Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Chapter Five: Lines(Part One)

Morning mist rolled up from the streets in the pre-dawn light, and the breeze tugged at Walker's cloak and pulled at his hair. He checked the bronze sword now at his side: made for a two-handed wield by a drow, but for him a hand-and-a-half sword.

"This is a dangerous waste of time," Lisbeth pressed, appearing from the mist. Walker rolled his eyes.

"It's called being a wanderer. I go where I go, go with whatever events I wind up caught in, and make it all work one way or another until it's time to move on."

"I say it is now time to move on."

"Hey." Walker put his hands on his hips, pausing to glare down at his companion. "Who's the grown-up here?"

"Do not let my outward appearance fool you," Lisbeth snapped. "I am more than I choose to appear."

Walker eyed her. "You ain't gonna turn into a dragon or nothing, are you?"

"No! I am not a half..." Lisbeth sighed. "You must leave. We have important business to be about, and drow do not feature in it."

"Maybe ghosts do, though." Walker tilted his head. "Why do they want to take you back to Hell?"

"They..." Lisbeth shrugged. "Who knows why ghosts act as they do?"

"You're a ghost."

"Not one enthralled by the Gray Witch-"

"So the Gray Witch wants you?" Walker turned that concept over in his head. Lisbeth hissed.

"I did not say this."

"But you didn't not say it, neither." He turned back for the road, and the war party assemblage further down. "What's she after you for, then, Lis?" He waited a moment. "Lis?"

Silence. Walker didn't even bother looking.

"Should have guessed. Should have guessed...take my eyes off her for one minute..."

"So where are we headed?" Walker asked, as he hurried along with Azar's company. The redhead lead, glass sword on her back, while Chaska and Navin held the flanks. Behind them came several dozen warriors, while Jazmin remained behind. Walker eyed the shape in the distance for a minute. "I figured we're after ghosts, and that scepter, but I haven't heard no plan."

"There are small settlements ringing Prelate Archer's land, toward the glass mines in the east." Azar glanced over her shoulder. "The Gray Witch often sends Reznos and her other agents to attack traders on the road."

"Why?" Walker wondered. "What's her interest in Ardwal glass?"

"The glass has many properties. The dwarves are the best at its working." Azar pursed her lips. "It is not clear what the Witch's interest is. It is possible she is using it to manufacture weapons or looking-glasses."

"Or she could know something we don't, with supernatural whatsits." Walker grunted. "I'll be happier when we got an answer. Or at least some idea what she's after."

"I agree. The longer the Witch's motivations remain under a cloud, the more uncomfortable I become." Azar nodded. "It's a two-day journey to Archer's territory. Once there, we should find something we can work with."

"What did you find?" Azar asked, three days later. She and the majority of the war party hunkered under trees in the sunset rain, while the drow quickly went through a stock of hunted squirrels and rabbits, draining them of blood. Walker made do with vegetables and berries he harvested from the surrounding trees, unwilling to risk a fire to cook meat.

"We wandered down the road for a few miles," Chaska said, as he and his brother scurried back into the glade. "Five miles out, there's a little farmstead."

"And?" Walker demanded. Navin raised a hand.

"And there's werewolves in the trees," he said. "None changed, but..."

"Changed?" Walker glanced up. "Ain't a full moon, tonight."

"A gift of the Witch's," Chaska explained. "The Draught is something a wolf can drink to change, then and there, so long as it's night out. Doesn't have to be a full moon."

"But they're stronger the closer it is," Navin finished. "And the moon's waxing."

Azar grunted. "Are there any humans at the farm?"

"We thought not, at first." Chaska glanced over his shoulder. "Then we saw movement in one of the barns. They're holed up inside."

"We can't let them get eaten." Walker cracked his neck. "Ain't right."

"A farm down the road?" Azar arched an eyebrow at Chaska until he nodded. "Show me."

It wasn't a long journey, even approaching quietly through the trees. Walker stayed with the brothers as they slipped up to the edge of the fields, while Azar detailed the rest of her warriors in a loose semicircle.

"We want some of them to escape," she reminded, fingering her sword hilt. "If we kill them all, we have no way to track the Witch."

"Right." Navin nodded. "There's the barn."

"Small one," Walker observed. He examined the terrain for a long moment. "Don't see no wolves."

"They're prowling." That was Chaska. "They smell prey."

"They'll smell us, too, if we move any closer," Azar muttered. She tapped her claws on the loam, red eyes narrow. "We need to draw them out. Left to their own devices, they'll rush the farm and kill the humans."

"Can't have that," Walker agreed. He nodded to himself. "I'll take a look around."

"Alone?" Navin demanded. "No, no. I'll go with you-"

"You're drow. They'll smell drow."

"They'll smell you, too-"

"But there's already human scent everywhere in that place, ain't there?" Walker shrugged. "Only logic."


"And if I die, that ain't so bad." Walker patted Chaska on the shoulder. "I'll be back."

"I don't like it."

"Well, good for you." Walker gave Azar a glance. "I ain't asking permission."

She eyed him for a long moment, then tossed that scarlet, sparking hair. "Get in there, and draw them into open ground. Once we have a clear target, we'll descend on them from the rear and drive them off."

"Sure thing." And then Walker lowered, and he started into the cornfields.

"Don't die!" Navin encouraged.

Walker scurried as quickly as he dared, cursing his size. If not for his shoulders and spine, he would have a much easier go of slipping through the field unnoticed. His breath came in shallow as he worried: worried about a wolf bursting out in front of him, or behind...

"Ain't gonna happen," he muttered, far too low to be heard. He paused to sweep up a rock. "And if it does, kill it. Simple enough."

Then he neared the end of the plants, and Walker slowed. He settled, listening. For a few long minutes, there was nothing but the wind, and the rustling of crops.


"I smell something." A growling voice, that. Walker saw a shape through the last screen of vegetation, and he set his teeth when he took in its size and its blackness. It padded on all fours, sniffing the dirt. "I smell human."

"Of course you smell human." There was another wolf, behind the first. "Are we spotted?"

"Of course not," scoffed the first. "There are no warriors here to see us in the dark. Just the farmer and his pups, and the cripple they took in." He salivated. "We will feast tonight."

"Be careful," his friend urged. "We must encircle them and approach cautiously."

"Screw caution!" The first one snarled to punctuate that, pawing at the ground. "I want flesh, and Reznos said the first in have first-pick of the meat."

"But if you are seen-"

"What can they do?" The wolf barked laughter. "Only a silver weapon could harm us, and peasant farmers will lack those." He drew himself up. "I go to feast."

His friend hesitated. "This might not be wise-"

"Then you accept the scrap," scoffed the first. He rose to his full height, turning for the barn. "I want the youngest for her tender flesh-"


"Holy gods." Walker didn't even realize he'd been the one to gasp for a minute: not until the wolf's body had collapsed in the dirt with a hole between its eyes, the edges smoldering with the tell-tale marks of a silver bullet.

"That was one shot!" The authoritative voice rang from the barn loft, and Walker thought he saw powder-smoke rolling off into the darkened sky. "I have no shortage of munitions."

"What was that?" The other wolf seemed remarkably unfazed by his friend's instant death. He sniffed the body, and Walker winced when he took an experimental bite, as if to confirm his taste. Satisfied, the wolf turned to the corn. "I heard you, lurking in the dark."

Walker considered stealth and then discarded the idea, just as quickly. The wolf's nose turned his way, and he took a breath.

"Did you?" He punctuated that by hurling his rock right into the animal's eye. It flinched with a cry, and then Walker lunged. He battered at its face, punching left, then right, then ripping at its nose and hair.

"Get off!" The wolf threw him, and Walker tumbled. As he struggled to his knees, it rose, letting out an ear-splitting howl.

Walker lunged, and before those jaws could snap on him, he gave the wolf his best uppercut. It staggered up on its hind legs, snarling and spitting-


"Who's next?" called the sharpshooter, as the body collapsed atop the first. "I can sit here all night. And I never miss."

"In the dark." Walker shook his head, taking in the corpses. "In the pitch-black...one shot..."

"Most impressive."

Walker spun. He sucked in breath as he took in four more wolves, pacing low in the fields with dark eyes full of hunger.

And the speaker, a red-eyed man with wild sideburns.

"You must be Reznos," Walker surmised, glancing to the wolves and the way they waited at the red-eyed man's beck and call. "You're the wolves' boss. The Gray Witch's number two."

"And I don't recall meeting you." Reznos took Walker in, very intently.

"You can call me Walker, on account of it's all I ever do." He paused, after saying that. It was almost like...had he said it before?

Healer. I need a healer...

"Walker, then." Reznos' lip curled. "You are a big man. Big...and foolish. Men are not to intervene in the affairs of wolves."

"You're picking on people who ain't need you picking on them," Walker snapped. "Let well enough be. Find dinner somewhere else."

"I'm not inclined to be told what I may do," Reznos snapped. "And I am hardly threatened by you. Large you may be, but you are alone."


Reznos jumped back as lightning came down on his pack, descending from wild clouds hanging over the corn. His wolves howled, spittle flying as they turned rearward.

"He's not alone," Navin announced, where he stood with Chaska. His brother raised his hands, and roots and plants sprang to life in tune with the building of the wind.

"Not by half." Azar appeared at Walker's side, glass blade held one-handed while flames kindled in her other. "He's with me."

"Is he?" Reznos' lip curled. "What kind of bastard alliance is this, between men and the Army?"

"One that can defeat you," Azar riposted. Walker grinned, cracking his knuckles.

"I ain't broken real heads in a while," he mused.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Chapter Four: Three Seasons(Part Two)

Walker emerged from Azar's house under moon and stars, enjoying a new drow-made cloak. It kept him quite warm in the desert wind, even if it was scratchy.

"Dealt with scratchy before," he murmured, stretching out his arms. He thought of Azar, and his cheer took several quick turns.

Was she being honest? he wondered. The Four may not just be about starting the Scour, but all the legends and stories say that's what they do. And she's trying to unite them...

He resolved in that moment that, no matter whether he remembered or not, he wouldn't share with Azar Winter's name or location. Barring further proof of her good intentions, she had no need to have information that could allow her to destroy the world.

"Char...Scour..." Walker frowned as he turned those words over in his head. "Ain't that been done already, though? Ain't it been tried?" He muttered back and forth for a few minutes. "Something along those lines. Something to do with Char. Char, Char...Forgotten Lord of Hell..." He scratched the back of his head. "Healer. I need a healer."

It wasn't any such figure his eyes turned to, though. Instead, he finally noticed the lanky one across the street, inconspicuously tending to his own business in the shadows. Walker frowned.

"Stranger," said the figure, as Walker approached.

"Chaska." The big man took up position at his side. "There a reason you're lurking outside Azar's house?"

"I lurk. It's my habit when I have trouble sleeping."

"Thought you wanted to go to bed early?"

"And I tried and I failed. Ghosts are bad for sleep." He shrugged. Walker did too.

"All right. Was only asking, that's all." He mused, examining the conical nature of the buildings around them, and how they towered three or four stories in the air, tapering further with every level like enormous teepees. "How long's this city been here?"

"A few years. It started as an army camp, and while everyone here is a warrior or a family member, it's certainly grown. Azar had a scepter-"

"She told me all about that." Walker examined the...general's house, and... "Question for you, Chaska."

"Shoot." He didn't look until Walker pointed.

"What the hell is that?" He kept his voice dead level, too, as he pointed to the circle of boulders behind Azar's house, separated by a great moat forded only in one place by a white stone bridge. Green coated the ground, and vines wrapped up around the stones, interlacing above the circle to form a roof of wood and bark.

"The Grove?" Chaska blinked. "That's why Azar settled here. It's a spiritual place."

"Spiritual?" Walker paused as he saw a scarlet head appear on the bridge. "Hold up. She's going there now."

"She is," Chaska confirmed. "She visits the Grove most nights."


Chaska pursed his lips. "Counsel."

"Counsel?" Walker frowned. "With whom?"

"Her parents. They're nature-types. They live there."

"Oh." Walker didn't quite believe it. "You ever meet them?"

"Oh, no. Only Azar and Jazmin are permitted entry to the Grove. Navin's dying to go in there." Chaska sounded distant. Walker eyed him...and then the direction of his gaze.

"Oh." Walker observed the lithe figure in the darkness, humming as she strung clothes on a line. Her red hair colored the night, and her clothes were blue and white to match. Her movements were economical and precise, and her red eyes were like warm torches.

"What?" Chaska didn't look away.

"I see what you're lurking for." Walker did his level best not to chuckle. "Stalker."

"I'm not stalking Jazmin!" Chaska huffed, adjusting his coat. "I'm...well, she's the chief's sister. I'm looking after her. Trying to score points with the boss, happy now?"

"Being a good soldier?"

"Exactly. Bodyguard. Something like that."

Walker snorted. "You ain't fooling no one, son."

Chaska grumbled. "Leave me alone, stranger."

"You just gonna stand over here like a creep all night?" Walker asked.

 "No!" Chaska again adjusted his coat. "I'm...I'm going to go talk to her. Right now."

"Right now?"

"Right now."


"Yes!" Chaska still didn't move. "Right now."

Walker waited for a count of fifty. "What're you scared of, son? Jazmin seems nice enough."

"I'm not scared..." He looked away. "I'm not scared of Jazmin."

"Oh. Her big sister? Your boss?"


"Ain't none of her business who her sis likes and doesn't like." Walker scoffed. "Azar may be her sis, but she ain't her mama. Go talk to her, Chaska. Don't stand here like a lamppost."

"I will." He inhaled sharply. "I'll go and-"


"Navin!" The big man laughed as Chaska's sprightly little brother bounded up to the streetside. "What's got you out and about?"

"Well, that's a long and interesting question." Navin rubbed his hands together. "But I just talked to my mother, and you can stay with us!"

"Ain't that sweet?" Walker asked. He gave Navin a punch on the arm. "You're a mate, that's what you are."

"Oh, yeah, that's me." The drow massaged his arm. "Dor-gon, you have a swing."

 "Thanks." Walker turned back to Chaska. "You off?"

"Off?" The Autumn shrugged. "Off where?"

"Off to..." Walker glanced at Navin and his frown. "Oh. Figured you had something important to do."

"Ah, he just likes to pretend." Navin waved his hand. "Chaska's boring."

"Am I?"

"And!" Navin grabbed Walker's arm. "And guess what!"

"What?" Walker wrenched his arm free. "Watch the hands, kid."

"Oh. Sorry." Navin coughed. "Mother's a healer!"

"A healer?" Walker straightened. "Why ain't you say that earlier?"


"My sons the heroes!" Navin's mother beamed, hobbling around the table on her cane, her hair just as green as her son's even if it was dulled by age. "Saving a stranger's life in the desert..."

"I think Walker had it sorted enough," Navin hedged, making an apologetic face. Walker waved dismissively. "Besides, even if he hadn't, he'd have come back!"

"The man with a thousand lives." Mother Drow, as Walker thought of her in the absence of a name, eyed Walker intently. "I don't know why you say you need a healer, young man. There's nothing wrong with you at all."

"Young, she says." Walker leaned back. "I'm older than you."

"Not this body," Mother Drow replied, which Walker supposed he had to grant. "What killed you last time?"

"I..." Walker coughed. "I ain't right remember. Takes time to get it all straight sometimes. I got so much kicking around in that head of mine I can't always summon it all right up." He rubbed his chin. "Something to do with a dragon, though. A dragon and a couple kids."

"I really want to know," Navin pressed. "Anything?"

"No. Give it time, son." Walker shrugged. "I think there was a drow girl involved."

"A drow girl?" Mother Drow leaned hard on Navin from behind. "Someone young and eligible? A friend of yours?"

"Mother..." His turn to cough. "I'm perfectly happy single, thank you-"

"I would do anything to get you set up," Mother Drow rasped, with a wide smile. "Both of my boys. It's how families expand, you know."

"Speaking of families, I got a question." Walker glanced between the two Springs for a moment. "...how do you get a Spring and an Autumn as brothers?"

"Their father was an Autumn warrior," Mother Drow explained. "Strong and tall and proud. Chaska's so much like him..."

"And, uh..." Walker eyed Navin. "I heard a story you were..."

"Spring!" Mother Drow cried. "My sons! Spring and Autumn! Two of the Four springing from my house and my line...I figure that's what really did their father in, not the sickness. Pride! Pride and joy!"

"...I'm not that much," Navin protested, reddening. "Not like Chaska! Not like...Azar..." He shuddered. "She's scary. But I'm glad she likes you!"

"Everyone seems afraid of her."

"She's got a temper," Navin confirmed. "Lashes out a bit. Hates humans and ghosts with a passion...but she's really a good leader, and she doesn't act capriciously."

"And look at how she treats Jazmin!" Mother Drow beamed. "Her little sister, like her own. Just like Chaska and Navin."


"Well." Walker rose. "It's a pleasure and an honor. But I'm tired after fighting ghosts earlier. Azar mentioned something about a war party against the ghosts tomorrow?"

"Oh, I'm going!" Navin waved. "We'll swap death stories on the ride? Well, you will. I've never died."

"It ain't worth it," Walker advised. "Don't bother." He inclined his head respectfully. "Night."

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Chapter Four: Three Seasons(Part One)


Walker nodded as she poured hot, steaming liquid from a teapot that had probably begun life in some peasant farm. He breathed in the rich aroma that rose with the cloud.

"Thanks." And he did drink. Quiet held, save the crackling of her fire.

"I suppose I should thank you, instead." Azar sat in a chair of hand-make, crossing her legs and steeping her fingers. The way those red eyes shone in the dark...they weren't harsh, not now. They blazed warm, no different from the fire she and Walker flanked. "It would have been a chore to protect myself on the ground without your help."

"A chore. Not impossible, eh?" Walker chuckled. "I know pride when I hear it."

"Well, we are all entitled to a little vanity, aren't we?" The corners of her mouth tugged upward. "You fought well."

"And you ain't no damsel." Walker sipped again. "This is quite good. You make it?"

"Jazmin." Azar leaned back. "Her mother's recipe."

"She makes a good pot," Walker repeated.

"I will inform her, and her mother as well. Any parent loves to hear her child excels."

Walker frowned. "Are you and Jazmin..."

Azar poured for herself in silence. She regarded her cup thoughtfully for a long moment. "If you must know, yes. Jazmin is family, though we have different mothers."

"Ah." Walker shifted his weight. "This mean I ain't dinner?"

There was the tug at her lips again. "Perhaps not tonight. Something about battling spirits from the ether-realms...it puts other grievances in perspective."

"That's one way to put it." Walker indulged again. "I really ain't got nothing against drow."

She tilted her head. "I think I believe you."

"Why are those ghosts coming after you?" he asked. "I heard something about a feud."

Azar hummed in the base of her throat. "How much do you know of ghosts and of my people?"

"I know drow and men don't get along," Walker said. "I've been around. I've met a couple ghosts. Can't say I'm an expert, though."

Azar remained silent. The fire glittered in her eyes.

"Once, Ardwal was drow territory." The Summer looked into the fire, eyes distant. "This was many thousands of years ago, well before the Forging. Spring and Autumn lived in harmony to the south, while Summer claimed the desert and Winter inhabited the mountaintops. Many of that kind left for the north reaches, and inevitable conflict with Highland men, but for those of us who stayed..." She sighed. "Those were good times."

"Long lost," Walker reminded her. She nodded.

"Men came. Men from Nurem, fleeing the cycle of death that passed for politics in a land ruled by organized crime. Men from the Highlands, dissatisfied with their hereditary selection of Lairds. Eventually that tide would ebb as the Maronas won the Underworld War and staked out their claim to Nurem, and the Clans instituted the electoral selection of kings...but the damage to my people was done, under the Old Sun."

"Aye. The Old Sun." Walker noted the dating of the story. "Then all that happens."

"Then all that happens," Azar agreed. "Hard enough for the Seasons to claim autonomy in the face of the new Ardwalian claimant kingdoms, but when the death of the Old Sun was added to the equation..." Her lip curled. "Our harsh luck, I suppose, that the Circle of Nine made Ardwal the center of the Forging. Men came by the tens of thousand, and wizards." The scorn she heaped on that word...

"Not all wizards are bad," Walker said. "I knew at least one good one."

"Then I would appreciate an introduction. Never have I known a wizard I would lose sleep over feeding to werewolves." Azar's face hardened. "My people were nearly destroyed in those days. But..."

"But?" Walker tilted his head now. "Now we get to the reason for the history lesson, eh?"

"Something like that." Azar remained still. "It is said that before their decline...before the Forging of the Star and the coming of the Rising Gods the world of men now worship, the Ancient Gods banded together. We, the drow, are the chosen of the divine world, sprung from the gods themselves, and they couldn't bear to see man oppress us forever."

"I think I see where this is going," Walker growled. "Prophecy?"

"Prophecy," Azar agreed.

"In verse?"


"Spare me," Walker begged.

"I wish I could have been spared." Azar chuckled. "In short, one day there will be one who unites the drow, Walker. 'And this one will be marked by the crown she wears and the scepter she bears.'"

Walker frowned. "You ain't got a scepter."

"But I had one," Azar hissed, and now Walker saw anger cloud her cheeks. "I had a scepter left buried by the gods in the days of old, in an ancient tomb I raided with Jazmin in younger days. I had and have the crown to match, but I cannot wear it without the scepter."

"So you think you are the one to unite 'em?" Walker shook his head. "I ain't mean no offense, Azar, but I've been involved in prophecies before. They ain't that simple."

She fought a smile again. "I have certain proof."


Her teeth shone as she yielded the battle this time. "Stay, and perhaps I'll clear that up."

"So, you want me to stick around?" Walker leaned back. "I ain't a drow."

"I see this." Her eyes flicked over him, very quickly. "But what you are, Walker, is a very capable warrior. I am impressed by what I saw today. And I suppose I do owe you for protecting me."

"The ghosts might only have been here because of me," Walker demurred, thinking of Lisbeth. "Might've been my fault."

"They would have come anyway. The Grey Witch stole my scepter, right as I was reaching the climax of my power. She took it from my hands." Anger again, and a searing thirst for vengeance. "I want it restored to my grasp. With it, I can unite my people and provide for their future in a way I cannot without it. Only she who wields scepter and crown commands the fealty of all elves."

Walker mused. "I've lived with drow before. I've done all kinds of stuff." He glanced up. "I want one thing cleared up, first."


"The way you were throwing fire and lava around, like they were going out of style. You hurl more of that than any Summer I've ever met." Walker's eyes narrowed. "I ain't remember much about it, but I met a Winter stronger than a dozen others once. She wasn't just a Winter. She was Winter. One of the Four."

Azar jumped, and she leaned forward very intently. "You met Winter?"

"Yeah. And she was marked by being about ten times as icy as any others of her kind." Walker regarded Azar. "You're Summer, ain't you? One of the Four yourself?"

Her silence answered the question well enough. And her eyes...

"I never thought...I've wondered for so long where Winter could be..." She mouthed silently for a moment. "I have to find her."

"You got a reason for gathering the Four?" Walker eyed her. "You planning a Scour, sweetheart?"

"The Four are more than just those who can unleash Char," Azar snapped. "We are guides and protectors of our people, and there is strength in unity. Champions must unite: this is the way of the world. Together, we are stronger than ourselves. That's why I found Navin and Chaska."

"They're..." Walker stared. "Spring and Autumn? They're of the Four too?"

"We are stronger together," Azar repeated. "Everyone is stronger together. To be alone is to die alone."

"I done enough of that to know it ain't a party." Walker grunted. "I can't hold with a Scour, Azar. Ain't no one who should be burning half the world."

"Char would obliterate the drow just as cheerfully as humanity," Azar agreed, and Walker thought her sincere. "He would only protect his given children, and my people are not close enough to his nature for such security. I have no designs to begin a Scour, Walker, and you may rest assured of that."

He studied her. He studied her very carefully, for long minutes. Finally....

"All right." Walker nodded. "I believe you."

Azar nodded too. "Thank you."

"Why'd the Witch take your scepter?"

"That, I do not know," Azar confessed. "But I know she and her lieutenant were very insistent about having it. I was very nearly given the plague of the moon."

"Werewolves, eh?" Walker scoffed. "Never liked them. Never met one who wasn't a dog at heart. That's what the plague does to even good men."

"And Reznos is worse than any other," Azar agreed. "He took the scepter for his mistress, while their minions kept me and my forces at bay. If Navin and Jazmin had been present..." She shuddered. "No. Better that they were away. I was the only one to survive the attack, and they are young and I couldn't..."

"Aye." Walker took a breath. "I'll stay, Azar. I got nowhere better to be...until I die again."

"Yes, the man who has lived ten thousand lives." Azar chuckled. "Your turn, stranger. Tell me your stories, as you told Chaska and Navin."


Thursday, June 7, 2018

Chapter Three: Meetings(Part Two)

Walker turned as the shout echoed and rang behind him. Activity ground to a halt, and elves skittered back for cover in alleys, while drow stepped to the side, bowing their heads. 

"Oh, Char..." That came out under Jazmin's breath, and she turned to face down the street like everyone else, lowering herself. Chaska and Navin simultaneously tried to step behind the other.

And Walker stared.

Bright red hair trailed all the way down her back, smoldering and hissing sparks as she walked. She dressed in black armor carved from dragon bones and scales, with embellished spikes on her forearms and shoulders, and white symbols of forgotten gods and spirits carved and painted across every inch. Her stride was martial and powerful on decidedly long legs for her kind, and every step was announced with a powerful thump as armored midnight boots knocked on the cobblestones. Over her shoulders, a scabbard clinked against her back, with a hide-wrapped hilt protruding at her right.

Her eyes blazed red, and her pale lips parted to reveal her long fangs.

"Who is this?" she repeated, her voice harsh like the lines cut into her cheeks.

"Walker." He eyed her head to toe before offering his hand. "Azar, I presume?"

She eyed his hand. "Withdraw that or I will remove it."

"Touchy." But Walker did lower his hand. "I'm taking that as a yes. Nice to meet you, Azar."

Azar's lip curled in a different way. "You are healthy and strong. I presume Chaska has brought you to me for dinner?"

"Navin," Chaska urged, shoving his brother. "Navin's idea!"

"What?" Navin paled. Azar smiled like a shark.

"Navin! Come, Navin. So you brought this man for my feast?"

"I..." The Spring hesitantly stepped forward. "Actually...I brought him because I think he's a friend and you should-"

"A friend?" Azar's face contorted, and Navin winced. "You bring a man into this camp, and call him friend?"

"I know what you're thinking, but if you just-"

"We will have words," Azar promised. "For now-"

"At least give him a chance!" Jazmin begged, catching Azar's arm. "If he has earned Chaska and Navin's faith we should-"

"Jazmin." Azar's growling tone bespoke self-control. "Release my arm, Jazmin."

"But..." But she did, and hesitantly stepped back. Azar visibly battled her temper for a long moment.

"Do not...lay hands...on me again," she finally hissed. "My decision is made."

"I ain't no enemy of yours," Walker told her. "I got nothing against drow."

"Cheap words," Azar jeered. She reached over her shoulder, and wrapped fingers around that hide hilt. "My people have been oppressed by yours since well before the Forging of the Star. There is blood to be repaid."

Out came the sword, and Walker's eyes widened when he took it in: a scimitar of classical design, but instead of glistening steel...

"Is that...glass?" he demanded, taking a step back. "Ardwal glass?"

Azar approached, blade leveled. Walker took in the crowd about him, but raised his hands anyway. Maybe he'd die, again, but he could at least try and take Azar with him-


That was all the warning he got before the sky erupted and a tide of spectral forms fell amidst the drow streets.

"Get down!" Chaska acted first, throwing Navin flat when a phantom eagle the size of a house tried to claw him. The Autumn's hair and eyes glowed, and a searing gust of hot wind lanced into the specter, hurling it off to the side in a tailspin, shrieking a mournful cry.

"Stay behind me!" Azar's blade flashed as she interspersed herself between Jazmin and the next ghost, a flying snake with flames leaking from the edges of its mouth. Blue fire spurted like blood as her glass blade decapitated the beast in one strike.

"Walker!" Lisbeth cried again, diving from the next best thing to nowhere to cower behind him. Navin stood up right through her without reacting any more than anyone had to her shout, and Walker supposed that meant she was still only showing herself to him.

"Get the children to cover!" Navin shouted, waving sergeants off while his brother lashed out again with boiling wind. Azar's sword ignited as she ripped it through the fire-serpent's dissipating form, and she whipped that flaming blood into the eye of the next spectral eagle. It thrashed, collapsing in the street and cawing in agony.

"Gotcha!" Walker lunged, and he seized the back of the bird's head. It shrieked as he tugged, and then fairly exploded when he wrenched its head free. White sparks showered the street, and he collapsed on his back, rolling away.

"Duck!" Navin followed that up with a wave of his hand, and black clouds blossomed over his head, spitting rain and lightning. Walker dove behind cover, only to stare as the Spring's assault mauled its target, a massive iridescent shape that quacked agonizingly, showing off razor fangs dripping liquid. They fell to the street and quickly set to eating through stone.

"I can-"

"Get to shelter!" Azar again shielded Jazmin from danger, snarling as she raised a hand and send a surge of fire into a ghost-bear storming her way. Dozens more forms fanned over the city, and elven archers sent flurries of silver arrows skyward, while drow sergeants fired little lightning clouds and fireworks of flame. Azar's red fire burned brighter and hotter, and it obliterated a handful of specters in an instant.

"Lisbeth?" Walker demanded. He looked around, pausing to grapple with a bull-man swinging for his head. "Lisbeth!"

"I'm here!" She popped up beside him, trembling. "They're going to take me!"

"Are they here because of you?" Walker crushed the bull face with his forehead, and while his opponent reeled, he seized a fallen elf's quiver and proceeded to drive a fistful of silver-tipped arrows into the specter's throat. It burst into silver splinters.

"I do not know, but they will take me if they find me." Lisbeth covered her head as hawks fell from above. Walker raised an arm, but lightning struck half of them, and then arrows tore into the rest.

"Like that!" Navin cried. He paused. "I got this one!" He lunged, drenched in the rain from his own personal storm clouds, directing their lightning on and out into a phantom hydra, its many heads roaring in sequence as they bashed into the buildings around.

"Jazmin! Run!" Azar kicked her servant for emphasis, and fire and sword alike claimed victims on all sides. They struck at her armor, and she snarled oaths in her language, invoking the names of Char and Dor-gon and other forgotten gods. Her fingers curled, and she flashed a Vod-sign in the face of a rampaging wolf-ghost, fingernails and claws glowing red. The creature collapsed-

"Azar!" Chaska couldn't come to her defense, beset on all sides as he was. He and his brother were the center of the elven formation, an unbreakable pair of elemental abilities that repelled every strike from the swirling tornado of spirits above. But that left Azar on her own, with Jazmin finally scurrying for cover.

"Come on!" Azar's sword flashed and her fire with it, sparks flying from her hair and eyebrows. That glass blade glinted in the light, reflecting the dozens of spirits that surrounded her. "You want her, you go through me."

"Are you daft?" Walker hurled himself to his feet, seizing a fallen spear.

"Walker!" Lisbeth cried, apoplectic. "You are the daft one for-"

"Get away from her!" Walker rammed his spear through the first ghost he came upon, baring his teeth as the silver-coated head punched right into it. The creature wailed piteously in its last moments. Azar's sword flashed, and her fist and flames too. Walker lashed out, striking down anyone she missed with spearpoint and any other weapon he could scavenge from the ground, grateful when Navin's lightning and Chaska's vines crashed down or wrapped up and evened the odds a little more.

Azar drove her sword into a phantom larger than Walker, and the huge thing just wrapped a paw around the hilt. It snarled with pain, especially when Azar's armored fist hammered it, but it didn't yield, and an instant later it pulled away, taking the blade with it. Azar spun on her toes, fire searing from her hands and lava ripping up the ground beneath her feet, red eyes narrow and angry as she battled oncoming specters.

And then it wasn't enough, and a hawk struck her across the face, throwing her onto her back. The tide charged in the moment of weakness-

"Gotcha!" Walker seized Azar's sword and cut it out of its thief, finishing him on the backswing. He dove between the tide and the drow, and with bare fist and glass scimitar, Walker stood his ground.

"Watch out!" Navin cried out a moment later, as his inattention cost him. Chaska rose to his defense-

"Ow!" Walker snarled right back at the tiger-ghost biting into his arm, before he brought his fist down on its head, hard enough the animal released him, eyes glazing over. He slashed it through, impaled another one trying to slip up from behind, and caught a flying snake by the throat. Walker slung it away, right into Chaska's reach, and he ripped it in two with roots.

"I don't think so," the big man snapped, catching a humanoid ghost as it lunged for Azar, scrambling to her feet. With nothing but his hands, Walker ripped it in half, sending glistening fragments scattering over the street.

"Behind you!" And then Azar's hand shot up, and lava immolated a half-dozen of the creatures forming up behind Walker. He turned, eyeing the drow's handiwork, and the rapidly dispersing cloud of specters in the air.

"They're running!" Navin announced. "We won!"

"Not very many of them," Chaska mused. "They weren't here for war."

"Regardless, they got a good look at our defenses." Azar approached Walker, eyes glinting. "Sword."

"That's what they call these things," he agreed. But he did offer the blade, and gently she took it in her long fingers.

It was quiet for a moment. Azar's eyes glittered, and she examined Walker very intently.

"Are...we still killing him?" Navin asked, in a small voice.