Thursday, July 19, 2018

Chapter Nine: Roads(Part Two)


"I don't believe you," Khaled said, very certainly. Walker laughed, rolling his eyes as he listened to the wonder in his voice. "I do not believe you, but I can't...I cannot argue with what I see."

"You must be a wizard," Vivian agreed. She still rode with Khaled, but Walker paced the horse, giving meaning to his name with every step.

"No." Walker hesitated. "Well, maybe once. I ain't sure about all that yet. Memory's scrambled, see? Been so long, I barely remember anything of who I was. In the process of putting it all back together." Belatedly, he wondered if he'd ever done this before, only to forget all about that too in time.

"So you do this and..."

"Every time I die, girl, I come back a little bigger, a little tougher, and a little dumber." He laughed, and it rang off the trees.

"It sounds like a fairy tale," Khaled repeated.

"Shoot me," Walker invited. "I'll blow up, and you'll see for yourself. Hope it sates your curiosity, 'cause I'll have to hunt you down and kill you when I come back."

"And you took up with the Army of the Scour, on a lark?" Khaled shook his head. "My gods, man. You are made of steel and will."

"Ain't the best of us?" Walker chuckled. "I'm glad you made it out of the pack all right. It would've been a downer to die for nothing again."

"Thank you," Vivian murmured. Walker shrugged.

"You ain't gotta say it. Doing the deed is reward enough."

"You could be rich," Khaled muttered. "A man like you would be the world's deadliest assassin. A mercenary warrior unlike any other-"

"I ain't got no use for riches." Walker eyed the sharpshooter. "I can't take nothing with me when I die. I get stabbed, I get shot, I catch the flu...I wake up bare-ass naked in the middle of nodamnwhere. I ain't even get to take my socks. I can't take my wealth."

"But you could come back and reclaim it-"

"Sometimes it's weeks or months between death and return," Walker objected. "Sometimes it's years. Ain't no way to know. I'm happy dying and coming back, and figuring out a new thing or two about the world every time, everywhere I pop up. There's too much of this place to soak up in a dozen lifetimes."

"You...are a boundless optimist," Vivian muttered.

"Now that ain't so," Walker objected. "Idealist, yeah. Optimist, no. There's shit in this world too, and some real screwballs who need a proper thrashing. You ever heard of the Owner?"

"Should I have?"

"No. Thank your stars you ain't know what he'd do to someone like you." Walker spent a long few minutes trying to remember, and he shivered when he did. "Best to live in ignorance, Vivian."

"You remind me of..." Khaled's eyes darkened. "You're a lot like someone else I used to know."

"Hope that ain't an insult."

"Not by half." Khaled returned his attention to the road, looking very somber. He didn't elaborate.

"I'd bug you," Walker admitted, "but I got a few more pressing concerns."

"Like what?" Khaled navigated his mount over the last rise, and all three travelers spent a moment glancing at the little town looming ahead.

"First off. Vivian?" Walker examined her critically. "You got an air about you. Something I sense."

"Sense?" She blinked.

"Yeah, sometimes I smell things. Smell, or hear...I ain't right know how to describe it. I feel it." Walker felt it then, too, invading his senses. "Destiny, or power, or trickles of fate from Heaven. A touch from above, perhaps. You got one."

"I..." Vivian looked away. "No. That's wrong."

"You got a tattoo, ain't you?"

"What?" She jumped. "I...no, I..."

"Go on," Walker invited. "I'll wait."

Vivian exhaled. "All right. Yes, I have a tattoo. Vexis."

"You have a..." Khaled stared over his shoulder. "You have a magic tattoo of the Goddess of Luck, and you've had it this whole time, and you never..."

"I don't do magic anymore!" Vivian turned her head. "My master doesn't approve."

"Right." Walker chose to tackle the next big problem of his life. "Your master, girl. Who's he?"

"I shouldn't say."

"Why?"

"Because...I shouldn't. I'm on an errand of secrecy."

"You're buying vision glass," Khaled pointed out. "The entire merchant caravan saw you. I saw you."

"Yes, but..."

"How can we take you home if we ain't know where to take you?" Walker pressed, as they descended the slope into town.

"Take me to Archer and-"

"Listen, that ain't gonna fly," Walker insisted. "You're late! You said it yourself. Let me and Khaled explain why, and we'll smooth it all over."

Vivian hesitated. "I don't know that...maybe..." Finally, she eased up. "Would you do that for me?"

"Why not?" Walker asked. "Ain't it just right?"

"No one does something because it is right." Vivian's eyes were dark and serious. "That's bad business."

"Clearly you ain't get out much. There's a laird giving away clothes and food for nothing in Archer, just 'cause it gives her warm tingles."

"Lies," Vivian insisted. "Business move. Negotiating tactic. Public relations. There are many reasons to be charitable, but for charity's sake is foolishness."

Walker rolled his eyes. "You're a lovely soul, ain't you?"

"It's...it's bad business." She sounded very defensive. "No one is good for the sake of being good. There's always profit and gain involved."

Silence. Walker listened to his footfalls, and those of the horse's hooves.

"Who do we take you to?" Khaled finally asked. Vivian eyed her boots.

"The Prelate."

"What?" Khaled tugged on the reins, and his horse came to a sudden halt. Walker stumbled, trying not to outstrip them, and he had to reach out to keep Vivian from tumbling to the road.

"What's the matter with you?" Walker demanded, as he pushed her back up by her arm. "You ain't like the man?"

"I don't..." Khaled moaned, reaching up to clutch his temple. "You take her, Walker. You take her right on back, and I'll just head for my kin in Crater, the dwarven city mountainside."

"Why?"

"I can't show my face around him," Khaled insisted. "Not until I have to silver to pay him back for my..." He ground his teeth. "For failing to kill Reznos."

"You!" Vivian jumped, and lightning might have struck for the recognition that appeared in her eyes. "You're the mercenary! The hunter!"

"Have we..." Khaled trailed off, as he looked over his shoulder. His face paled. "Oh, for what...what stroke of stupid, ill-conceived, feckless luck is this?" He banged his head into one of his wrist cannons. "You're the daughter!"

"That's right." Her tone was quite chilly. "I should have recognized you, if it weren't for all your injuries!"

"Obtained in service to your father!" Khaled growled and spat. "That's it. I can't...I cannot show up at his house with her in tow, and expect to see the dawn. He'll never listen to a word I have to say. He'll presume I'm trying to connive a reward."

"Don't act like the thought never crossed your mind-"

"Take her!" Khaled insisted, glaring at Walker. "Take her and let her be your problem."

"I can't just take no one," he snapped. "She goes where she says she goes. She ain't cargo, son."

"Stop calling me that." Khaled sighed. "Whatever. I'm done. Take your horse if you want it, but-"

"Her father will offer a reward, Khaled." Walker crossed his arms. "Maybe it'll be enough to pay him back."

"If he realizes-"

"He ain't got to realize nothing," Walker insisted. "I go in with Vivian, I claim it was all me. I take the money, act all gracious...when I leave, I give it to you, and you're either in the clear or well on your way. She's back with her family, you're set and off, and my job with you two is finished."

Quiet. The mercenary turned that one over, as if hunting for the hidden catch.

"...don't mention my name," he finally yielded. "Either of you." He glared at Vivian. "Promise?"

"I..." She let out a low breath. "I don't want to ruin your life, Kairos. I won't go out of my way to do it."

"Woman-"

"I promise," she snipped, and something about the proper way she clasped her hands and looked down was very mocking. "Sir."

Khaled's shouldered eased, just a little. He glanced at Walker. "Your word you'll not take the money and run?"

"Easy." He nodded.

Khaled's eyes were cold. "If you try it, I'll hunt you down."

"I can't take none of it with me whenever I die next, can I?" Walker asked. "I told you. I ain't got no use for money. I get by without it." He patted the bag of MacTavish charity slung over his shoulder. "More people should try living with less. It's humbling."

Khaled nodded. "Then it's a deal."

"Right." Walker glanced around the town. "Let's see if we can find a little alley or park somewhere-"

"Alley? Park?" Khaled scoffed. He reached into his boot, and out came a little pouch.

"You had that and-"

"I didn't," he told Vivian, tossing the bag and grinning as it clinked. "It's a drop in the bucket on what I owe, but those dead merchants didn't need all the loot they left scattered around the clearing." He winked at Walker. "You ever caroused with an Ardwalian mercenary, my friend?"

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Chapter Nine: Roads(Part One)


"Lisbeth?"

"Walker?" There she was, melting from the afternoon light as she was fond of doing a good half of the time. Walker glanced over his shoulder at the dim shape of Archer the City in the distance.

"Thought you said I would drop in near Khaled and his girl."

"I did," Lisbeth insisted. "They are on this road. Archer is their destination, so I thought we should head them off."

"If they're being followed or hunted, we need to find 'em first," Walker said. "Last sign I passed this morning said there was some kind of little town, just off the road a few miles out. If it's been as many days as I think, that should be a right spot to meet 'em."

"Did you call on me for just this?" She passed through overhanging branches without a care, rubbing at her neck. "It is hot in this place."

"Not a native?" Walker wondered. She shook her head.

"Not by half. I was older than this form when I first visited these lands."

"Ah." Walker nodded. "Well, no, now that you mention it. I got another question."

"What?" She sounded guarded.

"The Gray Witch." Those three words sent a chill through the air, and Walker adjusted his coat, wondering if speaking the devil's name would summon her, like old folklore insisted.

"What about her?" Lisbeth definitely looked guarded.

"I don't know nothing about the ghost," Walker reminded her. "Never heard her name until I met Navin and Chaska. I don't know her from you, I don't know what she's about, I don't know where she lives and why she lives there, and I sure as hell ain't know why she steals drow artifacts and makes pets of werewolves."

Lisbeth was silent. Walker growled. "Hey!"

"What?" She blinked. "Oh! Those were questions, weren't they?"

"Are you deaf?" Walker demanded. "Of course they were questions."

"You didn't ask me anything..." The girl frowned. "Oh, whatever." She tossed her head, and her hands went back to her hat as she tugged it off to fan her face.

"Ain't you a ghost?" Walker blinked.

"As long as you insist I communicate with you, I must endure what you do." She sounded very cross, now. "So don't cut me off like that! Let me finish what you need from me and return to the comfort of limbo."

"Limbo ain't sound very pleasant-"

"The Gray Witch is a pained soul." Lisbeth's eyes unfocused. "I knew her, once. A long time ago, before she became what she is today."

"But what's she after?" Walker asked.

"Vengeance."

"On what?"

"Everything." Lisbeth's expression was solemn. "I don't know exactly what happened, but it was bad. It took everything from her. She chose to linger instead of passing on into death, and over her time as a ghost - a long time, even by my standards - her hatred only grew and grew." Lisbeth met Walker's gaze, floating around in front of him. "She seeks nothing less than the end of all light and life on this world, Walker. She must be stopped."

"A nutter." Walker sighed. "I dealt with nutters like this before. Why Reznos?"

"I do not know this. I know little of this man in particular, and I question why wolves would swear fealty to a ghost set on exterminating all life." Lisbeth pursed her lips. "We are missing a key piece of the puzzle."

"We'll figure it out," Walker promised. "The scepter that Azar mentioned?"

"The scepter has unique properties, according to legend. It is a weapon on par with a wizard's staff, perhaps made using the same techniques." Lisbeth hesitated. "And there are some stories that claim it can be used to open portals between worlds."

"Like to Hell?" Walker asked. "Char?"

"The Gray Witch would have no interest in Char. Her pain runs deeper, and as she is an escapee from Hell herself, the Lord of said land would oppose her on general principles." Lisbeth shook her head. "But I believe the Witch has another purpose, one I have not yet divined. However, luck has smiled on us, Walker, because there is something I do not believe the Witch realized, that I myself only learned in Azar's camp."

"What?"

"The scepter." Lisbeth's eyes glinted. "Azar mentioned the prophecy, that the queen of drow would be known by her scepter and crown."

"Yeah?"

"I translated this into Old Elvish. And I did some reading while you were sociable." Lisbeth cracked a smile. "The scepter answers only to one wielder, Walker: the queen among drow. The Witch cannot use it. She started a feud with Azar for nothing."

"I imagine she was well and happy when she figured that out." Walker paused as a traveler came down the road, and waited to resume his conversation until the blonde vagabond vanished around the next corner. "The glass?"

"I don't know. Perhaps she seeks to build something from it that will enable her to do what the scepter should have?" Lisbeth shrugged. "Vision glass can be used for many things. Some are deadly, some are mundane, and some are both and neither. Only if we had more detail could we uncover which purpose she seeks to extract from the rarest of dwarven creations."

"How will I recognize her, if I run into her?" Walker demanded. "She look like any other ghost?"

"She looks..." Lisbeth bit her lip. "She is a woman of grown size, and she dresses...well, not to put too fine a point on it, very much like me. I said I knew her."

"Ah." Walker examined his spectral companion's outfit a bit more closely. "Frilly, frumpy dress and a big hat, huh?"

"Frumpy?" Lisbeth demanded. She put her hands on her hips, glaring. "This was the height of fashion in my time. You're the one dressed like a rummage sale scavenger."

"Oh, yeah?" Walker scoffed. "Bustle's been out of style for hundreds of years."

"I'm not wearing a..." Lisbeth growled. "Do you need anything else from me?"

"Yeah, actually." Walker eyed her. "Is the Witch one of those sorts who has a bunch of minions because when you face her down, she's gonna burst into tears and offer you heaps of gold?"

Lisbeth burst out laughing.

"Right, well." Walker harrumphed. "You ain't have to be rude about it. Was worth an ask."

***

"It was left-"

"Will you stop?" Khaled demanded. He glared alternately at the left-hand fork, the right-hand fork, and the vixen perched behind him, and her frustrated glower that probably matched his fairly well. "I know the way, all right?"

"You're not taking any path I'm familiar with." Vivian didn't get more agreeable the more tired she became. Khaled wished she'd fall asleep...and fall off his horse. Why, he might not even notice for miles, silly him.

No, he had to tell himself again. I'm seeing this through. I'm doing something right for once.

"Left says it leads to a town," Khaled finally said. "It's getting late. We'll find somewhere to stay there."

"No!" Vivian clutched his shoulder, hard enough he hissed. Her nails dug into his skin, right through his shirt. "I promised my master I'd return by last night. I'm already late."

"I think he'll be happier to have you back un-eaten than to see you show up in the middle of the night, half-dead." Deliberately, Khaled turned the horse left. "I am going to find somewhere to sleep."

"Well, I'm going to Archer." Vivian made as if to slide from the saddle.

"Hey!" Khaled caught her arm. "We promised we'd work this out together, didn't we?"

"We promised that you'd take me home. You're delaying."

"I'm delaying because I'm exhausted from dealing with you!" Khaled snapped. He breathed out. "I didn't mean that."

"Yes, you did."

"Yes, I did," he relented. "But I don't mean to drive you off. I have to make sure I get this job done right. I can't just let you be off into the wolf-infested woods like that."

"Well, I would rather be off," Vivian insisted. Khaled frowned, noting the other traveler coming down the path.

"If you come with me, it's all on my tab. Hot food and a warm bed."

"I...I..." Vivian wavered. Temptation etched into her voice. "I...I don't think...I can't just..."

"Hold on." Khaled's frown deepened.

"Hold on?" Vivian sounded lost. "Why would I-"

"That's not possible." Khaled shook his head, staring at the apparition marching down the path. "No. No, I'm hallucinating."

"What are you on about?" Vivian demanded.

"Hey!" Khaled waved, and the big man in the road paused. The mercenary nearly burst out laughing. "I thought you died, you giant fool!"

Silence.

"I thought we talked about that," Walker replied, with a wide grin. "Son."

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Chapter Eight: Journeys(Part Two)


"You're mistaken."

"I am not mistaken," Khaled snapped, for about the seventh time in a row. "I've been on these forest roads my whole life."

"I distinctly remember-"

"Oh, just shut your mouth." Khaled rubbed his forehead. "You're a nag, woman, and a disease."

"I didn't ask to be kidnapped and dragged into the forest!" Vivian cried.

"I saved your stars-cursed life!" Khaled exploded. "I dragged you away from werewolves, you daft-"
"Well, I don't need your help." She growled. "I assure you, I find your company just as detestable as you seem to find mine."

"That wasn't what you were saying before the attack."

"And you weren't being such an enormous-"

"It's not ladylike to finish that sentence, is it?" Khaled asked. She gave him a solid whack on the spine. "Damn it!"

"Serves you right," she muttered, but Khaled thought he detected a hint of remorse as he reached back to massage his tortured, mangled body. "Just...I'll just drop off here, and make my way home on foot-"

"Trust me, I'd love to." Khaled made no move to stop.

"...so why not-"

"Because that Walker fellow told me to look after you. And because those wolves will be on our trail. If I drop you without the horse, you're as good as dead, girl."

"Once again, you underestimate me," Vivian snapped. "I've made my way in the wild before. I'm hardly defenseless."

Khaled scoffed. He negotiated his way around the next bend, not even deigning to reply to her wild delusions, and hoping that would sting worse than any witty put-down he could conjure. 

Hours passed. They rode in silence, apart from regular bouts of bickering whenever Khaled picked a path. He tried to quiet her as quickly as possible each time, mindful of the trees around them, and the way the shadows grew. Certainty nagged in the back of his mind.

"We're being tracked," he warned Vivian, late in the day. "Where's your master? Can we take shelter with him?"

"I...do not believe he would want me to share that information." She looked down, grinding her teeth. "Just take me to the city, and then we part ways. If there's a wizard's caravan nearby-"

"Wizards?" Khaled frowned. "Why would I care about wizards?"

"Wizards keep up protective charms to mix and blend scents," Vivian snapped. "If you're concerned about being tracked by wolves, just look for a wizard's traveling company and route through it."

"Why would wizards care enough to-"

"Werewolves?" Vivian asked, in that patronizing tone women took when they thought they dealt with a simpleton. Khaled's grip on the reins tightened as he fought for control. "There are many creatures that hate magicians and track by scent."

"How...do you know this?"

She hesitated. "I...met a wizard, once. We talked. Acolyte testing."

Khaled turned this information over in his head. "This wizard. Can we find him and take shelter with him?"

"I doubt it. He'll be at the School, with his apprentice." Bitterness dripped from her voice, and tired resentment.

"Evidently you didn't get into his company," Khaled mused. "What's the matter? Bad luck?"

"You know what?" Vivian dropped, right then, and she landed in the dirt with aplomb. "I can find my way back from here."

"You won't last a day without the horse," Khaled repeated, rolling his eyes.

"Won't I?" The girl turned down the road. "Get going, mercenary."

"Aren't you prissy?" Khaled wondered. "Doll, I saved your life and showed you kindness too. I'm still looking after you when any sane man would be miles away! Isn't that worth a little respect in return?"

"You're only here because a man told you to." She adjusted her cloak, storming off at a fast walk.

"Well, good riddance!" Khaled finally cried. He growled in the base of his throat, watching her thunderstorm of a stride, and the way her footsteps kicked up dirt.

He watched for several long minutes, at his own, more meandering pace. Self-righteous anger became something else when he glanced at his arms, and wondered what the man whose guns he wore would have thought, seeing his little brother now.

"Wait!"

"I've no intention of-"

"Look, I've got the horse," Khaled said. "Just let me take you on home. I'm sorry if I touched a bloody nerve, all right? We've had a long few days, you and I. Let's just get you to safety, and I'll be on my way quick as you like, and we both know the other made it through just fine."

"Why should I care what happens to you?" Her eye twitched.

"It's for me, damn it," Khaled snapped. "I'm sure you'd walk on by if I fell at the roadside. I just have to know I didn't muck this up too."

There. Any woman would believe in a man's selfish pride, and if she was a well-taught woman, she'd indulge it.

"You..." Vivian finally sighed. She kicked a rock moodily. "We're not far. When we get to the city, that's that, and I can make my way home just fine."

"Right." Khaled offered his hand, and she begrudgingly clambered into the saddle behind him. "I figure we'll be there by sundown." He studiously did not ask for her master's hospitality.

And she studiously did not offer it, either.

***

"Thank you." Walker wasn't the world's most polite and personable man, but he did a fair good shot of it when he faced down someone who was offering him properly sized clothes, and well-suited to the climate at that.

"It's no burden at all," said the middle-aged brunette, as she handed over her gifts. Walker would have known her origin in a heartbeat, just from the brogue in her voice. "Have some food and all that, too?"

"If it's no burden..." Walker examined the clothes, before throwing them over his shoulders for safekeeping. Around him, mingled into the hustle and bustle of a wild Ardwalian market, studded with dwarves and likely at least one Glamoured drow in disguise, throngs of the lower class made their way to the delegation encamped at the edge.

"Sorry I ain't got nothing," Walker told his helper, as he watched a father nearly shove what few coins he seemed to possess at a servant who'd sized him and his sons.

"That's quite all right," the matron insisted, as she handed over a travel bag of food with a canteen on the side. Walker took it with a nod, and she smiled. "My laird isn't here to play money and merchant."

"Can I ask a question?" Walker glanced around the display of blue and white and clan crests. "What's a Laird and his trade delegation doing on this side of the White Sea anyway? I wasn't aware of a lot of who-and-do between Prelates and Lairds. Kind of thought Ardwal wasn't no right and divine monarchy, so who wants to acknowledge them?"

"The vagaries of trade," she explained. "Our last Laird, may he rest in peace, had an interest in the glass market."

"Ah. Like father, like son." Walker nodded. "Taking up the business torch. I see it." He looked around at the grateful peons clutching their prizes with wide smiles. "Well, your Laird's doing right by these people, and by me too. I'm grateful. Good man."

"She's one of the best," the servant agreed, and Walker accepted the correction with a mumble of apology.

"Right. Well, thanks much for this. And I hope that business whatsit works in your favor." He nodded. "Take care, Miss..."

"Please, Brigid." She waved. "Off you go, young man."

"Of course. Walker." He smiled too, and then he was off with his own acquisitions. He admired the blue-and-white crests on the banners he passed, examined the carriages, and glanced to the center of the parade, and the caravan emblazoned with the Laird's personal seal. He thought he saw a figure inside, lithe enough to be a tall woman, fiddling with her hair. The Laird herself, or a servant?

"Young man..." The immortal chuckled about that all the way to the next unoccupied alleyway. That Brigid couldn't be...couldn't be more than a half-dozen years over fifty. Wasn't possible. Compare that to his unfathomably long existence...

"If I really am Isaac, and I really came from the Forging of the Star...that was ten thousand years back." Walker whistled, while he stripped and changed. "I look damn good."

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Chapter Eight: Journeys(Part One)


"This is all my fault. I did this...what was I thinking?" Winter clutched her hair, trembling. "Now, because of me, we are stuck facing a foe we cannot defeat-"

"You're forgetting something, Agnete. There is a way."

Walker waited as all eyes turned to him. He sighed quietly, as he resigned himself to their objections and dissatisfaction.

"What are you talking about?" the young healer asked him. "Agnete's the expert. She said there's no way-"

"No. She said there was." Walker eyed the boy, and his jet-black staff. "Char likes possessing people. That's what he tried and do to Tori, wasn't it?"

"Yes." Agnete's eyes widened. "No. You cannot be serious."

"He possesses someone, and you strike that someone down. What happens to Char?" Walker shook his head. "He gets sent back to his room."

"What are you suggesting?" the healer demanded. "That we give him someone? That we kill this person and-"

"We ain't all leaving this plateau," Walker replied, voice low. "Someone's got to be the bait, son. Someone has to draw him in and let him take over, and then the rest of you've got to finish off that someone and put a fire under closing that door to Hell."

"That's not an option-"

"It's the only option." Walker shrugged. "I've died before. It ain't so bad. Never with a god in my bones, though, so I figure this one'll be a new adventure."

"But...no!" The boy stared through wide eyes, just like his friends, from the fire-Gifted redhead and her boyfriend to Winter, whispering the six letters of his name under her breath again and again. "Walker-"

"Just so we're clear, I ain't askin' your permission." Walker glared until something yielded in the healer's eyes. "If a man wants to die for some crap he don't even believe in, that's his gods-given right, ain't it? And I would know, I think, about dyin' for stupid stuff. I've done it more than you." He cracked a smile. "Killin' me ain't killed me yet."

Light. Limbo. He was alone in darkness.

Alone.

Not alone. There was that touch again, that presence...familiar and yet not, like someone he'd known long ago...

"Nice catch!" Caroline beamed as her sons raced about the ball arena. Isaac smiled, though more at his sister than the children.

"I like seeing her happy," Eliza observed from his side. Isaac glanced down at her, and she reached up to tilt the construct on her head.

"You look nice," Isaac told his wife.

"I like hats," Eliza enthused, not for the first time. "Hat. H-A-T."

"You're the only one who wears them for fashion." Isaac put his arm around her, and she snuggled in close, as they watched their son and Caroline's both in the arena with the other wizards' boys.

"It's hardly a downside if they protect me from the dying sun's revenge." Eliza sighed. "It's warm in here."

"I'm sorry." Isaac contemplated a spell to change that, but regretfully decided against it. "Ardwal is a warm place."

"I never noticed." Eliza paused. "Are my..."

Isaac glanced to the side of her head, making as if he were brushing her hair back. "Just the tips."

"Best to get ahead of it." Eliza pecked him on the cheek. "Watch Beth?"

"It's my job." Isaac patted their daughter, sitting on his other side with a glowing ball that pulsed when she touched it. His wife smiled, and then she rose, sweeping off with her flowing, ruffled dress swaying like her hips as she walked. Isaac couldn't help but observe, which had to be exactly what she wanted.

After all, just like the way she flicked her hair out, it was a way to take attention off her pointed ears.

"I like her," Caroline said, which jolted Isaac out of his reverie. He coughed.

"Well...I'm glad..."

"I like her," his sister repeated, a little lower, "but I hope you know what you're doing."

"I like to think so," Isaac agreed. He made sure Beth wasn't paying attention, then turned his full attention to his sibling. "We've done well for years."

"You have. I just worry that someday, Cassian will put two and two together. You know what he's like about drow."

"I'm too useful to the Project to alienate," Isaac objected. "There might be a falling-out between us, but he can't do anything to her until the Project's done, and then we'll just leave and be out of his hair."

"Leave?" Caroline blinked. "Where will you go?"

"Shara. Near the Cinnamon River. Lovely country." Isaac glanced left and right. "Not many of...her people...there, but it can get rather chilly in snaps. Snow, unlike here. I think she'll be happy to see it again."

A shadow flitted over Caroline's face. "I don't mean to be selfish, but what about me?"

"You're welcome to come. We were going to talk it over with you after...well..."

She sighed. "After I'd had the chance to remarry?"

"Well...I wouldn't have..."

She nodded. "It makes sense. I never..." Caroline wavered. "I never said thank you. Not enough for all you've done for me."

"You're hardly a freeloader," Isaac objected, certain he was red in the face. "I never would have figured out the sizing problem without you."

"Behind every great man..." Caroline snickered as she returned to her weaving, waving her hands and letting the threads work themselves before her eyes.

"I've never seen anyone do that like you," Isaac told her.

"Behold, my Gift: weaving with spells."

"Yah!"

No birds scattered this time. Walker snapped to a sitting position, clutching his chest, struggling to breathe in the hot, musty air of a confined alleyway. He angrily backhanded a refuse bin, and it tumbled away with a mad clatter.

"Again...I died...again..." He growled, clutching his head. Slowly, details dripped back in: Khaled, the girl, the wolves...

"That vision." Walker turned it over in his head. "Lisbeth?"

"There was more." The girl appeared from the trash, eyeing it darkly. "I will work to uncover what I can, but it will take me time."

"Should I stay sitting?" Walker asked.

"I think you should be about other business while I do this." The ghost adjusted her hat, smiling a little. "I said it will take some time. Not a short amount, either."

"Right." Walker groaned as he pivoted to lean on the nearest wall. "Where the hell am I?"

"Archer the City."

"Oh!" Walker blinked in the same instant Lisbeth vanished, and he looked down the alley to the other figure sitting in the trash. He raised a cup, surprisingly well-dressed for his position.

"You live here?" the vagabond asked. "Or was it just a wild night?"

"I...wild night," Walker allowed. "Ain't got a home."

"Oh." He nodded. "Must've been wild, since you got no clothes neither."

"...right." Walker glanced around. "Maybe I can scrounge something out of the trash-"

"Here!" The man chucked a bundle of coat and pants. "Probably ain't your right size, but they'll do you for a day."

"...you have spare clothes?" Walker demanded. But he did take the fellow up on his offer with zeal.

"I do now!" The vagabond watched as Walker hurriedly dressed. "The foreigners are giving them out down near the south end of town. Market Square."

"Market..." Walker blinked. "Foreigner?"

"Yeah. Some big to-do from overseas. Trade delegation, I think. Nurem?" The vagabond shrugged. "Handing out free clothes and food, so I ain't asking too many questions."

Walker adjusted the coat, which was very well too small, and pursed his lips. He looked left and right, and wasn't surprised to find no Khaled, no girl, and no more Lisbeth.

"Who were you talking to?" the alley-dweller inquired.

"A...ghost," Walker admitted. "Thirteen or something. Ghost kid, follows me around and tells me life sucks."

"Must've been a wild night," his new friend mused.

"Right." Walker eyed him, and his fresh, warm-looking clothes. "How do you get to Market Square from here?"