Anyhow, I found out earlier this week that I sold "Mendacity," the ninth story about Cluny the Sorceress Squirrel and her various friends 'n' foes, to this year's 29th volume of the Sword & Sorceress anthology. So as I usually do, I thought I'd post the news along with a link back to the first story in the series, "Familiars."
And then I thought that, as an extra added bonus, I would post the second Cluny story right here and right now: "Immolation," it's called, and it was originally published in the anthology What Happens Next published by Furplanet Books last year.
So I did!
Immolation by Michael H. Payne Her Majesty's voice, normally a glorious blast of sound and fury, barely crackled now, softer than the last lick of a wildfire through a forest's final tree. "My traitorous cousin still lives, firedrake." Shtasith couldn't bring himself to look up from the blue flames guttering between the obsidian flagstones of the Ifriti Ranee's private audience chamber, and the thought that he should be the cause of her Majesty's distress made all four of his knees fold, his wings clamping tight to his slender body. "I beg you, my Queen." He stretched his snaky neck along the floor toward her. "Kill me now, for I no longer deserve to be called your servant." "Oh, my Immolator." Shadows shifted around him, her arm reaching down in a perfect flex of yellow, red, and orange flame. One onyx fingernail nearly as large as his whole head crooked under Shtasith's chin and raised his gaze to meet the ravishing inferno of her face. "Had I but the time, I would destroy you in a conflagration the Fire Realms would ever recall as legendary." Watching her settle back into her seat made Shtasith's inner ember flare. Her beauty dwarfing that of an erupting volcano, her lounging robe a shinier black than even the rest of the room's decor, her hair flowing over her broad shoulders like the finest of basaltic lavas, she inspired the same awe in him that he'd felt almost two decades ago when he'd crawled from his eggshell into her waiting palm. That she would consider him worthy to die in the exquisite embrace of her power- "But no." She blew out a sirocco of a breath, one hand curled below her chin and her half-lidded eyes burning their unquenchable fire at the side wall of her sanctum. "This current disruption must take precedence. Once I have dealt with that and the Realms are safe, I can then kill you and give Cousin Hypabyssal my undivided attention." "You cannot, my Queen!" Spreading his wings, Shtasith leaped straight up the eight feet necessary to hover before her. "His Lordship has so enflamed the people, they are as the driest tinder! He but awaits your first overt move against him to strike the spark and begin his attempt to usurp your throne!" With fluid grace, her Majesty gently stroked a finger down Shtasith's back. The shock of her touch froze him like pumice, but she caught him before he could fall and drew him close. "Which is why," she whispered, her molten lips mere inches from his face, "I will kill you first, dearest one. I would spare you the sight of my flame being stamped out in the cold stone streets of my own city by those filthy and ungrateful cretins to whom I have devoted my every waking hour the past six centuries." Those perfect lips curled downward, and she surged upward, her magma blazing, its blinding radiance whirling him into the overheated air. "Ours is but a temporary stay of execution, my Immolator!" she announced. "For upon my return, we shall both be engulfed by our violent and destructive destinies!" Wings flailing, Shtasith managed to stop his tumbling flight, but by then the room had fallen dark and silent, her Majesty gone. "No!" he shrieked, unable to stop himself from fluttering back and forth like some deranged moon moth. There had to be a way he could save her Majesty and defeat Lord Hypabyssal! Just because his every stratagem so far had met with colossal and resounding failure didn't mean he should give up! Yes, his Lordship was incredibly paranoid, canny, and experienced in the cutthroat world of the Fire Realms' politics, but Shtasith was her Majesty's private Immolator! All he needed was another option, a new way to approach the problem that he could use to his advantage, something like- Like whatever crisis was occupying her Majesty's attention at the moment. A bubble of hope began puffing up inside him, and he dove for the third pool of magma to the left of her Majesty's seat, his private entrance into her chambers. This called for a bit of investigation... [***] "Are you crazy??" Crocker yelled. Perched on his shoulder, Cluny wanted to agree, but still, she slapped a paw across Crocker's lips before he could blurt out anything else. The early morning sunlight streamed through the windows above the bookcases lining the walls of Master Gollantz's study, and the Magister Magistrorum of Huxley College himself, seated in the elaborately carved chair on the other side of his desk, arched a brambly eyebrow, his fingers steepled in front of him. "Do I look crazy, novices? Or was I somehow not explicit enough last night when I informed you of the actual punishment you would incur for yesterday's misdeeds?" "It's not that, sir." Fur prickled on the back of Cluny's neck. "I think what Crocker meant to say is that this seems a little..." She searched for the word. "Unorthodox." The way Master Gollantz's beard twitched, Cluny almost thought he was trying not to smile. "An interesting adjective, coming as it does from a familiar-in-training who has already demonstrated an ability to manipulate mana at what can only be called a sorcerous level. Couple that with a novice wizard who seems perfectly attuned to act as your familiar, and 'unorthodox' does not even begin to describe the situation." The magister spoke calmly enough, but the intensity behind his words as he leaned forward made Cluny swallow. "Should the truth ever get out that an animal can control numenistic forces in ways that few humans can achieve-and not just an animal but a squirrel whose maternal grandmother was by any and all measures utterly non-sapient-it would rend the very fabric of our society to an extent that I myself can only begin to imagine. The two of you present me, therefore, with quite an intriguing dilemma." Crocker gave a little gasp, his eyes wide and staring at Master Gollantz, his pudgy face even paler than usual. "You're gonna kill us, aren't you?" Cluny moved to cover his mouth with her paw again, but he put up a hand to block her. "That's why you're sending us back to that place with all the lava." His voice shook, his scent sour with fear against Cluny's whiskers. "'Cause if the Queen Ifrit eats us both, it'll save you a whole lotta trouble!" And as much as Cluny wanted to leap in and reassure Crocker, she couldn't quite get the words to squeeze out through the clench in her throat, a clench that got even tighter as Master Gollantz's eyes narrowed. "Firstly," the magister said, "'that place with all the lava' is formally known as the Realms of Fire. And secondly, one must never refer to the leader of the ifriti as a queen in her hearing; the proper term is 'ranee.' These are important matters of protocol, and I will have you learn them." "Learn?" A little bubble of hope tickled Cluny's chest. "Then...you still consider us to be students here?" "Very much so." His face looked as hard as a rock. "You are a puzzle, the two of you, and I have arrived at my current position in life by solving puzzles, not by ignoring them or destroying them." His hand moved with a flash, his index finger stabbing the desk's blotter pad. "You will not mention these matters outside this room unless the two of you are unmistakably alone, and we will journey toward understanding together. Am I clear?" Cluny nodded, and the spiky flow of magic between her and Crocker smoothed a little. "Then we don't hafta go back to the Realms of Fire?" he asked. "Of course you do." The smile that moved through Master Gollantz's beard this time was wide enough to be plainly visible. "For now that the Ranee has accepted my offer, you will perform one task of her choosing. And I shall be there as well should you find you require assistance." [***] "Water!" The salamander across from Shtasith swigged down his drink and belched a blue alcohol flame. "Magical water!" The little gas jet of an imp hovering above the granite tabletop extruded a fiery finger and shook it. "It's global moistening, I tell you. Check the science! The big fusion conglomerates have bought off her Majesty so they can pump all the hydrogen and oxygen into the atmosphere that they want! And you know what that stuff turns into, right?" More flames shimmered from the salamander's eyes, glaring at the imp. "You're an idiot! Her Majesty's sold us out to the damned axolotls of the Aqueous Realms; that's what's happening! Lord Hypabyssal says he's gonna bring formal charges to the Judiciary, like, any day now!" Shtasith stirred his cup of coal tar. He'd heard both these theories already while poking around the streets and alleyways of Darbijwe. The most common rumor, though- "My understanding was that her Majesty was attempting to punish a mortal sorcerer for summoning her to the Material Realm." The story went on to say that she'd left the sorcerer unattended at her estate outside the city, and that he'd then escaped, leaving behind a lake of unstoppable water expanding across the whole of the Phlogistal Plain, fires going out everywhere and the lava seizing up into dead, gray stone. "Whatever." The salamander belched again. "She screwed up is the thing, and she'll keep screwing up till we all get our act together and put Lord Hypabyssal on the-" He shifted his gaze around, his thick neck flexing. "But hey, y'know, thanks for the drink, buddy." He slashed a claw through the imp's shimmering body. "We better get back to work." The imp rose from the ashes of the cedar wood it had consumed and drifted after the salamander toward the door of the cheap bar Shtasith had settled into for lunch. "I'm telling you, drake," the imp's wavery voice called back. "Hydrogen and oxygen! Look it up!" Watching them go, Shtasith shivered in the dry heat. Stone had its place, of course-cities like Darbijwe couldn't exist without it. But the fertile lava beds of the Phlogistal Plane supported the fireapple orchards and bombardier beetle ranches that kept the Realm's various peoples fed. Should this magical water keep spreading, Shtasith could only foresee chaos of the sort that her Majesty had put an end to when she'd clawed her way to power and forced the ifriti and the dragons to stop killing and eating each other all those centuries ago. Magical water. The words started the tiniest twinge of an idea tickling along Shtasith's neck ridges, but it was an idea so stupid and desperate and risky, he tried to dismiss it, tried to come up with something else-anything else. Which was the problem, of course. There simply wasn't anything else. Resigning himself, then, he lay sprawled on the bench beside the little table and nursed both his cup of coal tar and the idea all afternoon, but neither got any better. If he failed in one way, whatever remained of her Majesty's forces would swarm after him to seek his death, and if he failed in another way, all those loyal to Lord Hypabyssal would join the Royal Guard in howling for his blood. If, however, by some miraculous chance he actually succeeded, well, the best scenario he could construct for that would involve him never being able to leave the safety of her Majesty's palace again. In the worst success scenario- Not that it mattered in the slightest. He had no alternative if he was to save her Majesty. Swigging down the tar, sludgy and grotesque by this time but possibly destined to be his final meal, he stretched his wings and sailed from the bar into the muggy streets of Darbijwe. Zigzagging between the lumpy apartment buildings of the city's east side brought him at last to the Ignicular Gate, the hard stone giving way immediately to the gently rolling magma flows of the Phlogistal. Orchards of fireapple trees shone in the distance, but the haze floating beyond them over the heart of the Plain, he was sure, was steam rather than the usual smoke. Traffic below and around him seemed quite heavy, drakes and dragons winging in the same direction Shtasith was headed, ifriti guiding carts drawn by giant beetles between the farms that covered the undulating plain. Soon, he spotted a dark mass gathered in a glowing field ahead, figures whirling through the sky above it, and as he got closer, he could hear hundreds- perhaps even thousands-of muttering voices, a massive crowd of local residents milling around. Why they'd stopped here he couldn't tell at first, but glints of reflected light told him that about a quarter of those assembled below were wearing diamond armor, something only allowed to soldiers in her Majesty's Guard. "Citizens!" came a shout from above the rustling rumble, and Shtasith recognized the phoenix swooping back and forth at the far end of the mob as Captain Coronal, her vest catching the glow of the magma field and shining it back almost too brightly to look at. "I ask you to disperse! This is now a restricted area, and for your own safety, you must-" "Why?" someone asked in a tone so pompous, Shtasith would've recognized it even if it hadn't come from a gaudy, canopy-covered platform held aloft by the most shapeless and primitive fire elementals he'd ever seen. "Pray, tell me it isn't that my dear cousin has somehow lost control of a situation?" Wheeling to his right, Shtasith settled onto the spongy lava among the other folk packing the space before the giant palanquin. And there, reclining beneath the awning atop stacks of finely woven asbestos cushions, lay Lord Hypabyssal, his black swallow-tailed coat made from obsidian every bit as fine as her Majesty's wardrobe though his Lordship was taller and more slenderly-built than her Majesty, his gaze decidedly shiftier and more rapacious. "The very glimmer of the thought," he was going on, "that Cousin may have done something even more exceptionally bone- headed than usual gives me quite a case of the vapors!" His Lordship puffed his glowing orange cheeks out, then wafted a large smoke ring from his mouth, the crowd around Shtasith going wild. "Please, your Lordship." Captain Coronal waved a wing at the magma, and it flowed up into a fluted perch for her to land on. "Politics aside, this is too near the source of the disturbance for any sort of gathering. I would ask you to aim your influence toward guiding this assembly toward higher ground where you may then harangue them to your inner ember's content." "Ah, Captain." His Lordship shook his head. "Were you the leader of my guard, I would spare no expense to outfit you as befits a creature of your beauty, grace, and talent." She bowed. "Should you somehow survive long enough to succeed her Majesty, sir, I will then have no choice but to serve you. Until that time, however,-" "Yes, yes." He waved a hand, spots of liquid fire spattering across his cushions, and raised his voice. "Let us away, then, my constituents! As the good captain implies, I have a great deal more I wish to say on this subject!" Deep purple magic bristled from his Lordship's eyes, and the blobby elementals shivered, raised the palanquin, and began shambling back toward Darbijwe. "And you would all do well to pay me heed! For when I become rajah, my every word reaching back to the very day of my birth shall become law, any infraction of which will be punishable in whatever way I see fit!" For some reason, cheers rose up at this statement, and looking around, Shtasith saw a few dozen of his Lordship's Cyclopean guards scattered through the crowd, their swords or bludgeons encouraging the response. Watching the entire mass of citizens trailing after his Lordship's platform, Shtasith sat while the field emptied, sick to his stomach at the thought of trying to follow through on his plan. How could he possibly have so much as a snowball's chance in-? "Well, well, well." Hot air wafted down around him, and Shtasith looked up to see Captain Coronal hovering overhead, her perch melting back into the lava from which she'd summoned it. "I certainly didn't expect to see you in one piece, Immolator." He blew out a gust of steam. "Neither, in truth, did I, but this current threat to home and hearth apparently takes precedence over me becoming multiple grease spots." He nodded toward the center of the Plain. "Is Herself out at the scene?" "She is." The captain cocked her head. "I'd be happy to disembowel you here and now if you'd like. I'll tell her Majesty you were threatening her cousin and had to be stopped before you did him harm." Shtasith couldn't help laughing at that. "As much as I appreciate the offer, captain, her Majesty has her own such plans for me." Giving her a bow, he leaped upward and set off after his Lordship. [***] The way Cluny's nose itched at the power building silently in the air of Master Gollantz's study, she kept wanting to sneeze. But she refused to. A sneeze would make her close her eyes, and she didn't want to miss a single bit of what Master Gollantz was doing to construct the spell that would bear the three of them to the Fire Realms. Of course, she was missing most of it, she knew, but she could almost feel the subtle waves he was sending through the aethersphere, could nearly sense the exquisite aromas wafting on the breezes that flowed between the levels of reality. It was all she could do to keep from jumping up and down. That she, a mere first semester frosh, should be allowed to stand so close and experience the beauty of a true master at work took her breath away, and leaning forward from Crocker's shoulder to spread her whiskers into the glorious vibrations, she didn't notice that she'd lost her balance till she was slipping from her perch. She barely had time to squeak, though, before Crocker's hands were catching her in their steady warmth and lifting her back into place with a whispered, "Careful." Nodding, she dug a paw into the curly dark hair above his ear and let the flow of Master Gollantz's mana wash over her again. It made her shiver, and she swore the same oath that she'd made while watching the stars from the treetops of her parents' nut farm: nothing would stop her from learning to do this sort of magic herself. Nothing. The spell froze suddenly mere inches from completion, and Cluny gasped, the deep rhythm of so much power so casually suspended shaking her like an elm buffeted by storm winds. A chuckle reached her ears. "Am I mistaken, Novice Crocker, or does your familiar have a question?" Crocker's shoulder shifted. "You'd hafta ask her, sir." She could almost hear Master Gollantz's frown. "I see. Cluny, then. You seem very intent on something." It took her a few heartbeats to filter what she was observing through the terms she'd learned after reading all of Crocker's textbooks the first week of school. "At...at the top of the, uhh..." She raised her arm, wanting to crook a claw at the structure Master Gollantz had been building, but of course the spell wasn't visible, not the way the desk or the chairs were. She shook her head and lowered her paw. "The third nodal juncture, sir. You've got what I perceive as a hook embedded in the cross-planar conjunction. Is that the trigger for the whole spell?" Silence, then the magister's quiet voice: "Very good." "But...at the top?" She moved her gaze from the invisible flex of power to Master Gollantz, his brow wrinkled, his brow wrinkled in an expression Cluny couldn't quite figure out: not confusion or anger, but it was sharp and strange enough to make her swallow before going on. "How can that possibly-?" "Observe." The old human reached a hand up like he was plucking an apple from a branch, and a shimmer of magic curled from his fingertips, its tendrils wrapping around the little hook. He then brought his hand down, and the hook descended through the structure of the spell and split the air itself-or no, more than the air. The entire fabric of the Material Realm peeled away as neatly as a banana skin, Master Gollantz's office folding back to reveal a black marble chamber beyond. The hook hit the floor of the chamber with a thunk that Cluny felt rather than heard, and it stayed there, the only bit of the Material Realm left anywhere around her. "You see?" Master Gollantz asked. "This way, when we need to return,-" "Yes!" This time, Cluny couldn't stop herself from clapping her paws and jumping in place on Crocker's shoulder. "You just...just zip it back up, and-!" "Uhh, guys?" Crocker's voice wasn't shaking, and that grabbed Cluny's attention like nothing else. "I really think we oughtta be bowing right about now." She turned to look at him, but he was facing away from her off to the left, his attention apparently focused on- On the massive pillar of fire that had sprung up from the floor in front of the big black stone chair Cluny now saw at the far end of the room. As she watched, though, the midsection of the pillar narrowed and cinched into a waist. Shoulders broadened and arms separated from the pillar, a fireball of a head spinning into place above them, eyes of a whiter sort of flame opening about where eyes ought to be. Hips rounded into legs, and the lava covering the now quite humanoid figure suddenly crackled into a gray gown, spun with curlicues finer than the finest lace. Master Gollantz cleared his throat behind her. "Novice Crocker is quite right." Stepping forward, he bowed. "Your Majesty, thank you for agreeing to see us on such short notice." "Agreeing??" The Ifriti Ranee's voice was maybe a little less explosive than Cluny remembered from all the shouting the day before, but it still made her ears fold. "These so-called students of yours, Gollantz, have violated every possible compact between the Material Realm and the Elemental Planes! Were I to take my grievances before any court from one end of reality to the next, I would be universally granted the right to skin them, eat them, excrete them, then reconstitute them and perform the same actions again!" Crocker was shaking beneath her now, and Cluny was sure that, if she'd been alone, she would've been running for any hiding place that presented itself. Master Gollantz, however, merely nodded, his hands clasped just below the point of his beard. "And yet, your Majesty, I'm fairly certain that you have a better use for these two than that." The Ranee raised an arm and pointed a finger so fiery, Cluny could feel the concentrated heat of it striking her from all the way across the room. "This foul water you mortals summoned! It is even now destroying valuable cropland and threatening the lives and livelihoods of my people! You will therefore remove it without delay! Am I understood??" "Yes'm," Crocker muttered, but it came out of him so quietly, Cluny was sure she was the only one who'd heard it. So she cleared her throat and forced herself to sit up straighter in Crocker's shoulder. "We apologize, your Majesty, and will do everything we can to fix the damage we've caused." The ifrit just glared, but Master Gollantz clapped his hands, the sound echoing. "Well spoken, young Cluny! What, then, will you and Novice Crocker's first step be?" Blinking, Cluny looked at Crocker. He was looking at her. And somehow she knew that she had every bit as clueless an expression on her face as she saw on his. [***] Even beaten to near unconsciousness, Shtasith still felt bones crack when Lord Hypabyssal's guards slammed him to the flagstones. And when his Lordship said, "Well, now, Immolator," that oily voice trickled over Shtasith like gasoline over an open flame, pain flaring up all through him. "This is a new wrinkle on your little game." Shtasith struggled to his claws, bowed to the ifrit, then collapsed again. "I have found it nearly impossible to get an appointment with your Lordship." "A display of wit?" Lord Hypabyssal's sigh wafted cold across Shtasith's back. "My lad must be losing his touch. Best I send you back for another several rounds with him, I think." "As your Lordship pleases." Shtasith wanted to shrug, but he couldn't quite get his shoulders to move. "In another few hours, however, the current window will close, and the finest opportunity in centuries to end her Majesty's vile reign quickly and easily will have slipped beyond reach." For several seconds, no sound came to Shtasith's throbbing ears except for the bubbling of his Lordship's personal tar pit. Then- "Did I hear you correctly, Immolator? Did the only creature I believe my noxious cousin has ever truly trusted just refer to her as 'vile'?" And for all that Shtasith had spent the last seemingly endless hour being tortured by an expert, he knew these next few minutes would be the hardest and most painful of his life. "I will say it again at your Lordship's command and will further add 'duplicitous' and 'inept' to the adjectives with which I would now describe her Majesty." Fingers snapped, and Shtasith felt a rough hand wrap around him, haul him from the floor, and thrust him toward something thin and glowing; he blinked, and the fiery face of Lord Hypabyssal swam into focus before him. "You really expect me to believe this, don't you?" his Lordship asked, every trace of his usual insouciance gone. Consoling himself that he was telling the literal truth, Shtasith let himself flop in the grip of whatever minion had hold of him. "I'm dead already, your Lordship, by her Majesty's decree due to my utter failure to kill you, and she has promised to carry out my sentence once she has dealt with the current emergency. My only hope of survival, therefore, lies in eliminating her before she eliminates this water problem." With difficulty, he got his eyes to focus once more on his Lordship. "I cannot do this without your assistance, and-" Again, he almost abandoned his plan and his life rather than say the words, but... "And I pledge you my allegiance, my Lord, if such a pledge has any value to you at all." Silence stretched around him again, and Shtasith concentrated on getting his bones to knit more quickly. Such niceties wouldn't matter if his Lordship decided to kill him, of course, but on the outside chance that he might not... "Interesting." And in that one word, soft and scuttling as a scarab from his Lordship's mouth, Shtasith felt his destiny sealed. "Tell me what you know of this water problem, my Immolator." Another swish of motion, but this time Shtasith ended up settled gently on a soft but firm surface, something into which he could partially sink to prop up his healing body. Taking a breath, he began: "The water has its source in the Material Realms where her Majesty has many contacts. I surmise that she will call upon those contacts to bring a mortal sorcerer here. No mortal sorcerer, however, will be able to remove so much magical water without-" "What??" Lord Hypabyssal's voice struck him sharper than he'd ever heard it before. "Why, the simplest child could remove water from the Fire Realms! The two elements are antithetical! They want to get away from each other!" Shtasith felt steady enough to raise a claw. "Were this mere water, my Lord would be entirely correct. But it is magical water, and on top of that, it has been summoned here. This mortal sorcerer will therefore first need to untangle its roots from our soil, as it were, by gathering it into one spot that is in our Realm but not of it, a spot that is very near where the water first appeared. Once there, its magic can be properly drained, and only then can the water be removed." Daring a quick glance up at his Lordship, Shtasith watched the ifrit rub his fiery beard. "'In our Realm but not of it' sounds as if you mean suspending the water in the air above the magma. And near the spot of summoning..." His white-hot eyes blazed hotter. "You're talking about a huge ball of magical water hovering just above my unfortunate cousin's estate!" "I am." Shtasith winced as his broken ribs slithered back into place and began repairing themselves. "And once this ball of water has been denuded of magic, if it were to, say, become unstable and drop from the sky-" "Directly onto Cousin!" Lord Hypabyssal sat forward in his seat. "A base element so recently emptied of magic would be even more catalytic than usual! Were this water to strike Cousin, it would absorb her magic, her fire, her essence, her...her everything! There'd be nothing left of her but a pillar of basalt, and no kindling in the Realms could reignite her! It... Oh, Immolator! It's magnificent!" The joy melted from his Lordship's face like wax from a wick, though, and he aimed a glare at Shtasith. "Why, however, would you need me for this plan? Or more to the point: why would I need you?" Shtasith nodded, again keeping things simple and largely true. "You are, I believe, still very much persona non grata on her Majesty's estate, so you could not approach near enough the site without my aid. And I, I am nowhere near strong enough to affect such a massive amount of water in any appreciable way." Lord Hypabyssal settled back, his fingertips tapping together and the orange fire of his jaw wavering as if he were actually considering such an insane proposal. It would have been quite heartening to see how desperate the ifrit was to replace her Majesty and how poor he thought his current chances were had Shtasith not already joined his Lordship in committing the most horrendous sort of treason.... The silence continued while Shtasith focused once more on healing, then his Lordship asked, "What is your exact plan?" "We would enter her Majesty's estate along its western border. A valley there is slowly collapsing, and the shifting magnetic fields of the magma make the area almost impossible to monitor. The path will not be easy, but it will take us to a vantage point overlooking the only possible location where this water can be held while it is drained of its magic: a valley just north of her Majesty's chalet." His Lordship was nodding. "We remain there concealed until the water is bare and thirsting for magic, then...what? I hurl you at it with sufficient force that you can upset whatever spell is holding it in place? Do you pierce its skin, toppling it or bursting it or the like?" "All these things, my Lord." The holes in Shtasith's punctured lungs itchily closed, allowing him to take his first deep breath in some time. "I ask merely for a boost of pure physical power since any expenditure of magical energy on your part would then draw the water to you as iron is drawn to lodestone. This method will allow you a personal hand in her Majesty's demise while also keeping your role secret, ensuring a smooth transition of power when you step into the gap." Speaking the plan out loud made it sound even more ill- considered than it had when he'd first conceived it, but once again, his Lordship seemed to be thinking it over. Another stretch of silence ensued, at any rate, before Lord Hypabyssal said, "I don't trust you, you know, Immolator." "Nor should you, my Lord." Shtasith had decided to be very specific on this next point. "I feel that perhaps I could manage to bring yourself and one other secretly onto her Majesty's estate, so might I suggest your excellent torturer? That you entrusted my well-being to his care leads me to believe your Lordship holds his skills in some esteem." The laugh that burbled from Lord Hypabyssal's thin lips had very little mirth in it. "Twist? Yes, he is strong, obtuse, and follows orders in quite the thoroughly methodical fashion. I find him invaluable, in other words." Clapping his hands with a spray of fire, Lord Hypabyssal sat forward. "I agree! You and he may indeed assist me in this endeavor, Immolator." Shtasith bowed his head and felt the figurative noose pull tight around his neck. "I am my Lord's servant." [***] Squatting on Crocker's shoulder and panting, Cluny tried not to smell his sweat. But even the stink of the steam rising into the yellowish-brown sky from the bubbling lake below the balcony of the Ifriti Ranee's palace couldn't mask the sour, nervous odor as Crocker shook his head and muttered, "There wasn't this much water yesterday..." Cluny couldn't keep her whiskers from bristling. "And whose fault is that?" "Hey!" He craned his head around to glare at her. "A big, flaming monster throws me into a lava pit, I panic a little! And that watery healing spell you cast on me for fireball practice just kicked right in! What was I s'pposed to do??" "Maybe think a little?" Her power shivered, the lake expanding a bit more beneath them. "That's the only good thing about you messing up the doubling magic you tried to cast on it! 'Cause it you'd done it right, this whole place'd be under water by now!" A clearing of throat made her ears fold; she'd forgotten that Master Gollantz was standing by the balcony's doorway. "Fewer recriminations, please, novice and familiar, and more problem solving." "But sir!" Cluny spun, not even trying to stop her claws from digging into the rough weave of Crocker's robe. "I can't fix this! I mean, literally can't! If he'd cast the actual doubling spell, I could unravel it, sure, but whatever he did, it's not...it doesn't-!" She stopped, took a breath of the hot, sulfurous air, and tried to stop herself from rambling. But to have failed her first test im front of Master Gollantz himself... "I'm sorry, sir. Ive tried everything, but I can't even begin to discern the spell's parameters." "I see." Master Gollantz stroked his beard. "What a pity the caster isn't standing right here with us." Cluny glared at the side of Crocker's head. "A pity he's got no more idea than a rock about what he actually did!" Crocker coughed something that could've been a laugh. "I guess that's why us familiars aren't s'pposed to do magic, huh?" Bunching a paw into a fist, Cluny summoned her levitation spell and let it rustle around his boots. "Maybe we should see if dropping you into the lava again might jog your memory!" "Hey!" Another clearing of Master Gollantz's throat made Cluny turn her glare to him. But his glare was so much deeper, she felt hers puff away like sand in a windstorm. "There are three points," he said quietly, "that I feel you should keep in mind, students. First, the Ifriti Ranee is seated in the next room, and anything other than a successful outcome in this matter will displease her in ways that may prove fatal to several of us. Second, in looking over Crocker's spell myself, I find that I am also stumped as to its structure, so I must hereby admit that I will be completely unable to accomplish this task should the two of you fail. And third-" "What??" Crocker yelled, and Cluny had to dig her claws in again to keep from falling off his shoulder when he whirled frantically. "But...but you're the Magister Magistrorum! How can you say that you can't-??" "My third point." Master Gollantz leveled a finger at Cluny. "I am not your wizard, familiar, so I cannot compel you in any way." "Compel?" Cluny's brain sparked at the word, her memory dredging up sections of Crocker's textbooks that she'd read with extreme distaste back when she'd still thought herself a familiar. "The...the standfast spell, sir?" He gave a sharp nod. "I see no alternative, and it's not as if it's terribly unusual for familiars to create situations that their wizards must then remedy. That's why the standfast spell exists: so you can crack open your familiar's essence like a valise and rummage through it for whatever you need." Taking a breath, he blew it out. "It's not pleasant for either party, but the exterior of the spell is very quick no matter how long it may seem when you're inside it. So, perhaps before the Ranee comes storming out to check on our progress...?" Crocker had gone very still, and when Cluny turned her head, he was looking back at her with wide eyes. "What-?" He swallowed so hard, Cluny could hear it. "What're you gonna do?" "Just-" She swallowed as well, reached up, and grabbed his chin. "Just relax a minute." And concentrating on the magic she always felt eddying between the two of them, she closed her eyes, cast the standfast spell, and let it pull her into the flow. The magic whirled and surged around her like a storm- swollen river, and she fought against it, flared her power into a glowing bubble of stability, and heard Crocker cry out like he'd been stabbed. Popping the bubble with a claw plunged her back into the turmoil, but this time she remembered swimming in the creeks that flowed through her parents' nut farm; rather than fighting it, she darted through it, dove and paddled her way toward a faint light she saw ahead. Bursting quickly from the battering confusion, she dropped crouching onto the bare stone floor of a small unfurnished room, what looked like late afternoon sunlight streaming in from the clear blue sky outside an arched glass doorway to her right. Catching her breath, she heard someone else panting, and looking up she saw Crocker pressed against the wall opposite the door. He was staring with even wider eyes than before, and when Cluny pushed herself into a sitting position, a chill shot through her tail. She could look straight across into his eyes. "How-?" His voice shook. "How did you get so...so...so big?" "It's OK." Which was pretty much a lie, of course. "We're inside the spell, see? So this-" She scampered the few yards that separated them, sat up once more to meet his gaze, and realized she was actually a couple inches taller than him here. "This represents our relationship on an ethereal level rather than a physical one." The sour metallic tang of fear had drifted into the stink of his sweat. "What...what're you gonna do to me?" She swallowed, the standfast spell showing her exactly what she should do to him more clearly than if he'd had a diagram floating in the air around him. In this virtual world that the spell had constructed, if she plunged her claws into his chest, she would be able to read in his blood everything that he'd seen and done since they'd first met at the beginning of the term. And tearing off the top of his head would let her literally pick his brain, would let her know his every thought and feeling exactly as he'd experienced them. And the horrible pain of her doing these things to him: she would feel that when he felt it, too. "No!" She jumped away, her stomach turning. "What??" Crocker flinched, squeezed himself even flatter against the wall behind him. "I..." Cluny thought wildly. There had to be another way, a way to utilize the bond she and Crocker already shared, the power they were always exchanging on one level or other. It was following that flow that had brought her here, after all, and even in this imaginary world, the haphazard combination of their magic sloshed and squished plainly in the space between them. Refining that and focusing it was really what she needed to do: this whole magically tearing him to pieces thing was just part of the awful master/slave paradigm that Crocker's textbooks slipped into whenever they talked about familiars. And looking at him, standing there all squirrel-sized, an idea struck her. "Crocker! You were telling me yesterday about the pre-frosh mixer where we met! You felt a connection to me or something, you said?" "Well, yeah." He blinked. "I knew the minute I saw you that you were my familiar. Except, I mean, it turns out that I'm your familiar. But the principle's the same." "You're right." Not letting herself think too hard about just how weird this idea was, she shuffled another scurrying step toward him. "I looked up, and something just-" Reaching out a paw, she touched the side of his face. "Instant attraction. Like...like love at first sight." She could feel him warm and trembling. "Cluny?" With her other paw, she gently stroked the curly hair above his ear. "'Cause we did make a connection that night. Except you were s'pposed to be the big, commanding wizard and I was s'pposed to be the little, cowering familiar." She couldn't stop a grin. "Turns out we got it a little backwards, huh?" And bending down, she slid her forelegs around his head and pulled him into the first kiss she'd ever given anyone. It wasn't at all like the kisses she'd read about in the human romance novels her mom would sometimes haul home from the library and lounge around on top of reading for a whole weekend, and she was already pushing away, her paws on his chest, by the time he unfroze and moved his hands to clutch her shoulders. They stared at each other for another second, then Crocker sputtered, "What did you do that for??" Her insides as smooth and cool as a lazy autumn afternoon, Cluny could only shrug. "Might be I wanted to see if I'd like it." She slipped out from under his hands and settled onto her haunches so they were more-or-less at eye level with each other. Crocker's mouth snapped shut. Folding his arms, he leaned against the wall. "And?" Cluny tapped her snout, pretended to think it over. "Might be better if I actually had lips." Silence for an instant, then Crocker snorted and doubled over laughing. Cluny broke, too, unable to hold it in any longer, her giggles turning to guffaws so big, they actually flopped her onto her back. By the time she was able to sit up and suck in a breath without laughing it out again, Crocker was doing the same, propping himself against the wall on the other side of the room and wiping his sleeve across his eyes. In that breath, though, Cluny realized something had changed between them, the flow of their magic becoming- "Hey!" Crocker said, his head cocking like he'd heard an odd sound in the distance. "I can feel-" He rubbed several fingers over his forehead. "I've got this spot glowing right here! And-" He looked up, his gaze meeting Cluny's. "And it's you. Or, I mean, it's, like, the point where your power meets mine. Or...or something." Cluny nodded. "And I've got you all around me now like a blanket." She reached out a paw and could almost feel the warmth of his magic surrounding her. "I think maybe we've found our balance." She sprang to all fours. "You ready to give this thing a try?" "Sure, why not?" Bracing one hand against the wall, he clambered to his feet. "Unless you mean you're gonna try kissing me again." He made a show of brushing off the lower half of his face. "A little bristly, if you know what I mean." She puffed her cheeks at him and waggled her ears; he crossed his eyes and stuck out his tongue. And as quickly as that, the world of the spell whooshed away, Cluny blinking from Crocker's shoulder into his puffy pink face, once again bigger than her whole body. Taking a breath, she let go of his chin and turned to Master Gollantz, the magister's brow wrinkled. "You both seem surprisingly chipper," he said. "All went well?" Crocker gave a little laugh. "I guess. Except the wedding's off." Cluny had to grab his ear to keep her giggles from knocking her over again, but then she reached out and cut the raggedy strands of power connecting her and Crocker to his botched doubling spell with a single flick of her claws. The lake below them stopped its fitful expanding, and Cluny could feel its parameters perfectly, could see exactly what she'd need to do in order to remove it from the Realms of Fire. "There," she said. "Now we can let her Majesty know we're ready." Master Gollantz's eyes widened just enough for Cluny to notice. "So it would seem." [***] The trek across the western border of her Majesty's estate wasn't nearly as arduous as Shtasith had expected, and that bothered him a bit. In the back of his mind, he'd been hoping that Lord Hypabyssal's very presence would somehow alert her Majesty's forces and that Captain Coronal and a squadron or two of dragons would come swooping out of the mist-heavy sky to arrest them all for trespassing. That would certainly get this whole matter taken care of more quickly than all the nonsense Shtasith had been spouting as his great master plan. But alas, his Lordship and Twist, the whip-thin, blank- faced flex of walking fire that had been Shtasith's torturer earlier, followed Shtasith quite steadily over and around the shifting masses of magma that made up the collapsing canyon. In less time than he would've liked, he was leading them into more stabile sections of lava, the flows towering into buttes around them. And from there, a few flaps of his wings took him up the rift that opened onto the little promontory above the wide semi- circular valley just north of her Majesty's chateau where in happier days he'd often basked away his afternoons. Several semi-permanent bulges in the landscape served to hide this spot from any eyes on the other side of the gorge, he'd discovered long ago, and a good thing, too: from the hubbub of voices now echoing along the lumpy cliff faces around them, he guessed that quite a number of eyes were over there at the moment. A shuffling made him turn, and Lord Hypabyssal pulled himself over the lip of the crevice at the base of the outcropping, Twist plodding along behind him. "Quite the invigorating workout, Immolator," his Lordship announced. "When I am rajah, I shall claim a much larger section of this land as my own and turn it into my private hiking reserve!" Shtasith forced himself to crook a claw to his snout in his continuing role as his Lordship's co-conspirator. "Please, my Lord!" he hissed. "It sounds as if her Majesty and her forces are already gathered opposite us!" "'Sounds as if'?" His Lordship arched a fiery eyebrow. "I require more precision from my operatives than that." Somehow managing not to roll his eyes, Shtasith bowed, dug his claws into the bulging magma, and clambered up till he could arch his neck over the top. And there, floating in the heat rising from the valley floor far below, a massive globe of water pulsed and shimmered, quite easily four times the size he'd expected it to be. "Incredible!" His Lordship had climbed into a position to Shtasith's left, his voice quiet at least. "I've never even imagined seeing that much water in one place!" Purple light glimmered from his eyes, Twist flopping down on his Lordship's other side. "They've nearly disenchanted it as well! I'm detecting scarcely a speck of magic!" Shtasith nodded, unwilling to believe everything was falling so horribly and neatly into place. "I hope, therefore, that my Lord will find this a suitable angle from which to throw me at it?" Lord Hypabyssal gave a nod, his gaze still focused on the water. "I should skim you along the top, I suppose?" He gestured to the crowd gathered across the canyon from them, and Shtasith's inner ember shuddered to see her Majesty standing tall and beautiful among her guards, Captain Coronal perched beside her, two small, squishy-looking figures at the very edge of the cliff that had to be the mortal sorcerers. "With the force of my arm to guide you, my Immolator, you'll split the surface of that globe like an eggshell, and all its hungry water will leap in a positive cascade to rain down over cousin." "Exactly, my Lord." And confronted with the sudden reality of going through with this, Shtasith began thinking furiously about vectors and trajectories and- "Very well!" Strong, hot fingers gripped him around his middle and ripped him from the magma. "When I become rajah, we will of course have to hold a show trial for this foul crime you're committing, but I'm likely just to tear your wings off in punishment." Shtasith felt the air whoosh around him at the cocking of his Lordship's arm, then he was hurtling away with exactly as much force as he'd anticipated. Flaring his wings, he whirled the instant he left his Lordship's hand and belched his most gelatinous fire over Twist, the sticky, flaming goo binding to the elemental's substance. The blast rocketed him backwards across the canyon to the top of the levitating water; cutting off his flame, then, he slashed his claws into the globe's liquid surface. The water exploded, but not in every direction the way it would have in another thirty seconds once its susceptibility to nearby magical influence had faded. Nor did it explode toward the various sources of power present in her Majesty's party on the opposite side of the canyon. No, in its current state, the water did precisely what Shtasith's understanding of the laws of thaumaturgy had said it would: latching onto the spike of magical fire lancing into its side, the water swarmed down it like a living creature, every last drop wanting to reabsorb the elemental power of the Fire Realms that the mortal sorcerer had just leached from it. Flipping up and out of the way of any stray splashes, Shtasith caught one last wide-eyed, slack-jawed look from Lord Hypabyssal as the water thundered into Twist and inundated the entire promontory: the blast of steam that caught Shtasith like a caldera's eruption hurled him away from the scene before he could see anything else. [***] Standing on Crocker's shoulder with the Ifriti Ranee again glaring at them from her throne, Cluny swallowed. "I'm so, so sorry, your Majesty! I don't know what could've made the globe collapse that way!" "I do," the Ranee said quietly, and that made Cluny blink. The ifrit slid her glare toward the phoenix in the diamond vest perched beside the throne. "I want him found, captain," she went on just as quietly. "And I want him found now." The bird's fiery plumage seemed to flicker, and she bowed before leaping upward and dashing from the room. "Therefore," the Ranee said, those white-hot eyes flowing back around to the front of her head, "I will announce here before your Magister Magistrorum that I hold neither you, sorceress, nor your familiar in any way responsible for the death of my unfortunate cousin. You performed your task of removing the water from my realm in exemplary fashion despite the...oh, let us call it the collateral damage from the operation." Crocker blew out a breath, and Cluny bowed to the Ranee. "Thank you, your Majesty." "Yes." She rose, the glow of her magma such a dark red, it almost looked black. "We're finished here." And she sank into the dark stone like someone slipping into a lake. Silence followed, then a sigh from behind her. "Twenty- four hours," Master Gollantz said. "Or closer to eighteen, I suppose it is, since the two of you came to my attention. And in that brief time, you've managed to solve a problem that's vexed the Realms of Fire for nearly five hundred years." Shaking his head, he stepped over to the invisible hook still sitting on the floor, a hook that Cluny found she could now see more clearly than before. "Once again, I'm driven to revise upward my prognosis for how much trouble you're going to be causing me." He glanced back, and this time Cluny couldn't miss the smile tugging at his beard. "Fortunately, your sort of trouble is my business." He waved his hand over the hook, and it started to shimmer, the structure of its underlying spell humming at Cluny's whiskers in a way she could almost decode. Shivering with pleasure, she leaned against Crocker's head. "You OK?" she asked. His shoulder moved beneath her as he shrugged. "You think they'll ever tell us what we really did?" She shrugged as well, then remembered he couldn't see her. "We'll figure it out if we have to." She watched Master Gollantz raise the hook, the interior of his office zipping into place to replace the Ranee's throne room around them. "Just like everything else." [***] Lying prostrate on the obsidian flagstones, Shtasith once again didn't dare look up. "I beg you, my Queen-" "No!" Fiery fingers clenched around him and wrenched him up to dangle before her. "You've lost all right to call me that, foul traitor!" Drooping from her fist, Shtasith said nothing. "Betraying me by declaring allegiance to my wretched cousin!" Embers sprayed painfully over him from her lips, though none burned as deeply as her words. "Then betraying him in return! How could I ever trust you again??" "You cannot," he forced himself to say, and for an instant, her grip tightening around him, he dared to hope she would still somehow deign to consider him worthy of death at her hands. But instead, she made a noise like a geyser going off and flicked him from her fingers like so much refuse; Shtasith didn't even try to arrest his tumbling flight, and when he smacked into the floor, he let himself splay across it in a sideways jumble. "There is nothing between us any longer, firedrake," her Majesty announced. "Nothing either positive or negative." That last surprised him enough to raise his head, her Majesty looking down at him with a pity he'd never dreamed he would see from her. "That you have saved my life, my realm, and my sovereignty, I cannot deny any more than I can ignore the crimes you committed against me personally to do so. I cannot kill you in either reward or punishment, and that leaves me but one alternative." Blinking, he watched her raise an arm, two fingers crackling with purple fire. "I shall mark you, firedrake." The spell blasted out and wrapped around him, the shock of it making his teeth grind. "The next mortal wizard who casts into our realm seeking a familiar or a mystical guardian of any sort, the grip of that wizard's magic will fall upon you. It will drag you from this place, sever your connections to it, and make of you in truth what you have already become in my inner ember: a subject of mine no more." The spell sizzled away and left him panting. "Now go," she said. "Flee to the northern wastes, keep yourself hidden till your destiny in the Material Realm overtakes you, and-" The break in her voice was so small, he wasn't sure if he'd heard it or imagined it. "And pray to all the gods of thaumaturgy that we do not meet again." Without looking up, without bowing, without letting loose the tears he felt boiling in his chest, Shtasith dove into the magma pool and took himself away.