Animus Lost

Foreign Adoption Practices

He just wanted to play. The smallest of the dogs lay dejected by the stream bed. He opened his eyes and peered through his dark fur at his siblings, rolling and pouncing and chasing. He had put out a decent effort to join, but they ignored him. He was too hungry to keep trying, since they all got to eat and he just couldn’t seem to get past them before it was all gone. He had a good plan for the next meal, though, and he was pretty certain that it was going to work.

He was contemplating that very plan when he smelled something strange. He lifted his head to get a better whiff, and then he was sure of it. Someone new was approaching!

PEOPLE!

He hopped up and loped toward the smell until he could hear them, and they were so exciting! Of course, his siblings had heard him running, and they were a little faster than he was, but there were enough of the strangers for him to find one to play with. One of them was rolling around and being very exciting, and everyone was getting petted and talked to.

There was a real short one that he liked the best. He jumped up and whined at him, and it was so funny, making jokes. It pretended to be mad, baring its teeth and growling, but really it liked him. It was wearing hard plates and was all furry underneath, especially around its face, just like mom, but way smaller, like he was!

He was still jumping up on it when suddenly it pushed him away. He tumbled and got to his feet to see that Mom liked him too! She was licking him in the face, and it was all very exciting. The pup went over to see what the other strangers were doing. There was even one of them that looked a lot like Dad, so he went to go say hi to him.

The strangers were so interesting that he almost didn’t notice that Mom was leaving. She was out of sight, but he could still smell her, so he followed that.

He made his way through the woods and eventually got back home, but Mom wasn’t there, so he kept following the trail. He went through the stream, and over a hill, and he kept going even though he was so tired of walking. He couldn’t possibly sleep without Mom nearby. She didn’t cuddle him anymore, but she still stayed close and that was enough to make him feel safe. It was such a long way, though, and he might be lost already. What would he do if he got lost? He didn’t even know how to hunt yet, because Mom always went without him.

Feeling very upset, now, he stopped to rest a bit. It was a few minutes until he heard a big noise and felt something familiar pass by him in a rolling wave. He thought it might be Mom, how she sometimes feels that way, and ran as fast as he could to find her.

It didn’t take long for him to catch up, and he saw them! He even caught a glimpse of Dad! Something was happening. Dad was trying to get to him, but the ground was being confusing and the trees were slapping at him. Mom showed up and pushed him away. Dad kept looking back at the lonely pup, but Mom’s pushing and the crazy, bucking landscape drove him away.

Before long it was quiet and lonely again. The pup was just too tired and hungry to keep chasing them. He laid down and began to cry for his family, but no one came.

That is, until a strange pair of thin, gentle hands picked him up. He couldn’t remember the last time someone picked him up and it felt nice. Warm.

He was sad, but he was also tired, so he fell asleep in those arms.

He felt some jostling as he changed hands, and heard the funny growling of the short, furry stranger that he liked so much. He looked up and saw the stranger that looked like Dad, but darker. He was in the arms of the bright, furry one, and a stranger that looked like something Mom or Dad would bring back to eat. They were all so nice, he was almost too excited to sleep.

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On Regrets

Fritz thundered off into the forest shouting, and Arkh took a moment to collect himself. He was pretty sure he had missed, but he’d just loosed his crossbow, and he was pretty sure it was at another person. He’d never done that before.

Waking Goldie was an experience, but she made enough noise that he didn’t really have to bother with anyone else. “Fritz just ran off into the forest,” he sputtered out nervously. “I think he saw something.”

“Wha’ was it?” Albin asked as he stood up. There was so much hair, Arkh genuinely couldn’t tell if the dwarf was nude or not.

“I’m not sure, but I think he thought it was a thief.”

“It was,” Beefstick interjected. “My pack is missing.”

“Aye, and a smart one, too,” agreed Albin. “Sod cut the straps on my armor. These’ll need stitching later.”

“Later?” Arkh inquired.

Beefstick bleated. “Someone took our stuff. We gotta go get ’em.” They all hefted weapons and had magic at the ready.

“Oh, alright. I’ll uh… I’ll be right with you then.” And with that, the camp was empty, save Arkh. He wanted to see what the thief took from him, if anything. “Can’t imagine anyone seeing anything valuable in my pack,” he mumbled to himself as he opened it up, “just a bunch of maps and pa—”

Arkh was four years old. He handed his mother a piece of paper she’d given him, eager to show her his work. She smiled at the drawing, and asked “is this the Abbey?” He beamed with pride as he nodded furiously.

Arkh was seven years old. His heart threatened to beat out of his chest as the Abbess hung his map on the wall, saying it was, without question, the best and most accurate depiction of the region she’d ever seen.

Arkh was nine years old. His eyes welled with tears as the Abbey passed out of view, his bottom already sore from the wooden bench of the Cartographer’s wagon. He would distract himself over the next few days by mapping their long journey to Cliffport.

Arkh was fifteen years old. He did his best to hide his embarassment as the instructor asked what the dark stain in the middle of his map was. He lied, explaining it as an ink spill that he’d cleaned up. He didn’t want to admit he’d stayed up all night perfecting his map, and had drooled a little when he’d fallen asleep on it.

Arkh was ninteen years old. He’d just been given a new master, a Cartographer named Banagama or something. No Cartographer had ever complimented his work the first time they saw it, but this new one did. Interesting.

Arkh was twenty-two years old. The other Apprentices were going into town to celebrate Apprentice Erikson’s birthday. They had pooled their money, and were going to buy him a bed at the bordello with it. Arkh wanted to go, but his Reach maps were severely lacking in quality, and he really needed to update them. He had more fun that night than any of the other Apprentices, even Erikson.

Arkh was twenty-seven years old. He held in his hands the last map Banagher had approved, before being promoted away. He had never been more proud of anything than he was of this map. Focusing as hard as he could on the map was the only way he could keep from crying, as the physicians of House Grav explained the situation to him. He’d never had many friends, but Banagher had been one of them.

Every single map was gone. All of them. His calling, his purpose. His triumphs and his failures, his achievements and his aspirations. The variegated pages of his life… stolen away in the night.

In that moment, nothing else mattered. There was no forest, there was no thief, there were no mercenaries, there was no crossbow in his hands. There was only a hammer, and a distance between hims and his maps. There was an obstacle, there was pain, and then there was nothing.

While he slept, he saw what he’d done. He saw the fury that ran in his blood, and the face of the thief that took his maps. Just a kid. He saw the fear in the kid’s face when he saw Arkh. He saw Albin in his way, and he saw how good of a warrior the dwarf was. Not just skilled, but good. They were all good. They saw a scared and desperate kid, and forgave him. Protected him. That’s what good people do.

Arkh woke to Albin’s face. “Ye were out fer a few minnits there, lad.” The other mercenaries were around, clearly positioned between Arkh and the kid. Arkh rolled over wordlessly and gathered his things.

Arkh was twenty-seven years old. He felt nothing but shame.

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On Lessons Learned

“Oh, so the Ivory Tower was completed in the forty-eighth year, okay.” Archibald hungrily turned the page of the book in his lap as he mumbled under his breath to himself. He’d managed to find a history book he hadn’t read yet, and convinced the Prior in charge of the library to let him read it out in the courtyard. The big oak tree made a surprisingly comfortable reading spot, and Archibald was happily entertained while Vera and Celeste were busy with their duties. He was so enamored with his book, he didn’t notice the Redriver twins approach.

“What are you reading, orc?” Archibald looked up to see Mikka standing over him, her brother Morgha standing a bit behind her. They were true children of warrior orcs, already made of little other than muscle and sinew, despite being a full two summers behind Archibald. They’d arrived at the abbey a few days prior, and Archibald had already taken an intense dislike to them. They’d been left in the Abbess’ care while their parents took some kind of mercenary job. Both of the twins had thrown a fit that they didn’t get to go with their parents—had Archibald known he’d become the outlet for their frustration, he’d have thrown a fit too.

Archibald used his finger to mark the page, and closed the book. “It’s called ‘The City of Stone,’ and it’s about Tyrant Idari’s founding of Koth during the second age. I’ll be done soon, if you’d like to borrow it.” He didn’t know why he bothered trying to be nice.

Mikka laughed at his answer, and turned to her brother. “So he does respond to being called an orc after all. You owe me your dessert tonight.” With a cruel grin on her face, she turned back to Archibald. “You know, since your parents are both elves.”

Archibald could feel his pulse rising, but tried to ignore it. “I was adopted. My birth parents died when I was a baby.”

Mikka completely ignored his response. “If you can even call them parents, that is. I mean, you prance around in robes and read books all day. Where we come from, orcs train their children how to fight before their fifth birthday.” Morgha chuckled at his sister’s jibe.

Heart now pounding in his head, Archibald stood up and nodded his head at the two children. “Have a good day, if you please. I have things to do.” He turned on his heels and walked away, but made it only a few paces before Mikka shouted at him once again. “You know, in the Ebonmarsh, it takes a man and a woman to make an orc. I guess two ladies is all it takes up here in the north.”

Archibald didn’t want to fight it any more, and the frenzy felt so good as he let it take over. His blood ran hot as fire and cold as ice all at once, and his vision went crimson. He turned to face the twins, and even though he saw Mikka’s mouth moving, he didn’t care to listen to her any more. His gaunt, frail frame swelled in size, and he could feel his muscles straining, aching against his bones to strike. To hurt. To kill. He pounced on Mikka with all the fury he could muster, and savagely punched and kicked at her tiny frame.

It was several seconds before he realized he was losing.

It was true that he’d embraced the dreaded orc frenzy, but so had she. And, unlike him, she’d practiced, trained in how to use it. She was a trained killer. He liked to draw maps.

The fight didn’t take long, really. When Mikka let her frenzy subside, her knees and knuckles were bloody and raw, and she winced a bit as she stood up. At her feet laid Archibald, battered and broken, bleeding from multiple places along his face, arms, and chest. And as she walked away, she delivered the wound that hurt more than any of his cuts or broken bones.

“Don’t call yourself an orc again, Archibald.” She called out. “You haven’t earned that right.”

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On Childhood Heroes

The clanging of iron on iron rang through the halls, and the sound of voices echoed from all directions. The floor was hard and cold, and the ceiling was illuminated by the light of a hundred different forges, casting their light into the massive structure. People moved all about, many of them clad in some kind of imposing armor, each with intricate filigree and masterful craft-work. Archibald was overwhelmed with excitement.

He’d first asked about the Ironforge half a year earlier, when Vera gave him a book entitled “Orcs of Legend: The Forgotten Heroes.” He brought it up at dinner the following night, saying he’d like to learn more about Vicorin of Blackwood. He expected to just get more books; he almost threw up with excitement when Celeste told him they’d go to Tuari for his sixth birthday. Every day after that was little more to him than one day closer to visiting the Ironforge.

Celeste had expected him to spend most of the journey with his nose buried in one of his books, but Archibald had barely even touched the stack he’d brought by the time they reached Utica. He’d instead spent most of his time teaching his mother about the roads they were on, the bridges they were crossing, and the architecture they were admiring. She had to admit, the kid knew his stuff. Having spent her life studying religious texts, she’d had little time to learn about geography and architecture—she really was learning a lot just listening to him ramble. That being said, in all earnestness, she was just happy to see Archibald so excited.

But now that they were finally in the Ironforge, he’d barely left her side. Archibald had never been in such a crowd, and he spent the first hour clinging desperately to his mother’s robe, terrified of losing her. When he finally did get up the courage to let go, he still remained close by, clearly torn between his excitement and fear. It took them almost all morning to get into the Hall of Champions, but when they finally did, Archibald truly opened up. He craned his neck to gawk at the massive statues, and stared in awe at the marvelous tapestries. When an Annalist approached them, Archibald immediately began pummeling the man with questions and listening with rapt attention at his responses. At one point, the boy even grabbed his hand and led him to one of the statues so they could talk about it.

When they finally got to the massive iron statue of Vicorin, Archibald immediately forgot about the Annalist and Celeste, and plopped down in front of the placard at its base. He remained that way for a long while, and it was over an hour before he let Celeste lead him away. Over the next three days of their trip, he repeated this ritual during their excursion through the many storied histories of the Ironforge’s heroes, always returning to study the statue. On the last day, when it was time for them to go, Archibald stood up and hugged the statue’s base, whispering “Thank you” as he left.

On the return journey, Archibald was much quieter than he’d been on the way there. He spent much of the first few miles buried deep in a book, and it wasn’t until their second day on the road that Celeste asked her son about his behavior in the Ironforge.

“You seemed very taken by Vicorin’s statue.”

Archibald nodded. “He’s my favorite hero.”

Celeste didn’t want to make her son uncomfortable, but she was curious. “Why is he your favorite?”

Archibald took a long time formulating his words. Celeste relaxed a little; ever since he started talking, he preferred to remain silent until he knew what he was going to say. “I think Vicorin was a lot smarter than people like to think he was. Everyone remembers him as a big warrior, but the real reason he’s so famous is because he figured out how to do something that everyone else said was impossible. And then he just did it.”

Celeste smiled as he continued. “I know that people think that orcs are the best at fighting. I guess the reason I like Vicorin so much is because he made it okay for orcs to be the best at other things, too.”

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On Exams, and Passing Them

“The first Crusade ended in the thirteenth year of the second age.” Arkh held his breath. The second age was always the hardest for him.

“Correct,” his master said softly, as Arkh let his breath out in relief. “And when was Koth founded?”

“Um…” Arkh hesitated, which he knew would lower his final score. He scrambled for the answer. Was it 48, or 46? No, 46 was when The Ascendant founded Utica; it had to be 48. “Koth was founded in the forty-eighth year of the second age.”

“Incorrect. Koth was founded in the forty-third year. The forty-eighth year saw the completion of the Ivory Tower, and was when Tyrant Idari declared the city unsiegable. The event is often incorrectly cited as the city’s founding.” Arkh sighed and slouched down in his chair. “I’m sorry, but you’ve gotten too many questions incorrect to pass this test.”

Arkh slammed his hands against the desk in frustration, and ripped his hat off. “I’m never going to get this ribbon, am I?”

“Archie,” his master pulled off his glasses and set down the book he was reading from. “This was only your third time taking this test; you shouldn’t expect to pass them all the first time. It took me seven tries before I got my Reach Cartography ribbon, which I notice you already have. You’re an excellent student, and you’re going to be an excellent Cartographer.”

The words cut through Arkh’s anger like a knife, and he calmed down almost immediately. “Thank you, master Banagher. I’m sorry for my outburst.”

Banagher chuckled as he collected his things and placed them in a bag. “It’s alright, kid. Get your stuff and walk with me.” Arkh nodded as he grabbed his pile of books.

The two of them stepped out of the room and Banagher closed the door behind them. They walked in silence for a brief moment before Banagher spoke again. “So I’m afraid I have some bad news, Archie.” From behind his precariously balanced stack of books, Arkh gave Banagher a confused look. “I didn’t tell you this before, but my star apprentice—” Banagher gave Arkh a knowing look—“getting his Second Age History ribbon will fulfill my last requirement to become a Master Cartographer.”

Arkh hustled forward and turned around, walking backwards to face Banagher. “Whoa! Congratulations! But how is that bad news?”

“Well, it means that I’ll be expected to complete more field research. The council’s already given me some assignments up around New Turath.” Arkh still looked pleased, and Banagher drew in a breath. “And you getting that ribbon will also complete your history requirements, and you’ll graduate as my apprentice.” Arkh’s smile began to fade. “It’ll mean you won’t get to come with me, Archie.”

Arkh’s gaze dropped to the floor, and he silently resumed his place at his master’s side. The two of them walked, wordlessly, through the rest of the hall, and into the next. The only exchange between the two was a whispered “Thank you” as Banagher held the door open.

It was Arkh that broke the silence. “You’re the fourth master this has happened to… Am I ever going to get a field assignment?”

“Archie…” Banagher sighed, and was silent for a moment. “You’re a fantastic student, Archie. You’re probably the most gifted mapmaker I’ve ever seen, and you pick up everything we teach you so fast.” He hesitated. “But you’re such an angry kid. You scare people, and… and the Guild doesn’t want you hurting anyone, or yourself. You’re not allowed out in the field until you prove you can control yourself.”

“I know, master,” Arkh replied quietly. “I’m sorry.”

Banagher put a hand on Arkh’s shoulder. “Hey, kid. You’re gonna figure it out. You’re still young. And hey, in the meantime…” He paused, and looked to make sure no one else was nearby, then dropped his voice to a whisper. “How’s your ‘extracurricular’ assignment going?”

Arkh’s mood visibly lightened, and he said “Here,” while passing his books off to Banagher. He glanced up and down the hall, and reached into his backpack, retrieving an elongated package, wrapped in linen. He unwrapped it, revealing a crudely forged dagger. The blade was full of dents and dings, and the grip was poorly sewn, but Arkh beamed with pride. “I’m still clumsy with the hammer, but Smith Livingston says I’m not the worst he’s seen.”

Banagher smiled as he examined the dagger. “Coming from him, that’s a pretty good compliment, kid.” He met Arkh’s gaze. “You keep this up, you’ll be working in the Ironforge some day.” That made Arkh smile. “Come on. Let’s go get some food.”

Arkh laughed as he put away the dagger and grabbed his books. He would miss master Banagher.

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Cold Shoulder

The two women climbed through a thicket of trees that grew particularly close together, and Barely was surprised to find that the air was a degree or two warmer on the the other side. Even that much difference was soothing, and her shivers started up again. When did she stop? Her anxiety subsided, however, as she looked around to find a willow tree growing over a strange little pond. The ice melted just a little way from the shore and, looking closer, it looked far deeper than its surface area would suggest, like a naturally-formed well. The whole area veritably hummed with some kind of magical power, full of life and laughter. This place made Barely giddy, like her presence was too different from the spirit of it to properly belong here.

Cerlissa seemed to feel the same way, “This place gives me the creeps, sometimes.” she mumbled before taking Barely’s hand and stepping into the water. When Barely hesitated, Cerlissa looked back and smirked, saying “Don’t worry. I think this is the last place in the Spine where you might get hurt.”

Taking small, hesitating steps, Barely entered the pool. She held tight to Cerlissa’s hand. She didn’t want to admit that she wasn’t sure if she could swim anymore. She hadn’t done so since the Change.

She was hip deep when Cerlissa suddenly dove, dragging her down with her. She managed a short breath before kicking, wide-eyed and blind, deeper into the pool. The further they went, the warmer it got. Barely’s lungs were burning when Cerlissa pulled her up short and steadied her, putting her hands on Barely’s hips until she found the ground with her feet. Once she did, the burning need for oxygen subsided and Barely calmed down enough to notice that there was a figure forming in the darkness of the well.

She was strange to look upon. As the form became brighter, more detail became apparent. The woman in the water didn’t seem to be formed of the light, but that what little light came down from the surface was simply captured better on her body than on Cerlissa’s still-dark shape. She looked like an elemental goddess, with a body made from the same elements that made up Vulcanica herself: stone, fire, wind, water. Seamlessly and magnificently forming the visage of the fabled ascendant of the Dawn Patrol. Her voice was enchanting, like the water itself was speaking, though she didn’t know what she said.

“Mm mm,” Cerlissa said negatively, “She’s Norscan.”

“I wasn’t expecting a visitor,” Gwind spoke again, softly, “One of yours, I assume?”

“She’s got Moxie. I found her just a moment ago.” Cerlissa replied.

“She reeks of your demons already.” Gwind’s face twisted into a grimace.

“Please, Gwind,” Cerlissa had a smile in her voice… how was she talking under water?
“She hasn’t even used her Pact yet. Wait… do you think I have a smell?”

Gwind didn’t respond, she only moved toward Barely and gave her a looking-over.

“I’m, uhm… Barely.”

“Barely?” The woman turned a questioning look to Cerlissa.

“I told you how they earn their names.” Cerlissa’s voice echoed in the dark, “It’s a slave name. She needs a new one.”

Gwind said nothing, only looked at Barely.

“I came to bring news.” Cerlissa broke the silence tentatively.

“Oh?” Gwind smiled, though it held no joy, “Did you release another demon onto my land?”

Cerlissa’s bubbly attitude deflated immediately. The shift was subtle, but even in the diminished light, Barely sensed Cerlissa’s fluid, playful movements freeze. She wasn’t sure what Gwind was talking about, but Cerlissa certainly did, and suddenly it was painfully tense at the bottom of that well.

Through gritted teeth, Cerlissa finally broke the silence, “They’re not so bad as you make them out, Gwind, I wish you’d just—”

“What? You released another… Cerlissa!” Gwind interrupted.

“No! Gwind, listen to me!” Cerlissa was pleading now, but it was clear that Gwind wasn’t listening at all, “They’re beings of balance, they literally can’t give anything without taking something in return. They just… if you could just understand…”

Gwind turned her back on them, hands curled into fists at her side. Barely couldn’t stand it.

“I thought you were friends.” Barely half-mumbled, half-spoke as she stood stick-straight and stared resolutely at her feet.

Gwind seemed surprised. She turned her head toward the Beastman woman with a look meant to wilt her into silence. Barely looked toward Cerlissa, but couldn’t read her face. The woman only studied the Beastman woman like a piece of meat.

“The stories say…” Barely hesitated, then looked up to stare the woman in the face. An hour ago, she might have cringed from it, but she swallowed that fear and put her chin up. Barely was surprised at her own sudden bravery, but she was a scion of Cerlissa now, not some slave to have her teeth looked at for quality. “There are songs about you. About your strength and loyalty. I see now I sang lies to the Northern babies in my homeland when I sang to them of you.”

Gwind’s countenance receded, and she glanced over to Cerlissa, whose jaw hung open. Gwind began speaking, but Barely couldn’t understand her. As her words went low and threatening, Cerlissa’s expression shifted from shock to anger. Cerlissa’s hand came up and cut through the water between them to interrupt, and their conversation battled as tempers rose.

Barely’s heart began to beat rapidly as she realized what she’d done. The power of this place became oppressive. She wasn’t even trying to follow the argument anymore, she felt like she was spinning, her eyes refused to focus.

“Barely?” Cerlissa’s voice cut through the haze, and Barely focused on her face. “Gwind! What are you doing?”

“It looks a lot like she’s drowning.” Gwind’s voice no longer vibrated with emotion. It was cold as the stone cliffs Barely was born under. “Maybe you should rethink your choices, Cerlissa. Seems your new champion can’t even swim.”

Barely watched Cerlissa glance, stunned, at Gwind, before she waded toward Barely and snaked her arms around her waist. Only then did she think to try to save herself. Barely pushed off the bottom of the sunken pool, kicking wildly and grasping at Cerlissa. Just before they broke the surface, she heard Gwind speak, calling out the last word.

“I’ll have my lands wiped clean of them, Cerlissa. With or without your help.”

The air was sweet and sharp in her lungs as Barely sucked it in.

“Come on, girl, you’re freezing. We have to get back to the horses.” Cerlissa began to drag Barely out of the water, her limbs numb and heavy and awkward.

“I’m s-sorry, Cerlissa.” Barely chattered, “I shouldn’t… I’m-m so sorry.”

“Shh, stop. You’re perfect.”

“What?” Barely coughed and crawled away from the pool.

Cerlissa lowered her voice, keeping their heads close as she continued to drag her away, “You heard what she said? Getting the demons off her land?” Barely nodded and Cerlissa continued, “I’ve got three little demons at home…” one hand patted her stomach, “…and three on the way, if you get what I mean.”

Barely’s eyes got wide as she turned to stare at Cerlissa and whispered, “You mean…?”

“Yes, my Champion, you just saved my babies from my best friend, and earned a shiny new name in the process, if you so choose to accept it. But right now, we need to get out of here.” Cerlissa looked around the tranquil little grove and back at Champion, who had indeed chosen to accept it, and said, “hold onto me, the first jump is always the worst.”

Champion felt like she was falling, and when she finally landed there was such a feeling of queasy newness and adventure that, despite the days of wandering, hungry and cold, she felt strong, and smiled for the first time in weeks.

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Best Friends Forever

Some years ago, on the outskirts of Lovis, Norsca

A stout woman with grey-streaked hair looks out the window over the basin in the cottage’s kitchen. With a laugh, she says, “Cheff, come and look at this. Goldie and Scratch are playing warriors again. It’s adorable!” Her husband, a tall, slender man, comes to stand next to her. He puts his arm around her shoulders and hugs her to his side. As he looks out the window, he starts to laugh, too.

“Myrna, you’re right, that is just about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. We’re going to have to tell Sigmund about it when he picks up Scratch this evening,” Cheff agreed.

In the vegetable garden, neatly hoed out and ready for the spring planting, a girl of about ten and an adolescent brown bear are galloping about, roaring at the top of their lungs. The girl is plump and has messy yellow hair gathered into a braid. She’s holding a stick and stabbing it at imaginary enemies as she rides her cousin, Scratch, through the fresh dirt. Every once in a while she will revert to human speech to yell things like, “Die, Jotun scum!” or, “Those are our berries, you fish-stealing fox!” It is clear that she is the ringleader of this little game, but Scratch is obviously enjoying himself.

The children finally tire of their game and tramp indoors, scattering dirt all over the floor before they flop down on the rag rug in the den. Goldie uses Scratch as a pillow until the young bear sits up and begins patting his chest and arms in a pattern. “Ma!” shouts Goldie, who seems to have some trouble with volume modulation, “Scratch n’ me want some juice!” The bear sneezes and looks meaningfully at his human cousin, who grudgingly adds, “Please!”

Myrna bustles in from the kitchen, a small tray in her hands. She sets it down next to the children and says, “How about juice, bread, and cheese? And a bit of raw salmon for Scratch,” she adds lovingly. “Since his manners are so good.” The bear makes an eager noise and signs thank you to his aunt. She gives him a kiss on the top of the head and tells the children to dig in. Goldie forgets to mumble her thanks until her mouth is already full of bread, but her mother doesn’t mind. It’s the thought that counts, and Goldie’s manners were always better with Scratch around.

By the time supper rolls around, Goldie and Scratch are passed out on the floor of the den. Loud snores erupt from the human child, with softer rumbles emanating from the bear. A thud against the door summons Cheff from his workroom, and he opens the door to admit a very large adult brown bear. “Hey, brother,” he greets their guest, giving him a rub on the shoulder. Sigmund looks at the children sleeping together and melts. With an inquiring murmur, he signs busy conquer armies today? at Cheff. The man laughs and recounts the adventure in the gardens to his ursine brother. Myrna calls out from the kitchen that Sigmund is welcome to stay for dinner, but the bear declines with a regretful roar. With Cheff’s help, Sigmund slings the unconscious Scratch over his shoulders and lumbers off to their den.

With the loss of her pillow, Goldie wakes up and yawns. “Come and eat, love,” her father says, helping her to the kitchen table. As the family eats, Goldie tells them all about her day with Scratch. “Someday,” she vows, “I’m going to be a great warrior, and Scratch will carry me into battle.”

Her parents just look at each other and smile. Goldie has quite the imagination.

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Barely Anything

The Spine was harsh that day, and Barely stumbled on her swiftly numbing feet. Though they terminated in cloven hooves and her legs were coated in fur, there was only so much that her Beastman form could do against the icy winds of the South Wall Mountains. Her antlers grew too long for her to easily reach them when they became tangled in the low branches of a tree, and Barely simply sat below her trap in despair. Alone in the South Wall… there was a hero once that was forbidden to die here alone…

However, Barely wasn’t technically alone. There was another life inside her. That knowledge almost compelled her to stand and free herself from the tree branch, but before she made a decision on the matter she felt the reverberation of incredibly intense magic to her right. Then, behind her, at an angle that she wasn’t quite able to turn, something was swiftly approaching her. Barely began to panic, twisting the branch and tangling her further. A deep, ominous growl shook her to her core, and she tugged and scrabbled at the twisted branches, eyes rolling in an attempt to see the beast behind her.

Suddenly, the branch snapped and Barely fell forward, where she twisted around to stare at a dog-sized skunk, head low and watching her. She didn’t have any weapons. The skunk didn’t really look like any skunk she’d ever seen before, though. It had a single, solid band of white, spanning the entire width of its back, and its fur was short. Not to mention how thickly built it was. Maybe this was another one of the Jottun experiments. Fitting that it would ultimately be the Jottun that killed her after they had so brutally created her.

A hidden voice called from the wood, “Mellivora?” The beast immediately ceased growling and turned its head toward the voice, and a tall woman stepped from the wood, ducking a thick branch and smiling when she spotted the beast. She said something to it, but Barely couldn’t make it out.

The beast turned again and scampered toward Barely, who tried to tell it to go away, standing rapidly in an effort to get away herself, only to have the thing ram its shoulder into her shins, knocking her back down… and swaggering off in another direction. The woman approached Barely, still smiling, and held out her hand, “Mellivora gets territorial. Come on, you’re freezing.”

Barely accepted the woman’s hand and stood, flinching when she reached around her face to grab one of her back-swept antlers. She remained still, however, as the woman removed the gnarled branch still caught there.

“What was that thing?” Barely chattered through mostly clenched teeth. The South Wall never seemed so cold, before. She didn’t expect this.

“Her?” the woman pointed at the creature swiftly disappearing into the underbrush, “She’s a honey badger. Companion animal, otherwise you’d never see one this far north.”

Barely suddenly didn’t know what to say. She stared at the woman standing so confidently in front of her. Her eyes were yellow with rectangular pupils like a goat. Beastman, maybe? Her corn-yellow hair framed long, thick horns, too, like the mountain sheep except… didn’t only the rams sport horns?

“Follow me,” the woman said, turning and walking ahead, “we can talk on the way and then I’ll get you out of here.”

That’s when she spotted the tail. It was almost rat-like, but the end looked like it could be used as a club, sporting a bone-like material similar to her horns. What sort of atrocities did the Jottun inflict upon this woman? She did follow her, however.

The tall woman spoke first, “What’s your name?”

She hadn’t spoken to anyone in so long, she wasn’t even sure that she could anymore. “Uhm… Barely.”

“Barely? Like a bear? Is that a warrior’s name?”

“Barely Anything, ma’am, it’s a… uhm… slave name… actually.” her voice trailed off. Suddenly, Barely was embarrassed. She regretted not lying at that moment. She could have changed everything just then. Barely could fight. All wild creatures could fight. She could have been a warrior.

“Well, that’s awkward. We’re going to have to get you a new name, then, hmm?”

Barely didn’t know what to say, so she just fell silent. The woman continued after a short while. “Do you know me?” She asked.

“I, uhm… no.”

The woman looked sideways at her, “I know you’ve heard my name, at least. You’re my proudest legacy.”

Barely thought a moment, and suddenly it dawned on her, “YOU are Cerlissa?” she blurted, “I thought, well…”

“What?”

“I thought you were… taller?”

The woman laughed out loud. “To the top of my head, I am twenty-two hands. How tall did you think I was?”

Barely blushed a deep crimson and mumbled, “I was told you were… a uhm… dragon… that you breathed fire at the Jottun and crushed them dozens at a time…”

Cerlissa stopped short and gave Barely a scowl, “For Gwind’s sake, Grakas gets all the credit. He always gets all the crow-begotten credit.” Then proceeded walking. Barely followed, but remained terrified to say more.

“Where are you headed?” Cerlissa began again, seeming a lot less perturbed than Barely had initially guessed.

“Uhm… I don’t really know.” Barely stammered, the cold was still getting to her, although the conversation made the whole situation seem a lot less desolate. “I was really just heading South and hoping for the best.”

“South?” Cerlissa asked, “You came from Lovis?”

Barely had told herself that she was going to lie. That anyone who found out about her origin would either kill her on the spot or condemn her to death by sending her back. When she opened her mouth to speak, however…

“Norsca, actually.” Barely nearly slapped herself for her honesty, but decided to just keep going, “I’d heard stories of Vulcanica. I thought maybe I’d escape, but…”

Cerlissa remained quiet for a moment, letting the unfinished sentence hang in the air.
After a moment, where the only sounds were of walking feet, crushing sticks beneath the snow. Cerlissa took a breath to speak, “I need help, but I can’t explain it until you’re in. I can take care of you. You won’t be a slave anymore, but I do need a certain… contract… from you.”

“Yes.” For the first time in years, Barely spoke without hesitation. “I’ll sign it. I’ll work for you.”

“With me.” Cerlissa corrected.

“With you. I’ll do it.”

Cerlissa studied Barely, “You’re sure you don’t want to think about it a moment?”

“I’m sure.” Barely said confidently. “You’re Cerlissa Grav-Norsca. I’d do my people a great disservice if I ref… I’m pregnant.” Barely deflated. Sure that it would disqualify her.

Cerlissa only smiled, “So am I. Triplets. If I can do it, you can do it. And that’s precisely why I’m here. I need to tell my friend the good news.”

Barely grinned. No one, not even other women- not even other Beastmen had ever talked to her this way. It was empowering.

Cerlissa stopped and faced Barely, “I guess we can work out the details later. Sign here.”

A flash of blue light revealed a paper scroll with shining letters unroll from Cerlissa’s upraised hand. A pen appeared in Barely’s hand, and though she didn’t actually know how to write her name, she was somehow sure that the scribble she put down was, in fact, her true signature.

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In the Jungle

Astrid looked around and was surprised at how quickly she had travelled from the guest estates to the Golden City on foot. Her plain, common clothes were comfortable enough, though she felt frumpy and a bit unattractive wearing what felt like cloth sacks. She had decided to try out her father’s habits, however, and this cold Northern city was a great place to hide beneath bundles of mis-matched furs. She had been far too outspoken against her father doing this to get caught doing it herself.

Her musings led her bungling straight into a tall, bearded Cambion. Unused to walking about the streets like a commoner, Astrid took in a breath to object to this man’s clumsiness when she simultaneously spotted the large signet ring on the man’s finger and remembered her pretend station.

“Oh, I do apologize, milord,” Astrid mumbled, beginning a lady’s curtsey, but remembering midway to bow awkwardly and stare at her feet. “It won’t happen ag—”

The man, a member of House Grav, though she didn’t recognize who, began walking away from her mid-sentence. It was as if he hadn’t even seen her. She shook her head and looked after him a moment. He had a very strange look to him. Like he had forgotten an important appointment but couldn’t be seen hurrying.

Having nothing better planned, Astrid followed him.

The man seemed to be heading for the center of the Golden City, where the main thoroughfare stood with trinkets and baubles for sale, but turned suddenly Southward. He wound through alleys and even walked through a building filled with scantily clad dancers. Simply opened the front door and continued on as if he owned the place. He nearly lost her until the dimly lit back room flooded with light as he opened the back door and continued walking, leaving the owners of the building staring at one another.

They were nearly out the main gate, and Astrid was wondering if she was curious enough to continue following him outside the city, when he stopped suddenly, nearly giving Astrid away. She turned into a small alcove and sat, making herself as small as possible. From there she heard a voice she recognized and couldn’t help but peek out to see if it was true.

“Did you think you could hide from me, Alem?” Astrid hadn’t seen Cerlissa Grav-Norsca in nearly five years, when her and Gwind had visited her father in Cliffport, but she was right. It was her stepping from the shadows toward the Grav man. The man, Alem, looked around as if seeking help, and seemed to try to say something to her but the words died before they could make themselves known.

“Alem,” Cerlissa chided him, “come, let me see you.”

Alem swallowed and hesitated, taking a kerchief out of his pocket to wipe his brow, but took a few steps toward her. For a moment, the air was tense but nothing happened, then, in a heartbeat, she had crossed the remaining distance between them and grabbed his wrist. Slowly, she twisted it up and back. He still had the kerchief in his hand when she reached up with her other hand and grabbed it, throwing it in Astrid’s direction. It hit the wall with a thunk near her face, and she thought for sure she’d been spotted until she realized that neither of them were looking at her.

Alem began making a gibbering noise just before Cerlissa grabbed his whole face in one hand. She thought he might have been saying something but she couldn’t understand the words.
“We had a deal, Alem.” Cerlissa snarled at him. Astrid could feel the demonic power building in her, getting ready to explode. Alem began making a noise Astrid had never heard come out of a man before, and she covered her ears with her hands.

Astrid knew there would be a massive fallout for this. She could feel the power building, and when it exploded she didn’t know what would happen. She heard what sounded like a horse half-screaming nearby, then it happened. The power released itself…. but it felt further away than expected. It didn’t hurt.

After looking around for a moment, bewildered, she peeked out of her hiding spot to see Alem, standing alone. The wave of power washing over her from the opposite direction, miles North.
Astrid decided to wait until Alem left.

After a few minutes, she peeked out. He hadn’t moved.

Fifteen minutes…

Twenty-five minutes…

Astrid looked again. He hadn’t moved. Her bones were aching and she finally just lost patience. Stepping out of her little alcove, she faced Alem head on.

…Nothing. No reaction at all.

Astrid narrowed her eyes at him and looked around for the kerchief. When she picked it up, the signet ring was inside.

“Alem Grav.” Astrid said aloud.

“I am Alem Grav.” He replied flatly.

Astrid moved closer and took a better look at him. He wasn’t there anymore. Lost. She’d seen it before, though she’d never known that it could be forced upon a person.

She sighed, “Alem Grav, walk to the Grav Estate by way of the The Wall.” He turned and went, saying nothing. It wasn’t likely that anyone would hurt him, and the guards on The Wall would recognize his state soon enough. She started walking in another direction.

After a few minutes, she cursed herself. She still had the ring and didn’t know what to do with it. She should have put it in his pocket or something. If she returned it to the Grav Estate, there would be questions that Astrid wasn’t interested in answering. If she simply left it somewhere, whoever found it would more likely sell it, rather than return it to his family.
As she mused, she looked around to find Maker Lane. It was getting close to evening time. She’d have to begin the walk back to where she was expected soon, or her entourage would be missing her.

A woman walked by her, then. The brooch on her shoulder revealed her to be a lady of House Rosornos. Perfect. Astrid mussed her hair and hunched her shoulders.

“Lady!” She cried out to her, “Excuse me, lady!”

The Cambion woman toward her, and Astrid made sure not to make eye contact.

“Excuse me, lady. You dropped this.” With that, Astrid shoved the cloth firmly into the woman’s hands and scurried away from her, doing her best to get lost in the meager crowd. She could hear the woman calling after her, but didn’t turn. She didn’t want to be recognized.

That would be embarrassing.

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Little Girls are Made Of

“Do you think it’s safe yet?” Kana asked her sister. Safara didn’t respond at first, and when she did, she obviously had been ignoring her.

“Let’s go South this time and climb the wall.” Safara turned toward her sister, blonde curls bouncing with her excitement. “We can drop down into the Dogleg Forest. No one would think we’d go that way.”

Kana made a noncommittal noise as she looked nervously out of the second-floor window. She fidgeted with the ribbons she had tied in her hair, blonde like her twin sister though they weren’t identical. Kana was taller and had straight, straw-colored hair while Safara looked more like their mom with her delicate stature and golden curls.

“Alright,” Safara stood with a glitter in her eye, “You ready?”

Kana smiled in response and the two of them started out, out the door to the balcony and down the spiral staircase to the patio. From there, Kana walked boldly in the open with an air of confidence that, coupled with her tall stature, sometimes fooled people into mistaking her for a lady of the house, rather than a child barely old enough to be served wine at banquets.

Today, however, there was no one around to fool. Kana turned and beckoned to her sister, who bounced up beside her. They began walking from shadow to shadow, between buildings and through dark gardens, avoiding the lit walkways until they came to a small, well lit outbuilding that stood near the wall.

Safara gave Kana a questioning look that told Kana that there was no way to avoid the light from the small building. After a moment of thought, Kana’s expression settled and she started walking around to the left side of the building. Her skirts whispered against her boots as she worked to keep her steps quiet. Safara hurried to catch up, noticeably louder as the practiced sway of her hips rattled the silver coins tied there.

Just as Safara sidled up to Kana, and the two of them were about to pass the building, there was a thunk and hushed voices raised to shouting within. The two teens paused at the same time, eyes wide and heads craning toward the noise. Glancing at each other, suddenly their plans for the night were far less interesting than that outbuilding and whatever was happening inside.

It was a short walk to the other side of the building, where they could slide near to the window, pressed against the wall. They could still hear the voices inside, and Safara saw that the window was unlocked, so she took a risk to push in the side of the window using two fingers, so that the other side would open a crack. After shifting toward the open side, the voices were far more clear, though not yet distinct enough to follow the conversation.

Footsteps clicked angrily toward the window, and they thought for sure that they’d been caught. Safara put her head down and shrunk against the wall before the window thunked shut. When Safara looked up, however, Kana was looking into the the window with a shocked look on her face that swiftly settled into confusion, then grim determination. When Kana stood, Safara understood what her goal might be, but not her reasoning, and tried to grab at her arm.

Kana shook her off, reached for the door to the outbuilding and threw it open. Inside, two figures turned toward the open door. One, a Beastman slave. The other, a slender woman in a night dress. Kana strode in, facing her mother, who leaned to the side a little and closed a small book. After recovering from the surprise, the Beastman ducked his head and excused himself.

“Kana!” Chaura admonished her daughter, “What do you think you’re doing?”

“What is going on here? Why was a slave shouting at you?” Kana stood to her full height, already taller than her mother by an inch. Safara’s guilty form appeared behind her, looking appropriately chagrined.

“He wasn’t. It was I shouting at him.” Chaura Rosornos’ expression hardened as she seemed to realize what had happened. “You were sneaking out again.”

The girls wilted.

“Do I need to post a guard for you two?” Chaura continued. She stormed toward them, scooping up the book she had closed when they had appeared, and charged down on Safara, who was still cringing behind Kara.

“You’re sleeping in my room tonight.” Chaura announced, after a terrifying silence that caused even Kana to shift uncomfortably, “And those dresses. That’s the price.”

As they followed their mother back to the residence hall, Kana and Safara shared a look that promised future enterprises uncovering this new mystery.

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