Life as We Know It

by Jack The Lizard

   I’ve been here before. Chamomile opened her eyes. This street, I was here in the Yule wasn’t I?

   It was night. Above Chamomile were clouds, there was a feeling in the air of a storm coming. It would rain very soon. Chamomile welcomed it. Maybe if I stare into the sky I’ll eventually drown.

   Another day lead to another round of testing. And another round of testing lead to another failure. Round and round it all went.

   How much longer until the curse hits me? She rubbed her eyes. Even if it does I’ll keep working.

   A Corgi passed by, bumping against her shoulder. That briefly snapped Chamomile out of her stupor.

   “Uh excuse me sir—“ The corgi spun around. She carried her skirt just off the ground. Chamomile swallowed. “Err, ma’am. I apologise. You see, I-I’m new here and I was hoping to ask you something.” The corgi raised an…eye ridge. Eyebrows were one of the first things to go when your face was consumed by fur.

   “I was uh hoping to ask about-uh about your curse-cursing-cursed state.” She swallowed again. “Uh about how you ended up in this situation, how long you had been curse.” The Corgi’s claws tapped the ground.

   “Lady I’m busy. Ask someone else.”

   “No wait!” Chamomile yelled. “I-you have thick fur, I have to ask you!” An answer only someone severely sleep deprived would give. The Corgi started walking. “Can I please have a wad of your fur!” Now she started running. Chamomile sighed.

   “Too many days and nights like this.” Chamomile sat down against the side of a building. “That was so dumb Cham and you know it was dumb.” She rubbed her aching temples. “When was the last time I slept?”

   Not since Blackhorne Keep. Chamomile’s head began to droop. Her memories slithered in from the back of her mind. And now I can silence them. I know I can do it. But I have to keep working. If I quit now, it’s all over. A smile settled over Chamomile’s face. I can fix everything. I can fix the past.

   “No fur today?” Chamomile snapped back to life. “No surprise. People don’t like ya asking for their fur.”

   “I can’t help what I need.” Chamomile mumbled. “I need fur samples.” She stumbled over to the speaker, an older Tapir male. His name was Valez. He sat on a stool, legs ending in stumps, with a Nine Men’s Morris board between him and another stool. “I have to do this.” She collapsed in the empty seat.

   “You are asking complete strangers when they got cursed and then asking them to give you hair.” Valez said. “What do you expect them to do?” Chamomile shrugged.

   “I expect them to open their minds. Everything I do I do for them.” She was never clear on just what it was she was doing, but that was for the best. “I don’t know how much longer I can do this.” Chamomile mumbled.

   “You need to sleep more, or play more games.” Valez said. “I can set up the bored if you would like.” Chamomile honestly would have liked to do anything else in the world. Like jump off of the top of the Keep. But she couldn’t say that.

   Soon the eighteen pieces were laid out. Chamomile formed a mill early on, but that was her only victory in the game. Her mind couldn’t focus, instead it went two different directions. First back to the Inn, where her experiments waited.

   And back to that day. She shuddered. Why-why did I agree to that? Because when Nasoj marched on Blackhorne she had seen something in him.

   Order. This was the man who would order the world.

   One mistake. Chamomile missed an easy mill, allowing Valez to capture. She didn’t notice. I’ve made one mistake and now I have to pay for it. This experiment has to work…or else…

   “And that leaves you with two men.” Valez said. “In short, I win.” Chamomile looked up, but didn’t seem to comprehend. She nodded slowly.

   “Sorry. My uh my-my mind i-is else where.”

   “I noticed.” Valez said. “Usually you defeat me in this. Chammy, in the few days I’ve seen ya, I can see ya stammer when upset. What’s going on?”

   “The end result of a thousand,” she rubbed her eyes, “Of a thousand sleepless nights. I want to sleep, but I can’t until my task is done and every day my end pulls further away.” She looked down at the board. Eight white pieces against her two black pieces. I relate to this too much.

   “I’ve learned never to ask what a stranger’s business is, but I’m kinda worried.” The old tapir tried to look Chamomile in the eye, but she looked down. “Today you’ve been even more crazy than usual Chams, and I’m worried you’re going to burn out.”

   “Thanks.” Chamomile said. “I appreciate being called crazy.” She took one of the black pieces off of the board, leaving just one. “How often do you feel surrounded?”

   “Excuse me?”

   “Surrounded. Like you’re one voice in a crowd, working towards an impossible end. Everyone wants to stop you.”

   “Never.” Valez said. “The gods are on my side, I got nothing to worry about. It’ll all work out.” A few days ago she’d have rolled her eyes at that. Now she was too tired.

   “I’ve got everyone against me. The entire Keep, the forces of the universe…” Nasoj and his forces. “And that’s why I’m here. I have to fix everything. Some how.” Valez nodded.

   “What are you here to try and fix?” Valez asked. “I mean, if you want to share. I’d love to hear about it.”

   “I’m afraid not.” Chamomile said, standing up. “It’s getting late, I think I need to get some sleep.”

   “Wait!” Valez grabbed her arm.. “I’m sorry to pry, but you’ve been nice enough to play Morris with me. You will be okay, right?” Chamomile forced a smile.

   “I will be okay. I’m not planning on quitting any time soon.” She shook Valez off and began the trek back to her room. I have to do something, I have to fix my mistakes…before this week ends I will fix my mistakes…

   “Or I will die.” Chamomile whispered. “I will die.” Her shoulders somehow slumped further. Still she pressed on until she returned to her quiet Inn room.

   Listener, let me ask a question. How much respect do you suppose the Watch gets? Really think about it. The Long Scouts, open secret that they are, are filled with Metamor’s admired. Who is admired in the Watch?

   None to my knowledge. Being in the Watch means you serve justice. What people want is irrelevant. All that matters is justice. And that is something difficult to learn.

   This is the story of how I saved someone’s life when they wanted to die.

   Do you know what it means to save a life? It’s not easy. Yet it is so much worse though when they don’t want to be saved. They will loathe you as you help them. They will hate you if you succeed. No one will thank you, no one will reward you. All you have is the knowledge that what you did is right.

   And sometimes that has to be enough. It’s not fair that you can and will be hated for doing the right thing. But life isn’t fair.

March 31st, 707

    I’ve been here too often.

   Again the dream came upon me. The same dream I had experienced so many times over the last several months. I fell, or emerged, into that hallway. It was for the most part black, except thin veins of white light along the edges of the walls.

   This doesn’t have to be scary. My legs started to shake. I could feel myself sinking. I closed my eyes. I am in control. I am in control. Instantly the sinking stopped. Now I stood on solid ground. I let out a deep breath.

   Why do I keep coming here? The air blew across my scales and the cold clung to me. It didn’t feel like wind, instead it was a thousand grasping arms. I tried to brush them off.

   “Turn back Janelle.” A voice echoed from somewhere. I couldn’t see a speaker in that darkness. “You don’t want to reach it.”

   “Yes I do.” In the distance, an eternity away, was a light. I pushed forward. In the real world my body is weighed down by my tail. Here I felt as light as paper, pushed back by gusts of wind.

   “You will regret it. You can leave right now.” I couldn’t identify the gender of the speaker. The voice echoed from the walls. It was and wasn’t human all at once. It seemed to speak from the inside of my mind.

   “I have to keep going. I have to get to the center of this.” Where on Earth did those words come from? Why did I speak them? My legs burned as the hands of wind pulled against me. The bright light got a little closer, but the hallway seemed to stretch on just as far.

   “You can’t save everyone Janelle.” I shook my head.

   “ Be quiet. I can do this.” One leg forward. “I can do anything.” The next leg. One-two-one-two. My tail was floating somewhere behind me. I knew it still existed but I couldn’t quite…feel it. My brain and my body were disconnected, yet I felt pain. No exhaustion.

   “Why do you keep trying Janelle? It’s okay to admit failure.” Never. Now the light seemed to draw farther away. I raised my hand.

   “Don’t!” The hallway began pushing against me so I ran harder. “Don’t! Please come back! Don’t do this Sotto!” I pushed until my chest burned and my eyes bled with pain. I ran though. “I’m coming for you!”

   I took a running leap at the light and-

   -And found myself sitting up in bed. My heart was racing and my sheets completely dry. Because reptiles don’t sweat.

   No matter how scared we get, you’ll never see us sweat.

   I collapsed back on my side. The window in my and my son’s room showed a pale moon outside. Still a few hours before work. I pulled my big tail over my side and hugged against it. I could hear my son in his bed taking his little breaths.

   “Only a dream. Again the same dream but just a dream.” I let go of my tail. “I prefer dreaming about our Duke…” I laughed. “Eli help me, I need out of here.” I stood up from my bed, careful to avoid the one bare patch on the floor. Ice cold stone could be bad for me. “One dream…”

   Holding my tail to avoid dragging, I crept over to my son. As my eyes adjusted in the dim light, I could see his tiny body under the blanket on his bed. His whiskers and ears twitched in rythm. What are you dreaming about Kaysar? No doubt something wonderful. I reached out but hesitated. Let him sleep.

   Watching my son must have done the trick because soon I was able to sleep again. This time no dreams came for me.

Past – 698/9

Somewhere South of Metamor

   You’ve twice heard my dream. I tell you so you understand this point. In my opinion there is literally nothing worse than sleep deprivation. It robs you of thought. It makes every sensation unpleasant.

   Hot is too hot. Cold is unnatural. Every noise comes from inside of your head. Sounds are explosions. And it never seems to end. When you do finally sleep, you collapse into it. You’ve reached that moment where your body finally says “Enough” and forces you down. The worst thing is when you do this to yourself, you know you are approaching that moment but you try to delay it a little more.

   I was rapidly approaching that moment. The moon was full and the sky cloudless. The air carried that chill of one last push by winter as it loses ground to spring. My body was for the most part bare. I was allowed thin clothing for modesty sake but I wasn’t allowed anything to strengthen me.

   I stood in a clearing on the stump of a tree. The tree had been dead for Eli knows how long. I felt I would soon be joining it. I’ve never liked the woods because they’re chaotic and unstructured. In that moment I hated them. Oh if I could have asked Eli for anything in that moment, I’d have asked for a wild fire.

   All around me echoed Mr. Sotto’s footsteps, each splashing in the mud. The trees created bands of shadow in the pale light. I could see movement in the underbrush around me. Constantly twigs and branches snapped. Why won’t they stop?

   I held myself in the same position I had for twenty-three hours now. When it had started to drizzle, I hadn’t moved. Mr. Sotto was kind enough to divert the rain from me. When the sun set, I hadn’t moved. Even when those wasps landed on my arm I never trembled.

   Because I couldn’t move. That was part of the test.

   The point of this test was for me to be at my weakest. As Mr. Sotto had made clear many times, our powers depend on our minds. That’s all well and good when we’re rested and well fed. But we aren’t always going to have the luxury of rest.

   “I’m so tired.” I rasped out. My lungs had become two weights attempting to pull my head off. My legs wobbled on the stump and every splinted stabbed me like a knife. “Can’t I stop yet?”

   “Not yet Janelle.” Sotto said. Even in the dim moon light I could see him puff out his chest. “I designed this test for our organization. When you succeed, you will be allowed to take the final test. Then you will be a full member. We are Avolbe.”

   “We are the loonies.” I mumbled. Avolbe was a word Mr. Sotto had found in a manuscript from a dead language. Supposedly it meant The Enlightened. In truth he didn’t know and neither did I. I just knew I had splinters in my feet as the clock approached midnight.

   Again I felt the unnatural chill that every Channeler does. That feeling where a spirit tries to force their way into your mind. It’s comes from between your skin and your bones and runs through your blood. It leaves a feeling of almost sparks inside of you.

   And it’s hard to get rid of it.

   When a Channeler channels a spirit, they pull the spirit into their body. Into the place where their own soul resides. The spirit alters the body in turn, altering it more the further in it goes. You can gain knowledge you never had, memory of events you’ve never done, and even access to magic.

   But you always must be careful. The further into your own core you pull a spirit, the harder it is to get rid of. If you’re not careful you may find it doesn’t want to leave. Worse it might be so deep it can keep itself in. It may even take control of you.

   At that point you’ve passed the point of channeling. If a person is taken control of by a spirit they channeled, or a spirit forces itself in, it is a Possession. You’re now a puppet to the spirt. Just the thought of it made my blood turn to ice.

   My test here was to keep myself from being possessed for twenty four hours. Now as another spirit began to bore into my mind, I wondered how I would do it.

   Concentrate. I exhaled. Find your balance Janelle. I spread out my feet and cleared my mind. The entire world vanished, all that was left was me and the spirit. Wild spirits do have a physical presence as well as a spiritual one. They still exist in our world, they must to effect it.

   This one was coming from behind. It was entering somewhere along my back. The where didn’t matter, all I needed to know was which side the spirit was on.

   Got you. Channelers like me have few weapons, but one we do have is a technique Mr. Sotto calls Snapping. When we channel, think of it as reaching out with spiritual arms. We can touch your minds and your souls, and pull spirits into our bodies. We can also focus though and hit a spirit with the force of our soul. Essentially, we spiritually punch them.

   The spirit welled with anger as I Snapped at it. Instantly I felt it fly off from me, the sensation of cold wet air returning.

   Snapping doesn’t kill spirits. While that no doubt is possible, it is not one of our few talents. Snapping will stun a spirit and leave it unable to possess for some time, depending on how weak it is. That one was a weak one, yet I could feel my legs beginning to droop.

   “No fear Janelle.” Mr. Sotto said.

   “I’m not afraid.” I whispered. “I’m exhausted.” And afraid. Afraid of failing while this man who raised me up watched me. Afraid I wasn’t strong enough. I snapped my drooping head back up.

   “We are entering the final ten minutes.” Mr. Sotto said. “From midnight to midnight.” Somehow he always knew the time. He could even fall asleep and wake within seconds of his desired time.

   I want that super power too.

   Another spirit charged at me, trying to get through my front. Again I Snapped at them and left them reeling. Mr. Sotto stopped behind me. I forced my limbs to stop shaking. I wanted to turn and smile at him, but I doubt I had the energy.

   “You-you know I’m not as tired as I thought.” I stammered with a grin.

   “You’re very strong Janelle.” My heart skipped a beat. “You’re doing even better than I did.”

   “Thank you sir.” Now I was blushing so bright I probably glowed in the dark. Then the wind blew my red hair into my face, leading me to spit out a wad of hair. Thank you for that Eli.

   Back to silence. Spirits crowded around me and I was Snapping as fast as I can. Front-back-back-back-front-front, I wiped drool off of the corner of my mouth. Eli how much longer?

   Mr. Sotto was silent now. I think he had stopped moving. An owl screeched above me, followed by a shriek from something small. That distraction allowed a spirit to penetrate my body. Shit, not this now.

   This forest had been the scene of a bloody battle. Every spirit had been reduced to a pile of raw emotions. This one was rage, using it to try and break me. And the worst part is, I could feel it succeeding. My legs started to wobble.

   Find your balance Janelle. Concentrate. With all the effort I was capable of, I stopped my legs from shaking. Images from the spirit began to overwhelm my mind, coming from the spirit. I am strong enough to block this spirit! Oh Eli help us.....

   Running, they died running through a rain storm. All around them was screaming and they were wielding a spear. An arrow struck them from behind and sent them face first into a puddle. This was followed by a spear into the back, through the spine.

   Your last moments were spent drowning in a puddle. I swallowed. I am so sorry. But I can’t let you in. I closed my eyes. Forgive me. I reached out and Touched the spirit. I drew back, then thrust my spirit out with as much force as my mind could muster.

   Instantly the spirit was repealed from my body and sent flying. It’s last sensation was not rage but fear. I think that was the worst part of my test. Mr. Sotto cleared his throat.

   “Good job Janelle.” I could feel the warmth in his voice. “It is now midnight. You have succeeded.” I forced a grin. “I know you must feel exhausted. But you can rest now.” My legs buckled.

   “Re-rest.” I laughed softly. The last thing I remember was the world spinning around me and Mr. Sotto’s arms catching me as I collapsed.

March 31st 707

   I was still exhausted when morning came. In the Metamor Keep Watch, you are overworked and under rested. We have too few Wardens and an entire valley we theoretically protect.

   I yawned and forced my frayed blue tabard over my dinosaur-style snout. I belted it at my waist, making sure to attach my sword, club and a length of rope. I straightend my uniform in the mirror.

   Not a stain, not a tear. Perfect.

   There is a mindset about Wardens. We’re incompetent or second rate knights. We’re all corrupt of course. People can’t name just what is wrong with us, but they know something is. When I become Justicar and lead the Watch, I will change all of that. Before then though there are small things I can do, like look presentable.

   If you don’t respect the uniform, you can’t expect anyone else to.

   Kaysar was still asleep, now sleep growling. It made me smile as I watched. He’s so innocent. Eli what did I do for you to bless me like this? Kaysar rolled over. I kissed his forehead.

   “Mommy has to go to work now Kaysar.” I whispered. “I promise I’ll be back tonight.” He mewed and rolled over again. I could wait…no Janelle. You have work. Always more work. I left him asleep as I went off to protect the Keep.

   I waited at my kitchen table until Mrs. Aubrah arrived. She arrived with a basket of food to cook later, overloaded to the point I could only see the top of her head.

   “Let me help you with this.” I grabbed the basket, only to discover she was carrying a pot with her. “How on Earth do you carry all of this?”

   “With a lot of focus and luck.” The binturong said. “I gotta bring my own pot, yours is cracked.”

   “I didn’t know that.” I said.

   “That’s because you never use it and we ah all grateful to the gods for it.” I rolled my eyes. “You look tired. Not sleep?”

   “Not as well as I needed.” I said. “Is it that obvious?” Mrs. Aubrah got a fire started.

   “You got red eyes.” She said. I rubbed at them to wake myself up “Actually, we need to talk. I brought some sweet rolls for us for breakfast.”

   “I don’t eat breakfast generally.” I said. “I need to be off—

   “Janelle we really gotta talk. A meal won’t kill you.” I sighed and sat down, Mrs. Aubrah joining me at the table. She handed me a large and very sticky roll.

   “I gotta ask about payment.” Mrs. Aubrah said. “You haven’t paid me for a month.” My stomach dropped. “I’m willing to overlook it Janie cuz I love you and that wonderful son of yours. But stuff like food? That cost money.”

   “It does.” I ripped out a chunk of the roll. “And I am sorry. I’ve been behind on money, I will pay you by tomorrow. I’ve just…I’ve been busy.”

   “I know.” Mrs. Aubrah said. I could hear the sympathy in her voice but their was still a resignation in it. Her arm touched against mine. “I know how busy you are. I know how underpaid you are.”

   “I’m more underpaid lately.” I said. “My rent for this place is up. Wages for the Watch have been delayed and Kaysar has outgrown all of his tunics.” My tail thumped against the stone. “I don’t know what we’re going to do but I have an idea.” Mrs. Aubrah cocked her head.

   “They’re offering me a promotion, or the chance to be promoted. To Sergeant in the watch. It comes with a pay raise and a more stable working schedule. All I have to do is work for the promotion and it will be mine.”

   “That’s wonderful Janie!” Mrs. Aubrah crowed. “You’ll get more money and a better position.” I turned my eyes back to the table. “You still sound kinda unsure.”

   “It will still take a lot of work. But I will have more money coming in...and…”

   And I will be one step closer to becoming Justicar. I didn’t say that, but I didn’t need to. Anyone who knows me knows my end goal. To fix the justice system of Metamor Keep. No more Mean, Low and High, instead universal justice for all.

   I must have been lost in my own little world longer than I thought because next thing I noticed was Mrs. Aubrah stroking my shoulder.

   “You’d also have a lot more work and less time with Kaysar. That’s stressful ain’t it?” I shook her arm off. “Be honest with me Janelle.”

   “I assure you that I am being honest when I say I am fine.” It isn’t a lie if you honestly believe it’s true. “Yes the thought of a promotion and all that comes with it is a source of stress but it’s worth it.” Besides finding that bull is a much bigger source.

   “Alright.” Mrs. Aubrah sighed. “You know, I never had a kid of my own. Getting to spend time with Kaysar is the best part of my week. But he misses his mamma. All this Watch stuff stresses you but it stresses him also. Don’t let it eat you.” My stomach started to churn.

   “Everything will figure itself out.” I said, standing. “Eli knows that has been true in the past. Now I must get to work now.” Mrs. Aubrah nodded but her eyes still burned into me. I could feel them even as I was halfway to work.

   The Watchhouse is a building so forgettable I sometimes don’t recognize it. And I’ve been at the same house for as long as I’ve been back in Metamor Keep. To find it, you have to find the lantern. The light that is always burning.

   I know that lanterns are everywhere. We need them if we’re going to have light. But a Watchhouse always has a lantern hanging over the doorway. It’s a distinct, round lantern that matches the one on my tabard. And it is never extinguished.

   I’ve seen the lantern over our Watchhouse out twice. Once during the Three Gates. The other time during the last Yule. It symbolizes the Watch. As the light never goes out, so too do we never cease.

   Yesterday I didn’t have much time to look for the bull. Hopefully I’ll get some time today. The Watchhouse was as usual quiet. Upon entering I almost smacked into a Tarsier.

   “Hello Corporal Janelle.” The Warden said.

   “Hello Isaac.” Isaac was the one and only mage in our Watchhouse. We’re supposed to have four to each Watchhouse for magic related crime. We’re also supposed to not be understaffed and underpaid. Such is life.

   Our only mage was a Tarsier. What do you mean you don’t know what that looks like? You should memorize all the various species in Metamor as I did, you never know when it might help. Anyway, think of a monkey with gecko eyes and a rat tail. His tabard was a tent of blue fabric.

   Isaac was for some reason standing in the entranceway, muzzle in a leather bound volume. His massive green eyes were flicking through at the speed of sound. His tail, as it did when he was in thought, was wrapped around his neck.

   “You have a desk.” I said. “Why not go and read there?” Did you know I might soon be your new Sergeant? Yes I was anxious. But at the same time, I wanted someone to acknowledge my good fortune.

   “Idea hit me, will lose at desk. Must focus now.” Isaac said. Yes He always did sound this clipped. “Order for magic, demanding task.”

   “Yes it is. I’ll see you out there Isaac.” I wonder how you’d feel about working for me? Would you want me as a sergeant. Isaac gave a half hearted wave. I slipped past him.

   Watchhouses are dark, cramped and almost labyrinthian. Half of the bottom floor is made of holding cells. The few other rooms were the briefing room, the Watchhouse library (now with one full bookcase!), two storage rooms, and the pen where all our desks were. This may seem inefficient but it means if a criminal tries to escape, they need to know the twisting hallways to find the front door.

   I made my way through the shadowed hall to Sgt. Tibble’s desk. Already there was Warden Bantry, supporting a drunken spiny-tail lizard.

   “Anyway, when I got there he was trying to break down his employer’s door.” Bantry said, “But he was so sloshed. I mean, like so sloshed. Trying to break down the door by headbutting it! So in my capacity for mean justice, I figure two days in a cell could help him.

   “Cell number four is empty.” Tibble said, scratching on his ledger. “Take him immediately.” The spiny-tailed lizard cocked his head looking at Tibble.

   “You know…you look like the pork chop I had last week.” Tibble rolled his eyes.

   “Let’s go spiny-hiney” Bantry said. He jerked the spiny-lizard through the door, into the holding cells. I swallowed.

   “Corporal please come forward.” Tibble said without changing his position. I approached, my hands clasped beside my back. “No open cases for you. Triche is assigning you watch duty today. By yourself.” I frowned.

   “By myself? Shouldn’t I have a Warden with me?” So Triche can see how skilled I am as a leader?

   “Triche wants you by yourself today.” Tibble said. “Says monitor the city. If you find a crime in commission, begin the investigation yourself.” I nodded.

   Only if I find a crime. I thought. Still as a Sergeant I will be investigating cases by myself. Tibble kept writing in his ledger, scarred side of his face facing me. Come on, Triche had to tell you what he wants to do with me. I’m not proud of it, but I really wanted someone to mention I could soon be a Sergeant.

   “I’ll get right to work Sergeant.” I said. Tibble nodded.

   “That will be all Corporal. Dismissed.” I saluted and spun around. Because of how narrow the hall was I bumped into Remmie as I left.

   “Oh hey Janie!” Remmie chirped. “Leaving already? We’re not together today?” I shook my head. “Damn, it’s always fun when we’re together.

   “Triche wants me to do a patrol by myself.” Remmie’s eyes focused on me. “I might actually soon be undergoing a change in position soon, Warden. I mean nothing for sure.”

   “You’re finally going to get promoted!” Remmie lept on me in an embrace. “I knew it!” Remmie’s big arms squeezed me until my ribs ached. “Congratulations.” I blushed through my scales.

   “Thank you Warden.” I managed to loosen her iron grip. “Now I must be off.”

   “Alright, you get to it.” Remmie said. “If you want, when you do get promoted, you should come with me to the Deaf Mule tent for a drink. It’ll be fun.”

   “I have to get promoted first.” I said. “And I’m not interested.” Remmie shrugged. I had to refuse you see. I am her superior, sharing a drink would be too unprofessional. Besides time spent drinking is time spent working.

   Chamomile’s eyes burned in the sunlight. Another night of failure in work and in sleep. All that experimenting and she had again failed.

   How early is it? Too early. Actually the middle of the morning, a couple of hours before noon. Chamomile had spent the whole day in a fugue state. Things happened but they failed to register with her mind.

   I can fix this. I should be cursed too. Chamomile collapsed against the wall of a building. It’s as much my curse as Nasoj’s curse. I can fix it. She rubbed her eyes. I’m a failure. I’m a loser. I can’t fix anything. She know those words too well. Those are the words of the damned, said to convince yourself, not the world.

   Chamomile somehow kept walking. The sun was too bright and the Keep too loud. How can anyone focus on anything with all this noise? It’s like a barnyard in this Keep.

   Pushing through the crowd was a Clydsdale male, no shirt and pants in ruins. His face was bruised and his neck scabbed with cuts. What was he carrying, a yoke? No, had to be a weapon. Oh God it’s a weapon. Chamomile looked at his tail bouncing up and down. I need another long fur sample but he’ll kill me.

   When you are in the state between wakefulness and sleep, your body may act before your brain as the chance to stop it. Chamomile was in just such a state right now. Her brain wanted a hair sample from the horses tail. At the same time it was trapped in its own fear enduced fantasy. She had to act fast!

   The Clydsdale man let out a snort of shock as Chamomile yanked on his tail. He yanked his tail free, causing the woman to stumble to the ground in front of him.

   “What in the many hells do you think you are doing!?” Chamomile didn’t respond. Instead she continued to stare at her hand, where the horse tail had been. The Clydesdale jerked her all the way up.

   “I said what are you doing?” There were now three battle scarred horses, spinning around in front of her. Six eyes shining with rage. I’ve made him mad. He is my victim, they all are come for me. She rubbed her eyes to help keep herself awake. Too many sleepless nights. I’m so sorry for what I did too you... The Clydesdale flicked his tail up, catching her eye. I want to apologise to all of you...

   “Are you okay?” The horse asked. Now he was concerned. “You don’t look alright. Is there anywhere I can take you?” The three came into focus briefly, causing Chamomile to stumble backwards. “Woah!” The horse grabbed her shoulder. “Okay, you’re not well Miss. What’s your name?”

   “How long have you been cursed for?” Chamomile asked. The horse froze, seemingly unsure of how to answer the question. He scratched one of his pointed ears.

   “Uh for five years.” The Clydesdale asked. “I…why do you ask?” Chamomile shook her head.

   “It’s my fault. Always you know? Five years I can’t return.” She said. “I can fix everything you know? I just have to focus and I can-I can fix the world.” Now the Clydesdale took a step back from her. She could hear his heart beating.

   “That’s…really good.” He swallowed. “Why don’t you go and fix everything. I’m just—

   “Murderer!” Chamomile’s heart dropped. She turned behind her and saw the crowed that had gathered.

   They’re corpses, still living. Each bloodied, each bruised and each accusing her? No, none bloody but one accusing her. One in front pointing at her. Now Chamomile smiled.

Past – 699

Somewhere South of Metamor

   Two months had passed since then. Now I was preparing for my final test. In the next few days I would meet with Mr. Sotto’s three previous protégées, the three he had trained before me. They would be the ones administrating my exam. But that was a few days away. For now I was going to rest.

   “How do the others know to meet you here?” I asked Mr. Sotto.

   “Trick of our organization.” Mr. Sotto stroked my hair, “You will learn when or if you join us.” If? I grit my teeth. I’ve earned this, I stood on a tree stump for an entire no no. Calm Janelle. I exhaled slowly. I’ve earned this, show him.

   I lay between Sotto’s legs with my head in his lap. His hand stroked my long red hair. We had a fire going, trying to keep us warm. Sadly we were just far enough north that March is still brutal cold. I bunched my cloak tighter against my body. Mr. Sotto seemed unbothered by the chill.

   He feels like stone. I took his hand in mine. How did he do that? I wish I wasn’t bugged by the cold. He probably thinks I look silly shivering… I glanced up at him, and he wasn’t looking at the flames. He was looking past them, somewhere far away. He began to speak.

   “Do you know much about the Sondeckis?” Sotto asked. “Or any of the Southern Mage clans?” I shook my head. “I’m not surprised. You’ve been isolated most of you life. I think about them a lot though. The Sondeckis in particular. I was born in Sondeshara you know.”

   “I did not know that.” I don’t care about this. I want to hear about my last test. Sotto readjusted against the log he was laying against.

   “The Sondeckis are just one mage clan, there are others. And they’ve all got certain things in common. Tradition, color schemes and a history to them.” I could almost feel Sotto starting to smile in the dark. “Long and self important histories. But they all had to start one place. They all had to start like we do.”

   “I guess.” I mumbled, readjusting. “I’ve never really thought about it Sotto.” He didn’t respond.

   “I look forward to the future. Janelle, you and the others will be my legacy. The legacy of our abilities. We are the first of the Avolbe. One day they will look at us and say “Those are the Enlightened!”” I forced a smile of my own.

   Well that’s something. Something corny. Sotto began to rub my shoulders so I nuzzled him. He’s so nice and warm.

   “I often think about other mage clans with their respect and history. They have those things because they got started a thousand years before we did.” Mr. Sotto rasped. “It’s not fair that they have had years to understand and study their powers but we’re just getting started. But one day those with our abilities will have our own clan.”

   “That would be nice.” I said. “I would like to not have to hide myself so much…” In my experience it’s a good idea to hide when you can read people’s minds. That tends to scare them. Best to avoid the subject.

   “I’m tired of hiding.” Mr. Sotto said. “I had to hide when I lived in Sondeshara even before I discovered my abilities. We were Lightbringers in Sondeshara.” I smirked. This didn’t go unnoticed. “That makes you happy?”

   “No I just get that too well.” Sotto cocked his head. “Well my mamma died shortly after having me. Her last words were of course ‘Her name is Janelle’ but the other thing she said? ‘She will be raised a Follower.’ No big problem right?”

   “I don’t see a problem.” Sotto said.

   “Well their was one.” I said. “The place she took me to be a Follower in? Metamor Keep.” Sotto burst out laughing. “I never found it that funny.”

   “I doubt there was a worse place out there for your mother to take you to be raised a Follower except the Hells. Such is life.” Mr. Sotto stood up, chuckling all the while. He moved around the fire, across from me.

   From the folds of his cloak Mr. Sotto pulled three small clay vessels. They were unusually shaped, seemingly looping into themselves. In the center of each was a single black soul gem. I smiled I don’t need to Tap to know what you’re going to do.

   “My first three protégées will be here tomorrow to test you Janelle. And trust me you will be tested. But it’s worth it to be tested.” One of the jars snapped open. I could feel him channeling.

   I’ll never get used to that. As the spirit in the jar joined with Sotto’s spirit, his body began to shift. This change was subtle but still noticeable. Sweat glistened across his forehead. His shoulders grew broader, and his legs slightly longer

   Most notably though were the appearance of new muscles. They grew from within him, giving his body a solid look. Not huge, more lanky muscular. Sotto grinned at me. Oh Eli it’s amazing.

   “Of course getting a spirit in is easy. Getting it out is harder.” The jar snapped shut. Sotto’s body shifted back to its original form, little changes disappearing. “Hard for most, not for us though.” I grinned.

   The second jar then popped open. Now Mr. Sotto seemed to wither slightly. His face grew gaunt and his hair wild. His nails grew out by an inch. “The biggest shock for your body is always the initial change. As you acquire spirits, you will have to adjust to the many changes your body will go through.”

   Sparks shot off of Mr. Sotto, followed by lightning from his palms. I jerked my head to the right as a bolt flew past me. My grin never dipped for a second. “Magic for me is the absolute hardest to get used too. Any time of magic you naturally don’t take to. You have to tame the spirit to get it to do what you want.”

   Tame is an odd word. Still I nodded. This is going to be me some day. I’m going to look amazing. Everyone is going to be impressed by me. Mr. Sotto sent the second spirit back into its jar.

   “I was very lucky Janelle, to have the chance to study spirits.” The third jar popped open. “And I am so proud of your growth over these five years. You have learned all that I know.” This third spirit wasn’t like the others.

   In truth I don’t know what it was. But I know what it did too him. I scooted back until I felt the log stabbing at me

   Sotto ignited into bright blue flames. And yet his skin was untouched. It didn’t burn him, it danced on him.

   “Amazing.” I whispered.

   I had once tried to feel this spirit, only to feel my mind burning. It was impossible to believe such a thing could exist, much less that Sotto was controlling it. Yet here he was, unharmed and in control.

   “Enough for tonight.” The flames extinguished and into the jar the spirit went. Sotto laughed and collapsed. “Gods, even with my experience it still takes a lot of energy.” I crawled over to him. Sotto stroked my arm.

   “And I’ll be able to do that?”

   “You’ll be doing a lot more than that.” Sotto said. “In a few days you will undergo your final test. Janelle, you will be doing the one thing every channeler has to do.”

   “Which is?” I asked. He didn’t respond. I puffed out my bottom lip to look sad. “You can tell me!” Sotto laughed again.

   “Nice try.” Worth a shot. “You’ll discover it tomorrow.”

   Why do people do that? Not telling me did nothing but build up suspense, suspense that kept me awake long into the night.

Metamor Keep

March 31st


    I could be promoted. But would that take time away from finding that bull. I turned down an alley. I wasn’t sure where I was, that didn’t matter. And if I found the bull would I have time to train him? Even if I did, would I be any good at it?

   I bumped into someone I think. I don’t know, I didn’t pay attention if they didn’t step on my tail. Suppose I do both. Then what? I’ve forgotten I have a son. I have to devote time to him. But if I become a Sergeant it means fewer weekends and more times. All this good if I get promoted…

   I think that’s an accurate window into my mental state. All of my thoughts flowed into each other. I could get promoted, which meant more time. I could train the bull, which meant less time.

   The bull had to be trained, so I needed more time. But my son needs his mother so I needed even more time.

   I wonder why Eli didn’t give us twenty-six hour days. It was rather inconsiderate of him not to do so.

   Eli I don’t mean that. I just am so tired. I yawned. I need more sleep. Too many patrols that all look the same. My legs were ching, had been since I woke up. I kept walking. A member of the Watch does not rest, not while there is work still to be done.

   I was supposed to be paying attention while on patrol but I couldn’t. No petty crimes in progress, not even a drunk or a thief. In fact it was one of the quietest mornings I had had in a long time. All the better to think on my own issuses.

   I need to get promoted. I need to find that bull. I need…I rubbed my eyes. I need to quit focusing on this. A cold wind whistling through the buildings snapped me out of my self-pity. I looked up. How on Earth did I end up in the Market?

   As usual the Market was abuzz with people trying to hock overpriced goods to customers who didn’t know better. Finding a criminal here was a simple as stopping at someone’s cart. Still I was not allowed to just arrest merchants for selling overpriced junk.

   I tried that once. Much like my attempts to arrest Andwyn it didn’t work.

   I will never understand people and their fixation with things. I paused by the okapi woman from a few days ago with her apple cart. I gave her a smile and a wave, which she returned. At least I’ve made some people happy. And if I become a Sergeant I can do more for them and on a greater scale.

   “Why are you a man!?” My attention turned to the yell of a very confused merchant.

   “Why are you an asshole!?” The reply came from a reptile woman in a dress apparently made of dishrags. I didn’t recognize the woman, but I did recognize the person she was yelling at.

   She yelled at a tahr, shorter than me and with his right horn snapped off. What do you mean you don’t know what a tahr is? A tahr looks like a cross between a goat and a lion, with an oversized mane. And this one I recognized from one of Sgt. Tibble’s reports.

   “Tobias Shatterbock?” I called out. The tahr froze in place. I could see him swallow as he turned towards me. “I need to speak to you about some stolen goods.” That was as far as I got before the tahr spun on his hooves and sprinted away. “Why do they always run?”

   I rushed after, moving so fast my tail streamed in the air behind me. I smacked into the woman, leaving her yelling something about being a man. I didn’t pay attention, I had a criminal to catch.

   The tahr looked back at me as we ran through the crowded streets. From the pocket of his coat he pulled a radish, which missed my head by a wide margin. Who on Earth carries a radish with them? Much less throws it as a weapon?

   “I didn’t do anything wrong!” Tobias shoved an age regressed man at me. I lept over him.

   “If you didn’t, then just talk to me!” I yelled. The tahr just ran faster and so did I. Our feet splashed mud and our footsteps thudded in unison. Tobias threw everything he could get his hands on at me. Stolen goods he carried, a basket from a wash woman walking by, then a loose stone. I dodged each one.

   One thing you learn on the Watch is how to avoid things. You will get them thrown at your head.

   There is something liberating about running full speed after a criminal. The day was cloudy and cool, but my body felt like it was on fire. The tahr seemed to light up like a star as I ran after him. He threw a wooden chain from inside of his coat that sailed over my head.

   Now I was almost within arm’s reach. Unfortunately that was the moment Tobias scooped up another stone. This time instead he flung it at a ground iguana emerging from a building.

   Damn it. The iguana was carrying three ledgers and a stack of papers. The rock smacked him right between the eyes, sending the papers flying. Tobias took off while the iguana collapsed, blood flowing from between his eyes. Justice requires…I can’t.

   When you serve justice, you protect the innocent and arrest the guilty. The most important thing you learn is you always do it in that order.

   I sat down beside the iguana and tried stopping the blood with my tabard. “I am sorry about this.”

   “Is the world spinning?” The iguana asked before giggling. I smiled. “What hit me?”

   “A rock thrown by someone soon doing time for assault.” I said. “Don’t worry though, the bleeding is stopping. Can you walk?” The iguana nodded. “I’m going to take you to get healed then. First let’s gather up your papers.”

   Papers reassembled, I helped the struggling iguana to his feet. We started to walk when a piercing shriek rang out.

   “Murderer!” I closed my eyes. “Murderer! She was at the Yule Assault!” The iguana pat me on the shoulder.

   “I’ll be okay.” He said. “You sound like you’ve got something big to deal with.” I simled.

   “Thank you good sir.” I left him and made my way to the source of the screaming. I’m used to screaming in Metamor and stupid fights, but not this. Nothing prepared me though for what I was about to see.

   A crowd of people, anthro and otherwise had formed in a mob in the very cramped alley. At the center someone was yelling “Murderer! Kill her!” Or was it “killer”? I tried to push through, only to get elbowed in the chest by a buff man.

   “I am a member of the Watch! Get out of my way!” I shoved the man and he shoved me back. I responded by clubbing him on the arm.

   “Owe! You’ll pay for--” I shoved past him and his meaningless threats I dodged a bear who was shoved into me, only for my face to make contact with a very bony fist. Son of a— Now bleeding I forced my way to the center of the crowd.

   “Oh Eli what has happened here?” I whispered. In the center of the crowd was a bleeding woman. Her nose looked broken and her right eye had a cut over it. In front of the woman was a Clydesdale stallion. He held a struggling figure in his arms.

   “Hello Warden.” He said. The struggling figure was a giant bush rat. Blood dripped off her claws. Her eyes were points of rage, focused on the bleeding woman. The bleeding woman looked almost relieved.

   “What is going on here?” I yelled. “I am Corporal Janelle of the Metamor Watch, someone tell me now.” The giant bush rat finally turned to me.

   “Thi-this-this woman” She swallowed and pointed at the bleeding woman. “I-I recognized her! She was at the Yule assault! She was with Nasoj!” Those words were the words I least needed to hear.

   “Okay.” I said through gritted teeth. “And you, Clydesdale. You have been holding this rat woman?”

   “She just started attacking.” He said. The rat didn’t deny it. “I don’t really know what’s happening here, I just wanted people to stop screaming.”

   “I’ll stop when I’ve sliced her up!” The rat screamed, squirming to escape.

   “Yeah!” Someone in the small crowd yelled.

   “Kill her” Another voice shoted.

   “We’re not killing anyone!” I snarled. “You will all calm down right now!” I wish it worked like that. Sadly no one listens to the watch. When a man in the crowd went for the bloody woman, I responded with a club upside the head.

   They do generally listen to clubs.

   As the crowd began to sulk back slightly I walked over to the bleeding woman. I helped her to her feet. “What is your name?” She looked away from me. “What is your name?” I asked again, this time with a firmer tone.

   “Cha-Chamomile.” The crowd had gone silent now. I could hear the woman’s heart beat and the sound of blood dripping on the ground. I looked her up and down, trying to see anything about this woman that would reveal why she was here.

   Her hair was a worn out shade of brown, done in a single long braid that ended in a tangle. Her skin alternated between off white and splotches. Her brown eyes were rimmed in black and bloodshot.

   She wore a white tunic and black ankle length skirt, both torn and dirty. She held herself tight while talking to me, which is when I noticed her nails looked ragged. The woman looked like she had been and was quite happy at having been beaten.

   “Chamomile, this…” I turned to the rat, “Your name Miss?”

   “Mrs, and my name is Lacie. And that woman was with Nasoj’s army. She attacked the Keep and she is a murderer.” Can’t I ever go on a patrol without having everything go insane around me? Probably not. I rubbed my aching head and nodded.

   “Okay, Chamomile I’m going to have to bring you in for questioning. Mrs. Lacie, I will need you to come with me, I will have some questions for you as well.” The cloud rat scoffed at this.

   “I am a very busy wash woman and I have washing to do.” She said. “I’m afraid—

   “I’m afraid I don’t care.” I interrupted. “Clothing will wait, you are coming with me.” Lacie growled something I couldn’t understand but could tell she wasn’t going to win this fight. The crowd parted as I lead the two women towards the Watch house. My eyes were focused on Chamomile.

   Did you actually work for Nasoj? I wonder…just what are you thinking? I extended my spirit and Tapped her mind.

   When you Tap someone, you hear their current thoughts. If you push hard enough, you can probe their mind and see what they’re hiding. Sometimes lthough, all you can feel on the surface is an emotion.

   And that’s what I felt right now. No thoughts or feelings of anger. No shock at being arrested, like you might expect for a captured spy. What I instead felt was an intense sensation of relief. I almost stumbled when I felt this.

   Who feels relief at being arrested? What is this woman’s end game? As I lead them off a new feeling of dread rose up in me. If this woman is a spy for Nasoj that means she’s a security risk. Anything to do with spies means…Oh Eli, it means Andwyn.

   Remmie while all this was going on was finishing up her errand. Sgt. Tibble had had her deliver a package to another Watch House, some ledger of criminal crap. Didn’t matter, not to Remmie or the guy she handed it off too. What mattered was doing what Janelle asked her to do.

   Because she was still the greenest on the Watch and got the crap work. So getting to do anything else to break up the tedium? Fucking awesome.

   Now though that errand was done and Remmie was taking the long way back to the Watch House. The long was meant stopping by every building she could think of currently under construction. Right now it was the Jolly Collie Ru-inn (she laughed at her pun).

   “Alright Remmie, you’re the soon to be brilliant detective you know you are.” She grinned. “Intelligent, courageous, very humble and able to pull off the sexy scale look like no other reptile.”

   The Jolly Collie had been reduced to rubble in the Yule assault. Now it was being rebuilt, though very slowly. When your owner also leads the most prestigious secret military unit in Metamor, they tend not to have time for things like reconstructing an inn.

   “Wish Janie was here with me.” Remmie mumbled. “She’s got a thing for Misha Brightleaf.” She pretended she didn’t but Remmie had seen her checking him out.

   The Jolly Collie currently was a hive of tents, torches, pulleys, ropes and people. Lots and lots of people hard at work rebuilding the Inn. They milled about without staring at her. Remmie had to jump out of the way to avoid a very muscular goat-man-thing carrying a bundle of wood.

   Alright where do I start? Looking around, almost all of the workers were muscular humans and animals. All but one, a young boy who was talking to a pair of dogs with saws. When they left, the boy began directing other workers. I’m going to say you’re the foreman aren’t ya?

   “Excuse me?” The young boy looked up. “Hey, my name is Remmie LeBeau. I’m a Warden, see?” She held up the lantern on her tabard. The foreman turned away. Remmie splat her hand on top of his head and spun him back around.

   “Do ya mind? I got construction that needs to be done!” The boy said.

   “Oh hush fuzzbutt. I’m looking for the contractor in charge of rebuilding the Jolly Collie?” The boy scoffed.

   “Well keep looking. We’re just the ones handling the frame work. There are lots uh people working. They want the Keep rebuilt and they want fast, so we all got work to do.” Remmie ignored him and kept talking.

   “Few days ago my boss saw a bull-guy carrying some wood in a not broken part of the Keep. She needs to find him, so I’m doing her a favor. I need—“ The boy held up a hand.

   “Lady, there are like six contractors in three blocks. We’ve got people constantly coming in and out. Some of the people here today I just hired! I can’t remember everyone who walks by.” Remmie sighed.

   “Yeah, same answer I keep getting.” She smiled though. “Thanks anyway, you guys do good work. The Keep is going to look great again I bet.” Now the boy looked sad. As Remmie started to leave, he spoke up.

   “Tell me about the guy you is looking for.” He said. “I dunno if I can help…” She grinned.

   “Thank you so much!” Remmie chirped. “Well, we don’t know his name.” The boy gave her a withering look. She bit her bottom lip. “Yeah not the best situation. But we know it’s a male we’re looking for. And a bull, a black bull who was carrying wood.”

   “Gods lady do you-“ The foreman froze in mid sentence. He scratched the side of his head. “Did you say a black bull?”

   The crowd had at first tried to follow. When I yelled at them to disperse, one made a counter argument of grabbing my arm. I replied with a club to the head. You’ll find that sharp sticks and heavy pieces of wood solve many debates.

   “Alright, Mrs. Lacie you enter first,” I instructed as we approached the Watchhouse. “Ms. Chamomile, you second, I will enter last.” One important thing to remember if you are in security like I am. Never enter in front of your prisoners, even if they are restrained. That is a foolish and often fatal mistake.

   Right now Chamomile was restrained with rope. I wanted iron cuffs but iron is in short supply when your home is being rebuilt.

   By my observation if Chamomile was a spy, she was a calm spy. She barely reacted too the ropes and only readjusted her bound wrists once.

   What are you up to? Again I Tapped her mind and again I was rewarded with a wall of relief.

   …I deserve this…I’ll be executed…Her mind was stuck in a sleep deprived loop. Nothing much for me there.

   Who on Earth is relieved to be arrested? Especially when it will probably end with your death? I gave Lacie instruction on which door to enter through while I mulled this over. This doesn’t make sense. If she was here in the Yule, why would she return right now? I just don’t…stop it Janelle. Stop worrying.

   The Watch House was silent but the pit in my stomach told me this wouldn’t last. Before every storm is the calm you know is temporary, and your nerves are on end as you await the inevitable. I began muscling her down the hall.

   I’d have given anything to not have to deal with this right now. I hate dealing with cases that hinge on the testimony of a single witness. It means the case is flimsy. Witnesses like Lacie also tend to be loud and at best unhelpful.

   What’s worse though was Andwyn would become involved if Chamomile was a spy, either directly or indirectly. Andwyn is a criminal masquerading as an essential part of Metamor and if I could I would have arrested that flying rodent years ago.

   Sadly you can’t choose the cases you get.

   I, Chamomile and Lacie emerged from the halls at Sgt. Tibble’s desk. My sergeant looked like he hadn’t moved. Despite it nearly be noon, Tibble was half in shadow from a candle hanging beside him. His eyes focused on his papers and ledgers. As we approached, Tibble briefly glanced up.

   “Which is the witness?” He asked, going back to writing.

   “The rat in the front.” Tibble turned to Lacie.

   “Go back down the hall, turn left at the first hall, stop at the second door you find. It’s an interrogation room. Someone will be with you soon.” Even in the dim light I could see Lacie’s hand gripping at the hem of her dress.

   “Excuse me but no.” Lacie snapped. “I brought you this-this spy for Nasoj. I have washing that needs to be done!” Now Tibble looked up, but at Chamomile. He turned his gaze to Lacie.

   “You are accusing this woman of what now?” Lacie grit her teeth.

   “I am accusing this-this murderer of being with Nasoj’s forces during the Yule assault! Of helping to lay siege to the Keep! She is a murderer and I want to see her end.” Chamomile, while all this insanity was going on, had begun smiling. Tibble turned to me.

   “Corporal these are serious accusations.” Tibble said, completely deadpan. “Can you corroborate them?” I shook my head. We’ve heard these accusations many times before, so offten Tibble and I were barely phased by them.

   Though they rarely ended with violence and someone asking to be arrested.

   “I figured for everyone’s benefit I should bring Ms. Chamomile into the Watch House for questioning. At the time I found Chamomile, Ms. Lacie was being restrained from attacking her and their was a rather noticeable mob to deal with.”

   “You did the right thing corporal.” Tibble said. He stood up. “Mrs. Lacie, I’ve told you where you can wait. Go.” Lacie had to visibly restrain herself from squawking but finally turned and walked off. Tibble scratched something rapidly on a sheet of paper before standing up.

   “Cell four is empty.” He pushed his bulk out from behind the desk and unlocked the door. I lead Chamomileto the fourth cell. I untied the ropes holding Chamomile’s arms behind her back.

   “I’m sorry if the ropes bruised you.” I said. Chamomile smiled.

   “They were okay. Nothing you’ve done hurt me. At least, not in a way I don’t deserve.” I cocked my head. Chamomile noticed this because she asked “Did something I say surprise you?”

   “Actually yes it did. I’ve brought you in for questioning, maybe soon arresting you. What Lacie is charging you with is very serious. Why are you so calm?” Chamomile was silent.

   She kept on smiling as I slammed the cell door shut. Even now I remember that smile. It made my scales crawl. I returned to Tibble. “I don’t know why but everything about this bothers me.”

   “People are strange.” Tibble said. “Don’t let them bother you. You need to go up stairs and inform Triche, he’s going to want to be involved in this case.”

   “Yes sir.” I need to tell Triche the right way. I want to show I know how to handle high risk prisoners. He’ll want that in a sergeant. Back at Tibble’s desk, a new face was waiting for us. “Uh hello.”

   “Hello” The man said. He was a Banded Linsang. Again you don’t know? Well think a squirrel cat with cream colored fur and brown spots. His left ear had a brown spot on it, making it brown while the right was cream. His whiskers were short and his eyes shone like he was laughing at his own joke.

   The Linsang dressed in a dark red tunic with black pants and a black cloak. His arms were clasped behind his back. His tail curled around his legs and seemed to cling to him. His eyes studied mine.

   “My name is Sebastian.” He said. I knew what he was about to say before he said it.

   “You work for Andwyn.” I said. Sebsatian gave a very controlled smile.

   “And I’ve heard you have a prisoner who might have worked for Nasoj and been involved in the assault last Yule. I will be taking them immediately.”



Somewhere South of Metamor

   The sun always comes up too early when you’re anxious. My legs shook despite it not being too cold. I pulled my cloak as tight as I could sitting in front of our pathetic fire.

   Sotto gave me a smile but otherwise said nothing. His fixation was on his three small clay jars with the soul gems in them. Every so often he glanced at me or the woods, but then back to the jars.

   Sotto told me those soul gems will never break. How on Earth could he possibly know that? I had no soul gems myself, nor any souls I used as my own. Sotto had told me I would find souls to be my partners after I was made a full Enlightened.

   How did Sotto find unbreakable gems? How did he get the souls in them? These are questions I didn’t have an answer for. Now I do though. But I will get into that later.

   “When did you meet these three?” I asked Sotto. He looked up blinking and confused.

   “Haven’t I told you before? I shook my head. “How odd, I thought I had.” I sat up, trying to hide my grin. I’m going to be the fifth. When we’ve been around for five hundred years, they’ll remember me as the Fifth Enlightened.

   “Well Paschalis, the one I’ve known longest of all, I actually met him while still in the middle of discovering my abilities.”

   “That must have been decades ago!” I exclaimed. Mr. Sotto blushed.

   “It was some time ago.” Sotto laughed. “But it wasn’t as long as you think. I’m not that old” When you’re eighteen soon to be nineteen, everything a few years in the past seems ancient. “I was only out of Sondeshara for about a year when I met Paschalis.

   “Were you excited?”

   “To meet someone like me?” Mr. Sotto asked. “To know I wasn’t just a freak cursed by the gods? Yes, of course I was happy. Paschalis didn’t know what to make of me or his abilities. Actually working with him helped me work out my own abilities.”

   “I always thought you just knew how to do all this stuff from the beginning.” I said. “I never thought about you needing to be trained…by you.” Sotto smiled.

   “As much as I appreciate your faith in my abilities, I was a novice once as well. Thankfully by the time I met Mirna and Umaro I was much stronger and had Paschalis as my assistant.

   “Mirna and Umaro had actually found each other.” Sotto looked past me, into the woods. “They were bonded when I brought them into my little group. Paschalis and I knew how to draw out their abilities and we did so to the best of our abilities. Umaro…he was very skilled.” Now he frowned.

   “Something wrong?” I asked. He shook his head.

   “Just thinking about past mistakes I made. Anyway, we agreed eventually to separate and go out looking for more with our abilities. Which is of course how I found you.” I smiled.

   He’s been doing this for over ten years and has only found four people like him. I turned to my feet. There are so few of us. Would anyone believe we exist?

   “Before we separated we devised a way to meet to test new recruits.” Sotto said. “I admit Janelle, you will be the first person to undergo every test we devised. You should feel blessed.”

   “I will if there is only one left.” I said. Sotto nodded. “Thank you Eli. I need a long vacation after this.”

   “It’s been a long seven years of training Janelle. You should feel proud. Soon it will all be over and you can begin to look for your own apprentices. Eventually we will have so many we will build a place for us.”

   A place for us…I wish I had a place where I belonged. I pulled my knees against my chest. I guess I’ll return to Metamor Keep after this. Do I belong there?

   The two of us sat in silence for a bit, unable to figure out what to say. Finally snapping branches echoed through the woods. I turned to Sotto who nodded.

   “That would be them. Big smile Janelle.” From between the trees emerged two people.

   What I was struck by right away was a sense of haughtiness from both of them. The male was lanky and incredibly angular. His hair was long and razor straight, while his eyes were deep brown, almost black. The man’s nose was a small point and lips a thin slash on a pale white face. He wore a tight white shirt with black pants and leather boots, with black gloves. In his right hand he clutched a spear with a wicked sharp point.

   The woman was a thin blonde with hair in a tight bun. Her eyes were a pale blue and her mouth set in a frown. Two earrings with black crystals in them dangled from her ears. She wore a forest green tunic and white pants with a tightly buckled belt. Clinging to her left hip was a long sword which she fingered while staring at me.

   “Where is Paschalis?” Sotto asked.

   “No idea.” The man said.

   “He didn’t join us when we headed towards you. In fact we’ve not heard from him since we first split.” The woman said.

   “We were hoping you had heard from him.” The man said. Sotto shook his head.

   “We didn’t part on the best of terms, but still.” He sighed. “Uh anyway this is the soon to be newest member of our little group Janelle.” I swallowed and gave a small wave.

   Few things are as awkward as when you feel strangers studying you. This is the moment everything you’ve worked for can go wrong. For the people studying you, it’s Monday.

   “Uh hi.” I forced a smile. “I’m Janelle.” Looking at the two made my skin crawl. The eyes of the two felt like they were trying to eat me.

   “I am Umaro.” The man said. “This is your other instructor, Mirna.” She grinned. “We’re eager to test you.”

   “I bet.” I mumbled.

   “How skilled do you consider yourself in channeling spirits?” Mirna asked. Even her voice felt tightly constrained.

   “Uh I dunno.” I said, laughing anxiously. “I’d like to think I’m pretty good.” Mirna just shook her head.

   “We can’t be pretty good. Pretty good leads to possession.” Umaro said. I glanced back at Sotto, who was remaining silent. “We have to be fantastic if we want to use our abilities to their full potential.”

   “I suppose now is as good a time as any to fill you in on what your final test will be.” Sotto said. He moved to stand with his two pupils. Now I felt three sets of eyes boring into my mind.

   “My two pupils have both selected a spirit that they will use for this final test. You will channel this spirit into your body, bringing it down all the way to your core. You will demonstrate control of the spirit. Then you will channel it out again.” I nodded. “You will do this three times.”

   “Three?” I asked. “There are only two pupils.” Sotto looked upset.

   “Unfortunately my third student did not deign to show up.” He forced a smile. “We will wait a few hours for him to arrive, should he fail, I will take his place.” I tried to smile but my fear made that impossible. “Take these next few hours to rest Janelle. I will select a spirit in the event I am your third instructor. We will come for you when we’re ready.”

   “Yeah-yes sir Mr. Sotto.” I’m amazed I got those words out seeing as my mouth had dried up.

Metamor Keep

March 31st 707


   Lt. Triche had been working on a letter requesting more funding, more men and more supplies for our badly depleted Watch House. My Lieutenant was a good man doing very important work. That’s why I feel so bad about what came next.

   The door slamming open started Triche. Before he could recover Sebastian and I had rushed his desk. “Corporal what the hell is going on here?”

   “I’m sorry sir but I need to speak to you right away,” I said, speaking over the spy, “We arrested a prisoner today who has been accused of working with Nasoj—“

   “And who I will be taking immediately,” Sebastian interrupted, “Because if said prisoner is she represents a security risk—“

   “Security we in the Watch provide for the Keep!!” I snapped, “I arrested her and I will have the time to question her—

   “You can question her if we let you but we will have her first!”

   “I will not allow you to compromise my investigation!”

   “And I will not allow you to put your investigation over the safety of Metamor—

   “ENOUGH!” Triche yelled, slamming his fist against the desk. We both froze. “I was very hard at work when you two came in here squabbling like children. Corporal, I do not appreciate my people fighting with strangers in my office.” Triche leaned back in his chair. He took a long breath, then turned to the Linsang. “You. I don’t even know who you are.”

   “My name is Sebastian.” The Linsang said. “I work for Andwyn and was recently informed that you happened to arrest a prisoner involved with Nasoj during the Yule assault.”

   “How? How did you find that out?” I asked. “I hadn’t had time to tell my Lieutenant yet and you people found out first?”

   “Information is our business.” Sebastian said, “And we happen to be very good at it.”

   “And yet you failed to realize we’re not letting you take that prisoner.” I said. Again Triche banged his fist against the desk.

   “Enough, enough arguing. Janelle tell me everything.” Sebastian glared at me as I began to deliver my story. I explained everything, the woman and the mob, the witness and the claim that Chamomile worked for Nasoj.

   “Which is why Andwyn sent this specimen here to extract her.” I said. “They think that she works for Nasoj. Or is a spy!”

   “We don’t assume anything. We gather intelligence.” Sebastian said. “And this woman is either dangerous or insane. We determine which. As such we have priority and I will be taking the prisoner immediately. Lieutenant please prepare for her release.”

   “I will do no such thing.” Triche said, staring at Sebastian like he couldn’t comprehend what the Linsang was saying. “My corporal will investigate this matter and report to me. If her findings are crdible then I will release this…what’s her name?”

   “Chamomile sir.”

   “This Chamomile to you Mr. Sebastian. And not a minute sooner.” The fur on Sebastian’s neck bristled. “How did you find out about her before I did?”

   “I’ll be waiting.” Sebastian said, before spinning and exiting the room. Triche mumbled several profanities under his breath before sitting down again.

   “I don’t think Keep intelligence takes us seriously.” Triche said. “Then again, why should they? Duke Hassan doesn’t take us seriously, the knights don’t take us seriously, the Longscouts don’t take us seriously and the civilians don’t take us seriously. Let’s add Intelligence to the list.” He looked me in the eye. “Janelle, you know I value your opinion.”

   “Yes I do. Thank you sir.” I could feel myself standing stiffer.

   “Then before I go down, do you think this woman is a spy or saboteur? Do you think she is of any threat to the Keep?” I looked away. “Corporal!”

   “Do I think she worked with Nasoj? Possibly, I don’t know.” I said. “Do I think she is of any danger? Only to herself.” That raised Triche’s eyebrows.

   “Really? Well take me to meet this Chamomile.”

   Chamomile hadn’t moved since I placed her in the cell. In fact she looked at absolute peace. It’s a good thing she hadn’t just been arrested for something that could get her executed.

   Why is she so blasted calm? I studied her body, her muscle movements, even how she crossed her legs. Criminals are cowards by nature, but she’s calm.

   “Hello Ms. Chamomile.” Triche said, sitting down on a stool provided for him. I stood behind him, never taking my eyes off of her. “I’m Lieutenant Triche of the Metamor Keep Watch. May I talk to you?”

   “Sure.” Chamomile mumbled. “What you want to talk about?” Her voice wobbled and creaked with each word.

   “I just want to get to know you.” Triche smiled. “Will you humor me?” Chamomile nodded slowly.

   “Well, I’ll start at the beginning. I’m a mage, I used to live in Blackhorne Keep, I served in the Guards there but I betrayed my commander by bashing his fucking head in with a rock.” Whatever Triche expected it wasn’t this. Before he could say anything Chamomile kept talking.

   “I was at the Yule assault. I’ve been with Nasoj for years. And I’m not sorry of the things I’ve done. I’m just sorry we got kicked out. We were going to bring order to the world.” Chamomile turned away. “That’s all you need to know about me. Do what you want with that.” Triche blinked. Then he turned to me. I swallowed.

   “Corporal, can I see you outside for a minute?” He asked.

   “Yes sir.” He stood and started to walk away, but I took a minute to look at Chamomile. All of this information seemed false to me. No one volunteers that unless they have a deathwish. Tapping her mind confirmed my suspicions.

   …Please believe me. Please just let me die…

   I stumbled into Triche and knocked him into the door. I nervously laughed.

   “S-something surprised me.” I mumbled. “I apologize sir. Triche nodded while rubbing his muzzle. Tibble pushed us both out of the way once we were through and locked the door again. Only Tibble is allowed to push the Lieutenant.

   “How did it go?” Tibble asked.

   “Eh hem.” Our eyes turned to Sebastian. The fuzzball still with us and still smiling. No way to get away from his kind is there?

   “Sergeant, can you keep Mr. Sebastian company while I have a private conversation with the Corporal?” Tibble nodded. “Corporal, please follow me.”

   We made our way to one of the storage rooms, this one holding files and books for the Watch. Triche turned to me and raised his hands.

   “She’s only a danger to herself? That woman is quite clearly insane, I agree.” His arms dropped, fists clenching. “Is she a danger to the Keep? That’s the problem Corporal. By your own admission she is insane.”

   “Lieutenant you can’t believe she just confessed everything because she’s here to harm the Keep.” I said.

   “You’re right, I don’t. I think she’s here for some other reason, but she wants to be arrested. The best thing we can do right now is give her over to Andwyn’s minion and let Intelligence to do what they want with her.” I turned away from Triche. “Corporal?”

   That woman is lying about something and she wants to die. How do I tell him that? I glanced back at Triche. If we give her to Keep Intelligence, they may grant her wish. Or they’ll discover she’s lying or…oh Eli what do I do?

   I turned to the lantern on my chest. The Watch is supposed to be a light. We burn through the darkness created by lies and deceit. My fingers ran over the frayed blue and white fabric. We’re supposed to bring justice. But what’s justice here.

   I sighed. Justice is blind. Justice is discovering just what someone did and responding accordingly. And if she did what she said, she should be handed over to Andwyn. But if she didn’t…

   “If she didn’t…” I whispered.

   “Corporal Janelle answer me!” I turned back to Triche.

   “Sir not only am I convinced she didn’t do any of the things she said, I am convinced Chamomile wants to be punished for them.” Triche’s expression didn’t change at all. If I could have sweat, I would have. “That woman may not be innocent, but we shouldn’t take everything she told us at face value.”

   “I would agree.” Triche said.

   “And for us to do that we need to investigate her.” I said. “See if we can find what she’s hiding.” Triche laughed.

   “And you expect to do that?”

   “She’s been living in Metamor Keep.” I said. “Not long enough to be cursed but still. She didn’t just arrive here. Why is she here? I think there is something she’s hiding from all of us and I think I can prove it.”

   “And if it’s some plan against the Keep?” Triche asked. I clenched my tabard.

   “Then I will turn her over to Sebastian myself. But you can’t hand her over yet. She’ll just keep squawking her story. Eventually people might believe it and that’ll end only one way…” We both suspected how. “If she is innocent, if she isn’t the murderer she claims, I can’t knowingly hand her over to Keep intelligence.”


   “I just need her long enough to investigate her lies, to see if I can find out the truth. I know she’s lying about killing people Lieutenant. I think—“ I gave a small laugh, “Oh Eli, you’ll think I’m crazy but I think she came here to die.” Triche didn’t say a word. His face was stone and time seemed to stretch indefinitely. Finally he spoke.

   “How certain are you?”

   “As much as I’ve ever been.” I said.

   “Would you risk your reputation? Your career?” Triche narrowed his gaze. “If she is working for Nasoj right now, she could put the Keep at risk. Would you risk your son?”

   “Nasoj is not nearly as powerful as he was, we know that.” I said.

   “But he’s still our enemy. And every enemy has a second plan, never forget that.” I nodded. “So are you certain.”

   “I am.” My confidence was weak, but my voice hid it. Triche nodded.

   “When the Watch was granted its charter, we were granted a special privilege, called the Investigators Right.” Triche said.

   “I don’t know about that.” I said.

   “That’s fine. I’d only heard about it when going through the records of the Watch. It’s a special right, for someone of Lieutenants rank or higher, that they can invoke for any reason on a case. What it allows for is the halting of all transfers of prisoners, for twenty-four hours.” My heart skipped a beat.

   “So that means?”

   “That means you have twenty-four hours.” Triche said. “Make them count. Dismissed.”

Investigation – Twenty-Four Hours Remaining

   At first I just stood there in shock. What do you do when your superior gives you twenty-four hours to determine if someone is lying? Answer, you start by speaking to the accused. Which is how I found myself standing outside of Chamomile’s cell again. This time though I was armed with my small common book I used for investigations

   “Where’s the squirrel cat thing?” She asked, not even bothering to look up.

   “He’s busy. You will remain in our custody for the next twenty-four hours. And as such I would like to begin with your story.” Chamomile sighed. “You’ve been accused of being with Nasoj during the Yule assault, do you corroborate this?” She laughed.

   “Do I remember where I was four months ago?” Her head popped up, giving me an incredulous look. “Yes I do, I was with his forces, fighting to bring Metamor to its knees.” I nodded and scratched that into my notebook.

   “And your goal was what?”

   “I don’t know, maybe the complete domination of the South for my great lord?” Chamomile said. “Why else would I be following him?” She sat up, “Incidentally what were you doing during the Yule?” I paused.

   Kaysar don’t worry about that! The Keep will be fine, I’m protecting you. That’s my priority!

   “It’s not important.” I said, looking up. “And as you worked with Nasoj, no doubt you killed some of our civilians?”

   “Of course I did.” Chamomile said. “That’s kinda the point of an assault.” I Tapped her mind again, only to this time find nothing of note. It was like she wasn’t thinking about this at all. “My only regret is when we had to flee. It’s a fitting way for you to experience the New Years isn’t it? Driving out those who wish to bring order.” I paused.

   “The New Years?” I asked.

   “Of course. I’d have rather fought to the death, instead of fleeing on the last day of the year.” I closed my notebook. Because my mind couldn’t process her answer.

   The Yule Assault ended before New Year.

South of Metamor

Early 699

   Paschalis never showed up. Sotto would be testing me. That meant the most powerful Channeler I’d ever met would be testing me. If that doesn’t drain your confidence nothing will.

   “You need to control your breathing Janelle.” Mr. Sotto said to me. “If you can’t control your breath, you will not have balance.” A lot easier said than done. Even trying to nod left me shaking.

   “I’m just not ready.” Is what I did not say. I’d come to far to stop. So I forced out the quickest nod I could. Mirna whispered something to Umaro who snickered. I tried not to look at them.

   I had shed my coat and gloves in favor of a sleeveless shirt and long skirt. I wore a scrap of cloth around my forehead to keep sweat out of my eyes. My skirt was long enough to hide my shaking legs.

   Each one of my three testers held a soul gem. Mirna and Umaro twirled theirs between their fingers. Sotto in contrast held one of his little jars as steady as a rock. His eyes locked onto mine. “Janelle, this is your final exam. Are you ready?”

   “I am ready sir.” I said. Sotto nodded.

   “Janelle, you will be expected to pull this spirit far enough in so that both you and the spirit have even control of your body. Do you understand?”

   “Yes sir.” I said.

   “After that is done, you will be expected to return the spirit to its vessel. Each of the spirits we have selected knows this is your task. These spirits will fight you for control. Do you understand?”

   “Yes sir.” Do you understand that some of them might not need encouragement to try and possess me? I swallowed. “Is there anything I need to know?”

   “Just that if you succeed you will be the first to have succeeded in the full training process Paschalis and I designed.” Mr. Sotto said with a grin. “You will be the first true Enlightened. You should feel honored.”

   “Of course I do sir.” I lied “I’m ready to begin.” Sotto’s grin grew wider.

   “That’s the spirit Janelle! Ready for anything.”

   “I’ll go first.” Mirna said. “Sotto says you’re the strongest Channeler he’s ever seen, did you know that?” My stomach dropped.

   “Heh, no I didn’t. Really wishing he hadn’t said that…”

   “Well he did.” Mirna said. “That is very high praise you know.” Sometimes you don’t need to tap in order to feel envy. “He never said that about me you know.” Of course he didn’t. “It must be nice to be that strong.”

   “That’s enough.” Sotto said. “Start the test.”

   “But of course sir.” Mirna closed her eyes.

   When a spirit tries to take you, what you feel depends on the spirit and the force they use. If you are not gifted, a spirit has to be reckless for you to feel it from the get go. But if you have my gifts, you can feel it the moment it starts to burrow into you.

   I feel you. I closed my eyes. I’m drawing you in.

   In my mind I see my abilities as a shield surrounding my body. It exists as a haze, always there without overwhelming me. When I draw a spirit in, I see that shield drawing in like a funnel. It appears around my chest and goes down to my core.

   To where my soul resides.

   Eli be with me please. The thing is even in my fantasy the shield around me never vanishes. Instead it creates a sink hole to my center, with one very small opening. That means the spirit can’t overwhelm me, it has to go into the small hole. This gives me a degree of control.

   I’m afraid though only a degree. The spirit can still fight against my mental barrier and break it down. And no matter what I will feel something from the spirit.

   You’re scared. And you’re angry. I understand. I began to pull the spirit in. As I did my fingers and toes began to tingle. It’s an unnatural tingle, like someone is pinching your muscles.

   The deeper the spirit enters into you, the more your body is no longer your body. It’s a shared vessel, your soul and the other spirit. It manifests as numbness, that’s your body struggling for control between you or the invader. The numbness will spread throughout your limbs until everything tingles.

   Come deeper into me. Don’t be afraid. You can’t hurt anymore. The spirit was about half way to my core. It’s sorrow now washed over me. I could begin to see images in my head, but they didn’t make sense. Just snatches of light, a face, a house, and many glasses of ale.

   You enjoyed a good drink. Nothing wrong with that. I don’t want to hurt you. The speech was less for the spirit’s benefit then for mine. A strong Channeler finds their balacnce, that point between keeping the spirit coming in and keeping control of your body. To keep balance, you must be as calm as possible.

   My arms didn’t shake, nor did my heart beat waver. The spirit flowed into me like water. As the numbness seemed to consume me, the spirit entered my core.

   “Spirit, are you in Janelle’s body?” Mirna asked.

   “Yes ma’am.” A voice, not my voice, spoke through my mouth.

   “Janelle, are you still in your body, in control?”

   “Yes ma’am.” I called out. I wish I could have opened my eyes to see the changes my body underwent. With two spirits, your body changes to a vessel that best fits both. Not that you feel it, all you feel is numbness.

   If I opened my eyes I could see the changes. But then I’d lose my balance and it would all be over.

   “Good. Janelle, begin to remove the spirit. Spirit, resist everything she does.” Oh how I wish you hadn’t said that.

   Pulling a spirit in is easy, removing one is hard. It’s like trying to remove an arrow shaft with your bare hands. But your eyes are closed and you’re not using your hands but your ellbows. I began to close the hole I had drawn the spirit into. In doing so I would force the spirit back.

   Return to where you’re from. You are leaving now. The emotions of the spirit began to rage against me. When getting rid of a spirit, the battle is an emotional and spiritual one. Emotions are your tools and thoughts are your weapons. If the spirit distracts you or breaks your concentration, it’s all over.

   Images from the spirit began to run even faster and more fractured. My mind was awash in new feelings, each one leaving me a bit more exhausted. I began to feel like my body was aching from running a marathon.

   You’re almost gone. Removing a spirit is much harder than channeling it for another reason. You have to direct where the spirit goes when it exits your body. Essentially you grab the spirit, reach for a suitable place and force the spirit in.

   If you don’t the spirit will return to where they last were. Your body.

   I closed the funnel completely and attempted to grab the spirit. Mentally this is trying to control a rush of emotions and non-sense, all designed to break your thoughts. The spirit tried by hitting me with a wall of anger so intense my thoughts stopped for a moment.

   But only a moment. You have to focus.

   I moved the arms of my spirit out, looking for the empty soul gem. It presented itself as a sucking void, something that wanted to pull my spirit in. Got it. Now I focused my control on the spirt and began to move it into the gem.

   The spirit began struggling even harder, forcing every emotion and memory against me it could. My will weakened slightly, not enough to give it a chance. In seconds the spirit’s force began to fade as it entered the gem. It grew weaker and weaker, until it was gone all together. I opened my eyes.

   “Done.” I said, exhaling.

   Sotto gave a small clap, but Umaro held up a hand.

   “Now it’s my turn.” Umaro grinned. “I think we can both agree there need be no rest between spirits. What with you being such a powerful Channeler.” Son of a bitch. I nodded and again closed my eyes as Umaro held up his gem.

   Once again I waited until the spirit crashed into my body. This time though it hit me with such force I could feel the inside of my head ringing. I again started to open the funnel to let the spirit in.

   The emotions I felt this time about knocked me on my tail-free bottom. Instead of anger, what I felt was joy. Insane and completely uncontrollable joy. The images though were of blood, death, fires and lots of screaming.

   What on Earth happened…I don’t want you in my body. I want you out. But I deepened the funnel and let it closer to my soul. This one flowed like a taint into me. As I lost my limbs I felt a chill running through my body.

   What are you doing to me? What do you want? A peel of laughter echoed through my head and almost out of my mouth. Finally, the spirit entered into my core. And now comes the fun part.

   The spirit didn’t just enjoy having control of part of my body. It reveled in it. My arms began to shake and I had to focus to control them.

   “Spirit, are you inside of Janelle?” Umaro’s voice seemed to come from miles away.

   “Don’t ya know it sharp eyes!” My mouth chirped. Umaro laughed.

   “And Janelle do you still have some control over your body?” I clicked my tongue against the roof of my mouth.

   “Yeah-yes sir I am.” I said.

   “Good, nice to see this spirit is causing you no trouble what so ever which is what I wanted!” He said, drawing out each word as long as possible. “Now Janelle, you who are channeling this spirt oh so very very very well.”

   “Hurry up.” I stammered. I couldn’t see it but I know Umaro was smirking.

   “You’ll channel the spirit back into its vessel and you will do so within sixty seconds. Sixty that is from the moment I say to do so, understood?” I nodded, trying to keep a grip on my body. My mind was being hammered on all sides from emotions, sensations and memories from this insane spirit.

   “I understand.” I forced out through clenched teeth. “Please just start.”

   “Oh I don’t want to tax your delicate mental state.” Umaro said in a sing-song voice. “But if I want to take a while then I can take a while and all—

   “Umaro enough!” Sotto snapped. “Janelle, channel the spirit into the soul gem now.” Umaro huffed but made no more protest.

   Thank you Eli. I began to push the disgusting spirit out of my brain. It fought back but keeping it inside of me so long, I knew what it would try.

   Even as it left I could feel its residue on my mind. Like a film on your skin from sticking your hand in slime. Maybe that’s why I was rather reckless getting rid of this spirit. I said before, you need to have your balance, a sense of absolute calm.

   I wasn’t calm at all though. I was pushing the spirit out of my body as fast as I could, closing any opening with joy. Unfortunately the spirt noticed this and started rushing out of me also. Remember, part of the test is controlling where it goes.

   Damn it. The spirit slipped free and went right out of my grasp. In seconds I felt it trying to get back in. Before I could grab it, it was off. I tried to catch it again only to feel it slip through my grasp.

   “Thirty seconds Janelle.” Umaro said, no doubt to help me.

   I tried to grab it again and finally got it in my grasp. It squirmed and struggled, sending me images of bloodshed and feelings of joy. I pushed my disgust and pushed the spirit into its soul gem. I then opened my eyes.

   “Done.” Umaro frowned. Didn’t matter, I had succeeded no matter what he wanted. Sotto smiled and gave me a thumbs up.

   “Well I guess you did your best.” Umaro mumbled, turning away from me. “There is still one more to go.”

   “That’s right” Sotto said, shooting Umaro a withering look, “Just one more test. Just channel the spirit I have selected.” I nodded. “No time for rest Janelle. We must begin.”

   “Ri-right.” That last spirit left me mentally exhausted. And in my bones I knew this one would be the worst.

   There was no way to prepare for this spirit. When this spirit hit me I felt something I never expected. Intense physical pain. My whole body began to burn like I had ignited. I bit my tongue to stop myself from screaming. And slowly I pulled the spirit in.

   This spirit…this time is different. The burning began to move through my skin, into my muscles. This time is doomed.

   “What is this?” I rasped through gritted teeth.

   “Something inhuman.” Sotto said. As if I couldn’t figure that much out on my own. “It is not like anything you have ever done before.

   This spirit didn’t want to give me emotions or memories. I couldn’t speak to it. I could just be burned with the intense pain of these flames.

   Concentrate Janelle. My knees buckled. Concentrate! I braced my arm against the ground. I could feel the spirit laughing. Then someone was speaking.

   “I admit she lasted longer than I expected. But she collapsed.”

   “No part of this test required her to be standing.” Sotto said. “She is allowed to collapse if it’s this creature. I did my first time.” I grit my teeth.

   I won’t give you the satisfaction. Slowly I rolled onto my knees and then pushed myself up to two legs. I grinned.

   Oh Eli I will give you anything just make this pain stop. I resumed pulling the spirit into my core. When it crossed the halfway point the pain became unbearable.

   I don’t know how I could continue to pull it inside of me, but I found a way. It was drawn deeper and the pain still intensified. Now I was screaming in my head. I might have been screaming externally as well, I can’t remember.

   It’s almost there. When the spirit entered my core, some unbelievable warmth began to radiate through me.

   “Janelle, are you still in control?” Sotto asked. My chest began to constrict. My lungs were on fire but somehow I grasped at air.

   “I am.” I forced out.

   “Spirit, are you there?” My mouth dropped open like a hinge. Fire shot out from inside of my throat. That’s why I chose to open my eyes.

   I wish I hadn’t.

   Wha-wha-wha-what the fu—My body was on fire. I could see through the fire, I could see my skin and clothing just underneath the flames. They didn’t burn, but I could feel the fire burning me.

   “Don’t fear Janelle.” Sotto shouted. I ended up screaming anyway. “Keep calm Janelle. You can get through this.”

   How on Earth can I get through this? I’m on fire! You set me on fire you fucking monster!

   “Janelle focus on my voice.” Sotto yelled over the roar of the flames. “Find your balance and start to push the spirit out. My legs were shaking. I spread them, anchoring myself better. “Janelle you don’t have to” I held up a hand.

   “I need to find my balance.” I whispered. Slowly I began to force the spirit out of my body. I began to hurt less but at the same time I began to lose my focus. I could feel the spirit just at the edge of my mind, always about to slip away.

   And I wanted it to slip away. This was like touching fire and it burned my mind. But I pushed on anyway.

   Slowly the spirit began to fully emerge from my body. I held it as best I could, but touching it filled me with agony. So I threw it at what I thought was the jar and hoped for the best. I opened my eyes.

   Mr. Sotto stared at me with cold eyes. Nothing moved and I could hear nothing except the roar of blood in my ears. Slowly though Sotto began to smile. From there he applauded, slowly at first and then vigorously.

   “You’ve done it Janelle.” Umaro and Mirna tried holding back scowls I think, I can’t remember. Maybe I don’t remember correctly. They may have applauded. Sotto though was beaming with joy. “You’ve succeeded in your final test. You are a full Enlightened now. You should rest.”

   “Rest…” I grinned. “I could really go for that…” My knees buckled. Sotto rushed over but I did not collapse. I was awake. I had made it.

Metamor Keep

March 31st, 707

Janelle: 23 Hours remaining

   What do you do when you begin a case with no leads, no suspects and no evidence? You find leads, suspects and evidence to give your investigation some direction. Which was what I was currently doing, sitting with Lacie in our “interview” room.

   Lacie wasn’t making eye-contact with me. She had her tail pulled into her lap and kept stroking it. I snapped my fingers to get her attention.

   “I am sorry this doesn’t interest you, but you are my main witness. I want to know everything.” I said. “We’d not be holding this woman at all were it not for your testimony.”

   “You have my testimony.” Lacie said. “I work as a washwoman, I take people’s clothes for them. If I don’t do it, I don’t get paid. I need to be going right now.”

   “Well you’re going to have to take a sick day.” I said. “You testified that woman we’re holding is a murderer and she seems to corroborate it. How do you even remember her?” Lacie’s eyes narrowed.

   “I’m good with faces. And more importantly good with people trying to kill me.” I frowned.

   “Lots of people were trying to kill you.” I said. “They were trying to kill all of us. Generally in a seige, everyone in the city is the enemy.”

   “Well I remember this enemy.” Lacie said. “I saw her supervising a team of mercenaries.” I frowned.

   “Why on Earth would she be supervising mercenaries?” I asked.

   “Excuse me?”

   “Chamomile is a mage. She should be setting buildings on fire. She hardly screams tactical genius.” Lacie looked down at the table. Tapping her mind revealed feelings of uncertainty but she was sure that Chamomile was at the Assault, working for Nasoj.

   “I-I it’s really weird.” Lacie said. “But I saw her there and she is our enemy! She had a black tunic, black linen pants, a velvet lined cloak with a small tear on the left side.” My surprise made Lacie laughed. “I’m good with clothes. Gotta be when you do laundry. I put faces to outfits.”

   “Your memory is impressive.” I said. “So you watched her?” Lacie shook her head.

   “Not for long. I kinda needed to escape. But I something weird.” Lacie’s voice dropped off. She seemed to be looking through me, back into the past. “One of the mercenaries took an arrow through the throat. I don’t know if it was ours.”

   “Both possible in such a situation.” I said.

   “Yes but this was weird. The woman, Chamomile? She tried to heal the mercenary…” For the first time I paused. Interesting.

   “A mercenary is a hired sword. If one dies it shouldn’t matter to her. Why did she care?” I asked. Lacie shrugged.

   “I don’t know. There was another one there, I’m certain working for the enemy.” Lacie’s whiskers drooped. “They were like really evil.

   “Like that woman they wore black. They had a sword though and started arguing with that Chamomile. And then they took their sword and stabbed that injured mercenary.” Lacie shook her head. “I don’t know why.”

   “The same reason you do with a horse that breaks its leg.” I said. “The goal is move fast and hit hard. No time to treat the wounded.” I nodded. My thoughts began to race in every direction.

   “That was when I saw her.” Lacie said. “I’d love to help, but I’m busy. And trust me, I’d really love to see that bitches head in a basket. Now” She stood up, “I’m ready to go.”

   I escorted her out. I could have questioned her more, but Chamomile’s own confession was damning. How do I overcome that?

   If you ever find yourself investigating a crime like I did, here is something to remember. Your goal is not to overcome the evidence. Your goal is to solve the mystery and bring justice to all those involved.

   Justice is the one thing I know I can always believe in. It is impersonal and uncaring. It doesn’t matter if you were born the weakest beggar or the greatest king. No one is above justice. That includes Duke Thomas, Andwyn, Triche and even myself. If we commit a crime, we will be punished accordingly. The goal of the investigator is to figure out the mystery around the crime.

   “And what have I found out? I don’t have anything but a confession…” I laughed, “And the thoughts of a woman I can’t share with anyone. Thoughts are hardly evidence now are they?” I sat down in my chair. “Oh Eli help me here.”

   I was in the interrogation room by myself. The quiet soothed my racing thoughts. “Okay, where did I find Chamomile? Go there, canvas the area and look for other witnesses. See if anyone else…else what? I can’t get information from Chamomile…”

   I had tried again but now my prisoner wouldn’t deign to talk to me. I had no idea where she was staying or what she had been doing over the last week. What I knew was where I had arrested her and what I found on her.

   She had some twine on her. What does that tell me? Not a blasted thing. But I can head to the street where I found her at least. Maybe find some people who remember seeing her around…

   “Nothing else for me to do. When all else fails, scour for witnesses. I can do that much.” Not much of a goal but it pushed me forward and out of that room. As I exited the Watch House I almost ran smack into someone coming in.

   “Oh Janie!” Remmie chirped, “Glad to see you, I got me some news.” I sighed.

   “Yes and I will be very glad to hear it Warden but right now I am on a deadline, I need to be leaving.” Remmie’s pea-soup eyes narrowed.

   “Deadline? You got a case or something?” I nodded. “Want help? I got the rest of the day off, I can be your legs!” That idea hardly appealed to me. I mean, who wants to lead someone this energetic in an investigation like this? Instead of yelling though, I thought about it.

   A Sergeant does need to be able to manage an investigation. This would be a great way to prove I could…. I smiled at Remmie. Besides, I still think she’ll be a good Warden. Let’s see if I’m right.

   “Alright Warden. You want to help? You can help. You’ll help by doing all the grunt work.”

   “Done.” Remmie said. Good response. When I worked my first case that was what I had to do as well. I nodded.

   “You will not talk back or question my orders, understood? I give an order, you follow.” Remmie nodded. I Tapped her mind and found a sense of resolve. She would follow my orders and do what I needed. “Alright then, follow me. I’ll give you the details of the case as we go.”

   Many of the roads in Keep Town look the same, cluttered and damaged from the Yule assault. A beating like the one I had seen was only a momentary disruption, quickly swept away. When I returned to the street, the crowd had returned.

   “Okay, this is where I arrested Chamomile.” I said. “I had to escort her back to the Watchhouse to keep the mob from tearing her apart.”

   “Couldn’t get names?”


   “How bad could the mob be?” Remmie asked. “We got clubs. All we need to do is crack-crack ‘em and they’ll back down.”

   “Yes but I try not to crack them unless I can help it.” I said. “Now, you take the streets to the east, I’ll take the west. Remember my description of the witness.” Remmie nodded and we set off.

   In the Romances a Warden’s life is endless action and intrigue. No one ever writes about the hours spent walking up and down the same streets scouring for witnesses.

   “Her name is Chamomile; she was walking in this area earlier today? Are you sure you haven’t seen her?” I asked an age regressed young girl. I curled my tail around my legs. She shook her head.

   “Sorry lady, I’ve been inside most uh today.” She pointed at the symbol on my tabard. “That looks nice, where’d ya get it?” I looked at the lantern.

   “I got it for joining the Watch.” Her eyebrows raised.

   “Metamor Keep does have a watch! Wow I forgot you guys were here.”

   “Have a nice day ma’am.” That was the third one to tell me they didn’t know we existed. It’s nice to be appreciated.

   By now my legs ached from walking and my tail ached from having roughly a million people step on it. Including the little girl as she walked by. “Owe!”

   I sat against the side of a building and pulled my tail into my lap. I rubbed at the bruised and now bloodied tip. “I need…I don’t know what I need.” I sighed. “What on Earth do I do now?”

   Janelle you can whine or you can walk. Which will it be? I stood up again, still rubbing my aching tail. Good answer.

   I tried to drape my tail over my shoulders and set of looking for new witnesses. I ran down a side street and came upon a Tapir.

   The Tapir’s fur was pale with age and his whiskers had grown long. Two tufts of fur marked his drooping ears. The fur on his arms was patchy and his fingers were gnarled with age. The Tapir smiled as I came up and I noted his left eye looked milky.

   He was sitting in a chair with wheels crudely attached to it. He was dressed in a dirty tunic with a blanket wrapped around his legs. Beside him sat a Nine Men’s Morris board with an upturned bucket acting as a second seat. I moved over to him and waved. He gave me a nod.

   “Good day Warden, how goes it?”

   “It goes well.” I lied. “I’ve been canvassing the area looking for information relating to someone, a human woman. I was hoping to speak to you about any information you might have.” I gave Chamomile’s description, which got his trunk to raise. “Do you know something?”

   “Chamomile? Yes I know her. She’s been coming around for the last week or so. I know where she’s livin’.”

   “Where would this be?” The Tapir grinned. I knew that grin. “Excuse me I’m being rude, what would you like for sharing this information?” Because there is always something. Never forget there is always something. The Tapir gestured at the bucket.

   “Have a seat? I’d love to talk ‘bout where Chamomile is.” I sighed and sat down, trying to find the best place to put my tail. Eli blast this scaled monstrosity. I settled curling it across my lap.

   “As I am a member of the Watch you should give me this information for free.” I said.

   “Yep, should but won’t. Names Valez.” He grinned as best he could with that snout of his. “And I don’t want much. Just a friendly game of Morris.” I frowned. “I gotta sit outside all day, I watch people walk or I play games.”

   “Why not just read?” I asked.

   “Don’t like ta read, like to play games. You want in or not?” I grit my teeth. “Atta girl Warden, we’ll have a whole lotta fun.”

   What he assumed was that I was over a barrel for information, and he was correct. He also assumed I couldn’t play Nine Men’s Morris. Oh very bad mistake. Kaysar’s checker board had a Morris board on the back side and we had played many times.

   The key to all board games I find is focus. Never think about how much better you are than them. Never think about how much better they are than you. Focus and plan what to do next.

   I set up a mill quickly and snatched a piece. He got me back but I did two mills in a row, taking two more.

   “Heh I guess you’ve played before. Most people ‘round here don’t have time for games. Least not this one.”

   “That’s great.” I said. “Move or answer my questions. He formed a second mill, instead of blocking my piece. This allowed me another quick two mills. “I’m two pieces away from winning. You want to finish this after we talk?”

   “Nope, we finish the game no matter how short it is.” Valez eyed my hands, the board and then turned his gaze to me. He slid one of his pieces hoping to set up a double mill.

   I blocked him, creating a mill in the process and snatching his set piece. “One more to go.” Valez gave a nervous laugh.

   “No no no, now I’ve got you right where I want you.” Tapping him revealed that no he did not. Valez moved a stone, but it didn’t matter. Another mill, another piece leaving him unable to win.

   “Okay well that was short thankfully.” I said. “I am in the middle of an investigation which by my count only has twenty-one hours left. As such I do not have time for this, I need answers and I need them now.”

   “How did you beat me?” Valez mumbled. “Do you know how often I play this?” My patience, already short, was gone.

   “Answers!” I slammed my fist against the board, bouncing all the pieces. “I’m not here to discuss games. Tell me about Chamomile.”

   “Janie!” I turned to see Remmie running over. “Janie glad I found you. Saw a few people who remembered her walking around, and I got the houses she visited.” I nodded slowly.

   “She’s talking to people here. Odd for a spy to be that exposed.” I stood up. “This fine gentleman is Valez, who was about to tell me the inn where Chamomile was staying at, wasn’t he?” Valez gave me a very oily smile and nodded.

   “She was at the uh Shoeshine Inn. She went there every evening, I know cuz she told me over a game. Usually we played when she was comin’ back from the library.” I nodded.

   “How often did she visit the library?” I asked.

   “Every single day. Never brought a book back, only went after harrassin’ people.” I nodded.

   “What did she harass people over?” Valez shrugged.

   “Don’t know. Just know she did.” I nodded and turned to Remmie.

   “Come on Warden, let’s march.” I took her far enough so the Tapir couldn’t hear us. “I want you to go to the library. Find out every book Chamomile read, if…who is running the library?”

   “I don’t really know…” Remmie laughed. “I know it’s someone new. Hope they can remember.”

   “They won’t remember every book.” I said. “We just need some. Our goal is to get a good idea of what she’s reading. Do you have the names and locations of the people she spoke too?” Remmie nodded and handed me a scrap of parchment. “I’m going to check these out, then the Shoeshine Inn.”

Twenty-One Hours Remaining

   I knocked on the first door on the list and was greeted by a walking sentient mop. Or rather a Sheepdog, shaggy even for a sheepdog. Only his nose could be seen emerging from the wall of fur.

   “Can I help you?” He asked.

   “Uh yes. I am looking for a Mr. Iselief?” The Sheepdog’s ears perked up. “I assume I’ve found him? Uh hello my name is Janelle of the Metamor Watch.” I extended my hand. The Sheepdog shook it very slowly.

   “I…okay, would you like to come in?” Iselief slowly moved out of the way and gestured to his table. The room was unusually cold. The shock of this on my tail caused me to pull it onto the table. Iselief stared at it, then me.

   “Sorry about that.” I laughed nervously but left my tail on his table. “I was here to speak to you about a woman named Chamomile—“

   “Who?” Iselief asked.

   “Woman, human. Probably asked for a hair sample?” I could almost see his black eyes lit up from behind the veil of fur.

   “Oh my yes I know who that is! How on Earth could I forget her.” He laughed. “I used to work as a whitesmith before the Curse. Now I instruct smiths instead of making things. Too hot with this fur coat, ya know?”

   “No I don’t.” I said.

   “Anyway you know, I hear a lot of strange questions from them.” He continued. “She gave me the strangest I’ve ever been asked.”

   “How strange?” I asked. He licked his nose as he thought about it, tapping on the table.

   “How long have you been cursed?”

   “Since the Three Gates.” I said. “I was there the day it happened.” I had been in the Watch only a few months, but I’ll get to that soon.

   “Well I was there also.” Iselief said. “And she wanted to know when I was cursed. And when I said since the beginning, she wanted a hair sample.” My tail began to thump against the table.

   “A hair sample? Just a hair sample?” This fit with an idea I had. Just a theory of course, but something. Little things seemed to fit together. “That’s interesting. Did you give her one?”

   “Yeah I did.” He said. “Mostly to get her to leave. She scared the daylights out of me in all honesty.” I nodded. “What’s happened to her?”

   “She’s been arrested.”

   “What for?” I shook my head.

   “I’m afraid I can’t say. We’re working out some issues.” Iselief nodded.

   “For what it’s worth, she scared me but I didn’t dislike her.” He began tapping harder. “Be gentle with her Warden. I dunno what happened but I can tell ya, that woman’s been through the ringer.”

   Every name Remmie had for me brought me to the same conversation. Chamomile had gone after anthros primarily, looking for those with long hair (though she did take one scale sample). The questions she asked all had to do with the curse, with when and where they had been when cursed.

   She took samples from people who had been cursed a long time, a few years or just weeks. In one case she took five samples from one person, changed for only a week.

   I made sure to see how she presented herself to each subject. Chamomile’s behavior came off as strange to put it mildly. She had the razor focus of a scholar conducting experiments, while at the same time having the persona of someone wracked with guilt.

   These clues began to paint a picture for me, but I had no confirmation yet. Nothing to do except check out the Shoeshine Inn.

South of Metamor


   I remember the crickets chirping. And I remember my disappointment. All of that work, and I didn’t feel any different. And no one seemed to care.

   I didn’t expect a party for succeeding in my test. I didn’t expect anyone to celebrate. What I did expect were congratulations from the others. And I did get some…from Sotto. Umaro and Mirna after my test spent the rest of their day in their tent, only coming out for dinner.

   And what a dinner it was. Nothing quite as nice as sitting in silence around a campfire, no one able to bear looking at each other. I got a smile out of Sotto but indifference out of the others. I wanted to Tapp their minds, there had to be some reason they weren’t happy for my success. But the two of them seemed to radiate power, so I decided against Tapping.

   They’d know what I was trying. Then I’d be in real trouble. So I sat in silence. Finally the dinner from hell ended and we each retired to our tents. I went into Sotto’s, I had more to talk about.

   “How do you feel Janelle?” I shrugged. “Better?”

   “I needed some rest.” I said. “I do feel better now I guess. Things are…okay…” The tent was lit by a lantern in the corner. Beside the lantern was Sotto’s bag, stuffed tight and with a single knife strapped to the side. He saw me looking at it.

   “When you find a warrior spirit, you’ll need a weapon as well.” Sotto said, smiling. “The spirit will choose your weapon.” I nodded. Sotto’s face was almost invisible in the dark of the tent. The golden glow seemed to grow smaller with each flicker of the flame.

   “I wish I could tell people about my abilities.” I said. “I mean, we’re mages too essentially. Why should we hide what makes us special?”

   “Because people don’t understand.” Sotto said. “Being able to read minds, to speak to the dead? This scares most people. I know full well.” He glanced away. “I told someone once.” I perked up at this. Outside the crickets were chirping.


   “Oh along time ago,” Sotto said. “It was during the best time of my life with the woman of my dreams. Her name was Devone. She reminded me of you.”

   “She did?”

   “Red hair, winning smile and a low tolerance for lies. Yeah she reminded me a lot of you.” He sighed. “But she didn’t handle a lover who could read her mind very well. She became worried about thinking out of turn…and I regret how I reacted.”

   The flames in the lantern began to die, shrinking the golden halo. It left Mr. Sotto almost completely in dark. I heard nothing but his heavy breathing. “That was a long time ago. I don’t want you to ever have to go through what I did.”

   “Thank you sir.” I said. Sotto began to say something, but the words seemed to catch in his throat. “Sir?”

   “Janelle…you’re now a full Enlightened. I think it’s time I tell you about these jars…” He swallowed, “And about how I acquired the spirits inside of them.”

   I remember outside the crickets were chirping.

Eighteen Hours Remaining

   The Shoeshine Inn was amazingly in one piece. In fact it was the only Inn I could name that wasn’t a ruin. It had some soot and smoke damage, but no holes in the building. It was in very good shape.

   It was also very empty. Curses, sieges and anthros are bad for business. The entrance to the building was dust free and quiet. Grey light streamed in from the washed windows, highlighting every empty chair and table. I shook my head at the sight.

   It’s a nice place. Curses and warfare make everything difficult. My feet clacked on the stone floors. The front desk was empty, though the door to the back room was open. I knocked against the wood.

   “Hello? Is anyone here?” There was a pause. Then a rumbling voice.

   “Yeah. My…daughter will be along to check you in soon. She’s just run off on an errand.” I knocked again.

   “My name is Corporal Janelle of the Metamor Watch. I need to speak with you about a patron.” I don’t know why I always include my title as part of my name. It’s rather odd isn’t it?

   I could hear a chair squeak as someone stood. A large black bear morph lumbered out, a smile on his muzzle.

   “Sorry, I stay in the back.” He said. “Visitors to the Keep kinda get scared by the whole…” He gestured with his claws to his fangs. “My name is Kemper!” He said, extending a paw. I took it in my hand, avoiding his claws.

   “Pleasure.” I said. “I am looking for a woman named Chamomile.” The bears cocked his head. “I take it you know of her?”

   “Yeah, she asked to be switched three times.” Kemper said. “First room wasn’t right, second room wasn’t right and she didn’t want her shoes shined!” I blinked.


   “Free shoe shine with your stay!” Kemper said. His spittle hit me in the face. “It’s one of our selling points. Plus few things are quite as fun as shining a set of shoes!” I looked down at my dented, frayed and oversized boots.

   “I will take your word for that.”

    “Yeah it doesn’t seem exciting, but my wife loves and so do I.” I nodded, wiping my face. “I even found a way to do it without turning shoes to scraps with these things.” He gestured at his claws. “Besides, gives me something to do with the lady I love.”

   “That is very nice. Ms. Chamomile has been arrested, I will need to see her room...” I shook my head, “In fact, let’s see the first two rooms also if they’re empty.”

   “She’s been arrested? That’s terrible. Don’t worry, all three are empty.” Kemper said. He scooped a key ring off a nail in the wall. “Come on, first one is down this way.

   The first room was what you’d expect from an Inn Room. It was on the ground floor with nice carpeting and a small fireplace. The bed was nice if a bit musty looking. In general, the room looked like it hadn’t been slept in in a long time.

   “Why didn’t you like this place?” I mumbled. The only window looked out on the wall of a building, little light streamed down from between the rooftops. “Was it the window? Was that what bothered you?”

   Thump-Thump-Thump! I jumped back, banging my head against the wall. “What on Earth? Be quiet!” More thumping answered me.

   I rubbed my eyes. Thump-Thump-Thump! “I can’t think with all of this noise. Be quiet!” I shook my first at the ceiling. Of course more thumping followed. “Eli gave us magic, you think we’d use it to block out noise like that…” I returned to my examination as soon as the thumping stopped.

   I lifted up the carpet. The floor was stone, with not a loose stone to be found. The fireplace was clean, ash free and underused. Nothing in here aside from the noise seemed all that bad to me.

   “Maybe I’m over thinking things.” I mumbled. “The room above is creating enough noise, maybe she just wanted a good night’s sleep…” I sighed. “Okay, I will have to return home by eight, I need to get to work in the other rooms.”

   I signaled too Kemper I was done, and we moved on to the second room. This one was on the upper floor with people on both sides. Once again I could hear them through the walls.

   “I thought you said this place was largely empty.” I said.

   “We have a few customers.” Kemper said. “I just put them together.” He unlocked the door and left me. I resumed my search. This room was much like the other, except the room had more sun due to being on the second level. The floor was also wood beams, so solid they didn’t creek when I walked on them.

   “Loud again,” I mumbled, “Is that the only reason?” The room had a very nice wooden desk, turned away from the window. I tried moving it, too heavy. I turned out the window and got a good view of the roof across the way.

   “Can’t see people here…are people are what interest? Yes, yes they are.” I smiled, “You wanted to see people. That might not be the only reason, but you wanted to see the people. Why did you want to see them?” I sat down on the bed.

   “You’re not a warrior, you’re a scholar. That’s why you were so picky about the room.” I grinned. “Because you had to be in control. Everything, down to the room you chose had to be perfect. Because you were here to do something, but it wasn’t attack us. You were running an experiment…”

   Yeah but to do what? I had a pretty good idea, which was...actually, why don’t you figure it out? I returned to Kemper. “Take me to Chamomile’s room now.”

   Chamomile’s room was the room at the very end of the hall, in the odd corner where two walls met at an extreme angle. The hallway here was darker and the floor almost had dust. No one had been through here in quite a while.

   What I noticed right away about her room was the window. It was in the shadow of the buildings of the Keep, but it also looked down on the streets people traveled. I could see them thronging about, moving rapidly from one destination to another. “Well, at least you can now see them…”

   The desk in this room was right under the window. Her desk had three empty, small metal plates on it and many candle grease stains. I picked up one of the plates. “Fur…” A few small hairs clung stubbornly to the metal. I sat the plate down again. “You were using the fur to test your work.”

   The room otherwise looked like a danker version of the first two. The room was a lot lower due to the odd angles of the walls. The bed was wedged into one corner as tight as it could go, and it didn’t look like it had seen any use.

   In fact, none of this room had seen any use except the desk. I noted the floor creaked as I walked over it. “What were you doing in here?” I returned to the desk. The grease of many many candles greeted me.

   “Okay you’ve melted down a lot of candles? Why so many late nights? Because you were working on something. And I’m pretty sure I know what.” I rubbed my eyes. “I wonder….”

   I examined the hairs as best I could. Not easy to do when you have only your fat fingers to pick them up. Still…. Now that’s something new.

   These hairs were bristly at the top, but the further down you went the less stiff they were. Interesting…

Seventeen Hours Remaining

   Remmie and I met up back at the Watchhouse. The sun was low and it was threatening to rain. A damp chill always helps with work. I had just finished filling Remmie in on everything I found. Her eyes narrowed into slits.

   “What does it mean Janie?”

   “Corporal Janelle.” I corrected. “And I’m not certain. I have an idea but I don’t know if it’s valid…sorry.” I sighed. “Something about that room bothered me and I can’t figure out what.”

   “You said she’s a scholar.” Remmie said. “What does a scholar need?” I shrugged.

   “Supplies, which would be the hair and the like. A place to work, which she had. Research materials.”

   “Which I have.” Remmie said, fishing a scrap of parchment from her pocket. “I uh got a list of some of the books she looked at. Chamomile only looked at stuff from after the curse. Hell, almost all of it was about the curse.” I nodded.

   Exactly what I thought.

   “She also read some books on biology, few books on animals. Everything else though was about the curse.” Remmie looked up from the list. “What does that mean?”

   “It means Chamomile came because of the curse.” I said. “What that means? I don’t know. And as of noon tomorrow, it won’t matter, because she’ll be in Andwyn’s custody. He’ll get an answer.” Remmie nodded.

   “Why not just turn her in?” Remmie asked. I turned to her.

   “Excuse me?”

   “Why not just let Andwyn’s fancy boy take her away? Let Chamomile be someone else’s problem.” Now dear listener, realize I wasn’t just mad. I was furious. I had to take a moment just to calm myself before I could respond.

   “Remmie,” I grit my teeth, “Do you think I am doing this just because it pisses off Andwyn?” Remmie grinned.

   “Well I would be because—

   “Stop grinning!” I yelled. Remmie’s eyes popped with surprise. She also stopped grinning. “I despise Andwyn for being a glorified criminal. But I am not doing this because I despise him. I am doing this because I am a member of the Watch.

   “Being a member of the Watch means you put your case above your feelings. In the Watch you resolve crimes. You match justice to the crime committed. And if someone is lying to you, you find out why.

   “Chamomile is lying, she’s not a murderer, or at least not at the Yule. I don’t know why she’s doing it, but I know this. As a Warden, it is my duty to find out why. We wear this lantern because we are supposed to be lights in the darkness Remmie. We expose lies and find the truths they seek to conceal.” I stood up. “That is why I won’t hand her over. Not until I’ve found out the truth or run out of time.”

   “That’s…really something.” Remmie said. “I…I don’t know what to say.” I shrugged.

   “It is what it is.” I said. “It’s my perspective on what we do. You’ll have to decide why it is you do this.” Remmie nodded. “I have to be getting home, my nanny is two hours over due to get home and my son needs me. We will resume early tomorrow, understood?”

   “Yeah I got it Janie.” Remmie stood up. “Thank you Janelle.” I gave her a nod before leaving.

   While I left for home, Remmie made her way to Chamomile’s cell. Sebastian was sitting at the top of the hall near the door. He smirked as Remmie entered.

   “Going to speak to her too?”

   “That’s the plan.” Remmie said. “Afterwords I’m going to get a drink at the Deaf Tent.” Sebastian nodded and closed his eyes, leaning back against the wall he looked almost at peace. “…I guess I’ll ask you on the way back…”

   Chamomile was fast asleep on her cot. She perked up though the moment Remmie sat down. “You work with the other blue lizard.”

   “Janie is my partner, fighting for your ass.” Remmie said.

   “I’ve said all I need to your boss and your partner. I don’t have anything else to say.” Chamomile laid back down.

   “Yeah but Cammy, I’ve not heard it now have I?” Remmie asked. “Besides, I got a few questions. I saw you got books with you.”

   “Well congratulations for figuring out I read.” Chamomile said. “Anyone who wants to understand Metamor Keep, or any place they’re trying to overrun, needs to have knowledge of it.”

   “You had history books, why them?” Remmie asked.

   “To understand the curse as you know it.” Chamomile said. “That’s what matters.”

   “Yeah but I don’t know why you need to.” Remmie said. “You were with that dickhead who cursed us. You already know all about the curse. Why would you care how it works?” Chamomile went silent. “Why do you have a book on Blackhorne Keep?”

   “I don’t see how that matters.” Chamomile said. “I’m ready for you to leave and ready to be taken off now. Please leave me alone.” Remmie stood up.

   “Why do you care what happened to Blackhorne after Nasoj took it?” Chamomile refused to look up. “Damn it lady, we’re trying to save you!”

   “I don’t want to be saved!” Chamomile snapped. “I want to be left alone.” Remmie sighed.

   “Then it’s going to be your very real funeral.” Remmie walked off, rubbing her eyes. “Lord Eli bless me for I have dealt with stupid asses.” She returned to Sebastian who opened her eyes as she approached. “Gonna stay here all night?”

   “If Andwyn were here I’m sure he would, just to make sure he’s always near the resource.” Sebastian said.

   “You admire him don’t you?” He nodded. “I get that. I like my partner.” Remmie grinned. “Okay, not officially partners but she teaches me a lot.”

   “That’s fascinating.” Sebastian said disinterestedly.

   “Yeah well I was going to ask ya something.” Remmie said. “I figured you’re getting tired sitting here. You wanna go get a drink with me?” Now that got Sebastian’s attention.

   “You want to get a drink with me? Why on Earth would you want that?” Sebastian asked.

   “You seem thirsty.” Remmie said. “I figured, eh he could use a drink. He can’t be as bad as Janelle thinks.” Sebastian opened his mouth but quickly shut it.

   “Another time perhaps.” Remmie sighed.

   “Man work will still be here waiting for you. Relax, take an evening off.” Sebastian ignored her. “Well, alright. Sit here and get ass rot, sounds like fun. You probably got a lot of these nights ahead of you.” Remmie gave him a wave. She was halfway out the door when Sebastian spoke up.

   “Wait…maybe I should.”

Fifteen Hours Remaining

   “Mamma I wanna play!” Kaysar said, grabbing my tabard. I pulled it out of his little grip. “Checkers!”

   “I’m sorry Kaysar, mommy is busy.” I said, only glancing up from my notes. “I will play with you tomorrow, I promise.” My son actually needed to be in bed, but I was too wrapped up in this case to notice what time it was.

   I had taken an hour to eat and another hour to go over every detail of the case. In truth I also needed to be in bed, but my mind couldn’t rest. I needed to know why Chamomile was here, even if it meant handing her over tomorrow.

   When you investigate a case you will formulate many solutions in your head. Eventually one will be the one you are convinced is right. You must do whatever it takes to fight against the blindness brought on by these feelings. Because when you think you’re on the right track, you will be hard pressed to see beyond what you want to see.

   One way that helps me is outlining all the facts of the case. All the evidence and everything it supposedly told me. Right now I had a woman, an outsider claiming to work for Nasoj. At the same time she had a heavy interest in the Curse, which was odd because she should know about it. Supposedly she was here in the Assault but she kept getting facts about it wrong.

   And then there were the hair samples and the desk which showed many long nights spent there. What was she doing with them each night? Why so many? And more importantly, where were they?

   Something is missing here but I don’t know what. I rubbed my eyes. I woke up to early this morning, maybe I need some sleep. No, no I need to focus—

   “Mamma I wanna play!” Kaysar grabbed my tabard and yanked it with all his might. I grit my teeth.

   “Kaysar, I told you no.” I made sure to control the tone in my voice. When my adoptive parents punished me, the thing that most upset them was the angry tone. Of course I always listened, while Kaysar kept pulling.

   “I want too Mamma!” Now he shook my desk.

   “Kaysar—“ In slow motion I saw it happen. My ink well shook back and forth, before toppling over. A wave of ink washed over my list and onto my lap.

   I was furious with anger for only a second. What came next was a feeling of sadness, because my son Kaysar had always been a quiet and obedient child. I’d never had to discipline him. Now I had too.

   “Look what you did!” I took my son and pulled him protesting onto my lap. Kaysar started crying as I started spanking his bottom. Then I stood up, taking him with me. “You are going to bed now!”

   Kaysar cried so loud as I took him to our bedroom. Every step my heart broke a little. It’s funny, I’ve never had trouble with murderers or rapists. It’s having to punish my son that is my impossible task.

   “I don’t want to go to bed!” Kaysar screamed at me, as I tucked him into bed.

   “Yes I know.” I said. “Sleep tight” I left him in his bed and returned to my desk. The ink had dripped onto the floor, destroying my notes for today, along with several blank sheets. “Marvelous…” I sighed.

   My adopted parents were...not bad people. They were hard to please and quick to punish, but not bad people. And with my son I said I would not do as they did. And then Kaysar does stuff like this and I have to punish him.

   I wish I didn’t.

   Tabard is fine, pants are ruined, I shrugged. I can replace those. I sat down to see what I could do about my notes. Okay, it’s not as bad as I thought. I can salvadge some of this. In truth I would have rather been playing checkers with my son tonight. And I could hear him crying still and it was all I could do not to go in there and give him a hug.

   I was never taught how to be a parent, I just became one. I wish their was someone who could tell me how to be the best mother for my son. Sadly no such person exists, you have to figure it out as you go.

   So I waited. I waited until my candle burned down and my son stopped crying. Then I finally went to bed.

Fourteen Hours Remaining

   “I always wanted to be a spy you know.” Sebastian said. His glassy eyes tried and failed to focus on Remmie. “I always knew I would be a good spy, you know? No one ever ever noticed me even when I was trying to be noticed you know?”

   “I think I got it.” Remmie said. The only thing she had touched all night was water, as opposed to the third mazer Sebastian was finishing off. The Linsang’s ears were stuck in a permanent droop while his eyes looked like marbles.

   “You know, I have yet to see you drink.” Sebastian said. “Do you like ale? I like ale. Or wine? I like wine! Or something else?” Remmie smiled.

   “On the farm it helps to be sober. If you’re drunk you’ll break your...well you name a bone. So I never really got into drinking. Besides I’ve dragged enough drunk naked Keepers to the tank I don’t want to join them.”

   “Right right right.” Sebastian said. “That’s right. It’s right.”

   “Is it right?” Remmie asked. The Deaf Tent was smokey, warm and danced with shadows. Remmie could hear pool balls in the distance. She wanted to try breaking her ball swallowing record but that “wasn’t safe”.

   I coughed all four balls up eventually! Remmie shook her head. My throat expands, just because the others can’t swallow a que ball doesn’t mean I can’t.

   “Kay kay I told you why I wanna be a spy.” Sebastian said, poking a finger in her face. “Why you join the Watch? YOu know your ass looks great in blue?” Remmie smirked.

   “My ass looks great in everything. And I always wanted an adventure and you don’t get that with turnips. Came to Metamor to get cursed-

   “You got cursed on purpose!?” Sebastian asked. “Thasss that’s fucking fucked up!” He laughed and leaned back into his chair. Except he had a stool.

   Crash! Remmie sipped her water as two legs spriang into the air. A hand wearily raised off the ground. “I am okay! I am totally okay!”

   “You are totally drunk fuzzbutt.” Remmie said. She grabbed the poor confused Linsang and helped him back onto his stool. “That’s okay, I like drunk guys.” Sebastian’s tail raised and his fur began to tremble.

   “I juss don’t get it, why wanna be a lizard?” Sebastian asked. “That-that is is so weird you know?” Remmie shrugged.

   “Metmor seemed exciting.” Remmie. “And you know what? I liked being blue more than hoeing fields. Plus I can do this!” Remmie grabbed the loose scales under her throat with both hands. She then pulled, expanding them by several inches. Sebastian gave a slow clap.

   “I wanna do that.” Sebastian said. “All I can do is the spy bitch work. I bet Andwyn was never a bitch.”

   “I doubt he started by being put in charge of a spy ring.” Remmie said. “It is kind of fucked up we know the head of Metamor intelligence by name. You’d think they’d want that to be a secret, like the Long Scouts!”

   “I guess, I dunno.” Sebastian said. “I just...I wanan be a real spy you know! Like going to foreign lands to spy on them! And stab up their kings!”

   “That’s a noble profession.” Remmie said. “Ya know how I became a Warden?” Sebastian shook his head. “They were short on people and offered a steady wage and food. Never did get any free food, but it’s been exciting. Totally worth it!”

   “I bet.” Sebastian said. “I like you a lot more than the other one. The other Blue one. She’s got a stick up her ass.” Remmie flicked the Linsand across the nose. “Hey! What the hell?”

   “Janie may have a stick up her ass but she’s my friend! Don’t insult my friends, my job or Eli. You do and ya get a smacking.” Sebastian nodded, which caused him to sway.

   “I’d have never picked you for a religious person.” Sebastian said. “Or a-a lady who’s proud of what she does.” Remmie smirked.

   “Man, I am full of surprises.” She said. Sebastian finished off his mazer. He tried to stand, but Remmie pulled him back down. “What do you say the two of us get out of here?” She grinned at him.

Twelve Hours Remaining

   Chamomile felt in her bones the end of her life coming closer by every second. And that feeling did something that hadn’t happened in a long time. It allowed her a degree of peace.

   “I wonder if they enjoy this?” Chamomile mumbled. The candles in this hallway never went out according to the jailer. Sleep was hard to come by at the best of times, right now it was impossible even at peace. The lights kept burning her eyes open. “Do they want to see me awake? I can’t really blame them, I’d want me to suffer also…”

   The cot she lay on was an iron thing stuck to the floor, with a mat for her to lay on. Still most holding cells only had straw, so she wasn’t going to complain about that. In fact laying there Chamomile didn’t feel much to complain about at all. One desire bubbled in her head.

   I would kill for fresh cherries right now. Chamomile had been five the first time she had had cherries. Fresh, plump and so filled with juice it dribbled down her chin.

   When Chamomile had been taken on by a senior mage to be trained, she rewarded herself with a bowl of cherries. Every time something wonderful happened she looked for a way to acquire cherries.

   And then she had joined Nasoj. Her days of cherries ended then.

   Life was so much better then…Chamomile smiled. I wish there were some way to return to that. Maybe in the heavens I can find something wonderful. Chamomile’s mind returned to the past now. I shared cherries with Rosalynd.

   Her best friend and cousin had been so happy that day. Rosalynd had just gotten engaged, and her blue eyes lit up like crystals. On that day Chamomile had been able to share in her happiness.

   What would Ros think if she knew where I was? Chamomile sighed. Before this week ends I will probably join her. That thought got her stomach churning again. I need to relax. I should enjoy what time I have left.

   All thoughts stopped then. Chamomile could see her death on the horizon and she accepted it. Just as she accepted the guilt for her actions.

   She fell asleep.

Somewhere South of Metamor

Early 699

   Sotto was gone. I knew that. I remember the fog. And I remember running for my life.

   Havetogohavetogohavetorunawayhavetoflee. My legs burned but somehow they kept moving. My right hand held my knife so tight it felt as if my hand had turned to stone. Tree branches and brambles clung to me as I ran, but they didn’t stop me.

   The sky was chalk grey with the sun unable to pierce the wall of clouds. The ground was so wet every thump of my feet sent globs of mud bouncing into the air. My left arm was cradling against my body, as if my life depended on it.

   No, it did depend on it. In my left arm I held why I would be killed if I slowed down. I had to keep running. Iif Umaro and Mirna caught me, I would be dead.

   I stumbled while running up an embankment, but somehow I caught myself with my knife hand. I wiped a wet leaf off my forehead and lept over the gully. I clear roots, branches and every hazard in my way like an athlete.

   Maybe I’m far enough away. Yeah right. When you know someone wants to kill you, you never think you’re far enough away. Still my legs were starting to hurt, so I had to stop.

   I stumbled again, this time almost face planting in the mud. I pulled myself into the hollow of an oak tree, taking a moment to check my body.

   I was still in the clothes I had worn yesterday, only now they were stand with crimson and ash. My arms were shaking so hard, I thought they might never stop. I collapsed onto my knees.

   I didn’t do anything wrong. Sotto, I’m so sorry. I’m doing what I can. The cold air finally began to affect me and I could feel my heart again. I swallowed. Umaro and Mirna won’t care about that. They’ll want to kill me. I have what they want. My panicked breath rose in little clouds. I stood up again. They killed Sotto. They’ll kill me. What did we do?

   No time to worry about that. More running. Every tree hid an enemy now. When you’re trying to escape enemies in the woods, going straight as fast as you can is counter intuitive. No matter what you do, you will leave a trail, Mr. Sotto taught me that.

   So weave back and forth. Never go straight, your footprints will act as a marker leading right to you. In the mud cross over your own steps, run backwards on your own trail and run through water if you can.

   Also broken branches are your friends. In the Romances bards sing, a broken branch always gives the fleeing man away. Break as many as you can, you will break them no matter what you do so use that to your advantage.

   I did all of those things. Every stream I could run down I did, emerging far enough away from my own tracks to break the line. I snapped branches, stopped on bushes and made sure my tracks went every which way. Every time I stumbled I had to avoid stabbing myself with my knife.

   I had a weapon, but the two of them did as well. They also had spirits, more training, size and strength on me. No way to fight Them. Nothing to do but hide.

   My heart burned in my chest and my legs were turning to stone. I had to stop. I crossed back over a set of my tracks going one way, then leapt onto a stone before leaping again onto an embankment. I scooted to the bottom and collapsed.

   I can’t I can’t I can’t, my labored breathing pretty much gave my position away. I closed my mouth and forced myself to breathe normal. My lungs burned for more air, causing me to almost black out in exhaustion.

   They’ll be coming by. But they won’t look over here. I lay my head against the wet dirt. Sweat rolled down my face and dripped off my hands. My clothes are soaked. I need to wash up. I wrinkled my nose. I smell like blood and sweat.

   The wooden handle of the knife cut my palm with its splinters. My knuckles had turned white. Actually my skin looked blotchy, with patches in red and others in pale cream. I need to get to safety. Did I sleep last night?

   In truth I couldn’t remember last night. I could remember running though, so I must have been running all night long. That would explain why I was in so much pain, though how I was able to force myself for so long is the mystery.

   “What do I do now?” I swallowed. “Sotto is dead. I-I know he’s dead. I have to-I have to get out of here or Umaro will kill me.” My tongue felt like sandpaper in my mouth. “Forgot my canteen. Figures.” I closed my eyes.

   I’m so…no Janelle. Focus. I forced my eyes open. I need to wait and see what those two do. If they find me I’ll need to rest. My left arm felt like it had melted into my body, nestling the little objects I held against me. I need a plan…no I need somewhere to go…

   “Like where?” I sighed. “I’m in the middle of the woods. I don’t even know what’s closest to me. Even if I did, where would I go.” Except I did know where to go. It had been on the tip of my mind. I can return to Metamor Keep.

   It had been five, or six really, years since I had been in the place of my birth. That wonderful fortress/city/valley that is Metamor Keep. My adopted parents still lived in the valley. What few people I knew all lived there.

   I could return to Metamor Keep in relative peace…and do what? The idea of returning there made me less then comfortable. My family would be there for one thing, they had no problem of sending me off with Sotto.

   I scowled, And I’d still be one of the only Followers there. I’d know no one. I’d have nothing there…except I would. I’d have a chance for survival. I nodded to myself and slowly started to stand. I’m an adult now and on my own. What if....

   When most women are little girls, they dream of being a wife. A mother. A princess. Some other silly fantasy. When I was a little girl, I had dreamed about joining the Metamor Watch. Becoming a Warden and putting bad people in prison.

   And right now I wanted that. More than anything in the world I wanted to put two very bad people in prison. Or the executioner's block.

   “She has to be around here!” My body collapsed flat against the embankment. “These are her footprints. It can’t be that hard to find her.”

   “I can’t even feel her thought right now Umaro! What the hell do you want me to do?” Nothing is quite as hard as hiding from an enemy who can feel your thoughts and emotions. Your mind will have to go blank. Your heart must be completely calm. I closed my eyes.

   “Find your balance Janelle.” I exhaled. The forest was almost silent. In the distance I could hear Umaro and Mirna approaching. I blocked them out of my mind. Instead I listened to the forest.

   Above me were the birds, singing and fluttering between the branches. Around me were the animals walking through the forest. The insects chirped as if alerting the world to all delicious they were. And near me I could hear the brook flowing over rocks. I focused on that. And I ceased to be.

   “I can’t feel anything either.” Umaro grumbled. “I can see her tracks though; I see too many of her fucking tracks. She’s been everywhere! Do you suppose?” The two stopped beside my hiding place.

   “That Sotto taught her to hide in the forest?” Mirna asked. “Yeah dumbass. But she’s still some street trash girl. We got the experience, we can find her.”

   “Right. Let’s keep walking then.” They continued on, past me and over the brook. Soon I could hear them no more. I opened my eyes.

   “Thank you Eli.” I stood up, taking time to brush the leaves off of my body. “Thank you Eli.” I resumed my walk, much relieved now. I’d have to find the nearest city, from there directions to Metamor Keep. As I walked I loosened my grip on the knife. I slid it into the hem of my pants.

   My left hand held tight though. I held Mr. Sotto’s three jars, each holding a soul and each with a supposed unbreaking crystal.

Six Hours Remaining


   Getting new white pants for my tabard is usually easy. Sadly, when you’re on a time crunch, nothing;s easy. So I wore the pants with the big ink stain on them. My tabard thankfully still looked fine, just threadbear.

   When I leave for work I let my son sleep. This morning though I knelt beside him and nudged him awake.

   “Mama?” He whispered, eyes bleary. I smiled.

   “You can go back to sleep in just a second. Kaysar, do you know why I spanked you last night?” Kaysar shook his head. “It’s not because you spilled the ink.”

   “N-not?” Kaysar asked.

   “No. It’s because you didn’t listen. I couldn’t play last night. I’m sorry but I couldn’t. And you didn’t listen, that was very bad.” Now Kaysar was starting to sniff. I stroked his fur some more

   “Just because I was mad doesn’t mean I don’t love you.” I kissed my son’s head. “I love you so much Kaysar and I promise we’ll play tomorrow, okay?”

   “Kay ma’ma!” Now his tiny arms grabbed my scaled body in his tightest hug. I need to leave…but that can wait for a few more moments.

   There are few blessings quite as wonderful as holding your child and feeling his love for you.

   “I’m so glad you’re here Kaysar.” I whispered. “Eli really did bless me with you. I wish I could remember that more often.” I kissed his forehead. “Tonight I’ll be back for you. I promise we’ll have fun.” I gave him another kiss and let him fall back asleep. I had a case to close.

   The deadline ran out at noon and I had six hours. The stars were out and the air carried the damp chill of yesterday’s rain. I’d slept eight hours, but I still felt I had overslept.

   “No. If I don’t sleep, I don’t work well. Don’t guilt yourself.” I whispered. You have to banish thoughts like that or they’ll drag you down.

   The Keep was dark and relatively quiet that morning. The clouds from yesterday had cleared and the sky was a pale violet.

   On my way back to the Watch House this time I made my way past the Shoeshine Inn. The two story building looked dark, except with lights flickering from a few small windows. I paused and looked up at Chamomile’s window.

   “You hid something.” I mumbled. “You hid it really well. I know you did. Something is missing from there, I just don’t know what.” I rubbed my eyes. “I’ve been looking at this puzzle for too long. Nothing makes sense anymore.”

   The Watch House in contrast was lit up and familiar. And for change of pace, Remmie showed up right as I did.

   “Hey Janie.” Remmie smiled at me. “I figured you’d want me here early. Plus getting up early meant the sun wouldn’t be out.” Her green eyes were rimmed with red and her hands rubbed the side of her spotted head.

   “You look horrible.” I said. Remmie forced a smile. Her tabard was wrinkled and her belt held by luck alone.

   “Well I went out drinking last night with Sebastian—

   “You took the spy out drinking?” I asked. “We have a case to solve and you were drinking? Sebastian works for the enemy!” Remmie gave me a simmer down gesture.

   “Yes well I wanted to get to know him. And uh, maybe get some info from him. Maybe Intelligence knew something about Chamomile?”

   “You mean you attempted to get Sebastian drunk, get information out of him and in turn undermine Andwyn?” Remmie nodded. “Warden, I’ve never been so proud of you. Did he tell you anything I could use to arrest Andwyn?”

   I have lots of fantasies. Many a fantasy in my head ended with Andwyn arrested by me. And then the Duke, or Misha, or a few others rewarding me in bed. Their hands on my scales and our tails intertwined and...uh moving on.

   “‘Fraid not.” Remmie said. “But I did learn Sebastian is still new at this, that’s why he’s on prison bitch duty.”

   “Yes Andwyn won’t waste a valuable spy on something this simple.” I said. “Warden, let’s continue this in our planning room.”

   The room was as we left it; dusty, dark and covered in dust. I lit the candles again and we took our seats. All our notes from the last day lay in a pile, but at least not covered in ink. Remmie pulled out her list of books from the library.

   “You said you found some of these in her room?” Remmie asked.

   “Yes, the most in depth ones on the curse.” I said. “Marked with pieces of parchment on important pages. I have an idea what it means but…something is wrong.”

   “You mean with my list?” Remmie asked. I shook my head.

   “No, I mean with the room.” I leaned back in my chair. “I found an inkwell, a set of quills, those books, three metal plates with hair on them, melted candles and a few burned out tapers”

   “The usual stuff you find when staying up night studying.” Remmie said.

   “You usually keep hair samples with you?” I asked. “Look, I know what she is doing. Or at least I think I do. I think you do too.” Remmie glanced up and gave me her theory. I nodded. “That’s what I’m thinking too. But something is missing.”

   “I believe Chammomile worked for that Nas...Nos...whatever guy.” Remmie said.

   “As do I. Do I believe she’s a killer? I don’t know about that.” I said. “What do you remember about the Assault last Yule?” She laughed.

   “Uh I killed lutin. A whole lot of lutin? I took a blow to my head.” Remmie said. “I uh I didn’t like it. It was chaotic and…it was really scary. And a lot of people died.” She swallowed. “A whole lot of people.” I nodded.

   “It was a horrible experience for us.” I said. “But it was a horrible one for those on Nasoj’s side as well. We killed his mages, his mercenaries, anyone high ranking of his we could get ahold of.”

   “Yes what about it?” Remmie asked.

   “Well, why didn’t we kill Chamomile?” I asked. “If she really was there for the whole of the Assault like she claims, how is she still here? Why are we arresting her almost four months later, instead of cutting off her head?”

   “Don’t ask me how this works.” Remmie said, “I’m just a Warden. Ask the guys in charge, they’re the ones who would know.” I nodded. “You don’t think she was there the whole time do you?”

   “No. She knows how the Assault began but not how Assault ended.” I said. “She didn’t even know what day the Assault ended. Again had she been there that day, she’d have been killed herself.”

   “Maybe she got away then in the chaos…” Remmie said, “Except why would she come back? That doesn’t make any sense.” She sighed. “She didn’t have to be here to do what we think she did. Janie, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think that woman wanted to die.”

   “Oh not think” I said, “That woman wants to die. But it’s the how that interests me. Chamomile means to be executed by us.” Both our heads drooped in unison. “And we can’t trust her for information because every word out of her mouth is lies. If this is her goal, she will stick to it until it is accomplished.”

   “Well, we can’t quit can we?” Remmie’s head perked up, a little smile on her face. “We’re the Watch, the Lantern and all that? We gotta find the truth and stuff in the lies?” I smiled back.

   “Yes we do.” I said. “Thank you for reminding me Warden.” I stood up. “Let’s go speak to the witnesses again and see if we can find some new information.” Remmie’s eyes darted down to my lap. “What is it Warden?”

   “You got a big black stain on your crotch.” Remmie said. “You spill ink on yourself?” I sighed.

   “Not exactly. I was making some notes about the case when Kaysar spilled…” My fingers drifted to the stain.


   “Ink…” I whispered. “Ink!” I laughed. All this time my thought process had been blocked by such a simple obstacle. But now I saw it. “Oh Eli I know what was missing from that room! Remmie, we found an ink well right?” She nodded. “We found quills, we found research materials. What did we not find?”

   “Uh parchment?” Remmie asked.

   “Parchment, a journal, notes of any kind.” I said. “If Chamomile is running an experiment, she would have been taking notes.” I rushed out of the room, Remmie following closely behind. Tibble didn’t even glance up. He was used to me running in like this.

   “Corporal is something the matter?” Tibble asked, “The prisoner is still locked up.”

   “I know she is.” I said. “When we brought Chamomile in, you took everything she had on her. Did she have a notebook?” Tibble raised an eyebrow.

   “Excuse me? You mean like”

   “Like a small journal, or any parchment at all?” I asked. “Anything to write on?” Tibble shook his head. “Then, it’s in her room at the inn.” I could see it now.. “Thank you Seargent.”

   “No problem Corporal.” He said. “I hope it helps.” I stood up and signaled Remmie. It had helped, more than he could imagine.

Four Hours Remaining

   The Shoeshine Inn was as dark and warm as yesterday. This time the front counter was manned by a woman. In this case a skinny woman, looking little more than sixteen. She smiled as the two of us ran in. “Welcome to the Shoeshine Inn, I am—“ I held up a hand.

   “I spoke to a bear Kemper yesterday, you must be Sam?” She nodded. “I am Corporal Janelle of the Metamor City Watch. I am, I mean I need to see Chamomile’s room again. I need to search it immediately.”

   “Uhhhh…” Sam’s eyes went wide, “Maybe—

   “Hey you’ll have to excuse Janie.” Remmie said, “She’s not good at people. But we’re on a time crunch and we gotta get into there like really fast, so can you unlock the door?” I pity that poor girl having to deal with me in a frenzy, I really do. Sam nodded and grabbed the key ring.

   The room was filled with gentle morning light. As soon as our escort left I began my next search.

   “So we’re looking for what exactly?” Remmie asked.

   “A journal, a notebook, any kind of parchment, anything at all.” I said. Remmie nodded. The two of us began tearing the room apart.

   You might assume that because a room is small there aren’t many places to hide something. That is very foolish to assume. Bed boards, undersides of drawers, I once found a parchment wrapped around the base of a candle.

   When searching a room you have to go over every inch, every crack and every place you think they might have stored something. And that was what Remmie and I did. In a room that tiny we searched for an hour, pulling out drawers, tapping on floor boards and searching the mattress for any journals.

   “Janie I’m not finding anything.” Remmie said. She sat down on the floor panting. “If there are notes here, I don’t know where to look for them.” I sat down beside her.

   “We’ll need to clean this up later.” I swallowed. “Nothing in the desk, nothing in the mattress, no floorboards loose enough to pull up. What are we doing wrong?” I rubbed my eyes.

   “Maybe she stored her notes with someone.” Remmie said.

   “Who? She’s not been here long enough to know anyone. Her notes are here. Besides,” I stood up, “Let’s say I’m Chamomile. I’m controlling by nature and a scientist at heart. I don’t want to know my subjects.”

   “Because you might get emotionally attached?” Remmie asked.

   “Correct. And I’m not going to give anyone my notes. This is my project, I’m not trusting anyone else with it.”

   “Okay, so you take them with you.” Remmie said.

   “Yes but she didn’t have them when we found her.” I said. “So there must have been some place she figured she could hide them; some place she was sure they’d be safe.” I turned back to the bed.

   The bed was a heavy wooden thing, too heavy to turn over. We’d searched the underside of the bed boards and found nothing. The bedposts were solid, no false top to hide anything inside of. I sat down on the edge of the empty frame.

   “We’re missing something.” I said. “Something obvious, she’s going to put it in a place she’d never forget but we’d overlook…” My head dropped between my knees. “Eli I am so tired…” I turned my head. “That’s odd…” Remmie looked up.

   “What’s wrong?” I gestured at her to come over, then pointed at the wooden boards. “Look at these scratches.” Remmie crawled over to where I pointed. “They’re long, very long.”

   “Yeah…they go…” She traced them across the floor until her hand bumped into the bed post. We both looked up.

   “I’m sitting on her journal.” I grinned. “I remember wondering why yesterday the bed was pressed against the wall, how did I miss it!” I lept up and grabbed the bed, then dragged it off the floor board.

   Please let this be it! My fingers pried at the edges of the board. To my relief, it moved as I pulled it up. “I’ve got it!” I tossed the board to Remmie and thrust my arm into the black hole. Scraping along the bottom, my hand brushed against several objects.

   From under the floor I pulled out four hair samples and a leather journal. Remmie embraced me as I stood up.

   “Is that it?” I gave her a withering look. “I mean, yeah that’s it but…well read it!” I moved over to the desk and opened the book.

Metamor Keep

Later in 699

Before Three Gates

   I’d been back in Metamor for three months. I’d been on the Watch for two. In a few months more I would be a full Warden. Even before Three Gates, before the Assault, the Watch was under manned. No one wants to arrest their other Keepers.

   I was also fully human. And I was doing something completely unexpected.

   “Corner pocket.” I mumbled. The cue snapped forward and smacked the white ball into the solid red, sending it rolling. It rolled straight at the pocket, only to bounce off the edge and roll back. “Damn it.”

   “You’re going to have to quit going for difficult shots.” My opponent said. “You gotta control the table.” His next shot, stripped orange, went in. “Like so.” My opponent was a fellow trainee and mage named Isaac. He had smaller eyes and no tail. Even then he had a head of overgrown brown hair, to the point it almost hid his eyes.

   “I don’t need to control the table.” I said. “I just need to make better shots.” My next shot missed horribly. “Damn it. Why’d you talk me into this?”

   “You agreed to play.” Isaac said, sinking another shot. “Don’t worry, it’ll be over soon.” He missed his next shot, so it was again my turn. I’d taken down a full two balls over the course of our game. Isaac was down to one, the eight ball.

   Yes I know pool is not my game. I’m not coordinated enough. But I kept trying anyway. It didn’t matter, Isaac got the eight ball after I missed my next shot.

   “Well that was fun.” He said, setting his stick down. “But I need to go back home.” He yawned, “Fair the well Janelle.” I waved him off.

   I’d decided to get out of my room tonight and go over to the Deaf Mule. In fact this was my first time there since…well since arriving at Metamor Keep. I’d been invited by Isaac to play pool and decided to accept, trying to be friendly.

   I don’t belong here. I dug a groove into the wooden table with my thumb nail. I should be anywhere but here. All around me people were talking, drinking and having fun. Yet to me they were a thousand miles away. I was completely alone here.

   No I’m in the forest. Still with Mr. Sotto.

   “And he’s been killed.” My eyes burned holes into the empty table. “Why did they kill you? Why did I survive?”

   “Mind if I sit down?” I looked up at the thin smiling man.

   “No of course not Sergeant Triche.” Triche dropped into his stool and nearly spilled his ale. Triche had been taller than me, thin as a broom, with a very short oiled beard. His black hair he wore in a long pony-tail.

   “You don’t see very happy Warden.” He said to me.

   “I’m not a warden yet.” I said, “I hope to be one sir.” Triche rolled his eyes. “Did I say something sir?”

   “You don’t have to correct me Janelle.” Triche said. “And you don’t have to call me sir.”

   “Yes sir.” I hadn’t looked up. Triche sighed.

   “You’re very cold Janelle, or at least that’s how you present yourself. You are always formal.” I shrugged.

   “I have my work. I’m always on duty.” I said.

   “What about after work?” Triche asked. “What about your life outside the Watch?” I shook my head.

   “I have the Watch. I need nothing else. Nothing in my life is going wrong right now.” Triche took a sip of ale, all the while his eyes studied me. I could have Tapped his mind then, to see what he was thinking, Not Triche.

   “Not being mentally at work constantly might help you some.” Triche said. “Janelle you push yourself as much as any trainee I’ve ever known. I don’t doubt for a second you want to be a good Warden. I just wonder sometimes why you push so hard.” I shrugged.

   “I do what needs to be done.” I said. “What needs to be done now is for me to finish training.”

   “That’s true,” Triche set his drink down, “But you don’t need to have work be your entire life. Janelle, you told me you lived here for the first thirteen years of your life and were gone for the last six. You never talk about family, or friends. When you were gone didn’t you miss anyone?” I squeezed the table.

   “I didn’t really have anyone to miss.” I said. “I didn’t leave much behind.”

   “And you’ve not come home to much I see.” Triche said. “Janelle, what drives you? I mean, what really drives your desire to join the Watch?”

   “I needed a job and the Watch was understaffed.” I said.

   “The Watch is always understaffed, we’re the guys who arrest other Keepers.” Triche said. “Your only motivation can’t have been a sense of altruism to help a struggling Watch.” I shrugged.

   “I liked the uniforms and what you stood for.” I said. “Any other reasons are my own.” I started to wish I had drunk more. I could feel Triche’s eyes on mine. “I know what I’m doing.”

   “That’s wonderful Janelle but I don’t know what you’re doing. You’re not an unstoppable force. You need to rest, you need to get out and occasionally you need to not work. Taking a day off isn’t the end of the world and neither is having life outside the job.”

   “What are you saying?” I asked. My frustrated superior sighed.

   “Janelle, in the time I’ve known you you’ve poured yourself into your job to the point that you should be broken. What keeps driving you?” I sank deeper into my chair.

   “Well…” I gripped the table, “Can I really tell you anything? I mean, anything without having to worry about it leaving us?”,

   “Janelle, I am your superior, your examiner,” Triche smiled, “And hopefully your friend. I promise nothing, barring a crime, will leave the two of us.” I frowned. My superior is not my friend. And yet I didn’t tap his mind. Why didn’t I?

   “Well, for the last six years I’ve been travelling with a mentor” I said, “A man named Mr. Sotto.”

   “What was he mentoring you in?” Triche asked. I blushed and gave a nervous laugh.

   “That’s not important to the story.” I said. “What is important was I travelled with him for six years. Towards the end of my travels we met up with two of his former students, a couple named Umaro and Mirna.” My knuckles turned white gripping the wood. “Two people he had known for apparently a long time, but I had never met. I didn’t like them and they didn’t like me.”

   “All perfectly normal.” Triche said.

   “Maybe.” I said. “But how they reacted wasn’t. Instead of just not liking me, the two…they…” The words caught in my throat. No no no I don’t want to think about this. “I don’t know how it happened. I was sleeping but when I awoke they had…had killed Mr. Sotto.” The words came out choked, struggling to leave my throat.

   If Triche was surprised he didn’t show it. All he said was “Go on.”

   “They killed my mentor. I found Umaro standing over me, holding the bloody knife.” I paused, trying to gather my thoughts. “Or I think I did? I don’t…remember all of that night. I remember seeing Umaro standing there and…and I threw a lantern at him.”

   “Did you set him on fire?” Triche asked. I shook my head.

   “Flame was out. Lantern hit him square in the head, made him bleed. And he dropped the knife. I must have grabbed it, because I remember slashing at his leg and…and then I’m running.”

   “You’re running?” Triche asked.

   I chose not to mention the jars, instead saying “With jsut the knife I ran.” I said. “I ran as far away as I could, through the woods and far away from Umaro and Mirna. And eventually I ran to Metamor Keep because I—“ I grinned, “I felt safe here. I knew I’d be safe here.”

   “Well that’s what brought you back to Metamor.” Triche said. “Why did you join the Watch though.” My gaze returned to the table. “The Deaf Mule has some very fine woodwork, but I doubt the answer is in there.”

   “You never know.” I mumbled. “Uh, I…well it’ll sound is stupid.”

   “Janelle one of my corporals joined the Watch because he thought out tabards looked slimming.” Triche said. “No reason of yours will be stupid.” Smart man Triche. I looked up again.

   “Well, I doubt I’ll ever be able to bring Umaro and Mirna to justice. They killed Sotto in an area of woods that belongs to Eli knows. Even if I knew what country they killed him in, it would be my word against theirs. And I’m the one who ran through the woods with a bloody knife.”

   “Admittedly a point against you.” Triche said. “Still I’ve heard worse cases.” I nodded.

   “I want to though.” I said. “They got away. People like them always get away and they shouldn’t. Criminals should know their actions are not goign unnoticed. Someone is watching them. We are watching them!

   “I want to bring them to justice. Every crook and criminal. I want to punish the guilty. And I never want to let another scoundral go.” I closed my eyes. “You know what I hear right now?”

   “The sound of someone setting up tomorrow’s hangover?”

   “Yes, but no.” I opened my eyes. “I can hear people talking, laughing and not afraid. This is amazing” I said, gesturing to the room, “That we can have a public house where all people groups can come together without fear.

   “I’ve been in cities where every pub is a dive and every person a cut-purse. I’ve traveled through places where all I knew was fear. And when I was running from Umaro and Mirna, the sense of fear was killing me. I didn’t want that again.”

   “So you want a place without fear.” Triche said.

   “A place with rule of law. A place where there is stability. Here I don’t have to worry about criminals like Umaro and Mirna. And no I can’t punish them!” I said, slamming my fist on the table. “But damn it, I can punish them next them. And that’s why I love this city. Here I am acting for justice.”

   Triche didn’t respond at first. He arced his fingers under his nose and his steel eyes studied me. Sweat rolled down my back as my stomach churned. The longer he stared the more I felt myself shrinking into the chair. Oh Eli he thinks I’m just some silly girl doesn’t he? Oh Eli…

   Triche took a long drink while my lungs turned to stone. Finally, he spoke.

   “That is a very noble goal Janelle.” I let out a long sigh of relief. “But it’s also a very difficult goal you know.”

   “I know sir.” I said, looking back at the table. I could hear the pool balls being racked again. My table I noted for the first time smelled of stale ale.

   That awkward silence hung in the air as we dared the other to speak. I took the dare. “I don’t care how difficult. I will try.” Triche nodded.

   “Well I wish you luck. I must warn you though, you’re going to be up against a pretty big obstacle here. The Metamor Keep Justice system is…flawed. To put it mildly.” Triche sighed. “With any luck a future Justicar will be able to fix the system.”

   “Maybe you.” Triche snorted at this. “Did I say something funny sir?”

   “Yes but you didn’t realize it.” Triche said. “I can’t be Justicar. The highest I can rise is to the level of Lieutenant. Only nobility can be the Justicar of Metamor Keep.”

   “What does nobility have to do with being able to mete out justice?” I asked. Triche shrugged.

   “Only God knows and I am not God.” He took a long drink. “Anyway we’re off topic. I’m not trying to tell you how difficult it’ll be to warn you off trying Janelle.”

   “I appreciate that sir.” I said, “But you couldn’t warn me off even if you tried.” Triche sighed. “I’m sorry sir.”

   “No it’s fine.” Triche said. “But as a member of the Watch you will be working under me. As such I have a right to worry about you. And I do worry Janelle, because I don’t see what you have outside of this job.”


   “One of the most common reasons that people leave the Watch is it eats them up.” Triche said. “They get focused on some aspect of the job, usually a case. Or they get burned up by how unfair all of it is.

   “That’s something you need to keep in mind. Their is no rest for the Watch. And we will never be respected for it. Don’t expect cheers when keeping the peace means arresting someone's father or sister.”

   “I know that sir.” I said. I already did, you don’t have to tell me again.

   “I’m sure you do.” Triche said, “But knowing it and experiencing it are two very different things. You say you can deal with being hated, but what about experiencing it for years? Eventually that resentment will destroy you. I’ve seen it too many times to count.”

   “I’m sure you have sir.” I said. “But I’m not like others. I’ve already been through the worst of things. Nothing about the Watch scares me.” Triche’s gaze grew harder.

   “I said something similar when I started. And after three years I was ready to quit. I drank myself to sleep nightly.” Now he smiled. “Then I found something outside of work to give me a sense of peace.”

   “What did you find?” I asked.

   “Simple. I got married.” Triche said. “I got a family. And from there I started befriending my subordinates, letting them know they weren’t alone. That helped me a lot and I know it helped them.”

   “I’m sure it did.” I said. “But sir I’m not some wimp who needs to be comforted every time I have a bad day.” Triche didn’t say anything at first. Instead he just gave me a look of disappointment.

   “Needing help is not being a wimp. It’s being human. Eventually Janelle you will need help. I mean, just trying to investigate a crime for the Watch will mean you need help from a partner! And you will definitely need help outside of work.”

   “Well when I do I’ll find it sir.” I said.

   “I hope you do find it Janelle. I really do.” Triche rubbed his temples. “Anyway, thank you for letting me talk to you about this. I’ve got enough problems right now so I can use a distraction.”

   “Sir?” I asked. Triche glanced up.

   “War is coming here. It’s come before. Rumblings from the North. Armies marching towards us.” Triche said. “No one is discussing it but we all know it’s happening.” I nodded. I’d heard the same fear from other people. “And today I found something horrible.”

   “What sir?”

   “I was speaking to a criminal contact of mine,” Triche said, “This individual makes sure I’m informed on anything of significance in the underground. And what is it smugglers are bringing into the Keep?”

   “I don’t know sir.” I said. Triche took a drink.

   “It’s…bread.” I raised an eyebrow at this news.

   “Bread sir?”

   “Yes bread. Flour. Dry food goods. Criminals are starting to stalk up on food. That should never happen.”

   “Why would they do that?” I asked.

   “Simple, they suspect those things will soon be in short supply and they’re planning to make a killing.” Triche said. “Flour should never be a black market good. Anytime I see something like that being stockpiled by crooks, I know something bad is on the horizon.”

   “They expect a long siege here?” I asked. Triche nodded. “Then as members of the Watch we’ll have to keep the peace should we come under assault.”

   “That’s very true.” Triche said. “Now my hope is whatever is coming can be stopped before it gets to us…”

   “But you don’t seem hopeful sir.” I said.

   “It’s hard to be hopeful when you don’t know what’s coming.” Triche said. “Maybe…” He forced a smile. “Well Metamor isn’t under attack now, that’s a good thing.” He finished his drink and stood up. “Now I’ve got to return home. I’ll see you tomorrow Warden.” I nodded.

   “Goodnight sir.” I watched my Sergeant walk out and rolled his words about in my mind. What on earth would I possibly need? As long as I have justice, as long as I can make sure nothing like Umaro and Mirna happens again, I’ll be fine. What a foolish girl I was back then.

   I didn’t become a full Warden until 700, after I’d become a sailfin lizard. And to my credit I focused exclusively on my goals for almost four whole years. And in that time I burned out very slowly. By my fourth year, I was a walking automaton. I got up, I went to work and then I returned home.

   And I drank. I really drank.

   All this until the day I found a small bundle by a well. The day I found my son I found something to balance out my goals and my life.

   I still desire to bring Umaro and Mirna to justice. I still desire to bring universal justice to Metamor. I will work as hard as I can to achieve my goals. But now my goals aren’t my entire life. I have someone that I can live for to keep me going.

   I love you Kaysar. Thank you so much for this gift.

One Hour Remaining

   Finding a piece of evidence that clinches your theory is good and all, but usually when you find it you won’t know right away you have found it. Such was the case with this journal. Remmie and I spent a lot of time just going over the journal. From there we went back to the Watch House and showed it to Triche.

   Triche sent us to talk to Isaac and we went over everything again. No one ever considers a lot of Watch work is just passing information on, but it is. I’d love to see a troubadour sing songs about the chain of information.

   “So would Chamomile’s plan have a chance at all to work?” I asked. Isaac looked up from her journal.

   “Not a chance in hades.” Isaac said. “Our mages have worked for years on this problem, they didn’t do it and they had access to…everything honestly. This plan was doomed to horrible failure from the moment she arrived. It’s the rambling of a crazy woman. I have no idea how she didn’t see it.”

   “Because she is a crazy woman.” Isaac looked at me curiously. “This plan was so badly put together, the only reason could be it was deliberate. I think she believed her plan could work, but I also think she hoped it would fail.”

   “But if it failed the best thing that could happen happen was she’d be cursed and stuck here.”

   “Or she’d be made as someone who worked with Nasoj and be executed.” I said. “Either one would have been a kind of victory. And I intend to prove it.” Isaac sighed. Triche, who had been sitting in the corner, chose now to speak up.

   “I wish you luck Corporal. I don’t see Sebastian not taking her away even if you do.” Triche said.

   “Are you sure you don’t want to handle this sir?” I asked.

   “No Corporal. It’s your case, you handled it and you solved it. You should get the denouement.” I nodded. “Now let’s go see Chamomile.” The three of us emerged from the office to find Remmie waiting. “Warden?”

   “You think I’m going to miss this?” Remmie said. “You’re either drunk or crazy.” Triche smiled. All the way down to the prison hall my stomach churned slowly, then in a frenzy as Tibble allowed us into the hall.

   Sebastian jerked awake as the door slammed against the wall. His bleary eyes struggled to focus. “You found something didn’t you?”

   “Not exactly.” I said. “And I’m not going to stop you from taking Chamomile. Once I have finished you may take her.” That raised Sebastian’s brow. “I must also worry you though, you might not want to take her.”

   “I’ll see about that.” Sebastian called to me as I rejoined the others. The seat in front of Chamomile’s cell was empty. Triche gestured.

   “It’s your show Corporal.” Triche said. I smiled. It is my show. Show everyone Janelle. I sat down. Chamomile glanced up from her bed.

   “I see I got the whole party here.” She yawned. “Is it time for me to get taken away for my crimes? Are you going to threaten me with execution? Torture? Bringing out—

   “Stop it Chamomile,” I interrupted. “Enough is enough. I know you’re lying to me.” Chamomile gave me an incredulous look.

   “You know, I’m surprised.” Chamomile said. “You’d assume someone who is an enemy of Metamor Keep finally telling the truth would make you happy. I guess nothing makes you happy does it?”

   “You’re not an enemy of the Keep.” I said. “I don’t know if you ever were. I know that now you’re a broken woman. You’re someone who thinks she can fix herself if she finds redemption.” Chamomile tried to laugh it off but I kept talking. “You’ve not found it either, so I know what you want now.”

   “And what is it I want?” Chamomile pulled her stool over, sitting across from me. Our eyes locked. “You think you know what I want?”

   “Yes.” I said. “You want to die.” Chamomile went silent. “I’m not wrong am I?” She didn’t respond but averted her gaze. “I’ll continue then.”

   “Over the last day I’ve investigated every step you’ve taken and every person you’ve visited.” I said. “You’ve been to the library daily and spent every night in your room working with books and hair samples. I even found the people you bought food from and the old man you played Nine Men’s Morris with.” My heart was racing so fast the last words came out mangled.

   “You’ve got this.” Triche whispered in my ear. His left hand came to rest on my shoulder. “Relax.” I took a long deep breath. Chamomile struggled to respond.

   “Okay, you’ve done a good job finding out everything about me.” She said. “What do you think I’m here for then? You have all the answers detective, answer this question. What the hell was I doing in my room every night!?” Chamomile’s eyes went wide as she yelled the last words. Spit flicked onto my face. I took a second to wipe it off.

   “It’s rather simple.” I said. “You came here trying to end the Curse.” Chamomile’s lip pulled into a thin line. “Tell me I’m wrong.”

   “I can’t….go on.” Chamomile said. I nodded.

   “Well, something bothered me when I first interviewed you.” I said. “You couldn’t remember what day the Assault ended despite being there. And you said you were successful in your mission, but George is alive. In fact you couldn’t seem to remember his name until pressed.”

   “It’s almost as if I was distracted by something, like my arrest.” Chamomile quipped.

   “Yes but you weren’t acting it.” I said. “You were amazingly calm and collected. In fact, you were more calm after you were arrested! And now you want me to believe you were panicked and unable to think clearly?”

   “I don’t have to explain myself to you.” Chamomile said.

   “That’s okay, I’ve got plenty to explain myself.” I said. “You claimed to have betrayed Blackhorne Keep to serve Nasoj. I believe that part. You claim to have been in Metamor until the Assault was repelled. First lie.

   “And you told me you were still supporting Nasoj. Yet you made yourself as noticeable as possible. Second lie. Then you tell me that you wanted to see the Keep destroyed. You say lots of generic evil things to inflame our feelings.” I said. “All of those were lies also.” Chamomile chuckled.

   “You really think you know me.” Chamomile said. “You don’t know me at all.”

   “I know you spent the last week collecting hair samples from morphed Keepers.” I said. “If you were here to spy on us that’s an odd way to go about it.”

   “A good spy collects information—

   “Information does not grow on corgi’s.” I interrupted. “Someone who is here to spy wouldn’t have spent so much time exposed, much less spent time gathering hair.” Chamomile let out a cry.

   “Okay you think you know what I’ve been doing here?” Chamomile cried. “Do you want to know something? Getting driven from Metamor was one of the most disgusting moments in my life.” I didn’t respond so she started to rant more. “This world is a blood soaked chaotic place and you stand in the way of order!” I still didn’t respond. I let her yell at me what she yelled at herself many times.

   “I want to create a better world.” Chamomile said. “And if that means Metamor has to fall, then so be it. I’ll leave it burning with corpses piled high. If you have to die for the long term peace, it is worth it.”

   “If you don’t care about us then why are you trying to break the curse?” I asked.

   “I’m amazed sometimes, that the curse didn’t break you,” Chamomile said, just talking through me. “It was meant to weaken you, leave you helpless and allow us to march through Metamor without a pitched battle. You should have let it happen, losing a third of your people to becoming animals is a small price to pay. And there is no price too great to achieve order!”

   “If you think we’re all just obsticals in your way, why did you spend time befriending an old man and playing Nine Men’s Morris with him?” I asked. At that Chamomile was left speechless.

   “I-I needed to-I-I uh I” She swallowed.

   “Chamomile, I found your journal.” I said. “The one you had hidden under the floorboard under your bed.” Now she sank into the bed, unable to say a word. “I know you were trying to reverse the curse. You were experimenting with those hair samples, trying to turn them back into human hair.”

   “I thought I was finally getting somewhere…” Chamomile mumbled. “The last one did do something.”

   “It was a temporary effect.” Isaac said, “And even if it had lasted, it wouldn’t work with living creatures. Using magic on living people and on inanimate objects are two very different things.”

   “I was told that the day I first learned how to heal someone.” Chamomile said. She looked up but not at us. Instead she looked past us. “I healed a boy with a broken…arm I believe. He had been climbing on a piece of stonework and fell. Children need to be supervised.”

   “Sometimes I feel the world needs to be supervised.” Chamomile didn’t respond. She looked up at the three behind me.

   “Can—“ She sighed. “Can I talk to Janelle alone?” I glanced up at Triche, who nodded. He signaled the others and they exited, grabbing Sebastian on the way out. “I hid my journal so well, I didn’t think anyone would find it.”

   “I wouldn’t have found it honestly.” I said. “Remmie, my partner, got me to sit down and rest. Only when I did I noticed the scratches in the floor.”

   “That bed frame was so heavy even without the bedding.” Chamomile said. “The board under there was perfect though, I could hide everything and not have to worry about it being found.” Her shoulders slumped. “Not that it did me any good.”

   “Is that why you changed rooms twice?” I asked. “No place to hide your supplies?” Chamomile shook her head.

   “That’s one reason, but not the main one. No, I wanted to be able to look out the window as I worked and see Metamor Keep.” She smiled at me. “Janelle this city is wonderful and strange. It is a place that changes constantly, it pulses like a living creature! And I-I-“ The words caught in her throat, “And I wanted to destroy it. Oh gods above, I did.”

   “Metamor is an amazing city.” I said. “I consider it an honor to protect it.” I didn’t say anything judging what Chamomile told me. I didn’t need to. Chamomile’s head drooped now. Her hair looked sallow, her skin blotchy, her clothing a mess but I didn’t see that. I saw her eyes. And I saw her soul was gone. Before me in that cell was a woman, completely broken.

   I do believe if we didn’t execute her she’d do the deed herself. But Metamor does not perform suicides.

   “I wish I had known that the first time I came here.” Chamomile said. “Or the first time I marched on the Keep, or was marched or whatever.” She let out a small laugh. “It doesn’t matter anymore. Nothing really matters.”

   “I disagree.” I said. “You’ve committed a vile sin, but you’re trying to atone. That matters Chamomile.” She shook her head.

   “I can’t fix this.” Chamomile whispered. “I can’t undo what I’ve done. I betrayed my city, I sold out my loved ones. Do you-do” She swallowed, “Do you know what it’s like to be a coward Janelle?”

   “I have an idea.” I said.

   “Yeah yeah, so does everyone.” Chamomile said. “Well I got to experience it first hand. I gave up defending my home. I said what I wanted was order, and maybe it was. The world is so scary sometimes.”

   “It’s scary most of the time.” I said. “I worry all the time about my son, especially as he grows older. What am I sending him into?” Chamomile nodded.

   “I wish I’d been braver.” Chamomile said. “I can’t do anything though, I’m nothing but a coward. I-I hoped that I could come here and maybe help Metamor. I couldn’t save my Keep but maybe-“ Chamomile looked up at me. Her hair was pasted to her forehead, slick with sweat. Her eyes sparkled with the hope of the damned. “Maybe I could save your Keep.”

   “That’s where your thinking went wrong Chamomile.” I said. “Our Keep doesn’t need saving. We’ve been fire blasted in a furnace and rendered harder than iron. Yes, being cursed is horrid, yes it makes people scared of us. But we are stronger for it.” Chamomile nodded.

   “Stronger sounds wonderful.” Chamomile said. “But I’m not strong. I’ve been tormented for years by what a coward I was. You know, I actually admired Nasoj when I first joined his forces. Crazy right?”

   “Not really.” I said. “I’ve long since given up trying to understand just why people admire who they do.” Chamomile nodded.

   “In my case it was because I thought he’d bring stability. I suppose he would have, when you smash everyone who opposes you things tend to be pretty stable.” I smirked at that. “Here’s the thing I learned. When you want stability, peace and control, that’s what you see at the end of the tunnel. You don’t see what it takes to get there.”

   “Well, to get there would take a mountain of corpses.” I said.

   “And that’s too high a price.” Chamomile said. “But I stuck it out. I stayed with Nasoj’s forces, in his territories and kept trying to reconcile my guilt. I did that for six…seven? I did it for years. So much time ultimately wasted, all for me to give in anyway.” She laughed. “It was the Yule Assault that broke me.

   “I didn’t make it the full assault. I was supposed to go with the mercenaries sent to kill George but I…I never met up with them. I doubt they even noticed I was missing, hell I doubt they knew I was supposed to be there.

   “Instead I followed a random mercenary band because…” Chamomile shrugged, “I don’t know. The mercenaries seemed to alive and happy, compared to their overseer sent by Nasoj.”

   “And when one of them was hit by an arrow, they were put down like an animal.” I said. Chamomile nodded.

   “That was on the second day. And that was what broke me.” Chamomile said. “No concern for anyone. Not even for those who supported you. And the most damning of all? It wasn’t me.” She laughed. “I was waiting for death and no one would strike me down.”

   “So you have to just go on living.” I said. Chamomile nodded. “Sometimes that’s the hardest thing in the world.”

   “I don’t know what inspired me to come back here and try to break the curse.” Chamomile said. “My life after the assault is just a haze, all I could see were the faces of the dying and I could hear their screams!” She began to hyperventilate. “I can still hear them screaming at me for my betrayal! And I thought maybe I could fix everything.” I sighed.

   “It doesn’t work like that Chamomile.” I said. “You can’t fix the past sometimes. You just have to live with it, and find a reason to keep living.”

   “And a lot of success I’ve had there.” Chamomile said. “When I was arrested, I figured I could tell you all what you wanted to hear. Where I’ve been living the last few years, just speaking words in praise of the enemy leads to a quick execution. And that’s all I deserve now.” I didn’t say anything. Chamomile buried her head into her hands and began to sob.

   “I can’t pass judgement on you.” She looked up. “Not for your past actions at least. But I can tell you this, what you’re hoping for will fix nothing. Trying to get yourself executed will not change the past.”

   “Yes but nothing will!” Chamomile cried.

   “You’re right.” I said. “There is no way to change what you’ve done. But killing yourself is just adding another body to the pile. You want to fix things?” I stood up. “Find a reason to live. Find a way to serve. Then live your life.” Chamomile looked back at the ground, unable to respond.

   “I’m going to send Sebastian from Keep Intelligence in.” I said. “He’ll take you away to be questioned. I’m going to tell him everything and I expect you to do the same.”

   “I can do that.” Chamomile sighed. “I don’t assume I’ll be executed now anyway.”

   “I certainly hope not.” I said. “I want to see you live. I want to see you live a long and fruitful life spent serving others. That is how you can work to make up for your past.”

   The others were all grouped outside the hallway, waiting for me. I closed the door and collapsed against it, sliding down to the floor. “Chamomile is free to go with you whenever you want Sebastian. But first there are a few things you should know.” I explained everything to Sebastian as best I knew, before handing over Chamomile’s journal.

   “That’s quite interesting.” Sebastian said, closing the journal. “I…huh.” Sebastian looked completely baffled. Scenerios were running behind his eyes, none of them particularly appealing anymore. Every time he tried to speak he froze. Finally, I spoke up.

   “That woman wants to die. As it stand she may kill herself before the week ends. There is nothing I can do from here on.”

   “So I see.” Sebastian said. “I’ll still have to take her to be questioned, to verify this isn’t a ruse.”

   “That’s your right.” Triche said.

   “I won’t stop you.” I said. “I’ve done my part; I’ve solved the mystery.” Sebastian nodded.

   “There is no guarantee that we will release her any time soon.” Sebastian said. “Once I take her, she’ll be Intelligence’s problem.” I shrugged.

   “I’ve done all I can do.” I said. “My case is closed.”

   After spending twenty-four hours working on the case, figuring out every aspect of this mystery and possibly saving Chamomile’s life I…got to do an afternoon patrol. When you’re short staffed that’s what you get. My other option was to spend the rest of my day writing a full report.

   Instead Tibble got my notes and I got some fresh air. And as my day came to an end, I got one very naked Stoat.

   “We are all animals and we need to embrace it!” The Stoat ranted as I dragged him into the Watch House. “We aren’t expected to be clothed as ferals!” I dragged him past a trainee Warden whose jaw dropped.

   “Warden you’re going to see a lot of nudity in this job.” I said. “You had best get used to it.” I had tried to cover him up with a cloth about five times but the damn Stoat struggled so much I gave up and let him…bare all.

   “We should embrace being animals!” The Stoat yelled, jabbing his foot claws into the doorframe. This was more effective than I expected.

   “Warden, a little help!” The Warden, a wood mouse, helped me yank the Stoat free. “Thank you Warden.”

   “You should embrace what you are!” The Stoat yelled. “We are all animals!” The Stoat then accidently slipped out of my hands and face first into a wall. I assure you, completely an accident. And on the plus side the Stoat was so stunned I was able to easily get him in a cell.

   As I was leaving for the afternoon I ran into Remmie. She looked almost as tired as I did. She smiled as we exited the Watch House.

   “I’ve been meaning to talk to you.” Remmie said. “I meant to yesterday actually but uh, we got busy.”

   “It’s been a busy twenty-four hours.” I said. “But we may have saved someone’s life. That counts for something.” Remmie nodded. “So what is it you wanted to tell me?”

   “Oh right! That bull you’re looking for? His name is Alvaro Velasco. He’s a day laborer.” My heart skipped a beat. “Don’t know where to find him but we could as soon as you wanted.” I couldn’t hear what she said next, only the sound of blood roaring in my ears.

   I stood there and took it all in. This is it. I’m so close. Remmie waved her hands in my face.

   “Janie? You there Janie? This is your partner, calling you.” I blinked.

   “I…tomorrow.” I said. “I’ll start looking tomorrow. You can go home for the day Remmie, I don’t need to involve you anymore.” Remmie looked concerned.

   “You sure?” I nodded. “Okay. Like, it’s no bother Janelle. I love helping you.” I smiled.

   “I appreciate that Warden. I really do.” I said. “Now I’ve got to get some rest. I will see you tomorrow.” Heading home I kept thinking about the bull. Now I had a name for him. All I had to do now was find him.

   The fire was so warm on my aching body. IT’s what I desperately needed after this day. The warmth relaxed my muscles and helped them unclench, even if only a little. There are few things quite as nice as lying beside a roaring fire.

   “Got you Mommy!” Kaysar chirped, scooping up two of my checkers.

   “Very good Kaysar.” I said, before kissing his forehead. This is one of those few things. Kaysar as usual won our game. Maybe when he was older I’d actually start playing.

   “Again!” Kaysar said, clapping his hands. I smiled.

   “We can.” I said. “Or, would you like to play Nine Men’s Morris?” Kaysar bit his claw.

   “Morris!” I tussled at his guard fur.

   “As you wish.” I flipped the board over and set up the game. I leave you dear listener with me and my son playing together. Those are the loveliest moments.

   Those are a reason to live.