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Merrie felt their presence before she heard them. It was a caress of magic against her senses, like feathers trailing along her skin. But she didn’t have skin to caress, only a solid mass of shadows that could barely handle the heat of the day. She remembered the touch of different magic, from crystal-like arcane patterns to the flowing pulse of holy magic.

She shivered at the memories. The paladins and Bass both used holy magic. It was bright and clean, filled with life and hope. For a creature of shadows, it also meant death. Even the aura of power felt like the sun, she didn’t think she could survive the onslaught of those energies any more than the morning sunrise.

Freezing, she listened for her pulse. When she heard the triple beat, she let out a sigh of relief. Her heart had not disappeared nor it was her imagination. The Lord of Shadows wouldn’t have given it to her if it was a temporary measure, but she didn’t know what the alien being wanted from her. Nor did she know if it would grant her enough strength to survive the sunlight or simply keep her body together long enough for rescue.

A crunch of dead leaves drew her attention back. The ground vibrated with their footsteps as they came closer.

“Are you sure this is the place, sire?” The first one spoke in a deadpanned voice, somehow giving the impression of being both attentive and bored at the same time.

“Yes, I saw the petition with my own eyes. Halfway between road markers 1903 and 1904. Two hundred meters from a rock cracked in half to where three trees were blazed and painted with a white 'L’. That seems pretty specific, don’t you think.” The second speaker had a deeper, richer voice. Memories of it brought a ripple of pleasure coursing through Merrie’s new body.

“Of course, sire, but what is here?”

“They didn’t say.”

“Then why are we here?”

“Because…” the second man’s voice trailed off. “My spies say that there was a battle here and there is still a presence of dark magic here.”

“Are you sure?”

There was a loud snap. “Large circle of dead trees not give it away? Take a deep breath. You can smell that? That’s ether, Boz, shadow magic. You should be used to it. You’ve smelled her.”

“In my defense, sire, most of the time when I was cleaning up after you, there was also the smell of sex also. It is hard to tell the two apart.” Boz’s voice never rose above a steady pace.

Merrie couldn’t help but smile. She listened to the two men and tried to identify the third. She shifted slightly and rotted leaves cascaded around her. When she piled them up, they were full but either time or the shadows had rotted them into powder. The dust coursed along her skin and settled underneath her. She felt the heat of the day above them and winced in fear that sunlight would touch her and burn her away.

“It could be dangerous,” said Boz.

“And that is why we have Loyal Alestri here. And if something defeats her, we also have Eolis and the duke. Don’t worry, Boz, it won’t take long.”

“Yes, sire.”

There was a pause. “Do you want to go back to the wagon.”

“Please, these leaves are doing nothing for my shoes.”

The second man laughed. “Go on.”

Boz turned and walked away.

“Oh, and Boz?”

“Yes, sire?”

“Thank you.”

“For?”

“You came this far. I know you liked her too and I appreciate the gesture.”

“I live to serve you, sire. And you’re welcome. Do you wish for me to summon the Loyal?”

“No,” said the second man, “her idea of looking around is blowing up everything and inspecting the debris for what survived.”

“I will not convey that message. Be safe.”

Boz walked away, the ground barely vibrating with his movements. Merrie wanted to follow him, but there were two others close to her. She tried to concentrate on them, focusing all of her attention. Her senses tugged at her mind as if they could pull away from her. She wondered if there was a spell to do so but didn’t think she had the energy to try.

“You really are hard on him, Claston,” said a third voice. Unlike Boz’s and Claston’s, the third one was a deep rumble that caressed against Merrie’s senses. It shook the ground and matched the heavy footsteps that took a step closer. “Even as a prince, you should treat your man better.”

Claston grunted, his lighter footsteps crunching on the leaves. They went a few steps and stopped.

“Claston?”

“Eolis…? Doesn’t this look strange to you? This dead section isn’t a circle, it’s heading that way.”

“Yes, it seems to be following the water from that stream.”

“Probably poisoned then, or touched by shadows. It sure smells like it. Come on.”

Claston’s footsteps headed closer to Merrie.

“And if there is a creature of shadows laying in wait?” asked Eolis, his voice a low rumble.

“Then I will scream really loudly and the Loyal will blow up everything.”

Eolis groaned. “You know I can’t tell when you are faking it, but when you say things like that, it makes me worry that I’m wrong about you.”

“Faking what?”

“Being an idiot.”

There was another pause.

“I know you aren’t,” said Eolis, “No one in charge of… what you control could ever be an idiot. Your mother trusted you because you proved yourself. Which makes you not a fool or a dandy. You put on a good face, but there is something about your eyes that tells me you are a lot smarter than you pretend to be.”

Claston chuckled. “The duke said you were a hard person to deceive, Eolis. Have no fear, your boss is not a fool or a dandy. I have no interests on the throne until both of my sisters are done with it. And hopefully they will have kids of their own and I will just be the foolish uncle helping from the sidelines.”

“Thank you, sire.”

“Oh, don’t you start that on me. Bad enough I hear it from Boz. Come on, I want to figure out where this water is coming from.” Claston’s boots crunched on dry twigs and sticks. He came closer, the ground shaking more with his footsteps.

He stopped. “Well, here it is. Fuck, it’s just a little water coming out.”

“What were you expecting?”

“I don’t know. The Church of Lemetri has been really pushing to stake a claim on this place. Their requests are very specific including water, air, and stone rights. Not to mention a petition to create a holy spot. That seems wrong, being that all of them are only a glimmer of the power that they had before last year.”

Merrie tensed at the hated name. It was Lemetri who killed her. Merrie still remembered the brilliance of the beautiful woman before she was torn apart by the Lords of Shadows.

“I was hoping there was something more. Reports said that her dog died here. The big black one that she kept?”

“Tamin?”

Merrie smiled at the name. She remembered Tamin. They were talking about her, not Lemetri.

“Yeah!” Claston sighed. “That dog scared the fuck out of me. From what I heard, he killed thirty men around here, just so Merrie could escape.”

Swords pierced Tamin’s back as the other paladins joined the fight. Holy flames burned him from the inside and his guts ignited into flames. Gauntlets grabbed his body and threw him off Gillette. He got a single look of Gillette’s face and felt joy at the sight of the injury. There was nothing but a bloody hole where the enemy’s eye was. The edges of the shattered bone were black and corroded.

Gillette staggered to his feet, fueled by the holy magic that glowed from inside his body. The light came from his remaining bones, glowing from the inside. Injuries sealed over and healed in a flash. The tears in his armor sealed up and flowed over each other until they were once again solid metal. As the visor repaired, Tamin watched desperately to see if the eye would heal, but the magic couldn’t touch the blackened bones. And, when the armor had completely repaired itself, Gillette’s ruined face remained as bloody as when Tamin tore it off.

Tamin fought with all his might, his body burning away with every moment. He tried to bite, but there was nothing to sink his teeth into. He couldn’t get off his back, not with the men holding him down and the swords punching into his body over and over again.

The last thing he saw with Gillette’s scythe as it sliced him open from belly to the top of his skull, slicing through bone and skull in a flash of brilliance.

The painful memory ripped through Merrie. She fought back a sob. The leaves over her shifted with her movement and she froze.

“Did you hear that?” asked Claston. He jumped over something and came closer, his footsteps crunching through the leaves. The crumbled pile began to slide off her and she was blinded by the sunlight that came pouring it.

“Claston, don’t—”

A beam of sunlight caught Merrie’s chest. The brilliance burned into her fresh skin which crinkled and blackened. Agony burned along the wounds as the gaping hole in her chest ignited into black flames. She screamed, she couldn’t help it and tried to burrow deeper into the leaves.

There was an explosion and a burst of energy. The concussion wave blasted the leaves away from her, stripping the ground completely bare of her shelter against the sunlight.

Brilliance burned her, searing through her shadowy flesh as the sunlight cut through her body.

Merrie screamed louder, thrashing violently as she tried to hold her body together. Her skin was on fire, peeling away in waves of piercing agony.

“Oh, fuck me! That’s Merrie!” yelled Claston as he stood there, holding a branch.

A woman in green armor surged forward, her large spear coming in an overhead swing. Merrie remembered her from before, Loyal Alestri. They had fought once, destroying a large chunk of the city before the fight ended. The spear glowed brilliantly with killing spells as it left a streak with its movement.

And then there was a large man in front of her. No, a thriban, a gray-skinned humanoid with broad shoulders and wearing a white shirt with a tie.

The Loyal’s blade stopped centimeters from his back. The only part Merrie could see was the glowing weapon poised above his shoulders. Beyond it was the sunlight that bore down on her.

She screamed and tried to burrow into the ground.

Cloth draped over her. It was Eolis’ suit jacket. The heavy material smelled of sweat and musk, but it shielded her from the light. The only bits that leaked through were the tiny pinpricks through the gaps in the fabric. Even those burned but it was pricks of pain instead of waves of agony.

Eolis scooped her up. “It must be the light, it’s burning her!” His voice was a roar as he turned to shield her from the light with his body.

“Fuck,” snapped Claston. “The wagon! In with the taxes, there isn’t any light there.”

Lost in agony, Merrie could only clutch to Eolis’ body as she tried to keep her body together. Every pulse of agony, from the simmering sunlight fire, threatened to pull her apart and it took all of her will to keep herself bound to the black veins inside her body, the triple-beating heart, and the collar that thumped against her chest.