Familiars aren’t supposed to have feelings. They’re just supposed to obey the commands of the witch who summoned them, and accomplish their task within a few short hours before the magic that gives them life runs out. For most familiars, the lesser ones like birds and cats, the task may simply be retrieving an ingredient for an elixir or spying on a nosey neighbor. For Lorgun, it’s usually murder. Being a hulking seven foot tall, it’s what he’s made to do. So when he’s ordered to seek out and kill an individual and instead stumbles across a beautiful beggar girl named Darsa, he experiences feelings he’s not supposed to have, and is totally unprepared for. Chapter 1 of the completed novel is posted here.
The words. It always starts with the words. Faint, distant, yet motherly firm, reaching through unfathomed darkness. Igniting existence. A black match touching off a black flame, illuminating nothing but awareness. Then motion; wrenching, pulling towards a light. Red, harsh, pulsing and consuming, swallowing me as it spits me out.
I am crouching inside a familiar circle, the scarlet glow of the lines fading quickly back to mere chalk on a rough, gouged wood floor. Raising my head, she is the first thing I see. My summoner. Her name is Sylene. She kneels outside the circle, a weary smile on thin lips. Beneath a thick tangle of long, russet hair, her eyes are smoldering slits from which pearlescent jade escapes. I study the face, attempting to judge the passage of time since I’d last seen it. Has it been weeks, months? There’s no clue. Time is difficult to judge when one is denied a sense of its passage.
I recognize the dress she’s wearing - a black lace corset that cascades outward at the hips to create a billowy chrysanthemum-like blossom. Her torso sprouts style-like from the center. The trappings of conjuration - books, containers, candles - lay around her like offerings. She is a dark, consecrated flower.
A heavy coat is draped over her shoulders. It must be cold, but I don’t feel it. I look around. There is no furniture, no fireplace, no windows. Debris and refuse lay strewn about, congregating in the corners. The slatted walls converge to a sharp peak overhead. It has all the air of an attic.
I have never been here before.
“Where are we?” I ask, slowly rising to my full almost seven foot height. My balance is off. I feel like I want to tip forward.
“Arlesgonne,” she replies.
“Why are we back here? Has the Gallery sent a summons?”
A flicker of annoyance darkens her face. “That’s not your concern. I have a job for you to do.”
I roll my shoulders to loosen my wings in preparation for flight. That’s when I sense - or more accurately, don’t sense - the pull of weight against the bone. Startled, I crane my head to look back. No wings. That explains my imbalance.
“Where are my wings?”
“You don’t need them this time. We need to keep out of sight. The last thing I want is for you to be spotted soaring about - getting recognized.”
“It doesn’t feel right...”
“Too bad. I’m not about to waste Draw on unnecessary things.”
“What time is it?”
“It’s nighttime!” she snaps. “How can it matter what the time is to you? You have long enough to perform your task and return, well before sunrise.”
I take a deep breath. “And what task have you summoned me for, my mistress?”
“Follow me downstairs and I’ll explain.”
I step out of the doorway that opens into a narrow back alley and gaze into the indigo, star-specked sky. Ribbon clouds fly past in rank and file, herded by a relentless wind. I steal a moment to watch them, breathing in the fresh air. What would the sky look like, I wonder, if clouds could go where they wished? If they could defy the currents and chart their own course? To dart and dive like a hawk, or turn ponderously like an enormous oceangoing vessel. To be free to soar...a freedom denied me for the first time. I’ve never been conjured into existence without my wings before. Why? I could perform my task so much quicker and easier with them, and then with the extra time I could...
She’s being cruel. Unnecessarily so. Not that that’s a rare thing for her, but a new sensation accompanies the thought.
I don’t like it. I resent it.
And she’s wrong - about time. It does matter to me. It matters a great deal. When one has only a few scant hours to exist before returning to oblivion, those hours are everything. From previous summonings I’ve been able to learn how much time I have - and learned as well that if I return before that time, with task complete, that I will be summarily abjured. A mistake I no longer make.
A faint reddish glow against the wall catches my attention and quickly reminds me to take precautions. I look down at myself. The subcutaneous lines of magical energy - Draw - pulse beneath the surface of my charcoal skin. I exert some will and subdue them into invisibility. A little trick I figured out on my own. I become just another piece of the night. Except my eyes. They are solid red orbs that emanate a glow which no amount of will can diminish. Luckily, the glow is very faint.
Despite my size I move without a sound to the mouth of the alley. Beyond, streetlamps cast a bluish yellow gaslight onto a cobblestone street. I look up at the city skyline to get my bearings, searching for one of the district spires.
The city is divided into several large wards. Close to the center of each, a lofty, buttressed tower stands. Adorned with distinctive carvings and flags, they assist the neophyte traveler to find his way to the marketplaces, government offices, universities or living quarters. I spot one a few blocks away, illuminated by its traditional torches. The pennants that flutter from its poles place me in the warehouse district, and the slums. That’s odd. I’ve only known my mistress to stay in the finest hotels. Why is she here?
Is she hiding from something?
A scattering of shabbily dressed vagrants occupy the street. They meander between dark doorways or pools of light, clearly not bent on any destination. Perhaps hoping the night can offer them something their shanties or hovels cannot. There’s no way I’ll make it past them unobserved. Retracing my steps, I discover the other direction down the alley leads me to a network of winding back lanes, populated only by wary rats. They give me a wide berth.
I wend my way more or less northward and eventually my surroundings give way to shops and commerce offices. Signboards for merchandise and menageries compete for space alongside ones for lenders and lawyers. Two blocks ahead, a noisy tavern spills a glut of revelers out onto the sidewalk.
Too much activity. Finding alternative paths to avoid it all is going to eat up too much time. Being down on street level has become tiresome, I decide. It’s time to seek a higher route. I’m more comfortable above anyways. The corner of the nearest building has a ceramic downspout pipe with fittings every several feet. I scale it effortlessly to the rooftop. At a height of three stories up, I gain a better view of the city. And, like the few times I’ve been here before, the magnificent workmanship dazzles me. I look around.
Arlesgonne. Few cities on Thealosa are as grand. It’s no surprise that the Witch’s Guild chose this city as their seat of power. Its buildings boast an array of styles and influences seen nowhere else, except perhaps within the capital itself. While the architectural artistry is not lost on me, I’ll put the splendid edifices to a more pragmatic purpose tonight.
The next building in my path is a courthouse. The top pediment is filled with relief sculptures of robed figures. Important individuals, I assume, in judicial history. They’re posed in interaction over some undoubtedly weighty matter. Lots of handholds there. A leap takes me into a dark recess between two of the figures. I grab the cornice above and prepare to swing to the peak when a noise on the steps below stops me. A pair of figures strolls beneath me, dressed in dark uniforms and aimlessly twirling short batons. Constables. Being be spotted by them would be worse than merely being seen by a common beggar. A familiar creeping through the city portends nothing but criminal behavior. I wish I could say that wasn’t true tonight, but I can’t. I freeze, becoming one of the players enacting the dramatic scene of justice until they disappear around a corner.
A growl of frustration escapes my lips. My thoughts turn again to my missing wings. With them, I could have reached my goal in five minutes. I let myself stew on my plight while I resume my maneuver.
I trade the distrustful rats in the alleys for skittish pigeons as I make my way across the building tops. They are the only ones who notice my silent acrobatics. I feel like I’m finally making some headway through the city, and eventually reach the residential section. It appears quieter here, which will be helpful.
A house at One-Twelve Perator Street is my goal. There’s a man inside I’m supposed to kill.
It’s quite a well-to-do street, I notice. Luxurious homes are lit with electric lights instead of the gas lamps that are still in use in the poorer districts. The houses are close together, with little but a token strip of grass between them to mark their lots. It works to my advantage. I’m still able to keep to the rooftops, landing as gingerly as possible to avoid alerting the occupants within.
Numbers cut from brass and mounted above each front door make my search easy. When I find One-Twelve I position myself on the house across the street. It has a wide, flat section of roof with a parapet along the outer edge. I lay behind it and peer at the house below.
This must be the right place. A Tribunal Safehouse if ever I’ve seen one.
A passerby’s cursory glance at the residence would net nothing of significance. Nothing to make it stand out from all the others along the boulevard. Someone has gone to great lengths to make certain of that. Careful measures have been taken to make the house blend in with its neighbors, but to the wary eye, it’s exposed by its very deliberateness.
The window dressings are the same in every room; something no respectable housewife would ever allow. There’s an extra set of locks on the doors and windows. Not really necessary in this neighborhood, so I credit that to government over-efficiency. The flowerboxes and foliaged walkways are well tended, but show a lack of creativity and personal taste, like they were planted in a day. The greenery was chosen simply to fill the space and blend in with the rest of the street. There’s a darkened garage attached to the right side of the house.
A man in a dark coat and hat performs a languid stroll between the front gate and the porch, stopping to lean against a column and light a cigarette before repeating his path. I decide to wait for a few minutes and observe, to see if the routine will vary. And to mull over the scant information my mistress gave me regarding my job tonight.
The target’s name is Kimbal. He’s a squat, heavyset man with dark hair, a long moustache and two gold earrings in his left ear. There’s a pale patch of skin on the back of his left hand. Sylene says he won’t put up any kind of serious fight. The hardest part will be just getting to him. But if all I have to deal with are some typical Tribunal guards, then it’ll be no problem. This is nothing like the first time I had to kill a human.
On that occasion, my entrance to existence was wrought within a lurching, heaving ship’s hold, and an incomplete summoning. As I materialized I was thrown off-balance and pitched forward. I threw a hand up to catch myself, and found only a half-grown stump. The cause was obvious - portions of the chalk circle that contained the vital symbols had been smeared by rivulets of seawater.
Unapologetically, Sylene commanded me to follow her up on deck, where I witnessed a desperate, nighttime battle between our ship and another close by to starboard. Cannon fire played a deafening staccato that drowned out even the thunderous storm overhead. Ball-shot splintered and smashed both men and parts of the ship with equal indifference. I could see in a moment why I was called in - we were losing badly.
“Do you see there?” She stabbed a finger upward at the enemy ship’s mainmast. Within the crow’s nest stood a man dressed in a long sage robe. He held his hands skyward as if conducting a cacophonous, death-drenched symphony. As his hands came down, a searing lightning bolt followed, striking the deck of our ship and blasting a great hole. The bodies of nearby men were flung into the air.
“Take him down. Destroy him!” she yelled. I leapt into the air, my membrane wings beating against the vicious, gale-force winds. He spotted my approach too late. Beneath fear-shocked eyes, I saw him franticly trying to mouth some words. A hand he raised to perform an accompanying gesture changed to a defensive strike as I swooped upon him. With my only hand I clutched his collar and lifted him off his feet. He howled and clawed at me. As his flailing legs cleared the crow’s nest I released him to fall to the deck below. He landed in a broken heap. His body lolled about to the rhythm of the sea-tossed vessel.
I remained above the battle, circling the enemy ship, knowing my presence was sowing panic among the beleaguered sailors. I had no intention of intervening further until she gestured to me, no doubt to convey additional instructions.
“Their captain,” she yelled when I flew close enough. “Kill their captain!”
I turned and saw the man barking orders from where he stood on the command deck. He whisked a sword from his scabbard as I approached. I felt the heavy blade embed itself into my wing humerus as we collided. The impact knocked him backwards over the railing. He vanished instantly beneath the black, angry waves. I worked the blade free from where it was stuck and tossed it into the water to be buried with him. The other crewmen fled from my sight.
The battle didn’t take long to finish after that. I distanced myself, flying higher, and didn’t look for my mistress. I had no desire to give her occasion to impart any further orders. What I couldn’t hear I couldn’t disobey.
The ship eventually yielded its stern to the hungry waves. The rest of it followed soon. When the bowsprit, like a pleading, bony hand, finally waved in surrender as it slipped out of sight, I returned to my mistress’ ship and perched myself on a mast spar. Below me, I watched her work her witching to calm the storm around us. Now that the danger was over, I was ignored. That was fine. I didn’t ask why we were at sea. I didn’t care. I only took notice that the ship’s crew was a particularly grubby, seedy lot and wondered what reason my mistress had to be in their company. I worried briefly for her safety among them, but that feeling was alleviated when I noticed that she seemed to be in the captain’s favor. I brooded there until my time ran out and I ceased to be.
Now the same loathsome deed lies before me tonight. But I understand why I was chosen. If the situation called for merely spying, she could’ve summoned a bird or squirrel or such similar little helper. If some light larceny were the goal, an imp has enough stealth and brains to get that done. This job, however, will probably end up requiring some brute force. That’s my department. Lucky me.
Movement catches my eye. A figure in the shadows between One-Twelve and its neighbor on the left. I nod with a knowing smile. There had to be more than one guard. That one’s probably responsible for covering the rear. Now that only leaves one or two more potential guards inside the house or up on the...
A sudden weight crashes down on my back, and a skewering pain between my shoulder blades causes my vision to burst white. I roll in reflex to the side in an attempt to escape it. The move dislodges the pain and the weight, allowing me to get to my knees. As my vision clears I see a figure springing to its feet. He’s covered from head to toe in close-fitting plate armor enameled in a forest green color. Covering the armor is a surcoat of black cloth. They usually display an insignia stitched on them. This one has none. A full visored helm, plumed with a long green feather, hides all facial features.
In his hands is the weapon I felt in my back; a spear-like glaive. It looks as tall as me. Nearly a third of its length is a broad blade, which is etched with a mysterious pattern. He comes at me without hesitation, swinging. The arc the blade makes through the air leaves a faint blue afterimage. That concerns me. While a wound from a normal weapon can do little to me besides inflict some minor pain, an enchanted one can kill - or worse. I roll beneath the vicious swing that was aimed to separate my head from my shoulders.
I didn’t anticipate a second patrol ring, farther out and higher up from the safehouse. My target must be far more important than I gave credit for. And this is no Tribunal guard. Judging by his looks and the weapon, it must be a Guild Wardthain - an elite guardian. Rarely will the Witch’s Guild release a Wardthain to assist another bureau. The mystery gets more intriguing.
I lower my head and charge him, hoping to send him flying off the roof. A fall from this height in full armor will knock the wind out of his sails. He counters too quickly with a back swing that slices a three-inch deep gouge in my shoulder.
He’s fast. I can be fast, too. Before he has the chance to move again I plow my fist into his face like a train piston. The force should’ve caved his helmet in. It’s not even dented. Should’ve known the armor would be special as well. Scrabit, how I hate mystical drek. At least the blow knocks him off his feet.
I spare a brief moment to shoot a glance down at the safehouse, hoping the guards haven’t been alerted. But no; the one on the porch is already looking our way, mouth open in surprise. I’ll have to end this quickly if I want to salvage this job. I turn back to my adversary with the thought of leaping on him, maybe stomping him through the roof. I’m greeted by a blade thrust in my gut. He’s already standing.
All his weight is behind his weapon, trying to run me through. The searing pain is getting hard to ignore. Time to try something he may not expect. Grabbing the glaive’s shaft, I force the tip out and redirect it past my side. He lurches toward me and right into the path of my flat-foot kick.
I keep a tight grip on the glaive. The kick should knock him straight back, scraping the weapon out of his hands.
But he doesn’t let go. Blast this infernal scoundrel! I end up being yanked after him and we both go down. At least I’ll be on top of him.
But no. The moment I attain the advantageous position he kicks straight up, using the momentum to throw me a dozen feet behind him.
I raise myself and turn, but a sensation causes me to hesitate. A faint throbbing, at the three places his weapon pierced me. I know instinctively it's not normal pain. There’s a mystical power at work. I’m not sure what magical damage the weapon is capable of inflicting, but at least I’m still here. I’ve not faded away into nothingness, and that’s always a promising sign. Perhaps it’s not designed to handle one of my size. After all, I’m not some miserable imp. But it is doing something to me. That gives me added incentive to finish this fight quickly. I peel back the most malevolent grin I can and launch myself towards him.
He waits for my attack. My fists become windmills. If I can’t puncture the armor I can still rattle and bounce what’s inside until it becomes jelly. A good plan, but he dodges or ducks almost every one of my swings.
A mechanical noise pulls my attention across the street. The main door on the garage slides up and a boxy black truck peels out. It gathers speed at the end of the driveway, turning left onto the street. No doubt with my target inside. I have only one last chance to get him.
When I turn back to my assailant all I see is a blur. He dives to my right side and snaps the glaive in a blinding sweep. My retinas register a bluish trail that ends at the back of my knee. I crumple like a rag doll. He finishes his dive with roll that takes him out of my reach.
My hamstring is severed. Now I’m mad. The mission’s a bust and this joker in a can is slicing me up like a holiday roast. It’s going to stop, I swear to myself as I lay there. I’ve kept one idea in reserve. There’s a brick chimney on one end of the roof, supported by an iron brace. I crawl towards it.
The Wardthain stands and walks towards me, unhurried. Exuding victory. I wait until he’s close enough to deliver a coup de gras. He raises the glaive. With my functional leg, I kick the chimney’s brace away and roll hard. His helmet’s limited view doesn’t give him any warning. The pillar of bricks comes down, completely burying him.
I continue rolling all the way to the edge of the roof. Heaving myself over the parapet, I catch a hand on it to halt my motion. I hang for a moment before letting go. It’s still about a twenty-five foot drop to the ground. I rely solely on my good leg for the landing, and it thanks me by sending a screaming pain up my back. I just want to lie there and do nothing, but I know the Wardthain will be free of the brick pile in about twenty seconds. I need to be as far away as possible in that time.
I purposely rolled to the back of the house, away from the street and its brilliant lights. I’ll use the darker back yards to make my escape. A one-legged hop is my fastest form of moving right now. I push through a thick row of arborvitaes. Beyond it lies a promising sight; a wooded park. Benches, fountains and sculptures form cozy pull-offs along winding walkways. Not a soul in sight. By the time I reach the gated fence on the far side of the park I feel like I’ve actually affected a successful getaway.
And just in time, too.
I don’t feel right. My strength is failing, and the city around me has begun to tilt and dip in sickening swells. It becomes suddenly clear what’s happening to me. The Draw that gives me life is being drained away. It’s the glaive’s doing. I imagine it would seriously dampen any magic casting by a witch, and would outright destroy a lesser magical creature, probably with a single blow. I doubt I’ll live long enough to report back to my mistress. I’ll get as far as I can.
I don’t bother trying to find side streets. It’s the dead of night, and the few people I come across melt out of my path with horrified looks. Without my wings, perhaps they’re seeing only a brutish, dark-skinned human, but dragging my dead leg behind me is probably giving off a monstrous impression. I growl at those that don’t back away fast enough. I’m still mad. Not for failing in my obligation to kill a man, though. Not for being attacked and forced to fight against someone whom I should be allied with. And not even for losing miserably to him. No, what makes me most angry is being cheated. Now I’ll have no chance to look for my book and pick up where I left off. Is it the second or third canto? Having trouble thinking...
I’m nearly spent by the time I reach the warehouse district. The city around me is no longer just tilting - it’s riding up and down a white-water rapids. Can’t concentrate... Gotta remember the last part I read...
His thirsty axe had hewn a bloody path
A profane crop of bodies piled high
No...further than that...
He woke within a baleful emerald hall
Processions of shadows marched before his eyes
Does this alley look familiar? I don’t remember that stairway or that rubbish bin. I just want to find a place to lie down. I spot what looks like a shack wedged almost out of sight behind a coal hopper and a cluster of duct pipes. I don’t care if there’s anyone in there or not. I limp towards it.
Light escapes through the poorly fitted joints. The door is only a sheet of tin propped in front of the opening. I mean to push it aside, but end up falling into it. Both the door and I collapse inside. I hear a scream. Against the far wall a woman cowers. She’s dressed in dirty rags. Her face is concealed under a hood. I see her jump to the side and start for the door, but my bulk is blocking the way. I don’t move - can’t move anymore. She shrinks back, using a dilapidated stove as a barrier between us.
“Don’t hurt me,” she pleads. “Please just go.”
“I’m sorry,” I gasp. “You needn’t be afraid of me. I won’t be here much longer. Just need to rest.”
I force a hand up and try to rub the fog from my eyes. It seems less solid. Is it my vision, or is my hand starting to fade? I feel guilty for bursting in and frightening her half to death. I want to allay her terror. Talk to her, I tell myself.
“What’s your name?”
She doesn’t answer. From the light of the stove I can see her face. A cruel scar runs from her forehead to her chin, leaving a marred eyelid, raked cheekbone and gashed lip in its wake. An old scar.
Beneath the grime, beneath the rags...beneath the scar, something hides.
But I can see it.
“Please...tell me your name...” I ask again.
“Darsa,” I repeat. “That’s a pretty name. Do you...know you’re named after a star? Darsa-Arodehste. It’s...part of a constellation. Up in the night sky.”
I berate myself. Of course it’s in the night sky. That’s the only time you can see stars, idiot. I’m rambling, but can’t stop the flow of words. Self-control is gone. Thoughts go directly to my mouth. Perhaps it’s also because I can count the number of times on one hand I’ve spoken to a human other than my mistress. “Arodehste, the...Lady of the Northern Sky. That’s the constellation. Have you ever seen it?”
She shakes her head an emphatic no.
I hear my voice drone on distantly, almost in a slur now. “You can see her above the mountains of Vostragge, in the winter. Three stars...form the crown on her head. Darsa is the center star. That make you the...jewel in the crown...”
Have her frightened eyes softened a little? I stare at them, searching their depths and hoping so, as the last dregs of Draw ebb away and oblivion reclaims me.