Astielle: Chapter Forty

Eson was a port city built next to cliffs. It had expanded outward, as cities do, until it filled out all the space between rocks and water and started climbing upward. Not all at once, and not in the same places. They built on top of the cliffs, and upward beside them, until the two met. It was a country’s worth of people all crammed into one city, climbing up toward the sky and down toward the water, fitting buildings into every spare bit of space.

This made Eson an absolutely baffling son of a bitch to try to navigate.

Minnow had done her best to add notations to her maps to render them useful, but there was only so much that could be done. There were streets at ground level, which was sea level, and there were streets at ground level, which was up above sea level on the cliffs. There were streets between the two, spiraling from one to the other on a steep slope just flat enough to allow carts to use them. Some of them had been constructed upward, and others down, and so two roads that looked like they ought to intersect would instead be slightly above or below each other. Two buildings might be only five feet apart, but to get from one to the other on the streets required heading all the way down and then back up again in a process that took an hour. A better strategy might have been to make a different map for every level, and she’d tried, but it was too hard to figure out where one level ended and another began. She’d done her best, but she was no longer happy with the decisions she’d made and didn’t have the heart to bother re-doing them.

She planned to spend as little time as possible in Eson with Leonas because he would not take kindly to her jumping off high streets and climbing into windows. She would not take kindly to anyone insisting she walk. It was an argument waiting to happen.

There was a Door that had been put at the top of the cliffs, which would have been excellent for gliding down from before they built more city on top of it. Knowing that she—her past self—had put the Door there made it more annoying than it had been. The feeling that if she could only learn the trick, she could move the Door somewhere more useful. Easier to cope with the unfairness when it felt random and out of her control, like weather or the ocean.

Years ago, Minnow had bought a small apartment in Eson. She’d fixed it up as nicely as she could before deciding she wanted something even nicer, so she’d bought a different apartment. She’d done this several times, and now owned several homes of increasing niceness, only the nicest of which she ever used. Strangers lived in the others and paid her for it by dropping payment into the mail slot of her nicest house. Mostly it was coins, but sometimes there’d be other things, interesting looking rocks or old books or maps. It was a very informal arrangement. If it took her long enough to come back, the mail slot would get clogged up with stuff and no one had to pay her anything until she’d cleared it out again.

This ought to have incentivized her to visit more, but, well. She had the lanternmelons. The occasional maps were much more interesting than the gold.

Gerry wasn’t in Eson and hadn’t been for some time. There was a shop by the waterfront that specialized in messenger pigeons trained to seek out ships at sea. Unfortunately, the old woman who ran it had come down with something that left her bedridden, and the only doctor she trusted was one on the other side of the city at the top of the cliffs. Minnow spent the trip mulling over how nice it would have been to have put a Door at the bottom of the city as well as near the top.

“We’re closed for the weekend,” the man at the clinic said as soon as she’d arrived.

“Mrs. Hanna is sick,” Minnow said.

“She’ll be sick three days from now, too.”

Minnow debated all the things she could spend three days doing. She could go back to the cabin with the boys, follow one of her new maps, or spend some time shopping at the bazaar. All of those things would likely distract her for longer than three days. With her luck, they would distract her long enough that she’d come back in time for his clinic to be closed again.

She set her bag down in front of the clinic and used it as a pillow to take a nap underneath the doctor’s windowsill.

Leonas had set a chair outside the cabin to read. It was a day before Karzarul realized it was because he couldn’t see the Door from underneath the willow tree.

It had been three days since Minnow had gone through the Door on her own.

“We could go check on her,” Karzarul suggested. He’d been a Tauril much of the time they’d been here, and Leonas had stopped flinching at the sight of him.

“It’s only been three days,” Leonas said, not looking up from his book.

“You could use the Seeing Stone,” Karzarul said.

“It’s only been three days,” Leonas said again. “She doesn’t answer if you use it too often.” He turned the page. “It’s fine. When she comes back she’ll apologize for accidentally getting a job at a tea house and losing track of time. It happens.”

Karzarul had spent enough time on the questing side of things to know the truth of it. But it felt different waiting, watching Leonas watch a Door.

“Have you been to Ocrae?” Karzarul asked.

“No.” Leonas flipped back a page, having realized he hadn’t read it properly. “I’ve been to Astielle. And Thexikar, once. Anywhere else I’ve been, I’ve been with you.”

“We could go together,” Karzarul suggested. “If I hid under your shirt—”


“Violet,” Karzarul hissed into his Seeing Stone. He was in the middle of the field of wildflowers, far from the cabin but still in view of it. It was unlikely Leonas would hear him, but he was being cautious anyway.

«And to what do I owe the pleasure?» Violet asked, fluttering his lashes at the stone.

«You said before that you wanted monsters to be around humans again, right?»

«Ye-e-es,» Violet confirmed.

«Did you—are there places yet?» Karzarul asked. «Places where monsters are?»

«Other than here, you mean,» Violet said.

«Obviously that’s what I mean,» Karzarul said. «I want places I can go that won’t—I’ll still draw attention. Obviously. But not as much. Maybe. If there are already Taurils wandering around. You know?»

Violet hummed thoughtfully. «What’s the vibe?» he asked.

«Sexy? But casual.»

«That goes without saying,» Violet said. «Wine, beer, rural, urban?»

«Do you remember Rison?» Karzarul asked.

«It’s Eson now,» Violet said.

«Right,» Karzarul said. «If we could do a sort of beginner’s version of Eson.»

Violet drummed his fingers against his chin. «I’ll ask Buttercup, I’m sure he’ll know a place. I’ll get back to you.»

Minnow had been sitting in the street reorganizing her bag when the doctor became annoyed by her continued presence outside his front door. He gave her a list of ingredients for some kind of medicine, all of which she already had somewhere, but none of which she had with her. The mixture itself was unfamiliar, which he told her was because it was only good for treating the one specific illness that plagued Mrs. Hanna.

Minnow had three jars of healing potions in her bag, but they were only good for knitting flesh back together. Really more of a healing unguent, or salve. It didn’t work as well as a sacred spring, but she justified keeping them as a matter of emergencies. If Mrs. Hanna could have cut her leg off instead, it would have saved Minnow a great deal of running around, as well as retroactively validating her bag-related decisions. Minnow would not be telling her that her insistence on being ill instead of being mutilated was an inconvenience, but she would be thinking it.

“Do you know where I can buy cave orchids?” she asked the woman who sold rare flowers.

“Those are very rare,” the florist said.

“I know,” Minnow said, setting gold on the counter before grabbing flowers by the handful to shove into her bag. She didn’t need any of them yet, but it might save her a trip later.

“I’ve heard there’s a place near here—”

“I know about the cave,” Minnow interrupted. It would take her about three hours to get there, assuming she left immediately.

“Yes, there’s a cave to the south,” the florist continued, undaunted. “But it’s—”


“Yes!” the florist agreed. “It’s rumored to be full of—”


“The Captain of the—”

“Guardsmen, I know, I’m not talking to him,” Minnow said. “Do you know anywhere that I can give someone gold and they give me cave orchids and I don’t go to a cave?” Minnow was aware of a number of caves with cave orchids, but the rest were even further from a Door than the smugglers’ cave south of Eson.

“No,” the florist admitted.

“Bye.” Minnow stepped off the street and into the air rather than allow the florist to give her any additional advice. In a motion made automatic through years of practice, she pulled her scabbard from her belt with the Starsword still in it, flipping it up above her head. Dragonfly wings made of starlight burst out from it, catching the air and immediately slowing her descent. She held onto the crossguard and surveyed her options as she drifted downward, debating steering her glider into the harbor. She didn’t recognize any of the ships, but dropping onto one from the sky could be a fun way to meet new people.

She spotted a traveling merchant’s cart on a lower street and navigated the glider in their direction. When she was approximately above the correct spot, she spun the Starsword in her hands to collapse the glider and let herself fall.

“Do you have cave orchids?” Minnow asked the startled merchant as she rose from the crouch her fall had brought her to. She reattached the scabbard to her belt while they recovered from the shock to respond.

“I don’t,” they said finally. “There’s a cave to the south—”


“I’ve been catching up with Violet,” Karzarul said abruptly.

Leonas raised an eyebrow. He didn’t look up from his book, which he hadn’t been reading anyway. Karzarul had been hovering around him most of the day, and it was too distracting. It put Leonas on edge, waiting for him to make a request or ask an unpleasant question.

“Is he doing well?” Leonas asked.

“Maybe,” Karzarul said. “He said the Taurils have been spending time in a town called Salt Creek.”

“Gross,” Leonas said.

“It’s better than it sounds,” Karzarul said. “I’m told. There’s a Door nearby. I was thinking about going.”


“With you.”


“If you wanted.”

Leonas closed his book as he considered this. He had been prepared for the probability that both Minnow and Karzarul would wander off, if not together then at the same time. Minnow wandered as a matter of habit, and Karzarul had a kingdom to consider. Leonas would not be an asset to either of them, and he was used to waiting.

“A town,” Leonas repeated.

“In Ocrae,” Karzarul said. “Mostly Ocrae. The creek is a border and the town is quite large.”

Leonas drummed his nails on the cover of the book. “It would need to be,” he murmured, “to fit more than one Tauril in it. That won’t bother you?” Leonas hadn’t forgotten the city in the gorge, Karzarul avoiding even Rootboars.

“No,” Karzarul said, with a confidence that did not feel earned.

“What will we be doing there?”

Karzarul hesitated before answering. “We could see a play,” he suggested finally. “Or eat. Outside. I don’t fit in most buildings.”

“Not like that, you don’t,” Leonas agreed. “You could be something else.”

“I would prefer not to.”

“Hm.” Leonas opened his book again to stare at the pages, not reading.

Smuggler’s Cave was empty the vast majority of the time, but somehow never when Minnow wanted to pick flowers. It was as if her intention to be anywhere near it was enough to summon a ship to sit in the middle of the cave, full to bursting with absolute morons.

Minnow debated killing them all. It would save her a lot of time. However, it felt rude when they were still minding their own business, and killing was messy. She headed straight for the back of the cave with the orchids, looking purposeful and giving the smugglers a wide berth. This was sometimes enough to get her safely ignored.


Minnow took off at a run. A surprising number of problems could be outrun.

“Intruder! We’ve got a stowaway!”

“No you don’t!” Minnow shouted back, still running. She jumped over a stack of crates and narrowly avoided running into someone. “Ignore me!”

That never worked, but it felt like she ought to give them the opportunity.

“Catch her!” someone shouted.

“Ignore me!” Minnow shouted again. “This has nothing to do with you!”

The yelling did not sound like the yelling of people taking her word for it. However, the majority seemed off-put enough by her determination to give her some breathing room, and that was all she needed. She jumped at one of the cave walls to grab a spindly white orchid from the wet moss it had nestled itself into, landing on uneven stone with water up to her ankles. She jumped for a few more with graceless splashing.

A large rock hit her in the back of the head, which was not enough to injure her, but was enough to startle her into dropping her orchids.

“Seriously?” she complained underneath the triumphant noises of a young man who thought himself clever, bending down to catch her orchids before they drifted away.

Another rock hit her, and she scowled.

“Okay,” she sighed, unsheathing the Starsword. “Fuck this.”

“This feels excessive,” Karzarul said.

“You’re the one who said you wanted color,” Leonas said, tucking more flowers into Karzarul’s hair. There were so many wildflowers he looked like there was a garden spilling all down his back. They’d found him a dark blue shirt that mostly fit and had thrown a quilt over his back half like an oversized saddle blanket. The theory was that enough color would obfuscate the fact that the whole of him was the color of the moon, and make him look more like any other Tauril.

“I want it to look good,” Karzarul complained.

Leonas paused. “Are you doubting my fashion sense?”

“I look like a grandmother’s funeral,” Karzarul said.

“The flowers look nice,” Leonas insisted. “If the quilt bothers you that much I’ll—I don’t want to magic it, it might be important to Minnow. We can buy something different when we get there. I don’t see why it matters, I already know what you look like.”

“You’re not the only one who’ll be seeing me,” Karzarul reminded him.

“So?” Leonas said. “You’ll be with me. You shouldn’t care about other people.”

“Don’t wear your makeup, then.”

“That’s different.”

“I don’t know what you thought was gonna happen,” Minnow said, pouring out the last of her healing potion. “I don’t expect everyone to recognize me, but I am an adventurer. I’ve got a sword. What’s your name?”

He sniffled instead of answering, so she kicked the freshly healed stump of thigh where his leg used to be. He made a sound like she’d stepped on a frog.

“Name. You’ve got a name?”

“Bullseye,” he managed.

“That’s stupid,” she said. “This happens—listen. Stop making that sound, it’s gross. This happens every time I come here, and eventually, you’d think you guys would stop coming here. Or at least you’d figure out to ignore me.” She wandered away to start digging through the pockets of the nearest corpse, using its shirt to wipe blood from her hands. “Except, I thought about it, and that was my mistake. If I kill everyone, there’s no one left to say: hey, if you see the Starlight Hero, ignore her. She’s doing unrelated stuff.” Very few of the dead smugglers had anything interesting in their pockets, though one had a cool knife. She used a piece of the sail to wipe blood from her face. “Actually, if you guys picked the orchids yourself and sold them at port, I wouldn’t even have to come here. It would save me a lot of time. But I never left anyone alive to tell anyone that, which was my bad.” She kicked at a crate to try and guess at its contents. “Is it drugs? Do you guys have drugs?”

Bullseye nodded.

“Cool.” Minnow pulled out the Starsword again to hit the edges of the crate until it cracked, peeling away the wood to reveal cloth sacks packed with powder. “I wasn’t planning to take this,” she added, trying to determine the best way to carry as much as she could. She’d take the whole ship, but it was covered in corpses and she’d broken the mast besides. She’d prefer to leave that to be someone else’s problem. “You threw a rock at me and that’s why you don’t get to have legs or drugs anymore.” Or his rock-throwing arm, but that went without saying. She started pushing one of the intact crates toward the small boat she’d used to row here.

“Where are you going to take me?” Bullseye asked.

Minnow frowned. “Nowhere?” she said, confused by the question.

“I’ll—I’ll die here.”

“Nah,” she said, pushing her crate again. “You’ve got an arm, you’re not losing blood anymore. You can drag yourself somewhere if you really want but you’d be better off waiting for the next boatload of idiots.”

“We were coming to port,” he said. “There’s no supplies left.”

“It’s not like you’re short on meat,” she pointed out. If there’d been any color left in his face, it disappeared. “You’ve always got those if you’re squeamish,” she added, gesturing to his legs. “But you’re going to want to cut up the rest of the crew anyway to make sure they don’t get back up, so you might as well. Eating your own legs is weird.”

Leonas had never blended in. Not in the castle, where everyone looked like his father and no one like his mother. Not in Thexikar, the first time he’d realized that there were different ways for a person to be pale. For a few years he’d fooled himself into thinking he could lose himself in a crowd, veiled and playing the part of some lost stray witchling.

Even then, he’d always known better deep down. He revealed himself with the small thrill of excitement he felt when he saw someone else with skin any darker than boiled milk. Recognition, or a desire for recognition. An impulse to wave or to nod, as if they ought to recognize each other. As if this one small thing gave them anything in common, made him any less his father’s son.

Clinging to Minnow as if any of it meant anything to her.

Salt Creek was smaller than Fort Astielle, fewer people in fewer buildings all clustered together in ways he didn’t recognize. Roads of irregular widths that wound instead of carving straight, every roof sloping and some of them shared. The language was six languages, familiar words jumping out from the middle of sentences. Almost everyone looked like Leonas, or looked like his mother, or looked like what he imagined his mother must have looked like. He was the only one who found this off-putting. The sense of recognition wasn’t going away, was instead a persistent false alarm. He felt conspicuous.

A Tauril named Bo had told Karzarul where to find a better saddle blanket. He found Karzarul’s going by Ari much funnier than Karzarul did. Monsters wandered the streets in small numbers, nothing compared to the number of people but enough of them to notice. It was difficult to glean how the locals felt about this new type of tourist, but shopkeepers were eager to seem inviting. Whatever else a monster was, all of them had more money than sense, Karzarul most of all.

Leonas felt conspicuous, and it had nothing to do with Karzarul. Karzarul was charming and polite, spoke the language fluently, and remembered to translate though Leonas hadn’t asked. Vendors sold him scarves and painted fans and strings of bells, and Karzarul paid for the novelty of strangers being happy to see him. Leonas watched him and wondered if this was the Ari that Minnow had known, the one that Leonas had never met because he’d always been Karzarul.

Leonas hated him.

He didn’t exactly hide behind Karzarul, but he did. He fidgeted with his gloves and with the scarf he’d worn as a veil. He hadn’t bothered hiding his hair. It meant nothing here. He’d always thought he had his father’s hair, but he’d seen more than one person in Salt Creek with reddish curls. That felt like it ought to mean something, but he didn’t know what.

He felt conspicuous. He’d thought it would be the Sunshield, but he wasn’t the only one with a shield. Most of the others had swords to match. He wouldn’t know what to do with a sword.

They still used Astian coins here. Leonas fished one out of his purse to drop in the bowl of a roadside drummer. The drummer nodded thanks, and Leonas’ hands twitched, reflexively wanting to press the heels of his hands together. He hadn’t seen the gesture since leaving home. Not home. Astielle.

The Kingdom that would be his, if it didn’t find a way to kill him first.

“Did you want to get something to eat?” Karzarul asked, lifting him up onto his back. “She said there’s good samosas if we take three lefts and a right over there.”

“Three lefts and a right would bring us back here,” Leonas said, curling his knees up sideways close to Karzarul’s back.

“You’d think so,” Karzarul agreed, “but I’m told they’re odd lefts.”

“Sure.” Something about this city felt louder.

“Are you having a good time?”

“Yes,” Leonas said automatically, examining the flowers in Karzarul’s hair. He touched the ones that were starting to wilt to revive them.

“Is there anything you’d like to do?” Karzarul asked. “I still haven’t bought you anything.”

“I don’t want anything.”

“There’s a theater by the river,” Karzarul suggested, gesturing toward a flyer that Leonas couldn’t read.



“The other monsters aren’t a problem?” Leonas asked.

“No,” Karzarul said. “This is—there isn’t a contrast.”

“Okay.” Leonas considered the possible downsides of asking Karzarul to make him a sedan chair with curtains. He found the stall with the samosas, a slapdash outdoor kitchen of cookware precariously balanced over open flames staffed by too many people all navigating around each other. Leonas found it best to avert his gaze from the open metal bowl of boiling oil that wobbled whenever anyone moved.

“You are from Astielle?” an older woman asked in accented Astian, drawing his attention. She was assembling triangles of dough. Leonas nodded, and she gestured to her face, where a veil would be if she wore one. “Witches don’t have to wear that here,” she said.

His face felt hot. He mumbled syllables that didn’t form into words, only made the vague sound of an explanation.

“Here,” Karzarul said, twisting to try and pass food back to Leonas without spilling anything. Leonas had to scoot backward, reaching to accept the unglazed clay cup of tea and the curled leaf with the samosa in it. The fried triangle had been cracked in the middle so that a sauce could be poured into it, with two whole chilis alongside it. It was unclear to him what he was meant to do with the chilis, or if there was a correct method of eating.

Leonas couldn’t decide if it looked good, if he wanted it to be good, what if anything it would say about him if he didn’t like it. A cloud passed overhead, its shadow blanketing the street. The hum of it pulled at him. He wrapped the tea in sunlight to keep it from spilling over. “I don’t want to eat this here,” he decided.

“Oh,” Karzarul said, having eaten his samosa in one bite and followed it with tea like a shot. He started to walk with a careful gait to keep Leonas steady. “Where do you want to go?”

“I don’t know,” Leonas said. “Away.”

“Would you like me to go faster?”


Karzarul took off at a gallop, seeking out empty streets and taking long leaps over obstacles. Leonas put a dome of sunlight over himself, a variant of the bubble he used sometimes when he was bathing. It meant he couldn’t see the buildings rushing by, but he was fine with that. The shouting wasn’t ideal, but that was unavoidable. Leonas listened to the fall of Karzarul’s hooves, pounding on stone until the stone gave way to pressed earth. The footfalls slowed, and Leonas let the sunlight he’d been using dissipate. The city was distant now, Karzarul following a worn path away from the river and all the buildings along its banks.

“You can tell me if you’re not enjoying yourself,” Karzarul said finally.

“I never said that,” Leonas said. “Don’t put words in my mouth.”

“I’ll put something in your mouth.”

“Absolutely not,” Leonas said. “Go fuck yourself.”

Karzarul laughed. “Fuck me yourself.”

Leonas took a tentative bite of the corner of a samosa. “Oh,” he sighed. “That’s really good.”

Ghost Devlin – Devil Out Of Time: Chapter Three

Andi tried to play it cool when Ghost showed up at her apartment. She did this by leaning too much of her weight against the frame when she opened the door.

“Hey,” she said, trying to do a sort of nod with her chin. She was wearing a grey skater dress and bunny slippers.

“Hello, Miss Bravo.” He was wearing something closer to his usual outfit, tall boots and all. He was wearing a red flannel. It was evocative of lumber being jacked. Forest pirates, perhaps.

“How did you know where I live?” she asked.

“I have known where Miss Davenport lives for some time now,” he admitted.

That’s creepy,” Carrie called from in the kitchen. Andi stopped leaning on the doorframe to stand with her hands clasped in front of her.

“Sorry about her,” she said under her breath.

“Why?” he asked. “She’s right.”


“I came to apologize for my behavior the other night,” Ghost said.

“It’s fine,” she said. “It’s not,” she corrected. “You totally ditched me and it sucked.”

“Yes,” he agreed. “I also came because I want my dinosaur.”

She blinked. “The toy?”

“I said that I would treasure it always,” he reminded her.

“Yeah,” she agreed, “but then you ditched me.”

“For which I have apologized.”

“You haven’t, though,” she said. “You just said you came to apologize. That’s not the same as apologizing.”

He grabbed her hands and raised them near his face. “I beg your forgiveness,” he said, before kissing her knuckles. “I was a cad, a wretch, a dog.” He kissed her knuckles again. “I am less than nothing.” Again with the kissing. “Can you lower yourself to forgiving me, merciful lady?”

That was not an apology. There was a laugh in his eyes at her expense. It made her feel all warm in pleasantly unpleasant ways.

“I’ll forgive you,” she said, getting him to smile. “But I won’t forget.”

He grinned. It was one of his dangerous grins. It seemed a bit much to turn it full force on a girl who wasn’t supposed to be a superhero. “Good,” he said, and that warm feeling deepened. “Now, about my dinosaur—”

Our dinosaur,” she said. “We’re going to have to arrange joint custody.”

“Will we?” he asked, eyebrows shooting up in surprise. He had thick, expressive eyebrows. She liked them best when he was pulling faces, chewing the scenery.

“You lost full custody when you ditched us,” she said.

“I’m a terrible father,” he agreed.

She frowned. “Are you?” He looked confused. “You’re crazy old,” she reminded him.

“I’m old and crazy,” he agreed and corrected. “I never had kids.”

“It seemed like a reasonable thing to ask,” she said defensively.

“It was,” he said. “But I’d be a terrible father. Ask our dinosaur son.”

“Our dinoson,” she attempted, not quite getting the emphasis onto the right syllables to make the pun work.

“How will this joint custody work?” he asked.

“You can keep it, if you want,” she said. “But I want you to send me pictures.”

“I see.”

“Of the dinosaur,” she added hastily. “I want confirmation that you’re taking good care of him. Making him healthy dinners.”

“Aah,” he said knowingly. “No dick pics.”

She choked on a snort. He’d hitched his thumbs in his pockets, his hips cocked just so and his shoulders rolled back. All cowboy swagger in his pirate boots and his lumberjack flannel. Too many synonyms for a certain kind of man, a parody of himself.

“Here,” she said instead of confirming, her face red. “Give me your phone and I’ll put my number in.” He slid his phone out of his back pocket to set it in her waiting hands. His phone looked like a display model, no apps or custom backgrounds. She navigated to his depressingly empty contacts list and added herself. On a whim, she took a quick selfie to add to it. Then she frowned and tried again, because the first selfie didn’t look cute enough. Three tries later, she was satisfied with the picture that would appear next to her text messages. She texted herself a sushi emoji so that she could add his number to her phone.

“Would you like to try getting dinner again?” he asked as he took his phone back.

“Now?” she asked, surprised.

“Thursday,” he suggested instead.

“That’s a weird day,” she said.

“Weekends are crowded,” he shrugged.

“You’re so old,” she said, opening the sushi text on her phone and adding him to her contacts. She held her phone up to get his picture, and he smiled for it like he practiced. She resolved to get a better one later but added it for now. “If you promise not to ditch me this time, sure,” she said.

“Cross my heart,” he said, dragging a finger over his chest. “Though I cannot die.”

“I’ll go get the dinosaur,” she said.



“He needs a name,” Ghost said. “I like Jesús.”

“I’m not committing to that,” Andi warned him, leaving him in the hallway. She would have liked to invite him inside, but the apartment was a mess, and Carrie would throw a fit. She picked up the dinosaur and smelled it again. It still smelled mostly like factory, and now garlic. When she brought it back to the hallway, she said, “I want a trade.”

“For our darling son Jesús?” he asked, feigning offense.

She set the dinosaur down by her feet and steeled herself to step closer to him.

It was Ghost. They’d thrown each other off buildings before. They’d caught each other falling off of mechs. This wasn’t anything.

She reached up to grab the collar of his flannel, not looking him in the eye. “I want this,” she decided. She glanced up to meet his eyes.

“The shirt off my back?” he asked, leaning his face a little closer to hers and pitching his voice low. She was blushing again, but that didn’t mean anything. Some people blushed a lot.

“I know we’re not ‘going steady’, or whatever it is you used to do a million years ago,” she said, her fingers dropping to his first button and waiting there, “but you don’t have a letterman jacket anyway. I want your flannel.”

It was hard to remember she wasn’t supposed to know him that well. Maybe that was better. No one could argue this was the behavior of a woman that was too nice.

“It’s yours, then,” he said, not moving. She started undoing his buttons, sliding them through the holes in the fabric until the white of his undershirt showed through. The space between them had closed and given her little room to work in, but she leaned into it anyway. It felt like calling his bluff, rising up on her toes and letting her cheek brush against his for no reason except that she wanted to.

“You don’t shave enough,” she murmured, his stubble rasping against her skin. “I’m kind of into it, though.” He set his hands on her hips, and her fingers fumbled.

“I’m glad,” he said, and for a moment they stood there. Too close, like they might start slow dancing. He was the one who stepped back to shrug out of his shirt. “I believe this is yours,” he said, holding it out to her. She could see the hair on his chest through the thin white of his undershirt, the gold rings in his nipples.

Andi claimed the shirt with shaky fingers, slipping her arms into sleeves too long and wrapping it around herself like a robe. She brought the collar to her nose to smell it, shutting her eyes.

Smoke, not just tobacco smoke but any number of other plants, skunky things and mossy things and a hint of something floral. His shirt smelled like a shady New Age store whose primary clientele was witchy biker gangs.

She rocked back on her heels and opened her eyes. There was an intensity in the way Ghost was watching her that made her heart skip.

“And this is yours,” she said, plucking the dinosaur off the floor to hand it to him.

“So it is,” he said, still looking at her as he claimed it.

Ghost texted Andi a picture of Jesús the dinosaur artfully arranged into a jungle of potted plants. The angle and lighting were a reminder that he’d been an artist, of a kind. It made her smile, lying in her bed with his flannel on.

Andi: His natural habitat!

Coatimundi shared a video of a cat on her feed, and Ghost liked it.

Ghost texted Andi another picture, this time of Jesús sitting at a small table with a large steak in front of him. She assumed it was actually Ghost’s dinner and not a T-bone he’d bought and cooked for the express purpose of novelty dinosaur pictures.

Andi: That doesn’t look like a balanced meal!

In the next picture he’d sent, he had attempted to make the round toy hold a knife with its small arm. He’d resorted to duct tape.

Andi: That’s unsafe!!!

It was another hour before he sent another picture. The dinosaur now had two knives taped to its hands, and a lit cigar carefully balanced in its mouth. The table was covered in playing cards implying a game of poker, which Jesús was losing. There was an ashtray filled with half-smoked cigarettes.

Andi: No!!!!!! What have you done

As part of a joke that had been ongoing since not long after they met, Ghost tagged Coatimundi in a picture of a mug of cocoa hanging half-off the edge of a table.

  • Coatimundi@super.heroes:
    @therealghostdevlin why are you like this
  • therealghostdevlin@randos.troll:
    @Coatimundi I’m from a different time.
  • Coatimundi@super.heroes:
    @therealghostdevlin there was never a time when this was acceptable!!!
  • therealghostdevlin@randos.troll:
    @Coatimundi This is how everyone kept their beverages in the 30s.
  • Coatimundi@super.heroes:
    @therealghostdevlin you can’t use the 30s as a barometer for acceptable behavior, we’ve talked about this

Ghost posted a photo of a chocolate bar, bitten instead of broken apart at the designated seams and then set down without the wrapper on a table covered in cigarette ashes. He’d obviously turned off the lights in his apartment and turned on his phone’s flash. The cocoa mug still sat on the edge.

  • Coatimundi@super.heroes:
    @therealghostdevlin unacceptable
  • Black-Knight@super.heroes:
    @Coatimundi @therealghostdevlin When are we meeting to fight?
  • therealghostdevlin@randos.troll:
    @Black-Knight Brand accounts aren’t invited.

Ghost texted Andi another picture. She switched apps to look at it, and bit her lip. He’d taken a selfie laying down with Jesús. He’d taken the knives off the stuffed toy so he could use it as a pillow, and claimed the cigar for himself. He was shirtless, his hair down. Andi tried to decide how long it had taken him to get the picture just right, how hard he’d worked to stage it as sexily as possible while still including the dinosaur. Had he carefully let a lock of hair fall across his eyes or was that a happy accident?

Andi: Nice piercings btw

Ghost: Thanks

Ghost: They were big in both of the 90s

Andi: I’m feeling very cozy in my new shirt

Ghost: Good

She rolled out of bed and squinted at herself in the mirror. She was still wearing bunny slippers, and her dress was wrinkled. She pulled off the dress and put the shirt back on, buttoning it up enough to cover the important parts. She tried to re-tousle her hair into something more sexy than sleepy. It still looked incomplete, so she started digging in her dresser until she found thigh-highs.

Her legs looked better in tall socks. This was a fact. She would not apologize for it.

She’d been in a half-transformation, and remembered at the last minute to get rid of the ears and tail. She took about twenty different pictures in her mirror and deleted nineteen, leaving the one that looked the least staged. She texted him that one, and then sat on the edge of her bed, staring at her phone and waiting for a reply. Her stomach was in knots.

Ghost: It looks better on you

Ghost: May I save it?

Her smile split her face as she fell back into her bed. Asking was such a weird old man thing to do. Theoretically polite, but in practice it left her with the knowledge that he was definitely saving it, for what reasons she could not imagine.

That wasn’t true. She could imagine plenty. She kicked her feet and nearly bit her phone.

He wouldn’t. It wasn’t even that sexy of a picture. Was it? Pinups they put on t-shirts now used to count as pornography. He couldn’t still think that, though. He had a smartphone and he joked about dick pics.

Andi: Yes

Andi: For sex reasons?

Andi: Like

Andi: I don’t know if you know what a spank bank is

Andi: Like are you saving it as a souvenir or do you want to look at it later because it’s sexy

Ghost: I don’t know how I’m supposed to answer that

Andi: I was going for sort of a soft sexy

Andi: You were supposed to think it was hot

Ghost: I do

She kicked her legs again before regrouping.

Andi: Okay good

Ghost: You needed to ask?

Andi: I’m pretty sure you’ve FAMOUSLY banged some REALLY hot people

Andi: I’m not good at being sexy

Andi: Guys like you don’t usually hit on me or ask me out

Andi: Not that there are a lot of guys like you, but you know what I mean

Ghost: Creepy old men?

Andi: No!!!

Andi: I meet a lot of guys who want a nice girl

Andi: A Nice Girl™

Andi: People don’t take me seriously as a grown-up

Andi: Probably because I still use the word grown-up

Ghost: You type very fast

Andi: Sorry

Ghost: You’re a grown woman with great legs

Andi: Thank you for not saying gams

She switched to her camera app and unbuttoned her shirt a bit more. She took another series of pictures, lifting her legs into the air and trying to get a good ‘retro pinup’ vibe going. When she had a selfie she was satisfied with, she sent it to him.

Andi: You can save that one, too

Andi: If you want

Ghost: I do want

Ghost: You’re making it difficult to wait until Thursday to see you

Andi: You could say that I’m making it………. hard

She gnawed at her lip as she waited for a reply.

Andi: Sorry, that was dumb

After an agonizing wait, he sent her a picture that took her a minute to parse. It was centered on his hips, a trail of hair down to the pants he was still wearing.

She was pretty sure a dick-print still counted as a dick pic, but she wasn’t going to call him on it. Instead, she put her phone down and grabbed a pillow to press into her face and screech.

Hot! Unbelievably hot! Why was that so hot! How did he get such a good angle—and with his hand

Andi: I’m saving that

Andi: For sex reasons

Ghost: Perfect

Coatimundi leapt over a police car to enter the battle zone. She cupped her hands around her face as she ran. “Put him down and let’s talk about this,” she shouted.

Captain Vortex was holding Black Knight twenty feet in the air. Or, not Black Knight: Kennedy Washington, CEO of Knight Industries, his armor beaten apart and sucked into a hole to a pocket dimension. His suit wasn’t faring great either, and the bruises on his face worried her. Kenny wasn’t much of a fighter without his armor. He was a regular guy, who happened to be a genius billionaire. Captain Vortex had attached himself to the side of a building using small holes in the bottoms of his shoes.

“Oh, god,” Captain Vortex said, rolling his eyes. “I’m not fighting you.”

Coatimundi jumped as soon as he threw out his hand so the hole that appeared in the ground didn’t swallow her. Her ears twitched in her hair as she landed.

“Get out of here, little girl,” he said, trying to catch her with another vortex and failing as she leapt again. “I’m not one of your globalist stooges here to make you look good.”

Oh. Okay. Cool.

Ordinarily, this would be the part where Coatimundi tried to talk it out first. But there wasn’t much point when it came to a human manifestation of the comments section on a local news article.

She dropped down to a crouch and launched herself at the building. Holes of void kept appearing in the wall as she climbed it, claws tearing at concrete and toes bouncing off architectural features, but she was faster than he was. It took time to summon a vortex, time to make it dissipate so that he could summon another. He was only holding on with one foot, now; he had trouble summoning more vortices than two.

She passed him as she climbed, then dropped off the building to land on Captain Vortex’s back. He grunted, planting his second foot harder against the building as she dug her heels in. Then she knelt and punched him in the back of the head.

Not hard. He had super strength, but not enough that she was going to go punching him as hard as she could. His head would come off, probably. She wasn’t sure. She’d never tried it.

It was enough to get him to drop Black Knight, which was all she needed. She jumped off of him so that she could catch Kennedy in mid-air, holding him around the middle of his body and careful of his spine.

Captain Vortex summoned a hole in the ground beneath them.

Coatimundi waited until they were close to it before throwing Kennedy up and away; he’d hit the ground from five feet up unless someone caught him, which wasn’t great but was better than the alternative. She managed to catch the edge of the pavement, claws digging into asphalt as she pulled herself with great effort out of the vortex. Midton police had grabbed Kennedy, and now they were holding him in a human chain—the easiest way to keep anyone from falling into a hole to nowhere.

As soon as her feet could touch the ground, she was leaping at the building again. This time when she got closer, Captain Vortex pulled himself off the wall, falling towards her to try and hit her with the holes in his soles. Coatimundi dodged it, reaching out to drag her claws up his back and catch him by the hair. He was only able to scream briefly before she slammed him like a ragdoll through a closed window. It shattered around him, but some of the crunching was of bone.

Fortunately, it was an empty office. Coatimundi looked inside, to where he was trying to pull himself up off the cheap carpet. His face was too bloody to tell how badly she’d mangled it. She kicked out more of the glass so that she could get inside after him, high enough up that the wind whipped through the open window. Captain Vortex managed to get upright in time to throw a punch across her jaw. She laughed involuntarily. Anyone with less than super-strength would only break their fingers on her chin, and his had been a weak attempt to start. She’d still expected better.

He was in the middle of summoning a vortex on his fist when she kicked him in the stomach and over a desk. His legs caught on the furniture and altered his trajectory, spinning him all limp-limbed into the wall before collapsing. She waited to see if he’d get back up, her tail drawing figure-eights in the air behind her, fur standing on end. Her claws were sticky, lip twitching in a fang-baring snarl.

He stayed down, and she tried not to feel disappointed.

  • Black-Knight@super.heroes:
    Big thanks to @Coatimundi for the assist today! I was almost murdered and it was terrifying and probably gave me lasting trauma. Working on a new suit of armor now!
  • Coatimundi@super.heroes:
    @Black-Knight no problem dude!!! you know i’m always happy to help a bro
  • mistermuster@randos.troll:
    @Black-Knight @Coatimundi did you actually beat him or was it just the power of friendship again
  • Coatimundi@super.heroes:
    @mistermuster making fun of the power of friendship is not a thing good guys do, my man!! maybe have a good think about your life choices!!!
  • therealghostdevlin@randos.troll:
    @mistermuster The power of friendship! I like that. As she is my friend, would you like to learn more about this power?
  • mistermuster@randos.troll:
    @therealghostdevlin No, sir. Sorry about that. I meant no disrespect to @Coatimundi. I’m a big fan of your work.

Ghost Devlin – Devil Out Of Time: Chapter Two

“This is the worst thing that has ever happened to anyone, ever, in history.”

“Yes,” David agreed, deadpan, not looking up from his phone. In costume, he was Lynx Lad—though he’d been trying to drop the ‘lad’, now that he wasn’t a sidekick anymore. He was sprawled on the futon in Carrie and Andi’s apartment, his feet in entirely different zip codes, skinny legs in skinnier jeans.

“I don’t know how to be hot,” Andi complained, pouting at her own reflection. She didn’t have anything between ‘too frumpy’ and ‘too wholesome’.

“Don’t try to be hot on a date with Ghost,” Carrie said with disgust. She’d pulled her carroty curls into a ponytail to keep them out of the aloe slathered on her shoulders, a consequence of her day spent in a tree.

“I’m allowed to want to be hot!” Andi said, disappearing into the bathroom again.

“I don’t think that’s the problematic part,” Bug said. Their alter-ego was Chronofist, which they’d picked themselves when they were twelve and never regretted. They were sitting on a counter with a laptop, wearing a shower cap as they refreshed the green of their hair.

“It’s the Ghost part,” Carrie confirmed. She was distracting herself from the situation at hand by making tiny pancakes for her hamster, Penny.

“I can’t just not be hot,” Andi said. “Have you seen him?”

“She has a point,” David said. “He’s stupid hot.”

“He’s gross,” Carrie said.

“No,” Bug said, “he’s definitely hot.”

“He’s a creepy old psycho,” Carrie insisted. “He’ll probably stab you by accident.”

“He can stab me on purpose,” Bug said, waggling their eyebrows, and David laughed.

“Seriously,” Carrie said. “Are you guys messing with me?”

“You’re too asexual,” David suggested.

“I can still tell when people are hot.”

“Not everyone. Ghost has, like. An aura.”


“A sexy aura.”

“That’s not real.”

“It’s sort of real,” Bug said. “You might be immune to the sex vibes.”

“Vibes aren’t real.”

“I don’t know,” Andi said from the bathroom. “I think it’s the way he carries himself, or looks at you, or something. Where you end up thinking: this guy could totally do some stuff.”

“Sex stuff,” David agreed.

“Those are the vibes,” Bug said with a nod.

“I still think you’re all messing with me,” Carrie said, carefully arranging Penny’s tiny plate for maximum aesthetics.

“What about this?” Andi asked, emerging from the bathroom. She’d tried to de-frump an embroidered floral sweatshirt by pairing it with a swishy skirt and scrunchy thigh-high socks. “Is this anything?”

“Cutesy sleeves?” Bug asked, and Andi held up her hands to demonstrate, hidden inside sleeves long enough to dangle from them. “Excellent.”

“This is cute, though,” Andi said. “I don’t want to be cute.”

“I don’t think you have a choice in the matter,” Bug said.

“You’re cute,” David confirmed.

“If he wasn’t into cute, he wouldn’t have asked you out,” Bug said.

“Opposites attract,” David added.

“Gross,” Carrie muttered. Penny nibbled on tiny pancakes as Carrie took pictures.

“Are you gonna try to hit it?” Bug asked, and Carrie made a sound of disgusted horror as Andi covered her face. “What? We were all thinking it.”

“No we weren’t,” Carrie said.

“We sort of were,” David said.

“He doesn’t know my secret identity,” Andi sighed. “It wouldn’t be right.”

“Call if it turns into a trainwreck and we can come get you,” Carrie said.

“Call if you need us,” Bug corrected. “It’s definitely going to be a trainwreck, but that’s not a bad thing.”

“We’re superheroes,” David agreed. “Everything’s always a trainwreck.”

Some trainwrecks were worse than others.

For instance, if there’d been some kind of fight, or runaway Ferris wheel, that might have been cool. Assuming no one was hurt.

Getting ghosted by a guy named Ghost would be too apropos to be anything but hurtful.

He wasn’t late, yet. Andi had been early and was left to wonder if she was waiting in the wrong spot, the way she always did when she was early. She was always early.

The sun was setting behind the city, but Andi was watching the ocean. Being near the ocean filled her with the irrational desire to leap into the ocean, regardless of what she was wearing. She assumed this was universal.

“Hello, Miss Bravo.”

His voice was hot in her ear, and she spun around to see him. Ghost was standing further away than she’d expected, and her breath caught. He was wearing blue jeans and a cable-knit sweater in white, which left him looking far more normal than felt allowed. Except for the hair. Which was down around his shoulders, wavy and tousled and clearly illegal.

He held up a rose, and she clutched the strap of her purse. “You bought me flowers?”

“One,” he said with a shrug. “Easier to carry this way.”

She accepted it with careful fingertips. “I didn’t know they sold roses that still had thorns,” she said.

“They don’t.”

She contemplated the thorny stem with suspicion but didn’t ask the obvious question.

He offered her the crook of his arm, because of course he would. “Shall we?”

She started toward the boardwalk herself instead of accepting, still contemplating her rose. “You’re really…”

“Charming?” he suggested, walking alongside her.

“Old-fashioned,” she corrected.

“You are surprised?”

“I guess not.” She was trying to unpack the idea that this was what Ghost Devlin did in his free time, asked shy girls on dates and bought them flowers.

She wanted it to go well. She wanted him to be someone who took girls on nice dates. It felt important, that he be that kind of person.

She didn’t like lying.

“What would you like to do first?” he asked, looking out at the booths and rides available to them.

“I’m not—funnel cake!” Her answer changed as soon as she saw the booth, pointing with her rose and rising up onto her toes with the force of her enthusiasm. “Can we get funnel cake?” she asked, bouncing.

“As my lady commands,” he said. He took her so seriously that she tried to take him seriously in turn, clutching the rose in front of her to keep from waving her hands around.

“Do you come here a lot?” she wondered. “To the waterfront.”

“Not often,” he said with a shrug.

“When you were younger?” she suggested. There was his life before Atlantis, but there was also the life before that, the one that wasn’t on wiki pages.

“I lived in New York then,” he said. He paused. “There is still a New York?”

“… yes. New York is still there.”

He nodded. “Good.”

She bit her lip as he bought her a funnel cake. It was so hard to avoid fraught questions. Wasn’t it normal for a date to ask questions? She didn’t know how much her view was colored by the knowledge that she was undercover. Or, her own idea of undercover.

She tucked her rose carefully into the loop where her bag attached to its strap and accepted the funnel cake he offered her. Her fingers were immediately coated in powdered sugar she’d never touched. “Do you want some?” she offered.

“No, thank you,” he said. The wistful way he was looking at her was making her squirm.

“Okay.” She held the funnel cake closer but didn’t take a bite yet. She didn’t want to eat with him watching her. “Thank you,” she remembered to add. “For this.”

“Of course.”

She tore a strand of cake away with her fingers, thinking this might be a less messy way of eating it. She was wrong, but she felt better about it. Less sugar on her face. “What do you want to do?” she asked, between licks of her fingertips.

“Many things,” he said. She couldn’t tell if he was being deliberately provocative but turned red as a precautionary measure. “Let’s walk,” he suggested, “and you can tell me about yourself. Andi Bravo.”


He didn’t offer his arm again but stayed close to her as she took small steps forward. Compared to his usual stride, this was barely moving. She kept her eyes on her funnel cake. “I’m pretty normal,” she said, as all normal people did.

“You’ve said.”


“You are a student?” he asked. “Or do you work?”

He was much better at this than she was. “I… I work. From home. Data entry stuff. Nothing cool. It pays the bills.” She paused. “It doesn’t,” she corrected. “Carrie’s hamster—you know Carrie.” He nodded. “Her hamster is famous. Technically the hamster pays the bills.”

“An industrious rodent,” he said. She couldn’t tell if he was genuinely approving, or mocking her. It was always hard to tell with him. She thought that might be half his problem. He had resting villain snark. Maybe she could raise awareness. He doesn’t want to fight you, he just sounds like that.

“What about you?” she asked, eager to change the subject from herself.

“I’m the King of Atlantis,” he said, deadpan.


“I live off royalties,” he added, deigning to give her something closer to a real answer. “I used to write books.”

“I know,” she said, around a mouth full of funnel cake.

“Do you?” he asked, surprised.

Most people didn’t, she remembered, swallowing. “My grandpa,” she explained. “He had the magazines. The old ones.” The pulps with the drawings on the covers, Ghost Devlin punching Germans and getting attacked by anacondas. 100% True Tales of Terror written in a large red font that no one was meant to believe, From the Journals of Ghost Devlin. The spines were worn out and the pages were all yellowed, and they smelled like rotting paper and tobacco smoke. She’d read through the whole collection when she was young, ruined more than one of them reading after the shower with her hair still wet and dripping on the pages.

Even then she’d read something special in them, not in the action but in the tone. There was a self-deprecating wit that the other stories lacked, and they made his adventures seem more real. Personality infused every word, left her feeling like she knew him long before she learned he’d become better known as a supervillain. Made it hard for her to believe that he’d ever been a villain.

She didn’t think she’d tell him that part. She’d never told anyone that part.

“Aaah,” he said. “The magazines. Not the books.”

She shook her head. “He said those weren’t as good—they changed too much.”

Ghost grinned. She wondered if she could ask him what had happened to his teeth. “I like him already,” he said, as if it were inevitable that he’d be meeting her family someday. Andi finished her funnel cake, crumpling the dirty paper into a ball.

“What happened with those?” she ventured to ask. “The books.”

He shrugged, grin fading. “Made a bad deal,” he admitted. “Didn’t read the contract too close when I sold those stories, not that I’d’ve cared much at the time. I just needed the cash, didn’t expect anyone to read ’em. Guess they thought the originals weren’t interesting enough for paperbacks. Agreed to give me royalties, so I can’t complain too much.”

His accent lost some of its sharpness when he talked about old times, loped longer over his tongue. More like the cowboy he’d once been, before everything.

It made him sound snuggly. She wouldn’t be telling him that, either.

“At least you learned a lot about contract law,” she suggested, throwing the paper away as they finally passed a bin.

“Nah,” he said. “Still don’t read shit.”


“If the lady will pardon my language,” he added as an afterthought, but this time she was sure he was teasing her.

“It’s fine,” she said, wondering if she should curse more. That would distinguish her from Coatimundi, surely. Flinging all kinds of cusses every which way.

She liked to save them for special occasions, was all.

“Are you going to win me a dinosaur?” she asked, pointing to a carnival game. What the plush dinosaur lacked in accuracy, it made up for with a pleasing roundness.

“I don’t shoot,” he said, and she laughed.

“It’s a squirt gun!” she said. “Squirt guns don’t count.”

“Nah,” he said, and she tried not to admire his dedication to the gimmick. He killed plenty, she reminded herself. Just not with guns.

“I’ll win it for you,” she decided.

“Will you?” The amused tilt to his mouth gave her a frisson of indefinable something. Want, but not in any of the obvious ways.

“Yes,” she decided, determined now. She pulled a small change purse from her larger purse, shaped like a red panda, and counted out dollar coins to earn her place at a squirt gun.

“You’re very good at that,” Ghost observed as she took out cardboard ducks with precision strikes of water.

“Don’t distract me!” she warned. The game was rigged, but she compensated with speed. Her victory was inevitable, but still worth a gleeful clap.

Claiming the large ball of dinosaur, it occurred to her that this was stupid.

She shoved it at Ghost, eclipsing his face so she wouldn’t have to see it. “This is your problem now!” she announced, as if being annoying were an affectation she put on as a joke. She was turning red.

“I will treasure it always,” he said, taking it from her more gently.

“Sorry,” she said. “You don’t have to keep it.” He would, after all, now have to haul around what was almost a bean bag chair for the rest of the day. “Even if I think it’s really awesome.”

“I like it,” he said. He held it over his shoulder by one of its tiny arms, like a sack of gifts. His other hand touched hers. She froze. He took her hand in his, slid his fingers between hers, and she nearly fell over.

This was fine. Normal date stuff. Extremely normal. Her brain went into overdrive trying to remember the appropriate response to innocent hand-holding.

Except that it didn’t feel innocent, the way his fingers parted hers with the tips of them pressing friction into the seam between digits, big hands and rough callouses.

She was red, and he was grinning, and she wanted to scream.

I am an adult, she wanted to shout. I’ve had casual sex and hangovers after parties, she could have told him. She didn’t know if he’d believe her, because now she was undone by his fingers through hers and all the knowing in his mouth.

“What happened to your teeth?” she blurted.

His smile left. The tip of his tongue ran over the points like remembering. “Atlantis,” he said finally. That seemed like the answer to a lot of questions.


“How much do you know about Victorian dentists?”

What an absolutely wild thing it was, to hear the word ‘Victorian’ and remember that he’d known a time when it was only ‘now’. “Were they bad?”

“Terrible,” he said. “Mine were crooked to start with. I smoked a lot, got socked in the jaw plenty. Jolene had ’em fixed for me.”

His dead wife, his lost queen. Andi had more questions, and she didn’t ask them. “That’s cool,” she said instead, like that was better. He nodded. “Wanna go on the Ferris wheel?”

“Miss Bravo, you have read my mind,” he said. His thumb stroked the side of her index finger.

“Cool,” she said again, as they walked hand-in-hand. It was not cool. “So you were there when these things were invented, right?”

“I was alive,” he said. There was a hint of exasperation in it. “I wasn’t there. I was in the Amazon by then, I think.”

“Do people think you saw all the history happening because you were alive for it?”


“Do they ask you about people like you would have met them?”


“So you didn’t punch Hitler.”

“Only a clone.”

“Wait, really?”

He didn’t answer until he’d paid for their ride, and they’d situated themselves inside. He set the plush dinosaur across from them to claim the seats, allowing them something like privacy.

“I remember it happening,” he said. “It might not have, now.”

“Oh.” She toyed with the hem of her skirt. “I don’t know what that means.”

He looked out the window of the Ferris wheel car, and into the middle distance. “I have existed outside of time,” he said, “and am no longer subject to its whims.”

“Right,” she said, in that way that meant he hadn’t clarified anything.

“There are creatures in this world with the power to travel through time,” he said, “to change both the things they intend and the things they do not. The timeline changes, but I remain.” The wheel was turning, raising them higher.

“Like… time travelers?”

“Something like that.” He looked at her, green eyes dark. “You remember New York?”


“You remember Metro City?”

“Y—no? Is there… where is that?”

He sighed, leaning back in his seat. “There used to be a Metro City. It was in Oklahoma.” His fists clenched in his lap. “I remember it.”

“I believe you,” she said. She believed that he believed it, which wasn’t the same thing.

“You would have lived in Metro City,” he said wistfully.

“In Oklahoma?” she said doubtfully.

“No one would choose Midton,” he said scornfully, almost to himself. “Not if Metro City were a choice. So it isn’t.”

Andi wrung her hands a little. “That sucks,” she offered.

“It does,” he agreed. “Do you think I’m insane?”

“No,” she said firmly.

“I am,” Ghost said, and smiled. “I’ve always been, a little. Not about this.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, about a lot of things.

“My journals haven’t changed,” he said. “The things I wrote. Don’t know why. It’s all in there. Metro City. Punching Hitler.”

“Hitler’s clone,” she reminded him, bringing back his grin. “Did he have Hitler’s memories, or—?”

“No,” Ghost said. “Only his genes.”

“Wouldn’t that make him just a guy with an unfortunate face?”

“He was an asshole,” he said. “He was raised by people who thought it would be a good idea to clone Hitler.”

“That’s fair.”

Ghost rested his hand on hers, which rested on her thigh. His fingers brushed her leg in a plausibly deniable sort of way, and she didn’t call him on it. “This must be strange for you,” he said, “normal girl Andi Bravo.”


“Yes,” she said. “It’s very weird, and. Different. All this superhero stuff.”

Good save.

“Not so different,” he said, worryingly. “Your roommate is the good friend of Coatimundi, isn’t she?”

“Yes.” Andi paused. “I don’t—we’re not friends, though. I don’t hang out with Coatimundi. Even though I would. Because I think she’s cool. And kinda cute. Like, her costume is cute. I think. I don’t know if you think her costume is cute.”

“Cute enough,” Ghost shrugged, which was completely fair but also hurt her feelings a little.

“Do you not like it?” she pressed.

“It isn’t for me,” he said.

“Right.” She sat back a little. “That’s a good point.” They were at the highest point on the Ferris wheel, so she looked out the window. “We’re so high up!”


She turned to look at Ghost and found him looking intently at the ground outside his window. “Is everything okay?” she asked.

“I know him,” he said thoughtfully.

“Yeah?” Andi leaned closer. “Who is it?”

“I killed him,” Ghost said, putting a chill down Andi’s spine.

“That’s not good.”

Ghost started to slide his upper body out of the car window. Andi squeaked and grabbed him by the belt. He untangled her fingers from the leather, this time all business and no gentleness. She resisted before remembering that she shouldn’t be able to resist. She was a normal girl, after all.

“Get back in here,” she asked, her heart pounding. Ghost seemed to have forgotten her entirely, fixated on his target. Hanging on the outside of the car, he jumped. She went to the window as it rocked, watching him catch spokes of the ride as he dropped to the ground.

And she couldn’t follow him, because she was a normal girl.

Being a normal girl sucked.

“Dangit,” she said, sitting back down. She contemplated the round dinosaur. Could she fit a transformation sequence in here? Even if she could, it would be pretty noticeable. She’d have to wait for the Ferris wheel to complete its rotation, get out, and find somewhere out of the way to transform so that she could catch him. She’d talk him down, and then… he’d try to introduce her to his date?

She could talk her way out of that. Unless he wanted her help finding his date, not knowing it was her. Or what if he thought it was suspicious, that she was so close at hand during his date? She didn’t want him to think she was spying on him. Even if she was. Secretly. Undercover. As his date. Which was actually, now that she was thinking about it, worse in every conceivable way than just following him around. He would find stalking a relatable hobby.

This had been a bad idea from the start.

Andi picked up the abandoned dinosaur and gave it a hug, smelling it. It smelled like factory and corn dogs. She wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting. It was new.

“Hey,” said the ride operator as she got out. “Did your date jump out of the Ferris wheel? Because you’re not allowed to do that.”

“He used to be a supervillain,” she explained. “He’s still working on rules and stuff.”

“We’re not allowed to let supervillains on the rides anymore.”

“He’s reformed.”

“Did you ever find him?” Bug asked.

“No,” Andi said, her voice muffled by the dinosaur because she was facedown in it on the floor. She turned her head so that she could talk. “No one called the cops or started screaming, though.”

“Oh, good,” Carrie said. “He got him to a second location before murdering him.”

“He didn’t murder anyone,” Andi said. “Probably. He implied that he’d murdered him before, but it obviously didn’t stick, so I don’t think that counts.”

“I think that counts,” Bug said.

“Yeah, it definitely counts,” Andi agreed with a heavy sigh. “It’s not like it’s news that he’s killed a guy.”

“It isn’t,” Carrie agreed, “which is why you shouldn’t go on dates with him. Because he’s a murderer. You shouldn’t date murderers.”

“We know a lot of people who’ve killed a guy,” Andi pointed out, as if that were a defense.

“I’ve killed a guy,” Bug said cheerfully.

“Punching a guy so hard he was never born doesn’t count,” Carrie said.

“Debatable,” Bug said.

“How much do you know about time stuff?” Andi asked, rolling onto her back.

“I know some stuff about time,” Bug said.

“Do you think the timeline changes sometimes?”

“I know it does. Because I do it. With my fists.”

Big stuff, though,” Andi said, looking up at where Bug sat upside-down on the futon. “Like, whole cities never existing.”

“It could be happening all the time and we’d never know about it,” Bug shrugged. “Time’s weird. Don’t start worrying about people who never existed, that’s a fast-track to crazytown.”

“He said he remembers,” Andi admitted. “Not just his memories, he said there’s things from other timelines in his journals. People who don’t exist anymore. Cities.”

“That might make sense,” Carrie mused, leaning over the kitchen counter toward the living room with her hands on a mug of tea. A good mystery always interested her more than trying to protect Andi from her own bad taste in men. “Normally, if a timeline changed, we’d all change with it. We’d all be native to that timeline, in a way. We were always here. If Ghost still remembers the way things used to be, there was never a Ghost to write anything different. Right?”

“Whatever happened in Atlantis might have knocked him out of sync,” Bug suggested. “Time doesn’t work right for him.”

“That seems like it would suck,” Andi said.

“Murder still isn’t cool,” Carrie added.

“I never said it was,” Andi said.

I think it’s cool,” Bug said.

“That’s because you’re a contrarian,” Carrie said.

“I wonder if I’m different,” Andi said, looking at the ceiling. “If there was a different version of me that he used to know.”

“Goth Coatimundi,” Bug suggested.

“You wore one of those stretchy bodysuits with the underwear on the outside,” Carrie countered.

“That’s the worst,” Andi said, sitting up. “This sucks. I wanna go fight crime.”

“Don’t take your feelings out on crime,” Bug warned.

“That’s the best use of feelings,” Carrie said. “Feelings are dumb. Solve a mystery with me.”

“Do you have a mystery?”

“I have a ton,” she said, setting down her mug, “but most of them are nasty serial killers.”


“Yeah, it’s not really your scene,” Carrie admitted. “There’s been a series of robberies, and all they take is butter knives.”


“I’m pretty sure Stabbsy’s back.”

“Stabbsy uses real knives,” Bug protested.

“That’s what he wants you to think,” Carrie said.

“Yeah, I’ll get in on that action,” Andi said, standing up. “I like Stabbsy, when he’s not stabbing.”

“I’m not comfortable with how many people that’s true of,” Carrie said.

“Like me!” Bug said.

“That was one time.”

“That you know of!”

Andi clapped her hands together, warmth spreading through her body as her skin started to glow. Her ears and her tail phased back into reality, the dark band reappearing around her eyes and down her nose. Her clothes phased out, replaced by the frills of her costume. There were noises of protest from everyone she hadn’t warned, but she ignored them, throwing her hands up over her head.

“Let’s go help Stabbsy with his stab-fever!”

Carrie leaned closer to Bug on their way out. “I’m still not convinced that’s a real medical condition.”

Coatimundi didn’t expect to see Ghost on her way home, but she never did. Ghost was sneaky. It was one of his things.

“Hello, Pizote,” he said from a fire escape, nearly startling her into falling off a building. She knew for a fact that he didn’t live there, so why he was using a stranger’s fire escape for a smoke break was a mystery Carrie wouldn’t be solving.

“Hey,” she said, trying to be super-casual about it as she bent over the rail of a fire escape landing above him. “Up to anything I should know about?” she asked. Like re-murder, she did not ask.

“No,” he said, which could have meant anything if he didn’t think she should know about it. “Or perhaps Miss Davenport has told you.”

“Told me what?”

“My date,” he said. “With her roommate.”

“Right,” she said. “She said something about that. About her roommate. She seems pretty…”

“Normal?” he suggested.

“Yeah,” she agreed. “Extremely normal.” Coatimundi turned around to sit on the railing, and then hang upside-down from it. Her pigtails and their ribbons hung toward the ground. Her skirt flipped inside-out, but between the petticoats and the bloomers, it revealed less than nothing. “How’d it go?” she asked.

“She seems nice,” he said, and she bristled at being damned with faint praise. “Might be too nice for me.”

“I’m sure that’s not true,” she said.

“You didn’t see her blushing when I held her hand.”

Coatimundi started to turn red and hoped she could pass it off as the blood rushing to her head. “That doesn’t mean anything!” she snapped, ears pinned back and tail lashing behind her. “Some people blush, a lot. And maybe you did it weird.”

“Did it weird,” he repeated.

“Held her hand weird,” she said. “Like… in a sexy way. A weirdly sexy way.”


“Because she’s had boyfriends,” she added. “Carrie told me. She has boys over all the time. Some of the time. A normal amount of times. I don’t think regular hand-holding would have made her blush. You must have done it weird.”

“What are they like?”


He took a drag on his cigarette. “Her boyfriends.”

Coatimundi sat upright. She rubbed at her ears, trying to get them to look neutral. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know her that well. You’d have to ask Carrie.”

“You think she would tell me?”

“Probably not.” Coatimundi felt her cheeks to see if they’d cooled down at all. They hadn’t. “Did the date not go well?” she asked.

“She went home.”

He was not going to make this her fault. “What happened?” she pressed, looking between her knees and through the landing at the top of his head.

“I saw someone I thought I knew,” he admitted. “I got distracted.”

“You ditched her,” she accused.

“She chose not to join me.”

Coatimundi had to struggle to find a way to contradict him without making it clear that she knew exactly what had happened. “Are you sure?” she asked finally. “Because sometimes you do parkour. Old-timey parkour. Automatically, without thinking about it. Jumping off of buildings, and stuff. Normal girls can’t do that.”

Ghost ashed into the street. “And she’s a normal girl,” he said.

“Yeah, exactly. Totally normal.”

“Maybe too normal.”

“Not that normal. She agreed to go out with you.”

Ghost laughed. It was a rare sound, a kind of high-pitched bark filtered through a ragged throat. She loved it when she made him laugh. It felt like she’d won a fight he hadn’t known they were having.

Ghost Devlin – Devil Out of Time: Chapter One

Mr. Paul from downstairs was dead at the bottom of the stairwell. Ghost Devlin had put him there.

Ghost’s head wasn’t always right these days. There was a grounding quality to the fellow trying to shoot him from upstairs. Bullets and blood and a knife between his teeth, he knew this better than his heartbeat. No time to think, but that’s how he did best.

He’d liked Mr. Paul, right up until Mr. Paul had tried to kill him. Might have still been willing to overlook it, under the right circumstances. Lots of people tried to kill Ghost. Sometimes he deserved it.

Another shot pinged the wall, but Ghost was good at finding cover, climbing stairs faster than the man trying to shoot him. Unnatural life burned through his veins, feeling more alive than he had in months.

Another shot, but this one buried itself in Ghost’s thigh; he ignored the heat and the pain blossoming outward from it. He’d already lifted one boot to the rail to launch himself from it, up and across to grab the railing mere feet from his target. In one smooth motion he pulled himself up to kick the gunman, fell back to roll to his feet. The gunman tried to hit him with the butt of the gun instead of shooting, and Ghost dodged it, cracking his fist across the gunman’s jaw instead. Fast as death he had the knife out from between his teeth, held against the stranger’s throat.

“We’re the distraction!” the young man shrieked, holding up both his hands in surrender before Ghost could say a word. Fear and panic came off him in waves, wide-eyed and stinking.

“From what?” Ghost growled, but as soon as he’d said it he was sure he knew. Someone had wanted to get him out of his apartment. Mr. Paul was never actually trying to kill him.

Waste of a good neighbor. Shouldn’t have kicked him so hard. Ghost had been acting on instinct when he’d had a pistol pulled on him.


He didn’t bother killing the henchman. Ghost vaulted over the rail, caught the one of the floor of his apartment. Anyone else, it might have wrenched his arm out of the socket. Ghost just climbed back onto the stairs, burst into the hall to run back to his door. Every rapid beat of his heart pumped blood down his thigh, brought pain in throbs.

Door open. Ghost held his knife at ready as he stalked inside, low to the ground, fixing his eyes on dark corners. He took a deep breath to smell the air.

Gone, whoever they’d been—and they had been. A stink like cheap cologne and drugstore lotion left a trail through his home. Ghost had disabled the traps in anticipation of guests. Mr. Paul. Dead now.

He flipped the switch and tried to chase away the shadows. Couldn’t dwell on death, let his head turn in circles. He focused on finding whatever they’d been looking for, this person in his home. He checked his kitchen first, bowls and jars of carefully labeled plants and detritus. Nothing opened, nothing stolen.

He opened a jar of corpse sage, dried purple leaves all orange at the edges, and jammed them between his teeth. They tasted like mold, but the pain in his thigh eased as he crushed them. He hadn’t realized he’d had a headache until it went away.

His checked the bedroom. No furniture except for shelves to hold planters and grow lights to keep them thriving. He kept the room humid, paint peeling off the walls.

No plants missing.

He touched the leaves of a grafted dwarf tree in passing, a pat of affection.

Back to the living room, where one shelf was in a disarray not his own. He knew his usual mess. Someone had disrupted a pile of old journals.

Missing one. He’d need to go through them if he wanted to find the year. He felt a fury grow against his spine, and he bit down harder on the leaves in his teeth to make it mellow.

The phone in his bag went off. He checked it automatically. Only had alerts enabled for one person, and the thought made some of the tension wrapped around his bones unwind.

She needed him, and everything else went on a backburner. Nothing else mattered; he knew where his priorities were. He stood, and looked down at himself.

He was going to need to change into less bloody pants.

The city of Midton was overrun with enormous man-eating slugs, and the superhero known as Coatimundi was staring anxiously at her phone.

“Was this your plan?” Black Knight asked, waving an armored hand at her.

“No!” she shot back, defensive. Small fluffy ears were pinned back to her hair in annoyance, her tail lashing. “This is the pre-plan. I’m setting a plan for a plan into motion.”

“We should regroup at the Plaza,” said Helen of Troy, sheathing her sword.

“Go ahead without me,” Coatimundi said, dragging her thumb over the screen to manually refresh.

“That’s not how regrouping works,” Black Knight pointed out. “If you’re trying to find someone else who had this problem, don’t bother—I already looked and it’s just one guy who marked his thread as resolved without posting what he did.”

Explanations were interrupted when someone landed beside them, having jumped off a nearby roof for maximum dramatic effect.

“You came!” Coatimundi said, ears perked up with delight.

Helen of Troy unsheathed her sword.

Ghost shrugged, a roll of his shoulders. “I was nearby.” He was tall and broad and wearing what passed for a costume with him, which wasn’t much of a costume at all. Just tight pants and tall boots and a shirt open too low at the neck, faintly piratical with the gold rings in his ears. He kept a knife on one thigh and a saddlebag on the other, a machete at his back and a looped length of rope on his belt. His hair was long and black and tied loose at his neck, his skin tanned and scarred. He had a perpetual shadow of stubble that felt gratuitous.

Coatimundi sidestepped just enough to put herself between Black Knight and Ghost, despite being at least a foot shorter than either of them. “Did I leave my location on?” she asked, tucking her phone into a deep pocket on her thigh. She’d never actually told him where they were.

“Sure,” Ghost said noncommittally.

“Why are you here, knave?” Helen asked, pointing her sword at him.

“Former knave,” Coatimundi corrected, sidling in the opposite direction to put herself in the way again. Helen was at least two feet taller than she was. Ghost had a dangerous sort of glint in his eye, a grin that was a baring of sharp teeth. “It’s fine, he’s with me kinda.”

It really would make things much easier if people would stop picking fights with him.

“If you say so, kid,” Knight said, and reluctantly Helen lowered her blade.

“For her sake,” Helen said to Ghost, a warning.

“Of course,” said Ghost, a hint of mockery directed at no one in particular. His accent made it hard to tell, his vowels too long and his consonants cutting. A drawl with sharp edges. “What did you need?” he asked, directed at Coatimundi and no one else.

“I thought your expertise might help with the slug situation,” she said.

“What slug situation?” he asked.

They stared at him. Around them, Midton was a chaos of sirens and screams.

“I was busy,” he added.

“There are giant, man-eating slugs,” Coatimundi explained, throwing a hand over Black Knight’s face before he could make a clever comment. Since splaying her fingers over the glassy faceplate did nothing to stop him from speaking, his silence was instead a concession to her wishes.

“Giant for slugs, or for people? A regular slug is—” Ghost held his thumb and forefinger an inch or two apart.

Coatimundi pointed to the now-tallest skyscraper in the city, a sharp spiral whose silhouette was marred by a mass of slugs the approximate size of the Statue of Liberty. Helicopters were circling the building, slime trailing to the streets below. On every building between could be seen slugs the size of Saint Bernards, climbing up brickwork and crusting up windows.

Ghost squinted at the slimy trail of destruction. “I’ve been very busy,” he said eventually.

“Before you ask,” Coatimundi said, “we’ve already tried salt. They’re too big, and there’s too many of them.”

“None of the infrastructure in this city can handle that much salt,” Black Knight added.

“Nobody’s got a shrink ray?” Ghost asked.

“If you’re trying to be funny, it’s not working,” Knight said.

“What—oh.” Ghost scratched at his stubble. “Was he the only guy? Someone made them bigger, didn’t they?”

“No,” Coatimundi said, eager to change the subject. “They’re from one of those islands where big things are small and small things are huge. I thought maybe you’d have seen them before.”

“Usually it’s spiders,” he said, apologetic.

“Why spiders?”

“Because if there is a god, it is a hateful one.”

“In this case it’s slugs that are big, though,” she said, choosing to ignore that statement entirely rather than suggest he tone it down.

“And carnivorous,” Ghost said.


“That’s very unusual, for slugs.”

“We are aware that this is outside the realm of normal slug behaviors,” Knight said, exasperated.

“How did they even get so far?”

“They’re also fast,” Coatimundi said. “As fast as something can be when it’s just a big foot.”

“If it were me, I would probably just try the usual things,” Ghost admitted. “Salt, beer…”

“It is not our intent to eat them,” Helen said.

“We tried salt,” Coatimundi reminded him.

“Beer?” Ghost asked.

“Later,” Knight said.

“For the slugs,” Ghost clarified.

“I don’t think we want to be rewarding this behavior.”

“Garden slugs,” Ghost said, forming the shape of a circle with his hands in vague confusion. “Have you never had garden slugs? You set a trap with beer, the slugs drown before they get to your plants.”

“That’s brilliant!” Coatimundi said, bouncing on her toes. “There’s a bunch of brewpubs downtown that like to show off their big vats of beer.”

Helen gasped. “Not the microbrews!”

“Do none of you have gardens?” Ghost persisted, his brow furrowed. “I’d think one of you would have plant powers.”

Ghost had a tendency to lump all superheroes into a group that didn’t include him, some newfangled fad he didn’t understand.

“Red Orchid does,” Coatimundi said, “but I think their plants can usually just eat any slugs.”


“I found a brewery a little south of the city,” Black Knight said, his faceplate displaying a map in green lines. “Big, corporate, should have plenty—the microbrews are safe.”

Helen pressed a hand to her breastplate. “Hera’s Blessings.”

“Did you contact them about using their products?” Coatimundi asked.

“I bought the company,” Knight said, and Ghost snorted. Black Knight ignored the derision as a favor to Coatimundi. “It’s mine now, I’m sending out orders to gather up inflatable pools and as many beer vats as we can carry.”

Coatimundi and Helen’s phones pinged.

Coatimundi grabbed Ghost’s forearm. “Come on,” she said, before realizing he was looking toward a faraway building.

“Go ahead without me,” he said. “I want to get a closer look at one of these.”

“I don’t think you can taxidermy slugs,” Knight said, to which Ghost responded with a middle finger that Coatimundi tried to cover with her hand. “What? It’s true.”

“I’ll catch up with you later,” Coatimundi assured him before things could escalate.

“Thank you, Pizote,” Ghost said, and she squeezed his arm a little before letting him stalk away.

When the slug situation had someone abated, Coatimundi found Ghost with a glut of gutted gastropods. He was sitting on what should have been an inaccessible rooftop, and he had a journal open on his knees, bent over it with a pencil.

“Hello,” she said, leaning sideways into the edges of his vision.

“Hello, Pizote,” he said, with more warmth than before. He said it differently when they were alone, the little nickname he’d assigned her. She couldn’t pinpoint how. She inched closer, trying to get a better look at the pages.

His drawings were much more coherent than the reality, which just looked like a pile of slime to her. He’d diagrammed different organs with tentative labels, separated them out for more individual detail. They reminded her of drawings in an old encyclopedia.

Some of his drawings were in old encyclopedias.

“Figure anything out?” she asked.

“I’m not a scientist,” he said dismissively. “Maybe someone can use it.”

“Thank you for your help.”

“I did nothing.”

“You did a lot,” she insisted. “And… it means a lot that you came to help me.” The slow sway of her tail became a little faster.

Ghost looked up from his journal, green eyes locking fiercely onto hers. “Always,” he said, which made her stomach somersault. “I owe you my life.”

She shifted uncomfortably where she stood, ears lowering against her hair. “You don’t owe me anything.”

He shut his journal, tucked his pencil behind his ear, and stood. “You don’t like to hold my life in your hands?” he teased.

“Absolutely not.”

He chuckled as his journal slid into the bag on his thigh. “Would you prefer I be left to my own devices?”

She hesitated, her tail lashing.

“No,” he agreed, reaching out to take her hands in his. She froze, her ears standing up and alert. “Call, and I will answer; lead, and I will follow.”

She blinked. “I… if you needed help, I’d also. Answer. Because that’s what friends do.”


“I would!”

“Because you are you,” he corrected. “Even if we were not friends.”

She couldn’t really deny that. She hadn’t become a superhero to only help her friends. Still, she didn’t care for the imbalance he’d introduced to the equation, as if his friendship weren’t important to her.

“A lot of heroes are meeting up later,” she began.


“I think it would help if they had a chance to get to know you better.”

He released her hands gently, and she realized he’d been holding them the entire time. “I know enough.”

“You might be surprised.”

“I have tried this before,” he said, pulling from his bag a case filled with hand-rolled cigarettes. He struck a match against the case, and she watched the flickering flame as he lit up. He turned his head as he shook it out, exhaling smoke away from her. “It doesn’t end well.”

She frowned. “You have? When?” She thought she would have heard about it, Ghost Devlin trying to make friendly overtures toward anyone but her.

“Hmm.” His brow furrowed. “Maybe not anymore.”

“… I don’t know what that means.”

He flicked his thumb impatiently against the cigarette. “They won’t remember,” he said. “It never happened, now. You’d know if it had.”

She reached out to touch his arm, pull him back from his thousand-yard stare at the skyline. He wasn’t always stable, but he’d been doing well lately, she thought.

Ghost Devlin, The Devil Death Fears, Last King of Atlantis. Immortal, his adopted country swallowed by a rift in space-time. She wasn’t convinced he’d been particularly stable even before all that, based on what she’d heard. He’d inhaled and ingested a lot of things he probably shouldn’t have.

Coatimundi didn’t know how old he was, now. He’d be closer to two-hundred than one, but something had happened in Atlantis to make the math all wrong. Now he did this, sometimes, remembered things that never were or forgot the way things had always been.

“Things might be different with me there,” she suggested, and he softened.

“The weight of my past is not your burden to bear,” he said. It was an obtuse way to say he didn’t want to put her to trouble.

“Everyone needs friends.”

“I have one,” he reminded her, which was both flattering and horribly sad. Her phone chimed from her pocket. “And you have many.”

“Just give me one second,” she said, pulling it from her pocket to check the screen.

Carrie: Is it safe for me to leave this tree yet?

They’d been in the park when the danger started, and her roommate had been forced to take refuge in a tree with a thick circle of road salt around the trunk.

“Oh, heck. I have to go get Carrie.”

“Miss Davenport isn’t in danger?” he asked, an unspoken offer of assistance.

“I don’t think so. She just, you know…”

“Needs you,” he finished for her.

“I’m sorry I can’t stick around,” she said, sliding her phone away. “You should think about what I said—what I was trying to say. About meeting people, and making friends.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“I still don’t get where the slugs came from,” Carrie said, walking along the park paths beside Andi. Andi had transformed back into her civvies, no more ears or tail or band of black across her eyes and down her nose. The lack of them was an annoyance, but she made do.

The sun was setting, and the park lights had all turned on. The evidence of the day’s events was mostly disappearing, scattered ambulances and teenagers trying to steal drinks from kiddie pools swimming with dead slugs.

“I guess a couple ended up on a shipping freighter,” Andi said, scrolling through articles. “From there they multiplied, and once it docked it was a free-for-all.”

“That was a lot of slugs for one boat,” Carrie said suspiciously. As a former teen detective, now twenty-something busybody, it was how she said most things. “And it seemed like the city was full of them all at once. That’s pretty sudden, for a slug.”

“I’m seeing a couple places saying they might have ended up in the sewers first.”

“Wouldn’t the Gators have noticed?”

“Yeah, a lot of this is still speculation.” She switched apps into her social media feed. “Oh my gosh, there are slug memes.”

Obviously there are slug memes.”

“There are so many slug memes.”

“Don’t meme and walk at the same time,” Carrie warned.

“Memes aren’t that distracting,” Andi said. “I don’t understand this one with the snake.”

“There are a bunch of those, I think some show had a finale today.”

“I’ll check if anyone tagged it in the replies.”


Andi failed to heed Carrie’s verbal warning in time, face still buried in her phone, and walked directly into what seemed to be a wall. She over-corrected backward into a stumble, eyes wide as she struggled to catch the device now bouncing between her hands. Her balance was thrown off without her tail, her focus on keeping her phone from breaking.

Then the wall swept her halfway off her feet, much the way she might be dipped for a kiss. She snatched her phone from the air and clutched it to her chest.

“Ghost!” she said automatically, surprised.

He smiled, all crooked and rakish. Charm laid on obnoxiously thick in ways she wasn’t used to seeing directed at her. “You’ve heard of me,” he said—nearly purred.

She looked at Carrie, whose expression offered no useful information. She looked back at Ghost. He still hadn’t let her go. “Yes. Yes!” Was her voice usually that high? She felt like it wasn’t. “We haven’t met. I don’t know you. I know of you. I’m very normal.”

“Miss Davenport,” he said, still not taking his eyes off of Andi, “you never mentioned you were acquainted with such a ravishing creature.”

Andi’s face felt hot.

Carrie squinted at Ghost. She looked at Andi. She looked at Ghost again. “Seriously? Seriously.”

Andi considered Carrie’s ability to recognize secret identities to be a power honed through years of detective work. Carrie considered it ‘common fucking sense’ and ‘basic observation’.

“I have never been more serious,” Ghost said, apparently closer to Andi than Carrie on the observation spectrum. “May I have your name?”

“N—yes.” Andi held out her hand in the minimal space between them, still held mid-swoon and unsure how to escape. Her grip on her phone was white-knuckled. “Andi Bravo it is very nice to meet you for the first time ever in my life Mr. Devlin sir.”

Carrie covered her face with her hand.

“Miss Bravo,” he said, taking her hand to kiss the backs of her fingers. Her face grew hotter. He smelled like smoke, cigars and cigarettes and some kind of liquor and none of that should have been comforting but together it was. He smelled like summer nights at her grandfather’s house, cookouts full of old men and helping them cheat at card games. Cold winters with her uncle, who never married so there was no one to stop them from smoking indoors, and no one ever said that was why they liked his house best but everyone always knew.

He brought her up to stand straight and let her go, which felt anti-climactic and she didn’t know why. She was still holding her phone against her heart, and thought the force of her pulse might trigger the pedometer.

“We should get going,” Carrie said, putting her hands on Andi’s shoulders to herd her away. Andi was as responsive as a cupboard, and her shoes dragged along the pavement accordingly.

“You’re going to the same place?” Ghost asked, following along instead of taking the hint. Andi was, she realized, staring at him. His grin was cocky, a swagger in his step instead of his usual intensity of purpose. A different kind of prowl altogether.

“We’re roommates,” Carrie said with an edge to her tongue.

“Oh? But I’ve never seen you before.”

Andi looked at Carrie with alarm. “I’m shy,” she blurted, before Carrie could craft a better explanation. Carrie rolled her eyes.

“I see,” he said seriously, lending undue gravity to her declaration. “Not many dates,” he suggested. Andi shook her head mutely as Carrie tried to convey something with her eyes that wasn’t making it to her target. “No Saturday plans,” he added, and Andi shook her head again. “Around seven, say.”

Nope,” Carrie said.

Andi was completely lost.

“I wasn’t asking you, Miss Davenport,” Ghost reminded her.

“Her answer is no,” Carrie said.

“My answer to what?” Andi asked, looking between the two of them.

“You,” he said, pointing to her, “and me,” he said, pointing to his chest, “getting dinner on Saturday.”

“Oh. Oh!” Andi planted her feet completely, standing straighter. Carrie’s pushing came to an immediate halt, unable to move Andi at all when she put up resistance. “You’re asking me out?” Andi asked, stunned.

“I am,” Ghost said, rocking back on his heels and looking pleased with himself.



“Andi Bravo?” Not Coatimundi. Not Pizote.

“That is your name.”

“Right. Yes.” There was a giggle forming at the bottom of her stomach that she refused to let out. “We could do that. If you want.”

“I do want,” he said, and part of a giggle hiccuped out of her. Carrie made a sound of disgust. “Where shall I pick you up?”

“You’re not telling him where we live,” Carrie said before Andi could respond.

Andi had the foresight not to point out that he could find it if he really wanted. Reminders of his stalking abilities would do no one any good.

“We could meet at the Plaza?” Andi suggested.

“The waterfront,” he countered.

Her ears would have perked up, at that. “We can do carnival things!” she said, almost bouncing at the thought.

“We can,” he agreed. His grin seemed to curl.

“Right, that’s settled, so—” Carrie tried and failed to push Andi again.

“It’s a date,” Ghost said, and then he winked and Andi’s insides all fluttered in that giggly way she didn’t want them to. He sauntered away, really sauntered, and it took her too long to relax enough that Carrie could herd her successfully.

“I have a date,” Andi said, awestruck.

“With a supervillain,” Carrie reminded her.

“Reformed.” Andi shoved her phone in her pocket as they walked, her feed forgotten.

“Possibly reformed.”

Definitely reformed.”

“You’re the only one who seems to think so,” Carrie pointed out, “and it’s just as likely that he only behaves himself when you’re around. We don’t know what he’s up to the rest of the time.”

Andi frowned. “I thought you two were getting along.”

“Professionally, sure. That doesn’t mean I want him dating my best human friend. I’d be just as suspicious if it were Black Knight.”

“Ew.” Andi stuck out her tongue. “He’s old.”

“And Ghost isn’t?”

“Ghost is like a bajillion,” Andi said with confidence. “That’s different. It’s like vampire rules.”

“He can’t come inside unless he’s invited?”

“That’s just common courtesy. Vampire rules means that once someone’s a million years old they can’t date people their own age. Because they’re dead. They have to date people whose age they look like, instead.”

“That’s a dumb rule. High schoolers shouldn’t date the undead.”

“Okay, agreed, but I’m not a high schooler. I’m a grown adult woman.”

“Debatable,” Carrie said, deliberately tousling Andi’s hair. “And I’m not giving the guy points just for not creeping on teens. He still looks older than you, and he’s still creeping. Why did you say yes?”

It had seemed like the obvious thing to do, at the time. This was not the correct answer. “It… felt like what a normal person would do.”

“Normal people don’t agree to dates with strange men who manhandle them in parks.”

Andi turned pink. “Maybe I was curious,” she said. “What he’s like with people who aren’t Coatimundi.”


“It’s like a fact-finding mission!” Andi insisted. “Besides. It’s just Ghost. It’s not a big deal.”

Astielle: Chapter Thirty-Nine

NSFW Content Warnings
Maledom ❤ Femsub ❤ Sadism/Masochism ❤ Physical Restraint ❤ Biting with Fangy Teeth ❤ Size Difference ❤ Voyeurism ❤ Rough Sex ❤ Penetrative Sex ❤ Weird Monster Dicks ❤ Penis-in-Vagina Sex ❤ Anal Sex ❤ Creampie (no impreg) ❤ Dirty Talk ❤ Not Exactly Reverse-Anti-Cuckolding But Something Sort Of Like That

“Are you okay?” Karzarul asked, touching Leonas’ face to tilt it toward him. Leonas gasped for air as he realized he was dreaming.

“Do I look okay?” Leonas asked, arrows in his back.

“I thought you weren’t doing this anymore.”

“If it were up to me when to stop doing this, I never would have started,” Leonas said. The blood and arrows were gone, though he hadn’t moved.

“Are you… upset?” Karzarul asked.

“Usually,” Leonas said, nudging Karzarul’s hand away.

“I can leave,” Karzarul said, “if you’d rather talk about it with Minnow.”

“No,” Leonas said. “She’s not really… she doesn’t do that.” He still hadn’t stood, so Karzarul sat. Leonas stared into the middle distance. “We never had fights about it, exactly. If I was in a dark place and there wasn’t anything she could do about it, she’d just. Leave me to it. Until I was better. I don’t think she’s ever been upset in a way she couldn’t fix. She leaves, or she goes on a quest, or she kills something. It’s a problem to solve, not a state of being. She doesn’t have the patience for that.” Leonas leaned against Karzarul’s arm. “I meant it when I said I was sorry.”

“I meant it when I said it wasn’t you,” Karzarul said.

“I killed Laurela, didn’t I?” Leonas asked.

“That wasn’t you.”

“And Jonys,” Leonas added. “The Fairy King didn’t even like me. The Empress. I don’t know if anyone liked her.”

“Vaelon did,” Karzarul said.

“And look where that got him,” Leonas said. “You didn’t like me, either.”

“You hated me first,” Karzarul pointed out.

“I hate everything,” Leonas said dully. “I’m unpleasant. I’m unlikeable. I’m prickly. And I’ve been making everything worse for longer than I’ve been alive.”

“That’s not true,” Karzarul protested, resisting the temptation to touch his hand.

“I killed you.”

“I killed you first,” Karzarul pointed out.

“I deserved it,” Leonas said.

“No you didn’t,” Karzarul said, shifting position so that he could look at Leonas. Leonas looked away from him. “That was—I was lying. When I said that.” He touched Leonas’ face again, turning it back toward him and resting his forehead against his. Leonas let him. “She—you—kept Vaelon alive. He chose you, always. He didn’t want to live without you. Your next lives, you didn’t do anything wrong. I was angry, that was all. You were together after that, you were happy together without me. That’s not false history, you really were happy together. I hated you for that. I hate you when you’re happy without me.”

Karzarul made a sound of surprise when Leonas kissed him, muffled by his mouth. He let Leonas go, but Leonas was already throwing his arms around Karzarul’s shoulders. Karzarul found himself leaning back, Leonas draped over his chest.

“Awful man,” Leonas breathed between them. “I don’t know why I like that so much.”

Karzarul, also confused, was too busy being kissed to get a word in edgewise.

“You’re a jealous, petty liar,” Leonas said between kisses.

“Mixed messages,” Karzarul managed, giving up on using his mouth to speak and speaking from nowhere instead. Leonas had a mad light in his eyes that left Karzarul feeling transfixed.

“I have spent most of my life,” Leonas said, “loving her desperately, knowing she was happy without me, and hating her for both. Do you understand?” Around them, the dreamscape took the distant hues of a beach, a memory of someone else’s memory.

“Oh,” Karzarul said before Leonas kissed him again.

“Say it again,” Leonas said.


“Hating me,” Leonas said, kissing his throat.

“Ah.” Something about this felt wrong, the blur of impressionistic loveliness all around them ill-suited to hunger and hate. “For stealing him,” he said. “For wanting him all to yourself. For not wanting me.” How silly it was, looking back, that he hadn’t realized it before. “I hated you for never wanting me.” Leonas bit down on his neck, and Karzarul shuddered, felt the edges of himself grow indistinct.

“I’m sure I was lying,” Leonas said, his voice low. “I hated you because I wanted you.” Karzarul sighed. “Can we have sex here?” Leonas asked suddenly, his voice back at its usual pitch as he sat upright. The dreamscape tried to come into focus as a beach in earnest before giving up.

“Not really?” Karzarul said. “It gets. Weird. Conceptual.”


“I don’t care for it,” Karzarul admitted.

“So you’ve tried it before,” Leonas said with an arched eyebrow. Karzarul pressed his mouth shut, glowing. “What about when we wake up?” Leonas asked, brushing his fingers over Karzarul’s cheekbone.

“When we—?”

“I don’t know enough about your anatomy,” Leonas said. “I’m not going to fuck you if it’s going to end up breaking my dick.”

“I wouldn’t,” Karzarul said immediately. “I’m not—you can… if you wanted to. You could.”

“I could what?” Leonas asked, tracing a thumb along his lower lip.

“Fuck me,” Karzarul said, glowing brighter.

“You want me to fuck you?” Leonas asked.

“Yeah,” Karzarul breathed.

Leonas leaned closer to Karzarul’s face again. “You fell asleep snuggling with Minnow, didn’t you?” he asked.

“I… yeah?” Karzarul said, confusion made hopeful by the proximity of Leonas’ mouth.

“I wonder if your body works like mine,” Leonas said. “If your dreams can sometimes leave you in a state.”

Karzarul’s eyes widened as he realized what Leonas was implying. Visions flitted through the dreamscape, Minnow sleepy and rumpled and snuggled into pillows. “I… don’t know,” he realized. Somehow it had never come up, lying with one person and dreaming of another. These weren’t the sort of dreams he had.

“Do you think it will wake her up?” Leonas asked. “Do you think she’ll ask what you were dreaming of?” He draped himself over Karzarul’s chest again, resting his head on his shoulder. Even in dreams, he was feverishly warm. “Can I tell you a secret?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Karzarul said hoarsely. Leonas was straddling him now, and it took effort not to tilt his hips upward or arch towards him.

“You mustn’t tell Minnow,” Leonas warned. “I won’t forgive you if you do, she doesn’t—she isn’t like us.”

“I know,” Karzarul said. Leonas sighed and nuzzled at his shoulder.

“I don’t think I’ve ever loved anything without hating it,” Leonas admitted in his ear, fingertips slowly sliding over his skin. “I think I love her more than anything.” His palm rested over Karzarul’s throat. “I can’t do anything unless she lets me. She could kill me, and I couldn’t stop her if I wanted to. I don’t think I’d want to. I ought to be careful, but I’m not. She always let me go too far and she shouldn’t have. You were so sure I hurt her, you hated me for hurting her. You were right. She never hates me, that’s the problem. She says she does, but she’s lying. She hates the same way she loves, a sort of background noise, a hum, it’s a thing you can ignore. It doesn’t hurt unless we make it hurt. It hurts, doesn’t it?”

“Usually,” Karzarul admitted. The dreamscape was all the colors of bruises and blood in a sunset.

“You hurt her, too,” Leonas said.

“She likes it.”

“So do I,” Leonas said. “I never would have known how much I like it, watching you.” He slid his fingers into Karzarul’s hair and pulled, bells ringing. “I used to make her tell me about them. Other people, when she had them. I would—I wanted—jealous, maybe, I wanted to reclaim her, make her mine again, prove that she’d come back, all the things she let me do and always she came back. She left me, she was always leaving me and I couldn’t bear it except that she always came back. Telling her to leave like it was my idea, wallowing in every trespass she never allowed someone else. Mine, mine, do you understand?”

Yes,” Karzarul panted, Leonas biting at his throat again.

“I wouldn’t want to watch,” he said. “Not with anyone, no one but you. You scare me almost as much as she does, you know.”

“I don’t think it’s true anymore,” Karzarul said. “That’s there’s—that we could kill you. Either of us. You might be the most powerful witch that ever lived.”

“For all the good it does me,” Leonas said. “I don’t—don’t call me that, I don’t want to think about that, not now, not here.” The dreamscape went dark, the shadows of waves. Leonas pressed his hand over Karzarul’s mouth, knowing it accomplished nothing. “You, I’m talking about you, you awful beautiful man. You and her together, and if it were anyone else I don’t think I could stand it. You’re the only one, because I think sometimes when I watch you that you look the way I feel.” The dreamscape was all a jumble of memories again, sharp teeth and large hands pressing her down into stone and grass and blankets. Karzarul arched despite himself toward the heat between them, Leonas’ eyes boring into his own. “I’m telling you a secret, Karzarul, and if you try to ask me about this later I’ll lie. Sometimes when I watch you, when I see the way you love her, when I see the way it hurts, I think that I might hate you. I shouldn’t, you don’t deserve it, you’ve never been anything to me but a nightmare. I don’t know you any better than the reflection in your eyes but I think that I might hate you as much as I’ve ever hated anything. Do you understand?”

Oh,” Karzarul said, Minnow pinned beneath him in the tangled pile of quilts. They’d made a bed together on the floor so that Leonas could take the mattress, which he’d accepted as his due. Minnow’s hair was all a mess, a sheen of sweat on her skin, half-awake and clinging tight to the pillow beneath her. Karzarul couldn’t tell how long he’d had her trapped there, grinding against her in his sleep. “I—I was dreaming,” he said helplessly, rising on his arms to take some of the weight off of her. She hummed, wriggling a little.

Karzarul was so hard it ached, tentacles writhing, reaching for her skin. He hesitated, glancing toward the bed. Leonas was wrapped in a quilt of his own, watching them with eyes made visible by the light of his witchmarks. Stray curls had escaped the scarf he tied around his hair to sleep; the shadows under his eyes were darker without makeup. Karzarul’s cock twitched, and he averted his gaze back to Minnow.

“Tell me to stop and I will,” Karzarul whispered. She made the sleepy and contented noises she always did when he woke her with his touch, his fingers and tongue and his cock between her thighs. It was still dark this time, the moon high in the sky, none of the soft morning light that made him want to match it. He shifted, wings held close to keep them out of the way as his hands slid down and up her back. Minnow noticed the excess of hands and tried to flip herself over, but he held her down, hands on her hips and her shoulders. She didn’t struggle, but let out an inarticulate whine.

“Next time,” Karzarul said, bending to kiss the green streak in her hair. “Let me be greedy and use you, this once.”

Oh,” she sighed, and he felt her shudder and relax beneath him.

“There’s my girl,” he said, coaxing her arms out from under her pillow so that he could hold them behind her back. “Our pretty pet Hero.” Minnow made a low and dreamy sound, one of his hands holding her wrists together and another gripping her hair. His other two hands pulled her hips upward, adjusting the angle until he could thrust into her in one long hard stroke. She was already soaked from the clumsy attention he’d given her in his sleep, but she let out a cry of pained surprise that made his wings flare upward. He pulled out and thrust into her again, fingertips sinking into her skin, baring his fangs at her high-pitched grunt. The cock inside her speared her open while the other rubbed against her clit, but his hands on her hips kept her from leaning into it.

Karzarul leaned forward, untangled his fingers from her hair to slide his hand under her jaw and lift her head out of the pillows. It made her cries noisier, helpless panting and all her muscles tense beneath his hands. “You like that?” he asked into her hair. Minnow tried to nod, the gesture collapsing as he thrust again. “I’m trying to be gentle,” he lied, “but you’re so fucking soft.” She bucked in his hands, back arching and muscles twitching all around him. “You want it hard?”

Yeah,” she managed, as he started pounding into her faster.

“You want me to fucking break you?”

Please,” she begged, an almost-sob. He pushed her back down into the quilts, grabbing a fistful of her hair and ramming his hips into hers. She let out a guttural, animal sound, her thighs shaking. He was pressing bruises into her skin. He felt her tense, release, but he didn’t stop.

“You love it when I fuck you?” he asked, and she tried to nod with her head pressed into bedding. “You love me?” he asked, and she tried again. “Say it, I want to hear you say it.”

“I love you,” she said, her voice bouncing as he thrust into her right as she said the word. “I love you, I love you, I love—love—love—l-oh-ve—l—ah!

Karzarul stopped, pulling his wings in tight to keep them from beating as he pulled out of her. He brought a palm down hard on her ass, and she screamed with another arch of her back. His wings fluttered as he did it again, gripping her wrists tighter and adjusting their position, turning their bodies by inches until she was facing the bed. He pressed the slick head of his cock against her ass, the other against her cunt, trilling when she made a tiny mewling sound.

“Say his name,” Karzarul ordered, but a lack of confidence turned it into more of a suggestion.

“His?” Minnow repeated, dazed. Karzarul lifted her head until she could see Leonas watching them, head propped on one hand. “Oh—oh.”

Karzarul carefully kept his eyes on Minnow, heart beating against his ribs.

“Leo—oh! Oh!” Minnow’s attempt was cut off with a groan as Karzarul started to push inside of her, both cocks stretching her open at once. “Leonas, Leonas, Leonas,” she repeated as Karzarul started to thrust, her eyes on him as his witchmarks glowed brighter. Karzarul brought his hand down on her ass again, and she tightened with a scream. He finally let her wrists go, bending forward to wrap one arm around her shoulders and another around her waist. She gripped at the forearm near her neck, short nails digging into his skin. The hold kept her head up so that Leonas could see her face.

“Show him how a good Hero takes it,” Karzarul purred in her ear, and her whole body seemed to spasm at that. “Let me hear you tell him you love him when you’re all full of monster cock.”

Minnow hesitated until Karzarul thrust into her. “I love you,” she gasped, but Leonas didn’t respond, didn’t move, stayed silently watching with his face aglow. Watching both of them, because Karzarul was watching him in return, watching the subtle flex of muscles in his jaw every time he thrust and the girl beneath him said it again. I love you I love you I love you, and Karzarul growled as his wings started to beat involuntarily with his thrusts. He bit down on Minnow’s shoulder before he could stop himself, eyes still on Leonas as his fangs sank into her skin.

He hadn’t meant to bite so hard, to bury himself so deep, pounding into her with a furious beating of his wings as he held her closer. His mouth tasted of blood as he came, cocks twitching inside her, pumping her full and dripping down their thighs. He purred again, releasing his teeth and licking her shoulder apologetically. Minnow was limp in his arms, and he was careful to set her down gently in case she couldn’t catch herself when he pulled out. Her hips and wrists were both bruised in the shape of his hands. He kissed her cheek, and she yawned.

Karzarul glanced back up at Leonas, but he’d already rolled over, curled up underneath his blanket.

“Leonas,” Minnow whined, her voice ragged from screaming. “If I fall asleep like this and it burns to pee tomorrow will you fix it for me?”


“So do you make all the monsters?” Leonas asked. Karzarul choked on his eggs.

Leonas,” Minnow hissed through her teeth.

“Yes, yes, I know,” Leonas said with an impatient wave of his hand. “You want to be tactful so no one throws a tantrum. That’s stupid and I don’t care.”

“Leonas,” Minnow warned again.

“I’m the one asking so no one’s going to be mad at you,” Leonas said, “and I don’t care if being nosy makes him sad or whatever. He can go explode into a rock about it if he’s so upset.” Minnow smacked Leonas’ shoulder. “I’m not going to stop, stomp off in a huff if you want to but I’m not going to let you keep hitting me.”

Minnow crossed her arms with a harrumph. Karzarul stared at his eggs and debated whether he was angry.

“The little rock monster thing didn’t exist until you turned into one,” Leonas continued. “That part’s obvious, even Minnow figured that out.” Minnow glowered at him. “She’s pretending she didn’t because she thinks she has to coddle us by playing stupid and letting us lie to her face. I’m not doing that. If you want to keep secrets you can say so.”

Karzarul grabbed the hand not holding Leonas’ spoon. Leonas tried to pull his hand away, but Karzarul held firm with a growl. He brought his hand to his mouth and kissed Leonas’ knuckles. Leonas sputtered, witchmarks starting to glow.

“You’re annoying,” Karzarul said. Minnow nodded her agreement, turning her attention back to her plate now that she’d been reassured by the gesture. Leonas blushed under the light of his witchmarks as Karzarul turned his hand over to kiss his palm. “You’re lucky you’re pretty.”

“You’re the one who gets to look at me,” Leonas snapped as he finally yanked his hand back. He flexed his fingers as he turned his attention back to his plate. “Don’t think I missed that you changed the subject,” he said.

“It’s complicated,” Karzarul said.

“I’m clever,” Leonas said.

“I don’t do it on purpose,” Karzarul said. “Calling it ‘making’ sounds deliberate, and it’s not. I… there wasn’t anything else like me. I didn’t want to be the only one. I made a wish and She misunderstood.”

Minnow patted his hand.

“Those lights were monsters being born?” Leonas asked, gesturing with his spoon. “When light hits you are they dying?”

“They don’t die,” Karzarul said. “They lose form for a while, that’s all.”

“But that is how they’re born,” Leonas pressed. “They don’t breed, they don’t multiply, they don’t die. You’re the only one who—you’re the mother of all monsters.”

Karzarul’s hands spasmed into reflexive fists. “King of All Monsters,” he corrected with a snarl.

“Right, right,” Leonas said with a wave. “Why are there more of some than others? It can’t be size, Taurils are more common than Impyrs.”

“I don’t know.”

“Can you turn into anything?” Leonas asked. “Look like anyone, do anything, but you decided what you wanted to be was a stinky little pig?”

Minnow gasped in offense before Karzarul could. “Don’t you dare,” she said. “Rootboars are perfect and I love them.”

“You’ve killed more Rootboars than anyone alive,” Leonas pointed out.

“I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”

“Rootboars were her idea,” Karzarul mumbled rather than let Leonas believe he was fundamentally predisposed to roundness. He was pushing the last bit of egg around his plate rather than eat it.

“Good,” Minnow said.

“I’m not surprised,” Leonas said.

“I’m not going to try to explain to you what it is to be without a body, what it is to try and become something entirely new,” Karzarul said. “It’s not something I can tweak until it’s where I want it. What’s done is done, and any shape significantly different would be a new monster.” Karzarul tapped his spoon against his plate. “Once I take a form, it has a pull to it. Trying to become something too close to what I’ve been before doesn’t work. Even if I managed to become something that looked entirely human, that would be the only human shape I could ever take. To change my face, be taller or shorter, it wouldn’t work.” He set the spoon down to rub at the moon on the back of his hand. “I was very new when we became what we are. New to personhood, memory, personality. If I’d been able to practice, things might be different. I might be capable of more. Now, as things are, anything new only creates more copies. It’s not a situation forgiving of mistakes.”

“Violet is new, right?” Minnow asked.

“Violet is a grown man,” Leonas said.

“The rocks are grown rocks,” Minnow pointed out. Leonas frowned.

“They aren’t copy-copies,” Leonas started to ask.

“I’m done talking about this,” Karzarul decided, pushing his plate away. “I mean it. Don’t.”

“I was thinking we should go to Ocrae,” Minnow said, changing the subject. “Not right away, since—since breaks are a good idea. And we’re taking a break. Before we do any questing. If we want to do questing.”

“I don’t know where that is,” Karzarul said.

“Is that the new name for Gaigon?” Leonas asked, gathering up their plates without asking first.

“It’s been Ocrae for a long time,” Minnow said with a touch of censure.

“Not compared to how long it was Gaigon,” Leonas said with an imperious tilt to his nose.

“I knew Gaigon,” Karzarul offered. “It was called that when I was new.”

“You see?” Leonas said, gesturing to Karzarul with the plates.

Other people called it Gaigon,” Minnow said. “It was Ocrae before that. I think. Is what they tell me. I don’t know if that’s true or not. Don’t call it Gaigon while we’re there, they’ll know you’re Astian and they won’t like it.”

“Oh, excellent, exactly the environment I need,” Leonas said, setting the dishes in the sink to scrub at them.

“I was thinking I could take the Door every once in a while to check if Gerry’s come into port—”

“Absolutely not,” Leonas said.

“If we’re going to find Cyrnae, we’re going to have to talk to pirates,” Minnow said. “If Gerry’s there, we can ask for information and borrow their ship for a bit. Otherwise we’ll have to figure out how to steal one.”

Leonas had stopped scrubbing. “You are a lanternmelon tycoon,” he reminded her, a stiffness to his jaw. “You can buy a ship. You can buy a fleet.”

“That sounds like a lot of paperwork and I don’t feel like making Dee come all the way to Eson for that,” Minnow said. “It’s fine. Gerry’s good at being conveniently available and also they owe me. If you’d rather not come, you can always stay here and I’ll take care of it.”

Leonas had resumed scrubbing with greater intensity. “Great.”

Astielle: Chapter Thirty-Eight

“Your Majesty, can we talk privately?” Minnow asked. She was still holding Karzarul in her hands, though he had at least uncurled.

The Fairy King sucked a tadpole through the straw in his drink and chewed it contemplatively. Changelings were all in a dither through the Faewild, figuring out which stones were actually monsters and then chasing them as they tried to roll away. “How private?” he asked.

“Can we go to the forge?” she asked.

The Fairy King frowned. Whatever happened at the forge would be between themselves and the Goddesses. “I guess,” the Fairy King said, reluctant and suspicious. He may have been picking up on Minnow’s mood; he’d known her the longest, after all.

Minnow was miserable, and did a poor job hiding it. It did not suit her the way it did Leonas, who had at all times a general aura of discontent.

“You better not want to talk to any Goddesses,” the Fairy King warned once they were alone.

“We have to ask about the Lost,” Minnow said.

The Fairy King blinked. “No.”

“We gotta,” Minnow said, holding Karzarul closer, her shoulders all hunched and drawn in on herself. “Astielle doesn’t scatter bones right, and—and they’ve got all this sunlight magic now, and—and we found out how they’re Undead, and somebody made a wish they shouldn’t have. And we thought we had a lead but then we didn’t and now we’re stuck. And if they made a wish that means you—”

“It’s not my fault,” the Fairy King said, raising his voice and stomping his foot. Minnow flinched. His wings buzzed. “That wasn’t me.”

“I know,” Minnow said. “But you know stuff, right? You were there?”

“I didn’t do anything,” the Fairy King insisted. The buzzing was getting louder, pressing dangerously against their eardrums and crawling into veins. The air felt heavy. “It’s not my fault every time a stupid grown-up makes a stupid wish that ruins everything.”

“I know,” Minnow said.

“You don’t,” the Fairy King shouted. The buzzing was palpable, the sound of it crowding out the sun and there were dark shadows all around his black eyes. “They aren’t mine and they aren’t supposed to be here. I don’t want to fix your stupid problems!”

Sunlight hummed against Minnow’s skin, Leonas being overprotective. Minnow wasn’t worried about that. She only felt terrible. The sound and fury of the Faewild was scary to an outsider, but a changeling would always recognize him as home. A person who was a place, made as one back when dragons still flew. A place where children lived forever, and a boy to take care of them. The whole world moved outside of him, and he stayed here. Accepting more changelings, always. Those precious few who would be fairies swallowed up into the Faewild with him so it could grow to hold their charges.

Until the day there was something else a lost child could be. Something that could happen to changelings that strayed.

She was surprised when Karzarul moved out of her hands. He was a shape and then he wasn’t, all indistinct between moments. He was smaller than his usual forms when he had one, almost the same size as the Fairy King.

Karzarul was a Bruteling, hugging him fiercely.

The Fairy King burst into tears.

He collapsed into ugly, noisy, wailing sobs as Karzarul patted his back. Karzarul made soothing sounds as the heaviness dissipated. Minnow rubbed her shoulder, trying to avoid looking at either of them.

“Do you want to go sit over there with me?” Karzarul asked the Fairy King, pointing to a log on the other side of the forge. The Fairy King nodded, holding up a hand to shield his face from view. “Okay.” Karzarul held his hand to lead him away, the Fairy King sniffling and rubbing at his eyes all the while.

“It’s weird that Karzarul might be the closest thing to his age,” Leonas said finally, “when the Fairy King is so much older.”

“You’d think they’d hang out more,” Minnow said.

The immortals were speaking too quietly to eavesdrop.

“Are we going to talk about the fact that he exploded?” Leonas asked finally.

“I don’t know,” Minnow said.

“You’ve never seen that monster before,” Leonas said more than asked. Minnow shook her head to confirm. Leonas bent down to pick up a rock, which unfurled in his hand. He held it up by its tail, and its little legs moved furiously as it tried to swim away through the air. “And yet they’re everywhere. Unavoidable.”

“I don’t know if we’re supposed to have noticed,” Minnow said with a touch of irritation.

“What?” Leonas said, setting the little monster back down. It got a running start to curl back up and roll away into the woods.

“Talking about things before you’re supposed to notice them is rude,” she said. “People get mad.”

“Karzarul gets mad about a lot of things,” Leonas said.

“So do you,” Minnow said, and Leonas scowled.

“We’d have to be stupid not to have noticed that he made a new monster.”

“You’d have to be stupid not to notice a lot of things,” Minnow said. “You still want to believe you’re getting away with it.”

“Don’t get snippy with me,” Leonas said.

“I’m not snippy,” Minnow said. “I try to be careful about what I say and then you act like I’m stupid.”

“I do not,” Leonas said.

“You do,” Minnow said. “I know what I’m doing.”

“I’m sure you do.”

Minnow rubbed at her eyes. “This was too soon,” she muttered. “We were taking a break from questing. I shouldn’t have—I didn’t mean for it to turn into a quest. I shouldn’t have let it turn into a quest.”

Leonas tentatively patted the top of her head, but Minnow jerked her head away. After a moment of still surprise, he grabbed her by the hair to pull her close, wrapping an arm around her neck to hold her back against his chest. She stiffened, going very still rather than lash out at him.

“Minona,” he warned in her ear. “If you are going to have a breakdown, wait until we’re done here.” She made a sound of irritation, angling her head to bite down on his wrist. Leonas hissed through his teeth but didn’t otherwise move. “I know. I know. You’ve been having nightmares for a week.”

She took her teeth from his skin. “They weren’t,” she said.

“They were,” he said. “For you, they were. You’re exhausted. You’re upset. But you’re going to have to wait, because the only one here is me, and I can’t help you with this. Not the way you need. This is the best I can do for you right now.” He stroked her hair, and she relaxed minutely. “You’re very clever, and you haven’t done anything wrong. Wait a little longer, and you can be upset after we leave.” He paused and kissed the top of her head. “Not at me,” he added. “That’s not allowed.”

“Okay,” she said. She felt bad about biting him when he was delicate. She licked at the droplets of blood on his skin.

“Don’t be weird,” he said. The spots glowed and disappeared in a flash of sunlight. “… he did definitely explode a new monster into existence, though.”

“Stop it,” Minnow warned.

“Do you know something?” Leonas asked. “Is there something you’re not supposed to tell me, is that why you’re being like this?”

“I don’t know!” she said, frustrated again. “I don’t know what I know, or figured out, or remember, or made up. If we talk about it without Ari I’ll forget that he’s not supposed to know what we think we know. It’s too much. Keeping track of what I know is hard enough without keeping track of everyone else on top of it. I’m tired, Nettles.”

“I’m sorry, love,” he said, kissing her hair again. “Come here.” He turned her around so she could hide her face against his chest, pressing his palms against her ears. She sighed, relaxing into him. “I’m asking him about this later, though,” Leonas muttered. He tilted her head up towards his so that he could dot kisses over her face. “Better?” he asked as he took his hands away from her ears.

“Maybe,” she said, wrapping her arms around his waist with another heavy sigh. “I don’t know. I don’t like this. I want to go somewhere that no one is and let everyone else deal with it. With everything. Maybe when the King is dead.”

“If my father dies,” Leonas reminded her, “I’ll be the King of Astielle.”

Minnow hummed noncommittally.

“I’m feeling better,” the Fairy King announced. Karzarul had shifted into a Howler, and the Fairy King was riding on his back. “Karzarul explained it so I’m fine now.” Minnow turned herself a little, but didn’t let Leonas go. “I don’t listen in on people’s wishes, so I can’t tell you what dumb thing that guy said to ruin corpses. Karzarul said people think he might have been a king? He didn’t look like a king of anything, but I don’t know. I didn’t ask because I didn’t think he’d be important. Most people just gaze upon the divine and die, so I don’t bother getting attached.”

“That’s okay,” Minnow said. “It doesn’t matter. We were hoping there’d be a clue about how to make the Undead regular dead.”

“You can’t,” the Fairy King said with a shake of his head. “The best you can do is stick them in an old log and let mushrooms eat them.”

Minnow frowned. “Does the Faewild have a Shadow Garden?” she asked.

“We don’t call ours that,” the Fairy King said. “The Sleeper Stumps are in the Deep.”

“I thought it was fairies who sleep in the stumps of the Deep,” Minnow said.

“It can be both,” the Fairy King said. “Fairies can’t die. When a fairy gets tired, we let them sleep, same as the Lost. We can do the same for you someday, if you want.”

Leonas held her tighter. “A changeling who leaves the Faewild is mortal,” he reminded the Fairy King.

“Yeah,” the Fairy King said, “but you’ve all got blessings. You could kill each other, I guess, but then you’d be born again and it’d be a whole thing.” Leonas’ eyes narrowed. The Fairy King looked down at Karzarul beneath him. “Does he not know?”

Karzarul scuffed his paws against the dirt, ears pinned back and head low.

“What don’t I know?” Leonas asked.

“You do know,” Karzarul said. “Our weapons are what kill us. That’s why it’s always the Hero who kills me.”

“Right,” Leonas said.

“Once one of us dies, we aren’t together anymore. You two become mortal again.”

“What.” Leonas slowly let Minnow go. “You’re—killing you kills us?”

“You guys like to be together,” the Fairy King said, sliding off Karzarul’s back and patting his ruff. “You’re real bad at it sometimes, is all.”

“We can die other ways,” Leonas said. “If my head gets cut off, I’m going to die.”

Karzarul scuffed his paws again.

“Nah,” the Fairy King said.

Nah?” Leonas repeated, incredulous.

“You’re like fairies, right?” the Fairy King asked Karzarul. “It knocks you out for a while.”

“They come back wrong,” Karzarul said, ears still back as he sat on the ground. “If—if you die. Sort of die. You don’t die, but you don’t really… it would be better if you did.”

“I. Okay.” Leonas rubbed at his forehead. “That sounds. We’re immortal now?”

“Yeah,” the Fairy King said. “You forgot a lot, huh?”

“Yes.” Leonas let his hand rest at his temple. “You’re saying if Karzarul had awakened sooner, I could have had the skin of a twenty year old forever?”

Minnow made a face, wrinkling her nose and sticking out her tongue.

“That’s fine,” Leonas said. “I’m fine. With that. This won’t haunt me at all. What were we—where were we?”

“We were trying to figure out if there’s a way to undo all the Undead,” Minnow said. “The Fairy King’s been there from the start and he puts them to sleep the same as the Moon Cultists, so that’s a bust.”

“What if we destroyed the blessing?” Karzarul asked. “When Vaelon asked if he could give up the Starsword, you said that he could, but it would destroy him with it.”

“Not destroyed,” the Fairy King said, shaking his head. “Wiped from existence. Backwards and forwards and everything that ever happened because of you and because of the blessing. He could have done it right then, but now it’s complicated. You’d unmake a lot of stuff.”

“Has anyone ever done that before?” Minnow asked.

“I don’t know,” the Fairy King said. “No one would ever know. That’s the point.”

“Do you remember what the blessing was?” Minnow asked.

“I would prefer not to create any paradoxes that cause us to never have existed, thank you,” Leonas said.

“I only mean, if his is like ours, maybe we can find the guy,” Minnow said. “Or the reincarnation of the guy.”

“It wasn’t like yours,” the Fairy King said. “You guys bound your souls to your blessings with your wishes. People with self-centered wishes usually die.” Karzarul ducked his head into his shoulders, abashed. “His was bound to the dead, I think. All the dead? I would check but I got mad and ate his terms and conditions. I thought if he came back I could trick him into unbeing.” The Fairy King scratched his head. “Don’t tell anyone,” he added.

“We won’t,” Minnow promised.

“I don’t keep track of people’s blessings,” the Fairy King added. “You’d have to ask your mom.”

Minnow pointed at herself, and he shook his head. Warily, Leonas pointed to himself, and the Fairy King nodded. Leonas said nothing.

“How did the Pirate Queen come to have it?” Karzarul asked, watching Leonas while pretending not to.

“Adventures,” the Fairy King shrugged. “She wanted to live forever, but the Nightshard doesn’t work like that.” Leonas remained very still. “She came here thinking she could trade it for a wish? I gave her some starter quests but she gave up before long. Which is good, because I was running out.”

“I don’t remember any starter quests,” Karzarul said.

“I didn’t give you any,” the Fairy King said. “I liked Vaelon.” His wings buzzed briefly, and he gestured at Leonas. “If it had just been you, I might have,” he admitted. “Your vibes weren’t great.”

Minnow laced her fingers with Leonas’, and he didn’t protest. “We’re waiting until after we leave,” she reminded him. He nodded.

Karzarul looked up to the sky. “Minnow,” he asked, “did you ever read your terms and conditions?”

Minnow blinked. “Yeah?” she said. “A long time ago.” It had made her eyes glaze over, nonsensical and contradictory for the most part. In turns of phrase she caught familiar concepts, but in the end it was nothing useful. Words and words and her soul stamped at the end of it.

“Okay,” Karzarul said. “Vaelon said he learned to cut Rainbow Doors. When he read it. Is why I asked.”

“Oh,” she said, frowning as she tried to follow the change in topic. “I made those?”

“Yeah,” Karzarul said.

“Vaelon was deeply in tune with the Void,” the Fairy King said, patting Karzarul’s ruff.

“Should I work on that?” Minnow asked, in case that was why Karzarul had brought it up.

“No,” the Fairy King said. “It was because he was sick. You’re better now.”

Minnow touched the Starsword. “I can’t do cool stuff, though,” she said.

The Fairy King hummed. “Being able to do cool stuff,” he said finally, “doesn’t seem to end well for you.”

“Do you think I could learn to make more?” Minnow asked, her hand against the stone of the Rainbow Door.

Karzarul had taken the lead through the Door this time, and he’d brought them back to the little wildflower cabin by the big willow tree. He’d promptly turned into a Rootboar and parked himself in the grass, looking out at the fields instead of anything close.

“Lynette’s enchanters made the Doors,” Karzarul said. “Vaelon could cut through any two places, but they’d heal themselves shut.”

“That would be even more useful,” Minnow complained. “I never said how I did it?”

“You tried to explain sometimes,” Karzarul said. “You said the universe is vast, and made mostly of void—empty spaces keeping all things from being one thing, and this world so small that any one place may as well be another. Connecting all the nothingness to fit things through the empty spaces.”

Minnow frowned, searching her memory and finding nothing. “That’s what the terms said,” she complained, crouching down. “About empty nothing. But it’s not.” She plucked a clover from the ground. “There’s so much. In this spot here, there’s so many things. And over there, it’s all different things, even though it isn’t far away.”

The thing about picking every flower was that it quickly became apparent how many flowers there were. If she’d been sensible, she would have whittled her list down to the more popular or interesting ones. Instead she dropped to her knees in every new place and scoured the ground by inches. Even the dirt in one place contained a million different things, all of them different from the dirt elsewhere. Nowhere was anything like anywhere else, not in any of the places she’d been; she could not pretend them alike enough to superimpose them.

“Vaelon was the only one who could make it work,” Karzarul said, his round little Rootboar shape resembling a large egg in the grass. “Some of the others could wield Starlight as a weapon, but that was all.”

“I can’t even do that,” Minnow sighed, pulling the Starsword out of its sheath. She examined the blade as if to do so would reveal something to her.

“Jonys said he played it,” Karzarul said. “Like an instrument.”

“It doesn’t sing for her,” Leonas said. He’d tried to sit himself down by the willow tree, stiff and too aware of the location. He had given up, standing and pretending to look at things that weren’t Karzarul, aimlessly pacing in misshapen circles. He was trying not to think about the Faewild. “I’ve asked.”

“It rings sometimes,” Minnow said. “Only near stars. I don’t know how I’d play it.”

“You used to swing it in figure-eights,” Karzarul said. “Playing along with your heartbeat. If that helps.”

Minnow considered trying it. But trying to do sword tricks made her self-conscious, and she didn’t think her fingers were clever in that way. Rolling and spinning and flipping blades. Something itched at her memory, but she didn’t know whose memory. High-pitched sounds scraping at the inside of her skull, her pulse in the marrow of her teeth. She refocused on willow leaves and wildflowers rustling in the breeze, the distant chirping of birds. “Maybe,” she said, sheathing it again. “You didn’t want to tell me this, before,” she said.

“No,” Karzarul said. “I don’t like… telling you about yourself. Talking about them.” He took a long, slow breath. “But I… I think your heart has always been your heart. Even when it hurts me. So. I don’t know.” He set his chin on his front trotters, grass tickling his snout. His posture was more like a dog than a pig.

“Was this hers?” Leonas asked, with a small gesture toward the cabin.

“It was supposed to be,” Karzarul said. “That was later. The Door was just… he liked the view. The cabin was for Laurela. When she was older.” He paused. “I still don’t want to talk about that.”

“Okay,” Minnow said.

Karzarul transitioned into light, blossoming upward and taking shape as a kneeling Impyr. He was wringing his hands, scratching absently at the pitch-black moon. “I gave up,” he admitted. “After Laurela. I—I used to offer. I would offer to let you stay with me. When we fought, if I won. I stopped, after Laurela.” He scratched harder, claws digging into his skin, dripping silvery light. “If I’d offered, last time—if I’d tried—”

Leonas was pulling Karzarul’s hands apart, bent down over him with copper curls falling over his shoulder. “It wouldn’t have made a difference,” he said. “If it had, Minnow wouldn’t be here. Not being the one to save her isn’t the same as being the one who hurt her. I am sorry, for whatever it’s worth.” Karzarul’s skin was whole again, but when Leonas let him go Karzarul held on.

“It wasn’t you,” Karzarul said quietly.

“Same heart,” Leonas reminded him.

“It wasn’t mine yet,” Karzarul said.

Leonas’ witchmarks flared bright, skin flushing beneath them. His eyes sought out Minnow, fingers drumming on the hilt of the Starsword. “Are you okay?” he asked, changing the subject. “I know you weren’t feeling well. Before. With your—the Fairy King.” Karzarul still hadn’t released his hands.

Minnow blinked. “I’m good,” she said.

“Are you sure?” Leonas asked.

“Yeah,” Minnow said. “The bad part’s over, so I’m good now.”

“You don’t have to be,” Leonas said.

“I know,” Minnow said. “Don’t push.” She was aware as soon as she said it that it made her sound like a liar. But not being believed was irritating. “Are we going to be sleeping outside, or inside?” she asked.

“We can go inside,” Karzarul said, reluctantly releasing Leonas’ hands.

“I might have messed it up,” Minnow warned.

“Good,” Karzarul said. “It was supposed to be yours.” He hesitated, then shifted to a Howler. His ears and tail were both low, but Minnow was secretly relieved. If he’d started crying as a Rootboar, she did not trust herself not to laugh by accident.

The inside of the cabin was dusty, but most things were by the time she got back to them. There wasn’t much, aside from extra rocks she hadn’t wanted to keep carrying the last time she’d been through. She’d meant to come back for them but had forgotten. The root vegetables in the kitchen bin had started growing. She opened all the windows and the oversized front door, dragging the quilts outside to shake them out. The Sunshield and the Starsword leaned against opposite sides of the doorframe.

“Is this lapis?” Leonas asked, picking up a craggy hunk of blue.

“Do you want it?” Minnow asked from outside.

“No,” he said, setting it back.

Karzarul stuck his front paws on the sill of the back window to look outside. “The rhubarb is still there,” he noted. “And the walking onions.” Most of the tension had left him now. The space was too much Minnow’s to lose himself to the past.

“There’s like six rhubarbs now,” Minnow said. “And so many onions.”

“I’m not hungry,” Leonas said.

“There’s rolls and apples in my bag,” Minnow said. Leonas headed straight for where she’d set it down outside, digging through it until he found the handkerchief tied around the bread. He ate by tearing off small pieces, heading back inside to sit on a chair made of a log. Karzarul sat on the floor in something like companionable silence.

Minnow paused as she brought the quilts back inside, looking Leonas over assessingly. “You called me love earlier,” she said. Karzarul’s ears shot up, looking between the two of them.

Leonas choked, witchmarks flaring. “I said a lot of things,” he managed. It was all a bit of a blur. It had briefly seemed as though the Fairy King might stick them in trees, his boyfriend had exploded into a rock, his girlfriend had been on the brink of a tantrum, and he’d been reminded that his mother had a life before he was born. A man could say a lot of things under those sorts of circumstances.

“You did,” she said. “You’ve never called me that before.”

“I might have,” he said.

“You haven’t,” she said. “Is that what you’re going to call me now?”

“Absolutely not,” he said too quickly.

“Okay,” she said, apparently unperturbed. She patted down the wooly mattress to make sure it was suitable for sleeping on before throwing the quilt back over it. Leonas kept his eyes on his roll, picking at it without eating. It bothered him that she was unbothered.

“I do love you,” Leonas managed finally, not looking up. Karzarul stayed very still.

Minnow rolled the words over in her mind for a moment. “I don’t know what that means,” she said finally.

“… what.”

“I sort of know what it’s supposed to mean,” she said defensively. “That’s not how anyone uses it.” She raked her fingers through her hair, pulling some of the tangles apart. “Lots of people say they love me,” she said. “Like people have said they love you.”

Karzarul curled in on himself slightly.

“I don’t know,” Leonas said, irritated now that his attempt had not been received as intended. Irritated that other people had ruined it by thinking that they loved her. That she would compare it to anyone who’d ever said they loved him. “I wanted to say it. That’s all.”

Minnow was irritated that he was irritated. She closed the gap between them, reaching out to touch him without asking permission first. He tensed as her hands cupped his jaw, tilting his face towards her. “You’re pretty,” she said, and he scowled. “You’re very smart, and really stupid.” His expression did not improve. “You know me. You pull my hair and you let me bite you. I like your eyes, I like the way you look at me.” That felt inadequate, so she hunted for the words to clarify. “Sometimes you look at me the way you’d look at a specimen. But sometimes you look at me like a toy you want to break. I like it when you’re greedy, and selfish, and tell me I’m not allowed to be mad at you. When you let yourself do the things you think you shouldn’t want.”

She bent to bring her face closer to his. He’d stopped scowling, but he hadn’t softened. “You make me happy,” she said. “Even when I’m mad, and I hate you. It makes me happy when you’re happy. I know you hate it, the way that we are and the things we’ve been, but I’m glad you’re stuck with me. I want you to stay with me. I want to see the whole world, and show you all the things I see so that you can tell me why they’re terrible and so am I.” She touched the tip of her nose to his. “Does that mean I love you?”

“I don’t know,” Leonas admitted. “I want to stay with you. I don’t like it, but I want it. I would die for you if I thought you’d let me.”

“Is that what your love is?” she asked.

“For you, I think it might be.” He leaned forward to catch her mouth in a kiss, brief and terrified. Minnow pulled away, straightening, but he caught her hand to kiss the callouses on her palm.

Minnow looked at Karzarul, sitting hunched on the floor. “Can you be a person?” she asked.

“Sometimes,” Karzarul said. “Not well.” He shifted rather than be obtuse, an Impyr still sitting on the ground. Minnow’s fingers trailed behind as she left Leonas, sitting herself in Karzarul’s lap. She sighed, leaning her head against his chest.

“I already said, didn’t I?” she asked. “That I want you with me.”

“You did,” he agreed.

“It’s different now, though,” she said. “It must have been a memory before. That you should be with me always. Remembering that you were someone I should love.” She rested her head at his shoulder, looking at his earrings as she reached up to touch his neck. Her thumb stroked the hollow beneath his ear, fingertips pressing at his nape. She didn’t want to look at his face, too sure that it was sad. “I wanted you very much,” she sighed. “But not the way I want you now. I didn’t know you before. Or, I did, but…” She sighed. “It’s complicated,” she complained.

“I know,” Karzarul said.

“My heart knew your heart,” she decided. “The same heart. But Minnow didn’t know Karzarul. Not the way I know Leonas. It helps that it’s both of you. I can see more of you, when it’s the two of you. You’re a brat.”


“You have that in common,” Leonas muttered.

“Yes,” Minnow agreed, pleased. “I like that about us. I want you to stay with me. I want to find new flowers, and catch new fish, and dig for truffles with you. I want to be touching you. Not all the time, but a lot of the time. Is that loving you? Is that enough to call love?”

Karzarul said nothing. “Could you live without me?” he asked finally. His eyes met Leonas’. “Without us?”

“I did,” she said. “For a long time. I don’t want to anymore, that’s all. I can give you breaks sometimes, if that’s what you mean. If Leonas wants to stay home and read, or you want to hang out with the other monsters. I don’t mind being alone.” She hesitated. “Is it not love if I don’t need you always?”

Karzarul turned his head to kiss her forehead. “That’s the right amount of wanting,” he said, and she relaxed. “I love you, too,” he said, and she hummed. “Before I was anything, I was something that loved you. Even if I hadn’t made myself to be loved by you, I would have loved Minnow.”

“Yeah?” she asked breathlessly.

“Yeah,” he said.

There were a lot of things he could have told her. About the way she spoke to him like a person and tried to warn him away from danger. The way she was wild and beastly. The unfortunate and unflattering reality that she made him feel more like a person by acting like less of one.

“You’re cute,” he said. She giggled.

Leonas and Karzarul’s gazes met again. That neither rushed to reassure the other said as much as anything. Karzarul looked away first.

“I don’t love you yet,” Leonas said before he could feel awkward about it. “I don’t know what it would feel like if I did. I care for you. If anything happened to you I would be… upset. But I’m not…” Leonas struggled to put words to the ways that it was different. “I don’t know you,” he decided. “If there was a time when I knew you, I don’t remember it. She knows you well enough to love you now, but I don’t.”

Karzarul nodded slowly, rubbing Minnow’s back. It was a relief that Leonas had said it when Karzarul had been wary of offending. Karzarul still had trouble interpreting his own feelings, where Leonas was concerned. Everything a tangle of fear and lust and bad memories.

“You think I’m hot, though, right?” Karzarul asked.

Leonas made a startled sound of offense that made Karzarul start laughing. Leonas immediately pulled off his boot to throw it at Karzarul’s head. Karzarul ducked out of the way with Minnow, cackling.

“I’m taking the Door without you,” Leonas announced, staying seated and shoving little pieces of bread into his mouth.

“You’re really hot,” Minnow assured Karzarul, patting his chest.


hungry thirsty roots: 07

The Goblin Lord’s notes were less helpful than she might have hoped. The Winter Tongue had many more symbols than felt necessary, for many more sounds than felt practical. There were a number of spots where she could not tell if he had written a deliberate intensifier, or his ink had simply dripped, as the shape was not quite right for an accent. In spots he had written Veren words, pointing to the letters to indicate the proper sounds, but these only confused the issue further.

In what way could it be said that a symbol mapped to the letter X, if it was pronounced like the J he alleged was present in the word croissant?

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hungry thirsty roots: 06

The room felt somehow more claustrophobic with the door open. Clara became hyper-aware at all times of what she was doing, of what he could see her doing. And he did watch. He would stand in the doorway sometimes, eating candy and watching her go about her business. What little business she had. Washing her hair and staring quietly at the walls.

She didn’t exercise while he could see her. She didn’t want him to forbid it, or else have it give him ideas.

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hungry thirsty roots: 05

“I’m going to start leaving this door open,” the Goblin Lord decided.

Clara stared at him.

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Astielle: Chapter Thirty-Seven

“Did you find anything?” Karzarul asked when he returned in the morning, shifting to an Impyr almost immediately.

“No,” Leonas said.

“Maybe,” Minnow said.

“What?” Leonas asked. “When would you have—let me see your hands.” He grabbed her by the wrists to check under her nails for grave dirt.

“I won’t know for sure until we spend the night at more of the marked spots,” Minnow said, ignoring his inspection.

“What is it?” Karzarul asked.

Minnow shifted her weight with a small purse to her lips. “I don’t want to say until I’m sure,” she admitted. “It won’t be like the dead kids thing,” she added quickly upon seeing their faces. “I would tell you if there was danger like that. This time. I learned my lesson, before.” She took Leonas’ hand in both of hers. “I have an idea,” she said, “and if I’m wrong, I can forget it. But you guys aren’t as good at forgetting bad ideas.”

“Hey,” Karzarul said.

“I don’t want to give you the idea unless it’s real,” she said.

“That… might be good,” Leonas admitted, glancing at Karzarul.

“Don’t look at me like that when you say that,” Karzarul said, putting his hands on his hips. “I know what I can handle.”

Minnow narrowed her eyes at him. He was only able to maintain eye contact for a moment. “You have a lot of stuff you haven’t dealt with,” she said instead of letting him squirm in silence.

“You don’t know how much I’ve dealt with,” Karzarul muttered.

“I know some of what you haven’t,” Minnow said, “which feels like enough to make a judgement call. Like how Leonas won’t let me jump off any buildings.”

“Stairs exist for a reason,” Leonas said.

She was crying screaming laughing wailing. There was a cold wind and a hot sun. She was suffocating gasping, the sky was too big. She was wanted unwanted bait sacrifice. Upset resigned defiant. Furious and glad, unforgivable what they’d done and unforgivable what she did and she would not did not apologize.

The jeweled white snake that slid over her shackles carried sweet temptation on his tongue. He glittered in the sunlight as he promised her salvation. He would save her if she let him. He would kill them if she asked.

He was a weapon he was a test. She was weak failure failed.

The bliss of freedom, of broken chains. The kiss on her forehead, the wind in her hair, the monster beneath her. Enormous glorious terrifying. She dwelled on the lines in his hands, soft skin white as bone. There was something about his hands. The softness size of them.

If she could have stayed there in his hands tracing all the lines of his fortune. If there hadn’t been screaming and blood and satisfaction. She should have mourned.

They wanted a savior and she was their undoing. He was her savior and her undoing. She could not bear it, what she’d he’d done. Could not bear the reminder of what she was wanted.

But there were still those moments, long and terrible. Before the screaming, before the blood. Her heart in his hands, and in dreams she could dwell there.

Dejii was being kidnapped.


It happened a lot.

He was a middling prince of a minor kingdom, neither the eldest nor the youngest. Close enough to the throne to be a bargaining chip without being an outright declaration of war. Since coming of age, he had narrowly escaped marriage with five different princesses and two princes.

It was a whole thing. He was getting pretty tired of it.

Most of it blurred together. Rides in carriages and wagons and on the back of someone else’s horse. He remembered the wagon, though. The crude wagon of a landless mercenary kingdom seeking legitimacy. He remembered it was an enclosed wagon because that was why he hadn’t been able to see out of it, hadn’t had anyone to talk to or ask about all the strange noises.

He had been kidnapped a lot. He knew what a successful kidnapping was supposed to sound like. It did not sound like yelling, shouting, cracking wood. Sometimes he thought he remembered a glimpse of it, but it was only imaginings, reconstructed later from the things he’d heard.

Until the wagon had opened, and a great white Tauril had peered in at him.

Dejii remembered the Monster King as glorious. Bedecked in silver and jewels, flowers in his hair dripping petals like spring blossoms. Shoulders as broad as Dejii was tall, as light as he was dark.

The middling prince of a minor kingdom, there was no reason to concern themselves unduly with the fate of the world or the favor of goddesses. Those were matters for greater kingdoms, for places where heroes were born marked.

“Are you here to kidnap me?” Dejii asked. He’d never been kidnapped from kidnappers before.

The Monster King cocked his head. “Would you like me to?” he asked.

Dejii was embarrassed at himself for acting self-important. The faux pas would haunt him for the rest of his life at odd moments. “What do you want?” he tried instead.

“Would you like to go home?” the Monster King asked, offering an enormous hand.

“No,” Dejii said, because he could already imagine being brought home to sit and wait for the next kidnapping until his father could settle on a marriage arrangement that satisfied him. The unreality of the moment drove him to honesty when he ought to have known better.

“Ah,” the Monster King said. “Then you were trying to run away with them?”

“No,” Dejii said again.

“Hmm.” The Monster King looked out at whatever was happening outside the wagon, which Dejii still could not see. “How about I kidnap you for now, then?”

“I don’t think I’m allowed to agree to that,” Dejii said.

“Alright,” the Monster King said, meeting no resistance as he hauled Dejii out of the wagon. It was not the first time someone had swept Dejii off his feet. It felt the safest. Perhaps because of the size of him. Dejii rested his head against the Monster King’s chest. He smelled like apple blossoms and clover.

“Hey,” Karzarul said drowsily as Minnow crushed her chest to his, nuzzling hard against his neck. He let his hand rest against her back. “You okay?”

She hummed in the affirmative, dragging teeth over his skin.

“Oh,” he said, less drowsy. “Hello.”

“Sleep,” Leonas ordered without opening his eyes.

“‘m gonna,” Minnow mumbled.

“She’s been sleeping like shit,” Leonas reminded Karzarul. “Don’t enable her.”

Karzarul kissed Minnow’s temple as she huffed in sleepy irritation. “I will,” she muttered. “I just—I want.” Karzarul wrapped both arms around her and squeezed. “Can you lay on me?” she asked.

Karzarul squinted at her hair. “… like a pillow?”

She shook her head. “If I can move I’ll—I’ll—” Her fingers curled, ragged nails scratching at his chest as her fingertips pressed hard into his skin.

“Okay,” Karzarul yawned, rolling over and tipping her off of him in the process. He pulled at the edge of the blanket that had been beneath them, covering her with it. She squeaked in mild protest as he started rolling her over to wrap her in it.

“Are you swaddling our girlfriend,” Leonas asked, still not opening his eyes. Karzarul grunted, rolling her completely over and then settling in on top of her. He slid his arms underneath their pillow beneath her head, letting his chin rest at the crook of her neck.

“How’s that?” he asked in Minnow’s ear.

She sighed and nuzzled her cheek against his.

There were wolves in the woods, the nightmare always of the wolves in the woods, the mad howls and gnashing teeth of the wolves in the woods. There was the drought and there was the frost and everything was hungry. Ryul shouldn’t have been in the hungry woods but it was gnawing at him, eating him from the inside.

He did not know how long he ran. It felt like hours, days, eons. His legs and lungs all burning and his heart pounding up into his throat. The wolves in the woods were hunting and if he slowed at all he’d stop, collapse, driven to their mouths by his hunger.

There were Howlers in the woods. He did not know how long he ran to find Howlers in the woods when the monsters all stayed in the deep dark places. He had never been so far as to see monsters. He did not know when it happened, when what had been wolves became Howlers, the same loping gait and so much larger. He did not know what happened to the wolves. Only that they were gone.

Howlers were much faster than wolves.

It was the white Howler that caught him, its paws on his back and the ground hard beneath him. It caught him and it howled, a terrible echoing sound, vast as the night sky. He waited to die and he didn’t. The Howler left him there, and when he looked up he could see the white of its fur. A dark crescent marked the middle of its forehead.

It passed behind a tree, and it was a Tauril that walked around the other side. He wore a crescent crown, his tunic embroidered in silver. Ryul had the sense to grovel. He did not know what monster had found him, but he knew a difference in status when he saw one. This monster was not a man who knew hunger gnawing at his bones.

“You kneel much too easily,” the Tauril said, but Ryul was well past shame. “Why are you in my forest?”

“There were wolves, my lord,” Ryul said, for if it was his forest then it must be a king.

“Yes,” the Monster King said. “I was there for that part. Why were you in their forest?”

“I was hungry, my lord,” Ryul said.

“So were they,” the Monster King said. “Were you planning to eat the wolves? They’ve already eaten most everything else.”

“I didn’t know, my lord.”

“Did you find anything?”

In an overabundance of caution, Ryul emptied everything he’d collected from his pockets onto the ground. Leaves and pine needles, bits of tree bark. He resumed groveling once his pockets were empty.

“Do humans eat pinecones now?” the Monster King asked. Ryul didn’t answer. “Hmm.” Ryul could hear the hooves coming closer, and he screamed when an enormous hand lifted him off the ground.

“Please, my lord, I will leave—”

“Quiet,” the Monster King ordered as he threw Ryul over his shoulder. Ryul covered his mouth with both hands and prayed to the Moon Goddess that She would show some mercy where the Sun Goddess had not. Ryul’s limbs all felt too weak to hold himself. Howlers flanked their king in all directions.

The deep dark of the wood gave way to sunlight where the Monster King set Ryul back down, allowing him to collapse in the grass. Ryul trembled and might have heaved if he’d anything in him to come back up.

The Monster King set a clay bowl of water in front of him. “Drink.”

Ryul stared. He realized he could hear water, though he still could not bring himself to look up to find its source. Slowly he brought the bowl to his mouth with both hands, and in an instant it was gone.

The season had been so cold and dry. Icy as winter, without even the small blessing of snow to melt.

The Monster King was speaking a language Ryul didn’t understand, slippery sounds with sharp edges. Ryul looked up long enough to see a small figure, then quickly turned his head away.

Brutelings were an ill-omen; better not to look at one directly, even here.

Small hands placed a basket in the grass near him, heaped with berries and flatbreads. Ryul stared again and tried to remember if monsters worked according to the rules of the fae. Was a gift a trap, unsafe to accept or to refuse?

“Eat,” the Monster King said, and Ryul needed no more excuse. His empty stomach overruled his head as he stuffed bread into his mouth, too much to chew and nearly swallowing it whole. Handfuls of berries shoveled onto his tongue, blue and black and raspberries but he was eating too quickly to taste.

A hand on his hair stopped him, and he might have recoiled had the touch not been so firm. Ryul looked up and found that the Monster King had changed again, a scaled thing sitting like a snake in the grass, a man still larger than Ryul though he had no legs. He was a thing that belonged in oceans deeper than Ryul had ever seen. He touched beneath Ryul’s chin, tilting his head upward and brushing his thumb along a stray bit of juice. He let Ryul go and licked the spot of red from his hand. The teeth alongside his tongue were sharp.

“Slow down,” the Monster King said. “You’re going to make yourself sick.”

Ryul was already sick. His hands shook.

“This place is not meant for mortals,” the Monster King said.

“I will tell no one,” Ryul promised, lowering his forehead to the ground again.

“Your people are dying,” the Monster King observed. “You would tell them nothing of food? Of water?” There were slippery voices again, those words Ryul did not know. The tone of an argument. “Shall I keep you?” the Monster King wondered, and Ryul looked up. The Monster King had his hand on his chin, considering him with a tilt of his head. Beautiful and terrible and Ryul felt panic clutch his heart.

If he had stayed. What might have become of him, if he had stayed? Would he have kept him? Could Ryul have stayed there, in that place of impossible waterways, that orchard of bountiful fruit? What price would he have asked, that beautiful and terrible king?

He could have paid it. He should have paid it. He should have stayed.

“With dreams,” Minnow asked, curling tighter against Karzarul’s chest. “Do they get stronger if you daydream them, too?” She’d become more cautious about her dream-related assumptions.

“Yes,” Karzarul said.

“I don’t know that mine ever did,” Leonas said.

“How often did you daydream about me?” Karzarul teased. Minnow headbutted his sternum as Leonas threw a pillow at him.

Ilaya was running from her wedding. A lovely man and she would be lucky to have him, but she wanted something else. She didn’t know what she wanted. She didn’t expect to make it far. But maybe the attempt would speak to the madness of her, and the lovely man would decide he didn’t want her.

She followed the river until it met the mountain, water above spilling over rocks into a wider point like a pond. She stumbled as she tried to stop, and fell sputtering into the water, gasping for air as she came back up.

There were scales in the water, white and glittering as snow. Some great sea serpent misplaced, and she had fallen into its nest. But when she looked up there was a man at the end of it, white-haired and silver-eyed, sharp-featured and shining.

A different kind of lovely man altogether.

“Hello,” Ilaya said, at a loss for anything else.

“Hello,” the monster said, raking claws through his hair the way a maiden with a comb would do. “Who are you running from?” he wondered.

“My husband,” she said.

“Ah,” the monster said. “Would you like me to kill him when he gets here?”

“No,” she said, shaking her head as she realized her mistake. “We aren’t married yet. I don’t want to be married, is the problem.”

“Would you like me to kill him when he gets here?” the monster asked again. Sharp claws, sharp teeth.

“It isn’t his fault,” she said. “It isn’t anyone’s fault but mine.”

“I find no fault with you,” the monster said with a tilt of his head. There were silver rings in the fins of his ears, eyelashes of spun silver.

“I should marry him,” Ilaya explained. “He’s a kind man, with a fine figure.”

“There are many such men,” the monster said. “You can hardly be expected to marry all of them.”

“He would treat me well, and give me a comfortable life,” Ilaya said. “I could learn to love him.”

“Why should you?” the monster wondered. “You don’t want to.”

“I don’t know what I want,” Ilaya said. “It’s ridiculous to give up everything for nothing.”

“There are times when nothing is worth holding on to,” the monster said. “If you are so determined to talk yourself into marriage, I have no interest in talking you out of it.”

“Will you help me?” she asked.

“I already asked if I should kill them,” he said.

“Can you help me get away?” she asked.

“Where do you suppose I would take you?” he wondered.

“You could bring me to the mountain,” Ilaya said.

“The mountain is for monsters,” he said.

“I can be a monster,” she said. “My mother always said so.”

The monster’s gaze was sharp. “Come here,” he ordered, holding out a hand, fingers all ending in sharp points. Her feet struggled for purchase in slick stones under the water. She reached her hand out to take his, but he pulled her closer, a hand in her hair forcing her to bow before him. Her heart thudded hard against her sternum. “Does this look like a monster to you?” he asked. She realized she was looking at her reflection, her face so like her mother’s.

“Yes,” Ilaya said.

He tilted her head back up to look at him, moving his hand beneath her chin. She tried not to make any sudden moves as he considered her.

“I will lead you away from here,” he decided. Her heart leapt. “But I will not show you the way. You may not see where I have brought you, or how you might return. Yes?”

She nodded.

“Close your eyes, then,” he said, “and I will take you as far as you can keep them shut.”

The arms that carried her out of the water did not feel like the arms that had been outstretched to her, but she dared not open her eyes. The back that carried her through the woods did not feel like the back of a man. The hand that guided her when the ground was clear was too large, then too small.

But sometimes they felt the right size. Large, still, but recognizably a man. She wondered what he looked like in those moments, her hand in his. That sharp and lovely man in the water, taking her away.

Ilaya could feel sunshine on her eyelids and smell wildflowers. Something buzzed close to her face, and she stumbled. The arms that caught her felt like a man’s, a man’s chest that she braced herself against. She clung tight to him and told herself she wouldn’t look.

A lovely man, too lovely to be real. All white and silver, carved like ice and snow. His face so close to hers, as pretty as it was, made her breath catch with a sound of surprise.

His brows dipped, and she shut her eyes again. “I’m sorry,” she said.

“I told you,” he said, “that I would take you as far as you kept your eyes shut.”

“It was an accident,” she lied.

“I asked of you one thing,” he snapped, “and even that, you couldn’t give me.”

“It was an accident.”

“Open your eyes, human girl.”

She did so reluctantly and kept her eyes downcast for fear of the look on his face. In the grass, his hooves were silver.

“Look,” he said, and she raised her head in time to see his gesture away from the mountain. The far side of it, opposite her village, stretching out into plains. “Take your pick of human towns,” he said. “Find your way to whichever strikes your fancy.”

Small clusters of buildings in the distance, looking so small from where they stood. Fires were being lit as the sky started to darken.

“It’s too far,” she protested. “It will take days, I can’t make it on my own.”

“You must,” he said, “as I will take you no further.”

“Please,” she said, but where he’d stood a bird had already taken flight.

Minnow had spent the night in her oak tree. Leonas, despite many protestations, had slept curled up with Karzarul while he took the form of a Shadestalker.

Hollows had been deepening under Minnow’s eyes for a week, but the night in the Faewild seemed to fade them.

Minnow brought the two of them deep into the Maze of Roses for something resembling privacy. It was impossible to be certain of true privacy where fairies and changelings were concerned.

“Should we be worried?” Leonas asked, sitting in the grass.

“Yes,” Minnow said.

Karzarul didn’t like being an Impyr in Faewild Forest, but he wanted to look like a person, and a Tauril would be too large to avoid the thorns.

“Dreams can be memories, can’t they?” Minnow asked. “That’s normal?”

“Yes,” Leonas said.

“Usually,” Karzarul agreed.

“Okay,” Minnow said. “I don’t have to explain that part. The dead leave their dreams behind, but they don’t always linger. Some are stronger than others. Usually the scary ones, but not always. There’s the ones they dwell on when they’re awake. Lingering dreams are, they sort of.” Minnow made a vague gesture with both hands that meant nothing. “I don’t like sleeping near graveyards or battlefields because so many people die there, they have so many dreams. They’re left with the dead or dropped by the dying, they don’t stay in the places they dream of. It’s not always obvious, though. The places people leave their dreams behind.” She wrung her hands together. “I think the map was marking places I could dream,” she said.

“About the Nightshard?” Leonas asked.

“About Karzarul,” Minnow said, looking at her hands.

“What?” Leonas asked.

“What?” Karzarul asked.

“I must have—he must have—gone to all the places around Monster Mountain. Looking for. Looking for dreams of you. And he marked them down, when he found them.”

“What?” Karzarul asked again.

“You liked to help people,” Minnow said, still not looking at him. “Is what it seems like. They—they dreamed of it. Of you. That’s what the map is. It’s a map of places I can… I dream of you.”

“Oh,” Karzarul said.

“Minnow,” Leonas warned.

“I know,” Minnow whined. “I wouldn’t say it if I wasn’t sure.”

“You—he—” Karzarul grasped at a locket he wasn’t wearing. “He made a map of me?”

Minnow nodded miserably.

“He wanted to see me,” Karzarul said as much as asked.

“You’re sure there weren’t other clues in there?” Leonas pressed. “Something else important about the dreams?”

Minnow shook her head. “It isn’t anything else,” she said. “I can tell.”

“What—who were they? The dreamers.”

“I don’t know if you’d remember them,” Minnow said. “I think you must have tried to save a lot of people.”

Leonas rubbed his forehead.

“Saved,” Karzarul repeated. Minnow nodded again. “Okay. That’s—okay.”

Slowly, Karzarul bent forward and covered his head with his arms. Minnow debated trying to hold him, but recoiled when he suddenly burst into a brilliant white light. Blinding light flying out in every direction, and they could hear fairies screaming in delighted terror as it passed through the Faewild. Minnow had to shut her eyes, and it was a long moment before the light through her eyelids faded enough to open them again.

There was a rock where Karzarul had been.

“Uh oh,” Minnow said.

“Should I be worried?” Leonas asked, his voice higher-pitched than usual.

“Maybe,” Minnow said, cupping her hands in the grass to lift the tiny ball of moonlight. Closer, she could see the edges of armored scales. “Karzarul?” she asked gently. “Is that you?”

The lump was unresponsive.

“Should we contact Violet?” Leonas asked Minnow.

“No,” Karzarul said firmly, startling them both. He uncurled in Minnow’s hands, enough to poke a small furry face out from the hard scales covering his body. The ears that popped out from where they’d been tucked were almost as big as the rest of him, his snout slender and pointed. “Give me a minute,” he said, before sticking his snout and ears back into his belly to hide them.

“Okay,” Minnow said, lowering her hands to hold him in her lap.

“What kind of monster is that?” Leonas asked her.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve never seen one before.” Leonas frowned. “I’m sorry about all this.”

“It isn’t your fault,” Leonas said.

“It was my map,” she said.

“Not really,” Leonas said. “What do we do now? That was our only lead on the Nightshard.”

“I’m going to ask the Fairy King,” Minnow said.

“I thought you didn’t want to.”

“I don’t,” Minnow said. “That’s why we’re waiting until Karzarul can provide emotional support.”

“It might be a while,” Leonas said.

“I know,” Minnow said. “It’s that, or you have to be the emotionally stable one for a while.”

“We should wait,” Leonas said.