Raydorn: The War in the Black (Chapter 16)

“There’s always a chance we could die, during each and every moment, we could lose our lives.”

– Astrid, First Disciple of Lapis, 448 A.C.A.

“We could hit the alleys, learn where our contacts live without drawing much attention,” Malum recommended as they walked into the town, confirming to Astrid that he must be Susannan. He’d have to be familiar with the sight of the town to not be distracted by it.

It took a moment for him to realize that Quintus wasn’t even listening. The exasperated look on Quintus’s face had Astrid snickering, which let Malum know enough. 

Quintus was well-traveled compared to most, but the colors of Susanna outmatched paintings. The yellow leaves littered just about everywhere, and people walked through them without a second glance. In fact, they were as cumbersome as any falling leaves would be, but Quintus couldn’t tear his eyes away. 

“How long before he gets used to it?” Malum asked Astrid.

Quintus answered instead. “Never, such beauty. Is the whole country like this?”

“Considering we’re going to the Pantherlands…” 

Malum’s reminder surely made this beauty feel small to Quintus. “Ah, yes, the molten crater…”

I don’t know what he’s complaining about, it’ll be great.

Do you think people lie to themselves as much as you?

Without a doubt, maybe more.

Astrid shrugged and told them both, “I don’t know what you’re thinking about, it’s like having a nice smoke every second of every day.”

Both of the men turned to her with looks of suspicion. “Neither of us smoke.”

“Sounds like a ‘you’ problem,” Astrid said as she started walking ahead.

You don’t smoke either.


“Astrid, where are you going?” Malum asked her as she walked on ahead into an open crowd, one that was far from quiet.

Astrid held up a sack of his coin in her hand as she smirked at him. “Bribing a few guards with your money.”

“Huh?” Malum said, a rather human noise for him to make as he searched his waist to look for it. “But… when…?”

Quintus reminded him, “Didn’t Andy steal her coin back from you too?”

“Listen I’m a master assassin, but only a halfway decent thief. Two completely different kinds of stealth.” 

“What is she doing?!” Quintus exclaimed when they both finally noticed Astrid walking up to two guards.

They found themselves moving to stop her, but by the time they were earshot, they were too late. 

Two soldiers were stationed to watch over the public square, and doing a rather lax job of it. They only moved to stand tall as Astrid walked up to them. They told her to halt, but hesitated to lower their lances towards her as she revealed the golden coins of Susanna. Their hands went to their sidearms instead.

Malum and Quintus stopped, afraid of whether intervening would make matters worse as Astrid took out two coins and held them out. “Furui aka no mae no Efuni.”

“How…?” Malum muttered, his tone of disbelief revealing what his mask sought to hide.

The soldiers took one ari coin each and traded looks. They turned towards Astrid with a sense of familiarity, nodding their heads and telling her, “<Meet us back here tonight.>”

“What are they saying?” Quintus asked Malum, looking around nervously towards the people giving them the side-eye. There was no secret to their presence.

“Well, the soldiers just told Astrid to meet them back here tonight,” Malum said, “but what she said… was roughly ‘Efuni before the Old Red.”

“Not to sound offensive…”

“It’s alright, it should sound like religious gibberish to you.”

“I-! I wouldn’t say gibberish.

Astrid thanked the two soldiers before turning around back towards Quintus and Malum. In her head, the voice of Lapis warned her, ‘Was it smart to show up the devil spawn like that?’ 

You’re right, he should have known how to do that. How long it must be since he’s been to his homeland. 

She felt him sighing in her mind. 

He sounded tired when he asked her in turn, ‘And exactly how long has it been for you?

Never quite long enough that things change.

Astrid walked back to her comrades, she couldn’t help but tease Malum, “You know, for as long as you’ve been alive, you’d think you’d know every secret there is here.” Malum’s grumble and tilt of his head told her that her tease was more of a taunt. She held her arms behind her head, smiling as if that would brighten their moods. “Sourpusses you two are, this lack of confidence can’t be good for you. If I were you, I’d turn that grown upside down, because thanks to your pal, we’ll have our path and horses to the Pantherlands in a few hours, tops!” 

Quintus’s frown had begun to curve at Astrid’s insistence, but then he heard her say one word. “Horses?” he mumbled, his voice breaking at the mere mention of the creatures. 

Malum’s eyes judged him. “You have to learn to ride at some point.” 

Quintus shook his head. “No, no I don’t. I can walk,” he said as he shook his leg, “see no problems with my legs?” 

Oh,” Astrid cooed as she had an idea, “wanna race my horse?” 

Aren’t we supposed to be looking for a child?” Malum reminded them. 

“Fine, forget the horses.”

Malum ignored her, “We haven’t even spoken with the contractor yet. We need more information than just that they’re in the Pantherlands.” 

Astrid’s eyebrows narrowed. “Do we? There’s only a few places worth staying in the Pantherlands from this side of the Raze.” 

Quintus blinked multiple times as he failed to understand what she said. “I… I understand the words you said separately. The Raze?” 

“The edge of the Pantherlands is called the Raze,” she informed him, “where the last trees Efuni burned turned to molten rock to fizzle for all eternity. It makes this really soothing sound, it’s like this middle ground between the bubbling of sparkling wine and the pop of real bubbles.” 

“I know we’ve pointed this out before,” Malum began as he readied to point something out again, “but you know a lot.” 

Astrid rolled her eyes and turned the sack on her back around to look for the contract. She whipped it out to find the address of the contractor rather than spending time as Malum recommended to find out more information.

“I should,” she said as she began to lead the way to Malum’s designated destination, “I used to live there.” 

Quintus and Malum stopped in shock for a moment as she walked off towards the contractor’s house.

“Is she just gonna let that hang between us, or…?” Quintus asked, as the silence answered his question. “Ah, yes, sweet repression, as to be expected.


You’ve flown, haven’t you? Astrid asked Lapis, daydreaming to pass the time. Their client kept his windows clean enough to do that. If only he was as tidy with his nose.

Honestly, the hardest thing to acclimate to being with you has to be walking. I flew everywhere, the only exceptions were when I swam.’ Astrid sensed a bit of sorrow from him like he missed his home. As someone soon to be reunited with the place she grew up, she hoped he could feel what she did.

It must have gotten old for you then. Flying everywhere all time must have become like walking is for me.

You would think… but no. Flying is flying, always has, always would be. I judge any soul that gets sick of floating through the sky. How could you grow sick of defying gravity?

Huh, I wish I could tell gravity to go fuck itself.

As you know…

You wouldn’t put it like that, she finished for him.

And you can,’ the god told her, her mind reminding her of what she already knew, what she was already daydreaming about.

You think your cousin would mind? I know Raydorn raises griffins, but I doubt he appreciates it. They’re too beautiful to be domesticated like mere cattle.

Who knows what Valkarion would mind?’ Lapis laughed in her mind. ‘I love him, I miss him, but to say he is anything less than reactionary would be a blatant lie. It’s terrible to be the youngest son sometimes.

You’re lucky to be an only child.

Lapis let the silence linger as Astrid’s thoughts of home weren’t as attractive as she had thought. ‘You make me think that being an only child isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Astrid thought to say something, or think/say something when Malum called her name. 

“Astrid, are you listening?”

Astrid whipped her head around to Malum as he sat across from the client, the merchant. The old Susannan man seemed scared skittish having to speak to Malum. The assassin was basically a black cloak and a mask. 

“Yup,” Astrid said.

“What did you hear?”

“Basically that we need to go to the Raze, I already know what to do. The Raze is a thin strip, we start from the bottom and work our way up. We’ll have to hit them in a few hours, there’s only so many places they can hide.”

“He also mentioned that the bandits have been building tunnels under the ground,” Malum reminded her, “did you hear that?”

“Yup,” she lied, “they’ve always been there, nothing new.” Astrid took the rod from her back and twirled it around, before pointing it at Malum. It began to shimmer under her eye, absorbing the heat from his body. “If there’s someone there, my ax with find them, but I doubt they’d hide under the ground.”

“Why?” Quintus asked, his mere voice spooking the old man.  

“They’re not exactlybursting with oxygen,” Astrid said with a shrug. “The tunnels can’t be more than a short path. You can’t live down there by yourself, let alone with a large number of people.”

“Hmm,” Malum said as his hand went to his chin, thinking of a strategy they would most assuredly abandon. 

Astrid smirked at the mask. “Believe I was listening now?” 

Rather than grunt and shake his head, Malum asked her, “Do you even know the kid’s name?”

Astrid was a bit taken aback, “Uh…” 

“It’s Ming,” Malum told him.

“<He’s just a boy,>” the merchant muttered to himself, shaking as he rambled on about how, “<what they must be doing to him, what they must be telling him about me…>”

Quintus asked Malum, “What did he say?”

“He’s just feeling sorry for himself,” Malum told him.

Cold, Astrid had to think, watching the man begin to fall apart with worry. Someone should probably console him, but it sure wasn’t going to any of the mercenaries he invited into his home.

Lapis spoke up to tell Astrid, ‘Call her Hana when you see her. I have an inkling that she’ll appreciate it better.

Astrid’s brow curved, needing the moment to understand. Do you think her father knows? she asked Lapis.

I think he refuses to. I may be reaching, but when you’re worried about your child, and one of your first worries is about your image in some manner…’ Lapis let the thought linger in her mind, rather than drag it out. 

I understand.

Astrid stared at the man, who looked to her with this sense of need. He sought hope, and rather than wink, she stared, and her expression hardened the longer she did.

He’s not getting his son back.


  After promising to bring the merchant’s child home, the three-headed to the ship so Lucy could bring them as deep into the Raze as she could. At the outskirts of the town, a man sat in wait for them in a far less conspicuous cloak than Malum. 

Quintus and Malum reached for their weapons, but Astrid put her hands on the back of her head and walked right up to him. “Dìzǐ nǐ hǎo,” she told him, gaining a bow she did not return. “<Did you get the horses?>”

“<I’m sorry, dear disciple, there’s no one willing to risk their stock on such short notice. You’ll have to trek the Raze on foot, but I did manage to retrieve climbing tools for the trees.>” He then reached back and took out a satchel, which he opened to reveal the climbing gloves and ash-resistant boots for her and her friends. He even managed to get some in Quintus’s size.

“<You could only exceed expectations, brother disciple,>” she told him as she took the satchel herself.

“<I also offer myself to help lead you through the Raze, if you need.>”

Astrid pursed her lips as she thought on it. I can lead us through the Raze just fine… but if we die, or take too long, Lucy can’t wait forever. They’ll need her ships, even if it means leaving us behind.

Astrid nodded and told him, “<I can lead us through the Raze, but should we not return, you must show our ship captain back to the Secan. No need to lose more than necessary.>”

He bowed his head. “<I will serve best I can,>  kàn tàiyáng.”

Astrid bowed back this time as she returned the saying. The words praising the sun made her wince. 

You know believing me does not preclude you from believing in other deities,’ Lapis reminded her. ‘In fact, you certainly have to consider I am one among a family of many.

But the sun… the dreaded sun is the one who killed you.

That may be so, but the sun is a necessity for life. I don’t remember why he killed me, if he even truly did, but to act as if the sun has lost all meaning would be foolish. Even now, his floating corpse in the sky allows for you to keep your life.

Astrid didn’t respond to his point, but she did grit her teeth, and push on, leading their new companion and her friends with him. It took only a few words to explain what their companion was there for.

“You think it’s possible we don’t come back?” Quintus asked her.

“There’s always a chance we could die, during each and every moment, we could lose our lives,” Astrid told him.

“I don’t know about that, but it’s nice to see someone planning ahead, it’s a smart decision.” Astrid huffed listening to Malum’s attempt at a compliment.

Once they boarded the ship again, it was a matter of guiding the sailing master down the coast. Lucy avoided Astrid like the plague, stealing glances at the ax woman, who responded to her with open and blatant showings of her tongue. Astrid could never tell if the pirate was growing red with rage or embarrassment.

When they reached the mouth of the River Sol, Astrid was the lone person of importance who didn’t balk. Rather than balk at the beauty of Susanna like last time though, there was a look of horror as they gazed at a land that never stopped smoking. 

They couldn’t see too far into the Raze because smoke came in endless supply from pits in the ground. The shadows of the tree harden by molten magma made for deceiving silhouettes in the captain’s scope and the assassin’s eyes. 

“We’re really going in there?” Lucy muttered, her scope shaking in her hand as it fell from her eye.

Astrid hopped down behind her, expecting to spook the pirate, but Lucilla wasn’t fazed. Nothing would have shaken her more than the Raze. 

“And there’s more of this?” Astrid heard Quintus ask.

Malum told him, “It’s the size of a state, or a small country inside of Susanna. A third of the nation is uninhabitable, it’s understandable why we fight so hard for the land we have.”

“Is… is that bigger than the Ragnar?” Quintus asked.

“Raydorn’s forest of monsters? When looking from the outside.”

Quintus’s eyes fluttered at the way he answered, but he couldn’t focus enough on the assassin to press further.

Astrid watched the assassin closely as he hid underneath his cloak. He thinks it hides everything, but you can see the tells underneath. I would bet the world’s hope that his hand shakes along with everyone else’s.

The devil’s spawn isn’t exactly welcome here,’ Lapis reminded her.

No one’s really welcome here, except those born in the ash.

Astrid had her fill watching them all be scared, especially as it stalled their movement. She reminded everyone on the ship, “The Raze is a place where only the smallest of animals and the fewest of people can live. This isn’t the Ragnar, monsters aren’t going to jump out at you.”

Not even the ghosts that haunt the living would stay here.

“I thought the Raze was full of magma rivers?” Lucy asked her.

“Magma is what lies under the surface, so no, no magma rivers,” Astrid told her, smirking as the pirate gave a rather hateful glare. “But lava rivers? Those are all over, only the River Sol remains. You’ll wait in the first pool we see. It’s only a mile in once we enter.” 

“Oh,” Quintus mocked, “only a mile.”

Astrid turned and look up at him with a smirk fit for the real devil. “Fear is funny coming from you, Quint,” she said, “nothing in there can kill you, probably not even the magma.”

“I don’t know what animal lets him do that,” Lucy muttered.

“What do you mean?” he asked her.

“The beast for your beastmaster powers,” Lucy thought, “you know, the one that gives you your strength and like, insanely tough skin. I figured it was a bear, they tank dozens of arrows, but magma? Krone didn’t pair you with some kind of monster did they?”

“Uh…” Quintus was a loss for words, bowing his head, unprepared to answer such logical questions. As he looked so lost, Lucy clasped his shoulder.

“Nevermind, I’m sorry for asking, I’m sure it must have been traumatic.” 

Astrid shook her head. She gave him the out without even knowing.

The ax woman ignored how those two lied to themselves to help guide the sailing master. He listened intently to her, afraid to make a single mistake as they had begun to smell the ash. The scent fought its way over the smell of salt, despite how the wind blew with the crashing waves.

The ship was about to enter, and as it had begun to slow down, Lucy had instructed her sailing master to, “Take it slow.”

Turtles and ants already move faster, Astrid thought to herself.

“We’re going slow enough, stop slowing down and rip the bandaid off,” she said and turned to the crewmates looking to slow the boat down. “Slow yourselves and yer cowards!” Her attempt at a pirate voice was more distracting than convincing. “Are you going to spend all yer lives, taking everything slow? Speed through the dark!”

“Excuse me, are you the captain of this ship?!” Lucy yelled as she stopped up to the top deck, just as the ship rumbled.

“We’re going to get stuck on bumps if we don’t gain enough speed,” Astrid told her.

“Then why didn’t you tell me that?!” 

Astrid’s face twisted up in confusion. “Why would I tell you anything?” 

Lucy’s mouth opened a bit in shock, but then curved as it road up into her nose. 

You play a dangerous game constantly scorning her this way,’ Lapis warned her.

I give no quarter to the wicked. There isn’t enough room for the both of us.

Enough room? Enough room where? You have an entire ship from which you can avoid each other!

Lucy’s hand appeared to be moving towards her sword as the ship picked up pace, but then they passed by the first of the ash pits. 

Masks on, everyone!” Quintus yelled as person after person started covering their noses and mouths in some way. 

No wannabe tough guys on this… never mind.

Lucy had refused for a moment, wanting to glare into Astrid’s eyes, to show strength as her throat slowly burned. She thought holding her breath would let her hide the way her lungs convulsed and the gross way her stomach sucked into her chest for air.

All the while, Astrid stared back into her eyes unharmed, unyielding, and smiling.

As Lucy was about to fall back, Quintus had vaulted over the railing, skipping the top stairs to catch her. He handed her a mask as she began a deadly coughing fit. “Ladies, if you could give safety its day for but a moment…!”

He helped the pirate fit herself with a mask around her mouth as a dark hand and mask appeared by Astrid’s face. 

Malum offered it to her. “You should cover your mouth too, or does your ax give yourself an immunity to the ash?” 

“It’s the experience,” Astrid told him as she walked away from them, fists on her hips, and took the longest inhale of the ash and smoke-laden air she could. “The ax helps but… there’s nothing like ash and dust in the morning.”

Just as her coughing had calmed down, Lucy cursed, “She’s fucking mad as a hat, isn’t she?” 

Before Quintus could finishing his “um,” Lucy noticed his lack of a mask.

“How are you not suffocating?!”

“My beast had strong lungs,” he said, using the lie without hesitation now. 

Much better, Quintus.

Better? Can you not see the guilt in his eyes?’ Lapis told her.

Astrid looked to the way Quintus looked away from Lucy. She ignored how full of pity Lucy was to see that Quintus’s eyes twitched and trembled with guilt rather than trauma.

I understand the need to keep a secret, but it’s his fault to make friends with people he can’t trust.

He can trust you.

Can he? I wouldn’t betray him like Malum, or disappoint him like Lucy… but can he really count on me?

I do.

Hardly the same thing, you have no choice! Astrid did her best to mentally laugh in her head, just to drag out the longest and loudest groan from the fertility god could muster.

As they sailed, Malum and Quintus worked to keep the women separated, letting the guide Astrid recruited guide the sailing master. As they sailed to the first dock, Malum listened to Astrid list off the many places that had been unchanged since she grew up. The way nothing changed was hardly surprising to anyone, being that everything was trapped in hardened lava. But she entertained them at least.

Lucy needed Quintus to rub her shoulders to keep her harsh mutters from raising into violent bouts of rage.

They needed a distraction from the Raze. The land was safe to walk on for those with shoes, but the mind’s imagination proved inferior to the horrors the world provided. The lava had hardened everything from the houses, to the trees, to the rivers, and the bridges that loomed over them.

Homes that once housed familiars, appeared as monstrous faces crying out for help, likely storing many corpses inside. 

The plant life was less floric and far more eldritch. Their shapes were inconsistent as the magma had covered some branches together, and coated some on their own. Most were both smooth around the edges and sharp as a knife. They were eggs that had hatched and whatever they held had left its excess behind.

When they came to the first pool of water, the crew was at the point of cheering. Who would want to see what lied deeper into the Pantherlands? The Raze was enough to tell stories about.

These people would lose their lunch if they knew traders took this river through the whole of the Pantherlands.

As Astrid, Malum, and Quintus disembarked, the ax woman didn’t even bother to meet the pirate’s eyes. She ran down the plank like she were a decade and a half younger. Malum gave the pirate a mere nod, and Quintus stopped to speak to her.

“If we’re gone too long…”

“Quint, I’m not leaving without you, so try to make it quick,” she said, punching him on the shoulder. “If I came back without you, Andy may just gut me…” 

Her eyes turned to Astrid as the disciple was kissing the ground, singing songs about finally being home. “Now if you wanted to leave the cultist behind…”

Quintus’s brows grew stern in response. “Lucy…

She just shrugged, and avoided his eye. “Not everyone can be as kind as you, Quint.”

“If hiding one’s contempt is a kindness, I fear for the world.”

She couldn’t help but laugh a little at that. “Oh, you should have told me you were a poet, I’d remind you that I’ve been studying to become a critic.” Quintus managed a little smirk. “Now get out of here.”

Quintus shook his head as he walked down the plank, and at the bottom, Malum was there to meet him. They both shared a look, and then shared a little shake of the head.

Stupid men, Astrid thought herself, as she continued to pretend that she didn’t see.

“Which direction should we go, Astrid?” Malum asked her.

“North is the only way we can go,” she said as she pointed ahead of them. “The Raze is barely longer than the two or three city streets at Iron Rock. If we step on the Pantherlands, our shoes will burn.”

“You were telling the truth when you said the search would be simple,” Malum said.

“Did you think I would lie?”

Malum had walked up beside her, and stopped when she questioned him. He looked down at her, letting his mask protect his expression in a way Lucy’s own face could not hers.

“Everyone embellishes the truth,” he told her, “each and everyone, so I appropriately doubt each and every one. You’d be less offended if you realized I’m going to treat you the same as everyone else.”
Rather than frown and glare, Astrid chuckled and gave Malum a light elbow. “Treat me like everyone else, you say? But I’m far too special to be treated like everyone else.”

“I can treat you with greater suspicion,” Malum offered.


That backfired on you,’ Lapis said, and as she walked forward, not answering him. He reminded her, ‘You don’t need to play games with people every moment of every day.’ 

You’re right, I’ll take your advice to heart and not bother you for the rest of the day.

As Lapis balked at her response, Astrid led them to what could only be a tree. It had fallen over onto its head as the lava pooled there. The long trunk that was taller than any house, and served as a long bridge over many of the houses that were in their way. 

Astrid only needed to point and head towards it for Malum and Quintus to realize she wanted to walk over it. With the hardened lava that had dripped down from its trunk, the tree looked more like a giant’s ribcage than anything. 

But from up close it didn’t look like anything. 

“We’ll make slow progress if we move this slow,” Malum told his companions.

Astrid turned back only to smile. Before Quintus could warn her against anything, she had begun to race up and along the tree’s trunk. Before Quintus could yell, Malum raced after her.

The poor man let his arms slump at his sides. “Why did I have to come on this mission?” he complained before he took a deep breath and started to run after him. He struggled to catch up as he tried to balance on the tree. He could have fallen on his side each way and still hit flat ground, the tree’s trunk was that wide, but it still made his stomach rumble.

That may have been the first tree Astrid led them through, but it would not be the last. She climbed and swung through lava-covered trees and houses like a monkey, with Malum following after her like a wraith. 

Quintus struggled, sometimes falling and following them from the ground.

They had to constantly wait for the tall man to catch up, and each time Astrid found herself with too much time to think. Every glance she took became a memory if she stared too long for just a moment.

It’s okay, to be sad,’ Lapis told her, expecting her to gripe and talk about having better things to do.

Astrid lept from the ribcage of a monster to an ethereal strand of a tree, without a word. 

You can pretend to ignore me, but it’s your curse to hang onto my every word.

Astrid’s hand twitched a little, and when she needed to grip something, it nearly made her slip. 


Malum’s hand was there to catch her and keep her from falling. “Are you alright?” 

She took her hand away, and flashed him a smile, before falling back off the tree. 

Astrid!” he called as he reached for her, but she was falling several stories to her death before he could touch her.

She laughed her way down.


It nearly knocked the wind out of her when Quintus leaped up to catch her. But she managed to laugh as they sailed through the air a bit longer until he landed and slid across the dirt.

“Have you lost your mind?!” Quintus yelled at her, but she only patted his chest and snickered to herself.

“Thanks, Quinty, that branch was going to snap with two people on it.”

“So you jumped?”

“Of course!”

“How did you know I would catch you?”

“Huh? I had no idea you’d catch me,” Astrid told him as she trotted on, leaving him shellshocked. 

They met Malum on the ground after nearly a mile or two when they began to smell… smoke. Now, smoke does not smell important in the Raze, certainly not to Quintus or Malum, but Astrid could tell the difference between volcanic ash and oil. 

In fact, it had her sniffing the air as they came over the crest of a crater. She knelt down, and nearly curved her neck like a dog to smell it, making her companions trade looks. Then they realized how par for the course this had become and found themselves shirking it off.

“We’re close, they’re down there,” she told them, as she pointed for a brief moment into the crater, but they couldn’t see anything with the smoke around it. Or at least the smoke that appeared to be around it.

“That’s impossible,” Malum said, only for Astrid to make him eat his words and jump down, sliding across the smooth and ash-covered landscape until she went flying into the smoke.

Quintus turned to him to smirk and say, “Clearly, the impossible is something we expect to defy every day now.” Then he jumped to follow Astrid, though he hurt his bum in his landing.

Malum watched him disappear, and wasn’t entirely keen to follow. “You mistake overcoming what appears impossible with overcoming what actually is,” he said to himself as he leaped forward, seemingly gliding with the cape of his cloak. 

When he passed through the smoke, he found that there was little impossible about making it though a thick smoke geiser, rather than a true smoking pit in the ground. The smoke trail circled this small depot, a little treehouse made of scrap and molten rock. They weren’t actually in a molten crater like the many they’ve passed. They had found a spot to hide that only looked like one.

Now that they were in the smoke, Malum and Quintus had begun to smell the difference between the burning oil and the smoke of the earth. One was suffocating, and one was as scented as you can get.

“How much you wanna bet that’s where our target is?” Malum said as he kneeled down to overlook the compound built into the tree.

After a moment, he felt a tug on his cloak. 

Astrid was batting it out of her face with disgust. “Put that thing away if you’re not gonna keep it clean.”

Malum grumbled and pulled it to himself.

“So…” Quintus started, “how should we… proceed?”

“Sneak in.”


Malum and Astrid both turned and looked at each other.

“Why would you want to run in half-cocked?” Malum asked her.

Astrid arched her brow and pursed her lip. “I know it’s been a while since your wife passed, but girls don’t have half a cock.”

“Oh, fucking hell.”

“Also,” she said as she raised her rod with its invisible axehead, “it’s been too long since I’ve used this.”

Malum stared at her as if a response was formulating in his head, but how could one respond to Astrid?

No one talks around me.

Malum turned to Quintus and told him, “I’m going to scope out the place, and when I come back we’ll make a plan.”

“Wait,” Astrid mumbled as Malum turned and jumped down, ignoring her completely, “that’s not our plan!”

Before she could say another word, Quintus covered her mouth with her hand. “This is what he’s built for. You may enjoy the idea of slaughter, but the rest of us like to actually avoid a fight… believe it or not.”

Astrid’s eyes narrowed on him, with his hand still on her mouth.

Fuck you, she thought, before she licked his palm. “Eww, Astrid!

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