The Hottest Day of the Year

It started innocuously enough, if anything can be innocuous when the empire of Krygon is involved…

SPARROW was a young Yeni farmer, who believed in the Mogul of Krygon with all her heart. NEDDRYN ZAUTH was an old captain of a now-defunct order, with a mysterious and checkered past. Together they must uncover the schemes of the Shadow and the threat it poses all peoples of Talmenor.

By A. Broadhead


The horse's hooves clapped through the mud. The plains around Freeport normally didn't get much in the way of rain, and its steady pattering on the roof had kept Sparrow Swift awake through the night. It would be almost moon-set now, though the last blue Sphere would be hidden behind the clouds. She wondered who would be galloping around at this time of night in the dark and muck, without even the moons to guide him.

At the sounds of the horseman steadily approaching their farmhouse, Sparrow heard her father get up out of his chair by the fire, the old wood of chair and floorboards alike creaking as he made his way cautiously towards the front window. Then his footsteps circled back again to pause by the hearth, and with a faint clatter, he took the old beaten sword off its hooks over the mantlepiece.

Sparrow's heart leapt into her throat, but she knew her father would be angry if he knew she was awake. So she stayed where she was, in bed, and began hoping the horseman was nothing more than the next farmer over needing help with a calf coming before it was due. Or perhaps the rider would pass them in the rain? There were a lot of newcomers in Freeport because of the war, and not all the travelers out this way cared about or even saw the Swifts' little farm, tucked in a cottonwood grove between the river and the fields...

But no. The horse gave a flurry of beats just outside as its rider sawed too hard on the reins and the beast flailed to keep from tumbling over before it could come to a complete stop. There was another loud splatter as the rider dismounted, then squelched its way towards their door.

Sparrow heard her father quietly unlatch the lock and imagined him raising his sword, ready to bring it down on the head of the intruder as soon as they pushed their way inside —

"Swift! Swift! It's over!"

The door swung open, and the sound of rain became even louder. Sparrow wasn't sure who had moved first. No one cried out. For a moment, the little girl had the eerie feeling the two had both disappeared into the night, but then the rider spoke, pitched so she could just hear him over the rain...

"It's over. The Mogul won. Freeport is part of Krygon now."

Father hissed. "Those murdering bastards."

"We think the northern border will stay open a while longer. Will you come with us? It might be our only chance before he sends out his patrols."

"No. By the gods, I have a family now and this farm I worked so hard to build. I couldn't uproot them, even for the sake of a greedy warlord..."

There was another long pause, but Sparrow found her breath coming easier now she knew the two men wouldn't try and kill each other. She recognized the rider’s voice: one of the priests from the nearby city of Freeport. He and Father had been friends for years, before she had even been born.

"You'd better get out of here before they come for you," continued Father at last. "Or learn well which gods the Mogul still sanctions, if you don't want to find yourself tried for heresy."

The priest spat, and Sparrow couldn't help jumping at the rude gesture from a holy man. "Learn yourself," he advised sharply.

Another long silence followed — or silent as it could be, with the rain — and perhaps they still talked under it, out of Sparrow's earshot.

Then, finally, the door closed. Her father walked back across the floor, being less careful to keep quiet now, and rehung his sword over the mantlepiece. Sparrow chanced a glance over, to see if the rider had come inside to stay the night. Instead only her father looked back at her.

"Sparrow?" He sounded incredulous. "Why are you not asleep?"

"The rain kept me up," she replied, which was partly true.

"The rain is only Jarilon's way of showing His love for us," Father answered, as if she were still a young child. As if! She was almost seven years old now, after all.

She grimaced but, hopeful that the change of subject meant he wouldn't scold her for eavesdropping, went on to remark, "Jarilon has a funny way of showing His love, then, doesn't He?"

"Without the gods, the crops wouldn't grow and the sun wouldn't rise," Father answered, but a flicker of a frown crossed his lined face. He ran his hand through his curly hair, which had gone gray at the temples. Sparrow liked to tease him that the color made him look like a sheep, but Father didn't look like he'd appreciate the joke today.

Sparrow licked her lips. "Daddy, what's wrong? What did that man want?"

He paused. "A great change has come to our lives, Sparrow."

"The Mogul?" Sparrow asked, recalling the priest's news.


"Is he really as mean as all the stories say?"

"Never mind." Her father cut her off gruffly. "So long as the taxes are paid, he has no reason to interfere with the doings of honest farmers. Now, that will be the end of it. You should be asleep, child."

The promised lecture loomed. Sparrow sighed. "Well, there's one thing that won't ever change, Daddy."

"What's that?"

"You and your grumpy-facing!"

It got a smile out of him, and he came over to tickle her until she squealed and he quickly hushed her, so as not to wake her siblings. She always thought that was unfair, that he'd rile her up and then command her to calm down — but that was fathers for you, wasn't it? With her blanket newly snuggled up under her chin, she watched him move back to the fire in the adjoining room, his brown weather-beaten face still crinkled with warmth.

If she had known that smile would be the last one she would see from him in years, she would have treasured it more.

Only a handful of miles away, the pennants of the independent city-state of Freeport were struck down from around the proud harbor that gave the city its name, falling in tatters from what was left of the city walls after the long siege. In their place, banners depicting the Mogul's armored visage rose up, scowling from behind the mask of his spiked helm, as if examining the latest addition to his Krygon empire and finding it wanting. Citizens huddled in their homes as the Division stamped up and down the streets, some on foot, some astride warhorses, and some guiding the oxen who pulled the heavy siege engines. Behind those came the ranks of the footmen, tall pikes and shields in perfect order, with each timed thump of the foot echoing between the tall buildings, seeming to make the ground shake.

It was more display of power than practical; the heavy rain fouled the wheels of the wagons and turned ornamental feathers or crests into sodden messes. Still, the citizens of Freeport peeked fearfully out from their windows and marked it well.

Even the akor'mari — elfin, lithe, gray-skinned dwellers of the sprawling underground Reaches — came out of their burrows to witness it. For the most part the humans ignored them; akor'mari were strange and had a reputation for being untrustworthy and cruel. Yet not a few of the humans looked at them and wondered which they'd rather have closer at hand today: the akor'mari, or the Mogul's Division.

The akor'mari seemed to wonder as well.

"So they lost the battle at the walls," said Neddryn, baring his teeth mockingly at one of the blocks of soldiers that passed them. The soldiers were too disciplined to even glance his way, though their commander, coming up behind them on a horse that towered over Neddryn, scowled and shook his lance warningly until Neddryn backed away.

"Don't antagonize 'em," hissed the other akor'mar, standing at Neddryn’s shoulder and watching the endless lines of soldiers himself.

"Why not? Since when do the human wars concern us?"

"You ever noticed who rules our home-away-from-home here?” the other replied sarcastically. “ ‘Sides, our big brother's got plans for them, and you know how he gets about those.”

"Not thinkin' of joinin' 'em, is he?" Neddryn let out a raucous laugh. "Akor'mari! On horses and in plate armor like these buffons? Now that would be a laugh!"

The other shrugged. "Maybe. Times're changin' fast, Neddy."

"Hmph," grunted Neddryn, turning back to watch the column as it continued up towards the old keep. “They ain’t just gonna leave us alone like the old guard did, are they?”

“ ‘specially not with you gettin’ up to yer tricks. No more nekru squawling on the rooftops at night, alright? I doubt they’d think twice about fillin’ ya full with arrows instead of just a rotten melon or two.”

Neddryn glanced back at his brother and cracked a wide grin. “Oh, don’t worry so much! I doubt they climb as well as we can.”

“Just be careful,” the other akor’mar grumbled.

After a few more minutes of watching, the pair turned away from the road and slunk off into the shadows. The long lines of Krygon soldiers continued their march at their backs, heedless.

"Strength in unity; unity in the Mogul! Rise now, and accept your burden, soldier."

The voice echoed through the old halls. Hale, now officially Commander Hale, came to her feet, snapping to stand at attention. The old man facing her seemed like he'd have to crack his bent-over spine in half to be able to do the same, but somehow he managed it. Hale tried not to shudder as his claw-like fingers dabbed the traditional red warpaint on her face, a holdover from the ancient ways of the Krygon people in the southern jungles. She turned to face the audience behind her once he was done, putting a snarl like a tiger’s across her face — as was also tradition — then beginning the thump of her fist on her blackiron breastplate.

The many Krygon soldiers in the captured keep's great hall returned the same drumming salute, with not quite the same rhythm as hers, and the thud of metal and flesh rebounded against the stone walls in a cacophony. Hale — Commander Hale now, she had to remind herself — felt her chest swell in pride as she looked at them. Many were wounded, some still with arms in slings or bloody cloths wrapping their heads instead of their uniform helmets, but they had been victorious. And now, on the completed conquest of the Freeport city-state and a new opening in the Division's chain of command, they were also hers.

As the noise of the salute subsided and the soldiers began to disperse, Commander Hale turned back to speak with the people standing behind her on the dais. They looked up at her from under a variety of hoods and ceremonial headdresses: the magi and priests of the Mogul’s Favored.

"I have plans for bringing this city to heel,” she told them. “Our first order of business should be to find replacements for some of the key governmental positions in the city. An army can’t run on no supplies, and a city like this one can’t supply essentials without leadership loyal to the Mogul.”

"The Freeport aristocracy won't like that," warned one of them. Commander Hale had to master herself so as not to stare at the deep scars on the man’s face, evidence of the worship of some dark god or another that the Mogul favored. Yes, favored only, for the Mogul considered himself above even the gods. Commander Hale's lips creased into a smirk. It was one of the reasons she liked the warlord.

"They don't have to like it, do they?" she said, subtly layering threat into the tone of her voice. It was enough to make many lower ranked soldiers shudder or promptly find some order to attend to, but the Mogul's Favored were used to that treatment from the Mogul himself, and so they weren't as fazed.

"If you will have my advice, you will first see to the cleansing of the city's temples," said another of the priests, her face scarred similarly to the first. Hale scowled as the others nodded and murmured their agreement. She could see right through the Favored’s posturing and knew that the priestess’ advice was more order than friendly counsel, and she ground her teeth in frustration.

"Very well," she said. "I will see that no trace remains of the goddesses Lunaria or Mamea, or even of that northerner religion, Shen-Bahan, while I rule here in Freeport. You have my loyalty and oath; the Mogul's eyes are upon me."

"Good, but do not forget Carro," the first priest hissed. "The city is full of His worshippers, and their zeal for Carrock virtue pose the most threat to us and the Mogul's designs."

Commander Hale bit back a sigh and forced herself to nod in agreement instead. She severely doubted any terrified priests of a false god could threaten the Mogul, but appearances had to be kept up. "I won't forget Carro, twice-cursed His name. His tenets will become as outdated as their laws. Stop your worrying, Brother. The Division can handle it." How strong could Carro be anyway, she added privately, to let His most precious city fall to His sworn enemies?

The hall was nearly cleared behind her now. Commander Hale saluted the Favored and bid them courteous, but pointed, goodbyes. Her work would not rest just because of the traditional frippery associated with the Commander title, after all.

She called for her aide and then passed from the great hall to begin sussing out the rest of the old keep, earmarking certain rooms for barracks, offices, and armories. Already her soldiers were hard at work defacing any sign of the old Freeport culture and making the place wholly Krygon. The aide watched their progress uneasily, then came to attention when Commander Hale clucked to her.

"I have a mind to change more than just the decorations around here," Hale told her. "What do you think of recruiting from the farmers and local akor'mari for more conscripts?"

It was a risky move, politically and militaristically, and she wondered what the aide would make of it. Farmers would need training before they could become passable soldiers, and Hale would have her work cut out for her. Still, if she could draft a member of each family into the army, their kin would be that less interested in a rebellion, in case they spill the blood of their sons – or vice versa.

As for the akor'mari, no one really knew what the almost-human creatures were capable of. She knew her Krygon histories vaguely — it wasn't her homeland — that the Mogul's first conquests had been of the akor'mari holdings in the far south, decades ago, and that he held them in high esteem now as allies. Yet the akor'mari still rarely had anything to do with the Krygon empire beyond lip service, keeping to their burrows and the alleys of the Mogul’s proud cities, scheming amongst themselves. It was almost as if they were afraid of the Mogul...or disdainful.

Hale hated parasites of the Mogul's governance as much as she hated sycophants to his favor, and so she disliked the akor'mari, but she had to admit their secretive ways also intrigued her.

"If you think it wise," her aide said carefully in reply, returning Hale’s attention to the present. Hale turned to scowl at her. The aide was one such sycophant herself. Hale was certain the small woman, with almost Sheyn-pale skin, had been assigned to spy on her by one Mogul's Favored or another. Political plots and the bumping off of rivals was common both in the Division and out of it, but that didn't mean Hale had to like it.

She tilted her head. Or perhaps even put up with it, now. The Favored would soon be returning south to the city of His now that they had witnessed the capturing of Freeport. The conquered city-state was well on its way to becoming completely hers, without any politicians to get in her way— if she played her cards right.

"One of the first things I will have to do is find a new aide, I believe," Commander Hale said slyly, adopting a thoughtful tone. "There is much work to do in Freeport, and I will need someone suited to the task. See, if there's one thing I can't abide in a servant it' Well. Can you imagine what it is?" She grinned — upper teeth bared in a half-snarl — at the aide.

The aide paled, her skin going as white as a bleached bone. Such an odd trait of those with northern ancestry, but today, that quirk was useful, telling Hale all she needed to know of the woman’s fortitude.

"I-I assure you, m-miss, I am loyal only to you…"

“Is that so?” Hale asked her. Privately, she wondered. Had this woman had to scrape a living on the decks of a grimy fishing boat as Hale once had? Only given a chance after the Mogul had come in and forcefully reordered her clan to his liking? Only the brutal survived in the Division; Hale knew that, and had taken advantage of it then. When the Mogul had marched on her people for an attempted rebellion, she saw to it she stood on top of the pile of corpses, still smoldering in the first barrage of the Division’s mage’s fire, and demanded a place in his retinue despite the debris still falling around her.

The horned, armored figure had towered over her, still just a bare slip of a girl, her skin shining with sweat under the hot sun and the patches of ash that had turned its deep brown gleam to gray. Yet he had seemed impressed by her determination, had taken her up on her offer. She had been sure to feed him the scalps of many more successful Division raids to remind him of that ambition over the years. It had earned her the position she had now.

Yet there were some among the Krygons who believed the violence and uprooting of the conquered unnecessary, who would grovel before the boots of whoever promised a return to the old, stratified ways of their former kings or queens before the Empire had extended its hand. Too often, those were the people who became traitors, fleeing to the country of Tarith, Krygon's sworn enemy.

Hale wondered all this as she watched the aide stutter and bow. Perhaps this woman was more than just a needle in her side, courtesy of the Mogul's Favored’s bureaucrats, and was entertaining traitorous thoughts even now...

Or, perhaps, she was only an incompetent aide. Regardless, Hale knew she could do better.

"Dismissed," Hale told her aide succinctly. "And make it permanent," she added with just enough venom to put an urgency in the aide's step as she fled.

Hale could always delve further into the woman's background at leisure later, once she was out of Hale's hair. The Division wouldn't question an accusation of treason too heavily, no matter what the investigation turned up, and it would ascertain the aide’s swift removal. The Commander continued on her survey of the castle with a feeling of satisfaction. It was a much-needed cleaning of the nest, and she expected many more such scourings to follow.

As the aide's footsteps hurriedly pattered off behind her, Hale pushed her way into another room of the keep. This one was relatively small and contained a large window overlooking Freeport’s famous harbor, with the glass almost of fine enough quality she could see through it without any distortions. The work of a mage, or a heretical Carrock priest? Hale decided the distinction wouldn't matter; it was a very nice window. Those engravings of the false god on the walls needed to go, of course, but that would be easy enough for a work crew to take care of.

Hale came to stand before one of them. The mural of Carro stretched up to the ceiling, eyes turned outward like he was watching the goings-on in the harbor behind her. He was depicted as a male of Nulst descent, as she was — which struck her as odd, given Freeport was on the clear other side of the continent from the Isles of Nulst. Yet, as a true port town, Freeport attracted peoples and riches from all over: one of the reasons the Mogul so wanted it in his control.

Most of the carvings her Division soldiers had defaced so far were of the other common depiction of Carro, with the pale skin and chiseled nose she was used to associating with her Tarithian enemies, even though not all Tarithians were pale-skinned. In the painting before her, though, Carro had cornrows like a Krygon warrior and had a broad black Nulst jaw, although the cut of his suit of plate armor was hard to place. A more ancient style, or perhaps the artist was merely trying to be more encompassing to all cultures, as Freeport itself had been…?

Hale stopped herself as she noticed her hand reaching towards the blasphemous artwork, and swiftly snatched it back. She cared nothing for gods, and now that she was in a position of power, the rest of the Division would be quick to fall upon any evidence that she was less than completely perfect for the role. The artwork had to go. If not, she would be better off riding for the country of Tarith than sticking around in Krygon waiting for her own execution order.

Carefully putting that unpleasant thought away, she swung on her heel and almost ran into the man standing behind her, poised just inside the shadows as if he were one of them.

"Who in all the infinite Spheres are you?" Commander Hale barked fiercely, to cover her surprise.

The man saluted, fist to chest, but there was something odd about it. It took her a moment to realize he was using the wrong hand, and that he thumped his chest with the side of his fist instead of his knuckles. Not from the Division, was he?

"That's better," said Commander Hale grudgingly, "but still not good enough. What gives you the right to accost the Commander in her own office without so much as a hail or a knock?"

With arrogance matching that of the Favored, the man went right along with his business without addressing her question. "I am here to debrief you of the threat posed by the Shadow," he said, “for it is something I have watched long in this city, under the Mogul’s orders.” His voice was strong and even, rather than the hissing whisper Hale had come to expect from the Favored and their priests.

"Gods, more gods, is it?" she groaned. That might explain his arrogance. Perhaps the Favored didn’t think their advice was enough and had to send a solicitor up to her, too.

"Not exactly," he replied. "It would take much of the night to explain Their mysteries, after all."

"As fitting for the Shadow, I suppose," growled Commander Hale. Did she detect mockery in his voice? "Or perhaps this is just your foolish idea of a proposition, little man?"

Though the Division was open to any woman who could prove herself, most of the ranks were held by males. Hale had learned long ago she could sometimes use this to her advantage. The honorable would lose their balance and the lecherous would show their hand when pushed by such a suggestion, and then Hale would have them right where she wanted.

However, to his credit, this man only kept a stiff silence instead of sinking to answering the insult. His calm gravity suddenly struck her as markedly different from the anxious wheedling of the other Krygon priests she had met, and Commander Hale became intrigued.

She was determined not to show it, still. "Oh, very well," she growled. "You may speak, but don't take long. I have a position of aide to fill, and that will also take all night, if I know the kind of applicants I normally get for the job."

"A new aide?" asked the man. "What happened to the old one?"

"Nothing. ...nothing yet." Her tone held a threat for the man, too.

"Choose wisely," he said softly, indifferent to it.

"Are you here to advise me in the choosing of aides now, too, little man?"

"No," said the man honestly, "only that there is a precedent, you might say. Or a prophecy. Indeed, that is part of my report. The 21st Division needs the position of Captain to be filled, to keep the powers of the Shadow at bay."

Great. More mystical nonsense. "So go take the most likely looking officer and promote him," said Commander Hale impatiently. "Other Divisions under the Mogul are not my problem, little man."

The man regarded her, and Commander Hale prickled under the sardonic gaze. Then he sighed.

"No, I see you're not the one," he said.

"Excuse me?"

"...and I realize I forgot to introduce myself. Captain Cambar Shamlan, of the 21st Division." The name was a La'aln one, from the peoples of the eastern deserts, as was the brown hand he extended to shake her dark one.

Hale squinted at the man. "A captain, is it? I thought you said that was the position that needed filling. Or is this the Mogul's new idea of peak efficiency among the ranks? Instant self-promotions?"

"Though you will go far in your own way, I suppose," murmured Shamlan, as if completing a private thought.

That irritated Commander Hale, too. "Talk straight or not at all to your superior, Captain."

"That tone won't work on me," he said serenely.

"Excuse me?"

Shamlan shook his head, as if to diffuse the argument. “Straight speech it is, then. I'm looking for the one who will take on my position after I am gone, Commander. Seri-Jon — or Sirillon to your Mogul's pantheon — told me I could find him or her here."

"Seri-Jon told you? So not only do the Favored want me to clean out the false gods of Old Freeport, now here you are telling me you had a conversation with one."

"Do not," said Shamlan sharply, "confuse my god with those of the weak Tarithians. Sirillon is a god known to the Mogul, and to his 21st. And He takes very poorly to being ridiculed, in either of His aspects!"

Commander Hale bit back a groan. Favored or not, all priests were the same. Though she had only vaguely heard of this one's god of Sirillon — or Seri-Jon or whatever he wanted to call it — she was seeing that diplomacy would serve her better than threat with this unusual man, as much as she still wanted to knock his head from his shoulders. "Very well, Captain. I will give you authorization to search among my soldiers for a suitable replacement for your position. 'Ware you, we are in active recruitment. There will be a lot of names to trawl through, some among the akor'mari of this city." Maybe that would discourage him; akor'mari weren’t known to be fond of the human pantheons.

"I'm certain I can find someone suitable, thank you," Shamlan replied pleasantly. "Commander," he then added, like an afterthought, again making his strange sideways salute.

"Captain," Commander Hale acknowledged with a growl. She was not used to a lower rank taking a dismissal before she gave it, and she didn't like it at all. She didn’t salute him back.

"I will be in contact with you over the next few years," Shamlan told her over his shoulder as he made for the door. "This is especially true if my candidate requires basic training."

"Only the Mogul's best," replied Commander Hale, still annoyed. "Captain. You are dismissed."

"Permission granted," said Shamlan coyly, and before she could reach for him to beat a bit of respect into him, the man was gone, so completely she couldn't even see his outline in the gloom.

For a man following the god of the sun and stars, he sure had a way with shadows, Hale thought. Or the Shadow? Commander Hale shook her head, and made a mental note to tell her aide to get a full report out of the man later.

Then she sighed. A full report, once she chose a new aide, of course.


Halt! This is restricted content, citizen. Have you logged in?castle window


Wings of Wax, Tongues of Topaz

In all the corners of the earth, different spells have different names. The spell we call hideous laughter is called lunatic’s laugh in Avaliet; the spell we call vicious mockery is called Tatech’s bite in Krygon. But to this day, in both La’al Sha’ahr and the Princess’ kingdom, they call the fly spell by another name…

Wings of Wax, Tongues of Topaz

By Malcolm Schmitz

Malcolm Schmitz is an autistic author who writes about queer people, eldritch angels, nebbish unicorns, and lace-making orcs. His fiction has been published in Crossed Genres, Fusion Fragment, and Sword and Sorcery Magazine; his short story “The Captain’s Sphere” made the Long List for the 2015 Otherwise Award.

Translator’s Note: This story comes to us from La’al Sha’ahr, the Singing City, and is a variation of a tale that’s been told for several hundred years. In the very earliest tellings, it was the tale of an akor’mar mage and her human slave; the more modern variant below is the one most commonly heard today.

Like many such fables, this is meant to be a morality tale; the lessons conveyed are traditional for the time and place. Intellectual curiosity, honoring challenges, the value of a good idea regardless of the source, and forbearance for those of both high and low station: all are virtues any La’aln mage would strive to possess.

This is a story about a rukh-sham, but it is not a rukh-sham story. For that, I’d recommend Cartier et. al, “The One Who Flew Away”, or the bard Chrysoberyl’s stinging retelling, “Wax Wings Melt”.

In the Singing City, when lions learned to dance (1), there once lived a woman called Wnissa. Wnissa was as clever as she was proud, and as proud as she was cautious.

Wnissa lived in a tower as tall as a hill, so tall that she could see the plains and savannas for miles around. She knew the secrets of the stars, the secrets of the sea, and even the true names of the mountain khurarl. She knew all the secrets of transmutation, and some arts from every other school of magic. She was so wise that she’d crafted a rukh-sham from pure topaz and not the ragged stone that most rukh-shami are made of; she named it Sabah (2), because its body was the color of light in the morning. Yet with all her knowledge and all her wisdom, she almost never left the tower; few had ever seen her face.

One day, a young princess-errant (3) came to visit Wnissa from a far-away land. She stood at the foot of her tower, and shouted up to her.

“Build me a pair of wings,” the princess-errant told her. “I wish to fly.”

“I will not,” Wnissa said.

“They say you’re the wisest woman in the world,” the princess-errant said. “If you can’t build a pair of wings, who can?”

“No one,” Wnissa said. “Any man who built a pair of wings came to great grief.”

“I need a pair of wings,” the princess-errant said, “and if you won’t give them to me, I will find someone who will.”

“Very well,” Wnissa said. “I wish you good fortune.” (4)

The princess-errant went on her way, and Wnissa went back to her books. For three days, she was still and silent, at her studies.

On the third day, the princess-errant returned, wearing a sharp smile. “Lady Wnissa,” she said. “I have found a man who will build me wings.”

Wnissa set her book down and came to the tower window. Her dark eyes narrowed. She gazed down at the princess’ earnest face.

“Have you?” she said.

“Yes. His name is Harilden. He knows a ‘mar secret from deep beneath the ground,” the princess-errant said. “He can turn feathers into wings with wax and a spell lost to mankind.”

“Those wings will never take you an inch off the ground,” Wnissa said. “There is no secret of flight.”

“He says they will,” the princess-errant said and smiled her sharp smile again. “He says he is the wisest man in the world, and with his secret, he may do what even Wnissa cannot.”

Continue reading “Wings of Wax, Tongues of Topaz”

Flames by the Campfire

So, from all corners of Talmenor in which the tokagi resided, entourages of wise folk flocked to Makuta’Mata. Some came to finally settle old debates, others to learn, and yet others to earn fame to their name… While some, well, some just appeared to have a bit of fun.

Flames by the Campfire

By Hristijan Pavlovski

Hristijan Pavlovski is a professor of Philosophy who loves art as much as he loves wisdom. His philosophy is that no other medium can summon the full range of human emotion quite like the literary arts can, and it is his goal to explore the extent of that.

My queen,
The following was taken from a set of tokagi tablets discovered during our expedition to Little Eyelet in the Isles of Nulst. The work done to translate this was difficult, as the tokagi notably do not have a spoken language, instead relying on pictographs as well as a dialect based on scent and gesture for in-person communication. For this reason, this translation may seem a little whimsical, but the priesthood of the Nulst assure me it is accurate to the tokagi way of thinking. May it aid you in your endeavors to make an alliance with these peoples.

Magelord Tolrend Weal

Many moons ago, a summon was issued by Chief Punji-Mata to all corners of Talmenor, calling forth envoys of the wisest tokagi from their respective tribes. They were to come together and finally end the debate about their origins as a species: something that had caused them misunderstandings and quarrels for many hatching cycles. All those who deemed themselves wise and knowledgeable in such matters could attend, no matter the position they held within their tribes.

The meeting was to be held in the village of Makuta’Mata. If decisive, it would be a historic moment for the tokagi. Settling the dispute once and for all would bode well for the Chief’s reign, as well as serve as an example of his prudence and intellectual prowess.

So, from all corners of Talmenor in which the tokagi resided, entourages of wise folk flocked to Makuta’Mata. Some came to finally settle old debates, others to learn, and yet others to earn fame to their name… While some, well, some just appeared to have a bit of fun.

Continue reading “Flames by the Campfire”

Back in Axe-tion

“Hmm… It is a magic axe… Maybe it’s my ‘Cast Iron’?” crowed Granny Dun.

Granny!” Sirdrae cried in exasperation. Thalir chuckled from a few feet away as he swung at his next foe.

“See? He gets it!” Granny took a step forward and smiled…

Back in Axe-tion

By Katrina Schroeder

Katrina Schroeder is a book coach, editor, and writer. When she’s not knee-deep in words, she’s playing tabletop and video games, reading more books than she can keep up with, or is in a kayak. She can be found on Twitter as @katrinaeditorial1 or you can learn more about her on her website at

Rock and dust trickled down on Sirdrae as she chipped away at her work. The clinking of Little Folk pickaxes against stone echoed throughout the cavern around her. She paused a moment to close her eyes and let the symphony envelop her. She loved this. Nothing felt more right than when she was surrounded by the chorus of axes and stony earth. Sirdrae thought she could sometimes hear where the mineral sat in the stone, like a lone horn playing quietly and poignantly above the rest of the orchestra. She often wondered if it was her imagination, explaining away a coincidence, or if she held a little mage power herself.

She felt a nudge at her arm, and she opened her eyes to see her grandmother standing next to her.

“You gonna stand there all day, or you actually gonna get some work done, huh?” Granny Dun’s toothy smile was almost as contagious as her laughter. She began chiseling at the stone wall next to Sirdrae.

“Hey, Granny. I was just enjoying the moment.” Sirdrae swung her pickaxe at the stone in front of her. The day’s work had been slow going. She hadn’t found much of anything exciting.

“Well, I guess I’ll allow it. There’s nothing like the sound of a bunch of Little Folk grunting as they slam metal to stone, is there?” She cast a side eye to Sirdrae and followed it with a wink.

Sirdrae chuckled and shook her head. “No, nothing like it at all.” As much as she loved the sound, it still made her a little anxious. There had been rumors of demonspawn attacks further down in the Reaches, specifically on outlying mining villages. The news always came from clans much farther away though, so she felt a little safer. Only a little though: the worry still ate at her, like a hungry dog gnawing at a dry bone.

The dark metal of Granny Dun’s axe shimmered in the lamplight as she raised it to chink at the next bit of rock. Sirdrae’s heart fluttered, and she almost jumped from excitement. “Wait, that’s not steel! Is that a new axe, Granny? Made with the new metal?”

Granny Dun hefted her axe to better show it off. Now that was a sight to behold. Her massive braids of white hair piled about her shoulders, each intertwined with runic metal cuffs. One hand rested on her hip while she proudly held up the axe with the other. The sparkle on the bladed head matched the happy glint in Granny Dun’s eye.

The handle was ornately decorated with runic patterns that were beyond precise. Sirdrae knew Dolgan’s work — her husband and the clan’s mage-smith — the moment she saw it, but Granny’s new axe was impressive, even for Dolgan. The pommel had a green gem that glowed slightly. Dolgan must have added a little bit of magic to it to give the axe additional strength against chipping and breaking, Sirdrae thought. The head itself held no intricacies, but it didn’t need any in order to be beautiful. The black material had been polished and shined as though it had never been touched. She could practically see her own reflection in the black blade.

“You’re darn right! It’s waystone.”

Continue reading “Back in Axe-tion”

The Last of the Wvorgi

“Quiet!” Brodin shouted over his shoulder at the frightened men and women. He stood between them and the door to the mage tower. “He is a Wvorgi! He did not hurt Khalen, but he may be able to find him.”

“The Wvorgi are extinct!” a man shouted. “They haven’t been seen in decades.”

“They are extinct,” confirmed Brodin. “He is the last, and we need his help.”

The Last of the Wvorgi

by Brittni Smyers

This story contains some mature themes to do with human trafficking and is not suited for younger audiences.

Editor’s Note

The crooked flats of Arondzei, the Village on the Steppe, were a series of plains carved across the northern ridge of the Alt’Rhazia Range, stacked together like neat vertical zigzags. Atop each shelf were shaggy, lush grasslands, the interweaving roots of the grass as thick as handwoven rugs, dotted here and there by small, modest homes of earth and stone, their roofs near indistinguishable from their surroundings, covered as they were in the same grass-woven sod. At a distance, the town was all but invisible, which was how the villagers liked it. 

Then, one night, the window of the old mage’s tower was illuminated by a small candle. The overgrown dwelling had been empty for decades, its stone walls heavy with dirt and snaked over with vines. Creeping weeds and climbing foliage all but obscured the front of the building from view. If not for the candle in the window, the place would be all but invisible to the undiscerning eye.

Yet, the next day, the weeds and vines were cleared away. Not long after that, a new frame was set in the doorway, and a fence went up, creating a small corral for a cadre of goats. By then it was clear to the villagers that whomever had traveled to this place had intentions to stay.

Brodin, a young man from the village, elected himself spokesman to approach the dwelling. The rest of the village huddled in a group fifteen feet away or so, muttering amongst themselves as Brodin approached the building to find out whether the new arrival was friend or foe, warmonger or deserter. Striding to the door, his back ramrod straight, Brodin knocked brusquely.

“I come to discuss your intentions in this village,” Brodin said loudly, loud enough for the others watching to hear.

The door opened. The person inside could not be seen from where the villagers stood, but after Brodin spoke, the door opened a bit wider to admit him. With a brief hesitation and backward glance at those gathered behind him, Brodin ducked his head and went in.

Not ten minutes later he came out, his face as gray and heavy as autumnal storm clouds. Straight to his own home he went, where he closed the shutters and locked the door. From the secret place above the transom, he pulled parchroot beer and drank it late into the evening. When asked the next day, he told the other villagers the new resident had the right to stay but elaborated no further. Continue reading “The Last of the Wvorgi”

Crosswinds: Gryphon Down

“Tell me where the gryphon is. Now!” she shouted out. Her breath started to grow heavy. Each swing, each thrust dug into heavy flesh… it took a toll on Juliette that wasn’t exclusively physical.

By Penny

Despite its ornate façade, gryphon riding has always been one of the most common causes of deaths in the Tarithian army. Those brave, ignorant or desperate enough to take up such an activity often meet a grisly end, falling from hundreds of feet in the air without the need for enemy intervention. It had become a running joke among the Tarithian army: “Defeating a Tarithian footman requires a blade, a horseman a spear, but with a gryphon rider, you only need one good eye to watch the show.”

Of course, the subjects of such crude and morbid humor have not been blind to the dangers of their profession; gryphons have been fitted with equipment so their riders are firmly seated upon them, and the riders are extensively trained to avoid accidents. These measures kept overzealous riders from doing all sorts of tricks and twirls that might otherwise become the last bit of theatre in their lives.

However, as with all things human, there are always certain outliers.

Above Tarith's forests flew a squadron of gryphon riders, the courier bags on their hips full of written orders for the officers on the front lines. Everyone was shrouded in anxious anticipation; as the war with the Krygons dragged on, horror stories from the front lines started to trickle back home. Bands of akor'mari, branded as killers and savages, stalked the night, their gray skin blending into the shadows, their red eyes gleaming in the dark, their hair as pale as the First Daughter moon – save for the strands drenched in the blood of Tarithian soldiers.

But right now, for better or worse, these boogeymen were the least of the riders’ concerns. One was a woman, whose frame was too small for the large gryphon she was riding on. Her feet couldn’t even reach where the stirrups were supposed to be, but even if they could, her gryphon was fitted with none, anyway. All it wore was a saddle, reins and body armor. The sight unnerved everyone; lack of proper flying gear was usually a death sentence, but this woman was an outlier, thriving in the skies far more than any of the riders.

“Hey, Juliette…” one of them called out to her. “Aren’t you scared of ending up being another one of the army’s safety stories? You’re barely wearing any gear at all!”

“Huh!” Juliette scoffed. “We’ve been over this again and again. If I was going to end up like that, it would’ve happened already, but I’m still here, aren’t I?”



Halt! This is restricted content, citizen. Have you logged in?castle window


Barmy Blakken and the River of Death

To find Sar’Kata, Barmy had to cross the River of Life and Death. It was a long, long journey, full of twists and turns. Barmy defeated a dozen droth, moved a naiad into a dried-up well, and saved a village from wildcats with the help of Talking Mice. But all of these are other stories for other times.

By Malcolm Schmitz

Malcolm Schmitz is an autistic author who writes about queer people, eldritch angels, nebbish unicorns, and lace-making orcs. His fiction has been published in Crossed Genres, Fusion Fragment, and Sword and Sorcery Magazine; his short story "The Captain's Sphere" made the Long List for the 2015 Otherwise Award.

The Legend of Barmy Blakken
the River of Life and Death

Translated from the Talshei Codex
with commentary from Borage of Freeport

Editor's Note: This folktale comes to us from the Talshei Codex, a record of folktales from the Little Folk of the Shey Lands.

The Talshei Codex was most likely composed in the Year of the Dappled Rat by the Traveler, an adventurer from Krygon whose records have long outlived their true name. The Traveler is thought to have been a bard from the Mogul's Imperial Court who was tasked with cataloging the legends of outlying parts of the fledgling Empire -- and, incidentally, rewriting them to better suit the Mogul’s political aims. The Codex therefore takes a condescending Imperial view of the Little Folk that would be considered offensive in cosmopolitan academic contexts today.

The Codex is an unreliable resource for earnest academic discussion of Sheyn folklore, but is quite a revealing look at the political and spiritual views common in the early Empire. Any student of Krygon’s recent history should be aware of the Codex -- and the other works like it.

Very, very long ago, when fleas were barbers and sheyn-goats learned to smoke, there was a little yurt-village on the west slope of nowhere. The village had goats; the village had goatherds.

And the village had its idiot, one Barmy Blakken. (1)

Barmy Blakken was a goatherder, son of a goatherder, grandson of a goatherder. Not a single branch of his family tree had ever grown towards anything more.

But one day, his folks took their goats to Stormvale, the biggest city Barmy had ever seen, and in Stormvale, the Market Street was roped off. A crowd of Big Folks gathered round it, thick as plaster.

"Momma," Barmy said, "what's all that for?"

"There's a parade, Barmy," his momma said. "Pay it no mind."

A trumpet bleated, and a carriage passed through the empty street. A carriage made of shiny gold, and inside was a maiden: a Big Folk maiden with long, black hair and skin as dark as the night sky.

She was the most beautiful woman Barmy had ever seen, and he couldn't help but stare.

"Momma," Barmy said, "I'm gonna marry that girl."

"Like nuts you are, you idiot," his momma said. "That's the Princess of Tarith. You ain't never gonna speak to her."

"Yes, Momma," Barmy said.

"Now hurry up, come help me with the goats," his momma said.

Barmy didn't want to help with the goats. Barmy wanted to follow the Princess and ask her for her hand. So, he helped with the goats, but late that night, he snuck off to the Palace. He climbed up its stepped terraces, pulling himself up brick by brick, until he reached the highest room and the tallest terrace. (2)

A light shone through the window. Barmy had to stand on tiptoe to get a glance inside.

He saw the Princess brushing out her long dark hair. He reached up high as he could and tapped on the frame.

"Who's there?" the Princess said. She looked out the window, but didn't see a soul.

"Down here, Princess!" Barmy said. He waved, so hard he wobbled.

"Oh? What do you want, Little One?" the Princess said.

"I've come... to ask... for your hand... in marriage," Barmy said, trying to keep his balance.

"You asked me?" The Princess raised her perfect eyebrows.

"If you're wanting," Barmy said. "My momma has the biggest goat herd in the village. I could treat you right."

The Princess laughed, covering her rosebud mouth.  

"How... sweet of you," she said, "but my father won't allow it."

"Your father?" Barmy blinked. "What's he got to do with the price of goats?"

"If you want to marry me," the Princess said, "you have to ask my father for my hand. And he thinks no man is good enough for me, not in all of Talmenor."

"Well, that's dumb," Barmy said.


Halt! This is restricted content, citizen. Have you logged in?castle window


The Black Blade

“You moron! Never do that again!” yelled the captain. He approached Percy, yet as he put his hand on Percy’s shoulder, he was taken aback by what he found. Percy was standing stiff, but he was not alive. His throat had been bitten out. 

The Black Blade

By Hristijan Pavlovski

Hristijan Pavlovski is a professor of Philosophy who loves art as much as he loves wisdom. His philosophy is that no other medium can summon the full range of human emotion quite like the literary arts can, and it is his goal to explore the extent of that.

 Our story today begins in the market square of Rivermeet. On the board present in the square, we find a posting by the captain of the guard. It reads as follows:

The bailiff requires brave and capable adventures to investigate and inquire into rumors about strange noises emanating from the sewers below the city. Furthermore, in recent days there have also been reports of disappearances from the slums. We are unsure if these two events are connected.

A party is to be formed on the first day of the following week. Any adventurers who sign up will be awarded a gold coin for their services, with further compensation when the task is completed, based on the arduousness of the endeavor.

The Captain of the Guard

Even among the hustle and the bustle of the busy market square, a pair of prying eyes spied the posting. The eyes belonged to Vivian, an aspiring medicine woman. 

She had recently finished her apprenticeship under her master, Dalaran, and was looking for an opportunity to test her knowledge. And, as most youths are, she was willing to potentially risk her life if it meant that she could gain some renown from her exploits. So, she decided to take up the captain’s offer. Even though she had no prior experience with adventures, Vivian understood that every party needs a healer, no matter the circumstances. It was better to have one and not need it, than not have one present when you needed it the most. Continue reading “The Black Blade”

War Predators

The one called Dana was incessant.  Every sound that came from the surrounding jungle was met with a “What was that?” and the near constant questions about safety and security in these lands made it difficult for Caryx to process his own thoughts.

By Joe Salamone

Joe Salamone is a gamer, narrative designer, and writer.  His belief is that the written word is only one way to tell a story, and that through imagery and music, a well told-tale can take on an energy that goes well beyond what’s written on the page.  His hope is to one day craft stories that can be put to use in video games or around the roleplaying table.


I trust you are well.  I have a task for you.  I feel you may be the one most suited for it, and I trust that you will take the utmost care in fulfilling it.  We have received an emissary from Tarith recently with a request.  I’m sure she will make her requests known almost immediately.  Please see to it that she is provided with the utmost respect and care, as her larger requests are pondered by Her Majesty.  When completed, please see that the emissary returns safely, so that she may have her audience with Her Majesty. 

Nin’Sari Valden

Caryx stared at the words on the page.  The heavy seal of the Mamean Circle completed the letter, which Caryx searched heavily for any other details, though he could find none.  His amber eyes darted quickly between the words on the single piece of paper and the young human girl standing in front of him.  The two of them stood face to face -- or face to chest, as she was significantly smaller than him.  Her blue cloak stood out from the greens and browns of the jungle that framed her as a backdrop.  She had arrived alone, carrying only her own small pack and this single-page letter.

As he lowered the page, he began the task of studying her.  Small in stature and young, by his reckoning.  Her cloak protected her head from the rains that often swept through this area, and her eyes remained fixed on his. 

In all of his years as a game warden on the Mamea Nubandu preserve, he felt that the most telling feature of any living being was the eyes.  Her eyes were big, bright blue, and unwavering.  If not for the conviction behind them, Caryx would say that these were eyes of a prey animal: a scared creature whose purpose was to run and to feed whatever larger beast found her first.

“Well?” the girl said, breaking the silence.

“What is request?” Caryx responded flatly.

The girl let out a large sigh.  “A request.  If I ask you for a…” She paused slightly. “Like a favor.”

“I know what request is.  What is request?” Caryx asked impatiently. 

The girl blinked.  “Oh!  Oh, you mean my request.  Of course.  Well, I have been sent from Griffinrock to evaluate the possibility of training large predators for use in armed conflict.” 

Caryx flicked his tongue at this.  “Armed conflict not for animals.”

The girl lowered her head. “Well, yes.  Right now they are not, but with the proper training, as we’ve done with our gryphons, they could very well turn the tide--


Halt! This is restricted content, citizen. Have you logged in?castle window


Vigmarr the Scarred

Vigmarr wasn’t ready to share his story yet. He was beyond grateful that Elly understood that. What would she say if she found out the truth? He couldn’t bear to hurt her. Yet he couldn’t bear to keep thinking about it, either.

By Katrina Schroeder

Katrina Schroeder is a book coach, editor, and writer. When she's not knee-deep in words, she's playing tabletop and video games, reading more books than she can keep up with, or is in a kayak. She can be found on Twitter as @katrinaeditorial1 or you can learn more about her on her website at

The village lay just ahead at the bottom of the hill, a few miles west of Bataklik Forest. The sky was gray, threatening to spit rain, and smoke rose from a few of the homesteads. Vigmarr wrapped his wolf-skin cloak a little tighter around him. The temperature was comfortable, but the sight of the village settled within the fog brought a shiver that shook him to his core.

Who the grel am I kidding? Vigmarr knew the shiver wasn’t the thought of the coming winter. He didn’t have the courage to make his way down the hill.

He’d camped just outside of town over the night. After taking six months to return home, he didn’t think one more night away would make a difference. Grel, his family probably thought he was dead anyway. He could just keep traveling and continue taking up mercenary work here and there, but none of those battles carried the same rage and excitement that they used to.

No, his family deserved to know. Elly deserved to know.

“Screw it.”

Vigmarr hefted his bag over his shoulder and made his way home.

He felt like the walk down the hill was the longest and heaviest walk of his life. But he also didn’t want it to end. The sooner it ended, the quicker he was in town. He grunted, shifted the weight of his bag, and picked up his pace. Dust kicked up around him, and it carried with it a nostalgic scent. He hadn’t been gone for more than a year, and yet the familiar scent of home’s earth elicited a softer grunt from his throat. His face began to relax.

Vigmarr finally crossed the village threshold and stopped. It didn’t feel any different. Why did he think it would? He shook his head and continued on.

“Vigmarr? Holy chit, boys, it’s Vigmarr the Scarred as I live and breathe!” He turned at the familiar voice. A young man, about Vigmarr’s daughter’s age, jogged up, followed by a few other young Yeni soldiers.

Tomas whistled as he got closer to Vigmarr. “Wow, I heard the stories, but they sure don’t do it justice. Trade ya a drink for each story you have for those scars.”

Vigmarr nodded his head once at Tomas and grunted. “Grab that drink another time? I best be getting home to Elly.”

Tomas nodded, and his eyes softened with grief. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right.”

Vigmarr turned to leave.


Vigmarr stopped but didn’t turn around.

“I’m sorry. We’ll catch that drink soon. You deserve it.”

No, kid. I don’t. But he nodded and continued further into the village.


Halt! This is restricted content, citizen. Have you logged in?castle window