Animus Lost

On Letters of Resignation
In which the Guild is bid farewell

Lead Cartographer Winter,

I regret to inform you that circumstances have forced me to tender my resignation from the Cartographer’s Guild, effective immediately. I apologize that I was not able to provide earlier notice, and hope that my departure will not overly impact the Guild.

I will be leaving Cliffport and Cinderfell in the near future, and will be completely out of contact for an indefinite period of time. Please forward all back, current, and future pay, as well as any standing per diems and saved accounts still in my name to Councilwoman Cyleena Dren.

Furthermore, as I was never properly debriefed, I am resigning while still on field assignment, and as such, my resignation does not follow protocol (under Title VII, Section C through G). Accordingly, any discoveries and advances made during the assignment in which I was in violation (as well as any breakthroughs made on my discoveries), are transferred in responsibility to my direct supervisor (per Title XIV, Section F and I). However, because my assignment was to retrieve the mercenaries held in contract with the late Lead Cartographer Banagher, official records dictate that he was also my immediate superior for the duration of the assignment. I sincerely hope that Lead Cartographer Banagher’s posthumous discovery of the Fu continents—as well as their eventual exploration and entry into the official Cartographer’s Atlas—will be treated with the gravitas it deserves.

Because the couriers in this city are notoriously unreliable, I am dispatching copies of this letter to Master Cartographer DeBelle (in the records department) and Empress Astrid Valentine’s personal valet. Both have instructions to hand-deliver their copies if they have reason to believe yours didn’t arrive.

Once again, I apologize for any inconvenience my resignation might have caused. I am intensely grateful for the time in which I held the honor of being a Cartographer, and wish the greatest of prosperity upon the Guild, for many years to come.

With deepest sincerity,

Archibald Greene

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On Unfortunate Timing
In which Arkh learns of his family

“I’m pregnant.”

The words had struck Arkh like a brick wall. Not only the fact that he was months away from adding “father” to his list of accomplishments, but everything that meant, for him, Cyleena, and their baby.

His gut instinct was to permanently hang up the ‘Field Cartographer’ dream, and to do whatever was necessary to secure stability with the Guild, favoring steady pay over lucrative and dangerous work. He quickly realized, however, that his actions earlier that same day had cemented that plan rather firmly in the ‘no longer an option’ category. Blood mages aren’t even allowed to exist in the Empire, let alone live out quiet, peaceful lives; especially those that make their gifts known, in front of the Imperial family, on the Empress’ Coronation day, by brutally murdering her groom’s Peer Council in an agonizing explosion of gore.

Worse than all that, however, was that due to Sorcery being passed from parent to offspring, his child would suffer the same fate as him, if their lineage were discovered. The child would never be able to know that he was their father, and Cyleena would never be able to maintain any semblance of a romantic relationship with Arkh, even if he could find a way to stay in Cinderfell. The fact that he had no choice but to sit by silently while she was forced to let people think she’d been cheating on him… It had become extremely clear to Arkh that in the theater that would be his child’s life, he did not play a role.

He spent the night with Cyleena, and in the wake of all the death and pain he’d seen in the last two months, their evening of life-affirming love was everything he needed it to be. But in the morning, he left before she woke, and he did not say goodbye. He knew that things would be harder for her if she still loved him, and he still wanted to help. The best father he could be was one who abandoned them, a man who disappeared in the night, who was easy to lie about, and who was not worth remembering. A man who could be literally anyone.

The irony was not lost on him.

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On Compulsory Participation
In which Arkh warns his friend.

“Stop squirming, you wimp,” Arkh said, focusing on his work. “You’re only making this take longer.”

“Well ahm sorry, lad, but ahm no’ used to actually gettin’ ‘urt!” Albin winced as Arkh tightened a bandage on his arm, which was still slick with his blood.

“Are you not the unbreakable behemoth of combat we all depend on?”

“Ah am,” Albin offered, between hissed breaths. “But me armor’s so thick, ah’ve fergotten wha’ it feels like te get ‘urt in th’ ferst place.”

Arkh fought to suppress a chuckle, finished patching up Albin’s shoulder, and began prepping the upper arm. The dwarf had done a good number on himself, dragging one of his shield’s blades from shoulder to wrist, and had opened up a number of veins in the process. Nothing was too major—and the risk of permanent damage was almost null—but the warrior had already lost a lot of blood as it was, and would likely be going through weeks of recovery if anyone less skilled was tending to him.

“Yer welcome, lad.” The Dwarf’s gruff interjection pulled Arkh from his focused state, and made him critically aware of how silent he’d been for the last few minutes.

“For what, exactly?” he asked, trying to focus on the delicate work.

Albin scratched his beard with his good arm. “Fer all th’ blood. Looked like yeh put it te’ good use.”

That gave Arkh pause, and he took a moment to set down his instruments before leaning forward on his stool, and responding. “This is going to sound weird, but you probably shouldn’t be so eager to say that.”

Albin narrowed his eyes in confusion. “Yer right, tha’ does sound weird.”

Arkh grinned a little. “What I mean is, that you shouldn’t say ‘you’re welcome,’ because I’m not going to thank you.”

Albin tried to cross his arms in defiance, immediately regretting the attempt as pain coursed through his still-being-operated-on arm. Instead, he just sniffed angrily. “Well fine, don’ be polite. Ah only gave yeh me blood, after all.”

“That’s not what I meant, Albin,” Arkh said, sitting up straight. “What I meant was, that giving thanks is Skygoat’s perogative. You weren’t helping me, we were both helping him. You just made my contribution more significant.”

“Yeh can thank me for tha’, then.”

Arkh smiled again. “Alright, thank you.”

“And yer welcome.” He made to continue, but Arkh held up a hand in arrest.

“There’s more to it, though.” He let out a breath, and leaned forward again. “As I’ve probably whined about to you, I’m at war with the magic in my blood.” Albin rolled his eyes, but silently nodded. “And after today, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’m losing. Unless something changes soon, I believe that eventually, I will either become a slave to my magic, or be killed by it. You offering your ‘help’—though I hesitate to call it that—just gave the Blood another weapon to wield against me in the coming battles. I’m not going to thank you for that.”

“Yeh think yer gonna ‘urt me, te give yerself more power?”

“I think I’ll be tempted. I don’t know what I’m capable of, to be honest. As of the last two demonstrations, however, I know as fact that I’m much more dangerous than most Blood mages ever get, and I’m scared that I might hurt you… again.” When Albin only laughed in response, Arkh fought to control his temper. “I’m trying to warn you about me, and you laugh in my face? What’s so funny about that?”

Using his good hand, Albin slapped Arkh’s shoulder in a gesture of strength and comraderie. “Ahm no’ laughin’ a’ yer sit’ation, lad.” He smirked a bit. “Ahm laughin’ b’cause yer dumb enough te’ think tha’ any ah’ us is gonna let tha’ happen te yeh.”

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On Clearing One's Head

Arkh thanked the courier, and closed the door as she departed. He popped the seal open, and read Cyleena’s missive in silence.

Once he’d read the letter a few times, he tucked it into his chest pocket, and moved to return to his work on Goldie’s venom. He shuffled through his notes to get his head straight, then set them down after a moment, too distracted to focus. He put a lid on the beaker and sealed it in a wooden storage box, nestled next to some experiments and tests he was working on with the Slive venom. It had been a productive day, all things considered. He scribbled some notes on the box’s placard and set it to the side, then turned and left the lab.

In truth, it wasn’t the letter that was distracting him. He did miss Cyleena, and he was very excited to see her again, but something was bothering him, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. He took a few steps towards the mess hall, then remembered that Goldie and Quinlan would still be there, possibly others. He turned around, and made for the courtyard.

Something was wrong. Not in the immediate sense—Arkh didn’t feel scared, or threatened—just, in general. Since their return to Cliffport, he’d felt uneasy, almost anxious. Like waiting for something that still hadn’t happened. He rounded a corner, and worked his way past a few Apprentices talking excitedly about their geology lesson from a few days prior.

Suddenly, Arkh felt very sad. In barely more than a month, he’d gone from being just like them, to who he was now. Six weeks ago, he’d have locked himself in the lab for days until his work was done; today, he’d barely managed an hour before losing focus. Sure, there were distractions, but that wasn’t the point. His world was changing, and he was the one changing it.

Arkh stepped out into the open courtyard, and immediately felt the sun’s caress on his dark skin. He made his way over to a thick-trunked oak tree, and sat down at the base, leaning forward on his bent knees. Gazing out into the western end of the harbor, he could forget about Cliffport’s troubles, for a time. There wasn’t much fighting over there yet, and it was still peaceful enough that the uninitiated might not know any better. For a long while he sat there, not doing or thinking about much of anything.

“The girls said you were in your lab.”

The voice startled Arkh a bit, but he managed to restrain his surprise enough to avoid actually jumping. He turned to see Nameless approaching.

“But I didn’t wanna actually try to figure out where that was, so I came outside.”

Arkh nodded, and patted the ground next to him. “Sit down, might as well enjoy it while you’re here.” The burly Beastman complied, and let out a soft groan of relaxation as he leaned back against the sturdy trunk.

“Here,” Nameless said, offering up a leather pouch. “They had smoked meat, I grabbed some for you. Figured you’d be hungry.”

Arkh’s stomach growled in affirmation as he took the bag. “Thank you, I am. Didn’t realize how long I’ve been out here.”

“Everything alright? I thought you were working on Goldie’s venom or something.”

Arkh half-shrugged as he pulled out some of the dried jerky. “Couldn’t focus. Wanted to clear my head a bit.”

Nameless leaned his head back and closed his eyes, enjoying the salty afternoon air. “Feel like you’re waiting for something to happen?”

Arkh finished chewing his bite, and turned to face Nameless. “Since we got to Cliffport, yeah. How’d you know?”

“I noticed it earlier, too.”

“What do you think it is?”

Nameless opened his eyes to meet Arkh’s gaze. “It’s been too easy.” Arkh titled his head like a confused puppy, so Nameless continued. “Everything that’s happened since we left that tunnel has been so easy. Cerlissa gave us super-fancy gifts, Astrid barely batted an eyelash at you being a Blood Mage—hell, even the tunnel itself dropped us right into town! Absolutely nothing has gone wrong since we got here, and that…” He trailed off, and shook his head. “That worries me. A lot.”

Arkh took a moment to digest the Beastman’s words before speaking again. “This is the part where I naively suggest ligtening up, and enjoying the downtime while we still have it. But, I know it doesn’t work like that.”

Nameless shook his head. “It never does.”

The silence between them hung thick for a few moments before Arkh broke it. “Quinlan mentioned Halton to me, eariler.” Nameless raised an eyebrow before Arkh could correct himself. “Actually, I think it was less Quinlan, and more my horse.”

Nameless took in a breath, then got back to his hooves, brushing off the back of his kilt as he stood. He stepped past Arkh, admiring the view for a moment before turning back to the Orc. “I already told you that I trust you, and that I know it couldn’t have been you.” Arkh made to protest, but Nameless held up a hand. “And I don’t want to talk about it any more.” He turned and gestured towards the harbor. "We have a job to do, or we will soon. Even with all the luck in the world, we’re gonna have a hard time, and might not make it back.

“We all have to focus right now, and take advantage of this downtime, suspicious though it may be. We have to get ready for what’s next, and you being distracted doesn’t help anyone. I’m not gonna contribute to that by discussing Halton with you.” He extended an arm to Arkh, who took it, and got to his feet.

“Now, let’s get back to work.”

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A Letter for Master Green

Archie,

I’m so glad to see that you’ve returned! When Astrid arrived and told us the news about New Turath, I was terrified for you. I managed to get her alone and she told me all about your travels together. She also told me you started a fight with the Fu only days after getting your asses handed to you more than once. You’re an idiot, but I’m glad you’re still alive.

So I was promoted shortly after you left. I’d be more excited about it, but I’m a lot more excited about what Astrid has planned. It won’t be official until she takes regency or succeeds the throne, but she’s appointed me her Councilperson from the Guild! She isn’t keeping any of the old Councilmen, and they’re pretty upset over it, but what are they going to do? I feel a little bad for Cartographer Mitcher, since he’s been on the council for probably a hundred years, advising the throne, but it’s Astrid’s right to replace them.

As far as the ships are concerned, Astrid is convinced that it’s the Fu. She showed me the map you gave her, and I can’t say that I disagree with her. I thought they were just a legend, but they can’t be as powerful as the stories say. We’ve held off their ships so far. I’m afraid that something has to change, though, if we’re going to fend them off for good. Don’t let the general public know, for obvious reasons, but we’re starting to lose ground or… water, I guess. We’re losing more ships than we can afford and Astrid suspects that there will be a direct attack on the city within a week. A month if we’re very lucky.

Hey, so I might not be able to see you in person for a few days. Probably not until after the wedding. Until then, don’t believe any of the rumors, okay? People are saying things about me, but it’s probably just the Guild being mad that I made the counsel seat and their next pick didn’t. I’ve got something to tell you, but it’s not so urgent that I’m going to tell you in a letter. Just don’t believe everything you hear about a girl, okay?

Sorry it’s such a short letter, but I didn’t really have time to write this much. I just wanted to give you an idea of what’s up here in the Citadel before you go walking around hearing stories from people who are already scared and confused.

Stay Safe,

Cyleena

7hggfh67s,d/.,.d.da
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Manners Forgot

Quinlan decided to go talk to Arkh. Really, it was the Scary Horse part of her that wanted to hang out with him. She knew that, but no one seemed to want to differentiate. According to her favorite friends, she was just Quinlan-plus-different-but-still-Quinlan. It made explaining herself difficult sometimes, but luckily they didn’t often ask her to.

Some vague part of her brain thought to knock on the door, but by the time she realized why, she was already face-to-face with the startled Orc she was looking for.

“Hi!” she walked excitedly across the room while Arkh hastily set a glass container and dropper down on the table. Before she consulted the Fey portion of her sensibilities, Quinlan greeted Arkh as she often did. She placed her forehead on his chest and shoved him.

Arkh wasn’t exactly prepared for her affection, and his arms flailed wildly for something to hold onto while he fell backward with a yelp of surprise. Quinlan followed him to the floor and was giggling so much that she didn’t notice Arkh’s irritable expression or his weak attempts at detangling himself from her.

“What… What?” he started, frustrated, then lapsed into silence, impatiently waiting for Quinlan to explain herself.

She didn’t. “What are you doing, Light Rider? You never chat with the mercenaries anymore.”

Arkh finally gave up on trying to get up, and grudgingly allowed Quinlan to cuddle him on the floor. With a huff, he answered her question, “I was with Goldie a moment ago, you just missed her. Wait, what’s a Light Rider?”

“Oh I love Goldie. How is she? She didn’t get hurt, did she? Oh I bet she’s fine.” Quinlan was rambling. She’d pause for a moment, but just as Arkh took a breath to answer one of her questions, she was off again. “When was the last time you bathed? You smell awesome. Have you figured out Goldie’s bear thing? What are you doing this evening? Do you want to have dinner together? I always liked eating with you, but you never eat with the group anymore. It’s not like they hate you for being a Blood mage. Even Sky Goat, and he really has every reason to hate you. Goldie will get over it. How have you been sleeping? I don’t really sleep with you anymore because I like to sleep with Sky Goat and you’re so little I think I’d get cold…”

His fidgeting was fruitless, she just moved with him or flat out ignored his feeble attempts to shift away from her. “What’s that in that jar? Can you show me some Blood Magic?”

“No.”

Arkh took advantage of Quinlan’s surprise and unraveled his limbs from hers. He stood quickly and pretended to focus on his work-table. He hunched his shoulders away from her, fully aware of the fact that he was pouting like a child.

“Well, since I guess this got serious, I have to ask you something.” Quinlan wrapped her hands around Arkh’s torso and rested her cheek gently on his back, between his shoulderblades. “What do you know about Halton?”

Arkh grew still, then jerked, trying to twist around to face her, but she seemed to have expected it; she held him still and spoke to him softly. “I’m not accusing you of anything, I just need to know what you know.”

She didn’t let him go until he relaxed. She finally gave him a little space, but watched him through her thickly lashed, clear blue eyes. After a moment Arkh sighed and answered her, “Only what Nameless has told me. I haven’t exactly had time to visit any libraries since I’ve met him.”

Relaxing a bit, Quinlan returned to his side and picked up one of the glass containers. “Seriously, though, what is this?”

Wide eyed, Arkh reached out to retrieve the expensive glass beaker from her grip. He rearranged his things for the sole reason of giving himself time to adjust to her rapid topic-changes. She was as bad as Goldie, except more difficult to distract. Finally, he felt like he could answer her with an acceptably friendly tone of voice, “It’s actually poison from Goldie. I’m working on an antidote in case anyone is accidentally bitten or otherwise infected.”

As if right on cue, Goldie opened the door, already talking, “Hey, Blood Mage, did I leave my belt in here?” She walked in, smiling and waving at Quinlan, who returned her greeting in kind. “I think I might have taken it off in here while… THERE IT IS.” Goldie spotted the battered leather belt on the table among Arkh’s equipment, and shouldered her way between Arkh and Quinlan to reach for it.

Obviously, Quinlan had to do something about that, so she bit her. Hard. Goldie wasn’t wearing any armor at the time, and Quinlan’s broad, flat teeth sank deep into her bicep. Goldie was so surprised that she flailed her arm around in a useless panic, knocking over several of Arkh’s things, and immediately backed up a few steps. Arkh had his hands up in the air and gaped at Quinlan, speechless.

Tears welled up in Goldie’s eyes as she rubbed her bruised shoulder. “WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?” She tried to talk louder than usual to cover the quivering sense of betrayal in her voice.

Quinlan was unphased. “You deserved it. Are you hungry? Let’s go get lunch.”

Still clearly hurt, Goldie couldn’t help but accept since she really was hungry. She nodded, and Quinlan put her arm around her shoulders.

“I’m in the mood for some delicious apples, and I bet you’re still craving fish, right?” Quinlan led Goldie out of the room, leaving Arkh standing open-mouthed and flustered, “Since the place we went to this morning didn’t have any and you had to settle for eggs? Gross. I asked around a bit and found out where we can go. Should we get the guys? Nah, let’s just have some lady time. I know you get this a lot, but I really love your eyes. HA I bet you thought I was going to say hair. But seriously…”

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On Milking Your Friends

Cliffport, one day after arrival

Goldie’s head was bent back at an awkward angle, and saliva dripped out of the corners of her mouth as Arkh’s finger palpated her soft palate. “Arghharrhhmmmrff?” she asked around the digit. Arkh hissed and pulled his hand back quickly, examining it for scratches.

“Goldie, don’t DO that! You could have bitten me!” he exclaimed.

The blonde woman looked down and muttered, “Sorry.” She scuffed her feet on the floor next to the bed she was sitting on. “I just wanted to know how come your finger tastes like ink.”

He looked at her for a moment, and replied, “Because I am a cart- you know what, never mind that.” He shook his head. “If I’m going to find your venom sacs in order to milk them, I need you to remain absolutely still. You wouldn’t want to bite me, would you?” When she smirked and remained silent, he hastened to add, “Er, never mind, please don’t answer that. Now please open up again.”

She stared up at the ceiling again while his finger moved around her soft palate and ran along her gums. Finally he stepped back and made some notations in his journal before turning to her with a strange cup in his hand. It was an obviously expensive clear glass vessel with some kind of thin material stretched over the opening.

Arkh held the cup out and explained, “Now, Goldie, what I need you to do is to bite through this film with your incisors- your top teeth- and chew to release your venom. I’ll tell you when we have enough collected.”

Dubiously, Goldie took the cup and did as instructed, even though it felt extremely silly. She could feel the venom moving through the roof of her mouth and dripping down her teeth. It was a strange, but oddly satisfying experience. After a relatively short amount of time, Arkh signaled her to stop and took the container away. He capped it and held it up to the light streaming in from the window. It was a pale, straw-colored fluid. The Orc made a satisfied noise before stowing the venom away in his pack.

“Thank you for cooperating, Goldie. It will be extremely useful to be able to make antivenin for you, in the event that you should accidentally puncture one of our party with a tooth in any form.” Before she could ask, he said, “Antivenin is used to help stop the effects of a venomous bite. It may prevent the afflicted person from dying, or at least reduce the toxicity of the venom.”

Goldie smiled brightly. “You’re welcome, Blood Mage! It’s like you actually care about us not dying, even though you’re a filthy blood mage!” Ignoring Arkh’s visible flinch, she went on, “I will bite cups for you again, if you need. Hey also…” she said, clearly struck by a new idea, “ can you make some of that into a way to coat my axe or Fritz’s arrows? Then we could poison people!” Obviously thrilled at the idea of poisoning as many people as possible with her good friend Fritz, she hustled out of the room as soon as Arkh nodded hesitantly. “I suppose I-” he started, but she was already gone.

With a sigh, the Orc medic went back to tinkering with his supplies and taking notes in his journal. He had hoped that showing Goldie he meant to prevent injury to the party would go a long way toward getting her to trust him again, but she apparently wasn’t ready for that.

He was awfully lonely these days.

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To Return Unannounced

“Just a little further, Jeanne,” Astrid patted the big white mare on the neck. She could already smell the sea-salt air that reminded her of home. “Just a little further.” Clearly, she was talking more to herself than the horse, but Jeanne didn’t mind.

“Lady,” Batul called from behind. Surprisingly, Bucky tolerated his guidance while Jeanne refused him entirely. When he first tried to sit Jeanne, who is generally much more genial than Bucky, she sidestepped him, swinging her flank around and reached back with her head to shove him off whenever he got within easy reach. When he finally did get on, she stubbornly made his life miserable, doing the opposite of what he told her to, and generally making him look like a terrible horseman.

Bucky only tried to kill him every chance he got.

“Lady!” He repeated, louder, “Are those ships yours?”

Astrid fixated on the strip of grey out on the horizon that marked the ocean. Indeed, there were tiny blemishes that could be ships, but Astrid couldn’t tell if they were Cinderfell or otherwise.

Without another word, she kicked Jeanne into a gallop.

Bucky, sensing a race, attempted to throw Batul. Failing that, he sprinted and flanked Jeanne, snapped at her neck playfully, and disappeared with the deafening silence of magic kjkk . Unfortunately for Batul, Bucky hadn’t taken him with her, and he tumbled behind.

Astrid decided not to worry too much about him and spotted Bucky far ahead, galloping triumphantly, kicking out sideways. Jeanne saw him, too, and decided that she wouldn’t be beat. Astrid felt the quick falling sensation she’d associated with Pact Travel, and found herself almost to the edge of the cliff. Wide-eyed, she pulled back hard on the reins, causing Jeanne to dig her hooves into the dirt and barely avoided tumbling over. Astrid was honestly surprised Jeanne didn’t simply sprout wings and fly, by now.

When Astrid got the chance, she looked out at the waters surrounding her home. They were churning with strange ships sporting red and gold sails, and her heart sank.

A familiar clattering betrayed Batul’s swift approach, with Bucky trotting up behind him looking proud of himself. Batul flew past Astrid and hovered over the water. “I don’t recognize these ships, Lady.”

“I think I do.” She stared for a moment more before shaking herself, “Batul, get rid of those wings and mount your horse. My people need me.”

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Bear Bones
get it... cuz it's a pun, and alliterative, and a sexual innuendo... get it?

Morning after last session

Goldie stretched and felt something dig into her hips as she moved against the hard ground. That was strange. Her pelt should protect her from silly things like rocks. After all, bears were hardy creatures. She yawned widely and turned over, and once again gravel dug sharply into her side. Frustrated, she growled and opened her eyes to see what kind of rocks could possibly penetrate her amazing brown fur. With a scream of sheer horror, she jumped to her feet, her hands clutching at her human clothing, breasts, hair, and axe.

“No!” she yelled, roaring and stamping her feet. “No, I’m a bear now! I am a bear! Why aren’t I a bear?!” Looking wildly around, Goldie spied Fritz on the other side of the campfire, looking as though he’d been rudely awakened by something in the early morning light. She couldn’t think what that would be, but since he was awake she stomped over to him. “Fritz, why aren’t I a bear?” she asked desperately. Fritz always had the answers to her questions.

Fritz sighed as the angry form of Goldie, now human, stormed up to him. He could tell this was already going to be a long day. As she asked him why she wasn’t a bear anymore, Fritz sat up and propped himself up against a nearby tree. Though the tree would doubtlessly try and kill him sooner or later, Fritz was too tired to care. Furthermore, how the hell was Fritz suppose to know why she wasn’t a bear? With the events of the previous day, it was barely a surprise when Goldie was replaced by a bear. But, Fritz couldn’t just leave Goldie without an answer, that’d be rude.

“These things just sorta happen at random,” Fritz lied, “Why don’t you think I’ve been able to turn into a dog on command, or Sgt. Stumpy can turn into an elf yet?”

Her blue eyes bored into Fritz’s face as she tried to discern the truth in his statement. Goldie knew that Fritz wasn’t always honest with her, but when it was really important he could usually be counted on to keep everything straight. Plus, he had already established that elves could turn into dogs, and that some dwarves could, too (although she didn’t believe that Albin could do that; he was a liar through and through), so she was inclined to believe him right now. Goldie looked down at her puny human hands and sighed from what felt like the bottom of her soul. “So I… I can’t be a bear all the time?” she asked in a small, hurt sort of voice. “That isn’t fair. I wanted to be a bear, I HAVE wanted it I mean, for my whole life and now I get to do it and then I wake up and it’s gone? That isn’t fair!” With a kick at a stray tin cup, the stocky blonde woman began a short rampage around the campsite. She kept it quieter, though, since Sgt. Stumpy and the kittens needed their sleep. They were just babies.

“Wait,” she said suddenly, and wheeled on Fritz, “didn’t you say that it’s only young elves that can’t control the change? I’m not young, and I’m not an elf, so I should be able to control it, right? How do you MAKE it happen. Now, don’t play around, and tell me what I should do to FORCE it out. I NEED to be a bear, Fritz!” She pushed her bangs out of her face so that she could tie her hair back, but it just got tangled in her stupid human fingers. If they were claws, and she were a bear, it wouldn’t be an issue!

While amused at Goldie’s little temper tantrum, he couldn’t help but be annoyed when she kicked his mug across the camp. Thankfully, for Arkh, the empty cup stopped just short of his face. Arkh sneezed and rolled over as the dust kicked up from the cup settled. Fritz brought his attention back to Goldie as she started questioning his elf-dog transformation logic. While she was getting better about doubting any information Fritz provided her, it was fairly easy to either maintain the ruse or simply redirect her curiosity. Fritz maintained eye contact as he thought carefully about his answer.

“I’m no expert on human transfiguration, especially since it’s sooo rare, but my guess is that even though you’re old by human standards, your alter-animal hasn’t matured to its full extent,” Fritz said, not believing how much effort he would go through to trick this poor deadly Norscan. “For example, I rarely change into a dog, even though I’m eighty-four. Maybe alter-animals are just tuned for longer-living species.”

The swiping hand in her hair turned into a head scratch. “But I… I’m not old. I’m only in my early twenties, and I…” she paused as he finished his statement. “Oh. So I’m too young? But then why did I change at all? I just felt so funny, like my skin was too tight, and I had that horrible buzzing in my head, and then I was a bear.” The normally stoic Goldie sniffed a little bit and dashed a frustrated tear from the corner of her eye as she walked back to Fritz’s bedroll. She looked at the elf and knew that he would never understand her pain, but she could try to enlighten him. “Fritz, for just a minute, I was a bear. It was perfect. I was perfect as a bear. I killed everything that I wanted to before the Blood Mage took that away from me, and then-” Stricken by a new thought, she stopped. Wrath grew in her expression and she leveled a deadly glare at the sleeping form of Arkh.

“Fritz.” Her voice was cold and edged in the steel of her axe. “Did that Blood Mage change me back into a human?”

“Doubt it,” Fritz replied quickly, knowing that Goldie would be more than willing to end Arkh for less. “Plus, Arkh was sleeping all night. We didn’t bother to wake him for his turn on watch since the little nerd needs his beauty sleep.”

Fritz sat silently, hoping the emotionally fragile bear-axe-lady wouldn’t decide to end the blood mage and medic’s life while he slept. Fritz looked around; the released beastmen were starting to wake. He sighed again and brought his attention back to Goldie, “Anyone in your home village develop human-bear transformation?”

Narrowing her eyes, Goldie looked hard at Arkh’s back before turning her attention back to Fritz. She crossed her arms and hugged herself forlornly as she let the anger go. “Ma always said that anger isn’t productive,” she remarked offhandedly. She gathered her thoughts for a moment before responding to his question, and made sure to think really hard about it before answering. It was sort of a silly question, anyway, since everybody had already heard the story of her village, but probably Fritz wasn’t listening. He tended to think that she wasn’t very smart, which was wrong of him, but everyone had faults and his was clearly underestimating people. She tried not to get too upset at him about it, because Albin was much worse. It just wasn’t worth engaging with them most of the time.

“Do you remember what I said about my village?” she began, hoping that a brief recap would suffice. “About forty years ago, the Jottun stole my whole village away and did experiments on them. They turned them all into bears and then let them go, and none of them remember what happened. About half of them turned back into people after a while, and then I was born after my parents got married. Then we moved our village down near Lovis, and lots of beast people come there and my uncle and lots of other people are still bears. I have a cousin who is a bear, but no one else has ever started out as a person and turned into a bear… at least not that I know of.” Feeling uncertain and needing some comfort, even the dubious comfort that Fritz was likely to provide, Goldie scooped up a kitten from the pile of sleeping furry bodies and sat cross-legged next to the elf. She buried her face in the kitten’s downy hair and leaned against Fritz’s shoulder. “I just want to be a bear again, Fritz,” she said softly.

Fritz sat quietly for several seconds, before awkwardly shifting his position and patting Goldie on the back in an attempt to reassure her. Fritz stared into the dying embers of the fire of the night before, his mind racing for something to say. Fritz sighed, it would do no one any good to continue trying to explain why the Norscan had randomly assumed the form of a bear. Fritz reached for a nearby by piece of wood that was cut the night before and tossing it into the fire.

After what felt like too long for comfort, Fritz finally spoke up, trying to sound encouraging, “At least you got to make the Jottun pay. Not many people can say that, let alone as a bear.”

A tiny glimmer of joy penetrated Goldie’s fugue and she looked at Fritz out of the corner of her eye. He’d patted her back! He DID care! She’d known that he did all along, but it was really nice to have the confirmation. She nestled into his armpit while he had his arm up and kissed the kitten’s tiny head. It was good to have another friend, especially since she’d never thought that Fritz would be one. As the kitten purred, sounding like a sack of marbles rolling together, she replied more brightly, “You’re right! I DID make those filthy Jottun pay. Not as much as they’re going to, but it was a good start. I killed them pretty good with my axe AND with my claws.” Satisfied with that, she sighed and slumped into Fritz’s warm side. He sure was comfy.

“You sure are comfy,” she remarked. “Do you think that Albin’s hair can be used to make rugs?”

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To End and Begin Again

He stopped flying… I am sure he is fatigued… I moved over to see what was wrong when I noticed some new subjects being led in. There were many of them, so I went to help.

I have made a terrible mistake.


The intruders tore down the door, and one of my own proud creations entered the operation room. He was terrifying, especially for a third generation—which he obviously was. He was followed by several Untouched, and their intentions were quite clear.

Why do they struggle against this?

They were upon my fellow Artisans like spiders. They tore them down to the ground to tear their armor from their bodies while my subject struggled to take breaths on the table below me. They were ignoring me for now.

I could run.

The treacherous thought coursed through my mind like an evil thing. The subject would surely die if I fled.

Maybe I could even save them…

I ignored the dying pleas for help of my siblings. Their shrill cries were equally unanswered by Soldiers, and I leaned forward to finish what I’d started. Her breathing leveled out as the tissues were forced to accept one another, and soon her souls collided. My work was finished, and I looked up to see an Untouched face twisted in some kind of emotion. Her axe was raised, and maybe I could have dodged it, had I tried.

Our lives are a worthy price for hers.


Why are they falling? What is happening to them?

I was afraid. My siblings flailed and tore at their armored skin as if there was something crawling beneath it. The skies themselves rebelled against us.

What did we do wrong?

I chose to drop from the sky rather than brave its wrath. It was a cowardly thing to do. I landed hard near the main building and lie in the grass as though I had been taken from whatever monstrosity that had dominated the skies. I looked around slowly and found an Untouched lying on an exposed bit of stone. He wasn’t standing with the rest of them, ready to fight. He was wrinkling his soft face in the same way that many of the Mended did, and suddenly I understood what it meant.

He was sad.

I am sad.

I turned away from the Untouched, and began to crawl toward the walls of the main hall. Once there, I began to dig. There were runnels near the base, to keep the water from deteriorating the weak, wooden walls. I put myself in that shameful place, beneath the earth.

I want to live.

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