Saving Ourselves: Ch. 4: Harvest


Loren Howard

With the carts and horses left near the edge of the woods, all of them were forced to slow down in the forested terrain. Sound rarely startled creatures out in the smog, but the same couldn’t be said of motion. The trees were neither tall nor thick and not effective at hiding runners after the guarded crystal.

Thick curls of purple-black smoke wisped away from the gleaming edges of her barrier, and she could make out the outlines of Noyo’s warded sphere to the left easily. To see Dira on her right required her to focus. For now, she needed her attention on the path ahead. Some ferns persisted growing through the darkness, but nothing she had to worry about getting caught on. No, her concern was for any beast of the smoke she encountered. It would need to be defeated promptly before alerting any others. Rolling her steps from heel to toe over formerly cleared paths, Loren scanned through the dense darkness for their distorted figures.

The empty tank on her back remained steady through every fallen branch and careful step. The Union designed it to be compact enough not to be jostled when nearly anyone carried it. Had it been full, they’d have been saved the time and the detour… But griping to herself about it wouldn’t make either of those attainable. Keeping pace with the outline of Noyo’s barrier, Loren pushed on to the crystal site Dira reported ahead. Not too deep in the forest—or so he claimed. She’d yet to even sense it.

Instead, a dampening feeling rolled in from her left, recognized shortly as Noyo’s cloaking spell, and tipped Loren off to a creature’s approach. These beasts weren’t entirely consistent beyond their unsettling appearances, with discolored skin that glimmered unnaturally if any light managed to shine on them. She couldn’t see it fully between the trees and smoke, but a flat clawed foot did appear through swirls of darkness. The equivalent of its knee must have been eye level for her. Angling her shield upward, Loren pulled her sword closer to the edge and advanced. This creature would have incredible reach but being a smaller target would give her mobility.

A low hiss followed, and another foot slammed down on her shield. Before claws could curl around the edge and fling either her or the shield away, Loren swept her shortsword in an inward arc towards its limb. It was impossible to tell how deeply she cut it when it yanked that foot back, yet the surreal groan and wet slop of its blood gave enough away. Two bolts of lightning from above the beast made it drop and lay still in the heavy smog.

Had to be Dira.

“Look at us go,” he confirmed his involvement, not that it was necessary. He might be able to cast two spells at once with four arms but Noyo had no such ability.

Mages could coordinate easier with their practiced sensitivity to magic, or so the Union said, and Loren was glad that worked here. It may very well be the only way Noyo and Dira would cooperate smoothly.

Turning around a left corner through a narrow clearing in the forest, the faint thrum of the crystal that Dira mentioned finally reached Loren. He must have been incredibly attuned to such things, to have felt it only by passing near the woods before. Its soft tone didn’t prepare her how it resonated in her chest as if the vibration displaced everything else. To the crystal, her torso was a cavern waiting only to hold its echo. The feeling was jarring, and no amount of description would do it justice. Loren took a steady breath and another step even so. Being nothing but a sound, it still weighed on the air and seemed to resist her proceeding down the path.

“I hear it up ahead,” she shared in a loud whisper. The crystal’s guardians weren’t often reactive enough to hear speech, but there no sense in risking it.

“Good,” Noyo said in the smoke. “Trust your senses.”

Dira was oddly silent.

“Dira?”

Another crackle of lightning broke through the smog, but it was dim. He was cloaking his own fight, then… Loren had only taken two steps in his direction when she Noyo stopped her.

“He’ll handle it.”

Of course they could foresee her initial thoughts to go and help. And Noyo was right to stop Loren. He was a runner himself and plenty capable of fighting alone. An odd trait, since all runners she ever knew were on teams. Noyo’s theory that he wasn’t one at all seemed more plausible than ever. It still meant he didn’t need her to rescue him.

She would wait regardless. Loren scanned the smoke for the smaller outline of his barrier, waiting for his cloaking spell to drop and show he was alright. They only lasted for so long. That time had to be even shorter with his magic divided. It was a tense wait that let her imagination create scenarios for what might be happening where he was. So she smiled behind her mask when that barrier did return, faint but glittering in the dense, dark fog.

“What’s the hold up?”

“Oh, I’m waiting on a teammate.” Loren teased, glancing to Noyo moving ahead of them. They did prefer to scout ahead and report back if needed. Noyo made thinking ahead look effortless.

“Heh.” Dira started walking, his barrier moving ahead and arching in toward the crystal and their meeting point. She kept pace with him, just in case. “Aren’t you sweet?”

They arrived at the clearing holding the crystal together. It loomed over Noyo and Dira both, and here, the thrumming had all but vanished. She did wonder why the crystals themselves, buried in the earth and standing taller than a shed, were the source of repellant energy while not warding off smoke effectively themselves. It was thinner, that much she had to admit, but shouldn’t it have been pushed back to some extent? Why did filtering it through sigils and barrier generators make it so much more powerful? All answers her brother would know, if she could asked him. Loren got the feeling the Union would not be willing to explain it to a non-mage on the grounds of curiosity. Especially not since they apparently had factions within that were kidnapping runners that strayed from their team.

“Loren,” Noyo ordered, hands outstretched for the tank on her back.

“Yes,” she answered and slipped her shoulders from the straps. She’d only just passed it to Noyo when Dira took a few steps back towards the smoke and the woods. His tail flicked back and forth, swirling the fog in its wake.

“I’ll keep watch for—”

“You stay.”

True to form, Noyo didn’t wait for an answer. They twisted the valve on the tank that would automatically draw energy from the crystal into the tank.

“Guess I’m staying, then.” Dira glanced from Loren to the woods beyond, perhaps considering going out anyway. When he turned back to her with a nod, she was honestly relieved. He would be hard to find in the heavy smoke with his reduced barrier. Noyo might be comfortable leaving him to fend for himself but Loren wasn’t. Better that he stayed with them as long as they were in the wall of smog that had descended on Brook Mills and prompted the evacuation to other city-states in the first place.

Despite being magical, the tank was designed not to call on magical spells to function—in case the worst came to pass and the mage on a team of runners didn’t survive a run for supplies. As threads of light slowly flowed from the crystal and illuminated the meter on the tank to show its progress, Dira looked over his shoulder again.

“We’re safer together.”

“Hm?” He tensed when she spoke, his lower set of arms crossed tight. “Ah, right you are. Only habit, I guess.”

“Is there trouble?” Noyo stood by the crystal’s base, cast in its fading purple light. It looked more lilac as it was drained into the tank by their feet. For Loren, it made them look ominous with that critical gaze and waning glow. There was a distinct difference between Noyo’s disappointment and their distrust, and now Loren unfortunately knew it by appearance.

“None at all.” Dira forced that out and didn’t seem to notice their skepticism in the slightest. He looked quite preoccupied for someone standing still. His skin lost its color as they waited and he let out a shuddering breath through his nose, his mouth set in a thin line. The cloudy blue-grey tone of skin drained from his face to a pale grey. His freckles stood out unnervingly and as the tank reached three-quarters full, he wavered on his feet.

“Dira?” Loren walked over to stand in front of him, holding a bracing hand up for him to hold onto. He staggered forward instead, forcing her to clumsily catch him more than anything. “Noyo! I can’t—”

“’M fine,” he breathed, his head falling forward while she struggled to support him. He was too tall for this and with his tail and second set of arms too, Loren couldn’t quite figure out how best to keep him from falling over.

“Almost there,” Noyo promised, their hand resting on the valve. There was no point in sacrificing the crystal energy for Dira. Harvesting it would have to continue again later, and it would lead to this happening all over again. Whatever this even was. No mage was so attuned to crystals that they matched its state of being. He wasn’t dying, that was all she could tell. Although he was weakened and barely able to stand on his feet, his heart only beat faster.

“Out,” Dira muttered, “run, Stephen.”

Her brother’s name was not rare, exactly, but Loren lost her chance to ask what he meant when Dira slipped from her grip and collapsed the rest of the way to the forest floor as the tank finished storing the crystalline energy.


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Saving Ourselves: Ch. 3: Pursuit


Mari

All the old streets leading into the capital held up better than she guessed they would. Back when the first wave of smog rolled out of Garres City, people scrambling to outrun it, Mari figured they were done for. Then the Union broke out all kinds of new devices in a blink, and people held on. They farmed with small magic sunlight lamps. Worked around the beasts hiding out in the smoke. Everyone moved on.

No one found a way to maintain the roads like they used to, though. So the brick and stone had moss growing in places, and sometimes they were chipped, but a carriage could usually go over them. New paths cropped up over the years, wearing away barely living grass and leaving dirt roads behind. You could take either if you had to keep to pathways.

Mari liked it more her way. Standing on a wide branch in some stubborn, leafless tree let her see farther out without being seen herself. Watching and learning was a good chunk of her work as a Union scout. The enchanted map back at the Kagtan base was always updating with information from every scout in the field, and it really showed in your recon area if you didn’t measure up. The goggles in recon masks could filter out some of the smog, but that only helped if Mari traveled away from the spots where everyone already looked.

Anywhere far from people had more creatures—a few wandered around below her tree as she scoped out the hilly terrain near the Genoa Falls city-state—but Mari would take them over people any day. Beasts, she got. They attacked people on sight and didn’t give up easy. Simple. She knew where she stood and what the stakes were. But people? Figuring out what they had in mind was beyond her most of the time. With some people, that was a blessing as far as she cared.

Just like that, the sigil burned into the leather of her shoulder holster pulsed instead of its steady purple glow. Both in the way it lit up and how it thrummed against her chest like a frantic bird. Couldn’t miss a message from the Union if she tried. Pressing three fingers to the emblem, Mari took a seat on the branch and answered like she’d been taught. “Mari, Genoa.”

“Congratulations, you’re on a new assignment.” The butter upon bacon sort, mages in the Union didn’t have to introduce themselves to most people. Anyway, the less any random scout knew, the better. “The Mills-Falls carriages are off course, headed right for a shroud. Their assigned harvesters are gone. Investigate and report.”

Mari shook her head at the thin, waving branches. Gone. That didn’t give her much of an idea of what she was walking into. “They dead?”

“Focus.” It wasn’t a request. Scouting would have to wait, and she’d go into the latest task as blind as a dwarven bird.

Did answer her question about going to look for them, though. They were on their own if they were alive at all. Anyone working with the Union was used to it, especially after these four years waiting for the Union to clear the smoke. Each New Year Festival passed quietly and the people out doing the work mattered less and less each time. Hard to tell if they were getting close or getting desperate.

Not that it was Mari’s job to find out which was which.

“Where’re they?” She had her map in a hidden pocket, but she didn’t want to pull it out when she knew whoever this was had to be staring right at it in Kagtan. Maybe if she was lucky, this conversation would drain her two-way sigil and give her some peace. It’s not like she could use it to call for help, obviously. She was on her own as much as the others.

“Towards the valley city-state, Brook Mills.”

“That’s in the thick of the shroud now. Why go there?”

All artisans and farmers lived out there, typically trading with Genoa. That meant some must’ve moved there before it got too bad. But who would be mad enough to go into a shroud? As far away as Mari was, she could still make out the denser, darker purple-black gloom over their city-state. Mountains to the north of Brook Mills only made it harder for smoke to spread out and spare anyone caught up in it. Even with a horse-drawn carriage, there wasn’t enough crystal energy to make a round trip.

“You’re the scout. Investigate and report.”

The pulsing light dimmed again to a flat glow. End of conversation, then. Mari tightened her bun and started her climb down from the tree.


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Saving Ourselves: Ch. 2: Journey


Loren Howard

Noyo held the reins and a steady scowl as the horse clopped along behind Dira’s carriage up ahead, guiding them to the crystal site for them to harvest for energy and bring home. At least they weren’t returning empty-handed that way and Loren could be less ashamed of her fumble. Once in a while, a piece of whatever Dira was whistling reached them but not enough to recognize. He was calm for someone obviously being watched after just escaping Union capture. Until they reached their destination, Loren was under strict orders to watch him closely and tell Noyo if she found anything suspicious or even curious. According to them, there was nothing too small to notice.

Loren would never tell them this, but no one who made it out the collapse of Garres City was ever quite right again. All the survivors had this intangible sort of haze that separated them from others. As if the world they lived in now was no more real to them than children’s tales and might dissolve at any moment. Some were jumpy and others resigned themselves. Noyo was prepared. They did not fear the world falling apart, only not being ready for it. They focused on the path ahead of the horse, waiting for Loren or maybe fate to reveal some key flaw in Dira that exposed him as an awful omen.

And maybe he was. But Loren didn’t believe that was so simple. This disaster brought out the best or worst in people, and how that fell depended on how they were received. If you treated someone like a threat, it only made sense that they would feel threatened. The right way forward was somewhere between Noyo and Loren, as her fathers told her countless times. Why else would the two of them do so well as a team? At least when Loren listened and didn’t get captured, standing around uselessly while a stranger pulled more weight than she did.

Frowning, she offered up her first discovery. “His aura’s too small.”

If Dira was a runner too, his protective aura against the smog should have been about half the size of their own. But she could barely make it out in the smoke that only thickened as they went towards the harvest site and beyond that, Brook Mills. With how dense the fog was, maybe it was better that they ended up doubling back after all. That felt less like an excuse for her messing up than it probably should have.

“It is,” Noyo agreed. “He must have just the mask.”

“You think he doesn’t have sigil tattoos?” She turned, her voice rising in disbelief. Leaving the barriers surrounding a city-state with only a mask and no back-up if anything happened wasn’t brave, it was crazy.

“Reckless,” they agreed again, resting back as the horses climbed a hill turning out of the woods and into the open plains characteristic of the area surrounding their home. Loren looked back ahead at the translucent glowing sphere surrounding where Dira sat on his own carriage. She squinted and tried to come up with any reason at all not to have both defenses in place, thinking of just one.

“Maybe he thought it was too painful.”

“And the leader of his city-state agreed to that?” Noyo shook their head once and with conviction. With the old government sealed on the safe side of the barrier, the people here made do with whoever took charge in all the chaos four years ago. For Brook Mills, that was Fekhi, and she’d never agree to a runner going on an energy harvest without sigils inked into their skin and charged up. It was unlikely anyone else would feel differently. Even the most annoyingly unfazed person had a use, after all. “He can’t just walk up and get charged tattoos from the Union when he’s an unsanctioned mage, but he can send someone else to restore the mask sigils.”

Loren twisted her expression one more time, confused from start to finish. What did the Union care if someone practiced magic outside of their ranks? His casting wasn’t orderly, but it was effective. Was it really worth denying someone warding sigils or else… What could they do? Looking back at the attempted kidnapping, or maybe worse if they didn’t get away, how far were the people in the Union willing to go? Stephen was a mage, but he’d never mentioned what happened if he left the Union. And Loren never asked.

“Why do that? Wouldn’t it be safer not to go out?”

“Excellent questions,” Noyo praised her honestly, offering a small one-sided smirk. A short-lived one as the topic went back to the stranger up ahead. “If he’s not an official runner for any city-state, there’s no reason to risk travel unless it’s personal, or he’s a liar.”


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Holmes Academy WIP story preview

“Your unkind words will not dishearten me today.” He drew himself up and held a finger up with purpose, too triumphant to be discouraged from whatever speech he settled on. “I’ve paid you a visit because it’s the last weekend before summer, so Min and I will depart for our homes soon. As the top three students of this esteemed academy founded in the name of the prestigious Sherlock Holmes—”

“I will jump out this window,” she promised, nodding to the arched window frame between them. Undaunted, Everitt beamed and brought his ramble to a surprisingly early close.

“It’s only proper that we have a farewell party.”

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Saving Ourselves: Ch. 1: Together


Loren Howard

25th of Rebirth in Year 4: Shrouded Era

She was a forest elf, even if she had only lived in mountains before Brook Mills. The smell of rich soil and heavy fog through her mask was a comfort. An inherited instinct, maybe. Through the haze of her grogginess, that came as a touching thought. A light chill draped on Loren like a blanket and the prickling urge to get up and movewere smothered under it. The small square of light from the barred window in the cart hadn’t moved, she thought. Only an echoing ache in the back of her head kept Loren awake.

The door at the back creaked open, the sound and light cutting into her space. A healing spell came right behind it and pushed out the pain in her head.

“Loren,” Noyo said and knelt over her while the glow of the restorative magic still faded from their hand. With their dark grey skin, they looked as if they were carved out of the light from outside. Explaining their fluid identity to others in Brook Mills had been difficult, but Noyo always commanded respect effortlessly. It wouldn’t have been hard to believe they’d cut through the sun itself to get to Loren. “Stand up.”

They held their hand out and Loren took it, steadying herself as she got to her feet. Truth was, Loren saw Noyo fighting so often with close-quarters lightning or flames that it was easy to forget those hands could heal too. Blood stained the front of their cloak even then. The sigils glowed on their mask, standing out from the late afternoon sunlight behind them.

“What—where—”

“There isn’t time.” Noyo insisted over their shoulder, leaving the cart through the open back gate and jumping down.

“Fresh out, as it stands,” said a man past where she could see, casting a spell from the sound of it. A sharp crackle that made her hair stand on end gave it away as an ice spell. The scream that followed said it hit its mark.

The fight for their freedom from whoever these people were had started without her already, not that she had a weapon anymore. Loren dropped down from the end of the cart, landing behind Noyo. Almost inaudibly, they snapped a flame to the tip of their pointer finger and flicked it towards the people coming for them. The forest was shrouded in the rolling smog, nowhere near as thick as it’d been back in Brook Mills, but more than on the beaten path. How people survived out here to attack others, she didn’t know. There wouldn’t be a chance to ask, either, knowing Noyo. They weren’t vicious, but they never left a job unfinished.

And right now, there was one person trying to pull themselves free of the ice jutting out from the forest floor and through their calf while the other fended off fireballs with a singed wooden shield. It didn’t look good for them.

“Sword,” Loren asked, hoping to get a weapon of her own before anyone reached them. If anyone reached them, between the two mages with her.

“Stay with us,” Noyo answered indirectly, holding out the sword and calling on another fire spell in the other hand. “No shield.”

“I can make do.” Settling the sword in her hand and still feeling a little off-balance without her shield, Loren readied herself for anyone that might come.

“Ah, no need.” The man, whoever he was, didn’t have spellcasting as crisp and neat as Noyo’s. Not many did. The spells did what they had to, though. Rumors about chiali mages were that they were naturally stronger than any others, and not because they had four arms to cast more. That didn’t hurt his odds. But the chiali people were supposedly the original discoverers of magic who only taught it to those they deemed deserving back then. Maybe that history was enough that he didn’t have to worry about form.

Wrapping his long tail loosely around one of his legs, he pointed to the sky with all four of his hands. Her hair raised this time from the energy itself. His own untamed black curls were unaffected, probably a magical trait her brother would’ve understood. Noyo kept up her barrage to hold the shield-bearing fighter back, sparing a quick glance to the stranger.

All Loren could do was wait like she was told. That was the sound thing to do.

And when his hands came down, four bolts arced to strike the two people. The shield shattered at last, petrified before it hit the ground, and both of them shook from the magic lightning running through them. The one on the ice went still first, then their ally. Loren finally noticed the third person motionless on the ground by another wooden cart, an empty sheath hanging from their belt. It was all finished.

She lowered her sword, letting out a breath. It was done.

“Good luck on your travels,” Noyo said flatly, nodding for Loren to go to the front of the cart she was just in. There, a horse would wait for her.

But Loren wouldn’t be dismissed from the action again. She stood right where she was, and the man with them just shrugged.

“That’s it, is it?” The smirk behind his mask made its way into his voice. Freckles that were a lighter blue than his skin peeked around the worn fabric, making his face look almost like dappled water.

“It is.” She knew Noyo was talking to her. That harsh edge to it was directed at Loren staying there, the second time she brushed off instructions from her teacher that day alone.

Neither of them paid any attention to that tone. The more Loren looked at him, the more she realized was different. His tail and arms were obvious, but the black tufts from the tips of his ears and along his tail were easy to miss during a fight. His eyes were hazel at a glance, only noticeable as more golden than she expected with more time. The upturned almond shape to them was unusual to her, even if some humans had similar eyes. Loren did guess right thinking that chiali would be taller. As the tallest person she knew, Noyo still only stood just a bit over him.

“Never seen a chiali before, I take it?”

He smiled anyway, or it looked like he did because of his eyes, and he walked off to the nearest body to check the pockets. Searching bodies wasn’t anything like Loren pictured doing as a runner for her city-state, but she couldn’t ignore that it was a waste to leave supplies with the fallen.

“I—No.” She looked down to her scuffed leather boots first, cursing herself for staring at him. Between growing up in the far-off mountain city-state and then living in the farming town of Brook Mills… She didn’t see many kinds of people. Loren never went to the capital like her brother. Stephen saw all sorts of people in those streets, worked with them in the Union to make new equipment like the mask she wore, and he was there when the smog first showed up in Garres City. That was why he was gone and Loren was here. Everything had good with the bad.

Everything.

Looking back up to Noyo, she changed the subject. No reason to dwell on things she couldn’t change. “Aren’t we all going back to the road?”

“We never should have left it.” Noyo reminded her, those yellow eyes giving a final warning to Loren in their narrowed stare.

“But since you did,” the man offered, pulling some parchment from the chest pocket of one of the fallen people as his tail swished over the flattened grass, “maybe we should stick together. These folks are Union mages, so they’ll be looking into what happened here.”

Noyo held their hand out for the parchment, taking two measured steps towards where he stood up. “Show me.”

“I’m Dira, by the way.” He held it out, and they took it without answering. Dira didn’t show it if that bothered him at all.

While Noyo unfolded the paper, Loren caught a short glimpse of the symbol from the Union outpost’s flag back home and in the mountains of Crescent Ridge too. Their attackers had Union orders, then, but it didn’t mean this was part of those orders. Stephen told her the Union hired spare hands from time to time. Even people without much magical ability like Loren. When it came to identifying mages operating outside the Union, harvesting known magical herbs, or hunting down creatures to get mystical ingredients, anyone could be useful.

But not this.

Pretending to need help in order to lure in runners to kidnap, what could they get from that? It’s not as if they couldn’t just ask for volunteers to help clear this smog and reconnect them to outside regions. No one wanted to be sealed off here until the smoke wiped out everyone living inside the barrier that sealed them and the infectious fog in.

“What does it say?” Leaning over Noyo’s shoulder, Loren saw for herself the page was empty.

“It’s blank.”

“Hm?” Dira raised his eyebrows, his two lower arms crossed and the other hands barely clasped. “Enchanted, I guess.” Looking down at the body he took it from, he continued. “I bet they knew the magic words to show what it says.”

“Not as though they gave us a chance,” Loren thought aloud, frowning. She knew that killing was necessary in life as it was, but she never wanted it to be the first on the list. The smog rolled through the trees, indifferent to people wherever it went. Her mask filtered it out, glowing with magic sigils that protected her with its charged wards. Even that wasn’t forever. Not like the fog.

“They’d never have told us.” Tucking the note into the inner pocket of their cloak, Noyo took the time to reassure her those lives had to be sacrificed. It was the three of them or their enemies, and it could be just that simple. They told Loren that often enough that she probably should have known it in her dreams.

“Well?” He implied asking his suggestion again.

“Good luck,” Noyo repeated.

“Noyo, can’t we—”

“I told you not to chase these people,” they brought up her first warning, ignored and forgotten, and pointed to the bodies. “You didn’t listen, and now we’re separated from the others.”

Her fathers among them. This was an assignment to transport one group of the Brook Mills residents out to Tolston, a larger city-state that could support them. The rules were simple: everyone had to stay together, and Loren went off at the first cry for help from the woods. She winced, clenching her fists and biting back the mean words ready to force their way out. Noyo was only looking out for her. They always did. More often than not, they talked about how you’re on your own out in the wild, but they never turned their back on Loren. No matter how often she didn’t listen and stuck with her gut instinct instead. They deserved some respect from her for all of that.

“We can’t join them. We have to go back to Brook Mills and re-charge. Please, listen this time.”

In a quieter voice, Loren gave it one last try. She knew she was right about this. Being wrong before didn’t change how it was now. “We have a better chance with three of us.”

Closing their eyes, Noyo held two fingers to their temple and waited.

“Look, I don’t want to cause a fight,” Dira stepped in, almost literally as he walked closer to the two of them. He held his upper hands out, rolling into a gesture to explain. “But going to Brook Mills leads into the thicker smog. I’ve seen that pass by in a few days, but it’s not likely to leave much behind.”

“You have a plan,” they observed more than anything else. They didn’t do much besides open their eyes to look his way. Noyo always made their stance clear, almost making demands even when asking questions.

Dira nodded. “There’s a crystal site not too far from here. You come home with capsules of power for the Union’s ward generators, and it could save some lives.”

Loren turned to Noyo immediately, watching for their approval.

“How do you know about it?”

“Oh, I saw it with our companions here,” Dira gestured to the Union members using his lower set of arms, and Loren had the impression he was too used to the dead. He seemed closer to Noyo’s age than Loren’s—he must have been a runner in the smog since it all began.

“Out those windows?” Noyo nodded to the barred square opening in the side of the cart, only just big enough to see out of for someone who was tall enough to reach.

“Heard it might be more accurate. You know that faint hum it has? That.” Dira nodded again, referencing a noise Loren had heard much less often than the other two had. She knew it anyway: a ringing echo like the few seconds after the bell called people in from the farms of Brook Mills. Everyone had to be inside the barriers before the dark settled in with the smog. The creatures of the fog were drawn to crystals, not the blackness of night, but there was still the risk of having trouble seeing clearly in both.

“You remember where it is?”

“Perfectly, thank you for asking.” Dira held his arms out to no applause or even praise. He was beyond discouragement, and it brought on a mix of pity and being impressed at how little anything bothered him.

“Then let’s go,” Loren inserted herself. Just because the people with her had more experience didn’t mean her opinion should be left out. “You said it,” she spoke to Noyo, “We don’t have time.”

Noyo glanced from Loren to Dira, exhaling curtly. “Fine.”

Dira walked backwards to the other horse in front of the farther cart. Lucky for them, these were warhorses unafraid of combat. An odd choice for carriages, maybe, but very lucky for them. Few city-states could boast about having trained warhorses.

“Who’s going with me?”

“No one,” Noyo insisted, a hand on Loren’s back to guide her to the mottled grey horse hooked up to the carriage where she was rescued. “Keep the cart attached.”


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Saving Ourselves: Loren Character Introduction

Word count: 800 (2 to 7 minutes) | Rating: T | Original Fiction: Saving Ourselves | Note: Fantasy races (common), magic, post-apocalyptic setting

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Radiant Dance of Year 1: Shrouded Era

Not as bright as it once was, the summer sun still burned its way through the smog surrounding them to warm Loren’s skin. Maybe it would feel different when she was out there for real, not training in some course hastily set up next to the runners’ base.

Her braid swung out behind her as she leapt over the simple fence in her path, using that momentum to roll over her shoulder beneath the next fence after it. Loren barely cleared that when a training staff came down from her right flank. Raising her wooden shield, it caught the blow in her stead with enough force to ripple down her arm. She pushed off from her crouched position to stand and force the staff away—which shouldn’t have worked half as well as it did. He was going easy on her and they both knew it.

No one asked him to.

He stepped into a wide, bracing stance, and narrowed green eyes at her as he squared his shoulders. If she struck, he was ready for it. And she was ready for that. Human men were generally muscular, well-built, and sturdy. Nothing like dwarves, but a far cry from elves like Loren. But she knew how to leverage her lithe build in her favor over his staunch one. That skill was years in the making by then. He jolted the staff’s end towards her to break her guard, Loren parried that end aside to make an opening, and he spun the other end of the staff up at her head. Ducking again, she jabbed her sparring sword upward towards his chest. With his relatively tall height for a human, that could be enough to stagger him, even without the rules of their training leaving him “wounded” by the blow.

All that, and it was the soft-tipped arrow zipping by her to bounce off his chest that took him out of their mock run.

“Loren,” her trainee-in-arms called out, only barely looking out from behind his cover. Dwarves were hardy, but he knew better than to stand out in the open even if he could take the hit. As one of the defenders in their crew, that was more her job anyway.

With a sharp nod, she darted across the small field to his hedge.

“Thanks,” she offered and he smiled, knocking another arrow.

“Who’s counting?”

“They are.” Noyo, of course. As one of the first runners in Brook Mills, they helped prepare others for the transformed world. That was only two months ago now. It felt longer. They weren’t the most capable runner, according to the village, but they were the best teacher. Patient but firm, they were both realistic and encouraging in their lessons. The townspeople would have to agree to disagree with Loren on the first part.

Noyo waited on the porch, still decorated from the building’s days as an inn, and sand fell through an hourglass next to them on a weathered handrail.

“Right.”

“Wait—” Too late, Loren reached for him as his path sent him tumbling into one the shallow pitfall traps the trained runners set up. Shallow for her, anyway. She could just barely meet his worried gaze, brows knit and forehead smeared with dirt from his fall.

“Don’t go.”

He’d never make it out of there alone. Glancing up to the hourglass, Loren couldn’t make out how much time was left. Not a good sign. The third trainee had gone ahead from the very beginning, and she was already waiting at the end goal, tossing a magic ball of light back and forth in her hands as she waited. Loren frowned at her. If anyone deserved to fall into a ditch, it was that woman.

“I’ll get you out.” Grabbing some rope left on the ground as part of the mock wreckage they could find out there, Loren tied a quick knot, familiar from so much repetition, and tossed the rope down to him. Reaching down, she explained the first step. “The bow.”

He wasted no time passing that up, then climbing his way up as she stood guard. No one was left to threaten them, but that wasn’t the point of this test. She had to prove herself a good runner in all circumstances. So Loren would defend him until he was safe, and the fence post anchored him much better than she ever could.

“Thanks,” he breathed, taking his bow from her.

“Let’s go.”


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© October 2020 | Jam Blute

Nate Saito: Bittersweet 16th

Word count: 650 (1 to 5 minutes) | Rating: G | Original Fiction | Note: absent parent

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The trolley didn’t stop outside his house, which was set back from the main streets on the edge of a not-great neighborhood. They managed just fine in the city anyway. Nate marched up the slight hill, opening the front door and dropping his shoes and bag just inside on the racks for each.

“I’m home, Mom,” he raised his voice while he locked the door behind him and smiled at the smell from dinner tonight. Spices and the warmth from the oven spread through the pagoda—one of the benefits of a small house. “Tom threw a sci-fi comic at me when I got to his place. I think that’s my birthday present…?”

He liked the beginning of it, anyway. Something about a rough-and-tumble rogue type getting caught up in a plot involving the survival of the galaxy. Not original, maybe, but pretty cool. Nate heard his mom pacing around and clacking a spoon against a pan in the kitchen, so why didn’t she answer him? He eased towards the kitchen, leaning to peek around the hallway’s corner. “Mom…?”

He jumped when she tossed confetti in the air, grinning. “Happy 16th, Nathaniel!” 

The light laugh forced its way out of him, and he flicked some confetti from his hair. A couple years back exactly, she helped him bleach the tips and style it in a faux hawk. Nate didn’t ask for anything that involved this year, since he’d learned to manage that on his own. He was happy enough getting tech and tools to make more things. Sometimes presents for her, so it was a little circular, but Nate didn’t mind. When you got down to it, that was the least he could do.

“Putting the botvac to the test, huh?”

She chuckled, pointing behind her to the cake on the table with letter candles sticking out to spell ‘Happy Birthday’. “Oh, sweetie. That already happened once I made that.”

Nate glanced from it to her, smirking and raising his eyebrows to ask the question he had in mind. She nodded with a sly smile, a strand of black hair falling loose from her bun into her face. “Raspberry cream, just like you asked.”

Of course, that meant he had to take a test taste, jogging over to swipe a fingertip of frosting from the top. Reflexively, she smacked his shoulder playfully once she caught up.

“You get one pass, birthday boy!” She passed him to the heart of the kitchen, taking out two plates from the cabinets and forks from the drawer. 

“Yeah, yeah,” he teased.  Closing the drawer with a bump of her hip, she circled back around to meet him by the seat he chose at the table. Nate shifted uncomfortably and traced  the dappled pattern on the tablecloth with his finger. Like that would make the real question  any easier when he had no choice but to ask about it. He could be direct or indirect, it didn’t matter. Nate knew the answer already anyway. “Did you, uhh, get the mail? Today?”

Of course she sighed. Quiet, just a breath like any other, but he heard it all too clear. Almost deafening and definitely crushing. “Honey,” she started and the sympathy hanging in her words confirmed what he knew to begin with.

“Nah, forget I asked.” Nate waved it off, resting back and tapping the table in front of him. If he just managed to look alright, the rest would come after. It had to. “Let’s just have the cake, okay? It’s fine, really.”

She put both plates in front of him, wrapping her arms around his shoulders with the back of the chair wedged awkwardly between them—not that he cared. Nate buried his face in her arms, the ones that carried him, helped him learn to ride a bike, held him, always there—always there. His breath hitched even when he tried to hold it back.

“All we need’s right here, baby,” she whispered, her voice thick too. “I’ll always love you.”


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Saving Ourselves: Mari Character Introduction

Word count: 1600 (3 to 13 minutes) | Rating: T | Original Fiction: Saving Ourselves | Note: Fantasy races (common and original), magic, post-apocalyptic setting

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The Blossoming of Year 185: Dawn’s Strike Era

The streets of Garres were like veins, carrying goods and people wherever they needed to go in the city. Sometimes, to places they’d rather not be. Reliable and chaotic, the contradictory way life worked anywhere else. It made the cobblestone streets easy to map in her mind, especially with practice. Anyone could tell the sunbaked almshouse walls from the lofty towers of the governmental district, but only a local could get from one to the other without being late or lost.

Exactly why living in one place for years wasn’t so bad.

Mari knew the routes and schedules of most carriages there. Not to mention basically everyone who kept the city’s blood pumping. Not that any of them really saw her. She was known for her ties to the Union. Only the half-elf who ran their errands and did their chores. Beyond that, she was no more than one of the strangers outside. And it was incredible, the things people let you see and hear when you were invisible.

But if there was one skill she had mastered, it had to be knowing when to wait for the right moment.

The morning mail coach came soaring down the road, and everyone knew they had the run of the road. Stopping one meant paying a fine—even if you did it by mistake. Mari was in a hurry too, poised to hop across the street on the raised steppingstones the moment it went by. She was close enough to feel it rush past, and a small splash from puddles of yesterday’s rain hit her boots. Nothing that wouldn’t dry. Especially if she ran, and she always did.

Her boots barely tapped against each roughly circular stone that kept people above the water, waste, and manure, then she was on the other side. The poor ladies and gentlemen serving the country from its capital couldn’t do that in their fine heeled shoes and fluffy wigs. Their jobs seemed important with all the shouting, but pretty stifling. So long as she did hers to avoid getting yelled at herself, it didn’t matter.

Darting around frantic storeroom maids in the center of the market square, Mari made her way to the weapons and armor marketplace. The heavy smell of molten metal and coal from smithies burned her nostrils before she even saw the magic shops. All the stores there were more like workshops where you could buy goods, not like the tents and stalls of most other places. Maybe the merchants of magical wares didn’t quite belong there, but there they were. No one really wanted to see them while they picked out a new suit before the festival season or resupplied on early summer vegetables and wines.

Pulling the empty satchel up her shoulder, Mari kept her eyes up and stuck close to the wall. The only people around the weapons shops were assistants to the Guard Captain, hunters, and mercenaries. They covered the whole nation’s people: dwarves, elves, people with mixed descent like her, and even the lone chiali now and again. None of them were gifted with patience for anything that didn’t apply to their work, or none that Mari knew. All she had to be was fast and out of their way. She had to move quickly anyway since it would be hot and muggy soon, and Mari wouldn’t be up to as much running.

She ducked into the open rounded doorway of the mages’ goods shop soon enough. Could have done it with her eyes closed, but it was better that she didn’t.

“Hm?” The shopkeep frowned over the counter, glaring down at her from his stool. That sternness was just part of his expression, she learned that shortly after they first met years ago. He was framed by jars of all kinds of magical goods, some open and easy to reach and others sealed and locked on the top shelves behind the front counter. His thick, black moustache with flecks of grey twitched with his ‘tsk’. Fat fingers tied off the thin rope around some gathered stems of faintly glowing thistles that she didn’t recognize. Not yet. The dwarf was no mage, but he knew more than she’d ever forget about magic in the wild—and he liked to remind anyone who came in of that. “Just you, is it?”

“Yeah,” she said with a nod, dropping the rolled parchment on the counter. The Union’s crest was emblazoned on the outside beside the ribbon holding it closed—a precaution for all their parchment in case something important was lost, supposedly. “Got the whole Union order here.”

He kept that surprising delicate touch from the flowers when he swept up the scroll, pulling the ribbon loose to unroll it. From habit, he muttered it out loud as his dull blue eyes moved down the list.

That week’s resupply trip called for more of what Mari recognized. No Union storeroom run was complete without basic healing herbs, but this one included various roots and powders to carve into protective sigils on armor and shields. Plus some fake-sounding items like will-‘o-the-wisp dust. Mari read about them in the Union’s in-house library when most people were asleep, and she doubted they gave off anything like dust. If finding your way back to your original spot after getting tricked by a will-‘o-the-wisp only meant following a dust trail, why did people stay lost?

But if the Union mages asked for it, it had to be real. Maybe it wasn’t literal. Like sprigs of baby’s breath.

“The glass is new,” she interrupted his mumbling and pointed to the windows. Usually, just fancy clothes and jewelry stores had glass windows, but they had gotten more common in other shops with decent sales. Having the Union buying through him most of the time would do that for his profits. She heard him stomping down the ladder from his stool while she leaned to check for outside hinges through the window. “Kept the shutters. Smart.”

“Mmhm. Wait here.”

Wait, he said, like it ever took him long. Mari was barely taller than him when she did her first supply run for the Union, and she was amazed at how quickly he measured and packaged everything. While he worked, she put her satchel up on the counter and flipped it open for him just in time for him to nestle the first bag of herbs in.

“Walk gently,” he ordered as he pat down a box of packed powder.

“Understood.”

“Not how you usually dart around here.” He pierced her with another glare, tossing the tired leather flap over her bag to close it.

“Yes, sir.”

“I mean it.” Punctuating that with a calloused fingertip pointed at her, he moved the bag over to her open hands at the counter’s edge.

“I said yes,” she repeated with an uneasy grimace, not sure what else he wanted. Mari raised the shoulder strap over her head for the steadier carrying it obviously needed.

“And this.” Less gently, he brought a package up onto the smooth wooden countertop and pushed it over to her. The wrapping job wasn’t like his usual. No practical plain paper held in place with twine, but deep slate blue paper with thick silver ribbon adorning it. The contents were clearly a book. Mari softened her grimace but didn’t reach for it. In all the years she knew him, he didn’t adorn anything. If someone wanted to get a gift to a member of the Mages’ Union, they wouldn’t go through him and definitely not her. Even a surprise gift would be better off handled by actual delivery people.

“What’s this?”

“For you.” Glancing back down to it and again to him, Mari closed her hand around the strap over her chest. This just got more and more confusing. Who would give her something? Mari didn’t talk to anyone she didn’t have to, so there was no one to send her an unexpected present.

“What for?”

“A gift,” he observed, being his usual blunt self, but without any of clarity that usually came with it. He must have read something in her glance at the present because he muttered something before offering something she could hear. “If you get your mind set on working at that place ‘til you’re grey, you need to be serious about educating yourself. Before you get killed.”

“Alright,” she asked, as bewildered as ever. No one got a nice shop with glass windows and shutters because they gave out gifts to the spry little stray running tasks for the Union. Still, she picked up the package. It was heavier than she guessed it would be… Probably two books, then. Trading the grimace for a level stare, Mari thanked the stars she was talking to someone who didn’t waste words. “But what’s that to you?”

The long hairs of his moustache ruffled in his scoff as he settled back up onto his stool. Leaning over the counter, he almost looked like he was smirking. “You have a birthday, don’t you?”

“Suppose I do.” Giving him a shrug, she continued her answer. “Not sure when it is, though.”

“In that case, doesn’t matter when you get a present.” Nodding to the book, he scooched back into his seat and reached for another bundle of glowing thistle. “There’s your gift.”

“From?” He quirked an eyebrow, clearly at his limit for questions. She should have figured it was straight from him anyway. The people who knew about her and magic and also apparently had a reason to present her with a new book… Well, there weren’t a lot of them. “Right. Thanks.”

“Mmhm. Don’t die.”


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Saving Ourselves: Noyo Character Introduction

Word count: 1800 (5 to 15 minutes) | Rating: T | Original Fiction: Saving Ourselves | Note: Fantasy races (common and original), magic, post-apocalyptic setting

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Sun’s Tears of Year 1: Shrouded Era

Next to Garres, this farming town was small. Central buildings were stone or brick, but most homes were logs or timber beaten down by rain. It was a matter of resources, and Noyo knew that before crossing the fence bordering the town with smoke and nightmares not far behind. One pressing in closer than the other. Chaos filled in the size difference, spreading through the group of survivors from the capital like an illness. They’d felt the danger had passed as they made beds and chairs out of anything that would work in this makeshift medical space. It was alright to panic now, at least in their minds. 

That was never true.

Still, some people cried while others called for people they couldn’t find and may never again. Noyo guessed it was some kind of closure to know there was no reason to look for the people they’d lost.

“Hey,” a tanned man interrupted their thoughts. Stout and built under a layer of padding from age rather than a lack of activity, they guessed he was the kind who built places like the hall they were in. He was certainly old enough to be their father despite their starkly different lifespans. His dark, fine hair was cut close, excluding his long stubble, and his deep-set eyes seemed weary despite their sharpness. From Noyo’s place on the bench against the wall, he looked taller than he truly was. “Fekhi’s ready to see you.”

Standing, they were at eye level with him. He led the way to a hall on his left and presumably toward Fekhi, their impromptu mayor. Leaders manifested in a crisis, often without even trying. Who knew what Fekhi was before? Now she was overseeing a town and more people than they likely ever had as guests. So far, she was managing. The lanterns dotting the halls showed the place was well-kept, if worn, and the occasional vase or landscape painting added some life to it. Before people fled to their village, it would be quaint. But they acted fast and on good advice. That was a promising sign that Noyo stood a chance of being listened to.

“I’m Enis,” he started, polite but clearly leading towards something. He turned a corner and held close to the wall while two mages passed in a hurry. Probably more survivors. The town was sizable to some, that was true. But they were running low on space as it was, and crowding would lead to desperation.

“Noyo,” they offered all the same. There was only one thing he could want from them, and it would be painful to mention no matter how they went about it. Given the choice, Noyo preferred the faster route. “You know someone in the capital?”

He looked away, focused on the path ahead with shoulders squared. “My son. Haven’t seen him among the survivors.”

“I’m sorry.” What else was there to say? If he wanted answers, he would ask for them and give a description. Approaching a plain oak door with a carved flower mounted in the center, he did exactly none of that.

“So am I.” With two knuckles, he rapped on the office door and nodded for Noyo to enter. “Head on in.”

Turning the doorknob and stepping inside, Noyo was instantly crowded out by crates, bags, and stacks of supplies piled wherever they would fit. A tower of bins leaned ominously against the wall beyond the open door and they had toe a tied off bag aside on the way to the burdened desk where Fekhi stood staunch. Making a casual, sweeping gesture past piles of parchment and a half-filled tankard, the dwarven woman in charge extended her invitation.

“Take a seat if you can find one.”

A rich auburn braid threaded with grey hairs hung over her shoulder, and she offered a tired smile with her hospitality.

“I’m fine.”

“Suit yourself.” Having a long drink to polish off the tankard, she sighed and stared out a window Noyo couldn’t fully see through past a different stack of crates. Not that there was much to see but watching the horizon get swallowed up in the spreading shroud, hour by hour. Days away from this place, which was not much of a comfort.

“Damn it all. Just about every soul that fled Garres is half out of their wits,” she said, as if that much wasn’t clear already, “So it all comes down to you.” Setting down the tankard with a hearty clank, Fekhi got to the point. “What happened?”

“I’m not certain on the details,” Noyo admitted. Honesty would get them further than fabrication, and they needed her trust. Sometimes, that meant delivering bad news. “I came across a Union member before that smoke reached us, and he gave me the equipment your people took from me.”

“And you’ll get your mask back when our Union is done figuring it out.”

A flat stare and slight tilt of their head said all Noyo had to. Anything that was taken in secret while they were treated by healers wasn’t likely to come back, and they both knew better.

“You’re with the Mages’ Union, I take it?”

Strange, to ask a question so pointless. Even if Noyo hadn’t been, any mage outside the Union would never be so reckless as to confess to it. “I am.”

“Then trust them if you can’t trust me.” In that short sentence, it was clear why her people did trust her. Willingness to meet Noyo in the middle, or what she thought was the middle, was an impressive gesture considering Noyo wasn’t one of her own. “You know that was the only thing protecting you from whatever’s out there. We need to find out how it works to make more.”

“You’ve got barriers,” Noyo observed, not prepared to yield regardless. This conversation would uncover where Fekhi’s limits were for patience. A promising start meant nothing for the future. “It’s only those, but smaller.”

“That’s not the point.” Exasperation bled into her voice with a breathy hiss, and Noyo expected that small shake of her head would be the end of it. “Listen,” Fekhi began, working her way around the desk to plant herself in front of Noyo with only some difficulty. “I promise you’ll get it back. First, here and now, you need to tell me what’s out there.”

Tilting her head back to make eye contact took away some of the effect, but Fekhi deserved credit for crossing her arms and continuing anyway. And Noyo did find themselves believing in her integrity. Taking a seat on a crate after all, they nodded.

Quirking a brighter smile, she nodded back to Noyo. Some of her bangs fell loose from the braid, a fact that went ignored. “Good.”

“The smoke is changing people. Some faster than others.” That was putting it lightly. Some people preferred that to the gruesome reality, although they’d all find out soon enough what Noyo meant. Still, they had to begin somewhere.

“Changing them how?”

“Their skin looks badly bruised at first. They get scared, and it gets worse. Then they get violent.” Another understatement. It would do. “Some get sick too, and their body changes. Claws, horns, fangs…” Tapering off, Noyo took a moment to close their eyes and gather their thoughts. The danger hadn’t passed yet. Now was not the time to get lost in unimportant details. Fekhi waited in silence while they took a slow, steadying breath and opened their eyes again. “It’s not consistent. It’s like magic, but nothing I’ve found in my studies.”

Muttering some harsh dwarven phrase, Fekhi flicked the braid over her shoulder and set her hands on her hips. “Will the fences hold?”

“No.” It was only the truth of the matter, and part of the whole reason Noyo asked to speak to Fekhi to start with. “But the foundation is there for something that will.”

“Oh, no you don’t,” she said through a chuckle and wagging her finger like Noyo was an errant child. As a fraction of Fekhi’s age, Noyo supposed they were little more than that to the mayor. “You’re barely an adult by elven standards; you leave this to us.”

“Building it up will take days. You’ll need help.”

Brushing that off with her whole hand this time, Fekhi got more insistent rather than less. “We’ve got the barrier—”

“To keep smoke out, not those who transformed.” The implication weighed heavy between the two of them, between the violence and the distortions made for tearing, biting, and piercing. Even as a mage, Noyo knew there was a limit to what magic alone could achieve.

“I know that.”

“Then you know there’s no time to argue,” they offered in agreement. Fekhi had centuries of knowledge and an effortless command, and Noyo was one of few survivors with a clear mind thanks to that mask. Together, they could turn Brook Mills into a haven and an example for other settlements to follow.

Fekhi rubbed her chin and weighed the options she had, which were not many with no guarantees among them. Clicking her tongue, she made her decision. “Tell me your plans, and we’ll bring it to the Union, see how it works with the barriers.”

Noyo frowned, casting yellow eyes to the worn floor. The Union shouldn’t be trusted just yet. Why did they have barriers ready to activate before the smog even appeared in Brook Mills? How did they have that so soon, but claimed not to know about the protective masks from the capital? Too many questions, and never enough answers. Anywhere it went, the Mages’ Union never looked kindly upon people asking questions.

“What is it?”

Looking to her again, Noyo studied Fekhi for a moment. And again, she was patient. Noyo’s options outside of the mayor didn’t amount to much either. In a way, that made them the best choice for each other to achieve what they wanted. “We should meet with them now.” 

Fekhi barked a laugh, clapping a hand against her chest. “You’ve got initiative, I’ll give you that.” Snatching up her tankard and a stack of papers, the mayor marched back to the hall ahead of Noyo. “You got a name, miss? Sir?”

“Noyo,” they introduced themselves, quietly glad Fekhi asked at the end once the business side of their discussion was handled. They didn’t have much reason for happiness after the people they lost in Garres, so it was nice to have what little they could. “I don’t go by miss. Or sir. Just Noyo.”

Dark elven culture allowed for a spectrum of genders, but not everyone had the same concepts in their upbringing. Yet Fekhi just shrugged and took a left out of the room, walking deeper into the building. “Noyo it is.”


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Saving Ourselves: Dira Character Introduction

Word count: 2750 (6 to 22 minutes) | Rating: T | Original Fiction: Saving Ourselves | Note: Fantasy races (common and original), magic, post-apocalyptic setting

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The Darkening of Year 3: Shrouded Era

Some kind of music usually filled the streets of Genoa Falls, half-named for the mossy lake and waterfalls of the hills the city-state was nestled into. Candle and post lanterns lit the streets, which were worn grassless and a bit lumpy by horses, goats, and a slew of kids. Cabins sat wedged in together and even leaned against each other in some cases, but the people did what they could with what they had.

Who didn’t, with the infectious smog smothering everywhere beyond the barriers? Couldn’t be outside the walls without gear for a couple hours, or you’d lose your mind and get badly disfigured. Definitely put a damper on long, moonlit strolls. But it wasn’t the walls keeping people safe as much as protection provided by the grace and courtesy of the Mages’ Union, of course. Never could resist a chance to act the saint in a time of crisis.

Didn’t do much for them in Genoa, but every other city-state had its own story and take on the Union. Just so happened that Genoa’s ideals were closest to Dira’s. And like a favorite dog-eared book, the city-state called Dira back in over and over.

The people were resourceful, and the lands were gorgeous. Their floating gardens in the lake were immune to smog and safe outside the walls, keeping the people fed and giving the farmer types something to do. Rustling up the gear to go outside to farm was the easy part, it was getting their hands magic lamps to post out there that got tough. The smog was a threat in more ways than one, filtering out sunlight like it did.

Still, they made it work. The farmers were preparing for the fall crop these days, if Dira remembered right. As for the adventurous folks, there was always food to be imported from other city-states. All it took was signing on to join the caravanners who were trained and equipped for smog protection by, of course, the Mages’ Union.

More importantly to Dira, everyone in Genoa just plain knew how to have fun.

And the Eldin family knew it the best. Their litter of kids, anywhere from 5 to 9, were the true experts in wonder and awe. Even after hours of being in town, they circled around Dira. The littlest ones tailed him because his four arms made them easy to toss and carry, but the kids closer to 10 years old were probably there to show their migrant honorary uncle that they were big kids now. Dwarf, human, or elf, everyone was always in a hurry to grow up.

Maybe it was different for chiali, and that’s why Dira wasn’t that interested in adulthood. It’s not like there were many left of his people that he could ask. Being grown up felt mostly like he wandered into a fancy party he wasn’t invited to and didn’t want to be at, but he was stuck once he got there.

Following the swarm of four littles up the faded porch to the Eldin’s cabin, he flicked his tail idly and smiled at the two lovely women kind enough to take in orphaned kids to raise like they were blood. To say nothing of the strays like Dira, coming and going whenever he wanted to.

“Careful,” Kalghi shouted after them, answered with a tumble of giggles and apologies from the spiral stairs to the kids’ floor. Most of them would be taller than their adoptive dwarf mother someday, but few would ever be stronger than her. She huffed as the laughter died off, planting a wide, scarred hand on the railing as she leaned over to be heard wherever they’d gone off to. “And don’t you forget to thank Dira for spending all day with you!”

Dira chuckled next, closing the door behind him. They hadn’t started making dinner just yet, so the only aroma in the kitchen was from the fire warming up the stove and the vase of wildflowers on the far end of the counter. Past that was the long dining table with an extra chair right in the middle on one side, where they always set Dira up without even asking. The ladies of the house never had to, luckily for him, because he wouldn’t ask. Maybe it was a maternal ability or a skill gained as a friend of a couple years, but they just sensed his muted, half-formed loneliness.

A couple years wasn’t a lot to most folks, but that made them Dira’s oldest friends. Out of the ones he could talk to and actually have them answer, anyway. 

He cracked a grin, nodding toward the staircase. “Think nothing of it. Your ducklings are a delight, my dear Kalghi.”

“Because they got manners,” she insisted, frowning fondly up to the retreating footsteps of her kids. She’d been a caravanner herself once, and living behind the barriers with Jia, her wife, didn’t take all that gruff warrior business out of her. Even with a floral towel tossed over her broad shoulder, an apron on in place of tunic armor, Kalghi carried herself like the battle-hardened rogue she always would be.

Actually… Dira hid a laugh behind a cough, but not well. It was a fun thought that she wasn’t exactly as combat ready as she used to be. In a good way, of course. Still, he’d be better off keeping that to himself unless he wanted her to punch him in the leg.

“What’re you laughing at?” Kalghi turned on that watchful frown on him, breaking form only to blow her wayward dark red hair out of her face. Well, try to.

Folding two arms behind his back, he shrugged with the upper pair. It was just easier that way, even with more accepting folks like the Eldins. Two sets of arms were too much to keep track of sometimes. “Their manners aren’t what I come back for, is all.”

“Well,” Jia jumped in with a teasing smile and her arms full of ingredients. Having never been outside the walls since the smog first started its spread, Jia was the master of domestic life in their marriage. She was familiar with a knife in a totally different practice than Kalghi. If his guess was right, she’d bring all those ingredients together into a delicious medley of pan-fried veggies and chicken with seasonings he knew next to nothing about.

But first, that impish little cat’s grin on her round, heart-shaped face said there was a lighthearted joke at his expense to come before any of that happened. She put the greens and meat down on the counter where she’d prep it all, a knowing sparkle in her deep brown eyes as she tucked her black bangs behind perfectly curved, hairless ears. Always struck him with something a little like awe that other people could do that without getting caught up on tufted, pointed ears like his. “We both know manners don’t mean a thing to you.”

“Oomph, harsh,” Dira chuckled through his answer, curling his tail. Offering up his finest wounded acting, he pressed a hand against his side over his imaginary injury.

“Oh, don’t be a baby,” she lightly chastised, pulling a knife from the block to dice the vegetables with quick, familiar chops on a worn cutting board. “I’m still glad you watched the kids today. They love you, you know.”

“Yeah, well,” he tapered off, taking a seat on the counter and playing with the tufted end of his ear before just leaving it at that. Probably wasn’t polite to say kids didn’t know any better. Had to be a smoother way to recover from that diversion than silence. “Anything good for Genoa’s good for me.”

That little stall got him just enough time to think of something better that put a playful smirk on his face. Leaning toward Jia with a wink, Dira went ahead with his plan to avoid more tricky sentimental talk. “Though I’m partial to helping you two ladies out.”

“Because we save your hide constantly?” Kalghi was not one to miss out on an opportunity to tease Dira, and her smug grin as she sauntered over to where they stood showed just how much joy she took in it. That’s what he got for having a friend as bratty as he was. The dishes were done and the table was clear, so Kalghi had a few spare moments to let him know she cared by giving him a hard time.

“Ah, my darling Kalghi, your pointedness is all part of your charm.” Turning to Jia, he traded mischief for mischief by drawing her wife into the antics. “It’s painfully clear why you love her so devotedly.”

Not even looking up from her work, Jia pushed aside the peppers into a bowl and began cutting the summer squash into evenly sliced circles. “Who do you think saves her when she puts her foot in her mouth?”

“And you had to tell him that?” Any disapproval that was there was easily erased by a quick kiss through matching smiles. These two were so in love, like the stuff of storybooks, that Dira barely knew how to handle it sometimes. For real, it had a way of making him feel jittery to see love that honest existed for anyone.

He made himself smile when Kalghi drew back from their kiss and gave her attention to him again. If he could make his tail stop flicking, curling and uncurling, she might’ve even been convinced.

“Got a question for you, actually.”

“That right?”

The beat of silence filled with the steady rhythm of Jia’s chopping was worse than nearly any question Kalghi could ask.

“You were gone an awful long time.”

Hidden questions, his least favorite kind. Dira sighed, his hand finding the back of his neck while his tail wrapped around his leg. They cared, that was why she asked, but that knowledge didn’t make the situation any less uncomfortable.

“None of that. Someone’s got to keep you safe.” Kalghi pulled the towel off her shoulder to smack it against his knee, and a chorus of giggles from upstairs confirmed that that particular noise carried up to the kids.

“Yeah, that’s my job.” Double teamed by worried Mom looks from just four words, all Dira could do was laugh. “You’re really good at that! The coordination gave me chills.”

“We can’t stop you, Dira.” Jia always took care to remind him the choice was his, that he was here and part of them but minded his freedom too. Like she knew how hypocritical his heart could be, pushing them away even as it wanted him to belong. At least he never had to say something so pathetic, right? His smile turned to a grimace as he wounded himself on the thought anyway. “But you are like family to us. You’re out longer each time, and your visits are so short.”

She’d stopped working on dinner, and Kalghi stepped up to put her calloused hand on his knee. He swallowed and took a deep, deep breath. Being thought of fondly was, in a lot of ways, the hardest thing he’d ever done. Not guarding all the secrets he had, dodging all the threats from the Union and the smog and people who hated him for what his ancestors did, but the one thing everyone else seemed ready to do like breathing.

Dira had obviously gone wrong somewhere, but there wasn’t any going back. That would’ve made it a ton easier.

“We can’t help worrying.” Kalghi’s smaller, light green eyes sought out his own oval silvery ones — just one more thing to set him apart. Her eyebrows furrowed while he willed his troubled look away to at least a sad smile. They would know something was upsetting him no matter what he did, but at least they didn’t have to worry about it anymore if he put on a good enough front.

“I get it,” he admitted, crossing his upper set of arms over his chest and flipping his tail into his lap. Never did like staying still long. “But I made this promise, you know? And it’s all out there.”

“Whatever you promised, do you think your friend would be thrilled with you putting yourself in danger like this? All the time?” Jia wouldn’t count herself out of the conversation, but he was glad she’d moved on to getting the chicken ready next. He was a fan of a hearty dinner, not a late one because the chef was busy babying him.

“Enh, you’re not wrong about that.”

“Just be more careful, Dira,” Kalghi took over seamlessly, patting his knee before moving away to gather up the silverware from a drawer beside him. “It’s risky enough out there with people taken by the smog.”

She hesitated, clicking her tongue and staring up at him. Kalghi never minced words, and probably thought that kind of behavior was dishonest, but even she thought some things might cross a line. That little habit of hers was her tell that she was thinking just that.

“Not to mention you being chiali.”

It wouldn’t have been hard to tell her that his race was one of his easier obstacles, but would it have made her feel better? Obviously not, and that was reason enough to keep quiet. Sure, Dira didn’t have anything to do with the war his people didn’t quite win generations ago, not that it changed him being mostly unwelcome anywhere. That prejudice didn’t give him half the trouble that his own mistakes brought to his door. Metaphorically.

“Genoa’s safe for you. We barely even have a Union post here, so there’s no one to single you out for unsanctioned magic. And everyone here adores you.” Gesturing to the door symbolically with a fistful of forks, Kalghi finished up her roster of very good points—for someone who didn’t know the whole story. And couldn’t. “What do these trips do that you can’t get done here?”

“This place’s home to me and all,” he agreed, and he wasn’t lying. When he was sleeping in roll hidden in an alcove of the woods or a hill, all rigged up with security measures, Dira would rather be with the Eldins in Genoa over even the showiest manor of other city-states. “But my promise is also a secret. And there’re people out there who need a wandering hero sometimes.”

“Oh, right, like you’ve got to be a rogue rescuer to caravanners.” And Kalghi was back with her snide smirk, rolling her eyes as she marched off to the dining room and talking over her shoulder. “You don’t have to save the world.”

“And if I don’t, who will?” He didn’t even need to use his signature smirk to disarm their suspicions first—Jia and Kalghi both thought he wasn’t serious. Who would think he was really taking on a task that extreme? It was a lost cause at best, and if he somehow pulled it off, he’d probably die before he saw the clear sky again.

Getting down from the counter, Dira finally decided it was time he pitched in here and now. Kalghi had the silverware out and Jia’d been cooking for a while, so that left the plates to him. Times like that, four arms came in handy. Stacking modest ceramic plates into the lower set of his arms using the upper set, Dira started on a task he could actually finish tonight.

By the stove, Jia flashed him a smile that showed the storm had passed. “Will you be staying the night?”

“Hm.” He gave the idea of curling up on a bed some thought, complete with a cheerfully patterned quilt light enough for the end of summer, but it left this itchy feeling in his chest. “Mind if I camp out on your roof?”

“We have a cot in the den if the kids are keeping you up.”

“Nah, I’m a sucker for stars and sunrise,” he answered as he walked by to the dining room, setting down the first two plates down and starting work his way around the table.

“No leaving before breakfast this time,” she shouted to be heard, “and you have a deal.”

Kalghi nodded firmly, so there was no question he’d be in trouble next time if he dared do that again. Laughing, Dira shook his head and accepted his fate of breakfast with the family.

“Yes, ma’am.”


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