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Welcome to my Writing in Real Time serial novel experiment – this first story in the Realm Wraith Trilogy will unfold here on my blog in weekly episodes, and is yours to enjoy. Friendly discussion and thoughtful comments are welcome. Who knows – your ideas might just help shape the story as I write! If you’re joining us in progress, start with Episode One: Leap of Faith 

Warrior Elf Blooded

*

The crossing is quick, but excruciating.

The portal transports matter across the dimensional planes by compressing its mass into an energy stream. It’s a lot like shoving a spike through a pinhole. The cellular distortion is brutal. It would also be fatal, without the gossamer.

This second skin is better than magic. Besides making me mutable, the sheathing enables my body to morph in response to a whole host of external forces. It also gives my regenerative abilities a hypernatural boost, which can come in handy when one is out of her realm and all on her own. Most importantly, it has chameleon qualities which allow me to adapt to any alien environment. In the mortal realm I will appear to the most scrutinizing observer to be as human as any other inhabitant of this world, even though I am not human at all.

I land hard, coiled in a sprinter’s crouch beside the same kedge stone, but in an entirely distinct and separate reality. The same and yet totally different – just one of many paradoxes that transect the realms.

A sudden gut-wrenching convulsion throws me forward onto my hands and knees, and I hurl all over the pine needles and leafy dust that litters the forest floor. Nausea is a normal aftereffect of the crossing, but I am still mortified. Over two dozen training excursions and three covert ops missions in the human realm, and every time it’s the same. I should be able to hold it together better by now. I’ve never seen Violet puke.

I want to rinse the bad taste from my mouth. I need water. But first, I need to get my bearings. It takes a few deep breaths before I can force myself back on my haunches and get a look at my surroundings. The crossing key is still curled in my clutch, and I am quick to loop the lanyard back around my neck. This key is my lifeline, the only connection I have to my home realm. If it were lost, I could be stranded here and next to failing this mission, I have no greater fear. I will never let this key out of my reach.

The moon is high and gleaming bright white through the dense evergreen canopy of the Olympic National Forest. This time of year, the climate in the Pacific Northwest is ever changing – cloud covered and rain soaked one minute, crisp air and clear skies the next. The weather is working with me tonight.

We fae are not nocturnal beings by nature, not in our home realm, but it is easier to operate at night in the human dimension. Less chance of being detected, of course, but it is also easier to function when there is less noise – the static interference created by the frenetic energy discharges of daily mortal life. Preternatural beings are super sensitive to it.

While the moon and the stars make it easier to set a course, I don’t need them to navigate. Like all sylph, I have a hyper-developed sense of smell. EDL reconnaissance and recovery expeditions usually deploy an advance scout team, often a cross gender pair. A sylph’s olfactory abilities partnered with a satyr’s superior nocturnal vision make for highly accurate covert tracking. A kind of sensory GPS, I guess. But I have only myself to rely on this time.

Nose to the sky, I snuffle the scents on the damp night air. The salty smells of sand and sea creatures are mingled with the piney perfume of the evergreens. Beneath these pungent aromas, I catch the faint, distant tinge of satyr sign. It is unmistakably Auger’s. The scent is stale; days, maybe even weeks old, the lingering trail left by his last trip to this realm. Squad members are each assigned a monthly sector tour as a part of our regular duties, for reconnaissance mostly, but also to resupply the forward operations bevies. Sector Five is on Auger’s watch, and one of our support stations is nearby. This is my first checkpoint.

A warbling caw in the boughs overhead jump-starts my heart and sets my teeth on edge. I’m being watched. It was only a matter of time until my presence was detected, but I am surprised the sentinels have spotted me so soon.

They are everywhere here. Preternatural souls trapped in the form of a crow, banished from the Empyrean realm and condemned to eternal internment in the human world. The can only be released from this purgatory by the Empyrean being that cursed them, and if it should happen that a sentinel outlives their jailor, they are essentially damned for all eternity.

Some of the sentinels are ancient. By human measure, the preternatura appear immortal, though we can and do die. We have our vulnerabilities, but we are less susceptible to injury and illness, and our post-adolescent cellular degeneration progresses much more slowly than that of humans. Given the right circumstances, magical beings can live a long, long time – eons even. So when I say these earthbound souls are ancient, I’m talking centuries old, maybe even millennia.

It isn’t all bad; sentinels do have the freedom of flight. But they can never return to our dominion, and this is the cruelest of all fates. I truly cannot imagine anything worse than never being allowed to go home.

These disenfranchised spirits could be useful too, though not completely trusted. Beings without belonging lack the loyalty that naturally comes from a sense of solidarity with your own kind. This makes them mercenary, and prone to make alliances that serve their need to have purpose. They are not alone in this realm. Others among the preternatural races have been banished here, for crimes against the home realm. Still others have escaped here, looking to infiltrate human economic and political systems and manipulate them in order to create their own power bases.

Some of the more nefarious deserters are actually on the EDL’s most-wanted list and known known to use the sentinels as lookouts. The last thing I need is an off-mission confrontation with a fae fugitive who thinks I’m here to drag them back. I didn’t have the time. There is no way to know whether this fowl is friend or foe without getting up close and personal, so I decide to play it safe.

I burst out of my crouch, sprinting full-force for the heart of the nearest stand of trees. The sentinel has the advantage of moonlight and a birds-eye view but I have stealth on my side, and the camouflaging the gossamer sheath provides. I run low, slinking deeper into the forest undergrowth until I am fairly certain the sentinel has lost sight of me, and then cut a zigzag path all the way to the tree line on the other side of the forest.

By the time I reach the tree line, I am remembering standard infiltration procedure. Before entering the open, I throw a scatter charge to disguise any residual energy signature I might be sloughing. The charge is effective for a radial mile or more, enough to ensure I won’t be followed.

From the forest, I walk along an abandoned access road toward the checkpoint. My first objective is to collect some solid intel, but for that I need transportation. I also need some real protection from the elements. Gossamer is waterproof, but it isn’t much good in chilly weather. It isn’t exactly fashionable either, and I need to blend in with the mortals in their communities.

Auger’s scent leads me two miles west, to the tiny tourist town of Port Angeles and the lonely parking lot at the ferry dock. The town is tourist driven, nearly derelict in the off-season, and all but abandoned at night. The perfect staging area – within easy reach of the kedge stone, and populated enough to provide cover and the means to secure any basic supplies the team might need.

The ferry-runs to and from Victoria are suspended until later in the spring. I won’t have to worry much about avoiding chance encounters. Then again, if I wander around in the open too long I risk drawing the suspicion of local law enforcement. I need wheels to get myself inland. There’s a lot of ground to cover between Port Angeles and the Emerald City, and not a lot of time.

Three vehicles are parked in the lot – a road-weary jeep, a tricked-out newer model crew cab pickup, and a powder-blue vintage replica roadster convertible. The truck and convertible likely belonged to locals or tourists, but the jeep is an EDL stash vehicle.

Stowed in the rear compartment of the jeep is a small supply of bottled water and a duffle stuffed with a selection of coverings and foot gear to suit the varying seasonal climates of this realm. Underneath the compartment decking is an emergency munitions cache, in case any of us run into serious trouble. But for now, all I need is the water, and a little extra protection from the elements.

An unlined black canvas trench coat and black jump boots appeal to me, partially for the added layers but also because they give off a particular vibe. I like black. The gossamer bodysuit and tactical vest are organically mimetic and automatically adapt to match the coat. The total look is a bit too dark and edgy out here in the sticks, but once I get to the city no one will even look twice. But before I drive all the way to Seattle, I have a stop to make.

*

 

I head east, along the tree-lined highway, with my eyes on the road and my head tilted into the breeze.

The scents that filter in through the half-open window are pleasing, but they also help me acclimate. This part of the human realm is actually kind of delicious, with its earthy musk and sweet air. But even with these swaths of unspoiled forest and open water, this place is an acquired taste and I still haven’t developed an appetite for it.

There is a reason the preternatural races abandoned this realm so many ages ago, when they finally realized they could no longer counter the elemental imbalances created by manufactured magic. Humans and their technologies and their never ending quest to manipulate nature – it is an abomination. This place is barely habitable as far as I am concerned, but the exiles and escapees have managed to adapt. There are even some of my own crew members who have come to appreciate this realm. I just don’t get it.

About ten miles outside Port Angeles, I find the scent I’ve been seeking. Not satyr sign this time, but something closer to yet still not quite human. Adrenaline pumps a renewed sense of urgency through my veins, and I press harder on the gas pedal. I’m on the right road. And I’m close.

“The turnoff has to be here somewhere.”

I ease up on the jeep’s throttle, scanning the dusky brush along the north side of the road for the guardian tree, an ancient cedar that marked an otherwise anonymous gravel drive angling off the highway into the forest. It is hard to distinguish, especially from a distance. Dozens of times I’d made this same trip, but never alone and never without Auger’s night vision.

Though the sky is clear, moonbeams filtering through the thickly needled evergreen boughs overhead actually cast more shadow than light. A few dozen yards a head, I detect a dark mass – a huge conifer with a slight lean to the north. This has to be it.

I guide the jeep across the center line and then let it slow to a crawl along the left shoulder. Closer up it’s harder to tell which tree is my marker, and the tingle at the nape of my neck is telling me to be cautious.

“Shit.”

I would have missed the freaking crow if my headlights hadn’t been angled just right. A hard yank on the parking brake stops my ride short. I throw the gear shift into neutral and snap off another scatter charge from my vest as I jump out of the idling jeep and advance toward the sentinel’s red-eyed gleam.  Whoever or whatever is tracking my movements wants me to know about it.

“Back off, you corpse-picking parasite.”

A flutter just behind and to my left knocks me off guard. There’s more than one, I realize, as a big ugly whiff of crow- feather dust and dry, crusty preening oil assaults my nasal passages. Three more, at least.

Crap. A whole murder of damned souls are perched in these trees. They aren’t just watching me, they’re stalking me, and somehow they got here first. It’s as if they were expecting me, and that’s not good.

I back toward the jeep and the relative open of the highway, scanning the spindle-branched canopy for signs of threat. The cawing begins – a single cackle at first, and then the others join in, louder and louder until the screeching is unbearable.

A scatter charge won’t help me here, there are too many for me to track. I deactivate the grenade by tucking it back into the empty retention ring on my vest. I’ll have to use some of my own magic this time.

There are a couple of choices. I could cast a dispersion spell, which would essentially cause the crows’ cellular cohesion to diffuse and disperse on the air. But this is only a temporary solution to the problem – the sentinels’ physical patterns would eventually coalesce again somewhere else, and they would all return to vex me again another day. The other option is far more effective, but infinitely more cruel.

Conjuring a darkening is a serious, last resort measure that no Realm Wraith takes lightly. Snuffing the life force of any being is the last thing I ever want to do, but these sentinels are drawing some kind of deadly, otherworldly trouble my way. Better them than me.

Fae magic is much harder to work in the human realm – the harmonic resonance here is fractured, which is part of what is so wrong with this world to begin with, but basically, the fracturing interferes with the coursing of natural energy. All magic is based on manipulating that natural energy, no matter what realm you’re in. It’s all about focus and control, and a lot can go wrong even when all the conditions are right.

I hold out my open hand and concentrate on gathering a whorl in my palm, infusing the spell with the power of my intent. As the spiral takes form, the condensed energy combines with the intensity of my purpose and begins to burn. I need to unleash the conjuring at just the right moment – after it gains enough strength to be brutally effective, but before it grows too powerful, and too painful, for me to contain. The whorl fires red, then surges a searing orange. The skin of my palm feels as if it is melting.

Giant, feral fangs gnash the air millimeters from my face, so close that wolf spittle sprays my left cheek. The stench is repulsive but it is an instinctive recoil that sends me reeling. I am on my ass before I realize what is happening. The attack might still have blind-sided me even if I hadn’t been working the spell, but the distraction made me vulnerable. I never sensed danger coming.

By the time I scramble to a defensive crouch, the lupine is already turning to make another strike, menacing me with feral eyes that glint with malice. Lurking behind that deadly glare, however, is something unexpected.

It really is all in the eyes, you know. Every sentient being is revealed through its oculus, no matter what physical form it takes. This wolf is daemon, not mammalian. A cursed naiad sylph, from what my senses can gather in the frenzy, and then I recognize more than the mélange of animal musk and deadly intent carried on her scent. It happens sometimes, in this realm, that my hyperactive olfactory receptors will behave in unusual ways. I sense an intimate hatred fueling her intent.  This is personal, somehow, but if our paths have crossed before, if this is some sort of vendetta, I have no clue when or why. But that doesn’t matter now. I don’t need to know her story to undo her. All I need is my blade.

The Auraen steel dagger is already in my hand, although I don’t remember drawing it. My training has prepared my reflexes for situations like this. They are every bit as sharp as the wolf’s, and my blade even sharper.

As she springs, the wolf unleashes a howl so shrill and soul-rendingly tortured it rattles my bones. Her agony startles me, and if she weren’t lunging for my throat I might have made a different choice. Instead, I duck and slash, gutting her from breast to tail as she soars over my head.

It’s not the cut that kills her; it’s the iron in the steel blade. The slightest touch of iron can be deadly to all Empyrean souls, including mine, which is why the knife handle is silver. The gossamer body armor offers some protection as well, but I still have to be careful.

Only then, as the wolf carcass lands with a dead thud, do I realize how silent the forest has become. At first I assume it’s just that the sentinels have fled, but then I remember the whorl. The attack came so quickly I hadn’t had time to extinguish the spell. It had gone wild when I had fallen off balance. Just how many souls have I snuffed tonight?

I don’t want to know.

*

 

Just past the guardian tree, the mouth of the drive opens up to the highway.

I gun the jeep and pull a hard left turn into the gravel. The Caretaker is expecting me. No doubt I have been on his internal radar ever since I first got on the road. He has freakishly amped sensory perception of his own, far superior to any full-blood fae in spite a couple of human incapacities, and he is only a halfling. He is also so old no one can recall his origins.

After securing supplies and equipment, the Caretaker’s cottage is always the first stop on any mission. He is an ancillary, a civilian ally to the Defense League. A hub of information, Caretaker is the central point of contact for all of the intelligence operatives in this sector and the facilitator of essential communication between the realms.

The wolf encounter has me more than a little unsettled. Certainly no coincidence, but was she there for me, or him? The Caretaker will know.

Auger brought me here on my first incursion with the team, early on in my training. That day I’d learned two important lessons: the only person to be trusted blindly in this realm was the Caretaker, and when there was nowhere left to run, run to him. He’s a little quirky and definitely takes some getting used to, but I make it a point to stop in even when I don’t really need to. It has to be a little lonely out here in the woods, and I genuinely like the guy.

Where the narrow road grows too narrow and overgrown for the jeep, I secure the vehicle and take to the root-bound footpath that begins where the gravel drive ends. A hundred yards wading through fern fronds and forest duff brings me to the edge of a small clearing framing a tiny ramshackle cabin that appears abandoned, at least at first glance. Wood smoke wisps from the river-rock chimney and a lantern glimmers through the single front-facing window. He waits for me.

I hesitate on the squatty stoop. As I reach out to knock on the weathered wood door, it swings in on its own. “You decent?” I call. “I’m alone.”

I always wait for him to invite me in. It’s a respect thing. The old man is a bit of a recluse, and though he never seems to mind my visits, he generally avoids contact with everyone – human and fae.

“You might as well come on in,” he shouts. “It took you long enough to get here.”

“I had to shake a tail.” I step inside, but only as far as the doormat. “A naiad exile trapped in lupine form. Nasty bitch.”

“Hah. Funny. Wolf…tail…shake a tail.” The Caretaker slouches in a wooden rocker facing the woodstove with his back to the door, in the ratty gray wool cardigan and wide-brimmed floppy felt hat he always wears.

“Yeah, I’m frickin’ hilarious.” I’d forgotten to grab another bottle from the back of the jeep. I’m literally dying of thirst. Empyrean beings need two or three times the hydration a human does. “Water?”

“Glasses above the sink. Help yourself,” he says, pulling his rickety frame to a stand. He looks frail, but it never occurs to me that he actually is. Experience has shown me that it is foolish, and dangerous, to underestimate him. “Figured you’d be bringing your enforcer friends.”

“You figured wrong this time,” I tease. “And here I thought you knew everything.”

“Most things,” the Caretaker says as he turned to face me, a half-whittled twig in one hand and a small knife in the other. A smoldering cob pipe dangles from the corner of his grizzled mouth. “Not all things.”

“Good to know.” I draw a glassful from the rusted tap and suck the water down while the Caretaker shuffles across the plank floor to place the twig and knife to rest on one of the narrow shelves mounted on the back wall. He then turns and shuffles two steps to his right, to a small square plank table.

“So what was the deal with that lupine?” I ask. “I’m surprised you let her sniff around so close.”

“Honestly? I never sensed a threat. She’s been slinking around these woods for weeks. I took her for a lost soul just looking for a little refuge.”

I refill my glass and try to remember if there was anything I had done to provoke a random attack. I hadn’t, which only made me wonder more about the personal connection I’d sensed. “Maybe my entering the realm somehow triggered her territorial instincts,” I rationalize, not really believing myself. “You don’t think she was waiting for me, do you?”

“I doubt it,” he says. “Who could have known you were coming?

“You’re probably right,” I agree, not all that convinced. None of it feels coincidental to me, but the Caretaker’s point is a good one. “I didn’t know myself until a few hours ago.”

“Likely it was just an unlucky encounter with a hungry stray. Maybe she’d gone rabid,” The Caretaker pulls out one of two mismatched slat-back wooden chairs stationed at the table and waves a hand in my direction. He seats himself and tugs the velvet bag containing his divining tools from his left shirt pocket. “Sit down already.”

I finish my second glass of water before joining him, watching with morbid curiosity as he shakes the bag and dumps the polished bone runes onto the tabletop. I never actually look forward to these readings; the Caretaker’s insights aren’t always pleasant, although they are usually helpful. This time, though, I am in full dread.

The Caretaker pulls the pipe from his mouth and looks straight at me, his gaze focused and expectant. “What do you want to know?”

“I need to locate a rogue operative, fast.” I hadn’t intended to buffer the details, but the sudden reluctance to divulge the whole truth is fierce. I tend to resent my relatives, but I’d never felt embarrassed because of them. “We’ve got a meddler.”

“So I’ve heard.” The Caretaker gives a slow bobbling nod, cocking his head slightly to the right. He appears to be puzzling at the runes, which makes me wonder just what he sees. The Caretaker, as it happens, is as blind as a bat.

What does he know? Before I can stop myself, my tongue darts over my lips, dry from the crossing, and now parched from the sudden ratcheting of tension. It’s a nervous habit, licking my lips, one I have been trying to break. Tells are a liability in my business and it is a constant aggravation to me that I have even one. “What have you got for me?”

The Caretaker straightens his head to look at me again. “You still haven’t told me what you want to know.”

His piercing stare is particularly unsettling. It’s like he’s peering right into my soul. For all I know, he is. “Like I said. I need a last known location, for starters anyway.”

“That’s what you need to know.” He begins selecting runes seemingly at random, positioning them one by one in an arced span on the table in front of him. “What you want to know is why you were selected for this mission. You want to know if you’ll succeed.”

“Wow. You just get right to it, don’t you.” I am still not used to his weird, random blurts of wisdom. There are depths to this man that no one can know and that is more than a little frightening. “I want to know the secrets of the universe too, but I’m on a timeline. Can we just stick to business?”

“I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable,” he says, but he is not really apologetic. “But if it didn’t need saying, I wouldn’t say it.”

“Yeah, I know.” I regret my defensiveness, but I like it better when his attention is focused on the runes instead of me. “For a blind guy you have a remarkably clear view of things, but I didn’t come here for a personal consult.”

“Didn’t you?” The Caretaker is still staring at me even though I am doing everything I can to avoid meeting his gaze. “Whether you realize it or not, everything about this mission is personal.”

“Okay, let’s just say that’s true,” I say, a half-assed attempt at self-preservation by misdirection. “I still need that intel.”

The Caretaker nods and returns to picking stones from the scatter pile and positioning them on the table. “You’ll need to go see Spade. He’s on the inside now, part of the underground militia Zeta 379 has organized. He’ll get you where you need to go.”

Spade is a known familiar, a long-time member of the Caretaker’s intelligence network, and a particularly gifted halfling who embraces his daemon ancestry as much or more than his human blood. I have never met him, but the Caretaker trusts him and that is enough for me. Interesting, though. Clearly the Caretaker knows all about Melody’s activities.

“You’ll need to hurry. There isn’t much time.”

I wait, expecting an explanation, but the Caretaker just keeps picking bones. “What do you mean, there isn’t much time?”

He shrugs, still staring at the tabletop, still sorting runes. “Can’t say for certain. Just something the runes are telling me.”

“So,” I have to ask. I am growing more anxious to leave with each passing moment, and not just because the mission clock is ticking. “Where do I find this Spade dude?”

“In the city.” The Caretaker nods again and finally looks up from the rune stone pattern he has created. “I see it now.”

“What?” My palms have gone dewy with the wary anticipation that generally accompanies a sense of foreboding. “What do you see?”

“Your father is testing you.”

“Uh, yeah. Of course he’s testing me.” The obvious statement and the Caretaker’s cryptic tone are confusing. “That’s pretty much the whole point of the solo mission.”

“Yes, but it’s more than that.” The Caretaker sweeps his open hand through the air above the runes, indicating the bigger picture. “He’s not just testing your skill. He’s testing your loyalty.”

Gooseflesh ripples beneath the gossamer sheathing, an unexpected involuntary response to what sounds like a sinister implication. “That’s ridiculous. He knows how committed I am to the corps. I’ve dedicated my whole existence to it. Everyone knows that.”

“To him,” the Caretaker counters. “This mission is about proving your loyalty to him.”

“You’re not making any sense.” Feeling trapped, I push away from the table and stand, fighting the urge to escape. Since that would be beyond juvenile, I decide to pace around the tiny room instead. “This mission is about my sister’s loyalty, not mine.”

“I suppose that depends upon your point of view,” the Caretaker points out. “It’s all in how you look at things. Take the runes, for instance.”

I turn to look, though I keep my distance. I’m not even a little bit okay with the twists and turns this conversation is taking, but I am curious. “What about them.”

The Caretaker brings the stem of his pipe back to his lips and leans back in the chair, drumming the tabletop with the fingertips of his free hand as he considers his next words. “Divination is an art, not a science.”

He bends forward and picks up one of the runes in the first arc. “This stone here, īhwaz, represents change – a turning point, a transformation, even death.”

The Caretaker puts back the first rune and picks up another, this one from the second arc. “This one is halgalaz. It indicates loss, destruction. They both make sense, don’t they, given your situation. What the rune casting reveals about your journey is open to the interpretation of the seer. Even that, however, is only part of the story. Every circumstance, or destiny if you want to call it that, contains within it a multitude of outcomes. How any situation resolves is a matter of choice, and the choices we make are a matter of perspective.”

“Just what are you saying?” I am fairly certain there is good advice hidden in his ramblings, but I honestly have no idea what it is.

“I’m trying to widen your vision,” the Caretaker says. “Things are rarely what they appear to be at first glance. Look a little deeper. Imagine all of this from Melody’s perspective. She has lived most of her life here. It’s what she knows.”

“Okay, even if I agreed with you, which I don’t, by the way, it’s her actions that are at issue now, not her motives.” I realize I am nearly shouting and take a deep breath. “Melody is a member of the Empyrean Defense League. She has taken an oath to protect the realms, both realms. She’s out of control.”

“Maybe she is,” the Caretaker concedes. “But maybe she’s not so wrong. Her actions are ill-advised, even disastrous, but her intentions are admirable, as far as I can see. This place can use all the help it can get. It’s growing more and more painful every day, and I’m only half human.”

Guilty concern overrides my indignation. “I don’t know how you stand it. It must be awful for you. The resonance here is unbearably out of tune.”

“Beings adapt,” the Caretaker says. “Or they die.”

“Or they leave.”

“But humans don’t have the ability to escape their realm,” the Caretaker reminds me. “That’s the issue here.”

In all honesty, I have far more empathy for the Caretaker than I ever will for Melody, but their views really aren’t so different when it comes to the plight of humanity. He could leave this realm, with my help, but he never would. It was his home.

“I’m sorry, but I still say that’s exactly why mortals should have taken better care of their domain.”  As far as I am concerned, humans deserve the consequences of their own recklessness. In general terms, of course.

Generation after generation, humans have sought new ways to manipulate their world. Their technologies and their arrogance fail to respect the only existence they have. And this is the point where my sister and I part ways – philosophically speaking. We stand at a crossroads on the suicidal trajectory humanity has taken. I fin Melody’s bizarre affection for the mortal world and its inhabitants offensive, even blasphemous, but apparently our father has dismissed it as an inevitable byproduct of her prolonged exposure to human culture. Until now, anyway.

“Melody isn’t human. She owes her allegiance to her own race.”

The Caretaker smiles to himself. “And yet, she is still here.”

I sense that he is trying to lead me to some sort of moral epiphany but I don’t really care why my sister has gone rogue. It doesn’t matter whether Melody’s intentions are well meaning or not. I suppose she genuinely believes it’s her duty to help these creatures change their course – and from what I knew, she had. But her misguided philanthropy has put both realms in real danger, and she has to be stopped.

Frustration overload forces a sigh of exasperation past my lips. “I don’t get it. Are you defending her, or condemning her?”

“Neither.” The Caretaker shrugs again. “Maybe both. Hard to say. Either way,” he says, pulling himself to his feet. “It’s time for you to go.”

The Caretaker’s ambivalence rattles me, but he is right about one thing. It is time to go. I am not as sure of the situation as I want to be, and the Caretaker has given me more cause for doubt than anything else. Maybe I will get the answers I need from Spade. “So where do I find your guy?”

The Caretaker shuffles past me to the door and drags it open. “Spade will be waiting for you at the Cherry Street Coffeehouse, in the Sodo District. You know the place?”

“First Avenue South, near the train station. Yeah, I know it.” Despite my better judgment, I hesitate, glancing with suspicion at the rune array on the table. “What else do the bones tell you? About my mission. Will I get the job done?”

“Didn’t you hear anything I said?” The Caretaker shakes his head. He reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls out what looked like an old watch case, and holds it out for me. “Here, take my compass.”

I take the polished silver compact from his hand and examine it more closely. The circular case is beautifully flourished on both sides with hand-etched scrollwork, hinged on one side and latched on the other. I depress the latch and the lid pops up, revealing a round dial scored with seven rune symbols, a directional marker for each of the sectors of this realm, and a free-spinning needle anchored in the center. “How does it work?”

“The needle always points to the nearest kedge stone. No matter where you end up, you’ll be able to find your way back to your own realm.”

The Caretaker pauses, apparently weighing his next words. “Look, Bliss. You’re more than capable and plenty determined, but you’re being manipulated. I think you know that. There’s more to this mission than you’re being allowed to know, and that troubles me some. It should trouble you more. I gotta tell you, the odds don’t look good.”

He tucks his chin and glances at me sideways. “You sure you shouldn’t call in the reinforcements?”

“No.” It comes out quick, completely on gut instinct. Not necessarily the best foundation for a good decision, but it is too soon to give up on myself, especially before I’d even gotten started. “Not without a lot more to go on than just your bones and your instincts. No offense, but I’ve got a lot staked on this solo gig.”

“Well, do what you gotta do then, kid,” the Caretaker says. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Read Episode Three

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