Fairytale Evolution Book Two: Fairytale meets dystopia in this magical urban adventure in which a magician’s apprentice struggles against the forces of an oppressive regime while simultaneously dealing with a bunch of sisters who are nutters, trying to decipher why magic fries her brain, and dating possible enemy agents.

Chapter One: Whirlwind

 

THE FALL HAD come. One of its first grey days descended on Reliance, matching the mood that had pervaded the streets even during the last warm and glorious days of summer. Crossing the threshold of the half-done construction project, Deez looked up warily at the skeleton that was their new assignment. He checked the street behind them and swung the chain-link fence closed with a light click that was not reassuring. Like a gate could stop anything.

Honaia, ahead of him, was oblivious. She walked arm-in-arm with the foreman, chatting easily. Batting her eyelashes. Deez grinned. She was really catching on, learning to apply her pastoral charm in her new environment. It was good for business.

They made their way past heavily-muscled workers wearing faded denim, hard hats, and frowns. Construction bouncers. Good one. Inside the portable that functioned as the main office, Deez eased his bulk into a chair at the end of the table, crossed his arms, and watched.

Honaia sat across the table from the foreman, brushed her honey-colored curls over her shoulder and folded her hands on the table. The foreman, a human of average looks with rusty brown hair and the beginning of fine sun lines on his face, gazed across at her with a sort of dazed grin. Until she started talking.

By the time they were nearing any kind of agreement, the foreman’s grin had been replaced with something more akin to worried confusion. To his credit, he shook himself, shuddering, and scribbled a number on a piece of paper. He pushed it across the table at her and managed in a steady voice, “We just can’t go any higher than this. I’m sorry.”

Honaia shot Deez a quick glance, looked back at the paper, flounced and pouted. Was it the big blue eyes or the full pink lips that made the foreman melt momentarily into a puddle of sympathy before shaking himself again and sitting up straighter? He smiled at her regretfully and shrugged, then peeked at her cleavage when she looked down at the paper again.

Honaia turned the slip of paper over in her hands. “I tell you what,” she finally said, smiling at him.

He raised his eyebrows hopefully.

“For that price, I can give you Deez.” She waved one hand toward him, and Deez cracked a jagged, toothy grin that made the foreman shudder in a different way. As if trolls were intimidating or something. Not that Deez was beyond using racial stereotyping to his advantage.

Honaia continued on pace. “You’ll still get all the specs you’ll need to meet the code requirements, so it shouldn’t be a problem. And I’ll be free to make up the lost revenue on our end by taking on a few more assignments.” She beamed at him and fluttered her eyelashes for good measure.

For just a moment, the foreman looked torn. He sputtered. Then he scribbled a new number on the back side of the paper. Honaia eyed it and again glanced at Deez, who nodded.

“It looks like we have a deal,” Honaia grinned, her voice carrying a slightly breathless quality.

The foreman appeared simultaneously disgusted with himself and relieved. He managed an amiable smile and shook both their hands. “Let me show you around.”

The tour of the construction site consisted of a walk around and through the half-finished skeleton of the high-rise building. Work on the project had halted abruptly when the previous magic consultants withdrew due to unforeseen circumstances. There were a lot of unforeseen circumstances in Reliance these days.

When the foreman finally left them to get started on their work, Honaia frowned at Deez. “Did we really need to go that high?”

Deez was not looking at her. He had his eyes closed, working on drawing in power particles to start his task. He did not see Honaia flinch, eyeballing him. Pausing as he gathered his magical reserve, he muttered, “Times is hard.”

Honaia rolled her eyes. “I’m sure Onus just really needs that extra bit to keep from going under, huh?”

Deez was intent on the side of the skeleton nearest them. In a moment, the initial shimmer of the first safety field appeared— a temporary force field that could withstand only minor impact, but that would keep workers from falling perilously to their demises in case of accident. Hopefully. More permanent force fields would be much more effective but given the amount of magical energy required for so many, and thus the amount of manpower required— not to mention the need to sometimes move them around— most construction companies only contracted for the minimum specifications as outlined by Council code. So, workers still occasionally met their demises. It was part of the job.

Deez finally threw a look at Honaia. “He’s gotta be able to keep up with his apprentice’s shopping habits, you know.”

Honaia folded her arms and plopped herself down on a piece of broken concrete at Deez’ feet. “It’s not like my salary is any more than yours.”

Deez laughed hard enough that he had to pause in the construction of the next force field. “No shit.”

Honaia frowned and looked up at him. “What?” she said. “How much do you get paid?”

Deez, still chuckling, only gave her another look before wandering off to get a better view of the next section of construction. Honaia stayed where she was, pouting and eyeing the jagged structure of disconnected beams jutting from a grey pit in a grey yard swallowed by a bleak grey sky.

Deez went on about his business, setting up force fields. Near him, some of the construction workers lounged on stacks of steel beams, drinking ale and watching him.

“What does she do?” one of them finally hollered, gesturing to Honaia, who still hadn’t moved from her concrete perch at the opposite corner of the site. Deez glanced over to see Honaia busy checking her nails. Oblivious to them, she sighed, brushed back her long hair, and leaned back on her hands as though she were sunbathing.

“Does she need to do anything?” Deez asked, frowning at them.

They didn’t see his frown. Or anything else. They were a chorus of no’s and shaken heads.

It was right about then that all hell broke loose.

man— one of the workers from the looks of him— came tearing through the gate, shouting. He flipped the gate latch behind him, grabbed whatever debris was nearby, and began piling it in front of the gate. While the rest of the site sprang into action, Deez stood his ground and looked at the man, cocking his head in slight bafflement. For one, the latch and debris weren’t going to hold back anything worth holding back. And for two, a simple chain link fence spanned the entire west and south sides of the site (with the rest being backed onto the river). Anything that could climb could come over that fence— and in Renshar, a lot of things that didn’t need to climb.

Honaia was suddenly at Deez’ side. “What is it?” she panted.

He set his jaw and reached under his jacket to pull out his huge, troll-sized pistol. “Dunno. But it doesn’t look good.” He started steadily toward the gate. “Stay with me.” Stopping at the mass confusion at the gate, he glanced down, noticed her at his side, and amended, “Behind me.”

“Why don’t I have a gun yet?” Honaia pouted.

Deez bit back a smile. He was rubbing off on her. “What’s the problem?” he bellowed loud enough to be heard above the chaos of workers throwing debris randomly in front of the gate.

“Rioters.” It was the foreman, who had sense enough to have already begun ordering the workers to stop throwing stuff at the gate… not that they were listening. “They broke the enforcer barrier on Fifth Street.”

“Crap,” Deez said. Then he raised his voice again. “Awright, listen up.” Amazingly, the workers did. “This ain’t gonna do shit, so I want everybody to get inside.” He thrust one huge, green finger at the portable. “Lock the doors, barricade everything in there, and don’t… fucking… come…out. Understand?”

The workers demonstrated their understanding by stampeding toward the portable and shoving each other out of the way to get through the door first.

Deez sighed and looked at the foreman, who, along with a sprinkling of workers had stayed. Then he realized Honaia was still behind him and turned to frown down at her. “You too.”

“Mm-mm.” It was a tiny squeak of a protest accompanied by a shake of her head. She was staring wide-eyed past him. Nothing could be seen yet, but a faint noise was beginning like the first shhh of a tidal wave.

Deez knew arguing was futile, and anyway, the door to the portable slammed shut with a distinct finality. “Gods, woman,” he said, and turned back toward the gate, muttering, “Onus’ll fucking skin me for this.”

Honaia, behind his bulk, was making little jumps to try to see over his shoulder. “Alright,” she said, stopping, “what do we do?”

“Hope to gods they don’t come this way.”

“Well, that’s helpful.”

“If they do, we scare ’em as much as possible and hope they think we’re not worth the effort.” Deez closed his eyes and started drawing in power particles. Then he looked at the remaining workers who were transfixed on the distant street. “Go get some heavy equipment going.” The men jumped into action.

Deez and Honaia stood and waited.

“Aren’t you going to put up a field?” Honaia asked.

“Not ’til I know where I need it,” Deez explained. “I’ll run out of power quick if they start coming at us.”

“Then the gun and the machinery,” Honaia muttered. “And if that fails?”

A wave of shrieks suddenly broke over the lower noises and the first rioters could be seen running a few blocks down the street.

“Then fists,” Deez said. “And you run hard as you can for the river. You can swim, right?”

“Swim?” Honaia shrugged when he eyeballed her over his shoulder. “I can fight.”

Deez turned back to watch the rioters close in on them. “This won’t be no bar fight.”

Honaia stepped to the side to peek around him and swore under her breath. Before he could tell her to, she stepped back. “So,” she said, “hope to the gods.”

Considering the rioters were a block away and closing, Deez thought it unlikely that hoping would amount to anything. He breathed a silent prayer to Damaethus, the ancient troll-god of battle, and limbered his muscles.

Just in time to make their stand, a jumping crane and a shifter— both pulled by giant crull—swung up along the fence to their side. The grim-faced drivers signaled to them with a wave and nod. Behind them in the construction yard came the rumble of more moving equipment.

The first of the rioters hurtled into the street in front of the construction zone. Ogres, boglins, elves, gnomes, griffons, trolls, humans, and so on. Even a faerie or two could be seen wreaking havoc in the distance, and they were mostly a level-headed bunch. It seemed that no one in this city was sane anymore. Rioters covered the street in hordes, smashing windows, ripping doors off hinges, and setting things on fire. They covered and consumed pods that had been abandoned by panicked drivers, leaving ’corns to rear up and gallop haphazardly through the chaos, seeking escape routes. Explosions of glass and concrete and shredded metal followed in their wake. And, in an instant, they were at the construction site.

Deez glared menacingly at the first wild-eyed maniac who looked his way. When the boglin took a step forward, Deez raised his pistol and fired a warning shot. Rather than being sensible about it, the boglin and his fellow rioters took this as a challenge and swarmed toward the chain link fence.

To the side, the ball of the crane began to move. As Deez fired rounds into the crowd, the crane leaned out into the street and made one quick pass. The ball swept a mass of rioters into a semi-solid lump of appendages and threw them half a block down the street.

Deez signaled wildly at the driver of the crane to stop. The ball reeled in.

“Surely that’ll discourage them,” Honaia grimaced, peeking past Deez toward the lump of people.

“Sure,” Deez said. “You bet.”

A roar rose up from the crowd and a second wave surged forward. The crane reached out to make another sweep and Deez fired wildly at the rioters who escaped the ball and threatened to encroach upon the construction site.

“What about the force fields?” Honaia was chattering.

“Can’t.” Deez took out two gnomes and an elf who were only a few feet away by the time he got to them. “The crane would break it. It’s in the way.”

“Shit,” Honaia said. The shifter had also sprung into action. Apparently, the driver had realized the futility of the chain link fence and decided to drive over it into the fray, despite the loud bellows and other protestations of the crull pulling it. Two more pieces of crull-driven machinery pulled into the fence line.

“He’s breaking the fucking line,” Deez grumbled, shooting some more. The other machinery, still among the remains of the fence, was prohibiting the creation of a force field. This was not a huge problem until the gnomes with guns emerged. They fired randomly at first, then realized there was someone to shoot at. Bullets— real bullets— and surge flares— not stun— began whizzing toward Deez and Honaia. Deez managed a small force field in front of them just in time to avoid impact. The crackle and thud of deflected bullets became a steady percussion.

“This ain’t gonna last long, taking this much impact,” Deez grunted, picking gunslingers off one-by-one. He didn’t see the griffon swooping down on them until it was too late. He raised his gun to react, knowing the timing was off.

The crushing talons were closing in only a foot above his head. He closed his eyes….

No impact. But to his side, the muffled sound of a crash, and the angry roar-squawks of an injured, giant bird-cat. Deez pried his eyes open and looked. The griffon was down, broken wing, bleeding from both front legs, feathers ruffled in wrong directions. It was as though it had overshot and crashed. Was it drunk? No time for questions. It glared at him with one eagle eye. He raised his pistol and shot it.

“That was lucky,” Honaia was saying. “What the—

Running straight for them out of the crowd was a gnome with eyes like a demon. In his hand was a silver, crackling electric mace. Lightning bolts trailed in his wake.

“Shit,” said Deez. “These guys have been watching way too many movies.”

The gnome stopped suddenly in the middle of the street, ignoring the oncoming shifter. He swung the mace around his head two times and flicked it at Deez and Honaia. Lightning struck toward them in a jagged leap of white light. The force field crashed. Deez was knocked back a step. Honaia pitched backward onto the ground and barely managed to avoid being trampled.

“That’s us.” Deez grabbed Honaia by the shirt and hauled her to her feet. They watched in horror as the shifter took on the gnome. A moment later, the driver, the gnome, and the giant crull were one twitching, electrocuted mass. The smell of burnt fur and flesh filled the streets. Rioters parted around the bodies to avoid joining their fate but still swarmed toward the construction site. To the side, some of the more agile rioters had leapt or flown over the remnants of the fence, and were climbing onto the equipment, going for the drivers.

Honaia was cursing under her breath. “Now fists?”

“You sure you don’t wanna run?” Deez glanced back at her. “This is some serious shit.”

A groan of concrete and metal issued from down the street, and then an unmistakable, slow ‘thud’, ‘thud’, ‘thud’.

Honaia’s eyes went wide. She cocked her head to listen. “Wazzat?”

“A fucking giant,” Deez said.

“In the city?” Honaia’s voice had gone a pitch higher and her eyes a degree wider. “Nah-ah.”

“I ain’t shittin’ you,” Deez said, still taking shots at the rioters running for them. The huge foot that smashed down on two pods across the street backed him up.

Honaia swore under her breath again. Then a breeze stirred— one of those grey, dismal day breezes. Then it stirred some more. In only a moment, it was a proper wind gust.

Deez was putting everything into a new force field that bubbled around them. “This will only take one hit from a boggin’ giant.” He had to yell it above what seemed to be a sudden storm. In all of two minutes, debris was flying and whirling, whapping into the people on the streets who threw their arms up to protect their faces. They squinted at first, and tried to press on, but soon they were looking for shelter, running for buildings to take cover from the increasing intensity of the winds.

“Holy shit,” Deez was yelling, watching the chaos from the relative safety of their little bubble. Luckily, no debris had impacted their field.

Honaia didn’t answer, except for more swearing under her breath.

The streets quickly vacated, and shortly, even the giant withdrew. The people who had climbed onto the equipment were some of the last to hightail it to safety, leaving the drivers to hide in the shelter of the cabs. As quickly as the riot and the storm had started, everything died down. There was utter silence. Then just a breeze. Then the distant, muffled noises of drivers emerging from hiding and hopping down onto the broken concrete. The tangled electric mass in the street gave one sudden and final zap and went dead.

Two deep breaths, then Deez let the force field die. He looked around. The street was shredded. Whatever the rioters had missed, the storm had taken care of. Street lights were down, windows on upper stories blown out. A chunk of roof had come off one building and lay angled against the curb and across the hood of a parked pod.

“Can you believe that storm?” It was the foreman, who had a black eye and was holding one arm limply.

“Boggin’ lucky,” chimed in another worker as the remaining crew converged on the gate area. “I thought we were all done for.”

“Lucky, hell,” said another one. “The gods were watching out for us.”

They all stood and surveyed the street again.

“I need a drink,” said Deez.

The foreman ran a hand through his hair, blinked several times, then shook his head. “We’re not going to get anything done today. Go ahead.” Sirens were wailing in the distance, growing closer. “Think you deserve it. We’ll deal with this mess.”

Deez grabbed Honaia by the arm. “C’mon woman,” he said. It wasn’t that far off quitting time anyway.

She looked dazed as they began wandering off down the street. Dazed and tired.

“So that was better than a bar fight, huh?” Deez grinned at her.

She looked up at him darkly and didn’t answer.

“What, too much excitement?”

“I’m just tired,” she said.

“Well,” Deez punched her gently in the shoulder. She only stumbled a little. “You’ll feel better soon. We’re meeting up with your favorite rock band for drinks, remember?”

Honaia cursed under her breath again. Deez frowned. She really was in a bad mood.

***

Pausing a few steps through the doorway of The Hole, Honaia allowed her eyes to adjust to the low-key interior of the bar. It was nothing fancy, nothing flashy. Just another place to get drinks.

From their various seats at faerie-couches attached to standard-sized-person booth seating, the members of Sonic Burp began waving and gesticulating for the two newcomers to join them. Honaia felt like her heart was being sucked out slowly through a straw. She took a deep breath, smiled, and walked over. “Hey guys,” she said in her cheeriest, friendliest voice.

“We were wondering if you were gonna make it,” said Ripplepond, Sonic Burp’s guitarist, gesturing for the barmaid. There were four of them in the band— Ripplepond, Feather, Bogweed, and Jax— plus their manager, Crookedwing, his wife, Jazzstep, and Jax’s girlfriend, Nettle.

“Boggin’ work.” Deez shrugged, then made himself comfortable, sliding into a seat at the booth.

Honaia scooted in beside him quietly. He’d instructed her not to mention the riot, an easy task considering she wanted to forget it. Besides, the less people in the world that could place her in the vicinity of that storm— the one she had secretly created— the better. It had been necessary… but stupid. She silently cursed herself for being so reckless with her own safety. Briggs would have a shitfit when he found out. Well, maybe she just wouldn’t mention it. Not like she owed him any allegiance.

The faeries were all chatting away happily, but Honaia wasn’t following any of it. She glanced across the table at Jax, who lounged with one arm around Nettle, saying something to her privately. There was a little trace of a smile across his lips. Nettle, all blonde hair, boobs, and bare legs, was giggling. Honaia thought she might be sick.

“Whadya want, woman?” Deez voice finally broke through to her and Honaia realized the barmaid was waiting for her order.

“Anathema, regular.” She forced herself to look up at the barmaid and smile. “Please.”

Deez made a sound though his nose, then muttered, “Guess it’s that kinda day.”

Indeed it was. And aside from the fact that anathema was one of her favorite drinks, there was a certain comfort— a connection that she was currently missing— in the honeyed taste and the warmth sliding down her throat. Her mind lingered gingerly over an image of the first time she’d had it.

It was only a moment before their drinks were out and Honaia stared down at the tiny glass of amber liquid. She picked up the plastic pick and twirled it in her fingers, remembering Jax wielding one like a sword, laughingly, drunkenly…. Sharing stories, jokes, fears, hopes. That was the first time she’d met him— while she was waitressing at Tugrub’s Grub ’n’ Nog, and Sonic Burp was performing. She remembered all the details of that night with a sort of warm and fuzzy nostalgia. But he didn’t. And wouldn’t. Ever.

Nor would he remember all the things that happened between that night and the night that he thought was the first time they’d met. A night when storms raged, and chaos ripped across the streets of Reliance. When wars were kindled anew and portals to other realities were closed. When Honaia, disheveled and exhausted, joined Deez at The Pit for drinks, with the wild hopes of finding something precious she’d lost. And found Jax. And Nettle. Fuck.

She picked up the tiny glass and downed it like a shot. You weren’t meant to do that. For a reason. She closed her eyes against the burn and waited for the fire that started in her nose and ended in her stomach to die down. At least it was a different kind of pain.

“So, Honaia.” Feather landed on the table near her, smiling. “How are the magic lessons going?” He was dark-haired with long locks framing the sort of pretty-boy face that was common amongst lead singers. He clearly liked her… a little too much. How many times had she heard the “…if you were a faerie…” line?

“Total crap,” she admitted quite honestly. She didn’t mind friendly conversation, but it was difficult to talk about what you were supposed to be learning when you weren’t actually learning it because the power particles disagreed with (aka fried) your brain. Especially when you couldn’t tell anyone about it, including the person who was supposed to be teaching you.

She lifted her empty glass and peered into it. “I’m just no good at it. I should probably find a different job.” Not that that was an option.

“You’ll get there,” Deez was saying, also staring at the bottom of his glass. He raised an arm and made eye contact with the barmaid. “You just gotta relax about it a bit. Give Onus a chance ’n’ all.”

Honaia gave him a look and said, “Pfff.”

“I think you’re way better than you let on,” Feather teased, grinning up at her.

Honaia shook her head and seized the next anathema the barmaid offered. “Nope,” she said. “So not.” She tilted back her head and downed this one just like the last. When things quit burning so badly, the world was thankfully a bit fuzzier. But not quite fuzzy enough. Across the table, Nettle was still giggling, and Jax’ mischievous blue eyes were lit with the glow from his broad smile. Honaia used to love it when he smiled.

“It don’t help that Onus ain’t got much time,” Deez was commiserating. “That ain’t your fault. He’ll get to it. You’ll see.”

Some sort of heaviness in the troll’s comment made Honaia narrow her eyes to peer at him.

He glanced up. “What?”

“Nothin’.” Honaia shook her head. Was it worry she had heard? She shook her head again and turned to look for the barmaid. She had enough to think about.

Before her next drink could come, Feather had hold of her hand, each of his tiny faerie hands to one side of her palm, his body in between her two middle fingers. “I’ll read your palm.” He smiled up at her from a head tilted to the side.

Honaia peered down at him. He was kind of cute. “’zat so?” What the hell was she thinking?

He was intently studying the lines in her hand already. “Yep,” he said. “Faerie magic.”

Honaia raised her eyebrows. “Well, that’s something I didn’t know about faeries.” She inadvertently glanced across at Jax, then pulled her eyes straight back, nearly flinching. How could he kiss her? The question pounded in Honaia’s brain. Even slightly inebriated, she knew the answer. But her heart rejected it. She wondered where her drink was.

“Oh, I’m sure I could teach you a lot.” Feather traced his hand along one of the lines of her palm. Was he for real? “Interesting.” He raised his eyebrows. “I never would have thought….”

Honaia looked around again for her drink.

“There’s nothing about careers, but… a dark and mysterious man will come into your life, and…

“It’s supposed to be ‘tall, dark, and mysterious,’” Deez corrected, nudging Honaia surreptitiously with one elbow.

Feather frowned at Honaia’s palm. “No. I don’t see ‘tall’.” He flashed Honaia a quick grin. “But I do see—

“Psh.” Deez hailed the barmaid once again. “That ain’t no fortune. I’ll tell you her fortune.” He leveled his gaze at Honaia. “She’s gonna get piss drunk and her partner’s gonna have to haul her ass home.”

Honaia shrugged acquiescence. It wasn’t like it hadn’t happened the other way around.

The barmaid plopped their drinks on the table. Honaia picked up her glass, clinked it with Deez’, and they both drank up.

On her fourth anathema, Deez cautioned her to slow down. But she honestly didn’t know if she could get another one all the way to her mouth. They’d reduced themselves to stupid jokes and giggles that made little sense, and Feather had even backed off a bit. The whole party was roughly in the same state, and there was little logic to follow.

Honaia pouted as Nettle pulled a stumbling Jax to the table and coerced him— right there in front of her— into dancing. Honaia tried taking deep breaths but found herself grinding her teeth instead. Inside, she was seething. If only she could…. but no.

“D?” she mumbled, which was about the best she could manage at that moment.

“Yup.” He was sitting a little crooked, and she was semi-slumped against his massive shoulder.

“Know how you owe me one?”

He grunted acknowledgment.

There was a pause. “Sit on her?” The thought vaguely occurred to Honaia that she might be giving too much away, or that he might not understand anyway….

Deez was either thinking about it, or there was a slight delay in brain processing. Finally, he asked, “Did you say ‘sit’ or ‘shit’?”

Honaia blinked, then broke out in giggles. The two of them laughed so hard they almost sank under the table. Then they laughed some more. The image carried Honaia gleefully through the rest of the night— straight through the part where she and Deez stumbled through the high-rise office building to their respective rooms. As she lay in bed, Honaia continued to giggle… at least until she passed out, which wasn’t much later.

Chapter 2: Haze

SITTING ON A stool at the breakfast bar in the kitchen, Honaia held her head in her hands. For some time, she had been steadily ignoring the piece of toast and cup of coffee that Yelwyn had sympathetically placed in front of her before heading away to her office. They were cold by now, and even more unappetizing. But she needed to eat something….

So, gingerly, Honaia managed a nibble of her toast. It was too brittle now, dry. She decided to wash it down with a sip of coffee, but the cup felt chilly on her fingers. That was an easy enough fix. Though focusing was a bit harder this morning, she managed to wrap her mind around the tiniest bit of lukewarm heat energy still lingering in the coffee, then magnified it until the warmth sunk from the cup into her fingers and steam rose from the top. This was the kind of magic she was not supposed to be doing. The kind that could get her killed, or worse. Not that anyone was around to see. Besides, she enjoyed the independence from the microwaver. Small luxuries.

She groaned inwardly. Soon she would have to pry herself off that stool and go see Onus for a magic lesson— the kind of standard, everyday magic that scared the crap out of her. Though she still didn’t understand what, something in her Colcuan heritage greatly disagreed with standard magic and turned it into something inherently dangerous. At the same time, her apprenticeship to Onus was required by Council law. He was a busy guy, though. With any luck, he’d brush her off again. Vaguely, she wondered if it would be possible to get through this entire apprenticeship without learning any magic. Well, a girl could hope.

She sipped her coffee, then put her head in her hands, closed her eyes. She let the world drift away. Foggy masses on the backs of her eyelids shifted and formed into shapes. Flowers, a bunny, a wolf. Honaia sat up, blinking, her mind connecting to something forgotten. A dream. She had dreamed about wolves, hadn’t she? And though the particulars evaded her, certain images, like snapshots, seemed so clear. A dark forest. A great, grey wolf standing on the path ahead. Looking at her. Waiting. She tried to think harder, to understand. What was it waiting for?

Honaia clung to the image. It had that feel— dream gravity. That pull to go back in, to stay, to make sense of. And with the image came a feeling. Something different, nameless, almost instinctual. Her heart raced. Her hands shook. She touched the pendant at her neck, sliding it up and down its chain.

Belum’s rocky footsteps on the kitchen tile made her jump. She looked up to see the gargoyle pouring coffee. He stretched his back and stone wings, looked at her, and smiled. “Good morning.”

“Morning, Bel,” Honaia managed, jumping off her stool and collecting the remains of her breakfast. She tossed it all in the reviver bin, washed her hands at the sink.

“You look a little pale,” Belum commented, sipping his coffee.

She shrugged, then grimaced. “It’s all Deez’ fault.”

“Wait,” Belum said before she could head out of the kitchen. When she stopped at the door, he gestured her to come closer.

She eyed him warily but came to him.

Belum put his taloned hands on the sides of her head. A sudden lightening moved through her, from her head, and down through her body. In only a moment she felt almost renewed.

“What did you—?”

Belum only smiled and shrugged at her. “A little gargoyle magic,” he said. “I filtered some of your toxins.”

Honaia started to say thanks but abandoned the effort in favor of a hug that made the gargoyle’s cheeks darken to charcoal. She smiled at him and turned to go, but stopped again at the doorway, frowning.

Belum raised his eyebrows at her.

She tilted her head. “Does D know you can do that?”

The gargoyle tutted and waved her off. Her smile lasted until she started down the hallway and remembered where she was going.

Each step toward Onus’ office made Honaia’s heart thud a little louder. The need to flee, as always, threatened to overtake her. Images of places she’d rather be flitted wildly through her head. With Jax— no. With the dragons. An impossibility. Briggs had ordered the entire Reclamation Task Force to stand down and maintain com silence. While she was not, technically, RTF or affected by such orders, she did recognize the wisdom of the decision. She would lay low for now. She sullenly stepped into the office corridor and forced herself to keep walking. With her sisters, then. Home. If there was such a thing. Not that she could do that either. Truth was, she was stuck. There was no escaping this moment.

Taking a deep breath, she knocked on the door softly, then went in. Onus’ office was probably one of the nicest rooms in the building, which was saying a lot. The hallways and common rooms were full of fountains, art, and expensive furniture that looked like art. Honaia did not know if Onus had designed his personal office himself, but it reflected a complex mixture of masculinity, sophistication, and a certain understated flair. Much like Onus himself. In a continuity of similarities, it looked pretty damned good. Mmhm.

Onus was scribbling furiously on a piece of paper in an open folder. He didn’t acknowledge her, so she flopped down in one of the armchairs in front of his substantial desk. And waited. And twiddled her thumbs. And blew a lock of hair out of her face using her bottom lip.

When Onus looked up, he looked through her more than at her. “Honaia,” he finally said, tapping the back end of his pen against the bridge of his nose. He closed his eyes and heaved a big sigh. “Right.”

Honaia frowned, studying his young face. Something had gone out of his eyes since she knew him. Or maybe something had come in. Was Deez right to worry?

Honaia pondered what the problem could be while he shuffled papers. Was he worried about the way things were going in Reliance? Could there actually be financial problems with the firm? She brushed that one off quickly. If she had learned anything in the brief time she had been there, it was that Onus was a whiz and was totally on top of things. He was only a couple of years older than her, and he’d built his business right to the top of the food chain, ranking as the number one magic op in Reliance. Peloen had proudly shown her the magazines with Onus’ face on the cover. He’d positioned himself well. He had a pretty great team to back him up. It was as unlikely as hell that there were any significant problems with the business. What else…? It wasn’t like he was dating, so it couldn’t be girl troubles…. Then it dawned on her.

Honaia scrunched up her eyes and studied him. Nexa. Crap. For reals? A sudden wave of guilt threatened to envelope her, but she quickly brushed it off. Nexa had had it coming. It couldn’t be any simpler than that. That horrible, evil woman had wreaked havoc upon her life, killed her friends… little Keenan…. Honaia took a deep breath, refusing tears. If she had been instrumental in ensuring Nexa’s demise, she had no regrets. None. Not even if Nexa was Onus’ ex-girlfriend of the sort he was still not over. Besides, Honaia told herself, taking a slow, deep breath, Onus hadn’t been in contact with her anymore. He probably didn’t even know she was dead. He certainly hadn’t known she was a double agent. Or even an agent at all. He couldn’t have known. Something flickered intangibly through the back of Honaia’s consciousness. It was gone before she could touch it.

“What?” Onus’ voice was soft but firm. His eyes were locked on her face in a way that made her shift in her chair.

She shook her head. “Nothing. Just thinking about the construction project.”

He sat back in his chair. “How’s that going?”

Honaia floundered. “Deez didn’t tell you?”

He shook his head.

“Fine.” She beamed a sudden smile at him. “Just fine.” She cast about for something to add. “We managed to talk the foreman into—

Onus dismissed her with the wave of one hand. “I know you and Deez like working together, but I still don’t like him taking you on these projects with the city in such a state.” Honaia opened her mouth, but he continued. “I’ve been meaning to talk to Deez about it….”

So maybe he was right, but Honaia thought that if she didn’t have something to distract her she might end up as bonkers as her sisters. Not a pleasing thought. “What am I supposed to do? Hang around here?” She gestured at the stack of files on his desk. “You don’t really have time for my training right now.” She really hoped the statement would hold true today.

He set his pen down and met her gaze. Though he had a commanding presence that could be— to put it lightly— intimidating, the seriousness in his expression now registered more as concern. Honaia hated her tendency to melt when he talked to her in a certain way. And here it came….

“Even so,” the steadiness in his voice was almost comforting, “if you’re in the office, you’ll be safe. If you’re out there, how will I even know if you’re in danger?”

Honaia blinked at him. Was he saying that he would protect her? Yeah, so he was supposed to be some kind of wonder mage, but had he seen it out there? To think an elevator could hold all that back. He was being a little naive. Besides, she had worse things to worry about.

“I’ll be fine.” She leaned her elbows on his desk and grinned at him. It helped to know she could melt his defenses, too. “I know Zung Pow, remember?”

He laughed. A small laugh, but an actual laugh. That made her realize she hadn’t seen him laugh in… forever. Yep. He knew about Nexa. Poor guy.

Then he leaned in with his elbows on the desk, too, and leveled his eyes at her. “It’s not gonna stop a riot.” Damn him.

Honaia tilted her head and looked down to the side. She sighed and shrugged, then looked at him again, thinking. Only she wasn’t thinking about giving up assignments and staying at the office. She was wondering more about this preoccupation of his— and it had been one, hadn’t it?— to keep her safe. Maybe it gave him some sort of purpose, something to focus on. He was definitely focused. And maybe that’s why she hadn’t noticed what Deez had. Or maybe Deez just knew him better.

“You’re right though,” Onus was saying, leaning back again. “I don’t have time.”

Thank the god of escapism. Honaia shrugged and smiled at him graciously. “I’m sure you’ll get to it.” She stood up and headed for the door.

“Soon, Honaia.”

When she glanced back, he was scribbling something on the paper again. His voice, however, targeted her with a final note of authority. “Soon.”

Honaia nodded once and got out of there. At least “soon” was not “right now”. And as long as that was true, her brain was not in immediate jeopardy of becoming extra-crispy.

Chapter 3: Fog

SELAY PICKED UP her long skirts, clutched her basket closer, and walked briskly across the field. The grey light cast foreboding shadows across the forest of splayed stalks chopped at knee height. She glanced over her shoulder, puffed slightly, and kept walking. If her mother complained about the sparse amount of creeberries in the basket, she could pick more herself. Selay felt unexplainably ill at ease and refused to go any further away from the farm.

In the distance before her, a wagon was drawn up along one side of the field by the grove of apple trees. Selay’s drew herself up as she recognized it. She marched on. With any luck….

A figure stepped around from the other side of the wagon, shortly to be followed by a slightly taller figure. They waved.

Selay frowned.

Jordin Wathers was fourteen, like Selay, and his younger brother, Bur, was twelve. They were the only boys in Greenwood Glen anywhere near her age— except for boys who were related to her. And they had a propensity for making her life unpleasant. As a matter of fact, they seemed to take pleasure in it. Yet, somehow, the gesture of friendliness caught her off guard. Cautiously, she raised one hand and waved back. But kept walking.

Jordin disappeared around the wagon and returned shortly with an object in his hand. A bright, shiny red apple. From the distance, he held it out to Selay in offering. She eyed him and kept going. He walked to intercept her path.

Selay kept her head up and tried to seem unaffected, but her stomach coiled in on itself. She continued at a smooth pace then came to a stop because Jordin had planted himself directly in her path, where he stood waiting, idly. Why should she have to step around him?

Again, he held the apple out to her, smiling easily. He wasn’t cute— not like the boys on holovision— but there was something nice about his face when he smiled. Selay tried not to blush and narrowed her eyes at him. “Just why are you giving me that?”

Jordin shrugged, never dropping his smile. “You looked tired.”

Selay eyeballed the apple and him. OK, it wasn’t a glass of water, but she was thirsty after her walk, and the apple looked nice and juicy. No sense in being paranoid. Cautiously, she reached out and took it from him. “Thanks.”

Jordin smiled as she raised it to her lips, catching and holding her gaze.

The thought flickered through the back of her mind again. This was too weird. She glanced down at the apple, inches from her mouth, shrieked, and dropped it. And her basket. And took a step backward, shivering. All this before she caught herself and turned red from her ears to her toes. She wasn’t the kind of girl who was easily grossed out— certainly not by a slug. But Jordin had caught her by surprise and made her look like a fool. She fixed him with a glare that made him stop laughing and swallow hard. He spun and began to retreat. She picked up the apple, slug and all, and chucked it at him as hard as she could.

He yelped as it struck his lower back. Selay looked around for something else to throw. Finding nothing, she went after him with her fists. Unfortunately, she was wearing long skirts that tangled around her legs. He could easily outrun her. If she’d had her jeans on…. No use thinking like that. Fuming, she turned away from him and surveyed the crashed basket of creeberries.

Jordin came to a stop when he reached the wagon, and turned back. “Want another apple, Selay?” His brother chortled at his side, the sound strangely deflated in the moist air. “You can have another one if you ask nicely!”

Selay systematically ignored them and went about picking up the creeberries. Her hand paused momentarily as she registered the tiny tendrils of fog that were gathering over the ground, so thin as to barely be noticeable. She glanced at the sky then hurried to complete her task; the weather wouldn’t hold.

Jordin and Bur continued to shout, and she silently plotted their untimely demises. Half the berries were squashed, trampled. Oh, she would kill them for this. And her mother would kill her. And send her out to pick more berries on this yucky, creepy day.

The boys’ taunts stopped abruptly, so she risked a peek toward them. They stood frozen, looking off the way she’d come. Their faces registered surprise, horror. She rolled her eyes and went back to salvaging berries. They were better actors than she would have given them credit for, but if they thought she was going to fall for that….

The sound of movement made her look again. Bur was running— straight toward the nearest farmhouse, which happened to be hers. Jordin was running toward her. He wasn’t yelling. Just running. “Come on,” he panted, his voice thick with urgency. He skidded to her side, hauled her up by one arm, and was dragging her after Bur toward the house.

“Stop it,” Selay protested, beating his hand from her arm and wrenching free. “I’m not playing your stupid little g—

Jordin grabbed her arm and began dragging her again. “I’m not playing,” he insisted quietly. He wasn’t letting go of her despite the pounding her fists were giving his arm.

She dug her heels into the muddy field, which only slowed them down, so she bent her legs and plopped herself down on the ground. Even so, Jordin dragged her another two feet before coming to a stop. He turned and looked at her, and past her, his eyes darting wildly. He was a good actor. She glared insolently up at him. If he wanted to move her, he’d have to carry her. When he fixed on her again, he looked as though he might do just that. She narrowed her eyes at him in warning.

Instead, he dropped to one knee, leaned in, turned her, and pointed past her.

Selay followed the line of his arm, then glanced sideways at his face next to hers. “What.” She looked the way he was pointing. “I don’t see….” She blinked. The fields in the distance were filling with a hazy grey mist. “I don’t see… anything.” Cold climbed up her arm where one hand braced her against the ground.

“Look.” His voice was a fraction of a whisper in fog-muffled silence. The birds had stopped chirping. Jordin seemed to be holding his breath.

Selay narrowed her eyes to try to focus through the haphazard stalks. A huge grey mass moved slowly toward them. Selay tensed but resisted jumping. It was just the fog rolling in, wasn’t it? Jordin’s hand was gripping her arm again, his knuckles turning white. “Let’s go,” he whispered.

Selay took a deep breath and prepared to refuse. She wasn’t going to let her imagination get the best of her just because Jordin Wathers was pretending to be scared. She looked him straight in the eyes and opened her mouth to tell him quite calmly that he was being a baby.

noise— a bellowing, a crooning, a howl— issued across the fields, like nothing Selay had ever heard before. She froze. Then she was up, pulling Jordin along behind her. In a few steps, he had overtaken her. She dropped his arm to pick up her skirts so she could run faster, but they were thick and bulky, and before she could even gather them all up, she was tripping over them. Jordin had her by the arm again, kept her on her feet, kept her going. Together, they raced across the distance and scrambled up the wooden steps of her house. He pushed her through the door, followed closely, and slammed it behind them. Panting, they leaned against the door, looked at each other, and then looked around at the group of women staring at them— and Bur— from the other room.

“There’s something out there,” Selay said, her eyes finding her mother.

Gren rose gracefully and walked to the window next to the door, her lacy skirts swaying. She was a picture of poise and beauty as she pulled the curtains aside to look out. “Mm,” she said pleasantly. “Worgwolves.”

Bur’s eyes went wide.

“There’s no such thing,” Selay hissed under her breath. Her father had assured her there wasn’t. She felt Jordin’s eyes on her. “Is dad around?”

Gren waved one hand dismissively, still looking out the window. “He’s working on that spaceship again. If the worgwolves didn’t get him.”

Selay cringed, her face burning red. As if some strange, howling creature wasn’t enough, she had to deal with her mother’s crazy interpretations… in front of Jordin and Bur.

Jordin frowned.

“He’s with your Uncle Robee, fixing the septic tank,” Aunt Jemma said, swishing toward the window to join her sister. “They have so much fun together, those two!” She pulled the curtains fully open, rested her folded hands lightly on the window sill, and stood looking out, her face glowing. “What a glorious day! I don’t think I’ve ever seen fog this beautiful!”

And her aunties wouldn’t be any help, either.

Selay leaned away from the door enough to see through the window that the fog outside was still thickening. When she leaned back, she slipped her hands behind her and clicked the lock into place.

In the living room, Selay’s remaining aunts were gathering up knitting needles, led by her Aunt Malka.

“What’s that for?” Bur asked, glancing from them to Selay.

Selay felt herself turning redder. She shook her head and started toward her room. “C’mon.”

“To arm the chickens, of course,” Aunt Malka answered. Not much got by her. “If there are worgwolves, the chickens need to be ready.”

Selay managed the few final steps to her room without actually dying. She held the door open, trying not to look mortified, and waited for the boys, who were whispering back and forth to each other fiercely. Probably debating whether it would be better to just take their chances with the worgwolves.

They cut off sharply when they noticed her looking, exchanged punches in the arm, and stepped warily through her door.

“Oh my gods,” Bur said, gawking at all the lace and ruffles. He opened his mouth to comment but shut it quickly when he registered his older brother’s dark glare.

Selay was infinitely thankful for that. However, Jordin’s eyes glanced disbelievingly around the room, taking in piles of stuffed animals, dolls, a taxidermied rivercat, and the overdone pinkness in general. She was going to die today. Surely.

She shut the door, locked it, then went to her bed and pulled the whirly, poufy, little-girly bedspread off and tossed it, wrong-side-up, over a mound of stuffed animals, being sure to include the rivercat under its side. Sighing, she went to her bed and plopped down on the edge. At least the comforter underneath was a solid sky blue. Thank the gods for her dad.

“Are we safe?” Jordin asked hesitantly. He glanced toward the window but did not look out. He looked around the room again, then opted to sit on the end of her bed. Instead of at the tiny table with the dolls and tea party. He looked… uncomfortable.

“I don’t know,” Selay said hoarsely. “What… was that?”

“What if it really was a worgwolf?” Bur asked, a tiny glow of excitement breaking its way through the fear. He was actually smiling. “We might have to fight it. We should make some traps and—

“There’s no such thing, buttmunch.” Jordin threw a stuffed bear that had escaped the switch of the comforter at his brother. It bounced off Bur’s arm. The boy seized it from the floor, chucked it back, then looked around for more ammo. His eyes fell on the displaced bedspread.

“Don’t.” Selay pointed at the bed next to Jordin. “Sit.”

Bur frowned but did as he was told.

Selay looked from Jordin to Bur and back. Her voice remained unbelievably calm, only registering a slight curiosity, though she felt her insides trembling. “What did you see?”

The boys glanced at each other. Bur looked ready to talk, to pounce on the opportunity for dramatization, but he suddenly licked his lips and looked down, his face going a shade paler.

Jordin’s lips were sealed tight, his jaw straining, his eyes scanning some inward memory for data that didn’t seem to compute.

Selay drew in a slow breath, then repeated, “What did you see?”

Jordin’s eyelids stuttered shut as he shook his head. He looked at her with a certain stubbornness, his voice low and calm like hers, but with an edge. “I don’t know what it was, but it was big, and it doesn’t belong here. And…” He hesitated. “And the way it moved… it was definitely hunting.”

Hunting. Selay thought of her cousins, playing outside somewhere, of her uncles working on their farms, but mostly of her father. “What about everyone else?”

“You’re right,” Jordin said, standing up. “We need to get everyone on the com and warn them.”

Selay shook her head, going red again. “We don’t have one.”

“What?” Bur was looking at her as though she were some kind of stone-age heathen. “Why not?”

She wasn’t about to explain that her mother and aunts all thought that the little people who lived in coms came out at night and tried to paint your children atrocious colors like puke green, tomato-soup orange, and poopoo brown. She shook her head. “We just don’t.”

“Shit,” Jordin said under his breath.

Selay frowned at him. If he had any idea what her mother would do if she’d heard that….

Jordin sat back down, staring off and rubbing his chin. After a stretch of silence, he said quite calmly, “We’re going to have to go back out there.”

The other two just looked at him. He was right, but at the same time, the idea was ludicrous. Ludicrous, because it really was dangerous. And ludicrous, because it smelled suspiciously of one of those cheesy, after-school holovision specials in which the kids saved the day.

Finally, Selay managed, “We’re going to need a plan.”

“And some weapons,” said Jordin. “Any ideas?”

Bur snickered. “How about some knitting needles?”

Jordin whapped him.

“We can get pitchforks and shovels if we can make it to the barn,” Selay offered.

“Good idea,” Jordin nodded. “And ’corns?”

“Yeah,” Selay smiled. “My aunts are here, so we’ll have plenty to choose from.”

“We’ll ride from here to Wilson’s farm— that’s the closest— and make the circuit.”

“But—” Bur protested, “what about mom?” Their farm was in the opposite direction.

“Mom’s smart,” said Jordin. “She’ll be fine. The Wilson’s have kids. And a com. They can call mom to warn her. Selay’s cousins will be beyond the Wilson’s farm. They’re always out playing. And I bet they don’t have coms either….”

Bur looked like he might protest again but didn’t.

“Let’s go.” Selay jumped up from the bed, then stopped suddenly. She went to her closet and pulled out a pair of jeans. “Turn around.”

The boys both turned red and obeyed her immediately. Even so, she kicked off her shoes then pulled her jeans on under her skirt before removing the frilly top layer. She grabbed her riding boots and plopped down on the bed beside the boys to pull the boots on. They both jumped.

Jordin risked a glance at her then relaxed. “Right,” he said. “Let’s go.”

In the living room, Selay’s mother and aunts had the holovision on the news station.

“Riots,” Jemma was saying. “It sounds terribly exciting.”

“Doesn’t it?” Gren agreed, fixated on the broadcast. “Nothing exciting ever happens here.”

“The city is a mess,” Malka put in, starting to pace, knitting needles still clasped in her hands like daggers. “It’s just not safe there. I think it’s time for Honaia to come home.”

“Even if it was safe, riots are certainly not appropriate,” said Sashi.

Selay ignored the irony, kept her head down, and led the boys back to the front door, thankful for the distraction. None of the women so much as glanced at them.

At the door, Selay exchanged looks with Jordin, took a deep breath, and flipped the lock. Heart skipping a beat, she breathed out, realizing she had half-expected the door to burst in the second the lock was opened. Silently cursing herself for letting her imagination get the best of her, she put her hand on the doorknob. Jordin’s hand quickly covered hers.

“Let me,” he said when she glanced up at him. She wanted to argue with his sudden chivalry but didn’t.

Jordin turned the doorknob and slowly eased the door open. Wisps of grey mist, like fingers, reached through the door. Jordin poked his head out then stepped through the doorway, his footsteps making hollow thuds on the wooden boards of the porch.

He was brave, Selay thought, and made herself follow him. Bur came directly after her.

The three of them stood, holding their breath, and looked out toward the barn.

From three hundred paces away, the old wooden structure towered in the fog, its edges and hard lines obscured by ghostly grey vapor.

“It looks clear,” Jordin whispered.

Selay peered into the mist. There didn’t seem to be anything there, but who knew what could hide in that half-grey—

She made herself stop thinking such things and promptly marched down the steps toward the barn.

Jordin and Bur followed at a run, grabbing her arms and dragging her to match their speed. The three of them burst into the barn, panting, and slammed the doors shut behind them, making the building rattle. Tendrils of fog circled into tiny whirlwinds then dissipated. The smell of damp hay and manure settled around them.

“There,” Selay said, jabbing her finger toward a wall of hanging tools. The boys ran to liberate the best makeshift weapons they could find while Selay had a quick look at their stock of ’corns. She already knew which ones she wanted.

Ginger was young and fast-footed, and would follow the other ’corns lead— a suitable mount for Bur that would hopefully keep him from doing anything stupid. Beautiful Princess, a sadly named gelding, was probably the most powerful of the bunch, with plenty of plow-built muscles and a record of relative stability. He would be a good choice for Jordin. And for herself, Bunny, a pure white mare with blood from the Old Stock. Bunny was quick, light-footed, and level-headed. She would not shy away from a dangerous mission. And besides that, her presence would be comforting. Bunny was an old friend and a good listener.

Selay had her mount saddled by the time Jordin and Bur dragged over their pile of makeshift weapons. She tossed saddle blanket and tack to the boys, then helped Bur saddle Ginger. For a farm boy, he seemed to be going rather slowly.

From outside came a low, whistling moan. The wind, or something else? There’s no such thing as worgwolves. Selay’s fingers flew nimbly over the saddle’s buckle, tugging it into place. Bur was climbing onto Ginger’s back before she was even finished.

Jordin strode toward the doors, freezing halfway as they rattled violently. When it subsided, he let out his breath, meeting Selay’s eyes. “It’s the wind,” he said softly.

She nodded. He nodded back. She handed Bur a shovel and laid two pitchforks across the front of Bunny’s saddle before swinging into it. She put one hand over the tools, leaned over to gather Beautiful Princess’ reigns, and walked him a bit closer to the doors.

Jordin took hold of the handle, looked at her, and swung it open. Mist eased into the barn. There didn’t seem to be any wind. Outside, the fog was even denser than it had been a few moments before. They could only see about fifteen paces now. Anything could be hidden beyond that. “Let’s go,” Jordin said under his breath, taking his mount’s reigns. He stepped up into the stirrups and swung his leg over.

“Stay close,” said Selay, handing him one of the pitchforks. She shifted her own into a better parrying position as if it were a lance, then squeezed her knees and led the way out of the barn. Behind her, she heard Jordin swear softly as he led Beautiful Princess to keep up.

Selay knew exactly how easy it would be to get turned around in the fog. So she set a trajectory for the road, found it, and turned Bunny along it, keeping the mare at a steady trot. The wind moaned behind them, but Selay refused to increase her pace. They had a long way to go.

It was about a mile to the next farm. They rode in silence, glancing about, checking behind them. They couldn’t see anything, yet Selay’s spine shivered with the sense of being watched. The wind groaned through the trees, then utter silence, then a puff of air, hot and cold at the same time. Moist, like breath, lingering on her skin. A howl, or wind, or a spirit mourning itself, or figment of imagination sprung to life on the cold, dark road. And all the while, the clip-clop of the ’corns’ hooves echoing on the packed dirt path. Too loud. Beckoning anything with malicious intent right toward them.

The Wilsons’ farm looked deserted. The animals had been brought in and the window shutters were drawn closed. Jordin dismounted and pounded on the farmhouse door, the others falling in behind him, still clutching their makeshift weapons.

“Who’s there?” came a woman’s voice after a moment’s silence.

“It’s us, Mrs. Wilson,” said Jordin. “Jordin and Bur. And Selay’s with us, too.”

The door clicked, creaked open, and plump Mrs. Wilson scowled out at them. “You kids should not be out playing in this. You’ll get lost, sure as a gremlin’s trouble.”

“There’s something out here,” Jordin parried. “We came to warn you.”

Before he could draw enough breath to continue, Bur put in, “We saw a worgwolf! It was huge! And had big teeth, and—

Selay clamped one hand firmly on Bur’s arm, stepped forward, and said quite calmly, “Mrs. Wilson, obviously there is no such thing as a worgwolf. However, we did catch a glimpse of a large animal prowling about in the fields. If you will kindly call your neighbors and warn them to keep their children inside until the weather is more favorable—

Mrs. Wilson, looking truly sympathetic, clucked her tongue, then placed one arm about Selay’s shoulders. “Now, dear,” she said in a sweet, soothing voice that at once made Selay’s stomach turn, because it was exactly the voice that people used on her aunts, “I’m sure everything will be alright. Don’t you get caught up in these boys’ tall tales.” She paused ever-so-slightly to glare at the boys, then continued in a sugary tone. “You just come inside and have a cup of tea and leave them to their own wicked ways.”

Jordin frowned at a second deadly glare cast at him as Mrs. Wilson tried to steer a reddening Selay inside. “Mrs. Wilson,” he said, his best attempt at echoing Selay’s calm, assured tones, “I know it sounds unlikely, but we really aren’t playing. If you could just please—

Mrs. Wilson rounded on him like a mad grunch-hen. “You listen to me, Jordin Wathers! You stop this nonsense at once! It’s bad enough you’re up to no good, but involving Selay in it! You know how these girls are! She really believes you! Imagine how frightened she must be!” With that, she clutched Selay even tighter and dragged her across the threshold into the house.

A resounding ‘thud’ cut through the silence as Selay sunk her pitchfork into the wooden floor. “No, you listen,” she said, wrenching free of Mrs. Wilson’s grip and glaring at her with what could only be restrained murderous intent. “I am perfectly capable of judging the situation for myself. I know what I saw.” With that, she turned and marched into the living room where Mrs. Wilson’s boys stopped playing on their Megadeck to gawk at her. She picked up the house com and punched the first preset code.

Mrs. Wilson sputtered in the doorway. Catching Selay’s glance, Jordin quite happily ran interference. “Mrs. Wilson,” he said, again borrowing Selay’s take-charge tone, “did you get all the animals inside?”

“W-w— yes,” Mrs. Wilson sputtered, still looking at Selay.

“Do you have emergency supplies?” Jordin continued, anything to keep her distracted.

Mrs. Wilson glanced at him and frowned.

“Candles?” Jordin asked. “Medical supplies?”

“W— I suppose,” she said, turning to him. “But we won’t really—

“How about weapons?” Bur put in, getting into the spirit of it.

“A good kitchen knife?” Jordin asked. “Or a hammer?”

Mrs. Wilson nodded absently, starting to look a little worried.

Again, Jordin opened his mouth, but Selay had put the com down and was pushing past Mrs. Wilson to get out the door.

Behind her, one of Mrs. Wilson’s boys whispered, “Why does she have a pitchfork?” The other one shrugged, looking baffled.

Jordin raised his eyebrows at Selay and she shook her head, walking to the ’corns. “Just stay inside and lock the door,” he said to Mrs. Wilson, and turned to get his mount.

“That went great,” muttered Bur, climbing into his own saddle.

As they turned their mounts away, they could still see Mrs. Wilson and her boys hanging out the doorway.

“Well?” asked Jordin as they rode into the heavy fog. The Wilsons’ farm disappeared behind them.

Selay shook her head, a dark look on her face. “Laney Townsen said she’d call around,” she muttered.

“That’s great,” Jordin said.

She focused on the road ahead of them. “My cousins’ farms are not far up the road. They don’t have coms, so if we can just hurry and get there, that would be nice.”

Jordin and Bur exchanged glances, but neither of them argued. As for the Wilsons, at least they were indoors, even if they weren’t predisposed to listening.

A long, low keening broke the silence.

“Well, surely Mrs. Wilson heard that,” Selay spat bitterly. Clearly, she was still fuming.

“It doesn’t matter what she thinks,” Jordin said. “She’s just an old farmwife anyway.”

That earned him a questioning— and suspicious— glance.

The sound came again, nearer. At the end, it turned into a sort of howl. Selay had never heard the wind sound like that before. She glanced behind them and urged Bunny to a trot. Jordin and Bur rode up alongside her.

“What do you think it is?” Jordin whispered to her.

Selay glanced at him again, and shook her head. “I don’t know,” she admitted softly. A moment later, looking over her shoulder again, she added, “Is it following us?”

Jordin’s eyes were wide as he checked their path, but the fog made it impossible to see if anything was back there. The next howl, though, was not far off.

Without a word, everyone picked up the pace.

Ahead of them a shape materialized along the roadside. Jordin clutched his pitchfork tighter, squinting. A few paces further was another shape, and then a third. None of them were moving, and Jordin had nearly decided they were inanimate— carts left by the side of the road, or— Then the corns shied.

Selay had control of Bunny first. She brought her to a halt, about ten paces off, and waited for the boys to recover, never taking her eyes off the shapes ahead. She fought the urge to kick Bunny into a gallop and race off. Swallowing hard, she lowered her pitchfork toward the shapes.

Jordin came up beside her, readying his weapon as well. Bur settled in behind them. None of them dared to speak.

Though muted by the fog, the shapes were about half the height of a man, and clearly four-legged. They stood, watching, waiting.

Selay urged Bunny forward but the mare refused to move. Another long, moaning howl came from behind them and Bunny changed her mind, carrying Selay in a wide circle around the shapes and finally, at the girl’s insistence, back to the road.

There were more of them. They appeared suddenly at the roadside only a few paces away, but never moved to attack. They only stood eerily and watched as the little party faltered. Bunny tossed her head and whinnied in protest, but Selay dug in her heels and insisted they keep moving. As they rode past, she pointed the pitchfork threateningly at the wolves, but the canines only tracked her with their eyes.

Behind Selay, Jordin and Bur fought their mounts to continue. They would be no good if it came to a fight. Selay resisted the urge to bolt. She knew that flight would make the wolves’ predator instincts kick in, causing them to attack at once. She held Bunny at a steady pace, careful not to give her too much reign.

Moving onward down the road, every so often another wolf appeared ahead of them. Selay glanced behind them and cursed softly. The wolves they had passed had fallen in behind them, close enough that the fog had not swallowed them up. They kept pace, never closing the distance. Bodies full of tension. Eyes fixed on their prey. Numbers amassing. But for the moment, they held back.

Jordin looked behind them to see what Selay was cursing about. “What the f—? I’ve never seen wolves do that before,” he muttered.

Selay shivered. Neither had she. But more worrying was that unearthly howl. Every time it sounded, it seemed closer, closing in like the fog, while the full pack of wolves following them never made a noise.

“They’re going to attack us,” she whispered. “Look at them, how they’re fixed on us. We’ve got to be ready for them.”

An old wooden fence appeared through the fog, marking the boundary of Aunt Sashi and Uncle Jormee’s farm. A few hundred paces later was an opening onto the property.

“Here.” Selay dared to breathe a little. “We’ll be safe inside.”

The riders turned their mounts to the left and rode toward the farmhouse they knew was off in the distance. Long before they got there, a mass of shapes materialized in front of them. Selay would rather have found more wolves. Instead, unguarded and defenseless as a flock of sheep, here were her cousins. She’d led the wolves right to them. And possibly something else—something bigger. Heart racing, she glanced around, trying to figure out how to keep her family safe.

A girl stepped forward, about Selay’s height, wearing a strikingly pretty, blue-eyed face and long, red ringlets. “Oh, it’s you,” she said, sounding half-relieved, then glanced at the other two riders and frowned. “What are they—

“Meenah, you bobblehead,” Selay scolded quietly, “we have to get inside! Quickly!”

“What?” Meenah asked. “What’s going on?”

“The little ones!” Selay commanded. She and the boys swung down off their mounts, readying their weapons. “Get them on the ’corns and send them to the house.”

To make the task easier, two of Selay’s smaller cousins ran up to her to hug her legs. “It foggy, Sellie,” one of them said.

She snatched them quickly and had them up in Bunny’s saddle before they knew what was happening. “Get the baby,” she said over her shoulder.

Meenah was peering off into the direction they’d come from.

Selay glanced at her. “Meenah! Get the kids! There are wolves!”

Meenah’s pretty blue eyes went wide with fear. Then she drew herself up and looked calm. Her voice, however, wavered just a little. “They won’t come this close—

Another mournful howl thickened the air around them. Meenah was at Selay’s side, trembling. “Let’s go,” she whispered.

Selay realized she was trying to scramble onto the ’corn and pulled her back down by her ruffled skirt. “The little ones,” she hissed.

A quick glance revealed that Bur and Jordin were doing a decent job of rounding them up. But with the smallest riders on the ’corns, there were still a good number of small children on the ground that would need to be gotten to safety. Not wasting time, she looked up at her tiny cousins astride Bunny’s back, about to tell them to ride to the house and get inside. Before she could, Meenah screamed.

Eight wolves appeared out of the mist, padding toward them, heads forward, ears back.

“Hold on,” Selay said, and slapped Bunny on the hindquarters. The mare bolted. The other two ’corns ran off with squealing children as well.

Jordin, Bur, and Selay rushed to gather the remaining kids into a huddle. Binta was screaming for her dog. Zoren was sobbing loudly. “Daddy!” cried Minsi.

“To the house,” commanded Selay. “Hold hands! Stay together!”

The children grabbed onto each other’s hands and started running, Bur and Meenah herding them. Selay and Jordin kept their eyes and weapons on the wolves, backing away as the party made ground.

Then the wolves flew at them. There were so many, and they were so fast, that the wolves were in amongst them before they could do anything. The children screamed and scattered in opposite directions. Selay and Jordin swung their shovels and pitchforks valiantly, but the wolves dodged away every time.

Meenah had two of her siblings by the hand and was scrambling with them toward the farmhouse. She let go of them after they’d gone part way. “Run!” she yelled and sprinted back to grab two others out of the fray, searching with panicked eyes for an escape route.

Selay chased two snapping wolves away from Jordin’s back and looked around the battlefield. Meenah had sent the latest pair of kids running to the house and was hauling it back to grab more. A wolf jumped into her path, baring its fangs. She screamed. Selay waited for her to run, but she didn’t. She just screamed and covered her face with her arms and waited for death.

Selay ran faster than she’d ever run before and planted herself— with her pitchfork— squarely between the two.

She met the creature’s dark eyes, her own narrowing in a challenge. “Don’t you even think about it,” she growled.

The wolf, a shaggy brown beast that looked as though it could eat her in one bite, tilted its head slightly. Its eyes cut through her. She had the strangest feeling that she was being weighed and measured.

Selay gripped her pitchfork tighter and braced herself for the attack. The howl came again— that long, dripping howl— then the wolf turned away slowly and sauntered off. Selay glanced about her and found that all the wolves were withdrawing. The fog was dissipating as well, pulling itself into cottony puffs and pieces.

She ran to the remnants of the group and poured over them. They were quivering, sobbing, but OK. As the weather cleared, one of the escapees could be seen waving from the farmhouse door. Everyone was accounted for. Everyone was alive. Selay’s legs gave out from under her and she slumped to the ground, still clinging white-knuckled to the pitchfork.

Jordin flopped down at her side, panting. “Well, that was weird.”

Selay gave him a dark look. “What was that?” she finally managed. “It doesn’t make sense. Wolves don’t act like that. Why didn’t they eat us?”

“I don’t know.” Jordin shook his head and patted her on the shoulder— actually patted her on the shoulder. “But maybe we should—

Then Selay saw the figure walking in from the distance. Tall and broad-shouldered, she knew that silhouette. “Uncle Deeter!” she shouted, hauling herself to her feet. She dropped the pitchfork and ran for him. She flung her arms around him and buried her head against him. “Oh, Uncle Deeter, it was awful!”

Deeter, looking past her, wrapped her in a hug. His eyes scanned toward the group of crying children, assessing their well-being. “What… happened?”

“The fog,” Selay began. “And wolves. And—

“Uncle Deeter!” Meenah caught up and flung herself against Deeter, too. He stumbled back a step to hang onto both of them. “We almost died,” Meenah sobbed hysterically. “They were going to eat us all!”

“You’re OK now,” Deeter said, but Meenah kept sobbing. Selay took a deep breath and stepped back just in time to avoid the onslaught of children who had also spied Deeter. They swarmed around him, seeking comfort, clinging to his legs. He stumbled but did not go down. He was pretty strong.

Selay stood back a pace and watched. Deeter was not really her uncle, but he may as well have been. He should have been, if you asked her mother or aunts. But Aunt Honaia had dumped him and headed off to the big city, and it looked as if it was not likely she’d be coming back any time soon. Still, Deeter was part of the family. Whether he likes it or not, Selay added bitterly.

He looked past the children and met her eyes questioningly. Selay shook her head. She didn’t have any answers. She sullenly began pulling kids off him, talking soothingly to them, trying to get them to calm down. To her surprise, Jordin and Bur materialized and helped her with the task. It took a long while, but eventually they got everyone into the farmhouse, settled into the living room, and sent Meenah to make tea.

Deeter and Selay slipped back out onto the porch and sat on the wooden steps in the bright sunshine. For a moment they sat in silence while Selay gathered her thoughts. Finally, she drew a deep breath and said, “It all started when that horrible fog rolled in.”

Deeter frowned at her. “Fog?” He paused delicately, then took a breath and said very calmly: “It’s been sunny all day.”

Chapter 4: Steam

THE DOOR TO Onus’ office swung abruptly inward and the huge, green-muscled body of a troll shifted sideways through the opening, hoisting a round metal tray on one hand like a diner waitress.

Deez flopped the tray down on Onus’ desk and a flock of cookies bounced and resettled themselves. The aroma of warm sugar and berries and nuts arose and embraced Onus.

“For you,” Deez said.

Onus opened his eyes from a long, luxurious inhale. “Where’s Honaia?”

Deez settled into one of the chairs facing the desk. “She went down to the recording studio.”

Ah, that explained the cookie-baking. Onus shrugged and fingered one of the leftovers he’d inherited. They were still warm and gooey. He took a bite. Honaia’s cookies could only be chewed slowly with eyes closed and rolling back in the head. He shook himself and looked at Deez again. “You let her go by herself.”

“It’s only a few blocks away,” the troll replied, and helped himself to one of the cookies.

“It’s dangerous out there,” Onus said. “Right on our doorstep, even.”

“Honaia’s tougher than you think.” Deez shifted his weight in the chair. “You shoulda seen the time she—

Onus waved his hand in dismissal, still holding a cookie. “No risks,” he said. “She still doesn’t know the city that well, and all hell has broken loose out there. If you insist on taking her on assignments, it better be boring ones. And in the meantime, I certainly don’t want her wandering around all—

“She ain’t no little princess,” Deez said over him. “She can handle a stroll down the block. The damned enforcers have this section relatively contained right now. And as far as assignments, she’s gotta learn—

“Learn?” Onus’ voice was a touch louder and higher. “She doesn’t even know magic yet.”

Deez sat back in his chair and studied the mage. Finally, he gave a little shrug. “She’s got her own kinda magic.”

Onus bit back an agreeing smile. He looked at his desk. He picked up a cookie and ate it. He fiddled with one of the folders he’d been working on before Deez came in.

Deez shook his head and smiled. “You should just go for it, man.”

Onus took a deep breath and let it out. He looked at Deez and shook his head, but his manner now was as if he was talking to a friend. “She likes that drummer.”

Deez chuckled. “The faerie? With the girlfriend? Yeah, I’m sure that’s gonna work out for her.”

Onus studied him thoughtfully, then shrugged and shook his head again.

“It’d do you some good, man,” Deez said, leaning forward. He picked one of the cookies from the tray and held it up for inspection. “I mean, these are some good… cookies.” He flipped his green eyebrows.

Onus cut his laughter short, shaking his head again. His smile did not go away so easily, though. He refocused his attention on his folder. “Strange…” he lulled. “I thought it was you who told me you can’t have relationships in our line of work….”

Deez shrugged, pulling himself to his feet. He took another cookie with him on his way out the door.

***

Honaia passed a pair of dark-clad enforcers as she closed the last half a block to the recording studio. She tried not to look at them, though she shuddered despite herself. Why did they all wear masks over their faces in broad daylight?

She was thankful to be off the street and in the studio where she stood behind the glass and watched Sonic Burp perform the last chorus of The Dark Road. Jax’ sticks flew over the drum set as he struck the final throbbing beats of the song. The muscles in his forearms and shoulders were pumped and chiseled. Blood rushed to Honaia’s lips. He glanced up and saw her, smiled ever-so-briefly before looking away and reaching for his water bottle.

Feather was first through the door to greet her. “Hey babe,” he was saying, a grin on his pretty face. “You made it.”

“Yeah, uh…” Honaia lifted her basket of cookies. He was flying in her personal space. “I can’t stay long.”

“You’re so cool,” Ripplepond beamed, lifting the cloth on the edge of her basket and basking in what might be cookie-sunshine. “Guys,” he called, “she brought cookies!”

The others were on their way out. Jax finally put down his water bottle and made his way to join them. Honaia noticed that he wasn’t in any particular hurry.

She set the basket on a table and let them have at it.

“Mm!” Bogweed said, nodding at her emphatically and giving her a thumbs up.

“Always looking after my boys, aren’t you, Honaia.” Crookedwing landed on her shoulder and patted her hair.

She shrugged innocently. “Well, you know, gotta keep my favorite band going so they can make more music.” She leaned toward Crookedwing and said conspiratorially, “I added a little energy powder.”

The band manager laughed and nodded. “I’ll keep ’em working ’til midnight, just for you, Hon.”

Honaia nodded and they winked at each other in agreement.

“These are…” Jax was standing on the edge of the basket, frowning down at the cookies.

“Tomonut berry chip,” Honaia supplied. “The chewy kind.”

He looked up at her dumbly, shook his head. Then that smile broke onto his face, complete with the dimples that made Honaia’s heart go boom-boom-boom. “They’re like… my absolute favorite,” he said. “I haven’t had them in….” His voice trailed off. Honaia recognized that thoughtful, introspective face. Then he picked up a cookie in widespread arms, took a bite, and his blue eyes rolled back in his head, eyelashes fluttering.

Honaia almost fell down.

When he opened his eyes, he looked at her as though she were a goddess and he’d seen the light. “You rock.”

Before Honaia could fully savor the moment, Nettle appeared from the bathroom just on cue to steal her victory. She was wearing a red shirt that was so low-cut it went past sexy and right into slutty. Her short skirt with spiky heels was a bit too much as well. She did have that glow, though.Probably from straining, thought Honaia bitterly.

The little bitch fluttered over to Honaia’s cookies, stepped into her basket, and helped herself. She stopped chewing mid-bite and looked at the cookie. “Tomonut,” she said flatly. “For reals?”

There was an awkward silence. Jax looked the other way.

Honaia smiled apologetically and shrugged. “It’s not for everyone.” She turned her smile on the band. “I gotta go, guys. Talk to ya laters.” She waved sweetly on her way out the door, then stomped back toward the magic firm, nails digging into her palms.

***

It was the most unexpected and exciting com call that Honaia could imagine. “So your com works now,” she said, eyeing the caller ID before answering.

Jax’ voice, as usual, made her feel the pain of being alive with a distinct intensity.

“We didn’t get a chance to tell you the other day,” he said, “so the boys asked me to call….”

Yeah, thought Honaia, someone else put you up to this. I get it. “Hm?” she said aloud, sitting down on the edge of her bed.

“You know the recording deal we’re working on? Well, the record company also signs Dead Lepper. We ran into them the other day at the office…

“Whoa,” said Honaia. “Totally righteous.”

“Totally,” Jax agreed. “They were really cool. And they got us some tickets to the opening show on their next tour. And said we could hang with them after. And we even managed to get tix for you and D.”

“Whoa,” Honaia said again, flopping back on her bed. “Virtuous.”

Jax laughed. Oh my gods, that laugh. Honaia made herself take a deep breath. She imagined herself and Jax rockin’ out together at a Dead Lepper concert. Of course, Nettle would be there, wouldn’t she? Didn’t she ever have to go to work at that damned com shop?

“I gotta go,” Jax was saying. “But listen. The other day…Nettle…. The cookies…Sometimes—

“Don’t sweat it.” Honaia twirled a lock of hair around one finger and imagined using it to strangle Nettle.

“Well,” said Jax, “I am sorry. I thought it was really sweet.”

Then he was gone and Honaia lay on her bed and stared wide-eyed at the ceiling. Finally, she rolled to her side and pushed herself up, grinning. “He thought it was sweet,” she murmured, and managed to ride that high well into the afternoon.

 

***

The dry cold of the wind made Honaia shiver. She rubbed her arms and shifted back and forth to keep warm while she waited on Deez to input the code into the magical lock on the gate. Finally, the clinking of metal announced its opening. Deez swung the gate wide and they walked out onto the small bridge to the island in the middle of the river.

Honaia looked sourly down at the brown water and its reflected grey sky. She turned her gaze back ahead to the island where they would recharge the power supply for a boat rental company. It was kept here, under lock and key, because the components were expensive and somewhat dangerous. She looked at Deez as they approached.

“Jobs like these don’t take much time, but since they require a certain expertise, they pay good,” he was saying. “We try to keep a handful of ongoing contracts like these for each team member, on top of the big jobs.”

Honaia nodded, crossing her arms and watching him remove the metal cover from the power supply.

“So what the fuck?” he said as he worked. “Where’s your grin today?”

Honaia mumbled something about men and ’corns’ asses.

“I get it,” Deez said, eyeing her. He flipped some latches and exposed the core. “Things didn’t go so well with your boyfriend and his girlfriend today, huh?”

Honaia gave him the look of death.

Deez ignored her and closed his eyes to gather power particles.

“How come you don’t wear mage robes?” she asked, changing the subject.

It was a while before he answered. Honaia had the sense that he was packing power particles into the core. The feel of all that energy nearby made her nervous. She took a step back.

“I’m not a mage,” he said, as if it was obvious. “And you’re not a faerie.”

Her eyebrows raised a touch. “You have a problem with interracial relationships?”

Deez just laughed. He closed the core and put the cover back on the power supply. “The enforcers were asking questions again at the construction site.”

Honaia searched his face. “Are we gonna get in trouble?”

He shook his head. “Foreman said none of the guys told ’em shit. Guess it’s like… in appreciation for saving their asses or something.”

Honaia nodded as they turned to go.

“Just don’t say anything to anyone,” Deez said. “Especially Onus.”

They shared a look of understanding.

As they walked out onto the bridge, Honaia said, “I think he might—

Deez grabbed her arm, cutting her off. “What the fuck…” he mumbled and pulled her behind him.

“What now?” Honaia asked and peeked out from the side.

On the far side of the river, what appeared to be a whole gang of thugs was coming through the gate. Yet another manifestation of Reliance running wild. Criminals and crackpots ruled the day.

“Crap,” said Honaia.

“Hey!” Deez bellowed across the water.

The thugs looked at him.

“Get the fuck out of here!”

They kept coming, looking at him in… amusement?

“Don’t you dare set a fuckin’ foot on my bridge!” Deez howled.

They paused. Their leader titled his head and smiled cockily. “It’s your bridge?”

Honaia stepped out from behind Deez, hands on hips. “No, it’s my bridge,” she said, her voice carrying across the gap. “And it pisses me off when people come ’round uninvited!”

***

The whole Sonic Burp entourage lounged in the artsy, hard plastic chairs that decorated the magic firm’s reception area. The band had stopped in briefly to drop off tickets and chat, but was on its way to a gig, so couldn’t stay long.

Thank fuck, thought Honaia, mentally wiring her mouth shut for the duration of the visit. Peloen had popped in and was sucking the band dry for every detail of their encounter with Dead Lepper. Who had said what. Who had looked where. And what did the lead singer smell like, etc. For gods’ sake. The band indulged her with honest answers. For the most part. Deez and Bogweed were busy arguing over whether Dead Lepper’s breakthrough gig had been played at the Starfield in Heronvale, or the Hellhole in Froman. And Jax and Nettle were cuddling to the side— well, maybe “making out” would be a more accurate way of putting it. Honaia seriously considered offering her ticket to Peloen.

As for Jax, Honaia could have happily squashed him right along with Nettle at that point. Well, not really, but… but she was beyond writing off his innocence on this one. How can he not see? She clamped her jaw down on the words she wanted to scream at him and forced her breathing to be even.

“You OK?” It was Feather, landing on the arm of her chair.

She beamed a smile at him, then realized from his response that it must have looked more like baring her teeth. “Bad day,” she managed without breaking.

He patted her hand and she almost started crying. The only way she kept herself from it was by feeding the pain into anger. She snatched her hand away.

He opened his mouth.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said quickly.

He nodded and left her alone.

She sat frozen, staring at her watch, for nine more minutes of agony before they finally left. She was down the hallway before the elevator doors had even finished sliding shut.

The stabbing in her chest, the nausea in her stomach, the trembling in her limbs, had all worked their way to a terrible climax. If she didn’t let it out— if she didn’t hit something right then— she was gonna die. She stormed into the fitness room, to the punching bag, and stopped there, frozen and trembling with rage.

Onus was shirtless, placing free weights back on the rack. “Go ahead,” he said. “I’m on my way out.”

She did. She let loose on the punching bag in an unadulterated series of wallops and kicks that could have brought down a large family of ogres. Then she stood there, panting, shaking, staring at the swinging bag. Her shoulders slumped.

Onus tossed his towel down on the bench. “You wanna spar?”

Honaia turned deadly eyes on him. She shook her head. “Not a good idea.” She turned her back on him and started away, mumbling, “Not unless you particularly feel like having your ass kicked to the Sixth Reach of the Furnace….”

Behind her, Onus was chuckling. “Try me.”

Honaia stopped.

His voice dripped with amusement. “I’m much better than a punching bag.”

So it was on. She kicked off her shoes. They paced to the ring marked out on the mats, eyeing each other. Onus made the first attack, a series of light punches, teasing, testing. Sinking into fight mode, Honaia’s anger found a focus. She blocked him firmly, got in a return punch, but gave nothing away. They paced sideways, circling. She tested next, and he answered without hesitation, a clean block for each punch, a counterattack for her kick. She swept it sideways, and again they paced, eyes locked, even breathing, feet padding softly on the mats. She marked the fluidity of each punch and pull of his muscles, the feline grace of his prowl. Perhaps he would prove to be an interesting opponent.

He tested her at the next level, and the next. Each time, she blocked him and tested back. But she was growing tired of this dance. She hungered to strike out, to break a sweat, to release her agony through physical exertion. Fear of disappointment held her back momentarily. There was a kind of refuge in the ‘now’ of the fight. She did not want it to be over.

Onus indulged her as though he’d read her thoughts. He came at her with a jump kick that she only narrowly dodged, then followed with an attack from behind her. She went under it, spun away, recovering from surprise. No more child’s play.

They clashed head-on in the center of the ring in a flurry of punches and kicks. Adrenaline’s glory pounded out a war drum beat on her heart. The slow rush and blur of time. The fullness of blood stampeding the veins at her temples. The ache of muscles, the elusiveness of air. The need to reach down into her iron core and demand her body to continue. Honaia passed all of these with the teeth of her mind sunk into his throat, refusing to let go.

Then, she was over the peak and coasting on elation. She’d caught her stride. Her fists pounded into warm flesh. Her bones jarred with every block and every failed block. Anger, frustration, and grief exploded in a primal release.

And Onus did not disappoint her.

It was only after, panting, bent over him— sweat instead of tears salting her lips— that she realized the rage had gone. In its place was… satisfaction.

He looked up at her from flat on his back, supplicant, spent. The slight turning of the corners of his mouth betrayed a certain enjoyment of his situation.

Honaia surrendered to the sudden unbidden bending of her knees and flopped down at his side. They smiled at each other in the regulated quiet of gaining their breath. The bridge of Honaia’s nose ached. She closed her eyes and forced deep breaths in through her nose, out through o-shaped lips. In a moment her breathing lightened and gave way to dizzy giddiness. Rising onto one elbow, she laid one trembling hand on Onus’ chest, leaning over him. “You’re more fun than I expected.”

He smiled at her— an easy, natural smile without guard or mystery— and she was suddenly hyper-aware of his shirtlessness, of the flush of his skin, of the curve of his sculpted muscles under her palm. Of the icy chill of his sweat, and under that, heat. His skin was somehow golden in this light, with the sheen of their workout illuminating every intriguing line. In the back of her mind, she marveled that she had never really known what was under those mage robes. And then, there was the scent of him….

His relaxed fingertips fondled a curl that had gone near them. His eyes moved from it and traced the line of her arm up her shoulder and to her face.

She leaned toward him.

“OK, I don’t need to see that.” It was Peloen’s voice intruding upon their little world. They looked toward the door.

Apparently, their fight had drawn some spectators. In a sudden flurry of throat-clearing, their officemates were making hasty exits. Yelwyn, Belum, Peloen. Only Fenn wasn’t there. Deez didn’t bother to look embarrassed. Instead, he winked at them.

Honaia had not known it was possible to flush more than she already had.

Onus rolled up to his feet and offered her his hand. She accepted it and climbed to standing. They met each other’s eyes briefly in a mixture of embarrassment, amusement, and regret, then headed in opposite directions.

Text Copyright © 2018 Kate Wrath .  All Rights Reserved.

This work may not be published, reproduced, etc, without the express written consent of the author.

Amazon (Yep, it’s an associate link!)

Smashwords

 

  • Genre: Urban Fantasy, Humor, Fairytales
  • Year of publication: 2018
  • Series: Fairytale Evolution
  • Book number: 2
  • Amazon link https://amzn.to/2KEnivw

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