Dara hadn't been to this tavern in years, not since she left home as a cabin girl looking for adventure and fortune. Plenty of the former came her way, but the latter remained elusive; hence the wobbly table in the dark corner smelling of smoke and fish. Jorn would have been happy to tell her that she'd found true fortune in her experiences, which was why she seldom asked his opinion.
With deliberate casualness, she rattled the dice in her hand and said, "How about another round?"
The other players glowered at her. "You been winning more'n your share, lass," growled one of the more ursine specimens. His fists squirmed together on the table as if eager to take over the conversation. "You shooting funny dice?"
Dara spread her hands with affable innocence. "Hey, you gave me your dice to shoot, remember?" He had; those dice were now well up Dara's sleeve, replaced by a set that looked near-identical in the low light of the tavern. "Guess it's just my lucky day."
Collective murmuring suggested that her day had perhaps been too lucky. She cursed her luck silently, far below the level of her expression; all it took was one unexpectedly attentive, or at least belligerent, player to ruin a good thing. The line between a successful scam and a tavern brawl was never a constant one.
Any one of the players she could take without difficulty—even two or three wouldn't be much of a challenge. The full half-dozen, however, would be more trouble than she wanted, particularly without her sword and armor. She'd come here unarmed for the express purpose of avoiding a fight.
"Look," Dara said, with an expressive gesture that let her swap one of her dice for another, "I'm feeling so lucky today, I'll put everything I won on one last roll. How about it?"
The murmuring abated but did not entirely cease. "All in," said the sailor whose upper body most resembled an upside-down anchor. Bets were placed with ale-fuzzed shrewdness.
Suppressing a little sigh of relief, Dara aligned her dice surreptitiously in her hand before throwing. They could have this round; let them walk away with a portion of their gold, and she could move on to other targets. The pair coming in the door now were obviously out-of-towners well out of their depth.
"Of all the luck," she stage-muttered as her numbers did not come up. "Looks like you got me fair and square. Want your coins, or should your next round just be on me?"
One of the first tricks Dara had learned was to palm her winnings as she went, to ensure that a player could walk away with most of the visible pot without cutting too deeply into her profit. Generally her players were too drunk to realize that they had collectively contributed more than the price of an ale apiece.
Once they had their drinks and she had returned their dice, Dara slipped away unnoticed, coins jingling in her pouch and trick dice tucked neatly under her sleeves. The newcomers—a black belt who looked like she'd just bumbled off a Melmond farm and a light-skinned red mage who was fretting over the dirt on his cape—had picked a table on the other end of the tavern, not far from the door. Their packs lay open on the table between them, their contents gleaming valuably.
"Hi there," she said, pulling up a chair. The red mage hastily snatched both packs and hid them under the table. "New in town?"
The black belt nodded, smiling brightly. "Just got in this morning. We're on our way to—"
"We're on important business," the red mage interjected. His eyes narrowed. "Very heroic, very dangerous. It's best you don't involve yourself."
"Well, you don't have to be so stuck-up about it." The black belt wagged her spoon at her, spattering his robe with several drops of greasy tavern broth. To Dara she said, "Sorry about him. He thinks he's fancy 'cause he's from Onrac."
Jorn would have found this amusing, but Jorn was off pretending to be a befuddled traveler willing to sell his most valuable possession for well below its true value in exchange for enough money to book passage home—the valuable possession in question generally being a cheap souvenir picked up in the last town. This scam worked best in towns where his pink skin and ginger hair made him obviously foreign, but where he wasn't the only one passing through who fit that description. Pravoka was near-perfect for this.
"You don't have to tell me where you're going," Dara replied with one of her best smiles. "I just thought you looked like you could use some company."
The black belt beamed. "That's very neighborly of you." She offered her name, which Dara declined to remember, and got one of Dara's aliases in return.
As the red mage mimicked this under his breath, Dara rattled a pair of loaded dice into her hand and said, "So since you're new to Pravoka, I'm bet you haven't played our traditional dice game. Wanna learn?"
"We are above gambling," the red mage said crisply, but he was overlapped by his companion's "I sure would!"
This was almost too easy, but any disappointment Dara might have felt was pre-emptively smothered by the desire to acquire whatever had been sparkling in those packs. She let the black belt roll a few practice rounds with favorable dice.
Bristling with irritation, the red mage left in search of something to remove the grease from his robe. "He's kind of a wet blanket," the black belt whispered after he'd gone, "but he's not all bad. I mean, I just met him a few days ago, but it's destiny."
Dara nodded noncommittally and took the opportunity to sleight-of-hand the odds back into her favor. "I'm sure he's a big sweetheart once you get to know him. Anyway, now that you're getting good, why don't we move on to wagers?" When uncertainty flitted over the black belt's face, she added, "It's traditional. Turning down a game offends our sense of hospitality."
In three rounds, all the gold was on Dara's side of the table.
"Um," said the black belt. "I, um, need that back. That's all our money."
Dara mimed regret. "I'm sorry about that, but there are strict rules. It wouldn't be right to just give it back." After counting off three beats in her head, she added, "But you could still win it back, of course."
"But that's really all our money."
"Hmm. That's a real shame." Years of practice let Dara craft an earnest expression, free of any hint of predatory glee. "Hey, there's still a chance! Have you got anything else valuable on you that you could wager?"
Judging by the look on the black belt's face, she had all the lost Cardian crown jewels in her pack. "But that's—I really can't!"
"Terrible shame." Dara sank back in her seat with a sigh. "And just when you were overdue for a lucky roll, too. I guess you could sleep in the streets, but it's just not safe with those pirates attacking every night. And your friend probably wouldn't care much for the accommodations..."
The words hung in the air for only a handful of heartbeats before the black belt swallowed loudly and picked up one of the packs from the floor.
"If I go all in," said Dara, "you have to go all in, too. Our cultural rules are very strict."
After a shorter reluctant pause, both packs sat atop the table. Dara restricted her excited trembling to one leg.
Afterward the black belt made frantic choking noises as Dara tucked both surprisingly heavy little packs into her own larger one. Ordinarily she would have taken time to examine her prizes, but her life promised to be much more pleasant if she left before the red mage returned.
When she got control of her breathing, the black belt entering a spiral of rising volume: "You don't understand! The fate of the world depends on this! We have to take those to Coneria!"
"What the hell is going on here?" roared the red mage, who had terrible timing.
Dara tied her pack shut without glancing at him. "So that's where the buyer is? Thanks for the tip."
As the red mage sputtered at her, a regrettably familiar voice rang out from the other end of the tavern: "These ain't my dice! After her!"
Right, she knew she'd forgotten something. Dara slung her pack over her shoulder and vaulted over the table, to the further sputtering of the mage. She landed with a well-aimed kick that took down her first would-be assailant and sent dice scattering from her sleeves.
The black belt's voice was just near and loud enough to carry over the din: "Wait, do you really think she cheated?"
Whatever the red mage snapped in response was largely lost as Dara slammed a chair into the face of a sailor nearly twice her size. She had a clear line to the door; with any luck, she wouldn't have to improvise any more weapons.
The chair enjoyed one more use as a bludgeon, then went flying into the cluster of sailors rushing her from behind. They fell like snarling dominoes. Dara's hand itched toward another chair, but the part of her that wanted nothing more than to stay and brawl was overpowered by the part of her that didn't want to spend an indefinite length of time in a Pravokan jail.
Lightning blasted over her shoulder, taking out a large portion of the wall. Apparently the red mage had stopped sputtering and started providing her with an even more compelling reason to get the hell out of town.
The moment daylight hit her eyes, she heard the tavern keeper yell for the city guards. Instinctively she bolted away from them, then cursed herself for doing so; she could have easily passed for a law-abiding Pravokan going about her day and concerned about the red mage destroying the tavern, which offered certain advantages over sprinting down the street with dazzle overlaying her vision and armed guards massing behind her.
Just once, Dara would have liked to come home to Pravoka and leave without anyone in furious pursuit.
The alley she darted down turned into a dead end. While years of training as a fighter hadn't led to the military career her mentors envisioned, they had prepared Dara to navigate obstacle courses with heavy weights on her back. A running leap to catch a windowsill, a careful balancing act on uneven stones, and a muscle-wrenching test of her upper-body strength later, she had made it up onto a roof.
Before she had caught her breath, lightning struck only an arm's-length away from her. The red mage was nothing if not persistent.
Her options were limited to other, equally conspicuous rooftops or a daunting leap to the city wall. When a segment of the roof near her caught fire, Dara gritted her teeth, refused to think about failure, and launched herself westward.
She hit the wall left-arm-first, but her right hand caught the top of it. Her feet scrabbled for purchase on the stones. If she was injured, her blood was running too wild for her to feel it. From below her came a great deal of shouting that her mind flattened into a steady buzz.
Her left arm wasn't cooperating, so Dara pushed with her legs, right hand struggling to burrow into solid rock, until her chest curled over the top of the wall. Awkward kicking and rolling got her the rest of the way up. When she considered resting a moment, the thought of lightning sent her rappelling clumsily down the other side into a bush.
No time to rest there, either. She kicked her way clear of the branches and up to her feet, then took off running for the woods. Echoes of lightning shot through her left arm each time it jostled. When her rush wore off, she suspected that she would be in considerable pain.
Assuming she didn't die, Dara thought that this might be one of the best days of her life.
"Hey," called the perpetually mellow voice of Jorn. "Are we fugitives again?"
He had the useful ability to show up where he was needed, most likely by guessing Dara's trajectory based on all the shouting. She slowed to a jog to let him keep pace as she panted, "Yeah. Hideout. Now."
"Break any bones this time?"
The wood hadn't changed much since Dara grew up exploring them. Most Pravokans understood the city and the sea but weren't quite certain what to do with dense foliage, which discouraged pursuit. Farmgirls and fastidious mages weren't likely to make it deep into the woods, either.
Which was fortunate, as Jorn's lumbering bulk left a trail of snapped branches and heavy bootprints. They walked up a creek for a while to minimize that damage before navigating the rest of the way to their prearranged rendezvous point.
Dara settled shakily on a tree stump as the last of her rush drained away. Her left arm throbbed sharply. When she tried to pull it out through one of the straps of her pack, the pain threatened to knock her out.
"Sometimes," said Jorn, without any particular reproach, "I think you hurt yourself less when you were prize fighting." His hand burned like a fever on her arm and made her eyelids flutter again.
Dara's voice came out on ragged breaths: "Yeah, well, I kept all my teeth this—mmm." The last breath slid out as a hum as magic flowed cool and smooth into her skin. As much as it still bothered her to feel her bones knitting back together, she preferred it to the feeling of being stuck in splints and slings for weeks.
"None. Would've come away fine except for that damn wall." Rolling the stiffness out of her shoulders, she dropped her pack to the ground before letting Jorn heal the scrapes and split nails on her hands. "Worth it, though. I got us a real prize this time."
Fingers still tingling with magic, she hoisted her pack into her lap and untied the laces. When she upended her pack over her cloak on the forest floor, a pair of translucent black orbs rolled out. They clinked together with a noise like a rockslide echoing its way up a deep canyon.
Jorn knelt to peer at them. "What're these?"
"Dunno. Valuable. There's a buyer in Coneria." Dara knelt and cocked her head back and forth, finding it difficult to keep her gaze directly on the orbs. Their darkness shifted and gleamed as if alive; looking at them was like facing the sun through closed eyelids. When Dara cupped one in her hand, the coolness of glass mingled impossibly with a heat fierce enough to sear away her fingerprints. She dropped it hastily and braced for blisters. Her skin hadn't even reddened.
"Don't touch them," she told Jorn. "They're fucked up."
His hand was already on the other orb, stroking it languidly. "Just feels wet, is all."
Magic, like people, defaulted to getting on well with Jorn. It was obnoxiously unfair.
"Wet's still fucked up. My pack's dry."
He shrugged and used her cloak to herd the orbs back inside. "Whatever they are, they're more magic than I've ever felt in one place. Anyone sensitive would pay an arm and leg for one of these."
"Good. Then we just need to work out the exchange rate for limbs to gold." Wiping her hand against her trousers, Dara added, "So I got us a fortune. How'd you do?"
"Eh, my first mark turned out to have a good eye for fake gems." Jorn dug around in his own pack until he came up with his pipe and the tinder box. "She was bad for business, so I went down to the docks and smoked a little elfweed with the longshoremen."
Jorn could always find someone to share elfweed with him. Even when they'd been lost in the Ryukahn Desert on a treasure hunt gone awry, he stumbled upon a party of dwarves who were more than happy to bond with him over a pipe. It was difficult to teach him lessons about watching his back and trusting no one when so many people persisted in rewarding his behavior.
"Did you get anything from the longshoremen?" she asked.
In answer, he pulled out a little bag of elfweed, three apples, and half a wheel of cheese. "I fixed a guy's bad back."
Dara's dice winnings would have more than covered the addition of fish and bread to dinner, but there was no going back to Pravoka to shop now. She helped herself to a chunk of cheese and an apple as Jorn filled and lit his pipe.
Jorn inhaled slowly, holding the smoke in his mouth until he spoke. "So new shoes for both of us, eh?"
"New sword for me, too." Dara reclined against the tree stump and watched the leaves rustle overhead, letting the sunlight through in green-gold dapples. "Something dwarf-forged. Cleave rocks like butter, that kind of thing."
"Dwarves're good for that, yeah." He took another long drag before reaching over to offer the pipe to Dara.
She waved him away. "You know I hate that stuff. Fuzzes my head up."
"Not even to celebrate?"
They'd had little to celebrate lately, aside from escaping with all their parts intact after their schemes found unanticipated ways to go wrong. After munching through a bite of her apple, Dara accepted the pipe with a muttered "Eh, why not."
Within the hour, she was flat on her back and giggling, fascinated by the lines on her hands. As she curled her fingers to her palms, she said, "I'm gonna cleave rocks like butter and butter like rocks. Dwarves can do that. Rock butter."
A hunk of it waved over her face, trailing hazy white arcs. Dara sparkled with epiphany: "Rock butter is cheese. You know, because it's hard. And soft. I'm gonna cleave cheese."
One of Jorn's smoke rings drifted over her in distorted slow motion. "Yeah, you need to learn how to pace yourself."
The next morning, Dara's head passed from fuzzy cloud-softness to the muffled heaviness of a thunderhead. As they headed west, she poked Jorn with the hilt of her sword and said, "Stop talking me into things."
"If you let me talk you into things more often, you wouldn't have a problem with them."
"I'm not in the mood for your stupid backward logic right—"
Dara drew her sword as she spun around, smacking the pommel into a furry jaw. Its pack did not follow; its pack didn't appear to be anywhere nearby. Instead of running away, it opted to launch itself snarling at the woman with the hauberk and the big sword, which she sank between its ribs.
"Must've been something wrong with it," she said, using her foot to dislodge the corpse from her blade. "Rabid or something."
Before Jorn could offer his take, the wolf snarled again and sank its teeth into her boot. In a flash of panic, Dara saw a lot of things wrong with it: blood black, sticky, and still; eyes glazed white; bone poking through sparse fur.
Her shout of "Undead!" overlapped with the sizzle of white magic hitting the wolf's flesh and burning like phosphorus. Dara brought her sword down hard and sent its head rolling downhill. Several long seconds later, it finally stopped yelping.
"Did it get its teeth in you?" asked Jorn.
Dara shook her head. "Damn close, though. Never seen undead around here before."
"A curse, maybe. They say there's something spreading out of Melmond."
"They say the seas are getting too wild to sail, too, and we just had a pretty smooth trip from Crescent Lake." Dara wiped her blade methodically on the grass, streaking black over green. "Me, I think we've got our hands on some very black magic. The sooner we turn those things into gold, the better."
"Wolf," said Jorn. By the time Dara sprang to her feet, it was already burning blue and white, gurgling through a torn throat. "Also undead."
Dara lopped its head off and kept walking, dirty sword in hand. "C'mon. Let's just get to Coneria before one of those corpses gets lucky."
They camped overnight in a patch of desert, which was unpleasant but largely free of stealthily shambling corpses. The desert wore its dead things to bones, and bones clattered an alarm as they approached.
"Wonder how they hold together," said Jorn, squinting at a skeletal heap rattling its way over the moonlit sand, "without any sort of connective tissue."
"Magic, probably. Fuck magic." Dara shook sand out of her boot as Jorn's spell crumbled the bones to ashes. "Hey, isn't there supposed to be a witch around here? Maybe she's the one sending these things after us. I mean, we spent the whole night outside Pravoka without any of this shit."
"Nah, witches work with nature. Herbs and scrying and things. You start making dead things walk around, you're not really a witch anymore."
Dara snorted. "Says who?"
"Says me. I almost was a witch."
"Don't be stupid. You're male."
"No reason men can't be witches. That's a harmful fallacy, right there." Jorn paused to disintegrate a slithering curve of snake bones, then added, "The Clinic was really set on keeping me, though. And we both know how that turned out."
"Mmm." After all the shouting and fleeing, Dara had decided that she could do worse than letting a squishy, amiable, nature-savvy white mage follow her around. What he lacked in combat skills he made up with his healing prowess and by being neither obnoxiously inquisitive nor piously judgmental. He'd never even seemed to mind much that she let him tag along initially only in case she needed a hostage. "Guess it's a good thing you were in the Clinic instead of living in a cave when I came to town, then."
Jorn nodded and cracked his knuckles. "Your turn for a bit. I'm starting to run dry."
As Dara rose, sword gleaming silver where it wasn't coated in black blood, she said, "They're not slowing down, are they?"
"Coming faster, if anything." He paused a moment before adding, "You notice how their heads are always pointed at your pack? Pretty sure it's those black orbs they want."
"Which is why we're going to sell them as soon as possible." Her tone was probably sharper than it needed to be, but Jorn has an annoying tendency to prioritize personal safety over profit. "And trying to sleep here is just wasting time. C'mon."
"If I don't sleep, that's it for the spells."
Something that had probably been a horse clattered over a nearby dune, scraps of desiccated flesh flapping in the hot wind. "Sleep fast, then," Dara replied, and she dragged the pack with her as she went off to behead things.
Where a bridge was supposed to be waited only rubble on either side of the channel. Bleary and sleepless, Dara narrowed her eyes at the sparkling surface of the water and said, "I hate everything."
Jorn skipped a stone through her field of vision. "Do you hate swimming?"
"With my armor and a couple of cursed treasures that weigh almost as much as you do? Yes."
"We could always pay those guys with the ferry boat."
"Five hundred gold is extortion."
"Thought you liked extortion."
"Only when I'm doing it." Dara eyed the cluster of ruffians and their clumsily constructed raft as calculatingly as her sleep-deprived mind could manage. "Are there four of them? I can take four."
Jorn cocked his head at her. "Five, armed, and they all probably slept last night. Let me handle it."
Dara glanced between him and the four or five surly, club-clutching men running what passed for a ferry service. "Fine. Just don't make me run in there and rescue your ass."
"Trust me," he said in a counter-productive tone.
After finding a decent seat among the rubble, she watched him pick up the pack of orbs and lug it over to the ferrymen. Only snatches of syllables drifted back to her, enough to indicate suspicion, interest, haggling, and threats. After several minutes, Jorn returned empty-handed and said, "Good news. They mugged me."
"What the hell? Seriously?"
"Shh. Watch and wait."
Mostly she watched the ferrymen try to figure out what their loot was and why touching half of it hurt, a process that involved a great deal of bickering and wild gesturing with clubs. Dara drummed her fingers on a chunk of former bridge. "If we wait too long," she pointed out, "those dead things are gonna—"
The sun gleamed from exposed bone at the crest of a hill, and her exhausted brain finally made the connection. "You can be a pretty clever bastard when you want to," she whispered with a warm swell of pride. The ferrymen's bickering gave way to yelping alarm as the rotting corpses of wolves and horses shambled downhill.
The monsters really were coming faster now, and they looked like they'd spent longer being dead before their status was prefixed with "un." The ferrymen, who presumably did not have experience hitting things that kept moving after their spines were broken, engaged in brief, panicked clubbing before fleeing westward, leaving behind everything but their weapons.
Jorn made short work of the monsters, and Dara made shorter work of shifting through their blue-white ashes for valuables. "Whole sack of jerky," she announced. "Bag of gold. Oars. Pretty nice hat." She shook the cremated wolf out of the last and set it at a jaunty angle on her head. "And our very unlucky treasures. You row; I need a goddamn nap."
Halfway across he woke her up to help keep dead sahags from climbing aboard, because everything hated Dara almost as much as she hated it.
There was no sweeter sound than the slam of the city gates behind them. "Finally," Dara muttered, once they were out of earshot of the guards. "Let's move these things before the cemetery turns itself inside-out."
"I'm starting to have trouble imagining who'd want them." Jorn's words came out a bit muddled, as he already had his pipe in his mouth. Emergency elfweed was as close as he came to fretting. "People who need corpses and hate going out to look for them, I guess."
Dara scoffed. "I wasn't going to advertise that part. 'Look. Rare. Shiny.'" A faint uproar behind them suggested that the undead were beginning to mass at the gates and unnerve the guards, so she walked faster as she added, "I say we just hit the first tavern we see. Always plenty of suckers in taverns, and then I can get some sleep."
Coneria was a haven for suckers. The many and humorless royal guards took some of the fun out of that, but Coneria was also the best place in the world for vanishing into a crowd. No one stood out in the city of dreams; a stack of imps wearing a coat and claiming to be human attracted only slightly more attention than the average minstrel troupe, and the city's attention span flitted every few seconds. Outlaws ready to retire flocked to Coneria and let their identities drift gently into respectability.
Which was why Dara avoided the city most of the time. If she spent too long here, she risked falling into the monotony of sleeping beneath the same ceiling every night.
"Highest kicks in Coneria, two nights only!" bellowed a dancer on the side of the road. Opposite her, a man with a trained juggling imp berated anyone who glanced at the show without tossing a gold piece his way. Dubious goods exchanged themselves for even more dubious currency. Every few seconds, a scuffle among the city's trees resolved into sex, fisticuffs, or both.
"Ah, Coneria," said Jorn ambiguously, after dodging a thrown apple. "Nowhere else quite like it, huh?"
Dara condensed a lifetime of love and hate into a grunt and followed it with, "Look, a tavern. Finally."
Normally they favored dark corners and secluded tables, the better to hide their sleights of hand, but the wealthy tended not to frequent those areas. Instead Dara sauntered to the bar and helped herself to a stool on the edge of a crowd of well-dressed, unarmed patrons. Their weather-based conversation reinforced her sleepiness; when they moved on to discussing some sort of courtly scandal with mind-numbing delicacy, she stopped waiting for an opening for her cover story.
The pack of orbs hit the bar loudly enough to halt a convoluted sentence about distinguished military service. "Hi," she said brightly, casually elbowing her pack so that the firelight gleamed enticingly from the contents. "That sounds fascinating. Anyway, my partner and I were running this delivery for a Sage—"
The man nearest her spat wine over himself as he coughed his way through, "The Chosen Ones!"
Dara's mouth hung open as she tried to find something other than "Oh, shit" to pass through it.
"You mean over there?" said Jorn, pointing toward the corner with one hand as he reached for the pack with the other. No one fell for it, possibly because no one heard him over all the shouting about the saviors of the world.
Dara made a frantic effort to squirm away and lose herself in the commotion, but she found herself hefted up by a confusion of hands and shoulders and managed to lose nothing but her new hat. A moment later Jorn joined her above the crowd, pipe clutched firmly between his teeth.
"Where did you say you got these, again?" he asked around it.
Any chance for a response was taken by a woman with a booming voice: "Shout it in the streets! Rejoice before the king! The Light Warriors have come at last, and all the world is saved!"
Dara yelped as the crowd holding her aloft began to move toward the exit. Her pack bobbed along the sea of hands toward her, and refusing to touch it did not provide her with any satisfaction.
Beside her, Jorn cocked his eyebrows and offered his pipe, which she waved away with a scowl.
Coneria had chosen a terrible moment to develop an attention span.
"Okay, new plan," Dara shouted into Jorn's ear as they were moved inexorably toward the castle. "We pretend we're prophesied whatevers, take their heroic quest gear, and dump those goddamn balls in the first ditch we see."
An especially large smoke ring drifted over her head. "You know, I heard that Light Warriors story when I was little. Always figured it was a fairytale. Guess not, since you robbed them." Jorn paused to tamp his pipe. "Anyway, I'm pretty sure the story is about four."
"Then I'm pretty sure it's wrong, 'cause there were only two in Pravoka."
Jorn snickered, which was entirely inappropriate for the situation. Dara informed him of this with her expression.
"Sorry," he said insincerely. "It's just that you robbed prophesied heroes. Assuming they weren't pulling their own scam, I mean."
"Yeah, that's gonna be real funny. In a year. If we don't get torn apart by a mob."
"Like that time you took me hostage?"
"No, that was funny the whole time."
Her last two words carried on the air as the merry mob fell mostly silent. Nothing seemed to warrant this from the castle's direction, so Dara twisted around as far as she could without fighting any of the hands on her legs. From her shoulder-top perch, she had an unfortunately clear view of the teeming undead spilling through the remains of the city gate.
"Well, shit," said Jorn, which served as the crowd's cue to disperse screaming and let both of them hit the ground. Most of the screaming centered around requests for the Light Warriors to save the city.
In the first step of what would have been an exemplary sprint toward cover, Dara stumbled as Jorn caught her arm. "What are you doing?" they asked simultaneously.
After a mutually confused pause, Dara said, "Getting the hell out of here. What are you doing?"
"There's not really an out to get the hell... of." Jorn frowned and put his pipe away. "Never mind. I mean, they're coming through the way out."
"They're not coming out of the nice defensible hiding spot I was going to find."
He shook his head. "That wasn't really my point. If you did rob prophesied heroes, we've probably got some kind of responsibility. Having an orb makes you a Light Warrior, as far as everybody here's concerned."
Dara picked up the pack from where it had fallen, grabbed the orb that did not make her feel as if she had set her hand on fire, and lobbed it with great effort into the grass. As it rolled away downhill, she said, "There. Not my problem."
Because the world hated Dara, the orb came rolling back faster than it had rolled away, then hopped impossibly into the pack. She had never been less keen on saving the world.
"There we are, then," said Jorn. "I guess they have to pass from person to person, not person to ditch. Hello, fellow Light Warrior."
Dara kicked the pack over and turned so that she didn't have to watch the orbs jump back inside. "Then I'm gonna go find a sucker to pass mine to. No stupid glass ball is making a knight errant out of me."
"Little late for that," Jorn replied. "While we've been arguing, those monsters got here."
Dara whirled, swore loudly and repeatedly, and jabbed her finger at Jorn. "You save that clever bastard shit for people who aren't me, got it? We're going to talk about this. While I'm still angry."
Its decaying head went flying into a tree. Dara ran on pure aggression, which burned hot enough to keep her exhaustion at bay. All she had to do was decapitate scores of surprisingly swift corpses, and then her orb could be someone else's problem, and she could yell at Jorn until she fell asleep. She could leave this city and never see it again.
Gaia was probably a nicer place to retire, anyway.
Her sword caught in a wolf's neck and refused to go all the way through or be pulled free. Dara smacked wolf and sword against the nearest tree until one of Jorn's spells reduced the beast to ashes on her blade, just in time for her to deflect a skeletal imp.
"You know," Jorn called over the eerie growling of the undead, "I wonder what would've happened if we hadn't touched the orbs again after I let the ferrymen take them. Might've stopped being our problem, huh?"
"You're not making me hate you less." Dara wiped sweat out of her eyes and kicked a wolf off her boot. "Where the fuck are the guards?"
He lobbed burning purification at a cluster of wolves and turned the gesture into a shrug. "'Prophesied' means you don't get any rank-and-file help, I guess."
"Well, we can't do this all day, and they're not slowing down." As if to punctuate her statement, another section of the city gate collapsed under the pressure of a flood of imps. Dara kicked back a skeleton before turning and running toward the castle with a shout of "Fall back!"
Jorn lumbered after her; a beat later, the orbs rolled noisily over the cobblestones. "Not sure how falling back is going to do any good."
"Higher ground. Armory. Castle guards. Anything's better than this."
"Castle gates are closed. You really think they're gonna open up?"
A broad street branching westward stank of the occult. Dara darted down it, past stalls filled with shiny knickknacks and magical detritus, toward a study, three-floor building with a polished ebony sign. If she'd been willing to throw her lot in with guards, she might as well offer the same benefit of the doubt to wizards.
The undead had just reached the corner when she skidded to a halt in front of the black magic academy, which seemed like the best place to find people who could shoot torrents of flames from their hands. Dara banged the pommel of her sword against the door: "Hey, Chosen Ones out here! Monster invasion! Little help?"
When the door did not open, she knocked harder and added, "I will throw these goddamn glass balls through your window and make this your problem!"
Jorn came up panting behind her. "And they'll come right back out."
"Shut up. They don't know that."
A woman's breathy, delicate voice carried down from overhead: "Oh. Hello."
Dara's head jerked upward and afforded her a view of a dark form leaning out of a third-floor windowsill, shadowed by an overhang. The outline of a large hat and voluminous robe suggested a mage. "You shoot fire outta your hands?" she yelled. "Then get down here and do something about all the dead things!"
"Dead things?" The figure leaned farther out and peered up the road toward the advancing army. "Oh, dear. Just a moment."
Dara stared up at the empty window, trying to decide whether something was finally about to go right, until a flash of blue-white fire registered in the corner of her eye. The first wave of undead crumbled to cinders, but there were no shortage of replacements, and Jorn's complexion was shading into a bloodless pallor.
She took a deep breath and planted herself in front of Jorn, sword raised. Three imps went down in quick succession just in time for replacements to scurry over them. "Whatever you're doing," she yelled at the window, "hurry it up!"
The wolf springing toward her hit her blade at an awkward angle, deadweight. Imps slumped mid-shamble. Dara backed away cautiously, waiting for a wave of more active corpses to round the corner, but nothing stirred.
Frowning, Jorn pushed a purification spell into the mass of bodies. It fizzled without catching fire. "Huh," he said. "Something just took the 'un' out of 'undead.'"
"Good riddance." Dara sheathed her sword and let her muscles sag. Falling asleep in the street was beginning to look like a fine option; the less-decayed wolves would probably make passable, if stinky, pillows. Drifting farther backward knocked her foot into the orb pack and nearly sent her sprawling.
"Easy." Jorn patted her shoulder and went to light his pipe. "So what do you figure that was all about?"
"Dunno. First I want to yell at you about dragging me into shit."
"Hiding on a roof wasn't going to solve this."
"How do you know? These bastards just dropped back to dead on their own."
"That was me, actually." said the bright breeze of a voice. Its owner leaned out the window far enough for her hat to catch the sun, though her face remained shadowed. "Sorry about that. I was experimenting."
Dara sputtered through half-formed accusations until Jorn broke in with "Experimenting with what?"
"This." The mage huffed with effort until a ball of glittering black glass rolled over the edge of the windowsill. It fell for less than a second before floating back up to her. "Did you see it? It feels filthy and smells like decay. I tried communing with it to find the others, and it behaved unexpectedly."
The skin around Dara's left eye began to twitch. "I've been chased by undead monsters for two days now, and you're saying it was your fault? I'm gonna come up there and 'unexpectedly' ram these orbs up your ass."
"Oh, you don't have to come up," said the mage, still cheery. "I'll be right down."
Other windows up and down the street began to open, and faces peered at the tide of dead things leading back to the gate. "That's right, Light Warriors, right here," Jorn announced. "Saved your city. Very heroic. Good at fighting, bad at cleanup."
"Wouldn't dream of taking a cash reward unless you double it," Dara added hopefully.
The door to the academy shuddered as something noisy and complicated happened behind it. Eventually it swung inward, and the mage emerged with her orb rolling after her like a loyal puppy.
Even out in the open, her hat cast a deep enough shadow to hide her face, though her eyes gleamed a disconcertingly bright gold. "Livy," she said, extending a bony hand. Its color indicated an ancestry from the sunniest part of the world, while its ashen cast suggested that she personally had as little to do with the sun as possible.
Infuriatingly, Jorn shook her hand. "I'm Jorn. She's Dara. You can actually provoke her a lot more before she rams anything up your ass."
The mage giggled, which gave Dara an unpleasant chill. Her voice suggested that she was younger than Dara—younger than Jorn, even—but the hair that escaped her hat was a wispy, brittle white, like shredded clouds. Nothing good was going to come of all this.
Dara's fingers itched for her sword. "So why have we had dead monsters chasing us, exactly?"
Livy tilted her head thoughtfully. "Well, when I found this orb, I thought, 'Goodness, this is important. I should draw the others to me.' Really I didn't mean to draw the undead to the orbs, but this magic is a bit beyond what I usually attempt. I thought about going to the wizards for assistance, but they—well, they wouldn't have helped me, specifically, and the orb did choose me. I wished to respect that."
"So orbs like you, huh?" Dara nudged her pack forward with her foot. "That's great. You can have ours, too. You're more like a person than a ditch."
Livy's head tipped back the other way. "I'm sorry?"
"Nice try," said Jorn, "but I'm gonna guess it's one orb per customer." He exhaled a wide smoke ring. "So why not you specifically, with the wizards?"
Dara had already decided that she would be happier not knowing this. Grumbling under her breath, she headed off toward the main street. Her orb bounced from imp to wolf behind her.
People were venturing outside now and confronting the layer of rotting bodies on the ground. There was a great deal of poking and prattling, but no action taken to clear the streets: business as usual in Coneria. Dara eyed the castle, which still had its gates closed but now also had official-looking people milling about on top of them, then gauged the distance to the broken city gates. With a little haste, they'd be out of the city before anyone tried to drag them before the king again.
She didn't consider leaving Jorn behind. Considering would have also meant rejecting the idea, then coming up with a justification for doing so. Dara didn't have the energy for any of that.
A young man embodying Coneria’s ability to bounce back from a crisis made a clumsy grab for her money pouch, so she broke his nose. Dara always had the energy for that.
As she returned to the area in front of the black magic academy, she caught the end of the conversation:
"So then they told me I'd gone too dark, which is ridiculous—it's not as if I sold my soul to a Fiend. Honestly, one student did that once and everyone's still so jumpy." Livy sighed. "It's prejudice, really. I'm certain it's because I started off wanting to be a witch."
"Hey, me too." Jorn grinned and offered his pipe, and Dara abandoned all hope of getting out of town mage-free.
Livy shook her head. "No, thank you. I've had incidents."
"We're leaving," Dara announced before any follow-up questions could be asked. "C'mon. Let's get these things some new owners before they rope us into something stupid."
"It's probably a bit late for that," said Livy, holding up a thin finger. "You've bonded with them, haven't you? They're following you now." Her blithe tone had no consideration for the dismay spreading over Dara's face. "Mine took days to start doing that. I believe it was shortly after I decided I couldn't possibly ask a wizard about it, if that carried the possibility of my losing it."
Dara’s eye twitched again. "No. Fuck no. This is going to be someone else's problem." Without waiting for an argument, she turned and started toward the gate. Tiny imp bones crunched under her boots.
"Prophesied heroes get rewards," said Jorn when he caught up to her. "We like those."
"They also get responsibilities, and those are crap."
"And important, world-changing adventures," Livy added. For someone so frail-looking, she kept pace surprisingly well. "I'm also certain it's bad form for prophesied heroes be to told that their ideas are dangerous or unethical."
Dara's face squeezed around a headache. "No one invited you."
"I did," said Jorn, predictably.
Wolves and imps formed horrible organic hills where the gate had been breached. Dara cursed her sense of smell as she trudged over and through them.
"Someone's waving at us," Jorn said, voice muffled by the cloth he'd pulled over his face. "They look official."
"Then ignore them, dumbass." Dara's foot lodged in a skull. When it didn't immediately come free, she pressed on, gritting her teeth against every step. Once clear of the corpse-heap, she kicked the city wall until the skull shattered.
Livy paused atop a jumble of imps to beam down at her. "I've never been on an adventure before. This is all terribly exciting. Shall I move these bodies out of the way?"
"No. Especially if not if you were gonna make them move on their own." Dara shook teeth and bone fragments from her boot until something occurred to her: "And we're not going on a fucking adventure."
Instead of backing her up on this point, Jorn picked up his orb, shook it, and held it up to the sun to create a glittery eclipse over his face. Dara snorted and began to pick her way through the dead things toward the Conerian forest, which would be a nice place to nap and hope a bandit would manage to steal her orb.
A distant, vaguely familiar voice yelled several times for an Angie. This did not concern Dara until the voice became rapidly less distant and included a hand grabbing her shoulder.
Combat instincts unsheathed Dara's sword and put it at the throat of her assailant—or would have, if her assailant hadn't parried the blade bare-handed. Black belts were annoying like that.
"You got any idea how long I've been chasing you?" The farmgirl accent gave it away; under the reek of salt water and layers of grime, this was the same black belt who had made very poor decisions in Pravoka. Burrs studded her close-cropped hair. "It'd be one thing if you just tricked me, Angie, but this is the fate of the world, so you really gotta give that orb back!"
Dara wondered if her own eyes were so starkly bloodshot. "Sure," she said, putting her sword away with a shrug. "Damn thing's all yours. It's somewhere behind me."
"You aren't even taking care of it?" The black belt shoved past Dara and crouched to scoop up the orb. A moment later, she dropped it with a pained yelp.
"Yeah, that's the angry one." Dara shifted her possessions until she emptied a sack, which she held out helpfully. Her lips twitched against a grin; if she acknowledged that the world was finally acting in her favor, it might return to form. "Here, free carrying case. Betcha can fit the other one in there, too, for your asshole friend."
"He left when we saw the bridge was out." The black belt tied the sack shut around the orb, then slung it over her shoulder. "Not much of a swimmer, I guess. I hope it isn't too hard to find him."
Dara sidled away experimentally, holding her breath. A dozen steps later, on the precipice of jubilation, the sack twitched against the black belt's shoulder and wrenched free of her grip, and the orb came bounding across the grass to bump against Dara's ankle. She glared raw hatred at it.
The black belt's entire body drooped. "Oh. It chose you."
"I sure as hell didn't choose it." Dara punted the orb and failed to feel even a flicker of satisfaction before it rolled back.
"Well, that's... that's how it's gonna be, then." The black belt wiped her eyes with the back of a cloth-wrapped fist before extending her hand. "It's all up to you now, Angie. Godspeed."
A headache throbbed wildly behind Dara's eyebrows. "Look," she said, then paused to consider which aspect of the entire wretched affair to begin with. She settled on the most immediately annoying: "You know that's not really my name, right? Some of us aren't stupid enough to tell every stranger in a tavern who we are."
The black belt pursed her lips. Her hand faltered. "I told you my name."
"And I forgot it, because I don't care." Dara continued toward the woods and the potential for a nap, ignoring the bleating from the black belt. Imp and wolf skeletons lined the forest floor like a crunchy carpet; apparently this was a popular place for monsters to die and decompose. She kicked them to enjoy the cacophony of breaking things.
Three kicks in, her foot struck something soft. A glance that expected to find a more freshly dead imp instead found something unmistakably human under the bones. Dara swore at it for existing and further complicating her life.
"Are you okay?" the black belt called. A moment later she arrived, crunching bones beneath her feet, and gasped dramatically. "Is he okay?"
"Does 'okay' mean 'torn the hell up'? Then yeah." Dara snapped off a thin branch and used it to poke through wolf ribs. "Wonder why skeletons do this shit, anyway. It's not like they can eat anything they bite off."
Jorn would have speculated, but the black belt was decidedly not Jorn; she sniffed her disapproval and went digging through bones with a rescuer's determination, as if it weren't obvious that the body was well past the point of rescue. Large, important pieces of it had gone missing.
"Oh, the poor man," she said, voice quavering. "I bet he died a hero, trying to fight off all these things and keep the city safe."
Dara coughed. "Or he was was running away, seeing as he's face-down and all."
"Don't go speaking ill of the dead." As she eased the man's pack off his remaining arm, she frowned up at Dara and added, "Since you're a Light Warrior now, you should really be nicer."
"Hey, that orb picked me just the way I am."
The gasp was loud enough to draw Dara's attention away from scouting out soft leafy places to sleep and back to the dead man in the bone heap. The black belt had opened his pack, and within glittered the regrettably familiar blackness of an orb.
Dara was by now nearly inured to unpleasant surprises. "Well," she said dryly, "that explains why he's buried in undead. Undead love orbs when some crazy mage is fucking around with them."
"So he did die a hero, and you're being awful." The black belt cupped her hand over the orb as she continued, "We really need to give him a proper burial and—wow, this one's like sticking your hand out in a storm." Fascinated, she kept poking it for longer than Dara expected before gasping again. "If I take this, I'll be—"
"What you're really set on being, for some stupid reason." Dara was never going to get any sleep here. She turned with a low, bitter sigh and nearly walked into a mass of white mage.
"Good news," said Jorn, who sometimes sneaked up remarkably well for one so bulky. "That official—what happened here?"
The black belt bounded giddily toward him, orb cradled in her arms, and ignored Dara's muttering that it had been nothing good. "I'm Tess," she said over a handshake. "I'm a Light Warrior. And you—oh, my, both of you—"
Introductions buzzed behind Dara as she started back toward the fields outside Coneria. After a few steps, she paused; being out in the open carried the risks of excitable citizens errant recalling their enthusiasm and dragging her somewhere even less agreeable than her current surroundings. All she wanted, she decided, was a nap long enough to uncomplicate her life, or at least a nap long enough to prepare her to deal with her landslide of problems.
"Dara's not so sociable right now," said Jorn, before clearing his throat loudly. This did not merit a response. "Anyway, good news is that official-looking person wants us to save a princess some knight of theirs ran off with. Princesses always come with big rewards."
"And I like princesses," Livy added. "They're lovely and fragile."
Dara gritted her teeth and did not turn around. "Be less creepy, dammit."
"Oh, we've gotta." The black belt seemed unable to stop gushing. From the sound of it, she was also unable to hold still. "Poor thing, she must be so scared. And we could really prove ourselves. This's just the kind of thing heroes are supposed to do."
"Reward," said Jorn.
The gold they'd taken from the ferrymen wouldn't pay for a new sword. It wouldn't even pay for much food if Jorn insisted on playing hero with two more mouths to feed. "Look," said Dara, in a tone at odds with acquiescence, "we can save the princess and get the reward, and that's it."
"Mmm." The scrape of flint on steel heralded the lighting of Jorn's pipe. "Wonder what kind of reward you get for saving the world."
"Probably just some bullshit about touching everyone's hearts and how that's its own reward. So we're just gonna save the princess, get me a sword that cleaves rocks, and go back to finding a way to ditch these damn things."
"She says that now," Jorn stage-whispered, "but she loves the hell out of adventures. Let her sleep a bit, and she'll want to be in charge, even."
Tess finally stopped bouncing. "Should we head back to the city? I mean, um, after we bury this poor guy."
"No." As Dara made her way deeper into the trees, she heard Jorn explaining behind her that they'd do best camping out tonight, interspersed with Livy being unsettling about the dead. Tess was volunteered to conduct whatever she considered a proper burial.
As Dara found a nice patch of moss on which to unroll her bedding, Jorn came up beside her to assist. "You do like adventures," he said, low in her ear.
"Yeah, but I don't like people."
"I do. And they'll be handy."
Dara snorted and flopped down on her back. "Whatever. Lemme sleep and maybe I can hate you all a little more quietly tomorrow." In the corner of her eye, she watched the orb station itself beside her head. She hated it in focused silence.
The pipe hovered in front of her face. Because her better judgment hadn't been helpful so far today, she inhaled slowly through it and held the smoke inside before blowing a cloud of it into Jorn's face.
"You owe me," she mumbled, and closed her eyes to dream of fire.