Morin de Molay awoke in bed and cursed the world with waking.
She rolled over, hands fumbling for her phone, silences the alarm. She lay there, comfortable and unthinking, drifting between the world that called to her and the world she did not want and knew that the borderlines were not so clear cut as that. She’d made a study of that at the Academy and now she was going to take advantage of it, risking sanity and soul.
Kingu forfend, but I do not want to do this. That was her first conscious thought, the words echoing in her mind as she put her hands over her eyes and groaned. Reluctantly, she forced herself to sit up, stretched, and looked at herself in the mirror across from her. It was spring in Greece and the weather was thawing into a nice balm, the island of Surcess proving to be as nice as she could have hoped, but the nights were chilly and that was what she was waking up to.
She stood up, studied herself more closely. She’d been running a lot lately, sprinting to exhaustion to prepare for this night, and it showed. She was trim, thighs tight and long – she slept in a light colored pair of shorts and a tank top, and they showed off her figure to good effect. They would’ve made for a good disguise but weren’t quite what she was looking for.
In the night ahead she would have to look like prey while also being able to move. She wanted to bring at least a knife or something to protect herself with and had talked it over with Fanchon. Three knives, she’d thought, all of them small – one tucked at the back of her waist, one hidden along her calves, and the last hidden along the sleeve of her shirt. All of them were thin, more warning than threat, but given the hell she was about to walk into she was willing to take what she could get.
Clothing was simple and tight – a pair of tight running pants in a deep green, a sports halter in a light brown that complimented her skin tone. A belt to hide the knife in, a couple of braces and climbing gloves to protect her hands and give her some protection. Fanchon had argued in favor of her having some means of protecting herself, even if it was something as slight as the bracers. “She’s walking into a literal nightmare of war,” Fanchon had said. “Give her something.”
“What would you recommend?” her mother had asked.
I never trained for this, Morin thought but did not say.
It was her own fault, Morin knew. She buckled the belt, hid the knives in her clothing and tried taking them out. She bound her hair into a tight ponytail, looked at herself in the mirror. She looked like a jogger, the sort of stupid Adama woman that would go running into dark areas alone at night. She practiced panicked expressions in the mirror.
Like her mother and father, she’d trained to be a vitzeeja – one of the diplomats and advisors among the Kinguim, the people who kept order and made connections and made things happen. She’d learned to remain calm, to notice small facial tics and linguistic cues, to make deals and bargains.
That last would help her if she was able to survive everything leading up to it.
“The Verenes are going to give us Surcess to manage,” her mother had said, sitting her down. “They’re keeping the Estate and they own the Isle, but we get to manage and protect it in their name. Solaina has her knights to protect her and she’s had time to cultivate them. We need something, too, something to show the Verenes that we are worthy of this.”
Her mother hadn’t known that she’d spent some amount of time at the Trypper’s Tower, learning. The initial lesson Pitch had given them – how to spot Kinguim souls leaving Kinguim bodies – had badly scared her, and she’d wanted to know more. She learned about the Ever-Changing Lands, and on one of her trips home had gotten the chance to speak to Lloyd about them.
“Oh, yes, I know them,” Lloyd sang, looking at her and smiling. “I move through them all the time. Quicker than your train.” It took her a moment to mean the Aswasi’atar.
“If you know your route.” Lloyd had paused and looked around. “It’s a world where things change. There is danger there.”
Pitch hadn’t been the one to show her how much danger. There was another woman that taught from the Trypper’s Tower, a half-made eroseeqhi that had spent too much time awake among the sleeping world where dreams were life. She’d explained all she could about that insane world, a place not meant for waking minds, and the natives that ruled that place.
Faeries. The Good Folk and the Gentry. The Adama remembered them as stories and cute little fables because the Kinguim had conquered them and bound them to the Ibdoman Protocols, the rules set in place by one of the greatest heroes her people had ever known – the lord of war who could not and would never be stopped, not even by death, his will enforcing the legacy he had made for his children.
More than her parents, more maybe even than Violet and Cort, she understood the underlying truths of the world – that there were three worlds that intersected with one another, and that the divinity in their blood gave them dominion over all three.
Not that there weren’t dangers. There were.
And she was getting ready to face something like the worst of them.
Besides, it wasn’t Violet or Cort that were being granted Surcess. It wasn’t Fanchon or Pierce or, Kingu forfend, Bianca or Gordon. Her family would inherit the land and keep it, and proving worthy of holding the land meant being able to defend it and those that were placed under her protection. Doing that meant using resources that the others did not have or knowledge only she possessed.
She checked the knives again. She didn’t want to admit that she was terrified.
Back at the Academy she had taken some risks and that had made her a Ronin. She’d made friends with Eliot Belmades, helping him sell his knowledge to those that wanted it, and she’d kept close with Bart O’Barr. Back there she would have spoken with both, getting their advice and support before moving forward, but they were still at the Academy and she had left to claim her home.
The thought of poor Bart made her smile; if there was ever proof that the O’Barrs were tzorammashi, it was the name that they had inflicted upon their poor soon.
“Don’t bother with plans,” Bart would have told her. “Plans trick you. They make you think that everything is under control when nothing is. If you can figure out what the another person has planned, you can destroy that person.”
He would know – social destruction was what the tzorammashi did, the opposite of what she was supposed to do as a vitzeeja. Both of them important, both of them vital, both of them working at something like cross purposes a little too often. She wondered what Bart and Elliot were doing; Bart spent a lot of time on his own, and Elliot had been hanging around the Halkett Bloc quite a bit. That was worrying.
Though not as personally worrying as what she was about to do.
She put on a pair of runners and laced them up tight; she wouldn’t have time to pay attention to them once she got where she was going. She stretched a bit, making sure that she was limber, made her way downstairs and pulled a container of pomegranate seeds out of the fridge, munched on them as she made her way outside.
Lloyd was waiting for her, his soft black hair and gentle eyes lounging on the deck. He had a glass of wine in his hands and was looking out over the grassy fields of the island, in the direction of where she’d been before going to sleep.
“Lloyd,” she said, a polite greeting.
“Morin, my dear friend,” he sang, turning to smile at her. “Everything has been prepared. Are you ready now?”
He nodded, opened his arms. She paused a moment, took a deep breath and a tentative foot forwards. He stepped forward, wrapping her in a tight embraced. She loved the feel of him, his scent and breath, the way he felt and tasted. She’d dreamed of marrying him when she was younger, bringing together the Verene and de Molay lines in a way that they had never been mingled. It was only later that she’d learned that Lloyd was both more and less than what he seemed.
He was singing a wordless song, his voice catching the air – like dust motes glowing, drawing lines of light between one another, his voice forming a stitch in the air and pulling it apart. There was another world beyond that stitch, a world of dreams that some called the Ever-changing Lands.
“The Ever-Changing Lands is where every sleeping mind goes,” the mad sleeper had taught her, speaking in one of her more lucid moments. “When you dream, your consciousness creates a body there. Most people will never know this, imagine that their sleeping minds conjure images and fictions, but the truth is that we bring those fictions with us.
“That world is not like ours. A strong enough thought becomes real there, and reality itself is a fluid things. The creatures native to that world are likewise changeable tied to the strange tides of that distant shore. It is not a shore that was meant for us to be awake in – sleeping, we accept the logic of the place, but we cannot while awake. Not for long. Not for long.”
The openings to such places were tied to emotional resonances, the mad sleeper had said. Lloyd could sing his way from one layer to the next, tying what he was feeling to where he wanted to go. He could not do what she intended and his presence would make things more difficult – he could open the door and take her home but the rest was up to her.
“Where is this?” Morin whispered. Lloyd shrugged, letting go, the smell of decay and rot washing over her, mire seeping into her socks and shoes.
“A place for nightmares,” Lloyd sang quietly, moving away from her. “A place for all dreams to cry.”
“That’s not reassuring.”
“Wasn’t meant to be.”
Lloyd looked at her with his far-too-serious eyes, then wings sprouted from his back and lifted him up and away, he vanishing from her sight – the only bit of comfort in the world he had brought her to, gone. Gone. She was alone, left to drift in a world of horror.
The clouds overhead were the color of roiling bruises and they drifted, lightning trying and failing to shatter them. The world below was no less a solace; ancient crumbling stone work and step pyramids decorated with the Meso-American stylings of long dead tribes – the Olmecs and Toltecs, the Inca and Maya, the Aztecs and the thankfully extinct Tlamacazqui that had behind them all.
Stone pathways mirrored long canals, sandstone made hard from age and caked with ancient blood. Philosophies and architecture developed without Europe and Asia proved the fallacies of those two continents and all their peoples, the echo of long-dead dreams given flesh without breath in this strange world.
Long grasses grew verdant and sharp along the cracks, endless fields of corn stretching out into infinity. There was no north in this world, no magnetism from which to cull direction, but Morin had learned that there were three constants in this place: the Shining Tower, the Twisted Tower, and Mountain. It was a struggle to see them so far in the distance, but even distance here was a question of choice and they were as far or close as she needed them to be.
Deep breaths. The Twisted Tower was closest to her, a mockery of barbs and stretched scarred flesh, a horror that made her heart race and her skin crawl. The Shining Tower was a distant place, the solace it offered too far for her to reach. And Mountain – the sum total of every mountain, everywhere, as all mountains were truly a single Mountain – looming up to pierce the sky. She closed her eyes, taking a moment to memorize the distance of all three, and then she slithered into the underbrush and started stalking, doing her best to look like another predator.
The Dearg Capini were natives to this world, a world in which she would only ever be a tourist. Their kind was drawn to blood, to pain, to suffering, and to hate; the echoes of the Tlamacazqui Empire provided all of those qualities in abundance. They would feed deeply here, practicing atrocity as art, mingling their violence with the old kings of the Americas.
Ancient gods that had nothing to do with her own held dominion here: the rain and sun and storm, making it all worse, turning screams into prayers. We made you to pray to us, those gods whispered, seductive words that came from falling water and beams of light and from everywhere at once. We gave you voices to pray, but your screams will do.
Rain was a cruelty here, not a mourning but an assault. Shards of water struck the earth to wound and hurt, digging rivets in soil and sometimes in flesh. Old dreams bowed and worshiped, letting the rain punish them for nothing at all, the sadistic mind of rain enjoying the wailing cries of children abandoned. Morin kept to the grasses, biting her tongue to keep from crying out, pulling sharp blades of grass over her body to keep the pounding at bay. She escaped with only light bruising.
Sunlight was a challenge, a battle cry that seeped into flesh and set blood to rust. This was the nature of suffering out in the world, that every breath would seep into cells and burn them to death, every single living thing slowly burning to ash over a lifetime. Yet that was not enough for Sun, who would stand and watch, mocking with heat and agony, daring any to come and fight. Those brave enough were celebrated, adored, and still left as husks when the sun had its way. Morin kept her eyes closed and grit her teeth and kept moving, feeling the searing heat sear her back.
Yet that was not the worst.
Worst was Storm, terrible Storm, catching sunlight and making lightning, catching wind and making thunder, catching rain and making hail. The land suffered and every living thing upon the land suffered more, cut to shreds by falling ice, sapped of courage by dooming thunder, turned to shadows by lightning. There was no respite from Storm, no place to hide, not even the illusion of safety. Storm saw her and stripped her of everything, laughed at her weakness, mocked and exposed her and then left her to suffer, caring as much about her as she might have cared about an insect.
Tlaloc. Huitzilopochtli. Tezcatlipoca.
It hurt her pride to know that the only reason that she survived the dream of their attention was because none of them cared about her.
Despite her pains, she praised her own God, dead and dreaming, grateful that Xipe Totec had passed over her without notice. She took a moment to hold herself, sweating and teeth chattering as she curled in on herself, steadied herself, and unfurled. Bruised, she continued to crawl. Soaked, she continued to breathe. Terrified, she continued to pray.
Through the fractured gold-encrusted stone she crawled, keeping to the underbrush, every movement eliciting a new flavor of pain. She tasted blood in her mouth, her sopping limbs trembling as she moved around the pathways of crumbled city of Tenochtitlan , hearing the strange inflections of a tongue that had never known Latin or Greek or Persian, a language that had been old before those empires had been born.
From out of the swamps and corpse-rich muck arose those old pyramids and the masters of them – dreams and memories of the Tlamacazqui. Morin knew of them, studied them back at the Academy, one of the myths that had preferred extinction to surrender. Their empire had terrorized the Americas but they had fallen to diseases both physical and spiritual, crippled by Kinguim plotting and Adama greed until they were all of them destroyed.
Echoes of them lingered on, though, the blood rites and vicious sacrifices that they had committed rippling down centuries after their destruction. They stood wrapped in webs of flesh, looking human but very much something else – Morin knew it from their eyes, their tongues, the way they moved and the way they held themselves.
Wrong, she thought, in so very many ways wrong.
Modern powers came to assail these dreams, some coming to steal secrets and others coming for love of bloodshed. Skin-shifters walked here, another myth never conquered, as likely to mistake the Tlamacazqui as the Kinguim as the villains in their war. Adama magicians came here seeking lost wisdom, hoping to cull from dreams what the Kinguim had destroyed in reality. And, lastly, the group she was looking for, the Dearg Capini, the red caps, the orcs and horrors and brutal screams of the dying brought to terrible grey-skinned life.
She had made a study of them at the Academy, though now that she was here and she could see them in the distance she wished she had studied them and the natives of the Ever-changing Lands in more detail. She knew that they were not human and never had been, that their minds were strange and alien, that they had a capacity for violence that no human could ever understand or emulate. She knew they feared iron – not that she had any – and little else.
Most of all, though, she knew that the Dearg Capini, like all natives of this place, were bound to hold to bargains freely made. Lloyd would have been helpful to that end, given his talent for making people trust him and listen to him, but he had told her that his capacity was limited by infamy.
“They know me too well,” Lloyd had sang to her, back when she had invented this plan, back when she had been warm and safe and not so bruised. “They remember all the tales. They do not forget.”
She had frowned, wondering what it was that he thought that they had forgotten, but had pushed the thought out of her mind; she would have the chance to ask him later if she survived the madness she had chosen to engage in. As it stood, Lloyd was her escape route, waiting somewhere in the storm above for her to call out.
It was tempting to call out now, bruised and hurt as she was, but she grit her teeth and carried on.
She reached the pyramid and slipped into the tunnels, haunting the lower levels of haunted canals, feeling the weak grasp of the dreaming dead. She pushed past them, keeping her eye above the mingled water and blood, the terrible warmth that wanted to push into her, invade her, infect her. She kept her lips closed, moving slowly, leaving as little ripple behind her as possible.
The canals down here were dark, shadows cast from tallow wax candles set inside hallow skulls that lines the hallways. Hundreds of them, thousands, flickering corpse-light painting the world in a pyrite glow. There was a slight current and she stopped moving, letting it carry her – one body among many, biting her tongue, fists clenched, the clammy texture of dead flesh and tainted fluids all around her.
It was down in the deep places that she found people that she had not expected to find – an old enemy of the Verenes, a representative of the Revell line. The Revells were ancient, ancient, and ancient again, tied to a feud that went back thousands of years and now was thought complete. The Verenes had lost and the Revells were among those that liked to string their wounded rivals along, keeping them in pain, reminding them of their loss and all that was left to them.
River Revell was one of their younger members, as old as Morin and just as skilled. They’d met at the Academy a handful of times, she doing her best to avoid him and he doing his best to reduce her. She’d forged a few friendships, building up a bloc to help keep her safe from him, and he’d eventually gotten bored with her and left her alone.
He was handsome, the same way all the Revell line was – high cheekbones and piercing light eyes, pale skin and pale hair. He carried a two-handed sword at his back and dressed in shades more than colors, looking oddly formal in the surrounding anachronistic memory of a long-dead cult.
She wondered if he was really here, like she was, or if he were dreaming.
“We did you a favor,” River said, slipping one hand into a pocket and offering a grin as crooked as his soul. His other hand slid through his hair, the sensual effect ruined by the mire she was floating in and wasted on the creatures he was speaking to.
“You weaken your own enemies by hiring others to fight your battles for you,” the Tlamacazqui said. It had wrapped itself in a shell that looked like a human male, but she knew how to look for the seams in its flesh. “Those others attacking our enemies is not something you planned and is not anything you did for us.”
“Nonetheless,” River continued. There was a table between them and River pushed down on it with one hand, leaning down and looking up at the creature. “Our actions have benefitted you. Perhaps you would side with us.”
“Your people tried to destroy us,” the Tlamacazqui hissed.
“They didn’t try anything,” River said, his smile growing more crooked, and Morin noted how deft he was in separating his line from the rest of his people. “Look at your lost glory. They destroyed you. Why not allow us to make things right?”
“We do not need you,” the Tlamacazqui answered, licking its lips. “And if you think your dreaming form keeps you safe from us, know that we have followed you to waking. Know that we are powers that you know nothing of.”
“And yet you were defeated.”
“Not defeated,” the Tlamacazqui grinned. “The humans we ruled needed to be punished for their indiscretions. They have been, for centuries now, but their sentence is up.”
“Well.” River pushed off the table, straightened his clothing. “I suppose I should wake up, then. We’ll talk again, I’m sure.”
And, between one breath and the next, he was gone.
So he was dreaming, then, Morin thought to herself, frowning. That meant that River could keep his mind about him while entering the dream state and could exert control. That was troubling, an ability that she had never mastered that would allow him to observe and record and speak with people while they thought they were safe in slumber.
Morin shivered; she, more than most, knew there was no safety.
“We will take advantage of this opportunity,” the Tlamacazqui said. Careful, Morin strained to see without drawing attention to herself, knowing what they could do to her if they did. Three more of his people stood close by, the three of them also wearing their fleshy disguises. Behind them were humans dressed in the traditional garb of the old Meso-American tribes, jaguars and eagles resplendent. “Call the storm. Prepare to move north.”
Visceral current carried Morin away and she let it – the Tlamacazqui drew what she was looking for with the violence of themselves, but they were not what she was looking for. She could wake up now, she knew, report what she had seen and her mother would consider it a success, but she was not sure how long ti would take her to work up the nerve to do this again. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath to calm herself and tried not to choke on the smell of rot all around here.
The sooner this is done, the better.
Nearby splashing alerted her that she was nearing the place she needed to be, all the while wishing she were anywhere else. The splashing proved to bodies and parts of bodies, thrown into the water to float along with her, carried by the stream. Through the sun and rain, she could see silhouettes twisted by violence and flashing blades hammered aside by hammers and cudgels.
She knew that the Tlamacazqui Empire had not been so violent a place before the Spanish came, but the Spanish had been horrified and their dreams had twisted the landscape here, made all memory of this civilization into nightmare. Blood littered the stonework paths around here as people stabbed one another, fought one another, killed one another.
Architecture from other times bled into the world around her, turning temples into warehouses and shanty towns. The American War on Drugs had taken a scar and cut into it, cut deep, resurrected the fictional violence the Spanish had reported on and made real, and all that pain and terror was multiplied and made worse in a place that could do nothing more than change.
The Tlamacazqui encouraged all the pain, all the misery. They used it to power their rites and rituals, and even Pitch had admitted that the Tlamacazqui had known magics that the Kinguim had not. The Nahual were out there, too, the unseen killers that fed off the dying, and the word, who wore the living like clothing. From somewhere distant howls came, a storm made of fur, rain made of teeth, paws made of lightning.
Such was a gathering of the Tlamacazqui, but they were interlopers here – creatures driven from the physical world to the Ever-Changing Lands. To stay in such a place over long was to risk madness, and the Tlamacazqui and their ilk had taken refuge here for centuries.
Perhaps that was why so much of their solace was a killing ground.
Limbs were hacked away, victims left screaming and bleeding, kicked and mangled further. Hearts were ripped from chests and held aloft, viscous and vicious trophies that broiled in the sun. Skulls and bones alike were smashed to dust, softer organs left to ooze out of shape, trod on and abandoned. The dreamers called to this place would awake, screaming and sweating from sleep, but they would forget this place, forget what had happened here.
Some bodies, though, were created in whole or in part. They were not real but they felt real, smelled real, tasted real. Morin could taste them in the back of her throat, feel them as they slithered past in the water around her. These echoes were called here by the natives who loved violence above all things, the children of war and atrocity – the Dearg Capini.
They were there. She could see them, brutal as they were. Black of nail and tooth, grey of skin, hair naturally white but eager for the touch of blood. When the crimson ichor touched their scalps it seethed through their hair, empowering them, making them mightier, stolen blood burned away into cruel magic that gave them the advantage of strength, speed, and terror. She watched as they cracked their jaws in serpentine fashion, devouring the living and the dead and the dying, cracking down on crackling bone.
Morin closed her eyes, opened them again.
The Dearg Capini were why she was here.
Quick and quiet, she slipped out of the water on her belly, dragging herself through corpses dismembered and corpses whole. Slowly, slowly, she checked her shoes to make sure they were tight, willed them dry and felt the liquid that had seeped into her skin vanish. She was still covered in blood and guts but it was dry and would not slow her down. Careful, she stood and stretched, looking at a slaughter of Dearg Capini as they tore their victim apart.
“Hello,” she said, eschewing politeness. They noticed her, turned to her, and she saw what they did – a girl of average height, attractive and helpless, saw horrid smiles widen as lips were licked and eyes shone.
They came for her and she ran.
Morin ran until her limbs were heavy and sore, until each breath pounded into her stomach like lead, until her eyes were watering. She ran through trenches and small ravines, over temple steps and sacrifices, always making sure to keep just out of reach as the Dearg Capini followed her. It was hard to maintain that distance, close enough to keep their interest and far enough to keep breathing, but she managed.
She knew she had to get them far enough away from the Tlamacazqui that those old powers would not notice Lloyd, but she was only human and the creatures coming for her were not – they were faster than her, drawing power from the gore they doused themselves in, relentless as murder and just as violent. Maws open and speckled with foaming drool, they clawed after her on all fours, tracking her as she moved through the thousand thousand wars of human history, shifting from one era and one killing field to the next.
A claw pulled across her calf as she ran, digging a rivet into her flesh and sending her tumbling. She screamed and fell, rolling, eyes wild as she searched the skies. Around her, the Dearg Capini circled and licked their lips, the one that had touched her tasting her blood on its finger, all that in her periphery as she saw Lloyd fall to her, reaching out his hand.
Screaming in pain and fear, she pushed off the ground and reached for him, the Dearg Capini seeing what she was about too late to stop her. Her hands touched Lloyd’s and his song enveloped her, another song pushing the hungry faeries away from her and keeping them at bay as they howled anger and frustration, spitting curses and blood oaths.
Lloyd held her, brought her into his arms, the two of them dancing in midair.
“Shall we leave this place?” Lloyd asked.
“Please,” Morin answered, her voice ragged, her breathing a ruin.
“Steady yourself, dear Morin,” Lloyd sang. “Close your eyes and breath.”
She did as he instructed, letting the tune resonating out of him envelop her, soothing the nightmare around her, calming her breath and heartbeat. She felt her feet touch solid ground and opened her eyes, found the two of them locked in an embrace on the western edge of Surcess.
His ability to open doors between worlds was one she envied – she’d learned to do something similar, but her methods required much more than just a voice. Her tools stood ready, right where she’d left them, and she remembered the instructors at the Trypper’s Tower going over the process, drilling the secrets into her soul.
Wind cut through the tall emerald grasses on this part of the island, graying clouds promising a storm as white capped waves slammed into the island. She bowed her head, breathing deep, cutting the symbols into the earth, a circle surrounded, gems and candles and incense laid within the heart of certain signs, chanting words in Kenelm, the ancient language of her people.
“Morin chaguya satzhud dana
The air rippled in front of her, a line cut in the fabric of reality, curtains parting where she was and where she had been. She could see it, the place she had escaped from, smell the blood and death of that place, hear the grumblings of the Dearg Capini trickle through, their surprise. A black-nailed finger parted that curtain, a terrible maw smiling as the creature that had cut her stared down at her.
Step one, she thought, moving back from the door she had created, stepping into another circle, lighting incense and candles and speaking again, dancing in place.
“Morin noshquka datz vanala,” Morin called, laughing, staring into the eyes of the monster as it stepped from its world and into hers. The other Dearg Capini followed. The words the dripped from her lips were so much noise, but the power they held would keep her safe. “Chigesh chaguym ve chigesh mila zukalym. Morin ngekaya. Morin sowamalya tajni. Tagday va tagday. Kingu somedum.”
Their leader caught sight of Lloyd, but Lloyd was already flying away, already distant – the only way this would work was if they respected her. With that in mind she stood still and crossed her arms, let them circle her and try to touch her. Their every effort stopped at the circle’s edge, they unable to cross. She smiled sweetly, waited for the last of their number to leave their world and enter hers.
Moments after that happened the first circle died – the candles she’d used for it were only supposed to last a few minutes, and that had been enough.
They were trapped here with her, and she with them.
Still, they tested her circle with claws and tongues. They looked for weakness and found none. She managed not to tremble, managed to keep her gaze up and stance defiant. She knew that would only make them hungrier.
“Clever censtrecten, thes,” hissed the leader. He stood tall before her, meeting her gaze as the others continued to circle. There were many of them and she had to stop herself from counting them, from guessing their number.
“You speak for all?” asked Morin.
“Ef ye leke.” The Dearg Capini’s tongue pushed against his teeth, spilled over with spittle. “Ye breght es here, gerle. Whe?”
“I want to strike a deal with you,” Morin said. The creature made a horrible sound that Moren realized was laughter, a mockery that was picked up by the others as they kept circling.
Still, she knew something of faeries. She knew that they fed off bargains, that they defined themselves and grew more powerful through the pacts they made with one another and with other creatures. Some of them had the power to bind others to a deal and enforce power through it and some did not, but an oath freely made was a powerful thing.
The Kinguim had developed their own means to keep all parties involved honest.
“Eh, e del es whet yer leken’ fer!” The Dearg Capini spread its arms, smiling and tilting its head, a sign of harmlessness from a creature that radiated the intent to harm. Morin tried not to look down, the anticipation the creature felt proving it was male. “Ef cerse. Whe net drep yer lettle treck end we cen telk fece te fece.”
“No.” Morin did not shake her head, but she did force herself to smile. “I’m good where I am.”
“Then meybe we’ll teke er leve ef ye,” the Dearg Capini shrugged, looking away and then back at her. “Whet sey ye te thet?”
“Where will you go?” Morin asked, letting a note of mockery enter her voice. “You’re on an island. I imagine you don’t know my world, but this place will kill you. You could wander off but this place will pick at you, bit by bit, until there’s nothing left of you.”
“Deth desn’t scere es,” the Dearg Capini said, laughing. “Deth heppens.”
“Sure, sure,” Morin answered, equally dismissive. “Death happens. You cause it, and you would know. But dissolution? Boredom? There’s nothing for you to kill here, not yet.”
“Yet, ye sey,” the Dearg Capini said, licking his lips. “Explen yet.”
“I have enemies and I plan on making this place my home,” Morin explained. “My family and I and my allies will need protection. Anyone who isn’t a guest you’d be free to devour, to hunt and kill as you see fit.”
“End ye heve the pewer te keep es helthy?”
“I do have that power.”
The Dearg Capini smiled, staring at her, studying her for a long time. Morin held her breath, held her head high. Time passed, spent among ruffled grasses and mourning winds.
“Hew ere ye celled?” the Dearg Capini asked.
“A name for a name?” Morin asked, and the creature nodded. “Morin.”
“Meren es ye,” the Dearg Capini said, smacking his lips, tasting the sound of her name. She knew better than to give the creature her full name. “Ye cen cell me Telen.”
“Talon.” Morin was careful to enunciate the word just right, exactly how Talon had said it, and she watched as he writhed in pleasure to hear his name spoken. “Right.”
“Ye, yer femele, end yer elles,” Talon said, nodding. “Enene else?”
“Any of our guests.”
“Ye keep es eleve end we kell yer enemes.” Talon grinned. “E thenk thet cen werk.”
She could feel him accept the pact, the ugly violent lines that traced up along her thigh. So long as the bargain held those lines would be there, marking her forever, a mirror image of those lines found on Talon’s thigh. He smiled, accepting the bond, and then she did him one better.
Faeries were older than the Kinguim, older maybe than the Adama, as old as the world. One of the ancient Kinguim had seen their love of deals and crafted something like it, a powerful magic whose means were never written down, something that the Kinguim could use to enforce the bargains they made with one another. She called on that power now, one tied to the ebb and flow of all life everywhere, one that seeped into every cell, every atom of herself and Talon both.
His eyes widened as he realized what she had done and she smiled, kicking the ritual to an end, stepping up to the Dearg Capini. He towered over her but they were bondmates now, their souls tied together, and she no longer feared him or his horde.
Still, he smiled at her.
“Prette lettle theng,” Talon grinned. “Ye knew hew thes ends. Ceme geve es e teste.”
She held out her hand, held it steady. He knelt down in front of her, opened his mouth, black teeth flashing. She kept her eyes open as he leaned in.
It ended quickly, and their bargain was complete.