Draqa brought his arm back, hurling a knife at the human-like target set up in front of the pond in the courtyard. It skimmed the shoulder and splashed into the water. He cursed. He’d become increasingly distracted since last night. He couldn’t stop thinking about the ginger-haired woman with her stories. Krystal. She wouldn’t have been of any particular interest to Draqa if it weren’t for her unique tale of how she ended up in Arai. From what Draqa knew, to soul-travel across the realms was nearly an impossible feat, even for the most gifted of mages.
There had been something about Krystal, too, that had been familiar to Draqa, but he couldn’t quite place why. He had wanted to learn more. He would have asked more, too, but he had been so caught up in Krystal’s storytelling that he lost track of time. If only he’d noticed she was waking sooner, then he might not have lost his chance to learn where to find her.
He missed the target again and growled in frustration. He took his last projectile in hand and sent it carelessly forward. He missed. Only then did he see Governor Sius Mavell Evi walking down the hallway across from him. His heart froze. Sius Mavell Evi stepped back, the knife narrowly missing him. He scowled.
“I see your aim is getting worse,” he said, stooping to pick up the knife with one of his four arms. His words ended on a sour note.
Draqa dropped to a knee and bowed. “Sir! My apologies!”
Sius Mavell Evi approached him, and Draqa tensed in preparation to face the Governor’s backlash. Sius Mavell Evi simply dropped the knife at his feet. Draqa looked up at him.
Sius Mavell Evi put weight on his upper-right arm as he leaned on his staff, crossing his lower two arms. He scratched his white-flecked red beard. “What has your mind so preoccupied?” he asked.
Draqa carefully stood. He formulated an answer, unsure the Governor would want to know that someone had effectively been sneaking into his home for the past two months.
“An encounter I had in the Vyn the other day,” he replied.
“An encounter with whom?”
Draqa thought of how concerned for him Krystal had been. A complete stranger, worried about him. “Some woman. She was oddly kind.”
“She must have wanted something from you,” Sius Mavell Evi said. “No one in Talnoq-Vyn does anything out of kindness.”
“Right,” Draqa said, holding back the words he wanted to say.
Perhaps the people in the Vyn would have been more willing to be kind if Sius Mavell Evi hadn’t allowed parts of the city to fall into the hands of pirates and poverty during his governance of Erothel’s Western province.
It was almost a wonder why anyone still supported the man. There were plenty of rumors about him, from whispers pinning him as a traitor to the country, to word that he had been trying to become Minister of Erothel ever since Minister Monarain’s assassination. Draqa didn’t think either were true, but Sius Mavell Evi was a highly secretive man. Even after so many years working for him, he rarely confided in Draqa.
Draqa was frankly unable to describe the pure enmity he held for the Governor. Yet despite his efforts, he could not leave his service. He came at a time in Draqa’s life when he was almost beyond hope. He had saved Draqa’s life. Sius Mavell Evi took him in, giving him what felt like at the time to be a sanctuary.
One thing Draqa learned then was that nothing kind was done without an ulterior motive. This was no different with Sius Mavell Evi; Draqa had never been the same after what Sius Mavell Evi did and had owed service to him ever since. He was forced to do any job the old governor required of him, no questions asked.
Sius Mavell Evi nodded. “Now, for the reason I came out here.”
He stepped to Draqa’s side, and Draqa had to hold his breath as the pungent smell of perfume wafted under his nose. All four of Sius Mavell Evi’s spider-like eyes trained on Draqa’s two.
“I’m sure you remember your failure from yesterday,” Sius Mavell Evi said.
How could Draqa not? The bruises on his back still ached. He nodded.
“Good. Now, a source of mine tells me that the pest is currently hiding out at Arkelo’s Huum.”
“I’m assuming you want me to take care of him?”
Sius Mavell Evi hummed. “Not anymore. I want you to deliver a message for me. Have him tell that group of vigilantes he works for, or whomever it is, that if they ever send someone to come meddle in my affairs again—well—they know who they’ll have to deal with.”
Draqa gave Sius Mavell Evi a bitter smile. What the Governor really meant was “fuck up the bastard so badly that he’ll wish he was dead.” It was standard procedure. Draqa gathered and sheathed his knives strewn around the target.
“I’ll go right away. Is there a carriage ready?”
“It’s waiting for you out front,” Sius Mavell Evi said.
Draqa hurried to his room. He tucked two of his pistols into the holsters under his arms. He always kept a spare on him; there wasn’t always time to reload the bullets in more intense situations, and he could never be sure what situation he was going to find himself in. At the last minute, he swapped the throwing knives for a dagger and a knife with a short, thin blade, before he rushed outside where a floating carriage waited for him. He got inside, and the driver took him to Talnoq-Vyn.
The Vyn was a large ocean side city and Erothel’s greatest center of trade. Traders and merchants with their caravans scattered the cobble streets. Inlets cut through the western side of the Vyn, buildings springing up on either side, with bridges and beam overhangs to connect them. Fishing vessels of varying sizes floated at the edges of docks. Men moved to and from, bringing their catches to shore. Bordering the ocean were out-letting docks. Ships with wing-like sails stretched skyward. At the edge of the South side stood a station where travelers of all kind boarded streamlined locomotives that hovered above their tracks. Nearby, airships waited in a clearing, ready for take-off with their loaded cargo.
The architecture of the Vyn was something to marvel at. Stained glass, curved archways, and ornately designed facades were a common theme. Each building had a unique personality. Many of the newer ones had sonnes—glittering sheets of glass-like material that absorbed sunlight—built into their roofs and windows. They were the main energy source throughout the majority of Arai and helped to power everything from electricity to transportation. The sylfans were the geniuses behind it all. Rumor had it that the humans of Taevalear had recently achieved a similar technology, but it was nowhere near as effective or as widespread.
Draqa’s favorite part of this city, however, was that it was always busy. By midday, the entire city bustled with faerish people going about their daily lives. It was an easy place to hide if someone wanted to disappear, unless, of course, that someone was trying to hide from Sius Mavell Evi, in which case Talnoq-Vyn was an easy place to be found. Sius Mavell Evi had eyes everywhere in the city.
The carriage let Draqa off in the city square. A few people scrambled to give him a wide berth as he went across the cobble street to Arkelo’s Huum. It was a dingy little building rather unfortunately tucked between two larger, much cleaner ones. Draqa entered. The chatter inside quieted as he crossed the room to the man he knew as the manager—not Arkelo but one of his sons. The graying satyr gawked at him from behind his counter.
Draqa leaned against it and tapped his fingers. “I’m looking for a man—an elf to be specific. Blonde ponytail, a forked tongue and missing half an ear. Have you seen anyone like that?” Draqa asked.
The manager glanced to the side. “A—a lot of people come into this place. You can’t expect me to remember all of them—”
“He checked in two days ago, sometime late at night. Now, tell me again. Have you seen anyone like that?” Draqa’s voice ended on a threatening note.
Once again, the manager glanced to the side. He swallowed and his eyes trailed back to Draqa. The bell above the door jingled. Draqa turned in time to see his man hurrying from the inn. Draqa took off after him.
The elf ran up the street, hurdling over a food cart that was crossing in front of him. He slipped between the crowds of people with ease. Draqa followed, opting to shove his way through. The elf took a sharp left turn. Draqa slowed and peered down the alley; the elf had disappeared. Draqa swore. The elf was faster than he thought. He drew a knife and cautiously entered the alley, quieting his footsteps.
There were few places to hide; a crate, a trash bin, a door. The end of the alley abruptly stopped, and the ocean took its place. Draqa crept to the trash bin and looked around it, then inside. No one. The crate too, was empty. Draqa hurried and tried the door. It was locked. He kneeled at the edge of the alley and squinted into waters splashing below. Seeing nothing there either, he sighed.
Standing, he drew a symbol in the air. “Suum hulr,” he muttered.
A wisp of black matter materialized in his hand. He shook it away and it flowed to the ground like ink in water. It settled and took the partial form of a wolf.
“Find,” Draqa said.
The spell-wolf circled him, snuffling the ground. It walked to the wall, then to the opposite wall. It circled Draqa again, then sat down and looked up. Draqa looked up as well.
There, hurtling from the roof with blades in each hand, was the elf. Draqa scrambled to the side, the blades narrowly missing him only because he slipped on a slick spot of stone. He turned back to the elf and was met with a sharp pain across his front. He stumbled back, gripping his chest.
“Attack,” Draqa gritted through his teeth. The spell-wolf jumped at his command and ran at the elf, giving Draqa time to recover.
The elf slashed at the spell-wolf, causing it to evaporate into nothing. The elf came for Draqa next. Draqa brought up his dagger to meet the elf’s, deflecting it as the elf brought it down for another slash. He jumped back before any of the other three daggers could make their mark. Elves were always a pain to fight. They were quick, and four independently moving arms made them almost untouchable. But if Draqa was able to land a single hit…
He continued to block, being steered towards the cold waters at the end of the alley. He tracked the arms’ movements. One of them was slower than the others. Draqa took one more step back and felt air beneath his heel. He braced himself. The elf slashed again, but this time with the slower arm. Draqa cut low, slicing the elf’s fingers. The elf let out a cry and his blade dropped, along with two of his digits. That was all the time Draqa needed. He licked the elf’s blue-hued blood off the blade of his dagger. The instant the warm taste of copper met his tongue, he took control.
The elf dropped the rest of his weapons. He looked about in panic as his body disobeyed him.
“What the hell is this?” he spat, his own body forcing him to his knees.
Draqa shoved the elf onto his back, making him cough.
“I thought I told you to get out of here,” Draqa said, kneeling next to him. He pressed his dagger against the elf’s throat.
The elf grimaced. Draqa could feel him trying to regain control. “I don’t answer to you or your governor. I still had business in the city.”
“Killing the Governor, you mean,” Draqa said. He dragged the dagger up to the elf’s face. “You’ve made a very big mistake then.”
“What? I wasn’t here to kill anyone,” the elf said through gritted teeth.
“No? Then why?”
“Just some job to watch him.”
Draqa wasn’t surprised. It wasn’t the first time someone thought they could get away with spying on Sius Mavell Evi. They all met Draqa before they could learn anything significant.
“Who sent you?” he asked.
The elf spit in his face. Draqa curled his lip. He wiped the saliva away and pressed the dagger into the elf’s cheek. The elf hissed.
“Let me ask you again. Who sent you?” Draqa demanded, putting pressure on the knife.
The elf cried out, “I don’t know! I don’t know, all right? I never met him. He didn’t give me his name. He made a deposit directly over his aspectacaster. He said the rest would be in coin. It was a lot of money!”
The average person didn’t have the money or power to hire mercenaries to spy on someone like the Governor. “So he was rich,” Draqa concluded. He kept the dagger in place. “Was he government?”
The elf squeezed his eyes shut. “Yes. Yes. But I didn’t recognize him as anyone important. Please don’t kill me. I don’t know anything else.”
“Kill you? I’m not going to kill you.” Draqa raised his dagger up to the elf’s lower right eye. “The Governor has a message for you to take back to your client.”
The elf’s screams would have been music to Sius Mavell Evi’s ears.
Draqa watched a crowd gather around the alleyway as his carriage took him from the city. The elf would likely be taken to a healer soon. Draqa turned over a sack in his hands, the wet and sticky contents already soaking through to the outside. He felt he went easy on the elf, despite what Sius Mavell Evi wanted. If only the elf went easy on him. He leaned his head back, running a hand over the hurried bandages he wrapped around his chest. He would need to be helped soon as well.
Arriving back at the manor, Draqa found Sius Mavell Evi in his study. He was bent over his desk, simultaneously writing on two separate documents. Draqa tossed the bloody sack onto the desk, and it rolled into Sius Mavell Evi’s vision, just short of the papers. Sius Mavell Evi looked at it, then Draqa with a raised eyebrow.
“It’s done. He had nothing to say,” Draqa said.
Sius Mavell Evi straightened, sliding the papers out of the way. He picked up the sack, clearly not bothered by the blue trail it left and peeked inside. His lips twisted upwards.
“You’ve redeemed yourself,” he said. He looked up at Draqa and immediately frowned. “What happened there?”
Draqa felt his bandages. They were completely soaked through with his own red blood. Sius Mavell Evi walked around to him and pulled them down. Irritation crossed his features.
“You were careless, weren’t you?” he huffed, “Come with me, before you bleed to death on my carpet.” He ushered Draqa from his study and led him to the dedicated medical ward across the manor. It was astonishingly complex, full of equipment Draqa didn’t understand. Sius Mavell Evi had treated Draqa there many times in the past. Draqa suspected that Sius Mavell Evi was a doctor before he became a governor, because he always knew exactly what to do.
Sius Mavell Evi had Draqa remove his coat and lay on the metallic table in the center of the room. He obeyed. Sius Mavell Evi took off his vibrant green waistcoat and draped it over a chair. Rolling up his sleeves, he rummaged through some drawers and brought over a needle and thread and a damp cloth. He removed Draqa’s bandages and cleaned his chest with the cloth. After he was thoroughly wiped down, Sius Mavell Evi threaded the needle and started stitching the wound. Draqa looked at the ceiling, wishing the Governor would give him something to numb the pain; just because he couldn’t feel much on the surface of his skin, didn’t mean he couldn’t feel the needle piercing through it.
“So,” Sius Mavell Evi said without looking up, “Care to explain why this happened?”
Draqa chose his words carefully. “He caught me off guard.”
“You were distracted,” Sius Mavell Evi grumbled.
Draqa didn’t bother denying it. Sius Mavell Evi would think whatever he wanted regardless.
“If it is the same distraction as this morning, I want you to put it out of your mind. Understand?” Sius Mavell Evi looked him directly in the eyes.
“Of course… sir,” Draqa said. His thoughts from that morning faded away.
“Good.” Sius Mavell Evi’s tone lightened with amusement. “Honestly, I’m surprised by you. Who knew Draqa could be so easily distracted by a woman?”
Draqa looked at him. “What woman?”
Sius Mavell Evi smirked. He finished off the stitches and let Draqa sit up. “Either way, you were still hurt because of this. I want you to rest for a week or two, and while you’re at it, clear your head. I don’t have time for more of your mistakes.”
Draqa tried not to nod too eagerly. It was rare for Sius Mavell Evi to give him a break like this. Even when he didn’t have something to do, he always had to make himself available in case Sius Mavell Evi needed him.
“You won’t need me for anything?” he asked.
“It is a bit late for you to be asking that. I’ll call for you,” Sius Mavell Evi said.
Draqa was sent away, feeling great deal happier. No Sius Mavell Evi for at least a week. It was enough to make his day.
A rumble in his stomach led him to the kitchen where Minnos, Sius Mavell Evi’s cook, was preparing dinner. Draqa walked behind her and peered over her shoulder. She added chopped vegetables to a simmering pot.
The poor faun startled at Draqa’s voice, letting out a yelp.
“Draqa!” Her huge brown eyes stared up at him nervously. “When did you get here?”
“Just now. Is that stew?”
Minnos rubbed her arm and picked up a few potatoes that had fallen onto the floor. “It is… but it’s not done yet,” she paused, “oh, but if you’re hungry please help yourself to anything else here.”
Draqa eagerly grabbed a biscuit from a bowl sitting across the counter. It was still warm. He bit into it and sighed.
“You seem like you’re in a much better mood than usual,” Minnos whispered. “Did something happen?”
Draqa looked back at her, still chewing. “Nothing that important.” He gestured to the stitches across his chest, “Sius Mavell Evi wants me to rest.”
Minnos stared at his chest. “Does it hurt?” she asked.
What a stupid question, of course it hurt. But Draqa shrugged. “I’ve been through much, much worse.”
“You mean your scars?”
“Mm.” Draqa finished off the biscuit and grabbed another.
Minnos continued to watch him. She shifted from hoof to hoof and played with the hem of her apron. Draqa let out a sigh.
“Do you need something?” he asked.
“Well, um… Master Governor will be gone tomorrow, so I won’t have anything to do, and um, I was thinking it would be a nice day for an outing,” Minnos said.
“I’m sure,” Draqa replied, uninterested. There was talk among Sius Mavell Evi’s staff that she was infatuated with him. He didn’t quite understand why, but he supposed it was better than her being afraid of him, as he’d assumed when she first started working there.
Minnos nodded. “I’m a bit nervous to go by myself, though. The Vyn is so big, and I might get lost—”
“Then don’t go. Or get one of the others to go with you,” Draqa interrupted.
Minnos started, “Oh, but wouldn’t you—”
“No.” Draqa popped the rest of the biscuit in his mouth and wiped his hands on his pants. Minnos looked down. He patted her on the back and went to his room.
Kicking off his shoes and tossing his ruined shirt to the side, he collapsed on his bed, the down blankets engulfing him. Sleep came to him easily. When he awoke, however, it was only a few hours later in the middle of the night. He opened his eyes and stared at the black ceiling. As easily as it came, sleep and all of his exhaustion had left him. He suddenly couldn’t bear the thought of staying in bed any longer and sat up.
There was something he was forgetting. Something prodding at the back of his mind. It had bothered him that morning. What was it? He wracked his brain, trying to remember. He grew anxious when he came up with nothing. The dark around him suddenly became suffocating and he felt around for his table lamp. Feeling nothing, he took a sharp breath. Imaginary hands pulled at him. His finger grazed the switch, and he hurriedly flicked the light on.
Nothing. Nothing was there. He frowned, sure there had been something. He closed his eyes. The face of a freckled woman with hazel eyes and chin-length ginger hair swam in his vision. Of course, that was it. Draqa breathed a sigh of relief as his memory of the ghostly woman from Taevalear returned. All except for her name. Anger replaced his relief. Anger directed toward Sius Mavell Evi and his tricks.
Draqa got up and grabbed a tattered bag from the corner of his room. He had to get away, at least until the week was up. He packed some of his clothes into the bag until it bulged a little.
It didn’t take him long to decide where he wanted to go, given that he’d been to the Other Realm many times before despite the illegality of it. Arai and Taevalear were meant to remain apart from each other, the few allowed to cross between them being the High Council’s Gatekeepers. The Council claimed it was safer that way. They had been afraid ever since the humans of Taevalear grew fearful themselves of the magic the fae possessed. Perhaps the Council was right, but it had been hundreds of years since then—Draqa found that Taevalear didn’t remember Arai, and what stories they did have were just that. Stories.
Regardless, Draqa didn’t care much for those laws. What the Council didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. Most often, Draqa visited to escape, like he was doing now. He unconsciously fingered the spot between his shoulder blades where sharp black lines that crisscrossed to form an intricate triangle had been magically branded. If only he could leave for good.
It wasn’t that he liked Taevalear, no, it was too polluted and the people there were often angry or too absorbed in themselves. But it was a place Draqa could disappear, if only for a little while. No one would know to look for him either, except for maybe Sius Mavell Evi. To those in Arai, he was only Draqa, the strange man who did the Governor’s bidding.
He didn’t know when he’d taken the name Draqa, but it had seemed fitting when people began to refer to him as such, so he kept it. Who he was before was a person who no longer existed, and Draqa couldn’t be trusted. But people in the Other Realm didn’t know who Draqa was. It was a small freedom, but it was freedom, nonetheless.
Once he was ready, he left the manor right away. Checking to make sure he wasn’t followed, he made his way to the ruins that sat on the coast some miles to the West. He took his time, arriving at the ruins just before dawn. At the edge of the ruins, near the cliff, towered the Gate. It was old, many of its stones crumbling, and was no longer in use. Draqa approached and stared up at it, marveling again at how it could take him almost anywhere. He took a breath, traced symbols in the empty space under the archway, and muttered the words he knew would take him to Taevalear and the sister Gate that lay hidden within a place humans called, “Colorado.” It was a Gate he had crossed through many times in the past; Colorado was a place he liked very much.
As he spoke the incantation, he watched the inside of the archway grow opaque. It began to emit a pulsing hum, and he stepped back. He waited for the Gate to glow and then stepped through. The world around him spun, and he felt his body soar through space. It was exhilarating. Then, everything slowed, and he easily stepped into the world of the Other Realm. This particular Gate had been hidden inside of an abandoned mine somewhere in a forest. Draqa straightened himself up and walked out into the trees. Frost clung to the needles of the pines around him. The cool morning air touched his cheeks. He was grateful that he had dressed warmly, even though the air was much drier than in Western Erothel.
Draqa looked ahead and started down the path he had taken many times before—the path that lead him to the city.