“One mistake in a subtle way
Like I’m walking again, all on me
Step slowly, you know that you fall between
Dark places, what a simple web we weave

We sing the nightmare of the lies that you speak
The beast that I lie beneath is coming in
We sing the nightmare of the lies that you speak
The beast that I lie beneath is coming in”1

QUINCY____________________________

Live steps.  Wired steps.  Livewired steps that shocked from the soles up the shins to the hips to the heart to the mind to the fingertips and back again.  She held her sword in her right hand around the scabbard, and tapped it against her leg.  She flashed along flagstone floors and compacted dirt trails that weaved in and out of the rocky mountainside.  Roots and vines weaved with statues, and fallen leaves flushed cold hallways.  She tucked a russet lock of hair behind her ear and hummed.  The ocean roar was a soothing presence all around and it set her in a good mood.  Somewhere, she could hear a chorus of people speaking in unison.  The carved, open windows looking outward onto the faded rooftops and white crest waves were stolen for the moment as she rounded the corner, heading eastward further into the mountain.  The commune was entirely based inside the looming mountain that overlooked the city of Crysen.  It was said that sorcerers had carved their place there, in the earth.

Torches lit the hallway she stepped through.  She flashed her eyes on younger pupils and they skittered out of her path, mouths agape, clutching at each other’s robes as she swept on by in a rush of lilac.  Then she paused at the archway at the end of the hall, the cold stone breathing around her from the draft of coastal air just ahead…

Quincy turned around and smiled, her left hand resting on her hip.

“Boys, where are you going?” she asked the two children huddled wide-eyed against the wall.

The two exchanged looks.  One stepped forward, barely four feet tall with gingery hair.  The shorter one behind him pulled his hood up and slouched.

“Alchemy lessons with Madame Igora…but it’s our first time, miss.  We’re lost.”

“Your masters?”

“We’ve got the same one, miss.  Master Fendrel.”

“Oh, I see.  Sorcerers, huh?”

The boy blushed and looked down at his tanned shoes.  “Not yet, miss.”

Quincy’s smile widened.  She jerked her head toward the archway and beckoned with her hand.  “Well come on, then.  Igora hates tardy pupils.”  She turned and started to walk, not waiting to see their reaction.

She heard the boys run to catch up.

They followed a little bit behind her as the hall led out onto the open courtyard, where a group of apprentices were stretching in lines.

Quincy looked at the boys over her shoulder.  “How’d you two end up at Crysen?”

“Our lord wishes for us to get training, so that we can protect him from any threats when we’re older.  We were escorted here by some of his personal guard.”

“Your lord must be powerful to get two boys so young to the Kilemare Coast.  Most of our newcomers are atleast entering their teens!”

The redheaded boy puffed his chest out and tried to square his shoulders.  “I don’t look like a teenager?” he said, voice strained from holding his breath.

Quincy giggled and stopped to ruffle the boy’s ginger mop.  “Don’t worry, you’ll strike others with your presence soon enough.”

The boy couldn’t seem to decide if he liked this attention or not.  Then his eyes lit up and he touched his head where her hand had been.  “…Miss, is it true you and sir Hakeem came to Crysen by yourselves and killed a full-grown dragon as a way to earn tutelage in the collective!?” he said this all quickly.  His little friend looked up from beneath his hood, his expression one of awe.

To earn training at the magical collective, one had to offer something of value to the master in question.  Some students, like the two boys before her, were sponsored by wealthy people of high standing.  She had even heard of certain students being the payment themselves–from previous students who had promised their first born child to their master.  While the masters ran their studies independently, arrangements often sprang up between them for collaboration, creating a sort of “school” environment without the proper system for it.  There was no headmaster and no detentions here.  The relationship between master and pupil was a personal one, and many masters residing at the collective still lacked students of their own.  Part of it was the dangerous location of the city.  The other part of it was that more than half of the prospective students died trying to prove themselves.

For those still awaiting training, idle minds delighted in twisting the truth.  Mystery and rumor was a staple of the commune, and Quincy found she was no more safe from it than a beach from the waves.

The girl scratched her head, a dubious grin spreading her lips.  “Um…”

“Quincy!”

Quincy looked up as Hakeem jogged toward her.  He wore thick boots meant for conquering rocks and mud, and loose cotton pants that draped over his shoes.  Normally he wore his special chainmail tunic, but at the moment he wore just a sleeveless shirt with a stained apron.  The teenage boy frowned at the two youngsters in her presence, then looked at Quincy again.

“Emiline told me to find you.  You’re due at the soup kitchen for lunch.”

The girl scowled.  “Now?  I can’t go now! I have to meet with Master Saerth!”

“If you don’t go, Emiline says she’s going to fire you without pay.  We won’t be able to pay Tegin for the room if this happens.”  Hakeem’s face was drawn and tense.  “Mweze, please.  Do this for me.

“There has to be another way.  Didn’t you try to talk to her?”

“Of course I did!  But do you think that mkundu listened to me?”  He pointed at the sword in her hands, sneering.  “If all you’re going to do is another useless session with that rusty sword, then please forget it and get over there.”

Quincy pursed her lips and gave him a leveling stare.  “I was told to meet with my master.  If the purpose just so happens to be for my sword, then it’s none of your flaming business!”  But her expression sobered and she gestured at the two boys.  “Look…Can you help them to Madame Igora’s?  I need to get this handled before I go.”

“So you will go?”

“Yes, yes!  I will, I promise.”

Hakeem glared down at the boys and the two shrank visibly.  He sighed and rolled his eyes.  “Fine, I’ll take these two then.  I have a bit more time before Emiline expects me back.”  He looked at the boys and jerked his head.  “Let’s go.”  He turned and started to walk away.

Quincy nudged the boys along and they stared at her pleadingly.  “Go on,” she said around her grin.  “He’ll only break your knees if you keep doddling!”

At this the boys ran to catch up with Hakeem, and when they did, they bumped into his back.  The man turned to stare at them with annoyed confusion.  “What’re you doing?

The brunette bit her lip, trying not to laugh as she turned to resume her original trip.  When she found Master Saerth, it was in his study, at the far corner of the collective.

Master Saerth looked up, his eyebrows raised.  “Quincy!  You’re early!  This is rare!  There were no tornadoes?  No runaway dragons?  No surprise attacks from assassins?”  He was only a little taller than her, with a short gray bushy beard, a shiny bald head, and shrewd deep blue eyes flecked with emerald.  When he stood from behind his desk, the room seemed to expand, as though to accommodate for his strong presence.

Quincy blushed before bowing low.  She was never late, but she did have a tendency to arrive just in the nick of time–and usually with a long tale as to how she nearly didn’t make it at all.  “No, Master.  Not this time.  Just some boys who needed my help.”

“Oh, well I suppose I can see how that wouldn’t deter you quite as much.”  The man came forward, hands behind his back.  Unlike some of the other masters in the collective, he wore thick wool pants and a white tunic without a belt.  His boots made sharp sounds on the stone floor as he came near.  “I do, however, get the impression that your punctuality was brought about by some pressing matter.  What’s happened?”

The teenager still didn’t rise from her bow.  “Sir, I face a financial dilemma.  As you know, I work at the local soup kitchen to pay for my living and training expenses.  Even though my husband and I have managed all this time, Emiline has served me an ultimatum–either I go to work for her now, or I lose my job and do not receive my pay for this week.  We owe our landlord in just a few days time, sir.  I face losing my home and a means to fund my studies.”

“So you came here first, seeking some sort of guidance?”

The girl tensed at the steel in her master’s voice.  “…Yes, sir.  If you’d be so generous as to advise me…”

Quincy heard nothing for a time, then a hand on her shoulder made her look up.  Saerth’s eyes were narrowed but his lip was turned into a sort of smirk.  “Raise yourself, Quincy.”

The man turned and returned to his desk.  He sat down again in his chair with a sigh.  “Given your circumstances, I appreciate your speaking with me first.  Today you may go,”

The girl straightened, her face beaming.  “Thank you, Master, I–”

However,” Saerth sat back in his chair and ran a hand over his bald head.  “I’m familiar with Emiline.  If you give her this today, she will ask for more until you are unable to meet both her demands and your obligations here.  This solution of yours is temporary, Quincy.  You will have to figure out a better way to resume your stay here if want to fulfill your aspirations.  I cannot give you the answer.  Part of being a wizard is being clever enough to work things out on your own.  My only advice is to put your true strengths to use.  You came here when you were, what?  Fifteen, sixteen?”

“Sixteen, Master.”

“Now you’re older, and you’ve learned much.  A soup kitchen is not befitting someone of your caliber anymore.”

Quincy blinked at him, then turned her eyes to the ground.  “Yes, Master.”

“When you next return here, I expect the matter resolved.  If not, then you no longer have the right to be my pupil.”  He blinked, then looked mildly at the long horned skull sitting at his desk.  “Even if you did bring me the head of a dragon hatchling.”  He poked the skull with a stubby finger, blinking once more.  “…I get to keep this no matter what, by the way.  I hear Igora can make some mean potions just with the skull alone.”

“Um…yes, Master.  Of course, sir.”

——————————

Quincy walked slowly through the hallways, her eyes holding a storm.  Other pupils passed her by, some glancing at her curiously.  Usually the brunette was tearing through the halls in a rush, but now she walked slow contemplative steps.  She and Hakeem had been at the magical collective for almost two years now, and it truly felt like home.  The turnout was high here–many hopefuls came, seeking the tutelage of the masters that resided at the impromptu school, but the lessons were hard.  Only the true seekers of knowledge remained, and Quincy had been certain that nothing would endanger her and Hakeem’s studies.  Except now…

She had left the commune and wandered down into the city, towards the beach, where she now sat in the sand with her sword in her hands and her russet brown hair whipping about her.  The wind had picked up, now that night approached, and even though she loved the sight of the ocean, the girl loathed the strong winds.  With every gust that buffeted her, Quincy expected him to appear.

“Jack…if you come…I’ll kill you.”  Tears trickled down her face and dripped onto the scabbard.  Quincy pulled her sword out partially and glared at the rusted blade that appeared.  “I’ll kill you with everything you ever gave me, do you hear?”

A familiar voice met her ear.  “I wish you’d talk to me before making these decisions.”

Quincy turned with a start and saw Hakeem approaching her, his fists clenched.  She hadn’t gone to the soup kitchen, like she’d said she would.  Her rebellion likely caused the boy to be fired as well.

She turned and bowed her head.  “M’sorry,” she mumbled.

Hakeem sat heavily next to her, his jaw clenched tight.  “Why do you always do this?” he muttered.

“Do what?”

“Throw things away when you think it doesn’t suit you anymore.  You never think about me.  How I might feel.  You didn’t like living in the jungles when we were young?  You stole from pirates and get us caught.  You started to hate living with pirates?  You lured me away from the ship where it ends up sailing off with all of my belongings.  Then I go along with your plans to come here–risking life and limb to get a gods damned master, a home, a job–and you’re threatening to piss it all away again!” the boy punched the ground. “I’m tired of being at the mercy of your whims!  I know things are hard, but sometimes you just have to stick things out, Quincy!  If you want to make a change–fine! But don’t cut away everything without something to fall back on!  Don’t make those big decisions without talking to me!”

Quincy swiped at her eyes and sniffled back the snot that had been teasing her nostrils.  She stared forward and didn’t look at Hakeem, though she could feel the anger rolling off of him.

But when he spoke again, he sounded tired.  “…If you can’t take our marriage seriously, then atleast take me seriously as your friend.  Talk to me.  Trust me.  Or else…why are we even together?  Are you going to throw me away too?  Do I…not suit you anymore?”

The girl looked at him, fear striking her heart as the boy stood to his feet.  “Hakeem!”

The boy didn’t stop as he walked away.  He continued trudging back toward the city with bunched shoulders.

Quincy stood and ran forward several steps.  “Hakeem!  Please!”

Hakeem paused but didn’t turn around.

The girl trembled, her sword forgotten in the sand where it had tumbled from her lap.  “Hakeem…I love you.  I’ve always loved you…it’s just–it’s just that–”

The boy whirled around, his face contorted with anger.  “No.  No.  Enough, Quincy.  There shouldn’t be an addendum when you tell me that.  I’ve sacrificed everything to be with you.  It’d be nice if you’d return the favor and quit placing our relationship as second on your priority list!  I don’t even know what it is you’re looking for, and quite frankly, I’m tired of waiting for you to tell me!!

Quincy watched as he left, her eyes clouding again.  She let her head fall, shivering as the wind shoved at her from all sides.

She started to speak, her broken voice rushed away by the breath of the world.  “…It’s just, that I never want to be at the mercy of anyone else again,” she watched as her tears fell into the sand.  The brunette raised her azure eyes to the sky, and her throat tightened with a desire to scream. “Jack…if you come, I’ll kill you with everything you ever gave me…because when you come, I’ll finally be the master of my life…answering to no one…untouchable…and when you and Tobias are dead, I’ll be free…”

HAKEEM_________________________

He heard the melodious chime of a bell singing into the evening air.  Here, even on the coast, it was warm, so the night’s approach felt muggy at best.  He liked this weather.  It reminded him of home, of the village he came from, where they lived with nature instead of trying to conquer it.  Quincy had been brought to his family and left in their care when they were young.  His father had known her father, was the terse explanation.  Things had been peaceful, up until…

Hakeem didn’t like to get sentimental.  He preferred getting mad.  Being angry made it easier not to think on how much he missed his family.  How much it still haunted him, seeing them burned to death and hacked to pieces by marauders.  Even as children, they knew, it was because the marauders were looking for something.  For someone.

Even when it was beyond her control, Quincy seemed to take so much away from him.

He didn’t blame her for the massacre, she was just a child.  But surrounding the girl was a leeching aura that demanded still more from him to be with her.  More sacrifice.  The boy didn’t know what else he had to give, and this made him angry.

At the market.  Hakeem glowered at the assortment of vegetables before him.  He figured he could make a stew tonight…the final good meal to be had in a while it seemed…

“Say, friend.  Why the long face?”

The boy turned to see a young man–perhaps early twenties–smiling at him.  He had dark tanned skin, short cropped hair, and was freakishly tall.  A large metal saber was strapped to his back.  Around his waist, a belt jingled with dozens of metal ingots.

Hakeem turned his face trying to ignore him.  “I’m deciding what I want in my dinner.”

“Oh?  You want to know what that says to me?  ‘Girl trouble’.”

The boy turned and glared.  “Leave me alone.”

“Yep, girl trouble.”  The man came to stand next to Hakeem.  He leaned against the vegetable stand with a smirk. “A real man should never make his own dinner.  It’s against nature.”

Hakeem shoved at the stranger with both hands, sending a few vegetables tumbling to the ground.  The merchant yelled at him, but he ignored him.  The teenager bared his teeth and advanced, full of murder.  “Stupid mkundu!  Keep running your mouth and I’ll smash your face in!”

The stranger laughed and held up his hands. “Woah, woah! I wanna help you!”  He thumbed over his shoulder.  “I know you come from the commune.  You’ve got a teacher right?  Or…what…a master you call it?  So you must know a thing or two about magic, right?”

Hakeem turned and started to walk away.  He had nearly gotten into a fight, and this would’ve gotten him in trouble with the local authorities.  If his master had heard, he would’ve been punished.  “Tai’undu!  Leave me alone already, you big ape!”

“Wait,” the man caught up with him and blocked him off.  “Now hold on!  I happen to know for a fact that you were fired from your job at the soup kitchen–”

The boy gave him a weird look, “You’ve been following me?  What are you?  A queer or something?”

The man thumped his chest, looking angry for the first time.  “Of course not!  My name’s Karolek, and I’ve got a proposition for you!”

“A proposition?  Definitely not interested.”

“…What?  No! I told you I’m not like that!”

“Move, or I’ll move you myself.”

“Listen, listen.  There’s a bounty out there worth five hundred gold,”

“Fine, I’ll count to three.  One…”

“It’s an easy catch–sort’ve.  I just need some help,”

“…Two…”

“Look here, I have the wanted poster–”

Three!

Hakeem buried his fist into Karolek’s gut, just as the young man reached into his back pocket.  Then he backhanded the man with all his might.  The oaf stumbled to the side, coughing.  The boy gave him a final shove out of the way, and Karolek was sent to the ground, still cradling his stomach.

“Idiot,” the boy mumbled as he stalked past.

QUINCY____________________________

Quincy had left the beach in a melancholy, the waves of people heading back to their homes buoying her forward.  Home

“Soon I won’t have one, and it’ll be my fault,” The girl sighed.  Then she stopped in the middle of the road, slamming the heels of her palms into the sides of her head, much to the consternation of those she forced to walk around her.  “Aaah!  Quincy, not now!  You can’t fall apart!”

When her head started to throb, the girl opened her eyes and turned her head.  She stared wide-eyed out into the night, the sky overhead now a deep plum with the stars peeking out from their vast blanket of the universe.  Colors blended together in a cool palette that made definition hard to come by, but her eyes lit onto one thing that stood out starkly in the growing moonlight.  A piece of parchment nailed to a tall wooden post.

Quincy drifted towards it, and her heart started to hammer at the sight of the words “REWARD:  500 GOLD”.

The brunette snatched the parchment off the post and examined the large charcoal sketch of a man with a long face, rounded cheeks, and thick mutton chops.  A pair of goggles dangled from around his neck, and his expression was bewildered, as though he couldn’t believe the artist had drawn him on a wanted poster.  At the bottom, smaller text read, “This reward is offered for the apprehension of Kollin Endrick Montbrai, found guilty of selling illegal narcotics, polluting the water supply, public drunkenness, and besmirching the good Lady Rosalinda of Santos.  The above reward will be paid in part by the Lord Adalberto of Santos and also the city-state of Gulley upon his delivery in good health to the offices of Marshal Fuller.  ADVISORY:  Suspect lost his left hand, either purposefully or by accident, and uses an arcane hand crafted from steel as a replacement.  This hand is said to boost the strength of his entire left arm.  Suspect has been known to make and sell magical weapons, and so may be further armed.  He is well versed in the ways of alchemy.  Exercise extreme caution when dealing with him.  Rubber gloves and a cotton mask are advised when in close proximity.”

“Looks promising, yes?”  Quincy jumped and turned to see a tall young man with short-cropped hair and metal ingots on his belt.  He was sporting a bruise on his dark-tanned face, but he smiled at her charmingly.  He pointed at the poster clutched to her chest.  “If you’re wondering…I happen to know where Kollin is now.  But I need help catching him.”

Quincy frowned at him, glancing at the poster, then back at the man before her.  “Who’re you?” she eventually asked.

The man gave a short bow.  “My name is Karolek.  I’m a metal sorcerer.”  He straightened and wagged a finger at Quincy.  “Now…I think I know who you are…you’re Quincy, aren’t you?”

The girl raised her eyebrows at him, and her grip on her sword handle tightened.  If she swung hard enough, the scabbard would fly off and expose the blade, sparing her a second to catch him by surprise, but could she press an attack with just one arm…?

“I’ve seen you around here a few times with your boyfriend–”

Husband,” She corrected, tensing her sword arm.

Karolek held up his hands, his look surprised.  “Oh!  Wow, you’re…so young!”  The man scratched the back of his head, “Gods…well, I’d heard you and your husband killed a full-grown dragon to get yourselves a master–”

Quincy rolled her eyes.  “Look, about that–”

“–And I was just thinking I could really use the help of someone as strong and capable as you.  Catching Kollin will be easy with the two of us working together–won’t even take us a day.  I’ll split the reward with you 50-50.  I bet you can think of something you can use that gold for, right?”

The girl paused to think, her lips puckering.  She and Hakeem owed their landlord a hundred gold.  The reward from the bounty would float them for almost an entire season, and they’d have gold to spare for supplies and food…

“…Do you need to talk it over with your husband?”  Karolek asked carefully.  There was something teasing in his eyes.

Quincy blinked, her eyes widening as she looked at the man.  She shook her head emphatically.  She could easily imagine Hakeem’s reaction to this idea of hers–

“Bwa-mweze, wikan a thusa katsul ko zini-jyan!?”  My wife, why do you have such wild ideas!?

“No.  He’s busy.  When did you want to go after Kollin?”

Karolek smirked.  “Tonight.”

Quincy gave a nod.  “Let me get a few things and I’ll meet you by the city gates.”

HAKEEM_________________________

He came home tired, and with a satchel full of fresh vegetables.  The house was dark and cold.  Hakeem set the bag down and frowned.

His search was done with a single sweep of his eyes, for everything was forced into a small square space of masonry.  Their bed to the left was empty, the quilts still neat and folded.  The kitchen counter was clear and the stove dark.  The table to the right, however…

Hakeem cleared the distance from the door in two large steps.  On the table was a parchment.  His heart started to palpitate, and wild ideas sprang into his head.  “She really did throw me away…”  But then he saw from the poor moonlight that filtered in through the front windows what the parchment said.

“REWARD:  500 gold”.

The teenager’s jaw clenched and he went to the wardrobe adjacent to the door.  Tearing open the door, the boy saw that it lacked Quincy’s cloak and traveling boots.  The boy slammed the door shut with a shout.

“Quincy wikan!

QUINCY____________________________

They traveled on foot eastward, away from the coast and toward the savannah of the Talmorian continent.

“I grew up there, y’know.  At Gulley,” Karolek said, trying to make small talk.  “It’s my hometown.”

Quincy glanced at him from the corner of her eyes.  She stifled a yawn.  Normally she’d be asleep by this hour.  “Oh, yeah?” she really didn’t care to hear his life story.

The man put his hands behind his head, the ingots on his belt clinking together.  “Yes!  I know that city like the back of my hand.  All the shortcuts, all the best restaurants…” he smirked at her.  “Would you like to see these places, after we turn Kollin in?”

The girl gazed at him frigidly.  “No.”

Karolek laughed, throwing his head back and crowing into the night.  Quincy winced and glanced as she saw a rabbit peal away through the tall grass.  Was this how a person went about catching criminals?  By being as obnoxious as possible?

“No wonder you need my help…” Quincy muttered.

“What was that?” Karolek asked, oblivious.

“Nothing.”

“Say,” he went on, much to the girl’s annoyance.  “Where do you come from?  Your Common has a curious accent.”

The girl shrugged.  “What do you think I am?” she sighed.

Karolek rubbed his chin.  “Mmm…Fiamman?”

Quincy nodded.  “Sort of.  My ancestry is, anyway.”

“So then where did you spend your childhood?”

“Fanaea…mostly.”

“Ah, that explains it…You speak Fanaean don’t you?  With your husband.  Is he a chest-thumper like most Fanaean men?”

“You know most Fanaean men, I take it?”

Karolek sputtered.  “I’m not queer!”

“Hey, you said it.  Not me.”  Quincy kicked at a rock on the path.  “Anyway, can we not talk about my husband?”

“Oh…You two had a fight?”

“No.”

“Then can I ask–”

“Let it alone, already!”  Quincy snapped.  “Tai’undu!  You talk too fucking much!”  She stormed ahead, her cloak swishing behind her stiff back.

“Glad you’re not my wife…” She heard Karolek mutter.

Quincy, with little pause, scooped up a rock and threw it at his head, her face tight with outrage.  After that, Karolek finally stopped his inane chatter.  They walked for miles that way, the journey spanning nearly the entire night.  Finally, as the hours crept into the early morning, the girl could see burning lights on the horizon.

She yawned, stretching.  “Gods, finally!”

Karolek glanced at her, grinning.  “Tired already?  Do you want me to carry you into town?”

Quincy snorted, her arms crossing her chest.  “If I weren’t getting 250 gold for this, I’d have struck you with a bolt of lightning by now…twice.”

“It’s nice isn’t it?  Not having to pretend to be friends when there’s gold involved?”

“Shut up and lead the way, already.”

“My, you’re such a refined young lady!”

“Oh look!  That rock looks nice and sharp…”

Well! I guess we’d better get going.  Don’t want to miss Kollin, now do we? …gods what a bitch

When they entered the town of Akii, Quincy immediately recognized the sort of people she was about to encounter.  The buildings were still lit, and people stumbled through the dirt roads, wide-brimmed hats jilted on their heads.  There was shouting and loud laughter.  Dogs made a mess of the garbage, scattering it into the roads where carriages crushed and squished it with their wheels.  Quincy pulled out her four foot lightning rod, which she had kept tied to her back.

Karolek put an arm over her shoulders, and she was about to punch him in the face for getting so fresh, but then the man leaned down to murmur, “Relax.  Put the damn rod away.  If you keep acting this way, people will notice, and if people notice, so might Kollin.  If you stay close to me, no one will bother you, I promise.”

Quincy shrugged the man’s arm off.  “Fine.  But keep your hands to yourself!”  Still with a sour look, the girl slid the rod back into its strap.

“Why do you have that and your sword?” he asked.

“This sword never leaves my side.  It’s magical, but it won’t respond to me.  I keep it around just in case that might change.  The rod actually works, and was given to me by my master.  It calls forth lightning.”

“Wow,” Karolek led her to a one-story building with a flat roof.  He held the door open for her.  “Do you have any other goodies with you?”

Quincy passed him, entering a smoky bar.  When they were both inside, she responded, “A wizard always has an ace in the hole.”

Karolek nodded thoughtfully.  “Something to keep in mind, then…”

They sat at a table nearest the bar, because all the tables near the wall were taken.  A waitress came by and Karolek ordered a mug of beer.  Quincy asked for a glass of water and was reminded snippily that she was in a bar not a gods damned restaurant.  Then the brunette told the waitress to come back with some manners and fresher breath.  The sorcerer kicked her under the table as the waitress left in a huff to fetch their orders.

“Idiot!” he snarled.  “I told you to relax!”

Quincy kicked him back, harder.  “I like rude people even less than self-absorbed snoops like you!  Kick me again, and I’ll kick you so hard in your uchango you’d think you were a queer!”

The sorcerer winced, reaching down to rub his leg.  “Gods, girl!  Your inferiority complex is fierce!

“I don’t have a complex!”  She kicked him again, catching him on the hand.  That time it just felt good.

Karolek bit his lip to contain the yell that came up his throat as he cradled his hand.

Quincy turned her head, and her eyes widened.  “Oh!”  She looked away, toward the bar, her face turning pink.

A man appeared at the entrance, a bag slung over his muscular shoulders and a pair of dark goggles drawn over his eyes.  He had thick mutton chops and a length of straw between his lips.  He wore suspenders and a sleeveless blue shirt, with baggy brown shorts and untied leather shoes that stopped around the ankles.  His belt was weighed down with tools–a hammer, a wrench, a screwdriver, a pair of tongs, and other things she couldn’t name.  And on his left hand, or rather, replacing his left hand, there was a metal claw that occasionally hissed with steam around the wrist.  It clicked and whirred with bare mechanics as he flexed the fingers.

“‘Oh’ what?” Karolek grumbled, his eyes teary as he rubbed his swelling hand.

“‘Oh’ as in, ‘Oh, our subject of interest just walked in!'”

“Then, shh!” he hissed, slouching forward.  He glanced only with his eyes over the girl’s shoulder.  Then nodded.  “Yeah, that’s him.”

“What do we do?”

“What else?  We wait till he’s piss-ass drunk, then follow him to wherever he’s staying.”

“That’s it?”

“He’s a well known drunkard, and his brains are fried from all the fumes he’s breathed in.  I told you this would be easy.”

Quincy frowned and fisted her cheek.  “It seems too easy to me…” she mumbled.

HAKEEM_________________________

He was marching through the savannah, a lightly packed bag against his back, his eyes staring forward like harsh knives in the dark.  He was heading to Gulley because it was the best he had to go on, given what the poster said.  He didn’t know the first place to look for Kollin, and therefor didn’t know the first place to look for Quincy.  But when he found Quincy…when he found her…he was going to…

Without warning the boy kicked at an ant hill, cursing rapidly in his native tongue.

“Mweze, when I get my hands on you, there’s finally going to be order in this marriage!  You will be my wife and nothing more!  No more magic, no more get-rich-quick schemes, no more swords!  You’ll behave like a woman should.  TAI’UNDU!!  I should’ve done what my Uncle did with all three of his wives, and just tied you to my bed!!  AARGH!!  When I get my hands on you, you’ll cook, you’ll clean, and you’ll wash my under things–all at our home, where you’ll never leave and send me running after you again!” he stomped at the ants, his dark face taking on a ruddy shade, “Like. You. Were. Sup-Posed.  To. ARRGH!”

The boy fell to his knees, and screamed to the night sky.

Why did I fall in love with a white woman?  What the FUCK was I thinking!?

Then his eyes bugged and he jumped up, slapping at himself.  “Shit, those were fire ants!!”

QUINCY____________________________

“This is boring…” The girl muttered, struggling to keep her eyes open.  Her entire body felt heavy.  She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been up so long.  There had already been a few times when she’d nodded off, but a loud noise in the bar always woke her up.  The last she had looked, Kollin was still pinching the asses of women that passed his table, but he appeared surprisingly sober.  “Is he, like, almost drunk yet?”

Karolek snorted awake, his head having fallen back against his chair.  He wiped the saliva from the corner of his mouth and blinked at her.  “…Huh?”

Quincy sighed and turned her head to look herself.  Then she shot upright, her eyes bugging open.

“Tai’undu!” she exclaimed, jumping to her feet.

Karolek followed suit, startled.  “What, what!?”

“He’s gone!”

They spilled out onto the street, harried and cursing and blaming one another.  People stared as they barreled by.

“You big idiot, he’s gone now!”  Quincy scanned the streets and buildings, her face flushed.

Karolek glared at her, scandalized.  “How is this my fault!?  You were the one awake, why didn’t you notice he’d left?”

“You shouldn’t have fallen asleep to begin with!  What kind of man are you!?”

“Right.  Like you hadn’t caught a few minutes napping either!”

Whatever! Just help me look for him!”

Then she was running as fast as she could, everything on fire, the swing of her arms like blades cutting through the wind.  Clearly, the city of Akii wasn’t known for paved streets–in fact, the golden earth was hard and riddled with potholes.  Quincy struggled to keep her vision clear as they tumbled through the growing morning crowd–merchants and buyers out for the early market setup.  It was getting harder when she had to check her path to keep from falling and breaking her ankle.  The rod staff across her back didn’t help with matters either.  She knocked a man in the head with the tip of it, and the blow jerked her back a beat as the strap that held the staff cut into her chest.

The girl stumbled forward again, her eyes turning to gaze at the man in the fez hat apologetically.

“Ih-shun!” she cried.  “Sorry!”

The man shouted angrily at her, brandishing his fist.

“Gods damnit!”  Karolek grabbed her hand and forced her to run faster.  “Your Talmas is horrible!  How long did you say you’ve been living in Crysen!?”

“What’d he think I said?  I was trying to apologize,” Quincy panted, her cloak flapping behind her.  With her exhaustion, it was feeling quite heavy.

“You have to put more phlegm into the word next time!  ICH-shun!  Right now, you just called that man an ass fiddle!  It’s one of the gravest insults you can give, and coming from a woman, it’s even worse!  Now we have to run just to keep from being stoned!

Quincy glanced over her shoulder.  Sure enough, the man and some of his companions were chasing after them, their silk shoes and light clothing making agility seem effortless.  Then the girl slid and tumbled to the ground as Karolek made a sharp turn.  He jerked her up painfully by the arm and she had but a moment to prepare for the flight of stairs they jumped over.  They flew some five feet down, and the shock that hit Quincy’s soles made her cry out, but the man didn’t let her stop.  Behind them, the angry men followed.  They weren’t as weighed down by weapons and heavy clothing as she and Karolek were.

Quincy felt close to tears.  “I just…wanted…to make things up…to Hakeem!” she wheezed through a tight throat.

Then she had an idea.

“Leggo of my hand!” Quincy shouted, wrenching out of Karolek’s grip.

“What’re you doing!?” he snapped, looking fearfully over his shoulder.  “I don’t want to have to fight these men!  It could set the whole community on us!  I live in this area, damnit!”

Quincy pushed herself to continue running as she fished for the leather pouch she had tied to her hip.  Holding it before her, she rubbed the bag between her hands.  “Come on, come on…” she breathed.  Something long and thin grew beneath her ministrations.  The girl quickly loosened the opening and pulled out the item.

Karolek did a double-take, sweat rolling down his face.  “Is that…a wand?

“Yes!”

“What’re you going to do, pull a rabbit out of your ass!?”

“Shut up and get back!”  Quincy skidded to a stop and turned to glare at the men that charged after them.  She gripped her wand tightly in her right hand, the long smooth piece of wood barely weighing a thing.  The one in the fez hat led his five companions, men dressed similarly, possibly members of a guild.  He pointed at her angrily, shouting something in Talmas.  Gripped in his other hand was a large rock.

Quincy pointed the wand at him and said loudly, “Exorior Gerbillinae!!

The Talmorian men flinched back as she shouted this, their eyes bugging.  Clouds of dust rose about their feet as they skittered to a full stop.  Everyone stopped, waiting for something to happen.

Quincy looked around too, nervous.  She had wanted to transform the man into a gerbil, but nothing was happening.  Had she used the right words?

Then they heard a sound.  It seemed to rise up in their ears as a crackling and scratching first.  Then they heard the high-pitched squeals.

“Quincy…” Karolek said slowly.  He looked at her with his eyes, knees bent and his hands held out.  “What in the nine hells did you do?”

“I…uh…” she pointed at the man in the fez hat with her wand, who was staring around in confusion still.  “…turned him into a gerbil?  Or…or…tried to?”

“I don’t think it worked.”

The sound grew louder.  The squeals, the squeaking, the scratching…

Quincy’s face drew long in horror.  She stumbled backward, stepping onto her cloak, and falling onto her rear.  “I–I think I know how I m-messed it up!” she stammered.

From all around, flooding over the stone and the wood and the dirt, hundreds of little bodies flooded forth, their fur shining in the early morning sunlight.  Their tails were long but furry.  If she hadn’t cast the spell, she would’ve erroneously thought them to be rats.  But they were gerbils.

Exorior Gerbillinae.  Gerbil appear.  Apparently that wasn’t the phrase for transforming someone then…

Karolek cursed and took off running without her.

Quincy scrambled after him, “Hey, wait!”  He didn’t look back.  Quincy stubbed the tip of her boot on an uneven piece of ground and fell to the ground in a nasty crash.  Her left knee scraped the ground painfully.  Her eyes teared up and she screamed at Karolek’s retreating back.  “Damnit, wait for me!”  He still didn’t look back.

Behind her, the men screamed.  She glanced back and saw the little creatures clawing up their legs, the men writhing in pain before they fell over into the growing swarm that followed her.

The girl pushed herself to her feet.  She limped a few steps before she forced her left leg to work–then it was a matter of ignoring the sharp sensations that shot up her thigh from the knee.  With fear’s claw around her heart, she managed to double her pace from before, and within a minute, she outstripped Karolek.

“Woah, hold on, wait up!” His voice cracked as he reached out and tried to grab her.  The girl danced out of his reach.

“Fuck you, mkundu, you were gonna leave me!  We’re through!” she screamed over her shoulder.  She stumbled around the corner, her hip crashing into a fruit stand.  She limped a few steps again, bracing herself on an eroded wall, before she bared her teeth and tumbled clumsily onward.  Russet locks stuck to her sweaty neck, and she spat strands of hair from her mouth.  Down an alley, through a wide street and into another alley.  She didn’t know where she was running to.  She didn’t know this town.  Maybe she shouldn’t have left Karolek behind…?

She glanced behind her.  The gerbils, shockingly, were following her.  More than that, they were keeping pace with her.  She was certain it was because of the magic–gerbils couldn’t fucking run that fast.  Could they?

Then up ahead she saw a man in a cloak opening a heavy wooden door with a key.  The building had no windows that she could see and it was a small one-story.  She sprinted towards him just as he opened the door.  Quincy slid and bumped him inside with her hip, then nearly fell through the door herself.  She kept stepping on her cloak in a panic, but managed to get to her feet again.  Snatching the key off the floor, she turned around, slammed the door shut, then locked it.  Then the girl looked around, drawing out her rod staff.  The building was dark, but she thought she saw hooks and chains and springs hanging from the ceiling.  The two tables in the middle of the room was riddled with unnameable miscellany.  At the back, she thought she saw a messy bed.  There were two windows high up on the right and left, but they were small and closed shut.  She doubted the gerbils could climb up the bare stone walls…right?

“S’cuse me, sir.  Sorry, sorry,” she said quickly, turning her attention to the man she had bumped into.  “Ich’shun, Ich’shun.  There’s a swarm of rodents on its way here and I needed a place to hide.”

The man on the floor groaned, his head still covered with his hood.

Quincy bit her lip, kneeling.  “Sir…sir, are you okay?”

Then came the scratching.  The girl froze as the squeals and squeaks grew louder all around, turning into a hissing sound as the gerbils surrounded the building.  She kept on eye on the windows, just in case, but they didn’t seem to reach.  It didn’t seem to stop them from trying, however.  She could hear them clawing up the stone, the sound setting her teeth on edge.

The man before her sat up.

“Wow…you weren’t kidding!”  He pulled the hood back with a steel hand, one that hissed out steam at the wrist.

Quincy did a double-take.

Kollin Endrick Montbrai pulled the goggles off his eyes and blinked at her, white as a sheet.  When he spoke, all she could smell was beer. “Thanks, kid!  I can’t stand rodents…Say, what’s your name?”

The girl blinked, and stared at him.

Then she struck him across the face with her rod staff as hard as she could, little sparks of lightning flying into the air.  The man’s head snapped to the side from the blow, and his eyes rolled into his head.  He fell back, limp.  His cheek sported a mild burn.  Quincy brushed back her hair and smiled, eyes filled with wonder.

“Wow…that was easy!” she giggled excitedly.

———————–

The girl spent the rest of the day waiting out the gerbil swarm.  She considered using her wand to make them vanish, but she was afraid she’d get the wording wrong again.  Quincy hadn’t trained much in linguistic prescriptivism–figured it had nothing to do with the magic items she wanted to use.  She made a mental note to correct this in the future.

By the time the gerbils were gone it was already the afternoon.  Quincy found some bread in Kollin’s cupboard and ate it quickly.  Then she took out her magic pouch and put in other food–some jerky, a cheese wheel, some fruit.  They all vanished without the pouch becoming full once.  Next, she rifled through the assortment of items on the tables.  There were gloves that gave off static energy, blades that were stained red, an assortment of bottles likely filled with illegal potions, and–

Quincy plucked up a small white box, frowning at it.  It was the only package on the table, and seemed unusually “prepared”.  Was it an item for a customer?  The girl opened the box cautiously, peering inside.  She raised an eyebrow.  Sitting in the box was small reflective orb with a slip of paper.  The teenager pulled the paper out carefully, not wanting to touch the orb–she didn’t know what the item did.  Opening the slip with one hand, she squinted at the scrawled message.

“Brom.  This is the Orb of Ilkmar.  I nicked it off this elf I drank under the table down in Gulley.  I’m scared.  I think he was just a delivery boy for someone powerful, and now I have this heat down my neck.  I want you to take it and keep it somewhere safe.  This thing is rare.  It helps you remember stuff you’ve forgotten, helps you find what was lost, and brings you to whatever it is that you desired.  If you’re in a bind and have NO CHOICE, then say these words when holding the orb, ‘I see, so you see.  I hear, so you hear.  I know, so you know.  Illuminate this for the eyes of the blind.  Reveal what is hidden, bring forth what is desired.’

Quincy’s heart hammered.  Her azure eyes flickered back to the orb, and she saw her face reflected back at her, smiling slowly.

———————

She kept her head down as she pushed the wheelbarrow through Akii.  It had taken her nearly an hour to clear the wheelbarrow of spare parts and to load Kollin’s limp body into it.  For good measure, she wrestled a chain around him too, and (as per the wanted poster’s suggestion) used a pair of rubber gloves she’d found to do it.  As she tied him up, she found he had five flasks of acid, a bottle of beer, a flask of oil, half a bottle of ether, and atleast six different knives hidden beneath his cloak.  Exhaustion bit at her, even as her preparations were done.  She was approaching 24 hours with hardly any sleep, and all the adrenaline was gone.  The girl forced herself to keep going.  With Kollin covered by a thick tarp, and the hood of her cloak pulled up, Quincy left the little impromptu home and tried to remain as inconspicuous as possible.

All around her, people were dealing with the damage wrought by the rabid gerbil swarm.  Many sported cuts and gashes, little chunks missing from faces old and young alike.  Quincy felt her heart twist in guilt as she passed one little boy, who was still screaming from the pain and trauma.  His dusty face was streaked with tears and blood, a piece of his ear missing, and scratches all over his face.  He was the worst she had seen, however–most of the damage seemed superficial.  Still, his one face was enough to haunt her the rest of the way.

She paused only to buy water and get directions.  She wanted to keep moving, lest Karolek see her.  She was certain the man still thought the alchemist was in Akii, and that suited her fine.  She’d done most of the work anyway.

As it turned out, Gulley was almost five miles away.  Though the wheelbarrow was a necessity, it also slowed her walking rate down by half.  If she stopped frequently, she’d be there in two hours.  Ideally.  That, of course, didn’t take into account the terrain.

Sweat stung her vision as Quincy fought to conquer thick plant growth and hard, clay-like earth.  Kollin awoke, not even an hour after she had left Akii.

He banged his head against the bed of the wheelbarrow, screaming.  “Aah!  Aargh, you bitch, lemme go!”

“Shut up!” She snapped, panting as she powered the wheelbarrow over a rock that had been blocking her for a full minute.

“Don’t do this!” Kollin begged, squirming out from under the tarp.  He squinted up at her, his scruffy face covered in grime and dirt.  “Please, you don’t understand what you’re doin!”  He tried to inch off the wheelbarrow, grunting.

Quincy set the wheelbarrow down, and ran around to the other side.  She kicked the man back on.  “Bastard.  Stop it!  I’m taking you in and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

Kollin yelled and curled away from her.  She could see his left arm straining against the chain.

“That won’t work,” she said, going back to take the wheelbarrow’s handles.  She resumed pushing forward.  “I don’t care how strong that claw makes you.  You haven’t got the leverage to break out of chain.”

The man ceased his struggles, panting.  The tarp had fallen off of him, and he stared up at the afternoon sky, tears streaking from the corners of his eyes.  Quincy faltered as she saw this, her brows pressing together.

“C’mon, kid,” he said, his voice thick.  Kollin looked at her pleadingly.  “C’mon–Jes’ lemme go.  You don’t know what those men’ll do to me.  They won’t just kill me, they’ll make me suffer!

Quincy squeezed her eyes shut and tried to push the wheelbarrow up a hill.  “I’m not listening!”

Her foot slipped on the sand and she squealed, nearly losing her footing entirely.

“Fuck you!” he screamed, spit flying from his mouth.  He thrashed wildly again, his face turning purple.  “Fuck you, I wish you’d fallen flat on your whore face, you bitch!  I can’t believe you’d do this!  You’re just a stupid kid, how can you be so cruel!?”

“I said be quiet!!” Quincy screamed, grunting as she tried to crest the hill.  But her arms were shaking, and her feet kept sliding on the dirt.  Finally, she gave up and let the wheelbarrow roll back slowly.  It was almost as tiring keeping the thing from running her over.  With a heavy sigh, she set it down with a bang and sat on the ground.

“I have to do this!  I have no choice!”  Her eyes teared up.  “I wish Taika were here…” she mumbled next, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear.

“Bitch…” Kollin said again, but his voice sounded as tired as hers.

Neither said a word for nearly fifteen minutes.  Then Quincy turned her head, wiping her face dry.

“Hey…who’s Brom?”  She would’ve been content with sitting in silence, but the question had been niggling at her since she’d left Akii.

The wheelbarrow shuddered as Kollin twisted around in it.  “How do you know that name?” his voice had an edge she hadn’t heard before.

She decided to play coy.  “A little birdie told me.”

“Were you going through my stuff?!”

“I wouldn’t be a good bounty hunter if I didn’t, now would I?”

“Have you got the orb?”

Quincy bit her lip and shrugged, even though the man couldn’t see this.  “No,” she lied.  “I left it there, along with all of your other stuff.  Your note was addressed to someone named ‘Brom’.  Who’s that?”

To her frustration, Kollin ignored her question again.  “You know the Orb of Ilkmar can lead you to whatever it is you truly want, right?  Just take it and let me go!  If you return me, they’ll torture me until they get the orb back!  It won’t even matter if I tell them!  That’s what this whole thing’s really about!”

The teenager got on her knees and twisted around to stare dryly at Kollin.  “So this is all just about the orb?  Meaning you didn’t poison Gulley’s water supply?”

The man actually blushed.  He swiped at his ear with his shoulder and stared at the bed of the wheelbarrow.  “When you’ve had two bottles of whiskey, inhaled clouds of witch smoke, and took a sip of ether, those things jes’ tend to happen…”

“I bet.  I’m surprised your list of charges weren’t longer.”

“So will you take the orb and let me free?”

“Why?” Quincy returned, drumming her fingers on the edge of the handle.  “So that I can have the state of Gulley coming down on my head?  No thanks, I’ve seen enough vengeance seekers in my lifetime,”

“Yeah, I guess a bitch like you’d piss a ton of people off,” Kollin muttered sullenly.

“It wasn’t my fault,” the girl said coldly.  “It was my father’s.”

Kollin glanced at her sideways.  “…That so?”

“Yeah.  That’s so.”  Quincy sat down again.  She leaned back against the wheelbarrow.  “Who’s Brom?” she asked again.

“…Brom’s my son.”

“What!?” the teenager sat forward some, her ear cocked to the side.  “You’ve got a son?  How old is he?”

“Fifteen now.”

“Gods, you barely look older than twenty-five!  How can that be?”

“An’ how old’re you?” Kollin returned hotly.  “I’m not that young.  I know I’m a fuck up, but I’ve been around.  You think I don’t know what ‘taika’ means?  How’s a kid like you married?  Was it arranged or somethin’?”

Quincy’s brow furrowed and her fists bunched in her lap.  “We were in love,” Then she corrected herself hurriedly.  “Are in love!”

Kollin let loose a sardonic chuckle.  “Uh-huh.  Yeah.  Well, so was I!”  He sighed heavily.  “An’ Brom was the only thing good that came out of it.”

“I bet you’re a lousy father,” the girl snapped, suddenly feeling angry.  She felt emotionally exposed somehow, and this set her on edge.  “Your choices will haunt your child for the rest of his life!”  She glared at the ground.  “I know from experience…”

“Whatever, kid.”

Silence followed.  Quincy spent another five minutes, taking a moment to have a snack from her magic pouch, before pressing onward.  Kollin struggled more, but there was less exchange between them.  The man seemed to writhe simply on principle, as though to illustrate his desire to be free.  Quincy watched him as he did this, thinking of his son, Brom.  She tried to imagine what the son would look like.  Probably like his father–and the boy probably wished he’d taken after his mother.  Quincy often found herself feeling the same way when looking into the mirror.  She thought of all the times Kollin must’ve failed to do his part, too busy running illegal deals and getting high off of his own concoctions.  The father had likely arranged a meet up with the boy, to give him the orb.  Would Brom show up at Kollin’s place tonight, only to find his father had disappointed him again?

Quincy disliked thinking of herself as somehow the reason for this.  Kollin’s life unfolded as he saw fit to shape it.  It wasn’t her problem if the man was going to be tortured over stealing the Orb of Ilkmar, or if he’d possibly never see his son again.

But the man’s face displayed an animal sort of desperation–an undying need to fight and struggle despite his hopeless situation.  Quincy watched with morbid fascination as the man kicked and strained against his chains to the point that the metal cut at his skin, making him bleed and bruise.

Eventually, she couldn’t take it anymore.

The girl stopped and produced her wand from her magic pouch.  She then went around to the end of the wheelbarrow where Kollin glared daggers at her.  The setting suns scorched the savannah in a warm glow as evening approached.

Quincy pointed the wand at Kollin.  “Stop doing that, now.” She swallowed the lump in her throat and willed her eyes to stay dry.  “Stop struggling, you’re hurting yourself!”

“Fuck you,” Kollin muttered, setting his head back against the wheelbarrow bed.

The girl bared her teeth, giving her wand a vicious shake.  This got the man’s attention, and his head shot up as he gazed at her in alarm.  “Hey, don’t go waving that thing at me!”

“This thing is the Wand of Beasts.  I’ll turn you into a turtle and carry you back to Akii under my arm if I have to!  You won’t struggle so much then!”

“Hey, hey! Come on, don’t play around!” Kollin looked panicked now.

Quincy squinted at her wand.  “You know, I wonder what I’d have to say to make that work.  Last time, I conjured up a gerbil swarm by accident.”

“That was you!?”

The girl blushed and pointed the wand at the sky as she placed her other hand at her hip. “Look, I didn’t train with this thing that much, okay?”

“What kind of shitty wizard are you?”

“One that gets her power phrases mixed up!” A faraway voice shouted.  Karolek’s voice.

Quincy paled, looking up.

The man was not far off, and speeding ever closer.  He tossed away a sandy-colored blanket, which he seemed to adorn with grass to make his camouflage better.  But what marveled Quincy was the object he was riding.

Karolek was standing on a round rectangular piece of metal, only a little longer than his arm.  It wasn’t hovering over the ground, but still sliding over it, propelled by some force she couldn’t see.  Quincy didn’t specialize in sorcery, but her interest in magic was enough that she had read about it.  Sorcerers could achieve something that, by appearance, was similar to gravitational magic, but still inherently different.  Sorcerers were masters of physical nature, and they interacted with these elements through their animus, which acted like a pair of ghostly hands that shaped the materials in question.  It didn’t matter if Karolek had been following this whole time, or if he’d just caught up.  With his camouflage blanket, he could have manipulated the metal ingots on his belt to make the board he rode, and thus, silently slide along the savannah as though he were gliding over air.  The metal was quiet and so was the power he used to push it forward.

And now the man was going to use this power against her.

Karolek jumped off the board some twenty feet away just as Quincy drew her lightning rod with her free hand.  The sorcerer drew his saber and pointed at her, his expression livid.

“I’m taking Kollin back!” he shouted.

“I did all the work!” Quincy shouted back, brandishing her wand.  Both Kollin and Karolek ducked as they wand tip turned their way.  “I even pushed this idiot all the way out here alone!  You can’t take him!”

Karolek spat on the ground, and behind him, the metal board lifted into the air.  It broke into two halves, then morphed into crude looking hammers.  The young twenty-something may have needed work on the finer details of elemental mastery, but the hammers still looked quite capable of caving her head in.

Quincy cursed and tucked her wand in her belt.  She placed herself before the wheelbarrow.  “Karolek, let’s not do this!”  But beneath her determined voice she was clenching in terror.  She’d never been in a magical fight before.

“This was going to come one way or another, Quincy!” Karolek barked.  “I was going to bail on you in the end anyway!  Atleast I can say it wasn’t my fault this time!”

The girl stomped her foot, her face turning red. “Bastard!  You didn’t contribute to this catch at all!”

Karolek charged forward, his saber drawn back.  “Who was the one who knew where Kollin was!?”

Quincy tensed and pointed her rod.  She willed lightning to shoot forth, and as quickly as the thought entered her mind, the rod staff shuddered, crackling briefly with tendrils of energy.  But Karolek anticipated her attack when she brought her arm up, and had one of his hammers drift before him.  The hammer caught the lightning, effectively absorbing it.

The man had never broken stride.  He tensed his arms, prepared to swing, and the hammer that had caught her lightning bolt rose in the sky, the heavy blunt end tilted back like a hand were holding it as well.  Quincy instinctively struck the ground with her rod, and a small explosion of lightning and energy shot forth, covering the area around her.  Karolek slid to a messy stop, but his other hammer, which had hovered dutifully behind him, shot forward like a bullet.

Quincy heard the hammer from above whistle down as well…but she was ready.

The girl thrust the rod toward the sky, yelling from her gut.  All around her, the remnant energy from the lightning surged and hummed around her.  She felt the all her hair stand on end as a faintly glowing field of magnetic energy formed around her in less than a second.  The two hammers struck the field, and they groaned, straining against it as Karolek tried to push his way through.  Quincy growled, jerked the tip of her rod to the side.  Both hammers were sent smashing into the ground as the magnetic force redirected them.

Quincy unclasped her cloak, her face drawn tight as she set her eyes on Karolek, who rose to his feet again.

Off behind them, Kollin squealed.  “Hey, hey, hey! Shit, wheel me away first before you go at it like that!!”

The girl ignored him, charging toward Karolek as the man brought about his saber and roared at her.  She feinted with one end of her rod staff, towards the sorcerer’s head.  He moved to block the high attack with his blade, but left his chest exposed, and here, Quincy shifted and struck with the other end of the staff.  She caught him hard in the ribs and a blast of electricity shot forth, entering his body and scorching his clothes.

Karolek let out a strangled scream, stumbling backwards as he tried to keep his convulsing limbs in his control.  His face turned a deep crimson, and veins bulged all over his neck, arms, and face.  Then he keeled over and fell still.

Quincy hesitated, her eyes widening.  Did she put too much into the strike?  She didn’t want to kill the man, much as she disliked him…

“Karolek?” she tried tentatively when he didn’t move for a full minute.

The man let out a wheeze.  “That…hurt…” he panted.  His breathing sounded labored.  His limbs were arranged in an unnatural manner, like he were a doll on the floor.

Behind her, Quincy heard Kollin shifting and grunting around in the wheelbarrow again, but she didn’t turn to look.  She stepped toward Karolek with a wrinkled brow.  “Hey you big idiot, stand up!” her voice was shrill.

“I can’t!” he snapped his arms twitching into movement.  He clutched at the tufts of grass near him and pulled himself over so that he didn’t stare up at the sky anymore.  He looked at his body in a sort of numb shock.  “My…my legs aren’t working,” he mumbled.

“What do you mean!?”

“I mean your lightning attack went through to my gods damned spine, and now my legs aren’t working!”  He pulled at his hip, turning the rest of his body over.

“…You really can’t stand?” The girl’s hand reached up to brush back her hair, but her hand was shocked and she winced, shaking it out.

“No!  I can’t!”  The man twisted around to stare at his legs.  He sounded on the verge of hysterics.  “Gods, what if I’m like this for the rest of my life!?”

Quincy’s eyes bugged.  Now she felt on the verge of hysterics herself.  “It’s…It’s just the magic.  If it were a real paralysis, a real spinal injury, you’d have passed out or something.  I’m certain you’ll recover!”

“Oh yeah.  Sure.”

The girl froze at the unexpected voice.  It was right behind her.  Slowly she turned around.

Kollin smirked at her, his chains in his human hand, his steel claw drawn back in a fist.  It seems he’d finally gained that leverage he needed.  “And I’m sure you’ll recover too!”

Then he punched her with his metal fist, and everything went black.

———————-

When Quincy woke, she was tied up in chains.  She felt a body against her back and twisted around.  It seemed not much time had passed, because the suns were still over the horizon, though that was to change within the hour it seemed.

“Karolek?” Quincy called softly over her shoulder.

“What?” the man grunted, shifting behind her.

“Oh.”  She sighed and hung her head.  “I just wanted to see if you were awake.”

“Yeah.  I’m still awake.  Still paralyzed too, y’know.”

“You sound pretty cavalier about it.”

“Oh that’s just to stave off the rage and panic inside.”

The woman sighed heavily.  “Please don’t start raging or panicking.  My body’s sore from pushing that wheelbarrow.”

“I’ll be sure to stay still then.  I mean, that ought to be easy considering I can’t move anything from my chest down.”

Quincy let out a sound of frustration, kicking at the sand.  “I’m sorry, I’m sorry it was an accident already!”  Then she thrashed backward harshly.  “But you know what?  You brought it on yourself!  You tried to smash my head in with those hammers!”

Karolek threw his head back, catching her in the back of her skull.  “I wasn’t going to actually do it!  I just wanted Kollin back!”

Quincy cried out, curling forward.  “That hurt!” she whined.

“Don’t fucking complain to me!  I’m the one whose legs won’t move!  I might never get it up again!”

“I’m certain your boyfriends will be crushed…” Quincy muttered.

Karolek threw his head back again, this time harder.  Quincy turned livid and tried to twist around.  “Mkundu!  I’m going to gnaw your face off, I don’t care if you’re gimpy!”

“Crazy bitch!  Stay away from me!”

Then without warning, Karolek fell out from behind her, and Quincy teetered off to the side.  She blinked, feeling around with her hands behind her back.  The man wasn’t near her.  “…Karolek, we weren’t tied together?”

“Of course not!  Kollin just used strips of your cloak to bind my wrists.  I’d say he was considerate for propping me up against you since I can’t sit up on my own, but now I’m thinking that was just sadism on his part.”

Quincy rolled to her side so that she was facing Karolek.  The man had fallen over and was now facing away from her.

When she spoke next, it was in extreme exasperation.  “Dummy!  You’re a metal sorcerer.  He put chains on me.  Use your power to get them off!”

Karolek didn’t say anything for a moment.  Then he twisted his head around to look at her.  “Oh yeah.”

The chains shuddered around her.  This startled Quincy, who imagined them tightening, or turning into blades…but sure enough, the links came apart and quietly fell away from her as though they were a blanket pushed back with gentle hands.

Quincy sat up, rubbing her wrists.  She glanced down quickly at her hip and saw that her wand was still there, as was her sword and magic pouch.  At the sight of the last two items, she sighed in relief.  Then she gazed at Karolek.  She could leave him out here, in the savannah.  Gulley was just a mile away, after all…

Only the girl truly felt guilty for his predicament.  It was one thing to leave the big oaf when chased by a swarm of gerbils–he was capable of taking care of himself then.  But now he was completely vulnerable, and there were animals and monsters that would take advantage of his misfortune.  The girl stood, dusting off her pants.

The man glared at her warily.

Quincy leaned down and took him gently by the shoulders.  With a grunt, she sat him up.  “C’mon.  Let’s get you onto the wheelbarrow…”

HAKEEM_________________________

The teenager was beyond exhausted.  He’d walked ceaselessly from Crysen across the open plains and had been stopped by a rukh–a giant winged monster, similar to an eagle, with pure white plumage that reflected the glare of the suns and a reptilian head.  The fight against it had taken a while.  Everytime Hakeem attacked using the power of his magic armor, the bird would fly away again, circling around for another strike.  Eventually he was able to convince the monster that he was too troublesome to be prey, and it flew away.  He was left exhausted from his efforts and so his pace slowed.  Oddly enough, he was paused again by a swarm of gerbils, foaming at the mouths, but the man waited out their passing with a few deterring blasts and a gravitational shield.

“What in the nine hells…” he muttered as the last of the little creatures scurried away.

He walked on and on until Gulley was within his sight.

But as he picked up his pace, he thought he saw lightning flares, off to the north of the city.  Hakeem stopped and frowned, then slowly redirected his path to head to that location.

It wasn’t long before he saw a man approaching him in a jog.

The man had a long face, rounded cheeks, and thick mutton chops.  A pair of goggles dangled from around his neck, and his left hand was wrapped in a familiar dark cloth…

“Hail!” Hakeem called, holding up his hand.

Kollin Endrick Montbrai stopped and looked up from the ground, his eyes wide and spooked.

The two men stared at each other.  Hakeem started to lower his hand.

That was when Kollin took off running.

Throwing his bag on the ground, Hakeem gave chase.

QUINCY____________________________

She sighed as they entered the city.  She wouldn’t have made it pushing Karolek in herself, but the sorcerer proved that he was capable of some ingenuity.  Using his sorcery, he covered the wheels of the wheelbarrow with his metal so that all Quincy had to do was keep it from tipping forward while he rotated the wheels.

“Okay…” she said, guiding the wheelbarrow to the side of the road, where she sat on a low wall.  Gulley, unlike Akii, was turning quiet with the aging night.  She appreciated the calm that surrounded them.  “Where do you want me to take you?  A healer?  To Marshal Fuller to explain what happened?  Maybe we’ll get compensated for providing information…”

“That doesn’t sound like a bad idea.” Karolek said, shrugging morosely.  His saber was laid across his lap, like a broken toy.

Quincy nodded and stood again, taking the wheelbarrow’s handles.  “Okay.  Then afterward, I’ll take you to a healer.  I’m certain they’ll be able to–”

“Just forget it,” Karolek interjected.

The girl scowled down at the top of his head as they moved over the brick road.  “Look, I’m trying to help you.”

The man leaned his head back and sneered up at her.  “And that’s what I don’t get!  Supposedly, you hated me because you thought I was a nosy, talkative fool, then you hate me because I tried to save my own skin after you call up that wave of rodents–”

“–You forgot ‘dimwitted creep’ among your list of adjectives–”

“–Then you really hate me because I tried to take back Kollin–”

“–You had no right to him to begin with–”

“–And nownow you’re HELPING me after you could’ve finally been rid of me!  You make no sense, wizard!”

Quincy stopped and glared at the man with narrowed eyes.  “Karolek…regardless of what I think…you are an asshole,”

“Your kindness still strikes me with awe.  By the way, that makes no sense.  Opinion isn’t fact–”

“But whilst I may be inclined toward awkward fits of rage, I am not a complete bitch.”

Karolek blinked up at her.  Then he grinned and pointed up at her.  “You just called yourself awkward.”

Quincy took her elbow and dug it into his scalp, stopping only when she ran out of insults to rain down on the sorcerer.

They reached the marshal’s building.  Luckily, the entrance was a double door, so they were able to push Karolek in.  As they entered the torchlit room, they were both met with a surprising sight.

Kollin was being dragged off through a doorway to the left, his body limp as though he were unconscious.  Quincy could see jail cells before the sight was closed away from her.  A man dressed in an official-looking uniform–set with a black cape, black gloves, and black polished boots–was shaking the hand of–

“Taika!” Quincy exclaimed, dropping the wheelbarrow with a bang.

Karolek glared at her resentfully.

Hakeem turned to look at her, his brows rising high just as the man before him held up a filled coin bag.

“Quincy.”  He looked down at Karolek, and his expression turned dark.  The sorcerer held up his hands, grinning uncertainly.  “So it was you…” the boy seethed, stepping forward.

The girl hurried forward, “Wait, wait!” She stopped the teenager, grabbing him by the shoulders.  “I would’ve gone with or without Karolek.  I was desperate for the gold!”

“That doesn’t excuse what you did!” Hakeem snapped, brushing her hands away.

The official behind them cleared his throat.  “I’m sorry to interrupt…but…your gold?”

Hakeem turned around, “Sorry marshal.  Thank you, sir.”  He took the gold and returned to glaring at Quincy.

Quincy looked down at the ground. “Um…” she took a lock of her hair and rolled it between her fingers, turning her gaze to the ceiling next.  “So…I softened Kollin up for you!”  She smiled nervously and gestured at Karolek.  “And look!  I brought you a pet sorcerer!”

Leave me out of it,” Karolek barked. “I’m already paralyzed, for gods sakes…I don’t need anymore injuries.”

Hakeem pointed a finger at her.  His entire body was bunched.  “Mweze–”

She quailed as his voice broke off.  “Yes?

The boy seemed to struggle with what to say next.  Quincy watched him anxiously.  Any other time, and she would’ve been in his face, arguing her case.  But this time, she was aware, that perhaps she had crossed a line.

Hakeem let out a rush of air and gazed at her tiredly.  “Don’t…do this to me again.  I was worried.”

Quincy nodded emphatically, hugging him around the neck.  “Samahani…” she whispered into his ear.  Sorry

Then the girl sought his lips, and at first she was shy and careful, but his receptiveness bred bravery in her heart, and Quincy clutched at her husband hungrily.  She was sorry, and she wanted to show him just how much

There was a loud ‘harumph’ behind them.  The girl pulled away, hissing in irritation.

“This all would be very stimulating, if only I weren’t experiencing bodily difficulties,” Karolek griped.

Hakeem and Quincy stared down at him.

The boy looked at her, frowning suspiciously.  “You’re the reason he’s stuck there aren’t you?”

Quincy rolled her eyes shut.  “Well…”

“And the swarm of gerbils that passed me by on the way here?”

“Gods, you saw that?”

A sigh.  “Mweze, is there anything else that you did?”

“Um…nothing like the dragon incident.  Or…or the rukh breeding.  Or the possessed broom.”

“But there’s something else,” Hakeem deadpanned.

Quincy bit her lip and looked at him tentatively with one eye.  “It isn’t really that simple.”

The teenage boy covered his face with his hand.  “Tai’undu!  When is it ever with you?”

————————————

The girl promised to explain once they were safely home.  But first there was the matter of Karolek.  As promised, she took the man to a healer, and there they were assured that the sorcerer was indeed just suffering lingering magical effects.  He would be walking within a few days, with all of his…functions…returned.  In an attempt to ease her guilt, Quincy gave the man fifty gold, much to the protest of Hakeem, but the girl was able to reason that Karolek had earned atleast that much.  Then they started back home.

Once back at Crysen, their talk was further postponed when Quincy faced an immediate summons from her master.  Master Saerth had heard of some of the ordeal through one of his sessions of divinations.  He was pleased that Quincy had figured out a way to pay her landlord, but he ordered her to, “Fix the gods damned gerbil problem.  Immediately,” as punishment for her brash actions.  She was also forbidden from using her Wand of Beasts again…Ever.  Or atleast until he could train her to use the item properly.

Finally, when the landlord was paid and all other matters settled, Quincy and Hakeem sat in their home and talked.  She told her husband everything.  From the gerbils, to the talk with Kollin, to the fight with Karolek.  She took her time however in mentioning…

“The Orb of Ilkmar.”

“The what?”

“Here, look.”

Quincy took out her pouch and rubbed the sides quickly.  A round object grew between her palms, and she squeezed out the reflective orb, handing it to Hakeem so that he could see.

“The alchemist pinched it off of an elven courier,” She explained.  “I think it was meant for that Lord of Santos the wanted poster mentioned.  Kollin seemed to think it was the real reason he had a bounty on his head, anyway.”

“So now you have it?” Hakeem said, staring at her.  “Do you realize how much trouble this could bring us if they find out we have it?”

Quincy plucked the orb from his hands.  “But they won’t find out.  When they’re interrogating Kollin,” You mean torturing, a voice in her head corrected.  She tried to ignore it.  “He won’t know what really happened to it.  It was in my pouch the whole time, and Kollin must’ve thought the pouch was empty.  He’ll think I left it at his place back in Akii!”

Hakeem frowned at her.  “How does it work…?” he said cautiously.

“Don’t look so scared!  You act as though I’m going to blow something up!” She said crossly.

“That’s because you’ve done that before…”

Anyway,” she kissed the orb and smiled at it.  “It’s pretty simple.  All you have to do is say these words:  ‘I see, so you see.  I hear, so you hear.  I know, so you know.  Illuminate this for the eyes of the blind.  Reveal what is hidden, bring forth what is desired.'”

The orb flashed in her hands, filling the entire room with white light.  Both she and Hakeem jumped to their feet, chairs knocking back onto the floor.

Then the light was gone as quick as it had come, and both stared at each other.  Hakeem turned his head slowly.  “I just remembered…a bunch of things…”  he touched his head, then frowned at Quincy.  “Are you okay?”

Quincy was staring at her wrists, at the purple veins that could be seen through the creamy skin.  She looked up and smiled shakily.  “I’m fine.  That’s what the Orb of Ilkmar does.  If you’ve forgotten something, it’ll help you remember.  If you’re looking for something, you’ll find it.  If you’re trying to figure something out, it’ll bring you…to the…answer…” her voice trailed off and she stared down at the ground.

Hakeem touched her shoulder.  “Mweze?”

She looked up.  Then stepped into his embrace.  “Taika…let’s go to bed…”

Quincy hated it when Hakeem was mad at her, but she had to admit–make-up sex was incredible.  They weren’t through until morning, and then and only then, did Hakeem fall asleep next to her.  The girl kissed his cheek, one hand on her chest where she could feel his heartbeat.

Without a sound, she slipped out from beneath the covers, the cool air caressing her naked body in a way that made her shiver.  Quietly, she tip-toed across the floor to the cabinet where she took out a cooking knife.  Then she crept to the far corner to the right of the door, where leaning against the wall was her sword.  She knelt before it and took out the blade.

The rusted metal felt rough against her fingertips, but she knew the blade was too dull to cut effectively into her skin, so with bared teeth, she pressed the tip of the cooking knife into her palm and dug in.  Blood pooled in her hand and trickled down her wrist.  Carefully, the girl trickled this onto her sword.

At first nothing happened, and Quincy sighed.

Then she felt the blade glow warm, and the girl let out a small gasp.

Her blade started to glow through the rust with a soft golden light, highlighting Quincy’s features from below.  The girl trembled and held the blade up to her face.  It pulsed like a heartbeat in her hands…

…And a grim smile spread across the brunette’s face.


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  1. ‘Dull Life’ by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, from the album ‘It’s Blitz!’. DGC/Interscope, 2009. []