"Saltwater and Blood"

By The Sharra

Part Three: Pick Your Prey

"Bless me, undress me

Pick your prey in a wicked way

God, I must confess…

I do envy the sinners…"

-- Nightwish, "She Is My Sin"

Paint smeared the tips of blunt, bony fingers, cooling the little figure of rust-tinged clay so recently baked in the heat of his hearth. A dab of red here, a bit of black there, red, black, blue, red, black, gold, blue—

He never put much effort into the dolls, nor did he want to. The poorly fired clay would crumble in a few years' time and he would grind it to dust beneath his heel before working it back into the slickness of earth and blood. It was a cycle, one stolen life merging with another, again and again until he no longer remembered who first graced the crowded shelves.

"Freedom to sever the Chains of Fate that bind me…" It was spoken as little more than a breath, a soft, gentle rasp in the dusty warmth of the room that scraped over the silence before cutting it with a knife's edge.

Attempting to smooth oddly congealed red paint, he gazed down at the horrid, chunky mess of colors without really seeing them. The paints had to be made and mixed often, each time the hound's hunt was done, and it was his blood that completed the deadly, one-sided circle. 'Hello, nice to meet you, die, die, die, see you in Hell, forgive me this trespass, though I do know the sin that I—'

Blood seeped sluggishly from a hand that was almost always gloved or gauntleted, drip-drip-dripping from the puckered purple scar, the burden that he had taken of his own will and that fed his hate—

He squeezed the lips of the wound, callused hand hovering above the little jar of stuff that was meant to be blue but in the end, became a sickly color that reminded him of rotting fruit. "To walk from the Gates of Darkness and Damnation…"

Secretly, he had always loved paints and clay, the strange, tangy perfume of still-drying ink. To him, holding the thin handle of a brush between two fingers was as guilty a pleasure as the warmth of blood on his skin. In spite of that, he didn't much care for this part of it, not the dolls and their blank, dead eyes. Splotches of color, or little furrows gouged into faces with the violent twist of a knife, they always had to stare, and he'd be fucked if he'd allow them the satisfaction of knowing that it aggravated him.

He traced 'blue' around the brown eyes of this newest sin, barely aware that the doll was starting to shape itself to someone else. 'Father and Mother of All—'

Sometimes, he felt nothing as he sent them to Hell and left only hollow dolls in their place. Sometimes, he wanted to laugh and laugh at the sheer, thrilling exhilaration of making another hurt, because the feeling that somehow allowed a brief bit of light to take shine in the black, tangled mess of his soul before that gentle candle flame was snuffed out. Only the damnation was left for him once the darkness returned.

'—tonight I—'

The thought was cut short and eyes smudged with dark circles underneath widened slightly, cracked, red-stained lips twisting in a strange combination of grim amusement and displeasure. '—I'll… have to do something about this.'

"Goddamn." Crude, masculine features pressed by careless fingers adorned the face of the doll, easily forgettable once shelved. Or at least, it should have been, was supposed to look that way. He sneered down at the berry-colored 'mask' that ornamented the eyes and ears, a half-finished, unattractive bit of detail that he considered wiping away. The figure was tossed forward, clay cracked and splitting apart as it hit the surface of the desk. He hunched forward, pressing his knuckles thoughtfully against his forehead as he let out a thin chuckle. The paint had felt cool on his fingertips mere moments ago, but as he tilted back his head to pull his palm down his face, the swathes of berry he used to anoint his forehead felt hot, like fire. 'So be it.'

"Gods, Mayfil and Divine Tree have mercy on my unworthy Human soul."

"Milady, please! You'll end up falling out again if you lean out any further!"

Charle Frahma, in spite of her flustered aide's words, merely draped herself farther out the window of the airborne vehicle, the thin oxygen and the wildness of the wind snatching both her breath and what would have been a merry, lighthearted laugh. 'But you've just got to try this, Benz,' she thought to the Wingly woman sitting beside her. 'What good are wings if you're afraid to take to the sky, dearie?'

It was so cold out that her nose and cheeks ached painfully, and when she reached up to touch disheveled strands of white hair, they felt chill to the touch. To the noble's credit, she made a token attempt to pat her bun back into some semblance of neatness before the lure of the open ship's window became too much for her to bear. She lunged forward again, but not before sucking in a deep gulp of air to sustain herself. Reddish eyes reflexively began to water, the tears causing them to burn, but lessening some of the irritation caused by the speed with which they traveled. The salt-sting sensation of tears was strange to her and she couldn't help but reach up to pat the damp corners of her lids. Charle sometimes thought herself incapable of crying. Childhood amongst the nobility was less than ideal, the backstabbing and manipulation, brother pitted against brother, daughter against father, often robbed young Winglies of their naivety all too soon. The elder sister of the Divine Lord Frahma was no exception—if anything, she was a perfect example of this truth.

The raw-boned woman beside her sighed, propriety keeping her from reaching out to grasp her mistress' arm and tugging her back inside their 'doomship', as the Lady Charle had seen fit to call it. 'She spent so much time powdering her nose and fixing her hair this morning, and now—' Oh, why couldn't it ever last? The noblewoman was always out and about doing something. If it wasn't gardening, or 'mingling at the bar' at night, it was secret meetings and whispered conversations behind closed doors.

It was hard to believe that the outwardly ditzy, slightly mad lady had been at the height of Wingly power less than ten years ago. ' Once you climb to the top of your mountain,' the noblewoman thought nostalgically, 'all you can do is go back down from there.'

Within a year of the battle against the God of Destruction, the same battle that had warped her brother's body and shattered her sanity, Charle had been sent into exile in her tiny outpost city of Ulara. The fact that she'd used her waning influence to construct wards, spheres in each city to limit his power certainly hadn't endeared her to him and so his decision to exile her had come as no surprise.

It hadn't been so long ago that she'd been the head of the High Council and even her brother had bowed his head in deference to her. False, grudging respect, but she'd never expected anything different.

So long as Melbu held the sphere of the God in his hand, she was unable to stand against him and subject to his whims. 'Or so he thinks. Silly, silly little boy.' After the signet spheres were created, she'd gone willingly to her gilded prison.

Charle hadn't been content to remain in Ulara with her 'gaggle of Human-lovers', as her brother had called them. 'Dear boy never was one for creativity. Never anything like that.' No, what Melbu Frahma preferred—expected, really—was quick, brutal efficiency. After her exile, she'd bided her time, raised her young Human 'son' up to a fine, upstanding young man.

There had been things to occupy her— fortifying Ulara against attack, dealings with Dragons and the growing Human city of Vellweb; and, as always, there had been Diaz. Second born son of a minor Human merchant, and by Soa, he'd had such dreams. 'And beautiful eyes,' she thought with a nostalgic sort of sadness.

Was there really any need to sit around and remember such things? She was only going to ruin this wonderful mood she was in-- there wasn't much point in that. As she leaned back against the hard, uncomfortable seating, she tapped a button. The window snapped shut, blocking out the cold, gray-cast sky. 'I have to wonder why it always rains when I come here.'

Pale, soft hands flexed, a slight flash of burning pain causing her to glance down to them. Two purple, puckered scars marred the skin there, the color seeming to hint at deep infection and slow healing. However, these were old wounds, of little danger to her life but greatly limiting her own power. 'As they say, 'nothing without price.'

The room had an unpleasant, acrid odor, of rotting meat and burned hair. The soft flickering of firelight off walls of mottled stone did little to hide the strain on both men's haggard faces as she released their hands, leaving a smear of dark blood on callused palms.

Charle watched as the emperor and Dragon knight both sank to the floor, shaking and sick from the magic that now bound them together.

Two ends of a scale, each to balance out the other-- the king and the killer. One to watch, and wait, and oh, to act if need be.

"Wingly," a gentle whisper as the lean figure rose from his awkward kneel, somehow seeming to tower over the form of the emperor still struggling to regain his feet.

Desperation, regret, acceptance. The calm before the storm.

"You should pray for us."

Pressing her fist against her heart, she sighed and gave in to the inevitable; things didn't seem as pleasant as they had a few minutes ago.

As she reached over to pat the high-strung Benz reassuringly on the shoulder, murmuring that she'd be 'just fine', a sudden grunt from Sina caught her attention. He was a quiet man, disinclined to say much of anything if he could help it. The lighting in the ship's interior was dim, but she could still make out the sudden furrow creasing his forehead and twisting shaggy white brows. Fingers seemed to fly over switches and buttons, face illuminated by the energy that pulsed through The Doomship.

Willingas ever to offer an unwanted opinion, she informed him, "Your brows are twitching."

Sina's hands hovered over the machinery for a moment as he cursed under his breath. 'Buggered if this isn't what we don't need.' There was a funny sort of finality in his voice when he spoke, each word punctuated by the soft, beeping signal of the transmitter. "Incoming transmission from Capital City Kadessa, Lady Charle."

"Permission to accept the message, dearie." Suddenly, Charle found the state of her hair very worrisome indeed. 'Dress to kill.' She reached up, pulling several pins from her hair in a last minute attempt to fix the mess the neat little bun of hair had become. It spilled down her shoulders, windblown and slightly mussed—but it would have to do. Strangely, being well dressed and well groomed was much like having a suit of armor to protect oneself…

Benz had already begun to tense beside her and the Lady of Ulara reached out, gently placing her hand on the armored shoulder. "Settle, now! Settle!"

Ice pooled in her belly. Sina's quiet hiss of dismay went mostly ignored as the screen flickered to life, leaving her gazing at the brother she hadn't seen in years. 'I had almost forgotten those eyes of yours.'

Melbu smiled gently and she felt her own lips curving in automatic response. Wingly society was a world of masks, and in this realm now ruled by Frahma, you smiled when he smiled and laughed when he laughed. From the very beginning, he'd demanded nothing less than perfection from his people. 'The blood of so many children is on your hands—'

Charle Frahma hadn't lived as long as she had without being a clever woman who trusted her own instincts. She was also very good at smiling. 'So, you've realized. Baby-baby brother, sweetling, pet.' The two of them had played games together long ago. She had called him pet names and shared sweets with him…

Even as a child, he'd been deep-voiced, but these days his voice carried a sort of ominous resonance, as if he were speaking into a sound amplification device like the ones they used in Kadessa's arena. "The weather in your part of the world is dreadful, isn't it, sister?"

She chirped her reply, going so far as to lean forward and 'hug' the transmission screen. It had the unfortunate effect of giving him a decent view of her squashed bosom. "Bright and clear in Ulara. Oh, it's so good to hear from you! Why don't you call more, baby brother?" 'Ah, I know why. Because you want me dead, don't you? The tangled webs we weave.'

It was clear enough that her gesture wasn't appreciated. Only the Divine Lord Frahma was able to make his silence seem so disgusted and above it all. "My patience grows thin. "I've been kind to you up till now, but there is a limit as to what I will allow."

Benz shifted uneasily, keeping her hands buried in her skirts in an attempt to hide the way they shook. The attendant felt Charle's own hand fall, resting heavy and warm on her shoulder. She winced as her lady's nails bit into her skin, gripping and wrinkling the heavy, fine cloth of her traveling dress. 'How is it you can smile at him the way you do?' The image on the monitor seemed as impassive as Charle did cheerful. As fingernails dug ever deeper, Benz grit her teeth and forced herself not to avert her face from the screen. Her heart was hammering so swiftly, she thought she might be sick.

"Have you lost weight? You look good. A bit gray, but good."

The Divine Lord continued on as if he hadn't heard her, though the brief, strangle crackle of energy that haloed his form was a testament to his irritation. "Ulara is hereby ordered to surrender the Human settlement of Vellweb, the seven Dragon Knights—"

"Would you like the signet spheres with that?"

"—and their beasts. Comply—"

Benz might have found the conversation horribly amusing if not for what it all meant. He knew the lady was backing the Humans. Somehow, after seven years, he knew all of it. Her heart raced frantically, guilt stabbing at the first, panicked thoughts that came to mind were, 'What's going to happen to Ulara now? Because he knows and no one was careful enough and where will I live if--'

"I'm afraid I can't do that, Melbu." Charle was vaguely aware of nausea rolling in her belly, barely worth noticing amidst the nervous, manic rush of adrenaline that came dangerously close to bordering on giddiness. Outwardly, she knew she was the very image of a happy, happy woman. Inwardly, she knew she was completely, utterly full of it.

"This takes kindness to animals too far. See reason." His voice thinned out into a serpent's hiss.

It was difficult not to bristle at that, but she brushed the insult toward Humankind away, feeling her lips tighten to a thin, whitened line. This wasn't quite a formal declaration of war, but it was close. Melbu was arrogant, more so now than ever before. She'd be surprised if he actually viewed Vellweb and its Dragon Knights as a threat. 'Never mind that Flanvel was destroyed by them. Oh, no.'

This conversation was just-- 'Nothing more than intimidation. Well, it's not going to work, you little brat!'

"One would hate to see the wrath of the gods turn on Ulara and it's leader."

Ah, there it was—the ultimatum. If he honestly expected her to surrender the city to him, he had another thing coming. Were the Humans going to gift a Wingly with the proverbial keys to the city gates? "The gods have little say in anything anymore." 'You and I plucked them from the sky together.'

"No. There is only my will now."

"And is it your will to see your sister—" Cutting herself short suddenly, she lurched forward and released her death's grip on Benz as fingers clenched to fists. Sina's bulk was jolted to one side and he was forced to grip the sides of his chair to avoid being knocked over.

A weary sigh escaped her. As she stared at the gray-skinned dictator that was her brother, she made her eyes go wide and teary. "So be i—" Another sudden, split-second of silence before—"--oh, by the Father, you're breaking up!" A tinny clang filled the cramped interior of the ship as she slammed a small hand onto the ridged surface of the console. Clang. Clang. Clang. The delicate connection flickered and wavered at the surprisingly jarring blows, distorting his face. "We're—flying—can't—" It was like studying his reflection on the surface of a pond, ripples spreading outward. When they were children, they'd passed time by the fountains together, and she recalled him constantly staring at his own reflection while she splashed about, always shattering the mirror image of him. "—losing—"

Melbu made no reply, or if he did, the sound was so garbled that the crackling buzz of the static kept her from hearing. Frankly, she didn't give a damn what he had to tell her.

The light on the screen died as Charle cut off the connection, shaking slightly and scowling to herself.

Twitching a couple of times, Sina poked a gnarled finger against the control panel. Benz privately wondered if he might have a heart attack, a silly snippet of thought flashing through her mind. 'She pushed his buttons.' Charle Frahma had pushed Sina's buttons. Why did that strike her as the funniest thing in the world all of a sudden? She pressed her knuckles against her lips to hold back a snort of laughter, squeezing her eyes tightly closed.

"Well," Charle breathed softly, flopping back down into her seat as her knees threatened to give way from underneath her. "It's about time the poor dears caught his attention, isn't it? Raise the flags, sound the trumpets and march the soldiers onward. That, as they say—is that."

For as long as she could remember, Damia had been a morning person. It wasn't that she liked the early hours so much she had to get up before everyone else back home. Her father was wealthy by Human standards, a freeman who had wheeled and dealed with the Wingly race and somehow managed to survive doing so. Still, being a child of the clan-leader hadn't made her exempt from work. If she wanted any free time to herself, she just had to be awake before the rest of them.

By now, it had become a habit she couldn't seem to shake, so every morning she'd grudgingly get up before sunrise, allowing herself to disappear into the array of shops built into the stone cliffs that broke through the otherwise open space of the city. Though she preferred the wilderness outside Vellweb's walls and the peace the water offered her, there was something about being able to poke at various goods and wares that delighted her.

The sky was already overcast, the clouds thick, dark and ominous. The knowledge of what would occur soon had made her restless. It was embarrassing to excitedly tick off each day in anticipation of a rainstorm, but she had, one by one until seven days had passed. Father had been fond of saying it was the curse of her blood— maybe he was right about that.

"You'll always be waiting for something you'll never be able to have, my girl."

Due to the looming thunderheads, most of the villagers who lived in the lower reaches of the city were hurrying about as well, desperate to get a head start on the day's work before they had to cut it short because of the weather.

Feeling a jolt as someone roughly shouldered past her, she murmured an apology cut short by the wide-eyed, almost horrified stare of the man who realized too late who she was.

"F—" he sucked in a deep breath, fingers fumbling in a way that made her wonder if he was trying not to make a warding sign, "forgive—"

Fighting way her horrified embarrassment, she just shook her head and continued on her way,wringing a handful of water from her skirt. 'I am not going to sulk today.' The smell of roasting meat and unwashed bodies, of too many people packed into too small a space made her wrinkle her nose. She marveled that the others were able to ignore the looks the refugees gave them; awe, respect mixed with a dollop of fear. The latter was usually reserved for her; there were always those warding signs, parents skittering up and apologetically pulling away curious children who strayed too close to her. She squared her shoulders determinedly, forcing herself to brush that all aside. It—was—going—to—be—a—beautiful—day.

Yes, absolutely beautiful, never mind that she and Belzac were still arguing with one another. 'Stop thinking about it!'

Suddenly, she was all too tempted to stamp her foot into the ground and scream at the top of her lungs. 'I'll do just fine at Mayfil. They need me there.' Belzac could just sit around and worry all he liked, because she would be going with the rest of them.

Damia realized belatedly she was in fact stomping. She glanced about, brows furrowing at the general 'looks' aimed at her direction. Some were amused, some bewildered… "Ah…"

It just seemed like a good idea to go someplace else after that. The girl-woman tugged at her clinging skirts, their sopping cloth clinging to her legs as she hurried along, navigating the twists and turns of the city with ease. She couldn't help but feel glad she wasn't getting lost anymore. Early on, she'd get so confused that Belzac had had to take her everywhere-- 'You're thinking about it—' Shirley had helped her, too, sometimes bringing Kanzas with her. 'Dragging' would have been a more appropriate way of putting it. 'Oh—dammit!'

Mildly frustrated with herself, she hurried up the steps that lead to the wide, circular pathway that surrounded their towers. She could feel heat radiating from them even there, smoke curling from tiny chimneys situated unobtrusively near the back of the steepled rooftops. Even her own tower had one, though she wouldn't actually start using it until autumn passed into winter.

A chill ran down her spine, a bit of movement stirring near the corner of her eye. A horrified gasp escaped her; she took a startled step back. She was so close to the edge of the path that that was a mistake. She cried out again at the sensation of vertigo, arms wind milling about comically—

Kanzas twisted as he rose from his crouch, seemingly unconcerned by the fact she could plummet to her death at any moment. His fingers grasped the edge of her sleeve, yanking her back to more solid footing. "Here you are too small to make much of a smear down there. Wait until there's more of you."

"You might have gotten me killed!" It came out as a near shriek as she jabbed a finger at him, feeling it bump up against his chest. "My spirit wasn't full— and—and—why did you jump from up there? That must've been ten feet—"

"Storm's coming," he stated mildly, releasing his grip on her wet sleeve and allowing his fingers to brush over the back of her hand for the briefest moment.

The quick caress silenced her and she yanked back her own poking hand as if touching him burned her. "Don't. You scared me."

"Then stop loitering outside my tower if you don't want me dropping in on you." He snorted, studying her expression intently as the splotchy spread over her too-pale face. She twirled her hair out there, too, waiting around and always looking like she wasn't wishing someone would step outside. Though, she had to be waiting, otherwise she wouldn't be there. "Quit waving bait around if you're afraid of catching a fish."

It was getting difficult to hold on to the anger, mortification and a queer sort of excitement thrumming through her. Her first reaction was to try and step around him, though he gripped her shoulder, pushing her easily against a wall. He didn't hold her tightly, and if she wanted she'd easily be able to shrug his hand off.

Part of her had hoped that the strange glances from him lately, the unintentional brushes up against her in hallways—that all of that had just been in her mind. The other half of her had obviously decided that it would be a good idea to loiter around the area of his tower so that she might 'accidentally' run into him.

Choosing to frown at him some more rather than try to scramble away, she mumbled, "Let go."

Sliding his hand off to the side, Kanzas let it rest against the wall. "The pair of us are needing to do some talking."

Inexplicably, she thought of the plain-faced boy she'd met at the bonfires back home the year before, how they'd snuck off into the bushes like so many of the others their age to celebrate the arrival of spring. Then, she recalled the one after that. She wasn't very experienced, but she wasn't stupid, either. "I said," Damia began, reaching up to tug slightly at the arm so close to her face. To her relief, he allowed her to pull it away, the gauntleted right arm dropping back down to his side, "I was sorry about the—" It was hard to even form the word, "-- biting."

He noticed with some amount of smugness that she hadn't turned down the unspoken offer yet. 'Good.' Kanzas had never been in the habit of forcing himself on unwilling women, and Damia was right at the age where she'd go off with a man like him, if only to prove some ridiculous point to, oh, say, Belzac. '"See? See? I'm all grown-up now. Hell."' "I don't want to talk about my bloody arm or what you do with your fingernails. Nearly plummeting to your death makes you a real pain in my ass, know that?"

"Well—it—it should!"

Kanzas folded his arms over his chest and breathed in the smell of her, feeling a droplet of rain spatter on the back of his neck. 'Nice,' he thought vaguely. He didn't tend to stick his nose into the hair of his fellow Dragoons, but the smell of her own tangled mess of it was pleasing.

Years had passed since his last trip down south to the tropical island waters, but each visit, he'd noticed a definite scent about the villagers who lived there. Salt was as precious in this land as glass itself was, and he noted that she smelled of those seafaring folk, like an islander with the salt-tang on their skin. It was sharper, more pleasing to the warrior than the heavy musk or flowery oils that Rose and Shirley preferred to wear.

"But I didn't scra—"

"Never mind!"

They glared briefly at one another before Damia shied away a little, leaving Kanzas wondering if this was even worth pursuing at all. He rolled his neck about lazily on his shoulders, cursing silently to himself at the sudden scuffing of boots over the stone walkway.

Heavy footsteps with a strange clanking undertone; Syuveil's movements were quieter, almost hesitant, while Belzac's steps had a louder sound with more silence in between them due to his long strides. The Thunder Dragoon had spent hours listening to each and every one of them, enough to pick the sound of each individual… teammate from the bustling servants, stomping guards and noisy refugees. 'Damn.' Swearing out loud this time, he moved back and turned on his heel in that oily-slick, serpentine way that made it seem as if he'd managed it all in one motion. "Being interrupted," he muttered, "isn't any fun at all, is it? I'll come to you tonight once the sky starts screaming. Then you can decide whatever the fuck you want to do about this."

She watched him go, wrapping her arms tightly about herself as she shivered, wetting her bottom lip with the tip of her tongue. "You—you still could have killed me!" She gulped in a deep draught of air, thinking on heavy rainfalls and wild crackles of lightning before she turned toward the approaching Zieg, raising her hand in a shaky greeting. For some reason, she had to fight down an impulse to solidly smack the Fire Dragoon upside the head.

He was pulling a comb through his sleep-tousled hair, huffing and puffing as he straightened neat, pressed clothing with his free hand.Even fresh out of bed, staggering around like he did, he managed to exude that strange aura that drew people to him, and Damia straightened her own rumpled dress at the sight of him. However, her attention was quickly drawn back to the warrior who had his backed turned to her. Kanzas, darned Kanzas who prowled about like an animal. "So—if you'll go away now, then—"

Kanzas disappeared down the steps without any indication he was even listening, or paying any attention to her whatsoever, and she sputtered with dismay. "Then—I can go talk to Zieg! Zieg; good morning!"

The young woman flinched at how shrill and manic she sounded, pressing that same hand to her lips as she shuffled self-consciously. It was pulled away quickly as Zieg headed on past, grasping at her wrist to pull her along behind him. "Hey—"

'Rosie, you were supposed to wake me up!' "Morning to you, too," he gasped breathlessly, sparing her the quickest of glances. 'Looking that flushed, she ought to be bundling up more.' Damn Vellweb for being so cold, anyway."By Fate, I'm glad to see you! I thought I was the only one who overslept!"Now, he wouldn't be the only one to get there late. 'Mother's going to headlock me for sure.'

There was something wrong when one's mother was capable of taking out three large, drunken men in a bout of fisticuffs. He'd know, after all; he'd been there when Charle had done it.


"Mother's on her way!"

Startled for the second time that morning, Damia yelped, stumbling a little clumsily as she attempted to keep up with his long, rushed strides. "Now? B—but the messenger told me Lady Charle wasn't going to be here until the sun went high—" A quick glance up at the dim light of the sun filtering through dark clouds indicated that she had more than her fair share of time. It explained why she'd seen Kanzas so early in the day, and why Rose was hurrying from her tower just as Damia'd pushed open her windows to let in the fresh, cold air.

"They said she said that, right? That's how it is with my mother; she says she'll do things one way and then does it the way she really wants. All without letting a word of it slip. If she says it'll be before the sun goes high, then it's because she's planning on surprising everyone."

This struck her as rather confusing, but it was easy enough to tell Charle Frahma wasn't entirely there. There were rumors of things, horrible things that had happened during the battle with the God of Destruction so long ago and what it had done to her mind. Though they'd only met once, she'd liked Charle well enough, even if she was a little intimidating.

"Hey," he stated quietly, slowing in his jog until the two of them were moving at a rushed sort of walk. Odd, seeing as how he was in such a hurry a moment ago. "If someone's giving you a hard time, you don't have to stand there and let them do whatever they want, right?"

Had he overheard them? If he had, she really would throw herself over the edge of the trail. She swallowed, feeling heat suffuse her face and the back of her neck. "N—no? Because, I—"

He hopped down the last couple of steps, the muddy ground of the city's lower level squelching beneath his boots.

"What? Because you don't mind, right?"

"I don't," she argued, a bit feebly.

Zieg heaved a cross between a sigh and a growl, reaching over to muss her fuzzed hair in a brotherly sort of way. "Methinks the lady doth protest too much," was all he said.

Damia hadn't thought she protested much at all, but gave him a little shrug followed by a quick smile. "Can we just go, please? If you're late the way we said—"

"—then Mother—"

It was a strange thing, for a Wingly to raise a Human child as her own. Though he'd spent most of his life as her 'servant boy', in private Charle had always been 'Mother' to him. There was no Wingly blood in his veins, but he had spent most of his life amongst the citizens of Ulara. After the death of his Human mother, it had been Charle who had rescued him on the streets of Kadessa. He'd been no more than a small, crying child then. No questions about his master, his parents—nothing. One minute he was alone and then she was there, standing over him and seeming larger than life as she stared down at him with an oddly serious look on her too-young face.

The questions were written across Damia's own features, as they were every time he mentioned his 'Mother' to her. He made no move to tell her any of it—because she didn't actually ask. "Agh, dammit! Let's just go."

He ruffled her hair again, causing her to grimace and try to smooth down the mess of it. "But we'll talk later. When there's time, okay?"

That would be nice. She pulled her fingers away from a little snarl and nodded at the taller figure, irritated at the childish touch but happy to feel the contact all at the same time. "I'd really like—"

Another yelp as she was hurried along, her clunky, mannish boots squishing and squelching in the mud with each rushed step she took. "Zieg, you run around too much!"

Her only response was an amused chuckle. She secretly thought it sounded much nicer than Kanzas' own laughter with its sharp, knife-edge of self-loathing. But Kanzas had warmer hands.

The dull, loud hum of a Wingly ship in the distance caught his laugh, snatching it away as the smooth, silver outline of the vessel took shape in the early morning sky.

The council chamber was best described as a 'cozy' room, small to the point of being cramped and possessing only a few small, arched windows lacking the glass paneling found throughout the rest of the palace. Though some servant had taken great pains to make this area seem as open as possible, the long table and the array of chairs dominated the area and left little space for the eight unfortunate people crammed inside.

Despite the chill that drifted in from the open windows, the air carried a sour sweat tang of too many people stuck in too small of a space. More than once, feet accidentally bumped against feet and elbows unintentionally dug into sides. If things were different, Kanzas would have been quite pleased to watch Belzac struggle to keep himself still as possible. The half-Giganto was suffering the worst of it, every motion he made causing his knees to crack painfully against the edge of the table.

Shirley, saint that she was, was doing her very best not to snap at her husband. Kanzas figured it was her own fault for sitting next to him when she knew what would happen. Every time they jammed themselves in here like they were demented preserves jammed into a jar, things turned out this way. No one had enough room, it smelled bad and sooner or later, they got twitchy.

The rest of the lot was trying to cover their frustrations with laughter and thin smiles; easy enough for them considering what was happening at the moment. It was nice to see the oh-so-confident Zieg Feld twitch from time to time, but not if it meant having to listen to this garbage. He'd always equated the sound of Charle Frahma's voice with nails on a chalkboard or a bad illness that caused boils to break out on a man's nether regions. 'Biased? Not one bit.'

"—and you've been eating all your vegetables like a good boy?"

"Yes, Mother."

"Drinking a glass of milk a day?"

"Yes, Mother."

Situations like these made Kanzas wish he carried a crossbow with him. He noted that his cousin oh-so-coincidentally happened to have brought hers today and wondered if she might let him borrow it for the brief period of time it would take to drop Charle and Zieg like a sack of manure. Oh, shooting a leader of the rebellion and a fellow Dragoon wouldn't score him any points with Shirley, Syuveil or anyone else he actually gave two shits about, but—

"And you're getting along well with all your little friends? Not fighting with Kanny anymore?"

'Gods' he thought darkly to himself, feeling his gaze stray down to the bow resting over the scuffed surface of the table. 'Give it to me, cousin. Just—give me the bow—' As if she sensed what he was thinking, the White-Silver Dragoon looked to him and frowned, her brows furrowing. 'Bow! Now!'

Syuveil tactfully cleared his throat from where he sat beside 'Kanny', doing his best to ignore the fits of snickering the others were so obviously struggling with. None of them had escaped Charle's unfortunate habit of nicknaming… most anyone; he didn't particularly like being referred to as 'Yuvee.' He felt himself tense automatically, butting rudely into the conversation. 'Damn you, Kanzas, I know that look.' "Lady Charle, forgive my interruption," he began, the sole individual unaffected by the tense humor of the situation, "but could we get back to the subject at hand?"

Death City Mayfil. Now he had no choice but to believe in the Divine Tree and the Creator. 'If I believe, then, do I believe it's been Soa's will the Winglies are allowed to damn us to darkness spread out on the tip of nothing?'Death City Mayfil. Now, now he had no choice but to believe in the Divine Tree and the Creator. 'If I believe, then, do I believe it's been Soa's will the Winglies are allowed to damn us to darkness spread out on the tip of nothing?'

Humans brought back to the living on the brink of death said that about the city, always."It is as darkness spread out on the tip of nothing."

Was Hell inevitable, or could Fate be changed? The scholar felt his mind go hazy for a second, hands clenching to fists beneath the table as he thought of Mari, their children, the poor, lost son in Aglis. 'Shattering Fate, he thought whimsically, feeling his jaw set itself in a determined line. 'You'd make such a poor poet.'

Zieg reached over, nudged him slightly to shake him from his daze. "Hey," he said under his breath, not unkindly. Syuveil blinked a couple of times, flush with embarrassment as he turned his attention back to Charle. The others were staring, he knew. He didn't have to look around the table to know that.

The Wingly woman tapped a finger to her chin as she toward the pale-faced scholar. 'My, he's got more energy than the last time I saw him.' Only a fool would fail to realize he was dying.

It was such a pity Shirley hadn't been able to stave off the sickness slowly taking over his body. The little dear really was done for. Not only would his death mean the loss of a brave, brilliant man—it would be inconvenient. If these had been different times, she would have encouraged him to take his leave elsewhere; Vellweb's damp, cold clime was hard on the sickly and he hadn't fared well here. However, they were at war now and there was nothing to be done for him. 'Poor lad.' "Ah! Direct and honest as ever—and so polite about it, too."

'Soa.' The man rubbed at his temples and sighed. Of all the names he could have had, she had to settle on 'Yuvee'.

'We divide up, we break the generators and kill who we can on the way. Easy as pie, Frahma,' the Thunder Dragoon thought to himself, more than a little arrogant. His thumb pressed up against a broken shard of pebble digging through the thick leather of his beltpouch and into the skin of his hip. 'Sharp as a knife, that.'

Kanzas allowed his attention to drift as the planning continued, suffering from a bit of a headache and an intense urge to kick Rose from underneath the table. He'd seen the smirk flash over her face when Charle had turned from Zieg to him, waving that damned 'Kanny' in the air like the name was some kind of goddamned banner. 'Look, look, I called him something silly!' That was the way things went with bad blood—he'd continue to annoy the hell out of her and she'd do the same thing. Feld was welcome to her and whatever cold comforts her bed provided him.

Rose absently patted Damia's small hand as she, too, listened to the conversation, occasionally volunteering her opinion on this and that. The girl had been mildly distracted all morning and she couldn't really blame her with all that had been happening lately. She blinked wearily a couple of times, wishing she'd slept more these past weeks. Worrying about the attack wasn't going to do any of them any good; not her, not Kanzas, not overprotective Belzac who was still trying to get Damia to remain behind. "Almost over," she whispered to the teal-haired girl, receiving a shy smile from her in response.

"I like this," Damia confided just as quietly, ignoring the sudden prickle at the back of her neck. Someone was-- watching. 'Again.' It gave her a sort of giddy, nervous feeling, along with a sudden surge of self-righteousness reserved for Belzac. She shot a little glare at the half-Giganto before brushing away the distraction. There were more important things to think about right now.

The dark shape of the spear-shooter left an ugly blot in the sky, barely visible through one of the windows just behind Damia's chair. Nothing more than a useless bit of junk now, the shooter hovered just above the city. Kanzas shifted his weight, thinking the Wingly device looked rather strange without the huge spear that had shot Flanvel Tower from the sky. Readying that damned thing had been the biggest part of the battle—picking off those who managed to escape before the spear hit— Lady General Veron, a handful of soldiers—that had been the easy part. 'Even if the scholar's damned Dragon is in pieces in his tower now; Syuveil, sometimes you're just plain fucked up.'

He'd heard Diaz and Charle bickering over their Wingly communicators some nights back; there were concerns that Frahma would send a legion of his fellow fluttery bastards to start salvaging from the tower. It was a rather stupid idea in his opinion, and indicated just how much the Wingly dictator still underestimated them.

All those soldiers and mechanics would be like sitting ducks. He flexed his gauntleted hand, lips curving in anticipation at the idea. The smile faded at the stinging pain of a large foot pressing firmly against his shinbone, someone's silent statement that he wasn't paying enough attention to what was going on around him. 'Belzac, I know that was you—'

The half-breed Giganto received a cross look for his trouble, but Kanzas felt his headache pound even harder at the calm, almost placid look in Belzac's milk-pale eyes. "Stop it," he muttered with soft malice. On the subject of fighting—most of Gloriano would've been able to hear Belzac's little argument a few nights back. A certain inexperienced warrior hadn't taken kindly to the Earth Dragoon's suggestion she stay behind on the mission to Mayfil. Not many people expected silly Damia to be able to screech like that; they'd woken him up far too early for his taste and he hadn't taken kindly to it.

"Pay attention," Belzac advised just as softly as Zieg had earlier, unimpressed by the warning glare on his 'kinsman's' face. This all had the feel of a show to him, ceremony on Charle's part to show them that, 'hey, we Winglies are still around.' She always brought some interesting bit of news or something to contribute to the welfare of the city, however—and he liked the woman, so he didn't mind the run-around of it.

'You know, I'm going fuck your favorite charge,' Kanzas thought at the teacher, not at all concerned by his own arrogance, 'Tit for tat. You took what's mine and now I'm going to get something important of yours.'

Shirley wouldn't care to be thought of as a 'something', but as she couldn't read minds, he saw no reason to worry about it. Nor the vaguely irritated looks he was getting from the others. He grunted back at them and folded his arms over his chest in exasperation, "I'm paying attention, all right?"

Charle opened her mouth to continue with whatever she'd been saying, only to be interrupted by Kanzas' very deliberate, "Highness. That is what I should call you, right?" The disheveled Wingly stiffened as if she'd been slapped and it was only Rose's steadying hand on Zieg's arm that kept the man from starting forward.

'Damn you to hell, Kanzas,' the swordswoman fumed. Tensions were running high as the attack on Mayfil drew ever closer and she was reminded briefly of the wedding feast. Back then it was Zieg helping her keep her temper in check. "Let it be," she told him simply.

Damia shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, studying Shirley's expression of disappointment from the corner of one eye. "Can—"

The tiny voice went mostly unnoticed as Charle turned to face Kanzas, offering him her most pleasant smile and inclining her head to him courteously. "Feel free to call me whatever you like, Kanny."

'What I'd call you-? Bitch.' He felt Shirley's discontentment with the situation almost tangibly; resenting her suddenly for the expectations she always seemed to have of him. He didn't even think she was aware of it, but every time he joined them in a council or went off to train some of the Human soldiers, some tiny part of her would be thinking, 'This time, maybe this time he'll do better—'

Thistime, this timethis time thistime he would—

Shirley sighed, reaching up to pinch the bridge of her nose between two fingers. Not more than an hour in council and this was already happen. 'Not this. Again?' "We shouldn't be fighting with one another—especially not now."

His left hand throbbed suddenly, sharply and he gasped, realizing distantly the others were watching him all over again. 'Damn.' He wriggled his fingers about slightly, shaking away the pins-and-needles numbness that followed. Strangely enough, it didn't strike him as a physical pain, but he was familiar enough with the damage the bond could do to him that it seemed like it was real. Strange how it happened every time he had to deal with the Frahma woman. "I'll remember that," he ground out.

"Kanzas, you're out of line!" It was fairly obvious Zieg was on the verge of losing his temper. If there was one person Kanzas disliked as much as Diaz, it was Charle Frahma. This put an obvious strain on things, as the Fire Dragoon, bluntly put, adored his mother.

"I know," the other man agreed, a disturbing level of seriousness in his voice, "I never could stop talking back to my betters—"

It was Shirley who spoke now, a sharp, slightly horrified exclamation of, "Kanzas!"

Whenever anyone reprimanded him for something, they always made certain to say his name just so...

Kanzas, stop doing this, Kanzas, stop doing that, Kanzas, you shame us— KanzasKanzasKanzas

"Kanzas, please. Lady Charle, I'm—I am so sorry. He hasn't been sleeping well these past couple of nights and I'm afraid everyone's affected by the Death City. It isn't always… like this."

'Don't you dare try to justify everything to her, Shirley. Don't.' Forcing himself to remain silent, Kanzas pressed his finger against the shard in his belt pouch, ignoring the heat of too many bodies crammed into one area, and as best he could, Charle's presence. When she was near, it was as tough to mind his tongue as it was around Diaz. His own lack of control, along with the increasing frequency of these moments unsettled him.

'Leave when you can, get some fresh air. Be a man and deal with it. You're going to give yourself away if you don't learn better.'

She and the Emperor would be summoning him later, he expected, after the inevitable argument that would follow when Diaz learned he'd missed the meeting. Too bad he was 'accidentally' given the wrong time.

Charle waved a pale, white hand in the air to dismiss the apology with the easy grace of the nobility, her skirts fluttering as she rose from her seat, pacing around the crowded room and causing the rest of them to shift about uncomfortably. "I think we should take a short reprieve from these tiresome things, don't you?"

His eyes became half-closed slits as he hissed out a relieved sigh, trying not to bolt out of his chair as one by one, the thankful Dragoons began to file from the room. Zieg and Rose were the first to follow her, then Shirley. She reached out to pinch his arm slightly as she passed, reproving. Kanzas swatted half-heartedly at her in response, knowing she would be waiting out in the hall for him whenever he 'nonchalantly' left the chamber.

Damia came next, casting a hesitant, worried little look at him, as if she were afraid of what he might do. Lumbering Belzac, who would likely be pullingher aside to try and smooth things over between the two of them-- funny that she'd be trying to get out of Belzac's clutches as quickly as he'd be trying to escape Shirley's. He could tell by the expression on her face.

That left him alone with quietly coughing Syuveil, who had folded his arms over his chest much in the same way Kanzas had earlier. Unrepentant, Kanzas stared back, unclasping the buckle that held the pouch closed. "Spare me your disappointment. I'll be getting it from Shirley in about ten seconds and I will be goddamned if I'll apologize for something I'd planned to say since Frahma got here."

"I'm afraid I can't rightly call it 'disappointment' when what I really want to do is give you a swift kick in the arse, Kanzas."

"Good, that's better. I hate expectations."

The Wind Dragoon blinked, feeling that tingle of realization run down his neck, that tiny bit of instinct that stated, 'You're about to get hit by something.' He reached up suddenly, closing his fingers about the sliver of stone that suddenly hurtled towards his head. The contact of it against his skin made the hairs on his arms rise and he gaped down at the shriveled sliver of Divine Tree fruit stupidly.

"I found this," Kanzas stated flatly. "Don't talk to me about it because I won't tell you how I did." He left his friend sitting there in silence as he left, his thoughts turning towards the way Damia's small, thin back had looked beneath her dress. It was time to go face the music; if he had to listen to things he didn't want to hear, he might as well get a nice sexual fantasy brewing in his mind to keep him occupied.

No one had been surprised by the sudden fall of rain and arcs of lightning that illuminated the dark clouds, least of all the Dragoon sitting primly on the small, claw-footed chair in the corner of her room. She'd felt its presence days before the first droplet of it landed on the snow-covered ground and would have welcomed its arrival right then and there had the others not been around.

Things had calmed down shortly after the meeting, though she'd been too flustered and annoyed to really talk to Belzac, instead rushing off with Rose and Zieg before much of anything could be resolved. For a little while, she'd trained with the two of them before noticing the looks they kept giving one another with a definite amount of embarrassment. She'd excused herself not long after, leaving them to their secretive laughter and caresses that were far more obvious than they realized they were. It had been nice to get out in the rain for a while, so she hadn't minded getting away.

Droplets of rain pattered over the water at her floor, glass windowpanes pushed open on every side of the room so that she could feel the storm more fully. Damia cast a quick glance over her shoulder as she stubbornly tugged the brush through snarls of teal hair, wetting her bottom lip with her tongue as she saw the steep staircases winding about the towers were still empty. 'Belzac's right,' she grudgingly admitted to herself. 'I am like a little girl—but not for the reasons he was saying!' He didn't really know as much as he thought he did, and the realization of it grated at her all the time. Well, everything seemed to grate at her these days, but that wasn't really the point.

The bristles of the gilt-edged brush were thickly twined with strands of hair that had broken at the ends or been yanked right out of the scalp by the relentless tugging. The top of her head was starting to hurt more and more, but at least her hair was looking better. It was still a disheveled tangle that she'd always tried and failed to keep neat—like her dresses.

Leaning forward, she blew softly on the plate of polished silver that served as her mirror, watching the warmth of her breath fog the surface. "Why are you doing this, huh?" she asked the pale face with its mask of glittering scales and thin, colorless lips. 'Sitting in here and waiting for—for—" Her face warmed and she had glance away from the mirror for a second.

If she didn't know any better, she'd think her blurry reflection seemed somewhat mocking. 'I know what you're trying to do!' is what it would say if she asked what it was thinking.

"Well, I didn't ask!" is what she mumbled back at it, though she really… had been talking to it. Sort of. Just a little.

Not really wanting to sit around and argue with herself—'just a little--!'—any longer, she busied herself with dealing with a couple of blemishes dotting her jaw, dabbing a bit of healing potion on them from a bottle on the table. It was rare, valuable stuff that she'd felt guilty buying for this reason, but she still hoarded the mixture as if it were a priceless treasure. There was a brief sting as the small bumps smoothed themselves from the teenager's skin, causing her to grin a little indulgently as she capped off the glass container.

Just a little walk out in a storm, around the towers and along the pathways winding about them—and she'd bring her cloak with her, so that the chill wouldn't make her fall ill. It wasn't likely to happen; the hot summers back in the East were what had really taxed her health. Whether or not she needed the itchy thing, the important thing was that it looked proper. 'I'm not waiting for him. Not.'

On the way out the door, Damia snatched up the heavy woolen garment, pinning it at the neck with its simple brass brooch and flipping the hood over her head in an attempt to keep her haphazardly combed hair from frizzing up in the rain.

The door, swelled by the damp, caught once on the way out, forcing her to tug hard on the heavy brass ring to pull it shut. "Stupid thing…"

"If you're going to throw names around right off the bat, I'll just leave."

Squeaking in surprise, the flesh-eater's daughter went stiff as a board and wondered why things like this always happened to her. 'Things like this—' Being caught off-guard, talking to inanimate objects. Somehow, even wrestling with her door managed to seem embarrassing when that man popped out of nowhere. 'You don't have mud up your nose, so—'

The walkway tended to curve around the round walls of the tower and if she craned her head just right, she could see part of his leg draped over the edge. 'Who lurks around corners, anyway? It's the second time today.' Regarding the dangling foot with considerable wariness, she grasped the edges of her cloak and pulled them together so that the daring—'deliberate—' lack of bodice lacings wouldn't catch his attention. It was an immodest thing for a woman to do, usually meaning she was preparing to meet a lover. 'You did it because—shut up, I didn't, I didn't—'

'Go away! I wasn't talking about you!' is what she considered saying. As she circled around the narrow path to hesitantly stop in front of the sitting man, what came out was, "Are you worried about going to the Death City? I hear you see ghosts there." She hadn't known she was going to say that until she actually did, and she braced herself for some disdainful, unkind remark. Maybe she'd lied to herself. Maybe she was a little scared. 'A bit. No more than that.'

'Worried? No. I'll see who I'll see and that will be that.' Kanzas shifted, trailing a surprisingly slow gaze over her, from bare feet to the hood of her cloak. "I want you." It was a grudging admission, though he said it casually enough. He never really had cared for the courting games men and women tended to play with one another—not unless it involved a good old-fashioned mind-fuck. Right now, he wasn't in the mood to play too many games with this one; that might change, or it might not.

Her eyes went wide and her cheeks a splotchy red, just the way he'd expected. 'Tch. So damn young.' Still old enough to be sneaking off to a haystack with some farmer's son. "But considering the fact I planted you against a wall this morning, you already know that. Question is—what are you going to do about it?"

The bright flicker of lightning drew his attention from her for the briefest of moments, a wild flash of grin pulling at his mouth. 'Yes or no, Damia, it's no skin off my back in the end. I won't be the last man to sate myself with a tavern harlot.' "No reason to let your bed stay cold. Haven't you heard what they've been drilling into our heads? We're going to 'Hell' soon."

Water ran down his body in rivulets, dripping to the ground in small pools that were immediately swept into the mass of rainwater that flowed down the hewn staircase. He tugged fingers through his hair carelessly. The damp had washed the waxes Eastern warriors used to spike their hair out of the russet mess. His hair now matted itself to his scalp, still mussed but not nearly as spiky. It softened the harsh angles of his face—just a little.


"Either it's 'okay, milord, let's do this,' or 'Kanzas, do return to the hole you crawled out of.'"

'I can't— I thought maybe I might with him but I really can't--' "Y—you and—" Confronted with such bluntness about the slowly growing tension between them, she couldn't do much more than stutter. Realizing she wasn't going to get anywhere the way she was now, she held up one trembling finger to indicate she needed a moment. Without waiting for a reply, she whirled and bolted back into the tower.

One brow lifted at the loud slamming of the door. 'Still worth it?' Possibly. If it got the need for her out of his system. Edging back some, Kanzas flung back his head to feel the rain more fully against his face. As thunder echoed in his ears, he closed his eyes and tried to focus on the woman inside rather than the looming, mechanical mess that would be the Death City. Privately, he thought it would be very cold there and carry that flower-sweet smell of rot. 'Ghosts. Hah. Come and say hello when I get there, then, if you've got the balls to do so. '

Fear wasn't something allowed to a Dragoon, because the Fate of Vellweb was resting on their winged shoulders, goddamned lucky bastards they were. The slight, biting sting of the wind made him grit his teeth a bit, making him realize all over again how damned cold it was in these parts. Small price to pay when one considered how much it had been raining lately.

Damia's feet made soft thumping sounds as she looked desperately about the watery interior of her room, nearly bopping herself upside the head with one of her own wildly shaking hands. She jumped up and down a couple more times, making a ridiculous little squealing noise that she hoped he couldn't hear. 'What am I going to do? He just said he wanted to— agh!'

The bedsheets weren't clean—the chambermaid that had been assigned to her hadn't been by today, probably distracted by the fuss that had accompanied Lady Charle's arrival. Water sloshed as she rushed over to the raised platform that served as her bed, frantically pulling up the coverlet and trying to smooth the wrinkles from it. 'But we're not even friends. Maybe it's a bad idea.' He didn't really like her either. For so long, he'd always seemed to think of her as a little girl. No, worse than that. It was as if she was something not even worth noticing. She could count the number of times on her hand that he'd actually looked at her before Shirley's wedding.

"I don't think you're ready for Mayfil, Damia. Not yet."

To be thought of as a hindrance when she carried such responsibility stung. Right now was not the best time to be thinking about what Belzac thought.

"You're acting like a child."

It was that easily, with that recollection that Damia realized she had an answer for Kanzas. It might have been out of defiance of all the others and to prove that she wasn't incapable of making her own decisions. Or it might've been because of the storms in her dreams and how cold and empty her bed was. 'Is this cheap?' She wanted to fall in love—but not with him. He didn't love her and honestly, his words were still too unkind for her to really think of him as some fairytale knight. 'Does this count as standing up to him? I guess not.' With her heart still racing, she stepped away from her bed. Hesitant fingers pushed open the folds of cloak about her, revealing the loose bodice of her water-stained dress.

"Are you scared?" is what he asked her, a mocking drawl to his voice as she opened the door to find him standing right there. And she lied as she stepped back to let him in, gripping a wrist and bringing it to her lips even though she was shaking so badly she could barely stand. "Nope." 'No. I meant 'no.'

Kanzas trailed his tongue over his bottom lip, inhaling shakily as her teeth brushed over the knuckles of his hand, stopping at the oiled leather of his gauntlet before trailing gently back over fingers. "Good."

"All right."




"Stop talking."

She bit back a hesitant, slightly panicked laugh, fingering a ragged gap of a tear in the cloth of his shirt. The heavy gray of his cloak had hidden it until she'd pushed back the heavy wool. Thick ridges of scar tissue were glaringly obvious under the rip, gray-purple and healed shiny by time. Her thumb poked shyly at the place as she glanced up at him, feeling a sudden, silly urge to try to delay what was about to happen here, in this room. "Did it really almost kill you? The Dragon whose spirit—"

The rest of her question was snatched away by the sudden, almost painful pressure of his mouth against hers; effectively silencing the conversation she was trying to stretch out. Excitement threaded through her belly and—

in the end it was disjointed thoughts and stroking hands, nails digging into flesh, gasps and her teeth oh dammit her teeth sinking into his shoulder all his pleasure and frustration and rage and pain there to taste, hotcopper—

fucking hell it should have hurt him to feel it goddamned half-Human bitch trying to devour him

but GodGoddessandDivineTree he wanted it that way, that animal she could be ripping him apart, taking everything he had to give her with that bloody redpaintsmear of a smile on her face

someone should paint her there, like this, underneath him

He thought she might have screamed his name, a mad, frenzied Dragon's screech but by then it didn'tmattertohimanymore--

Dear God, it only took me six months to get this done. I'll be honest and say I considered scrapping this chapter—I don't like it, and no amount of revision made me like it. On the other hand, I didn't want to spend another six months getting another part out. Heh, hopefully, the next chapter will be better.

As for the automatic squickfactor of fifteen year-olds and their, uh, activities—if this were any time but a medieval era, I wouldn't hesitate to run away screaming from this concept. Thirteen or fourteen was typically around the age girls started marrying and having children back then, if I'm remembering correctly. Yes, I'm pushing the rating system a tad, but it's not exactly set up to where stuff that borders on 'R'-- or whatever letter they're using right now-- can be easily read.

As for someone commenting on Syuveil and the Stardust-- this is more or less a predecessor of the stuff. For the sake of, uh, myself, I'm pretending that the Winglies had bits of mythology about things like this laying around that inspired them to create it after the war ended.

The next chapter should finally get things rolling, I think. If you're reading this at all—well, thank you!