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Prospector

Prospector

The Anavarza Archive

Book 0.1

A Novella

J.D. Mulcey

Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Preview of Warphan

 

 

 

[*
p=. *
*Chapter One *]

“She’s likely to die in the next few weeks.”

Brig stared unblinking at the healer, as though she’d spoken nonsense to him. “How can that be? You’re a healer, so heal her.”

“I can’t,” the young woman said sadly. “I can only see ailments and cures. Hers is terminal, if untreated. I can’t say if it will be the fever or the dehydration that takes her, but one of them will.”

“Well, then, treat her. How much will it cost?” His hand went to his bead belt.

“There is a cure, but it’s very expensive.” The healer looked around the modest furnishings. “It’s called marrisol. It’s late in the season, so the price will be high.”

“An alchemical elixir?” he asked. The alchemists sold all manner of concoctions and materials. He’d never dealt with them before, but he knew they charged exorbitant sums for their wares.

He tensed as his sister Yula walked up to them, a look of grave concern on her face. “What is it? Can you heal her?”

The healer glanced to Brig and then Yula, but didn’t speak. Yula looked to Brig and knew without a word. She cried out softly.

“I am sorry,” the healer said, bowing and backing away toward the doorway.

Yula turned to Brig. “Tell me.”

Brig searched for words. How did you tell someone their daughter was dying? He was still processing the information himself. His response came out in a whisper. “Weeks. At best.”

“Do something.” She stepped up to Brig and pounded her fists into his chest. He let her work out her frustrations, and the dull pain felt good. It was a welcome distraction from the wrenching in his chest. He wasn’t sure he should tell her of the cure at all, as it might create false hopes. He’d known her for all of her life; Yula would cling to that hope. But his own mouth betrayed him: “There is something…”

Her eyes lit up. He knew they would. He regretted his words, but there was no stepping back from them now. “Get it,” she said flatly.

“If I can find it, it may be… expensive.” Brig wrung his hands, wondering how expensive.

“I don’t care about the cost,” Yula cried.

“Perhaps you should talk with Will first.”

“I don’t need to talk with him. Get it. You always have beads on your belt.”

Brig cleared his throat. “Business has been slow.”

Yula gave him a fierce glare. “Then speed it up. I don’t care what you have to do. Get it.

Brig nodded and made for the narrow stairs. He counted the fourteen uneven steps to the top, and stepped into the first room on the right. “Uncle Brig!” Willa beamed at him, though beads of sweat trailed down her forehead. “A healer was here,” she said.

Kneeling by her bed, he put his hand on her forehead and forced a smile, though he felt like he’d put his hand on a hot pan. His voice cracked when he spoke. “Really, is that a fact? A healer right here in your room?”

Willa nodded and tried to sit. He pushed her back down, noting how little strength she had. True, she was only six, but she was a vibrant girl—or at least, she had been.

“I’ll be getting better soon, and then you owe me a ride on your shoulders through the market.” Her pained smile broke his heart.

“You bet I do.” He’d been punched in the gut, taken two arrows, had his head smashed, and even been kicked by a burro, but he’d never been so close to tears. He got to his feet and didn’t let her see his eyes. “I’m going to get some medicine for you, alright?

He wanted to leave without talking with Yula, but she waited for him by the door to the house. “Brigladeen.” Now that their mother was dead, his sister was one of only two people who could use his full name without garnering a mouth full of his fist. “I don’t care what you have to do. I mean it.”

“I’ll do what I can.”

“If it’s expensive, then there are other ways. You’re a thief, aren’t you? So steal it.”

It was a crude way to describe his profession, and not entirely accurate—though not entirely inaccurate, either. He’d liberated a few items in the past, but stealing from an alchemist wasn’t an appealing notion.

“Put that gang of degenerates to work doing something good for once,” Yula growled.

Again, a bit of a harsh reference to his associates, but not altogether untrue. He made his way to the door and stepped outside. Yula stayed in the doorway behind him, her stare insistent.

“Get the medicine for Willa,” she said, half ordering, half imploring.

“Just to be clear,” Brig said. “Were you including me when you said degenerates?”

She slammed the door in his face.

[*
p=. *
*Chapter Two *]

Brig cursed under his breath as he merged into the bustle of pedestrians milling through the streets. Yula’s home stood right on one of the main roads of the Fisher District. Her husband, Will, was a fisher and liked to be near the river. He was a good man who didn’t drink away his earnings, which put him a step above at least half the other fishermen in Barons Lodge. He spent most of his nights with Yula and Willa. Will would contribute every bead they had to save his daughter, and probably sell the house and his boat too.

Brig jingled his belt and heard a few dozen beads clink together. He wore his metals like most people did: on the inside of his leather trousers. The clinking was less than reassuring, since he knew they were all coppers. Perhaps thievery would be the only option.

Brig was deep in thought when he ran into a pair of burly men. He tried to sidestep them, but thick arms kept him from going around. He looked up at Igo and Ego, twins who doubled as mobile mountains, and tensed for an attack. The brothers were muscle for Skahl, whom Brig had been doing his best to avoid for weeks. “Brig, my friend,” Skahl’s oily voice called from an alley.

The twins herded Brig into the alley, using their mass to keep him from escaping. Two more thugs stood behind Skahl; he hadn’t seen them before. “Skahl, I’ve, been looking for you,” Brig said heartily.

“Really? Seems to me you’ve been doing your best to avoid me.” Skahl shifted his rotund body, letting the fat rolls settle before continuing. “Let’s get to the point, shall we? You owe me twenty-six silver beads, and I expect payment.”

Brig choked back a cough. He’d borrowed money before, but not that much. “I think you’re mistaken, Skahl. Do you have a writ with that amount on it?” They used writs to track loans, and sometimes bets. He didn’t remember borrowing that much from Skahl.

Skahl produced a scrap of parchment and handed it to Brig.

Brig eyed it and smiled. “This is for fifteen silvers.” He didn’t remember much from the last few weeks, though he did recall drinking more than usual. He also remembered having an abundance of beads. There was no way he could have drunk fifteen silvers worth of alcohol, though… He rubbed his face, uttering a curse. Maybe he couldn’t drink that much, but with a little help from his friends…

“You missed a payment, and under the terms of our agreement, you owe a penalty.”

“Nine silvers in interest? That’s a bit much, don’t you think?”

“No, I don’t. And it’s eleven silvers.” Skahl crossed his arms in triumph.

“I don’t think I missed a payment.”

“Oh, you did. I keep very careful track of my business arrangements.”

There was no way he could argue any different. He didn’t even remember borrowing the beads in the first place. Still, he tried. “I’m sure I didn’t miss a payment.”

“I need some beads. Today.”

Brig scratched the back of his neck. “This day keeps getting worse. Should’ve stayed in bed.”

“I can make such an arrangement for you on a permanent basis,” Skahl said.

“Yeah, but then you don’t get paid.”

Skahl looked past Brig to Yula’s home. “Your sister lives there? Lovely girl she has.”

Brig stepped in front of the fat beadmonger. “Touch either of them and I’ll bury a blade in your skull.”

Skahl chuckled at him. “Oh, Brig, I hear that every day.” He motioned to the men around him. “Hence the need for my associates.”

Brig wasn’t a thinker. He jumped at Skahl before his bulky guards could react. Brig’s trusty short blade flashed from its hidden sheath and pressed against Skahl’s neck. “Does this happen every day?” he growled, making sure to put some spit in his words. “Tell your boys to back off, or they’ll be trying to reconnect your head.”

The guards were close, but unsure. They produced clubs and knives, but didn’t attack. Skahl, on the other hand, remained calm. He gave no hint of fear. “Stay back,” he ordered his men.

“They couldn’t protect you now, and they won’t be able to protect you when I come for you. Leave my family out of this.” Brig pushed the dagger for emphasis.

“Perhaps we can split the difference and call it twenty-five silvers,” Skahl offered.

“And?”

“I think we can keep this among ourselves and not involve anyone else.” He cleared his throat carefully. “But I still need something today. A good faith payment.”

Brig pulled Skahl’s hefty frame around the twins until he had an escape route. He loosened his hold on the big man and handed him a belt of metals. The beadmonger took the belt and held it up, the strings clinking together. “I’ll give you credit for one silver for this, and that’s being generous. These are scratched up.”

People often scratched beads, taking miniscule shavings of metal from them. Lots of small shavings eventually became enough to form a full bead. He had to admit, the beads he had were well-worn. “Fine. I’ll get you the other twenty-four, but I need some time to set up a job.”

“One week, and you’ll have ten to me. Then five a week until you’re paid in full.”

“Done.” Brig turned and hustled his way into the throng of people bustling through the streets. He kept moving until he saw a familiar bridge. Red Bridge was, as its name might imply, a red bridge. It connected the outer section of Barons Lodge with the middle district. Two wide canals ran from the banks of the Skykom River in oblong semi-circles until they rejoined the mighty river, cutting the city in three sections. The outer third was the largest, and housed nearly the entire population of the city. The middle section held the wealthy and powerful, while the smaller central district was restricted to the offices of government. Lord Chinak, the ruler of Barons Lodge, maintained the sole estate among the massive buildings of the central district.

Immense bridges connected the districts. Built by the gaitan in ages past, the structures stood unweathered and unchanging. Red Bridge was made entirely of red marble with artistic swirls of white and black. Though thick pylons stood on either side of the entrance to the bridge, there were no guardrails on the bridge itself. Most people kept well away from the edge, lest they find themselves swimming in the putrid canal.

Brig slowed his pace as soon as he reached the bridge. The number of pedestrians crossing to the middle district were far fewer than those coursing through the outer section. Guards patrolled the bridges to keep the “undesirables” from reaching the finer shops and taverns in the middle district. That rather broad group included almost everyone in the city, unless they were servants or had beads to spend. Brig kept his stride casual, trying to blend in with the other people making their way into the middle district.

He hadn’t made it halfway across before a guard moved in intercept him. “What’s your business?” the guard asked. He blocked Brig’s way, and two more guards were angling toward the conversation. The man in front of him was tall and gaunt.

“Just looking to speak with an alchemist.”

“Which one?”

Brig tried to hide the surprise. He didn’t know there was more than one. “Whichever one can sell me some marrisol.”

Gauntly shrugged his shoulders, obviously not recognizing the name of the medicine. “Show me your beads.”

“I don’t have them with me at the moment. I just want to know how much I need.”

Gauntly rubbed his chin. “I’m thinking that if you have to ask how much it costs, then you probably can’t afford it.” He pointed back across the bridge. “Get back where you belong.”

“I just need to talk to an alchemist.” The three men brandished short clubs. Brig put up his hands in a placating gesture. “All right.” He turned on his heels and stalked away. There was more than one bridge to try.

[*
p=. *
*Chapter Three *]

Well, there was exactly one more bridge to the middle district, and he didn’t want to find a similar welcome there. He walked back through the crowded streets until he saw a familiar sign, and stepped into the main room of the Fiery Pyramon. The raucous laughter and shouting brought a smile to his face. This was home. He mingled his way through the throng of customers drinking and smoking until he reached the bar.

“Brig, what are you drinking today?” Bizil asked cheerfully. He barely came up to the height of the bar. He was only twelve, and hadn’t hit a growth spurt yet.

“I’ve got no beads.”

Bizil smiled and said, “A beer, then. On the house.”

Brig took the beer and mussed up the barkeeper’s hair. “You’re a good kid. I’ll pay for this when I have the beads.”

Bizil was genuinely good-natured, which set him apart from most of the people in the tavern. Still, no one ever took advantage of or abused the boy. He was the Pyramon’s unofficial mascot, and at any given time, there were at least a dozen men in the tavern who would rough up anyone trying to put one over on the boy. “I need to speak with Lena,” Brig told him.

Bizil moved to serve another patron, but called back, “She’s in the basement.”

Brig entered the room behind the bar, the closing door muffling the noise of the main tavern. He bypassed the open stairwell leading to the basement and went into a small storage room. The dim green glow of a small floricite crystal provided the only light, forcing him to wait for his eyes to adjust before moving on. When they did, he walked to a corner where a rough bed stuffed with straw lay waiting for him. Though not comfortable, it was comforting. It was the only place he could claim as his own, even though it wasn’t technically his. He slept here, and somehow, no matter how drunk he was, he’d wake up and run to help when a fight broke out. He never actually broke up the fights; he was more than happy to watch as the drunks beat each other into cornmeal. He only got involved when they broke things.

He covered the glowing floricite crystal and plopped down on the bed, but light spilled into the room before he’d gotten any real rest. Lena stood in the doorway, hands on her hips. “We missed you last night.” She attempted to sound annoyed, but there was concern in her tone. Lena leaned her rotund figure against the doorway. “I hope you haven’t gotten yourself in trouble again.”

Brig got to his feet respectfully. It wouldn’t have bothered her if he’d stayed on his bed, but it would have bothered him. Brig didn’t respect many people, and Lena was at the top of his list. She was the cook, and now that her husband was dead, the sole proprietor of the Fiery Pyramon.

The couple had offered Brig a job as a boy, and then a room as a man, dispensing a trove of advice along the way. Unfortunately, he’d ignored most of their advice. They never judged him for his poor choices, though. “I was drinking,” he said truthfully.

Lena nodded with disapproval and understanding. “Have you eaten?”

“Does beer count?” Brig gave her a hungry smile.

“No,” she said, motioning for him to follow her.

Lena’s kitchen was the best-smelling place in Barons Lodge. He took his customary seat at a small table by the oversized hearth. She stirred a bubbling cauldron before ladling him a bowl of stew. “I… have a favor,” Brig said, as he took the bowl from her. He took a satisfying spoonful of chicken stew.

“Beads?” she asked, as though she’d asked it a hundred times, which of course she had.

He shook his head. “No. Well, yes, but just to borrow. Briefly.”

She arched an eyebrow, but didn’t speak.

“I need to get into the middle district to see an alchemist. Dressed as I am, I didn’t get far.” He smoothed his wrinkled tunic. “I thought if I could borrow some nicer clothes and a few beads, I could get across the bridge.”

“An alchemist?”

Brig told her about Willa, and Lena’s demeanor changed. She harried him over most of his poor choices, but when it came right down to it, they were like family. She went back to her rooms and brought out a fine suit of heavy leathers, adorned with colored beads and fringes of eagle feathers. “Looks hot,” Brig commented.

Lena rolled her eyes as she held the britches up to Brig. “I’ll have to take them in.”

She altered the outfit as he ate. It wasn’t a perfect fit, but at least it didn’t look like he was wearing someone else’s clothes.

“This should work for you,” Lena said, handing him a string of silver beads. “I counted them, so make sure they all make their way back to me.”

“Thank you.”

“Brigladeen, just get that medicine for Willa.”

Brig nodded, and left to try the second bridge.

[*
p=. *
*Chapter Four *]

Brig approached the bridge and increased his pace. Never hurts to look like you’re in a hurry. He kept his eyes locked on the far side of the bridge, ignoring the guards. For good measure, he let the string of beads jingle from his waistband. He wasn’t sure if they looked at him, but they didn’t stop him from crossing the bridge. Moving with the same sense of purpose, he walked directly to an alchemist’s shop. Directly, though, involved two wrong streets and stopping three people for directions.

It was easy to find once he got close. Pedestrians did their best to avoid the shop, so he aimed for the void in traffic. He went in, slamming the door.

A dozen pairs of eyes swiveled at him and then snapped back to their browsing. Brig sauntered to a row of shelves and tried to blend in with the other shoppers. He looked at the wide range of bottles and pouches, but touched none of them. Where he came from, if you broke it, you bought it.

Small scraps of paper next to each item had a short description of the contents. Brig brushed a hand over an open tin of sugar-like cubes, briefly considering slipping the tin into his tunic. He turned to see if anyone was watching him, noticing the guards by the door. He’d rushed in so fast he hadn’t even seen them. They were staring at him, so he moved on, walking up to the main counter at the back of the shop.

There were too many shelves. He’d never find the marrisol on his own. A middle-aged man wearing a full-length leather coat stood behind a marble counter; he didn’t look smart or helpful. “Where I can find marrisol?” Brig asked after an uncomfortable silence.

“We don’t have any.”

Brig scowled. “Well, you’re an alchemist, so make some more.”

“That’s not how it works, and besides, I’m just a clerk,” the other man said, rolling his eyes. He paused a moment, and seeing that Brig wasn’t going away, walked to a door located just past the counter. “I’d suggest you moderate your tone,” he sniffed. “Master Quorien doesn’t take well to demands.” He poked his head into a backroom, waited entirely too long, and then opened the door for Brig. “Good luck.”

The dark room beyond was larger than the store itself, and twice as crowded, with containers of every shape and size cluttering shelves that reached toward the ceiling. It took a moment for Brig’s eyes to completely adjust to the darkness, whereupon he realized that an old man with spectacles was peering down at him from a high podium. Rows of candles behind the alchemist gave him an aura of orange light. The door shut, and Brig walked forward. “Quorien, I presume.”

The old man nodded to him. “What may I do for you?”

“I need marrisol. Your man out there wasn’t helpful.”

“I can’t help you either,” Quorien said. “We’ve been sold out for half a year.”

“Can’t you make more?”

“Well, what was your name…?”

“Brig.”

“Well, my dear Mister Brig, it isn’t that easy,” Quorien said. “If it were, I wouldn’t be sold out.”

“I’m a simple person,” Brig said, “so I’ll make this simple for you. You go make more marrisol, and I won’t jam my fist in your gut.”

Quorien didn’t cower like he was supposed to. He put a long finger to his lips and stared at Brig. Then he shook his head and said, “You are not what you appear to be.”

“Just give me what I want, and I’ll go away.”

“You’d threaten an alchemist in his own workshop? What kind of fool are you?”

Brig drew his knife and stepped forward. “The kind who knows that an alchemist bleeds like everyone else.”

“More the desperate kind, I’d say.” Quorien stepped out from behind the podium, but instead of running away from Brig, he moved toward him. His hand shot forward and a cloud of powder blew into Brig face. Whatever it was, Brig inhaled half of it. He coughed three times and then his arms fell to his sides, his knife dropping to the floor.

Quorien stood in front of him until the dust settled, and then he paced around Brig. Brig followed the alchemist with his eyes. He was paralyzed from the neck down. “What have you done?” Brig demanded.

Quorien walked back to his podium and pulled on a long rope that ran up to the ceiling. Brig couldn’t shift his head to see what happened, but sunlight flooded the room. “No need for theatrics anymore,” Quorien explained. “I keep an air of mystery for my wealthy clientele, but such things are wasted on a thug like yourself.”

Brig struggled to get his legs to obey him, but it was as if they weren’t there. He was a man of action, not words. Every response that came to him involved movement, but nothing worked.

“Why do you need marrisol so badly?” Quorien continued.

“I came to buy it,” Brig said. Well, actually he was hoping to steal it, but the alchemist didn’t need to know that. “You’re the one who started in with the hard bargaining.”

“Perhaps that’s how business works in your world, but not in mine. I said I didn’t have any because I don’t, and I can’t make more. Ever heard of the kachona plant?”

Brig tried to shake his head, but finally had to just say, “No.”

“It’s a beautiful plant. It grows in the highland jungles of Varoha in the Seebolan States. I have several of them in my hothouse.”

“So you’ve got me paralyzed, and you’re going to bore me to death talking about flowers?”

Quorien frowned and then continued. “Mister Brig, I don’t know what I was thinking, trying to explain this to a man such as yourself. I should just have my clerk roll you into the canal.”

Brig bit back a snappy retort and cleared his throat. “Actually, why don’t you tell me more about these flowers. They sound breathtaking.”

Quorien smiled as though he thought the remark was genuine. Then his expression soured, and he said, “I’ve lost my desire to enrich your mind. I’ll get to the point.” The alchemist walked to Brig and scooped the knife from the floor.

“That’s not the point I was hopping you’d make,” Brig said.

Quorien smiled. “That was quite clever. Perhaps you’re not half the thug I took you for. Why do you need marrisol?”

“I just need it.”

“No one just needs marrisol, Mister Brig. Who’s dying?”

Brig let out a long breath. “My niece. Her name is Willa, and if I don’t get the marrisol, she’ll die. I’ll do anything to get it.”

Quorien looked at the floor for a long moment. “I’m sorry. I make the marrisol from the flower of the kachona plant, and it won’t bloom for several months. Your niece doesn’t have that much time, does she?”

“No. Sorry about the threats. I got a little crazy.”

“Oh, this isn’t crazy. You should see what happens when a jealous husband finds one of my love potions in his wife’s possession. You’re actually quite reasonable… well, now that you can’t move, anyway.”

“If you free me, I’ll go. You can keep the knife.”

Quorien looked at the well-worn blade. “This piece of junk? I’ve got toenails that keep better edges than this.” The alchemist sighed and scratched at his mouth. “Now, what to do with you?”

Brig waited as the old man pondered. When he remained silent for an uncomfortable time, Brig tried to break him away from thinking about how to dispose of him. “I bet it gets wet in here when it rains.”

Quorien gave him a puzzled look, and then glanced up at the ceiling. A broad smile arched across his face. “Rain never gets in here,” he said.

Brig sensed the easy tension as the alchemist waited for him to ask the question. He dragged it out. Then Brig asked, “Why doesn’t it get wet, if you have an open roof?”

Like a dog who’d just discovered a bone, Quorien’s face lit up. “Why, my roof isn’t open. It’s made of plated metal.” Again, he waited.

“How can it be light in here, if it’s made of metal?”

Quorien gave him another satisfied grin. “I make it myself. I call it gossril, though I’m not sure why. Anyway, I mix floril with deathril and it forms a transparent metal. Would you like to see?”

Brig had no desire to see, but he’d watch the old man eat spinach if it meant getting free. “I’d love to see, but at the moment, my vision is restricted.”

Quorien got behind Brig and shifted him until he was facing a workbench. Then the alchemist rummaged in a box, producing several large sponges. He held them in front of Brig and squeezed them. “It’s metal,” he declared.

Brig knew of floril, so he wasn’t surprised, but he faked a look of astonishment. It was a metal altered by Green magic, giving it the flexibility of living tissue. It was useless—unless you were an alchemist like Quorien, with power over magic items.

The four magic flows filtered through everything in the world, but only altered certain things and beings. Brig had never seen or felt any type of magic. The glowing floricite gem over his bed was real enough, though. He’d also use boiler stones that harnessed Red magic.

“I’ve never been especially good with metals,” Quorien said. “I have a colleague who can blend four metals, but I’m lucky to get two to transmute.” He placed the floril in a large stone bowl and held his hands over it.

Brig watched, but nothing happened. The old man closed his eyes, remaining quiet. Still, nothing happened. Finally, Brig asked, “Is something supposed to be happening?”

Quorien flashed him an annoyed glance and returned his focus on the bowl. One of the floril balls moved ever so slightly. Then another shifted, and soon they were melting together, until only a puddle remained. The alchemist opened his eyes and smiled. Holding one hand over the liquid, he pointed to a nearby table. “Could you drop one of the deathril nuggets into the bowl?”

“Not at the moment.”

“Ah, yes. Can I trust you?”

“Sure, now that I know you don’t have what I need.” Brig put on his best smile. “Plus, I want to see how this works.” He didn’t really, but he figured it was what the old man wanted to hear.

Quorien fished in his robe with his free hand. He pulled out a small pouch and aimed it at Brig. “This isn’t meant to be thrown, but it should work. Inhale deeply.”

The pouch beaned him in the nose, sending out a puff of dust. Brig gagged and coughed on the putrid air in his lungs. A fair amount landed in his eyes and burned like hot peppers. In moments, he could move his hands and he wiped his face. That just made it worse. Hunching over, Brig coughed up a dollop of mucus. It plopped loudly on the floor.

“There’s water on the table behind you,” Quorien said. He scowled at the mess on the floor. “I suppose that’s my fault. You must have gotten a heavy dose.”

Brig downed half the water and poured the rest in his eyes. “Let’s just call us even, then.”

“Fair enough. Now come over here and pick up that deathril. It’s not easy to keep floril in this state.”

Brig walked over to the table. Crafted of solid stone, the table had a line of indentations marching across it, with half of them filled with tiny pebbles of black metal. Each was no larger than a grain of wheat. Brig grabbed one between his thumb and forefinger and pulled. He turned to the alchemist and said, “Very funny. They’re attached to the table.”

“Not at all. Use the bar,” Quorien said. He pointed to a heavy metal contraption leaning against the table. “Open it and close it around one of the grains.”

Brig shook his head, but took the bar. He placed it next to a piece of deathril. He knew of this substance, too. It was magical, infused with the Black, and heavy—but not that heavy. Though he thought the old man was playing a trick, he undid half a dozen thick latches on the bar and it came apart in two long pieces, one with two long handles jutting from the side. Placing the two pieces around one of the grains, he tried to close the two pieces. There was a divot in each piece, and he lined them up. It didn’t close.

Quorien pointed to a set of big vises. “Use those to close the bar around the grain.”

Brig shrugged his shoulders. He put a vise on each end of the bar and cranked the levers. After twisting the levers until his fingers ached, the metal bar closed.

“Good, good,” Quorien said. “Now secure the latches and get it in the bowl, please.”

Brig closed the latches and undid the vises. He grabbed each end of the bar and pulled. It didn’t budge. He lifted again, this time using his legs and back. It came up a hair. With a grunt, he got it off the table.

“Try not to drop that,” Quorien said.

Brig was too focused on carrying the bar to respond. Once he got to the bowl, he put the bar down across the lip and heaved a sigh of relief.

“Now tip it in.”

Brig tried to twist the bar, but couldn’t move it. Then he grabbed the two handles. That gave him the leverage he needed, and the grain scrapped down the channel scored into the bar. When the grain hit the bottom of the bowl, the entire building shook, as though he’d dropped a boat on it.

When the bottles and shelves stopped shaking, Quorien put both of his hands over the bowl again. “Good, now get that scoop,” he said, pointing to a nearby bench. “Stir the metal. Then pour it into that mold.”

Brig stirred the mixture and filled the tiny scoop with liquid. He expected it to be heavy, but it weighed no more than an equal amount of water. After he poured it into the mold, Quorien shifted one hand over it. The drop of liquid spread out to the corners of the square mold.

“Wait for it,” Quorien said. The dark liquid swirled and settled. Then it became clear. The alchemist pulled his hand back. “Very good. Now turn it out.”

Brig turned the mold over. He thumped it on the back and the gossril clanked to the floor. He picked it up and turned it over in his hands. It was thinner than a piece of parchment, but smooth and cold. “Amazing. Can I keep it?”

“If you have the beads. I am a businessman, after all.”

“How is it so light? The deathril was heavy.”

“Have you ever heard of emergent properties?” the alchemist asked.

“No.”

“Were either of the two metals transparent? No. And yet, the alloy is. Get it?”

Brig nodded, though he didn’t really understand. He put the gossril down on the table. At Quorien’s direction, he poured twenty more plates of the transparent metal.

“Thank you for your assistance,” Quorien said when they were done.

“What is that gossril good for?” Brig asked.

“I haven’t worked out a practical use for it yet, but I’m sure I’ll think of something.” Quorien picked up one of the plates and walked away, staring at it as he turned it in his hands.

“Sorry about threatening you before,” Brig said, as he backed toward the door. “I guess we’re through here, then?”

The alchemist grunted and waved a hand.

Brig put a hand on the door. Then he asked, “Anywhere else I can get marrisol?”

“You could mount an expedition to the Seebolan States and try to find a kachona plant in bloom, but that would take months, and you might never find one.”

Brig shook his head and left. He headed right for the exit, ignoring the clerk and the other customers.

“Mister Brig,” Quorien said, poking his head out of the back room. “There may be another option.”

[*
p=. *
*Chapter Five *]

Brig followed the alchemist to a pair of chairs next to a massive fireplace at the back of the store. Quorien took out a boiler stone on a long green lanyard. He dipped it in small kettle and it boiled in an instant. He poured them each a mug of the steaming drink.

Most homes had a boiler stone, but this one was different. Infused with Red magic, the stones could boil water, but it took time. This one boiled the water too quickly.

Quorien noticed Brig staring at the stone. “Pryicite,” he said, holding it up for Brig to see.

“I know what it is, but how does it work so fast?”

“Crystals are my specialty. I can even combine them to form new crystals.”

Brig took a quick sip and puckered. “That’s some bitter coffee.”

Quorien took a long slurp and sighed in apparent contentment. “Not coffee, dandelion root tea. Much better for you.”

“Right,” Brig said, putting down the mug. “So what’s this other option?”

“Do you know of the sagia tree?”

“Of course.” The sagia trees grew on the other side of the Skykom River. They were massive trees, soaring to at least three times the height of any other tree. Soaking in Green magic instead of sunlight, they kept their leaves throughout the year.

“If I could get a leaf from a sagia tree, I could make a growth fertilizer.” Quorien looked at him, but Brig didn’t get where the old man was going. “It’s a very potent fertilizer,” the alchemist said. “It could accelerate the growth of the kachona plant, and probably bring it into bloom in no time.”

“And then you could make the marrisol,” Brig said, nodding.

“Exactly.”

“Only one problem with that,” Brig said. “Going into the sagia forest is a death sentence.”

The sagia forest on the other side of the Skykom River was a vast expanse of dense trees, with the massive sagias jutting up through the canopy to form a second canopy at dizzying heights. No one lived there. No one visited there. The hairy, human-like tokiri called the sagia forest home. The tokiri were huge, fierce, and feral, attacking anyone who came near the forest. At night, you could hear their hostile howling from the opposite shore. Growing up in Barons Lodge, Brig was used to it, but it was still chilling to hear. The tokiri were a magical species, infused with the Green. Rumor had it their eyes glowed green, if you got close enough to see them. Few people did and survived.

“I didn’t say it would be easy,” Quorien said calmly, before taking another slurp of the steaming brew.

Brig took a second sip of the dandelion root drink. It was still bitter, but tasted better than the first sip. “So, just land on the far bank, hike to a sagia tree, grab some leaves, and come back.”

“You might have to be a bit more subtle than that.”

“You’re damn right,” Brig said. “The tokiri will rip my head off long before I reach a sagia.”

“As I said, you’ll need subtlety,” Quorien said. He refilled his mug and blew the steam off the top. “The morning fog has been quite thick for the past few days. You could take a canoe up one of the tributary rivers. I believe most of the tokiri focus on the banks of the Skykom.”

Brig thought about it. The plan was still insanely dangerous; the fog would lift by midmorning. He took another sip. Huh, this dandelion root stuff wasn’t half bad. “They’ll spot us on the way out.”

“You’ll be going downriver. Row fast.”

“No. It’s suicide.”

“It’s a chance,” Quorien said. “You said you were willing to do anything for your niece.”

“That’s below the beads,” Brig said, referring to the practice of men wearing their bead belts at their waists.

“You could stay the night and slip back out with the morning fog the following day,” Quorien suggested.

“Have you ever been over there?” Brig asked. “Have you seen those savages up close? Felt the bass of their roar? Smelled the hatred in their breath?”

“I can’t say that I have,” Quorien admitted. “I spend most of my time here in my workshop.”

“Then you don’t understand. I was stupid enough to sign on for a salvage job once. Some fool beached a pyreship on the far bank. Got the whole crew killed.”

Quorien put his mug down and gave Brig his full attention. He seemed quite interested.

“We approached in overturned canoes. As soon as we got onto the deck of the pyreship, everything went crazy. The tokiri swung to the ship on vines. They landed on the deck and started clubbing us.” Brig paused, shuddering. He could still remember watching the hairy beasts soaring through the air and screaming their monstrous battle cry. When they thumped down, the whole ship shuddered. “I panicked. I jumped off the ship and into the river. My britches were wet long before I hit the water. I found an oar and floated downstream halfway to Duagwa before I managed to get back to this side of the river.”

For once, the alchemist said nothing. He seemed enthralled by the retelling.

“No one else made it back,” Brig said. “Those things kill anything that sets foot in their forest. It can’t be done.”

Quorien sat back in his chair. “Mister Brig, what if I told you that not only can it be done, but it has been done?”

“Enlighten me.”

“Though I don’t have any sagia products in stock at the moment, I’ve had them before. Where do you think they came from?”

“Who got them for you?” Brig asked.

“Prospectors,” Quorien said.

Brig knew about prospectors. They hunted magical substances, which mostly just meant searching through the mountains for signs of magical rocks. “They did it under the cover of mist, like you said?” Brig asked slowly.

“More or less.”

“Well, which is it? More, or less?”

“I never went along, so I can’t say for sure, but I know fog was the key ingredient to a successful hunt.”

“So that’s it?” Brig asked. “Wait for the mist and paddle up the river.” Quorien gave him a nod. “Get out and find some sagia leaves.” Quorien nodded again. “Then load them up and slide right back down the river.”

Quorien spread his hands and said, “That’s it.”

“It’s suicide,” Brig said with a sigh.

“So you’ll do it?”

“Yes.”

“Good,” Quorien said, as he got to his feet. “I have a few things for you to take with you. They may help your chances.” He led Brig back into his workshop.

Quorien rummaged through a cabinet and handed Brig a straight razor. It was black as night and heavier than he expected. “So if the tokiri find me, I should stop to give them a shave?” he said sardonically.

“I wouldn’t try to shave with that,” Quorien said. “You might cut your head off.”

Brig snickered, but the alchemist stared at him without a hint of jest. Quorien grabbed a horseshoe from a table and held it out. Brig stood there, not knowing what he was supposed to do. The old man tapped the razor against the horseshoe. Brig watched in amazement as the razor split the horseshoe in half. Quorien hadn’t even hit it hard.

“How?”

“It’s an alloy of deathril and pyril with a little floril added to keep the heat down.”

“You made this?” Brig said, taking the razor back and staring at the blade. He put a finger to the edge.

“I wouldn’t touch the blade,” Quorien warned. “It will cut through almost anything. Don’t lose it, please. It’s the only one I have. Three metals are beyond my abilities, but I have an associate in Aconia who can meld up to four.”

“I’ll get it back to you, if I survive.”

“Be sure that you do,” Quorien said. “When you reach the sagia tree, there will be vines. You won’t be able to cut them with normal blades, but this razor will cut them. And if you see some of the sagia fruit, get those too.”

“Anything else I can get for you?” Brig asked. “Maybe a few gourds and melons?”

“No, the fruits will be fine,” Quorien said, the sarcasm passing right by him. “Oh, and don’t cut or break the fruits. They’re quite fragrant, and the tokiri are drawn to the scent.”

“Have anything else to give me?” Brig asked.

“I thought I did, but I must have given them to the last prospector.” Quorien turned away from Brig and said, “He never came back.”

“Great,” Brig said. “And on that high note, I’ll be on my way. I’ll be back tomorrow with some sagia leaves.”

****

Brig walked away from the shop shaking his head. He should keep the razor and never go back. It was worth more than everything he owned. He walked toward the setting sun and across the Red Bridge; the guards had no concern with people leaving the middle district.

He entered the Fiery Pyramon, finding it in full merriment. Every table overflowed with food and beer. The patrons kept up a deafening thrum of shouting and singing. He walked to his regular table and stared at the four men sitting at it. “Did you ask permission to sit at my table?” he demanded.

The man closest to him stood up, towering over Brig, and faced him. Then he smiled and offered his chair.

“Thanks, Paco,” Brig said, taking the seat.

Paco liberated a chair from a neighboring table and pushed his way back into Brig’s table. Paco was big enough that no one refused him, unless there were a lot of beads hanging in the balance. He was actually good-natured, but it was always better to let people think otherwise.

“Got a job for us?” Dust asked. His real name was Dustu, but he’d gone by Dust ever since they were children. He was a smooth talker, whether they were facing armed thugs or flirting women. Unfortunately, it was usually the former, and not so much of the latter.

“Yeah, I’ve got a job,” Brig said, trying to inject enthusiasm into his voice.

“You don’t sound very happy about it,” Hastin said, leaning into the conversation. Though they sometimes called him Tin Man, mostly they just called him Tin. It was short, and in a bad situation, short names were good. Tin was perhaps the greatest bowman in Barons Lodge when he was sober, which was to say that he was the greatest bowman most mornings between the lingering hangover and his first beer of the day.

The fourth member of the gang held back, his eyes cold and calculating. Brig decided to put it to them straight. He explained the job to increasingly unhappy faces.

“That ain’t a job, that’s a death pact,” Dust said. He’d been shaking his head the whole time Brig was talking, so his response wasn’t a surprise.

“Pass,” Tin said.

Paco looked from face to face, but kept his tongue. He’d do whatever the majority decided was best, and at the moment, that was a firm negative. He sat back and folded his arms. Then he looked to the fourth member.

Ando still leaned back in his chair. He hadn’t spoken or gestured, though Brig was certain he’d absorbed every word. Ignoring the loud room, they waited for him to speak. They knew from years of experience that he’d ignore questions while he was thinking.

Though Brig liked to think of himself as the leader of their group, Ando was the leader too in many ways. Brig usually found work for them, but it was Ando that thought up their strategies. If he didn’t have a plan, they didn’t take the job.

“Can’t be done,” Ando declared finally.

“Come on, Ando,” Brig said. “If anyone can think of a way to do it, you can.”

Ando ignored the compliment, his gaze stony. “Why bother? Much easier work out there.”

“I’ve got a good reason to do it,” Brig said. “I’m doing it, whether you’re in or out.”

“Have fun with that,” Tin said, motioning to Bizil for another beer. “Been nice knowing you.”

“Brig, this is suicide,” Dust said. “Can’t spend beads when you’re dead.”

“Willa is sick,” Brig said. “If I don’t do this, then she dies. I figure her life is worth more than mine.” And he meant it. He told them about the marrisol and why he needed to get the sagia leaves.

“You know we love Willa,” Dust said. “But what good does it do, if we get ourselves killed in that forest?”

Brig focused his attention on Ando, whose eyes were darting back and forth. He wasn’t following the conversation, he was looking at invisible maps and plans in the air in front of him. The others turned to him and waited.

“So the tokiri are mostly on the riverbank, and the mist gets us past them?” Ando asked.

Brig smiled inwardly and hoped it didn’t show. “That’s what the alchemist said. He said prospectors have done it before.”

“We’d need oarsmen.”

“I figured we could handle the oars,” Brig said.

Ando shook his head. “When’s the last time you handled an oar? We need professionals. Men who know how to paddle without making a racket.”

Brig nodded. They’d never get past the watch on the riverbank. One slap of an oar and they’d be swarmed by tokiri. “So you’re in?”

“I know some guys,” Ando said. “They’re not the brightest. They’ll do it for enough beads.”

“Willa will really die?” Paco asked. Brig nodded to him, and the big man nodded back. “I’m in if Ando is in.”

“I guess I can skip the beer for one day,” Tin said, shrugging his shoulders. “Better get them in while I can.” He lifted his mug to his lips and emptied it.

“Sorry, Brig,” Dust said. “I’m not interested.” He got up and nodded to the others. He didn’t look at Brig as he left. Dust’s refusal didn’t bother anyone.

“Drink up,” Ando said, raising his mug. He motioned to Bizil, and the boy came over with two large pitchers of water. When they needed to be up early for a job, they filled their guts with water. The call of nature woke them unfailingly before the sun rose.

They drank in silence before departing. Brig returned the suit to Lena and gave her a quick rundown of the job for the next day. She didn’t approve of it, but she told him she’d have a hot breakfast waiting for them in the morning. He thanked her and crashed into his bed.

[*
p=. *
*Chapter Six *]

Brig awoke with a burning need in his pants. In the dim green light, he stumbled to his chamber pot and filled it. The smell of fresh bean bread and green chili greeted him as he made his way to the main room. He found a single figure slumped over his table.

Brig put a hand on the man’s shoulder and said, “Good to have you with us, Dust.” It was standard form for Dust to refuse a job and then show up for it. Brig would have been shocked if he hadn’t walked out the previous night.

“No way I’m letting you have all the fun,” Dust grumbled.

Brig walked to the front door and saw three figures stumbling toward him in the dark. Lena served them a hot breakfast of bean bread smothered in shredded beef with a green chili gravy. “Delicious, but probably not the best choice of meals,” Ando said, as he grabbed another piece of bread.

“Why not?” asked Paco. He slurped up a falling green chili from his lump of bread.

“Gas,” Ando said.

The five friends looked at each other and then three of them shouted, “I’m not in Paco’s canoe!”

“I hired two oarsmen,” Ando said. “They’re reliable to a point. I wouldn’t trust them to have our backs if this goes bad.”

Brig nodded. He said, “We’ll leave them with the canoes.”

Lena brought them each a mug of her special corn beer. Brig knew she didn’t approve of what they were doing, but she was still trying to help as much as she could.

“That’s good beer,” Tin said. “What’s that flavor?”

“Holly leaves,” Lena said.

“Aren’t those poisonous?” Ando asked, peering into his mug.

“Yes, if you don’t do it right,” Lena said.

Ando shrugged and took a drink. “That is good.”

They downed the drinks and left in the cool, predawn air. After collecting their gear, they exited the city gates and found the two canoes a short hike south. The oarsmen were waiting along the bank. As expected, the morning mist clung to the surface of the water, obscuring most of the river.

They piled into the two canoes. Tin lost a draw of lots and sat with Paco while the other three men shared the second canoe. Everyone paddled until they reached the center of the river, Ando guiding them to the light beacon upstream from the tributary river. With all the men paddling they’d easily offset the current, but now the hired oarsmen rowed alone. Ando figured they’d be pulled downstream, and he’d chosen their route to account for that.

They rested under the hulking form of the river beacon. Jutting out of the river, the stone pillar housed an enormous floricite crystal that sent a brilliant shaft of green light upstream and downstream. The pyreships that plied the river were the lifeblood of the economy, and they depended on these beacons. From Barons Lodge, the beacons looked small, but here in the shadow of one, Brig couldn’t help but feel tiny.

“Oars up,” Ando said. “Everyone silent now.”

Brig and the others stowed their oars, and the hired oarsmen took over. It was just as Ando had said: Brig’s stroke was noisy no matter how he tried to keep it silent, but these oarsmen paddled without a sound. From the initial entry, through the powerful stroke and the final return, it just sounded like running water.

He tensed as he heard the first grunts in the mist. Somewhere in front of them, the tokiri were waiting. His nerves wound ever tighter. He couldn’t even see the front of the boat. What if they missed the river and landed right next to a tokiri? He put a hand on Ando’s shoulder, but he was focusing in front of the canoe and didn’t look back.

Ando steadied himself with a wide stance and poked his head up for half a heartbeat. He leaned back and whispered to Brig, “The fog is too thick. I can’t see.”

Brig gripped his oar, ready to back-paddle if they struck anything. He didn’t want to be beached on the hostile bank. The grunting grew louder and Ando stood up every few moments. Brig looked back and saw Paco at the front of the second canoe, though he couldn’t see Tin. Paco held his oar at the ready and looked as worried as Brig felt.

Ando sat and flashed a smile at Brig. He motioned to the sky, but Brig didn’t see anything. Ando whispered, “Forest canopies on either side and bright sky in the middle. That’s where the river is. Have him keep us under the bright sky.”

Brig leaned back and gave the instructions to the oarsman amid the growing chorus of grunting surrounding them. The tokiri sounded agitated and close.

They kept the dark outlines of the forest canopy on either side as they slid noiselessly up the river. The howls of the tokiri faded. Brig forced deep breaths into his chest to keep himself from holding his breath.

The mist thinned and trees came into view. Without the tokiri, the song of the forest grew, and birds and insects began their daily routines.

Ando tapped a fist into Brig’s chest and pointed ahead. He squinted, seeing nothing. Then hulking figures materialized from the mist. His heart sank, and panic welled up inside him; but in a moment, he sighed to himself.

The figures were stone pillars. As tall as mature trees, they sprang from the water like a forest of stone. Rope bridges set high above the river connected the towers. Each had at least one wooden observation deck circling it. Beyond the pillars, dozens of stone buildings stretched off into the mist. They looked old. Covered in creeping vines, the walls wept long tears of glistening water that gave them a glistening sheen. He realized it was getting brighter, that the mist was burning off.

They moved up the wide river, the navigation getting easier as the mist dissipated. They passed several canals leading toward the stone structures, each wide enough to carry two ships abreast. Thin stone pillars lined the canals, and each canal had pillars of a different hue.

The oarsmen doubled their efforts to get by the settlement before its inhabitants emerged. Up above the mists, the high circular decks might be watch posts, though Brig saw no movement.

The forest around them opened up as the mist thinned.

The first sagia tree was easy to find. With a trunk the width of a dozen houses and a massive tangle of branches up at five times the height of a mature maple or oak, it cast a commanding shadow over the entire forest. From the high branches, long cords of green vines reached all the way down to the ground.

They beached the canoes near a grove of big cypress trees that seemed tiny in the shadow of the sagia. The oarsmen stayed in the canoes, ready to cast off at a moment’s notice. Brig gave them each a whistle, then took a deep breath of the moist air. It smelled of damp wood and rich soil.

Ando said to the oarsmen, “Anything spots you, blow those whistles and get into the river. We’ll come running, so wait for us.” Neither of the men looked happy, but they nodded.

The escape plan was simple. If they were spotted, they blew whistles and ran for the river, jumping in and paddling as if their lives depended on it, which it would. Everything depended on these two men staying with the canoes and not losing their nerve.

“Paco, why don’t you stay here with the canoes?” Brig suggested. He hated to lose the lifting services of the big man, but the canoes were the only way out.

Ando nodded, whispering something to Paco, who gave Brig a knowing glance. He understood. The oarsmen weren’t to leave without them.

Tin nocked an arrow and took the lead, heading straight for the base of the sagia. Though it seemed close, the trip took longer than any of them had expected. By the time they reached the first of the vines, Paco was just a speck along the distant river.

With each step, Brig grew more apprehensive about the escape plan. It was too far. They’d never reach the river in time. The plan had made sense before, but now, looking at the distance, it was useless. They needed to get the goods and get out fast.

Tin strode up to the first hanging vine and drew a knife. He sawed on the vine, but then turned to Brig and whispered, “Won’t cut.”

“Stand aside,” Brig said. He unsheathed the alchemist’s razor. It drank in the light, creating a dark spot around it. Brig looked up, his eyes tracing the vine’s path to the lofty branches above. At irregular intervals, gourd-like fruit extended from the vine on knotted stalks. The largest ones were two fists long and closest to the ground.

Brig sliced. The black razor cut the vine, but it took two dozen hard cuts. It fell in a disorderly mess over the top of the neatly spiraled end of the vine. Lifting an eyebrow, he looked around and saw that all the vines had perfect spiraled ends. Someone, or something, tended these vines. I hope the gardener doesn’t come back anytime soon.

Ando gathered the loose vine and twirled it into loops. He hung it on his shoulder as Brig cut a second vine.

“How heavy are they?” Brig asked.

“I can handle three more,” Ando said.

“Dust, gather some leaves,” Brig said. “That’s why we came.”

Dust nodded and ran off toward a fallen leaf.

Brig cut the vine and moved to a third, this time choosing one with a fruit low enough that he could make the cut above it.

Dust returned with a leaf larger than himself. He had it folded over and stowed over his shoulder. He tossed it on the ground and ran off, returning with another a short time later.

While Dust gathered leaves and Brig cut vines, Ando bound the leaves into tight tubes with twine. Ando and Brig each took four vines, while Dust and Tin stuffed half a dozen rolled leaves under each armpit. It was a heavy load.

If the distance was long walking to the sagia tree, then it was practically infinite on the return journey. With the weight of the leaves and vines, they had to stop and rest four times before they reached the canoes. They staggered to the riverside and dropped their payload on the soft ground.

“What took you so long?” Paco asked.

Brig wiped a torrent of sweat from his forehead. “Are you kidding me? This stuff is heavy.”

“It doesn’t look heavy,” Paco said.

“Well, it is,” Ando confirmed. “Since you’re looking refreshed, why don’t you load the canoes?”

“That’s a great idea,” Dust declared. “I’ll just sit and watch.” He dropped to the ground and settled himself with his hands laced behind his head.

“Don’t get comfortable,” Brig said. “Remember where we are. Let’s not waste any time.”

Paco already had the goods packed.

“That was fast,” Brig said.

“Like I said, not heavy.” Paco folded his arms and smiled.

“Let’s go,” Ando said.

“Are you leaving?” a voice, deep and melodic, echoed from a nearby cypress tree.

Brig had a knife in his hand and whirled around in half a heartbeat. Dust was the last to ready a weapon, but in less than a moment all five men faced the stranger.

Brig’s heart seized. It wasn’t a man. It was a tokiri. Smaller than he remembered, it was still bigger than Paco. Brig glanced around, but didn’t see any more of the beasts.

The tokiri stepped toward them, into the light. Two heads taller than Brig, the beast was covered from head to foot in brown hair. It had a human-like face, albeit twice the size of his and obscured by tufts of hair. It kept its arms down and held no weapons. Its eyes had a dull green sclera surrounding emerald green irises. Ando looked to Tin, the only one with a bow. “Stick it.”

Tin raised his bow and drew the arrow back. He hesitated. “Are you sure, Ando? It looks human.”

“Is that how you men are?” the tokiri asked. “Desecrating our sagia and then killing for no reason?”

“Did you just talk to us?” Brig asked.

“What a stupid question,” the tokiri snorted.

“I didn’t know tokiri could talk.”

“What do you think we are? Beasts?”

“Well, since you asked, yes.”

The tokiri shook his head. “Who are the ones with weapons drawn?”

“Look,” Ando said. “We just want to leave.”

“Weapons down, boys,” Brig said, as he sheathed his knife. “We’re going to get in our canoes and leave, sound good? No one has to get hurt.”

“If I’m not mistaken, your canoes have already left,” the tokiri said.

Brig turned to see the oarsmen paddling silently into the center of the river. He stifled a shout. Given their circumstances, drawing attention to their location would get them killed. Still, their only way out of the forest was leaving without them, with all the vines and leaves they’d collected.

[*
p. *]

[*
p=. *
*Chapter Seven *]

Brig sprinted to the water’s edge, nearly twisting his ankle on a sagia fruit. He grabbed it and hurled it at the trailing canoe. It missed the oarsman and thunked harmlessly into the canoe.

“Exactly what was that going to do?” Dust asked. “The bastards abandon us, and you try to hit him in the head with a melon?”

Tin stepped up and drew his bow. “Brig, you want me to put one through his head?”

“No. What’s the point? They’re heading downstream. That canoe isn’t coming back.”

Ando put a hand on Tin’s shoulder. “The point is, they crossed us and they don’t get away with that. Tin, put one in his skull.”

Tin loosed his arrow, and they watched it arc over the water. The oarsmen were watching too. Both men raised wooden shields. The arrow embedded itself into the center of the rear man’s shield. Both men lowered the shields and started to row again, though they kept a wary eye on Tin.

“Where did they get those?” asked Brig. He didn’t remember seeing any shields in the canoe.

“Should I take another shot?” Tin asked. He drew another arrow and nocked it.

“Save your arrows,” Brig said. “We’ll need them.”

“They won’t survive,” the tokiri stated in its deep baritone. It took a deep breath and closed its eyes before letting it out. “The fruit ruptured when it landed. I can smell it from here.”

“You can smell it from here?” Brig asked.

“The warriors at the mouth of the river will smell it coming long before your friends reach the Skykom.”

“They aren’t our friends,” Ando said. He turned to the tokiri, a knife pointing at its throat. “What do we do with him?”

“Her, actually,” the tokiri corrected.

Five sets of eyebrows launched toward hairlines. Brig looked the tokiri up and down, but its hair was so thick it was impossible to tell if it was, in fact, female.

“So you’re a girl?”

“Do you want me to show you incontrovertible proof?”

“Uuuh, n-no,” Brig stammered. “We’ll take your word for it.” He swept another glance around, looking for more tokiri. She might be waiting for others to come and help her kill them. Then again, all she had to do was yell. He took a chance. “You haven’t tried to kill us yet, which puts you at the top of my list of tokiri. What do you intend to do with us?”

“You ruined my hard work,” she said. Pointing back at the sagia tree, she continued, “I arranged the vines quite carefully and you left them in disarray, but I won’t harm you. I don’t need to. The warriors will be hunting you soon.”

“Maybe we can use her as a hostage,” Ando said, still pointing his knife at her.

She turned to him and said, “Once they find you, they’ll hunt you relentlessly whether I’m with you or not. You’re on sacred ground.”

“So you’re not a warrior,” Brig said.

“I am Talsuni, a priestess. We care for the Mother Trees.” She pointed up to the sagia.

“Well, Talsuni, we need a way out of here.”

She pointed toward the Skykom River and said, “You should run that way. Very fast.”

“Won’t make it,” Ando said. “I couldn’t swim the Skykom on my best day, let alone after a run with tokiri chasing me.”

“Is that your town we saw back there?” Brig asked. “Can we find shelter there?”

Talsuni laughed, deep and slow. “No, we tokiri live in the Mother Trees.”

“Maybe we can build a barricade in that town,” Ando said. “It might get us through the night.”

“You can’t stay there,” Talsuni said. “Not unless the builders say you can.”

“Who are the builders?” Brig asked.

“Who cares?” Ando said, sounding uncharacteristically ruffled. “Just bring us to them!”

Talsuni considered for a moment. “Very well. The builders are wiser than I. They will know if you should be helped.” She walked toward the town by the river.

Brig and the gang had to step lively to keep up with the tokiri’s long gait. She moved through the underbrush with surprising grace and almost silent steps.

“I’d like to know who these builders are,” Brig said. He had to jog to keep even with Talsuni.

She looked at him and crooked her head. She seemed confused, and stopped to face him. “What do you mean?”

“Are they a different caste of tokiri? Do they build your structures?” The others gathered around Brig. Everyone took deep breaths as they listened.

“They are the builders,” Talsuni said in a tone of complete confusion. “They are gaitan.”

Brig stared at her and absorbed her revelation. Gaitan were one of the four races of Pure Ones, human-like beings touched by magic. Green magic infused the gaitan and endowed them with the ability to craft great works of metal, stone, and wood. They’d built the inner buildings of Barons Lodge, the bridges, the pyreships, and everything else of note in the world.

“Gaitan are extinct,” Ando said dismissively.

“Yeah, everyone knows that,” Dust said.

“If you say so.” Talsuni shook her head and returned to her hasty pace.

Brig caught up with her and asked, “You mean there are gaitan in this town?” Her answer was to accelerate. Her long strides forced everyone to break into a run to keep up with her. “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea,” Brig said as loudly as he dared.

Talsuni stopped abruptly, and Brig ran into her. Though he hit her with the full force of his body, she barely moved. His hands sank into the coarse hair that covered her back, then he jumped back and shook his hands.

“Listen,” she said, turning her ear to the side.

It was distant. Howls and hoots reverberated from the forest. The low grunts of the tokiri filled Brig with panic. Other screams answered the tokiri, but these were human. The shrieks were terrifying and short and ended amid a crescendo of tokiri war cries.

“Your friends,” Talsuni said.

“They weren’t our friends,” Ando said.

“Not a good way to go,” Paco said, bowing his head.

“There ain’t no good way,” Ando said.

Talsuni returned to the trail that Brig was just noticing. Though overgrown, there were clear spots where she set her hairy feet. That was why she seemed to move so easily through the woods. The distance between the spots were too large for him, though. Brig’s steps fell into the surrounding brush, only occasionally landing on the clear areas.

“There are gaitan in this place,” Brig said to Ando.

“This was your idea, Brig. Got any other ideas?” He waited, but when Brig didn’t say anything, he ran to catch Talsuni.

“I’ve always wanted to meet one of the Pure Ones,” Paco said between ragged breaths.

Dust put a hand on the big man’s shoulder. “There aren’t any Pure Ones left. They’re gone. This is a trap.”

They ran off, leaving Brig alone. He took a deep breath. Even if it wasn’t a trap, they weren’t getting out of this forest alive. He’d dragged his friends to this place to die. And he’d failed Willa, which hurt most of all. Brig considered heading off on his own to find a sagia leaf, but decided to stay with the group. He ran to catch them.

When he saw them, Talsuni was on the ground, kneeling. Everyone else was standing around her. Ten paces in front of her, a waist-high wall of white stone began, stretching away down a wide dirt boulevard that led into the town. Moss and vines covered the wall, giving it a sense of centuries of undisturbed age.

Beyond the wall, the overgrown road ran between high buildings. The walls flowed and bowed, more artwork than construction. Domed roofs capped the structures, and every surface gave off a dull green patina.

Brig snapped his head around as a sudden chorus of tokiri screams rolled out from the trees. He didn’t see anything, but they sounded close. He stood behind Talsuni and said, “I think we need to get in there now.”

“No,” she said. “Tokiri may not enter this place. We must be invited, and so must you. The builders will come.”

“We don’t have much time to wait.”

“Would you defile this place too?” she asked, her green eyes flaring.

Brig turned back to the forest. The chanting was getting louder, and he heard tramping feet pounding the ground. Looking back, he saw that everyone had their weapons out.

Brig drew a knife in one hand and the alchemist’s razor in the other. “I guess we’ll see if this really cuts through everything.”

“What?” Talsuni asked.

“Never mind. We’re going in.”

“No!” she said, rising to her full, imposing height.

“Too late!” Tin screamed, pointing at the tree line. It was all the more jolting, since Tin never raised his voice. He sounded like a little girl.

The largest tokiri Brig had ever seen in his life, or in his nightmares, came barreling over a bush. It charged right at them. Brig’s mouth opened, but his hands stayed at his side. He could do nothing except stare at the oncoming beast. Around him, the gang likewise stood frozen in horrid fascination. Its strides were easily equal to five of Brig’s, and it covered the open ground in just a few bounds. It skittered to halt directly in front of them. Big green-within-green eyes bulged at them. Its face wasn’t covered by as much facial hair as Talsuni’s, and Brig could see the unmistakable, gleeful smile on it.

Smile?

“Visitors!” it boomed excitedly. “We haven’t had visitors in centuries!”

[*
p=. *
*Chapter Eight *]

“I am Paytar,” the gaitan said. “Can you speak?”

Brig mumbled incoherently. Now that he wasn’t barreling at them, Brig could see the differences between the gaitan and the tokiri. Paytar’s face was distinctly human, though twice the size of a man’s. He kept a short beard, but most of his face was clear of hair, unlike Talsuni’s.

He also wore clothes. A leather vest covered his torso and half of his arms. His pants were short, only covering to his knees. His feet were bare and furry.

Paytar’s expression turned to disappointment. “Our first visitors in so long, and they can’t speak.”

Ando stepped up to speak, but his words didn’t make any more sense than what Brig had uttered.

“Foll-ow me,” Paytar said slowly. He waved his hands to signal them to enter the town. He stopped and pointed at Talsuni, who was still sitting on the ground. “Come, Talsuni. You know you don’t need to wait for an invitation.”

“You are a builder,” Talsuni said. “This is your home. We must not enter uninvited.”

Paytar shook his head and walked back to her. He helped her to her feet, easily lifting her bulk.

“Gaitan,” Brig said. “You’re a gaitan.”

“You do speak,” Paytar said in a delighted tone. “I am Gaitan. How did you figure it out? It was the eyes, wasn’t it?”

Paytar led them along the dirt boulevard amid the shadows of the high trees and complex buildings. On each side of the road, massive stone structures sprawled around them. Each was unique. With flowing lines and varying heights, they seemed built around the trees, as though they belonged there.

“How many people live here?” Brig asked.

“No people live here,” Paytar said. “Gaitan live here.”

“Of course. How many gaitan live here?”

“Three.”

“Only three?” Brig asked incredulously. “How can that be? Thousands could live here.”

Paytar laughed in a deep basso that tickled Brig’s kidneys.

“Paytar, what is this?” a feminine voice asked.

Brig turned to see another gaitan descending toward them from a small stepped pyramid. This one was smaller than Paytar, and definitely female. She lacked facial hair, but her hands had thick tufts on their backs.

“Mother, we have visitors,” Paytar said.

“You mean guests, Paytar,” she corrected him. She walked to them and said, “My name is Nasha. Welcome to our home.”

“What’s all this noise about?” a third gaitan bellowed as he came around a corner.

“Enki, come greet our guests,” Nasha said.

Enki was the largest of the three, and his beard dropped to his chest. “Guests? Why do we need guests?”

Nasha rolled her eyes at Enki. “Paytar, did you offer them anything to eat?”

“No, Mother, we only just arrived.”

Nasha turned a glance at Paytar, and he lowered his head. She said, “Get them something,” in a stern voice, and Brig realized that human mothers and gaitan mothers were obviously much the same under the skin.

Smiling, she herded them up the steps of the pyramid. The steps were thigh-high to a human, and Brig struggled to ascend at the same pace as his host. Enki followed behind them. Brig kept an eye on him, just in case this was a trap.

The pyramid facade leveled off and led beyond to a long patio overlooking a shaded garden far below. Several rough holes in the floor revealed that there was nothing underneath the platform they were standing on. The patio stretched to another pyramid structure at the far end, but nothing supported the patio itself.

Nasha motioned to a circular bench surrounding a central pit with a dim fire smoldering in it. Enki moved past them and drew half a dozen massive logs from a pile near the edge of the patio. Soon the fire raged at the center of the benches, and the two gaitan sat opposite Brig and the gang. Talsuni sat off to the side, looking decidedly uncomfortable. Brig made the introductions. They exchanged glances, but no arms were offered in greeting.

“How long has it been since we have had guests?” Nasha asked Enki. “Seven centuries?”

“It was that band of draks,” Enki said to her. He turned to Brig and said, “They were lost and looking for a battle. Though honestly, when aren’t draks looking for a battle?” He shook his head and took out a pipe the size of a small beer cask. “The younger races…”

Paytar returned carrying a tray, and offered a plate to each man. Brig took his plate and stared down at a single raspberry. He looked up and said, “You shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble.”

“Is it too much food?” Paytar asked seriously.

Nasha covered her mouth to hide a smile. “You must forgive my son. He’s never been around men before.” She turned to Paytar and said, “They eat much more than we do. A single berry won’t sate their appetites.”

“I find it hard to believe that we eat more than you,” Brig said. He looked at his friends, but they seemed content to let him speak while they are their berries.

“Most of our nourishment needs are met by the Green magic flow,” Nasha said. She held her hands up to the sky. “We don’t need much actual food.” She nibbled on her berry and asked, “What ever are you doing here? We don’t get visitors. The tokiri keep most men away.”

“Are the tokiri gaitan as well?” Brig asked. “They seem much more hostile.” He noticed the sour expression on Talsuni’s face, despite all the hair on it. “Present company excepted.”

The three gaitan looked at each other and laughed, as though there was an inside joke. Nasha said, “No, we are quite different species, although we both absorb the Green. The tokiri are not civilized, and don’t get along well with others.”

“They don’t attack you.” Brig noted that Talsuni had crossed her arms and was looking away from the conversation.

“As I said, we are both of the Green. You might say we are of the same mother, but not the same family.”

“I’m pretty sure that if you have the same mother, you are of the same family.”

Nasha chuckled. “It was a metaphor.”

Brig shrugged and dropped the matter. He said, “Talsuni seems civilized.”

“I think you will find both the priestess and worker classes much more agreeable than the warrior tokiri.”

Brig nodded. “So they’re like Talsuni?”

“Talsuni is unique,” Nasha said, a sense of pride in her tone. “She has been with us for many years, and we have taught her much in that time. I don’t think you will find another tokiri who is as well-spoken as she.”

“Thank you,” Talsuni said, turning back to the conversation. “And we are civilized.”

“We’ve spoken of this, and you know my feelings on the issue,” Nasha said gently. “As long as your warrior class controls your society and you attack indiscriminately, I will not consider tokiri civilized.” Talsuni turned away from the discussion once again, and Nasha sighed. “So, Brig, what are you doing here?”

Brig weighed the truth. If the sagia was sacred to the gaitan too, then the truth wasn’t the best choice. Then again, he didn’t have a better story. He glanced at Ando, hoping he’d have some falsehood concocted. Ando just nodded back at him amiably.

“Well, here goes,” Brig muttered. He said, “We came to find a sagia leaf. My niece is sick, and if we don’t get one, then she’ll die.”

“You braved the tokiri to save your kin?” Nasha said, clasping her hands together. “How brave!”

“Sounds foolish to me,” Enki grumbled.

“It may be both,” Brig admitted.

Paytar sat down next to Brig and started eating a raspberry. With his massive hands, it looked like a man eating a single kernel of corn. “Your friends didn’t fare so well. That’s what I was doing in the forest. I heard the war cries and ran to see what was happening.”

“They weren’t our friends,” Ando said loudly.

“Well, that’s good, then,” Paytar said, “because the tokiri swarmed their canoes. It wasn’t a pretty sight.”

“They abandoned us,” Brig said. “They left us here to die.”

“The younger races,” Enki sighed, as he exhaled a puff of smoke. “How do you intend to leave the forest?”

“We had intended to paddle down the river in canoes,” Brig said. “That didn’t work out, so we don’t have a plan.”

“You could try to run for it,” Paytar said.

Ando snorted loudly enough for everyone to hear. “Run through a forest we don’t know, as fast as we can, and then jump into the Skykom and swim across? We’d never make it as far as the river. And if we did, we’d drown long before we reached the other side.”

“It was just a thought,” Paytar said with a shrug. “I guess you’ll be staying a while.”

“We can’t stay,” Brig said. “I need to get back with a sagia leaf.”

“Perhaps while you’re contemplating your plans, you can take a tour of our lands,” Nasha said.

Enki leaned forward, a sudden gleam in his eye. “That’s a wonderful idea,” he bellowed.

Nasha got up and turned to leave. She said, “I thought you’d like that.”

“Where are you going?” Enki asked. “Aren’t you going to help show our treasures to our guests?”

She looked at him, and they shared a glance. “I’ll find some suitable food for our guests. I’m certain you can handle the tour.” She nodded to Talsuni and said, “Will you assist me?”

Talsuni bowed her head and raced to catch up with Nasha as Enki shot Brig a sour look. “What do you suppose she meant by that? Are human females any easier to understand?”

Brig shrugged. “You’re asking the wrong guy. I don’t have a clue.”

“You sound like a lucky human,” Enki said. He waved his giant hand in a dismissive gesture. “Paytar, let’s show them our treasures.”

Paytar got to his feet. “Father, where do you want to start?” Enki just smiled at him and Paytar seemed to understand. “Ah, yes. The canal.”

They followed the two gaitan back down the pyramid. The morning mist had lifted, and the sunlight filtered in through the thick canopy of trees. Moisture still hung on everything. Paytar led the group, while Enki stayed back with Brig to describe the buildings. The builder informed them of the types of wood and stone used in each structure. He also noted the construction techniques with such detail that Brig was certain he was sleeping on his feet.

Brig didn’t want the tour. He needed to get a sagia leaf and then get back to Barons Lodge. Going on a leisurely tour made him want to scream, but these were Pure Ones and you didn’t refuse them. At least, he was assuming he couldn’t turn down the offer.

Despite his need to do something more active than listen, Brig had to admit the buildings here were the most impressive he’d ever seen. Enki pointed to dome-like structures half-submerged below the ground level, and a set of spires that seemed to serve no purpose whatsoever.

“What are these?” Brig asked, passing his fingers over some raised runes on one of the buildings.

“It’s a recording of when this building was constructed and who worked on it.”

“What language is it?”

“It is the language of the Gaitan.”

Brig pulled on his goatee. “Isn’t it strange that our written languages are different, but we can still understand each other? For that matter, how can I understand what Talsuni is saying?”

“Ah, the younger races,” Enki said. “Your people have no memory of the time before the Shattering. Before that time, we all spoke different languages, but after that day, everything changed.” Enki waited like a bard for his audience to close in around him. Then he continued, “After the Shattering, we could all understand each other, no matter what language we spoke.”

“That seems like a good thing,” Brig said. “So why was it called the Shattering? That sounds bad.”

“The Void came to us that day as well. Before, there were only the four magic flows; but then came the Void, a great nothingness where there should have been magic. Faydens began to appear in your species then. They have some connection to the Void.”

Enki puffed on his pipe, blowing out great puffs of sweet smoke. “The Gravatok ruled over all the races in those days. But after the Shattering, the Gravatok began to disappear. Something about that infernal Void drove them away. They left the world in the hands of the Pure Ones, beings like us.” He motioned to himself and Paytar. “But we Gaitan had no interest in ruling, and neither did any of the other Pure Ones.”

“Leaving the Tainted Ones to rule,” Brig said. That much he knew from the histories. The four Tainted races had ruled the world for ages, each of them using humans as fodder for their endless wars until they, too, abandoned the race of men. Myth had it they just migrated to the north and still fought with each other. It wasn’t something he ever thought about. He’d never seen one, and didn’t figure he ever would. Then again, he’d never thought he’d meet a gaitan.

“I think you know the history from there,” Enki said with a final puff. He began walking again.

They arrived at a wide canal framed with white stone. In the placid waters was a massive ship unlike anything Brig had ever seen before. The bottom half looked similar to a pyreship, the ancient stone ships that sailed up and down the Skykom. The black stone of the hull ran well above the waterline, but instead of a deck above it, it had white, almost translucent stone completely encapsulating the ship. It looked like a two-tone tube closed on either end by a sharp point of green stone. In the center, a tall spire of green stone reached toward the sky.

Enki crossed his arms, apparently pleased with the awe on his visitor’s faces. “Do you like it?”

Brig nodded. “You made that by yourself?”

“No, of course not. Nasha and Paytar helped me.”

“Still, that’s a lot of work for three people.”

“For three people that would be impossible,” Enki said. “But for three gifted gaitan? Child’s play.”

“Child’s play?” Paytar said. “It took three failed prototypes and fifty years to complete!”

Enki shot his son a withering glare. “Who’s telling this story?”

Ando stepped into the conversation and asked, “Since you have a boat, can you give us a ride to Barons Lodge?”

“No,” Enki said apologetically. “I’m sorry, we can’t do that.”

“I think you should,” Brig said as insistently as he dared.

“It doesn’t work,” Paytar stated, and earned another scowl from Enki.

Brig sighed. “Figures.”

“It functions perfectly,” Enki said. “It’s simply missing one component. You see, we get our resources from the tokiri. They’re good at finding and dragging stone and metal from great distances. However, they can’t find any pyricite.” He looked at Brig hopefully. “Do you have any?”

Brig patted his chest and declared, “Clean out.”

“Mother says we could have gotten pyricite decades ago, if you’d just travel to Chak Tau and get it.”

Enki puzzled over his son and asked, “Whose side are you on?”

“Mother’s. I know who’s in charge here.”

“Well, if she’s in charge, then why hasn’t she taken us to Chak Tau to get it?”

“She can’t pick you up.” Paytar was grinning ear to ear.

“Bah,” Enki said dismissively.

“I can get you some pyricite,” Brig said. Both gaitan turned to him with a note of curiosity and wariness. “I don’t have any, but I know someone who does.”

“Enough to run eight engines?” Enki asked.

“More than enough,” Brig assured him. He wasn’t sure how much pyricite they required, but he needed their help.

“Well, then, let’s talk.” Enki rubbed his big hands and smiled at Brig. The gaitan looked beyond Brig and smirked. His expression turned to one of victory. “You see, Nasha. I didn’t need to leave here to get pyricite. It came to me.”

Nasha and Talsuni approached carrying trays of nuts and berries. It didn’t look very filling, but Brig was hungry and began to salivate.

“I decided if we waited for you to return, our guests would starve,” she said. She and the tokiri offered the trays to grabbing hands. Every man stepped forward and took handfuls. Brig had a fleeting thought that they might be poisoned. He ate them before the thought could complete in his mind. As nuts and berries went, they tasted delicious.

“What’s this about pyricite?” Nasha asked.

“Our guest can get enough pyricite to run the ship’s engines,” Enki said.

She turned to Brig. “And where will you get it? Is it that common these days?”

“No, not common, but I know a guy, an alchemist.”

“An alchemist?” she asked. “What is that?”

“Well, he’s sort of a… fayden,” Brig said, his voice almost a whisper.

All three gaitan puckered at the mention of a fayden. All the magical races hated the faydens; that was well known. To Brig’s eyes, they were all magical, but there was an unwritten animosity between the faydens and the creatures touched by the color magics. He didn’t care about such things, or at least he hadn’t until this very moment.

“Look, you won’t have to meet him. I’ll be the broker. You don’t need to bother about where I get the pyricite.”

Enki gave him a sidelong glance. “I’m not sure about this. A fayden?”

“Actually, I think you should meet him someday. He’s an ornery guy. I think you’d get along great.”

Nasha gave Brig her own distrustful glare. She said, “A broker implies a deal. What’s the other end of the deal?”

“Sagia leaves,” Brig said. “And vines, and fruits.”

Enki scratched his beard. Paytar and Nasha looked to him, but didn’t speak. Enki noticed their deference to him and seemed to savor the moment. Finally, he spoke. “You have a bargain, Brig. Sagia leaves, vines, and fruits in exchange for enough pyricite to run eight engines.”

Paytar did a little hop and smacked his hands together. “Does this mean we can travel away from here?”

“Can’t you be satisfied with knowing it can sail?” Enki asked. “Why do we need to actually sail it anywhere?”

“Paytar is right,” Nasha said. “When we have a functional pyreship, we should use it, at least once.”

“Fine, once.”

“Talsuni, can you have your people gather those goods for us?” Nasha asked.

Talsuni’s eyes were already wide. She seemed about to explode. “Yes, Builder. But, no.” She struggled to find words. “We can’t give those sacred things to these… men.”

“They are for us,” Enki assured her. “Tell your people they are gathering these things for us. What we do with them is not your concern.”

Talsuni seemed unsure, but she nodded and stepped back.

“Could we get a leaf up front?” Brig asked.

Enki considered the question, but Nasha was the one who spoke. “Do you think we were born last millennium?”

“I was,” Paytar said.

Nasha ignored her son and replied to Brig. “If we give you what you seek, then you won’t keep your end of the bargain.”

“Of course we will.” Brig wasn’t sure they would, though, and it must have shown.

“No,” Enki said. “Nasha is correct. We’ve never dealt with you before and I don’t recall honor being one of the foremost traits of men. You’ll return with the pyricite before you get your goods.”

Nasha grinned at her husband and then turned to Brig. “Now, how do you expect to get out of the forest alive?”

[*
p=. *
*Chapter Nine *]

Brig gripped the tiny twigs in his hands. They were small, no thicker than his little finger. He had several dozen stuffed in his pockets. He stood near the main entrance of the gaitans’ estate. Beyond, the forest spread out under the midday sun. Speckles of light penetrated the canopy, but he could only see a short distance. “So what do these do?” he asked.

“They’re buoyant,” Enki said.

“What does that mean?”

“They float,” the gaitan said, and shook his head. “The younger races…”

“I guess that will help, but we’re fairly heavy.”

“Try to keep some of them as you run,” Nasha said.

Paco pushed Brig aside and took another handful of twigs.

“This is crazy,” Ando said. “We’ll never make it.”

“We’ll make it,” Brig said. “I’m certain that I’m right and you’re wrong.”

“What makes you so confident?” Ando asked.

“If you’re right, then we’ll all be dead, so no one will be alive to know you were right.”

“That’s demented logic,” Ando said.

Brig shrugged. He smiled despite the knots in his belly. They needed to stay positive. He put more of the twigs in his pockets. It didn’t seem like the tiny sticks would help, but he wasn’t going to argue with a gaitan.

“Are you ready, Paytar?” Enki asked. “Do you know what to do?”

Paytar nodded eagerly and pointed toward the forest. “I run that way and start throwing these to either side of my path.” He held up a sack full of sagia fruit.

Enki said, “They’re quite ripe. They’ll break on impact and draw every tokiri within sniffing distance.”

“That part of the plan I’m a little sketchy on,” Brig said. “Why do we want to attract them?”

“Paytar will be throwing them to either side of the path, so that will leave the path itself clear of tokiri. You should be able to make it to the river unmolested.”

“And then we have to swim across the Skykom.” Brig looked at his friends. They weren’t the best swimmers, and the river was the widest in the world, as far as he knew. He doubted they’d all make it to the other side. “Easy,” he said.

Enki slapped his son on the back and the ground shook as the gaitan bounded into the forest. The rustling bushes soon swallowed him and all Brig could hear was the distant thumping of his steps.

“Now run that way,” Nasha said, pointing to the narrow pathway her son had beaten through the underbrush. “If you see a tokiri, run faster.”

“Are you sure you can’t escort us through?” Brig asked.

“We would just draw attention to you,” Enki said. “Tokiri respect us, but that wouldn’t stop them from smashing your skulls to dust. They don’t respect you.”

“Right.” Brig looked to each man and waited for a nod of readiness. “Let’s go, then.”

He took the lead, setting a steady pace. Then he heard the tokiri war cries coming from the surrounding trees. He accelerated to a full run.

Paytar had smashed a nice path through the bushes, but they still had to slow to get past some of them. The war cries grew louder. Paco trailed behind. He panted with great wheezing sounds that were probably audible from a hundred paces away.

They pushed on at a sprint through a clearing, but slowed at the far end. Brig looked left and right. “Where’s the path?” he asked.

“I don’t see it,” Ando said. “We’ve got to find it.”

A tokiri stepped into the sunshine from the other side of the clearing. It locked eyes with Brig and paused. Then it let out a whoop and ran toward them.

“Go!” Brig yelled.

They plunged into the underbrush without regard for a path. Brig looked over his shoulder for the tokiri. He couldn’t see it through the bushes, but he heard it screeching. Then he heard answering cries from every direction.

He ran through another clearing and saw a swarm of tokiri gathered in a far corner. They were hunched over something and didn’t notice the lumbering men sprinting through the forest. Brig could see the Skykom ahead. He paused at the end of the clearing as Ando, Tin, and Dust reentered the forest, heading for the river. Paco was just emerging into the clearing. Brig wanted to yell at him to run faster. He settled for waving frantically at him.

Paco had almost made it to Brig when the pursuing tokiri emerged from the forest. He was covered in branches; they clung to his thick hair like an overcoat, making him look even more frightening. He screeched at them.

The mass of tokiri looked up and then over to Paco. Brig saw the broken remnants of a sagia fruit on the ground at the center of the huddle. They looked at the fruit and then back at Paco. They didn’t seem to want to leave the fruit. “Move it, you big idiot!” Brig screamed at Paco.

The beasts traded glances again. Then they stood to face Brig and bellowed.

Paco stumbled to Brig, his breath racing and rivulets of sweat running down his face. “Can’t make it,” he wheezed. “Go.”

Brig grabbed Paco by the front of his tunic and shoved him toward the river. “I’ll buy you time. Now get in the river!” He turned to the tokiri and drew his knife and the alchemist’s razor.

The lone tokiri charged at him, while the group fanned out around him. They jumped up and down in a frenzy. They hooted and hollered as they closed in on him.

The ground shook under him, but Brig held his ground against the charging creature. He heard another coming from behind, but couldn’t turn. He readied his blades.

As the charging beast got to him, the other flashed past him from behind. The two met, and the charging tokiri went to the ground so hard it bounced. “I’m sorry, little tokiri,” Paytar said. “I hope you’re not hurt.” The gaitan turned to Brig. “This isn’t the path.”

“I figured that. Can you help me get to the river?”

Paytar glanced at the surrounding tokiri. Their shouting had ceased. They looked decidedly confused, though still hostile. “Put your blades away,” Paytar said. Then he charged at Brig. The gaitan grabbed him by the legs and arm, hauling him up over his head.

The tokiri let out a chorus of war cries and stamped on the ground in approval.

Paytar walked into the forest, then ran to the river. Brig covered his face as branches whipped his whole body. The gaitan plowed through the woods without regard for his passenger above him.

“Swim well,” Paytar said suddenly.

Brig felt the nothingness beneath him as he flew through the air, passing over Paco and splashing into the river. He bobbed to the surface and spit out the water in his mouth. He panicked for a moment, but then realized he was floating easily despite the drag of his clothes. Paco paddled up to him. The big man was still breathing heavily, but had a sense of calmness about him.

“It’s the sticks,” Paco said. “They make us float.”

Sure enough, Brig sensed the stores of twigs in his pocket and around his tunic pushing him up. He took some in his hands so he wouldn’t get upended. All five men gathered and began the slow but surprisingly easy swim to the center of the river. They rested on one of the massive pilot lights. It had raised rings around it to mark the water level; they made excellent handholds.

“I can’t believe that worked,” Ando said.

“Did you see Brig fly?” Paco asked.

“I saw the splash.”

They laughed at themselves and each other. They laughed at the screaming tokiri they’d left on the banks of the river, they laughed at the way the gaitan had tossed Brig like a child, and they laughed about cheating Dyn, the god of death.

The soaked swimmers came ashore downriver of Barons Lodge near an irrigation ditch. After helping themselves to some unripened beans, they trudged back to town.

“You’re not going back there, are you?” Dust asked.

“Of course he is,” said Ando.

“I guess I am,” Brig said. “We’ll need more oarsmen.”

“Not going to happen,” Ando replied, shaking his head. “No one will take the job. I can see it now. ‘Remember those two guys I hired yesterday? Well, they’re dead now. Anyone else want to join up?’“

“I’ll find a way,” Brig said.

“Count me out,” Dust growled, though Brig was sure he didn’t mean it.

Paco was at the rear of the group, but his voice carried. “I’m in.”

“I’ll do what I can to get new oarsmen,” Ando said. “No promises.”

Tin nodded. It made Brig grateful for his friends. After all they’d been through, they were ready to go through it again. He wanted to say something meaningful, but he simply grunted. He was sure they understood.

When they entered the city gate in early evening, Brig told them he’d meet them at the Fiery Pyramon.

There was no chance of getting across the bridge dressed like a wet vagabond, so he didn’t even try. He walked the pathway that ran along the canal until he was alone, then he jumped in the canal. He was soaked already and didn’t think one more dunk would make a difference. He was wrong.

The canals weren’t known for their pleasant aroma, and once he hit the water, he found out they didn’t taste very good either. Though the current from the Skykom pushed the water through the canal at a good pace, the constant introduction of waste kept it quite foul. The twigs kept his face out of the water, but he still had to breathe. He gagged a few times on his trip across, and climbed out on the other side smelling as though he’d just pissed himself.

He walked quickly to the alchemist’s shop. The other pedestrians gave him a wide berth.

Entering the shop, he drew disgusted looks. He ignored them. Quorien was sitting at the back of his shop sipping tea, and Brig walked right to him.

The alchemist looked him up and down. “You don’t have the sagia leaf, do you?”

“Things didn’t go according to plan.”

“They never do,” Quorien said.

Brig stepped closer and said, “I need pyricite. Enough to run eight pyreship engines.”

“Is that all? Perhaps I could give you some pyrus too.” He wrinkled his nose and said, “And a change of clothes.”

“I made a deal,” Brig said.

The alchemist ignored him and stared at Brig’s breeches. He furrowed his brows and put a hand out as though Brig’s crotch was giving off heat.

“Is that sagia wood in your breeches, or are you just happy to see me?”

[*
p=. *
*Chapter Ten *]

Brig pulled out the twigs and showed them to Quorien. The old man took one and examined it carefully, turning it over several times. “Where did you get this?”

“A gaitan gave it to me.”

Quorien narrowed his eyes and stared at Brig. “Have you been drinking?”

“Only canal water.”

Quorien blanched at the mention of the foul water.

“Yeah, and it tastes just like you’d expect.”

“Gaitan?” Quorien asked, staring intently at Brig.

Brig told him the whole story. The alchemist listened, asking no questions. When Brig finished talking, he waited. And waited. Quorien peered past Brig and seemed to have an entire conversation in his mind.

Finally, he spoke. “A fascinating story. If true, I might stand to make a healthy profit from this trade, but you didn’t mention quantities.”

Brig cursed inwardly. He’d realized it himself on the walk back into town. They’d never settled on exactly how much of the sagia goods the gaitan were offering. He raised his hands in apology. “If the deal isn’t good, then I’ll return with the pyricite.”

“I’m sorry, Mister Brig, but that much pyricite is too valuable. I barely know you, and your story is, ah, fantastic.”

“It’s what happened.”

“No one has seen a gaitan in these parts in five hundred years. According to you, they’ve been living on the other side of the Skykom River all this time?” Quorien wore a look of solemn remorse, but he kept firm. “You did manage to get some sagia wood, but I’m sorry. I can’t trust you with that much pyricite. You could sell it and I’d never see you again.”

“It’s not about the beads,” Brig said in a growling tone.

“Yes, I recall. Your niece, though I’ve never even met her. I can’t say for sure you even have a niece.”

“I’ll take you to her,” Brig said. He got up, motioning to the door.

Quorien considered, and then got up too. “Very well, I could use a walk.” He disappeared into the back room and returned wearing a long cloak.

Brig led him to the outer ring of the city. The alchemist kept pace well for an old man. He seemed obliviously happy and comfortable walking the narrow streets near the docks.

“These streets aren’t like the ones in the inner districts,” Brig said. “Thieves and worse are always looking for an easy mark.”

“No one robs an alchemist.” Quorien barely even looked at Brig. He watched two boys arguing near a shop.

“You see,” Brig said. “Those two aren’t arguing. It’s a distraction. Somewhere their friends are stealing something.”

“How devious,” Quorien said, with genuine admiration.

“That’s how they get enough to eat,” Brig said. “If they aren’t devious, they starve. They’d steal you blind if I wasn’t with you.”

“Mister Brig, no one steals from an alchemist. You, of all people, should know about running afoul of an alchemist.”

Brig recalled the paralyzing powder. “Perhaps they wouldn’t, but how would they know you’re an alchemist? It isn’t like they’d ask your occupation before they stole from you.”

“Are you trying to steal my pyricite?”

“What?” Brig said, caught off guard by the sudden change in subject.

“I think we’re walking in circles,” Quorien declared. “What is it you’re trying to do?”

“My sister’s house is right there,” he said, pointing down the road. He followed his own finger and saw Skahl emerging from Yula’s home. The beadmonger joined his twin thugs and walked away. Worried, Brig left Quorien and ran to Yula’s house. He threw open the door and rushed into the main room. “What did Skahl do?” he demanded. “I’ll kill him if he touched any of you!”

Yula and Will sat at a table near the hearth. Will was a lean man with cord-like arms. Normally he was cordial, but now he stared at Brig with open anger. “We asked him to come,” Will said.

Yula nodded her head. “Yes, we were settling your debt with him.”

“You what?” Brig said, his mind spinning.

“Please tell me we didn’t make a mistake,” Yula said. “Tell me you have the medicine.”

“Where did you get that much silver?” Brig asked.

“My boat,” Will said. “Sold it.”

“I don’t understand,” Brig said, taking a seat at the table. “Why did you do that?”

“That man came looking for you,” Yula said. “He said things had changed, and he needed his beads immediately. I didn’t want that to interfere with getting the medicine for Willa. Do you have it?” Her voice carried plain desperation.

“It’s complicated,” Brig said. He rubbed the back of his neck.

Yula looked to Will and began to weep quietly. Her husband put his hand on hers. He took a deep breath and asked, “Can you get it, or not?”

“It’s a long story.”

“I sold my boat, and Willa is upstairs getting worse.” His voice rose an octave, and he pointed at Brig. “Why don’t you tell us your story?”

“Fine.”

“Could you tell us while you’re standing over there?” Yula asked, pointing at a small alcove. “You smell like a piss pot.”

Brig got up and started his story. He told them of the alchemist, the trip into the sagia forest, and the deal with the gaitan. They remained quiet during his story, though they traded frequent glances, particularly when he mentioned the gaitan. When he was done, Will spoke. “Alchemists? Gaitan and tokiri? Sagia trees?” he said mockingly. “He hasn’t done a thing to help Willa. All he’s been doing is drinking.”

“Only canal water, or so he says,” Quorien said from the doorway.

Will bolted to his feet and took a menacing stance. “Who are you?”

“I’m the alchemist Mister Brig spoke of.”

Will stepped back from the old man. He looked to Brig and then Yula.

“He’s telling the truth?” Yula asked.

“I’m not so sure about the gaitan, but I’m reasonably certain he’s been in the sagia forest today.”

“It’s all true,” Brig said. “Why won’t anyone believe me?”

“You do have a tendency to exaggerate, Brigladeen,” Yula said.

“Brigladeen?” the alchemist parroted. “My, what an interesting name.”

“I don’t think I could exaggerate what happened today if I wanted to. I barely believe it, and I was there.”

“Where is this girl, your niece?” Quorien asked.

“What does he want with Willa?” Yula asked defensively.

“He doesn’t think she exists. He thinks I made her up.”

“I don’t like it,” Will said, eying both men. “But if it’ll help, then I’ll take you to her.” He led the alchemist up the stairs, leaving Brig and Yula staring at each other.

“Why did you sell the boat? My debts are mine. They aren’t your problem.”

“You could just say thank you.”

“How will you make a living now?”

“Will can find work on other boats. We’ll save for a few years and get a new boat.”

“I’ll pay you back,” Brig said.

When Will returned with Quorien, the old man looked serious. “I don’t doubt her illness anymore.” He reached into his cloak and dropped a fist-sized pouch on the table. It was made of finely woven green fibers. Soon seven more pouches lay upon the table. “The pyricite.”

“You were carrying it the whole time?” Brig asked. He took a pouch and loosened the drawstring. It warmed his palm as he looked at the contents.

“I wouldn’t touch that,” Quorien warned him. “It’s quite powerful. If there’s any moisture on your hands, you’ll get scalded. The wanis pouches make them safe to carry.”

“I thought the pyricite would be much larger than this.” Despite the warning, Brig touched a finger to the crystal. He felt the singe before he heard the hiss. He yanked back his finger and kissed the tip.

“Who’s the expert on pyricite here?” Quorien asked, rolling his eyes.

Brig shrugged and pulled the drawstring shut. “This is enough for eight engines?”

“More than enough.”

“Won’t need two canoes to transport this,” he said, appraising the pouches in front of him. “No need to put the gang in danger. I can do this myself.”

“Do what yourself?” Quorien asked.

“Never mind,” Brig said. “I just need to find—” He looked at Will and smiled. “Say, Will, you’re good with an oar, aren’t you?”

[*
p=. *
*Chapter Eleven *]

Brig glanced back at Will, who was utterly focused on his task. He was stroking the oar through the water with power, but slowed to withdraw it from the water without a sound. The entry back into the water was equally silent.

He looked to the sky, seeking the break in the canopy that signaled the tributary river. The mist was thicker today. He saw nothing. Finding the great pylon in the center of the river was easy; but setting off in exactly the same direction as before was guesswork, and once they were three strokes from the signal light, they were blind.

Brig saw a form emerge from the white mist that enveloped them. It was directly in front of them. He signaled to Will to stop, but it was too late. Brig covered his head as the canoe ran right into a huge bush growing by the side of the river. Before they stopped, the canoe was buried halfway in the tangle of branches.

He stifled a curse and gripped his oar. He hadn’t used it since they crossed mid-river, but now he braced it against the bush and shoved. The canoe slipped backwards, but Will had to make several frantic strokes to regain control. It made noise. Not a lot of noise, but enough. Questioning grunts rumbled from the mist. They weren’t close, and after a moment, they died down.

Will pulled Brig close and asked, “Upstream, or downstream?”

“Go downstream,” Brig guessed, though he feigned an air of confidence. “We’re close.” He hoped he was right.

They passed two more knotted bushes by the riverside, and then the bank receded away. Brig looked up and smiled. He couldn’t see the trees, but the sky seemed lighter.

“This is it,” Will whispered. “I can feel the current.”

Brig squeezed the oar in his hand. He was ready to start paddling at the first sign of a tokiri. They proceeded slowly, the mist somehow growing thicker as they traveled up the tributary river. Visibility was just a few moments ahead of the canoe. He kept a sharp eye out for any obstacles in the river.

A large tree trunk lying across the riverbank materialized in front of them, and they paddled slowly around it. As they neared the end of the trunk, green eyes peered at them. Brig swallowed his breath and froze.

“Brig, is that you?”

It was Talsuni’s voice. He let his breath out and whispered back to Will, “Don’t worry. This tokiri is fairly friendly.”

Will looked at him in confusion. “What tokiri?”

He realized the mist was so thick that Will couldn’t see Talsuni, even though he was just a pace farther away. Then Will’s eyes grew to the size of tomatoes as he saw her. Brig put a hand on his shoulder to calm him, but Will almost climbed out of the canoe into the river.

“Follow me,” Talsuni said. She ambled across the trunk toward the riverbank.

Brig guided the canoe to the shore. Will was of little use. He just stared, open-mouthed. They beached the canoe and Brig dragged Will onto dry land. “Don’t worry, you get used to her.”

“Her?”

Brig motioned to Talsuni and pushed Will toward her. She set off at a quick pace. They struggled to keep up with her long strides. Soon, she pulled up short and turned to them. Her hand came up in a quieting gesture. Behind them, Brig heard soft grunting followed by a sharp crack. Enraged howls rolled out of the mist, deep and throaty.

“What was that?” Will asked.

“That was your canoe,” Talsuni said. “Quicker now.” She ran, accelerating to a sprint.

Brig shoved Will in the back, and both men ran. Snapping twigs and rustling branches gave their position away, and a chorus of angry war cries echoed from the mists.

They hit a full sprint, throwing up their arms to shield their faces from the whipping branches. Too late, Brig saw that Will had come to an abrupt halt. He piled right into him. It was like they’d hit a wall.

The wall was Talsuni; the mists had hidden her own sudden stop. Both men recoiled backwards. “Safe now,” Talsuni said. She pointed to a stone archway behind them.

Brig hadn’t even seen it. He took one step toward the stone structure, and then heard the approaching tokiri.

“They won’t come here,” Talsuni assured him. The grunting and hollering drew closer. She stepped forward and made several of her own grunts.

That seemed to lessen the oncoming tokiris’ vigor. They quieted, and after another grunt from Talsuni, the sounds of pursuit ended altogether.

“Why do your people hate us so much?” Brig asked between labored breaths.

“We are not people, we are tokiri. And we don’t hate you.”

“Could’ve fooled me. I’m pretty sure those tokiri were trying to kill us.”

“Yes,” Talsuni said. “They would kill you, but they don’t hate you.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

The tokiri stared at him for a long moment. “The builders tell me about wars. You don’t know the warriors opposing you, and yet you kill each other.”

“Hmm.” Brig pondered the point, surprised at the logic. “So, we’re at war with each other?”

Talsuni shook her head. “You don’t understand. You are in the forest. You don’t belong here.”

“So, tokiri kill us simply because we’re in the forest?”

“Yes,” she said emphatically, as though she’d made her point.

Brig shook his head. He moved to the archway and put his hand on it. It was made of stone, but it was perfectly smooth. Instead of stacked blocks, it looked as if the stone had been poured or sculpted. It flowed like a work of art, and here it had stood for centuries without human eyes ever admiring it.

“The builders await.” Talsuni led them to the canal, where the odd pyreship sat moored. With the mists clinging close to the water, the pyreship appeared to be floating on a cloud.

Paytar spotted them first and ran to greet them. His broad smile was in contrast to his father’s look of concern. Enki followed his son, but lacked the spring in his step.

“Welcome back, Brig,” Paytar said. “I hope you had a nice trip.”

“Not really that nice,” Brig said, as he rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m not fond of being chased by tokiri.”

“Sorry about throwing you in the river,” Paytar said. “It seemed the best way to get you past them.”

Brig raised a hand. “Don’t apologize, I appreciated the lift. You could probably charge a fee and half the kids in Barons Lodge would line up to get thrown like that.”

Paytar perked up and his smile returned.

“You don’t have it,” Enki said. His voice was sullen, and he snorted something under his breath.

“I have the pyricite,” Brig said, holding up a small sack.

Enki waved his hand at him. “That isn’t enough pyricite to run a single engine. It needs to be large crystals. As big as your head, or larger.”

“Well, the alchemist said this was more than enough to run eight engines.”

Enki looked unconvinced, but he came forward and extended his hand. “Show me.”

Brig reached into the sack and pulled out a small pouch of the green fabric. He placed it in the gaitan’s palm.

Enki fingered the pouch. “What is this? I’ve never seen this material. It’s magical.”

“I think Quorien called it ‘wanis’.”

Enki undid the drawstring. Brig was impressed with the delicate dexterity the burly gaitan displayed when working with the tiny threads.

“I’ve never seen pyricite like this before,” Enki said.

“Don’t touch it.”

Enki narrowed his eyes. “Only an idiot touches pyricite without protection.”

“Right,” Brig said, clearing his throat. He turned to Will to introduce him to the gaitan and saw that the fisherman was standing there open-mouthed, staring. He’d probably been that way the entire time. “Will, this is Enki and his son, Paytar.” Will nodded, but still stared uncomprehendingly.

Paytar came forward and extended a hand, but Will didn’t respond. After a moment, Paytar withdrew his hand, looking disappointed.

“Don’t be offended, Paytar. He’s never met a gaitan. He’s my brother—though not by blood, mind you.”

“Fetch your mother. She needs to see this.” Enki took the sack from Brig and headed for the pyreship, a sudden spring in his step.

“Let’s go,” Brig said. He took a step and had to return to pull Will along. Talsuni followed them to the gangway, but refused to board the ship.

Brig had been on a pyreship just once, many years ago. He’d been in complete awe of the workmanship and grandeur of it. That pyreship was a lump of mud compared to Enki’s.

The gangway went up and then doubled back before leading them to the top of the ship. While every pyreship he’d ever seen had open decks, this one was completely enclosed by translucent stone. The only opening was at the very top. When they reached it, they left the gangway and stepped onto a small deck. A bridge lay in front of them. In the other direction, spiral stairs descended into the ship. Everything was oversized, including the steps; they were twice the height of normal steps. Then he noticed that the sides of the stairway had smaller steps than the center part. He shifted to the side and descended at a normal pace.

“Amazing,” Will said.

“Good. I thought maybe you’d gone mute.”

“I can’t believe any of this.”

“Come with me,” Enki said. “We’re going to the engine room.” He sounded excited for the first time since Brig had met him.

As they walked toward the center of the ship, Brig marveled at the workmanship. A latticework of metal beams ran within the nearly transparent hull. He hadn’t seen the metal from the outside of the ship. The deck looked like wood, but had a gritty feel to it. At every point, in every corner, he saw masterpieces of architectural artwork. From the railings to the deck chairs that flowed out of the deck itself, everything was ornate.

Enki led them to a lower deck with a wide corridor running across the center of the ship. The ceiling was tall enough that the gaitan had at least two heads of clearance. He told them this level held staterooms and cargo holds, but didn’t offer a tour.

They went down one more deck and entered a large room filled with pipes and eight massive spheres. Enki carefully placed a pyricite crystal in each of the spheres, then stood back and rubbed his hands together before walking to a long metal bar and grabbing the handle. The gaitan pumped it up and down repeatedly. “We have to prime the engine,” he explained. He pointed to seven other bars extending out from the wall of the room as one of the engines hissed to life.

Brig and Will got the hint and helped Enki prime the rest of the engines. Then they returned to the bridge. A series of stacks rose up from behind the bridge, and they spewed a steady spray of steam into the sky.

“It works!” Enki yelled to Nasha, as Paytar helped her aboard.

“When can we take her out?” Paytar asked with an irrepressible smile.

Enki coughed and said, “Well, it will be some time before we can do that. We need provisions and we need to make sure all the systems work. Perhaps in a decade.”

Nasha lowered her gaze at him. “Enki, I hardly think we need supplies to take a short trip.”

Brig stepped into the conversation. He said, “Seeing as how the tokiri snapped our canoe in two, we sure could use a ride to Barons Lodge.”

Nasha turned to Brig and then back to Enki. “You see, we need to get underway as soon as the fog lifts.”

“What? Impossible.”

“I think I can sail this ship myself,” Nasha said. She tapped her lips with her finger and waited.

“Fine. We’ll go now.” Enki looked miserable. “We’ll need to open the lock.”

“I’ll take care of that,” Paytar said. “Brig, will you and your friend help me?”

“I’ll have Talsuni load our payment,” Nasha said.

They left Enki grumbling on the bridge. Brig and Will followed Paytar to the riverfront, where two massive slabs of stone barred the way to the river. Each of them had a long pole extending out one side. The gaitan watched as the two men struggled to budge the lever. After a moment, he joined them and, with a loud creaking, the lock began to move. It swung out into the river, allowing eddies of fresh water to swirl into the canal.

They crossed to the other side of the canal and opened the second lock. When they returned to the pyreship, Nasha was already on board. Talsuni stood watching the ship from the dockside. She gave Brig a disapproving glare as they walked onto the gangway.

“Nasha, when we made the bargain, we never set the quantities,” Brig said.

She gave him a dismissive glance. “I’m certain you’ll be happy with the bargain.”

“Talsuni doesn’t seem very happy about it.”

“She is tokiri. It is their way.”

Brig really only needed to get one leaf, so Quorien could make the medicine for Willa, but there was the matter of paying for the pyricite. He turned to Will. “How much do pyricite crystals cost?”

Will shrugged. “The kind that run ships like this? No idea.”

Little chips used for boiling meals were fairly expensive, since they lasted so long, but the ones they’d given to the gaitan were insanely powerful compared to those. Will looked up to the clearing mist, a thoughtful expression on his face. “Probably more than we’ll ever make in a lifetime. Combined.”

“Great,” Brig said, not bothering to hide his annoyance.

“Each,” Will said.

“I get it.”

Paytar threw off the mooring lines and raced up the gangway. Enki moved a lever forward and steam bubbled up at the rear of the ship. They moved toward the lock agonizingly slowly, and stopped before they reached the open river. Enki kept them stationary until the mist lifted enough to see across the river, then eased the long pyreship out of the canal. The river current seized the bow, pushing the ship into the side of the canal.

Enki threw forward another lever, and steam boiled from the front of the ship on the port side. The ship eased away from the wall, toward the center of the canal. “New design,” Enki said, not taking his eyes from the river. “I pipe steam to the front and back on either side. It lets me maneuver without oars.”

The pyreship continued to move to the right. Though he pulled back the lever, they still smacked into the other side of the canal.

“It takes some getting used to,” Enki assured them.

Nasha came up from behind Enki and pushed him aside. “I can’t stand to watch this anymore.” She threw several levers, and the ship lurched forward.

“That’s too fast,” Enki said.

Nasha shifted more of the levers and spun a small wheel. They moved quickly into the open river. She turned the ship downriver, toward the Skykom. “That wasn’t bad,” Enki admitted. “You could have made that turn a little tighter, though.”

She gave him a crooked glance, but didn’t say anything.

“Where are we planning to dock this ship?” Will asked.

“Don’t you have a dock?” Brig asked.

“Had,” Will said. “And I only had a slip for a fishing boat anyway. This monster would never fit.”

“Well, I guess we can just dock at one of the pyreship docks.”

“It costs a lot of beads to get one of those,” Will said. He looked at the three gaitan. “Then again, with our hosts…”

Brig smiled. No one in Barons Lodge had seen a gaitan in centuries. “You know what, Will? I was thinking that we were going to sneak into town, but…” He turned to Enki and asked, “Does your pyreship have a horn?”

[*
p=. *
*Chapter Twelve *]

As they passed the center of the Skykom River, Brig pulled on the chain. A deep, rumbling horn bellowed out across the water. He pulled it two more times for good measure.

“I helped build those,” Enki said, pointing at one of the massive pilot lights. He smiled, as though he were remembering another time.

“There now,” Nasha said. “Aren’t you glad you came?”

Enki lost his smile and said, “No.”

Brig blasted the horn several dozen more times before the docks of the central district came into clear focus. As he’d hoped, there was a large crowd gathered.

“How do we disembark?” Brig asked.

“You use a gangway, like the one we used to get on,” Enki said.

“I don’t think they have one,” said Will.

Enki pondered for several long moments. “Hmm, I never thought about that.”

“You’ve been building this for decades and you never thought about how to get off?” Brig asked.

“Details,” Enki said with a wave of his hand.

As the last wisps of mist gathered under the dock, Nasha gracefully brought the pyreship alongside the central dockyard. She placed the ship next to the dock and activated the steam jets on the other side of the ship. The force pinned the ship to the dock.

Brig and Will threw off thick mooring lines. The dockworkers hesitantly took them and secured the ship to the dock. They moved away as a man in an official-looking outfit strode up. “You can’t dock here,” the man called.

“We just did,” Brig yelled back. From high up on the bridge, the man looked like a tiny child.

“I’m the dockmaster, and no one ties up without a permit. This dock is reserved!”

“We’re not staying long,” Brig said. “We’ll be gone before the other ship gets here.”

The dockmaster shook his head. “I don’t care how fancy your ship is, no one docks without a permit, and you don’t have one!”

“Can we get one?”

“No!”

“Well, maybe [_I _]can’t get one,” Brig said. “But I think my friend can.”

“Not a chance. I run this dock, and what I say goes.”

Enki walked up next to Brig, so everyone could see him. “Well, I built this dock, and who are you to tell me I can’t use it?”

The buzz of whispers and chatter ended immediately. Every eye snapped to Enki. Utter silence ruled the docks so completely, Brig could hear the river lapping against the side of the ship. The dockmaster looked up and opened his mouth, but said nothing. He looked at the people around him. No one returned his glance.

“As you can see, my friend is a gaitan. Seeing as how he built most of Barons Lodge, I think he can dock his ship here. Don’t you agree?”

The dockmaster nodded slowly.

“Good. Now figure out how to get one of your gangways up here.”

Enki put a hand on Brigs shoulder. It felt like a pile of bricks balanced on his back. “Did you really build the dock?” he asked.

“I had a little help,” Enki said.

“You should build an addition to the dock for disembarking from your pyreship.”

Enki cocked an eyebrow at Brig. “I don’t intend to return here.”

“I think we can arrange a beneficial trade between us,” Brig said. “You can supply more of the sagia goods, we can find you whatever you want, and I’ll take a modest broker fee.”

Enki considered for a long while. He looked at Brig from time to time. Finally, he said, “Anything I want?”

“We want.” Nasha had been watching from a distance, but now she joined Enki. “Anything [_we _]want.”

“What do you need?” Brig asked. “Need any pyrus? They grow it here in Barons Lodge.”

Pyrus was a small plant infused with Red magic. From it, alchemists made fire sticks that could burn even under water. They also made a particularly potent and expensive drug from the pyrus leaves. Brig had never tried it.

“What good are those weeds?” Enki asked. “We have no use for them.”

“Well, something else then? I know a shop where you can find some very interesting things.”

It took a quarter of the day for the dockmaster and his workers to erect a rickety tower. They extended a gangway to the pyreship. Brig disembarked first. He kept his eyes on the ramp and his hands on the ropes strung alongside it. Will was second, but the gaitan refused to use the ramp, Enki judging it too flimsy to bear their weight.

Brig called to them, but they refused to walk on the makeshift gangway. Brig watched Enki descend to the deck and walk to the hull of the ship. Through the translucent hull, the gaitan’s figure pressed up against the side. Suddenly, his hand thrust through the stone hull.

The crowd gasped as one, including Brig. Enki’s hand slid down and then up, cleaving a ragged fissure in the hull. With three more cuts, he made a rectangular section. He pulled the separated stone into the ship and poked his head out. Spotting Brig, he said, “I’m always modifying my designs. It needed a doorway for disembarking.”

“You couldn’t have thought of that before I walked on that thing?” Brig demanded, pointing up to the shaky gangway.

The dockmaster brought another ramp and fit it into the opening Enki had carved. The gaitan descended the gangway one at a time. They each bore a large woven basket big enough to carry a grown man. “Where is this shop?” Enki asked.

Brig led them from the docks, the crowd parting before them. Some dropped to their knees, while others simply stared.

Enki insisted they detour through every street in the Central District. The hulking gaitan looked at each of the massive buildings with a sense of familiarity. His smile remained on his face even when Brig asked him questions. Nasha’s smile grew in proportion to Enki’s detours. Paytar followed right behind his father and whistled at each new building.

“Do you know why we built this place?” Enki asked.

“It was a center of trade,” Brig said. It was common knowledge that Barons Lodge was built to act as a hub of commerce.

Enki laughed at him. “This was our work camp. We lived here while we planned and directed the construction of the river.”

Everyone knew the Pure Ones had redirected the flow of the Skykom River, but Brig had never believed it. The river seemed too massive for anyone to move. It had been there his entire life, unyielding and unchanging. He couldn’t imagine it ever not being there.

“You really dug the whole river channel?”

“No, digging is for gnolms. We build, they dig.”

The Gnolms were another race of magical beings, but they were touched by Red magic. The diminutive gnolms were said to inhabit caves and other dark places. Brig recalled the stories his mother told; she’d used them to scare him away from dangerous places. It hadn’t worked.

“So, gnolms are real too? I can’t say I’ve ever seen one.”

“They’re as real as me,” Enki said.

“I wouldn’t think you’d get along, with them being of the Red and you of the Green.”

“We don’t understand each other, but we hold no ill feelings towards one another. Now look at the White and the Black, and there you have conflict.” Enki tapped his foot on the ground. “Do you still use the undercity?”

Brig had never heard the term before. He lifted his hands and shrugged.

“Now that I think of it, I recall we sealed up the entrances when we finished construction. Then apparently men came here to live.” Enki waved his hand. “Bah, I don’t like the depths anyway.”

Will motioned for Brig to speed up the procession, but Brig threw up his hands. How could he rush a gaitan, let alone three of them?

While Enki patted a building, Nasha stayed behind and caught Brig’s eye.

“He’s glad he came, no matter what he says.”

“You planned this, didn’t you?” Brig asked.

“No, though I was hoping we could get him to leave the forest. I didn’t imagine it would happen like this.”

As they were leaving the Central District, a messenger intercepted them. “Great builders,” the messenger said uncertainly. “I mean, great gaitan, or—”

“Just give them the message,” Brig said.

“Lord Chinak, master of Barons Lodge, wishes you to visit him at his estate,” the man said, pointing at the smallest structure in the Central District. It was still larger than any other residence in Barons Lodge, but among the gargantuan stone buildings around it, the estate was practically an outhouse.

“In that hovel?” Enki asked. He looked to Nasha. “Isn’t that the site where we put the trash? It looks as though the humans constructed something equally unappealing there.”

The messenger stood staring at them.

“Run along,” Brig said. “We’ll stop in to visit Lord Chinak if we have time.”

The messenger wavered, and then turned to run away.

“I’m not interested in talking with this human called Chinlick,” Enki said.

“It’s Lord Chinak,” Brig corrected. “What made you think we’re visiting him? I said if we have time. We won’t.”

Enki slapped Brig on the back and it knocked the wind from him. “I’m getting to like you.”

Brig coughed until he could speak. “If you like me anymore, I might not survive.”

Daylight faded into a murky purple in the sky as they approached Quorien’s shop. Brig entered first, noting only two customers poking through the shelves. Quorien was talking with one of his clerks. Both looked up at Brig.

“Back with nothing?” Quorien asked as he shook his head. “You probably lost the pyricite, too.”

Brig nodded to the doorway and Enki entered, ducking his head under the lintel. He put down his basket and surveyed the shelves. The aisles were too narrow for him. He twisted to his side to squeeze through. Brig rushed to keep up with him.

The clerk got that glassy-eyed look that everyone seemed to get when they saw a gaitan for the first time. Quorien, though, appeared anything but awed or pleased.

“You brought a gaitan into my establishment?”

Brig jerked a thumb at the entrance. “There wasn’t a sign saying I couldn’t.”

“Is this the alchemist?” Enki said. His expression turned sour. He sniffed the air. “You don’t smell. I understood all faydens have a stench about them.”

“I had beans for lunch,” Quorien said. “If you give me a few moments, I can arrange something for you.”

Quorien’s banter surprised Brig. The alchemist was reserved in their previous meetings.

“Quorien, meet Enki.”

The two eyed each other, and Brig’s discomfort grew with each passing moment. Even when the others gathered around them, they kept their glares fixed on each other. Finally, Nasha stepped in between them and slapped Enki on the cheek.

“Stop acting like a hundred-year old,” she said.

Enki rubbed his face, but kept scowling.

“You don’t need to like each other,” Brig said. “We’re here to deal. You can hate each other later.”

“What have you brought?” Quorien asked.

Brig took the lids off the baskets. They brimmed with sagia leaves, branches, and fruits. It was far more than he’d expected, and judging by the look on Quorien’s face, it was more than he’d expected, too.

“All of this for the pyricite?” Quorien asked.

“What else can you offer?”

The alchemist grew a shrewd look.

“Can you two bargain after you make the medicine for Willa?” Will asked.

“You make medicine from this?” Enki asked.

“You may watch, if you please.” Quorien grabbed a leaf, revealing a coil of vines underneath.

When he saw his father’s stern expression, Paytar asked, “Can we? I’d like to see what this human can do with these.”

Enki didn’t answer, but he followed everyone to the back room. Quorien made a show of fumbling through the dark room. He pulled a brass tube from a drawer and turned the outer cylinder until a window matched the opening in the inner cylinder. Inside, the floricite crystal blazed with a brilliant green light. Brig had seen these lights before, but never one so small, or so bright.

Quorien used the light to meander through the workshop. He pulled a rope, and instantly green light flooded the room.

Enki stared at the lights set in sconces high on the walls, but didn’t speak. He looked to Nasha, and she smiled.

“Enki would like to know how this floricite can be so bright,” she said.

Enki’s jaw dropped, and he took a hostile stance. “I asked no such thing.”

“Would you like to know?” Quorien asked.

Enki looked defeated. He said, “Yes. They’re so small.”

“Crystals are my specialty,” the alchemist stated. He placed the leaf over a large bowl. Then he tore it into small pieces as he waited for a response.

“You made the pyricite too?” Enki asked.

Quorien nodded, his self-congratulatory smile broadening.

“Well, I built most of this city.”

Quorien crooked his head to the side. “All by yourself?” He finished tearing the leaf and put his hand over the bowl.

Enki cleared his throat and said, “There may have been other gaitan involved.”

Nasha patted Enki’s back and said, “What Enki is trying to say is, he’s impressed with your work.”

“As I am with yours,” Quorien said. “I’ve lived here for many years and take your work for granted, but I could never construct even one of your magnificent buildings. Not in a lifetime.”

Enki nodded in agreement and gave the alchemist a weak smile. “Natural floricite is far dimmer than yours, so I have to use large crystals.”

“Perhaps we can work together,” Quorien suggested. The leaf pieces in the bowl turned brown and desiccated.

“How?”

“I could think of many ways. A new pyreship hasn’t steamed the Skykom in five centuries. If you were to build a new one, it would fetch a handsome sum.” He took an oddly-shaped pestle and ground the leaf into a powder.

“Actually, we have a new one,” Nasha said.

“No, it’s not ready,” Enki said quickly. “I need to make modifications. I was trying to bring in the light with translucent stone, but there were some unforeseen difficulties.”

“Have you considered transparent metal?” Brig asked.

Enki snorted and pointed a finger at Brig. “Don’t try to fool me. I’ve used every metal known to the gaitan and none of them are transparent.”

Brig smiled and looked to Quorien, who nodded to a cabinet. Brig went to it and found a stack of the gossril plates. He took one and brought it to Enki. Brig waved it in front of him and then slapped it hard on a table. It clanked and bounced, but didn’t break.

Enki took the gossril and stroked the surface. He studied the plate with growing fascination.

“How?”

“A mixture of floril and deathril,” Quorien said.

“Impossible,” Enki said. “Those metals are useless.”

“Not for an alchemist,” Quorien said. “It’s what I do, though I’m much better with crystals.”

“Could you make this round?” Enki asked, holding the gossril to his face. “And thicker?” The big gaitan put his finger to his lips and muttered to himself. Then he said, “I could put this below the waterline. I’d have to seal it, though, or it will leak.”

“Perhaps some sap from the sagia tree,” Nasha suggested.

“What’s this?” Quorien asked. “Sap from the sagia? I never knew there was sap. Can I have some?”

“Yes, Nasha,” Enki said, ignoring the alchemist. “I think that might work. Can you imagine?” He held the gossril up and thumped a finger on it. “I would have built the first pyreship with windows through the hull.”

We would have built,” Nasha said.

“With or without windows, it’s worth a fortune,” Brig said.

“What do I care about amassing riches?” Enki asked.

Nasha poked him in the ribs and said, “What do we care about amassing riches.”

“Of course, of course. You know what I meant.”

“Oh, I do indeed,” Nasha said. She turned to the alchemist. “Enki is right, though. We have no need for your gold or silver.”

“Perhaps not,” Brig said. “But they can be traded for other things.”

“Such as…”

“Depends on what you need. Rare stones, exotic woods, perhaps some of Quorien’s fine wares.”

Nasha and Enki whispered to each other before they answered.

“I will think on this,” Enki said.

We will think on this.”

“Yes, we will consider this,” Enki said. “We will return in a few years and inform you of our decision.”

Brig saw the same disappointed expression on the alchemist’s face that was surely on his own.

Quorien poured a milky liquid into the bowl and stirred it with the pestle. Despite the size of the leaves, after he’d powdered them and dissolved it into the liquid, it made only a small amount. He poured it carefully into a tiny glass tube.

“I need to pour this onto the kachona plant,” Quorien said. “Mister Brig, will you show our guests to the sitting area? Perhaps they would like some dandelion root.” The alchemist left Brig to entertain the gaitan.

Brig led them to the alcove by the fireplace. The gaitan had to sit on the floor, as none of them would fit into the chairs. Brig and Will opted to sit on the floor too.

“Did Quorien say something about dandelion root?” Nasha asked. “Enki used to pick dandelion root for me. Sadly, the meadows are gone from the forest now, and it’s very hard to find.”

Brig found the tin of dry grounds and several mugs, but he had no boiling stone. Luckily, Quorien returned and heated the water with his small pyricite stone. When he’d heated the last one, he insisted Nasha take the boiler stone as a gift. She refused at first, but relented after a short time.

“How long before you have the medicine?” Will asked.

“Patience,” Quorien said.

Brig put a hand on Will’s shoulder. He felt the tension of the weary and desperate father. He whispered, “We’ll get it. Willa will hold on.” He desperately wished his words would prove true.

Quorien catalogued many of his goods for the gaitan. They were polite, but Brig sensed the underlying distrust coming from them.

The alchemist checked on the kachona plant several times before he declared it had bloomed. They filed into the workshop again to watch Quorien extract the anthers from the flowers. Then he mixed them with several ingredients he didn’t bother to name. Finally, he filled six vials and offered one to Will.

“Have her drink this. All of it. Don’t give her any water until the fever breaks.”

Will gave Brig a fleeting look and grabbed the vial. He nodded to the gaitan and raced from the store.

“I’m glad we could see this through,” Nasha said. “I hope your niece will be well soon. We should go now.”

“I’ll take you to the docks,” Brig said.

Quorien walked them to the door and handed Brig a pair of bead belts. They held hundreds of gold beads. “Your broker fee.”

Brig repressed his smile and took the belts. He tied them under his breeches. It felt like he’d doubled his weight. He escorted the gaitan to the dock; it was still dark out when they arrived, but light was building in the eastern sky. The morning mist had rolled in again, blanketing the river.

Despite the early time, a small crowd of onlookers surrounded the gangway. They pointed and made a path for the gaitan, except for a lone figure. It was Lord Chinak’s messenger. He dropped to one knee, but remained blocking the way. “Lord Chinak still waits for the honored gaitan to speak with him,” he announced.

“I told you they’d visit if they had time,” Brig said. “They don’t.”

The reverence the messenger had for the gaitan didn’t extend to Brig. His tone sharpened. “And who are you? The lord wishes to speak with the gaitan.”

“The name is Skahl.” Brig coughed to mask the smile on his face. “You go tell Lord Chinak that I said they don’t have time for him.”

The messenger didn’t budge, but when he looked up, the three gaitan were staring at him. Slowly he got out of their way. He walked, then ran from the docks.

“I thought you said your name was Brig,” Paytar said.

“It is. It’s a long story.”

“Thank you, Brig,” Nasha said. “It’s been an enjoyable trip.”

“How can you navigate through the mists?” he said, pointing to the bank of white hanging over the river.

“We’ll steam up the river for a time. The pilot lights will guide us. When the mist burns off, we’ll return home.”

Enki remained quiet. Paytar ran onto the ship and returned with a small wooden tube. He offered it to Brig.

“What’s this?”

“It’s a flute,” Paytar said. He took the flute back and blew into it.

Brig heard nothing. He shrugged his shoulders. “Was I supposed to hear something?”

Paytar seemed confused.

“The humans can’t hear in the low registers, Paytar,” Nasha explained. “It sounded lovely.”

Paytar handed the flute back to Brig. “Play it, if you’d like to visit us.” He leaned in close and whispered, “I’m sure I’ll be able to talk Father into letting me take out the pyreship to get you.”

“I appreciate the hospitality, but I only went there to help my niece. It’s too dangerous to go back.”

“Well, if you change your mind, just blow a tune.”

Nasha and Paytar embarked on the pyreship, but Enki lingered on the dock. He looked away from Brig, but he didn’t leave.

“You’re welcome,” Brig said.

The big gaitan grunted amiably and started toward the ship.

“And thank you,” Brig said.

Enki paused, grunted again, and then continued onto the ship. Brig helped them cast off and watched the ship steam into the mist.

[*
p=. *
*Chapter Thirteen *]

“She’s been begging for water,” Yula said. “I can’t stand to hear it. What kind of mother withholds water from a child with a fever?”

“The kind who wants her to get well,” Will said. “We have to trust the alchemist.”

Brig tapped his fingers on the table. It was midday, and Willa’s condition hadn’t improved. He stood as the healer came down the stairs, a wide smile on her face.

“Her fever is broken,” the healer said. “You can let her drink now. She’ll fully recover in three days.”

Yula and Will ran up the stairs, leaving Brig with the healer. He slipped her a handful of gold beads as he thanked her for her help. She took them and let herself out. Then he ran up to the second floor, taking three steps at a time.

“Uncle Brig,” Willa said. The color in her face had returned, but she still looked as though she’d been left out in the rain. “Mother says you saved me.”

“I had help. Your father paddled into the sagia forest.”

Willa looked at her father with wide eyes. “You did?”

“Later,” Yula said, shooing Brig and Will from the room. “She needs to rest. Everyone out.”

Brig allowed himself to be pushed toward the stairs. Yula remained behind, but Will followed Brig to the ground floor.

“Thank you,” Will said. “No one will ever believe this story.”

“Will, about the beads you paid for my debt…”

“Don’t worry about it. It didn’t all go to that beadmonger. We’ve got enough. I’ll get my own boat again in no time.”

“No time like the present,” Brig said. He laid several dozen gold beads on the table. He didn’t bother counting them. Through most of his life—who was he kidding, all of his life—he’d counted every bead in every transaction. Now that he had beads to spare, he didn’t seem to care about them as much. Strange.

Before Will could speak, Brig was out the door. He strolled to the Fiery Pyramon, feeling lighter in his steps both figuratively and literally.

“Where’ve you been?” Ando asked, as Brig walked up to the table.

He motioned to his room. They took their drinks and followed him.

After he shut the door, Ando got in his face. “We were supposed to meet yesterday. I paid the oarsmen in advance. They weren’t cheap.”

“It’s done,” Brig said. He undid the ties on the bead belts and let them clatter to the floor. “I went back with Will and we got the stuff. This was the payment.”

“Willa?” Paco asked.

“She got the medicine. She’ll be all right.”

Paco nodded happily, then joined the rest of them in staring at the gold.

“Will that cover the cost of the oarsmen?”

Ando nodded. “And then some.”

“I never seen that much gold in one place,” Dust said, and added a whistle to reinforce the point. “We’ll be able to drink that for a year.”

“Am I forgiven?” Brig asked.

“You shouldn’t have gone without us,” Ando said.

Brig shrugged. It was the closest thing to forgiveness that he was going to get from Ando. Not that he needed it. After all, he’d taken the risk and was still sharing the spoils.

Ando counted out an equal share for each man. They agreed to give the three leftover beads to Lena for all the free drinks she’d given them over the years.

Brig stayed in his room after the rest returned to their drinking. He sat on the floor and stared at the wall as he processed the day’s happenings. Half of him wanted to collapse on his bed and sleep. The other half wanted to drink and scream all night. The final half just stayed there on the floor, sighing every so often and thinking that fractions were never his strong suit.

He reached into a pocket and withdrew the razor. He opened it and marveled at the utter blackness of the metal. In all the excitement, he hadn’t really examined it. He passed his finger over it, careful to stay away from the cutting edge. It was completely smooth.

Along the spine, he felt smooth ridges, but the complete black of the metal made it impossible to see any pattern to them. He held it up to his eye and angled it in the green light, but still couldn’t figure out what the ridges were.

“I should get you back to your owner before he comes looking for you,” he said to the razor. Instead, he walked to the kitchen and grabbed a handful of flour. He rubbed it over the spine until the flour got stuck in the ridges. The white flour filled the indentations and spelled a word: BRIG.

He nearly dropped the razor on the floor. He stood motionless. Then he ran from the tavern.

When he reached the Red Bridge, the guards moved to intercept him. He didn’t slow down. He just pulled up his tunic and flashed his bead belt to them. They saw the gold and let him pass.

Brig entered Quorien’s shop and found the alchemist at the back, sipping his dandelion root drink. “How do you explain this?” Brig asked, shaking the razor at him.

“I was wondering if you were going to return that.”

“Why does it… how does it have my name on it?”

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

Brig pointed at the back of the blade, where the flour still showed his name. Quorien squinted to read the tiny script. “So it does. How did you scribe that? It’s made of deathril alloy. Nothing can cut deathril.”

“I didn’t, and I’ve had it the whole time, so it was written there when you gave it to me.”

Quorien leaned back and took a long sip from his mug.

“You said you got it from an associate. What’s his name?”

“Zaruth.”

“Never heard of him, and I don’t know how he’d know of me.” Brig sat down in the second chair.

Quorien poured another mug of dandelion root. He offered it to Brig. It was still bitter, but it did calm Brig’s senses.

“You wouldn’t know Zaruth. He’s the king’s alchemist. He lives in Aconia, in some high tower most likely.”

“Well, he must have been the one who wrote this. I’d like to know why.”

“If I’m ever back there, I’ll ask him.”

“Planning a trip anytime soon?” Brig asked.

Quorien shook his head slowly.

Brig closed the razor and offered it to the alchemist. The old man held up a hand.

“It appears that’s your razor, not mine,” Quorien said.

Brig shrugged and put the razor back in his pocket. He took another sip of the dandelion root. It wasn’t half bad once you got past the initial sip. He took several more sips, a companionable silence settling over them both. The bitter taste returned as Brig neared the bottom of the mug. He gulped down the remaining liquid and stood.

“I guess I should go now. It was good doing business with you.”

“Will you be returning tomorrow?” Quorien asked.

“Why would I come back?”

“It appears you’ve got a talent for prospecting,” Quorien said. “I think you may have a new career.”

THE END

*A Preview of Warphan, *

Book One of the Anavarza Archive

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Cayne’s Story

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

This little plant was going to change Cayne’s life forever.

It stood knee-high, with several tender branches reaching out from a delicate central stalk. He looked at the ghostly white leaves and shuddered, a tingling sensation spreading across his body, as if the plant were calling to him on a primal level.

He’d heard stories of plants like this, but never thought he would actually see one. The midday sun baked his exposed arms, but the sweat in his palms wasn’t from the heat. This plant could be the biggest thing that had ever happened to the village of Dahl Haven.

Cayne heard a faint song at the very edge of audibility, like a forest of crystals chiming together in harmony. The tone shifted abruptly, becoming harsher, provoking a sense of alarm in him. He stood up and swiveled. He saw nothing but wheat, still green in the early summer sun, spreading out to the horizon. A gentle breeze swirled and curled the stalks, bringing the scent of dry dirt and green growth to his nose. He let the warm rush of air wash across his face for a moment before dropping back down to stare at the plant.

Cayne had brutish-looking hands, but they were far more graceful than most assumed. He loved the land, and often cradled struggling seedlings as he stripped the weeds away from them. Though he knew many people thought of him as a lumbering oaf, it never bothered him.

Passing a hand behind a shimmering pale leaf, he saw the fuzzy outline of his fingers right through it. Normal plants caught the sun in their green leaves, but the angelia plant didn’t need sunlight to grow: it soaked up the White magic flow instead. Cayne didn’t know of an angelia plant being born in his lifetime, and he was certain something like that would have been the talk of Dahl Haven for years. He tried to remember more about the plant, but the stories were too distant. In school, there had been lessons about the magic flows, but that was long ago; and even when he attended, he’d paid scant attention to the subject. What would a farmer need to know about magic? His logic had seemed sound at the time, but now he wished he’d listened a little more. No matter; his father would know more about it. He stroked the silky leaves, glad to hear the angelia’s singing turn to a purr.

Its song stopped in mid-stroke, and Cayne got the distinct feeling they weren’t alone anymore. He jumped to his feet, and turned to find a figure looming over him. Cayne froze, staring into shimmering eyes framed by a tattered brown hood. The hood cast the old man’s face in shadow, except for those sparkling eyes, which shifted colors as he watched.

The lilting voice of the angelia changed again, and Cayne sensed that the plant detested this man.

“My apologies, Cayne,” the man said. “I didn’t mean to sneak up on you again.”

“Again? I don’t know you.” Cayne stepped away from the man, careful not to trample the angelia. “Who are you?”

“Markas.” He removed the hood to reveal a deeply lined face. “You can call me Markas.”

Cayne looked away from the man’s mesmerizing eyes. Markas’ black hair was streaked with gray, and he wore a simple white tunic and leather moccasins. There was a youthfulness about him, but he still would have been the oldest man in Dahl Haven. Though his smile seemed genuine, and Cayne felt an instant affinity for him, the shrieking of the angelia plant kept him on guard.

“I plan to see you again, but I think this is the last time we will speak,” Markas said gently.

“We’ve never talked before,” Cayne assured him.

“I’m truly sorry for what will soon come to pass.”

“Sir…” Cayne said hesitantly, unsure who this man might be, and how much respect to pay him. “I’m not sure who you think I am, but I’ve never met you before.”

Markas smiled. “You will.”

Then he disappeared. Cayne whirled around, looking in every direction, but there was no one in sight. He eyed the angelia plant. [_Was he real, or did the plant cause a waking dream? _]he wondered. After all, it was magical, and he had no idea what it could do. He needed to find out more about this plant.

He ran home through ripening fields of wheat, then the maize and bean fields. Now seventeen, Cayne had run through these fields every day of his life, and he knew every knoll, hole, and bush. They grew herbs close to the house, and the fragrance always reminded him of home. He smelled lavender, basil, salt weed, and dozens of others. At night, he could find his way home by scent alone. In the colder times, the smell of the fields was what he missed most.

Their home was a modest farmhouse, always a welcome sight after a long day in the fields. His thoughts turned back to the angelia and the riches it would bring. With that much wealth, they could surely fix up the house, and wouldn’t need to cut back on meals during the winter. By the time he landed on the front porch, he wore an irrepressible grin. He flew through the front doorway and skidded to a stop. His father sat at the table, flanked by Cayne’s two younger brothers.

His brothers never sat at the table like that except to eat or receive a lecture, and there wasn’t any food on the table. It was against their nature to sit still, and neither was smiling. His father rarely smiled, but his scowl was unusually distant today. Cayne had seen the look before, but he couldn’t remember doing anything bad—not lately, anyway.

“Cayne, where have you been? Sit down.”

“Father, I found a—”

“It can wait,” his father said. “I wanted you all to hear this together.” He waited for Cayne to take a seat, then rubbed his rough hands together and sighed for far longer than was comfortable for anyone. “The king has requested another levy of warriors. One hundred men.”

“A hundred men?” his mother said, entering the room. Her voice was sharp and quick. “He’s already levied us for two hundred men! There aren’t a hundred men left in Dahl Haven.”

“No. There are not.”

His father looked grimly at each of the boys, and his mother flew into a panic. “No,” she said, “they’re just boys! It’s bad enough I had to send you off to war twice already. I won’t send my boys!”

“The king has decreed it, and it must be done. King Alarak’s army met the Sarasins east of the Crescent Mountains. He lost, and he needs more men.”

“What of the men we already sent?”

“No word of them, but it cannot be good,” his father said slowly. “Many died during the rout.”

Two hundred men from a small village like Dahl Haven was almost every able-bodied man there was. Cayne had been surprised when they hadn’t taken him in the last levy. He was old enough and ready for war; moreover, he had wanted to go.

He looked at his brothers, wondering what they were thinking. Burke was two years younger than Cayne, but nearly as tall. He was always quick to joke, but his face was a weathered rock today. Next to him, Rait—the youngest—was excited, which was typical for him. Rait always talked about leaving home to find his fortune, or for adventure, or to frighten their mother.

His mother glared so intently at his father, Cayne thought she might bore a hole in his face. “There’s more, isn’t there?”

“A hundred boys need a leader,” his father said. “One who has experienced combat.”

His mother shook her head. “You too? No, not all of you.” She looked at Cayne and then to her husband. “Nate, you’re too crippled to go to war.”

She’d never called his father a cripple before, and Cayne felt the anger rise up from the older man and ripple across the table. His father stood up painfully. Cayne wanted to help him, as he often did, but he was nailed to his seat.

“I am no cripple!” Nate barked. “I have to go. I can’t let these boys go off to war with no one to lead them.” He didn’t yell often, but when he did, no one dared speak until he signaled that his anger had passed. He rubbed his face, and when he spoke next, his words were even and calm again. “The council granted me a request. I go, Cayne stays.”

“No! I want to go,” Cayne blurted. “If everyone else in the village is going, then I can’t be the only one left behind. Everyone else will bring home stories of adventure, and I’ll be—”

“Cayne, you’re not going. You’re too rash. You’d get people killed. Besides, we’re not going on some splendid adventure from a story. We’re going to war, and some of your friends won’t return. Maybe none of us will.”

The words hung heavy in the room, drenching them like a cold winter rain. Burke and Rait traded dark glances with each other. Even Rait finally seemed to grasp the situation for what it was. The idea of war had always been exciting to Cayne and his brothers… until today.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Faylin’s Story

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Faylin stepped on the dirt road, eager to know what the town blacksmith wanted from her. The streets of Walla were soggy from a recent rain, and her moccasins left light footprints as she walked. She took a short cut behind the town hall and emerged on the main road across from the blacksmith.

Master Ganji was outside, wearing his long leather apron. Other than a scruff of hair around the sides of his head, he was bald, and his face bore the marks of long years toiling at his forge. He gave her a smile and waited for her. “Faylin, you look well today.”

“Master Ganji, I came as soon as I heard you needed me.”

“I haven’t forged iron in years, but with my sons and grandsons away with the king, the town elders asked me to pick up the hammer.” He motioned to his forge. “As you can see, my forge is cold. I need charcoal.”

Faylin’s father was the town charcoaler, but he was with the king’s army too. The king’s decree for warriors had taken every man who could wield a sword.

“I’m afraid we’ve sold all of it,” Faylin said with a shrug.

The Ganji frowned thoughtfully and rubbed his white beard. “I really need charcoal. Are you sure there isn’t any left?”

“No, there isn’t,” she said sullenly. Her frown turned to a smile suddenly. “But I can make more.” Ganji’s eyes lit up. “I’ve helped father make charcoal hundreds of times,” she said. “It will be easy, but it will take a few days.”

They agreed on a price and Faylin left, a growing sense of pride in her breast. The town needed the blacksmith and he needed charcoal, so he needed her. She went over every step of the charcoal-making process as she sped back home. The house was empty, and she wasn’t about to look for her mother. She might tell me not to go. Faylin went to the cart at the back of their home. It held all the tools she’d need.

She pulled the cart, surprised at how hard it was to manage alone. He father pulled it easily enough, but he was clearly much stronger. She was eighteen and thickly built, but still she had great trouble pulling the four wheels over the rough ground.

Once she had it on the road, it traveled more easily. She stopped the cart in the road and ran back to the house. Faylin strapped on her father’s hunting knife before grabbing her bow and a few arrows. Her father used the well-worn blade to skin hares and other small game while they were on the plains. It reminded her of those times spent sitting around a fire, eating and laughing with him. She wanted him to be home again soon.

Not wanting her mother to worry too much, she called her neighbor over to the road. Shari was the same age as Faylin, but they weren’t friends anymore. When they were children, they were the best of friends, but now they didn’t speak to each other, except on rare occasions. These days Shari had her equally pretty friends, and Faylin had none, but that was fine—or it would have been, if her father were here.

Shari got entirely too much attention from the boys, though she hadn’t been promised to any of them. Faylin wasn’t sure why. There certainly wasn’t a lack of suitors for her. Faylin’s parents hadn’t even hinted at suitable boys for her either, but she suspected the issue was an acute lack of offers for her hand. It was just as well. Faylin had no mind to listen to a fool boy who thought he owned her.

Faylin pasted a smile on her face. “Shari, can you give my mother a message?”

Shari smiled so warmly it almost made Faylin regret her dislike of the girl.

“Tell her I went to make charcoal for Master Ganji, but wait a while before you tell her.”

Shari seemed concerned, but then Faylin was on the road, pulling the cart before she could say anything in response.

She continued through the center of Walla and headed east, until the farms ended and she could find a good stand of trees near the road. Her father would have felled a wide hardwood and chopped it to pieces, but Faylin set her axe to a smaller tree. In time, her sweaty efforts dropped three trees, and she used a handsaw cut them into arm-sized chunks.

With the rising sun reaching its zenith, she dragged her hands through her sweat-soaked hair, and dug a shallow hole with a shovel before building a fire nearby. While the fire burned, she carefully made a chimney of sturdy branches, and then stacked the wood around it. Finally, she covered the whole pile with wet dirt, leaving a hole at the bottom.

She stepped back and admired her work. The sun was setting now, but she had done it. She scooped the smoldering fire onto an iron plate. This was the most important part. She would need to move quickly, before the plate became too hot to handle. Faylin put the burning plate next to the hole she’d left, and used a long branch to push it into the center of the mound. With a few heaves of fresh dirt, she covered the hole, and the job was complete—for now. She knew freshly cut wood took longer to convert to charcoal than seasoned wood, but the hard work was over.

Faylin gathered the tools, thinking she might make it home before the twilight melted to darkness, when branch snapped nearby. The hairs tingled on the back of her neck. She peered into the brush, but saw nothing in the fading light. Reaching into the back of the cart, she grabbed her bow.

Faylin drew the bow and scanned the waist-high grass shifting in the light evening breeze. She’d been out here on the plains hundreds of times and was never fearful of a breaking branch, but her father had always been with her before.

She edged toward the road, eyes on the tall grass, ears straining. Sudden movement caught her eye, and she loosed the arrow without aiming. A gray wolf sprang out of the grass and slammed into her, knocking her to the ground and sending her bow flying from her hands. She saw the teeth coming toward her neck and put her arm out to block the bite. Its teeth sank deep into her arm, and it thrashed brutally from side to side.

Faylin yelled in pain and anger at the wolf, but she sensed growing bloodlust in its hot breath. The heavy wolf stood on her chest, keeping her down. She reached for the dagger with her free hand. Gripping the wooden handle, she slid it from the leather sheath.

Without hesitation, she thrust the dagger up and into the wolf’s belly. The beast let out a powerful groan, but then lunged forward even stronger. She pulled the dagger upwards, slashing the wolf from pelvis to sternum. Warm entrails spilled on her, but still it lunged for her neck. She thrust the blade toward its heart.

Faylin felt something deep inside her stir and rise to the surface. It filled her with lust, the lust to kill. She shoved the dagger into the wolf again and again. As the life drained from the beast, her thrusts became stronger, more urgent.

The wolf was still, but Faylin continued to stab it. She felt the rush of something coming into her, something driving into her soul and filling her with power—as though she had taken something from the wolf, something terrifying and wonderful.

Her senses surged, and then she felt a strange serenity. She looked back at the meaningless mound of burning wood, wondering why she had wasted so much effort on such a worthless task.

Calmly, she stepped over to the road and looked to the west, knowing the miserable village was there beyond the low hills. How had she ever thought that place was important?[_ Why did I stay there for so long? _]she wondered. With that, she jogged away from Walla and off the road. Freedom. An open range to roam. Her bleeding arm didn’t even bother her. She ran like she had never run before: faster, more agile than ever. She ran like a wild beast, like a predator.

Like a wolf.

If you enjoyed this preview,

be sure and check out the complete story.

Afterword Further Reading

Prospector is a prequel novella set in the time before the main story of the Anavarza Archive. Brig’s story doesn’t end with Prospector. Look for his adventures in Book 2, as he enters the center stage.

If you liked Prospector, please leave a review or tell a friend. Authors live by word of mouth and reviews.

Want to read more about the world of Anavarza? Click on over to JDMulcey.com and check out the blog for stories and lore from the world of Anavarza. You can also check on the progress of new books.

I hope you enjoyed reading Prospector.

J.D. Mulcey is the author of the

Anavarza Archive series of fantasy tomes.

He lives in the thin air of Colorado

with his wife and family.

Copyright 2016 J.D. Mulcey

All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, magical creatures, places, events, and incidents are the products of the author’s overactive imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons; living, dead, or undead; or actual events is purely coincidental.

Artwork by Gonzalo Kenny

Anavarza Emblem by Martin Buchan

Author photo by C. Rodriguez

Prospector is a tome forged in the Fayden Fantasy Works

An imprint of Compass Hill Press

ISBN 978-1-944114-05-3

Acknowledgments

The author wishes to thank the people who made this book possible and contributed to the final product. Gonzalo for another amazing piece of artwork, I have nightmares about it. Floyd Largent for the enthusiasm, suggestions, and editing of the words. Edith Jones for scouring the manuscript for pesky errors. Anneliese and Kira for the beta reads that helped me focus the story. And, of course, my family for supporting my efforts to write these stories.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One
  • Chapter Two
  • Chapter Three
  • Chapter Four
  • Chapter Five
  • Chapter Six
  • Chapter Seven
  • Chapter Eight
  • Chapter Nine
  • Chapter Ten
  • Chapter Eleven
  • Chapter Twelve
  • Chapter Thirteen

Prospector

Run. If they see you, run faster! Prospector is a stand alone NOVELLA set in the years before the main story of the Anavarza Archive. Brig is a man with problems. All of these pale in comparison when a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal disease. Brig will do anything to obtain the cure, even stepping into a forbidden forest teeming with creatures that want to kill him.

  • ISBN: 9781944114053
  • Author: J.D. Mulcey
  • Published: 2016-04-08 04:20:15
  • Words: 28797
Prospector Prospector