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Emily's Saga

 

World of Myth I-VI

Emily’s Saga

Travis Bughi

 

Copyright 2016 Travis Bughi

Shakespir Edition

 

Shakespir License Notes

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Dedication

To my grandmother, Ruth

For my love of reading

 

To my wife, Gabby

For a life worth living

 

To my mother, Melody

For my dedication and perseverance

 

To my sister, Amanda

For a love unrequited

 

To my grandfather, Joe

For doing what he had to, so that I could do what I want to

 

To my father, Tim

For being a man worth aspiring to

 

Acknowledgements

Patricia Hamill for the editing

Jack Baker for the cover art

 

World of Myth Epic

Emily’s Saga

I – Beyond the Plains

II – The Forest of Angor

III – The Fall of Lucifan

IV – Journey to Savara

V – Juatwa

VI – A Legend Ascends

World of Myth I

Beyond the Plains

Prologue

Surrounded by his siblings and worshipped by thousands, an angel named Quartus sat upon his throne utterly silent and alone, awaiting the death that only he could see.

The silence wasn’t by choice. He was cursed—or perhaps blessed, depending on one’s viewpoint—but in this case most certainly cursed with the lack of speech. Words could be formed in his mind, but his lips opened so rarely that he counted the occurrence in years. If a helmet were fashioned for him, it would be made with openings for only the eyes, for the only sustenance angels required was sunlight.

The angels, all five of them, were timeless and beyond beautiful by any human standard. They were the ones that created Lucifan so many ages ago, the grandest and oldest city in the world. To the people of Lucifan, that meant Quartus and his siblings were immortal, powerful, and deserving of worship. Quartus and his siblings never saw it that way, though. To them, Lucifan was merely a sanctuary, and they were its wardens. They deserved no worship, no payment, nor even thanks. The only thing they hoped for was the safety of its people, and they had succeeded for so long and so well that the only threat left was one from within.

But Lucifan, its citizens, and the world itself were doomed to death and slavery, and only Quartus could see it coming.

He mourned quietly upon his stone throne, high above the great city of Lucifan in the Angels’ Tower. His four siblings sat to the left of him on their own thrones, listening patiently to the knights give their report on what had occurred over the past day. They knights spoke plainly, reading from rolls of parchment that held what Sir Mark O’Conner thought most important to pass along. Most of the time it was the day’s recollection of crimes and punishments, though sometimes more interesting things occurred such as a foreign ambassador come to speak with the angels personally. Quartus looked forward to those times the most. They told him that civil societies existed beyond the stone metropolis the angels had created.

“An interesting note,” one of the knights said, a young woman with red hair and a high forehead, “we apprehended a merchant attempting to sell a kobold. He said he bought it on the Great Plains outside the city.”

“We do not allow slavery here,” Zarah said leaning out of her throne. “This merchant should know that.”

Quartus gave a nod to his sister. She was the kindest of them, he thought. Her heart the biggest, the light that shined from her eyes the brightest. Or perhaps it only seemed that way because it reflected off her yellow hair like the morning sun. Quartus briefly wondered how long she would weep after he was gone. Would she mourn for eternity? He dared hope not.

“That is what he was told,” the knight nodded. “He tried to argue the kobold wasn’t smart enough to be a slave. It was closer to a pet, in his opinion. He didn’t seem to care that the kobold was capable of rudimentary speech and vocally disagreed with him. The merchant has been given a few nights in the dungeon to rethink his choice of words.”

“The kobold was freed, I trust?” Ephron spoke up.

My dearest brother, Quartus thought. The others will look to you even more than they do now.

Quartus could not recall how long ago they’d all decided to follow their dark-haired brother without question. He took the role of leadership well, and as far as Quartus was concerned, had done a job more admirable than could be asked. Lucifan had lived centuries of peace due to his resolute integrity. The death that came for them was not his fault.

“It was,” the knight nodded. “We gave it some food, as well, and a map to lead it back home to the Forest of Angor, if it chooses to do so. There are very few kobolds in Lucifan, after all.”

Quartus only just realized he’d begun listening to the speech when the kobold was mentioned. He looked to his left to see his four siblings had become equally enraptured. They had not seemed so interested before then, and that was enough to make him smile, his lips almost parting.

How predictable we are, he thought. Our only concern is for those who need help.

The people always spoke of how kind the angels were. They were right in more ways than one.

The morbid side of him slipped into sadness again as the knight droned on into that day’s collection and dispersion of taxes. The leprechauns, as usual, shouldered a large portion of the burden. Quartus thought the whole concept a necessary evil, one of the few he and his siblings could perform. They took only what was needed from the rich to give to the poor, yet still it tore at them to do even that. It was pitiful, but for as powerful as Lucifan and the world thought the angels were, Quartus knew just how vulnerable he and his siblings really were. They could create, they could manage, but they could not destroy, and on the horizon was a terrible war that held the death of thousands.

Part of him said that it was only to be expected. This world was a dangerous place filled with nightmare creatures. Even the land itself could be relentless at times. Death came for every being, even one such as him. It was futile to resist it, disheartening to believe there was hope it could be stopped, and at the same time, woefully erroneous to believe there was anything wrong with death at all. With death would come peace. With death would come the long awaited sleep that he could only dream about when he closed his eyes.

Being timeless had a way of changing things. Death was not an inevitably for him, and this turned the concept from a fear into a curiosity. Quartus did not shudder at the thought of death. He rather thought the idea pleasant, the end of all pain, but he only thought that for himself. For others, for his people, for those that called themselves mortal, Quartus wanted nothing less for them than a wonderful life. He wanted them to live, to laugh, to love, and in the end, to forget that time was their master. Seeing their deaths coming, he wondered if perhaps it was best that he could not speak. Maybe they would be better off dead. How could he, a mere angel incapable of harm, ever hope to save this city and its entire people?

He did not know how, but he knew that he had to try.

Quartus looked left again. He looked at his siblings and felt tears well in his eyes. His love was great for every being, but for his siblings it was unfathomable. They felt the same about him, of course, despite the fact that he’d never spoken a word to them. To them, he was their eldest brother. Although the angels were timeless, Quartus appeared to be the oldest of his siblings, the only one with grey hair, and they gave that level of respect to him without thought. In return, he would give his life for them, and if his visions were correct, he may very well have to do just that.

The knight and her escort finished their report abruptly, prompting Quartus to wake from his dark broodings. The knights spoke words of thanks, and Ephron thanked them in return before granting the squad permission to leave their chambers. The knights bowed low and left, and Quartus was more alone than before.

“A lone kobold,” Ephron hummed, his voice echoing all on its own. “We get so few of those here. I hope it finds its family.”

“Maybe one of us should fly it back to Angor?” Zarah suggested. “Uriah is the fastest.”

Quartus heard the compliment and pictured Uriah sitting a little taller in his throne, but Uriah did no such thing. He didn’t flinch a muscle, not even to tuck away the hair—red as the setting sun—that had fallen over his eyes. Its strands broke slits into the light that shined from his eyes. Uriah was looking to Ephron, prepared to follow his brother’s wishes to the letter. At the wave of a hand, Uriah would take to the skies, and that little kobold would have a swift ride home.

The bravest of us, Quartus thought. I wish you knew the burden I carried, dear Uriah. If you did, you might just have the courage to save us.

“The Forest of Angor is too far away,” Ephron replied, voice heavy. “We must trust in the kobold to find his own way home. We cannot save everyone, Zarah. Some must save themselves in order for us to save those who cannot. We are needed here, as always.”

Quartus looked to his only sibling who had not spoken, Damaris. There were times that Quartus was convinced she competed with him for who could be most silent. It was a contest she inevitably lost, but there were a few years that she had given a solid fight. Quartus let his eyes fall on her brown hair, her long nose, and her stoic gaze. She was so different than the rest of them. Actually, they were all different. They called each other brother and sister, but not a single one of them looked alike.

They were family, though, and they even dressed the part. Quartus and his four siblings wore only one garment, a simple white gown with slits cut in the back for their feathered wings. No helmets or jewelry, gloves nor even sandals graced their bodies otherwise. They had no need of such things. Angels were warm as the touch of sun, and their skin never dirtied or stained. Quartus could not readily explain why that was, but neither had he ever bothered to find out. Perhaps it was the light within him—the very light that shined out of him from where a human’s eyes should be.

I pray that these eyes never see this city bathed in fire, he thought. I pray that my light will break the darkness.

Just as he could not readily explain why his body never tired, so could he not readily explain the foreboding that pained him. There was no face that plagued his dreams or villain tapping at his door. Lucifan had enemies, of course, like the vampires lurking in the shadows and ogres who had no respect for the laws, but Quartus could not say which one troubled his sleep. There were other enemies, too, ones beyond the sea who looked at Lucifan as a fruit ripe for the taking. That problem was shored up, though, thanks to three towering statues that guarded the city. Each colossus was an army in its own right.

Yet Quartus knew it wasn’t enough. He could feel it in his gut. All he knew and loved would die, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. If he was the sun, then the night was surely coming, and no light would survive.

I must find my own shadow, he realized. I must seek one who can do what I cannot.

A gunslinger would be the best choice, he thought instantly. Their elaborate pistols made them a force to be reckoned with, even to an immortal. A gunslinger would be hard to find, though. They were a rare breed, as rare as their weaponry, and none swore allegiance to Lucifan. They traversed the Great Plains, hunting behemoths for coin. Quartus would be hard pressed to find one and convince him or her to join his cause, especially when he could not speak. Still, Quartus could almost picture a gunslinger now—dual wielding six-shooters with every shot belching black smoke into the air as he fought back against the death that sought them all. It was a frightening prospect, the image itself unsettling, and Quartus shuddered from the idea. Such violence, even the thought of it, was difficult for him to comprehend.

He wished that guns, swords, and bows had never been made.

Yet they had been, and he had need of them. Next, Quartus thought of the knights. They seemed even more the logical choice than a gunslinger, for the knights served the angels and Lucifan. They were dependable, most of them, and battle hardened. A rebellious one would be needed, one of the outliers not afraid to bend the rules. Perhaps that one Ephron had inducted, Sir Gavin. Yet, Quartus hesitated, realizing he was planning too soon. He was trying to find a hero before he knew his enemy. He was not just mute; he was blind.

“Brother,” Ephron whispered.

Quartus’ thoughts were given pause, and he looked up to see his siblings were staring at him. Their faces were pressed into looks of concern, and Quartus touched his cheek to find a tear had fallen there.

Now that is strange, he thought. How did that get there?

“Is something the matter?” Ephron asked.

Yes, Quartus frowned. Death is coming for you, your brothers, your sisters, and everyone we have tried to protect for centuries. Our only hope is to find an ally amongst an enemy we cannot see, an enemy only I know exists, and I cannot speak a word.

Quartus forced a smile, parting his lips just one more time for those he loved the most. He hoped that, when he was gone, they would remember him by it—that they would live to remember him at all.

Chapter 1

Emily Stout was born and raised on the Great Plains with her mother, father, older brother Abraham, and younger brother Nicholas. They were a typical plains dwelling family, farming the harsh soil, waiting for behemoths to migrate through their land, employing minotaurs when they could afford it, and traveling to Lucifan to sell their excess crops. For most of the families out on the Great Plains, this was everyday life, and it was as constant as the landscape.

The Great Plains were a vast spread of yellow grasslands. Everywhere, gold-colored weeds tall as a gnome sprouted over endless rolling hills. Occasionally, a lone tree would dot the landscape, short and thin, with leaves always brown and never bigger than a baby’s palm. The wind blew constantly. Sometimes it was a light breeze, other times a torrent of destruction. Houses had to be built with sturdy hands and firmly planted, lest a windstorm uproot the structure altogether and send it tumbling across the golden hills. Emily’s father claimed he’d seen such a thing as a boy, and she never doubted him for a second. Her father also said that was why gnomes built their homes into the hillsides. It was the best protection from the wind.

Out on the plains, only a few families were rich enough to afford division of labor. For the Stouts—and most every other family she knew—no task was considered too lowly, too skilled, or too physical to be learned. Emily had worked from the first moment she could remember, helping to plant seeds in the hopes that they would grow and helping to pick when harvest came. Her family grew primarily wheat. That was the most dependable crop on the Great Plains. When there wasn’t planting to be done, there were plenty of other things to keep them busy: clothes to patch, water to fetch, wood to cut, things to fix, food to store, and occasionally some fun to be had. Emily kept up with her brothers in all things, whether they were work or play, and her father said he was proud of her for that. She was a lot like her mother, he would say, and he loved her all the more for it.

Emily couldn’t remember when, but sometime in the past she’d realized how lucky she was to have such a loving family. The Great Plains was a tough place, making any comfort into a luxury. Even those that called themselves rich lived an uncertain life on the plains, one subject to the year’s harvest and the prices in Lucifan. That uncertainty had a way of enforcing conformity, unsaid and unwritten, as though the weather could be coaxed into consistency if all inhabitants followed a code. One such custom was clothing. Nearly all men and women wore similar clothes, the wealthy being the rare exception, and one could travel for months across the plains to any family farm and see brown pants, brown overalls, once-white linen shirts, and closed toed shoes. Straw hats were also a favorite, providing much needed protection from the sun’s rays. Emily knew this outfit well and had never worn a dress in her life, though she had seen a few. If anyone had bothered to ask her if she was upset about that, she would have had to stop her chores and think about it.

Houses were separated by nothing but miles of small hills covered with tall weeds. The gnomes were the only creatures that made community villages in the plains. They lived in burrows, built right into the low hills. They were small enough to do that, and there were always enough hills to house a small gathering of gnomes. Their small stomachs and stature made it easier for them to live in groups than alone. Humans on the other hand, like Emily and her family, needed large plots of land to grow enough crops to survive. The nearest human house to Emily’s family was a little less than a quarter-day’s walk from theirs.

This did not upset Emily, though. She had Nicholas and Abraham, whom she liked to call Abe, and those were all the friends she needed. Her mother and father were always good to them, too, which made life out on the harsh plains bearable. So, Emily made do like her ancestors and did what any smart plains dweller did; she kept a keen eye out for thunderbirds, was wary around behemoths, was good to the gnomes, and stayed indoors on the rare occasion a banshee was nearby.

Without argument, the banshees were the worst. Emily’s mother often said that banshees were so infamous and strange that foreigners knew and feared them. Death brought the banshees out, and it was death that they sought, roaming the land and wailing while searching for another life to take. The last time a banshee had crossed the Stouts’ farm, Emily’s mother, father, and older brother had gone up to Lucifan—the famous city and the lifeblood of the Great Plains—to sell their extra crops. It had been a good harvest, one of the few, and her parents would not pass up the opportunity to make some extra coin. Extra coin meant the possibility of extra hands or even hooves. The Stouts had a family unicorn that helped them plow the field, but nothing got them ahead of the season like a minotaur. The muscle those beast-men could provide was expensive but worth it. If the Stout family made enough money from selling crops, they could hire one to help plow for the next season.

So, her parents and Abe had traveled northeast to the market in Lucifan. Emily had been left home to care for Nicholas, because he had been too young at the time to make the journey. Emily had desperately wanted to go, having heard extravagant tales of the city from Abe. She’d dreamed of seeing a huge colossus, the glowing angels, and intimidating ogres. She’d wanted to see what a building made of stone looked like and how tall they could be built. More than that, she’d wanted to see the ocean, for her brother said that the city was actually a harbor, and it was the only place where one could walk down to the water.

But that time had not been hers. Thus, she stayed to care for Nicholas while Abe went to help their parents. They left early in the morning, just before the first rays of light crept over the horizon. Emily watched them go and then went about her daily chores. She tended to the barn, fetched water, swept, and performed many other tasks that were required for the day. She remembered cutting her hair that day. Emily looked like her mother, from the small feet to the light freckles on her cheeks, and so she chose to groom like her mother. Whenever her wavy, brown hair grew too far past her shoulders, she would cut it back to just below her ears.

Little did Emily know that, while she’d been cutting her hair, a few miles away, one of the neighbor’s sons had died unexpectedly. One moment he’d been pitching hay, and the next he was down on the ground, the dirt leeching the warmth from his body. His parents hadn’t found him soon enough, and a banshee materialized from his soul. It shrieked and wailed over the corpse, then set out across the plains to kill another. It was drawn to the living at the Stout farm and made it to the edge of their fields when the sun was low in the sky.

Emily had just finished closing up the barn for the night when she heard the distant shriek carried by the wind to her sensitive ears—a shrill noise, like the tip of a pitchfork scraping metal. Her back stiffened instantly, and she felt a lump swell in her throat. Sudden noise out on the plains was a rare thing. The sound of wind, the rustle of plants, and the creak of the house were constant, but beyond that any other sounds were a cause for worry. She listened again, straining to make sure of what she’d heard.

In the distance, a low, disembodied wail echoed across the plains. With lightning speed, Emily bolted from the barn and into the house, letting the back door slam against the wall. Inside the kitchen, she found her brother Nicholas, tilting his head to the side and straining to hear something muffled by the wooden walls. Shocked by his sister’s sudden appearance, he took one look at the terror in her eyes and started to cry.

“Stop!” she said. “Shhh, shhhh. Don’t cry, Nicholas. Come here! Hurry!”

The banshee was still a ways off, but Emily did her best to keep her voice down. Her mother had never told her how well banshees could hear, but Emily had no desire to find out.

Nicholas obeyed his older sister and dropped the wooden blocks that were his only toys. He ran into her arms, wiping away his tears. There were only three rooms in the Stouts’ tiny house: the parents’ room, the children’s room, and the kitchen. Seeking comfort and protection, the two siblings headed for their parents’ room. No comforting mother or father waited for them, but they knew of no better place to hide. They huddled in the corner below the window, and Emily held her baby brother close. In the fading light, only the shrieks and wails kept them company.

It was the longest night of her life. The banshee wandered through their farm, seeking the souls of the living, but did not find either Emily or her brother. Nicholas soiled himself in terror, and Emily promised not to tell anyone. For the briefest moment, she was tempted to look out the window and see what the banshee looked like, but the feeling passed quickly as the next horrid shriek shattered the air. After circling the house, the banshee moved on away from their land in search of another soul. It traveled past the Stout farm and found a wandering gnome. Without pause, the banshee took his life and then vanished as quickly as it had appeared.

Emily and Nicholas never moved from their spot. They stayed there the rest of the night and only moved in the morning when the sounds of wind and creaks were once again the only things to be heard. Emily’s parents and older brother returned a couple of days later. They had done well at the market, though not well enough to hire a minotaur. They had purchased another unicorn instead, but the joy of their new purchase was short lived when they found out what had happened while they were away.

Emily’s father sighed deeply at the tale, and her mother kissed her forehead, telling her how well she’d done.

“Why do banshees come out of the dead?” Emily asked.

“I don’t know, sweetie. It only happens on the plains,” she said. “It’s probably because everyone’s so lonely out here that, when they die and aren’t buried quickly, death itself comes looking for a mate.”

Emily contemplated asking her mother what a banshee looked like, but then decided against it. It was better to let bad events waste away in the past. Perhaps no one knew what banshees looked like except the dead.

That had been many seasons ago. Fortunately, banshees didn’t arise from mere animals, like thunderbirds or behemoths, and most families knew to bury their dead quickly. To add, there was enough of open space between the Stouts’ farm and its neighbors so that they heard a banshee no more than once a decade. Emily was just now turning sixteen years old, and no one thought it odd she’d only encountered one banshee despite living on the Great Plains her whole life. Abe was especially lucky as he had yet to hear one at all.

Emily’s brothers were separated from her by two years on either side. Both of them had been born during the harvesting season, but Emily had been born in the spring. Their parents had stopped at three children and never once fantasized about having a fourth.

“It’s all the help we need and more than enough mouths to feed,” Emily’s mother always said.

Emily didn’t know her actual birthday. Calendar days were meaningless out on the plains, and families used the crops as a timetable. Emily had been born just before the migration of the behemoths—an omen that she was meant to travel—but her mother told her that omens were created more for entertainment than anything else. Emily secretly wished them to be more. Emily often dreamed of what lay beyond the golden hills surrounding her home and coveted any information she was told by wandering travelers. This season was no different, and Emily celebrated another year with wanderlust in her heart.

This season was special. Now that she was sixteen, Emily was finally old enough to scout for migrating behemoths with her father. Behemoths were the greatest beasts on the plains, larger than a barn when fully grown. They walked on four short, stubby legs that barely kept their stomachs above the ground and were as wide as a unicorn was long. Each step they took shook the ground and left crushed grass behind. Their large heads stuck out on short necks that hung low at an even height with their stomachs. The only way for a behemoth to see behind it was to turn its body around. A male behemoth had a single, massive horn that sprouted from its nose, and all behemoths had a swishing tail that could collapse a house. Their brownish-green skin was leathery and thick. It was a natural defense, shielding them even from a gunslinger’s bullet. Their only vulnerabilities were their stomachs and their tiny eyes, which were sunk deeply into their skulls. The stomachs were too close to the ground to be shot, so gunslingers had to be excellent marksmen, otherwise they were out of a job.

Behemoths traveled once each year, right after the long winter season at the beginning of spring. They spent the majority of their lives near the far western edge of the plains, where the Forest of Angor started and where water was plentiful. When the winter months ended, just before it came time to till the fields and plant the seeds, the behemoths traveled due east towards the opposite edge of the vast plains where the ocean met the cliffs. One could not reach the water from anywhere except Lucifan, because the plains sat high above the sea on great cliffs. Unless you scaled the cliffs, you had to go through Lucifan to reach the ocean.

But the behemoths did not come to the eastern side of the plains for the ocean. They had a much deeper purpose. There, Emily had been told by her mother, the behemoths mated and left back for home the moment the courting was done. They made the great journey back to the west to the Forest of Angor to give birth.

Some behemoths died in the process—often the old, the sickly, or the malnourished. Emily didn’t know why those old ones bothered to make the journey at all, but her mother said that it was to cull the weak. All Emily could say for certain was the Great Plains thrived on behemoth deaths. The lucky plains families that found a dead behemoth ate well. The rich ones hired a gunslinger to kill a passing bull and thus ate exceptionally well. The unlucky ones found nothing, or found a carcass already scavenged, and survived off scraps until their new crops grew in. Emily’s family, unfortunately, often fell into the unlucky category.

But their father promised that this season would be different. He mounted one of their unicorns and rode out daily in search of a dead behemoth. Two years ago, he’d decreed that Abe was old enough to ride out with him, and now Emily would be old enough, too. The only trouble was that the Stouts had only two unicorns, which meant that Emily had to take turns with Abe. On the first day, he’d ridden out with their father, and the two of them had come back with nothing. Now, on the second day, it was Emily’s turn, and she awoke that morning with a burning determination and jittery hands.

For her, this would change everything.

Chapter 2

To say the least, Emily was excited that morning. When her father, Paul, shook her awake, she nearly leapt from her wooden cot.

“Get dressed,” Paul whispered. “Meet me at the barn.”

“Yes, Father!” She failed to whisper back.

Nicholas and Abe stirred in their cots nearby, and Emily covered her mouth in embarrassment. Her father just gave her head a rub, smiled, and left. She heard the backdoor squeak closed as she was tying her shoes.

She hadn’t left the room yet, and already her heart was racing. The chance to explore the Great Plains and ride unicorns with her father was the most exciting thing she could remember doing in a long time! It was a rare for her to travel beyond her family’s farm, so any such occasion deserved celebration, yet this moment felt special. It felt earned and momentous. Scouting for behemoths meant added responsibility, a sign of her growing and maturing, and she looked forward to proving her merit. She didn’t know what to expect, really, but as she slipped quietly out of the room so as not to disturb her sleeping brothers, she fantasized of extravagant scenes of riding through the plains with her father, chasing herds of behemoths just on the horizon. Maybe they would run into a gunslinger tracking a herd? Maybe she would see the gunslinger shoot! Now that would be something to tell her brothers!

Once in the kitchen, she sprinted to the table and sat down to eat her breakfast. Her mother, Molly, was already awake and had prepared stale bread and vegetable soup. Paul’s wooden bowl was already licked clean, and Molly gave her daughter a disapproving glance as Emily shoveled her food home, giving as little time for chewing as possible.

“Than’ co’!” Emily said with a full mouth before bounding outside to the barn, letting the backdoor squeak shut behind her.

Paul already had both unicorns saddled and was packing away their bread for the day’s ride. He scratched the small beard—a tuft of whiskers that sprung only from the bottom of his chin—while inspecting his work. His eyes flickered in Emily’s direction.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

Her stomach churned with anticipation, or perhaps half-chewed food, and she could feel her palms start to sweat.

“Yes, Father,” she replied with a grin.

With a day’s provisions packed up, they mounted and set out across the plains in search of migrating behemoths. Emily envisioned the two of them bursting from the barn like knights ready to charge, letting the unicorns kick open the barn door, and then galloping out across the farm. Instead, they moseyed along at a walk with Paul not even bothering to mount until they were clear of the barn. Emily rocked in her saddle, resisting the urge to press the unicorn’s sides and push it into a trot. The single, long horn on the beast’s head waved back and forth.

The previous day, Paul and Abe had traveled north from the Stout farm. That search had yielded nothing, not even tracks, so now her father traveled west with his daughter in tow. Emily smiled and looked around constantly as the unicorns’ hooves crunched the yellow, waist-high grass. At each hill, Emily stood as straight as she could in her saddle, swiveling her head. They were barely out of sight of their farm, and yet she still twisted to look every which way.

“Relax, Emily,” her father chuckled.

“Sorry,” she blushed but could not remove her smile.

Emily wanted so desperately to find a herd, or even better, to find a fallen behemoth, whether due to age, exhaustion, or a thunderbird’s attack. Her thoughts filled with visions of helping her father pack away the meat, going to get the unicorn-drawn cart, and loading up enough meat to last them all year. Her mouth watered at the memory of behemoth stew, and she smiled at the idea of enjoying a bowl every evening for a month to come. More so, she wished, for once, not to go hungry for another season in a row.

“You have nothing to be sorry for,” Paul said. “You just might want to relax a bit, because it’s going to be a long day.”

“Yes, Father.”

Emily stopped her wild search and took a few deep breaths. After a moment to calm her nerves, she realized just how excited she was. To be riding on unicorns with her father out into the desolate plains was an exhilarating experience compared to her normal day of shoveling manure, washing clothes, and tending crops. This was an absolute thrill she could not begin to explain in words, and they hadn’t even found anything yet! More than once, she wondered what it would be like to do this every day.

However, her father had been right. As the hours dragged on, her blood began to slow its pace. They trotted onwards through the never-ending sea of yellow grass—sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it—always hiking the tallest hills so as to get a good look ahead. Behemoth herds weren’t necessarily difficult to spot, but the Great Plains were a vast spread of nothingness that could hide even the largest of animals. After a few hours of empty fields and skies, Emily began to think that scouting for behemoths was not the grand adventure she’d thought it was. In fact, the only noticeable thing they reached by midday was a gnomish village.

Emily didn’t notice it at first, of course. She was following her father down yet another hillside in the middle of nowhere when he called out for seemingly no reason.

“Hello there, Fred!” Paul yelled.

Emily jumped in her saddle. Her head snapped forward to see that the hill they were walking on was actually a gnome hovel. A door had been placed in the hillside, and outside sat a gnome, casually smoking a pipe.

“Eh thar Paul,” the gnome said without removing his pipe. “Though’ you be the Dylans, ‘til I seen yar younglin’.”

The first thing Emily noted was that Fred was hairy for a gnome, and that said something, because all gnomes were hairy. They were a short and chubby race with hair everywhere humans had it, just more of it. The tops of their feet were coated with a thin patch of fur, which could be seen at all times because gnomes never wore shoes. Even the female gnomes were known to grow mustaches.

Beyond the hair, Fred looked to be an older gnome. His skin was wrinkled and dried—a gift from a lifetime on the plains—and his eyes held a perpetual squint. His nose looked too big for his face, but somehow that made him appear more friendly than comical. The gnome was shirtless, leaning against a bed of yellow grass alongside the door to his burrow.

“You haven’t met my daughter, have you?” Paul commented, waving a hand back to her. “Emily, this is Fred Hoggins. Fred, this is Emily.”

“Hello, Mr. Hoggins,” Emily nodded.

“Mornin’,” Fred replied, returning the nod. “How goes the behemoth scoutin’?”’

“Very well,” Emily grinned widely then paused, “but we haven’t found anything yet.”

Fred huffed a laugh into his pipe, making puffs of smoke billow out of the bowl. Emily lowered her straw hat to hide her reddening cheeks but left her smile visible. Wise plains families kept good relations with all their neighbors, but gnomes were given an extra special touch. The little villagers were known to be shrewd, only trading with those they trusted and only helping those they trusted even more.

“Welp,” Fred said, “ya’ can see by da’ grass here, ain’t no behemoth passed this way none either, so I suppose we’re even, younglin’.”

“I’m glad you mentioned the behemoths,” Paul drew in a long breath. “You mentioned the Dylans, too. I take it they haven’t come this way then, yet, huh?”

Fred let go a quiet chuckle again and paused in his grinning only to inhale a deep breath through his pipe. When he smiled once more, the tobacco smoke seeped through the cracks between his teeth.

“Haven’t found nothin’ yet, eh? Still aftar dem behemoths, eh?”

His voice was hinting at something, but as obvious as he made it sound, Emily could not figure it out. Paul seemed to understand though. He matched Fred’s smile and reached up to adjust his straw hat. Emily had to grip her reins tightly not to shout out her curiosity. Some sort game was being played here, and she didn’t want to hinder her father’s chances of winning.

“I’m always after behemoths, Fred. You know that.”

Fred nodded, blowing tobacco smoke through the side of his mouth.

“And you also know that if I find a herd out here,” Paul continued, “I have to come right back this way to get back home.”

Fred took another inhale from his pipe and said, “Do ya’ now?”

“Yes I do, assuming you’re the one who points me toward that herd. I’m not about to stray from my path and get lost now, am I? The plains don’t exactly have landmarks abounding. We friends have to stick together.”

Fred nodded. Paul watched him. A moment of silence crept by, and Fred thoughtfully patted the tip of his pipe against his lip before bursting into laughter. He slapped his knee and pointed his pipe at Emily’s father.

“Ya’ know I always did like ya’, Paul!” he exclaimed. “You dun way better than them Dylans, I tell ya’ what!”

“What do you have for me, Fred?”

Fred leaned forward off the grass until his hairy knuckles wrapped around his knees. He looked back toward the next hill, which Emily assumed to be his neighbor’s, and then back to Paul.

“I been listen’, ya hear?” Fred licked his lips. “At night, I hear dis here beat if I put my ear ta’ the dirt. They comin’ this way. I’d bet my PIPE on it!”

That sounded promising, Emily thought. She inhaled sharply and smiled at Fred’s reassuring face. The excitement was building up in her again, and Emily effortlessly shrugged off all the fatigue that she’d gathered from the morning’s ride.

“Any idea which way?” she asked.

“It gets louder each night, but ain’t gettin’ that strong,” he said, putting his pipe back in his mouth to take another long draw. “Way I figure is they either comin’ from da’ north or south of here.”

“Well, I’ll start with the south then,” Paul nodded. “And you have my word, Fred. If I find a dead one from that herd, I’ll bring you back a fair piece.”

Paul turned his unicorn to trot south, and Emily eagerly followed.

“Better bring me a whole leg, ya’ hairless stick!” Fred yelled to their backs.

Emily’s father chuckled and shook his head. Emily heard Fred chuckle, too, as they trotted on over a few hills and eventually out of sight and sound. Only when Emily was sure the wind wouldn’t carry their voices back to the gnome did she speak up.

“If we don’t find any behemoths, are you going to take Abe with you to check the north side?”

“No,” Paul said. “Your brother and I already checked the north, remember? We went out this far, too. I just didn’t tell Fred that, so if the Dylans come and offer Fred the same deal, they’ll go north first. If I told Fred that we’d already checked the north yesterday, then he’d tell anyone who came by today and cut them a deal. This way, we get at least a day’s head start on anyone else. Remember, Emily, anyone you offer a deal will gladly accept that same offer from anyone else.”

It was Emily’s turn to swell with pride. She was proud of her father and made the mental note he’d offered. However, she still couldn’t help but feel slightly hurt at Fred’s fickleness. In the few short minutes they’d been with Mr. Hoggins, Emily had taken a liking to him, and now she felt betrayed. She also wondered why the dishonesty had been necessary at all.

“I thought we liked the Dylans?” Emily asked.

“We do,” Paul said, “and we’ll trade favors for meat if either of us finds a carcass, but I’d rather find it first. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Emily gave a curt not before saying, “So, if we do find a behemoth, are we still going to bring Fred some of the meat?”

“Of course! You can’t blame him for trying to do everything he can to get a behemoth. Besides, if we don’t bring any back, how can we expect him to give us information like this again?”

“Yes, Father.”

“And besides, you’re weighing your wheat before it grows. I happen to know that Fred has a whole case of pipes in that hovel of his. For all we know, this will just turn up more weeds. Patience is more than virtue on the Great Plains; it’s necessary.”

Emily’s confidence dived a bit, but she remained positive. This tidbit of news from Fred was the best lead they had—far better than just walking in one direction and hoping to stumble upon a herd. Now, at least, they had a plan.

Their trot slowed to a walk once they were out of sight of Fred’s hovel. The unicorns snorted their relief at the slower pace, and Emily patted hers. They weren’t the best unicorns around, especially the one Emily rode, but that’s why they were cheap and affordable, and, thankfully, Emily was a lighter load. Actually, now that she thought about it, this unicorn ought to be grateful it had her atop it instead of Abe. He was a stick, too, but he was tall. Emily knew he weighed more because of how easy it was for Abe to push her around when they wrestled. It always took both Nicholas and her combined strength to bring their older brother down.

Emily started to get hungry midway through but held her tongue. She suppressed the urge to reach into her pack and grab the bread that was waiting for her, not wanting her father to think she wasn’t ready for this trip. She wouldn’t eat until he did and, instead, brought her waterskin to her lips and drowned the hunger with a sip.

They only traveled for about a half an hour when Paul came to a stop. He looked back at his daughter and then scanned the horizon slowly.

“What is it?” Emily asked, her throat dry despite the drink.

“Fred may have good hearing for a gnome, but it’s not that good. He wouldn’t be able to hear anything through the dirt beyond here. We should have seen something by now.”

Emily’s father whirled his head around at their surroundings, his eyes coming to life.

“There,” he pointed to the tallest nearby hill. “We’ll eat lunch there.”

He took off at a trot, and Emily followed. They hiked the hill, which was rather steep on their side but none too difficult as it was still just a plains hill. At the top, they got off their unicorns and reached into their packs. With bread in one hand and water in the other, Emily and her father stood and stretched their weary legs.

Emily was happy to finally eat. She’d grown progressively hungry and guessed that the morning’s excitement had used up more energy than washing clothes would have. She took large bites out of her loaf, looking into the wind so the ceaseless breeze would not whip her hair into her mouth. The shortness of her hair helped, and it was times like these when she wondered why more women didn’t cut their hair short, too. Besides her mother, nearly every woman Emily had met grew their hair out as long as possible, which Emily thought especially odd as they often ended up braiding or bundling it up anyway. It made Emily want to ask her mother about it, but Mother frowned upon questions like that, and then the moment would pass, and Emily would decide it wasn’t important.

Emily finished half her loaf and tucked it away in her pack. Next, she lay down in the tall weeds to stretch. The windblown grass danced around her, blocking out the world except for the blue sky, and Emily closed her eyes to take in the comfortable feeling of being nearly invisible.

“Hey Emily, get up,” Paul said.

Emily opened her eyes and stood up. She looked at her father, waiting for him to say something, but he wasn’t looking at her. His eyes were locked and gazing west. Emily followed that gaze out to where the sun was beginning to fall. With a squint, she saw something different in the distance. Up over the rolling hills, she saw a small patch of brown in the vast yellow. Then she looked again, and the patch became a behemoth herd crawling over a hill, heading east, directly toward them.

“Behemoths!” Emily yelled.

Paul laughed, and Emily squealed with excitement before turning to hug her father.

“We did it!” Emily yelled. “We did it, we did it, we did it!”

“Hey, we just found a herd,” he explained, hugging her back with one arm. “We still have to follow it, track it, and even then there’s no guarantee one will perish within cart range of us.”

Paul’s words couldn’t touch his daughter’s enthusiasm this time. Emily gave her father another squeeze before detaching herself and leaping in the air. Her heart was pounding when she landed, and she turned to look at the behemoths once more.

The herd was traveling east, like every herd did this time of the season. Emily and her father waited atop their hill as the behemoths trudged away from the encroaching sunset, their massive legs crushing the ground with every huge step. Out of curiosity, Emily leaned down to put her ear to the dirt. At first she heard nothing, but then she put her hand over her other ear, and there was a faint noise—a beat, which was a sound dirt shouldn’t make. So this is what Mr. Hoggins heard, she thought.

To an untrained eye, it would seem that the behemoths were traveling slowly. Each step they took was a long drag upwards and forwards that looked like they were taking their sweet time. But each step was a giant leap to a human, and the herd ate up the land. Within the hour, the behemoths were passing by less than a field’s distance away from the two Stouts, and Emily and her father mounted up. Now Emily didn’t have to put her ear to the ground to hear the dirt beat. The vibrations from the ground trembled up the unicorn’s legs and coursed through her body. Her unicorn tensed with the presence of danger, but the behemoths were not close enough to cause panic. She calmed it with a careful stroke down its neck and watched the herd pass.

It was a smaller herd; she counted only about twenty behemoths. She knew from hearsay that behemoth herds could count up to one hundred, but her father said that only happened when two herds were traveling together. This herd was being led by the oldest male who undoubtedly had made this journey one too many times. Emily attempted to memorize its features, guessing it to be most likely to perish before the others.

“So, what do we do next?” Emily asked.

“Well, we just follow them and wait until one peels off from the group. Behemoths know when they’re about to die and leave the pack a few days before—”

A low, deep rumble shook the air itself. It wasn’t a vibration from the earth, and it didn’t come from the behemoths. It was louder, deeper, and came from above. Emily didn’t have to look to know what that sound was, but she did anyway. She and her father whirled around and looked far to the north. They saw a gathering of dark clouds that hadn’t been there before. Another rumble shook the air, and the clouds flashed with lightning.

“Thunderbird,” Emily whispered.

From the mass of dark clouds, a huge bird launched itself on enormous wings. Even at this distance, Emily knew what it looked like. The thunderbird would be as big as a behemoth but would fly with a grace born of power. Its eyes would be pure white and without pupils. Its colors, which were a mix of white and brown feathers, were visible, but its yellow beak was a speck at this distance. The thunderbird’s talons would be outstretched, able to rip a behemoth in two.

However, the most dangerous part of a thunderbird was its ability to create thunderstorms. When their wings swung down and clapped together, a bolt of lightning would leap from their feathered tips to strike the ground below, and thunder would echo across the plains in all directions. That was why they were called thunderbirds.

Dark clouds began to form around the creature again, mystically appearing out of the air to shroud the bird from sight. Emily lost sight of it for a moment, but then the thunderbird was moving again, soaring from its cover to screech a noise so shrill and loud that it made Emily wince.

“Come on, let’s get moving,” Paul said.

The thunderbird was still a long way away, and it was traveling in a direction that would not overtake them, but a thunderbird could change its direction at any moment. Only a fool waited to be killed by one. With a heavy heart, Emily followed her father. It wasn’t that she wanted to stay, for she knew all too well that thunderbirds were no small threat. She was sad because they had just found the behemoth herd and would now have to leave. Worse yet, tomorrow morning it would be her brother who would get to travel out with her father and follow the herd.

Emily would go back to tilling the fields.

Chapter 3

Emily’s father and Abe were gone before she was awake the next morning. When she did get up, her legs felt stiff and heavy from the long day’s ride, but it was her heart that felt heaviest. She moped over to her younger brother’s cot and shook him awake before heading into the kitchen and breaking off a loaf of bread for herself. Outside, her mother could be heard in the barn, preparing the tools needed for that day’s work. They’d be plowing today, and Emily tried not to think about it.

Nicholas took a long while to get out of his bed. By the time he was in the kitchen, their mother had returned and split some more bread with her children. It was a rather quiet morning for the most part, until Nicholas shattered the silence with a loud, whiny question like he always did.

“When do I get to go scouting?” he demanded.

“In another two seasons, Nicholas,” Molly replied. “You know that. You have to wait your turn just like everyone else did.”

Unsatisfied with the ruling, but knowing there was no greater authority on the Stout farm than Mother’s word, Nicholas settled with a humph! Although Emily’s enthusiasm was crushed this morning, yesterday, she’d come back from the ride pumped with excitement, telling Nicholas all about the gnome, the behemoths, and the thunderbird. In a short time, he’d been jumping up and down, too, demanding to go on the next trip. Of course, the demand had been mostly for show, and his actions this morning were along a similar line. Emily had seen it all before.

“I wish I was a gunslinger,” Nicholas muttered.

Emily failed to stifle a laugh.

“You and your brother both, dear,” Molly said. “You two are going to make yourselves miserable dreaming about those fancy pistols they carry. You’d have to be a leprechaun to afford buying even one, let alone finding a blacksmith who could make such a weapon. I don’t think any such craftsmen exist anymore.”

Nicholas sulked and looked sidelong at his sister, who shrugged apologetically. She hadn’t been laughing at her brother, just the absurdity of his wish. Gunslingers were known and named for their rare weapons. Every gunslinger carried two revolvers that they could fire from both hands with pinpoint accuracy. The pistols were sometimes called six-shooters, because each could fire six bullets before needing to be reloaded. They were different from the rest of the pistols in the world, which could only fire one shot before needing to be reloaded. Abe often joked that one gunslinger versus thirteen men was a fair fight.

The deadly firearms they carried weren’t the only way to spot a gunslinger, though. They all dressed alike, and Emily figured it was for two reasons: to advertise and to warn, depending on what message needed to be sent. There was no mistaking the wide-brimmed, leather hat, which shrouded their eyes in darkness if they tilted it forward, or the leather overcoat, which hid their guns from view and discouraged theft. Besides their hide pants, they always wore riding boots with spurs that clicked when they walked. Gunslingers didn’t care for stealth. There was nothing for them to hide from.

They roamed the plains looking for employment, and that was pretty much where they stayed. They were regarded with fear and awe out here, and their special skills made them a favorite among the rich farm owners. Most of their work came from hunting behemoths, rather than men, which kept them from gaining enemies who might slit their throats in the night. Emily only saw gunslingers when they passed by the Stout farm looking for a place to sleep for the night, and Molly almost always turned them away to the woes of her children. Emily wished to see one shoot their guns just once, but they never offered their services to the likes of such lowly farmers. Only one had made that mistake, and Emily’s father had scoffed at the man.

“Perhaps you’d like to take my house as payment?” Paul had asked.

The gunslinger had peered up from under the brim of his hat, gazed at the house, and made a clicking noise with his cheek.

“I’m afraid that won’t be enough,” he’d replied.

Paul had tried not to appear insulted and thanked the gunslinger for his time. Without another word, the gunslinger had mounted back up on his unicorn and trotted off. Not all gunslingers were that unfriendly, but that last one had left a bad taste in Emily’s mouth.

“What if I found a pair of guns?” Nicholas spoke up, snapping Emily awake from her memories.

“You’d have to fight your brother for them, dear,” Molly laughed. “And he still weighs a bit more than you do. Not that it would matter who got them, because where would you find the bullets, hmm? The blacksmiths that can make ammunition for those strange six-shooters are just as rare as the weapons themselves. Even if you found a blacksmith, how would pay him? With a favor? Lucifan is not a place that deals in favors, Nicholas.”

Nicholas slumped in his chair, defeated. Emily kept her mouth closed this time.

To say that she didn’t share his dream of being a gunslinger would be a lie, but then again, she dreamed of being anything that could take her away and give her the skills to live on her own—a gunslinger, a knight, even a thunderbird, anything that would allow her to escape and see the world at large. As a child, she used to play that she was a thunderbird flying high above the plains, squawking to warn others of her approach and clapping her hands to send lightning to the ground. She’d imagined flying to Lucifan to see the angels, across the ocean to some distant land, or to the Forest of Angor to see . . . well . . . whatever it was that lived there.

She wished she knew more about the world.

Molly rose from the table and swept away the bread crumbs. She collected the wooden plates and wiped them down with a damp cloth, because water was too sparse to rinse every dish daily. Emily and Nicholas needed no direction on what was expected of them next. Survival for them depended on hard work and competency—two things the Stout family prided itself on.

Emily and Nicholas let the backdoor squeak shut behind them as they went to the barn to grab their digging hoes. With a deep sigh, they went out to the field and began to till. They tore up the dirt with violent strokes, patch by patch, to prepare the soil for planting. It was hard work, to say the least, and it wasn’t long before Nicholas and Emily were giving the wooden plow near the barn longing glances. That tool would make the work easier, but it could only be used with the unicorns or by a minotaur. Of course, the behemoth migration kept their family unicorns out all day. So, for the first few days of scouting, everything had to be done by hand, and Nicholas wasted no opportunity to gleefully comment on how backbreaking the work was.

Emily’s mother joined them shortly, and the sounds of blowing wind, creaking wood, and rustling grass clashed with the grunts of harsh labor.

“Why can’t we just wait until after the behemoth season is past?” Nicholas whined. “I mean, they only pass by our farm for a week. Can’t we wait just one week?”

Emily’s mother paused in her stokes and caught her breath before answering.

“We go through this every year, Nicholas. You know full well we can’t afford to fall behind a week. Don’t bring it up again, or I’ll take the rolling pin to you.”

And that was that. Nicholas’ mouth snapped shut, and his hoe hit the ground a moment later. Mother’s word was law, especially when it was backed by a threat. It was enough to make Emily smirk, until Mother looked her way.

They labored through the day and sweated buckets in the burning sun. It was no different than any other year, though, and Emily actually found herself having an easier time. The one day off she’d had riding with her father had been a vast relief. Her legs might be stiff, but her back and arms felt rejuvenated, rather than burdened with another day of fatigue. Not that it made the work tolerable. Sweat still dripped down her back to mat her clothes to her body and down her forehead to burn her eyes.

Was this going to be her life? Every year since she could remember, she’d been biting into the dirt with tools and only now, after tasting one day of freedom, did she realize the life that could be had. She longed to be back atop a unicorn, riding into the wind. She wanted to scout every day, visit the city of Lucifan, and meet strangers from strange lands.

But that life was not hers. She was a farmer, and a poor, plains farmer at that. Her next strike to the dirt was powered with frustration.

“Emily, look!” Nicholas said.

Emily’s head popped up and followed her brother’s pointed finger to the north through the fields. Her eyes caught the distinct figure of a gunslinger ambling towards their farm atop a unicorn. The leather overcoat and wide-brimmed hat were all too easy to recognize, flapping in the wind, while the sun reflected on the metal handles of the six-shooters at his waist. He had to hold one hand to his hat to keep it from blowing off in the wind. With the other, he held the unicorn’s reins and steered the creature toward the Stout farm at a walk. The gunslinger bobbed and swayed, slumping forward in his saddle as if sitting tall and proud were too difficult a task.

“Back to work, children,” Molly said, dropping her hoe to meet the approaching gunslinger.

Emily and Nicholas went back to digging, but their strikes were horrible, because they were tilting their heads to watch the scene. Molly stopped in the shade created by the barn’s overhang and waited for the gunslinger to finish his stroll. When he came close, Emily and Nicholas slowed their work even further to better hear the conversation.

“Good day, madam,” the gunslinger said politely in a deep voice.

The gunslinger tilted his hat up, and Emily saw the aged lines of an old man’s face. His skin was wrinkled, and his cheeks drooped, but even at this distance Emily could see his eyes were soft and friendly. The gunslinger rocked in his saddle, and the effort it took to tilt his hat seemed to be as hard for him as it would be for Emily to till the entire field.

“Good day,” Molly nodded. “Looking for a place to stay?”

“Actually, for work,” he sighed.

“Work?” she tilted her head. “Pardon me, but aren’t you a bit old to still be looking for work, gunslinger?”

“I’ll admit I’ve seen better days. But I’m in need of work, and so I’ve come to offer my services,” he tipped his hat.

“Well as you can see,” Molly sighed, gesturing to the farm behind her, “or perhaps your eyes have aged too much, as well, we aren’t a family capable of paying for such services. You can’t stay here either. We don’t have the room.”

“Oh,” the old man replied, sounding both surprised and disappointed.

He looked down, his head disappearing beneath his hat and casting shadows down his body. From the way his shoulders slouched, it looked to Emily as if he’d just been told he’d not live to see another day.

Emily and Nicholas had stopped working. Their hoes sat motionless on the ground while they leaned on the staffs, watching the scene unfold. Emily had never seen such a polite and emotional gunslinger. Most of them carried themselves with an air of distinction, an aura of privilege, like they had earned the right to look down on others. As Emily looked at this aged man, she wondered if it was his age that had breached the stone heart most gunslingers built for themselves.

If so, that same power now breached Emily’s mother. She looked down and gave a great sigh.

“Look, perhaps we got off on the wrong foot. I’m Molly Stout,” she said.

“Jonathon Bagster,” the gunslinger replied, lifting his head and offering his hand.

“I’ll tell you what, John,” Molly reached up and accepted the handshake. “Why don’t you stay with us for the evening? Just one, and then you can get a good start tomorrow morning. You can pay for a night?”

“I can, and thank you,” he said. “That would be most kind of you.”

Emily and Nicholas stood up straight and looked at each other, their mouths dropping completely open. A gunslinger staying at their house? Oh, the stories, the adventures! She wanted to ask him what he’d done and if he had been to the city. He must have so many stories, and she couldn’t wait to hear all of them!

“Hey!” Molly scolded. “Back to work!”

Nicholas and Emily frantically swept up their hoes and went back to striking the dirt. They dug fast at first, as if a little added effort could make up for the time they’d spent staring slack-jawed, but they still risked glances over their shoulders to watch the gunslinger walk his weary unicorn to the barn. Their digging was back to a normal pace by the time he was walking to the porch to take cover in the shade. Emily’s mother brought him a cup of water from the well and a wooden chair from the kitchen before walking back out to the field to resume her work.

As John eased back into the chair, his long overcoat rolled back to reveal his two six-shooters. They dangled from their holsters as if they were made from solid gold. Nicholas’ jaw fell open, and he stopped moving to stare unabashed.

“Nicholas!” Molly said. “He’s a guest. Show some respect.”

Nicholas looked down and started working again. Emily did her best to keep her eyes forward, too. To say that their work was less efficient with a gunslinger on their porch would be an understatement, but their mother did not scold them for being slower. If anything, she was only mildly annoyed and perhaps even happy that the two of them could continue their chores without exchanging words.

Fortunately, they didn’t have to work for long. In no time at all, the sun finished its rise to power, and the trio broke for lunch. With panting breaths, they retreated to the sanctuary of the house to eat bread and drink water. To Emily and her brother’s excitement, the gunslinger joined them at the table.

A full five seconds passed before Nicholas burst into questions.

“Where did you get your guns? How long have you been a gunslinger? Who taught you how to shoot?”

“Nicholas!” Molly yelled.

John laughed—the sound of phlegm building in his lungs—and then coughed.

“It’s okay, Ms. Stout,” he said. “I was young, too, once.”

He turned towards Nicholas’ eager eyes and leaned forward. Emily leaned forward, too, with ears perked to hear every detail.

“I got my pistols from my mother, who’s long since passed. She was also the one who taught me to shoot, and I’ve been riding since I was about twenty years old.”

“My brother’s almost that old,” Nicholas said.

“Well, that’s good for him. Many good things happen to us at twenty seasons.”

Nicholas took in a breath to ask more questions, but John cut him off by turning to Emily.

“And what do you want to know? I’m sure you have questions of your own.”

Emily’s voice evaporated like a shallow water hole in midsummer heat. Under the full attention of the gunslinger, she could not remember a single question she wanted to ask him.

“Well,” he raised his eyebrows, “there must be something?”

His question broke the dam.

“Where have you been? Have you been to the city? What’s beyond the plains? What have you seen?” she flooded.

“Ah, you wish to know about Lucifan, the grandest city in world, or so they say? I take it you’ve never been?”

Emily looked at her mother, and for once, Molly seemed a tad embarrassed.

“No,” Emily said, “but my older brother told me what it’s like.”

“Well, I’m sure he didn’t exaggerate. I’ve never been to another city, but I’m told by travelers there is none other like it. Lucifan is huge and covered in buildings that dwarf your barn—no offense. There are ogre mercenaries, gargoyle guards, and towering colossi. Have you ever seen a colossus up close? What am I saying? Of course you haven’t. They are like giant human statues that can move—and I do mean giant. They are perhaps ten times taller than you and guard the city. Still, they pale in comparison to the majestic angels. I’ve only seen one in passing, at a distance, but that was enough. You can feel their presence in the air, I swear it, though I know several leprechauns who disagree with me. I think it’s all that gold they hoard that gets to their head, or the vampires they do business with.”

Emily’s heart beat with vigor, and her mind swarmed with images. She felt lightheaded and yet craved more. She swallowed to prevent herself from drooling.

“And the forest?” she pressed. “Have you been to Angor?”

“Yes, but only once. There, I saw—”

“Okay!” Molly cut in, throwing her arms up. “I think that’s enough storytelling for today!”

The trio balked and looked to Molly, puzzlement in their eyes.

“I mean, this farm won’t run itself,” she shrugged and stood. “Come, come, we’ve got more work to do.”

John took a sharp breath and gave a low nod.

“Yes, of course,” he said, taking a stand as well. “My apologies, Ms. Stout.”

Emily’s head dropped and her heart sank.

“But, but, but—” Nicholas started.

“Now, don’t delay,” Emily’s mother was already pulling them up from their chairs. “There’ll be more time for stories later. Go on.”

Emily and Nicholas were practically shoved out the door, the squeak of it closing behind them sounding sharper than she remembered. The two stood on the back porch and exchanged a bewildered glance.

What did the gunslinger say that so upset Mother? Emily thought. Nicholas’ face seemed to have the same question written on it, and when neither said anything, she gave him a shrug. Then the door opened again, and Molly strode through it. She looked at her children who turned their questioning faces back towards her.

“Please, you two,” she sighed. “We have a lot of work to do.”

Emily and Nicholas slouched but made no other gesture of defiance. Resentfully, they walked back out into the sun’s burning embrace and grabbed up their digging hoes. This time, John did not take a seat on the back porch, and Emily had a feeling it was her mother who had requested such inaction.

In complete silence and unison, tools bit the dirt once again.

“This is such a load of unicorn crap,” Nicholas whispered.

“Couldn’t agree more,” Emily muttered back.

The sun was on the descent now, and the lingering afternoon heat boiled their tempers. Neither Emily nor Nicholas would vent their frustrations so easily, though, and they kept their anger to themselves. Hopefully, she would get to finish her questions in the evening. Maybe Mother would be less jumpy with Father around.

“Huh, what is it now?” Molly asked.

Emily jolted her head up, expecting to see the gunslinger walking out from the house. She saw nothing and looked to her mother to see what had caught her attention. Molly was looking west, and Emily saw a rider bolting towards their property. As the figure came closer, Emily could see that it was either Abe or her dad. They looked a lot alike. Both of them were skinny, even for a plainsman (because only the rich could afford to be fat on the plains), both were the same height, and both had short hair.

The distance closed rapidly, and it turned out to be Paul who was riding at full gallop. The beard, which only grew out from his chin, was a dead giveaway.

As he got closer, Emily could see a look of terror on his face.

“Molly!” he shouted.

Emily’s mother dropped her tool and ran to her husband.

“What? What?” she asked back, her tone instantly matching his. “Has something happened to Abraham? Is he hurt?”

“No, he’s fine. It’s the behemoths. The herd Emily and I found yesterday is passing by our farm, and one split off from the pack.”

Molly shook her head and looked confused.

“Isn’t that a good thing?” she asked. “I mean, don’t behemoths only split from the pack when they’re going to die?”

“Yes, but it won’t die for another day or two and . . .”

Paul stopped and bit back his words.

“What, Paul? What? Say it.”

“It’s coming straight for our farm,” he sighed. “It’s going to trample our home.”

Chapter 4

Emily, Nicholas, and their mother gasped and looked at each other, not wanting to believe what they had just heard. Emily could hardly fathom the thought. She couldn’t imagine their farm without a house. Where would they store food? Everything they owned was in that house. The barn was close by, so would the behemoth trample that, too? What about the water well? If that was destroyed, they’d die without help. All of this ran through Emily’s mind in the blink of an eye, and all the fatigue she’d gathered that day was flushed from her system.

“Paul, how do you know that?” Molly asked. “I mean, couldn’t it just pass by us?”

“We’ve been following it, hoping just that. I really hoped so, but, honestly, if it isn’t stopped, it’s going to walk right into either the house or the barn. This beast is wide enough, and with its tail, it might crush them both.”

Molly clenched her jaw, and Paul let her take it in. Emily had absorbed all she’d needed to know, though, and ran to her mother’s side.

“What do we need to do?” Emily asked. “Clear the barn or the house first?”

Paul glanced at his daughter but then looked to Molly. He gave her a meaningful stare, and the worry on her face quickly changed to apprehension.

“That might not be necessary,” he said to Emily. “There is one way to stop it.”

“Paul, no,” Molly replied sternly.

“Eh-hurm,” came a cough from behind them.

Four heads turned to see the gunslinger, John Bagster, walking down the porch. The spurs on his boots clinked, mixing with the sound of creaking wood until his feet touched the ground.

“Looks like you’ll need my services after all,” he called out, tipping his hat.

He walked slowly across the field, and Emily felt certain he was hiding a limp in his right leg. The gunslinger tightened his belt as he came close, and Paul turned to look at Molly, the obvious question lingering in his gaze. Molly just gave a shrug, and that seemed to be answer enough.

“Uh, sir,” Paul began. “As much as we need you, we won’t be able to afford such a deed.”

“But dad!” Nicholas called out, running up now, too. “If he doesn’t help us, we’ll lose our house!”

Paul looked at Molly, then back to Nicholas.

“Not necess—”

“Don’t worry folks!” John cut in, finally reaching them. “I’ll gladly save your home for free. Your wife here was good enough to offer me water, food, and shelter for the night. You can consider this my payment for your hospitality.”

Emily’s mother sighed in relief.

“Oh, thank you!” she cried out.

“That’s very generous of you.” Paul also sighed. “I will be forever in your debt. Honestly, I’ll find some way to repay you for this. You have my thanks.”

Emily and Nicholas jumped in joy and hugged each other. At first it was in celebration of their home being saved, but then it was in anticipation of what they were about to see.

The gunslinger adjusted his belt again and then pulled out his pistols one at a time. He carefully opened and rotated the six-barreled cylinder in one, checking to make sure it was fully loaded, before moving on to the other. However, when he brought the pistols close to his face and squinted at each passing bullet, Emily’s faith faltered. A similar skepticism also echoed throughout her family, and Paul cleared his throat.

“Uh, what was your name?” he asked.

“John,” said the gunslinger. “John Bagster.”

“Paul Stout,” Emily’s father finished the introduction.

The Stouts watched John spin his six-shooters cylinders again before clicking them closed. He blinked a lot after and then squinted into the distance. No behemoth could be seen yet, but the horizon was obscured by hills and heat. Paul was looking the aged gunslinger over and licked his lips with unsaid words. Finally, he just spoke plainly.

“Are you sure you’re in good enough condition for this?” he asked. “The behemoth may be close to giving out, but he’s a full grown male with a horn so large that his eyes are partially covered. You’ll need good sight and aim.”

The gunslinger continued to stare into the distance for a moment before turning to Emily’s father and releasing a heavy sigh.

“I know my eyes aren’t what they used to be,” he said regretfully, “but I know of no other life than the one I’ve been living. I got twelve bullets, but I only have to hit once. I’ll take those odds any day.”

Paul didn’t have a response to that. He swallowed and nodded, and John returned that nod, making shadows play across his face. Then a soft thud was heard in the distance, and every head turned towards it. There was another, and then another, a thud that was deep yet muffled. It was rhythmic and grew louder, and all attention was drawn west. Emily spotted her brother, Abe, riding towards them at a full gallop, and over a hill behind him came a behemoth trudging through the untilled fields towards their home.

Emily took a second to recognize it, but this was the behemoth that had been leading the herd Emily and her father had found, and he was a huge beast. He was larger than any other behemoth Emily had seen. His lumbering belly was so large that it dragged, flattening the ground before his massive tail could. Emily could see the ground shake where he stepped, and his horn was so large that he had to shake his head from side to side just to see what was ahead. If that behemoth saw six humans, two unicorns, a house, and a barn, he seemed none too concerned about it.

As Abe approached, another set of thuds joined the behemoth, these ones quick and rapid.

“Father!” he shouted. “It’s coming! It’s coming! What are we going to do?”

He reared the unicorn to a stop when he reached his family and paused at the sight of John. The moment it took to recognize a gunslinger was followed by shock, then awe, and finally relief. The gunslinger took all these into account and nodded at Abe. John tilted his hat down and started to walk towards the lumbering beast.

“Oh,” the gunslinger said, turning back. “Can you take my unicorn out of the barn, just in case?”

“Yes, of course,” Molly replied.

The gunslinger nodded a thank you and continued his walk towards the approaching behemoth.

“Nicholas,” Paul said. “Go and fetch the unicorn.”

“But Father! I might miss the gunslinger.”

“Well then, you better hurry.”

Nicholas sighed but took off at a dead run towards the barn. Emily never took her eyes off of John and the behemoth.

“Molly?” Paul whispered.

“Yes?”

“Maybe you should be ready, just in case.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Paul.”

The sternness in her voice said otherwise, and her two children risked a quick glance at their parents.

“Molly, please,” Paul pleaded. “I just think it might be safer if you were ready, just in case.”

“Paul,” Molly’s voice deepened, “stop.”

Emily couldn’t figure out what to watch. In front of her, she was going to witness a gunslinger take down a behemoth for the first time, but behind her, her parents were discussing a secret she’d never known existed. She and Abe—switching between the two—were ignored. A moment later, Nicholas returned to the group leading John’s unicorn.

“Whew!” he said. “I’m not going to miss it!”

John walked slowly out into the fields. The clink of spurs faded as the rumble of behemoth steps grew louder. John made it to end of the field, which was a good eighty paces away, and then pulled out his pistols and waited for the behemoth.

The beast didn’t keep him long. Its steps were just as slow as John’s, but each one ate up the distance like a unicorn at a gallop. The ground itself was clearly beginning to shake now, and the shudders it sent through the dirt were affecting the aged gunslinger, and when there were only a good forty paces between John and the behemoth, he stumbled and had to widen his stance and bend his knees to hold still.

“Shoot, man, shoot,” Paul whispered through clenched teeth.

The gunslinger brought his pistols up, preferring one while holding the other at the ready. As he tried to aim, the behemoth took another large step and slammed it into the dirt. The shudder vibrated everything, and the gunslinger made his first shot.

A loud bang split the constant thuds, and Emily and her brothers jumped. None of them had heard a pistol fired before, and the noise startled them all. It was loud enough to leave a faint ringing in her ears, and Emily watched a puff of black smoke exit the pistol to float into the air. The wind disbursed it quickly, though, and Emily held her breath in anticipation of seeing the huge behemoth drop dead in its tracks with a bullet through its eye.

Yet it kept walking. In fact, it seemed entirely unaffected. The behemoth took another step and opened its mouth to let out a low moan. The sound was deep, like thunder, only pitched with a voice.

“It’s warning him,” Paul said, fearful. “It’s warning him to move.”

The gunslinger cocked the hammer back on his second pistol and took aim. The behemoth’s next step shook the ground again, and John’s arm wavered as he struggled to hold the pistol and himself straight and level. The behemoth was only twenty paces from the gunslinger now. John fired, splitting the air with another bang and releasing black, powdery smoke into the air.

A burst of dust cracked off the behemoth’s horn. The behemoth lifted its head up and bellowed deeply. Still unharmed, it lumbered forward.

“Damn it, man!” Paul yelled. “You old fool! Get out of the way!”

John must have heard Emily’s father, for he made one last shot, and then tried to stumble out of the way. It was too late, though. The behemoth had warned him twice and survived three shots fired from the old gunslinger, but now it was out for blood.

With a burst of speed that Emily did not know behemoths were capable of, it barreled forward and covered the rest of the paces in a few steps. With monstrous strength, the behemoth thrust its massive horn into the gunslinger. The horn was as big as John, and when it struck him, Emily could practically feel the blow. She screamed, and the family huddled close as they watched John’s lifeless body fly into the wind. He tumbled and spun, and then crashed into a heavy heap upon the earth. The behemoth snorted its victory and then lumbered onwards, straight towards their home.

“Damn it,” Paul shook his head, eyes on the dead gunslinger.

“He’s dead,” Nicholas’ voice trembled. “He’s . . . he’s really dead.”

“What do we do?” Emily asked, voice barely above a whisper.

The Stout family drew close. The unicorns were whinnying and flinching now, nervous energy coursing through them as the behemoth continued to close the distance.

“Molly!” Paul yelled.

“Paul, I can’t! The children will see!”

The ground shook as the behemoth took another step. The unicorns started fighting a bit. They yanked lightly at their keepers, trying to move out of the way of the encroaching behemoth. They would never make the gunslinger’s mistake.

“Molly, I’m sorry,” Paul pleaded again. “You can’t keep this hidden forever. Stop worrying about them and save us, please!”

Emily’s mother said nothing. All of her children stared at her with wide eyes. The ground shook again.

“Mother, what’s Father talking about?” Abe asked.

Molly didn’t answer, her attention on the behemoth. It was a mere sixty paces from their home now, and it bellowed a warning cry to the family.

“Move! Everyone move!” Paul said and pushed them out of the way.

They ran to the side, taking the unicorns with them—the beasts were all too happy to be out of the way. Now only Molly, their barn, and their home were left in the behemoth’s path, none of which moved as the behemoth took another step.

“Molly!” Paul cried out.

The ground shook again.

“Damn it! Alright!” Molly shouted and thrust her hands down in anger.

Emily watched her mother turn and storm off to the house with angry strides. She threw the back door open, nearly throwing it off its hinges, and disappeared inside. Emily and all of her siblings turned to look at their father, but he kept his eyes on the door.

“Father, what’s going on?” Emily asked.

“Your mother is going to save our home,” he replied.

“What doesn’t she want us to see?” Abe asked.

“You’ll find out soon enough,” Paul sighed. “And she thought you all were adventurous before.”

Emily shook her head, unable to make sense of her father’s vague statement. He wouldn’t meet any of their eyes, though, and the siblings turned back to the house to see the backdoor squeak open again. Molly stepped through, looking just as she did before, only now she had a thick string in one hand, a curved bow in the other, and a quiver of arrows slung over her shoulder.

All three children let their mouths drop to the ground, and to Emily, the entire world faded to center around her mother. The Stouts had a bow? Her mother could use a bow? How could she hide that? Where did that come from? Emily’s mind reeled with questions, but she was too shocked to speak words through open mouth. With great effort, she looked back to her father, but he still would not meet her gaze. He kept calm, and his grip on his children tightened, holding them well out of the way of the behemoth’s path. The unicorns jerked a bit more in fear, but they were out of the way, and their owners held them steady.

Molly walked back out to the field and stared the behemoth down. It was close to the barn now, walking next to the structure and still heading for the house. Its heavy steps were making the barn shake and sending puffs of dust off the roof. Even the house was trembling now, and the behemoth took another step before bellowing a warning cry.

“Hurry, Molly!” Paul yelled.

Molly knelt down before the behemoth and placed one end of the curved bow into the ground. She notched the string to one end, bent the bow back, and notched it to the other. She stood back up, drew an arrow, and nocked it to the string.

The behemoth shook its head and snorted, preparing to charge.

“Mother!” Emily and her brothers yelled.

Molly brought the bow up and pulled the string back, bringing the arrow’s feathers to her eye. The ground shook again as the behemoth took one more step and bellowed one last war cry. Then it charged—horn aimed low to skewer the human that dared to block its path—and Molly released the string.

Emily, Abraham, and Nicholas watched in total terror and awe as the wooden arrow shot through the air at a blinding speed, soared across the field and scraped along the behemoth’s horn before burying itself deep into its right eye. The behemoth’s charge was brought to a dead stop as it jerked in pain, roaring and lifting itself up on its hind legs. It bellowed until its feet crashed to the ground again, rocking the world so thoroughly that Molly fell to one knee and Emily and the others stumbled.

The behemoth thrashed its head from side to side, taking a step back as if that could dislodge the short stick that was completely embedded in its eye. One of the beast’s legs gave out, and Emily could see its strength crumbling. However, the fight had yet to leave it, and the behemoth crashed its horn through the side of the barn. The barn took that blow, at first, but when the behemoth drew its head out, the horn ripped the roof apart. In unison, both the behemoth and the barn collapsed to the ground, sending a cloud of dust across the fields in all directions.

As the wind swept the cloud away, Emily saw the behemoth lying alongside the ruins of their barn. The beast let out one last breath and then lay still forever. In the first time in what seemed like ages, there was total silence. Only the wind and time kept moving forward.

“Mother!” the children cried.

Emily ran to her mother. Paul took the unicorns’ reins from Abe and Nicholas so they could join the pursuit. The trio crashed into their mother’s arms and wrapped her in a hug. Emily’s vision blurred, and only then did she realize just how scared she’d been.

“I didn’t know you could use a bow!” Abe said.

“Where did you learn to do that?” Nicholas shouted.

“Why didn’t you tell us?” Emily asked.

Emily’s mother favored each of them with a glance and then looked up at the barn and the behemoth corpse settled into the dirt. She sighed and then looked to Paul, approaching with the unicorns in tow.

“Abe, Nicholas, Emily. Go bury poor John before a banshee rises,” she said. “Give the guns to your father.”

At any other point in time, the trio might have argued with their mother to let them keep the guns. Instead, they just nodded.

“After that, we’ll go inside,” she continued. “I’m sure you have lots of questions.”

Chapter 5

Paul tied the unicorns to the back porch while Emily and her brothers quickly dug a grave for John beside their house. Their mother went inside, likely not wanting her presence to distract her children. If anything, though, it would have hastened their pace. With three of them digging and pressing questions filling their minds, the siblings dug a grave for John in rapid time. Paul stood over them as they searched the dead gunslinger before placing him in the ground.

“The gunslinger didn’t have any spare rounds,” Paul noted, looking the guns over. “I’m surprised he risked the bullets, and his life, to save us. I wish he hadn’t.”

They found a few other possessions on John and tucked away in the pack on his unicorn. There were the usual items one expected to find on a lone traveler, such as a waterskin, tinder to make fire, a knife, some food rations, sewing supplies, candles, steel mirror, and rope. There were some items unique to a gunslinger, such as parchment and ink for writing contracts. Emily was surprised to find the gunslinger was nearly broke. He had about as much coin left on him as the Stout family had altogether, which Emily thought was rather poor for a gunslinger.

“No wonder he asked Mother for work,” Nicholas whispered to his sister. “He was desperate.”

“Desperate and lonely,” Emily replied, seeing her father sigh as John’s pack was emptied.

What Paul had been looking for and could not find was a letter or writ of some kind explaining who and where John Bagster’s surviving family was. Some travelers on the Great Plains kept such things on them, some indication of who they were, but John had none. That was especially unusual because of his age, but Paul figured it was probably because he either had no surviving family or didn’t care to leave them anything.

Abe, Nicholas, and Emily watched, completely absorbed, as Paul placed the gunslinger’s pistols into his pack. He met their gaze only once and sighed at their hungry faces before pushing them inside the house. Soon after, the whole family was seated at the home’s only table. A few seconds ticked by in silence as Emily and her brothers waited for an explanation—an answer to the obvious questions they held. Emily’s mother looked at their intense faces, and they could see guilt in hers.

“You knew you’d have to tell them one day,” Paul said. “It was only a matter of time.”

Molly sighed again. She looked up at her daughter and two sons.

“Yes, but I didn’t think it would be now. They already want to leave, Paul. How can I stop them?”

“You can’t,” he touched her hand. “You never could, not any more than your own mother could stop us. Yet, even if you could stop them, hiding this won’t keep them here.”

Emily looked to her brothers. Their slack jaws and wide eyes mirrored her captivation. Hardly a one of them blinked.

“I suppose you’re right,” Molly sighed. “Abraham, Nicholas, Emily . . . I’m sorry I never told any of you, but I wasn’t born on the Great Plains. Your father was. We met in Lucifan, but I wasn’t born there either. I’m, I’m from another land far off.”

Emily’s mouth had gone dry, and the silence rang deafening in her ears. She’d never asked her parents where they were born, because she’d never thought they were from anywhere else but here. Judging by the look on her brothers’ faces, they’d thought the same. Why wouldn’t they? The Great Plains had always been their home—their entire life. Now, they knew their mother didn’t share that with them, and they were as shocked as they were jealous.

“Where are you from, Mother?” Nicholas asked.

“A place far south of the Forest of Angor. I was born an amazon.”

“An amazon?” Abe asked. “I’ve heard that term before in Lucifan. What are they?”

Emily’s mother took another deep breath. This was something she’d kept hidden for a long time, and it seemed that telling it now was like pulling teeth.

“The amazons are a people comprised of women, and only women. We,” she paused, “they, are warriors who live in the deep jungles to the far south. We call it Themiscyra, both the city and the lands around it.”

Emily, Nicholas, and Abraham took a moment to comprehend what their mother was saying. They knew there were places further than the forest, but they had rarely contemplated what they were. To be entirely honest, Emily wasn’t quite sure what a jungle was.

“Why didn’t you tell us?” Emily asked. “Why would you hide that?”

“It’s not that simple,” she said. “Well, actually, I suppose it is. The truth is that I didn’t want you to know—or anyone else for that matter. I put that life behind me a long time ago when I ran away with your father.”

“Wait!” Nicholas gaped. “Why’d you have to run away? Did they not like Father?”

“Amazons aren’t allowed to marry. It’s not our way. We don’t take husbands, and we give our sons away to surrounding villages in the jungle. I decided I loved your father too much for that, though, and so I left without a trace. I didn’t want them coming to find me and trying to take me back. I didn’t tell any of our neighbors, so word wouldn’t travel, and we even hid it from Paul’s parents for a few years just to be sure.”

Molly and Paul’s hands exchanged a squeeze. She looked to him for comfort, and he gave it to her in a curt nod.

“If amazons are from the jungle,” Abe asked, “what were you doing in Lucifan?”

“Some amazons travel there once a year.”

“Just once?” Emily asked. “Why?”

Molly buried her forehead into her palm with her free hand and sighed. Paul looked like he was trying to hide a smile.

“Go on,” he said. “Tell them. They’ll just ask for themselves when they go to Lucifan.”

“A group of amazons goes to Lucifan once every year to meet men,” Molly mumbled. “Some go just for the fun of it—the chance to travel and see the city—but most go to meet other warriors from around the world and have children. The men there are considered a pleasant change of pace and, well, better stock than the men in villages around Themiscyra.”

There was a moment of silence again, but to Emily the world was alight with noise. Her head felt so crammed full of disbelief she felt it would burst. How could Mother hide something like this from her? She was a warrior from some distant land, capable of downing a behemoth with a single arrow, and she’d hid that from her kids for what? So that she wouldn’t have to be embarrassed? It didn’t make any sense to Emily. It seemed like the most pitiful excuse in the world. Didn’t their mother know just how much they craved information about the world?

Of course she knew, Emily realized, and she hid that from us.

Emily’s bewilderment turned to anger. She remembered all the times she’d asked her mother about the world and had been denied. Now suddenly, Emily felt like her whole life had been a lie. Not just hers but Nicholas’, too. How many questions had he asked that she’d secretly wondered about, too? Countless, surely. Their mother had pretended not to know, though, and Emily felt a sharp betrayal at that thought.

Molly, in turn, watched these thoughts swarm over her daughter’s face, and those of Nicholas and Abraham. She pursed her lips and drew in a breath.

“I’m sorry,” Emily’s mother said, barely above a whisper. “I’m sorry I never told any of you.”

“Is that where you learned to shoot a bow?” Nicholas asked.

“Yes. All amazons are taught to use a bow from birth. It’s as much a part of us as six-shooters are to gunslingers, or swords are to knights. We also use knives—big hunting knives that we can fight with.”

Emily wanted to ask more about the world, but her anger was seething. She was still trying to absorb the truth that had been hidden from her and her siblings for their whole life. The house creaked, and another long pause ensued. When it finished, Paul gave his wife’s hand another squeeze.

“It’s going to get worse, Molly,” Paul said.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Mr. Bagster didn’t have much on him except for his pistols. Now we need money for a new barn and also to hire a minotaur to plow the fields. Fortunately, our plow wasn’t in the barn when it tumbled down, but there’s no way we can plow the whole farm and build a new barn at the same time.”

Paul was giving Molly a meaningful stare, but its meaning was elusive. Everyone stared blankly at Paul until he spoke again.

“We’re going to have to pack up all that behemoth meat and sell it in Lucifan.”

The children sighed in frustration, seeing their meals of smoking meat disappear. Was it not enough that they were lied to? Now they had to go yet another year surviving with half rations of bread and corn before the new crops grew in. Their groans were superseded, however, when their mother seized up with unreasonable concern.

“This week?” she gasped. “Paul, we can’t go this week! Can’t it wait?”

“No, Molly, we’re already behind as it is. You know that. If we don’t plow now, we’ll be off for the harvest, and we can’t risk that. We’re too short on food supplies as it is, and one dead behemoth won’t cover that, not for five of us, not while we have a barn to rebuild.”

Molly took her hand from Paul’s and buried her face completely this time. She shook her head, her short hair waving about her cheeks, cursing quietly into her palms.

“What’s wrong with going this week?” Emily asked.

“This is when the amazons are in Lucifan,” Paul answered for his wife. “There’s a good chance we’ll run into them when we’re traveling through there.”

“Ah!” Abe jutted in, slamming his fist on the table. “That’s why!”

All attention switched to Abraham, and he retracted slightly at the sudden shift.

“Uh, I mean, well, last time we were at the city, this leprechaun was eyeing me. She said I was cute, and that I should come back to Lucifan this week for a good time.”

Molly groaned into her hands before dropping her elbows onto the table.

“Will they try to hurt you, Mother?” Nicholas asked, fearful.

“No, no dear,” she said, lifting her head up. “They’ve long since stopped caring about me.”

Quickly and unintentionally, Molly’s eyes flicked to Emily before going back to Nicholas.

“Well, if they don’t care anymore, what’s wrong with us going?” Abe asked.

Emily’s mother tried to stop herself, but her eyes fell on Emily again. Emily met her gaze and stared back. What are you not telling me now?

“It doesn’t matter. We have to go to the market anyway,” Molly said. “But Emily and Nicholas are staying.”

“What! Why?” Nicholas shouted.

“Not this time, Molly. We have to bring them,” Paul said. “There’s a whole cartload of meat that needs to be packed and transported. We need everyone.”

The two exchanged a glance that, to Emily, looked like a contest of wills. Emily had seen it before when their parents had disagreed, and she held her breath despite knowing that it was usually their mother who won those brief battles. Paul didn’t give up, though. He held his gaze steady.

“You can’t keep her away forever,” he whispered.

Nicholas and Abe looked confused, and then followed their mother’s gaze to their sister. However, Emily did not shrink back from the attention. Her anger had returned.

“What’s going on?” she demanded.

Molly took another deep breath, and it seemed for a moment that all would be explained. Then she suddenly stood out of her chair and turned to the door.

“Come on,” she said, tilting her head. “We have to pack up all that meat if we’re going to leave by tomorrow morning.”

Without another word, she walked out of the house and into the sunlight, letting the backdoor squeak closed behind her. In unison, the children rotated their heads to look at their father. He opened his mouth and drew in a breath, but then closed it again and breathed out loudly. Then he, too, got up.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go help your mother.”

He walked out and let the door squeak and slam behind him, too. A moment later, with Abe first, the two brothers rose from their chairs to follow their parents outside. They stopped to give Emily a shrug at the door, but that did little to comfort her. She stayed until they had both left. She looked into her hands and tried to piece back together the life she’d had just one hour ago, but it had fallen apart, shattered because it had not been real.

And to be entirely honest, she wasn’t all that upset about it. She’d find out the truth soon enough. She promised herself she would. And when she did find out whatever it was, she’d . . . well, she wasn’t exactly sure what she’d do.

 

  • * *

 

By morning, with skill, teamwork, and unified silence, the meat was stripped off the behemoth, salted, and packed away in crates that were normally reserved for crops. The hardest part had actually been just getting to the meat itself, because nothing manmade could pierce behemoth hide. Fortunately, a behemoth’s stomach was just as vulnerable as its eyes, so the family latched hooks onto the behemoth and used the unicorns to roll the beast over. That took a lot of effort in and of itself, and by the time the crates were being stacked onto their unicorn-drawn cart to be hauled away, the entire family was near the point of collapse. Any anger that Emily could have had was sapped from exhaustion, and she slept soundly for the few hours she was given before the family was roused and started heading northeast to the city of Lucifan. The family walked beside the cart, because the huge stacks of plump meat were almost too much for the unicorns to bear. Raw meat was much heavier than plants.

Fortunately, John Bagster’s unicorn was there to help. At first it felt wrong, as if they were stealing from the dead man who’d given his life to save their home, even if he was unsuccessful at it. However, with no letter of his family or word from him, there was nothing else to do but give the unicorn a home, hitch it to the wagon, and travel north across the rolling, golden hills of the plains.

The Great Plains didn’t have an actual name like the forest or the city. It wasn’t important or interesting enough for anyone to give it a name. It was forgettable, dull, and void of value. It wasn’t like Lucifan, the city where angels had descended from the sky and a utopia of trade had gathered. The port city controlled the only bay and, therefore, was the only place along the Great Plains with access to markets overseas. Emily didn’t know what any of them were, and she only had a vague sense that they even existed.

For now, she was preoccupied with thinking about the city, and only the city. Her previous thoughts of her mother’s secrecy had evaporated first due to the work and then had been pushed aside as Emily realized she was traveling towards the grandest city in the world. It would be one entire day’s travel to get to Lucifan, and once there, they would stop along the road outside the city at dusk, for her parents said it was too dangerous to go inside at night. They would enter at first light and sell their meat throughout the day. Emily listened intently, her anticipation a drum banging out all other thoughts.

She was finally going to see Lucifan! She was finally going beyond the plains! She kept quickening her steps and having to slow down to keep pace with the cart, her previous night’s fatigue discarded. To climb the hills, the family had to get behind the cart and help push it up, and when they got to the top, Emily turned to peek out across the land, waiting to get a sight of the grand metropolis. She wanted to see the buildings of stone, the knights in shining armor, and hopefully a pegasus, too! Ogres, leprechauns, pirates, vikings, anything and everything was just a day away! She wanted to see it all and talk to everyone—family secrets be damned. The world was waiting for her!

However, Emily soon found that over every hill was just another hill. Down into one valley and up the other side, they walked on for hours, pushing the cart up the hills, following it down and then back up again. After each hill, Emily was finding it easier and easier to keep her pace at the cart’s speed. By midday, she found it difficult to keep up. As the sun began its descent, Emily and Nicholas began to exchange sweat-drenched glances through heavy breaths. No wonder their parents hadn’t let them come until they were older.

“Mother, I was thinking,” Abe broke the silence after a few heavy breaths.

“Yes, Abraham?” she asked.

Abe paused, trying to think of how best to form his question, or perhaps just to catch his breath. He rubbed his chin in nervousness. Abraham was starting to grow a beard like his father, and he scratched the tiny hairs there.

“Perhaps in Lucifan, Nicholas and I could go search for a blacksmith,” he said.

Emily’s mother was quick to catch on to his thinking and shook her head.

“I’m sorry, boys,” she said. “We’re selling the six-shooters at the market along with the meat.”

Nicholas and Abe gasped and froze in place. They stood there for a second, mouths open in shock. The cart continued to pace on without them until they recovered enough to dash forward.

“But, Mother,” Nicholas started, “Father?”

Paul looked away, unwilling to verbally end his sons’ dreams, so Molly took up the difficult task.

“Listen, you two,” she said. “We don’t have the money to pay for bullets. After nine shots, those guns would be worthless to us. If we don’t sell them now, we’ll just end up selling them later. Not to mention that we need the money now, badly. We have a new barn to buy and a minotaur to hire. Not to mention with what those guns are worth, we’ll be able to eat well all year.”

Abe went silent, and Nicholas’ shoulders sunk. In unison, their heads hung so low that they risked kicking themselves in the face as they walked. Neither Molly nor Paul offered any condolences to lessen the blow. Emily felt guilty for being unable to help her brothers. Being a gunslinger had been their dream, and now they were as close as they had ever been, yet still too far away.

With even less cheer than before, the sun and the Stout family continued their journey. They climbed and descended hills through the limitless expanse of the plains until it seemed there was no point in traveling at all. The entire idea had become absurd to Emily, and for the slightest moment, she wondered why she had wanted this. Then they climbed the next hill and down the other side, and Emily saw the grand city of Lucifan in all its glory.

Chapter 6

Lucifan was huge. It sprawled out from ocean’s edge in a half circle, taking up the majority of the land that comprised the bay. The buildings were bigger than Emily imagined, and there were so many of them. They were built so close together that they turned the land grey with their stone walls. The buildings in the center of the half circle were the largest, towering over the others, with one central tower standing highest above them all. From there, the structures seemed to stair-step down across the large city from massive mansions to lofty taverns, all the way down to tiny houses smaller than Emily’s home that surrounded the city like a giant apron. At this distance, she could see crowds of what looked like tiny dots—whether people or creatures, she couldn’t be sure—in the narrow streets. The city pushed right up to the shore, and long docks extended out into to the water towards the several dozen ships waiting there. All around, the landscape sloped at a steady grade down to the city and thus to the shore. Finally, Emily could see what a bay actually looked like and not just what her brother had told her.

Out beyond the bay and city were the cliffs that kept the people of the Great Plains high above the crashing ocean. The cliffs, extending north and south, came close to each other but did not touch, which left a gap that looked as if it had been eroded away by the constant waves. It was through that break in the cliffs that water had escaped and created a bay. The plains, as if knowing this was meant to be, sloped down toward the shores to meet the water’s embrace. The violent waves were kept away, out of reach from the precious docks, and Emily could see all of this from the basin’s edge.

“Well, we made it,” said Paul through heavy breaths.

Emily peeled her eyes away from the city for a moment to look at Nicholas. His mouth was wide open like hers, and his eyes never blinked, despite the wind. Abe was smiling at his brother and sister, doubtless thinking of how he had looked when he’d first laid eyes on the city. Emily looked to her mother and saw a blank expression. She showed neither guilt nor fear, neither happiness nor hope. It seemed she had given her life to fate, which was something Emily had never seen her mother do before.

“It’s so big!” Nicholas shouted. “The buildings! Wow!”

Abe stepped forward and wrapped an arm around his brother’s shoulders.

“Look over there, between that big, black building and the white one.” Abe pointed with his finger.

“Where, oh there?”

“Yes. See that big thing walking through the streets. That’s a colossus.”

Nicholas gasped, “I thought that was a big statue! I didn’t even realize it was moving!”

Emily followed Abe’s directions and saw a large statue shaped like a man. It towered over all, even most of the buildings. Then she saw it was moving and took in a sharp breath. Its slow steps reminded Emily of the behemoths, and in her mind, she knew the colossus was passing over buildings in a single step.

“Just wait until we get into the city. You can feel them walking around,” Abe’s own voice was quivering with excitement.

Emily realized her heart was still pounding. It had been pumping hard from all the walking and pushing the cart, but it hadn’t calmed down upon seeing Lucifan. Emily put her hand to her chest to feel it. This was the most amazing thing she’d seen in her life, without a doubt. There was nothing she’d ever seen that she could compare to this moment, except her own mother shooting a bow, and she stared at every inch of the city to take it all in. Emily knew in that instant she would never forget the first time she saw the city of Lucifan.

“Alright, we’ll sleep here for the night and go into the city at first light,” Paul ordered.

Emily and Nicholas were slow to respond, and they kept sneaking glances at the city, but eventually their bedrolls were laid out around the cart, the unicorns were untethered and fed, and the food distributed. A few pieces of the behemoth meat were taken out for the occasion, and Emily savored every bite, because this was the only time this year that she’d be able to eat it. In the morning, the rest of the delicious meat would be sold at the market.

“Okay Emily, Nicholas,” Molly said. “There are a few things you need to know before we go into the city tomorrow.”

Emily and Nicholas perked up their ears.

“First things first, stay close to us,” she began. “The city is huge. There are a lot of people, among other things, and it is very easy to get lost.”

Emily and Nicholas nodded vigorously as their mother continued.

“Stay away from the buildings. It will be daytime when we go in, so the gargoyles won’t be active, but there will be ogres and other guards who won’t be kind if you are unwelcome. Don’t be fooled if someone tries to beckon you, either. If they want to talk to you, they can come to us, okay?”

Emily and Nicholas nodded again.

“Actually, it’s probably better if you don’t touch anything, talk to anyone, or leave our side at all.”

“Awww,” Emily and Nicholas whined.

“Look, it’s very dangerous inside the city if you don’t know your way around. If you do want to check something, ask us first, and we’ll let Abraham take you to see it.”

Emily and Nicholas agreed to that, not that they had much choice. They would rather go with Abe anyway.

The sun set low, and in the last throws of daylight, the Stout family finished tying down for the night. They curled up in their blankets underneath the stars and closed their eyes.

Emily barely slept at all. The excitement of seeing Lucifan kept her blood flowing fast, and she had to resist the urge to twitch, toss, and turn every five seconds. Nicholas had the same experience, but the previous night’s lack of sleep and the day’s long toil wove powerful spells. Before Emily knew it, she was knocked out cold with everyone else until daybreak.

Paul was the first to wake, followed by his wife, and then finally the children. Emily and Nicholas didn’t need much rousing and were already packing up their few belongings before Abe was out of his bedroll. The two even had the unicorns brushed and hitched to the cart by the time Paul broke into the morning’s breakfast. Their eagerness was to be expected, though, and hardly a word was shared as the family prepared to travel the short distance left to the city’s market. With anxious eyes, Emily followed the cart as it was led down the steady grade toward Lucifan.

It wasn’t a steep hill, but the declining earth made for a potentially costly hazard. If one of the unicorns made a wrong step, there was nothing the Stouts would be able to do except put it out of its misery. The cart was heavy enough to do that kind of damage, and no one was going to buy an injured unicorn on a hillside. So they took their time despite how little patience the two youngest had.

The sun was rising up out of the ocean and caused the long shadows of the buildings to cascade over their arrival. Other families were joining theirs, people from all over the Great Plains come to sell their goods in the city. Like Emily’s family, they awoke with the sun and descended down the steady slopes with whatever they’d come to sell. Emily saw more unicorn-drawn carts; some were loaded with behemoth meat like theirs, but others had more practical goods, some clothes here, furniture there—and some carts came empty, showing who was here to buy rather than sell. Emily took in as much as she could before their descent caused her to lose her sweeping view of the city, and now she could only see the buildings in front of her and the silhouettes of the tall buildings beyond those. Lucifan was, Emily thought, even grander to see in this fashion. The large, close-set buildings looked like a giant permeable wall guarding the treasures of the world.

The outskirts of the city were the residential quarters. People lived in tiny houses scattered around the city and harbor like the wheat fields surrounded Emily’s home. As the family neared the city, Emily could see people leaving their homes and locking their doors behind them before joining the growing throng of travelers on the streets. Emily blinked at what she saw, only just now realizing her home’s doors had no locks. The Great Plains were too open to worry about thievery, not to mention there was hardly anything in her family’s home worth stealing. Emily thought it was a real shame that the people of Lucifan had to live in such fear.

Emily’s family, like most of the other travelers, avoided most of the residential quarters and took the main road that led into the city. It was clearly marked as the ground was trampled dead and flat, providing a lone yet wide road straight toward the open market. That was where Emily’s parents were heading, and they were hurrying now, because Lucifan was stirring awake.

As the cart of behemoth meat crept through the streets, shops began to open, and people began to fill the streets. Carts were being hauled out and set up alongside the road, and voices began to fill the air. There were shops for cups, plates, tools, animals, weapons, food, drinks, labor, flowers, jewelry, clothes, and so much more. Emily felt bombarded by everything she saw, her head constantly twisting and arching to get a view of one thing, only to be vastly distracted by another. A flashing necklace here, shining armor and swords over there, a beautiful gown hung high overhead; it seemed Lucifan had a store for everything. If it existed and could be sold, one could surely buy it in Lucifan. The only exception to that was slavery, something the angels would never allow.

Like the shops, the people were a flood as well. They gathered in the streets, moving about quickly to bring in merchandise or purchase goods. There were so many people—more people than Emily had ever seen, let alone met. She was shocked by the number of bodies that flowed around her. There was every type of being imaginable, too, from every class and status she could think of. There were poor in the streets, begging for money in tattered clothes covered in dirt and soot. There were fearsome warriors for hire, flexing their muscles and sharpening their blades. There were the wealthy, the rich men and women, easy to recognize in their unicorn-drawn carriages. Even beyond that, they were easy to see with their extravagant clothing that covered their entire bodies in a vibrant display of color. The wealthier men wore pants and coats that looked as if they’d never known dirt, and the women wore dresses that were so wide and colorful that Emily could not imagine how they moved.

Emily also noticed their hair. Every girl she saw grew her hair out long, way past her shoulders. One woman had her hair grown out so long that a servant followed behind her and carried the load. Emily and Nicholas had laughed at that until their mother gave them a stern look.

They continued on, and the buildings began to rise around them. The streets also became wider, and more people flocked about them.

“This way,” Paul said.

They had, at last, reached the market square. It was an open lot near the center of the city designed specifically for people to stop and sell their goods, or so Abe had told her. Paul led the unicorns off to the side of the busy highway and onto an open patch of dirt.

“We’ll set up shop here,” he said. “This is one of the busier sections of the city, so we should be able to sell all of the meat. We’ll see plenty of minotaurs, too, so we shouldn’t have much trouble hiring one.”

Emily and her family began to unpack their load. They stacked the crates up against the cart and tied their bedrolls together to make a cheap awning over their shop. They seemed to have arrived just in time, for as soon as they started to offload their meat, other groups were rolling through the streets to select their sites. One group of merchants with a cartload of skins glared at the family, and Emily assumed that this was their normal location. The merchants moved on without a word, though, and Emily’s parents began to sell.

“Fresh behemoth meat!” Molly yelled. “Killed not two days ago! Very fresh! Already rubbed with salt!”

Others began to yell, too, and suddenly the square turned into a thunderstorm. The low murmur of chatter in the busy streets increased when all the vendors started trying to yell over each other.

“Leviathan meat! Fresh from the sea!”

“Griffin claws! Sure to cure your illness! Very rare! Only two left, folks! Get them now!”

“Get your gems! Lovely rubies from Savara’s tombs and dwarven diamonds mined from Khaz Mal!”

Emily looked around at the buildings that surrounded the market square. Some were small, like the houses, but others were larger—much larger. One particular building had a cascade of steps leading up to its entrance and thick columns of stone that supported a grand entrance. Emily stared at it long enough to catch Abe’s interest.

“Do you know what that is?” he asked.

“Of course not,” she smiled. “I’ve never been here.”

Abe shrugged at the obvious and walked over to his sister.

“That’s one of the banks,” he said. “People who have too much money store it there.”

Emily’s eyes widened at the concept. So much money you had to store it in another building? Not even the richest family on the plains, who hired multiple gunslingers, needed to store their extra money somewhere else. Emily couldn’t even imagine such wealth.

“And look on top,” Abe pointed. “Those are gargoyles.”

Emily looked on the roof of the bank and saw a couple of stone statues. They were grotesque looking creatures with featherless wings that wrapped around them. They squatted on two long, skinny legs that ended in talon-like hooks. Even their hands looked more like claws, and their arms were just as long and skinny as their legs. The gargoyles looked nearly starved, and their thin figures added a deathly look to their already gruesome features. But nothing was as frightening as their heads. Their skin was pulled tight over their skulls making their eyes appear larger than normal. Their pointed ears didn’t even look strange next to their other features. Some gargoyles had their mouths open in a screech, others had twisted smiles, but all had a mouth full of razor sharp teeth that interlocked in a viscous fashion.

Emily shuddered at the sight of them.

“Don’t worry,” Abe said. “They turn to stone during the day. It’s only at night when they come to life. The owners use them as guards.”

Emily shook her head and pitied the poor soul that attempted to steal from that bank at night. Emily wondered if the gargoyles were still conscious when they turned to stone, or if they slept like humans in a deep slumber.

“How do people guard their buildings during the day?” Emily asked.

Abraham shrugged.

“Some hire ogres, some hire ex-knights. There are minotaurs, too. Some owners are fierce enough to guard their own merchandise during the day.”

“Abraham!” Molly called. “This man wants three crates of meat. Please help load them into his cart.”

Abe turned to leave, and Emily took another look at the bank and at the fearsome gargoyles.

Just then, she stumbled. At first, she wasn’t sure what she’d tripped over, but then the earth moved again, and Emily realized that something was shaking the ground. She looked around for a behemoth but then realized she was in Lucifan. Behemoths didn’t travel this far north. The ground shook again, and she looked up.

Over one of the small buildings, Emily caught a glimpse of a colossus walking through a nearby street. Its huge stone arms swung slowly as it strode over the buildings, and its feet made a thud that accompanied its quaking steps. Not even the biggest behemoth that Emily had seen could make that sound with one step. She watched until it passed out of sight behind more buildings, but still she felt its every step. The buildings in Lucifan must have been built with remarkable skill, Emily thought, to survive the passing colossi day after day.

Emily let the feeling of marvel pass over her before she looked back out to the market streets. The square was being crammed with yet more people, and Emily had never seen so many in all her life, especially not all at once. There were more than just humans, too. She saw a group of minotaurs trudging through the streets—calm in their expressions and strides—letting their thick cords of muscle show on their towering, hairy figures. Minotaurs were like men, but much taller and covered in shorthaired fur, which could be any shade of brown, though Emily had heard that white and black ones did exist. Their heads had the snout of a unicorn, and their feet were hooved. Also, all male minotaurs sprouted two large horns just above their ears that twisted up and then forward, making the curved shape of a pistol. They had a tail, which was as long as a human’s arm but did not appear so due to their size. If minotaurs didn’t wear clothing and walk and speak like humans, they might be mistaken for livestock. However, they were solitary creatures and rarely spoke unless pressed to. When they did speak, their voices were deep and their speech slow. They had a reputation as being expensive to hire, but the muscle a minotaur could provide was worth the extra coin they charged and the short temper they had. If Emily’s family made enough money from selling this meat, they’d hire one for sure.

The minotaurs were obviously looking for work. They walked tall and slow, even slower than normal. Some of them carried large axes, and Emily was surprised to see that. Minotaurs rarely carried weapons on the plains, since their sheer size was often protection enough. The city must be a very dangerous place if even minotaurs had to arm themselves.

Next, Emily saw creatures she at first thought were gnomes but then realized were too tall and not nearly hairy enough. They walked around in cheap suits with top hats and were always followed by a cart full of something. Though some had a cigar in their hand or mouth, they did not appear rich. Unlike the other wealthy men and women she’d seen, none of the short men wore any jewelry of any kind. Not a single one had on a ring, necklace, bracelet or earring. However, that did not stop most of them from entering the bank before heading out into the streets.

“That’s a leprechaun,” Paul whispered to her. “Very rich merchants, and if you’re not careful, they’ll scam you out of everything you own.”

One of the leprechauns approached their cart and looked at their merchandise as if he’d never seen such a pathetic stock in his life. He scowled and wrinkled his nose before clearing his throat, as if the mere action of conversation was a difficult task.

“Is this what passes for behemoth meat on the plains?” the leprechaun stated more than asked.

Emily’s father was not moved in the slightest. He’d spent his entire life haggling crops in the city streets and bet his hunger on every bargain. He scratched his beard but otherwise gave the little man barely a glance before responding.

“Save your breath, leprechaun,” he said. “This meat will sell by the end of the day with or without your purchases. Pay the price or be on your way.”

The leprechaun gave no visual expression, but Emily could have sworn that she saw his eyebrow cock up ever so slightly.

“That’s too bad, farmer,” he said. “I was interested in purchasing your entire stock.”

Without another word, the leprechaun turned and walked away. Nicholas grabbed onto his father’s shirt and gave it a tug.

“Father!” he whispered. “Did you hear that? He said he was going to buy it all!”

“I know what he said,” Paul whispered back, pulling Nicholas’ hand loose. “Trust me. If he wants the whole cart, he’ll come back.”

Emily watched the leprechaun casually stroll back to his cart and clap his hands to someone out of sight. From out of the shadows between two buildings, a monster stepped out into the light towards the beckoning merchant.

It was humanoid and as muscled as a minotaur, though not as tall or big. Its skin had a purple tone and was completely hairless. Its thick arms and legs of muscle and mass ended in finger and toe nails that were either filed to a point or naturally grew that way. Each limb had only four fingers and four toes, and they were all the same length: short and thick. The creature had sunken, yellow eyes that were buried into a wide face with an equally massive mouth. From the lower jaw, two teeth sprung up out of the mouth and over the lips, like upside down fangs. In its hand was a massive blade that looked less like a sword and more like a chunk of metal grinded to an edge. The weapon was short, thick, and dull, and yet none of this seemed to lessen its deadly appearance.

“What,” Emily stuttered. “What is that?”

It was all she could manage to ask, and her mother knew exactly what her daughter was referring to.

“That’s an ogre, Emily,” she said. “They’re like small minotaurs, only without honor and a lot uglier. They don’t kill out of duty like a minotaur, either; an ogre will do it for free and with a smile on its face. Be very careful around them.”

No wonder the leprechauns hired ogres to guard them, Emily thought. She tried to think of the courage, or foolishness, it took to steal from the wealthy in Lucifan. Between gargoyles, colossi, and ogres, surely all the thieves should be dead by now. Yet some must be alive and practicing their trade, for there wouldn’t be so many guards if thievery was not prevalent.

Emily felt energized by all the sights, and her hunger for the unknown was fueled by what she’d seen. Fortunately, the city seemed to have an endless supply of visitors from around the world, and all were attracted by the crates of behemoth meat. As more people came to purchase a crate or more, one particular human stood out from the rest when he approached.

“Would you like some fresh behemoth meat, sir?” Paul asked.

The man was dressed in loose, baggy clothes that hung about his figure in a drab fashion. He also had a wide-brimmed hat with an exotic feather sticking out of it. Unlike her father and brother, this man was heavyset and grew out a short mustache, and he’d braided the small beard on his chin into one strand. That strand had a small diamond at the base of it, and that was by far the smallest jewel the man carried. His ears were studded with rubies, and he had rings on every finger. This man was not like the leprechauns; he did not hide his wealth, but brazenly flashed it out for all to see. However, he was certainty no merchant or noble. He carried a wicked, curved blade at his side, and although it also had a handle studded with jewels, the sword looked ready for use. As he leaned over to peer at the meat, Emily saw a hidden dagger beneath his loose clothing. When he straightened up again, Emily saw a pistol at his side. It wasn’t a six-shooter and could only fire one shot, but it was a pistol nonetheless.

The man looked at Emily, and catching his eye, she looked down in embarrassment at his leather boots and saw the very tip of a blade handle sticking out from one of them. He chuckled at Emily’s reaction to yet another hidden knife.

“Cute daughter, farmer,” he said.

“Yes, she is, pirate,” Paul said.

Despite the man’s plethora of hidden weapons, Emily’s father showed no fear. The pirate must have found this attitude something to be admired because he steered the conversation to a friendlier tone.

“Cute face that is, but she’s lacking a bit in the meat department,” he explained. “See, I like me women with some cushion around the edges. More of them to love, you see? There’s nothing like a girl who will keep you warm in the winter and give you shade in the summer.”

The pirate demonstrated with lavish hand movements, and Emily laughed. She couldn’t be sure if the exaggeration was intentional, but she loved the joke all the same. The pirate gave Emily a smile and a wink.

“We’ll have to agree to disagree on that one,” Paul said.

“Have to say, farmer, you’re missing out!” the pirate tisked. “I married a woman once who was so large that she carried me in one arm and a barrel of rum in the other! Best voyage I ever had, not a doubt. Course, I had to divorce her when the rum ran out, you know, on account of the rum being gone.”

“My condolences for your loss,” Paul muttered. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m rather busy. Is there something you would like to purchase?”

“I have a crew what just got in,” the man said. “We’ll be headed out for the biggest score of their life soon, and they be hungry, to say the least. Since we can’t be going over to The Kraken’s Eye, I’d say some tasty behemoth meat be just what they need. I’ll take five crates.”

“That can be arranged,” Molly cut in. “What are you paying in?”

The man pulled a pouch out from under his baggy clothing, and Emily wondered just how many more weapons and pouches the man had hidden in his baggy clothes. With a casual toss, the pouch was dropped onto one of the crates as if it meant nothing to its owner. The pouch landed with a loud smack, and the impact opened its top. Emily peered in and saw the bag was full of small diamonds.

Molly swept up the pouch and picked through the contents.

“Had a good haul on the high seas, did you?” she asked.

“Oy! Course!” he snorted. “I am Captain Mosley after all.”

He grinned in all the glory he felt he was earning, but Emily’s mother simply nodded at the comment.

“This will suffice. You can take your crates.”

Captain Mosley whistled across the way, and six men—all dressed as fiercely as their captain, though with less jewelry—came over and hauled the crates up with greedy hands. The pirates laughed at the contents, and more than one whistled at Emily and her mother. Abraham’s face burned red with anger, but neither of Emily’s parents seemed to notice any of it. With more whistling and a few crude jokes, they finally strode away with their food. Captain Mosley gave a final farewell to the Stouts by taking off his hat and bowing low. Then he followed his crew east out of the market square.

When they were safely out of sight, Molly shuddered.

“Pirates,” she said it as if it were a swear word. “Scum of the world, I tell you. They’d rob a baby blind just to pay for a drop of booze.”

“I consider vikings to be worse,” Paul countered.

“Psh, at least vikings have a spine. Pirates would rather run than fight fair.”

“Hence why I consider vikings to be worse.”

Emily looked in the direction the seven men had gone and wondered where they were off to. Where did they travel that brought them such riches? She didn’t envy their behavior, but she wished to travel with them if only to see where they went. The pirates had carried their crates east towards the sea and, Emily assumed, towards their ship. Then, it dawned on her; she still hadn’t visited the ocean.

Chapter 7

“Mother!” Emily yelled.

“What?” Molly whirled around, eyes alight. “What is it?”

Emily reined in her excitement and bit her lip in embarrassment. Hasty requests were not well rewarded, especially not when they were mistakenly interpreted as signs of distress. Molly saw that her daughter wasn’t dying and let one eye narrow.

“Would it be okay if Abe took me and Nicholas down to see the ocean?”

Molly sighed, likely knowing it was only a matter of time for this question to be asked. She faked consideration, looked around to see if there was any work to do, and glanced at her husband to see if he had any disagreements. Paul simply shrugged and turned back to haggling with the leprechaun who had returned. Molly turned back to her children.

“Sure, but be careful,” she said. “Stay close to Abraham and don’t run off. It’s very dangerous in the city if you’re not careful.”

Emily and Nicholas jumped for joy and shouted their solemn pledge to obey their older brother. Abe smiled, too, happy to take leave of work and see the sights with his siblings.

“This way!” Abe yelled and led them off into the crowds.

He took them through the market toward another main road that led east to the docks. They were unable to walk next to each other in the thick crowds, so they had to form a line. The people always parted for minotaurs and ogres, but farmers were just things in the way. More than once, Emily had to hop to the side to avoid crashing into another person. She kept one hand on her older brother’s shirt and held Nicholas’ hand with the other. They snaked through the gaps and disappeared from their parents’ sight almost instantly.

Emily tried to look ahead and around as they walked east toward the sea, hoping to catch sight of more new and exciting stuff. She tried to think of things her older brother had told her about and started to search for them. She still hadn’t seen any knights yet, and, of course, there were the angels and the vampires. She knew there was little chance of seeing either of those two, though. Vampires didn’t come out during the day, seeing how light could kill them, and the angels were the rulers of the city. They rarely came out for any reason, according to the stories Abe had heard.

Fortunately, she had a good chance of seeing a knight. Abe told her they patrolled the streets regularly, so she kept her eyes open and searching. It was not an easy task given the thick crowds slowly closing in on them. Emily was surprised that the throng of bodies could get worse, but it seemed that the market square had actually been spacious when compared to the narrow streets, especially this busy highway, which had a steady flow of carts being dragged through it. There were far too many people to be pushed aside for all the merchandise being dragged between the market square and the sea.

And the noise, Emily was not used to so much noise. The yelling was getting worse with every added body, and people were shouting over each other just to be heard a pace away. Out on the plains, Emily had begun to find the ceaseless wind to be an annoyance, but this constant bickering and haggling was dragging on her patience. The sights were amazing without a doubt, but the tension and desperation in the air set a rather despairing mood, a sort of thunderbird-eat-thunderbird world where only the strongest (and loudest) would survive.

Amongst all the chatter and the creak of wooden wheels, Emily heard something new nearby. It was the sharp sound of metal striking metal in a slow, rhythmic pattern. Abe noticed it, too, and he turned his head so fast Emily thought it might snap off. Emily tried to see the source of the noise, but the crowd was being pushed back again as another cart was led through the streets. It was a leprechaun’s cart—full of wooden kegs—and had three ogre guards. The crowd wordlessly gave way when the purple beasts flashed their yellow tusks and eyes. Emily looked to Abe to see what he thought of the ogres, but he was using his height to look for the source of the sound of striking metal.

“It’s a blacksmith!” he cried out. “Come on!”

“What about the ocean?” Nicholas asked.

“What if the blacksmith knows about six-shooters?” Abe countered.

Nicholas gasped his surprise and exposed his eagerness with a wide grin. The leprechaun’s cart finished passing by, and the crowd poured into the gap behind it. Emily’s trio pushed forward toward the blacksmith, using the sharp striking sounds as their guide. They crept closer and closer until finally they reached the blacksmith’s shop.

Emily was surprised to see that it was an open shop. There was no door or walls, just a long bench that separated the blacksmith’s tools and items from the crowds. Emily saw a few weapons—some swords, but mostly daggers—but also a few shields and many other common household items such as pots, pans, unicorn shoes, shovels, and even a fire poker. In the center, the blacksmith was leaning over an anvil, banging away at something unseen while his forge sat just arm’s length away. Emily could only imagine how hot the thing was. She could feel the heat from shop’s edge. Yet it was the shop’s openness that held her attention. Everything Emily had learned so far about Lucifan told her that a shop like this would close down due to thievery within an hour, but the blacksmith hardly turned when he noticed the trio approach him. He did glance long enough to recognize their trademark clothes: tattered pants, overalls, linen shirts, and straw hats. He’d known they were farmers in a heartbeat.

“Unicorn shoes are ten a piece,” he shouted to them and turned back to his work.

“We’re not here to buy unicorn shoes, sir,” Abe said.

His voice was overly exaggerated, and the blacksmith would have had to be deaf not to pick up on it. He turned to look at Abe, and Emily noticed he was a big man with broad shoulders and heavy arms. He had probably earned them from years of beating metal into the shape that was needed. Although his head was clean shaven, he had a large, black beard. At least, Emily thought it was black. He was covered from head to toe in soot and dirt, so the beard’s real color could have been disguised. His bald head was sweating profusely, and he wiped a hand over it, leaving a dark patch of grime.

The blacksmith gave whatever he was working on a final slam with his hammer—Emily guessed it to be a sword, but that could have just been her fantasy. All she could say for sure was that the item was large, too large for a human, and extremely crude. Emily was instantly reminded of the ogre’s weapon she’d seen in the market square.

“I’m looking for a special item,” Abe leaned in. “Something rare.”

“I make all fashion of weapons and tools, farmer. I make crude blades for ogres, spokes for leprechauns’ carts, even plate armor and broadswords for knights. I’m sure if you need a round-nosed shovel, I can make it for you. Speak plainly or be off. You’re wasting my time.”

Emily balked at the blacksmith’s cutting tone and had to blink to shrug off the sting that followed. Skilled though he claimed to be, this blacksmith was very short on manners! Emily had half a mind to shout back at him, but her uncertainty gave her pause. If this man wasn’t boasting, then Emily could see why the blacksmith’s shop lay open. Providing arms and armor in this city was doubtless a steady business, and if he armed the powerful in Lucifan, then he might have more allies than the angels.

Emily looked to her older brother and found Abe was still recoiling at man’s sharp words. She nudged him, and he shook it off. She waited for him to say something, but his words faltered in his throat, and the blacksmith huffed and turned away. Perhaps they’d taken too much of his time, Emily thought, so she took over for her brother and tried a direct approach.

“Can you make bullets for a six-shooter?” she asked.

The blacksmith had been about to strike with his hammer again when he paused. He furrowed his brow before turning to look at them again, squinting one eye and examining the three stick-like farmers with renewed interest. None of them shrunk under his gaze this time, and the blacksmith licked his dirty lips before setting his hammer down. Slowly, he stepped forward until they wouldn’t have to yell at each other anymore to be heard over the crowd.

“Now, why would you need to know a thing like that?” he asked.

“Let’s just say I only lack the clothes to dress the part,” Abe winked.

The blacksmith paused again, looking from Abe to Emily to Nicholas. He fingered his beard with dirty hands and drew in a deep breath.

“I don’t make the bullets, or the guns,” he admitted, “but suppose I knew someone who did?”

“Where could I find him?”

“It’s simple really, if you know the way. I could tell you now. Just pay me the going rate for downing a behemoth, and you’ll soon be on your way.”

The blacksmith muttered the last part and waved his hand. He kept eye contact with Abe until the younger man broke his gaze to sigh at his siblings.

“Come on,” Abe said. “This conversation is over.”

The blacksmith shrugged and turned back to his work, grabbing a new piece of metal and throwing it into the hot coals of his kiln. The fires churned, belching new heat at the trio as they left.

“He wants us to pay him?” Nicholas asked, exasperated. “Just for information? A whole behemoth?”

“He has a right,” Abe sighed.

He pushed into the crowd, and Emily and Nicholas followed, reluctantly. Abe looked defeated to say the least, which was an interesting mirror to Nicholas’ frustration. Emily’s little brother didn’t even bother to wait until they were out of earshot to voice his anger.

“Well,” Nicholas scoffed, “that’s not fair!”

“I don’t think Lucifan runs on fair, Nicholas,” Emily said.

They resumed their walk to the sea, and Emily tried to forget about the blacksmith in the streets. If that blacksmith wanted to be paid a wealthy sum just to give directions, then he’d been eating the coals he was working with. How outrageous, Emily thought. Maybe to a gunslinger that sum was well worth the cost, but according to Emily’s mother, the Stout family wasn’t going to have the guns much longer anyway. The pistols would be sold along with the bullets and would be someone else’s problem. Hopefully, the buyers would have a few spare coins to get directions.

Maybe the guns would be better off sold, Emily thought. Her family was poor enough and could ill afford to be wasting any money—especially money they didn’t have—on a chance. Even if they did find a blacksmith who made bullets, those would probably cost a vast sum of money. Not to mention if Abe or Nicholas tried to use the six-shooters, they’d probably miss every shot. The eye of a behemoth was a tiny target that bobbed and weaved with every step. Emily hated to admit it, but maybe this dream of theirs was better left as a dream.

Stop it, Emily thought. She was starting to think like her mother, and that was something she never wanted to do. It was Molly’s job to discourage her children, not Emily’s. Maybe Abe’s chances were like throwing a stone at a thunderbird in the dark, but Emily would be taken by a banshee before she told either of her brothers to give up.

Emily looked up at Abe, hoping he’d see the forced cheer on her face, but her older brother was looking down as he walked. Even with his normally positive attitude, he could see his gunslinger dream stretching further and further out. Next to him, Nicholas looked equally distraught, and Emily knew what they hoped for. They both hoped that their parents wouldn’t find a buyer for the guns and that they could convince them to give it a chance, as slim as that chance may be. However, knowing that they wouldn’t even have the money to search for a blacksmith to make bullets, the prospect of success was rapidly disappearing. The Great Plains did that. It was a vast nothing that swallowed people and dreams whole.

Emily tried to swing her brothers’ thoughts away from the tragedy.

“How long until we get to the ocean?” Emily asked.

“It’s not far,” Abe replied.

Emily was going to ask Abe to describe the docks to her as they traveled, but there was a sharp whistle and a loud voice from behind them, booming with authority over all the noise in the street.

“Make way! The angels’ honorable knights are coming through!”

Nicholas gasped and promptly let go of Emily’s hand. Before she could turn to grab her younger brother, he darted back through the crowd toward the voice.

“Abe!” Emily shouted. “Abe! Nicholas is gone!”

“What?” he shouted and turned, searching the crowd. “Damn it! Nicholas!”

“He went towards the knights!”

Abe turned and followed Emily. She cursed Nicholas for his mischievous nature, shouted his name, and felt a pang of guilt for anything that might happen to him. Nicholas was supposed to be her responsibility, and she should have been prepared for this. Emily pushed through the throng toward the voice she’d heard, leaving her taller brother behind. It was easier for her to move forward than Abe, but the crowd was still fighting her. The masses were pushing back away from the voice, and Emily had to squeeze through every tiny gap to get ahead.

“Nicholas!” she yelled. “Get back here!”

“Knights coming through! Make way!” the voice yelled out again.

Emily pushed forward between another two people and reached the edge of the crowd. In front of her lay open space, and she stepped into it to see who was shouting. Instead, she saw the famous Knights of Lucifan.

There were ten of them, each one mounted on a pegasus. Emily knew they were pegasi for there was nothing else they could be. They looked just like unicorns, only instead of a horn sprouting from their head, they had a pair of feathered wings that extended from their shoulders. The feathers looked strange, because, although their color matched, the rest of the pegasus was covered in hair. There was one black pegasus, several mostly white ones, two brown ones, and one that was a patchwork of those colors. Their wings were folded in, scrunching up against their bodies like a thunderbird’s does when it’s on the ground. They walked with ease and did not appear to be bothered by their riders’ legs, which were hidden behind their wings. The weight of each rider seemed not to bother the pegasi either, and the riders must have been heavy, because they were knights in full armor.

They gleamed in the morning light, and the shine upon their armor ordained them as the soldiers of the angels. From neck to toe, they were covered in metal plates, connected at joints that allowed the knights to move freely. They had removed their helmets, which were casually folded under the arm each knight used to grip the reins. In their other hand, they held a lance pointed vertically toward the sky, and Emily marveled at the strength it must take to hold such a heavy weapon along with so much gear. They also carried a large shield on their backs and a heavy sword at their side.

They rode with an aura of power. The men had trimmed heads and shaved chins, which made them stand out. While nearly all men grew out a beard or mustache of some kind, the knights carried their shaved skin, which to Emily seemed to be a symbol of their status. The two female knights in the group had their hair cut like Emily’s, just long enough to rest on the shoulders.

All the knights had their heads raised up and their eyes forward, looking over the crowd. An air of superiority hung about them and rained down on the crowds. Their confidence was almost tangible. It seeped from their raised chins, their straight stature, and their unflinching eyes. It was mesmerizing and slightly hypnotizing. For a moment, Emily forgot to step back. As the crowd moved to allow the knights to pass, Emily faltered and continued to stare, but the man who had been shouting for people to ‘make way’ made quick work of her forgetfulness.

“Back! Make way for the Knights of Lucifan!” he yelled and made eye contact with Emily.

Emily blinked and turned to the man she hadn’t noticed until now. He was a short man with thick eyebrows walking on foot in front of the knights. He was not one of them, judging by his tunic and trousers, but the look on his face told Emily he took his work seriously. The man shooed people out of the way as he walked in front of the knights, yelling with the authority he clearly felt he possessed. Emily obliged him and stepped back, but she continued to gaze at the amazing knights, the warriors of the angels, the guardians of Lucifan. The crowd shifted again to make way, and out of that movement, Nicholas appeared.

He, like Emily, hadn’t moved back with the crowd. He stood solid and stared, mouth wide open in awe. The feelings of wonder were apparent on his face. His eyes were wide, despite the glare of the sun, which reflected off the knights’ polished armor. The crowd moved back once more, leaving Nicholas further exposed to the short, yelling man. He eyed Nicholas and shouted at him, but Nicholas was not listening. The boy had been struck by wonder and continued to stare unabashed.

“I said back!” the short man pulled back a hand to strike him.

“No!” Emily shouted.

She leaped out from the crowd, and her voice surprised the man who turned and watched as a young woman, almost of age, ran to the boy’s side and shielded him with her body. He seemed confused for a moment, but when he saw the resemblance between the two, he immediately understood her outbreak.

At first, he seemed to take pity on them, but then duty took hold, and he decided a lesson needed to be taught.

“Get back now!” he yelled and lifted a hand to strike the two down.

Emily closed her eyes and turned her head to shield the blow.

“Doles!” a commanding voice shouted.

The crowd’s constant chatter hushed to a murmur, and Emily risked a glance through one squinted eye.

“That is not how you treat a lady,” the new voice said again.

One of the knights circled around from behind the others and cantered over to the scene. His sudden break from formation had stirred the attention of all, but the knight seemed entirely unaware of all the eyes that followed him.

“My apologies, Sir Gavin,” Doles said, lowering his hand and standing at attention. “I just thought I would teach these two a lesson in manners.”

The knight simply nodded and looked down from his pegasus at the two farmers. Emily looked up at the knight, and felt her heart skip a beat.

He looked so unlike the other knights. Gavin was young for one—perhaps only a year older than Abraham—and so hadn’t lost his charm to the years of hard service written on the faces of the older knights he accompanied. His blonde hair had yet to be trimmed down, and it swept the top of his ears as he bent low to peer at Emily and her brother with a soft gaze and unscarred face. He had stubble on his chin, a broad smile accentuated perfectly by his chiseled chin, and light green eyes. It took Emily a moment to realize she’d stopped breathing.

He was, in a word, handsome.

“Are you alright, Miss?” the knight asked.

Emily blinked and lost her voice. Gavin looked concerned, and Emily had to shake her head slightly to regain her composure.

“Yes, I’m fine,” she said, and then added, “Thank you, Sir Gavin.”

Doles scowled, but no one took notice or seemed surprised.

“Are you really a knight?” Nicholas spoke up with a meek voice.

Gavin chuckled and leaned back in his saddle.

“Yes, I am. But you can call me Sir Gavin Shaw.”

“Emily! Nicholas!”

It was Abraham who’d shouted, and Emily turned to see her older brother fighting to push his way through the crowd. He was taller than most, but the circle about the knights had tightened as people hunched forward to see what was happening. Emily realized how incredibly quiet it was. All eyes had turned to watch the scene as it unfolded, and Emily suddenly felt her cheeks burning red at all the attention.

From behind Gavin, one of the other knights gave a deep grunt. Emily glanced around her handsome savior to see that one of the older knights—this one with a deep scar that ran from his ear to his chin—was breaking his cold stare to give Gavin an impatient glance. Gavin took note and turned quickly to Emily. His expression of concern changed to one of urgency and regret.

“I’m very sorry, Miss, but we must be on our way,” he said hastily.

If there was a hierarchy of authority amongst knights, then Gavin was apparently overstepping his boundaries. Emily nodded, and Gavin reluctantly turned to take up his former position. Then, a thought suddenly dawned on Emily.

“Sir Gavin?”

Gavin turned, raising an eyebrow.

“Are you headed east?” she asked.

Chapter 8

In short time, the knights resumed their march, and Doles was back to doing what he did best: ordering people to move out of the way. The knights followed behind him at a casual pace with their oldest members in front and their youngest, Sir Gavin Shaw and Sir Duncan Macalister, taking up the rear. Then, following right behind them were Emily, Abe, Nicholas, and whoever else was smart enough to use the knights as a wedge toward their location.

Gavin had been quick to introduce his friend, Duncan, and Emily guessed the two to be of a similar age. She smiled courteously, but the smile Duncan returned seemed more of a grimace to her. Unlike his friend, Duncan was cleanly shaven like the other knights and had a head of black, curly hair barely a finger’s width in length. His nose was wide and his ears a tad large, but what Emily noticed most was how rigidly Duncan sat in his saddle. The wooden boards nailed to the side of her house had more flexibility than this young knight.

This was certainly in stark contrast to Gavin, who leaned back and turned to Emily and her brothers often. He had a habit of speaking with one hand, too—always taking it off his pegasus’ reins to add emphasis to his words.

“You’ll have to excuse Doles,” Gavin said soon into the march. “He’s used to dealing with ogres giving him trouble, and I’m afraid he’s growing colder by the day. I’ll talk to him about this, I swear it.”

“Gavin, please,” Duncan whispered and shot his friend an accusing glance. “You’re already in enough trouble, I’m sure. Can you be quiet? Do you want to be demoted? You’re lucky Sir Mark isn’t here.”

“You’ll need to relax if you’re going to show any chivalry to our guests,” Gavin replied and gestured with a hand back towards the Stouts.

Duncan gave Gavin’s gesture a disapproving glance, as if the knights were not supposed to move from their authoritative positions. Gavin grinned back, and Emily found herself having trouble trying to piece together all the little silent arguments the two were having through looks alone. A moment later, Duncan sighed and turned his head back to Emily and her brothers.

“I’m terribly sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to be rude. It’s just that knights do not normally intervene in civil disputes.”

He was, of course, referring to Doles’ attempted attack and Gavin’s successful intervention. Emily resisted the urge to scoff, nodding instead.

“And hitting people is what you would call civil?” she asked.

Duncan’s jaw clenched, and a hint of embarrassment and surprise passed through his eyes. He looked sidelong at Gavin, who in turn flashed Emily an approving smile.

“Well, uh,” Duncan stumbled.

Gavin chuckled and slapped Duncan’s back, his metal gauntlet striking Duncan’s shield loud enough to ring across the crowds. The movement appeared a grand gesture given that Gavin was still the only knight to have moved in his saddle at all, and Duncan stared aghast at his friend while a few of the other knights turned back to give both of them a frown. Gavin shrugged apologetically and then chuckled quietly. It seemed he enjoyed riding in the back of the formation because it allowed him to do as he pleased. Poor Duncan was his only witness, sworn to suffer alongside him by some form of brotherhood.

They had only been walking for a little bit, but the going was fast. The crowd parted as Doles shouted, and the Stouts followed behind the knights, never needing to pause in their strides. Shaw looked ahead and then back to Emily.

“You still have not told me your name, my lady.”

Emily blushed, realizing she had forgotten her manners.

“Sorry, Sir Gavin,” she said. “My name is Emily Stout.”

Gavin took in the name as if it were a scent, breathing deeply the supposed fragrance that her name would possess.

“Miss Emily Stout,” he repeated. “What a lovely name.”

She smiled and tried to hide it with a hand. She knew Sir Gavin was flattering her, but she could not help but enjoy it thoroughly. She realized that Shaw had taken no effort to be formal with her brothers, but she rather liked the special treatment. It had an interesting way of making her feel as if she was above those around her, which made her feel guilty for enjoying it all. Abraham, on the other hand, looked about ready to start a fistfight with the knight.

“That’s my sister,” he said, then added, “Sir Gavin.”

Emily blushed red and, for the first time in her life, wished her brothers were not nearby. She resisted the urge to give Abe a shove, not wanting him to turn and berate her in front of this handsome knight. Fortunately, rebellious though Gavin seemed, he bowed his head low to Abe in a sign of respect.

“Of course,” he said. “I meant no intrusion, my good fellow. I was only doing what every man should: speak his mind.”

Gavin flashed another award-winning smile, and Emily melted in those eyes until she heard Duncan sigh long and heavy.

“You’re a hopeless romantic,” Duncan muttered.

“And you’re a bitter, married man,” Gavin replied.

“I’m not married. Who am I married to?”

“Rules and duty,” Gavin replied as if the answer were obvious. “And maybe Sir Mark, though I think to him you’re just a concubine.”

Duncan glared at his comrade, and Gavin laughed.

Emily laughed, too, and then suddenly noticed how quiet Nicholas was. She looked to her younger brother and found him still suffering from awe. His normally ceaseless chatter had been quelled in the shadow of these knights, sucking away his oblivious nature to make him unusually shy. Emily grinned at her brother and decided it was best not to disturb this newfound peace and quiet. She had more questions for Gavin and did not need any more of her brothers’ interference.

“Sir Gavin?”

“Yes, Miss Emily.”

She blushed at all the formality. She’d never been called ‘Miss’ so many times in her life, let alone by a handsome Knight of Lucifan.

“Have you ever met the angels?”

“Of course,” he said. “One is only promoted to knighthood by the authority of the angels. We are their weapon in the battle to keep Lucifan peaceful.”

“And how does one become a knight?”

Gavin turned his head to catch her eye, and she felt her heart jump. He did not smile, though, and turned back.

“You must be invited. One cannot petition to join the order, only be formally invited to be tested.”

Emily’s heart sank a bit. She’d never considered being a knight, not any more than being a gunslinger or anything else that would take her far and wide, but the idea had recently intrigued her. Or perhaps that had been Sir Gavin’s charming smile. She blushed and sighed at herself, knowing she was swooning, yet unable to stem the tide. Sixteen years of hardly leaving her little farm and now here she was, talking to a handsome knight in shining armor. Could anyone blame her?

“Then, if I may ask, how were you invited to join the knights?” she said.

This time, when Gavin looked back, he smiled before answering.

“Most people seeking to join the knights know of someone who can recommend them. Others, however, are witnessed participating in acts of sheer bravery and selflessness. I, unlike Sir Duncan Macalister, was not one of the individuals who knew someone.”

Emily watched Duncan shake his head ever so slightly. He seemed annoyed rather than insulted, and this appeared to have been Gavin’s goal. He turned back and grinned again at Emily.

She smiled back.

“So what act were you witnessed participating in, Sir Gavin?” Emily asked.

“I’m sorry, Miss Emily, but we will not have enough time for me to tell you that story. It is a good tale, and I wish to do it justice.”

Emily nodded and was only slightly saddened by the denial of a good story. She wondered what act Gavin had performed. What constituted an act of sheer bravery and selflessness in Lucifan? Had he captured a criminal or saved a life? Her mind wandered to extremes, picturing him sheltering an angel from an army of ogres or giving away barrels of food to starving children, yet still she thought her imagination too limited. She decided that if they ever met again, she would hear the tale in its entirety, and she would most certainly try and meet him again.

“Sir Gavin,” Duncan whispered.

Once he had Gavin’s attention, Duncan tilted his chin out toward something ahead. Gavin looked, arching up in his seat, and then slouched with a sigh.

“I am very sorry, Miss Emily,” Gavin said, “but I’m afraid the harbor is ahead. Wasn’t that your destination?”

“Yes, it was,” Emily nodded.

“Well, our destination is elsewhere. This is as far as we can escort you.”

As if to illustrate this, the formation of knights began to turn south around a corner, ever lead by Doles’ shouting voice. The right turn was far too soon, Emily thought, and she felt her window of time with Gavin closing. The Stouts stopped to watch them leave, and the crowd began to fill in around them. Emily scrambled for something to say.

“I hope to see you again!” she shouted.

“As do I, Miss Emily,” Gavin responded over the well of voices filling in between them. “As do I.”

Emily and her brothers continued to stare until the knights rode out of sight. Around them, the crowds of people had fully closed in on the open space. They were pressed in close again, and now that the knights were moving on, Nicholas once again found his voice.

“Emily’s got a boyfriend! Emily’s got a boyfriend!” he shouted and teased.

“Oh, grow up,” she said and then started walking towards the ocean.

 

  • * *

 

They reached the harbor shortly thereafter. Together, they walked out across the docks, sat on the wooden planks, and kicked their feet out over the water. Around them, people unloaded cargo from ships that came and went, dragging heavy carts that clacked noisily along the docks. There was just as much shouting here as there was in the streets, only now it was combined with the creak of wood and rope and the slap of ocean waves.

In a way, Emily thought as she gazed across the bay, the ocean seemed a lot like the Great Plains. It was a vast field of empty, rolling waves, which were occasionally disrupted by an isolated dot—on the plains a farmhouse or barn, here a ship. The difference being that the waves on the plains were yellow rather than blue, and they neither moved nor crashed upon the shores. Yet the noises were similar. There was the whisper of wind, the rustle of water (or grass on the plains), and the creak of wood. The similarities shocked her for a moment, but then became familiar, and she relaxed. Her eyes looked out across the ocean—at these things called ‘ships’—and began to wonder where they all came from. There were so many amazing things in Lucifan, so much she’d never heard of, and they all came from somewhere aboard these ships. Vividly, Emily began to understand just how full of wonder the world beyond the sea was, and she wished to see it with her own eyes. Of course, she’d just as willingly go north to the mountains, west to the forest, or south to the jungle. She just wanted to explore.

At what point does a desire become a need?

Emily contemplated this as the waves crashed beneath her and the smell of saltwater filled her nostrils and tickled her throat. Just like at home, she imagined for the hundredth time what it would be like to explore the world. She had wanted to see the city, and now she had. As it turned out, her older brother’s tales had paled in comparison to the actual sight of everything. Rather than quench her thirst, visiting Lucifan had only deepened her wanderlust.

She realized she could look at this ocean all day.

“Wow,” Nicholas said.

Emily nodded in agreement.

“It’s big, huh?” Abe said, smiling.

The three Stouts kicked and swung their feet over the edge of the docks and continued to stare out at the ocean. The vastness of it sucked up their attention, and barely a word was passed between them. Abraham let his siblings take in the wondrous sight of ships entering the harbor and huge crates being unloaded from ships. Emily watched one large crate being hoisted by a pulley and ropes onto the docks. There it was broken apart, and its contents turned out to be a load of scales from some creature Emily did not know. The scales were an arm’s length in width and were stacked into a nearby cart. She asked Abe what they were, but he didn’t notice. Emily contemplated yelling her question to the men working away, but changed her mind. Abe let his siblings watch the cart being hauled off into the city before he stood back up and brushed himself off.

“What was that?” Nicholas asked.

“Dragon scales, I think,” Abe shrugged. “I really don’t know. They could be anything. Well, alright, we better start heading back. It took us awhile to get here, so it’s going to take us awhile to get back. I’ll bet Mother and Father will need our help soon anyway.”

“Aahh,” Nicholas whined.

No further protest was made, and the trio was walking again. Emily looked back to the water once, watching the ocean disappear when they re-entered the crowded streets. Emily’s mind wandered, and she was soon thinking about Sir Gavin Shaw, his handsome smile, and his grand looking pegasus. She strained her ears to hear any shouts about knights, but the chatter of people was too thick. She tried to peek down each road to see if the crowds were parting way for the angels’ soldiers, but she was sadly disappointed.

They found a cart loaded with cloth to help clear their way, but they couldn’t walk directly behind it, for the leprechaun who owned the cart had two ogres following behind her. Emily and her brothers thought it best to keep their distance from the lumbering, purple-skinned brutes. One was carrying a heavy club in both hands that looked more like a rock strapped onto the end of large tree branch. The other held a brutal, double-sided axe. They grunted as they walked and glared with yellow eyes at anyone who dared get too close to the cart or the leprechaun.

Emily spent more time staring at the cart than the ogres, though. It was stacked full with bolts and layers of every type of cloth, from linen to silk, in more colors than she knew existed. Several shades of purple, orange, red, and green captivated her attention and made her lips part. It wasn’t a huge cartload, for there was only one unicorn pulling it, but still Emily wondered where such materials and colors came from. Out on the plains they grew cotton to spin their own clothes and harvested leather for tougher material, so the idea of wearing silk had never ventured into Emily’s mind. Now, she had the curious desire to touch it.

Ahead, the leprechaun held up a hand and gave the reins a tug to stop the cart’s advance. For being such a small thing, she sure did command attention well. The unicorn obeyed the slight gesture and halted in its tracks. The ogres did, too, and they took up post at the back of the cart, hefting their weapons with twitchy fingers.

The Stouts moved off to the side to pass the cart and kept their eyes low to avoid the ogres’ gaze. Emily looked ahead and then back to the cart. A small corner of silk cloth had slipped through the cart’s guardrails and hung out for all to see. Emily contemplated reaching out to touch it.

I only want to know what it feels like, she reasoned.

The corner got closer, and she felt her arm tingle with curiosity. With a deep breath, she forced herself to look ahead and ignore the cloth. She would not be tempted, she decided, and walked onwards. A smile spread across her face at her ability to resist the urge. The ogres would not have looked kindly upon such an action.

“Eh!” a deep, clearly inhuman voice shouted. “You no touch!”

Emily whirled around to see the ogre with the axe take a large step forward. It had been his deep voice that had shouted. His yellow eyes were wide, and his face was twisted in what looked like an evil grin. He looked eager, the anticipation of violence twitching his every muscle. His grin was all the more sinister, because, between the two tusks that grew up from his bottom lip, there was an exposed row of jagged teeth and dripping drool.

Emily thought to protest and yell that she had done nothing wrong, but the ogre wasn’t looking at Emily. He was staring straight at Nicholas, who had frozen in terror. He was apparently so frightened that he still hadn’t taken his hand off the silk corner that hung out from the cart—so frightened that he wouldn’t even turn around to look at the ogre who was now lifting his axe into the air above Nicholas’ head.

“Run!” Abe shouted.

Chapter 9

Abe and Emily grabbed their younger brother by the hand and dashed off through the crowd. Abe lead the way, switching to grip Emily’s hand tightly, while she in turn held her mischievous younger brother’s hand tighter. The sound of heavy metal colliding with the ground shook Emily like a behemoth’s step, and she almost stumbled. Abe darted between gaps in the crowd as fast as he could, yanking his siblings along, though they struggled to keep up with his long strides. Behind them, the murmur of the crowd was broken by yelps as the ogre knocked people aside. Emily heard him snarl and growl, and people screamed as the beast tried to push his way through.

Yet he was slow—so very slow in comparison to the three thin farmers—and fear was a much better motivator than anticipation. As badly as the ogre wanted to kill them, they wanted to get away more. They bounded up the streets, taking corner after corner, a right followed by a left, which was followed by a right. The ogre’s snarls disappeared quickly, but Emily dared not look back to see if he had given up the chase. Abe took another corner then jumped into a narrow alley, pulling his two siblings in with him. It was dark, the sun’s light unable to penetrate this slit between buildings, and Abe pushed them up against one of the walls. Breathing hard but trying to hide it, he carefully peered around the corner back the way they’d come.

A few seconds passed while the cold, shady stones stole heat from their bodies. Emily and Nicholas took deep breaths as quietly as they could.

“It’s okay now,” Abe said. “I think we lost him.”

“Oh, thank goodness,” Nicholas sighed with relief.

Emily pushed off the wall, pulled back an arm and socked her younger brother hard in the shoulder.

“Ow!” he yelled. “What was that for?”

“What do you think it was for?” Emily yelled and then punched Nicholas again. “You almost got us killed!”

“Well I’m sorry!” Nicholas said defensively.

“Quiet!” Abe said, stepping in. “Look, Nicholas, Emily’s right. You almost got us killed! You’ll be lucky if I don’t tell Mother about this.”

At the mention of Mother’s fury, Nicholas stiffened. He was more afraid of her than the ogre.

“No, Abe, please don’t! I’m sorry! Really! I won’t do it again!”

“Then don’t touch anything, ever, you understand?” Abe stressed.

Nicholas looked to Emily for support, but she gave him a cold stare that left no room for sympathy.

“Okay,” he said. “I only wanted to touch it, though. I’ve never felt silk before.”

“Well, it was almost the last thing you ever got to touch besides cold steel,” Emily said.

The adrenaline started to fade, and Nicholas realized the foolishness of his actions. He tilted his head forward and looked down.

“I’m sorry, Emily. I thought they wouldn’t notice.”

Emily sighed in anger but then just shook her head.

“It’s fine now,” she said. “You learned your lesson, right? Just don’t touch anything that isn’t yours anymore.”

“Yeah,” Abe added. “Lucifan is really particular about that kind of thing. Got it?”

Nicholas nodded in agreement. Abe checked around the corner one last time, and then led the group back out into the streets. They were still breathing heavily. The running was only part of the reason their hearts had been pounding. Emily looked down at her hand and noticed it was shaking a bit. She hadn’t been this scared since the banshee had come through their farm.

“Do you still know where we’re going?” Emily asked.

Abe looked around and then back the way they came.

“Somewhat, yes.”

He started walking west, away from the ocean.

“I think, if we head up this way, we can cut back towards the market square,” he paused. “I think.”

Emily did not find that comforting, but she followed her older brother anyway.

It didn’t take long to see that they weren’t in the main part of town anymore. The streets were smaller, and there were far fewer people. The buildings were smaller, too, made of wood and much older. The entire place seemed darker somehow, and there was a stench in the air that got stronger as they walked. It wasn’t a pungent smell, but a stale odor that spoke of better times.

They turned another corner and found themselves in a curiously deserted and quiet street. Abe hesitated at the corner but then strolled forward, taking long glances left and right. Emily eyed her brother and sighed.

“You’re lost,” she said.

“Not lost,” he replied too fast. “It’s just, well, I’ve never been to this side of Lucifan. I’ve only been a few times with Mother and Father, and we stuck to the main roads. I just need to ask for directions.”

“Should we go back?” Nicholas asked.

Emily pictured the ogre stalking the streets, grinding its huge axe in purple hands. When Abe looked back to her, she gave her head a strong shake.

“Well, we have to talk to someone,” Abe shrugged.

“Knock on a door,” Emily replied.

“I’m not knocking on some random person’s door,” Abe recoiled at Emily’s suggestion. “We’ll just find someone walking about. This is Lucifan. It shouldn’t be that hard.”

Yet they had wandered into an empty street, and Emily began to feel uneasy. She stepped closer to her brothers as she walked, and her eyes were slowly adjusting to the lack of light penetrating these narrower streets with houses and buildings that seemed to loom overhead. For a moment, Emily reconsidered going back, but then a door on one of the buildings ahead swung open.

An older woman—older than Emily’s mother, anyway—in an apron with her hair tied into a bun stepped out to sweep dirt into the streets. Above the door hung a sign that read The Kraken’s Eye, and the woman looked up as the trio walked closer. Emily went to wave, but the woman ignored them and went back inside, closing the door behind her.

“There’s a person,” Emily said, “and that’s a big home.”

“It’s a tavern, not a home,” Abe corrected. “People pay to sleep here at night, and they have drinks and food.”

They stopped outside the tavern and looked at the sign above it. It was wooden, perhaps as long and wide as Emily’s arm, and had the image of an eye chiseled into it. It was just the eye, too, one without lids and lashes. The eye was round, but the iris that surrounded the pupil was stretched vertically in a long oval shape that ended in points at the top and bottom. Inside the iris, the pupil was shaped liked an hourglass—it was like none Emily had ever seen. The eye was glaring down and seemed to peer into the souls of the approaching patrons.

From inside, Emily could hear a woman’s laughter. She assumed it to be the barmaid she’d seen. Some light music was being played, but it was muffled too badly for Emily to know what it was.

“I’ll be right back,” Abe said and reached for the door. “Watch Nicholas.”

“Hey!” Nicholas pouted.

Emily didn’t want to let her older brother go alone, but he was right. She couldn’t leave Nicholas outside and certainly didn’t want to risk his curious behavior inside. So instead, she just sighed in defeat and shushed her younger brother.

“Okay,” she nodded, “but don’t be long.”

Abe nodded and disappeared inside.

Emily wasn’t sure what to expect next, but she didn’t expect to hear a sharp whistle. There was more laughter from inside, and in short time, the door was opened again, and Abe was practically shoved through the opening. He stumbled and fell face first onto the cobbled steps.

“Stay out, you mindless brute,” a girl called out, followed by a cheer.

The door slammed shut, and Emily and Nicholas rushed over to help their brother up.

“What happened?” Emily asked. “Are you alright?”

“What did those men do to you?” Nicholas asked.

Abe stood up and brushed himself off.

“They weren’t men,” he said. “It’s just a bunch of women, and they told me to get out.”

“What else did they say?” Nicholas asked.

“Nothing I want to repeat.”

Emily listened again to the laughter inside.

“Wait,” Emily asked. “It’s only women in there?”

“That’s what I said, isn’t it?” Abe angrily swatted the dirt from his pants. “Come on, let’s go.”

Abe started trudging off into the streets, and Nicholas followed, but Emily didn’t move. She turned toward the tavern and listened to another round of laughter vibrate through the old wood and opaque, glass windows. A steady yet obvious theory was entering her mind.

“Emily,” Abe called, stopping when he realized his sister hadn’t moved. “Come on.”

“All women you said?” she asked. “Did they kick you out because you’re a man?”

Abe paused, the anger in his eyes shifting as he slowly picked up on Emily’s words.

“Maybe,” he said, “but I don’t know for sure. You don’t think. . . ?”

He let the words wander, and Emily’s eyes set alight with possibility. She mulled her new plan over for only a second before opening the tavern door and walking inside.

“Emily!” her brothers cried out.

Their voices were cut off as she closed the door behind her. Their muffled footsteps stopped just outside the door, and Emily held the handle just to make sure they didn’t try to follow. It was darker inside, and it took a moment for Emily’s eyes to adjust. The sound of laughter died out, and Emily could sense a hoard of eyes on her back. With a deep breath, she let go of the closed door and turned around.

Abe had been right. The tavern was comprised entirely of women. Among them, Emily recognized the woman from before, broom still in hand, but she was the only woman who looked like she was from Lucifan, with her brown dress, white tunic, and leather shoes. As for the rest of the tavern’s patrons, Emily decided they were the most peculiar women she’d ever seen. They didn’t wear the dresses common to the city or the work clothes favored out on the plains. Instead, they wore skirts barely knee-length made of thick leather stitched with metal studs. Their upper torsos were also encased in studded leather, and their calves were covered with the armor as well. Only their sandals lacked the metal studs, and all the armor was a patchwork of green and brown. Next, Emily noticed that all the women had their hair cut to shoulder length. It was like hers, just like her mother’s.

As if her suspicions needed further proof, Emily saw the bows. Each woman had a bow lying against her, and next to that bow, a quiver of arrows. It took a few seconds for Emily to take it all in, and she noticed, quite painfully, that by now every person in the bar was staring at her.

She gulped.

“Well,” the tavern maid questioned. “What is it girl? You’re a bit too young to be drinking now, ain’t you?”

“Eh! She’s a woman, Margret!” one of the others spoke up. “Maybe not an amazon, but certainly better than those fleabags you normally call customers.”

Margret waved her hand, dismissing the argument.

Amazons, Emily could hear the word echo in her mind. They really are amazons!

Emily’s heart skipped a beat and jumped into her throat. She looked at their hair and now knew why her mother never grew hers past her shoulders. She looked at the bow that each amazon carried, the quivers full of arrows, and the large knives that hung at every amazon’s waist and began to conjure all the questions she had for them. She wanted to ask them where they came from, what the jungles of Themiscyra were like, and what sort of woman her mother had been.

Then Emily remembered her mother, and the fact that her mother had left these women, and that she’d hid from them for nearly twenty years. At best, they probably didn’t remember her. At worst, they might not take too kindly to Molly having left in the first place.

And suddenly, Emily strongly regretted going into the tavern.

“Well, what is it, girl?” Margret repeated.

“Uh,” Emily started and backed up against the door. “I, uh.”

The last traces of conversation died out and complete silence took over as all attention was turned towards the stuttering, little girl.

“I was just,” she tried again, “with my brothers and—”

The tavern erupted into laughter.

“That was your brother, lass?” one asked.

“Oh! Oh! I see it now!”

“You can see it in the lanky limbs!”

“Now, now, Adelpha,” another spoke up. “He was kind of cute.”

“He was a farmer!” the one called Adelpha replied. “And barely of age to be of any use.”

That comment caused a second uproar of laughter, and Emily looked at the amazon named Adelpha. She couldn’t have been more than a few years older than Abe, but she was certainly bigger. Not fat, though—none of the amazons were overweight. They all looked athletic and strong, but Adelpha looked strongest. She was tall for a woman and had broad shoulders with straight, jet-black hair.

I never should have come in here, Emily thought. This was a mistake.

“Look!” Emily burst in, finding her voice in the laugher. “We just need to get back to the market. We’re lost, and we were just hoping you could point us in the right direction.”

Just then, a thunder of footsteps came echoing down the stairs. They fell heavy and fast, and the thud of feet pounding wood swept over all else. From the second story descended another one of the strange women. Only this one was older, much older. She took the steps two at a time, though Emily did not think that was a wise choice, and the moment the old woman’s head came into view, her eyes stared straight at Emily.

The old woman was short, and her skin bore sundried wrinkles that almost masked the freckles on her faces. Her grey hair looked both wavy and stiff, but her eyes captured Emily’s attention. In them, Emily saw a magnificent look of hope, of longing, and a hint of regret. Then, as the eyes gazed upon Emily, that hope burst into sadness, pain, and loss. The old woman stopped her mad dash and hung onto the railing to catch her breath. She looked down in agony that did not appear to be born of physical pain.

“Chara!” Adelpha cried out.

Adelpha ran over to the old woman’s side. Her height stood out even more now that she was paired with the shorter, older one.

“Chara, what are you doing dashing down the stairs? Do you want to break a leg?” Adelpha scolded.

She offered an arm to assist Chara down the rest of the stairs, but the old woman just sighed and helped herself over to one of the seats. She looked much stronger than Emily had originally thought.

“I’m fine, really,” Chara replied. “I just, I thought I heard her.”

Emily felt bad for causing such a disturbance. It seemed her decision to enter this tavern had turned out bad for everyone. Not to mention, if her mother found out she’d visited the amazons, Emily would be in real trouble. Then she remembered her brothers were still waiting outside and cleared her throat.

“I’m very sorry,” Emily said. “But I really need to know how to get to the marketplace from here. Just point out the direction, and I’ll be on my way.”

The old woman’s head snapped up at her words. The old eyes pierced through her, and Emily froze under the gaze. Slowly, Chara stood up and walked towards her. Emily took a step backwards into the door as the old woman approached, but Chara didn’t stop until her face was inches from Emily’s. The farmer watched Chara’s eyes sweep over her face, along her body, and, at last, down her hair. Emily thought that there was something strangely familiar about this amazon named Chara.

“What’s your name, girl?” Chara asked.

“Emily Stout,” she replied, though with hesitation.

“Stout, huh? Is your mother’s name, Mariam?”

“No, it’s Molly.”

The woman nodded and smiled.

“But your father’s name is Paul, isn’t it?”

Emily’s jaw fell open before she answered.

“Yes, but how do you know that?”

Chara reached down and grabbed Emily’s hands. The touch felt warm and gentle.

“Because,” she smiled, “I’m your grandmother.”

Chapter 10

“Her amazon name, her real name,” Chara explained, “is Mariam, not Molly.”

Emily’s grandmother spoke casually as she led them back towards the market at a leisurely walk. She held Emily by the arm while Abe and Nicholas walked just beside them, still staring with lips parted in disbelief. Adelpha followed along a full, two paces behind, but the other amazons had stayed in the tavern.

Nicholas and Abraham had been stunned when Emily had first emerged with the two amazons, but they had jumped in shock when the older woman revealed she was their grandmother. Their silence and their shared, wide-eyed stares echoed Emily’s as Chara filled the void with answers to questions they didn’t know they’d had.

“The name means rebellious,” Chara continued, waving the word in the air with a hand. “I should have known the trouble I was asking for when I gave her that name. She always loved it, though. It must have been difficult to switch to Molly. Do me a favor and call her by her real name from now, will you? Thank you. She’ll like that, trust me.”

Emily nodded, her attention wrapped intently about Chara’s every word and mannerism, taking in the sight of their long-lost relative. It was obvious now why Chara had looked so familiar to Emily. Her hair, despite having gone grey with age, had the same wavy pattern that Emily and Molly had.

Mariam, Emily thought. Call her Mariam.

Although Chara’s face had aging lines, the freckles in her cheeks still showed and had even darkened with sun exposure. Even the way she walked—silently, with her thin frame and small feet—was all too familiar. Emily found that Chara and she were keeping stride with ease.

Yet there were differences, too. For one, Chara was much more talkative, and that was immediately apparent. Emily had never known her mother to speak idly about the past, the present, or the future. Chara, on the other hand, seemed to want to know everything.

“How old are you, Emily?” she asked.

“I’m sixteen years—” Emily ended her sentence abruptly, not knowing by what name to call her grandmother.

Fortunately, Chara noted her hesitation.

“You can call me Mother,” she patted Emily’s arm. “We amazons take our bloodlines seriously, and all women who gave birth to you are your mothers. By that same coin, all women you give birth to will be your daughters.”

“What about sons?” Nicholas piped up.

Chara turned her eyes to look at Emily’s younger brother as if seeing him for the first time. She faltered before drawing in a long breath and pursing her lips.

“Well, we don’t normally keep our sons,” she grimaced in apology. “However, I suppose it could still work, calling me Mother. There are a few amazons who keep in touch with their sons after giving them away, though it’s frowned upon.”

“Why’s that?” Abe jumped in.

Chara turned to her other side, seemingly surprised to find a second male nearby and speaking to her.

“Your name is Abraham, right?” she asked, then continued when he nodded. “Nicholas and Abraham. Such strange names. I would have thought Mariam would have given her daughter an amazon name at the least. Anyway, Abraham, the answer to your question is that it’s a part of who we are. Themiscyra is as much a city of women as it is a sanctuary for women. Although some women see no issues with visiting their sons at the nearby villages, or meeting with their lovers more frequently, it’s still discouraged.”

Abe and Nicholas looked to each other. The shock of meeting a new family member was crumbling before the flood of curiosity that welled in them—and Emily, as well. If Chara had hoped to stem the tide by giving that short answer, she had instead shattered the dam. Emily felt a smile creep across her lips, almost feeling sorry for what was about to occur.

Yet she thought wrong, because Chara was quicker than the boys.

“Ah ah,” the old woman held up a finger. “You each had a turn, now Emily. You have a question, don’t you?”

Many, Emily grinned widely. The first of which was following them, and Emily turned to look back at the tall, dark-haired amazon just a few paces away. Adelpha met the gaze, and her face wrinkled in disdain before looking away.

“Yes, Mother,” Emily said to Chara, though it felt odd to call her so. “If you’re my mother, then does that make Adelpha my sister?”

The big amazon scoffed and laughed, her voice loud enough to be heard over the increasing noise. Chara was leading them back toward the market, and every street brought more people and shouting into the air. Up ahead, Emily thought she recognized the busy road her family had traveled along to reach the market square. As for Adelpha, she kept her face turned away and crinkled her nose.

“No, she is not,” Chara shrugged.

The chatter of people and the clatter of carts returned, and the streets were growing wider. We must be nearing the market by now, Emily mused. She looked at Abe, hoping to get some sort of sign that they were heading in the right direction, but both her brothers were focused on Chara, watching her with a look of surprised embarrassment and barely contained curiosity. Emily could hardly blame them. Family was important to the Stouts, or at least she thought it was.

Paul’s parents had died before Emily was old enough to remember them—Nicholas was too young, as well—but Abe said he could remember their faces and nothing more. From then on, it had only been the five of them, and they had looked out for each other. All they’d ever known was family. Now they knew there was another, and the Stout children immediately felt indebted to her. Respect for elders was a not just a formality on the Great Plains; it was a method of survival. The older generations knew more, their age both an earned and given mark of someone who knew how to survive. To ignore one, especially one who was family, was about as foolish as seeking a banshee’s wail.

It was silly not to know about Chara, Emily realized. Neither she nor her brothers had ever asked about their mother’s parents, and Emily shook her head trying to figure out why her curiosity had never led her to ask. Emily had just assumed they were dead—like they had assumed Mariam’s origins were no different from their father’s—and Mariam had let them do so. Did she even know Chara was alive? Emily contemplated asking Chara but decided that the old amazon would have no idea. Besides, all that would be revealed as soon as they reached the market.

“Now for my own questions,” Chara smiled. “You first, Daughter. Are you really of age?”

“No, no,” Emily shook her head. “I’m only sixteen. I have another two years.”

“Don’t be daft!” Chara laughed. “You are no man! You are an amazon. At sixteen, you are of age. You are a woman now!”

“Really? You think I’m an amazon?”

“Of course you are. You’re my daughter.”

Emily liked the sound of that! She hadn’t thought of herself as an amazon yet. Sure, her mother had been one, but she had left that life long ago, and Emily had never known anything except the Great Plains. Emily still didn’t understand what an amazon was, but she remembered her mother killing a behemoth with a single arrow, and that was something she would give anything to do.

But how could she? Emily didn’t know anything about bows. She didn’t even know anything about the world beyond a few days walk of her farm. That didn’t seem to make a difference to Chara, though, or perhaps she didn’t know how inept Emily’s combative skills were. Emily grimaced, knowing that Chara was in for an unpleasant surprise.

Emily tried to pull her mind from Chara’s words. They were meant as a compliment, but reminded Emily of her inexperience. She looked to Lucifan, noticing the sights around them becoming more familiar, and realized they’d entered the market square. The bank she’d seen before with its terrifying gargoyles perched on top loomed before her, and Emily looked for her parents.

“Mother,” Emily tapped Chara’s arm. “Molly—eh, Mariam—is here somewhere. Abe, do you see them?”

“There!” Abe pointed from his vantage point.

As if following his command, the crowds parted just enough for them to see past all the bodies, creatures, and carts to Emily’s mother and father. It looked as if they had finished selling the last of the meat, a stack of empty crates sat off to the side near their family’s cart. The unicorns were already hitched, ready to haul the considerably lighter load out of the city and home. Paul was standing nearby talking to a minotaur and hinting that they had done well, which made Emily’s heart soar. Chances were they were negotiating a price for the labor the minotaur would give on the Stout’s farm. The meat must have sold at a high price, because the minotaur Emily’s father was negotiating with looked youthful and strong with rich brown fur. Emily’s mother was carefully packing the empty crates into the cart, taking her time and glancing up from time to time to search the crowds. She kept looking east, towards the sea.

“Mariam!” Chara cried out.

Emily’s mother jumped and dropped the crate in her hand, letting it clatter to the ground and startling Paul. Her eyes went wide, and her head snapped toward the group, catching sight of them just before the crowds closed again and blocked Emily’s view.

“Mariam!” Chara repeated and released Emily’s arm to barrel through the crowds.

“Mother!” came a familiar voice shouting above the market’s ruckus.

Emily took off as quickly as she could, following Chara as she pushed past people with no concern for their voices of disapproval. Abe, Nicholas, and Adelpha took up the pursuit, too, falling in line behind Emily and trying not to be left behind. Emily couldn’t help but think that, for a short, old woman, Chara had a lot of youth left in her.

Through the crowds, Emily’s mother burst into view. She caught sight of Chara, and the two paused just a few paces apart.

“Mother?” her lips whispered, eyes wide in astonishment.

“Yes,” Chara threw open her arms, “it’s me!”

They closed the distance and fell into each other’s arms. Chara’s grip stretched tightly around her long-lost daughter, and they spun to the side with the force of their impact. Chara’s eyes and cheeks ran wet, while her daughter’s dripped thick tears down from closed eyes.

“Oh, Mariam,” Chara said, smiling as she cried. “It’s you. You’re here. I missed you so much!”

“I missed you, too. I can’t believe it’s you! What are you doing here? Lucifan? You never went to Lucifan.”

“I started going again when you left,” Chara planted a kiss on her daughter’s cheek. “I’ve been making this journey every year since then, hoping I’d see you again. I was beginning to think I never would.”

“I’m sorry, Mother. Oh, I’m so sorry! I didn’t know!”

Their hug tightened, tears flowed freely, and Emily and her brothers stood dumbfounded nearby. Adelpha, standing next to them, looked equally amazed. The two women’s tight embrace was drawing looks and attention from the market, as well, and people were beginning to take wide paths around them. Through the crowd, Paul emerged, the worry on his face fading quickly to relief and then ending in astonishment. His eyes looked from his wife to Chara, and then ended on Emily, who in turn gave her father an unhelpful shrug. So they stayed, watching in silence, and Emily couldn’t help but feel a harsh pang of jealously strike her chest. Never, in all her life, had she received a hug like that from her mother.

“I’m sorry I ran off, I wanted to tell you, but—”

“It’s okay, Daughter,” Chara whispered. “My anger died long ago. Don’t speak of it. I forgive you, and I forgive him. I’m just so happy to see you again.”

“I should have come back,” she answered.

“I told you not to speak of it. It’s in the past. Leave it be. I forgive you, and I love you.”

Their grip loosened just enough for them to pull back and look each other in the eye. Chara was a hair shorter than her daughter, yet the look Emily’s mother gave the older woman said she was as tall as a minotaur. They smiled at each other, and Chara wiped a tear from the other’s cheek.

“You’re crying,” she said. “You never cry.”

“I cry, sometimes. Age is softening me.”

“Then I am a bed of flowers,” Chara pulled her daughter in and kissed her cheek.

They were drawing longer looks from those in the market square now, but the two women did not seem to care. They held on a moment longer, and Mariam gave Chara’s shoulder a lingering squeeze before breaking contact. Both sets of eyes had a tinge of red.

“I take it you’ve met my children?” Mariam asked, wiping away some remaining moisture from her eyes.

“Yes, they are quite lovely,” Chara nodded. “The males are beautiful, and the amazon especially.”

Emily’s heart skipped a beat at being called an amazon again. Somehow she felt honored and privileged, despite knowing both were completely unearned. Emily looked sidelong at Adelpha for confirmation, but Adelpha just rolled her eyes and looked away.

“Who is this?” Emily’s mother indicated Adelpha. “She looks to be as old as my oldest.”

“This is Adelpha. I’m her surrogate mother. Her real mother was taken by a basilisk.”

Emily’s mother took a deep breath and gave Adelpha a meaningful glance. The big girl’s face did not change from mild annoyance, though, not even when Mariam gave her a deep nod.

“At least she died painlessly,” she said.

“So they tell me,” Adelpha muttered.

An overzealous grunt came from behind them, and the group turned to see the minotaur had returned and was talking to Paul. Emily blinked, realizing she’d been so absorbed in her mother and grandmother’s actions that she’d missed the big beast’s return. Emily’s ears also perked at the sound it had made, recognizing it as the minotaur’s final grunt of agreement. The beast-men used a deep, throaty sound that sealed their deals with others. As far as the minotaur was concerned, whatever terms of agreement had been decided on were now sealed in blood. If either party broke the oath, the other had the right to kill the criminal. It was a right minotaurs were known to exercise. That was something Emily had been taught early— never cheat a minotaur.

“I take it that’s the man you left me for?” Chara asked.

“Mother!” Mariam chided.

“Oh, I’m just playing,” she smiled. “Come on now! We can’t have a little fun?”

Paul stepped forward and took off his straw hat before nodding to the old woman. The minotaur stayed behind, his attention shifting elsewhere to demonstrate his complete lack of interest in human affairs. Paul turned to his wife, and his gaze softened.

“Does this mean I can call you Mariam again?” he asked. “In front of the children now, instead of just at night?”

A smile spread slowly across Chara’s lips, while Mariam’s eyes went alight with fury. Paul, though, appeared completely oblivious, and Emily realized she had grown a smile, too.

“Yes, fine,” Mariam looked to Paul, then to Chara, then back to Paul. “Yes, fine. Mother, this is the man I left you for, and Paul, you may stop calling me Molly.”

“The Dylans are going to be so confused,” Paul replied, then bowed to Chara again. “As for you, it is a pleasure to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Chara said, though her tone did not sound as convincing as her smile.

The first awkward silence followed those cool words, but Paul didn’t appear offended in the slightest. Instead, he turned to his wife and gestured slowly towards the unicorns with his eyes.

“Damn it,” Mariam said, covering her eyes. “Mother, I’m so sorry. I wish we could spend more time, but my family and I need to leave the city soon. We need to get as far away as possible before we camp for the night. It’s a full day’s journey from here to our farm. Damn! This just isn’t fair at all.”

Mariam rubbed her forehead, visibly pained and gritting her teeth. Emily and her two unusually silent brothers slouched and let their mouths gape. They had only just begun to know their grandmother! How could they part so soon? Paul looked deeply apologetic, too, clasping his hands together and bowing his head. Only Adelpha lightened in mood, sighing quietly in relief. Fortunately, everyone had manners enough to ignore her.

Then Chara lit up with an idea.

“I can come with you!” she said. “Only a day away, you said? That’s not far. The group does not leave for another three days, and that gives me more than enough time to go with you and come back.”

“Chara, no! Please!” Adelpha jutted in. “That’s far too much traveling for you.”

“Oh that’s nonsense and you know it,” Chara chided. “I’ve made it here nearly twenty years in a row haven’t I? I’d travel much farther to spend time with my lost daughter, and you, too, if you left me. If you don’t like this, then you can stay here, Adelpha.”

“You know I won’t leave your side,” Adelpha replied, eyes narrowed.

“It’s settled then!” Mariam exclaimed, grinning widely. “Absolutely you can come with us, and we leave now. Come on! Children! Finish packing our things into the cart, please.”

There wasn’t much to pack, not with the meat sold and only a few empty crates left. They were off in a short time with a minotaur and two amazons in tow. Shortly after that, Adelpha ran off to tell the other amazons about Chara’s decision, but she met back up with the group while they still followed Lucifan’s busy streets out toward the Great Plains.

They were not alone in this. There was still plenty of light left in the day, but many other families and groups were leaving Lucifan as well, their business apparently complete. Paul led the unicorns while Chara and Mariam walked beside them, making a path through the crowded streets and passing shops that Emily felt drawn to. Meanwhile, Adelpha followed behind the cart, keeping a close eye on Chara, and Emily walked with her brothers a few paces behind Adelpha. The minotaur was the last of their group, lingering far in the back to the point that most might not know he followed them.

It didn’t take long for mother and daughter to start chatting away, their carefree voices occasionally making it through Lucifan’s shouting match to reach Emily’s ears.

“How have you been, Daughter, truly?”

“I’ve been good,” Mariam nodded. “Honestly, I have. I like being a mother, and a wife. My children, my husband, they give me so much joy. It’s easy to look past the harshness of the Great Plains when I wake up to them each morning.”

“Do you come to the city often?” Chara asked.

“No,” Mariam frowned. “We don’t normally have enough crops to sell. It’s not easy.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Is it the banshees and thunderbirds? A banshee took one of ours once, a good fifteen years ago. Dreadful things.”

“Yes, they are,” Mariam said. “The thunderbirds are easy to see and avoid, though. As for the banshees, they aren’t much worse than basilisks.”

“I suppose that’s true. What about trees to make arrows, though? You must have been starved for wood.”

“I guess I’m lucky I didn’t need them, then. Bows and arrows make terrible farming tools. Also, wheat is much easier to hunt than a manticore.”

They shared a glance and then laughed loudly. Emily felt entirely lost.

Lucifan’s clamor died out as they exited the city and began to climb the huge basin that contained the bay. Chara scolded both Mariam and Adelpha for suggesting she ride in the cart, but relented when they asked her to do it just to make them happy. With the cart empty of meat, the unicorns had no trouble hauling it and Chara up the incline and back onto the Great Plains, and once they were back on the ceaseless rolling hills of golden grass, the going was very easy. They turned southwest, and started to make their way home.

“Have you really been coming back to the city every year since I left?” Mariam asked.

“Yes, I have. I planned on making this trip until I died,” Chara answered. “Not that I wanted to, of course, and Adelpha would have made me stop going eventually, I’m sure. This might have been my last trip for all I know. I’m glad your daughter was brave enough to ask for directions.”

“Especially after the way my son was treated,” Mariam added.

“You know the rules, Mariam. The Kraken’s Eye is for women only when we’re in town, unless we drag them in ourselves for a bit of fun. Even the pirates know to stay clear. Your children would have known this if you’d taught them anything useful.”

Emily was only vaguely listening to their conversation, finding herself much more interested in Adelpha. Emily took a moment to study her, though she tried not to appear obvious in doing so. Just like the other amazons, Adelpha kept her hair cut short, never past her shoulders, and had an athletic body despite being bigger than most women. She was thicker and taller than some men, too, and this made her look even more capable as a fighter. Indeed, Adelpha was broader in the chest than Emily’s father and brothers were. Looking at her now, Emily wondered how she could have ever mistaken Adelpha as one of Chara’s daughters. No freckles, high cheek bones, slim eyes, or brown wavy hair graced her body. Adelpha was something different altogether, and yet Emily envied the way she carried herself.

Emily tried to imagine how Adelpha had attained such a visual display of strength and confidence but nothing came to mind. So, she decided to ask the young amazon herself. Emily picked up her pace until she caught up with Adelpha, and it was then that Emily noticed another glaring dissimilarity: Adelpha looked far from happy. Her broad shoulders slumped, her mouth frowned, and her even her eyebrows drooped, although Emily guessed that feature was circumstantial. It was the only expression Emily had seen her make. Perhaps a few questions would soften that gaze.

“Hello,” she said. “We haven’t been formally introduced yet. I’m Emily Stout. How long have you known my grandmother?”

“Don’t you have some grass to pick, farmer?”

Emily stumbled at the sudden hostility. The response was so quick that Emily had to blink to catch up. Even after she’d taken the insult, she wasn’t sure what to say in reply.

“We don’t pick grass,” Nicholas called out from behind them.

Adelpha turned, surprised to hear the young boy speak. She decided to ignore him and turned back to Emily.

“I’ve known her a lot longer than you,” she said, answering the question. “And make no mistake, you are not an amazon.”

“No need to tear up my garden,” Emily shrugged in defense. “Tell that to Chara.”

“An amazon is a warrior woman, you stupid girl. You may be a woman,” Adelpha paused to look Emily up and down, “at least as far as I can tell, but you are certainly no warrior.”

Emily tried not to take the stinging words to heart. They were true, Emily knew she was not a warrior, but she had a burning desire to become one. It flared strong in her heart, sudden yet undeniable, and Emily found the will to barrel onwards through Adelpha’s rudeness. She’d been looked down on before, being a lowly farmer. She could handle a few honest criticisms from a stranger.

“Well then,” Emily opened her palms, “why don’t you teach me?”

“Ha!” Adelpha cracked a smile for the first time. “Why would I teach a farmer our ways? What would your weapons of choice be? A shovel and pick, I’m guessing. You’d be better off learning from dwarves. Listen, not to break your heart, but after this little family reunion is over, we’ll be going our way. You’ll go back to poking the dirt with a stick.”

Emily had nothing to say to that. Her heart still yearned to discover and learn, but it was obvious this was getting her nothing. She had no more stomach for this beating, and worse, nothing with which to fight back. Adelpha was clearly a fighter, with her leather-armored skirt, bow slung across her chest, quiver of arrows to compliment it, and the thick knife at her waist. The only thing Emily had was dirty overalls. Adelpha was roughly the same age as her brother, Abe, but like Sir Gavin Shaw, she had made something of herself and looked as deadly as an ogre.

I would look like this if my mother had stayed with the amazons, Emily thought. She might be younger and smaller, sure, but she would at least be a warrior. Emily looked away and dropped back to walk with her brothers. Her father was also dropping back, passing the reins to Mariam and then strolling back to walk alongside the minotaur. He was probably explaining the particulars of the farm, such as the soil’s composition. The minotaur only nodded and, occasionally, said a few words back in that deep, slow speech of theirs.

And just like that, Emily remembered the treasure she already had. She looked at her brothers and decided it was a good thing her mother had run off—or at least a good thing she’d run off with Paul. If she hadn’t, Emily Stout might never have been born.

Besides, there was little to gain off dwelling in the past. Hadn’t Chara said that? Emily shook her head to clear her thoughts and struck up a conversation with her brothers.

“So how much did the guns sell for?” Emily asked. “Did either of you ask?”

Her brothers shook their heads.

“I don’t want to know,” Nicholas replied.

“Probably not enough,” Abe said. “Those guns were priceless.”

“I’ll bet a leprechaun would disagree with you,” Emily said.

“Yeah, but not one of those short, snobby, suit-wearing merchants would know that the real value of a six-shooter isn’t in gold.”

“I wish we could have kept some of the behemoth meat, at least,” Nicholas cut in. “Or at least shot the gun once. It would have sold the same with three less bullets.”

“Yeah,” Emily hung her head along with Abe, “that would have been nice.”

They walked on. The two mothers never stopped their chatter, and Emily had not known her mother was capable of such conversation. She’d surely never bothered to make such a connection with her own children. It soured Emily’s mood and fostered her jealousy as the afternoon sun dragged on, and they climbed and descended the shallow hills. Chara and Mariam’s conversation was as constant as the landscape and only stopped when the sun set and food was distributed.

It was bread, just plain bread.

“I wish I had brought some fruit from back home for you,” Chara said to Emily’s mother. “If I had known I’d see you this time, I would have.”

“Mangos would have been a treat,” Mariam replied after a hum of agreement. “On the plains, I can handle the creatures, the dry weather—but the food is what gets to me. Out here we get nothing but bread, corn, and the occasional meat. What I wouldn’t give to have a mango once again.”

Mangos, Emily thought. Mother likes mangos, whatever those are.

They made a fire. As with any fire on the Great Plains, the trouble wasn’t in starting it, but containing it. The weeds had to be cut and a hole made in the dirt to shelter the fire from the wind, or rather to shelter the surrounding grass from the windswept flames. Grass fires were no joke; if the dried weeds surrounding them caught fire, it would kill any nearby inhabitants faster than a thunderbird. But sometimes a fire was worth the risk, and although it was never cold out on the plains, it did provide some feeling of comfort as well as light. Everyone, even the minotaur, took a seat around the flickering flames.

“Emily,” Chara called from across the circle.

“Yes?”

“What did you think when you saw your mother kill a full grown behemoth with one arrow?”

“It was,” Emily smiled and looked at her mother, “amazing. I just wish she had done it every season.”

A chuckle went around the fire, and Emily shied at the attention. Her smile was real though, and she was glad that Chara was talking to her again.

“We would have eaten well, yes,” Paul said, “but your mother wanted to leave that life behind. I respected that, deeming it more important than our stomachs.”

“But not our house, apparently,” Mariam noted.

A few smiles were cracked, though Adelpha and the minotaur had yet to flash any teeth.

“Well,” Chara reached out to rub Mariam’s shoulder with one hand, “even though I wish you had never run away, I’m glad you ran away with this man.”

The mood shone brightly for the rest of the night. After their meal was finished, they covered the fire with the dirt they’d used to dig the pit. When the last ember was covered, they could sleep in peace. The wind drowned out the all other noise—even the minotaur’s snoring—and hummed Emily to sleep with its constant drone. Emily’s eyes only parted in the morning when she heard her name.

“No!” her mother shouted. “Not for Emily. NO!”

Chapter 11

Emily’s eyes flew apart and fell upon tall, yellow grass blowing gently in the morning breeze. She resisted the urge to jolt upright—her back was turned towards the group that had circled about the buried campfire. Her stillness was rewarded, and she heard quiet voices carried to her by the wind.

“You don’t have a say in this, Daughter,” Emily recognized Chara’s voice. “She is of age.”

“On the plains, she’s not,” Mariam responded.

They were trying to stay quiet. Whatever loud tone Emily’s mother had used before was gone now and replaced by a firm yet subtle voice. It was one Emily had heard rarely, when she was most in trouble.

“As an amazon, she is,” Chara pressed.

Mariam responded, but the wind carried nothing but whispers. Emily lifted her head slowly but still heard nothing. She turned then, and through the blades of grass saw the two women were the only ones awake and were standing near the cart. Mariam glanced back, and Emily let her head fall, hoping she hadn’t been seen.

“This is exactly why I didn’t want to come to the city,” Mariam’s voice carried again. “This conversation is over. We’ll talk later.”

Damn, Emily thought. Did she see me?

Emily had half a mind to jump up and ask what they were talking about, but then she second guessed herself. She didn’t want them to know she’d been eavesdropping. That might make them take a unified front against her. Her parents were that way, disagreeing sometimes, but always together when it came to the children. Maybe it’d be better to get Chara alone? Yes, that sounded like a much better plan. That way Mother couldn’t interfere.

Emily decided to stay still a little while longer, just to be sure, but Nicholas awoke immediately, sitting up and stretching his arms with a yawn.

“Talk about what, Mother?” he asked.

“Nothing,” Mariam replied and started hitching up the unicorns. “Nothing that concerns you.”

Knowing Nicholas, he was surely not convinced, but his lazy-morning attitude overcame his curiosity. He stretched again and then rolled out of his blanket. Emily decided to forgo her ruse and followed suit, waking to fold up her sleeping quilt. Emily thought to question Chara soon, maybe even call her over, but that would have been too obvious. She’d have to wait, unfortunately, which meant Emily would be forced to spend vast sums of time contemplating what little she’d heard. Whatever it was, her grandmother wanted it, and her mother did not.

That could be anything, Emily frowned.

Maybe she was going to receive her own bow! Emily’s heart leapt at the thought. Maybe her mother would teach her how to use it, as well. That chance seemed slim, but one could only hope. Or perhaps it wasn’t something good. What if there was a price to pay for leaving the amazons, and now Emily would have to carry the burden of her mother’s decision? Clearly, Adelpha would enjoy handing out such retribution.

Emily dashed that possibility from her mind as quickly as it came, however. The amazons couldn’t possibly care about some twenty-year runaway and her young daughter. Adelpha had only agreed to come along for Chara’s sake. Emily was making wild exaggerations. She’d just have to accept that she didn’t have a clue. All she knew was that she had a big bag full of dreams and wishes and a burning desire to find a way to reach them. So Emily finished rolling up her quilt and tried to think of something else.

Yet it did not leave her mind. As the rest of the group rose, Emily checked their faces for signs that they had overheard the discussion. Nicholas seemed to have forgotten the one sentence he’d heard and didn’t bother to pull Emily or Abe aside to discuss it. He wouldn’t have had much time anyway, because the five Stouts, three unicorns, two amazons, and one minotaur were back on the move shortly after waking, for time was a valuable thing. They were not far from their home now and would reach it by midday. With luck, the minotaur might feel up to beginning his duties early, and the Stouts could plant some of their seeds tomorrow. In their anxiousness, they ate their breakfast bread as they walked.

Emily bit down into her loaf and realized she’d never traveled with so many companions before. She hadn’t traveled much at all really, but their little herd would have been quite the sight had Emily watched them approach from her home. She decided she rather liked the extra company and chomped away until the last piece of stale, dry bread clawed its way down her throat. As she swallowed it, she heard a grunt from behind her.

Emily did not look back, because she knew it was the minotaur. The group had taken up the same positions as yesterday, with Paul leading the unicorns, Chara and Mariam walking beside them, Adelpha behind the cart, the Stout children behind her, and the minotaur in the back. The minotaur always traveled more than a few paces behind everyone else, which was not uncommon for their kind. They kept to themselves and rarely shared the company of anyone else except another minotaurs. So, Emily thought nothing of it. Minotaurs were known to grunt occasionally, so she did not look back.

The minotaur grunted again, this time with a bit more vigor.

This time Emily did glance back. Her brothers did as well, and they saw that the minotaur was looking at Emily. He held her gaze, hardly blinking or looking away. The Stout children shared a glance.

“I think he wants my attention,” Emily whispered.

“Better not keep him waiting then,” Abe replied.

“Ask him—!” Nicholas started but was interrupted by a nudge from Abe.

Emily stopped walking, letting the group venture ahead while she waited patiently for the huge creature.

“Pardon me,” she tried to be as polite as possible, “but were you attempting to get my attention?”

The minotaur nodded, so Emily took up a pace beside him.

“Hello,” she nodded. “My name is Emily Stout.”

Paul had taught his children well about the manners of minotaurs. Despite their ferocity when crossed, they were actually polite and gentle creatures. They just happened to demand the same from those around them and had about as much tolerance for rudeness as they did for treachery. All one had to do was be gracious and honest to fall into their good graces, and Emily felt herself rather capable of that.

The minotaur did not answer her for a few moments, which was not surprising. Their race never said anything fast, and Emily wondered if this was the reason they spoke so rarely.

“I am . . . Talvorn Bloodhoof,” he said, snorting and whipping his tail. “I . . . heard . . . your mother.”

Emily’s eyes opened wide, and she looked ahead to see if her brothers were listening in. The wind was blowing towards them, thankfully, and they were too far ahead to here Talvorn’s deep yet quiet voice. If they did hear anything, Nicholas was making no notion of it, which meant they had, indeed, heard nothing.

“You did? What were they talking about? I mean, uh,” she cursed herself. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Talvorn Bloodhoof. Could you be so kind as to tell me what they were speaking of? It would be much appreciated.”

“You are . . . an amazon.”

Emily blushed, her cheeks reddening from hope rather than embarrassment.

“My grandmother, Chara, says I am,” Emily smiled. “However, the other one, Adelpha—yes, that one—says I’m not. My mother is, or was, I’m not sure really, but I’d like to be one.”

The minotaur swished his tail. Emily paused to look up at him and marveled at his size. Even the shortest minotaur was taller than the tallest human. Ogres were bigger than humans, too, but they weren’t as tall as minotaurs. If a full grown minotaur stood at full height, it would probably come up to the knee of a colossus. That was a guess, of course, for Emily could not be sure.

“It . . . was not . . . a question,” Talvorn said.

Emily mouthed an ‘O’ in understanding. He’d called Emily an amazon, but his slow speech had caused her to think it was a question. She sighed at her mistake and looked down at her feet. For once, it was Emily who took a moment to respond.

“I see. I apologize,” Emily said. “Thank you.”

The minotaur nodded, grunted, and then turned his head away. Short though the conversation had been, it was now over. Emily clenched her teeth, wanting to ask the minotaur more questions, but knew she risked offending the creature if she did. Her father would frown on that, and her mother might get involved, too. Emily grudgingly accepted this and opened her mouth to say goodbye, but then thought it more polite to end with the ‘thank you.’ She nodded back to Talvorn and picked up her pace until she caught back up with her brothers.

“What did he say?” Abraham asked.

“He said his name is Talvorn Bloodhoof,” Emily started, “and he wanted to let me know that I’m an amazon.”

Emily gave her brothers a hopeless shrug, deciding to leave her mother’s argument out of it. She still wanted to speak to Chara alone and on her own time.

“Did he say I was a gunslinger or a knight?” Nicholas asked.

“No, he said you were ogre food.”

Abe chuckled, and Emily gave Nicholas a playful shove when he frowned.

“We’re not far from home,” Abe said.

“I want to ask her about where our mother came from,” Nicholas said suddenly.

“Who, Chara?”

“Of course!” Nicholas confirmed. “You think I want to talk to that scary one?”

“Nicholas!” Abe scolded. “Your voice carries.”

Emily looked up at Adelpha. If the amazon had heard anything, she gave no sign.

“Sorry,” Nicholas slouched, “I just get excited sometimes. I want to talk to Chara, but I’m worried Mother will get mad again.”

“I have a feeling she’ll be getting mad no matter what,” Emily muttered.

“Why do you think that?” Abe asked.

“Just a feeling,” she lied.

“Well, you’re probably right,” Nicholas grinned, “because I’m going to ask Chara what a jungle is!”

He lifted his chin, filled with determination. Emily was glad for it, too, because she also wanted to know about their mother’s homeland. As it stood, it was far better for Nicholas to be asking such questions than her, for she already had her own list of things she wanted to ask. Whatever amount of anger Nicholas could shoulder was a blessing. Once the group reached the farm, and their mother ran out of things to catch-up on, maybe the rest of the family could get some time to speak with Chara.

Little else happened on their journey back home. The Great Plains were well known for that, but they did see a thunderbird during their travels. It was far off, traveling away from them, and thus the Stouts did not feel the need to veer from their course. The dark clouds that followed the magnificent creature—or were created by it—swarmed around it as it flapped its wings. It must have found something, for it stopped to circle over one particular spot. Then, with a fearsome screech that split the air, it dived down. The thunderbird’s talons were outstretched and it dug into its prey, attacking and trying to kill the poor creature.

It must have been a wandering behemoth, Emily guessed, because the thunderbird was unsuccessful in its first attack. The dark clouds shielded the area from the light, so Emily could not be sure of what was over there, but only a behemoth stood a chance of fighting off an attacking thunderbird. The thunderbird flapped its wings and leapt back from its prey, hovering just above the ground.

It was all over then, Emily knew. Even the largest behemoth on the Great Plains could not hold out for long against such power. The thunderbird took flight and soared up into the dark clouds, delaying the final blow for what felt like ages. Emily winced and counted the seconds until the thunderbird swung its wings down and clapped them together. A bolt of lightning struck down from the tips of its feathers to the ground. Just like that, the fight was over. The wounded beast was killed and cooked with one swift strike. In a calm manner, the thunderbird descended slowly to feast on its prey. It screeched, announcing its victory and warning any other predators in the area not to investigate the smell of cooked flesh.

Emily shuddered as she watched. If they weren’t so deadly, they would be wondrous creatures, but as it stood, only banshees made her skin crawl more.

Chapter 12

As expected, the group reached the Stout farm by midday. The unicorns were untethered from the cart, and Paul took them away to be rubbed down and fed. The sun was high, and the journey tiring, so everyone else retreated to the shelter of the house, except the minotaur, of course. The tiny home would be a tight fit for him, so Talvorn Bloodhoof sat with his legs folded over each other on the back porch. When Emily passed him on the way in, she noted how he was as tall as her when he was sitting on the ground. His swishing tail flopped mindlessly across the wooden deck.

Once inside, Mariam gathered up cups and gave them to her children. They obediently went outside and filled them at the well. Normally, the Stouts kept a barrel of water filled so that access to a cup of water was easier, but since they had gone on this trip, the barrel had been emptied back into the well to keep it from going stagnant.

Carefully, Abe lowered the bucket into the well and then heaved it back up. Emily and Nicholas then took turns filling the cups until they had eight of them. Then, they carried them back inside and distributed them. Emily brought the minotaur his cup on the porch.

“Here you are, Talvorn,” she said. “Compliments of the Stout family.”

“Thank you . . . amazon.”

Emily smiled and retreated back inside.

The home did not have enough chairs for this many people, but Paul was still outside tending the unicorns, and Adelpha made it easier by leaning against a wall apart from the group. She didn’t have to be asked, but Emily needed no help in knowing that had less to do with manners and more to do with keeping her distance. The young amazon had only taken interest in the things around her once, and that had been to watch the thunderbird hunt and kill its prey.

“Well now,” Chara started out the conversation, “that wasn’t so long of a walk. If I had known Paul’s farm was this close by, I’d have just come here myself. What a waste of twenty years. I should have tried harder.”

Molly—er, Mariam, she’s Mariam now—took a drink of her warm water and said, “Paul and I made sure to never give out directions to our home once I left with him. I was worried the others, or even you, would come and drag me back. It wasn’t a difficult secret to keep. Paul and I are rarely in Lucifan, and only our neighbors know where to find us. Still though, I’m surprised you didn’t try.”

“I did,” Chara said defensively, “but like you said, I had nothing to go off of. Tens of thousands of people live in Lucifan, so trying to find one who knew Paul Stout was damn near impossible. I tried the minotaurs first, thinking that he’d probably hired one of them once, being a farmer and all. I found one who said he knew where this farm was, but he wanted payment to give the information over. I think I might have been a bit forward with him in my eagerness, and thus ruined my chances of getting it for free. Well, as luck would have it, the next I came with coins in hand, he’d gone. Never found him again. Must have died, I’d imagine.”

A brief moment of silence passed, possibly in mourning over the missed chances of Chara finding them sooner. That was what Emily was thinking, at least, imagining how her life might have changed if she’d been introduced to her amazon heritage sooner. Would anything have changed?

Pointless, she sighed. I’m here now, and that’s all that matters.

“So, Emily?” Chara asked.

“Yes, Mother?” Emily said, remembering to call Chara by the name she preferred.

“Mariam tells me that you have a healthy appetite for the unknown.”

“I said ‘unhealthy,’” Mariam muttered.

“Yes, well, like mother like daughter, no?” Chara teased.

“Hey, I’m not the only one,” Emily shied from the attention. “Nicholas does, too. He’s always getting in trouble for asking too many questions.”

“Yep! I sure am!” Nicholas jumped and beamed with pride. “Like this one, Mother! What’s a jungle? Can you tell us? Mother said she was born in the jungle, at Themiscyra, but I don’t know what it is. Is it like a forest? That’s what Abe thinks it is, but he’s never been there, so how could he know? He always thinks he knows more ‘cause he’s older and been to Lucifan more, but now I have, and I still don’t know anything. Can you tell us? You’ve been there. Were you born there?”

Nicholas stopped his barrage to breathe, but the dead silence following it made his ramblings cease out of embarrassment. For a moment, Chara said nothing and just stared at Nicholas with one eye narrowed. He shrunk under the gaze, but then she favored him with a smirk.

“You see,” she said to Mariam, “this is why we do not keep our men.”

“I assure you he would be no less talkative had he been born female,” Emily’s mother replied.

“Very well, I shall entertain the youngling,” Chara sighed. “Yes, a jungle is similar to a forest—you would do well to mind your elders—but with a few differences. First, there are just as many bushes and plants as there are trees. Second, it is thicker, denser. While the forest is easy to see through, the jungle is difficult to walk through. The jungle is also warmer, wetter, and generally more dangerous.”

Emily tried to imagine what Chara was saying. She tried to picture something thicker, denser, and warmer than a forest. The only problem she was having was that she hadn’t seen a forest yet, either.

“So, what’s a forest look like?” Emily asked.

Chara took a long, slow glance at Mariam, the words on her mind plainly written by her expression. Have you taught them nothing? Mariam’s cool, stern glance in reply was a warning as far as Emily could tell. Chara must have ignored it, though.

“You three haven’t heard of much, have you?” she asked.

Emily, Nicholas, and Abe shook their heads.

“A forest is place filled with trees as tall as Lucifan’s tower, and wider across than you are tall. It’s dark, the floor covered in leaves and bushes about the size of that minotaur back there and bigger. Inside, you’ll find elves, centaurs, kobolds, harpies, bugbears, and of course, treants.”

Chara tapped her bow in such a way that Emily guessed the meaning behind the movement should be obvious, but Emily had lost about half of what Chara said. Some of those things she’d never heard of—actually most of those things she’d never heard of—which only enticed her more. Emily and her brothers leaned in across the table, their eyes, mouths, and ears open as wide as they could go.

“That sounds awesome,” Nicholas nearly drooled.

“What about you, Emily?” Chara asked, smiling. “What do you think?”

“What? Oh, yes . . . Mother. That sounds amazing. I . . . I would very much like to go there.”

“Is that so?” Chara’s eyebrows rose up, and she looked at Mariam.

Mariam returned her mother’s gaze, the cool stare growing colder. Chara smiled, as if to acknowledge the look, and then turned back to Emily.

Then, quite suddenly, she said, “Would you like to come back with me, Daughter, and become a true amazon?”

“Yes!” Emily shouted at the top of her lungs.

Her reaction had been from the gut, for her thoughts had been stunned by the offer. Indeed, everyone except Chara had their mouths gaping open. Even Adelpha exchanged her constant look of loathing for shock. A long pause ensued, where no one said anything, but simply stared at Chara and Emily. Emily tried to comprehend the offer she’d just accepted. Was Chara serious? Emily couldn’t believe it. Had she heard correctly? The door opened, revealing Paul, and everyone turned to look at him.

“Did I miss something?” he asked.

No one gave him an answer. They turned back to each other, and then Nicholas stood from his seat. He opened his mouth as if he were going to say something, then thought otherwise and closed it. With a glance at Emily—his face wrought with contempt—he pushed past Paul and darted out into the sunlight.

“Ah,” Paul said, and then looked at Mariam. “So your mother made the offer you feared she would?”

Mariam nodded.

“Well then. Abe?” Paul asked.

“Yes, Father?”

“Come with me.”

Abe stood up and followed his father outside. He paused at the door to turn and look at Emily, the jealousy clear on his face. Then he left—the backdoor squeaking closed behind him as he followed Paul—and only the amazons remained.

“Chara!” Adelpha shouted. “You can’t bring her! She is untrained; she will be a burden on everyone!”

“We were all untrained at one point, Adelpha, even you. Besides, I’m sure Emily will prove to be quick learner and a stout traveler.”

Chara chuckled at her own joke. It took Emily another moment to realize that she wasn’t dreaming. It took her mother less.

“Mother!” Mariam finally spoke up. “I already told you that she’s too young. You can’t do this!”

“She is of age, and it’s her decision,” Chara said and turned a harsh eye to her daughter. “You of all people have the least say here. Emily is not much younger than you were when you decided to run away from home, and I don’t recall you asking my opinion about that.”

Mariam’s mouth clamped shut, and her eyes shot burning daggers at her mother. From a gaze like that, Emily would have turned tail and ran, but Chara didn’t flinch. The old woman was a mountain to Mariam’s fire, her rock untouched by the rage. Time, patience, and understanding were etched into her wrinkled face, and her words were cold enough to leave Mariam speechless.

Emily’s eyes flickered between the two of them. The intensity of their stares made her hesitate, but she wanted to answer. This conversation was about her, and she’d be damned before she was forced out of it again.

“I want to go,” Emily said firmly. “I’ve always wanted to see more, but—”

“But what?” Chara asked.

Emily paused before answering, “But what about my brothers?”

Chara leaned back in surprise, and Adelpha’s eyes widened hopefully.

“Well,” Chara said, “they’ll have to stay here with your parents, of course. We don’t accept men to be amazons. I couldn’t ask them to go even if I wanted to.”

“Oh,” Emily said, looking down. “I see.”

A pause passed, and then Mariam spoke up and surprised them all.

“I’m sure your brothers will understand,” she said.

Emily’s lips parted as she turned to look at her mother. To this expression, Mariam just shrugged.

“I still think you’re too young,” she said. “You don’t know what you’re signing up for. The jungle is a dangerous place, and amazon life is harsh in order to survive it. However, that doesn’t mean you should worry about what your brothers think.”

“Mariam is right, Emily,” Chara said. “You’ve got a lot of catching up to do if you want to live with us, so don’t take this decision lightly.”

“In fact, it’d be best if you didn’t come at all,” Adelpha added.

“Adelpha!” Chara scolded. “Why don’t you take a step outside?”

Adelpha scoffed but obeyed the older woman. She gave Emily one last scathing glance then walked to the door and stepped outside. Once the door had squeaked closed, Emily turned back to her mothers. They were both watching her, waiting patiently, and she understood they were giving her the chance to think.

Don’t take this decision lightly, Emily repeated the words. That was easier said than done. Her heart yearned with every fiber to see the world beyond. Emily pictured her mother downing a behemoth with a single arrow and relished the thought of performing such a feat. She dreamed about seeing a forest, a jungle, Lucifan again, and so much more. There was so much she could do and see, if only she’d take this opportunity.

Don’t take this decision lightly, she repeated. What are you giving up?

Her first thought was of her brothers, and that was a strong one. They meant so much to her—her best friends all her life. Just the thought of leaving them for more than a few days was heartbreaking. She nearly said no to Chara just off of that.

There were her parents, too. She loved them, despite how harsh her mother could be at times. Yet, beyond those four people, there was nothing else tempting her to stay. She hated the Great Plains. The land was a prison—all she’d ever known—barren and boring. Mariam said it was a sanctuary from the world’s horrors, but to Emily it was numbing and lacked substance and worth, not even enough for anyone to conquer.

Emily had to leave.

“I understand things will be difficult,” Emily said, “but I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t try. I’ve dreamed of this for too long to turn back now, and I’ll be forever grateful that you gave me this offer, Chara. And, Mother, Molly, Mariam, I know you’re worried about me. Father always said that I got too much of you and not enough of him, and I think that’s why I have to leave now. Like you, I hunger for another life—a life that’s different from the one I was handed. I know you’re worried you’ll never see me again, but I want you to know I’m not resentful. I will come back. I love you and Father and Abe and Nicholas too much. I won’t forget you, and I know you won’t forget me.”

Admittedly, Emily’s heartfelt speech had not been completely spontaneous. Ever since Emily had seen Chara and Mariam arguing, she had guessed that she would need to win over her mother. Despite this, every word was true.

“She really is your daughter,” Chara said with a smile.

Mariam nodded. She drew in a breath and let it out slowly, purposefully. After another pause, she frowned.

“Well, if you must leave,” she sighed, “you had better tell your brothers yourself, and your father.”

“Yes, Mother,” Emily slid a hand across the table to her mother, and Mariam gave it a rare squeeze of affection.

That squeeze meant more to Emily than any amount of words.

She left, and the minotaur nodded at her when she exited the house. Adelpha was out of sight, and Paul and Abraham were also missing, but when Emily saw two of the unicorns gone, she guessed they had gone for a trot. Emily hoped that they’d be back soon.

She found Nicholas sitting on the far side of the ruined barn. As Emily approached him, she noticed him looking out across the vast plains. He scanned side to side, but there was nothing to see but the blowing grass and rolling hills.

“Hello,” she said.

She glanced over the wrecked roof for a place to sit, trying to find a spot that didn’t have a piece of debris jutting out to stab her. She found one, checked it with her hand, and then took a seat beside her brother.

“When are you leaving?” he asked

The direct question gave Emily pause.

“How do you know I said yes?” she replied.

“Because you’d be crazy not to.”

Nicholas broke his vigilant gaze and turned to Emily. She prepared herself for that look of contempt again but was relieved when he gave her a smirk that grew into a smile.

“I thought you were mad at me,” Emily said.

“Well, I was a little, at first, but then I thought about it.”

“Really?” Emily teased. “That’s not like you.”

Nicholas chuckled and gave his sister a nudge.

“Hey, I can think,” he said. “It’s just that, most of the time, I choose not to. Takes too much time.”

It was Emily’s turn to laugh.

“Okay then, so what did you think about?” she asked.

“I thought about the offer you were given, and I realized I’d do the same thing in your place. I wouldn’t even hesitate.”

Emily let her silence give the answer. Nicholas seemed to acknowledge it as he let the moment pass by. Emily felt the hot sun burn her exposed neck—she’d left her straw hat inside the house—but it didn’t matter. All farmers had dark skin that had been hardened under the sun’s constant presence. Under her shirt and pants though? She was paler than a thunderbird’s eyes.

“So, you did say yes, right?” Nicholas asked.

“Yes, I did, in a manner of speaking.”

Emily looked around and then asked a question that had been on her mind.

“Where did Father take Abe?”

Nicholas shrugged and said, “I don’t know. I didn’t ask. I guess they just wanted privacy. Hey, that amazon Chara brought with her is a real banshee, isn’t she?”

“Yes she is,” Emily laughed and nodded. “I think they were referring to her when they told me amazon life was harsh. I hope most of them aren’t like her. Where did Adelpha go anyway?”

“She disappeared around to the north side of the house. I’m guessing she wanted some shade,” Nicholas looked around. “Do you know when you’re leaving?”

“Back in Lucifan, Chara said something about the amazons only staying in Lucifan for three more days. So, considering it takes a day to travel to the city, I’ll bet we leave tomorrow.”

“Wow. That’s really soon.”

“Yeah.”

Nicholas whistled and kicked his legs out into a reclining position.

“I mean, that’s really sudden,” he repeated.

“You’re telling me.”

They heard some creaking of wood behind them, and they turned to see the minotaur rising from his seat on the porch. He stretched his muscles and walked down towards the barn. At first, Emily thought he was going to talk to her more about being an amazon, but he stopped and looked around.

“Where is . . . the plow?” Talvorn asked.

“Thank you for starting your work early,” Nicholas said. “We will not forget this kindness.”

Emily smiled, feeling proud of Nicholas for taking at least one of their father’s teachings seriously. Using manners when dealing with minotaurs was an important lesson.

“Our plow is on the other side of this barn,” Nicholas continued. “I can show you where it is if you’d like.”

Talvorn shook his head, though Emily didn’t know if it was to say ‘no’ or if it was out of habit. Minotaurs often shook their heads for seemingly no apparent reason, just like when they snorted and whipped their tails. This head shake must have been a ‘no,’ because Talvorn walked away in the direction Nicholas had indicated.

He found the plow easily enough and dragged it towards the field. The plow was one of the largest tools on the farm. It was about as high as a table, except for the handlebars that extended out to chest height on a human. In the front, two plates came together to form a point at ground level, which would cut through the dirt. The purpose of a plow was to create rows of dirt where crops could be planted and then easily irrigated. It was a strenuous task normally done with a unicorn. The unicorn would walk in front, pulling the plow, while a human would steer the plow and help push it from behind. The labor was more intensive than tilling and just as time consuming. However, minotaurs needed no assistance from unicorns.

Talvorn Bloodhoof stood behind the plow and pushed the plates into the dirt. The handlebars looked like twigs in his hands, and the plow looked like a toy. Yet, he handled it with ease and skill. The minotaur leaned forward, shook his head again, and then pushed the plow through the soil.

Emily and Nicholas watched together and marveled at the strength of such creatures. They’d seen it all before, but it never ceased to amaze them. Talvorn gripped the plow, pitting his weight and might against the earth’s stubbornness. In this case, the soil was no match.

Talvorn barely gave a grunt, though the chore was surely laborious. It was even harder for the Stouts who would take turns throughout the day just steering the tool. Paul often said that one day they would find a blacksmith to fashion metal blades on the plow and thus make the task easier, but somehow Emily’s father never found the time or money. Perhaps it wasn’t important to him. It certainly wasn’t important, or a problem, for Talvorn who whipped his tail back and forth as he crossed up and down the field. He moved at a pace that was a little slower than a leisurely walk. Compared to the speed at which the Stouts normally plowed, this was blindingly fast.

“They’re so strong,” Nicholas noted.

Emily just nodded. Nicholas continued.

“Father told me that the minotaurs used to be stronger, that there used to be a lot more of them. He said they used to rule the Great Plains. It used to be their land. Then something happened to them, a disease or something, and it nearly wiped them out.”

“Yeah, he told me that, too,” Emily said. “He also said that’s why so many of them work on farms now and find work in the city. They have to because there’s so few of them left.”

“Kind of a shame, don’t you think? I’ll bet they were amazing warriors.”

“I’m sure they still are.”

They watched Talvorn plow the soil, and Emily thought again of everything she was leaving behind. The plains wouldn’t be missed, of course, but her parents and brothers were a different story. Her only family and friends, and soon she’d be without them. She couldn’t imagine waking up without seeing one of them, and two mornings from now, she’d be doing just that. It was daunting.

The prospect of a new life didn’t scare her, though. Chara seemed like a fair and decent mother, and Emily wasn’t worried about making new friends. She’d lived all her life without making new friends, and she felt unjustifiably confident that she’d be perfectly fine if every amazon ended up treating her just like Adelpha did. Simply speaking, the problem wasn’t what was to come; it was what she was leaving behind. Parting from loved ones was a task best left to the coldhearted. In that regard, Emily felt unsuited.

As if to complicate manners, Emily saw two approaching figures silhouetted by the sun’s descent. It didn’t take long for her to recognize Paul and Abe seated atop their unicorns. Emily wondered what they’d needed to talk about that would require them to go so far from the house. Then she remembered the jealously that had shown on Abe’s face, and her curiosity was outweighed by guilt. No doubt her father had taken Abe out to discuss Emily’s rare offer, and she realized it wasn’t so much the offer of being an amazon as it was the offer to see the world. That’s why her brothers were jealous, and she could not blame them. Hopefully, she thought, Paul had spent enough time and effort weathering Abe’s distress. Emily did not want to look into a face of jealously and try to explain herself.

Fortunately, as they approached, it seemed Paul had succeeded. Actually, it looked as if Paul had done more than enough. Abe appeared more than content; he was grinning widely.

“What are you smiling about?” Emily asked as the two approached. “Happy to see me going?”

“Not quite,” he laughed.

Abe dismounted and took the reins of both unicorns. Emily’s father dismounted and put a hand on his daughter’s shoulder. He gave her a proud look, which wasn’t much different than the way he normally looked at his children. It comforted Emily anyway, letting her know that despite anything that may happen, their relationship would not change.

“I know you’ve got a tough road ahead of you,” he said, “but I want you to know that I’m proud of you for making the best of your world.”

“You don’t mind that I’m leaving? Wait, how do you even know I said yes?”

“Because you’re my daughter. I’ve seen you staring out across the plains in the evening, and I know what’s on your mind. We’ll miss you out on the farm, yes, but I’d never use that as an excuse to stifle your dream.”

Emily couldn’t stop smiling.

“Thank you, Father.”

Paul gave his daughter a pat on the shoulder.

“Mind if I borrow Nicholas?” he asked.

“That’s fine by me,” Emily replied. “I want to talk with Abe anyway.”

Paul and Nicholas took the unicorns and walked over to tie them up to the porch. Afterwards, Paul walked over to the working minotaur to speak with him, probably to thank him, Emily guessed. Talvorn did not pause in his work but graciously nodded to accept Paul’s thanks.

“So I take it you’re not. . .”

“Jealous?” Abe finished.

She nodded.

“No. Well, I was, but not anymore.”

“Can I ask why?”

Abe looked up and bit his lower lip, not in sarcasm, and it seemed he was really giving Emily’s question serious thought.

“Sorry, but I can’t,” he said. “All I can say is that you’ll find out when you come back.”

“Come on, Abe,” Emily laughed. “What is it? It can’t be that secret.”

Abe just shook his head.

“Sorry, little sister. All I can say is that when you come back, you’ll be proud of me. I guarantee it.”

Emily stepped forward and wrapped her older brother in a hug. He returned it, and she squeezed him tightly. She tried to put all her effort into that hug, at least one full year’s worth.

“I’m already proud of you, Abe,” she said.

Chapter 13

Emily was right. There was precious little time to waste, and at first light the next day, Adelpha, Chara, and Emily were already walking. They said their goodbyes, of course. Chara and Mariam spent the longest time talking, while Emily gave her farewells to her father and brothers. Emily barely had the time to register the magnitude of her decision. For the first time, she realized that she would not wake to farm work in the morning. Breakfast bread would not be served to her on the table, nor would she return to the comfort of her own bed at night. The innumerable small securities she’d taken advantage of at her parent’s home were becoming increasingly apparent.

Yet it was the loss of the large securities—her family members—that struck her hardest. She wasn’t just saying goodbye to her brothers; she was saying goodbye to her mentors and her friends. When she hugged each of them, she could feel her heart grow heavy. It was enough to make her second guess herself, doubting that this was the best choice for her. How could it be good? How could leaving be what she wanted if it hurt so much?

“You’ll come back, right?” Nicholas asked, holding Emily tightest.

“The moment I can, I promise,” she replied, heartfelt.

“I’m going to miss you, little sister,” Abe said, eyes wet.

“And I already miss you,” she chuckled.

Her father’s hug was warm, and he ended it with a squeeze of her shoulder and favored her with an approving smile. Emily found herself at a loss for words. Her respect for her father had always made conversation with him awkward, but he’d always found a way to speak easily with her anyway.

“I’ll wish you well,” he said, “but you won’t need it. I’ll see you soon, and know that I love you.”

“I love you, too,” Emily said with a tight throat.

Emily didn’t shed a tear until Mariam came forward and gave her daughter the gift she’d never wanted to give: an amazon bow and a quiver of arrows.

“Mother, I can’t,” Emily said. “These are yours.”

“You must, Emily. They’ve always been yours, anyway. I made this bow in the Forest of Angor for my future daughter, like all amazons do. You wouldn’t be born for several years later, but it’s yours all the same. If you insist on being an amazon, then I will treat you like one, and I’ll not have a daughter of mine traveling without a bow.”

“Thank you,” Emily managed to reply.

“You’re welcome.”

And those were the last words they spoke before Emily headed off. They were good words to leave on, Emily felt, and she hoped it was a sign that her mother had finally accepted what she had long feared the most.

On the other hand, Adelpha had clearly not accepted the decision. She walked far behind Emily and Chara, and when Emily looked back, the big amazon gave her an annoyed glare. Looking into Adelpha’s eyes, Emily felt the odd sensation of being unwanted—a feeling she had been spared on her parent’s farm. It felt more harrowing than it had before, when Emily was in the comfort and safety of her family’s love. Now, in spite of her previous evening’s thoughts, Emily found herself hoping that not all young amazons were like Adelpha. If they were, she was in for a very lonely journey.

Fortunately, Emily’s newfound mother was more than entertaining and certainly full of information and advice.

“We’ll change you out of those farmer’s clothes as soon as we can fashion you some suitable armor. That straw hat goes first. That would be the silliest thing to wear in the jungle or anywhere else for that matter. You look dreadfully strange, Daughter, carrying a bow and quiver in overalls and pants. Trust me, a skirt will yield such freedom that you’ll think those pants a prison. Even samurai know this to be true. What’s with that look? You’ve never heard of a samurai before? Eh, I suppose they aren’t that common. They’re from the East, a little place called Juatwa from my understanding, not that I’ve ever been there. First things first, though, after that straw hat, you’ll need to disown your last name. We amazons do not use last names.”

Emily found it easy to ditch the hat. She’d never cared much for the way it made her sweat and how the weave caught her hair. The breeze flowing through her loose strands always felt better.

The name, however? That was a different story.

“If it’s all the same, Mother,” Emily replied, “I’d like to keep the name.”

Chara looked at Emily, pursed her lips and squinted an eye. It looked to Emily like the old woman was trying to sense if this was a mere request or an act of rebellion. Both were partially correct, because Emily felt strongly on this issue. Her last name was what tied her to her brothers and father, and it was as much her name as Emily. She would not abandon it, not ever.

As luck would have it, Chara needed no explanation after seeing the look in Emily’s eyes.

“Very well then,” she waved the argument away, “I suppose it isn’t actually important. Keep the name, but you’ll only ever be known as Emily to the amazons. Also, you’ll do well to mind your elders. I’m the oldest in our group, but there are others older than me back home.”

Emily let out a quiet, relieved sigh and then asked, “How far is Themiscyra?”

“Oh, it’s quite a journey,” Chara gave a wicked grin. “A couple of months by the shortest route, and we take the longer one. You’ll find out why as soon as we do. We travel west out from the city, then north until we near the mountains of Khaz Mal. Then we follow that line until we reach the forest, and from there it’s a straight shot south until we reach home. It’s quite the journey, and most amazons don’t go every year in a row like I do. If you do, you end up spending just as much, if not more, time traveling than you do at home. I like to think it’s what keeps me young, though. I’m in much better shape than most women my age, which is something Adelpha tends to forget.”

Chara glanced over shoulder at Adelpha, and the younger amazon switched her glare from Emily to the older woman. Emily had half a mind to ask why Adelpha was with them at all, what their connection was, but another thought bubbled up first.

“Mother,” Emily started, “about this bow. Mother told me that she made it from the trees of Angor.”

“She didn’t say the trees, Daughter.”

“Yes, she . . .” Emily paused to think back. “Well, she said she made it in the forest, and this is wood, isn’t it?”

“Eh,” Chara contorted her lips, “yes, and no.”

Emily sensed that Chara was intentionally leading her on. There was a lingering smirk on the old woman’s face, but Emily was a patient girl. They still had a full day’s walk to Lucifan, and she could do with a bit of guessing.

“So, it’s made of wood, but not from trees.”

“Correct,” Chara nodded.

Emily held up the bow and gazed at it. It was similar to any bow Emily could imagine. She’d only seen a few of them in her life, most of them owned by rich farm owners who kept them for sport or as trophies of their wealth. One had claimed that his bow had been purchased from centaurs that lived in Angor. He’d said the centaurs were ‘unicorn-people,’ and that their bow-making skills were the best in the world. Emily had also seen one of the bows on a wandering human who had passed by their farm looking for water. His bow had looked like a ‘C’, and he’d said he used it for hunting animals and for protection.

The amazon bow Emily held now was slightly different from those. It was darker in color, lighter in weight, and far too smooth for wood. The lines flowed in unison from one tip to the other, and the ends were slightly curved away from the user. As Emily looked at this bow, it suddenly dawned on her what made this wood so extraordinary.

“There’s no rot,” Emily whispered, “or even age.”

“Yes, Daughter. Now you see.”

How could this wood not rot? If Mariam had crafted this bow in the forest, then it had been made more than eighteen years ago. It wasn’t covered in oil or protected in anyway. It should be brittle, fragile, and nowhere near capable of slaying a behemoth.

“My mother made this.” Emily mused. “How does an amazon make this? This doesn’t even feel like wood, judging by its weight. What is this?”

Chara was grinning from ear to ear, now, clearly pleased with Emily’s quick discovery. She reached over and ran a hand down the bow’s length, stopping to give Emily’s clenched fingers a quick rub.

“As much as we’d like to take credit for these bows,” Chara said, “we actually learned the technique from the elves.”

“Elves?” Emily didn’t hide her surprise. “I thought you were going to say centaurs. I met a wealthy farmer with an old bow who told me that centaurs make the finest bows.”

“Well,” Chara snorted, “I’m sure he was told that by whoever sold him a bent twig. Probably swindled him good, too, I’d imagine. That’s a boldfaced lie though. Only elves have truly mastered bow making, and their work can stand the test of time with unfailing strength. The elves would never share their knowledge with anyone, especially not their sworn enemies, the centaurs.”

“But you said we learned how to make these bows from the elves?”

Chara made a grimace and said, “I might have been a little overzealous when I said learned. A more accurate term would be stole, perhaps.”

“I’ll bet they’re not happy about that,” Emily smiled.

“No, they’re not, but that’s why we travel along the outskirts of Angor. Far enough from danger, but close enough to get water and the materials we need.”

From behind them, Adelpha made a coughing noise. Whether it had a purpose, Emily did not care to consider. Chara did not either.

“So, what are the bows and arrows made out of then, Mother?”

“The arrows are made from normal wood, Emily. Only the bows are made from treants.”

Emily paused, unsure if she had heard the word pronounced correctly.

“Treants?”

“Yes,” Chara confirmed. “Treants, the tree shepherds.”

“I’ve never heard of treants before. What are they?”

“You have not heard of a lot things, Daughter. It seems Mariam was determined to leave you in the dark about much. I’ll need to give her a stern talking to next time we meet. Anyway, treants are some of the easier creatures to describe. Have you seen a colossus in the city?”

“Yes!” Emily felt excited just at the memory of those magnificent statues. “But only two of the three. Actually, it might have been the same one. They were taller than most of the buildings, and the ground shook when they walked!”

“Well, a treant is about half the size of a colossus, or twice the height of minotaur. While a colossus looks like a massive statue brought to life, a treant looks like a tree made into a human. It is from their wood that we make our bows.”

“Wait, you kill them?” Emily asked, more surprised than aghast.

“No, no. That would be counterproductive. There are only so many treants in the forest, so we just catch one and cut off the branches we need. We always take them from the top, too. It’s like giving them a haircut.”

Chara playfully rubbed a hand on Emily’s head, and Emily shook it off. She found herself grinning and, miraculously, casting off the woe of leaving her brothers and parents behind. To Emily’s pleasant shock, she realized she was quickly falling in love with her grandmother.

“See,” Chara continued, “wood from a treant does not rot, because it is still alive, so to speak. It won’t continue to grow, however, once it has been cut from the treant, and the material is strong yet light, far superior to normal wood. Also, in the shape we make our bows, you can fire this small bow as if it were a larger, longer one.”

Chara held up her own bow and pointed to each end. Once again, Emily noticed the difference between it and the other bows she’d seen. While other bows were one continuous arc, an amazon bow had curved tips that bent away from the user.

“We call it a recurve bow,” Chara explained. “Because—”

“—the ends curve back again,” Emily finished.

Chara smiled, and replied, “Well, now that you know about our bows, perhaps it’s time you learned to use them.”

Emily liked the sound of that and, not surprisingly, Adelpha did not. Thankfully, her outrage was illustrated with nothing more than a grunt and a raised chin. Emily took note of Adelpha’s increasing insensitivity, but otherwise took no interest. Emily was too excited about her wonderful grandmother and the prospect of being taught to use a weapon for the first time in her life.

They stopped traveling at the crest of hill where the wind blew strongly and helped keep their skin cool from the sun’s heat. Chara made Emily face into the wind and instructed Emily to raise her bow. Emily tried to mimic the actions she’d seen her mother use to kill the behemoth. She mentally recorded this very moment as her first step towards becoming an amazon.

“Raise that elbow,” Chara instructed. “Don’t pull the string yet, just act like you’re preparing. Alright now, level your head. There’s no need to look like a pixie.”

“What’s a pixie?”

“Never mind that,” Chara waved her hand, “just imagine bringing the arrow up so it’s level with your eye. Okay, don’t lock your elbow. No, now you’re relaxed too much. Don’t lean forward . . . don’t lean back.”

Emily wobbled like a baby, trying to find her balance. Finally, Chara put a hand on Emily’s arm and pushed the bow down. Emily slouched and looked to the ground.

“Hey, stop,” Chara put a finger to Emily’s chin and raised it up. “You’ll get this. We’ll start simpler.”

“It’s no use,” Adelpha chuckled. “The only thing she’ll ever be good with is a scythe.”

Emily turned back to see that Adelpha had finally begun to acknowledge Emily’s presence, though only to criticize her poor performance. The amazon was sitting among the tall weeds, leaning forward to study and delight in Emily’s every awkward move. Emily’s cheeks burned a bit with embarrassment, but she turned back to Chara. She hadn’t spent her entire life dreaming big just to give up now.

Chara chose to ignore Adelpha’s comment and grabbed Emily’s arms.

“Here now, listen to me. Stand up straight and tall,” she said. “Good, now put your arms out. Hold them straight and level.”

Emily did as instructed and made a ‘T’ shape.

“Okay, now take your right elbow and bend it back towards your face. Turn your head to the left.”

Emily did so, trying to keep her posture straight.

“There,” Chara smiled. “Right there. That’s the shape you should be trying to achieve. At first, it will seem strange, and you’ll have to adjust your draw length depending on where you want to shoot. Not to mention you will rarely get the opportunity to make such a proper shot in the thick of battle. But this will be your starting point, and you will vary all your shots from this position.”

Emily tried to ingrain the feeling into her mind. If this was the basis of all future improvements, then she needed to make sure she was doing it right.

“Now let’s try it with the bow again,” Chara said.

Emily picked the bow back up and slowly slid into her starting position.

“There, much better,” Chara said.

“She still couldn’t hit a colossus if it was standing on her,” Adelpha mumbled.

 

  • * *

 

They still had to make it to Lucifan before the amazons left, so Emily made the most of the short time she had. She practiced drawing the string and easing it back into place. She never released the string without an arrow nocked, something Chara called ‘dry firing,’ and Chara let her loose an arrow just once before they left. Emily’s ecstatic feeling of finally releasing an arrow had been quickly sapped when the string slapped her left wrist as it went by. Emily sucked in a breath and shook her hand, missing where the arrow had gone.

“Hit your arm with the string, I see,” Chara noted. “Don’t worry, that happens. You’ll get better with practice. In the future, though, don’t drop your bow, even if the string hits you and it hurts. You’ll mess up your shot.”

Emily rubbed the red mark on her wrist and nodded. To her surprise, Adelpha hadn’t laughed. Emily surmised that perhaps hitting oneself with the string really was common. She hoped not, though. It had really hurt.

They didn’t bother trying to collect the arrow Emily had shot. The Great Plains would never relinquish anything so small. They left for Lucifan at a brisk walk, one unburdened by having to drag a lumbering cart up each windswept hill. At some of the steeper climbs, Adelpha would appear and offer Chara assistance, but the old woman refused every offer. Sometimes she’d even give Adelpha a curt refusal, as if she were insulted by Adelpha’s assumption that age should hinder her. Emily didn’t know whether to be proud or worried, but she certainly understood where Mariam had received her willpower and stubbornness.

They had a brief scare when the trio heard a banshee’s wail far in the distance. Emily dropped into the grass before the other two, her reactions fine-tuned to such sounds from having lived on the Great Plains all her life. They waited patiently, hidden amongst the tall, yellow grass, until they heard the screeching voice fade.

“The sound must have been carried to us by the wind,” Emily whispered. “Either it’s already found a victim or it’s heading in another direction.”

“This place is so desolate, it creates its own horrors,” Adelpha sighed. “I never did like the plains.”

Emily did not come to the aid of her homeland. Indeed, she rather agreed with the amazon. The Great Plains was a place of dying dreams and lonely wanting, or at least that was Emily’s opinion. Her father and mother might disagree strongly.

Once they were sure the banshee had disappeared, they resumed their march, only this time with open ears and eyes. The wind could hide sound just as well as it could modify it.

As the sun crept low, Emily used it as a marker for their travels. The sun was sinking down, drawing the light with it and casting shadows on the other side of the world. Emily knew that meant they had to be nearing the city, but she couldn’t tell by how much. She’d only traveled to Lucifan once, and she had the suspicion that the trio’s pace was slower than that of the unicorn-drawn cart. Neither Chara nor Adelpha seemed to be in any sort of hurry, and as it turned out, they didn’t reach the city until the last dregs of light were nearly gone. The sun was past its setting point, and only a few rays of light streaked the sky above.

When they crested the basin that led down to Lucifan, Emily paused to stare at the city. It was dark now, so she couldn’t see as much as before, but still the immense size of the metropolis’ harbor was enough to make her skin tingle. She wished that Abe and Nicholas were here to see it with her. Yet even without their presence, Emily finally felt she had truly made the right choice.

“Alright, let’s keep moving,” Chara said. “We’re almost there.”

“What?” Emily asked, jumping a hair. “I thought the city was dangerous at night?”

“It is,” Adelpha smirked and paused before adding, “for farmers.”

Chara and Adelpha started to walk down the slope toward the city, and Emily followed. A wave of apprehension was brought on by the memory of the gruesome gargoyles with their skin pulled taught over their skulls, but Adelpha and Chara’s confidence pushed those doubts from her mind. They seemed to know what they were doing, and Emily drew from their confidence. Besides, she remembered, gargoyles guarded buildings, and she wasn’t going to attempt any theft tonight.

The descent down to sea level was easy enough, though perhaps too quiet for comfort. Lucifan had been a busy hub of activity during the day, with thousands of people leaving and coming, their voices, carts, and animals making the air ring with noise. Lucifan was as silent as the Great Plains now—nothing but the sound of wind and shuffling grass. Then again, Emily didn’t know what the city should sound like at night, so perhaps this was normal. Emily did notice that Adelpha and Chara had not chosen to walk the main road as the Stouts had done. Instead, they skirted through the tall grass towards the city’s edge until they reached the darker, slimmer alleyways that surrounded it.

There were no walls around Lucifan, or even a fence to mark boundaries. The inner city was a network of trade and the outer edges were filled with nothing but houses for the many that lived in Lucifan. As they entered and crept through the empty residential blocks, Emily began to wonder just what her mother and father had been afraid of.

“Mother Chara, what—”

In unison, Adelpha and Chara turned around and gave Emily a quiet shhhh!

“Keep your voice down, you idiot,” Adelpha added with piercing eyes. “What do you want?”

Emily clasped her hand over her mouth and looked away to hide her embarrassment. She hadn’t thought she’d been that loud, but her grandmother and Adelpha’s reaction said otherwise.

“Sorry,” Emily whispered. “I was just wondering why we’re being so quiet.”

Adelpha rolled her eyes, but Chara came forward to wrap an arm around Emily’s shoulders. Her face seemed apologetic, and it made Emily feel less guilty about speaking loudly.

“To be safe, Daughter,” Chara replied. “Lucifan is rife with crime, something the angels and knights have yet to conquer. Not that we’d be worried about an ogre or two, not so long as we can use our bows, but why invite a fight when we can avoid one? Also, one can hear better when she makes no sound herself. The Kraken’s Eye is only a few blocks away, so let’s just get home in one piece. It’s not that hard, really.”

Chara gave Emily one last squeeze and then released her. She stepped past Adelpha and took the lead, and they began to creep down the streets again. Emily did her best to mimic the two amazons—stepping lightly, looking down each cross street, and keeping her bow in hand. The sandals Chara and Adelpha wore made little to no sound as they walked, and Emily envied that, because her own shoes were rather loud by comparison.

She really did need to find some amazon clothes.

“We’re almost there,” Chara whispered.

“To The Kraken’s Eye?” Emily asked.

Chara nodded, took another step, and then froze. As Chara’s body went rigid, Adelpha stopped mid step, too. Emily nearly crashed into her, but was able to wave her arms and stay upright, her clothes shuffling as she did so. When Emily was finally still, she looked up to see Chara had her head down, like she was staring at the ground. Adelpha held the same pose, and Emily desperately wanted to ask what was going on. She resisted the urge and decided instead to do as she saw. She tilted her head down and looked at the ground, but there was nothing to see, so she turned her focus to her ears and just listened.

The buildings of the city protected the streets from the wind that constantly blew. In Lucifan, the air was normally still and thus soundless. It was in that void that Emily heard something subtle. It was the sound of breathing—deep, slow, hushed breathing—and then a heavy step.

Adelpha moved first, stepping back from the narrow crossroads, and Emily jumped to avoid being stepped on. The big amazon brought up her bow in one hand while her other one drew an arrow from her quiver and nocked it. Chara was only a half second behind her, and they both aimed in the direction they’d been traveling.

As if on cue, there was a roar from down that darkened alley. Emily jumped, and the blood in her veins ran cold, for there was nothing human in that roar. It was a snarl turned cry for blood, and as Emily stared into the darkness ahead, a hulking mass with a pair of glowing yellow eyes rounded the corner, wielding a jagged hunk of metal. It charged.

“Ogre!” Adelpha shouted, and let her arrow fly.

Adelpha’s bow was a silent killer, only making a thunk as it left the string. The arrow slipped into the dark, disappearing from sight, and Emily gasped as one of the yellow eyes winked out of existence. The charging ogre snarled and crashed to the ground, sliding across the ground from the force of its charge until it came to a rest just a pace from Chara. Emily, blinking and frozen in place, gaped at the arrow in its eye.

“Where are the others?” Adelpha said. “I heard more than one.”

“Smart bastards are probably flanking us,” Chara said. “Emily!”

Emily snapped out of her shock and reached over her back to grab an arrow. She grabbed three instead and had to shake two free of her grasp when she pulled them out. They clattered on the ground, making wooden tink sounds that seemed perilously loud. There was another roar, and Emily tried to nock the arrow like she’d been shown. Her heart was racing, and her fingers fumbled trying to place the small notch onto the thin string.

Another ogre came charging out of the shadowy alleyway, down the same way as the other despite what Chara had thought. In front of its body, it held a door with the hinges still bolted to the side, but Adelpha and Chara did not hesitate. They aimed their bows low and put an arrow each into both four-toed feet. The ogre snarled more than screamed and crashed to the ground. While Chara nocked another arrow, Adelpha slung her bow and pulled out the long knife at her side.

“You’d think they’d know better than to howl before charging,” Adelpha muttered to herself before addressing the fallen ogre. “You should have run while you had the chance.”

She stepped forward with powerful confidence, and Emily felt a rush of envy at how Adelpha handled herself. The ogre on the ground snarled again and wielded the door like a club, swinging at the approaching amazon while crawling back. She hardly seemed concerned as she held her knife, watching patiently for an opening to finish it off.

Adelpha passed into the crossroads again, pursuing the injured ogre when another purple brute stepped quietly out of the shadows. Emily sucked in air, anticipating Adelpha to leap back or attack with her knife, but she did not move. Painfully and fearfully, Emily realized Adelpha didn’t see this new ogre. It was just a pace away, massive club raised high, yellow eyes fixed on the big amazon.

Chara raised her bow, drew her string, and let her arrow fly all in one motion. It pierced the ogre’s neck, but to Emily’s complete shock, the ogre merely flinched. Chara’s hand was going for another arrow, her lips parting to shout a warning, but the ogre’s club would fall long before that. Emily had but a split second to make a choice, and she made it.

As the wooden club swung down to crash on Adelpha’s head, Emily took the last step needed to close the distance between herself and the ogre. She dropped the bow and leapt forward, plunging the arrow—the one she’d failed to nock—straight into the brute’s ribs.

It yelped and brought its arm in just slightly, the club falling and grazing Adelpha’s left shoulder and sending her sprawling to the ground. She was alive, though, and Emily took her hands off the buried arrow and paused. For a moment, she could hardly believe she’d done that. She blinked, both shocked and awed.

The ogre held no such questions. It glared at her with yellow eyes and lashed out with a massive hand, striking her before she could flinch. It hit her with its wounded side, but that seemed to make no difference to its strength. Emily’s vision blurred, and her mind shattered with pain as she was thrown clear across to the other side of the street where her head banged into the wall.

The world went dark for a second, and she tried to focus. She cracked open an eye, but all she could see was a fuzzy, dark world.

Something grabbed her by the arm, though it took her several moments to realize it.

“Got her! Got her!”

A bag went over her head, and she felt herself being dragged.

Chapter 14

Eventually, Emily was lifted up and slung over a massive shoulder. She assumed it was an ogre, judging by the size and lack of fur. By the time her senses came to, her hands and feet were tied, and none of her kicking seemed to matter to the ogre at all. Only a short while later, she heard heavy doors open and close before she was placed in a wooden chair. The restraints on her wrists and ankles were released and retied to the chair’s legs by large fingers. Emily didn’t fight them this time. The strength in each hand alone seemed greater than all of hers.

Then the tying was done, and there was silence again. Emily thought to yell out, but a combination of shock and fear made her hesitant. In the void, she realized she was cold.

“Once again, well done, Mr. Borgan,” came a calculating, male voice.

“Yes, yes,” was the return reply, this voice quicker and pitched high. “Now pay up, Drowin. My ogres do not come cheap, especially when two of them are killed. That’s going to cost you double.”

“Now Mr. Borgan, you knew the risk when you took the job, you stubby little leprechaun.” The reply was the first voice, still cool and calm yet now carefully dipped in poison. “The price we agreed on will cover your loss.”

Emily was completely rigid now. Her hands were balled into fists, and her teeth were clenched tightly. The bag over her head was thin enough to see a flicker of light nearby, just off to her right. Judging by how it danced, she guessed it to be a candle. Also, thanks to that brief conversation, she knew there were two other people in this room besides whatever ogres had brought her here: a leprechaun named Mr. Borgan and another man named Drowin. As to where she was or why she was here, she still had no idea. She resisted the urge to shout out in favor of listening a bit longer.

“This one has some spirit,” Drowin spoke, a hint of admiration in his voice. “It’s like she expected this to happen.”

His voice sounded human, Emily decided, but different somehow. It sounded like the speaker had something in his mouth. Emily swallowed but stayed still.

“How can you tell?” Mr. Borgan asked.

“Her heart is rather calm,” Drowin replied. “I expected her to be terrified at being captured. Most humans are, especially when they cannot see.”

Most humans, Emily repeated. Is that a hint that Drowin isn’t human?

Emily shivered, not from the knowledge but from the cold. It was damn near freezing, wherever she was. She’d never been this cold in her life! Through tiny gaps in the sack over her head, she could glimpse her breath misting in the candlelight.

“Chara?” Emily said, trying to keep her voice calm. “Adelpha?”

There was no reply. A dark shadow came into her view, and the bag was ripped off her head.

“Welcome, amazon,” Drowin said, soothingly. “Welcome.”

Emily had been right about there being a single lit candle nearby, and its dim light flooded her vision, making her blink. When she tried to look past it, her eyes would not adjust to the dark. The candle illuminated only her immediate area, and there was no one standing nearby.

She looked around at what she could see. It took only a second to realize she was in a building—a huge building by the looks of it—because the ground was some kind of stone tile polished to a shine, and the light from the candle didn’t illuminate one wall or even the ceiling. Directly above her, though, there seemed to be a large hole in the roof that revealed the night sky. That didn’t explain why it was so cold though. She tried to wiggle her hands and feet against the rope. Mist poured out from her lips.

“I hope you find the knots tight enough,” Drowin said, and then stepped into the light.

At first, Emily thought she’d been wrong. Drowin looked human to her eyes, dressed like a wealthy merchant with brown hair groomed back and given as much care as a woman might give. Like a knight, he wore neither beard nor mustache, and his skin looked pale and smooth to the touch, as if he hadn’t seen a drop of sunlight in all his life. His eyes were a piercing blue, and Emily felt like he was staring into her heart. Emily thought the way he carried himself seemed feminine, but she could not deny that he was extremely handsome. Her heart twitched a moment at his beauty, but what she saw next snapped her attention back in place.

Drowin was smiling, and his grin revealed that two of his teeth were actually small fangs that tipped over his pale lips.

“You’re a vampire,” she gasped.

“Ah, so you’ve heard of us,” his smile did not fade. “What a shame. I was hoping to tell you about my kind, personally, but I suppose infamy reaches even Themiscyra. Then again, perhaps I’m the one who’s mistaken. You don’t dress like any amazon I’ve seen. Anyway, I still have the pleasure of telling you my name. First though, I feel I must get to know you personally.”

When Emily did not reply, the vampire stepped forward and placed a hand behind her head. She didn’t resist at first, until his ice-cold hand made contact. She jerked in shock, but he had already wiped his hand against her hair. When he pulled his hand up, Emily could see a smear of her blood on his finger.

He stared at the blood with hungry eyes before licking it clean from his finger. His eyes closed, his expression showing he was clearly savoring the taste, and then he glanced back to Emily.

“Spirit indeed,” he noted. “Youthful, human blood is always best, I feel. As for my name, you may call me Count Drowin.”

Drowin gave a nod, and Emily felt a wave a cold air brush against her as he moved

He’s making the room cold, Emily’s eyes went wide. How is that possible?

The realization took Emily’s breath away, and she gaped at Drowin instead of giving him whatever reply he sought. The vampire gave her a disapproving frown and turned smartly around, looking into the darkness.

“You’re lucky your ogres didn’t use a club on her, Mr. Borgan,” he said. “If they had struck her any harder, or with anything sharper, she might have died.”

“I don’t see the problem,” the leprechaun huffed. “She’s to die anyway.”

Emily jumped in her chair, her limbs snapping against the ropes. The chair rocked in place, making the vampire turn back toward her.

“What?” Emily shouted. “Kill me? Why? What did I do? What do you want?”

Drowin seemed surprised to see Emily had found her voice again, and then he turned apologetic, his arms opening wide as if this were a matter beyond his control.

“What do I want?” he sighed. “Well, nothing from you, really. Nothing at all.”

He gave her a hungry look, belying his words, and then crowned it with a smile. Emily pooled every bit of stubbornness she had and glared at him. If he expected her to break down in tears, then he shouldn’t have picked a poor, plains farmer who’d spent nearly every winter going hungry and who’d hidden one long night from a banshee. She was scared, sure, terrified even, but she wasn’t going to let that lock her up.

“Hm,” he smiled. “Maybe there is one thing I’d like from you, but I’ll have to go without it. You are here because another has asked for you. I can’t explain any more. She wants it to be a surprise.”

“Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to play with your food, Drowin?” the leprechaun asked from the shadows.

The vampire did not laugh, but others did. There were a few chuckles from all around the room, maybe four or five by Emily’s count. She tensed a bit, having forgotten that there might be others hidden in the darkness. The chuckles had been deep and inhuman, probably Mr. Borgan’s surviving ogres. Immediately, Emily remembered Chara and Adelpha.

“Where are the other two amazons?” she demanded. “They had better be alive!”

The vampire raised his hand and brought it open palmed across Emily’s cheek. The slap was loud and it stung—Drowin’s ice-cold skin adding a special sting to the blow. Emily fought down the urge to shout, but what really hurt was the headache from the ogre’s blow that returned to her head.

This vampire is strong, Emily realized as her teeth chattered.

“As much as I love a woman with spirit,” Drowin said, “I will not tolerate empty threats. Besides, your fears are unrealized. Mr. Borgan’s pathetic brood of purple beasts had little interest in the other two. They left one injured and quickly outran the second—with their tails between their legs, I might add.”

The voices that originally laughed now growled, and Emily heard more than one heavy foot take a step forward on the hard, stone floor. On the out edges of the candle’s flickering light, she saw hulking shadows take form holding weapons nearly as big as her.

“That’s enough,” Mr. Borgan called out instantly, his person still hidden. “I’ll not have blood on my newly polished marble.”

Yes, Emily thought, those are definitely ogres. She counted five sets of narrowed, yellow eyes flickering in the candlelight. All of them were fixated on Drowin with bloodthirsty intent, and yet the vampire seemed unafraid. His calm demeanor actually increased when the ogres growled again.

Just then, Emily heard the creak of a heavy door off to her right, and faint moonlight spilled in to show two silhouetted figures entering the room. They closed the door behind them, and the candlelight flickered, almost going out before returning to full strength. Whoever entered was hidden in the darkness to Emily.

“Did the gargoyles give you any trouble?” Mr. Borgan asked.

“No, the password you gave us worked fine,” one of the newly entered replied.

The voice was distinctively human and male, but accented in a manner Emily did not recognize. He was clearly a foreigner, but more interesting than that were his shoes. They made a strange and unfamiliar, wooden clip-clop sound as he walked. Beyond that, Emily now knew that the building she was in was protected by gargoyles.

As if ogres and vampires weren’t enough, Emily thought.

“Who is this?” the other newcomer asked in biting anger.

This one was female and lacked the accent of the male. She also walked silently and did not have whatever wooden shoes her male companion wore. The woman was apparently referring to Emily with her question, and Drowin answered accordingly.

“This is the woman you asked for,” he replied.

There was an uncomfortable pause, one where Emily held her breath for every moment waiting to hear why she’d been brought here. Then the woman shrieked, literally screamed, and Emily flinched at the sound.

“You imbecile!” she yelled. “That’s not her! How could you mess this up? You were to look for the two amazons entering the city and capture the youngest one!”

The woman screamed again, and Emily felt the odd sensation of flushing with relief and worry at the same time. The vampire did not balk, unaffected by the woman’s wild nature, and looked into the shadows to where the leprechaun had last spoken. The woman’s screams stopped, and Emily imagined her darting a sharp glance at Mr. Borgan, who stuttered a bit when the attention focused on him.

“My ogres told me there were three amazons,” he spoke meekly and cleared his throat, “and this one was the youngest.”

Another pause went by before the woman gave an exasperated growl, and Emily heard her slap a hand against the building’s stone wall. Whoever this woman was, Emily thought, she was barely hanging on to the edge of sanity. Not even the cold aura produced by Drowin was enough to quench the flames of her anger. It didn’t take long for Emily to realize that Adelpha was meant to be sitting in this chair. If Emily had not come along, then it would have only been Adelpha and Chara entering the city.

“She’s not an amazon!” the woman yelled. “Just look at her clothes. She’s clearly a farmer! Your stupid ogres have ruined everything!”

Mr. Borgan didn’t speak right away, but he eventually worked up the courage to defend himself.

“My ogres told me that she had a bow, an amazon bow,” he said. “Also, she attacked one of them. Also, you said there were only going to be two, but there were three. My ogres followed their instructions as best they could.”

A few ogres grunted their agreement. Drowin turned back to where the woman’s voice had come. The attention in the room seemed to be following his view, because the woman shrieked her frustration again, and Emily heard a scratching sound. She realized the woman was dragging her bare fingernails along the wall.

“It’s irrelevant now,” the woman said, regaining a fragment of composure in her voice. “I’ll have to do the deed myself, I suppose. As for you, vampire, if you want a basilisk, you’re going to have to pay for it now. It won’t be cheap either.”

A basilisk, Emily repeated the word. She remembered her mother and Chara comparing a basilisk to a banshee, and that they were native to Themiscyra, but Emily knew nothing else. What was even more puzzling, Emily thought, was what killing Adelpha had to do with capturing a basilisk. As to how the two related to one another, Emily was entirely clueless. Mostly what she was concerned about, though, was how all this was going to affect her.

“That’s Count Drowin,” the vampire corrected her, “and it was your information that was flawed, mortal. I’ll agree to a paid price, but you will discount it for your poor judgment.”

Count Drowin was like a wall of calm to the woman’s fury. She seethed and growled, rivaling an ogre in her unshackled flood of hateful emotions, but Drowin never once lost his composure and only appeared slightly disgruntled.

“What about my losses?” Mr. Borgan peeped up. “I had better be reimbursed. I lost two ogres to capture this girl. It doesn’t matter if she’s the wrong one; I still upheld my end of the bargain.”

The vampire suddenly remembered the tied up girl sitting in front of him. He looked down to Emily and placed his cold hand on her cheek. It was the coldest thing Emily had ever felt, and she tried to pull away but there was nowhere to go. He left the hand on her cheek, and Emily grimaced as heat was stolen from her face. However, no matter how much heat it stole, Drowin’s hand remained chilled to the bone.

“Feed the girl to your ogres as payment, Mr. Borgan,” the Count said, finally taking his hand off her cheek. “I shall not pay for services that were not done to my satisfaction.”

Mr. Borgan made a shocked grunt but said nothing. Emily gaped. Who was this vampire that made a leprechaun with five ogres at his command stand idly by while he was denied payment? Hadn’t Mr. Borgan said, ‘I don’t want blood on my marble floor,’ when the ogres stepped forward to attack Drowin?

Wait, Emily realized, maybe it was the ogres’ blood he was talking about. Just how powerful is a vampire?

Emily put a quick stop to the questions flooding into her mind. If she didn’t come up with something soon, she was going to be dead. The ogres didn’t wait for Mr. Borgan’s cue, either. Drowin’s offer was more than enough invitation for their empty stomachs. In the darkness, she heard heavy footsteps closing in around her. One made a slurping sound from drooling too much. Their hulking figures began to emerge into the light, and Emily balked and said the first thing that came to mind.

“You’ve been lied to, Count Drowin!” she said. “Basilisks cannot be captured!”

She tried to sound confident, but the fear of being eaten alive had worked its way into her voice. Emily also had no idea if what she was saying was true, but if a basilisk was anything like a banshee from the Great Plains, then she figured she couldn’t be far off. Fortunately, her lack of confidence didn’t seem to matter, and her words were instantly refuted by the madwoman.

“She’s a liar!” the woman shrieked. “Kill her, Okamoto!”

The woman’s companion clip-clopped forward into the light, and Emily saw the most peculiar sight.

Okamoto was a man with straight black hair and dark eyes somewhere in age between her older brother and father. His face was stoic and devoid of emotion as if asleep. He wore a white dress, or some kind of robe, that covered his body and left his hairless chest slightly exposed. The shoes he was wearing, which made so much noise, were indeed made from wood. They were so strange because they looked like small tables with the foot sitting on a platform supported by two pieces of wood that came down to elevate the wearer off the floor. Also, Okamoto’s hair was extremely long. Where most men cut their hair short, Okamoto grew it out and just tied it in the back into a queue.

Also, compared to a knight, pirate, gunslinger, or an amazon, he looked extremely vulnerable. The foreigner had only one weapon—a long, thin, slightly curved sword tied to his waist—and as the man approached Emily, he placed one hand on the sword’s sheath and the other on the sword’s hilt. Before he could draw it, Count Drowin held up a hand.

“Stop, samurai,” he said, turning to Emily. “How do you know I’ve been lied to?”

The woman in the dark shrieked again and then screamed, “You can’t be serious! This isn’t even the right girl! I’ve never seen her before in my life. Kill her!”

“And your sudden interest in her death has aroused my own,” the vampire countered.

Okamoto looked at Emily, and she could see in his eyes (and only his eyes) that he was considering defying Drowin’s order. He tightened his grip on the hilt of his sword and looked sideways at the vampire.

“Kill her!” the woman repeated.

“Do that and our deal is off,” Drowin replied. “Your lord will be most displeased, I think, Okamoto.”

The samurai’s eyes were welded to the vampire. Emily could feel her heart thundering. Okamoto was close enough now that he could kill Emily before Drowin could intervene. She tried to think of how to topple her chair to avoid the samurai’s swinging sword. Maybe if she used her feet she could kick herself up fast enough to survive the first swing. She braced her feet on the floor and prepared to push backwards. It might not work, but it was well worth the try. She just hoped she was fast enough, despite the cold.

Thankfully, there was no need. To Emily’s relief, Okamoto took his hands off his sword and faded back into the shadows.

“My husband will hear of this insubordination, you pathetic scum!” the woman yelled at Okamoto.

Emily was shocked to hear that the woman was married. Out there somewhere in the world, she thought, lived a miserable man.

“You cannot punish a samurai for obeying his lord,” Drowin said. “His duty is to your husband first, and you second. As for you, little girl, please continue.”

Emily barely had time to recover. Her heart was still racing, and she knew the vampire could sense it. With a deep breath, she tried to slow its pace. Now was not the time to appear unsure.

“Has she told you how she intends to capture a basilisk?” Emily asked.

“No, she has not.”

“This is ridiculous!” the woman yelled. “How I capture the creature is my own business!”

Emily briefly wondered if this woman ever said anything without shouting. Perhaps her husband was happy right now because his wife was not around.

“And it would be still had you not given me incorrect information on whom to capture. So, think of this as your way of reentering my good graces.”

For all her fire, the woman could not scream her way out of this. The vampire had an immeasurable amount of charm carefully sowed with intimidation. If he didn’t have such an aura of evil, Emily might admire his poise.

“I’m an amazon, Drowin,” the woman sighed as if that should be explanation enough. “I’ve lived with basilisks and know where they are weak and where they are strong. I will capture one with special wood that is resistant to their poison.”

Emily gaped in the woman’s direction. She’d clearly said she was an amazon. She must have been one of the ones in The Kraken’s Eye, and she wanted Adelpha dead. Emily also didn’t know for sure, but she had a strong feeling the poison-resistant wood the woman was talking about was the wood from a treant used to make bows.

Emily’s mind flashed red for a moment as she raged at Adelpha. Emily was here because of her! How dare that big woman treat her wrong? She owed Emily greatly, even if Emily never made it out of here alive.

“Nothing is resistant to their poison,” the vampire said. “Not even an immortal like myself. That’s why I need it.”

“Yes, I know,” the woman replied, “but believe me, there is one material that can withstand their venom, and I will use it to bring you what you need.”

“And its gaze?” he asked. “How will you avoid being instantly killed when it looks at you?”

“It can only kill those who look directly into its eyes. That’s nothing a sharp needle can’t fix.”

The vampire held his gaze towards the woman’s voice for a few heartbeats and then nodded slowly. Then he turned to Emily, and she could see her doom in his cold, blue eyes.

“What was your name?” he asked.

“Emily Stout.”

“It was a pleasure meeting you, Emily Stout,” the vampire nodded and then signaled to Mr. Borgan. “Take her away.”

The small leprechaun clapped his hands twice, and the heavy footsteps of ogres came from every corner of the room.

“No! NO!” Emily yelled. “Wait! Stop!”

Drowin faded back into the darkness as the ogres emerged fully into the light. All five surrounded her, and their smiling, carnivorous faces turned terrifying in the flickering candlelight. They reached out and grabbed her with greedy hands.

Chapter 15

“Not on my marble!” Mr. Borgan warned. “Take it outside.”

The ogres grunted and one of them grabbed a hold of Emily’s chair. They turned towards the door and effortlessly dragged her away from the flickering candle.

“No! Stop!” she yelled. “Help! HELP!”

She kicked against the rope and rocked the chair, but nothing gave. The ogres laughed at her—the one pulling her unperturbed by her struggles—and the wooden legs scraped across the stone floor. Her body faded into the darkness until the ogres reached and opened the building’s door and moonlight poured in. Emily desperately searched the room, but the screaming woman and quiet samurai were still hidden by the shadows. Only Count Drowin was there to watch her leave, his white fangs glistening in the pale light. He gave Emily one last look of longing and hunger before the ogres dragged her into the cool night air.

This cannot be happening, Emily thought. This can’t be! This can’t be how it ends!

“Help!” she screamed as the ogres closed the door. “Somebody help!”

Emily would not have her dream of leaving home come true only to end at the mouths of these purple beasts! She kicked against her restraints again as the ogres walked on and dragged her chair behind them. Now that she was outside, she could see the building they’d been in as it was bathed in moonlight. Emily gasped when she recognized the bank from the other day. This had been the building Abe had pointed out to her, the leprechaun bank.

The ogres started walking down the stairs, and Emily’s head was jerked back as her chair was yanked along, bouncing down the stone steps. Having no other choice, Emily looked into the night sky. It was there that she saw the gargoyles from before, but they were stone no longer. They were flying on leathery, paper thin wings over the building. Their skeleton like arms and legs hung like dead flesh from their tiny bodies. In the moonlight, Emily could still make out their long claws, but there was something new. Now that they were not stone, the gargoyles had red, glowing eyes, and they could make sound as well, for they screeched at the sight of the intruders.

They arched their claws up and opened their mouths, preparing to feast on those below as they shrieked and dived down to attack.

“Golden arches,” one of the ogres grumbled.

The gargoyles flinched in midair, literally stopping in flight as if something physical had halted their descent. Then they recovered, their eyes turning from Emily and ogres, and flew back up into the sky. They appeared totally unaware of the movement below them now.

“Help!” Emily screamed again. “Someone! Anyone!”

The ogres laughed at Emily’s cries, and she swiveled her head around as much as she could to look for help. Lucifan’s streets were empty as far as she could tell, and her head bounced as the chair was hauled down the stony steps. One of the ogres made eye contact with her and licked his purple lips. His slobbering tongue whipped back and forth between his two short tusks.

They’re really going to eat me, Emily thought as her body went cold. She had to find a way out. She wouldn’t accept this, not until the last moment. Fruitlessly, she pushed against the rope again, trying to time her efforts with the falling of the chair on the stone steps. There were only a few more steps left, though, and when the ogres reached the last of them, the one dragging her flung her into the street.

The wooden chair, with Emily tightly strapped to it, soared through the air and crashed to the ground. The two legs of the chair that landed first snapped off under the weight, and Emily’s body and face slid on the ground until the rest of the weight tumbled down on top of her. Through the ringing in her ears, she heard the ogres laugh again.

Emily tried to blink, but she could only open her left eye, because the other was pressed against the ground. Her whole body stung and ached now, but she barely noticed once she heard the sound of approaching footsteps. She struggled against the loosened rope and found that she could move her right hand. The rest of her was still tangled in the ropes, and she felt around as she tried to pull the rope off. Instead, her hand found one of the wooden legs that had snapped off the chair. As the ogres approached her, she gripped it tightly.

Their heavy steps stopped just inches from her head. Their feet were so close, Emily could see the dirt encrusted between their four toes and smell the horrid stench it created. The five creatures surrounded her, taking their places for the evening meal. One of the ogres reached down and, with one of the sharpened nails on its fingers, cut the rope that bound her. Emily lay quite still as the pressure was released and didn’t flinch when the ogre grabbed her by the neck. It held her tightly, and she couldn’t breathe, but still she did not kick. It picked her up and looked into the eyes of this curious human who did not squirm with fear, a level of interest reflecting in its own yellow pools. Then that curiosity was taken by hunger, and the ogre opened its mouth to bite off her head.

Emily swung the wooden chair leg as hard as she could and bashed the ogre in the side of the head. Caught completely off guard, the ogre growled and released his victim, stumbling back as blood sprayed from his crushed nose. Emily didn’t miss a beat, and as her feet hit the ground, she tried to dart under the wounded ogre’s legs. She wasn’t fast enough, though, and one of the others grabbed her leg, tripping and sending her crashing into the ground again.

“Damn it, no!” she spit. “HELP!”

She kicked the hand as hard as she could, but the ogre only smiled and hauled her up into the air, this time upside down. She swung at him with the makeshift club, but he grabbed it and tore it from her hands. Viciously, she kicked and punched, her hands striking hard muscle every time. She screamed, too, but the ogres did nothing but laugh. Even the one she’d injured was chuckling, blood dripping from its nose.

They stared at her with their yellow eyes and grinned with their huge mouths. The jagged yellow teeth reflected the moon’s glow and consumed all of Emily’s world as the ogres leaned forward to feed on her flesh. Emily screamed once more and closed her eyes.

Without warning, the ogre holding her leg released his grip, and Emily dropped to the ground, head first. Her body crashed over her, and it took a moment to see what was happening. She looked up and saw the ogre who’d held her lying dead on the ground with two arrows through its head.

“Charge!” came a voice from above.

Emily looked up to see ten knights in the sky, each flying on a pegasus. Their full plate armor was shining gloriously, and their mounts kicked in the air with every beat of their wings. As one, they swooped down, heavy swords drawn, and dived in a sharp spiral to surround the four remaining ogres. Their mounts snorted as they landed, their wings beating furiously to halt their swift charge. The ogres snarled back and drew their own heavy weapons. Two of them had wooden clubs with nails driven through the end, but the other two had heavy pieces of metal that had been crudely sharpened on one edge. However, they were not suicidal and pressed their backs against each other in a defensive circle.

Emily darted away, her feet scrambling to get past the knights and reach safety, as the ogres turned to face the threat. The ogres let her run, unwilling to chase their prey with so many competing predators nearby. Emily looked for the knight with a bow who had saved her life, but she was confused when she saw none carried one.

“Emily!” Chara yelled.

Emily turned to see Chara and Adelpha come sprinting out of the shadows between two buildings. Emily instantly knew who had saved her life and ran towards them, throwing her arms around Chara in relief.

“I’m so glad you’re okay,” Chara said, her voice heavy in its honesty. “I thought we might be too late. Here! Here’s your bow. Next time, try using it and not yourself to launch the arrow, please.”

Emily took her bow, glad to have a weapon again even if she did not understand how to use it correctly. She gave her grandmother another tight squeeze, which was returned in kind.

“You arrived just in time,” Emily replied. “How’d you find me?”

“Once I could stand again, we set off to track the ogres,” Adelpha explained. “I wanted to rouse the other amazons, but Chara worried you’d be dead if we didn’t hurry. These knights were patrolling and offered their help. One says he knows you. Your screams did the rest.”

“One of them knows me?” Emily balked, her heart beating the answer before she could say it.

She turned back to the knights, and one of them lifted his visor. Sir Gavin Shaw was smiling, charming as ever, and Emily’s jaw fell open. He favored her with a wink and closed the visor again.

“I want them alive!” he shouted to the other knights.

His squad dismounted from their pegasi and closed in around the four ogres. Their mounts flew back up into the sky as the knights stepped away, giving their riders more room to maneuver on the ground. The knights drew up shields, lending more armor to their already well-protected bodies, and the ogres with their yellowed eyes snarled and growled in response—one letting out a roar. It hefted a heavy blade nearly as tall as Emily and swept it in a wide arc at the knight closest to him. That knight leapt back as fast as his armor would allow, but still the ogre’s blade struck his shield hard. Emily heard the sound of metal hitting metal and watched the knight stumble and fall, reeling back from the force to clatter onto the ground. His helmet flew off with the impact, revealing Sir Duncan Macalister. The ogre who’d almost killed him stepped forward to finish the job.

Gavin was at his friend’s side in a heartbeat, stepping in and ramming his entire, heavily weighted body into the purple beast. He looked like a child compared to the ogre’s size, but his action drove the ogre back. Duncan hastily stood up and took a better footing, sharing a nod with Gavin.

“Watch yourselves!” Gavin shouted to his allies.

“Put down your weapons!” Duncan commanded the ogres.

The ogres snarled again and took a step back towards the bank.

“Stop!” Gavin yelled.

The ogres broke into a run, swinging their weapons to break open a gap in the knights’ circle. Even with knights’ armor and shields, the ogres’ weapons and brute strength were too much to contain. The knights were forced back as they defended themselves, one being struck so hard that his armor bore a dent where the sword had struck. When he fell, an opening was made, and the ogres dashed through it and up the stairs. The knights attempted to follow, but they stopped when the gargoyles noticed them.

Unfortunately, they were too late.

The gargoyles screeched and flapped their leathery wings, then dived down to attack the knights. Their claws were outstretched for a killing blow and their interlocking teeth were held open. In the night, their red eyes made them appear harbingers of death.

“Golden arches!” Emily screamed.

The gargoyles flinched at the words, stopping just above the knights’ heads, and then accepted the password before flying back up into the air. The knights turned around and gave Emily a curt nod. Gavin stared at her the longest before turning back.

The ogres had retreated back into the building. The knights stood outside the door, swords held at the ready.

“Do you know what’s inside, Emily?” Gavin yelled back to her.

“There are the ogres, a leprechaun, a samurai, some crazy woman, and a vampire!”

At the mention of the vampire, the knights gasped and took a step back from the bank. They exchanged glances, their armored bodies revealing fear as they retreated all the way back down the steps. Frantically, they looked all around the building and even searched the skies above the bank.

“Can vampires fly?” Emily asked.

“No, but Jack Borgan’s bank is open at the top,” Duncan replied.

The ten knights retreated back to the amazons but kept their eyes on the building and never took their hands off their weapons.

“If there is a vampire in there, then we’ll have to come back with help,” one of the knights said.

“You were inside, Emily,” Gavin said. “Are you sure there’s a vampire? Did you feel cold?”

Emily relayed as much as she could, but once it was apparent that she had indeed seen a vampire, the knights went into action.

“We must leave quickly,” he said. “You three amazons come with us. It won’t be safe until daybreak. Not to mention my superiors will want to hear your story, Miss Stout.”

Adelpha tried to protest, but Emily was more than willing. The knights whistled, calling their pegasi down to them. The beasts obeyed and flew down beside their riders. The knights were quick to mount up, years of practice outweighing the burden of their armor. After Gavin had mounted, he reached out a helping arm to Emily.

“Miss Stout?”

Emily didn’t need his help, but she took it anyway. When she grasped his hand, even though it was encased in armor, she still felt her heart jump to her throat. Adelpha refused Duncan’s help and climbed onto his pegasus alone, scowling at him as she did so. Chara refused help, too, slapping away a knight’s hand as if its mere existence were offensive.

“I’m much too old for this,” she complained, and mounted up.

Gavin’s pegasus led the way, leaping into the air while simultaneously giving a mighty push of its wings. Emily could feel the air pulling at her, and she clenched Gavin tightly.

It was the most exhilarating experience she could imagine. One moment, they were sitting mounted on the ground, and the next they were soaring through the air and over buildings. The pegasus’ wings rubbed against Emily’s legs as it flapped, but the soft feathers only warmed them as the cool wind swept by. Emily held Gavin tightly and looked down, watching the buildings shrink and rush by underneath them, like water under a bridge. The other knights were in the air, too, and keeping pace. Chara and Adelpha, for all their earlier reluctance, couldn’t keep the shock and awe from their faces. Emily grinned while her eyes narrowed against the wind. She stared out across the ocean and then out towards the plains, taking in the incredible view. With the wind in her hair and the shining knight in her arms, Emily nearly forgot that just a moment ago, she’d almost been eaten alive.

Lucifan was completely foreign to Emily from above, not that it was familiar when she was on the ground either. The moonlight cast shadows from the buildings, and Emily saw nothing but rooftops. She laughed, smiled, and touched a hand to the pegasus that carried her and Gavin effortlessly over the city. What strength these creatures must have, she realized, to carry such weight on their wings. How the animal kept them from tumbling out of the sky to certain death was a mystery all in its own. Emily was okay with that remaining a mystery, too, so long as it kept them flying. The pegasus snorted when she reached forward to run her hand through its mane.

“We’ll be setting down right there!” Gavin shouted, his voice barely audible in the wind.

Gavin pointed to a two-storied structure with a large courtyard in the back. Although it was all made of stone and large in size, the building looked tiny, because it was situated right up against the massive tower in the center of the city. Emily had heard that was the angels’ tower, and her heart skipped again at the thought of seeing them. Did they stay in that tower? She wondered. Are the angels Gavin’s superiors?

Will I get to meet angels, too? She hoped she would.

The pegasi dove down to the courtyard and cantered to a stop when their hooves touched the ground. As soon as the knights dismounted, a trio of servants came forth to take the reins. The knights pulled off their helmets, and Emily saw that they were all about the same age, youthful like Gavin, though one had shaved his head completely bald. These were not the same knights Gavin and Duncan had been traveling with in the streets several days ago. She thought to ask about that, but the moment passed when the ten knights headed inside the building and motioned for the amazons to follow.

Upon entry, Gavin grabbed one of servants tending the pegasi and gave him a hard stare.

“Wake Sir Mark,” he said. “Tell him a vampire has been spotted plotting to capture and kill. The angels will want to know.”

Chapter 16

Soon after, Sir Mark O’Conner emerged from the darkened hallways carrying a single lit candle in a tray, the servant who had fetched him now nowhere to be seen. Emily’s eye fell upon an older man, not unlike her grandmother, only with a shaved head and thick cheeks. His narrowed eyes squinted past the light he held, making his features appear dark and defined as he walked across the stone floor. He was dressed casually in a stainless white tunic and hardly-used linen pants. The outfit looked cheap, yet comfortable, and he clearly was not expecting any trouble on this weary, cloudless night, judging by the annoyed scowl he gave Gavin and Duncan as a means of greeting. As for how Emily knew he was a knight, it was because of how quickly he established his superior rank.

“Spit it out, Shaw,” Mark barked. “Why am I awake at this hour?”

“Sir!” Gavin and his squad went rigid at the sight and sound of the older knight. “We have reliable information that a vampire is plotting something.”

“Vampires are always plotting something,” Mark replied, “just as you are always forgetting to respect your elders.”

Gavin hesitated a moment and glanced at Duncan, who in turn tilted his chin down. A moment later, Gavin relaxed his stance and took a knee before Mark, kneeling low. The other knights followed suit, bowing down as a unit just behind their leader. Emily almost knelt, too, but checked herself. Neither Adelpha nor Chara had made a move, and the old knight’s eye had yet to fall on any of the three. Actually, for all Emily could see, Mark didn’t know they existed.

“We apologize, Sir Mark,” Gavin said, his voice sounding honest. “The urgency of the situation overtook us. This woman here, Emily Stout, was nearly killed by a group of ogres outside Jack Borgan’s bank. We believe she has valuable information on a vampire plot, sir.”

“The leprechaun, eh?” Sir Mark nodded and rubbed his chin.

There was no hair on his face at all, except for two bushing eyebrows and some grey nose hair. He finally took a moment to flick his eyes from the knights to Emily, Chara, and Adelpha. His gaze settled on each one, giving away nothing beyond the fact that he was clearly judging them.

“The youngest one, the farmer,” Gavin spoke to the floor, still kneeling. “That’s Emily Stout, Sir.”

“That’s better, Shaw,” Mark said, turning to Emily. “As much as I hate wasting my time, I’ll give you a moment of it. What information do you possess, girl?”

Emily’s heart was still racing from all the events of the night, and she had to take a few breaths before she began her tale. She wanted to be brief, but found she didn’t know how. When she mentioned the amazon, Adelpha and Chara both took in sharp breaths and exchanged looks. As Emily stumbled over her words, Mark grew more irate until he held up a hand at the point where the ogres were commanded to eat her. She went quiet, and he took in a deep breath.

“To my ears, the only plotting I hear is that one amazon is trying to kill another,” Mark said and then pointed at Adelpha. “This one, specifically. Am I right to assume that you amazons would rather Lucifan and the knights stay out of such business?”

“Dead right,” Adelpha replied, coldly.

“Then I see nothing worth waking me for, Shaw,” Mark continued, turning to the kneeling knights. “There is nothing in Lucifan’s laws against trying to acquire a basilisk, as insane and unlikely as it sounds. If you have witnesses that this girl was about to be killed by ogres, find and arrest the beasts, and they will be charged for their crimes. As for the rest of it, I’ve heard nothing but a tall tale made up by a lowly farmer’s daughter. Jack Borgan, Count Drowin, and the samurai ambassador Okamoto Karaoshi? And somehow these three met and have an interest in some small girl from the plains? I’ve heard better stories, but not many. Tell me, Emily Stout, did you think this all up at once, or have you been planning to be rescued by a knight in shining armor for years?”

Emily was shocked into silence. The speed with which Mark had taken her for a liar was not something she’d expected from a man in his position. Fortunately, Gavin was on her side.

“Sir!” he lifted his head. “You didn’t let her finish. It was us who witnessed her almost being eaten by ogres. After I saved her—”

You saved her?” Chara huffed.

“After we saved her,” Gavin continued, “the ogres retreated back inside Jack Borgan’s bank, so they must have been employed by the leprechaun. The gargoyles allowed them entrance. The angels will want to know.”

The old knight took in Gavin’s information and rubbed his bare chin again. He gave Emily a hard stare and then turned around. As Emily waited patiently, she noticed Adelpha lean towards her.

“Did you really threaten a vampire?” the amazon whispered.

“Well, I felt it was more like a warning,” Emily shrugged, “but I don’t think he saw the difference.”

To Emily’s surprise, Adelpha smiled. She blinked at the older girl, yet again at a loss of words

This is becoming a bad habit, Emily realized. I’m being left speechless right and left!

“Alright,” Sir Mark nodded, turning back around. “You have a good point, Shaw. Jack Borgan has a history of crossing the law, especially those he feels don’t apply to him. I will mention this little encounter to the angels in the morning, assuming there is time. It’s possible they’ll even take interest in this vampire’s plot, but don’t blame me when they brush it off as hearsay. Still, since it can be confirmed that you are being hunted by ogres, you three will stay here for the night—don’t protest, amazon. You are under angels’ law here in Lucifan, and this Emily here is a witness to a crime. You’ll be released in the morning, you have my word. Shaw, here, will show you to our visitor’s quarters. As for the rest of you,” he indicated the other nine knights, “return to Jack Borgan’s Bank. Seal the building off and wait for reinforcements. There may be other ogres still inside. Shaw will lead the reinforcements to reconnect with you, and then you will detain that greedy leprechaun. Macalister, you will take command until that time.”

He gave a curt nod to the ten knights who stood at attention and saluted him. Without another word, he marched away, taking the flickering candle with him. Minus Gavin, the knights turned and walked back out towards the courtyard. Duncan stopped when Gavin reached out and grabbed his arm.

“Be careful out there,” he said. “The vampire is probably long gone by now, but don’t risk it.”

“Rushing in was your plan, remember?” Duncan forced a smile.

His words sounded hollow, and Gavin only released him when he gave a nod. Gavin waited until the knights were mounted and in the air, disappearing over the buildings. Emily watched them go, too, letting her mind drift to the thought of feeling the wind in her face and feathered wings rubbing against her leg. When Gavin turned around, his eyes and tone denoted a state of urgency.

“I apologize, Miss Stout,” he nodded low. “I’m afraid I do not have the luxury of time and must escort you to your room immediately. I need to get back to my squad as soon as I can.”

“Oh,” Emily blinked. “Yes, I understand.”

You are a bumbling idiot, she thought of herself. That’s the best you can come up with? He probably thinks you’re the most boring girl in the world, the way you talk. Get yourself together. You were almost killed!

If Gavin noticed that he was making her blush, he did not show it. Instead, he grabbed a nearby candle, lit it, and led the three amazons deeper into the building down a few short hallways to a bedroom. He flung open the wooden door, revealing a small room with only two beds. He handed the candle to Emily and, for once, looked embarrassed.

“I’m sorry, but this is the best I can do on such short notice.”

“It’s alright, Sir Gavin,” she smiled. “You can make it up to me by doing me a favor.”

“Oh?” he raised an eyebrow, “and what favor might that be, Miss Stout?”

“Find out where that samurai, Okamoto, is. Please.”

Gavin tilted his head curiously and replied, “I’ll see what I can do.”

As soon as he was out of sight and the door was closed, Chara snatched the candle out of Emily’s hand and leaned forward until their noses nearly touched.

“First, we sleep,” the old woman said, “but in the morning, you give me every detail.”

“I can’t believe they’re forcing us to stay,” Adelpha seethed. “As if we’d be safer here rather than with our sisters. I have a traitor to find. Irksome knights.”

Chara and Emily shared one of the beds for the night. Although both beds were the same size, Adelpha was notably thicker than her companions. Emily had inherited Chara’s small frame and neither of the two were disturbed by the other’s presence. Emily’s back pressed up against her grandmother’s, and the excitement rushing through her veins soon gave over to fatigue. She passed into a deep, dreamless sleep that wasn’t disturbed until Chara shook her awake in the early morning.

“Emily,” she whispered. “It’s time. Start from the beginning, and don’t leave out a single detail.”

After a few yawns and some eye rubbing, Emily felt alert enough to speak. Adelpha was already awake, too, and she listened intently through most of the tale. Chara frequently interrupted, though, asking questions and clarifying things. Most questions were about the mysterious woman. When Emily finished her story, Chara went over specifics again, making Emily repeat some parts more than twice.

“She specifically said she was an amazon?” Chara asked. “And that she wanted Adelpha dead?”

“Only that she was an amazon,” Emily shook her head. “Adelpha’s name was never mentioned, directly.”

Chara glanced over at Adelpha who was looking down, her head tilted forward with eyes glazed over. Emily expected to see anger written in her face, but it was worry and regret she saw instead.

“Hmm,” Chara bit her lower lip. “We don’t know who they’re after then. The ogres could have been looking for a different pair, perhaps other amazons who were coming back to the tavern late.”

“Chara, please,” Adelpha spoke up. “I don’t need to be consoled here. Don’t try to pretend. That woman—this traitor—she wanted me captured, me. Whoever this was watched us leave the city, knew when we were coming back, thought there would be two us, knew where we were going to be when we came back, and gave all that information to a vampire. She wanted me dead in exchange for capturing a basilisk! If Emily hadn’t been with us, or if she had been older than me, then it would have been me tied to that chair.”

“The woman said she was married,” Chara raised a finger. “Anyone can claim to be amazon, but we amazons do not marry, Adelpha. Emily never saw her face.”

“Don’t say that like it’s a good thing,” Adelpha scowled, “and the marriage is nothing. Just because it is forbidden does not mean it never happens. You should know this most of all. Besides, she said she’s going to use special wood to capture the basilisk, and we both know that she’s speaking of treantwood. It’s the same wood we use to make our bows. This woman knows our ways. She is amazon, she’s with us, and she wants to kill me.”

“It could still be someone else. You are the next in line to be queen after all. There are many who could call themselves your enemy.”

Emily jumped a bit when she heard that. Her mouth fell open in surprise, too, but neither Chara nor Adelpha commented on it.

“Chara,” Adelpha begged. “Face it. She’s one of us. She’s an amazon, and she’s traveling with us.”

Chara gave one last, defiant mumble, but then buried her face in her hands, finally accepting the inevitable. She sighed, lifted her head and shook it slowly.

“I wished this day would never come.”

Silence took over after that, and Emily looked from Chara to Adelpha, hoping that one would catch on to her questioning glances. Eventually, Chara did acknowledge them.

“Well, Daughter,” she said, “you told us your story. Perhaps it’s time you heard ours.”

Emily listened well, and she finally had answers to the countless questions that were buried within her. However, by the end of the tale, she found there were still many more questions left unasked.

Unlike most amazons, Chara only had one daughter. Childbirth had been far too unpleasant an experience in her opinion, and she had no desire to go through it again. Being a mother, though, had been an absolute joy, so when Mariam ran off with Paul, Chara decided to take up motherly duties for another girl in Themiscyra who’d lost her mother. It was a common thing to do, being as how hostile the world could be at times, but the new daughter Chara took up was a bit special. She was older, about Emily’s age at the time, and she was the amazon queen. Her name was Hippolytha.

Hippolytha’s mother had perished due to illness about the same time Mariam decided to run away. In truth, Hippolytha (and even her younger sister, Stefani) was old enough to make her own way, but she sought the leadership of an elder, and Chara was there to take her into her arms. As for Stefani, she was raised by another, which was also not uncommon. Chara wanted only one daughter to care for, and Hippolytha did not feel ready to be both a mother to her sister and a queen to her people. It also helped that Mariam had been similar in age to the young queen, making the transition easier for Emily’s grandmother.

Their relationship blossomed, or so Chara felt. She taught Hippolytha better ways to shoot a bow, proper knife technique, and other things a young amazon should know. Chara was even there to watch Adelpha be born, and some years later, Adelpha’s sister, Heliena. Then, tragically, on Hippolytha’s first day out hunting after Heliena’s birth, Chara and the queen were out stalking a manticore when they came across a basilisk.

Emily had to stop the story here to ask what a basilisk was, and Chara told her. A basilisk was a deadly and poisonous creature, perhaps the most dangerous of all creatures in the world. Legless, long, and scaly, it moved by slithering on its belly through the bushes. It was small, fortunately, never growing longer than an arm in length, yet its poison was so deadly that it could kill immortals, such as vampires and angels. However, according to the new amazon traitor, a treant’s wood would be resistant to this poison. Chara said that point was unproven, but she wagered it was possible.

What was most terrifying about a basilisk, though, was that it could kill with its eyes. Just making eye contact with the creature would stop one’s heartbeat and make them drop dead. This, unfortunately, was what happened to Hippolytha.

As she and Chara stalked the manticore, Chara saw the basilisk slither into their trail. She ducked and averted her eyes, holding up her hands and calling out for Hippolytha to do the same. She’d been too late, and Hippolytha had slumped dead to the jungle floor a moment later. Chara had to drag her back, weeping the entire way. It was a senseless death with no one to blame except the harshness of the wild.

At that point in the story, Emily glanced at Adelpha who was still looking down, forlorn.

“Adelpha and her sister were too young to remember their mother,” Chara said. “Heliena is actually about your age, Emily, but at that time, she was just a newborn and still needed her mother’s milk to survive. I was too old to nurse anymore, but fortunately Hippolytha’s younger sister, Stefani, was up to that task. Stefani had tried to produce children, and though she miscarried every time, she still produced milk and thus raised Heliena. I felt it was appropriate to take up Adelpha as my own.

“The problems, though, started immediately. See, with Hippolytha dead, Stefani had to take up the ruling of our people. She immediately wanted me punished for Hippolytha’s death. Apparently dragging my adopted daughter’s cold, lifeless corpse back home was not punishment enough. Fortunately, others intervened and stood up for me, and nothing came of Stefani’s vengeful plans. Queens do not rule absolutely in amazon society. We can, and often do, argue and disagree with our leaders. Still, though, Stefani has always harbored hatred for me and even partially towards Adelpha for staying with me.”

“So could it be her then?” Emily jumped in. “This traitor amazon, could it be her I heard yelling?”

“No,” Adelpha said. “Stefani isn’t here. She stopped making the journey to Lucifan when she stopped trying to have children. Besides, I’m her niece. She wouldn’t try to have me killed.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Chara muttered. “Everyone who isn’t in this room right now is suspect. Let’s not forget that.”

Just then, there was a knock on the door. It was courteous, not too sharp or loud. When Emily opened it, Sir Gavin greeted her with a smile. He stood in the doorway without armor, dressed in the tunic and pants that she had seen Sir Mark in the previous night. Emily realized this was the first time she was seeing him without shinning metal plates covering his body.

Meanwhile, she was still in her old, dirty pants, linen shirt, and overalls with disheveled hair.

“Good Morning, Miss Stout,” he said. “I hope you’re feeling well this morning.”

Emily made a quick motion to straighten her hair, but her attempts to hide it were as flawed as the execution.

“I am, thank you,” she managed to say. “Did everything go as planned last night?”

“By the time we got back, only Jack Borgan and his ogres were there. He seemed surprised to hear we thought a vampire, a samurai, and an amazon were in his building. He claims you were trespassing on his property, and his ogres were merely teaching you a lesson. It would have been his word against yours if we hadn’t also searched near The Kraken’s Eye and found his dead ogre ambushers. Mr. Borgan is now in custody awaiting trial.

“As for the other matter, about the samurai, it wasn’t difficult to find him. Samurai may be common in Juatwa, but they stand out as much as a colossus here in Lucifan.”

“So what did you find out?” she asked.

“Before I explain,” his voice lowered and he leaned forward, “tell me why exactly you wish to know.”

Emily’s skin flashed warm as Gavin leaned close. For a moment, she lost her ability to think and blinked, wondering why she had asked. It returned a moment later, and she found herself answering his question.

“That samurai knows who the screaming woman is,” she replied, “and I want to know what he knows.”

Gavin said nothing at first, but then nodded slowly.

“Well, you won’t have any luck there,” he sighed. “Okamoto Karaoshi, as he is known, is a diplomat for one of the shoguns of Juatwa. He has his own ship docked at the ports. It’s the only large vessel that gets to pull straight up to the docks and stay there. The rest of the ships that aren’t offloading cargo have to anchor offshore and use rowboats to come in.”

“So what does that all mean? What is a shogun anyway?”

“Shogun is a title of a special kind of daimyo. The daimyo are human leaders, or rulers, of armies and land in the East. They band together in groups, like warlords, and their head leader is called the shogun. What that means is that the angels will avoid conflict with them at all costs to keep the trade lines open, including detaining foreign diplomats. If the trade routes are shut down, hundreds will starve and crime will soar. The angels will not risk such suffering if a simpler solution can be found. Essentially, we knights are not allowed to arrest him until he has actually committed a crime. Conspiracy is, unfortunately, just one person’s word against another.”

“I see. Well, thank you for that information, Sir Gavin,” Emily blushed as she prepared her next comment. “It seems I become more and more indebted to you every day.”

The corners of Gavin’s mouth twisted up into a smile, and he said, “Thank you, Miss Stout, but I absolve you of all responsibility to me. Besides, that is not even the reason I am here. I was sent to fetch you.”

“For what purpose?” Chara asked, her tone instantly hostile.

“The angels want to speak with Emily,” Gavin said to her, “immediately.”

Chapter 17

After Emily picked her jaw up off the floor, Gavin also informed the trio that Chara and Adelpha were now free to leave. The suspects had been apprehended, a full night had passed, and they could no longer be detained against their will. Killing was not a crime in Lucifan if it was done in self-defense. Chara had then demanded, more than requested, that she accompany Emily, and Gavin permitted it despite admitting he lacked the authority to do so. He did warn her that she would not be allowed to enter the angels’ chamber and would have to wait outside. She had no issue with this. She would not abandon her granddaughter.

Adelpha, though, was eager to head back to the rest of the amazons and inform them of the situation. Both Chara and Emily agreed, though only the former voiced it.

“Be careful,” the old lady warned. “There’s no telling who to trust now.”

Adelpha split off from the group to leave for The Kraken’s Eye, while Chara and Emily followed the young knight to the angels’ tower. He led them through the knights’ quarters, which were directly connected to the huge structure. On the way, in response to a series of questions from Emily, Sir Gavin explained the angels and how the city of Lucifan came to be.

“According to legend,” Gavin smiled at her while waving one hand extravagantly, “many years ago, before our parents’ parents’ parents were even born, five angels descended from the skies. They decided to make a utopia for man and creature alike, where they could meet together, work together, and be happy. It would become the first and, some argue, the only city in the world. The laws they laid down established a place of stability—a place people could call home—and their presence also brought wealth from massive amounts of trade. This helped man and creature alike to pursue talents and to achieve greater things than themselves, such as these wonderful buildings you see all around you. Although the angels levy a tax on the wealthy, mostly to repair damages or pay for our services, it is only enough for that which is needed. They take no profit for themselves.”

“That is very admirable of them,” Chara said. “Though some would argue no tax at all would be best.”

“If Lucifan could be trusted to guard itself,” Gavin replied, “I’m sure the angels would agree. It pains them to take from others, even when it is to help those in need.”

They walked to the end of the knights’ building through a large doorway guarded by two fully armored knights. As he walked by, they gave a sharp nod to Gavin, who returned it in kind. They were then allowed entrance into the grand tower.

When they entered the structure, Emily once again fell into a state of awe. The main floor was massive, large enough to store the entire bank Emily had seen in the market square. Situated in the center were five stone statues of, what appeared to be, humans with wings. They were facing towards each other, kneeling on one knee with their arms raised up to support the ceiling. As Emily followed the statues with her eyes, she saw that the ceiling had a grand painting of Lucifan on it, stretching from wall to wall.

On the floor, there were several areas sectioned off by long wooden tables or ropes that created makeshift hallways. People and other creatures were standing in lines in these hallways, waiting to talk with those that were sitting on the opposite sides of the tables.

“The five statues are sculptures of the angels,” Gavin explained, watching Emily’s eyes. “The actual angels reside upstairs in the second half of this building. This main area is used to handle such matters as property, income, and taxes.”

“How could they afford all of this?” Emily asked. “I thought you said the angels only levy enough taxes to pay for the necessary?”

“They do,” he nodded. “This building was made as tribute to the angels by the first citizens of Lucifan. To be entirely honest, I don’t think the angels like it. They just live here to be courteous. Certainly makes it difficult to be humble, no?”

Emily could only nod.

Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a familiar man approaching them. When she turned and looked, she recognized Sir Mark O’Conner, the old knight from the previous evening. As he approached, Gavin lowered his head in respect and then stood rigidly at attention.

“Good morning, Shaw,” Mark said. “I see you failed to follow orders properly again.”

Mark was looking at Chara when he said that. Chara, a few years Mark’s senior, gave him a look so composed of acid and disdain that he looked away quickly and did not meet her gaze again. Emily felt her chest well with pride.

“I apologize, Sir Mark,” Gavin said, chin raised high. “She insisted on coming, and I felt there would be no harm. She has already agreed to wait in this room, Sir.”

“Very well then,” he sighed. “I guess the damage is done. Go and fetch the prisoner and then wait outside the angels’ chamber. As for you, girl, follow me.”

He turned to leave, and Emily followed him. His pace was quick, and she had to take a few short jumps to catch up to him. When she did, he started to walk faster. He remained quiet the entire time, doing his best to completely ignore her presence all the way through the main floor and until they reached the stairs.

The stairs were more like a massive corridor made of stone, spiraling along the edge of the building and circling up and around until it reached the second story. They followed them up until they ended at two huge, wooden doors that were guarded by knights in full armor. The doors were decorated with jewels, diamonds, and gold, and sparkled in the dim light that shone into the bottom floor and reflected up. As they neared the door, Mark barely paused in his strides to scold Emily.

“For your sake, I really hope you were telling the truth.”

“I was,” Emily replied.

“We’ll all know soon enough,” Mark scoffed, quickening his pace again. “Let’s see how you feel when you’re basking in the glow of all five angels. I’ve yet to see anyone not weep who meets their aura for the first time.”

They reached the massive doors and the knights who guarded it. Mark stopped and looked at Emily one last time.

“I hope you brought a handkerchief,” he sneered.

Mark nodded, and the two knights opened the heavy doors. Light poured out, and Emily raised a hand to shield her eyes. At first, she was surprised. The sun had not seemed quite so bright outside, and she hadn’t known there were so many windows at the top of the tower. She had to blink a few times until her eyes adjusted, and then she lowered her hand and saw what Mark was talking about.

The light did not come through the windows; it radiated from within the room itself. The second story was huge, larger even than the main floor thanks to the tall, dome-shaped ceiling. In the room were five thrones made of stone and permanently attached to the floor. The thrones sat in a half circle, facing inwards toward the door. Sitting in each throne was an angel, and Emily was instantly struck with awe.

They were human in figure—legs, skin, mouth, face, and hair—but they were so much more than that. For one, they looked taller. Not ogre or minotaur tall, but still somehow just slightly bigger than a normal human should appear. The angels were dressed in modest, white, linen gowns. Compared to their attire, Emily’s clothing actually seemed wealthy. Yet by the way the angels carried themselves, they might as well have been wearing the most exquisite silk in the entire world. The simple clothing seemed oddly out of place with the grandness of their surroundings. This was not to mention their wings.

Each angel, like the statues on the main floor, had two wings, which were covered in white feathers, sprouting from their backs. The wings were draped over the sides of their thrones and made them appear surreal. The wings actually bore resemblance to the wings of a pegasus, and Emily wondered briefly if the angels had brought the winged unicorns with them when they came to this world. Her mind drifted away from the thought quickly, though, when she saw precisely where the light in the room was coming from.

The angels’ eyes glowed. There were no pupils, irises, lines, or shapes within their eyes. Where an eye should be, only light glowed, and the light turned off and on like a twinkling star every time an angel blinked.

They were, without a doubt, the most magnificent beings Emily had ever seen.

“Enter, Emily Stout,” one of the angels said.

The voice echoed unnaturally. It boomed and yet seemed so soft, filling every corner of the room with the sound of the angel’s voice. Emily felt her tension ease and then heighten again as a feeling of total unworthiness swept over her.

She walked forward across the red carpet that led to the center of the room, barely noticing that it had gold thread on the edges. As she got closer, she noticed differences between the angels that she had not noticed at first. One thing she noticed was that they were not all the same gender. Two of the five were female, and they all had different colored hair.

“I am Ephron,” the angel with dark hair, one of the males, said.

Emily knelt down and tried to open her mouth to thank him for his kindness, thank him for meeting her, and thank him for everything that had ever happened in her life, both good and bad. She was overcome by the desire to praise them and so saying ‘thank you’ just didn’t seem enough. Yet, no matter how many times different words of gratitude came to her mind, they all seemed vastly inadequate. So, in the end, she only nodded.

“These are my brothers, Quartus and Uriah, and my sisters, Damaris and Zarah,” he said.

Emily eyes flickered from one angel to the next. They were all so beautiful, so magnificent, that she couldn’t decide which one to address first. Their light-filled eyes washed over her, and seemed to see into the very depths of her existence. They all looked so attentive, so interested in her, so vested in her plight. Emily began to shudder from the kindness of it all. She didn’t feel worthy of it.

One in particular caught her eye above the others. The angel farthest to her left whom Ephron had called Quartus was leaning so far off the edge of his seat that Emily wasn’t sure how he stayed on his throne. Although Emily knew the angels were timeless, immortal beings, this one had grey hair, which gave him the appearance of being older than the other four. His attention was locked on Emily like a gunslinger to a target. Above the others, she could have sworn she felt the very fabric of his being welling inside her mind.

“Emily,” Ephron said, snapping her attention back to him. “We wish to know what happened to you last night. Please, tell us everything.”

She launched into a detailed speech. If these magnificent creatures wished to know her story, or anything else for that matter, then she would tell them. Emily started with entering Lucifan with Chara and Adelpha, but kept going back to tell more and more. Surely, she thought, the angels needed to know everything, absolutely everything. That is what they had asked for, and that was what she would tell them. She would tell them anything, anything at all, if they asked for it.

The angels never interrupted her, or even made a sound. Their eyes stayed, unwavering, on her. They were so solid, their attention undivided, that Emily was sure they had no concept of comfort. They only had concern for others and, in this moment, concern for her. When she realized this, she tried to start over again, this time adding more detail.

“Please, Emily,” Ephron spoke up. “There is no need to start from the beginning. You are doing wonderfully.”

“Yes, sir . . . mister . . . master . . . lord,” she stopped when she didn’t know what other praise she could say. “As I was saying, the samurai stepped forward to kill me, but the vampire, Count Drowin, stopped him.”

They listened to the rest of it. She even told them about Sir Gavin’s rescue, how handsome he was and how gallant he was when he saved Duncan’s life. Nothing seemed too personal before the angels, and Emily did not hesitate to admit her feelings. As the words came pouring from her soul, she sighed in relief that Gavin was not here to hear them, because she was certain nothing would stop her. She continued on to when they’d landed in the courtyard and was about to explain what happened next when she was interrupted, by Mark.

“Yes,” Sir Mark said, stepping forward, “and the rest I told you. I doubted her story at the time, and I still urge caution of what you’ve heard. The people she saw may have used false names.”

Emily stammered her next words, surprised that the old knight had interrupted her. How could he? They’d asked everything of her, and he was defying that. No one should defy the angels. Their mere presence made the air heavy and the world a tiny, insignificant scrap of dirt. She would try for a thousand years to be worthy of the compassion they gave freely—the love she felt in this moment drowning her heart—and still that would not be enough.

Emily felt the urge to stand up and berate Mark right there, but stopped. His interjection had caused her to become distracted long enough to notice her cheeks were wet. Curiously, she touched a hand to her face.

I’m crying, she realized. When did I start crying? What is happening to me?

If Ephron was offended by Mark’s interruption, he did not show it. He held up a hand, asking for silence and pausing for a moment. Emily waited patiently, hand still wiping away the tears that fell from her eyes without explanation.

Then, in the silence, she could have sworn a harp was playing. It was faint, and its origin unknown. It seemed to come from everywhere and yet nowhere. When she tried to focus on it, the sound evaded her. Then she heard it again, only it wasn’t a harp this time. It was a voice, a quiet, gentle voice. Suddenly, Emily realized what she was hearing. Someone or something was speaking to her. The sound was coming from inside her own head.

Finally, Ephron looked to his sister, Damaris. He gave her a nod, and Damaris tilted her head up to speak clearly.

“Bring in Jack Borgan and the one who captured him and rescued Emily,” she said.

Her words were like honey spun into the air. A sweet sound that melted Emily’s ears and made her shudder with uncontrolled feelings of love. She wanted to listen to Damaris speak again, and again and again and again.

Then she heard the voice, the voice in her head. It was like a whisper, the faintest of whispers, and no matter how much she tried, the voice did not increase. She looked around to see if anyone else was hearing it, but no one showed any signs.

Mark stepped back and walked to the wooden doors. He opened them, and Emily watched as Gavin stepped into the chamber. With him was a leprechaun that appeared very displeased. The short humanoid was dressed as the ones she’d seen before in a simple suit to hide his wealth, and he walked with a stiff lip and swinging shoulders. He eyes were narrow, his nose fat and large, but Emily didn’t consider him ugly. He looked like a pudgy gnome as far as she could tell, but the leprechaun’s confident face turned to shock when he laid eyes on Emily. Although she had never seen him before, he most certainly recognized her.

“You!” he said. “I’m being arrested for attempted murder of you? Attempted nothing, you’re supposed to be dead! Those damn ogres lied to me!”

“Maybe if you paid them more,” Gavin replied, giving the leprechaun a push to get him walking again, “they wouldn’t be so fickle.”

“If ogres didn’t take work for cheap, there’d be no point to hiring them,” Jack spit back. “Damn minotaurs charge too much, and not enough of you knights do dirty deeds. Too many of you are too damn noble. Tell me the last time being noble made you rich!”

The leprechaun slurred the word ‘noble.’ He made it sound like such a despicable quality, as if it was something to be ashamed of. Emily felt her throat well into a lump, and she was slightly annoyed that Gavin didn’t reply as he thrust Mr. Borgan forward into the angels’ glow. Gavin stepped forward, too, and knelt down next to Emily. The leprechaun sighed and then knelt, showing defiance in his every move.

“Amazing aren’t they?” Gavin whispered.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Emily whispered back.

“How could I put this into words? Don’t worry, you get used to the feeling after a while. Mark’s a perfect example of that.”

“What’d you say, Shaw?” O’Conner asked.

“Nothing, sir,” Gavin lied.

Ephron held up his hand again, and the room was filled with silence once more. Emily listened to her breathing and the music in her head. She realized, with a certainty she could not explain, that it was coming from one of the angels. One of the angels was speaking to her. No, not speaking to her, communicating to her mind. She looked up at the angels and saw that one of them was looking at her. It was that same one from before, Quartus, the grey-haired angel. His light-filled eyes were directed at her with purpose, and she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was him.

One of the other angels, the brother with red hair named Uriah, stepped off his throne and walked toward the group. With each step, Emily’s heart beat faster. She wanted him to touch her, to feel his glory, but at the same time she dared not and even feared to do so, for she was not sure she was pure enough to withstand such contact. Uriah stopped a few short steps from them, and Emily lifted her head and noticed that he was barefoot. Then, she glanced around to confirm that the rest of them were barefoot. The only clothing they wore was their simple gowns.

“Sir Gavin Shaw,” Uriah said, “upon your honor as a knight, upon the promise and oath you swore, can you confirm the events involving Jack Borgan’s ogres and Emily Stout?”

“I swear upon my honor, my promise, and my oath,” Gavin said. “Jack Borgan ordered his ogres to capture Emily and eat her.”

“Jack Borgan,” Uriah said, the soft yet stern voice piercing Emily’s heart. “You have been charged with attempting to kill an innocent. There are a number of witnesses, and you have denied nothing.”

Out of the corner of Emily’s eye, she saw the leprechaun sneer.

“You are guilty again, it seems,” Uriah continued. “I wish I could say this is the first time we have seen you in this chamber, but that is not true. We would send you to jail, or ask you to never commit such a crime again, but we both know that will not have any effect. Your desire and belief that you are exempt from our laws grows more perilous for others every day we leave your crimes unpunished.”

Emily watched Borgan wrinkle his nose in pride. She had to suppress the strong urge to smack him.

“So, drastic measures will be taken this time,” Uriah continued, “to ensure you find hurting others to be a bad investment. As punishment for your crime, you will donate—”

The leprechaun’s head snapped up in horror.

“—half your savings—”

“NO!” Borgan cried out.

“—to charity,” Uriah finished.

“NOOO!” Borgan wailed.

All of the leprechaun’s previous confidence blew away in the wind of Uriah’s words. The leprechaun stared aghast with terror in his eyes while his hand dug into the carpet at his feet. At that point, the two knights who had been guarding the door stepped in and walked towards the leprechaun.

“This punishment is severe,” Uriah continued, “because we hope that it will teach you to obey the laws this city requires.”

“NOOO! You can’t do this!” Jack screamed, lifting his arms up as if begging for his life. He shook in place, clasping his hands together and rocking them back and forth.

Uriah had no reply. He waited calmly for the two knights to come forward and grab Mr. Borgan under each arm. The leprechaun barely seemed to register the touch. All his attention was focused on the angel, his mouth and eyes open in disbelief.

“If we see you in here again, Jack Borgan,” Uriah warned, “the punishment will only be worse.”

“You can’t do this!” Borgan muttered, breathless. “You can’t! That’s my money. My money! Mine, damn you! MINE!”

His words fell on deaf ears. Uriah turned and walked back to his throne, and Borgan’s pleading died as he was dragged, kicking and crying, away from the angels. He struggled and cried out, his horror slowly giving ground to anger.

“You’ll pay for this, angels!” Mr. Borgan yelled. “You can’t do this! You will pay for this!”

The angels ignored him, and just before the doors closed, the leprechaun began to weep. The sobbing started as a pathetic whimper and was heard only briefly before the heavy doors were pulled shut.

Following his departure, there was a brief moment of silence. Emily couldn’t believe the leprechaun’s reaction. It was as if the angels had ordered his mother killed or decreed that he be tortured for the rest of his life. Emily didn’t know how much money the leprechaun had, but he certainly didn’t need all of it if he had it just laying around, sitting and saving. Were leprechauns truly so greedy?

“Ephron, sir,” Mark said. “Forgive me for saying this, but the leprechauns will not be pleased when they hear of this.”

“We understand your concern,” the sister with blonde hair, Zarah, said. “It pains us to punish any creature, but trust us when we say that our ruling was just.”

Emily believed it. She believed every word the angels said, and she would do anything they asked. She looked up at them again and realized how beautiful they all were. Even Sir Gavin’s perfectly chiseled chin looked like a deformity next to their beauty.

“Sir,” Emily spoke up, raising a hand. “I believe the woman I heard in Mr. Borgan’s bank is another amazon traveling with us, but I don’t know why Count Drowin would want a basilisk.”

“Count Drowin is a relatively new vampire, Emily Stout,” Ephron explained. “It is likely that he seeks to increase his power by killing off his rivals, the other older vampires. Their race is not subject to time and disease, like us, and therefore does not age or die by many mortal means.”

“Good,” Mark said. “Let them kill each other, I say. I feel that the city can only benefit from it.”

“I’m afraid that will not be to anyone’s benefit, actually,” Ephron replied, sounding woefully sad. “We have been trying to make inroads with the vampires, hoping to calm their violent tendencies so that peace can be found. A new, power-driven vampire like Count Drowin could ruin our plans to finally quell the crime that has plagued this city. I fear this is not good news at all, Sir Mark O’Conner.”

Mark swallowed and did not argue further. Ephron looked to Emily.

“As for the woman in your ranks,” he said, “if you are right, then you must be careful. However, I would also caution you to guard yourself from feelings of distrust. Humans, all too frequently, are quick to assume the guilt in others they do not like.”

“Yes, Ephron.”

Her thoughts suddenly shifted, pulled as if someone was trying to focus her attention. It was Quartus, the only angel who had not spoken. He was entering her thoughts again, shifting her attention to the present and to Ephron. It shocked her that anything at all could touch her so deeply. In her mind, Ephron’s words echoed once more without her command to do so. Then she could hear the voice again, Quartus’ voice, still too quiet to understand.

This is amazing, she thought. What are these angels that can do this? And why?

“We thank you for your story, Emily Stout,” Ephron said to her. “We hope your next trip to Lucifan will be much more pleasant. You may go now. Sir Gavin Shaw will escort you.”

The music in Emily’s head came to a close. She attempted to hear it again, to search for it, but silence filled her mind. Reluctantly, she rose but stayed silent, unsure of what words to use to excuse herself from the angels’ presence. In the end, she only nodded again and followed Gavin to the exit. She wanted to turn and thank them for something, anything, everything, but once again was stopped because she could not think of something worthy to say.

I truly am a naïve little girl from the plains, she thought, and that made her sad. Worse, it made her feel unworthy of the attention the angels had given her, and she felt right in saying nothing to them. She had nothing important to say anymore.

When the chamber door closed behind them, the leprechaun was nowhere to be seen, and the two knights had resumed their vigilance. Emily stopped outside the chamber and took a few moments to catch her breath.

“Absolutely amazing, aren’t they?” Gavin asked.

“Yes, they are,” Emily replied. “That was unnatural. I couldn’t control myself.”

“We call it the ‘aura,’ and it’s heavy under the glow of all five of them. Trust me, you did well. Most people begin admitting petty crimes they’ve done in the past almost immediately upon seeing them. I was rather surprised you held up and stayed focused.”

“Thank you,” Emily smiled and blushed. “I guess that explains a lot. I can see what Mark meant by ‘I hope you brought a handkerchief.’ I would have rolled into a ball if I’d tried lying to them.”

“Well, after a while, you get used to the feeling,” Gavin shrugged. “It’s a bit overwhelming at first, but it wears off once you become used to it. Also, it doesn’t have the same effect on everyone, but it’s still a wonder.”

“I think one of them was speaking to me. It was Quartus. He was telling me to remember what the angels were saying, I think.”

Gavin’s face contorted, revealing his doubt so strongly that Emily tensed. For a moment, she thought she’d said something insulting.

“That’s not possible, Emily,” Gavin finally said. “Quartus never speaks. He can’t, actually. You must have just been hearing things.”

“No, really,” Emily pressed. “I heard his voice in my head. I felt him pulling my thoughts. It was like how the aura touched my heart, his mind touched mine.”

Gavin eyed her with his disbelief still plainly written. He searched her face for evidence of the truth, but finding no reason for Emily to lie, he decided to shrug it off instead.

“Do you hear the voice anymore?” he asked.

“Well, no.”

“Ah, see?” Gavin replied, lightning fast, snapping his fingers. “You were just overcome by feelings of awe. Trust me, all sorts of strange things happen to people who meet the angels for the first time. You should have seen Duncan. He puked.”

Gavin laughed and started walking down the stairs, brushing the conversation off with confidence so quickly that Emily was partially infected by it. Perhaps Gavin was right, she thought. Maybe she was just ‘overcome by awe’ and thought she heard Quartus speaking to her. Yet as soon as she thought that, she knew she didn’t believe it. Quartus had spoken to her, though for what purpose, she could not tell.

Fortunately, there would be time enough to think about that later. So, Emily shook off her feelings of wonder and started walking back down the stairs. As she did so, she realized her legs felt stiff. Apparently her entire body had been tense throughout the brief trial. When she caught back up with Gavin, she veered the conversation to a question she had asked before.

“Sir Gavin?” Emily asked, shyness returning to her words. “Would now be a proper time for you to tell me how you became a knight?”

“I wish it were, Miss Stout,” he frowned, “but once I escort you back to, what was her name?”

“Chara, her name is Chara. She’s my grandmother.”

“Oh, I see,” his eyes popped. “I wish you had told me that earlier. But yes, once I escort you to your grandmother, I will have to go back to the chamber lest they need me again. Besides, I like giving you a reason to come and find me again.”

He flashed a smile, and Emily blushed.

“Well, alright,” she said, “but you must promise to tell me the next time we meet.”

“I promise, Miss Stout. I swear on my honor, my promise, and my oath.”

When they reached Chara, she was tapping her foot. Her face also bore that same impatience, and she gave Gavin a glare when he said his goodbyes to Emily. As soon as he was out of sight, Chara turned to her granddaughter.

“I’m going to save you a lot of heartache right now, Emily,” she leaned in again. “Don’t fall for a knight. It’s every little girl’s dream, and they know it.”

Emily sighed and looked away. It seemed her new mother was even more protective than the last.

“Mother, don’t worry about me, please,” Emily said, trying to sidestep the embarrassing conversation. “I think we have bigger problems on our hands right now.”

Changing the subject worked, and Chara linked her arm into Emily’s. As one, they started walking.

“Very well then,” Chara relented. “Now, I know you’ve been thinking about this samurai you saw. Okamoto Karaoshi was it?”

“Yes, but Sir Gavin said he was off limits.”

“Off limits . . . to the angels,” Chara corrected.

Chapter 18

As Emily and Chara walked out of the angels’ tower and through the streets of Lucifan, Emily noticed not much had changed since her previous visit. The streets were still packed with buyers and sellers of all kinds, all yelling to be heard over each other or talking in hushed corners and trying not to be noticed. Indeed, as they walked through the busy intersections toward The Kraken’s Eye, the site where Emily had almost been eaten alive was now swamped with feet, hooves, and wheels. When they passed by an ogre, Emily tried to shrink out of sight.

“Don’t worry, Daughter,” Chara said, confidently strolling by, “ogres aren’t like other creatures. They feel no loyalty to one another. They are just as likely to fight amongst themselves as they are against others.”

They had to stop once for a passing colossus. They felt it coming before they ever saw it, and the streets cleared so rapidly that Emily wondered where the people went. The colossus passed by them, one slow step in front of the other. Emily looked up at it as it passed, noting how it blotted out the sun and how her feet trembled when the ground shook. Emily marveled at its stone skin and enormous height, easily eight times her own. Whoever had made the colossus had shaped it to look like a human male in peak physical condition with—literally, in this case—chiseled abs and shapely muscles down each arm and leg. The colossus wore a helmet, a skirt, and sandals, all of which were stone and as much a part of the colossus as its own hands.

“Mother?” Emily said. “There are three colossi in Lucifan right?”

“There are three in the world, actually. I don’t think they exist anywhere else because they were made by the angels when they arrived here. They were made to guard against an attack from other nations, though it was only later that they realized their greatest struggles would come from within. Or at least, that’s how the stories go.”

“Who told you that?”

Chara looked away and then shrugged with apathy. However, when Emily kept looking at her, she sighed and met the gaze.

“Your grandfather,” she said, and then added after a pause, “he was a knight.”

“My grandfather is a knight?”

Chara sighed again, upset that her answer had only sparked more curiosity rather than quenching it.

“He was a knight,” she said, not bothering to mask her annoyance. “He’s long since dead now, being many years my senior when we first met. Now, no more questions about that. Do you understand?”

In that brief moment, Emily was reminded of Mariam. Until now, Chara had been quick to foster and indulge Emily’s curiosity, and so the sudden reversal caught her off guard.

“Yes, Mother,” she said and bowed her head.

Chara looked sideways at Emily and tisked.

“Hey now,” she lifted Emily’s head with a finger to her chin. “There are just some things that shouldn’t be talked about. Do not take it personally. I wouldn’t tell your mother either, no matter how often she asked. You can ask me anything else, I promise.”

They walked on, taking side streets and leaving the thick, overwhelming crowd behind. The streets gradually became narrower and darker, less populated, until they reached their destination. Outside The Kraken’s Eye, Emily studied the odd sign that hung over the door of the tavern. It was such a strange eye. Although it was round like one would expect, the iris was an oval shape that ended in points with an hourglass pupil. It was such a mesmerizing combo, that Emily decided to take Chara up on her offer as they walked closer.

“Ha!” Chara laughed at Emily’s question. “The eye is supposedly one of a kraken’s, the huge beasts of the sea. By huge, I mean the size of Lucifan huge. Oh yes, that’s what they say. I’ve never seen one, but you could ask the next pirate or merchant for sure. Actually, a viking would know better, but they are harder to find in Lucifan. Vikings seldom come to port here, preferring to return to The North, to the frozen wastes where they’re from. Pirates, on the other hand, usually come to this tavern, but they know better when we amazons are in town. Pirates only look for fights they know they can win or profit from. Hence, the only time they’ve probably seen a kraken is over their shoulder, quickly fading into the distance.”

“The size of Lucifan?” Emily gasped. “What does it look like?”

“Supposedly, it has a massive head and eight long tentacles that span out for leagues. Really, I’m not sure, but maybe we’ll find a painting of one in Lucifan for you someday. Now be quiet. I think I can hear Adelpha.”

When they neared the tavern, Emily could hear yelling. At first, it was a massive volume of shouts, jeers, and cheers. Then, there was silence for a few moments and only one muffled voice could be heard through the stained glass. Once it stopped, there were several more cheers amongst an assortment of disgruntled yelling. Once that died out, the sound of the muffled voice returned. Emily remembered her first encounter with the amazons, not more than a couple days earlier, and all she had heard then was laughter.

“Sounds like someone is giving a good speech,” Emily said.

“Either that or there’s a strong debate. No doubt Adelpha wasn’t careful with her words,” Chara muttered.

She reached for the door and flung it open. She stepped in first, and Emily followed. Their entrance was immediately granted an audience as all eyes turned to look at them. Emily, in turn, took in the scene.

All the amazons, twenty or so by her count, were either sitting calmly in their seats or standing in outrage on their feet. They were all turned toward the bar atop which Adelpha and another woman were standing and facing each other with fists balled tight and ready to fight. Adelpha’s teeth were clenched, and she was flexing her toned arms as she looked a mere hair’s width from punching the other woman in the face.

The other woman was much older than Adelpha, but nowhere near Chara’s age. She was perhaps a few years younger than Mariam and Paul. She had auburn hair and a wide nose, but it was her clenched teeth and firm jaw that took up most of Emily’s attention. Good teeth like that were hard to find, especially on a woman her age. This woman also looked only a few seconds away from attacking Adelpha in a fit of rage, but considering Adelpha’s larger stature, Emily had no worry for the amazon princess.

What Emily did worry about was the tension she felt in the room. These women were cheering and shouting, standing on their feet with fists raised in the air. To Emily, they appeared ready for a fight, and she thought back to the screaming woman she’d heard in Jack Borgan’s bank. At first, Emily thought the woman would be easy to find, having such a short temper. It seemed now that would not be the case.

“So that’s Mariam’s daughter?” the older woman on the bar sneered at Emily. “I remember her and her scrawny brother from the other day.”

“Silence, you old hag!” Adelpha yelled back. “She fended off four ogres on her own, without any weapons, until we showed up and saved her. So shut your trap!”

Emily reeled back, her eyes popping open in disbelief. Her ears told her that Adelpha had just defended her, and admirably so, but her mind refused to believe it. Once she accepted it, Emily made a mental note to thank her and also to correct her, because ‘fended off’ would not be the terms Emily would use to describe her attempt to escape death.

“What seems to be the problem, Belen?” Chara called out.

“The problem is that your surrogate daughter over here,” Belen, the amazon on the bar, yelled back, “thinks that one of us is out to kill her.”

There was a round of boos from the other amazons, and they turned sharply to cast judging glances on Chara, awaiting her response.

“Yes, it’s a shocker, isn’t it?” Chara replied, letting her voice drip with sarcasm and seeming none too concerned about the attention. “Not to mention that the filthy banshee who tried it almost killed my daughter instead. To think that’s how we amazons introduce ourselves, with murder and betrayal? It’s disheartening to say the least. Now, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’d be out for blood if any, especially one of our own, tried to kill any one of us!”

Emily felt some tension slip away from her when Chara’s words got a round of nods and some grumbling agreement from within the crowd. She held up a hand to ask for silence again, but it was Belen who spoke first.

“You’re counting your pixies before they laugh!” she yelled from the bar. “How do you know this woman is one of us, huh? You saw nothing; Adelpha admits she saw no one. In fact, the only person who’s ever heard of this woman is that little farmer right there! And who is she, huh? Mariam’s daughter? Mariam who ran away to marry some twenty years ago? I’ll admit I never liked her much before then anyway, but come off it, Chara! You’re ready to accuse one of us of murder based off of what this one little girl has said. You don’t even know her! Blood or not, Chara, she’s a stranger, no amazon. I refuse to believe her without some evidence.”

Belen received another round of cheers, loud and proud. The group seemed to tighten, shuffling closer towards the bar while simultaneously turning accusing stares at Emily and Chara. Emily tried to stand strong like her grandmother. The adversity made the air tense, but Emily had no doubts about what she’d heard and seen. She was just about to shout out, too, but Chara spoke first.

“Now, some of you may doubt Emily’s worthiness among us, and thus her word,” she nodded, sounding agreeable. “This I can understand. She knows nothing of fighting with a dagger and even less of archery, but I think it’d be poor judgment to blame her for her mother’s decision. All I and Adelpha can confirm is that last night, we were ambushed by ogres, and their intention was to capture our young, dainty princess you see here standing on the bar, ready to fight. Instead, they took my daughter, and that’s cause enough to piss me off.”

A quiet chuckle and a few more nods came from the crowd. If Adelpha was offended by the prod, she didn’t show it.

“So what are you saying?” Belen asked. “None of this indicates that one of us is a traitor to her own kind.”

“You’re right, Belen,” Chara nodded. “You’re absolutely right. For all we know, that woman lied and is no amazon. However, that still leaves the problem that there is someone out there who wants us dead. She is hiring people, vampires, ogres, and leprechauns to kill us. You could argue Adelpha was the only target, but you all know our thoughts on that. An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us. If that isn’t enough to get your blood boiling, then perhaps you’d best stay in Lucifan, because the jungle is no place for such lethargy, and I wouldn’t want to call you my sister.

“However, to counter you Belen, I’d remind you that this woman promised to give the killers a basilisk using the very wood we use for our bows: the wood of treants. So, whether or not this woman is one of us, she’s knows way too many of our secrets and certainly is no friend of mine. I, for one, want to find the traitorous wench and use her for target practice!”

The nods and murmurs of agreement that had followed Chara’s words turned quickly into cheers, and some amazons even raised their bows. They looked to each other, hunger and anger in their eyes, and Emily saw the fierceness in their souls. Chara was rallying them for blood, and they met the call eagerly.

Yet Belen was one of the few who did not seem so easily persuaded. She jumped off the bar to land on a table, holding out an extended fist toward Emily’s grandmother.

“And how exactly do you intend to do that, Chara?” Belen countered. “Shall we go on a vampire hunt and be slaughtered in the dark? Perhaps we should ask the ogres, or pay a vast sum of money for a tip or hint from the leprechauns. Perhaps you have forgotten that we still have a long journey home? We’re to leave tomorrow morning.”

Chara kept her attitude calm, letting her confidence shine under the words of fury. Emily had the notion she’d done this before and was well practiced.

“Dear girl, where do you come up with these ideas?” Chara chuckled, and Belen gritted her teeth. “Of course not. No, instead, we find the samurai. We go directly to the source. Okamoto Karaoshi is his name, and he knows who the woman is, who’s helping her, and—best of all—he’s lightly guarded. It’s thanks to Emily that we know who and where he is, if you’re curious. So tonight, we march down to his ship, docked at the port, and take him away with us. Then, we may question him at our leisure and find the truth of who hunts us, or if Adelpha and I are right, who betrays us.”

The proposal must have come out of nowhere, because the amazons went quiet for once. They neither cheered nor jeered and only looked at each other, contemplating the idea. In that moment of wonder, Belen seized her opportunity.

“Have you gone mad, Chara?” she tilted her head. “You want to sneak onto a ship in the middle of the night without any knowledge of who or what is inside? In Lucifan of all places? You say it’s lightly guarded, but how do you know? Not to mention, according to Adelpha’s story, this samurai is a diplomat, and not even the angels will touch him. Would you incur the wrath of the knights so easily? What happens when we come here next year and are locked in cells for such crimes?”

Emily scoffed, just loud enough to be heard. Belen instantly stopped her speech, and all the amazons turned surprised eyes on the farmer girl who dared laugh at any one of them. Emily should have shrunk under the weight of so many eyes, but this had been a part of her plan. She’d used the same trick to get Nicholas’ attention more than once, and when she had the audience, she found the voice that had lain buried since leaving her home.

“I’m surprised you’re so quickly scared from a fight, Belen,” she said.

Emily had intended to sound sarcastic, but the rise of adrenaline in her veins made her words sound honest.

“I never said I was scared, you pathetic dirt digger.”

“I’ve seen my mother kill a full grown behemoth with a single arrow,” Emily raised a finger, voice growing in strength. “She stared it straight in the eyes the entire time it approached her. After never using a bow for almost twenty years, she can still hit the sunken eyes of the largest beast I’ve ever seen. Yet, here I stand before more than twenty amazons, well-practiced women I admire and aspire to join, and yet I find you, Belen, are afraid to capture one samurai who seeks to hunt you like a gnome collects weeds to stuff his pipe. I’m just surprised is all.”

Emily had meant for her words to sting, but Belen’s teeth clenched tight enough to make a lone vein pop out on her neck, and her fingers reached down to touch the knife handle at her waist. The other amazons seemed insulted, too, looking sidelong at Emily and narrowing their eyes. Chara even moved an inch over to shield Emily with her body.

“What do you know about being an amazon?” Belen seethed. “You don’t know—”

“She’s right,” came a quiet, meek voice.

Once again, the focus of all was shifted. Emily was surprised to see it do so, because to her, the voice had been neither loud nor strong enough to hold up in the room’s fury. Yet it did, and the amazons parted to reveal a slim and beautiful amazon, no older than Emily, sitting in the corner of the room where it was darkest. Not just beautiful, stunningly gorgeous. Full lips, small nose, dark hair that fell straight to frame her stunning cheeks and lips, large eyes a shade of blue that made the ocean seem drab. Her skin had a warm, alluring glow. Emily’s breath caught in her throat, and she had to look twice to convince herself such perfection was possible.

This girl could have passed for an angel, and yet she fidgeted as if unsure of herself.

“Who’s that?” Emily whispered.

“Heliena,” Chara whispered back. “Adelpha’s sister.”

Emily balked and looked at Heliena a third time, and then once again to make sure it was the right girl, because she looked nothing like Adelpha. This wasn’t to say that Adelpha was ugly, but rather that Heliena radiated beauty. In fact, the only thing the two had in common was that they both had black, straight hair. Everything else from their height and size to the way they carried themselves was different. Where Adelpha walked with her head held high, bursting with confidence, Heliena sank low, arms folded, trying not to be noticed, even when all the amazons in the tavern were staring at her.

“What are you talking about, Heliena?” Belen asked.

“She’s right,” Heliena said after a pause, brushing a strand of hair from her eyes. “That samurai tried to kill my sister. We can’t just let him go. We can’t leave without trying.”

Heliena’s eyes fell. She’d mumbled most of the words, but in the silence, no one missed a word, and even now they lingered, almost tangible. The mood in the tavern changed, and when the crowd looked at Belen, she had nothing to say. Her face showed that she still clung to some defiance, but Heliena’s meek words had stamped the strength of Belen’s position. Adelpha raised her bow up high in one hand, gathering the attention back to her.

“Alright then, ladies,” Adelpha cried out. “String your bows and sharpen your knives. Tonight, we hunt!”

Chapter 19

After all the cheering died down, and Belen and Adelpha shared a final glare, drinks were ordered, and the amazons took their seats. The woman named Margret, who Emily had thought was just a barmaid but actually turned out to be The Kraken’s Eye’s sole owner and operator, began to pour mugs of golden liquid and distribute them amongst the patrons. There was bread, too, and beans and meat. Adelpha took a seat at one of the larger tables where a group of women was already seated, and Chara took Emily to join her.

“Sometimes, I really hate that woman,” Adelpha said, looking across the tavern at Belen seated amongst others at her own table. “My aunt’s shadow in every form.”

“She had good reason to oppose you this time,” one of the women replied. “You leveled some claims that seemed rather outrageous at the time. I’m still in disbelief, mind you.”

Chara and Emily pulled out chairs and took seats. The table was filled now with seven women seated together, and Emily examined the four she did not know. Those four looked back, and Adelpha cleared her throat.

“Emily, these are my friends,” Adelpha pointed. “This is Iezabel, the best shot with a bow of any amazon ever.”

Iezabel smiled, revealing gums with her grin, at Adelpha’s flattery. The woman seemed a good decade or so older than Emily, but her eyes were sharp and her fingers were long. As she nodded, Emily noticed that Iezabel’s nose hooked down at the tip but wasn’t so distracted as to forget her manners.

“Pleased to meet you,” Emily said.

“Likewise,” Iezabel replied, and Emily hoped it wasn’t a lie.

“This one here is Hanna,” Adelpha pointed to the one who’d spoken just prior, “and the two beside her are her twin daughters, Kirke and Leda.”

Hanna gave Emily a smile, too, and although no teeth were shown, it was warm and motherly by any standard. This one was heavyset—wide hips and shoulders, plus a thick chin—yet her ears were small. Her daughters were about Emily’s age. They had both inherited their mother’s ears and curves, but were slim about the waist. Emily felt envious, but the warm smiles she was receiving from all three of them helped dash those feelings away. She forced a smile back.

“Hello,” she waved. “So, which of you is Kirke, and which one is Leda?”

“I’m Kirke,” one said.

“No,” the other one shoved her playfully, “I’m Kirke! You were Kirke last week.”

“You’re both trouble,” Hanna scolded them. “Don’t play tricks with the poor girl. Be nice.”

“Trouble, huh?” Emily said. “I can call you two trouble.”

Both smiles on Kirke and Leda grew from courteous to mischievous, and Emily’s matched them. She hoped that was a sign she’d just made two friends.

“So, Adelpha,” Emily swung the conversation back. “Who is this Belen? The one arguing with you so much?”

“She’s Stefani’s best friend, more or less,” Chara said. “If you remember, Stefani is our beloved queen, Adelpha’s aunt, and she absolutely hates my guts. Belen and Stefani were born the same year and thus grew up together. Ever since Stefani became queen, Belen’s taken to badgering me and my surrogate daughter as her role. I didn’t expect such opposition from her on this event though. She’s usually quite prone to violence.”

“My thoughts, too,” Adelpha admitted. “I was about to knock some sense into her before you two showed up. Speaking of which, nice little speech you gave there, Emily. With insults like that, you’ll fit in just fine.”

Emily squinted, unsure whether Adelpha was being sarcastic or serious. If serious, it was a compliment, which was not something she’d expected from the amazon princess. In the end, Emily shrugged and hoped that was a good enough response.

“How did your interview with the angels go?” Adelpha asked.

“It was amazing, honestly,” Emily replied. “I wish I could explain how it felt to be in their presence. They have this aura about them that pulls at your soul, and I found myself telling them everything I could without hesitation. They told me that the vampire, Count Drowin, probably wants to use the basilisk poison to kill other vampires to gain power.”

“He could use it to paint a picture of a dainty, hairless ass for all I care,” Adelpha said. “It’s that crazy woman who wants me dead that I’m after. I’ll be straight with you, Emily. Although I don’t doubt what you heard, I hope she was lying. I sincerely hope that the traitor isn’t one of us.”

“I just hope that everything goes well tonight,” Emily replied. “I’d hate for something to happen to us while we’re on the ship.”

Iezabel and Hanna both raised their eyebrows and glanced at Chara. If they were attempting to send a cue, though, the old woman needed none.

“What do you mean, us?” Chara mocked. “You’re not going anywhere, Daughter. You’re staying with me tonight, helping Margret fight the ever encroaching dust.”

“What? Why?” Emily replied. “Is it because I can’t shoot a bow yet? I don’t have to fight, but I’m the only one who knows what the samurai looks like. Not to mention I think I’ve had more than my fair share of danger since I left home. If you’re worried about my safety, you’re a bit too late.”

Chara’s face did not change, and Emily looked about the table for support. She soon realized none would be found.

“Emily,” Chara explained, voice taking a softer tone, “you were lucky to have survived last night at all. Yes, you can’t shoot a bow, but you also don’t know how to fight with a knife nor how to walk silently. Last night, you made as much noise as newborn wyvern.”

“I’ll be better this time! I didn’t realize I was supposed to be quiet, and last night could have happened to anyone. Trust me; I’ve hidden from a banshee before. I know how to be quiet.”

Neither Chara nor Adelpha were impressed, and Emily knew she was being headstrong. They were both right; tonight would be dangerous, and she knew little of how to defend herself, yet that did not stop her from wanting to join. At the very least, she felt it necessary to prove she was not afraid. At the most, she had been totally honest. She needed to be there, because only she knew what Okamoto Karaoshi looked like.

Well, she and the traitor.

The conversation was dismissed when their eyes caught Heliena stepping out of the darkness to make her way towards their table, attempting not to be noticed and failing horribly at it. Other amazons nodded to her as she passed—a few let their gazes linger on her. Emily found she could not take her eyes off the girl. The grace in her steps and flow of her body had a way of making Emily’s blood rise. When she finally did reach the table, Margret arrived with drinks in hand.

“Here you go, ladies,” Margret said, setting a drink down in front of all but Chara. “You might be a bit young, Emily, but amazon law trumps angel law in this tavern. A grown woman is always entitled to a drink before a fight.”

“Even when she’s not allowed to join?” Emily asked, glancing at Adelpha.

“Even then,” Adelpha nodded. “Drink up. This is the last fermented liquid you’ll see before Themiscyra.”

Adelpha scooped up her own mug and took a big swig just as Heliena pressed against the table opposite her. Emily peeled her eyes away just long enough to realize she was the only one acknowledging Heliena’s presence. The others, Chara included, seemed busy trying to find something of interest in their mugs or along the walls. Heliena seemed not to notice this and patiently waited for her sister to set her drink down.

“Heliena,” Adelpha said, sounding surprised. “Thank you for supporting me.”

“You’d do the same for me,” Heliena replied, voice hushed.

To Emily’s ears, both of the women spoke with a forced tone. Adelpha drummed her fingers on the side of her mug, looking side to side as if thinking of something else to say.

“Would you like a drink?” she asked.

“You know I don’t like it.”

There were two things that surprised Emily as she watched the sisters make their short conversation. First off, Emily didn’t have a sister, only brothers, but the interactions should not have been all that different. However, there were very few similarities between Emily’s relationship with her brothers and the relationship between Adelpha and Heliena.

For one, Adelpha was actually being nice to Heliena. Until now, Emily had yet to see Adelpha make any attempts to be cordial to anyone. Not even Chara was spared Adelpha’s rash attitude and lack of compassion for the other’s opinion. What was interesting beyond that was how little this kindness affected Heliena’s mood. Despite Adelpha’s warmth, Heliena remained distant, cold, and relatively unaware of the effect her mood was having on the patrons sitting around the table. Meanwhile, Chara was still making every attempt to look elsewhere.

Emily looked down into her wooden mug and swirled the liquid around, which seemed to release a strong scent that was unlike anything she’d smelled before. If she’d smelled water like this on the Great Plains, she’d think it spoiled and would throw it out. However, now, with a quick shrug, she lifted it and drank the ale. The moment the bitter, burning sensation traveled down her throat, she coughed, gripping her chest, and spat to relieve the disgusting taste that filled her mouth. Adelpha laughed.

“Takes some getting used to, but after enough of them, you’ll order it every time you walk in.”

“I see why you don’t like it,” Emily said to Heliena through her coughs. “I’m Emily Stout, by the way. Thank you for helping me back there.”

“I know who you are,” Heliena said, curtly.

Emily balked slightly and blinked. Heliena’s words had almost cut off her own, and Emily had not anticipated any hostility. When she looked around at the others at the table, she wondered if perhaps she should have.

“I mean, we all know who you are,” Heliena said, her words warmer now. “You came in the other day, remember? We watched you leave with Chara. I was just saying I know who you are.”

“Oh,” Emily nodded. “Yes, of course. Sorry.”

“No apology needed,” she waved a hand. “I’m Heliena, Adelpha’s younger sister.”

Emily reached out a hand instinctively, and Heliena took it. They shook momentarily, and Emily noted the silky smooth touch.

“Pleased to meet you,” Emily said.

“I came here because I wanted to offer you something,” Heliena said. “I thought that if you were going to join us tonight, you should have some proper amazon clothes. Those farmer shoes will make too much noise on the docks and wooden boat planks. You and I appear about the same size, and I happen to have a spare set of clothes.”

“She’s not coming,” Chara spoke up.

“Which I overheard,” Heliena continued. “Still, though, my offer stands. If you’d like, you can borrow my clothes until you can make a set for yourself. It’s a long way to Themiscyra to wear pants and a thick shirt. A skirt, vest, and sandals will be much more comfortable, and you’ll probably feel more at ease, too, not sticking out like a bugbear amongst centaurs.”

Emily didn’t catch the analogy, but she did like the offer. She looked to Chara who had finally turned to look at Heliena. The old woman squinted first but then blinked and shook her head. Then she smiled.

“Thank you, Heliena,” she said. “That is very kind of you.”

“Yes, absolutely,” Emily added. “Thank you very much! When can I have them?”

“Now would be best,” Heliena said, “before we have to leave.”

Emily excused herself from the table and rose alongside the beauty. Heliena gave her a smile and led her across the tavern and then up the stairs to the rooms above. Emily left her mug, not at all eager to swallow another drop of the stuff.

“I have to admit, I heard more of your conversation than what I let on,” Heliena said as they reached the top of the stairs.

“I’m not surprised,” Emily replied. “It’s not like we were trying to be secretive.”

“Yes, well, I thought the points you brought up were quite valid,” Heliena turned back. “I can’t help but agree with your side of things.”

Emily’s ears perked up, and she met Heliena’s blue-eyed stare.

“Adelpha and Chara aren’t thinking about this rationally,” Heliena continued. “You are the only one who’s seen the samurai and knows his face. What if we get on the ship, and he has two samurai guards? He could just switch places with them, and we’d be none the wiser until we got back to you. By then, the knights will be rallied, and it’ll be too late.”

“That’s exactly what I was trying to explain!” Emily exclaimed.

“Sssshh,” Heliena put a finger to her lips. “We don’t want others to hear.”

Emily clamped shut and scrunched her shoulders. They reached the second floor and began to walk down the hallway between rooms. Heliena passed to the third on the left and opened it. Inside there were two cots and a window looking out behind the tavern.

“Why are we being quiet?” Emily asked. “Aren’t you going to convince Chara and Adelpha that I should go?”

“Honestly,” Heliena sighed, closing the door once they were both inside, “I can’t take the risk they won’t.”

She locked the door and turned to put her back to it. She pressed up against it, like a maid begging to be kissed, and looked stunning doing it. Emily couldn’t tell if it was intentional or not, but it reminded her of how awkward she felt. Emily folded her arms and silently wished that Sir Gavin never see this beauty for himself. He might never look at that little girl from the Great Plains again.

“It’s imperative that you’re with us tonight, so we can capture the true samurai,” Heliena said. “If not, we’ll lose our chance to find this traitorous woman, and that does not bode well. As you may have noticed—if not, Chara will surely inform you soon—Adelpha and I are not exactly close.”

“Oh, I gathered that,” Emily smirked. “Don’t worry. My teeth were nearly chattering down there.”

“I won’t bore you with why,” Heliena pressed on. “That’s not what’s important right now. What is important is that, when the fingers start flying that there’s a traitor in our ranks, I’ll be among the first to be accused. It’s the natural order of things. If she had died last night, I’d be the one who’d gain the most, and no one will hear my pleas that that is a responsibility I don’t care for.”

“Yet you expect me to listen?” Emily said, raising an eyebrow. “I don’t know you, Heliena.”

“And I don’t know you, either,” Heliena countered, coldly.

She stepped forward, closing in on Emily and coming within a hand’s width of her face. Emily resisted the urge to step back. She wasn’t scared, but certainly uncomfortable. Heliena’s tone didn’t help, nor her intoxicating aroma. She smelled like fresh flowers.

How is that possible? My word, she is beautiful, Emily thought.

“I don’t expect you to believe me,” Heliena said. “I’m just explaining why it’s important that you come tonight. I’m not going to waste my time trying to convince Chara or Adelpha, either. That old hag won’t let you go unless you follow right next to Adelpha, and if I know anything about my sister, she would never allow someone to follow her who couldn’t handle herself. See, you need a better and simpler way to get onto the ship. It wouldn’t be good for you to be part of the actual attack, but I think you’d serve better as part of the distraction.”

“I don’t know how to be a distraction,” Emily said.

“That’s why you’re going with me.”

Chapter 20

That afternoon, the amazons hatched their plan. Adelpha did most of the talking and formulating, taking and receiving tips from others, mostly Chara. Thanks to Gavin’s information, they knew which ship to look for when they reached the harbor. It would be the only large vessel that didn’t have cargo, the only one allowed to stay docked at night. Emily felt a twinge of guilt for Gavin, feeling that she was betraying the trust he’d shown to her, yet unable to stop what was coming. Okamoto Karaoshi carried information vital to the amazons, and angel laws were nothing but suggestions to these women. They were out for blood. Emily just hoped that Gavin would forgive her this, assuming she ever saw him again.

Once the ship was located, the attack would begin. There would be two groups: one approaching from the dock and the other from the sea. Adelpha would lead the attack from the water, while Heliena and Belen would lead the attack from the docks. Emily was glad that Heliena had joined the dock attack. She didn’t know how to swim.

The first step would be for the amazons on the dock to take out the front guards. A few arrows to the throat would do the trick, and then those amazons would sneak onto the ship, working from the top down to find Okamoto. At the same time, Adelpha would lead her party from the shore. In the cover of darkness, they would swim quietly through the water and use ropes to climb into the bowels of the ship through the cannon portholes. From there, they would disperse and search for the samurai. Together, working from both ends, they would clear the ship and find the man who plotted against them. Once he was captured, they’d flee the city immediately. If all went well, they’d be out of Lucifan and beyond the jurisdiction of the knights and angels before daybreak. Then, they’d find out just how talkative this samurai could be.

At the end of the planning, Adelpha made it clear that there would be only one surviving witness: Okamoto Karaoshi. Any arrows shot must be retrieved as well. The less evidence they left, the better, and hopefully when they returned to the city next year, they could deny any wrongdoings.

There was still plenty of daylight left after the cheering finished. So, the amazons went to sharpen their weapons and arrow tips. Adelpha enjoyed another mug of ale with the others, though Emily graciously declined a second round of the bitter drink. After a lifetime of bread and water, Emily was all for trying new things, but ale unfortunately did not make her list. She did accept a spare set of clothes from Heliena, though, dressing in a leather skirt, vest, and sandals for the first time in her life.

She’d been delighted at first. Tossing away her old farmer’s clothes seemed like the last effort needed to bury her past. Emily had delightedly stripped off her dirty pants, overalls, and linen shirt and slipped into the skirt and vest, realizing for the first time just how heavy her old clothes had been. Compared to her farmer’s outfit, caked with layers of dirt, she might as well have been naked in these amazon clothes. The skirt and vest were a mere fraction of the weight she’d carried her entire life. Emily had felt extremely underdressed and had tried in vain to pull the skirt down to hide more of her legs.

Yet she was an amazon now, both in spirit and in look, until she realized her favorite working shirt might be off her body, but it had left its mark on her skin. The amazon clothing exposed parts of her that had never seen the light of day, leaving a clear tan line on both arms, shins, and her neck. Next to those lines, she was horribly, embarrassingly pale.

At first she was worried this would make her assimilation with the amazons more difficult, but after weathering a tavern full of laughter and some hearty jokes, she was happy to find that there was no pressure or hostility from her future companions. After they had their fun, they left her alone and began to exchange stories in anticipation of the night’s activity. Indeed, few of them were as callous as Adelpha had been when Emily had first met her, including Adelpha herself.

“The whites in my eyes have more color than your skin, Emily, honestly!” Adelpha laughed. “You are going to have some very painful days on the Great Plains after tonight.”

“She’ll be redder than blood, I swear it!” Hanna giggled. “Kirke, Leda, I know what you’re thinking. Try to keep the slapping to a minimum when it happens.”

Kirke and Leda exchange wicked glances, and Emily tensed. She knew what the twins were thinking, too, and she was not looking forward to it.

“Hey! Hey!” Adelpha leaned across the table. “Watch yourselves, you two. She may not be able to nock an arrow, but there’s some real fight in her soul. Remember the ogres I told you about? Here we are, fighting off an ambush from ogres, and she can’t even nock one to the string, but that doesn’t stop her. No knife, no nothing—so just before the ogre brings the club down on my head, she jumps forward and stabs the brute with the arrow in her hand! So watch out. You slap some red skin and be prepared for a boxing in return.”

Kirke and Leda exchanged another glance, their expressions showing a mix of surprise and doubt. Hanna and Chara laughed, but Iezabel raised her eyebrows at Emily.

“That’s pretty brave for a young farmer’s daughter,” she said, touching a long finger to her hooked nose.

“Thanks,” Emily replied and left it at that.

Emily looked around, trying to stray from the attention she was being given at the table. Fortunately, she found an out when Heliena waved at her from the bottom of the stairs.

“Sorry, excuse me,” she said and quickly moved away.

Emily had never been one for praise—she only did what she thought was best—and didn’t like being singled out, even if it was for a good thing. She sought approval from few, so the opinions of the many were not her concern. Her father, Paul, had been one of those few, and his quick, often subtle indications of satisfaction had been the greatest rewards of her life. Father and Mother had taught her that a nod of respect was the ultimate compliment. So when Heliena signaled to Emily and invited her upstairs, Emily was eager to accept.

“Are you still coming?” Heliena whispered.

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Emily nodded.

“Then it’s time for you to disappear,” Heliena said. “You need to be forgotten about until it’s too late.”

Emily nodded and followed Heliena upstairs to the amazons’ quarters. Heliena stepped into one of the rooms, the same one as before, and reached under her bed. She pulled out a leather sack that looked like it had seen its fair share of battles. There was more than one puncture that had been patched over, and the thing was clearly older than Heliena. Someone had loved this bag deeply.

Emily had seen it once before, when Heliena had taken the spare clothes out of it. The beautiful amazon held it close again, taking it in as if she hadn’t seen it before, and then opened it and began to dig inside.

“Whose bag was that?” Emily asked.

Heliena paused like a child caught stealing. She looked up slowly toward Emily and, at first, seemed offended by the question. Her lips parted, and her eyebrows furrowed. Emily averted her gaze and shifted, as if to communicate no insult was meant.

“It was my mother’s,” Heliena whispered, pulling the bag close. “I never got to meet her. This is all I have left of her.”

“I’m sorry,” Emily replied. “I’ve heard the story. My . . . my condolences.”

Heliena nodded, lost in a short moment of depression. Emily regretted bringing the subject up and waited patiently for the woman to collect herself. She did so momentarily, taking a deep breath and then digging into her pack once more.

Briefly, Emily wondered what it was about this girl that troubled the others. She’d already admitted to not being close with her own sister, and Emily had a momentary flash of panic that perhaps she shouldn’t trust Heliena at all. Perhaps Emily was being played the fool, and this woman was the traitor, silently luring her in for the kill.

And why would you assume that? What proof have you seen? Is it because she’s unpopular? Emily’s mind immediately countered. So are you. Perhaps you’re the traitor. Find the samurai first, and then you can judge.

Until then, she made a mental note to ask her grandmother and Adelpha both about why they disliked her. Emily wasn’t going to ask Heliena, not so soon after bringing up her mother. That would be rude, and Emily knew better manners than that.

“Here, finally,” Heliena sighed and withdrew a tiny black tin. “This will cover that unsightly pale skin of yours for tonight. I didn’t apply it at first, obviously, because my sister and your mother would know something was up. However, if you try to leave looking like you do now, you’ll shine brighter than the moon. Put this on, and it should fool everyone until we at least reach the docks. I normally use it to mask my smell when hunting manticores, but it has a brown color and will work for this purpose, too.”

“Thank you,” Emily said, grabbing the tin. “What’s a manticore?”

Heliena rolled her eyes and snorted. Emily blinked, trying and failing not to be insulted.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I don’t know what it is.”

“It’s not important,” Heliena waved. “Just put this on and wait for me up here. Now, about tonight. I don’t have a knife for you, but at least you have your bow and arrows. Have them at hand. When we’re ready to move out, I’ll come and get you. We don’t want Chara or Adelpha to see you looking like this, or they’ll know something’s up. Be quiet and follow my lead. You know what’s at stake here.”

Emily nodded because her mouth had gone dry. She was thinking about tonight and anticipating the danger. This is what she had wanted all her life: a chance to make something of herself. Although she hated going against Chara’s will, it was for the best, because only she knew what Okamoto looked like. Heliena left the room to Emily and closed the door on her way out. Once Emily was alone in the room, she opened the tin and slathered on the paste inside. It had no smell and felt like smooth mud, and it was also darker than Emily’s hair. However, it did the job of masking the pale, white evidence of sixteen years without the sun, and once she was done, she grabbed up her bow and tried to practice the stance Chara had told her about. If there was to be a battle tonight, she would rather have the bow launch the arrow than itself.

She practiced drawing and nocking a single arrow to the string. Once she felt confident in that, she slid into the starting position Chara had shown her on the plains. She tried to remember Chara’s other comments. Level your head, don’t lock your elbow, and stand up straight, she thought to herself. She drew the string and brought the arrow level with her eye, looking at the window. She tried to pick a target outside, one of the other buildings perhaps. She sighted it, closed one eye, and tried to picture the arrow flying straight at her target.

She relaxed too much, and her fingers loosed the shaft. The string shot forward and made a thack sound as it hit her on the forearm, scraping away a chunk of brown paste. Emily yelped in both pain and surprise, but sighed in relief when the arrow missed the precious glass and instead hit the thin wooden frame that held the window in place.

“Good thing I’m a lousy shot,” she muttered to herself.

She walked over to the window, rubbing her arm where the string had hit and wincing at the red mark that appeared. She reached up, grabbed the arrow and gave it a tug. It didn’t come out, though, so she grasped it with both hands and pressed close to the window to heave the arrow out. As it came loose, she stared outside once more and caught a glimpse of one of the colossi strolling past the buildings several blocks away.

“So huge,” she whispered. “And to think I’ll be seeing more amazing things.”

Her mind swam with conjured images of twisted creatures and magnificent places, picturing things she’d heard of but never seen, such as waterfalls and mountains. She thought of the stories she’d been told by travelers on the farm, and then she thought of her family, and all the excitement within her gave in to a wave to sadness.

Last night had been her first night without them. There’d been so much excitement and danger that she hadn’t noticed, yet it had occurred all the same. No Abe or Nicholas, no Mother or Father—she’d had only her grandmother. It hadn’t been so bad, honestly, but she was beginning to realize just how much she was going to miss them.

I’ll visit them as often as I can, she promised. I’ll always think of them, too.

She owed them that much at least.

With her face almost touching the glass, Emily looked down in the streets and saw something that caught her interest. From beneath the window, a door opened, and one of the amazons exited the tavern covered in a cloak.

Just one? Odd, she thought. The room she was in faced the back of the tavern, and Emily leaned up closer, pushing her face against the glass. The amazon closed the door behind her and looked left and right. When she did so, Emily caught a glance inside the cloak and saw an older woman with auburn hair and a wide nose. Emily blinked as she recognized her.

Belen finished pulling the cloak tight and tucked the hood over her head. She glanced back one last time, then up, and Emily quickly pulled away from the window. When Emily looked back, she saw Belen dashing off through the streets. For a moment, Emily contemplated finding Adelpha or Chara and telling them what she’d seen, but then she remembered Heliena’s instructions and thought that the comment could wait until nightfall. Emily knew very little about amazon ways and manners, so she didn’t think too much on it. Belen’s actions were certainly not the only strange thing she’d seen recently. There were other, stranger things to consider, and one of them instantly conjured itself in her mind.

She thought about the visit with the angels as she walked back and began to practice drawing her bow again. In particular, she thought about the grey-haired angel named Quartus who had tugged at her thoughts. Gavin had told her it was just her imagination, but her experience said otherwise. Quartus doesn’t speak, he’d told her, but how else could she explain what had happened. Her thoughts had been yanked out of her grasp to focus on the present. He had wanted her to remember Ephron’s words.

Wait, Emily thought, what did Ephron say? It was a warning. Something about judging others?

Emily cursed herself for being forgetful. She’d been so mesmerized by Quartus’ interest in her that she had not even listened to him. And why, she thought, had Quartus taken such an interest in her to begin with? Surely the angels—timeless immortals who had descended from above—had far more important matters to attend to than that of one small girl? She searched for an answer but had nowhere to begin. So, instead, she tried not to let it frustrate her and went back to practicing. Ephron’s words had not fallen on deaf ears, just a distracted memory. Hopefully, she just needed a little exercise, or time, to get her memory working again. Until then, she needed to focus. There was a battle coming.

After a few hours, darkness started to overcome the light. Emily had stopped practicing her bow stance by now, not wanting to tire her arms before the event. It was surprisingly tough work, and her shoulders and back were growing sore after only a few pulls. Emily passed the time by staring out the window, examining Lucifan as it grew dark. She was only half paying attention, though. The coming attack made Emily’s every move a jolt of anticipation. Her excitement leading up to the morning ride to scout for behemoths—an event that seemed to have happened ages ago—had been a mere drop in the bucket compared to her feelings now. If given the chance, she’d take that second mug of ale and down it, if only to calm her nerves.

She continued to look out the window, noticing the increase in shadows and how the streets became quieter with time. Lucifan would be sleeping soon—all except the gargoyles, the vampires, the knights, and the amazons. She watched the shadows lengthen in the nearby streets, slowly hiding them from view. Then, she saw someone step out of the shadows, someone in a cloak who was walking cautiously.

Belen had finally returned, and Emily leaned up against the glass to watch. Carefully, the amazon crossed the streets and reached the tavern’s backdoor, opening it and sliding back inside the tavern.

She’s been gone a long time, Emily thought. Perhaps she would mention Belen’s trip to Heliena when she arrived. It didn’t quite make sense that she was the only amazon sneaking out the night before an attack. An attack she herself had tried to stop from happening altogether. She’d been so adamant that she had been willing to fight Adelpha over it, and that would surely have been a poor decision. The person Emily had seen act that fiercely over something so small was that traitor woman in the bank.

Wait, Emily breathed deeply. Belen? Is it you?

Emily took a cautious step back in her mind. This was the second woman she was mentally accusing of betrayal, and that did not bode well if she intended to make friends instead of enemies in this group. Still, though, the oddity of Belen’s actions struck her soundly. Emily thought about the traitor, what she knew of the woman, and a thought suddenly dawned on her. If the traitor was really amongst the amazons, then she knew of the impending attack. Wouldn’t she do something to stop it, as Belen had done? And if she couldn’t stop the attack, wouldn’t she then try to warn Okamoto what was to come?

“Oh no,” Emily gritted her teeth and pressed her forehead to the glass. “Damn it!”

Belen’s the traitor, and she just went out to tell the samurai about our attack.

“Damn it, Emily!” she yelled at herself. “He knows now! Damn it!”

Emily stepped back from the glass and buried her face in her palms, cursing herself for not telling Chara or Adelpha sooner. They were going to walk into a trap! She had to warn them. Of all the actions to ignore, why did she have to pick Belen’s!

Just then, Emily heard footsteps on the stairwell. A moment later, Heliena flung open the door.

“Come on, let’s move,” she commanded. “Everyone else is leaving the tavern as we speak.”

“Wait! There’s something I have to tell you!” Emily said. “I saw Belen leaving the tavern through the backdoor earlier. She looked like she was sneaking out.”

Heliena paused, giving Emily a questioning glance.

“Belen’s downstairs right now,” Heliena replied.

“I know. I just saw her return. Look, I think she might be the traitor,” Emily continued. “I think she went to tell Okamoto about our plans!”

Heliena looked Emily up and down, mulling over the argument in her mind.

“Well, that’s a risk we’ll have to take. Let’s go. We can’t warn them if we’re left behind.”

Chapter 21

Emily swept up her bow and arrows and ran down the stairs with Heliena. The lights had been put out, so Emily easily crept through the dark, and none questioned her presence. She was one shadowy figure amongst many, wearing a skirt and vest with a bow in hand and a quiver of arrows slung over her shoulder. Adelpha led the way in the front of the pack, and Emily stayed in back with Heliena. At first, Emily tried to run forward to warn Adelpha about Belen, but Heliena pulled her back.

“Don’t worry. She’ll wait for my signal anyway,” she whispered. “If it’s really a trap, we’ll know and warn the others. Don’t want to ruin our plans over a guess now, do we?”

Emily relented and followed the twenty amazons out of the tavern. They slipped through the streets like gnomes among tall grass. They stopped a few times—once ducking under low hanging roofs and in narrow alleys to hide from a patrol of knights as they soared through the skies on their pegasi. Emily wanted to look up to see if one of them was Sir Gavin, but the knights passed out of sight too quickly. Not that she would have recognized him anyway, covered in plated armor.

They traveled east, and as soon as the ocean came into view, Adelpha and ten other amazons split off from the group and headed north across the shoreline. The others followed Belen to the docks, Heliena and Emily bringing up the rear.

They broke into pairs and moved always under cover, staying low and hiding behind crates and carts that were normally used to load and unload the contents of ships. Now empty, they held no exceptional value and thus were left to rot in heaps off to the side. Emily wondered briefly how anyone could leave something to waste like this, but then she realized her family had likely contributed to this, too. They’d sold crates of behemoth meat to pirates not a week ago, and those pirates had likely taken the meat and left the crates. It was the nature of things, she supposed.

Be that as it may, the crates and carts were being used once more, only now as a shield for dark and murderous intent. The amazons found shelter where they could and huddled as closely as cover allowed. Heliena brought Emily closer to the front and looked over their pile of crates to Okamoto’s ship on the private dock. Emily risked a glance, too, and saw that Sir Gavin had told her right. The ship they sought was the only large, non-cargo-bearing vessel at the docks. It was easily distinguished as an extravagant ship when compared to the bulky forms of the others that floated out at sea. It spoke of wealth and power, having a wide, yet shallow and uncluttered deck. Its wood was painted royal blue, which was vibrant enough to be seen in the low light, and its railings and masts looked smooth and delicately carved even at a distance. Emily wondered what the shoguns of the East were like. They must surely be wealthy. Emily then realized that she’d never been on a ship before, nor had she even been in any kind of boat. Emily watched the ship sway slightly in the water, bumping gracefully against the dock every so often, and hoped that the movement wasn’t as disruptive as it looked.

“Things are about to move quickly,” Heliena whispered. “Stay with me.”

Emily nodded, and a voice nearby caught them off guard.

“She’s here?”

Emily turned to see Belen peeking out from her cover nearby, her eyes staring furiously at Heliena.

“What are you doing bringing her?” Belen asked.

Heliena’s only response was to glare back, ice-cold with her blue eyes, and put a finger to her lips. It was a look that made even Emily’s blood chill. Belen snarled, but bit back her tongue and dropped out of sight again. If any of the other amazons heard the brief argument and were questioning Heliena’s judgment, they kept their comments to themselves.

So, Emily thought, there’s another thing the sister’s share. Acid in their veins when threatened.

Heliena brushed off her scowl and looked up toward the ship again. The moment her act was dropped, her beauty and radiance reappeared, and Emily was distracted by it. How odd it was to see this girl switch from one extreme to the next so easily. Right now, she appeared fragile, weak, and in need of caring, her luscious lips and curves begging for attention. Yet her glare at Belen had said otherwise, that she was a warrior under it all. Was that common to all amazons? Emily hoped so. She wanted to be strong when she didn’t appear to be, too.

Although the night was calm, the wind blew against the docks, which were unprotected by the buildings of the city. With that constant wind came the slap of water against wood and the rustle of waves rising and falling. Emily’s footsteps were barely audible above all the noise made by nature. The sound was a comfort, though, because it would make it less likely for Adelpha’s crew to be detected.

The ship swayed a bit at the dock, and Emily saw two men standing outside the ship, guarding the ramp that led up to the top deck of the vessel. The men stood vigilantly in the darkness, shuffling back and forth on tired feet. They seemed to be taking a break from sitting, because just behind them were two more crates pulled up to be used as stools.

Heliena drew her bow and nocked an arrow. Emily didn’t hear anything, but she pictured at least nine other amazons doing the same all around them. Then Heliena lifted the bow up over her crate, and that’s when Emily saw the other bows peek around corners at every angle. Heliena took a breath, aimed, and then released, pushing out her breath along with the arrow.

Her string slapped the air, and a fraction later, nearly a dozen other slaps echoed it. The air was filled with dark shafts, and in the space of a heartbeat, both guards fell back, their faces and throats slurping blood in with the air.

Heliena leaped over her crate, drawing another arrow and nocking it to her string at the same time. Belen and the other amazons were a half pace behind her, springing out of the dark to rush the docks. Cover was forgotten, and nearly Emily, too, but she remembered her place and broke into a run to follow. Their stealth was forgotten now, and they clattered across the docks only as silently as their speed would allow.

Heliena reached the guards first, one of whom was still kicking and gripping his throat while spurts of blood poured from the four arrows piercing his throat and face. She never paused in stride, slinging her bow and drawing her knife before plunging the blade into his chest. A quick twist and the guard went still forever. She withdrew it and wiped the blade on the guard’s clothes before sheathing it just as the other amazons arrived.

“Iezabel,” Belen whispered.

Iezabel appeared from the ranks and nocked an arrow to her bow. She lifted it up and aimed at the mast of the ship. With careful skill, she released the string, and Emily watched the arrow strike the swaying mast solidly.

“Adelpha should see that,” Iezabel said.

“Wow,” Emily said, eyes wide. “Great shot.”

“Thank you,” Iezabel smiled, showing gums again.

Belen scowled at Emily and turned to the others.

“You two with me,” she said. “You three through that door there, the rest down into the hull. If you meet up with Adelpha’s group, assist them. You two stay up on deck and guard. As for you, Heliena, stay on the docks and look out for your baggage.”

She clarified her statement by pointing a finger at Emily, who balled her fists at the comment but kept quiet as the amazons sprinted up the ramp and onto the ship to go their separate ways. The amazons disappeared into the darkness, leaving only the creak of wood, the rustle of water, and the rush of wind.

“What do we do now?” Emily asked. “I thought we were looking for a trap.”

“Those guards didn’t look like they anticipated us,” Heliena kicked one of them. “Looks like there’s no trap to me. Belen must have snuck out for another reason.”

“Hey! Hey!” a muffled voice shouted from within the hull. “Sound the alarm! We’re being boarded.”

Emily and Heliena’s heads both snapped up to stare at the ship. The two amazons up top drew back-to-back and looked to either end of the ship. No one came running, though, and the voice didn’t shout again.

“What now?” Emily asked.

“They must have noticed my sister,” Heliena gritted her teeth. “That clumsy oaf, she’ll ruin everything! Come with me!”

Heliena sprinted up the ramp, and Emily followed. They darted past the two amazons, who balked at Emily but said nothing, and then down a flight of stairs into the ship’s hull. Emily’s feet pounded on the wooden steps, and by the time they reached the bottom, they were noticed.

When the amazons had first planned to invade this ship, they’d theorized what the layout would be. One of them had fathered a son by another samurai and provided the best guess. The ship would likely have cannons—small ones made to disable ships and fight off pirates and vikings on the high sea. They would be stowed below deck, along with most of the weapons and ammunition for the heavy cannons. This assumption proved correct.

As Emily and Heliena hit the lower deck, they saw three men. Two were dressed in linen pants like the dead guards outside, but one dressed in the strange gown-like clothing and wooden shoes of a samurai, though he was not Okamoto. Two were sitting on overturned buckets around a pile of cards, while one was leaning on a cannon, looking outside at a rope that led from the cannon to the water.

There was a brief pause that lasted only long enough for someone to make the first move. It was Heliena, and she drew up her bow and reached for an arrow. The samurai stood up and drew his sword, holding it in front of and across his body. The man next to him drew his own shortsword and, quite cowardly, took a few steps back to place himself behind the samurai. The other man, who had been leaning on the cannon, screamed as a hand from outside reached in, grabbed his collar, and then pulled him out through the porthole. Emily heard a splash, one last scream, and then the slice of knife of through flesh.

Adelpha’s head came into view. The samurai looked from Adelpha to Heliena to Emily, apparently astounded by what he saw. He looked at Adelpha, and Emily could tell he was contemplating killing her, but Heliena held steady. Then the samurai stepped back and lowered his sword, a sign of submission in Emily’s eyes.

Heliena released her arrow.

The shot went wide, just barely, and, at first, Emily thought Heliena had missed. Then she saw otherwise, or rather heard, as the arrow passed through the samurai’s gown and struck the leg of the man behind him. The injured one screamed, dropped his sword, and clutched the arrow that buried deeply into his leg. The samurai leapt back and raised his sword again, this time leveling it for combat as his face hardened. The guard behind him cried out again and turned to hobble down a set of stairs leading further into the bowels of the ship.

“Coward,” the samurai said over his shoulder.

“Is that Okamoto?” Heliena asked.

“No,” Emily replied lightning fast.

Heliena drew another arrow and went to nock it, but the samurai saw her, and as fast as Emily could blink, he had leapt across the deck and swung his sword sideways to cut Heliena down.

Emily had never seen anyone move so quickly. His entire body reacted like a gunslinger’s finger. Deathly still one moment and then blindingly fast the next—so incredibly unlike the knights she’d seen fight in Lucifan, who’d swung heavy blades with arms weighed down by heavy armor. It was a wonder Heliena dodged the samurai’s swing at all, but she managed it by dropping the arrow she’d been trying to nock—a wise decision to remain alive rather than to remain armed.

However, her enemy was fast on her heels. The thin blade he carried was already poised for another strike, and Heliena’s back was against the wall. Emily pulled an arrow from her quiver too late, but another arrow came soaring through the air and struck the samurai right between the shoulder blades. He twisted, and the tip of his curved sword struck the wall before it struck Heliena. The victim became the attacker, and Heliena drew her knife and plunged it into the samurai’s gut. He collapsed to the wooden deck and shuddered his last breath. When Emily looked back, she saw that the shot had come from Adelpha. She’d finished climbing through the cannon porthole with just enough time left to save her sister’s life.

“Well done, little sister,” Adelpha said, still holding her bow high and at the ready, but then smirked. “You could have at least killed the other guard before he ran downstairs to warn the others.”

Adelpha’s first words held forced kindness; her second ones dripped with contempt. Emily’s skin prickled at the ice in the air.

“Sorry,” Heliena muttered, then added after a pause, “for saving your life.”

“And you brought Emily!” Adelpha finally realized. “No wonder you were just standing there. Fantastic! Damn it! Why do I issue orders if you won’t obey them, huh?”

Adelpha clenched her jaw and glared at Heliena, a stare Heliena returned briefly before she looked down at her sandaled feet. The other amazons were climbing in through the porthole, and Okamoto had yet to be found.

“Someone has to identify Okamoto,” Emily replied. “I’m here to help.”

“You’re here to get killed,” Adelpha said, stepping up and towering over Emily. “How can you identify Okamoto if you’re dead? Get off this ship before I throw you out the porthole, both of you.”

“I’m sorry, Adelpha,” Heliena said, teeth gritting. “I’ll take Emily back upstairs.”

Adelpha nodded, scowling with a hard gaze. She led the amazons after the escaped guard, while Heliena and Emily began to slowly climb the stairs with Emily leading the way. She kept her head lowered, ashamed at Adelpha’s reaction to her presence and also at her inability to save Heliena’s life. The samurai had moved so fast, and Emily had done nothing except stand there in shock. If it hadn’t been for Adelpha, Heliena would have been lying on the ground dead, and Emily would have been right beside her a moment later.

Adelpha and Chara had been right. This was no place for an inexperienced farmer’s daughter.

It wasn’t until she almost slipped on the top step that she realized that the color of the wooden deck was wrong—darker and reddish, even in the shadows—and it left a trail. Emily followed the trail with her eyes across the deck until they rested on the motionless bodies of the two amazons who were supposed to be on guard. Over them stood Okamoto Karaoshi, sword drawn and dripping blood over their corpses.

Chapter 22

Okamoto Karaoshi’s face and body stood calm, confident, and callous over the two dead women. Despite the blood that coated his sword and ran slowly in thick drops to create its own separate pool, he had managed to get none of it on his white robe. Somehow, he had not yet noticed Emily and bent down to wipe his sword clean on one of the amazons. Then, from the decks below, battle shouts erupted from Adelpha’s raiding party.

Okamoto looked up and saw Emily, locking gazes with her, and she could see the recognition in his dark, black eyes.

“What’s wrong?” Heliena asked from where she’d stopped behind Emily and was unable to see Okamoto.

“It’s him!” Emily yelled, louder than she’d meant to.

At her words, Okamoto leapt forward, sword raised. His movement made the previous samurai’s attack look like a behemoth’s. Emily had time for only one action; she dropped, preferring to take a beating from the stairs rather than risk the samurai’s sword. It turned out to be a good decision and, as Emily took Heliena down with her, Okamoto’s sword swept across the opening where Emily’s neck had been a moment earlier.

The swing was nothing more than a flash cutting the wind, and Emily realized that if she’d blinked, she would have missed the strike entirely. Then she and Heliena hit the wood and tumbled down the short staircase to the cannon deck. A few arrows scattered from their quivers, but they landed on none of them. Instead, Emily’s fall was broken by Heliena.

“What are you doing, you stupid girl!” Heliena screamed, and shoved Emily off of her.

Emily scrambled to her feet and stepped back from the stairs. She looked around the hull for a weapon, anything that she could use. Then she felt like an idiot and pulled out her bow.

The steps came alive with the loud clip-clop sound of the samurai’s odd wooden shoes as he bounded down the steps. Emily tried to pull out an arrow—thankfully, some were still left—and managed to grab only two this time instead of three. She quickly dropped the spare one and nocked her arrow. Okamoto landed on the final step and swung his sword up. He looked directly at Emily, and then he noticed Heliena.

She was right next to him, maybe two hand’s width away, and he paused for only a second in surprise. Heliena, though, her face burning with anger, wasted no such time. With eyes alight with fury, like none Emily had ever seen, Heliena drew her knife and lunged at him.

“Wait!” was all Emily could scream before what happened next.

In a terrifying display of skill, Okamoto deflected the knife with the flat of his blade and, in the same stroke, struck the pommel into Heliena’s forehead in retaliation. It was a direct hit with such speed that Heliena didn’t even have time to flinch. She took the full force and collapsed to the ground motionless, like the fragile thing she appeared to be, with the knife falling harmlessly out of her hand.

At first, Emily was stunned. Heliena, a girl the same age as her, had seemed invincible despite her meek nature. She’d helped kill two guards and another samurai just moments ago, yet now when her anger showed, she was brought down with one clean hit. Okamoto, on the other hand, remained calm and emotionless. His moment’s hesitation had disappeared, and he focused again. Carefully, he sidestepped Heliena’s unconscious body and took his first step towards Emily.

Fear flooded the shock from Emily instantly, and she pulled back into the starting position Chara had shown her. This samurai was no knight; he was fast and agile, but also unarmored. Emily didn’t hesitate to take advantage of Okamoto’s distance from her. She held the arrow level with her eye and pointed it squarely at his chest. He, in turn, took another step. He was not afraid, not yet.

Then Emily drew the arrow back even more, until her arm was shaking. Only then did he stop.

“Who hired you?” Emily demanded.

“I serve the shogun,” he replied, voice flat as water, “Ichiro Katsu.”

“I’m talking about the woman you escorted last night,” Emily said, arm shaking. “Tell me!”

Emily tried to make her words bite, but it was all she could do not to release the arrow she had strung. It wasn’t loosing the arrow she feared; it was the prospect of her likely miss and then immediate death at Okamoto’s hands. There was no way she could string another arrow before this samurai took the final step that was needed to strike her down.

Okamoto considered Emily’s question, and then tilted his head and flashed her the faintest of smiles. He found her amusing. He pities me, she realized.

“Who is the traitor in your ranks?” he clarified. “Why, it’s you.”

“Me?” Emily blinked. “Stop playing. Who is it? What’s her name?”

“Emily Stout,” Okamoto said.

“Stop lying!” she screamed.

Then Okamoto turned, slowly, and looked back at Heliena. Emily looked, too, and was shocked to see Heliena was awake, bow drawn, arrow nocked and aimed at the samurai.

“We have you now!” Emily yelled. “Now tell us who the real—”

Heliena released her arrow. It flew through the air faster than Okamoto’s sword strike and hit him square in the chest. The force sent him sprawling back, tripping over a reel of rope, and crashing to the ground. He gripped the arrow with his free hand but kept a tight grip on his sword with the other. Emily could hear the sound of gasping, the sound of someone trying to breathe with a punctured heart. Okamoto let the arrow shaft go, his hand coming away bloody, and his stainless white gown began to redden around the wooden shaft. With both hands, he gripped his sword tightly. He yelped and gritted his teeth but, overall, made far less noise than Emily expected from someone with an arrow through his chest.

Okamoto reversed his sword and pushed the point into the wooden deck. With great effort, he tried to stand, but the task proved too difficult. He clattered to the ground, hands still on his sword, took a few short breaths, and pushed his sword down again, trying to lift his body once more. Emily was amazed and astounded at his will to survive and continue fighting. He would not lie down and die while he still had moments of life left. However, no amount of effort could deny that his life was fading fast and that each rapid breath came shorter than the last. He fell once more and, before he could attempt to stand again, released his final breath before going still forever.

He never let go of his sword.

“Why,” Emily mouthed, wide-eyed, loosening her bow and arrow. “Why did you kill him?”

She turned and saw Heliena rushing toward her, knife drawn.

“Heliena!” Emily yelled and put up her hands.

The amazon outmatched her and smacked Emily’s hands away before placing the knife to her throat. Emily backpedaled until she slammed up against the ship’s wall. With malice in her eyes, Heliena followed and kept the knife pressed tightly to Emily’s throat. There was so much hate—so much anger—in her eyes, that Emily sputtered before she spoke.

“What are you doing?” Emily said voice strained with the blade pressed against her throat. “Why are you doing this?”

“Because I woke up just in time to hear who the traitor is,” Heliena leaned forward and breathed into Emily’s face.

“No, Heliena! Listen to me! He lied! He was lying!”

“I should have listened to Belen,” Heliena tisked. “It all makes sense now. How is it possible you never saw the woman but you saw the samurai, hmm? How unlikely is that? No wonder you wanted to come with us tonight. You wanted to kill him and cover your tracks! And what amazon would marry anyway, huh? Your own mother, that’s who!”

“Heliena!” Emily yelled, stretching to her tiptoes as the knife pressed harder. “Think about this! How can I be the traitor? I didn’t even know Adelpha or any of you at all until a few days ago. Why would I want to kill her? What possible purpose would that serve? I didn’t even know what a basilisk was until Chara told me!”

Heliena paused. The seething hatred in her cold, blue eyes had receded as Emily’s words struck her, and she took in a deep breath through her nose and looked over at the samurai, then back at Emily. When she did, the fury had gone, and in its place was a look of realization.

“Ah!” Heliena yelled, pulling the knife from Emily’s throat. “Damn it!”

Heliena sheathed her knife and dropped to her heels. Her hair fell over her beautiful face and she buried her forehead into her palms. Emily lurched off the wall and put a hand to her throat, rubbing where the blade had pricked the skin. She muffled a cough and realized she was shaking. Heliena had almost killed her, thanks to that samurai.

That bastard, she gritted her teeth.

“Emily,” Heliena said through her palms. “Do you know what this means?”

“We can’t know who the real traitor is now?”

“Besides that,” she sighed.

Emily just shook her head. Although Heliena didn’t see it, she read the silence clear enough.

“I killed Okamoto,” the amazon said, voice frail and meek once more. “They’re going to think I did it to keep him quiet. I’m doomed.”

Emily didn’t say anything, because she had been thinking just that. Or, more specifically, that Heliena had killed the samurai intentionally, and when Heliena turned back to look at Emily, she saw that in Emily’s eyes and shuddered.

“You, too!” Heliena gasped. “Oh, Adelpha is going to kill me. She might really, actually kill me this time.”

Then, to Emily’s shock, Heliena began to weep. Her breath caught in her throat, and she whimpered while her eyes moistened, though Heliena turned away to hide the shame, but Emily had seen enough already. She dashed her previous thoughts and knelt down beside Adelpha’s sister.

You have no proof, Emily thought. The traitor can still be anyone. Don’t judge so quickly.

And then Ephron’s words came to her, clear as a bell.

“As for the woman in your ranks,” he had said, “if you are right, then you must be careful. However, I would also caution you to guard yourself from feelings of distrust. Humans, all too frequently, are quick to assume guilt in others they do not like.”

Caution, Emily reminded herself.

She put a hand on Heliena’s shoulder, but the amazon tossed it off. Emily was hurt at first but then decided that was for the best. They weren’t that close.

“Actually,” Emily spoke up, “I think it’s probably better you killed him. If you didn’t he would have lied some more and had us at each other’s throats. We would have torn each other apart. I’ll tell Adelpha I killed him. I’m clumsy enough.”

“Thank you,” Heliena said, sniffing back tears. “Thank you so much. I owe you for that and don’t let me forget it. You know, I was just thinking.”

She paused to took take a breath and steady herself. When she pulled her hands away, her eyes were red. Emily and she both stood up.

“It’s strange that they saw Adelpha’s approach,” Heliena said. “I’d swear they were intentionally looking for it. And to have a samurai on guard below the main deck? They were certainly prepared. I think you might have been right about that trap. And Okamoto, too. He killed two of our sisters. How did he know to wait? Damn it. I knew them, too. We all did.”

Emily was going to reply, but just then Adelpha and her group of amazons entered the room from the decks below, and as they emerged from the stairs, Emily saw that one was missing.

“The guard got to the decks below and warned the other men,” Adelpha explained. “But with long, narrow corridors and nowhere to hide, they were easy to take down. We tried to capture another samurai down there, but when we got close, he took out a dagger and stabbed himself. Craziest thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Neither of the samurai you saw were Okamoto Karaoshi,” Emily said, then nodded to Okamoto’s corpse. “He was.”

Adelpha looked at the dead body, the arrow through his chest, and swore.

“Who killed him?” she demanded, teeth clenched.

Heliena looked down in shame then glanced over at Emily. Emily in turn summoned the strength to lie to Adelpha’s face.

“I did,” Emily said. “He was going to kill Heliena, so I shot him. I meant to hit his shoulder, but I missed.”

It was the least Emily could do. Heliena did risk her honor to bring her along and had saved her life from the other men on the ship. The least she could do was take the blame. Plus, with Emily’s poor aim, it was believable.

Adelpha growled in anger and kicked one of the cannons. She looked down at Okamoto’s body and then up at Emily.

“The next time we tell you not to come, you stay! Got it?”

“Yes, sorry,” Emily replied.

“At least your miss didn’t go clear over him,” Adelpha continued. “Otherwise, probably you and Heliena would both be dead.”

“Yes, and sorry again.”

Adelpha looked down at Okamoto and swore one last time.

“Let’s get moving,” the princess sighed.

Chapter 23

The three dead amazons were carried out to be buried on the shore. Unfortunately, the graves were going to have to be shallow, because the living amazons would have to flee the city soon, and the only tools they had to dig with were their hands.

“Our tradition is to cremate our dead. But in times such as these, that cannot be the case,” Chara explained. “We don’t want to wake up everyone with a funeral pyre. We should actually be thankful. Sometimes, our dead have to be left where they fall.”

Dirt digging was nothing new to Emily. In fact, it was something she’d done her whole life. Many thought it was an insult to call her dirt digger, but she was never offended. It was quite accurate. Most of the digging was to plant seeds, but there had been a few graves, too. Once to help a traveling group of gnomes, another time to help a neighbor who’d lost a family member, and the last one had been for the gunslinger, John Bagster. Besides those graves, she’d buried a few unicorns—after their meat had been stripped, of course—that had outlived their ability to survive the harsh farming conditions on the Great Plains. It was funny, she realized, to call the Great Plains harsh now that Emily was just beginning to see how harsh the world could be.

This dawned on her as she helped dig the three graves. For some reason, it felt good—not the deaths, of course, but digging the soil with her bare hands. It was the least she could do for the three amazons who had given their lives in the failed attempt to learn the traitor’s identity. The other amazons, the ones closest to the dead, wept and wiped their faces as they dug. Despite their efforts, tears slid down their cheeks and mingled with the dirt that they’d unknowingly smeared on their cheeks.

Emily looked at the dead amazons and couldn’t help but feel a measure of responsibility. She wanted to change events, to go back in time and right the wrongs. If Heliena and Emily had never left the top deck, perhaps they would have seen Okamoto, and he wouldn’t have been able to strike two of them down. Maybe if Emily had been able to nock an arrow, she could have killed the guard who’d alerted the rest of the crew. Maybe then, the woman who had died defending Adelpha, taking a pistol shot from the captain of the ship, would still be here.

She burrowed her hands into the dirt again, pulling the soft soil away. Perhaps if she hadn’t followed Heliena down to the lower deck, a different scene would be unfolding now. Maybe Okamoto Karaoshi would still be alive. If only those three crewmembers hadn’t seen Adelpha’s group, then maybe this could have been avoided. And how did those guards know to look outside? Emily thought. Heliena had commented on it, saying it was strange, almost like they were prepared.

Like someone had warned them.

Emily’s mind conjured Belen in a flash. She remembered watching the cloaked form of the older woman sneaking out as soon as the battle plans were finished, and how she’d returned, still under cover, sneaking back inside with no one taking notice. And, thinking back even further, how fiercely she’d argued with Adelpha, trying to stop the attack from happening at all.

Adelpha had said there was a traitor among them.

Emily jumped up, fiery determination setting her soul alight. She had to warn Adelpha, now, before anyone else was killed. Emily moved over and tapped her on the shoulder.

“Adelpha, I need to speak to you in private,” she whispered.

“Can it wait? This is a time for mourning and digging, and after that, fleeing.”

“I wish it could, but you need to know as soon as possible.”

Adelpha sighed and pulled one more scoop of dirt out of the hole. Then she turned to the other women.

“We’ll be right back.”

Adelpha walked with Emily from the shore to the closest building, but Emily insisted on being out of sight lest Adelpha, or herself, make an unintentional glance at Belen. They continued around a small house and the wind died away. To her relief, it felt warmer already. Emily was not used to exposing so much skin to the elements. She hoped it was warmer in Themiscyra.

“Well, what is it?” Adelpha asked.

“I saw Belen sneak out of the tavern, out the backdoor, after the plans for tonight were made. Then she snuck back in before we left.”

Adelpha paused before answering. “Is that it?”

“Look, Adelpha, you said it yourself that this crazy woman is one of us. Maybe it’s Belen. I think she warned Okamoto that we were coming, and that’s how they knew to look for you. Maybe that’s how Okamoto was able to kill those two.”

“They knew to look outside, because one of us accidently hit the side of the ship climbing up the rope.”

“But what if they knew to look anyway, and they were just waiting?”

Adelpha looked down and put a hand to her chin.

Emily waited patiently and wrapped her arms around herself. How could the other amazons wear these clothes? Even when out of the wind, she felt cold. Bumps started forming on her skin, and she rubbed her arms.

“You’re getting cold, too?” Adelpha asked.

“Yes, how do you wear these leather skirts all the time? It’s so darn cold.”

“It’s not the skirt,” Adelpha replied, crossing her arms. “I don’t understand. I’ve never been this cold before, not even in the shadows of the Khaz Mal Mountains.”

Emily sucked in a breath and looked over Adelpha’s shoulder already guessing what she’d find there in the shadows. Adelpha, seeing the apprehension in Emily’s face, spun and drew her bow with an arrow already nocked and aimed in the direction of the shadowy figure who was just now coming into view.

“Who are you?” she demanded. “Get any closer, and I’ll put an arrow in your head.”

“That would be most unfortunate,” the voice was icy calm, as smooth as frozen water. “Arrows are not the easiest thing to make.”

The man stepped closer, but Emily didn’t need her eyes to know who it was. The chilled air and cold voice were more than enough to identify Count Drowin as he approached, hands held open as if in a truce. He was dressed elegantly again, hair carefully groomed, and his pale skin highlighted his figure in the dark. His smile exposed painfully white teeth and two small fangs.

The temperature plummeted as he approached, and Emily’s breath turned to frost as it escaped her lips.

“Did you really think I wouldn’t watch?” the vampire asked. “That I wouldn’t wait for you after last night’s little mishap, Emily Stout? I was going to kill you all when you attempted to climb aboard Okamoto’s ship, until I saw my little basilisk trapper sneaking onto the docks with you. Of course, then I realized I couldn’t kill you all anyway. After all, who would carry my business partner safely back to the jungle?”

Adelpha pulled her bow string back for extra force and loosed her arrow. It flew straight and true, striking Count Drowin in the forehead. The arrow pierced his skull with the audible crack of shattering bone. Drowin twisted from the force, his head reeling back and dragging his body along. He fell to the ground but, unimaginably, caught himself with one hand.

“I warned you,” Adelpha scowled.

Count Drowin panted, growled, and shook his head. The arrow shaft shook along with it, and Emily couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Drowin was breathing hard, but he was breathing nonetheless. After a moment passed—a moment that shouldn’t have been possible—the vampire stood back up, the arrow still halfway through his forehead. He looked at Adelpha as he reached an ice-cold, pale hand up to the arrow and yanked it out. The wound, miraculously, sealed the moment the arrow tip left it.

Blood had dripped down the vampire’s face before the wound was fully sealed. Carefully, Drowin pulled out a handkerchief from his coat pocket and dabbed the blood, being sure not to smear it on his handsome face.

“Ow,” he mumbled.

All of Adelpha’s former confidence drained from her face, leaving her gasping and shaken. The air in Emily’s lungs refused to escape.

“You,” Adelpha stuttered. “You’re . . .”

“Immortal, yes,” Drowin smiled. “Did you not know that about vampires? What a terrible leader you are. No wonder my partner wanted to see you dead.”

“What do you want?” Emily asked, stepping close to Adelpha.

The amazon princess pulled out another arrow and nocked it, but didn’t pull it back like she had before. It was just a token of comfort now, Emily knew. That much was abundantly clear.

“I don’t normally do this,” Drowin said, “but I have a bit of a thing for women with spirit. So, if you insist, Emily, I feel inclined to oblige you. What I want is to receive a captured basilisk without paying an extra fee. Such deeds don’t come cheaply, as you can imagine. I want my amazon to make it back to Themiscyra un-harassed. I want power, Lucifan—and to achieve all of this I must accomplish several things, the first of which is to kill you.”

He stepped forward, and Adelpha raised her bow, pulled back the string, and released another arrow. However, Drowin was just as fast as she was and simply put up his hand. The arrow slammed into it, almost passing all the way through. It was gross, but the vampire barely seemed to notice as he pulled the arrow the rest of the way through his palm. With impunity, he tossed it aside.

“I love a woman with spirit,” he smiled.

He lunged forward, hissing with his mouth open and lips curled back, and seemed to fly through the air. His eyes went mad with blood craze, the taste of human flesh only moments away. Adelpha stepped in front of Emily, and Drowin’s hand caught her by the throat, thrusting her back against Emily, pinning her to the wall and knocking the wind out of them both.

He was strong, unnaturally strong. Adelpha tried to speak, but the vampire’s hand closed on her throat, and she could only gasp. Emily looked into Drowin’s cold, blue eyes and struggled for air, but her lungs wouldn’t expand. The vampire took delight in her efforts. Calmly, he dragged a fingernail along Adelpha’s neck, drawing blood. He let it drip onto his finger and then tasted it.

He was leaning in, only moments from sinking his fangs into Adelpha’s neck. Emily tried and failed to take in air one last time. At the last moment, as Drowin bent forward, mouth open wide, Emily closed her eyes and considered how very, very cold it was. It was in that cold that Emily remembered the last time she’d felt truly warm. The last time she’d felt protected, safe, and loved.

Quartus, she thought.

There was a flash of light, brighter than the sun. It was a warm light, too, filling every crevice and pushing the cold out and away. The warmth was comforting, humbling, and touching. Emily felt protected, cared for, and saved. She was saved. Both she and Adelpha were saved. She knew this, because there was only one being in the world that made her feel this way with its mere presence.

An angel had come.

Quartus and his grey hair were easy to see despite the bright light. He’d appeared out of thin air, and Drowin was instantly repelled. He screamed in pain—his skin hissing and smoking in the light of the angel—shielded his eyes and raised his hand, but the light burned him without mercy, and he stood no chance. With enviable speed, he fled into the dark, screeching in pain as he went. Only when his terrible howls died in the distance did the light steady, and Emily realized that Quartus was flying, hovering just above the ground. His feathered wings flapped slowly.

Adelpha and Emily, now free from the wall, both gasped for air with Adelpha also rubbing her neck where Drowin’s cold touch had nearly strangled her. She might have coughed, too, but she was most distracted. Emily could see it in the princess’ eyes, how the angel’s aura washed over her.

“Is,” Adelpha stared, eyes watering, “is that an angel?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you,” Adelpha said to him. “Thank you so much. What can I do to repay you?”

Quartus did not answer. He didn’t speak at all according to Gavin.

Emily felt Quartus pulling her mind again, and she did not resist his efforts. She thought back to the angel’s chamber. Thought back to Ephron and the warning he’d made. Beware your prejudice, she remembered, or rather, Quartus forced her to remember.

“What prejudice?” Emily asked the angel.

But of course, Quartus didn’t reply. He pointed west before rising up, higher into the sky. There was a flash of light, and when Emily looked again, he was gone.

“He wants us to hurry out of the city,” Adelpha said. “Doesn’t he?”

“I think so. Come on, we have to leave,” Emily replied. “I don’t think Drowin will stay injured for long.”

“I agree,” Adelpha said, still in the awe of the angel’s fading glow.

They stepped out from behind the house and ran down to the shore. They were met halfway by the other amazons who had collected up their weapons and were running up to them. They all held their bows with arrows nocked, ready to release a barrage of death. It was comforting to have such power nearby, but Emily knew they would have had no effect on Drowin.

“What happened to your neck?” one of the amazons asked Adelpha.

“What was that screaming?” another asked.

“And that light?”

Adelpha held up her hands to ask for silence. When it was granted, she let urgency be heard in her voice.

“I’ll explain everything, but we have to leave now. The graves will have to be left as they are, or we might end up digging more. Or worse, there will be no one left to dig them.”

The amazons nodded, their calm faces accepting the possibility of death. Adelpha’s orders were carried out swiftly, and the three amazon women were lowered into their final resting places. The dirt was pushed over them and a hasty attempt to compact the graves was made. Then they were running, darting through the streets as quickly as possible, headed due west through the city towards The Kraken’s Eye. Stealth was forgotten now, because Adelpha and Emily did not know how long Drowin would need to heal his wounds. More importantly, they did not want to find out.

They reached the tavern safe and sound. The hourglass-shaped eye carved into the sign watched as each woman passed inside, where they ran upstairs to grab whatever possessions they had brought. Chara was already packed—a tiny leather sack held all she had brought with her—and sitting at the table where Emily had tried her first ale.

When Emily stepped inside, Chara showed no signs of shock or surprise, only relief.

“There are fewer of you,” Chara said to Adelpha and then looked at her daughter before adding, “but at least you made it back, Emily.”

“How did you know I left?” Emily asked.

“Well, when you weren’t here after everyone had gone, it didn’t take long to deduce where you went.”

Emily looked down, trying to shield herself from her grandmother’s disappointment. It was only now that she realized just how much Chara’s opinion meant. She’d only known her for a few days, yet her acceptance and encouragement had become something that Emily wanted. When Emily finally did look up to meet Chara’s eyes, Chara only sighed.

“It seems you truly are your mother’s daughter. I had hoped the defiance would skip a generation, but I suppose I was wrong.”

“Okamoto was killed, an arrow through his heart,” Adelpha interrupted.

“Damn,” Chara said, and slammed her mug down. “Now we’ll have to find out who it is the hard way.”

“Actually, Emily has a theory on that,” Adelpha continued. “We’ll explain at another time.”

She said that last part as quickly and silently as possible. The other amazons were returning from their rooms now, and there was no need to spark any unnecessary curiosity. Emily noticed that none of them carried anything heavier than a leather satchel. They traveled lightly, that was for sure, and ate on the go as any good hunter would.

Once they had all finished gathering their things, everyone waved a hasty goodbye to Margret and then headed out the door. They were running again, and Emily noted that Chara kept up well. Fortunately, The Kraken’s Eye was close enough to the outer edge of the city that they didn’t have to run for long. Soon, they were beyond the outer rim of the city and climbing the steep grade out of Lucifan. Soon after that, they were back atop the open Great Plains that stretched farther than the eye could see. In that darkness, they rested. Packs hit the ground, and the amazons followed, taking a break in the tall grass. Almost instantly, questions were directed to Adelpha. The women wanted to know what happened, and more importantly, what was chasing them. Adelpha was more than happy to tell them. She confirmed everything that Emily had forewarned, and not even Belen could deny the sights they’d seen that night.

“So what happens now?” Emily asked her grandmother.

They kept their voices low. Adelpha was still spinning her tale, infusing her words with feeling and anger. The amazons roared as she did, and it was clear that the amazon princess knew her audience well.

“Now, we make our journey to Themiscyra,” Chara explained. “We’ll head west along the southern edge of the mountains to the forest, then south to the jungle.”

“I mean, about the traitor. I think it’s Belen,” Emily said. “I saw her sneak out before the attack, and I think she went to warn Okamoto.”

“Who did you tell about this?”

“Just Adelpha, you, and Heliena, but there’s another problem.”

Chara’s response was to blink, and Emily continued.

“Adelpha and I were saved from Count Drowin by an angel, just now,” Emily whispered. “He warned me, the angel, to beware judging others. His brother told me that we humans are prone to accusing those we don’t like. There’s one more thing, too.”

“You’re just full of information, aren’t you, Daughter? Go on.”

“Count Drowin said he saw the traitor amongst us on the docks.”

“That’s a good half of our group.”

“And Belen was among them.”

Chara shook her head and sighed. She nodded slowly next, as if thinking things over in her mind. The amazons cheered again when Adelpha explained how they escaped from the vampire at the docks.

“Well, we’ll have to be careful then,” Chara said. “But there are others besides Belen. Heliena, for one. I would accuse her first before any others. Either way, it won’t do to outright accuse anyone of such a plot.”

“So what’s the plan, Mother?”

“The plan, Daughter, is to train you. You’ve almost died three times since I took you in, and that’s three times more than I would like.”

Adelpha finished her speech, leaving out only Emily’s accusation that Belen had left the tavern in the middle of the night. The amazons were empowered by their desire to kill those who dared trifle with them.

They started marching west, with a tilt to the north. The top of the basin outside Lucifan was not nearly far enough from the vampire’s clutches, and so they could not rest long. However, Emily wouldn’t be looking for Drowin. There was an enemy in their ranks, someone with fury and a desire to kill. Emily had only just begun her life as an amazon, and already she felt moments away from death. In truth, the only time she’d felt safe was in the presence of Quartus.

But, for some reason, she liked that. One thing was for sure, being an amazon was much more exciting than being a farmer on the Great Plains. She would miss her family, of course. Her brothers who had been her best friends, her parents who had watched over her as she grew up, but for once in her life, she didn’t stare out ahead with a hunger for more. She didn’t look into her future and sigh in frustration. Emily was finally content.

She was finally going beyond the plains.

Epilogue

“On three, ready?”

“One, two, three!”

Sir Gavin Shaw and Sir Duncan Macalister heaved and lifted the dead man off the ship’s planks. His clothes gave a tug, having dried and caked in a pool of blood on the wooden floor overnight. Together with Gavin leading the way, the two knights carried him up to the upper deck and laid him out alongside the others from last night’s massacre. They stayed a moment to catch their breaths. It was a hot day, or at least it felt like that thanks to the work they were doing.

“Why don’t you have Matthew or Neil do this work?” Duncan asked. “We could be holding the mob back, and they could haul bodies. What’s the use of you being our squad leader if you and I do all the hard work?”

“You know why,” Gavin glared.

Duncan sighed, and the two of them descended into the bowels of the ship once more. There were only ten more bodies to carry out, but to Gavin, he saw ten more sins to atone for. Duncan tried to hide his apprehension at the next corpse they found, but Gavin knew the signs of his squeamish friend. Bodies and fighting were a necessity to him, not a form of glory or a ritual to be sought after.

“This is my fault, Duncan,” Gavin said as they stooped over the next body. “I doomed Okamoto and all his crew when I told the amazons where he was. It’s my responsibility to carry them out, each and every one.”

“And I, your ever loyal friend, am doomed to help. If you insist on being so noble, perhaps you should tell Sir Mark about your slip as well, hmm? If you feel so responsible.”

“That won’t help, and you know it,” Gavin shook his head. “Sir Mark would love for any chance to boot me from the knights. He hates my guts with a fire.”

“Flames you love to stoke,” Duncan muttered.

They heaved up the next one and carried him to the surface. Nearby on the docks, the rest of Gavin’s squad stood at attention blocking curious citizens from venturing onto the vessel turned tomb. Gavin took a moment to admire his men, both as a commander and as a brother.

Duncan elbowed him sharply and nodded toward the ship again, a measure of impatience furrowed in his brow. They sunk below deck once more.

“So, are you still in love with this farmer, then?” Duncan asked, his voice hinging on mockery.

“She didn’t have a hand in this, I swear it,” Gavin responded strongly. “You’ve seen her. She isn’t capable of something like this. It was those amazons that did it, I know it. I should never have said anything with them so close to hear it. I never would have thought they’d disobey the angels’ laws.”

“Amazons follow only their own laws,” Duncan said. “Also, can I just say, you are a hopeless romantic? You’ve seen this girl—what was her name?”

“Emily Stout.”

“Yes, her, you’ve seen her all of about three times, less than an hour each, and you’re convinced she’s the most wondrous girl you’ve ever met. It’s such a bold statement that I might believe you, if . . . you know . . . you hadn’t already said that about every girl you’ve met.”

Gavin didn’t deny Duncan’s words as they swept down on the next corpse. This body was younger than the other ones, a boy maybe fourteen at most. He was the youngest on the ship, and it made Gavin choke back his anger. He’d seen worse in Lucifan, of course, but none that had been delivered by his mouth.

He put it out of his mind by thinking about what Duncan had said. It was true, for the most part. Gavin was prone to falling for a pretty face and an innocent smile, and with his charm, women were prone to falling for him, too. Still, though, he could not deny what he felt in his heart. There had been something special about this one. Underneath her simple clothes and wide-eyed stare had been passion and determination. The way she’d struck that ogre, refusing to give up without a fight—that was something. Gavin closed his eyes and made a silent promise that he would not forget her for the first pretty tavern girl that flashed him a wicked smile.

“So what do we tell Sir Mark?” Duncan asked. “Nothing?”

“We tell him what we’ve found,” Gavin replied. “No arrows, no weapons, no bodies. Whoever came here last night killed everyone, took nothing, and left nothing. We tell him the truth.”

“The selective truth, you mean. The truth that doesn’t include you slipping Okamoto’s name to a bunch of vengeful warrior women? You know, Ichiro Katsu is going to be furious his man is dead. In Juatwa, this would be an act of war.”

“Most likely, but what can he do?” Gavin shrugged. “Lucifan is guarded by three colossi. The entire world would have to invade to do any damage, and still they’d lose. Honestly, Duncan, it’s the angels I fear the most. I could handle Mark’s scorn, but not what the angels would think of me. I’d climb down inside a bottle and never return.”

They finished lining up the bodies on the deck just as Sir Mark and his entourage came soaring in on their pegasi. They landed behind Gavin’s squad, armored, armed, and bearing insignia that denoted their rank and status. Their arrival brought more attention from the ever-busy docks, and Sir Mark dispatched his men to assist Gavin’s in holding back the crowd. Alone, Sir Mark ascended the ramp to Okamoto’s tomb.

Gavin and Duncan took a knee, bowing low before their superior.

“Sir Mark,” they said in unison.

“Rise,” Mark answered.

They did and stood so erect that it would bring the envy of a colossus. Sir Mark, meanwhile, walked the length of the ship, looking over each body and taking in the scene.

“What did you find?” he asked.

“Wounds and bodies, sir!” Gavin said. “Nothing was stolen or even damaged. No weapons of those who attacked were left, either.”

“Any idea who did it?”

“None, sir,” Gavin lied.

Duncan looked sidelong at him, but Gavin held a stoic gaze. Keep it together, old friend, Gavin thought. For mine and Emily’s sake.

“Hmm, these certainly aren’t ogre wounds,” Sir Mark muttered. “No one is torn in half, nor does anyone bear chewing marks. It couldn’t be minotaurs either. The structure itself would bear damage.”

Sir Mark kneeled next to one of the corpses, his metal armor clinking and grinding against itself. Gavin tensed and swallowed as Mark poked into one of the wound holes.

“Gunslinger bullets, perhaps,” Gavin suggested.

“Use your head, fool,” Mark snarled. “This many dead, we would have heard the booms echoing throughout the city. Either this entire place was assaulted by rapiers or these are arrow wounds.”

“The amazons use bows, Sir,” Duncan spoke up. “They are quiet skilled with them, too.”

Gavin’s jaw clenched, and he looked to his friend. Duncan looked back, his gaze steady with chin slightly raised.

Damn your honor, Gavin thought. Of course he would cave when the opportunity came. Duncan had a very high sense of right and wrong. He hadn’t been born a scoundrel like Gavin, forced to steal to avoid starving. He treasured honesty as much as duty. Gavin could have hated him for it in this moment if it wasn’t the exact thing he respected most about his friend.

Nearby, to Gavin’s distraction, Sir Mark had gone rather rigid. He tensed and froze in the sun’s warm light, only his eyes shifting from one corpse to the next. Gavin held his breath for a moment, until Mark stood and paced back to them.

“Not the amazons, no,” Sir Mark concluded. “That makes no sense. There’s no motive. Besides, they’re not in the city anymore. We’ll have to explore other avenues, ones above the station of your squad. Collect the ship’s belongings and items and store them for Ichiro Katsu, should he ever come to reclaim them. Make sure you mark Okamoto Karaoshi’s sword, as such items are very valuable to samurai and their family. I’m under the impression Okamoto has a younger brother who would want it. As for the dead, bury them and mark their graves. I’ll speak with the angels on sending some formal apology to the shogun for this tragedy. Dismissed.”

“Sir!” Gavin and Duncan shouted and saluted.

They stayed rigid until Sir Mark left the ship and mounted up. His entourage followed him, and they took to the skies a moment later.

Gavin and Duncan watched them go before turning to each other.

“Thanks,” Gavin sighed.

“You should have known better than to tell me.”

“One day, my friend,” Gavin threw an arm over Duncan’s shoulders, “you’re going to be faced with a decision to either do what is right or what is lawful. I hope that day you’ll make the better choice.”

Duncan snorted and shoved his friend off. Gavin laughed and pushed Duncan back. Then they turned to the bodies, and all humor drained from them.

I did this, Gavin reminded himself. I must atone.

Then he looked west, toward the Great Plains and sighed. He thought about the girl with short brown hair and a freckled face. Sharp eyes, an innocent smile, but a determined will. He knew he wouldn’t forget her so easily, and he hoped she wouldn’t forget him either.

World of Myth II

The Forest of Angor

Prologue

Emily Stout was dreaming again.

It was the same dream she’d been dreaming since they left Lucifan. One of the angels, Quartus, was causing the dream, and Emily knew this with a certainty she could neither describe nor doubt. The grey haired angel—the oldest brother of the five, the one who could not speak—was making her dream the same dream every night. In Lucifan, he’d saved her life, pulled at her thoughts, and guarded her from the vampire, Count Drowin. All Quartus had wanted in return was for her to find the traitor among the amazons, the one who sought a basilisk with poison so strong it could kill an immortal. In this regard, Emily had yet to succeed. So now, either as punishment or as a warning, he was replaying a dream in her mind. Night after night, without fail, she would die.

The dream opened on the Great Plains, the same plains where Emily had been born and raised. The endless, ceaseless, rolling hills that were covered in yellow grass and weeds stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions. Only the occasional withered tree dotted the landscape, making pockets of meager shade under the sun’s harsh rule. The golden grass constantly danced in the heat, though it had no choice because the wind never died. Sometimes the wind was strong, other times it was weak, but it never ever stopped. It was in the dancing grass that Emily hid.

The dream would start with a thunderbird’s screech off in the distance. That was the opening, the cue, the signal that greater things were being set in motion. Some of those things would be bad, others would be good, but none would be trivial. Above all else, the events that would unfold could never be undone. Only in her dream did she know what was coming.

The thunderbird would pass over Emily’s hiding spot, and she would rise up from the grass to reveal herself to the world. She was a full amazon in her dreams, not the amazon-in-training she was in reality. In Emily’s dreams, she was capable of shooting arrows as fast as a gunslinger could fire bullets, and with just as much accuracy. Also, Emily’s borrowed leather skirt and vest were covered in metal studs just like those of the other amazons she was traveling with. Only one thing remained unchanged: she still held the treantwood recurve bow that her mother had given her. Emily held that bow at the ready now and watched the herd approach.

The eighteen behemoths coming towards her were just as massive and as powerful as Emily would expect. They shook the ground with every step, walking on their four gargantuan legs and swinging their heads back and forth on their short necks. The weeds that weren’t crushed by their steps were flattened by their tails as they swished back and forth behind them. They were headed home, and they were in a hurry.

The thunderbird screeched again. It was stalking the behemoths, seeking to kill either one or all of them. If the thunderbird got the chance, it would clap its wings together and strike lightning down on all of them. Fortunately, it chose not to, instead flying overhead and waiting for the beasts to approach.

The behemoths appeared to be moving slowly, but each step was a great leap for a human. Within moments of seeing them, Emily was within bow range. Unfortunately, the thick, leathery hides of her targets were all but impenetrable, so she could only aim for one spot: the eyes. Those tiny targets, sunk deep into a behemoth’s head, were their only vulnerability, but Emily had no worry of missing her mark. The problem wasn’t in killing a behemoth, but in selecting the correct one. Emily didn’t want to kill just any of the beasts; she was after a particular one. It was a killer, a murderer, an evil behemoth that had betrayed its own kind.

The traitor.

It was the traitor who called the thunderbird. That behemoth wanted to kill its own kind and to kill Emily. That was why the thunderbird was waiting. It was waiting for the traitor’s cue to strike, and Emily could not let that happen.

The behemoths stepped closer, and the ground trembled under their massive weight. Their lumbering bodies, some as big as a barn, swayed ever so slightly in the ceaseless wind. Emily held steady even as the dirt shook under her feet. She could take any one of them down with a single arrow at any moment, but it was imperative that she only hit the guilty one. The others were innocent, kind, and harmless.

Emily looked up into the piercing blue sky and then back down again. She wished, as she did every night in her dream, that she could kill the thunderbird. However, it was too big, too strong, and too fast. Compared to Emily, the thunderbird was a majestically supreme creature.

No, only the traitor could be killed, unfortunately. Emily could only hope to strike before the thunderbird did.

Eighteen? Why are there only eighteen?

The ground shuddered now as the behemoths stepped closer. Time was running out. Emily shook the questions from her mind and cursed herself for spending these last precious moments so carelessly. She had spent too long waiting, and now the behemoths were close enough that the traitor could charge her. Emily had to fire first. She had to kill the traitor, save the rest of the herd, and save her own life in the process.

Then, suddenly, she saw it. One of the behemoths was watching Emily with hate-filled eyes. It wanted her dead; she could tell. Any moment it would charge, so she raised her bow, drew back the string, steadied the arrow, and judged the distance. She would only get one chance. Just before she released the string, she exhaled, and together her breath and the arrow sailed forward in the open air. Her breath dissolved around her, but the arrow sunk into the behemoth’s left eye.

The traitor bellowed in agony and twisted its head violently. It reared up high enough to blot out the sun and then collapsed to the ground.

Emily had done it. She’d saved them all.

And that’s when it happened. Every time, in every dream, on every night, it would happen. Just as the behemoth fell to the ground and Emily sighed in relief, the banshee would attack. Emily didn’t see it in her dream. She never saw it in her dream. All of a sudden, she would hear a banshee screech, wail, and cry out, and Emily’s blood would run cold. She’d turn her eyes from the behemoths, from the eighteen, now seventeen, behemoths and finally realize why one was missing.

The traitor hadn’t been a behemoth at all. She was a banshee, a decaying harbinger of death, and Emily was far too late to stop her. The banshee’s screams and wails would devolve into laughter, a cackling, coughing, shrieking laughter. It was the laugh of an insane mind that had outsmarted her, outlasted her, and wanted to kill her.

Then, the banshee would take her soul, grasping her spirit in a stranglehold, and drain her life away. It was slow, so painfully slow. The behemoths stopped to watch, tears dripping from their tiny, horror-filled eyes, and Emily knew they could do nothing to help her. They could only watch with great, wet cheeks as Emily faded. When she looked up, she saw the thunderbird smiling down on her. It would feast on them all now that Emily had failed. Slowly, her world would grow dim and dark, the thunderbird soaring over them would fade to black, and the last thing Emily would hear was the sound of the banshee cackling in madness.

Then she’d lurch awake in the middle of the night, gripping her neck and gasping for air. Sweat would pour from her face, and her skin would be cold to the touch. She’d look around with her head whirling in all directions, searching. Yet the banshee was never there. Every night she’d see the same thing: nineteen amazons lying around her, sleeping peacefully.

No. Not nineteen amazons. There were only eighteen.

One was the traitor.

Chapter 1

“Again!” Adelpha commanded.

The amazon princess threw the dirt clod through the air. Emily tracked it with her bow, judging the harmless projectile’s trajectory and velocity with the only split second she had. Emily released her arrow and hoped that, for once, she would hit it.

Emily had requested to have non-moving targets at first. She’d never shot a bow in her life until about a few months ago and was sure there was no way she’d hit anything if it wasn’t stationary. However, neither Adelpha nor Emily’s grandmother, Chara, would budge on amazon training methods.

“And what good will a bow do you if you can’t hit moving enemies?” Chara had asked. “Do you expect the next ogre who attacks you will just stand still and let you aim casually?”

Emily hadn’t answered, only sighed. She guessed her grandmother was right about that, but after months of traveling and practicing, she was really beginning to question Chara’s words. Emily had yet to hit a single target, and this arrow missed, as well, passing under the dirt clod to strike the ground somewhere in the distance. The arrow and the clod both disappeared into the tall, yellow grass of the Great Plains. Like it had with so many other things, the landscape seemed to swallow the two objects whole.

The group, all amazons, said nothing as they watched Emily miss her mark again. It had been funny the first few times, making everyone stop and laugh because Emily was truly an awkward sight to see. She had taken several seconds to pull out an arrow, several seconds more to nock it, and then even longer to pull into a position to shoot. When Adelpha had thrown that first dirt clod, Emily had missed by far enough to be considered blind. She’d bruised her arm in the process, too, the string slapping her forearm as she’d released her horribly aimed arrow.

The amazons had nearly laughed themselves to death, and Emily’s cheeks had burned red hot. It was from that moment on that she began to improve, and her mistakes quickly lost their humor. First, she began to release the arrow at the correct time. The arrow and dirt would fly together, though they never connected. Next, she stopped hitting her forearm with the string, which was something she was desperately proud of, and if she was not overwhelmed with relief, her arm certainly appreciated it. All the while, she was taking less and less time to fire another arrow and getting closer and closer to hitting her target.

Yet she still wasn’t close enough.

A miss, whether a close miss or a far miss, was still a miss. In a real fight, Emily’s efforts would be wasted if they were not flawless. That was why occasional laughter still arose from the amazons, although smiles were much more frequent. Adelpha, the amazon princess and Emily’s designated trainer, never smiled though. And neither did Chara, of course, though she offered words of encouragement.

Chara had been the one to recruit Emily from her home. Back then, Emily had been a lowly, sixteen-year-old, farmer’s daughter with an abundant appetite for the unknown. She’d grown up knowing a very simple life of growing crops, trading with gnomes, hiring minotaurs, avoiding banshees and thunderbirds, admiring gunslingers, and hunting behemoths. As extravagant as it sounded to a foreigner, that lifestyle had never satisfied her. She’d wanted to explore the beyond and especially to see the grand city of Lucifan, the city ruled by angels and knights and plagued by vampires and ogres. When she finally had seen the wondrous metropolis by the ocean, her thirst to explore was only deepened rather than slaked.

So, naturally, when Chara offered her the chance to become an amazon, Emily accepted. It wasn’t until she joined their ranks that she found that one of the amazons had developed a malevolent plan to kill Adelpha, capture a basilisk, and deliver it to a vampire named Count Drowin in Lucifan.

Emily could easily picture the vampire’s smile. It was cold, like the air around him, and beautiful despite the threat of its two sharp fangs. Just the thought of him made her skin form bumps, but it was his immortality that worried her most. Outside of the sun’s light, an angel’s eyes, or a basilisk’s poison, vampires had little to fear. They were timeless and healed quickly, and Count Drowin surely considered a little farmer who couldn’t properly shoot an arrow to be the least of his worries. In that regard, Emily hoped to prove him wrong.

She had plenty of time before she’d face him again, fortunately. Being that she and the other amazons were several months from Lucifan meant that there was nowhere for the vampire to hide from the harsh sun. He would not follow them, and at the same time, there was no need. Drowin had an ally amongst the amazon ranks, a traitorous partner who sat in comfort, ready to strike when the opportune moment arose. She was probably even enjoying the trip, whomever she was.

The trip was the amazons’ annual journey to Lucifan. They lived in the jungles of Themiscyra in the southwest, and to get back home, they had to traverse several locations. First, they had traveled northwest from Lucifan, reaching the very northern edge of the Great Plains where ceaseless, rolling hills met the sharp, granite rocks of the Khaz Mal Mountains. Once there, they had traveled west beneath the mountain range.

Logic would dictate that they travel due southwest across the Great Plains for the shortest distance, but this was impractical because the Great Plains had an infinite capacity for grass and hills with little to no water. On the Great Plains, families relied on wells. So, instead, the amazons went north first for one reason only; it was spring time, and the melting snow from the mountains provided plenty of water for the long journey.

When Emily had first sipped from a small stream that traveled down the cliffs, she had asked her grandmother what was in the Khaz Mal and what lay beyond them.

“Surely you’ve heard of dragons, Daughter?” Chara always referred to Emily as ‘daughter’, as was customary in amazon tradition. “No? Well, I’ve never actually seen one, but they are among the few creatures that live up in that area, along with dwarves and orcs. The mountains don’t provide much in the way of food, so only the rugged live up there. And beyond those steep rocks lies nothing but frozen wastelands, the home of the vikings, griffins, and who knows what else. I much prefer the warm jungle to be entirely honest.”

Emily had been satisfied with that answer, though Chara had brought up more unknowns than were solved. Besides, Emily’s primary curiosity lay to the west, not the north. Once the amazons had made the long trip across the Great Plains, they would reach the Forest of Angor. From there, they would then travel due south to get home, to the jungles of Themiscyra.

Emily had dreamed of Angor since she’d first learned of its existence from the stories of travelers. The landscape was a grove of trees that extended so deep you couldn’t see through it. She’d been told of the creatures that lived there: elves, centaurs, treants, bugbears, hippogriffs and so many more that she couldn’t even remember their names. It had all seemed so foreign to her, strange beyond all comprehension. However, that had only intrigued her more. Just yesterday, Emily had seen the first tent of green on the horizon, and her heart had skipped a beat.

The Forest of Angor! she’d thought. It was so . . . green. The forest was just a smudge of color far off in the distance, but it was so enticing. Emily had seen land of only two colors in her life: the yellow of the Great Plains and the grey of Lucifan and Khaz Mal. Now she was seeing a whole new color, and it was wondrous.

Among those trees were all the creatures she’d heard of and maybe even more that she hadn’t. Emily wished she could see them all, but the amazons were only interested in one of those creatures: the treants. A treant, according to Chara, was a tree shepherd. They were about four times the height of a human and looked like a human made into a tree. Their skin was bark, their arms were branches, and their legs were trunks. Emily had never seen such a creature, so she could not picture them. However, with the forest so close, she’d soon get her chance.

The reason the amazons wanted to find a treant was because their wood was special. It was light, strong, and did not rot. For this reason, it was perfect bow material, and there were plenty of expecting mothers that needed bows for unborn girls. Treantwood was also the only material in the world that was resistant to a basilisk’s poison. The traitor wanted treantwood for that very reason, and Emily was determined to stop her. Anyone caught not making a bow would expose themselves for whom they were, though Emily longed to catch the wench before that.

Of course, treants did not give up their wood willingly. Although the amazons only cut what they needed and never killed a treant, the tree shepherds were far from eager to give up parts of their body for use by others. Strong rope was needed to bring them down, and they fought back every time. If given the chance, they would kill those that tried to take from them. More than one careless amazon had been crushed by the strength of a treant that wasn’t ready to give up yet. Adelpha and her younger sister, Heliena, had described the gory details, and Emily had shuddered at the tale before vowing that she wouldn’t be the next such story.

And that was why it was so important for her to hit a flying clod of dirt.

“Again, Emily! And this time, try not to squint like a pixie,” Adelpha chided.

The amazon princess reached down and grabbed a handful of grass from the plains. She pulled hard and the roots of the grass pulled up a packed dirt ball that was perfect for throwing. Adelpha used her hunting knife to cut the grass off so only the dirt remained and tossed it up in the air a few times to test its weight. Once she was satisfied, she stretched back her arm to throw it. Like always, she didn’t bother to see if Emily was ready before throwing the dirt clod. It soared fast like every throw, allowing only one precious second for Emily to hit the target.

Emily was already in position. In one fluid motion, she drew and nocked a single arrow. She never drew more than one now, and she no longer had to look at her hands. The arrow had been placed, pulled back, and was ready to fire before the dirt had even left Adelpha’s hand. Once the clod was airborne, Emily tracked its course, estimated its speed, judged its path, aimed her arrow, drew back to the proper length, held her breath and released, hoping against all hope that she would hit her target.

The arrow missed, just barely passing under its target.

Emily sighed, expelling her air. Adelpha used her bigger lungs to sigh louder. Adelpha was a tall woman and a couple of years older than Emily. She was large, too, though not overweight. All amazons were warrior women and thus strong to the core. Instead, Adelpha was just a bit bigger than most others. She was taller and broader in the chest than some men, too, Emily’s brothers included. This did not impede the amazon princess, though, especially when it came to teaching Emily. Also, neither did their friendship.

After the events in Lucifan, and both to Emily’s surprise and relief, the two women had formed a sort of bond that Emily could only assume hinged on sisterhood. It was a friendship in which Adelpha gave no sympathy and allowed no slack, but gave unyielding devotion. Emily, who’d never had a sister or even another girl to call a friend, had responded in kind by returning that devotion.

Would that every amazon shared that feeling with Emily, she would be the happiest girl in the world.

“Just give up, farmer,” came a voice from behind them. “It’s not too late to run home. You know the way, yes?”

Following the voice was another person’s snide, cackling laughter that was just a bit overdone. Emily didn’t bother to turn around. She already knew whom the two were.

The one who spoke was named Belen. She was a lot of things to a lot of people, but most importantly, she was the queen’s best friend, the queen being Adelpha’s aunt, Stefani. Since Stefani was home in Themiscyra, though, Adelpha was the highest in rank, but Belen still held some sway. Amazon rule was not absolute like one would expect. Adelpha held more influence, but the others were allowed to argue with her—a privilege most often used. Belen’s close friendship with the queen granted her both power and influence, as well, and she did not hesitate to use either. This, combined with her confident aura, granted her many allies among the amazons.

The most annoying of those allies was Gaia, and she’d been the one to cackle. She was Belen’s shadow in every comment and stride, quick to laugh too hard and more than eager to offer boastful praise. She was younger than Belen, but still much older than Emily. As for her stature, only Adelpha was taller. However, Gaia made up for that in bulk and had no qualms about throwing her weight around. Wherever Belen wished to sit, Gaia was there to make room with an overzealous nudge.

Belen and Gaia had been quick to resent Emily from the very beginning. Emily did not understand it at first, but all had been revealed to her in short time. When Emily’s mother had run away with Emily’s father into the plains, Chara had taken in Adelpha’s mother, Hippolytha, as a pupil. Later on, Hippolytha was killed by a basilisk’s gaze, and Stefani would forever blame Chara for the death. Adelpha had not, though, and Chara took to training her while Stefani raised Hippolytha’s other daughter, Heliena. When this happened, Stefani’s hatred for Chara extended to Adelpha, and Belen’s friendship with Stefani ensured that Belen gave neither of them a chance either. So when Chara brought Emily into the group, Emily was instantly rewarded with a daily plateful of insults from Belen and her cronies.

Laugh all you want, thought Emily, you banshee.

“Throw another one, please,” Emily asked.

“Maybe if you tried throwing seeds at it, you’d have a better chance,” Belen called out.

“Yeah!” Gaia agreed. “Try some seeds!”

She cackled again and looked to Belen with a wide smile that sought praise.

“Throw, please,” Emily repeated to Adelpha and then cleared her mind.

Adelpha pulled up another clod and hurled it through the air, just as fast as she always did, and for that, Emily was thankful. Easy targets granted her no favors.

The dirt flew. Emily followed it and judged its speed, its distance, the angle, her own draw strength, and everything else she had done before. This time, though, before she released, she made one final change. She mimicked her dream and breathed out, expelling the air in her lungs in a steady, calming stream through relaxed lips as she released the arrow. Emily’s fingers held still, keeping the bow raised, and hoped that for once, just once, she could get this right.

Miraculously, the arrow struck its target.

The dirt clod was hammered in one side and snatched out of the air as if a thunderbird had swooped down and grabbed it. The off-center arrow and dirt spiraled violently out of control, whipping around at a blinding and whirling speed before they were lost in the tall grass and disappeared altogether.

For a moment, no one said anything. Even Emily blinked twice with her mouth wide open. It wasn’t until Adelpha’s younger sister, Heliena, spoke up that the silence broke.

“Good hit, Emily,” she said.

It was a meek comment, like all she made, which was so unlike Adelpha’s harsh, loud, and bold outbursts. Although Heliena was Adelpha’s younger sister, the two were opposites in almost every way. Adelpha was large, tall, and imposing. Heliena was shorter, like Emily, slim, and amazingly beautiful. Where Adelpha walked with her head held high and always spoke with a commanding voice, Heliena preferred to stand quietly in the back where she wouldn’t be noticed. The fact that’d she spoken up at all, let alone first, was a surprise all in itself. The only similarity really between the sisters was their straight, black hair.

“Thank you, Heliena,” Emily replied.

Emily stole a glance at Belen and saw the look of disdain on her face. The older woman had nothing to say now, only hateful eyes and a hint of hesitation.

Like I said, thought Emily. Laugh while you can. I’m watching you.

Belen was one of the women Emily suspected of being the traitor. The other, tragically, was Heliena.

“Alright, knock that smile off your face,” Adelpha said. “Let’s see you do that again.”

Emily missed it, but the fact remained. She’d made her first hit.

A few of the other amazons shouted some encouragement to Emily. She was still trying to learn all their names and was thankful that amazons didn’t take last names, which would have made the task much harder. Only Emily had kept her last name, Stout, as a token of appreciation to both her mother and father. The others didn’t like it but tolerated it just the same. Most of them already viewed her as a helpless outsider anyway, though a few—all of whom were Adelpha’s close friends—were taking steps to include her.

There was Iezabel. She was already a mother but had come back to Lucifan to have another child. She was cheerful, and her company had always been quite pleasant—not to mention she was the best shot with a bow. According to the others, she could nail a pixie’s wings together while blindfolded, though Iezabel claimed that had been pure luck. Emily had already learned much from her and hoped to learn far more in the future.

Hanna was another woman who had shown Emily kindness. She was older and ready to finish her childbearing years. After countless trips to Lucifan, this would be her last one, and she swore she’d never be pregnant again after this. She was too old now, she claimed, and as proof she even brought her eldest daughters, Kirke and Leda, twins who had been born the same year as Adelpha. When Emily had met the twins, she’d instantly liked them, and the feeling had been mutual. They were rough, curious, playful, and mischievous. They teased constantly and shared with Emily a bond of both age and like-mindedness. In a way, they reminded her of her brothers back home, and she was thankful for that. Emily missed her family.

She did not miss home, though, only the people that lived there. Home had been a prison without bars, because the Great Plains needed no bars to hold her family in impoverished captivity. Emily had despaired of ever escaping until Chara came to their home and offered Emily a key to her prison. Her only regret was that she had left behind her fellow inmates. She’d come back to them one day, no matter how far she traveled.

The amazons continued on to the forest, towards Angor, and Emily suspended thoughts of home. Up ahead was something Emily had dreamed of seeing since she was a little girl.

The Forest of Angor was just like it had been described to her: a grove of trees. However, the travelers had failed to mention the size of the trees. Emily was used to the tiny trees of the Great Plains, which were thin, short, and had smaller branches than leaves. Compared to the giants she saw now, those trees barely qualified as upright twigs. The trees of Angor were massive pillars that extended so far up they appeared to be supporting the clouds. They looked ancient, tall, proud, and almost intimidating. Not even the tower of the angels in Lucifan compared to some of these stocky timbers. They seemed to grow bigger and bigger as the amazons approached the forest, their sheer size leaving Emily awestruck.

She also noticed, as was promised, the forest was so thick that it blocked her view. Emily could not see far off into the distance like she could on the plains. A tree rose every couple of steps, judging by what she saw, and between them were all sorts of bushes and shrubs. The ground was covered in fallen debris, and the tall grass of the plains died away where the shade of the forest began, starved of sunlight by the tall trees and their fallen leaves. In a way, the forest kind of reminded her of Lucifan. The city also had tall, immovable objects that blocked both people’s view and the sunlight, killing the grass that ran rampant around it.

However, there was one astounding difference the stories failed to mention, and it hit Emily like the shockwave of a behemoth’s step. Angor was silent, dead silent. Lucifan had been filled with the sound of voices, carts, and tools at work. Even the Great Plains was never quiet. The sounds of wind blowing and grass rustling were ceaseless.

Not the forest, though. Here, the wind was blocked by all the trees, and there were no people. The forest was a cold, stoic soldier who never moved and never made a sound. In a way, it was eerie. Emily had never experienced silence, but as they approached Angor, the sounds she’d known all her life were leaving her ears. It unnerved her. It even set her teeth on edge. As the amazons made their first steps into the shadowy forest, Emily’s ears rang, and she realized for the first time what true silence really was.

She didn’t like it.

Chapter 2

To think I wanted this so bad, Emily huffed. She hadn’t expected to be struck with a measure of fear when first laying eyes on the forest, yet here she was clenching her teeth and trying not to tense. This place was eerie and decidedly uninviting. Still though, she was here, and her curiosity strongly outweighed any apprehension.

She craved the unknown, even the unpleasant kind.

“What do you think, Daughter?” Chara asked, walking up beside her and watching her expressions.

“It’s quiet, Mother,” she replied.

In amazon tradition, all girls who were born to either you or your daughters were also considered your daughters. Therefore, Chara called Emily her daughter and asked Emily to call her mother. It had been strange at first to call her grandmother so, but Emily was getting used to it rather quickly. Emily was even becoming fond of calling her long lost grandmother that. Emily loved her real mother, Mariam, and Mariam had never been cruel, but Chara was the mother that Emily had always wanted.

For one, Chara was much more patient than Emily’s actual mother and had a kindness that Emily was sure had skipped a generation. Chara also encouraged Emily’s quest for knowledge and fostered her desire to explore the unknown, daring Emily to dream big of the world all around her. The women even looked similar with their wavy hair, freckles, and thin frame that followed down to small feet. Chara’s hair had been brown once, too.

Emily enjoyed asking Chara piles of questions. There was so much Emily didn’t know and so much Chara did. Unlike Mariam, Chara answered each one to the best of her abilities.

“Don’t worry, Emily,” she said to her now. “You’ll get used to Angor. In time, you may even come to like it.”

“I hope you’re right,” Emily replied, doubtful.

Adelpha walked up at that moment and gave Emily a mighty slap on the back. It did the trick of snapping her out of her trance and had the added effect of throwing her forward a few steps.

“Are you ready to capture a treant?” Adelpha smiled.

“There’s only one way to find out,” Emily replied, catching herself before she fell.

Adelpha unsheathed her hunting knife and leapt at Emily, sweeping it fast from side to side. Emily rolled out of the way, quickly putting distance between herself and the amazon princess. The fight, although sudden, was not unexpected. Adelpha had been taking every moment of every day as a chance to teach Emily new skills to survive with frequent trips, more than one hard shove, and unannounced knife fighting. Emily had been mad at first, constantly tripping and falling about herself, and not to mention bearing one too many scratches from Adelpha’s hunting knife. Yet just as her bow skills gradually improved, so did her senses and hand-to-hand moves. Her balance was easier to maintain, she walked quietly, her eyes searched around every corner, and her ears were forever listening. Most of all, she was always ready for a fight.

Adelpha followed Emily’s roll with a swift kick, but Emily jumped back again, landed on her feet, and drew her knife. She held it up, ready to defend against Adelpha’s next attack. It came swiftly, another sideways slash that, if properly aimed and executed, would have slit Emily’s throat, but she deflected it.

Emily knew her opponent well. Adelpha was stronger, taller, and had a longer reach. Emily had found, though, that she was also slower. Emily couldn’t hope to blunt Adelpha’s attacks, only to avoid and deflect the blows that came too close. She would have to wait for her opportunity and take it without hesitation, but she never got the chance. As Emily took another step back, she tripped over a well-placed foot and fell flat on her back. Emily hit the ground, disappearing into the tall grass that had yet to die in Angor’s shadow. The air was knocked from her lungs, but she recovered quickly and popped back up to keep fighting. Adelpha was frowning though, looking past Emily to the one who had tripped her.

Emily turned, fully expecting to see Belen or Gaia standing there with a wide grin, but instead saw Heliena. Emily blinked in surprise.

“What was that for?” Adelpha asked.

Heliena didn’t answer at first. She shied and turned, her cheeks turning red.

“Sorry,” she replied. “I just wanted to help. You’re always training her, and I just—never mind. One must be watchful of their surroundings, is all. I’ll leave now. I’m sorry.”

Emily didn’t say anything as the Heliena left. She was having a difficult time understanding Heliena ever since they’d left Lucifan. At first, Heliena had been a strong ally of hers. The two were the youngest of the group, only sixteen years old, and Emily thought that would help them bond. In Lucifan, Heliena had given Emily clothes and helped her sneak out on the amazon raid. She’d even helped protect Emily from harm in the raid on the samurai, Okamoto Karaoshi. They’d thought to capture the samurai because he worked for the traitor’s husband and knew whom the traitor among them was. That effort had proven fruitless, however, as Okamoto had identified only one person as the traitor: Emily. Thankfully, only Heliena had heard, and she’d voiced that lie to no one.

The samurai was now dead, slain by Heliena’s own hand, though Emily had taken the blame for that mistake. She had done so willingly, because Heliena was already suspected of being the traitor by more than a few amazons. The only thing they’d learned from the Okamoto for certain was that he served a shogun, a king of sorts in the East named Ichiro Katsu. After that close affair, Heliena had grown quite distant and cold. Occasionally, she granted Emily light talk or even a compliment, but more and more often, she was taking on an antagonizing role despite it seeming unintentional.

Emily had no idea what she’d done to estrange Adelpha’s sister, but she was trying her best not to make the matter worse. Truth be told, at every slight she received, it made her suspect Heliena along with the others. It was times like that when Emily remembered what Quartus had warned her of: prejudice against those disliked.

Trust in proof, not in feelings, she reminded herself.

“Have I done something to offend your sister?” Emily asked Adelpha.

“If you have, I’ve done it, too,” Adelpha replied. “She’s always been a bit distant with everyone. Me, I understand. Like Belen, Heliena was raised by my aunt to hate Chara. Our relationship never stood a chance, especially considering how mean I was to her when we were younger.”

Emily straightened and looked sidelong at the princess. Adelpha, for once, looked down in embarrassment.

“I believe it,” Emily replied honestly. “You were mean to me when we first met.”

“Well, I was more of a bully to her,” Adelpha sighed, “and none of my kindness these days will make up for it.”

“It’s a fact we’re all aware of,” Chara said, voice just above a whisper. “We’ll talk later, though. Keep moving, girls.”

They entered Angor, and Emily noted the trees were getting bigger and bigger with every step, and the sun was slowly setting beyond them, casting long shadows that extended over and beyond the small hills of the Great Plains. Those hills were flattening out now, getting smaller and smaller, and Emily could see they disappeared altogether where the trees met in force. It was like the weight of the massive wooden giants was flattening the ground around them, and the shadows they cast turned the land into a cavern. The amazons crept into the shadows, and Emily felt the sun’s warm embrace release her to the enveloping silence. Emily did not feel welcome.

It was colder in the forest. Angor’s trees didn’t just block the wind, they blocked plenty of the light as well. The forest floor was a mess of fallen leaves, small bushes, and dead twigs and sticks. Every once in a while, Emily would see a fallen tree. They were either sprawled out on the floor, or had somehow leaned up or fallen between two others. Some trees were tiny, just barely starting out. Others were giants, wider than a behemoth’s foot and taller than a colossus. None of them made a sound. The only thing that could be heard now was the soft crunch of leaves and twigs being crushed under the amazons’ feet.

Emily shuddered.

“How far in are we going?” she asked Chara.

“We go in far enough to reach the first river. Then we follow it all the way south to Themiscyra. That is, of course, after we go deeper in to capture a treant.”

“And that’s in elf territory?”

“Unfortunately,” Chara sighed.

The elves hated the amazons. The elves were the first to figure out that treantwood made superior bows, and the amazons stole that information from them. Chara had described the story in great detail along their long walk across the Great Plains.

Long ago, the elves had been allies of the amazons. They had taught the amazons how to travel through the forest and even helped shelter them from the other creatures that dwelled there. Xenophobic to the core, the centaurs were a constant enemy that killed more than a few amazons with their eagerness to fight. The threat from the werewolves was also all too real. They were quiet enough during the day when they were human, even friendly enough to trade with, but on a full moon’s night, there was no way to control the bloodthirsty creature they turned into.

The amazons were warriors, but they traveled fast, light, and in too small a group to handle all the dangers of the forest. That was why they had started trading with the elves who lived deeper within Angor. The elves provided protection and assistance, but refused to share or trade their bows. It didn’t take long for the amazons to realize that the elven bows weren’t made from natural wood. Their bows were better, lighter, and could fire at a much greater distance. Yet, try as they may, the amazons could not persuade the elves to share their secret.

Most of the amazons decided to let it go, but a select few hatched a plan. They wanted those special bows for themselves and for the rest of the amazons and so stole one, but as they tried to sneak away with it, one of the elves caught them and roused the others. A scuffle ensued that ended in one dead amazon and one dead elf before enough sensible people intervened to stop the fight.

The queen amazon tried to patch things up, but the damage had been done. The elves had marked the amazons as another hated enemy. That trip, the amazons barely made it home alive. They were so deep into the forest that they had to fight off centaurs first and then werewolves, while being hunted by the vindictive elves.

The only reason amazons went deep into Angor now, deep enough to worry about elves, was for the treants. As luck would have it, this was going to be one of those trips.

“We’ll do what we always do,” Chara said now. “Get in and out fast, and just keep our eyes and ears open. If the elves find us, we’ll be leaving in a hurry. We can’t stand up to them with only twenty of us.”

“Don’t worry, Emily,” Belen called out, hearing Chara’s voice carry in Angor’s silence. “You’ll be fine. Elves don’t kill farmers.”

Gaia chuckled far too loudly. Emily ignored them.

“The way Belen acts,” Emily whispered to Adelpha, “you wouldn’t think she was my mother’s age.”

“There’s a reason my aunt gets along with her so well,” Adelpha replied. “Her immaturity and stubbornness make her easy for Stefani to control.”

“And annoying for others to tolerate?”

“Only if you aren’t seeking her favor,” Adelpha smiled.

The forest grew darker, yet light still shone through. It created a perplexing twist of dark shades pierced by rays of bright sunlight. Emily did not like it. On the Great Plains, there were only three shades of light: the darkness of night, the brightness of day, and the twilight between them as the sun set or rose. In the forest, the trees’ branches played games with the sun’s rays, darkening some areas and brightening others. In clearings where a tall tree had yet to grow, a circle of light would illuminate a large, hollow spot on the ground. The flashing light and dark that penetrated some areas and not others only added to Emily’s nervousness, and she thought, Is total silence not torture enough?

All her life she’d dreamed of the forest, but after being in it for a few minutes, she already wanted to leave.

Then, as if the forest sensed her suffering and felt guilty for it, she heard noise. It was faint at first but as constant and rhythmic as the wind that had put her to sleep at night as a baby. It was the sound of water running rapidly over rocks and around bends and twists. Emily felt a slight twitch of relief upon hearing the small river. It was music to her ears. The sounds grew louder as they approached the river, which was more like a large stream, and upon reaching it, the amazons knelt down to drink the frigid water. It was close to freezing, which wasn’t surprising considering how close they were to the mountains of Khaz Mal. The melted snow ran down the mountains, then west along the northern edge of the plains before traveling in smaller channels through the forest. From what Emily had been told, the water never warmed up very much. Compared to the warm water Emily had drank all her life, this was yet another discomfort that she would have to endure until they could reach the jungle.

That was assuming the traitor didn’t act against them first.

“Hey!” Kirke yelled.

Emily looked up to see Leda had splashed her twin sister with cold water from the stream. Leda laughed and then took a deep breath as Kirke lunged at her and plunged them both into the freezing water. They came up gasping but smiling. Hanna was already yelling at her two daughters and beckoning them to come out. Emily cracked a smile at the scene.

She leaned down now and sipped a handful of the water. It was so very cold that she had to pause after each small sip and sit back up on her heels. She closed her eyes and pressed a hand to her throat, returning warmth to the areas that had been infected with the water’s cold.

This is going to be a long trip, she thought. My mother was right.

“So what do you think of the forest?” a voice said from behind her.

Emily opened her eyes and turned to see Heliena standing behind her. She looked fragile, meek, and as beautiful as always. Her straight, black hair, no longer assaulted by the wind, hung down about her face in a perfect cascade. Her blue eyes gave away nothing. She looked neither friendly nor sarcastic, and Emily decided to offer up a smile.

Heliena returned it.

“It’s quiet, and kind of cold,” Emily spoke casually. “It’s not what I’m used to, that’s for sure. What do you think of it?”

“I hate it,” Heliena replied.

She looked down, as if embarrassed of her answer, and then up as Emily laughed.

“Honestly?” Emily shrugged. “I think I do, too.”

Heliena cracked a smile and chuckled, and Emily felt a bit of her suspicion slip away.

Emily was having a tough time staying impartial. All the amazons were. There was a traitor amongst them, one who had tried to kill one of their own, and that injury was deeply felt. The women tried their hardest not to accuse outright, but silent whispers were spoken every night amongst huddled groups. Old wounds were ripping open, festering with contempt and mistrust. Emily knew more than a few women thought herself the traitor—being the outsider she was—but it was Heliena who shouldered most of the whispers.

It was as the beautiful amazon had foretold.

When Emily first met Heliena, the amazon had warned she would be the focus of suspicion. It had been Adelpha who’d nearly been killed, and thus Heliena had been determined to find Okamoto and learn the truth before she was accused. Unfortunately, that avenue had ended dead and void of substance, and just as she’d predicted, the younger princess was given accusing glances. Perhaps that was why she turned from the others, and from Emily, since even Emily felt the urge to watch her closely.

Still, though, Quartus’ words rung in her mind. She must not let her emotions dictate guilt, and so she gave Heliena her warmest smile. Heliena returned it and then walked away. She returned to her place in the back of the group and carefully sharpened her knife. Emily watched her go, admiring her beauty.

Then a monstrous, inhuman roar shattered the silence and shook Emily to her bones.

Chapter 3

“Bugbear!” Kirke yelled.

There was another roar, loud and thunderous, and Emily looked to its source. A huge creature, larger than a minotaur, loomed in the distance. On two legs, it stood at least three times the height of a human. Its broad body was covered in short, brown fur, and its short snout was paired with tiny eyes. When it roared again, Emily saw a mouth full of short, jagged teeth.

It was massive. Not massive like a behemoth, but it still carried a thick coat of muscle and fat on every inch of its body. The bugbear could easily have knocked down a small tree by leaning against it. And for such size, the creature had surprisingly short legs and arms, which ended in big paws.

“Emily! Back!” Adelpha shouted.

Emily looked around and realized that the other amazons had already fled the stream and she was the only one left kneeling by the water. Quickly, she jumped up and started clambering up the shore, but it was too late. The bugbear snarled and bent to all fours, slamming its body down and crunching the leaves and twigs into dust. Its tiny eyes locked onto Emily, and it charged.

It moved so fast. The legs and arms Emily had thought too small had just instantly propelled the bugbear across the land. The impossible weight it carried barely affected its movements at all. One second it was standing tall, as tall as a behemoth, and the next it was charging through the woods. Each step launched it faster, and Emily’s heart leapt to her throat.

Of the creatures Emily had seen, only a behemoth, a minotaur, and a colossus were in any way similar to this bugbear in size. All of them had been slow, lumbering beasts that took huge steps and a couple of moments to ramp up any sort of speed. This bugbear shared none of their flaws. It was blindingly fast, so much so that Emily was stunned by the speed it achieved so quickly.

“Emily!” Chara yelled. “It’s coming for you!”

Fear and terror struck her core—a white, bone-gripping fear she had never felt before, not even years ago when she and her brother were hunted by a banshee. Her legs locked up, and she tripped over the scattered debris of the forest floor. She tried to crawl desperately with a body crippled by panic. Why can’t I move?

The bugbear barreled through the stream, spraying water in all directions, a juggernaut of destruction, a huge boulder that moved of its own accord. The beast snarled and bared its teeth as it closed the distance to Emily who was hopelessly trying to scrabble away. Its eyes, such tiny eyes, focused on the small girl it was going to crush under its massive weight.

“Shoot it!” Chara yelled.

Arrows from amazon bows flew through the air, each one striking its target. Most were aimed at the bugbear’s face, and the animal twisted its head to shield its eyes. Just as it came upon her, Emily’s back found a tree, and she knew that the bugbear would crush her against the solid wood. It wasn’t the bugbear that was going to kill her, she realized, it was her fear.

Then something pulled at her thoughts, an invisible hand in her mind, and she had no doubt who or what it was. The touch of Quartus was easily discerned. Emily gasped as fear was altogether plucked from her thoughts. Then courage flooded in its place, and she had control over her body once again.

I’m not going to die here, she thought.

Just before the bugbear would have crushed her, Emily pushed off the tree and dodged the barrel of destruction. The bugbear tumbled forward, missing Emily and ripping the tree she’d leaned against straight out of the ground. The beast roared as it tripped, crashing to the ground and sliding along the underbrush of the forest, crushing several shrubs and bushes in its path. All the while, arrows burrowed into it from short snout to massive body. The bugbear’s fur was slowly being covered in sharpened sticks.

This only angered it. Another arrow struck its shoulder, and it roared as it pushed itself back up and stood to full height again.

“Its neck!” Adelpha shouted. “The neck!”

The bugbear looked down at Emily and lifted a large paw to swipe her. There were claws on the end of the massive paw, but they weren’t what made her tense. After seeing the fallen trees, Emily knew there was more than enough force in the coming swing to kill almost any creature.

Arrows plunged into the bugbear’s neck. A thick mane of arrows formed under its chin in moments, and the bugbear lifted an arm to shield itself. With the other paw, it swung down at Emily.

She had already bent low, and when the paw came down, she leapt backward. Her timing was perfect—almost. The tip of the bugbear’s claw nicked Emily’s leather sandal, and the force sent her spinning across the ground. She hit the ground in a tumbled heap, sliding along the dead leaves until her head hit a tree. The blow dazed her, and she heard the bugbear roar again.

“Finish it!” Adelpha yelled.

Emily held up her hands to shield herself while her eyes tried to adjust from the blow. It was more of a gut reaction that anything else. Her hands alone could not save her, but she held them up all the same and heard the giant beast give one final roar.

A moment later, Emily heard and felt a thud against the ground. Clear vision came back to her, and she saw the bugbear slumped dead just a single pace from her fragile body. Its entire length was covered in arrows with thin trails of blood flowing from each one. However, the killing blow, the one Emily saw first, was the arrow shaft that went through the bugbear’s ear.

“Good shot, Iezabel!” Hanna said.

Emily clutched a hand to her chest and felt her heart pounding. It threatened to burst out of her, so she held it down with one hand while she buried her face in the other.

“Emily!” Chara called. “Are you okay?”

The old woman rushed over and knelt down. She lifted Emily’s face with gentle hands and brushed the leaves out of her hair.

“I don’t know,” Emily replied, voice as shaky as her hands. “Am I?”

She was still in shock. She looked at the corpse of the bugbear and shuddered at the sight of it. The forest had been so quiet, and yet they hadn’t heard or apparently even seen this huge creature coming towards them. What other horrors could it possibly hide?

And to think she’d been afraid of a little quiet and cold.

“You seem alright,” Chara summed up, scraping dirt from Emily’s cheeks. “You gave me a scare there, just standing still against that tree. I didn’t know you were waiting until the last moment to jump away. That was clever, but risky. Perhaps next time you should just start running from the start.”

“There’s going to be a next time?” she asked.

Chara didn’t answer. Instead, she helped Emily to her feet and brushed off more of the leaves and sticks that had found their way into Emily’s clothes and hair. Emily made a conscious effort to calm her shaking.

“Relax, Daughter,” Chara said. “It’s over now.”

Emily nodded and took a few deep breaths. She was surprised at how fear had locked her up. On the Great Plains, she’d hidden from banshees and run from thunderbirds. In Lucifan, she’d threatened a vampire and snuck onto a samurai’s ship. She’d even defended herself from four ogres who wanted to eat her. Through all those endeavors, she’d remained calm and kept her emotions in check, but this bugbear had unnerved her. Only a moment’s reflection revealed why.

The bugbear’s attack had been nothing like those events. Consumed by rage and a desire to kill, it had charged her without a moment’s pause under the ferocious assault of a hail of arrows. Even as it died to those arrows, it never stopped, and that’s what had frightened her. Not the nearness of death, but the seemingly unstoppable bloodlust of a deadly creature bent on her destruction.

She could not let that fear take hold of her again, and she hoped that with Quartus’ help it never would.

“Something’s not right about this,” Adelpha said, walking up to the creature and kicking it. “That bugbear shouldn’t have attacked so quickly. The edge of the forest, too? Why come this far?”

There was a murmur of agreement through the amazon ranks.

“Perhaps the smell of farmers brings out the worst in animals?” Belen suggested.

“Silence, you old hag!” Adelpha threatened. “This isn’t a time for your petty taunting.”

“How dare you!” Belen raised a fist, which didn’t look very menacing compared to Adelpha’s size. “You WILL mind your elders, you insolent little twit!”

“No!” Chara interrupted. “She’s right! How many arrows does everyone have left?”

Most of the amazons didn’t need to check their quivers. Having carried them all their life, most kept a constant mental count of their remaining ammunition. Emily didn’t have to check either. She hadn’t fired a single shot.

“We have,” Kirke said.

“Two,” Leda finished.

“Five,” Iezabel said.

The numbers continued to sound off, with only three amazons having more than ten arrows left: Emily, Belen, and Gaia. As the last one called out her number, they heard the sound of a horn to the near south. Every head turned in dread, except for Emily’s, which only looked in puzzlement.

“I knew it,” Adelpha said, shaking her head slightly. “That’s a centaur horn. They must have been hunting the bugbear. Draw!”

The amazons drew the last of their arrows and nocked them. The thunder of hooves came quickly, and the sound reminded Emily of unicorns running.

Through the twist of trees to the south, a group of ten centaurs burst into view.

They looked just as Emily expected: a unicorn body from the waist down, but a human body from the waist up. There were a few things no one had mentioned. For one, they all grew the hair on their head out very long. They also had pointy ears and big, bushy eyebrows, and none of them wore any clothing except a light, leather chest piece. They seemed so odd and interesting that Emily had trouble peeling her eyes away from them, until she saw what was in their hands. Each of them carried a sword at their side, a quiver on their back, and a bow in hand with an arrow ready to fire.

They halted when they saw the amazons. Their faces twisted in disgust, and they drew back their strings ready to release. The amazons took cover behind trees, and Emily followed a moment later.

“Humans!” one of the centaurs seethed, making no effort to conceal his distaste.

“We want no trouble, centaurs!” Adelpha called out. “You can have your bugbear, and we will be on our way.”

“Do I look a fool?” the centaur shouted. “You’d kill a bugbear and leave it to us untouched? What’s your plan? Did you poison the meat first, or do you plan to kill us as we strip its carcass? Drop your weapons, all of them!”

“Perhaps you are unable to count, but we have twice your number!” Adelpha countered. “Maybe you should take this offer. We have no desire to fight you!”

“Stupid human!” the centaur almost laughed. “We sounded our horn! The rest of our hunting party will be here shortly. None of you will see the next dawn!”

Emily heard Adelpha curse along with several of the other amazons.

“Is he speaking the truth?” Emily whispered to Chara who was hiding behind the same tree.

“Do you think they sent only ten centaurs to kill that beast?” Chara pointed to the dead bugbear. “They were probably just the forward party, scouting and driving the bugbear to a good killing zone. There’s likely at least another twenty centaurs on their way here, probably more.”

“Will they really attack us?” Emily asked.

“Centaurs have a deep hatred for all non-centaurs, Daughter,” Chara said this as if it were painfully obvious. “They are at constant war with everything in these woods.”

“Mother, is there anything in Angor that will not try to kill us?”

Chara paused for a moment.

“The hippogriffs and harpies tend to avoid us. Also, the kobolds won’t try to attack if we stick together.”

Emily sighed. This was definitely going to be a long trip.

“Alright, listen up,” Adelpha said to the amazons, trying to keep her voice low. “It looks like we’ll have to do a combative retreat deeper into the forest, west across the stream. If we go east back to the plains, they might catch us out in the open if they follow. Not to mention we’ll be cut off from water and from capturing a treant.”

There was no voice of disagreement. Not even Belen spoke up this time.

“Emily,” Adelpha continued. “You’re closest to them, so you and Chara will run first. Hanna and Iezabel will shoot first. When I say go, sprint back to us and then turn to fire.”

Emily licked her lips and nodded. She would not be paralyzed by fear this time or ever again if she could help it.

“Go!” Adelpha commanded.

Iezabel and Hanna peered out from behind trees and shot arrows at the centaurs. The centaurs leapt to the side, dodging each shot, although Iezabel’s drew blood from one. Emily and Chara dashed back, with Emily lending some small assistance to her grandmother. When they reached the rest of the group, they turned to release their own arrows while the others headed toward the stream.

Emily pulled her arrow, aimed at one of the centaurs who was nocking his own, and loosed her string. The centaur had seen her, though, and leapt to the side, letting the arrow pass by him harmlessly. Nimble, Emily thought. Then she was up and running again, two more arrows shooting past her.

The amazon combative retreat worked well. It worked out so that at least two amazons were always shooting and keeping the enemy pinned down. They took turns running and shooting and kept the enemy ducking and hiding. It was one of the many, many things she’d learned since leaving home.

The centaurs were quick foes, though. With four legs, they leapt to the side and none took a mortal blow. They were even able to fire their own arrows, though they were too far away for any shot to be accurate. Centaurs did not use treantwood for their bows, and thus they were at a disadvantage.

Emily reached the front of the group again and turned back to shoot. The centaurs were pursuing them now, trying to close the distance, but having to take cover while still beyond the range of their bows. Emily nocked her arrow and looked for a target. She saw it: two centaurs that had gotten just a tad too close to each other. She loosed her arrow at one, aiming just slightly to the side. That centaur leapt to the opposite side and crashed into his partner, sending them both to the ground with their legs kicking in the air.

“Well done, Daughter,” Chara said.

“I got that one,” Iezabel called out and shot an arrow at one of the centaurs that had fallen, striking it in the leg.

The centaur screamed in pain and desperately kicked a hoofed foot to try and dislodge the wooden shaft.

“That’ll slow them down,” Iezabel said with a smile.

The amazons took off at a run, crossing the stream without any casualties. The centaurs stopped to help their fallen comrade and chose to stay with the downed bugbear. They would not be chasing the amazons through the forest with a wounded ally. Emily stopped for a moment to watch them. The centaurs were gathered around the one who had been hit with Iezabel’s arrow and was now moaning in pain. They looked worried and fearful, but when they turned and noticed Emily, she saw their faces twist in anger. She turned away from them now and followed the rest of the amazons deeper into the silent forest.

Chara was panting when they finally stopped. She was in amazing physical condition for anyone her age, but as Chara was fond of saying, that was no replacement for youth.

They did an arrow check again. Some amazons were out, but a few had at least one or two left. Needless to say, that was far from enough in this dangerous territory. The first thing they needed to do was make more arrows, and fast. None were given rock or metal tips, but they were sharpened at the end. Harpy feathers were distributed for fletching and tied at the end with thin string. All of this was done on the move, a necessity in which Emily was already well practiced from her travels across the Great Plains.

“No metal or rock tips on these,” Emily said. “Will that affect the arrows much?”

“The lethality?” Chara replied. “Not by much. With enough speed and force, sharp wood is just as dangerous as sharp rock. Treantwood bows do most of the work. How is your knife?”

“Fine as always. I’ve sharpened it considerably.”

In Lucifan, the amazons had suffered three casualties, and Emily, who’d had no knife before then, had been granted one from the dead. She used it now to chip away wood until enough arrows were made to fill her quiver. There was enough wood lying about the forest for each amazon to sweep up a bundle of sticks to be carved over the next couple of days. It’d been the same out on the plains, only then, the few trees that the amazons did pass had been stripped bare so Emily could hone her fletching and archery skills. At first, she’d had to shoot the bad ones, which were terrible and frustrating. The shafts had been jagged and uneven, and therefore prone to vast inaccuracy. However, like all things, she’d learned through practice, and now she fashioned her own near-perfect arrow shafts like any other amazon.

They hiked to the next stream where they drank of the cold water. Emily swallowed it in small gulps and tried to warm her throat afterwards. Without the warm sunlight striking Emily’s skin, the water was only serving to make her colder in this strange, silent forest of immense, wooden columns. As if to add to her suffering, Adelpha led the amazons into the stream and instructed all of them to stop making arrows. Then, rather than exit the water immediately on the other side, they began walking south with the flow of the water. Now, in addition to Emily’s cold throat, her feet were chilled to the bone, too.

“Why are we walking through the water?” she asked Chara.

“It will help throw the centaurs off our trail if they follow us in the night. No tracks to follow, no scent left for their sensitive noses. We’ll get out some place ahead where they won’t be able to notice until first light.”

Emily nodded and, although she didn’t like the cold, accepted the reality of their situation.

“Are we certain they’ll follow us?”

“No, but one can never be too careful. Hopefully they will be too preoccupied with stripping the bugbear corpse and protecting it from the other inhabitants of Angor. Not to mention they’ll have to tend to their wounded.”

“Hopefully,” Emily repeated.

They got out next to a throng of bushes and made their way deeper into the forest. It had been late afternoon when they’d entered the forest, and so the light had not been good to start. Now, with the trees growing larger and thicker, the setting sun spelled darkness much sooner. As the last bits of light faded, the amazons found a suitable spot to make camp.

“No fires tonight,” Belen announced, saying it quickly before Adelpha could issue the same order.

Emily smiled at Belen’s unintentional announcement of insecurity. Adelpha had done well to lead the group out of danger, and Belen was obviously threatened by it. She was handing out orders now, trying to reassert the authority she felt she’d lost. Or, at least, that’s how it appeared to Emily.

This was of little concern to Emily, though. She’d never had much desire for authority over others, only for control over her own fate. Even when it came to the respect of others, Emily wished for recognition from only those she admired. The masses were fickle, and Emily would waste none of her time on them. She’d spent sixteen years secluded from them, and it would bother her none if that was extended for her entire life.

Emily stretched out on the rough ground and tried to set her mind at ease. Unfortunately, the silence that engulfed her was dreadfully unhelpful. There would be no wind to put her to sleep tonight. She glanced around to see the others settling in. As her eyes scanned the camp, they made brief contact with Belen’s, which quickly averted.

Watch me all you want, Emily thought. We’ll find out if you’re the one when we capture the treant.

Belen shared a joke with one of her friends—or followers, depending on one’s perspective—and they chuckled before lying down. Except for the watch, only Emily remained awake now, holding her weight up with her elbows. Indeed, she did not wish to fall asleep in this silent prison. She worried her dreams would intensify now that Angor had become a nightmare of its own. For comfort, like many times before, she asked Quartus to give her just one full night of rest before she closed her eyes and fell asleep.

Her dream opened with a thunderbird’s screech.

Chapter 4

The banshee choked her soul again, strangling her life away, and Emily snapped out of her visions. She bolted upright, gasping, sweating, and breathing hard.

“Damn you, Quartus,” she whispered through ragged breaths.

She clenched her teeth and shook her head. Why couldn’t she get it right in her dream? Was just one night of rest so much to ask? Apparently, it was.

Emily put her palm to her forehead and wiped away the beads of sweat that had formed. The night had brought a chill, which was foreign to her, and she wondered how she could sweat at all. She also noticed, all too suddenly, that the forest had somehow gotten even quieter. Angor was altogether not as grand as Emily thought it would be.

“Nightmares again?” Chara whispered.

“Oh, Mother, you’re awake?” Emily said with haste. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“Are you referring to this night or every night for the past few weeks?”

Emily blushed with embarrassment. Her red cheeks might have been hidden in the dark, but her silence was revealing enough. Chara reached out a hand and gave Emily a pat on the back. Compared to Mariam’s usual displays of affection, this was a vast statement, and Emily flushed warm at the touch.

“Come,” Chara said. “Let us walk.”

The two rose up from the sleeping bodies and put some distance between them and the camp. It was not enough to be in danger, but enough that their traveling voices would not wake others.

“I have a feeling you do not like the forest,” Chara said.

“Well then, you’d be right,” Emily tried to chuckle. “It’s so silent, and a bit cold. Not to mention all the enemies. We were attacked the moment we entered.”

“That was an unfortunate coincidence, but no harm came of it. Put it out of your mind. Honestly, this trip was already more perilous than all the others I’ve made in the past. This is the first time I’ve ever feared an enemy within our own ranks. I just wish we had more to go on.”

Emily sighed. This was a conversation she’d had with her grandmother more than once. Although their attempt to capture the samurai, Okamoto Karaoshi, had failed, the night had still ended with a few interesting points.

Firstly, Belen had vehemently opposed the raid in the first place, and it’d taken considerable effort—aided by Heliena—to get her to go along. Also, before the raid on Okamoto’s ship, Emily had seen Belen sneak out for a few hours only to return just before the attack. None had noticed her absence, and Gaia claimed the two of them had been together the whole time. The subsequent attack had not gone as planned, and although no direct treachery could be found, Emily suspected that Belen had snuck out to inform Okamoto about the raid.

Secondly, after the samurai had been killed, Count Drowin had tried to kill Adelpha and Emily. Before Quartus intervened and saved them, the vampire had said he’d seen his amazon ally on the docks. Belen had been one of the women on the docks, but then again so had Iezabel, and many others Emily trusted. At least half of the amazons had been there, and Chara was quick to note that Heliena had also been among that group.

Emily listened and tried to absorb it all. She would recollect those suspicions along with Quartus’ warning to be neutral with regards to her feelings. Mostly, though, Emily remembered how useless she’d been that night, watching helplessly as the amazons fought for their lives. She’d been hard at work ever since making herself a capable survivalist. She wanted to be a better shot than Iezabel and a better combatant than Adelpha or Heliena.

“So, how are we to catch this traitor, Mother?”

“To be entirely honest with you, Emily,” Chara hesitated before continuing. “You should know something first. It pains me to tell you, being as how you already have trouble sleeping at night, but the majority of the group is convinced you’re the very traitor we’re after.”

Emily’s throat tightened, but she wasn’t overcome with surprise. Her head hung in muted acceptance, and she slowly nodded her understanding.

“I know. I’m the outsider,” she said. “It’s difficult enough to make friends as it is. Why do they suspect me? Isn’t it obvious I’m innocent?”

I wish these amazons would lend an ear to Quartus’ warning, she huffed. They need it more than me.

“You look as suspicious as any, Daughter,” Chara said, frowning and running a hand through Emily’s hair. “More so, if you think about it. These women have grown up together, all of them, and they know each other as intimately as family. Think about it. None of us have heard of this traitor save for you. It also just so happened that you saw Okamoto’s face but not the traitor’s, making it seem more likely you made it up. The vampire was seen by Adelpha only, so was the angel. Worse yet, Okamoto died by your own hand! If you truly were making it all up, that’d be the best way to hide it. Also, keeping your last name didn’t help. Really, Daughter, the only thing going for you are those ogres that attacked us in the streets and the leprechaun the knights captured. Were it not for those, even I might question you.”

Emily took a deep breath and held it in. These were all things she’d thought of before, tragically, but she could do nothing about them. The past may hold lessons, but only the present can be changed to yield a desired future.

“Revealing the traitor is only half the battle,” Emily nodded. “We’ll need solid evidence to sway the others.”

“Hence why we must watch the treant,” Chara whispered. “The traitor will be forced to reveal herself, being as she’ll have to take enough treantwood to capture a basilisk. It will be more than needed for a bow.”

“What can I do?”

Chara glanced over her shoulder, back towards the sleeping group, and then leaned in to whisper in Emily’s ears.

“I want you to watch Heliena.”

“And why me?” Emily whispered back.

“Listen, you know I share your suspicions about Belen,” Chara replied. “However, it won’t do if you’re the one watching her. If you go through her pack and find something, the others will think you put it there. Instead, I want you to stay close to Heliena and watch her. For some strange, unknown reason, the girl seems to have taken a liking to you. Use it.”

Emily’s stomach churned a tad at what Chara was implying. She didn’t like the notion of getting close to Heliena just to watch her for signs of betrayal. It seemed a betrayal in and of itself. Still, necessity dictated.

“I can do that,” Emily sighed. “First, though, can you tell me why Heliena is so distant with everyone else?”

“Heliena has never been very fond of anyone, least of all with those close to me. Like her aunt, our dear Queen Stefani, she holds me responsible for her mother’s death. Although she never got the chance to meet her, Heliena worships the memory of her mother like an angel. You’ve seen the old pack she carries and protects?”

Emily nodded.

“Anyway, she’s always been a strange one—not that you or I are much different—but the hatred I’ve earned is unjust. By the way some treat me, you would think I placed the basilisk in Hippolytha’s path on purpose.”

“I don’t know how anyone could capture one of those things,” Emily said, changing the subject.

Capturing a basilisk was no easy feat. As far as Emily had been told, no one had ever done it before or dared try. Basilisks were small, no longer than one’s arm, and slithered on their bellies because they had no legs or arms. A basilisk could kill someone just by making eye contact with them, and they had a deadly, poisonous venom in their bite that was strong enough to kill an immortal.

That poison was sought by Count Drowin, though she hoped never to know for what purpose.

“I’m not sure either,” Chara said. “I do wonder what this traitor’s plans are, if she were to succeed.”

“Back to Lucifan,” Emily smiled, seeing her grandmother had been thinking along similar lines, “to give the vampire his basilisk and then join her husband.”

“You’re certain she’s married?” Chara asked after a pause.

Emily thought back to that day and nodded in the affirmative. Amazons were forbidden to marry, just as they never took last names. The only two women Emily knew to have broken that oath were her own mother and the traitor.

“Then,” Chara continued, “she will attempt to reunite with her husband, whomever that may be.”

“I think I know whom it is,” Emily said after making a quick connection. “It’s obvious, really. Do you remember whom Okamoto Karaoshi served?”

“It is vague, Daughter.”

“He told me he served the shogun, Ichiro Katsu,” Emily said. “That night I was accidentally captured, the traitor had commanded Okamoto to kill me. He almost did it, but decided not to when Count Drowin threatened to kill him in return.”

“That samurai made a wise decision.”

“Yes,” Emily agreed, “but afterwards, the traitor was very upset and said her husband would hear of the insubordination.”

“So, you think Ichiro Katsu is the traitor’s husband?”

Emily nodded. Chara mulled it over in her mind and nodded slowly to herself.

“And since Katsu was not in Lucifan this trip,” Chara pieced together. “Our traitor is someone who has been to Lucifan before.”

Chara looked over at the sleeping group and then back to Emily.

“Unfortunately, that only rules out you, Daughter,” Chara sighed.

Emily exhaled in frustration. Chara smiled and put a hand on Emily’s shoulder. Emily tried to return the smile and placed her own hand on Chara’s. They stayed like that for a few seconds until Chara broke the silence.

“Don’t worry, Emily. We’ll get her. Now let’s go back and try to get some sleep.”

Emily nodded, and they rejoined the group. They laid their heads down and let their tired bodies take them away.

In Emily’s mind, the thunderbird screeched again.

 

  • * *

 

The morning brought hurried activity. The centaurs had either decided not to follow the amazons or the stream-walk had done its job of delaying them. No matter the correct assumption, the amazons had a much more important task at hand.

Today, they would begin their hunt for a treant.

Emily supposed it began like any hunt for a large creature, but the only thing she’d ever done was scout for behemoths, and that was one time not too long ago. So she watched, instead, and tried not to get in the way.

They started by checking their supplies, which were few: rope, arrows, and bows. Next, they checked the ground for footprints and moved objects. However, considering their prey was a large, living, breathing tree, there were a few alterations to the hunt that Adelpha now described to Emily.

The first was that the only droppings a treant left were leaves. The leaves could be any shape or form, depending on the treant, so one had to keep an eye out for not only the leaves, but also whether or not they matched any nearby trees. Once they found a few leaves that did not match any of the nearby trees, they would know a treant had been through the area. Judging by the decay of the fallen leaves, they could gauge how long ago.

The next change to their hunt was that they were not looking for damaged trees, but rather for healthy and vibrant trees. Treants had not earned the nickname ‘tree shepherds’ for nothing. They were constantly tending to the forest like it was their own personal garden.

“You see this one’s bark?” Adelpha pointed out. “It doesn’t show as many signs of weathering as the ones we slept by. A treant has been by here.”

Emily was hopeful and kept her eyes searching forward. She peeped over every hill and around every tree, expecting to see one far off in the distance.

However, the forest was not like the Great Plains. This forest could hide anything from view, and so their hunt had only just begun even after the signs of a passing treant became more and more common. Emily was having difficulty reining in her anticipation and was reminded of the feeling she’d had when scouting for behemoths. Just like on that trip with her father, Emily’s excitement started out high but diminished as the day drew on. The amazons traveled, Emily thought, in all directions: north, south, east, and west. None of it seemed to matter to the treant they were tracking. Their target was wandering through the forest on an aimless path.

The only thing that did make sense was their method of tracking. The prints in the forest floor were getting fresher, the different leaves were becoming more frequent, and each tree along the amazons’ path looked healthier than the last.

As the day drew on, so did they also draw nearer to their prey.

The amazons’ movements grew more silent as they stalked deeper into Angor. Emily started wondering what they would do when they caught the treant, or even what it would look like. Were treants capable of human speech? Did they think like humans? Considering how they tended to the trees of Angor so well, surely they must be thinking creatures capable of lengthy planning.

And what of their hair? The branches used to make amazon bows were taken from the top of a treant’s head. Chara had told Emily it was like giving them a haircut and didn’t hurt at all. If that was so, then why were the treants so adamant about keeping their wood safe? Emily thought about asking Chara this and then remembered her instructions to get closer to Heliena.

No time like the present, she thought and slowed her pace to fall to the back of the group. To her surprise, Heliena did not acknowledge her immediately, so Emily spoke up.

“Hello, Heliena.”

“Emily.”

“I wanted to ask you something about the treants. How do we know they feel no pain when we take their branches?”

Heliena seemed disinterested at the moment, so Emily thought perhaps she’d appreciate a straightforward approach. After mulling over the question, Adelpha’s little sister decided to indulge Emily’s interests.

“You’ll see,” she said and nodded confidently. “They don’t struggle and don’t move at all when we break the branches. Really, I don’t think they can even feel at all. However, while you’re here. . .”

Heliena closed the gap between them and lowered her head.

“Are you going to watch Belen?” she whispered.

Emily had told Heliena about Belen’s disappearance in Lucifan. As a consequence, she shared Emily’s distrust of the older woman. Emily, in turn, grimaced. She was not fond of lying, and for reasons she couldn’t completely explain, decided to be honest right then and there.

“Actually,” she sighed, “I’m to watch you.”

Emily held her breath, expecting Heliena to scowl or balk, but was surprised when she did neither. Instead, she only frowned, and then nodded slowly.

“I think that’s for the best,” she said.

“You do?” Emily raised an eyebrow.

“The more eyes on me the better,” Heliena nodded. “Everyone already thinks I’m the traitor—well, that’s either you or me—so it’s only fitting we work together, I suppose. I’m surprised we haven’t been hung yet, just out of example, knowing some of these women.”

“You know, it’s talk like that that makes everyone question you.”

Heliena frowned and looked regretful. Emily tried to move past the comment.

“I’m assuming Adelpha and Chara will watch Belen,” Emily said. “I think it’ll be our duty to stay out of the way. Don’t take treantwood you don’t need for a bow. Are you even making one? Are you pregnant?”

“No,” Heliena touched her stomach as if to ward away the idea. “This is only the second time I’ve been to Lucifan, but I still don’t feel ready for something like that. I do want to make a bow, though—one of my own. I worry that taking some will rouse more suspicion in others.”

Heliena looked to Emily, a pleading expression written plainly upon her gorgeous face. Her stunning, blue eyes threatened to suck Emily in, daring her to steal glances and admire her features. Emily had been called attractive before, most recently from a pirate named Captain Mosley, and even the charming knight, Sir Gavin Shaw, had favored her with a long stare more than once. Emily had enjoyed those extended glances and hoped that she would get to enjoy them again.

However, Heliena’s beauty was of a whole different nature. Hers was an enticing, drawing aura that made people look twice, three times, and then back once more. It was the type of beauty that made one forget to blink. Thankfully though, as envious as Emily was of that beauty, it did not sway her in this moment. She held up her hands and shrugged before shaking her head.

“I already did you a favor,” Emily said. “I told everyone it was me who killed Okamoto, and look what that got me? If you want to make a bow, that’s a risk you’re going to have to take.”

Heliena’s expression changed in a flash. Her pouting face burned off to anger, and she snarled at Emily, making the latter balk.

“Fine, go then,” Heliena nodded ahead. “You don’t want to help me; you just want to watch me? Watch me from up there then, gremlin. I’m done with this.”

“Heliena!” Emily said. “That’s not what I meant. I meant no offense. I was just saying—”

“I said we’re done here.”

Heliena crossed her arms and looked away. Emily stuttered over her next words before swallowing and looking ahead. None of the amazons had been close enough to hear their whispering voices, but a few had turned back when the conversation turned loud at the end. Emily’s cheeks grew warm, and she sighed.

“Okay, then,” she said. “If that is your wish. I’m sorry.”

Heliena scoffed, and Emily sighed one last time before quickening her pace to catch up with Chara.

The old woman was enjoying the slower pace the amazons had assumed. Traveling fast made it difficult to keep quiet, and the treants were apparently very good listeners.

“I tried to talk to Heliena—”

“Sssh,” Chara cut her off. “We’re getting close.”

Emily fell silent and her gut hardened. She did her best to walk carefully among the dead leaves and branches covering the ground, though in the encompassing silence of Angor, Emily struggled to make no sound. They stalked forward up a steep hill, using the roots and small holes in the dirt for traction. At the crest, Adelpha held out her hand and signaled for the others to stop.

They halted.

Adelpha peered over the edge and then ducked back down quickly. She turned back to the others, and they met her gaze. The princess smiled and pulled out a line of rope. She then withdrew a specially made arrow with a hole at the end and looped the rope through the hole. The other amazons who had rope, about ten of them, did the same.

Once everyone was finished, Adelpha raised her bow and pointed it over the hillcrest. She drew back the string and held it taut.

“Charge!” she yelled as the amazons sprinted up the rest of the hill.

Chapter 5

The amazons sprinted up over the hill and Emily looked for the treant.

At first, she did not see it. The only thing she saw was a bunch of scattered trees no different from what she’d seen throughout all of Angor. Then, one of the trees moved, slowly, yet far faster than any tree should. It was then that Emily noticed it: a large tree with a head, two arms and two legs. Although it was at least four times her own height, the treant was human in so many ways. Its arms and legs ended in hands and feet with five digits each. Its arms bent at the elbows, its legs bent at the knees, and its head swiveled on a neck. Besides the fact that every part of its body was wooden and adorned with thick branches and leaves, Emily could have easily mistaken it for a really tall human. The treant even had a face, complete with a nose and a pair of eyes.

It was those eyes that made Emily pause mid stride. They were round, glossy, green and so entirely human that Emily was caught completely by surprise. In every way, the treant’s eyes looked just as fragile and normal as her own, only four times bigger. Emily found it difficult not to peer into them and had to blink several times to break the trance.

The amazons charged down the hill and began to encircle the creature. It backed away in circles, trying not to be surrounded, but it was too slow. The dirt below quaked with each massive step, and the treant’s entire body made the sound of wood creaking and bending, while the leaves covering its head rustled.

Rather than unnerve Emily, the treant’s size actually soothed her. Like almost all gigantic creatures Emily had met (except the bugbear), this treant moved slowly. Although it might be capable of a burst of speed, she doubted it would charge her constantly with a relentless intent to kill.

The amazons had finished circling the treant now. The women with rope held their bows at the ready, waiting for the command to shoot. The silence in the air made Emily’s every breath heavy with anticipation.

Then, the treant did something that Emily was entirely unprepared for; it spoke.

“Back,” it said in a slow manner, like a minotaur.

Emily jumped a bit. No one told her treants could speak.

“I mean you . . . no harm,” it said, holding its arms out defensively.

“Neither do we,” Adelpha replied. “Release!”

Arrows with ropes tied to their ends were released through the air. They crossed all around the treant, none striking it. The arrows instead went past the giant creature and buried into nearby trees.

That’s when the others, those without rope like Emily, went into action.

Emily leapt to the nearest arrow and yanked it out of the tree. She took hold of the rope and gripped it tightly in both hands. Emily looked to see whose arrow she’d caught and, in disgust, saw that it was Belen holding the other end. The older amazon looked at Emily and twisted her own face in disdain. However, neither of them let go. This wasn’t a time for emotion. This was a time to run.

They ran in opposite directions around the treant, ducking and hopping over lines of rope in their paths. The other amazons paired up, too, and began running around the treant, twisting their ropes about its legs.

“Leave,” the treant breathed with a thundering voice, “me.”

It swung down with both hands, sweeping with an open palm across the land. Amazons dived and dodged, and the treant hit nothing but air.

“Faster!” Belen shouted.

They ran faster, and the ropes wound tighter, restricting the treant’s movement. Soon the ropes would be drawn together, and the treant would topple to the ground where its arms could be secured. All the while, Emily’s heart was pounding. She looked up at the towering tree shepherd as the tightening rope brought her closer to it.

It’s going to fall, she thought.

Just then, a rope caught her across the stomach. The tight line swept her off her feet, and she crashed to the ground. As Emily hit the dirt, her hand fell open and the rope left it.

“You idiot!” Belen screamed.

“Emily!” Chara yelled. “Get your rope back!”

Emily jumped up, her cheeks burning with shame and her mind alight with fear. She looked desperately for the rope she’d dropped and saw it trailing across the ground in front of her. The treant, too, saw that Emily was not moving, and it raised a mighty fist to crush her into the ground. Emily jumped for the rope as the treant brought down a clenched jumble of solid wood. Her hand outstretched, she caught the end of the rope just barely and then watched the earth quake under her as the treant struck the ground behind her. The sticks, leaves, and other debris of the forest bounced into the air briefly before falling to rest again.

Emily hit the ground and then leapt to her feet. Before the treant could sweep his hand over her, she was running again. This time, she made sure to keep her eyes looking forward.

“It’s coming down!” Hanna yelled.

The treant’s legs came together, and the next step it tried to take was halted by the twisting lines. It hung in the air, attempting to balance on two feet that had been bound together, but its attempts were ultimately futile.

The tree shepherd seemed, to Emily, to take forever to fall. The treant bent in the air, trying to displace its weight back to the center, but, instead, its efforts only delayed the effects of gravity. The tall creature fell forward with its arms reaching out to soften the crash, but there was too much weight to hold. The treant hit the ground with a thud so loud that Emily was sure the entire forest heard it.

The amazons were quick to pull some of their ropes up from the legs and scatter them up and down the length of the creature. One or two ropes never would have held the treant, but more ropes were pulled out and wrapped around it before the treant’s slow movements could bring it up. With speed that spoke of endless practice, the treant was secured so tightly it couldn’t even roll.

The treant somehow seemed even bigger on the ground, Emily thought. Even with it lying on its back, one could barely see over it to the other side. Emily had to climb on top of the treant in order to cross it and secure her end of the rope about the creature’s waist. She was hesitant to do so at first until she saw others doing it.

“Let me . . . go,” the treant commanded.

The amazons ignored him and tightened their knots.

“I did not know they could talk,” Emily said to her grandmother.

Chara only nodded. She was breathing heavily and, with Emily’s help, went to lean against a tree once she was finished.

“Are you alright, Mother?”

“I’ll be fine,” Chara said as she sat down at the base of the tree. “Running I can do, but all the ducking and dodging has me quite worn. I’m just getting too old for this kind of thing.”

“Emily!” Adelpha called.

“You’ll be okay, Mother?” Emily asked Chara.

“I’ll be fine,” she said, nodding and giving a faint smile. “Go.”

Emily ran over to Adelpha, hopping back over the fallen treant as she did so.

“We’re going to start cutting the branches,” Adelpha said, then lowered her voice for the next part. “Watch the others, especially my aunt’s puppet.”

“Chara told me to watch Heliena rather than Belen,” Emily whispered back. “You’ll have to watch the others, or find someone else. Apparently there are too many distrusting eyes on me already.”

“I’m to watch Belen, and you’re to watch my sister?” Adelpha sounded shocked. “Well, fine then. Go see what she’s up to.”

Emily nodded and sprinted around the treant. As she headed up towards its head, she was caught for a second by its eyes. It wasn’t their striking human resemblance that caught Emily’s attention this time. It was the fact that they were focused on her. The tree shepherd was watching her, and its eyes looked so very sad.

“Please,” the treant said to her. “Release me.”

Emily paused for a second, unsure of her position. Should she reply to it? None of the others did. They all ignored the treant’s calls, so why shouldn’t she? However, it looked so sad. Why was it so pained by this? Adelpha swore that the treant would come to no harm, but surely there must be something they were doing wrong. Did the elves cause this much pain to treants, too?

“Emily!” Heliena called.

The treant maintained its gaze, and Emily had to blink a few times to break the trance.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered to the creature and then sprinted off.

Heliena was at the treant’s head and had her hand on one of the branches protruding out like hair.

“Have you forgotten we are suspects?” Heliena chided. “How can I prove innocent if you’re not watching me? Now here! This one! This is the one!”

Her excitement was genuine—and strange. Adelpha’s younger sister had been nothing but a melancholy participant in their journey, until now, so her sudden enthusiasm made Emily feel further out of place. She was still trying to shake the shame she felt for leaving the treant to suffer.

“I’ve found it,” Heliena smiled.

“The branch for your bow?” Emily asked.

Heliena withdrew her knife and started to cut the branch off. Emily quickly looked to the treant, waiting to see it twist in pain or moan out loud, but it remained quiet and still. It didn’t even seem to notice when Heliena snapped off the branch. The sound made Emily wince and reminded her of breaking bones, but the treant remained motionless.

“That doesn’t hurt the treant?” she asked.

“What?” Heliena looked at Emily as if she were daft. “Of course it doesn’t. Take your own if you like.”

Emily looked back at the treant and, although Heliena seemed to be correct, did not test the theory.

“What now?” Emily asked. “We watch the others?”

Heliena’s eyes flew up. “Who’s watching Belen?”

“No one, far as I know,” Emily sighed.

“Damn!” Heliena said. “I’ll go watch her now. Don’t worry, I’ll stay in sight.”

Heliena took off, taking her branch with her. Emily sighed and hoped they hadn’t just missed their chance to catch the traitor. They weren’t going to get another shot until it was too late.

Emily took her post at the treant’s head and watched the amazons come forward to cut pieces of the treant’s branches off. Emily winced and checked the treant each time, but still it did nothing. She wanted to walk back and see if its face twitched, but she didn’t want the treant to look at her again. She felt like she had let the creature down enough already.

Altogether, fifteen branches were cut off, one for each of the expectant mothers in the group, plus Heliena’s. Each had the bend needed to make the recurved shape of an amazon bow. All that needed to be done now was for the wood to be shaved and carved to the approximate dimensions. No wood was cut for arrows though. The amazons did not use treantwood to make expendable ammunition. They had more respect, and sense, than that.

“Are we going to let it go now?” Emily asked Adelpha.

“Of course not,” Adelpha scoffed. “That thing would kill us all. We’ll leave it tied down until the morning, and we’ll only cut enough restraints to allow it to struggle free. We’ll need a head start on it. It might run to inform the elves we’re here.”

Adelpha turned back to watching the other amazons.

“Adelpha?” Emily asked again.

“What?”

“Why doesn’t anyone speak with the treant?”

Adelpha paused before answering. Apparently, Emily had asked a difficult question.

“Do thieves speak with the people they rob?” Adelpha replied.

“I guess they wouldn’t,” Emily replied and looked back at the treant.

Emily was still standing outside its gaze because she had been avoiding it carefully. However, her mood was changing, and the earlier guilt she’d felt was inching her closer to action. She sighed and walked over to the treant’s searching eye.

It sighted her immediately and focused on her. Emily tried to shrink under its gaze, but that was a difficult task due to the treant’s massive eye, so human despite a bark covered lid and a bushy, leafy brow. The sadness shining through the large circle was apparent as well. Emily was beginning to feel worse.

“Why won’t . . . you release me?” it asked.

“We don’t want to hurt you,” Emily said. “They—we won’t release you because you’ll only hurt us.”

“I must . . . stop you,” the treant said. “You will . . . hurt others.”

“We’ll what?”

Emily was surprised by that. In fact, she didn’t entirely know what the treant meant. She was just about to ask it again when she was interrupted by shouting.

“You stupid girl! Look what you’ve done!”

“I knew it!”

Emily dropped her question for the treant and ran around it to the other side.

“Let go of me!” Belen yelled.

The woman was being held by two amazons while Heliena hoisted up a handful of wooden sticks.

“She was going to make a cage,” Heliena explained. “A cage for the basilisk.”

“That’s ridiculous!” Belen yelled and jerked an arm free from one of her captors.

“Then what were you going to do with them?” Chara asked, still sitting under a nearby tree. “You certainly weren’t going to make a bow out of that, were you?”

“Someone put that in my pack!” Belen yelled. “Those aren’t mine!”

“Oh, my apologies,” Heliena said, putting a hand to her chest. “I didn’t realize. They just happened to fall out of your pack then? Someone else’s I suppose?”

“You bumped into me and spilled my pack!” Belen’s teeth were clenched in a fit of rage. “Those are planted! I’m not the traitor, you pathetic piece of manticore waste! Someone put them there. Her! She did it!”

Belen pointed an accusing finger at Emily, and the rest of the amazons turned accusing eyes toward the little farmer girl in their ranks. Emily involuntarily shrunk from the gaze, seeing in a heartbeat that a good half of the amazons believed Belen’s words without question.

“It’s not me!” Emily shouted back. “I’ve been watched this whole time!”

“It’s true,” one of them shouted, Emily missed who in the crowd. “I’ve had my eye on her since we came over the hill.”

“She did it before then,” Belen seethed, stepping forward. “She planted them on the Great Plains.”

“And how could I do that?” Emily countered. “I’ve never even seen a treant. Where did I find the wood to plant this evidence? I came to you all empty handed.”

Belen choked on her own fury, and many of the amazons startled at the truth of Emily’s words. They turned from the outsider, slowly, and narrowed their eyes at the older woman who was starting to shrink back.

“Well,” Belen stuttered and swallowed. “Well, it was her then!”

She pointed at Heliena, but an unexpected ally came forward.

“She’s been watched, too,” Adelpha said. “Did she also plant evidence back on the plains? How many others will you accuse before you speak the truth? If you’re so innocent, then please, why don’t you tell everyone what you were doing before the raid on Okamoto Karaoshi in Lucifan?”

Belen’s mouth snapped open and then shut. Her look swept quickly from hatred to surprise, and every amazon eye saw it. Then the surprise turned to worry.

“Where was I when?” she clarified, much calmer now.

“Just before the attack on the samurai,” Adelpha repeated. “Emily saw you sneak out of the tavern and return just before the attack.”

“She was with me!” Gaia stepped forward.

“You lie!” Hanna stepped out of the crowd. “I saw you enter that room alone. I always wondered why you lied about that, but I didn’t say anything out of respect. Now I find you’re covering for the old woman? I call you a liar!”

“And I’ll slit your throat!” Gaia screamed.

“Shut your mouths, all of you!” Adelpha boomed.

Every amazon tensed, knees bent and hands curled in fists. It seemed to Emily that nearly every woman was ready to draw her knife, and the only thing keeping them at bay was that Adelpha would be the first they’d have to fight. She stood tall, fearless, and enraged in the center of them all, one vein in her neck popping out from rage barely contained. Emily felt her hands itch for her bow.

“Listen to me, all of you!” Adelpha shouted again. “There is a traitor amongst us. That much is known. Now, in this moment, our allegiance is to the group, not to individuals. We must stand together—”

“Impartial!” Emily yelled, echoing the angel.

“Impartial!” Adelpha nodded. “Yes! Now, I promise you, no blood will be split this day. Whoever stands accused will be brought back to Themiscyra to stand fair trial. However, we must each be honest now. We must pour out all we know of each other to ensure the proper criminal is found. We will not let emotions take us in this! We love each other. I would sacrifice myself for any of you. This traitor, though, whomever she is, is not one of my sisters. I hope you feel the same. Now, stay calm, and don’t speak unless I say so. Hanna!”

“Gaia said she was with Belen, but I saw her enter a room upstairs alone,” Hanna said. “I didn’t say anything at first, thinking maybe Belen was already there, but then I realized I never saw Belen go up or come back down the stairs. I didn’t know why Gaia was covering for her.”

“Can anyone confirm this?” Adelpha waited a moment, but no one spoke up. “Can anyone deny this? Say you saw Belen going up and down the stairs while in the room with Gaia?”

No one spoke up. Adelpha whirled and pointed to Emily.

“What did you see?” the princess asked.

“I was upstairs, hiding in Heliena’s room so I could sneak onto Okamoto’s ship with the rest of you,” Emily said, making sure to be brazenly honest. “I saw Belen sneak out after the plans were made and sneak back in just before the attack.”

“You’re going to trust a farmer over me?” Belen sneered.

“I said to be quiet, hag!” Adelpha screeched, taking a step closer to Belen and bearing down on her.

Belen’s upper lip curled, but she went silent.

“Now, Gaia,” Adelpha turned. “Speak the truth, or you might find yourself wanting come Themiscyra. Did you cover for Belen? If so, did she tell you where she was going?”

Gaia’s eyes flicked to Belen, and Adelpha roared and stepped forward.

“Look at me!” she yelled. “Don’t you take your eyes away either. Answer me!”

Gaia, for all her size, shrunk under Adelpha’s fury. She looked down at her feet and mumbled something.

“Louder,” Adelpha said.

“I covered for her,” Gaia spoke. “She did not tell me where she went.”

“It was a man!” Belen burst out. “I was visiting a man.”

“A samurai man?” Chara asked.

“Chara, stay out,” Adelpha’s voice rivaled a diamond in hardness. “Belen, continue.”

“There’s nothing more to tell!” Belen yelled. “I wanted the comfort of a warm bed before a fight, is that so much to ask?”

A silence fell over the investigation. Belen’s friends waited impatiently for their leader to prove her innocence; Gaia, especially, seemed both overly eager and yet regretful for the part she’d played thus far. The rest of the amazons waited to hear the verdict, all of them suspicious and yet unsold.

“A man so late at night,” Adelpha hummed. “Straight to his bed and then back, you must have known him. Not a stranger, then?”

“No,” Belen said. “I know him well. He’s a knight.”

“You can say he’s a damn minotaur for all I care,” Adelpha scoffed. “The only thing I want to hear is the truth. If you knew this man so well, then I am truly perplexed. None of us have ever seen you with this man you claim to know. Anyone? Can anyone name this man?”

No one spoke.

“There’s a reason for that,” Belen said.

“And what is it?”

“I,” Belen paused. “I can’t say.”

“You’re married,” Emily said, voice soaked in realization.

The amazon group turned to their newest member as she stepped forward with eyes alight. Emily nodded to herself slowly, and then the amazons turned back to Belen, just in time to see her reel with shock and fear.

“What did you say?” Belen asked after a pause.

“You heard me,” Emily replied. “You’re married, aren’t you?”

“You have no authority here, farmer. I will not respond to you.”

“Then respond to me,” Adelpha said, taking a step closer to Belen. “Are . . . you . . . married?”

“What? No!” Belen said, though no strength was in her voice.

None came to her aid, and Belen looked back and forth amongst the crowd. A lump seemed to have swelled in her throat and her shoulders were tense. Then, defiantly, her body relaxed and she sighed.

“Yes. I’m married.”

The amazons gasped and put hands up to their gaping mouths. Even her friends took a step back in surprise.

“Belen!” Gaia yelled in shock and disbelief.

“Tie her up,” Adelpha commanded.

Chapter 6

Adelpha made it clear that Belen was to stand trial as promised. No guilty accusation was to be leveled yet, not until every voice had been heard. Still, though, what came to light was already damning enough. Emily, with Quartus’ words ever ringing in the back of her mind, struggled to give Belen any notion of being innocent.

At first, the amazons were quite shocked to find that Belen was the traitor. However, as it was soon brought up by Iezabel, it would have been a shock no matter whom the traitor turned out to be. Even Heliena and Emily, though most suspected, would not have been met with grinning expressions had they been found guilty. The amazons prided themselves on their close relationships with each other, and there was nothing common about one of their own plotting to kill another. After the surprise wore off, Gaia and Belen’s other followers made a gallant attempt to argue for Belen’s innocence. However, their lack of knowledge about Belen’s suspicious activity and marriage weakened their resolve for Belen’s cause. Also, when asked who else could be the traitor, they looked at Emily.

Adelpha said to save it for the trial at home—effectively dismissing them—and the amazons solemnly returned to carving their bows. The bows would not be finished that day or the day after. It would take a good few months to sculpt, dry, and properly prepare each bow for use. By the time the pregnant amazons had their children, their bows would be ready. Hanna described in great detail to Emily the joys of giving a newborn amazon her first bow, having done it so many times before.

“You know,” Hanna whispered, “I said this child would be my last, but I also said that the last time, and the time before that. I’ve had a few sons, too, but they’ve been given over to the surrounding tribes. I feel no need to visit them with so many daughters around me. There’s just something about bringing a woman into this world and giving her the tools to be strong.”

Emily wondered then what Mariam had thought when she gave birth to her only daughter. She must have thought that instead of giving her the tools to fight the world, she would keep the world from fighting her daughter. At least, that’s how it seemed, since Mariam had done everything imaginable to keep Emily from exploring the unknown.

Fortunately, it hadn’t worked.

“How many times have you been to Lucifan?” Emily asked Adelpha.

“That last time was my third trip.”

“How come you never tried to have a child, if you don’t mind me asking? Isn’t that the purpose for amazons going to Lucifan?”

Adelpha paused before answering.

“I had thought about doing it this trip, but having you come by, and the plot to kill me, kind of stalled my efforts. But truthfully?” Adelpha looked at Emily now. “I went to Lucifan just to travel. I wanted to see it so badly as a child, and once I did, I only wanted to see more. Also, I haven’t quite found the right man, yet. To some amazons, it doesn’t matter, but to me it does.”

“Ha!” Emily smiled. “There’s two things we have in common.”

“Hm, I must have bad taste then.”

They both laughed as they watched the others strip their branches of leaves and bark, exposing the raw wood underneath that would be used to make the new bows. Kirke and Leda were helping each other out. Kirke was stripping the leaves and twigs off one while Leda stripped its bark when she was done. Emily smiled for a moment and hoped that the twins’ daughters would be just as close as their mothers were.

Emily thought of home again, as she often did whenever she looked at Kirke and Leda. She thought about Abraham and about Nicholas and hoped to see them again soon. She wondered what they were doing now, but she already knew. They would be helping Father and Mother tend to the crops and making sure the buried seeds produced the results needed for the family to survive. Emily hoped they were getting along just fine without her help.

Then, Emily thought of Sir Gavin Shaw. He was a knight in Lucifan, just a few years older than her, and had shown her such kindness and trust when she’d met him. She pictured his handsome features and green eyes, wishing to see them again. She daydreamed about drawing her fingertips along the rough edge of his chin, teasing out a smile. She did not know when she would be returning to Lucifan, but she would certainly seek him out. Chara would have to be left behind, though. Emily’s grandmother had made her disdain for the knighthood very clear to Emily as soon as she saw Gavin’s charm working its magic.

The amazons stayed next to their treant prisoner throughout the rest of the day, whittling down their future bows and making more arrows. It was understood that each amazon should fill her quiver when she had the time, especially when they were so deep into Angor. Sentries were set up, half from Adelpha’s followers and half from Belen’s to keep anyone from making a rash decision. At least, that’s what everyone assumed Adelpha was doing when she assigned posts for the night, though Adelpha never said as much. The only thing that pleased Emily was that Adelpha gave her second watch. With any luck, Emily would be awoken just before the banshee choked her. Though perhaps, maybe, just maybe, there would be no nightmare tonight. Belen had been captured, and her damage had been prevented. The only thing they sought to do now was to return home and put the wretched woman on trial for her crimes.

They laid out their bedrolls away from the treant, though not so far that they couldn’t hear if it struggled free. Emily was sure, if that happened, they would feel it first and hear it second. As the night crept over them, Emily contemplated how scary it would be to fight a tree among trees in the dark. For that reason, the amazons made a fire that night, just in case.

Emily laid her head down to rest and closed her eyes. The sound of the fire snapping, crackling, and popping broke the silence of the forest and helped put her mind to rest. Though when her eyes shut, all she could picture were the huge, human-like treant eyes staring at her.

She shuddered and went to sleep.

 

  • * *

 

“Emily,” Chara said. “Wake up.”

Emily stirred and, just as the banshee went to tighten its death grip on her throat, awakened.

“Oh,” Emily sighed in relief as she stretched awake, trying to appear calm. “Thanks, Mother. Is it my watch now?”

“No,” Chara said, “I just knew what was coming.”

Emily paused, unsure of whether to thank Chara or curse Quartus first. Why was she still having nightmares? What was he trying to warn her about now? Surely, surely it could wait one night. It did not though, so instead, Emily said nothing to her grandmother and just favored her with a smile.

“But,” Chara continued, “if you’d like to do an old woman a favor, you can take the rest of my watch and let a weary amazon sleep.”

Emily relished the opportunity to return the kindness that had been freely given to her. Chara thanked her granddaughter and went to sleep within moments of lying down. Emily watched her breathe a few deep breaths and tried to remember what it was like to sleep an entire night through. What little comforts she’d had as a child had been grossly taken for granted. Emily knew that now, all too well.

So she took up Chara’s shift with a measure of integrity and scanned the dark forest for signs of movement. She listened as well and noticed how well she could hear in Angor’s silence.

The fire had died, leaving the air open to invading noises from elsewhere. There was Gaia snoring, for one. It was as ragged as her laugh and made Emily want to stuff her mouth with leaves. There was another sound, too, the creaking of wood from just beyond the camp. Emily knew it was the treant breathing because there was no wind this deep in the forest to make the other trees move. Then, quite faintly, Emily thought she heard the treant murmur. Is it dreaming? she thought. If treants could talk and think like humans, surely they slept and dreamed as well.

It piqued her curiosity, so she tried to put the thought away. However, every time the treant made a sound, Emily looked in its direction and wondered. The time ticked on, and her interest grew. Even as the end of her watch neared, she glanced frequently into the dark.

Finally, her watch did end, and she awoke Iezabel for her turn. Emily laid her head down, closed her eyes, and allowed the treant’s soft, rhythmic murmurs to put her to sleep. It worked, and she passed into the nightmare that had become all too much of a routine. She stalked the behemoths and then died to the banshee. The air was cool against her sweaty skin when she lurched awake, and Iezabel’s watch had ended. In her place was Kirke, who had cleared a section of leaves and was drawing in the dirt with a stick. She said nothing to Emily about any thrashing that might have occurred and chose instead to pretend as if nothing had happened.

Kirke had last watch, and despite the crescent moon, it was pitch black under the dense trees. Light would be showing soon, though, because morning was coming. The treant still breathed, and Emily was far too upset to fall back to sleep with so little time left to enjoy it. She told Kirke she was going for a short walk and rose up quietly and made her way towards the treant with caution. It will only take a second, she thought, convincing herself it was worth it.

To her credit, Emily felt she was very stealthy. None of the amazons awoke as she left the camp and made her way past the trees to where the treant was tied down. Its murmurs had stopped, but the breathing continued. Emily used the sound as a beacon and picked her way to it in the darkness.

Emily approached close enough to see the treant’s massive, shadowy outline in the moonlight. Wood creaked as it breathed, and Emily felt eyes on her.

“Who . . . are you?” the treant said.

Emily was surprised that the treant was awake, so she hesitated and stayed quiet in the darkness of the trees.

“Who . . . are you?” the treant repeated, louder this time.

“Emily Stout,” Emily said quickly, not wanting the treant to raise its voice anymore.

She stepped out from the tree line and into the clearing. The moonlight washed over her, and the treant’s eyes made a motion of recognition.

“Emily,” the treant repeated, “You are the . . . one from before? The one that . . . would not help me.”

He said it slowly, and Emily waited patiently as the heavy words fell over her.

“I’m sorry,” she replied. “We mean you no harm. It’s just that you’ll kill us if we release you.”

“And you will kill others . . . if I do not.”

Those last words brought a silence over the short, awkward conversation. Emily didn’t know what to say to that. Yes, they would use their bows to kill, but it was only for protection or for necessity. The treant’s judgment seemed unfair, and Emily wanted to test if she was right.

“Do you fight the elves when they take their bows from your,” she paused to decide on a word, “hair?”

“The elves . . . are our friends. They protect . . . our children.”

“Your children?” Emily paused to think. “Oh, you mean the trees?”

The treant blinked and looked away. Emily guessed that the long night spent tied to the ground had left the treant a bit bitter, and for that she could not blame it. It did reveal something interesting to her, though; if the treant could mimic human emotions, perhaps it had them after all.

“Do you have a name?” Emily asked.

“Yes, but you cannot . . . speak it. It is in a language . . . humans cannot use.”

“Can I hear it anyway?”

The treant stayed silent for a moment, then adjusted itself under the restraints. It opened its mouth and Emily heard the sound of rustling leaves.

“That is what . . . my children call me,” the treant said afterwards.

“Well, that’s a beautiful name. I wish I could say it myself,” Emily said, then added after a pause, “How did you learn to speak our language?”

“Yours is the same . . . as the elves. We learned . . . from them.”

Emily was about to ask another question, but the treant spoke again, and she realized he was not finished.

“You are . . . different. Where are you . . . from, amazon?”

Emily hesitated for a second. She had not anticipated the treant would ask her questions about herself. At first, she thought perhaps it would be better not to say anything. She’d already said too much, she was sure, but there seemed to be nothing threatening about this creature. So, against her better judgment, she decided to trust the tree shepherd.

“I’m actually from the Great Plains. I grew up as a farmer with my father, mother, older brother and younger brother. My mother was an amazon, though she never told us until we saw her, with a single arrow, kill a behemoth that was going to trample our house. I’m here now, because when we went to Lucifan, I met my grandmother who invited me to come with the other amazons. We’re traveling to the jungles now, to Themiscyra.”

Emily decided to leave out the events that had transpired in Lucifan, those about the traitor.

“You left . . . your family?” the treant clarified.

“Well, yes, actually,” Emily stuttered, then added hastily, “I didn’t want to. Well, I did want to leave home, but not them along with it. I just—ah, this isn’t easy. I just wanted to leave the plains and venture out. I wanted to live my own life. If I could have done that and stayed with my family, I would have, but that was impossible. So, instead, I took the opportunity that was given to me and ran with it. As for my family, I miss them dearly, all of them, and every night I make a promise to visit them as often as I can.”

“Do you . . . keep your promises . . . Emily Stout?”

Once again, the treant caught her off guard. It wasn’t an unusual question, but to be asked something so intimate so soon was not something she had anticipated. The treant moved against its restraints as it waited for Emily to respond. It was then that Emily noticed the ropes had made a slight cut in the treant’s bark, as if it had been rubbing against them all night.

“Of course I do,” she answered.

“Then . . . promise me,” the treant said, “you will free me before . . . the centaurs . . . catch me.”

The treant’s calm expression had transformed into a look of urgency so slowly that Emily had not noticed it.

“The centaurs?” Emily asked.

“Promise . . . me.”

“Wait, are there centaurs nearby?”

“They will . . . chop me up!” the treant said in fear, “like they have done . . . to others. Promise . . . me!”

The urgency that had taken so long to creep across the treant’s bark-covered face was quickly swapped with an expression of fear, almost terror. It panicked and pushed against the rope, then turned to Emily and opened its mouth to boom its voice at her.

“Okay!” Emily said, trying to calm the treant before he woke up the others. “I promise to free you. Now, tell me, are there centaurs nearby?”

The treant’s head attempted to move in the restraints, but they were too tight so he just murmured a ‘yes’ instead. He pushed again as if he could not wait for Emily’s useless questions and so would free himself no matter the cost.

“How can you be sure? Have you seen them?” Emily asked.

“I can hear them . . . through the ground, and . . . my children whisper it . . . to me, as they did . . . when I fled from your kind. Please, Emily Stout. I am slow, and . . . they are coming for you . . . but they will find me . . . instead.”

“They’re coming for me?”

“For all . . . of you.”

Emily put her head to the ground and tried to listen, but she heard nothing. Once, when she was scouting behemoths with her father, she’d been able to hear the behemoths by placing her head on the ground, but she could not hear the centaurs like the treant claimed he could. As for the trees, they made no noise that she could hear.

Could she trust it? Surely this creature was not a friend of theirs, but that didn’t mean it lied. Emily contemplated what to do, then thought back to when she had been in Lucifan. She’d seen Belen sneak out the night before the raid, yet she had remained silent. That had gotten three amazons killed that night, almost more. She didn’t want that to happen again. The treant’s fear was real enough, so perhaps it spoke the truth. However, even if it didn’t, Emily would rather not take the chance.

“Thank you,” Emily said.

“Don’t forget . . . your promise,” the treant said as she turned to leave.

Emily stalked back to the camp, following her senses so she would not become lost. They did not lead her astray, and she found the clearing the amazons had taken refuge in. She listened to the sound of the amazons breathing when she suddenly noticed one was missing.

“Where were you?” Belen snapped and, when Emily didn’t reply, snickered. “You don’t have to answer. I already know. Making deals with that treant, huh?”

“That’s none of your business, traitor.”

“Don’t call me that, you pathetic little wench,” Belen seethed. “I’ll see you dead for this. Mark my words.”

“Consider them marked.”

Belen would have to wait. Emily had news of centaurs approaching and had to wake her grandmother. Kirke nodded to Emily as she approached in the light of pre-morning, and Emily replied with her own nod.

Emily found Chara sleeping in the exact same position in which she had left her.

“Mother,” Emily whispered and nudged. “Mother, wake up.”

“Huh, what?” Chara snorted awake. “What is it?”

“Look, Mother, I went to talk with the treant—”

“What? You left the camp? Emily!” Chara scolded. “Emily, we don’t speak with treants.”

“I know, I know, I’m sorry, but listen. The treant told me it hears centaurs approaching.”

Chara remained quiet for a moment.

“It probably only said that to make us leave sooner, Daughter.”

To Emily, the statement sounded like it was supposed to reassure Chara more than her.

“Perhaps I should go wake Adelpha?” Emily asked.

“Yes, why don’t you do that?” Chara replied.

Emily leapt over the amazons that lay about in her path until she found the princess. Even though Adelpha had covered her entire body with a blanket, there was no hiding her size, and thus Emily shook her without bothering to pull back the cover.

“Adelpha,” Emily said.

The woman slept like a rock, and Emily’s gentle nudge elicited only a snore.

“Adelpha!” Emily said louder and jerked Adelpha from side to side.

“What!” Adelpha griped back.

“I was talking with the treant and—”

“You were doing what?” Adelpha interrupted, throwing the blanket back to reveal an angry scowl.

“I was speaking with the treant,” Emily raised her voice louder to override another of Adelpha’s interruptions, “and he said centaurs are coming this way!”

Adelpha let Emily finish and then looked at her as if she was the most innocent child in the world. Considering Emily and Adelpha were only a few years apart in age, Emily did not appreciate this.

“I’m going to go back to sleep now,” Adelpha explained, “and I don’t want to wake up again until it’s time.”

“But—”

Emily was about to explain the fear the treant had expressed and how honest his terror had been, but Adelpha had already turned over and laid her head down on her mat. Emily, hurt at the distrust she’d been handed, stood up and balled her fists in anger.

Surely there was another. Emily thought quickly and spotted Heliena’s shivering figure close to the dead fire. She skirted over to her and pressed gently to wake her up.

“Heliena,” Emily whispered.

“Go away,” Heliena shrugged Emily’s hand off and pulled her blanket further over herself.

Emily stood up and bit her lower lip.

She was tired of people not giving her a chance. The amazons, though they tolerated her, were never going to give her the love they freely gave each other. Heliena had turned from her, and Adelpha was brushing her concerns off without hesitation. Sure, there were others that were kind to her, but that was not enough. Only Chara never let her down. Her grandmother had never, not since the day they’d met, done anything except show Emily the respect she’d always craved. If it wasn’t for her, Emily realized, she would take the knowledge she’d gained and run back to Lucifan to go exploring on her own. She knew how to shoot, make arrows, hunt for food, and make a camp. She could clean her own gear, forage, scavenge, and make her own way in this world.

However, Emily realized, if it hadn’t been for Chara, Emily would never have gained that knowledge in the first place. She’d still be back on the Great Plains, looking out past the endless rolling hills and wondering what was out there. And for that, Emily was eternally grateful, and she would tolerate these amazons just as they tolerated her. If only to stay with Chara, she would do that, because Emily loved her.

Then, the sound of a centaur horn washed over the camp.

Chapter 7

They packed up faster than one thought possible. Everything was shoved into knapsacks without care or hung over the body for easy carry. Bows were kept strung.

“That horn was announcing to the other scouting parties that they found our trail,” Adelpha yelled. “They’ll be coming after us fast, so we’ll be moving fast, too! I’ll take lead. It’s possible they aren’t after us, but I’d rather assume the worst.”

Adelpha slung her quiver over her shoulder.

“We’re headed due south. Any concerns?” she asked.

“What about me?” Belen cried out from the back. “You don’t expect me to run with my hands tied, do you? I thought I wasn’t on trial yet!”

“You don’t need your hands to run,” Adelpha replied. “Keep up or leave your fate with the centaurs.”

This brought much disagreement among the other amazons. A few raised voices concerned about how Belen would be unable to fight if the centaurs found them. Gaia was especially disgruntled, but Adelpha turned on them.

“We’re not fighting the centaurs; we’re running! We’re outnumbered, in their land, and far from our own. Belen doesn’t need to shoot a bow, and even if she did, it wouldn’t save us. Now let’s go!”

“What about the treant?” Emily shouted.

“What about it?” Gaia cackled. “We’ll leave it as a distraction. Give the centaurs something to play with while we gain distance.”

Emily waited for another response, one that wasn’t dripping in cruelty, but none claimed a dissenting view.

“Mother,” Emily turned to Chara, “I have to go free the treant.”

“This isn’t the time, Daughter. We have to leave.”

“Well, I’ll stay behind then and do it myself,” Emily said. “Run ahead, and I’ll catch up.”

“Ugh,” Adelpha slammed a palm to her forehead. “We don’t have time for this, Emily!”

“Then get moving!” Emily shouted back.

She didn’t bother mentioning the promise. There were too many good things out there for Emily to spend time worrying about the bad, and she wasn’t going to waste time explaining herself to a group that wouldn’t take her seriously. The treant was an example of that. It had tried to warn her and had trusted her above the others. There was no way Emily was going to break her promise and leave it to die.

Emily walked away from the amazons, ignoring their stammering warnings. Their voices faded as she stepped through the tree line and into the clearing where the treant lay tied down. The big eye swirled around and focused on her. Then the treant’s wooden lips twisted into what Emily could only assume was a smile.

“You . . . came back,” it said, “and you . . . brought a friend.”

“Huh?” Emily asked and looked over her shoulder.

Adelpha walked up behind Emily and pulled out her knife.

“Let’s make this quick,” she grumbled.

Adelpha walked over to the first rope and started to slice through it. Emily hid a smile and walked up to the rope next to that one.

“Why’d you come?” Emily asked.

“Mother knew she couldn’t stay behind because of her age, so she begged me to help you, considering you’ll never make it back to us if we leave,” Adelpha teased. “And, also, I owe you for ignoring you.”

“Apology accepted,” Emily said, cutting another rope.

“Who said I was sorry?”

They chuckled, and Emily regretted judging Adelpha so harshly before. Perhaps there were friends to be had here after all.

They kept moving down, cutting the restraints until the treant could lift its head and look around freely.

“So tell me,” Adelpha called out. “Why are we here? Why is this important?”

“I promised I would set it free,” Emily grunted as she cut through one tough rope, “before the centaurs came and chopped it up.”

“Wait,” Adelpha stopped and stood up, surprised. “We’re cutting all the rope?”

“Yes,” Emily confirmed. “That would be ‘free’ wouldn’t it?”

“Emily, we can’t do that,” Adelpha explained. “It’ll kill us.”

“No, it won’t,” Emily replied and then turned to the treant. “Will you?”

Emily ended her question with a vain attempt to say the treant’s name. She mustered her vocals and made a strange sound somewhere between crackling and whistling. Adelpha looked at Emily as if she’d lost her mind.

“I will not . . . hurt you,” the treant replied.

“See?” Emily smiled.

“That’s not comforting,” Adelpha sighed, “but for the sake of time, I’ll suspend the argument. If we don’t hurry, we’re dead anyway.”

They cut more rope, skipping about so that the bonds could be tugged free sooner. However, the treant remained motionless on the ground even as the rope slacked over its bark. For all Emily could see, it wasn’t even breathing.

They knelt down to cut the last rope, and Adelpha gave Emily a questioning glance.

“These are the last ones,” Adelpha whispered. “Why hasn’t it moved?”

“I don’t know,” Emily replied, “but we can’t stay much longer. Let’s get going.”

That’s when they heard a twig snap.

It was quiet, to be sure, but the snap might as well have been the thunder of a lightning storm in the encompassing silence of the forest. Adelpha and Emily whirled about, bows drawn, arrows nocked, backs together. Without hesitation, they retreated south, back the way they’d come. They only got two steps in before the centaurs swarmed the area.

Their unbelievable stealth broken by one false step, the centaurs, shouting a war cry, sprang out into the clearing from behind a multitude of trees and tall bushes. They poured in from the north, forming a half circle within moments. There were maybe forty of them altogether, and every one had their bow held at the ready, drawn tight and aimed at the two women.

Emily contemplated running, but threw that thought out almost as quickly as it formed. At this range, the centaurs’ bows were just as deadly as the amazons’ superior treantwood bows. Also, they would never be able to outrun the centaurs. Four legs would beat two anytime, day or night, and they had reached the amazon camp in such a short time. Now Emily knew why the treant had remained still. It wanted to appear dead and avoid the centaurs’ attention.

Damn you, Emily thought. This would be the last time she risked her life for someone she didn’t know.

“Humans,” one centaur spoke, emerging from the group, “lay down your weapons.”

“They’ll fall when we fall,” Adelpha challenged.

The centaur looked much older than the others. His hair was grey and thin, and his skin wrinkled at the joints. Even his pointy ears were drooping a bit, but none of this did anything to hide his anger. With a righteous air, he looked down at the amazons as if they were the bane of all existence and his cause would be to stamp out such evil.

For a moment, he seemed poised to take Adelpha up on her words but then changed his mind and spoke again.

“I am Lok’har, you wingless harpy,” the centaur explained with pride, “leader of the centaurs and ruler of Angor. You will yield yourself to me, or I will strike you down where you stand.”

“Angor has no ruler,” Adelpha taunted.

Lok’har snarled and raised his hand. In unison, the centaurs drew back the arrows on their strings and took aim. Adelpha gritted her teeth but said nothing. She was fire given life and would bend to no one.

Emily, on the other hand, was not yet ready to accept that fate.

“What do you want?” she asked.

Lok’har paused and slowly lowered his hand. The centaurs’ bows stayed drawn, though, and Adelpha gave Emily a warning glare. Emily, in turn, glowered back and sighed in relief when the princess relented.

“One of yours has killed one of ours,” Lok’har explained. “Blood demands blood.”

Emily thought back to when they’d entered the forest, when they’d first met the centaurs. She had caused one to trip, and Iezabel had wounded the young centaur with another shot. Had she done more than wound, though?

“He was,” Lok’har paused, “my son.”

The centaur, for all his hatred, took a moment to stifle a tear.

“I’m sorry—” Emily started.

“You are not sorry!” Lok’har boomed. “None of you will be sorry until you are all dead!”

The centaurs shouted and cheered. They released the tension on their bows to lift them high and closed in around the amazons. Some used their powerful legs to jump on top of the treant, which still had not moved the width of a hair.

“Where are the others? Where is your leader?” Lok’har shouted.

“You know we won’t tell you,” Emily countered.

“Where?” Lok’har commanded. “Where are they? I will slaughter every one of you for what you have done!”

He shook with rage, and the centaurs around him fed off it like hungry ogres. They started to chant, crow, and jeer before closing tighter around the amazons and the treant. They made threats of such brutality that Emily’s mouth fell open in silent shock. Although she was surprised, the centaur ruler saw that fear would not compel either of these two to speak. So Lok’har held up his hand again, fingers splayed instead of touching, and the centaurs went silent.

“This,” Lok’har pointed to a young centaur who stood atop the treant’s head, “is my other son, Darius.”

The centaurs cheered at the mention of their prince’s name. Darius held up his bow to absorb the glory and then turned back to the amazons with fury in his eyes.

“I give him the right and honor,” Lok’har explained, “of making the first kill. The choice, of course, will be his.”

The centaurs cheered again as Darius drew his bow string. They laughed as he made a show of rapidly switching aim between Adelpha and Emily. He toyed with his shot, as if he couldn’t decide which kill would give him more pleasure. His followers offered their own advice with enthusiasm.

“Kill the fat one!”

“No! Make the fat one run! It will be more fun to chase!”

They laughed at that and watched Darius’ movements zoom back and forth until he slowly, but surely, settled his aim on Adelpha. When his target was chosen, the centaurs shouted their approval and chanted again. They wanted human blood this day. They wanted it to run red, and herald their revenge. They would hunt down the rest of the amazons, they told the women, and they’d kill everyone.

Darius let his followers make their threats, letting the chants build until the forest was filled with their voices. Then, with meticulous movements, he drew back his bowstring until the arrow’s tip touched his finger. The chanting slowed and died, until once again the forest was quiet.

Emily held her breath.

“Now, Darius!” Lok’har shouted.

The treant opened its mouth, and Darius fell into the crater. He screamed and released his arrow, but the shot went high and wide. Darius disappeared and his shouts were muffled as the treant closed its mouth. Then a sickening crunch was heard, and the young centaur went silent forever.

The treant swallowed.

Every centaur gasped, Adelpha and Emily gazed in shock, and Lok’har cried out in horror.

“NO!” he shouted. “NOOO!”

The treant swept its hands out, knocking to the ground or killing those centaurs who were too closely packed to jump away. Lok’har, who had stepped out of the crowd, narrowly avoided the sweeping strike and took out his bow to fire arrow after arrow at the treant’s eyes that were blessedly shut. The tree shepherd stood and swung its arms blindly, kicking out in random directions.

“Let’s move!” Emily shouted.

She grabbed Adelpha by the hand and yanked her, and the two took off at a sprint, bounding across the terrain and running with every fiber in their bodies. They heard the thunder of hooves and looked over their shoulders to see three centaurs chasing them through the forest. One raised its bow to release an arrow.

“Left!” Emily shouted.

Adelpha jumped left, Emily jumped right, and the arrow passed harmlessly between them.

“We have to fire back!” Adelpha shouted.

“Say when!” Emily replied.

“Now!”

As one, Adelpha and Emily turned, dropped to one knee, drew arrows, and fired them at the centaurs.

The range was close, and their return fire had been so sudden that the centaurs had not been prepared for it. Adelpha’s arrow struck one centaur square in the chest, sending him tumbling to the ground. Emily’s arrow hit another centaur low, just above the right front leg, and he stumbled and crashed into a tree. The force of the impact caused him to slump to the ground motionless.

The remaining centaur checked his movements, saw the amazons reach up to reload, and retreated back to where the centaurs were shouting and yelling. Emily could just barely see movement between the thick trees, but she clearly heard the sound of wood creaking as the treant fought on.

“Come on,” Emily said.

She wanted to go back and help the treant, but she knew there was no use. They would not be able to save the treant if the centaurs caught it, and they would only die in the process. The treant had waited in silence to ambush the centaurs and give the women who’d freed him one chance to live. If they did not take it, they would only waste its efforts.

Still, knowing all that did not make it any easier for her to turn her back. She owed that treant a great debt, one she’d likely never be able to repay.

She stowed her thoughts and focused on the task at hand. They were running again, heading due south with all the passion and effort they could give. They not only had to catch up with the other amazons, they had to catch up with them in time to warn them. The centaurs would travel fast—much faster than the amazons—and so they could waste no time in their retreat. Not if any of them wanted to make it out of this forest alive.

Chapter 8

“I’m sorry,” Iezabel said, eyes closed in regret. “I’m so sorry.”

Adelpha and Emily had caught back up with the group, and through ragged breaths, explained why the centaurs were chasing them.

“I only aimed to wound him,” Iezabel continued. “I must have hit an artery or something.”

“Well, we can’t do anything about that now,” Hanna said, placing a comforting hand on Iezabel, “so stop apologizing.”

“And to top it off, Lok’har’s other son is dead now, too,” Chara summed up.

The amazons took a moment to reflect. It did not need to be mentioned that the situation was grim, but the problem did need to be acknowledged before it could be solved.

“So, the centaurs are going to chase us until they’ve killed us all,” Chara continued, “and we still have at least another couple of days, even at a rapid pace, to get out of the forest.”

“We can’t fight them,” Hanna said. “There aren’t enough of us.”

“And they can’t be reasoned with, unfortunately,” Emily said after a breath.

“And they run faster than us,” Adelpha chimed in.

Another pause ensued.

“So,” Chara looked around. “What do we do then?”

“May I offer a suggestion?” Heliena said, stepping forward from the back of the group. “We’re in elf territory right now, and the centaur lands lie to the east. So, why don’t we push further west? The centaurs won’t expect it, which will give us time to throw them off our trail and increase the likelihood that the centaurs will fight the elves.”

“And the likelihood that the elves will fight us,” Adelpha replied. “You would throw a third enemy against our forces, sister?”

“No, no,” Emily said. “She’s right. Our group is at least half that of the centaurs, so we can avoid engagements more easily. If we keep advancing deeper into elf territory, the centaurs will have to take more care, move with more caution. It can buy us time.”

“How much time, Daughter? Have you forgotten about the werewolves?” Chara asked.

“We have more than a week until the first full moon,” Heliena said. “If anything, we can use that to add further caution to the centaurs’ movements.”

“Or haste,” Chara warned.

“Well put,” Adelpha said. “The entire southern end of the forest is werewolf territory, and we can’t risk eating up too much time before the full moon. We’ll be trapped here in Angor for a week while the werewolves run rampant every night, and Lok’har will likely use that to pressure us into a corner.”

“And you think we’ll make it there by heading straight to Themiscyra?” Heliena asked.

“It’s only a few days run from here,” Adelpha countered.

“That’s not what I asked,” Heliena said, lifting an eyebrow. “Do you think we’ll make it there with the centaurs so close behind?”

Adelpha paused and then answered honestly, “No.”

“Then what choice do we have?” Heliena whispered and turned away.

Adelpha watched her go and then turned to make the difficult call that everyone knew was coming.

They agreed to Heliena’s plan. The amazons were not going to make it easy for the centaurs to slaughter them. The Forest of Angor, being the dangerous place that it was, offered the chance for the amazons to slip into darkened places too treacherous for the centaurs. They would head deeper into elven land, avoiding notice as best they could, and then into that of werewolves. It was a risk they’d have to take, for they could not outrun the centaurs. Their only bets were to outsmart them or make the price of their blood too rich for centaur vengeance.

They changed their course when the terrain allowed it, trying to move not only fast, but with as few tracks as possible. The centaurs would find them eventually, no doubt, but would waste valuable time hunting them down. Every moment the amazons could steal now was precious.

At first, Emily was at the front of the pack with Adelpha, but then she felt the need to thank Heliena and so dropped back. On her way down, Belen passed her with hands still tied.

“Don’t forget my promise, gremlin,” Belen hissed.

Emily didn’t respond and only watched Belen move forward. Every amazon passed her by until finally, at the very back, Heliena reached her side. Emily smiled, but it was not returned.

“What do you want?” Heliena asked, none too kindly.

“I just wanted to thank you,” Emily replied, trying to swallow the increasing hatred she was being shown. “That was a good idea you came up with.”

“I don’t need your thanks,” Heliena replied. “This is going to put a real strain on making my new bow. I haven’t forgotten that you turned on me.”

Emily looked at Heliena’s back and saw the shaved branch strapped next to her old bow. The new one was already stripped of twigs, leaves, and bark.

“Listen, I’m sorry about that,” Emily asked. “What would you have done in my place?”

Heliena blinked, the words evidently hitting her. She sighed and pursed her lips.

“I’d have done the same. Just give me time, please.”

“Can you at least tell me why you change so much? Sometimes I feel we are close, other times that you hate me. Why? Where do we stand?”

Heliena paused again, taking a moment to think things over. For a moment, Emily thought she was about to tell her off again, but then she relented and shrugged.

“You’re Chara’s daughter,” Heliena said. “She’s responsible for my mother’s death, whether she dealt the deed or not. And you’re friends with Adelpha, the bully from my childhood. I try not to blame you for it, but it’s hard sometimes. I like you, and yet not those you associate with. I just need time is all.”

Emily wanted to press the point, but Heliena turned her shoulder, and her blue eyes went cold. It was then that Emily realized she’d pried too much already and decided to follow the beauty’s request. She jogged faster to catch back up with Adelpha, ignoring Belen on the way by. She was troubled by Heliena’s words, but only a little. She felt bad for how lonely Heliena seemed, yet was tired of trying to make inroads with those that would not accept her. Guilty by association, and worst of all, it was for associating with those she loved. Chara was her grandmother and Adelpha her sister if she ever had one. If Heliena could not accept that, then their relationship was doomed from the start. There was only so much one could do before giving in to the inevitable.

Their travels took them deeper into the forest, and to Emily’s surprise, the woods increased in density. There was no more running straight, only making long curves to the left and right around thick groves that choked the landscape. The clearings where light shined through became rarer the further in they went, and Emily wondered if there was some part of the forest where the trees grew so thickly that they blocked out all light.

“No, not in Angor,” Chara said when Emily shared her thoughts. “That kind of foliage won’t be common until we reach the jungle. Trust me, Daughter, when we reach Themiscyra, this place will seem as open to you as the Great Plains.”

“How are you doing, Mother?” Emily asked after a pause, noticing Chara’s heavy breathing.

“Oh, you know,” Chara smiled at her. “I’m much too old for this nonsense.”

As the day dragged on and they kept running, the landscape swept past them. They stopped only for water and food, but no other time could be spared. They could neither guarantee that the treant had held off the centaurs for long nor that it had dispatched enough of them to discourage a rapid chase. They could only keep moving and assume the worst.

“Maybe the treant finished them off?” Kirke started.

“Or perhaps it drew the centaurs to the elves,” Leda finished, “and our enemies have slaughtered each other.”

“Hush now, daughters,” Hanna scolded. “Save your wishing for the pixies and your breath for running.”

They obeyed and kept moving. As they traveled further and further west, the landscape rose and fell more often. The hills got steeper, and the valleys deeper, until they were practically climbing with their hands to scale the terrain, which only made the going harder. By the time night fell, not one amazon was standing when they took their final break at the top of a particularly steep hill that led into a low valley. Emily did not look forward to climbing down it and was happy to stop. Everyone plopped to the ground with packs following a moment later, and Emily helped her grandmother find a comfortable place to lie down.

“I swear, if the centaurs don’t kill me, this will,” Chara complained.

“Don’t say that, Mother,” Emily replied. “I need you too much to lose you.”

“You’re too kind,” Chara smiled and placed a hand on Emily’s face.

“We’ll make camp here,” Adelpha said to everyone. “Hopefully, we’ve put up enough distance to make it through the night.”

She slumped up against a tree with her head tilted back against the bark. Nearly all the amazons were mimicking that position and, therefore, were in complete agreement with Adelpha’s order. Emily looked around until she spotted Belen. Emily inspected the knots on Belen’s hands from afar to make sure they were not loose.

Stop, she ordered herself. Quartus was clear. You are to keep an open mind.

Emily thought of Belen’s friends who maintained her innocence, especially of Gaia, and then searched for the bloated amazon. She was leaning against a tree like everyone else but breathing heavier than most. Her weight, so often an aid in combat, was now the bane of her flight. That was not Emily’s concern. She was only interested in Gaia as it related to Belen. What did she think of her leader now? It seemed that although Gaia stole frequent looks at Belen, she also averted her eyes whenever Belen returned the gaze, as though she feared the scorn she’d receive for letting her leader down.

Emily considered that, but her weary mind concluded nothing.

As everyone’s breath slowed to a manageable pace, Emily noticed Heliena wander around from the back of the group and sit next to Gaia. It was an odd juxtaposition to be sure: the slim, rare beauty next to the oaf of all women. It made Emily smile at the oddity, and then, to make things even more interesting, Heliena leaned over to speak with Gaia. Gaia looked back at Heliena with a sorrowful glance, and Heliena seemed to be comforting her under a hushed voice. Gaia kept sneaking looks at Belen as Heliena talked, and Emily could only imagine that the conversation revolved around the supposed traitor.

Emily watched this, her onetime friend lending sympathy to her constant tormentor, and couldn’t help but feel a twinge of jealously. Could amazons truly be so petty? She’d done nothing to these women, and yet so many of them avoided her like an unwelcome guest. Then again, though, perhaps she was. She’d been born on the Great Plains, not Themiscyra, after her mother had abandoned her sisters for marriage. As Mariam’s daughter, Emily carried those sins, it would seem. It wasn’t so much that she wanted the attention, but that she had lost valuable allies. Emily knew she could never have enough of those, especially in this forest.

She decided to distract herself by making her camp. She opened her pack, laid out the thin sheet she slept on, re-counted her arrows, sharpened her hunting knife, ate some dried strips of meat, and drank from her water skin. When all was done, she took up her favorite activity in the world and asked Chara about the unknown.

“Mother?” Emily asked.

“Yes, Daughter?” Chara replied.

“You said there were some creatures in Angor that won’t attack us. Can you tell me what those were again?”

“Ah, Emily,” Chara smiled. “Your thirst for knowledge is unquenchable.”

“Is that a no?” Emily joked.

“Of course not,” Chara laughed. “Which one would you like to hear first?”

“All of them.”

And so, Emily’s grandmother told her of the few creatures in Angor that were either not a threat or not as big of a threat. There were the harpies, and Emily interrupted to explain how Lok’har had called Adelpha one. Harpies were small birds that could speak human language in a very annoying manner. They were harmless for the most part, but were semi-intelligent and thus could master a few basic words. Accompanied with squawking and crowing, it would be impossible for anyone to sleep near them. Chara admitted that she had wasted more than one arrow firing into the distance, hoping to silence or scare away a nearby gathering of harpies.

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t help much,” Chara admitted. “If anything, it only attracts them. And they’re the sneakiest of thieves. They love to steal shiny objects, like a sack of coins I once had. I woke up one night to find it gone, and I know exactly where it went. There’s some rich harpy nest deep in these woods somewhere.”

After that story to which Emily laughed quite frequently, Chara told of the majestic hippogriffs. They were winged creatures, as well, though much larger than harpies.

“You remember the pegasi we rode in Lucifan?” Chara asked.

“How could I forget?” Emily replied.

In Lucifan, after the knights had saved them, they’d each rode a pegasus to safety. Emily had shared one of the winged, hornless unicorns with Sir Gavin Shaw, and she had enjoyed every moment of it.

“Well, a hippogriff is similar in size and, just like a pegasus, has four legs in addition to its wings,” Chara explained.

She continued and told Emily that hippogriffs also had feathers instead of fur, talons instead of hooves, and were altogether far more birdlike than pegasi. They were colorful, too. Their feathers were a patchwork of blue, green, purple, the occasional yellow, and even orange or red.

“They’re wild for the most part,” Chara said, “though, the elves have managed to tame some and can ride them like the knights do with the pegasi. You’ll probably never see one though.”

“Why’s that?” Emily asked.

“They have very good hearing, I’m told, and will fly high up into the trees before we ever get close. The branches are too thick where they live for us to easily spot one hiding up there. It’s just very unlikely we’ll get to see one while we are running for our lives through the forest.”

“Perhaps another time then?”

“Yes,” Chara nodded. “Perhaps. So now that you’ve heard about the harmless, would you like to hear about the others?”

“The kobolds, right?”

“Right,” Chara confirmed.

Chara told Emily about the kobolds, and Emily listened with rapt attention. They were little creatures, slightly smaller than gnomes and leprechauns, but not human in appearance. They still walked on two legs and had two arms, but their skin was scaly and ranged anywhere from blue to green in color. Not to mention their tail.

Kobolds got their name because they often repeated the word as they stalked closer to a kill. They traveled in large packs, preferring the cold, damp, and dark environment of caves and tunnels. Their shiny eyes and acute sense of smell gave them an advantage in such cover.

“A single kobold, or even a couple for that matter,” Chara demonstrated by holding up her fingers, “is nothing to be worried about. They carry only a sharp stick as a weapon, unless they’ve scavenged something better, and even then they normally can’t use it that well. They’re vermin really, just plain and simple. But that’s why they travel in such large clans, and if you’re ever caught alone near them, you had better get running fast. They’ll swarm over you in moments if you don’t scare them off or get away.”

“Have the amazons ever had to deal with them?” Emily asked. “Don’t we always travel in big enough groups?”

“Yes, we do,” Chara nodded, “but sometimes someone, often a youngster like yourself, will travel just a bit beyond the group and get ambushed by the little creatures. We occasionally see them when we pass by caves, but that’s rare as they prefer to hide in the darkness where only their watching eyes are visible. You might see some caves down in these valleys tomorrow.”

“I hope I do,” Emily replied. “Well, I think I hope I do.”

“There’s nothing to worry about with nearly two dozen of us to shoot back.”

By the time they finished their conversation, the last vestiges of light had evaporated and the silent dark had consumed all. The amazons put their heads down with ease, and only the watch kept a wary eye open. It was difficult to recruit volunteers for the duty, but those who had not taken a turn eventually and grudgingly came forward. The process was made easier when Heliena was the first to volunteer, despite how sleepy she looked.

Emily felt bad for the watch tonight. They would have difficulties keeping awake, but it had to be done, especially now that Emily knew what they had to be on the lookout for. She closed her eyes and let the sleep wash over her.

And then, a thunderbird screeched.

Chapter 9

Emily jolted upright, hand immediately going to her neck to pry off the banshee’s clutching hands. When she felt nothing, she breathed a sigh of relief and let loose her tension. She looked up and let the moonlight pour over her. The moon’s light was soothing, but Emily knew that even that celestial being was now her enemy. The moon had become a clock, ticking down to when the werewolves in the south would shed their humanity and transform from humans into ferocious beasts. The amazons would be locked in the north, where the centaurs could kill them freely.

Emily heard a noise in the camp, not breathing or shifting, but a tight sound, like the pulling of rope.

She looked instinctively to Belen and saw Gaia hunched over in front of her, knife drawn and pressed against the ropes that bound Belen’s hands. They both froze when they saw Emily looking at them.

“Adelpha!” Emily yelled and leapt up.

“Hurry, you imbecile!” Belen yelled at Gaia.

Gaia jerked the knife and sliced through the rope.

“Adelpha!” Emily shouted again.

Adelpha, along with the rest of the amazons, stirred awake just in time to see Belen jump up and take off running through the forest. Emily was hot on her trail, though, and before any of them could rise, she sprung and tackled Belen with the full force of her run.

Together, they toppled off the side of the steep hill.

They bounced on the ground, breaking Emily’s grip on Belen and sending them spiraling head over heels. Emily reached out all around her, trying to slow her fall by digging her hands into the ground, but all she caught were dead leaves and twigs and her efforts were wasted. They bounced and slid, and for a moment, Emily thought she found her balance until her foot caught a hole and she flipped over again. In all the rolling, she lost track of everything: which direction they were falling, where they were headed, or even if Belen was near her at all. She could only guess because, through her own grunts and cries of pain, she heard Belen’s, too.

Finally, Emily hit level ground and slid to a stop across the dead leaves. She was lying face down in the dirt, but that mattered little because her entire body was covered in the debris that littered Angor’s floor. She felt bumps, bruises, pains, and aches up and down every part of her body. She was worried she might have broken something and moved her limbs slowly to test them.

She hadn’t, yet still she moaned because she could not recall ever being so sore. Slowly, she tried to rise, lifting her head up enough to look about. The moonlight barely reached down through the trees into the deep ravine she was in, but there was enough light for Emily to see Belen just ten paces away from her.

Belen, looking just as battered and bruised as Emily, lifted her head as well, and the two made eye contact. They both struggled to stand, and it was Emily who regained her balance first. Instinctively, she reached her hand around to grab her bow, but her hand touched nothing. She remembered it was back at the camp, along with Belen’s bow and both of their quivers. Belen also tapped her back without thinking, and a look of shock and vulnerability overcame her face.

Emily reached to her belt and pulled out her knife. She drew it up and held it menacingly.

“Give up, Belen,” Emily said. “You’ve given yourself away now. You’ll never get back to Drowin.”

“I don’t give a damn about some smelly vampire,” Belen replied. “I’d rather go back to my husband than bet my life on your judgmental fear!”

Emily was about to respond, but she didn’t get the chance. Belen sprinted to close the distance and lunged at Emily with such ferocity that she barely had time to react. Emily swept her knife across her chest, attempting to cut Belen with her own force, but Belen’s hands didn’t reach for Emily’s throat like she’d predicted. They instead wrapped around Emily’s knife-hand, and the two women were thrown to the ground, struggling over the weapon.

Belen, having thrown Emily on her back, shifted her weight and straddled Emily, pinning the latter’s body to the ground. Belen held Emily’s wrist in one hand while trying to pry her fingers off with the other, and Emily tried desperately to kick the older woman away. When that didn’t work, Emily tried to roll or push her down, but Belen had more weight and wouldn’t give Emily the chance she needed.

Belen kept low and, when she couldn’t pry loose Emily’s grip, put both hands over Emily’s to try and force the knife down towards her.

“Do you remember my promise?” Belen asked through a grunt.

Emily saved her breath for pushing back, trying to prevent Belen from stabbing her throat. She grunted and pushed, but Belen was older, stronger, and had gravity on her side. Emily could only panic and watch the knife descend lower and lower toward her.

“Die, farmer,” Belen spat.

Then, they heard noises. There were little voices and scratching sounds, and a strange hissing noise. To Emily’s relief, Belen paused in her efforts, but when Belen’s face turned from curiosity to fear, Emily’s relief faded.

“Oh no,” Belen said.

She abandoned the knife and jumped off of Emily. Her eyes scanned the darkness around them before turning to run. She only took one step before something burst through the shadows to land in front of her.

It was as tiny as a gnome but covered in scaly skin from its toothy snout all the way to its whipping tail. In its scaly hands, it carried a sharp, pointy stick, which was pointed at Belen.

“Kobold!” it said.

Then the voices were all around them.

“Kobold!” to Emily’s left.

“Kobold!” to her right.

“Kobold!” just behind her.

Emily gasped and spun around, lifting herself and holding her knife up.

In the darkness, she saw countless numbers of tiny, shiny eyes glimmering at her. They winked on and off as the kobolds blinked at the two women. One by one, they started popping out of the deeper shadows and into the moonlight. Most brandished sharpened sticks that were longer than the kobolds were tall, but a few had knives, one of which was obviously of amazon make.

“Kobold!” another said and licked its scaly snout with a long, pointed tongue.

“Back!” Belen shouted and kicked a kobold that came too close. “Get back, vermin!”

The kobolds were pouring in from all directions, hissing, cackling, and shouting their name. They pointed their weapons at the two women and made jabs when they weren’t watching. Emily and Belen, in an ironic twist, were pushed together until they were back to back.

“There’s about twenty amazons headed this way!” Emily threatened.

“It lies!” one kobold replied.

“No like lies!” another shouted.

“Kill it!” yet another cried out.

“Kobold!” they all cheered.

One poked his primitive spear at Emily, and she deflected it with her knife, but the moment her eyes were turned another spear was thrust at her from the other side. She spun back to block it, but two more spears were jabbed forward. She blocked one and the other dug into her leg, drawing blood.

“Kobold!” they shouted.

Emily fought back. She lashed out with her legs and kicked a kobold in the jaw. He spun up and over the others, but another one replaced him in seconds. One tried to jab her again and she grabbed the spear. When the kobold didn’t let go, Emily swung it sideways, lifting the scaly creature into the air and flinging it back into the darkness.

Another one took his place.

There were too many. They choked the landscape with their bodies and clogged the air with their smelly, rancid breath.

“Kobold! Kobold! Kobold!” they chanted.

***

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Emily's Saga

Contains books 1 through 6 of the World of Myth Series, from Beyond the Plains to A Legend Ascends. In a world filled with dangerous creatures of terrifying power, a courageous girl will grow from a naïve farmer’s daughter into a legendary warrior the likes of which her world has never known. Emily’s Saga follows the trials and tribulations of young Emily Stout from her humble beginnings in the depths of poverty to her rise in prowess under an angel’s shadow. Forging her own destiny, Emily’s ambition will change the course of history through her perilous gamble to slay an immortal, her daring attempt to turn the tides of a centuries-long war, and her decision to oppose the monsters that wish to enslave her world. All the while, she finds love and betrayal, kindness and cruelty, and struggles to avoid becoming as twisted as those she hunts in her quest for vengeance. A heroine for the ages, Emily will decide not only her own fate, but that of her world.

  • ISBN: 9781310203152
  • Author: Travis Bughi
  • Published: 2016-03-29 00:05:23
  • Words: 572180
Emily's Saga Emily's Saga