Finding Gratitude

The Green Witch

A scream pierced the night sky. Trouble in Gratitude.

The buildings stood stoic, silent to the cries of another in trouble. Hundreds of eyes looked down at the sound of the noise. They found the man, and his attacker, and returned to their own world.

None blamed them. The foe was a troll, and burlier than most, well over six feet tall and two hundred pounds. His horns curled around his ears like a ram, making the headbutt against the storefront all the more destructive.

The man cowered in his store, and tried to become invisible. His attacker as occupied with mere property damage, but would soon grow bored with this. The troll would then move on to more challenging pursuits. The kind that could run away.

Tears ran down the man’s face. None wanted to help him. No one could help him.

No one but me.

I looked down at the two, hidden on a ledge of a three-story building. My hood was drawn down in the dim torchlight, hiding any features. My staff was in my right hand, and I itched to go forward and do some hero-ing.

Still, I hesitated. Darkling and Lady Violet had been separated from me due to a Wyvern attack earlier in the day. We were new to the town of Gratitude, and I was still reeling from the sheer size of the city.

But there was someone in trouble. It was an easy decision to get involved.

I dropped down to ground level. I did not go silently, but used the sound to gather the troll’s attention. He looked around in confusion, seeing a figure in green clothes wielding a staff in front of him.

“You need to stop,” I said.

“Who are you?” He added some mean words that I won’t repeat.

I did not answer. Instead, I blasted him with green fire.

The fireball slammed the troll backwards. It drove him into the wall, flames licking at the stones. He glared at me, clothes in tatters. “That all you got?” It wasn’t even close.

He charged. I spun away. The cloak swirled behind me, and he grabbed at the billowing fabric. I hit him again. Trolls were not too susceptible to fire, but I wasn’t trying to kill him, just knock him out.

“Stay out of this!” he shouted.

“Not when people are in trouble,” I said.

The troll rolled, and charged again. I thrust my staff into the ground. The earth shuddered, and loosened. It became muddy, then liquid. The troll tripped, and flew headfirst into the earth. In seconds his face broke the surface, trying to swim through liquid ground.

I quickly ended the spell. The ground snapped back to solid form, sealing him in place. The troll struggled, and roared, but could not break free.

“I’ll kill you!” He shouted.

I slammed my staff into the side of his head. His eyes rolled upwards, and then back down as he slumped forward.

“Not today.” I said.

The store owner stepped out, and looked at me. I made sure the hood was lowered, and bowed.

“You’re safe now, citizen,” I said. “Let the people of Gratitude know the Green Witch is here to help.”

The man squeaked, and ran back inside, locking the door. Not the welcome I was expecting, but give it time.

“What is going on here?”

A second troll walked up. I readied my staff, and relaxed. There on his chest was a badge, a shield of tin that held the four rings of Gratitude. A deputy.

“Just helping out a citizen, officer,” I muttered.

The troll stopped. He looked at the store front, and then to me. He squinted at the troll. His face darkened, and he glared at me.

“You beat up my partner, you witch!” He bellowed.

This was not how a rescue was supposed to go.

My name is Emelia, and I am the Green Witch. I have power over magic, and I am a heroine for justice.

I was also at the moment running scared for my life from five policemen. The troll partner of the policemen I had apparently…subdued, was leading the charge, followed by a couple ogres, something I had never seen before that looked like a bird-man, and a very fast dwarf. All of them looked furious, and were gaining on me.

I wasn’t stupid, I knew immediately what was going on. All throughout our journey west we had seen our fair share of corrupt sheriffs and rangers, entangled in one vice or another. To see enough of them banded together, and with such diverse makeup, was very exciting!

…And could mean that I was about to die if I did not lose them now.

I gripped the staff, and prayed that none of the deputies had real magical training. I tapped it twice on the ground, and concentrated. Think of myself, running scared. No faces, just the hood. Running left, running right. Always just out of reach of angry policemen.

My illusions split off and started running away. The deputies gave a yelp. They scrambled around, trying to find the real me. Their organized chase melted into chaos.

“It’s not her!”

“Grabbing…nothing!”

“Gods above, that little…”

I watched from a small alcove above them. I had spotted a bank with columns on the second floor. While the deputies were scrambling, I had found a little hiding space to breathe. I burrowed myself deep into the corner, closed my eyes, and waited for the chase to calm down into discontent.

Gratitude was not turning out as how I had expected. We hadn’t been wandering around the city for more than an hour. Lana had been wrapped in her robes, Sela had all the money, and we all beheld the city in wonder.

I will admit it. I’m a bit of a bumpkin. Even in Leftarch, beyond the great arch nothing rose higher than five stories. Here in Gratitude, the trees paled in comparison to the buildings. They rose like altars, scraping the sky with their brilliance. Some of them were rumored to be pre-Folly, a legend in their own right.

Everywhere we looked there was something to do. A harbor to the great Western ocean, with great trade ships moving across to ports all across the world, braving the great monsters of the deep. To the north was the Callgar territory and the baronies therein. South sat the Angeles Waste, and east were the great plains. Everywhere, Gratitude was looking to expand and know more.

It seemed a perfect place. There were so many people, I felt I would lose myself in all the sights, sounds and smells.

Then the sky opened up and shrieked lightning.

Darkling

Just keep moving upwards. A mantra that had always served Lana well. Danger was on the ground, where she could be seen.

The girl dug her claw into the stone, and clutched the edge of the building. It wasn’t one of the great structures, but still a ten-story building, more than double what she had generally seen before Gratitude. Lana crawled onto the roof and away from the ledge before she let herself relax.

She reached into her tattered clothes, and pulled out a slice of a pie. She nibbled on the edges, savoring the peach flavor. She had seen it on the edge of a windowsill, and couldn’t resist. She had left a carved piece of soap that she had made on the trek over, but no money. Sela had had the money. And after the pie was gone, Lana was still feeling hungry.

It had been hours like this. Lana had tried sticking to the rooftops, out of sight as she searched for her friends. But the buildings were so high, and so uneven. When she tried to climb down, she could feel everyone’s gaze on her, picking her apart, hating her. Perhaps even ready to kill her.

Lana looked at her claws. She could feel the small frame, the leathery flesh. The wings that made shirts a challenge if not downright impossible. Her beady eyes that made others shrink back in fear. She was a monster, and now she was alone.

Tears ran down her face. Why couldn’t Mel and Sela just stay with her? The sky had broken open, yes. People had screamed, running around. Her robes had been ripped, trampled in the chaos and terror. And when she looked up, a great beast of gold and lightning looked down in contempt.

It wasn’t like there was anything going on that should have really separated the girls. They were a team. Friends. They were supposed to be, at least.

It was probably her fault. When that…winged thing, had taken to the air, her first instinct was to run. Lana had immediately raced for a low altitude, trying to get away from anything that was dangerous. It took her four blocks before she realized that, for her, “anything dangerous” included everything.

And now they were gone and she couldn’t come down and find them and… what was that? Lana moved towards the center of the roof. She reached out with her claws, ready for anything.

Something crowed out. Lana looked up, and saw something sail toward her from above. A dark shape, falling down from the tallest structures! Not another one of those things that spewed lightning and thunder, surely. Lana trembled.

But no, this being was much smaller. And clothed, in bright purple clothes. It looked like a man, or more accurately a boy. A boy covered in feathers, with wings and a face like a crow. With a full side of his face and beak dyed pink. Why was that?

He touched down on the roof. His head tilted one way, and another. His black eyes blinked, looking at Lana fully. Then he laughed, a high-pitched caw.

“Another one! A newbie, no less!” He stuck out a claw.

“Nahc, cutie,” He said with a wink. “Welcome to Gratitude.”

Lana stared at Nahc, very confused. The crow-boy wasn’t looking at her, so much as he was…strutting. He walked up and down the rooftop.

“Mmmh! Bah! Zabba-dee, zabbi-doo, you can’t hear it, Wing?”

“Wing?” Lana asked.

“The music, wing, the music!” Nahc spun on a taloned foot, and crowed to the sky again. “The wind soaring through the buildings, whistling through new ruins and older successes that stand in defiance, it makes a melody that just…baba doo bah!”

Lana was sure that this creature was quite insane. Especially when he turned and dove off the side of the building.

Lana cried out, and ran over to the side. There, in the city lights, was the crow-boy. He swooped down to street level, singing his ridiculous song. Pink and purple flashed past the storefronts. He settled on a lamppost, and kept on that incessant howling.

He was insane! He was a beast, a being created by magics that humans and other creatures despised. Lana hid under her robes not because she was ashamed, but because she feared for her life. How could he risk all of this, for a song?

But…no. The passersby did not look at Nahc in hatred. No one reached for a handy weapon or spell component. Most gave him dark looks of extreme annoyance, or flipped fingers in his direction. He was a nuisance, and an un-funny one at that. Not a threat to the very fabric of society that needed to be stamped out.

Lana stared in wonder. They didn’t like him because he was stupid, not because of what he was. What a city.

Nahc finally tired, and flew back up to the roof. He tipped his beak, and winked.

“Whatchoo think, Wing?”

Lana stuck out her tongue. “My name’s not Wing, it’s Lana.”

“Ok, Lana-bat. Like my singing?”

“No. it’s a screech, not catchy, and generally annoying.”

Nahc pouted. “But it’s fun, right?”

“Definitely.”

Nahc crowed again. “I knew it! I knew I caught the scared gal smiling.”

Lana laughed. “It’s because of this city. You were able to…to be! You are here, you’re not having to run, or hide.” She pointed at his feathers. “You can dress ridiculously like that, and no one is going to say anything other than it’s silly.”

“Hey!” Nahc pointed at himself. “This is an original style. No one else has anything close to this fashion.”

“For good reason.” Lana was being snide. She could be snippy! What was going on here?

Nahc sighed. “New girl comes to Gratitude, and already she’s sniping like a pro.”

“I’m sorry, I’m not usually like this.” Lana said. She spread her wings, and looked around. “It’s just, this place. You are here, and not having to live in fear. It is so…wonderful.”

“It’s all right,” Nahc agreed. “The Quarter is kind of…ethnic, but good food and fun people.”

“The Quarter?”

“The Waste Quarter,” Nahc said. “Where all the Reza live.”

“All?” Lana’s eyes bulged. “There’s more?”

“Oh, Lana-bat,” Nahc shook his head. “You don’t even know.”

Lady Violet

            Sela awoke from her bed. A quick look at the clock confirmed that it was nearly midnight. Exactly as she had hoped. Time to start her evaluations.

The room Sela had chosen was not pristine. It was truly a chest of drawers, a bed, and a window. There were not even easy access to facilities. But it was cheap, and paid by the hour. Sela had not asked any questions, and when a passerby had inquired whether she was sleeping alone, she had shown them Sir Violet. Anyone with a passing interest in the sharp beauty quickly found other pursuits.

Sela looked at the blade. The violet hilt that helped give the sword its name was velvet to her touch. The single-edged blade mirrored her, showing a face that stared back without empathy or real interest. Sir Violet knew she loved the sword, she did not need to look on with adoration.

She belted the sword to her side. The duelist threw on her cape and boots, and walked out of the no-name inn. It was time to see what Gratitude had to offer her.

The city night life was intoxicating. While the shops and bakeries closed up shop as the sun went down, other businesses opened their doors. Cafes and taverns, a few theaters. But the streets themselves were what truly came alive.

Sela walked through a celebration of art. Trumpeters, flautists, a pantomime, every few feet there was a new attraction. Tourists and critics gathered at what drew their interest. Every act was cutthroat. They were in competition with each other and the business of the night. Who could catch interest, and hold it long enough for the interested soul to part with a coin?

A fight broke out between a puppeteer and a mime. The two each felt that the other was encroaching on territory, or creative license, or perhaps the mime did not appreciate the color palette of a certain puppet. The puppets were soon banging on an invisible box as the mime wailed in silent horror.

Sela smiled. Not at the violence, though it seemed real enough. However, given the crowd that gathered around the two acts to lay bets and watch a strange fight, it could have been staged. Certainly the rest of the street suspected such.

Sela kept moving. While interesting, that was not the entertainment she needed.

She kept her eyes peeled. The duelist could pick out the thieves, the scoundrels, the hucksters. They followed everyone as well, hoping to separate fools from coin far faster than the artists ever could. If Sela was in a mood, she could have cleared them out as well.

But that was not a challenge. It was, at most, a mild interest. She needed to fill her blood with fire, set it alight with passion that could not be quenched by a beer or passing fancy.

In short, she needed a real fight.

There were many taverns. Quiet little holes in the center of Gratitude. Lost souls disappeared into the door to find some comfort in shared solitude and a glass of wine or pint of beer. They would stagger out an indeterminate time later, not happier or even more fulfilled, but content with how time was consumed.

Sela ignored those. Sir Violet was pulling her to blood.

Sela knew she was different. Her motivations for heroism were not based in heroism like Mel, or fear and goodness like poor Lana. The duelist lived for a thrill of battle, the chance to feel that adrenaline pumping and hear the sound of Sir Violet singing. Even better, she knew that if she could play it right, there could be a way to make an actual living out of it.

To the outside world, she was probably viewed as broken. No, definitely. If she and Sir Violet could agree on that assessment, certainly anyone looking at her would probably say that.

What was definitive was that she was not a heroine. She didn’t deserve that title.

But she was a fighter.

In that case, the Rusted Grip was just for her.

Sela stood outside the door, and laughed. Gratitude was just so…blatant. A secret fight club, right in the middle of the town. It didn’t even try to make the blood sport a secret. Right up above the faded letters was a sword, gripped by a bloody hand. The bruised and seedy-looking types milling around the entrance didn’t dissuade anyone of that notion either.

Well, if they were going to be this out in the open, then so was she. Sela walked up to the first thug, a dusky dwarf, and nodded to him. “Is there an open slot today?”

The dwarf looked her up and down, and sneered. “For what, knitting?”

Sela drew Sir Violet. “Does this look like a needle to you?”

The dwarf looked Sir Violet up and down. He nodded to another thug, and knocked on the door. After a moment of consideration, it squeaked open.

“It’s not nice down there, lady,” the dwarf warned.

“Neither’s the sword,” Sela muttered. Sir Violet may have protested, but the sword knew the statement was accurate. Besides, they were in the door.

The door opened to a set of stairs descending into a well-lit pit. Around a small arena was the tavern. On one side was the bar counter, opposite it the betting tables. Both sides were moderately well-filled. After a quick check Sela estimated about three dozen in the place, with some of the fighters hidden in the underworks of the bar.

She walked up to the bar, and nodded to the bartender. “What’s it take to get in a fight?”

Bartender nodded to a squirrelly gnome in the midst of his second gin and tonic. He couldn’t have been over four feet tall, and from his manicured hands, had never struck anyone in anger. Sela leaned against the bar, and stared.

“I don’t actually fight,” The gnome muttered. “I just run them.” It must have been a bit of contention. “You want in?”

Sela nodded. “How soon can I get going?”

The gnome squinted, and looked her up and down. “We’ve got a bit of a light evening, so it can be more lax. But I don’t want to send anyone in there. Bad for the club’s rep, y’know?”

“I can handle myself,” Sela said.

“Fair enough.” The gnome pulled out a pen and paper, and looked at the list. “Gimme half an hour? And if you’re looking for a proper duel, there’s other clubs that specialize…”

Sela set Sir Violet next to him. “No need. Not trying to kill anyone tonight.”

The gnome let out a sigh of relief. “That’s refreshing. Name’s Regni, by the way.”

“Lady Violet,” she said out of habit.

Regni cocked an eyebrow. “Stage name. dig it.” He looked down to the bartender and nodded. “It’s to first blood, and if you humans bleed on any of the fae, I’ll have to intervene. Understand?”

Sela nodded. She made to grab a drink.

“Hey!” Regni called out. “You trust me with this sword?”

“Sure,” Sela said. “He’ll kill you if anyone gets too friendly.”

The Green Witch

            My cloak was gone. My staff was with it, along with as much protections as I could lay on it. They rested hidden behind a refuse pile, with a solemn oath to find the nearest launder when I could afford it. My new costume, one may ask?

An apron. My weapon of choice was a rag and a bucket of suds. I attacked the latest foe, a particularly smelly beer stain that had been left by the last person to fall on hard times at Merryl’s.

Merryl herself was an elf. Her yellow skin burnished in the torchlight she kept above the bar. She was dressed in a loose-fit shirt and pants, rubbing down her own mess to clean up as most of the regulars stumbled away. Her green eyes caught every stain, and every now and again a bit of water would be splashed in my direction, to remind me where I missed a spot.

The light reflected off of her counter and danced on the tables, showing just how empty the place was in the late hours of the night. Besides a passed out troll, and a gang of what I could only describe as half-golems drinking whiskey and blood, we were alone.

Merryl most likely could run the place by herself. Even looking at her, I knew she was capable. Why she even let me in the back door was beyond me.

This was not how I planned on spending my first night in Gratitude. If I had even an inch of pride left, or two coins to rub together, I wouldn’t be here. I was supposed to be spending this part of the evening finding those predators who stalked the night, bringing them to justice. Not cowering in the shadows, scared for my life.

Corrupt policemen. Why didn’t I ever consider corrupt policemen? It was fun and heroic to defend the town from even them. But I couldn’t fight back, couldn’t even defend myself if one of them decided I needed to go. All I could do was run.

But I had nowhere to run. No money to buy a place to stay, even for a time. And sleeping seemed to only invite danger. So I walked to the first place that seemed clean and not trying to con me. I found Merryl, and she found a girl to scrub down the tables.

Merryl gave a soft whistle. I perked up, and she pointed back behind the bar. I didn’t ask any questions, just dove under the counter. A second later, the door banged open.

I peeked around the corner. An ogre had walked in. Dressed in fine clothes that bulged over his gut, everything was grossly immaculate. From his dress, to his ivory polished tusks, to the fat jowls of his pale face, and his bloodshot black eyes blinking around the place. But what I noticed most was the shiny sheriff’s badge, tucked neatly over his lapel.

“Sheriff Trill,” Merryl muttered. The bar went silent, all looking back at the ogre.

“Merryl,” Sheriff Trill looked around the place. “Busy, busy, I see.”

“It’s four in the morning,” she said. “So can I pour you a beer, or a coffee?”

“Coffee would be…marvelous.” He sat down at one of the chairs.

Merryl turned her back to him, and me, and started to pour the coffee.

“And you could tell me where my damn money is.”

I looked up from my hiding spot. Merryl said nothing in response. The coffee was poured from the carafe into a ceramic cup. She set the cup down in front of Sheriff Trill, and returned to her washing behind the bar.

The ogre stared at the drink for a moment. He fumed, waiting for a proper response to his question. He looked like someone who was used to having his questions (and threats) answered immediately. To have this bartender just ignore what he had said must have stuck in his craw.

If Merryl knew this, she didn’t show it. She just filled his drink, setting out a cup of cream and a bowl of sugar cubes with it. She checked in with the golem-like creatures, and returned behind the bar. She made it halfway through the bar before Trill threw the cream to the ground.

“Bitch, are you going to make me ask again?

Merryl returned to looking at the counter. “You haven’t asked me a question tonight, Sheriff Trill. I honestly don’t know what you mean.”

“My money,” Trill said. “You’re late on your taxes, Merryl.”

“Tax day is April 15th,” Merryl said. “It is a sacred day, and one I would not offend for any reason. But I don’t know what taxes you are talking about.”

Sheriff Trill bared his tusks. “I think you do, Merryl.”

Behind the counter, I wished that this was over. This Sheriff didn’t seem to want to do anything more than roll over Merryl. He wasn’t going to leave unless she paid him, and even then he’d stay until he’d had his fun.

I needed to help her out. But the door to the alley was just out of reach. And no way that the ogre wouldn’t notice me without a distraction.

Trill took another sip of coffee. “Merryl, always helpful. You think you can just be a friend to anyone that comes along with a gruff word and some soap scum. Then, Gratitude might just give you a good turn in kind. Well, I have bills to pay myself, and need a little coin as well.

“So why don’t you open the till and help me out? Say…until I say stop?”

The golem creatures stood up.

Trill’s hand slapped his side. Behind the bar, I couldn’t tell what it was. But whatever he reached for didn’t scare the group.

“You’ve got some nerve, Sheriff,” one of the creatures muttered.

“This doesn’t concern you,” Trill said.

“Doesn’t concern us? Doesn’t concern the Half-Men?”

Trill stopped, and squinted at them. He laughed. “Half-Men? Aren’t you a little far out of your territory?”

The Half-Men gang bristled. “I’ll have you know that we are right on the edge of the border. And as every cop west of Pretty Pocus Line should know, Merryl’s bar is the line of our territory.”

His gaze on Trill narrowed. “And anyone who tries to muscle in on our territory is going to get some trouble.”

Trill stood up, and glared at the gang. “Is that so?”

The two regarded each other silently for a moment.

“I could have sworn that Merryl’s bar was the start of cop territory!”

“Sure, last year! But remember we redrew the lines at the annual meeting…”

“No, no, we redrew the docks.”

“Right, with the Mer-derers. That kicked in a clause with us, and compensation was needed. Weren’t you in on those talks, on the twelfth?”

“The twelfth?”

“Dammit, somebody get a map!”

Somebody else had a map. I was out the door without notice, and behind the dumpsters.

I was the Green Witch, and no one was muscling someone I considered a friend.

“Citizens of evil, prepare to do battle with the harbinger of honor, the avenger of the night, the Green Witch!”

I burst through the front door. Staff pointed at the Half-Man table, arm ready to catch a blow from Sheriff Trill. My hood was pulled down over my face, and I was humming with green magic. It was on.

But the Half-Men were gone. So was Sheriff Trill, though his coffee cup remained. Both parties must have left within a few minutes of my running to grab my gear. But that didn’t make any sense!

I looked around, expectant. There had to be an ambush, or maybe they moved to a back room I didn’t know exist. There was no way those two groups had already finished. They were arguing, and about boring adult stuff. Meetings and territory and clauses, adults usually went over this for hours!

“Sent them away with a round, and said I had to close up for the day.”

Merryl kept rubbing down the counter. She paused long enough to look at me. Look through me, more likely. She dissected every part of my face, ignoring the shadows under my hood. She motioned for me to join her at the counter. I hopped up on the stool, and waited.

“Take off that ridiculous thing, kid,” Merryl said. “I’m not having conversations with a shadow I’ve already fed.” I refused. While I was the Green Witch, the hood stays on. Even when Merryl slammed a mug onto the table, I remained in my hood.

“Suit yourself.” Merryl shrugged. “And don’t worry about biting into my profits. Neither of them paid, but then, they never were going to anyways.”

“But Trill would have…”

“Sheriff Trill wanted to bluster his way through my place and take charge.” Merryl said. “Just as everyone in his jurisdiction wants to. It makes a cop’s life easier to be a little corrupt. Take a little piece of everything, and in return my street is free of pickpockets and petty thieves that get a little quick with their wands.”

“But the Half-Men…”

“Oh, geez.” Merryl threw her towel on the counter. She held her head in her hands, and sighed. “You just don’t get how Gratitude works. This is a corrupt city. It’s not built on profit, but on power. Everyone tries to take their piece, carve out a little territory of absolute control, and then start nibbling at the edges. The Half-Men are in the industrial quadrant, while the sheriffs have the gates and entrances.

“And I am smack dab in the middle of them. By design.” She looked at me. “I’ve paid protection fees sporadically to both to confuse them, because every third or fourth month neither comes calling. Both parties have no clue whether or not I owe them, and neither wants to start a gang war. Too much hassle for one tavern.

“Unless some stupid wannabe hero decides to start causing chaos in the streets.”

I looked down at my hands, and tried not to be too conspicuous.

“Young people,” Merryl muttered. “Always trying to change the world.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Gratitude doesn’t change,” Merryl said. “It just changes you.”

I stood up, and looked at her. A storm of rage, shame, and hopelessness churned between us, until I didn’t know who felt what.

“Heroes don’t quit just because it gets hard,” I said. “That’s when we regroup and try again.”

She watched me disappear into the waking hours of the morning.

Darkling

Nahc looked down at Lana.

“So, what do you think?”

Lana thought there must be some mistake. Nahc had led them through the night, and finally stopped this morning at… a wall. Easily a hundred feet high, built out of stone. It was cracked in some places, but held firm. It jutted one way and another, before making a sharp right turn and leading off into the distance.

The walls loomed up out of slum houses and decrepit shops. The shops followed the one road, a cracked mess of cobblestones and dirt. Nahc landed on the ground, and motioned Lana to follow.

“Come on, we have to check in.”

People stared at Lana. She could feel their gaze on her. She wanted to fly up and away, somewhere to hide again. But they had seen her, they would know that she was there.

Guards. There were guards at the entrance. A small, iron gate led into the other section of city, guarded by a troll and a human. The troll was thin, a woman, and half-asleep. Her human counterpart was a bit overweight, though that may have been an illusion caused by the blonde mustache that hung down below his chin. At this early hour, neither of them looked happy to be there. They had most likely spent the night having to deal with all sorts of trespassers and delinquents.

Nahc’s presence brought them awake with a start. The troll groaned, and kicked the dirt.

“Nahc, you’re supposed to be inside. You know the mayor imposed a curfew.”

“I know, I know…” Nahc made a point of scuffing his claws in the dirt. “But the night was just so clear, and it had been raining all week, my wings were just begging to be used.”

“Mmhmm.” The human looked over Lana. “And what’s her excuse?”

“Who, Wing?” Nahc pulled Lana close. “Wing’s new. Just came in to Gratitude, she don’t know nothing about this place and how backwards awesome we are.”

“This true?” The human asked.

Lana nodded. What he said was true… kind of.

The human pointed behind him towards the wall. “You, and everyone like you, stays behind the wall come sunset. You don’t, you risk your own hide. Got it?”

“Yes, sir.” She mumbled.

The troll woman rolled her eyes. “We’re just looking out for you, kid. The Waste Beasts aren’t exactly popular right now, especially after the Sewer Uprising.”

Nahc looked at her with narrowed eyes. “The Reza have always been looked down on in Gratitude. Don’t need to sugarcoat it with some sewage and call it protection.”

The troll’s hand snaked out and grabbed the birdboy by the feathered neck. She looked him down, and grunted.

“You keep finding ways to break curfew, Nahc,” she muttered. “There are some out here who would look at one of you Beasts, floating up in the sky, as a great opportunity to vent some frustrations. Suddenly we have a species war on our hands, started with the roasting of some crow that flew too far from home.

“Stop making our jobs crap, and maybe we might be able to do more than just lock you all up at night to keep the crazies out.”

She let go abruptly.

Nahc didn’t fall. He floated down, and walked between them with his head held high.

“The crazies get everywhere,” He muttered.

He winked at Lana as she followed him in. “But the sky’s ours.”

Lana looked at Nahc. She had so many questions. Who were the Waste Beasts, or the Reza? Was there going to be any trouble for them for breaking curfew, even if she didn’t know there was one?

These questions faded away as the two walked through the wall, and into the Waste Quarter.

The place was packed. Buildings all extending up four, five, six stories in the air. They leaned against each other for support, while jutting out in different ways and directions. No two buildings were built the same, and only seemed to be together for solidarity rather than by true design choice.

But oh, the people! They were all so, so…hideous! A wolf man leaned against a wall, gnawing on a steak. Across from him a few fox men play cards, blatantly trying to out cheat each other. Even a few reptiles and fish relaxed near the fountain, looking over any and all who came near.

But the birds, the birds. Perched on the edges of buildings, or soaring through the alleyways. Each with plumage more outrageous than the next. Nahc, however, remained the clear favorite for sheer extravagance and oddity in coloring.

No bats. That struck her immediately.

“Nahc!” Someone called out. “Nahc’s brought someone new!”

“Whoever you are, run!” Another bird called out. “He sticks to you like gum, and won’t ever let go.”

Lana looks at Nahc. “What’s gum?”

The birds erupted in laughter. They divebombed the two, surrounding them. Beaks, wings, and taloned feet all observed and felt around Lana, trying to see who she was. It made her feel claustrophobic.

“All right, all right!” Nahc waved his wings. “Back off, bird brains!”

“Bird Brains! Bird Brains!” Someone called out. “Nahc is so witty, he so faaaassssst. You come up with that, what, twenty years ago, you dumb pecker?”

“At least I had the sense to not fly into a net, Gendejo,” Nahc shot back.

The birds oooed as a sparrow in yellow dye flew off in a huff.

“Now, can you all give the new girl some breathing room?”

The birds ignored him.

“Where you from?”

“What’s your name?”

“You got a cute sister?

“Or a cuter brother?”

“Enough!”

At this voice the birds scattered. Nahc turned and was face to face with a horse. Walking on four legs, the only thing human about the new creature was his torso.

Nahc’s head bowed, sullen. “Mister Clops, I didn’t know you were back…”

“Back from another meeting to get this damnable curfew lifted.” The horse-man said. “All because some of their kind take offense, we are the ones that have to pay the price. I bend and I scrape to bring myself low for these arrogant races, and then return home to find that some…pea-brained little poppycock!”

Nahc winced.

“Has decided to break curfew because, and I believe I quote, ‘it was fun?!?’”

“Sorry, Mister Clops.” Nahc said.

“Of all the dullheaded, monumental screw-ups that help define the racism that plagues us, this truly is abominable.” Mister Clops’ face softened. “And to top it all off, you protected one of our little sisters in the dead of night.”

Mister Clops nodded to Lana. “And who are you, child?”

“Lana,” she said. “And I guess I’m a Waste Beast like you.”

The Reza remained silent. They stared at Lana, questioning her words. This new girl, this creature they called kin, cursed at them. Degraded their entire existence with that word. how could she? Was she so offended by the birds’ little playings that she was so crass?

“Waste Beast?” Mister Clops said. He shook his mane once, and turned away. He snuffled, and wheezed. “Is that what you think we are?”

Lana tensed. Of all the self-styled Heroines, Lana was the youngest by a full year. And thanks to Mel’s and Sela’s kind actions, she remained the least experienced with the world. She did not know how to best understand certain emotional reactions when they were directed at her. Joy, exuberance, sorrow, sympathy. Pity, she knew that one well, as well as a mocking laughter.

But the one she most knew was quiet rage. That cool anger that simmered right below a calm countenance. Looking at Mister Clops’ still face, Lana recognized what she had seen, and experienced, all too often.

She wanted to fly away. But there were birds, and it was daylight. She would be seen anywhere she went, easily tracked. She had no choice, but to answer.

“I-it’s what they call us,” she stammered out. “Everywhere, people say we’re Waste Beasts. Isn’t that right?”

Mister Clops’ face softened. He bowed his head, and nodded. This wasn’t a cruel girl. Just one so used to misery it was natural to her.

“Are we Beasts, child?” he asked. “Animalistic things, that can do no more than snarl and rut?”

“What’s…” The horseman’s face told her she shouldn’t ask.

“We know what we are.” Mister Clops said. “Children of the Folly. The great bombs that fell on greater cities, poisoning the world with a need for death. And we came, crawling out of radiation, a union of magic and destruction.

“But we are not just this!” Mister Clops bellowed. “We are carvers and artists! We are lovers, fighters, warriors for Gratitude!”

The call was answered. Goats bleated, the birds cawed. Even Nahc crowed to the skies, flying up in exuberance. The Reza weren’t beasts, and they weren’t humans. They were better! And soon, they’d prove it the only way they knew how. By showing the world their worth.

Lana understood. Mister Clops was their leader, and protector. He gave them hope, a purpose, a path forward. Perhaps, he might even give her some of her own.

But… Lana looked out the gate. Somewhere out there were Mel and Sela. Her two friends, her cohorts. They were probably looking for her, worried sick. They were a team, and needed to be together.

Mister Clops leaned forward. “You have friends?” he asked.

“Out there,” Lana said.

“Not like us?”

“No. but they’re my friends,” Lana said. “I need to find them.”

Mister Clops nodded, and pointed through the gate. “The guards will let you through, but they will expect you back before sundown. Another way we pay for human weakness.”

A large, callused hand lay on Lana’s head. “When you come back, you’ll find us a welcome home. And your friends, if friends they are to the Reza, will be welcome here as well.”

“Thank you.” Lana said.

She turned, and went to face civilization once more.

Lady Violet

“All right, all right…gods below, everyone shut up!”

Regni paused to take a breath. “That’s better. You hopped-up adrenaline junkies ready for your next hit?”

The crowd cheered. Regni was a petulant little beast, but he knew the fights. The gnome could size up anyone who wanted in the ring, and match up accordingly. For newcomers, this meant a real challenge. For the old hands, it prevented rust and complacency. And for the crowd, there was excitement.

And in truth, they knew he was right. There was no one in The Rusted Grip who did not burn for real battle. Everyone in the place was on just this side of feral, and they loved hanging on the edge.

“I thought so, you freaks. On one side, you know him, you hate him, he owes you money, which means the Ragged Knuckle is back in the ring!”

Sela leaned against the rail and watched the man walk in. Man… he looked more like an ogre, with the broad chest scarred and reddened by a thousand drinks. He moved slowly, swaying under what was probably his fifth drink of the hour.

“Ragged Knuckle is…okay, he’s drunk, but he remains undefeated in the last eleven rounds. And we all know what a bit of whiskey does to that Knuckle’s temper.”

Probably nothing that Sela would like to find out. Staring back at her with beady eyes, he was probably imagining what her face would look like, covered in dirt and blood. Best not to let him find out.

Regni leaned over next to her. “Seriously, if you don’t want in, he has several people that would love a chance to beat on him. Last chance.”

Sela cracked her knuckles.

“Psycho.” The gnome took a deep breath. “And now, entering the Rusted Grip for the first time ever! We have a woman that has heard our reputation, seen our décor, and still wants to test the waters to find a suitable challenge. Will she find it? I don’t know, but if she dies, it’s half-price drinks for everyone. Give it up for Lady Violet!”

The cheering was for the drinks. Sela knew this. She didn’t care. Ragged Knuckle twisted around, and tried to scan the crowd for creditors. He did a slow mental check of how much money he might owe after this fight, and nodded.

Regni beckoned them both forward. “All right, you pansies, listen up for the rules.” He kept his voice low and commanding. “Knuckle dragger, yes I know I messed your name up, sue me, you know the rules. No dismemberment, no use of bar equipment, and if you try and drown someone in a barrel again, I will personally have you hung from your eye sockets. No, don’t whine at me, the bartender is still angry at me and complaining about lost profits.”

He looked at Sela. “New girl, it’s simple. Don’t die, don’t kill. We play to submission or knockout, none of this sissy first blood crap. And if you wuss out early, we might just let Knuckles here play. Got me? You asked for this.”

I did indeed, Sela thought. Regni backed away, and looked at them both.

“Let’s try and keep this only a little dirty, okay ladies? Begin!”

Sela dashed forward. Punch to the throat, slam his ears to disorient. Kick him in the groin to bring the face to chest level. And just because Regni was a little condescending, spinning kick for the knockout blow. All in all, seven seconds that should have been five. She was rusty.

Sela looked at the stunned crowd, and shrugged.

“Next.”

Silence reigned through the bar.

“Right, that was wonderfully pathetic. Somebody remember to wake up Ragged Knuckle and slap the bill to his forehead, or something. What a waste. Anyways…Bluelight!”

Regni scanned the crowd. “I know I saw Bluelight in here somewhere. Bluelight, you up for a little action? I see you, passed out by the…BLUELIGHT!”

One of the tables shuddered, and crashed to the ground. A dwarf woman raised her head, and squinted. “Regni?”

“Bluelight, time to sober up. You’ve got a fight.”

“Shove off.” Bluelight sank back into the ground.

“I’ll credit your drinks for the evening.”

“Three.”

“Evening.”

“Five.”

“Want me to ask the bartender the size of your current tab?”

Bluelight was sober enough to know that threat was legitimate. Before Sela could turn the dwarf had skidded onto the sand. Dressed in classic electric blue leathers, the dwarf winked a bleary eye at Sela.

“Nice going on Knuckle. Bastard owes me at least five rounds.”

Regni stepped away, and looked at the crowd. They had taken in everything, which was unusual. Typically, they only perked up when blood was spilling. Or one of the fighters forgot the rules and started in on a rowdy audience. But tonight, they were awake, alive.

It was Sela. The way she knocked out Ragged Knuckle was textbook, a classic set of moves that was so fresh in a rumble arena. What was she going to do against someone who just might be able to string a sentence together?

Bluelight didn’t give her a chance. The dwarf was running off a buzz of adrenaline and the possibility of free drinks for the evening. Regni couldn’t even give an introduction before she launched herself at the duelist. Sela spun out of the way, and lashed out. Bluelight shrugged off the blow, and squared up.

“Come on, ye noodle,” The dwarf muttered. “My door hits harder than you.”

Sela traded blows with the dwarf for a time. She remained silent, trying to understand the style. Bluelight may have been drunk, but she was trained. The dwarf could take a blow as needed, and weave to set up a better left hook. Sela backed away, and bumped the ring. Damn.

So much for half-speed.

Sela sighed, and kicked it up. Bluelight stared, and groaned. Where one duelist was, suddenly there seemed like four. In front, catching that last swing. Kick on the left, which set up the trip that sent her tumbling back, and then three jabs on the left, ending with a haymaker on the right.

“No fair,” Bluelight coughed from the ground. “You’re not supposed to show us up until you buy me at least three rounds. House rules.”

“Bull,” Regni muttered. He straightened to the cheering crowd, and bowed. “Let’s give another hand for this newcomer here! Lady Violet!”

Sela took another bow. She was exhilarated, breathing heavy. Bluelight was a terror, even sauced. Sela was not sure she wanted to face the dwarf outside the ring without the girls by her side.

For herself, Bluelight laughed and cheered with the rest of them. She waved to the victor as she stumbled back to her resting place. A tankard was waiting for her, courtesy of Regni and deducted from his profit margin, much to his chagrin.

Sela looked around, and nodded. A good crowd, and a good place to be. She could have fun here.

“Got enough in you for one more?”

Sela turned. An ogre vaulted over the bar with ease. He was dressed in velvet, and looked Sela over with appreciation.

“I, I…” Regni stammered. “I didn’t know you were in town, Bill.”

“Just got back,” Bill said. He looked at Sela. “How about one more go?”

He pulled two wooden swords out from behind his back.

“But how about this time, you don’t hold back?”

Sela caught the practice sword tossed her way. It was actually a rather fine piece of wood. Tested, weathered, but still retaining a supple nature. Sela tested the blade, and was amazed by the nature of the sword. There was a perfect balance, right in the center of the blade. Beyond a blunt edge, she was holding a true weapon.

And it had been given to her by a true swordsman. Named only Bill, he was at the edge of the ring. Not trying to stare off into the distance, or put her off with some sneering bravado. He was warming up. His own blade whirled around him, starting in slow circles, going faster and faster until Sela could barely keep track of the movements.

The crowd was up and awake. Many had already been attending to the fights, and even enjoyed and cheered her on against Bluelight. But for this, people crowded the edge of the ring, trying to get a closer look.

There was real bloodlust in the air, expectant. It excited Sela.

Regni whistled once, and the bar went silent. No one wanted this to wait another second. The gnome looked at the two duelists. He knew they’d obey the rules, and honestly wanted out before anything truly bone crunching happened. He clapped his hands together, and ran out of the ring.

Before he got five steps, Sela and Bill met at the center. The sharp crack of wood filled the air. Again, and again. Quick strikes, testing each other. Trying to find any imperfections in the opponent’s stance and style.

Sela knew he was going to find it. She understood in seconds. Her motions were fluid, and she knew she held some sort of grace. But she was used to a certain level of savagery, with Sir Violet egging her on and guiding the movements. Without the sword’s guidance, or passion, she felt just the tiniest bit lost. With someone like this Bill, in a fair fight she gave herself eighty-six more seconds before she would have to admit defeat.

Sela never admitted defeat.

She spun on her heel, and lashed out at his knee. Bill sidestepped, and she kicked again, higher. He parried, and struck out. In an instant she had his arm, and threw him to the side of the ring.

Bill laughed, and turned to her. “Not bad, though not dueling.”

“Missing my sword,” Sela said.

“A duelist is ready for anything,” Bill muttered. He saluted her with his blade. “Something you still need to learn.”

Sela readied her own. “We’ll see.”

“No!” Regni burst back into the ring. “Run, everybody run! The cops are here!”

The audience stared at him, confused. “Didn’t you pay them?” Bill asked.

“It’s the Mayor’s Guard!”

The bar exploded in activity. Spells, invisibility cloaks, vanishing discs, anything that could get them out of the bar faster. Those without magic ran for anything that could be construed as an exit.

Bill also ran, but not before he winked at Sela. “You’re decent. Gratitude’s going to be a bit more fun with you here.”

He ran off just as the Mayor’s Guards charged into the bar. Any stragglers were trampled under their silver and purple boots. They stopped in front of Sela. Crossbows were at the ready, pointed straight at her.

One man, the captain, judging by the badges decorating his chest plate, walked in. he looked at Sela, and the rest of the area. “Sir Violet secured?”

“No, he isn’t.” Sela folded her arms, and frowned. “What’s going on?”

“The mayor would like a word, Sela.”

“Here’s two. Bite me.”

The captain smiled. “Blunted bolts should just knock you unconscious. I hope we don’t give you a concussion.”

The Green Witch

Wrong. It was all going wrong.

I was wearing the cloak. After I found a launder and stole some soap, it was easy enough to clean. My staff fit beneath the folds, and with the hood off my head I looked like just another girl in the crowd. Not a hero. Certainly not a threat or worth anyone’s time.

I just kept walking. I had walked out of the bar, and turned towards anything that looked like desperation. There had been plenty of it.

This was a city I could feel needed our help. There was crime, and corruption. People were being preyed upon by the very officials who pledged to defend them. No one was out there trying to help each other. This was something we could do, something we were good at.

And yet everything I did was looked upon as unwise. Some girl just sticking her nose where it didn’t belong. Or worse, I might help those who were more villain than victim. And that just sucked.

I needed to find Lana and Sela. Talk it over, see if this was too difficult. This wasn’t a place for heroes. It was grimy, disease-ridden, and openly corrupt. It was politics.

And that’s why we needed to help.

I stopped at a ruined building. The roof gone, the southern wall completely crumbled. What rubble had not been scavenged was scattered all around the street. The door was on the side of a porch, and I could see water pooling everywhere it wasn’t supposed to.

Looking down the lane, I could see more of the same. A completely abandoned part of town, empty of everything. Not even any sort of corruption here, no reason to shake down an empty house.

I cracked my neck, pulled out my staff, and walked up to the building. Back at Littlebrook we had had storms, and rowdy fights. One of the few things my dad had let me use my magic for was a little construction work, and the spell work was buried deep in my skull. A quick whistle and a few murmured words, and I had the rubble cleared, the door reset in the opening, and water being drawn out of the area.

Rats scurried away, their home being invaded. I ignored them, and kept working. This, this was something I was good at. I could use the rubble for a few posts. A new roof was not an option at this point, I’d have to scrounge up some new materials. As it was, I just wanted to get it comfortable, if not entirely habitable.

Still, just getting that much done was exhausting. I was covered in sweat, ready to collapse, and happier than I had been in several days. I sat on the porch, newly reinforced by yours truly, and took a well-deserved nap.

“What are you doing?”

I opened my eyes. Merryl glared back at me, but this time she had brought friends.

A quick count gave me about a half-dozen adults. They were all in business attire. Blacksmith aprons, shop shirts, bakers and butchers, the last of which was carrying a rather large cleaver that I didn’t want any closer to me.

They all followed Merryl, and were glaring at me too. Not again.

I groaned, and looked up at the sky. “What did I do this time? I haven’t talked with anybody since I left your bar.”

Merryl pointed at the ruin. “Why are you working on that?”

“Because it’s destroyed.” No. I was just working on an inanimate object that nobody was using. Maybe do something nice. I didn’t hit anybody, or encroach on profits, or breathe wrong. No.

“Do you want us to get destroyed?” The butcher shouted.

I looked up at the house. “From a house?”

“Are you that blind, you stupid girl, or just so…” Merryl turned and slugged the butcher in the gut. He gasped, and fell to the ground. The elf dragged him up to his feet.

“You don’t talk to her like that,” she warned. “She’s new, not dumb. And even then, you show some respect.”

The butcher glared at her. “I’ve been working with blood all day, elf.”

“That a threat?”

Merryl released him, and motioned him on. “Come on, then. Give it your best shot.”

The butcher glared ahead.

“Then screw off,” Merryl said. “You’ve been heard.”

The butcher, and after a few moments the rest of the group, left. Merryl sighed, and held her head. “I don’t like humans.”

“I’m…”

“I know. Look, kid. There’s a reason this place is abandoned.”

She pointed further up the street. A few blocks down, loomed a spire. Stretching twenty stories, it had a constant cloud overhead. Rain pelted down just on the spire.

“Around that spire is about six blocks of prime real estate. A clean spring, right in the southern part of town, and no landlord to whine about rent. And yet, it is completely abandoned, thanks to that spire.

“It arrived with a wyvern.”

Wyvern. A dragonlet. Something that evoked the image of those fabled creatures. Extremely territorial, and connected to a certain element…

“That’s the stupid thing that spat lightning at me my first day in town!” I shouted.

I jumped up, and started walking towards the spire.

“No!” Merryl grabbed my arm. “You can’t just go into this. That wyvern…”

“Has torn apart the area, and left everyone in fear,” I muttered. “It isn’t connected to a gang, or a corrupt force, or anything else.

“It’s the perfect thing to vent some heroing on.”

Merryl continued shouting at me, but at this point I could have cared less. There was a spire to climb, a monster to fight, and a town to save.

I was a heroine. This was what I was supposed to do.

Darkling

            There were others. Freaks, monsters, abominations to sight and mind.

Other people like her!

Lana flew up to the sky. Past the tall buildings of stone and wood. Yesterday she had tried to hide in fear. She had to hide, had to run at any sight of anyone who could see her too. Anyone who wasn’t Mel or Sela was going to hate her, hurt her, maybe even kill her.

But no! That was wrong. The Reza were there. They knew about her. They cared. She wasn’t just alone anymore. She could do anything!

She shrieked to the sky. A high-pitched call, filled with joy that left her ears ringing. If anyone walking around far below her had heard, they would have screamed in pain. But they didn’t. Lana didn’t even care if they had. She was alive!

Lana perched on a building, and started to think. Mel and Sela needed to be found. It had been over a day since she had seen them. They must be worried sick, running around looking for her. To leave them in the dark, that wasn’t very nice.

But where would they have gone?

Lana pouted. This was not easy. The heroines had never been in such a situation. They stuck together, and to smaller cities. To be trapped in Gratitude, being lost in all this noise and clutter. Where was she even supposed to start looking?

Hmmm…not for Sela. Sela followed her own ideas, or that sword’s. The duelist could be anywhere, doing anything. Lana suspected she was fighting, or maybe sleeping. But anywhere she was going to be, it would be dangerous.

Mel, then. She would be making justice. Mel was always making justice. Look for a place that needed saving, and Mel would be trying to break in.

Lana looked around. Where would danger be in Gratitude? Everywhere, yes. But specifically? In the slums, or maybe closer to the Reza?

Or that giant spire that was shrouded in darkness. Surrounded by rubble, and begging to be explored. That would probably work.

The girl dove off the building. Her wings caught an updraft, sending her twirling back into the sky. She smiled, and basked in the sun for a moment. This was the life.

The wind filled her ears. She could hear nothing. Not even the arrow that pierced her wing.

Lana cried out. The wooden shaft tore through her left wing. Suddenly useless, she plummeted. In vain she scrambled with her right, trying to remain airborne. The movement only succeeded in causing her to tumble to and fro in the air.

She changed tactics. Lana opened her wings, and screamed again at the renewed pain. She struggled to remain stable, and managed to maintain a shaky glide. Straight into a building.

Ignore the pain, she thought, or the spinning in your head. It was too far to fall and survive. Either hold or die.

Lana struck out with her claws. She dug into the stone, and held fast. Even with her left wing hanging loose at her side, she could hold on.

Until the second arrow pierced her leg.

This was too much. Lana lost her grip, and dropped. As she lost consciousness, she wondered how death would be like. And if Mel and Sela would even find her body.

Lady Violet

Sela woke up strapped to a chair.

Her eyes flickered open. The leather around her wrists and ankles was tight, barely allowing blood to flow. Any attempt to escape them was going to require losing the use of an arm for a long time. Too long if she wanted to escape.

Instead, she inspected herself. Down to her underclothes, smart. Easier to bind her up without all the folds of her loose clothing, and she was effectively searched. And for others, this was probably humiliating enough to make the victim more docile.

However, they seem to have treated her well. No bruises beyond the head wound, and the chair was comfortable. A pillow over an iron chair. That was rather considerate.

She faced ahead, and focused. Sela was in an office, and a rather opulent one at that. Rich tapestries on the walls, wide windows that let in the morning light. A cherry wood desk. Carpets that one’s feet could sink into. This had to be the mayor’s office.

A door opened behind her. “Oh, good. You’re awake.”

A woman walked into view. As she came into sight, Sela could feel the role mayor on her. She certainly looked the part. Tall, curved, with dark skin and a smile that promised everything was going to be okay. Her eyes were bright, and welcoming. She would promise the stars in the sky, and people would believe her.

“Get me out of here, you sick, demented…”

The mayor smiled. “My name is Gianna. It is a pleasure to meet you, Sela.”

Sela stiffened. That was the second time the Mayor and her men had named her. She had not spoken her name to anyone since she stepped in Gratitude. And the Heroines had been careful to outrun any reputation. Even then, she had been Lady Violet. How did they even know?

“Don’t look so surprised.” The mayor walked over to her desk, and looked through her records. “Even a little speck like Littlebrook makes its way into the papers every once in a while. Like that exceptional duelist winning awards. Or the three girls that decimated the local menace and had to flee town.

“Though of course, I know a bit more about you, and that sword, than most.”

Sela pointed the sword in Gianna’s direction. Her arm turned against her bonds.

“Why don’t you tell me what’s really going on?”

The mayor walked up, and looked at Sir Violet. The sword had been locked away, bound in iron and more than a few protection spells. For this to be anywhere but a secure holding facility six blocks away was, well, impossible.

“Truly fascinating,” the mayor murmured. She looked at Sela, and smiled. “He might just be worth the price.”

The mayor batted the sword away, and sighed. “But there are so many other things to worry about, Sela. Namely, about whether to have you and your little friends killed before lunch.”

The mayor gripped the chair, and for the first time glared at the duelist.

“So I’d listen if you want to keep that pretty little sword of yours intact.”

“Gratitude is corrupt. I know it, you know it. The fish in the harbor know it. We are filled with scum, radioactive beasts, and lawyers. It is a wonder some passing God hasn’t taken pity on the planet and just obliterated this city down to dust.

“But with that corruption, there comes great profit.”

The mayor looked to one of the tapestries. A map of Gratitude and the surrounding areas, it weaved in new roads and waterways, even new cities as it was updated.

“We are a major trade route. By land, sea, or even portal – if you come across the ocean with anything not exactly legal, you will pass through Gratitude. Millions in profits and bartered magic pass through our docks, or our trade routes up to the Callgar baronies. The fact that we are openly corrupt makes us even more appealing to anyone with true wealth.”

Gianna’s hand traced over the tapestry. “We have a dock union, a corrupt police force, a few gangs, and some major powers that weigh in on occasion. And on top of it all, what do you think there is?”

Sela shrugged.

The mayor laughed. “Me, of course. This whole city, the entire west coast of this pathetic hemisphere, runs because I know who needs to be bought, bullied, or broken, and I can make it happen.”

Someone had a high opinion of herself.

“So when someone wants to impose the moral code of an outdated comic book in my city, I have to evaluate whether or not they are worth the effort to bribe, or if I should just throw them to the wolves.” Gianna looked at Sela. “Any clue which way I am leaning?”

“The smart money would be on killing us,” Sela said. “If your info is that good, then you’d know our fearless leader is stupidly perfect in morality. She won’t stop, and she won’t be bought. Any attempt to influence us will ultimately backfire.”

Sela smiled. “But you think you’re smarter than ethics. So go ahead, try and point us in the right direction. I’ll enjoy killing your men.”

Gianna’s eyes flinted. She grimaced, and turned away. “For someone in your position…”

The door opened again. “Sela!”

Sela experienced a new sensation: fear. Hearing Lana’s voice, croaking and pain-stricken, made her suddenly backtrack, and think about what she had said.

“My words are my own,” she said. “If you hurt Darkling…”

“You have names.” The mayor looked over Lana, and sneered. “How quaint.”

The mayor turned her eyes back to the chair. “Now, Sela. You advise I should cut my losses and remove you girls from my equation.”

Gianna smiled, and pointed at Lana. “Should I start with the young one?”

Sela looked at Lana, and considered letting her die.

It made sense. Lana had her uses, but was ultimately replaceable. And just proving to Gianna how little she cared, that could be well worth it.

But still…Lana was her friend. That was supposed to mean something.

It was simple enough to slash her bonds with Sir Violet. In seconds she was free. A dash, and the blade was pressed against the mayor’s throat.

The guards had swords out, pointed at Lana. “Drop the sword! Do it now, or the girl dies!”

“Back down, you fools!” Gianna shouted. “You’d be dead before you moved a muscle.”

The mayor smirked, and looked at Sela. “And neither of you would leave this room alive.”

Sela shrugged. She figured she’d have a chance. At the very least, she could free Lana and get the girl out the window.

Wait, her wing was injured. No flying for the younger girl. So killing the mayor would mean that one of the Heroines would have to die.

Sela pursed her lips, frustrated. So many difficult choices, she hated difficult choices. Emelia eliminated so much indecision, providing a clarity of vision that was socially acceptable even when she got to kill…

Emelia. Where was she?

“You want to use Emelia,” Sela said. “Anything specific in mind?”

“There’s a wyvern giving us too much trouble. Destroying property, driving potential customers away. Also killing civilians, at higher than expected death tolls for a city our size. Totally unacceptable.

“Your Emelia is already on her way to remove the threat. My analysts give her a small chance of victory on her own, but with allies, it would be easier.”

“So summon the guard.”

“Not cost-effective. Especially when you two are completely expendable.”

Gianna eased away from Sela and walked out of reach of Sir Violet. She reached into her desk, and picked out a small jar. She dipped her fingers in, and smiled.

“Come here, Lana.” She held her fingers out, coated with a honey like substance. “This will make sure you’re nice and whole for the battle.”

Lana looked at her for a moment. When Sela didn’t move to attack, the little girl crept forward. The mayor’s hands were soft and soothing. Her wing immediately felt better.

“There, that should help,” Gianna leaned back, and smiled. “How does that feel?”

Lana screeched. The guards and the mayor collapsed in pain, clutching at their ears. Agony, pure terror scratched at their brains, what was this? Nothing could make such a sound!

Sela laid a hand on Lana’s back. The girl stopped screeching, and flew off. “Lana is a bit shy around strangers,” Sela explained. “But once she gets to know you, she might just hate you for threatening to kill her.”

Gianna nodded. “Understandable. And I’ve dealt with worse.”

“You probably have. Most of your enemies probably just promise death, destruction, the ruin of all that you hold dear.” Sela looked at Sir Violet, and cradled the blade in her hand. “We’re a bit simpler. We try to keep our promises.

“So here’s one. Pretty soon you’re going to get stabbed. And it’s going to hurt.”

Sela left. It was time to find her fearless leader. And maybe fight a small dragon.

The Green Witch

            There is something that has to be understood about superhero approaches.

The entrance is completely understood. It has to be fantastically unexpected. The hero bursts into the scene from somewhere no one could possibly have come from. There is a witty retort, the villain has to hiss in the knowledge that defeat is inevitable, and the battle commences. That part is easy.

But this approach always makes studying to be a superhero somewhat difficult. Because the hero is coming from somewhere unexpected, the reader cannot know how they got there. So me, being a fledgling hero, I had no idea how to approach this spire.

Should I scale the side of the building? Try and infiltrate from the depths? Perhaps weave a clever illusion that is only dissipated when the villain says something along the lines of “nothing can save you now”? There were pros and cons for all of these, and reality always seemed to get in the way.

I almost cried when Sela and Lana showed up. It made the approach so much more exciting!

“You were going to fight a dragon without us.” Sela was not happy.

“Not a dragon, a wyvern.”

“You were going to fight a flying wyvern who shoots lightning, and lives in a lair, towering above the city, without us.” Sela is easy to understand. It wasn’t that I was rushing off to my death, valiantly sacrificing myself for the greater good while sparing them the same fate. She was ticked because I might have denied her some of the fun.

“All to save some stupid corrupt city that would be better off being burnt to the ground.” Sela said.

That made me pause. And Lana as well. We looked at her, and she shrugged.

“This isn’t Gotham City, or Metropolis, Mel,” she said. “Let’s be clear. We’re not saving this city, especially not by killing some crazed animal.”

She was right. Looking at her and Lana, it made it all seem more real. There was a bandage on Lana, and a wound that had just barely healed. Sela had minor cuts and bruises, but the look of someone who had just put herself through fire for another. And then there was my night.

“I know…” I was getting a clear picture of what Gratitude would give me.

“In fact, you’re most likely making it easier for criminals to be corrupt, you understand that?”

“Yes!” I shouted. “I know that everything I do in this little cesspit is going to be turned around and used against me at some point or another, and I. Don’t. Care!”

“Why?”

“Because we’re heroes!” I screamed. “Because we are so committed to something so naïve, so kid-like, that it might just work if we believe long enough! We fight, not for what we are, but because of what we could be.”

I looked up at Sela, defiant. Let the rest of the world be terrible, and wrong, and corrupt. We’d turn it around anyways. We’d make the world good, in spite of itself.

Sela grinned back at me, and reached for her mask.

“Just needed to remind you of that, Green Witch. Let’s go kill a dragon.”

Lana nudged me. I smiled, and tussled her head. She smiled, but it was pained.

“Yes, Lana?”

“Um…” she pointed at the Spire.

“How do we get in?”

The wyvern was there. And it knew we were, too.

Legends about dragons are just that, legends. Nobody seems to have actually seen one. Or if they have, they’re not talking. So everyone has their own opinion about what a dragon looks like. Scaled monstrosities, little lizards, or shape changers that can do anything. A total mystery, with only one consensus. A raging dragon is big.

If this wyvern was a little cousin, I would have to rethink wanting to meet a dragon.

It twisted around the top of the tower. Its frame was almost two stories long, and all of it seemed to be muscle and wrath. Its sinuous body was made of spines, wings, and an angry mustard-yellow complexion. It looked down at us with red slitted eyes, daring us to come any closer. We had wandered into its territory, but were we other predators, or easy prey?

“What do you think, witch?” Lady Violet asked. “Play it safe, or sound the trumpet?”

Time to look at its weapons. The wings had claws at the apex, and its taloned feet tore into the stone. No arms, just the legs and wings. But a tail with a spike at the end curled and snapped. This was a predator that could defend and attack at any moment.

Then again, it was in a mortal city, not out in the wild. Maybe it didn’t like a challenge. I pulled up my hood, and pulled out my staff. “Darkling, flank around, but keep in range of us. Any fight that takes place in the sky is one we’re going to lose.

“Lady Violet, circle right. I’ll call it out. We want close quarters, so back into the alleys. But we keep this to the ruined six blocks. No casualties, got it?”

She was already moving away. If the wyvern came too close, Sir Violet would make him pay.

Ok, time for my entrance. I concentrated, and let the magic flow through me. It filled my hands, my lungs, my heart. I could feel more alive, and suddenly more free. The magic in Gratitude was the same as back home, and in Leftarch. It all came to me just as readily as the first time I picked up a wand.

I could do this. We could do this.

“Wyvern!” I shouted, my voice amplified with green energy. “You have caused property damage, killed citizens, and disrupted the entire city with your ways. You have staked claim in a city that is under new protection. This is your one and only warning. Leave, or die.”

The wyvern howled in response. It could have been laughing, or accepting the challenge. It certainly didn’t look like it was swayed by my words.

Especially not when it spat lightning straight at me.

I almost laughed. So that was what happened our first night in town. The welcoming committee was a dragon. Wyvern, whatever. But I had seen this once, and with magic.

I thrust my staff out, and barked a command. The bolt of lightning struck the staff, drawn in by my power. I held it, and almost lost the staff. The electricity shook the wood, threatening to shatter it.

I aimed the staff, and spoke another spell. The new energy shot out like an arrow, arcing straight for the top of the spire. A peal of thunder crashed as it hit home. Rock and dust pelted through the air. They rained down around us, smashing to powder.

The wyvern flapped its wings, staying airborne. It didn’t even look scratched.

Round one. A draw.

It dove. Lightning didn’t work, so it was down to bulk. It swooped low, its wings tucked in, legs ready to strike.

I rolled out of the way, way too easily. It was testing us, trying to see if we had real strength. When it knew we didn’t, it would attack. I needed that to happen.

“Alley!” I shouted. Lady Violet and I ran for the nearest little side-way, barely large enough for Violet and I to run together. Certainly not big enough for a wyvern to fly in.

It scratched at the mouth of the alley. Screeched, and tried to tear the passage open.

“We safe for now?” Lady Violet asked.

The wyvern shot lightning out again. I shouted a spell, a wall of force breaking the lightning apart. It cast again, and the wall shattered.

“Just catch it!” Violet shouted.

“I can’t!” I cried back. “The thing’s too strong for my staff. One more, and I’m done.”

“One hit, and we’re all done.”

There was another screech. The wyvern turned, confused. Darkling barreled into its wing, her own claws flashing. She bit and scratched, trying to pierce the membrane.

The wyvern bellowed, and swatted out. In seconds, Lady Violet was on its back, stabbing down with her blade. She swung from one of the back spikes, holding on for dear life as the sword flashed against the yellow scales.

I dove in, grabbing at one of the legs. I decided to go hot, green fire licking at its talons.

The wyvern screamed. I knew what it must have been feeling. For years it was the big bad, untouchable. Suddenly some little pinpricks of girls were hurting it. It was impossible, inconceivable. It needed to go away.

And it did. With a flap of its wings, it cleared the alleyway and headed for the sky.

“Hang on!” I shouted. Hang on? What was thinking, we needed to get off before…

And we were on it, flying above Gratitude.

I snuck a peek down at the ground. What I saw was people. In the middle of the day, crowded around the ruined section of the city. They looked up at us, some in awe, others in anger. I could have sworn I saw Merryl, just sighing and giving a wave. Then I had to focus on not dying.

Darkling tumbled from the wing. She screeched, and spun away from the responding bite. She kept up with us, trying to keep on the wyvern’s left wing. If it flapped too hard, it risked losing altitude. Meanwhile I kept shooting fire up its belly, and Lady Violet hacked from above.

It was too much. The wyvern shot to the spire, and landed on the crumbled top. It shook and lashed out, sending us flying. Lady Violet and I scrambled, and found purchase before we could fall off the edge. We were back on our feet, and ready.

The wyvern paced back and forth. Back on its familiar territory, its enemies before it. It eyed us, and readied for another strike.

“Orders?” Lady Violet murmured.

“Don’t fall,” I said, and struck out with force.

The wyvern staggered against the blow. Lady dodged right, and swung around, Sir Violet lashing out in a long arc. The wyvern turned, and its tail lashed out in response. Lady Violet crashed against the tail and was flung to the ground. She cried out, the breath knocked from her body.

Darkling screeched, flying up. The wyvern roared in defiance, and shot lightning at her. She ducked one way, and came too close.

“No!”

The tail was merciless. I heard a puncture, and blood flew. Darkling was skewered on a tail spike, dangling in the air.

With careless grace, the wyvern flicked its tail. Darkling… Lana… went flying. I screamed, reaching out. Any spell, anything, just save her!

A flash of pink, and a crow caught her. It squawked, and flew off into the distance.

The wyvern screamed in rage, its prey denied from it. It flapped its wings, readying to attack.

“No!” I cast fire, and ice, and fire again. The wyvern roared, and looked back at me.

“You look at me, you dead thing,” I glowered up at it. “When I kill you, you look me in the eye.”

It dove at me, claws outstretched. I cast out with force, pointing it straight up. The beast slammed into the blow, and crashed to the ground, stunned. Lady Violet charged forward, and Sir Violet was more than enough for the right wing. In two swings, the wyvern was grounded.

The tail came at her. Lady Violet blurred, and was elsewhere. She danced one way and another, always where the tail and feet weren’t. she hacked and cut at the beast, tearing through everything she came into contact with.

First, the second wing was gone. Then the belly was opened. The legs were hamstrung, the tail lacerated. Its struggling started to slow. Black blood flecked with gold pooled around the beast.

“Stop.”

Lady Violet stopped, and stepped back. The wyvern gasped, trying to rise. It stretched in vain, unable to support it’s own weight on the hamstrung legs. The wings, the tail, all hung like a butcher shop. This wasn’t a battle anymore, but an execution.

I stood just out of reach of the head. The eyes glared at me, daring me to come any closer. It had been defeated, but it was not going quietly.

“I’m sorry.” I said. “You’re not evil. You’re just defending what you think is yours. But you killed people, and would not leave. I had no choice.”

It shot one last bolt of lightning at me. It was weaker. The staff could take it. I laid the shaking end of the staff on its head, and returned the blow. The bolt knocked it dead in seconds.

I sighed, and collapsed. That was more magic than I had ever cast in one fight. Lady Violet sat down next to me, and nodded.

We won. Somehow, we won.

“Sela?”

“Yeah, Mel?”

“How are we getting down?”

Sela motioned to the other side of the ruined roof. Underneath a piece of rubble, I could see stairs.

“Oh. Good.”

I don’t know what’s more exhausting. Fighting a wyvern, or having to walk down three-hundred and sixty-six steps to get back down afterwards.

It took longer than I had expected. Every floor just seemed so…fascinating. The wyvern wasn’t one to keep an untidy lair. There was gold, and mattresses, and empty floor upon empty floor. Once we got past the first few floors, there was just so much space.

More than enough for a group of heroines to set up in.

“There’s no one around here,” Sela said.

“They’ll come back.” I said. “No wyvern to terrorize them.”

“Right. Just the three tiny girls who killed that wyvern.”

“Who everyone will think will just roll over.” I said. “Like our dear mayor.”

“That bi-”

“Come on, Sela.” I said. “I don’t act like it, but I’m still a kid.”

“Not after today,” she said. “You’re not getting treated like a kid much longer.”

“Dang.” I looked through the window. Lana was coming back, and with friends. That weird crow boy was back, as well as some other bird-people. “It looks like Lana made friends last night. Did you?”

Sela shrugged. “Maybe. Hard to tell. You?”

“Same.” I sighed, and we made it down another flight of stairs. “So what do you think, stay?”

“It’s your call, fearless leader.”

I thought about it. Gratitude was going to fight us every step of the way. I didn’t imagine we could get real jobs, or try and pretend we were anything but what we set out to be. Maybe, if we just toed the line. But I couldn’t do that.

There were good people in Gratitude. They just kept their mouths shut, and hoped to live through the night.

“We stay.” I said. “And give everyone a chance.”

Sela nodded. She reached down, and grabbed her mask. She tossed it into the first floor room. “Then we shouldn’t need those.”

Right. Superheroes may need masks. Defenders with nothing but heroing didn’t.

We kicked open the door. A crowd had gathered outside the spire. They looked expectant, confused. There had been a battle with the wyvern, and something had happened. But what?

I looked around. Lana landed a bit of a ways away. She struggled up to us, her leg freshly bandaged. The crow boy winked, and spun away. Another question for another day.

I sighed, and looked out at the crowd. “My name is Emelia. This is Lana, and Sela. We’re also the Green Witch, Darkling, and Lady Violet. We killed the wyvern.

“This place is safe now, all of it. If you want to come in, and work an honest day, know you have protectors. If you want to push drugs, or run a protection racket, or hurt anyone, look elsewhere.

“We just came to Gratitude. We like it here, and hope to make it even better. If any of you have a problem with that… well…”

I smiled. “We don’t care.”

 

The first guard went down in silence.

The second the same.

Third and fourth were slammed together before they could raise the alarm.

On and on we went. Number twelve saw the flash of a blade, and had to be locked in a broom closet. Twenty-six was thrown down a flight of stairs, and had to be tended for a nasty head wound.

We were just breaking into the mayor’s residence. We weren’t going to kill anyone we didn’t have to.

I wish I knew how the mayor felt. I imagine she started to rouse when some extra pressure settled on the bed. When the blade tapped her on the head, she awoke. And when she found her dagger under her pillow missing, and the charms from her bedside table absent, she stiffened in fear.

I held out my hand, and smiled. “Mayor Gianna, we haven’t met. My name is Emelia.”

Sela kept her blade trained on the mayor. Lana crouched at the edge of the bed, and kept an eye and ear out for anyone who even breathed wrong.

Gianna was exactly like Sela had described. She was calm, and composed, rising to a sitting position. She took my hand, firm while not trying to break anything. “Green Witch, I presume?”

“Not tonight. Taking a night off from superheroing after a long day. Just wanted to say hello, and pay my respects to the leader of our new home.”

“Pleasure.” Her words were tight, measured.

I smiled. “I like Gratitude. Or rather, most of it. You seem to actually work to combat some of the worst parts of politics. There doesn’t seem to be a trace of racism, or species discrimination.”

Lana cleared her throat. I winced, and nodded. That was something that we’d have to return to again and again. But it was worth it.

“Women can find work just as often as men. There actually are some opportunities to work together here.”

“I have several ideas on how we can…”

“Like cleaning up the sheriff’s office. Or reforming the union workers on the dock so they don’t take so much graft. Or run a sex trafficking ring out of a damn harbor.”

Gianna looked at me. I didn’t look like it, but I listened.

“You think you know everything. You have no clue what it takes to run a city.”

“You’re right, I don’t.” I said. “And I’m not saying we’re in charge, or you better hold to our code, or anything dumb like that. I just wanted to let you know, we’re not going to let things slide. Purse snatchers, wife beaters, the dumb crimes will be treated just the same as one of your cronies engineering a kickback for poisoning kids.”

“We take it personally when kids are involved,” Sela said. “Something a bit too close to home.”

“There are compromises we could make.” Gianna said. “But I won’t do it at the point of that sword.”

I really needed to learn more about Sir Violet. “Ok.”

Sela lifted her hand, and sheathed the blade. “We just wanted a chance for a chat. We didn’t even kill any of your men.”

“Thank you?”

“You’re welcome!” I smiled to Sela. “I told you she could be reasonable.”

“Surprised me too.”

“It was so nice to meet you,” I said. “I can’t wait to see what happens next. Have a wonderful evening.”

Gianna nodded. “Good night. And likewise.”

I got up off the bed. Handed Lana the mayor’s knife, and patted her on the head.

“Just once, in the arm or leg. And don’t nick anything important.”

“What?” Gianna shouted. Lana stabbed down in the mayor’s left bicep. She didn’t tear through the arm. Just a quick strike, in and out.

“I did promise.” Sela said.

Gratitude was going to be fun.

copyright 2018 Jack Holder

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