The stream that had carved out this valley had shrivelled to a rivulet, a narrow band of sparks floating over near-black gravel where it still flowed, damp earth and debris a short distance downhill. Its bed was wider, here lumpy stones that retained the occasional edge—not proper smooth river pebbles at all—there caked mud ripping apart. The water could barely cool Mara's skin, but at least it was not hard to cross.
Trying to strike a balance between elevation and distance she would have to traverse, and praying that there would not be too many obstacles in the way, Mara went uphill and downstream, taking the slope at an angle rather than straight-on. It meant that she sometimes had to duck under one of the feeding lines of the ward, or otherwise evade them, but she thought that all things considered, it went quite well.
Too well, she realised a short time later. What she had thought would be a small rocky outcrop she could circle on it's downslope side had grown into another cliff face, towering to her left and forcing her to turn downhill again. The ground grew more uneven, made so by previously fallen rocks. Mara hesitated at the edge of a clearing. Ahead lay a stretch of scree slope on which footing would be even more treacherous. It might not take that much time to circle it closer to the stream at the bottom of the valley, but even if so, there was no guarantee the way ahead wouldn't keep getting worse. Turning back and looking for a path along the top of the cliff would not guarantee success, either. The feed lines she could see, a handful of which disappeared in the mountain, indicated that her goal was now more to her left than ahead, but that did not suggest she was on the wrong path. The cliff seemed cut-off a little ahead; was it just curving a bit, or ending, or could that be the valley shoulder?
Her eyes scanned the ground downslope, while her mind tried to come up with a good reason not to turn back and have wasted an hour or so. As her gaze swept back towards the edge of the rock wall, it snagged on a bit of movement.
Bear? They walked upright, no? No, that's braided hair. And clothes. What's a person doing here? A man, she guessed, and walking downstream and downhill, and right into— Mara stifled a warning cry, which came too late, anyway. The stranger walked straight through one of the ward lines, then heard her aborted call and turned. Looked around, and spotted her where she stood rooted to the spot. When he took a tentative step towards her, again crossing the ward line, Mara flinched, and watched it for a reaction.
The magic warning system, however, gave no ripple she could detect. Was she too far away? Or was it so badly made the feed lines did not sense anything?
"Are you... hello?"
The man's voice snapped her out of confused speculation. He had moved, not in her direction, but starting to round the field of scree that had given her pause. Telling herself to pay attention, she tried to take stock. His clothes were in worse shape than those of the hunting party she travelled with, but his beard was more or less cropped, not like she pictured a lunatic hermit. She could see no weapons, so he could not be carrying something bigger than a knife. Her disbelief about meeting someone here seeped in her voice when she called back, "Hello?" At least she kept the manic laugh out of it. With vague ideas of loud sounds causing things to fall in the mountains, she went downhill again.
When they were close enough that they did not have to shout, merely talk loudly, Mara took a nervous step back. The stranger stopped, not wanting to scare her off. She asked, "What are you doing here?"
"I live here." He indicated the general area with a rather vague wave, while watching Mara intently. "What about you?"
"Right now I'm looking for whoever it is that wove the ward around this area." Could it be that rather ragged human? Another northerner, though shorter than many, and young. He had a beard, which tended to throw Mara off when guessing age, but at least there seemed to be no grey in it, or his hair. It seemed unlikely that a human, particularly a human who might have been about her age, should be able to create a ward of this size, and anyway, the lines should be connected to him if they were his.
"I don't know what you mean."
"More generally, I'm looking for a dragon." Probably not the wisest choice, but Mara felt as bewildered as the man looked.
His shoulders fell and his back straightened as he relaxed from what Mara belatedly recognised as a slight, wary crouch.
"There is one?" she guessed.
"And you're living here."
After waiting for him to expound, Mara eventually asked, "Why? And how?"
He smiled. Maybe he was insane, after all. "I guess you could say it insists."
"An animal. Insists."
She got a shrug and a smile as an answer, the general impression being rather apologetic. "It found me again the few times I tried to run."
"What about right now?"
"It's asleep. And I'm not running."
Mara rubbed her lips. This seemed like a chance, but for what? And was it true?
He took the initiative. "I was on the way to the river. We could sit down and talk."
A mistrusting look she cursed herself for not hiding did not seem to faze him.
"I am not planning to be disrespectful. It might be imprudent." He touched the centre of his forehead with two fingers.
The spark in his eyes drew a dry chuckle from Mara as she echoed the movement, touching her guild tattoo. Considering that the direction he had indicated when he'd mentioned the river would lead them further away from the centre of the ward, she gave in to her curiosity. The other way would have felt more like a possible trap. "Lead on."
"You're mad, Fern. I'm no scout who can sneak around alone and hope to find something other than a fall." After a few months with the hunting party, Mara was a lot more comfortable on her feet than she used to be, but the occasional cliff or ravine always made her worry about breaking bones. The odd jibe from the Northerners in the group, who insisted on calling these mountains "hills", did not change that.
Fern shrugged, spreading her hands in a what-would-you gesture. "If there are magic tripwires"—Mara noted the rising tone on the hunt-leader's calm voice, and nodded. She had not made that up.—"you are the only one who can see them, so you are the only one with a chance of not getting spotted. Finding someone else would be possible, but take too long. Unless..."
She turned to Luen, who pulled a pointed ear and went, "Um."
Mara shot him a glare. If the goblin hadn't caught a whiff of magic in the air... he would have blundered into the wards, alarming their weaver, and they might all be dead by now. And even if he alone would have been caught, Mara didn't have a reason to wish an end as a snack on him, so she rolled her eyes at herself and scrounged up a smile. "From what I hear, smell doesn't let you locate something terribly precisely."
"Not so's I'd want to bet our lives on it," Luen said.
"Do I know that feeling." She took a few careful steps towards the edge of the cliff that had been the best vantage point they could find in a hurry, shaded her eyes and again took measure of the ward. She could not see all of it, as the faint white lines faded against the bright sky even at a shorter distance than her magic sight would reach under better conditions, but enough to make out its curvature. Big enough to put a small town or big village inside. And the terrain? Hard to say when most of what Mara could see when not focusing on her magic sight were the blue-green needles of pines, with the occasional dark grey rock face at a visible bend. At least their canopy seemed quite even, hinting at relatively gentle slopes. The carpet of fallen needles also tended to keep undergrowth down. Should be manageable. Mara's eyes strayed to the sky again. The outer shell of ward-lines made it hard to make out its inner structure, but there were lines running towards its centre. Better than a compass. And she knew nothing else was a realistic option, Fern's suggestion merely a polite fiction. "All right, I signed up for this operation, so I'll do my job. What's the plan for everybody else?"
Fern glanced skywards. "They should be warned and at least on the way back to our last camp. If by now nobody else blundered into that barrier, it shouldn't happen."
Mara shuddered and hugged herself, rubbing her arms more to show she wanted to pretend the problem was the wind—which really was not chill any more at all—than believing she could fool the others.
Luen looked rather exasperated, but Fern did her the favour. She just asked, "Do you need anything from camp? I can’t tell how big an area you’re looking at."
"Just give me your canteen. I’ve got some food, and I should make it back to camp by nightfall."
Worry and irritation mingled in Sylvie's mind. Ayu-Asra, the two-headed pet dragon she could not get rid of, had gotten her thrown out of an inn, and she had really looked forward to not having to sleep outside.
Not that she could blame the landlord. A glance at the animal trailing her by alternately running along the top of the fence next to the street and gliding a short distance showed her that its chest was still glowing faintly. Maybe she should have claimed this was normal and harmless, rather than admitting he had never done that before. The dragon didn't seem bothered, so maybe it was harmless, but what could it be? He was able to breathe fire, so maybe something going wrong there? Trying to remember if she'd ever heard of a dragon overheating and exploding, Sylvie flinched as Ayu-Asra whistled shrilly and veered off towards an orchard.
After a furtive look around, Sylvie followed to see what had him so excited, or what damage she would have to apologise for.
She found him chasing insects, his heads occasionally fighting each other for the fattest bugs.
Luminous fluid sprayed from the fat glow-worm corpses.
You'd like to hear a fairy tale from me? Really? Well, all right.
Many generations ago in a village in Kandral was a boy who thought he was smarter than he was. He went out into the woods without telling anyone, wanting to prove he could hunt on his own. Instead he got lost. His parents thought he was with his cousins, his cousins thought he was with his parents, so nobody missed him until night fell.
In the dark and with no idea where he was, he became very afraid. He called for help.
Someone arrived, a figure with skin and hair shining like a moon. It talked sweetly to the boy, until he was not afraid any more. The fae asked the boy to tell it about his family, in exchange for being led to a street, and got a lot of complaints how his parents liked his brothers and sisters, who he said picked on him, more, and no-one took him as seriously as he deserved.
"Ah, this is sad," said the fae, and nothing more.
They walked in silence until they reached a path. The boy recognised it after a moment.
"Here, take this," said the fae, and handed him a seed, big as a nut and shimmering golden. "Plant it somewhere near your pastures. It will grow into something wonderful. It will bring joy to your life."
The boy thanked the fae and ran home. He hid the seed, and it was a week later, after all the anger, relief and excitement about his disappearance and reappearance had worn off, that he snuck off and buried the seed in a hedge, a bit hidden. He did not want it out in the open, so he could be the one to "find" whatever would sprout.
He never saw the plant, because it grew much faster than he had thought, but much more hidden. Roots spread far, sending up shoots that the goats liked to eat. It did not harm the goats, but their milk turned to slow poison. Soon the boy's parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and many of their neighbours fell sick, and died. The fae's poison never harmed the boy who had received the gift of getting rid of those he maligned.
When the story came out, the remaining people of the village decided they had to cleanse the area with fire to get rid of the plant. The boy, mad with grief and guilt, jumped into the flames, and burned to ashes.
What, you don't like it? So leave me alone about fairy tales. That's the kind of story about fairies that I know.
Nico had the vague impression that the impact crater was too small for the body that had caused it. She also had the distinct impression that the molten mass at the bottom, deep iridescent green like beetle wings, was not a meteorite, particularly when it started moving.
It flowed together and rose, like a slime mold attempting to take on a humanoid form.
A psychic message flooded Nico's mind, which put it in words as "Fear not!"
After a moment's pause, she answered, "If you're going to tell me I'm pregnant, there will be trouble."
The chants rose slowly, shaping sounds not part of any human language. The acrid smoke of incense swirled as the air in the closed chamber started to move. Only when the candle flames changed from their natural colour to a dim midnight blue the glow of the diagram drawn on the floor with unsavoury substances became apparent. It brightened, spitting sparks as the chants crescendoed. A flash of light and a thunder strike, then silence, broken by genteel coughing.
A strange figure stood in the summoning circle, short, and with a fringe of hair framing its properly bald head.
"William Aloysius Coltrane."
"You have been summoned and bound to our service."
"What?" The man in the circle straightened his glasses and peered up at the speaker. His opposite was about nine foot tall. The horns and goat's legs and all seemed to be way too realistic for a mask used in a prank.
"You will serve as our accountant for a year and a day."
A glance at the even more disturbing other figures around the cavernous room decided William against protesting.
"What does the job entail?"
It had to be a dream. He blamed the cheese sandwich.
Marie tried to write despite Ron reading over her shoulder, looming just at the edge of her vision. That would have been distracting enough even without the stench of the vile thin cigars he smoked, and of course—
"You know you've got three adverbs in that paragraph already? Are you even trying?"
"I'll worry about phrasing later."
A fingernail clicked against the F key without pushing while she tried to jump back onto her train of thought. Duller clicks as she typed a few words, a few lines...
After overhearing a fierce, if undervoiced, argument of her parents', Cari lay awake well past midnight. Her father had left for a business trip, her mother had in all likelihood fallen asleep long ago thanks to the miracles of chemistry, and she had enough of her thoughts circling ceaselessly. She needed answers, but were could she get them - from a source she did not have to doubt?