Slide to Unlock: Part 8

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Slide to Unlock

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Recap: John wakes up in a foreign room, trying to make sense of where he is and who he is. The mysterious converse-donning lady offers him breakfast, which he can’t refuse.

notes at the end

<< Previous: Part 7

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When I finally amble down the stairs, I easily find the kitchen by the smells emanating from the room. Whoever this lady is, she sure can cook. The house is filled with the smell of eggs and potatoes—I can also hear the hiss-crack of bacon cooking in the pan. When I walk in, I want to hug her because, despite what people say, food is the way to a man’s heart and this woman has won me over.

The kitchen is rustic with mint green walls and pale cabinetry. There is a breakfast bar that divides the main cooking area from the open dining room. It’s homey although I note that it doesn’t look very lived in. I slide onto one of the stools, silently, and watch the woman as she continues cooking.

She has on a rich green t-shirt with dark wash blue jeans and, yes, her red converses. Her light blond hair is pulled back by a bright red hair band at the nape of her neck, a few curls escaping forward. She seems oblivious to my presence—moving ever so slightly to shift the bacon in the pan from time to time. It feels domestic, extremely surreal given my circumstances, and I briefly wonder in a bout of madness that if I didn’t shatter the illusion, maybe I could stay here: in some modern version of Little House on the Prairie.

Finally, the silence drags out too long, so I break it. “So what’s your name?”

The woman startles and some hot grease splashes onto the counter. She curses, reaching for the paper towels.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” I apologize. I consider getting up to help but decide it’s better that I didn’t. She’d probably feel safer if I kept my distance.

“I’m Diane,” she supplies after a moment and then tosses me a tired smile. “And no need to apologize—I just hadn’t heard you. You’re really quiet for such a big guy.”

I give her a feral smile. “You calling me fat?” I challenge.

She laughs softly. “Oh please,” and she returns to her cooking. I get the distinct feeling I’m not a stranger—or rather, that she’s not treating me like a stranger. So either she’s a looney or the Labs caught up with me and she’s just a decoy.

The buzzing I so arduously quieted before starts again. I can hear the silverware rattling in the drawer in the breakfast bar and the fluorescent light above begins wavering. I can feel every appliance in the room like an extension of myself and it consumes me. When Diane turns back towards me, I still have the feral grin but I’m pretty sure I’m glowing again.

“oh…my…god….” She breathes out once she finally turns around. She begins to edge away but she can feel the energy in the air and its planting her feet to the ground. “who are you?!” she whispers and it’s louder than if she had yelled. It has absolute fear in it, which makes me pause. The fluorescent light stops flickering and the silverware quits rattling.

“Are you with them?” I ask, rising from my seat. Sure I don’t think she is now, but she could be a great actress. God knows I could be a great actor if I wanted to and I failed drama in High School. I begin to step around the breakfast bar, only a few feet from her. “Answer my question: are you with them?” I demand.

“Who are them?” the woman practically sobs, beginning to step backwards. I lunge to stop her, grabbing the front of her shirt and holding her just inches from the boiling grease of the bacon. She looks backwards at the averted accident. She’s rigid under my touch but relaxing millimeter by millimeter. “I’m just a nurse,” she admonishes, voice small but not as scared as before.
After a moment’s pause, she looks back at me, her brown eyes burning with courage I hadn’t thought possible outside of battle hardened soldiers. “Now you answer me: who are you?”

I swallow thickly releasing her shirt and stepping back. I run a hand through my hair, which is still too short for my liking.
Do you apologize in this sort of situation or just head for the hills?

“Er…” I begin, turning bright red. “I am John Forrester of the Delta Task Force.” Her brow wrinkles and she continues to look at me with skepticism. I sigh. “It’s an inter-military task force. Or really, separate; we do a lot of undercover and recon. I was in a special division of Delta that got very important people out of very bad situations.”

Diane wrinkles her nose this time, but at least her brow has smoothed out.

“You’d be surprised how stupid important people can be,” I divulge and a smile starts to crack across her features.

“You know,” she says softly, “when I saw that uniform; I thought it was my Jack on the side of the road, coming home. But you’re not him. He’d never have qualified for Delta.”

I nod, amazed that she’s avoiding the elephant in the room with such grace. “What does he do?” I ask.

“He was in the infantry for the army,” Diane states with emphasis on the past tense. It hits me hard and deep. I know what it’s like to lose a soldier; but losing someone that close to her must have hurt worse.

She pulls the bacon off the stove and for a moment I think I’m home free. Then she turns around and asks. “So care to explain why you were glowing?”

She squarely smacks the elephant crowding the kitchen.

After gathering my wits about me, I smile, “I’m part glow worm!”

Her expression doesn’t change—it’s serious and slightly disconcerting.

“Part fire fly?”

She refuses to take it.

“Secretly a phoenix?”

Damn this woman’s face is immobile.

Well, suppose the truth won’t hurt: “I’m an escaped government experiment.”

She nods and begins pulling the bacon out to blot it. “That’s what you said yesterday, too.” Then she hands me a plate full of food and pushes me towards the table, which I only now notices has two glasses of orange juice on it. “Now eat,” she commands.

Bewildered, I do.

~*~*~

As it turns out, there’s something I just fail to understand that Diane states is “a damned shame” that I don’t: southern hospitality. Sure we are in Virginia, which is definitely not the Deep South, but Diane’s mother raised her to help anyone in need. She also admits that the similarity to her Jack might have made her overlook many of her misgivings.

After breakfast, Diane forces me to get cleaned up. I go through half a bottle of shampoo before I deem myself clean enough; I had weeks’ worth of dirt caked on and enough BO to gas a small country. Diane even hands me a razor, so that I’m shaved and somewhat groomed when I reappear downstairs in the uniform from before that Diane was nice enough to clean for me while I showered.

She’s waiting on her red couch that’s a few shades darker than her shoes, which, upon a double take, I realize she’s not wearing. I sit across from her in a tan arm chair, leaning forward with my elbows on my knees and my face in my hands. Diane places the book she had been reading down and pulls her legs up beside her like a cat, tucking her toes beneath herself. “How are you feeling?” she asks.

“Better,” I admit, not removing my hands from my face. With some thinking in the shower, I’ve calmed down from my hyped up paranoid mode and fell into “resigned to horrible fate mode”. “How are you?” I ask.

She smiles—I can feel it like a shift in the air and the whole room feels brighter because of it: “Good. I’m good.”
I steep in the silence for awhile, letting it wash over me. I can feel her eyes watch me for any movements or, more than likely, any more inhuman glowing. I’m waiting to hear the wail of the police siren—maybe she changed her mind on helping me and was prepared to turn me out when the next opportunity presented itself. With my head in my hands, the fleshy part of my palms pressing into my eyes, I slowly sunk into despair. “They’re going to kill me,” I confess.

Diane shifts a little, probably sitting up. “They said you’re an experiment, right?” I pull my hands away, but not far enough to see anything more than the pink flecked flesh of my palms.”They wouldn’t kill you if they thought you were useful.”

“Then what will they do to me?” I ask, my voice eerily calm for the mania I feel building inside of me. I think back to that man being dragged by the orderlies and his crazy smile as they hauled him off. It’s all just a game—it had seemed to have said–and maybe that’s all this is. Some fucked up game that I don’t even know the rules to, let alone how to win.

“Well what I think you have to figure out first is what did they do to you?” Diane poses. It sinks in and keeps some of creeping desolation at bay. “If you know what they did to you maybe…”

“Maybe I could get a step ahead,” I finish, finally looking up and seeing Diane leaning forward on the couch with her small mouth twisted in concern. Her eyes well with pity as I feel something in me awaken; this time it’s not the buzz, but rather the spirit of competition. Because this game I know how to play. This game of information I know how to win.

I smile, big and goofy, which breaks some of the tension. However, Diane’s face closes off again. “So what can you do other than possess my stove?”

My grin only widens. “Oh, sweetheart, you would not believe what I can do.”

Next part 9 >>

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Notes: I edited part 7 so that it’s shorter. As I worked on this one, I decided the breakfast scene fit better in this part in the last, so sorry for the repeat!

Slide to Unlock: Part 7

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Slide to Unlock Part 7

((I meant to post this Tuesday. It’s Thursday–fifteen minutes from Friday, actually. I feel like such a faaaailuuure. Agh))

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Recap: John recants his tale about Officer Training School while evading his captors in the Blue Ridge Wilderness. He hits a town called Blacksburg, tries to walk to it, and then gives up. A passing motorist offers help, but who exactly is this lady with the red converses?

Masterpost of Parts

<< Previous: Part 6

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Part 7:
When I wake up, it’s in a bed with pink pillows and white sheets. The night is kept at bay by heavy white curtains over the window and there’s a soft light emanating from across the room. There is the distinct smell of warm vanilla in the air—a welcome change from the antiseptic of labs I had been in before.
I try to pick myself up in order to better assess my surroundings, but there’s suddenly a hand on my chest pushing me down. It’s the woman from before and she looks beautiful in the soft light with her hair pinned back and expression relaxed. She tells me to rest some more. I consider arguing that I need to keep moving or else they’ll catch me. I also consider questioning her sanity because what kind of person in their right mind believes some man that he can’t go to the hospital because crazy scientists are going to get him. And then said women gives said crazy man her bed. Or her daughter’s bed judging by the color scheme.
So really, I want to question her, but she turns out the light and suddenly I’m asleep, dreaming of being in that underwater prison without the aspirator to help me breathe.

~*~*~

Next time I wake up, I’m off to a running, leaping start. I kept reliving the water-prison break out in my sleep, but each time I would escape the glass chamber there would be the docile waitress from the diner standing in front of me. She’d be holding a steaming cup of coffee that’d shatter the minute a shot sounded; then she’d collapse into my arms with a bullet hole through her forehead.
I could never find the gunman. I could never escape the complex. The complex was just a maze that I kept running through all night, dodging bullets at the last second so that the torture was prolonged.

In the last few iterations of the nightmare, I’d search myself for the gun, but only the new power would greet me. I’d stand there, considering letting myself burn up with it, and I’d try. But the power wanted to live. It would suspend me in a limbo of agonizing electrocution while the excess shock would disintegrate the bullets aimed at me.

But I digress—no one really cares about my dreams, do they?

(I certainly don’t because they don’t bother me one bit. I’ve dealt with PTSD before and this time will be no different.)

I wake up because of the light caused by myself glowing again. It makes me jump from the bed to try to escape myself, but I only manage trip over the pillows I had tossed off the bed in the night. Consequently, I thunk ungracefully into a white bureau by the door and nearly send a ballerina music box crashing to the ground along with a few bottles of fruit-scented body spray. I right myself at the last moment, shoulder pressing into the grooved edge of the bureau.

That could have been a catastrophe, my inner voice of jaded sarcasm supplies.

Instantaneously, I hear footsteps on stairs and it’s nearly drowned out by my heart trying to beat its way out of my chest. I have a barely-there understanding of where I am. Some crazy lady in red shoes picked me up. I finally escaped the lab people. I’m somewhere in the vicinity of Blacksburg.

Regardless of my rudimentary understanding of my current situation, I have a feeling that glowing isn’t really going to endear myself to my red shoed savior. My breath rushes from my lungs as I hear the pounding footsteps slow as the woman cautiously slinks closer to the door—I futitely try to will her to just go away until I regain normal human status again.

“Don’t come in,” I grunt. The wear-and-tear of my previous trekking is also starting to break into my hysteria, now. There is a distinct pain in my arms and inner thighs from the gymnast trick I pulled in the tree. My feet ache something fierce and almost rival my throat’s soreness. Above all, though, is the migraine bouncing in my skull that I think might be caused by the glowing, but I’m not betting on it—I probably hit my head a bunch of times in the escape. Or the lady could have poisoned me, but I doubt it.

Sort of.

While the pain edges into my awareness, it’s also ebbing at the same time. It’s almost as if I’m healing. I can feel the muscles pulling but not in the familiar way of a cramp or from overuse. It’s like there’s an itch within the myofibrils that I’ve never felt before. Oh god, please don’t tell me I become a human glow stick when I’m hurt; that’d be the stupidest power ever, and most counterproductive. Oh no! He shot me! Now let me glow in the dark so that he can shoot me again…multiple times.

The woman takes a few more cautious steps closer to the door. I can practically feel her crouched on the other side, vibrating with intense wariness of the stranger in her daughter’s bedroom. “Are you alright?” the woman asks, her voice surprisingly calm.
I, for one, cannot claim the same amount of calmness. In fact, I don’t think I’m even on the same planet as ‘calm’ anymore.

“Just—oh—having a mild panic attack,” I say with derisive sarcasm. Slowly, I extricate myself from the toppled body sprays and begin examining the incessant glowing under my skin. How the hell do you shut this off? Did they install a switch on me somewhere? I swallow thickly, my throat clicking. “And—er—maybe having a mild identity crisis.” I’m not a machine, just like three-quarters. I think.

“Oh,” the woman says and the floor groans as she shifts her weight. “Are you hungry?” she hazards.

I’m about to tell her no—and then make a break out the window or something in order to escape this, whatever this is—but then my stomach growls, loudly.

She giggles softly. “I’ll make you some breakfast. Come on down when you figure out who you are.” Then she pauses as if thinking about it: “But I suppose you’d die of old age before that, eh?”

I hear her leave, footsteps on the stairs gradually dissipating. She reminds me of my brother. Peter would be the idiotic sort to pick up someone from the side of the street, believe their crazy story, and then offer to buy them dinner. He’d also buy bright red shoes, too, if his feet weren’t so big he’d look like a clown with them on. It makes me wonder who this woman is, but also trust her a little more. Because in situations like this, when you have no one to trust and your whole world is upside down, trusting a stranger is par for the course.

As the panic in me seeps out, so does the glow under my skin. I suppose it’s just a defense mechanism—maybe linked to some hormone or brain process—but I should learn to control it, I resolve.

My stomach growls again.

Learning to control it can wait until after breakfast.

part 8 >>

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I don’t smell, I just exude awesome

And, anyway, you wouldn’t understand. You’re a horse.

part of the Slayer of the Last Dragon

****

Chapter 2

In two days time, Ari finds Gewitter by a stream a little north. Apparently, the message back to the employer had come loud and clear because the response had been remarkably loud and clear. Ari had the pleasure of playing hide and seek with at least thirty men trying to kill her over the past two days. It was fun at first—Ari constantly had the upper hand. Then it became less fun when she was worn ragged, hungry, cold, dirty, tired, and irritable. At one point she had raised her hands and told them to end it all. She then lit them on fire with a thought—which tired her out more and she actually passed out—because, as not fun as it was, she was very partial to living. Ari has decided that only sleeping is fun and that is an all too rare commodity these days.

Gewitter lifts his head from the mountain stream, the thick trees making his coat darker than it normally appears. “I hate people,” Ari says irritably, sitting in the shallow creek so that she can move again. Mud had dried in her clothes and had made everything difficult. She picked at the clumps that broke away, flicking the water at odd intervals. “I want to be a hermit.”

Gewitter makes an amused noise and circles behind her. He drinks from upstream.

“But someone must have put money on my head,” Ari says angrily. “If it’s those damned Drows, I swear to god—“ Gewitter nudges her back, stop whining the  gesture seems to say. Actually, knowing the horse, it probably does. “But yea, someone did something and now SOMEBODY really wants me dead. And I can’t stay in a town long enough to find out who.” The last part is shouted and sends a flock of sparrows into the air.

Ari falls backwards into the stream, causing Gewitter to move even further up it. The sky is a dizzying blue in the fall by the mountains. The leaves are hinting towards gold, but refuse to change just yet. There will be rain in three days—Ari can smell it. It smells of dirt, too. Everything smells like dirt and Ari just wants a nice, warm bath.

“I’m hungry.” Ari says without moving.

When night falls, it does a magnificent job of falling. Just before, Ari is enjoying the dappled sunlight. She is languishing in the creek, stretching like a cat at intervals. There is birdsong in the trees. The smell of dirt has given way to Mountain Laurel and sweat; the latter of the two she strongly suspects belongs to her alone. Gewitter is standing in the shade of a tree, resting. It’s a glorious evening, warm with a cool breeze, when it becomes suddenly very chill and very dark. ‘Nightfall’ is a  very apt metaphor this far west.

Ari blinks a few times until her eyes adjust. They do a poor job of adjusting, but she still manages to see the lights in the skies. Stars burst through the dark blue. The moon is dark, new and hiding by the horizon. “We need to move,” Ari says to Gewitter. He paws at the ground. He paces around his master. Then he gives up when Ari clearly isn’t moving. “I said we need to move, not that we’re about to.” The bedraggled mercenary clarifies.

When a branch snaps nearby and honeysuckle overtakes the scent of Mountain Laurel, however, Ari is scrambling madly atop Gewitter, barely fitting the bridle on properly in time. The two burst through the woods as the Fair Folk begin their dance; any unfortunate individual near their circle will fall under their spell and be eaten. Ari prides herself on not having been eaten so far. Gewitter still has a scar on his rump from a less than pleasant evening years before.

The woods open up to the base of the foothills. Little villages can be seen from the crest of the hill, like fireflies flickering in the distance. The Noble—a Duke or Lord or some other title—has his house situated the furthest east. It’s a god-ugly looking stone thing (a manor will not be degraded to such a building). More than likely it’s been rebuilt so often from Mordren attacks that the builders forgot what the original building looked like and just put stones in the holes. Maybe once it was beautiful—before the Great War and the Silent War and other aptly named wars that have ravaged Aldernon for eons—but it is terribly ugly now.

Ari points Gewitter to the hamlet that sits just southwest of the Noble’s Rubble-Pile. The town is all wooden—not as well off as the one she had last eaten at—and there are well tended farms surrounding it. No one is on the streets when Ari passes through the rudimentary gates. No watchman shouts at her to state her purpose. No Royal Guard watches her from the lees of the stilted buildings. The dirt road is tender under Gewitter’s hooves. It solidifies near the center well, stones shoved into the ground so that the well won’t topple.

The wooden bucket smells like Cedar. The rope is old, almost ragged, and refuses to be lowered with ease. The water, despite the poverty of the town, is cold and clear. Ari offers Gewitter some. He drinks from the bucket noisily, bumping his nose on the bottom when he reaches the end of it. Ari tosses the dregs onto the road. No need to subject anyone but herself to Gewitter’s slobber.

Finding an inn proves to be a trick. Everything is shuttered. Everything is closed. On one hand this gives Ari the heebie jeebies, but on the other it restores her faith in the intelligence of the overall town. If there are Faerie this close, she’s willing to bet other unnatural beasties are nearby. Granted the Sidhe keep to their mounds and circles, but where there are Sidhe there are Shadow Crawlers and Brownies.

“The Carriage House” is the only place with a light on. The door is heavy and closed, so Ari has to pound her hand against it to produce any noticeable sound. Eventually the door opens with a frazzled man, glasses askew and pipe hanging from his mouth, and a knife staring her in the face. “You human?” he asks around the pipe, saliva escaping the corner of his mouth. It disappears into his scraggly beard.

“Yes.” Ari says, deciding that if she’s half human then she is technically human in some known universe. “May I have a room? And do you have a stable for my horse?”

The man sizes her up. “They’re looking for you,” he says, finally. He pulls the pipe from his mouth and smacks his chapped lips. Ari finally notices that he’s wearing a robe and his feet are bare.

“I know they’re looking for me—I’ll be out by tomorrow. I don’t cause trouble; I just want to sleep.”

He grimaces at her and then stands to the side. “You can come in.” Then he turns and shouts into the house “CLARICE!” A little girl with bright blond hair and dewy green eyes comes scrambling over. “Put the Miss’ horse in the stable.” The girl bobs her head and Ari barely finds a moment to slip a coin into the girl’s hand.

“Take care of him,” Ari warns. The girl nods and leads Gewitter into the dark night.

The man walks into the Inn, between the tables crowding the floor and pushed against the walls. Chairs are all over the place and there’s a target on one wall, with throwing knives embedded around it. The bar is straight ahead with a meager offering covered in dust behind it. A bar stool is pushed to the side, facing the fire place.

The fire is low and flames lick out of dying embers. It casts the room in a warm glow. Ari can feel warmth returning that she hadn’t known she had lost. Disrupting her revelry in the warmth, the man points to a staircase past the fireplace and target; the stairs are hidden in the corner and completely dark. “You can have the second room on your left. It’s 35 geld a night.”

Ari whistles. “Must be a pretty nice place.”

“You don’t pay,” the man says seriously, “I’ll tell the men looking for you that you’re here.”

“And I’d be more than happy to pay 35 geld to stay here.”

Ari smiles at the small man, slightly worried and wishing she could have seen Gewitter to the stable. It’s odd that the man knows she’s on the run and he’s letting her stay. Oh well, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. And, since she’s pretty sure she can escape or beat this guy if necessary, might as well push her luck since finally (finally) she has a chance to ask. “By the way,” she says, cocking her head; “These men who are after me, you know them?”

“Rumor has it they’re mercs like you.” He says, retaking his seat and popping his pipe in his mouth. “You pissed some guy off up north.”

Ari pulls a face. She pisses some guy off daily. Generally they’re other mercs and it’s just part of the job description. Unless of course you’re Jameson of House Tull. She groans. Honestly, she had thought it would have blown over by now—that it had blown over already—but apparently Jameson had simply been fermenting. Take the Duke of Sturm, next in line to the crown of Weiss, to take her antics too personally. Somebody’s throne must be very uncomfortable or he’s a rare breed of grumpy-saurus. It’s not like the Dragon Egg was his after all. Sure it didn’t really belong to the Walden Elves, but it didn’t belong to him either.

“The egg didn’t even hatch,” she says in her defense, crossing her arms. “It can never hatch; he’s chasing ghosts.”

The innkeeper frowns. Then he takes up a sardonic expression: “The Weissens have always been known for their tempers.”

“And a lot less for their mercy,” Ari concludes miserably. She can bet she’ll find no relief soon unless Jameson drops dead, which can be arranged, she thinks gleefully. Then she looks at herself—half starved, exhausted to the bone, and running on alcohol fumes. Alright, maybe it has to be arranged later. “Is there any way I can rummage up some food—I promise to pay.”

The Innkeeper shrugs. “If you can find your way to the kitchen.”

Ari smiles, “Thank you.”

The kitchen, indeed, was tough to find. Ari walked into the bathroom first. Then she walked into a door to nowhere, which are much more common than one might think. In fact, they might very well be in vogue. Ari wouldn’t know; she only cares about quarrels, not the most popular color of drapes. At the very back was the kitchen and it became extremely obvious that they just tacked the kitchen on, probably so the main Inn could be larger. It seemed odd for such a forlorn town, but the food was good—not totally spoiled—so Ari could care less about their business or lack thereof.

After eating some cold chicken, bread, and lukewarm stew; Ari decided to add the money to her bill at the end rather than disturb the Innkeeper. Her decision was a good one since the Innkeeper had long abandoned his post and Ari navigated the dark to her room, the second on the left, alone.

When the door shut behind her, Ari snaps her fingers and a small, blue flame ignites in her palm. Her back itches something fierce. Black threads run under the skin of her hand and knot at her wrist. She feels the change around her eyes and rubs at them. It would do her no good to accidentally shift here, not when she’s too tired to maintain any self control.

The light goes out.

Ari settles for the floor because she’s sure the bed is full of bugs and she can’t risk magicking them away. She strips herself of her leather jerkin and loose shirt. She sleeps in her undershirt and knickers, curling in the cold but very happy to not be wearing soiled clothes. She’ll have to ask about a bath tomorrow. Then she’ll leave to anywhere-but-here. Like usual.

It’s a bad sleep, an awkward sleep, that night, but no dreams come to her. She hasn’t dreamed in years, but she’s still frightened of their return. There’s only so many times you can watch your parents die and keep your sanity.

So a merc walks into a bar…

part of The Slayer of the Last Dragon

Chapter 1

It smelled of dirt and sweat. Every tavern smelled like dirt and sweat, actually, but this one smelled particularly like dirt and sweat. If Ari looked at the air, she’d swear that she could see beads of sweat suspended; dust motes so thick she couldn’t see across the dim lit, crowded floor. The wood boards lazily creaked under heavy boots. She sat there, by the bar, with a sullen expression on her face.

Everything hurt. She had been riding too hard for too long. It was a routine job—honestly—but Ari had the habit of messing things up. In Mordren, the land west of the mountains, the people are as uncivilized as uncivilized comes. Consequently, the job for a mercenary is relatively easy because there’s no Royal Guard to pursue her if she’s too obvious (which, given her track record, is all too frequent). However, she forgot about the drows that live in the mountains and they were less than pleased to have her performing magic in a village—not theirs, mind you, just one above their underground city—and consequently taught her the finer points of navigating a mountain range with angry gollums chasing you down.

Her horse, who saved her life for the gazillionth time, is now in the stable. She took care of him first because he did all the hard work. At one point he had lost his footing and Ari had to do some basic manipulation magic, but that was her biggest contribution to their escape. A Woden horse—characteristically large, black, and temperamental—are the best under extreme conditions. They also take years to get to like you, but Ari always had a knack with Woden horses. After all, her clan was the first to domesticate them an era and a half ago.

Granted, her clan is gone; she’s the only one left with merely her surname carved across her back as their legacy. It burns each time she casts a spell, a reminder from her father that magic is unwelcome in this land of Aldernon and she better not get herself killed.

So what did Ari do? How did she respect her father’s last wish? Ari became a mercenary. She takes seedy jobs from seedy men and gets paid.

Ari rakes her dark eyes across the room. No one looks suspicious. No one looks promising either. She returns to her stout, eying the dark liquid before taking a deep draught.

“It’s rare to see women fighters,” the barmaid says from behind the counter. Her dark hair is fashioned in braids and pinned to her heard. “Not since the Royal Decree that is.”

Ari smirked. “And what Decree is that? The ‘no woman shall serve in the Guard’? ‘No woman shall be knighted’? Or ‘no woman will inherit her father’s property’?” she counted off on her fingers. Then she closes her fist and smiles at the barmaid; “Or the one of ‘no practical magic’?”

“You know which one,” the barmaid whispers ambiguously, but it’s clear as day. Women were always the better sorcerers—they tended less to be swayed by the darker powers of magic. However, it wasn’t practical magic that really kept Ari’s hands tied. It was dark magic—the blood-born type that only travels in family lines. That kind had been outlawed longer than practical and within reason. The king, after all, couldn’t control you if you could learn magic on your own and not through his court-officiated sorcery schools.

When Ari went to pay for her drink, the barmaid refuses the payment. “I’d use that money to buy supplies and run town.” The dark haired woman motions to a few men gathered in the corner. They were nasty men. They had dirt all along the edges and in the cracks of their toothy smiles. Ari also didn’t recognize them and didn’t much see the need to be frightened of them until the barmaid spoke again. “Heard tell they were following a merc—planned on killing her.”

“Fun.” Ari grimaceds and finished off her stout, wiping foam from her upper lip. “Suppose you don’t know where I can rummy up supplies before riding for my life.”

The barmaid makes a quick, aborted gesture. It was the universal sign of you-should-be-going-but-ohmygodthey’realreadycoming.

Ari leaves with swift movements, slinking past the dirty men as she leaves. She realizes, as she goes by them with their soiled clothes and thin eyes, that the dirt and sweat smell had come from them. Sometimes her senses are stronger than she credits them to be and—well—she could just rightly kick herself.

Everything still hurts as she half-hobbles, half-runs to the stables. She throws a coin purse with probably too much money at the boy in livery. “Men come by, you never saw me.” She says harshly. He pulls a face, which is hardly discernible beneath the layers of dirt, but it relaxes as soon as he peeks into the bag.

“Oh my! I’ve seemed to have gone blind!” he exclaims and pantomimes clawing at his eyes. Ari smiles before darting to the furthest stall.

Generally, her horse whinnies at her approach. However, Gewitter is wilted and leaning against the rough hewn edges of the stall. He hardly lifts his head at her approach, his flanks still quaking from the brutal run. “I’ll come back for you,” she promises and runs a hand on the horse’s right shoulder. Gewitter presses into her wrist and the magic exchange lights up her veins. Then she kicks the stall door open and the horse flies out—running for some safety, some place to wait.

Ari runs out the back door after grabbing her bow and quiver from the stall. She also wraps the bridle around her belt because it was a gift from a Fey and no one should lose a gift from a Fey. The sound of men running is hot and heavy in her ears as she clambers through the small opening in the back of the barn to the back alley beyond.

The town is a blur as Ari runs through it. The cobblestones are uneven beneath her feet. There are few people on the street, but the few there are somehow get in her way. Royal Guards watch her as she swings into an alley. She can hear them call to each other after she leaves. Ari would bet her life they’re going to question the low-lifes on her tail. Sometimes she has the best luck being a girl.

Then, there are times that she has the worst luck being a girl. Like when she tries to convince the watchman to open the gate for her and he won’t because ‘a woman shouldn’t be alone out there’. “Then will you come with me?” she asks with bitter sweetness, sweating under her leather jerkin and heavy wool cloak that Mordren had necessitated in their fall months.

“I can’t leave my post,” the watchman says affably, grinning. One tooth is black, another is cracked, and his eyes sit in worn, aged skin. He has a scar on the back of his left hand. “But you’re more than welcome to sit here with me,” he offers. He’s not sitting. He’s standing on the little parapet and fingering the mechanism that cranks the heavy doors open. What a prat.

“okay,” Ari agrees much to the man’s surprise. She clambers up nimbly, minding his scattered bowls and utensils when she reaches the small, narrow place. Ari notes the weapons leaning against the wall—dagger, half-sword, and a horn—and smiles at how this man is obviously carrying no weapons on his person. Unless BO is a weapon because in that case he is armed to the teeth.

From her vantage point, Ari can see a large swathe of the town. She can also see her pursuers, a smaller posse than before but still sizeable, running down the wide causeway. Lifting the bow from around her shoulder, Ari lines up a shot. “Excuse me miss,” the man begins and she elbows him before sweeping his feet from under him. He lands heavily, head bouncing off the stone wall. She can smell blood, but the approaching posse takes up most of her attention.

Ari smiles as she looses the arrows. They arc lazily through the air and catch these men in the chest. She fells them easily. One hides behind a building, out of her reach, and that’s fine by her. Someone needs to tell their employer that she means business.

As the man in the shadows slinks closer to town, Ari attends to the watchman at her feet. His head is bleeding fiercely. When she cradles it, she can feel the lump forming and the hardness of a skull uncovered. “You’re lucky we’re close to the outskirts,” she says to the unconscious man. Her back burns viciously as she heals the head wound to a more manageable injury. Then she is jumping off the parapet to the dirt road outside the town. Then she is running to anywhere-but-here.