Michael H. Payne (hyniof) wrote,
Michael H. Payne
hyniof

Sorceress Squirrel Stories

It's just so:

Pleasantly alliterative!

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!

Mike

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.
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