If there is one thing five thousand years of slavery have taught me, it's patience...
--Senalloy Moirae Corresont
Before, During, and After
Corim Vale knelt in the grass allowing the scorched dirt to filter through his fingers. He wrinkled his nose at the sour smelling air. In the distance, strange carriages rumbled back and forth between spires of glass and steel hundreds of paces tall. Silver objects streaked overhead in the dark blue sky. Frowning, he rubbed at his smooth angular face that had never felt the touch of razor. His fingers strayed to the shaladen blade Stellaraac, now disguised as a gold bracelet on his arm. This felt wrong, a bad omen in already questionable circumstances.
His dark eyes narrowed in concentration. Faint magic resonated in the grains of dirt. Every magick possessed a signature. He recognized the originator of the magical fire-blast that caused this scorch mark. He grimaced. A tenday ago, he might have been able to spell the word 'magick', but not much more. His knowledge of that esoteric science had always been of an extremely general nature.
That changed after he joined with the essence of the Ice Falcon. In fact, many things changed that day, not all of them good.
He rose and turned to his companion. "Meridian's alive," he said, looking up.
"You sure, Kid?" Brawny Tal said arms folded. Talorin Falor was a big man with a dark hair, a rugged face, and a physique that suggested every bit of his awesome strength. Many knew Tal as the 'petrified man', eyes of ice, a jaw of iron, and fists of rock. When the Shael Dal wanted someone or something brought down, they called Tal.
Today they were on a simple follow-up reconnoitering, not an assault, so neither he nor Tal wore armor or carried any other weapons besides the shaladens. Because this was a technical world, they came dressed in simple garb to attract as little attention as possible, simple dark tunics, breeches, and soft boots.
"As certain as--" Corim paused to watch a woman in skin-tight lavender jog down the path. The place they were investigating appeared to be a park. Apparently, people came here to get away from their huge buildings, strange carriages, and foul-smelling air. Dressed in garish apparel, they ran down the dirt paths. Others wearing odd boots with wheels on them whizzed by with surprising speed down the stonework lanes. He shook his head as the jogging woman receded. "As certain as I can be without Meridian standing here," he finished.
He rubbed the silver band on his other arm with the glowing white jewel in it. "I'm still new to these senses, but Aarlen's sure."
Tal's brow furrowed and he grunted. "It's damn spooky, Kid; you and her together--ain't right."
Corim nodded. "Can't say I'm pleased with it either. It's disturbing to find myself acting and responding with somebody else's feelings and knowledge. She's a woman for one thing."
Tal snorted and rubbed at the stubble on his face. "In body, maybe. Never figured what Beia saw in her." His gaze followed another set of runners on the path. "Beia's a good lady. She had a heart that wouldn't quit. Whitey never did nothin' she wasn't compensated for."
He drew a breath. "I know little of her except from the legends, and what I feel of her now. She was a tortured soul who took out her hatred on the universe." He reached into a pocket a pulled out a leather pouch and dumped a handful of the scorched dirt into it. "She was one of the best time-divers ever born. Her skill with magic is legend. She proved a match for blooded Kriar in hand-to-hand combat. Regardless of her faults, she reached the pinnacle of human ability."
Tal shook his head. "More to life than capabilities. If you only use your talents to make trouble for the universe, in my mind, you're just a waste of flesh. Think you know my motto about useless flesh."
Corim rolled his eyes. "Cut it off." He started down the knoll toward the path, Tal following. "Forgiveness is never easy, especially when you refuse to ask for it. She loved Beia. That redeems her some in my eyes."
"Kid, it's just plain twisted." He glanced up the trail. "So, what now? This don't get us to Hecate, or find that missing Gene-thing everyone is cryin' about."
"Senalloy thought that Rakaar might have hidden the Genemar somewhere on this world. I also wanted conclusive evidence as to whether Meridian was dead."
Corim followed the trail. Ahead it circled a lake. It was strange that they tracked Meridian here. Why this spot? Had the mage followed someone into the center of this park? The only thing that made sense is another of Meridian's followers had escaped the attack mounted by Tal's assault team. Perhaps Meridian sought revenge on one of the followers that betrayed him to ally with Rakaar.
The big man looked at him sideways. "Well, ya got evidence now."
Corim listened to the sound of his boots crunching on the path for a moment. "Wasn't what I hoped to find."
"Kinda got mixed feelings on that myself." Tal paused to watch a slender blonde woman sway by in a rainbow-colored outfit. "Whew. I've got to get Terra some of that stretchy stuff." He glanced back to Corim. "Wouldn't hurt my feelings none to be the one to do Meridian under. I was disappointed someone else got the pleasure."
Corim glanced back to the woman Tal had looked at. How did they get in those clothes? They looked painted on. He also noticed that many of the people running had black devices inserted into their ears.
He focused back on the problem. "How could Meridian have gotten away from Rakaar though? That Baronian was extremely thorough."
"Meridian's a slippery bastard," Tal muttered. "I've killed his simulacrums a dozen times. Rakaar might have killed a dupe and didn't get an opportunity to verify he got the real deal."
Tal's explanation seemed all too plausible to Corim. They followed the curving path around the lake. Corim had been uneasy about coming back to this world. The whole unnaturalness of it made his skin prickle. Still, each step brought him closer to finding Aarlen's soul and the Genemar hidden by Rakaar. They were steps that would restore Beia and the others to life.
They walked in silence for a while, then Corim spoke up. "You didn't say. Was Elsbeth able to help with Ceraph's condition? Aarlen seemed pretty sure something could be done about it."
Tal nodded. "Elsbeth checked her over. She said that the bloodstone ring held Raph together. It just ain't easy healing."
"Have you considered taking her to the Kriar?"
Tal shook his head. "Not Raph. Elves and this tech stuff," he gestured to the tall buildings of glass and steel in the distance. "Don't go together. Hell, this stuff and me don't go together. I got elves in my family two generations back. For Raph, it'll have to be magic. Won't chance polluting her."
Corim nodded. "I still feel responsible for what happened to her. I should have insisted she stay behind."
"Kid, it was Beia's call." Tal's blocky face turned stony. "She took responsibility for the team. She hung in instead of calling reinforcements. Her choice cost us big. Don't know if I'd've done different though. Like her, I wouldn't want to risk alerting the bastards and have them get away."
"You know I'll do whatever it takes to see Ceraph healthy again."
"I know." He clapped Corim on the shoulder with a solid thump. "You don't let anyone down as long as you can help it." They reached an intersection in the trail and Tal looked both ways. "Wonder where Terra and your babes are hangin' out."
He looked up at the bigger man. "Tal, please don't call them that."
"What, you want I should call 'em Goldie and Ironbutt instead?"
"No. I especially don't want you to be demeaning to Senalloy."
Tal raised an eyebrow. "'Spose it is a little coarse. Guess I can go with 'Silvertop' instead. That is one shiny head of hair she's got." He grinned and elbowed Corim. "How is the love triangle anyway? They still fighting over you?"
"It's not funny." He drew a breath. It made him uncomfortable every time he thought about it. In fact, it was worse than Tal knew. Before he'd learned to control his metapathic talent he'd become special to Ceraph, Tal's mother-in-law, and Annawen, the Kriar twin who accompanied him on their travails to resolve Meridian's knot in time. Annawen hadn't given up either. The big problem was he liked all of them. He'd be a blessed man to have any one of the four as a permanent fixture in his life. Having all four as potential fixtures was torture.
"I'm married. I get to laugh at the plight of you good-looking single punks. Fitting that a pretty-boy like you gets in trouble with the babes."
Corim frowned, none of the three women were anywhere in evidence. "Strange, not like them to wander off. Not that I'm worried, isn't anything here that could harm them."
Tal chuckled. "Between Terra's Shaladen, Goldie's tech, and Silvertop's natural Baronian meanness, they could probably take over the city."
Corim snapped his fingers. "Bet I know where they went."
Tal raised an eyebrow. "Yeah?"
"Remember when we came in. Terra said she smelled something?"
"It's good call," Tal said, nodding. "Terra is one hungry lass, and Silvertop eats enough for three."
Corim headed where he recalled Terra had indicated the smell had been coming from. Tal's observation about Senalloy was correct. The Baronian woman did eat enough for three normal women; maybe four. Of course, she was taller than himself by two hands, and was trying to put on weight. When he'd freed her from Rakaar's chains, she'd been a mess. Given her height, she had weighed a fraction of what she should. From what he'd seen already, Baronian physiology used up a great deal more energy than a normal human's even when resting.
Tal sniffed. "That's it. Smell it?"
Corim took a whiff. The odor was vaguely like roasting meat mingled with the smell of bread. He nodded. Some distance off, the trail wound between some trees. Several people were standing around a white cart with a red and white tarp hanging over it. One of the figures stood head and shoulders taller than the others, and sunlight reflected off silver hair.
He pointed. "That's them."
As they changed course to meet up with the women, a feminine voice called from behind.
"Cory! Hey, Cory! Wait up!"
Tal glanced back. "Speakin' of babe trouble. Here comes more."
Corim looked around. Dressed in skin-tight red, heavy bosom heaving, was the blonde woman they met in the halls of Meridian's headquarters. "Melody?"
"Tell ya, Kid, yer a regular babe magnet."
Melody was every bit as curvaceous as he remembered. The revealing outfit somehow managed to exaggerate her already ample proportions.
"I've got enough problems already," he mumbled under his breath as the buxom woman stumbled up, gasping for breath. He could only sigh as the woman's heavy breaths made it look as though she would fall out of the flimsy garment. He caught her arm to keep her from falling. He touched the shaladen on his wrist, making sure that it synchronized with this world's language and idioms. "Melody--err, are you all right?"
"Well--" the woman huffed. "I am now." She smiled at him.
Tal shook his head. He looked off in the direction where they saw Senalloy.
Corim smiled back. There certainly was nothing subtle about the woman.
"Shame on you," Melody finally said. "Making me think you were dead!"
He frowned. "Pardon? What do you mean?"
"Why, I was barely down the hall before that terrorist attack on the building." She put a warm hand on his arm. "You know, I checked back the next day to see if you were all right, but no-one knew who you were."
Corim sighed. "It was nice of you to be concerned. No, uh," he shot a look at Tal. "Our jobs were terminated because of that mess."
"That's terrible!" Melody breathed. "Anything I can do to help?"
Tal rolled his eyes. Corim elbowed him. "We'll be okay. We have our," he glanced at Tal again. "Our wrestling to fall back on."
"Oh, I remember!" She beamed. "You know, it's so odd. A man stopped me yesterday and said I would see you today."
Tal's face turned serious. Corim focused on her more closely.
"Really, did he say anything to you?"
"The strangest thing. He said to tell you he was tired of running and that he would meet you at a place called Baltizaar. Isn't that weird?"
"Yup, pretty weird all right," Tal muttered.
"That's very--interesting--Melody. I appreciate you taking the time to tell me. Is there anything I can do for you?"
Drawing herself up, she smiled and gave him a coy look. "Well... I was wondering if you'd reconsider going out on a date."
A pair of female arms looped around Corim's waist from behind, and a warm body pressed against his back. He smelled a vaguely fruity scent as a chin came down to rest on top of his head. A strong slender hand snaked up his left arm and gripped the band that was his shaladen. "That depends honey," said a deep feminine voice. "Do you like threesomes?"
Melody's eyes widened as she looked up. Corim couldn't see behind himself, but he knew how daunting Senalloy could be. The blonde's terrified expression proved the truth of it.
"Melody," he said in a level voice. "Meet Senalloy. Sen, Melody just told us that that our friend Mister M. is waiting for us at Baltizaar."
Senalloy leaned around giving him a view of her surprised expression. Many of the scars that marred her face were no longer in evidence. The discolorations were still visible when she was close up like now. "How interesting." She focused back on Melody. "Thanks for passing that along."
Melody swallowed and nodded. "Don't mention it," she squeaked. "Cory, uh, you didn't mention you were attached."
He grinned. "You never asked."
The lady in red raised a finger and nodded. "Good point. You know, I better get going." She turned and made a hasty retreat.
"Nice meeting you," Senalloy called after her.
Melody hurried faster.
<Must you hang all over him?> Dulcere's thoughts came to him from close by. The Kriar woman stepped around Senalloy, gold skin gleaming in the afternoon light. She looked up at the silver-haired Baronian woman with an irritated expression. She wore a sleeveless white blouse and dark pants. She brushed back waist length dark hair and lowered the mirrored lenses she wore to disguise her solid black eyes. As always, the sight of her took his breath away and made his heart speed.
Senalloy looked down at him. "I don't think I've heard him complain."
Dulcere put hands on hips. <That's not the point.>
Corim hated this. Dulcere was jealous, but wouldn't admit she was jealous. He couldn't push Senalloy away because that made the big woman try harder. The Baronian was starved for attention after having been isolated and mistreated for decades. Senalloy read a great deal more into what he considered basic gentleman's conduct and respect for a woman. He guessed privacy and dignity were gifts of incalculable worth to a slave who'd hadn't possessed either. She was a passionate person, and given her history, he didn't have the heart to try and keep her at arm's length. What made it tougher still was she, like Annawen, was not only accessible, but aggressively willing.
Dulcere, on the other hand, was still sorting out her feelings, afraid to touch, annoyed and stymied by Senalloy's constantly being in the way.
The Kriar glanced back to the retreating Melody. <I felt it when I walked up. What is it about that over-endowed female that appeals to you? Surely, you're not attracted simply because of a pair of oversized glands!>
Corim heard Terra laugh. Senalloy who was still holding him from behind vibrated with silent mirth.
"I'll be honest," he said. "I know it's just another body proportion, but..."
"But damn, he likes proportions like those!" Tal said with a grin.
Dulcere folded her arms, elfin face set in an 'answer me' frown. She sniffed and looked at Corim.
He gazed at her not knowing any safe way to answer the question. "Tal's answer is--well--accurate. I suppose human men have always been attracted to traits that are suggestive of fertility." He shrugged. "We don't think about it...we just respond." Corim paused and tried to change the subject. "Shouldn't we be concerned about Meridian?"
Terra came around and put her arm on Dulcere's shoulder. Over the last tenday the two women had grown close. "What's to be concerned about?" Terra asked.
<It's a trap of course,> Dulcere added.
"Which means of course we're going anyway," Senalloy finished.
Tal gestured to the group with a thumb up. "Now, that's somethin' a man likes to see, everyone on the same piece of parchment."
Terra looked at him sideways. "Isn't it, 'Everyone on the same sheet of music'?"
The big man shrugged. "Same difference, whatever. We up for it?"
Corim pointed to Tal. "You're still team leader."
"Kid, you know I'm always up for a fight."
He looked to Dulcere and Terra. "You feel the same way?"
The cat woman pushed a hand through her mane of dark hair. She nodded. "Just let me finish my 'hot dog'."
"Silly name, isn't it?" Senalloy said above him. "Doesn't even look like a dog. They taste pretty good though."
Dulcere sighed. <I am fortunate that I don't have any need to pollute my body with--> She paused when Terra gripped her arm.
"Dulcere, don't tell me what's in it. I know it's terrible."
<Yet, you consume it anyway. It makes no sense.>
She rolled her golden cat-like eyes. "I'll heal."
"Some pleasures of the flesh are worth the price you pay," Senalloy said, twining a finger in Corim's hair. "Corim, now that you know Meridian is alive, have you reconsidered going to the place where they worked? Rakaar kept me on the ship and never brought me planet-side, so I never saw where he lived down here. If we can track down Rakaar's living spaces, we might get some clues to where he hid the Genemar."
"I didn't want to chance it before," Corim said. "Now, I think we need all the information we can get. We'll need disguises. Good ones this time. Melody just told us that they think we were a part of a terrorist attack. So, the local law enforcement may be looking for us."
"Hate to break it to ya, Kid, ain't no way to disguise her," Tal said indicating Senalloy.
"Don't have to," Corim answered. "She wasn't seen with us. Let's head that direction and come up with something along the way. Unless you disagree, Leader?"
Tal frowned. "Meridian can wait. Considerin' all that flap about that Gene-thing, best follow up or people'll be beaten their chests and gnashin' their teeth."
The group of them started off down the path that would lead them around to the park entrance on the city side. The path led up into some trees. As they headed up the hill, Corim's fighter instinct made him glance back the way they'd come. His stomach tightened at the sight of two men. He'd seen them on the trail on two other turns before this.
"Look cautious, but behind us are two men in blue coats. I think they've been following us."
Tal scrubbed at his hair and took a furtive glance. His voice took on a gravely tone. "Yep. They're posse all right. Shoes ain't dusty--polished. They walk like they got sticks shoved up their butt. They're expectin' action."
Terra and Dulcere moved a few steps to either side, and Senalloy dropped back several paces.
"What do we do?" Corim asked.
"Keep walking, don't act like you seen 'em. Armor up, some of their weapons can hit from a long way off."
Corim nodded and touched the shaladen on his arm. He concentrated and felt the surge of Eternity's power rush through his body. Like a wave of heat, he felt the Shaladen's essence travel along the surface of his skin, making it take on a slightly reflective sheen as though coated in thin layer of water.
Terra shook her head looking over at him. "Corim, you are just too damn good with that thing. You know it's not fair."
"What's fair?" he remarked, keeping his eyes to the top of the hill. "This damn ability is always getting me into trouble. First time I met Tal, he tried to break my face."
"Hey, wasn't nothing personal. You made me mad with that wussy win. I--" He paused. "Oh spit."
The trees at the hill summit had come alive with people. There was the sound of metal clashing, and big versions of slug throwers leveled at them from three sides. A glance back showed their pursuers had pulled out weapons as well.
A voice, amplified by strange magic blared out at them. "This is the police. Put your hands up!"