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Rated: 18+ · Chapter · Fantasy · #2035966
The thing I feared most has come upon me. Sequel to Trick Blade Engagement.
Urga Problems

Kreesh surveyed the little humans hunched over the little tables at the Besotted Quill, judging which of the players might spook easiest.

A stranger looking over the broken swing-gate at the entry to the tavern, might fear the revelers under attack by the lumbering, pig-faced hulk named Kreesh. She rushed from table to table, sent mugs crashing to the ground and spilled the golden liquid on her scarred boar snout. In fact, one or two of the little men forgot their game and ducked in fear as she ran toward them. After all, in this game of 'Urgan Rampage', the mask remained behind the bar. Kreesh's real face scared and thrilled her playmates more than any toy.

When those unfortunates stumbled from their stool, it became their turn to dig in their purses for copper to give to Angus, the husky, red-bearded human that stood behind the counter.

Angus grinned and nodded at her as he wiped a tankard with a burlap rag. Ale spilled through the hay, between the boards on the floor, and nobody looked down anyhow. Everybody had too much fun playing with the urgan 'monster' to mind the mess.

Kreesh fake-stumbled into one of the players, sending her rusted iron shoulder plate into him and knocking to the floor.

"Not fair!" Then he tripped over his tongue. "I don't—didn't duck and run."

Kreesh pushed off of his wrinkled vest and slapped him in the back, forcing his head to wobble. "You right. What say. Let him another turn?"

Before anybody could answer, a mousy boy poked his nose between the gates. His voice had an edge of urgency. "Watchman coming this way."

She had done nothing wrong, not that it mattered. Neither huma nor urga would blame a guard for killing her; Kreesh's tribe would blame her for dying. She ignored the sword at her side, the extent of urgan 'justice.' Nobody would make her a word changer. When Corwin asked her not to hurt the watchmen, she promised. She could hide among the crates in the alley, or up the narrow stairs. She looked around the room, about to decide.

The barkeep put a finger under his pointy human nose and waved Kreesh over to him.

Kreesh ducked behind the bar.

Somebody clanked toward the tavern, slapped the front gate against the jam. "Heard you got trouble."

"Seven barrels. Join us for a mug."

The stranger snorted. "You know what I mean. An urgan lout bothering your customers."

"Some imagination." Angus slammed the mug. "Had some rambunctious customers, inane drinking games. But, whatever makes them buy."

He looked both ways, and snarled. "No urgans?"

"If so, no law against it."

"Ought to be, if you ask me." He kicked up a cloud of dust, and breathed a sigh. "Don't reckon you'd have your tables all up, and all. You look all in one piece, but it don't seem right. Kaledorn ain't all that, but he speaks the truth. More or less."

The barkeep rolled his eyes, and produced a mask. Carved from the skin of a boar and tinted green, it looked like Kreesh's father, only with missing eyes and a pointier nose. "Perhaps good Kaledorn saw this, lordship?"

"Ha! A damned game." He huffed, and the door bounced back and forth.

Angus put his weight on on her, grinding her shoulder plate against the padding to make sure she didn't pop her head up too soon.

He had every reason to hold her down. She would have expected to explode with the urge to jump up. When she lived with her people, she had had to force herself to think, let alone to hold still. Now, the thoughts, smart thoughts, came like a plague of locusts crawling over everything, swallowing all the mad passions.

After half a minute, the boy whistled, and the barkeep signaled her to get up.

Wrong, Kreesh. You don't fall asleep like this. You shouldn't even be able to stand still. She eyed the spaces between the floorboards, where the drink really went. She showered in spilled ale and slurred her speech. Nobody suspected she had not so much as swallowed a drop. So long as everybody thought she had drunk her ferocious heart into a huma-style stupor, nobody would guess the shameful disease that rotted her spirit anytime soon.

Just then, Corwin, her enchanting huma husband, stepped through the door. "Oh, Kreesh! you're okay! I'm so relieved." He walked up to her, grabbed her by the shoulder plate, and climbed up on her to hug her. He knocked loose some of the extra padding added to keep her armor in place since she left her tribe, and Nalg's spells, behind. His face twisted into a funny shape, where the eyebrows came together and raised in the middle.

To her surprise, Kreesh understood what her boy felt, and hoped that he didn't see that. She gently squeezed him, hiding her face behind his shoulders, then pushed harder so he wouldn't know she went easy on him.

Corwin pulled out and slipped the bartender a bag of coins. "Sorry, Angus. We can't stay. It's Verdonne."

The humans gasped.

"Who that, Love?" She bit her tongue. She knew the right way to say it. That troubled her; only a few weeks ago Krolesh syntax had confused her. Her worthless, pig brain should struggle for many more years.

He stepped back, looked at her sideways, delicate eyebrows pinched in suspicion. "'Who is that,' you mean, honey. Only the most legendary, urgan-killing ranger this side of the hordes. Verdonne, Urganslayer. We're going to get you out of here."

"I no let him hurt you!" She had never heard the name, but he had to be dangerous. Her people jump quickly into the most hopeless fight, and rarely mind getting in the way of their friends' axes. Against such odds, only the most powerful and lucky survive long enough to spark rumors.

Corwin slipped his head under her massive elbow, and led her to the back door. "It's his safety I'm worried about." He patted her belly plate, and led her away.

***

They hobbled down odd alleys, to a broken-down shack surrounded by stone figures. Most appeared to be crude mud sculptures, like a child might make, only hardened. A few had been touched up, the rough faces chiseled away to reveal works of art.

Opening the door revealed a chair and small, cold fireplace. Corwin found a crack around the fire pit, and lifted. The pit swung up and slid left, leaving a hole in the floor.

Kreesh jumped over the grayed out, pinewood ladder. The pain in her knees no longer delighted her, another sign of her decay. She faked a smile and huffed in stubborn pride.

"You know, you can always climb."

"I enjoy the fall."

"Could have fooled me." He stroked the yellow beard he had started when they met and winked at her. "Knock it off. That hurts to watch."

She snorted, pretending to laugh. She could not enjoy his joke. Her sense of humor didn't cover secrets this big.

Kreesh walked into the darkness, and allowed her eyes to adjust while Corwin fumbled with the lantern and lighting stick. The corridor beneath the hut had plenty of headroom, even before Kreesh started to shrink, and elbow room for four of her cousins side by side. The stone resembled mud, slathered and shaped before hardening. No doubt the witch that built this place had lived here for years, softening the stone and selling it as statues. She probably had many access points, and places where she could soften the roof and bring her enemies' houses into ruin.

Kreesh whined and grabbed her head, trying to push the thoughts away. She had no doubt they came close to the truth, and that burned in her stomach. Smart thoughts do not belong in the skull of an urga warrior. Her destiny demanded only that she destroy things before they could break on her. Advanced thinking belonged to shamans, to the thorga, and to the ancients still hiding among them. One like Corwin should be thinking these thoughts, but not her. What would Corwin think?

A light flashed past the corner and Corwin's boots clicked softly toward her, leaving her time to pull herself together.

She dropped her hands and straightened her back to make herself seem strong, something she never had to do before. With a measured turn of the head, she looked back.

As Corwin rounded the corner, the blazing light of the lantern stabbed at her eyes as she reverted to normal vision. He turned the light away from her face. "Sorry. I forgot about your special vision. You all right?"

"Heh. Take more than that." Intending to reassure him, she swung her iron-wrapped arm at his shoulder. Halfway through the motion, she thought of the crushing smack on his cloth-covered chest. She slowed her hand, violating everything her people believed. She landed a slap like some thorga afraid her boy might break, like a thorgabent human-child playing at life

Corwin smiled, and caressed her knuckles — arguably the first time he had responded well to her affections. "Our room is to the south. This corridor, I believe." He led the way.

Once he turned his back on her, she stopped hiding the fear. Though he might like that she could play nice now and again—he was into that kind of twisted stuff—these few weeks among his people had ruined her, destroyed her claim on his heart. If he had wanted some fragile, glass-hearted girl, he could choose any of the enchanting huma women that surrounded him. Kreesh never hoped to have their beauty, but for now she also lacked the elemental ferocity that made her worthwhile.

She would change that, by any means necessary. Before he realizes he's made a mistake.

He led her down a long corridor, halfway as long as the town, and stopped at a marked doorway. His key fit, and he opened the door and gave her one. Inside, their bags leaned against a bed that would barely fit her, even in her shrunken state.

He looked up, and snarled at her. "Plenty of room for us on the floor, Piggy." He tapped her on the chin.

She nodded and snorted, pretending it didn't bother her that they hadn't gotten a big enough bed. The old Kreesh would have busted the bed to the floor and used the mattress as a pillow. Now, a dark and sinister voice inside her head berated her for that. She paid it no heed. She would exorcise the humanity from her helmet soon enough. "You sure? You might need the padding when I come for you, little man."

"It's not how much pressure you apply, you know. It's where you put it." He held her gaze until she looked away. "Something you never learned among your own people."

She felt her face grow hot. Did he really think that her warrior-training fell short, too? No, he teased her again. The glass in her heart bothered her, not the words. She took a deep breath and, by force of will raised her chin.

"I had my doubts about us, Kreesh," he said, sitting down, and pulling a few herbs out of his pack. "We Aldredges, we like things dangerous, but you?"

They locked eyes for a moment.

"You're coming around. Finding that balance." He threw his bag on the bed. "You'll be an Aldredge all the way."

Kreesh looked at Corwin as he watched her. His features had a soft essence, a magnificent resonance, a feeling she could not name, reserved for only her. Her heart fluttered with the false hope that her boy welcomed what had happened to Kreesh, that this strange transformation had been part of his plan. That's the terrible thing thorgabent does, it cons and bullies the heart to risk itself for beautiful lies. Maybe Corwin's people could live like that, but she had to face reality. To do that, she had to get away from him, for a while. "You need go out, right?"

"I could stay, if you like. I know how your spirit rails against captivity."

"No, you have go." She corralled him with her arm. "Do what needs."

He stifled a chuckle, and nodded. "Okay, if that's how you want to be." He strode out the door.

It took all her will not to slam the door behind him. Instead, she sagged against it, breathing hard.

***

Once her heart stopped beating against the huma-cage it had formed, she began to think again. Someone in this place had to know how to make the rules change she needed. She could get her soul back. Corwin need never know. Perhaps with her sharpened wit, she could even strike a better deal than one usually got, dealing with the rule-changers.

Once she she figured him gone, she opened the door. No light in either direction. That meant he had gone out of range. She stepped out, and wandered the halls until she saw one of the doors that glowed.

Gently, like a huma piglet might, she tapped at the door.

Light flooded the hallway. When Kreesh's vision adjusted, a young woman stood behind the door. With eyes of glittering, emerald green, and a nose pointier than any thorga she had seen, this fragile girl had the face to bewitch any man. When she saw Kreesh, she stepped back half a step, and shrugged her shoulders toward her ears. To Kreesh, that smile seemed more apology than friendliness—even a plea for mercy. A common expression among the pretty races. "May I help you?"

Kreesh felt the poor little thing's nervousness in her own heart. "You make rules-change?"

Still hiding behind the door, she turned her head to one side, and squinted out of one eye. "Ah, you mean paradoxes? In here, we're all magic users. Aren't you?"

She shook her head. "My boy, Corwin, he makes the rule change. I simply do as he instructs."

The little one nodded. "I... see. And you want something he won't do?"

She pushed through the door. "You've got to help me. He wanted an urgan girl, but since I met him I'm all thorgabent and nothing I do is right. Look, I don't even fit my armor."

The little one laughed. "Urgan's usually don't use proper armor. Are you sure that it really ever fit?"

Kreesh whined. "I don't want to lose him. If he wanted a thorga he could have had a pretty one like you."

She tickled the bottom of Kreesh's chin. "I'm not a thorga, exactly, but thank you. Do you want to look like me, is that it? I can do that."

"No! I want heart of urga back! No thorgabent!"

The little one pulled the door closed, and turned her back. Yellow and green silks swished dramatically about her. She raised her arm and flicked her wrist.

These little people had so many strange things they do with their hands—almost as many as their words—but Kreesh understood. The stool looked small, but Kreesh knew that if she sat carefully, it would hold her weight. She sat.

"You know that even the silliest 'glassmaker' enchantresses won't work for free." She used the huma word for thorga. Kreesh's people called humans 'glassmakers.' Everything they made seemed rigged to break. "You have to do something for us."

"Nalg, my brother, teached me. He is a shaman, very wise for urga. Rules-change never come free, not even for shaman."

"That's not entirely true, but it's good enough. You know your Corwin could likely do all that you ask of me."

"No! He must not know. He might leave me."

"Has it occurred to you that he might like you a little tamer than you were?"

"Yes." She glared, and almost spat. "That's the glass in my heart. I'm a warrior with a pig-face. Only my wild heart could explain why he takes me."

The little one put her hand on Kreesh's knuckles. "Surely you haven't forgotten how to swing a sword or throw a punch."

"No good if I don't do it."

"This Corwin. He's never asked you to calm down, shied away from your touch, stopped you from attacking?"

She glared again. Each one of those things happened several times a day. They were his way of testing her. She forgot to talk stupid. "Stop trying to confuse me. I'm smarter now, so it won't work. Do you want to help me or not?"

"I think you deserve help, Kreesh." She pinched her nose between her eyes. "It's just, that I'm not sure you're asking for the right thing."

She jumped up. "If you not do, I find someone who will."

"Please, Kreesh, sit down. I didn't say I wouldn't do it. Though I'm sure it's a nasty thing to do, you're exactly the kind of help I've been looking for."

Kreesh's cheeks burned. "Okay, little one."

"Call me Lorielle."

"Low. Ree. Ell?"

"Close enough. I'll show you where to go." Lorielle walked over to a shelf, and pulled out one of those boxy things that Corwin liked, that opened up with all the marked skins. Books, he called them. She indicated a picture of a demon statue, that looked like something Nalg would use to make the rules change. "I need you to run through their home and destroy any statue you see that looks like this."

Even thorgabent, Kreesh still knew how to break things—especially things made by thorga. Kreesh nodded.

"This is really important. You can't break the people. Do you understand?"

Kreesh glared. "If people attack Kreesh?"

Lorielle shook her head. "Just stomp your feet, yell, and scare them. Throw things over their heads. You can do that, right? Just pretend they're your brothers."

"Like the drinking game."

Lorielle punched her in the shoulder, and showed her teeth. "These kids wouldn't ever win your game. Leave your sword. If you have to, punch them. These aren't real necromancers, they just play with things they don't understand."

Kreesh didn't understand the phrase 'real necromancers.' All rule-changers played with things they didn't understand. Who could understand things that change? "I can do. Still little bit urga. Good at doing."

"And that's what I've been trying to tell you." Lorielle shrugged, and pulled her toward the door. "Are you ready to go?"

***

Kreesh followed Lorielle through the maze to another trap door. Kreesh pushed up the doorway. Above, boxes in a stone-lined basement. As soon as Kreesh stepped onto the next floor, Lorielle slapped the trap door closed.

Kreesh walked up the stairs and opened the door, scaring several dirty huma children in rags. Kreesh destroyed their idol with a sweep of her hand, shattering the flimsy clay. The shards scattered in every direction. The rotted stairs, broken walls and dirty tapestries belonged in urga lands more than human. She stepped carefully, as she looked for another stairwell.

At the top of the stairs, one of the boys stood defiant, with his hands on his hips. "Lorielle sent you, didn't she! She can't have them. They're ours, we made them!"

"Huma piglet made of glass." Kreesh snorted, and took one step up. Lorielle had said to treat this like a game. It must be okay to bluff. "Break easier than statues."

"Ohh!" The boy ran back and slammed the door behind him, throwing it past where it had been meant to stop.

The boy had run right where Kreesh meant to go, rather than off to safety. Kreesh slapped her forehead, and sighed.

If need be, though, she'd find a way to let him escape, if he didn't find one himself. Thorga excelled at one thing, the reason they survive. They keep their fragile bodies away from harm, most of the time. She pushed through the door.

Behind the other door seven children, boys and girls, huddled beneath one of the statues, praying to it. Their dirty faces and ragged clothes reminded Kreesh of her own people, only smaller. Little bones of odd creatures scattered the floor. The bragging boy held a stick with a twinkling star spark on the end of it. "Don't come any closer, demon. I know how to use this!"

Kreesh snorted at this thorga-piglet's joke. Unlike these odd, rules-changing piglets, she had not been taught the finer points of the spirit world. Still, nobody would confuse an urgan with a demon!

"I'm not joking! I will do it!" The dirty boy flicked the sizzling stick, and an ominous spark of darkness bit at Kreesh's breast.

"Is that the best you can do?" She wiped her chin and stepped forward.

The boy flicked darkness at the bones. One by one they assembled into little monsters, each barely the size of her arm.

One of them flew at her, on ghost-leather wings. Another roared silently, and leaped at her eyes. She grabbed them both and squashed the undead toys with her bare fingers. A third crawled up her skirt, and gnawed at her. She left it for the moment. "I told you. Get out." She stomped further toward the idol.

"Oh, why have you forsaken me?" The boy threw the idol down.

The earthenware idol chipped but didn't break. A hissing noise and black smoke came from the fissures, aiming toward Kreesh.

The thorga children, heads full of thorga glass, gathered and huddled together in fear in a corner.

Good idea. Depend on the kindness of a pig-faced demon when you could run out the door. She strode toward the idol and stomped it to bits, releasing still more of the black smoke and sending the little skeleton's bones scattering. Soon, its bitter stink all found its way into her, lined her lungs and burned at her ribs.

Suddenly she felt tall again, and the stupid thorga-children's whines raised in tone until her skin crawled. "Stop it! Get out of here, before I get hungry!" She would never eat them. She didn't intend to hurt them, but did really need them to stop crying. Unfortunately, her threats only made them huddle down more.

She realized that the door lie behind her, so she moved to the other corner. She snorted, stamped her feet.

They buried their heads.

She charged at them.

The stupid thorga stayed put, frozen in terror.

She had to put her hand up against the wall to stop from trampling them. As she looked down, she could feel the smoke inside her head, chanting, "Death! Death! Death!"

She remembered being small and pitiful, sort of. In fact they had things far worse. Their training left them thorgabent, defiantly unwilling to deal with the world of their birth. Her head hurt to think that such creatures could survive. The merciful thing to do would be kill them. Her fists ached to do just that.

She turned and stomped away, keeping rhythm to the ancient demon-chant in her head, equal parts comforting and revolting. In time to her boot steps, she muttered, "Death, death, death!"

A larger and better dressed boy arrived to block her way. His pointy features sneered, and he pointed off to her left. "Pitiful. Lorielle really knows how to pick them. Kik, kik." He made a gesture, and the sparkling stick jumped into his outstretched hand.

"Get. Out."

He shook his head, gently waved the wand in the air above his forehead. "The idol isn't my only source of power, you know."

Kreesh swept the boy out of her way.

"If only you'd killed one of them, like you were supposed to." The boy flicked his black magic at the girl. "Then, I'd have something worthy of you."

Kreesh stomped toward him, and picked him up by the shirt collar. "You better not break your friend."

The big boy laughed. "I know who you work for. You're never going to stop me. You don't have it."

"I count more huma kills than you've ever met." The threat had sounded meaningful when Corwin's father, Colwyn, used it on her. She clarified, "I not born thorgabent."

He flicked his wand at the girl again. She drooled black blood, and the demon stain covered even the whites of her eyes in blackness. All the little kids glared and snarled.

Kreesh grabbed the stick from his hands and broke it over the big boy's head. He stumbled back, hands raised against a shower of the black sparks. His hands shook and he fell to his knees.

The girl advanced on the big boy, a hungry joy in those demon-tainted eyes.

Kreesh grabbed him, threw him over her shoulder, and slammed the door on the way out.

The door creaked open.

Kreesh turned, growled, and stomped down the stairs, carrying the big boy out.

The door slammed behind her.

The big boy cried. "I'm sorry, Lorielle. Mama, I mean. I'll be good, I promise. I didn't mean to hurt anybody. You have to have power, that's all. I need it. I didn't ..."

Kreesh jammed her finger under his nose, and they finished the climb in silence, except for the boy's soft moaning and labored breath.

***

Kreesh walked past Lorielle's door, and dropped the boy.

"Kreesh, that's my son! I told you not to ...." The enchantress looked over the sobbing boy, and hugged him close. Then she vanished, and appeared in the hall ahead of Kreesh.

Kreesh raised her right arm over her left shoulder and kept marching.

Lorielle easily ducked the peevish swat that Kreesh threw as she marched past, then scratched Kreesh's cheek with a small stick. Tickled it really. It had been the pointy end of a feather. "You'll be glad to know, you've passed my test. Thank you."

Kreesh had never imagined a face so in need of punching in her life, but she blamed that on the idol, rather than Lorielle. "Get thorgabent, witch."

"You're welcome, Kreesh."

"Thanks for nothing." Kreesh turned the corner, and kept stomping onward.

Lorielle appeared at the corner, behind Kreesh. "What's the matter? Don't you like your new attitude?"

She stopped, glared at Lorielle, and then continued on.

"That's what I've been trying to tell you."

She stopped. True enough, this would help her fit in among her tribe. "Not same."

"No. It's you—you've changed. Improved. You don't belong there any longer."

Every inch of Kreesh's arms and muscles ached with the idol-demon's desire to pummel Lorielle. Kreesh groaned in frustration and marched onward, toward home, if you could call it that: Corwin's room.

"I know you're in a dark place, Kreesh! Don't worry. It can't hold you there. Not if you don't indulge it!"

***

She got back to the bedroom. The table sneered at her, with its glass potion bottles and what-have-you. The bed mocked her for being too large, and the bookshelf—even in her own language, she didn't have a word for the book's behavior. They all cried and begged to be smashed to bits, but the weight in her arms overruled them. Lorielle's words shattered against truth. The idol's magic did not restore her quite to her original self. She had only been up for thirty hours, and already her arms refused to carry their own weight. She had gone for weeks without any need for rest. Had that been bragging? She sagged against the wall, promising to kick the bed before her nap. She growled at them, "Plenty of time for all of you, after the nap." Her knees sagged and her eyelids fluttered.

"Kreeshrielle," the voice of the idol called.

The idol had no voice of its own; Kreesh knew this had to be a dream. Her brother taught her to look at her hands when dreaming, so that she might take hold of the other place. The hands she saw belonged to no urgan, if you could even call them hands. Peach-white fingers, as thin and dainty as Lorielle's, with painted-red nails. Her majestic girth had been replaced with Lorielle's saber-thin figure.

"You cannot hurt me in dreams."

"Oh, but I would never dream of hurting you, Kreeshrielle. I enjoy this far too much."

"What? What do you enjoy?"

"I can bring you back. Make you urgan again."

"Promises, promises. That's all demons ever do."

"If I can bring life to the dead bones, I can surely bring power to living flesh."

"Get thorgabent, demon."

The demon laughed. It came from every direction, from the walls and the floor. "That's something I'll never have the power to do. I'll have to let you do that, Kreeshrielle."

The name burned in her muscles, begged her to strike out. Nothing in the dream made a useful target. "Not me. I will pass every test!"

"Okay, tell yourself whatever you want. If you believed it, you would never have met me."

The demon stepped out of the wall, and took the form of the big boy. "My mother didn't ask you to kill me, you know."

"I saved your stinking life, you glass-helmeted thorga!"

"We're elves, pignorant beast. We're going to make you one of us, unless you kill me first!"

"I don't care. I'm dead already."

"You said it yourself. What will Corwin think of you?"

"He's not like you. His father tried to kill him."

"Test his loyalty. Kill me."

"No! That no test; that evil."

"A very thorga distinction. But, you're walking on thin ice, pig. Sooner or later you're going to break one of our laws. Might as well duel me now."

The words Colwyn had used to taunt her, when she looked for his son. "I no come to hang, thorga."

"Never cross a bridge you can burn, unless you want to get wet." Her brother's favorite saying.

She grabbed her head. Dreams are nothing but glass. They always break. One need only keep the shards from getting in the helmet, under the armor.

"You never changed, Kreeshrielle. You're no warrior-bent. Thorgabent from birth. The time has come to shatter, to leave room for the strong."

"No!"

The scream barely escaped her tightened throat, but the effort of it burst the dream.

***

"He's right. I can't change. I have to know, am I thorga or am I urga?" The thought blew over her like an arctic wind in a rainstorm, rattled the chains in her armor. She wedged a finger in the crack between bricks on the wall, and hoisted herself up by her fingertips. The force of the maneuver torqued her fingers beyond their tolerance, and left her aching. The familiar joy of pain did not come, only the grim satisfaction that she could do the painful thing anyhow. Perhaps that's all she'd ever had, and her time among thorga had made her long for something else, something better than life had to offer an urga.

Nasty and brutish though life among her people had been, she had been wild and free.

She found a blank bit of crinkly stuff and a feather stuck in the table. She glared with the effort of thinking. Did she remember enough of Nalg's markings to leave a message for Corwin? She started slow. She could not figure how to spell Verdonne. "Go find Urgaslayer. Test Kreesh."

Kreesh looked down at the parchment. Something told her to throw it away, that the test would fail if she left Corwin a note. The glass alembic beside the papyrus itched to be shattered, but she ignored it, too, as she lumbered toward the door.

***

"Kaledorn, back off. She's got her peace ties on. She's got a right."

"Peace ties break. What do you say, pig? Wanna test me, see if I'm made of glass?"

The angle of a man's sword says much more than the dance of his tongue. Kaledorn's sword sat safely in its sheath, and not for any legal reason. Seeing an urga warrior would justify his having the weapon out, by any rational measure, or even buried in her heart. "You pass, huma. Friend very impressed with brave Kaledorn."

The other man had his sword out, but he grabbed Kaledorn with his off hand. "Come on. She could probably split you in half with her bare hands."

"I sincerely doubt that."

"And if she can't, then it's not much of a test of bravery."

Kaledorn pulled away from his friend. "Looks like I have something to prove." He stepped in front of her, and swatted her across the chest, as if to intimidate her.

She smiled at the greeting. "Hey, brother. Let's get this guy." Then, she smacked Kaledorn across his breastplate. Her words knocked his thoughts in one direction, and her answering slap knocked him back into his friend's arms.

The other man grabbed Kaledorn with both hands. "Thank you, stranger. Kaledorn's had too much to drink."

Ale had a way of turning thorga hearts to urga, of softening rages. The fire flared in her. "Best that you spirit him well away, for I have had far too little to drink, and my parched skin itches to bathe in the blood of an easy kill."

Both men blushed white with fear, and ran.

She smiled as they ran. If she could not find Verdonne by wandering the streets, perhaps this forest rat would find her when she had frightened enough red-blooded thorga.

Corwin's voice called from behind. "Nice taunt. I knew you were faking, in our language lessons."

She considered running. The ache of fatigue in her bones, measured against the considerable weight of steel around her shoulders, told her better. Her beautiful boy depended entirely on sorcery. His entire outfit didn't weigh much more than Lorielle's scarf, while Kreesh wore as much steel on her shoulders as she could afford. Besides, an urga always runs toward battle. Instead, she turned and glared at her beautiful boy.

"You brought Lorielle's son home. That was nice of you." Corwin came up to hug her. "But what are you thinking, walking the streets, issuing threats? It looks like Colwyn sent Verdonne after us."

That her father in law had sent this urgan slayer changed nothing, only proved what they already knew. She looked at him, wanted to tell him what had gone through her mind. The changes in her body and mind, if changes they were, confused and embarrassed her beyond belief. An urgan should know her own measure. "Have to know."

He smiled with his right lips. "So we're back to that, the strong silent." He slid his arm under hers, and pulled her back to the entrance to the maze.

***

"This will calm your nerves." Corwin sprinkled crushed herbs in a cup, then poured another drink, and wandered to back of the room.

While his back was turned, she grabbed a pinch of the herbs and doubled the dose, then switched the cups.

When he returned, he had another bottle, this one caked in dust. "I've got a treat for you, a spirit rarer and more foul than the pits of perdition, called Senrigoli."

The word meant something, an old urga word: the crack in the world that threatened to swallow all things. A myth, probably, from some tribe of makers the urga had mingled with. Kreesh shrugged.

"This potion will make everything seem okay, in comparison." He smiled, and dribbled a touch in each drink. "I've owned a bottle for my entire life, but never had the courage to open it. Had to bribe the porter to have it sent here."

"Heh. Better double mine." Kreesh could still talk the talk, at least.

He shook his head. "Drink up." He held his at arm's length, like it threatened to bite his face off.

She faked a sneer, and threw it back. Sure enough, it burned at her ribs and chewed at her fingers, making it hard to remember what she had been upset about. She stumbled back, forcing her self to 'pass out' as if under Corwin's sleep spell.

A few seconds after she lay down, Corwin crashed.

"Don't worry, I won't tell Colwyn your head failed the test against me." She gently picked him up and laid him on the bed. She smelled his breath, in and out like it should, then pulled the blanket over him.

"May the glass beneath your feet hold, sweet thorga man." She stroked his cheek, and wept for the baby emperor she had meant to give him. She assured herself, Verdonne would give her a test no urga could pass; surely the forest rat had more ancient than thorga in his ancestry.

***

One thing, one privilege denied the canniest of thorga held for the least of urga. An urga need never slouch, never bow before any man, beast, or world-eating dragon. She would leave life this hour, if the test arrived on schedule, but she planned to die holding her head in victory. She pitied her beautiful fellows, the huma and the other fairies of this glassmaker town. Why conquer the world and live a thousand years if she could not stretch her spine to its fullest length?

She strode upon the street, savoring the looks of fear and curiosity in the people who shared the city with her. "Will no one challenge me? I am here, a threat to all! I shatter your precious."

"Go back to where you belong!" a voice cried out.

It might have been an urga voice, save for the fact that the face hid behind stone. All the people in sight held their tongues.

She shook her head. This is why I have to go. Thorga always hid from the truth, afraid of the test, skulking in the shadows and treading too gently. Death always caught them before they had even lived. Kreesh saw a chance to test herself, to grab life and let it destroy her, if that's what life wanted.

She smelled it before she heard it. The sour stink from the abandoned home, from the idol. Then, a little human girl cried out. "Help! Help!"

The guards would come, and that would mean trouble. More importantly, Nalg always taught her to allow people to handle their own things. What good is life if you must depend on others? On the other hand, humans did not value their independence. That left fear as the motive to stay back. Playing by fear's rules meant it came to live in your heart. The only way out is through. Out of fear, into trouble. Whatever the human had planned—Kreesh suspected that this was no real distress call, but actually a trap—would be more interesting than looking at a bunch of drooling passersby. She tugged at the strings around her sword, and trudged toward the call.

Sure enough, she saw markings cut into the dirt. From behind boxes, and inside doors came the 'not real necromancers', the idol's piglets. Led by the black-eyed girl, still drooling black blood. Her voice sounded hollow, as if echoing through a long tunnel. "Welcome to your destiny, child of the urga clans."

The trick with the voice almost made Kreesh laugh. "A festival in my honor?" Kreesh looked at her feet, and kicked up dust.

The girl raised the wand from before, and flicked a speck of darkness at Kreesh. It bit deeper than before, but tickled.

"Hey, what? I broke your stick."

"We made the necessary sacrifices. Behold, the wand: restored."

A voice from behind Kreesh made her blood bubble. "That, my barbaric friend, is the thing that you pigs can never understand."

The black-eyed girl snarled. "Get out of here, old man!"

Kreesh turned and looked. He wore black armor worthy of a chief, only sleeker, tailored to his form. All the clasps held their place. The gouges and scars had been polished to enhance their beauty. He had done just enough repair to keep it in optimum condition, without making himself look new to the field. The battleaxe hanging on his shoulder had half the weight of an urgan design, but a longer handle and a pointed blade gave it a special sense of deadliness. This man was the perfect blend of thorga and urga, as if straight from Nalg's mythic tales, an ancient. The sight of him took her breath away, and gave it back again—if that made sense. "What that be, Verdonne?"

He didn't even acknowledge that she guessed his name, but only smiled without doing her the respect of showing teeth. "What takes a wound, heals. What dies, returns in birth. Whatever one man builds, another builds again. The treasures of this world never leave." He threw her a cylinder wrapped in silk.

She caught the toy and crushed it in her hand. Why had he given something so fragile to an urga? She snorted in disgust, judging this man to be just another spinner of glass.

Verdonne turned from her. "Foolish, glass-helmeted children, you get one warning. Leave us, if you would live."

The piglets spoke in unison, as if it gave them some kind of authority. "We are within our rights, old man. Death becomes the urga, one and many. So says the law."

"I'm with her. I do not care for 'rights.' I cannot guarantee your safety if you remain, and from what I hear out of your mouths, it would be no loss." The man stepped easily, softly, rather like a snake. "Do you know why they call me urgaslayer? Because people don't like their heroes stained with human blood. Go. Now."

The demon voice disappeared, and the black-eyed girl gave the same, begging smile that Lorielle had used. "I'm sorry, mister, I was only playing."

"If that were so, I would not have offered to kill you."

The little girl nodded, and her cult members scattered in every direction they could, stumbling over one another.

"Looks like you've ruined my toy, Mrs. Aldredge." Verdonne showed his teeth and reached out an empty hand. "The least you could do is give me back the wreck."

She still gripped it with a death crush, but threw it back to him.

To her shock, it sprung back into shape before he caught it. "A trifle, a simple trick that boggles the urgan mind more than it has any right. You damaged nothing. It bent."

She sputtered at him, unsure whether to think about the toy's behavior or the fact that this man whose test she had sought, played piglet games with her. She wiped her chin, and shook her head.

He swaggered forward. "The most disgusting thing about you is your choice in boyfriends. All of thorga, and you pick an Aldredge to take to bed."

"You leave my boy alone!"

He stepped forward again, put his sword away, and pinched her cheek where Lorielle had scratched her. "What does this mark mean to you?"

Kreesh ignored the insult of putting his sword away, and touched her cheek. It hadn't been a feather; it had been a quill. "Don't know. I did a thing, spared her son. She scratched me."

"Well, your ruse certainly has saved your life." His words accused her of lying, drawing the thing herself. "I'm bound by the request on your cheek, but I'll bet you forgot to write one on Corwin."

"I told you, leave him alone!" He upset her so, she forgot to talk funny. "I came to be tested, by the slayer of urga. Test me, Verdonne. Leave my beautiful boy alone."

"You came here so I could kill you. That's not a test, that's suicide. Here's what I propose. Attack and kill me, breaking the Order of Mercy upon you, or I destroy the pitiful sorcerer. The bounty on an Aldredge head is ten times the bounty on you."

"No, please, I beg of you. I will do anything."

"I told you. Kill me. If you fail, I'll send him to the mazes after you."

Her skin got hot, her breathing flared, and she shook so hard her armor clinked. "Hit me, then."

He scoffed. "You first."

"I can't, Urgaslayer. Please, hit me first."

"And why can't you?" He sneered. "You're thorgabent to the core, so dependent on your Corwin that you can't do what needs done. You're not even worthy of him, you're just an ugly thorga girl."

Rage burned brighter. She swallowed the urge to throw up, but tears started to drip from her eyes. "How do you know what I'm thinking?"

"For the same reason that I've bested so many urga. I know the laws that rule you." He slapped her across the chest, full force, and squeezed the spring toy. "You came to be 'tested'. Did you think you wouldn't pass?"

The chest slap, a sign of affection among her people, unwound something inside her. Kreesh slapped him across the chest, releasing most of her rage, leaving her as she had been before breathing in the demon's rage. "What did you do?"

"Simple, Kreesh. I lied."

"Stupid thorga!"

"That's more like it." He punched her on the shoulder, and even more of the rage drained from her. He offered her a bottle. "Drink up. I insist."

She opened it. Rum, to pacify her spirit, make her more easy-going.

"Don't worry, you haven't changed. You aren't coming down with thorgabent, you're not dependent on urga witchcraft and a bottle of rum isn't going to do anything but help you relax."

She tasted it. It did soothe her, possibly too much so. It would be so easy to give in. "You're lying. Not only am I changed, I am sick. I'm ruined."

"Why, because you've learned a thing or two? They told you that you were born perfect." He laughed at the absurdity of the notion. "The urga shamans were lying, and stupid. The ancients didn't enhance the urgans, it was the thorga-class. The great ones, in their jealousy, tried to kill your ancestors, when they found out what we'd wrought. Your people overcame them. You've risen higher than your so-called gods, a lot of humans with crowns."

She shook at the thought. Had the thorga really made her people powerful, rather than weak? "How do you know?"

"Same way your shamans 'know.' We don't." Verdonne pulled two crates behind where Kreesh stood, and sat on one of them. "It's my lies that you should believe, though—if you want to live among us."

"How do you know I should believe?"

"That's what the thorga class excels at, our role in the ancient's kingdom. We spin glass castles, myths. We make lies that guide the universe—or at least, the people in it." He shrugged. "That's how we brought down the ancients, with our stories. Isn't that what they told you? That much, I can believe."

Kreesh nodded, and scratched her head as she sat down beside Verdonne. She took off her helmet, and bashed it against the crate, as if to test her helmet and shake out any glass crumbs—a subtle way of admitting stupidity and confusion. "I don't understand."

He laughed. "Good, now we're getting somewhere." He offered her a bag. In it, she found some padded mittens and a small bag of stones with a face on it, along with the springy toy.

She shrugged, unable to guess his purpose.

"It's a care package. Armor for the next face that needs punching." He indicated the padded mittens, then the punching bag. "And, a preferred target."

"You funny," Kreesh said, remembering to talk like an idiot. "I still have kill you?"

He backhanded her shoulder. "Nah, that was the test. Most humans couldn't keep it in the sheath like that. Colwyn's going to be upset when he finds out that I'm not an assassin."

"If you no kill urga, how come they call you urgaslayer?"

"Don't get me wrong. To solve urga problems, that means killing, usually. Ain't too many of you that want to coexist with us."

"Heh, you got that right." She punched him in the shoulder. "How do I know you're not going to kill my boy?"

"If I want a bounty, I'll go for your father-in-law. Colwyn and Count Aldredge are worth a king's ransom. Corwin's would barely buy me dinner."

She thought. The rogue that sold them to their freedom, knew Corwin's family name, and didn't sound one bit friendly. If there had been a price on her boy's head, Raphael would have taken it.

"You know, Kreesh, I've learned a lot from your people. At times you need to do things the urga way."

"How you mean?"

"One thing I can say for sure. You have no fear of being humanized, no matter how many times you throw that word around." He took a drink from his canteen, and motioned for her to take a sip of her rum. "Not Kreesh. She married a human—a sorcerer, no less. There's something a little more personal going on."

Kreesh's ears perked up. She looked around, smelled the air, but could not find the answer for why she was so nervous. "Quiet, human."

Verdonne laughed. "Kid, pay attention. It's not this thorgabent thing. You're happy with what you're becoming. You're only afraid of what it might cost you."

She stood up, still trying to explain her nervousness in terms of somebody watching her. She knew how to deal with that. "Yeah, Corwin. I'll lose him if I don't get my warrior bent back."

"Sit down, and pay attention." He pulled her forcibly back, and pushed her down on the crate. "I've learned a lot from you people, you know. an't always be gentle. Sometimes, the urgan way offers the only hope."

Fires of anger chased away the chill of fear. She flung her elbow at his wrist to shake him off, and pretended she did not know what he had in mind. She said, with far too much emphasis, "That is what I have been saying all along. The only way ... to get ... my..."

He waited to be sure she had finished her declaration. "No, Kreesh. That's the thorga way. You can't live in a glass house. You can't love with a heart glazed in lies."

"No, stop! Don't say that." Her stomach burned. Her knees shook with the drive to run. "He can never know. I need him."

"I know." He shrugged, and tried to look friendly. "Believe me, we all know, if we live long enough. There's nothing I, or you, or Corwin can do, so long as you hide this secret."

Never had she imagined anything so precious as Corwin's loyalty. It drove her thorgabent. She had tried to imprison love in a glass castle, protect it from the test. If her true self, whether beast or human, could not bind him to her side, she had to know—today. As pain rippled through her, it echoed back as power, the fierce joy of knowing that she could embrace the thing that would destroy her. Tears wet her palms, cleansing drops that bled clean.

"Kreesh?"

The time to huddle in the corner had passed; a new Kreesh had been born. She waved him away, bared her teeth. "You right. What to do now, I know."

Verdonne pounded his chest in salute. The emperor's slogan rolled off his tongue, "Trust only what survives."

Thoughts played like shadows in lightning. Kreesh imagined young human warriors, trudging through mud toward their first real taste of battle. They dreaded the worst, rejected their best plans to desert, worrying at the hilts of their swords. The idea had never occurred before, any more than the idea of a first breath. Part of her begged to trade places with them, to slide back into the easy victories, as she marched forward into Corwin's arms.

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