Legend of the Pan





The inky raven coursed on icy winds crashing over the high snowy peak. The midnight bird crossed the apex and dove along the mountain’s jagged northern face before weaving over the western saddle to the volcano billowing black with thick, acrid smoke. He banked across a broad empty waste to a sandy desert broiling in heat.

Northward, the raven crossed a winding river that bisected the small island. He circled an overgrown maze of ruins before climbing a spine of barren ridges westward, north of the island’s swamp, to the base of a high, conical peak. Where the ridges ended at the foot of its towering eastern cliffs, the raven landed before a high, mud-caked wall of stone. Cocking his head, the raven cawed.

Moments later, the world shook and falling sheets of mud revealed a carving of a woman whose hair covered her breasts, her legs tucked beneath her, and her arms cradled a pregnant belly. She split in two as great stone doors slid open to reveal a passage. The raven leapt through with a flutter of its inky wings into a narrow hallway, at the end of which rose a tall chamber speared with dusty light from gaps in the rock above. Walls on either side leaned inward to form an A-frame from an outward-leaning base. At the far end of the graduated chamber rose a narrow wall drenched in vinery, upon which rested a larger version of the same carving upon its entry door.

Here, the Mother presided in silence over her cathedral.

Short of where the light rebounded from the stone floor, the raven landed with a few hops and uttered a long, grating caw.

After its echoes danced throughout the chamber and faded, a single point of light appeared in the heart of the room and expanded into the shape of a tall humanoid. Smoky ambience wreathed the figure until his skin opaqued and luminescent robes flowed into place. The light faded over his earthy brown skin, Indigo hair and beard and crystal blue eyes.

He descended to the stone floor of the chamber and, upon touching down, drew air into his lungs. With his toes resting on the sandy surface, he took in the room like an old friend.

“Aiuena,” cawed the raven.

Auiena knelt and bowed. “You summoned me.”

“It’s time for the breaking,” said the raven. “Call your fellow high archons. Advent has come.”

“And the herald?”

“I anointed him eons ago. He will be ready when the time is nigh.”

Auiena rose. “By your will.”

The raven leapt into the air and returned to the shadow of the passage. “Indeed.”

Auiena gazed again upon the room before touching his heart. Three more beings materialized of varying color and size; voluptuous Suthene of blue skin and black hair, and willowy Nashuan of bronze and blonde, and stocky Helstoy with emerald and ginger. “The exodus has come.”

“Finally?” asked Nashuan. “After so long?”

“Alert the races,” said Auiena. “Give prophecy to the children, visions to the young, and dreams to the old.”

Suthene tugged at the veil draped across her face and looked after the raven. “Praise the Self.”

“To the dwarves and the utto-beings, Helstoy,” said Auiena.

Helstoy bowed.

“Nashuan,” Auiena turned. “To the beastials, the high sentients and partials.”

“Honored and eager,” said Nashuan with a smile.

“I go to the ancients, the eon-spanners and the magic breathers,” said Auiena.

A smile split Suthene’s thick-lipped mouth as her eyes gleamed with expectation.

“And you,” Auiena turned.

“The humans, the elves and…the vacants,” she said as she grinned. “I get to herald him? Truly?”

“Truly,” said Auiena.

She grinned and clutched Nashuan’s hands.

“Follow the wind,” said Auiena. “It is time for change.”

“Here we go, general,” saluted Nashuan.

Auiena shared a look with his companions before they dissolved into the air and followed the raven through the hall as swirls of glowing dust.

“Yes,” Auiena whispered to the great carving of the Mother. “The day of pan has come.”


Misty smoke rolled over the razed midnight terrain. Trees that had burned for two days now stood as haunting gnarled columns of an ancient hellish arcade. Pale moonlight filled the fray and marbled the gray scorched soil. Crows aloft scanned for the now-and-soon-dead in a sky dense with stars visible between wafting clouds of moisture and smoke.

Flashes of colored light fired between long columns of trees before crashing into trunks with concussive explosions. Six robed men and women in a haphazard circle, accompanied by a handful of terrified bleeding soldiers, raced across dark terrain while casting spells and bolts of power into the darkness. Snarling lupine creatures rushed in with unbridled ferocity, jaws open and spittle flying as they lunged inward at the haggard few.

Lycans in their dozens exploded at their violent magic. Bolts of lightning danced between arbors and animals before disintegrating flesh in brilliant blue light. Creatures raced and crashed among cracking dead trees. Fiery bolts of energy pierced and set aflame any who couldn’t dodge them. Shards of ice shredded flesh or infected muscle until the beasts crumpled in their loping gaits. Warbling distortions of air crushed them into the ground, brittle trees, or against other beasts until blood burst from over-pressured bodies.

The legions came.

“This way!” cried a short, stocky wizard as he swung his staff. An eruption of light cast a half dozen lycans backward into those racing up behind them and slowed their advance. When the wizard paused at the foot of a haggard tree, the light of his staff revealed a wooden sign. From there, he led them bloody and exhausted inch-by-inch up a rocky incline.

When one woman tripped, a tall, black-skinned wizard stepped over her and fought off the beasts until she clamored to her feet while a frantic young teenager cast spells at anything that moved outside their circle.

“Halt!” cried the leader.

The group stopped at the precipice of a low cliff overlooking a scorched plain, across which rose a white city whose thick, high walls glowed in the evening light. Raising his staff until its upper tip burned  brilliant, the wizard rammed it into the ground. A bubble shield expanded from its base, around the group of mages, and snapped into place.

Bestial hordes rushed the shield’s outer edge in such mass that those nearest were crushed and scored against its burning event horizon.

The circle of mages knelt or collapsed with exhaustion.

“Bollocks,” snarled the lead as the creatures rushed the city. “There’s…no way to stop them.”

“Great Self,” moaned one of the women. “Tuthomere.”

A mile distant, a hundred thousand screams erupted from the city.

“The beasts are inside,” panted Orzo as he wiped sweat from his midnight skin.

From horizon to horizon, lycans covered the terrain like an insect horde, scaled Tuthomere’s high white walls and poured into the burning city.

“We’re too late.”

Laughter erupted behind them from a single lycan standing at the shield’s edge. A field of panting, hungry monsters encircled their bubble. Their haunting yellow eyes shimmered in the shield’s ambience. “I told you that before, Elverbane.”

Wizard Setherick Elverbane climbed to his feet and trudged past his staff to the tall lycan, signaled by the bejeweled chain around its neck. “Ya fuckin’ bastard. CALL ‘EM OFF!”

“Even I can’t restrain the super pack,” sneered the lycan with an inhuman smile. “Not that I would, even if I could.”

“This isn’t right, Ithnar!” Elverbane barked.

“It’s justice,” Ithnar clapped his jaws. “Which we are due for centuries of slavery and culling.”

“Revisiting crimes of the guilty upon the innocent isn’t justice,” growled Elverbane. “It’s just fuel for the next crime.”

“We are due our blood!” Ithnar cried.

“Y’ur spillin’ the very blood you aim ta save!” cried Elverbane with his natural brogue. “Fury blinds you to the real way to get whut ya want, ya feeble-minded cunt.”

“High minded ideals from a traitor!” Ithnar howled with derision, echoed by ten thousand lycans in full-fugue.

“I’ve tried reasonin’ with ya,” said Elverbane. “I’ve tried fightin’ ya directly. Ya dunnae call off those fuckin’ wolves and I will break the super pack. Right here and now.”

Ithnar laughed. “With what? Measly bolts of fire and lightning? Kill me. Kill the rest of my brethren. You don’t even scratch the super pack.”

“I will end them,” said the wizard.

“Boast all you like,” Ithnar sneered.

“Y’ur a lightblood, right?” asked Elverbane as he raised an upturned palm.

Ithnar’s brow flickered.

Tiny flecks of light appeared and drew an intricate sphere above the wizard’s hand.

“You know that well enough, Elverbane,” Ithnar said. “What are you doing?”

“You have one last chance,” Elverbane said. “Or else I end everything.”

“What is it? You’ve no more power than me—”

“That’s where you’re wrong.” Elverbane’s underlit face intensified with the glow of his spell. “The pack doesn’t empower you, Ithnar, it only limits. Only by stepping away from the pack could you learn that the individual can grow far stronger without the group than with it. Tamed power is greater than wild violence.”

The mages stood as the light of his construct expanded and complicated.

“The lycan blood feuds aren’t the only thing to survive since the Courte Empire,” said Elverbane.

Realization dawned upon Ithnar. “No.”

“Call em off,” said Elverbane. “Last chance.”

“Bluff,” said Ithnar. “You’d never do that to your own people.”

“What is he building?” muttered the teenage wizard.

“It’s amazing the skills y’learn from variant disciplines,” said Elverbane. Tiny lines of light above his palm formed three inter-rotating bars as secondary spheres of complexity formed a clockwork of violent magic.

Ithnar’s hesitation signaled caution in nearby hordes.

“Mining hardened rock required ever more complex tactics to break and fracture increasingly dense subterrain,” said Elverbane while fear filled Ithnar. “When I compared the discovery with ancient records, I made connections.”

“But…the humans.” Ithnar protested. “You wouldn’t.”

“You mean, leave’em to die under the claws and capers of your breth’ren?” muttered Elverbane. “You mean that kind of mercy?”

He turned toward the city.

“You will see what your mindless fury will bring the race,” said Elverbane as he marched to the far side of the bubble nearest the drop-off. Flame erupted from within the city as bronze-lined smoke billowed into the starry night. “Self-control is the only path to peace, you stupid frothing animal.”

The young mage approached Elverbane. “You can’t! It’s forbidden! And—those people!” When magic appeared in his hands, as if to stop Elverbane, the other mages snatched up the boy with invisible ropes and a gag of air. Mages weary from weeks of desperate battle held no pity for the recent arrival or his pristine civility.

“Take defense,” said Elverbane. The construct in his hands brightened with painful intensity.

Orzo took a grip of the teenage wizard and slapped his forehead with a flash of magic. The boy crumpled to the ground unconscious.

Unable to suffer the echoing screams any longer, Elverbane pressed the lightseed with the power necessary to fuel its violence. The growing brilliance of the spell became a handheld sun shining across the southern battlefield. Soon thousands of lycans turned in surprise that morphed into fury. Hordes raced toward him.

“No!” Ithnar cried and his ears pointed forward. The pack surged against the bubble shield with violent desperation. “You can’t!”

“I will,” said Elverbane, whose eyes glowed in the radiant construct. His voice dropped for his companions. “When I cast, turn away from the city, no matter what.”

“Got it,” the group muttered as they reinforced the weakening shield. Desperate waves of lycans crushed its outer edge. Spears of light danced between the creatures as Elverbane’s spell became so bright even he had to look away. A blood frenzy erupted as those behind crushed those afore, billowing the scent of their dying brethren into the air.

“SETH!” Orzo roared as the shields fluttered, ready to collapse.

Elverbane squatted, shoved his hands into the construct, finalized the energetic connections, and cast the spell into the starry sky in a dwindling streak of light. As it passed through the shield, the bubble popped with a soft concussion that rebuffed the lycan wave enough to halt it. The lightseed became a tiny star among the countless blaze twinkling in the black.

The world fell quiet as Ithnar and the lycans scrambled to their feet and waited in sudden fear. Terrified, panting mages stood vulnerable, ready to fight the hesitant lycans. When silence prevailed, Ithnar smiled. His growing laughter spread across the horde.

“Good try, wizard,” Ithnar snarled and licked his chops. “There is no stopping the super pack.” When he leaned forward to advance, he and countless lycans locked onto a single streak of light falling from the sky like a tiny meteor that kissed the top of Tuthomere’s western wall.

Just before it landed, Elverbane turned from the city. “Now.”

The mages spun away before the tiny point exploded across the sky with an eerie quiet. Creatures, trees and scree filled the air. Backlit as he was, Elverbane stood in silhouette to the devastating light spreading across the horizon before he leapt to the ground.

Facing the city, Ithnar and the pack were caught in its scorching brilliance. They shielded themselves as the pressure wave crashed over the cliff and cast them from their feet. The endless horde roared in agony. Nocturnal eyes burned blind that weren’t first struck by its concussive power.

Fury ravaged the world and soon faded before Elverbane regained his wits. He rolled over and froze at the sight of the fiery column filling the sky. As his companions struggled to maintain their consciousness, he managed to raise his hand and a shield. Heavy stones once founding the city’s walls climbed the sky, fell like volcanic projectiles and exploded a few paces above their heads. Mages and their soldiers cowered until they realized they were safe beneath Elverbane’s shield.

When the initial fall subsided and the shield petered out, Elverbane climbed to quivering feet and stumbled again to the precipice.

A mile-wide crater glowed with molten soil and thousands of burning trees as far as they could see. Light spreading across the skies revealed successive layers of the horde caught in the greater blast zone. The immediate area around the column of fire was clear of anything at all—either blasted away or disintegrated. Those further out lay dead and burning. Beyond, hundreds of acres revealed writhing, squirming masses of creatures howling in agony. Their animalistic screams were echoed by the equally struck city populace.

Horror cut through Elverbane.

Mages climbed to their feet and lensed air to magnify their view across the scorched plane. Everywhere, howling half-man creatures lay melted, writhing and twitching. Terrific screams echoed from the city by men, women and children. All voices struggled against the terrible thundering wind whipping over the terrain before the initial cries fell still in shock. Legions of surviving lycans, now blind, wandered in howling terror.

“Bloody hell,” moaned Orzo.

Half of Tuthomere was gone, now replaced by the crater. What remained of the city’s thick walls and stone towers rained from the sky in house-sized boulders across horde, field, and forest; or lay shattered like fallen porcelain and crumbled with soft thunder after the shockwave dislodged its multi-millennial foundations.

Elverbane killed a quarter of a million living beings in seconds. “Great Self. What have I done?”

Under the hellish light of the mushroom cloud climbing into the sky, conscious remnants of the vicious hordes fled in all directions, unable to see or smell their way home.

Elverbane spotted a lone figure between him and the horde—a petite woman who fearlessly scanned the mushroom cloud. Her hair glowed as bright as the fire climbing the sky, revealing its bone-white purity. He thought he might know her by description, but when he blinked, she was gone.

“You did what you had to do, my friend,” said Orzo as he stepped closer and soaked in the aftermath. “The rest will be hunted. We have broken the super pack. We have a chance to end this.”

“At what cost, Orzo?” Elverbane asked and scanned the decimated city for signs of survivors, difficult at this distance in the howling winds.

“A heavy one,” muttered Orzo as the glowing orange sky bathed the broken city in its light. “But what other choice did we have?”

“What do we do now?” whispered a witch behind Orzo.

“Recover the survivors,” Elverbane said. “Slaughter the untamed. Then ahm going ho—” His throat caught. “Back to New Gordon, and the rest of this selfdamn war can go straight to fuckin’ell.”


Her silver irises tracked Haephan from halfway across the park. He wouldn’t have seen her if he hadn’t been scanning for Crimson Guardians. Her red caramel skin, bone-white hair and tan leather outfit contrasted the chocolate skin and pastel dresses of the fine ladies in their bright colors and bronze-suited men wandering New Gordon’s grandest city park in the mid-afternoon sunshine. When their gazes met, she didn’t recoil from his dark, yellow-coffee skin, wide head and diminutive size like other girls.

Haephan shrank behind the tree. Was she a snitch for the Crimson Guard? Was she new competition? She didn’t seem to know how to melt into a crowd. The way her remarkable eyes followed him, he worried he wasn’t doing it so well, himself.

Three Crimson Guardians—teenage boys monitoring the crowds for thieves, scammers, and pickpockets—passed between them, one of whom stared at the white-haired girl. When her focus flicked to the smitten boy, Haephan slipped along the trees.

While the park opened to the left at the edge of the copse, Haephan fired across the grass to flank the nearest group of ladies making their daily circuit. Popular among the wealthy, Beltrand Park was a place of gathering, society, business, and politics.

Before the women noticed him, he switched to another ladies group. He walked among men and their teenage sons out on business before backtracking to avoid guardians. Always, he moved outside where people searched.

Men and women cried their wares or causes from atop a variety of stone and wooden boxes and platforms scattered across the park. At its heart, a massive crowd gathered around its largest and finest marble stage occupied by a group of high wizards, witches, and warlocks in formal city uniforms. A ring of martial mages repelled the crowd to form a perimeter while, at the group’s fore, a tall, graying administrator raised his hands.

“Everything is being done to keep the packs split.” Ilrich Wythe’s soft words boomed over more than a thousand attendees. “His Majesty King Myogan has summoned Battle Czars from five Pangean academies to help coordinate between New Gordon and other city states across South Edenia and central Pangea. Even Alderland has donated forces to rein in the rebellious packs.”

“We were assured they were broken in Tuthomere!” cried one well-dressed woman with midnight skin and orange sherbet robes in the crowd flanked by attendants. “Tell us, City Administrator…was High Wizard Elverbane not the hero you and magekind made him out to be?”

Before she could finish, hundreds of boos erupted.

Standing next to Wythe, a wizard with windswept hair winged in gray and a trimmed beard raised a hand to quiet the crowd. “Forty years ago, High Wizard Elverbane did more than anyone could have asked of him,” said Ornith Dufrain. “Without him, New Gordon would be a broken field and us the meal on a lycan’s plate. Despite our best efforts, however, the packs have returned.”

Cries and protests climbed from the crowds.

“Just blow ‘em up, again!” cried one man, cheered on by others.

Ignoring the exchange, Haephan melted into a crowd. Brushes and gentle nudges with his hands went ignored by adults before their small valuables slipped into his pockets.

“And if the super pack reforms!?” barked a grizzled older veteran. The crowd quieted. “What then? We going to split the atom again? Some of us remember what happened to the survivors. Some of us remember well!”

More protests rose from the group, cheering on the wariness of using ‘world enders’ again.

Haephan kept his picks small as, unlike adult thieves, larger items stood out on his small frame. After trying to pick an older man, he retreated when the man instinctively padded his pocket. Feeling pressed, Haephan stepped from the crowd.

Encircling him, five Crimson Guardians quietly punched hands.

“Finally,” said a boy at the center who boasted the same midnight hair and chalky burnt sienna skin as Haephan, though stood a few inches taller. A knotted rope looped his shoulder and armpit to indicate his status as a Red Captain.

“Dolphus,” Haephan sneered.

“I’ve spent a lot of time looking for— hey!” Dolphus began to say when Haephan dove into the crowd. Dolphus and his buddy Nurmon raced after him while the others fanned out. No other words were spoken or shouts uttered. Crimson Guardians were not to disturb the adults any more than thieves.

Haephan flowed through to avoid Dolphus before reaching the far edge. When one of the guardians passed by, he sprinted across the grass. The guardian noticed too late, but his soft whistle drew the other teenagers in swift pursuit.

Dolphus gave quick chase as Haephan skirted groups of adults the guardians were wary to disturb, but his caution gave precious advantage to Haephan.

Nurmon sprinted with long legs and groped for Haephan but found the boy could turn on his toe. Nurmon looped around to regain speed while the others spread out to flank and slid his feet into Haephan’s path.

Haephan spilled headlong over the ground near one of the far edges of the park leading into the warehouse district. He rolled to his feet as the day’s pickings flew across the grass while his hands lifted to defend himself.

Nurmon again attempted to sweep out Haephan’s feet, but the small boy was a slippery target.

Other guardians fared no better as Haephan twisted and ducked from their best attempts to nab him. When Dolphus managed to finger the necklace flying from Haephan’s shirt and yank it free, Haephan panicked.

“Hey!” Haephan cried. He rushed Dolphus, who snapped his fist and cracked Haephan’s nose. Haephan dropped to the grass as blood gushed forth.

Moving in, Nurmon swept a hearty kick in Haephan’s stomach.

“Red Captain!” barked an adult constable standing near one of white crossed arches lining the edge of the park.

Snapping to attention with a sharp salute, Dolphus directed the others to haul Haephan and his lost pickings out of the park, across the broadway rattling with carriages and wagons, and into a narrow, crate-packed alley.

Haephan twisted out of their grip and disappeared through a tiny gap between stacks of crates.

“Hey!” Dolphus snatched in vain in the tiny gap of crates too heavy to cast aside.

“Gimme back my ring!” Haephan barked at Dolphus while the other guardians searched for a way inside.

Dolphus laughed. “Your ring, you fuckin’ little picker? I don’t care who you think you are, you’re still just a thief.”

“It’s personal!” Haephan said. “It was mine! I saw you grab my picks!”

“You think I wanna keep your pathetic pickings?” asked Dolphus. “Why should I care about your personal shit when all you do is take others’ personal shit?” Dolphus shook his head at the awkward statement. “Get a job, you fuckin’ rainie.”

“Easy for you to say, softwipe!” Haephan said.

“You worthless little bastard,” Dolphus snarled at the insult.

Fresh blood drooled from Haephan’s smashed nose. “I gotta eat somehow.”

Crates rattled as the guardian on Haephan’s left found a way to leverage them enough to wiggle along the wall behind him.

“A third son, you little shit,” Dolphus spat as they worked to flush Haephan out. “You think I’d be in the Crimson Guard if my father was grooming me for his business?”

While Dolphus snarled, Haephan glanced in each direction at the teens, gathered blood drooling from his nose into his mouth and spewed it as far as he could through the narrow gap.

“Fuck!” Dolphus retreated as Nurmon got within arm’s reach of Haephan, who wiggled through the gap, planted a kick between Dolphus’s legs, and bolted back toward the park. A guardian blocked his path, flanked by another. Clutching his crotch, Dolphus drew his cudgel.

Cornered, Haephan feinted returning to his hiding place but changed directions and kicked at Dolphus’s knee. Though he planted his foot well, his short leg did little more than push it back a bit, and stumbled into Dolphus’s kill zone.

Fury doubling, the Red Captain swung his weapon.

Haephan spun and rammed his elbow at Dolphus’s kidney. He knew he missed when Dolphus took the hit and rebounded with the cudgel across the back of Haephan’s head.

Haephan staggered.

Dolphus grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and hauled him down toward his rising knee. Haephan twisted out of the way but couldn’t escape Nurmon’s well-timed elbow to his face.

Haephan crashed into the side of the unmoving crates. When his crown rang upon the cobblestones, he balled up and cradled his head.

Dolphus reared his foot and kicked Haephan several times in his gut and knees. Had Haephan any food in his stomach, it would have come out.

“Hey!” a man’s voice rang out in the narrow alley. “Get away from my crates!”

The guardians stiffened.

“Sorry, sir!” Nurmon locked up.

Glaring, Dolphus spat on Haephan. “Accuse me of being like you, you fuckin’ picker.” He kicked him again.

“Cap,” Nurmon hissed.

His chest heaving, Dolphus squatted, gripped Haephan’s hair in his oversized leather gauntlets and growled, “Next time, I’ll do what the sweethearts shoulda done and put you in the Vit’, myself.” He straightened and kicked him again. He pointed his cudgel at someone out of sight. “Oy, you. Get your bitch and go back to the shit hole you dogs crawled out of.”

Haephan struggled to think or wonder whom he was talking about until the face of a tiny, almond-skinned boy appeared over him and tugged at his clothes.

“C’mon,” said Tilly. “We gotta go!”

Dolphus sneered. “Hurry up, cumstain.”

“Shit you!” Tilly shouted.

The teens cackled and mocked his awkward profanity.

“C’mon, Haeph,’” said Tilly. “Before they throw you in the canal.”

His vision swimming, Haephan sobbed as the tiny boy strained to help him stagger away.

“I said be off!” the man’s voice barked again.

“Leaving now, sir!” Nurmon nearly bowed at the man while the others shuffled back.

“C’mon,” Dolphus led the boys away. His voice faded in the soft rain. “Got an appointment over at Goram’s.”

“Why did’n you h’lp?” asked Haephan as blood drooled down his face.

“Help you? Are you crazy?” Tilly asked. “They’re twice my size!”

“Soo?” said Haephan. “Jus’ a bunch’o crimsies.”

“Dolphus is a cap’n!” Tilly said and stumbled with him down the alley past the glaring man, who double took when he spotted the blood on Haephan’s dark skin.

“Just another crimsie,” Haephan moaned.

“You alright?” asked the man.

“Shure,” Haephan spat blood upon the street.

Turning, they limped away.

“Damn, Haeph,” Tilly’s scrawny frame strained under his larger friend. “I thought you’d never get caught. You never have been, before. What happened?”

“Yeah, well…” Haephan grimaced. “I…got distracted.”

“By what!? I’ve seen you disappear in the middle of a street.”

Haephan recalled the penetrating gaze of the girl with bone-white hair. “Just…something stupid, I guess. They got my ring.”

Navigating the narrow alleys to avoid main byways, they headed southwest, away from the affluent districts, through other policed districts, and down devolving streets into Rainhold.

“Wait,” said Haephan as he used a small puddle to clear his eyes. He sucked in water, swished and spat out blood.

“I thought for sure Lurli would brain you on the road.” Tilly shivered in thin shorts and a ragged shirt too large for his small frame. “Couldn’t we have done this when it was drier? And warmer!?”

Haephan climbed to his feet and swayed. “Some things, you can’t wait on.”

“You’re nuts,” Tilly took as much of Haephan’s weight as he could along the shortest road into Rainhold, which sank to the lowest of its four broad steppes descending to a point where the Vitner and Estamar Canals intersected. Ratty docks jutted out along the Vitner for canal traffic before the water either split southeast into the Estamar or continued southwest and became a river. The Estamar headed southeast as the only major waterway in Pangea to flow across the equator, cut through the Zulta’Mans and empty in the Sea of Para, which eventually led to the south seas.

Northward along the Vitner shore, Haephan strained to make out the Station—a building complex—through the rainy mist while Tilly supported him up the first long switchback climbing to the top terrace. A river of stagnant mud now sat where once stretched pavement of intricate stonework.

At the top, tents and booths covered most of the available space. Vagrants, destitute, and a few hardy vendors managed to survive the awful conditions.

The boys crossed the broad steppe, descended stairs to the next terrace and paused next to the ancient dwarf-carved stone foundations. Haephan knelt in a shallow pool of icy water at its base and leaned in so the runoff would wash his injuries and cool his head.

Once a beautiful ridge carved up for vacation homes called Marina Heights, Rainhold boasted a single home from its wealthier days which now housed the district’s richest resident and all his sweethearts busy in beds around the clock. When the climate shifted two hundred years prior, the district disintegrated under the constant runoff from higher in the city. Houses without better foundations crumbled, and those with adequate bases were left vacant as resident quality changed.

Water pooled on each of Rainhold’s four steppes and formed four large, shallow and uneven crescent lakes that froze in winter and stagnated in summer.

In this year’s temporary number of shanties, residents took every available floorboard above ground to stay dry. Dwarvan drainage had never anticipated the change in rainfall and the city could not afford to hire them for extensive modifications.

“Alright, let’s go,” Haephan said and stood before the cold water chilled him. Together, they navigated through narrow, well-known alleys for their own safety.

“You said a ring? What kinda ring?” Tilly’s bare feet squished in the icy mud.

“It’s the only thing I have from my dad,” Haephan said. “I think. That’s what Querie said. She said my dad left it behind and my mom always kept it.”

“Why’d she do that?”

“Maybe she liked it,” said Haephan. “Clients leave things behind all the time, says Querie.”

“Querie’s nice,” said Tilly. “At least she still talks to you. My sweet kicked me out and said fug’off.”

“Hey.” Haephan nudged him with his elbow. “You got me.”

“Thanks, Haeph,” said Tilly.

Scanning the misty squalor, Haephan sighed. “I’m gettin’ outta here, Tilly.”

“Do you think you’ll make it? To the ocean?”

“One day.”

“I still don’t get why you wanna go there. What’s there ain’t here?”

“Anything’s better’n here, Till,” Haephan said. “Anything.”

“But why the ocean?”

“Dunno,” said Haephan. “Just always wanted to go. Maybe have a shanty of my own on the edge. Kinda like my spot now.”

“It’s only water.”

Haephan pondered such endlessness. “I-I’m…I dunno. I wanna go.”

“I’ll probably be here,” Tilly looked about. “I mean, what else is there? I’ll be lucky to make it to be a man. Maybe somebody will even bury me like those folks with the stones.”


“Yeah,” said Tilly as he motioned to the ground as if able to see it. “The dead people with the stones with the letters.”

“You mean gravestones?”

“Yeah?” asked Tilly. “I mean, it meant they was somebody, right? To have a stone that doesn’t wash away like wood or mud from the canal. It says, ‘I was here.’ Like, people would want to think about you after you die. It’s different from everything here, because it’s always changing. That’d be…great.”

“In Rainhold?”

“Anywhere,” Tilly motioned with his arm.

“You’re weird,” Haephan said. “Ain’t time to die. And if I can get out of here, I’ll find a way to get you out, too.”

“Really, Haeph?” asked Tilly.

“If I can, I promise you I will,” Haephan grunted.

Tilly’s hideaway came into view—a tiny, elevated window in a rickety shack barely big enough for himself above a larger room occupied by someone else.

Haephan turned to lift him. “C’mon.”

“What’re you gonna do now?” Tilly asked.

“I’m going back for my ring.”

“What? You’re really going to the Station?”

“Not yet,” Haephan said. “Dolphus is going to visit a sweetheart. I’ll pick his clothes.”

“While he’s bangin’!?” Tilly asked.

Haephan didn’t smirk as he might have. Pain blossomed afresh in his head. “I’m getting my ring back.”

“What’s wrong?” Tilly asked.

“Sometimes I wish I could burn that place down.”

“Goram’s House? Why?”

“My mom died there, says Querie,” said Haephan. “Like most of the others. It’s just…I don’t know. But I’d burn it down, with all them inside it.”

“Even the sweethearts?” Tilly gasped.

“Of course not!” said Haephan. “I meant all the clients. And Goram and his men.”

“Oh,” Tilly said.

“C’mon. I ain’t got much time.” Squatting with laced fingers, Haephan hefted his friend up and through. Tilly pulled the curtain aside to help Haephan up, but the boy disappeared.

“Haeph’!” Tilly yelled and scanned the huts. Pursing his lips, he let the curtain fall before he muttered, “How do you do that?”

Already around the corner and down the alley, Haephan scowled as he veered toward Goram’s House, plotting how to reclaim the only thing that had ever mattered to him.

Copyright 2024 Christian Michael

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