We found Eliah in the woods outside town.

“Where’s Quill?” she demanded.

“Not here,” I replied. “We need to move.” I swung onto Hook’s back and spun him east.

Eliah didn’t ask for more explanation. We moved as fast as we dared through the woods. It was tough going in the dark, and Eliah needed gaps big enough for two horses since she was leading Quill’s horse, Brimborren. Portions of the wood were thick with underbrush and struggling through took much longer than I would’ve liked. We pressed on, hearing no pursuit but not daring to stop until we’d put as much distance between us and the burning prison as we could. The moon was just dipping into the tree line when Ayglos and I scented a stream and headed for it. It was only about eight feet across, and inarticulate, but it was clean enough. We dismounted and watered the horses. The water’s attitude turned nearly giddy when it felt our touch. Not many nymphs in the Empire any longer and the water was lonely.

When the horses were settled, I sagged against a tree and slid to the forest floor.

“Are you going to tell me what happened?” asked Eliah.

“The prison was empty,” said Ayglos. He summarized our short and fruitless search while I stroked the roots of the tree and tried to think around the cavernous absence of Quill.

“So you set the prison on fire?” Eliah was incredulous.

“It was the best way to hide what we took.”

“Is it? It can’t be that hard to deduce what you’re after.” Ayglos didn’t answer right away so Eliah continued. “Did you find anything about the plans, at least?”

“We have the name of the clerk who is probably falsifying the records. We didn’t end up having time to go check the warehouse.”

“Because you set the prison on fire.”

“Because we set the prison on fire.”

“Do I have to remind the two of you how bad it would be for us if the Empire discovered those plans?”

Ayglos groaned and I felt rather saw him slump down onto the dirt and try to get comfortable. He was tired. We were all tired. “If they think anything, they’ll think this is about the prisoners.”

“His name was Frete, he stays on 3rd street, and he reports to Captain Argeant Dremmal,” I said.

Leaves rustled as Eliah settled in between us. “We’re going back?”

“I think we have to,” I rolled down the tree and lay down in the dirt next to Eliah. “But we’ll make a plan in the morning.” I sounded half dead, even to myself, and Eliah reached out and felt around until I gave her my hand.

She pulled my hand over to her and laced her fingers through mine. “Quill can take care of himself,” she said softly.

I nodded, even though she couldn’t see me. I was too afraid my voice would break if I spoke. We were warriors, we were no strangers to peril. But…but the Empire terrified me. And the Empire had Quill even if they didn’t know what they had. He was gone, and I didn’t know where he was or if he were alright. Nothing had ever hurt as much as this hurt. Tears streaked down my temples and soaked into my hair. Eliah kept a strong hold on my hand. The last thing I remembered was her thumb gently stroking mine.


The sun rose in a cold, gray, dawn. I was hungry and sore from sleeping on the ground. Above my head, the bushes were rattling futilely as the horses stripped their remaining leaves. When I sat up, I saw that Ayglos was in the stream already, standing perfectly still hunched over the water, bare to the knees and elbows. Clearly, he thought he might catch something. Or was at least hungry enough to try.

I brushed dirt and leaves off and moved toward the stream but stopped when Ayglos flicked his eyes at me prohibitively. With a sigh I turned away and looked around. The trees here towered and were sparse enough for a solid thicket of bushes and young trees. No wonder we’d had so much trouble bushwhacking our way through in the dark. Eliah was fussing with the pile of tack. She gave me a weary smile. “I think I heard mooing in that direction,” she jerked her head north. “If there’s a farm, I may be able to steal or barter for food. Maybe clothes, too.” Eliah hoisted a bridle and started toward the horses.

“You’re going alone?”

“Until we know if throwing water on new people is standard procedure for everyone in the Empire, I think that’s wise. Besides, you’re dressed like a border guard.”

I followed her and twisted my fingers into Hook’s mane while she bridled her horse, Finndrel.

“At least let me come close enough to watch.”

“They’re farmers, Zare, not bored soldiers on border duty.” Eliah walked back for a saddle. “Or at least, I hope so.”

“I’d rather be sure. One person to rescue is enough for me.” I moved to the other side of Finndrel and helped with the buckles.

Eliah snorted. “And leave our intrepid fisherman in the woods alone all covered in stripes?” 

Ayglos was still crouched in the stream. A grimace twisted my lips.

“Just stay put and try not to get into any trouble. I’ll be back soon.” She sprang into the saddle and turned Finndrel north. I saw her glance linger on Ayglos and caught the look that passed between them before she urged Finndrel away.

Clearly I’d been distracted the summer to have missed this thing growing between my brother and my friend. Picking up the saddle bags from the prison, I carried them back to the patch of dirt where we’d slept and emptied them. I selected a map of the southern portion of the Empire and spread it out before me. “La Carvahal…La Carvahal…” I traced my fingers over the ink as I searched, starting at the crossing near Falletta and working out. When I found it, I sucked in a breath. This would not be easy.

A shadow fell over me and I caught the scent of the stream as Ayglos dropped into the dirt beside me.

“Did you catch anything?”

He held up a tube of fabric and I grimaced when I realized it was his sock.

“Some crayfish.” He shook his sock, the weight in the toe showing the fruit of his labors. It was a pretty good haul considering the size of the stream and the fact that he’d been fishing barehanded. “That stream is so lonely I think she helped me more than she should’ve.”

I wrinkled my nose. “I don’t think I’m hungry enough to eat something that’s been in your sock.”

He grinned. “I washed it first, you baby. But since I did the fishing, you can build a fire—what is it?”

I point to the map, “La Carvahal is five days north.”

Ayglos stilled. Five days north would take us straight toward Dalyn, Hirhel and the heart of the Empire. “If the prison was full, there’s at least fifty people, probably more, being transported. They can’t move that quickly. They’d either be on foot or in wagons. Maybe we can overtake them.”

I nodded. Namal would have our heads for going that deep into the Empire. Assuming we succeeded. Ayglos didn’t mention that, which I appreciated. But there was something else that I had to bring up. “If it’s that far away, we need to find the plans or find a lead to them before we leave.”

Ayglos pulled the map toward him and leaned over it. He was quiet as he considered, and I stared at the stream. The sun was well up in the sky and it glittered on the water. Birds flitted through the brushes, their song mingling with the chatter of the stream. Quill’s chances were better than most people’s wherever they were going. The trail for the plans was here and Quill’s predicament didn’t change the fact that we couldn’t afford for the Empire to find out what they had. Irony twisted my lips. I couldn’t afford for the Empire to figure out what they had in Quill.

“I think you’re right, we have to go back to the border crossing first.” My brother knocked his shoulder gently into mine. “I know it’s frightening, Zare, but she has no reason to connect Josue Marisola with any rebel activity, much less with you.”

I patted his foot, the blue stripes on them still faintly visible. “Fear isn’t about facts. It’s about the worst that could happen.” I stood. “I’m going to collect wood.”

When Eliah returned, we had a small fire going, and Ayglos had just tossed the crayfish onto it. Eliah slipped off Finndrel and walked toward us, a sack dangling in her hands. “What’s this? Did you catch something?”

“Crayfish,” said Ayglos.

“Three bites for reach of us,” I added, teasingly. “A true feast.”

“Well,” Eliah sat down and opened her sack, “I faired rather better.” She produced a loaf of bread, and then, with a dramatic flourish, a small wheel of cheese.

“Such bounty!” I cried.

“Show off,” said Ayglos, but he was smiling.

“I’m not even done.” A smirk painted triumphant on her face as she pulled cured sausage out of the bag and held it high like a hero who had vanquished a foe. “I also have feed for the horses.”

Ayglos shifted closer to her, his knee bumping hers as he leaned close to look into the bag. “How did you make out so well? You weren’t gone all that long.”

“I was gone for at least a couple hours.” Eliah started tearing the bread into chunks. “They were just regular farmers who had a draft colt with the manners of a boar. I gave everyone a lesson in how to be civilized to each other. They were very grateful. They would feed us again if we needed it—they were hoping I had a few months to spare.”

“May the gods bless Eliah and her way with horses,” I said.

While we ate, Eliah told us that there were in fact cows just a little further north. It appeared to be a small farming conclave. We’d ridden east and north last night and would need to go southwest to get back to the outpost. Ayglos and I were still dressed in our stolen uniforms. The soldiers we’d left in the alley had doubtless been found or worked free of their improvised bindings. Chances were the outpost would have increased patrols and the guard.

“I learned something else from my farmers,” said Eliah, “I met their cousin who works in the laundry for the garrison.”

“How does that help?”

She smiled, “It means I know where in the outpost the laundry is done, and I know when they all take a break for lunch.”


Thank you to my lovely readers!

You keep me writing!

Let me know in the comments what you think of today’s episode.

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The guards were not fast enough to stop me. By the time the officers burst in we met them with blades that flashed bloodred in the lamplight. They fell, one struck by Azzad and the other by Ayglos, crumpling in a heap at our feet.

We waited for a long moment. There was nothing but the labored breathing of the wounded. Ayglos bent and rifled through the pockets of the officers. I stood over them, listening hard and trying to reach out with my senses for others in the building. I couldn’t sense anything. It was disconcerting. There should be something—even if people were sleeping. I glanced at the bodies in the room. At least three of them were dead, but not everyone. Not yet, anyway. I didn’t let myself consider them. Any of them would kill me and Ayglos given the chance, and all of them had been a part of the extermination of the nymphs of Daiesen.

Ayglos straightened and lifted a handful of keys. “Let’s go.”

We lit a handheld lamp, closed the door to the guard room, and headed deeper into the prison. The first rooms were closets and bare little spaces with tables and chairs. Further down the hallway we came to an open door. A glance inside showed a cell with four very sparse looking cots some and buckets. The smell was rank. The next door was open, too, and the room was the same. Cots, buckets. Nothing else. It was cold in this part of the building, with no fires to beat back the deepening autumn. We moved quickly. Entirely because searching took very little effort: Every single door on this level was open and every single room was empty.

My heart started to race, and I paused, closing my eyes and trying to focus. I breathed deeply, ignoring the stench, and looking for souls. I could usually feel people—faint swirls of emotion like currents in a river. But there was nothing. Ayglos reached the end of the hallway and turned back to me. “There’s another level.”

I followed him through the door at the end of the hallway and down a set of stairs into a dank cellar. I walked straight down the aisle in growing panic. When I reached the end I turned back to my brother, my eyes wide.

It was empty.

The whole prison was empty.


I went to the cemetery today outside Falletta. Not just for fun, you understand. Habero’s wife died, and the whole Guild was going so I had to. I haven’t been outside the city in months. I saw a flash of wings on that picnic last month and couldn’t bring myself to risk green spaces again. They seem to make the madness worse. There was nothing there. No ghosts, no tiny people with wings. It was gloriously quiet. Perhaps everything is alright now.


We went back up the stairs and out to the guardrooms. This time we entered the officer’s room and started going through the papers on the desk. Clearly, there had been prisoners here. We hadn’t found big pools of blood or stains on the floor or cots. They’d simply been moved already. There were probably orders documenting where. There had to be. Because Quill should’ve been here. I pulled off the helmet and set it on the desk before sitting down to sift through the papers on the desk.

Ayglos paced around the room. There were no curtains to cover the window, so he turned down the lamps and moved to stand by the door, listening.

I sorted through the papers, supply lists, names, something that appeared to be a roster for the guards. In an envelope, I found what appeared to be a report summarizing the day’s activity from the border crossing. “Here it is—” I shot to my feet, “They shipped all their prisoners to La Carvahal.”

“La Carvahal,” repeated Ayglos. “I assume it’s a bigger prison.”

“I do, too. But where?” I dropped the report and started searching the office for maps. There was a small collection rolled neatly and placed in a stand. I pulled out the bundle and made to drop them on the desk but Ayglos put out a hand.

“Take them with us. I don’t want to stay here any longer than necessary.”

He was right. We weren’t supposed to have to keep looking after tonight. I agreed, “We’ve left a wide trail.”

“Better make it wider, then,” replied Ayglos. “Take as much as you can, then we’ll set the rest on fire.”

I hesitated, then nodded. I grabbed log books off the desk and stuffed them and the maps into saddlebags I found hanging on a hook.

Ayglos started hunting down lamps and spreading their oil around the room.

When I stepped into the hall my eyes snagged on the soldiers in the guard room. I cursed. “Don’t set fire yet.” I walked in and checked the men. Four of them were still breathing. What was it about defenseless people—regardless of whose side they were on when they were standing? I stooped and with effort picked up the smallest of them, slinging him halfway over my shoulders with a groan. He gasped in pain. I half dragged half carried him out of the building and a little ways into the dark before laying him down and checking to make sure his wound didn’t start bleeding again. Ayglos was silhouetted in the doorway when I returned.

“You’re saving them?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I snapped, storming into the guardroom and struggling to pick up another. “It doesn’t feel right to leave them in a fire. Damn he’s heavy.”

Ayglos slipped in and got under the man’s other arm. “This is probably a terrible idea.”

“I know.”

With his help, we got the other two out, and I took a moment to pack their wounds while Ayglos went back into the prison to light the office on fire.

One of the men’s eyes flickered open and he moaned.

“Shhh,” I soothed. “People will be along soon to help.” I heard a crackle and whoosh, then Ayglos darted down the steps. I bent close to the man’s ear and whispered, “You should know that tonight a nymph showed you mercy and saved your life.” Then I got up and ran.


Thank you to my lovely readers!

You keep me writing!

Let me know in the comments what you think of today’s episode.

If you like Zare’s adventures, don’t forget to like, comment, and share!

Patrons, don’t forget to check out Zare’s Patreon for chapter format, maps, first looks, and other cool extras.

You can support Zare’s adventures and the overthrow of the Nether Queen on Patreon for as little as $1/month.


9-The Search

I have given up trying to sell the lodge. Waxwell has spread rumors about me and the lodge, and if I persist in trying to sell it I think I might lose all credibility with the Guilds. I’ll be damned if they’ll reduce me to giving it away. I’ll keep it and pay taxes on it and gods damn it I’ll use the place for hunting and I AM NOT CURSED AND I WILL NOT GO MAD.


Ayglos and I walked through the town like we belonged and were on our way somewhere. There were lamps lit in many of the buildings, and music and voices drifted into the streets. There were a few people out and about, but not many. No one paid any attention to us. The closer we got to the border, the quieter the streets until we started sticking to the shadows. There was a gap between the town and the buildings belonging to the army. It wasn’t quite a road, just a wide berth, as if the town were afraid to come closer. Ayglos and I slipped into an alley beside what appeared to be a large tavern and studied the guard houses that flanked the road.

There were buildings clustered behind each. The ones closest to the road were built of wood and had windows. Likely administration and barracks. A pair of soldiers walked by with helmets under their arms as if they had just gotten off duty.

With barely a glance between us, we moved as one out of the alley. Light feet brought us close and hard blows to their temples brought them crumpling to the ground. We dragged them back into the alley as quickly as we could, praying no one else walked out and saw us.

As soon as we were sheltered deep in the shadows, we started stripping the soldiers of their uniforms. Two more soldiers walked past and we stopped, holding our breath and hoping no light caught on the buckles or blades. They didn’t look. The uniform was leather armor over black wool gambesons—not especially fancy but engraved with the four headed dragon and reinforced in the chest. The uniforms were too small for Ayglos and too big for me, but they still buttoned and buckled in all the right places and once we settled the helmets on our heads I thought we’d blend in nicely. We left the soldiers tied and gagged with our old clothes and cut behind the houses toward the guard complex.

There were still guards in the guard houses at the crossing, so we were careful as we approached. This side of the road had three buildings and was the direction we’d seen them take Quill and the nymph. There were a few windows with light streaming out of them and we avoided those as we circled each building. As suspected, one appeared to have office spaces, one was a warehouse, and the third had barred windows.

We circled back to the administrative building first and Ayglos tried the door. Apparently, enough people were in the building that it wasn’t locked, and the door opened onto an empty foyer dimly illuminated by a lamp turned down low. Inside, the hallway was also bare and lined with doorways. I took a moment to breathe and reach out with my senses. When I couldn’t feel any souls nearby, I signaled to Ayglos that we could move forward. We checked the rooms as we went. It was mostly offices of clerks, and it was impossible to guess which ones tracked things useful to us. I found a lamp that could be carried and lit it. The third office I checked appeared to have ledgers full of the tolls taken from the crossing. I scanned through today’s entries and found our “crossing.” Four barrels of beer were listed—with no mention of the rest of the load, the wagon, or the horses. Or the fact that most of us hadn’t actually crossed the border. Perhaps those were in a different office. Turning to the cabinets I started searching for the records from the day Jeromb was robbed. I was so focused on the search that I didn’t feel the woman approach before she said, “What are you doing in here?”

I stiffened, then turned and saw a woman in a clerk’s uniform standing in the doorway. “Is this your office?” I demanded.

The woman frowned, “It’s Frete’s office.”

“Good for you, then,” I turned back to the drawer and kept scanning for the right ledger.

“What do you mean? You’re not supposed to be in here.” She sounded louder, as if she’d come closer.

“On the contrary, madam,” I drew the ledger and began to thumb through it. “You’re the one in someone else’s office without permission.”

“What? You didn’t even know whose office it was.”

I turned to face her again, looking down my nose on her even though we were the same height. “I didn’t say whose permission I had.”

She faltered then.

“Now, since you’re here; do you know why these ledgers are falsified?”

The woman blanched. “This isn’t my office—I don’t know anything about these ledgers.”

“I hope that’s true.” Setting the ledger down I walked around the desk and leaned close to her. “Rumors have reached the ears of my Empress that the outpost here has been skimming from her due. I’m here to find out if the rumors are true.” I let the words sink for a moment then asked very softly, “Are they true?”

Her voice had gotten small, too, “I don’t know anything about these ledgers. I track the army’s expenses.”

I stared hard at her. “Where is Frete?”

“He stays in the lodging house on third street.”

“And who does he report to?”

“Captain Argeant Dremmal.”

“Very well. Go back to your duties and tell no one what you’ve seen.”

She backed out of the office and disappeared from view. A moment later, Ayglos came in. “Everything alright?”

I lifted the ledger. “I found the day Jeromb came through, appears that cataloguing is Frete’s job, and he definitely didn’t catalogue the extra things they took.”

“No surprise there. And the woman?”

“I’m hoping she believes I’m one of the Dragon’s Eyes.”

I put the ledger back where I’d found it. “Did you find anything?”

“I found lists of names.” My brother lifted the ledger I hadn’t noticed he was carrying. “I think it’s lists of the people they’ve arrested. Some of them have marks next to them—I haven’t found a key yet that says what they mean.” He flipped the ledger open and showed me the last page. The last name was Josue Marisola. Quill.

I touched the ink. There was a little slash next to his name. The name above had a black dot beside it. There were other names, some had slashes, others dots, some had little stars. My stomach churned. “So many names,” I whispered.

Ayglos’s jaw was locked. “There are at least a half dozen ledgers full of names.”

“Any indication where they were taken?”

He shook his head.

I grabbed one of the quills and inked it.

“What are you doing?”

“Sowing fear.” I turned to a fresh page of Frete’s ledger and in precise, blocky, letters wrote, “I know what you did.” I set the quill down and turned to my brother. “Let’s go.”

We doused the lamp and left the administration building. I didn’t see the woman again on the way out and hoped she had been frightened enough to keep this encounter to herself.

Behind the administration building a was the long building with barred windows. There was light streaming from a few windows close to the door. Guard room, probably. We put our backs against the building and moved like crabs until Ayglos could get an eye in the window. Ducking, he scuttled under the window and crossed the doorway to look into the other. He came back and motioned for me to follow him down the building till we reached the corner. “There are four guards in that room—playing cards—and two more who look like officers in the other.”

I drew Shiharr and Azzad.

“There could be more guards deeper in,” cautioned Ayglos, pulling a pair of kerchiefs out of his pocket and handing one to me.

“I’ve got energy,” I replied. I had to take my helmet off to tie the kerchief over my face. For this, there wasn’t going to be much sneaking. But the less of our faces they saw the better.

We crept past the window again and approached the door. Ayglos eased it open. A burst of laughter from the guard room covered the squeak of the hinges. We stepped into the entryway, closing the door behind us and evaluating. There was a bench, a bucket, and a row of cloaks hanging on hooks. The door to the officer’s room was closed. I set my knives on the bench and took one of the cloaks down. I held my breath as I tied a corner around a hook, then wound the other corner around the knob of the officer’s room so the cloak was taut. Ayglos waited against the wall, knives ready. When I was satisfied the cloak would at least slow the officers down, I picked up my knives and turned to the open door of the guard room.

I breathed deeply, centering myself, and then I strode in.


Thank you to my lovely readers!

You keep me writing!

Let me know in the comments what you think of today’s episode.

If you like Zare’s adventures, don’t forget to like, comment, and share!

Patrons, don’t forget to check out Zare’s Patreon for chapter format, maps, first looks, and other cool extras.

You can support Zare’s adventures and the overthrow of the Nether Queen on Patreon for as little as $1/month.


8-Border Town

The border wall only extended a few miles away from the road. There wasn’t a big need for it to go further. Most of the border between the Empire and Villaba was marked by a ridge that dropped in a steep slope down to lower land between Villaba and the Magron Mountains. The ridge was impassable for vehicles, and impractically rough terrain for everyone else.  

We stopped in a hollow to eat, plan, and rest before resuming our trek overland. The land was thick with trees, and I wished we had Lord Ilya Terr of Terrimbir with us. For him the trees would part and vines would move aside to let us pass. I don’t think I had ever cared about how I treated trees before traveling with Ilya Terr. Seeing them come alive at his bidding and attack humans at his command had been quite the experience. So, we moved as gently as we could, trying not to offend the forest as we struggled through.

At last, Eliah judged we were a safe distance past the wall and turned us north. We reached the top of the ridge without any warning, and the Empire fell away before us. The land was the dull green and brown of autumn. I couldn’t help but feel that it was more brown than it should be. Eliah stood very still beside me and I turned to look at her.

Her eyes soaked in the view of the hills and valleys, and she blinked hard. “It’s overgrown in places it wasn’t before,” she said, her voice thick, “but do you see that hill there,” she pointed, and I tried to see what she was pointing at, “It was forest before—now it looks like there is a keep there.”

It took several embarrassingly long seconds of Ayglos and I squinting at the view before Ayglos said, “I see it!” and I grunted affirmatively as if I’d found it, also. A moment later I did, spying the gray splotch on a hill much closer than I’d expected.

“We should wait for dark.” Declared Eliah, “I bet there are watchmen with spy glasses watching this ridge.”

We moved back into the cover of the trees and I cast an impatient eye at the sun. We had hours before dark. I did not want to wait. But parts of the ridge were very exposed, and if we were spotted it would make everything else much more difficult. Ayglos found a log and sat with his back to it. “We should rest. Get some sleep while we can.”

Reluctantly, I sank to the ground beside him. Ayglos slipped an arm around my shoulders and pulled me close. I leaned into his touch, drawing comfort from his strength. He didn’t say anything when Eliah sat on his other side but he pulled her close, too.


When I awoke, the trees were shrouded in dusk. I sat up, gently prodding Ayglos and reaching over to give Eliah a little shake. I hesitated when I saw her head resting in Ayglos’s thigh. That wasn’t surprising, considering our nap—I had had my head on his chest—but his hand was buried in her short blonde hair as if he’d fallen asleep stroking it. My brother woke with a flinch and our eyes met. He blushed and removed his hand from Eliah’s head. She stirred.

I stared at Ayglos for a second, wondering how I had missed this, but then I shook myself and said, “Sun’s down. Time to go.”

We had nothing but the clothes on our backs, so breaking camp involved standing up, dusting ourselves off, and starting our trek down the steep ridge.

We moved slowly, navigating the steep slope as best we could in the dark. There was bracken to snarl our clothes and catch at our feet, and tree branches that unexpectedly slashed our faces. But we heard no patrolsand we made it to the bottom without twisting our ankles on loosed dirt or stone.

When we reached the bottom I heard Eliah take a long breath and let it out slowly. Ayglos said, “Welcome home.”

We were inside the Empire.


The woods was thick at the base of the ridge, but the hike was still much easier by comparison. Eliah was our guide. She was far better in the woods than Ayglos or I, her upbringing as the Huntsman’s daughter and her deep love of the forest had turned her into the most skilled tracker and pathfinder that I’d met in my travels. I wondered if she had hunted and tracked along the edge of the ridge before. These lands had belonged to Dalyn, at least loosely, in the past. Had she ranged this far?

Eliah held out a hand to stop us, then gestured us closer. “That’s the pass to our right, which means the outpost is just ahead.”

We were now far more likely to bump into patrols or even just off duty soldiers. There was a town here—but the sort that catered to a regiment. If it was anything like the other order crossings, there would be a handful of practical businesses like blacksmiths, and the rest would be whore houses, gambling halls, and taverns. The stables would be on the outskirts, and that was our first stop. The dark shapes of buildings rose before us, and we crept forward even more cautiously. There were lights in some buildings, but it wasn’t the kind of town with lamplighters so the streets were dark.

We’d circled maybe a third of the way around the outskirts when the scent of horse manure and hay hit my nose. A moment later we came to a corral fence, and then to the barn. It was dark inside, but the doors were open. Inside, we heard the gentle sounds of animals. It appeared that the barn was arranged in a handful of huge stalls designed to hold small herds. I whistled softly and Hook nickered back. He was clearly under no stress because his approach was unhurried. When he arrived, he dropped his head to my chest and whuffled a greeting. I ran my hands over his face and neck, breathing in his familiar scent. Something in me relaxing a little. Behind him, Brimborren, Rood, and Flannel appeared in the darkness. “They’re all here,” I said.

It took a bit more doing to find tack, especially in the dark, but after some trial and error we had all four horses saddled and bridled. Eliah took the reins of all four. She would take the long way around the outskirts of town to the side where the rest of the guard complex was. “Be careful and come find me before you do anything stupid.”

“Of course,” promised Ayglos. “The Galhari are nothing if not careful.”

Eliah snorted. “The Galhari are nothing if not full of air.”


Thank you to my lovely readers!

You keep me writing!

Let me know in the comments what you think of today’s episode.

If you like Zare’s adventures, don’t forget to like, comment, and share!

Patrons, don’t forget to check out Zare’s Patreon for chapter format, maps, first looks, and other cool extras.

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7-Not According to Plan

I brought Waxwell out to the lodge to see if he’d buy it from me. I tried to stay out of the lodge itself as much as I could—just in case there is a curse. But it wasn’t any better in the woods. Gods, it was worse. I saw them in the clearing, much more than just flutters of light and color. More than faces in the wall. I tried not to react, but I must’ve looked nervous. Waxwell got suspicious of me. I think Waxwell thinks I’m trying to snooker him somehow, and he made an insultingly low offer. I threw him out.


The guard’s slap whipped Quill’s head into the side of the wagon. My stomach dropped at the sound. Quill turned slowly back to the guard and spat in his face.

I was frozen in place as the guard spun Quill around and slammed him hard against the wagon. “Fish lover,” snarled the guard grappling Quill’s wrists. “We’ll let a night in the cells show him to defy the Empress Magnifique.”

“No, Please!” I cried, trying to lunge past Eliah and Ayglos, but they both held me back.

Quill’s head whipped toward me and our eyes met. They were clear and sharp, warning me off. I stopped, my mouth hanging open in horror. He was letting them take him and I was supposed to just watch. When Quill saw that I wasn’t moving anymore, he dropped his head, letting it hang as if the blows had really hurt him.

A couple guards stayed with us, swords in hand, in case we tried anything.

Quill put up a token resistance as the guard dragged him toward the trough—even that faint attempt at struggle had two more guards coming to help hold him and draw water. The water hit Quill full in the face and he coughed. But no stripes bloomed on his tan skin. The guards seemed disappointed, and they splashed a few extra buckets on him to be certain, the spray hitting the nymph who lay panting nearby. I felt sick. Quill’s clothes clung revealing his warrior’s body; how could they not notice? What if they stripped him and saw the scars of war?

“Please,” I gasped out the word, trying to look small and helpless. “Let him go—take some of the beer, just let him go!”

There were snorts of laughter from the guards around us. “Oh, we’ll take the beer. But we’re keeping your fish lover.”

“And the wagon, too,” said the closest guard. “Let that teach you to love fish!”


We fell back from the border crossing, just far enough to get off the road without being seen. We were still on the Villaban side, which had not been a part of the plan. We were also down one man and four horses. Very much not part of the plan. A short walk further put a hill between us and the road and we stopped to take stock.

“That was a little more than we intended,” said Eliah, her tone dry.

“We have to get him out!” I felt like a storm was building inside me and I had no way to diffuse it.

“They said they would hold him overnight,” said Ayglos. “Maybe they’ll release him tomorrow.”

I scoffed. “As long as no one starts to wonder punching a brewer feels like punching a wall. He spit in their faces, Ayglos!”

My brother held out his hands, palms down, “Having muscles isn’t a crime yet. And if they try to send him to the mines, we’ll have time to track and rescue him.”

“Does this happen all the time at the border?” asked Eliah. “They’re meant to be tax collectors, since when do they just seize people to see if they are nymphs?”

Our grim expressions were enough of an answer, but Ayglos said, “Almost since we left the Empire the first time.”

“I don’t remember them dumping water on everyone before,” I raked my hands through my too-short hair. “That might have something to do with the caravan last winter.”

“The bigger question,” said Ayglos, “Is what now? They took a whole wagon, shouldn’t be that hard to find where they park it. And they’ll have to put the horses somewhere.”

Eliah cursed softly. “The horses, dammit. I’m getting my horse back.”

I paced a few steps, “We’ll have to chance the dogs tonight. I don’t want to spend the time traveling to a less guarded place.”

“On foot, no less,” growled Eliah.

“I have couple knives,” said Ayglos, “What do you have?”

“Knives,” said Eliah, fluffing her plain tunic and producing a sample blade from where it’d been tucked in her loose trousers. “But if we can find me a decent bow, I’ll be a lot happier.”

I reached to my back and drew Shiharr, “I have all I need.”

My brother grimaced at me, “You wore those to the border crossing?”

“It seemed a safer place for them than in a bench or a chest—and I was right.” I returned Shiharr to her sheath, “If they’d gotten as far as tossing water on me the knives would’ve been more help than harm.” I didn’t trust the blonde hair to preserve my alias if it were under that kind of scrutiny and I would rather die than face capture as Zare Caspian.

Ayglos didn’t look convinced, but he turned and started walking. “Might as well start looking for a spot to cross. Maybe we can cross earlier.”

Eliah and I fell in behind him. Eliah bumped her shoulder into mine, “Quill will be fine. I saw the look he gave you. He’s more in control than you think.”

Tears pricked my eyes and I nodded. “I know, in my head I know. But my heart…What was he thinking?”

Eliah looked at me for a moment, but said nothing, just patted my shoulder and kept walking.


Thank you to my lovely readers!

You keep me writing!

Let me know in the comments what you think of today’s episode.

If you like Zare’s adventures, don’t forget to like, comment, and share!

Patrons, don’t forget to check out Zare’s Patreon for chapter format, maps, first looks, and other cool extras.

You can support Zare’s adventures and the overthrow of the Nether Queen on Patreon for as little as $1/month.


6-The Edge of the Empire

I’m at the lodge with Lorenna and I saw them. Just as he described. Gave me a turn. Lorenna thinks I saw a ghost. Which is, honestly, the best possible thing for her to think. She doesn’t know about my family history, and I pay her enough to keep her from asking. Gods, I need a drink.

No one in my family had been to the lodge in years, I’d always thought it was because father wouldn’t leave his ledgers long enough to make the day long journey into the hills. I determined when the lodge came to me I would use the wretched thing. We’ve paid taxes on this land for decades, dammit. We just arrived yesterday. Only yesterday and I’m already seeing things that definitely are not and were not human, elven, dwarven, or nymphish.

Seeing spirits hanging around the courthouse or cemetery is one thing, but these were straight out of grandfather’s stories…

Maybe this place is cursed—maybe they aren’t real and it’s just this place and it drives men mad. We’ll go back into the city at once.


The journals dated after our cultist’s mystery sighting filled two saddle bags. And the saddle bags went into the bottom of a traveling trunk I purchased from a shop that kept its sundry packing trunks between a pile of tanned leather and rack of hats. The same shop had enough clothing lying around that Ayglos and I were able to outfit all four of us with respectable and entirely ordinary wardrobes. Our armor, the small collection of fine clothes from our summer at the King’s Court of Angareth, and some of our weaponry would have to stay behind in Falletta. This thrilled no one, but if the border guards had taken to seizing whatever they liked off carts, we really didn’t want to have to explain to people why we had such things.

Valeria agreed to hold our belongings until we returned.

The rest of our disguise was more complicated. It took two days and a dip into our gold stores, but Quill found a peddler willing to part with his wagon and a brewer happily sold us crates of beer to fill it. Our horses were trained to harness, but they’d never pulled anything like this. I wished we had more time to acclimate them before we filled the wagon with glass, but there it was.

The third morning we were driving out the northern gates of Falletta with our mismatched team and a cargo guaranteed to catch the attention of bored border guards. It was a three day journey from Falletta to the border, and we used the time to make sure our roles were set. Quill and I would play the son and daughter in law of a Villaban brewer hoping to begin exporting to the Empire. Ayglos and Eliah would be our servants. The road got more crowded the closer we got to the border. When we were within a few miles, Eliah and I tucked ourselves in the small living area of the wagon while Quill and Ayglos stayed aloft.

Eliah and I sat on the two padded storage benches that ran down either side of the living area. I immediately missed the top of the wagon. Less padding, but fresh air, and I could see where I was going. Eliah had her elbows on her knees and was slowly twisting her hands around.

“Are you nervous?” I asked. “I’m sure the crossing will go fine. I look nothing like myself.”

Eliah glanced up at me. “It’s not that. I haven’t been back to Daiesen since it became an Empire.”

“Really? That was right after we all fled Dalyn like swallows from a barn fire.”

She nodded. “It’s been nearly five years.”

I shouldn’t be surprised, so far as I knew the Breaker had stayed far away and kept most of his people with him until recently.

“I don’t want to see my home this way,” said Eliah. “Under her thumb.”

I considered, watching my fearsome friend staring at her hands and looking pale. “The first time we returned to Galhara it didn’t feel like coming home. We’d seen the fires, knew that an army was overrunning our walls. It is still different to walk a ruined street and be able to picture it the way it was before.”

A breath shuddered out of Eliah. “I know I’m living proof of what Narya Magnifique did. I saw the marks of her power in Dalyn before the debacle at the Midwinter Festival. Fornern’s fists, Hess is a constant reminder of her power. But I still expect things to be the way they were. I expect my father to be training hounds at the king’s kennels. I expect Bram and Dagmar and the others to be at the barracks.” She stopped and rubbed her hands across her face. “I guess I just don’t want to be reminded that they are all dead.”

If Bram and Dagmar had been part of the force Trinh Kegan had led into the mountains, there was a chance they weren’t dead. I couldn’t say that, though. I couldn’t even assure her everything would be alright. There was nothing alright about how we’d gotten to this point, and nothing was alright now if you thought about it too long. I reached out and squeezed her hand.

The wagon jounced to a halt and we heard Quill’s voice. Talking to a guard, probably. A moment later, the cloth flap across the back of the wagon whipped open and a guard in the dragon livery of the Empire glowered at us. “Everyone out,” he ordered.

Eliah and I got up and timidly clambered out of the wagon with as little grace as we could manage without falling on our faces. The guard grabbed Eliah’s arm and pushed her toward the front of the wagon, then turned to push me, “Line up.”

Quill and Ayglos were already standing beside the wagon, their gazes downcast. Eliah and I lined up beside them. Out here, we could see the guardhouse and movable barricades that marked the border. There was a town beyond the barricades that looked like it had grown up quickly to support the military presence. Buildings made of wood; roads made of dirt. Another wagon was stopped just ahead of us, this one headed out of the Empire.

A clerk came out of the guardhouse and walked over. “Who owns the cart?”

Quill said, “I do, Josue Marisola, brewer.”

He handed Quill a sheaf of papers. “Fill these out. Be thorough.” The clerk turned and walked back to the guardhouse.

Quill stood uncertainly. Then with a wary glance at the guards he turned and braced the papers on the wagon. The scratch of his pencil filled the silence as two guards stared at us. There was at least one banging around in the wagon.

My eyes wandered over to the guardhouse. There were placards and posters on the outside. I saw my face featured prominently and looked back down at the ground.

Shouting erupted at the other wagon and our guards came alert. We all turned to look as a man was hurled from the bed of the other wagon.

“Hiding in the bedding!” crowed someone.

The man scrambled to his feet and tried to run but the thwack of a crossbow sent him stumbling headlong and the guards were on him immediately.

Eliah grasped my hand tightly. I didn’t know if it was to keep herself from moving or to keep me.

They yanked the man to his feet—he cried out and one leg buckled beneath him. They dragged him a few paces and dropped him by the horse trough.

“Why are you sneaking out of the Empress’s domain? Got somethin’ to hide?” One of the soldiers roughly went through the man’s pockets and another filled a bucket from the trough.

I realized what the soldier was doing a moment before he dumped the water on the man. The soldiers laughed as the man recoiled violently from the water. “Something to hide indeed!” Another bucket full of water hit the man as he again tried to run away. I didn’t need to watch to know what would happen, but I couldn’t look away. His nymph stripes were starting to show blue on his neck and face.

“Can’t run away, nymph scum,” crowed one, kicking the male in the stomach and sending him sprawling.

I trembled as they continued to kick the downed male. Blood darkened the dirt. There were five or six other guards around where we could see, probably more in the guardhouse. Some were occupied arresting the man who’d been driving the other wagon. I couldn’t stop myself from calculating if we could take them all and take them quickly enough to get away.

“What are you looking at?” snapped one of the guards.

Eliah and I flinched, but the guard was looking at Quill. Quill, who had stopped filling out the paperwork to watch the beating, jaw clenched. Brewer disguise or not, he looked dangerous. The guard took two steps and leaned into Quill’s face. “I said, what are you looking at?”

My collected, calculating, beloved Quill looked the guard in the eye and said, “Bullies.”


Thank you to my lovely readers!

You keep me writing!

Let me know in the comments what you think of today’s episode.

If you like Zare’s adventures, don’t forget to like, comment, and share!

Patrons, don’t forget to check out Zare’s Patreon for chapter format, maps, first looks, and other cool extras.

You can support Zare’s adventures and the overthrow of the Nether Queen on Patreon for as little as $1/month.


5 – Sacrifices Must Be Made

We left Jeromb at the Black Swan and made our way back to our sad little tavern in the Market Quarter. We didn’t talk as we walked, and when we arrived, we sat in silence on the bed in Ayglos’s room contemplating what we’d gotten ourselves into. Hitting the caravan last winter had been a huge success, but it had raised my bounty to 5,000 gold pieces. There was a 2,000 gold piece bounty on my accomplices, though no one was quite sure who they were or what they looked like. Which was fine. With the Empress so focused on me, she still hadn’t noticed the growing smuggling operations through Galhara and she hadn’t found all the children we’d liberated from her when we fled Dalyn the first time. I chewed my lip. The thought of every soldier being equipped with a ranged weapon they could quickly reload… I a little bit regretted making my face so notorious.

“I can’t believe every single dwarf in Anlor is in on that lie,” said Ayglos at last.

“Another secret to add to the pile.” I sighed and leaned my head against the wall. “I feel like most of Galhara knows about Namal at this point and we haven’t seen posters with his face on them. People can keep national secrets when there is someone who wants to kill them.”

My brother grimaced. “You can’t go into the Empire looking like yourself.”

“What else am I supposed to do?”

“You can bleach your hair. You can cut it, too.”

I looked at him in horror.

Ayglos’s glare was unforgiving. “You’ve resisted changing your hair for years, they won’t expect this.”

I reached up and covered my dark curls protectively. “This is a terrible idea.”

“It’s a brilliant idea and probably the only way we get those plans back without trading you for them.”

I scooted off the bed and crossed the small room as if Ayglos were actively threatening me with sheers and dye. He cut and colored his hair all the time and had since we’d started working as mercenaries. It wasn’t a big deal to him. I’d never changed my hair from the mane of dark curls depicted so faithfully in my wanted posters. My brother was right, and I hated it. I twisted my hair in my hands. “How short?”


Quill sat on the bed surrounded by the cultist’s journals while Eliah and Ayglos worked on my hair. I clenched the armrests of the chair and tried not to flinch listening to the sheers. One curl had fallen in my lap, stark against the sheet Eliah had wrapped around me. It looked weirdly lifeless and foreign and my eyes kept snagging on it.

“I think we should burn them,” said Eliah from behind me.

“That bad?” asked Ayglos.

“We haven’t done a thorough reading, but he does detail his ritual in this one,” Quill held up one of the books.

Eliah said, “Do we bother looking? Does anyone really believe there will be something in here we’d be willing to do?”

“No,” I replied, glad for the distraction, “But I was hoping for—I don’t know, a better understanding of what’s beyond the veil. How the veil works in general. There must be rules.”

“And maybe corroboration for that one book?” asked Quill, tone dry. There had been a journal in Angareth of a gifted Seer—an ancestor of the Countess—who detailed the wildest stories about entire civilizations in the ethereal plane composed of fairies and sprites and hobgoblins and other creatures of fantasy. It had started out as believable and details accounts of conversations with ghosts, and then devolved. The Countess had a genuine gift, it wasn’t a leap to think her ancestor did as well. Except that the book was catalogued as the Journal of Elabet the Mad.

Eliah continued, “If we’re having to rush off to the border for these plans, we’ll have to take these with us or burn them right now.”

“The books are easier to bring than the man,” pointed out Ayglos.

“I am not breaking that man out of jail,” I said.

There were grunts of agreement. The last thing I wanted was to bring a cultist to the Empire when he could hang by the neck here.

Eliah came around in front of me and stared at my hair with such intensity that I wanted to hide. The severed curl rolled off my lap and out of sight. She tugged on my hair, pursed her lips, then nodded. “I think this is good.” She gestured to Ayglos, who also came to look, and said, “Agreed. Now for bleach.”

Quill tossed a journal to the floor. “Nothing in that one.”

Our eyes caught and I mouthed, “Save me,” as the alchemical scent of bleaching agents filled the room. Quill’s expression turned sympathetic. He hadn’t loved the disguise plan, but had readily agreed it was the best way to get in and out of the Empire safely.

“You know what doesn’t make sense,” said Eliah, again out of sight behind me. “Why is cultism and demon summoning against the law in the Empire, too? Especially since we all know that’s how she banished Shyr Valla.”

“Empress Narya doesn’t want anyone else getting any favors, I expect,” replied Quill. He tossed another journal on the floor. “This man is very boring.”


By the time Eliah and Ayglos finished working unholy alchemy on my hair, Quill had skimmed through at least a dozen journals and they littered the floor like the cultists when we were done with them.

Eliah removed the sheet she’d wrapped me in and my brother tossed me a towel. Reluctantly, I lifted the towel to my head to be confronted with the reality of their work. My hair ended at my collarbone, and it felt like nothing as I dried it. It barely even held enough water to soak the towel. Ayglos handed me the little mirror he used for shaving and—well, I didn’t recognize myself. My curls were more intense now—and they were blonde. Even my eyebrows were lighter. I turned my head, and my hair—so light—tossed with the motion.

Eliah and Ayglos stood side by side, crossed arms, faces thoughtful. “I think that’s excellent,” said Eliah.

Ayglos nodded.

From the bed, Quill exclaimed, “Ah hah!”

I startled, but Quill wasn’t looking at me, he held one of the journals and read aloud, “By all the gods, I saw them. My hand is shaking so badly—gods—they’re real.”


Thank you to my lovely readers!

You keep me writing!

Let me know in the comments what you think of today’s episode.

If you like Zare’s adventures, don’t forget to like, comment, and share!

Patrons, don’t forget to check out Zare’s Patreon for chapter format, maps, first looks, and other cool extras.

You can support Zare’s adventures and the overthrow of the Nether Queen on Patreon for as little as $1/month.


4-The Gig

The sun was high, and it felt unreal after the lingering darkness of the jail. “He wasn’t nearly frightened enough after what he did to those women,” said Eliah, falling in beside me as we set out on foot through Falletta.

“He’s not long for this world,” said Ayglos from behind us.

“I think we could’ve frightened him a bit more,” said Eliah. “You don’t need all your fingers to hang.”

I tossed her a smirk. “Just lungs and a neck.”

“So bloodthirsty,” commented Quill.

“You’d be bloodthirsty, too, if you’d spent the week bagging handsy sods waiting for someone to try to murder you,” Eliah spread her arms as if physically throwing off the role. “I missed the first few seconds of the fight, and you almost didn’t leave any for me to burn off my rage.”

I caught her elbow and linked arms. “I couldn’t see, sorry.”

“Next job we take better be hunting the animal kind of monster—something big and with lots of teeth.”

Ayglos laughed at her. “I’m just glad the jailer was happy to share all his information with us. If this monster does have a book about summoning demons, I’d rather not have it just loose in the world.”

“Do you know the priests here in Falletta?” asked Quill, “Could any of them be trusted with it?”

I looked over my shoulder to catch Ayglos’s eye. “Maybe. Learned Felix is kind. Remember—the one who feeds the ravens?”

“I don’t think he’d be tempted by the power, at any rate,” added Ayglos. “I’ve no wish to leave this for the Duke to find, however.”

The rest of us made noises of dubious agreement. Duke Falletta might just lock up the books, but he also wasn’t the sort of man I wanted to tempt. The streets got busier the further we got from the jail, and we stopped talking. Ayglos took the lead since he knew Falletta better than the rest of us. The houses in the Silk Quarter were interspersed between shops with glass windows where tailors, weavers, spinners and the like plied their trades and sold their wares. Buildings were stone or covered in plaster, and overwhelmingly tidy looking. There were trees scattered around, and more that could be seen over garden walls. Our cultist had a stone house, and careful masonry provided little patterns and flourishes around the windows and door. A flowering vine grew up one side and spread across half the front. It looked entirely ordinary and inviting.

“I was sort of expecting a stronger indication of obsession with demons,” I said.

“Things are never that simple,” replied Ayglos.

“By Rohhel and all her Ravens I am saved!” cried a voice to my left. “Zare Caspian!”

I stiffened, despite the decidedly unthreatening tone, and turned to see the speaker.

He was a dwarf with umber skin, neatly braided black hair, and a short black beard. His clothes were well made, but not overtly fancy. He was out of breath as if he’d run up. Indeed, behind him a second dwarf was coming to a halt, face red with exertion, his secretarial satchel clutched in his hands.

I recognized the first dwarf immediately, “Jeromb Jemard!”

“The legendary Zare Caspian—unlooked for! In the hour of my need!” Jeromb Jemard reached out and we clasped hands in greeting. “Is your brother around? Can we go somewhere to talk privately?”

My eyes flitted to Ayglos, whose hair was still dyed black from the Angari job. When we’d worked for Jeromb he’d been blonde. Jeromb followed my glance and startled, “Oh, my apologies Ayglos. You look—quite—different.”

My brother smiled and offered his hand to the dwarf, “Jeromb, it’s good to see you.”

I gestured to Eliah and Quill, “May I introduce our companions, Quilleran and Eliah,” Jeromb bowed to them in turn, “This is Jeromb Jemard, Magus of Mount Anlor.”

“A pleasure,” said Quill, with a bow of his own.

“This is my secretary, Nattren,” said Jeromb, gesturing to the red faced dwarf behind him, who also bowed.

Ayglos continued, “Zare and I worked for Jeromb two winters ago. Shipwreck recovery with some…monstrous complications.”

Jeromb nodded. “Excellent work. We lost our barge, and then every time we sent divers they came back banged up and shaking with terror, if they came back at all. When Zare Caspian showed up on our doorstep and offered to help, we were more than ready for it. I can’t believe we hadn’t thought of asking nymphs before. Someone who can’t be drowned is perfect for that sort of work.”

“Difficult to drown,” corrected Ayglos.

The dwarf waved his hand dismissively. “Could I persuade you to join me for drinks? In private? Right away? I have a room at the Black Swan.”

The four of us exchanged quick looks.

“We’ll take care of the other thing,” said Quill. “And meet you back at the inn later.”

“Of course.”  I hooked my fingers briefly with Quill’s before turning to Jeromb. “Lead the way.”


The Black Swan was a far nicer establishment than the little tavern where we were staying. Jeromb showed us to his suite of rooms warmed by a cheerful fire where we settled on divans stuffed with feathers. A servant knocked a few moments later with a tray of ales and a selection of meats and cheeses. Jeromb set the tray down on a little table and then drank the ale as if he hadn’t had anything to drink in days. Nattren took a glass, bowed to us, and retired to the desk in the corner.

I didn’t remember Jeromb being the nervous sort. Tasting one of the cheese I asked, “Did you lose another barge to the lake?”

“Oh no, no—the lake is fine, and we did hire some nymphs on as you suggested to patrol the lake and keep the denizens under control. No,” Jeromb set down his cup and smoothed his beard. “It’s much worse than that, I’m afraid. Much worse.”

Ayglos and I waited, but instead of explaining, Jeromb produced a pipe and settled into his seat, visibly calming as he went through the ritual of filling his pipe. We made no attempt to fill the quiet. Hunting lake serpents for him had been thrilling and difficult work. We didn’t know how the beasts had gotten into the lake, but they had no natural predators and several of them had gotten so big they were a serious danger to any dwarf who went onto the lake—or into it, as the sunken barge necessitated. We’d cleared out the biggest serpents we could find, and then firmly recommended Jeromb to find and hire nymphs who could live at the lake permanently to make sure this didn’t happen again. Nymphs for his lake had the added benefits of someone knowing the moods of the water and maintaining balance among the creatures.

Anytime we could make a safe place for nymphs we would. The Empire had displaced so many.

After watching Jeromb blow a perfect ring of smoke at the ceiling, Ayglos finally broke the silence, “What brings you to Falletta?”

“An ill wind,” replied the dwarf. “I had been on my way back to Mount Anlor from Galhara—I had business there and, well, beside the point—I was on my way back, and at the border crossing a few of my crates were confiscated by the Empire and I need them back.”

Ayglos said, “Confiscated…by…the Empire?”

Jeromb nodded dolefully. “They said I filled out the paperwork wrong for transporting goods, and took the crates they claimed weren’t accounted for on the paperwork—and of course therefore not part of the border taxes. Which isn’t true, I included all the crates on the paperwork and paid the appropriate fees—astronomical though they are. Bastards just wanted to pocket the extra.”

“What do you think we can do about it?” I asked. “It’s not as though we can apply diplomatic pressure to get your crates back.”

“Don’t be silly. I know that. I don’t want diplomatic pressure. I want you to steal them. No, don’t make that face, highnesses. I know what you do for a living, I’ve heard stories about your exploits—even a rumor that you robbed an Imperial caravan inside the Empire. I’ve seen the wanted posters, too. There’s a wall full of them at the border crossing with Villaba. You’re obviously very good.”

I frowned. “If you’ve seen the wanted posters then you know that going back to the Empire is very dangerous for us.”

Jeromb nodded gravely. “I do. But leaving my crates in their possession is dangerous, too.”

Folding my arms I leaned back, trying to ignore the feeling of dread crawling up my spine. “What’s in the crates?” I growled.

“Mostly trade goods,” said Jeromb—far too quickly. “Wine, dyes, that sort of thing. But. I was also smuggling a design. I’d gone to speak with an old friend to work out some of the parts with which I was having trouble. It was very good to see him again and I was absolutely correct that he’d shake the plan loose and make it all fit.” Jeromb stopped, looked at us, then gestured to Nattren.

The other dwarf looked dubious, but he stood up and crossed to the chest sitting against the wall. He produced a key on a chain from under his shirt, unlocked the chest, and came back to us carrying a package that looked like a trumpet. He unwrapped it, showing the horn shape and curved wooden hilt of the blunderbuss. “You’ve seen our blunderbusses before.”

We nodded. They’d demonstrated their loud and forceful little weapons last time we were here. Nattren nodded and turned away, presenting the weapon next to Jeromb, who picked it up out of its wrapping.

“Well,” said Jeromb, “I’ve designed one that has the pan all one piece with the striker and no match needed—which means no glow to give away your position at night—and a better chance of it going off if it’s raining.” Jeromb held the weapon aloft and pointed to knobs and spurs where the wood met the metal as if we’d know what he was talking about. “I call it the flintlock—since it relies on flint instead of matches, you see. Anyway, it’s a brilliant little weapon and I’m very proud of it.”

“And this is what you’ve lost?” asked Ayglos.

“Yes. My designs are in the hands of the Empire—if they find the false bottom in my crate. You can see how we wouldn’t want them to have those designs—how you wouldn’t either. Imagine every soldier equipped with crossbows they can reload instead of just a few.”

“I thought it took years of training to use a blunderbuss,” I said. “I distinctly remember being told I couldn’t try shooting it because it would probably put a hole in my face.”

Jeromb snorted. “That’s the lie, yes. Any fool can use a blunderbuss. Easy to shoot. Easy to reload…that’s our great secret.”

We stared at him, trying to come to terms with the improbable fact that an entire kingdom was in on a lie.

Finally, Ayglos managed, “Do you know where the plans might be now?”


Thank you to my lovely readers!

You keep me writing!

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Valeria provided warm water and soap, and the woman and I were both much cleaner by the time the doctor arrived to check her over.  I stayed long enough to make sure she would be alright—not drugged, just underfed and in shock—and left Valeria with some gold to take care of the woman and pay for the laundering of all the stage costumes that were coming back to her splattered in blood. The sun was well up and the city awake and bustling by the time I changed into my own clothes and walked to the tavern where we were staying.

No one else was back yet, so I ordered a bath and sank into the glorified barrel of fast cooling water with tremendous relief. Our inn was on the edge of the Market Quarter and the sort of place frequented by peddlers upgrading from their wagon for the night. Respectable enough but nothing special. There was an outhouse behind the inn, and a bathhouse on the other side of the square. Rooms had a bed, a fireplace, and a little washstand with a pitcher and bowl. But for a few coins, the servants would haul a tub to your room and fill it with warm water.

The privacy was worth the coin. I would probably throw myself into the first river we came to after a week of being pawed by men who bought sex. A week that ended with an entire group of people who certainly appeared to be trying to summon a demon. I flexed my fingers on the rim of the tub. It’s not that my life had ever been uncomplicated, but once—long ago now—I hadn’t known people could summon demons. The Empress of Daiesen Bay had used a demon to push an entire city state—Shyr Valla, her greatest threat—out of this world and into the ethereal plane. That was the plane spirits passed through on their way to the afterlife. We didn’t know a lot about how it worked, obviously, or we’d have brought Shyr Valla back and overthrown the Empress already. Time got tangled up in the mess somehow, because aside from the missing city, nine people had been caught on the fringe of the spell. They’d turned up six years after Shyr Valla’s disappearance, only no time had passed for them. Eliah was one of those nine. The ten-year age gap between us significantly reduced now.

With a sigh, I tried to sink lower in the tub. Slouched, the water barely covered the gold pendant that I always wore. My nymph stripes were blooming over my submerged parts in graceful blue tendrils that faded over my dry knees and collarbones. I splashed some water around and saw a bit more color. We’d spent the entire summer in Angareth, and I’d gotten used to very fine tubs, very fine towels, and very fine plumbing. Of course, we’d been staying in the king’s palace. It was part of our payment for saving his niece’s life and enabling a treaty between Angareth and its neighbor, Terrimbir. Besides an absurd amount of gold, we’d been granted unfettered access to his library and rooms in the palace.

Leaning my head back, I closed my eyes. It was funny, if you looked at it a certain way: The surviving royals and their most trusted warriors from two of the conquered cities of Daiesen were all high-priced mercenaries and criminals now. Some of us had spent the past six years funding our brother’s dogged efforts to relieve our fallen city, others had spent the time running other criminals to the ground for the sake of it. Brought back together by the ghost of A’rora Wynn, Queen of the Lost City, who claimed to not be dead, we were knee deep in extremely dubious research about the ethereal plane, demons, the Old Wars, and the gods.

Up until last year, no one knew what had happened to Shyr Valla. And, honestly, even now we were going off the word of an apparition. Something that didn’t tend to bother humans since their entire race saw things the other races couldn’t. And the Empress killing any Seers she found did lend credence to the apparition’s testimony. Most gifts of Sight were small, like the one from my human half; a faint ability to sense souls by their emotions. If you did have a soul get lost on the way to the afterlife, a great number of humans would see it to some degree—and not a single full-blooded elf or dwarf or nymph could. Occasionally, you got someone who could see the future, or the past, or into the ethereal plane. People with gifts that strong were called Seers. The Countess we’d saved in Angareth was one such. She’d spouted enough cryptic visions at me to deprive me of sleep for a month.

We hadn’t found as much as we’d hoped in the libraries of Angareth. The stories of the Old Wars were all legends now, and full of the wrong details. What we sought was knowledge the gods traditionally didn’t share. Preserving the veils between planes was among the duties of the four gods and goddesses serving under Eloi, the Creator. But perhaps they were helping us, since they’d handed us some real, live, cultists to question. Perhaps having an entire city from the material plane shoved through the veil changed their priorities.

The Cultist

I realized I’d drifted off when I heard the lock on the door. The water was cold. I didn’t react at first, just breathed and reached to feel at the soul entering my space. His approach was soft—like someone trying not to startle a wild animal. When I opened my eyes, Quill was standing over me, his sad wig in his hand, an expression of open affection and admiration on his face.

There was no stopping my smile, and I stretched with as much grace as I could manage while folded into a half-barrel. Crouching next to the barrel, Quill kissed me, one hand trailing over my stripes and warming me to my core.

“The water is cold,” he said, surprised.

“You’re still dressed like a cowhand,” I replied.

Ruefully, he shook the water off his hand and stood up. “I am. I came straight here after processing all those prisoners at the Guard. It took a long time to get through fourteen people. Every one of them wounded to one degree or another.”

“How did the magistrate take it?”

“As well as could be hoped. It’s a bit of a shock for everyone that the murders were by a mob—much less one that included a couple prominent merchants and plenty of people raving about the power they sought.” He turned away and began to strip off the cowhand clothes. “Several of them told me I had no idea what I was dealing with.” He laughed coldly.

His skin was still tan from summer afternoons spent on the Juni River with me, and dark hair dusted his chest, trailing down tantalizingly. He caught me watching and winked as he finished removing the ill-fitting trousers.

I pulled myself out of the tub. “We’ll come back to that.”


After a week living at night in a scraggy dress, it felt incredible to be out during the day dressed in my breeches and jerkin again. Shiharr and Azzad were at my back, my other little knives secreted back in their places. It was rather less incredible to walk down the bare hallways of Falletta’s jail carrying the menacing blade Quill had found in the hands of the murderers. We attracted attention from the prisoners—our cloaks and hoods obscured our features, but Eliah’s bow and Quill’s sword were clearly visible. I was sure we were the most interesting thing since a large group of people were locked up early this morning. My skin crawled as we went deeper into the building. I hated prisons. The jailer led us past holding cells with wooden walls and iron bars, meant for short term sentences and minor crimes. Half the people in the cells probably had alcohol induced headaches. At the end of the hallway was a door, and then stairs down to the cells underground—the ones intended for worse criminals. All the cultists from the night prior were down here.

The smell was horrendous. If I didn’t need air to speak, I’d just hold my breath. If they didn’t hang, they’d probably all die from infection to their wounds from existing down here. The jailer stopped at a glorified cage and banged on the iron bars. “Get up, you’ve got visitors.”

“Already?” rasped a man. “I haven’t even had dinner yet.” He laughed. It was a real laugh that said he thought he was getting out of here.

I stepped forward and the others faded behind me. This required a charlatan’s touch, and I was a practiced charlatan.

His shackles clanked as he crossed a few steps closer to the jailer’s lamp. His well-made clothes were rumpled and streaked with blood. There was an angry red bruise on his temple and his nose was swollen. He hesitated when he saw us; clearly, we weren’t what he’d expected. His voice was rough from the damage to his nose. “What do you want?”

I gazed at him a long moment, reaching for the cold, dark, sea inside me. “They said you were the leader.”

He lifted his chin. “I am.”

I turned to the jailer. “Leave us.”

The jailer hesitated, then shrugged. “I don’t care what you do with him.” He handed the lantern to Quill and headed back up the stairs.

The man wasn’t sure yet if he should be frightened. “Are you here to release me?”

Pushing back my hood, I allowed the light to fall on my face. “Do you know who I am?”

The man blinked at me, nothing sparking in his expression. “Should I?”

He didn’t recognize me from the street—nor was he familiar with my description. Good. “Not as well connected as I expected for someone dabbling with demons—I forgive you for not recognizing an outlaw when you see one.” I leaned toward him, my movements smooth and delicate as a lover. “Did you see anything beyond the veil?” I drew the knife Quill had found in the alley, it’s wicked curve and runes catching the light from the lantern, “Did anything answer you?”

The man stepped closer to the bars, his face animating at the sight of the dagger. “Are you a practitioner as well?”

I inclined my head.

“We hadn’t finished,” he said, “But we were close. I could feel the veil growing thin. I could hear him waiting to come through.” His hands closed on the bars.

I put one hand over his. “Who?”

“A prince of darkness. A demon. I did not have a name.”

My guts twisted, and I hoped it didn’t show on my face. “What do you need in order to finish?”

“Blood,” he answered without hesitation. “Ash for its desolation and blood sacrifice for life—it must be human and fresh, so the veil opens for their soul. When he comes through, he grants a wish to each who brought him back into this world. I’m sure he’d grant one to you if you help me finish.”

Stroking his knuckles, I said, “He taught you himself?”

The man nodded. “I saw him a few years ago, on a waning moon. Like a shade in the ethereal plane, but dark instead of pale. I’d read of such things and knew to call out when I saw him.”

“You read about this?”

His face turned sly, like a man flirting, and he openly swept his gaze over my body, even obscured as I was in darkness. “I see you are a woman of taste in search of power. I could teach you things—incredible things—there are powers in the ethereal plane to rival the gods. It’s there for the taking for those willing to do what is necessary. You and I could have whatever we want. I will teach you if you get me out of here.”

My hands tightened. Three women were dead because this man wanted power. “I think,” my voice had turned cold, “That there are other powers you should be concerned about.”

The man stiffened. He tried to pull away, but I trapped his hand and ran the flat of the dagger over his knuckles. I looked up at him, my lips curling as I let my inhumanness show. The air crackled between us as if the world itself wanted a piece of this monster. Real fear spread across his face, and he yanked back hard. I held firm. “You murdered three people,” I hissed at him, “There is no power waiting for you. You will hang, and when your soul crosses the planes and you come face to face with the gods, your demon will not help you. Rohhel’s ravens will eat your corpse.” He struggled, his fingers popping. I let go and he sprawled across the stone floor with a cry.

The man scooted away, face white with terror, “N-no, please. Fornern…” he stammered. His fear was so ludicrous it made me angrier.

“Did you listen when they wept in fear?” I spat, slamming the dagger against the bars.

Quill’s hand settled on my arm. The thrum in the air lessened. Turning away, I strode back to the stairs and left the darkness. I barely noticed the jailer waiting at the top of the stairs, or the prisoners gawking as I passed, hood down for all to see a furious woman with dark curls and a wicked knife. When I reached the front offices, I stopped and waited with my arms crossed. The clerks stared at me. I ignored them, replaying the exchange with the murderer in my mind. Perhaps I had let my anger too far off its leash. People weren’t usually quite so terrified of me—but then again, I didn’t have experience threatening gifted cultists. Or much experience with anyone gifted enough to be called a Seer. Maybe he saw something other people didn’t. Regardless, he probably still had books or journals in his home about this awful business, so we needed to find out where he lived before the Duke found out and got it into his head to seize them.  

Ayglos was the first up and he gave me an appraising look. “Are you alright?”

“I wanted to kill him.”

“That’s not what I mean.” He stopped close and squinted at me. “He saw something in your face that really frightened him.”

I bared my teeth at my older brother in a fake smile. “I’m apparently terrifying.”

My brother snorted.

Eliah walked up the stairs, Quill and the jailer following behind her. They weren’t looking at me like I’d done something bizarre, which was a relief. I turned to the jailer, “We’ll need his address, if you have it.”


Thank you to my lovely readers!

You keep me writing!

Let me know in the comments what you think of today’s episode.

If you like Zare’s adventures, don’t forget to like, comment, and share!

Patrons, don’t forget to check out Zare’s Patreon for chapter format, maps, first looks, and other cool extras.

You can support Zare’s adventures and the overthrow of the Nether Queen on Patreon for as little as $1/month.


2-Blood and Ashes

A small crowd of figures in dark hoods almost blocked the form of a flailing woman being pinned to the ground. Fury burst through my veins and carried me forward. Quill reached the crowd first and hurled one man into another before hammering his fist into the temple of a man holding a knife. The man fell, driven to the cobbles with all the momentum of Quill’s charge. Angry cries rose from the crowd—which faltered when I hit their flank and dropped two more with my knives before they could think. There had to be fifteen or twenty people in this mob. Almost two dozen people who not only knew about the murders but helped. I ducked a punch from a big man and sliced Azzad across his chest without remorse. Their matching cloaks and—were those candles? —certainly confirmed our ritual theory. I spun and clubbed the next person on the head, “Eliah!” I shouted. I hoped she was already on her way.

I barely saw the jug before a cloud of ash hit me full in the face—it was enough to seal my nostrils and spare my lungs, but my eyes stung. I recoiled, softening the blow that immediately followed the jug. Someone else swung at me from behind but I dodged and, eyes closed, spun a knife into their midsection. The startled grunt was gratifying. Knife fighting blind was not ideal and relied hard on instinct and speed. So, I didn’t think—I daren’t think—I just moved. I heard the moans of the wounded, the slap of boots on cobblestones, the heavy breath and whoosh of air of someone furious swinging for me. I heard the sobbing of the woman—why hadn’t she fled yet? I heard shouts as Eliah and my brother, Ayglos, joined the brawl. And I moved. I moved, striking hard and fast, ducking and spinning and striking again, until I felt space clear around me.

I stood for several heartbeats, Shiharr and Azzad ready, waiting for something else to come at me.

There was nothing but moans and the last sounds of a scuffle some distance away.

“Zare, you alright?” Eliah’s voice.

Straightening, I shifted my knives to one hand and used the other to wipe at my face.

“Stop, stop!” Eliah’s voice was closer, and in a breath, she’d caught my wrist and pulled my hand from my face. I heard fabric tearing and then flinched as she—none too gently—began to wipe the ash off my face. “Your hand is bloody, you’ll just make a bigger mess if you try to clean yourself,” she said.

“Butcher,” I managed, with the last air from my lungs. I kept my nostrils sealed as Eliah worked, despite the fact that it severely limited my ability to complain.

“I’ve had hounds that wiggle less than you,” Eliah sounded quite cheerful. “Smells like someone cleaned their kitchen hearth for this murder.”

She stepped away and I inhaled at last. “Lovely: Greasy murder ash.” I lifted my eyelids, blinking away the sting.

Eliah was standing directly in front of me, her own harlot dress slipping off her shoulder, her face scrunched up critically. “You look awful,” she pronounced, then started using the rag to clean her own savage knife.

“Thanks,” I replied. My hands and knives were slick with blood, and I tried to wipe them clean on my dress—which was also filthy—while I looked around. Sad light from poorly maintained streetlamps illuminated a tableau of bodies—some of them dead, most of them wounded and moaning. My brother was prowling the carnage, dressed like workman but carrying a naked sword and looking terrifying as he pommel-clubbed anyone who tried to get up and run.

Quill was crouched over the prone woman.

“Find us some rope, Eliah. We’re going to need a lot more than we thought.” I crossed the battleground as Eliah snorted. When I reached Quill and the woman, I knelt at her shoulder, “Are you alright?” She didn’t have any enormous wounds I could see, at least.

She blinked up at me, her lips were trembling and she made no attempt to speak. Bruises mottled her pale skin. I felt an urge to stab more people.

“I think she might’ve been kicked in the head. Or she might be drugged. Or both,” said Quill, his glance turned into a frown as he took in my new ghoul-of-ash look, “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” I assured him. “They brought a bucket of ash their murder.”

Quill’s gaze sharpened. We were both remembering the grisly mess we’d found in the Queen’s chambers in Dalyn years ago.

“What about you?” I asked.

He lifted his hands to show me the blood on his knuckles—it was just dark splotches in this light, but I knew what it was.

“Aren’t you carrying knives?” I asked.

“I am. But I wanted to use my fists,” he let coldness into his voice, and it made me love him even more. Quilleran Rhydderick was not a vengeful man, but he was a just one. His righteous fury was something to behold. It probably shouldn’t make my heart beat faster. Perhaps I’d been a mercenary too long.

Turning my focus back to the woman, I tried to look gentle and unthreatening. “I’m going to touch your head to see if you’re bleeding, alright?” I waited for her to acknowledge, and I was pretty sure she nodded. I put my hands on either side of her temple and carefully turned her head to examine the side and back. The darkness made it difficult to tell if the shadows in her hair was blood or grime, and I didn’t dare check with my grubby fingers lest I make her wounds worse. I gave up on her head and did a quick check for broken bones or big gashes on the rest of her. Rope hung loose around her wrists, someone—Quill, most likely—had already cut her free. “Can you sit up?” I asked.

Woodenly, she accepted my help to sit up. It was like moving an oversize doll and made me uneasy. Once upright, she looked around the street at the carnage of her attackers. Drawing up her knees, she hunched over herself, and started to cry. Relieved to see movement and emotion, I sat down on the cobbles next to her and looked over at Quill, “I’ll stay with her.”

He nodded and got to his feet. “I’ll finish this.”

By the time Eliah returned with rope and a few men from the Guard, Ayglos had brought over one of the dark cloaks to wrap around the woman’s shoulders and she’d also accepted my arm around her. While they were shackling the living, a cart arrived for the dead. The Guard were understandably taken aback by the situation. No one had expected a mob. But the cloaks, the ash, the wicked looking dagger Quill held up to the streetlight to inspect…it was enough to make anyone’s skin crawl.

Eventually, I persuaded the woman to her feet and steered her through the cobble streets of the Stone Quarter until I reached Valeria’s shop. It was close to dawn, and the few people who were about were either drunk, or on their way to work. Only one or two looked closely enough to even wonder at the state of two ill-dressed women spattered with blood. I was both irritated and relieved by the time I banged on Valeria’s door.

Valeria had dark, wrinkled, skin and hair that was white with age. Her eyes were sharp, though; she saw the blood immediately and was unsurprised. “Did you get the bastard?”

“Bastards,” I corrected. “Yes. Send for your doctor, though. We think she hit her head, or was drugged, or both.”

“Set her in the kitchen,” ordered Valeria, before disappearing to roust her assistants.

There was a long table with benches in the kitchen, and I helped the woman sit down. She lay her torso on the table and lay her head on her arms. Satisfied she wouldn’t fall off her seat, I turned to deal with the fire. Valeria entered the kitchen and watched, her arms crossed over her dressing gown. Fire building wasn’t my best skill, but I prevailed and coaxed a respectable blaze to life.

“I’ll put the kettle on,” said Valeria, walking forward. “I don’t want you touching it with those hands.”


Thank you to my lovely readers!

You keep me writing!

Let me know in the comments what you think of today’s episode.

If you like Zare’s adventures, don’t forget to like, comment, and share!

Patrons, don’t forget to check out Zare’s Patreon for chapter format, maps, first looks, and other cool extras.

You can support Zare’s adventures and the overthrow of the Nether Queen on Patreon for as little as $1/month.