Friday, March 25, 2016

Love of a Seer

Love of a Seer is a Shadow Sprawl Setting story, by Terri Pray

Artwork by Samuel Pray, using Daz3d, Photoshop, Filter Forge and Amberlight.

Music filtered past the thick sun baked stone walls, a jangle of notes that shattered her thoughts, drawing her back from the death cold hold of the visions. Darkness. A choice. Something she was a part of but had no control over. It was coming for her, coming for all of them. She shuddered, trying to tear herself free. The heavy ropes of dream fog tangled around her, trying to hold her a little longer, voices that she couldn't quite hear called out, desperate for her attention but the noise from outside continued, growing with each passing moment. She blinked, trying to bring her sight, her normal sight, back into focus. Sand, grit, whatever it was, left her eyes scratchy and no matter how much she blinked, it didn't ease. She rolled out her shoulders and rolled up from her knees and back to her feet, the vision had been lost and there were other things she needed to take care of before the sun set for the day. Pain burned behind both knee caps and she shifted her weight, trying to work out the stiffness. Odd, it had crept up on her, growing a little more with each new moon.

It wasn't just in her knees now, but her shoulders, back and hips. She couldn't deny the need to soak in a hot bath, or seek out the skilled touch of one who knew the body and how it could be stroked and worked to ease movement. With the right oils and under the correct hands, she would regain some of her movement once more. All she had to do was take a little time for herself and was that such a bad thing to do at the end of the day?

Work. No matter how much she took care of there would always be more work waiting for her at the end of the day. The duties of a seer went far beyond looking into the smoke or mists to find an answer on behalf of a seeker. Disputes, advise, the problems of the pack mingling with those who would never be pack and so much more. Seers, magic users, even some who had affinities with other animals had found their way to Rome but so had some humans.

"Lady Althea?" A soft voice, little more than a whisper, called to her from the entrance. "I am sorry to disturb, but I've been sent with a message."

Althea, lady of Rome and First Seer to the Pack, turned to face the intruder. She knew the voice, of course, knew it as well as she knew her own, but the intrusion wasn't welcome in this moment. "Yes child?"

"He has requested that you attend him as soon as you are free to do so."

She nodded, once, taking a moment to form her reply. "I will be there shortly. There are some small things I need to see to first." Romulus - he snapped his fingers and expected her to respond. No, that wasn't fair. He was a reasonable man and even the message made it clear that he understood that there were things she had to do first. She'd known of men who expected women to jump at their command but Romulus wasn't like that, he accepted that she was a Seer, and gave her the respect due her rank. "It will be a candle mark, two at the most. Please let him know."

"Yes lady." The child, a girl who had yet to hit puberty, ducked her head before darting away to find Romulus. Even this young Althea could see the promise of grace and beauty in the young messenger. When she came of age there would be offers a plenty for the child. Something she would have to keep in mind as the girl was under the shared protection of both herself and her mate.

Her mate, her loving, caring, over protective mate - and the law behind the walls of the settlement that they had come to call Rome. Though still small it had the potential to grow and with each new birth, each new shifter or potential mate who entered the city walls, it continued to expand. At this point she counted - a rare skill at best - over three hundred men who now answered to her mate and another two hundred women. Once you counted in the children that brought their number to over seven hundred shifters, potentials and the none shifters who had sworn their loyalty to Romulus. Far more than they had ever thought possible - more than she'd known about when she'd first pledged to become his mate. Not that it would have changed things, she'd been destined to be his, a fate she had seen in the dream smoke before he'd faced off against Remus so many years ago.

Twenty, no - twenty-two years had passed since she had pledged herself to her mate. Ten children, nine of which had survived - their youngest daughter would see her tenth year at the Summer Solstice - and he still turned to her on occasions, albeit rare ones, for the comfort that only a woman could offer a man. That only I can offer him. Oh, he had others he tumbled, that was his nature. What bound them together wasn't the bond of true mates, that she had seen occur but rarely amongst his kind, but a bond of lust, love and power.

With one last look into the chamber she used as a place of work and focus, Althea lifted her shawl over her head and headed out into the street.

Eyes watched her from the shadows of doorways and spaces between the houses. She knew that, she didn't even have to turn to check. They were always there, watching, protecting, ready to step in if something happened. Not that there had been trouble behind the walls in the last eight years or so. Before then, yes there had been raids. People and shifters both who had sought to bring down the city before it had even begun. Now, though it was still small, they were growing and the walls were protected. Soon - perhaps not in her lifetime - they would grow beyond the first set of walls and then there would be a second, and third, or more. The few hundred people that lived here would be forgotten amid the numbers who would take their place. Men, women and children who might not even remember the ones who had built this place. Slaves, there would be many slaves, and seers who protect the people but there would be grief as well.

Death. Betrayal. Hatred. Anger. Then the lighter side. Joy. Marriage. Children. Love.

So many lives and dreams.

She shook off the mini vision that appeared and vanished within moments. This wasn't the time or place for such things, not when she was needed by her mate.

Small stones and sand shifted beneath her sandals. Stones had been placed to form pathways with sand and pebbles between the larger stones. Not all of the streets had been paved as yet, but they were slowly growing much like the city itself.

A child's cry drew her attention. Not pain, but happiness. A squeal of joy mingled with the laughter of another. Life continued all around her, spreading out from the narrow streets to the walls and the fields beyond. Olive groves, vines, grain, apples and pears, all growing beyond the walls under the protection of the guards. Mostly human but with a few shifters thrown into the mix so they could lend their extra abilities to the guarding of their food sources. Some worked with the herds, both sheep and cattle. Pigs were kept well away from the city, unlike the cattle and sheep which were brought into pens each night in order to be kept safe. The pigs were kept in the same areas as the tanneries, some distance from the main walls but still within the safety net of the city.

Footsteps, hooves, laughter and shouts, the sound of grain being ground mingled with the play of children. This was home, her home, even if she could never, would never be one of the people. Her gifts frightened people, and even when they came to her for answers, they made warding signs against evil when they thought she wasn't watching. They needed her, needed her abilities but they tolerated her presence within the walls and then only because Romulus had claimed her as his mate, his wife and the mother of his children. Some of his children.

Bound by duty.

And love. At least on her side, lust and need on his - she never hoped for a love returned not when it was a Seer's lot to serve. Marriage was... rare for her kind. She knew that, accepted that and had planned for nothing more until she'd found herself bound to serve the pack. It was my choice, I could have walked away from him. The idea of leaving him, even back then, had sickened her. Romulus - her life revolved around her mate and their children, with the city coming a close third.

"Lady, he waits for you," a shifter, a man with dark hair and a slight olive cast to his skin, placed a hand over his heart and gave a slight bow as she approached the entrance to the small courtyard. A flicker of uncertainty and distrust moved across the man's amber eyes. He straightened up, the leather of his belt creaked as he shifted his weight, his sandals scuffing the small stones beneath his feet.

"Thank you." Her heart raced and she inhaled deeply, bringing her emotions under control. Even after all of these years he still had the same effect on her. Her body tightened at the thought of seeing him again, their work kept them apart so often that they were in some respects new to each other whenever they were in the same space. Even the way the guard had looked at her did little to distract her from the pleasure of seeing Romulus again. "You serve him well."

"He was in the main room when I last checked. I'll let one of the girls know that you've arrived." The guard inclined his head before turning to vanish within the house. With a soft nod Althea lifted her head, squared her shoulders and walked into the home of Romulus, lord of Rome and Alpha of the pack.

His home, not mine.

They had an odd relationship, of that there was no doubt. Mated pairs lived together, but her gifts required space lest he trigger or be drawn into a vision. They ate together, most days - at least when he was in the city and they raised their children together as much as possible, with the assistance of other pack members. Yet her gift meant that after the first month any child had to be handed off to a wet nurse - one of the downsides of her gift. One of many.

"Lost in thought again, my mate?" The deep, warm familiar voice of Romulus tugged her back to the present. "Or are you on the edge of a vision?" Concern touched his words.

"Just thoughts, my love." The visions frightened him, though he would be the last to admit it. "All is well."

He smiled, though it didn't reach his eyes. "Come here, my mate." He opened his arms, tight muscles rippling beneath a sun touched skin and off white linen tunic. Like the guard he wore a simple leather belt and sandals, a dagger hanging from a sheath at his left hip. "It has been too long since I last held you."

"Ah, but you have not lacked for comfort," her tone light as she walked into his embrace.

"They are passing moments and know it, and they come to me because of what I am, not who I am." His arms tightened around her, his chin resting on the top of her head. "You are my mate and they are moments in time."

Perhaps, if she had been another, the words would still have hurt - but this was who he was and she'd always known this about him. His kind were few enough number and if he found a potential who wanted him he'd share a moment with them. It was the same with any male shifter who had failed to find their true mate. "Will any of them bring new lives into the pack?"

"Perhaps one, maybe two."

Do I want to know how many he enjoyed this time? The honest answer was no. She'd have to know of the ones who had children, but the rest - no, she wouldn't torture herself. She'd known, long before she agreed to be his mate, that this would always be a part of his life. Love and lust weren't enough to bind a shifter, true mates - that was the only bond where neither mate could or would turn to another. Perhaps now that she gave herself a moment to think about it, with the shifters being such a small group, this was the reason why true mates were so rare? Perhaps that is something the gods will one day share with me, until then I will live with the life I have chosen and with the mate I love more than he will ever understand.

"Are you regretting your choice, little Seer?" He brushed one hand over her hair, pushing back the shawl she'd used to cover her head until he could trace a path down the length of her braid. "Picking a life with the pack Alpha, knowing that the drive to find potential breeders would always be there? I wish that I could give you the bond of a true mate, that the need to sire new life only happened with you, but that's not the way I was meant to be. If I have a true mate out there, I've never caught a hint of her and in truth, I would be empty without you, and the children we've had together, in my life."

Her stomach lurched even as he tightened his grip on her. "Regardless of what you feel, I know - I've always known - that I love you." Her throat threatened to close, the words difficult to utter and yet she found a way.

"I know, and it is my deepest regret that I can't say the same words back to you without lying." He worked his hand back up her braid before taking hold of it at the nape of her neck, his grip tight, almost painful. "You've brought so much joy into my life. You and the children. Each one of them a shifter, able to take full wolf form, showing the strength of their blood."

"It is the combination of both of us, my mate." She let her eyes close, refusing to give into the shiver of fear that threatened under his grip. He wouldn't harm me. I've done nothing to warrant such and if I had betrayed the pack then he would take me in front of all of them before casting judgment. There was no reason to be afraid. Not when she was within his arms.

He released his grip on her hair. "My second says I should be free of you, but to do so would kill a part of me."

"Be free of me?" She took a step back, freeing herself from his grasp. "Why? I don't understand why he would say such a thing?" The vision. The memory of the vision returned to her. All of the darkness, the cold power, it clung to her, seeping into her bones until she shivered and wrapped her arms about herself.

"You're aging, like so many others around us, those who are not of the blood, who have a touch of the magic like you but can't claim a full connection."

Anger bristled beneath her skin. "I am a seer."

"Yes, a seer. One who can open themselves to the magic but can never control it. Every time a vision hits you, it owns you. You have no way of stopping it, no way of protecting yourself from it, instead it runs through you and leaves you shaking from the aftermath." His voice was calm, detached. "Look at me, my mate. Truly look at me. See me the way others see me."

This isn't happening. Althea swallowed hard and stepped further away from him, letting the shawl fall to the floor. She closed her eyes, stripping away the lingering shadows of visions that she lived with and only then did she open them once more and look at him. At Romulus, her handsome, athletic mate, with well defined muscles and black hair. Hair untouched by age, lacking even the barest hint of gray. Her hands went to her braid and she tugged it forward. Gray strands, more than strands. White, silver and gray mixed with what had once been black. She swallowed hard and looked back at her mate, her gaze moving to his hands. Smooth, strong, filled with youth but her own - those she lifted and looked at the backs of her hands. Veins stood out through wrinkled skin, swollen knuckles reminding her of the pain she lived with on a daily basis. For the first time in years she took in the differences between them.

"What happened to me? To you?"

"I am a shifter, born of a wolf and touched by the gods, my mate. What was gifted to me, was never going to be shared with you in the same way. That - it only happens between true mates."

"I am old."

"No, my mate. You are human." He closed the gap between them once more, pulling her close. "I will live for many more years and for the time you have left I will claim no other mate. I will not set you aside, no matter what is said. I owe you that much. I only wise I could have given you more. That I could have found a way to trigger the bond that would have given you many more years."

She wanted to cry, to scream at the sky that this was unfair, that she had given her life for the pack and her mate and she deserved something more than age claiming her, but what would have been the point. "There is nothing we could have done to change things, my love." She swallowed hard, her knees trembling as she leaned against his chest. "If I had any sense I would leave you, but I find myself wanting to be selfish."

"And I would not let you go," he grabbed her braid, tugging it sharply until she lifted her gaze. "For you are my mate, the mother of my line. You're bound to me and I to you, for the rest of your life and I will not set you aside as a child might with an older toy, for you are so much more to me than that." He cupped her chin with his other hand as he used the one in her hair to hold her in place. "You are mine." He growled out the words before he claimed her lips.

Heat rippled through her body as she curled her arms around his neck. Her back arched, body arched to press against his. Years stripped away as his tongue parted her lips, seeking, tasting, claiming her mouth, dueling with her tongue until she whimpered, submitting beneath his sensual assault. Her skin tightened, hips pressing against him as she fought against the shudder that threatened beneath her skin. His, she was his and she had long since accepted that. His kiss. She didn't want it to end but like all things it had to.

Romulus sighed and broke the kiss, easing his hand away from her hair until he was able to scoot his arm under her knees, lifting her up into his arms.

"Romulus?" She whispered. Her heart raced, her body aching with a hunger she hadn't known in years. Reality and desire fought, struggling for dominance as he carried her through his house, away from the public rooms and beyond into the private quarters he had long since called his own. Candles flickered in alcoves, fresh linen and furs decorated the bed platform, dried flower petals heaped in open bowls, adding their scent to the room. She looked up at him, knowing that confusion claimed her features. "I don't understand."

He settled her down onto the furs, cupping her cheek softly, his voice pitched low before he gave life to words she had prayed for and long since given up on. "What years you have left I will share with you, from this moment until your last breath I give you my time, my dedication, and my loyalty. No matter the temptation be it here or when I have to leave to tend to the business of the city, for this time I am yours and yours alone. This I so swear from this time until the day we say goodbye."

Tears stung her eyes and she blinked, unable to give him any words. Instead she did the only thing she could, she opened her arms to her mate, welcoming him and the time they had left together, understanding at last the vision that had claimed her before she'd been summoned to his home. The love of a seer was a finite thing and with it came the knowledge, the painful understanding, of how much - or in this case, how little - time she had left with him. And it is the one vision I cannot, dare not share with him...

Friday, March 18, 2016


Recruit is a story set in the Tyme universe

Artwork by Samuel Pray, created using Daz3d, Photoshop and Filter Forge

“You’re cheating!” Yvonne snarled, her jaw tight as she rolled back to her feet. Sand crunched, shifted and settled as she moved back onto the balls of her feet, her hands gripped around the slender metal banded wooden staff. A gentle breeze carried the heat across the sands, the distant sounds of voices mingling with stray grains of red sand, the clash steel, wood, and bodies from others practicing their craft. She knew this place as well as she knew her home and considering that her home was no longer a place of welcome, that wasn’t that surprising. “Fight fair!”

“You know I’m not cheating.” The response a calm one as her opponent watched, waiting until Yvonne was ready once more. A pair of ice blue eyes narrowed, small furrows appearing across his brow. “Focus on the fight, on the moves and stop wasting your time and breath on insults.”

His words, she knew they made sense, but her anger, the need to beat him, slashed through common sense. She let out a sharp breath. Sweat beaded across her skin, her muscles tight beneath the slight padding of the practice gear. Not that the padding saved her from carrying bruises by the end of the day. Bruises, cuts, swellings, she didn’t care about those, only getting through the training, making it into the final number, really mattered to her. “I’m just tired.” An excuse and she knew it. A warrior had to learn to push past fear, past emotions, past anything that might stop them from completing their task. She’d had that one drummed into her for as long as she could remember.

“You’re letting your anger get the better of you again. Never wise in a fight, little sister. You know that well enough by now. Let go of your emotions and remember the moves, let your body answer and not your mouth.” His voice never changed, remaining calm - as if they were sitting at the breakfast table and not dancing as warriors. “Give yourself to the training, your muscles know what to do.” He moved again, striking once, twice, three times in quick succession, sending Yvonne tumbling back over the sand, her head ringing from a blow that had caught her across temple. A glancing blow, thankfully, or she’d wouldn’t have had a chance to recover. “Fight back, little sister.”

Yvonne twirled the staff slowly, her gaze never leaving Yacuab. Anger flared back into life, giving life to words she new better than to utter. “You cheated and you’re cheating now. It’s the only way you could have pulled that move on me.” Yvonne spat the words at her brother, knowing them to be a lie. Back down, don’t give into anger, into pride, or into fear. It’s not going to help. She shifted her grip on the staff, took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Fight. She had to focus on the fight. All of her training, all those years fighting with her brothers and then the formal training with instructors had taught her that, yet he could still push those buttons within her. “Damn it! Sorry. I’m sorry, okay. I know you’re too honorable to cheat.” The code of the warrior. If the testers had been present, she’ have failed for calling her brother a cheater when he’d done nothing wrong. “Sorry. I’m sorry. Shouldn’t have said that.”

“No, you shouldn’t have done so, but I expected it.”

How did he expect it? Yvonne bit down on her bottom lip. Her brother had seen battle off world. He wasn’t just a trainer, but a warrior with first hand experience. He knows that there’s no such thing as cheating in a real fight. Once you’re outside of the circle, when you’re fighting for your home, there’s only the winners and the dead. Her father would take the belt to her if he ever heard her utter such a thing. It went against everything she’d ever been taught. Honor, the code, the path of a warrior, they were all a part of the life she wanted, the life she needed to claim as her own.

“Have you calmed down, little one?”

“Stop calling me that!” A child, yes by law she was still a child, but it didn’t mean that she had to like being reminded of the fact. “I’m not some silly little kid stumbling onto the sands for the first time.” And if she wanted them to believe that, she had to get her temper under control once and for all. “For Mars’ sake will you stop pushing me.”

“It’s in his name that I push.” Her brother, twenty years her senior and a long time instructor, arched a red touched eyebrow. “You have to learn how to shut out the verbal assaults during a fight, Yvonne. If you lose your temper in the middle of a fight, you will have lost the fight and perhaps your life.” He set the end of his staff against the sands. “And if you would complete your training then you need to learn to keep your temper under control.” He leaned against the staff, his gaze fixed on Yvonne. “You know this and yet you continue to struggle with the concept.”

“I know.”

“Then perhaps it’s time to rethink your decision.”

She turned and tried to stalk away to the far side of the training sands.

The blow caught her without warning, striking a path down from her left shoulder to her right hip. She grunted, turned, bringing up her staff. Wood and metal clashed, she swore, spat, turned, defended and attacked. Sweat stung her eyes and she howled as a blow caught the fingers of her left hand. Yvonne darted away, shaking her hand out before her hands tightened on the staff, anger bubbling, rolling through her body until it knotted her stomach and back alike. This wasn’t what she wanted. The testing for camp fast approached and as it stood she’d never make it through the entrance requirements and then what? The sun beat down, drying the sweat that had formed when she’d been caught up in the fight. Her limbs shook, not with fear but threatened exhaustion. They’d been at this since before dawn and still her brother showed barely a hint of the wear that pulled at her muscles. With a snarl she turned and marched to the edge of the sands. “I have to be do this. I can’t fail. Why can’t he understand that?”

“What makes you think I don’t understand, Yvonne?” His voice came from directly behind Yvonne.

She flinched, straightened and pushed a stray lock of her unruly auburn hair back from her face. “You have to stop doing that.”

“And which ‘that’ do you mean this time?”

She frowned. Had there been a sigh behind his words? A hint of understanding. She shook her head. How could he be so calm? They’d just spent two hours on and off training and he didn’t even sound out of breath. Was it the training, his experience, or just the fact that he was so much older? She licked her bottom lip, buying a moment before answering. “You’ve got to stop this creeping up on me, especially now. I need some damned space, Yacuab!”

“You won’t be granted any space or time to yourself if you enter the training program,” Yacuab explained even as he reached out and placed one strong hand on her left shoulder. “It’s time you began to understand and accept that. If you make it, then you will share space with at least twenty others in the dorm, you’ll shower together, eat together, sleep in the same room, sometimes two to a bed and you will train together. The only time you will get on your own is if you’re sent to solitary for breaking the rules. This is a part of the process and you will adapt or you will fail and be kicked out of the program.”

Yvonne growled, muscles tightening under her brother’s grip. It didn’t help that she knew he was right, or that he was taking time out of his own work in order to help her train. “I don’t understand why they do that. I need my space every now and then.” Why am I saying this? I don’t exactly get space at the house - and that was a part of the problem. “Look, it’s not that I don’t appreciate what you’re doing for me.” She did. More than she could express. The testing was hard, everyone knew that and most of the men and woman who took the tests, then failed them. Ninety percent of those who made it into the program, then washed out and once you were out of the program you couldn’t worm your way back in. Your only option was one of the hill people training camps. Training that wasn’t regulated in the same way and washing out of their training was done on your back, your body shipped home to your family with a broken wooden sword on your chest - and that’s if you were one of the lucky ones.

No, she had to make it into the formal program and then stay in.

“Warriors of Mars have to find their peace within, not without. You need to be able to reach it at any point, not just when you’re alone, and in the silence of a lonely, empty room, or locked in meditation.” He paused, tipping his head slightly. “What it does is teach you to focus only on the skills you have, the training and to also rely upon the warrior at your side. Your comrades in arms who will continue to fight with you, at your side and sometimes against you in the pits, until their last breath. This is the path you want and yet the girl I see before me isn’t ready for the tests.”

Maybe I’m not cut out for this? “Yeah, yeah, I get that but - but I don’t… shit, I don’t know how to explain this.” Not ready. She had to be ready, there was no way around it, she couldn’t face another year, or two, or more living with her step-mother.

“That’s because you’re still a child, little one.”

Little one. Of all the things he called her, that irked the most. Sure it fit. She was younger than him and shorter by almost two feet but that would change. She hadn’t finished growing yet - at least that’s what she told herself every time she realize just how short she was compared to the rest of her family. It didn’t help that she was the only daughter in a household of seven brothers, her father, a step-mother, and two uncles. Surrounded by warriors, training with male warriors since the day she’d been old enough to stand, and still she struggled with the simple things of controlling her temper, shutting out the words thrown at her during a fight and focusing only on the task at hand. “I should be better than this. With everything I’ve been exposed to I know I should be able to handle all of this.”

The grip on her shoulder tightened, turning her around with a sharp tug.

“Ow that…”

“Hurts. It’s supposed to,” his voice cold, gaze focused. “You’re still a child, Yvonne and you’re not ready to take the challenge. Not when you only get the one chance and you’re doing this for the wrong reason.”

“I’m old enough to do it!”

“Only according to tradition.” He shook her hard and fast before he let go. “So physically yes, you’re ready. Emotionally - that is another matter entirely.”

Yvonne gasped, half lifted from her feet. “But I…”

“Yes, I know - I was fifteen and passed the test, completed the training but looking back I was too young. I scraped through many of the classes, and it wasn’t until one of the instructors took me to one side and beat the crap out of me, that I finally realized what I needed to do. Five weeks in the infirmary - five weeks to get myself under control, but I pulled through.” He rubbed his left hand over a thin scar that ran along the left hand side of his jaw, barely there now but she’d seen him rub it when he was trying to find the words he needed in order to get his point across. “What I’m saying is this. Thirteen is too young, the average age for the test is seventeen.Most don’t even apply until their nineteen and with good reason.” He leaned in close, his breath hot against her face. “You have no control over your temper, over your emotions in general, and there hasn’t been a child of your age enter the training in over fifteen centuries and for good reason. It takes focus to control emotions and not be controlled by them. Something that rarely occurs in one of your scant years.”

“Then I’ll be the first!” She could do this. She had to do this. One more year in that house, the baby of the family, always being told she was too young, too small, too much of a child, a failure, less than the rest, was more than she could take, let along another four years. “I’m better than everyone else in my class. You know that, you’ve seen that!” He’d succeeded and so would she. So, he’d been two years older and maybe he’d had to spend that time healing up in the middle of the course but…What if he’s right?

Yacuab sighed and released her, stepping back onto the sands. “Yes, you are but that doesn’t mean that you’d survive the training there.”

Survive. What a joke. No one died in the formal training program. Not in generations. They were civilized now. If she wanted to face that type of risk, she’d go to the hill tribes and ask to be named and numbered among them. “I’d manage.”

“Is it really that bad at home?” He rolled out his shoulders, his body strong, lithe muscle that spoke of the long years of training, of work as a warrior and so much more. Yacuab raised one hand to his temple, the hand marred by a dozen thin silvery scars that he’d never taken care of - though they would be simple enough things to have removed. “Do you really feel as if the training program is the only option for you?”

“His wife…”

“Your step-mother.”

“His wife wants me gone. I look too much like our mother.” Red hair, the beginnings of curves, dark eyes, one hundred percent Marian blood line, unlike the step-mother with her traces of off world, out of system blood line. “She keeps trying to get him to agree to send me off world, to some stupid academy.” Academy. A lie. She wanted Yvonne gone. It wouldn’t be so bad if Serena had suggested a place on Valhalla, but no it was some out of system, not tied to Mars in any form, academy where she’d learn discipline.

“There are other options,” her brother moved away, stepping off the outer ring of the sands, where under normal circumstances there might have been watchers. Beyond the final ring of heartwood to the polished stone and wood benches. “Come, little sister. We need to talk.”

Talk? What good would that do her? She cast a glance up at the skies, watching the rolling clouds, the color of the sky and the darting, diving, swooping flight of raptors. They were free, able to follow their hearts and their instincts. They kicked out their young from the nest at an early age, encouraging them to fly, to seek a home of their own, whilst she remained, trapped by a father who had no time for her, and a step-mother who saw only the features of a long dead rival. “Talk - all you want to do is talk.” She scowled, folding her arms beneath her breasts and glared at him.

“No, not all - but with you sometimes talking is the best thing and this time I hope, truly hope, you will listen to all I have to say.” He patted the bench next to him. “It will go easier if you sit for a time. Your body has had enough exercise and a little rest with some water and conversation would be a welcome thing. Even if you’re not ready to believe that right now.”

She couldn’t deny the need to rest and at the mention of water she swallowed. Her mouth and throat were dry, fighting and exercising under the sun, with the wind carrying sand to beat in her face and eyes, filling her mouth at times - well, water would be a welcome thing indeed. Yvonne nodded once, bit back her pride and walked over to join her brother. “Fine, I’ll listen.”

He waited until she was settled before speaking again. “She fears you will be exactly like your mother.”

“Of course she does.” One man, two wives - it had been an odd situation at the best of times but only because of the tension between her mother and her step-mother. Poly relationships weren’t unheard of, and there certainly wasn’t any social stigma or legal issues associated with it, but in their case there had been a constant tension between the two wives. Originally, before Yvonne had been born, there’d been a second husband in the mix, but according to stories he’d died off world in a fight against the Ontourian Raiders twenty-five years ago. Without that extra husband, the struggle over her father had begun. “I look too much like her, so every time she looks at me she sees my mother. That’s not going to change anytime soon.” In fact it would become worse. The older Yvonne became the more she looked like her mother. Even her hair sat the same way, with identical highlights and the flecks of color in her eyes had grown to match the images she still had of her mother in her bedroom.

“It’s more than that, little one. You match her in attitude and though our father would never view you in a sexual manner, she fears that your appearance will encourage him to look for another wife.”

“And that’s my fault?” Her hands curled into fists. “I didn’t ask to look like her.” It didn’t stop the tension. They couldn’t even speak in a civil manner anymore. “She hates me and I have to get out of there. The training - it’s the only chance I have.” Yvonne pushed back her hair, trying to tuck it back into the braid and headband combination that was supposed to keep it out of her eyes.

Yacuab shook his head. “No, there’s another way. You could enter a program off world and…”

“No, that’s what she wants. She wants me far away from here, off world, out of system. I can’t do that!” Yvonne snapped.

“Listen.” A sharp word. Something she rarely heard from him.

Her jaw set. “Fine.”

“The one she suggests wouldn’t work, but there’s an option that would work and would keep you within the system - and put you at the forefront of a new program.”

That caught her attention. She frowned, watching his eyes, searching for some sign that this was a trick. “What are you talking about?”

“Kayala of Chronos offered me a post to train cadets. With that comes the chance to place three students from Mars, three students I’ve worked with, all under fifteen, who would be willing to serve as a part of the new Elite System One Defense force if they successfully complete their training.” Yacuab touched one finger beneath her chin, lifting her gaze. “You wouldn’t be treated the same as everyone else in the program. I’d have to be twice as hard on you as anyone else because of the blood tie. There would be no days off, no weakness, and I’d cease to be your brother there. I’d be your instructor, your commanding officer, and I will push you harder than you can ever imagine.”

Her heart skipped a bead as a cold shiver ran down the length of her spine. “Elite Defense Force?”

“Kayala wants a combined force, representing all five worlds, so we will never be vulnerable to the Raiders again. This training program, it’s only the beginning - it won’t be easy.”

No, it wouldn’t be easy. She swallowed hard. Leave Mars, leave her family and turn her back on the training program here. She nibbled her bottom lip and stood up, turning slowly as she looked around the sands. Chronos - another world entirely - training with others from the five worlds. Working to serve Kayala of Chronos to defend their system. A chance to learn so much more than was offered here, but she’d be turning her back on tradition at the same time in order to carve a new path. “I couldn’t be among the name and numbered warriors of Mars.”

“No,” Yacuab admitted.

“Have you chosen the others?”


“When do you leave?” She forced herself to look at her brother.

“Tomorrow morning.”

Yvonne, daughter of Mariana and Byron, child of Mars, lifted her gaze to watch the soaring raptors, their bright blue wings catching the sun. For as long as she could remember, she’d watched the birds claim the air but if she left with Yacuab how long would it be before she could stand on the sands and watch them again? This was her home but what if something more, something better waited for her on Chronos? Something she was meant to do…

“What time do we leave?”

Friday, March 11, 2016

First Steps

First Steps is an Erien setting story.

Artwork by Samuel Pray created using Daz 3D, Photoshop and Filter Forge

"It's easy, I don't know why you're making such a fuss about the entire thing." Niama sighed and looked back over her shoulder, her long lashes brushing over her bright green scales for a moment before she opened her eyes once more. Dark golden eyes flashed with amusement as she flicked her tongue over her sharp front teeth. With a low chuckle she rolled out her shoulders, the muscles flexing beneath her shining scales. "All you have to do is..."

"I know what I have to do, it's just that - I don't think I can do it. Not right now at least." Brand growled, baring his own teeth. Fear. It wasn't something anyone wanted to admit to, least of all one of his lineage. Things were expected from him. Great things. Yeah, he'd heard the rumors, caught the tail end of conversations that died when he landed near a group of hatchlings or older dragons. They all had their own ideas of what he would do and it was made all the worse by the fact that he was the last of his clutch to find his gifts.

"You mastered flying easily enough, so what's the problem? This should be simple for you."

Flying? That was easy compared to this. What did Niama know about the situation? It wasn't as if she shared the same power, or lineage. He was of Orent's blood, one of only five hatchlings born to the great black dragon in the past one hundred years, and his mother - where was she? Working with a human of all things. Just as she had been for generations. Bound to the line of the Dragon Throne, a servant instead of a mother. She chose that life, didn't she? Or was she pushed into it? Not something he'd ever been able to ask her, not in the brief visits that he'd been able to enjoy with his mother. Now he faced this step without the support of a parent, for the Gods alone knew who his father was. Not one member of his clan was willing to share that information with him.

"You know most of us go through the exploration of our abilities without our parents," Niama rose, flicking out her wings before she lowered her head, stretching her back with a slow, elegant grace. "Dragon kind doesn't stifle their children. We grow, we explore, and we find our own way in life. It's time you learned to do the same thing. Stop focusing on the fact that Orent is your mother, it's holding you back."

"Yeah, well most of you do stupid things anyway!" He snapped - and instantly regretted the words. I'm not focusing on my mother. How could I - I barely even know her. Would he even recognize Orent if the great black dragon landed in front of him? She was, in all reality, a stranger to him at this point.

The green dragon turned, slowly, and met his gaze, arching an eyebrow. "If we weren't friends I'd fry you here and now for that."

Brand grumbled and ducked his head. "Yeah, okay, I'm sorry. What you do - it's not stupid. Not like I can spit fire or ice the way you do. It's just that... there's no one else here I can ask. We're not even certain I can do it, it's just assumed I can because I'm not showing signs of anything else." Power, they all had some sort of power they could call upon, fire, lightning, ice, acid, spell casting, there were even rumors of those dragons who - many generations back - had the ability to jump through time. Not that such a thing had happened since the dawn of their kind. But his mother, the Lady Orent, bound to the Dragon Throne, was something more. She was a magic user of the highest level, able to find and form soul stones, use elemental magic and open a gate that allowed swift travel between one area and another. If the tales were to be believed Orent could open a gate and travel from one side of Erien to the other in the matter of moments, a rare magic that also appeared in a handful of human lines.

"Foolish male."

"Stubborn female!"

"Rock face!"

"Flame breath!" Brand turned, snarling at Niama, only to flash a wicked grin a heartbeat later. "Should push you off the ledge and dunk you in the hissing swamps. See what you look like covered in rag weed and slop!"

"You and what clutch?" Niama laughed, baring her teeth in a challenge even as she lowered her head, lifting her tail as her body tensed, ready to pounce. She stopped, blinking for a moment before she stood up and met his gaze. "You're trying to avoid the testing."

"What? Me? No, nothing like that, just having a little fun is all." Smoke and Stars, why did she have to stop and think? He wasn't ready for this, but the elders would be waiting for him. If he'd been caught up in a playful moment with Niama at least he could have shared the blame with someone else when he didn't show up.

"Uh huh, you forget, I know you." Niama rolled her eyes and looked, pointedly down at the bowl like gathering area among the base of the spires that the dragons called home. Or at least this group of dragons claimed as their own. There were other dragon settlements across the face of Erien, though neither Brand nor Niama had visited them. "Come on, I'll go down with you."

Brand sighed, stretched out and looked around. Tall multi-colored rock spires reached up toward the sky. Ledges, caves, rock perches and look out points all showed signs of dragon claws. High above the spires a dozen young dragons flew and dived, playing cloud hopper games to the mixture of delight from younger dragons and complaints from older ones. This place, the Spires, was home and because of that it was the center of his world. But I don't want it to be like this. I don't want to stay here for the rest of my life. "If I complete the testing, I'll be an adult."

"Yes, you know that how it works." Niama flicked out her wings and shifted to the edge of the ledge. "And then you'll be - for the most part - free of their restrictions. You can come and go as you wish as long as you respect the laws of our people."

Brand nodded once. Leave. He needed to leave the Spires. As long as he lived here he'd be the son of Lady Orent. The only one of the clutch that had a physical resemblance to his mother and the one they expected great things of. "They think I'm going to be like her."


"What if I'm not?" He moved to the edge, letting his claws curl around the rock. "What if I don't become a bonded, or I don't do anything of note?"

Niama tipped her head to the left, flicking her right ear at him. "If you don't then it doesn't matter. We're dragons, we're of note to begin with. All of the other races look at us and wish they were like us." She shrugged before she turned to look down at the clearing where the elders waited. "We are ourselves, and don't have to be anything else."

Easy for you to say. Your parents are... normal.

"Come on, Brand. Best to get this over and done with." Niama flashed a grin and launched herself into the air, spreading her wings out to catch the updraft. The subtle touch of magic vibrated through the air, the very magic that made it possible for dragons to be able to fly. "Come with me, Brand. Get this done and then we can play!"

Play, as if I'll ever get the chance to play again after the testing. The council, the elders, would have things they would expect him to do. They'd send him out on work, maybe a scouting mission, something that would keep him out of trouble. At least in their eyes. "Fine, let's go down and see them."

Niama circled, waiting for him, catching and riding the thermals, her gaze never leaving him.

With a shrug he closed his eyes, leaned forward and let himself fall. His wings snapped out, catching the air as the magic kicked in giving him the chance to settle himself before he turned, soaring up for a moment. This was freedom, this was it was to be a dragon except - except there was something more. The magic, the rest of the power that rippled within his body, still ached with the need to escape, to be discovered and until he took this test, until he found out what he was capable of doing, he'd be incomplete.

Is that what's wrong?

He scowled, focusing for a moment on the waiting dragons beneath them. "I'm not incomplete I'm just...unsettled."

"Did you say something?" Niama glided in a little closer.

"No, I'm fine." Yeah, just dandy. Going to get this test over and done with, find I can't do anything and then be the laughing stock of the entire colony. They'd never let him live it down. Here he was, the son of the Lady Orent and a failure. Sure, he was a dragon and he could fly, but real magic? Not something he was gifted with. He knew that, knew within his heart that he'd go through the testing and fail in an all too dramatic way. Worse, there would be witnesses who couldn't be denied. The Elders. Their word - no, he had to stop thinking like this.

He growled, teeth clenched as he angled his body and dropped down, spiraling at the last minute before he stretched out his wings, using the sudden catch of air in his wings draw him to a sudden stop. Only then did he feel the ground beneath his feet and closed his eyes before he folded his wings in against his body, turned, rolled out his shoulders and faced the waiting trio of Elders.

"We have been waiting for you." A deep gray dragon with ice blue fur tumbling down from his neck in a mane, met his gaze.

"I'm sorry about that, old one." Brand lowered his head slightly. "I let my fears get the better of me."

"Fears? What fears could you possibly have, young one?" The second dragon, a deep blue with silver horns that curled on either side of her head, inquired.

"That I would fail completely, and find that I have no inner magic. Nothing I can call upon save the ability to fly." The words slipped out before he found the strength to lock them deep within.

"And you think that no other dragon has faced such a fear, Brand son of Orent?" The final Elder spoke, his voice deep, rolling with the power of the earth, matching the bronze and iron color of his scales.

"Well..." Brand swallowed hard, fighting a rising heat that flushed beneath his cheek scales.

"We all face that fear at your age, young one. We all came down for our testing wondering if we would be the first to fail." The Gray dragon added, his voice soft as a breeze. "We faced this and we conquered it. You will do the same thing. So, I ask you, on behalf of this council - are you ready for your testing, Brand son of Orent."

No. I'm not. I can't do this. Not right now.

"If you're not ready, speak now and we can wait another moon, or three, however long it takes for you to reach a point where you're ready to face the testing." The bronze dragon explained, his voice firm, eyes cold metal as he watched Brand.

"I'm ready." What - why did I say that? I'm not ready. It was too late to take that back now. The words had been said, the acceptance of the testing had been announced. "Waiting won't change anything. Either I do this now or I continue to run away from it." Had that been what he'd been doing? Running from it?

"A wise choice, young Brand." The blue dragon nodded once before the three Elders spaced out until they surrounded Brand. "Then the testing will begin and you will take your final steps into adulthood as our people count such things."

Adult. He'd be an adult. Able to choose his own place to live, explore beyond the safe skies above the Spires, and - and then what? Where would he go? What would he really do with his life? Too late to think about things like that. I've made my choice. Time to face the testing. He couldn't even remember the names of the three Elders that stood in the circle around him. His mind reeled, turmoil claiming it as he tried to focus on his breathing and on the magic that he would summon into life for the first time.

"Close your eyes," the bronze dragon instructed.

Brand let out a slow breath and closed his eyes. His heart raced and panic clawed at the inside of his chest. He wasn't ready for this. No matter what he'd agreed to he couldn't do it - he had to back out before…

"Focus on your breathing, clear your mind of everything else but the breath moving in and out of your body." The elder bronze dragon continued, his voice pitched low. "You are here, you are ready, and you've agreed to take the final test. Your magic is a part of you, as natural as the breath in your lungs."

Is it? Or am I fooling myself here?

"Let the walls down, the walls of doubt and fear. Let them go now with the next exhale. They are no longer a part of you, they are free, cast out into the air to carry away on your breath."

He exhaled slowly, trying to follow through with the instructions. It couldn't be that easy. No matter what the elder said, nothing could be as simple as a breath leaving his body. He inhaled once more and let out a new breath, picturing the tension leaving his body, carrying his anguish with it. Tension eased from his body and - for a moment - something crumbled within. Walls? He tried again, another deep breath that eased from between his lips and the wall disintegrated deep within him.

"Now, reach inside, reach deep, down into that core of magic and lift it up."

He no longer focused on who was speaking, only on the words. Words that opened something within him. He reached, following the instructions, for the power that waited for him. Slowly it answered his call, coming to his mental claws until he was able to bring it closer, able to see it clearly for the first time. It rippled within his grasp, bright silver, flickering and alive. Power that he couldn't deny, but didn't know what to do with. At least not yet.

"That's it, you've got it. Now, bring it out and into your fore claws."

Brand struggled to keep his eyes closed even as he pictured the ball of energy moving from his mental hands into his physical grasp. Something crackled across the palms of his fore claws and he gasped, opening his eyes before he had the presence of mind to stop himself.

"There's - there's nothing there," Brand mumbled. It didn't make sense. He could feel the energy moving across his claws and spreading out along his arms. "But I can feel it."

"It's there. It exists. You have to let it go, let it show you what it can do." The bronze Elder spoke, his voice ever calm and strong. "You're safe here, the wards are set. Nothing you do here will harm anyone else. All you have to do is let it go."

He swallowed. Hard. Let it go, such an easy thing to say but to do it - that was something completely different. What other choice do I have? I can't just leave it rippling over my body like this... can I? It continued to spread, thinning out, moving over his body until it covered his head, leaving him looking through a semi-transparent haze. It spread further down, coating every inch of his body, from the tip of his snout down to the very point of his tail.

"You've done it."

"What?" Done what? Nothing's happened. "I don't understand."

"We can hear your voice, Brand - but we can't see you. Even your voice is muffled, though we know it's you and that you're there."

His throat tightened and he turned, slowly, taking care not to disturb the small rocks beneath his feet. Could they really not see him?

"Invisibility is rare, very rare... and in time you will be able to muffle even the loudest of noises that you might otherwise make."

Invisible? He looked up, tensing as he did so. The urge to leap, to soar through the air and find out if anyone could see him, itched its way down the length of his spine. The power, it tingled across his scales, set a film over his eyes and muffled his steps - the power was undeniable. "I've done it."

"Now you have to draw it back in, gather it back up and store it within."

Why? I don't want to do that. I like the way it feels.

"You must control the magic. Not let it control you, Brand."

No more 'young Brand, son of Orent'. Just Brand. Named and accepted as an adult, but only if he could complete this final part of the test. With a shudder he closed his eyes, drawing in the magic a fraction at a time. Slowly at first and then with gathering speed, it obeyed him, returning to his grasp before the remaining energy returned to the hidden place within. Less than before, yet it wouldn't be long before it returned to its full strength. Only then did he open his eyes and meet the combined gaze of the three Elders.

"Well done, Brand. Very well done indeed." The Bronze took a step forward, extending his left fore claw in a greeting that offered peace and respect between equals. "You've completed your first steps as an equal, an adult, into the world of your people."

Brand looked down at the fore claw and took it, the movement clumsy this time. He knew that, but the smile that claimed his features was undeniable.

"I knew you could do it, Rock Face!" Niama called out from somewhere above the small gathering. Brand looked up, trying to form the words, but his age mate was already gone, darting through the spires and heading up into the clouds where he knew she'd dance and play with the others, but that wasn't for him. Not this time at least. Not when he had so much to learn.

Yes, I did it, completed the first steps - but not the last...not by a long shot.

Erien is used as the setting for Battle Skies, a table top 3D combat game. Novels in this setting are currently being reedited and formatted for re-release in May. Current Battle Skies releases can be found here.

Friday, March 4, 2016


Artwork by Samuel Pray using Daz 3d and Photoshop.

Birth follows on from last week's story, and is set during the early centuries of vampire history, using the Shadow Sprawl setting created by Terri Pray.

Where is he?

Lilith groaned and rubbed one hand against the small of her back. Pressure, pain, the ungainly weight, being pregnant wasn't something she enjoyed - at least not at this stage. It would be over soon enough, the small but constant changes in her body, and the new occasional waves of pressure, promised that she would hold her child in her arms within a few days.

At least she hoped so - it wasn't as though she had others of her kind to ask about carrying a child, or how long one of her kind would be pregnant. Would it all work the same way it did for the daughters of Eve? The same length of time before the child made its way into the world? Would it hurt? She'd spied only once on a human birth and the sight had disgusted her. Blood, tears and screams - with only a handful of other women around to help the mother through the process. Did she have others who might be willing to help her through this?


There were only three other females currently existed as a part of her family. Each one carefully chosen and turned by Lilith, but not one of them had given birth before being turned, and she was the first of her kind to carry a child long enough to potentially bring it into the world. There had been miscarriages, and until recently they'd all wondered of children would be a part of their kind, or if all new blood would have to come from the ones they turned. As for the women, much to Caine's disgust he'd been unsuccessful in turning a female, and only two of the males he had chosen had survived the turn.

A small wave of pressure moved down the length of her spine and she exhaled slowly. These odd cramps had begun earlier in the day but it would pass. She had to believe it would pass. There had been incidents like these on and off throughout the last moon cycle.

"Lady?" Mikel's soft voice broke through her thoughts.

With one hand now resting on the swell of her belly, she eased the other from her back and rested it against the rough bark of a tree as she turned toward him. Life vibrated through from the tree and into her fingers, creeping through her skin and bones before it eased its way along the length of her arm. For a moment she forgot about Mikel, closed her eyes and let herself sink into the sensations. With a soft shake Lilith turned her attention away from the tree and back to the waiting vampire. "Yes?"

"The air is changing, a storm coming in."

Lilith turned her gaze skyward and peered through the canopy, inhaling as she did so. The taste of the air had changed - why hadn't she noticed it before. Her gaze narrowed as she took in the subtle shifts in color across the sky. "We need better cover than this." Would rubbing her back help? She rubbed the small of her back again, trying to ease the growing discomfort. "A place we can settle for a day or two," maybe longer if the child decided to make an appearance.

"Caine hasn't returned." A gruff voice protested.

"He'll be able to find us, and he can't expect us to wait for him without decent cover." Lilith shook her head, turning back to the waiting men. A shiver traced down her back and she inhaled, wrapped her arms around herself. "Jace, have faith in Caine - he's an able tracker and we will leave signs for him. It should be enough." Despite his faults, Caine was a skilled hunter, tracker and provider. So, the signs would have to be enough, and if Caine had a problem with her decision, she'd deal with it and him. The child she carried had to come first. "Spread out, we need to find shelter before this storm hits."

The small group, men and women alike, scattered save for Mikel who kept close. A small frown furrowed his brow and he waited until the others were out of hearing before speaking and even then he kept his voice low pitched, taking care to make sure his words didn't carry beyond her ears. "Lady, your decision - it will anger him."

Lilith didn't answer immediately, preferring not to snap a reply at the man. He wasn't wrong in his assumption, but neither was he a punching bag for her responses. "If it does, then it is his own fault for being gone so long. Once he has calmed down, he will understand that it was for the best." The sun had been high in the sky when Caine had left to find fruit. With the abundance offered by the forest, that should have been a short task, but now the sun had moved until it was low over the horizon, promising the coming of night before much longer. What is keeping him? One of the First Sons? That group had threatened them a time or two, but there'd been no sign of them in the last seven moons. "If it were not for the storm we could have set up a camp, but we dare not risk it, not with the birth so close at hand."

Mikel didn't respond, at least not verbally - but the tension rippled through the air as they half walked, half jogged.

"We're on the edge of a decent mountain range here - there should be something we can use, at least in the short term." A cave, even a hollow that they could expand would be useful at this point in time.

Mikel grunted.

And that's the only acknowledgment I'll be granted right now. Lilith swallowed a growl and wiped a bead of sweat from her brow only to blink and look down at the back of her hand. Sweat? She didn't normally sweat from a light jog.

The mingled aromas of the coming storm and the woodland, with its heavy overgrowth, animal population and now the smell of her own people, filled her nostrils. Yet there was something beneath those scents. Other beings, sources of blood and food, but the idea of sinking her teeth into a vein - turned her stomach.

"Lady... there! I think I see something, up along the slope." Mikel pointed through the trees at what looked like a dark slash in the rock.

Lilith eased through the thinning trees and rested against a large rock, letting her gaze move up along the side of the slope and into the rock face. Her gaze narrowed on the dark slash. A small opening or something more. "It might work. We'd need to get up there..." Did she have enough energy to make it up the slope. Enough time? The pressure spiked rippling out from the small of her back, around and down, sharper than before, forcing her to let go of her breath in a low hiss between clenched teeth.

"Lilith?" Mikel reached out to her, taking her weight as he stepped into her space and eased one arm under her shoulders. "Sorry, I meant Lady..."

"Lilith will work, you're a child of my blood, you should be able to address me by name." She offered what she knew to be a weak smile. "It is just the child. I - I fear we will not have much longer before he joins us." The close contact would mark her with more than a hint of Mikel's scent, but there was nothing to be done about that now. She couldn't make it without help now.

The first heavy rain drop struck the bridge of her nose.

"Let's get you up there," Mikel grunted.

His grip shifted, one arm slid beneath the back of her legs and before she had a chance to protest, Mikel lifted her up into his arms. "You shouldn't."

"If we want you safe, then I need to carry you. For now, at least." He shifted her weight, bringing her in a little closer against his chest. "The child comes sooner than you expected."

"I believe so," not as if she had any way of truly judging. Weak, that lack of knowledge made her weak. She'd learn from this, gather the knowledge so that those who came after her would be better prepared.

"Mikel, what are you - he'll kill you for this!" Jace hurried across the slope, the sound of heavy steps following the man as the others in their group caught up.

"He'd kill both of us if she isn't in a safe place when the child arrives, and it's showing all signs of haste. Or do you want to be the one to tell Caine why we let his wife give birth in the forest like a dryad, or sprite? Instead of within the safety of stone like the Goddess she is."

Goddess - Lilith smiled at the words. Mother to their race, that was close to a goddess, and she wasn't about to argue. Not now at least, there'd be time enough for that after the child was safe within her arms.

"Fine, but when he asks what happened, I'll swear on my blood that it was your idea." Jace growled as he shot a dark glare at Mikel. "And I won't stand in his way when he wants to take your head. But until then we work together." Jace shook his head and moved in front of Mikel, gesturing to the others, before he began to clear a path. "Up there, that crack in the side of the mountain. Jenna, stay with our Lady and Mikel. Kale, with me. We need to make sure that's usable."

Jace. The man clung to every word Caine uttered. Not a bad thing under normal circumstances but there was something about the man that...

She grunted as a new wave of pressure and pain rolled through her. Was it her, or were they coming more quickly now?

"I felt that one." Mikel spoke low but picked up the pace, following the path set out by the group. Twigs snapped beneath his feet, dirts and small rocks tumbled down the slope in the wake of their passage. "I've seen daughters of Eve give birth, my mother for one - or rather I heard it. You'll be in the full throws of this before the sun has set - if you aren't all ready going through it."

Men didn't take part in child birth, she'd learned that much from watching Adam's children. She doubted that it would change with her children. She'd lean on Jenna, Alliana, and Calliandria - the only other three women in their group. Her children by blood and turn, rather than blood and birth. Women she had protected from Caine, at least she believed she had, and those women would now offer their protection to see her through this ordeal.

"It's a cave! That gap is the entrance to a cave!" Jace's voice carried down from the entrance into the side of the mountain. "Needs work, but it will offer shelter for now. We just have to get her in there."

"Get a fire going, furs laid out, and water. The child comes sooner than we thought." Mikel warned as he carried her in, setting her down on her feet with exaggerated care. Noise welcomed them into the cave, men and women working, the sound of flint striking against stone, followed by the first flickering of a fire. "Lady, take a moment to steady yourself."

"I fear I will need more than a moment for that." She groaned and tried to find her balance. The weight shifted across her swollen belly, but not from the child moving. Her body was no longer her own to command, the waves of pressure combined pain and the rippling turned into a deep need to expel the life within her.

Relief washed over Lilith, tension that she hadn't admitted to, eased from her back and shoulders only to be replaced by a new wave of pressure. Wetness seeped, cloth soaking even as the first cry tore from her lips. Her knees threatened to buckle, breath catching as she struggled to stay upright.

"Lady, lean on me." Jenna moved behind her, even as Calliandria set the men to work, gathering firewood and preparing the cave, before she moved to join the other women. "Alliana, we need to help her walk."

"Walk? Are you sure? She hurts, shouldn't she sit? Better still, lay down?" Mikel took a step toward the new fire.

"Walking will help her bring the baby into this world. Laying down - men, what do they know of childbirth." Alliana snorted. "We may not have birthed children, but we've both seen mother's and aunts give birth."

"The fire needs to be bigger, and we will need water to wash the babe when it arrives," Calliandria gestured to the entrance of the cave. "Go, gather what we will need, and then set yourself to guarding the entrance."

Lilith leaned into the assisting arms and began the slow walk back and forth across the cave. Why hadn't she thought of asking the women? Did I think because they hadn't had children, that they knew little or nothing about the process?

A mistake she now regretted as the two women walked with her.

"Breathe through it, Lady." Calliandria encouraged when the next wave of pressure struck. "Don't try and talk, just breathe through the - the contraction." The woman stumbled over the word, as if dragging it from a buried memory. "Movement and breathing, it will bring the babe on all the faster."

"Breathe?" She wanted to ask more, to ask why they thought it would be that easy, but the tightening of muscles took the ability away from her. "Hurts." She hissed the word between clenched teeth.

"It will be over soon enough, Lady." Jenna squeezed her arm. "We have faith in you."

Sweat beaded across her brow and down the length of her spine. Every step took more energy than the last and she leaned heavily on the two women, even as Calliandria turned her attention to setting up furs, cloth, bowls and wrappings. The contractions - a good name for them - changed her body, pushing the baby further down until she felt things shift even further. "I-I need to...think - it's time."

As one they moved, but even then they didn't ease her to her back, but rather into a squatting position. Cloth was moved out of the way, support in the form of Jenna standing behind her, acting as a brace, was set up, and water passed back through to the women from a man who quickly took himself back to the cave entrance.

"Caine, I need Caine." Lilith moaned, her eyes half closing as she leaned into the support offered. "Is he..."

"There's no sign of him, lady." Mikel called out.

"Wait, I have to..."

"Your body and the child will not allow you to wait. The child comes now, and you must do as your body dictates in this." Jenna rubbed one hand firmly against the small of Lilith's back. "It is time to bring your child into the world."

Caine. Where are you? You're supposed to be here with me for this moment. This is your child too. Your child and I can't do this - shouldn't be left to do this - without you...

"Push, lady - your child needs you. It's time to push!"