Muhulda Urswyk – The Truth Behind the Bile

Muhulda Urswyk VintageI shook my head. “I have to work, Elbert. It’ll have to wait.”

Elbert shook his head then looked past me. “Barkeep. I think your serving girl is a bit under the weather. She’s as pale as the snow outside.”

Bramwell turned from where he’d been washing glasses and looked at me. He scowled then asked, “What’s wrong with you, girl? You’re as white as death.”

I shrugged and shook off Elbert’s hand. “I’m fine, Bramwell.” I stood, but my legs shook, and my head spun. I fell back onto the stool. My stomach lurched, and I was sure I was going to vomit all over the floor.

“Go home, Muhulda,” Bramwell said. “I’ll take care of this lot.” He didn’t sound happy.

I nodded and stumbled to the back room to get my coat. Elbert was waiting for me by the door, and we stepped out into the cold. I leaned against the building and let the tears flow, while Elbert stood by and watched for the ba’soray inside to come out.

“Muhulda, what’s wrong?” he asked. I could hear the concern in his voice.

I shook my head, determined not to let this defeat me. “Come on,” I replied. “I know where we’re going.”

 

*****

 

An hour later we stood in front of a warehouse-sized building in Barhope, a professional district next to Woolhope. It wasn’t an area of town I frequented, as much to stay away from my sister and her condescension as anything else, but I knew where to find Rupert’s office. “In there,” I pointed.

“How do you know that?”

“This is my brother-in-law’s office. He implants biotics.” I turned to Elbert. “That’s one thing I noticed. All those who came after me had them.” I pointed again. “This is the only place in Sangeron to get them. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner.”

“All right,” Elbert said. “Head home, and I’ll get these taken care of.”

I shook my head. “If those things came from here, then I want to know why. You’re stuck with me.” The knot of fury was back. I couldn’t suspect Matilda, but Rupert was another story. He’d always been a self-serving son of a bitch from the low end of the social ladder, and I was pretty sure my parents had given him the money to open his office. Either that, or Matilda had. But Matilda wasn’t so much the giving type unless there was something in it for her.

“All right, but stay behind me, and don’t do anything stupid.” I wondered if he realized just how stupid that line sounded.

I growled at him but didn’t respond. Instead, I marched up to the door, a glass piece with my brother-in-law’s name in gold letters across it, and snatched it. Of course, it was locked this late at night, but I didn’t care. I banged on the door and yelled for Rupert to open the door. Elbert grabbed my shoulder and pulled me back.

“Nothing stupid,” he hissed. “You want to bring the Enforcers? They actually monitor this part of town.”

I swung to hit him, the anger than had been building within me exploding beyond my ability to control, but Elbert dodged and grabbed my arm. He put me on my knees in the snow, his hand over my mouth. I fought for a moment, then the rage drained and left me barely able to move. “I’m okay,” I said, but it wasn’t true.

Elbert didn’t respond. Instead, he pulled a set of picks from his pocket and went to work on the lock. A moment later, he had the door open. He motioned for me to be quiet and led the way inside.

The office was dark and smelled of chemicals. There was an underlying scent that crept into my nose and lodged in my throat. It was familiar, yet not.

A spot of deeper darkness past the desk indicated the doorway to the other part of the building. I moved in that direction with Elbert close behind me. He reached out and grabbed my shoulder to try to get in front of me, but I snatched away from him and continued. This was my sister’s place, after all, and I had more right to be here than he did.

The door led to a long hallway. I searched for a switch in hopes of finding incandescent lamps, and I wasn’t disappointed. Light flared along the corridor to show me a metal floor free of rust. The walls were wood and polished to a shine, something I saw little of in Sangeron, and only served to show me that my sister took an active hand in the place. I just couldn’t see Rupert as the type to care about polishing a wall. Doors lined the passage, all of them open maws that threatened hidden dangers.

“Muhulda, stop.” It came out as a hiss, barely heard, but I stopped and turned to face Elbert.

“What?”

Elbert moved close, too close, so that I alone could hear him. “You aren’t a Shadow Walker,” he said. “You have no idea how to fight these things.”

I shrugged. “So? Make me one?”

He arched his brow and looked at me like I was the dumbest person in the Xaggarene Empire. “I can’t. Only the gods choose Shadow Walkers.”

I humphed and turned away. “Fine. But you’ve never been here before.”

Elbert moved in front of me and looked back with a grin devoid of humor. “Then direct from the back.”

I crossed by arms and followed behind him, sullen and angry. We moved through the hallway and into another area of the warehouse, a place I’d never been before. Of course, if I was honest, I’d never been past the front office, but he didn’t need to know that.

The room in front of us had the same metal floor as the rest of the building, but the walls in here were metal as well. Tables sat in rows, each with a machine of some sort attached at the top. The machines were connected to a larger machine on the far side of the room, and all of them beeped softly. Each table was covered with a pad and sheet, and I assumed this was where Rupert put his patients after their surgeries.

The smell was stronger here, and I sniffed as I tried to identify it. Elbert heard and turned to me. “It’s demon,” he whispered. “Demon and death.”

I didn’t reply. There was no need.

We moved on through the room, and it was then I noticed a large window on the opposite side. I looked through it and gasped. Rupert stood on the other side with a tray of tools laid out beside him. A naked man laid on the table with some kind of cup over his mouth. A machine like the ones in this room beeped over his head, and three incandescent lamps hung over the table. Rupert’s face was covered, and the coat he wore was splattered with blood. He took a mechanical arm from the table next to him and began attaching it to the stump of the man’s right arm. His real arm lay on the floor, blood oozing from it. I gagged, and Elbert grabbed my shoulder.

I forced myself to watch as Rupert continued to operate. It was only when Matilda entered, dressed in a white coat with her hair pulled back in a tail that I did it voluntarily. She said something to Rupert, but I couldn’t hear through the glass. He pointed, and she moved to a cage hidden in the shadows on the far side of the room. When she returned, it was with a small, wriggling creature that looked like a worm with several heads.

I gasped, and Elbert put his hand on my arm to keep me quiet. He pulled me down so we were crouching below the window, out of sight.

“That’s a ba’soray,” he whispered, as if I hadn’t already figured that out.

“What do we do?”

“We don’t do anything. I go in there and deal with the threat.”

He started to rise, but I grabbed his arm. “That’s my sister in there.” I peeked up over the bottom of the window. “Granted, it’s my twittershit crazy sister, but she’s still my twin.”

“I know. I’ll be careful, but these things can’t be let loose in the world. There aren’t enough of us to stop them if they start breeding.”

Muhulda Urswyk – The Truth Behind the Bile

Muhulda Urswyk VintageI stepped out into the cold and shivered. Snow blew around me in whirlwinds that blocked my vision, and the fall was so thick it appeared to be night. I headed toward the main street at sort of a limping run, anxious to get home and light a fire. I suppose, in retrospect, that I should’ve paid more attention to where I was going, but the snow was so thick that it was hard to see, and I was turned around with no idea where I was. It wasn’t like I wasn’t familiar with Sangeron. I was. But in the white out, I couldn’t see, and familiar landmarks became strange creatures lurking in the gloom. Even the streetlamps were darkened by the snow, and shop windows only gave the faintest of light.

I stumbled and nearly fell, but someone grabbed my arm and kept me on my feet. I squinted into the darkness but couldn’t tell who it was that had hold of me. I snatched my arm away and took off running. I tripped over something in the street and landed hard. I felt the warmth of blood on my knee, but I wasn’t concerned about that. Someone had grabbed me, and I needed to get away.

“Muhulda!”

The voice barely cut through the wind. It was a deep voice, one I thought I knew, but I still didn’t care. My only thought was to get home, if I could figure out where home was.

“Muhulda!”

I slid in the snow and stopped. I turned, ready to fight. But there was no need. The person chasing me in the snowstorm was my brother-in-law, Rupert. He came toward me, his hand holding his top hat to his head. His scarf blew out behind him, and his coat tails twisted in the wind. A grimace plastered across his face, not softened in the least by the snowflakes in his black beard.

“What the hell are you running for?” He stopped and scowled at me. “I’ve been chasing you for four blocks. Where are you going?”

I looked around, frantic, and forced myself to breathe. “I was heading home. I got lost in the storm.” I pulled my coat more closely around me and shivered. I wished I’d taken time this morning for a scarf and hat, but it hadn’t seemed necessary. I knew better. Sangeron in the cold months was always unpredictable.

“You’re going in the opposite direction from that place you call home,” Rupert replied. He looked at my ragged coat and blowing hair and lifted his nose just a fraction higher. I knew he was comparing me to Matilda, everyone always did. “And you never showed up today.”

I stomped my feet to stay warm and stared at him. “What are you talking about?”

Rupert stomped his feet and brushed snow from his coat and beard. “Matilda said you were starting work at my office today. Did she not come by your…home…this morning?”

I brushed my hair back and shook some snow off my clothes. “Yes, she came by. Yes, she mentioned a job at your office. No, I didn’t want it. I want no part of biotics.” The snow was slowing, and I was able to see where I was. “Now, it’s cold, and I’ve had one hell of a day, so I’m going home. You have a good evening.”

“Why must you always be so difficult?” Rupert sniffed. “This is a good opportunity for you, and, regardless of your opinion, adding biotics to people is good money.”

I shrugged and gave him my best ‘I don’t give a damn’ smile. “Sorry. I have my own life to live. Have a good night.” I didn’t give him a chance to say more.

 

*****

 

My flat was warm and cozy. After a warm bath and a cup of tea, I was feeling a bit more secure. I still had to go to the Steam Whisper later that night, snow or no snow, but, for now, I could relax and sleep. At least, that’s what I thought.

Thoughts of the ba’soray demons and what Elbert had told me raced through my mind. I could see the thoughts, almost like they were twitterflies in the forest, converging on me and scattering when I tried to catch them. Doubts filled my heart and settled into my gut like some of Madam Cora’s cookie experiments, and Elbert’s words kept coming back to me. Someone wanted me dead, and the only person I knew was my sister. My twin sister. Sure, she thought I was a failure. Sure, she disapproved of my choices. But did she disapprove enough to kill me? All of a sudden, I wasn’t sure.

“Stop this,” I told myself.

But ‘myself’ didn’t want to listen. The light ceased to shine, and it was time to go to work before I had a chance to sleep.

 

*****

The Steam Whisper was quiet. One of our most loyal customers, a man who claimed to work in trade from E’ma Thalas, sat in the back corner nursing a Nutty Fluffy. He came every night, regardless of the weather, to sit alone and brood. His bowler hat sat on the table beside him, and his coat was thrown over the back of the chair. A clean, white shirt buttoned high on his neck, and his hair and beard where clean and neatly cut. While his appearance stated that he was just who he said he was, Bramwell and I often wondered if it was true. After all, the Steam Whisper wasn’t in Woolhope. It was down in Black Hallow, not the worst of neighborhoods, but not somewhere you’d expect to see a prosperous businessman.

“Was wonderin’ if’n you’d make it tonight.” Bramwell leaned against the bar, his pudgy chin quivering when he talked.

I shrugged and pulled my coat closer around me. The snow was now halfway to my knees, and the short skirt I wore did nothing to ward off the chill. Though the brazier was burning, the warmth didn’t reach too far from it, and I shivered. “Yeah. I made it.” I scowled at him. “Though why you think I need to wear this outfit is beyond me. Most of these guys can’t see straight after their first drink, so why bother?”

Bramwell chuckled and slapped the bar. “Well, I can see just fine.”

I rolled my eyes and turned my attention back to the room. “I can see we’re hopping tonight.”

Bramwell sighed and picked up his rag. He gave the bar a couple of half-hearted swipes then gave up the pretense. “The snow’s getting’ kinda thick, and most folks won’t wander out in it if’n there’s no need.” He glanced over at our lone patron then back to me. “I suppose you can head on home if you’d like. I doubt there’ll be enough coin to pay you tonight anyway.”

I sighed. “Bram, you know I have to work.”

He shrugged. “Suit yourself, but you’ll be workin’ for free unless more folks come in.”

I pulled my scarf up over my face and thought about it for a moment. It wasn’t a long walk home, and the coin I’d lose really wasn’t that much.

My musing was interrupted by a frigid blast from the door. I turned to see Elbert enter on the heels of three others, some just like the ones I’d dealt with the night before. So much for going home. With these three, there’d be plenty of work and coin.

The men ambled over to the table next to our patron and plopped down. The man gave them a look like he’d scraped them off the bottom of his boot then turned his attention back to his drink. The four ignored him and laughed at some joke one of them, probably Elbert, had told.

I sighed again and took off my coat. I handed it to Bramwell to put in the back room and approached the table. I raised an eyebrow at Elbert, asking if these were some I needed to be careful about, and he nodded. “What can I get for you?”

“How about ten minutes in the back room?” This one was tall and broad with deep green hair and a metal plate on one side of his head. His beard and mustache were ragged, and it looked like bits of his dinner were still lodged in them.

“Sorry, sweetcheeks. Ten minutes ain’t long enough.” I winked at the others at the table then asked again, “What kind of drinks can I get for you?”

“We’ll take Nutty Fluffies all around, and the guys will each have a hit of Bleeding Grim,” Elbert replied.

“All righty, then.” I turned and made my way back to the bar to give Bramwell the order and stood there while he prepared the drinks. I felt someone behind me and turned, all my senses on alert.

“These are more of the ba’soray,” Elbert whispered. “The nest must be huge. If you can get out of here, go.”

“I can’t,” I hissed. “The minute you people came in here, I was stuck.”

Elbert cursed under his breath. “Fine. I’ll get them stoned and out of here as quick as I can. Hopefully, I won’t have to kill them and can find the nest.”

“I could always leave and let them follow me,” I suggested.

Elbert shook his head. “That won’t find the nest. I have to get to whoever is sending them out to stop them.”

I shrugged. “All right. I’ll stay here until you guys leave.” I glanced back toward the table. “The three of them seem a little brighter than the others.”

“They’re recently infected. The ba’soray haven’t had time to damage their brains.”

“Could whoever is sending them out be getting people infected?” I asked. “I mean, can they be controlled that way?”

Elbert thought for a moment then blew out a frustrated breath. “Yeah. They can be. If that’s the case, then there isn’t an actual nest. Someone’s got a bunch of these things in a cage somewhere and is putting them into people.”

“Sounds like fun. How will you find them?”

“In a city this size, I might not.”

“Oh, goodie. That’s all I need.”

Elbert started to say more, but Bramwell placed the drinks and hits on the counter. I loaded my tray and headed to the table with Elbert behind me.

“Here you go, guys,” I said. It took all my effort to keep the smile on my face. My hands shook, and I felt the beginnings of pure fury begin in my guts. Who the hell was sending these things after me? What did they want? But I didn’t know, and the only person who could help me was a Shadow Walker I’d just met.

“Sure you won’t join us?” This one had dark brown hair and eyes that shown yellow. His left hand was mechanical and whirred as he picked up his drink. I watched it with disgusted fascination and shook my head. I could understand replacing a limb that was lost in an accident, but to voluntarily remove a part of the body and replace it with machine was something I couldn’t comprehend. It was…creepy…unnatural, and the idea that my twin sister did this to people was almost more than I could stomach.

I froze and looked over at Elbert. He’d taken one sip of his Nutty Fluffy and pushed away the glass. The other three at the table had already downed theirs, each of them adding the hit of Bleeding Grim to the drink. My eyes widened as realization hit me. Elbert jumped to his feet and grabbed my arm, I’m assuming because my face drained of color. It felt like it did.

Elbert steered me to the bar and plopped me on a stool. “What is it?” he whispered.

“I think I know who has the ba’soray.” Tears formed in my eyes, but I refused to let them fall.

Muhulda Urswyk – The Truth Behind the Bile

Muhulda Urswyk VintageWe walked down the street in silence. Snow continued to fall, little whirlwinds picking at hair and clothing, and, before long, the streets of Sangeron were covered in more than a dusting of white. Around us, the society ladies with their fancy ruffs and their parasols scurried by, oblivious of everything but getting home before their hairdos were affected by the snow.

We turned down a side street filled with small shops. The storefronts were a bit more weathered, and the metal on the upper floors was a bit more rusted than out on the main street. The garbage bins were emptied a little less often, and more bits of trash blew in the wind. It wasn’t a poor area, not one of the ones where citizens slept in the streets and robberies were common, but it wasn’t a place my sister would ever frequent, either.

Madam Cora’s was a small tea room that saw few visitors. It was the place I normally patroned, though it was further away from the park than the café I’d visited earlier. For a moment, I wished I had just come to Madam Cora’s. It would’ve made it harder for Elbert to find me, and I wouldn’t have had to listen to the sneers of the other women.

“A tea room?” he asked.

I nodded and smiled. “One of my favorite places. The Steam Whisper isn’t open yet.”

We entered the tea room, and the weight I’d been carrying lifted off my shoulders. A tiny bell tinkled when we closed the door, and Madam Cora came into the dining room with a tea towel in her hand. She was a slight woman, less than five feet tall, with wide shoulders and hips and a tuft of hair on her chin. Elbert’s eyes widened, and I chuckled at his surprise.

“A dwarf? In Sangeron?”

Madam Cora arched a bushy, brown eyebrow at him, and I nearly fell to the floor laughing. Part of me felt sorry for him because he was somewhat right. While the Xaggarene Empire wasn’t known for its tolerance, there were still plenty of elves and angels within its borders. Dwarves, on the other hand, were known for not leaving The Kingdom of Emerell. They were an insular group that had no love of outsiders.

“Ye’ve a problem with dwarfs?”

Elbert shook his head. “No, ma’am. I’ve spent a good bit of time in The Kingdom of Emerell, and I’ve always found the dwarven folk to be quite hospitable.”

Madam Cora nodded as if she approved then turned back to me. “How’re you doing, Muhulda, dear? What can I get for you?”

“Some tea and cakes would be great,” I replied. “Seeing as how someone took me away from my breakfast.” I shot Elbert a look he couldn’t misinterpret.

“All right,” Madam Cora replied. “You two have a seat, and I’ll be back in a minute.”

We made our way to a table and settled down under an incandescent lamp. Elbert leaned forward, and I suddenly realized he was much younger than I had thought he was, much closer to my own age. What I’d assumed were wrinkles were, in fact, small scars. His eyes were a deep purply-yellow, as odd a color as I’d ever seen. His clothes looked like he’d pulled them out of a garbage bin, a weird mixture of sleeveless shirt tied in the front and trousers that looked like they were missing their lower half. His weapons were no joke, though. Knives ringed his belt and stuck from the top of his boots, and a chain with a heavy, spiked ball on the end hung at his side.

“What do you want from me?” I asked. “You’ve been following me around since last night.”

Elbert shook his head. “I’ve been following the ba’soray around for several days now, and it’s getting a little old.”

“Are those the demons with all the tongues?”

Elbert nodded. “I was sent because a nest of them was discovered near the dock.”

“But I thought most of the demons were in Moirena.”

“Most of them are, but these are more like animals than demons. They’re parasites without a lot of intelligence, in case you haven’t noticed. You can train a spitmoller easier than you can these things, and even the other demons try to eliminate them.”

“Where did they come from?” I wanted to know.

Elbert shrugged. “No idea. That’s why I spent most of yesterday evening drinking with them.”

“I don’t get it,” I admitted. “If they’re so unintelligent, how can they wander around drinking Melon Peckers and hitting Bleeding Grim?”

Madam Cora came with our food at that moment, and Elbert waited until she had gone to say more. He dug into the cakes she had brought like he hadn’t eaten in days.

“They have to be controlled by someone,” he said around a mouthful of cake. “The humans are hosts. That’s how they move around.” He took another bite. “That’s why I was with them last night. I was trying to get a lead on where they were going and who was controlling them.”

“Then maybe killing them wasn’t the brightest idea you ever had.”

He took a sip of tea and shrugged. “Maybe not, but you don’t want one getting its hands on you.” He gave me a smile. “It was a choice. I think, the right one.”

My tea and cakes remained untouched on the table in front of me. I picked up the cup and took a sip, grimacing because the tea was cool. “Well, I thank you for that, but what does any of this have to do with me?”

He scarfed down the last of his cake and eyed mine. I pushed it across the table and leaned back, waiting for him to get to the point.

“I asked you earlier why those things were after you.”

“And I told you earlier that I don’t know. I’ve never heard of them.” I leaned up and propped my arms on the table. “I serve drinks to a bunch of lowlifes and try to keep my sister out of my life. That’s the best I’ve got.”

“Friends? Lovers? Anyone who could haver a tie with these things?”

I shook my head. “Not unless it’s Bramwell. He’s the only person I ever see besides my sister.”

“And what am I, dear?” Madam Cora asked. “Some ghighet you stop by and feed?”

Neither one of us had noticed her approaching the table.

“No, Madam Cora. I just meant that I don’t socialize a lot.”

She pursed her lips and shook her head. “Well. Would you like more tea?”

“Yes, please,” Elbert replied. He gave her a smile that melted the frown off her face and made my heart skip a beat.

Madam Cora shuffled back to the kitchen, and I turned back to Elbert. “Why would they want me? What do they usually hunt?”

“That’s the thing,” Elbert replied. “There’s no type that they prefer. They’ll go after whoever or whatever they’re sent after. So, who would want you eaten by a bunch of demons? Any enemies? Pissed off anyone lately?”

“Only my sister.”

“Would she do something like this?”

Fury bloomed in my chest like a blood stain on clothing. “How dare you.” I rose to my feet. “She may be a selfish, self-righteous, annoying bitch, but she wouldn’t hurt me. She’d be too worried about it damaging the family name.”

“Anyone else?” Elbert acted like accusing my sister of trying to kill me was nothing.

I plopped back into my seat and banged my hands on the table. “No.”

Elbert leaned forward and tried to place his hand over mine. I snatched it away. He sighed and leaned back just as Madam Cora placed a plate of cakes and a pot of tea on the table. Elbert helped himself and waited, as if I had more information and was hiding it.

“Tell me,” I said. “What’s the sword do? It came out of nowhere and disappeared.”

Elbert continued to eat, and I wondered when he’d eaten last. His bright red hair and tufty little beard were mussed from the fight, and I could see faded scars on his face and arms. He shrugged and took a sip of tea. “It’s the Varunastra of Varuna. It’s a magical weapon that can take any form. I’m partial to the sword, so that’s what it becomes most of the time.”

I leaned forward then, my interest piqued. “What else does it do?” If I could find out about the Shadow Walkers’ weapons, I could sell the story to the highest bidder, maybe even get a job at one of the newspapers, and get the hell out of the Steam Whisper.

Elbert set his tea down and looked at me with a strange expression on his face. “It does what it needs to do, and that’s all I can tell you.” He rose to his feet. “I’m going to see if I can track down the ba’soray. I suggest you stay inside as much as possible and give a lot of thought as to who wants you dead.” He laid some coin on the table and headed for the door.

I, too, rose and glanced at the coin on the table. It was more than enough to cover our cost, and I thought Madam Cora would appreciate the extra. I wanted to ask more, but he was gone before I could get the words out. Still, I had enough to get started on a good story, and I still had several hours before time for my shift at the Steam Whisper.

Muhulda Urswyk – The Truth Behind the Bile

Muhulda Urswyk VintageWe walked down the street in silence. Snow continued to fall, little whirlwinds picking at hair and clothing, and, before long, the streets of Sangeron were covered in a dusting of white. Around us, the society ladies with their fancy ruffs and their parasols scurried by, oblivious of everything but getting home before their hairdos were affected by the snow.

We turned down a side street filled with small shops. The storefronts were a bit more weathered, and the metal on the upper floors was a bit more rusted. The garbage bins were emptied a little less often, and more bits of trash blew in the wind. It wasn’t a poor area, not one of the ones where citizens slept in the streets and robberies were common, but it wasn’t a place my sister would ever frequent, either.

Madam Cora’s was a small tea room that saw few visitors. It was the place I normally patroned, though it was further away from the park than the café I’d visited earlier. For a moment, I wished I had just come to Madam Cora’s. It would’ve made it harder for Elbert to find me.

“A tea room?” he asked.

I nodded and smiled. “One of my favorite places. The Steam Whisper isn’t open yet.”

We entered the tea room, and the weight I’d been carrying lifted off my shoulders. A tiny bell tinkled when we closed the door, and Madam Cora came into the dining room with a tea towel in her hand. She was a slight woman, less than five feet tall, with wide shoulders and hips and a tuft of hair on her chin. Elbert’s eyes widened, and I chuckled at his surprise.

“A dwarf? In Sangeron?”

Madam Cora arched a bushy, brown eyebrow at him, and I nearly fell to the floor laughing. Part of me felt sorry for him because he was somewhat right. While the Xaggarene Empire wasn’t known for its tolerance, there were still plenty of elves and demons within its borders. Dwarves, on the other hand, were known for not leaving The Kingdom of Emerell. They were an insular group that had no love of outsiders.

“Ye’ve a problem with dwarfs?”

Elbert shook his head. “No, ma’am. I’ve spent a good bit of time in The Kingdom of Emerell, and I’ve always found the dwarven folk to be quite hospitable.”

Madam Cora nodded as if she approved then turned back to me. “How’re you doing, Muhulda, dear? What can I get for you?”

“Some tea and cakes would be great,” I replied. “Seeing as how someone took me away from my breakfast.” I shot Elbert a look he couldn’t misinterpret.

“All right,” Madam Cora replied. “You two have a seat, and I’ll be back in a minute.”

We made our way to a table and settled down under an incandescent lamp. Elbert leaned forward, and I suddenly realized he was much younger than I thought he was, much closer to my own age. What I’d assumed were wrinkles were, in fact, small scars. His eyes were a deep purply-yellow, as odd a color as I’d ever seen. His clothes looked like he’d pulled them out of a garbage bin, a weird mixture of sleeveless shirt tied in the front and trousers that looked like they were missing their lower half. His weapons were no joke, though. Knives ringed his belt and stuck from the top of his boots, and a chain with a heavy, spiked ball on the end hung at his side.

“What do you want from me?” I asked. “You’ve been following me around since last night.”

Elbert shook his head. “I’ve been following the ba’soray around for several days now, and it’s getting a little old.”

“Are those the demons with all the tongues?”

Elbert nodded. “I was sent because a nest of them was discovered near the dock.”

“But I thought most of the demons were in Moirena.”

“Most of them are, but these are more like animals than demons. They’re parasites without a lot of intelligence, in case you haven’t noticed. You can train a spitmoller easier than you can these things, and even the other demons try to eliminate them.”

“Where did they come from?” I wanted to know.

Elbert shrugged. “No idea. That’s why I spent most of yesterday evening drinking with them.”

“I don’t get it,” I admitted. “If they’re so unintelligent, how can they wander around drinking Melon Peckers and hitting Bleeding Grim?”

Madam Cora came with our food at that moment, and Elbert waited until she had gone to say more. He dug into the cakes she had brought like he hadn’t eaten in days.

“They have to be controlled by someone,” he said around a mouthful of cake. “The humans are hosts. That’s how they move around.” He took another bite. “That’s why I was with them last night. I was trying to get a lead on where they were going.”

“Then maybe killing them wasn’t the brightest idea you ever had.”

He took a sip of tea and shrugged. “Maybe not, but you don’t want one getting its hands on you.” He gave me a smile. “It was a choice. I think, the right one.”

My tea and cakes remained untouched on the table in front of me. I picked up the cup and took a sip, grimacing because the tea was cool. “Well, I thank you for that, but what does any of this have to do with me?”

He scarfed down the last of his cakes and eyed mine. I pushed them across the table and leaned back, waiting for him to get to the point.

“I asked you earlier why those things were after you.”

“And I told you earlier that I don’t know. I’ve never heard of them.” I leaned up and propped my arms on the table. “I serve drinks to a bunch of lowlifes and try to keep my sister out of my life. That’s the best I’ve got.”

“Friends? Lovers? Anyone who could have a tie with these things?”

I shook my head. “Not unless it’s Bramwell. He’s the only person I ever see besides my sister.”

“And what am I, dear?” Madam Cora asked. “Some ghighet you stop by and feed?”

Neither one of us had noticed her approaching the table.

“No, Madam Cora. I just meant that I don’t socialize a lot.”

She pursed her lips and shook her head. “Well. Would you like more tea?”

“Yes, please,” Elbert replied. He gave her a smile that melted the frown off her face and made my heart skip a beat.

Madam Cora shuffled back to the kitchen, and I turned back to Elbert. “Why would they want me? What do they usually hunt?”

“That’s the thing,” Elbert replied. “There’s no type that they prefer. They’ll go after whoever or whatever they’re sent after. So, who would want you eaten by a bunch of demons? Any enemies? Pissed off anyone lately?”

“Only my sister.”

“Would she do something like this?”

Fury bloomed in my chest like a blood stain on clothing. “How dare you.” I rose to my feet. “She may be a selfish, self-righteous, annoying bitch, but she wouldn’t hurt me. She’d be too worried about it damaging the family name.”

“Anyone else?” Elbert acted like accusing my sister of trying to kill me was nothing.

I plopped back into my seat and banged my hands on the table. “No.”

Elbert leaned forward and tried to place his hand over mine. I snatched it away. He sighed and leaned back just as Madam Cora placed a plate of cakes and a pot of tea on the table. Elbert helped himself and waited, as if I had more information and was hiding it.

“Tell me,” I said. “What’s the sword do? It came out of nowhere and disappeared.”

Elbert continued to eat, and I wondered when he’d eaten last. His bright red hair and tufty little beard were mussed from the fight, and I could see faded scars on his face and arms. He shrugged and took a sip of tea. “It’s the Varunastra of Varuna. It’s a magical weapon that can take any form. I’m partial to the sword, so that’s what it becomes most of the time.”

I leaned forward then, my interest piqued. “What else does it do?” If I could find out about the Shadow Walkers’ weapons, I could sell the story to the highest bidder, maybe even get a job at one of the newspapers, and get the hell out of the Steam Whisper.

Elbert sat his tea down and looked at me with a strange expression on his face. “It does what it needs to do, and that’s all I can tell you.” He rose to his feet. “I’m going to see if I can track down the ba’soray. I suggest you stay inside as much as possible and give a lot of thought as to who wants you dead.” He laid some coin on the table and headed for the door.

I, too, rose and glanced at the coin on the table. It was more than enough to cover our cost, and I thought Madam Cora would appreciate the extra. I wanted to ask more, but he was gone before I could get the words out. Still, I had enough to get started on a good story, and I still had several hours before time for my shift at the Steam Whisper.

Muhulda Urswyk – The Truth Behind the Bile

Muhulda Urswyk Vintage

The café was a small place off the main thoroughfare. The ladies, those who had no need to work at places like the Steam Whisper, sat at round tables, sipped tea, and ate delicate little cookies. Long dresses with lots of frills and elaborate hair styles hit my eyes no matter which way I turned. I loved the café, but the clientele wasn’t my favorite group of people. They were too much like my haughty sister and her ‘husband in need of a secretary’.

I settled into a chair amid sneers of disgust. I was conscious of being different, of wearing trousers and boots instead of a frilly gown, but I was willing to bet I was more educated than any of them.

“Oh, my gods. Do you see her clothes?”

“What’s someone like that doing in here? Aren’t there taverns for her kind?”

The whispers, if they could be called that, cut into my already low self-esteem. I considered leaving, but I wasn’t willing to give the bitches the satisfaction. I took out my parchment pad and pen and shut the rest of the patrons from my mind, but it was no use. I was more concerned about Elbert and the demon than I was about writing. Elbert and the demon. That was it. My pen flew across the page as I detailed all that I had seen.

The door opened, and cold air blasted through the café. The women complained until they saw who stood in the doorway, then their complaints crescendoed to a roar. The man in the doorway didn’t flinch. His eyes raked over the place; the sneer on his face reflected that of the women. With two steps, he was at my side. He grabbed my arm and tightened his grip when I tried to pull away. He dragged me from the café with no regard for my comfort. My parchment pad was left on the table.

“Let go of me.”

He didn’t answer.

I struggled, but he was much stronger than me.

“Muhulda, what is going on here?”

I rolled my eyes and tried again to pull my arm from Elbert’s grasp. He didn’t pause.

“Let go of my sister right now, or I’ll call the Enforcers.”

Elbert stopped and turned around. He blinked a couple of times then realized we were twins. “Stay out of it,” he growled.

Matilda’s boots banged against the cobbles in a staccato beat that echoed my heartbeat. “I will not.”

Elbert sighed and stopped, but he didn’t let me go. Matilda reached us in seconds and raised her arm to slap him.

“I wouldn’t recommend that action.” Elbert’s voice was quiet but cold, and I quit struggling in surprise.

Matilda, too, sensed the danger and backed away. “What do you want with her?”

“We have to talk.” Elbert didn’t say more.

Matilda turned to me, her eyes wide. “What have you gotten yourself into now? Just wait until I tell Mother.” She turned back to Elbert, her hands on her hips and her fur wrap blowing in the wind. “Well?”

“Well, what?” Elbert snarled.

“What has she done?” Matilda approached this the same way she approached everything—with the idea that she could just buy or bully her way out of it.

Elbert looked back and me with questions in his eyes. I just rolled mine. “Tell her or don’t. I don’t care.” He stared at me for another minute then let go of my arm. “Don’t go anywhere,” he said to me. “You’re in danger.” Then he turned back to my sister. “This doesn’t concern you. Period.”

Matilda huffed and tossed a stray end of her wrap back over her shoulder. “Well, I never…” She glanced over at me. “Do I need to call the Enforcers?”

I shook my head and willed her to shut up and go away. No one was more surprised than I was when she did.

“Well, I’ll come by and see you in a bit, Mully.” She stomped away.

I whirled on Elbert. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? I’m not your wife, your sister, or your bitch, and if you ever touch me again, I’ll kill you.”

He stood there with his arms crossed and snow falling on his head. Even in the cold, his arms were bare. “Those demons are after you for a reason. What is it?”

“I don’t know! What part of that don’t you understand?”

Elbert shivered once and looked around the crowded street. “Is there somewhere we can get something to eat around here. It’s freezing.”

I rolled my eyes again. “Come on. We can’t go back to the café, not after the way you barreled into the place, but I know another place.”

 

Muhulda Urswyk – The Truth Behind the Bile

Muhulda Urswyk Vintage

I dressed and grabbed my parchment pad and cloak. There was a small park just a few blocks from my flat, and I hoped that being outside, even in the cold, would spark my writer’s instincts. Even better if I could see something that would make a story. A good one.

A steam carriage creaked by just as I was leaving. Steam belched from a stack over the engine, and a solitary man sat hunched and shivering on the driver’s seat. The curtains to the carriage were closed, and I idly wondered which of the city’s many hoity-toits was riding around town. Then I let the though pass as the bells from the Arcana Maximus rang the end of morning services. People would be filling the streets, all wrapped in their winter coats and scarves. Some would head straight home for dinner, while others would take time to stroll the parks and enjoy the crisp scent of fresh-fallen snow.

Walking to the park released some of my anger, and, by the time I got there, several others were strolling by the partially frozen creek. I found an empty bench and settled in to watch my fellow citizens.

An older couple wandered by. She wore a long dress with a flaring skirt and plenty of lace on the trim. The navy blue contrasted with her pale skin and made her look old and doughy. He, on the other hand, was a dapper older man in a dark suit and top hat. Watching him walk, I was pretty sure the cane he carried was more for effect than necessity. I smiled. The older citizens of Sangeron, the ones who held onto the ideas of class and culture, never ceased to amuse me. It was the same mindset my parents and sister had, and I often wondered if they realized just how pointless it really was.

From the other direction came a guy, younger than me by a few years. Hair the same deep blue as my own stuck up in all directions. A scar ran down his cheek, still pink and shining, and he wore a long-barreled pistol at his side. Bright eyes the brilliant yellow, so common in the demon races, shone with an eerie light, and I wondered just what he was doing there.

“It’d be a good source for an article.” I muttered the words under my breath and bent to my parchment to make notes.

A shadow fell over me, and I looked up to see the demon. He scowled, an expression that marred the fine lines of his face. From up close, he resembled those I’d see the night before, just younger. It wasn’t so much his facial features as it was the way he carried himself, the slightly ‘off’ look in his eyes.

“What do you want?”

He scowled again. “What’s say you let me show you the town?”

I rolled my eyes and stood, forcing him to back up. “What’s up with all the invites lately? You guys understand that I live here, right? I’ve seen the town.”

He growled, a low, deep-throated sound that vibrated in my blood. Fear inched its way up my spine and oozed into my nerves. I pulled my cloak around me as if I was cold and used the cover to pull the knife from my belt. Inwardly, I sighed. This sure felt like a repeat of the night before.

“Don’t be like that,” he said. “Just let me show you the town.” The more he spoke, the more I could tell that Lethatu wasn’t his first language. He spoke like he was trying to remember the words, like his tongue didn’t want to make the sounds.

I shifted so I could move away from the guy and sighed again. Now, I’m tall, but he towered over me, well over six feet, and I was tired of craning my neck to look up at him. “Look. I had two guys use the same line on me last night. I wasn’t interested then, and I’m not interested now. So, you guys just leave me alone and let me get on with my life.”

I walked away with a quickness. The guy’s boots crunching in the snow followed me. I cursed and turned, ready to fight for my life, but someone else stepped between him and me. I cursed again when I realized it was Elbert. Why the hell was the Shadow Walker following me? How’d he known I would be here?

“You really don’t wanna do that.” His voice had a slow drawl to it, one I’d never heard before, and I wondered if he came from Corleon or Moirena, somewhere not here.

The demon thing mumbled a little, his words mangled by the tongues in his mouth, and Elbert laughed.

“Tough shit. Walk away, and you live. Stick around, and you die. It’s that simple.”

The demon muttered something else and lunged for Elbert. I’m ashamed to say that a girly scream escaped my lips, but I quickly swallowed it. I backed away and let Elbert deal with the creature. I had other things to do, after all, and I had no desire to get mixed up with the Shadow Walkers, no matter how tight their bums were or how gracefully they moved. I could just imagine Matilda’s high-pitched, high-falutin voice telling me how much Shadow Walkers were beneath us with their crass ways and base social functions. I mean, really, they fought monsters, of all things. How gauche.

Elbert looked to be holding his own, so I headed out of the park. I’d really wanted to spend some time writing, but the demon thing with a mouth full of tentacles prevented that. So, I headed toward a nearby café instead. Maybe there I could focus on what I wanted to do without interruption.

 

Muhulda Urswyk – The Truth Behind the Bile

Muhulda Urswyk Vintage

I turned and made my way back down the alley and onto the next street. I hadn’t realized just how tense I had been until I felt my shoulders relax in the warm glow of the gas lamps. I was only a few blocks from home, and the proximity gave me a sense of safety, real or not.

I was just turning my key in the lock of my flat when I heard boots thudding on the cobbles. I turned, ready to attack if need be, then sighed when I realized it was the Shadow Walker. “Look,” I said when he got close enough to hear me. “I’m tired, and I’m cold, and it’s been one bitch of an evening. Can whatever you have to say wait until the light shines?”

He nodded and gave me a small smile. “Yeah, but I need to know where to find you. There’s something not right about those guys, and I need to figure out what it is.”

“You mean, besides tentacles shooting from their mouths?” I sighed again and nodded. “Fine. Where will you be mid-morning? I’ll come to you.”

“I’ll be at the Shadow Walker guild hall,” he replied. “My name’s Elbert. Elbert Simmons.”

“All right, Elbert Simmons. I’ll come in the morning. Now, good night.” And, with that, I left him standing on the doorstep as the snow began to fall in earnest.

 

*****

 

I awoke the next morning to a light covering of snow over the city. I had to admit that Sangeron covered in snow was a beautiful sight, even this part of town, which wasn’t the poshest. Still, though, it was enough to make me regret telling Elbert Simmons that I would meet with him, so I decided that whatever it was he wanted could wait and curled up with a parchment pad and a cup of hot cocoa instead.

I was halfway through writing an article I wanted to submit to the city’s paper when a knock at my door interrupted my thoughts.

“Dammit.”

I placed the pad on the small table beside my chair and shuffled to the door. Needless to say, I wasn’t happy about the intrusion and had a good feeling I knew who was going to be standing on the other side of the door. I had no desire to see the Shadow Walker, no desire to get involved in whatever it was that was going on.

I opened the door and cursed again. I was wrong. It wasn’t Elbert standing on my doorstep. It was worse. Far worse.

“It’s freezing out here. Let me in.”

I sighed and stepped back from the door. The woman brushed by me without so much as a glance, her fur scarf slapping me in the face as she passed.

“Shut the door. I don’t want anyone to see me here.”

I sighed again and closed the door. By this time the woman was in my parlor in my chair and reading the article I’d been working on. I marveled at how quickly she could intrude.

“Are you seriously still working on this drivel? Come on, Mully, you’re never going to make is as a writer. Just come work with me and Rupert and do something more appropriate for our station.” She looked around the room at the worn furniture and the faded wallpaper. “I mean, really…” She waved her hand at the parlor. “This is so beneath you.”

I reached around her and grabbed my cup, one of the few delicate pieces I owned. “I know, Matilda. You tell me this at least once a week.”

My sister, twin, to make things even worse, rolled her eyes at me and plopped herself into my favorite chair. She slung her scarf over her shoulder in that annoyingly pompous way she had and crossed her legs. She dangled a delicate heel and examined long, polished fingernails. I glanced at my own gnawed ones for a moment, then crossed my arms and stood tapping my foot.

“What do you want, Matilda? Why are you here?”

Matilda looked up at me with the same magenta eyes I saw in the mirror every morning. “All right. Look. Rupert has an opening for a secretary. It’s not a glamourous job, but it’s better than the one you’re working now. I mean, come on, having my twin sister work at the Steam Whisper is embarrassing.” She sniffed and patted her hair. “The job won’t be hard. All you’ll do is check in the patients and take their money. Rupert and I take care of the biotics.”

Anger seethed in my gut, and I nearly choked myself trying to swallow it. Why in the hell Matilda had followed me all the way to Sangeron, I’d never know. All I’d wanted was a little peace from the expectations of my hoity-toity family and a chance to pursue my own dreams.
“What’s it to you?”

Matilda rose, every movement designed to keep my attention on her. “It’s simple. We look alike.” She took a step toward me, and it was all I could do not to punch her in the face. “Same hair, same eyes. I get tired of being mistaken for a serving wench in a tavern.”

I took a step back and clenched my fists. “Then dye your hair or something.”

Matilda laughed, a sound that had never failed to get on my nerves. “Why don’t you dye yours?”

“Because I’m not the one with the issue. You are.” I stomped toward the front door without looking to see if Matilda followed me. “Now, I’ve got things to do. You and Rupert can live your own lives and leave me alone to do the same.” I opened the door and shivered in a blast of cold air. “Go.”

Matilda rolled her eyes again and looked at me like I was a ghighet in her trash, then she sauntered out into the snow without looking back. I slammed the door behind her and let off a string of curses that I was sure left a visible cloud in my flat, then I returned to my parlor and tried to get back to my article.

No luck. A low boil of anger and hatred burned within me. My sister had been the bain of my existence since the day we were born. Always wanting to please, always wanting to raise her station, she’d pushed and prodded me to the point that my job at the Steam Whisper was far preferable to anything Matilda had to offer.

 

Broken Treasure – Excerpt

cover-two-short-storiesBroken Treasure

 

Augustus Hopperton slipped through the streets of Whitehall and away from his home on the outskirts of the village. No one saw him; no one ever did. He was a small man, short, thin, with a balding pate and not much to lend itself to acknowledgement. He had no real skills, other than his ability to pass unnoticed, and no acquaintances to reprimand him for his behavior. He was a scavenger, plain and simple, and he had no desire to be anything more.

The village was quiet this late in the evening. Most folks were home with their lights out and their kids tucked into bed. Businesses had closed at the dinner hour, and the nightly rainstorm was in progress. Drops fell in sheets, and runoff from the nearby mountains threatened to turn the streets into rivers. But Augustus didn’t care. Tomorrow was burning day, and he had to reach the Heap before the light shone.

Augustus skulked by the last house and made his way through the swamp grass to the place where the Heap rested. Putrescent pools surrounded it, and rot saturated the ground. But that didn’t bother Augustus. All he cared about were the treasures he’d find in the Heap, things he could take home and save from destruction.

The Heap rose before him, almost head high. It spanned the several feet of dry land in the middle of the swamp and was nothing more than a tangled mass of garbage. Food scraps lay side-by-side with broken furniture and garden instruments, and a few moldy books were tossed in for good measure. It had always amazed Augustus that the people of Whitehall could throw away such treasures, things that could be mended and used, and the food, while not fresh, was rarely rotten. There was good stuff here, if one cared to look. Augustus himself hadn’t had a meal from anywhere else in years, and he was as fit as he’d ever been.

Wasteful. That was the word. The people of Whitehall were wasteful. It was bad enough that they threw away valuable items and food, but them burning the pile once per month made it even worse. There was no point in it, and Augustus saved as much as he could carry.

Lightning cracked the sky, and Augustus took a moment to peer upwards. Dark clouds rolled across the heavens, and thunder shook the ground. The swamp itself seemed angry, and Augustus shivered. The storm was worse than usual tonight, and he wanted to finish his business and get home to his fire.

Augustus raised his lantern to better see the mound of trash before him. He spotted a chair leg and pulled it from its resting place. He could use this, he was sure, and there was no point in wasting good wood. He also found a lamp, cracked down the side so it would never hold oil again, but he was positive he had an adhesive at home that could mend it. His heart lifted when he found the freshly tossed remains of a roast, and he shoved it in his pocket to have for dinner. If he could just find some fruit, he’d eat well.

The rain’s intensity increased, its fury beating the swamp grass into submission. The mountains groaned as lightning touched their tops, and thunder shook the ground so much that Augustus stumbled. It wasn’t safe here, not tonight. He’d have to just grab what he could and get back to his dwelling, no time for dilly-dallying. Even his treasures weren’t worth his life. Not in this storm.

Lissa Dobbs

http://www.lissadobbs.com

The Slave’s Caress – Excerpt

rise-of-the-mad-gods-cover-2When the Catastrophe destroyed the universe, all were impacted, including the gods. In the battles that followed, many were killed or driven mad. The mad gods are those who resisted the new world and seek to destroy it and the humans who caused it. Below is an excerpt from “The Slave’s Caress”, a short story I’m currently working on. I’m hoping to release it in the next week or so.

 

Violetta Redsmith breathed a sigh of relief as the airship docked in the port city of Grimview. She’d been running for months, dodging the demon trackers that had been on her tail since Pistofficle, and considered herself lucky to have found berth on the airship from Flameport in the Kingdom of Emerell to Grimview in Riverland Pearlrest. She didn’t particularly want to spend the rest of her life in the cold near the Shizzuria Wasteland, but it beat being a slave.

Violetta looked around the port and noted the long wooden piers and the bustle of those embarking from the ship. The town before her was small, especially for a port, with one story buildings and copious amounts of smoke coming from chimneys. There was no market square as there was in Pistofficle. Instead, all shops had signs hanging from them, and people entered them instead of shopping out in front.

“What do I do now?”

Violetta had no idea. She’d left Pistofficle with no thoughts other than escape, and planning her future had played no part in her thought processes. Now she had to figure out what to do with the rest of her life, and she had little coin to use to sustain herself.

You will find what you need.

His voice had been a constant source of reassurance and guidance throughout her journey, and she was grateful for his companionship.

A chuckle. You still think me no more than a figment of your imagination.

That was true. The voice in her head and the image that manifested to her all seemed no more than a dream born of desperation, a safety valve for her sanity.

Be on the lookout for Rise of the Mad Gods 1, which will contain “The Slave’s Caress” and “For Love of Her”.

Best wishes!

Lissa Dobbs

http://www.lissadobbs.com

A Visit from Sir Klaus

A Gift from Sir Klaus

‘Twas Yuletide at last, and a crystalline night.

The morn would soon bring the rebirth of the light.

Alone on his mountain a-dressed all in green

Sir Klaus stood surveying the wintery scene.

The toys in his pack he loaded onto his sled,

While he waited on young ones to snuggle in bed.

Then down through the snow with his white wolves to guide him

He came with the presents to leave there beside them.

Into each home he crept on silent-clad feet

Leaving gifts by the hearth and taking cookies to eat.

Then away he would slip with a flick of the reins

While children awoke to toys, dolls, and games.

But ‘ware ye the child who would hinder the old,

For Sir Klaus will leave thee nothing but coal.

sir-klaus
“A Visit from Sir Klaus”

 

Read the story “A Gift from Sir Klaus” at http://www.lissadobbs.com.