Orphan-refugee Sigrun's 'pixies' have enemies; guilt and blame bedevil her adventures.
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The People of Glass
Reject this world of glass: destroy all; trust only what endures.
Shaman-King Kroleth of the urga: the driving philosophy of his people.
So afraid to lose, they cannot stand still. Their armies swell not with soldiers, but mad throngs of cursed gamblers. The average urgan doesn't want to hurt — they just have to know. Are you going to survive meeting them?
Lady Sigrun, Knight Champion
Some bird, pecking a rhythm on my window, disturbed my sleep.
I whispered, afraid my aunt and uncle might hear. "Go away, pixies. I'm supposed to ignore you." I tiptoed to the bedroom window. The moons, Luna and Nasa, shone on a silver-tailed squirrel that danced on the leaves. He twitched his tail. I couldn't help imagining that the pixies, my imaginary friends, had wiggled that tail, to beckon me toward adventure.
A little girl should never wander alone, with the beasts and the pig-faced urgans that prowled the wilderness just outside the castle-strong walls of our farmhouse. I, however, had my imaginary pixies to protect me, and that felt like enough. Aunt Myrrha always growled at me. She would tell me, "How many times do I have to tell you. Those pixies and ghosts aren't real." I just couldn't worry, when I felt so safe around them. Squirrel's weird moves called me onward. No freeman ever refused the call of duty or even mischief. I stepped out the window, careful where I put my weight. "I am going to be in so much trouble when I get back. If I get back alive." I smiled and winked at the squirrel.
Walking along the ridge that supported the roof, I raced down and jumped. I grabbed the branch I aimed for, and dropped. My aunt and uncle could handle themselves in a fight if someone woke them up. I worried about leaving them alone, though my imaginary friends would bring me back in time—much smarter than me, they always know what to do. To prevent surprises for my family, I checked the front and back entryways. Locked, and barred, the ironwood doors would deflect all but the loudest battering rams.
Without slowing as I raced in the wet grass by the fence, I jumped into the sandals I'd hidden. I vaulted over the wooden slats without missing a beat. My gaze flitted in the moonlight. What would the spirits lead me to this time? Once I had found a gold-furred puppy starving in a crushed cage, and took it home to nurse it to health. Another time a lost traveler needed directions, being about to wander into 'Uncle' Ker's ambush! Ker, an urgan bandit, would make him regret it if the man even survived. Another day, I found a caravan that fell to a flock of shadow ravens, who had feasted on them until they fell under the sleeping curse. I ran off the scavengers until they woke. My body still needed to grow, my arms could not do much, but I had a lot of power when I played along. "Don't forget! Can't be gone too long. It's almost light. Mack and Myrrha don't understand. They'll worry." I'm crazy that way, I talk to my imaginary friends like they're real.
I passed the iron bridge at Wilts Creek before I slowed. The moment I did, a white owl swooped beneath the leaves of the trees. Along the owl's path, shadows hid as much as the moonlight revealed, tripping me. Beneath a sticker bush, amber-glowing eyes watched. Neither cat nor dog, two large slits stared at me as if to warn me away from the forest.
I shook my head, and turned aside, picking a direction at random. I only cared that my steps push away those glaring embers. That beast had no guidance for me, so I searched for another sign. "Come on, friends. Where am I going?"
Bleating. A lamb in a trap pulled against steel. My stomach clenched. I rushed toward it. The poor thing thrashed, certain I had come to eat him. I reached for the trapped leg, and felt for the release, but each time I got near the catch, the lamb jerked away.
"Relax, little one. I'm here to help." I searched the shadows in the trap. Soon, the steel jaws would cease to concern us. At last, by dumb luck, I triggered the release.
The lamb skipped away, never looking back.
The most important part of me had been in that trap. I sighed, and looked around.
Another silver-tailed squirrel danced about in the tree above me. The moonlight formed a halo around his edges. Then, for no reason that I could see, he started, and jumped, snapping the twig under his feet. My neck chilled as the branch struck between my eyes.
I leaped up into the tree, grabbed the lowest branch with the tips of my fingers. Hot breath against the back of my feet, more than my own strength, curled my arms, propelled me up, into the tree. The yellow eyes from before belonged to a huge wolf-creature, white and gray. The beast looked up, eyed me, accusing.
Had I done him wrong? "That wasn't yours! The person that set that trap..."
His frustrated glare silenced me, then he slinked away to watch me, his massive head on his paws.
A squirrel might have gotten to the next tree. A girl, even as small as myself, had to cling to the center or risk falling into the wolf's jaws. Mack and Myrrha would find me in time, their swords a match for any wolf, and all his pack if need be. For now, the wolf had me treed. I sighed and picked a blood-red apple.
Before the sunrise washed away the last stars, a man arrived beneath my tree. "Little one, come with me. Your Aunt will be very cross if we stay."
His grizzled hair reminded me of the wolf, but not so much as his stare. I looked around and saw the wolf had gone. I shrugged, pushed the tree limb out from under me. I aimed to land in front of him.
He lunged over and caught me.
"Who are you? How do you know my aunt?"
"Hef. Forgetful." He shook his head in disbelief. "You've done plenty damage without so little knowing."
I had seen him long ago, before Mom and Dad left to rejoin the army in the hills. I'd been so sick I could not move, or speak. "Let me go. Where are you taking me?"
"Irresponsible for your age. You, at least, should mark the way home in your head. They're only using you, you know. They don't give a fig for you, for anybody that lives on the earth."
My pixie friends care, very much. I shook my head in confusion, though; he spoke as if he believed. Nobody had ever spoken so straight, and I hated what he had to say. I squirmed over his shoulder.
"Hold still. I'm going to take you to the farmhouse, against my better judgment." He huffed, and pulled me into place. "Stop your witchery, foolish little one. At least, wait till you know with whom you speak. Your friends don't belong on this Earth. Right now, neither do you."
He didn't have the right to speak to me like that. "Put me down, you big bully!"
His laugh sounded more like a howl. "You're not the only one that talks to the outsiders, you know. Your so-called 'pixies' have enemies. Some not so nice as our Wolf."
I punched him in the shoulder, again and again with both hands together. The old man never minded, and that did not bother me. I didn't want to hurt him, though Mack would have been embarrassed. He taught me how to punch deep, like a dagger. At last, I saw the reddish-brown logs at the front of Uncle Mack's farm-fortress. He carried me up the stone steps and rapped on the door.
Quickly they opened the spyhole. Sunrise had already woke them.
"Does this belong to you?" The old man lowered me to the deck, held me tight. "Thank the Wolf, if it does."
By the time I looked into Myrrha's angry eyes, her face had already skipped fear and shock. I wrapped my arms around her. She ignored me.
The man stepped past her. "We need to talk."
Myrrha slammed the bar back over the door and closed the spyhole.
Mack came down the stairs, rubbing sleep from his eyes, and smiled at my wickedness. "What's the commotion? Sigrun, did you go off on one of your adventures again? Surely you could have been better equipped."
The old man glared at Mack. "I warned you to reign the girl in, so long as she remains here. There can be no peace without sacrifice. I'd think that'd be something warriors would understand."
Mack and Myrrha glared at the old man, who fell silent and pointed to the back room.
Holding the door open, he gave me one last, hungry look, like he meant to devour me. "Did you at least give her the potion I cooked for her?"
I pressed my ear as close as I could. The wind-up, steel harp drowned out their whispers. Whatever the old man had to say, it had to be serious. After a few minutes, they emerged.
The old man slouched, defeated. "I warn you, Mack, Myrrha. You are touched. I won't be here for you when the outsiders come." Outsiders? He had used that to mean my friends, that's not what he meant that time.
Myrrha growled under her breath. "I don't care what the portents say, old man. We're no peasants. Unless you've got a royal summons demanding we fall back..." She looked at me and rushed to kneel before me.
Mack winked at me. "And you, young lady. What have I told you about running off? I don't care what your imaginary friends say."
"But, they help me all the time! Myrrha..."
"Don't 'Myrrha' me, Sigrun. We are warriors. We rely on our arms and our wits, not daydreams. You're too old for such things."
The old man's head tilted back in surprise at this, but he let it go with an approving nod.
"Tell her, old man! You see them too, don't you? You said!"
"I told you, as I recall, you shouldn't trust all you hear." The old man stroked his beard and looked at me. "Have you ever seen these 'pixies' you put so much faith in?"
Why's that so important? Speechless, I looked at him until my toes began to shake.
He took that as an answer. "Mack, Myrrha, I am honored to have known you. Sigrun, my condolences."
I ran toward the old man, but couldn't escape Mack's grip. "Tell the Wolf I'm sorry I took his lunch!"
Myrrha grabbed the bar and practically shoved the old man out with it before slamming and securing the door behind him. She leaned against it, shaking. "Good grief."
Mack knelt down and brushed the hair out of my eyes. "So like your great uncle, before...."
"Don't encourage her, Mack." She walked to the counter and picked up a towel to dab her face. "Today, she's staying inside."
I almost had my upstroke with the sword mastered, but every skipped day blunted a week's training, especially with my slight build. I weighed little, like an elf, as if destined to carry a dagger. Fate dominates peasants, but freemen—like our betters—stand shoulder to shoulder with destiny. Still, I had massive work ahead before I conquered the sword. "But, Myrrha..."
She cocked a half smile and shook her head.
Even Ker's men couldn't get past that look. I bowed my head.
Mack laughed. "Why don't you go start the fire, Sigrun."
As I trudged toward the kitchen, I could feel relief flowing into Myrrha. She thought she had done something good, keeping me inside. That made me happy, too.
For the rest of my life, the smell of apple pie would bring me back to that day. I closed the oven and breathed the aroma for a boot click. Myrrha sat on one of the battle-scarred wooden blocks that passed for chairs. Mack trained me, but Myrrha had a better way of explaining the moves, as though Mack did not remember ever being taught. I looked at her, and grabbed the brooms, offering her one.
She shook her head. "You know we can't do real drills in the house."
"Why not? The urgans already broke everything."
"Because you're not an urgan and I said no."
She rolled her eyes and stood up. She drew her pretend sword, and nodded for me to do the same.
This drill called for precision of movement, planning and elegance. That we moved as if under a spell to slow us was the sole clue that we did more than play at fighting. To a swordsman, the elegant interplay of movements and cues made this game a deeply challenging match rather than a lark.
Try as I might, I could not outthink Myrrha. Every move I made, her imaginary blade already barred my stroke. I could never match her if she had been slowed. I hoped only to keep her 'strikes' from cutting as deep as the last time.
Then, a shadow raven screamed out its hunting cry, almost making me drop my pretend sword. I dared to look up for a second, through the window. Above us, a skull-shaped cloud smiled in ominous delight.
My stomach churned. I'd never seen an omen of doom before. "Ah, Myrrha, please. Do you know when Mother and Father return? Could we possibly summon them?" As in, before disaster strikes.
Her imaginary blade came close to my throat as she smirked. "Hard to tell. What they're doing, almost as dangerous as it is important."
I shoved her blade aside and tried a pointless counter attack to keep her busy. I didn't know what was going on, but I could not keep silent. "But it's only urgans up there. They can't be that dangerous. Mack wouldn't let Ker in here."
"Ker's no soldier, and decent enough. Pay him his due, and he keeps the others in line." She backed away for some simple fencing. "Besides, I've taken down worse than him. Your uncle and I can handle him."
I maneuvered around to get a better look at the window. The cloud's teeth seemed sharper, it's joy more fierce. The old man's warnings echoed in my head. I began to wonder if he had been speaking the truth. Certainly, some threat wandered our way.
"Pay attention when you're handling a sword—even an imaginary one, Sigrun." She popped off three simple blows to make her point.
I parried each one easily but they were swift and forceful, would have been deadly had they been allowed to connect. I had a dilemma. Something terrible came for her and my uncle. I alone knew. Not only did she lack the imagination to hear the spirits, but she even wanted me to stop. I often thought my fuzzy-headed ways embarrassed her. At that moment, I thought perhaps the crazy old man had said something scary about my friends. For whatever reason, I couldn't up and say it. Instead, "Why do we have to stay in urgan territory?"
"It's not. It's human land here, mainly."
I had not yet learned the difference between hope and lies. Warrior pride bristled at being asked to hide behind peasant-girl stories. I wanted the truth, if only because sorting these stupid things would make things take so much longer. I didn't know how long we had. Having no complaint I could put to words, I glared at her.
She looked away and laughed. "Never could put one over on you. Our noble blood gives us rights that others don't get, to bear arms and own land. In exchange, we have to fight when called for."
I knew all that. I rolled my eyes. "We're freemen. So?"
"What you don't know, it takes more than rights to survive. We had the reckless habit of doing the right thing, your uncle and I. We made enemies, like the Reverend Mayor Kollen."
"He's the one that assigned this place to us?" I groaned inwardly, losing patience with the two fencing matches, verbal and imaginary.
Myrrha swung her sword at my ear. "Now you're getting it. It's our duty to protect it. We do that by the careful balance of friendship and strength that would have earned us a duchy, had we learned our lesson before."
Seems like a terrible thing to do. I didn't have time to parry, so I ducked and made a frowny face at her.
"What would you have us do, run for cover behind the walls of Balthispeare, like a refugee villager? 'Please, Lady Medusa! Can you protect a wayward freeman?'"
We would never dream of that, but I found myself nodding so hard my head ached.
She brought her daydream sword up short, stopped it at my arm, and playfully tapped my breastplate with it. "You'll get over it, kid. One day, after you grow into your sword, no doubt you'll follow your mother's footsteps and have outlandish adventures."
I puffed up with pride at the thought of being like Mother, powerful even beyond Myrrha, until I looked at the cloud's terrible scowl. I eyed the scar on Myrrha's forearm, supposedly from a 'dragon's tongue.' Mack told me it had been a salamander—a fire-breathing lizard the size of a horse. Mack and Myrrha had faced many such challenges and had lost none of their power in retirement. The omen foretold danger, not destruction— nothing had been carved in stone, regardless of what the old man said. They might emerge victorious. Still, I wished for them to have help. If not help, at least a weapon.
I fumbled in the cabinet for her sword.
Myrrha grabbed it away. "I barely can even trust you with an imaginary sword. We're not going to play with a real one."
My shoulders fell the width of a thumb. Perhaps I overstepped. Mature warriors, Mack and Myrrha knew the world better than I. Yet, as I tried to keep silent, the pain built. "Please, I know how you feel but do me a favor. Take the sword and wear it."
She rolled her eyes. "Sigrun, where is this coming from? Another one of your omens? I thought we discussed this." She followed my eyes out the window, and her hand went to where her sword should have been. The fear and uncertainty on her face reminded me of when the old man brought me to the door.
Myrrha knocked over a beat up mug on the table as a jolt in my stomach, sent me running halfway up the stairs before I questioned my actions. Had the shadow-raven call repeated? In answer, the rhythm of Ker's men, beating against one another's armor and weapons, grew in the distance.
"Get out of sight, and stay down." She pointed at me and slowed her words for emphasis. "No matter what."
"Yes'm." My feet took me the rest of the way up the stairs without being told, and I slapped the door shut.
Myrrha's whisper carried through the door and up the stairs, far beyond its range. "Love you, kiddo." She opened the front doors.
Once upstairs, the urgency of hiding gave way to the need to see. Mack would be angry, and Myrrha beside herself with emotions I could not describe if they knew what I planned. They didn't need to know. They wanted me inside the little smuggler's cabinet under my bed. I pulled at the floorboards and located my knothole and spyglass. I did not need to cower, only to stay out of sight. If need arose, I would fall back in time.
My spyglass, two green marbles in a brass tube, fit well in the pinky-sized knothole. I had a good view of the kitchen. A trinket from the lost Amerik empire, the thing had survived hundreds of years. A small sign that glassmakers—indeed, all humans—had once inspired more than ridicule.
Ker stormed through the front door, sending the handle skittering across the door as it bounced against the wall. "Hail, thorga! Mack and Myrrha!" Thorga, roughly 'glassmaker', meant human in the urgan tongue, describing humans at our worst: fools who build worthless toys. Every word in urgan finds fault. Looking at Ker, I wanted to scream orders at him and slap him around, to feel the power of my words and arms tested to their limits.
I took a deep breath and blinked it away. Urgan passions raged like fairy-cursed brandy.
Behind Ker, another warrior carried a wild boar they had slain. He slammed it on the table, trying to break the steel reinforcements for the third time this year. Typical urgan. The rumble that shook through Mack's mini-fortress gave him pride, and he nodded in approval that the table held, for once.
Mack swaggered in from the conference room, wearing his small sword and clamping down his leather armor, having left the broadsword and war armor locked away. "Stoke up the fire, Myrrha! Looks like we got a pig to roast."
A third urgan followed, thinner than Mack and shorter than Myrrha. I had never seen an urga stupid enough to face the light of day without armor. As his lips quivered, I made out a few words and nonsense syllables. Black smoke came from his mouth, pooling around Ker's head. The desire to smash this small urgan, to crush him, wash him away, and burn or bury everything he touched filled me with an urgency that shook my being.
I muffled my outburst. "What is wrong with you, Sigrun! We don't hate!" I turned his disgust toward myself. I closed my eyes for several seconds, and breathed in, searching for the peace my spirit friends brought me. When I opened my eyes, everything seemed coated in filth.
The disgust came, not from the monster man, but from the cloud of smoke about his head. With each breath, his mood soothed, and Ker's worsened. Evidently, the old man spoke true. The spirit world had monsters of its own, and sent their earthly friends came to visit my family.
Ker snarled and paced as Myrrha lifted the lid from the oven and placed the roasting rack into place. More of the urgans shuffled in behind them. Mack threw several logs into the pit. The monster man continued his work, as Mack tended the fire and Myrrha poured some water.
A random spark from the fire landed on Mack's hand, and he pulled back.
"Back off, thorga!" Ker swaggered into Mack's personal space, acting outwardly like always.
Mack slapped Ker across the chest. "Mind how you speak in my home, ignorant pig!"
I breathed a sigh of relief. Insults and roughness soothed urgan paranoia, reminded them that their friendship could survive a few shocks. I told myself, Myrrha might be right. I'm imagining things again. Everything will turn out like normal.
But Ker didn't return the slap. Instead, he stepped back, drew his sword. "Me pig. You no cook. No thwack me in face of tribe."
Drawing a weapon crossed a dangerous line. A lesser man than Mack would have killed Ker then. Mack drew his own sword, held it behind him, pointed it to the ground. That signaled equal parts readiness to fight, and readiness to back down. Ker swung with all his might, two handed and straight at Mack's chest. The stranger raised his voice; even I could hear it. The dark cloud gathering around Ker's head made me want to vomit and cleanse myself with boiling salt water. Meanwhile, Myrrha stood back, grabbed the meat cleaver from the counter and hid it under her apron. Surely, she figured she wouldn't need it. Ordinarily, a duel would end the thing, no matter what. Urgans blame the victim, be it a table or a beloved chieftain.
Mack parried, could have done so in his sleep. "One chance remains. Face me like an urga, hand to hand, or leave this place."
Ker continued to hack, harder, faster and stupider. He raised his voice even louder until it scraped and failed; an absurd folly for a man who ruled as much by the power of his lungs as his arms—one he would never survive. "No talk, no chance. Mack like thorga die, begging for life!"
Mack shook his head, deflecting the blows as if I made them after stealing a bottle of rum. "You know I beg for nothing. This path you're on invites destruction."
"No care. Must have death. Death! Death!"
The rhythm matched the stranger's chant. The several urgan bandits clapped and stamped in rhythm, hollering with him. "Death! Death! Death!"
Mack pinched the bridge of his nose. "Very well, my friend." His small sword plunged through the thick, rusted breastplate and into Ker's heart. Mack frowned in disgust with what he'd been forced to do.
Ker stumbled back half a step, snarled and grabbed at the blade, then at the handle. Mack let go of the sword. The urgans would cheer for the gory spectacle. Ker's head drooped, nodded as he struggled to regain his bearings. Then his head fell.
The monster man raised his voice again, to a shout. Instead of falling, Ker raised his blade and charged at Mack. Myrrha screamed and buried the meat cleaver in Ker's shoulder, three times. Ker slapped Mack's hand away from the sword in his chest and grabbed for it himself. Head lolling about like a stray tassel, he trained his off hand toward Myrrha.
Unable to grab his sword, Mack fell back to grab a pitchfork that leaned near the door.
It's the stranger! Can't you see what he's doing? They lacked the imagination to see the other world, or the sense to know when to pay attention. Maybe the pressure of battle prevented them from thinking. My eyes filled with tears. I had been ordered to hide, no matter what — I understood that meant even if the urgans killed my aunt and uncle. Did that mean I had to let them die when I knew what they had to do to save themselves? What do I do? I need a sign. Please, give me a sign!
Nothing came but the disgust and horror of the monster man's spirit friend, wielding Mack's friend Ker like a broken sword.
Myrrha glared at the monster man and threw her cleaver at him, scoring a glancing blow against his leg. When the monster man screamed, Ker stumbled, but only for a beat. When the chant resumed, Ker's arms sprung back to life. Both arms swung their blades at Myrrha.
Myrrha ducked and weaved like a carnival fight-dancer, at least a finger's breadth from the cutting edge as she backed toward the cabinet where her sword waited. Her fingers played with the latch as Mack grabbed the pitchfork and pushed himself back to his feet.
I never saw Ker's blades connect. Myrrha groaned and slumped against the open sword cabinet.
"I've always been a friend to you, Ker! This is how you repay me?" He charged, skewered Ker and raised the hulking beast up by his ribs.
But the arms had a life of their own now, from the monster man's curse. Again and again, they hacked at Mack until he fell. With that, the stranger dropped his chant in a roar of applause from the urga. When the noise died down, Ker landed in a pile on top of Mack, finally dead.
The stranger stood above Mack and kicked his ankles. In broken Krolesh - thorga language - he gloated. "Now I rule tribe, how all you glassmaking vampires take payment."
He took a deep breath, and addressed his men, in urgan. "Now, we commence the search for their spawn, sanitize the place before the disease spreads."
Suddenly reality struck home. I scrambled under the bed and into my cabinet. As they stomped up the stairs, my fingers, slick with sweat, tugged it closed. The monster man likely would see me before the cubby hole closed. As the door creaked open, my panel clicked into place, another piece of floor.
"Check for hiding spots!"
Terrible noise shook the building as our beds and chests shattered between the walls and their axes.
"That's the last room. Look like these thorga eat their piglets."
The other urgans laughed.
I heard a sickening thud—sound of skin struck by a stick—drawing a yelp from the joker's voice. "Shake the glass from your helmet, Vog. Thorga are not like us. The piglets sicken and die."
"Stop that, shaman Korog!"
Footsteps crossed over my head, bending the panel. It had been meant to hide beneath the bed, not to support the weight of a person, let alone the smallest urgan. "Unlike you, I have more than the ugly face to prove what I am," the stranger Korog replied. "I do as I like, no matter what someone might say. I can make you thorgabent as Ker."
I had never heard the word "thorgabent" before, but Korog's voice made my skin crawl as he said it. "Won't need a man like Mack to take you down. A piglet could do you in."
Vog cursed, grunted, stamped and huffed. I thought he must be attacking Korog, though no blows landed on the smarter, swifter urgan. Vog described his desire to destroy Korog with a poetry and precision that would never have made sense to me any other day. It put form and grace to the elemental disgust that possessed Ker, sheathed in my heart like a special weapon. It took all I had not to rise out of my wooden grave to cut through them like so much wheat standing, helpless, in the field—or gleefully die trying. If I had had a sword, things would have gone another way.
Korog laughed. His stick struck metal, then floor. Someone flopped against the floor. "That's more like it. In fact, if I don't kill you, I may just make you my apprentice. First lesson: stop hitting the floor with your snout." Korog laughed and stamped away, to the applause and laughter of his fellows.
Vog rose and bashed about, his demonic poetry falling idiotic screeching as he slammed through the wreckage of my bedroom.
When Vog crossed over my grave on his way out, the panel pressed against my nose. Myrrha had ordered me to hide, to do what I could, no matter what. I pressed my small hands against the wood, struggling in vain to support them. My arms could not hold up an armored urgan of any size, if the wood itself could not.
When Vog stepped off my panel and shut the door, the wood regained its shape. The crippling fear passed out of me in a long, sweet sigh, followed by a shudder. Myrrha and Mack lie dead or worse on the kitchen floor, and there I was, thinking of my stupid, pathetic self. As he stomped down the stairs, I curled up and started to cry. Out of duty to Myrrha I muffled my sobs, though I had no wish to survive.
Even now, the memory of the blood-soaked urgan song drowns my faith and paints the world in scarlet gloom. The smoke of that infernal roast burned my lungs, even without the thought of loved ones on the pyre. I never dreamed so many tears could come from me.
** ** **
Over the course of the day, the songs grew distant. The smoke from the oven fires cleared. I believed the monster-men might have gone from my home, to cavort in the fields. I never wondered if it had been a day or longer. I stank and shook with hunger as I crept about, sifting through the wreckage in the moonlight. Only splinters remained, nothing worth carrying as a weapon. I looked out to the window, searching for a sign. Fires dotted the countryside, though I doubted Korog's men numbered greater than a dozen. They must do that to make themselves appear larger and more powerful. Either that, I thought, or to announce that they intend to destroy the world.
The thought struck me as odd, and I laughed. They already destroyed everything. I pushed against the door to the bedroom, heading toward the kitchen, rather than jumping off the roof. I don't know if I thought they had left, if I wished to fight, or if I desired to join my aunt and uncle. Probably all of those.
A few stragglers slept in the kitchen. Gingerly I stepped over the arm of one of the warriors. As my foot landed, the beast shifted, catching the second ankle with his wrist. I fell, hands grabbing at his boots to shove them away from my face.
I blushed as I stood, glad I wore pants and not a dress as though the urgans threatened nothing worse than embarrassment. Greenish blood trickled from his nose and stained my feet. Terror cut through my chest and burned in my stomach as the warrior snorted, gasped and rolled over.
My jaw dropped. The beast had slept through my assault. By that moment my arms shook, flooding all the power they had, though they would snap like a butterfly's wings. After a few breaths, I realized that he had in fact, completely ignored my disastrous climb. I surveyed the kitchen. Korog, the monster man, slept in front of Myrrha's sword cabinet. The door hung loose, her sword missing. Nothing else of value caught my eye, save the meat cleaver sitting in a puddle of blood. I snatched it with a fierce grin. The cool grip of the handle soothed me as I looked toward the door.
Just outside the house, Mack's pitchfork stood, tines in the wood. Ker's face looked blankly at me, skewered on top. The smoke from Korog's curse still hanging about his head like a black halo. Beneath him, two human heads—Macks platinum hair, and Myrrha's red—mercifully faced down. I stroked their heads, glad to see that their suffering had completed. I screwed up my face, to a mask of anger, but rage fizzled; my body ached to lie down. I needed my imaginary friends more than ever. "Take care of them. Even Ker."
At that, Ker's halo left him and slithered down the staff of the pitchfork, gathered at my feet, and wrapped itself about me.
The inhuman memorial shook. Ker's mouth flapped. Bones off to the left rattled. I wanted to be sick. How did I almost forgive this atrocity? I raced toward Korog's sleeping body with murder in my heart.
I paused for a moment while I prepared to butcher the sleeping stranger before me. Would I take the time to add his bones to the smoldering flames in the pit, or would I run to give me more time to enjoy the vengeance? Nausea gripped my beltline I thought of his breath, each one leaving the world an uglier place.
"Oh, Sigrun, not like this."
An imaginary ghost of my uncle that stood on the stairs. My eyes opened wide as my eyebrows pressed down in rage. I glanced at him, shook my head, and willed him to turn into my mother. Sometimes they seemed so real and refused to obey—like real people, almost. "You know better. You taught me not to listen to my imaginary friends."
He stepped toward me. "That's true. We had our reasons for that, but those are past us now. If you do this, I don't know if you will ever be free again."
"You're just fear, giving me an excuse to act like a coward. Little thorga girl wants to run away."
"Take your time. There's nothing you could do that would get you killed here."
I dropped my blade away from Korog's throat. Mack had thought of Ker as a friend, perhaps thought that Korog should have rights. No lawmaker, human or urgan, would agree. "So, you have regrets. You are a sympathizer, so obsessed with peace that you can't see justice."
He shook his head. "No, you know me better. I've killed my share of urgans, most of whom used their gift of life far better than this one. I reckon you saw me kill Gilkesh and Narath, with your little spyglass."
"Why didn't you give me a sign, what to do?" It wasn't fair, my friends taking the form of Mack. The cleaver wavered. My arm cramped as I fought to steady it. I wiped away a tear. "Why can't I kill this ..."
"You didn't need a sign." He stepped closer to me. "The time for justice is when you have gained balance. If that path belongs to you."
I shook my head and readied my cleaver over my shoulder, the dull edge against my jaw. I grinned, and cold joy pulsed through my body in synch to my heartbeat, which in turn echoed the urgan holy hymn: "Death, death, Death."
"This path you're on invites destruction, Sigrun. Perhaps not as swiftly as Ker." He shrugged sadly. "Your new friends will help you destroy Korog and carry you to countless victories. Even in death, I imagine, you will inspire horror among all who cross you. If..."
"Korog! Tell him!" Black smoke came out of my mouth with each breath. Then, in unison, Korog and I said, "I am nothing like Ker!"
I jumped, and clapped my mouth shut with both hands. The cleaver landed blade down, a finger's breadth from my toe. Then I sneered and picked up the cleaver. "So, I do have the power to make a difference."
"If I thought that you had any control, I would ask you kill him. Look at this helpless thrall. Can you see the part of you inside of him?"
I rolled the handle in my hands, and looked Korog up and down. "I want to destroy that part."
"Yes, now, you feel that way. But think: is that what Sigrun would do?"
My lips curled in disgust and my toes shook. "I don't know."
"Then how can you do it?"
I stood and breathed. The smoke burned in my lungs and squeezed at my stomach. I could not hear my thoughts over the chanting "Death" with every beat of my lifeblood. I had no business deciding what cup to drink out of, let alone standing in judgment over another life. "Why does it fall to me? Isn't somebody supposed to take care of these things?"
He nodded. "Trust me. Ignore the urge. Walk out the door."
Nothing ever felt so wrong as sparing Korog's life. Every inch of my body screamed for me to stop as I walked past the cursed memorial and into the urgan-infested night of the apocalypse.
Read on! Second entry: "Section 2: Into the Night"