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First pages

Deep in the University of Arcane Utility

Mylitta attempted to quell her excitement as she carefully poured a molten alloy into the chamber before her. Spurts of flames gouted from the opening of the mold as the mixture poured in. She felt the sweat coating her skin underneath the heavy leather apron and protective layers of cloth.

The high security experimental chamber was deep underground and built with catastrophic reactions in mind. The air was hot and stifling, and the heavy iron mask Mylitta wore to protect her face did not help in the slightest.

Nevertheless, Mylitta was aware of her discomfort but far from focused on it. She kept her attention on the stream, ensuring that she didn’t miss a drop of the pre measured alloy she was adding to her project. She concentrated inwardly as well, keeping her excitement under control as she once again performed the final stages of her project.

When she had poured the liquid metal into the mold, she replaced her tools by the crucible. She quickly but calmly made her way into a specialized chamber within the laboratory. A reinforced, bronze coated structure was recessed into the floor and offered a narrow opening for experimenters to view the room without safely. Mylitta made her way inside and watched her creation, or at least its mold, from safety as she waited for it to settle.

The white plaster mold began to vibrate slightly, rattling itself to a new angle as she watched. The tongues of flame were no longer emitting from the top of the mold, and a small gout of reddish sparks took their place briefly.

From inside the bronze bunker, Mylitta inscribed every detail on a surface of wet clay. She recorded the results of attempt 706 in small precise wedges. Her neat cuneiform forming quickly across the surface of the clay to record this stage of the experiment as she had done 18 times prior.

Mylitta removed her mask, its leather interior darkened with sweat. She knew not to anticipate any great refreshment upon doing so in this atmosphere, but was nevertheless disappointed with the level of relief this offered. She knew this was a breach of the safety protocols put in place for working with at least thirteen different materials present in her experiment, but indulged regardless in the safety of the bunker. Besides, only four of her previous attempts at this stage of the process had exploded.

She spent several tense minutes waiting for something to go wrong, as she had so many times prior to this. When nothing followed the rattle and sparks and the metals had time to fuse and set, Mylitta replaced her mask and stepped out of the chamber. Taking up a large hammer by the crucible, she made her way to the mold which held her success or failure in its core. With only the briefest hesitation, she readied the hammer over her shoulder and brought it down to break the plaster mold. With a crack and a gout of dust, it was smashed into three large pieces and a handful of small chunks.

Mylitta ran her heavily gloved fingers through the dusty shards, looking for her product. She strained her eyes for a metallic glint amongst the dust. Finding it quickly, she dropped the hammer where she stood and brought the object to her work table on the far end of the laboratory. The piece was still hot, but that would not harm the polished obsidian inlay on her desk. She turned two small valves which opened up recessed lights on the ceiling above to shine down onto the work desk. Afterward, she turned her back to her creation and began to set about tidying up the experiment chamber while she waited.

Mylitta was not expecting anything to go wrong, rather, she was certain of it. The years devoted to this project were enough to convince her of that. The funding for the project would last perhaps another handful of experiments before the university would decide to abandon it or open it back up for other artificers. After that, she supposed, it would be back to taking small projects. This commission was a grand one, the sort that either broke the minds of artificers, or made their names.

After another hour had passed, Mylitta felt the familiar surge of hope she tried so hard to quell. She returned to the desk to find the ring intact, still resting where she had placed it. She looked over her checklists and project notes, several still inscribed in wet clay, surely she had forgotten something? Surely one of the dozens of complicated elemental bonds had failed? She would have to run the ring through a series of tests before she could determine if...

 

 

It was finished, finally finished! The ring was the apex of her practice of artifice. She felt a brilliant rush of pride as she gazed on it's rippled, mirror bright, opalescent surface. Mylitta had not felt anything close to this feeling since perhaps her very first noteworthy work that earned her access to the academy's resources. This feeling was not in the least bit spoiled by having no idea what the ring was for.

Mylitta felt lighter than air and impossibly refreshed as she strode through the oppressive heat of the lab. She was careful to avoid the remaining magically reactive fields which had yet to disperse. She made a casual mental note to update this lab's quarantine level to 3 as she left and to spend plenty of time in open spaces to allow any persistent residual energies within and upon her to escape.

Reaching the far wall, Mylitta stood beside the exit of her lab. She picked up a brush and dipped it into the well of ultramarine pigment, drawing it across the mirror bright silver tablet mounted by the hatch. Mylitta's elation spilled into the wedges of her script, the strokes of the character for “finished” carried her feeling like a natural exclamation mark. The script shimmered briefly as Mylitta nearly skipped back to her desk to collect the new piece as the attendants prepared for her exit.

The ring was cold in her hands. Her skin tingled in reaction to the raw magic crammed into the shimmery gray metal, much of the energy was still coiling visibly, creating what would appear even to the most mundane of individuals like heat radiating from metal on a hot summer day. She stood before the sealed door as the recessed sconces dimmed and guttered out as they always did before the seal was broken on the lab. She pulled off her mask, beaming in the darkness, slicking back strands of hair stuck to the sweat on her face. Mylitta was so saturated with elation that she didn't even flinch at the grinding screech of metal as the lab seal was broken.

Revealed was a spherical chamber, with walls of smooth cast bronze similar to that of the bunker in the lab. The room was smoky with dozens of burning incenses meant to dampen any live magics that might escape the chamber. Fountains trickled waters rich with neutralizing minerals in several places across the surface of the bronze. Every part of this chamber was designed with the aim of containing any possible leaks of magic.

 Neith stood before Mylitta, shadowed by the light of the central brazier behind her, but Mylitta would know her friend and mentor anywhere.

“Ni!” Mylitta beamed, and the two embraced each other immediately. Mylitta jumped with excitement as they separated, not having to contain her elation for the benefit of an unfamiliar attendant. “It's finished! I did it!”.

Mylitta's former master shared her excitement, cupping her enlarged hands before her to examine the piece. Neith's hands were covered in bulbous tissue abnormalities which would likely repulse and terrify a layperson, but such deformities were an expectation of the field. Masters of enchanting were frequently forced into retirement due the difficulties and inevitable complications of working with magic and dangerous reagents. Those who truly loved their craft and were still able would become attendants for the academy they once led, doing their best to advise and protect the next generation of artificers.

Mylitta placed the ring in her cupped palms. “Oh my, this is potent! I can feel the energies communicate. Are you quite sure it's stable?”

“Oh yes, yes absolutely.” Mylitta was confident enough of that, having put it through rigorous testing. A jeweler would balk at the porous surface, the perception of brittleness, and the inconsistently mottled grays. An enchanter, however, would be awed at the mere lack of faceted gems to source the ring's power.

“Best take this from me, I can feel my hands starting to weep”. Mylitta obliged, taking the ring and placing it on a pedestal intended to hold fresh creations as attendants began their duties.

Neith re-sealed the lab, closing a large metal hatch and making a painful metal screech as she turned the wheel-lock. As she did so, Mylitta began to undress, placing every article of clothing in a basin of neutralizing solution. She climbed into a bath prepared for her, grateful for the steam which was far easier to breathe than the harsh incense. Neith approached with a delicate, ornamental ewer and some favored soaps.

“I was worried and thrilled when you first accepted this assignment”. Neith said, “Our most prestigious practitioners declared it impossible”.

“It was the biggest challenge on offer, I wanted to make something amazing, something impossible”. Mylitta replied, pulling the tray of supplies closer. It was traditional for attendants to bathe artificers as part of the Emerging procedures, all the better to detect any persisting effects that may call for immediate treatment. Neith's hands complicated that step, and if it weren't for Mylitta's request that she be permitted to attend her, Neith would probably be forced into a much lower function of the University of Arcane Utilities.

Neith smiled, absently rubbing her hands together. Mylitta didn't ask about the mutation, but imagined Neith's hands were always somewhat uncomfortable, even when they didn't weep. “Not a day goes by I don't wish I could still practice. Now my pupils are passing me up.”

Mylitta's elation flagged at the comment. Nobody looked forward to attending after the end of their career, but most had no other option. With an obvious physical deformity that prevented her from handling equipment, Neith was not allowed to hold a public or assisting position with the UAU. Emerging attendant was probably the highest position she was allowed.

Mylitta didn’t want to think about what she would have to endure without her express request to have Neith attend her emerging.

Noticing her former pupil's displeasure, Neith put on a smile. “It's part of the job kid, don't let it get you down. You've done something incredible today. I'm not sure but I think they'll have to amend the curriculum just to accommodate what you've proven possible”.

Mylitta let her smile return, gazing over at her creation.

“So what do you think it does?” She asked.

The pair rattled on about the specifications of the product, the reactivity of its ingredients, and the implications to the field of magical applications throughout the rest of the emerging process as only two experts of a field can. Both could happily agree that Mylitta had birthed something marvelous and unique, but no amount of professional speculation could reveal the ring’s purpose. Mylitta could only wait and hope that the client chose to shed light on this.

 

Armos

“While we appreciate your interest... Desi, was it?” A bald, pot-bellied man said. A plaque on the wall indicated that this was the office of E6 Burse. Burse sat behind a cedar desk in a very simple office on the poor-side of the harbor. Burse was appreciating Desi's interest dismissively, casually avoiding eye contact.

“Desi, yes.” He replied, immediately admonishing himself for sounding so meek.

“Well kid, you see that plaque?” Burse tilted his head in the direction of a plaque similar to the one that brought Desi to this office. The seal of the Malkatian Navy drew attention, with simple script below announcing “Enlist Today! Glory at Sea! Generous Sign-On Bonus!”. While Desi was not originally from here, he had learned enough of the written language to get the gist of what that arrangement of wedges was advertising.

“Yes, I mean, yes sir. They're posted in several places.”

“Well, we're downsizing. We're not at war now, and we're sending people home. Plain and simple. Good luck out there.”

This was not the news Desi was hoping for, and he hadn’t expected much good in the first place. He couldn’t take no for an answer.

“Surely there is some position I can fill? I’m willing to do whatever it takes, sir.”

Burse did not even bother to acknowledge Desi with his eyes. He was busy pouring himself a measure of dida.

“Get out of my office.” He said.

There was no mistaking that further pleading would get him nowhere.

“Thank you sir.”

Desi picked himself up and left the office. The sun bore down and there was barely a suggestion of a breeze to be felt. Down the main artery of the harbor, he could see lines of people, all hoping for a chance to work. Prefects were breaking up a fight that had broken out about a block away, most likely regarding place in line.

The port town of Armos, backbone of the Malkatian Navy, home to the imperial shipyards. For the first time since anyone could remember, the empire was not at war. In the capitol, feasts were held for rich and poor alike to celebrate the wedding of a Malkatian prince and the princess of their most recent enemies.

Here in Armos, everyone was out of a job.

Desi couldn't face coming home empty handed, not again. The work lines for the warehouses were far too daunting, so he cut his way through the damp alleys to the waterfront where wharves and what passed for commercial docks were the dominant features. The heat bore down on the old dark wood, and he adjusted to the atmosphere of rot and fish-smell.

There were fewer bleak-faced job seekers here and he became one of them. He quickened to the closest ship, a trawler offloading the morning catch, and approached a whiskered, wrinkled fellow most likely to be the captain. Ignoring the groan in his belly and his nagging anxiety, Desi gave his best presentation of a strapping, salty laborer. The captain turned coincidentally, catching sight of Desi as he prepared to speak, cutting him off before he said a word.

“Got plenty of men, lad, best of luck”. He growled.

Desi's facade slipped, completely off guard. “Oh, er, right, thanks...” He turned and head further down the docks, making what he hoped was his best impression of undaunted with his shoulders for the benefit of anyone he imagined might be looking.

Out of sight he let out a sigh, his shoulders dropped, and his gaze returned to its natural resting point in front of his feet.

He mustered his composure once again and head towards the next nearest boat, observing its crew before approaching closer. It was a broad-bellied trade ship of some kind, laborers unloading crates and barrels to be carted to the warehouses. Still out of sight, Desi did his best to look like he belonged, stripping to the waist. His lanky form lacked the cords of muscle and bronzed tone of most of those working, but he hoped he fit in a little better.

He correctly identified the master, a man still wearing all of his clothes and not making himself physically busy. He looked up from a tablet he had been examining and seemed to see right through Desi's clever disguise. “Sorry lad, I've got nothing for you”.

So the day went until sundown. The day's profit included a sunburn, sore and sweaty feet, and one hell of an appetite. He made his way back home in the gathering dark.

There would be no score, as was the case increasingly often. Desi could hardly stand to face his house. He recalled the daydream he had set out with, a pouch of silver to bring back home and a horizon to look upon. He could get over his distaste for sailing and perhaps learn to steel up to conflict, and could leave the rotting timbers of Lower Armos behind.

Ahead he could see the sagging timbers of the boarding house. Full up in a recent past with fresh immigrants to Armos, eager for silver to be made in burgeoning naval yards. Now full of mold and the unemployable.

The sun had fully set now and the wind had picked up, chilled as it rolled in over the ocean. Nights on the harbor were often as bitter cold as the days were unbearably hot. The wind cut between the buildings uninhibited, without so much as a tree to catch it.

Desi walked hesitantly toward the creaking hulk of the boarding house. Shadows cast by a lone street lantern played with the warped boards of the facade, giving the second story a vague appearance of a great maw ready to swallow him as it sagged over its support beams.

As he walked beneath the light of the street lantern, he heard a strained rasp of a whisper from behind him. A figure leaned against the worn brick of a run-down warehouse. A rough looking man in very plain and somewhat shabby clothes. Stick thin, slightly pale, with hair shorn too close to his scalp, indicating a recent run in with the authorities.

“Hey lad, come here. We wanna talk”. The man said.

Desi hesitated, quickly assessing the situation and determining he didn't like it even quicker. He began walking toward his destination, the gaping wooden maw of home seeming suddenly more inviting. He kept his gaze down and muttered a quick “no thanks” sideways, before seeing a pair of dark boots and colliding into an unexpected obstacle. Looking up, he saw a much larger man, beaming down on him with a crooked smile.

“Evening” the large man greeted, treating Desi to a cloud of bad wine breath.

Desi smiled back with an uncomfortable, twitchy sort of smile. He emitted a choppy, nervous chuckle as he met the stranger's bloodshot eyes. “Yeah,” Desi uttered, a few seconds before bolting hard in the other direction.

Desi felt a moment's hesitation before his hair shirt slipped from the grasp of the big man, followed by the thunderous pounding of his boots on the cobbles as he took off in pursuit. Desi hung a quick left, tearing off into an alleyway behind a soup shop. Puddles of waste water splashed as his burning feet carried him at breakneck speed past glistening cobble and brick walls that never saw the sun. Two cats shrieked their frustration as he plowed over a crude bin full of fish bones.

He turned at random, muddy passages unfamiliar to him. He heard no pursuit but continued until streets gave way to a shanty of tarps and scavenged materials. Desi realized he'd run further into the poor side and had arrived in the Bilge. Dodging stray beams of wood, he slipped in a slurry of mud and things best not considered and came to a halt near a crudely contained fire pit. Two hunched figures to pick up their spitted morsels and all but scurried into the dark of what passed for housing here.

On his knees, Desi gasped at the rotten air, clutching a stitch in his side. His vision cleared and he absorbed his surroundings. He cringed, wrinkling his nose and squinting to make out the chaos in the dim light. From dozens of shadows he felt the stare of eyes. Decent folk avoided this part of town, especially at night.

Talking to the thug in the alley didn't seem as scary as being here alone and exhausted in the middle of the night. Which way was home?

He rose, brushing grime from his knees and looking around furtively for pursuit. When he saw none, he tentatively head in what might have been the direction of home. The mud and chaos made it all but impossible to orient himself. He wandered uncertainty, starting at every scrap of movement, nearly losing his footing several times in the sludge. Before long he felt lost.

“Alright Fleet, don't make us chase you again.”

Desi started and whipped his head in the direction of the voice. The lanky thug from earlier was leaning against some kind of post, perhaps formerly a night lantern.

Bolting, again, was an option, but Desi weighed his options for a moment. Getting further lost at this time of night didn't appeal to him, his legs and feet throbbed at the mere notion of more running.

The thug cocked his head and ceased leaning, taking on a neutral stance. Preparing to run without advertising the fact.

“I'm serious, we hate running.”

A few heavy footsteps were heard as the musclebound thug from earlier thundered into the little clearing. He came in at more of a jogging pace than a run, and he was panting significantly. At the sight of his comrade he bent double, clutching his side.

“I... I can't find him... Anywhere.” The big guy choked out between breaths.

His partner sighed slightly, not bothering to conceal how annoyed he was. He chose to ignore him and kept his attention trained on Desi.

“Look, we just want to have a little chat. Give us a moment, someone wants to meet you.”

None of this was appealing, but the realization that these two were likely aware of where he lived combined with exhaustion made more running less appealing. Desi's throat constricted,

 every nerve seemed on edge.

“Fine” He squeaked.

 

He had regretted his last uttered syllable the moment it had crossed his lips. Desi walked between the two thugs, heading who knows where. Looking back, his whole life seemed to be a sequence of bad to worse situations ever since moving to this place. He wondered if perhaps the decision to flee the plague might have been in error, though he had trusted his father's judgment at the time.

“You don't talk much, do you? Got a name, Fleet?” The fellow leading the procession asked.

“Er, Desi” He responded after a moment's apprehension. Another little measure of those moments passed before he followed up with “How about you?”

“Nah, we’ve got no names here.”

He was taken aback for a moment before Desi started to feel stupid. Perhaps he could have used a fake name or declined to respond. A wave of anxiety lapped quietly at the shores of his mind, reminding him that if running may have been pointless before, it certainly was now. His mind tumbled with a series of possibilities, things that might happen to him at the hands of a pair of strangers.

Desi allowed himself to be led what was probably the biggest building this side of the city's wall that wasn't a warehouse of some kind, at least, largest among those left standing. A crumbling manor stood at the end of the lane they followed, atop a steep hill, peculiar among the adobe and crude wooden buildings around. There was even a yard surrounded by a low rock wall, neglected for quite some time but with signs of having been tended to in the past. The building itself was plastered brick, surrounded by crumbled facing like building dandruff. There were three stories, if a half-collapsed suggestion counted as a story. The roof had caved in a few places, and a large part of the manor had clearly been on fire. It was the sort of place that spoke to the adventurous side of people to be explored, but was never approached before better judgment intervened.

“This is it here” The leading thug said as they reached the crumbling wall. They made their way through the archway and began crossing the yard. No lights were immediately visible from the outside, but Desi imagined that he caught sight of a figure in one of the blackened windows for a moment. They passed beneath flaking square pillars on the way to where the door was. It looked like there had been bas-reliefs in the plaster that were heavily vandalized.

The crumbled door led into a hall that seemed large, but few details were discernible in the darkness. Beams of moonlight streamed in through windows to reveal debris to be avoided scattered about the floor. The floor itself was a pitted mess of what may have once been a tile mosaic. The party moved past a large staircase, and the first signs of habitation became visible. Down a hallway, light streamed out from doorways. Warm light mingled with cool light as the hall opened to the left into a tarbasu, which the party entered and stopped. A tarbasu was a kind of atrium or courtyard, often found between a series of dwellings, a street square, or in this case as a centerpiece of a manor.

This area had been picked up fairly well. Dead flowers and living weeds inhabited the earth in a neat pattern of flower beds. Small benches were spaced at regular intervals, only two of which were broken. Centered before a wall on the far end was a woman dressed well above her present surroundings lounging as if she were a lady of leisure on a couch in the finest hall. Her seat was a throne of sorts, made of scavenged marble, diorite, and even pieces of statuary all pieced together crudely. She smiled as she saw their approach.

“Oh good, you brought me some company. I was getting rather bored.” She mused.

“We're sorry Mistress, we had to catch him.” Lanky replied, his composure flagged at the woman's comment.

“Oh no, don't tell me you frightened the poor boy?”

“That was Ox, Mistress, we'd never let you down like tha-”

Ox interrupted. “But Jack, you said to...”

“I didn't tell you to scare him now did I?” Came Jack’s defensive reply.

The woman referred to as “Mistress” quickly grew impatient at this blame exchange and snapped her fingers. The loud crack echoed painfully across the tarbasu and seemed to come from all sides at once to command full and immediate silence. When Desi looked, she was sitting bolt upright with her finger pointed towards the exit at the far end.

“I've heard enough, leave us”. She commanded with a tone of iron.

Ox and Jackal both skulked off towards the indicated exit like siblings chastised by a mother and sent to their room. Desi thought he may have heard them start to bicker as they reached the exit. Were he not busy being afraid right now, he may even be amused.

What could this woman possibly want, he wondered. It's not as if creepy women sitting in ruined manors collect people down on their luck and hand out cash.

“Alright boy, approach.” She said, melting from her display of authority back into an indulgent and leisurely position. She wore a faraway smile and scarcely looked at Desi as she spoke. Closer, Desi could get a better look at her. She dressed in black with an expensive but intentionally modest bodice and skirts of linen. Her eyes were obscured with a veil of some sort. Was she wearing mourning clothes?

Desi stood there awkwardly, looking up at her without speaking, as he had no idea what to say. The mistress reached out and took a hitherto unnoticed crystal cup full of amber liquid and took a delicate sip. She sighed in apparent enjoyment and replaced the crystal in the hand of a re-appropriated statue.

“I've had my eyes watching you, mouse. It's my duty to know and watch over my little community. I would like to give you something for the care of your mother.” She stated, following up with another leisurely sip from her crystal.

Dumbfounded, Desi simply stood for a moment with his jaw slack before regaining his composure. His mind became a static of apprehension, and he had no way to respond to this unprecedented situation. Hope and suspicion fought for dominance inside his head, and he simply stood paralyzed before her. He couldn't be offended at being called “mouse”, as this was how he felt. Like a mouse caught between the paws of a sadistic cat.

“Is there something wrong my dear?” She questioned. She leaned forward, producing a small purse, the distinct clink of silver shekels heard as she did so.

“I, er, I don't understand. Why would you help me?” Desi forced out. It was almost painful, speaking, he barely breathed for the crushing apprehension he felt. This wasn't something that happened, it must be some sort of perverse dream.

“I know you don't understand. You are young and not used to our ways. I wish to give you what you've been trying to accomplish for yourself, support for your household.” She paused, finishing her drink, letting out a sharp whistle. An attendant appeared in moments from behind the throne, shadowed by the angle of the light. Something was wrong about the outline and the way that it moved. A decanter appeared in shaking hands, filling up the crystal as the throne's arm held it out. “Thank you dear” the Mistress said as she took up the glass without looking and enjoyed another sip.

“I am lady of this manor, and of this, Lower Armos.” She said coolly. She paused, staring dead into Desi's eyes through her veil, as if daring him to disagree. When he continued to stand stricken dumb, she continued. “I naturally want to support my community and look out for the needs of my citizens, foreign or otherwise.”

“What do you want from me?” Desi asked, beginning to find his voice. The whole situation felt odd to him. He was young and not of a class for politics, but it seemed utterly mad that this woman would be ruling here, from this shell.

“I will be in touch, I may perhaps call on you in the future with an opportunity to give back to your community. You well know that employment is hard to come by, Mouse. I offer you a unique opportunity to meet your needs while helping those around you.” She explained in a cooing, motherly tone.

“I'm sorry, I don't know, I-” Desi began.

“Shh, hush now. I see you are suspicious. Very well. I will give you some time to consider my offer and in the meantime I shall prove to you my generosity.” She said, smiling and pleased with herself. She turned to the side, and to Desi's surprise a figure stood beside her, seemingly having appeared out of nowhere in anticipation of her needs. She spoke softly into his ear, and he disappeared back into shadow.

“It is very late now, it's time for me to manage the affairs of my house and family. Jackal will see you out, since you two have met. Please don't be offended by his manners, poor as they are.” She waved Desi away, and he turned while choking on his conflicting feelings. He felt dizzy and panicked, and wanted nothing more than to return to a safe and quiet place to be alone with his dreams. He made his way across the staggered, mossy flagstones towards the exit she gestured toward, the one he had entered through on the left, not the one for the chastised pair of thugs. Neither of them seemed very threatening any longer, but Desi did not look forward to the awkward walk home with Jackal.

As he reached the archway into the moonlit hallway, he jumped as Jackal emerged from the darkness beside him. “Let's go.” He grunted.

“Alright”. He responded.

One of the rooms further down the hall in the opposite direction opened up, and two girls stepped out. They couldn't be more than 8 or 9. Between them they held a sack and they brought it forward, stopping before Desi. They didn't speak, but held out the bag for Desi to take, scurrying off as he did so. Within were two skins of dida, an assortment of small stone fruits, a small wheel of hard cheese, and leeks for soup. A whiff of leek and sight of the collection set Desi's stomach reeling with hunger pangs. This was more food than he'd seen at once in weeks. He teared up.

“Thank you!” He called out after the girls, and to anyone who was listening for that matter.

“Yeah, yeah, come on. Let's get you home.” Jackal said.

Desi still felt remotely uncomfortable as he always did around others, but he was elated at the sight of the food. It was all he could do to keep from reaching into the bag for an apricot to nibble on before reaching home. He restrained himself in order to show his mother the full bounty of the day. He found himself actually feeling grateful towards Jackal, as the two of them were less likely to be targeted by anyone else who might be hungry tonight.

As they made their way past a tinderbox of abandoned buildings, Desi clutched the sack close to his chest as if afraid someone might appear alongside him and snatch it. The pair had a long way to walk, but at least the streets were more brick and cobblestone than mud in these parts.

“So, where are you from?” Jackal asked.

Desi was too preoccupied on the prospect of a meal to even consider telling a lie. He almost entirely forgot the admonishment he received upon sharing personal information earlier.

“Bastul, across the sea.” Desi thought about when he had come to Armos, it seemed like a lifetime ago. “A long time ago.” The memory of his homeland brought him visions of hot paella and he clutched his bounty tighter.

“Just you and your mother?”

“No.” Desi responded. “Father too. We ran from the plague. Came for work in the factory.”

Desi recognised his surroundings. The ruins of it were down a few streets to the right. It was the closest thing his father had to a grave.

“That place took more than the block with it when it went.” Jackal commented. Desi couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps he had also lost someone in the catastrophe.

“Do you miss it? Bastul?” Jackal asked.

“It was different, but I was small.” Desi responded.

In truth he ached for his homeland when he was alone. He missed his grandparents and cousins and the rest of his family. He longed for the culture he could remember and understand, but knew that there was no way to go back and most likely nothing to go back to.

“At least you have your mother, and a roof. Keep looking out for each other.” Jackal offered.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Howdy howdy. I like black coffee and green olives, though not necessarily together. This is my first book. I'm a busy guy. I work an average of 100 hours a week helping the intellectually disabled. As of writing this, I began some early work on my practicum yesterday, trying to get a BA in social work and move into supporting families. I'm making feverish progress on all the dreams I had no chance to pursue earlier in my life. One of those dreams is being a writer.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
I drew from a mixed bag when I started writing. There were feelings I wanted to explore from my own life from a variety of viewpoints. This seemed appropriate in a setting blended from civilizations both ancient and contemporary.
Q. What books are you reading now?
A.
I recently read Finding Fish as part of my social work curriculum. After finishing that I've been focusing on reading more fantasy work. If ever I'm waiting on something while I'm away from home, you can find me with my nose in a piece of my Terry Pratchett collection.
Q. What was the hardest part of writing this book?
A.
The hardest part of writing this has definitely been the resource management. Every productive sprint is preceded by at least three interrupted by work, reference checks, or self doubt. Keeping an ample stockpile of motivation deserves an honorable mention as well.

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