Aphelion Issue 274, Volume 26
July 2022
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The Crystal Ghost

by Matt Spencer

Still in midair, the blurred disc of death snaps and turns back into a boomerang. The metal's from some realm even I've never heard of, sharper than a razor. Sharper than my sword, maybe. Aschera's hand is still in one piece, so she must have caught it by the grip. A split second later, three arterial sprays splash the field. Then the spurting guys hit the ground, because that's how most people act after standing in the way of an Asterland combat boomerang, chucked by someone who knows what they're doing. There go the last of those pissed-off torch-and-pitchfork locals who just chased us through the woods.

In the stillness of death, our thoughts collect and our bearings settle in. The rustling trees start sounding like banjo music, because my brain just started a duel with them.

"Quit that shit." Aschera glares, her face somewhere between its usual sweet, inquisitive pluck and the feral sadism it twists into whenever she starts killing things. Spatter streaks her face and body. Before the sky shades over, the blood matches her tangled scarlet hair. Tattooed runes slash in sharp angles, running from her lower lip, down over a pointy chin and swanlike neck. The design splays her shoulders, stopping right above her breasts. Blood trickles between those rune lines like a flooding labyrinth, then into her cleavage.

"Sorry. That tune's been stuck in my head all week for some reason." I spin a few times, shaking crimson showers from my blade. A scattered, winding line of bleeding heaps litters the rocky, muddy earth up the hillside, back through the trees. I blink at it a few times. "Uh, did we just kill the whole fucking town?"

"Just the ones into beating upstart out-of-towners to death with farm equipment. So yeah, maybe." She's already hopped down into narrow sharp ravine. That wasn't here a few days ago. The river-rearranging storm left it. Its share of river has tapered down to a clear babbling brook. Shadows waft through the water. I realize that's more blood, and it's still pretty.

Following, I look over her shoulder at the smooth, curving iridescence of the stone. It's shaped sort of like a mausoleum entrance. If the stories are right, the whole underground temple is carved from the stuff. The local old-timers didn't lie when they said it was long lost. Two or three centuries ago, they sent some out-of-province day-laborers to bury it. Their supervisors were a division from the local militia, who feathered them with arrows soon as they finished. Story goes, those guys got home to their own execution party, before they could blab the location to anyone. Apparently whatever lived in there, the newer locals forgot to ask the last ones how to deal with it, before killing them off. Since then, politics in these parts have gotten less progressive, probably from a curse in the drinking water or something. As usual with these things, legends of buried treasure got around. Interested parties narrowed the location to this area, past the township's eastern outskirts. What's down there is worth a lot of money. I was promised a sweet stack, all under the table, for bringing it back in one piece. As a bonus, my new employer back in Deedtroise won't press charges.

But I'm not the only one that fucking strip club owner hired, it turns out. Aschera's been here a day or two longer than me. She set herself up as the local magistrate's bookkeeper. For my cover, I booked standup gigs in some local dives. My act's been bringing down the house, literally at least once. We weren't keen on splitting the take, she and I, but after semi-seriously smacking our sharp metal things off each other for a while, we talked it out. We pull this heist off as a team, she gets sixty-five percent, and I still get pardoned. Less than an hour ago, the local scouts she hired brought word of this spot, freshly washed to the surface. Apparently I bet on the right horse with that rain dance. I was chillin' on the smooth stone disc at the center of the dead fountain in the town square, when she came to grab me, said it was time to run for X Marks The Spot. That was right after I took a few deep puffs off that fine shit an audience member slipped me after last night's show. Hey, I got bored waiting. And I'd been curious what the dead fountain had to say. It's the last surviving edifice from the native people these settlers wiped out. The latter built their town around it. Word goes, those original folks put up such a fight that it took all the Empire's nastiest white sorcerers to put 'em down.

The forest jog would have gone smooth, but some asshole just had to trace that rain dance to my ass. Or maybe one of Aschera's scouts blabbed. Either way, the local magistrate threw together an angry mob to chase us. The local magistrate's was the first head I sliced off, I'm pretty sure.

Now the rain's starting back up, and all I've got on are some bloodstained camo cutoffs, falling-apart combat boots, and my sword's scabbard, hanging off my back by the frayed leather belt slung over my shoulder. Apparently Aschera struck out in an even bigger hurry, 'cause she threw on just enough to hold all her equipment, which includes an antique lock-picking kit. She makes short work of rusted padlock. Somehow we manage to heave aside the great doorway without splitting ourselves in half. Great, I'm about to make a snatch-an'-run through a freshly unearthed cursed temple, my partner's a distractingly hot chameleon of a serial-killer-for-hire, and we'll probably have to go through more big, ugly things that want to eat us. And this place we have to crawl through is sculpted from pure Angel Lapis.

In case you don't know jack about that, if your third eye's so much as cracked in the first place, Lapis has an energetic vibration that can give it a nice little boost, sort of like an energy drink. Angel Lapis is rarer and a lot stronger, native to this realm, and barely ever stable here. If it ever turns up in your favorite jewel-and-bead-and-knickknack shop of your realm, you probably wanna run, fast, as in maybe to some other realm. So now Aschera and I descend a narrow staircase, deeper and deeper into an incalculable raw concentration of the stuff. While I'm baked.

Aschera lights the first torch. Soon as one candle's lit, the others all instantly crackle to life, like they were waiting for someone to reset the trend. Even she jumps a little at that. "I think you can put your sword away," she mutters.

"Maybe these swirly walls feel different," I point out.

Other than what's spilled and scattered in through the freshly opened doorway, there's no dust. Maybe these swirling surfaces ate it all, long ago. Deep in the guts of the temple, something big moves. I'm not talking a solid animal body dragging itself awake over a solid surface, though it might turn into that yet. It's like the spirits trapped down here panic because they forgot what fresh air is. So they all flee to a deep swirling center, smashing into each other and getting mixed up. The collective scream splits free and roars up through the catacombs, straight at us. Even if we hug the floor or walls flat as we'll go, the force will still rip the flesh from our bones. And we're too deep to run for the door in time.

My sword handle sends tingles through my scars, so I shout, "Get behind me!"

Now before some assclown starts a pissing contest about gender roles here, let me tell you a little about this sword. The handle etchings match the scars on my palm exactly. I know this because I carved both. I have to touch up the latter now and then, 'cause the palm is the biggest pain when it comes to keeping tattoos fresh. When the two press each other, it ignites a unique synergy between my hand and brain. I study any movement diagram, go through the right motion once -- slow so I know I get it right -- and wham, there's the muscle memory reflex, ready for use whenever. Aschera knows this, so she gives a hope for the best shrug and dives sliding. I crouch forward, blade and arm guiding each other. There are lots of angles for cutting different incorporeal attackers with the right metal. Hopefully my sword recognizes this one, 'cause I sure as fuck don't. The walls go nuts like a swirl of blue, green, gray and black ink splotches that won't sit still. Far ahead through the ancient labyrinthine hallway, colors stop pretending to be solid matter. That line gets closer and closer, faster and faster, 'til it makes whistling arrows look like snake-shaped turtles. In its wake, only flaring candles stay solid.

The cosmic belch hits my blade's edge, so my whole body shivers and strains. Tight as I brace, it still scoots me backwards, scraping my right knee, pulling a leather-killing squeal from my left boot sole. Whatever this is, it slides in half and spreads clear of us like a parting red sea. Its howling passage ripples my earlobes, probably damaging my eardrums. The blast doesn't feel all that hot, but sweat still soaks me head to toe. This belch sure found sentience fast. I can tell -- I can feel -- that it knows I've killed it. It's pissed, and it'd love to take Aschera and me with it. If it manages to knock me over, it'll get its wish. When my shoulder heaves further out, my wrist nearly breaks. By the end of it, my bones feel like swiveling switches, my muscles ready to tear loose like tender meat off barbecued ribs. The last of it passes with a distant sonic pop. Before I can look to see if Aschera survived, I sprawl on my face.

There's no knowing how long I'm out, enjoying eternity after eternity of the aftermath. My corporeal nerve endings feel fried, so they don't tell me. Far behind, the shriek's death whimpers leak out of the entrance. How many of those withered, craven spirits were once mighty gods? Then Aschera drags me up by the scruff of the neck, jostling the blood back through my skull. I spring upright so fast, the world looks calm and normal for a second.

"That's what she said," is the first thing she says.

It takes a moment, but I remember what she's responding to. That means I was out for a few seconds at most.

I can't stop laughing, so she slaps me hard. "What's your name?"

"Morningstar, Cassias." I keep giggling.

"OK, close enough." She shakes me harder. "So what's my name?"

"That cute, funny girl in the bar who threatened to swallow my balls without ever putting her face near my filthy groin if I made one more Gorlomong joke?"

"One more Spirelight joke, actually."

"Cool." I shrug free. My legs take a few strides to feel solid.

After about a mile's descent, we step into some kind of antechamber. The sunken floor has a smooth octagonal center. The silent, slightly acrid emptiness tells me this is where the collective death scream formed and fired. Even the swirls in the walls are completely still. On the far wall, three lines cut deep through the stone in a rectangle, I'd say twenty feet high, seven feet wide. That's the closest we have to a door, without so much as a bolt to pick. Even from here, I sense our prize waiting behind it. We scout the room, feeling all this out. After a careful read of the glyphs on the walls, she unbuckles her tools and slides out the boomerang. Tall and proud, bare and smooth and gorgeous, she starts down towards the center.

"Hey, what's -- " Then I spot how the glyphs are different within the rectangle from without, and there's my rough idea what's about to happen.

"It's invisible strings holding us out, not that door. But the strings enjoy a good dance. They'll only break for the right storm at their center."

"It make a difference what blade cuts 'em?" I catch her shoulder and do something I never do, for anyone, which is offer her my sword, by the handle.

She looks at it, then at her combat boomerang, then at me. "I don't see why it should." Her palm-edge touches mine as we both grasp the handle. When I let go, her wrist flexes and the tip of the blade flickers skyward. Her eyes trail the thin, supple, gleaming metal, while she shifts and flexes, getting a feel for it. There's an instant's uncertainty in her eyes, like maybe this was a bad idea and she'd better give me my sword back fast, straight through my neck. Then she shrugs and goes to replace the boomerang in its holster. "You might wanna stand back."

When she moves to the center, everything in here pulls sharp in response, letting out a rumble that almost shakes me over. But not her. No, she's right in the calm eye of the storm about to start. The blade makes a swirling pattern, like a snake finding its way through some dark weaving passage... along the shape of the echo vibrating from the walls. That echo feels her entry, and sings louder the deeper she penetrates, echoing clearer and clearer. She bobs and twists and flexes and curls, free and limber, every supple joint expelling the rust, smooth skin catching the candle glow in blue-gold incandescence. Whatever she wakes up and lets in, it quivers through her shoulders, mouth, cheeks and eyebrows, sends her feet sliding and hopping and capering, with a grace I couldn't have pictured even back outside, when she was scattering enemies like the lid just popped off a blender of human bits. Even her scarlet hair leaves bleeding blue slashes in the air. Whatever new level she climbs to, the sword goes first, cutting away death shrouds and cobwebs, from both her soul and that floor space, letting them dance and melt into one. Faster and faster. And those patterns on the surrounding walls? They're not sitting still anymore. They're going crazy, howling background vocals, swirling like oil in water trying to keep up.

All I can do is dance a little myself, nowhere near as fast or hard as she's going -- I couldn't watch if I did, for one thing -- just enough so I don't spill into the void through the multicolored underfoot. But even that's not my biggest concern, 'cause I feel my sword in my own hand, like countless other times, guiding each other along, sailing and slicing, filling every inch of me, every sense, with the rawest, freest life there is. Except my sword's in her hand. She's leading this journey. If she falls, I fall. It's like being yanked along blindfolded through a firestorm or hurricane. The easiest I could make this on myself would be to look away. But why would I do that? How could I make myself miss this?

A perfect geometrical orb has formed in the center around her -- carved into being, or cut free into somewhere between physical and ephemeral. Either way, the black empty splotches in the Angel Lapis, between the green, blue and yellow, have flowed together as one. It's seeped right into the etched rectangle where a door should be, all that negative space, freed from rock like a chipped-out fossil, gone straight where we needed it to go. Now it's just an empty threshold, granting entrance through a short, dark hallway. Aschera's finally winding down, the sword lowering to her side. When her eyes roll up at mine, I don't recognize them at first... or maybe I do, more than anything else. Between us is some ephemeral void where almost all that pesky light from this realm's been sucked away, so nothing masks the sharply etched crystalline face with glittering gold eyes. Then all I see is her circulatory system, veins full of the purest fire you've never imagined. Then the rest of her fades back into being, sweating and shivering. She steps up and holds out my sword.

This time when my hand lines up with the etchings, everything she just did is right there in my body and brain. That sort of thing'll come in handy, if I'm ever someplace like this without her around. I smile thanks. There's comprehension in her eyes, in the twist of her lips, maybe murderous, maybe flirty, maybe both. I think I'd like that third option best. Then she goes to retrieve her equipment.

When we step up and through the threshold, I almost expect a solid wall to smack me in the face, even when she strides right on through. That doesn't hitch my step, mind you. I still don't know what we'll find, no matter how many times I've heard described what to look for. Here no candles burn, and we don't search for any. Down, down, down we go, the curving wall nudging us in a spiral, 'til the walls split off into a room. We didn't know we'd find the prize glowing in wait for us, because its glow fans out no wider than an inch. Yet it's the clearest thing either of us has ever seen, somehow leaving everything around it in pitch blackness. We can't even tell if there's an unobstructed floor to walk across. Smooth earth meets our feet 'til we loom right over it on opposite sides. And we do see each other's faces across it... If there's a flaw in the design, it's that the shimmering blue crystal it's carved from is too smooth. The original model for this manor, mansion, palace, city, town, whatever we're looking at... It's too symmetrical, more like the temple we're standing in, less the kind of lived-in dwelling we're clearly supposed to perceive, a place where real people live... folks like Aschera and me, like that curse-poisoned angry mob we just slaughtered, folks who eat, drink, shit, piss, fuck, kill, die.

This carving measures about a square foot. I keep staring at a thickly gardened courtyard. It's separated from the main structure by a moat full of fountains, rippling from the aqueducts spilling into them from high above. My gaze pulls tighter, tighter, tighter, on a perfect geometrical circle of a disc, splayed across the center of the crescent-shaped bridge that runs over the babbling stream cutting through the center of this cobblestone courtyard. Are those a pair of feet on the disc? I don't realize they're mine 'til I look up, around at the courtyard. Now the glow shimmers clear all around me, along with everything else about the carven kingdom. I look at my feet again. Yep, still there, but my boots aren't. Neither are my shorts. Or my sheath. Or my sword. Behind me, someone else's feet whisper across the bridge. They're running, and they belong to something way bigger than me. Fuck.

Without looking back, I dash down the bridge towards solid footing. Now I ain't sure how much of me's really been transported here, or what this physical manifestation's manifesting from. But the skull-thunder, nerve-razors, clenching teeth and heart-rate jacked to eleven all feel real enough for me. I'm almost off the bridge when the thing collides with my back. A diamond-hard arm slides around my neck. I'm already spilling, so my back curls near the center of my spine. One hand shoots up across my throat before the attacker's arm can tighten, while my other arm extends, crooked a little inward. When my splayed palm hits the ground, the thing loses its grip. But it sinks on me, heavy enough to make my ribcage feel like a junkyard crusher. A few more pounds of this, I'll be coughing up shards of my own ribs and spine. While I still can, I flex and tilt just right so the attacker pitches forward with a crash like marble smacking marble. While it's still floundering, I roll past it and spring to my feet. Panting, I try to take it in while finding the right footing. It's shaped like a man, same kind of lithe, supple, compact build as me, but from a double-sized mold. There's something really strange about how it gets up... and even stranger about the sloppy accidental summersault it careens through. I don't have time to put my finger on what, because the thing lurches into a crouch. There's sleepy but lethal grace in its movements, like a sluggish, aggravated gorilla.

The clear saturnine face stares at me. It's immobile, the eyes the same polished matter as the rest of the body and everything else here. But I swear they blaze with intelligence ancient as its icy beauty. The deeper comprehension sets in, the deadlier that intelligence gets. When it takes the first swing, I swear for a second it's either jumped forward too fast to spot, or its arm must be twice as long as its body. Either way, I barely sway and dance back in time. No, those arms are proportioned fine. Here comes the other fist at my gut. There's training in the movement, slogging out of long hibernation. My leg snaps up and my heel smacks the back of the hand, right behind the knuckles. Using the momentum to piston backwards, I shove off as if from a springboard, twist and dive behind the sculpture of -- Oh fuck it, everything here is a sculpture. Let's just say I take a flying leap over a line of potted bushes.

In the crucial split second, I swear those crystal eyes widen like anyone's. Of course a flesh-an'-bone hand would have snapped and splintered in at least three places from that kick, especially with that much steam built up on both ends. But it's my heel that smarts to the bone. Since I didn't get hit, I have at least a few seconds' cover. My bruised heel bone sends me into a limping, flailing hop. I don't know which is tougher, steering myself or choking back the scream.

When I peak over the glassy hedge, my enemy's drawn up straight and regal. For one of the few legitimate handful of times my punchy skull can call up, I'm scared shitless. The bigger your average lynch mob, the further their mentality sinks beneath that of an ape. Imperial enforcers tend to be jackbooted thugs. In fact, I'm pretty sure it's a plus on the job application. After the first few dates, killing 'em gets kinda boring. Sure, Imperial sorcerers are used to taking down much bigger shit than you. That's why they're so damn easy. It just never occurs to them that you learn way nastier tricks practicing on your own, as far the fuck from government sanction as possible. Don't let that make you just as arrogant as them, and you'll probably do OK. All of the above: warriors my ass. Same goes for Aschera and me, frankly, wherever the hell she's gotten off to. The creature staring me down has a mind and heart full of earth and sky and sea and wildfire, a drinking buddy to every spirit powering those forces, unfettered by the cozy bullshit we call civilization. Bottom line: that's what you call a fucking warrior. And I'm the invader.

There's a lot I'd say to him if he'd understand a word of it. All that comes out of my mouth is, "Oh, fuck me sideways."

When he rushes me, the first thing I do is reach for the nearest bush in the hedge line. I shouldn't have expected that to work, but y'know, reflexes and all that. When I pull on it, though, it slides and pops out like a loose cork from a bottle. The weight trying to pull my arm from the socket is a thing to be respected. When I chuck it at his face, I'm not sure which of the two lets off that deafening crack. Either way, it staggers him long enough for me to hop the hedge again, rush and shove out one of his legs as I pass. It does the trick, but the result tells me something scarier. He doesn't just redouble and get back on his feet quicker, no sir. There's an uglier, smoother, crueler precision to his movements. It doesn't belong here, or in him, and he'll have no conscious idea where it came from. That won't stop him hammering me to lumpy liquid.

Still, his nose spills to kiss the ground as I pass. His hand snarls at my scalp, for hair that's too short for anyone to grab. Hard fingertips rake my scalp so I wonder if they just scraped out chunks of my skull like mud. One of his palms splays inward and he tucks his chin against his chest, through a series of motions that weren't known on this continent when his people ran it. He rolls smoothly into a crouch then sharply pivots back my way. And I recognize every move he just made, because it's the exact same roll-fall I pulled a few seconds ago. All around us, every shade in the spectrum -- mainly green and bronze -- is bleeding oh so subtly through the surfaces, like the first murky blue of dawn over the night. I'm woozy, disconnected... something fundamental to myself being eaten. It pisses me off so hard, I just might live through this. Notice I ain't thrown any punches. It'd just shatter every bone in my hand.

Though we just met, this is love. It's intimacy, true intimacy. Nothing exists but the ground -- or whatever it is -- under our feet, and nothing matters but what we see in each others' eyes and movements, the responses we demand from each other. Except something a lot more unusual's happening. When he rushes and swings again, his wrist crooks weird. It'd still pulverize anywhere it landed on me, but I've never seen a bare-handed fighter --

Whoa, I almost didn't duck that! He's faster now, and I feel heavier, like my own matter's thickening, slowing me down. While I dash for distance, my hand brushes my arm. It doesn't quite feel like skin anymore. Doesn't quite like skin, either. I glance back, then up. He's midway through a high-flying leap, coming straight down at me with another of those weird, wide-swinging punches. I barely dodge when he lands in front of me... and he grins like he didn't miss, like he's just killed me. When the hell did his face get so animated? Now he looks just as confused as me. Movement I've never seen in a bare-handed fighter. More like a swordsman, except with no sword. This is starting to make sense.

Gotta find time to buy an angle, so I just break and run like hell. It's not that I can't move quick and limber as ever, with my body steadily morphing into something heavier. But I'm tiring quicker. This place is drinking me, filling him up with my essence, refilling me with a native energy I can barely find my way through. And along with my spirit, he's getting my moves. But he also doesn't realize what he's losing in the process. If I string this out a little more, he won't either, 'til it's too late. Around the bend, there's a hovering outshoot from a tall building. Beneath it, there stretches a deep bare space and a forest of columns. I run in there as he rounds the corner. Sure enough, he follows.

He's still lovin' those flying leaps, but after banging his head a few times, he figures out he can't jump as high in here. It's more important than ever to use these shadows and columns for all they're worth. The more of me he drinks, the quicker he gets -- physically and mentally. Good thing my knack for evasion is pissing him off hardcore. It leaves him with less and less of that second one. But I can't stay limber much longer, and I'm twisted up with pain head to toe. I'd be sweating a flood, if I could still sweat.

That's right, you son of a bitch, suck my essence. Take Being Cassias Morningstar for a joyride. Just a little more, just a little more...

It's darker than ever beneath the overhang, because not as much light passes through solid surfaces when they stop being so crystalline. As he spins my way, I poke my head out. This time there's no dodging the massive fist when it falls like a hammer. When those knuckles crash against my temple, I barely feel anything but his bones breaking. Yeah, that's right, it's every bone in his hand that shatters. And I don't mean the crystal he's been carved from. I mean bones splinter and snap, pushing the flesh and muscle into weird shapes, like any ol' hand will when it's just punched someone with a diamond-hard skull.

He careens away clutching his wrist, and his mouth lets out the first sound I've heard from it. And that's not the howl of mind-shredding agony such injuries draw from most people. It's more like a sharp bark, like from a really nasty stubbed toe. He doubles up and almost falls. More than the pain, it's bewilderment keeping him off balance now. Because what just happened is the absolute diametric opposite of how the laws of physics here should have handled it. Our surroundings are now plain ol' wood and stone. In the distance, there's rushing water.

When my hand touches his back, it's just flesh touching flesh. Same goes for when he spins upright and locks his good arm around my neck. I'm back to my usual self, but so is he, and he's twice as big and strong. But I'm still slick and nimble, so I slide right out before his hold tightens. His foot hooks mine, and we crash to the stone floor together. When he tries to roll on me, I grab his broken hand. That gets a good howl out of him. When he lands a punch, it sends my brain bouncing around my skull like a pinball. I roll with it just well enough so my neck doesn't break. My elbow drops on his jaw right below the ear, dazing him almost long enough for me to scramble clear. But his grip tightens again and I tumble into a locked grapple I can't hope to win.

Then another pair of tight narrow fists are locked together, hammering both of us. At first I'm sure another creature like him just came out to play, so I'm twice as fucked. But someone's foot sweeps, knocking the interloper into this frenzied heap with us. He stops fighting and scoots away. I stare. Between us, Aschera springs back to her feet, palms splaying in either direction, shouting for us to chill the fuck out. We comply more from shock than obedience.

"Arg," she growls, "guys!"

My opponent gets up. Straight and proud, he eyes her with deep reverence. Facing him, she talks in a language I don't recognize. He answers in the same tongue. While they talk, he absently rubs and squeezes and pulls his broken hand, setting the bones back in place one at a time, letting off meaty, juicy crunches and pops. After a look at the injury, she says something in a stern, mothering tone. I'm pretty sure she just told him to go get that thing bandaged. The more she says, the more understanding fills his face. That makes one of us. He cocks his head at me and growls a few things. She spares me a glance then patiently answers his questions. Somewhere in there, I'm pretty sure, there's something to the effect of, Yeah, that asshole's with me. Yeah, I know, he does shit like that. Finally he nods, turns, and walks away.

Aschera watches him go then faces me. Before I can say anything, the world goes dark. The little semi-sphere kingdom still glows on the shrouded altar between us. Now its illumination floods out freely. We both take another long, hard look at our prize, then at each other. Then we glance sideways, towards a world outside somewhere. My boots and pants are back, and so is my sword. I'm still too jacked on adrenaline to tell how many injuries I've carried back.

"So who the fuck was that?" I manage. "Your psycho ex or something?"

"Hardly." She smirks and rolls her eyes. "Well, maybe in another life -- when we both lived there. He's been waiting a long time for me. They all have."

In the little city's glow, the pale flesh between the lines of her tattoos shimmers clearest of all. I don't know how I missed it 'til now. But I've been seeing the same kinds of runes all around me, wherever I find myself, for quite a while. "Hang on a second! Then you're -- "

She nods. "The last. Or one of the last."

"And you knew this whole time we'd find -- "

"Hoped. Once this is placed in the center of town, upon the disc of the dead fountain, my people's kingdom will be restored to its rightful place in the physical world. Soon the one guardian will tell the others it's time to wake up. Next time the Empire shows up... we'll be ready."

Well, there goes my pardon. Assuming she actually makes it back to town with her prize, that is. My hand's already rising reflexively for my sword's grip. Then I see hers has already tightened on the combat boomerang. I leave my sword in its sheath, not because I couldn't take her on, nor to say I ain't curious how that would turn out.

"That's right, Cass. That nifty little sword of yours did everything it was supposed to."

"Hold up! You're sayin' -- "

She bats her eyelashes. "You didn't really think you got that job and pardon offer by accident, did you -- or got caught in the first place, for that matter?"

The more all this sinks in, the more I kinda want to throttle her. But I'd rather hold out and tackle her in a much more agreeable way. "Eh, fuck it. Not like I ever wanna set foot in that dump of a province again anyway -- Deedtroise, I mean."

"I figured." Her eyes are gentler than I ever could have imagined. "Cass... Thanks."

Yeah, sure, I see how much this means to her, to so much else that's bigger than both of us. What, want me to say something gushy and profound about it? This is as much news to me as it is to you. All I know about these people is this stormy, rocky land that was once theirs, and this wild, crafty, deadly, gorgeous creature before me. "So in return, don't spread it around I ain't such a bad guy."

"No problem, 'cause yeah, you are." She reaches across and strokes my cheek. "But I still kinda like you. They'll still come after you, you know. The law, I mean, from back in Deedtroise."

"Let 'em get in line." I sidestep the carving and catch her in my arms. "Like you said, we'll be ready."

"Plan on sticking around, huh?" Her fingers snarl and scratch the back of my neck.

"I ain't that easy to get rid of, sweetheart." I feel a crazy grin split my face. "OK, so we gonna take turns carrying this thing, or what?"


© 2012 Matt Spencer

Bio: Matt Spencer is the author of numerous novellas and short stories (most recently in Aphelion: The Happy Specter, July 2012), the collection Shadow Ballads, the stage play Gathering in Gratitude: Going With The Flow (with Darren Mark), and the novels The Drifting Soul (illustrated by award-winning artist Stephen R. Bissette) and Cult of the Stars (illustrated by Deirdre Burke). Matt has recently started to make some of his work available on Amazon.com as Kindle singles -- the first entry being Formal Dinner and Demon Dreams. Mr. Spencer has been a journalist, New Orleans restaurant cook, factory worker, radio DJ, and a no-good ramblin’ bum. He’s also a song lyricist, actor, and martial artist. He lives and writes in Vermont.

E-mail: Matt Spencer

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