The Pulver Chronicles – 9. A Man Of Wealth And Taste


Jackson and Marrmad arrived in a large hall, about the size of a football field. At its center was a large table, big enough to host perhaps sixty guests or more. Only one person, however, was seated there, although his meals occupied a good chunk of the space.

The man was very large, possibly four times larger than the average Human. His face was a pink oval with red spots, underlined by a double chin, and topped with dark red hair. Jackson smiled to himself when he thought that the large man’s facial traits made him look like a caricature of a person: he had a big red nose, more large than long, and small, sunken brown eyes. His thick lips were curved in a gluttonous, bon vivant smile. However, Jackson thought there was something impressive to that man that had nothing to do with his weight, his scene, or his manner of clothing -although there was no doubt he dressed to flaunt his riches. Something in his expression, the young man decided. He had some sort of quiet confidence about him, neither boastful nor projected; a discreet charisma that transpired in spite of his homeliness.

What certainly was impressive was the quantity and the variety of foodstuffs sprawled on the table before him. Multiple plates of meats in their sauces, vegetables, soups, breads, and pastries were displayed. There was enough there to feed half a dozen hungry men. The Prince Merchant was currently enjoying some fish skewers. Two servants stood behind him at a respectable distance, patiently observing the scene, no doubt ready to take away any plate as soon as it was empty, or to refill their employer’s cup the very moment the last drop had been drunk.

“Always an honor, sir Nechido,” Marrmad said, placing a hand on his chest and bowing so deep his torso was almost perpendicular to his legs.

“Hello, Marrmad,” Nechido said, offering him a seat to his right with a small gesture of the hand. “I see you have brought some company.”

“Ah, yes,” the Goblin said as he sat down. “Our latest member, who insisted on coming with me today.”

“Bit young, isn’t he? Heh. Are you hungry, boy?”

Nechido offered him a seat to his left. Jackson immediately took it.

“Yeah! I mean, yes sir.”

One of the servants placed a plate in front of him, as well as a two-pronged fork and a knife. At his stomach’s bequest, Jackson began helping himself to every one of the meals in his range before even being invited to do so. Marrmad, who declined to eat anything, shot him an annoyed glance. The Prince Merchant, however, didn’t pay any mind. He simply finished his skewers and got started on a plate of orange-brown soup.

“I believe you have something for me,” Nechido said.

“Indeed, sir,” Marrmad said.

The Goblin retrieved the box from his coat’s pocket, put it on the table, and slid it to Nechido. The obese man brushed the box with the tip of his large fingers, a breath of contentment escaping his lungs.

“Well done,” he said. “And the Redthroats?”

“They shouldn’t cause any trouble to anyone traveling through the Edlon forest for the foreseeable future.”

“Excellent news,” Nechido said as he swallowed a spoonful of soup.

The two men went on to talk about different subjects, but Jackson was only half-listening. His mind was focused on something else. Something he had been carrying in his pocket all day, something he was now squeezing in his hand. Something he should not be having, and was anxious to get rid of.

“How should I do this?” Jackson asked Byron.

“Hmmm, this is tricky,” Byron said. “It’d be better if Marrmad wasn’t here for this. If he finds out about the ring, he’ll have a million questions. But I can’t think of a way to get him to leave without making him suspicious.”

Jackson decided to try something. Out loud, he said:

“Err, excuse me. Wasn’t there a reward for getting your box back?”

The Goblin bit his lower lip and sucked on his teeth.

“You must forgive my new young protege,” he said. “He knows little of good manners.”

“What? I’m just saying…”

“Sir Nechido doesn’t discuss business or money before dessert.”

“Negotiations go easier with baked goods and pastries,” Nechido explained. “But don’t worry, boy. You’ll have your coin. Now…”

And they went right back to talking. So much for that, Jackson thought. He shoved a piece of salted meat in his mouth and started munching as he tried to think of another plan. After three servings of meat, four of vegetables, and two pieces of cheese, he finally had an idea. It wasn’t much of an idea, actually: it was simplistic and risky. His anxiety, growing as lunch was nearing its end, pushed him to go through with it anyway. Taking the ring out of his pocket in his balled fist, he placed it in a napkin, which he folded before sliding it to Nechido, making sure it was hidden from Marrmad’s sight by a large plate of chicken.

It took the Prince Merchant a minute to notice said napkin. He unfolded it and stared down at its content, his smile slowly fading. His gaze then rose to meet Jackson’s, who did his best to sustain it, trying to read the merchant’s body language. Was he angry, surprised, afraid? No… He didn’t seem to be any of those things. But then, maybe he was just good at hiding his feelings. Nechido snapped his fingers at one of the servants, who stepped up.

“Please lead Marrmad to Limbert’s office. Make sure he receives his payment in full, then show him out.”

Marrmad looked gobsmacked. “Ah, sir Nechido, but… we haven’t… I mean, dessert hasn’t…”

“I do apologize, but I only just realized I have an important matter to settle, therefore I must end our meal.”

“Umm… But of course,” the Goblin said, a fake smile on his face. He turned to Jackson and said: “Well, let us go, then.”

Nechido rose a large hand and said: “What say you I send your young friend to the kitchens while you collect your coin? He can get some of that dessert for all your comrades to enjoy. My cook made lokums with almonds and bergamot,” he added, giving Marrmad a knowing nod.

“Well, I certainly cannot refuse such an offer!” the Goblin said, suddenly in a much better mood. He stood up, wiped his lips, then said: “Meet me in front of the castle, Greenleaf.”

Marrmad stepped out, preceded by the servant. Jackson moved to stand up as well, until he crossed eyes with the Prince Merchant again.

“You may stay seated,” he simply said.

The young man did so. His pulse rose and his hands encroached on the table’s edge; he tried to control his breathing. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea after all.

“Maybe,” Byron snarked.

Nechido took the ring and showed it to Jackson. His facial traits reflected a lot of tension, and so did his voice as he said:

“Where did you find this, boy?”

“What should I tell him?” Jackson thought-said.

Now you’re asking yourself that?” Byron said. “What was even this? You just gave him the damn ring, like that?”

“Well, it worked, didn’t it? He sent Marrmad away, and he got the ring back. That was what we wanted.”

Byron groaned, then said: “All right, I suppose the direct approach was the best. Let’s keep to it: tell him the truth.”

“The truth? That I got the ring in a dream?”

“I doubt you’re a good enough liar to fool him. He’s probably got more experience with lies and deception.”

As Jackson and Byron were bickering, the Prince Merchant’s expression gradually changed. Another smile appeared on his lips, a completely different one. While his debonair attitude wasn’t completely gone, there was now a clear hint of malice mixed in. He toyed with the box using his thumb.

“You took a look, didn’t you?” he said, with a throaty chuckle.

“No,” Jackson briskly said, his fingers fidgeting around his fork.

“What did you see?”

Jackson looked down at his plate and the remains of his meal. After staring at him in silence for a long while, Nechido chuckled again.

“You’re right to keep quiet, boy. This is likely not a story you should be telling.”

The young man frowned. Did the Prince Merchant know what was in that black orb? It sounded like he didn’t. In fact, he made it sound like he didn’t want to know.

“What is that thing?” he said, pointing at the box.

“Something that cost me a lot to acquire,” Nechido said. With a snort, he added: “And to reacquire.”

“It’s magic, isn’t it?”

“Yes. The sort of magic you’ll not see your average witch or priest practice.”

“The sort of magic the Inquisition would hunt you for?” Jackson suggested.

He mentally kicked himself as soon as he said those words. They could easily be interpreted as a threat, and threatening a rich, powerful man was definitely not a smart idea. Especially if he expected to get some answers from that rich, powerful man. But his boldness -or was it recklessness?- only amused Nechido.

“Yes, I should think so,” he said.

“You asked how I got your ring,” Jackson said. “Does that mean you didn’t know I had it?”

“I most certainly did not. It wasn’t at all my intention for anyone but me to have access to this box’s contents.”

“Right, no, of course.”

Jackson bit his nail, then decided he’d rather have something tastier in his mouth and grabbed a slice of fish pie.

“So… Do you know how I got the damn ring? Or why?”

Nechido leaned back in his chair, which creaked under his weight, and joined his index fingers over his lips.

“I may have an idea as to how it left my household. Possibly.”

“Possibly?”

“There are but a few people who could have access to this ring, or even knew of its existence and its function. I shall have to make some inquiries among my servants. I suspect the information would have come from one of them. As to whether it was bought, coerced, or stolen from them…”

“Any of your servants got, like, weird magical powers?” Jackson said. He thought for a moment. How far could he confide in Nechido? Ah, screw it. In for an inch, and all that. “The kind that can affect your dreams?”

The Prince Merchant arched an eyebrow. “That is an interesting question.”

“Very specific, too,” Byron said, silently fuming.

“Well, we weren’t gonna get precise answers with vague questions, were we?” Jackson snapped.

“Dreams, heh?” Nechido said. “Yes, I know of some magis with the ability to affect dreams. But, no, none of the people I employ could possibly do that. Not one of them is even blessed with the Talent.”

“All right, well, do you have a list of those magis? Do you know their names?”

Jackson’s tone was getting short, anxious. He realized it, and took a deep breath.

“Look, I… I just need to know.”

“So do I, as a matter of fact,” Nechido said.

“Right. I mean, of course you do. It’s you who got robbed.”

“Indeed. And I, too, would very much like to know how, and why.”

The large man finished his plate, sucked on his fingers, and let out a sigh of satisfaction.

“We have a common interest here,” he said. “In my experience, those can be quite profitable. How would you like to work for me again?”

“Err… Do you mean just me, or the Children of Nayros?”

“The latter. This is something you alone would not be able to do, I suspect. No offense meant.”

“None taken. Should I get Marrmad to come back so you two can talk?”

“No, I would rather this discussion be kept private for the time being,” Nechido said, his malicious expression giving way to a more business-like one. “This means you will not speak of the ring, or of the box.”

“No problem.”

“Not even to Marrmad, or any of your companions.”

“You don’t trust them?”

“Trust is one of the very few privileges I cannot afford… evidently,” the prince merchant said, taking his ring in the palm of his hand and playing with it with his thumb.

“What about me?” Jackson had to ask. “Do you trust me? What if I’m the real thief, and I just told you a bunch of bullsh- of nonsense?”

“I’m almost entirely certain you’re not,” Nechido calmly said. His malicious smile briefly reappeared. “And if you are, having you work for me would be the ideal opportunity to find out.”

Jackson gave a quick nod. “Okay. So what’s the plan?”

“Before anything, I have to do some inquiries here at the Seacrest Castle, as I’ve mentioned. It shall take me some time, possibly a fortnight or more. I will send notice to the Children of Nayros once I know more of our mysterious thief. Whoever they are, my intuition tells me it would be better for my business not to act openly against them.”

“You’d rather send them a bunch of mercenaries on the down-low, so you can have plausible deniability if things go south.”

Nechido was visibly confused by Jackson’s idioms, but understood the general sense of what he said.

“You will be rewarded, of course, in accordance with the service rendered and the risks incurred. Does that offer seem acceptable to you, boy?”

Jackson quickly shot Byron an interrogative look; the veteran silently nodded.

“Yeah, sounds good to me,” the young man said.

“By the way, what is your name, boy?” Nechido inquired.

“My name’s Jackson. The others call me Greenleaf.”

“Jackson,” Nechido repeated, enunciating both syllables. “An unusual name. Not the most unusual thing about you, I would wager.”

“Yeah, you could say that…”

Nechido stood up, pushing his seat back. Jackson made an effort not to laugh when he saw the prince merchant’s enormous gut bounce with the motion. The man’s obesity had nothing on some of Jackson’s countrymen, but all the same it was a wonder his legs could still carry him.

“Excellent,” Nechido said. “Now, I do believe our Goblin friend is waiting for you. Ocean’s blessings to you, Jackson. Oh, and don’t forget dessert.”

Marrmad was pacing back and forth in the garden when Jackson came out, holding a cloth bag filled with lokums. The Goblin groaned with frustration.

“Did you get lost on the way?”

“Sorry. You got the money?”

Marrmad tapped one of his shirt’s pockets, on the left side of his chest, beneath his coat.

“Let’s go,” he said.

Jackson didn’t expect him to last long before he started asking questions, and indeed they had not even left the Goldfoam borough when he said point-blank:

“What happened in there? What did you do?”

“I, uh… I got us some more work.”

Marrmad would not have looked more shocked if Jackson had exposed himself in front of him.

“Excuse me?”

“Yeah. We talked a bit, and, uh, there’s gonna be some work for us in the near future, he said.”

“What kind of work?”

“Dunno exactly,” Jackson said with a shrug.

“Well, what did you talk about?”

“Err… He told me not to tell you.”

The Goblin’s eyebrows joined above his nose, while his lips curved downwards.

“Or anyone else,” Jackson immediately added. “It’s all very hush-hush.”

Marrmad looked marginally less offended, but Jackson still felt the need to keep talking:

“Don’t worry, I’m not… going behind your back, trying to steal your spot, or whatever.”

“I am not worried.”

“Plus, we haven’t really talked about money, so that’s still your thing. I suck at haggling, anyway.”

“It’s all right, I believe you,” Marrmad said, although he only seemed somewhat mollified. With a sigh, he continued: “It’s fortunate he’s shown patience for your lack of couth, but by the many gods, please be mindful of your manners around him in the future. The Prince Merchants are richer than most marquesses and more powerful than some kings, and they certainly are just as prideful as Archdemons.”

“Nechido seemed nice. And, I mean, you work for him. How bad can he really be?”

“Just… mind yourself.”

The subject of the Prince Merchant wasn’t brought up again during their walk back to the hideout. Jackson took this opportunity to engage in some small talk with Marrmad, trying to get to know him better. He had to reformulate quite a few of his questions, as the Goblin made it crystal clear he wouldn’t discuss anything pertaining to his time before the Children of Nayros. Still, Jackson managed to learn a little about his past. Small details, really: that Marrmad was native of the Marches but not of Atvello, that he had lived in a few different places in his life, and that he was equally dismissive of the Empire and of the Hexacracy. During a lull in their conversation, Jackson asked Byron:

“What do you think?”

“Of Marrmad? I’m not sure. He’s ambitious, that’s for sure. I get the feeling he was either born in poverty, or from a family of high status who lost its standing.”

“I meant Nechido. You think we can trust him?”

“As much as you can trust a wealthy and powerful stranger. So far, like he said, you have a common goal. Just don’t rest too easy; he might try to use you as bait to find whoever planted his mole.”

“Seriously?”

“You don’t get to become a man of his wealth and stature without throwing a few people under the bus.”

“Am I the only one in this group who doesn’t think anyone is a potential traitor the moment I meet them?”

“Yes,” Byron said. “You’re also the only one in this group who’s still a teenager. Not that this has anything to do with that…”

Jackson shrugged off the quip. “I still don’t get it. Why would someone want me to get that ring?”

“Your guess is as good as mine. But, clearly, they were planning on you being reckless enough to touch that orb without knowing what it was. Which, I suppose, wasn’t a risky bet.”

“How could I not?” Jackson said, a twinge of excitement in his eye. “Wouldn’t you? That thing looked magical!”

“No, I would not have, precisely because that thing looked magical. What if it was some kind of magical weapon? What if it was a lethal trap?”

“Well, I mean… It wasn’t, right? So…”

“My point is” Byron pushed his index finger in Jackson’s chest “you put your life in danger. Or should I say: our lives. What the hell were you thinking?”

“I…”

“You got lucky. Lucky this didn’t kill you, lucky I took over after you lost consciousness.”

“All right, all right! I get it. No more touching weird, shiny things.”

Byron scowled, but Jackson changed the topic: “I keep thinking about that dark wolf girl, or whatever she was. The one whose memories I saw, you know. It was so damn freaky, I actually felt her dying. That guy killed her with some kind of weird magic, I recall… Wait, come to think of it, it looked like the same kind of magic that necromant pulled on you!”

“From the description you gave, it does sound like it,” Byron nodded. “Another necromant, huh… Didn’t that Inquisitor say that the Archdemons are supplying necromants with their knowledge and power?”

“Uh… Yeah, I think she said something like that. She made it sound like the necromants were terrorists cells tasked with scaring the shit out of everyone in the Marches. Or, uh, the medieval equivalent of that, I guess.”

“Burning the enemy’s fields and killing their civilians to sap their morale have been common tactics since early military history,” Byron said, as if he was giving a lecture.

“Is that the kind of thing you used to do in your mysterious military past?”

“That Inquisitor called it the Second Forbidden Arcane,” he said, ignoring the question. “If the power to kill with a snap of your fingers, to gather souls and use them as ammo, and to raise and command the dead is only the Second Forbidden Arcane, I’m not sure I want to know what the first one is.”

He rubbed his chin.

“Anyway, I think it’s safe to assume that those creatures you saw -Natial’s people- are waging some kind of war against the Hexacracy. By their use of ambushes, I’m guessing an asymmetrical war. Maybe they’re some kind of vassal or conquered people who are rising against their masters. And someone has tasked you to find their leader, that Alizana.”

“Yeah… The guys who captured Natial were trying to get her. I have to find her before they do.”

Jackson was getting excited. And how could he not? Sure, people often told him it didn’t take much to get him into this state, but this? Magical visions guiding him? A mysterious stranger to save -a female stranger, at that-? A quest granted by some unseen higher power? Damn if it wasn’t like he was the hero of some fantastic tale. Heck, he even had a sword, the truest sign of heroism -although he still would have much preferred using his pistol. And he had a cape, too!

Sure, he felt a little manipulated -he’d rather think of it as “led on”-, but all the same, this was exciting. Yes, he would find her. Now, all he had to do was…

“Err, so, how do I find her?”

“I have no idea,” Byron shrugged. “Assuming she’s on this continent -which is not even certain-, that’s a lot of ground to cover. And you’re looking for someone who doesn’t want to be found.”

“Well, she’s got to be in the Marches, right?”

“What makes you think that?”

“For one thing, we found that dark orb thing in the Marches.”

“In a caravan, which brought it from who knows where.”

“Right, yes, but also… I mean, she has to be in the Marches.”

Byron rolled his eyes, and said: “Okay, I’ll bite: why does she have to be in the Marches?”

“Because I’m in the Marches?”

“Oh, I see,” Byron said. “The gods of this world have made sure to put her in your path. You are, after all, the Chosen One, and she and you are fated to be.”

“There’s no need to get snarky,” Jackson muttered. “I’m just saying, if whoever gave me the vision and the ring expects me to find her, then she must be somewhere where I can reach her. And that’s the Marches.”

It didn’t take a mind-reader to see that Byron was less than convinced by this reasoning.

“Wait,” Jackson said. “I’m working with Nechido to find his mole. And that mole is working for my… mysterious benefactor, let’s call it. So, if we find the mole, we find the mysterious benefactor. And then, maybe the benefactor gives us Alizana!”

He smiled broadly, happy with his own deductions. Byron cleared his throat.

“You do realize, of course, that said mysterious benefactor may very well be trying to get you to find Alizana because they don’t know where she is either?”

Jackson’s jaw went slack. He hadn’t thought of that.

“In fact, there’s a good chance you’ve been hired -so to speak- by someone from the Hexacracy to find Alizana and… do their dirty work for them.”

“Damn,” Jackson abruptly said. He hadn’t thought of that either. Unfortunately, it made sense, almost as much as his “fantastic quest” idea. Okay, exactly as much. Okay, maybe even more sense. “Well, then… if that’s true, I’ll find her anyway. For all I know, there’s a good reason the Hexacracy wants her.”

“Yes,” Byron said, slowly, as if he was explaining something complicated to a young child. “That reason is that she’s the leader of a paramilitary group that opposes them and kills their soldiers.”

“You know, implying that I’m stupid is just as bad as saying I’m stupid,” Jackson said.

“I’m well aware.”

“What I meant is, maybe she’s a bad person. Like, she’s killing people -well, she’s ordering people to be killed, same thing.”

“You’ve killed someone too.”

“The necromant? That was different.”

“Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe what she’s doing is different as well.”

Jackson huffed, but Byron had a point -he seemed to have made an annoying habit of that. The young man didn’t know anything about Alizana, that was kind of the problem. Well, he knew what he had seen in the vision, and, although it wasn’t much, it certainly did not depict her as a bad person. 

He sighed. As much as he wanted to picture himself as a hero on an epic journey, he really was more of a fish out of water, or a kid playing a game while still trying to figure out the rules. The young man mulled all this over for a while. It wasn’t until they reached the Hazy Narrian’s entrance that Byron broke the silence between them:

“You were right about one thing, however: working with Nechido could bring us closer to finding her.”

The young man nodded. Okay. Well, let’s put that on the backburner for now, before I start getting obsessed. And to help with that, he decided he needed something else to focus on; a distraction. As he saw his fellow Children of Nayros, he immediately knew what would work.

“Hey, babe,” he said, sitting to the left of Enita, who was busy writing something on a piece of parchment with a quill.

“Hello,” she said, taking her eyes off her writing for a moment. “Did everything go well with Nechido?”

“We got paid, we got fed, we talked shop. All good. Oh, I brought back dessert,” he added, dropping a cloth bag on the table. Enita opened it with the tip of her quill, and grinned.

“Oh, lokums! I haven’t had any since C’fa.”

“What are you writing?” Jackson said, craning his neck to read above her shoulder. She raised her arm to block his view.

“Ah! Nothing that concerns you.”

He was put off for a moment by the sharpness of her tone, but then saw her tongue poking out of her mouth.

“Okay, okay. Hey, can we talk for a sec?”

“Certainly. Just let me finish this.”

“She knows how to write,” Byron said. “That must not be very common in this world.”

Jackson leaned back in his chair, then crossed his legs on the table. His fingers tapped the sides of his seat, drumming on them to the rhythm of a song he remembered hearing over the radio once. Present in the main room were Marrmad, who was busy counting the coins he had collected from Nechido, Argyro, who was drinking wine directly from a pitcher, and Jowallan, who was once again doing their strange meditation.

Enita put down her quill, then reread what she had written. Satisfied, she blew on the ink to help it dry, then rolled the parchment and put it away. Jackson waited until Marrmad and Argyro had left until he broached the topic that had been on his mind for a little while.

“So, uh, the other night, I had a talk with Jowallan.”

“Oh?” Enita raised an eyebrow. “What about?”

“Well, they wanted to know about me… and I guess I wanted to know about them. I mean…”

He stuttered a little. Wouldn’t she interpret that the wrong way?

“Understandable,” she said. “They certainly raise one’s curiosity.”

“Yeah. So they told me, uh…” he lowered his voice “They told me they were a Cambion.”

“They did?” Both her eyebrows were now on the same level. “You must have made quite an impression on them. They only impart that secret to those they’ve taken a keen interest in.”

Jackson felt himself blush.

“Err, yeah, well… About that… I think they, uh… They kind of… tried to hit on me.”

“Hit on you?” Judging by her expression, Enita did not know that saying.

“I mean, they tried to seduce me.”

“Oh,” Enita said.

“No, but, I mean, nothing happened,” Jackson immediately added. “Look, um, I know you and I haven’t really talked ever since, err, you know, that time at the park. And, uh, that other time in the back alley. But I’m not… I mean, I know we’re not necessarily together, but…”

“Dear God,” Byron groaned. “I can’t feel pain anymore, but I can still feel second-hand embarrassment.”

“Fuck off!” Jackson thought-said, almost yelling it out loud. “Look, what I’m saying is…”

“You think I’m concerned that you’re unfaithful?” Enita said.

“Right, yes. They seduced me, but…”

“You’re not the first one,” she said, a glint of mischievousness in her eye.

“I… what? You mean you… and them…”

“We are all Children of Nayros. Are families not supposed to share everything?”

Jackson chuckled, feeling a weight being lifted off his chest. Enita placed a hand on his shoulder.

“I quite enjoy your company, Greenleaf, but I wish to make one thing clear: I’m a nomad at heart. I don’t bind myself to anything, or anyone. Today, I am a Child of Nayros, living in Atvello. But as for tomorrow, not even the gods know.”

“Oh,” Jackson said.

He was a tad relieved, but at the same time sensed a twinge of disappointment pinching his stomach. Enita smiled, placing a fist beneath her chin, her elbow on the table.

“So, Jowallan has taken a liking to you. You were right: you are not just anybody.”

“Thanks, I guess. Anyway, the reason -the other reason- I bring this up is they told me to check with you that they were telling the truth. I promised to give them a secret in exchange for another.”

“The truth? That they are a Cambion?”

“Yeah. Also, they said Cambions are like a cross between Humans and Demons. Is that true?”

“I believe it is,” Enita said. “Nobody really knows. After I met Jowallan, I tried to find out more about them, but there is scant information available; and I’d rather not say what I had to do to obtain what little I found. Demons and Humans are different species entirely, it’s not possible -not supposed to be possible- for them to bear progeny. Many suspect that the Cambions result from unnatural, abhorrent experiments.”

“Like what? Black magic?”

“Black magic? Do you refer to the Black Book?”

“Uh, probably not. I don’t know what that is. I meant necromancy and such.”

“Oh, the Forbidden Arcanes! Well, that is a possibility, I suppose, but I really couldn’t tell you. Nor could anyone else, as far as I know, barring those who practice such things -and they’re unlikely to talk. By the way, the Black Book is one of the two fundamental scriptures of the Imperial Cult.”

“From the name, I’m guessing that’s the religion they practice in the Empire.”

“It is. Its real name is the Divine Church of the Enlightened Order, but outside the Empire it’s mostly known as the Imperial Cult. Although they tolerate several other worships, the vast majority of the population and essentially all of the noble families are members of the Cult and worship the Divine fervently -sometimes even exclusively. The Emperor himself is traditionally crowned at the Sanctotum in the imperial capital, although there are exceptions: Damian II was crowned on the battlefield where his father fell.”

That girl really likes her history lessons, Jackson thought.

“All right, then,” he said, scratching the back of his neck. “Guess I owe Jowallan a secret, now.”

The question was: which one? Jackson could think of quite a few things about him and his past that could qualify as secrets, but wasn’t certain he could trust Jowallan with them. In fact, given the nature of some of them, he wasn’t even sure Jowallan would believe him. On the other hand, the secret the Cambion had confided into him was pretty big -it seemed like it, at least. Jowallan’s people were not just mongrels (Jackson tutted when he thought of that word): they were an unnatural kind of mongrels, apparently even more despised than the others. They were mongrels’ mongrels. No doubt this was the sort of secret that would get Jowallan killed in some places. 

That last thought helped Jackson make up his mind. He left Enita, who went back to her writing, and kneeled in front of Jowallan.

“Hey. Can we talk? In private?”

Jowallan didn’t react. Their body was completely immobile; even their chest didn’t rise and fall, nor did his nostrils contract. Jackson was about to repeat his question, when all of a sudden a curtain of smoke appeared, seemingly from Jowallan’s back, and encircled the both of them. They were isolated from the rest of the room. Jackson couldn’t even hear the sound of Enita’s scribblings anymore. All sources of light were also cut, but he could still see somewhat. He had no idea how, but just accepted that the whole thing was strange.

“Your turn,” Jowallan said, slowly opening their eyes.

“Yeah, my turn.”

Jackson brought his feet under him, in an awkward imitation of Jowallan’s posture, and cleared his throat.

“Okay,” he said. “So… Okay.”

“This is a bad idea,” Byron said, apparently unhindered by Jowallan’s power.

“It’s gonna be okay,” Jackson said. “Okay…”

This was much harder than he thought it would be. Jowallan staring straight into his eyes -into his very soul, it felt like- most certainly did not help. He clenched his jaw, tightened his butt, and said:

“I come from another world.”

The words had barreled out of his mouth like a bull in front of a red cloth. Jowallan’s eyebrows folded into upside down Vs. They brought their hands down and placed them on their knees, their torso leaning slightly towards the young man.

“Please explain,” they said.

“Well, it’s… Shit, where do I even start? Okay, so the place I come from, you won’t find it on any maps. It’s a completely different place, with different continents, different people, different languages… Magic doesn’t exist there. Or if it does, it’s super well hidden and nobody believes in it. I mean, we’ve got these psychics on TV, but… Uh, nevermind. Technology is way, way more advanced. We have cars, planes, phones, hip-hop music, fried chicken… And guns, tanks, nukes, and stuff. There are big cities, with millions of people, and big buildings, and skyscrapers.”

He paused to breathe.

“There are lots of countries. Mine is called the United States of America. I was in the US Army. One day, my squad and I, we were sent on a training exercise in the forest, but things got weird. I still don’t know what the fuck happened, but we all got transported to this world. Then, we were attacked by zombies. Almost all of my squadmates got killed, including the sarge.”

Jackson was about to get to the part with the necromant, but then thought that if he were to mention that, he might have to mention Byron, as well. And that qualified as another secret entirely. He shut his mouth and took another deep breath. Jowallan blinked.

“You think I’m nuts, don’t you?”

The Cambion smiled, showing their fangs again. “I think you’re amusing. But I know you’re telling the truth.”

“You know?” Something heavy dropped on Jackson’s guts. “What do you mean, “you know” ?”

“More accurately, I know you’re not lying.”

“Oh. Is that one of your powers?”

“Actually, it is. But I don’t need them with you. You are not a particularly skilled liar.”

Jackson’s cheeks flushed. “None taken?…”

“I knew there was something about you the moment I saw you,” the Cambion said. “Something different. Something… fascinating.”

“Really? You didn’t even say one word to me until that night in the cave.”

“I was waiting to see whether my instincts were right.” They leaned just one inch more towards Jackson. “They were.”

The young man’s heart started beating faster as the Cambion’s face got closer to his. Their horns were moving again; there was something hypnotic about the way they slithered, and definitely something unnatural. The appendages seemed to ignore the rules of physics: although they were, in all probability, solid, they behaved like liquids, maybe even like gas.

“Can you tie them in a knot?” Jackson asked, his curiosity getting the better of his filter.

A glint of amusement danced in Jowallan’s red eyes, although the rest of their face remained impavid.

“Yeah, sorry, stupid question. I’m sure they can do better tricks than that.”

Nope, that’s a stupider thing to say. Before Jackson found a way to put his foot further in his mouth, Jowallan said:

“Do you want to touch them?”

“Do I…?” the young man repeated, with a surprised smile. “Yeah, sure.”

Jackson lifted his hands, his fingers shaking a little -he wasn’t sure it was out of anticipation, a bit of fear, or something else. He first brushed them very lightly, worried they might be rough to the touch. They turned out in fact to have a slick, smooth surface. Some kind of sticky substance covered them; Jackson was reminded of those anemones he had touched at an aquarium once. Feeling more confident, he went on to caress them, wrapping his fingers around two of them. As he did, he sensed a pulse coursing through them. The Cambion’s heartbeat, maybe? Jowallan let out a long breath of air through their nose. Their horns rolled around and wreathed around Jackson’s hands, holding them with a surprising amount of strength. Jackson tried to remove them, chuckling lightly when he found he couldn’t.

Fascinated by this little game, Jackson barely noticed Jowallan’s hands on the side of his neck. They were cold, but not in an uncomfortable way. The same was true for their lips; Jowallan pressed them softly against Jackson’s, tickling and teasing him. Jackson swore under his breath when the Cambion’s claws grabbed the back of his head and pulled it closer. Their mouths finally met, and a tongue immediately sneaked between Jackson’s teeth. The young man, entranced, sneaked his hands downward until they reached Jowallan’s lower back.

Jowallan ended the kiss and licked their lips, then grabbed the front of Jackson’s pants. His belt quickly came undone. Jackson forgot how to breathe when he felt a hand touch his groin, which reacted immediately. His heart had turned his ribcage into a drum.

This was… Jackson didn’t even know a word that could properly describe his current situation. Weird? Crazy? Incredible? Jowallan was not a woman. Neither were they a man, in fact. Back in his world, Jackson had heard of people who were not men or women -he was pretty sure there was a word for that, but he couldn’t remember it-, but he had always believed it was some kind of urban legend. Despite this, he couldn’t deny his attraction to the Cambion. They represented something different, something exotic, something scary… and therefore alluring. “Devilishly charming” would be a good way to characterize how Jackson saw Jowallan in that moment.

As Jowallan fingers started stroking, Jackson decided to revert to his common policy of not thinking about things too much, and to just enjoy the moment. He pressed his cheek against theirs, and gently bit their ear. He then noticed another uncanny detail about the Cambion. Jackson recoiled, slightly but noticeably.

“You don’t smell like anything,” he said.

It was true: Jowallan did not have any body odor. No perspiration, no hint of poor or proper hygiene, not even a perfume. Jowallan tilted their head, and after a second of silence, said:

“Do you like lavender?”

“Uh, sure?”

And there it was. A smell of lavender, titillating his nose and weakening his reason. With it came memories. Of Idaho. Of the farm. Of Clara.

It wasn’t just the smell. Jowallan’s entire body seemed to change. Their hids appeared to grow wider, their face became softer. Their silhouette was now more feminine, although it still had none of the physical characteristics of the fair sex.

“Okay, you’re freaking me out,” he chuckled. “In a good way, though. But how are you doing this? Are you messing with my mind or…”

In lieu of answer, Jowallan placed their other hand on Jackson’s groin, and hastened their pace, shutting the young man up more effectively than any gag. The Cambion sighed, then poked out their tongue and used its tip to tease Jackson’s neck, while the latter went back to nibbling on their ear.

“So young… So passionate,” Jackson heard them whisper. Their voice seemed different too, softer and more throaty. “So full of energy…”

They moved their hands faster still, their fingers fondling every inch of the young man’s shaft. Jackson was now reaching this blessed moment where all coherent thought goes out of the window, followed by his ability to speak. He nuzzled against Jowallan’s shoulder, taking a strong whiff of lavender. He was close… so close…

“Give it to me,” Jowallan said.

Jackson’s throat made a gurgling sound, and he went limp. While he was no stranger to post-sex fatigue, the tiredness that overwhelmed his body in that instant felt different. His thoughts turned into a mushy euphoria. Were it not for his hands, still trapped in the Cambion’s horns, he would have laid down on the ground, and maybe taken a catnap. Jowallan put their arms around his torso, pushing it against theirs, and cajoled him.

“Fuck,” Jackson said, a bit of drool running along his chin as he opened his mouth. “What did you do to me? I feel like I’m gonna sleep forever.”

“You will recover quickly,” Jowallan said. “I merely took a sip.”

“A… A sip?”

“Yes.” Their tongue ran along Jackson’s throat, from his Adam’s apple to his ear, making him quiver. It shared that strange but agreeable coolness that permeated the rest of their body, and was also abnormally long, reaching about nine or ten inches. “You were brimming with spiritual energy, I couldn’t resist… I had nearly depleted all of mine in that cave.”

“You mean, your magic,” Jackson said, too tired to inflect his sentence like a question.

Jowallan nodded, their tongue now tasting the other side of their partner’s neck.

“You recharge your batteries by fucking?”

“Bad-rees?” they repeated. “Is this something from your world?”

“Oh, right. I meant, this is how you… err… recuperate after using your power?”

“Spiritual energy permeates all things throughout the world, but is mostly present within sentient creatures. This is… one of the most harmless efficient ways of collecting it -although it is not the most efficient. One of the most enjoyable, as well.”

“Let me guess: the other ways involve blood or some shit.”

“Among other things, yes.”

“I take it you don’t do that kind of crap.”

“I much prefer not to. My people are hated enough as it is. Unfortunately, not all Cambions are as principled as I am…”

Their mouth twisted wistfully. Jackson shot a glance at Byron. Or rather, he tried to, but his mind-guest had gone away when things had started getting interesting with the Cambion. Nevertheless, he had to ask:

“Do you know how to use souls to fuel magic?”

Surprised, Jowallan released his hands. “You seem to know of the Second Forbidden Arcane. Yet, you are no magi. Where did you learn about this?”

“What would you give me for that secret?”

The Cambion chuckled. Jackson looked down at his groin, and at Jowallan’s hands, expecting a bit of cleanup to be necessary, but there wasn’t a single drop. A little confused, he arranged his pants and stood up. The smoke screen behind which the both of them were hidden disappeared immediately. Enita was still here, now joined by Durnin and Marrmad who had sat at the table to play a game of dice.

“To answer your question,” Jowallan said, standing up as well, “I’m afraid I know quite little of that.”

“Do you know someone who would?”

“I might, as a matter of fact. I might know someone who is most knowledgeable on the subject. But that would also qualify as a secret, I’m afraid. The holders of such knowledge are often hunted, you see.”

Jackson smiled. “Fine. How about I tell you why-”

Jowallan placed a finger on his lips.

“Oh, right,” the young man said. “One secret at a time. Fine, then.”

Jackson decided to take it easy for the rest of the afternoon, and went ship watching on the docks. The unusual fatigue went away within a couple of hours, helped by the iodine in the air and the late-spring sun’s warmth. As he lazed around, not completely asleep but not fully awake either, he listened to the people talking on the streets. Summer would be coming early, an old sailor said, and it would be a very hot one; the Marches’ peasants should prepare for a drought, he warned. A diplomatic envoy from the Empire was on their way to Atvello, to meet with the Gilded Council, a merchant claimed. No doubt the Emperor wanted to negotiate the city’s help in the incoming war, or at the very least its neutrality. A few children enthusiastically discussed the rumor that an Archdemon would come for the Days of Gold and Azure. None of them seemed to actually know anything about that, but they were all too happy to come up with the craziest stories, with lots of obviously made-up details.

Sitting on a shipping crate, laying back against a bag full of seeds, Jackson crossed his arms behind his head, and breathed a lungful of ocean air. Byron did the same, trying to make the most of his limited sense of smell.

“This has been a fun day,” Jackson said. “Hell, overall, every day in this world has been fun in some way. I mean, it hasn’t been one big, non-stop party, but it sure hasn’t been boring.”

“Huh-uh,” Byron said. “Out of curiosity, have you ever been known to turn someone down?”

“Hey, I’m a teenager. If someone’s offering, I ain’t gonna say no!”

“Well, maybe you should. How many times are we going to have that kind of conversation?”

“What? You mean the kind where you tell me off for having fun, call me an idiot, and tell me to be careful in the future?”

“Yes. Exactly.”

“I’ll be careful, okay?” Jackson said, exasperated. “That thing with the orb was a mishap.”

“A mishap,” Byron repeated sarcastically. “Right. But I was referring to your new friend, the Cambion.”

“Jowallan? Yeah, so I told them I was from another world. What’s he gonna do with that? They’re, like, an outcast. I don’t see them turning us over to the cops -or the constabulary, or whatever. And I know a secret about them, too. A big one. So I trust them.”

“And the fact that they’re willing to be intimate with you has nothing to do with that.”

“Well, maybe it does. But so what? I’m free to do whatever I want with whoever I want.”

“Evidently. I’m beginning to understand why it’s so important for you to find David.”

Jackson jumped on his feet, instantly incensed. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?!”

Byron shook his head. “Nevermind. Can we go back to the headquarters now? You haven’t practiced your fencing today.”

“Ugh. Do I have to do that every day?”

“Yes. Did you have anything else planned, anyway?”

“Well, I was thinking of also getting some with Enita.”

Byron shut his eyes and massaged the bridge of his nose, then simply walked away.

“What?” Jackson said. “It’s exercise too. It’s cardio!”

The rest of the day went by quickly. Jackson felt his training session had gone well. He only dropped his sword once, and even managed to earn a compliment from Byron (a simple “not bad”, which was still something). Marrmad divided the reward in six equal parts, in the presence of everyone. A joyful Durnin immediately offered to take his companions to a tavern, and pay for the first round of drinks. Marrmad excused himself, alluding to some engagement he had taken earlier, Argyro elected to stay in and practice with her ax, and Jowallan wordlessly went back to their meditation. Enita would later tell Jackson that the Cambion never drank.

Durnin’s tavern was called The Sinking Sailor, and offered a variety of wines and beers. Jackson was invited to try several of them, starting with the saltwine. It was a very popular drink among sailors, made by fermentation of algae; according to Durnin, it was technically not alcohol, and thus was not subject to the usual taxes, nor to some cultural or religious taboos. Thus, despite the name, it wasn’t actually wine, although it could still make one drunk. It was, however, quite salty, too much for Jackson’s palate.

“I wouldn’t drink too much of that anyway,” Byron said. “Pretty sure it’s methanol.”

Jackson heeded that warning. Next came a Hastadish beer, followed by a liqueur from the Hexacracy, then by a Narrian hard cider. There were others after that, but Jackson lost track. Soon, he was drunk for the first time in a long while. The difference was that, this time, when he began fooling around with a woman -he was pretty sure it was Enita-, he didn’t get slapped then thrown out by a bouncer. He downed the last cup of beer on the table with great mirth.

“‘Kay, m’gonna pass out in a few,” he told Byron. “If ya take over, make sure I don’t puke over my fancy new clothes.”

“Before you do that, this would be the ideal opportunity to practice something else.”

“Oh, coooool. Another ‘speriment?”

“Yes. Remember the inquisitor? The mindclearing?”

“Myeah. Whaddaboudid?”

“Do you remember how I helped you resist it? I’d like to try something like that again.”

“Y’gonna take away my buzz?” Jackson blew a raspberry. “Whatever. I’ll just get more drunker again after.”

“Excellent plan. Now, let me focus.”

Byron breathed deeply, tightened his fists, and half-closed his eyes. Soon after, Jackson’s intoxication lightened somewhat. Conversely, Byron became more distraught. He made a face.

“Oh, God. I never understood why people enjoy being drunk.”

“Oof,” Jackson said, blinking his eyes quickly. “That really worked. I guess I’m ready for a few more.”

“Good lad!” Durnin loudly said, and he called the waitress.

“Shit, I think I said that out loud,” Jackson said to Byron. “That too. Guess I’m still a little drunk.”

“That you are, Greenleaf,” Durnin said. “Have to admit, I had you pegged for a lightweight. Marrmad was right: you need a new name.”

“So long as it’s not Jackshit, like those assholes at boot camp called me.”

The waitress came by, carrying four cups of beer. Jackson grabbed one, then toasted with Durnin. Both men drank their beers in one go, but the older man proved quicker on the gulp. Durnin slammed his empty cup on the table, laughing so loudly he woke up Enita, who had been sleeping on her chair. She burped in a very unfeminine way, then put her head on the table and immediately went back to sleep.

Durnin was, unsurprisingly, the opposite of a lightweight. Jackson didn’t know how many drinks the older man had that night -he couldn’t even remember how many he himself had downed-, but it was certainly over a dozen. Despite this, Durnin seemed less drunk than Jackson, even with Byron’s help. The idea of a drinking contest came simultaneously to both of them.

The beer kept flowing until the sun set. Jackson had been surprised the first time he saw pretty much all of the businesses in Atvello closing their doors at last light. He had assumed people would just light a bunch of candles and carry on. Byron had then explained that candles cost money, meaning few people could afford to stay up and active during the night.

The contest ended with Durnin’s uncontested victory. Jackson thought he was good for at least a couple more beers, but Byron had had enough and ordered him to stop. The young man tried to insist, but his mindmate threatened to stop using their mental connection, and let Jackson deal with the full brunt of his drinking -which, at this point, would have been more than sufficient to send him into a coma.

The trio went back to their underground home, Durnin carrying Enita on his back. As they marched -stumbled, rather- under the stars, along the streets empty save for the occasional militia patrol, Jackson noticed that Byron kept appearing and disappearing around him. His -well, their– drunkenness messed with the concentration he needed to stay present. Eventually, he gave up and remained gone for the rest of the night.

Jackson was vaguely conscious when he reached his cot -or rather, someone’s cot. He made sure to fall asleep on his side, just in case.

Incoherent dreams popped up in his mind. The only thing he saw with clarity through his intoxication was the face of that strange lupine creature. And again the name rang in his head: Alizana.

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