Thrall 3

Making more wolfen turned out to be a tricky problem. Originally I’d hoped that my flesh sorcery would be up to the job, provided I could get a decent look at the magic involved. Cerise had helpfully bent her power-stealing abilities to the task of collecting a sample of felwolf magic, which we’d picked up a bit over a week ago while we were testing out our new flight abilities. So I sent for a couple of wolfen volunteers, and settled in to spend an evening comparing their physiology to the magic in Cerise’s sample.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Thanks to my mana sorcery it was easy enough to figure out what was in the sample, but the important parts were more mystical than biological. My flesh sorcery was good at moving atoms around, but not so great at inventing new forms of innate magic. If I wanted to duplicate the enchantment that made the wolfen I’d have to start by turning some poor sap into a miniature felwolf, and then spend a few months experimenting on him.

Yeah, not going there. People already thought I was an evil wizard. No need to prove them right.

It was Cerise who finally pointed out that we already had a way to bypass that problem. The next morning we pooled our efforts to render a sample of felwolf essence into physical form, and then headed down to the kitchen.

Avilla examined the vial full of dark, syrupy liquid dubiously. “This doesn’t look very appetizing.”

“You don’t need very much,” Cerise said. “A teaspoon of that stuff is about what you’d get from a felwolf heart with your normal ritual.”

“Oh, so it’s concentrated? That might work, then. Give me a moment.”

She carefully measured out a few drops of liquid, and diluted it with a cup of milk. Then she sniffed it like a wine snob sampling some exotic vintage, and tasted a tiny sip.

“Strong, but not unpleasant,” she declared. “There’s a bit of an aftertaste, but I can fix that. Use it in a sauce over red meat, or as seasoning for a hearty stew. I suppose I could serve feasts to make more wolfen now and then, if you can supply me with enough essence. Will that take a lot of hunting?”

“Oh, I can make more,” I explained. “My mana sorcery is good enough for that. I just couldn’t quite make the jump from creating felwolf essence to transforming people safely. So we figured I’ll just make you a bottle of the stuff that refills itself automatically, and then you can make us as many wolfen as we want.”

She stared at me incredulously for a moment. Then she giggled, and shook her head.

“Only you, Daniel. Do you realize how precious an ingredient like that is for me? An unlimited supply of even one essence will make me the most powerful hearth witch in Europe.”

“I think you were already there, honeydew,” Cerise told her. “Have you shown Daniel your new trick?”

“Nope,” I answered for her. “I haven’t been around much. Have you started animating the utensils or something?”

“Better,” Cerise said. “Come on, show him already!”

“Alright, alright, if you insist. Really, it’s not that impressive. I’ve just been deepening my claim on our home.”

Avilla took a step back into the cabinets that lined the wall behind her, and vanished. Just like a dryad stepping into her tree.

“That’s pretty cool,” I observed. “Can you still hear us like that?”

“Yes,” came Avilla’s voice from out in the dining room. I turned to find her standing on the other side of the breakfast bar, with a proud little smile on her lips.

“Traveling, too? How far can you go?”

“This is my limit right now. But my reach grows a little further every day. Give me a few weeks, and I’ll be stepping across the palace and back whenever I like.”

“Normally that takes about twenty years of daily rituals, and it doesn’t reach more than a dozen paces from the hearth,” Cerise pointed out. “My girl’s already stronger than her granny ever was.”

Avilla blushed prettily. “Thank you, kitten. Just remember that raw power isn’t everything. I have a long way to go before I can match granny’s subtle hand with enchantments, and I have no one to learn from. A few more hearth witches have turned up among the refugees as they trickle in, but so far they’ve all been young apprentices like Mari.”

“At least you’ve still got your recipe book,” Cerise pointed out. “Hey, Daniel, think we could swing back north to pick up honeydew’s implements sometime soon?”

I winced. “Ouch. I’d love to, but that would probably take three days with the Intrepid. I’ve got some ideas for a faster flying machine, but I need to come up with a way to supply our troops with skimmers before I can take time for that.”

“It’s alright, Daniel,” Avilla assured me. “To be honest, when we left the house I didn’t think we’d ever be back. I’ve already started to make replacements, and with the power you’ve given me it won’t take nearly as long as when granny made hers. I’m sure rescuing villages is a much better use of the airship’s time.”

“I guess there’s no telling where we might find an old granny who’s really an experienced witch,” Cerise pointed out. “Just don’t hesitate to tell us if you realize you’re missing something you can’t replace, okay? We’ll make sure you’re taken care of, sweetie.”

Avilla walked through the bar like it wasn’t there, and pulled Cerise and I both into a group hug.

“You’re too good to me, both of you,” she said. “Thank you. That means a lot to me. But really, I’m fine. In fact, I’m going to have some fun surprises for the Yule feast.”

“The what?”

“Do they not have that where you’re from?” Cerise asked. “It’s the biggest holiday of the year, and it’s only a few weeks away. Come to think of it, we should arrange something for the troops too. It would be good for morale.”

“My to-do list never seems to get any shorter,” I said. “At this rate I’ll have to invent time travel just to keep up.”

“Maybe Elin can help with that,” Cerise joked. “The dryad groves are practically turning into faerie realms with all the power we’re feeding them, and I’m sure you’ve heard the stories about how strange time can be in faerie. Of course, knowing Pelagia I doubt you’d ever get any work done there.”

“Yeah, somehow I don’t think that would turn out very well,” I agreed.

“Then again, I could go for a few years of banging hot nature spirits in between our weekly disasters.”

“Slut,” Avilla said affectionately. “You’d spend your whole life in bed if you could get away with it.”

“You complaining?” Cerise pulled her lover into a kiss. Avilla squeaked in surprise, but didn’t put up much resistance until Cerise’s tail started to snake up her thigh. Then she pulled away, and swatted Cerise on the butt.

“Stop that! I have work to do, kitten. Go play with your dryads if you’re so worked up.”

Cerise pulled away with a giggle. “Nah, I think I’ll seduce Elin. She’s been getting wrapped up in her books again, so someone needs to remind her that she’s not alone anymore. You’re done with me for now, right Daniel?”

“I don’t know, I’m tempted to get in on this Elin seduction business.”

“You’d better save your strength for tonight,” she advised. “You don’t want to disappoint Pelagia.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right. Go on and have your fun, then. I can take this from here. Avilla, I’ll have Gronir handle all the organizing for wolfen recruits, so you won’t need to do anything but the cooking. I’m sure you two can work out a schedule, and you can add in some of the maids if you want.”

“Alright, Daniel. With a large essence supply I can make a much stronger recipe, so it won’t take long to start seeing results.”

That was one problem out of the way. Could I do something about the other transformations and enhancements I’d been thinking of while I was at it? There was an interesting personal enchantment I’d never used, that would make the subject a lot stronger and more durable than a normal human. But laying enchantments on people is a more delicate process than burning them into a piece of equipment, and I’d never had the luxury of spending a whole day on something like that.

A day of work just to make a single soldier twice as strong wasn’t worth it, but maybe I could make a device that would do the work for me? Something like the factory enchantments I’d been building to make guns and mortar shells? That might work, but the idea of using it on people made me a little nervous. I’d never done anything quite like that before, and a mistake could have nasty side effects.

So I decided to start out with something a lot less complicated. Could I make a device that would apply a simple cosmetic change to the wearer? There were a lot of those I could do with my flesh magic.

An amulet that changed the wearer’s hair color was trivial, but that was just a magical dye job. Making it change their natural color was more complicated, and I found that it was best to give the magic some time to work instead of trying to make the change instant. There were also some interesting complications, like making it smart enough to realize when it was done instead of just re-running the transformation forever. Making it recognize when the wearer already had the desired hair color also seemed like a good idea. Stuff like that turned out to be the hardest part of the exercise, but even so it barely took me an hour.

What would be a good step up from that? Something involving more tissue, and maybe a mass change, but not a full-body effect?

I snickered at the first idea that came to mind. Why not? Avilla had already told me there was a demand for it.

My kitchen goddess was rather bemused when I stopped by her domain again late in the afternoon to present her with a collection of little gold amulets.

“Ask, and ye shall receive,” I said grandly. “But I want you to keep these under lock and key, and be careful about how they get used. Some of them could cause problems if the girls get careless.”

She eyed the handful of amulets cautiously. “How mysterious. What do they do?”

“They’re transformation amulets. Each one has a different effect, but they’re pretty simple to use. Here, let’s start with this one. See the little glowing crystal? It changes the wearer’s hair color to match whatever is showing.”

“Oh, my! That will be very useful,” she exclaimed, taking the amulet and studying it intently. “How do you set the color? Some sort of intent control?”

“Yes, but you have to feed it a little magic while you’re setting it. I did it that way so you can have the maids use it, and they won’t accidentally change the settings. It takes about ten minutes to work, but once it’s done that’s their natural color.”

“Marvelous. I’m surprised you had time to make something so frivolous, though.”

“I’m working my way up to more complicated things,” I told her. “I just figured I might as well make the test pieces something you can use. This next one does the same thing, only with skin tone. Notice it’s got a little ‘S’ engraved on the back, and the other one has an ‘H’? It takes a little longer to work, and you don’t want to take it off before it’s done or the color might not come out even. If you keep it on after it’s finished with the basic change it’ll go on to remove freckles, moles and small scars, so if you’ve got someone who likes her freckles you’ll want to be careful with that.”

“Alright, that will be handy for making some of the girls look exotic. What about the other three?”

I grinned, and held up one of the amulets. “This one makes the wearer’s breasts bigger.”

She giggled. “I knew it!”

“Yeah, I had to go there, didn’t I? It’ll also fix some common problems, like removing stretch marks and making them match if they aren’t quite the same size. It’s a lot slower than the color change amulets, though. It takes about half an hour to make a noticeable difference, but it just keeps working for as long as you wear it. Don’t let anyone wear it to bed, or they’ll end up way too big.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, Daniel. We wouldn’t want to upset Tina.”

“We also don’t want anyone to get suffocated by her own breasts,” I said dryly. “Seriously, most people aren’t going to need more than a couple of hours. But I know women can be picky about these things, and it could take some experimenting to get it just right, so this amulet does the opposite. Notice the engraving says ‘B-’, and the growth amulet says ‘B+’. That way the ones who get carried away can get back down to a reasonable size without having to bother me.”

“How thoughtful. You know, Daniel, that’s one of the things I love about you. You always try to think these things through, and make them work out right for everyone.”

“Um, thanks, I guess? What else would I do?”

“Most wizards would say that people are cheaper than magic,” she pointed out. “Letting a few fools die in mishaps is a lot easier than trying to make your enchantments flawless. But we all know you don’t think that way.”

“No, I have this strange idea that lives are actually valuable,” I replied.

It really got to me sometimes, how little anyone else around here seemed to care about that. I know life is cheap in preindustrial societies, but I don’t have to like it.

“Anyway, this last one is going to need special handling. It turns the wearer into a catgirl.”

A breathless squeak from the other side of the kitchen informed me that we had an audience. A couple of the maids were putting away a load of groceries, and the pantry was easily within earshot.

Avilla smiled indulgently, and raised her voice. “Did you see a mouse, Cami? I hope so, otherwise I’ll have to punish you for eavesdropping again.”

“I’m sorry, Miss Avilla!” One of the maids exclaimed. “I didn’t mean it! I just, I mean, I couldn’t help myself.”

“I know how much you want to be like Tina,” Avilla said. “But you still overstepped. Finish your work, and then go to the training room and wait for me.”

“Yes, Miss Avilla!”

I thought about intervening, but the breathless anticipation in the girl’s reply changed my mind. Instead I raised a sound barrier around the two of us.

“Must not be much of a punishment if she’s looking forward to it that much,” I said.

“Ten swats with the paddle,” Avilla admitted. “Slow, with lots of attention in between, and I usually can’t resist playing with them a little afterwards. I know, I’m a softie.”

“It seems to be working out for you,” I said with a chuckle. “So, anyway. I tuned the catgirl transformation to go with your idea of making exotic maids, so it still leaves them looking pretty close to human. They’ll have the ears and tail, but no fur to speak of. It’s also going to give them better hearing, a much better sense of smell, faster reflexes and enough strength to arm wrestle your average soldier. But it takes most of a day to finish the transformation, and it’s important to keep the amulet on the whole time. If the process ever gets interrupted somehow don’t let them put the amulet back on, and get them to me as soon as you can.”

She frowned. “How dangerous is that?”

“Oh, it isn’t going to kill them or anything. It’s just that the amulet isn’t smart enough to pick back up where it left off, so they could end up with a distorted transformation that doesn’t work right. I don’t think anyone wants to get stuck with an extra pair of cat ears, or a nose so keen she can’t stand to get near the kitchen.”

“I see. That’s not so bad, then. Does it also give them Tina’s, ah, proportions?”

“No, it just gives them some extra physical fitness. I figured anyone who wants to go catgirl can use the other amulets first, to get the cosmetic changes right. Oh, but that’s an important safety issue. I designed these enchantments to work on human women, and they aren’t necessarily safe for anyone else. The wolfen should be fine, but no elves or catgirls. Or you, for that matter. Not that I can see why you’d want to change anything about yourself, since you’re already perfect.”

She playfully swatted my arm. “Oh, you! Don’t start with the flattery when I’m supposed to be keeping my hands off of you. Shouldn’t you be heading down to the grove soon?”

“I know, I know. I’m just going to go change first. What do you wear to a revel, anyway?”

“Something that’s easy to take off?”

“No doubt.”

I turned to go, but she suddenly pulled me back and kissed me.

“Thank you for the gifts, Daniel. I’ll put them to good use.”

I headed back to my room with a smile.

What do you wear to a nature spirit sex party? I pondered that question for a few minutes as I looked over my wardrobe. Avilla had been adding new outfits when I wasn’t looking, and I found that I now had quite a selection. Comfortable lounging robes. Practical work clothes. Fancy formal outfits. There was something appropriate for any normal social function.

Hmm.

Mythology paints nymphs as simple nature spirits, spending all their time dancing naked in woodland groves and leading satyrs on giggling chases through the wilderness. But for all that they seemed to spend half their time naked, the women in Pelagia’s grove tried to be more sophisticated than that. When they did bother with clothes they favored surprisingly elaborate gowns, and Pelagia was always bragging about how refined they were supposed to be. Her ‘girls’ were immortal nymphs and their nearly ageless companions, and in a thousand years even the most flighty of creatures could learn a thing or two.

In the end I decided to dress for a formal ball. That meant a shirt and pants instead of the robes mages usually favored, and a tailored jacket to go over it. The tails on the jacket took some getting used to, and I had to get a maid to help arrange the braid properly. But at least Varmland didn’t seem to have ties.

I knew I’d made the right choice when I reached the entrance to the dryad complex, and found a nymph wearing what had to be a formal dress waiting for me. With a skirt that almost reached her knees and a neckline that barely showed a hint of cleavage, it was the most conservative thing I’d ever seen a nymph wear.

She was still stunning, of course. The thin silk clung to an hourglass figure that would put any centerfold model back home to shame, and her long mane of curly chestnut hair was done up in a complicated arrangement that framed her face and left her delicate neck bare. She even wore earrings, dangly twists of gold set with big green gemstones that matched her eyes.

She favored me with a brilliant smile. “I bid you welcome to an evening of celebration, my lord. May I escort you to the festival?”

I struggled to remember her name, but luckily it came to me.

“Certainly, Xenia. I take it Pelagia has big plans for the evening?”

I offered her my arm, and she took it without making any attempt to get closer.

“Of course, my lord. We haven’t had such cause to celebrate since before the Grove of Bloody Thorns was properly formed. All our best entertainers are going to be part of the show.”

The door I’d come through opened onto the bottom floor of one of the agricultural areas, between the habitats I’d built for Pelagia’s Grove of Bloody Thorns and Corinna’s Fangs of the Forest. I hadn’t been here in weeks, and I found that the dryads had turned it into a garden at some point. The overhead lights were turned off, but there was a grassy path lit by floating balls of green and blue faerie fire. On either side of the path were patches of flowers between tall bushes, all of which had colorful blossoms of their own. It almost looked natural, except that I knew there had been nothing here but bare dirt when I built the place.

“Very nice,” I said. “But doesn’t this make things difficult for the farmers?”

“They use the other doors,” she replied. “This one is closest to your palace, so Pelagia and Corinna decided to make it look nice. Now please, my lord, no more talk about practical things. Tonight is a time for relaxation and enjoyment, not work.”

“Alright. What would you like to talk about?”

The path crossed a little stone bridge in the deceptively deep stream Elin and I had carved out between the two groves, and I saw that someone had made a few additions to the structure. A mass of vines grew up around the posts at either end of the bridge, and twined together atop them to form miniature tree shapes adorned with tiny balls of faerie fire.

We crossed the bridge, and started down the path to Pelagia’s grove.

“Well, Nomiki wanted me to thank you for convincing Lady Elin that our offers of massage services aren’t just a plot to seduce her.”

“You’re welcome. I think you had a good idea there. That girl seriously needs to learn how to relax. Although I doubt Nomiki would pass up a chance if it came up. I’ve seen how she looks at Elin behind her back.”

Xenia giggled. “Well, of course not. Lady Elin is quite beautiful, and she helped you build our new home. We’re going to seduce her quite thoroughly one day. But it’s clear that she isn’t ready for that yet, so for now we’re simply working to get her comfortable with us. Thankfully your other ladies are more open about such things.”

“Oh?”

“Oh, yes. Avilla asked for a demonstration a few days ago, and she was a lot of fun. I think she’s working out a plan to have us ambush Cerise and pamper her into a pliable puddle of bliss. And Tina is just a joy! She came wandering down here wanting to meet everyone, and spent the better part of a day just visiting. There’s not an ounce of human hesitation in that one.”

“No, she’s pretty enthusiastic. She told me once that if she’s going to be one of us sinful heathens, she wants to try out all the sins and figure out which ones she likes. I can’t imagine her reaction to some of the things you girls do, though.”

“She was fascinated by the restraints and costumes,” Xenia confided. “I put on a little show with Hela, just some light bondage and paddling, and she couldn’t take her eyes off of us. It was adorable.”

We came to the end of the path. It opened out into a grassy clearing, surrounded by the tall trees of the grove. A crowd of beautiful women filled the space, all of them dressed for a party. Lean, athletic dryads in miniskirts and halter tops, their weapons put away for the evening. Taller, more mature hamadryads mingling with the outrageously curvy nymphs, all dressed in formal gowns like Xenia’s. The naga I’d seen once before, who was draped in so many gold necklaces, bracelets, earrings and waist chains that they almost hid the fact that she was naked.

Pelagia emerged from the crowd, and enveloped me in a warm hug. “Welcome, Daniel! I’m so glad you could make it. Ladies,” she said, turning and raising her voice. “Our guest of honor has arrived.”

The murmur of conversation died instantly, and the whole crowd turned to face me. Then they all curtsied in unison, and smiled at me.

“Welcome, my lord.”

Pelagia claimed my free arm, and smothered it between her soft breasts as she went up on tiptoe to murmur in my ear. “Every one of my girls is eager to serve you in any way you desire.”

I couldn’t help it. I was hard as a rock already.

“But first, let us show off our less predictable talents,” she went on, louder. “Come, we’ve prepared a place of honor for you. Have a seat, and sample our wine while you enjoy the show. Xenia will ensure your comfort.”

“I’m looking forward to it.”

Xenia led me to a large cushion surrounded by soft grass, where a pair of dryads waited with wine and a bowl of fruit. They settled me on the cushion, with a dryad curled up on either side of me. Xenia settled herself behind me, and they pushed me back to recline with my head on her mountainous breasts.

“Wine, milord?” One of the dryads asked.

“Or food?” The other said.

“Both,” I replied. “But go easy on the wine. I wouldn’t want to overdo it, and miss something. ”

“Of course, milord,” said the dryad with the fruit bowl. “Just relax, and let us take care of you.”

I started to say something else, and she popped a grape in my mouth. Then wine girl leaned in to hold a goblet to my lips, incidentally pressing her perky little breasts into my shoulder.

Well, guess I wasn’t going to need my hands here. I let them settle around the dryads’ waists, and they practically purred at the contact. Fruit girl fed me an orange wedge.

Around us the rest of the crowd was taking seats on the grass, facing a low wooden stage. Pelagia took to the stage as the crowd settled, and looked out over the group with a brilliant smile.

“My dear friends and beloved sisters, we are gathered here this evening to celebrate a momentous occasion. For the first time since the fall of Olympus, our grove stands on hallowed ground!”

There was a burst of applause, and several cheers. Pelagia waited for the noise to die down before she continued.

“For ages we nymphs were playthings of the gods. They lent us a faint reflection of their power, feeding our cravings for protection and support. But they had little care for their toys, and we often suffered under their rule.

“Then came the fall, and for long centuries we were left to fend for ourselves. Hunted by men and gods alike for our beauty and compliant nature, with nothing to defend us but our wits. Each of us has known the bonds of slavery at least once, and for many of us the only escape was the mortality of our captors.

“We survived as best we could, and over the centuries of our exile we learned to work together and hide ourselves. Our dryads mastered the warrior arts, becoming fierce protectors as well as beloved companions. We turned our grove into a hidden refuge, and took in a few kindred spirits who had magic of their own to contribute to our defense. But our safety has always been precarious, dependent on walls of misdirection woven from the dying echoes of the magic we once held.

“When Fimbulwinter fell, I feared it was the end of us.”

She bowed her head, and was silent for a long moment.

“But now, our long exile is at an end,” she went on. “For we have a new patron. Not some arrogant, uncaring god who will ignore and abuse us, nor yet some feeble wizard fumbling to bind us with scraps of power no stronger than our own. No, our new lord is a man of rare wisdom, steeped in hidden lore and wielding the power of a demigod. A man who greets us as comrades instead of pleasure slaves, and shares the fruits of his mysteries with any who pledge their loyalty. A man who is already as ageless as we are, and with our aid may one day become more than a man.”

She raised her arms in a triumphant gesture. “And see what he has wrought! Our refuge now stands within the mightiest fortress in Europe, surrounded by walls that could withstand even the Thunderer’s mighty hammer. Hard men and subtle elves stand ready to defend us while we turn our magic back to its true purpose, nurturing our hidden fastness of verdant life. In this sorcerous realm the very sun and rain come and go at our command, thanks to the implements our lord has gifted us.”

She knelt, and placed one hand flat on the stage. “Then we have the final miracle. Our new lord’s limitless magic floods the land and waters of our grove, filling us all with a warm glow of protective strength. Even our old masters never offered us such power, and this time there is no hidden corruption or terrible price to be paid. We nymphs will soon be restored to the station we once held, as demigoddesses of nature’s bounty. Only this time we have the will and the wisdom to use our power for more than idle games. Our dryads are fast blossoming into huntresses of fell power, fit to contend with even the strongest of monsters. Muriel and her sisters have already turned their pool into a little faerie realm, and in a week we’ll be ready to do the same with the entire grove. Even dear Renshitrinashlit has benefited, through the bonds of sisterhood we all share with her.”

Pelagia stood, and I saw that there were tears in her eyes now. “My sisters, our time of troubles is finally over. Tonight we celebrate the birth of a new era for the Grove of Bloody Thorns. We celebrate safety and healing, the end of tears and the beginning of new joy. We celebrate the end of our lonely struggle for survival, and the companionship of strong new allies who stand ready to protect us. But most of all, we celebrate the indulgent embrace of our new lord, who assures me that any nymph who seeks a personal bond with him shall be well and truly conquered before morning!”

There was a round of laughter and catcalls at that.

“Just remember to wait your turn!” Pelagia went on. “Especially all you performers. No trying to sneak in a quickie before your show. Now, let’s demonstrate for our new lord what the Thorns can do!”

A band started up, laying down a smoky beat with drums and some kind of wind instrument. A tall nymph with long black hair swayed onto the stage as Pelagia stepped down, dancing sinuously to the beat. Three dryads followed her up, and worked their way into a circle around her. Then the nymph opened her mouth, and began to sing with the most beautiful voice I’d ever heard.

I leaned back into Xenia’s breasts, and let the dryad with the goblet feed me another sip of wine. This promised to be an interesting evening.

Thrall 02

The next day I paid Tavrin a visit to start working out plans for Nethwillin’s new home. The dark elves had been amazingly helpful since they’d moved to my island, especially after I’d appointed their clan head as my new castellan. But while they were capable traders I’d recently discovered that they were basically a ninja clan as well, so I figured it would be smart to give them as many reasons as possible to be loyal. They’d spent a thousand years grappling with a serious infertility problem caused by Midgard’s low ambient mana levels, so I figured building them a refuge where that problem didn’t apply should be good for morale.

Tavrin showed me a light spell he wanted to use that produced a spectrum similar to Svartalfheim’s sun, a blue-white glow barely half as bright as normal sunlight. There was a lot of ultraviolet in it, which might explain something about their complexion.

“Your human retainers are going to get sunburned pretty easily under this light,” I pointed out. “They’re all northerners.”

“Yes, some of our older texts mention that problem. Humans will acclimate if their exposure is gradual, correct?”

“Depends on what part of the world you got their ancestors from. Most people will build up a tan if you increase their exposure gradually, but sometimes northern tribes lose that ability. You’ll need to keep an eye out for people who just sunburn repeatedly, and never adjust. But if it does come up I think I can fix it.”

We had to work out how high to push the mana level in their habitat, and then there were a lot of smaller details about the layout and facilities. I was basically just going to build some big rooms and let the elves handle all the detail work, but we still had to agree on an overall design. We were working through the details when a servant poked her head into Tavrin’s office to let us know I had a visitor.

“He says he’s the harbormaster,” she told me. “There doesn’t seem to be an emergency, so we’ve put him in one of the waiting rooms.”

“Harbormaster Lund is out of bed this early? Interesting. Can you let him know I’ll be down in a few minutes? I think we’re almost done here.”

“Of course, milord.”

I spent a few minutes hashing things out with Tavrin before I took my leave. I was surprised at how awkward it made the situation, though. I didn’t want to keep Lund waiting forever like some self-important asshole, but I also didn’t want Tavrin to think I was more concerned with some human outsider than I was with taking care of his clan. Ugh, politics. I guess this is why important people normally have someone managing their appointments.

The harbormaster seemed years older than when last we’d met. There was more gray in his hair, and he’d lost weight as well. He jumped to his feet when I entered the waiting room, and bowed.

“Good day to you, lord wizard. Thank you for seeing me on such short notice. I’m sure you must be a very busy man these days.”

“For every problem I solve, three more pop up,” I agreed. “How have you been?”

“Holding on, milord. If not for those iron buildings you made I likely wouldn’t be here, though. When Hel’s ships attacked the harbor they docked right by my house, and we barely got out ahead of them. We bribed our way into a shelter, and then did it again after the earthquake.”

“Bribed?” I asked.

“The mayor never had a chance to appoint overseers for the shelters,” he explained. “The refugees in each one have taken them over, and chosen their own leaders. With grain rations as short as they are they take a hard line on letting anyone into their space, even in an emergency.”

“I suppose that’s to be expected. Is that what you wanted to talk to me about?”

“It’s only a symptom, milord. I’ve been speaking with the other influential men in the district. The masters of the Mariner’s Guild and the Fishermen’s Association, the grain factors and warehouse magnates, even what’s left of the shipwrights. We can all see the writing on the wall, milord. The truth is the whole city is falling apart, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone who can put it back together.”

“I’m hoping we’ll have a bit of a breather now,” I confided. “The ape men were pretty well wiped out in that last mortar attack, and if another army shows up we’ll just do it again. This leadership mess is another matter, though. There doesn’t seem to be anyone who can step up and take charge.”

“Some of the men thought that might be your cue, milord,” he said cautiously.

“Tempting,” I admitted. “But I don’t think it would work. The Conclave wouldn’t stand for it, and if I got into an argument with them there wouldn’t be much of a city left afterwards.”

“As you say, milord. Most likely that means the city will splinter, though. We don’t dare try to reconvene the city council, because that would just force things to come to a head. So the leaders over in the Military District will all look to the nobles for direction, the ones in the Wizard’s Quarter will turn to the Conclave, and so on.”

That made sense. Of course, the Trade District didn’t really have a local power center to turn to, and the Harbor District…

Oh. Well, now I understood why Lund was here.

“It doesn’t sound like the Harbor District has anything you could call a unified government,” I observed.

Lund frowned unhappily at that. “Not as such, no. I’ve gotten the guilds all pulling together, but that doesn’t account for the whole district. The refugees keep to themselves, and the fishermen have all banded together to take over a warehouse down in West End. There’s the Harbor Watch as well, but they haven’t been much use since the earthquake.”

“Why is that?” I asked. “I imagine you must know their commander.”

“Unfortunately he died in the earthquake. The men elected one of their sergeants to take over, but they haven’t been paid since the mayor died. They’re demanding that someone make good on their payroll before they go back to work.”

I snorted. “Figures. Well, money isn’t going to be a problem, but it sounds like the district has a lot of other issues. How bad is the shelter situation?”

“Bad, milord. About a fourth of the district fell down in the earthquake. That left the survivors packed in like sardines, where they aren’t just out in the cold. We’ve been forced to scavenge the rubble for firewood, and the garrison claimed a lot of timber for the barricades they’ve been throwing up to protect the breaches in the city wall. At this rate folk will start running out in a few weeks, and we’ll all freeze not long after. I might also mention that the city granary is over in the Military District, and things will get tight in a hurry if the nobles stop doling out rations.”

Which would probably happen at some point, when whichever noble ended up in charge of the granary decided to try starving his opponents into submission. In theory I could just seize the granary, but I wasn’t sure the Conclave would stand for that. Besides, then I’d have to guard it, and my men were stretched thin just defending my own citadel. No, I’d have to be a little more subtle than that.

Was I really going to do this?

Yeah, I was. It would be stupid not to.

“I don’t suppose there’s any space left in your fortress, milord?” Lund asked cautiously.

“Only for loyal retainers who can adjust to having strange magical affairs going on around them all the time,” I told him. “We can’t just resettle a crowd of displaced people here. I think it’s better not to put all our eggs in one basket, anyway. If I spent a day throwing up some defensible buildings along the waterfront it would make the whole district a lot more secure.”

“That would certainly help to keep the harbor running,” he agreed. “We’re starting to see loads of food coming up from the south along with the regular trade. Mind you, not many folk can afford to buy at the prices they’re asking. I’m better off than most, and my own means are feeling a bit stretched these days.”

“Oh, I think we can do something about that,” I said. “How do you think it would go over, if you quietly put the word out that I’m willing to take over the payroll for all the city officials in the Harbor District? Maybe we could hire some work crews to clear away rubble and shovel the snow off the streets while we’re at it.”

“I’m sure most everyone would be pleased to accept your generosity, milord. I know I will.”

“Good. I’ll have Tavrin, my castellan, get with you to arrange the details. How hard would it be to set up meetings with all of these independent groups? We need to get everyone working together here as soon as possible.”

“I’m sure I can arrange something, milord.”

Well, that all sounded fairly promising. I stopped by Tavrin’s office to fill him in on the situation, which seemed to amuse him.

“I’m sure we’ll find that the city payroll records have mysteriously vanished,” he said. “But of course we can take their word about what they were being paid.”

I shrugged. “I’m fine with letting everyone give themselves a raise, actually. They’ll spend most of it on food, and the profits will keep those merchant captains making the trip to deliver more. Just make sure we don’t end up paying the watch captain for troops who don’t really exist, or anything dumb like that.”

“That much I can manage. Are you planning to let Lund put himself in charge of the district?”

“I’m not sure yet. He’s corrupt, but he’s also pretty competent and he tries to take care of his people. We’ll need to do something with the leaders of these other groups, though, or they’ll wind up causing problems. I’m tempted to set up some kind of local governing council so we can give everyone a seat. Trouble is, then we’ll end up having endless meetings about everything instead of just getting the job done.”

“Make it an advisory council,” he suggested. “You’ll need to be involved in everything anyway at first, since so many of their problems will require magical solutions. Once you’ve spent some time working with them you’ll be able to pick out the best man to put in charge. Then he can deal with the council meetings.”

“Not a bad plan,” I mused. “I may do that.”

My next stop was just a few doors down the hall, where Pelagia had set up her office. She’d already found herself a secretary, a nervous-looking young man who immediately jumped up and ushered me in.

Pelagia was wearing a proper dress today, instead of armor or that gauzy negligee thing she’d shown off when we first met. But the close-fitting bodice did nothing to hide her spectacular figure, and the skirt only came to mid-thigh. The way she jumped to her feet with a huge smile the moment she saw me didn’t help with the urge to throw her over her desk and have my way with her.

“Hello, Pelagia. How’s my favorite nymph today?”

“Daniel! Good morning, my lord. I’m well enough, although I fear the tasks you’ve set me are proving quite formidable.”

The secretary hurriedly vacated the room, closing the door behind him. I raised an eyebrow. “What’s with him?”

“Oh, Edvin is a lover of men. I believe I make him nervous, but it’s better than the alternative. I’d never be able to keep my hands off of him all day if he were normal.”

I chuckled. “That’s one way to do it. So, I’ve got a job for you. Think you can find a merchant who’d be willing to sell us a few tons of grain on the sly?”

Instead of returning to her seat Pelagia just perched on the edge of her desk. “Willing to? Certainly. All we need to do is offer an outrageous price for it. Able to? That will be more difficult. The granary is heavily guarded now, and a line of wagons is hard to miss.”

“I suspect the elves can solve that problem for us,” I pointed out.

“Oh, that’s right. Nethwillin does a lot of smuggling, don’t they? They’re bound to have suitable magic.”

“They have a collection of bags and boxes that are a lot bigger on the inside than they look, and they’re pretty good at being stealthy. I’m sure Tavrin could figure out a way to smuggle the grain across the city easily enough. I’m going to be building a granary of our own on the island this afternoon, so we have someplace to put it.”

“Very well, my lord. I shall arrange it.”

That was good to hear, but good god this woman was distracting. She’d put her hands down on the desk behind her, and now she was arching her back slightly. Her mountainous breasts were nearly a match for Tina’s, and her position made it almost impossible to tear my gaze off them. Especially when her nipples started to tent the thin fabric of her dress. She couldn’t really be getting that turned on just from talking to me, could she?

Of course she could. She was a nymph.

“I hear you’re also arranging a revel, whatever that is?”

“An evening of celebration, for our new patron. You will attend, won’t you, my lord?” She licked her lips, and took a deep breath that left the lacings of her dress straining to contain her assets.

It went against my own cultural hang-ups, but it was about time I got over those. So instead of looking away and pretending I hadn’t noticed, I took a step closer and put my hand on her thigh.

“Of course I’ll be there. I wouldn’t want your girls to think I was rejecting them or something. Although you’re not making it easy to wait.”

She hooked an ankle around my leg to pull me closer, and ran her hands up my chest. “We don’t have to wait, Daniel.”

I cupped her cheek in my hand. “Some things are worth doing right, Pelagia. Besides, I’ve got an officer’s meeting in half an hour. That isn’t nearly enough time.”

She groaned, and laid her forehead against my chest. “Ugh! You don’t know what torture it is for a nymph to resist temptation, Daniel. Please, promise me you aren’t just teasing? You’ll really attend, and seal our bonds properly? No evasions, or last minute rejections?”

“I promise, Pelagia. I’ll admit, I was a little nervous about you at first. But you’ve been nothing but helpful, and I think it’s about time I listened to all the people who have been telling me not to worry. Although I doubt you want things between us to be like they are with Cerise and Corinna.”

She shook her head sadly.

“My heart is far too old for such innocent games, and I fear my scars run too deep. As well, you have your ladies to attend to, and I have no wish to upset the balance of your coven. But nymphs were not meant to bear the burden of leadership, and it weighs heavily upon me. I would be grateful for the opportunity to lay it down from time to time, in the arms of a man who has no need to take advantage of my moments of weakness.”

Somehow, my arms had ended up around her. I hugged her gently.

“I understand, Pelagia. Friends with benefits sounds pretty good to me, too.”

“They have a term for it in your land? How unusual. I have not seen a society where humans admitted to such things since Rome fell.”

“Yeah, I’m from a strange place. Still can’t tell you anything about it, though.”

“I did not ask. I have no need to pry into my lord’s secrets, especially when they involve Dark Hecate. I would rather turn my imagination to more pleasant ends. Tomorrow evening, then? Come to the grove an hour before sunset, and we shall show you the hospitality of the Bloody Thorns. Feasting and performances, dance and song, and all our arts of pleasure.”

“As long as none of those arts involve shedding blood. I’m not going to judge what you do with each other, but seeing pretty girls in pain is a major turn off for me.”

She gave me a pleased look. “I’m glad to hear it. A proper lord of the land should have no need of such contrivances. But be warned, I expect to be properly conquered by the evening’s end.”

I pulled her into a kiss. Her lips were sweet against my tongue, like some exotic tropical fruit. They parted at my touch, and I plundered her mouth with unhurried thoroughness. Controlling the kiss with a hand in her hair, listening to the throaty sounds of delight that she made. Finally I released her lips, and gazed into her eyes across a distance of inches.

“You won’t be disappointed,” I told her.

I let her go, and stepped away. She swayed towards me for a moment before she regained control of herself, and slumped back onto her desk. “Tease. You’d best bring a full measure of your sorcery of endurance, for you shall surely need it. Now get out of here, before I lose what vestige of self-control I yet retain.”

“I could always tie you to the desk-”

“Go! Or I shall not be responsible for my actions!”

I went. I had to stop and adjust myself once the door was closed, but it was worth it to get the best of her. Once I would have been intimidated by the prospect of being the guest of honor at some kind of nature spirit orgy, but these days I was confident that I could handle it. Too bad my next appointment wasn’t going to be as fun.

Demetrios had set up a war room while I was away, and while it wasn’t fancy the elder satyr had made sure it had the essentials. A map of Kozalin and the surrounding region was spread across a large table in the middle of the room, and decorated with little wooden tokens representing the local military forces. A second table held a map of Varmland, with tokens marking settlements that were still holding out and the monster forces that threatened them. On one wall a rough sketch of Europe was taking shape, although our information from that far afield was pretty limited.

Demetrios and Captain Rain were already there, along with a couple of the sergeants. Tavrin arrived moments after I did, with his daughter Sefwin on his heels.

“So, how’s our military situation looking?” I asked.

“Improving, but still damnably poor,” Demetrios replied. “That’s what I wanted to discuss. With the city threatening to fragment we have several opportunities, but also a lot of problems.”

“I know,” I agreed. “First things first. The island.”

Demetrios nodded to Tavrin, who fielded the question.

“Black Island is currently well secured against a conventional assault by troops of ordinary skill, which includes most of our likely opponents. My people are implementing security measures to prevent infiltration by goblins or andregi airborne commandos, and your wards will keep out ghosts and spirits. But the regular garrison is only two hundred men, and half of them are barely trained. Our military security rests on the power of the mortars combined with the obstacle represented by the walls of the Black Fortress, and any enemy who can bypass those defenses will easily overwhelm our troops.

“The supply situation is considerably better, at least for our own people. The first crops of peas, beans and radishes have come in, with wheat and barley soon to follow, and we’re now harvesting crops a bit faster than we eat them. I’ve set up regular lumbering runs to keep our carpenters supplied with wood, and we’re stockpiling lumber and stone against future needs. Clothing is still in short supply, but our first crop of flax should be ready to harvest next week. So our truly essential needs are being met internally, and we needn’t worry about starvation in the event of a siege.

“Our greatest threat is from Kozalin. We have hundreds of civilians visiting the market down on the street level every day now, and their numbers are growing as word gets around. Those stores you set up to sell conjured building stones and mass-produced lights are making money hand over fist, and so are the farmers at the produce market. But it’s impossible to vet so many people, and we don’t have the manpower to keep all the street level exits properly guarded. A clever enemy could easily infiltrate the island with troops mixed in among the shoppers, and cause havoc.”

“Elin’s clinic is a potential target,” Sefwin put in. “I only have twenty agents, so I can’t devote a lot of personnel to security there without exposing the palace. She always has two elves with her when she’s healing, but I’ve had to rely on garrison troops to keep an eye on the place when it’s empty. I don’t have any confidence at all in their ability to spot hidden interlopers setting up traps.”

“How secure would you say the palace is now?” I asked.

“Not as safe as it looks,” she replied. “The fortifications are excellent, and having a sealed environment helps as well. But Avilla’s maids are a serious security risk, which the psychological aspect of your wards doesn’t fully address. The sheer size of the place is also an obstacle, since it will slow down our response to any disturbance. It helps that your ladies can all defend themselves, of course, but I still don’t consider the situation adequate for protecting a pregnant woman.”

Captain Rain shook his head. “You elves see assassins everywhere. No queen of Varmland has ever been as safe as Lord Black’s ladies, Sefwin. But the news on our field company is much the same. I’ve managed to assemble a force of two hundred men, with rifles and enough training that we can count on them to point the things in the right direction. Only half of them are proper soldiers, though, and their morale is a bit shaky. We don’t have enough skimmers to transport them either, and I wouldn’t like to get into a serious battle beyond the reach of the mortars.”

Vehicles. Right. That was going to be a hell of a project. It took several hours to build something as complex as an armored skimmer by hand, and we needed at least twenty of them. I’d had some ideas about building a factory enchantment to make the things instead, but getting all the mechanical parts to fit together properly would make it a big project. I wasn’t sure when I’d have time to tackle it.

“Alright, so we have some challenges. What do we do about them?”

“Against the infiltration threat, I’d say the key problem is that our human soldiers are simply too vulnerable to dirty tricks,” Demetrios said. “We need to make them harder to fool, or at least harder to disable. Better senses, basic magical defenses, perhaps something to make them more durable or harder to target for a quiet takedown. It doesn’t need to be powerful, just effective enough to upset an assassin’s plans.”

“Some of that should be doable,” I mused. “Think you’d get any volunteers for a wolfen conversion?”

“A few,” Demetrios replied.

“Not many,” Captain Rain added. “A man has to be desperate or crazy to agree to something like that, and the men aren’t feeling so desperate these days. Something about the size of these walls. But Gronir keeps asking among the refugees, and I know his list has at least thirty names on it.”

“That brings us around to the morale issue,” Demetrios said. “As Marcus observed, a lot of our troops are too green for comfort. We’re training them as hard as we can, but we all know it takes a few months for that to pay off. Until then, I think the best thing we can do to ensure they’ll stand their ground is to give them something to protect. There are plenty of desperate young women in Kozalin right now, so it shouldn’t be hard to arrange for a few hundred young men to find themselves wives.”

“That just trades one problem for another,” Captain Rain grumbled. “They’ll be forever shirking their duties for a chance to sneak off to their women.”

“I’ve seen that handled pretty well,” I said. “It’s just a matter of setting up the right incentives. First we set up a special housing area for the families of each unit, so their wives are all neighbors and gossip with each other. Then we make being absent without leave a fairly serious offense, but arrange our schedules so that each man gets to spend a day or two with his family every week. Make the standard training schedule five days of work followed by two days of leave, or something like that.”

“I suppose that might work, my lord. I’m not sure how to arrange the matchmaking, though. Our boys don’t have a lot of contact with the refugees, and most of them are a bit young to be looking for wives.”

“That’s an easy one,” Demetrios said. “Pelagia is already recruiting craftsmen and farmers from the refugee shelters. We’ll just let her recruit hopeful would-be brides as well. Set up a barracks and living area for them, tell them they’ve got three weeks to find a husband before we kick them back out, and let the men visit when they’re on leave. They’ll be hitched before you can blink.”

I chuckled. “You know, Brand was trying to get me to take in two or three women for every man on the island. Maybe we should let them have more than one bride?”

The men all laughed at that. Sefwin groaned.

“Two women sharing a man who’s gone most of the time, with no magic to prevent jealousy? Not unless you want them murdering each other, Daniel. Let the sergeants take concubines if they want, but the enlisted men are way too young and stupid to handle that kind of thing.”

“She’s right about that,” Demetrios agreed. “The civilians are another matter, though. There’s a lot to be said for taking in extra women while we can. I think Black Island has a good chance of surviving this trial, but the rest of the city is another matter.”

“Yeah, that’s the kicker,” I agreed. “Between the earthquake and the andregi attacks the city defenses are in sorry shape, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. We’re going to have monsters infiltrating to prey on the civilians soon, and who knows what the next big threat will be. The question is, what do we do about it?”

“The main threat to us would be a Great Beast,” Demetrios said. “I don’t think we have anything that can kill a monster like that. The cannons aren’t powerful enough, and the mortars would have trouble hitting a moving target.”

“Desperate mobs will eventually be an issue,” Tavrin added. “We need more manpower to ensure we can deal with them appropriately. Some measures to limit the number of outsiders visiting the island would also be wise. Perhaps we could set up a market at the other end of the causeway?”

“Yeah, that sounds like a good idea. What about recruiting opportunities? There are so many troops in the city, there’s bound to be a company or two who’ve gotten orphaned.”

“I have a few contacts among the officers,” Captain Rain said. “I can put the word out, if you want to make an offer. But the nobles will all be thinking the same thing, and most men feel a bit nervous about working for a wizard. It could be expensive.”

“We have money,” I pointed out. “Actually, that’s something I wanted to mention. Since we’ve got plenty of gold in the treasury I want to give everyone a raise. The best way to keep ships coming into the harbor is to make sure they make a fat profit, so I want to give our people enough money to afford the inflated prices they’re charging.”

That was a popular idea.

The meeting dragged on for longer than I would have liked. There were endless details to arrange, and a lot of decisions the men wanted my approval on. Understandable, since we hadn’t been working together very long, but it all took time.

Demetrios was a bit surprised at my plan to take over the Harbor District, although he seemed to understand my reasoning.

“We need a recruiting pool, and a place to put uncertain allies,” I explained. “The only people I’m going to let live on the island are the ones we can trust to fight on our side if the city turns against us. But it takes time for people to make up their minds about things like that, and more time for us to recruit them. So we can’t just close our doors and let the city go to hell.

“I’m thinking I’ll put up some fortified buildings around the district, and put one of the local big shots in charge of each of them. They can move the local businesses that are still running inside them, and organize militias to defend them the next time the city is attacked. With some basic defensive enchantments they’ll be proof against earthquakes, frost wraiths and monster raids.”

“That will certainly reduce their casualties,” Demetrios agreed. “Assaulting a district dotted with little fortresses like that would be a nightmare. But I’d suggest repairing the breaches in the wall as well. It will help control movement in and out of the district, and limit the number of monsters that can sneak in. Not to mention that it’s a clear way to mark the limits of your territory.”

What I wanted to do was repair the city’s outer wall, and maybe melt the moat while I was at it. But if I did that the nobles would think I was staking claim to the entire city, and that would only cause more trouble. Besides, I didn’t have time to rebuild the whole city. I had too many other urgent projects on my plate.

Thrall Status

Good news, folks. I’ve finally finished writing Thrall, and the Kindle ebook is set to go on sale December 1. I’m not sure about the audiobook version yet – we’re about to start production, but I probably won’t have a date from the guys who do that for another week or so.

As for the previews, yes, I’m late with the next snippet. When I started doing editing I found a lot more revisions in the early parts of the book than I’d originally expected, and I didn’t want to risk publishing a passage that later got removed or substantially changed. At this point I’ve finished all the changes, and I’m just going to be doing proofreading, so previews will resume in a couple of days.

Thrall 01, part 2

Avilla wasn’t the only one collecting her own followers, of course. Cerise was teaching witchcraft to Tina’s childhood friend Beri, and she’d picked up a couple of other novices as well. She’d also more or less taken over Corinna’s band of warrior dryads, and she’d been continuing our experiments with powering up the nature spirits by pouring mana into their land.

“You’re going to love all the benefits you get out of the deal,” she told me. “It’s working just like we thought. I feed magic from my amulet into their land, and it makes them stronger. Then they do their thing, and it makes me stronger too.”

“Their thing?” I asked.

She grinned at me. “You’ll see. Pelagia is going to hold a revel for you, to get things going with her grove. It’s heady stuff, the way they practically worship you when they’re showing their appreciation.”

“I’m not a god,” I pointed out.

“Not yet. This is going to make both of us demigods, though, and I bet we don’t stop there. What are the odds we can get our hands on some of Idun’s apples before this war ends?”

“Speaking of which, I noticed a substantial change in your life force,” Elin put in. “I don’t think you’re as mortal as you were when you left. Do you have any idea what could have caused that?”

“Huh. Interesting. Well, it turns out that Gaea grows magic bananas that work a lot like the golden apples in Asgard.”

“What’s a banana?” Tina asked curiously.

“Wait, you stole some?” Cerise exclaimed. “I want one!”

“A kind of fruit that doesn’t grow in Europe,” I told Tina. “And no, I didn’t steal any. I didn’t even know what they were, until Mara gave me one.”

Everyone looked a bit startled at that.

“She must really like you,” Tina observed.

I shrugged. “She’s kind of a mess. I think she’s interested, but her family problems are as bad as it gets. Her mother’s holding her immortality hostage, the brothers she grew up with are a bunch of rapists, and she’s so desperate for her father’s approval that she’ll happily help him murder everyone in Europe.”

Cerise and Avilla exchanged a speculative look.

“We were wondering if it was something like that,” Avilla said. “But, her own brother?”

“More than one of them,” I corrected. “Gaea set things up so that would happen on purpose. I’m not sure if she’s just a cruel bitch, or if there’s some devious purpose to it all. Either way, Mara’s a long way from being over it.”

“We have to help her,” Tina declared.

“I’d like to,” Avilla agreed. “But I’m not sure it’s wise. There’s not much to be done for people who aren’t right in the head, and she’s very powerful. If she ever has a breakdown, or just has a bad day and lashes out, people could die.”

Elin sighed. “I agree with you, Avilla. She’s a risk, and an added complication to what is already a quite complicated situation. But can we really turn her away, if she comes to us for help? If she has really endured such a horror, and come out of it unbroken, I can’t help but feel sympathy for her.”

“Sounds like we’re moving on to the heavy subjects,” Cerise said. “Good timing, because I’m completely stuffed. How about we take this discussion to the ritual chamber?”

“It has the best wards,” Avilla agreed.

It was also isolated and soundproof, so we’d be able to keep anyone from overhearing us. If there was anywhere we could make plans without being spied on, it was there.

“So, what all do we need to talk about?” I asked once the doors were safely sealed.

“Can you tell us more about how the mission went?” Avilla said. “I didn’t dare ask before, but it should be safe to talk here.”

I shrugged. “I planted the device. If it worked right the andregi won’t have any more sleeping warriors to wake, so they’ll stop getting reinforcements any day now. There were a couple of complications, though.”

I went on to describe Brand’s disastrous raid on the Halls of Slumber, and my own encounter with Mara. Elin still seemed a little miffed about that, but Cerise and Tina were all smiles.

“Do you think we can make an ally of her?” Avilla sked.

“Definitely. She’s pretty attached to her father’s side of the family, so I don’t think she’s going to turn on them. But on a personal level she’s desperate for companionship, and I think we connected. Besides, she’s already asked for my help with something that’s pretty important to her. It seems she’s about to have a little sister, and she’s trying to find some way to keep the poor girl from growing up the way she did.”

That required more explanation, of course. By the time I’d finished the tale Elin had reluctantly come around to lobbying in Mara’s favor.

“This will, however, be quite dangerous,” she observed. “If Gaea is pregnant she will likely avoid battle, and stealing a child from her would not be easy. I don’t know how we could hide the girl for any length of time.”

“Hiding isn’t going to work,” I said. “The only way we survive getting involved in this, is if Gaea dies before Ragnarok is over.”

They all stared at me in shocked silence for a long moment.

“Can you kill a goddess, Daniel?” Tina asked timidly.

“Not by myself,” I admitted. “But I’m sure the Aesir will be doing everything they can to take her down. What we need to do is watch, make preparations, and be ready to strike when the opportunity presents itself. Cerise, Elin, who worships Gaea these days?”

“Mostly just her children,” Cerise said. “Goblins, trolls, hags and ape men.”

“So far as I am aware there are no human cults who honor her,” Elin agreed. “Nor do the elves or dwarves pay her homage. She has rejected all but the most primitive worshippers for ages now.”

“That’s good. The andregi live in Skogheim. What about the rest of those races?”

Cerise stretched out across the collection of pillows and blankets that covered the floor of the ritual chamber, and put her head in Avilla’s lap. “Most of them live here on Midgard, but I think I’ve heard something about goblins in Jotunheim before. Elin?”

The delicate faerie settled herself on a pile of pillows beside me, and frowned in thought. “Yes, I believe you are correct. Hags live in the wilder swamps and woods of Europe, while goblins and trolls inhabit the mountains. Goblin tribes are also found in the mountains of Jotunheim, and possibly the jungles of Skogheim. They’re hardy creatures, and very difficult to eradicate.”

“Is there anything you don’t know?” Tina asked her.

“Many things,” Elin replied.

“If you say so. Here, let me take this down for you while you smart people talk.” Tina started working on Elin’s hair, removing the ornaments that were woven into her hairdo and brushing it out.

“Thank you, dear. Daniel, are you relying on the Julian hypothesis of divine power here? Because I must caution you that no firm link has ever been demonstrated between a god’s power and the number of his worshipers.”

“No, it’s not that simple,” I said. “Gods don’t get their power from worshippers. But I know a little bit about why it’s so hard to kill a god, beyond just the fact that they’re powerful. A church is one of the things that they use to anchor themselves to this plane of existence, and a goddess who doesn’t have one anymore is a lot easier for the other gods to kill.”

Cerise chuckled. “That’s one way to get the job done. Tina, these are serious secrets of the gods here, so don’t ever talk about them outside this room. Alright?”

“My lips are sealed,” the catgirl replied.

“Good. We’d need to make sure her sons die too, and scour Skogheim clean of ape men somehow. I don’t know how we’d pull that off.”

“Neither do I,” I said. “But once again, the Aesir are already working on it. I’m not sure what Brand was really doing there, but I don’t think it was as simple as a botched raid. He had some kind of magic device implanted under his skin, and the more I think about it the more convinced I am that he let himself get captured.”

Elin nodded thoughtfully. “Odin is known as a crafty god. It would be quite in character for him to rely on some form of subterfuge to eliminate the threat of the andregi, or to somehow neutralize Gaea.”

“I don’t think even Odin can just ‘neutralize’ an elder goddess,” Avilla commented. “But that raid has given us a more immediate complication to deal with. Daniel, Prince Caspar seems to be dead. He led most of Kozalin’s best knights through the Dark Portal on that raid, and only a handful of them returned.”

“Oh. So, who’s in charge of the city now?” I asked.

“That’s the problem. Pelagia tells me there’s no one in the city with enough support to take over, and with the king besieged again he’s in no position to enforce a decree. There are four dukes in town, all of about the same standing, and they spent most of the afternoon arguing with each other about what to do next. The Conclave isn’t likely to take orders from any of them, and neither will what’s left of the church.”

“Great. What about the city government?”

“The mayor died in the devourer attack, along with most of the city council. With all the chaos of the earthquake and invasion they haven’t managed to replace them, so for now each guild and district is running itself.”

“I hear there are some rabble-rousers working the refugee shelters too,” Cerise said. “Blaming the nobles for the food shortage, and getting the young men all worked up. I’m not sure who they’re working for, but I bet there’s some kind of uprising coming.”

“The prince was also the one responsible for treating with the faerie,” Elin pointed out. “The Summer Queen won’t deign to meet with a man who isn’t royalty, so without him to carry on the negotiations there’s scant hope of aid from that quarter.”

I sighed. “So what you’re telling me is, Kozalin is about to fall apart?”

They all nodded.

“Perhaps a miracle will occur, and all the city’s factions will come together under a single banner,” Elin said. “But the chances of that are slim. The nobles will not follow a wizard, the wizards will not follow a noble, the commoners are restive and the church serves only the gods. Without a royal to unite the city’s factions, I fear Kozalin will soon descend into chaos.”

Thrall 01, part 1

“I must say, this is a bit disturbing.”

That wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear from Elin when she was in the middle of giving me a magical examination. Especially since Cerise was nodding along.

“Yeah, I didn’t think she had it in her. I knew she was powerful, but this is pretty damned subtle. When did she get so sneaky?”

“Cerise, we’re discussing a woman who was able to infiltrate both the Red Conclave and our own group without arousing the slightest suspicion, at a time when we were all looking for a spy. Should I point out that she also has her father’s hair and eyes, but somehow no one thought anything of it? She may pretend to be a blunt instrument, but she is far more devious than she seems.”

“You two are making me nervous here,” I said. “What are you seeing?”

“Oh, you guessed right,” Cerise said. “It looks like Mara broke the restriction on what women you can have sex with. We’re just amazed at how clean it is. I didn’t think it was possible to break one aspect of a coven bond without affecting anything else.”

“I, too, would have been skeptical regarding the possibility,” Elin agreed. “Yet here we are. The remainder of the bond is perfectly intact and unaltered, so far as I can determine. It’s as if that one restriction had never been there at all. You say you didn’t even see her do it?”

“I was a little distracted at the time. But no, I didn’t see a thing. With everything else that was going on I didn’t even think to wonder about it until we were halfway back to Kozalin.”

Mara was a beautiful woman, not to mention demanding and completely uninhibited. At the time it had seemed perfectly reasonable that I’d found myself responding to her. It wasn’t until later that I realized it shouldn’t have been possible, given the way Cerise had written our coven binding. My girls weren’t interested in other men, and I wasn’t supposed to be interested in other women. Cerise had insisted on keeping the loophole that made our female followers fair game, but Mara certainly didn’t fall into that category. After worrying about it for half the trip home, I hadn’t wasted any time dragging Cerise and Elin off to the ritual chamber to figure out what happened.

Cerise chuckled. “Lucky bastard. Next time I want to be the one who gets the hot demigoddess so worked up she works a miracle just so she can bang me.”

Elin pushed a lock of dark green hair out of her face, and frowned. “Cerise, can you please be serious for once? If she could do that, what else might she have done? With that level of wizardry-”

“No,” Cerise interrupted. “Not wizardry, divine power. And you’re right, that’s a good thing, because I’d be fucking terrified of someone who could do this with wizardry. But I think I get it now. We know what Mara’s primary aspect is, right Daniel?”

“Her mother said she’s fire and freedom,” I said. “Mind you, I’m not entirely sure what that means.”

“It’s how divine power works. Gods are more like living ideas than creatures of flesh and blood, and they can work a special kind of magic with the principles they embody. Sort of like sorcery, only it’s all about being something instead of controlling it. Mara can break any binding because she’s the embodiment of freedom.”

Elin frowned thoughtfully. “Why haven’t I read this anywhere?”

“The gods don’t exactly advertise it,” Cerise pointed out. “Most of the older ones have some sorcery too, and they take on more aspects as they age. They like to keep mortals guessing about what their limits are, and they’re pretty good at it. But some of my cult’s secrets revolve around invoking Hecate’s aspects, so she’s told us a little about how it works.”

“I see,” Elin replied. “So, Mara probably has no idea exactly how she did it, then? She just invoked her power to remove any obstacles in her path?”

“Exactly.”

“Wait, if it’s like sorcery, does that mean she can take away freedoms too?” I asked.

“No, she doesn’t control freedom, she embodies it. She probably couldn’t work a binding to save her life. I doubt she knows all that much about wizardry, either. Her mother hates that shit. At most she’s had a few months of training with whatever instructors her dad could find for her.”

Elin gave the coven magic one last, long look, and sighed. “Very well. I suppose we’re safe, then. But I’m still a bit cross with you, Daniel. Sharing you with outsiders was not part of the deal.”

“Yeah, sorry about that,” I said. “It’s not exactly something I planned. Mind you, I don’t know that we would have gotten out of Skogheim alive if I hadn’t given her what she wanted.”

“I think it’s an opportunity,” Cerise said. “She’d be a great ally if you can reel her in. I still wish she could have joined us when we first formed the coven. Although, come to think of it, I guess trying to include her in a coven binding wouldn’t have worked.”

“I should think not,” Elin said dryly. “I don’t see much hope of an alliance with someone who desires our destruction, either.”

“That’s something I wanted to talk to you two about,” I said. “And Avilla, too. If we’re done here?”

“You get a clean bill of health from me, big guy,” Cerise said.

“From me as well,” Elin agreed. “I can find no sign of hostile magic on you, or of any other changes to our coven bonds.

That was reassuring. The circumstances that had brought my coven together may have been less than ideal, but we were happy together. I couldn’t let anything threaten that.

Tina greeted us all with hugs and kisses when we entered the dining room. The phenomenally buxom redhead was as cheerful as ever. Maybe more so. Being pregnant seemed to agree with her, and she loved being a catgirl.

“No one looks worried,” she observed. “Does that mean everything’s alright?”

“Yeah, we’re good,” Cerise assured her, detouring by the kitchen to give Avilla a kiss on the cheek.

“I’m glad to hear it,” Avilla said. “Daniel? I know you just got back, but I’d like to have a coven meeting after we all eat. There’s been a lot happening while you were gone, and I think we need to discuss things.”

“Sure. What did I miss?”

“After we eat,” she insisted. “There’s no emergency, so take a seat and relax. Dinner is almost ready.”

That was probably good advice. I’d spent the last couple of weeks working night and day, culminating in the secret mission to Skogheim that I’d just returned from. A mission that was going to lead to the deaths of several million ape men. Granted, they were trying to exterminate humanity, and my own stronghold seemed to be right up at the top of their target list. But that still wasn’t something I wanted to dwell on. It would be nice to just spend some time with my girls, and remind myself what I was protecting.

Only a month since we’d come together to form the coven, but already things were changing. For the better, I think, but everything had moved so fast it was hard to keep track sometimes.

Elin was far more relaxed now. The frightened girl who thought no one could ever want her was gone, replaced by a confident young lady who chatted amiably with Cerise about everything from magical theory to philosophy. She wore the slender, elegant faerie shape we’d crafted together more comfortably, and if her teeth sometimes turned into a mass of sharp points when she got caught up in an argument no one in our group would bat an eye. The gown she wore looked like something a noble lady would choose for an evening of lounging about at home, and her waist-length hair had been woven into a complicated arrangement decorated with little gold bangles.

Tina looked more pregnant every time I saw her, which shouldn’t have been surprising since Bast had told us she’d come to term in just a couple of months. The extra weight didn’t seem to bother her, though. With the enhanced strength of her catgirl form she still carried herself as lightly as ever, and her smile was radiant. She favored less elaborate dresses, probably due to her peasant upbringing, but a least she didn’t try to hide herself from head to toe anymore. The dress she wore to dinner was only knee length, with a scooped neckline that bared the upper slopes of her breasts and the gold power tap amulet nestled between them.

Cerise was wearing new clothes too, although in her case it was a suit of armor that showed a distinct elvish influence. It fitted her lithe curves like a second skin, and while the boots and vest were leather the rest seemed to be woven from living shadows. The amount of magic invested in the garment was pretty impressive, but so were the changes in the murder witch’s personal aura. Her magic seemed noticeably better balanced than it had just a week ago, with the demonic influence much less obvious. Her horns had shrunk a bit, and was it just me or had she gotten taller somehow?

Yeah, she had. She was just a little taller than Elin now, and her hair had grown into a cascade of silky black waves that almost reached her waist. An incidental effect of tinkering with her magic, or was she being competitive?

I was distracted from wondering about it when Avilla came in with a serving platter in her hands, and a string of maids behind her. My golden-haired domestic goddess was definitely looking a lot happier, now that we’d turned her seneschal duties over to Tavrin. She was wearing a new dress of her own, a pretty green number with a knee-length skirt and a neckline that showed off even more than Tina’s. That was scandalous by Varmland’s standards, but she wore it with confidence.

Her maids laid out the rest of the meal with practiced precision, and then poured the wine and withdrew to the kitchen. As they made their retreat I noted that they had new uniforms too. Lacy black dresses with a skirt that only fell to mid-thigh, and a neckline as daring as Avilla’s. Their sleeves came all the way to the wrist, their shoes were more like low-cut boots, and each of them had a red lightning bolt embroidered at the shoulder.

“Do you like the new dresses?” Avilla asked. “I’m still playing with ideas, but I think I like this version. Sefwin is helping me come up with a design that will work for her people too.”

“Really? That doesn’t seem very practical for a bodyguard.”

Sefwin was the heir to the Nethwillin clan of dark elves, but since she was hardly likely to inherit anytime soon I’d offered her a position running my secret service. I wanted someone capable making sure my family wasn’t going to get assassinated while I was busy dealing with some crisis, and she seemed like a good fit for that.

Avilla smiled, and called one of the maids over.

“Anyone who sees them will assume they’re just decorative, but watch. Julia, show Daniel your hidden tricks.”

“Yes, Miss Avilla,” the girl, a cute brunette with rather nice legs, said eagerly. “Watch close, milord. Fast knife.”

She flicked her wrist, and a pretty little knife appeared in her hand. There was just a whisper of magic involved, of the subtle sort that the elves seemed to prefer. A hidden wrist sheath, then?

She put it away just as easily, and then made three shuriken appear in her other hand. “Throwing stars.”

She put them away, and reached both hands into the bow at the small of her back. They came out holding a pair of ten-inch combat knives. “Fighting blades, too. Not that any of us know how to use them properly, but Lady Sefwin’s people have started showing us a few tricks.”

She made the daggers vanish just as easily as she had the smaller blades. Then she took my hand, and put it on the front of her dress. “Feel that, milord? The elves can weave cloth out of mithril somehow. The whole dress is like mail, even the skirts. There’s another version where the front comes up to the neck for protection, but I think Miss Avilla likes this one better. I’ve seen a couple of elves practice fighting in it, and the way they bounce would distract any man. Oh, and we’ve a few other surprises hidden under our skirts, but those aren’t fit for public.”

I chuckled. “I can imagine. Lacy underthings, or does Avilla have you girls going around with no panties?”

“That’s the least of it, milord,” she giggled. “Miss Avilla has the most wicked ideas. There’s no telling what you might find, should you go about lifting skirts.”

“That’s enough of that, Julia,” Avilla said. “Off you go.”

The girl gave a curtsey that exposed quite a bit of bare thigh, and scurried back to her place.

“Alright, I see you’ve got the hidden weapons angle covered” I said. “But how would elven guards blend in with a group of humans?”

Contrary to the myths from my world, dark elves weren’t skinny little waifs with pointed ears. Most of them were so stacked I would have assumed they had implants back home, and their ears were too long and mobile to hide easily. Not to mention that their skin tones were a lot darker than any of the humans who lived in Northern Europe.

Avilla turned to the breakfast bar, where half a dozen maids were lined up waiting in case we needed anything. “Girls? Raise your hand if you’d like to have a bust like an elf.”

Five hands went up. A couple of the girls raised both hands, and hopped up and down waving them around. Elin snorted at that.

“I hope you’re prepared for back pains, and not being able to lie down on them.”

“It’s worth it,” Tina interjected. “There’s nothing like the power of big boobies. You can make a man forget what he was saying just by taking a deep breath. But I call dibs on having the biggest pair in the palace. Okay, Daniel?”

I laughed. “Sure thing, Tina.”

She’d been buxom before we’d met, and then she’d taken several opportunities to talk me into giving her upgrades with my flesh magic. She finally seemed content with her assets after the last session, which was a good thing because if she were any bigger it would definitely be too much.

Avila smiled tolerantly at her. “That’s your thing, sweetie, and no one wants to take it away from you. But that wasn’t my point. Girls, who’d be willing to get turned into an elf completely?”

Most of the hands went down at that, but a couple of the maids still had one raised. Well, that was a lot more adventurous than I’d expected.

“How about being a catgirl, like Tina?”

That got half their hands up.

“A wolfen, like Gudrun and Daria?”

Four volunteers this time. Avilla smiled at me.

“You see? Just make some time to work on it, and my girls will be happy to look so exotic anyone could blend in with them. Sefwin wants to recruit some wolfen as agents, too, if you and Cerise can figure out how to make more.”

“That sounds like a fun little project,” I admitted. “I’ve also got some patterns for magically enhancing humans that I’ve never had a chance to use, just because it would take too much time. We should set up regular self-defense training for all the maids, too. If they’re going to be carrying weapons they should know how to use them.”

Avilla liked that idea. She seemed to be pretty involved in her little maid training project, which made for entertaining dinner conversation. When she’d first started recruiting I think she was really just collecting a group of cute girls she could play out some of her fantasies with, but the project had taken on a life of its own. With tens of thousands of refugees crowding the city she’d had no trouble finding talented help, and they all seemed fiercely grateful for the chance to work as servants in my stronghold.

Being a hearth witch, Avilla’s standards of performance for domestic staff were pretty insane. She’d started an aggressive training program for the staff now that she had time, and I’d been a little worried that she’d go too far with it. But to my surprise most of the girls had seen that as an opportunity, and thrown themselves eagerly into the work. Apparently having the chance to learn from the best appealed to them, especially since being Avilla’s little minions meant they were soaking up a little domestic magic of their own.

I’m pretty sure her methods of maintaining discipline could have been lifted from softcore bondage porn, considering the way Cerise teased her about it. But no one had ever come to me with a complaint, and they seemed to be enjoying themselves. I made a mental note that I should probably look into that a little more if I ever had a spare moment, but it wasn’t exactly a high priority.

The idea of teaching them all to fight seemed to intrigue Avilla. Not that they were going to turn into heroic warriors overnight or anything, but with the amount of magic we had available they didn’t have to. A willingness to fight, some basic training and a collection of magic weapons would be more than enough to handle a lot of threats. We could easily prepare them to deal with goblins or muggers on their own, and if they ever encountered something more serious they’d at least have a better chance at escaping while Sefwin’s agents handled it.

July Update

Those of you who are impatiently waiting for Thrall will be happy to hear that I’ve just finished chapter 19, so things are still on track for a fall release. I’m still projecting that the book will be about 23-24 chapters long, so I’ve only got about four chapters to go.

My plans for Alice have undergone substantial revisions, because I finally have a plot for a real sequel to Perilous Waif. Merciful Troubleshooter is going to be a door-stopper of a book, but it should be fun to write. We’ll see a lot more of the weird societies and advanced technology of the 26th century, and explore what it’s like to work security for a crew of shady characters when their past comes back to haunt them. The events of the novella I’d been planning will end up being worked into the latter half of the book.

Finally, I’ve decided how I’m going to handle preview content for my books from now on. I like to post the first few chapters of a novel here before its release date, so readers can get some idea of what to expect. But my books sometimes undergo major revisions as they’re being written, and I don’t want to post a chapter and then discover I need to completely re-write it before publication.

Luckily I’ve also decided I need to move to a more professional pre-publication process, including using a proofreading service to help rid my manuscripts of all those little typos and grammatical snafus that tend to sneak past me. That adds a few weeks between finishing the first draft and actual publication, which gives me an interval where I know there aren’t going to be any more major changes. So what I’m going from now on is post the first preview chapter as I wrap up the end of a book, and then post another preview every couple of weeks during the editing process.

At my current rate of progress, that means you can expect the first public preview of Thrall in early August.

April Status

I see it’s been a while since I did a status post, so I suppose I’d better give an update.

I’m just finishing up chapter 14 of Thrall, the next Daniel Black novel. My current outline has the book being 23 chapters long, so the end is in sight on this one.

The next Alice Long story is a novella that’s currently at 4 chapters, out of an expected 12 or so. The way things are going it will probably be done around the same time as Thrall.

I’ve been doing some outlining and background work on the sueprhero story that I’ve mentioned before, but that’s defintiely on the back burner for now. I’ve also been considering a military SF concept set in the same universe as Alice Long’s story, but that’s a lower priority project at the moment.

So it looks like I should end up having two releases this year, but they’ll probably both be in the Fall.