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An Errand for the Goddess [MultiFormat]
eBook by Fritha Robinson

eBook Category: Fantasy
eBook Description: Fire Sorceress Draedreia Ashes is the most powerful person in all of the Twelve Kingdoms, but even she must bow to the wishes of the gods. When the Goddess Brigid summons Drae to serve her on the Other Side, Drae reluctantly leaves her home in Yoshan to travel through the Kingdoms giving humanitarian aid to those who need it so she can prove her worthiness to serve the Blessed Brigid. On her journey, she meets the runaway Prince Nori. Together they follow a crazed king on his mission to Ereshkigal where he seeks to waken the evil Goddess, the Morrigana, from her thousand year sleep. When Drae accidentally ends up releasing the Morrigana, she finds herself in a race against time to stop the Morrigana from destroying the Twelve Kingdoms, all before she, herself, succumbs to the final paralysis of the Sorceress's Sickness and must take the sleeping draught to wake up on the Other Side.

eBook Publisher: Swimming Kangaroo Books, Published: 2010, 2010
Fictionwise Release Date: February 2010

7 Reader Ratings:
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"Robinson puts an intriguing twist on a low-tech fantasy world... a cliffhanger ending provides an intriguing twist and plenty of suspense." ~ Publisher's Weekly

Chapter 1

The waning moons did not allow much light as I stole away through the small town of Brisa. Not that I had done anything wrong, mind you. As a matter of fact, I had helped save the town from starvation. An early chill had threatened the crops during harvest season and, utilizing my expert skills as a fire sorceress, I had kept the plants alive just long enough for the townspeople to harvest and store them through what turned out to be the bitterest winter on record.

Of course being the kind people that they were, they allowed me to stay in their village throughout the long, horrible winter, and once again my talents were put to good use to melt ice, warm beds and start fires.

Eventually spring came along, far faster than I would have wished and, when the time came to leave, I did so in the dead of the night without alerting anyone to my plans. Why? Simply because I did not wish to hear the praise of the thankful townspeople, nor did I wish to hear of their blessings and good wishes for my next life as they pressed flowers and bread into my ever trembling hands. While a better woman would have borne them gracefully, I saw in them only a bitter reminder of what an ungrateful applicant I truly was.

I spent my first day back on the road traveling in the silence of my own thoughts. It wasn't good for me to think about the future too much. Yet if someone as young as myself can't think about the future, what else is there to think about? I tried to hum a tune to keep my mind off my morbid thoughts, but my voice is not a pleasant one, and I soon managed to annoy myself.

I traveled throughout the night without managing to lose my balance once, which at this point in my life was an accomplishment. After a few days of peaceful travel, I stumbled upon a small town that should have been of no consequence. Heck, the town was so small that not even a placard was placed outside of it to inform the weary traveler of its name. Yet, it was at this town that the course of my life was drastically altered.

Night was falling, and as I had money enough for a stay at the local inn, I decided a night off the road wouldn't hurt. Naturally, in a village that small, I didn't exactly have a choice of inns. In fact, I only had one to choose from.

Surprisingly, I remember its name. Okay, maybe not so surprisingly. I had thought it a rather stupid name, really. It was called Palace of the Goddesses; yet, at first glance, I could tell it would be no palace. For one thing, the paint on the sign had nearly worn off. That, and the unhinged door and the unclean floors were definitely clues to the inn's disrepair. I was half scared to eat the food or drink from the cups; yet, eventually I decided that the worst I could suffer was death by food poisoning. And considering what my future prospects held, or rather, didn't hold, death by food poisoning didn't seem that bad.

I instantly drew the eyes of everyone in the inn. Foreigners might have been a rarity in that town, but fire sorceresses such as myself must have been unheard of. Of course, in all places, fire sorceresses are an anomaly, but people in towns with larger populations know better than to stare so openly.

Despite their rude and open gawking, I marched up to a mousy young woman who I presumed to be the innkeeper's daughter to ask for a night's meal and board. The poor lass' eyes widened in fear as I approached her, and I honestly believed that she was convinced that I would barbecue her on the spot. After making my request several times in plain Alongian, the trader's language, she nodded and replied in heavily accented Alongian, "That'll be twenty qoo. The meal today is beef stew."

Beef stew was not my favorite by any means, but travelers can't be picky. I dug out the money, though my clumsy fingers dropped the coins several times, and took a seat as far away from the other patrons (who seemed to be there more for the booze than anything else) as I could and set about to my favorite pastime: staring at my quivering hands. However lonely I was, the thought of talking to others caused me more apprehension than the thought of my perpetual isolation. Only a person called for an Errand who was not a fanatic like my dear older sister Gwynna would understand the position I was in.

Yet the villagers were a rude lot and made up their minds that I wanted company. With their minds set, they tried to persuade me to that fact. Apparently, in addition to having no manners, the men in the pub seemed to have a complete lack of respect for a woman's dignity, not to mention a complete lack of brains. I don't particularly care to delve into the details too much. Essentially, one of the men had had a bit too much to drink and, in his drunken state, had mistaken me for a good find.

His breath was rich with the smell of alcohol, and he spoke in a drunken slur of the Ohtorian language, one that I could barely understand. I figured that he was probably suggesting that I should go and shack up with him for the night and, as I really wasn't interested, I attempted to communicate this to him. So I said "No," in Ohtorian, "No" again in Alongian and for good measure, "No," in Yoshan, my native tongue.

I figured that after saying "no" to him in three separate languages he would get the message, but apparently it went right over his head, as he proceeded to grope my... well you get the idea. So I figured a stronger version of "no" was needed.

I held my hand right up to his face and, with the slightest of mental efforts, fire sprouted from my palm into his face. Now, before you wonder how I could do such a horrible thing, bear two things in mind. I can control the heat of the flames very well, and the most those flames would have done was blind him for a few moments. His screams rose high on the air, however. For such a big talker, he sure was a big wimp.

The rest of the patrons turned to stare at me in horror. I shrugged casually as the creep beside me screeched and got to my feet with every intention of heading to my room. Yet I soon found that I had a problem. I was surrounded by a drunken crowd, and trust me, allowing me to retreat to the safety of my room was the last thing they had in mind.

Basically, when you have a bunch of drunken idiots talking at once, it's hard to make out what each one is saying. However, the gist of it most likely was, "You hurt one of our own, so now you're going to pay."

I grinned. I really don't know why, but I like taking on high odds, and it had been awhile since I had been able to show off my superb powers in combat. At the moment, thirty-on-one odds seemed like fun. It was a shame that he had to ruin it.

"Leave her alone!" a calm, sober voice commanded over all of the drunken ones.

I turned to glare at whoever was interrupting my fun. He was tall and burly, wearing the armor of a swordsman. Yet that wasn't the worst of it. Despite his red hair and fair complexion, I could easily tell that he was a Drokorian. How could I tell this? The style of the armor was a dead give away, not to mention the fact that he wore his hair long and held back in a leather thong. Yes, a true Drokorian through and through.

What happened next is really hard to say. About half of the idiots decided to take the Drokorian intruder on. The other half decided to try to get first dibs on me and attempted to subdue me. Obviously, their mommies never told them not to mess with people like me. Like a child playing with matches, people getting on the bad side of a fire sorceress inevitably get burned. Perhaps they thought that I wore crimson clothes and a blood red sash for the fun of it.

Pointing one petite finger, I drew a line in front of me and then turned around in a circle. A ring of fire formed where I had traced the circle and, with the barest of thoughts, the ring of fire became a wall of fire. I probably managed to take out twenty men as they went up against my shield. The rest started to back away, the awareness that they had just picked a fight with the wrong woman suddenly sinking into them.

Grinning sardonically, I walked into the wall, and the fire conformed to my body like a second skin, yet it did not burn. On the contrary, I felt as though the room had suddenly gotten colder. That was due to the heat leaving my body to make the flames. Most people were surprised when they heard that I was stone cold after performing my magic.

Screaming a battle cry, I ran toward the men, punching and kicking. Some tried to defend themselves, but they fell beneath me for at this point, anyone I touched, or rather, anyone who touched me, would catch on fire. Screams rang high on the air, and the horrid smell of burnt flesh sullied the inn. I soon found that no one was left to stand against me. I turned and found Mr. Perfect staring at me in awe, his mouth agape. It looked like he had managed to take out a few before he had noticed that I was certainly more than capable of getting myself out of the mess.

Seeing as how the danger had passed, I allowed the spell to die and gathered my stuff. There wasn't any sense in staying there that night. I didn't like that town, and that town apparently didn't like me. Sure it was dark outside, but what kind of fire sorceress can't supply her own light to walk by? And I wasn't even tired yet.

Carefree, I walked out of the inn and headed for the road out of town. You can imagine my annoyance at finding that I was being followed. I turned to glare at whoever was following me and wasn't too surprised to see Mr. Hero.

By now you're probably wondering what it is that I have against Drokorians. Well for one thing, they are infamous among the Twelve Kingdoms for being from a sexist country where hatred of women, especially women blessed with the Gift of sorcery, is rampant. Second, they are heretics against the Goddesses. Most worshipped some male deity instead.

That in and of itself wasn't too surprising. It was the natural consequence of what happens when sorceresses are banned from a kingdom. The people simply forget the power of the Gifts bestowed upon us. The men who are scared of our power prefer it that way. Many of them are bitter. After all, only women are bestowed with divine powers.

"I've never met a fire sorceress before," he said, smiling slightly.

Big surprise there. He'd probably never met a flesh sorceress either and, once you get outside of Drokor, flesh sorceresses are everywhere. Fire sorceresses are a rarity, however.

"Well, now you have," I replied, attempting to end the conversation.

Unfortunately, he didn't get the clue. Even worse, he now decided he had the right to walk beside me. "I'm Nori."

"That's nice," I snapped.

He smiled suddenly and nearly chuckled. "You need not fear anything from me, Moja," he said, using the respectful term reserved for the most powerful of sorceresses. That made me turn my head more than anything, for I had not expected a Drokorian to show that type of respect to a sorceress. Apparently, he continued to misconstrue my coldness as stemming from a distrust of him.

"For one thing, I would never harm a woman, and for another, I am certainly smart enough not to go against a fire sorceress."

"Good." I glared at him. "Why are you following me?"

"For my protection," he lied with a wry smile. "It gets pretty scary out here, and I feel much safer with a fire sorceress at my side."

I didn't buy that for a minute. He had an agenda. I didn't know how I knew it, but I did. And I wanted to know what it was.

"What's your name?" he asked.

"Why is it important?" I replied. I didn't like giving people my name. You see, unlike most people called by the Blessed Brigid to fulfill an Errand, I did not want to be remembered.

He frowned. "Where I am from, it is considered bad luck if you fight beside someone and never learn their name."

Ah, there it was, the proud Warrior Code of the Drokorians. Why put so much pride in a code for war, which only destroys the life that the Blessed Brigid provides? Figuring, however, that if I told him my name, he would leave me alone, I extended my hand. "Drae. Just Drae."

He shook my hand firmly, blue eyes shining, even in the dim light my power provided. "It's a pleasure to meet you then, Moja Drae."

He then turned and walked off into the darkness. I sent a few suspicious glances behind me as I went on my way. It wasn't long before I caught him turning back around to follow me.

* * * *

I played dumb until late in the evening when I walked off the trail and into the woods to set up camp. It was when I was putting up my wards that he gave me the chance I needed to smoke him out; he stepped on a twig, causing it to snap and, in no uncertain terms, commanded my attention. I sent out a warning blast in his general direction. The blast wasn't even enough to set the surrounding bush aflame, but it did send Nori popping up from the bush.

"Hoping to catch a peek are we?" I asked, allowing some flames to build up onto my outstretched palm.

Nori blushed. "No."

"Oh?" I asked. "Then why are you following me?"

Nori bit his lip and then blurted out. "Are you on your way to Ereshkigal?"

Ereshkigal? The idea was preposterous! You would have to have a death wish to venture into Ereshkigal (not that I had any need of a death wish). After controlling my fit of laughter, I replied, "No. And if I were?"

He ignored my question. "Are there any other fire sorceresses around, then?"

I laughed again. Honestly, how ignorant could you get? "Not unless you can travel back in time for a few centuries. I'm the only one alive in the here and now."

Nori shook his head, looking extremely puzzled. "Then I am sorry to have troubled you. As long as you stay away from Ereshkigal, I won't bother you again."

And with that he slunk back off into the bushes. I kept my ears open as I set up my wards, my mind puzzling over the conversation that had just taken place, wishing that he would start to spy again just so I could interrogate him some more.

My wish was soon granted. In the distance, I could hear his footfalls. Yet, I knew that I was safe behind my wards, and that it was best to let him follow me for a while. Hopefully, he would believe that I had no knowledge that I was being tailed, and then I could do some spying of my own and figure out what this whole matter was about.

* * * *

I never thought that I would have been the type to make enemies. I never really hung around any place long enough, and most of the people I picked fights with were drunken losers anyway. How was I supposed to know that being in a bar fight in a town of no consequence would come back and bite me in the butt?

It had been a perfect spring day. Rather than traveling at my usual brisk pace, I settled for a nice stroll, enjoying the warm sun and the soft breeze on my face. Things that I would not enjoy for much longer once I returned home.

Yet, getting home seemed to be the least of my problems at the moment. I was still being followed by Nori. Whether he was simply woefully bad at tailing someone or, whether he wanted me to know he was there, I do not know. Either way I knew.

I kept my cool, however. There was little that he could do to me with a plain steel sword. When the sun had reached the height of its climb, I veered off the path to have lunch under the shady trees surrounding the trail. The Taiga, a river that wound its way through the Twelve Kingdoms and also marked the border between Ohtori and Nordbury, was close by. I could hear the crisp sounds of its running water, and I strained my ears to hear its comforting song. I was midway through my lunch when the sounds of the Taiga drew some competition. Men were shouting in Ohtorian, and I heard the clank of swords. As I had no wish to butt into affairs that were none of my concern, I started to pack my lunch away to move on.

I stopped when I discerned a familiar voice, however. It was Nori's deep, smooth voice, speaking in Alongian with its trademark Drokorian accent.

Believing that eavesdropping would answer my questions as to why I suddenly had a Drokorian tailing me, I crept closer to the sounds, thankful for my good hearing. The roar of the Taiga made it difficult to discern what was being said, but I managed to get the gist of it.

"Where is she?" one of the voices asked.

"I told you, we split ways. I've never met her in my life before last night!" Nori replied, sounding annoyed and slightly belligerent.

A sharp cracking sound resonated through the air, alerting me to the fact that Nori had just been slapped. I winced. I quickened my pace to where the voices were emanating from, part of me grateful for the cover provided by the trees that made it hard for the Ohtorians to see me, the other part cursing them for I had yet to catch a glimpse of the situation.

"If the Duke of Phoenia finds that you're lying--"

"I know nothing," Nori spat back, enunciating each word carefully, almost condescendingly.

Straight ahead I saw the reflected light from a sword. Carefully I homed in on it, knowing that if I was too loud I would be caught. Still, I needed to know more about who was after me.

"He knows nothing," a new, more authoritative voice chimed in. "Kill him."

Now, I had to do something. If Nori was dead, then I would never figure out why he was stalking me for one thing. For another, if he died, it would have been my fault. I did not know why, but those men were after me, and Nori had just happened to get caught in the middle. As I crept through the trees, I wondered at the back of my mind what the Duke of Phoenia would want with me. I hadn't even known that there was a Duke of Phoenia! All thoughts of the mystery duke were driven from my mind, however, as I parted some tree branches to get a better view of the situation. There were fifty soldiers headed by some big brass admiral with all of their swords pointed at a defiant Nori. I breathed a sigh of relief, for if I had come from the opposite direction, I would have walked right into their clutches! I must say I was kind of impressed that they would send fifty men after me. It meant that they took me seriously, and I liked that. Unfortunately for them, they didn't take me seriously enough.

I grabbed a small tree branch, ignited it with my magic and hurled it to where the soldiers had gathered for a distraction. The soldiers that had been holding Nori's arms behind his back let him go in their surprise. Nori didn't hesitate, but snatched up his sword and ran from his captors faster than I would have thought possible for someone as banged up as he was. I waited until he was past me and then quickly cast a spell to create a wall of fire between the soldiers and us. That done, I ran, trying to forget everything I'd ever been told about the dangers of starting forest fires.

It didn't take me long to find Nori again. He was lying by the trail, covered in sweat and blood, with a bruise starting to form on the right side of his face. "You don't happen to be able to fly?" he asked.

"No," I responded. "You'd have to be an air sorceress for that. Or a water sorceress, but that's only when it rains."

"Can you swim?" he shot back.

"Yes, but I'd rather not. Why?" I asked, my voice tight with apprehension. Rivers were not exactly the best friends of fire sorceresses. To put it simply, you could very easily put a sign on a fire sorceress that says: "Does Not Operate When Wet."

"The Taiga. They won't expect me to be able to cross it in my condition. However, the water will make it easier for you to carry me across, and then we will be in Nordbury and under their protection. The Ohtorian army would have to get their permission to--"

I quickly deduced where he was going. The Ohtorians and the Nordburians had been bosom enemies for as long as anyone could remember. "Can you walk?" I asked, nervous at the prospect of getting wet, yet knowing that he had just presented the best escape plan.

Weakly, he stood up, his knees buckling slightly at the effort. I started to wonder why he was having such a hard time standing when I saw it: a deep gash along the left side of his torso beneath his armor. I knew full well that I'd have to get him to a flesh sorceress and fast. I put an arm around him and allowed him to prop himself up on me as we made it to the Taiga, terrified more by what would happen when we reached it than by the journey.

Not to say that getting to there was a cakewalk. Sure enough, the fire I started had caught the trees and, although I put a spell of protection over Nori and myself, we still could have suffocated from the smoke. Or the smoke could have blinded us, and then we could have lost our sense of direction.

It probably took us a few minutes to reach the Taiga, yet it felt like hours. Fear does that. It paralyzes your sense of time, turning every second into a minute, and every minute into an hour. As we limped along as quickly as we could manage, all I could think about was the Taiga and making sure that Nori didn't hit a tree. Nori was tall and burly and, needless to say, he weighed a ton. Blood from his wound seeped into my tunic, but there was no time to dress his wounds. His labored breathing hounded me with every step, and I thought it strange how the perfect, beautiful day had suddenly become too hot and dry.

Somehow I got us there, but I was not relieved like I should have been. The Taiga petrified me. Put simply, my magic gave me such a powerful advantage over everyone that it made me feel omnipotent, and being without it made me feel vulnerable and naked. Plus, if the army caught up to us before we crossed the river we would be defenseless against whatever they chose to throw at us. What was worse was that the Taiga was a deep, wide river, not a thin, narrow one that would have made crossing easy despite the weight of our packs. Nevertheless, without hesitating to take a break, I plunged in, taking Nori with me.

The water was freezing, especially for such a warm day. I guess the river was not aware of the fact that winter had finally ended, and it was time to warm up. I could feel my body quickly going numb. I might have taken the time to cast a spell to warm the water before I dived in, but the current was so strong that whatever water I warmed would be downstream before I could make any use of it. I could only hope that Nori could hold on to me and not succumb to shock, especially as healing was not my specialty.

With one arm around Nori, and the other paddling as well as I could, I looked ahead to see what we were facing. A steep, muddy cliff was what I saw. I didn't like it. Nori was in no condition to climb.

Luckily, our trip across the river was uneventful, and soon my hand hit a cold, spongy mud wall.

I kept low in the water as I tried to find something that would help me climb up the bank. "Please tell me that you can climb this," I yelled out to Nori so that I could be heard over the roaring river.

"I will do my best," was his reply.

I grabbed a tree root that was sticking out of the bank and hoisted myself up. I hated every second of the climb. My fingers were cold and clumsy, and they refused to cooperate with me, slipping over tree roots or rocks as I climbed. I was about half way up when I lost my fragile grip on the cliff and was sent hurling back to the river. My body screamed: partially at being plunged so violently back into the frigid waters and partially because, while the water acted as a bit of a cushion, hitting the riverbed still was not pleasant. I accidentally inhaled a bit of river water in my panic. I quickly stood up and saw that Nori had stopped his ascent and was scanning the riverbank, a look of concern filling his eyes.

"I'm fine, keep climbing!" I hollered, coughing up river water as I did so. I then took a deep, steady breath and once again started my upward journey. On the second try, I made sure to be more cautious. I grabbed a root or a rock with one hand and held it tightly to make sure the grip lasted before using my other hand to find new leverage. Ahead of me, I saw Nori swing up and over the bank and longed to be up there with him.

I was reaching for a rock when the convulsions hit me. My body went rigid and then started to quiver violently. I tried to tighten my grip on the bank, but my body would not cooperate. I hung on the bank for a moment, contorting wildly in some grotesque dance before I once again lost my grip and went plunging back into the river.

Panic truly started to fill me now. The river was not so deep that I would drown... if I were standing that is, but in my condition I could not stand. I lay at the bottom of the riverbed, facing up at the sky, and wondered if that was how I was going to die. Death was not in my cards that day, however. The tremors started to abate, and I managed to stand, as shaky as a newborn pony. My hand dived into the small pouch behind my sash, and I pulled out a pale blue root. I usually took them with my meals, but had forgotten at lunch.

I silently castigated myself for my carelessness as I shoved the root down my throat, my face skewing at the bitter taste, and once again made my way up the bank. This trip did not go well, either. I was maybe a fourth of the way up when I heard a hissing sound behind me, followed by the sound of feet squelching in mud. My heart dropped. I did not need to turn around to figure out that the remnants of the Ohtorian army had found me. Worse still, there I was out in the open, an easy target for them.

I tried to move faster. I reached up with my right hand, and then I felt my rib cage explode with pain. I screamed through clenched teeth and nearly lost my hold for a third time, but somehow I managed to hold on. I forced my right hand back up to the rock I was reaching for and grabbed it tightly, hefting myself up before reaching out for a new handhold with my left hand.

Tears formed in my eyes, obstructing my vision, and I did not even have a free hand to wipe them away. Worse still, the mud flaked from the cliff into my face, wet and gritty as I breathed it in and cried it out. I was not going down into that river again, though, not if I could help it.

Arm over arm, I finally finished my climb up the cliff, panting as I lifted myself over the edge and onto the ground. I lay on my belly, my body weak and shaky as I thanked the Goddesses that I was alive. Over the roar of the river, I could hear the jeers of the Ohtorian army and took satisfaction in the small victory that they had lost that round.

Finally, I made myself stand up. Nori was not far from where I was, but he was in a lot worse shape. He was pale and unconscious, lying flat on his back with his pack beside him. He had removed his armor and shirt and had managed to turn the shirt into a makeshift bandage for his wound before passing out. Propping him up against a tree, I gently tapped him on the check. "You still here?" I whispered. I did not have to energy to make my voice any louder.

"Esmari?" he asked, his voice low.

Well, that was something at least, even if he was talking in Drokorian. It wasn't much, though. His skin was blue, and his eye was starting to swell from where he had been hit. Water doesn't exactly help to heal wounds, and I did not like to think about the amount of blood he had just lost. And who would have guessed that water could be so damned cold on such a warm day?

Sitting down or, more like collapsing down, I reached behind my back and felt the arrow embedded there. I shuddered at the thought of it being lodged within me but knew better than to remove it. At least it hadn't come out clean through my chest. Unfortunately, it made getting my leather backpack off problematic.

I shut my eyes in a preemptive strike against the pain and drew the strap down and off my left shoulder. I sighed in relief. That hadn't been painful. I knew I would not be so lucky when I took my right strap off, though.

Indeed, I bit my lip to keep myself from screaming but, finally I had the right strap off, and the pack was dangling on the arrow stuck in my back, much like I had been dangling by a tree root on the riverbank earlier. Pain tore through me again as I reached behind myself to pull the pack off, and then it was over. With my left hand, I brought the pack in front of me and dug inside.

My sister, Lena, who was a water sorceress, had sealed it so that it was completely water proof, which of course is a must need for any fire sorceress. Stealing a glance at Nori, I figured he was in no shape to enjoy any show I might give, so I stripped out of my soaked tunic and pants, gasping in pain yet again as my tunic caught on the arrow imbedded in my back.

Nausea overcame me for a brief moment, yet somehow I hung on. I broke off the arrow, and then I reached into my bag for the bandages and did the poorest job I had ever done before or since of bandaging myself up. Once done, I pulled a fresh tunic over my head, trying to fight off the light-headedness that was threatening to overtake me.

With that done, I started back over to Nori to address his wounds. I never made it. I passed out before I had even managed my third step.

* * * *

Chapter 2

The first thing that I noticed when I woke up was the warmth. It was most decidedly one of the best feelings in the world. Every cell in my body felt as though it had been rejuvenated and was now bristling with new energy. I felt as though I could take on the world single handedly and even add some more years to my life. That is the feeling that comes from being healed by a flesh sorceress.

I know that feeling well. My sister Hoshi is a flesh sorceress. She healed me many times while we were growing up, whenever I hurt myself playing or practicing my magic. She was also the one who had brought an end to the life that I had previously enjoyed when she found that I was to be summoned into the service of the Blessed Brigid, an honor that would have been better bestowed on my all-so-pious eldest sister, Gwynna.

Turning my thoughts away from resentment, I stretched so that I was completely comfortable. I was indeed relieved that Nori and I had been fortunate enough to be found by a flesh sorceress. Sitting up in bed, I looked around and found myself in a very comfortable room with four beds, each covered with beautiful quilts consisting of applique symbols of the Goddesses. Huge windows covered the northern wall, letting in lots of refreshing sunlight and giving the wooden floor a brilliant, golden glow. An unlit fireplace added nicely to the atmosphere, and on the other side of the room was a hallway, presumably leading into the flesh sorceress' house.

Each bed had a small nightstand to the right of it on which our packs were set. My clothes were nicely cleaned and folded, and I had been dressed in a fresh nightshirt. I looked at the bed to the right of me to find Nori sleeping peacefully. I sighed in relief. All was okay. Once Nori woke up, I would interrogate him thoroughly. He owed me an explanation. I had, after all, saved his life.

And then we would part our happy ways. Or so I thought.

I turned to the hallway at the sound of approaching footsteps just as a pleasingly plump, smiling brunette walked into the room. It was no surprise to me that she was extremely attractive. All flesh sorceresses are. Whether it is due to their pleasing aura or their actual physical beauty, I have never been able to discern. I do know, however, that I am not alone among my sisters in feeling extremely inferior to Hoshi in the area of physical attractiveness.

"Good afternoon," she said, her voice clear and sparkly. "I'm Synthi Wynna, Protectress of the Claren Order, First Class."

I nodded, impressed. The Claren Order was only awarded to the best of the best. "I'm on an Errand," I said, holding out my hand, which she took and shook firmly. "Thank you for saving me."

She nodded, green eyes sparkling. "It is my duty. Besides, the man with you was too good looking not to help."

I laughed. She was a flesh sorceress all right. The directness and the ability to flirt are byproducts of the gift.

Unfortunately, in places where sorceresses are not welcome, people often take them for whores. The proposition is ridiculous. Flesh sorceresses tend to find work more easily than anyone else in the world as they are the only ones who can practice medicine. Men might try with their herbs and their bandages and stitches, but it is no match for what a flesh sorceress can do simply by touching you. Flesh sorceresses also can instantly tell whatever diseases people might be carrying and are very discriminating about who they sleep with as a result.

Flesh sorceresses are the most common type of sorceress. They are also the most feared for rather trivial reasons. While they can gather a lot of incriminating information about a person, they also tend to be extremely empathic, taking into consideration the other's feelings. Which was why they also tended to do well in mediator roles. Some made extremely successful ambassadors, and still plenty of others were devoted advocates for social reform.

Yet for some reason, people aren't logical when it comes to having their intimate biological makeup being revealed. Over the years, this had led to an intricate and sometime ridiculous set of social rules, chief among them being that flesh sorceresses never speak of what they find when they touch someone, not even to that person, unless given permission by the person.

For example, Synthi undoubtably knew that I was called for an Errand. Yet, without my asking her for a status report on my health, she was not allowed to comment on it, even to me, and especially not to anyone else. While I was fine with the latter, it was the former that always struck me as slightly ridiculous. Hence the reason why I had told her I was on an Errand when I introduced myself, so that she would have permission to discuss it with me.

"Is he your boyfriend?" she asked.

I shook my head. "Just someone I ran into. I've had a string of bad luck."

She nodded, touching my hand. "So I see."

For some odd reason, I felt bound and chained to explain to her the reason Nori and I had been lying passed out on the cliff. "Some bar patrons got a little rowdy. That idiot there decided to try and play hero, but I took care of them. Now, it seems as though the Kingdom of Ohtori is after me specifically and him by association."

She smiled. "So the rumors are true. Someone actually managed to kill the Duke of Finley in a bar fight and, by doing so, antagonized his father, the Duke of Phoenia."

I blinked a few times, confused that I had actually killed someone in that brawl, much less someone of great importance. I twisted my hands nervously. Synthi smiled, however.

"Well, you've got my support. He was a misogynist. He especially hated sorceresses. He's jealous that men aren't favored by the Goddess like women are. There was a huge sorceress hunt in Phoenia last year."

I blinked in confusion. "I was in Brisa for half of the year, and I knew nothing of this."

Synthi nodded and took a seat on one of the empty beds. "That's not surprising. Brisa is out of the Duke's territory and, though he tried hard, he couldn't convince the rest of Ohtori to participate in the hunt. He captured a lot of flesh sorceresses and even a few air sorceresses."

I shook my head to clear it. "It was bad enough when Genah kicked the sorceresses out of their kingdom. I hate to see this happening elsewhere. And what do we do about it? Nothing, we just let it happen."

"Not quite. The one water sorceress in Phoenia managed to escape and form a small counter resistance. She's not been able to receive support from any of the guilds, however, and I'm too much of a coward to join her without them. I simply crossed the Taiga and received the dubious sanctuary of King Janus. Now I patrol the border for other refugees and help those that I can."

There was something strange in her voice when she mentioned the king. "So, what do you think of King Janus? Could he offer me safe passage through Nordbury?"

Synthi smiled, but her smile seemed like a farce. "Some things are best kept silent, that is the response to your first question. As to the second, if you are in a hurry, which you are undoubtedly are," she said with a wink, "then I would head straight home. King Janus doesn't dispense with favors in the absence of compensation, and that would seriously delay your journey."

I nodded, but even though I knew that she was right, I couldn't help but be intrigued by her story. "I should return straight home then?"

"Have you lost your head?" Nori asked.

I spun around, caught completely off guard. When had he woken up? "What?" I asked, dumbly.

"Have you lost your head?" he repeated, "Sure, try and flee with no protection from Nordbury, and I can promise you that the Ohtori will ally themselves with five other kingdoms to see who will win in the race to impale your head onto a stick. While you may be protected within the bounds of Nordbury, what you must not forget is that Ohtori is better connected with the other kingdoms than Nordbury. You'd have to have a death wish to leave without the protection of a sovereign. As soon as you set foot outside of Nordbury, five kingdoms will be waiting for the pounce!"

I shrugged nonchalantly. Facing the kingdom of Ohtori seemed like fun compared to what I would face when I returned home. "I can take care of myself."

"Even a fire sorceress can't take on five kingdoms!"

"Watch me!" I spat.

"What exactly would King Janus ask of us for safe passage through Nordbury?" Nori asked, making an appeal to Synthi.

Synthi regarded him silently for a few moments, her expression unreadable, despite the presence of her warm smile. "King Janus is planning an expedition to Ereshkigal."

Both Nori's and my jaws dropped. Ereshkigal? The land of priceless history and treasure, yet the domain and prison of the evil goddess, the Morrigana? The land where whomever dares to enter is never seen again? The land where supposedly King Armallo of Mithryn organized an army comprised of members from all of the Twelve Kingdoms to enter and reveal its mysteries, yet of the estimated 800,000 who went, none returned. Who would be crazy enough to go to Ereshkigal?

But, wasn't it just the previous night that Nori had asked me if I was heading to Ereshkigal?

"Why?" I asked.

"Officially, King Janus has spread the word that the rumors about Ereshkigal are lies told by the Priestesses at the Temple of the Blessed Brigid." Synthi replied as casually as though she were giving a prediction about the weather.

"Why would they lie?" I asked, wondering whether or not Janus was prone to eating the green hallucinogenic mushrooms that Hoshi had always warned me about.

"Because King Janus believes that sorcery is not inherited, but is learned, acquired knowledge. He has told his subjects that to keep people the priestesses deem unworthy of receiving the gift of sorcery, namely men, from attaining it, the priestesses have sealed this knowledge in Ereshkigal."

Synthi brushed her chesnut locks from her face as she stood up to pace the room. "He has spun this successful, yet ludicrous campaign about how everyone should have the right to the gifts bestowed to the sorceresses, even though all of the evidence points to the fact that Ereshkigal is truly an evil place to travel and that the gift of sorcery is determined before birth," Synthi said in a lucid but cheerful voice.

I nodded. "My sister can tell what type of sorceress a pregnant woman is carrying, though I know not all flesh sorceresses can."

Synthi's smile widened. "As can I. And King Janus knows it, too. I don't think that he believes one word that he spins but, as to his true motives, I only have speculation, none of which makes sense. Unfortunately, he has commanded that I come with him to serve as the Chief Healer and keep his daughter company. To be perfectly honest, I would prefer that you accompanied us because the thought of going to Ereshkigal does not appeal to me at all, and I'd feel much better with a fire sorceress around. It is not something that I would require of someone. Unfortunately, King Janus doesn't give a damn about what you think, just about what benefits him."

I looked at Nori with a raised eyebrow. He was staring intently at Synthi in disbelief.

Synthi sighed. "Well, you now have two choices. You can take one risky route and try to make it through the Twelve Kingdoms without the benefit of a sovereign's protection. Or you could take the even riskier course and go to Ereshkigal, where you most likely would not return to tell about it. I personally would take the former."

Like most people, I have a bad habit. Mine is to ignore my gut instinct. My gut instinct was to run away screaming from this land led by some idiotic ruler who insisted on taking his people into Ereshkigal. Whatever my gut was screaming, however, I had another inclination competing with it. I was dead curious about what was going on under the surface in Nordbury. I also was curious about Ereshkigal. Yet most devastatingly, I also was possessed by a sudden burst of self importance, daring to believe that perhaps the true reason that the Blessed Brigid had called me into her service was to investigate whatever was going on here, not to merely save some town's crop from a premature winter. Maybe there was some deeper purpose to my being called.

But there was another reason that I knew I had to go, regardless of whether or not I had been called. While there might be loads of treasure and books on magic and history now lost to humanity in Ereshkigal, there was also the chance of resurrecting the Morrigana. You can't kill a Goddess; you can just send her into a long slumber. If the wrong person decided to wake a Goddess, however, the Twelve Kingdoms would be seriously screwed. If that was the case, then I needed to stop it. The fire sorceress is the most powerful of the five sorceresses and, right now, I was the only fire sorceress in the Twelve Kingdoms. "Sounds like fun," I said.

Nori's head snapped around. "Drae!"

"You don't have to come if you don't want to," I replied.

"Have you no respect for yourself?"

"Plenty, but as you just pointed out, if I go out on my own, all the kingdoms will band together to see which one will bring home my head on a stick. Besides, I've always wanted to see Ereshkigal."

His blue eyes took a determined look. "I shall journey forth as well then."

I shrugged and stared at my quivering hands. "It's your head." In other words, if he got in trouble this time, he could get himself out of it. I wasn't setting any more forest fires.

Synthi smiled, betraying not one ounce of whatever her true feelings might be. "We'll leave at dawn tomorrow to visit the palace."

Nori shook his head. "I don't trust the Ohtori to stay across the river. They might sneak over to find us. We need to leave now."

I nodded in agreement. "The farther we are from here, the better."

Synthi frowned, though even that didn't mar her pretty face. "Well, I guess I had best get accustomed to sleeping outdoors."

* * * *

Synthi's bedroom was everything you would expect from a flesh sorceress. In a stark contrast to the rest of her lodge, which had an old folk homey feel, her bedroom resembled what you might find in the bedroom of the palace mistress. Her room contained a large, full-size bed piled thick with red satin sheets (she must have been an expert sorceresses to acquire that much money. Satin had to be imported all the way from Drokor!) An elegant, thick carpet that depicted the Blessed Brigid bestowing her powers to Ariadne, the first flesh sorceress to roam the Twelve Kingdoms, covered most of the floor. Why they had to be nude was something beyond my grasp, however.

Elsewhere in the room, a bench in front of a bay window was filled with satin cushions of various shades of red and pink overlooked the forest. The view was spectacular, romantic even, the way the lush trees gently parted to reveal a glimpse of a waterfall.

Another wall contained a full-length mirror with carvings of the sun and stars along the border. To the right of the mirror, was a chest of drawers carved from a piece of red wood that was so smooth and such an even shade of cherry that it was easily the most beautiful set of drawers I had ever seen.

Synthi had been kind enough to let me borrow her room to change while Nori dressed in the patients' room. While in her room, however, Synthi also decided she liked my hair and, after I had dressed, she took out a hair brush and started brushing my long red locks. With some exasperation, I sat on the edge of her bed as she chatted happily. I really wanted to be on my way.

"How old are you?" she asked. "You look so young, yet I have a feeling that you're older than you look.

Thanks for reminding me, I thought. I was well aware of the fact that I looked more toward the fifteen-year-old end of the age scale than to the twenty-year end. In short, I was petite and curveless. Maybe she's not like Hoshi... Hoshi had a sense of tact, I thought, staring in surprise down at the scene depicted in the carpet. I'd never heard that the Blessed Brigid had bestowed the first sorceress' powers in that manner!

Nori saved me the trouble of answering, "How long are you two going to be in there?" he shouted from the hall.

"Coming," I said, sliding off the bed and gathering my hair to braid it as I moved toward the door. Synthi gracefully stepped down from the bed and followed me out quietly. Nori was leaning against the wall when I opened the door, his eyes focused on the ceiling and his foot tapping in a gesture of impatience. Once again, I was overcome by his fashion sense. What the Drokorians saw in fur-lined clothing I'll simply never know. Yet it also sparked my curiosity slightly as you rarely saw Drokorians out in kingdoms that had not banned sorceresses.

"What are you doing so far from home?" I asked.

Apparently, I had touched off on a subject he would rather not talk about, for he replied rather quickly. "I could mirror that very question right back at you. From your accent, you are clearly Yoshan."

My curiosity grew, and I wondered what he was hiding. I replied, "Most sorceresses travel."

"Only water, earth, and flesh sorceresses travel, and that's for charitable reasons. What, pray tell me, acts of charity do fire sorceresses perform?"

"Oh, let's see, rescuing naive young men in over their heads," I retorted.

I was expecting Nori to reply with some scathing comeback (I certainly would have!), but instead he laughed. "You're a sharp young lass."

Synthi suddenly let out a giggle that was altogether way too cute. "I see that you two are becoming fast friends. Before you know it, we'll have the first pairing of a Drokorian and a sorceress in thousands of years."

Nori, to my surprise, turned as red as his hair. I stared at Synthi in disbelief. Any connection I had made between her and Hoshi was definitely blown from my mind. A pity. Until that moment, I had always thought I was an excellent judge of character.

* * * *

The forests in Nordbury seemed darker than those in Ohtori. Perhaps it was because I was nervous and for good reason. One day I was on my way home after a long Errand, and the next I was being stalked, attacked, and finally asked to join a mission to venture into Ereshkigal. Who wouldn't have been nervous?

I was quite content to journey on in silence. Nori, however, was content to interrogate Synthi. I listened, anxious to gather more information, but found myself put off by the odd way that Nori talked. Were all Drokorians so verbose?

"Pray tell me the story of King Janus," Nori started. "He must have built a strong kingdom headed by a fearless army if he is proposing a mission to Ereshkigal."

I yelped as my leg fell from under me, and I tripped. Luckily, I was used to stumbling and managed an "I'm okay," to Synthi and Nori before Synthi responded.

"King Janus? On good terms with his people?" Synthi giggled. "They're scared of him. Not to mention that they're desperate. The kingdom is bankrupt for starters, and its people poor." She sounded way too happy about it, almost as if she had helped to bankrupt it. "It's been that way forever. King Janus, an only child with no sisters who could rule, married Queen Tiffini of Redgear for her dowry. True, she was the youngest daughter, but Redgear is a very rich kingdom, and I personally believe that they were happy to be rid of her.

"She was believed to be barren for many years, but he didn't dare divorce her because he had already managed to squander all the money for her return dowry. Then, they finally managed to have a daughter, Kourtni, but she is a flesh sorceress."

The pieces fell into place. "I remember Gwynna mentioning the scandal, now that I think about it," I said. "Gwynna, my eldest sister and Supreme Priestess of the Temple of the Blessed Brigid, was sent to negotiate the truce between the kingdoms after the scandal."

"Yet I was lead to believe that sorceresses are banned from royal families," Nori said, falling behind us a little as the path narrowed.

I nodded. "Usually the nunneries take them as soon as they are born, and there hasn't been one born to a royal family in centuries as either your mother or your paternal grandmother has to be a sorceress in order to be blessed, which was the idea. Remove them from the bloodline.

"It would, supposedly, upset the balance among the Twelve Kingdoms if one were to have a sorceress in the royal family. Aoife the Terrible was the direct cause of the edict. Yet, while people remember that one bloodthirsty queen, they forget all of the other peaceful sorceresses who ruled wisely."

Synthi nodded and continued in her singsong voice. "There are rumors about Janus' parenthood, that his mother, Queen Aristia, had been fooling around with some sorceress' son. There was also a rumor that Kourtni is not Tiffini's child. No one, I guess, aside from Janus and Tiffini, can know for sure."

"Either that or Janus is sterile, and Tiffini was the one fooling around," I said.

Synthi giggled. "She strikes me as the type, too. At any rate, the addition of Kourtni only added to their woes. Yet eventually, Kourtni was allowed because the Kingdom of Nordbury definitely needed an heir, and Tiffini is at an age where producing another female child would be difficult. A few other kingdoms are trying to use this as an excuse to add some sorceress blood to their lines as well. This scandalized most kingdoms, and an anti-sorceress backlash cumulated. Janus is banking on that to revive the economy by creating a safe haven for sorceresses."

I frowned. I'd not heard anything about that. Not even from Gwynna. Though it might have been because I had been away too long. Still, I communicated with my family off and on via passenger pigeons. I glanced at Nori to see if this was news for him as well, but his face revealed nothing.

He muttered something to himself before saying, "This strikes me as wrong. Sorceresses are born with extraordinary abilities, and children from royal families are born to wield enormous privileges. To combine the two elements would result in too much power, which is always a corruptive element."

I shook my head. "Flesh sorceresses are the most prevalent, and by their nature they can't hurt anyone. Any pain they inflict on someone, they feel. Have you ever seen a flesh sorceress after someone died as she was trying to heal him or her? It's almost as if a part of them dies as well."

"Yeah, but that's flesh sorceresses. A water sorceress can drown a person with a mere thought while an air sorceress can suffocate one. An earth sorceress can destroy a kingdom if she chooses to cause an earthquake, and we all know what you can do," Nori countered.

"Yet, at any given time, any given kingdom will likely have three water sorceresses, one air sorceress, and most likely no earth sorceress or fire sorceress. With all the differing loyalties, it'd be hard to unite them, and it proves to be. Look how easy it is to drive them out of a kingdom. Even then, sorceresses do not like disturbing the harmony set by Blessed Brigid too much. That's why we use our magic only when we have to."

"You have respect for the harmony that Brigid creates, but a sorceress born to the wrong person may not," Nori parried.

I had no reply to that. Yet, I was slightly surprised that a Drokorian would understand the respect behind the Blessed Brigid's harmony. Perhaps there were still a few Drokorians who hadn't converted to the new religion.

"Janus doesn't want a weapon," Synthi interrupted. "He wants an economy revolving around the blessings of a sorceress. With a water sorceress, there would be no need to worry of the droughts that plague this area. With an earth sorceress, the harvest will be productive each and every year. With lots of flesh sorceresses, they will become the place where people suffering from debilitating illness will come to receive top rate treatment."

"And what, pray tell me, does a mission to Ereshkigal have to do with any of this?" Nori asked.

"It's a desperate promise to desperate people," Synthi said. "Janus has dazzled them with stories about untold riches, fountains of youth and the power of becoming sorcerers and sorceresses themselves. The idea of becoming sorcerers truly appeals to the men. He has told them that all of the horror stories about Ereshkigal are lies conjured up by priestesses and spread by wealthier kingdoms to protect their riches. And as they are desperate, they will believe such foolish tales of easy riches and eternal life."

"Was Janus, perhaps, the product of too much inbreeding?" I asked. Nori blanched at my open disrespect for the throne.

Synthi took it in stride, however. "Perhaps," she said with a knowing smile.

* * * *

Judging from the palace alone, I never would have guessed that Nordbury was a bankrupt kingdom. I could instantly see why, though. It was opulence and luxury beyond belief, not to mention gaudy. Tapestries and paintings were shoved together wherever a bit of free wall space would permit rather than with regard to some overall theme or pattern, not to mention the lack of symmetry that resulted. The thick, puce-colored carpet contrasted sharply with the bright yellow walls and the reds and greens that dominated the paintings and tapestries. Orange and purple chests of drawers held lamps of pearls and lamps of stained glass. Exotic plants from as far away as Xanzjar and Mahalla were shoved into any random place that could be found.

If the decorators had had a bad streak of a few decades, I'd hate to see how long the fashion gurus had been on their round of bad taste. The men were dressed in layer upon layer of undershirts, shirts and jackets, with each layer exposed in some hideous way just so one could get a glimpse at how terribly the colors clashed. They wore long hoods of red, apparently King Janus's favorite color, which hung down their backs with little bells at the end. They looked good compared to the women, however.

Apparently in Nordbury it was the custom to have one's dress four feet longer than your person, so that it draped awkwardly on the floor. How they could move about and dance was anyone's guess. I, myself, just had a hard time walking around them without tripping! Okay, I did trip. Twice. But Synthi and Nori just walked on as though it were par for the course for them.

Why didn't they do things like they do in Yoshan? Symmetry and less is more; those were the rules that guided our art and architecture. Yoshan had never had any trouble with bankruptcy.

I must say that we got quite a few stares as we walked in. Synthi, with her long pink dress and sash indicating her status as a flesh sorceress and healer was, presumably, a common and expected sight. It was Nori who really turned heads. It's not every day that people see a redheaded Drokorian. Most have black hair, blue eyes, and deathly pale skin. Plus, Drokor was on the other side of the Twelve Kingdoms. That he drew glances was no surprise.

And then there was me, a woman dressed in red trousers and adorned with the red sash of a fire sorceress. Most people had never seen a fire sorceress in their lives, so it wasn't too much of a surprise that I also drew a lot of attention. That didn't mean I had to like it. It always reminded me of how short I really was.

I kept my chin high and set my eyes forward. If I was going to be remembered for anything, it would be my dignity. Even if I did clumsily trip over one or two of the ladies' skirts.

Synthi stopped before two large and ornately decorated thrones. I figured out pretty quickly that the guy on the right-hand throne had to be King Janus. He didn't impress me. He had on that stupid hood, over which lay a ridiculously lavish crown. He had a long, angular face, greasy black hair, and beady eyes, with a thin, black goatee. To his left was Queen Tiffini, a short, plump woman whose face must have frozen a long time ago while she was smiling. Their daughter, seated behind them, looked nothing like either of them.

Kourtni was definitely a flesh sorceress. Not only were her green eyes a definite tell-all (only sorceresses have green eyes), but she was also horrifyingly beautiful. Golden hair that was slightly wavy fell down her back and around a heart-shaped face. Her lips had a slight pout, and her figure was as voluptuous as any woman could wish to have. And she was a princess. It was enough to make any lesser woman hate her.

Synthi got down before them, bowed deeply, and set off on her introductions and explanations. When she was finished, Janus looked at me and motioned me to the throne. I approached, bowed only as much as my dignity would allow, and said as non-sarcastically as I could, "Your Highness."

"What you name again?"

I winced. Alongian was the official language of travelers, spoken by everyone in all of the Twelve Kingdoms. Each kingdom had their own native language in addition to Alongian, but most educated people, politicians, traders, and merchants knew how to speak Alongian. How could a king manage to speak it so poorly?

I then bit my lip. I didn't particularly like giving my full name, but you didn't dare withhold it from royalty. "Ashes," I said. "Draedreia Ellanorra Ashes, your Highness."

With that, Janus and Tiffini exchanged glances. "You don happen to be of any relation to young water sorceress who pass by this way two year ago from Yoshan, do you? Liana Brigeitia her name, I believe."

"You mean Lena Brigit Ashes?" I asked.

Everyone stared at me as though I had just told Janus to do something anatomically impossible. "I don't know a Liana Brigeitia Ashes, but I am from Yoshan, and I do have an older sister named Lena Brigit Ashes who is a water sorceress and travels around to help irrigate..."

I stopped as I felt Nori desperately tapping my shoulder, "It's not polite to correct the king in Nordbury," he whispered.

Oh. No wonder everyone had gone stoically silent. I shrugged. "If I offended you, sorry, but I can't answer your question if we can't establish her identity, now can we?"

Behind me I heard a loud thunk as Nori smacked his forehead with his hand.

"You fire sorceress?" Janus asked, his tone and expression unreadable, though his eyes did show some sign of life. Right now they looked angry.

"Yes," I said.

"Demonstrate!" he clamored.

Now, while I am a bit of a show off, I don't like having to show off on command like some puppet. Still, after my first blunder, I figured a demonstration to let him know that I could kick his and his guard's butts easily enough if I chose to wouldn't hurt. Drawing with my finger in the air the letters D-R-A-E, I allowed the letters to come to life in flames. One of the most common questions I am asked by people who are not Gifted is how I do my sorcery. To be honest, I can't tell you. I always reply by asking my questioner, "How do you move your arm or your leg?" You just think about moving your arm, and it moves. It's exactly the same with my spells.

That doesn't make what I do any less impressive, however. Indeed, a murmur rang through the crowd as everyone started talking at once and, from behind the throne, I heard Kourtni gasp and clap her petite, perfect hands. Synthi, for once, looked surprised, and even Nori, who had seen my power, watched intently as I stretched out my arms, turning my name into a wall of fire in the space between my arms. With a sly grin, I walked into the flames, much to the amazement of the court.

The flames now covered my upper body, and I relished in it. I would never tire of the euphoria that resulted from stepping into the flames. It was the only time that I could ever truly forget all that was happening, that my homecoming was approaching. While I was in the flames, I felt as though I would live forever.

Gracefully, I bowed and let the flames die out. Applause erupted around me, including from Janus and Tiffini. I nodded and stood still. Janus decided, thankfully, that it was time to interrogate Nori.

"And you, what you name?"

Nori stepped out and bowed gracefully to Janus. Man, those Drokorians really were into the whole chivalry thing. He even got down on one knee! "Your majesty," he said. "I, Nori of Drokor, am honored to be under the protection of your kingdom."

I wanted to whisper, "Suck up!" into Nori's ear, but somehow I didn't think either Nori or Janus would see the humor. Especially Nori. It was scary how sincere he was!

Janus seemed to take Nori's posturing well. Too well. "You fighter?"

Nori nodded. "I have mastered the art of swordplay, and among the knights of Drokor I alone stood undefeated."

Oh, no wonder he was so noble and righteous! He was a knight of Drokor! It all made sense now. Most likely he was born to some serving wench and had made his way to knighthood with prowess and his own skills of butt kissing. What he was doing so far from Drokor was anyone's guess, though.

Janus smiled. "You do. Melis, take them to comfy room. Leave day after to Ereshkigal. After we return, you under my protection."

Well, I thought to myself as Melis took Nori and me down the long, twisting corridors, that went well.

Then I found out about our living arrangements. The serving wench opened the door, glanced at me nervously and said, "This is your room, good night."

Nori and I exchanged a glance. "Miss!" we both said.

She turned, "Yes?" She was trembling. Why were people afraid of me?

"Umm, this is one room, there are two of us," I said.

"King Janus believes that you two are a pair. It is not polite to correct King Janus."

Nori blushed. What was his problem? Honestly, I'd never met a true honest to goodness prude before.

"Consider yourselves lucky. It's a big room." And with that she ran off, leaving Nori and I staring blankly at each other.

With a sigh, I brushed past him and into the room. It was big, sure enough. And gaudy. The bed looked big and comfy, thankfully, but it certainly wasn't eye appealing.

"You may take the bed," Nori said, coming up behind me. "That couch there looks comfortable and will suit my needs. It is probably a blessing being assigned to the same room. One of us can keep guard. The people here are so nervous that I have a hard time putting my trust in them."

I nodded in agreement, even though truth to tell, I didn't trust Nori either. And if I was correct, he had no reason to trust me as well. Hadn't he asked me if I were going go to Ereshkigal? And wasn't it strange that, because of him, I ended up being drafted on a trip to Ereshkigal?

"Well," I said. "I've got to go pick up some supplies for the trip. Be back in about an hour."

"Wait!" Nori said, jumping out of the chair he was about to sit on. "I believe that I should accompany you. This place gives me the creeps!"

"Oh, you agree about the decorative tastes?"

"Aside from that," Nori said, wincing as he looked at one of the walls, which was bright orange in color and plastered with paintings done primarily in dark blue. "By ourselves we are targets. We should watch each other's backs. Besides, I could use some supplies, too."

The trip was a quiet one. I think both of us were afraid of being overheard. Why, I couldn't quite pinpoint, as it wasn't as if we were there to sabotage Janus' mission. Things just didn't seem healthy there, and I think it was grating on the both of us.

The palace market was the deadest market I had ever been at, and I attributed it to the fact that the people were paying for the King's wardrobe with what should have been their bread money. I glanced around, looking for the Healer's Shop and finally found it. Pointing to the shop, I said to Nori, "I'll be in there, see you when I get out."

"I'll venture forth with you."

"I'm getting feminine supplies."

Nori, predictably, blushed. "I'll remain here."

So I lied. I had no need of feminine supplies. Sorceresses who were called by the Blessed Brigid were barren, stuck in a prepubescent state. What I did need was blue root, a medicine that helped a called sorceress fulfill her duty.

The healer was extremely ecstatic when I asked for my prescription. She was practically tripping over herself in her excitement to bow down to a sorceress who had been called by the Blessed Brigid and, in doing so, she rambled incessantly about how proud I must be. I really got tired of it. Just take my order silently, fill it out silently, have me pay for it silently, and allow me to leave silently. That would have been good service.

I left and found Nori happily chatting away at some sword shop. We shopped for a while, and all of the storeowners were extremely eager to have us come to their shop. I picked up a new pair of trousers and a new tunic, and Nori got a new pair of boots. We returned to our room to find that supper had been laid out.

It was a good meal. The chicken was roasted to perfection and so juicy that it practically melted in my mouth. It was tinged with a bit of rosemary and lemon, not so much that it was overpowerful, but just flavorful enough to be delectable. The bread was sweet and buttery, and best of all it was not stale. So the stay there wasn't a complete assault on my bodily senses. Nordbury may have struck out on every other field, but the food was divine. Nori, of course, was feeling very chatty.

"I have heard that Yoshan is the Kingdom of Sorceresses."

I nodded, as I took my dose of blue root and swallowed it with the help of some red wine. "You can say that. Honestly, it wasn't until I left the kingdom that I noticed any sorceress-hating."

"I had never even met a flesh sorceress until I ventured from Drokor. They were driven out centuries ago. What few are born are immediately sent to the Temple of the Blessed Brigid."

"It is the best. My sister Gwynna, an air sorceress, is the Supreme Priestess there." I replied.

Among the royalty of Drokor, Mithryn, and Genah, the kingdoms that had banned sorceresses, occasionally a sorceress would be born when the gene had been passed from mother to son to grandson to great-grandson and so forth until a female would be conceived. It didn't happen often, but it was not unheard of. It was also how sorceresses with rare Gifts would suddenly pop up. My mother, for instance, was the first female born to her father's side of the family for at least eight generations, and thus had received the exceedingly rare gene for her Gift.

"What, pray tell me, type of sorceress was your mother? You mentioned that your other sister, Lena, was a water sorceress. From my understanding, it's rare for one woman to have different daughters with different blessings."

"It is," I replied. "Mother is a five, though."

Nori frowned. "A five? I'm sorry, I thought there was only air, earth, water, fire, and flesh."

I nodded, "Fives have the power of all five of the elements. However, they can only master basic level spells in each of them. They aren't very powerful at all. And they are even scarcer than fire sorceresses. Mother is the only one mentioned in all of four centuries in the archives of the Blessed Brigid."

He nodded. "Are Gwynna and Lena your only sisters?"

"No, there's also Rubeya and Hoshiana. Rubeya is an earth sorceress, Hoshi a flesh sorceress."

"One of each."

"You bet. Family feuds were always real interesting."

He laughed. "It was just me and my little brother and sister. I thought we had some interesting feuds, but I guess we can't compare."

"Is your brother a knight?"

"Yes and my greatest rival. And my sister, much to our chagrin, could give us both a run for our money. She passed away recently, though."

"I'm sorry to hear that," I said uncomfortably, hoping that he wouldn't decide to get emotional with me.

Luckily, he decided to change the topic. "What are you doing so far from home?" he asked.

My head snapped in surprise. It wasn't the question that surprised me, however. It was the language he spoke it in. "You speak Yoshan," I said in the same tongue.

"Yes," he replied. "Linguistics is a passion of mine."

So much for the idea that he was the bastard son of a serving wrench. You have to have money to be able to study linguistics.

Yet one thing was clear. Both of us had questions. And both of us had secrets. I regarded him carefully for a moment before proposing a game I used to play with my sisters. "Here's an idea," I said, continuing the conversation in Yoshan (hoping that whoever was sent to spy on us could not understand Yoshan.) "I'll ask you a question and, if you can answer it, you can ask me a question. If I answer it, I can ask you another question, and so forth, until we stumble upon one that the other is unwilling to answer. That way we're all fair and square in this information game."

Nori considered the proposition and nodded his assent.

I decided to start simply. "What are you doing so far away from Drokor?"

Nori stared at me thoughtfully for a moment, and I could see that he was weighing his words carefully. "My situation in Drokor, always dreadful, festered to the point where it became unbearable. Having lost everyone in Drokor who mattered to me, I also found that I had lost the purpose in my life. With no other purpose to drive my being, I decided I could either die or consult the prophet at Cassalex. Obviously, I chose to consult Cassalex and was venturing from Cassalex to Yoshan when I stumbled upon you."

I was intrigued and brimming with more questions. It took all of my resolve not to let them tumble out.

"Now," Nori said, staring at my hands. "I must know, for it affects the well being of everyone in our group, though I understand that the question will cause offense. Yet you see, I can't help but notice that your hands are constantly shaking, and your growth appears to be stunted. I've also noticed that you tend to take root of some sort that seem to alleviate the shakiness of your limbs for a time. Are you a drug addict?"

My eyebrows raised in surprise. And then I sighed. "I guess you wouldn't know about the Sorceress' Sickness in Drokor where there are no sorceresses. No, I am no drug addict, though I wish that were my problem. I have been blessed with the Sorceress' Sickness. It's a neurodegenerative disorder that is eventually fatal, common in fire and earth sorceresses, which is why you see so few of us. I am in the second stage, where my limbs shake constantly. The medicine I take helps to stave off the symptoms and maybe even slows down the progress of the disease."

I could tell that Nori himself was biting back a number of questions. He finally settled for a sympathetic pat on the hands and the words, "I'm sorry to hear that. If there is anything I can do to make your journey more comfortable, let me know."

"It is a blessing of the Goddess Brigid, that I bear faithfully," I said dutifully and then asked my second question. "So, what did the prophet at Cassalex say?"

Nori scratched his chin. "This is where it gets truly interesting. The prophet said that I would meet a fire sorceress and that this fire sorceress would kill all five of the Goddesses. She said that I would either assist her or stop her from completing her task."

My jaw dropped. I knew full well that I was the only fire sorceress in the Twelve Kingdoms. For there to be another one would be statistically improbable and biologically impossible. Yet I also knew that I would never kill the five Goddesses. For one thing, it was impossible to kill a Goddess. And even if it were possible, for there to be another fire sorceress meant that I would have to have a daughter, which would be also be impossible. Unless my parents had had another child since I'd left without telling me, though I was fairly certain that Mother was well past the age of childbearing.

"Drae, how much time do you have?" Nori asked, his expression sympathetic but urgent.

The question was vague, but I knew what he meant. "I guess you don't have Errands in Drokor, either. Most likely you've lost precious knowledge because of that new religion. Anyway, when the Blessed Brigid decides she should bestow upon a mere human the honor of being her top servant in the afterlife, she has to notify them somehow. So, she afflicts a terminal illness on them so that they will know ahead of time that they have been chosen and will have the time to set their affairs in this life in order to prove themselves worthy of serving her in the next life."

"The Errand that you mentioned," Nori said, and I could see the pieces starting to click in his head.and I could see the pieces starting to click in his brain

I nodded. "Once I return to Yoshan, I will go through my final rituals, which will take a week, and then be given a draught to help me sleep. When I awake, it will be on the Other Side.

"Without the draught, I would probably have three more years left. I'd spend the final two years completely paralyzed and useless for any purpose, good or evil."

"You don't seem to be the type who would enjoy the prospect of spending an eternity fetching the bathrobe for anyone, not even a Goddess," Nori said.

He was correct. That didn't mean that I had to tell him that. "It is a great honor to be summoned by the Blessed Brigid," I said, trying to put some strength and conviction into my words.

I don't think he believed me, however, and I decided that it was time to change the subject. "So, should I decide to go on a murderous rampage, would you assist or stop me?"

"I would endeavor to stop you, though I know that I would most likely perish in the attempt. My mother is Ruberrian, you see, and she brought me up in the old religion, so I would never do anything to harm the Goddesses." He then looked me dead in the eye. "I believe that there must have been a fluke. There must be some other fire sorceress in existence that everyone is unaware of. Perhaps King Janus is hiding her in his dungeon, waiting to unleash her upon the world.

"Yet, I will be keeping a close eye on you and, if you do anything that hints of treachery, I will do my best to stop you."

I laughed. "Well, please, don't hesitate. I would rather be dead than involved in a plot to kill the Goddesses."

Nori didn't know how to interpret this so instead he asked, "Is there any cure for your ailment?"

I shook my head. "No. There's no research into curing it, really. It's not good to interfere with the wishes of the Goddess."

It was my turn to ask a question, and indeed, there was something that was bothering me about him. His name. The only name he ever dropped was what I assumed was to be his nickname. For such a formal man, it was certainly a breach of formality.

"What's your full name?"

Nori sighed resignedly. "That, I am afraid, I cannot answer. It is more than my life is worth to speak my given name."

For once, I was sad that the game was over. I felt like neither of us had cut to the true meat of the matter.

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