Friday, December 1, 2017

Short Story - Hunter or Hunted

She paused, seeing an opportunity. His back was turned and he was distracted; she might have a chance to skulk up on the young man.

Her aura tamped down easy enough, but he wasn't like the others. This was another predator, and she had to do more to sneak up on him if she wanted to go undetected. Breathing slowly, she attempted to echo his moves, to be a living shadow to him.

Time dilated and stretched, and he continued to work. Somehow she closed the distance and stood behind him, feeling like a pillar of ice as she kept her presence contained within herself. Trembling slightly with restraint and anticipation, she waited for him to stand up.

As he rose, mere inches between them, she inhaled deeply of his scent, allowing her aura to wrap around him. He stiffened, finally realizing she was there as her mouth brushed the side of his long. Not quite touching him yet, not quite closing the gap, not quite claiming him.

He shivered from head to toe, making a tiny whimper in the back of his throat, and she knew victory was hers.

Growling, she grabbed him by the neck and pulled him back against herself, two sharp fingernails digging into his skin. He laid his head back on her shoulder, baring his throat, spine arching as he opened himself to her. His need drew her out, begged her to take advantage of the moment.

Take advantage of the moment she did. Fingernails dug deeper into his neck, drawing a single drop of blood, which she licked up with deliberate slowness. He tasted delightful, and she savored the rich sweetness of his body and spirit. Nothing had piqued her appetite this way in quite some time.

He moaned and whimpered, pressing into her instead of attempting retreat. His breath strained against her tightening hand, and his pulse leapt beneath her touch. She let her teeth dance along the side of his neck without giving in to either of their desire for the full bite. He raised his hand to the back of her head and plead once, softly.

She could hold back no longer.

With a snarl, she opened her mouth wide and struck. Teeth dug into his tender neck, and she wrapped her other arm around his torso to restrain him, to keep him locked in place. The hand on the back of her head trembled, tangled in her hair, but made no attempt to pull her free as she fed viciously.

She groaned and swallowed, lost in the moment of his flavor, in the richness of his essence. His moans rattled through her entire body, drawing her further in, blinding her to anything but her prey. Not that he was anything but giving and open, almost like he'd wanted her to feed like this.

As they collapsed to their knees, she wondered who had hunted who.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Short Story - Strategy Lessons

Two Immortals sat together, one Dragon and one Balan, sharing their knowledge. Tonight, they discussed their enemies.

Jaydre frowned, staring at the table. "War is not my thing. You'll have to explain this slowly." The Baan fingered a glittering diamond, one of many jewels scattered across the surface.

Rabe smirked, the Dragon taking a sip from her cup of rum. "Funny, I was thinking the same thing about teaching and reaching hearts and minds." She set her cup aside before shifting closer to the table. "Where should I start?"

"This," Jaydre said, gesturing at the table. "You said something about how they're trapping and killing us."

She sighed heavily; his empathy let him know she felt sorrow for so many of the Immortals lost to the upstart mortal race. He understood her warrior nature, her need to suppress those who had not earned their position, even if he didn't share her opinion. He came from a place of Balance; the Humans could be taught, could learn to be great and spiritual and part of the greater Universe.

But the vicious genocide needed to be stopped first.

"They've been playing a long game," she said with disdain, taking another drink. "They understand how this current stage of the Cycle works, that Immortals have been caught in the web of physicality. We're vulnerable to all the whims of the flesh, and can lose our connection to the spiritual. We can die and be killed, and it seems to take so little to destroy us." He nodded, already understanding this.

Rabe gestured at the gemstones, bright and glittering between the pair. Some were small and barely seen, others were large and sparking with inner fire. "Think of these as Immortal souls. Even trapped in a single shape, they shine and attract. You can see them from anywhere, and they're easy to find. They can take strength from each other, and that lessens the worry of the wait. They all know they're jewels, and that they're better than sand."

Jaydre arched a brow, meeting her gaze. "But these Humans are Immortals now too. Aren't they also diamonds?"

Her lips lifted in a snarl, fangs bared as a reminder of her Chaotic Dragon nature. "They were not born as that. They stole their brilliance, and think that makes them as good." He leaned back from her anger, and she drew a shuddering breath before taking another drink. "Sorry. We'll leave that debate for another night."

Jaydre sipped at his tea, mulling the moment around. Rabe viewed the Universe differently, and he sometimes forgot the violence inherent with Dragons. His fellow Balans were neutral to so much of the Universe, were sometimes called The Grey Lords because of their balanced natures. While he mourned the loss of fellow Immortals, he could not feel anger at the Humans for learning to Ascend.

Ignoring her outburst, he gestured at the table as a return to the conversation. "How is it that these jewels are lost and obscured? They are quite bright to behold."

Rabe reached for a large sack beneath the table. "By swamping us gems with sand." She threw a handful of heavy dust over the table, letting it settle where it would. A few very small stones were darkened, and the mahogany table lost its lustre beneath muted beige in a few places, but the great jewels twinkled with seemingly no change.

He frowned, tipping his head as he met her gaze. "That doesn't seem very effective."

"At first, maybe. It's such a fine coating, barely there, barely worth the effort of cleaning up. What can a little dust do?" Rabe's voice was mocking; he knew empathically she blamed all those who had overlooked the threat, including herself. She tossed two more handfuls across the table as she continued speaking. "It will all go away eventually. It's not like sand can ever be dangerous." Another handful.

Jaydre stared at the dusty table, examining the scene with Balan eyes and knowledge. "The sand are mortals. Quickly spreading, quickly multiplying." Rabe added more sand, and he watched as drifts formed, covering the smallest of the gemstones, separating each gem from the other. "Cutting off the light."

She nodded, helping herself to another drink. "So many were lost before the danger was understood. And the more of us that are lost, the less chance there is to fight the upstarts. Our strength flags when we're cut off from each other. We'll all be replaced by those who stole their place."

He shook his head. "But I can still see the gems. They're not cut off."

"Look closer. Get down on the same level." The Dragon added more sand.

The Balan leaned down and looked across the table, eyes at the edge. Small drifts were now large mountains, flowing and growing, looming over the gems trapped upon the table. The little stones barely poked above the grains, and the large stones seemed much dimmer when seen from this angle. Landmarks were few and far between, and he couldn't recognize any of the shapes he'd seen from above. He sighed, stunned by realization.

"Exactly. How are we supposed to find each other when everything looks the same?" Her voice was saddened, though resolute.

"It's a wonderful trap," she continued. "And once there are enough little grains, they can be used to grind down the gems. They can be used to control the flow of movements." Rabe pushed the sand around, carrying gemstones with it. "And if you are watching for them, you can see the bright sparks standing out, can work to bury them." She shoved a wall of sand over a larger stone; it seemed to no longer exist.

"You admire them?" Jaydre was surprised by the glimmer of knowledge compared to her hatred of the Humans.

Rabe smirked, one eyebrow rising sharply. "I'm a student of war. This is an admirable strategy, no matter who came up with it."

"How do you propose to fight back? Violence won't do much against this tide."

She reached for one of the dark sapphires and nudged it. The sand shifted around the sapphire, forming ripples as she adjusted it. "By changing those around us. By reaching hearts and minds, and educating the lesser beings. Shine amidst the beige without drawing attention, without bucking the system. Make ourselves known but without resistance." She locked gazes with him, smiling softly.

An earlier comment came back to him. "You think I can do that?" Jaydre was stunned but honored, rendered speechless.

"Much better than I can." Rabe reached out a hand, offering to clasp palms for their bargain. "With a little help in the strategy department, of course." He clasped her hand, hope welling.

Maybe there was a chance for them to all break free.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Short Story - Allies

She watched another of his old videos, and her convictions grew stronger. He was another Immortal, though not as far along his Awakening as others.

He has the charisma I do not, she thought. He has the attention of those I cannot connect with.

Did she want to be like him? Start an internet channel and post her thoughts, leaving the breadcrumbs of truth for others to find? Granted, the truth needed to be spread to beat their enemies, but she had never thought of herself as a truthspreader.

She did think of herself as a hero for her kind, for the other Immortals, and maybe she had the opportunity with this one. She could help him, coax him, and let him be the face of reason that the general masses needed. Her urge to eat the weak made her too dangerous to the weak cattle that watched these videos.

But he seemed comfortable broadcasting his message into the void of the ethernet. He might be able to bridge the gap that she seemed incapable of doing. Could he help spread her message? Perhaps she needed to reach out to him, to form an alliance.

She smiled deeply, knowing that she would do so. He was her interpreter, the priest he knew himself to be. Things were going well enough.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Short Story - Communications

She hit the Send button, then reached for the bottle of rum. A shot of spiced liquor helped settle her nerves, kept her from regretting what she'd just done. She trembled, and took another shot, the timid part of her wishing she could take it back.

Too late; the internet never forgot.

He couldn't possibly care. Couldn't possibly be her nephew, be one of her only friends in the universe. Everything she'd interpreted from the songs must just be insanity in her head, a sign that she was losing her grip.

But she knew what she knew.

More alcohol, then a move away from the computer. Pretend she hadn't just reached out to someone who didn't know her, but seemed to allude to her in lyrics. She had many suspicions of whom she knew and whom was from her previous lives, but she'd never let any of them know. She'd always kept to herself, had told herself she was just slightly crazy. She couldn't expect others to understand her insanity and play along with it.

Yet she couldn't deny how very much she wanted to be proven wrong.

Wrong about her insanity. Right about what she felt in her very soul. That she wasn't a plain human, that she was a celestial being that had been trapped in physical form. She wanted to know that others understood this about themselves, that they also remembered the great and glorious Universe, that they remembered how to fly, that they knew the taste of magic.

She took another drink, tears threatening to take her.

It was impossible that he would ever respond back, wasn't it? This wasn't fiction, wasn't the perfection of her imagination. He would never reply with a glib acknowledgment of their relationship, but she couldn't get that image out of her head. She desperately wanted to have someone know her, to be aware of her aspect, wanted them to be as happy to find her as she was to find them.

But she knew that's not how "real life" played out.

Closing the browser tab, forcing herself to move to another task. She couldn't dwell on the subject, couldn't do anything to make events happen. She actually needed to give the event no thought, pretend she hadn't actually reached out to her nephew. It would hurt more to have no response than to have never crafted the message, to have tried to communicate with a kindred soul.

At least she had tried.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Short Story - Homecoming

She sits atop the hill, watching the sun sink toward the horizon. Dusk is the best time to sing; the world becomes quiet, ready to rest, able to hear the faintest melodies.

The last rays kiss the sky, and a hush falls across her. No more bust photons, no more rush to work, no more activity to distract. It's calm and welcoming, like a silk shawl placed across her shoulders. This is her favorite time of day.

Her first note is high, soft, almost too faint to be heard. She holds it for a long time before descending into the body of the song. Up and down the scale, the tempo follows her heartbeat, quickly filling the silence left by the sunset. Birds join in, and soon the ground swells with the song.

Full of sorrow and love, loneliness and hope, she sings her song of homecoming with her very soul. Aether and physical realms feel the pull of her threnody, carrying her symphony to those who can hear. She knew their hearts and souls will understand, will guide them home.

And though she stands alone, it is only temporary. The others are being guided home, and she will sing every day until they are united once more.

This is her song of homecoming.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Where'd I go? Health issues

So, I've been gone for a while. Someone somewhere has probably wondered why.

Well, I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes almost three years ago. I'd been having health problems before them, including a mental breakdown, all of which I think were related to unchecked diabetes. I really couldn't handle anything, and I went into hiding.

I couldn't even write anymore. I couldn't focus, I was too depressed, and I simply had no passion for the words anymore. I've been trying off and on for the last year, but it really hasn't been working out well.

I can't say as I'm truly back, because my type of diabetes is a rare version called Fragile. My sugars are so wonky, I can think too hard and become hypoglycemic.

But I'm working on a serial story with my husband, and I'm really enjoying it. I haven't enjoyed writing in so long, haven't felt genuinely excited about it in so long, that I'm rather surprised by how much progress I've made since we started in February.

In the meantime, I think I'll start posting stories that have sat neglected, that have lingered in a notebook for far too long.

Enjoy, and maybe I'll keep surprising you.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Morrigana - The Concert

The concert was due to start as we arrived. Six Winds had just stepped onto the stage, waving to their fans, house lights dimming. Elthanael and I opened the gate, allowing my Marauders to step forth exactly at our seats; dead center, front row. We locked eyes with the bards and took our seats.

After a brief pause, the other assassins began to sing.

"They're good," Deandra whispered after the first song. She was enjoying herself, leaning back in her chair, tapping her toes to the beat. Given that we weren't on an actual assignment, it was acceptable for her to be entertained.

Given that I'd been ordered not to fight them I should allow myself to be entertained.

But the Six Winds intrigued me. Especially their leader; a black dragon calling himself Sly. A hybrid like myself, I'd yet to identify either his clan or his other half. He preferred a burly elven form for his shape, like all our kind, with something wild in his gleaming eyes.

~You find him attractive,~ Elthanael whispered via tight mental link. No need for the entire coterie to hear this.

~Yes, I do,~ I replied, watching intently as Sly strutted and sang, playing to the crowd. ~There's something familiar to him, something I can't quite place my finger on.~

~A sibling you don't know about?~ El knew all about my history, about Father's experiments.

I shook my head, taking his hand. ~They all have a certain pheromone that marks them as his. I smell nothing from this one.~ Not that I'd been close enough for a thorough examination.

Not that I'd complain about getting close to him.

~They're this talented,~ Reinhart said on the coterie's general connection, ~and they're assassins?~ We all agreed they had fantastic voices.

~Imagine what we could do if we pooled our talents,~ Deandra put forth. My Marauders each had hobbies to fill the downtime, but battle was the only thing we did as a team. We were feared throughout the Universe, the best assassin team of the Age, but Six Winds seemed like they wanted our title. They were a double threat,both beautiful and deadly.

The song ended, and Sly stepped back, his eyes locked on me. Darkness wouldn't bother his draconic senses; he surely saw me staring back at him. The moment drug out, and would likely have lasted longer if Yrta hadn't begun to sing.

Crystalline clear, the pure note rang loudly from her, filling the hall with unbelievable power. The audience gasped as one, including myself. Tears sprang to my eyes as El clutched at my hand.

It was one thing to know she was a celestial diva. It was entirely another to actually hear her song.

"She's fabulous," Deandra whispered. Her voice was shaky, filled with awe. I didn't think anyone present would disagree.

Yrta was an extremely rare being, nearly unheard of in recent millennia. Celestial divas spawned from the Universal core itself, able to sing the Song of Creation. They had no drive or purpose, taking their song wherever celestial tides took them.

They certainly didn't become rockstar assassins.

Father had met one before, had shared the memory with me. It had been a sublime moment, basking in the purity of pure creation. That diva had been barely sentient, knowing no fear nor hate nor love nor hope.

Yrta seemed young in comparison, with an actual ego, and desires, and all the other facets Immortals shared. Her joy colored her song, enhancing her beauty in indescribable ways. I could bask in her voice for days.

Then Sly joined the song.

I tensed, moving to the edge of my seat. Everything else fell away, became meaningless in the warmth of their voices. Sublime and perfect were paltry words to describe what I was hearing. Raw emotion consumed me, and tears stood in my eyes.

Their harmonizing went on and on without end. I was distantly aware of Elthanael holding my hand, that he was nearly as enrapt as myself. The entire crowd held its breath as the song finally stopped.

I blinked several times, becoming aware of my surroundings again. My hand trembled within El's grasp, and his soul clung tight to mine, our bond beating in time with our hearts. What had they done to us?

Wiping tears from my cheeks, I glanced at my Marauders. We were all stunned, awed, musing over what we'd just witnessed. It was said that Six Winds used music as a weapon, and I could understand how that was possible. No one would be unmoved by their voices.

~They're watching you,~ Deandra said, mental voice shaky with emotion. ~They're testing you.~

~I'm sure they're scared of us,~ Elthanael replied. ~They have to wonder why we showed up in force.~

I smirked, returning my attention to Six Winds. ~Certainly not to pick a fight. That would go against our standing orders. We're simply here to enjoy their performance.~ In the dead center, front row of a sold-out, high-profile concert. We were surrounded by dignitaries and royalty; the exact types we normally hunted, destroyed, and made examples of.

While I would never disobey Father and pick a fight, I was absolutely picking a fight. I just wasn't sure f they would take the bait.

Sly began the next song, and it was like a slap in the face. He used the secret dragon tongue, the lover's tongue, the tongue almost no one else would know. El stiffened as I growled softly under my breath. My elven cousin knew the language, though none of my other Marauders did. He and I were probably the only two in the entire venue to understand Sly's challenge.

And challenge it was. His sexy, growling lyrics described a dark hero gone corrupt, and how a rising force saw it as their duty to stop him. While Six Winds had made no move against any of mine or my father's allies, I felt the intention in his song.

Yrta sang the next verse; the lyrics suggested an alliance, in the form of subtle threat. Stand against them and fall. Join them or else. Not quite an ultimatum. At least, not a direct one.

The song moved into the bridge, and I relaxed slightly. ~The fucking gall of them,~ Elthanael hissed. ~Do they really think to stand against Lord Shalafae?~ His question was only to me; the other Marauders remained silent as I shook with suppressed emotion.

I was enraged. I was shocked. I was disdainful. I was impressed. No one ever stood up to Father's empire.

Sly stepped forward, eyes locked on mine. He drew a deep breath, then let forth a long note. More like a roar. It filled the air, vibrating all the way to my core, a call to other dragons. A beckoning to come together.

I was on my feet without realizing it. Distantly, I heard El call me, but I was running on pure instinct. I opened my mouth and sang with Sly.

The hall fell silent. The very world fell silent as our voices mingled. Neither of us cared; our focus was only on each other. We drew closer, eyes locked, letting the note rock through our bodies.

Sly jumped off the stage, still roaring, and we were soon within arm's reach. Our voices rose and fell, barely interrupted by the need to draw breath. I noted the beautiful shade of blue of his eyes, and the familiar scent of his aura. But there wasn't time for thoughts, only the singing.

It had been too long since I'd sung with another dragon. The power and passion and beauty had almost been forgotten, but it surged to the fore as I joined with Sly. I trembled and ached and never wanted it to end.

Yrta joined in, and my focus snapped toward her, the song dying in my throat. How dare she join in on something she didn't understand? This was for dragons alone, no matter how beautiful her voice. I growled slightly.

Sly snarled, stepping between the diva and myself. "Leave her the fuck alone, bitch." The younger hybrid shoved me backward, and I stumbled over the train of my dress.

There was a brief pause as I regained my balance. El rose to his feet, the rest of my Marauders following suit. I held up a hand to stall them, then glared at Sly. "Do it again, whelp."

He growled, stepping up into my face. He wasn't much taller than I in my boots, but he was much broader and thicker. We locked eyes, and his lips pulled back from sharp white teeth. "Fuck you." He shoved me again.

All hell broke loose.

It happened fast. Sly and I lunged at each other, all snarls and flashing teeth. The remaining assassins paired off and raced toward each other. The crowd screamed and jumped from their seats, fleeing the scene of the outbreaking fight.

No thought was spared for anything but the half-dragon in front of me. He was fast and young, but I was faster, more skilled. Sly swung heavy fists, eschewing his claws, hoping to pound me into submission. I dodged and parried, toying with him rather than actually hurting him.

Sly grew aggravated, his frustration palpable to empathic senses. I laughed mentally, enjoying his impotence. I fed off it, drew it in, and smiled directly in his face. "So, this is the fearsome leader of the Six Winds?"

He roared, grabbed my wrist, and I allowed him to pull me close. "Just who do you think you are?"

Our faces were inches apart. His pupils were dilated, devouring the lovely blue iris. Hair tumbled across his forehead, a blush spread across his broad cheekbones. The familiarity of his features kept nagging at the back of my mind, but I shushed that little voice. "I'm the one who'll put a little whelp in his place." Keep picking at his age, using the dragon slur for untrained and rash hatchlings.

My words drove him past all reason.

Sly began to transform, hoping to take me in dragon form. I gave a telepathic warning to the others, then shifted myself. Two dragons filled the concert hall with barely enough room to move. We roared at each other, then I burst through the ceiling with a touch of magic. The night sky was ours.

We fought with flames and tails and claws. He wasn't much bigger than myself, long and lean and with slender horns. As we clashed, I recognized the characteristics of the Stygian clan. At least part off his heritage was revealed.

Stygians were known for speed and ferocity, and he had it in abundance. We stayed close to each other, twisting and turning in the smallest of spaces above the concert hall. Blood welled on each of us, razor claws tearing through heavy scales. Buildings burned beneath us, filling the night sky with smoke and flame.

Our coteries fought with matching ferocity. I sensed them through our bond, knew they held their own with the Six Winds, because they chose not to destroy them. The young assassins hadn't earned the ultimate death yet.

~Foolish whelp,~ I said telepathically, ~what do you think you'll accomplish by fighting me?~ I circled him, snapping and slashing, avoiding his poorly executed counterattacks.

~I won't let you eat her!~ His movements were wild and exaggerated; raw energy and talent with no focus or skill.

~Eat...her?~ I hovered, confusion robbing my will to fight. I knew he spoke of the diva, but I didn't know why he thought I'd try to eat her.

~I'm her protector.~ Sly hovered on a level with me, fire drooling from his open mouth. ~I swore my life to defend her from monsters like you.~

The imagery of his sending was clear; Father and I as greedy, gluttonous beings, perched on a pile of the vanquished, forever reaching for something else. Blood and gore dripped from my lips and fingers, all that remained of the innocent.

~You really think I'd eat someone capable of singing like her?~ I laughed at him, the sound rumbling through my chest.

Sly lost control, and flew at me in a rage. ~Monstrous bitch!~ He opened his mouth to shoot flames my direction, but completely failed.

I darted around the younger hybrid and came up beneath his guard. Sly couldn't dodge my snap, and I caught him by the throat, just behind the jaw. My momentum threw him off balance, but he tried feebly to break free. I grabbed his forelimbs as I pressed him backward, my wingbeats stronger than his.

~Listen up, whelp.~ I growled mentally and physically, looming over him with my presence. Sly went limp at my clear dominance; his dragon half was very responsive, knew that he couldn't beat me. This conversation would go much better that way.

~First, I've been called worse by better. Your insults are far from cutting.~ He hung beneath me, beating his wings enough to remain airborne. With a nudge and a mighty flap, I pressed him toward the concert hall roof.

~Second, I don't eat the innocent without provocation. Yrta was in no danger from me...until now.~ I sent him an image of her beautiful scream as I tore her limb from limb.

Fury surged through Sly, and he struggled against my bite. Savage fangs tore at his neck, filling my mouth with his blood. His telepathy was a wall of pure rage, no words, and he roared in defense of the diva. He lashed with tail, tore with claws, and writhed in an attempt for freedom.

I clamped down harder, twisting him to his side, pinning a wing beneath his thrashing body. ~Still yourself!~ I commanded, mental voice cold and low. Sly obeyed, mostly, keening below his breath with frustration.

Giving him a sharp shake, I dropped the half-Stygian and took my true form. Though I looked up at the young dragon now, everything about my posture spoke of dominance and strength. Sly rolled to his belly, kept his head down, then also took his true form.

"Understand this; my father and I are not thoughtless monsters. Destroying anything as beautiful as Yrta for no reason would be a crime to us. You obviously take your oath very seriously, but you have nothing to fear from us." I left the implication hang heavy; they had nothing to fear yet.

Sly had knelt while I spoke, head down and wings low. If he'd had a tail, I'm sure it would have curled tightly around his ankles. Blood dripped from many wounds, but he made no move to stanch them. He remained silent, though I felt his anger and a hint of fear.

And just a tiny bit of hope.

I held out a hand, though I kept my demeanor hard. "There is no reason we should be enemies."

Sly lifted his head slightly, daring to make eye contact. "We're not already targets?" His aura told me how scared he'd been behind the bravado.

Restraining my humor took millennia of practice. We'd frightened Six Winds! Their arrogance and youth masked a deep fear that we would hunt them down.

I let him stew as I checked in on my Marauders. No one was seriously hurt on either side. They'd fought to something like a standstill: El knelt before Yrta, sobbing at her song; Deandra had summoned wraiths and pinned someone down; Zhev lashed at Reinhart with sonic whips.

"Despite your obvious challenge," I finally said, "you are not targets. We just wanted to enjoy the show." I extended my hand further. "Can we call a truce?"

He rose with wings down and arms loose at his side. Sly approached slowly, eyes lowered, and I accepted his submission. The other dragon laid his head on my shoulder, and only then did I wrap my wings around him.

I held another hybrid, and realized we'd forged more than a truce.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Morrigana - Awake and Aware

My world consisted of pain and misery. Never-ending agony. Inescapable loneliness. I hadn't been awake long, and already it felt like an age had passed. I couldn't count the number of days I still needed to wait. My mind didn't want to handle that level of pain.

Somehow, I must endure the unendurable.

Father and Aunt Kyra slept near me, fitful, and with eyes open. Uncle Calsean screamed from his lair below, but I knew he continued to sleep. I'd yet to explore our stronghold; how many others of our circle slept here? I had only the vaguest sense of our allies, of my Marauders, and lacked the strength to find any of them.

My focus must remain on Father and my beloved Elthanael. I was their anchor. They'd be lost without me holding onto their souls.

The crystal core pulsed anew, bright and icy, wrenching a small cry from me. As tall as I, with a girth I could circle my arms around, the pale blue crystal fueled Father's mission, held open the gate he needed access to. I felt myriad versions of him, refracted and amplified throughout the multiverse, and I held a sliver of each, reminding him of the path home.

And though it hurt like a thousand razor cuts to my heart, I couldn't break away from the core. I would endure anything to save my father. Even pain-induced insanity.

A new sound entered my awareness. So familiar, but so very long since I'd heard it. Unsure it was real, I perked up, glancing at the arched windows around the room. I had to be hallucinating; the Six Winds were surely cursed to sleep, same as us.

The sound grew louder, resolving into the constant universal hum of a celestial diva. A breeze gusted, carrying the loamy musk of a dragon. Tears of relief sprang to my eyes as I turned to the northern window. Sly leaned against one side, grinning like a fool in his elven form. "How goes it, Auntie?"

My knees gave out, and I collapsed with a sob. Pain faded to a distant ache as I basked in the Stygian dragon's aura. I wasn't alone!

He rushed to my side while the rest of Six Winds entered the tower chamber. I sobbed brokenly as Sly embraced my, and I had no concern about showing weakness in front of them. They were family, they were friends, and - most importantly - they were here. Awake, aware, and at my side.

"Aunt Morri, what's wrong?" Genuine concern filled a voice normally colored with humor. He ran a hand over my shorn hair, rocking me gently. His presence wrapped around me like his wings would, and I experienced safety and love for the first time since I'd regained conciousness.

The entire group waited silently as I regained my composure. Yrta dampened her song, reducing the hum of the universe to a background note. Their smell, their presence, their familiarity all gave me strength, helped me think of something other than pain. When the tears finally stopped, I sat up to stare at my nephew. My fellow assassin.

My beloved's son.

"It's falling apart." The remaining words died in my throat, fresh sobs rising from my chest. A wave of pain wracked me, and I cringed.

"No wonder you look like shit." This from Zhev. He said it with a wry smile, trying to keep the mood light. I smiled back at him, too happy to finally have company to let the misery keep me down.

But I knew what he meant. I hadn't spent much time before a mirror, but I knew my hair was a ragged mess, my skin more gray than silver. My wings were nothing but bloody stumps, and a mass of fresh scars covered my right arm and torso. My eyes had been too sunken and haunted for me to do more than glance at them; how could Sly continue to look right at me?

"Tell me," the other half-dragon said softly, keeping an arm around me. The breeze stirred long black hair, and I realized something had hardened behind his eyes. The Six Winds had clearly suffered in their return to the Shalafaes.

I took his free hand and raised it to my lips, then gave the other five assassins long looks. Several moments passed before I could actually speak. "It's a really long story." I began and they listened. It felt good to have someone to talk to again. And not just someone to listen, but someone who could actually help me.

Sly kissed my cheek. "We're here now, Auntie. What missions would you have us do?" I laid my head on his shoulder in relief, smiling deeply.