Rebel Mission

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Brojimarie was gone on another mission. Drax sat alone at their table, missing him, missing Saer, and wishing that she could force Railix to keep her company. Drax picked at the steak and potatoes on her plate, letting her eyes wander across the crowded mess hall. She was too young to be taken seriously, since fourteen was centuries younger than the average Acadamian. She was an albino, and a half-dragon. The only reason she was in the Academy at all was because her mother was one of the rulers of Mid-Realm.

Naturally, some of the students held her heritage against her, but Drax felt no real attachment to her mother. She could only remember a few instances where her mother actually treated her like a daughter, and one of those instances had been the result of a kidnapping! If people wanted to accuse her of nepotism, they would be better looking to the Head Chronicler, Chroniclus, who actually raised her.

A blonde elf suddenly plopped down in the chair opposite Drax. Drax stared at her, but the elf only smiled. “I’m Kezia,” she said. “You’re Drax, right? The Seeress’s daughter?”

“What of it?”

Kezia’s smile grew wider. “Excellent.”

As if on cue, other elves and nymphs filled Drax’s table, covering it with their trays of food without permission or greeting. Drax sat there as they chattered to each other, her small hands opening and closing as she gaped at their gall. She waited for them to say something to her, explain why they invaded her space, but they ignored her completely. She wished they had offered some insult, had given her some reason to slaughter them, but they were just annoying. She finally stood and collected her tray.

“Where are you going?” Kezia asked, sounding alarmed.

“I’m leaving.”

“What? But we were just getting to know each other.”

Drax stared at her, but she didn’t say a word as she turned and walked away.

Kezia and her posse came back the next day, and the day after that. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, it didn’t matter where Drax sat, or how she tried to hide, the elf found her. She would waltz up to Drax’s table, greeting her like they were old friends, and then the others would come, and Drax ceased to exist. Until she tried to leave. Then Kezia and all of her friends were grabbing at her and pulling her back down, begging her to stay. If she stayed, they went back to ignoring her, and if she left, they filled in whatever gap she left. Brojimarie reappeared after a month, and he provided a brief respite from the nymphs and elves. Then he was called away on another mission, and Drax was overwhelmed again. Finally, she skipped going to the mess hall altogether.

Drax went to the Böchard and wandered the shelves, letting her stomach rumble with hunger as she stroked the spines of the books. If Chroniclus or Aoife caught her here, they would reprimand her gently and send her back to the mess hall to eat. If any of the chroniclers caught her, they would send her to Chroniclus. There was only one place she where she might successfully hide.

The door had no knob, and it wouldn’t open at her touch. She had to knock and pray that the occupant was inclined to answer. He was. The door slid open, and Drax nearly ran into the darkness beyond. It was comfortable, it was familiar; it was Railix’s office.

Railix was sitting in his chair, facing the black monitors that covered the wall. His scrawny frame melted into the shadows, but his amber eyes glowed as he turned to her. “What do you want?”

“Sanctuary.”

He turned back around. “Get out.”

“No. You let me in, now you’re stuck with me.” She shut the door and sat on his desk, letting her short legs dangle and kick.

He glared at her. “Why are you here?”

“There’s this elf that has been annoying me…”

“Kezia.”

“You know her?”

“She started flirting with me six months ago.”

Drax did not bother to hide her laughter. She fell back on the wood and roared, rolling back and forth with exaggerated hilarity.

Railix pushed her off his desk. “She’s after power, that’s all it is. Though she is at the top of her class, Kezia isn’t particularly spectacular. She’s trying desperately to correct that failing by either becoming romantically involved with me, or apparently by becoming friends with the Seeress’s daughter. Bonus points if she succeeds in both ventures.”

Drax grinned from her spot on the floor. “I think you’ll make a cute couple.”

“I hope you enjoy your late nights braiding each other’s hair. But if that’s not something you want, kill her. Now get out, and let me get back to my work.”

She sat up, watching how his finger hovered over the ON switch. “If only she knew that you’ve only ever loved one thing.”

“Trallorps don’t ‘love’.”

Drax smiled at his common rebuttal and let herself out. As soon as the door shut behind her, though, she sank to the floor and took several long and deep breaths. She was a flurry of emotions, anger, jealousy, heartbreak, and all of them made her want to send a tornado through the Academy. She should have known better. Railix was forever preoccupied with his work, and she should have guessed that Kezia was only hanging around because of her non-existent relationship with her mother. That was her only value, after all, and there was no reason to pretend otherwise.

“Drax? What are you doing here?”

Drax jerked in surprise and looked up at the silver-haired elf blinking down at her. It was Chroniclus. Before she could answer, he looked at the door. “Did Railix lock you out again?”

“Not exactly.” She stood and straightened her crumpled clothes. “I wanted his advice, and he gave it. I was just mulling over what he said.”

“I see.” He gave her a shrewd look. “Aren’t you supposed to be in class right now?”

“Not according to most of the people here.”

He raised an eyebrow and folded his arms, waiting for her to continue.

She sighed. “I haven’t earned my place in the Academy. I’m not a great hero or warrior, and there’s no great prophecy about me. The only reason I’m allowed in class at all is because of you and the Seeress.”

“Who told you this?”

“It’s not a secret, Chroniclus.”

“No, I suppose not.” He tapped his elbow and let his gaze wander. Finally, he snapped his fingers and drew a tablet out from his interdimensional pockets. “You may not have earned your way into the Academy through traditional methods, but you have proved that you belong here. You know that you are at the top of your class, but did you realize that you are also at the top of the Academy as a whole?”

Drax leaned forward to examine the Academy rankings. Points were earned for a variety of things, including in-class performance, mission proficiency, kill count, and field experience. Drax’s mission proficiency and field experience scores were zero, since she’d never been off Mid-Realm, but the rest of her scores were through the roof! Even with her two zeroes, she was number seven overall. Drax seized the tablet excitedly, and did a quick glance over of the top six. Three were from upper classes, one was two years behind her, another one was three years behind her, and the top most ranking student was Railix.

“I could probably make number two if I went on a mission,” she said, showing him her two zeroes.

Chroniclus shook his head and gently pried the tablet from her fingers. “No, Drax. You know how your mother feels about that.”

“But I’m good! That proves it! I deserve a chance to prove it on the field! Please, Chroniclus? I’m sure you could find something simple for me to do. Something non-threatening that won’t freak the Seeress out. Data retrieval, maybe?”

“Not without your mother’s permission.”

“Why not? You have just as much power as she does! You don’t need Seeress-approval to send Railix on missions!”

“Railix is a trallorp.”

“And I’m a dragon! Whatever he can handle, I can handle.”

“Now you’re just deluding yourself,” Railix said, leaning against the frame of his suddenly opened door.

Chroniclus smiled. “Ah, Railix! There is an issue with the automated filing system in the Belgariu section.”

“Yes. I saw the alert.” He waved dismissively, and they began walking down the aisle toward the troublesome section.

Drax slid her knife between the door and the frame as it began to close. As soon as the pair were out of sight, she pried the door back open and slipped into Railix’s office. If Chroniclus wasn’t going to clear her for field duty, then she would clear herself, and forever silence her mother’s objections. Railix had the codes to the Portal Room, and if she could find them, she could go off-world and find some way to prove herself.

She turned on his monitors for light, glancing briefly at the preteen human girl playing on the other side. The girl’s name was Cassie, and it was Railix’s job to watch her, though Drax wasn’t sure why.

The codes were hidden in a book on his bookshelf at the opposite end of the room. Drax memorized the numbers, then put everything back as she had found it. She made her way to the Portal Room, first checking to make sure that no one was scheduled for a departure and that the room was indeed empty. The Portal Room was massive, and filled with star-like representations of the multi-worlds. There was a control panel in the center that Drax was able to figure out after some experimentation. As soon as she activated the correct section, she put in the codes she’d memorized and waited.

A single “star” drifted down in front of the control panel, and opened. Drax walked over to it, heart beating excitedly as she stared into another world. The portion of the world she could see through the portal was white light glaring down on black stone and brown dirt. She thought she saw a black dragon moving. She took a deep breath to steady her nerves, then plunged headfirst through the portal.

Drax knew where she was the minute she smelled the bitter calcium in the air: Anrachel. She had spent the first two years of her life on Anrachel before being confined to Mid-Realm, but then she’d been in the cliffside caves of the Versian Realms. The air had still smelled bitter, but the sweet grasses of the plains had softened it. There was nothing to soften the smell here. Where on Anrachel was she?

Drax caught sight of movement out of the corner of her eye and remembered the dragon. She quickly ditched her small, selarthin form, and transformed into a snow-white dragon, spreading her wings and shaking her scales as she adjusted to the larger body. “Hello?” She called. “Is anybody there? My name is Drax.” She quickly decided that using her full title would be more impressive and corrected herself, “Draxia Shyft, of Mid-Realm Academy. I’m a friend.”

A black dragon with two ivory horns and a red belly lifted her head over the rise. “Mid-Realm Academy is no friend of mine, nor of Ut’Zaro!”

Ut’Zaro. Drax swallowed and took a step backwards. Why did Railix have portal codes for Ut’Zaro? The dragons there were evil; they were responsible for the death of her father. Drax’s jaw tightened as that last thought echoed in her mind. They killed her father.  “You’re right. We’re not friends.”

The black dragon yelped and ducked back down.

“Drax!”

Someone grabbed her tail as she lunged toward the black dragon, and she fell embarrassingly flat. She turned to snap at Railix, the only one strong enough to stop her cold. “Let me go, Railix!”

“I’m taking you back to Mid-Realm.”

“No! I’m doing this! Go back to watching your precious Cassie and leave me alone!”

His already thin face tightened with rage. Drax felt cold. Then she was back in her selarthin form, her arm caught in his grip. How had he made her change back?!

“No!” She raised her hand and threw a wave of air in his face. When that didn’t work, she drew her knife and tried to stab his arm.

Railix twisted her arm, forcing her to drop the knife, then he threw her back through the still open portal. She screamed in frustration and pounded the floor. The trallorp strode through the portal behind her, catching her as she tried to run back through, and tossing her back again.

“You do not go to Ut’Zaro,” Railix snapped. “You do not go around announcing yourself in hostile territories, and you do NOT scream Cassie’s name ever.”

“You have no right!”

“I have every right!” He went to the control panel and began typing furiously. “I am resetting the codes for the entire Portal Room. Whatever codes you’ve memorized are now null and void. The Head Chronicler and the Seeress will be informed of your actions.”

Drax suddenly felt sick. “No.”

“These are the consequences for your actions, and you will face them.”

“No!” She drew another of her knives and threw it at him.

He caught it and threw it back at her. “You did this. You are the only one to blame here. Now get out.”

Drax collected her knives and ran from the room, her mind already reeling with the dread of having to face her mother.

She collided with Kezia outside the door, her mind still in disarray.

“Drax!” Kezia beamed and took her arms. “It’s so good to see you! We missed you at lunch today. Guess what? I’ve been assigned a mission!”

Drax pushed her back. “Get off me!”

“But we’re friends!”

“No we’re not!” Drax exploded, drawing a knife and stabbing the elf with it.

Kezia screamed as she died. She reappeared a minute later, fully regenerated by the Mid-Realmian technology. The elf stared at her, thoroughly shocked.

Drax tightened her grip on her knives. “We are not friends, and we will never be friends. I am not your pawn, and I will not be used to get at the Seeress. If you come to my table ever again, I will stab you in the face, you and all of your little friends. Do you understand me?”

Kezia nodded and scrambled away.

Drax stared after her, chest heaving with emotion. She didn’t care what Railix said, she would get off of Mid-Realm again.

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The Seeress’s Daughter

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“Kick with the ball of your heel, Drax, not your toes.”

Drax adjusted her balance and shrieked as she kicked the sandbag. It swung gently on its chain, and the elf woman stilled it. Her pale arms were bare, her red hair was pulled back in a loose braid, and even though her green eyes were gentle, she carried herself like a soldier who’d seen war. Her name was Aoife, and she had taken it upon herself to train the albino half-dragon. She propped an elbow on the bag, keeping it steady as she looked down upon the small seven-year-old. Drax kept her fists up, bouncing from one foot to the other as she waited for the verdict.

“Not enough strength,” the elf said finally. “Your backside wasn’t aligned with your torso. Do it again.”

Drax blew a loose strand of white hair from her face and tried again. She pivoted on the ball of her foot, then sent her opposite foot crashing into sandbag heel first. The bag swung backwards, then came hurtling back, knocking the young girl down as she celebrated her success.

Aoife snorted in amusement. “There’s a lesson here about being cocky, but I think the more important point is to always be ready for a counter-attack.”

“That hurt!” Drax whined, rubbing her nose. “I thought there was supposed to be sand in there.”

“It is sand. And it just goes to show you that something soft and loose like sand can be very dangerous when it’s focused. Try again.”

“Is it going to hit me again?”

“Only if you let it.”

Drax sighed and climbed back to her feet, readying her stance.

“What is going on here?”

The familiar voice cracked through the air like a whip. Drax flinched then ducked behind Aoife.

“Draxia Shyft! Don’t you hide from me!”

Drax haltingly peeked out at the tall, willowy woman staring down at her, her wide, pointed ears quivering. Her golden red hair was pulled back in a tight bun, accentuating her pointy face and high-collared dress. The only thing remotely gentle about the woman was the doe brown of her eyes, but even they were narrowed and critical. Drax fought the urge to hide behind the elf again, and somehow managed to choke out, “Hello, Mother.”

Aoife lifted her chin and greeted the woman with a calm, “Scota.”

Scota, the Seeress of Mid-Realm, turned her narrowed gaze to the elf-woman. “What are you doing with my daughter?”

Aoife folded her arms. “We live in a military academy, don’t we? I’m teaching her to fight.”

“My daughter is a princess, an heir to the throne of the Versian Realms, not some muscle-headed grunt! Chroniclus is to be teaching her the political sciences and histories of Anrachel, not leaving his wildling wife to fill her head with brutality!”

A vein bulged in Aoife’s neck. “Chroniclus has his own duties running the Böchard. As much as he loves your daughter, he doesn’t have time to raise your daughter for you. And if you’re so against her learning to fight—which is a viable and practical skill for anyone to have—maybe she shouldn’t be here. Maybe she should be back on Anrachel, where she can get some ‘proper’ training.”

Scota’s eyes grew wide, but her lips got thinner. “Draxia, leave us.”

Drax grabbed Aoife’s hand and shook her head.

The tension momentarily fled the elf’s face as she knelt down and placed one hand on the albino’s shoulder. “I’ll be fine, Drax. Go to Railix.”

Drax nodded, swallowed, and began walking toward the nearest portal door. After two steps, she ran back and kicked Scota’s shin, then ran to the portal door and disappeared, her mother’s indignant screams ringing in her ears. She kept running, blinking back tears as she tried to process what she’d heard. She reached Railix’s office and dived in, curling into a ball on the floor as she sobbed.

Railix, a gold-skinned being called a trallorp, turned off his monitors and looked down at her with what she knew was weary annoyance. “What is it this time?”

“Aoife wants to send me away!”

Railix rolled his eyes and picked her off the floor. “I don’t have time for this. Let’s go see Chroniclus.”

He led her through the labyrinthian aisles of the Böchard, keying code after code into the portal doors until they found the section where Chroniclus was working. The silver-haired elf was perched at the top of a ladder, shaking his head and passing book after book down to the three dryad chroniclers beneath him. The dryads all jumped out of the way when Railix appeared with Drax, whispering to each other at the sight of her tear-streaked face.

“Head Chronicler!” A pine dryad called up the ladder.

Chroniclus spotted Drax, and immediately slid down. He scooped the small girl into his arms and held her, glancing at Railix to ask, “What’s wrong?”

“Some drama with your wife that I don’t have time for. Bertram! You’re supposed to be in the Portal Room programming my mission coordinates into the system!”

The pine dryad blanched. “Yes sir, I apologize sir, but the Head Chronicler outranks you, sir.”

“I’m sorry for detaining you, Bertram,” Chroniclus said. “Please go attend to your other duties now.”

Drax picked her head off Chroniclus’s chest and blinked at Railix. “You’re leaving?”

“Yes. I have work to do. Take care of her.” Railix waved his hand dismissively and followed Bertram to the Portal Room.

“Where’s he going, Chron?” Drax asked. “Why is he leaving me?”

Chroniclus shook his head. “He’s not leaving you Drax, he’s going to help some people on another world. He’ll be back. Now what’s wrong? Why are you crying?”

Drax hiccupped as she told the elf of the argument. “Aoife said she wanted to send me away. I don’t want to leave. I want to stay with you and Aoife!” She began crying again and buried her face back in his shirt.

Chroniclus smiled and stroked her hair, cooing soothingly as he signaled for the remaining chroniclers to disperse. He carried the little girl back to his house in the center of the Böchard and set her on one of the cushions around his dining room table. “It’s not that Aoife wants to send you away,” he explained as he rummaged through the cupboards for a hot, comforting drink. “She and your mother actually want the same thing: for you to be raised away from the violence and brutality inherent in the Academy. But they also want you to stay here with them, because they both love you so much.” He found a cup and filled it with a steaming brown liquid, topped the drink off with whipped cream, and covered it with sprinkles before setting it in front of her.

Drax took a big bite of the cream then sipped at what remained. “The Seeress doesn’t act like she loves me. She’s always mean. I think she hates me.”

Chroniclus fixed himself a cup of tea and sat down across from her. He considered her words, nodding thoughtfully as he tapped the side of his cup. “I want you to think of Railix. Does he look nice?”

Drax shook her head.

“Is Railix mean?”

She started to shake her head again, but reconsidered. “Sometimes.”

“Does he love you?”

She thought for a few minutes before answering slowly, “Railix says that trallorps can’t love.”

Chroniclus held up a finger and wagged it. “That wasn’t my question. Do you feel like Railix loves you?”

She thought again then nodded slowly. “Yes.”

“Yes, he does. Even though Railix looks mean, he still loves you; he just has his own way of showing that love. The same goes for your mother. She may look mean, but she still loves you. She just,” his face darkened as he took a breath, “she just has a hard time showing it.”

Drax scowled into her hot chocolate. “I like how you and Aoife show love.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

She swirled her cup, watching the colorful sprinkles melt. “Are you and Aoife going to send me away?”

He drummed his fingers on his cup again. “Aoife and I have no real say in that matter. But as I said, your mother loves you, and one way she shows that love is keeping you here.”

“Just as long as I get to stay with you.”

Chroniclus smiled. “Ah, be careful what you wish for. Finish your drink. You can help me finish cataloguing damaged books.”

Drax grinned, downed her drink, and darted after the elf as he walked out into the Böchard. They worked together for hours, Drax doing her very best to take initiative and assisting with her aerokenesis where she could. Then Aoife found them and pulled Chroniclus away to vent about Scota. Drax didn’t mind. She stayed in the row they had been working through and began to check the books on the lowest shelf for repairable damage.

“Excuse me,” a voice said, “I’m looking for Anorfilad. Do you happen to know which section he’s currently in?”

Drax recognized the name as one of the chroniclers, but she didn’t know off hand where he was. She looked up at the large person towering patiently over her; he was a male Galalas, an olive-green humanoid race with tusks and scales down the back. She smiled at him and stood. “I can check the roster for you.”

He smiled, sharpened teeth joining his jeweled tusks. “I would appreciate that, little one.”

Drax scowled.

“You’re the Seeress’s daughter, aren’t you?” The Galalas asked.

“I’m Drax,” she replied, refusing to look at him again.

“I thought so. Are you often here in the Böchard?”

Drax nodded and checked the roster. “I like helping Chroniclus. Anorfilad is currently with an archive of chroniclers in the Ixalli section. Portal code two-two-four-two-two-four-two.”

“Sulak?” Aoife poked her head around the shelves and frowned at the Galalas. “I thought you were on assignment.”

“I am, milady,” Sulak replied. “Or, at least I will be as soon as I locate Anorfilad. He’s to give me the information on that treaty I’m to be enforcing. This little lady was just helping me find him. She’s the Seeress’s daughter, isn’t she?”

“Yes,” Aoife said in a carefully soft tone. “Find Anorfilad and be off. You’re supposed to attend the diplomatic banquet the Seeress is holding next week.”

“Yes ma’am.” Sulak bowed and strode back down the aisle.

Drax studied Aoife’s guarded expression. “Do you not like him?”

“I don’t know him. It’s different. What about you? What did you think of him?”

“He called me ‘little’.”

Aoife’s nose crinkled when she smiled. “You are little, sweet. Come with me now.”

“Are we going to train again?” Drax took her hand and skipped beside her, waving to Chroniclus as he reclaimed his spot amidst the shelves.

“No. Your mother doesn’t want you becoming ‘brutish.’ We’re going to make dinner for Chroniclus. Scota shouldn’t have any issues with that.”

Drax missed having training lessons with Aoife, and she missed having Railix around. She spent that week wandering through the Böchard, avoiding the lessons her mother wanted her to have, instead helping Chroniclus in whatever ways she could. At night, she would go to Chroniclus and Aoife’s house and hide in the room they had set aside for her.

One night, she walked into the house to find Aoife struggling with her hair. “I used to know how to do this,” the elf-woman grumbled, pulling a jeweled pin from her mouth and stabbing it into the pile of hair.

Chroniclus wandered out of his room, fiddling with the gold cufflinks on his suit. He spotted her struggles and went over to help, expertly twisting and winding her hair into an attractive and elaborate bun before securing it with the pin. “Would you like your chain or circlet?”

“I don’t know if a circlet is really necessary. I have no real position here, so my presence is just a formality.”

Chroniclus ran back to her room and returned with her chain circlet. He carefully fastened the chain around her hair. “Of course, you have a real position. You’re Second Chronicler. And you’re my backup. Scota and I have discussed the Galalas deal, and I believe we’ve reached an agreement, but there’s no one better than you in standing their ground.”

“It’s not my fault you’re both pushovers.” She patted his hand, and they both turned to leave.

Drax hovered in the door, smiling awkwardly at the pair when they realized she was there. “Where are you going?”

Aoife and Chroniclus exchanged looks, then Aoife knelt to address her. “Chroniclus and I have a political banquet to attend tonight. If you would like, you may stay here, but I think you may be more entertained in your real room.”

Drax threw herself onto the nearest cushion and latched onto it. “I want to stay here!”

“Then make yourself comfortable. There’s plenty of food in the cupboard if you need dinner. I don’t know how long we’ll be, but I expect you to be in bed by the time we get back. Understand?”

Drax nodded and saw them out. She wandered around the house for what felt like hours, randomly picking up books and flipping through them, then she cooked herself a quick meal. Boredom struck as soon as the last bite was finished, so she left the house and went searching through the Böchard for something interesting to read.

Despite living amongst thousands of creatures and beings that could tear her limb from limb, Drax had never once been afraid. She didn’t jump at the subtle sound of a footstep in a lonely aisle. She didn’t turn at the soft breathing behind her. It was only after a hand clamped over her mouth, only after feeling the burn of iron around her throat, did she know what it was to be afraid. She struggled against the burning pain, against the massive hand that covered her face, but she was little. Her attacker was bigger, older, and stronger. Her vision faded quickly, and she dropped the book she had been holding.

The next thing she knew, she was clamped to a chair with more iron. A bright light shone in her face, turning the three figures around her into shadows.

“Are you sure we got the right kid?” A gruff voice asked. “She’s awfully small for a dragon.”

“She’s only half dragon,” a second voice replied. “And yes, I’m sure. This is the only kid in the Academy.”

Drax’s ears twitched. She recognized that voice; it was Sulak! She straightened in her chair and squinted against the light, trying to identify the other two shadows. They were Galalas like Sulak, but she didn’t know them beyond that.

“She’s waking up,” the third shadow said, his voice squeaking slightly.

Sulak snorted. “She’s been awake for a few minutes now. I’ve already signaled the councilor. He’ll be making his move shortly.”

As if on cue, a screen flashed on beyond the light. Drax stared. On the other side of the screen was her mother, Chroniclus, Aoife, and a small party of Galalas. She had to be looking in on the diplomatic banquet!

Her mother stood, her face locked in its familiar fury. Chroniclus and Aoife stayed seated, but their expressions were equally livid.

“Now that you understand the stakes of the matter,” a bedecked Galalas said, “perhaps you’ll be more accommodating. A troop of your finest graduated warriors, along with two thousand chuekaibin blades, Academy-grade armor, and open supply lines.”

“For what?” Aoife demanded. “You don’t need all of that for a border dispute!”

The Galalas smiled. “You’re not in the position to question our demands, Lady Aoife. You’re not even a part of these negotiations.”

Aoife swore violently and lunged at the Galalas, but Chroniclus grabbed her and forced her back into her chair.

“I will place orders to have the armor and weapons ready within a fortnight.” Scota said through clenched teeth.

“You have one week,” the Galalas countered. “We will keep the girl until we a sure that all of our demands have been met.”

“Where is she?” Chroniclus asked calmly. Drax focused on the elf, watching how he kept one arm on Aoife while he fiddled with a ring on his thumb. He waved a hand grandly as he clarified, “I expect that she’s been taken out of the Academy, and is presumably on a different world entirely.”

“Where she is is of no concern of yours.”

“It is, actually. That child is precious to us. If you want to continue negotiations, you will reassure us of the child’s whereabouts. I understand your need for secrecy, but you will give us her planetary location if you wish to leave here alive.”

The Galalas frowned. “You’re hardly in the position to make threats, Chronicler.”

Scota sat down and crossed her legs. “And yet, he has made them, councilor. Need I remind you that not only do the Chronicler and I rule this world jointly, but that I also have the ability to see the future?” She leaned forward. “I have seen my daughter’s fate, and her life does not end here.”

Drax’s ears quivered. Her mother had seen her future? She had seen her death? Drax swallowed nervously.

The Galalas councilor looked just as nervous as Drax felt. He adjusted the gold belt around his middle and said, “It is true that she is no longer located on Mid-Realm, but neither is she on any planet. She is in orbit. Is that enough to satisfy you?”

Chroniclus was fiddling with his ring again. “I assume that is Sulak I see guarding her?”

“Enough!” The Galalas councilor stood, and his retinue followed suit. “You will have our weapons and armor delivered to us within the week, and they will be accompanied by troops to include in our army. If you do not comply, we will be sending your daughter back to you piece by piece.”

Aoife surged to her feet again, and again Chroniclus forced her back into her seat. Scota had remained where she was, keeping her eyes fixed on the screen.

Suddenly, there was a fourth shadow in the room with Drax. The squeaky Galalas shrieked in alarm, then crumpled in a dead heap. Sulak shouted and started to draw his sword, but then his other companion went down.

“No!” Sulak protested. “We’re not on Mid-Realm! How did you find us?”

The fourth shadow didn’t answer. He just killed him. The darkness spared Drax from the gruesome scene, but the sounds of bone cracking would haunt her.

The fourth shadow stepped in front of the screen and bowed to the leaders on the other side. “Drax is secured, and Sulak’s Academy ring has been retrieved.”

Another familiar voice, but this one Drax loved. It was Railix!

The trallorp dismantled the screen as Chroniclus finally let Aoife out of her chair. Drax saw the elf-woman draw a sword from somewhere before the screen shorted out. With that taken care of, Railix carefully removed the iron collar and cuffs, then he removed the gag. Her wrists and throat stung with relief as her healing abilities kicked in, and she began to cry. Railix offered no words of comfort, didn’t hush her. He just picked her up, and twisted the ring around his own scrawny finger.

In a flash, they were back on Mid-Realm, surrounded by the books of the Böchard. Railix set Drax on a cushioned seat to examine what remained of her burns, but before he had reached the second wrist, Scota, Aoife, and Chroniclus had surrounded them.

Scota was crying. She reached out to wrap Drax in a fierce hug, then pulled back. Before Drax could process this, Aoife was sweeping her up into her arms, burying her face in her white hair and sobbing. Chroniclus wrapped his arms around them both and kissed Drax’s head. He alone seemed to notice the Seeress’s reluctance, and he gently pried Drax from his wife’s embrace to pass her to her mother. Drax and Scota stared at each other for a long moment, then Drax circled her arms around her mother’s willowy neck and cried into her dress. Scota didn’t scold her. She tightened her arms around her daughter and sank to the floor. Her eyes were closed, her voice was silent, but she held her daughter, and she held her tight.

The next year, Drax was enrolled in the Academy military program, the youngest ever to be trained.

Demons of the Desert

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Many explorers died in the deserts of the misnamed Plains of Rephaim; what survivors there were came back with tales of living fire and demons. After centuries of fear, one brave explorer mounted a dragon and disappeared into the sand dunes for years before returning with the truth. The Plains of Rephaim are not home to demons, but to fire sprites.

Fire sprites are beings of pure fire, though when cool, they behave and feel like beings of flesh and blood. They’re omnivorous, though oxygen is the only food they absolutely need to subsist, and they prefer sticks and twigs to meat and fruit. Their emotion and temperament reflect the nature of their element, ranging from violent and volatile to warm and inviting. They are gifted with control over their element, though the range of control and power can be classified by the color of their flames.

fire-f-red-web

The red fire sprites are considered the weakest, and are the most common, but they also earned a reputation for being the fastest to burn. They live on the edge of the Plains, and are thought to be the main culprits behind settlement fires. They are also the most vulnerable to the rare rains, and they take care to disappear at the first sign of a cloud.

fire-m-blue-web

The blue fire sprites are the most accommodating toward the less-combustible species, and have been known to travel with convoys to spread awareness and teach fire safety. Ironically, they are also the ones with the least amount of control over their flames, as their fire is emotionally fueled.

 

fire-f-whiteweb

The white fire sprites claim to be the most powerful, but they are also known to be paranoid—especially of the blues and blacks. They live in the caves in the centermost parts of the Plains, burying and barricading themselves in the depths of the mountains. Many believe this is because though their flames are powerful and deadly, the white sprites have a harder time activating and deactivating their flames than their fellows.

 

fire-m-black-web

The black fire sprites are considered to be the true power-houses of the sprite race, though when comparing heat to heat, the white fire is hotter. However, the black sprites have more control over their abilities, and the strongest can “borrow” the fire from the other flames, and can manipulate natural and manmade fires. Their closest allies are the blues, since they are often confused for one another despite the distinctly different coloration in their flames.

 

 

Arieh is filled with giants, humans, dragons, and goblins, and each has an ability unique to their race. The giants are gifted with great strength, and humans are gifted with ingenious creativity. Dragons have the gift of flight, and goblins have the gift of speed. But all four races think twice before picking a fight with a fire sprite.

 

FEATURED SPRITE: Fia

 

Purifying Flames

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The room was grossly over-decorated. Red velvet curtains seemed to drip every which way from the wall, choking the light and sound, then the thick scent of incense choked out all other senses. Fia gagged as the stench assaulted her in like waves, but stubbornly continued into the room. Then two tall, willowy figures stepped out from behind a pair of curtains and blocked her path with curved sabers. They were the Seeress’s bodyguards, Nirra and Kenrien.

Fia raised a hand. “I am unarmed, and I was summoned.”

Nirra sneered. “You are never unarmed, Black Torch.”

A pale blue row of teeth split the deep purple of Fia’s lips. “This is true.”

Her fingers suddenly burst into the black flames she was known for, and she grabbed both blades, melting them with the heat of her fire and pushing back the guards in a single movement. The male guard, Kenrien, recovered his footing first, pulling out his secondary blade, a wylknari, an ice blade, and swung it at her. Fia dodged the attack, her onyx skin helping her blend into the shadows of the curtains. Kenrien swung and swung again; fabric hissed as the wylknari cut through it, frost clawing its way up the tear. Nirra had also recovered by then, and she drew a chuekaibin, a blade that could cut seamlessly through almost anything. Fia ducked and wove through their expertly aimed swipes and stabs until she was able to get under Kenrien’s reach. She planted a powerful kick in his stomach, setting her foot ablaze as it connected. Kenrien screamed as he went up in flames, though he admirably spent his last blazing moments trying to kill her. Nirra was next; Fia caught the woman’s wrist and set her on fire as well, holding her until her ashes fell through her fingers.

“I can see your reputation is well-founded,” a smooth voice said. A tall woman, richly decorated with jewels and silks, stepped out from behind the back curtains. Fia knew the woman, though they hadn’t been formally introduced: it was the Seeress of Mid-Realm.

Fia brushed the lingering ash from her hands. “You need better bodyguards.”

“I’ve seen my future, and my life doesn’t end here. Bodyguards are merely a formality.” The Seeress waved dismissively to the newly-regenerated Nirra and Kenrien, and parted yet another set of curtains to reveal a silver dragon throne with amethyst eyes. She made herself comfortable on the velvet seat and signaled for Fia to approach. “I’m satisfied with your skill, despite your current level. I do believe you are the one my prophecy requires.”

“Prophecy?”

“It’s a minor vision calling for the end of a dynasty. See for yourself.” The Seeress took hold of the dragon’s diamond-spade tail and closed her eyes.

Fia leaned forward, intrigued. She’d heard of the “Vision Teller,” the tool the seers of Mid-Realm used to archive their visions. The diamond interacted with their third eye, pulling the visions from their minds and displaying them in the facets of the jewel. The Seeress’s vision was disjointed beyond the natural twists of the gem, showing flashes of a medieval-type town, dirty and rundown, and watched over by a classically forbidding castle. A red moon flashed in the sky, a procession of robed torch-bearers marched down the dark streets. A pale, dark-haired man took his seat on a throne of bones. A child dressed all in white was laid screaming on an alter and sacrificed before him. A gold crown with blood-encrusted jewels was raised. Black flames burst from somewhere, enveloping the castle, and filling all facets of the diamond.

The Seeress sat back, letting her vision fade. “Did those flames look familiar?”

“I don’t know.” Fia glanced at Nirra and Kenrien. “Did they look familiar to you?”

A vein bulged in Kenrien’s neck, but he somehow managed to control his temper. Nirra didn’t react to Fia’s barb at all.

“The man you saw being crowned was the Immortal King, Nornu. He has recently conquered all of Haicon, and he will be formerly recognized as World Emperor at his official coronation next week. According to my vision, you set fire to the palace as soon as that crown touches his head, and so that’s what you will do.”

“That’s my mission? My prophecy? Burn the place down?” Fia grinned. “I like it.”

“Good. Go to the Böchard and find Railix. He’s the chronicler for Haicon. He’ll debrief you. You’re dismissed.”

Fia bowed and clawed her way back through the curtains, stopping to blow a taunting kiss to Kenrien on her way out.

The Böchard was a single step through the nearest portal door, but the specific code Fia had memorized took her to Bertram’s section. The dryad was bustling amongst the shelves, cataloguing titles and inspecting the volumes for damage. The green needles of his hair rustled as he swayed amongst the books, stilling only when Fia snapped her fingers for his attention.

He turned, his bark-cracked face lighting up when he saw her. He carefully, but quickly, set his books back on the shelf before hurrying to her side. “What can I do to help you today, Black Torch?”

“Railix is to debrief me on Haicon and its World Emperor.”

The dryad’s expression darkened. “Railix is in his office.”

She tried not to react, but she felt the shadow of fear cross her heart. She rolled back her shoulders and lifted her chin. “Seeress’s orders.”

Bertram grimaced and led the way to a knob-less door in the central depths of the Böchard. They both lingered in the hall, Bertram hovering just past Fia’s shoulder, and Fia clenching and unclenching her fists. It had been six years since the last time she had dared to invade Railix’s territory, and the memory of it still haunted her. He had killed her four times in the space of five minutes, three times for daring to challenge him, and the fourth time for daring to look in on his special project. Fia wasn’t in any hurry to die again.

The door slid open with a hiss, revealing a gaunt humanoid draped in the red robes of his office. Fia took a step back, almost knocking Bertram over. It was Railix, and his amber eyes still glittered with that barely suppressed anger. “Let’s get this over with.” They started to enter, but Railix thrust a golden finger at the dryad. “You have work to do.”

Bertram scowled, glanced at Fia, then took a reluctant step back before turning completely around and walking away.

“How’s your little pet doing?” Fia asked, forcing bravado into her voice to hide her fear.

He gave her a look that made her stop in her tracks. She smiled awkwardly and glanced around the relatively bare office. The room was only equipped with a single bookcase, but one whole wall was covered with black monitors. There was really nothing to pretend to be interested in.

Railix switched on his wall of screens, letting the current locations linger for a few moments before resetting them. Fia caught a glimpse of a girl, possibly sixteen years old, curled into a plump ball, her black hair sprayed every which way, and reading a massive book. Then the girl was gone, and in her place was a picture of the dirty streets of Haicon.

“She’s grown,” Fia commented, keeping her voice carefully neutral so as not to upset him.

His eyes flicked toward her as his fingers fine-tuned the monitor settings. “Children will do that.”

“She looked well-fed. And she was reading. No doubt you approve.”

“She’s read that book twelve times.” He fixed the last monitor. “But Cassie is not your mission. Keep your attention on your target, the ‘Immortal’ King Nornu.”

Fia fixed her gaze on the man on the screen. He was almost as thin as Railix, but his skin was pale white. He had long black hair, black eyes, and blood red lips. He had to be a vampire. Fia leaned forward; vampires were always fun to play with. “Immortal just means no one has killed him yet.”

Railix shot her an obvious look, which she chose to ignore.

“He looks pretty standard for a vampire king,” she said, stretching as she cracked her knuckles.

“It took him two hundred years to conquer all of Haicon. The only impressive thing about him is that no one took off his head in the process.” He directed her attention to a different monitor that showed an abandoned church, complete with adjoining graveyard. “Your portal will let you out here, and you will make your base in the church building. You will report in every night until the coronation. You will attend the coronation, and you will wait until the crown touches Nornu’s head, then you will set fire to the entire palace. You will make sure that neither Nornu nor his Court of Immortals escape the blaze alive.” He turned to face her. “Do you understand?”

“When do I leave?”

“As soon as you’re ready.”

She raised an eyebrow. “I thought Nornu’s coronation wasn’t for a week. Why the rush?”

“Because the Seeress’s vision was not clear on the timeline. We must be ready in the unlikely event the timeline is accelerated. We don’t leave fate to chance.” He stood. “I’ll give you five minutes to tell Bertram you’re leaving.”

“Why do I need to tell Bertram?” She half-snorted, half-laughed. “The pine tree has nothing to do with it.”

Railix’s eyes narrowed. “He’s quite attached to you.”

“That would be his mistake, wouldn’t it?”

“Very well then. Follow me to the Portal Room.”

The Portal Room was one more portal jump from Railix’s office, and it was a simple, but huge, room. There was one control panel in the center of the room, a single, lit aisle to that control panel, and the rest of the room was darkness and stars. The stars were countless and bright, each one representing a world filled with its own unique beauty. The control panel could call any one of those stars to the floor, and have it open and grant access to the world hidden within. The control panel could also sync an Academy-issued ring to five of the worlds, including Mid-Realm, so that the wearer could hop from place to place with just a turn of the ring.

Fia passed her portal ring, a simple amethyst band, to Railix, who dropped it into the control panel to program. After a few minutes, he passed the ring back and then summoned the Haicon star.

“You’re an assassin,” he reminded her as the star opened. “Keep a low profile.”

She saluted mockingly, then hopped through the portal.

As Railix had promised, it let her out in the church’s graveyard. She calmly trailed her fingers along the ridges of the tombstones as the portal closed, then she strode into the rundown building as the sun began its descent. Her eyes adjusted to the darkness quickly, and her long ears were sharp, listening for the rustling of humanoid footsteps on the wooden slats below. She did hear footsteps, but those were of mice and squirrels, and she heard the fluttering of wings as a pair of black birds perched on a creaking beam. The sunset peeked through the broken glass of a painted window, hitting a secretive nook tucked behind the abandoned pulpit. There was a blanket there, spread over a bed of sack clothes and filthy rags. Bits and odds and ends were scattered around the nook as well, the telltale signs of a sentimental urchin’s home.

The wooden floorboards creaked as Fia ducked her head inside the nook, but when another creak echoed behind her, she pulled back. A compact mass of dirt and hair sprang at her, shank raised to strike, yellow mouth parted in a sneering shriek. Fia caught the thing and tossed it on its bed, then blocked the nook with the pulpit and sat on it.

“Calm down,” she told the snarling waif. “I’m not here to steal your squat. I’m just passing through.”

“You keep passing!” A distinctly feminine voice snapped. “You demons not ‘sposed to cross church border. Demons burn if they try.”

“That should tell you that I’m not a demon.”

“You either human or demon, and you not human. Not with those ears!”

Fia ran a hand over pointed ears then kicked the pulpit. “I’m neither demon nor human. I’m a sprite.”

A pair of keen green eyes peeked over the edge of the pulpit. “Sprite? What’s a sprite?”

She spread her hand and let her black fire grow from her palm. “I am a sprite.”

The eyes disappeared as dirty fingers reached for the fire greedily. Fia closed her fist, extinguishing the flames before the girl burned herself. The eyes returned, staring at Fia from the shadows.

Fia smiled, revealing her pale teeth, and lowered herself to eye level. “I am the Black Torch. Who are you?”

“Don’t give names to demons. Demons use ‘em wrong.”

“How old are you?”

“Don’t know.”

“Orphan?”

The eyes narrowed. “Human.”

“Humans can be orphans, kiddo.” She started to pull the pulpit away, then paused. “I’m going to let you out of there now, and I’m not going to hurt you. In exchange, you are going to tell me about King Nornu and his upcoming coronation. Agreed?”

“What you want to know ‘bout him?”

Fia pulled the pulpit out from the nook and sat on it, watching as the waif crawled out on her hands and knees. Her black hair looked like a crow’s nest, her fingernails were long or broken, and her body was wasted from malnutrition. The dirty, shredded clothes did little to protect her thin body from the night chill, which explained her eager reach for the flames.

Fia spotted a bench that was already mostly broken, and she kicked it until it was kindling. Then she set it ablaze. The girl crept closer and held her hands out to the flames.

“Don’t get too close,” Fia warned, pulling her back a few paces. “Black fire is the hottest fire in existence. It will burn you just as easily as it will warm you.” Then she reached into her pockets and began pull out dinner.

Her pockets were special, and Academy issued like her ring. The pockets were dimensional rifts sewn into her pants and could hold an otherwise impossible number of items. Like most Acadamians, Fia kept her pockets equipped with foodstuffs and other survival equipment. Though she preferred to eat birch, beech, and oak branches, she did keep humanoid food on hand just for these occasions. She started with a loaf of bread, and held it just beyond the girl’s reach.

“Before we talk Nornu, you’re going to tell me a name. It doesn’t have to be yours, just one I can call you by. A name for food. Then Nornu.”

The girl hesitated, then said, “Doug Ash.” Then she snatched the bread and shoved near half the loaf in her mouth.

Fia snorted in amusement. “Doug Ash? That’s what you’re going with? Really?”

Doug Ash glared at her through a mess of hair. “I like it.”

“Fine. Now tell me about Nornu.”

“Demon. Rules the world. What else do ya need t’ know?”

Fia peeked out the window and pointed at the castle on the horizon. “His coronation is going to be there? When?”

Doug Ash shrugged. “Why’d ya think I know? I’m street cat. Trash. Dunno what demons do in their castles. I ‘spose they eat people.”

Fia looked around at the crumbling church. “They don’t get you here?”

“Nope. Demons come here, they burn.”

“Railix picked the right place then. Mind if I stay here for the week? I have more food that I’d be more than happy to share.”

Doug Ash gnawed on the lingering bread heel. “If you got food, you can stay. Bread’s good. Got more?”

“I got more.” Fia pulled out a bottle of water out of her pocket, then offered her a chunk of cheese. She smiled as she watched the girl devour the cheese, and she settled back for the night.

Normally, Fia didn’t like roommates, but this was just a temporary arrangement. And she had invaded Doug Ash’s home, not the other way around. The feral child could live, and keep her amused for the week she was stuck there.

When the sun rose, Doug Ash sneaked out while Fia slept, slinking back in the late afternoon looking dirtier and limping. Fia had spent a few hours casing the castle grounds, but had returned to cook a hearty soup for the child. She glanced at the girl as she hid in her nook, and asked, “Get into a fight with a rat?”

“Got food?”

Fia ladled a chunk of potatoes, rabbit meat, and carrots into a bowl, and held it out. “If you want it, you have to come out here and get it.”

Doug Ash crawled back out and took the bowl, alternatively blowing on it and sipping at it. “Don’t like rats, but rats don’t beat me. Day wolf got me, but I got away. Only scratched. No bites.”

Fia ladled more soup into her bowl, guessing that a “day wolf” was a werewolf during the day, or in its human form. “Good job. Wolves are tough.”

Doug Ash lowered her bowl and stared at her. “Why you nice? You don’t know me. You new.”

“I’m not nice. This was our bargain, remember? I give you food, you let me stay here for a few days.”

She nodded as though she didn’t really believe her and took another sip at her soup.

Fia rolled her eyes and walked to the window, watching as a flock of bats burst from one of the towers, circled the building, then re-entered the castle through a lower window. Doug Ash crawled back into her nook as soon as she had licked the bowl clean, and she refused to come out again.

Fia roosted in the rafters, keeping one eye on the girl’s nook as she paged Railix.

“Make it quick,” his harsh voice snapped in her ear.

“The base you assigned me is some child’s squat.”

There was a pause. “Did you kill her?”

“I don’t kill children. We’ve made an arrangement, and I don’t foresee any problems with her.”

“Then why did you bring it up?”

Fia smiled at the impatience in his voice. “I just thought you’d appreciate knowing I get to play you for a few days. I have my very own human pet to play with. Mine even has black hair like yours—though any similarities beyond that are lost under dirt.”

“Congratulations. This line is for pertinent information only.” The line went dead, and Fia laughed.

The next three days, Fia spent half her time scouting the castle, and the other half befriending Doug Ash. As soon as she had finished with the castle, she’d find the girl trying to pick someone’s pockets or scrounging for broken treasures in the waste piles outside the town. The child warmed up to her after she shared a few tips on picking pockets, as well as a few self-defense and offensive moves. By the fourth day, Fia had even convinced the child to take a bath. The child’s skin was loose and yellow under the dirt, but Doug Ash swore up and down that she was fatter than she’d ever been in her life. She had more energy, too, bouncing around the church to investigate the newly discovered crannies, and stopping only to eat Fia’s hearty food.

On the sixth day, Doug Ash dove into her place by the fire sprite’s stew pot and held out her bowl. At first, she laid into the soup with her usual gusto, but then she slowed to a stop. “You leaving tomorrow.”

Fia nibbled at a cherry branch she’d been saving and nodded. “Sometime tomorrow, yes. You’ll get your squat back all to yourself soon.”

“Don’t want it. Want you.”

Fia choked on a knot in the bark, glanced at it in dismay, then at the girl. “Excuse me?”

“Want you here. Stay. Please?”

“Ah. I see. You’ve gotten used to eating every day, haven’t you? Well, I’m sure I can arrange to send food from the Academy when I get back.”

“No! I want you here. Please stay. You nice.”

“I’m not nice, Doug Ash.”

“Yes! You nice! You more nice than any human. Don’t go. Stay. Stay with me. Please?”

Fia lowered her branch and stared at the girl, barely biting back some choice swear words. When had she gotten attached? How had she let herself get attached? It hadn’t even been a week! She shook her head. “I can’t stay. I have to go back to the Academy; it’s where I belong.”

“Then I come to Academy. Stay with you. No more squat.”

“I can’t promise you that. I don’t get to decide who comes to the Academy.”

Doug Ash threw her bowl into the pot and stood, stomping her foot. “Fine. Then you just go. Leave! Not want you here no more.” Then she ran out of the church.

Fia grimaced as she retrieved the bowl from the soup. She understood the child’s outburst; it was all despair and disappointment, and she tried not to take it personally. She carefully ladled more soup into the bowl, and set it, with a loaf of bread and some water, in the girl’s nook. Then she went up to the rafters to call Railix.

“Black Torch!” Bertram cried in Railix’s stead. “I’ve heard that your mission will soon be completed. I am looking forward to your return.”

Fia rolled her eyes. “Where’s Railix?”

“He was called away on a matter of some urgency, though he wouldn’t tell me what. I am here though. What do you need?”

“I need to smuggle a child into the Academy. How do I do that?”

Bertram blustered for a bit before saying, “You don’t do that. Why would you? The Academy is a sacred place, and it is not suitable for children.”

“Yet the Seeress raised her daughter there.”

“There were many extenuating circumstances! And the case can be argued that because of her development in such a militaristic environment, Drax is now a psycho.”

“Say it louder so she can hear you.”

There was an uncomfortable silence on the other end of the line, then Bertram said, “The coronation is tomorrow night. Do what you need to do, then report back. Good luck.”

“Don’t need it.” She hung up first and looked down at the nook. It hadn’t been that long since Doug Ash had stormed out, but she was still disappointed that it was empty. She glanced at the sun setting outside the window. Doug Ash knew better than to stay out after dark; she should be back soon. Fia sighed then forced herself to go to sleep.

Doug Ash was still absent the next morning. Fia tried not to worry, but then she spent the day searching the town for the child. The sun climbed to center sky, then began to slide down again, and there was still no sign of the girl. Fia felt the urge to cut her own heart out and throw it in a lake, anything to keep from feeling the growing gnaw of panic! The sun set, and she couldn’t search anymore. Fia had to make her way to the castle for the coronation.

She slipped in with a crowd of bat-like creatures, and watched as the procession of torch bearers from the Seeress’s vision chanted their way into the castle. She stayed with the crowd up to the main gate, then slipped in past the guards and climbed the vaulting ceilings of the Great Hall. The shadows cast by the gothic architecture hid her perfectly, and none of the bloodsucking parasite below caught her scent. She perched on a beam and waited for her moment.

The Court of Immortals, King Nornu’s trusted coven, paraded down the aisle, dripping with black, gold, and red jewels. They arranged themselves at the head of the room, pale chins lifted in triumph as their king strode into the room, black fur cape trailing on the floor at his heels. He turned gracefully and sat on his throne, black claws tapping the armrest as black-robed initiates swayed in the center. As if by magic, a stone altar appeared in their midst, followed by a girl clad in white. The girl swayed, too, her expression blank as if she didn’t comprehend where she was or what she was doing. Then her eyes cleared and widened, and she began to scream. The Court of Immortals chuckled as she tried to make a run for it, but the initiates grabbed her and hoisted her onto the altar.

Fia almost fell from the rafters. She hadn’t recognized her because her hair was combed and she was wearing fresh clothes, but the girl was definitely Doug Ash. Fia wanted to jump down and kill every monster there, and save the girl, but she was too high up. If she jumped, she wouldn’t survive the landing, and climbing down would take too long. A fire blast from this range could burn Doug Ash with the initiates. She had chosen her position for wanton destruction, and she was paying for it. Fia’s fingers gripped the beam as she leaned over, feeling trapped by prophecy.

One initiate brought Nornu’s crown and raised it above Doug Ash’s stomach. Another initiate raised a diamond knife.

Fia looked away and closed her eyes as Doug Ash’s screams rose to a frightening pitch, then abruptly ended. When she looked back, Nornu’s crown was dripping with sacrificial blood, Doug Ash’s blood, and something in her snapped. The fire begin before the initiates could move, consuming first their robes, then their flesh. The vampires began to scream in alarm, then their screams became agonized as the black fire descended upon them. The castle burned, and every undead being inside kindled the fire.

Fia inhaled the smoke, her broken desire for revenge only mildly sated, then she twisted her ring. The portal to Mid-Realm opened midair, and she jumped through.

Bertram was waiting for her, beaming proudly as the portal closed on the fire. “Congratulations on your success, Black Torch,” he said.

She smacked him and went to her room without a word of explanation. She went straight to her fireplace and curled up on the logs piled there, letting herself burn as she slept.

Crying woke her. At first, she thought it had been she who was crying, but fire sprites can’t cry, no matter how they may want to. Someone hiccupped, and the crying faded into something more dreamlike. Fia stood and walked over to the two unused bunk beds. There was a lump in one of them, capped with black hair spilling over a pudgy head. It was a girl who couldn’t have been older than Doug Ash, a mere child! What was she doing here?

“I will kill you if you touch her.”

The voice was familiar, and the tone wasn’t threatening, merely matter-of-fact. Fia turned to glare at Railix. “You should know better than to put your pet here. I don’t do roommates.”

“It wasn’t my choice. Seeress’s orders.”

“The Seeress knows I—” Fia stopped herself then looked at the child and sneered. “I’m sick of doing her dirty work. She’ll have to find some other monster to kill the child.” She stormed back to her fireplace and curled back on the embers.

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

Fia’s heart lurched, and she turned her back on him. “What loss? It was just some dirty street kid.”

“What was her name?”

“Doug Ash.”

“I will add her memory to the Böchard. She will not be forgotten.”

Fia sat up and started to say something, but Railix had already disappeared. What would she have said? She glanced at the whimpering child in the bed. She wasn’t ready to deal with another child, but there might be something of Doug Ash in her.

Maybe she could save this one.

Portal Ball

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My name is Cassie, and I attend Mid-Realm Academy. MRA is an interdimensional elite military training facility filled with all sorts of beings, from piskies to werewolves. Though our training is focused on the different elements of fighting and battle, there are a few opportunities for recreation. One such opportunity is a game called “Poral Ball,” and everybody at MRA loves it.

The season opener is always a champion match between last year’s champions, and a team of teachers. The portal ball field is a large, grassy playing field in the middle of a ring of bleachers, but the field was unmarked, and the bleachers stood atop a high, cement wall, with a softball-sized hole at either end. There were two “royalty seating” boxes opposite each other, and between them was an open deck with a holographic monitor and a dashboard of controls. Chroniclus and his wife, Aoife, occupy one of the royalty boxes, while the Seeress, her apprentice, Faye, and her bodyguards occupy the second. Railix is the game monitor, so he stands on the open deck, using the holographic monitor and controls to manipulate and observe the game. I sat in the stands with my classmates, Jag, Crag, and Conch, waiting eagerly for the game to begin.

As soon as everyone was seated, the Seeress stood in her box to give the welcoming speech, then she gave a brief recount of the game’s rules. “Each team will be comprised of ten players. The game will begin when the ball shoots out of the portal into the field.” She pointed to the two holes in the wall, identifying them as the “portals.” “You will use your hands and feet only to get the ball into the opposing team’s portal. When the ball enters the portal, the scoring team gets a point. If the ball touches the ground, the team who is not responsible for the violation gets a point. Physical abuse will not be tolerated, and the attacker will be removed from the game and will lose a point from their score. Any player who uses an appendage other than a hand or foot will be giving the opposing a free point. You may tackle and intercept plays, but there will be no powers, whether elemental or enhancing. First team to reach thirty points wins.”

Crag nudged Jag. “Fia’s coming.”

Jag grinned and leaned forward, propping his arms on his legs as a door in the arena slid open.

I didn’t know who I was going to root for. I had a couple of friends on the champion team, but one of my teachers was on the opposing team. If my teacher lost, classes could be pretty miserable for the next few days. If the champions lost, my lunch table would be miserable. It was a lose-lose situation for me, but I was determined to enjoy the game anyway.

Two teams entered the arena and spread across their ends, crouching in anticipation. Drax was on the far side of the field, her bright white skin and hair making her easy to distinguish amongst the players. Fia was on my side of the field and surrounded by a younger crowd. Everyone on her team gave her a wide berth, but they didn’t give the same respectful space to the giant troll that was also on their team.

The Seeress raised her hand, silencing the rousing cheers. “Another year begins, and to commemorate our new arrivals, we will start our portal ball season with a game between last year’s reigning champions,” she gestured to Fia’s team, “and our most prominent teachers,” she gestured to Drax’s team, blessing them with a proud smile. “Let the game begin!” She signaled to Railix, who pressed a large, black button.

A metal ball with little red lights dropped from midair. Drax leapt for it, but Fia was faster. My roommate jumped, flipped, and threw the ball at the goal. A strange, pointy man-thing scaled the wall with blinding speed, caught the ball, and threw it back. That was Paki, one of Fia’s teachers. There was a “boo” of disapproval from the students that fully understood the game, but the action wasn’t penalized. The ball moved across the field, being passed from player to player. Both teams seemed to want to keep the ball out of the air, but sometimes they had to risk throwing it to a nearby player. Fia blocked a pass, snatching the ball before it could touch the ground. Her teammates penetrated the enemy team’s ranks as she nimbly dodged grabs for the ball. She tossed it under the belly of the centaur Aelarnyil, a boy caught it, rolled, and passed it to another teammate. That boy, Ichiro, threw the ball behind his back in a daring move, and the ball flew into the portal hole. The students cheered as a horn bellowed a goal.

Drax’s expression tightened. The ball appeared in the middle of the field, bouncing off the back of Paki’s head. The piskie yelped in surprised and glanced balefully at Railix, but Drax was already moving. She grabbed the ball before it touched the ground and tossed it to her Aelarnyil. Fia leapt at the centaur, but Drax tackled her. Fia snarled audibly, but the little half-dragon didn’t back down. Fia kicked her off and chased after the centaur, but Drax tackled her again. Fia grabbed her and rolled her over, shoving Drax’s face into the ground as she stood. Trorn teammates had stolen the ball, and he threw it to the Quill who passed it on to my roommate. Drax picked herself out of the dirt and tackled her again, trying to wrestle the ball from her hands, but one of the boys jumped on her. Fia stood and threw the ball to another Ichiro, who promptly scored.

Jag and Crag stood and cheered, Jag specifically screaming Fia’s name. Conch and I jumped to our feet, waving our arms and screaming gibberish. Ichiro waved to the crowd as he jogged back to centerfield, but Fia ignored everyone. Her focus was on the game.

The ball shot out behind Drax, striking her in the small of her back. She caught the ball as it struck her, sparing a quick second to glare at Railix before diving in to the fray. She jumped on the back of Aelarnyil, leaping over an attempted tackle, and scored from halfway across the field. There was intense booing from the older audience, and several shouted insults at the trallorp. Railix ignored them, but the Seeress glared at them until they shut up.

Fia’s team had scored fifteen points to the teacher’s twelve. The Seeress paused the game to explain the rules for the second half of the game while the players took a breather.

“Congratulations to team Black Torch,” she called. “They have played well thus far. Second Chronicler Railix will now be increasing the difficulty of the game. Instead of having the ball appearing in the middle of the field after every goal, it will appear at a randomly selected area of the field. Railix will also be opening portals throughout the game, redirecting the ball at will. The players will have to be attentive and ready to change course at a moment’s notice. A battlefield is not organized; there will be chaos, and you must learn to adjust.”

The game became harder to follow, but it also got funny. The ball would be thrown over the heads of the opponents, then suddenly vanish. All players would be alert, then someone would get hit in the head. The only who managed to avoid a head injury was Fia, and it wasn’t for Railix’s lack of trying. She seemed to have a sixth sense, for every time the ball flew at her head, she dodged and grabbed it. Unfortunately, the rest of her teammates weren’t so quick. The teachers pulled ahead by three points.

It was twenty-four to twenty-seven, and everyone was on the edge of their seat. I bit my thumb, throat already hoarse from screaming, and tried to follow the quick action of the game. Fia managed to bring her points back up so that it was even with the teachers, but Railix seemed to be doing his best to mess her up. The ball started targeting not just her head, but her stomach, shoulders, and legs, and she couldn’t dodge all of them. Ichiro came to her side and would recover the ball whenever it struck her, and together they pressed forward.

The game seemed to slow. The teachers had twenty-eight points, the students had twenty-nine. The ball dropped out of the sky, for once not hitting anyone. Drax ran at Fia, determined to prevent her from getting the ball. Fia dodged her easily and grabbed the ball, passing it to Trorn, then ran up the field, ducking Drax again. Trorn passed it to Quill, who ducked Paki and passed it back to Fia. She kicked the ball up, then kicked it again, and landed in a pirouette as the ball whistled into the goal.

A gong sounded, signaling the end of the game. All the spectators jumped to their feet and hollered and hooted and cheered. The teachers groaned obligatorily, but they smiled and nodded approvingly. The players in the field clapped each other on the backs, relaxing as everyone but Fia came together in a victory circle. Drax looked disappointed and slightly frustrated at the loss. She looked up to Chroniclus, and he smiled and waved proudly back to her. The little dragon smiled back then offered Fia her hand in congratulations. Fia looked bored with the celebration, but she accepted Drax’s hand.

The Seeress stood and clapped, drawing the crowd’s attention. “Congratulations to our reigning champions. As promised, you are invited to a special dinner in my private dining room with myself, Lady Faye,” she gestured to the girl beside her, “Head Chronicler, Chroniclus, and his wife, Aoife.”

The winning team bowed respectfully and filed off the field to shower. The other team went through a different portal, presumably to shower and dine in their private apartments. Drax paused at the entrance and scowled at the field. I was not looking forward to classes tomorrow.

The Rulers of Anrachel

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Anrachel is a world without humans, but that does not mean that it is uninhabited. Many people walk the breadth of its five continents, elves, centaurs, selarthins, and dryads, but only one race rules the skies, the oceans, and everything in between: dragons.

There are four types of dragons on Anrachel, aligning with the elements of earth, fire, air, and water. Each dragon has utter control over their element, creating, manipulating, and dominating it at their whim. They also possess a second form that is almost identical to that of a human, though many dragons use this form as sparingly as possible. These abilities, along with their massive size and power of flight, making them the undisputed rulers.

img_6328The Ut’zuks are the dragons of the earth, ruling from their kingdom of Ut’Zaro. Though they, like all the dragons, posses the power of flight, their kingdom is an underground one. Their black, brown, or gray scales work as camouflage amongst the rock and dirt of their cavernous homes. An ancient legend claims that there was once a race of small dwarves that also inhabited Ut’Zaro, but the Ut’zuks devoured them indiscriminately, and are now the only intelligent race on the continent.

img_6329The Fias are the dragons of the fire, ruling from the volcanic continent of Charfias. The royal family and most of the Fias live on the central volcano, Mt. Bellaseron, leaving the tropical coastline open for other races to inhabit. The Fias are considered to be warm and friendly, while also being mischievous and volatile. Their red, orange, or yellow scales commonly have a metallic sheen that reflects the dancing of the flames they reflect—often entrancing those privileged enough to witness and tell about it.

img_6324The Versian are the dragons of the air, ruling from the cliffs and mountains of the Versian Realms. The most noble and respected amongst dragonkind, the Versian are also considered to be the smallest of the giants. The Versian Realms is prosperous and fertile, and is home to many races, all of whom willing subjugate themselves to the Dragon King. The races of the Realms like to tell of the dragons’ green, pink, or purple scales dancing among the clouds like rainbows.

img_6330The Miak are the dragons of the water, choosing not to rule the world, but rather to keep their claws in the depths of the blackest seas. The halls of their great kingdom have never been seen by a non-Miak, but they are nevertheless legendary. Their blue, black, yellow, or green scales have a glowing, neon hue that can be seen easily in the darkness of their trenches. Omnivorous like their brethren, they eat both the fauna and flora of their salt-water home. Also like their brethren, they have a second form similar to that of a human, but they generally only use this second form on their rare excursions to the upper, landlocked worlds.

There is seldom any mixing between the dragon races, or with the other races of Anrachel—though dragon hybrids and half-dragons are in existence. The dragons prefer to keep to their own kind and continent, but heaven help you if you cross them.

FEATURED DRAGON: Agrona

King of the Hill

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The events in this story happen during the events of the previous story,

“Fire in the Bramble”

 

Fia had no delusions about what Mid-Realm Academy was. It was not a gathering of heroes, but warriors, all vying for the power and the fear that goes hand-in-hand with the proof of ultimate power. That power lay with the seer who saw all threats and cut them off early, and with the chronicler, who knew everything that had already happened. Fia wanted that power, but she had been gifted with neither the power of foresight nor the patience to read a mountain of books. She would have to settle for the power that comes with brute force. That power was in abundance at the Academy, and, though lesser that that of the seer and the chronicler, obtainable.

The Mid-Realm training program only had three classes, physical training, weapons training, and elemental training. Each class was led by the same teacher through the ten years it took to fulfill the training requirements. The teachers heading Fia’s year were: Zukon the orc, Woserit the sylph, and Paki the piskie. They would be teaching all twenty-five student in Fia’s year, learning and growing together like a compact army. The brutal deaths students commonly suffered in class were no real threat, since the Acadamians had long ago come up with a system of regeneration that allowed students to be temporarily killed in class. It let the students—and the teachers—be as brutal as they wanted to establish skill and dominance.

The first day of classes established that pattern immediately. Zukon set up an outdoor obstacle course for their physical training, and if the course didn’t kill them, he did. Woserit let everyone pick a weapon in her class, then promptly disarmed and slaughtered them before anyone could react. By the time they reached their elemental class with Paki, everyone thought they knew what was coming and prepared for it accordingly. Unfortunately, no one knew the piskie’s true powers, and he had no problem scattering their bits to the four winds. But each time a student died, they came back, whole and hale, and each one swearing to never let death find them again. However, Fia had no intention of letting any of her classmates fulfill their oaths.

Bertram, a dryad under the chronicler’s employ, met her on the Academy’s ramparts in the early evening of the third day. He had known of her exploits on her homeworld, and had offered her his services on her first day. He was examining a series of papers, looking up only when he felt the heat of her presence. He carefully set the papers down where she could read it without touching it, then he retrieved a thick volume from the depths of his robes. “Here is the expanded fealuboc you requested, as well as the file on Punctata.”

Fia leaned over the file, her black lips curling in disgust. Punctata was another dryad, and Fia’s roommate, and the only classmate Fia was determined to permanently murder. After reading and memorizing the file in its entirety, she turned to the fealuboc. Like all the other students, she had received a fealuboc upon her arrival, but that fealuboc had only contained the basics about her classmates. The expanded fealuboc Bertram now presented her would contain more potent information, such as the habitats, the behavioral patterns, and the weaknesses of each race she encountered in the Academy. She snapped her fingers, and Bertram obligingly turned the pages so she could do an initial skim of the information.

“Excellent work,” she said, her eyes glowing as she read.

“This information is open to everyone,” Bertram said, his voice ringing with a warning. He opened the book to a section about her species, black fire sprites.

She frowned at the information listed there. A fire sprite’s obvious weakness was water, and the element would kill any other members of her race, but she had been blessed with a mutation that made her immune to the water’s deadly effects. There were, however, other ways to kill her. She reached forward, intending to burn those particular pages, but the dryad seized her wrist.

“If you so much as dog-ear a page in this book, I will consider you an enemy of the Böchard and treat you as such.”

“Are you sure it’s wise to be threatening me?”

The needles of his hair quivered. He was afraid, but he wasn’t backing down. “Books are sacred. I will not allow them to be mistreated.”

Fia smiled. “Very well. I won’t harm your precious books, as long you keep this information out of the hands of my enemies.”

“I would never do anything to hurt you.”

Fia gave him a strange look and withdrew her hand. “The minotaur. Babylon. Tell me about him.”

Bertram blinked and sat back, glancing down at the book between them. “Babylon? But your biggest threat is—”

“I know. I’ll deal with her when the time is right. For now, tell me about Babylon. How do I take him down?”

“You know what they say. Take the bull by the horns.”

She did exactly that the next day. Babylon was a huge red minotaur, cautiously feared by the other students because of his fearsome brute strength. Then Zukon assigned Fia as his sparring partner. The minotaur charged, horns down, sharp and ready to pierce. He was fast, and it was tricky enough to dodge him in time. Even more difficult was grabbing his horn and throwing him off balance, but Fia did it. Babylon bellowed as his momentum carried him into the ground headfirst. Before he could stand, Fia stood on his fallen shoulder and pulled. His neck snapped audibly, and, to the amazement of all, the minotaur disintegrated. Confirmed kill.

Fia stepped back to allow the minotaur to regenerate and looked at Zukon.

The orc raised an eyebrow. “Do you expect me to be impressed? I’m not. I am however,” he turned to scowl at the newly regenerated Babylon, “disappointed. You barely lasted a minute against a little fire sprite who didn’t even use her element. Disgraceful!”

Babylon looked down, thoroughly ashamed.

Punctata surged to the front, her shoulders sprouting angry thorns. She stopped when she saw the glowering expression of their teacher, but then she glanced at Fia, and her resolve strengthened. “If that cinder-maker did nothing impressive, then why should great Babylon feel disgraced?”

Zukon turned on her. “His disgrace is not that he lost to a smaller opponent not even using her full strength. That is the entire reason Fia was recruited to the Academy to begin with. His disgrace falls with how quickly she killed him. Barely a minute. And she didn’t even take a hit. You are in Mid-Realm now. You are to be the best of the best, and any fight you don’t win needs to last, and you need to leave a mark. Anything less, and you don’t deserve to be here. Fia. I have found your new sparring partner.”

Punctata and Fia glared at each other, but obligingly paired off. Fia won that match, too, but it took longer than a minute. It took five.

The next class, Woserit allowed half the class to request their sparring partners, and Babylon wanted a rematch. This time, Fia didn’t go for the horns right away. Babylon was holding a spear and keeping her at a distance. She was dual wielding khopeshes, using one hooked blade to maneuver the spear away from her, while using the other to swipe at his limbs. He was nimble for a hulking beast, and they dueled for a solid fifteen minutes before she once again grabbed his horn. This time, she pulled his horn and guided his neck to the curve of her blade.

Woserit didn’t praise her technique or creativity either, but neither did she criticize Babylon. Instead, she made him get up and try again. The results stayed the same, for that battle, and the four battles that followed it, though the method varied from battle to battle.

Paki’s class was much the same, but instead of one on one sparring matches, he had them battle in in five teams of five. Babylon and Punctata were both assigned to Fia’s team, and they both paid for turning on her mid-battle. Even better for Fia’s reputation was the fact that she and her surviving teammate ultimately won the entire match.

It took an entire week for Babylon to succumb to her superiority, but she finally wore him down and began to work on her next target.

“Ankica is a sylph from Rolaynewin,” Bertram recited. “She specializes in illusions, utilizing her natural aerokinetic abilities. She’s also able to turn into a warm gust of air at will. If she turns to air too quickly, you won’t be able to kill her, and she may just snuff you.”

Fia nibbled at a piece of oak bark, her favorite treat, and smiled. “She can try.”

Bertram glanced up at her, trying his best not to sound too curious or worried. “Do you have a plan?”

Her eyes were half closed as she raised her hand, black flames rising from her palm. “Of course.”

Ankica took half a week to break. It was easy in Zukon and Woserit’s classes where the use of powers was forbidden. Ankica traditionally relied on those powers to make a headway in her battles, but she was still a capable and fierce fighter without them. She was nimble, fast, and clever, but Fia was better. Ankica died seven times in the first two classes, and in the third, she came around for revenge.

Powers were the entire point of Paki’s class, and this time it was a one on one on one battle. The third member of the duel was insignificant and was quickly eliminated. Ankica and Fia dueled, the sylph blasting the sprite with focused funnels of wind, and sprite returning fire with fire. Ankica created her trustworthy illusions, creating duplicates of herself that also seemed to blast and manipulate air, then she turned into the gust of wind Bertram warned her about. Fia focused first on the duplicates, increasing the heat of her fires until it devoured them. Ankica screamed as the duplicates evaporated, and she, too, vanished. After that, her confidence shattered, and Fia didn’t let her put the pieces back together.

“According to Zukon’s rankings,” Bertram said, examining the file he’d obtain from the course work, “you’re already reached the top of the class. Babylon and Ankica have been sufficiently knocked to five and six, respectively, leaving Punctata at number three.”

“Who’s number two?”

“A quiet one, an assassin, like you, but he prefers to remain obscure.” He held up the fire to show her a picture of a man with a jackal head, but half-jackal torso, and a human waist and leg. “He’s an anubin, with mastery over the shadows and the powers to cause mania. He’ll most likely not try to dethrone you, and he probably didn’t want to be number two in the class at all.”

“Are you saying he’s not a threat?”

“I’m saying that if you want to grow your reputation, you should start looking outside of your first year classmates and begin tackling the upper years. I have a list of targets here that you can use to climb your way up the cumulative ladder.”

“Why not jump to the very top? Make a statement. Who currently stands at the head of the Academy?”

Bertram frowned and shook his head. “No. Don’t go after him. Not ever.”

Fia raised an eyebrow and leaned forward. “Why? Who is he?”

“He is an annoying prick, but he’s unbeatable.” The dryad took a deep, growling breath, then explained. “His name is Railix, and he is a trallorp. If that means nothing to you, then here. Look at this.” He opened the book that dangled from his belt and held it out to her.

The book showed a picture of a being that looked humanoid, but it had metallic gold skin and was so thin, he was nearly skeletal.

“Trallorps are highly intelligent, as a rule,” Bertram continued as she read the listed information, “and this one has powers that seemingly have no limits. We don’t even know what his powers are! You cannot beat him without knowing his range and limits.”

“It’s amazing what a surprise attack can accomplish.” She stood and stretched. “Where can I find this Railix?”

Bertram snapped the book shut and shook his head. “You’re setting yourself up for failure, after only just reaching the top. Target someone else.” He looked at his list. “Target Draxia Shyft. She’s half-dragon, half-selarthin, an aerokinetic with a knife fetish, and she currently sits at the number two spot overall. With a little study, you’d be able to defeat her, and gain bonus points for taking down the Seeress’s daughter.”

“That doesn’t sound like a recipe for ‘bonus points,’ Bertram. I want Railix. Where is he?”

Bertram’s twiggy shoulders sagged. “He’s where he always is: the Böchard. He has an office that he keeps locked. You won’t be able to get in, but you may be able to get the drop on him when he emerges.”

“What’s in his office?”

“All I know is that it’s important, to both him and the Chronicler. If you value your life, don’t see anymore than you have to.”

“When will he emerge?”

“Dinnertime.”

Fia nodded, checked the suns for the time, then stood. “I’d better get going then. It’s just about time, and I’d like to burn his face off as soon as possible.”

“Be careful. You don’t even have to make a mistake, and he’ll kill you.”

Fia smirked. “Or I’ll kill him. I’ll see you after dinner.”

The dryad nodded miserably as he watched her go.

It wasn’t hard to find the office; it was the only room in the Böchard she didn’t have access to. She stood to the side, cleaning her nails as she waited. Then the door slid open.

“Don’t bother,” a gravelly voice said from the darkness within.

She had been silent—she knew she had been!—and there had been no cameras or recording devices outside the door. It was possible that she had missed one in her search, but it was unlikely. “Telepathic?” She guessed, keeping her voice smooth and calm as she stepped into view.

Amber eyes glittered dangerously. “No.”

“Enhanced super hearing?”

“No.” He stepped out of his office and brushed past her, the red robes of a chronicler swishing around his ankles.

She followed him, keeping her hands clasped behind her back as she mused, “Not psychic, no super hearing. I missed a camera then? I saw the monitors inside your little room.”

“I don’t use cameras. And I have no intention of explaining my methods to an assassin.”

“You are smart.”

“Yes. Now get out.”

His back was to her, and he hadn’t so much as glanced backwards. Fia silently drew a knife from her pocket, keeping her pace and breathing steady as she said, “But I’ve only just arrived.”

His scrawny hand caught her wrist as she lunged, and he twisted it back. She forced herself not to cry out, forced herself not to drop her knife. Then he flicked his wrist and snapped her arm. She did scream, and she fell to her knees, dropping the knife as the unfamiliar agony filled her being. He turned to look at her then, releasing her broken arm as he sneered.

“I’ll kill you for this,” She snarled, glaring through the sparks of her tears.

“You’d be the first.” He drew a staff from the depths of his pockets and leaned on it as he stared down at her. “How many times have you died? Three? That’s the lowest number anyone else can boast. To have only died three times means that only your teachers, your indisputable betters, have killed you, and only one a piece on your first day. No one has managed to kill me, and nearly everyone has tried. A mere first year like you will not succeed where they have failed.”

She spat at his feet. “Watch me.”

He sighed wearily, then he swung his staff.

Fia was vaguely aware of the wood denting her skull before she felt the regenerative serum start to kick in. She gasped as she reappeared, sprawled on the floor of the Böchard. Then Railix’s staff came down and killed her again. It felt like mere seconds later when he killed her a third time. When she came to for the final time, she scurried a safe distance away, breathing heavily as the trallorp leaned on his staff as if he’d never moved.

“I have just doubled your total deaths in five minutes,” he said calmly. “I know Bertram worships you, but don’t think you’re anything special.”

“And you are?”

“Yes.” He straightened and slid his staff back into his pocket. “I understand the desire to assert yourself, to set yourself apart from the masses, but I suggest you set your sights on a more obtainable goal.”

“Like Draxia?”

For a brief second, he seemed amused. “I’m sure that will entertain her greatly.” He tilted his head in farewell, then turned his back on her again.

Fia was standing before he turned the corner, and the urge to attack him again came to her, but she suppressed it.

“My Lady Black Torch?”

Fia turned at her title, one only used by her dryad informant. Bertram was peeking out at her from around a shelf, green eyes wide with nerves. She signaled for him to approach. “Is it possible to kill a trallorp?” She asked.

He nodded.

“How?”

“Beheading, stabbing, poisoning—take your pick.”

“Will any of that work on him?”

He shook his head. “He wasn’t lying. Railix has never been killed by anyone, not even his teachers.”

She took a deep breath, gauging her options. “He sees, or senses, things before they happen. He’s here in the Böchard, wearing the robes of a chronicler despite being in training as an MRA ambassador, meaning that his intellect has been put to memorizing the past. Chronicler, seer, warrior—he is the most powerful being in the Academy, isn’t he, Bertram?”

Bertram took a moment to consider the question. “I suppose he could be.”

She wandered back to the sealed office and ran a finger down the metal door. “His weakness is in here.”

“Fia, no.”

She smiled and set her hand on fire. Bertram protested again and started to pull her away, but she set her other hand on fire and held it out, keeping him at a distance as she cut through the door. The mysterious office was dark, and Fia didn’t want to turn on a light. Instead, she made the flames of her hands grow brighter, revealing just enough of the simple office for her to find what she needed. The far wall was covered with high-definition monitors, all black and powerless, but the other walls were lined with shelves of books. Fia snapped her fingers and gestured. Bertram hesitated for two more snaps, then scrambled to the shelves and pulled a sampling down for her to examine. There were books on trallorps, dragons, fae, and an overwhelming number of storybooks. The finds were interesting, but not horribly enlightening, so Fia turned her attention to the monitors. There was a subtle gold light hidden in a corner, hinting that the only thing “off” on the monitors were the screens themselves, so she extinguished the flames in on hand and began to fiddle with any knobs or switches she encountered. Something went bzzt, and the monitors flicked on.

Fia blinked in the sudden light then focused on the images. Most of the monitors were focused on buildings or still outside, but there was one image that moved, following the movements of an overweight girl with black hair. Fia was horrible with gauging human ages, but if she was forced to guess, she would guess that the girl was around ten years old. She was currently playing in a darkened field of grass with a group of other children of various ages. There was a haystack tower the kids were playing on, but then one boy forced another, smaller boy off the tower. The girl jumped to the smaller boy’s defense, tackling the larger boy so that they both tumbled off the hay and down the hill. Before Fia could process the information being presented to her, she heard Bertram whimper, then her head was slammed into the desk and her skull was crushed.

When she came to, she was in the Academy courtyard, lying face down in the grass. Bertram was nowhere to be seen, and neither was any other living soul—except one. She was laying at the feet of the Academy trallorp, eating the dirt under his boots.

She stood up and faced Railix calmly. “The child. Is she your daughter?”

He snorted. “How old do you think I am?”

She raised an eyebrow. “Don’t trallorps spring from the womb fully grown? If she’s not your child, what’s your interest in her?”

“That’s none of your business.”

“I’ll find out.”

“Perhaps. But not today. Not until I allow it.”

Fia’s eyes narrowed, and she let his words hang in the air for a moment. “I asked Bertram if you were the most powerful being in the Academy. You are, aren’t you?”

Railix didn’t answer, but his silence spoke volumes.

She smiled. “I find it quite interesting that someone like you should have so much power, to reach the top of the student ranks then stop. You hide away in your office, spying on a child. Why? With your powers, why not just take the child? You have the power.”

He struck her across the face with his staff.

She blinked at the warning, massaging her jaw as she tried to figure out her next move. “Why are you not in charge?” She asked finally. “You have the power.”

He was silent for a long moment. “My power is not mine.”

“The child?”

Another silent yes.

Another long moment of consideration.

Fia appraised him. “All that power in the service of a child. What a waste.”

“Your vision is limited. If you serve only yourself, you’ll never get far.”

“I’ve come this far, haven’t I?”

“Yes. And you’re still beneath me.” He turned his back on her and walked back into the Academy.

 

Fire in the Bramble

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The infirmary was filled with peoples of all races, filling the large room with a mild hum of conversation. A black fire sprite by the name of Fia sat in the middle of the room, watching them through half-lidded eyes. The minotaurs, fairies, piskies, humans, and centaurs around her all looked half-asleep and relaxed, but Fia had learned long ago not to trust appearances. She sat on the bed, ready to combust at the hint of a wrong word or movement. After all, she was in Mid-Realm Academy, the home and training ground of the greatest and most fearsome warriors in all the worlds.

A massive orc came over to her, carrying three syringes in his green, leathery fist. One tusk had been broken in half, the other bore carvings in an unfamiliar language, accented by an onyx ring encrusted with little rubies. He was to be one of her three teachers, and he was the one who had found her on the Plains of Rephaim, and he was the one who had brought her to the Academy. His name was Zukon.

Zukon held up the syringes. “This purple serum was designed especially for sprites, such as yourself. It will sync you to the field around Mid-Realm, allowing you to be regenerated after death in the classroom.”

Fia raised an eyebrow then glanced at the other races around her. “I assume then that centaurs and dryads have a separate serum?”

“Dryads are one of the few races that don’t need this serum, but yes, each race has its own version of the serum.” He injected the serum into the back of her neck. “Brace yourself. The aftereffects are temporary, but weird.”

Fia shuddered as the creepy sensation of something crawling over her thin skin overwhelmed her, but as Zukon promised, it was only temporary. As soon as she nodded to signify its passing, Zukon raised the second serum, a thick, blue substance.

“This one will be simpler. It is merely a general vaccine, to prevent you from contracting any of the alien diseases we host here at the Academy. And again, it is specially programmed for your race.” He injected the serum into a vein in her arm then disinfected the needle.

The final serum was red, and it would program her brain to recognize and understand almost all languages, written and spoken. The last part of her induction was programming her hand print and DNA into the Academy system so that she could access the different training rooms. The physical processing complete, Zukon presented her with her uniform, finalizing her place in the Academy. The red and black of the MRA uniform did nothing to compliment the ebony of her skin, but the Academy was about war, not fashion. Once she was dressed, Zukon took her to the portal door to access her room in the barracks.

“Your room is one-four-one-eight,” Zukon said, punching the numbers as he said them. “You’ll be able to access it from any portal door in the Academy. The code for your closet is three-four-seven-three, in conjunction with your handprint. Classes begin tomorrow at seven. I suggest you rest tonight in preparation.”

Fia bowed respectfully and walked through the portal to her new room. She had no expectations about the room itself, but she was still surprised when she stepped into what looked and felt like a jungle. Vines and climbing bushes covered the walls, sucking and clawing at the red bricks beneath them. There were more vines on the floor, crawling around patches of thick moss and up tall, flowering stalks. There were two sets of bunk beds on opposite ends of the small room, and both were overgrown with more plants. A hot and heavy mist pervaded the room, choking the fire sprite as soon as she dared to breathe.

A brown twig of a girl sat on a bottom bunk, humming happily as she trained morning glories into a trellis around her bed. Her skin was cracked and dry, leafy branches grew in her hair, her eyes were a bright red, and she smelled like mulch. Fia gagged. Who thought it was a good idea to make a fire sprite and a dryad share a room?

The dryad looked up and scowled at Fia. “How did you get in here? I was assured privacy!”

Fia squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. “This is my room.”

“No it isn’t. I could never share my private garden with a cinder-maker like you. Get out! Get out before I throw you out!”

The vines on the walls and floor quivered and began to rise, weaving like snakes in the air. The rustling of their leaves perfectly imitated the warning hiss of a snake. Fia grabbed the thickest vine and incinerated it, letting the black ashes drop from her palm in a pointed statement.

The dryad sputtered, then howled. Sharp thorns grew from her arms and shoulders, and the foliage began to surge. Fia allowed herself to combust, but even her black flames struggled in the humidity of the room. She scorched whatever plant life came near her, dancing from side to side to avoid their lunging branches, not seeing the dryad pulling water from the air behind her until it was too late. The water encased her, smothering the flames, and pushing her out of the open portal. Fia lay on the floor, gasping as the water freed her, but very much alive.

She stayed still for several minutes, letting the drying warmth of her heat return. The water still clinging to her skin hissed as it evaporated, joining the tendrils of steam rising from her body.

“No no no no!” A panicked voice yelped. “No fire in the Böchard! The books! The books!”

Fia sat up and glared as yet another dryad scurried toward her. His skin was just as dry and cracked as her roommate’s, but it had a more pale-yellow tone to it, like an exposed softwood, and his hair was green and filled with pine needles. He also wasn’t wearing the Academy uniform; instead, he was dressed in long green robes with a belt that dripped with quill pens and roped books. He stopped when he saw her glaring, at first frowning, then his expression turned to one of delight.

“Are you the Black Torch of Rephaim?” He asked, his baritone voice squeaking in delight.

“Who are you?”

“Bertram Bristlecone.” He bowed hastily. “It is an honor to meet you, my lady sprite. When I heard that Zukon planned to recruit you to our ranks, I was beyond ecstatic! Your feats and daring are legendary! Is it true that you are immune to water?”

Fia snorted. “Immune in that water will not kill me, but even I can’t start a blaze when wet.”

He grabbed one of the books on his belt and began scribbling notes. “Amazing! I cannot wait to keep account of your forthcoming feats on behalf of the Academy.” He snapped the book shut and really looked at her. “Forgive my impertinence, but what are you doing here? Fire sprites aren’t known for being avid readers.”

“Perhaps if books were made of a less flammable substance, we would be.” Fia stood, casting a disdainful eye on the collection of books sprawling around her. “It wasn’t my choice to come here. My roommate and I had a washing out.”

“Who’s your roommate?”

“I didn’t catch her name. I just know she’s a dryad.”

Bertram pulled a tablet from the depths of his robe’s pocket, scrawny finger poised over the screen. “Room number?”

“One-four-one-eight.”

He tapped in the number and nodded, as if all of his suspicions had been confirmed. “That would be Punctata Crataegus. She’s a first year like yourself, was recruited by Paki, and she arrived last week.” His jaw clenched as little as he looked up. “She also trashed a whole shelf of books two days ago. We’re still repairing the damage she caused.”

“Who assigned us to the same room?”

“No one. Room assignments are random. Consider it part of your training; learning to get along with a fellow warrior, in the fields and in the dorm.”

“I’m going to kill her.”

Fia had expected the dryad to pale, or correct her, but Bertram actually smiled. “Please do. She’s a weed.”

“Is it possible?”

“Oh yes. The immunity serum the Academy created to preserve the lives of its warriors hasn’t been adapted for dryadic genetics, but since dryads operate mainly as spirits, it isn’t as necessary for their presence here. The trick will be finding her tree.”

“Her tree?”

“Yes. Somewhere on Mid-Realm is Punctata’s hawthorn tree. Kill the tree, kill the dryad.” Then he crinkled his nose. “Just make sure you burn the right tree.”

“How will I know which one is the right tree?”

“Break a branch. If she screams, it’s her.”

 

Over the course of the next six months, Fia repeatedly tried and failed to kill her roommate, and Punctata tried to murder her in return.  A sick relationship grew between them, one where neither could sleep nor turn their back on the other, but they only felt comfortable in each other’s presence. On several occasions, Fia sneaked out into the Mid-Realmian wildernesses in search of Punctata’s tree, but though she found several hawthorn trees, she never found the right tree. She had to settle for causing her tree-spirit roommate as much pain as possible.

In the meantime, Fia rose through the ranks of their classmates until she stood at the top. It was a vicious battle of King of the Hill, but Fia had no qualms about making any who tried to dethrone her suffer. It drove Punctata crazy, and strained their relationship even more. One night, she created a waterfall in the room so that the water would flow directly into the fireplace where Fia pretended to sleep. When Fia tried to escape, Punctata blocked her path with barberry bushes until the sprite drowned and regenerated three times. The next morning, Fia set fire to the entire room, turning Punctata’s garden to ash, then proceeded to slaughter the dryad in every single class. And no one stopped them.

“The midterm war games will be starting soon,” Bertram remarked as Fia joined him in the courtyard.

They had been meeting in secret since Fia’s first day, researching dryad garden plots in search of Punctata’s tree.

Fia peeled a piece of bark from a birch and chewed it thoughtfully. “I know. Zukon has already announced the generals of the match. Punctata has sworn allegiance to Railix’s ranks. I’m considering joining Draxia just so I can roast the weed.”

Bertram’s lips quirked up in a fatalistic smile. “Drax is bound to lose. If you want to win and preserve your class rankings, you should join Railix as well.”

Fia snarled and threw her piece of bark in a fit of temper.

Bertram quickly stamped out the smoldering bark before the smoking grass became a blaze. He cast a reproving look at the sprite, but he knew better than to expect an apology. Instead, he offered her a chunk of charcoal and sat a safe distance away as she tore into it. “There is no rule about not killing your teammates. No points will be docked for betrayal. I will caution you against betraying Railix outright, but I doubt if he will care if you murder a weed.”

Fia’s expression lightened to something more smug. “Have you figured out where her tree is yet?”

He sighed. “Unfortunately, she’s a smart weed. Wherever she’s hidden herself, she’s left no record, no disturbed brush, and no witnesses.”

Her eyes narrowed. “She can’t stay hidden forever.”

 

Railix accepted Fia into his army, but he assigned her to a different platoon from her nemesis. This was simultaneously a relief and an annoyance, especially since Fia was forced to share a tent with four other warriors. None of them were water or plant based, but they still complained that Fia made the tent too hot and suffocating. Fia swore that as soon as she rid herself of Punctata, she would make sure that she was never forced to have another roommate again. Then the battles began.

Somehow, Draxia had acquired a massive fighting force that she used to her full advantage. Railix was not perturbed by the numbers he faced, and spent most of the time holed up in his tent, insisting on being left alone. When he wasn’t in his tent, everyone knew it. He swept through the opposing ranks like a demon, slaughtering a horde in a day without taking a scratch. That didn’t mean that his army had nothing to do; on the contrary, Fia was kept constantly fighting for her life, and she loved it. She would set herself on fire, then create a circle of flames and let it loose on the enemies around her. So many lives went up in flames, screaming as her fires consumed them. Again, she earned her moniker, “Black Torch,” and she reveled in it.

On the day of the final battle, the two sides had whittled each other down to a mere handful each. Draxia seemed the only one who could even remotely keep Railix at bay, and the two comparative titans battled it out on a hill while their armies descended upon each other. They were on the edge of a forest, guarded by two lines of nervous dryads and emergency water elementals. Fia had been backed into the woods by an opposing fire elemental, one who seemed more attuned to lava than pure fire. The dryads clasped their trees, screaming at them to be careful while the aquakinetics doused their branches.

Fia caught sight of a familiar dryad, lurking in the shadows of a massive hawthorn. Punctata spotted her, and her red eyes grew wide with panic. She had been eliminated days earlier, but she raised her hands, calling nearby plants and streams to defend her should the need arise. The elemental Fia was fighting didn’t seem to be aware of the dryads around them; his attention was wholly on her. She smiled and led him deeper into the forest.

The elemental threw another fireball at her. She tipped it over her shoulder, listening to the dryads shriek as it came frighteningly close to a root. Another fireball came at her. She tipped it over the other shoulder, hearing a hiss as it was doused with water. He sent a river of lava flowing from his toe toward her feet. She skipped nimbly aside, adding more heat to the stream as it passed her. The dryads were screaming now, and steam and smoke were weaving through the trees. Fia had been very careful to position herself before the smoke took over, and though she could no longer see, she knew where she stood.

Another fireball came hurtling through the steam. She corrected its position ever so slightly, added a little extra fuel to its fire, and sent it on its way. A particular dryad’s scream rose above the rest, and it rose and rose again in a piercing wail as a column of flame glowed through the mist. The elemental froze as understanding dawned on him, but before he could act, could extinguish the flames himself, Fia threw him into a water elemental aiming for Punctata’s tree. He screamed as his flames went out, but his screams were lost in Punctata’s death wails. No water could put out that fire. Fia watched as the hawthorn tree became a blackened skeleton, and she locked eyes with the dryad spirit as her wails petered to a dead whimper.

There was cheering in the distance. The water elementals were too busy trying to keep the fire from spreading to notice Fia running back out to the battlefield. Railix was standing alone on the hill, surrounded by the survivors of his army. They had won!

Fia joined the cheers, casting a final look at the pillar of black smoke rising from the forest. She caught a glimpse of Bertram on the edge of the woods, writing his in book again. He looked up when he felt her gaze, and he lowered his book to applaud.

Fia’s room would finally be a sanctuary from the world, and she would make sure that no one would corrupt her peace again.

Touring Mid-Realm

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Faye stood and slowly picked up the robes the Seeress had set out for her. There was no denying that it was beautiful or that she was meant to fill the position it signified. Still, there was something off about the situation, something she couldn’t trust.

A knock at the door caused her to drop the robe. She quickly gathered the fabrics back into her arms as she called out, “Who is it?”

“It’s Drax. You wearing those scarlet robes yet?”

“Uh, no. Not yet.”

“Then hurry up and throw them on. We don’t have all day, Princess.”

Faye scowled as she whipped the hospital gown off and replaced it with the robes. “I am not a princess,” she snapped, jerking open the door. “I’m not even close to one.”

Drax raised one white eyebrow, unfazed by the human’s glare. “You’re about as princess as it gets around here. The red looks good on you, by the way. That color never did anything for the Seeress’s complexion. All right, this way.” She moved away from the door and down to the portal cue, glancing back at the human pointedly.

Faye frowned. “The Seeress said Trorn was going to give me the tour.”

“His classes go late into the night, I made sure of it. Meanwhile, I ditched my class specifically to be your guide. My version of the tour is better anyway. Come with me, Princess.”

“Stop calling me princess.”

“Yeah, that’s not going to happen.”

Drax led Faye through the vast expanse of Mid-Realm using mainly the portal system, though she occasionally led her the long way down the halls. The half-dragon shared intimate knowledge of the Academy’s history, of how the great prince, Xasi, created the Academy at first as a sanctuary for the hunted, teaching them how to defend themselves and survive, of how the first chronicler, Chroniclus I, was the first to join the prince, taking down the histories of the worlds as they happened. She told of how the Seer and the Chronicler set up an oligarchy to govern the hunted, and how the title of Seer/Seeress and Head Chronicler had been passed down, Seer by talent, Chronicler by bloodline. She told of how the Academy eventually became a defender of the future, training those prophesied to save worlds and keeping darkness from taking hold. The Academy even went further, creating alliances with select worlds and accepting students from those worlds into the MRA’s rigorous training.

“Most of the warriors here have earned their own way into the program,” Drax explained as she and Faye stood on the turrets, watching a class of eighth-years run obstacles in the open air. “They proved themselves in a way that Mid-Realm felt their expertise could be honed and used across the dimensions instead of just being bound to one world. Others were prophesied to have great destinies, either on their world or another. ‘Chosen Ones’ have to be carefully picked though. Most can fulfill their destinies without our help or interference, others depend on us. Then there’s the apprentices, kids whose parents think can fight or have no other use for. They pay whole hoards to get their children into their school.”

“So, the apprentices pay to be here, and everyone else gets a free ride?”

“I’d hardly call it ‘free,’ but yeah. Your friend Trorn is an apprentice. He’s more competent that most, I’ll give him that much, but I know a few  people who can have his head in the ground in two minutes or less.”

“Oh yeah? And what year is he?”

Drax grinned, her eyes sparkling with mischief. “He’s a third year.”

“Then I should hope years four through ten could whip him. He’s barely started.”

“Uh-huh. I’m hungry. Let’s go to the mess hall.”

The mess hall was crowded with hungry warriors, all chowing down on an impressive variety of foods. A few curious heads turned at the girl’s arrival, but one glance at the small Drax made most of them turn right back around. Drax called out to her friends, waving at them, but she didn’t drag Faye over to their table to hang out. Instead, she dutifully kept to her position as tour guide and showed Faye how to link with the cafeteria’s telepathic interface to get food.

After the mess hall came the Portal Ball fields. Drax took her to the championship field, explaining the rules of the popular campus sport.

“Portal Ball is simple enough,” Drax said, walking onto the field like a pro. “There are two teams, ten players each. The point is to get the ball into either of those holes,” she pointed to two plate-sized holes on opposite sides of the field. “The trick is the ball gets sucked up into game-controlled black holes, forcing the players to account for both the other team and for the game monitor—which is usually Railix, and he can be a wushard about the where the ball comes out.” She rubbed the back of her head and glared at the control stand where Faye assumed this “Railix” would be controlling the portals. “I’ve gotten hit in the head by him more times than I can remember. First team to thirty wins. The season opens with the last season’s champions and the ten best teachers.”

“Sounds fun,” Faye said with required interest.

“Even more fun when you consider that your boyfriend is currently on the number one Portal Ball team this season.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. He just has to win one more game, and he’ll be facing me in the opening match.”

“You? I thought it was champions against teachers. You said you cut class.”

“Teachers cut class. And I was only auditing. Chroniclus wanted me to audit some of the lower classes as some kind of stupid training exercise. I’m going to be teaching the element division of our training program.”

“Will I be in your class?”

“No. Seers get trained in private in a more self-defense role than our standard offensive training. Speaking of training, want to check out your boyfriend in his class?” Without giving Faye a chance to protest or agree, Drax programmed the numbers into the portal cue and dragged the other girl through.

They came out in a bare room, filled with a hundred students and one teacher. Drax guided Faye up to an observing platform where they wouldn’t distract the people below, and the girls leaned on the railing to watch. Faye spotted Trorn pretty quickly since his was the only face she knew. He was sparring in the center of the room with a blond boy his age, possibly his friend Quill he’d talked about. They seemed to be practicing some sort of martial arts, but Faye couldn’t tell if it was ninjitsu, tae-kwon-do, karate, or something else completely. Whatever it was, he looked good doing it.

“Aw, they’re not using the weapons today,” Drax whined playfully. She nudged Faye. “I was hoping you’d get to see Trorn die.”

Faye choked. “What?”

The half-dragon laughed. “Don’t worry. Death isn’t the same on Mid-Realm as it is back on Earth. You can die of sickness or old age, but not from any kind of battle wounds or violence. Our warriors are injected with a series of chips on arrival. One of those chips is the resurrection field that basically allows the warrior to get killed in battle without actually dying.”

“And how does that work?”

“A bit like the video games on your planet. The warrior experiences all the pain of his injuries and the additional pain of death. Then they’re brought back, pain-free and really wanting to stay that way.”

Faye shuddered. “That’s horrible. Why would you people put yourselves through that?”

“The pain teaches you not to repeat the mistakes that caused that pain. Dying—repeatedly—teaches you not to fear death. Because of our training methods, we’ve suffered very few true deaths on the field.”

“What do you mean, ‘true deaths’?”

Drax sighed. “The resurrection chips only wok while we’re here on Mid-Realm. If one of our warriors were to die on, say, Agril-Gael, they would really, truly, die.”

“Why?” Faye glanced at Trorn in the training room and pictured him lying dead and bloody on some horrible battlefield. “Isn’t there some way for you to get the resurrection chips working on other planets?”

“Life ends, Faye. We teach our warriors how to survive, but it’s up to them to apply it.” Drax and Faye stared solemnly at each other for a grim moment, then Drax turned away. “Let’s go. We’ve almost reached my favorite place.”

They walked silently out of the training rooms into the crimson halls. At the other end of the hall was a pair of onyx doors with ruby inlays. The right side of the door was a coordinates panel that Faye was beginning to recognize. Drax activated the codex and scanned the scrolling numbers before plugging in a set of even numbers. The doors opened. Drax glanced back at Faye and nodded for her to follow before stepping through.

Faye regarded the open doors suspiciously, both wanting and not wanting to know what other horrors this Academy held for her. Then she stepped through the doors and into the largest library she had ever been in. Considering the high-tech levels of the other rooms she’d been shown, she half-expected to see chutes racing up and down the multiple levels, or moving sidewalks crossing the vast floors. But, no. There was a tree growing through the center of the floors, bookshelves carved into its trunk and branches, yet somehow, it still grew. It grew surrounded by books, nestling books, shading books, and cradling books. It was absolutely beautiful.

“It took you a whole minute to follow me through,” Drax tsked, “and took to two seconds to go humba’o[1] over the tree. That’s standard numalad.[2]

“How did you get a tree to grow in here?”

“That is the Tree of Knowledge,” Chroniclus explained, coming up behind them and snapping a book closed.

Drax smiled at the elf and stepped aside respectfully. “Faye, you remember Chorinclus, Head Chronicler of Mid-Realm. Chroniclus, this is Faye Williams of Earth, America. She has been chosen as the Academy’s next Seeress.”

Chroniclus bowed to her respectfully, but his face twisted into dismay. “Vanessa, I thought you had rejected the Seeress’s offer?”

“I had. But then things changed.”

“I see.” The elf regarded her thoughtfully for a moment, then said, “You are welcome here any time, Vanessa. If you need anything, please feel free to come to me, my wife Aoife, or my second-in-command, Railix.”

“I’ll introduce you to him next,” Drax promised. “He’s working intently in the Earth sector of the Böchard. We’ll interrupt him, annoy him a bit. It’ll be great fun.”

Faye half-smiled in wry amusement at the smaller girl’s joke, then turned her attention to the elf. “I’d feel more welcome if you’d quit calling me ‘Vanessa.’  I’d much rather be called Faye.”

He inclined his head in polite acquiescence. “As you wish. Drax, don’t test Railix’s patience. He has been working for three days straight.”

“Oh good. That means he’ll be more fun than usual.” She nudged Faye and started to leave.

“Aoife will want to go over your lesson plans tonight at dinner,” the elf called.

“I’ll be there.” Drax led Faye back to the portal cue and plugged in a new set of seven numbers and walking through the emerging portal without hesitation.

Faye thought about hesitating again, then decided not to. She followed Drax through after a mere second and was confused when she found herself in another library, this one strangely reminiscent of the Library of Congress but with a wooden map of the Earth on the floor. The map was covered with medieval styled desks, complete with ink bottles and quill pens. One desk was pulled off to the side and tucked into the shadows, a man hunched over it writing furiously. He had black hair, was wearing the standard MRA uniform, and was unbelievably skinny. There was also something strange about his skin. Faye narrowed her eyes suspiciously, not taking her eyes off the man as she followed Drax closer to him.

“Still stalking your siru mwanimka?”[3] the half-dragon asked, sidling up to the man. He completely ignored her, but it didn’t faze her in the slightest. She turned her attention Faye and nodded at the man conspiratorily. “He’s been at this as long as I’ve known him. Completed the Academy training, towering at the top of every pinnacle ever, turned down every mission or quest offered to him in favor of writing down some child’s every move.”

“Child?”

“First and only glimpse I caught of her was when I was ten. She looked like she was eight, but, like I said, it was a glimpse.” She threw a nasty glare at the man. “He won’t tell me who, where, what, how, or why she is. Anywho, this is Railix, our resident trallorp.”

“A trallorp is native of Trizac,” Railix said, answering both of Faye’s unasked questions of ‘could he talk’ and ‘what is a trallorp?’ He sat up and finally looked at her, his face eerily gaunt, his small eyes a piercing amber. “Trallorps are known for their high regard of knowledge, high appreciation and practice of pain, as well as superior strength and intelligence. Trallorps are not patient and have no concept of any pleasant emotions or feelings.”

“Can they read minds, or is that just a bonus with you?” Faye asked.

“I could hear your ignorance enter the room.”

Drax leaned in. “That reminds me, you might not want to mention you’re American, or that you’re even from Earth. That world is highly disregarded and will send whatever status you have or hope to have spiraling down into the negatives.”

“Why? America is awesome.”

“Americans are, as a whole, self-absorbed, fat, and lazy,” Railix snorted dismissively. “The country itself feeds that destructive mentality.”

“What about the army? They’re beast!”

He bent back over his work and began writing again. “Your military hasn’t won a war since before Vietnam. Drax, you are wasting my time. Get out and take her with you.”

“Oh, yeah,” Drax said as if she hadn’t heard him, “let me introduce you. Railix, this is Vanessa Faye Williams, the chosen—”

“I am well aware of who and what she is. Take her away.”

“Your siru mwanimka doing something interesting?”

“Leave.”

“How old would she be now? Fifteen? Sixteen? Is she pretty?” She stuck her face close to the trallorp’s. “Is she fat?”

“Leave.”

Ku-hutish[4], she is fat!”

“Drax, get out.”

There was a bite to the trallorp’s voice that scared Faye, but Drax laughed. She did back off and take Faye’s arm, leading her away from him. She smiled at Faye, one eyebrow raised, impressed. “I rarely get that many words strung together. I think he likes you.”

“I highly doubt that. He was very rude and insulting.”

“Who, Railix? You think he’s bad, you should meet the other trallorps. He’s the nicest one around.”

“You have more of those creatures wandering around this school?”

“Nah. Railix is enough for us.” Her smile widened. “Oh, look at that, I’m hungry. Guess the tour’s over. Want to hit the mess hall for some gripulema[5]?”

 

 

[1] Selarthin: meaning stunned amazement, awe.

[2] Selarthin: meaning culturally uneducated.

[3] Selarthin: meaning mysterious damsel

[4] Selarthin: meaning how horrible or so sorry. An expression of sympathy.

[5] Gaelian delicacy of lema and griearra berries wrapped in a sweet pastry.

Sailor’s Bane

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Something lives in the waters of the Singing Isles, and unfortunately for the land dwelling inhabitants, the Singing Isles is ninety percent water. Boats are a necessary danger, for trade, for travel, for life; but if you venture out onto the seas, close your ears. For here there be sirens.

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Artwork by Delyth Thomas

The sirens of the Singing Isles are not cousins of the Greek harpies, nor are they close in appearance to the mermaid. They are creatures of living water, who can change their shapes at will, taking on the color and appearance of humans as they rise from the surf to tempt men and women alike. Many claim that the sirens can read the minds of their victims, and that they assume the shape of their most lustful desire, but these claims cannot be confirmed, and may be the mere excuse of the weak for their stupidity.

The sirens live on the bottom of the ocean in castles of coral, surrounded by gardens of the dead and ruled by a fearsome king. All sirens have powerfully hypnotic voices and mild control over the water. While they lack the ability to speak to fish, they do capture and train the aquatic mammals such as dolphins, orcas, and whales and keep them as pets and transport. The lesser fish and crustaceans, such as marlin, puffer fish, and shrimp, they eat, along with seaweed and barnacles.

The sirens hate all of mankind, and if they are given the opportunity to kill a member of that race, they will take it. Beware the ocean! Beware the beaches! Beware the rivers and pools! Beware the sirens call! If they see you, they will sing to you, and you will be lost to the unforgiving waters.

FEATURED SIREN: Conch

Forever Lost

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***Special Guest Blogger Abigail Mintkenbaugh***

        The black wolf growled as he circled the white dragon, her violet eyes never leaving him. Her wings were poised for flight, her teeth bared, and her tail straight, intent on swiping him should he charge her. Saer knew better. Through the past four years, Drax had grown in her abilities and, despite her young age and size, she became one of the highest ranked students in their year.
A roar caused him to snap his attention back to the spar, but not before a blast of wind sent him flying across the room and against the wall.
“Are you even trying, wolf boy?” Drax laughed, swishing her tail back and forth.
Saer shook his head, rising to his feet. “Haven’t even started yet.” He growled and charged at the dragon. He zigzagged his way forward, dodging the balls of spinning air she threw at him. Snarling, he launched up and dug his claws and teeth into her back and neck.
Drax roared, shaking her body to dislodge him; however he only dug in deeper. Gritting her teeth, she barrel-rolled onto the ground, forcing Saer to release her. “Cheap move, wolf,” she said, snapping her wings and shaking her head as she approached him with a low growl.
“No such thing as ‘cheap’ moves,” he replied, still dazed from being squished, but he stumbled to his feet.
A wicked grin crossed her muzzle. Saer flinched at the murderous look in Drax’s violet eyes. “Point.” Inhaling, she puffed up her chest and opened her wings.
Saer braced as she sent out a tornado, large enough to sweep through the room and caught him. He spiraled upward and smash into the ceiling, the floor, then the wall. When he finally stilled, he groaned and slowly lifted his head. “Ow.”
Drax answered by stomping on his middle and biting off his head. His body vanished, fizzling away like foam, only to reform a moment later, healthy, whole, and alive. She giggled as she pranced away, changing into her selarthin form with a devious smile. “That was fun! Wanna do it again?”
Saer, now in his human form, sat up, rubbing his middle with a grimace. “You–are lethal, Shrimps.”
She stopped her dancing as her eyes flashed. “Do you want me to eat you next time?”
The werewolf grinned, leaning back on his hands. “I’d give you indigestion.”
The thirteen-year-old huffed, crossing her arms as she looked around. “Where’s Broji? He’s normally here for these practices.”
“He’ll be here. He just came back from an assignment, and he wanted to sleep in today.”
“Oh, right.” Her shoulders dropped with her short sigh.
Saer glanced at her. “You’ll get your turn.”
“Doubt it,” she grumbled then dropped to the ground, easily folding her legs under her with her arms still crossed.
Saer chuckled. “Come on, the Seeress can’t be that bad.”
Drax grumbled a caustic remark. Throughout her childhood, Scota, the Seeress and her mother, had never been there for her, rarely ever speaking to her, and when she did, it was only to scold her on something Drax did. And despite the many opportunities, Scota had never sent Drax on a mission. “I just have to prove that I can have a mission. If I make top of the class, she’ll have no choice.”
“What’s this about making top of the class?”
The two looked over to see their Ëlonian friend walk through a portal.
Drax grinned. “You heard me. I’m going to beat you in the next class tournament and then be top of the class.”
“Oh, I see.” He huffed, joining his friends on the floor. Though older than the other two, Brojimarie enjoyed spending time with the werewolf and the dragon. He considered himself the older brother, keeping his “younger siblings” in line whenever they got to arguing. “And, tell me, Drax, how do you intend to beat me?”
“You’ll see.I’ve been working on a particular Versian dragon technique that I’m sure even you can’t get out of.”
“We’ll see. So, what did I miss while I was gone?”
“Not much. Inki had us run laps which turned into a giant booby trap.” Saer frowned. “He kept popping up snake pits, spikes, and swinging axes.”
“Saer’s just grumpy because he kept falling into the pits.”
“I swear that selarthin was targeting!”
“Anything else?” Brojimarie grinned.
“Not really. Same old stuff,” Drax answered. “How was your assignment? Where did you go? What happened?”
” It wasn’t much. Went to Dothrik to deal with a band of renegade brigands that were attacking the capital. And obviously, I handled the situation flawlessly.”
“Flawlessly? I bet you took a shot to the face a few times,” Saer replied. “You’re not invulnerable.”
“I’m here, aren’t I? Are we going to spar or not?”
“Finally!” Drax jumped to her feet. “I call dibs on first round!”
Saer laid down on the floor, his hands behind his head. ” This one is all yours, Broji.”
“You’re too kind.” The man grinned as he stood to his feet, pulling his katana from its sheath with a hiss. “You ready for this, Drax?”
“Been waiting all day for this.” She smirked, standing ready.
By the end of the practice, the three had worked up an appetite for lunch. They made their way to the large cafeteria where already other students sat around enjoying their meals. And after claiming their food at the large console, they found their way to their table and sat.
Drax popped a piece of fruit into her mouth. “So are we going to spar afterward?”
“Don’t you have lessons or something in the afternoons?” Saer asked, cutting into his gravy-covered venison.
“I’m playing hooky.”
“I doubt the Head Chronicler would let that slide.” Brojimarie smirked.
Drax frowned. “You don’t understand! He’s teaching me Anrachelian politics! I’d rather deal with Filarik’s training than have to sit through another lecture.”
“That bad, huh?” Saer chewed on his food.
“It’s so boring!”
“Politics can come in handy during a mission. You never know when you’ll have to be a diplomat above warrior.”
“Every world has different politics. Anrachelian politics may not work on Khisfire or Elon.”
“No, but the premise is the same,” Saer offered. “And seeing as how you’re the Head Seeress’s kid, it stands to reason–”
“This has nothing to do with the Head Seeress,” Drax snapped, angrily biting into her sandwich. “Nothing I do has to do with her.”
“You sure? You’re gunning for top of the class to get her to give you an assignment. I say she’s your motivation.”
Drax frowned, picking at the fruit on her plate. “Well, my lessons have nothing to do with her. Chroniclus just thinks that I should know more about my homeworld. That’s all.”
“Didn’t you live there for a little while?” Brojimarie asked, slurping up his noodles.
“I don’t remember much. Just a few snippets here and there.”
They were quiet until the end of their meal, and they went their separate ways for the afternoon. Drax begrudgingly made her way to the Böchard. The massive library was the second finest thing that Mid-Realm had to offer. Filled with books on nearly every world and culture, it gave the Academy ambassadors the knowledge needed for their assignments.

Drax entered into the Anrachelian Sector and found the Head Chronicler already waiting in his office.
“There you are. Did you enjoy your lunch?”
“Yeah,” she sighed, sitting down at the small work area he had made for her.
“Did you finish your assignment?”
Sighing again, she retrieved the eight-page report from her dimen and handed it to the Head Chronicler. “I don’t see the point in writing about the founding of Anrachel. When am I ever going to use this?”
“You’ will need this information someday.” He placed the homework on his desk. “I had Bertram retrieve some books for your lesson today that you’ll need. We’ll start with reviewing the necessity of the oligarchy versus the strict monarch policy.”
“Chroniclus, why doesn’t Ma’a let me have an assignment?”
He paused, looking up from his book. “What do you mean?”
“Nearly everyone else in my class has gone on an assignment except me. Why?”
The elf sighed. “You’ll have to ask your mother.”
“Think she’ll give me an answer?”
“You won’t know until you ask. Now on to our lesson, oligarchy versus strict monarchy.”
For the next hour and a half, Drax listened as the elf droned on about treaties, alliances, and various techniques of manipulating peace talks to gain the best advantages. At the end of the lecture, he gave her a review quiz about the lesson.
“And I want you to write this in Versian. Your elvish is better, but you’re lacking in the draconian languages.”
“All right,” she replied, picking up her pen just as a selarthin walked into the office. She glanced up and frowned, recognizing one of her mother’s bodyguards.
“Kenrien, what brings you here?” Chroniclus asked.
“The Seeress requests Drax join her for dinner tonight.”
“No thanks.”
“Drax.” Chroniclus frowned. “You know your mother enjoys spending time with you.”
“Really? Couldn’t tell,” she grumbled, holding her head up as she continued to write.
“You best be there, kidoja, or I will personally retrieve you.”
Drax glared at him. “Fine,” she mumbled returning to her quiz. “Do I have to dress up?”
“The Head Seeress expects it.”
“She’ll be there and in formal attire,” Chroniclus confirmed, glancing at Drax who didn’t look up.
Kenrien nodded and after one last look of warning to Drax, left the office.
“I don’t know why you’re so against eating with your mother. I thought you two would talk about how your days have gone.”
“She will either lecture me on something I did or didn’t do, or she will just sit there. It’s more awkward than enjoyable,” she replied and handed him the finished quiz. “Can I go now?”
“No,” he replied, taking the paper, “now I want you to work on your selarthin vocabulary.”
“My selarthin is fine, thank you.”
“You only know a few phrases and can barely hold half a conversation. That’s not what I call ‘fine’.”

“I’ve gotten better!”
“Yes, and that’s because you practiced.” He slid her another piece of paper. “Translate these, and then transcribe the essay at the bottom.”
“You’re killing me.”
He chuckled. “Only a little.”
With a loud groan, Drax picked up her pen and began the assignment; however she was unable to finish by the time she needed to go prepare for the dinner with her mother.
She walked into her private suite where she bathed and cleaned herself with a fragrant shampoo and soap. Despite her pleas, Scota wouldn’t allow Drax to stay in the barracks with the other students, but rather kept her room next to the Seeress suite. Of course, many of the females in her class called Drax lucky, but she always wondered what it would be like to have a roommate.
After putting on a fluffy pink robe, she walked out into her room and stopped short. She frowned. “What are you doing here, Nirra?”
“Your mother requested I assist you.”
“I don’t need help putting on a stupid dress.”
“We all know you would just leave that rats nest you call hair down and messy.”
“My hair isn’t messy!”
“It is when you try to put it up.” The selarthin pulled out a flowing green, purple, and gold dress and laid it on the bed, then pointed to the vanity. “Sit, pepoto [wind (upepo) brat (child: mtoto)].”
Drax growled, but did as the selarthin said and plopped down on the stool, staring at her reflection sourly. “I am not a brat, Nirra.”
Nirra didn’t respond as she picked up a jar and poured conditioner in her hand before running it through Drax’s white hair.
She winced as Nirra pulled at the large knots left in Drax hair then raked the comb over her scalp. After her head was completely numb, she endured more torture as Nirra twisted and pulled her white strands in intricate braids before ending with a traditional selarthin hairstyle.
“There. Now you look somewhat presentable.”
“I look atrocious.”
Nirra flicked Drax’s long ear. “Get up. You’re already late.”
She quelled the urge to send the selarthin flying out of the room, but instead allowed Nirra to help her into the gown.
“Finished. Go on then. Your mother is waiting.”
She pulled at the skirt, trying to loosen the fabric around her hips and arms as she walked out of the room and to the next door. She glanced behind her, wondering if she could make a run for it, but Nirra was watching her from the doorway. Drax turned back to the Seeress’s door and knocked twice.
“Enter.”
Drax walked into the elaborate suite, decorated with candelabras, and black and red tapestries and curtains. The air smelled of incense and she could already see the dining room table to the left prepared for the Seeress and her daughter. Drax then moved her attention to the throne at the center of the room. It looked like a huge dragon with amethysts for eyes. Its spade tail held a crystal for the person sitting under its long neck as it loomed over the person standing before it.
“Hi, Daddy,” she whispered then straightened when footsteps alerted her to her mother’s approach.
Scota stepped out of her private chambers, dressed in a regal black gown with a gold chain belt with large coin-shaped links. Her golden red hair was piled up in a mass of curls and waves, held up by a strand of black pearls. Her ears stuck out of the mass and Drax could see earrings dangling to her shoulders. A large ruby necklace sat against her chest and twinkled in the candlelight as she approached the child.
“You’re late.”
She flinched at the greeting. “I had lessons.”
“But you knew about tonight.”
“Y-Yes, Seeress.”
“I do not make time for these for you to be late, Draxia. I expect you to be on time if not earlier. Understood?”
She bit the inside of her cheek.
“Draxia,” Scota repeated louder.
“Yes, Seeress.”
“Come along then before the food gets any colder.”
As soon as Scota sat at the head of the table, her bodyguards appeared from the walls and began serving the two, placing the first course before them.
Drax looked at the potato and veggie stew then at her mother who was setting her napkin on her lap. She mimicked her, setting her napkin over her skirts, and picked up her spoon.
For the first course, the two sat in awkward silence, neither one speaking or looking at the other.

The next course was steak, asparagus, and couscous.
“What of your classes?” Scota finally spoke, cutting into her steak delicately.
“They’re fine.” She ate some of the couscous.
“Are you excelling in Inki’s class?”
“He pushes me like he does everyone else. Of course, you would know that. He gives you updates, right?”
“Inki may be a selarthin, but that is his class, and I leave it to him to run it.”
Drax rolled her eyes.
“What of Lohre and Filarik’s class?”
“They’re fine.”
“Are you excelling?”
“They push me, like they do everyone else.”
Scota sighed, cutting into the asparagus.
The two returned to that awkward silence and remained through the second course and to the third, a custard-filled pastry.
Drax downed that then quickly stood from the table and turned to the door.
“Draxia.”
She stopped, but faced her mother. She didn’t miss the glares from the bodyguards, but she focused on the woman still sitting at the table.
Scota opened her mouth to say something, but stopped. She turned away, dismissing her with a wave of her hand.
Drax rolled her eyes then walked out. She marched to her room, discarded the dress, and put her uniform back on, but instead of going to bed, like she normally did, she created a portal to one of the open gyms.
There were a few other students already there, but she made her way to the corner where she pulled out a roll of white tap, wrapping it around her hands. Finished, she punched her palm then began punching the nearest hanging sandbag. Her gaze hardened, thinking of yet another wasted night. Why did her mother make her do this when she knew this was how it would always end?
“Knew you’d be in here.”
She punched twice more before turning around. “Hey, Saer.”
The werewolf stepped forward and leaned against the wall. “Heard you had dinner with the Seeress again.”
“Yeah.”
Saer watched her hit the bag several times more before speaking again. “You want to spar?”
“No.” She high kicked and punched, gritting her teeth.
“Didn’t go so well?”
“When does it ever?”
“True.”
Drax continued to beat the punching bag until she used a ball of hardened air to send it flying across the room, causing others to look over at the commotion. She huffed, tucking a strand of her hair behind her ear.
“Feel better?”
“No.”
Saer sighed. “Come on, shrimps. It really can’t be all that bad.”
“She barely talks to me, and when she does talk, it’s to berate me about something. And when she asks how I’m doing with classes, it’s only to see if I’m actually good at anything.”
“That’s how all parents are. They want to see their kids succeed. My father was the same way. He had a standard for each of his pups.”
“But I’m sure he was nicer.”
“Eh, he had moments,” Saer answered, rubbing his neck. “Look, I know things aren’t good between you and your mom, but she is your mom. That should count for something.”
Drax crossed her arms. “You sound like Chroniclus.”
“Hey, must be saying something right, then.”
“You don’t know the Seeress, though! You have no idea.”
A hand dropped on her head, and she looked up at Saer who grinned.
“You’re right, I don’t. But I do know that every kid needs a parent. And I know some parents aren’t the best, but we should still try to have a relationship with them. Even if it’s small. Ask how her day went for a change.”
Drax frowned. “Why, though?”
“Because maybe that could start you two actually having a relationship.”
“I still think it’s no use. Ma’a–Ma’a is just so–so–”
“Your mom is pretty important, and she has a lot on her mind. Can you at least give her that?”
“Well, yeah, but–”
“Come on, would you have a lot of time on your hands if you were in her shoes?”
Drax looked down again.
Saer knelt in front of her. “Your mom should be an important person in your life and I know your dad isn’t here anymore, but that just means you two have to stick together. You know? If you just try to understand her, maybe you two could have a really good relationship.” He chuckled, rubbing her head. “Junk, now I sound like Broji.”
She pushed his hand away. “What? Weird and creepy?”
“You think I’m weird and creepy?”
The two looked over to find Brojimarie stepping out of a portal toward them.
“I think what she means is grown up. You sound grown up.”
“Well between the two of you, I am.”
“Hey!” Drax shouted.
“That sounds like fighting words.” Saer grinned as he stood.
Brojimarie chuckled. “Save it for the tournament.”
“Yeah, about that,” Saer sighed. “I have an assignment. I leave tomorrow.”
“What! You’ll miss the tournament!” Drax frowned.
“Can they do that? Send out a student before the tournaments.”
“Guess so. You’ll just have to tell me how things went.”
“Oh, you’ll know.” Drax grinned then looked at Brojimarie. “I will be taking top spot.”
“Challenge accepted.”
“So mad I’m going to miss that fight,” the werewolf groaned, “but it’ll be fun getting out of Mid-Realm and actually seeing a real battle again.”
Drax sighed, but looked at him. “Just get back here in one piece and try not to be a complete uzaji.”
“Whatever you say, Shrimps.”
Brojimarie laughed as Drax shouted at Saer once again for the use of her nickname.

The class erupted with applause and cheers as they watched the final two students fight for top of the class. Brojimarie and Drax fought hard and long, each panting, but neither ready to back down. Through all their classes, both had ended up as the final competitors. Brojimarie had taken the first win in Inki’s physical class, but Drax was victor in Lohre’s weapons class.
Now, in Filarik’s elemental class, each used their abilities to the fullest extent. Drax had already flung Brojimarie against the walls several times, but she had the wounds on her arms and shoulders to prove she had fallen prey to his invisibility trick.
She growled as she stood on all fours, glaring at him as he stood firm with his katana in front of him. Her tail swished behind her and her claws dug into the metal floors.
Brojimarie panted heavily as he gripped his sword, stretching his fingers before he charged the white dragon.
She saw him coming, and aimed for his legs with her tail; however he jumped over her and she lost him in one blink. Pain sliced through her back as his katana sliced through her armored scales. Roaring, she again swiped her tail, this time catching him in his stomach and throwing him into the wall.
        Ooohs and hisses filtered through the crowd as Brojimarie stood, holding his middle. The other students began stamping on the ground, sensing the end of the fight, each chanting for their victor.
Drax huffed, feeling her stamina dwindling. It was now or never. Standing tall, she opened her wings and spiraled upward.
The air in the room began blowing. Brojimarie planted his feet, shielding his face from the harsh wind. He watched as Drax flew higher and higher when suddenly his feet slipped out from under him and he was swept up into the massive tornado.
Other students fell victim to her winds, crying out as they were caught up in the vortex.
Brojimarie tried to aim his body to gain back some control, but he kept getting hit with bodies that he kept losing his focus. Finally, he landed on the ground, pinned by the winds, only to look up into the eye and watch as Drax aimed at him, her mouth and claws open. He clenched his eyes just as he was crushed.
When he opened his eyes again, Drax looked down at him with an impish grin.
The crowd was still dazed from being sent all over the place, but eventually the cheered for the tournament winner.
“Well, I must say that was some finishing move there, Draxia,” Filarik said walking up to the two, “and from what I understand this was your second victory?”
She nodded, standing up next to her teacher.
“Then, as per our custom, Draxia Shyft has become top of the class.”
Her heart jumped with excitement, and her smile grew large as the others cheered and applauded. She then looked down as Brojimarie sat up. “Told you I’d beat you.”
He chuckled. “You did. Great job, but you know I’ll be wanting my spot back.”
“Just try and take it!”
Suddenly, an alarm sounded and the students and teachers went still, looking around curiously.
“Attention all students,” Scota’s voice announced, “we have a rogue in the Academy. You are to find and kill him on sight.”
“All right, everyone, travel in pairs and groups. No one is to be left alone!” Filarik said as the students hurried from the group.
“Has this happened before?” Brojimarie asked.
“Very rarely,” Filarik replied.
“Well, let’s go then, Miss Top of the Class.”
Drax smiled. Her first big real fight! “Let’s go!”        The entire Academy scoured the premises, looking for the rogue, and soon more information emerged.
He had already killed several other students, leaving them a bloody mess with gashes and teeth marks all over their bodies.
Brojimarie winced as another body was covered with a sheet. “This is getting bad. This is the tenth body. Who is this rogue?”
“Must be some kind of creature to leave all those marks,” Drax replied as the body was carried away.
“We heard it was Saer.”
Both turned to see Rothe, a gargoyle and fellow student, standing behind him, a somber look on his face.
“What? No! Saer wouldn’t do something like this!” Drax snapped.
“Well it is. He came back from his assignment two days ago, but he was sick and sent to the infirmary. Then today he just went crazy and killed the people on guard before running off.”
“How do you know this?” Brojimarie asked.
“Security cameras.”
“You’re all crazy! Saer–he wouldn’t just start killing his comrades! He’s better than that!”
“Something is wrong with him,” Rothe replied, looking down at Drax. “He’s gone rogue and there’s no going back from that.”
“No, you’re wrong! We have the best medicine! We can cure him! Whatever the problem is, Mid-Realm can save him!”
“We got him cornered!” Someone shouted. “We have him locked in part of the Böchard!”
“What sector?” she demanded.
“The Mothryl Sector, but they have it locked–Drax, wait!”
The girl didn’t stop. Using a portal, she entered the Böchard and hopped through other portals to make it to the Mothryl Sector. She knew that the main doors would be locked and most of the portals would be shut down to that Sector, but she knew of a back way thanks to her years of working in the library.
When she entered, she could hear howls, snarls, and crashes. Slowly, she peeked out from behind a shelf to find Saer in his wolf form, attacking desks, shelves, and anything close by. She quickly noted a physical difference in him. His hair seemed spikier, standing straight up as if he were on alert, and his eyes were red, no longer their friendly amber.
“Draxia Shyft! What are you doing?”
She hissed, backing away as she gripped her earpiece. “Chroniclus, stop yelling!”
“Get out of there right now! It’s too dangerous!”
“No, I have to talk to him! Something is wrong with him, Chroniclus! This isn’t like him!”
“He’s been infected with a virus, Drax. There’s no talking to him.”
“He’s my friend. I can handle this!” She quickly removed her ear piece and stuffed it into her dimen before Chroniclus could stop her. Inhaling, she stepped out from her hiding place and slowly approached the wolf. “Saer?”
Snarling, the wolf faced her and with a loud howl, charged her.
“Saer!” she screamed, jumping over him and sliding to a stop as he turned to face her again. “Saer, it’s me!”
The wolf charged again, his mouth opened to bite into her, but Drax used her wind to knock him down.
“Saer, stop it!” She pinned him there. “You’re not yourself! You have to stop before you hurt anymore people!”
He continued to fight her and at one point, nearly broke through her wind.
Gasping, she flung him away, crashing into a book shelf.
A port screen next to her turned on, and Scota appeared. “Draxia Shyft, you are to stop this immediately!”
She didn’t answer, but instead destroyed the port screen with a gust of wind. She tensed as Saer stumbled out of the pile of books and broken pieces of wood. “Saer, come on! Snap out of it!”
The wolf growled, shaking his head and stared at Drax. His body trembled and his tail remained pointed behind him. “Sh-Shrimps–”
She perked, smiling. “Saer!”
“Shrimps–you–you have to kill me.”
” Saer, you’re–you’re just sick!”
“I’ve killed–too many already.” He winced, stopping himself from moving. “I can’t–hold on much longer. You–You have to leave now.”
“I am not leaving you! You’re going to be fine!”
“Drax,” he said, looking up at her. “Something is wrong with me. I-I can’t control myself.”
She whimpered, the fear growing more. “Don’t be stupid, Saer.  We’ll find a cure. You’ll be okay.”
He shook his head. “Not this time–Shrimps.”
“Saer, I know you. You’re stronger than this.” She stepped forward despite his growls. “You can push past this! We can save you!”
“Run now, Drax!” he shouted with a snarl. “Go!”
“I’m not leaving you here!” she screamed. “You’re my best friend, Saer, and I am not leaving you behind!”
The wolf howled and ran toward Drax then lunged.
Her body locked up. She couldn’t even summon her wind. Everything slowed as she watched him get closer.
Suddenly, she was shoved to the ground and she heard a hiss of electricity, followed by a pain-filled howl. Looking over, she watched as Filarik shot lightning through Saer and the wolf fell to the ground. “No!” She scrambled to the body, but was electrocuted when she tried to touch Saer. “Saer? Saer!” Tears blurred her vision when he didn’t answer her and she screamed at Filarik. “What have you done?”
“He was infected with a rare strand of lycanthropy, Drax. It made him crazed. There was nothing we could have done.”
She looked over to find Scota walking in with Kenrien and Nirra behind her. “You could have done something! You should have seen this! You could have stopped him!”
“My visions are absolute, Draxia. The boy would have been killed either way.
With a scream, she ran to her mother, her knives already in her hands. Before Kenrien and Nirra could engage her, arms encircled Drax and forced her down.
“Drax, that’s enough,” Chroniclus said in her ear. “There was nothing anyone could have done!”
“She could have stopped him! She could have saved him! He was my friend and she just killed him!”
Scota only stared before turning away. “Well done, Filarik. You’ve saved countless lives today.”
The man nodded his head. “Thank you, Head Seeress.”
“Chroniclus, I trust you’ll see this place is restored.”
He only nodded before hugging Drax tightly to him as she continued to scream.
Drax stared at Saer’s body, the pain of loss and anger mixed into a tight knot in her stomach, and she vowed she would never forgive her mother for this. Never.

The Bookwyrm’s Reading Challenge

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It is a common consensus that reading is good for you, yet here I sit, watching Doctor Who for the thirtieth time. While Doctor Who is amazing (Ten is my Doctor), even the Doctor himself would say that I should be reading more. To help motivate me to read, I built a reading challenge for 2019.

Reading Challenge 2019

Each of these challenges are geared specifically toward me, but please do join me in this challenge since I tried to make them general enough for every reader. You can follow along on Instagram, @The_Bookwyrms_Bookshelf and use the hashtag #TheBookwyrmReads19.

Keep in touch, and let me know how you’re doing on the challenge, and what books you’re reading!