Authors: Morgan Blayde
Tags: #Dark Fantasy, #Horror, #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction
Her glance sharpened as she took the bottle. “More wine?”
“You heard the healer. It’s for medicinal purposes. That man is the most competent doctor I’ve
“But his ass
too bony.” She went around my lounger, to the barrel table. Popping the cork with a magical amulet, she set the bottle in the ice bucket. “Ice is melted.”
“Izumi’s never around when I need her. Fortunately, I know where she sleeps.” I fought my way free of the chair and managed to stand. I snatched up the bottle and headed for the door. “I’m going to bed. You guys are off-duty until tomorrow. This place still has a lot of empty rooms.” I stopped at the door, catching both Dhal and Silf in my unfocused stare. “You three should find an unused suite and take it over for yourselves. If anyone questions you, tell them to take it up with me. You are acting upon my orders. My orders alone. My lonely orders.”
I stumbled past them, through the open doors, and went out into the hall where I stalled out, making a careful turn to keep my balance. Clutching the bottle close to my heart somehow seemed to steady me. Through the closed doors, my dragon hearing caught the voices of those I’d just left.
Silf said, “He’s not at all the way I’d pictured him. A truly tortured soul.”
“Poor bastard,” Ryella said. “Too bad I can’t end his suffering.”
“You don’t want him to suffer? That’s new,” Dhal said.
She sighed. “Somehow, I’ve grown conflicted.”
Yes! She’s weakening. I’ll fuck her yet! But not tonight. I need to repair things with Izumi. As a friend and ally, I depended on her too much to let the rift widen between us.
I headed toward the royal suite where I figured she’d be. It wasn’t in the right place, but I did find it. The door was closed and iced over. A note inside the top layer of ice was barely legible. I pressed in and peered at it. It remained unreadable so I punched the ice to punish it. Shards fell at my feet. The stiff note hung in the open by one imbedded corner. I read it:
To my beloved husband: The healer says it is not safe for me to have sexual relations with you until you get your little problem fixed. My bed will once more be open to you when you are well and able to impregnate me properly. Until then, keep it in your pants.
I will be sending word to your harem.
I wondered off and eventually went out the main doors of the Great Hall, entering the courtyard. I passed a pair of roving guards on night-duty. They saluted and looked at me with questioning eyes. Wearing my white bathrobe, slippers, and a blanket, I waved them on, offering no explanation for my presence.
Misery doesn’t always love company
I strolled to the portcullis of the main gate and found it manned by the Captain of the Watch.
I ignored it. “I’m heading over to the treehouse to spend the night.”
“The treehouse, my lord? Did you not move that back to the central plains?”
Fuck, I did. How could I have forgotten?
“The treehouse is returning.”
“In the morning, two of my demons and three storm fey will be looking for me. Let them know where I am.”
The captain dropped his salute. “I will pass word to my relief, and they will send word to the household staff.”
“As long as it gets taken care of. Open the outer gate and let me out.”
“Yes, my lord, at once.” The inner barrier was up. At the end of a stone passageway the outer barrier was lowered against threat. Lifting the outer gate required several men to operate a pulley-and-pawl system I’d stolen from a steampunk website. The non-steam assembly was primitive by Earth standards, but highly advanced here in Fairy where the locals relied
too much on magic. After a bit of wheel turning and lever clacking, the outer gate ascended out of my way. Once I was through, the gate eased back into place using water-filled counter weights, still not steam powered. It was a good thing the keep was built into a mountainside next to a waterfall.
I walked away from the falls, followed the stream, and reached a gate in a stone wall. Beyond the wall, I swept through gardens, toward a crater that had once contained a mighty tree with a numerous rooms suspended in its branches. A deck had wound around the buildings. A lot of rare woods had been used. The mosaics and diamond-shaped window panes had been beautiful. I rebuilt them in my memory, in great detail. I knelt and shoved my fingers into the soil, letting my tie to the land open.
I let her feel my emotional reserve and my injury. Sorry, but I don’t want to hurt you. I can’t open my heart fully for a while, not until I’m better.
I shared my conceptual details of the treehouse, visualizing it in my mind.
Can you bring this place to me?”
Poppies and carnations burst from the soil, winding around my hands. Night-blooming orchids filled nearby sections of garden, perfuming a warm wind wet with tears, or maybe mist from the nearby hot springs. The ground shuddered and I knew space was folding. My land was binging my treehouse back to me. My treehouse with the magic door I’d use in the morning to get back to Malibu.
I lay on the land, holding her, waiting, taking in a little of her elemental strength. “Thank you.”
“I love world peace. Everyone
drops their guard, and then I strike.”
While waiting, I fell asleep and woke up hours later under my tree’s canopy. A mossy, surfaced root pillowed my head. I rolled onto my back, looking up. Seeping through the branches, pearl gray sky heralded dawn’s morning light. Waiting in the wings, real color had yet to warm the world. The massive tree trunk shot upward, branches splaying to support the decks I remembered. The buildings weren’t visible from this angle. I pushed off the ground, stood, and backed away from the tree so that I came out from under the decking.
Staring at the ground, I willed a buried root to rise, growing under me. It came, a few feet at first. As more and more surfaced, the root widened. Hairy filaments bristled on it, morphing into green tendrils. The tendrils wrapped the root core, becoming a sheathing of ivy. The growth bent and coiled around me, cupping my ass. A basket formed. The transformed root lifted me up to the overhead deck. The basket affixed itself to the railing. I slid to the deck and turned to peer back down. The lower root became a spiral staircase. My people were coming and this would get them up here.
I figured only the obsidian demon would have problems. Well, if he needed to, his stone magic could make stone stairs for him. Once my demons and the storm fey were here, we’d go through the magic door together, back to Malibu. I needed to make sure things were really finished back at the old school. And I needed to settle up with Teresa and Thorn. Money makes the world go round. Meanwhile, breakfast and coffee sounded good. I went to the sliding kitchen door, opened it, and left it open as I went in. This would give a hint to my people where they could find me.
I am nothing if not considerate, the soul of virtue.
I found Leona sitting on the counter, her black tail-tip flicked in greeting. Her yellow-flame eyes studied me. “You look like shit warmed over too many times,” she said.
“Nice to see you, too. Killed any mice lately?”
The spirit leopard flashed white, sharp teeth. “I look like a house cat to you?”
Uncharacteristically, I hugged her, knowing it would freak her out. She could have gone intangible, escaping, but didn’t. Her contempt for humans didn’t run as deep as in most cats. Or she hid it better. I whispered in her rounded ear. “Guess what? I have cooties.”
She jerked away as if I’d said fleas, and fell off the counter.
“And cats are supposed to be so sure-footed.” In an improved mood, I started the coffee. The kitchen was modern even though there was no electricity. A fey storm-stone powered the coffeemaker. Stored Summer Court and Winter Court magic provided refrigeration and heat as needed. The burners on the stove were enchanted discs engraved with fire runes. As soon as I put a skillet on one, the metal warmed. Tilting the pan and resettling it increased the heat.
I pulled eggs, bell pepper, onion, and ham from a cold box that stored items at thirty-eight degrees. An enchanted moonstone provided extra light as soon as I touched the hood over the range. By that light, I cut ingredients and filled a mixing bowl. My plan called for omelets, or scrambled eggs if the flipping went awry. I made a lot of omelet fixings, using a lot of eggs, but only cooked a little of it for myself. I pulled the used pans from the rune stones. When the others got here, they could cook their own meals and have them hot.
With a plate of omelet pieces and a cup of black Brazilian dark roast, I settled in at the breakfast bar and consumed my food. Leona sat on the counter again, leaning in to sniff the steaming aroma from my coffee. She usually stuck to a warm-blood diet, but enjoyed my coffee second-hand.
“I could get you your own cup,” I offered.
“No, I’m good.”
“Okay, just don’t drool into my cup.”
There was a wicked grin on her leopard face. “As if a little drool would hurt you.”
I picked up my cup and moved it to my other side where it was safe.
“That’s just mean,” she said.
I was on my second cup, my plate pushed away, when I heard clambering on the deck. My people arrived a little earlier than I’d anticipated.
“Don’t scare them,” I told Leona. “The fey will think you’re some kind of a cursed mountain lion. A cat from hell, maybe.”
“Cat from hell. I like that.” She turned to face the deck entrance to the kitchen, making like a statue. I knew she’d pretend to be ornamental until someone got close enough for her to say
So much for her following orders. Not that she ever has, really. Cats.
Holy and Ryella came in together, chatting about good places to shop. Ryella wore all of her amulets, and had her hammer at her back, in its sheath. She placed a bag on the counter by me. “Your healing draughts, my lord.”
Holy wore my zombie-apocalypse suit. The garnet tongue knife occupied its thigh sheath.
What is it with everybody trying on other people’s battle suits? Such poor manners. I’ll have to give her crap about it later. Just because I care.
Dhal and Silf followed. They saw me and wandered over with little fanfare, which showed they were picking up on my style. The girls went around to the stove. Ryella took my empty plate with her, setting it in the sink. Dhal took the counter seat to my left, as if he, too, wanted to drool in my coffee. Silf took the seat to my right and stared at Leona.
Abruptly, she smiled.
He leaped back. The stool clattered to the floor. His sword scraped out of its sheath, turning to point at Leona.
I said, “That won’t work. She’s a spirit beast.”
Calm as the eye of a hurricane, Dhal looked at me and said. “Cat’s safe, I take it?”
“More or less. Just don’t get between her and a hot cup of blood.”
The smell of cooking omelet filled the kitchen. Dhal and Silf sniffed like starving hounds.
“Is Rocky coming up?” I asked.
Holy said, “He wasn’t sure the decking would hold his weight.”
“Everything here’s magically reinforced. It should be fine.”
“Silf, tell him to come up and have breakfast with us.”
The fey warrior hurried off. He quickly returned. Rocky arrived minutes later. I didn’t ask him how he got up here; I was too busy smirking at him for walking so carefully—on eggshells—as if he were afraid the floor would cave in any second. He eased up to Leona and reached out to pet her. The hair on her back was ridged. Her ears were laid back. Her eyes squinted. She looked like a victim of migraines.
With a hiss, she leaped off the counter and ran away.
“Don’t take it personally,” I said. “Cats are high-strung, and that grinding sound you make when you move is hard on those of us with heightened senses.”
“Sorry,” he said.
I got an idea. “Ryella, can you make an amulet for Rocky that will mute that god-awful sound, maybe soak it up?”
She looked across the counter at the obsidian demon. “I don’t see why not.”
“Good.” I caught Rocky’s gaze. “I imagine that noise makes it hard for you to sneak up on people.”
His stone head bobbed. “Stealth is not my thing.”
I lifted eyebrows, widening my stare. “That might change. Your combat stats might improve.”
“Does that mean you’ll pay me more money?” he asked.
“Oh, good one!
for having improved you. Shouldn’t you pay me for that?”
“Speaking of getting paid,” Ryella said, “I don’t usually make amulets for free. Materials can get expensive.”
“I pay for services rendered,” I said. “Oh, when you’re done with breakfast, I have a couple more little tasks for you. Holy, I’m going to need my suit. Go to the master bedroom. You’ll find an assortment of clothes there. Maybe something left here by the were-kitties will fit.”
She looked down at herself. “But I like this. It’s cool. I’ve never worn a cod-piece before. Are they all bright red?”
“Make your own suit. They’re expensive.” I paused, thinking. “Holy? How did you manage to put it on without triggering the anti-theft system?”
“No big.” She lifted a hand, separating her thumb from her pointer finger by about an inch. Blue-white electrical jags leaped the gap, snapping, flashing, and crackling. “I just shorted it out. Wearing it is easier than carrying it around.”
I stared with dead, hard eyes. A slow smile spread across my face as I considered various forms of retaliation.
She said, “Stop it. Caine. You’re scaring me.”
“Oh, you’re safe—for now; I would never do anything while you’re expecting it.”
Holy blinked back tears. “I don’t like making beds. I like kicking butt. Don’t reassign me.”
I yelled. Stridently. “You’re a fucking demon. You’re not allowed to cry.”
‘Cause I might feel bad.
Rocky shook his head in sadness. And kept shaking it. The grinding, ringing sound made my hand twitchy for a gun. “You shut up, too.”
Ryella nudged Holy with an elbow. “Don’t burn the omelets.”
Later, plates were dumped in the sink. Dhal began cleaning them. Holy handed me the garnet tongued knife and went off to change clothes so I’d soon have my suit back.
I took Ryella with me onto the outer deck. I leaned back against a railing, listening to the rustle of leaves. The sun broke the upper crest of the mountains on the east edge of the valley. Crows cawed to one another down along the river. I decided to leave the treehouse here, and just build a new castle back in the central plains.
As if reading my thoughts, Ryella said, “It’s nice here. Even better than in the keep. I don’t like being closed off from the sky.”
“Refrain from pissing in my cornflakes and I might let you guys live here. The treehouse can use its own security, someone watching out for it when I’m not around.”
A line formed between her eyebrows. “Cornflakes?”
I held out the serpent tongue knife. The sheath was still on the suit. The garnet blade, like a stylized ray of sunlight, could have bled from a tired, dark-red star. Ryella took the knife, handling it casually, but with care. She rotated it with fingertips, peering intently along its wavy length.
“Hmmm. This is old, but not ancient.” She smelled the edge. “No poison.” She licked the flat of the blade.
For some reason I felt myself getting hard.
Holding the knife by both ends, she caught my eye. “There is a residue of dark energy, as if this has been the focus of numerous rituals.”
“It was. As the naga worshiped their Snake in the Sky, the idol’s tongue soaked up faith energy like any consecrated site.”
She stared back at the rippled garnet. “Idol tongue? You made a knife out of an idol’s tongue? Are you insane?”
I just looked at her.
She sighed. “Of course you are. What do you want me to do with this?”
“You heard the healer last night. I’ve been poisoned with naga magic. It’s messing me up physically and magically.” I took responsibility for my own messed up mind. “As it taints my lifeforce, I think the nagi energy replenishes itself. If I weren’t half dragon, I’d be very dead by now.”
“That would be awful. I don’t want anyone to kill you—except me.”
“And that can’t happen until you leave my service. That’s why I’m trusting you with this.” I didn’t mention that if I found myself betrayed, my last act would be activating my
tattoo. She’d never outlive me, nor would anyone else within a very wide blast radius. There’s a reason the tattoo is a nuclear symbol. “I want you to use your specialized magic and draw out as much of the poison magic as you can, putting it in the blade.”
She nodded. “That would not only help you, but give you a very dangerous knife. I only have one question.”
“Yes, I’m paying you.”
“A lot? I need to be fully motivated to do my best work.”
“Money, money, money… Is that all everyone ever thinks about?” Somehow, I said that with a straight face.
She stared in silence, waiting.
“Fine. I’ll grab some tree bark and write you an I.O.U.”
“Silver or gold. I don’t take checks or human-world credit cards.”
“A girl after my own heart.”
In a let-me-stab-you kinda way.
I magically connected with my treasure vault and several coins appeared in my hand. I handed them over. She put the coins away and stared at the knife. Her eyes lit up with silver fire. Gold and violet jags of storm energy wreathed her hands and the blade. “I want you to pool your power in your left hand, the one closest to your heart. When I say so, reach out and grab the blade. You should do this tightly enough to bleed.”