1.04

Posted by cameron - 2021-12-15 09:02:54

It took Root the whole walk to the city gate to pick her pace. On the one hand, if she walked slow enough, perhaps Azriah and Vit would leave without her, assuming her a no-show and giving up. Or, on the other hand, there was excitement in her stride, and she had to be sure to be punctual to keep from getting left behind. She flip-flopped on this point so many times that she looked like a timid red candle, green candle player. Passersby determined her to be either the worlds’ most out of shape marathoner or the worlds’ best inchworm impersonator—not that the two had to be mutually exclusive.

Beel, meanwhile, struggled to match her mercurial pace, and by the time they arrived at the gate he was out of breath from so much slowing down.

She’d made two stops on the way there. First to mail her package home, and then to pick up supplies. She had no way to know what this trip entailed. Even Azriah, who seemed to know a thing or two about shady contracts made in shadier back alleys, had expressed a dose of unsurety. With the coins she kept before sending her small fortune home to her father, she was still a far cry from financially stable, but she was at the very least financially wobbling with fair confidence in her ability to maintain her balance. None of the purchases were splurges by any definition, but she could afford to be passably prepared.

And so she carried a new set of travel bedding and some light rations for the road. They made for an Atnaterran city as their first stop, but down the line she expected they’d be sleeping on the ground and carrying their food with them, unless some opportunistic squatter had renovated the crypt into a morbidly themed bed and breakfast.

One thing she had not purchased was new clothes. She still carried a few sets from home packed in her bag, and finding new ones was always a hassle. Any other garments were always too itchy, or pulled too tight, or made her grow too hot, and any time she tried them on she always found a new consideration for becoming a nudist. Which, in fairness, had worked out fine for her until around the age of five.

Vit and Azriah already waited by the gate. Vit was performing what looked to be their own spin on wringing one’s hands, which in this case consisted of weaving and unweaving their arms so that one moment they had four teal-skinned spider arms, then the next they had two brown-skinned human arms, then back again. When they saw Root approaching, they waved mid-flex, creating the most unnerving wave Root had ever received. She returned the gesture in her own non-disgusting way.

“Doesn’t that feel weird?” she asked as she approached.

“What?” they asked. They furrowed their brow (which oversaw a face of five eyes) and scratched their head (with two spidery claw-hand-things, then suddenly five spindly fingers).

“Nothing.”

“Ready to go?” asked Azriah, pushing up off the crate he’d been sitting on. He rolled his shoulders and adjusted his pack.

“I am,” said Vit with a grin. “The sooner we get moving, the better. It’s two hours to the doorway into Atnaterra.” Root simply nodded in answer to the question.

As they started up the road, they left behind the puddle of sunlight that streamed down the mountain slopes to the east and collected in the city and traded it for shadows of morning chill that took refuge behind ridges and cliffs, not yet discovered by the new day’s sun. The road wormed its way uphill following the same trajectory that started within the city’s southern bounds, teasing at the rocky, mossy slopes but never taking weight off its firm footholds in the valley along the coast. Cobble turned to rut-ridden gravel; sediment collected in ditches along the roadsides, washed out from between the larger stones by the regular heavy rainfall. Now it had retired from a life of being trodden on to vacation on the sidelines and throw a petty wink in the direction of oncoming wagon traffic.

The first half hour of the trek passed in the awkward sort of silence that accompanies strangers on a walk together and pushes them to move just that little bit faster in order to be through with the ordeal as quickly as possible. A few comments of “Watch out for that stone,” and “It’s up this way,” and (from Beel) “I think my feet are going to fall off and then I’ll have to squirm around like an eel and you’d better carry me if that happens do you promise?” stood out like landmarks against the conversation-bare landscape. The birds in the jungle trees all around hadn’t heard the memo about the silence, probably because they’d been chattering too loud to hear it. They ruffled their brightly colored plumage and cried out comments of their own, including but not limited to “It’s up this way,” and “Hand over all your money!” and “I think my feet are going to fall off and then I’ll have to squirm around like an eel and you’d better carry me if that happens do you promise?” Alongside the jungle birds, the sound of a lone frog broke through the noise every few minutes, somehow always nearby as if stalking them from just beyond the underbrush.

Relief swelled tangibly through the group when Vit finally offered a real attempt at conversation.

“Well, we should probably all get to know each other, right?”

“Not this again,” muttered Beel.

“Azriah. Where are you from?”

“Ubado.”

Vit’s pace slowed slightly as they thought. “That’s the one to our northwest right?”

“That’s right. Savanna lowlands, jungle in the northern hills up to the border at the Great Edgar Mountains.”

“Who is Edgar?”

“No idea.”

“What made him great?”

“Maybe climbing a mountain?”

“Hm. Well, what part were you from?”

“Jungle. Northeastern region, small town. But my parents were southerners displaced by the political upheaval of their youth.”

“I was in the desert,” said Beel with a sigh.

“Was?” asked Vit.

“Well I’m not now.”

“Beel was being sold into an underground spirit fighting ring,” said Root. “I found him in a cage on the docks.”

Vit looked taken aback. “It’s illegal to buy or sell spirits. Except lesser spirits. But you must be a minor spirit at least.”

“I think he’s kind of old, actually,” said Root.

“No, like the tier of spirit. Lesser, minor, major…”

“I am a minor spirit, thank you very much,” said Beel with a hmph. “And I’m not that old.”

“How old are you?” asked Root.

“The same age as every other spirit. Obviously. Which puts me well within the average.” Root made eye contact with Vit. They shrugged.

“I just can’t believe you were being sold. In Unn, of all places. I thought the laws were pretty tight. Are you sure they weren’t just, I don’t know, taking you on a… trip?”

“Should I go back and ask them?”

“He was in a cage before I got him out,” said Root. “And muzzled.”

Azriah glanced over at Root. “And you took it off?”

“Actually now we are done talking about me being sold. I’ve just decided.”

“Fair enough,” said Vit. “Where are you from, Root?” They said her name funny, like they were chewing it.

“Zhaen-or-Daijia.”

Vit paused. They studied Root’s face. “Well, which is it?”

“No, that’s the name of the country. Zhaen-or-Daijia.”

“Why would they call it that?”

“Well, at first it was just Daijia, but then there was a coup and it became Zhaen. But then the old rulers of Daijia staged their own coup and took it back, so it was Daijia again. That one didn’t last very long because there were some Zhaen officials hiding out in the wine cellar, and they took the country back that same afternoon. Then Daijia retook it the next day while the Zhaen officials were on their lunch break. That kept happening and for a long time it went back and forth so frequently that keeping the civilians and the rest of the world up to date on who was in power and what the country was called required an entire branch of the government. Eventually the two came to an agreement to name the country ‘Zhaen-or-Daijia’ permanently. Now it doesn’t really matter who is in office. Nothing changes much. They just trade off undoing each other’s laws.”

“Wow,” said Vit once Root was finished. “Seems pretty dysfunctional to have two different governments constantly making and overturning the same laws. Maybe someone else should step in.”

“A guy tried once. For two days and eleven hours the country was called ‘Usually-Zhaen-or-Daijia-but-currently-Jason.’”

“I take it Jason didn’t have a great twelfth hour on his third day?”

“Most of him did, just not the neck.”

“Ah.”

“Only thing Zhaen and Daijia collaborate on is keeping the field to themselves. They don’t want any other competition. Imagine how long the name would get.”

“So who is in power currently?”

“No idea. I’ve been gone for a few weeks.”

Somewhere in the vicinity, their frog pursuer burped another announcement of its nearness. A new round of silence grabbed the group by their throats until Root realized that the rules of social conduct pressured her to ask the same question of Vit.

“Where are you from?” she asked after just a moment too long.

“Atnaterra. But I suppose you already knew that. It’s hard to get more specific in most cases; Atnaterra isn’t broken up into countries the way the world is here in Setoterra. There are cities and towns, but a lot of spirits live in isolated homesteads or natural shelters—or they’re wanderers—so borders can be hard to draw. There are some coalitions and such. Er, anyway, I lived near a town called Egogbin for most of my life there. It’s in the southeastern region near a mountain range called the Shundrens. I didn’t live in the town, but out in the marshes nearby, in a cabin with a… friend.

“My mother was in the area when she had me. She’s a spider spirit, so that’s where my spirit half comes from. My dad must’ve been human, then. Don’t know, really. After I was born, I just wandered alone for a while until I ended up making a home there in the marsh.”

Root, lacking a response or another question, stuttered out a simple “Ah.”

“I’m sorry, was that a lot?” asked Vit with a sudden look of concern. “Maybe that was a lot to share. I’m not sure.”

“No, no,” said Root. “Uh. So your mom. She was a spider?”

“Yeah. Er, well, a spider spirit. But she didn’t raise me—most spirits don’t raise their half-spirit offspring—so I don’t really know her or anything. I ran into her once, years later. She’s one of the types to just wander.”

“And your dad? You said you don’t know him?”

“No, my mom ate him.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. Spirits don’t really reproduce. They can’t give birth to new spirits, obviously, and half-spirits are pretty rare, so I’m sure it was a weird experience for both of them.”

“I’m… sorry to hear about that.”

Vit shrugged. “The guy fucked a giant spider. You don’t fuck a giant spider without understanding that you’re probably going to get eaten afterwards.”

“Hope it was good sex, at least,” said Azriah.

“If it wasn’t, the blue balls didn’t last long,” added Root.

“But moving on from my parents’ brief and lethal sex life,” said Vit, “I traveled to Setoterra a few years ago just for a change of pace, then got a job with Low while I was in Unn and stuck around.”

“Why Low’s?” asked Azriah. “Why bartending, for that matter? You’ve got some… unique skills. I saw as much while we were fighting those two spirits. You could have been doing something more exciting than dirtying glasses with a rag.”

“I was polishing them.”

“Not with that rag you weren’t.”

“Hm. I don’t know why Low’s. Just sort of fell into my lap, I suppose.”

“The same goes for you,” Azriah said, now to Root. “You said you worked on a farm. But pyvrins are coveted by military generals and by guard captains serving politicians and merchants. You could’ve—”

“I’m not a pyvrin.”

“Right. Well, regardless—”

“So we should’ve been doing the kind of work you do? Last night you were telling us we weren’t fit for this gig, now we’ve been wasting our time in dead-end jobs? And what makes you so special, then? You’re just some normal guy with a normal sword.”

Of every reaction Root expected from Azriah, laughter was not high up the list. But his laugh ran sharp and clear through the jungle with all the power and cadence of wind in the canopy before a storm. It echoed back a few times in the rasping, mocking squawks of birds cocky with the confidence of being beyond the reach of its muse’s attacks.

“What’s so funny?” asked Root.

“He’s laughing because you called me a normal sword,” said a tinny voice. Root’s eyes fell to the weapon at Azriah’s hip.

“Oh what the fuck.”

Azriah drew his sword—a long, straight, double-edged weapon in a style Root was less familiar with. It had a blade of perfectly polished steel, brass-colored crossguard and pommel, and a grip wrapped in neat, maroon-dyed leather. The sword’s elegance and flawless craftsmanship struck Root immediately—which was preferable to being struck by any other part of it, as the twin edges looked impossibly sharp, as if it had never seen battle at all despite Root having firsthand evidence on the contrary. As Azriah held his weapon out at arm’s length, he gestured to a molded design at the center of the crossguard with his thumb.

“This is Orne Tyn,” he said. Root and Vit both leaned in closer for a better look.

The depiction was a frog’s face, modeled after the type that lived in the trees of the marshier parts of the world. As Root studied the design, its metal eyes roved to look her up and down, then moved back to Azriah with the clearest expression of disinterest Root had ever seen from a metal-cast frog face. It was up against limited competition.

“Put me back,” said the face. Its froggy lips moved as it spoke. Its voice sounded like—well, say you took a frog, taught it to speak in human words, and then plopped it in an emptied bean can, closed it up tight, and shook it a few times to make the contents sufficiently bothered. The voice sounded exactly like that.

“We’re doing introductions,” said Azriah.

“I’m not,” said the sword.

Azriah pursed his lips and turned to the others. “Well, as I said. This is Orne Tyn.”

“Nice to meet you, Orne,” said Vit.

“Orne Tyn,” said Orne Tyn. He punctuated the name with a familiar ribbit.

Ah, thought Root.

“That’s not, like, a last name or something?”

“Spirits don’t have last names.”

“You’re a spirit?”

“Yes.”

“Cool.” Vit paused. “I have a last name. Vit Lartuh.”

“You’re terrible.”

“Ah.”

“All right, goodbye,” said Azriah, and slid the sword back into its leather sheath. He sighed.

“Don’t get along too well with your sword?” asked Root.

“He’s fine, just grumpy.”

“I would stab you if I had the faculties required to do it,” said Orne Tyn from Azriah’s side. “If any of you want to help out, I’ll let you off with a maiming only. Looking at you, grumpy guy. You know how it is.”

“I’m not grumpy,” said Beel.

Now I’m a little bit grumpy,” muttered Beel.

“So you can’t possess your wielder or anything?” asked Root. “Isn’t that a thing proper magic swords are meant to do?”

“No. I cannot.”

“I’ve definitely heard that also,” said Vit with a nod.

“Have you tried?” asked Root.

Azriah put up a hand. “Let’s not give him any ideas.”

“Yes I’ve tried. That’s not something we can do.”

“Maybe it’s just that you can’t do,” suggested Root.

Orne Tyn emitted a loud, long griiiiiiiiiiiiib. It was not intimidating in the slightest.

“Anyways. Perhaps couples counseling for the two of you, then,” suggested Root.

Azriah rubbed his forehead. “Perhaps.”

They walked in relative silence for a while; now that Root knew the source of the mysterious frog sounds, they annoyed her more. She did her best to shunt the irritation—the role of annoying spirit companion was already full, and they didn’t need to double up.

She turned her attention instead to the jungle around them. It was not so different from the jungle back home, across the sea on another continent. Both were draped in a canopy like an emerald cloak and replete with rich air that carried on it the smell of overripe mangoes and dawn mud. Both writhed with the life of a two-headed beast—one head enchantingly beautiful and alluring, pristine, like something created with the intent that it should only be beheld and painted; the other head screeching and cold and primed like the fangs of a winter storm, prowling for a wayward soul unprepared for the raw power of wildness looking to feed. Both were unbearably humid in that awful way that leaves every bit of you sticky, especially the bits you least want to be sticky.

But likewise, Root was fascinated by how different the two could still be. In the jungles of her home, there were none of the painted birds that tittered in the trees like a flock of aristocrats draped in dyed silks as they lounged and gossiped and gorged themselves sick on sugar and the sweeping exploitation of their underlings. They had monkeys and boars at home, but the monkeys were not half as bold as these, and the boars were twice as fat. But most significantly, the jungle of home had been cut through by roads that sliced it into chunks like a butcher hacking at the hide of a sow. The wildlife kept clear of the roads, and the wayward critters that didn’t never managed to leave; the undergrowth shied away as though cowering in its beds. Tamed. Docile. Restrained. Here in this foreign jungle, vines hung so low from the boughs of the roadside trees that they had to brush them aside as they walked. Roots stuck out with all but (or possibly including) the intent to trip passersby. Animals stood on the path while ripping up mouthfuls of vegetation and staring blankly, passively, at approaching travelers. Here, the jungle seemed resolved to tame the road. And the jungle was winning.

Azriah cleared his throat. “I, uh. Er, I just want to make it clear… Root, you said last night I claimed you weren’t fit for this gig. I certainly didn’t say that, and I don’t believe it, so if that’s how my message came across, I apologize. I think you’re all very capable, actually. It’s just that you expressed a lot of doubt, and you didn’t seem up to the task. And, well, I usually do these sorts of jobs alone.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Vit, “we didn’t take it personally. I’m sure it’ll be pretty neat to have company this time. We’re kind of a team now. The four… five of us.”

“We’re not a team,” said Orne Tyn.

“If there is an ‘opting-out’ team I’d like to be part of that one,” said Beel.

“I might be with them,” admitted Azriah with an apologetic smile. “I’m happy to work with you all on Ophylla’s job, but this isn’t going to be a regular thing or anything like that. I’m not really looking for partners.”

Root might’ve voiced her own endorsement of Team Not-A-Team, but before she could open her mouth, she caught Vit’s crestfallen expression. She said nothing.

Vit didn’t have long to mope; hardly a minute passed before their eyes came alight with the appearance of something ahead.

“We’re here!” they said and hurried up the road.

The trees peeled back into a clearing so perfectly round it couldn’t possibly have been natural. At first, Root’s impression of the line was one uncrossed out of fear, but after a moment more of studying the way the trees bent and leaned, it looked more to be uncrossed out of respect.

At the clearing’s center stood two towering standing stones, glassy and black and curved towards each other up near their pointed tops, though not touching, so they looked like they shared a hushed conversation. Together they resembled the horns of a massive bull, as if a great beast had been buried there below the ground by grave diggers who had mismeasured their hole but made the most of it.

Between the two stones wafted a film of glitter and mist, so light Root didn’t notice it at all until her third glance. It rippled with the breeze. Specks shimmered in the sunlight in swirls of every color. Somehow the things on the other side felt impossibly far away, despite appearing no smaller than they should. Iron-gripped vertigo took hold of Root and wrenched her feet skyward as if shaking her down for loose change.

“So this is the doorway?” said Azriah. His words reunited Root with her body.

Vit nodded. “This is it.” They walked a lap around the stones and ran a hand over their faceted surfaces.

“Do we just… step through it?”

“Yes. This one is already active. If it wasn’t, there would be more of a process.”

“And then we end up in Atnaterra?”

“Pretty much.”

As they spoke, a sapphire blue macaw soared overhead on wings like an army of blades, tail feathers splayed, and collided with the screen of mist. Its form shrunk against the backdrop of foliage as though it moved farther away with impossible speed, never colliding with the wall of trees. At the same time, its shape stretched top to bottom, distorted, mangled, and then with a pop and a puff of glitter, the speck of blue winked out.

“Is that going to happen to us?” Root asked with all the horror of having just watched a bird receive a surprise spine realignment.

“Well, yes. It doesn’t hurt. Well…” Vit scrunched up their face in consideration. “No, it doesn’t hurt.”

“Reassuring.”

Vit’s face brightened. “Oh! Good.”

“It was sarcasm, dipshit.” It seemed that once Orne Tyn had decided to make his introduction, he wouldn’t go back into silent observation so easily.

“Oh.”

For several very long, very silent seconds, no one said anything and no one moved, they only watched the kaleidoscope curtain of glitter.

When the period of silence ended, another picked up where it left off.

“Do you want me to go first?” asked Vit.

Azriah gestured to the gate. “Lead the way.”

Vit took a few steps back and then ran towards the standing stones. In the span of a single bound, they threw their hands up towards the two pillars and shot strands of web at the tops, grabbed hold of the strands, and leapt, catapulting themself through the portal with grace and just a little too much enthusiasm. Their form shrunk and stretched in Root’s vision. Then they were gone.

Much to Root’s dismay, Azriah didn’t take long to follow. With none of Vit’s performance but all of the same confidence, he stepped through and was gone. Root and Beel approached the gate side-by-side.

A different world. A different dimension. What are you thinking?

Well, it was too late to turn back.

What’s the worst that could happen? Root shook her head to be rid of the thought immediately. That thought was exactly the thought you were never supposed to think before doing something like this. It was practically a challenge of fate itself.

“I hate this part,” muttered Beel as they stepped into the flow. Root opened her mouth to ask. She didn’t get much further.

She was wrenched forward by her gut with enough force to turn whiplash into a relief afforded only to those lucky enough to keep their bodies assembled. Gate glitter coated her open mouth and scratched at her throat; she contorted her body to cough, but straining against the pull left her unable to draw breath. Panic took hold as her lungs started to burn.

Lights whizzed by, long streaks as she soared past at unimaginable speed. Bile crept into her throat. She pressed her eyes shut. If she vomited now, it would probably sit at the back of her throat and choke her.

Not that she could breathe as it was. But at least choking on glitter was a bit more dignified than drowning in one’s own vomit.

She cracked one eye. A landscape came into view below her—was there still a “below” her? Or was it above?

In some distant and indeterminable direction, which may or may not have been the direction colloquially known as “down,” something solid came into view. Which was quite unfortunate, because hurtling downwards towards a solid surface—rocks, maybe? Hang on…

Yep, rocks.

—Hurtling downwards towards rocks was rarely a good fortune.

It was impossible to tell how far the ground was—a mile? three?—she expected it didn’t matter. It was a smidge past survivable.

Then she felt something beneath the soles of her boots. Had she kicked something in midair? Was it Beel? Sorry, Beel.

But when she looked down at her legs, they were… well, they were still there. But they were also there, and there, and there, and all the way down there. They trailed like stretched gum, thin and wiry, all the way to the ground. And now they drew her in like overstretched rubber.

She snapped into proper Root shape as if in pieces. One moment she could feel only her feet, then in the next she felt her ankles, knees, hips. She felt her elbows before her stomach, which gave her a moment of panic, but by the time her gut caught up with the rest of her and alerted her recently arrived head that it had brought its signature sinking feeling to the panic potluck, the fear was old news.

When she was whole again, it took a moment before her body finished vibrating. While she waited, she sucked in breath after breath of air between coughing out gobs of phlegm with a gritty luster that changed color when she shifted her angle.

For some reason, she still couldn’t feel her thumb knuckles.

After her coughing subsided and her breaths came at regular (albeit shaky) intervals, she straightened up and looked around. They stood on a rocky slope dotted with vegetation. A gate matching the first stood at the top of the knoll. In the distance behind them loomed the shapes of immense, jagged mountains, and before them, down the slope of the knoll and across a gravel road, was the edge of a freakish forest.

Now, perhaps such an immediate judgment was unfair, but none of the trees were like anything Root had ever seen in her life. A scattered few were species that inhabited the forests of her home world, but most were entirely alien. In the low light of dawn—or dusk?—the shadows only emphasized the bizarre forms. Root looked up. High in the sky hung the perfectly round, perfectly white shape of what she could only assume to be the moon. Or a moon. It was marked with none of the same splotches of the moon back home, and glowed brighter, providing twice as much light as even the brightest full moon. There were no stars in the sky.

Down the road lay a single building. It was little more than a stable, long and low, a construction of wood shingles and logs like a hunting lodge nestled deep in the forest. Root guessed it to be a roadside inn, perhaps situated there as a rest stop for travelers making their way to or from the door between worlds. Lights shone out from the windows, warm, inviting. The patrons sitting outside gave off a different vibe entirely.

“There is a small town a few miles that way,” said Vit, pointing off down one leg of the gravel road. “It will take us farther from Obobo, which is probably around two days in that direction.” They pointed down a different road. “I would recommend we start that trek now and get as far as we can before tonight; it’s still early.”

Root looked up at the sky again but saved her questions. She would have time to ask anything she liked about the spirit world on the road. Right now, looking at it all made her too dizzy. It was just so jarringly strange.

Azriah surveyed the landscape. His usual expression of confidence had slipped just enough that it put Root somewhat at ease. At least she wasn’t the only one who felt staggeringly overwhelmed by it all.

Vit clapped their hands together. “Everyone got everything? No one left anything behind?”

“I wouldn’t go back through that thing if I’d forgotten my right arm on the other side,” said Root.

“All right,” said Vit as they started down the road. “That can happen you know. Sort of.”

Root flexed her thumbs again. Still missing the knuckles.

 

“Sir?”

The master was going to be displeased. Kurg hated when the master was displeased. It made him angry.

“Come in,” said a voice inside the chamber. Kurg kept his eyes on the floorboards. They were fine floorboards. In other circumstances he might have quite liked those floorboards. But he had never had an enjoyable time looking at them. Not by any fault of the floorboards.

Kurg shambled into the room on feet too large for his small frame. He climbed onto a chair and stood atop it so he could see over the master’s desk.

The master sat on the other side. A single book sat open before him—pages worn and faded, cover torn and loose. It smelled musty and rank even from across the desk, like some beast had eaten it and then regurgitated it hours later. Perhaps one had. It was an old tome—it had no doubt seen countless atrocities done to it. It had more pages missing than still clinging to the binding.

“What is it?” The master’s voice was edged with a mood. Moods were bad. Kurg hated the master’s moods.

Kurg pinched his eyes shut. “We received word from Uvuh, sir. She found the contact, but he was uncooperative. Um, withheld information. But she doesn’t think he knew the answer at all, sir.”

“Of course not.” The words were sharp.

“Um, but there is more, sir. There is good news, sir. She did some digging in the archives and found the location of the manor.”

“Excellent. Give it to me.” The master held out one ochre-colored hand.

Kurg, eyes low, withdrew a folded piece of paper from his pants pocket. He held it out in his tiny fingers, each one short and stubby like a cocktail sausage. (He had never seen a cocktail sausage—had never been permitted to attend an event so fancy alongside his master—but if he did attend such an event, and if he saw the sausages, he would have agreed they looked remarkably like his fingers, four on each hand.)

When the master took the paper, his long, talon-like nails brushed Kurg’s skin. It made him shudder and stiffen. For a moment the master studied him carefully, and Kurg feared retribution for his unpermitted movement. But then the master held the paper close and read Kurg’s poorly formed scrawl.

Kurg risked a glance up from the surface of the desk to the master’s hands, to the ring on his master’s right middle finger. Black as night, cold and hungry it looked, carved from obsidian. The polish reflected the light, but the surface remained jagged like broken glass. At its center sat a gem like a marble, teal in color, clutched tight by shards of obsidian that rimmed the gem and held it fast like teeth. Sharp teeth. And it watched Kurg as he stood there waiting for his dismissal. The ring was always watching him.

“Very good,” said the master. His words meant he was near enough to pleased. His tone was flat. That was the best Kurg ever got from him. “Send word back to Uvuh that we will rendezvous with her at this location. Have her scout the grounds before we enter.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Dismissed.”

 

 

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