The rider glowered past his mount’s head as the beast trundled down the packed dirt road, eight sets of claws churning up little clods of dust. Neither of them had a countenance that brooked argument; the man had passed beyond surly long ago and was now downright thunderous, and while his hand was nowhere near the sword at his hip, still nobody wanted to impede the wearer of that crest when he was looking so incensed – it was known far and wide that Davion del Torim was very quick to find his sword when the need arose, and while he was also known as a kind, fair-hearted man, that made his palpable fury all the more frightening. None wanted to be seen as in his way when he was in that mood, lest he see violence as an expedient way past.

As for his steed, Winter was a full-grown gerwuhl hob, nearly as well-known as his rider. Most people who rode gerwuhlen instead of some more placid beast rode jills, in small part because the males were substantially bigger and thus harder to maintain and feed, but mostly because they could be so vicious, and in a species that could already be almost disturbingly clever about escaping restraints and the like, a vicious streak was the last thing anyone wanted to risk. Winter was a deadly fighter in his own right, with cruel weapons tipping each of his numerous limbs and jaws that could break through a man’s thighbone with scarcely a pause. Nobody wanted to feel his bite any more than that of his namesake.

It was a strange day when that wolverine-like countenance was the less surly-looking of the pair, and the gate guards instantly decided they wanted no part of it. Davion was familiar enough to them as to need no interrogation, and he had a royal exemption from the usual queries anyway; they just hauled the turnstile out of his way to let him pass, and Winter churned through the gate without breaking stride.

Davion kept his silence until the guards and everyone else were out of earshot, and only then did he start cursing. It was under his breath, but it went on for some time, with an extensive vocabulary that would have surprised most people who’d ever met him. Winter endured it stoically, just bearing his rider along the road with his usual steady, rolling gait.


Before the first word was written, the Red Lady was there to watch over the land.

Through the ages She had kept Her vigil unbroken, guarding Her people from those that dwelt beyond the world. She taught the ways of battle to the first wardens, that they may stand guard against the dangers of this world even as She did against those of others, with the stern counsel that to use Her arts to take that which was not theirs would be to break Her covenant. The land was bountiful, and there was plenty in it to provide for all Her people.

From time to time, horrors from beyond the world tried to sneak past Her vigilance and take plunder. She never wavered in Her watch; always She was there, and the people would marvel as She did battle in the sky or among the waves or astride the rolling plains, sometimes battling hosts of unquiet dead, or restless spirits of the elements, or other things too bizarre to name or even describe, striking with bow or spear, turning blows on a buckler carved from the first tree ever felled.


It had all been going so well.

They’d got in with nobody the wiser. With physical access, Jessen had been able to break into their network without breaking a sweat, and she’d made a few careful gaps in security that let them all move to the deeper levels of the complex, down to the laboratory area. Then she’d cracked that network and pulled the research and development data. It had taken Navik several anxious minutes to sort through it all and narrow it down to what they wanted – testing data and plans for the ten-kilo package that now rested in his pack. It should have had an explosion-resistant crate and full NBC hazard sealing, but so long as it didn’t go off, all that wouldn’t be an issue; so for now, the shock-proof case the device now rested in would have to do.

These people hadn’t been setting out to make a weapon, but that was hardly reassuring; once they’d seen the potential of this little thing, they’d turned it into a terrifyingly effective weapon indeed. And knowing what they had planned for it, it was all the more important that Navik’s team get the prototype out of their hands and the plans back to Central Command.


Garik was long-accustomed to rising before the Sun – as apprentice to the old shaman Temen, he needed to be ready to greet the new day if he was to practise his art. But this night saw him rising early even for him, shaken out of his cot by the keen-eyed spearman Relin, watching over the camp for the night as he so often did; and to Garik, it felt as though he’d gotten scarcely any sleep at all.

Of course, it had been difficult to find sleep in the first place, with anticipation and anxiety for his role in the day’s ritual warring in him. Perhaps what sleep he’d got hadn’t been very restful.

Well, it would have to suffice, one way or another. This was a very important day – the Turning Sun rite only came once a year, as winter began to give way to spring, and to be the junior celebrant in that rite was a once-in-a-lifetime happening in all but the leanest and grimmest times; any youth would only be chosen twice if there were no others suitable to choose from.


Dusty stone had given way to bare under Alron’s feet; his frantic footfalls no longer kicked up great choking clouds. On the other hand, he’d been running long enough to make every breath an urgent matter, his heart felt fit to burst, and his legs were on fire from strain. He had to stop.

Somewhat to his surprise, he found that he could. The preternatural terror had faded; how long ago, he couldn’t say – had it been just this moment, perhaps shaken loose by physical demands? Or had it been gone for minutes already, only the echoes of it spurring his flight?

The bear slowed to an unsteady walk for a few steps, then gave up and leaned against a support beam, panting hard. His waterskin was about half-full; half of what was left, he swallowed hurriedly, anxious to chase away the hoarse dryness in his throat. A few swallows later, and he didn’t exactly feel healthy, but at least it no longer felt like there was a rasp twisting in there with each breath.


Work had been, if satisfying, also quite wearying; when Matt’s phone rang well into the evening, not a common occurrence but hardly rare enough to signal something amiss, he wasn’t in a great rush to answer it. So long as he did so before it went to voicemail, no harm done, right?

When, just after the third ring, he saw the name on the display, he snatched the handset in such a rush that he almost sent it flying.

“Hello?” he called, still scrambling to bring it to his ear.


Most of the bar’s patrons were regulars, just here for a normal Friday night. But there was one of them who was out of place. Not unfamiliar – actually Will knew the zebra quite well – but this wasn’t someone he’d have expected to see here. And on moving closer, there was something troubling about the way he was sitting.

It wasn’t a sort of trouble that sent off “leave me alone” vibes, though, so Will made his way over.

“Hey, Rollie,” the marten greeted. “You’re looking pretty rough. What brings you here?”

“Hmm? Oh, hi, Will,” Roland said back, glancing over for a moment and then gesturing invitingly at the empty stool beside him. He looked back down into his half-empty glass, sighing. “You’d think two years together would be time enough to get to know someone.”

And there was a valid reason for the normally-sober Rollie to turn to hard liquor. “Still torn up about Tabbie, huh?”


In the first days, the Sun turned the light of his gaze upon the world; and he despaired, for it was bare and empty of beauty. And the Moon came upon him in the heavens, asking why he wept; but when he showed her the empty world that was his to warm, she did not share his despair. For though the world was empty, she told him, that meant only that it was ripe for whatever things they could create. They could make this world a thing of surpassing splendour, and it would be all the finer for their own craft upon it.

The Sun was amazed by the Moon’s wisdom and charmed by her beauty. If he could make one thing even half as fine and lovely, he declared, he could be satisfied with what he had wrought until the last days. And for his first offering, he sent to the world a spark of his essence, and there it prospered and the first fire was born, with a touch of the Sun’s heat and power but inspired by the Moon’s luminous beauty.


As he lay in the quiet and stillness of the sealed chamber, he experienced something new.

He was dreaming.


Coming back to consciousness was a struggle – like swimming through tar.

Before he was quite able to make sense of anything around him, Varon remembered the fire – racing through the village, surrounding it. He remembered digging his way into the quarry pit, hoping against hope that there’d be nothing the fire could burn to follow him. He remembered the dizziness, the screams fading…

But now, all was silent and still. Even the weight of his own limbs felt barely-there.


“Don’t do it, Kyle.”

The words bounced off the concrete walls, lingering in the air for a time. As they faded into silence, all was still for a moment.

“That… that thing just had me tortured for four days,” a chilly voice replied. “The first time around, she murdered a dozen people and was responsible for ruining who knows how many lives. And what did the courts do? Slapped her on the wrist, gave her housing on the public dime for a year, and then let her go. Now that she’s up to the same things as before and then some, all she has to do is hide behind a half-dozen people and she gets off scot free?”


The sound of Luke’s own footsteps sounded foreign to him, now – claws clicking on the linoleum despite his efforts to the contrary. It was a constant reminder of what he was now – and thus of what he’d lost. At least he could walk, now; it had been weeks before he could do so at all, and weeks more before his balance was steady. Reaching for the refrigerator, and seeing a hand clad in soft grey fur, was still jarring.

“Oh, hey.”

It was a familiar voice, and it wasn’t like there were more than a half-dozen people with access to this house, but there were elements to it now that he’d never heard before. Yet another reminder that he didn’t need… “Hey, Monica,” he sighed, grabbing the jug of filtered water.


Jeff turned over, trying to catch the soft breath of the fan on a little bit more of himself.

Damn this heat; he hadn’t been able to get a good night’s sleep for days. His little room with its one window didn’t have nearly enough air movement to keep comfortable at night. He was already sleeping on top of the covers; there wasn’t much more he could do.

At length, either some shift outside let the air cool down a bit, or fatigue finally won out. At long last, he drifted into fitful slumber.


The sound of a phone being very roughly slammed onto its cradle made Francis sit bolt upright. Jennie was not, as a rule, someone who got upset easily; that sort of outburst probably meant something big was going on. He started saving his work.

He’d just closed his laptop and was pushing it away from him when she burst into the room. “Francis! Lara says she saw you making out with Vernon!


Toby eased the door shut behind him, keeping the knob turned. Once it was closed, only then did he let up and allow the striker to slip home.

Nothing stirred within the apartment; nobody had responded to his key in the door, nor answered his soft greeting. That was understandable; it was, after all, getting pretty late. It would’ve been nice if John was still up, and it wouldn’t have been all that late for him to be, but it wasn’t all that surprising.

Somewhat more so was that he’d pulled out the sofabed in the living room and gone to sleep there. Surprising, and probably not a good sign; guests aside, they mostly used that bed if one of them wasn’t feeling well. That hadn’t been the case when Toby went to work, but a lot could change in ten hours.

The fact that he hadn’t called Toby at work suggested it wasn’t too dire, at least.


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