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.


Fire and Gold Chapter Seven – Unchanging

Previous Chapter

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.

Next Chapter

Fire and Gold Chapter Six – The Silver Sword

Previous Chapter

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.

Next Chapter

Fire and Gold Chapter Five – The Hunter

Previous Chapter

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.”

Next Chapter

Fire and Gold Chapter Three – Drained Dry

Previous Chapter

The ranch house was quickly becoming Hernando’s least favorite part of the homestead. Janice was spending most of her time there. Something about the ramshackle pile of sticks created a powerful attraction that kept her there. He found her standing naked in the kitchen when he returned. A bucket of well water sat on the counter beside her as she carefully adjusted the coils of hair on top of her head. Soft whimpers came from the master bedroom. Hernando scowled.

“What are you doing?” He demanded, striding through the great room to the tall cabinet by the root cellar door.

She hesitated, a long pin closer to a weapon than an ornament half impaled into her hair. “You said to clean up after-”

“Why haven’t you eaten yet?” Hernando demanded, irritation lacing his voice. “You’re as bad as Larry. It will take time for the gold to bond to new blood and give you command of it yet here you are playing with your food instead of eating it.”

Janice turned to face him, arms folded under her breasts. “Hernando, what’s got you so wound up? It ain’t like you to rush through things so much, you ought to be lookin’ at your diary and plannin’ out our next trip but instead you’re all fired up to move on tomorrow.”

“Today, if possible,” he snapped. “The people of Columbia take their holy orders so abominably seriously that we can’t hope they won’t look into the loss of a Watchpost. I thought a day here would let us lay in some iron and gold for emergencies. We’re hours past that and we’ve barely started on the process.”

“They had ranch hands up on the ridge,” Janice said with a helpless shrug. “Did you really want more people escapin’ to rat us out?”

“No,” Hernando snapped. “It’s not anyone’s fault that things didn’t work out perfectly. It is your fault that you won’t do as you’re told. Now go and finish your meal so we can put him with his sister and go about turning them.”

Janice perked up. “So you will give him the change?”

“Only if you have him ready for it before sunset.” With a disgusted shake of his head Hernando rummaged through the cabinet until he found the box he’d spotted there on his initial pass through the building the day before. He took it out and moved it over to the dining table in the great room and emptied the contents there.

“What is that?” Janice asked, still ignoring his instructions to gawk at the pile of paper and tools that spilled out.

“Maps,” Hernando said. “We’re on the edge of territory I know well, I’ll need to look over the counties north of here before I can decide where to go next.”

“Why not go west to Winchester county?” She asked. “There’s a bunch of skytrain stations there. We could fly anywhere in Columbia in four days time.”

“Because the Storm’s Watch is likely to bring in a team of their own to investigate what we did to their Post. Any team they send is far more likely to know a gold drinker than regular men are. And the Storm’s Watch can move their team a lot faster by sky train than by foot or wagon, so we’re going to stay as far from them as we can for the next few weeks.”

Janice sighed. “When you put it that way, I guess we’re gonna have to avoid the skies. To bad. I never been flyin’ before.”

Hernando didn’t mention the other problem with flying – as gold drinkers collected blood iron under the sway of the gold in their veins they quickly got heavy enough to fall right through the floor of most skytrains. To say nothing of what that weight did to throw them off balance. Although he’d taken most of the blood iron Janice drank she was still far heavier than she looked, and probably wouldn’t ever be able to fly without giving her nature away.

Not that her weight was a topic he was eager to broach.

This same difficulty made horses or stage coaches impractical, so they were going to have to walk wherever they wanted to go. “We need some place that is sparsely settled but close enough we can reach it in two or three days. Any ideas?”

“Honey, we been farther north than I’ve ever been since you changed me. But I know ranches, and they’ll have a map with their routes for cattle drivin’ somewhere. There’s usually some kind of way station along them routes we could lay low in for a few days. No one’d miss ’em for weeks.”

Hernando grunted, unhappy with her familiar language but willing to let it pass. Her plan was sound, if he could find those maps. “These don’t look right.”

“Nope. Those’re claims and deeds. The route maps are proably in the boardin’ -”

“Hernando!” Danica charged into the house, eyes wild. “Hernando, they got Larry!”

He set aside the paper and sighed. “Do you mean Larry is missing? Has a group shown up and captured him?”

“He’s dead.” She skidded to a stop and pointed frantically towards the barn. “They cut his head off and all his blood is gone!”

Hernando pursed his lips, stymied. “His blood is gone? How is that possible?”

“I don’t know,” Danica said, “but I couldn’t smell any in his head or his body. He’s pale, Hernando. So pale…”

He didn’t understand how it was possible to exert control over a gold drinker’s blood. The tome he’d discovered that laid out the gold drinker ritual was long on process but very short on details of how that magic worked. It basically laid out the need to feed and how acquiring blood iron would allow them to concentrate their power. It was possible to restore a badly injured, or even decapitated gold drinker, with enough time and blood iron.

However if Larry had lost his blood somehow Hernando was certain he couldn’t restore him with the resources he had on hand. He glanced at Danica. “Did you collect his excess blood before he died?”

“No,” she whispered.

“It can’t be helped.” He loosened his sword in its scabbard. “Did you see any signs of who killed him?”

“No…” Danica seemed to be coming back to herself now. “But I did notice something smelled charred. The barn was smokey.”

Hernando grunted. “I’m surprised we didn’t hear anything. Most sulfurite weapons are on the loud side. Perhaps a spear? Some of those are on the quiet side.”

“Does it matter?” Janice asked.

“I’m wondering how many men are out there. If they were a large group I don’t think they’d be so sneaky about this, they’d already be beating down the door.” He gave Janice a look. “Get dressed, Janice. We’re going hunting.”

Once she was given sufficient motivation Janice could move very quickly. She got dressed and retrieved her machete. It was more tool than weapon, without even a mounting spot for a sulfurite crystal, but it was deadly enough at close range. Hernando had tried to train her in the use of a sulfurite blade but so far she was more a danger to herself and her allies than their enemies. So for now the machete would have to do.

They found Larry right where Danica left him. Hernando glanced at her. “Has anything changed?”

“No, he was like this when I found him. I – I just got scared and ran to find you so I didn’t look at him that closely but he looked like this as near as I remember.” She knelt down and studied the floor. “I think he was in a puddle before but it may have drained away or dried out?”

Hernando squinted his eyes and looked around the barn. “Where are the horses?”

“I don’t know. They weren’t here when I found him.”

Janice walked to the back and looked through the rear door. “They’re not in the fields, either. Do you think it was horse thieves?”

“Simple horse thieves wouldn’t know how to do this. I’m not even sure how this was accomplished.” Hernando knelt down and studied the stump of Larry’s neck. The cut was not particularly clean. In fact it looked more like the last bit had been torn off more than cut through, suggesting the blade that made the cut was on the dull side. Larry didn’t have enough blood iron to be unusually durable, so decapitating him wouldn’t have been any harder than cutting the head of a normal man. But that was still a difficult task.

Hernando picked up Larry’s head and set it aside to reveal a second wound in the stomach, not a cut but a deep stabbing wound. “That would be the spear,” he murmured. “They moved the body for some reason.”

“Maybe as part of how they removed his blood?” Danica said. “And they used the water to wash away the evidence.”

“I don’t understand why they would be so secretive,” Hernando said. “It’s a lot of time wasted for negligible return. Still the kill itself was quite masterful.”

He studied the two women with him skeptically. For all his erratic nature he was a dependable fighter when the need arose, where as the womenfolk were very early in their training. He definitely didn’t have the resources to revive Larry so he was going to have to be left behind. “I don’t think this is a fight we want to have. Janice?”

She turned away from the doorway. “Yes?”

“Go collect the boy, eat your damn meal and take him to his sister. Danica, look for the horses. If you can’t find them in a quarter hour, meet me at the slaughterhouse and we’ll perform the change on our new members.”

“Where will you be?” Janice asked.

“I’m going to find those maps.” Hernando grimaced. “It’s time to move on.”

“We’re runnin’?”

“Yes. I’m not tangling with the unknown when we’re this far in the red. One day there will be a reckoning for this, but it’s not today.”

Next Chapter

Fire and Gold Chapter Two – Culling the Herd

Previous Chapter

“I like that one,” Larry said, patting Danica’s head eagerly.

She grabbed his hand and forcefully pushed it back to his side. “Stop it, Larry. No one cares what you do or don’t like, we just need you to stop making these messes.”

Larry sighed and picked up the bound and gagged man and carried him out to the dining room with the others. It was strange and unsettling to see the overweight ranch hand being carried like a sack of potatoes over Larry’s skeletal shoulders but she had to keep an eye on him or he would eat another one of the dwindling ranch staff before Hernando could make decisions about them. She was fairly certain de la Feugo wouldn’t want to keep any of the ranch hands. They were all muscular men, most on the larger side. Changing them would require a lot of gold that they simply didn’t have on hand at the moment, especially since he’d already chosen the rancher’s daughter as one of his converts.

Also, she’d noticed he liked to change women far more than men. The only other man she’d seen him consider changing was the scrawny cleaning boy at the Watcher’s Post who had about as much wit and sense as Larry, which was to say none at all. However outside of the daughter, women were in short supply in these parts. So if Larry partook before Hernando got around to inventorying their latest catch it probably wouldn’t effect the ultimate outcome.

But Hernando would be angry.

As Danica looked at the three dead humans Larry left in the bunk room she wondered if it was even worth trying to deflect that anger. Larry was a mindless idiot. Let him take the brunt of Hernando’s anger, that was what he was best for. If the de la Feugo patriarch didn’t kill Larry himself the wiry creature would undoubtedly be used to slow down some hostile pursuer, like he’d spent Danica’s sister to distract the druidic mayor down south in Ferry’s Landing. Much like Katharine, Larry was too poor in mind for anything else.

On the other hand, if Danica didn’t do something to make herself look useful she was likely to share her sister’s fate as well. So she started looking over the bodies to make sure he’d at least gotten all the blood out. Once it was clear he had – perhaps not surprising given Larry was the hungriest of them all – she started carrying them out to the dining area as well.

Larry was looming over the three surviving ranch hands and muttering to himself.

“What’s your problem, Larry?” She asked, watching him warily. “You tied them up real good, didn’t you?”

“Sure did,” Larry yelled back. “But he’s looking at me wrong, Danica. He’s gonna hit me.”

“They’re tied up Larry,” she replied, setting the first body down. The eyes of the living ranch hands widened. “How’s they gonna hit you when they’re trussed up like they’re goin’ to market?”

“He always hits me!” Larry shrieked, suddenly rearing back and kicking at one of the ranch hands with his heel.

Cursing the cretin’s lack of wits, Danica ran across the dining room, bowling the massive wooden table out of her way easily, wrapped her hands around his waist and leaned back. “Stop it, Larry!”

Larry did not stop. But, despite their appearances, she was the older of the two of them and had more iron in her veins. Even Larry’s gluttonous nature couldn’t balance the scales. Hernando always took everything but what Larry needed to keep going when the wiry man overindulged himself, where as he’d only drained Danica once, a few weeks after she was changed. Her superior weight dragged Larry away from the living ranchers one step at a time.

“Make ’em stop lookin’ at me!” Larry screamed once he was out of reach of his victims. “Make ’em stop, Danica!”

“Give it a rest,” she muttered into his back. “Only one way I can make ’em stop and we gotta let Hernando look at ’em before we can do it. He hits a lot worse than they do.”

“I certainly do.”

The room’s sudden chill was all in her mind but the knowledge of that fact didn’t stop Danica’s shudder. She carefully loosened her grip on Larry and turned the two of them to face Hernando. He stood in the boarding house’s entrance, silhouetted by the afternoon sun. The light washed out the aristocratic features of his face and reduced his luxurious suit, silver trimmed sword belt and leather duster to overlapping shadows. The baleful glare from his eyes outshone that from outside.

“What have you two done?” The calm question belied his wrathful expression.

“Hernando…” Larry shrunk away from him. “Just did what you told me.”

The Tetzlani man stalked into the room, towering over even the man who’s nickname was “Long,” and grabbed his face in a vicelike grip. “Is that a fact?” He pried Larry’s mouth open and sniffed. “I don’t recall telling you to eat whatever you want. Did I?”

Unable to speak or shake his head, Larry just whimpered.

Hernando just snorted and threw him to the ground in disgust. The wiry man scrabbled back and tried to get up but Hernando stamped on one of his hands as he scuttled about. Larry groaned but kept his mouth shut. “At least you know you must close your mouth some times,” Hernando said, voice low and soft. “Learn to control it better, else I will close it for good. Do you understand me?”

Larry nodded once. Hernando lifted his foot up and Larry started to get up again when Hernando’s boot came back and smashed him across the face, sending him sprawling across the floor. Danica watched the whole thing without speaking, hoping Hernando would forget she was there. But no such luck was with her. He let the backswing of his kick spin him around and crossed over to her immediately. Murderous black eyes stared down at her from beneath the brim of his narrow brimmed hat.

“I…” Her voice failed her for a moment. “I rounded up the horses like you wanted, sir. The iron is all there still.”

“I saw them in the barn when I passed through.” His immaculate fingertips pressed together in front of his stomach. “I believe I instructed you to remain there with Larry until I came to get you, did I not?”

“There was a horse that wandered into the north field and I went to retrieve it,” she said. “I left Larry in the barn with the other horses but he was gone when I got back.”

The world spun around Danica in a flash of light. She had crashed into the floor before Hernando’s hand striking her with the weight of all the iron and gold he’d taken behind it registered. The floor swam in front of her eyes for a moment. One of the greatest upsides of her changing was that she no longer felt pain and damage lingered briefly. But she knew better than to get up quickly. It was a lesson she’d learned right away, where Larry hadn’t figured it out yet.

“Idiot.” Hernando stalked back over to the bodies, living and dead, that they’d piled there for him. “Do you think horse blood is one tenth as important to me as the freshness of human iron? You should have left the gelding and kept ahold of Larry.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, carefully getting up to a sitting position. “If I’d known I had to wrangle both the horses and Larry I wouldn’t have let him go off on his own. But you gave him different tasks than me, so I didn’t think it mattered.”

For a moment, as their eyes met over Hernando’s shoulder, Danica wondered if she had gotten up too soon. Then he toed one of the living farm hands and snorted. “I suppose these will have to do. You will collect the blood and bring it to me, Danica, just as you will for the horses. Collect the excess from Larry as well.”

Danica suppressed a grimace. The change took away most touch and smell but enhanced the other senses beyond the human norm. Horse blood tasted terrible and old blood filtered through Larry’s innards would be worse. Turning it all over to Hernando wasn’t any fun either. “As you say.”

Hernando stalked out of the boarding house and Danica set about carrying out her tasks. First she sent Larry out to round up the horses, or else he would try and finish the ranch hands on his own and she was tired of trying to keep a handle on him. If he collected some iron from the horses for her she wasn’t about to complain.

Then she had to drain the living ranchers. Even with them tied up it wasn’t easy given the enormous size difference between them. The only one of his changed that Hernando let keep any major portion of the gold or iron they collected was Janice, so Danica didn’t weigh much more than she did before her change. A far cry from Hernando, who was easily seven or eight hundred pounds of densely packed metal.

After a little experimentation she settled for dragging the hands one at a time over to the table, looping their bonds under a table leg to hold them in place, then draining them dry. As an added benefit, the table leg kept their worst spasms from throwing them around too much. However, with Larry out of the building the last ranch hand nearly crawled his way out of the boarding house before Danica caught up to him and dragged him back inside.

With all the thumping, hauling, bleeding and screaming that went on, it took her almost an hour to finish that simple task. For a moment she considered finding Hernando and asking if he wanted to change any of them. But she’d spent a lot of time watching him over the last five months and knew if he’d wished to change any of them he would have said so already.

So she wiped her mouth off with one of the rancher’s bandannas and walked out towards the barn calling, “Larry? Larry, where you at?”

The gangly menace was nowhere to be seen in the dirt circle that surrounded the well at the heart of the homestead. Her eyes slipped over the buildings to the field behind the barn. The barn door was still open so he should have heard her calling if he was in there, but if he’d gone to the back fence to find a horse he might be out of earshot. Huffing and grumbling, Danica made her way around the barn to the back field.

But Larry wasn’t in the field. He wasn’t beyond the fence, there were no footprints in the dirt path leading down into the gully that passed through the ridge beyond and there were no signs of horses that might have tempted him in that direction anyway. It was like Larry had vanished.

Danica knew he always sulked a bit whenever Hernando got angry at him. Frankly she didn’t blame Larry on that count, Hernando was quick to anger and rarely raged with good reason. But even Larry wasn’t so stupid as to ignore Hernando’s orders just because their creator was angry with them. That way lay starvation and eventually a second death.

So Larry had to be doing something. Maybe he had just buried his head in horse innards and hadn’t heard her calling him. So Danica went back around to the front of the barn and looked in. The first thing she noticed was the lack of horses there. Which was odd. She’d left all the horses she’d rounded up in stalls not two hours ago. They weren’t in the barn and they weren’t in the field, so where could they have gotten to?

The second thing she noticed was a faint smell. Although the change had left her with almost no sense of smell even she noticed the scents of smoke and charred meat lingering in the air.

The third thing she noticed was Larry himself, propped in a half seated position by the water barrel. His legs were folded in the Sanna style, his hands resting in his lap. His severed head cradled in his hands.

Next Chapter

Fire and Gold Chapter One – To Pay the Ferryman

“The highest magic we know is gold.” Hernando de la Feugo rolled an obol through his fingers, the yellow cast of the coin catching the afternoon sunlight and reflecting it to the darkest corners of the room. “Even iron, which wars with all other magics, submits to the power of gold. It’s still a proud and stubborn metal but it recognizes the power of gold as king. Yet the nature of gold is to bind with other metals. It does not enhance magic, as copper might, or take on a false life of its own, as silver does. A conundrum but a beautiful one, almost as lovely as you.”

He ran his fingers through golden waves of the girl’s hair, released from their braids like a river released from it’s banks. “You know, the druids your ancestors served in Avalon held life as the highest magic. For centuries they considered iron the magic of death, since it leeches even the magic of life. But in time, what did we discover?” Hernando ran his fingers down the side of her cheek, along the bottom of her chin and finally over the graceful curves of her neck. Then he licked the blood off of them with relish. “Iron is the very foundation of the life’s blood, a part of our own existence we cannot escape. And if iron bows to gold, so too must life.”

He placed a single obol over one of the girl’s unseeing eyes. “Beauty.”

Another coin over the other. “Wisdom.”

A third in her mouth. “Joy.”

He wrapped her right hand around a fourth coin. “Skill.”

And a fifth in her left. “Strength.”

A coin on her heart. “The past.”

Another on her womb. “The future.”

He lifted his golden knife, still red with her iron. “All these submit to the power of Charon, the-”

“I found the books, Hernando!”

Hernando carefully set down his bag of coins and placed his knife beside it. “Thank you, Janice.” He pressed his palms together gently they held them there with all his strength. “This couldn’t have waited until I was done here?”

“They have the symbols, Hernando.” Janice bent forward a bit as she looked up at him, her eyes wide in a sickening imitation of childish innocence. “You said I should let you know if I saw the symbols right away, no matter what you were doing.”

Her shoulder length red hair was held in a loose ponytail, swept over her left shoulder. Hernando grabbed it and used it to pull her into an upright position so she would stop her noxious simpering. “I did say that, Janice. Thank you. Still, it’s surprising that you saw them here.” He looked around at the rough wooden walls of the slaughterhouse, where the previous owners of the cattle ranch had prepared their food much as he was doing now. “I wouldn’t think ranch hands or cattle barons would have much use for those kinds of books. Show me.”

Janice’s eyes wandered to the girl, laid out in full ritual fashion, and licked her lips. “You promised that I would have one this time.”

“And you will. After you show me what you found.”

“I have one picked out.”

This time he just stared at the woman until she withered a bit and took him where he wanted to go. The ranch compound was four buildings in total, the slaughterhouse, the barn, the boarding house and the ranch house. It was this last building where Janice led him. The house was relatively luxurious, with a wooden floor, lovingly sanded, a loft for storage and sleeping children, a great room with a brick hearth, a generous kitchen and not one but two bedrooms. In size it wouldn’t have been out of place on a wealthier street in Tetzlan City. The furnishings were rough, mostly handmade wooden furniture with no padding or upholstery, but that was to be expected. Such finery wouldn’t have lasted long in the Columbian wilds.

But, to Hernando’s surprise, there was a floor to ceiling bookshelf in the master bedroom, stuffed to bursting with books. Perhaps that made sense. So far from civilization any sensible person would have to stock up on whatever knowledge they could, since no libraries or monasteries of learned men were on hand to consult with. And sure enough, the Mark of Eternity was there.

Two of the books had a simple rectangle flanked by twin triangles on its spine. Below that was the feathered triangle of the Avaloni coat of arms. With a sinking feeling Hernando reached out and took one of the books, flipping quickly through the first few pages. Then he slammed it closed and held it under Janice’s nose. “Do you know what this is?”

Her aura of satisfaction quickly wilted under his stare. “I… it looked like a book with the symbols on it?”

“It is a History of the Forever Wars.” He cuffed her on the ear. “The worthless lies you Avaloni tell about your so-called First King. That’s all. I know Avalon is full of pathetic minds and empty lies, and Columbia can’t hope to be any better than its founders, but I would think you could at least recognize your own childish fairy tales.”

“Ain’t like I learned reading, Hernando,” she muttered, cradling the side of her face. “I heard about Arthur fighting Eternity from the Hearth Keepers but I didn’t know that symbol had anything to do with it.”

He ignored her excuses and threw the book over on the bed, skimming over the other titles on the bookshelf. Nothing really stood out to him. Most of it was simple Hearth Keeper texts, like the History, basic veterinary texts or penny dreadfuls. Exactly the subjects he’d expect from books on a cattle ranch, just more of them than he’d expected. “Pay more attention in the future, Janice. The popular conception of the Mark is different from what I showed you. The triangles lay flat against the center, they don’t stand apart from it like fangs.” He’d explained that the firs time but to his complete lack of surprise she’d forgotten. “I shouldn’t be surprised. Why would a place like this have anything bearing the symbols of the Army of Eternity?”

“Well if you didn’t think it would be here, why did you tell me to look?”

Hernando gritted his teeth. “Because it’s important to be open to possibilities.”

“Well, if you’ll be taking in someone who can learn me my letters, I can tell the difference in the future.” She straightened up and pulled her hand away from her ear. “Speaking of which-”

“No, Janice, you may not take one for yourself.” He jangled the bag of loose coins they’d found in the ranch thoughtfully. “Unfortunately the paymaster didn’t keep many large coins in the paybox. The problem of working for a tightfisted owner. We have enough gold to change one or perhaps two more, the rest is silver.”

Janice’s hands slipped up to massage his shoulders as she whispered in his ear. “If we do things my way we can get two for certain.”

Hernando sighed, knowing the best way to get her to be quiet about her idea was to hear it out. “Who do you have in mind?”

“The boy. He’s small, he’ll cost you a lot less than an adult. Add him to the woman you’re working on and there you go – you’ll have two! He can grow the investment easily, like Danica. And just think, then we’ll have a boy and a girl!”

That was the kind of reasoning he’d come to expect from Janice but he didn’t see any value in it. He was already coming to regret letting himself get talked into changing Danica, who was proving a lot less useful than he’d originally hoped. “I will consider it. In the mean time, you may take him for your meal. Do as you like with him, just remember to clean yourself out when you’re done. We’ll need to gather in the remaining ranch hands and add them to my reserves before the day is out.”

“What’s the rush, darling?” She wrapped her arms around his chest. “This place is nice and we could take our time with the meat. It’s so much better when we take it fresh.”

Hernando suppressed a shudder at the notion that anyone could find the place nice. “I don’t disagree. But the escapee from the Watcher’s outpost must have reached a settlement by now and sooner or later a posse is going to come looking for us. This is the natural place to start. We need to be gone before they arrive.”

“You don’t think we can deal with them?”

“I’m not willing to risk it, not yet.” Hernando fingered the gold in his bag, turning an obol over in his fingers as considered. “If we add another four to our numbers perhaps we’ll be ready to fight off a few dozen armed men. Even then, such actions will only draw greater and greater wrath. We must move with care.”

Janice sighed. “Of course. And the boy?”

Annoyed, he pulled her arms off of him and shoved her away. “Don’t get attached to your food. I’ll decide if I change him later.”

“Fine.” She crossed her arms and sulked. “Do whatever you want.”

Hernando straightened his clothes and marched out of the house towards the barn. Only once he was across the threshold, looking through the stalls to find Long Larry, did he remember he still had to ask Charon to bring back his own meal and change her into one of them. Then there was still a half a dozen ranch hands to work their way through and the livestock itself to deal with. When the old texts he’d found in the Tetzlani archives promised him the Rite of Golden Thirst would ensure he never went hungry again he never expected the business of it to become so tedious.

He’d been careful when they ate the Storm’s Watch on the northern ridge. But at least there had been something interesting in breaking up their powerful wards and clever use of plant magics. He didn’t want to spend his life running from posses but he wouldn’t mind another challenge like that to break up the monotony.

Not that there was likely to be another man equal to the head of the Watchers in three counties. Perhaps someone could afford to hire The Strongest Man in the World to hunt him down. That was another legend that had the ring of a fairy tale to it. Over the last two decades the mercenaries of the West had grown in reputation until they overshadowed even the soldiers and gentry of the surrounding nations and Columbian firespinners were supposedly the toughest of the lot. None of them could hold a candle to the pride of Tetzlan. He looked forward to the chance to prove it.

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