Archive for April, 2019



Chapter 7. 

A Free Road

The entire caravan consisted of Pepper Domo and an iron carriage pulled by a green-skinned tiger. Svetlana had spent the night comfortably in one of Domo’s guest rooms. She said goodbye to Gehosopha over breakfast. Domo had yet to show himself when the hyep departed. Perhaps the Apothecary had drank too much Andromedan last night and required more recovery time than the Composite Being, who could spread a hangover across several brains at once. Svetlana was eager to begin the next leg of her journey, but only Domo knew the way.

“Can I trust this Apothecary?” she asked Gehosopha as he left.

“He is a fair and honorable trader,” Gehosopha answered. “This cluster will miss your company, Svetlana.”

She had no idea how to approach embracing the cluster of heads that was Gehosopha’s middle body, so she simply nodded and offered him an awkward bow.

“Thank you,” she said.

“We will hire a replacement sentinel before leaving Nil,” said the Composite Being. “I hope you find your missing offspring.”

Svetlana wanted to weep, but she took a deep breath and saved it for later. She waved as the Composite Beings lumbered down the street, the tops of their central stems loaded with crates full of fresh serums. The bizarre crowd soon swallowed them up.

Domo’s carriage came rolling from the stable behind his shop. The body and four wheels were made of black iron, the roof lined with a short fence for securing luggage and trade goods. A silver trim formed arabesques across the single entry door. A curtained window on the opposite side of the coach showed drapes of red velvet. The barrels and trunks containing Domo’s serums had been loaded onto the top of the vehicle, tied into an impressive pyramid by a net of strong ropes.

The tiger’s meaty shoulders stood level with Svetlana’s chin. Its fur smelled like wild grass in summer, and she longed to run her hand through it. She resisted the urge as it turned to sniff at her, showing its magnificent fangs. She heard a rumble deep in its mammoth chest, and its big pink tongue licked at her boots. The servant who had brought the carriage around leaped off the driver’s bench and ran back to the stables.

Svetlana had arrived early in the yard with satchel, cloak, sword, and pistol. Ready to go at sunrise, as requested. She stood before Domo’s waiting carriage awhile. Apothecaries and their wavy-eyed servants rushed up and down the streets, but it was too early for much customer traffic. Both suns were up and the heat was rising fast. For a moment she considered climbing into the driver’s seat of the carriage and taking off without Domo. If she had any idea where to go, how to find Creep City on her own, she might have done it. Instead she crossed her arms and leaned against the side of the shop. The tiger took her cue and lay itself before the carriage, crossing its front paws and resting its chin. The traces that bound it to the coach were polished leather hung with silk and jewels.

“You must be the new muscle.” A deep voice from the other side of the carriage.

Two large, booted feet were visible. The coach hid the rest of whoever stood there. Svetlana moved behind the vehicle to get a look at the new arrival, but she found nobody standing there.

“Slow,” said the voice. “Too slow.”

Behind her. She whirled and something darted from her line of vision. It was inhumanly fast. She reached for Takamoto’s sword and cursed. The handle wasn’t there above her shoulder-blade where it should be. The scabbard was empty.

“Looking for this?” She turned.

The gleam of Takamoto’s steel she recognized immediately. The figure holding it took awhile longer. One of the reptoids that served as the guardsmen of Nil leaned against the doorjamb precisely where she had been standing seconds earlier. His scaled body was covered by form-fitting silvery armor, mostly along the limbs and midsection. Svetlana identified seven points of weakness in that first half-second: ankles, knees, wrists, elbows, underarms, groin, and neck. None of those areas was covered by the silver metal, but each spot did have dense and scaly skin to protect it. Then there was his head, handsome in its own grand ugliness.

A twin set of bone ridges lined the top of his skull. A pair of vertically slitted eyes gleamed yellow above a sloping snout that ended with flared nostrils. The reptoid’s fangs were miniature versions of the tiger’s, but his toothy grin was altogether human. A forked tongue darted in and out between the fangs. His scales were an uneven blend of green and black, or perhaps they were of a green so dark that it resembled black.

A pistol hung at the lizard-man’s side, and a rifle lay across his back. Neither of his weapons looked like those of Svetlana’s world, but their shapes were unmistakable. Her own pistol was made of dark metal, but the reptoid’s gear was polished silver like his armor. She took all of this in while the reptoid stared at her and twirled Takamoto’s sword, taunting her like a child who had stolen a toy.

“I don’t need that sword to kill you,” Svetlana said.

The reptilian smile widened. “You didn’t even know I was here,” he said. “You’ll have to be more alert if you’re going to work for Domo.” He reversed the sword, offering her the grip while the blade lay naked in his palms. It could have been a dare to use it against him. If it was, she didn’t take the bait.

“Who are you?” she asked, sheathing Takamoto’s blade.

“Bruno,” said the reptoid. His yellow eyes flashed in the sunlight. “I work for Domo. Sixteen years now. He tells me he hired you to join this caravan. I say ‘Yes, Boss,’ but we both know he doesn’t need another guard.” The reptoid’s face came near to her as Bruno leaned forward. “So I ask myself: Why did he really hire you?”

“You’ll have to ask him yourself,” Svetlana said. She turned away from Bruno and put her back against the wall again. How much longer would Domo keep her waiting?

The reptoid continued staring at her. “I say he feels sorry for you. I say he’s sweet on you. Can you even fight?”

Svetlana closed her eyes.

When she opened them, Bruno had backed away. He inspected the ropes that tied the baggage onto the coach roof. Men had tried to bait her before, and she had learned to ignore it. Once they saw her skill at the hunt or in defense of the community, they gave her respect. This is how warriors bonded. If she was going to travel with Domo, she would have to establish a warrior’s bond with the lizard. Unless the customs of his own society prevented such a thing. Then she would have to make the entire journey enduring the heat of his scorn. She might have to kill Bruno if it came to that. A hundred such lizard-men would not keep her from finding Dima. She waited and kept her mouth shut. Bruno took his spot on the padded driver’s bench, and the tiger woke from its nap yawning.

Pepper Domo appeared in a cloud of powder, perfume, and flying silks. The front door of his shop burst open at the hands of two servants, and he swept through it in a robe of nine colors and carrying a scepter of gleaming glass. Whenever he took a step the air was filled with the tinkling of glass vials like tiny bells. His eyes at the end of their stalks blinked at the brightness of morning.

Spreading his arms wide, staring at his carriage fully prepared and the two bodyguards awaiting his pleasure, Domo sang in a high voice. The servants kneeled about him in reverence. The tiger purred like a great engine. Domo finished his song and the servants withdrew. The Apothecary turned his eyes to Svetlana and smiled with his sideways mouth.

“Good morning, my dear,” he said. “I see you’ve met Bruno.”

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Chapter 6. 

The StoneFathers

The shrine of the StoneFathers lay deep beneath the walls of HearthHome. The cavern was far older than the stone towers that grew from it like trees growing from hidden roots. Harmona stood amid thirty-nine faces set along the curving walls, each one three times her size. Beards of green ivy hung from their craggy chins, and the hollows of their eyes were dark with shadow.

The flame atop her staff lit the chamber in hues of emerald. The faces of the StoneFathers stared at the center of the shrine, where Harmona stood on a dais of marble. She sang the words of Waking, Reverence, and Gratitude.

The stone faces opened their eyes, weeping rays of amber light. The green glow diminished in their collective brilliance. Harmona wiped at the tears drying on her cheek. “Ancient Ones, we need your help,” she said. Even now her thoughts raced back to Dorian, legless and bleeding on a cot in the infirmary. Possibly he was already dead. She could do no more for him than the physicians could, and this errand could not wait. The girls had not seen their father’s condition yet, but there would be no hiding it from them.

A granite mouth opened with the sound of grinding of stones. A deep voice filled the cavern. “Be brave, little one.” Harmona turned to the Seventeenth Father, the first to speak. She spilled out the details of the attack on the hunters, but the voice cut her off.

“We know.” The words sank in the chamber like stones in deep water.

“What’s happening?” Harmona asked. Despite her determination to stop weeping, her eyes would not play along. She rubbed them with the hem of her sleeve.

“This day was foreseen by us,” said the Seventeenth Father.

“The Yicori have found you,” said the Ninth Father.

“Do not despair,” said another. “This was foreseen.”

“We will guide you, child,” said the Seventeenth, “as we have always done.”

“You knew?” Harmona said. “All this time we’ve been here and you knew these things were out there?”

“We know everything about this primitive world,” said the Fifteenth Father.

“Do not despair,” said the Eighth, coughing out a bit of sand.

“You brought us here,” Harmona said, “you and Wail. You told us it was safe. You said Gaeya would be our home. Ours.”

“So it has been,” said the Fifteenth.

“So it is,” said the Seventeenth.

“We have planned for this,” said the Third Father’s face. Harmona spun to face it.

“Your plan did not including warning us? You waited years for them to start killing us, and now you’re telling me not to worry about it. Where is Wail? I want to speak with Doctor Wail.”

“You ask too many questions at once,” said a face.

“And make demands of us,” said another.

“Doctor Wail brought you to Gaeya at our instruction,” said the Seventeenth Father. “We built this citadel for you, opened the nine wells. We taught you how to live in this place, revived the basic survival skills that your race had long forgotten. You would have died in a matter of weeks if not for our intervention. We built HearthHome for you, and you have done well. Your numbers grow. Yet you do not live outside of time as we do, so you must always contend with elements of change. Your temporal existence demands the chemistry of evolution. Change creates conflict and conflict creates growth. Your people have done well so far. Now they must grow.”

“Or die,” said the Thirty-Ninth Father.

“So it’s not a paradise after all, is it?” Harmona said. She sat down on the top step of the dais. The black staff leaned across her knees as she rested head in hands. The anger had come and gone in a flurry of emotions, and now she felt numb. Something significant was happening. Something that would change everything. Forever.

My husband is dying.

The tears welled again, and she shouted through them at the faces.

“I don’t understand!”

“Calm yourself, child,” said the Fifth Father. “The time has come for you to know the truth. This world is not yours alone. The Yicori dwell in the high trees of the far ranges, where your people have never hunted until now. We anticipated that one day the New Organics would have to take this world from these primitives. So we made HearthHome far from the Yicori territories, giving your people time to grow their numbers, adjust to their new lives here, and learn the hunting skills that will make them excellent warriors.”

“Warriors?” Harmona said. “You brought us here to make war on these creatures? To fight for dominance like animals in a pit?”

“We brought you here to free you from the Potentates of Urbille,” said the Seventeenth Father.

“You could never have fought the Potentates for dominance,” said the First Father. “Here you have an excellent chance to establish a permanent foothold for your species.”

“We saved your kind from annihilation,” said the Seventeenth.

“You have adapted well here,” said the Thirtieth Father, “with our aid.”

“You think I forget this?” Harmona said. She forced herself to stand again. Her knees were unsteady, so she leaned on the staff. “You want to forge us into the defenders of paradise. A paradise we have yet to earn. Will this blood buy us peace? Why can we not live side-by-side with these Yicori? There must be another way. Something besides war and death and suffering.”

“The Yicori have great appetite for human flesh,” said the Seventeenth Father.

“It is true,” said the Thirtieth.

“A hundred thousand years ago they existed in great hordes all over this continent,” said the First Father. “Voracious and strictly carnivorous, they devoured every other mammalian species into extinction. This created a series of massive die-offs, as the remaining tribes turned to cannibalism. This last tribe of Yicori has survived for a thousand years by preying on the myriads of avian species in the worldforest. When times are lean they still revert to cannibalism. Yet now they have discovered another mammalian race to prey upon, and the appetite consumes them like a fever. There is no other way. The New Organics must fight to survive on Gaeya. It is the next stage in your extraordinary evolution.”

“The Yicori must be destroyed,” said the Seventeenth Father.

“Every last one of them,” said the First.

“Only when this is done,” said the Seventeenth, “will this world belong to you.”

“I understand,” Harmona said. “But I don’t have to like it.”

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Chapter 5.
Special Dispensation


The Ministere de Justice was a monolith of glass and steel. It stood atop a crowded ridge overlooking the red valley of the Rusted Zone. Most of the buildings along the avenue were recycled institutions from the city’s various architectural eras, from Organic to Late Gothic to Retro-Modernism, so the result was a melange of old and new construction.

The crude angles and iron superstructures of the past mingled with neospires of steel and glass; nanotech smartdomes melded together by macrofiber networks; new and glistening skins grown over decrepit understructures thousands of years old. Architectural recycling at its finest, a baroque blend of styles influenced by a thousand different worlds. This was the Reclaimed Zone, where modernity overshadowed mouldering antiquity, and the Ministere de Justice was the perfect icon of that modernity. It sparkled white and blinding in the first light of morning.

Sunbeams pierced the windows of the lorrie. Crag awoke in the back seat at the prodding of a gendarme’s rifle butt. He kicked at the soldier’s head but didn’t really try to connect. The gendarmes moved away from the vehicle and allowed him to slide out. Crag wavered for a moment, the heat of good nitrate oils still burning in his belly gears. He turned back to grab his top hat. The Tribune was a stickler for appearances.

Crag adjusted his bronze face, pressed the hat down upon his skull, and followed the garden path toward the massive outer stairs. Statues lining the courtyard were made of bronze, faded and tarnished by age. The plants thriving here were synthetic recreations of real foliage, creations of the Ministere de Science whose personnel maintained the building. The banner of the Potentates hung crimson and black at the top of the steps, between pillars of silver and milky quartz.

The guards didn’t bother to nod or salute Crag as he passed. He was beneath their notice, just another tool of the Tribune like themselves. Crag tried not to look at the trio of jade gargoyles above the entrance. The sculptures always gave him bad vibes, yet he could never avoid staring at their reptilian faces. They stared back at him with green stone eyes, their mouths grinning with crooked tusks. Crag entered the central corridor through an open pair of immense doors. The walls were sterile, built of white alloy and stainless steel. The chairs were ornate, carved of ancient wood, lined with deep velvet. Porcelain-faced Beatifics stood along the walls in their finest coats and hats, waiting for access to the Tribune’s court. Some wore shackles at wrists and ankles with silent gendarmes looming at their shoulders.

Crag approached a second pair of doors somewhat smaller than the first. These were carved of ancient wood with intricate swirls and arcane patterns. A gendarme opened the right door as Crag approached. He was expected after all.

Inside the golden bench of the Tribune stood on a raised platform above the twin stands of prosecution and defense. Eight plastic couches sat below in two orderly rows for the comfort of observers. In all his years serving the Ministere de Justice, Crag had never seen anyone sitting on those couches. The Tribune heard cases and made judgments without an audience. Crag wondered why the couches were even there if nobody was ever going to use them. He slumped down on the rearmost couch. His coils sighed and his leg gears unlocked.

On the left wall stood a door marked ABSOLUTION. An identical door on the opposite wall read PUNISHMENT. Prisoners brought into the court were judged, sentenced, and dragged through one door or the other. In all his years at the Ministere de Justice, Crag had never seen anyone get the door of absolution. He wondered if anyone ever had walked through it, and if it led anywhere at all.

The Tribune’s gavel fell with a boom. Two gendarmes escorted a condemned Beatific from the bench to the door of punishment. As the door opened before him the man lost all sense of dignity and began screaming for mercy. They always did that. The gendarmes wrestled him through the portal, and the door slammed shut. The shrieks of the condemned man echoed for awhile from the other side, gradually fading into silence.

The Tribune finished scribbling something on a scroll with his peacock quill pen. The Ministere de Justice had a real taste for old-fashioned customs. That is to say Tribune Anteus had a thing for old-fashioned things, because he was heart and soul of the Ministere de Justice. This was the House of Anteus. Everyone here answered to the Tribune, and the Tribune answered only to the Potentates.

A miniature version of the Potentate’s banner hung above the Tribune’s high seat. The opaque veil that hid the Tribune’s face matched his spotless white robe. A long powdered wig hid the rest of his head. The walls of the court were etched with mosaics of ancient Beatifics wearing those types of wigs. Despite its external modernity the place was a bastion of tradition, a crucible of frozen history, and the only source of order in the grand chaos that was the Urbille. Crag was a part of that order. He was good at his job, even if he’d lost the heart for it.

The Tribune waved his long fingers, and the precious stones of his rings sparkled.

“Inspector Crag, you may approach.” A voice familiar as the Urbille itself. The Tribune’s regular speeches, delivered via high-frequency transistor, were the voice of the Potentates. It was a voice Crag had known all his life. Yet did anyone really know the Tribune? Crag reported to him directly on a case-by-case basis. He preferred to avoid it whenever possible. The urge to strangle the man until his pulpy brain oozed from his optical sockets had left Crag years ago. That wouldn’t have been any good for Caroline.

Crag stood before the high bench in the place where accused criminals were also made to stand. The Tribune had all his meeting like this. A constant reminder that he sat above everyone else, even his fellow agents of order. Anteus drummed his sharp nails against the golden bench as he spoke.

“Splendid work tonight,” said the Tribune. “We can always count on you, Crag. Was the apprehension difficult?”

“No apprehension,” Crag said. “The killer was sick. He had to be put down on the spot.”

The veiled faced stared at him.

“It was a matter of life and death,” Crag said.

“Very well,” said the Tribune. “You’ll find no dispute from me this time. We have more important things to discuss.”

“What’s more important than keeping the Urbille’s children safe?”

“Whatever serves the interests of the Potentates, Inspector.”

“Yes, sir.”
“In this case the matter does happen to involve the youngest members of our population. Perhaps it is related in some way to the case you just solved, but that is not for me to say.”

Crag waited.

“Are you familiar with the notorious highwayman known as the Surgeon?”

“I’ve read the reports,” Crag said. “Renegade Beatific, roams the Nexus robbing and murdering travellers; horseman, swordsman, handy with a pistol; supernaturally gifted; responsible for at least a dozen murders a year for the past decade.”

Crag had an optical for detail and an excellent memory. Caroline always said it was what made him good at his job. A half-dozen special agents had tried to track, entrap, or gun down the highwayman in the past ten years. Nobody ever found him. And nobody who went looking for him ever came back alive.

The Tribune waved a sheaf of papers. “Yes, yes, but have you seen the Red File?”

Crag reached up and took the folder. He opened it and scanned the document inside. It was marked CONFIDENTIAL: TRIBUNE ONLY in red ink. A list of dates and names; times and places; most of them along the Greater Thoroughfare, the others in and around the Urbille itself. Abductions. Some singly, some in groups.

Crag read the notations and recognized his own name on several cases. He slapped the folder down onto a wooden podium. “Missing persons cases from the last 12 years. Some of them were my cases. All of them unsolved…”

“Two hundred and sixty four unsolved cases,” said the Tribune, “and we suspect many more unreported losses. Do you see what all of these cases have in common?”

Crag had already noticed it. “They’re all minors. Young Organics. Pre-Conversion citizens of the Urbille.” He checked a row of data. “Seventy percent were stolen from Beatific families, the rest from Clatterpox.”

“And what does that suggest to you?”

“That somebody’s stealing children from the Urbille and he doesn’t play favorites.”

“That somebody is the Surgeon, Inspector,” said the Tribune. “And these are only the cases of youths taken from the Urbille itself. It doesn’t take into account hundreds more who were stolen right off the Greater Thoroughfare. Taken from the families of travelling merchants and private expeditions. Even an acting troupe lost four Young Organics who were travelling with them as apprentices.”

“So the Surgeon is stealing kids,” Crag said. “Children of all ages. He’s not murdering his victims for their wealth. He’s robbing them of their children.”

“He takes whatever wealth he can as well,” said the Tribune, “but we now know that his primary target is and always has been our children. He’s never taken anyone who has undergone Conversion.”

“No one under the age of sixteen,” Crag said. “Why? What is he doing with them all?”

“Now you’re asking the right questions, Inspector. I knew you were the man for the job.”

“What job, Excellency?”

“This child-stealer is no better than the child-killer you just eliminated,” said the Tribune. “To understand his motives, we must look at the man behind the reputation. You remembered that the Surgeon is a Beatific. What else do you know about him?”

“Not much. Rumors and whispers. Some say he’s a devil from Hell, others say he works for the Potentates. I’ve even heard it said that he’s not human at all.”

“No, Crag. The Surgeon used to be Doctor Aimon Wail, a gifted physician specialized in Conversion. Ranked extremely high among the Masters of Conversion Arts and Sciences. He earned six doctorial degrees in biomechanics and won three Adept Scrolls. He served the Potentates in the Ministere de Science for over two hundred years, during that time Converting thousands of Organic youths into magnificent Beatifics. A job so important one might see it as a sacred calling.”

“What happened?” Crag asked. “Something must have sent him over the edge.”

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Welcome back!

Chapter 4 returns us to Svetlana, who crossed through a strange portal back in Chapter 1 and found herself in an alien desert. A big THANK YOU to everyone who’s reading and spreading the word.

In case you missed a chapter:
Chapter 1   Chapter 2   Chapter 3

Chapter 4.

The Apothecaries of Nil

At first she thought they were some kind of strange trees. They rustled and shambled in the distance like a pack of lazy spiders. It might have been the hot wind that moved them, but the wind had died down hours ago. The tiny white sun had set, but the big orange sun never changed its position. It blazed across a quarter of the crimson sky.

Svetlana had stripped the lining from her parka to make a scarf that covered head and shoulders. She had never known such heat, not even in the brief depths of summer on the tundra. She dripped sweat and staggered forward with a dry mouth, rationing the rest of her canteen water. She half-believed she would find Dima, but also half-believed she would die trying. If she did find him in this boiling hell, he would need water too. She would need to find more of it, or something else to drink.

Several times she considered going back. She fell to her knees on the seamless pavement where the blowing sand would not drift. She wept and wailed at the bloody sky. But going back was not really an option. The eelheads would kill her as she came through the gate. Even if she survived their torments, she’d have to live with abandoning little Dima.

You’re not going back.

Get up and follow that damned angel.

Follow him to Dima, or to death.

A mother’s fierce heart.

So she got up, that time and the next time. She prayed that dusk would fall and the red sky would fade to the cool touch of night. But night never came in this place. All three of the moons had set and risen again, but no darkness came. There was no night here, only a time when one bloated sun ruled the sky, and another even hotter time when the smaller sun rose to join it for awhile.

Her stomach growled and her throat was raw. She ignored the hunger like a wound, a pain in her gut for which she could do nothing. She walked the endless road and her skin turned to red then brown. Her body ached. There was no way to measure the passing of time since night and day had become meaningless concepts. She saw nothing alive here, no plants, not even the tiniest lizard. Nothing but sand, bare rock, and red sky, until she came upon the creatures.

Heedless of danger, drunk on heat and light, she stumbled closer to the trembling things. They were far taller than she imagined. If they were vegetable in nature, they might have fruit for her to eat. If they were some kind of animal, she might kill one of them and eat its flesh. She drew Takamoto’s blade and walked on, too exhausted for a cautious approach. They weren’t spiders at all, at least not earthly ones.

Their central bodies were like clusters of colossal grapes, a mass of fleshy ovoids hanging from a central stem, gathered into a “bunch” by clinging transparent membranes. From that central stalk rose nine segmented appendages, arcing into the air above the cluster-body, and swiveling downward at the third joint to impact the earth. These leg-like appendages formed a crude “cage” about each of the body-clusters. Each leg ended in a single talon long as a sword, and these talons clacked against the road or dug into the sand as the creatures walked.

The color of their flesh ranged from black to purple to lavender with veins of white, and their strangely pleasant odor blew on the wind. Svetlana inhaled it and came close enough to walk beneath the nearest of the creatures, who seemed entirely unconcerned with her presence. The point of her blade dug a furrow in the sand beside her; she couldn’t find the strength to raise it.

She examined the crab-like legs as she walked between them. One of the creatures swiveled its many eyes at her. They blinked violet and gleaming from the body-cluster, two eyes set in each of the hanging ovoids. She fell to her knees again, not because of the high-pitched garbling of the creature, although it pierced her ears like a siren. What forced her to the ground, humbled her with impossibility, was its cluster of faces.

The creature’s central body was composed of a dozen or more suspended ovoids, each one with its own two eyes, nose, and mouth. They were human faces, some of them bloated and stretched, while others hung limp and drooling. Some of its faces were beautiful in their androgynous simplicity. Others were rotten and half-decayed. A horrible cluster of heads, most of them warbling something vital and unintelligible.

A warning? A greeting? Svetlana couldn’t begin to say.

Other clusters of heads regarded her from outside the cage of legs into which she’d stumbled. She lay on the sand now, directly below the hanging cluster of heads.

Now these things will kill me, and it will be over.

I tried, Dima. Forgive me.

In the cool shadow of the creature’s body, the only shade she found since coming through the gateway, she fell unconscious. An instant later, or perhaps many hours, the chill of liquid on her lips awoke her like a shockwave. It sluiced into her mouth and overspilled her cheeks. Cold, pure water. She drank it down, deeply and greedily, until her stomach felt bloated and her head ached. She wiped the excess over her face and hair, and her vision cleared.

One of the cluster-headed beings kneeled beside her on seven folded legs. Its last two appendages were what passed for arms. They rose from the central stalk like the other seven legs, but were contracted now to half their length, drawing into the central stalk. Among the glistening heads staring at her from the creature’s mid-body, there were three that seemed entirely human. She avoided looking at the decayed heads and the distorted ones. Perhaps some of the thing’s heads were dying, rotten fruits clinging to the vine. Three pairs of healthy eyes stared at Svetlana while the pointed arms poured water from a glass orb. The three heads spoke simultaneously, and she could not understand the language. It sounded like the singing of insects, but much louder.

Svetlana checked her body. She lay unmolested next to the kindly being, her sword left on the sand a short distance away. The rest of the head-cluster beings milled about nearby, as if waiting for Svetlana’s caretaker to give a sign. Surely they wouldn’t give her water if they intended to kill her. Yet there were worse fates than death.

The being’s dual appendages sat down the glass globe and reached above its main stalk where a bundle of provisions sat tied with strands of rope. The creature’s arms found what they were looking for: a tall glass vial of murky liquid. It clanked against several other glass containers as the being removed it from the rope-net above its head-cluster.

It offered the vial to Svetlana with a few blithering words, and several pair of blinking eyes. One of the side heads vomited an orange mucous, but the three pleasant faces smiled at her. Their eyes were orbs of gleaming purple, and their lips were that same shade. None of the heads had any hair, since they were connected to the other heads by shared membranes where a human might grow healthy locks.

Svetlana touched the vial. She had been dragged from the road proper to the camp of the head-cluster beings. The razory tip of an appendage came forward and punctured the big cork that sealed the vial. It pulled the cork free with a popping sound, and motioned for her to drink.

She sniffed at the mouth of the bottle. A sour-sweet stench. Definitely not water. But they had shared their water with her already. Why do that if they were only going to poison her? She blinked at the three smiling heads, tried to ignore the rotting skulls higher up on the beast’s cluster-body, and tipped the vial above her lips.

It burned going down, and she coughed some of it back up. The creature took the bottle immediately, deftly re-stoppering and re-storing it. Svetlana writhed and spat and cursed in the dirt beside the road. The heat expanded from her tongue to her fingertips, then from her belly to her brain, and her vision swelled with colors she could not name. She gnashed her teeth and wretched, but there was no food in her stomach to throw up.

The world turned to a mess of hot blurs, and she feared the drink had blinded her. She’d heard stories of the eelheads blinding men to make them more docile slaves. The roaring in her ears finally ceased, and her eyes regained their sight. She blinked at the many-headed creature.

“…not specifically an elixir of telepathy, but one of understanding. A liquid-form course in celestial linguistics, if you will. It should be working by now.” She realized a voice was addressing her with words that actually made sense. Of the three handsome heads that hung near her, the closest two were speaking with simultaneous words. “Are you feeling better?”

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Why release Chapter 3 so early?

Because I can.

I make the rules here, not some distant publishing company. That’s the whole point of this experiment. And it feels gooood.

I also wanted to get the first three chapters out as soon as possible, so that readers can meet all three main characters. Their separate narratives entwine as the book goes on, but we’ll keep visiting Svetlana, Crag, and Harmona individually until fate brings them together. (No spoilers, dude!) Chapter 3 introduces Harmona and the New Organics. 

A big THANK YOU to everyone who’s reading and spreading the word.

In case you missed a chapter: Chapter 1    Chapter 2



Chapter 3.


The world was green and good. Harmona watched the sun rise from the top of the Hearthtower. The stone beneath her bare feet grew warmer in the first light of day. The last hint of night faded from the sky and clouds rolled above the worldforest.

The tower’s top was flat and entirely seamless. Its diameter was wide enough to hold a hundred or more people, but nobody had followed Harmona up here this morning yet. She relished these rare moments of quietude, when the only sounds came from the great flocks of birds soaring above the trees. This was the only place where she could look across the treetops, a green ocean of leaf and palm that blanketed the continent as far as she could see.

Ten years living on Gaeya and her people had yet to locate the edges of the great woodland or the farthest shores of the continent. She knew there was an actual ocean out there somewhere, a place where mighty rivers emptied themselves and solid land gave way to the chaos of open waters. Some enterprising wanderer of a future generation would discover it. She was content to stay here at the heart of the green world, to watch the sun rise above the pinnacle of HearthHome.

The morning wind tossed the curls of her hair and whipped the mothsilk gown about her legs. She inhaled the fragrance of a million blossoms on the breeze, the comforting scents of leaf and bark, and beneath it the everpresent musk of raw earth. Somewhere under that canopy of endless green, Dorian and his band of hunters were on their way back home.

Ten years ago she would never have imagined him as an archer, a huntsman, a wood-roaming champion of his people. Yet back then she would have never imagined herself standing atop this tower and staring at a new world of bounty and freedom. She raised her hands to catch a ray of sunlight, like picking fruit from a low branch. The golden light played across her knuckles, her upturned palms, the pale brown skin of her forearms. These simple pleasures would have remained unknown to her if she had not come here.

Gratitude swelled like a raw flame in her breast, ready to burst from her skin like sunbeams. The wind caressed her face. She hoped Dorian would return soon. It had been six days since she felt his warm skin against her own. She trembled, anticipating the heat of his lips, the strength of his arms wrapped about her waist.


Harmona turned to meet her daughters as they topped the spiral stairwell from the tower’s uppermost chamber. Elodie, her youngest, had been the first to call out. Harmona couldn’t quite believe that six years had already passed since Elodie’s birth. Astrid and Sabine, Elodie’s eight- and nine-year old sisters, followed her onto the tower-top, grinning into the wind. Elodie blinked into the glaring sunlight as she leaped into her mother’s arms. All three girls still wore their sleeping gowns. Like Harmona, they hadn’t bothered to change before coming up to enjoy the dawn.

They stood together along the short circular wall that enclosed the roof. Harmona lifted Elodie so she could see over the edge.

“See how green the world is,” Harmona said. She brushed Elodie’s hair back from her round face.

“The sun hurts my eyes,” Elodie said. She buried her face in Harmona’s neck.

“You can’t look directly at it,” Astrid said. “You’ll go blind.”

Harmona smiled and rubbed Astrid’s head.

“Who told you that?” she said.

“Father,” said Astrid. “When he took us to the Sacred Grove.”

“Is it true?” Sabine asked. She was the skeptic of the bunch. Wise beyond her years. The firstborn and the first to question what was given or said to her.

“Yes,” said Harmona. “The sun is made of fire. If you touch a hearth fire your hand will burn. The sun will burn your eyes. Yet without it we’d all be stuck in darkness.”

“No we wouldn’t,” Sabine said.

Astrid gave her a dirty look. “Why not?”

“Because of the moons,” Sabine explained. “Six moons greater and lesser to light our way through the darkness.”

Harmona smiled. Sabine had learned well from her tutors.

“Can you name all six moons?”

Sabine rolled the names off her tongue rapidly. Astrid joined in with the names of the last two, mimicking her sister.

“The sun also gives us heat and warmth,” Sabine said. “There are six moons, but the nights are cold. Why don’t the moons give us warmth, Mother?”

Harmona pinched her eldest daughter’s cheek. “You are full of questions,” she said. “The moons only reflect the sun’s fire. They are bright but cold.”

“What are the moons made of?” Astrid asked.

“Stone,” Harmona said.

“Like HearthHome,” said Elodie.

Harmona kissed her daughter’s forehead. “That’s right, precious girl.”

Mother and daughters stared across the green world for a moment. A flock of white birds reflected the sun’s gold from their plumage.

“Tell us about the place you came from,” Sabine asked. “You never talk about it.”

Harmona frowned. Sabine’s curiosity went hand-in-hand with her intelligence. She cherished this quality in her oldest, but sometimes it made for difficult moments.

“It was an old world,” she said. “Nothing like this one. It was dark and grey. Cold.”

“Were there six moons?”

“No,” Harmona said. “Only one.”

“The nights must have been dark there.”

“Yes,” Harmona said. “Very dark.”

“Tell us more,” Astrid said.

Harmona sat Elodie down at her feet. “Your father is better at telling tales than I am. He’ll be home in a day or two. You can ask him these questions.”

Sabine sighed. She was used to her mother’s avoidance of this topic. Dorian had a way of explaining things to his girls that softened the cruelty of the past. He turned everything into a lesson or an entertaining story. When Harmona thought of their life before Gaeya, she felt like weeping. She didn’t want the girls to see her like that.

“Father’s coming home?” Elodie asked. She jumped and ran around the rooftop, shouting her joy to the wind. Children had no filters for their emotions. Already Harmona felt the shadow of Sabine’s question fading. She smiled and embraced her two eldest.

“Let’s go down to breakfast,” she said. “We’ll have honey and wheat-toast, and there’s loamberries and wingfruit fresh from the gardens.”

“I’m hungry!” Astrid said. Sabine reluctantly agreed to receiving nourishment over knowledge. The girls followed their mother down the spiral stair into the suite of bedchambers that served as home to the HearthMother. They changed into soft tunics of plant fiber dyed to colors of earth, leaf, and sky, set with golden trim at sleeves and hem. Each daughter presented herself and passed inspection.

Harmona took up her staff of black metal, her touch igniting the emerald flame that danced above its head. A circlet of beaten gold inscribed with a pattern of leaf and vine marked her status as HearthMother. It had taken her years to get used to wearing the circlet, but now she hardly noticed its presence about her forehead. She thought of it as little more than a device to keep her mass of dark curls from obscuring her face. The staff was a reminder of the world from which she had escaped. One day Sabine would ask for the story behind the staff. One day Harmona would have the strength to tell her everything. But that was not today.

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