Fire and Gold Epilogue – Hearth and Storm

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Trenton Ferry was a small town on a small tributary near the southern border of Columbian territory that existed almost entirely because sulfurite prospectors moving west needed a place to cross the river. The Hearthfire there was typical of buildings raised in tribute to the Lady in Burning Stone. There was a large, domed central chamber with a great stone hearth at the center where a fire was kept lit at all times. Smaller chambers dedicated to various other purposes surrounded the central fire. Most people never set foot in them.

The central chamber was what really mattered and that was where Roy went first when he got back. He left Brandon at the doorway in the care of his sister and a matronly Hearth Keeper. He’d come back from the battle with the gold drinkers lame in one leg and they hoped there was a healer among the Keepers who could help him recover. He’d most likely become one of those handful who saw a side chamber of a Hearthfire.

Cassandra left with another Keeper. The two women were going to look in on the ranch’s sole survivor, who would need looking after until he came of age. He was still at least five years from fifteen and adulthood. Cassie had sung him to sleep for most of the trip back and he was sleeping in the hotel for the moment. Most Hearth Fires had attached orphanages and those that didn’t knew of one only a train ride away.

Roy went straight into the main chamber. A dozen stone benches ringed the massive flame, far enough back that even normal people would be comfortable. He ignored them and walked straight up to the hearth. Heat rolled over him in waves, full of the power and potential of fire but without the constant whispers he usually heard from flames. For some reason he never heard them when among the Hearth Keepers.

“Can I help you, my son?”

Roy turned from the fire to find a middle aged Hearth Keeper watching him from just inside the ring of benches. The red scarf around her neck marked her as the Hearth Mother, the highest ranking Keeper and, just as importantly, a married woman. She was beautiful, with wavy brown hair and a motherly figure. But lines of age were beginning to crease her face and gray hair was showing around her temples.

Roy let down the bag he carried over his shoulder, nodding to the woman in greeting. “You can, mother. My name is Roy Harper and I’ve brought you an offering of gold tainted by vice and greed.”

The Hearth Mother took a deep breath, the pained expression that flitted across her face suggesting this was a common occurrence for her. “Of course, my son.” She gestured towards the fire. “Let the fire cleanse it of inequity and we will share it with those in need.”

Roy nodded and dug the small sack of coins out of his bag. The gold drinkers he’d brought down had been wealthier than many of the outlaws and strange creatures he’d hunted across the West. However the fact that he’d had to borrow a silver sword from Hezekiah Oldfathers and strain that wealth out of their blood had put him off the idea of keeping their gold for himself. It wasn’t like he needed the money. After more than a decade of wading through the worst sides of humanity Roy had made his peace with throwing away money for his own peace of mind. The Hearth Keepers never asked where tainted gold came from. When a man and wealth were parted by fire all crimes done in the name of greed were forgotten. If not forgiven.

So he watched the cloth bag burn away, leaving the misshapen lumps of gold slowly melting on the hearth, then he turned back to the Hearth Mother. “I trust you’ll put it to better use.”

“I hope we will.”

She watched him leave in silence, a contrast to most of the Hearth Mothers he’d met. In the years after he’d left the army he’d often gone to the Hearthfires, if only to blot out the voices of less sacred flames. Almost every Hearth Mother he’d met there had tried to, well, mother him. He’d been asked what troubled him or if he was traveling safely by Hearth Mothers more time than he could count. Perhaps that wasn’t surprising, this far to the West.

Most who came that way were in search of wealth and grew increasingly desperate if they couldn’t find it. And desperate men will do anything. Roy wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the Hearth Keepers received more tainted gold here in the West than anywhere else in Columbia. He’d stopped wondering about the source of criminal’s wealth after catching his first bounty. He suspected things were much the same for the Hearth Mother.

If healer’s examinations were the same from Hearth Keepers as army medics Roy figured Brandon would be tied up for at least the next hour so he went on to his next stop on his own. Besides, the Watch Post was almost a mile’s walk outside of town. Like most places this far south, the land around Trenton’s Ferry was dry as grave dirt. There was some greenery around the river but it disappeared from sight once Roy crossed the first rise, leaving him in a world of dull brown dirt and tan colored stone.

The general slope of the land was upwards and after a few ups and downs he came across a footpath leading up a hill that stood a good twenty feet above its surroundings. A narrow path snaked between scrub brush and stone outcroppings. Roy counted four switchbacks around looming rock spurs before he reached the summit and a part of him was glad he didn’t have to try and take the point by force. A dozen men could hold off an army for a few days here, longer depending on how much magic each side had.

At the top of the hill was a tower. Not wood, as was the usual custom, but stone. The base was large enough for a couple of bed chambers, a kitchen and a common room and the watch tower itself rose to a height of thirty feet overhead, commanding an excellent view of everything around. A man in blue denim pants and robes stood guard at the door, leaning on his spear as he watched Roy approach.

“Hello there,” he called, hitching his thumbs into his belt. “What brings you here? Fair weather or foul?”

“Both,” Roy said. He hefted an oilskin bundle that he’d pulled from his bag during the walk up. “I’ve come to claim the price on these heads.”

The man by the door – more of a kid, Roy saw as he drew closer – wavered when he saw the bundle, turning green around the edges. He nodded and opened the door behind him. “I’ll go up the tower and let the Stormfather know you’re here.”

Roy nodded and walked into the common room. The Watch Post was a spartan environment, furnished with simple wooden furniture and a wooden board with a slew of wanted posters nailed to it. By force of habit Roy looked them over to see if any unfamiliar faces had shown up. He was still perusing the posters when the Stormfather came back with the other Watcher. The head of the Watch Post looked about forty, with a tan and wrinkled face that naturally settled into a half smile when he wasn’t grinning and shaking hands, which was the first thing he did when he saw Roy.

“Mr. Harper,” the Stormfather said, “welcome back. No new prices on heads, I’m afraid, although no new criminals showing up is good for the rest of us you’ll probably find the lack of work troublesome.”

“Unfortunately I’ve never had any trouble finding work,” Roy replied. Then he pointed to one part of the board that was suddenly empty. “Did someone really catch Stove Pipe Nick? The Packards have been trying to get him for years.”

“Sheriff up in Winchester County jailed him a couple of weeks ago. He escaped but the Sheriff found his body in the scrub just recently.” The Stormfather shrugged. “Desert’s a harsh mistress and even great skytrain robbers can run afoul of her.”

“True enough.” Roy set the oilcloth bundle on the table. “I’m afraid these four called for more aggressive measures than leaving them for the desert to claim.”

The Stormfather carefully untied the bundle and opened it. The heads of the four gold drinkers lolled out, their eyes staring into nothing. The younger Watchman stifled a gasp. “Is that a child?”

“Not for weeks, at least,” Roy said gently. “Once the Change takes hold there’s nothing left but the monster.”

The Stormfather gave him a skeptical look. “I thought you said your tome told of a way for them to return from their depravity.”

“No, there’s a way for them to undo the Change and remove their need for blood to survive.” Roy drummed his fingers absently on the Journal in his jacket pocket. “I read more after our meeting, as we were scouring the countryside. It seems that converting their bodies back doesn’t undo the change to their minds. If they wish to come back from their depravity they have to actively choose to do that and rebuild their humanity brick by brick, just like any other monster man can choose to be.”

“That doesn’t seem fair,” the young man said. He pointed at the small girl’s head. “You can’t tell me a seven year old girl chose to undergo the Change.”

“Not everyone in a war chooses to fight it,” Roy replied. “War still makes monsters of them, at times, and we judge them the same, don’t we?”

“Enough.” The Stormfather closed up the bundle and gently moved it to one side. “The time for judgment is long past. Any chances there were to avoid this outcome passed long ago and likely were not ours to take. This is a time for mourning. Go down to the homestead and tell your brother to let Ma know we’ll be down in the graveyard after we’re relieved.”

The young man nodded and hurried out of the room. Roy watched him running down the hill with the energy of a young man who had received a shock and didn’t know what to do with himself. Then he replayed his memories and compared the younger man to his father. “Adopted?”

“He takes more after his mother.” The Stormfather got up, his back suddenly bent as if he’d aged twenty years in the last five minutes. “I’ll get your payment. Two hundred marks for the lot, as agreed. I wasn’t expecting four of them, and I’d offer you more if we had it, but we don’t keep that much money on hand.”

“Two hundred is fine.”

The watchman paused in the process of unlocking a chest in the corner of the room. “Oh? Given your reputation I thought you’d take more issue with it.”

Roy tilted his head, curious. “I’m afraid I don’t pay that much attention to my reputation, so long as it isn’t likely to get me run out of town.”

The chest thumped behind the Stormfather as he crossed back to the table. “They say you’ve never once worked for free.”

“Ah. That.” Roy nodded his understanding. “The first honest to goodness firespinner I met when I came out West told me something I’ve never forgotten: Everyone in the world needs your help. There’s only one of you. If they’re not willing to give up something to get that help they don’t need it as badly as someone who will.”

The other man snorted as he thumped a bag of coin down between them. “Not everyone has something to trade.”

“As we’ve just established, the price is mine to choose.” Roy picked up the bag and tossed it once before slipping it into his pocket. “And people have more than just money to offer. The man who told me that took his payments in time, after all.”

The Stormfather studied him for a moment, then glanced at the oilcloth. “You make it sound as if firespinners are no different than gold drinkers.”

“We’re quite similar,” Roy said with a faint smile. “As similar as you are to them. I can’t speak for these gold drinkers in particular but I’ve seen my share of people descent into monsters. The change comes when they stop thinking about others and seek nothing but their own goals. They drink blood because they don’t care about what others value. I ask for a trade because I do. It’s a small difference but it makes all the difference in the world.”

The Stormfather sighed and gathered up the bundle of heads. “I hope you’re right. Thank you for your help, Mr. Harper.”

Roy nodded and walked out of the Watch Post, silently hoping he was right as well.

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Fire and Gold Chapter Seven – Unchanging

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Danica surged upwards, trying to scream but unable to find the breath for it. The spear gave the barest twitch but didn’t come free. Iron and gold collected around the intruding bronze point, trying to heal the wound but unable to do anything as long as the foreign mass remained impaled in her. Her deadened senses were not enough to protect her from the pain. She had to escape.

Forcing her weight of metal away from the spear point Danica built up mass in her right arm. Taking a moment to steel herself, she yanked her right arm, like a child on its belly trying to roll over. The wooden floorboards underneath her creaked. Then, with a snapping motion she felt in her sternum, the spear came free. Her elbow nudged the langets of the spear, partially dislodging it from her body, while the momentum of her yank rolled her over and finished the process. The weapon clattered on the floor and rolled off somewhere. Danica lay on her back and gasped for breath, loosing all track of time as her metal reserves knitted her tortured body back together.

She was dragged back to the moment by an ugly, wet chopping noise. The young gold drinker squinted, her vision swimming. She was staring at a blurry mass of brown and black which quickly resolved itself into a drifting cloud of smoke drifting through the rafters of a wooden roof. Right. She’d reached for a coin on the floor and the spear hit her in the back. That was a bad thing.

Something rolling across the floor bumped into her arm. With a groan Danica sat up and looked to see what it was.

Hernando’s face stared back at her.

His bloodless head had picked up smudges of ash and his mouth gaped open in a wordless scream. Danica couldn’t tell if he was furious or terrified. He was definitely dead.

Dazed, she pushed the head away with one hand and looked around, trying to make sense of what was around her. The floor was dirt and ashes. Hernando’s body lay on the floor about ten feet away; a strange man in blue knelt by it.

The man had spread a kerchief out under the stump of Hernando’s neck and now he held the flat of a sword there. As Danica stared at it a gold coin dripped from the point of the blade and fell onto the kerchief. The man ignored it as he rummaged through Hernando’s pockets. A surge of anger flooded through Danica, whether it was because he’d killed Hernando or because he was ignoring the gold she couldn’t tell. She scrambled to her feet and grabbed the spear just below its head.

Some noise she made while getting up attracted the stranger’s attention because he quickly spun about, remaining in his crouch but turning to look directly at her, the point of his curved sword aimed squarely between her eyes. The stranger scowled. “Pellinore didn’t think children could go through the Change. Sorry to see he was wrong.”

Danica took one step forward and swayed, leaning on the spear haft to keep herself upright. “I’m not a child. I’m a gold drinker.”

The stranger’s eyes narrowed. “Perhaps you’re a little of both, young lady. You sayin’ you won’t renounce your gold, then?”

“I won’t what?”

“You didn’t hear?”

She tilted her head to one side, thinking back, but she was pretty sure she’d never heard the stranger’s clipped, nasally voice before. “No.”

“Pellinore was wrong about the hearing, too,” he muttered under his breath. She resisted the urge to laugh at something she obviously wasn’t meant to hear. He continued, “You can pass back through the Change if you renounce your gold.”

Her eyes narrowed. On the one hand he seemed to know things Hernando had never told her on the other he clearly had it second hand and didn’t know how trustworthy it was. “How would I do that?”

“Its a complicated process but I have exhaustive instructions for how to go about it.” His off hand gathered up the kerchief and the gold coins in it then carefully stood. Behind him, Hernando’s body lay pale and bloodless.

Danica turned her attention from the body to the stranger’s sword point. His weapon was unsettling but she saw small ripples, probably invisible to the human eye, along the flat of its blade. “I suppose you got those instructions from the same place you got your fancy sword?”

He snapped the point in a tight circle that warned her he was very familiar with the weapon. “This? A loaner from an acquaintance familiar with the book I found them in. Now. Will you renounce your gold or not?”

Danica scowled. She’d never have survived her life until that point if she hadn’t had the resilience of gold in her veins. On the other hand, he had killed Hernando and two of his Converts. Danica herself was the smallest and weakest of the de la Feugoes. She needed to be clever. “Wh-what would I have to do?”

“Well, let’s have a look the specifics.” The point of the man’s sword lowered as he reached into his jacket with his other hand. The coins in the kerchief he was holding clanked, focusing all of Danica’s attention on for a second before she could shake herself free. Her grip tightened on the spear. The stranger snorted and shook his head, stopping his off hand halfway, changing the movement to shove the kerchief and gold into his outside pocket. He poked the cloth and metal into place securely with two fingers. He had something else curled into his hand, which he started to put in his pocket on top of the kerchief. Danica squinted, wondering what it was.

When his fingers uncurled to bring it forward she realized it was Hernando’s money bag.

The stranger shoved the bag away. The moment his wrist reached the hem of his pocket Danica hefted the spear and threw it at him with her full weight behind it. The weapon was excellent as it practically flew itself out of her hand. The timing of her attack was as good as she could make it but it wasn’t enough to overcome the man’s reflexes.

He got out of the way but the projecting langets on the spear’s head caught the man’s sword and pulled it out of line. She lept forward, covering the ten feet between them in two flying steps. The stranger tried to ward her off with his free hand but it got tangled in his coat pocket. She slapped his sword arm with the full weight of metal behind the hit. The stranger dropped his weapon.

It slid across the floor a short distance. One step took her over to it and another crashed her heel down on the rippling imperfection on the sword blade. It snapped in half, the point spinning away in one direction, the hilt in the other. The hilt came to a stop by the stranger’s boots. He scooped it up with a casual movement and pointed it her as if the blade was still intact. The brilliant yellow gleam of gold in the center of the jagged, snapped end of the blade drew Danica’s eyes until she forced them away.

“What are you planning to do with that?” She asked.

He grimaced. “I suppose I’ll have to kill you and drain the iron and gold from your blood until there’s nothing but water left.”

“With six inches of sword left?”

He pulled his off hand from his pocket, still holding Hernando’s bag. He slit the side of it open with what remained of his sword then gave it a slight shake, letting the contents spill out onto the ground. To her horror, Danica found it impossible to draw her gaze away from the shining silver coins as the tumbled onto the floor. A strange compulsion overcame her. She dropped onto her hands and knees, trying to find and count how many of them there were. Five- no six- no ten- no –

She reached fifteen when her feet were kicked out from under her, dropping her onto her face once more. This time, instead of a spear, a heavy weight settled on her back and a hand gripped her hair and held her head down. Even in that position she found her eyes still drawn to the coins she could see in the corner of her eyes. “This is your last chance,” the stranger said. “Renounce your gold.”

Terror gripped Danica. Deep within she knew that she was still alive only because the stranger had offered her one last chance to undo the Change. But as frightened as she was of death she was even more terrified of the idea of living in a world where monsters like Hernando de la Feugo existed without the power of gold in her veins. “I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll live without taking blood. I can be your friend, your daughter, even grow into your lover if you want. But don’t ask me to give up the gold. I can’t. I can’t live like that again.”

The stranger sighed. His weight shifted slightly and the broken tip of his sword came into view. Danica tensed but to her surprise the sword just touched one of the coins lying in her field of vision. Then, to her greater shock, the silver in the coin began to flow up into the sword blade, adding it’s own small weight of metal to that of the stranger’s weapon. He repeated this process over and over as he spoke. “Your sire must not have told you much after he Changed you. In fact, you’re so young I imagine you can’t have been a drinker long.”

“What do you mean?”

“Gold drinkers must spend blood to rebuild their body. The stories say most believe they only spend it to heal themselves quickly but the truth is more complicated.” For the cost of only ten silver marks the stranger had rebuilt his sword to its previous size. The weapon moved out of sight. “In truth, the body dies a little every day, and must heal itself to repair the damage for we are mortal. Not even Gold drinkers are immune to this. But one thing you lose in the Change is the ability to heal without a cost of gold and iron. If you forsake blood you will die in a matter of days. It’s more merciful to end it quickly. Your sire didn’t tell you this?”

“No.” Danica whispered.

“And your gold?”

She gritted her teeth. “It is mine. My key to life, to freedom to veng-”

But Danica de la Feugo’s claims to all three ended at the edge of a silvered sword.

Fire and Gold Chapter Six – The Silver Sword

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An amused smile touched Hernando’s lips. “Oh? You’re the Giantkiller, are you?”

An annoyed look crossed Harper’s face as he drew a long, straight, thin sword with a large sulfurite crystal in the hilt. “Some people call me that, I suppose. It’s not a title I claim but I can’t take words out of other people’s mouths, either.”

“You Avaloni have such a strange fascination with giants. They’re just big.” Hernando eyed Harper’s sword and estimated it gave his opponent two and a half to three inches of reach advantage. He assumed a duelist stance and began circling the other man warily. “It’s not like they’re majestic like the griffon or powerful like the dragon. They don’t even symbolize an elemental power like the unicorn represents the Depths of Purity. Why a creature that is merely us, enlarged?”

“I don’t know.” Harper made an experimental lunge, feinting a downward cut that suddenly snaked sideways becoming a cut at Hernando’s left flank. The gold drinker back pedaled quickly enough to dodge the worst of the slash. However Harper’s reach and the unexpected nature of the attack was enough to lay open a shallow cut in spite of Hernando’s fast response. Harper returned to a guard position with a casual shrug. “I know the story of Arthur and the Brothers Walking but I’m not sure why the First and Forever King slaying a giant made fighting them the greatest achievement an Avaloni man can achieve. I’d rather leave that honor to him and seek my own path. I don’t think I’m worthy of the calling Arthur answered.”

Gold scabbed over Hernando’s wound in seconds. He probed it with his fingers for a second, more worried at how easily the blade cut through all three layers of clothes he wore than the wound itself. Harper was clearly a competent swordsman. But his opening attack was a poor match for the sword he was using. That kind of slashing attack would have worked better with a little more blade behind it rather than a narrow, straight weapon like Harper was holding.

On a hunch Hernando edged forward and feinted a high cut. Harper answered by raising his blade to block and riposted with a wheeling cut, snapping his wrist around as he lunged again to try and strike Hernando’s shoulder. It wasn’t the typical counter you’d expect from that kind of sword. Based on Harper’s last strike it was exactly what Hernando was expecting and, with no force behind his initial strike, he was able to shift and block it easily.

With a grim smile, Hernando followed Harper’s arm back towards the other man as he recovered his weapon. As Hernando expected, Harper recovered like he, too, was trained with a saber or similar backsword. Curved cutting weapons were, in general, shorter than straight cut and thrust weapons like Harper’s current sword. People who weren’t used to a longer weapon often lost control of their point and the blade went out of alignment, creating an opportunity to trap it against its owner’s body.

Harper wasn’t an exception. Hernando took full advantage of his opponent’s sloppy recovery, pushing Harper’s sword down until he was forced to drive the point into the floorboards to stop it so it wouldn’t cut his own leg. This was where Hernando’s shorter blade came in handy. It wasn’t stuck and he left the bind to slash upwards at Harper’s forward leg.

With a snappy throwing motion Harper sent the bead of fire in his left hand zipping down to touch the edge of Hernando’s saber where it exploded. A sudden gust of hot air whooshed past him. However the explosion had no force behind it and the heat seemed to focus in the saber blade, melting a hand sized section of it in the space of a breath and spattering molten bronze on the floor. Harper yanked his sword free of the ground and stepped past Hernando.

The gold drinker whirled in an attempt to keep the other man in sight but Harper was too light on his feet, staying just beyond Hernando’s left shoulder. For some reason he didn’t strike. With his saber destroyed and his reach even more reduced compared to Harper’s moving away didn’t strike Hernando as a good strategy. So he threw the full weight of his gold into his left foot and swept it out. With the weight shift added to the force of the spin his leg caught up with and toppled Harper, who did Hernando the disservice of falling on top of him. They both wound up on the ground in a tangle of arms and legs.

A mad scramble ensued where Harper tried to get back to his feet and Hernando tried to get a solid grip on him to keep him grounded. In the middle of the scramble a sharp pain shot up Hernando’s leg. Reflexively he pushed hard to shove the source of it away from him. He’d already put a fair amount of gold in his hands to help him drag Harper as he wished and as a result when he shoved Harper went rolling across the floor like a tumbleweed, elbows thumping, sword clanking, mouth cursing.

A deep cut had laid Hernando’s thigh open. Gold was slowly filling the wound in but it wasn’t moving as quickly as he’d expected. Grimacing, he got to his feet and prepared to lunge back into the fray but stopped short when he saw Harper. He’d gotten back to his feet and was back in his stance. Somehow he’d also changed weapons, his long thrusting sword gone, replaced with a shorter, wide bladed machete. The large sulfurite crystal in the handle glowed brightly but the weapon had no fuller or other way to release it’s power. It was hard to tell from a distance but the crystal looked exactly like the one in Harper’s previous weapon.

Hernando barked a short laugh. “Silver? You bring a silver sword to challenge a gold drinker?”

“’Those who mix blood with gold think they take in the king of all metals,’” Harper said in a flat, absent tone. It sounded like a memory given voice. “’But the truth is that gold is the most promiscuous.’”

Hernando’s amusement drained away. Malice welled up in its place, a gnawing desire to destroy Harper in such a thorough, tortuous way that his words would never be spoken again. “Oh? Where did you hear that?”

“Read it in a book,” Harper replied. He touched a finger to the crystal in his sword and pulled a bead of flame from it. The crystal didn’t visibly dim so it couldn’t have been that much. Nevertheless Hernando braced himself for another attack like that which had destroyed his sword. But Harper just continued to speak in his previous tone of voice. “’The magic of gold goes beyond simply bonding with all metals. It also mimics the magic of that metal. The way iron wars with magic isn’t understood but it is magic and this is why gilded iron does not kill magic is effectively as other forms of the metal. Gold is killing iron’s magic just as iron is killing other magics.’”

Growing tired of Harper’s lecturing, Hernando took a half step to the left, as if he was going to circle around the other man towards Danica, then transitioned from the feint to a vicious lunge. By forcing the weight of metal into his forward foot, he added to his forward momentum creating an unstoppable step-in. Unfortunately Harper did not react as Hernando hoped.

Instead of moving forward to intercept Hernando’s feint Harper skipped back and threw his bead of fire into the wooden floor. It burst into a small flame that wavered weakly. Then Haper pointed two fingers of his left hand at the flame and a spark like red lightning flickered in his eyes and the floorboards burst into flames. Hernando had skidded through his initial lunge, keeping his weight forward. He’d intended to chase Harper and bring him to grips. Instead he got caught in the fiery eruption Harper set off. Scrambling to try and get out of the sudden conflagration, Hernando’s boot caught on the edge of… something and he toppled over.

It wasn’t until he scrambled backwards across the floor that he saw what had happened. He was beating out the flames on his clothes when he realized the floorboards were quickly turning to ash, leaving a half inch depression full of ash growing in the building’s great room. The fire was advancing with supernatural speed, already lapping at the soles of his boots again. The flames on his clothes would not go out.

He had to get away from Harper. The man had some kind of magical control over fire, a power as mysterious to Hernando now as gold drinking had been a year ago. But few magics could be directed with precision without the ability to see what one was doing.

Herando wasn’t the only one to realize this. When he spun to head back to the door he discovered the entire floor behind him was a sea of flames. He tried to think of a counter. His opponent was one step ahead of him. The fire surged forward in a wave that funneled itself towards him, rushing over his head and torso in a seemingly endless stream. The heat was enough that, even with his reduced sense of touch, Hernando could feel his flesh burning.

He screamed.

Then he toppled to the ground. “’The magic of silver is to assume the shape its master desires.’” Harpers voice came from very close by. “’When it binds to gold, both gold and silver will shape to your desires. By binding silver to the gold in the creature’s blood you will gain power over it equal to the creature itself.’”

Hernando’s eyes recovered from being boiled away, although they saw the world through the yellow tinge of the gold that had helped them heal. What he saw was Harper kicking his severed leg to one side. Flecks of gold and iron clung to his blade, gleaming in the light of the brilliant bead of fire cupped in his left hand.

“’This is the way I, Sir Albert Oakshott, successor of Pellinore, first slew the creature of blood and gold.’” Hernando lunged forward, hoping to drag Harper down to his level. One of his arms struck Harper’s leg as he sidestepped the lunge and something clattered to the ground. For a moment Hernando thought he’d succeeded. Then he pivoted on the stump of his leg to follow up on his success to discover Harper, still on his feet, coming forward to slam his boot down onto Hernando’s chest.

“You can still renounce your gold,” Harper said, leaning over him. “Even if you don’t know the way, Albert did.”

At a total loss, feeling his reserves of gold and blood vanishing as they tried to replace his leg, Hernando tried to think of a response. He could only think of one.

To his surprise, Harper only sighed when Hernando’s spittle hit his boot. “So be it.”

Then he raised up his weapon and swung it down through Hernando’s neck.

Fire and Gold Chapter Five – The Hunter

Hernando stormed into the ranch house, his temper barely in check. “Janice. Janice, what are you doing? Where is that boy? We should already have the ritual under way!”

An eerie silence answered him. The furious energy animating Hernando drained away as he walked cautiously into the great room, eyes scanning the room and nearby kitchen for any signs of Janice or the rancher’s son. The building smelled faintly of smoke. An uncomfortable feeling settled in his stomach and his hand absently went to the sack of coins he’d taken from the pay box and stuck in his coat’s inner pocket. There was barely any gold left there, which he’d put aside for the ritual. Most of it was silver coins and offered him little extra power if things turned against him.

“Janice?” He called once more. Softer. He wasn’t expecting a response and he didn’t get one.

Careful, cautious steps took him through the dining room and into the kitchen. The bucket from earlier was no longer by the sink and he saw the edge of a puddle of water spilling out from around the kitchen table. Edging over to the kitchen wall, Hernando peered past the table. Sure enough, Janice’s body lay on the floor there, her skin unnaturally pale.

No enemy was crouched there, waiting, so Hernando allowed himself to relax. Just a bit. When he knelt down by Janice he discovered that, although her head was still attached to her body, her throat had been cut open. It hadn’t been immediately apparent, since there was no scent of blood or gold anywhere on her body. The inner flesh was almost the same color as her skin. There was a vaguely familiar whiff of metal in the air but it mixed with the smoke and he couldn’t pick it out.

He saw the bucket, lying discarded under the kitchen table. An odd place for it to wind up but it rested on its side, so it may have gotten kicked or just rolled there. Another odd detail he couldn’t figure out.

There were differences from Larry’s killing, too. Janice had been impaled through the chest, leaving a wound almost as wide as two fingers together. There were also slashes at bother her wrists. The entire body was damp, suggesting the puddle nearby had started when water was poured over it. Danica had mentioned Larry being wet, although he’d dried out by the time they investigated. Hernando poked two fingers into the puddle and smelled them. There was a vague smell of blood iron in the water but not a strong one. Curious.

Digging his fingers under the body, he lifted it just a bit and looked underneath. There was a deep gouge in the floor, roughly under the hole in her chest. He lowered Janice back into place and studied her again. The body looked like it lay where it had fallen, arms akimbo, although there were signs her legs, at least, had thrashed about, leaving scuffs and splinters on the wooden floor. He checked her hands for injuries but found none. Finally Hernando stood up and studied the kitchen and dining room again with a critical eye.

No matter how he looked at it, there hadn’t been a fight. No furniture was moved or broken, no scorching marked the walls, there was no smoke or blood or any indication of violence beyond what had killed Janice. That suggested she was taken by surprise or met someone she knew, and he knew he hadn’t killed her and Danica wasn’t capable of it.

Not because she didn’t want to, but because Janice was heavier in weight of metal and her elder in order of Changing. Either one of those would give her significant power over Danica, both together was impossible for such a young gold drinker to resist.

But Janice’s body hadn’t been posed like Larry’s was. Was it some kind of ritual? Had his coming just interrupted the last part of it? Or was the change in the posing of the body a part of some grand design he simply couldn’t see? Whatever it was, Hernando decided, it didn’t matter as much as finding Danica and getting out of there as fast as they possibly could. He had few advantages left to spend against this mysterious foe and he didn’t want to loose any of what remained today. It was time to cut losses and leave.

There would be time to rebuild their reserves of blood and gold. Foolishly staying to try and exact revenge or recover what was lost when he knew so little about the situation as a whole was just going to get him killed.

With that decision firmly made, he turned back towards the ranch house door to go out and look for Danica. He only got as far as the dining room before a deep rumbling swept through the room, like an earthquake but somehow less intense. Hernando swayed on his feet but managed to keep them but he heard a clattering noise from the loft.

Hernando froze, hand on his sword hilt.

The rumbling passed quickly, lasting little more than five seconds, but Hernando didn’t move for nearly a minute. He stood motionless, weight on the balls of his feet, straining his enhanced hearing to its utmost. Was someone in the loft? Or had something fallen over up there during the shaking? It wasn’t impossible but nothing on the ground floor had. He strained his memory to try and remember what Janice had told him she’d seen when she looked around up there.

He couldn’t remember any of it. There was no way to know whether there was anything up there to fall and clatter without going up there himself and that was something he wasn’t anxious to do. So, after no noise came from the loft for a full sixty count, he decided to just leave the house. And perhaps chain the front door shut. The slaughterhouse had plenty of chain to work with.

He was five feet from the door when Danica flew in and nearly bowled him over, her short arms wrapping around his waist as she screamed and yelled in fear. Or perhaps frustration. Either way, trying to stay quiet or pretend he’d left looking for Janice long ago wasn’t a viable strategy anymore. “Calm down, Danica,” he snapped, trying to pry her arms off so he could move freely. “What is the matter with you?”

She finally let go of him, took a deep breath and said, “I just met two people who had the rancher’s son with them. I tried to get him back but one of them turned into a tree and the other sang. They collapsed the canyon and nearly buried me alive. I came to find Janice and see what happened to her. We need to find those two and pay them back.”

“No, Danica,” Hernando said, his tone harsher than he intended. “We’re leaving.”

“Hernando!” Danica seemed horrified. “We can’t leave, you said we’d be Changing the rancher’s children and adding to-”

“Janice is dead, same as Larry,” he snapped. “All her gold is gone and there isn’t a drop of blood in her veins. We can’t afford to spare the resources now.”

Danica froze. “What?”

“You’ve been changed for two weeks, so you haven’t learned this yet but we’re ‘gold drinkers’ because we have to drink a little gold with blood iron in order to keep it under our control. The ritual starts you with a fair amount in reserve so you haven’t needed it yet.” He pointed to her wrist, which she was absently rubbing as the late afternoon sunlight glinted off of it. “And sometimes we have to spend it on things like that. That gold is going to flake away with the blood you healed yourself with. All it’s power is gone. I try to keep a stockpile in my veins but changing you and Larry ate up most of the coin I’ve found so that stockpile is running low. We don’t have much to replace it with. Now Larry and Janice are gone and I can’t reclaim their gold so we’re not changing anyone else until we can get more one way or another.”

“So… so we’re just going to leave when those two killed Larry and Janice?” She demanded, folding her arms over her chest. “You said gold was the king of metals, greater than even iron’s power to kill magic! It should let us kill two people! Gold is the ultimate power!”

“It is,” Hernando said between gritted teeth. “But we can only use that power if we have gold. And right now we don’t.”

Danica’s face screwed up in a way that told him a tantrum was coming.

He opened his mouth to head off whatever she was about to say. It didn’t matter. Before either of them could get a word out a clear, brilliant tone rang out through the great room. Both of their heads swiveled around to latch onto the sight of a single golden coin, bouncing once, twice, then a third time before rolling along the wooden floor. For a brief moment Hernando felt the siren call of the metal. He fought it down and shook his head to clear it, only to find that in the brief moment it took Danica had started towards the rolling coin, her eyes wide.

“Danica! That’s bait!” He took a single step towards her but then his feet turned towards the coin, forcing him to stop himself before he fell into the same trap she had.

She reached down to scoop up the shining piece of gold. A loud, whistling roar filled the room and a winged spear flew down from the loft, the jet of fire from the sulfurite embedded in the head wavering in odd ways, until it struck her square in the back and drove her to the ground. The coin bounced free from her hands and rolled away. With a direct threat to focus on Hernando found it easy to tear his attention away from it and look up to the loft.

The fire jet from the spear arced up and stopped at the hand of a figure there. The glare from the flames made it impossible to see him clearly. But it was a man, in a short brimmed hat and a suit, with one hand outstretched as if to grab the fire out of the air. In less time than it took to describe the propulsive blast from the spear went out. Danica tried to push up from the floor but failed. The point must have driven into the wood below her. It couldn’t have been some power of the spear itself. The sulfurite in it was dull and dark. Instead, an angry bead of red-orange light hovered a few inches away from the man’s palm.

With a single motion Hernando drew his own sword, a cup hilted saber, and ignited its own sulfurite crystal. The weapon’s fuller filled with fire. The man in the loft ignored Hernando, leaping down to land on Danica’s legs with an ugly snapping noise that interrupted her attempts to push herself up and pull the spear point free of the floor. With a single stomp on the winged langets of the spear he drove the head deeper into her back. Hernando was in the process of lifting his arm to launch an arc of flame from his weapon when he remembered what the man had done to the blast from his spear.

Cursing his own stupidity, he hooked his thumb around the vent lever of his sword and pulled, expelling the sulfur power of his weapon harmlessly and shaking it to make sure it was extinguished. The man turned his back on Danica and faced Hernando with a wry smile. “Not a bad decision,” he said. His voice had a strange tension to it. The man himself was on the short side, dressed in a tailored but worn blue suit with a sword of some kind at his waist. The bead of fire still hovered over his left hand as he took a step towards Hernando. “Now I’ve accepted a commission to bring the lot of you in but how I do that is up to you. If you – either one of you – choose to renounce your gold, pass back through the Change and turn yourself in as humans I can assure you fair consideration will be given to your circumstances. You probably didn’t choose to Change. But otherwise… well, you sound like you’ve already seen the other two of your group.”

Hernando laughed, bitter and flat. “And who are you to make such demands?

The other man reached up with his free hand to push back his hat a couple of degrees, so as to better make eye contact. “Just the best firespinner for hire in ten counties. My name’s Roy Harper.”