Fated Fruit Cake: A Glass Fate Tale

(This stand-alone short story is set right after the 2018 Christmas tale Fairy Knights. Minor spoilers for it ahead.)

Caldyr climbed from the car and stretched her legs.

“Morgaine’s not so bad,” Reynardine continued talking.

Caldyr hadn’t replied back, or even nodded, in a while.

Reynardine often rambled while driving and Caldyr found being quit was better than trying to keep him quiet. He’d often fade into a gentle background noise after a while.

“She’s always been decent to me, anyway.” He got out. “Never been perfect, but who is? Guin and Arthur are more like her Isengrim. Just they can’t deal with each other. It’s in the stories. But that doesn’t make her really evil.”

“A cŵn annwn almost ate me?” Caldyr said. “Did you miss that or?”

“She probably didn’t mean for that. Can’t control everything when you play a trick.

“Oh so she’s a trickster?” Caldyr asked.

Figures he’d vouch for one.

“More or less. She’s clever and driven, at least. You want a gingerbread latte or a peppermint mocha?” Reynardine asked, nodding to the shop.

“I’ll go in,” Caldyr said. “What did you want?”

“Large gingerbread latte. You should really try—”

“I like my vanilla ones,” Caldyr said. “I’m not into seasonal flavors.” She’d been hurt bad by a chocolate orange latte that hit all the right notes shortly after coming to Earth and never tried the short-lived drinks again.

No use in temporary love.

“You should try their fruitcake, at least. Got figs and those fake red cherries you like.”

Caldyr ignored him and headed into the warm cafe. The line started right near the door, and every table was packed.

She plugged in her headphones and focused on enjoying the sights of a different town than her own. The light tour had been nice, Reynardine found a ton of great houses to admire, and the city itself had been rather pleasant. Even waiting in line, wide windows showed off a giant department store with plenty of gorgeous scenery and—

Hello there…

A tall man wearing a baseball cap and clothed in all white pushing a woman into a dark alley.

Caldyr’s wing tingled, a quick blast of nervous energy signaling danger, and walked straight out the door.

Reynardine caught sight of her and raised a brow.

Caldyr pulled out her headphones. “Something weird,” she said. “Tall man, all white. Sound familiar?”

“Vaguely, but I’m not an expert in this sort of thing. Should I call Ursie?”

“Not—”

A scream echoed from the alley and Caldyr took off across the street.

She turned the corner and came face-to-face with the man in white. He wore a dark mask with steel lips. They split and blue fire shot out.

Caldyr ducked, dodging the flames and kicking for his knees, but the bastard danced backward.

The woman, farther down the alley, screamed again. Her hands clutched at her face.

“Fucking dickhead,” Caldyr muttered, attacking again.

He didn’t fight, just laughed fire and bounced backward on light heels.

Caldyr caught him in the chest with a hard right and he stumbled.

Something wet and hot blasted into Caldyr’s face. She coughed and hit her knees before diving backwards.

Reynardine rushed toward them, but the man in white laughed and bounced twice before leaping over a building and into the night.

“Person,” Caldyr choked out, nodding to the woman.

“Are you okay?” Reynardine asked.

“Pepper sprayed. Check on them, the injured person.”

Reynardine followed orders. She’d been pepper sprayed, too, it turned out. He helped her into a rideshare to the hospital and returned to Caldyr.

“Help me up,” she ordered, blinking against the pain.

Reynardine simply lifted her into his arms. “Still hurt?”

“The fuck? Yeah, still agony,” she grunted. “Milk helps, I think.”

“It does. We’re walking around to the other side of the mall and I’m going to get you a ton of milk, okay?”

“Please.”

Reynardine was true to his word, setting her down on the grass in front of a large store and darting inside. He returned with a half-dozen little milk cartons and poured them one at a time onto Caldyr’s burning face.

She sighed as the cool liquid melted through the heat. Pain ebbed, returning soon as the flow of milk stopped.

Another twenty minutes passed and she opened her eyes. “I’m going to murder that thing.”

“Spring Heeled Jack,” Reynardine said. “The hopping gives it away. And yeah, soon as we find it, have fun.”

Caldyr rung the milk out of her hoodie.

Reynardine shrugged out of his bright green suit jacket. “Take that off and wear this.”

She coughed and shook her head. “Or I could use it like a little tent.” Another cough, the pepper still clung to her lips and burnt worse when she moved. “That’s not gonna work, Foxass.”

“Just for a minute,” he said. “I’ll go get you a new shirt in the mall.”

Caldyr wrapped the suit coat tight and carefully shimmied her hoodie off. She wore a threadbare tank top and a tight wing bandage underneath, but still felt awkwardly unclothed for a public space. “Hurry,” she told Reynardine. “Nothing I’ll hate, either. Got it?”

He nodded.

“I’m going into the diner,” she called, nodding to a bank of light in the lot with a familiar yellow-and-red sign.

“Order whatever you want. I’ll join you there in ten,” Reynardine said.

Caldyr crossed the parking lot, buttoning up Reynardine’s massive, neon green coat as she fought with the large door. She probably looked slightly less ridiculous than with the pepper spray and milk-soaked hoodie.

Very slightly.

But Caldyr didn’t stand out nearly as much as the woman in the nearest booth wearing all black plate mail with a dented front.

Guin’s shotgun left a helluva mark on Morgaine’s cuirass.

She looked up, deep green eyes swirling with confusion.

Caldyr paused and backed toward the door. “Wrong diner,” she muttered.

Morgaine stood up and lifted both hands. “Wait,” she said. “Are you okay?”

The waitress stepped out from behind her little stand. “Want me to call someone, hon?”

Caldyr was more interested in the worried villain, to be honest. “No, I’m fine. Pepper sprayed. Random weird thing. I’ve got a friend on the way.”

The waitress nodded, face twisted into a sorry smile. “You’re the third woman that got hit at the mall this week. Freaks out there lately, I swear to god.”

Morgaine shuffled in her plate armor before gesturing to the other side of the booth. “Need someone to wait with?”

Caldyr looked to the door, then slowly sat down across from the Scourge of Camelot.

The waitress took their orders, Caldyr got a breakfast burrito and Morgaine ordered the fiesta platter. Both asked for extra salsa and iced sodas.

“I’m Morgaine LeFay,” she said after the waitress left.

“I know,” Caldyr told her.

“Uh, and you are called…”

“Oh, right. Caldyr Prayers.”

“Reynardine’s fairy detective?” she asked. “I’ve heard of you.”

Caldyr knew their story had reached a few ears, but being mildly famous always felt kinda weird.

Kinda right too, though.

“So you and Reynardine know each other?” Caldyr asked.

“Everyone knows Reynardine,” Morgaine said. “The General, he loved being called that. Although I served under Tyr. Not literally underneath him ever, unfortunately, but he was a good leader.”

Fair enough. Tyr is pretty… interesting.

“You were on our… on the Fated side?” Caldyr hadn’t even been alive during the war, but she still felt a connection to Artemis’ Army. Probably because their victory allowed her current way of life.

“The suffragette side,” Morgaine said. “And Artemis was an inspiration to me when I was a child, so I was only too happy to be part of her cause.”

Caldyr definitely understood that. Artemis had always been her favorite deity in the old stories. Her death at the pinnacle of the war just made the tales that much more inspiring.

“So,” Morgaine began in a low voice, “What’s the deal with the pepper spray?”

“Oh, uh, a Spring Heeled Jack. Bastard followed some woman down an alley and I intervened.” Caldyr looked at her arms. “Is my glamour okay?”

“Sure, looks pretty good. Damned Jacks are a nuisance this time of year,” Morgaine said. “They hate women, and women having fun is even worse. Christmas is like… well, bloody Christmas to the fucks.”

“Whose job is it to handle them?” Caldyr asked.

“No one,” Morgaine whispered as the waitress approached.

She sat down the trays of food and Caldyr checked her eyes on her phone’s camera. The glamour had cracked, actually, leaving what would be silver, if it wasn’t so bright red at the moment, in plain sight. Pain still echoed with every twitch or blink.

Fucking murder that fucking thing so damned hard I swear to Fate.

“That all?” the waitress asked.

“You got fruit cake?” Morgaine asked.

“Got a fruit cake shake,” the waitress offered.

“Close enough. One of those, please.”

“Milkshake for me too,” Caldyr said. “Vanilla.”

Soon as she was gone, Morgaine cleared her throat. “We can report it to Fate’s offices, if we have the number. I do, but I’m one of the few and you know I can’t share it.”

“Sounds like living in SF is kinda risky.”

Morgaine nodded. “But it’s a lot like—”

“Camelot,” Caldyr finished. “I’ve heard.”

“We even had a place there,” Morgaine said. “Us witches.”

“Why’d you turn on Arthur then? If things were so good?”

Morgaine snorted. “I said we had a place there, didn’t say it was a good one.” She picked up her fork and mixed her beans and rice together with some of the sauce from her enchilada. The meal came with a beef taco, too.

Caldyr looked at her own, an open ended burrito teeming with crispy chorizo, fluffy eggs, and potatoes. Greasy salsa and melted cheese leaked from a small tear in the browned tortilla. She grabbed her fork and dug in.

They munched in silence for a moment before Morgaine opened her mouth slowly. “So, you’re friends with Miss Prissy.”

“Guin is… is a decent enough person, okay? But no, we’re not super close. Guin hired me through Reynardine to find Arthur.”

Morgaine rolled her eyes. “He runs away. Did it when we were kids, too. Back at Uther’s. He used to disappear for days at a time. Just sit in the woods by himself. Meditate, or masturbate, whatever boys do when they hide from the world.”

“Suffering from some serious nervous depression is what it looked like. Brought on by someone attempting a coup.”

“C’est la vie.” Morgaine poured salsa on her taco. “I’m ambitious. I won’t apologize for wanting power. Men are venerated for what I’ve done. Look at Perseus. Right little git and I have to see his dangles all over Greece.”

“Fair enough,” Caldyr said. “You’re still evil but good point.”

“Evil is subjective. Especially when it comes to matters of life or death.”

“Wouldn’t be life or death if you didn’t start it from what I hear.”

Morgaine bit into her taco and sighed. “This era has the best food,” she said around a mouthful. “Just period, it’s brilliant.”

Caldyr had to agree, but she pulled the conversation back. “Life or death. Much like tonight.”

“Oh, like I could kill either of them.”

Caldyr gestured to herself. “A cŵn annwn did almost eat my pretty face.”

“And you ran down an alley to defend a stranger a few hours later. Don’t tell me you aren’t a risk taker.”

“Doesn’t mean other people are. Or should be. Setting cŵn annwn loose—”

“After Guin,” Morgaine cut in. “I didn’t think they’d bother with anyone else.” She took another bite of her taco and chewed slowly.

The waitress dropped off the milkshakes.

“For what it’s worth,” Morgaine muttered around her straw, “I’m sorry about the cŵn annwn.”

Caldyr sucked at her shake, but the plastic straw collapsed. She reached for a spoon. “Apology accepted.” Caldyr decided to change the subject. “San Francisco is packed with… odd beings.”

Morgaine nodded. “A little lawless, but it’s a nice place to hang your hat and oddities get ignored easy. You could probably get away with dropping the glamour on holidays. Especially in the right areas. We kinda take over the beach nearest the edge of town.”

“Sounds interesting.”

Morgaine smirked. “It can get that way. Also kinda nice to let your hair down. Or glamour.”

“I’ll see about checking it out. Reynardine would probably like to know.”

“Great, the Fox is always a good time.” Morgaine looked around. “Is he with you?”

Caldyr tugged on the coat collar. “Picking me up new clothes. Should be here—” Caldyr’s phone beeped. She pulled it out and tapped the unlock button.

Reynardine’s number, but the text speak alarmed her right away. <cum alone if u want the fox back. Baker beach.>

“Oh, that’s a trap.” Caldyr shook her head.

“What?” Morgaine stood up to lean over the table.

Caldyr shielded her phone. “It’s just a thing. Probably a kidnapping. Foxnapping. Whatever.”

She texted back to Reynardine’s number. <new phone, who dis?>

<spring heeled jacks United bish>

<fuck you how do I know you didn’t just steal Reynardine’s phone>

Picture mail. Reynardine, stripped to the waist and tied to an old steel door.

<he took his own shirt off,> the accompanying message informed her.

Morgaine had come around to Caldyr’s side of the booth to peek at her screen. “That’s Reynardine all right.”

Caldyr rubbed a palm over her face, but had to agree.

“Can you forward me that picture?” Morgaine asked.

“No, I’ve… just ewww, no.” She stood up and started rummaging through her pockets. “I’ve gotta go beat some Spring Heeled Jacks back into the Victorian era—”

“I’ll cover the check,” Morgaine told her. “You know he’s immortal, right?”

Caldyr snorted. “The Jacks aren’t… right? I mean, I’ve gotta rescue Foxbutt. He’s a friend. But the Jacks, they’re a problem. Harassing people. I’d rather fix that if I can. Two birds, one heavy ass stone. Or probably a sword. I like blades—easier than blunt weapons, although admittedly not quite as satisfying.”

“You don’t even live here.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Caldyr said. “If people are in trouble, I’ve gotta help. It’s what I’m here for. And it’s just the right thing to do. I’m strong enough to make a difference, so I will.”

“Fair enough. Good luck,” Morgaine said, clenching the empty air as if searching for a sword hilt. “Bellona’s light guide you.”

“Nah, it’s late. I’ll give her the night off. She’s a busy war goddess.” Caldyr headed for the door. “I’m not the one who’s gonna need the help anyway.”

 

***

 

Three Spring Heeled Jacks guarded the entrance to the state park.

Caldyr flew over them. She’d shrunk to fly here in the first place so she simply skipped the front and headed straight for the tall trees on a hill overlooking a series of squat stone bunkers. Waves from the Pacific ocean sparkled just yards aways and Caldyr felt their power in every watery muscle. This close to the ocean, she would be unstoppable.

Beneath her, an old entrenchment and gun battery leftover from the world wars stood as a sandy sentinel. Caldyr had watched a documentary on San Francisco once and remembered that they never saw use.

Least not from any military action. The out of the way beach and dark stone alleys were perfect for clandestine lovers, drug deals, and, apparently, supernatural kidnappings.

Caldyr squinted into the dark spaces, and recognized the glow from a cell phone. She grew to full size and then texted Reynardine’s number. <Omw. Where r u?>

Listening close, she caught the faintest hint of Feel It Still by Portugal. The Man. Reynardine did seem to like that song.

The screen lit up and she could barely make out the white face of a Spring Heeled Jack as he texted back. <by the guardhouse up front>

<gotcha> Caldyr sent the text right as she dropped from the tree.

The song started again, as both of her feet connected with the spring heeled Jack’s hat.

He slammed chin first into the sandy concrete floor with a satisfying crunch.

Caldyr stepped off the smashed skull and picked up Reynardine’s phone. “Bet he’ll feel that for a while.”

“Not sure he’ll live to, Bluebird,” Reynardine said from behind her.

“Oops. Probably shouldn’t fuck with my friends if he wanted to do that.” Caldyr shrugged.

“Fair point.”

“Want me to untie you?”

Reynardine shook and then stepped away from the rusty old door. “I’d have left, I just didn’t want to miss you when you came to beat these fellows senseless.”

“Good thinking.”

“I know how my friend’s amazingly impressive mind works.” Reynardine picked his shirt up and pulled it on, adjusting the collar to a rakish angle. “So, what’s the plan for getting out of here? I could transform and carry you.”

Caldyr raised a hand toward the west. The ocean was only a hill away…

With a slight shudder, like a sudden gust of cold air in the bright sun, the ocean answered.

Gallons of water streamed over the hill, wrapping themselves around Caldyr. They locked together, creating a suit of chain mail and a plate skirt. A bubble formed around her head and tightened.

She made a small hole to speak through, but layered the magic, so that she could seal her mask instantly to protect against more pepper spray. “You can go. I’ve got some parting words for these jackasses.”

Reynardine changed to his fox form. “I’ll be careful to stay out of your way.”

Caldyr shaped heavy, dual sabers from the sea water. “That would be for the best.”

She charged down the alley, sliding low at the crossroads between two bunkers. A flat, wooden bat smashed into the wall just above her.

The Jack that swung the weapon coiled for another strike. Caldyr swung her blade upward, slicing through his upper arm. He yowled, an inhuman screeching whine, before Caldyr slit his throat.

“More on your six,” Reynardine’s voice carried from somewhere above her.

A sound like cracking thunder broke the night and a whip slapped across her armored back. No pain, but the force carried through to stagger her.

Caldyr spun, twirling her swords over and blocking another attack from the whip. The Jack, a tall one with a simple top hat, slashed again. Caldyr twisted her swords, clipping the tip of his whip in one smooth motion.

The whip’s severed end thunked to the concrete. Weighted with some coins duct-taped together.

With a giggle, the Jack swung again. Caldyr blocked with her right sword, and threw the left.

The blade sunk deep into the Jack’s shoulder. Caldyr grabbed the whip with her free hand, yanked hard, and slid forward. The wounded Jack stumbled, she caught him with her sword tip and impaled the bastard.

One last bloody giggle and the Jack faded.

His buddy, a shorter man with an old bowler hat, pulled a pistol as Caldyr drew her sword from the Jack’s chest.

Bowler hat raised his gun, Caldyr leapt forward and to the right. He fired, but she rolled across the narrow path. Another bullet whizzed by as Caldyr closed the gap and slashed underhanded.

Her sword cleaved him in two, but Bowler hat still managed a trigger pull.

The bullet cracked Caldyr’s armor, ripping through the left sleeve to her skin.

Reynardine landed beside her. “Are you okay?”

“Fucking fantastic,” Caldyr snapped. She pulled the armor back together as another wave of white clothed Jacks stepped from the darkness.

“We can run,” Reynardine said.

“Or, I can kill the rest and feel like I’ve done my part for the community.”

Reynardine sighed and disappeared again.

The first of the Jacks closed the distance waving a machete.

Caldyr called her second blade, it twirled through the air into her hand, and met him with everything she had. He blocked one swing, her other blade took his head cleanly.

Another Jack, the one in the baseball cap from earlier, raised his pepper spray.

Caldyr sacrificed one blade, turning it into a wall of water to catch the spray. She closed her armor’s vent and wrapped the pepper spray soaked wall around the Jack. Just enough to feel the burn, before she drove her sword through his chest.

She kicked the corpse off her sword.

“Suck on this, you bitch,” a voice yelled.

Twenty feet away, in the shadows of an old tree, a Jack raised a hunting rifle to his shoulder.

“Shit,” Caldyr said.

Morgaine dropped silently from the tree above and landed on the Jack’s skull. The bastard crashed into the ground, neck snapping and head popping off.

“Guess I weigh a bit more with the armor and all,” Morgaine muttered. “Wow, that was about as satisfying as it looked, though.”

“I know, right?” Caldyr said, letting her armor flow off. “Nice timing.”

Morgaine shrugged. “I wanted to get your number. Good detective is always useful.”

Reynardine dropped from the sky, landing as a human in a superhero style crouch and then standing up with a smile. “Morgaine! Lovely to see you,” he said in a terrible British accent. “Absolutely spiffing. It’s been ages.”

“Reynardine,” she answered. “Surprised you remembered me.”

“I never forget a friend,” he said. “You two know each other?”

“She bought me a breakfast burrito,” Caldyr said as she looked up. “Were you flying?”

“No, I just stumbled real hard,” Reynardine said. “Thanks for that, Morgaine. Saving Caldyr and the burrito and all.”

“Anytime,” Morgaine said. “Don’t suppose you all want to split a Care-ed and get out of Baker beach, though?” She looked around. “Pretty sure we just wiped out the Jacks and I don’t feel like catching a ticket. Illegal to be here at night and we did get a little noisy.”

Reynardine made the order while they walked to the park entrance.

If the Care-ed driver thought anything of Morgaine’s armor, he kept it to himself. They got dropped off at the corner near Caldyr’s car and Morgaine climbed out with them.

“Nice meeting you,” she said to Caldyr. “And it’s always nice seeing you,” she said to Reynardine’s lips.

They parted a bit and Reynardine raised one eyebrow to manho level. “Stockton ain’t so far, Miss LeFay. Anytime.” He winked.

Morgaine chuckled. “I’ll keep that in mind. And San Francisco isn’t either. It’ll be safer, too.” She looked around. “I’m… I’m not a good person, but I can help keep my own little Camelot safe. At least keep groups like the Jacks from fucking with my ladies. If Ares approves, of course.”

Reynardine winked again. “I’ll put in a good word. Good with my mouth, I’m sure I’ll work something out.”

Morgaine bit her lip.

“Okay,” Caldyr said. “I’ll drive myself home—”

“No,” Morgaine said. “Later, Reynardine. Call me. And post that picture to your LifeTrees, Caldyr knows the one. Long day. I’m going to catch a few beers and hit the sack. Merry Christmas, friends.”

“Merry Christmas,” Caldyr told her.

“Happy Christmas, poppet,” Reynardine said, British accent back in all its horribleness.

Morgaine LeFay faded into the night, literally, with a tiny smile.

Reynardine sighed. “She was always gonna be a good guy—” he looked at Caldyr— “Person. She was always bound for the light.”

“And here I thought my sunny personality did the trick.”

“Seeing good in someone else can help,” Reynardine told her. “Ice cream? Or more coffee?”

“Cocoa,” Caldyr said. “All the marshmallows.”

“Heroes create heroes,” Reynardine whispered, looking at the moon. “Beautifully done, Butterscotch, really. Just perfect. Merry Christmas indeed.”

Caldyr yawned and stretched. “What? Never mind, ‘weird as fox’ should be a thing. But don’t forget about my marshmallows! I’m gonna warm up the car.”

“Sure,” Reynardine said. “All the marshmallows.”

“And a piece of that fruit cake,” Caldyr said. “Doesn’t sound horrible, I guess. And don’t grin like you’re winning something, Foxass!”

“Nothing winning about it. Happy to treat a friend is all.”

End Tale

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Why We Fight: A Glass Idols Tale (Ch. 7)

Chapter Seven: All These Things That I’ve Done

 

Artemis didn’t slap.

The Huntress used her whole fist and knocked Safkhet into a hay bale. She pulled back for another, but Isengrim caught her arm.

“We’ve got other things to worry about,” he rumbled.

Artemis pulled her wrist away. “She violated a direct order and put us all at risk!.”

He growled. “Then shoot her and be done with it.”

“I’m fine for duty,” Safkhet announced and put a hand to her mouth to cover a loud belch. “Better now. Excuse me.”

A distillery might pass for sober first, but Vanth really didn’t want to see her CO shot today. “She’s drunk and made a bad choice. Heartbreak is enough to drive anyone to do a few rash things.”

“I’m not heartbroken.” She felt around her pockets. “Might be now. I’ve dropped the brandy.”

“The 1805?” Artemis asked.

“Nice crystal thingy from your desk. Didn’t have a label. Reynard pushed it into my pocket as I was leaving.”

Isengrim saved Sakhet from another punch.

“We’re leaving.” He lifted Artemis up by the wrist.

Vanth drew her pistol at the same time as Artemis. Isengrim stared down both barrels and then dropped her.

“Now.” The Wolf walked across the field without another word.

“Make sure she can walk and shoot her if she gets to being a problem.” Artemis followed him.

“You’d shoot me, Vanth?” Safkhet looked like she might cry.

“Nah, Khet. We’re friends. Want some cookies? We gotta follow the louses now.”

Her face fell and she gave a hard sniffle. “I’m a louse, too.”

“You’re not bad.”

“I shot my traitor husband. I think the magic was gone, anyway, but blowing his brains over the tent was just… lousy.”

“Happens. Why don’t you have a whack at these lavender cookies? Got plenty…”

They followed ditches more than roads and steered clear of anything that looked like a building. Germans would be bad, but the Cloaked could be anywhere and they’d surely sound the alarm.

Safkhet sobered up, and threw up, a few times. Vanth held the goddess’ helmet and watched Isengrim and Artemis try to out strut each other. Artie bickered, too, but Isengrim didn’t have a word to spare, so it was mostly with herself.

Vanth didn’t mind the occasional quiet, she’d rather trudge in silence. Moving by day was enough risk, but the chance of discovery increased with every moment they were in the open.

Eventually, the road became too dangerous, traps and signs of patrols, so they cut across fields. Also damaged, wrecked by bombs and the Belgians trying to halt the German war machine. Whoever put Belgium back together after this, if anyone did, was going to have a time of it.

Isengrim sniffed the air and strode with utter confidence across the burnt soil. By nightfall they had to have crossed fifty kilometers, but they’d have to wait for a rest. At their pace, a god could move for days and Isengrim seemed no different. Better perhaps, he didn’t eat and hardly seemed to breath.

Vanth wondered why he bothered with a such a large pack, but when Artemis stopped short near a burned farmhouse with a roofless barn, she found out.

“We’re about ten miles from the target,” Artemis said. “I’ll take first watch and then wake Isengrim. Vanth is third.”

“Me?” Safkhet asked.

“Under court martial,” Artemis said. “Sit.”

The Wolf unpacked first, unloading two sleeping rolls and two plates, then two cups, and two forks, an entire soldier’s kit doubled. He handed half to Safkhet, steadfastly avoiding Artemis’s bitter eyes.

Vanth dodged them too, vaguely wondering if Artemis’ ancestry might’ve included a basilisk.

He passed across a tin of bully beef and muttered something.

Safkhet nodded and cut the meat up. They couldn’t risk fire during daylight hours, so made cold meals instead. Vanth ate with them, sharing her cookies around. Artemis joined in, but only with a lot of seething and angry promises.

Vanth didn’t try to sleep, dead was about as restful. No true rest for the wicked, at any rate.

She watched over the camp too, but in silence.

Artemis woke Isengrim late, he didn’t seem to mind. Safkhet got up then, marched to the woods quietly and returned with an armload of sticks.

Dark fell as she started a small fire. The smoke rose into the cloudy sky, but the chances of it being seen were lower than in afternoon.

Sakhet had fallen asleep by the time Isengrim laid down again. No words, but Vanth climbed into her corpse and took her spot by the barn door.

Artemis woke around midnight and shook Isengrim first. He woke Safkhet and they all gathered around the fire. After a fast meal, Artemis laid out the plan.

“We leave our gear here. Load down with ammo and enough food for a fast meal before the final assault. Rendezvous here if things… if needed, okay?”

Safkhet rubbed sleepy eyes. “That all?”

“Kill the operator and damage everything. This isn’t a salvage and… it’s meant to be in and out, but I transferred control of my fortune to Ares. If we don’t make it, the war will continue as long as we destroy this site.”

Isengrim walked off without a word and Vanth shrugged. “Guess we don’t do the team huzzah thing.”

“Go team,” Safkhet said.

“I’m serious about that court martial.” Artemis stalked after Isengrim.

Vanth buried the packs in some old hay and rushed to catch up the group.

Old trees with fresh scars, machine gunned this time, filled their walk. Year old corpses and fresh growth littered the forest. Ghosts murmured all around, but Vanth kept her head down and mind far off the reality of their passage.

Stopping among the trees outside the ghost’s former town, the gods looked around.

“The cathedral,” Isengrim said.

He didn’t need to bother, the hundred foot brass antenna on top of the cross was a pretty good clue.

“Isengrim,” Artemis began, “you and Safkhet circle around back. Knock down the back door and level everything. Vanth and I will aim for the front and try to—”

“I can reach that antenna fastest,” Vanth interrupted. “I’ve got wings, just a quick flight up and blammo.”

Artemis looked the other two over. “Isengrim, keep Vanth safe and try to cut down the back door guards.” She turned to Safkhet. “Have you ever heard of xylokopia?”

Safkhet nodded. “It’s called ‘running the gauntlet’ these days.”

“Hope you are ready to run. We assault the front door, blow it all up, and head for the back.

“Good luck,” Isengrim said. “All of the world’s hopes rest on our blades.”

Artemis clicked the bolt home of her small rifle. “Swords are outdated as we are. Hope comes in brass rounds this war, bimbo. Luck all the same.”

The Wolf nodded and Vanth followed him with a last glance back as Safkhet. Isengrim moved fast, she needed to push herself to keep up with him.

Ten paces from town the Wolf stopped cold and growled.

“What?” Vanth asked. “Hey, how did you know to bring gear for—”

“Sword,” Isengrim whispered just before a mechanical bull smashed into him from the side. The pair rolled into a barn door, knocking the whole frame to long splinters.

“Oh.” Vanth drew her Scythe from nothing. The second bull, a larger one with long horns, clanked down the street. She spun and her blade sank deep into the steel skull. He didn’t seem to mind, simply giving the goddess a hard shake.

Vanth lost her grip and tumbled to the ground. A wolf howled nearby, loud and in pain. She stared up into the bull’s neck as it reared back. The goddess drew her pistol and fired twice.

The clockwork stumbled and fell to the side.

A giant wolf smashed the other bull through a barn wall, taking the creature to the mat and biting hard. Oil sprayed and jets of steam, but the canine didn’t notice. He ripped and clawed until the bull stopped moving.

He took a step toward Vanth and she raised her pistol.

The wolf turned into Isengrim, extremely naked and with oil dripping down his muscular, scarred body. He looked pretty damned happy to survive the battle.

All of him. Massively happy.

“Didn’t know we brought artillery,” Vanth muttered.

“I said to use your sword. I wanted this quiet.” He stalked into the barn and returned in torn pants and web belt, with rifle covered and the actual gun in his hands. “We need to hurry.”

“Right, sure. Got it. Let’s go.” She pushed herself from the concrete and looked around for her rifle.

“I apologize for my earlier impropriety.”

Vanth picked up her gun and looked over the barrel. “No it’s fine. Happens all the… well never, wow. Hercules even wasn’t… nevermind. Let’s focus on the huge ant— the target. Thing.”

The Wolf nodded. “If I transform and it’s safe, get my guns. I’d rather not, but close quarters is easier in my proper form.”

“You can’t magic them?”

He shook his head.

Vanth licked her hand and tapped the rifle. “Pistols?”

“Is there a reason for this?”

“I can collect them with magic afterward.”

“Oh. You’re a god?”

Or leave them to rot. “Yes, I am. And I’ll collect them, but I need to be able to find them.” She put spit on the other weapons. “How’d you know to bring stuff for Safkhet?”

“Reineke,” he said, walking away. “The Fox, Reynard these days. He’s a villain, but he occasionally makes a point. ‘She needs a win before she sinks,’ he told me. Now move, we don’t have time for chatter.”

Vanth nodded and followed. Shoulda figured he’d be involved.

Stopping just short of the church, Vanth understood the weak resistance.

At least two dozen of the mechanical beasts crowded around the building. Hyenas pawed at the doors and large cats jumped at the windows.

Soldiers waved and tapped on the glass.

“Are they… Are they actually trapped inside?” Isengrim asked.

“I’d guess so. Damn.” Vanth shook her head. “Just wait here…”

One of the hyenas turned, and three others followed suit. More of the clockworks stalked from the side of the stone building.

A hyena rushed, Vanth dropped it with three rounds from her rifle. The last bullet didn’t even slow the next clockwork.

A hyena with three legs crossed the distance and slowed for a jump less than a yard away. She shouldered her rifle, drew her pistol, and ended the beast with two rounds from the hip. Another bullet dropped a cat with hungry glass eyes.

The souls didn’t dissolve, the tiny bits flew to the church. Rejoining the whole.

Isengrim pulled his own MG. “Go!”

Vanth popped her black wings free, destroying the back of her coat and shirt. Her green peacock eyes flashed in the dawn’s light.

A few hard flaps took Vanth to the nearest roof.

Isengrim fought hard below her, ripping a hyena apart with machine gun fire before transforming under the onslaught.

Windows broke and Germans opened hell on the clockwork animals, apparently more desperate for freedom than worried about sides.

Vanth hopped along rooftops, flapping to close gaps and then flew to the flattened church roof.

At the base of the antenna, a large copper cage held a grinning monster with green skin and thick, squat tusks poking from his lips.

Charun, her brother and former partner in psychopomp business for the Etruscan pantheon, snarled and spit fire. “Vanth.”

She let her own tusks free for the first time in years.

Then the horns, Vanth’s hair pulled back into a high widow’s peak to accommodate the small bones. Her skin turned to a heavy, mottled leather. Deep inside, she felt the fire at the heart of her god form “Charun. Wish I could be surprised by this.”

Shots from inside the church rang faster.

“You attack the Germans?” the goddess asked.

Charun grunted. “Whoever I can, I don’t seem to care somehow. Maybe my soul is just too split. I’m in them, Vanth. I’ll have an army soon.” He didn’t sound happy, more lost. His face twitched and one thin arm crossed over his chest. “But it’s not really me, we didn’t know that would happen. The Fox knew, I think. He told me goodbye, at least. I didn’t have any idea what he meant. He just said good luck and goodbye, suddenly. Always liked Reynard, you know. He’s a terrible person, but a good fox.”

“Focus, Charun, how do I stop this?”

“I’ve got around fifty now, but the rest are drawing near. Every one of them in range of another is under my control. A train will reach Brussels in an hour and my snake will be in range shortly after. I’ll control everything in time.” Another hard twitch and a tear formed in the god’s grass colored eyes. “All of the clockworks need to die, Vanth. Only you can hunt them. Just look for my soul.”

“And Vulcan can’t shut you down?”

“He’s on his way to Berlin to do just that, but if I connect with the train, I’ll have eagles, wolves, lions. Just a matter of time until I make my way to the factory. I can build my new shells, rebuild this world in my image. I don’t know how to stop myself.”

Vanth reloaded her Bulldog. “Be dead before that.”

“But still in them. Last chance is the snake, sister.

Vanth nodded. “Give mother my love.”

The goddess squeezed her trigger.

A red bullet ripped through the copper cage and into his head. Charun’s green eyes blazed with the foreign light, then dimmed as he collapsed.

Below the creatures still battled and shots echoed in the town.

Vanth let her body go, left the flesh behind and took wing again. A simple thought and her dark iron Scythe flowed through the air behind the goddess. Without a body, she covered ground fast. The trees and fields passed, dotted with small red lights—bits of her brother’s soul bleeding off the snake.

The farthest patch of red shined brightest, and in the distance she could see a small town. Vanth aimed down, cut between trees, and then landed by the snake.

Vanth never dwelled on the past during the present, and today she needed to remain firmly in the moment, but a twinge hit as her Scythe ended the bronze creature.

Less past than ever now. Just me and Cul.

Vanth walked most of the way back, hunting down a loose hyena and another snake. With her eyes closed, Vanth reached for her brother’s cool red light and found it missing entirely from the world.

Just Cul now.

Sister, don’t be mad, but I killed Cha-cha. Permanent this time.

No doubt Cul knew.

No doubt revenge had already taken roost in her heart, she’d always been a killer.

“I’ll get you first, Sister. On Mother’s ashes, I won’t be undone now.” Vanth shook her head and then flew the last mile.

Outside the church, Isengrim smoked from Vanth’s pipe. Safkhet talked with the Germans and Artemis ate cookies. Smashed bronze and bullet casings filled the area, but hardly any bodies. Beside Charun on the roof and her next to Isengrim.

Vanth flapped down and looked over the bruised corpse. Her nice new coat was ripped and even in spirit form, she could smell the distinct odor of stale water and ancient gutter. She leaned down and slid back into the corpse.

Pain forced a gasp, she rolled over and fought down a scream until the healing took over. After a few minutes, Vanth asked, “What the hell happened to me?”

“You rolled off the roof,” the Wolf said. “It looked painful. I protected you, since Artemis said you’d return.”

“Oh. Thanks.”

“We’d be recommended for a cross if we were on the wrong side,” Artemis said. “Safkhet told us that a bit ago. She speaks German, negotiated us into a little truce before I even fired a shot. Impressive of her, and rather useful. The Germans are pretty embarrassed by all this. Most seem to think it was just a bad experiment. I don’t think they really know what, or who, their generals are dealing with.”

“Want this back?” Isengrim waved Vanth’s pipe.

“Finish the load, Captain.” Vanth waved him off. “You see the roof?”

“We destroyed everything up there. The Germans were happy to show Safkhet around. Gave her a little tour. Who was the psychopomp?” Artemis asked.

“No clue,” Vanth said. “Think I can have one of those cookies? Maybe get a cuppa over here? So, we taking Gerry prisoner?”

“Safkhet arranged for them to leave quietly,” Artemis said. “We’re letting them walk for the assistance and all.”

“Good mission. Good job, everyone,” Isengrim said.

Vanth looked around at the mechanical animals. “They look dead.”

“They are,” Artemis told her. “Checked a lot of them myself. Let’s hope they don’t build more.”

“They will,” Isengrim predicted. “We must be ready.”

“War will be over by June,” Safkhet said as she walked up. “ Can’t sustain forces this size forever, the logistics alone are staggering. We ready to move? I want to sleep with a real roof and there’s another ruined little town a few kilometers off our path.”

“Sounds good.” Vanth stretched. “This troll needs to get back to her bridge.”

***

Vanth stood over the destroyed cement of her old bridge, lemon shortbread cookie in her mouth and new Lewis Hurl model 3 on her shoulder. Christmas presents from Hestia and Ares, respectively.

Bridge looked like a clean job, probably a demolition crew on their side of things. Looking to tighten the lines. Maybe even sent by Artemis, she was still making teammate type sounds.

“Guess I’m in it now.” Vanth ate another cookie and sat with her legs dangling over the river for a while. Enjoying a final breath of peace, for her the war had finally truly begun, and Vanth doubted she’d find that type of lovely loneliness soon.

End Tale

Why We Fight: A Glass Idols Tale (Ch. 5 – 6)

Chapter Five: Justice

 

“Short magazine Lee-Einfield Mk. 3.” Hestia held out the rifle. “Only single fire, but it’s the same .303 round as that Lewis you had. Ten rounds in the magazine and it’s got a cleaning kit somewhere…”

“Better than nothing.”

Hestia flipped the rifle over. “This is the safety and this charges the WPD. One shot can be primed—”

“Only one? My Lewis Hurl could prime a whole magazine.”

Hestia pushed the rifle into Vanth’s hands. “Then hold onto the Lewis better next time.”

Vanth forced a smile. “Thanks, Can I get a new coat and boots, too.”

“We don’t have either. I can scout around and see what I find. Reclaimed okay?”

She meant from corpses. “I’m a psychopomp,” Vanth told her. “I’ll risk reliving the previous life every time I reach for my power.”

“So, not really?”

“Yeah.”

Hestia ran a hand through her loose chestnut hair. “I’ll look.”

“Forty-five ammo?”

“We’re all issued .38 Webleys. I’ll ask around. Listen, I got wounded to see, you okay by yourself?”

Vanth set the weapon down and started loading stripper clips of rounds. She liked to carry at least five or six setup for quick reloads. “Is the attack over?”

“Soldiers are being moved out of the trenches,” Hestia told her. “Not much use to us now, and the enemy can’t use them, either.”

“The clockworks attack them?”

“We sent a prisoner in and he nearly lost a leg to the razortails.”

Vanth nodded. “So, what do I do?”

“We’ve got plenty of spare bunks. More than plenty. Ares and Artemis are gonna be fighting for a bit longer, but they’ll come up with something soon. Pluto should be here, along with Djehuty and Safkhet.”

“A real war council then?”

“We can’t just wait for round two. Pluto is moving his… men into the fore-trenches. The gas isn’t a problem for them and the clockworks don’t seem to notice dead.”

Vanth nodded and glanced at a bed near the wall. “Mind if I sleep there?”

“I do, soldier. That’s my bunk.”

 

***

 

Ares himself woke her just an hour or so later.

“Need you in the big tent,” he said. “Wear clean clothes.”

“Only ones I got,” Vanth muttered back.

“Not yours?” Ares pointed to her bunk.

A new coat and boots sat on the end next to a stack of clean fatigues. “Never mind.”

“Two minutes.”

Ares turned on his heel and left the tent.

Vanth scrubbed her face and pulled the new coat on. Her boots fit a little loose, so she doubled up on socks and headed across the compound.

Safkhet and Djehuty, her husband, sat at a round table that hadn’t been there this morning. Artemis and Pluto bickered with Ares on the other side.

Vanth scooted along the wall and sat by Artemis’ desk.

“I’m pretty sure we can work out some type of anti-clockwork solution,” Djehuty said. “Maybe with magnetics. Where is Hephaestus, again?”

“In hiding. I want him safe.” Ares looked over and shook his head. “I’m not gambling with lives. We should burn the trenches and move back, match up with the human lines for now.”

“I’m not giving an inch before we have to,” Artemis said. “What else we got.”

“A violent death?” Safkhet offered.

Djehuty cleared his throat. “Sorry, Safkhet, but I agree with Artemis, we should wait this out and see what happens.”

“No,” Pluto told them. “We should wait for proper intel. All we know now is that we’ve lost some trenches. Those snakes are near useless out of the water and the hyenas aren’t real ones, just some type of automatic attack clockwork. They might not even have anymore of them. We could be panicking for nothing.”

“Thousands are ready to steamroll the whole front, all the human armies, gods—whatever’s in their path dies.” Reynard stood in the light of the tent door, dramatically unwrapping a blood red scarf.

“Just what we needed, another civilian commanding too much power,” Ares complained.

“Missed you, too, handsome. But that’s not what I’m here for. I’ve got the intel and it’s all bad.”

Djehuty stood up. “And how did you obtain this intel?”

Reynardine simply grinned, but somehow it felt more like a brag. “A multitude of sins.”

“The sins wouldn’t include a report with them would they?” Ares asked.

“Tell you all you want later, sir. But definitely not until Safkhet handles the mole,” Reynard said. “Never know what might happen and you know how I feel about being exposed.”

Dhejuty relaxed, dropping back into his chair. “More games and tricks. We might as well have Sutah, or Hermes, running our spies.”

“I tried to recruit them,” Reynard admitted. “Not important right now. So, who wants to guess how many operators it takes to work these mechanical miscreants?”

“Does it help us?” Artemis asked.

“Of course. Vanth!” Reynard waved at her. “Want to demonstrate your ghost skill for us? Die, I guess.”

“Why?”

“Just showing them something.”

The goddess let her spirit go and her body slumped to the floor.

She looked over herself, eying the bruises lining her face from the fight. Hyenas had strong jaws, probably would have crushed her skull if the gas masks leather and steel hadn’t slowed it down.

Vanth looked up, at the gods and Reynard… And a ghost cat, reclining on his shoulder. The spirit feline wore a tiny patch over one eye, and gave Vanth a conspiratorial wink, before focusing on the meeting.

Vanth hopped back into her body and decided to ask Reynard about his phantom cat friend later. She sat up. “And?”

Reynard lit a cigarette. “The machine controlling them uses the same magic. It’s all ran by one soul. A psychopomp like Vanth. We take him out and we can call this good. They can rebuild, but by the time they find another psychopomp able to use the machine this thing will be over.”

A buzzing started in Vanth’s head. She had a strange suspicion about the psychopomp on the other end.

“About the traitor,” Safkhet asked. “Why will I handle them?”

“Just a moment,” the trickster said. “Also we have another smaller issue, in that the control station is in enemy territory. Little town with a sexy sounding name and enough Germans to keep even Artemis busy smashing skulls.”

“We’ll send whatever we need to,” Ares promised.

“Small group is best. More an assassination than anything.”

“If this thing even exists,” Djehuty started, “what troops will we send? Do you have any proof of this claim? What kind of ragtag plan is this?”

“Only the best, love, like all my ragtag plans,” Reynard said with a wink. “I’m not going, though. I’m just the messenger and people tend to shoot them. Or at them.”

“I’ll go,” Vanth said, sure Reynard had planned this and completely unsure how she felt about that. But she had to know. “I’ve got the skills for it, right?”

“And I,” Artemis added.

Safkhet raised a hand and then, after a long grimace at his wife, Djehuty.

“Good,” Reynard said.

“The traitor now?” Safkhet asked.

“Hmm?” The Fox stopped. “Oh, right. My contact couldn’t get them to sit for a photo, but they took this necklace after a little sheet bound shuffle.”

Djehuty’s hand went to his throat before Reynard dropped the chain. A silver quarter-moon clattered to the table.

Safkhet raised her rifle, WPD glowing like a tiny pale sun, and splattered her husband’s brains over the tent.

Drops of blood covered the shiny moon.

 

Chapter Six: Tunnel

 

Vanth loaded her kit up. She didn’t bring marching gear, so Hestia gave her a spare pack. Excellent supply of food—enough cookies to last all the way to Berlin—although they were only going a few hundred kilometers.

Even included a friendly note apologizing for her earlier rudeness. The cookies were plenty enough to cover that, but Vanth would thank her in person later.

The tent flap rustled and Artemis stepped inside with a small shipping crate.

“Got these in last week,” she said without preamble. The goddess popped the lid and removed a revolver with a small white tank fitted into the grip. “Bulldog’s outfitted with WPD. Primes the whole load. Six shots.”

Vanth whistled. “Now that’s a nice roscoe.”

“Snub nosed and chambered for .44. I have a good supply.” She pulled a steel box from the larger one. “Should be enough, right? Hestia came looking for rounds, and hell, they’re not doing much good on my desk.”

Vanth picked up the pistol. “This is an upgrade. Didn’t think pistols would work for the prayer disruptor.”

“Hephaestus used meteorite in the actual bullet, only thing that can survive the heat of the spell without a diffuser. Also keeps a lot of the bullet intact, so more penetration and damage.”

“Expensive rounds?”

“The ones that won’t melt after a few yards, yeah.”

“In a trench, that ain’t bad.”

“If they don’t melt in the gun.”

That wouldn’t be great, especially if she pulled the trigger again without noticing. “Thanks, it’s a nice weapon.”

“Not entirely a gift, Vanth.”

She gingerly and quickly sat the pistol on the bed. “And…”

“We’re leaving Safkhet here with Ares,” she said. “She wants to go, but it’s a bad idea I think.”

“So just us?”

“No,” she looked around. “We’ve got reinforcements coming in and it’s the Nottyon Wolves. Isengrim himself is leaving his troop and going with us.”

Vanth shrugged. “So? He’s on our side, can’t be that bad.”

“He’s only here to chase after Reynardine, doesn’t want to be left behind in the Fox’s bid for more power. We’ve had issues with his men…”

“Issues?”

“Violence toward civilians. Rapes. Neither I or Ares or the Fates condone any violence against—”

“Ares? Really?”

“He’s never considered rape a spoil of war—” she stopped. “This isn’t important, Isengrim is. If he lives up to his men’s reputation you are to put one in his head. I will myself, but if I’m the one…”

Vanth picked up the gun. “Don’t gotta tell me twice, Lady Artemis.”

“Artie, is fine, Vanth. We’re partners now, okay? You and me against whatever else the war throws at us.”

“You trust me that much?”

Artemis reached into the tin of lavender cookies. “May I?”

“Got enough for the company here.”

“I never get them. On rare occasions, Hes will make me a sweet or two. For normal stuff, but she holds back the best for her favorites.” Artemis bit into the cookie. “I thought I was one of the favorites too, V. Enjoy the shut eye. We move at dawn.”

***

Pluto led them through his trenches and the masses of dead collapsed to rotting knees at their master’s approach. Vanth brought up the rear, Artemis, carrying the Bergmann MP 18,  in front of her and Isengrim just behind Pluto. The dead stood as they passed, shuffling back to the center of their muddy trench.

Vanth didn’t know what to expect of the Wolf. He didn’t have the best reputation, but who did?

Isengrim was taller than the Fox by half a foot, probably up near seven. Muscled like a bodybuilder and carrying a pack large enough for two. A Lewis Hurl rested next to the bag. No scope, but he used the ninety-seven round magazine. He also American revolver on each hip. Sword on his back too, or near enough for one, with a curved foreign style blade. He pulled his dark gray hair into a ponytail and if the Wolf could speak, he’d declined every chance.

Artemis didn’t seem nervous today, but she carried herself with an air of almost obscene bravado and Vanth wondered if that was its own type of nerves.

Pluto stopped before the lines of the dead and looked around, shuffling in his long coat. “Got any final words?”

Isengrim walked past quietly. Artemis whispered something and smiled, before following the Wolf into the fog.

“Cookies are a friendly gift, right?” Vanth asked Pluto. “Like, you’d give just anyone a pile of them if you baked, right?”

He rolled his eyes and Artemis burst through the fog to tug her along into the nearly empty trench. Vanth wondered about the lonely post, but a line of wax sealed explosives answered that. This wasn’t a real trench, just a passage that needed to be dug.

Straight to another tunnel. Strange. Artemis dropped in first and Vanth took the plunge. Her eyes instantly adjusted to the tunnel’s scant light; psychopomps were never lost in the dark.

The tunnel seemed to light up around her, showing Artemis’s wide unfocused eyes. “Isengrim?” she asked. “You’re lead. Will you light a candle?” Artemis stuck a finger up her nose.

“I can see in the dark,” Vanth said. “Everything.”

Artemis pulled her finger out of her nose and quietly wiped it on the dirt wall. “Isengrim? Is he even there? I can’t see shit in this hole. You go first then, Vanth.”

“Yes,” his voice rumbled through the tunnel. “Soldier Vanth?” The Wolf moved to the side.

“Thanks.” Vanth squeezed past him and he crept behind her.

Artemis took the rear, glancing nervously at the walls. “Hate confined spaces. Got caught in an avalanche once. Stuck there until spring.”

“Home turf for me,” Vanth said. “My realm was deep in the Earth, but I had a really nice sky of glowing red mushrooms for a ceiling. Always loved that color.”

“This tunnel smells,” Isengrim rumbled, “like flowers and sugar.”

“I brought cookies,” Vanth said. “It’s a dangerous world, never know when we’ll need an emergency tea.”

The Wolf might have chuckled, or maybe choked on a pile of rocks for a brief moment, but he didn’t speak anymore.

Artemis laughed a bit, before she too fell silent.

All the brown and red dirt blended after a while, Vanth didn’t see the tunnel end until they were nearly against the wall. “Hold. How do I get out of here?”

“Dig the last foot,” Artemis said. “Should be behind the enemy lines, at the edge of their trench work. We dug this tunnel to sneak in and shoot them all last Christmas, but the bastards sidetracked us with chocolates and football.”

“Sneaky fucking Gerry.” Vanth used her bayonet on the wall, slicing through and into a dark room. Men snored on simple wooden bunks and low camp beds.

One rolled over and another farted.

Vanth squeaked and turned back. Isengrim poked his head out of the tunnel and shook slowly. He reached a hand out and pushed Vanth forward. She cursed in her head and stood.

The poorly dug earthen room smelled terrible, but the men looked worse. One was awake, but she recognized the ticks and turns of his head. Battle fatigue. He might be conscious, but no one was really home.

Nearby, another shifted and started rubbing low on his pants.

Silent as death, as was her nature, Vanth crept toward the exit.

Isengrim and Artemis swept through like aspects of night, pure stealth in every step.

Vanth crossed into the trench, checking left and right. Single guard, but looking through a scope into no-man’s land. He didn’t even notice Artemis slitting his throat, or fight as she leaned his bleeding body against a wall.

Behind Vanth, a shuffle and a quiet thunk wounded the silence.

Isengrim held a man’s mouth and pinned him to a bed. His other hand grasped the long knife, plunged deep into his captive’s throat. Blood dripped from the side of the pillow.

Artemis swept past, dragging Vanth into the opening. “Move,” she mouthed.

Isengrim followed as a shadow crept from the hole in the wall.

Safkhet, with just a rifle in one hand. She jumped nimbly over the dying soldier.

Artemis shook with rage.

The four of them cut through the trench, following Artemis’ silent pointers. Sure enough, they didn’t meet a single patrol.

(Continue Reading)

Why We Fight: A Glass Idols Tale (Ch. 3 – 4)

Chapter Three: Verdun Run

 

Vanth slowed and stared into a forest reduced to bare trees and shards of broken stumps.

The townspeople would have taken cover here when the Germans marched through. And so, they bombed the trees. Safer than sending soldiers into the forest.

Even if Vanth could help the ghosts lingering among the ruined timber, she didn’t have time.

More miles than moments.

Roads weren’t entirely safe, but she used them anyway. The German’s patrols and Cloaked soldiers made enough noise to spot a mile off. She skipped around the loud fools and ran through trees or stinking marshes left by the mortars and heavy rain.

Bodies rotted in some of the worst areas, often with shocked ghosts still working out their own cause of death.

Vanth took a chance and ran straight through a mostly empty town in better shape than her lonely village had been. Food cooked somewhere in its boundaries, some type of meaty stew.

Smelled lovely, but she’d learned her lesson already.

Hours stumbled by in counts of bombed out fields and rubble strewn towns. A hazy sun almost brightened the day until about ten A.M. when rain pissed from the skies. Vanth hated running in the downpour, but the cool water eased her aching throat.

Dusk fell and she felt her legs again for the first time all day. The pain and the needles and all the weakness of mortal flesh. She needed prayers or rest to heal the damage.

Her lungs started to hurt and the goddess wondered if this body could die from exhaustion. Her old ones never had, but she’d never pushed one like this.

She heard shelling getting closer all the time, but the front didn’t really stand out until she topped the last hill.

In half-a-dozen steps, the countryside went from war ravaged to the end of the world. Vanth knew that if civilization truly died in this endless battle, barbed wire would serve as tombstone and machine gunfire as funeral dirges. She could feel the truth echo in each tick of her overworked heart.

Vanth’s weapon bumped against her back as she headed East. Down a side path and into the trees, where mortals found only fear and darkness.

Hidden by magic, Pluto and Hades played their strengths. Acres of the dead manned cursed trenches, an open air labyrinth grave.

Vanth scurried into the nearest gap in the line and started through the festering crowd of old bodies. Her skin crawled more with each step, almost like an ache. She’d have never allowed the zombies if her Pantheon still held any sort of sway.

The dead deserved better, but the brass didn’t care about the opinions of their sacrificial lambs.

She often wondered if her body would find a way to the long, waking hell of these trenches and if her soul might live to see it.

Vanth stopped for a few gasping breaths—the world seemed hazy and her chest hurt worse than before—and a moment to clear her thoughts.

Melancholy never saved any lives.

Nowhere close to centered, but in a rush, Vanth pushed her way through, looking for any signs of the living.

A plume of bluish smoke caught her eyes and she followed the twisting lines.

Three soldiers nursed a bowl of cocaine in a circle.

One pulled his pistol, but the other two barely noticed her.

Vanth raised her hands, although the ache in her chest got worse. “Whoa, soldier. Just looking for command.”

“At the main camp,” he answered in a heavy Scottish brogue.

“Who is this,” one asked, revealing a black, forked tongue. Scales shined beneath a heavy layer of camouflage magic. Some type of snake man.

“I’m Vanth, from special ops. Directions to Ares? Or we walk there together?” Maybe carry me? Before I collapse.

“Follow the main trench another two branches and turn left,” the snake man said. “Should be a company of men somewhere there. The corporal will have a better idea.”

Vanth nodded and entered another damned trench. She found a lieutenant first, a Brit from their Expeditionary Force. The brass traded troops now and then for coded ops. Vanth didn’t know the whole situation, but she spent a pleasant week outside London learning how to use her Lewis gun with the British Expeditionary Force and all the humans at that base seemed in the know.

“Ares?” she asked.

“The black gent?” he asked, then pointed behind him. “Up with the rest of the top drawer.” The man didn’t look at her, instead staring down the trench she’d walked from.

Vanth glanced back, but it was just the usual shambling corpses. “There a problem, Lieutenant?”

“The fog is really thick there. I didn’t even notice our line extending that way.”

And some mortals are enchanted out of their gourd. If the clock kept time, no need to mess with the gears, but Vanth truly didn’t care for these world wars. “Nothing I see that way.

He nodded and looked at her.

“As you were, then.” Vanth saluted.

“Certainly, madam.”

Vanth hadn’t really needed to ask, fifty-feet farther down the path, Ares voice carried across the field. No mistaking that deep rumble.

She stumbled through the last trenches and down a path. In a wide field, the tents started. HQ was near the back, in a long khaki tent secured with actual struts instead of simple rope and pegs.

Vanth lifted the weighted door flap and stepped inside.

Ares stood in the center of the room, shirtless and wearing half a face of shaving cream. The yells stopped as she entered, but Vanth could see from the sword in Artemis’s hand that coincidence gifted the silence.

“Evening, folks,” she wheezed.

Ares turned, golden eyes tracking her up and down. Pale scars lined his thick arms, a history of the War God’s battles marred his black skin. Rumor had it that he was half-Egyptian, the product of Hera’s wandering eye and Sutah’s easy charm.

“You look half-dead, soldier,” Ares rumbled.

“She’s a psychopomp,” Artemis said, eyes shining with godly magic. “Probably normal for her. State your name. Business here?”

“Vanth. Etruscan,” she gasped, feeling decidedly not normal as the chest ache moved lower. “Safkhet’s company. Death goddess, too. Not just a psychopomp.”

Artemis sheathed her blade.

“Is there a reason for your presence?” Ares asked.

Vanth opened her mouth and winced at a burst of pain in her jaw. “Uhh, well, there’s something coming this way. New war machines?”

“And this is news why?” Artemis picked up a bag and dumped a tiny rifle onto the table Vanth leaned against. “This is a Bergmann MP 18, a new German machine gun.”

“Small,” Vanth muttered. The whole world seemed a little dark and small, but that could be the tent’s simple oil lights.

“Uses pistol rounds,” Ares told her. “Maneuverable. Good for cutting through trenches and outfitted with large capacity magazines.”

Artemis shook her head. “Always a new cog in the meat grinder.”

“But the Fox, Reynard the Fox, sent me.” Vanth coughed and took a deep breath, but the air didn’t seem to help. “He said it was big, everyone here would die.”

Ares laughed. “No, last time we took intel from him, the damned—”

“He said that he still longs for Athens. And then to wink,” Vanth added, still gasping. “Which I figure you can just picture.”

The God of War blushed, walked to the sink and busied himself with shaving.

“Lord Ares?” Artemis asked, smile wicked and tone ringing with innocence. “Big brother, did something happen between you and Reynard in Athens? Something that perhaps—”

“I’ll kill the bastard,” Ares said, voice a jagged rumble. “He’s being honest. He’d never bring up Athens otherwise. This is important, Artemis.”

She looked to Vanth with a brow raised then back at Ares. “If you say so.”

A weird pressure started in Vanth’s lungs. Like a weight from nowhere. “He also said ‘Vulcan and Hephaestus had the same idea, but the first is quicker.’ Any ideas what he meant?”

They both nodded and met eyes, but didn’t share.

“Did he say anything else?” Artemis asked.

Vanth shook her head as the lights went out.

 

Chapter Four: Like Clockwork

 

Vanth woke in a real bed and relative quiet.

Artemis left a note to stop by the chow tent and then come see her for further orders. Simple words, but the message was pretty clear: Vanth had officially been moved to the front for the duration of the siege.

“Should never have checked on that damned light,” she muttered. After a cold birdbath in the borrowed tent, Vanth headed out in search of food.

The mess tent smelled like bacon and eggs, so she figured it must be morning.

A short, thick woman with long hair and a husky singing voice crooned while kneading a brown dough. She wore civilian clothes, but in military colors. A plain sweater and skirt that stopped about mid-calf.

Vanth waited at the counter for long as her stomach would stand, before she said. “Excuse me?”

The cook turned and smiled at her. “Everything’s ready if you’re hungry. Just grab a plate and serve yourself, I’m…” She held up two dough covered hands.

“Thank you, Miss,” Vanth nodded.

She turned to look Vanth over and her red eyes sparked. “You new?”

“In a way.” Vanth scooped eggs onto her plate. “I’m on special detail, but I’m here on extended loan.”

“Really? Impressive. I just make the food.”

“That’s impressive to me,” Vanth assured her.

“I’m Hestia.”

“Vanth,” she said. “Etruscan.”

Hestia nodded. “Oh, I’ve heard of you. The psychopomp prodigy, right? They say you got a nice singing voice.”

“I don’t use my chthonic magic much these days, but I can carry a tune. I’m a death goddess, too. And you’re the dethroned Olympian, right?”

“Not anymore. The black veil was taken off Dionysus’s seat this week. If we weren’t at war, I’d be a high god again.”

“That’s swell. Congratulations.”

Hestia sighed, then offered a half-smile that had probably seen better days. “Don’t mean so much. If we lose, I’ll probably be executed with the rest of you gunnies. If we win, there won’t be a throne.”

“I’ll still address you as Lord, all the same.”

Hestia chuckled, a deep, honest humor strong enough to draw Vanth’s smile. “For that, I’ll get the cookies started early today. Give you some about an hour from now, okay, sweetie?”

“Looking forward to it,” Vanth said. “What time is it?”

“Three A.M.”

Two hours from the Fox’s deadline. “Might want to bake fast.”

“That doesn’t sound good.”

“You have a gun?”

Hestia reached under the counter and pulled out a model ‘97 shotgun with a thin bayonet. “Gotta hunt with something,” she said. “Lots of boars nearby.”

Vanth nodded. “Good bacon.”

“Thanks. Got some sausage if you’re interested.”

“Please.”

Hestia tossed a few familiar smelling links into a pan. They sizzled and popped while Vanth cleaned up another serving of potatoes and eggs.

Artemis stomped in with a wave, collected coffee, and sat down far enough off for privacy.

Vanth preferred eating alone this morning, anyway. She wanted to enjoy her delicious food and not hear how they were all doomed.

Others showed up, mostly for carriers loaded with breakfast for the soldiers in the trench.

Vanth didn’t realize the entirety of their situation, but an empty mess at this hour couldn’t bode well for their numbers.

Although she got a third plate with little trouble, so that was pretty nice. Loaded down with six of the sausages Reynardine had served her.

Vanth finished two of the greasy links before she asked, “Are these local?”

“Hmm?” Hestia looked over. “No, those are my own recipe.”

Ares walked to the counter and served himself a pile of eggs.

Vanth finished chewing her sausage. “They’re quite good. I’ve never had them before the other night and—”

Hestia went completely still, besides her bright red eyes, flashing with barely tempered rage. “Where did you have them then?”

“Oh, well… Reynard says, ‘hello’…”

With a scream that would chill even a frost giant’s heart, Hestia snapped a wooden cutting board. “I’ll cut his tail off!”

Ares attempted tried to calm her down, then keep her from going straight after the Fox, but he simply got a hard elbow to the face for his troubles.

Hestia took some calming tea, swearing dark vengeance while it brewed. Through the threats, Vanth ascertained that a number of rations disappeared recently and that the Fox had indeed been at camp.

The news didn’t surprise her, but the fire in the chef did.

Lot of things striking about her.

But Vanth didn’t have time for new friends, really, although she hung around for her lavender shortbread cookies before meeting Artemis.

Who sent her directly to the damned trenches.

Passing through hadn’t been so bad compared to actually standing on the wooden plank. Being assigned to the stinking watery, graves set a whole other shade on the affair.

Least it’s the living in this one.

The enemy across the way didn’t seem keen on attacking, although the occasional rifle shot or machine gun burst echoed from both sides.

Her new trench mates might have been nice enough, but she’d arrived with news of a mystery attack. That was even before showing up at the trench with hot cookies and tea.

Vanth might as well have kicked them in the balls. And she would’ve before sharing her tasty prize.

Fuckers live near the mess tent. I never even knew about the blasted sweets.

Of course, they also didn’t know about the backstock of cookies in her bag back in the ten. The chef promised more, too.

Apparently selling out the Fox could be lucrative.

Not a bad idea, considering he probably got her body killed at least. In her ghost form, only another psychopomp could damage her. Or a death god. She might end up maimed, always that chance—damaged, but stuck in this corpse.

Vanth would sell the bastard out again if she could.

Another soldier leaned out of the fog. “Masks on. Forward men spotted gas. Pass it down the line.”

Vanth sent the word along to the nexts soldier, pulling her own gasmask from the belt hook. She fixed the mask tight, tugging the straps until they hurt. Better to have a headache tonight than poor vision. Flush masks worked better, too, according to her training. She’d never worn one in a proper fight.

A wolf outfitted with a gas mask and armor passed by. Likely one of the Norse clan of wolves, brought on by Tyr’s joining.

Word had it the Fox accomplished that feat as well, although half the good tales she heard these days involved that trickster, and, in her experience, you couldn’t trust a single one.

A quiet rattling beneath the wooden planks caught Vanth’s attention. Vanth aimed her Lewis gun down, but the watery bottom didn’t seem deep enough to hold a soldier. The sound faded, seconds later another passed with a slow ripple of the water.

The gas rolled over them, as half the men aimed guns to the floor.

“Sergeant said to step lively,” a voice said. A woman, maybe Artemis—hard to tell in the haze and the masks.

Another ripple passed with the rattling sound. From somewhere in the distance, someone screamed. Shots cracked the air, and then silence and heartbeats that felt even louder.

Every ear strained for hint of the reason behind the quiet.

Screams and bullets flew in Vanth’s own trench, out of sight but a mere five yards away. She dived to the wall, scurrying along in the muck to stay out of the center. Guns and screams echoed closer. Someone screamed about a snake, and Vanth looked down to see a living chain of bronze and leather twisting around her boot.

Letting the gun drop and catch on her shoulder strap, Vanth pulled her pistol and cut the snake in half. Another took its place and she put a bullet through the front end.

“Bayonets! Clubs and Shovels!” someone shouted down the line. Vanth holstered the pistol and stomped on the muddy ground.

A click sounded from the muddy water and a long knife shot from the tail.

Before Vanth could move, the blade pierced clean through her ankle. The goddess spun the Lewis rifle from her shoulder and smashed the snake with the gun’s oversized cooling barrel. Falling back, she caught herself on the other wall.

Snakes flashed by under the boards as blood dyed the muddy trench water. Shredded flesh from the razor-tailed snakes drifted along.

Pulling herself upright onto the trench board, Vanth stepped on the snake, grinding the twitching head under her boot in spite of the pain.

The wounded ankle started to knit, but she didn’t have enough latent energy left for a complete heal. The extra prayers in her pocket were tempting, but a few snakes—

“Hyena!” someone screamed.

Vanth pulled out the glass flask and shook the bright gold liquid. The concoction spun, she sipped half of the sweet prayers in one go. Blood pumped in her head, but the chaos of the world settled with a long shudder.

Vanth’s body shook and the gas faded to a mild blur. More a nuisance than an actual obstruction.

Powered by the mortal prayers, Vanth healed the wound in the scant seconds it took to draw her Lewis Hurl.

Only about ten people left standing in her trench, most on the boards. Near the other end, the outline of a hyena ripped at a floored man.

Sighting the head, Vanth fired a burst.

The clockwork sparked and just a tiny hint of soul, real natural spirit, wiggled free and faded into the gas.

Vanth stride forward, gun raised, and careful to keep to the middle of the wooden walkway. She hopped most of a dead soldier and landed next to the shattered hyena.

The metal skull took all three hits, leaving round holes and just one wide exit wound.

Vanth poked at the remains, caught up in the odd formation of gears and brass piping.

Far too caught up.

A clockwork hyena sailed from the top of the trench and latched onto Vanth’s face.

Teeth pierced her mask’s lining, but the thick leather saved her flesh from the bronze hyena’s maw.

Chaos exploded as the real attack hit. Dozens of clockwork hyenas flooded over the barrier.

Vanth dropped her rifle and pulled her pistol, but a second hyena caught her arm. The goddess screamed into her gasmask, fogging the inside with her lavender breath, and kicked at the hyena on top of her.

A gun fired above her, a single shot taking the first down. Vanth punched the hyena on her wrist, knocking the clockwork into the standing water. The snakes attacked with a shrieking chorus of metal.

Vanth looked up at her savior.

Artemis, silver eyes glowing with godly energy, filling the trench with round after round from the Bergmann MP 18. She didn’t even aim, just shot from the hip. Each trigger pull ended a clockwork in a shower of sparks, gears, and shreds of soul.

After a dozen kills, Artemis reloaded and waved at Vanth to pull back.

Blood ran down her arm, but Vanth wanted her rifle more than she cared about the pain. No sign of it on the walkway, so she plunged her hand into the trench and came up with a scratched barrel, and a blown apart action—an unlucky snake must have struck the magazine.

Vanth left the pieces, best burial she could manage, and drew her Scythe from thin air. She felt odd carrying a bladed weapon to a gunfight, but better than just a pistol.

Half-empty pistol. Need to get more rounds for that, too.

The gas blew off the field as they climbed to the HQ compound. Artemis led her to a tent. The whole area looked clear right to the sky.

Vanth stepped inside and found Ares sipping tea with a stack of books in front of him. “Figures.”

Artemis pulled off her gasmask. “He’s more useful with strategy.”

“I’m making notes for when we get overrun, too,” Ares added. “So historians will know how we died.”

Vanth snorted. “That sounds very positive. Glad our leaders aren’t losing faith.”

“Artemis mention how many we lost just now? Do you have any idea what our situation is?”

Vanth nodded. “Sure, we gabbed. Even stopped for a smoke and tea on the way through the gas and clockwork monster filled trenches. The brew tasted a bit mustardy, but it helped the sandwiches.”

“Nonsense,” Ares replied. “Hestia makes wonderful sandwiches.”

Vanth knew sarcasm came from the Greeks, but most she met were awful at the art.

“We lost about half,” Artemis said. “And I mean just lost. We have no idea what happened to half of our troops in about an hour. They’re either cut off or dead.”

“Well, with mechanical snakes in the water and similar hyenas about, I’m not surprised.”

“The other half is mostly wounded. Not a lot of deaths, but… for our numbers a human without a foot is better off dead. You and one other made it out of that trench.” Artemis walked to a cabinet and poured a large tumbler from a crystal bottle.

Ares tossed his notepad on the desk. “Oh, yes. Getting drunk is really going to help our situation.”

Artemis stuck her tongue out at him and then drained her cup. “If I see another option, I’ll take it. Until then, the bottle it is. Helps me think.”

“I’ve experienced that effect myself,” Vanth added helpfully

Artemis poured a second cup and carried the drink to Vanth. “We don’t have anything to replace a WPD like your Lewis, but we might have a nice rifle or two. Drink up and go see the quartermaster.”

Vanth gratefully sipped the harsh whisky. “Quartermaster?”

“Hestia,” Ares told her. “We are really short-handed.”

(Continue Reading)

Why We Fight: A Glass Idols Tale (Ch. 1 – 2)

(Content warning: violence, mild sexual content and humor, drug use, some ableist language, mentioned rumors of sexual assault.)

Chapter One: Trolling

 

The scouts opened fire before Vanth spotted them. She’d been occupied, watching the first drops of rain sparkle as they careened to Earth.

Weather didn’t affect a gunfight. Modern battles were less beholden to the skies than the ones of her youth, but Vanth liked the cool water pouring over her uniform all the same. She stood with her head to the sky and her rifle leaned against a railing. A circle of sun shined behind the clouds.

Bullets whistled past, white and red lines, with magic strong enough to kill gods; an end to the infinite in a spark of thoughtless fire.

Peace and rain would have to wait, Vanth had gotten into another war.

A bullet puckered the concrete in the road, tossing flecks of concrete. Terrible shots, but even a skilled marksman didn’t stand a chance of actually hitting her body. She sat across the bridge, invisible to all but the sharpest eyes, while a shadow of herself played with the shooters.

Mortals might have godly weapons now, but they never really stood a proper chance.

Her shadow flipped the Lewis machine rifle over and Vanth followed suit.

The .303 caliber weapon had been specially outfitted for walk and fire tactics with a heavy forward grip under the barrel shroud. Good for mid-range, but Hephaestus added a short-range brass scope for a few lucky soldiers. The Lewis Model-H Long Range, or Hurl, was top of the line in god and mortal tech, and the goddess cherished her own.

Vanth sighted the first one, a werewolf in human clothes. He’d carved holes in the helmet for his long ears.

Her crosshairs landed right on the center in the swirl of one long ear, and Vanth squeezed her trigger.

The bullet passed neat, catching her target’s soul in the wake, sparking like a star, and leaving another corpse for Pluto’s trenches. His buddy, a siren with hair too gorgeous to ruin, got one in the chest.

After a quick sweep of the opposite bank with her scope, Vanth put the gun down and sat against the wall. Her shadow followed, and took out a ghostly apple the goddess didn’t have.

The funny magical puppet started to take a bite, but paused and held out the dark piece of fruit.

Vanth waved the offer away. “Waiting for the chow runner.”

It shrugged and dug into the spectral fruit.

No more patrols happened by and Vanth didn’t mind at all. She liked the peace, even if the aching quiet sometimes grew tenser than working the forward listening posts on moonless nights.

Bullets punctuated her thought, putting a full stop on them, and tearing straight through her shadow in mid-chew. The apparition vanished in a flash of spent prayers that left gold dust on the sidewalk.

Vanth rolled and lifted her Lewis gun. Across the bridge, a soldier darted between buildings.

The being entered one door, Vanth aimed for the other side of the building.

Dark motion.

And Vanth pulled the trigger twice. Her shots passed through and golden dust speckled the air.

A shadow? “Oh, fuck me.”

Just behind Vanth’s head, the hammer of a handgun clicked back.

“Weapon down,” a muffled voice ordered.

Vanth kept the weapon ready.

Moments passed with the pistol pressed to her neck. The British helmet stopped too high, but the old ones stood out to the mortals. She’d survive the wound, but the healing would take a while.

Long enough for the attacker to take her gun. She’d have some real issues then.

Vanth breathed deep and prepared to die.

After that, she could sneak up on this sonovabitch and beat the hell out of them. This body could really die even, long as her soul stayed whole she could work out a deal for a new meat puppet. Maybe get one from the soldier’s healing corps, Vanth didn’t read her contract real well.

“Bang,” the voice said, loud and clear.

Vanth recognized the thick Egyptian accent right away. “Oi, fuck off Sakhet. I almost pissed myself. If I’d gotten chow, I might’ve.”

Safkhet, Vanth’s commanding officer, smiled down at her and uncocked the weapon. Her black skin shined with reddish brown undertones. The other goddess had shaved her long braids recently, so a gasmask would fit, but Vanth rather liked the tight black curls she wore now. “Keeping my bridge troll sharp.”

“For what? Easiest duty I ever pulled. The shadow puppet spells are so new even the Fox doesn’t know them yet. He was pretty impressed with mine when he strolled through last week.”

Safkhet lifted a delicate eyebrow. “Who do you think taught me?”

Vanth shook her head and sat down. “A Myth being that fucking—”

“Language.”

“A fucking nine-titted whore of a Myth being that fucking clever with divine magic isn’t a good thing for anyone Safkhet.”

“He’s on our side.”

Vanth snorted. “He’s on his own side. I’ve run into Reynard before, he’s just not someone you should trust.”

Safkhet rolled her eyes and set a tin box on the sidewalk. “Lunch. Two bob for hot delivery next time.”

“I gave you a crown Tuesday morning,” Vanth said. “And I don’t think it’s ever really been all that hot Safkhet.”

She gave a long, hollow laugh. “Pull closer duty. Or volunteer for special. You know, be more than a bridge troll? And the money goes to the war.”

“Who pays me then?”

“Artemis is funding the soldiers, but we just can’t afford to feed and pay you and the pay system was in place before when we could afford to feed the smaller number of troops we had.” The goddess stretched. “Get the food out and I’ll be sure and bring a few of the rations with the fuel cakes next time okay?”

“And something to drink? Rum?” Vanth developed the taste in her privateer days and being without for too long felt odd. “More tobacco? Tuxedo, if they got any.”

“Vanth, you can buy that shit when you’re off duty.”

“Well, I had a plan to stay on duty for a while longer…”

“Well, I didn’t and I make the plans,” Safkhet told her. “You’re almost up for back row.”

“I don’t need the rest.”

“You sleeping okay by yourself up here?”

“I’m not just a goddess, I’m a psychopomp, too. I can stay up forever.” She stopped. “More or less.”

“Oh.” Safkhet looked around. “Are you gonna be dead if I come back through here?”

Vanth shrugged. “If I’ve got an extra shovel, I might as well dig a trench, right?”

 

Chapter Two: Light Tricks

 

Vanth’s soul sat atop the gaslamp.

She didn’t mind being dead. Her body lasted about a week on just one meal worth of rations. Vanth could still fight with her scythe in this form, or reoccupy the meat puppet for MG work. The key to staying dead, was to sit up high and watch over the corpse.

You might think being occupied by both the Germans, and a few gods in their own quiet war, would curb Belgium’s body snatching trade, but anything to earn a few marks.

Not to mention the perverts.

Besides them, and the occasional patrol, the city had been mostly abandoned since the French took it back. Two small skirmishes, but the Germans didn’t put much effort into the area, either. Nothing worth fighting over or leaving any men behind. According to the humans, anyway.

But the second of the three Fates thought the city worth a goddess. More specifically, the bridge over the river. Vanth literally jumped at the chance, leaping out of her seat and into the easy life. Days spent in blessed quiet, reading any book she could salvage. Solitude was the best a paid gunny could ask for in a war of this scale.

Vanth could handle a good number of mortals, and if things got hairy, she carried two full prayer doses in a flask. The boosters weren’t strictly on level with the Fates’ rules, but what the old bitches didn’t know, wouldn’t hurt them. Vanth never saw much use in rules anyway. She could follow whatever path lead her to where she needed to be. The Fate’s might bitch and moan, but they didn’t control things.

Until the Fated alliance could pull through, anyway. And then Artemis would keep the bitches  in line.

If Tyr managed to uphold his end of the plan, of course, and Artemis held the line, they might be able to turn back the death march this war had been since the day Dionysus fell.

Being slain in a drunken brawl during an orgy would have been the way everyone’s favorite cousin wanted to go, but the Fated’s morale suffered heavily.

They weren’t losing, but the number of dead and wounded could never be considered truly winning.

Vanth herself taken a bullet to the thigh last year. Bottled prayer and her own magic healed the damage. A few inches over, she’d have bled out before healing. Luck had been a friend since the Balkans. Actually, he might be an in-law, Vanth didn’t keep up with the extended family these days.

After the Romans destroyed her pantheon, the rest of the gods mostly abandoned her. Besides the two other Etruscans left, and the occasional mortal wife, Vanth had wandered alone for centuries. She’d come to love the private life, but the opportunity presented by the war was unique.

If they won, Vanth would be truly free, finally. Able to build a worship, again, or just live wherever. No more hiding.

Stretching the spectral muscles did nothing, and that had never curbed the habit, so Vanth jumped in place a few times, before leaping from the pole and dropping into her body.

Pins and needles in every limb left the goddess shaking and giggling on the ground. Half the blankets rolled off her and hunger pangs sounded from deep within.

Soon as the ticklish pain subsided, she started working on lunch.

Vanth opened her rations kit and smelled the tea immediately, a nice blend actually. The rations were British, but good tea was hit or miss these days. Then again, she might just be getting used to the terrible stuff.

That’s a scary thought.

Two pieces of hardtack were included in the rations package, along with a jar of jam and two tins of bully beef. Mostly fat in the metal containers, but she’d eaten worse.

Vanth poked her steel spoon into the gelatinous mush.

And so much better…

Last a long time on a small amount, though, if she pushed the envelope. Still get paid, too, being dead saved a lot of cash.

Vanth’s didn’t even mind the long hours, she read quietly, using bits of chthonic energy to lift the books, and ignored the world at large as best she could. The typical tour was twenty-one days in slow rotation, front to back. Vanth’s ninety-day guard plan put her outside the norm, but she did like forging her own path.

Or my own bum groove in the concrete. Least the view’s nice.

For a few dozen cold breaths, Vanth watched the tired Meuse river and thought of the rain and the pretty flowers that had begun growing over the villagers’ mass graves.

Ghosts were ten a penny, of course, but psychopomp duties had been suspended for the war. She could give advice to the few ghosts that wandered near, but little else.

Vanth had been around for centuries, and while this was a different style of battle, the old realities never left the art. War cost too much, regardless of the means and certainly exaggerated by them, in this new era of wholesale bloodshed and brass leavings.

Shaking her head, the goddess set up her tin stove and lit the small cake of fuel with a wooden match. Safkhet didn’t bring this ration, she only filled in when needed, so Vanth’s rum didn’t make the trip.

Again.

But she’d found a tin of tobacco and pipe nestled deep in the bag. A hot pipe warmed the soul on frigid nights. Even out of body, somehow the cold always got to her. Warm not so much, but even her ghostly form didn’t care much for icy nights.

Lighting a bowl of the fragrant smoke, she put the water to boil and took a long walk around the small encampment. The latrine crew never made it this far up, but the half-frozen river served. Making her way back to the hideaway, the goddess huddled into the corner of the stone building. She could barely be seen from this side, between the first building and the end of the bridge rail.

Best she could manage.

Her kettle boiled and she filled the canteen before adding a few more cups to the pot. Two servings of tea went into the container and while that steeped, she went to work on her stew.

Using her pen knife, Vanth sliced up the vegetables, a carrot, a tiny potato, and some brown onions, then dropped them into the water. She drank half the tea before they were soft. Draining off the water, she added her beef and the salt and pepper pouches. All of them, the Maconochie stew needed it.

Needed to be tossed in the river, too, but she didn’t want to piss off the local water guardian. Shoveling the mess in with her camp spoon seemed to be the only proper route.

Ideally, Vanth would survive to eat the other can next week, but truth be told the idea of skipping off to Hades for a lifespan or so held some wild appeal.

Or Duat. The war hadn’t even touched them, not their war anyway. The mortal one was more a world type, Vanth heard. The Great War and The Last War, they called it. Some humans thought the world might not see 1920.

Considering the Eleventh Oracle of Delphi told Vanth that should she survive until the 21st century, she’d become horribly addicted to something called Sweet Smasher—and micro-transactions would break her because self-control had never been Vanth’s strength—the goddess had her doubts.

Also, Vanth looked forward to having some extra candy to crush up. Right now, she’d shoot a sibling for an English breakfast and a few pieces of decent shortbread.

That not being an option, Vanth turned back to the rations. Jam was a bit of misnomer for the congealed syrup and part of her tea went to making the biscuit edible—hardtack needed to be soaked and the jam had to be spooned on in globs—but she finished her meal with dessert.

Of sorts. I miss proper Victoria sponge. A nice Battenburg wouldn’t be terrible, either.

The goddess started a second pipe, but even through the smell of fine tobacco, cooking sausage caught her nose. Something hearty and spiced.

Vanth stood and looked for sign of a fire.

In the recesses of a shelled out house, a single flame capered with the night wind.

Suspicion tap danced naturally around the scene, the dead town was creepy enough on its own, but beyond that, the tiny light shouldn’t have been visible at all. The mirror it reflected off shouldn’t have survived, or at least, it would be filthy with bombing dust.

Vanth moved everything to a bag and kicked the remaining fire to the river. She hung her gear off the side of the bridge, away from animals and out of sight.

Slinging the rifle over her back, Vanth carried a colt 1911 in one hand. The pistol would stop most weaker enemies. She had the rifle for tougher enemies and distance work, but a power house wouldn’t have lured her in with the smell of sausage, or even attempted to.

She took the long way and wondered what tricks might be playing through the cool winter air.

The north bridge didn’t survive the Belgian resistance, so Vanth hopped between the larger pieces of ruined stone, and clamored over the last onto dry land. On the way back toward her own bridge, and the mystery smell, she took care to stay low and quiet.

The wind started to howl and the smell of sausage faded.

Vanth approached a back window first, pistol up and safety off. She could only see to the kitchen, but the light didn’t reach the room at all. Her eyes pierced the shadows, but they didn’t see everything.

She crept around to the front, exchanging her pistol for the long bayonet on her hip.

The mortar left a three-yard crater in the road and destroyed the front of the house. A broken mirror against the blackened back wall stood witness to the smashed remains of a life before the world built madness into an industry.

Vanth stepped over cracked bricks and old toys. A knife near the couch looked newer than the bombing, but older than this evening. Dust covered the handle and blade. Old blood and forming rust.

Bits of flower print fabric caught on the hilt. Vanth leaned closer and wondered.

Hardly matters, honestly.

Not like innocence ever slowed a blade. Or stopped a bullet.

She headed to the kitchen and found a stove with a pan of blackened sausages on top. Months old, at least since the bombing. The family might have evacuated during dinner.

Really hope they did.

Vanth crossed her bridge, the last whole bridge in the area and set herself up for another long wait.

She turned for a last check of the house and the small orange light glowed once more. Breathing deep, Vanth picked up the sage and pepper scent again, as she jogged back across the bridge.

Lewis rifle across her chest, she rolled forward and into a crouch to aim into the dark building.

Not a hint of light or caress of cooked meat. She put the gun back and drew her pistol again. The wind’s rush died as she stepped into the old building.

Nothing changed that she could tell, same blown up junk: old sausages that might be tempting if they weren’t so burnt and broken mirrors.

Vanth checked the upstairs, but the only whole room just held a family of suicidal pigeons that might make a good meal if she wanted to risk the shooting. And use her pistol, the Lewis wouldn’t leave much of the stringy birds.

The goddess stepped gingerly into a crumbling bedroom. White bones molded on the other side of the bed. She didn’t bother checking it, corpses weren’t anything to get excited over in a war zone. As a death goddess and psychopomp, Vanth had seen more than enough.

Across the road, in the leftover half of a shop’s front window, an orange light shined brightly from the front room of the ruined house. The smell of sausage returned on a cool breeze.

Now that’s something to get a little worked up about.

Vanth drew her bayonet and held the long, thin blade toward the floor.

Sneaking along to the hole, she looked down into the ruined gap and the smell of cooking sausage overwhelmed the space again. Vanth aimed away from the tin stove, to spare the cooking food, and dropped to the lower floor.

Holding the blade in one hand, she drew her pistol and stuck the barrel into a familiar face.

“Oh. Hello, Fox.”

He winked up at her, a smile flashing in his amber eyes. “Reynard is fine.”

Vanth could think of a few other names for the cocky git right now. Instead of running through them, she holstered her weapon and stepped back. “So you got free time to fuck with people actually working or what?”

He smiled and winked at her. “Always time for a good fuck, if you want to be blase about it. But no, I’m on a very important mission for Lady Artemis. I’ve gotta make Paris tonight and be back at our main camp by Christmas eve tomorrow.”

News to Vanth, she’d been dead quite a few days. Felt more like November, really. “You officially joined the war then?”

The Fox lifted the lid from his frying kit and stirred the sausages. Thick links sizzled in their own butter—nothing like the sad, little barkers Vanth got normally.

He dropped the lid back down. “No, but she doesn’t have to know she sent me on a mission for me to be on one for her, always.”

“Ah. Sneaking around then.”

“I wouldn’t say that. My version makes me sound noble.”

Vanth would have laughed if he wasn’t probably selling them out. Not much funny about that. “Doesn’t mean it’s not true.”

“Semantics,” Reynard said with a dismissive wave.

Vanth brushed off a patch of couch and sat down. “Why are you sneaking around my bridge?”

“Just resting. On a long hike and I’ve got a lot of funerals to go to next week.” Reynard pulled a silver cigarette case and a clock-sized mechanical match from his pocket. “Smoke?”

She leaned forward and took one. “Nice of you.”

“All on the same side, right?”

“What we wonder. A lot.”

Reynard gave her a dose of his big puppy eyes, then clicked the match. Flame jutted high from the top before settling down. Vanth lit her cigarette and leaned back.

“I imagine you do,” Reynard said. “Trust and me are often at odd angles. But I am damned good from any angle.” He flipped the sausages again and lit his own cigarette.

“Who died?” Vanth asked.

“Hm?”

She rolled her eyes. “The funerals?”

“Oh, right. No one. Yet. Come five tomorrow though…”

“Fine then, who will die?”

The Fox took out two steel plates, then removed a kettle and a second pan of already steamed vegetables from behind a chair. With culinary skill Vanth hadn’t witnessed since pre-war Paris, Reynard plated the food and served up coffee.

Vanth sliced into the greasy meat. Lamb. She knew the thick texture and taste right away. The chef was good with spices. Just enough of everything and still tasted like the meat itself. Hot, fresh buttery veg was rather lovely, but nothing compared to that crackle of cooked sausage.

She focused on the meal and let Reynardine build the tension if he wanted. Clearly he couldn’t be in that much of a hurry if—

“Should I start with the brass or the soldiers?”

“What?” Vanth shoveled in some more sausage and chewed fast. She’d seen enough trouble in her long life to know this little break wasn’t meant to last.

“The people who will die tomorrow. Dozens of soldiers, too many to name. Gods, creatures, what gets in the way gets killed. Pluto goes first, then Djehuty, Ares sets the call out, but falls alongside Artemis. Or maybe they finally kill each other, but I imagine it’s the first. The war’s over. Not the human one, but our little hope is pretty well stamped out.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

The Fox looked up and tears shined in his amber eyes. “Exactly what it sounds like. An attack that breaks all the way through to HQ. A single wave that decidedly decimates our forces. Hades and Vulcan are working with the Germans. They shipped the new war machines toward the front in exchange for some divine weaponry. I’m working on getting more details now, maybe even find out where they’ve stashed the power source, but the Fated have to survive until then.”

“And you know all of this how?” She finished her meal and dropped the plate on the couch.

Reynardine pulled out another cigarette and lit the mechanical match. “You still using those sulfur sticks? Here, keep this one. I’ve got another.” He passed over the round device. “Might not want to show it off much.”

Vanth looked at the brass case. Jupiter was emblazoned on the front in old Roman. The leader of the opposition’s lighter. “Oh. You really are playing both sides…”

“Yeah, slipped into my pocket during our meeting. I’m a spy, Vanth, it’s what I do. Bit of help from an Oracle set me on the trail. But, the problem is,  Jupiter trusted me to deliver a message, Vanth. I have time to eat, but if I’m not in Paris by tomorrow, I’ll never find out who the mole is on our side.”

“But this is more important.”

“They’re absolutely equal,” Reynard told her. “The spy can bring us down, if force doesn’t.”

“So I’m the messenger then? Who do I tell?”

“Ares. Artemis will probably be with him.”

Vanth shook her head. “I don’t get on with the Greeks all that well. Denied me asylum when Rome took over Etruschi. I had to run clear to Britain.”

“Why did you join Artemis’ war?”

Vanth sighed. “I’m a suffragette soldier. Artemis and the Fates in charge will be better than Jupiter, Zeus, and all the other old dudes.”

“They will,” Reynard said, absolute certainty in his voice. “Just get to Ares and they will. Tell him that Reynard still longs for Athens and then wink.”

Vanth stared. “Wink? At him?”

“Yes. He’ll know what it means and vouch for you.”

“I can guess what it means. Are you serious?”

“Always,” Reynard said and then coughed. “Ouch, that lie almost hurt. Okay, mostly always tonight. At the moment.”

Vanth’s jaw dropped. “No, really, are you serious? And what is this war machine we need to watch out for?”

“There’s a bunch. Hard to describe… think like bronze animals. Just be sure and tell Artemis that Vulcan and Hephaestus had the same idea, but the first is faster. She’ll know.”

“Any more coded messages?”

“If Hestia asks, tell her I said hello.”

“I’m not a dating service.” Vanth looked out into the night. “I don’t know if I can catch a ride to the front this fast—”

“No time.” The Fox started to pack up his kit. “You really think Safkhet will give you a horse on my word alone? Better to run.”

Vanth looked close at the Fox. “Is this for real? I’m not going to race all the way to Verdun and be laughed at am I?”

“I can’t promise that, Vanth. But the war machines march for our line and we need to bolster it. If we fail here, the Entente falls in spring. I don’t want to sound dramatic, Dollface, but that really will be the end of the world.”

Vanth shook her head. “I don’t think I can run a hundred kilometers in a day.”

“I do. And you have to. I can’t do both.”

Vanth rolled her eyes, but still said a fast and unsure goodbye before she jogged across the bridge. Her stuff was hidden enough, but she wanted the tobacco and pipe. Gloves and gas mask, too.

Reynard rode past on a horse, with a loud call of good luck, and Vanth considered shooting the beast and riding his steed to the front.

Instead, she stowed the rifle tight against her back and started the long run. Her helmet rocked around, and the gun thumped with every step.

Soon enough, the ruined town fell away to burned fields and shelled trees.

(Continue reading)

Fairy Knights: A Glass Fate Christmas Tale

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Caldyr put the last ornament on her little cactus and bit down a smile. Her tiny, old apartment didn’t exactly come alive for the holiday season, but a few decorations helped.

“Looks good,” Reynardine said. “You want me to pick up some tinsel? On my way to the store in just a minute.”

“Tinsel?” Caldyr asked.

“The shiny little strips? Like long glitter.”

She nodded. “Yes, all the long glitter. I’ll give you money for it.”

Reynardine waved her off. “It’s a buck, I’ll just call it an early present.”

“It’s fine,” she insisted. “Just a buck.”

“Consider it my contribution to the decorations. I needed to shop, anyway. We’re down to half-a-dozen string cheeses.”

“It’s just not Christmas without it.” Caldyr pulled out her wallet and handed him the cash. “Get me some of those little canned sausages, too.”

“Got it.” He grabbed his coat as the pocket buzzed. Pulling out the phone, he checked the screen. “Ursie. Must be some Rose Path business.”

Or her ridiculous crush on you. “Must be.”

Reynardine hit talk and smiled at the screen. “How’s my favorite werewolf?”

Whatever Ursie replied killed the smile in a heartspin.

“Oh,” Reynardine said. “Did you tell her to call Caldyr? I’m just the secretary, I don’t do the detective bits.”

“What?” Caldyr asked, edging closer.

Reynardine shook the phone. “Rose Path business. A Myth is missing.”

“Who?”

“King Arthur.”

Caldyr raised a brow. “Is… he like…” She stopped herself. Of course it’s the real King Arthur, he wouldn’t be called a Myth otherwise. “What’s the situation?”

“One second,” Reynardine said, putting the phone on speaker. “Ursie, you mind me bringing Caldyr in?”

Ursie hesitated and Caldyr’s heartorb sank. “This is technically on the divine side of things and Fate doesn’t like us meddling as it is,” Ursie said. “So officially I can’t sanction bringing her in. But I can’t control who you hang out with Reynardine and a good detective might help. I just can’t allow it, or pay her myself.”

“Got it,” Reynardine said. “Sorry, Caldyr. I’ll be right back.” And he walked out the door and into the rainy afternoon.

Caldyr poked at her Christmas cactus for a few minutes and then made a snack. She was on her third string cheese and salami sandwich when someone knocked on the door.

After a moment’s hesitation, Caldyr opened it.

Reynardine, with a sly smile on his long face and rain dripping from his chartreuse three-piece suit. “I’m looking to hire a detective.”

Caldyr squinted at him. “Not sure you can afford me. I’m charging two boxes of long glitter now, plus expenses.”

“And I’ll split the Rose Path pay with you. Sixty-thirty, and ten percent goes to a nice queer friendly holiday charity? Also spring for Christmas dinner this year.”

“Deal.” Caldyr held out a hand.

Reynardine shook, then pulled an orangey-red handkerchief from his pocket to wipe off the mustard.

Caldyr grabbed a soda, and a napkin, before meeting him in the living room for the rundown. “So, King-Excalibur-wielding-Camelot-founding-sword-and-motherfucking-stone-Arthur? He’s missing?”

“Also had a pretty spiffy table,” Reynardine said. “More of an oval, but he tried. King Arthur’s missed a meeting several years in a row and the person he’s meeting with would very much like him to attend.”

“Who’s that? Merlin? The Lady of the Lake? Lancelot?”

Reynardine hesitated, or at least faked a moment, and then smiled. “Uh, Guin. His wife. She does not like me very much at all.”

“Cause you’re a smarmy manho?”

“More or less. After I seduced Arthur, things got pretty rocky between us.”

Caldyr blinked and then went to the kitchen for a cup of tea. She’d like a beer, really, or a double of scotch, but the tea would have to do while she was working on the case.

“Caldyr?”

“I need tea,” she said. “I don’t know why anything you do, or have done, surprises me anymore, but seducing a king—especially in medieval Briton and just… why, okay? What do you get out of all the chaos…” Caldyr paused and counted to fifty. “So, King Arthur is gay?”

“Bi. Maybe pan. He likes to shake things up, no harm in that.”

“Apparently his wife disagreed…”

Reynardine shrugged. “People can be a little strange. I could make a pot of coffee. We’ve got a guest on the way, so it’s probably a good idea, regardless.”

“Knock yourself out. Who’s on the way?”

Reynardine walked into the kitchen. “The real client, of course. Queen Guinevere. Guin, she likes Guin. Or used to. Last time I saw her, she was firing arrows at me while I climbed out her husband’s window. Haven’t exactly kept in touch.”

A knock rattled the door. Four quick taps.

Urgent. Maybe angry. Strong.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Caldyr muttered.

“Want me to get that?” Reynardine asked.

“Please,” Caldyr said, pulling off her glasses to rub her nose-ridge.

The door swung up open with a loud squeak. “Evening, Guin.”

“Hello, I’m…” a voice with a delicate, almost posh, accent started. She sounded like the upstairs people on the British dramas Reynardine liked. “Reinhard?”

“Reynardine, these days.”

“I don’t care.”

Caldyr heard the crack of bone against something harder—wood likely—and a thump.

She was in the hallway with a kitchen knife in a heartspin.

The once and future Queen of Briton wore a long, dark red coat that stretched to her black leather boots. A hood covered short blonde hair and shadowed fiery eyes.

Guin stepped into the apartment; cloth shrunk, the hood faded, and she adjusted a simple cardigan.

She stood tall, but everyone looked tall to Caldyr. Still, the mythical Queen towered over the fairy similar to how Reynardine did and he was six-six.

When he wasn’t drooling into the carpet.

Guin held a sawed off shotgun, but she slipped it into her long coat and raised both hands. “I’m here for the detective. Ursie didn’t say anything about Reinhard and he deserved that.”

Caldyr looked down at him then back to Guin. “I’m not saying he didn’t, but I’m also not pleased that my secretary is napping on my rug. I’m Caldyr Prayers, and I think I’m the detective you’re looking for.”

“Are you Rose Path?” Guin asked.

“No, but he is and I’m being subcontracted by him since the Rose Path can’t hire me for divine business. Technically, I think this should be reported to the Fated Pantheon, but I can understand avoiding official channels.”

“I’m not,” Guin said. “I asked for help from Ares office, but since Arthur and I are no longer…” She looked to the kitchen and then sighed. “Can we do this inside?”

“Are you going to hit Reynardine, again?” Caldyr asked.

“I can’t promise anything,” Guin admitted. “I won’t if he doesn’t… if he doesn’t fox things up.”

“Fair enough.”

Guin closed the door, stepped gingerly over Reynardine, and then looked around the apartment. “Uh, this is a fab place.”

Caldyr shook her head. “Skip the nice lies. Tea?”

“Yes, please. Great cactus, truly. Very festive.”

Caldyr buzzed inside, but just nodded. “I’d offer you coffee, but the machine is new and the only person who knows how to use it is sleeping on the rug.”

“Tea’s my prefered drink, anyway.” Guin looked at Caldyr. “Are you glamoured?”

“I was out shopping earlier.” Caldyr dropped the spell and her human color cracked and fell away, exposing the fairy’s natural blue-green skin and long feathery gill tendrils that mixed with her short, messy black hair.

“Pretty color. Didn’t realize you were a fairy.”

“I know I’m beautiful.” Caldyr walked into the kitchen. “If my being a fairy is a problem, then fuck the fuck off and go choke. If not, have a seat. I’ll get the tea going. String cheese?”

“String what?”

“String cheese. Want some with the tea? I’ve got Fig Halleys, too.”

“Please,” Guin said. “I don’t care what you are, long as you’re willing to help. Are you just going to leave Rein—Reynardine there?”

“Toss the couch blanket on him if you want, but I’m not hurting my back dragging’ his ass to bed.”

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Caldyr put the tea together and piled a plate with string cheese and Fig Halleys. She found some peanuts in the cupboard and filled a little bowl with them. Proper tea, since the Queen herself was in attendance.

The blanket barely covered Reynardine to the knees. A throw pillow had been shoved under his head.

Guin was seated on the couch, and staring at the little Christmas Cactus with one lip turned upward into a weak smile.

The smile faded and she looked to Caldyr. “So, where do I begin?”

“It’s your story,” Caldyr said. “Just start with what’s most important.”

“Arthur,” Guin said immediately. “My warrior-fool of a King. Not that I’m free of foolishness, I’ve made mistakes.”

“Lancelot?” Caldyr asked.

Guin shrugged. “I was mad, so I fucked someone else. I’m not proud, but I did catch my husband sliding into Reynardine’s—”

“No, nope, nada. No need for details, I’ve heard.”

“Bed,” Guin finished.

“Still too much information. Just stick to the pertinent stuff and nothing that’s not absolutely vital involving my secretary.”

“Secretary? You two aren’t—”

“Long story, but he’s just a roommate and secretary, and maybe a friend some days. Focus here: Arthur is missing? And Ares doesn’t care?”

“Me and Arthur split a few centuries back,” Guin said. “We hadn’t been close since Camelot and the whole Mordred thing. One day, he just packed up his things and walked out. I didn’t say goodbye, even.”

“Sounds a little like he might not want to be found.”

“We’ve seen each other since,” Guin said, a little quickly and uneven. “And we spend every… we were spending every Christmas together. For the last hundred and forty-two years, we spent every Christmas in a room somewhere. Didn’t even celebrate the holiday, just each other.”

“And then you left?”

She shook her head. “I’d always fall asleep and wake up alone. He… he’s really been hurting—”

“Hurting?”

“Inside. He was a good king, and good kings always blame themselves before others. When Camelot fell, he took it hard. Nearly killed him.”

“I kinda thought it did,” Caldyr said.

“Myths can’t die, and he had to come back someday. As the true King of Briton, I mean. He knows when, I think, but Merlin didn’t bother sharing with the rest of us. He was always a miser like that.”

“So he just stopped showing up at your little meetings? When?”

“Three years ago,” Guin said. “We’d been meeting in San Francisco at a little motel near the beach. I tried to get in touch, we had each other’s emails, but he never kept a cell phone and I couldn’t find his house number. Email was easiest, anyway.”

“And he never replied?”

Guin shook her head. “I asked Merlin and he said Arthur wanted to be left alone.”

“Merlin and he are close?”

“Father and son, in their own way. Have been long as I’ve known them.”

Caldyr nodded and approached the next sentence with every bit of delicate she could muster. “Guin, I’m really feeling like Arthur might not want to be found.”

“I’ve thought of that, and I don’t think he does, but I’d really like to be sure he doesn’t need to be found. He’s my husband, or he was, and I still love him.”

“Ursie seems to agree with you,” Caldyr said, then looked to where Reynardine still snored softly. “Fine, I’ll search him down. See what the situation is.”

“Find him for me?”

“I’ll find him,” Caldyr said. “If he doesn’t want to see you, and he seems in his right mind, then I’ll let you know he’s safe and that’s it. But I’m not hunting someone down just to turn them over to an ex they don’t want to see. For whatever reason.”

“He’s not hiding from me,” Guin said. “Or just me. He’s hiding from the world at large.”

“I’m sorry, but I’ll decide that, your Highness.”

“I’m Queen, so your Majesty is the correct honorific.”

Caldyr chuckled and opened her mouth, but the Queen spoke first.

“Just Guin is fine, though. This is, too. He might not want to see me, but knowing he’s safe will be enough.”

“So, tell me more about Arthur,”

“He’s protective. Even if he doesn’t know you, he’ll keep you safe. Rule six of Camelot: no one lives afraid. Everyone is safe.”

Caldyr meant his habits, or what he did for a living these days. But the sparkle in Guin’s eyes and the fidgeting hands—like they couldn’t wait to touch him—the light rose to her pale cheeks; all of them told a subtle tale, and possibly more than the Queen meant to.

“No one is beneath him. Talks to every peasant like they’re another Knight of the Round Table. Handsome. Not like Reynardine, more like… like Bogart. Classic good looks. Bodybuilder big. Tall. He’s just massive, even to me and I’m 6’1. Gentle. Birds follow him in the forest and deer show up at our window for treats in the morning.”

“So, he’s a Disney Princess?”

Guin’s jaw dropped. “No! Well, maybe a bit. Used to annoy me, honestly. I wanted my big strong man and I… I thought his softness made him weak… for some silly reason.”

“Toxic masculinity seeps into every aspect of life.”

Guin nodded. “Back then, we just called it Chivalry and had tourneys to see who was the best at it. Also wars, but they’re just a part of life.”

“Don’t have to be,” Caldyr said, even though she couldn’t imagine it being true. Reynardine said it before and she liked the sound and the hope.

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“Of course not, but they are.” Guin sighed. “Camelot fell hard after he died. We talked about holding it together and how once Merlin showed up we’d be fine. Didn’t know Merlin was trapped by Morgaine LeFay. And we didn’t have a chance without Arthur. Even I don’t know how he did it, pulled everyone together like that. The knights fought and ended up dividing the land between them. I moved to France for a while. Went looking for…” She made a slow, meandering gesture with one hand. “Comfort.”

“Lancelot?”

Guin winced and shook her head. “I didn’t know if Arthur was even coming back. Never found Lancelot, anyway. Heard rumors he moved in with his parents, but I couldn’t knock on their door. I went back to Tintagel, to the cave where we left him, and found Arthur alive again. Not quite himself. I thought it was death, that dying put him in a weird state. But he’s been like that since.”

“Like what? Exactly?”

“Depressed. Not always, but it’s there in his eyes when he thinks I’m not watching. Quieter. Doesn’t sing. Smiles for me, not because he’s happy, I think.”

“Losing a kingdom to your nephew-slash-son’s rebellion sounds like a downer, for sure.”

“That’s not really what hurt the most. He thinks he let us down. Not that we lost, together. He lost alone and now it’s all on him.”

Caldyr nodded, but kept her mouth shut about toxic masculinity. One jab was enough, especially with her client looking like she might break down crying on the couch.

“What does he do these days? For work, I mean.”

Guin shook her head. “I tried to talk, but we mostly just chatted about changes. Big events. World news.”

“He never said anything about work, or daily life?”

“He might not be doing much,” Guin said. “When I found him in the 1850s he wasn’t working. Just living in Trafalgar with all manner of vagrants. That’s when our Christmas tradition began. It was Christmas eve and I was walking with a mortal I’d been seeing and there he was—Arthur. Ragged. Tired. Standing between a man and a crying boy. I think the man hit the boy, and Arthur never stood for that sort of thing.” She smiled. “The gentleman I was with wanted to call the constables, but I told him to shove off and dragged my Arthur to the nearest inn. Put him in a bath, fed him. Tried to… fix things. He was himself, after a bit. Almost. We had a good night, and when I woke up alone, I went to Trafalgar. He wasn’t there, but he’d carved a heart with our initials into a fence near where I’d found him.”

Guin grabbed a string cheese from the tray and unwrapped it. She bit into the stick without tearing it apart, but Caldyr didn’t correct her uncouth client.

After the cheese, she leaned back on the couch. “I gave up looking after a while, but the next Christmas eve I waited near the fence. He walked right up to me, and smiled. Said he didn’t know if I’d gotten the message. I slapped him, then kissed him, then nearly slapped him, again. I dragged him to a room, made him promise to be there in the morning. Of course, he wasn’t there when I woke up, but he did leave a proper note. Needed a walk and wasn’t sure he’d make it back. Promised to be at the fence next year, if I wanted him. And it’s been like that since, all over the world, and finally here in California for the last decade. Every Christmas up until twenty-fifteen. He just wasn’t there and I’m tired of waiting. I’m going to find him.”

Caldyr unwrapped some cheese herself and ripped the stick apart before shoving half into her mouth. “So he’th like homeless, probably?” She swallowed and grabbed a handful of cookies. “And here in Cali?”

“Maybe, and yes. We’ve been meeting in San Francisco since the late 70s.”

“So he’s probably there?”

“Most likely. I hope so,” Guin said. “He likes big cities and I know he loves San Francisco. Says it’s close to Camelot as he can find, this century.”

“Give me your contact number. Soon as my secretary wakes up, we’re heading to the Bay Area.”

***

Years back, during the Monarchy war of the nineties, San Francisco had been marked by the Fate of All Things as a free zone; the only completely neutral area on the West Coast. Peace talks, prisoner exchanges, and anything else that needed to be conflict free, were held here.

The ancient streets were blessed and protected by the Emperors, a line of powerful mages that stretched to this day. Naturally between them and Fate, the area was teeming with supernatural life. Most just looking for safety.

Plenty looking for trouble and excitement. Reynardine’s eye swirled as he drove, and Caldyr knew he was the latter.

Also, the old city was gorgeous at Christmas, of course. 5309877945_18d41542eb_b

The first streetcar they passed blinked in red and green lights. Buildings were strewn with tinsel and strands of every color light.

Caldyr tried not to fall under the festive spell, but the round topped federal building in red and green drew a tiny smile. People partied in the touristy areas. Or at least, gathered so thick they resembled a party.

Watched over by the star of a giant Christmas tree, dozens of vendors hawked wares along the piers. Candy cane colored cotton candy and other treats. People, and more than a few beings that weren’t normal people at all, weaved along the sidewalks. Some laden with last minute shopping and others just strolling.

The city truly came alive with the season.

Caldyr had been a few times, mostly out of boredom and she usually almost regretted the trip because of the expense.

“You want a meatball sub?” Reynardine asked.

“I don’t even know what that is,” Caldyr told him. “Can we just get burritos. You know a good place?”

“Mission street,” Reynardine said with a serious expression he didn’t use very often.

After an almost absurd wait, Caldyr munched on a chicken-pork burrito and had to agree. The burrito was pretty serious, and delicious, business.

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She also kept her eyes peeled for a giant, royal looking dude as they drove down street after street.

There were a few, and Caldyr pointed them out, but Reynardine didn’t recognize anyone.

A couple of fairies passed by holding hands. Both wore bright Christmas sweaters and impressively built glamours.

Caldyr waved. The other fairies laughed and flipped her off.

She returned the gesture and stuck out her tongue.

“Want to say hello?” Reynardine asked.

“Kinda just did, but nah.” Caldyr bit back a wistful sigh. “We got stuff to do.”

More blocks passed and the sun started to sink, but the crowds just swelled.

“It’s the Thursday before Christmas,” she muttered. “Why the hell aren’t people home, hiding from the cold and drinking?”

“You know that’s not how everyone celebrates, right?”

“Sure. Some people watch Die Hard, some people watch Nightmare Before Christmas.”

“Always been into both, myself, but that’s not even remotely what I meant.”

Caldyr nodded, and knew he had a dinner planned for a few friends, but didn’t acknowledge all that, yet. She didn’t want to say no, but inviting a half-dozen gods to her place felt higher risk than Caldyr liked.

“Let’s check Haight and Ashbury,” Foxbutt said after a few minutes. “Guin said he liked Trafalgar square and Haight Ashbury would be kinda the same.”

“Really?”

“No, not really. But both have homeless people and history.”

“Wait. How’d you know Guin said he liked Trafalgar?” Caldyr asked. “You were snoring on my rug.”

“I don’t snore, and I was more on the hardwood.”

“You do and dead center of the rug.”

“Maybe a bit. But I was up a while before I was up. Figured Guin would be more open without me being conscious.”

Caldyr nodded. “Not exactly a fountain of information, anyway. Doesn’t even know what he does the rest of the year? What the shit is that?” Truthtold, she wanted Reynardine’s opinion on the story, so him hearing firsthand and not mucking things up worked out.

“I’d… I’d defer that to a professional, honestly. They sound like they’ve suffered the burden of years and other strife, and they could use the help.”

Reynardine was only allowed to live with Caldyr on the condition that he saw Tyr, the gods’ psychologist, once a week, so he spoke from firsthand experience. “But in your opinion?”

“He’s not used to losing and he lost a lot. Let everyone down, in his view. Fucking around on his wife and then having the kid from the affair kick your ass… Yeah, all bad. The Arthur I knew would never forgive himself for stepping on a spider by mistake. He could fight, sure, but against equals on a field of battle. Even then, he never killed when he could spare.”

“Nice to have that luxury,” Caldyr said.

“Being King ain’t all perks,” Reynardine said. “But yeah, having an army to watch your back is one. I haven’t seen him since, but Guin’s story checks out.”

“Would he hide from her?” Caldyr asked. “Would he have reason? Beyond being a selfish dickhead who doesn’t understand that his actions hurt people and that even if he’s suffering hiding himself away isn’t the—”

“Let me do the talking when we find him, okay?” Reynardine interrupted. “Also, no, Guin isn’t the abusive type.”

Caldyr sighed—letting off the steam from her building rant, then shook her head. “Your chin is still bruised from where she hit you with the shotgun. And why does she carry a shotgun?”

“Morgaine? Most likely, anyway. She’s their Isengrim,” Reynardine said.

Isengrim was Reynardine’s archenemy, and had been a problem for Caldyr recently as well.

“So, he’s looking to take out Arthur maybe, too.”

“Nuh-uh,” Reynardine said. “He’s the chief myth. Be easier to kill Guin, I think. I’d go after Lancelot, first. He’s been… critical of Arthur, and Arthur never forgave him—”

“For fucking Guin? Didn’t you and he do stuff first?”

“Yes, but it’s not the same—”

“Because he’s a man?”

“Because Arthur called him brother. And because it wasn’t just a fling for Lancelot, he wanted all of her. Guin ignores it, but Lancelot was more hurt that she didn’t walk away with him than anything.”

“Jesus’ jelly beans, does any Myth have a normal relationship?”

“Not the heroes,” Reynardine said. “I’m just a slut, we all know that.”

“Amen,” Caldyr muttered.

“And it’s been a touch rough for me—”

“Mostly because of you from what I’ve seen,” Caldyr added.

“But the actual heroes need to struggle.”

“Builds character?”

“Counterbalances the good they do,” Reynardine said. “And the world is just cruel, that’s a big factor, too.”

“Awesome. Back to our missing King? Please?”

“Christmas is the time for reflections.”

“Drive. Talk about Arthur? Where would he be—”

“Haight and Ashbury. Or a homeless shelter. Lots of places serving meals this time of year.”

Caldyr looked out the window, weighing choices as the car rolled down the street.

She wouldn’t have recognized Guin if the Queen had changed her coat. The bright red and short blond hair mirrored the fire inside, but also stuck out like a beacon.

So did the pale young man standing next to her. He wore all black besides a Firstlight hoodie, and Caldyr would bet her last dollar, both of ’em actually, that he was Mordred.

“That’s Mordred,” Reynardine said.

Caldyr looked back, he stared into the brightly decorated store.

“Fucking knew it,” Caldyr muttered.

“And Guin.”

“Not many ladies that dress like a lit match.”

“Or strike like one. How do we play this?”

“I’m going to confront them.”

“She’s got a shotgun…”

“Hard same,” Caldyr said. “Pop the trunk.”

***

Caldyr had never walked into a 24/7 carrying a magical shotgun, but Christmas felt like a good time for firsts.

The clerk already had her hands up as the door dinged.

Looks like she’s been there a minute.

Caldyr looked to Guin. She hadn’t turned around.

Mordred was pressed into the slurpee machine with both eyes on Guin’s hips, or crotch—

Or sawed-off shotgun.

Oh.

“Guin?” Caldyr asked.

“Caldyr?” Guin stepped to the side, to look at Caldyr, but kept her shotgun aimed at Mordred’s waist.

“Oh shit, just what I needed,” Mordred said. “Another gun toting bitch.”

“Well, I can see why you want to shoot him now,” Caldyr said. “But I’d really advise against it.”

“Leave my shop, please,” the clerk said.

“Yeah,” Reynardine said. “We’re getting to that. You want to maybe stand outside with me, and not call the police while we come to a peaceful solution?”

“I really should call the cops,” she told him, patting her hair and smiling. “But like not if I’m going to get shot…”

“Oh, no,” Guin said. “Honey, it’s fine. Just wait with the smarmy whore.”

“Yeah,” Caldyr said. “No one’s getting shot.”

“Really?” Mordred relaxed.

“Maybe Mordred,” Guin said.

“No,” Caldyr snapped. “No shooting, no death… or people not dying on cameras, Guin. We’re just going to interview him.”

“The snake killed Arthur once before.”

“This is getting even weirder,” the clerk said.

“Reynardine! Get her the fuck out of here!” Caldyr shouted.

“Right this way, Miss.” Reynardine grinned; brutally effective charm and shining confidence blended with his standard hundred watt smile.

“Sure, anything you say.”

Caldyr shook her head. “Right, Mordred, do you know anything about King Arthur?”

“Tons. He is my dad.”

“No, I mean him not being—”

“Where is he?” Guin said. “Did you kill him?”

“Haven’t seen him in decades I was just getting a slushie, I didn’t even know you were in town,” Mordred said, turning to fill an already lidded cup. “I live here.”

“In San Francisco?” Guin asked.

“Reminds me of Camelot,” he said.

She nodded. “If I find out you’re lying—”

“I didn’t even know he was missing,” Mordred interrupted. “The Firstlight update dropped and I’ve been grinding all week. Check my Shiver stream, I’m level fifty-eight already.”

Caldyr sighed. “ID?”

“What?”

“Give me your ID and go home,” Caldyr said. “I’ll have it mailed back, if we find King Arthur.”

He pulled out his wallet. “If you don’t?”

“Then I’ll drop it off myself.”

“He could just run,” Guin said.

“Not far enough,” Caldyr said, staring into his eyes. “Understand?”

Mordred nodded. “I’m innocent. I’ll expect my ID back before the end of the week. Maybe your numb—”

“Out,” Caldyr said, pointing to the door.

Soon as it shut, Guin holstered her shotgun and looked down at Caldyr. “Why’d you let him walk?”

“He’s not our man,” she said. “He didn’t know Arthur even lived here, and he gave an alibi for a week. Mordred doesn’t seem all that bright, I doubt he’d double down on the act like that.”

Guin sighed. “If Morgaine helped—”

“Let’s just stick with simple,” Caldyr said. “Arthur has a history of hiding anyway, and I can hunt Mordred down easy enough.”

“He’s treacherous.”

“I’m aware,” Caldyr said. “But he’s not a priority. If we get an inkling he’s involved in this, then I’ll go after him. What are you doing here, anyway?”

Guin popped an eyebrow. “Looking for my husband and I got thirsty. Walked in and Mordred was hitting on the clerk.”

Caldyr squinted at her. “I didn’t expect you to be on the streets, too.”

“I hired you to help.” Guin shrugged. “But Rule five of Camelot, you don’t put your work off on others. Even underlings.”

“I’m your fucking detective, not an underling, got it?” Caldyr snapped. “Go to your hotel, or whatever. I’ll call you if I find him.”

“I’m going to keep looking,” Guin said, eyes shaking with tears. She covered them with a hand and then sighed at the ceiling. “I’ve got nothing else to do.”

“The Grinch is on all day,” Caldyr told her. “The classic one.”

“I don’t even think I’ve seen it before.” Guin let out a heavy sigh. “I don’t want to watch it alone.”

Caldyr echoed her sigh. “I don’t want you out here waving a shotgun at any Myth you pass.”

“We’re at an impasse, then.” Guin walked to a fridge and grabbed a water. “Rule eleven of Camelot, compromise rather than waste time, or energy. How about I hand over my gun? Then I can stick with you, and you don’t have to worry about me shooting anyone.”

“Just keep it in your coat,” Caldyr said. “I’ve killed clients before. Don’t make me do it again, Guin.”

“Thank you, Caldyr. Sorry I called you an underling.”

She grunted, filled up a slushie cup for herself and Reynardine, and left a five on the counter.

Reynardine gave the clerk his number, while Caldyr cleaned off the backseat of the car so Guin would have a place to sit.

“Red or blue?” Caldyr asked Reynardine as he climbed into the car.

“Whichever you don’t want.”

Caldyr passed him the blue slushie and they rolled off toward Haight and Ashbury.

Guin stayed quiet in back, eyes scanning the sidewalks. Traffic was pretty heavy on most streets, so they had plenty of time to watch the mobs pass.

A naked man with a Santa hat, a beer in each hand, and his dick painted like a candy cane walked right in front of the car.

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“Want to get out and say hello?” Guin asked Reynardine.

“Hey now,” Caldyr said. “No shaming anything.”

“It’s fine,” Reynardine said. “But I’m saving myself for Arthur, actually.”

Guin turned red as her coat, but didn’t reach into it.

“Christ’s sweet rolls, shut your mouth,” Caldyr snapped. “Let’s keep the conversation clean, okay?”

The naked Santa passed by again, shaking his candy cane in slow circles and singing Oh Come All Ye Faithful.

“Well,” Reynardine said. “Maybe I could go for a bit of Christmas cheer.”

Caldyr stopped herself from slamming his face into the steering wheel—an early gift for the Foxass—and rolled down her window to yell for the streaker to move his Jingle bits or lose them.

“Like Camelot?” Caldyr asked Guin when they were cruising through the dusky streets again.

“Fairly equal social rights, at least. No one was ever judged for their preferences.”

Reynardine smirked. “I did streak at that one party, though.”

Guin smiled and rolled her eyes. “Arthur was impressed with that.” She flinched. “And a bit enamored, I think. But all that confidence just shook him up.”

“Not the confidence,” Reynardine said. “Or not just. Arthur was repressed. He liked men, too, and the culture he was raised in shamed that. Even though he could accept others, he couldn’t accept it in himself. I was so free with my flirtations, it was everything he admired.”

Guin looked at Reynardine with something kinder in her fiery eyes. “You offered Arthur something I couldn’t.”

“A penis,” Caldyr said. “We know, but I’d rather I didn’t. Can we get off the horribly awkward romance talk and focus on quiet?”

“Freedom means everything to someone in chains. Especially if they’re the only ones who know about the binding. I was an escape, Guin. An awfully insistent one. Doesn’t mean he loves you less.”

“I’m turning on the radio,” Caldyr said, spinning the knob. The lights clicked on and then faded. Her phone was at forty-two percent.

So like one song without the charger.

Guin nodded. “I should’ve worked harder—”

Reynardine shook his head. “Don’t blame yourself. We can’t know what someone else needs if they don’t tell us. Arthur isn’t the type to lay his troubles on anyone. Told him he’s gonna collapse under that cross one day.”

“Fool never listens,” Guin said. “Sorry I hit you with the shotgun.”

Reynardine shrugged. “Not a thing, your Majesty. Caldyr knocks me out once a month, don’t worry about it.”

“Music? Silence. Anything but this” Caldyr grunted, rummaging through the car for her charge cord.

All her focus was on the hunt, but even Caldyr didn’t miss the subtle whisper of change on the night’s cold breath.

“Arthur,” Guin said, right before she opened the door and bolted down a side street.

“Park the car and catch up,” Caldyr told Reynardine.

“Got it, go!”

She didn’t need to be told twice. Caldyr darted out the door and chased the flaming red coat into the darkness.

Guin turned at the corner, onto a main street packed with people and every type of hippie shop. Haight and Ashbury.

“Damn clever fox.” Caldyr dodged a couple carrying shopping bags, then jumped over a shirtless young man smoking weed on the sidewalk.

landscape-696825_640Guin passed a lit restaurant and ran into the park at the end of the road. Caldyr hurried to catch up, but she ended up walking into the lamp lit park with no clue where Guin went.

Right up until something howled.

The sound brought shivers and memories of yellowed teeth.

Caldyr forced away thoughts of Isengrim, and pushed on. She put on a burst of speed, regretting leaving her shotgun in the trunk.

Another fifty feet ahead, just past a row of small trees, Ghostly pale dogs with bare skulls for heads circled around Guin.

Cŵn Annwn. Welsh monsters that hunted wrongdoers.

“Caldyr, stay back,” Guin said. “They can’t kill me.”

But being torn apart won’t be pleasant. Not to mention the people they might hurt afterward.

Water ran through a sprinkler system under Caldyr’s feet. She could feel its pulse.

One of the cŵn annwn turned to her, stalking away from the group.

“Hey, I’ve done nothing wrong,” Caldyr said. “Down boy!”

The thing’s bare skull clacked open, showing even more of the shining teeth and an abyss within. A low growl echoed from that darkness, but the noise faded as it stalked closer.

Caldyr spotted a sprinkler head between her and the devil dog.

If she could break it, the water would be hers to shape.

Sword would be nice about now.

Another step from the cŵn annwn, Caldyr dove for the sprinkler.

The soft growl echoed clean through her entire body for a cold second before the cŵn annwn collided with her. They rolled and Caldyr ended up on her back, hands pressed against the dog’s musty fur while it snapped at her face.

She tried to scream, but the weight pushed all the air from her chest.

A fist the size of a personal pizza smashed into the cŵn annwn and the beast disappeared into the night with a yelp that got louder the farther it flew.

Caldyr stared up at a giant of a King in dirty, torn clothing. Even as a bum, there was no way to mistake Arthur. He exhaled royalty like smoke from a cigarette.

“Are you okay?” Arthur rumbled, voice as rough as the mountains he resembled.

“Just peachy,” Caldyr grunted.

Arthur nodded at her, strutting past to where the cŵn annwn circled Guin. She didn’t even seem to notice the dogs.

Her eyes were on him, lost and tear stained and hopeful. In the midst of danger, Arthur was all she saw.

The King had that handled, anyway. With grace, and strength—and his bare hands—Arthur made short work of the pack. Every kick or swing sent another cŵn annwn back to their dark master, or sailing into the night. One got a bite in, on his ankle, but the King barely slowed until the job was done.

After, Arthur stood silently; head down, eyes anywhere but his Queen.

Her armor shrunk back to the long coat.

“Sorry—” Arthur began, but that was all he got out before Guin wrapped her arms around him.

“Shhh.”

“I need to clean up,” Arthur said. “I smell and I’m gonna stain your pretty coat.”

“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “Just hug me already.”

Arthur muttered something, but tears broke his already cracked voice and the words were lost in the flood.

A shadow twitched near a tree.

Caldyr took a step closer and her wings tingled in alarm. “Guys?”

Guin reached up to lift Arthur’s chin, as Mordred and a tall woman in black armor stepped from the shaking shadow.

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Caldyr kicked the head off the sprinkled and magicked the water into a sword and shield. “Guys!”

Arthur spun around, putting Guin behind him as Mordred fired a bolt from a crossbow. Blood splashed from Arthur’s chest.

Guin’s coat length and shifted, covering her whole body and forming into smooth, red armor, much like the other woman’s darker suit.

“Morgaine,” Arthur grunted, pushing himself to stand.

The armored woman shifted. “Happy holidays, brother.”

Arthur calmly ripped the crossbow bolt from his chest and snapped it.

Guin lifted her shotgun toward Morgaine.

Morgaine drew her sword, an intricate rapier with a moonlight colored blade. “Better run, little fairy,” she told Caldyr. “I’m not about to let you get in the way.”

“Fuck you and your creepy ass kid. Firstlight sucks.”

“Fuck you,” Mordred snapped, aiming the crossbow at Caldyr.

She raised her shield.

“Sword,” Arthur whispered. “Please.”

Mordred fired. Caldyr caught the bolt with her shield and tossed her water blade to Arthur. She felt his strong hand close around her magic, and did her best to tie the spell to him so he’d be able to use the sword with as little effort from Caldyr as possible.

Guin took her shot, missing Morgaine completely, but causing enough distraction for them to close the gap. Arthur and Caldyr rushed together, her at Mordred and Arthur at Morgaine.

Mordred reached for his sword, Caldyr swung her shield and caught him on the wrist. The bone snapped; she kicked Mordred  in the crotch with everything she had.

He lifted a foot off the ground, landing in a heap of tears and quiet whining.

“Upperguard is better,” Caldyr snapped. “Call me a gun toting bitch again, motherfucker…”

Morgaine seemed better matched with Arthur. She lacked his brute strength, but moved with a predatory grace and kept her distance.

Wearing him down, Caldyr realized.

Arthur didn’t seem to care about conserving energy, or anything else besides the bloodying of his blade. Every swing was a two-handed hammerblow, powerful enough to shake trees from their roots. Certainly enough to fell Morgaine.

If he could land a hit.

Caldyr let her shield go and sent the water toward Arthur’s weapon, adding another foot to the sword and plenty of heft.

Morgaine attempted a block, but the weapon smashed through her defenses.

She let the sword drop and followed it to her knees. “Well fought, brother.”

Arthur put the water sword to her face. “Brother?”

“Your Majesty,” she corrected, cold venom overtaking her tone.

“How’d you find me?” he asked.

“Mordred had a run in with your wife and the fairy. We followed them.”

“And the dogs?”

“Borrowed the pack from Arawn.”

Arthur nodded and dropped the water sword. “Go. Now. Consider the reprieve a Christmas present.”

“You’re too kind,” Morgaine said. Her hand flicked and a dagger coalesced from the shadows.

Guin fired her second barrel, knocking Morgaine flat on back. “I’m not. Don’t forget that, Morgaine.”

She grunted.

“Let’s go,” Guin said to Arthur. “Please.”

Caldyr followed them to the main road, before Guin turned around and looked at Arthur.

The Queen shook her head. “Trouble is never more than a step away from you. I should just start following it.” She smiled at Caldyr. “Thank you, Caldyr Prayers. You’re a good detective. If I still had a kingdom, I’d offer a knighthood or something.”

She waved it off. “Didn’t do much. And I shoulda let you shoot Mordred, I guess.”

“He’d have walked it off,” Guin said. “You did plenty. Helped me find my love in time for Christmas. Earned a nice bonus, I should think.”

Arthur shuffled in place. “You hired someone to look for me?”

“You didn’t show up,” Guin said, anger stealing her smile. “Again. And again.” She laughed and shook her head. “I’m going to have to put a tracker on you.”

“Or get him a cell phone,” Caldyr suggested.

“I hate those things,” Arthur muttered.

“Grow up and keep it anyway,” Caldyr told him. “And—”

“Maybe see a therapist, too?” Reynardine suggested, from a few feet away.

Arthur turned to stare at him. “Reinhard?”

“Why can’t people let that one go? It’s Reynardine now,” he said with a smile. “Can we talk a bit, ladies? Me and Arthur.”

Guin didn’t seem so sure, but she backed off to a McDougal’s across the way. Her and Caldyr split an order of fries while Reynardine started a video chat on his phone.

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“Who’s he calling?” Guin asked.

“Who do you think? Tyr, the Norse one. He does counseling for all the gods and myths and other folk. Arthur needs help. We’re good at finding help, if we can’t offer it ourselves.”

Ten minutes later, Arthur and Reynardine walked into the restaurant.

Tears puddled in the corners of Arthur’s giant brown eyes and Caldyr remembered those giant St. Booze dogs from the old cartoons.

“That go well?” she asked.

Reynardine gave her a thumbs up.

“Sorry,” Arthur said, eyes on Guin’s shoes. “I shouldn’t hide from you.”

“Forget it,” Guin said. “We don’t need to talk—”

Reynardine cleared his throat. “You both have an appointment in the middle of next week to talk all about it, actually. Together. Tyr’s good at this. Helped me, anyway.”

“He must be good, then,” Guin said. “Thank you both for everything.”

“Sorry to trouble you,” Arthur said.

Caldyr shrugged. “Just a normal Thursday for us.”

“We skipped the board games,” Reynardine said. “But this is good quality family time. Too bad, though, I’ve got Space Wizards Oligopoly and—”

“I’m never playing Oligopoly with you again, you treacherous dickhead,” Caldyr snapped. “Sorry,” she told Guin and Arthur. “Old wounds, but it still stings.”

Arthur cracked a very tiny smile for such a giant man, but Guin’s eyes lit up soon as it broke through all the same.

They parted ways in the parking lot, the Queen and her King heading off to shack-up in a cheap motel.

Caldyr told Reynardine to find coffee and Christmas lights to look at.

“Not in the mood for home?” he asked.

“You like them, right?” Caldyr asked. “The lights and the Christmas songs and the driving together?”

Reynardine smiled. “Sure, it’s kind of nice.”

She nodded. “That was good of you. Stepping in and saying whatever to Arthur to get him to look for help. I’m…”

“Proud?” he asked.

“I don’t know if I should be,” she muttered.

Reynardine ruffled Caldyr’s messy hair. “Can’t help who you’re proud of. Let’s go find something shiny to stare at.”

END TALE

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Mixed Feathers

(Content Warning: Possibly like sexy times ahead…)

Knoel loved to rant about the decay mortal culture brought on Angelic society, but Quizazael kinda liked his morning coffee. His cell phone too, if he admitted it. Which he had on occasion, just Knoel loved to talk in general and interest, or agreement, with her rants didn’t seem to be a factor.

She always rambled to fill the spaces he left and Quiz kinda liked that too.

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“…we didn’t even have a proper meeting last Sunday.” Knoel pinched off a bite of her blueberry muffin. “Only about half-full. Not that you would know.”

“People are busy,” Quiz replied, yawning and stretching. His left wing hit the counter, brown feather tips bent, so he pulled in fast. Left had always been a little long and he didn’t like people to notice.

“We’re angels, Quizazael, we can’t just skip church to lay around in our boxers and eat cheesy crackers.”

Quiz almost spit out a sip of coffee. He gulped it down and ran a napkin around his mouth. “Those were running shorts, I wouldn’t have answered the door in my boxers.”

Knoel ripped off another hunk of muffin. “Are you going to be ready this Sunday?”

“I promised didn’t I?”

“Whatever that means,” she muttered.

“Angels can’t lie.”

“Yet.” She snapped up the last bite of muffin and crumpled the paper. “Only a matter of time before we’re nothing but winged mortals.”

“Mortal life ain’t so bad.” Quiz watched a taco hut spring from nothing across the street. “I like a lot of mortal stuff.”

“‘Isn’t’ Quiz. ‘Ain’t’ isn’t even a word. And where did you get that… silly drawl from?”

“I downloaded it from the webstore last night.” He sighed and added, “Thought it sounded good,” in a lower voice.

“It’s weird, what’s wrong with your old voice?”

“Nothing, I just… I thought some people might like the deeper tone. And accent,” he said, clearly meaning a very specific person.

Knoel threw her cup toward the trash, and missed both the can and the obvious. “As a Class One Arch-Examiner, I think we should be looking deeper into mortal culture’s effects. Your turn to grab dinner. Want to meet at my place? Seven?” Knoel rose to pick up the trash, but Quiz grabbed it first.

He looked over the room and then into Knoel’s scarlet eyes. “I thought maybe we could go out tonight.”

“Out?”

Without looking, Quiz tossed the cup over his shoulder. It sailed directly into the can dead center. “Maybe get a nice dinner. Out and alone. Together. Like humans, kinda.”

Knoel’s cheeks flared bright red, but she just nodded quietly.

*

The day passed slow. Quiz worked in the Arch Archives, sorting the incoming files and retrieving the occasional requested ones for upper management. He didn’t particularly love his job, but he’d just now gained free emotion about heaven and life entirely, so that’s not much of a surprise.

Emotions weren’t so new, but until recently they were just exotic concepts humans seemed to struggle with.

Then came the update last fall. One day, they were all simple beings, purpose built to do angelic works and and the next, they were a little more human. Suddenly, emotions weren’t nearly as distant or easy to deal with.

Obtaining them gave Quiz new perspective on the mortal experience, which might have been the point.

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Didn’t provide much else he enjoyed so far, besides the new point-of-view about Knoel. She didn’t notice, or seem to feel many of the same issues as him. Mostly Knoel got smarter, louder, and the attraction may have bloomed from those bare trimmings. Quiz saw beyond them, of course, to the new little dog she spoiled and to the sudden interest in old television. To the lovely way her hand twisted a few strands of hair before a rant boiled over, or when she was nervous.

Quiz sighed and added another file to his ‘F’ stack.

The phone rang twice, and he answered both times. Nothing important, a file that needed to be rushed upstairs and another that needed to be rushed back. He didn’t do the rushing, just collected the files or left them in a tray. The Metatron ordered tighter security, so they rushed and hid the files these days. All very official and secure that way, Quiz guessed.

Even mundane ones about everyday people, which described most of the files. Heaven didn’t see much excitement, so angels rarely saw any.

Quiz did one strange thing today, and that may have been the seed growing into the bravery to try something else off-kilter. He left two minutes early. Just walked out, even though the day normally ended at five P.M. exactly. Logic barely touched his decision, it was more an impulse—a flare of desire.

He wanted to start home early, and take a shower before meeting Knoel. Maybe even get a bottle of cologne.

*

Knoel answered the door in blue jeans, a red shirt, and smelling rather different herself.

“You look nice,” she said.

“I know,” he replied without thinking. “I mean thanks, thank you. It’s a new shirt.” And slacks, and shoes. Even got his feathers groomed, the long brown wings shone with the cleaning. “You look amazing.”

“Just what I had in the closet,” Knoel said. “And new makeup. Lipstick.” She pursed her lips and stuck them out to show off the shining purple and Quiz held back another new, but already common, impulse.

“It looks nice.”

Knoel nodded and stepped onto the porch, close enough that Quiz had to step back. She took a deep breath and smiled. “Perfume?”

“The male version is cologne.”

“Is there a difference?”

“No, but men on Earth are touchy about those things.”

“Ah.” Knoel locked the door. “So where are we headed?”

“Um… How does Chinese food sound?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “When did heaven get Chinese food?”

Quiz remembered an advertisement on TV, but he couldn’t place the exact date. “Must be recent. Just started with the restaurant update in the last month or so, right?”

“But… Chinese? That sounds… weird and spicy… I don’t know…” Knoel’s lips twisted to one side.

Quiz wondered how he’d never noticed their funny motions, or why he couldn’t help but focus on them now.

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“We can try it,” she said, finally, reluctantly and with a distinct morose edge.

“Oh, well thanks, your grace. I’d hate to impose.”

Knoel tilted her head back and laughed. “You’re quite welcome, and it is a terrible imposition. If I don’t like it, you’ll have to buy me an ice cream afterward.”

Quiz shook his head. “Ha, nope. Your turn for dessert, that’s the way it is.”

“Fine, but we’re coming back to my place. I’ve still got some of that cake I made in the fridge.”

“On second thought, maybe I will spring for ice cream.” He focused on the cobblestones to hide his smile.

Knoel punched him in the arm. “Gonna hold you to that.”

“See, even you didn’t like that cake.”

Knoel frowned. “Still not sure why it turned out salty.”

“We’ll go over the recipe together later and figure it out.”

The autumn breeze carried their conversation away from botched baking and onto some of Knoel’s favorite subjects. She’d built up a decently long winded case against the use of wing dyes by the time they approached the restaurant.

Heady charred spices scented the air, and cooking meats; steam from vegetables and noodles, some type of sweetness Quiz couldn’t place.

“Smells amazing,” he muttered.

Knoel stared up at him with a raised eyebrow. “The dye?”

“No, the food.” Quiz shook his head. “I don’t know anything about wing dyeing.”

“Oh. Well it’s human hair dye and I’m pretty certain it’s bad for wings.”

“Humans use it. Can’t be that bad.”

“Yeah, but pink!” She rolled her eyes. “They’d have never even tried that in the old order.”

“If some angels want to dye them,” Quiz held the dark wood door open, “then that’s their business.”

Knoel flicked her own soft white wings forward and examined them. “Maybe the tips in a mild color, but full on is just a little garish.”

“Yours would look good bald,” he said. “What color were you thinking?”

She blushed and pushed her wings back. “What does it matter how mine look? And no color, I’d never dye my wings.”

“Sure.” Quiz imagined she’d have purple tips by Friday at the latest. “What looks good to you?”

Knoel looked up at the menu and then to the few dozen red wood tables in the dimly lit room. “Nice place, but the sun is about to set. Let’s eat outside.”

“Whatever you’d like, but what are we actually eating?”

In the end, after the traditional debate, they settled on ginger noodles, fried chicken, and dumplings. The food arrived in little white cartons with dark wings stamped into the side, the seal of the Metatron. He ran a lot of the new businesses.

Quiz carried the bag and Knoel grabbed two canned drinks from a strange vending machine that hadn’t been there when they entered. The writing matched some of the lettering in the restaurant, heaven must be diversifying their districts again.

Good, Quiz liked the idea of exploring Earth cultures and Knoel adored complaining about new things. They’d both have fun.

The sun lingered in the South, and their normal park had turned into a shopping mall while they ordered. Instead they carried their food to the outskirts of town and time itself, and sat overlooking a nice little void on the edge of existence that Quiz liked to stare into.

Knoel picked up the noodle box first. “We should have got plates.”

“Want me to run back?”

She grabbed a set of chopsticks. “If you want to.”

“I don’t mind sharing.”

“Fine with me, if you’re good with it.”

“I’m perfectly okay.”

“Me too.”rose-3121249_1280

The noodles were good, spicy and sweet at the same time, and Knoel ate every last bit of the chicken. Quiz finished her share of the dumplings, as she only tried one, and spit half of that into the endless maw of rainbows under heaven’s border.

But Knoel didn’t seem to mind the food adventure overall. Progress, although what Quiz had been counting remained a mystery even to him.

After dinner, she let him toss the trash into the void. He liked to the way the little boxes crumpled and twisted, falling into a singularity and repeating before disappearing entirely. (Quiz never knew, but the trash ended up a mile outside of a landfill in Hoboken, New Jersey per universal law.)

“Want your—” Quiz picked up the little cookie. On contact, the information flowed into him. For a long second, his eyes flared gold. “Want your fortune cookie?”

Knoel grabbed one and got the update as well. “No, I don’t like the taste.”

Without opening the package, Quiz snapped his cookie. He ripped one end and pulled out the slip of paper. “What about the fortune?”

She shook her head. “What does yours say?”

“‘She’s cute. Good luck, you’ll need it’,” Quiz read aloud.

“Really?” Knoel snatched the little paper. “I’ll be danged.” She opened her cookie. “ As a Class One Arch-Examiner, I have to check, of course. Hmm. ‘Go easy on the featherhead’.”

“Fortunate cookies indeed,” Quiz noted and flicked his paper into the void. The cookie tasted okay. A little bland, but he didn’t expect much from complimentary sweets that already included prophecies. Real dessert sounded good about now. “Ice cream?”

“Walk a bit first?” Knoel countered with a smile. “And then maybe we’ll just go back to my place, I’m pretty tired.”

“Just a candy bar then? Can’t be a date without dessert…”

“Eating take-out with your best friend isn’t a date anyway.”

Quiz steeled his courage and tried for a small smile. “What if we make out afterward?”

Knoel coughed, stumbled over her own feet, and turned to stare back at him. “What kind of question is that?!”

“We’re two blocks from your place, so a rather urgent one,” he replied in all seriousness.
She blushed and looked over the street. “I’ve changed my mind. Buy me ice cream.”

“Is that a no?”

“That’s a buy me ice cream while I stall for time to think,” she said. “Take it or leave it.” Panic was half-a-second from overwhelming her scarlet eyes—better reaction than he expected, really.

“It’s plenty, let’s go.” Quiz held out a hand.

Knoel studied her own first and then carefully took his.

Her skin was soft and she smelled a little like velvet feels: soft, shimmering, warmth. Easy to sink into and just always about right.

Floriel’s Confectionery served the best ice cream in heaven since they opened last week, so Quiz led straight there. Knoel hadn’t been joking about the thinking, she barely even noticed as they entered the shop and let him do all the ordering.

“A large waffle cone sundae with everything and two spoons.”

The server nodded, eyes on Knoel.

She’d started texting, probably Idriel or Caniel for advice, and her thumbs quickly became violet-polished blurs on the poor screen. They were her best friends, besides Quiz, and Idriel was half of heaven’s first couple.

“And two coffees,” he added, remembering she mentioned being tired. “Something cold and sweet.”

Quiz deposited Knoel in a corner, not too close to the door, and went to collect the food.
The phone was gone when he returned, although it buzzed away in her pocket.

“I get the okay?” he asked.

“Traitors is what they are,” she muttered, pulling the sundae to herself. “What kind of friend…”

“What?”

“Nothing. Them, not you.” Knoel’s eyes narrowed to bare scarlet slits. “You’ve done quite enough tonight, Quizazael.”

“What did I do?”

“You tricked me into this date,” she replied. “I was expecting a quiet evening watching TV…”

“We can still watch some TV. And we’ve been friends a while… would trying more be so bad?”

“More like what?”

Quiz’s turn to blush. “Like… kissing. Holding hands was nice too. I want to do romantic things, sometimes. Like be a couple…”

“A couple? Sleep together and everything? Like Idriel and Hyatel?”

“Yes, like that!” The first two were both male, but Quiz knew love’s true androgynous nature. He and Knoel could make it work too. “Would you be a half of my couple?”

“I’d be willing to give it a chance.” Knoel’s eyes flicked to the door, but she took out her phone and stared at that a moment. “Your place is closer,” she said, finally. “And I’ve already walked Lottie today, so I can… we could maybe go there. For coffee.” She gulped at the one already in hand. “Private coffee.”

“Let’s go watch that TV,” Quiz offered. “I’ll get a to-go box.”

“Thanks, that sounds nice.”

The server’s eyes bordered on scandalous, but so did Quiz’s intentions—he didn’t worry too much.

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Knoel carried the food this time, and they sipped at their coffees and walked slow. No one replaced the moon after the last war, so only stars lit their walk, besides the occasional street lamp or wandering gaseous being.

Quiz enjoyed a ruby glow from a passing one. The light really played well of Knoel’s nervous face.

The neighborhood he lived in hadn’t converted to modern row houses yet. The older style wasn’t very nice, simple square buildings with little outer color. Quiz filled the inside of his with posters to make up for the bland outside. Movies, art, and music, and whatever caught his eye. A particularly vivid zombie dragon Knoel hated occupied the space above his TV.

Normally criticism came easier than breathing for her, but tonight she just shook her head. “Put on that witch show.”

Quiz turned on FeatheryFlix and Knoel went into the kitchen. His freezer door squeaked and she returned a long moment later without the sundae bag, but glowing with a strangely attentive smile. Quiz watched every motion as she sashayed across the floor, his mind lost somewhere in the pleasantness of her company.

Knoel bit her bottom lip and dropped onto her normal end of the couch. Both hands flew to her mouth. “Ouch.”

Quiz held back a laugh. “Are you okay?”

“It’s nothing, I’m fine. It’s healed. Bit my lip.”

A touch of blood still shined. Quiz wiped the drop with his thumb and held back a laugh.

“Don’t grin at me, Quizazael! I was trying to be seductive for your weirdo couple thing.”

“Thanks.” He leaned down. “But you’re plenty seductive just lookin’ at me.”

Knoel turned red again and Quiz lost all patience. He closed the gap, capturing their first kiss in a clumsy bump.

Her lips twisted beneath his own and he mirrored the smile. Knoel pulled her leg onto the couch and Quiz dropped his at her crux. She shifted downward slightly, pressing against him, and broke the kiss.

Their eyes locked for a stark, intrusive, and blistering moment.

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Knoel grinned and sighed.

“What?” Quiz asked, leaning forward to kiss her cheek.

“I’m feeling warm and buzzy and happy.”

“Buzzy? Was it the kiss?”

She winked. “We should double check, I’m really not sure. As a Class One Arch-Examiner, I’d imagine it was my duty.” Her hand wandered upward and twisted a lock of brown hair. “To explore this, I mean.” The hand teased down and stopped at her belt.

Quiz traced the path with the tip of his fingers, enjoying her twitch and the slight flutter from her wing. “I’m always willing to be your test subject.” He stole another kiss, and a longer caress upward. She tasted of chocolate and coconut—her favorite sundae toppings and forever an indelible path to this memory.

“How do my lips feel to you?”

“Like I’ve been missing a bit of heaven,” Quiz muttered.

“You should shave more,” she said.

“What if I grew it out?”

Knoel laughed and shook her head. “We’re…” She looked down at his knee and then at her own breasts. Both nipples were taught under the red fabric of her shirt. “It could be worth trying, if you wanted to.”

With a push of her wings, Knoel sat mostly upright and leaned close. “I like the scent, thing. The colony.”

“Cologne. And thanks, I hoped you would.”

“You’re wearing my lipstick now,” she muttered into his ear. “That’s incredible for some reason. I feel possessive. Like I should mark you.”

“Why?”

“So no one else thinks they can take you.”

“Oh.”

Knoel gripped him a little tighter. “You don’t want other people, right Quizazael?”

“No, no, not at all. I didn’t realize you thought others might want me.”

“Of course they would.” Knoel leaned back and eyed him up and down. “Tall, dark wings, bright orange eyes and… well the drawl might be nicer than I let on.” She looked down at her body. “Would others want me, you think?”

“Certainly, but I feel confident that I’ll hold onto you.”

Knoel frowned. “I don’t feel confident about any of this. Do you think that’s strange?” The frown deepened into something close to panic. “Am I weird?”

“Nah. That’s natural, I’m sure. My confidence comes from foolishness, or love maybe… they feel about the same right now.” Quiz stopped his hand on her belt and slipped it under the clingy shirt. “You are weird about stuff, Darlin’. It’s strange that you’re worried about things other than my hands. I’m gettin’ a mite insulted.”

Her body twisted; warm muscles shifting under his palm. “I’m starting to lose focus, if that makes you feel better.”

“It does.”

“I should be writing this down. Maybe recording.”

Quiz blinked and chuckled. “We can if you want, but you want to experiment more first?”

Before he finished speaking, Knoel shook her head. “Not… no, not like that. Wow, you do take to this couple thing, Quiz.”

“I’ve thought about it a lot.” He caught one of her earlobes with his teeth and tugged.

“About you, a lot.”

“That feels amazing.”

“Me thinking about you?”

“The ear nibbling! Do it more.”

Quiz repeated the process then mixed the formula, playing teeth over her neck. He tickled behind her ear and searched her warm body for any reaction. Knoel wiggled downward, and her wings pushed her body up into his. Quiz knew the buzzing himself now, the soft tingles and pops of sensation. They rang deep inside and on his surface. As often happened when thoughts of Knoel infected his own, he found the pressure working it’s way south.

One of her hands followed the sensation, down his body and to his belt. “Can you take this off?” she asked.

“Sure, but I think we’re supposed to undre—”

“Just sod the process, okay? Clothes off.”

“Yes’m.”

Quiz stood and yanked his shirt off. The cloth ripped, not made for angels. Didn’t matter, he’d buy another one.

Knoel watched, nodding slowly and with a wicked smile.

“Are you joining me?”

She wiggled her eyebrows. “We’ll see. Might decide to just observe for tonight.”

“That’s what I’m worried about. Shirt maybe?”

“In a second.” Knoel leaned back on the couch. “When did you know you liked me?”

“Remember that day last June? The summer’s first heavy blood rains… We got soaked on the way into work, ‘cause I just had to try the ‘dang’ coffee thing.”

“The week you cut your hair?”

Quiz looped his thumbs into his slacks and forced them off. He stood naked and hard, with her scarlet eyes burning over him. “I just knew. You smiled, I stared, you told to me to stop staring and I was in love.”

“We’ve known each other since the dawn of time and it took that long? And why today?”
Quiz considered that while Knoel pulled herself off the couch. “Maybe good love just takes it’s own time. Can’t rush forever.”

She gripped his hand, and pulled him toward the bedroom. “Now that sounded pretty great in your drawl. Let’s go to your bedroom, I don’t want zombie dragons to see my privates.”

“I’d follow you anywhere,” he said, urging her forward. “But let’s hurry.”

Knoel did, stripping her clothes with far too little care. She rushed down the hall to Quiz’s room and left her panties at the door. The slow shift onto the bed revealed well-thought dreams and more in full life, and Quiz tried to forge the view to memory. Her rosy nipples caught his attention, and the soft curve of her inner thigh.

He climbed after her, throwing a quick and hard kiss onto her lips, before they collapsed to the bed. She groaned and pushed on his chest. Quiz sat up, and moved himself between her legs to look down at her pussy.

“I thought you squashed me,” Knoel gasped.

Quiz trailed a finger down her skin and past the small patch of curly hair. “Shh, I need to figure this out.”

“Wha—”

He stuck a finger in and she shuddered, covering her mouth.

“Warn me!”

He removed the finger. “Sorry.”

Knoel pulled the hand back. “Don’t stop, just say something.”

A little slower this time, he slipped a finger inside. Warm and just a little wet. Softer than anything I can imagine. Twitches a bit as she shudders…

Quiz grunted and grabbed the back of her leg. A yank and she laid back. Her wing spread out, tips inches from the walls. He moved his fingers, thumb resting on her mound and she responded with twitches and gasps. Each motion seemed to carry through her, rocking her body and dancing her wings.

After minutes, Knoel’s hand moved in, circling his wrist. She pulled him away, and examined the wet fingers. “Do you enjoy this?”

“No.” He used the other hand and she let go of him to clasp at the bed. “Your questions are normally fine, but right now it’s wearing my patience something awful.”

“Fingering me, I mean. Featherhead is right…”

Quiz nodded. “So very much, Darlin’. Looking forward to going farther too, of course…”
Knoel teased her fingers down his bare stomach, leaving a trail of sensation that pulsed even as it faded. Her nails touched first, cold and hard before warmer flesh cupped his cock.

“Ah,” Quiz twitched and pulled back, she moved with him.

“What?” Knoel let him go.

“I didn’t expect you to grab that.”

She shrugged. “It’s the next step, I Googled it earlier.”

“Me too, did you watch the videos though?” He dropped over her again, careful not to crush her entirely.

“No. I was thinking maybe we can try—Ack!”

With a push, his penis slid to her core, and she bucked. He grunted, low buzz turning to a fevered pitch in a heartbeat. “That’s definitely quite good.”

Knoel nodded. “Yes, we can agree that was mutually—”

He drew back and the air around his dick felt cool and uncomfortable for a short second.

“Pleasurable,” Knoel finished. “Nice. All very nice.”

“I’m not sure what I’m doing.”

Knoel grabbed the back of her knees. “We’ll figure it out. Just keep trying different stuff until it works.”

Quiz rocked in and out of her, finding rhythm for a few strokes and losing it just as easy. Slowly, and with a few fumbles, the concordance built. She gripped his back and pushed upward to stay joined. Gasps filled the bare spaces between moans.

With a shattered cry, her whole being twitched, wings curled inward, and Knoel collapsed under him. Quiz joined her in ecstasy, finding a moment of purity beyond words in their oneness.heart-2028655_1280

Moments later, he rolled over and stared at the ceiling.

Knoel climbed onto his wing and scooted close. “You feel anything?”

Quiz shuddered at the touch of her breath against his neck. “Happy. Hungry. You?”

“Sore. Those things too. I think I’ll want more in a bit though.”

“Already? Was I bad or…”

Knoel rolled her eyes and slapped her wing against his chest. The cool breeze felt nice. “No, but like I had fun. You were fun. Being a couple is good, Quizazael. You think too much sometimes.”

“Try not to. Want to split that sundae?”

Sadness overtook her sweaty face. “I… I’m not moving, Quiz. Just no.”

“I’ll get it.” He shoved Knoel softly to she side, and took a moment to enjoy her skin under his palm.

She pushed back against him, angling for a better view. “I’ll have to think of a nice reward.”

Quiz chuckled on his way down the hall. The sundae waited on the freezer’s middle shelf, still in the bag, and he grabbed some drinks to go with the snack.

And a bottle of chocolate syrup for other purposes entirely.

On the way back, Quiz stopped to untack his zombie dragon. He rolled the poster and shelved it until he could find a new home. Something else could go above the TV, he had plenty to brighten the place up now.

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Authors’s Note: Thanks for reading and have a great Valentine’s Day! Hope you enjoyed and if you did, maybe leave a like? Sharing would be great too! Also I’ve got a novella out that’s pretty much very not like this. An action, mystery about a sassy water fairy and a tricky fox. Still weird and funny.

Check it out on Amazon for just 99 cents!

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