“Khemeth!” Iason announced
as we stepped off the riverboat. “Breadbasket of the Inner Sea!”
“It smells like dung and river
muck,” I said.
“Well… yes,” he
admitted. “It’s basically one big farm.”
“Great,” I said. “And
somewhere in here is one of the last three books, of which at least two are really
“Maybe it’ll be the not-so-bad
one,” Iason suggested cheerfully.
“Yeah, with our luck, what’re
the odds of that?” I grumbled.
There was a brief silence, which
Iola broke: “About one in three, I believe.”
* * *
We made our way overland from the
Great River, across the fields upon fields upon fields of wheat and barley, an
endless and endlessly flat sea of light brown which at last gave way to the
slightly less flat, slightly lighter brown of the desert.
“Are you sure we’re
going the right way?” asked Iason.
“The big is that way,” I
said, pointing. “Not too far, maybe a mile.”
“Why would it be out in the
desert?” Iola asked. “Normally, we’ve found books around people, not
in the wilderness.”
“Actually, it is a bit weird,”
I admitted. “Deserts are normally full of really nasty wild magic–burning
winds, drifting sands, lots of death, they’re about as inhuman as anywhere can
get short of the deep ocean. But I can feel the book, loud and clear. Maybe
there’s a town out there… for… some reason? Or a temple?”
“Could be a temple,” said
Iason. “One of the Khemeti death gods is supposed to rule this
“Oh fun,” I said dryly.
Then I paused. “Wait, one of? Also, how do you know Khemeti
“Oh, I came here on a monster
hunt with dad, once. It was my first big hunt away from home!”
Iola nodded. “I remember that.
I was quite annoyed that for my turn we just went to Rasnia to hunt gnolls. Not
nearly as exotic.”
“Reminisce about your weird-ass
childhood later,” I said. “Tell me about the multiple death
Iason shrugged. “Not much to
tell. They like death around here. Well… not like, exactly, but
they’re kind of obsessed with it? So there’s a god of dying, and a god of
death, and a god of judging the dead, and a god of the world of the dead, and I
think a different god of the world of the dead, too?”
“Okay, and which one are we
probably going to piss off when we take the book from his temple?” I
“Don’t remember,” said
Iason. “I think he’s the old god of the dead that died and got
replaced by the new god of the dead, maybe? Or something.”
I sighed. “Well, I guess we’ll
find out when he curses us to eternal suffering or whatever. Let’s go.”
Five hours later, I stumbled, rolled
down a dune, and lay on my back at the bottom. “We’re dead, aren’t
we?” I moaned.
“We’re not dead. Have some
water,” replied Iola.
“No. We’re dead. We pissed off
the dead god of dead deserts or whatever, and he cursed us to eternal
suffering, and that’s where we are now.”
“Where?” asked Iason,
sitting next to me and pulling out his waterskin.
“There,” I said.
“Where he cursed us to. Eternal Suffering. It’s a place now.”
“It’s only been a few
hours,” said Iola.
“It’s been a thousand years,”
I insisted. “My feet say so.” I took out my water skin and sucked out
a mouthful. I let it sit in my mouth, swished it around, and pretty soon it was
gone, without me even swallowing. And my mouth still felt like old leather.
“This is fake water,” I continued. “An evil illusion from the
evil death desert dead god.”
“A death illusion?”
“Right, Iason,” I said.
“A death illusion.”
“What about those shacks?”
asked Iola. “Are those a… ‘death illusion?’”
“Probably.” I sat up and
blinked blearily into the glare of white sun on white sand. There was a neat row
of little shacks a little way ahead of us–and the book felt very, very close. Well
shit, guess I’m not dead. Which means I have to get up and walk the rest of the
way to those shacks…
It took us about another fifteen
minutes to reach the shacks. By that time, we could see what was spread out
below them: a huge pit, at least a couple of hundred feet across, divided up by
crisscrossing walls that separated it into roofless hallways and rooms. Dozens
of people swarmed into and over the pit, laying bricks or carving symbols into
them. Near us, a tall, lean, muscular man gazed watchfully over them. He was
bald, beardless, darker than Iola or Iason, and a bit shorter than either, too.
If his position and posture hadn’t given away that he was in charge, the gold
bracelets on his arms and adorning his loose, chest-baring tunic would
have–and if that weren’t enough, he was holding a large piece of
cloth-like paper and a stick of charcoal, which he was clearly using to mark
off tasks as they were completed.
“Can I help you?” he
asked, his voice rich and deep.
Oh, I hope so, I thought. Not quite the solid wall of manmeat that was
Iason, but that voice more than made up for it. It was the kind of voice you
could drown in, and be glad you were. What I said, however, was,
“Possibly. I’m looking for a book.”
“A book?” he asked.
“There’s a library a few hours downriver–”
“A specific book,” I said.
“One I have reason to believe is here.”
“Ah,” he said. “Well,
sorry, nothing here is for sale. We need all of it for The Project.”
I ignored the ominous, very audible
capital letters with which he pronounced “The Project,” and said,
“Well, that’s not a problem. I’m not looking to buy the book, seeing as it
was stolen from my people’s library. I’m here to take it back.”
“Huh,” he said.
“Well, I’m sorry, but everything here was either purchased for The Project
or belonged to me already. Nothing here was stolen.”
I could feel my lightning bolt finger
getting itchy, but I fought down the urge to set him on fire. A man that pretty
should only be immolated as a last resort. “Is it possible it was stolen before
you acquired it?”
He shrugged. “If I have a book,
and I’m not saying I do, then I got it fairly. It’s not my responsibility where
it came from before that.”
I closed my eyes, let out a slow
breath, and counted to ten. “Look, it’s a book of magic, and if we don’t
get it back, the entire nation of Lemuria is going to take that as a
personal insult, and I’m going to make very clear to them that it’s your
His eyes widened. “You’re
Lemurian? Oh, of course, you’re looking for that book! Why didn’t you
say so? Of course you can have it.”
“What?” I asked, feeling
like the rug of righteous anger had just been yanked out from under my feet by
the prankster arms of surprise helpfulness. “Really? Just like that?”
“Sure,” he said. “Let
me finish up here and I’ll look up which treasure room we stashed it in.”
* * *
It had been late afternoon when we
arrived at the–well, at whatever that pit was supposed to be. The Project, I
suppose. Anyway, it had been late afternoon when we got there, and it was near
sunset when Mr. Pretty rolled up his scroll, called out to the workers that
they were done for the day, and then led us into the nearest, and nicest, of
The inside of the shack turned out
to be much nicer than the outside: there was a large, low table in the center,
and basically the enter rest of the floor was covered in pillows. The Very
Pretty Man settled himself on the far side of the table, lounging on the very
comfy-looking pillows, and gestured to us to sit as well.
As some of the workers brought in
food, we introduced ourselves.
Our host nodded graciously, and
said, “I am Set-Perib, Eighth Prince of Khemeth. Welcome to The
My jaw dropped. Hot and friendly I
could handle, but hot, friendly, and royalty? That was a new one.
He laughed at my expression.
“It means very little,” he said. “For now, I am indulged by my
father; when one of my older brothers inherits the throne, I am likely to be
less indulged. Probably I will be married off to support some diplomatic
measure or another.” He shrugged. “But until then… there is The
“Yeah,” I said.
“About that. What, um, is the Project?”
“The Project,” he
corrected me. “And it is nothing less than a revolution in death!”
I glanced at Iason and Iola. Pretty
and rich or not, people looking to revolutionize death are rarely safe to be
around. Especially if they want to share…
“Don’t misunderstand,” he
said quickly. “It’s nothing to do with killing people. I find
violence quite distasteful. No, no, this is about what happens after you
“Is that why you’re building it
out in the desert?” asked Iason.
“Exactly! Where else but the
home of death would I build my palace of the dead?” He beamed as he
explained: death, it is said, comes for everyone equally, but why should it?
Why should a king, for example, have to be just another man once he dies? He
had a palace in life, it’s what he got used to–you can’t expect him to be
happy with just a normal house in death!
(I mean, I can expect that,
because what did he do to deserve a palace anyway? But Peri clearly didn’t
think that way.)
“So,” he said,
“that’s when it hit me: why not build a palace for my father to…
uh, live in, after he dies? Hrm. Be dead in? Sorry, I’m still working on this
bit of the pitch.”
“So that’s what the pit with
all the rooms is?” I asked.
“Well… it’s the start,”
he said. “We have to roof that over, and then–okay, you want to hear the
really good part?”
He beamed. “Then we roof it
over again, but slightly smaller this time. And we keep doing it
until we have a, a giant pointy thing! It’ll be like a mountain, but made by
human hands. People’ll see it for miles, and flock to it from around the
Okay, Mr. Crazy Man. “That’s… it?” I asked.
“It?” He looked
crestfallen. “I can see you don’t quite get it, but believe me–in times
to come this will be what all the great rulers want to be buried in!”
“Sure,” I said, trying to
keep the sarcasm out of my voice. Yeah, I’m real sure that thousands
of years from now, people are going to slog out into the desert to look at big
stone triangles or whatever and say, “Oooh, I wonder who was buried here,
I bet he was an awesome king or something.”
We chatted a bit more, by which I
mean Prince Peri-whatever went on, and on, and on about his
“genius” idea to make big piles of rocks to put dead people under,
but he confirmed that a book of magic was in one of the treasure chambers of
The Project. “In the morning we can check the records and figure out which
one it’s in,” he said. “Until then, please, enjoy what hospitality we
can offer, here in the wilderness.
Turns out that even in the
wilderness, when you’re a prince, that’s a lot of hospitality. I went to
a very nice bed in a smaller shack adjacent to the prince’s, with a belly full
of delicious food and slightly too much of some very excellent wines.
That night, I had a strange dream. I
was a courtesan of some kind, with aspirations to be more. Two brothers were in
love with me–a worker and a palace guard–but while I liked them both, I had
my sights set on a nobleman and the life of ease I would have as his concubine.
I successfully seduced him, but didn’t count on the jealousy of the
worker. I tried to use the guard’s infatuation with me to turn him
against his brother, but I did too good of a job and he became obsessed
with me as well. In the end, both brothers and I ended up dead, but it
wasn’t clear exactly who killed who.
I woke up feeling fuzzy-headed and
confused. The dream had been so vivid, it took a moment for me to remember I
was Lemma, brilliant sorceress and adventurer, not some wannabe schemer whose
only real skill was being a simpering sextoy for rich men to play with. As
much fun as that would be…
I shook my head. Prince Peri was
cute, sure, but the shorter the list of missing books got, the closer I
got to going home. I wanted this done with. Goodbye to walking for days,
deserts and rain-drenched mud fields, seasickness and sunburn. Goodbye to
vampires and cannibal fairies and demons.
Goodbye to Iason.
I shook my head again. These
early-morning thoughts were getting silly. I should go to the Prince’s
for breakfast. That was an odd thought too, but it made sense, didn’t
it? He’d said he’d host us while he was here, and to come back in the morning
to find the book. That had to be what he meant.
He smiled at me as I entered,
and I nodded back. What am I doing? He’s a Prince! I need to show
proper respect to earn his favor! I dropped clumsily into a sort of
bow/curtsy thing and said, "Thank you, Your Highness, for the
hospitality you’ve shown us.” Which, again, seemed odd… but I did need
to stay on his good side until I got that book.
“Think nothing of it, my
lady,” he replied gravely. He gestured at the large breakfast
arrayed on the table in front of him. “Would you care to join me in
breaking our fasts before the day’s work?”
I smiled. “I’d love to.”
I spent the meal on full charm
offensive: I batted my lashes at him, and played with my hair, and giggled at
his jokes even when they weren’t funny–which none of them were. I gasped in
wonder at his lame-ass boasts about his military prowess, and stroked his bicep
appreciatively as I admired his muscles–which admittedly were pretty nice, in
a whipcord sort of way. So easy. I know just what he wants. All I have to do
is give it to him, and he’s eating out of my hand…
After breakfast, we met Iola and
went down to the pit. “Your book should be in the Chamber of the
Asp,” he said, taking my arm and leading me down the ramp. I looked down
at his hand on me–Let him, he’s just being gentlemanly. Anyway I want him
thinking I want him, right?
Which was another odd thought, but
before I could consider that I noticed something else even odder: Iason,
stripped to the waist, bronze torso glistening as he pushed a barrow full of
bricks down the ramp. Odd? No, just seriously hot.
But it was odd, too, so I called out
to him and asked what he was doing down here.
He set down his barrow briefly,
mopped his brow, and came over. “I just figured, long as I’m here, might
as well help out, right?”
“It is greatly
appreciated,” said Prince Peri.
Iason smiled, but it didn’t touch
his eyes, which were fixed on Peri’s hand on my arm. If I didn’t know better,
I’d think he was jealous. Of course he is, what man wouldn’t envy the man
who had me?
Before I could question what I meant
by “the man who had me,” Peri led us down into what I assume was the
Chamber of the Asp.
“Here,” he said, gesturing
to a series of cubbyholes built into the wall. “The book should be
right… Wait, where is it?”
Iola immediately stepped forward,
hand on her sword, and examined the cubby. “It’s missing, Your Highness!
It must have been stolen!”
“Of course it must have!”
he snapped. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and turned to me. “I
am so, so sorry,” he said. “Who knows when it was taken? The thief
could be miles from here.”
“Could be,” I said,
“but the book’s not. I can feel it, it is definitely somewhere in this
He looked surprised. “Then we
must search for it!”
Ugh, I thought. Being in the desert is bad enough, but
grubbing around in a literal pit?
“I’ll help look,” said
Iason. “It has to be somewhere.”
“And I’ll question the
workers,” said Iola. “Someone must have seen something.”
I watched them walk off. Iason, so
strong and rugged, hard-working and down-to-earth. And Iola, tall, tough, a
“Come,” said Peri, patting
my arm. “Let’s go somewhere out of the sun. I’m sure I can find something
to entertain us while we wait.”
I smiled up at him through my
lashes, and said softly, “I’m sure you can, Your Highness.” I
giggled. He is so into me. By the time they find the book I’m going
to have him completely wrapped around my little finger.
We were halfway back up the ramp when
it hit me: my dream! Iason was acting like a worker, Iola like a guard… and I
was acting like a status-seeking courtesan. I opened my mouth to say something,
and then stopped. Either Prince Peri is doing something to us, or someone
else is. Either way, he could be useful… maybe getting him a little wrapped
around my finger is a good idea.
* * *
“I’ve never met anyone quite
like you, my lady,” Peri said to me a couple of hours later.
It had been a relaxing couple of
hours, just lying on a wide couch under an awning that hung from the roof of
Peri’s shack, watching the workers swarming in the pit. Every now and then I
caught a glimpse of Iola talking to a group of workers or Iason poking into
corners looking for the book.
“How so, Your Highness?” I
“Well, firstly there’s
this,” he said, holding up the drink in his hand. It was a sticky,
tangy-sweet fruit juice, not too bad, but it became excellent when I cast a bit
of ice magic to make it cold. Frost still rimmed our glasses from the spell.
“There are few capable of such feats.”
“True!” I laughed.
“But surely you have met other enchanters or sorcerers in your
“Mmm, perhaps,” said Peri.
“Dour old men. Never someone with youth, energy… beauty.”
I didn’t need to fake the blush.
“Surely Your Highness has met many beautiful women, as well.”
“I have,” he admitted.
“But you are different.” He lifted a strand of my long hair. “I
have seen black, brown, even yellow hair before,” he said. “But only
once have I seen red, on a trader from Hattush. You wear it better than
him–you remind me of tales of the far Tin Isles, where it’s said beautiful
maidens with scarlet hair dwell.”
It’s a good thing I never changed
the color back after that time in Munn!
“You flatter me, Your Highness.” Now reel him in… Visions
danced in my head of a besotten prince offering me my weight in gold for one
night of pleasure. I rolled onto my side, so I was facing him instead of
reclining and looking out over the pit. Gently I traced a finger down his bare
chest. “I haven’t met many princes. Are they all this charming?”
“Perhaps,” he said.
“But rarely are we this motivated to try.”
Then his arms were around me,
holding me to him while my lips sought his. We kissed long and deep, and he
took my waist in his hands while I rolled on top of him. I stroked his arms,
his chest, kissing him hungrily, again and again. I clutched his shoulders and
pushed my hips down into his and humped slowly against him.
Then I broke the kiss and sat up.
Still panting, I said, “We should see how the search for the book is
I stood, and he stared at me in
breathless disbelief. Then he shook himself. “Right. Right, of course, my
I tried not to let my legs wobble on
the way down. That was close–I’d nearly given in to whatever force was pulling
me toward the Prince, and that had made an already pretty intense moment even
hotter. I’d had to break it off then, before I went to far. Besides, gotta
keep him wanting more.
* * *
That night, when work ended for the
day and Peri had to do his tallies, I managed to snatch a moment alone with
Iason and Iola. “Has your day been as weird as mine?” I asked.
“Possibly,” said Iola.
“I kept looking for thieves and interrogating workers. It kept making
sense at the time, too, like…”
“…like your thoughts had a
mind of their own?” asked Iason. “That’s what it was like for me.
Every time I tried to do something else, I suddenly thought of a bunch of
reasons to keep on working.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“That’s similar to what happened to me. But I’ve been looking for magic,
and there’s none on us that I can recognize–no glamours or enchantments or
anything like that. We’re just… acting weirdly.”
“What did you do?” asked
I shrugged. “Made out with
Prince Peri a couple of times.”
“What!?” snapped Iason.
“Him? What could possibly possess you to do that? He’s so… weird.”
Somebody’s jealous… I could have
fun with that… I pushed the thought away and
focused on what Iason had just said. Something about it… “Wait.” I
closed my eyes. There were three books left. I knew the titles of all three,
and–I opened my eyes again. “Whoa.”
“Lemma?” as Iola.
“What’s wrong?” There was urgency in her voice, alarm–that
“I didn’t realize I could do
that,” I said. “Or maybe I couldn’t until I had more experience with
the books. But… I don’t just know there’s a book here, I know which
book–one of the bad ones. The Liber Paginarum Fulvarum Mortis, a book
full of the forbidden secrets of necromancy. We’re not enchanted,
guys… we’re possessed.”
* * *
Death is powerful. It’s one of the
most powerful magics there is–stronger than life, than love, than almost
anything humans have found. Not even time–which can destroy just about
anything else–can overcome death. But there’s nothing less human than
death–it’s pure wild magic.
Which makes ghosts weird. They’re
human, but not–like vampires, they’re human-shaped former humans, but made of
wild magic. The difference is that vampires’ bodies look human; with ghosts,
the body is gone, and it’s everything else that stays human-shaped. They’re
like floating blobs of unfinished business and unfulfilled intentions, drifting
around until their business is done.
In theory, anything you can do with
wild magic you can do with high magic and vice versa. In practice, some of the
things high magic can do would require much too much control to accomplish with
wild magic, and some things wild magic can do are much too complex and
dangerous to do with high magic.
That’s where necromancy comes in:
using high magic to try to control death. It never ends well for the
practitioner… but in theory it could enable possession, or it’s possible a
powerful ghost could pull it off on its own.
“So we’ve got ghosts in our
heads,” I explained. “The ones from my dream–the worker, the guard,
and the courtesan.” I tried to remember what I could from what little
training I’d got on ghost possession. “They want us to do things, finish
their business, and the more we go along with what they want, the more control
“In my dream, we ended up
dead,” said Iola. “If these ghosts get control…”
“Yeah,” I said.
“They’ll act out the ends of their lives… and take us with them.”
“Lemma!” Prince Peri’s
voice carried from above. He was clearly done tallying. “My lady, where
“Shit, time’s up,” I said.
“Listen, it’s probably him that’s playing necromancer, but it could
be anyone. Watch out, but don’t let anyone suspect anything.” Never
show what you feel… play the part, and dammit, that was the ghost, but
what could I do? She was right, that was the right way to play this,
even if doing it sank her hooks deeper into me. At least it means getting my
hooks deeper into the Prince…
Peri soon found me. “What are
you doing down here, my lady?”
“Oh, meeting one of my many
other lovers,” I teased. I slipped in under his arm and placed it around
my waist. “You should be careful, Your Highness. If you don’t pay
attention, someone might steal me away.”
“My lady, I will gladly pay you
all the attention The Project allows me,” he said grandly. “But… if
you have other lovers besides me, does that not imply…” he
I simpered and snuggled against his
side. Play the silly servile slut, and he’ll suspect nothing. “Your
Highness is a powerful prince. Surely whatever you wish for me to imply, you
can simply command?”
He stopped and turned to face me.
Hands on my hips, he looked down into my eyes and spoke seriously. “I
don’t want to command an unwilling servant,” he said. “I want you to
welcome the command, when it comes.”
I linked my arms around his neck and
smiled up into his eyes, playing the besotted serving-girl to the hilt.
“If it came from Your Highness, any command would be welcome.” That’s
it. Make him think I’m nearly his. I leaned up on tiptoes and kissed him
softly. Make him want to claim me, and he’ll never notice he doesn’t own me
Those weren’t my thoughts, and I
knew it. They were the thoughts of a long-dead woman, a seductress who got turned
on by manipulating people… trying to control me, a woman who very badly
needed to be manipulative right now… and who got turned on by being
manipulated and controlled.
He deepened the kiss, and I slid my
hands down his chest, over his abs. “I am Your Highness’ loyal
servant,” I whispered. “Shall I kneel to demonstrate my
Without waiting for an answer, I
slid to my knees, running my hands over the front of his kilt. I could feel him
through the linen, hot and hard, and I knew the part of me that was a courtesan
loved the feeling of control that gave her, while other parts of me loved the
feeling of being on my knees, the awareness that my actions and even my
thoughts were being manipulated–and all of those parts agreed, they wanted his
cock in my mouth.
“Does Your Highness have any
commands for me?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said hoarsely.
“Take it out, please…”
I did, flipping up his kilt so I
could stroke his cock with eager fingers. There was already a droplet of precum
on the tip; I gently scooped it up on the tip of my index finger, brought it to
my mouth, and licked it off with a steamy smile and an “mmm.”
I wanted to suck him off there and
then, but the courtesan knew it was better to wait for an order, make him think
he was in control, and the possessed girl knew it would be so much hotter to
hear a command and be forced to obey it.
We didn’t have to wait long.
“P-put it in your mouth,” he stammered, and that was enough. I
wrapped my lips around him and suckled gently, my tongue flicking at the
underside of the base of his bulb. We were good at this, courtesan training and
fun times at the Academy in perfect alignment. We stroked his muscular thighs,
caressed his balls, deep-throated him, licked and sucked, while he held our
shoulders and gasped in rising pleasure.
He came, and we gulped it down,
except for a little we let dribble out onto our chin as if there was so much
our mouths couldn’t hold it–which is nonsense, no human man can cum that much,
but they do like thinking they can. Eyes locked on his, we scooped up that
little dribble on a finger and sucked it clean, then beamed.
“Wow,” he said.
We rose gracefully to our feet,
teased his chest with a finger, and said, “Happy to be of service, Your
Highness. I hope I’m invited to dinner again tonight? That was delicious… but
I’m sure I’ll be hungry again by then.”
He gathered his composure
impressively quickly for someone who’d just gotten a blowjob from us.
“I hope to dine together every night, my lady. I shall instruct the chef.
Bring your appetite.”
“I intend to,” we murmured
sultrily. “Until then, Your Highness.” We sashayed away down the hill
before he could question where we intended to spend the time until dinner. Princess
Lemma, we thought. It has a nice ring to it.
* * *
We made our way down into the pit as
quietly as we could. There was no sign of Iason and Iola, but we knew
they’d be along soon. Sure enough, as we passed a shadow it detached itself
from the wall, grabbed our arm, and pulled us around.
“Where were you?” Iason
We yanked our arm out of his grip.
“Hello to you too,” we said.
“You were with him,
We smiled. “So what if I was?
That was the plan, remember? Make him think everything’s normal?”
“I don’t like it.”
We stepped up close to Iason and
laid our hands against his chest. Looking up into his eyes, we said softly,
Iason closed his eyes and groaned.
“Lemma,” he said with obvious difficulty. “I’m fighting a ghost
that’s in love with you–I mean, the ghost in you. Don’t… don’t make it
We let our hands drift lower.
“Is it hard?” we teased.
He grabbed our hands. “Stop it!
I know–I know the ghost’s in your head, feeding you thoughts like me, but we
have to fight them together!”
Oh, getting under his skin is
“Get away from her!”
shouted Iola, running up to us, her sword half out of its sheath. Iason started
and dropped our hands, and we all turned to face her as she shoved her way in
between us and Iason.
Iason’s fists clenched as he and
Iola glared at each other, about an inch apart. “She’s coming on to me,
Iola!” he shouted.
“Yeah? She’s a fool. If you two
aren’t careful, the Prince will find out what you’re up to and have you killed!”
We turned our smile on Iola.
“Worried about me? That’s sweet.”
"I’m just looking out
for–for my brother’s friend,“ said Iola gruffly.
We drifted closer to her.
"Just your brother’s friend?” we said softly. “I thought
we were friends, too. I’d like us to be… close.”
Iola’s mouth twitched as she
looked down at us. “Nnnn… Nnnnnggghh… NnnnggghhhhGAH!” She
collapsed to her knees, clutching her head. “Stop it!”
We stared down at her in shock.
Iason knelt beside her and put his arm around her shoulders.
“Iola?” he said gently. “What’s wrong?”
“Thoughts..!” she groaned.
“It’s in my head, making me, making me… think about… HER!”
She waved a hand at us.
“Is that really so bad?” we asked, letting just a hint of a
tease slip into our voice, but keeping it mostly gentle. "There are
"You don’t get it!” she
snapped. “Every time I think about… that… I think about the
time we did!”
Oh. Right. Iola and I had,
hadn’t we? And remembering it no doubt brought up memories–of being
under Brinksmoor’s control, of leading the women after his defeat, of
their slaughter… “Fuck,” I said. “I’m sorry, Iola.”
I can think of ways to cheer her up, I thought, but I knew that
wasn’t really me. I wasn’t stupid enough to think that would help.
“It hurts to think those
thoughts,” she gasped, “but fighting them is so hard, and the more I
do the more it hurts…”
So stop fighting. But that wasn’t me. I could feel the friction building
in my head, the ghost and I diverging again: she wanted to use me to act
out her last days, and that required Iola playing the role her ghost
was pressing on her. But I saw a friend getting hurt. If only ghosts
See, now that thought was definitely
“You should go,” said
Iason. “I’ll take care of Iola.”
“No,” Iola managed.
“Lemma, if you have the book, can you get these ghosts out of our
“Probably,” I said. Though
it’s much more fun to just– I nipped that thought in the bud.
“Good. I’m going to go try to
rest. You two find that book.”
We watched Iola trudge back up to
the shacks, struggling every step of the way. I could understand that
feeling–her ghost was trying to pull her back, just like mine was trying to
get me to chase after her, flirt with her, try to make Iason jealous.
Because that was what I–what she
did. Flirt, distract, encourage jealousy, all for her own amusement or
advancement. And I wasn’t about to do that to Iason, of all people! He was
different. Special. Comfortable. I’ll admit, very, very pretty–no. Peri is
pretty. Iason is tasty. There’s a difference.
“So, uh, how do we start
looking?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Dunno. I’m trying
my best to focus on its location, but I can’t seem to get much more accurate
than ‘close.’ You spent the whole day down here working, didn’t you find any
clues or anything?”
“Sorry,” he said. “It
was hard to focus on the book… easier to just work, and listen to the other
workers complain. It’s rough for them… I think maybe they’re possessed, too,
because they talk about wanting to go home to their families, to take a break
when it gets hot, but it’s like they just can’t.”
“Puppets,” I said.
“Dancing on ghost strings–and I bet Peri’s the one pulling them.” I
hope he is. Hope he pulls me down to my knees again and–no! I needed to
think about something else.
“I’ll get you away from
him,” said Iason, and I smiled. Poor guy, he really means it, but what
can he do? The prince has all the power here. Iason’s just a nice guy with a
great body. Who was thinking that? Me or her? I mean, I thought he was
hot from day one, he just never looked at me that way. Like in Munn, he had me,
could’ve done anything he wanted with me, and all his inhibitions were gone…
and he did nothing. He just doesn’t want me. I looked up and met his eyes. So
why is he looking at me like that now?
Obviously, that’s the ghost, stupid.
The worker in love with the courtesan, that’s how we all get killed–got
killed–how they all got killed. I
tried to tell myself that I didn’t really want him to kiss me, that it was just
the ghost making me want it. But I do want him to want me. I want to be
wanted. I want to be wanted so much he’ll stop at nothing to take me, claim me,
own me… possess me.
His lips met mine. I wrapped my arms
aroudn his neck, and his hands on the small of my back pulled me against him,
my soft, slender form pressed up against the broad, solid muscles of his body.
And then he broke away, pulled away,
turned away. “I’m sorry!” he said. “I’m sorry. That was the
ghost. I wasn’t–I didn’t–”
We put our hand on his shoulder,
turned him back to face us. We smiled up at him dazzlingly. “It’s
okay,” we said. “I liked it. Kiss me again?”
He groaned, clearly fighting the
battle I’d already gladly lost, and then he lost too, and kissed us again.
It didn’t feel like losing.
Everything seemed to slow, like we
were in a dream. There was the feel of his body under our hands, and his hands
on our body. The light of the moon and stars in the clear, black desert sky.
His lips at our neck, our breasts, our thighs.
Part of us was excited because Iason
was a weapon against the prince, a way to make him jealous and therefore more
possessive–and the more he needed to own us, the more leverage that gave us
over him. Part of us was excited because we were helpless not to want this,
helpless to stop increasing not only the control of the sorceress over the
courtesan, but the control of the love-besotted worker over the monster hunter.
And part of us was still horny from
earlier, and excited just to be getting naked with a tasty chunk of man-meat. A
very big part, actually, and rapidly growing.
Speaking of very big, rapidly
growing parts, we could feel Iason’s hard cock pressing against our thigh as we
lay back in the cool nighttime sand, our lips tangled with his once again. It
filled us so perfectly, so completely, that we couldn’t help but moan and
clutch Iason to ourself while he slowly began to pump in and out.
We cried out in ecstasy as we came,
and so did he. Then we and he collapsed back onto the sand, side by side. He
pulled us close, kissed us softly, and we snuggled against his side.
We must have dozed off, because next
thing we knew, we were dreaming…
* * *
Before the desert, there was
grassland. It was already dry, and nearly barren, but there was enough grass
and enough water to sustain sheep and goats and their herders. But the desert
was coming, expanding slowly, driving people from their old lands toward the
And there was this village. Less
than a day from the fertile farmlands by the river, it was a place of trade,
wealthy by the standards of the time, and most of that wealth belonged to the
man who ruled it, a cousin of the king of the farmlands. For a girl with little
education, less money, a lot of ambition, and a way with men, the way up was
But the desert was growing, and the
grasslands dying, and the refugees kept coming. The nobleman, fearing his
wealth would be looted, ordered the construction of town walls. When the people
balked–they would rather build canals to bring water in, not a wall to keep
people out–he had his guards round them up and put them to work at swordpoint.
We barely noticed any of that. We
were too busy getting closer to the nobleman, despite our attraction to one of
the workers, a handsome young rabblerouser who was trying to urge the others to
revolt. He loved us, and we felt something for him, but our ambitions would not
allow that. He grew jealous, and that drew attention, and that made the noble
jealous, too. Scared one or the other might murder us, we seduced the worker’s
guard brother for protection.
Then came the confrontation. The
workers threw down their tools and refused to keep building. The noble stormed
down, a guard–our guard–at his side, to order them back to work, and
found himself face to face with their leader, our lover.
Swords were drawn. We pleaded with
them not to hurt each other; all three demanded we choose between them. But how
could we? How could we choose love over ambition, or ambition over safety, or
safety over love? Our lover attacked the noble, or tried to, but the guard got
in his way, and they fought. We tried to get between them, to make them stop…
and our lover accidentally stabbed us. As we fell, we saw the shocked guard’s
sword droop, saw our lover scream and cut him down, before finally falling on
his own sword… all while the noble looked on in confusion and fear.
And then we died. Not long after,
the walls went up–but the time and money spent on construction had meant less
to spend storing up food and water for the coming dry season, and it turned out
to be an unusually bad and long one. Most of the people were dead by the time
the noble and a handful of survivors abandoned the village and fled toward the
river, joining the stream of refugees they had tried to shut out.
The village stood empty, and in time
the desert swallowed it completely. Walls, buildings, streets, all
gone–nothing left but the ghosts.
* * *
Idiots, I thought as I woke up.
Iason was smiling at me, and at that
sight the memories came flooding back of what we’d just done, how good it had
been, how irresistible it was to go along with what the ghost wanted when we
were in alignment, and we were in alignment, more and more with every passing
minute and second…
We smiled back. “How long was I
asleep?” we asked.
“A few minutes,” he said,
and kissed our forehead.
“And you just watched us
“Well–” he began, but a
noise at the top of the pit made us look up.
Prince Peri stood there, with Iola
at his side. “So it’s true!” he shouted. “You are
plotting against me! Not just that, but…” he waved at us as if to take
in our nakedness and in-each-other’s-arms-ness. “Betraying me, the both of
We scrambled hastily to our feet and
waved our hands. “No, no, Your Highness,” we said. “We are loyal
to you. This was…” A trick? He won’t believe that. A mistake? Maybe I
could say Iason forced me–but no, I couldn’t say that. Wouldn’t say that!
I could feel the pressure of the ghost trying to make me, but I refused.
Beside me, Iason was on his feet,
glaring at Iola.
“I had to,” she said.
“The ghost was pounding and pounding on my head, trying to make me think
about Lemma. I spent everything fighting that, so when it reminded me that I’m
a palace guard and it was my duty to report to the prince that you’re fomenting
rebellion… I couldn’t refuse that as well? I have a duty.”
No you don’t, I thought, and I was pretty confident it was me
thinking it. The ghost is making you think you do.
Peri scrambled down the slope, Iola
beside him. “You betrayed me!” he shouted at me. “Seduced me,
used me, and all the while you were thinking of him!” He pointed at
Iason. “You could have had a prince, and you threw it away for a no-name,
no-family, muscle-brained…” He sputtered with rage, trying to get the
“Better me than some skinny boy
obsessed with death, who treats his people like slaves!” Iason retorted.
I looked up. The shouting seemed to
be drawing some attention; a crowd of workers was forming at the edge of the
pit. This could get bad, I thought.
“Guard,” said Peri, his
face growing cold. “This traitor has insulted his prince. Cut him
“But… Your Highness. He’s my
“And I am your prince!”
snapped Peri. “Do your duty!”
Reluctantly, Iola drew her sword.
“I’m sorry, Iason,” she said. “I have to.”
We watched in helpless horror. The
details were different, but it was all playing out the same. At the same time,
there was a fight happening within us. I was struggling, and there were moments
where I was almost me, but we were too aligned for that to last long.
“Don’t do this, Iola,” he
said. “You don’t have to do what the prince orders! None of you do! He
doesn’t deserve your loyalty or service or work!” Growing numbers of
workers in the watching crowd muttered noises of agreement.
Peri was looking more panicked and
angrier by the second. “Kill him!” he screamed, and Iola advanced on
Iason, her sword ready to strike.
Of course we aligned. We wanted the
same things–we wanted the prince’s possessions, Iason’s affections, Iola’s
protection. We were going to play out the same story, and there was nothing we
could do to stop it.
Fuck you, I’m Lemma. There’s always something I can do to stop it. A few seconds
of clarity, but that was all I needed to call up a little wind power. A
gesture, and a gust struck Iola sideways, hard enough to knock her off her
feet, and tumbling off the wall into one of the chambers below. In the sudden
silence, I heard her thud against the sand.
“Ow,” she said from below.
Peri stood alone on the wall, with
Iason on one side, a crowd of workers on the other. He went white.
I stifled a giggle. Looks like
he’s seen a ghost.
“Get him,” said Iason,
quietly, and with a roar, the crowd surged down the pit toward us. Peri yelped
like a frightened puppy and scrambled for the ladder down into the chambers…
only to find Iola climbing up, blocking his way.
“Guard!” he yelled at her.
“Do your duty! Protect me!”
She reached the top of the ladder,
sword still in her hand, and said, “Yes, I’ll do my duty.” She shoved
Peri toward the advancing crowd. “My duty to my brother, and to the
There was very little of Peri left
by the time the workers were done with him.
* * *
“What will you do now?” I
asked one of the workers later, after we’d broken open Peri’s food stores and
all shared a big, raucous feast.
He shrugged. “The death of the
prince will bring suspicion on all of us. But he was not a popular prince, even
among his own family. If we tell them he wandered off into the desert in his
madness, they will choose to believe us.”
I nodded, and looked down into the
pit, at the squishy mess that had been Set-Perib, Eighth Prince of Khemeth.
Lying dead in his monument to death, surrounded by chambers full of treasure, a
palace to carry beyond the grave. “Fuck that,” I said, and lobbed a
fireball into his corpse. In the dry air, it burned quite easily.
With Peri’s records, it was easy to figure
out where he’d hidden the Liber Paginarum Fulvarum Mortis. With it in
hand, I expected to sleep easily that night, comfortable in the knowledge that
this was over and we’d be moving on in the morning.
But of course not. I had to have one
last dream first.
I was standing at the edge of the
desert. Behind me was a world of water and life; ahead, just dry emptiness. The
sky was black and heavy with bright white stars, far too many of them. The sand
had that ghostly look of desert under the moon, even though there was no moon.
It’s possible the ghostly look also
had something to do with the crowd of ghosts in front of me. Most of them were
unfamiliar, but the three in front I recognized: the worker, the guard, and the
“Unfinished business,” I said.
“Of course. It wasn’t anything to do with the love triangle… it was the
A sigh went through the crowd, like
old pain finally released. It made sense. Without their leader, the rebellion
didn’t happen, and everyone starved to death, filled with regret.
“Yes,” said the courtesan,
“except for me. My unfinished business was a choice I’d been unable to
make–a failure that got me and everyone else killed.”
“A choice?” I asked.
“I don’t understand.”
“Yes, you do,” said the
courtesan. “And thank you…”
Her voice faded as the wind rose–a
cool, wet wind coming from the river behind me. The ghosts sighed again as the
wind swept through them, picking them up like mist and spreading them out
across the desert.
“Wait!” I said, thinking
of something. “Before you go… is it true that the dead can carry
messages to other realms?”
“Yes,” said the courtesan.
“Is there someone you want to say something to?”
I gave her the message, told her who
to take it to, and then I woke up. It was still night, but there was a growing
paleness to the east. It would be morning soon, and I didn’t feel like going
back to sleep.
I padded out of the shack and
wandered toward the pit. There, sitting on the edge, one knee drawn up against
her chest, Iola was looking at the stars.
“Not the sibling I
expected,” I said, sitting next to her.
“No?” said Iola.
“Expected, or hoped?”
“I don’t know what you
“Yes, you do,” said Iola.
“And thank you.”
I stared at her. “That’s the
same thing that… no, never mind. What are you thanking me for, exactly?
Knocking you off a ten-foot wall?”
“I suppose,” said Iola.
“It gave me a chance to knock some sense into myself. I realized the ghost
and I both thought we had to fight for the prince, but really the person
we had to fight for…”
“Was Iason,” I finished.
“Yes. That was his regret, his
unfinished business. He died fighting against his brother, when he should have
died fighting beside him.”
I nodded. “They’re gone
now,” I said. “Their business is finished, so there’s no regret to
sustain them anymore.”
“I know,” said Iola.
“Anyway, that’s not the only thing I wanted to thank you for.”
“No. Thank you for Iason,
“What do you mean?”
It was Iola’s turn to stare.
“You really don’t know, do you?” She shook her head.
“You’re a clever woman, Lemma, but you really can be a fool.”
“Lemma, when I tried to
overcome the ghost, it hurt. A lot. When I stopped fighting, he led me down the
same path that got him killed. What changed was when he was divided–between
duty and family. I didn’t feel any duty, but Iason is my family, and that
tipped us over to the family side.” She stood. “Your ghost couldn’t
pick a lover, correct? For different reasons, she wanted the worker, the guard,
and the noble equally.”
“What are you getting at?”
“Lemma. When you acted against
me and the prince, to protect Iason… did it hurt because you were resisting
the ghost? Or was it that her feelings were torn… and yours weren’t?”
My face started getting hot. “I
have no idea what you’re talking about,” I said stiffly, and turned away.
Iola laughed. “I’m starting to
see what he sees in you. You’re cute when you blush.”
I clenched my fists and whirled
around, fully prepared to blast her so hard the ghosts would feel it, but she
was already walking away. What the hell is she on about? I wondered. I
have no idea who ‘he’ is!
Yes, you do. And there was no one that thought could be but me.
* * *
“So where to next?” Iason
asked a few hours later, after we were all up and breakfasted and packed.
“There’s two books left,”
I said. “Both about the same distance away. I looked at a map before I
went to bed last night, and I think I know where they are–one’s in Lagasch,
and the other Hattush.”
Iason whistled. “That’s
far,” he said. “Far from each other, too–Hattush is way north, and
Lagasch is way east.”
“The book in Hattush is way
nastier,” I said. “I hate to say it, but I think we’re going to need
“Backup?” asked Iola.
I nodded. “We’ll go to Lagasch
first. We’ll grab the book, meet up with our backup, and then head for
“And you’re not going to tell
us who the backup is,” said Iola.
“Nope!” I replied
cheerfully. “You’ll find out when we get there.”
Iola opened her mouth to say
something, but Iason interrupted. “Don’t bother. The more we ask, the more
she enjoys not answering.”
“Aw, ruin my fun why don’t
We started to walk, but Iason wasn’t
following. I stopped and went back.
He looked out over the shacks, the
pit, and desert, and said, “You think he was right?”
“Who?” I asked.
“The prince,” he said.
“About the whole palace of the dead thing. Wave of the future, he
“What, do I think that someday,
people are going to drag tons and tons of bricks out into the desert to build
big pointy things to put dead kings in?” I scoffed. “Don’t be
ridiculous, Iason. It’ll never catch on.” I patted him on the back.
“C’mon, we’ve got a long trip ahead. Let’s get going.”