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Kirin 63


© 2017 by Virginia Hotchkiss


Cover art attributed to Flickr user owlana


All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or used in any manner without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.



Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Epilogue

Author’s Note





Chapter 1


A storm is coming. The air is thick and humid.

We are the storm, we are coming. The contrasting scents mingle in my nose: dirt and blood, water in the air, and something pungent, yet familiar.

Fear. What you smell is their fear. My heart thunders in my chest. Franc stamps the earth beneath his hooves in anticipation.

I long for thunder in my hooves.

I raise my face to the wind, longing for it to pass over me, under me. I spread my arms, waiting, but it does not give me flight. Our standard whips in the wind above me, a white unicorn dancing on black, hooves raised, teeth gnashing, eyes red. The canvas crackles like lightning in the gale, the pole is a bolt in my fist clenched tight.

The air is pregnant with electricity and the tension of every muscle on every soldier and beast. All around me waiting for the signal, they chew their nails and tap their fingers. Ten thousand eyes shift, but never focus long on any one thing. Across the field are ten thousand more. All waiting for the other side to break first. A battle of wills. Each side awaiting glory or destruction.

They have never tasted glory as we have and never will. Patience. We must wait for the song. As if drawn out by the very thought, the first voice rises. The chant of a single voice, thin and straining against the mounting winds. A rhythmic ballad sung in a nearly forgotten language, the meaning lost to all but a handful. The syllables found by every voice in the company, swelling to engulf us all. The thunder in my heart turns to lightning in my veins. The melody takes a haunting turn into a minor key. The smells before battle come over me anew. Horseflesh, manflesh, dirt, wet grass, steel, wood, exhaust, fear.

It’s time. The song is almost over. We ride.

Not yet. We have to wait for the dragon fire.

Not even dragon fire can touch us.

The squadron of dragon riders roars overhead. As they ride the wind, I wonder what it would be like to be one of them. To rain down sulphur and fire on the front lines, turning the ground to blackened charcoal. We are the standard bearers, right in the thick of battle, but I wonder what it would be like to fly above it, to watch the action below. Removed from it.

The dragonriders are distant and tiny when reach their target, but rain glorious hell from the skies in a sheet of fire on the Valean soldiers. Though they have enchantments to protect themselves from the worst of it, they can only take so much. We must move while they are still recovering from by the blast. It’s time.

We ride.

My voice is the last to join the chorus, pulling power from it. The others fade until mine is the only left. The adrenaline is so strong that I don’t know when we started moving. Perhaps I’ve always been moving. I am movement itself.

Franc’s beating heart beneath me like a mighty diesel engine. Steady and full of power, hooves rending the virgin grass beneath. We fly, standard whipping in the wind. I can barely hear it over the blood rushing in my ears and the pounding of hooves beneath me. I’m weightless, a bullet defying gravity. Everything falls away when I close my eyes. Only the wind on my face, pouring down my arms and over my back. Then my body is as nothing and I am the wind itself. A gust, a gale, soon a hurricane that even the mighty ocean’s tide must obey.

I am the crash of the sea. A breaker leading a tidal wave. The roiling black clouds that darken the sun. The storm is coming. Nothing can touch us.

Eyes closed, we are the thermal beneath a bird of prey. The winds rush faster as we fly down into the fray. The vibrations come up Franc’s legs and into my skull, rattling my teeth. I clench my jaw against it. My hand grips tighter around the shaft of the standard.

The first wave of artillery falls all around us, but Franc is unaffected. There could be an earthquake so violent that it splits the earth and he would fly across the chasm, lost to battle lust.

I am the earthquake. I split the earth.

Though, we have fought so many battles that they blur together, this one feels different. Each one bleeding into the next, leading us to this moment of triumph. Their capital city looms in the distance. With this final drive, we will either drive them to surrender or trample them to dust.

We have closed the distance between us and the front line, so close now that I can see their faces. They are but boys. The last of their troops. Green as the spring grass that will cover their coffins. They raise their weapons with shaky hands and take aim. I can’t hear their captain’s call, only see his mouth open, lips and teeth parting wide. A silent shout. Fire! Their weapons flash. The bullets fly. They bounce off my skin like peas. A solid ton of horseflesh flexes beneath the bare skin of my thighs. I press my stomach flat against his back, feeling the power of thick, lean muscle beneath me.

I am tip of the spear. I will pierce my enemies. We open the body to death. Red as blood and black as fury.

My vision goes red as we break through the enemy lines. Beneath me, he rears, letting gravity and fury slam iron-shod hooves into the skull of the nearest enemy rider. The slam of hooves on packed dirt jars me like a gut punch. Fellow riders flank us then as the tide crashes against the rocks. Franc’s adrenaline and berserker’s rage drive me.

Training kicks in; rote memory, rather than conscious decision making. I pull power from his capacitor and call upon the looming storm clouds. At my word, the enchantment flashes yellow across my skin and discharges a ball of energy into the heavens. A bolt of blinding light crashes to earth, setting the enemy riders ablaze. Their screams fill my ears until they are drown out by the boom of thunder, so close we are deafened.

Sound muted, the figures become like a surrealist painting. I can see them all in a moment, read their next movements. With twisted, comical faces, they seem absurd. Their deaths will be meaningless. Coming to myself, I spot their Captain.

He’s embroiled in a deathmatch with three pikemen. Two of them have pierced his horse, but it will cost them their lives as his horse throws his weight onto his front two hooves and delivers a deadly mule kick behind. The third pikeman spears the beast’s belly, but fares no better than his companions as the horse crushes him, neither to rise again.

Pulling Franc from battle is never easy, but we must lead the charge against their Captain. C’mon, these are nothing, mere boys. The real glory is in killing the Captain. When I finally manage to pull him into the present, our troops are in disarray. From far away the trumpets blare. Once, twice, a long third blast. Retreat and regroup. Franc is disgusted at the cowardice. The Captain is so close. We could turn the tide, if we could only reach him.

We ride.

Franc rears, I raise the standard high. It snaps in the wind, calling all attention to it. The nearest riders rally. Ignoring direct orders, we lead a wedge for the captain. Franc is all teeth and hooves as we ride. Bones and bodies break, trampled beneath his fury.

We’ve overspent ourselves, though. The bullets that were once like harmless peas now sting like biting flies. The power that supplies our protective enchantments is fading. The biting becomes piercing and my flesh tears. We must retreat or die.

Then we die! For Glory!

I know Franc’s mind in the matter, stubborn animal. He will always choose to fight.

I wonder if there is ever enough?

Ignoring the pain and blood loss, I call to the heavens again. My voice is weak, but my will is strong, its desire clear. The remaining power from Franc’s capacitor pulses and dissipates as another mighty bolt descends from the heavens, rending the earth and every unfortunate soul standing there upon. It misses the captain, but we have cleared a path for the remaining soldiers to push through.

The dragons above descend, landing with such force that it shakes the earth. Their booms rattle my teeth. They rain down no more fire, but the Valean soldiers are snapped up in alligator strong jaws.

We will win the day without another charge. A smile crosses my face, but doesn’t last long as blood loss overtakes me, my body is unable to maintain grip of the standard. Before it can fall to the ground another hand catches it. The last thing I see is the spiked ferrule driven into the heart of the captain as he begs for his life, pinning him to the blackened earth.

Only then does Franc come to his senses. Forfeiting his own life is one thing, but he values mine above his own. Though I am on the edge of unconsciousness and can barely hold on, he does not let me fall from his back. The jarring of his gate rattles me like ragdoll, but he keeps me from falling.

Forgive me, Aeza. I lost myself. We should have returned sooner. I will not make this mistake twice.

In sight of the hospital tents, he kneels underneath me. Gentle hands transfer me to a stretcher. I can no longer keep my eyes open. The sounds of battle fall away as I’m moved inside. The flap of the tent closes behind us, suffocating me in hospital smells: astringent antiseptic, but also piss and sweat.

The voices of the nurses blur and blend as I’m carried deeper into the tent. Two woman? Three? I can’t tell.

“I don’t see why they make these girls go in naked,” one tsks.

“The enchantments don’t work if they are clothed,” replies the other.

“Of course they do. I think it’s just so the soldiers can get their jollies,” the first says, or maybe a third.

My body stops moving as I’m settled onto a table. Now the women can begin their work.

“I think it’s to distract the enemy soldiers. A naked, battle-raged woman on a war horse running full tilt at you is nothing to be trifled with,” says one or the other as she begins swabbing the wounds in my flesh. The alcohol stings like cold fire across my skin. I clench my jaw against it, but the pain is intense.

“Not really a woman, though, she’s built like any of those boys out there, all legs and arms,” says the first, or maybe the third. “Do you think it’s true what they say about them? That they have two sets of teeth?” She snickers.

“It’s not professional to talk about such things. Remember your manners!” The other chastises.

My skin is awash in flames now and concentrating on their conversation is impossible. Without Franc’s power to draw on, the pain of every wound ignites at once. The flames explode into a bonfire. I can’t tell if I’m actually screaming, or just want to be screaming.

The women’s voices sound far away.

“Poor dear. She’s in agony. Give her something…”

The fire extinguishes abruptly and the world becomes black and still.




Chapter 2


“Aezabeth…”

Franc? Where are you Franc?

“Aezabeth? What a lovely name.” It’s one of the nurses.

“Where’s Franc?” I murmur.

“Who’s Franc?” She asks.

“My horse,” I whisper.

“With the other’s in the stables, I imagine. I won’t suffer them in the infirmary,” she clucks. “There is someone to see you, though. Lieutenant Olsen.”

“Who? Quentin’s just a Corporeal,” I correct her, despite my screaming headache. Is there another Olsen? Probably, it’s a common enough surname.

“Not anymore,” Quentin says softly. “That last drive won it for us. I speared the captain myself. Earned a promotion. The Vale soldiers have agreed to a ceasefire and are discussing treaty conditions. Without their officers, they are an unorganized mess. They’re bound to surrender. The war is over, Zabe.” He’s so proud of himself, like he did it all himself. I hate his nickname.

“I see. So, you stole my standard, used it to impale the captain and since I’m sure you took all the credit, they promoted you,” I growl. When I try to open my eyes, the world spins, either from anger or narcotics. Rather than pass out, I continue with my eyes closed. I don’t want to see his face anyway, “the victory was mine Quentin.”

“I know that, but what does it matter who did it? Like I said, the war is over. Now we can pick up where we left off,” he says in a hushed voice. “I came here,” he pauses and clears his throat. “I was wondering if, now that peace is assured, if you would-”

“Peace is assured? Do you know our enemies? Peace is never assured. Think clearly, man,” I chastise. Without looking, I know his face is turning red as a tomato. With his round, baby-faced cheeks, he probably looks like one, too.

“Listen, Zabe. I came here to ask if you would marry me. We got along well before and I was wondering if you would consider-”

“No,” I answer without hesitation. Only then do I try opening my eyes again. He’s still in his dragon squadron uniform, helmet resting on his hip. By showing up here now, he’s rubbing his status in my face. A spoiled, rich boy who can fly in when he pleases and grab the glory. I wonder if he’s ever had to work for anything.

“But, you don’t need to be a soldier anymore. You can settle down now and we can-”

“Have a fence and a dog and a couple kids? Did you really think I would want that, Quentin? Really?” I rail. His expression is dark, far darker than I expected. The effect is strange on his permanently youthful face. Though insulted, he still looks innocent. A dangerous man, to be sure. He could be on the very edge of murder, but his enemy would never even know.

When he doesn’t answer right away, I know that he’s livid. He swallows hard, adam’s apple bobbing.

“You’ve humiliated me. I don’t know why I bothered,” the words shake as they tumble out, choking back emotions. “The others call you a freak behind your back, but I ignored them, Zabe. I’m scorned and outcast because of it, but I don’t care, because I love you.”

“If you really loved me, you would know that I hate that nickname and always have,” I fire back. “Find someone who deserves you, Quentin.” I meant it to be honest, but it comes off as dismissive and scorning. What I really mean to tell him is that he should find someone who actually likes him, but I’ve done enough damage.

He wipes the tears from his cheeks, leaving streaks in his grease smudged face. Without another word, he punches the tent flap open and stalks out. Only after it slaps shut again and the room descends into quiet do I realize I shouldn’t have offended him. Though the youngest son, his family is wealthy. If he really did get promoted, he’s a powerful man now.

A powerful man that I created! If anything, he should be thanking me for leading the cavalry. I turned the tide of the war, not him.

Marriage! What did I ever do to make him think I would marry him? I know exactly what I did, though. When I close my eyes again, the tent fades, replaced by the memory of a ball. If I concentrate, I can still hear the music, smell the summer air.

It was hot that night, but not stifling.

We had been shown off before. Many times. We were the show pieces of military techno-magi program. Often dressed up like princesses and paraded before the elites and military officers. We had been in the castle before. We lived in the research wing, in fact. None of that was new.

Being allowed to mingle with the male cadets, though? That was unheard of. We had to sit away from everyone. Not this time. The dance floor was humid with our youthful bodies, all pressed as close together as we dared. We were told that being allowed to dance was a reward. No one said so, but it was a test. The first of many. Only a few of us were clever enough to realize that at the time, though.

I was obedient and took the eunuch’s advice to heart. I danced with no one that night, not even Quentin. Did I lead him to believe there could ever be anything between us, though? Probably. Did I know better? Definitely, but we were young and naive. I didn’t know how to turn him down.

“But when the war is over? Maybe then?” He had asked. I told him no probably not, or maybe it was only maybe. I can’t remember. Whatever it was, it was not forceful enough, apparently. We were children then. Hell, if not for this war, I would still be considered a child. Our eyes full of hope, innocence. That is the only part of him that changed over time. His eyes are tired now, hardened by warfare.

But aren’t mine, too?




Chapter 3


My eyes blink open to the slap of the tent flap and boots crunching on the naked dirt floor. Outside, revelers are making a celebratory ruckus. Too far away to be discernable, drinking songs sung loud and off-key filter through the burlap. The report of firearms sends a shiver over my skin and arrests my heart. They are only firing them into the sky, though. A bloody waste, or rather, a bloodless one. Slowly, by degrees, I remember that I am in the hospital tent recovering. My skin aches. My head is light and I can’t hold onto my thoughts. Is there someone in the tent, or did I imagine it?

Yes, though, it becomes apparent when he asks no questions that he is not a nurse. I can tell by the shadow’s height that he is Quentin, by his scent that he is drunk. As I am weighing my options, wondering if it would be better to remain still and pretend to sleep or not, he starts speaking.

“I just don’t understand, Zabes. Why would you lie to me? I waited for you. Well, I mean, I didn’t pursue anyone seriously. I took my share of the spoils of war, as they say,” he babbles, alcohol making him too honest. “I’m not a bad guy, though. No worse than any other. I have a stable career, and I’ve been told I’m not too bad to look at. What else could you possibly need in a husband? I’ve got money. Is it the kids? We don’t have to have kids.”

While I find his persistence baffling, I need to make him understand. Putting away my anger, I try to find the words. It’s less about what he can offer, than what I would lose.

“Can you give me the wind?” I ask him point blank, voice barely strong enough to raise above a whisper. My mind is dreamy with the memory of wind whipping my hair, stinging my eyes, a hurricane gale threatening to rip the standard from my grasp. Though it should be disorienting, by very definition turbulence, I feel peace in those moments.

“No. What does that have to do with anything?” He scoffs. He doesn’t understand what he’s asking me to give up and until he does, he’ll keep up his ridiculous pursuit.

“Can you give me the thunder?” I whisper, the echo of Franc’s hoofbeats still rattling in my skull. Gooseflesh breaks over my skin as I remember the electricity coursing through me. Wild and deadly, just barely controlled enough to fry my enemies, but not myself. The power of the gods channeled through me, leaving me untouched. Well, not untouched, my weakened body reminds me, but alive. So alive.

“No! You’re speaking nonsense. No one can give you those things. They are controlled by nature. I’m not god, Zabe,” he slurs and takes a noisy slurp of his beverage. He finishes with a belch.

“That is why I won’t marry you. If I do, I lose the one who can give them to me,” I explain. For a moment, there is silence between us and I think maybe we are finally having a moment of connection. Good maybe now he’ll understand and give up on me.

“That damn warhorse!” He rages, hurling the bottle into a shelf, shattering the bottle and any hope I have along with it. “But the war is over! You have no need of the wind or the lightning or whatever.” Even though he’s connected some of the dots, he will never understand, never even try. The realization makes me sad, rather than angry. I pity him.

“Franc-”

“I will not lose to a beast! I do not have the power to give you control of the very elements, but I can take that power from you,” he sneers. My heart beats wildly, sending tremors into my hands.

“What are you doing?’ I shout, but it comes out a croak. My body goes rigid and I try to pull together lightening in my belly. I’m too weak, though. He runs a hand along my arm and gets no more of a shock than wool socks on a carpet. His hand moves away and his boots crunch as he wanders around the room. For one moment, I’m freed from the touch of his hands and I think maybe he’s bluffing. A moment later, though, I realize what his hands are doing instead as he bangs around in a drawer.

“Did you know I was going to go into nursing? I was going to specialize in anesthesiology because I was so good at it,” he says. The drawer shuts with a clang. He continues talking while absently pulling the cap off a syringe. “I went into Dragon riding for you. Did I ever tell you that? I thought it would impress you.” He flicks the syringe to remove any air bubbles and injects it into my IV.

Panic seizes me. My body tries to thrash, but I’m too weak. My hand reaches to pull the IV from my arm, but the drugs are too fast. It never gets close, instead flopping like a dying fish across my body. He laughs at my attempts.

“No,” my voice is still weak, nothing but a shaky whisper. Inside, my mind is screaming nothing else. I will my body to fight, but my training fails. No spells will heed me. My power is all spent. With every ounce of strength left, I try to maintain conscious, but my mind and body betray me. The world seems a nightmare as I struggle to focus. My limbs are cast in warm lead.

I’m a less than a passive observer to the horrors befalling me as I slip in and out of consciousness. One moment there is pressure on my pelvis, the next, I’m drifting in the ocean, numb and cold. Then it falls away and I’m in a hospital tent with Quentin’s fat, red face leering down at me. Then I’m floating above a city of tall buildings. My feet touch down on the rooftop. Wind whips my face, blowing away any warmth from the setting sun. It is low on the horizon and I beg it not to set, but it doesn’t listen. The world goes cold and dark.




Chapter 4

“What a lucky girl you are. I would have given it all up, too,” the nurse tells me.

“What are you talking about?” I murmur, unable to make sense of her words. My eyes are not up to the task as I try to bring the nurse’s face into focus. I try to run a hand over my face, but my limbs feel leaden by my sides and flop uselessly.

“Your post. Captain Rickett will be furious, but I don’t think you’ll see any time in the brig,” she says, fussing over me, brushing my hair from my eyes and checking my vitals. “Lots of soldiers did questionable things last night in celebration. I think they’ll turn a blind eye to most of it.”

“What are you talking about?” I repeat, trying to get my head to think. With enough blinking, she finally comes into focus. She’s a middle-aged woman with a plump face and figure. Her finger contains no ring, so she’s either a widow or never married. Checking my blood pressure, she smiles down on me as she inflates the cuff.

“You and Quentin, I mean Lieutenant Olsen. He told me he proposed last night and you accepted,” she says in a hushed voice. “He even said you couldn’t wait until the actual ceremony,” she says with a wink, adding, “I can’t say I blame you. He’s very ambitious. Good family. A real catch.”

“I’m going to be sick,” I announce only a split second before turning and doing my best to puke my guts up all over her. She dodges the worse of it, but her shoes are splattered thoroughly. Hopefully, her socks, too.

“Oh, dear. Nausea is a common side effect of the narcotics, I’m afraid. Just stay here, I’m going to get cleaned up and put on another pair of shoes,” she replies with all the courtesy of her station. As she sloshes off, shoes squishing with every step, I disobey her with relish.

Like hell am I sticking around for whatever comes next.

I’m still in my hospital gown, but after riding butt-naked into battle so many times, I’m undeterred. Rising with difficulty, I hardly wait for my head to stop spinning as I stagger toward the exit.

On the other side of the tent flap, daylight assaults my senses, turning my stomach once again. I turn my head and gag, but nothing more comes up. Pity. I would have liked to ruin another pair of her shoes as she comes looking for me. Though my stomach is weak, I will my limbs to find their strength. My head is light, but I find enough concentration to get to the stables.

At least, I thought I was heading toward the stables. Now that my head is clearing, it becomes obvious that camp moved out without us. All the other patients have been moved, too. The only things left are a few hospital tents in various states of disassembly and the trucks they are to be loaded onto.

And Franc. His legs are tucked under him as if he were relaxing in a peaceful meadow and not yesterday’s battlefield. His grey and white roan hide soaks in the sun, nose in the wind, eyes closed. The sunlight glints off his twisted gunmetal capacitor that juts from his forehead. Symbols in an ancient script run the length of it, cables wire straight to his brain hidden inside. His mane is still tied in top knots for battle, otherwise it would be flowing in the breeze.

Up and at ‘em, you big, magnificent bastard. We’ve been left behind.

You’ve been left behind. I have chosen to stay behind.

His matter of fact manner has always irked me. Though, he does not seem to be mocking me with it today. Instead, he seems saddened by the fact.

Why? What do you mean I was left behind?

Because, something happened last night. He sighs, not wanting to tell me. If you think hard enough, you will remember.

I was in the hospital, the others were singing and discharging their weapons-

Oh god.

The memories come then. Quentin drugging me. His hands on my fragile, torn body. His dirty lips on mine. My voice too weak to be heard over the revelers. But worst of all, his hands on my thighs and the crush of his hips grinding on me. He made sure they would leave me behind.

That’s what the nurse was talking about. He lied to cover it up! Sickness turns my stomach, nausea overtaking me once more. Strength failing, my legs buckles, hands and knees landing in the dirt. Hair falls in a cascade around my face. Dry heaving rocks my core until I’m breathless. Too weak to rise, I press my forehead to the earth and concentrate on just breathing.

My senses return to me all at once in an overwhelming tidal wave. My eyes can’t seem to focus as they shift from one thing to the next. It’s all too bright. The smell of burnt earth burns my nose. My body aches and a migraine is building behind my eyes. I close them against it, but the pain does not let up. I try to pull together enough energy for a spell, but I’m too weak and out of sorts. Besides, I don’t know what would help right now. I reach for Franc, but he dances away from my touch, deceptively nimble for his size.

I’m sorry, Aeza, but your touch will burn me now.

I didn’t do it by choice!

I know that, but the enchantments don’t. I’m sorry, I can no longer suffer your touch.

That is the last straw. Any illusion of strength I was holding onto dissipates like mist at sunrise. Tears darken the soil. I was counting on you, Franc. If we were betrayed, we would desert together. Now you have been taken from me, too. How did it happen? How was I the one who was broken so easily?

I was careless. I should have never left you alone. I’ve failed you. As penance, I will not leave your side again.

That’s ridiculous. If I can’t ride you, what’s the point? Goodness knows I can’t feed you. You should run free, Franc. Go find a farm out in the country and settle down or something.

You wound me. I have not cast you aside, do me the same favor, please.

Sorry. I’m reeling. What are we supposed do now? Since the consequences for desertion and sexual misconduct are both death, I’m certainly not sticking around here. Quentin has a head start on us with all the lies he’s told. Because of his family and influence, he’ll be able to convince them to put me under his “care.” Like hell am I going to suffer anymore of that. If he thinks I’ll agree to marry him to avoid execution, he can go to hell.

Anger rises in me, giving me the strength to stand. I press my hands on my knees and pull myself upright. We wander away from the plains where the battle commenced. Away from the blackened soil, trampled flat. The Valean capitol city falls away in the distance, soon eclipsed by trees. The slain have been buried in common graves, unless they were noble, then their bodies were shipped back to their families. Not so for the common man. War is so pointless.

War is glory.

Whatever, Franc. I’m sure you saw it. There was no glory for me. As soon as I outlived my usefulness, I got left behind. Discarded like a piece of garbage, a scrap of litter. I won them that battle and what did it get me? Raped.

I had been hesitating to say the word; not wanting to admit to the truth. As if by denying it, I could pretend it didn’t happen. There was no denying Franc’s reaction, though. The truth was evident long before I admitted it to myself.

Tears burn in my eyes and stream down my cheeks. Stupid. Weak and pointless, but there they are. I come to my senses then.

What are we going to do, Franc? I have no money. No clothes. A horse I can’t ride. If I go back to the army, I’ll either be executed or at Quentin’s mercy. With his quick lies and enough power to make anyone believe them. I could go back and kill him, but they would certainly execute me for that as well. Maybe I should just let them. It wouldn’t be so hard to kill him if I didn’t intend on escaping afterward.

Stupid, drunk-

Bang! My plans for vengeance are interrupted by blinding pain in my skull. Bang! Like a gunshot between my eyes. Bang! Dizzy, the disorientation drops me to my knees. I can no longer tell which way is up or if my feet are touching the ground or the sky. Whatever is beneath my feet tilts out from under them and I’m left on my back, groaning.

Again and again, the banging hits me like a hammer blow. In between blasts, I roll my head around, desperate to locate the source. Through tear blurred eyes, I focus long enough to see Franc ramming into a thick tree. With each slam of his head against the bark, splinters fly. My body convulses. Though stout and probably ancient, with every swing of his head, left and right, he’s turning the poor tree to splinters.

What are you doing? Have you gone mad?

You’re suicidal.

I’m suicidal? You’re the one bashing your head against a tree. Stop it before you-

I rise, trying to reach him before the inevitable. I’m too late. My body is too weak. My staggering steps don’t even get me close to him before the horn breaks loose. Boom! My body convulses, every muscle tightening in unison, breath stolen. A wave of raw magic washes through me. Pain rips through my body as a hundred enchantments begin to unwind at once.

103, to be exact.

Shut up, Franc.




Chapter 5


I awake to the rocking of Franc’s familiar gait beneath me. My fingers caress the silky hairs of his coat. When I slap his shoulder, a puff of dust erupts from his hide and is carried away on the breeze.

Reckless idiot.

Oh, you’re one to talk. Just yesterday, you were contemplating murder-suicide.

Stupid. Now what are we supposed to do?

Trade or sell the horn.

But, you’re-

Just as damaged as you? If we’re going to make a competition of it, I can’t let you get too far ahead. This way you get what you wanted, you can ride me.

Idiot. I slap his hide again.

You’re happy. You can’t hide it from me.

He’s right, I can’t hide it from him. The thought of us ever being apart causes a clenching in my chest. Staring into the clear sky overhead, I remember the first time I saw them and the first time I saw him.

That day was gorgeous and clear, too. Absolutely perfect. Warm sun, puffy clouds, a light breeze. We had just passed the test at the ball. We were the smart ones, they praised. The self-controlled ones. None of us had slept with the male cadets at the ball and we were being rewarded with a glimpse of our futures. The sun smiled down, warming every inch of my skin as I turned my face to the heavens. I thought the day couldn’t get any better, but then they brought to see the stallions.

Each horse had its own pasture in which to run free. They were too aggressive to share the same space during the day and were only together at night in the stables. We stood in awe of the pristine animals, sun soaking pure white hides. Blinding like the sun above, impossible to look at, but impossible to look away from. Their capacitor horns thick-laden with untapped magic. They glinted in the sun, a rainbow of hues, made of crystal and encased in silver filigree, full of potent, wild magic. I can still feel the tingle in my palms as it called to me the first time. A siren’s song, deadly and powerful enough to sink ships.

That first day the animals had been paraded before us. A tease, nothing more. Something for us to talk about back in the barracks. A buzz in our brains. These were our carrots, we had not yet fully realized the stick. They pranced, they swung their silvery manes, catching the sunlight. A promise. The fulfilment of every little girl’s dream: her very own unicorn. But what was the price? Never to marry. Never to bear children. Never know the intimate touch of a man. Some had already failed that test just the night before. But not us, they had praised. We were special.

“The day will come when you will tame one of these beasts. Your mind must be strong. We will teach you the techniques to infiltrate their defenses, but you must be strong and clever enough to tame them yourselves. We can only give you the tools. You must be skilled enough to use them properly. These creatures have strong wills, but your’s must be stronger,” the head eunuch explained. We watched them, enrapt, as they threw their heads and shook their manes, every inch as wild as the eunuch claimed.

That night, none of us could sleep, of course. The girls all speculated about which beast would be theirs. I hid my disappointment from them and played along. None of the stallions seems right to me. Though there was no denying their beauty, they all seemed too fragile for warfare and more appropriate for a princess in a parade. While the other girls were chattering excitedly about how they would tame their beasts, I snuck into the stables to steal a second look. Maybe I was wrong.

The stable smelled of hay, horseflesh, manure, and oaken beams. The stablemaster went down the line pouring oats into the trough of each animal. When he got to one, he paused, scowling.

“I don’t see why we bother keeping you around. Nothing but a failed experiment,” the stablemaster muttered. “You’re just a big, stubborn bastard. All you do is eat. No one will ever be able to ride you.”

Good.

The intrusion into my thoughts had been foreign and exotic. I had to know who this animal was that the stablemaster hated? Who infiltrated my mind so easily? His will must have been extraordinary, I thought.

The stablemaster filled the feeding trough and moved on before risking the loss of a finger to gnashing teeth. So the hatred was mutual. As he fed the next animal, I lingered, waiting patiently out of sight until he had fed all the animals. With a snap of his fingers, the lights blinked out and he was gone for the night. Still, I waited.

I know you are there, little mouse. Come, have your look and then I will crush your skull.

Pure hatred washed over me. Exhilarating, terrifying, driving. I drank it like ice water. My heart thundered in my chest, making me giddy and lightheaded. The cold hatred I had felt at first was then replaced by amusement.

You are a strange one, though. Come, let’s have a look at you.

When I peaked over the stable door, I knew. He must be mine. He was perfect. As huge and magnificent as the stable master had said. His eyes swallowed light, black as a moonless night. Black with hate. His coat was not white like the others, but a dusty grey roan, silver in the moonlight. Not a spindly, prancing parade stallion, but a mighty workhorse. His capacitor was not a slender, refined fusion of crystal, metal, and magic, but a thick, twisted spire promising cataclysmic force. Every inch pure muscle. Raw desire gripped me.

Well, you are a lusty little thing, aren’t you?

I wanted to ride him then. Over open fields in the dead of night, full moon above us. I wanted to feel raw power beneath me, wind in my face. I wanted my fingers to ache with the cold. I wanted to cut down enemies from his back. To drink in their cries and end their lives beneath cold, iron hooves. To tear windpipes from throats. To spill their innards with a stroke of my horn. Wait. Are those the things I wanted? No, those are the things he wanted.

You are perceptive. That is what I want. Can you give me those things? Otherwise I have no use for you.

Had no one ever told him? We were machines of war. No wonder he was so full of hatred. I looked into his eyes then and promised him. If you let me be your rider, we will have all that. It is what we were created for.

You know it instinctively. We are elite weapons of warfare and combined we will be unstoppable. But you must tell me your name.

Take it from me. Force me to tell you.

This was not at all how the eunuchs had told us it would happen. We had been told that we would be in a controlled environment the first time we tried to tame our steeds. I had been told many times that a strong will was required. It was necessary to infiltrate the mind of an intelligent creature, find the center and take control of it. But how? How to even enter another’s mind?

I will let you in, but you must force your way out again.

He sounded amused at the possibility of trapping my consciousness.

When next I opened my eyes, the stables were gone and I was standing on the lip of a canyon. The night sky above me was filled with innumerable stars. I got the feeling that it was always night in this place. Across from me were snow capped mountain peaks, sides covered in dark pine trees topped with glittering white. A chilly night wind whipped my hair, cutting to my core and reminding me that I was only wearing a flimsy night gown. I spread my arms to it, letting it try and tear me down. Maybe if it were strong enough, it would pick me up and I could fly. I closed my eyes and leaned into it, only to stagger and catch my balance as it died. Pity.

Behind me a whoosh, loud and terrible, caused my eyes to blink open. A screaming meteor rocketing through the sky passed close over my head, filling my vision and stealing my breath. Close enough that I could feel the heat of it as it passed. It grew smaller as I watched it descend into the valley below. Never had I seen something full of beauty and power. The impact shook the ground beneath my feet with such force that my legs buckled, but I maintained my footing, lest I tumble off the edge and fall into the canyon.

The valley below was filled with a hedge maze and the meteor tore a path through the laurels as it crashed. It’s final destination smack in the middle. Whether a clue or a misdirection, that seemed the best, most obvious place to begin exploring. Already, the crispy black leaves and scarred earth were repairing themselves. The naked earth glowed red and molten, then orange before fading back to brown. Green grass grew in patches before filling in anew on it surface. Next little hedges sprouted, growing fast. Soon it was as if nothing were amiss. Any lingering smoke was blown away by the next gust through the valley.

The descent down the cliffside was steep and treacherous. My feet slipped several times on the narrow path. Rock scree rained down to a valley floor so far away I couldn’t hear it hit the bottom. If I looked down over the edge after it, my knees turned to mush, so I kept my eyes on the path. Not for the first time, I wondered what would happen if I died in this place. The Eunuchs had talked about needing a tether. Someone who could pull us back into the real world if our ethereal conscious were in danger. I had taken no such precautions.

Your consciousness would become mine.

What would you even want with my consciousness?

To destroy it, devour it.

For the first time, I didn’t believe him. The place was too beautiful. His inner sanctuary too vast and wonderous. He was lying, maybe to the both of us, but I had to know more. His voice went silent again as I reached the valley floor.

The maze wall rose high, and once inside, the laurels blocked all but a sliver of the midnight sky. I had seen from the top the general direction of the center, but now that I was amidst the walls below all sense of direction failed me. I began to despair that I might be there all night.

The night never ends here. You’ll be here for eternity.

How do you do that? How is your voice in my head?

Wouldn’t you like to know?

Yes, I wouldn’t have asked unless I wanted to know. You weren’t in the stablemaster’s head.

He lacks the proper magic to make it work.

Ah. Magic, of course, but what kind?

Psychic.

His voice was but a whisper, as if he hadn’t meant to tell me.

I didn’t even know there was a psychic magic. Up until that night, I had thought it was all elemental. One of the older girls had told me that there was also a sexual magic, but we wouldn’t ever know how to use that. That was one of many reasons why we weren’t allowed to have sex. We were tapping into the strongest sexual magic: abstinence.

Psychic magic, though. Could I read his mind?

Not a chance.

But you read mine from the start. And I’m literally inside yours. I bet I could if I concentrated. I sent out a mental shout. Loud as I could think, focusing all my energy into it. Where’s the center of the maze? Then falling silent, clearing my mind to listen for the answer, quiet as my thoughts could be, I concentrated for an answer.

Everywhere and nowhere. I’m changing the design and leading you in circles.

Ha! I knew you would tell me! Now how do I get to where that meteor crashed?

Follow the smell of smoke. Dammit, stop that!

I totally can read your mind. My inner voice sing-songed triumphant.

Though a strong wind had blown it away above, the smell lingered below, trapped in the laurels. Now that I was sniffing for it, the smell of burnt leaves was strong enough to follow. Soon, it was all around, I must have been very close.

You’re hiding it from me. Show me the center. What does it look like?

The maze walls around me began to fade. The laurel leaves shimmered and disappeared, leaving behind an elaborately manicured garden. Though no stranger to the decadence of the noble class, the detail and beauty here stole my breath. My feet crunched the pebble path past twin fountains and topiaries groomed into all manner of animal shapes. Planters of roses all around, erupting in the most lovely fragrance and a rainbow of colors. The path ended at a set of stairs leading to a gazebo of wrought iron painted white. A figure awaited me there, but I was in no hurry and decided to take my time savoring the peace and quiet of the garden.

Aside from him, there were no other live animals. No birdsong in the trees or shrubs, no chirping of crickets in the grass. The fountains were devoid of the splashing of fish. It seemed then a very lonely place. He grew impatient at my nonchalance and left the gazebo to meet me on the path. Though he had seemed so tall from a distance that I assumed he was older than me, up close I wasn’t so sure.

“Will you take it from me?” He asked, the pitch of his voice betraying his true youth. His face was a long oval, with a wide nose and mouth and large lips. I had never before wondered what a horse would look like if he was suddenly turned into a human, but somehow he was the perfect transformation. Unable to look me in the eye, his face turned down and away. I couldn’t tell if he was afraid I would say yes and destroy him or no and leave him with the burden of unreleased battle rage. Please say yes, I can’t bear it. It consumes me. A whispered voice tickled the back of my mind with words I wasn’t supposed to hear.

“Why would I take it from you when I could share it with you instead? I would truly be a monster to take such beauty out of the world,” I whisper. I would not. I could never cow him and it would be foolish of me to try. I held his hands in mine and stared into eyes so dark that they seemed black in the night. His hands trembled in mine. “Never. But you must tell me your name. The true one.”

Francisquinho.

A shiver washed over my skin.

“Franc?” I asked.

“If you like,” he agreed and asked. “What is yours?”

“Aezabeth. I have no other name.”

“And you will lead me to glory in battle? This is our destiny now?” He replied, eyes hungry, smile curving his lips into a crooked smile.

“Yes. That is what we were made for. We will fulfill our destiny,” I say, smiling back.

That was the last night I slept in the dorms with the other girls.




Chapter 6

Kirin 63. You are in violation of Section 6 Article 7 of the Kirin Code of Conduct. You have been accused of Fraternizing with a male soldier. Please report to the nearest Checkpoint for processing. Your tracker has been activated. Your location will soon be known and a retrieval team will be deployed. Do not attempt to hide. I repeat, report to the nearest Checkpoint.

Captain Rickett’s voice echoes through my brain, but the more I try to hold onto his words, the more they fade, like a dream upon waking. Eventually, they are lost. If it was something important, he’ll send the communication again.

The sun rises, bathing my face in warm light. Raising my arms up overhead, the vertebrae pop along my neck and down my spine. My body is already stiff and achy from so much mistreatment, sleeping on Frac does nothing to improve its condition.

There is a cabin down in the valley. I saw it in the night, but thought we should wait until first light before seeing who is at home.

My senses return to me slowly. Rather than blinding, the morning light is pleasant. Cheerful birdsong swells throughout the treetops as the sun rises in earnest. After a thorough stretch, I can stand on my feet without feeling light headed. They are sturdy beneath me for the first time in days. My stomach is emptier than anytime I can remember. I’m sure Franc is ravenous.

Not too bad. Ferns are alright. Not my first choice, but they fill my stomach.

It feels good to be seated properly, though bareback will eventually tear up the skin on my thighs. Just one of the enchantments that are no longer a part of me. I stare at the broken capacitor in my hand. I turn it one way and then the other. It’s just a hunk of twisted scrap metal and precious crystal now that it’s no longer fused with Franc’s brain. What the hell am I supposed to do with this thing?

Sell it, I should think.

You know you could have very well died?

But I didn’t. And now I can be of some use to you.

Smug Jack-ass.

Before I can even start to think about what it would mean to have lost him, we arrive at the cabin. It’s small, made of stacked logs with a mud and straw roof. There is a truck with a flat tire parked in the dirt nearby. A discarded spare leans against it, equally flat and useless.

Outside, a woman pumps water into a bucket. She’s older than middle age, with adult children, if she has any. I pity her if she had any boys as they are most likely gone now because of the war. She stands as we get closer and sets her hands on her hips. I dismount, but don’t make any sudden moves toward her.

“What have we here then?” She interrogates tersely, inspecting us up and down. “A horse with a head wound and damsel in distress? I believe you’re at the wrong castle.” She finishes with a snort.

“Please, we are in desperate need-”

“Aren’t we all,” she mutters. After a slow circle around us, she is satisfied that we have nothing to hide. In fact, we have nothing at all. She walks toward the cabin without another word.

“Well, don’t just stand there,” she calls, motioning for me to follow without turning in my direction. “I just put on some soup. There’s a lean-to around back for the mule. My draft horse died last year, so I’m afraid it hasn’t been kept up, but it’ll keep you mostly dry if it rains.” As if knowing he’s an intelligent animal, she waves him away, assuming he will find it simply by following her verbal instructions. She ushers me inside and shuts the door on him.

A string of expletives cross my mind of their own volition, or rather Franc’s volition.

I don’t know what he’s so upset about; it’s not like he would fit in here anyway. The interior of the cabin is smaller than it looked from the outside, barely big enough for two people. A wood stove takes up the majority of the space, jutting into the center of the room. A washbasin, a bedroll, a bookcase, and a rocking chair take up the remaining space. On top of the bookcase is a photo of a man holding a bundled baby and smiling proudly. The ceiling is strung with all manner of herbs, bound with string into bundles and hung upside down to dry.

“You can stay the night here with me, but in the morning you’re on your own. I can tell you are Septanian military by the look of you, but I’ll also tell you that I don’t have anything you’d want and nothing that’s worth taking my life over,” she says harshly and stabs the coals in the wood stove. Satisfied, she closes the stove’s door with a squeal and leans the poker against it.

“Please, it’s not what you think. We’re deserters. We have no home,” I say.

“All the more reason to have you out from under my roof as soon as possible, but I’m not completely heartless,” she clucks and settles into the rocking chair. Her lips are pursed as she stares at me appraisingly, rocking the chair beneath her quickly back and forth. Rather than stand awkwardly in the center of the room, I fold my legs under me and sit on the floor. The creaking of the chair and the crackling of the fire are the only sounds as she stares at me sourly, arms crossed. Eventually, her rocking slows as she can’t seem to hold onto her anger.

“Fine. In the morning we will all go into town and see what they make of you,” she states with a snort. “Assuming your soldiers didn’t raze it to the ground on their way in or pillaged it to nothing on their way out.”

“At least the war is over,” I mutter, but don’t believe the words enough to convince even myself. I can’t look her in the eye. Both of her scenarios are undeniably plausible. Though close to the border, we are technically in enemy territory, and we are protected by a freshly drafted peace treaty, but there is no guarantee we won’t go missing in action if we enter a Valean village. There is a chance that the town she’s from will not even have received the news and we will be detained on arrival or executed without trial.


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