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Wind and Stone

By Jessica Payseur


Published by JMS Books LLC at Smashwords

Visit jms-books.com for more information.


Copyright 2017 Jessica Payseur

ISBN 9781634864763

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Cover Design: Written Ink Designs | written-ink.com

Image(s) used under a Standard Royalty-Free License.

All rights reserved.


WARNING: This book is not transferable. It is for your own personal use. If it is sold, shared, or given away, it is an infringement of the copyright of this work and violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

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This book is for ADULT AUDIENCES ONLY. It may contain sexually explicit scenes and graphic language which might be considered offensive by some readers. Please store your files where they cannot be accessed by minors.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published in the United States of America.

* * * *

Wind and Stone

By Jessica Payseur

Chapter 1: Talfryn

Lily was losing too much blood. Talfryn could feel the increased tension in the room, despite not having said a word about it, and tried to ignore it. He needed to stay calm and collected, and he needed to stop the bleeding, or she would die, and soon.

“Why isn’t she crying?” asked Myrna, standing nearby holding Lily’s infant. “There’s something wrong with her.”

“I’ll have a look at her in a moment,” said Talfryn, keeping his swearing to himself. Lily’s light skin was paler than ever and her breathing was poor. Again he wished the midwife wasn’t at a house halfway around the mountain—he was only an apothecary, after all, and while he’d attended births and assisted with spells and potions, the actual delivery portion of the event was not something he was overly skilled in.

“I’m sure Dad’ll be back soon with the midwife,” said Akton, his voice helping Talfryn to relax. The man he loved sounded calm, words firm reassurance. “I gave him my horse. There’s been no snow in days. He’ll bring her back.”

Talfryn concentrated on keeping Lily warm as he considered how to stop the bleeding. Though he generally kept it a secret, he was a salamander shifter, and therefore had extensive flame abilities. Abilities that he’d honed to kill a few short months ago. Abilities that could also aid. He used them now to keep the bed warm, heat the water, cause the lanterns to burn bright. If Myrna noticed, she wasn’t saying anything about it.

He gave Lily one of his spell packets that should help the bleeding and waited, keeping her comfortable and observing. He’d given her something for the pain during labor, and he swallowed as he thought she’d at least be relaxed if she died now. He didn’t want her to die. She wasn’t supposed to die.

Talfryn could feel Akton’s green eyes on him, watching, waiting for any direction Talfryn gave. Since they had returned from the Queen’s City, certain they wanted to stay together, Akton had been helping Talfryn more and more. He was less like an apprentice and more like an assistant, but Talfryn liked working with him and knew without a doubt he could count on him.

“Myrna,” said Talfryn, not wanting to think what would happen if he let this woman die. Lily was Myrna’s wife of years, this was their second child, and Akton had made him well aware of just how important every last person was out here in the rugged mountainside. They weren’t even a proper town, just a haphazard collection of homes and farms surviving on whatever work they could.

“Will Lily be fine now?” she asked.

Nearing his late twenties, Talfryn had witnessed death a few times, sometimes had even killed. Nothing ever made it easy, but he was an expert at making his face unreadable. He nodded to the bed.

“I gave her something that should help staunch the bleeding, but I think you ought to lie next to her. She’s very cold. I’m sure Akton can take his niece for a few minutes.”

“I’ll promise not to drop her,” said Akton. The quiet, pink baby was passed from bloodless sister to pale brother, and Myrna settled into bed next to Lily. Talfryn examined her as Myrna stroked her hair and murmured to her.

“Don’t let her sleep,” he said, very concerned now. His spell had decreased the loss, certainly, but he didn’t think it would stop the blood in time to save her life.

He glanced back at Akton. His white arms wrapped around the infant stood out in the highly lit room, the concern in his eyes shining directly at Talfryn, letting him know he understood the situation. He took a step forward as Talfryn found himself edging close to panic. He couldn’t panic—if he did, Lily would definitely die. But he didn’t know what else to do.

“Tal,” he said, voice low.

“I don’t know—”

“I’ll get you another spell,” said Akton, not allowing him to say he wasn’t sure he could keep Lily from dying. Talfryn shook his head.

“Spells won’t help,” he said. Akton’s gaze hardened.

“Then what are you going to do?”

Talfryn turned back to where Lily lay and swallowed. He didn’t have long to decide, but even when his mind found a solution, he still hesitated. It was Myrna who snapped him out of it.

“She’s dying, isn’t she,” she said, not a question, leaning up from where she was. Lily had passed out anyway.

“I can think of one other way to stop the bleeding, but you won’t like it. This will be her last child.”

“Will it kill her?” asked Myrna. Talfryn shook his head.

“Not likely, but the bleeding definitely will.”

“Do it,” said Myrna, and turned back to hold her wife. She didn’t even ask what it was, which was just as well. Although she vaguely knew of Talfryn’s shifter abilities, he doubted she would very much like what he was about to do. He didn’t much like it.

He’d never cauterized anyone before, not with his flame powers. He would have to be so delicate, so very precise…and so very fast. He took a deep breath, cleared his mind, and summoned his connection to fire. It crackled through him, a warm, excited friend, and he concentrated, recalled all the times he’d done precise work with it. He’d struggled to warm cloth without igniting it at first, but there was no room for error now. His first time using it to stop bleeding would have to be perfect.

Talfryn closed his eyes, rested his hands on Lily, and began.

* * * *

Chapter 2: Akton

There were times when Akton wished he could give Talfryn some of his healing abilities, just wrap his arms around him tight enough and pass it on to him. At the moment all he could offer was the embrace, holding to Talfryn in their makeshift bed on the floor. It had been hours and Akton had asked him to shift before sleep, but Talfryn had refused, and Akton couldn’t really blame him. He’d never shifted to his weasel form at home, even while alone, and he understood Talfryn not wanting to become a vulnerable salamander here.

Talfryn had been exhausted when they laid down not more than ten minutes ago. Akton had watched him drift off to sleep, amber eyes closing, rich brown face relaxing, body giving up its tenseness under Akton’s arm. He closed his eyes as well, waking to find he’d rolled over and Talfryn was curled up against his back.

“There you are,” said a voice Akton placed after a few moments as the midwife’s.

She’d eventually arrived, a middle-aged white woman who looked more awake than Akton had expected, considering she’d been at another birthing when his father had found her. Talfryn had been relieved to let her take over so he could wash up, fall exhausted into bed.

“He’s asleep,” he said, but Talfryn yawned and sat up.

“I’m awake enough to know if Lily made it,” he said, and Akton swallowed. He didn’t want to think about what his sister would be like without her wife by her side. The midwife sighed.

“Yes, though as you know, it was a close one. She might yet die. Only had one person come back for me after losing that much blood. Not sure when it stopped. What’s that spell you used?”

Talfryn indicated his pack and Akton rose to retrieve a packet to give the woman. He knew that was not what had saved Lily—Talfryn had mentioned using his flame powers, and Akton didn’t like to think about it—but he wasn’t about to tell the midwife he was a shifter, either. She took the packet, opened it, smelled it. Talfryn listed off the ingredients and offered what he had to her.

“Do you want me to have a look at the baby again?” he asked. Akton stood and peered out the window to late morning light.

“No, no,” said the midwife, shaking her head. “She’s fine. Just wanted to know what you did. I’d better get back to Lily now.”

They stayed longer than usual, several weeks, Talfryn and the midwife taking turns watching over Lily for several days before the midwife left. Akton was itching to get going again—he and Talfryn were still figuring out their style of doing things, and he hated remaining in one place for too long. This didn’t seem to distress Talfryn much, who was probably used to staying put from when he assisted his mother at the apothecary back in Teorg. But Akton had been on the move since he was very young, trapping and trading, making supply runs and generally never staying too long in one place.

When Talfryn told Lily and Myrna what he’d done, they cried. Talfryn had spent the entire day out of the house and Akton hadn’t bothered looking for him.

“They have two children already,” he said when Talfryn returned for bed.

“I wouldn’t remind them of that,” said Talfryn. “Not now, at least.” He paused. “Tomorrow?”

“What about it?” asked Akton, unsure whether he should wrap his arm around Talfryn or not. Another thing that made him so itchy about being here was the lack of sex. They could probably manage something, either in a back room or out in the woods, but he wouldn’t have been very interested in it and he suspected Talfryn knew it. Consequently, snuggling made him hard every time now.

“Let’s get out of here.”

Akton wasn’t about to argue with that. They packed up the next day and left, heading down the path back toward Teorg. Mostly in the two months since they’d been back they traveled between his home and Talfryn’s, bringing news and medicine, trading for people. Everyone seemed to want something, seemed to need Talfryn’s talents or potions. It occurred to Akton that if they weren’t doing it all for free they could make a decent profit. But neither of them cared to accept any payment beyond food and place to stay.

He knew it still wore on Talfryn as much as on him what they’d done. They had killed a lot of people. True, it had been to save Emylnor, and he didn’t think it had been the wrong decision—he simply wished he hadn’t been in the place where he had to make it.

“Stop for Eizyn?” asked Talfryn as they came upon the ruins of a town. This had been the closest real village to Akton’s home, though it had still been smaller than Teorg. Akton silently pulled up his horse and dismounted.

After the winter, it was more difficult to see where the buildings had been. The ashes were mush or dried mush, bits of green poking through as spring insisted on reclaiming the land. Akton walked through the place, remembering the people he knew, refusing to think of watching Eizyn burn. It had been what had gotten him mixed up in everything.

But that had meant it had brought him and Talfryn together, too. He returned to his horse and got back on.

“Thanks,” he said to Talfryn, who merely nodded. Akton leaned over, grabbed Talfryn’s shoulder, and brought them together for a kiss. Overhead, birds sang.

* * * *

Chapter 3: Lochlann

Arvi never stopped working, as far as Lochlann could tell. His sibling was always either selling maps or drawing them up—that is, when they weren’t on the road crafting new maps. As far as cartographers went, Arvi was dedicated. As far as siblings went, they were annoying.

“Cake again?” they asked when Lochlann returned from work, box pinned between his small left arm and chest. Arvi didn’t look up.

“This was the last of the day-old stuff. It didn’t sell reduced, so we get it.” Lochlann dropped it off in the kitchen and returned to where Arvi was reorganizing several crocks of scrolls. “I can make a market run. Should be some deals there now that it’s the end of the day.”

“Great. Get rid of the spider in the corner for me first?”

Lochlann shot his sibling an annoyed look but they were muttering to themself and searching for something. He sighed. Because Arvi was constantly working, he did more chores. Because the rooms above the cartographer’s shop he lived in belonged to Arvi, he felt like he had to do something more to contribute. But Lochlann really hated dealing with spiders.

“Can’t you handle it?”

Arvi frowned harder at a scroll they were opening.

“You’re so much better at it. You’ve got the talent.”

By that they meant that Lochlann had the powers of a strong shifter. True, he could shift to griffin and back—if there was enough room, he hadn’t done it in years—but his smaller left arm shifted with him and resulted in a foreleg and a wing that couldn’t bear his weight. It was fun as a child, when he was small enough to still move around a room, but now he took up too much space to shift in the city if he wasn’t going to spend his time flying.

The abilities, though, he could still manage. In fact, he was good at them. Being a griffin had given him decent control over both air and the earth, stones and dirt and the like. When no one was watching, Lochlann could use the skills to compensate for his left arm being limited. When people were around, he could manage anyway. But it was only ever Arvi who specifically requested he use his shifter skills. Then again, it was only Arvi who knew about Lochlann being a shifter to begin with.

Lochlann didn’t care to argue. He located the spider and let his shifter powers surge within him. He stirred them up like mixing a cake at work, then used them little by little, drew them out like a strand of frosting. Spiders were a bother because in their struggle to get away from Lochlann’s tiny cocoon of air they would often tangle themselves in their own webbing. This one he managed to catch off-guard and scooped it up with little problem before sending it through the open window and into a potted plant across the street.

“Done,” he said. “Anything in particular you wanted me to pick up?”

“Tomatoes, if they’re a good price and any of the greenhouses have them yet,” said Arvi. “And thanks.”

Lochlann rolled his eyes, retrieved his bag for shopping at the market, and slid it onto his left arm. If he put it up against his shoulder and pinned the handles right, it didn’t get in the way and wouldn’t fall. He was about to cross to the door when it opened. A teenager of about fifteen entered, skin deep brown, hair pulled back like she didn’t care to deal with it, brown eyes flicking about the room on a mission. She was wearing red; he glanced at Arvi and saw their eyes light up. They liked chatting with good-looking customers.

“Good afternoon,” they said. “Would you like help searching for a map?”

Lochlann felt her eyes on him, then her gaze skipped over to Arvi and she smiled. He always wondered what impression people had of the two of them. They were siblings, true, but Arvi was younger and smaller than he was, in their early twenties rather than Lochlann’s twenty-eight years. He was broader than Arvi, too, his skin was bronze-brown but not as deep as Arvi’s, which was tanned darker from frequent trips outside to draw up new maps. Lochlann’s arm drew attention he didn’t like, whereas Arvi seemed to be able to charm just about anyone with a smile that drew people to their eyes.

“Thank you, no,” she said. “My name is Wren. I’m here for your brother.”

Arvi glanced back at Lochlann, curious. He stared. He’d never met her before.

“I don’t…think I know you,” said Lochlann, but Wren only smiled.

“Child of Wind and Stone,” she said. “There is a long journey ahead of us.”

Lochlann didn’t know what to say. He was uneasy with the idea that she could know he was a shifter with powers, and what exactly those were. He didn’t show off, and the last time he’d shifted to griffin he hadn’t even been in Lethrin.

“What?”

“He doesn’t understand you,” said Arvi, crossing their arms. They gave Wren a smile. “I’m a little confused as well. What journey?”

Wren sighed.

“I’m Child of Life and Death,” she said. “We’re to go meet Child of Flame and Child of Snow. There is…a very real danger about to burst forth. Emlynor would not survive. This will all become clearer in time, but for now we must get on the road.”

Lochlann stared at her.

“My brother…” began Arvi. “You’re saying he’s some sort of important, chosen person?”

“Not exactly. But I do need someone like him. Will you come with me?”

“How?” asked Lochlann.

“Did I know? Does it matter?” Wren glanced at the window. “Why don’t you sleep on it?”

Lochlann glanced at Arvi, who was looking thoughtful.

“Yes, Lochlann,” they said. “Why don’t you?”

* * * *

Chapter 4: Talfryn

The first thing to do was open up the windows and let in a little light. Some fresh air wouldn’t go amiss, either. Talfryn moved around the small home doing so, walking through the newly illuminated dust motes to the old ladder to the loft to get the one window up there, too.

“Did this person ever clean?” asked Akton, scowling around the place.

“They were on bedrest by the end,” said Talfryn. He was trying not to think too much about the former occupant of the house, an old fisherperson who had passed on while he and Akton were out dealing with basilisk shifters and rogue militias.

“Are you sure this is what they would’ve wanted?”

“No,” said Talfryn, getting annoyed now. He swung back down the ladder and fixed Akton with a look telling him to shut up about the dead. “But it’s a good place to establish a library. Close to the center of Teorg, along the main road.”

“It’s because they lived here for eight decades. Glenna was telling me how much Teorg has grown just since she took you in.”

“Enough to finally get its own library,” said Talfryn. He took a breath and looked around the space, then descended into a coughing fit. Akton moved over and clapped him on the back.

“Careful,” he said, and retrieved the water they’d brought with the lunch Talfryn’s mother had packed for them. Glenna hadn’t objected when Talfryn told her he was buying the old house with some of his stipend from work for the queen, but he doubted she liked it. She wanted him to take over the apothecary for her eventually, and she very much wanted him to get married and move a family into the place.

“Thanks,” said Talfryn, and passed the water to Akton. “I guess to get started we ought to sweep and scrub.”

“I don’t see what you’re even going to do with the place,” said Akton, turning to observe the home. It was small, but then, Talfryn didn’t think much was needed at first.

“You’re going to put up some shelves for me.” Talfryn indicated the walls between the windows. “That should be more than enough for now. I have a few stacks of books to contribute.”

“But you travel. And I know you, Tal, you’re a healer at heart, regardless of…” Akton trailed off and they both looked awkwardly away, neither of them much caring to talk about their recent adventures.

“It’s going to be an honor system,” said Talfryn. “I’m not locking the place up. I’ll keep the bed up in the loft for anyone who needs it, and people can come and go—sign out a book at the desk I want to put there, return it when they can. Get a few places to sit in here. Hopefully once it’s all put together I’ll only have to stop by to tidy and add new books.”

Talfryn could see it already, a couple of comfortable chairs, a few benches, another table. The fisherperson’s things would have to be cleared out—the kitchen table could be kept, as could the bed in the loft—but once it was clean and the shelves were up, it would be an excellent place to do research or relax. He would have loved someplace like this as a child.

“I love it when you get excited like that,” said Akton, interrupting his vision. Talfryn smiled at him.

“And I love how you hate it but are still here with me.”

“I don’t hate it,” said Akton immediately. “I just don’t see the point.”

Talfryn stepped closer and took Akton’s hand.

“What if your sister wanted to know how to identify a rock she dug up? She could come here, trade a little, and research it—maybe it’s worth something. What if your niece wanted to study in a larger city? Having an accessible library would help with that. What if all of you up in the mountains are tired of passing the same five novels around? You could borrow one from here for a few months.”

Akton turned to him, mischief in his eyes.

“All right, I concede. You have a point.”

“You capitulated fast,” said Talfryn, leaning in for a kiss. “Usually you’re more stubborn than this. What do you want?”

Akton closed the gap between them and brought their lips together. Talfryn responded, kissed back, wrapped his arms around Akton, and grabbed his ass. They’d had a bit of hurried sex in Talfryn’s room at the apothecary since they’d returned, but it had been quick, hands and mouths without getting fully undressed together. Talfryn’s heart sped as their mouths met hungrily. He wanted more.

Akton pulled back a little.

“I think you know what I want,” he said. Talfryn glanced to the windows. “I’ll pull the curtains again, you get your clothes off.”

They kissed again. Talfryn had his shirt halfway off when a knock at the door caused Akton to swear.

“I’ll get it,” said Talfryn, pulling his clothes back on and crossing to the door, checking himself quick to see just how visible his bulge was. At the moment, not much, and the loose shirt helped. Akton remained standing by the window.

Talfryn opened the door to a tired-looking rider, horse just beyond her in the street. She dug around in her satchel until she pulled out a thick piece of paper, folded and sealed. When Talfryn took it he saw Queen Ylenia’s seal on it, fuchsia wax, hawk imprint dusted gold. He glanced back up at the rider, who yawned.

“I’ll be at the local inn tonight,” she said. “Bring your response there.”

Talfryn thanked her and turned back to Akton, seeing the question on his face.

“It’s a letter from Ylenia,” he said.

“Shit,” said Akton.

* * * *

Chapter 5: Akton

“I thought we were supposed to send her reports,” said Akton as Talfryn shut the door and walked over to show him the letter. “I didn’t realize she’d be contacting us.”

“She said if she had instructions, or was paying us,” said Talfryn. He stared at the letter without opening it.

Akton didn’t want to think about it either. The first time they’d met Queen Ylenia she’d admitted them into her shifter forces known as the Kynithremyln; the second, she refused to let them leave. They were to obey her for life, with certain permissions. Ylenia had told them they could return home, write her updates, and have their skills occasionally requested. Akton had thought that meant she wouldn’t be needing them for a while. Talfryn had only written her one update—to say they’d arrived in Teorg—and wasn’t planning on sending another until the next season.

“There’s no package with it, so no money,” said Akton. Neither of them particularly liked the conclusion that the letter must contain directives from Ylenia.

“I thought we’d have more time,” said Talfryn, then slid a finger under the paper to pry it free from the wax.

“It’s probably nothing,” said Akton. “Telling us to take care of something in this section of Emylnor. What could possibly happen so soon after having taken care of someone trying to overthrow her?”

As Talfryn shook his head another knock sounded on the door. Akton swore, but Talfryn was reading the letter now, so he went over to answer it.

Akton was not prepared for who was standing just outside. One person he didn’t know at all, a man who peered warily around, wearing clothes tailored to fit the smaller arm at his left side. But the person next to him Akton was sure he’d met before—the cartographer in Lethrin, maybe? They at least resembled that annoying person who sold Talfryn a map book and not a just a single map sheet. And the girl—young woman—who’d knocked looked familiar.

Akton had a bad feeling about this.

“Yes?” he asked. He didn’t know everyone from Teorg yet, but these people were definitely not from around here. “Can I help you with something?”

“I mentioned we’d meet again, Child of Snow,” said the young woman. Akton stared at her and resisted the urge to run his hand through his hair. The white that showed up over winter was nearly gone, but there were still a few strands here and there and he was self-conscious of them now.

“Wren,” he said. He couldn’t forget her, the six-year-old child they’d met in rubble who had given him rue—yet this girl couldn’t be claiming to be her. “What does she want? Why did she tell you to find us?”

Her mouth turned up in a kind of smile.

“I’m Wren,” she said. “I have aged some.” Akton opened his mouth but she didn’t give him the opportunity to speak. “This is Arvi, a cartographer, whom I believe you met in Lethrin. And this is Arvi’s brother, Lochlann, also from there and specializing in confectionaries. Please, invite us in.”

“Talfryn,” said Akton, almost shocked he hadn’t been joined. When he glanced over his shoulder he saw Talfryn reading the letter, frown on his face. Akton pulled back the door and gestured for them to come in. Arvi looked around unimpressed while Wren examined the back of the letter Talfryn was reading. Akton noticed Lochlann was taking him in rather more than expected.

“I see you correspond with Ylenia,” said Wren. Talfryn looked up and blinked at her.

“Yes, that’s Wren,” said Akton. “But I don’t know how.”

“I’ve aged myself rapidly,” she said, taking off her pack. Arvi and Lochlann followed suit. “As rapidly as I dared, at least.” She looked at the backs of her hands. “I hope it’s enough. He knows enough by now to catch me when I’m young.”

“I don’t understand,” said Talfryn.

“Why are you here?” asked Akton. “And why did you bring these two?”

“I’m here only for the new maps,” said Arvi. Akton turned to look at Lochlann, who was standing a little removed but nevertheless keeping watch of everything happening. He held himself well, Akton noticed, and had a face he liked. He blinked, wondering why he was sizing up the other man like this.

“I’ll get to the point, then,” said Wren.

“I wish you would. You never did last time.”

“Akton,” said Talfryn sharply, and he shut up.

“Child of Snow,” said Wren, indicating Akton with one hand, then Talfryn with the other, “and Child of Flame. Allow me to introduce Child of Wind and Stone,” here the hand toward Akton shifted toward Lochlann, the other, to herself, “and Child of Life and Death.”

“You want us together,” said Talfryn. Wren let her hands fall back to her sides.

“Of course. I did mention this before.” She paused. “I think…this would all be better discussed over a meal.”

“No,” said Akton, “I don’t think it’s better discussed at all.”

“You’ll probably change your mind,” said Lochlann, and all eyes turned on him. “Wren has had clear indications that there’s a situation brewing at the border with the Dragon Realm. I…wasn’t going to go, either, but if there’s something I can do…” He trailed off and shrugged.

The poor man didn’t know what he was getting into with Wren. Akton almost felt sorry for him. He glanced at Talfryn, who looked completely at a loss.

“We’re in the Kynithremyln now,” he said, and Akton nodded agreement. Wren scowled.

“What a terrible decision,” she said, crossing her arms. “Well, it doesn’t much matter. Update her if you want, the old hag.” Her face showed surprise as Talfryn and Akton’s eyes met. “Oh? Ylenia’s turned over again? Early.”

“She was…having a difficult time mentally,” said Talfryn. Wren nodded.

“Well. That certainly changes my view on things. I haven’t met her in years, so she won’t remember me. And now that she’s changed…”

“I doubt she would want us running off with you,” said Akton. Wren brushed that away.

“She won’t have much choice. Ylenia, for all she is powerful and well-informed, doesn’t understand the dragons as I do. She will want us exactly where we’re going.”

“I have to agree with Akton,” said Talfryn, holding up the letter. “This…is a summons. She wants us back to the Queen’s City. We’re going to war with the Dragon Realm.”

* * * *

Chapter 6: Lochlann

“Obviously you can’t go,” said Wren. Lochlann looked from Akton to Talfryn, wondering what sort of shifters they must be. That Wren lumped them all in together, that they were Kynithremyln, meant they had to be…then he considered whether they both knew he was a shifter himself. He was uneasy with the idea.

“Obviously we have to go,” said Akton. “We’re Kynithremyln. To go against the queen’s orders is to ask for death.”

Lochlann caught his sibling’s eye across the room before looking away. Arvi had tried to convince him to join but he’d refused. He doubted Queen Ylenia wanted someone like him anyway. What use was a griffin who couldn’t fly? He had these visions of her Kynithremyln all shifting and wending off to special missions on her behalf, and he never fit that.

Wren rolled her eyes.

“What is the Queen of Emylnor asking of you, then?” She nodded toward Talfryn. “Maybe our paths align, and we’ll walk together.”

Talfryn shook his head. Lochlann studied him a bit more closely. He’d thought Akton was attractive, but Talfryn certainly was, too. He tried to pull himself together. They were discussing war and orders and here he was, eyeing the men in the room, wondering what kind of a chance he’d have with either of them. Maybe more of one if they all ended up traveling together.

“She summons us immediately back to Ylenia,” said Talfryn, summarizing as he read. “Officially, as Kynithremyln. Dragon forces have been attacking along the borders, and at least one city has also turned on her.”

“So they didn’t get all Basil’s people out from the Guard,” said Akton, shaking his head. “Shit.”

“The dragons must be taking the opportunity after Emylnor’s been weakened,” said Talfryn, then, “She doesn’t say what she wants us for, but she does mention we’ll be on a special mission.”

“With me,” said Wren. “Don’t stare at me like that. This isn’t a prime opportunity being taken. This was planned. He wanted Ylenia to be weakened all along.”

“Who?” asked Talfryn.

“The Dragon Lord,” said Lochlann, aware everyone was looking at him again. Wren had explained everything to him and Arvi on the trek over to this tiny town. “Lord Fanglyr Reynox. He’s supposed to be ancient—he’s the one Queen Ylenia originally had her famous battle with. He’s been wanting to take Emylnor ever since.”

“So you were listening,” said Wren. “Good. We need to all work together on this.”

“Ylenia told you that you were our secret mission?” asked Akton. Wren laughed.

“Ylenia doesn’t even know I exist, unless they keep good records up at the palace. Whatever mission she’s sending you on, this one’s more important: we have to stop Lord Reynox.”

Talfryn shook his head.

“No,” he said. “I’m not doing this again. One arrogant megalomaniac is enough. I will go to the Queen’s City, and I will do whatever it is she tells me to do, but I’m not going down this path again.”

“You have no choice,” said Wren. “You and Akton have too much valuable experience from dealing with that basilisk.” She paused. “And I think on a personal level you’ll be happy you decided to stand by my side when this is all over.”

To Lochlann’s surprise, Akton turned to him.

“Do you believe anything she’s saying?” he asked. Like he trusted Lochlann.

“Yes,” he said. “She’s shown me things.”

“Like her little fire trick?” asked Akton, but Wren’s voice came between them.

“Enough. We’ve been dancing around this for too long. Yes, we’re all shifters—with the exception of Arvi.”

“I really am just around for the maps,” they said, then indicated the door. “Shall I step out?”

Wren nodded.

“We won’t be long. Close up the rest of the windows, too.”

She waited and an uncomfortable silence fell. Lochlann was about to say something when Akton spoke first.

“Are you going to shift first, then?” he asked. Wren didn’t seem to care how coldly he acted toward her and Lochlann wondered how they knew each other, what had happened between them. Akton seemed verging on pissed with her.

“Powers first,” said Talfryn, glancing at Lochlann for a moment before Akton. “That was how we were introduced, after all. You want me to show off my flame.”

“And I do what?” asked Akton. “No, wait, never mind. I don’t want anyone cutting me.” He noticed Lochlann staring at him. “I heal better than normal. Especially with rue. No scars, even.”

Lochlann found that impressive. He himself had used shifting to help with the scrapes and bruises of youth—until his parents stressed enough it was dangerous to remain shifted while asleep, even in your own home. Anyone in Lethrin could stumble on your secret. People treated him poorly often enough without assuming he was a threat.

“Flame, then,” said Talfryn, showing a palm full of fire for a moment. Lochlann had to look away when their eyes met. “And you?”

“Wind and ground,” said Lochlann. He gestured to the room with his right hand. “You were thinking about cleaning in here, right? Crack a window and let me handle it for you.”

Talfryn’s eyebrow raised but he turned and did so. Lochlann stirred up his magic, forcing back the nervousness as much as he could, and then guided it around the room. The dirt and grime all sprung up, out from every crack, peeled away from every wall, and the air he manipulated blew it out the window. Talfryn’s eyes lit up.

“Thanks—that saved us hours,” he said.

Akton scowled at him. “With everything happening you’re still thinking about a library?”

Talfryn grinned at him now. Wren cleared her throat.

“I manipulate everything,” she said, and burst into a surging mass of elements. This—along with Arvi’s insistence they were going along for new maps—was what had convinced Lochlann he ought to at least travel with her for a while. Fire wound up one of Wren’s arms, dirt and splinters along another. A whirlwind sprung up at her feet. She twirled a finger and a little corkscrew of water encircled it. Then, in a moment, it was gone.

Akton and Talfryn pulled their gazes from her to stare at each other. Lochlann braced himself for what he knew was coming.

“And we’ll all shift as one,” said Wren. “Now.”

Lochlann still hadn’t shifted in years, not even on the way to Teorg. But it was something a person’s body didn’t forget, the feel of reassembling yourself to a new, comfortable shape. He took up more room as a griffin, all bronze feathers and golden fur, and he flexed both his wings, testing them. They were same as always.

He looked over at Akton’s form first, expecting something large, finding instead a weasel on the floor. Talfryn likewise was a smaller shifter, a salamander with his head held high. Wren, however, was glorious. Lochlann blinked, unable to stop staring at her. She shone, feathers like the sun, as she flapped her wings steadily to remain airborne. Then she allowed herself to drift down to the floor where she tilted her head and examined them each in turn.

When she shifted back they followed, all three of them gaping at her. Wren smiled.

“Don’t look so surprised,” she said. “Of course the Child of Life and Death would be a phoenix.”

* * * *

Chapter 7: Talfryn

It was impossible to look at Wren the same way. The little girl Talfryn thought of her as, the child in the burned husk of a town, was gone. Everything fell into place now—why she’d spoken to them so strangely then, how she’d aged herself. A phoenix…

“You must be ancient,” said Akton. Talfryn noticed Lochlann shooting Akton the same look he was. He loved the man, but Akton had no tact sometimes.

Wren crossed her arms and gave him an almost motherly look, part discipline, part amusement. Akton backtracked.

“I mean…”

“Don’t,” said Talfryn. “We had no idea.”

“Of course not,” said Wren. “We keep to ourselves. I’m only here because I…owe the original Ylenia.” Her gaze grew distant, and Talfryn wondered what that story was for Wren to still be holding on to it. “I promised her I’d look out for Emylnor. Keep Lord Fanglyr back. But it’s been more difficult over the years. He’s on to me, knows I regenerate.”

“You want to end it for good,” said Talfryn, understanding what she was getting at. “You want him dead.”

Wren nodded. He was about to ask why that meant she needed them—surely a phoenix was powerful enough to take on a dragon herself—but Lochlann spoke first.

“I’m missing something. What do you mean by ‘the original Ylenia’?”

“He doesn’t know,” said Akton as they all turned to look at Lochlann.

“I’ve been taught she’s ageless,” said Lochlann. “Not true?”

“There’ve been a series of Ylenias,” said Akton. “They keep up the title and the role.”

“I suggested it to Ylenia at the end of her life,” said Wren. “This was to keep Reynox guessing. Perhaps he would even suspect her to be a powerful shifter herself—a unicorn, or a dragon like himself, a phoenix like me. But no—the original was never a shifter. That, too, should have been passed along with the title.”

“It was,” said Talfryn, thinking of the new Ylenia. He wanted to obey the summons—he liked the new Ylenia. She was definitely competent if she was handling this new situation immediately. The previous Ylenia had been slow to act about Basil’s threat, which had in turn cost a lot of lives, and drawn in both him and Akton needlessly. And though they’d grown even closer for it, it had been nearly at the expense of their lives.

“So let me confirm this,” said Lochlann, like he was listing back a series of instructions he had to follow. “Lord Fanglyr Reynox was alive generations ago and was the Dragon Lord who Ylenia defeated. You, Wren, were there then and helped her.”

“I was her ally and confidant,” said Wren. “More than help.”

“Then Ylenia solidified Emylnor and you advised her to create a situation where she would seem immortal to prevent Reynox from taking further action.”

“I promised her to watch out for the realm,” said Wren, nodding. “And I have done so with every lifetime since.”

Talfryn had so many questions, and from the looks on both Akton and Lochlann’s faces, they did, too. A knock sounded on the door and Wren crossed to it, let Arvi back in. They took one look at everyone and made a face.

“I missed something good.”

“It was for the best. You don’t need to carry anything more than maps back to Lethrin,” said Wren. Arvi said nothing, but Talfryn could see something on their face that he knew meant trouble. “Now. Are you willing to disregard that letter, or will I have to keep persuading you?”

Talfryn sat on the worn but now clean floor and tried to think. Everyone else had a seat, Wren pushing a pile of old rags off a chair, the others choosing the floor. Talfryn didn’t like this at all, and it was happening so fast. He seemed to be only just recovering and now there was war again—and with dragons, people Emylnor had a wary peace with simply because conflict with them was so deadly. Wren was back and wanted them to follow her off to kill the Dragon Lord, and all Talfryn really wanted to do was build his library and travel a little, Akton by his side. That never seemed like much.

He glanced up, wanting to take Akton’s hand or nudge him, but he was too far away. Lochlann sat closest, within reach almost, but though he was attractive Talfryn still didn’t know what to think of him. He was almost certainly more powerful than Talfryn, being a griffin and having varied magicks, and he was also with Wren. Despite her having given them the rue that saved Akton’s life, Talfryn was still unsure whether to trust her. Someone who’d lived as long as a phoenix probably had motives he didn’t even think possible. It seemed unlikely she would be doing this solely as a promise to the first Ylenia.

“We still don’t know what you’re asking us to do,” said Talfryn at last.

“This should be obvious,” said Wren. “We will go into the heart of the Dragon Realm, and we will kill Lord Fanglyr Reynox. End this for good. Ylenia won’t be able to defeat him with troops—he keeps himself well guarded far away from the fighting, and has been developing new tricks recently.”

Talfryn suddenly understood. Something that had been gnawing at him for months finally made sense.

“Basil,” he said. Wren nodded.

“One of Reynox’s. Thank you, by the way, for handling him for me.”

Talfryn was not expecting that. Nor was he expecting the torrent of memories that came rushing back, many of which he didn’t care to relive. He kept the memories of him and Akton growing close, then closer, held tight to those, and tried to forget the rest. By the time he cleared his mind again Akton was speaking, and he didn’t sound happy.

“Why haven’t you killed him yet? If he’s such a threat, if you’ve had lifetimes, why not? Why let it get this bad, that we’re at war with them again? We haven’t fought the Dragon Realm since—”

“Ylenia, long ago,” said Lochlann. His voice was quiet. Talfryn suspected he was having second thoughts about following Wren. “I agree. Why?”

Wren sighed.

“It’s…not simple. In the past I’ve been able to keep him in his place through other means, but he’s learned to attack when I’m still young.” She bit her lip, paused so long to consider something that Talfryn had accepted she was done. When she did speak, it was to say something that made it difficult for him not to trust her. “It’s not precise, to be a phoenix. It’s widespread knowledge that we regenerate at the end of our life cycle, yes, but the truth is that it’s all down to chance. I am not endless. Each time I die, there is a chance I will fail to be reborn. Some of my lifespans have been long. The last few have been short.”

“How short?” asked Akton. Wren closed her eyes and tilted her head back as though ashamed.

“As I said, he’s figured out to go after me when I’m young. The first time was an accident. I had grown old, and he was training his daughter to invade Emylnor. When I killed her along the border, I was too injured to return to Emylnor without first regenerating. He came to investigate—of course, it was his daughter—and discovered me, a toddler attempting to flee. This would have been the time to kill him, too, as he’s rarely in an unguarded place, but I was too weak. I’m sure he would have kept killing me, but he detests being so close to the border now. Everything he’s tried since then has been when I’m young. I’ve burned through seven lifetimes in the past thirty years, and I do not know how many I have left.”

Silence fell. The faint sounds of an argument in the street drifted in, got resolved, faded away.

“That’s why you want to kill him now,” said Arvi. Talfryn blinked, realizing that everyone had forgotten the cartographer was still there. “Because dragons don’t have more than the one life. Because he can keep you back.”

“He could still live for another thousand years or more,” said Talfryn. He shook his head.

“I thought I could handle this alone,” said Wren. “For hundreds and hundreds of years, I have. But I’ve been working alone. I couldn’t bring him down alone before, and I can’t now.”

“There have got to be better skilled people than us,” said Akton. “I have no powers, Talfryn’s a bookworm, and Lochlann makes sweets.”

“I’ve never killed anyone before,” said Lochlann. “I don’t see how we can help you, either.”

Wren sighed again.

“After countless lifetimes, you get to be a good judge of people,” she said. “Yes, there are others. Yes, I might have chosen you because you all live fairly close to where I’ve been growing up. This doesn’t change the fact that I need your help, and tracking anyone else down…” She shook her head, gestured to Talfryn and Akton. “Didn’t choose wrong with you two, now did I?”

Talfryn glanced across at Akton and their eyes met. Yes, they made a great team. And Wren was persuasive.

“I have an idea,” said Arvi, and everyone blinked over at them. “Why don’t we sleep on it?”

* * * *

Chapter 8: Akton

Despite how ridiculous Arvi’s suggestion sounded in the middle of the day, Akton appreciated that it broke up the rising tensions. He in particular had no desire to follow Wren anywhere and was grateful to Ylenia’s summons for that if nothing else.

Wren excused herself to wander the forest outside Teorg, and Talfryn decided to return to Glenna’s for more food than what they’d brought for themselves. Arvi took over the kitchen table with their maps and sketching, leaving Akton and Lochlann alone.

“Your house?” asked Lochlann at last. Akton couldn’t help but think about how mere hours ago he and Talfryn had been nearly able to get some much-needed sex, and now here he was making awkward small talk with a man he found he felt strangely close to. Maybe it was the shifting, the exposing of themselves. But then, all he felt toward Wren was irritation.

“No, Talfryn’s. I’m helping him turn it into a library.”

“A library, hmm? Needs shelves,” said Lochlann, and grinned at him. “And books.”

“Not much of a library, is it?” Akton was able to smile back, even if Lochlann had come in with Wren. Akton didn’t mind him. The door opened and Talfryn entered with more food.

“Stop flirting, you two, and help us eat,” he said, taking the items to the table and giving Arvi a hard look.

“We hadn’t even started,” said Lochlann. As Arvi pushed papers aside Talfryn set down another two servings of bread, herbed soft cheese, and early vegetables. Arvi quizzed him as they ate.

“Teorg,” they said. “Has those little carved poles on either end of the main street?”

“For celebration banners,” said Talfryn. “Weddings, festivals, that sort of thing.”

“Yeah,” said Akton, “the one festival.”

“Careful or I’ll ask the mayor to create another, just to annoy you.”

Akton tore a huge bite out of his cheese-covered bread, already annoyed. He and Talfryn should be alone right now, fucking a little tension away while they tried not to think about answering the queen’s summons. Not sitting around a table with Lochlann and Arvi pretending everything was as normal as it was when they woke up this morning, and not taking Wren’s request seriously.

“I heard this was a library,” said Lochlann. Arvi looked up from what they were doing and grinned.

“Need some books? I have some maps at a reasonable price.”

Lochlann glared openly at them, but Arvi returned to looking at their map of Teorg’s main street.

“What I really need is some help getting it all together,” said Talfryn. His gaze turned sad and Akton wanted to wrap his arms around him. “It would be nice to have a few shelves full before we leave. I have a few stacks I can haul over if we just get some shelves up.”

“I’d be happy to help,” said Lochlann.

“Great, then you’re with Akton while I pack up my books.”

They finished eating in silence and Akton retrieved the supplies they’d brought this morning, not mentioning Lochlann’s arm. He figured if Lochlann wanted anything, he’d say. Instead, Akton laid out the boards and got to work measuring, thinking Talfryn would be happy when he could eventually get a carpenter in to do a better job. Akton reached for a saw and felt a hand on his arm.

“Let me,” said Lochlann, and the air pressure changed around them. Akton gaped as Lochlann cut perfectly through the wood with swipes of air, not even gesturing as he did it. Talfryn often flicked his hand or motioned with his fingers while he was working with his flame, but if Akton hadn’t known Lochlann was a shifter he wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

“Impressive,” he said.

“I’m good at handling wood,” said Lochlann, and Akton definitely caught a loaded grin at that. Shit. He did kind of feel drawn to the man, but obviously that wasn’t something he could act on in any way. “All kinds.”

“Lochlann, stop it,” said Arvi from across the room at the table. “You know I hate it when you make my ears pop.”

Akton took the opportunity to shift a little farther away from Lochlann. Maybe this was how Talfryn felt when he flirted with random strangers. No, Talfryn seemed to enjoy it as fun, not as necessarily leading anywhere. Unless that was part of his way—have fun with it so that if it doesn’t go anywhere, at least it was enjoyable.

“I can hold the board up if you do the nailing,” said Lochlann, moving closer. This put their bodies up next to each other; when they brushed, Akton was very aware of how quickly he tensed.

“What kind of sweets do you make?” asked Akton as he hammered. This was the shittiest shelf he’d ever seen, but it would hold books, and he hoped that was all Talfryn really wanted.

“Cakes, mainly. If you’d like to try one—”

“That’s delightfully ugly,” said Talfryn, entering with an armful of books. He set them loudly on the floor and came up behind them, and for a brief moment something went strange and excited in Akton’s mind. It had definitely been too long since he’d had a proper round of sex if the thought of Talfryn resting one hand on his ass, one on Lochlann’s, excited him.

“Well, I’m not a carpenter,” said Akton as Talfryn peered between their shoulders.

“And you really shouldn’t be,” said Talfryn. Lochlann snorted.

“A moment ago you were on my side,” said Akton. Lochlann shrugged.

“Tempt me back.”

“I’m beginning to see I walked in on something,” said Talfryn. He pulled away and moved toward the door. “I’ll be back. I have a few more stacks to bring over. Behave yourselves.”

“My hand is too busy to do anything other than behave,” said Lochlann. When Akton glanced over at him and their eyes met Lochlann immediately turned away as though embarrassed. Akton nudged him with his shoulder.

“Hey, pay attention or the shelf will be crooked. This is your chance to impress me with your wood handling skills.” Immediately after he said it he hammered a nail in, thinking he was shit at flirting and he probably shouldn’t even be doing it anyway. He loved Talfryn. Akton knew he’d see it as just fun, but…Akton himself was having wild thoughts. He should stick to flirting with Talfryn when he returned.

By the time Talfryn had hauled all his books and papers over they had finished the shelf and Lochlann showed off by dusting with his shifter skills again. Talfryn shooed them all away as he organized, and Akton sat back to watch him work on it. He couldn’t help but smile at Talfryn’s ass. The man was book-obsessed.

When he glanced at Lochlann Akton noticed he also was admiring Talfryn’s backside. Akton felt amused for a moment, then annoyed with himself. He never used to be intrigued when others took interest in his mate. He felt the need to assert himself.

“Giving us a show, Tal?” he asked as Talfryn frowned and swapped the books on one shelf with another.

“Figures you’d just sit back and watch my ass. Help me decide what we need more of right away. Novels? Manuals? Poetry?”

“Only you’d read poetry,” said Akton.

“I read poetry,” said Lochlann. “It’s good for the soul.”

“Careful or you’ll turn me on,” said Talfryn. He ran his fingers along the spines, then stepped back to admire his work. Of the six shelves from floor to ceiling, he only had books on three, although one was completely full. He sighed once, pulled a small notebook and piece of charcoal from his pocket, and tossed both of them on an empty shelf, probably for people to sign out a book. When he was finished he turned and sat with them, choosing, to Akton’s dismay, a place on the other side of Lochlann.

“That’s a day’s worth of work,” said Akton, shaking his head.

“Not a bad start,” said Talfryn. When Akton shot him a look he laughed. “So there’s a few score books, but Teorg’s never had a library before. We’ll bring some back after we’re done with this next mess.”

He was referring to the building war with the dragons, and Akton didn’t like it. What he wanted was some time off with Talfryn, time to appreciate each other and recover, time to live life like normal. Akton didn’t want to be away again so fast, risking their lives. And he very much didn’t want to ever have to come back to this empty library alone and not have Talfryn here with him to fill it.

Lochlann appeared to be thinking something similar, because he broke the silence with a question.

“So are you going with Ylenia or with Wren?”

“We’re sleeping on it,” said Talfryn, causing Akton to breathe out in relief.

“You’re with Wren, then?” asked Akton. Lochlann looked at the fingernails on his hand.

“I’m not Kynithremyln.”

“Well, that’s not a problem,” said Talfryn. “We’ll take you with and have you sign up.”

Lochlann shook his head. Akton wasn’t going to argue with him. He didn’t know Lochlann, not really, and he was free to follow Wren if he wanted to. And if they went separate ways, Lochlann wouldn’t be a temptation. But Akton didn’t like the look on Talfryn’s face.

“We’re not going with her,” he said. Talfryn’s expression was distant.

“I said I’m sleeping on it,” he said. “But I do think Wren has something.”

Akton did not want to argue about this.

“I swear I’ll dump your ass,” he said. “What’s Wren’s plan even? Run off into the Dragon Kingdom? Ylenia at least has battle plans, tacticians, the sense to try to not get us killed—”

“You’re together?” asked Lochlann, and both Akton and Talfryn blinked over at his interruption. Akton couldn’t read the expression on his face. “I mean, I thought…”

“Yes, Akton and I are a couple,” said Talfryn.

“For now,” said Akton, frowning at him. Maybe the thought of losing him would wake Talfryn up. But Talfryn only rolled his eyes.

As though she knew they were talking about her, Wren entered through the back door and exchanged a few words with Arvi before walking over to them.

“It’s getting dark,” she said. “May we stay the night here?”

“Yes,” said Talfryn, standing and offering Akton a hand. For a moment he was tempted not to take it, but he wanted any argument they were about to have to be about where to go from here and not a little slight. “And we’ll be back in the morning.”

“Good,” she said. “I want to leave immediately.”


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