an idea. If the horses were anything like Gourry, or herself for that matter, then they would respond to food better than brute force.

She reached into her pocket and pulled out a small, folded cloth. There wasn’t much inside of the cloth, only her emergency rations for extremely hard times, but hopefully it was something that the horses would be interested in. She opened the cloth and presented the animals with a few squares of dried fruit.

“You guys hungry?” she asked with a false grin.

Both horses lifted their heads in sudden interest. Brown Gourry was the first to extend his nose forward and attempt to grab one of the squares between his lips.

Lina stepped back and gave another pull to the reigns. The horses complied more easily and she was able to lead them on without further fuss.

“Yep. Just like Gourry,” she muttered and her expression grew soft.

Upon reaching the courtyard, she wrapped the horses’ reigns around a nearby lamp post and then ran into the shrine. No sooner did she enter the building than she came to a sudden halt.

“What are you doing?” she shouted.

Trek was sitting cross legged with Naga held across his lap. Behind him was a body that looked as though it had once been the shrine keeper. Startled by Lina’s intrusion, he snapped his head up and frowned.

“I just wanted to keep her off the ground! Did you get the horses?” he asked. If there had been any softness to his demeanor before Lina had entered, it was thoroughly gone. He stood up and kept his arms locked around Naga as though he were glued to her from his biceps to his fingertips.

“That’s not what I’m talking about!” Lina shouted and pointed to Forn’s body. “What happened here?”

“The keeper was making his rounds. I had to keep him quiet.”

“You couldn’t have just gagged him with something?”

“I did.”

“I meant with a rag! You didn’t have to kill him!”

“Since when does Lina Inverse care about the value of one human life? I didn’t want to risk it. Just grab that pack and let’s get out of here.”

Lina stepped to the side as Trek brushed past her. All of her previous assumptions about him suddenly flew right out the window. She had thought that his rescue of Naga had been some kind of good deed, or perhaps a task completed out of a sense of duty as an old friend. And yet the look on his face was not that of an old friend. He was stony like a professional guard dog whose only friends were the friends of his master. She didn’t doubt that he would have turned on her in an instant if she had thought to threaten Naga with bodily harm. If this ended up being the true case, then the three of them traveling together would prove to be a big challenge. Blowing Naga up had been one of her favorite pastimes.

She turned and stepped a wide circle around Forn’s body in order to reach the pack that Trek had motioned to. She grabbed the bundle to sling over her shoulder and then jogged out. It was true that she wasn’t at all a humanitarian, but neither did she appreciate unexpected sights of blood and gore. It was no chip on her shoulder though. She hadn’t particularly liked Forn’s attitude.

Trek was waiting by the black and white horse by the time Lina joined him outside. He shifted Naga onto his shoulder and held her steady with one arm. He then grabbed hold of the saddle with his other hand and stepped his foot into the stirrup. With one great heave, he hoisted himself up to mount the horse and then settle Naga down across his lap.

Lina approached the brown horse and grabbed the saddle with both hands. She pulled herself up and situated herself with the pack tied around her shoulders. She then grabbed the reigns and brought the horse around.

“Do you know where we’re going?” she asked.

“We can’t stay in the city,” Trek replied as he tugged the cloak further up around Naga’s face, “but I know of a place near the Northern pass that’s far enough away. We can stay the night there.”

He kneed his horse into a canter and took off across the courtyard, stirring up cakes of freshly fallen snow.

Lina too kicked her horse, but the horse just snorted and swished his tail.

“You’re not doing this to me now,” she growled and heated her hand with a small fireball.

Gourry’s ears pinned back. Before the woman could touch his hand to him, he reared and took off after his friend.

Lina was jolted and nearly fell forward. She maintained her grip and bounced back into an upright position.

“Stupid horse!”

At any moment she wished that she could have just woken up someplace else. As she contemplated her current situation, she was having a hard time coming to terms with the fact that not only had she directly and indirectly risked her life for Naga, but that she had also forfeited her chances of sleeping in a nice warm bed for a while. Then again, she remembered that her efforts were not for Naga’s sake. If all turned out well, then she would soon be rich and also be rid of Naga, Trek, and all of the problems between.

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