Monthly Archives: August 2015

Cyberpunk

He jolted awake, escaping whatever danger the fading dream held. Blinking slowly in the darkness he wondered why the lights hadn’t come on automatically with the increase of his biorhythms. He tried to speak and realized something was in his mouth. Sluggishly his brain caught up to the current situation. This darkness was forced, something was over his head, and he had a gag in his mouth.

As frantically as his muddled brain would allow he ran through the last thing he remembered. He was in his bunk, there was a knock at the door and then nothing. Someone had jumped him inside the company barracks, this wasn’t good.

“Ah,” a familiar voice called from behind him. “You’re awake.”

The rough fabric hood was pulled gently off his head and the smiling face of Sergeant Sawyer.

“You’re probably wondering what’s going on right now, eh?” The Sergeant kneeled down next to him and tugged on the pair of handcuffs secured to the floor.

He looked at them in astonishment, whatever had happened last night had really left him groggy.

“Four shipments in six weeks have been hit,” Sawyer drew removed an electronic key from his belt and set it down by the restraint. “All those shipments have three personnel in common.”

His fingers numbly grasped at the thin block and finally took purchase after the third attempt. The fog around his mind was starting to recede, his hands were able to unlock the cuffs on the second try.

“Of those three personnel,” Sawyer directed his attention to a raised hand. “Are a rookie who is rising with a rocket, me, and you. How does that look, Cooper?”

At the sound of his name the world grew sharper. He was suddenly aware they were in the back of a prisoner transport and more distressing, Sawyer had his sidearm drawn.

“The rookie just happens to be making Senior Officer this month,” the Sergeant clucked his tongue. “A position it took you three years to get to and while he has an excellent record you have a few insubordination charges against you.” He smiled again, raising the sidearm to center on Cooper’s chest. “Now who would think to even look at me?”

“It’s kind of odd that I didn’t struggle after escaping my cuffs, eh Sarge?” Cooper had to force the words out through a dry mouth.

“True,” he sighed. “But after the last time they won’t really question me shooting first.”

“There was a last time?”

He nodded sadly, “it seems that there are so many young men who fall to temptation when passed over for promotions.” The smile returned, “But don’t worry, I’ve got quite the reputation for ferreting out corruption.”

Cooper held his hands up, palms down, trying to stall for time.

“Just like you were trained,” Sawyer laughed. “Are you going to try to reason with me next? Maybe try to deal?” He chuckled as he took a step forward. “I’m a sucker for the classics, any last words?”

Dipping to the side Cooper kicked out with his foot, sending the cuffs toward the gunman. The latch brought them up short, connecting with Sawyer’s left knee but the result was more favorable than getting shot. Cooper lunged forward, both of his hands closing on the extended gun and pointing down and crashing his shoulder into Sawyer’s chest.

Sawyer wrestled for the gun, trying to return full control. Removing it from his grasp was going to impossible so Cooper settled for simply disarming. With a quick motion he ejected the magazine and removed the slide on the top of the pistol. Before Sawyer knew what had happened Cooper had let go of the now useless weapon and was now armed with a nice little weapon.

He gripped the disconnected slide, turned and jammed the length of poly-carbonate into the nerve bundle on Sawyer’s shoulder. Once upon a time the Sergeant was a man of action, but now he was a desk jockey, filing reports and only getting down to the gym to meet the company standards. The spasm of pain made him jump back with a yell. Cooper pressed the attack using the slide as an impromptu kubotan forcing Sawyer against the far wall with a barrage of strikes to the forearms, neck, and chest.

A jarring right hand strike sent the Sergeant sliding to the floor with a dazed look in his eyes. Cooper moved quickly, wrenching the gun from the now limp hand and assembling it with practiced ease. All he had to do was lock Sawyer up and drag him back to HQ. There was no way he was taking the fall for this.

“Sarge?” A voice called from outside. “What’s going on back there?”

“Oh damn,” he whispered suddenly realizing that he was standing above an unconscious superior officer holding a weapon.

The few options he had were tossed aside as the hatch on the back of the truck was unlocked and began to swing open. If he was lucky there would be only one officer, if he was really lucky it would be someone he could convince to listen to his side of the story. Cooper looked at Sawyer as he started to come back to consciousness.

“Yeah,” he stepped back toward the wobbly sergeant and crowned him with the butt of the pistol.

“Easy there, Sarge,” the voice called as the hatch locked into place. “We just need to make it look like a small struggle not a straight out-”

Cooper turned to see De Santos silhouetted in the opening. De Santos was dressed in company issue matte-black cargo pants, boots, and olive-drab T-shirt for wear in the off hours. He was also sporting a brand new cybernetic right arm from the shoulder down. In a smooth motion Cooper brought the pistol up and fired two rounds at the junction of man and machine. The traitorous cyborg jerked backward as the shots hit their mark and toppled out of the back of the truck.

Rushing over to the opening Cooper dove through the hatch, hoping to catch anyone else off guard. He tucked into a roll, trying to make a controlled tumble and settle into a position he could easily take aim from. Instead his back crashed into a solid wall and he slumped heavily to the ground onto the crumpled form of a body. There was a muffled groan as he thanked what little luck he had for him to land on top of De Santos instead of the inanimate layer of trash nearby.

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Animal Control & Rescue

Simon looked at the beast that towered over him and wondered how it had found him. A sharp pain in his right arm reminded him of the bloody gash he had received crashing his car into one of the creatures pack mates. Blood trail, stupid rookie mistake, and possibly his last.

The beast looked like a polar bear mated with a gorilla and then got really angry. He knew what it was, a North-American Yeti, usually they stuck to the wildernesses of Canada and even then they weren’t much of an issue but somehow this one and the three that followed it had found their way into Northern Maine, and that was part of Simon’s territory. Technically, Vermont, Maine, Massacheusets, and New York excluding New York City were his territory but that was just arguing semantics.

Taking down the first two while fully stocked and with use of all his limbs was hard, using his car to smash the third one was a desperate move, now he was down to one arm and his gun nowhere to be found. He always wondered how he was going to die, ever since starting this job he knew it wasn’t going to be in bed surrounded by grandkids. Well, there was a chance he would die surrounded by someone else’s grandchildren but then he would probably be a meal and that was a scenario for another day.

He tried to remember what the manual said about Yeti. Was the plural Yetis or Yetii or just Yeti? No time for that now, his brain was wondering, the pain was making him loose focus.

“Yeti,” he said looking into the black orbs of the creature. “Prefers colder climate and enjoys a diet of small game. You are supposed to be extremely territorial but mostly harmless.”

The Yeti growled as it took another step closer to him. One more step and it would be able to grab him and that would be the end. He tried not to move and then it clicked in his mind.

“Catches game by frightening its prey into stillness,” Simon rushed forward and hopped to the side as a large hand reached out for him. “You’re big and scary but slow and stupid.”

Diving under another swipe of a clawed hand he ran back along the creatures tracks. Yeti were notorious for living in caves or creating natural cover by bending trees, if there were any survivors they would be there. Once he found them he would come up with more of a plan.

Adrenaline kicked in, the pain in his arm dulled and the cool winter air was refreshing and brisk. The tracks were easy to follow and he soon found himself facing the opening of an ice cave. Natural run-off had frozen to create a hollowed out area against a rock face. Somewhere in the back of his mind he noted that it was beautiful.

The Yeti was close behind him, they were slow moving but big and once they sped up all that mass they didn’t stop easily. An idea went formed in his mind and he stood on the other side of the ice wall, waiting for the beast. Just as he found the perfect spot the Yeti came into view, charging straight at him and bellowing a roar that made his teeth rattle. With every step closer the beast picked up speed.

Simon dove to the right, sliding face first like a runner praying to steal home, and the Yeti crashed head first into ice wall and bursting on through.

“Oh crap,” he turned over and looked at the chunk of missing ice.

The ice wall was supposed to stop it. Reaching with his uninjured hand to his right pocket he pulled the large tranquilizer needle and uncapped it. He had to move quickly, it would probably still be stunned.

Closing one eye and walking into the cave he could see the Yeti sprawled across the floor of the cave. One of its arms was bent at an odd angle and he was pretty sure its left foot wasn’t supposed to turn that way. It was still breathing, which he guessed was good.

Unceremoniously he planted the needle in the creature’s hindquarters and depressed the plunger. The thing should be out now for at least a few hours, probably more given its injuries. He sat down, using the Yeti as a seat and reached inside his jacket. He pulled a little black box that almost looked like a garage door opener with a small screen and pressed a button. The screen blinked for a moment then the word ‘received’ scrolled across the three inch display in green blocky letters.

A small whimper brought his attention toward the back of the cave. He really hoped it wasn’t another Yeti, even a little one could be a pain in the ass and he didn’t have any more needles.

“Hello,” a shaky voice called.

“Hello?” He replied standing up. “Who’s there?”

“Oh thank god!” The voice yelled.

A young man, maybe twenty years old rushed from the back of the cave and wrapped his arms around Simon.

“I was so scared,” he sobbed. “It ate Robby and our guide, then it dragged me here. I thought I was going to die.”

“You’re going to be alright now,” Simon patted the young man on his back and tried to ignore the pressure on his injured arm. “Help is coming.”

“Anything you want, I’ll give it to you, anything,” the young man sobbed.

“I could really use some back-up,” he sighed looking at the downed Yeti.

“Done,” the kid nodded. “What’s your name?”

“Simon,” he returned the hug. “Simon Kelevra.”

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Filed under Fantasy, Short Fiction, Urban Fantasy, Writing

In Another Castle- Chapter 3

We moved quickly through the castle. Three guards approached from a side hallway. I took a breath to tell them to stand down, but before I could speak they fell into step with the others. My mouth pressed shut as we kept up the brisk pace. This castle had been my life, these guards were men I’d grown to count as friends, and yet they didn’t even attempt a rescue. Yes, I had chosen this fate, but anyone outside of the ballroom wouldn’t have known, and those in it probably weren’t too happy about it.

I stole a look at one of the guards. A mixture of relief and worry stirred in my chest. I didn’t recognize the man, in fact now that I had a look at him I wondered how I could have mistaken him from any of the guards in the palace. The raised red tattoo that ran across the bridge of his nose made it apparent he wasn’t from around here.

“Where did you get the guards uniforms?” I looked at my draconic betrothed.

“We stole them.” He answered without looking at me.

“And their original owners?”

He didn’t say anything.

“How many of my men did you kill?”

His sharp golden eyes snapped to me. “Only those we had to. Can your men say the same?”

I narrowed my gaze and looked up at him. “What do you mean?”

“You don’t know?” A faint puff of smoke accented his words.

I realized then that we should have been to the main hall by now. Out of the corner of my eye I began to pick up hints of where were and what our destination would be. We were near the western tower. I kept silent as we moved. This didn’t make sense. The western tower was the tallest of the five that the castle had, but it faced the sea on one side and the castle on the other. Even if they had somehow managed to figure out how to bend space-time, there wasn’t a conduit in the tower. The nearest anchor point was in the courtyard outside behind the main gate and surrounded by two fully stocked guard stations whose sole purpose was to monitor traffic.

“Are you planning on making a last stand in the tower?” I waved a hand at the winding staircase now in front of our group.

Even with the new arrivals, which had totaled nearly twenty, they wouldn’t be able to hold the tower for long. The stairway was wide enough for six wide-shouldered men to walk side-by-side, or fight, which would work in their favor, but this wasn’t the only staircase. Each tower had two separate passages for servants and a central platform that could be raised or lowered floor by floor. The tower would be retaken before sundown.

“Hardly, princess.” Eirikr strode ahead of his followers.

The desert gnomes began to remove their disguises as we wound our way higher. They tossed their stolen jackets on the stairs, most of them used the white frilled shirts to clear out chunks of blue gel from their hair. A couple wiped streaks of the goop to paint designs on their faces, or to simply wipe it on their unsuspecting comrades. Those disguised as guards followed the gnomes lead. I quickly learned that they weren’t even human, the green and red shells on their backs gave it away. A closer look at their skin revealed that it was finely scaled and what I thought were tattoos was natural. The looked similar to Eirikr in appearance with sharp draconic features, but their eyes were more akin to that of a human. None of Eirikrs’ band had looked twice at me, as of yet. I guess sneaking into a hostile castle and stealing a princess doesn’t leave a lot of room for leisure.

Our band more than doubled the higher we got in the tower. Every room, landing, and alcove held a waiting gnome, lizardman, or one of the shelled-folk I did not know the name for. My gown began to stir as wind whipped down the corridor. We reached the top of the tower where even more of loyal troopers waited near the open door. My heart dropped as I looked up at the patch of sky through the door. This was it, I would do my duty, save my kingdom, and avert total invasion. I wasn’t sure yet how plummeting from the tower with the leader of the soon-to-invade horde, but the life of a princess is rarely a fairy tale.

Eirikr strode to the door and waited for the rest of his band to pass through. He held his hand out to me.

“The choice is yours princess.” The dragons’ voice still rumbled, but it was distant thunder on the horizon rather than storming overhead. “Your father gave his word, as did I, but you did not.”

I glared at him. “You doubt my honor.”

He gave a small, slow shake of his head. For a moment I didn’t see him as fearsome dragon, but a king, not unlike my father, with the world on his shoulders. I put my hand in his. He looked down at it and then up at me.

“If we’re going to jump, could we do it toward the sea?” I looked to the doorway. “I’d rather make a splash than a mess on the stone below.”

Eirikr raised his head to the ceiling and let out a quick trio of flames. I was taken aback, maybe he meant to burn me alive. He covered his mouth with the back of his hand and the flames settled down into a chuckle. I stared at him, still unsure what caused this outburst.

“Slip into the castle, escort the princess to the tallest tower, and then throw her from it?” Eirikr shook his head. “What kind of plan is that?”

“I assumed you’d be right behind me.”

“Behind you.” Smoke rolled from his nostrils. “No princess, we’re not jumping, we’re leaving. I’ll lead the way.”

He led me out to the tower. His troopers climbed the stone battlement and stepped off.

A moment later they floated back up into sight riding on clumps of cloud. They lazily rose to a thick concentration of dark storm clouds. He pointed a clawed finger at the cluster of cloud and my eyes began to pick out lines through the mist. I raised my free hand and traced the distant edge with my fingertips.

“A ship?” I turned to look at him.

“A fleet.” He waved hand at the other dark clusters that filled the sky around the castle.

Now that I knew what to look for I could pick out at least ten ships nearby. The band of troopers were heading toward the largest ship. I followed Eirikr to the battlements. He stepped up onto the stone and prodded a nearby cloud with his foot. The mists gathered around his foot until I couldn’t see through it. He stepped off the stone fully onto the cloud and dipped down out of view. I watched in wonder as he floated back up and drifted off toward a nearby ship.

I was alone on the top of the tower now. All the troopers and the dragon lord were riding clouds toward their fleet. I looked back at the door that led down into the tower. My father had betrayed his word, I would not. I stepped up onto the battlement and dipped my foot into the mist. The cloud formed around my foot. I closed my eyes and stepped off.

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In Another Castle- Chapter 2

“Guards.” My fathers’ voice rose. There was something in the tone that I didn’t recognize.

“Honor your word, Amanita.” Eirikr the Dragon Lords’ rumble interrupted.

My fathers’ face twisted into something I had not seen since the day my mother died. He raised his hand and waved at Eirikr. “Slay the dragon.”

My mind grasped for answered. How did the leader of an enemy army make into the castle? Did the mystics in the mountains learn how to bend space? I looked to my father to see his face had drained of color. The guards around the room drew their weapons. Eirikr let out a high whistle; a moment later the room erupted in a clatter of noise as serving trays were dumped on the floor. Every gnome in the ballroom brandished wicked long-knives.

“Do you think I would be so easily deceived?” A great row of knife-sharp teeth flashed as the Dragon Lord smiled.

For a moment my gaze jumped from my father to the dragon. The tempo on the dance floor shifted as the fighting started. Potential suitors from across the realms and their entourages found themselves in the middle of a tussle between the royal guards, the desert gnomes disguised as servers, and the small force of lizardmen led by Eirikr.

Two gnomes rushed toward Marius only to have Ludovic boot one to the floor and my short foreign suitor to crown the other was a solid fist.

“My princess,” Marius stepped in front of me. “Please excuse the interruption.”

“Good, Sir Knight.” I held my hand out and took hold of the sword Bellis offered to me. “It is a small thing.”

He looked at the spatha in my hand then back at Bellis who shifted a panel in her long dress closed. She gave a wink to Ludovic, who looked on the verge of proposing marriage, and fell into position on my left. The four of us held our ground as the gnomes turned their attention to my location. Two guards had been stationed on the balcony nearby and they joined our group. I knocked a slippery gnome to the ground with the pommel of my sword and caught sight of Eirikr. The Dragon Lord was closer to me now. His lizardmen had made short work of the guards that tried to stop them.

Two large strides brought Eirikr close enough for his low growl to vibrate my earrings. A single backhand send Ludovic sliding across the floor and a powerful kick tossed Marius out the nearby window. The balcony railing prevented him from taking a long fall, but he didn’t look to be getting up soon. Bellis dipped and danced around three lizardmen as they pushed her farther away from me.

Time slowed as my brain registered the situation. I was alone against this Dragon Lord. The gnomes had busied the guards, the lizardmen had isolated my lady, and Eirikr had dispatched the foreigners. My world was now this dragon and my sword. It all faded away. The kingdom, the looming war, the refugees below.

“Dragon.” I saluted with my sword.

He gave a short nod. “Princess.”

“Terms?” I shifted my feet to adjust for my taller opponent and thanked the gods that I hadn’t chosen the high-heels.

“Your father has already set the terms.” A single clawed finger touched his chest.

“To the death then?”

A puff of smoke wisped up from his nostrils. “No, princess, for life.”

I leapt forward, my sword sung through the air. He sure did move fast for someone so large. My blade flicked to the left, then right. It dipped, prodded, and circled, but I couldn’t touch him; aside from a few superficial cuts on his tunic. He moved so fast. The times my blade slipped passed his guard it would be turned away on his scaled skin. Each little cut in his tunic inspired another wisp of smoke. He was laughing at me.

He juked to the left to avoid my blade. Something underneath his tunic moved. My eyes caught the hint of a gold chain around his neck. We locked eyes for an instant. My blade flew forward and cut the chain from around his neck. A familiar shape fell out of a tear on his chest and he caught it at my eye level. His clawed hand opened to show me the truth.

There in palm of his hand was a signet ring. It looked exactly the same as the last time I had seen it. There was a small dent along the top and the jewel in the center was the color of the stars at night. My father had stopped wearing it when the refugees had arrived.

Eirikr and I locked eyes. He didn’t move as I took the ring.

“Father.” I didn’t scream, but everyone in the ballroom heard me. I had been trained since birth to speak in a royal voice.

The fighting stopped as the room turned to look at me. I looked my father in the eyes as I held up the ring from him to see. He watched as I placed the ring on my thumb and took the hand that Eirikr had held the ring in. I flipped the sword in my grip and handed it to Bellis, who had taken the stillness to approach.

“If you will excuse us.” I motioned to the door. “It would be best if we left.”

Bellis fell into step behind me.

“Attend to our foreign friends, Bellis.”

“Highness?”

“I’ll call for you once I’m settled.”

“Yes, Highness.”

Eirikr looked down at my gloved hand in his. There was a question behind his eyes as he looked at me. I nodded and led him toward the door. He let out a sharp whistle as we made it safely through the ballroom doors. The remaining gnomes and lizardmen filed through the doors and formed up as a protective detail as we walked on.

The ball had been a success, I had found a suitor to deal with the invasion.

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In Another Castle- Chapter 1

As I danced with yet another suitor I looked up at my father, the king of the Amanita. Even in his older years he was a strongly built man. In the last few years his golden hair had gone so white it was nearly luminescent. I had inherited my golden locks from him, luckily the rest of my looks came from my mother. My father was many things, but handsome was not among them.

My cerise frilled gown twirled as my current partner tried to woo me through the wonders of dance. My ladies in waiting had done their research. I knew this particular prince was something of an embarrassment to his family, peasants and merchants on the roads at night had a nasty habit of disappearing and all evidence pointed to the prince. His standing kept him out of trouble, but the people talked, and the royals as far wide as the elven lands had already began to distance themselves. His kingdom was suffering due to his indiscretions, if he didn’t make a strong ally soon the future his looked to be filled with assassins and civil war.

I gave a little twirl with my free hand as we danced. Across the room my lady inspected a crystal goblet which just happened to catch the light from a nearby candle. A moment later the music began to wind down. My partner bowed as we parted, he gave me a smile that was two shades too desperate to be charming before he walked away.

On cue my other lady appeared at my elbow almost instantly to hand me my fan. I opened it as we walked off the dance floor.

“Please, kind lord, the princess needs her rest.” My lady spoke as she stepped between approaching suitors and my exit.

I understood the reason for this ball- I was a princess of age to wed, the kingdom of Amanita was a desirable ally, and we needed allies for our own problems. The majority of the suitors were in the dark about that last part. The law of our land stated that any foreigner that I married would be a crown-prince while I reigned as Queen. Our two kingdoms would be aligned and any heirs that I bore would be destined to the throne as King or Queen.

The goal today was to charm enough suitors to entice their pledges of alliance and possibly find my future husband. I wasn’t prone to thoughts of fancy, true love only happened faery tales or theatre while my life was neither. My kingdom is the home to humans that could bend space with magical fields and gnomes with a talent for alchemically charged agriculture. Our allies would hope to acquire those secrets just as we hoped to use their armies to deal with the impending invasion from the dragon-folk.

For years the dragon-folk lived in the harsh lands beyond the mountains to the south. Their only natural enemies were the lizardmen of the coastal islands and the occasional run-ins with roaming desert gnomes. Things had changed in the past couple of years. Someone had unified the dragon-folk to conquer the lizardmen and enslaved the desert gnomes. Now the draconian gaze turned to the lush Amanitian fields on the other side of the mountains.

Our forces had already met along our borders. They had somehow roped the wizards and warlocks that lived in the mountains to their cause. We had slowed their progress by pulling our people back to the central providences and closing the portals to the borderlands. The dragon-folk marched steadily on toward the heart of the kingdom.

I stopped at the base of the stairs that led to my father’s throne and gave a curtsy. He gave me a familiar sad smile. My mother had died when I was younger, their marriage had been a political one, but he had loved her. She was beautiful, gracious, and calm a raging storm with a word. They said I looked exactly like her, but I lacked her magical talent and had golden hair like my father.

“Your royal highness,” an accented voice addressed me from my right.

I turned to see a thick built man with black mustache that was curled up at the ends. The top of his head came up to my nose and he was dressed in a rich red tunic with silver trim. My lady gave a hidden sign of remorse as she noticed the suitor that had somehow slipped through her guard.

“Princess Persica it is my honor to introduce myself, Sir Marius of San Ceorl, Knight of the Realm.” The short knight bowed once more as he spoke.

“Rise, Sir Marius.” I replied in Ceorlish. “You are a long way from home.”

His eyes lit up as the rolling cadence of his native language graced his ears. She saw a small tear in the corner of his eye as he rose.

“Forgive me, your highness.” He slipped into Ceorlish as well. “It has been a long time since I’ve heard my native tongue spoken by anyone other than myself and my man, Ludovic.”

My gaze went to the man standing a few steps behind him who wore a similar mustache and tunic, but was nearly as tall as I was.

“After an evening of dancing I prefer a rest.” I looked from the knight to my lady. “Would you care to join me?”

“It would be my honor.”

Marius gave a sharp bow and then stepped aside to allow me to take the lead. Ludovic and my lady stepped into place behind us as we walked. I led our small procession to a set of doors that opened to a balcony. Archers were positioned on the floors above and below the grand ballroom at each window. We had pulled as many people as we could behind the walls of the keep and to accommodate the influx there were now more guards along the walls than I had ever seen.

“Tell me about yourself, Sir Marius.” I kept our conversation in Ceorlish to allow for privacy. “Do many knights of your realm reach so far beyond your borders?”

“No, your highness,” Marius smiled. “My man and I were guards in a small town near the far border of the lands of the Scimmia. A lady was taken by one of the tribes. We rescued her when others failed and were rewarded with knighthood. We turned our new standing to become protectors of the land.”

“Noble of you.” I meant it. “Others would have grown fat on their new standing.”

Marius patted his taught tummy under the tunic. “We did not stay local for long, your highness. My man and I traveled our land gathering others to the cause. Soon we had many strong soldiers under our command. We are connected with companies Ceorl as well as Amanita and a few other lands.”

“Tribal peoples of the world put to the sword?” I arched an eyebrow.

He gave a small, two-note laugh. “We fight who we must and have recruited many Scimmians into our fold as well as a select Niloctus.”

“The lizard-men from the swamplands?” I caught myself a moment after the shock my voice betrayed me.

“Yes, your highness.” A bright smile flashed under his mustache. “They’re not as bloodthirsty as stories say.”

I looked toward the window to avoid looking him in the face. Marius was an unexpected treat; a knight with mercenary connections, well-travelled, and open to new ideas. Perhaps he would do, it spoke well that I tolerated his company this long considering how tired I was. We were in need of soldiers and, if he was to be believed, knew where to find them. His being from a foreign land, and of low birth, would ensure my reign, which could be an issue if I was saddled with some minor local lord. Some enterprising noble would find a way to work the bloodlines to usurp my throne. Luckily there weren’t any kings or princes that were of marriageable age.

A gnome walked by carrying a serving tray. He tottered slightly as he walked and brushed against my elbow. Marius caught the gnome and steadied the tray in an efficient motion. The gnome mumbled something that did sound quite right. Gnomes and humans spoke the same language in these lands, but the accent was off. I straightened the long glove on the arm the gnome had knocked loose. My fingers felt odd as I pulled them away. On inspection they were damp with a bright blue gel.

I looked after the gnome he disappeared into the crowd. The little man was lost, but I caught sight of another gnome holding a serving tray. This one also had blue hair, but there were thin streaks of the color running down his golden skin. Gnomes in the area were pales as the moon at night with shocks of hair that ranged in wild colors, it was a byproduct of their long history with alchemy. Desert gnomes, on the other hand, had skin tones that ran a golden gradient with brown or white hair. The two peoples didn’t mix well, something in their history had split them as much as the mountains did.

My eyes rested on the blue patch. What business did a desert gnome have in Amanita?

“Bellis.” I whispered.

At the sound of her name, my lady tore her gaze away from the silent conversation she was having with Ludovic. She took a short, practiced step forward and straightened her shoulders. The words in my mouth failed come out as the tall double-doors at the main entrance of the ballroom opened. Standing in the center of the doorway and flanked by honor-guard of lizardmen on either side was the most regal dragon-folk I had ever seen. His scales were a rich vermillion except around his eyes which faded into a deep emerald shade. A simple white tunic stretched across his broad chest.

The dragon looked at the nearby herald that was frozen in fear. Sharp reptilian eyes swept over the crowd as the dragon took a step forward.

“Eirikr the Dragon Lord, first of his name.” His voice rumbled through the silent room. Those wickedly intelligent eyes traveled from me to where my father stood. “I’ve come for the princess.”

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