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.

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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

christmas-cactus-3657993_640

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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Silver And Cold: A Glass Fate Christmas Tale

(CW: Abusive Language, Cursing, Violence)

Chapter 1. Chilled

Athena hit the stop button on her alarm, leaned over the trashcan and emptied her stomach of last night’s gin.

Cold air teased her bare back, she shivered and looked to the broken window. “How…”

“Sorry,” Ares muttered from the floor. “I tried to stop you, but you said ‘fuck this window’ and hit it with a bolt.”

“Ares? Did we…”

The god shook his head and picked some pale fluff from his trimmed dark beard. “No, but you were topless when Safkhet dropped you off.”

“What…” Athena shook her head as memories tickled like dreams. The bar. The crying…
Emmaline.

“Fuck.”

Ares opened one of her dresser drawers and pulled out a shirt. “Cover up… are you okay?”

“Good. I’m fine.” Athena stared into the corner of her mirror, at the reflection of her little toe. “I’ll be fine.”

“Aphrodite offered you a new crush. On the house, just so you know. If you want something to get the mortal off your mind.”

“How’d she hear?” Athena snatched the shirt out of Ares’ hand and slipped it on.

“LifeTree. You Seeded about it a few dozen times. There were pictures.”

“Oh fuck.”

“I know, it was bad.” He nodded sagely. “Even Reynardine was trying to be nice.” Ares picked up the blankets and pillows from the floor. “I was worried, a bit, so I slept over. I’ll have Phaestus send some automatons around to repair the window.”
Athena looked up at the ex-war god, but couldn’t muster a smile. “Thanks, Ares.”

“I thought you’d do something stupid. I’m a cop.” He smiled. “We should hang out more, A. I mean, when we’re not saving the world or on godly business.”

She muttered a response, but didn’t really have time for a renewed friendship this week. There was a few hundred year old bottle of scotch in her cellar she wanted to drown in for a bit, today at least.

Her stomach gurgled. Later today…

Ares cleared his throat. “Want to brave Hestia’s Christmas party together? We can talk trash on all the happy couples.”

“I never go to that. You know how I feel about Christmas.” She stood up and looked around at the bare walls. “Thanks, but I’m not going to start in now.”

“Offers open.” Ares looked her room over. “And you’re welcome, A. Have a good one and go easy on the bottle today.”

With the taste of bile and gin so fresh, even the word ‘bottle’ churned her stomach.

Ares exited through the gaping hole in her window and Athena made her way to the bathroom. She stripped off the shirt and the stained, holey sweatpants.

“I went out drinking in sweatpants…” Safkhet really left a lot to be desired for a best friend. Not that she was bad, most the time, but enforcing fashion choices on the drunk and heartbroken was a pretty important task.

Athena started up the shower and took a few aspirin before climbing in. The hot water didn’t cure her cotton mouth, but she gulped some down anyway and stood under the spray until the pounding in her skull faded.

And the shout took over. ‘Don’t talk to me like I’m stupid, you slut.’

Emmaline. She’d always been so nice, the venom hurt even worse. Burned.

‘I’m leaving. Call that guy you’ve been fucking to drive me home.’

Ares and her were always just friends.

What led to that insult?

‘Do us both a last favor and lose my number, Attie.’

Athena remembered that one, hurled at her as Emmaline climbed into Ares car for a ride home, back to the mortal world. Athena had just called her stupid.

For the first and last time.

Athena slammed a fist into the wall and through to the other side.

“Screw it,” she muttered. “I’ll expand the bathroom into the garage. Never drive anyway.”

The phone’s ringing didn’t help her headache, probably Fate’s office wondering why she’d skipped work. Well, technically, Athena was just late at this point, but the office could survive a day without her. Maybe a few.

“Maybe, it’s time to quit.” Athena spun the shower handle and slipped her mostly fresh shirt back on. She skipped combing her hair, tangles be damned for a few days, but brushed her teeth until they hurt a bit.

By the end of that, she conceded to the hairbrush and ran it through her blonde locks.
I should dye it. Get some darker makeup too, I’m tired of this pastel life.

She pulled on some underthings and blue jeans. The hole in the shower, and missing window, would have to wait. Maybe Phaestus would help.

Athena headed to the kitchen and popped a little single-serve cup in her coffee machine.

The coffee sludge began rehydrating and Athena turned to grab her bottle of flavored creamer from the fridge. She flipped open the door, slammed it shut, spun across the room, and grabbed a chef’s knife in about a second total.

The door swung open again and Reynardine the Fox peered out in a red stocking cap with a white ball on the end. In human form, handsome face, missing right eye, and smile meant to drop panties or start wars. Probably both, when the bastard was on a roll.

He took a sip from a carton of milk and looked around. “Morning, Honeyweaver.”

“Don’t call me that,” Athena said. “What the fuck are you doing in my fridge?”

“Drinking your milk,” Reynardine told her. “What’s up with the knife? I thought we were close.”

“We’re not you sleeping in my fridge close.” She sat the blade on her counter. “Sorry, just alarmed is all. You surprised me.”

Reynardine finished the milk and climbed out. “That’s probably good. Trust nothing and no one. Least of all strange foxes claiming to be from Santa.”

Athena snorted. “Oh no, we’re not doing this today.”

“I’m sure the day will be full of surprises,” Reynardine said. “Brr, you always keep it so cold in here?” He wore slacks and a bright green sweater with a topless, muscled Santa riding a candy cane themed unicorn. “Caldyr got it for me,” he said. “Nice, huh? You like sexy Santa?”

“I don’t think anyone likes it, Reynardine. She must either hate you or know you really well.”

“Aw, we know it’s both. You want to hit the road, or what?”

“Road?” Athena shook her head. “No, I’m drinking a cup of coffee and eating something terrible for me instead of a healthy breakfast and then crying while I watch sad movies until it’s drinking time. I’ve written out a schedule, somewhere.”

“Nope.” Reynardine tapped his cap. “We’ve gotta discover the true meaning of Christmas or love… or something, I only read part of the script for this shindig.”

“It’s the day before Christmas eve—”

“I’ve got plans this year, Athena. We gotta rock this boat now, let’s boogie.”

“I’m not boogeying anywhere, Reynardine!”

“But Santa sent me.”

“Bullshit,” Athena said. “Why would Santa use you—”

Reynardine pulled out a golden candy cane with a key for the straight end. “I told you, me and old Kringle are tight.”

Athena stared at the Christmas key. “I thought you were just trying to get me to do something naughty.”

“That too.” Reynardine looked around. “So, we got a little over twenty-four hours for this party. You want a little hair of the dog?”

“I don’t know…”

Reynardine snapped and they were inside a busy grocery store.

“I don’t have shoes!” Athena’s toes curled against the cold cement floor.

Reynardine looked around. “You’re a god, Athena.”

“Oh, right.” She magicked a pair of socks and canvas sneakers on. Humans didn’t notice the magic, her godly abilities were beyond mortal sight by Fate’s Decree. Pretty spiffy, really, in the old days she had to be careful about being seen all the time.

Athena added a night-blue blazer, but left the rest of the outfit. She wasn’t in the mood for much magic right now. The jacket was darker than her normal soft blue, but she liked the look.

Reynardine picked up a large, expensive bottle of eggnog. He spotted her jacket and raised an eyebrow, but just asked, “You hungry?” And took off for the front before she had a chance to answer.

Athena hurried to keep up. “Yes and tired. Slow down, please.”

Reynardine disappeared down an aisle, and when Athena reached the end, he was lifting up a bottle of nice brandy.

“What are you doing?” Athena asked.

“Donuts? They have them here, and that’s the best endorsement I can offer. Ain’t no Crunchy Cremes, that for sure, but let’s go.”

“Reynardine—”

He was already half-way to the case, and suspicions were building in Athena’s tired mind. She followed and watched him pick out a dozen donuts. “Need anything else, Fox?”

“Nope,” Reynardine said. “Hold this real quick?” He forced the box of donuts into her arms before snapping.

And they were in a park.

“Did you just steal all that?”

Reynardine nodded. “Well, actually we did. Go team owlfox, right?”

Athena dropped the donuts on the table and covered her mouth. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

“That’s a whole ‘nother story, Honeyweaver. Want some eggnog?” Reynardine dumped out half the bottle, “For the lost foxes and dead gods,” and then added the stolen brandy.

“First swig?”

Athena grabbed it and washed down her doubts with the milky cocktail. He poured in either too much or too little brandy, she couldn’t decide. And didn’t really want to think about it—or anything—the burn of the booze was enough for now.

She sat the bottle on the stone table and Reynardine pushed over the box of donuts.

Athena traded him the spiked nog and grabbed a cherry crunch. “So, what’s the epiphany?” she asked around a mouthful of donut. “I’m not sure I have the stomach for a full journey today.”

“Nope, doesn’t work that way. It’s the rules.”

“Bullshit.”

“Hey, who’s an official deputy of Santa Claus himself?”

Athena pulled the eggnog to her and took another sip. “I’m still not entirely sure I believe all that. Why would Santa send you?”

“Like I said, we’re close.”

Athena rolled her eyes. “How? What, you banged his wife—”

“Hey! I’d never hit on Ms Claus. That woman is a saint.” Reynardine took a sip of their shared drink and pushed it back. “I did have an interesting weekend with Rudolph once, but who hasn’t?”

“Me,” Athena said. The bottle’s tiny opening didn’t hold as much appeal, quite suddenly, but she steeled herself and took a hearty swig. To wash the bitter taste, she ate a sprinkled cake donut and considered her options.

If Santa really sent Reynardine, and his possession of a North Pole key spoke volumes, chances were Athena couldn’t just skip out—Santa didn’t fuck around with naughty listers.

Besides Reynardine. If there was one being more persistent than Santa himself…

Even he couldn’t, and wouldn’t, actually steal a key from Santa, though. Reynardine might be a clever trickster, but the Claus’ were another level of magic entirely. More on par with gods, or perhaps even Fate herself.

Ignoring this little trip down memory lane would land her on the naughty list for a few decades, at least.

Athena didn’t really need the gifts, but people would find out.

And talk. They always talked, nothing more boring than small town life—especially for big city gods like them.

She washed her donut down with brandy straight from the bottle. “All right. And what’s the plan then?”

Reynardine looked up. “Plan? Honeyweaver, where we’re going, we don’t need plans.”

“What? Reynardine, it’s not the time for lame quot—”

He snapped and they were off again.

 

Chapter 2. Shiny

Athena landed butt first on cold ground. “Oh, fuck. Reynardine, what the hell was that?”

She sat in the middle of a small camp, old style green army tents and…

Oh.

Camp of the New Pantheon. Judging by the lack of recruits, it must’ve still been early days for their little revolution. Not even a sign of artillery, maybe Christmas 1915.
More than a hundred years ago now. Time really does fly.

“And so does Reynardine, apparently.” Bastard Fox was nowhere to be found; tents, trenches, and little else stood out.

Athena snuck among them, listening carefully for a hint of Reynardine—or even whatever she was here to see. Athena was a big goddess, no one needed to hold her hand, she could epiphany herself just fine.

The sunlight had peaked already, but daytime didn’t mean much at the camp back then. They’d all been on different schedules, all 8… no 11 of them in ‘15.

If you didn’t count Reynardine,which no one really did. He’d been a spy, working both sides and not too shy about telling Artemis—the leader of the New Pantheon in those days.

Athena looked around sadly. Last thing she needed today was another reminder of bad times and lost friends.

Reynardine walked out of the showers tent, fixing his fashionable slacks and coat. Musta changed clothes.

Athena started over, but he looked right through her and walked off.

Both of his eyes. “Oops, wrong fox.”

A second later, another Reynardine—one missing eye and horrific sweater and all—walked out of the same tent.

Fixing his pants.

Athena blushed and stared. “General? Did you just—”

“Oh, don’t act like you haven’t thought of it.”

“With a past version of myself? I really can’t say I—”

“It was a rare opportunity,” Reynardine explained. “Forget it, we have stuff to take care of.”

“Forget it? Reynardine that’s a… a hard thing to forget.”

“Bit part of another tale, my Honeyweaver.” He nodded at the food tent. “Real tale is in there.”

“Hestia making pancakes?”

“No, but—”

Reynardine paused.

The past him was crawling out Hestia’s window, box of sausage in one hand and bottle of wine in the other.

“Hn.” Athena looked over to the current him. “What did you do with a crate of sausage?”

“Lunch for a friend. I do look rather dashing though, right?”

Athena nodded ruefully—no denying he offered a certain roguish charm. Handsome too, clever as well. Plus a complete asshole and cocky to boot, but Reynardine was always a… a something all right.

“So, drag me here just to play around with your past sausage or what?”

Reynardine gave a long barking laugh. “Clever, Ath. C’mon, the real party’s inside. It’s Christmas eve’s eve, and you just cheated death.”

He held the tent flap with a flourish and a low bow.

Athena ducked slightly and walked into the smoky little mess tent.

Hestia held court at the front, doling out pancakes and fat little homemade sausages with sage from Demeter’s garden and lamb straight from Pan’s flock.

“Can we steal food from the past?” Athena wondered.

Reynardine shrugged. “She’ll probably blame it on me anyway.”

“Well, to be fair, you did steal a whole crate a moment ago.”

“A hundred years and a moment ago,” Reynardine corrected officiously.

“Course,” Athena muttered. She snatched a warm sausage from the tray. Greasy, spiced, and better than she remembered. Been a long time since Hestia made sausage, decades at least. “So, how did I cheat death here again? The times kinda blur.”

“I know that feel.” Reynardine nodded across the tent.

Athena stared at the blonde laughing at the table for a long minute before it clicked.
Burnt hair, singed skin, two black eyes, and dried blood trailing from most of the holes on her face. “Wow, I was thumped on.”

“Blown up,” Reynardine said. “Technically. By a god’s bolt too, so—”

“Fucking Jupiter, huh? Roman bastard, I remember this.”

Athena sat next to Safkhet, across from Artemis and Hel. She talked loudly, her hearing wasn’t so good right then, although the words were a little off track with their current state of existence. Athena leaned closer and listened until they cleared.

Safkhet poked at the past Athena’s blackened armor and burnt combat fatigues. “You said you dodged the blast?”

“I said I dodged death.” She turned to the other table. “Thanks by the way, Pluto. I saw you look the other way.”

Pluto blushed down at his eggs. “Accidental. I’d never allow just any soul to abscond, of course.” The god looked up and gave her a timid smile. “But you know how much I like shiny things.”

The past Athena smiled back, and tried to pat down her hair, but that side had been burnt off entirely.

Current Athena gave a tired smile, she remembered what came next; six or seven months of mediocre romance with some good bits, before a weird, hard split.

“Right, Christmas past. Check.” Athena looked over at Reynardine as the voices faded.

“So, we gonna watch me get seduced all the way?”

Reynardine looked up from his phone. “I’m game if you are, it’s your memory. But we can abscond once you’ve learned your lesson.”

“Which is?”

He waved a hand dramatically and dropped onto an empty seat. “I don’t know, it’s your lesson.”

Athena knew that was bullshit, but she’d probably have better luck arguing with the wall. Easier to win, at least.

Instead, she focused on the moment.

What did I learn, or could I learn from this?

“Do you have some paper?” she asked.

“Phone dead?”

“Oh, right.” Athena unlocked hers and took a quick selfie with the past her in the background. No signal now, but she’d post it to LifeTree soon as they were done in the past.

She opened a note file and started organizing feelings and memories into something she could correlate with the current memory. Formulas would have to be from memory, but Einstein worked out some pretty good ones before he switched from magic to physics.
Athena focused on the numbers, barely watching as Safkhet and the others skipped out and Pluto sidled up to her.

“Damn, he works fast,” Reynardine said. “For a geeky type.”

“He’s not a geek.” Athena looked Pluto over. “Maybe a bit, but I like them a little geeky.”

She shrugged. “I’m a wisdom and politics goddess, they like me a lot of the time.”

Reynardine nodded. “Why’d you break it off with him?”

Athena rolled her eyes. “Nothing to do with him really. We had fun, he just wanted something I couldn’t give.”

“Settle down?”

She nodded.

“We’ve all been there. Us unmarried gods… well, I’m a myth, but you know what I mean. You love ‘em.” Reynardine popped open his eggnog bottle again. “But love isn’t what it’s all about. They want steady. And just you.”

“He probably wouldn’t have minded the odd lady or two,” Athena added. “Pretty much though. Offered me a ring, the fucker.”

“Broke it off the next day?”

“I didn’t want to,” Athena said. “Pluto…” She sighed. “He was a good guy, I liked him a lot, but we were in a war. If he couldn’t deal with what I had to offer, then it was just time.”

“Amen.”

Athena looked into Pluto’s coal night eyes. “Damn, that hurt though.”
“You took R&R for the first time ever.”

She forced a grimace. “That was in Paris, huh?”

“Good time?”

“I cried and ate some chocolate. Drank a lot of wine too.”

“But you survived.”

“Sure, not like a broken heart ever killed a god.”

“You’d be surprised at the damage a wounded heart can do.” Reynardine gave her a tired half-smile and snapped.

 

Chapter 3. Cracked Pillar

Reynardine landed on top of her on a bed.

Athena looked up into his amber eye. “A bed. Hn. Coincidence, right?”

“Ha. I’m not low enough to prey on a heartbroken friend.”

Athena huffed. “Probably a bad idea, anyway. Get off, you know I like being on top.”

“Right.” Reynardine rolled to the side and off the bed. He pushed himself up fast and started for the door.

Athena followed, eyes searching the small hall. “So, we anyplace special?”

“Obviously. We’re not time hopping at random. Probably.”

“Probably?”

“I’m just the conductor,” Reynardine said. He stuck out his tongue and tasted the air.

“Olympus, 1954.”

The place did feel a little familiar, but they’d redone the floors and walls in her forty year absence. “You can tell that from the air?”

“Sure, why not?”

Athena shook her head. “Right. So just before we won?”

“A few weeks,” Reynardine told her. “We’re here to see Hera.”

“Hera?” Athena shook her head. “I don’t want to see my evil stepmother, Reynardine. Thought I’d never have to again.”

“That’s a pretty common feeling, on this cold Christmas eve’s eve.” Reynardine pointed.

Hera stood in front of a blue, watery pillar with Uncle Poseidon emblazoned on the front in all his dickheaded glory. More than 50 years since Athena saw the brunette goddess. Half that since Athena even thought of her, they’d never cared much for each other.
Hera wore nothing but a few bits of gold, not unusual for her. The elder gods never cared much for modern style and Olympus was awful warm this evening.

Air was hot, actually. Always got that way when Father was on a rager.

Athena’s hand found Reynardine’s without a thought and he gave a soft, kind squeeze.

“Honeyweaver, I wouldn’t put you through that. We’re just here for Hera.”

Athena nodded, and knew better, but the stress still boiled.
So she focused on Hera.

“…just think we’re going too far.” She leaned her head against the pillar. “Please, Poseidon, answer. I need a friend.”

Mercifully, Poseidon kept his silence. Athena doubted she could handle seeing him at the moment, anyway.

Hera flinched and sulked her way to the next pillar.

Apollo.

“Son? Oh, my shining sun of a child.”

Hera laid the butter on thick and even offered some candy—an old lyre she knew of resting in some mountains— nothing but silence.

“Apollo must be ticked too.”

“They were losing,” Reynardine said with more than a hint of pride. “Suddenly. Oops.”

Athena didn’t smile. She watched her stepmom move onto the next pillar, Hades, and past.

Hera walked toward some lone pillars, all the ‘traitors’ on the revolution’s side.

Finally, she paused and sat down.

In front of Athena’s silvery stack of books. “Hello, Honeyhair.”

“For fuck’s sake, it’s just blonde,” Athena muttered.

“Close to honey, though,” Reynardine said.

“She hated it anyway.” Athena looked at her stepmom. “Always telling me to wash it.” Athena put on Hera’s sulky, low voice. “Looks dirty. Thought I was stupid, too. I could see when she was thinking it, she’d look right at me and—”

Reynardine shushed her. “Listen, I don’t like rewinding bits.”

The head goddess twiddled her thumbs. “I know you can’t hear me. I’d be risking a lot to contact any of you right now. Still… damned tempting.” Hera picked at her teeth with a fingernail. “Been a long year, I guess. Quite a few of them, I think. When is it? The 40’s again, right? Twentieth century? Or 21st, I mix those up, you know. Oh, I don’t care.

“Your Father is on a bad one tonight. Same always, these days. I really didn’t think this spat would last the year, you know? Been a lot of them now and you kids…” Hera wiped an eye. “You know, we swore we’d let it go? When I first had Apollo, and that hellion sister of his, we knew one day, it’d be your turn. To rule and everything. It’s the way it works. Hestia and Aphrodite made us promise. Zeus swore to. We’d have a couple of millennia as the leaders and then when it was your turn, we’d pass along the scepters.”
Athena heard rumors, but straight from Hera’s mouth was closest to the truth as possible—the only one she hurt with the confession was Zeus.

If anyone heard.

Hera sobbed softly on the floor and didn’t speak for a long time. “I loved you, kid. I mean, I loved all of you kids, even the bastards. Sorry, you hate when I say that.” Hera looked into the distance to her, but right through Athena. “Even the ones I didn’t have the honor of birthing. That’s more fitting a royal. I know you hate me.” A tiny laugh. “I don’t love me either all the time.”

“I don’t really…” Athena stopped and every drop of ichor in her went cold. “I didn’t.”

“She knows and knew,” Reynardine whispered. “Let her finish.”

“We’re two grapes sharing a stem,” Hera said. “Two close to the base to ever fit right. Dionysus would like that. He’d be good right now. If he was here. He’d calm Zeus, and soothe Artemis, whoever else in this crazy thing. And we’d have dinner on his birthday, like we will soon. Dry turkey you hate, I know you all talk about my food when I’m cooking.” Hera hung her head. “I don’t care what you little ingrates think… but I’ll have Hestia help so no one leaves early this year. It’ll be good for us, being a family again. I’ll say it in person this time, too. Like I always meant to. But… I love you, little honey bug. I’m very proud of you.”

Hera looked at her hands and shivered. “I need to speak with the rest of my wayward kids too. Don’t know why I wanted to talk to you first. I know you’d never listen anyway. I wouldn’t.”

Snap.

 

Chapter 4. A Fairy Short Interlude

Athena sobbed for a long time in a little park, on a bad street that ran dead center through Stockton, California.

People in modern clothes wandered by, some stared, but most ignored the shittily dressed crazy woman crying for ghosts and missed chances against a stone bench.

She didn’t think, just let the emotions and memories dictate what she cried for at any given second.

Later on, when she’d run dry of tears, a soft purple cup appeared in her vision.

“It’s happy hour and I got you a slushie for half-price,” Reynardine said. “No booze, but we can pick up some at the next stop.”

“Oh thank the lord yes please.”

“You’re welcome.” Reynardine waggled his brows. He held a brown paper bag filled with foil packages.

Athena nodded at them. “What is this?”

“It’s a chicken wrappuritaco blast. I got a bag for Caldyr, gotta drop ‘em at home.”

Athena picked a foil package up and sniffed. She’d eaten fast food, even enjoyed some, but dollar menu burritos seemed a little… scary, even for a non-human. “She eats these?”

“‘Eats’ is a generous term. She inhales them, fast. Not sure what else happens.” Reynardine hitched a thumb and they started walking down the cracked sidewalk.

She rolled her eyes. “Really, why not stop off at someplace decent, I’ll spring for it.”

“I would,” Reynardine said. “But Caldyr’s broke and she won’t let me pay for every meal.”

“That’s dumb, she should fleece you for whatever she can get.”

“Caldyr’s not dumb, Athena. She’s a shining star of intelligence.”

Athena raised a brow.

“What, she’s a good detective.”

“Yeah, she’s alright,” Athena said, even though she’d more raised a brow at him. He sounded like… like Zeus used to sound about her—on the good days, at least.

“Anyway, she doesn’t want me to pay all the time. Asked me to get lunch and bring it home.” Reynardine tugged at the ugly sweater. “I know she’s a little extra broke too. This wasn’t even Christmas, we just hit each other early with surprise gifts.”

“So we hopped through time to deliver food to a lazy fairy?”

“If you have to wrap down your wings and get all glamoured up to leave the house, you’d want to chill on a day off too.”

“Right, good point,” Athena said. “Caldyr lives here?” She looked around at the run down buildings and occupied stoops. Teens and young adults, sharing an afternoon and a bad view. Some adults too, and even some families on half-dead lawns.

Not the world’s worst neighborhood, but Athena wouldn’t want to be a girl living alone. Even a blue one with hydromantic powers.

Reynardine led her into a tiny brown apartment complex and up a set of chipped cement steps. Apartment 14, all the way at the end. He pushed open the door without knocking and rustling followed from the couch.

Caldyr bounded over, bright blue, and wearing a red Christmas sweater with a knitted orange kitten tangled in lights. She was a little under five-feet and her gorgeous leathery wings flapped, as she spun in the air. The fairy laughed and danced right up to them before she paused and blinked at Athena. Both hands were above her head, but Caldyr slowly lowered them.

“Hey, Athena. Sup?”

“Caldyr.” Athena forced down a smile at the purple blush creeping up the fairy’s cheeks.

“Nice sweater.”

She nodded. “It’s epically soft. Foxbutt got it for me. I got him that one. Just a weird coincidence.”

“Looks cute. Love the kitty.”

“Aw thanks! Reynardine even had wing holes sewed in.” The fairy spun a little off center and laughed, quite drunkenly Athena realized.

“And I brought lunch, Super Sleuth,” Reynardine said, not even hiding the pride on his face. “You watching TV?”

“Who Killed Santa is on again, but I think it’s the alternate ending version this time. With the zombies.”

“You know, Santa hates that movie,” Reynardine said.

Caldyr rolled her eyes. “This dick, keeps on talking like Santa’s real. I’m not a kid. Jerk.”

Athena nodded and gave a few quick glances around. Cheap apartment, old and held together by more duct tape and plaster than love… not that different from the one she found Em in a few years ago. The goddess shook her head. “I can’t even believe him most days,” she told Caldyr. “Always a surprise.”

“It’s the actor that plays him,” Reynardine continued. “Although, I thought Miranda was magic.”

“Of course he is,” Athena said. No Christmas tree she could see, but a cactus had some tinsel hanging off the needles.

“Want to watch?” Caldyr asked. “We got burritos, now, and I got some good scotch… well a bit, been a long day. We can split the lees at least and there’s some beer too.”

Athena spotted the green bottle on the table. Not her normal brand, but nice enough maker.

“Sure,” she said. “But I’ll just take the beer, scotch puts me in hitting mood.”

Caldyr gestured to Reynardine. “He’s soft and takes a fall real nice.”

Athena chuckled. “Noted, kiddo. Let’s get to the movie, I want to hear the Christmas Train rap.”

Reynardine grabbed them a beer and they did split the last of the scotch. Athena worked up a nice buzz, and the Meltichangaritto things weren’t half-bad after that.

When Athena first saw Caldyr with Reynardine, a few weeks back, she assumed that the General was simply looking to get a little extra wet. Caldyr being a fairy and he was always pretty well-known for his exploits.

Now, Athena didn’t know exactly what to think. His smile wasn’t wheedling, or ironic, but plastered and prideful.

She lit him up and Athena recognized that light. The pride of creation, she exalted herself in the glow often enough to spot it anywhere.

After eating most the burritos, and downing another beer, Caldyr passed out before the big sleigh chase medley ending.

Reynardine wrote her a note while the credits rolled and they slipped out the front. He checked his watch. “Sorry, I didn’t plan on that being a whole movie detour.”

Athena shook her head. “Nah. She wanted to hang out. It’s fine.”

“Doesn’t get out much, or have anyone too close here.”

“I’ve been there. She’s fun, it was a good time. Thanks, Reynardine. You’re a good dad.”

“She’s not really my daughter,” he said.

Athena laughed. “By blood? No. But that’s not so important this time of year, or any, really.”

Reynardine hugged her. Sudden and so fast, it might not have happened if she couldn’t still feel the warm shadow of his arms. “Thanks, Athena. Here I thought I was the one delivering advice.”

“You knew that already, you’ve got more ‘family’ hanging around than a royal wedding.”

“Course. But, it’s always nice to hear it aloud.” Reynardine snapped.

 

Chapter 5. White Christmas

Snow danced somberly around them.

“Where are we?”

Reynardine chuckled. “Check your phone.”

The device had 2,463 updates waiting. “A week in the future?”

“Few years, actually.” Reynardine nodded. “There she is.”

Athena squinted through a broken, glass door, and realized they stood on top of a outer balcony of a massive building. Fate’s building, the one skyscraper in Lumin. The tiny town of the gods lay below, quiet and covered in snow. “Wow. It never snows in Lumin.”

“Athena, we don’t have time for sightseeing, okay? Look through the door.”

“At what?”

“Your cold, bitter heart,” Reynardine announced with more grim air than she’d expect him capable of.

Just a glance was plenty enough to see why.

Athena herself sat in Fate’s chair. “Woo. Upgrade.”

“Yeah, but look at you.”

She walked closer, and leaned into the giant room, but the cold and the darkness of the office told its own tale.

Ares chained and broken body above her empty fireplace added another layer to the story.

“Oh.”

Bellona’s spear stuck from the fire-poker stand. Just half, blackened and rusted.

Nothing else to signal the end of any other friends, but the air itself sang of death. Gods died and haunted here.

“Yeah,” Reynardine whispered. “This isn’t the world that will be, for sure, but it’s an ever-growing possibility.”

“But… why?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know all the details. It’s a big deal, clearly. Something to do with old enemies. You go a little crazy on us. End them, and then… well, Hestia is first. After you absorb her fire, you work your way through the Pantheon. Outsmart us all.”

“I love Hes! Me? I’m not…” Athena watched as blood dripped from Ares’ broken flesh to the cold stone mantle.

She looked to herself. Colder white blonde hair and deep sparkling eyes. Ice seeped from her pores, as she scribbled on scrap of paper. “What am I writing?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“Long as it’s not emo poetry.” Athena laughed a little.

Reynardine gave a long, solemn nod.

“Wowzer. I am pure dumpster fire in this future.”

And she looked up. The other icy Athena.

“Can she… I hear me?”

“Why do you think I wanted to hurry?” Reynardine asked, tugging on Athena’s sleeve.

“Come on. We’re just shades to her, but she is the God of All Things now. Who knows what she can do.”

They edged back across the terrace as the Icy Athena crawled onto the desk and crouched like a B-movie vampire. She took great whiffs of the air and looked toward them. The ripped, white cocktail dress really drove the point home. “Remind me never to go evil.”

“That’s kinda what I’ve been getting at,” Reynardine said.

And the icy goddess leapt.

Shadows and sparks of thunder filled the air behind her. Zeus’ thunder, just like when she was a kid.

Athena screamed, but the sound became a tight squeak.

Icy Athena had caught her by the throat. She squeezed and the world blurred. Pain filled her body as air stuck in her lungs. Athena felt her power draining into the evil twin just above.

And then pure, frozen light.

 

***

 

Em stood at the edge of the doorway, anger already marring her pretty face. “Where have you been?”

“Out with Ares and Safkhet,” Athena muttered. “Did you need something?”

Rage flashed and she shook her head. “No.”

“Good then. I’m tired, we stopped some human magicians from summoning a demon and ending all life in Quebec.”

“Wow. Sounds fun.”

Athena shook her head. “Not the word, I’d use. But Canada is quite exhilarating, I think.”

“I’ve never been.”

Athena nodded absently. “You should sometime. It’s cold, take a coat.”

“I hardly ever leave here, anymore,” Em said, with a trace of irony in her voice that just didn’t fit. “I’m a real homebody, I guess.”

“You should work on that.” Athena looked around the dirty house and wondered how she stayed home all the time, but never managed to get anything clean. With a wave, Athena set the living room in order. “I was reading a study the other day, about correlations between low-light living situations and depression. Maybe that’s why you’re so moody lately?”

Em walked off, stomped really, to the bedroom.

“I’ll text you a link.” Athena didn’t have time for a mortal’s pissy little mood swings, even one normally as splendid as Em.

She poured herself a drink and wondered where Safkhet was. Maybe she should go out instead. Athena always found some time alone helped her relax, surely Em could use another few days.

“Em? I’m going out, again. Did you need me to leave some money for food, or maybe a little toy? Something from those superhero things?”

Silence from the bedroom. Athena searched with her extra senses and found Em drinking. Straight booze and a lot.

“Good, she might loosen up again.”

***

Snow.

Cold. Endless. Wet. Icy air all around.

Burning in her working lungs.

Athena gasped and rolled over.

Reynardine held a snowball to one eye. “Morning.”

“We still in the dystopian future?”

“Oregon, actually.”

Athena thumped back into the snow. “Just send me back to whenever that was then.”

“Sure, soon as my eye heals. You pack a helluva punch, Honeyweaver.”

“Damn right. Wait me, or early-2000s-screamo-band me?”

“You. I snapped, but the magic took a second, and by the time we ported you were pretty out of it. Turned on me before you passed out.”

“Good. Drag me all through history just to let me almost kill me. Jerk.”

“Right. Anyway, we’re almost done here and I’m ready for a nap.” Reynardine tapped her knee. “Come on, one more stop.”

“No,” Athena said. “I’ve learned. Don’t go evil. Got it.”

“And how do you know which way not to go? How do any of us know where our coldest hearts lie?” Reynardine asked.

Wind howled and in the distance a car backfired.

“Right. What I thought, come on.” He strutted off through the snow.

Athena trudged just behind him through the powdery streets. She’d never been to the area, looked like just a tiny mountain hamlet somewhere. Nice enough, but Athena hardly knew anyone this far North in America.

“What town is this?”

“Bend,” Reynardine said. “Kim and Erik live here.”

“Who?”

“Kim’s a baker and Erik is a part-time security guard and full-time teacher.”

“Sounds like a busy life.”

Reynardine nodded. “But, rather fortunately, they took Christmas off.”

“Why is that fortunate? And not normal?”

“Bad economy. Expensive to live these days. Not the time for politics.”

“Things are getting worse, huh?” Athena asked, but she already felt the answer in the hallow air of the town itself. “But there’s always time for politics, Reynardine! What’s going on in America is—”

“No!” Reynardine barked. “Sorry, but I’ve got plans tonight and some more gifts to pick up for a certain blue friend… and some others, maybe. But right now, we’re talking about what’s their names. The broke ones, comforting their friend.”

“Kim and Erik.” Athena paused. “That’s a little familiar.”

“It should be.”

“I know, you just told me, but something else.”

“I know.” Reynardine smiled and nodded at a pink SUV parked at a curb.

“Oh.” Emmaline. She talked about them a few times. Always texted Kim when things were rough. The goddess paused and took in the town with new eyes. “Em grew up here.”

“Come on, Athena. One last stop.”

“No,” she nearly shouted. “We broke up. She broke up with me.”

“Are you sure?”

“Oh right, like I’m some idiot crying all drunk and alone when all I had to do was reach out.”

Reynardine raised the brow above his blind eye.

“Bullshit.”

“Prove me wrong.”

Athena followed him to a frosted, four-pane window with a tiny crack through the bottom corner.

Emmaline sat on the couch with a baby on her knee. A ragged little tree sat opposite of her. No, not quite ragged, Athena realized, just every branch of the tiny thing was weighed down with an ornament and a candy cane.

The look on Em’s face—the light in her eyes from that lit pine—made Athena regret every drab Christmas they’d shared.

Never even occurred to her that Em might enjoy the holiday.

“I’m a fool,” Athena muttered.

“Yes,” Reynardine said. “But you’re good at learning, right?”

“Can you learn to be a good person?”

“I hope so.” Reynardine smirked. “I know so. Now pay attention, our show’s starting.”

Two hipsters curled up on a smaller loveseat and listened.

“We might still make up,” Em said in her adorable, squeaky voice. She leaned forward and shook her head. “She was drunk. I was drunk, it was sudden.”

“Oh, don’t start again, babe,” Kim said. She pushed herself off the couch and straightened her pajama pants. “Erik, get Matchbox some dinner?”

“Yeah,” he muttered with a grateful smile. “I’ll just be in there, the kitchen. Doins’ dinner things.”

“Thanks,” Kim whispered and planted a kiss on his bearded cheek while he retrieved the kid from Em.

“Aw,” Reynardine said. “The hipster couple is kinda cute.”

“She’s beautiful,” Em said, holding up her phone. “I know the pictures with her are all a little fuzzy.”

“That happens,” Kim lied kindly. “She sounds nice too.”

Em shrugged. “Not always. She was good in bed though, really good. Sweet sometimes too. Funny at times.”

Athena preened a little.

“But cold.”

And that hurts.

“And she thought I was stupid,” Em said. “Like I am—”

Athena didn’t realize her jaw dropped until freezing air hit the back of her throat.

“No,” Kim said in a loud quit-being-silly tone.

Reynardine repeated it, but more serious and added. “She might not be a rocket scientist, but she saw past your faults, and found you to start.” He smiled. “Takes a bit of smarts to find anything warm enough to hold in all that ice.”

Em laughed. “I’m not all that bright, but she’s a god of knowledge. Or like Einstein or something.” She gave a nervous laugh. “Reads a lot.”

“That was a little clever,” Reynardine said.

Kim sighed. “If you really want to call…”

“I don’t. I’m always the one apologizing, or just not saying anything. If she can’t be bothered to pick up the phone…” Em dropped her own to the couch. “I’m not stupid. Not really. She can call me.”

“I don’t think she’s stupid,” Athena said. “I never said that she was stupid, when I… I mean, I’d never. I didn’t mean for her to think…”

“But you are cold, Athena. And inside your head a lot.” Reynardine grabbed Athena’s hand and gave a squeeze. “People don’t read minds, Honeyweaver. Most don’t even read people. You can think the world of person, but unless you let them know… who knows what they’ll think of you.”

“Shit,” Athena said as tears welled up. “Thought I was done with the crying.”

Reynardine tugged her off the little porch. “Wanna go get cleaned up? Maybe text her and see if she’d mind a visit?”

“Where’s the nearest coffee shop?”

***

Reynardine watched from across the cafe as Emmaline buzzed in. She moved like a hummingbird; energetic, happy, in love with life.

Probably what Athena saw in her.

No mystery what Emmaline saw in Athena either. Well, maybe a bit, but the joy shining in her eyes as she walked to the small table was pretty clear.

Athena stood up.

Words passed. A moment. Sighs.

They hugged.

Reynardine winked at Athena and pointed to the door.

He was in the parking lot, obtaining a ride home, when she texted. <Thanks, General. I’ll stop by on Christmas, me and Em, if it’s cool. I owe C and you some scotch.>

Reynardine already figured, and planned ahead, but he texted an affirmative.

He was going about eighty on a dark freeway when Ms Claus appeared in his passenger seat.

“Hello, Reynardine.”

The Fox smiled. “Ellen. How’s Kris?”

“Busy.” She pulled a cigarette case from her velvet dress pocket. She lit one and the scent of cloves overtook the car. “And missing a key, I believe. You wouldn’t have seen it?”

Reynardine laughed and passed over the golden cane. “Sorry, El. Tell Big Red I owe him one, okay?”

Ms Claus stuck the cane in her bra. “Just one? Reynardine, you’re not so good at math.”

“Unfortunate. But we both know I got other talents.” He clicked his tongue and winked.

“What’d you need this one for anyway?”

“Hmm?” Reynardine winked again, this time with the dead eye. “Helping put a friend on the right path. I might not be a god of love, anymore, but even I could see a chance to help out a bit.”

El smiled. “Always something for a friend, huh?”

“Tis the season, right?”

 

Epilogue: Blue Christmas

Caldyr picked at her teeth and watched Reynardine closely.

The scent of roasting turkey fogged her mind, for all she knew dinner was never coming, and she’d run out of little cheese filled sausages hours ago.

Maybe days. “Reynardine! I’m dying.”

“Did you even touch the crackers?”

“Not when I could help it,” Caldyr snapped. “We’re out of real food.”

“I’ve got another snack platter,” he said. “But give the guests a few minutes, they’re barely even late yet.”

Caldyr muttered some blasphemy, but that didn’t make the gods hurry.

About ten minutes later someone knocked on the door. Reynardine hurried in to answer and Caldyr stood up.

Bellona, War god, and Reynardine’s friend walked in with a man that reminded Caldyr of warm, home baked apple pie.

Tyr, obviously. She knew Bellona and he were a thing. He was a Norse god of justice and honor in the far back past. Also played a big part in the Great War, but Caldyr wasn’t too sure what he did these days.

From his looks, probably modeled for superhero posters and saved kittens from trees.

Even the beard didn’t dissuade from the wholesome image, just added some grit to help strike a match.

Bellona caught Caldyr’s eyes and mouthed, I know right?

Caldyr gave a small nod and stopped ogling her friend’s boyfriend.

“Hey, C.” Bellona waved. She wore slightly ragged clothes, but still nice. A normal sweater and blue jeans.

Tyr wore flannel—what else—and an easy smile. Bellona was quite a few inches taller, but they were both somewhere over 6 feet. He extended his only hand, the left. His right had been lost a millennia ago to Fenrir the wolf.

“Tyr,” he said in a voice like melted butter.

Something melted, certainly. Caldyr gave his rough hand a hearty shake. “Caldyr Prayers. I’m Reynardine’s… roommate, I guess.”

Tyr nodded. “I’m Bellona’s boyfriend.”

“I prefer protege,” Reynardine said. “For Caldyr. It makes us sound closer.”

“It makes me sound like a crook,” Caldyr snapped. “We’re friends. Barely.”

Tyr nodded. “Yeah. It’s hard with him. Trust can take a lot of time to build and Reynardine’s constant insistence on testing the limits of—”

“Hey!” Reynardine walked in with a platter of cheese and meat. “We don’t need any of that today, Doctor.”

Tyr nodded, resignedly, and took a seat on the couch. “I have a PhD in psychotherapy,” he told Caldyr. “I’m not really licensed, but I run a service for gods,” he paused and looked into the kitchen, “myths, or others of our type.”

“That’s… very interesting.” Caldyr took a mental note—never know when a good shrink might come in handy, especially one in the know.

He shrugged. “Pocket money, if the client can afford to pay, and it’s a hobby I’m passionate about.”

Bellona smiled. “And good at.”

Tyr tapped her knee.

Another knock at the door. Reynardine led Athena, and a younger blonde human Caldyr didn’t know, into the living room.

“Hey all. Caldyr, thanks for hosting,” Athena said, offering her a bottle wrapped in blue and silver tissue paper. “And hosting the other day too.”

Caldyr blushed a bit and took the large, odd shaped bottle. “Ah. Yeah. sorry, I was smashed.”

Athena smiled, a warmer glimmer than her usual cold humor. “Been there a few times. This is Emmaline, by the way.”

“Em,” the blonde said. “Hi… you’re blue.”

Caldyr looked at her arms, covered all the way to the wrist in Christmas sweater. “Weird, wonder how that happened.”

Athena laughed, but muttered. “Sorry, babe, forgot to mention it, but our host this stop is a fairy.”

Em lit up. “Oh, that’s so cool. You’ve got wings too! What?”

Caldyr fought back a smile and gave a little flap. “Well it is kinda. You two want a beer, or something?”

“Actually,” Athena said, loudly and toward the couch. “Can we borrow your boyfriend, Bellona? Me and Em need to set up some…” she sighed and then smiled at the blonde on her arm. “We need to set up some counseling, Tyr, if you’ve got the time.”

Tyr’s jaw dropped. “For you? I mean, both of you?”

Athena gave a small, tight nod. “I’ve got some stuff to work through.”

“Let’s talk a walk,” he said. “We’ll set up a time that’s good for all of us and get some preliminary talking out of the way. This is a good, big step Athena.”

“Been a good week for that sort of thing,” Athena said. “Always time to change, but now’s best.”

Em grabbed her hand a gave a squeeze. “Thank you.”

Reynardine assured them dinner needed a bit still, and they could use a spare 12-pack from the corner store anyway.

“We’ll hurry,” Athena said. “We’ve got a few other places to be before this Christmas is over.”

Reynardine’s face lit up. “Glad to hear it. Sounds like a busy holiday.”

“A blessedly warm one,” Athena told him, and followed the others out.

Caldyr couldn’t shake the feeling she’d missed something, but the bottle drew her attention. An unlabeled vintage, dark as night.

“Nice gift.” Bellona tapped her empty glass. “Just, I mean if you’re going to open it.”

“Right, we really should,” Caldyr said. “I’m not sure what it is, and I’d better know. To thank Athena properly and all.” She gave the wax cap a slow, hard twist. The seal broke to reveal an old cork marked with a gold coat of arms.

Reynardine brought in some clean glasses and a corkscrew.

“This looks like a nice vintage,” Caldyr said. “I assume. I’ve never had anything better than the green and yellow one.”

Reynardine nodded. “A few hundred years old. Scotch, I bet.”

“Generous gift.”

“She was grateful for the company, the other day. And, I imagine, she went all out this year,” Reynardine said with a sly smile. “Guess she caught the Christmas spirit, somewhere.”

 

End Tale

 

Merry Christmas, happy holidays, or just hope it’s goin’ alright, dear readers! I hope you’ve enjoyed this little Christmas tale! Thank so much for reading!

 

Can’t get enough Reynardine? Wondering how he and Caldyr became friends? Pick up Tybalt Perdition on Amazon now! Makes a helluva Christmas gift too!

And watch for more adventures in the Glass Fate series!

© 2017 John Cordial.

Tybalt Perdition out Thursday!

So after more than a year of edits and revisions, Tybalt Perdition arrives this Thursday!

It’s the first tale of Caldyr’s adventures as a fairy detective and it tells of her meeting Reynardine, the dread fox and trickster. (Also it’s book #0 of the Glass Fate series and an introduction to the world in general.)

In another world, a ship sinks above an ancient reef. In the icy waters, among scores of drowning sailors, she was born.

Caldyr Prayers is a mostly normal fairy, but a not-so-normal detective, especially for Stockton, California. She’s looking to make a name for herself and build a real life; a proper legacy as the World’s foremost fairy private eye. She’s just gotta get off the ground with her wings tied behind her back (to keep her fairyhood secret from the humans.) All she needs is a chance…

And in walks Reynardine Slybold—the Dread Fox. God, trickster, seducer, petty thief, and chaos in a lurid suit. But he just might have a legitimate case for Caldyr. He’s giving up his divinity and needs her to find a solution to his oldest feud. If she can solve the Fox’s problems, and keep them alive, the fairy could make a few much needed bucks… maybe even a name for herself.

You can pre-order the ebook on Amazon right now for a dollar.

And’s here’s the promised bit from the prologue. Enjoy!

**

Fryhel, Elledgya

Fairies aren’t created in a normal way. A surge of emotions infuses a spark into the nearest element and life itself springs from nothing save the barest flicker of consciousness. Some are born of fire, some plants, some air, and of course, some are born from water.
Near Uyntolt, in the arctic waters above the Cinder Reefs, three hundred and eighty-one souls were lost to the starving tides. In the depths among the dying sailors of the Grimalkin Prayers, she thought and she was.
The ocean shifted hard against itself, drawing into a bright orb; the luminous heart of a water fairy. All on its own, the glowing sphere began to spin.
Flesh curled from the center, stretching and twisting to form the fairy’s body. A neck wound into shape, expanding into a round head. Silver eyes, hard and cold as the ocean, formed above a short nose. From the core stretched two arms, followed close by two legs. Wings shot from her back, hardening into dark leather. Long feathery tendrils twisted around her ear holes, drawing air into the fairy’s single lung. Her white tongue ran over two rows of razor teeth. Black hair, short and choppy, floated and mixed with her long gills. Flexing her fingers, she drew them closed, her new eyes taking in the blue digits.
A giant hand broke water next to the fairy. Too close. She lunged, grabbed the fingers and dug her teeth into the palm’s soft meat.
Coppery warmth filled her mouth. The hand shook and she clung tight, drinking in the sweet fluid. Tingles shook one newly formed wing, but the food kick-started her head even further—thoughts and ideas, power and knowledge, all sparked with the nourishing blood.
After an extra hard shake, she lost her grip and tumbled backward through the inky waters. The fairy turned to look at what she fed upon. A human, bubbles escaping his open mouth, drifted into the cold blue. The air pockets covered his face, but she could imagine terror. Silver eyes wide, the fairy watched the body fall to the Deep.
All around her more of the giants sunk. Ocean life floated from below, dark shadows preying on the humans.
Young cetus, short-snouted crocodilians with pale skin, darted in and out of view. The monsters snatched prey, drug them into the dark and leaving trails of blood to mark their path.
Pink skin caught the fairy’s eyes, a mermaid feasting on a corpse in the safety of the reef. Crouched between two limbs of black coral, the mermaid ate fast, until enough blood filled the water to shield her from sight.
Other merpeople joined, rising from the dark to feed and fight over pieces of the dead and drowning. They celebrated the feast with haunting song, dark magic choruses swearing peace could be found in their arms. The spellsong passed through the fairy, but the humans floated easily into the deadly embraces.
Deep below, in the glowing depths that gave the Cinder Reefs their name, a shadow passed. Larger enough to be a kraken or sea dragon, the phantom blocked all light.
The fairy had seen more than enough.
Hard wings beats propelled her upward, she rose fast, aiming for the surface. Breaking through with a splash, she flew higher into the air and surveyed the carnage.
Broken wood, cloth, barrels, and bodies dotted the ocean. A few people clung to the debris, but they didn’t have a chance this close to the reef. The twin suns rose in the distance, blue and red gifted a soft purple morning sky.
The shipwreck was prime feeding grounds above the waves, too, birds and tiny saurians flitted through the air. One swooped low and snapped at the fairy. With a gesture, she pulled water upward and knocked the nasty creature into an early grave.
The fairy searched for land; the frenzy grew beneath her and she didn’t want to risk more time in the open. A green blur of trees and grass caught her eye, not far off from where she flapped. She pushed her new wings hard. Air whistled around her ear holes and drowned out the clamor.
A figure stood on the shore, white-blond hair and a blue dress. The fairy angled her flight toward the human. A lifeboat waited on the beach next to the woman.
Closer up the fairy could tell she was a woman, the other variety of giant. A man looked like the one she bit in the water.
The fairy knew the difference like she knew how to fly, or how to move water. There was nothing solid in her head, yet facts stood out. Ideas, names, senses, strange concepts she had no context for poured through her.
The world should feel new, but already time’s rusty hooks latched onto her soul.
As she approached, the old instincts kicked hard. A deep tingle in her left wing carried a buzz of alarm, although no name attached to the feeling. The fairy landed on the bow of the lifeboat, crouched to cover her naked body, and prepared to spring.
Humans could easily crush her at this size. Caution would keep her alive, until she learned enough to survive.
She looked back over the destruction and with a small cough, the tiny blue fairy spoke her first word, “Fuck.”
“Hello, little fairy. I’m Lucretia Caldyr.” The old woman’s soft voice carried an odd tinge. Hectic, but barely controlled. The fairy could feel it meant—nothing. A blank. But she knew something was off.