Before the release of the second book in the Biomancer Quintet, I figured I would put up a preview, and what better place than the home of all my original content? In honor of the release of Bioenhancement, here is the prologue to the book, featuring Rhia Irimot and Illune Serria. Enjoy this enormous 9,000 word prologue!
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Chapter 0 — New Beginnings
Should I wash my hair?
Water rushed between her fingertips as they danced over the surface. The pool was hot, something she wasn’t used to, a luxury she couldn’t afford in normal life. Thankfully, this was far from normal life.
I’ve been on a boat for over an entire turn. The dirt I just washed off could pot a plant. My hair’s probably filthy.
Her head lolled back, nocking it into the corner made of some sort of smooth tile. It was blue, that’s all she knew. Probably lapis, she figured.
No one else seems to be washing their hair, though. I’ve been here what has to have been a cent, and no one’s washed their hair.
The mid-turn sun beat down through the skylight with surprising force, illuminating the room clearly through the steam. The water she bathed in was surprisingly clear, leaving nothing of the bather’s bodies to the imagination. She didn’t mind terribly, just slightly.
I mean, I hardly wash it at home, but I can’t afford it that often. But they have legitimate soap here. Soap. Would they... look down on me for washing my hair?
No one else seemed to pay her any mind, so she was generally at ease. The only issue was the baths were co-ed. At home, they made damn sure the men’s and women’s baths were on opposite ends of the building. But home for her was stricter, all the prominent figures following harsher religious tenets. New Stark seemed... looser.
Screw it. My hair’s gross, and I wanna wash it. Mam gave me money.
“Excuse me,” she called out to a nearby worker who whipped around to see her.
“Could I get some soap for my hair?”
“Yes, I know. I’d still like some.”
“You’ll wash your hair by the drain.”
“Okay, I can do that.”
“Not here. Over there.”
“Yes, I got it. Thank you.”
She kicked off the wall and floated on her back to the draining side of the pool as the scrawny woman scurried into the other room. Two older men noticed her and both relocated away from the drain.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”
“No, no, don’t worry,” one said in a gruff voice. “Do your thing.”
She smiled and settled into a seat by the falloff. Just as at the opposite end a waterfall dumped heated water into the pool, this side tapered in a subtle cone to a small aqueduct flushing water out and down somewhere else. She figured the employees didn’t want the grease and dirt in her hair, not to mention soap suds getting into the open pool water, just as well to put it directly by the drain.
The skinny woman ran back in, handed her a block of soap and scurried off with fervor and without a word.
“Thanks,” she called out meekly before dunking her head. She drained the water off before beginning to scrub it and quickly noticed exactly how much she needed it. It felt like the dirt was practically coming out in clods. As she washed, she carefully sent all the dirt into the water draining rapidly out the side.
This. This is exactly what I needed.
“Who’s this bitch throwing money around buying soap?”
She looked up to see the girl she’d come across the ocean with and had slept beside for over a turn. A woman of rich golden skin towered over her standing easily a head over her own height. Four brilliant grey eyes graced her face between two small (compared to the folks back home) horns shooting forward from her head. While the horns couldn’t even reach the elbows of outstretched arms, she was blessed by the gods with breasts the size of her own head, which she would swear up and down was more of a curse than a blessing. Rhia had yet to be convinced.
On top of that, her body was a veritable work of art. Illune Serria was a priestess of her local temple of Mauvenara and as such was trained in the healing arts. She was the best at what she did, and for good reason; she had the body to draw the energy. Every muscle she had was carefully toned and worked. She could sprint for kilometers on end, she could bench press a small horse, and despite looking unassuming in clerical robes, her currently naked body showed off every reason to be intimidated by her.
And still her boobs are massive. Not even fair.
“Oh hello,” she said sultrily to the towering woman above her. “I didn’t see you there.”
“Your mom gives you money for the trip and you spend it on soap? So wasteful,” she said with a grin.
“I inadvertently bought an entire block of it; I could easily do yours too. Gods know you could use it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Illy slowly stepped down into the water and as she sat on the underwater seat, she let her head fall back, her waist-length mane of brilliant red hair flowing freely.
“I’ve been sleeping next to you for a turn, woman. You have lots of hair, and none of it has been washed in at least ten turns.”
“And? Who washes their hair more than every ten turns?”
“They say it’s healthier to wash it more frequently.”
“And who can afford that?”
“A soap wash ever few turns? That’s not that bad Illy.”
“Whatever. How long you been here?”
“Probably cent and a half. Figured you wouldn’t be out for another two.”
“Nah. Got hella bored with the sermon. Same shit I hear at home but a bigger room. They’ll actually have me doing rituals a few sermons from now, but ‘til then, I didn’t feel like going to a potluck with my folks and hundreds of folks like ‘em.”
“Rather come stare at me naked?”
“That’s my line, you turd.” Illy jabbed her with her elbow.
“Yeah yeah,” she smirked. “I dunno, though. I’ve never been in a co-ed pool. It’s kinda weird.”
“Little bit, but you get used to it. Boys gotta bathe too.”
“Yeah, but they can in another building.”
“Why? Everybody’s naked under their clothes. Some of us have dicks, some have pussies, some have tits, and there’s various combinations therein.”
“Yeah, but there’s a reason we hide ‘em in public.”
“Uhhh... ‘Cause they’re gross?”
“Then why do we like doing stuff with ‘em so often?”
“Exactly. You’re not afraid to look at pussies ‘cause you got one. What makes dicks any different?”
“I don’t have one?”
“So? Half the world does. Brad had one. Dmitri had one. You put those in your mouth, why aren’t those guys’ dicks okay?”
“Illy!” Rhia shushed. “Shut up!”
“What, it’s not okay to suck dick?”
“It’s fine, but the entire pool doesn’t have to know!”
“You don’t know any of them, you probably won’t see any of them ever again!”
“Still! Quiet about it, yeah? Jeez, personal details.”
“Fine, all right. Just trying to help.”
“Not helping. At all.”
“Fine. So what d’you wanna do?”
“Well, I’ve been in here a while, and I’m done with my hair now...” She trailed off as she whipped her head around, spattering water in large arcs. “How ‘bout I wash your hair, then we... head back to the room?”
Illy gasped and whirled to face her. “Back to the room? Oh hell no, we’re hitting the town, girlie! We’re seeing what New Stark has to offer us.”
“What does that even mean, Illy?”
“We’re going out on the scene! Hitting the streets. Going out!”
She stared blankly. “Yes? …And?”
Illy sighed and turned around, letting Rhia happily play with her hair. “We’re going out to eat, then we’re going shopping, then we’re gonna possibly go dancing?”
“Dancing?” Rhia raised an eyebrow as she squeezed at the strands.
“Yes, dancing. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. Music, strong beats, letting the song have its way with your body and enjoying the raw primal energy?”
“Yes, yes, yes. I know. But why are we going dancing?”
“Because... dancing is fun. You like dancing.”
“Not in front of people, Illy.”
“Well, not in front of people I don’t know.”
“That makes it all the easier!” Rhia groaned. “All right fine. If you don’t wanna dance, there’s always an alternative.”
“Which would be?” Her voice strained slightly as she scrubbed at the hair.
“You could be on the other side of the event.”
“What? No, not here. I’ve barely been playing for long—”
“Yes you have. Since you were one twenty. You’re amazing.”
“I don’t even have my—”
“Yes you do. It’s right next to your trunk. Don’t bullshit me, young lady.”
“I’m older than you!”
“My point stands.”
“I can’t play here. I’m the best at home, but there’s actual talented people here.”
“Yeah, like you.”
“You know what? Dancing sounds great. Let’s do that.”
“No, I like this better. Yes, we’ll wander a bit, we’ll eat, maybe shop, and end the evening by finding a nice tavern that’ll buy our drinks as long as you perform.”
“I don’t find that very likely, Illy.”
“That’s because you’ve never been to a tavern what wasn’t in Nephkeska. But first, Illy requires meat. Sweet, succulent beef.”
“Do they have beef out here?”
She turned her head around to stare at Rhia. “Do they have beef? The fuck kind of question is that?”
“Well, they grow beef back home, but—”
“They grow beef?” She leaned back into position and Rhia continued with her hair.
“Yeah. Cows. They grow them. Up from little cows, ye know?”
“Well, they grow cows back home, but is that the trade out here?”
“Why wouldn’t it be? Cows are lifeblood. Delicious. Dumb and fat, easy to harvest.”
“What if they have another dumb, fat, delicious animal to harvest?”
“Then I shall feast on its loins!”
“Well, its flesh anyway. Shut up. Sounded better in my head.”
As the day pressed, Illy found herself dragged back to the temple for more “godly drivel,” giving Rhia some time to herself. Upon leaving, Illy had dropped back and told her that she needed to go out and “bard it up” at a local tavern to make some tips. She didn’t want to, despite Illy’s proddings. Unfortunately, dozens of turns of her mother’s same proddings provided sufficient guilt.
Sighing defeatedly, she donned the one fancy garb she brought, slipped on some comfortable walking shoes, braided the hair flanking her face, grabbed her hefty leather case, and set out to find a tavern. Her current pub was too “refined” for a bard, according to the barkeep. She almost thumbed her nose, but much to her chagrin, “refined” was exactly what she was going for.
After a short walk around town, she found a nice looking “locals” tavern. It looked old, seemed to be full of people, and had a swinging sign with what appeared to be a foaming beaker carved into it. It read “The Alchemist’s Alehouse.”
Inside, it was dimly lit and almost full of people, nearly all Northmen with a few Nojerna spread about, slightly more men than women, but barely. She slowly drifted down the center of the room to the bar at the end, her black dress softly bouncing to her rhythm. Soon enough, she found herself at the bar, a nice, well-furnished mahogany bar at that. A slim, blond Northman stood behind it and strode up to her.
“What cin a get’cha, beautiful?” This question caught her completely off guard, as somehow, despite the sign and the fifty-some people all with beer in their hands, she hadn’t stopped to think about what she wanted to drink, if she wanted something to drink. Truth be told, she’d never imbibed; her mental checklist of good and bad drinks was dreadfully lacking. Classy, she reminded herself. Classy is my look tonight. Classy drink, classy drink...
“Absinthe, if you can.” He raised an eyebrow to this. Honestly, she’d never even seen the stuff and had no clue what it was, but there was a damn fancy poster of it in a pub she went to recently, and it sounded ostentatious enough. She was desperately hoping her context clues had concluded properly.
“As the lady please.” He grabbed a fancy conical glass with a distinct bulge toward the bottom, poured a strange green liquid up to the top of the bulge, and placed a gorgeous slotted spoon modeled to a feather atop the glass with a green sugar cube. Suddenly, with a snap, a flame arose from his fingertips and the cube shot into gorgeous blue flames. The showmanship was high enough she didn’t even notice the glow emitting from his palm or the tiny red tendrils crawling up his finger to the flame.
She stared into the turquoise fires for a good twenty seconds before he tilted the spoon, dropping the cube into the green liquid, which then burst into larger flames, eliciting a squeak from Rhia. As she stared into the glass, for just a second, she swore a woman formed in the flames, tiny and skinny with butterfly-like wings. She seemed to dance for the split second she was visible.
Near immediately, he doused the flames with ice water, filling the remainder of the glass. Ending the show, the bartender pushed the now cloudy dull green drink towards her.
“You’ve never had this before, have you?”
“No, no I have! I’ve just... never seen it lit on fire before.”
“Yeah, it’s a regional trick. Caramelizes the sugar.”
He smiled and turned to service another customer, reminding her why she was here in the first place. “Wait, sir?”
“Yes, Miss Fire-Eyes?” Comments on her eyes annoyed her, but they were common enough to ignore. Her father was Nojernan while her mother was a Northman. As such, due to natural biology, she was born with the general anatomy of her mother, but the skin of her father showed in her eyes. A brilliant starscape shot out behind her pupils while two brilliant suns shone in the center. Due to this, her half-breed origin was more than difficult to hide.
She took a short breath. “I’m a traveling bard, and I’d very much like to play for this fine establishment.”
“Well, we don’t have any music tonight, so we could probably arrange it. Our deal is fifty-fifty split on tips.”
“Bullocks to that! In all my time, I’ve never done more than a ninety-ten split.”
“You’re a bad liar.” Technically, it was true. Zero of the zero gigs she’d played had more than ninety-ten. “Thirty-seventy.”
“Buy a drink every cent and you got a deal.”
“What, no free drinks?”
“Hey, we’re your venue. Take it or leave it, girlie.”
With a sigh, she agreed.
“How’s your absinthe?”
“Oh! I haven’t tried it yet.” She took a delicate sip of it, like her mom did with wine, and a candied cent overtook her. Licorice, she thought, then the flavors continued to mull in her mouth. Fennel seeds, similar, but just different enough to taste. The bite of the drink surprised her, but she knew that was just the alcohol; Illy always said you stop noticing it by the end of your glass. She sipped again, noting the sweet taste of it, how the sugar accented the fennel and licorice well and killed the burn. This, she liked.
“Better than your last?”
“Las— Oh, yes, definitely! You’re very skilled. Must be the whole fire-caramelizing thing.”
“Must be,” he smirked. “Now, care to regale us with a song.”
“Yes. Absolutely. Of course.”
With a sigh, she took her absinthe and mounted the stage. She put the large leather case in front of her, cleared her throat, and looked around the room at the passive drinkers. Her nerves tried to buckle every muscle in her body, screaming at her brain to run out the door and never come back. Instead, she cleared her throat and prepared a short speech, knuckles white with tension.
“Um, excuse me. Hey. My name’s Rhia Irimot, I’m just passin’ through town for a bit and figured I’d be your guys’ entertainment tonight! Feel free to keep to your conversations, I’m just... mostly background music. So... enjoy! If you wanna tip me, I... Uh...”
An empty tankard slammed onto the stage and its previous equipper released it. “Thar ye go.”
“Why you can put them in this nice big flagon this kind gentleman donated to my cause.”
The man bellowed a deep belly laugh and called to his friend across the table far louder than was remotely necessary, “a gentleman, she calls me!”
The case popped open to reveal the instrument inside, looking to the layman somewhere between a violin and a piano with an odd crank stuck on the end. She knew this beloved instrument as a hurdy gurdy.a
Her right hand moved to the crank as she set it on her lap, its length perpendicular to her while her left steadied it as she cranked, letting forth a slow drone that grew in volume as she found her pace. Slotted keys rested on the opposite side of the bridge atop the body, which her fingers found easily. They clacked quietly as the tone shifted, one hand cranking, the other carefully drifting into her first song, an old Milakrian folk song.
Her nerves wracked while her ego swelled as a fair bit of conversation stopped. By the time the chorus hit, a couple of folks in the back started singing along with her, and before long half the bar was shouting (she could hardly call it singing) to her tunes.
The next song followed suit, and the next, different crowds singing along with different songs. Quickly, a cent had passed and she asked if any other musicians were in the house. Due to the atmosphere of the place, the humor of the patrons, and the absinthe in her system, her mood was much calmer. A Milaric whom she hadn’t noticed before came up with a pair of tribal drums on his hip.
Together, they pumped out beats for another twenty five minutes before he muttered about getting home to his wife. She offered him tips, but he kindly refused, claiming if he took money, his hobby would become a profession. His loss, she figured, more for me. A Nojernan man took his place and sang duets with her in a voice she absolutely adored. Apparently, he was a popular local bard and just happened to be in at the right time. Another ego boost for her to chalk up.
By the time her third glass was downed, she was noticing a distinct change in the way she was playing. Everything felt far fuzzier, and while she thought she was doing great, the singer beside her nudged her and told her to quit while she was ahead. This sounded like a good idea, as the shift was running late and sleepiness started to wind into her system. At that, she called it a night and collected her tips. Fifty platinum coins were counted from the tip jar, so she dropped ten on the bar top and sauntered out, case in hand. When the door closed behind her, an arm suddenly found its way around her shoulders. Rather quickly, another arm came around her other side and her face was shoved into a massive pair of breasts.
“By the gods, Rhi, that was fucking amazing! You rocked the house up there!” She pulled out of the hug enough to breathe, repositioned herself to a more comfortable stance and returned the hug.
“Thanks! I was kinda nervous at first, but I kinda got into it.”
“Shit yeah you did! Come on, let’s go back to the room.”
“Nah, we’re out, let’s go out. You always go to cool things. I wanna go to a cool thing!”
“I’ve had enough ‘out’ tonight, Rhi. I wanna go home. Besides, I should get you back and put some water in your system before you regret it tomorrow.”
“Nooooooo,” she whined, hanging on the bronze woman a good head taller than her. “We’re never in a city! When will we get this chance again?”
She stared up, blazing suns burrowing into the four narrow eyes of Illune, who stared into the distance for a short bit.
“Come on, Illy. You wanted to dance. Let’s dance.” Still more staring before she finally looked down.
“All right. Lemme get changed. I don’t wanna dance in my big ol’ clerical getup.” Rhia cheered quietly and stumbled along with her. “Gods, you’re a lightweight.”
“I never drank before, Illy! Come on.”
“Fair enough. When you get home, you’re drinking a glass of water.”
“Come on, Rhi. You’re not dumb, you know why.”
Rhia pouted as she followed. “Why’re you so grumpy?”
“I’m grumpy ‘cause the temple service was long and agitating, I had three priests stare down my robe long enough to get lost in their incantations, I had another two lecture me on how I wouldn’t be good enough ‘cause I’m a woman, and I’m tired and the dess’s been long.”
“We don’t gotta go out, Illy, if you don’t wanna.”
“Nah,” she waved a hand back and looked back to smile. That smirk, her trademark. Melt anyone at will and she made it look easy. “You’re right, dancing’ll make me feel better. Hurry up, you’re lagging behind.”
“Oops.” She was indeed. Her speed was a harder thing to track all of a sudden. “My bad.”
The walk back to the “Come On Inn,” a name that Illy nearly deemed unworthy of her patronage, was short. The streets weren’t packed, but busy enough that she had to be careful not to slam into passersby. She failed a couple times, to which Illy yanked her up beside her and kept an arm around her for stability. This helped, she found.
The tavern had a very small crowd of people dressed anywhere from well to fine, all sipping their whatevers out of their flutes. Rhia started laughing, but stopped when Illy gave her a funny look and dragged her across to the stairs. The thick braid Illy had fashioned this morning stayed intact, but the robes collapsed as soon as their door was shut. While she sorted through her trunk, Rhia did as she was bid and chugged a glass of ice water, relishing in its lack of usual well-gunk.
As she finished, she looked up to see Illy across from her in tight leather pants, a black bustier, and tight black leather boots in the midst of being donned. Belts were sewn onto the back of the boots, but laid limp, yet to be buckled until the lacing was done.
“Ah, are you playing the Badass Bitch today?”
“Who said anything about playing?” She looked up long enough to raise her right eyebrow and went back to her boots.
“So how long you gonna be?”
“Long enough for you to drink another.”
“Don’t gimme that. Go drink more water.”
She sighed as heavily as her vocal chords would allow and got another and slowly sipped it as Illy laced and buckled her boots. It took a while, but it was a practiced routine at this point.
“All right, ready to go,” she asked as she donned a thin cloth choker, solid black but for steel wings fastened to the front, an angular ruby dangling from the metalwork.
“Ready as I’ll ever be.”
She grabbed her hand and the two strode out, Rhia in her not-quite-slinky black dress and flats, Illy in her outfit with a black leather jacket slipped over her bustier, adorned with superfluous metal spikes and studs. Both strolled through the tavern, smirking at the stares from the highfalutins, and hit the streets.
“I have no idea where I’m going.”
“That’s fine, Rhi. I know exactly where we’re going.”
“Hm?” She hummed questioningly at Illy.
“It’s a newer place, high-concept kind of joint, ya know?”
She thought a second. “No. I really don’t.”
“It’s, like... different; a conceptual place, something they’re trying out.”
“Mmm, right. ‘Kay. What’s the concept?”
“Like the drum?”
“Like the drum.”
“That’s a concept?”
“That’s a concept.”
She stared blankly at her compatriot as they sauntered. Rhia was focused on walking upright and in a straight line, unaware of what she looked like doing so, but noticed Illy strutting down the sidewalk like she owned the town. She looked good, she knew it, and she knew every passerby knew it too. Rhia sighed mentally, wishing her self-esteem could be so high.
“You’re going to have to elaborate, Illy.”
“Bass. That’s the concept. Bass. And a big room.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“You’ll get it when we get there.”
She did sure enough. Rhia sensed the place a block away from the vibration in her skull that began. It was rhythmic and powerful, something familiar and yet unusual.
“What is this place?”
“A high-concept joint.”
“I hate you.”
“You love me.” She looked back halfway and smirked, lolling her head back.
As they approached the source of the vibration, she stared wide-eyed at the massive black cube. Perhaps not cube, more of a rectangular prism, but geometric precision wasn’t Rhia’s priority as she took it in. The outside was solid black without a single window, stories above the surrounding buildings, sticking out like the absolute sorest of thumbs. How in the bloody hells did I miss this place?
“Welcome to The Rave.” She smiled back at Rhia. A man more resembling a wall than a person stood guard at the door. The metal plates making up his skin were pitch black and sleek as could be, intense blue lights made for eyes resting on the burnished, solid metal making up his head.
“Evening, ladies.” The voice boomed from his general vicinity, but the lack of mouth made it almost hard to believe it came from him. Actually, Rhia thought, her. The voice was softer and more soothing than a man’s, despite the build. She wasn’t sure why, but the tone distinctly gave away ‘female.’ Illy, apparently, picked up on this too.
“Evening, ma’am. We’re seeking entrance to this fine club here.”
“You guys of legal age?”
“Legal— Legal age? Rhi, we’re of legal age. Of course we are... right?”
“Well yes, naturally. We’re old enough.”
“Yes. Legal age. Legal enough. To do... things. Legally.”
“Legal things, yes.”
“You both out-of-towners?”
“Yes.” They said in unison.
“You two have no idea what legal age I’m talking about, do you.”
“Not a clue,” Rhia stated as Illy spouted, “Not the foggiest.”
“In New Stark, ye gotta be one eighty to drink.”
“You have to what? That’s outrageous! I’ve been drinking since I was a hundred!”
“Not that that’s a problem, Illy, since you’re obviously over one eighty.”
“Well, yes. Obviously, that. As are you. We’re both one-eighty-turn-old girls, us. Been one eighty a whole… turns. Like, we’re one eighty two.”
“Illy.” She stopped.
The construct stared at the two. “You two have to be the worst liars I’ve seen in turns. You’re pathetic.”
“We come from savage plains,” Illy stated with inflection between pitiful and dramatic. “Out in the wilds of Milakria, age doesn’t matter when you’re choosing what to imbibe. We stele our gullets from a young age to handle the harsh environs of the bleak savannah. Age is not a concept, only strength, martial power, agility, one’s raw ability to move on, make it through the turn.”
The metal woman stared at Illy, glowing, unblinking eyes locked to hers as Rhia tried her best to hide her ‘you’re full of shit’ face.
“You know what? Go for it. Not like the rule matters much anyway, no one’ll call you on it.”
“You, my lady, are a godsend.” Illy bowed low as the construct waved her hand.
“Get in there before I change my mind.”
“Thanks, ma’am!” Rhia squeaked as she followed behind. As soon as the door was closed, Rhia prepared to lecture Illy on just how full of shit she truly was. The wall of sound that slammed into her jarred her into a state of confusion such that any chain of thought broke at the link with a wicked gust.
The inside was nothing like Rhia had ever encountered. A small anteroom awaited them with counters, fine-dressed men and ladies behind them fanning through closets of coats and purses for awaiting patrons, one of which took Illy’s coat immediately, giving her a tag to hold onto. She looked about confusedly a second and tucked it in her top.
This whole time, words weren’t exchanged, as Rhia could barely fathom words being able to traverse such a terrain of air. Bass bombarded every centimeter of the room with reckless abandon. Her entire body vibrated to the overbearing repetition of the drumbeat. It beat her over the head, not caring what her eardrums were capable of handling, just dishing out a beat for the dancers on the floor beyond the anteroom.
That, the room past their location, was what truly blew her mind. It looked like a ballroom, but darker, more industrial. It was black with massive glowing tubes emitting a strange purple glow, illuminating just enough to make contours visible, but not so much as to call it “light.” A boardwalk looped around the entire ballroom, and a bar sat to the left, proving to be the most lit-up part of the room. The bartop looked a vibrant blue, glowing to make itself visible but hardly lighting up anything past the patrons leaning on it.
“How many runes does this place have?” She asked no one in particular in what she’d normally consider a loud speaking voice, used for crowds. Her voice was lost to the beat, not even making it to her own ears. She turned to Illy and saw her grinning a wide, wicked grin.
She mouthed something and grabbed Rhia’s hand, dragging her to the bar. They passed through a subtle, glittering wall and into the bar, where suddenly it was just barely quiet enough to talk.
“This place is amazing, Rhi!”
“I think I could feel my pancreas vibrating, Illy.”
“I bet you never felt your own pancreas before! Congrats! What’d’ye want?”
“Fuckin’ fancy, ain’t’cha?”
“Fuckin’ a right.” She blinked at her own words, confused at her vulgarity.
“Strongest beer you got and an absinthe for the little lady.”
“Strongest?” The starry-skinned bartender leaned against it.
“You heard me.”
The drinks came in appropriate glasses, the beer a size or two larger than necessary. As it sloshed around with Illy’s movements, the thick head failed to waver, making her grin. “Sign of a good beer there.”
“That it ceases to be a liquid?”
“If you gotta chew it, you know you got the good stuff.”
They sat at a dark high-top table, glowing a soft purple at its edges under the strange piping above. “What’d’ye think that is?”
“Glass with some kinda chemical gas inside, what I understand. The barker called it a wood’s lamp. From what I gathered, it shines a color we can’t see, something...”
“Ultraviolet; of course! Out of our eye’s capability of seeing. That’s why it makes the certain colors glow like they do. Probably loaded with a phosphor, and that tube’s gotta have some kinda filter on it, I’d imagine...”
“See, I knew you’d get it. You’re all learn-ed.” Illy slammed back the beer. Rhia imagined it keeping the glass’s shape and falling onto her face, but miraculously, it drained out into her mouth. Her face twisted and contorted into a number of awkward faces in a span of a few seconds before settling to a grin. “Fuck, that’s good.”
“I dunno, I read about it... somewhere.”
“That’s what I like about you. Always reading, learning. I just got what comes to me temple-wise. I got anatomy, tell you what that vibrating pancreas of yours does, but you? You know shit like ultraviolet light makes white glow weird.”
“Just useless stuff. It’s no biggee.”
Illy started to berate her for being down on herself and, she was sure, moved into a speech about how wonderful Rhia was and how she needed to like herself more. Having heard this too many times, she took in the scenery.
At the far end of the room, massive kettle drums were set up in a line. Ten drummers with two drums each pounded away with huge mallets, bouncing against the hides stretched over top. Blue runes glowed under the drums while larger symbols painted on the walls emitted the sounds. Arcane sound amplification. How utterly bizarre. Those wall-runes have gotta be taller than me.
“Are you even listening to me?”
“Yes.” She whipped her head back to stare at an exasperated Illune. “No.”
Illy sighed with her whole throat and slammed back more beer, bottoming the glass out. How in the living hells did she already empty that thing? “You’re completely hopeless.” Rhia just smiled at this. “Come on.” She grabbed her hand, yanked her from her seat, and passed the sound barrier. Bass once more permeated the pores of her skin and became one with her being as they took to the dance floor.
The next cent flew by in a haze. Something about the combination of alcohol in her system, the people around her, whatever made up that smoky mist over the entire floor, and the raw primal energy of the drums brought out a side of her she never knew. Rhia danced like no one was watching, letting the music take her and bend her how it wanted. The beat overpowered her, but her will to keep herself was gone. Her arms flailed in the air carelessly, feeling the beat, occasionally forming fists to pump along with a given cadence. She became one with the music, and she loved it.
Most of the time Illy was there beside her dancing next to or with her at any given time. There were a few times the two danced together in ways she’d never really known. A certain spark lit up inside of her and they shared a raw, sensual energy Rhia didn’t know was there. She’d felt a tinge of something on the boat when they shared a bed, but nothing like this. The dance floor doubled, tripled that feeling easily. Something just came out and made it happen. It all felt right, her hands on her hips, their eyes locked together, her lips on hers...
She felt a tension break as Illy nearly leapt back, staring wide-eyed at Rhia, who was still feeling hazy and bleary, almost still in the kiss. A look crossed Illy’s face, one Rhia was used to seeing, but not in this context. At first, she was obviously confused and taken aback, but that quickly drifted into a raised eyebrow and a knowing smirk. She grabbed Rhia’s hand and nodded her head towards the bar.
As they passed the sound barrier, Rhia immediately broke into a stream of apologies to which Illy simply responded by putting a finger over Rhia’s lips as she smirked and noiselessly chuckled. She motioned at the table they took up last time and got them each drinks; Rhia another absinthe, herself a massive beer and a scotch on the rocks.
“By the Light of Mauv’, Rhi.”
“I’m sorry! I didn’t—”
“Shush.” She leaned over, pushing her finger onto her lips again. Rhia’s eyes crossed to look down at the finger, then stared back into her eyes Illy leaned back into her chair. “Of all the ways to come out, Rhi, you chose that? Fuckin’ ballsy.”
“I can’t believe I— I mean, I… What?”
“I was expecting a heartfelt conversation full of tears and hugs and confusion, but you went straight for the ‘Make Out on the Dance Floor’ approach, which I can appreciate, but I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting it.”
“You— Wait, hold on. You... expected?”
“Rhi. You weren’t exactly subtle. Ever since we started sleeping together you ain’t been acting the same. You been tossin’ my words back at me, flirtin’ back with all the fervor of myself. You used to blush and look away, now you’re slingin’ back, parrying each thrust of mine.”
“That doesn’t mean I like girls!”
“Making out with one does.”
“I—” She stammered for a few seconds, then sipped at her drink, staring into it.
“I know you been considering it for a while, I just wasn’t sure you’d go for me. Like, I kinda suspected, but... You know, before you ask, yes, I have been considering this.”
“This?” Rhia interjected.
“Yeah, this. A thing between us. I mean, I’ve thought about you before, like, in... ways. But since you started acting like this, I’ve considered whether or not we’d work as an item. I think we would. We balance each other well.”
“I— I... It’s… It’s so sudden, Illy. It’s like... I caught myself off guard by kissing you out there. I— I don’t even know how to feel about this.”
“Just embrace it, Rhi. Just like I did.”
“This could have just been a fluke, Illy! What if I’m just a bit too drunk and the energy’s got me doing funny things and... feeling funny...”
“Like I said, Rhi. I’ve felt this coming for a while. Look, I’ll give you space. Not like I’m gonna take you home and ravage your body tonight.” She paused and turned around to see two men at the next table staring quizzically at them. “What the fuck you starin’ at?”
“Illy.” She turned back around as the men returned to their drinks. “I know you won’t, and I know you’re respectful of my boundaries. I’m just... I’m still confused, I don’t know what to think or what to feel...”
“You can’t help what you feel, love. You just feel it.”
“How’d you feel kissing me?”
“Like... Kind of amazing?”
Illy promptly stood up, walked the short distance around the table, grabbed Rhia’s head and mashed her lips to hers. As they shared the kiss, a nearby table whooped at them, to which Illy lifted a hand and raised two fingers to them, still in the kiss. She broke it and sat back down to stare at a wild-eyed Rhia still stuck with a face of bewilderment.
“How did that feel?”
She thought for a second, not answering immediately. “Really good?”
“Like... really, really good?”
“Then I think we have a certified lesbian on our hands.”
“Well, like... I dunno. I mean, I don’t know if I actually like girls, or if I just like girl, you know?”
“Don’t think too hard about it, Rhi. It’s pretty easy. You like boys or you like girls, not too complicated.” She put her hand out over Rhia’s.
After downing the entire glass, Illy opted to dart back to the dance floor while Rhia sat at the table thinking. She pondered her past relationships and wondered what exactly they meant with this context. She’d only ever been with boys, only actually slept with one, and thinking back on it, she still felt deep feelings for him. Thinking of Illy didn’t diminish the feeling at all.
She pondered the two boys she’d seen naked and pondered the girl she’d just kissed who she’d seen naked countless times. Her libido itched nearly equally in all directions, if not a bit more for the one fresh on her mind. In some attempt at an unbiased option, she glanced out on the dance floor, ogling what bodies were visible. There were members of both genders and most species clad either scantily or not at all, though mostly just Northmen.
After a few minutes, she found that attractive men and women were exciting her just about equally, and she leaned into her drink sadly, sipping slowly off it. Maybe I’m not ready… Illy said, you know. It’s not hard, just pick one. So... why isn’t it obvious?
She looked forlornly out at the dance floor and saw Illy dancing her heart out with a tall, muscular man with a mohawk. His entire shirtless torso was painted with a rich design of royal purples and forest greens, almost bordering on ritualistic. Her focus was broken by a man sitting down at her table with a drink.
“Hey, is this seat taken?”
“Well... not right now, she’s dancing.”
“Ah, just came with a friend, huh?”
She looked out at her again, not sure how to answer.
“Well, I just hate to see a pretty lady in a place like this frowning over her drink. Thought I might come over, put a smile on your face.”
“Yeah? How’s that?”
“Well, I’d buy you a drink, but you still have most of that in front of you. Maybe you could tell me why it is your eyes burn like that.”
“Your eyes, babydoll. They’re like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
“My... My da’s— My father’s Nojernan. I got his eyes.”
“Well gods bless him for making such a divine being such as you.”
“Look, could you... not? I’m not really in the mood tonight.”
“Why would you be in a place like this if you’re not in the mood, babycakes?”
“Oh come on, you’re sitting alone, no ring, looking all pouty, practically begging some big, strong man to come over and ask you what’s wrong.”
“So why’d you come over, then?”
“Huh?” She stared at her drink. “Hey, no need to be a fucking bitch. I was just being nice. Not like anyone’d wanna fuck some freak with eyes like that anyway. Fat bitch.” He got up and walked away, sitting down next to a girl at the bar.
“What in the hells just happened,” she asked her drink before sipping it. She glanced back out at the dance floor to find Illy still with the large man, now both dancing with wild fervor. Their moves were getting elaborate enough that the crowd was beginning to part, forming a circle of people watching them trade off, trying to one-up each other. Illy was good, but this man was stunning in his raw skill. His limbs moved in an ethereal, otherworldly fashion.
Her drink called back to her and she obliged it, downing the rest of it. Wanting another, she glanced at the bar in time to see the woman slap the strange man across the face, have him say something back at her angrily, and for her to toss a drink in his face. He stomped off away from the bar and towards the front door. She took this as a sign that the bar was safe again.
The only remaining stool was next to the girl who just lost her drink, so she took it and greeted her. The woman had hair the color of refined platinum, shining a subtle blue over the glowing bar. Her eyes shared Rhia’s signature trait, though one of her eyes was a burning blue sun, the pops and flares in it significantly smaller than Rhia’s.
“So, who was that guy?”
“Fuck if I know. Some random dick.”
“You mean you didn’t know him?”
“No. Should I have?”
It was only as she turned that Rhia noticed her eyes. “Hey! You’re a hybrid too!”
The woman smiled as they locked eyes. “Yeah, mom’s a Noji. Not often I see my eyes in someone else.”
“Right? How come—”
“Not sure. Just come out differently. Asked an astronomer once, said it might just be a bigger star. I guess bigger ones turn blue?”
“Well, blue fire is usually a sign that it’s hotter or just burning a different gas, so it’s possible yours is just a bigger, hotter star.”
“You know this shit?”
“Yeah. So you don’t know that guy then?”
“Nah. Just a creep. Why?”
“Well, he came over to my table and complimented me, but when I told him I wasn’t interested, he insulted me.”
“Oh, honey,” her face contorted in slight empathetic sorrow. “Is this seriously your first time dealing with that? Where are you from?”
“Small town, Northern Milakria.”
“None of the boys back home did that?”
“Well, sure, but they all know me. I figure a turnaround like that is targeted bullying. Don’t know why a stranger would do it...”
“That’s pretty common here in the city. Boys lookin’ for tail acting like toddlers havin’ a hissy fit when they don’t get it. Best to just reject ‘em early and not take anything they say to heart.”
“Why do they do that?”
“’Cause they’re immature. You’ve got some disappointment in your future if you plan on frequenting this place.”
The bartender finally showed up halfway through her sentence, so she ordered a refill. “So what’s your name?”
“Kru. Kru Sorynn.”
“Nice. I’m Rhia Irimot.”
“Yeah, think I saw you playing a couple cents back at the Alehouse.”
“Yeah! That was me. Me and my weird instrument.”
“A hurdy-gurdy. Yeah, don’t see those very often.”
“You know those?”
“Yeah. Hate to bolt, but I’ve gotta catch a boat back to Stingard. Have a good night. Next dude fucks with you like that? Just throw a drink in his face. The bar’ll usually comp you. That, or just punch him.” The woman smiled and left, so Rhia waited for her drink, then sauntered back to her table in time to see Illy enter the noise-dampening zone with the man holding her up.
“You seriously think you can out-drink me?” Her words were slurred; she must have been drinking more on the floor, Rhia figured.
“The fact that you even think you can beat me is adorable.” The man’s voice wasn’t quite what she expected, a bit higher than average without much projection to it.
“No one can beat me,” Illy spat out. “I’ve got the fuckin’ iron gullet.”
“We’ll see about that.”
She watched them belly up to the bar as people cleared the way. The two ordered the same large beer, both slammed them down at the same time, and the man finished a solid five seconds before her.
“No fuckin’ way.”
“I told you.”
Once more, they each got one, they slammed them back, and he finished just a second before her.
“I’m telling you—”
His mug hit the bar a hair before hers.
“AGAIN,” She practically screamed.
A full four seconds before her.
“FUCK!” She screamed, stood up, and toppled over, her knees buckling as the man laughed and helped her up.
“I told you, I’m the best around.”
“Yer the fuckin’... fuck around... bitch.” Her words here barely intelligible. Her speech and her lack of ability to stand forced Rhia up and over to her.
“This wet noodle here yours?”
“Rhia!” She said excitedly, far louder than necessary. “My favorite layrl!” She bellowed a drunken laugh. “I— I meant t’say lady, but made it girl halfway.”
“Yes,” she sighed. “She’s mine.”
“You might wanna get her over to a temple. She’s a bit far gone.”
“Yer... far gone. Shaddup, you.”
“I can tell. I— What do you mean ‘temple?’”
“A Jallerian Temple. You new here?”
“We both are, yeah.”
“Quiet! Where’re you comin’ from anyhow?”
“Here, I’ll show you the way. You already pay for that?”
She glanced at her drink, only two sips taken. “Oh, no. Lemme—”
The man yanked coins out of his purse and flipped one at the bartender. “For the absinthe girl.”
He bellowed back an affirmative, and the painted man picked up Illy as she squeaked. “I haven’t seen her like this in a long time.”
“Oh, she’ll be fine. She’ll be out in under a minute.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Notice her comebacks died off and now she’s mumbling to herself while gazing at nothing.” She was, indeed.
“Oh. So... I’m Rhia. This is Illune.”
“Roy. I’m a priest at the local temple of Jaller.”
“Oh! Illy’s a priestess of Mauvenara.”
“Oh yeah? Don’t see many of Her Light in a state like that or in a place like this.”
They exited the building after grabbing their coats and walked a short distance in the glaring sun to a huge, glorious temple made of a dark green stone with purple touches. The inside was draped in tapestries following the color theme, but surprisingly well-lit and bright.
“Roy! Having to resort to knocking girls out and carrying them home now, are we?”
“Shut up, Kley. This one’s had too much, need to fix her up. She’s an outta town cleric of Mauvenara, so I’m doing this one for free.”
“Whatever floats your boat, man.” The shorter man in green robes walked off, leaving the three walking to a small room with a table and a couch.
“You wanna watch, or sit outside?”
“I’ll watch, I guess. I’ve seen Illy do rituals, might be fun to see someone else.”
“Then take a seat.” He motioned at a couch, and she obliged. Roy laid her on the table carefully and moved the top of her dress a bit, looking down it. Just as Rhia was about to say something, he sighed and looked at her. “Oh, I was just checking for a bra.”
“This ritual’s easier if their chest and stomach’s uncovered, but I can just do it through the neck, should be fine. Just take a little longer.”
“I doubt she’d mind.”
“I don’t strip anyone unless they’re awake to tell me it’s fine.”
“That’s… admirable. May I ask why?”
“It’s the decent thing?”
“No, the… neck… shirt thing.”
“Oh, sure. It’s a ritual to purge alcohol from the system, replacing it with water and some other chemicals to reduce drunkenness and reduce any hangover. I do that by changing the blood pumping through the heart, so the effects move throughout the body quicker. If I have direct access to the heart, it’s easy. I can just funnel through her neck, I’ll just have to use the veins in her neck as a path to the heart. It’s just a bit of extra focus and time, no biggie.”
She watched as he moved behind her head and laid his hands beside her neck, fingers over her collarbone. The only magic she’d seen Illy cast came out a dark, forest green, used for healing. This time, the symbols on his hands and the vines emerging from them were a bright, vibrant, neon green. They carefully pierced the veins near the front of her neck and Rhia watched as they snaked through the veins. Her neck veins were very clearly green, though the color faded as they moved into her chest.
For about a minute, he simply stood over her holding his hands in place, watching carefully as the magic poured into her system before she noticed them darken to an inky black. He focused hard; a sheen of sweat formed on his brow as he pumped the oily magic into her neck. This went on for a solid ten minutes before the color moved to a soft ocean blue. He only channeled this for a couple minutes before he took his hands off her and slumped into a chair behind him.
“All done,” he said breathlessly.
“What was that black stuff?”
“Life energy blooms and blossoms things, death destroys and withers. She had alcohol in her system, and I needed to burn it out of her. The green was a fluctuation between transmutation and life, changing some chemical structures in her body, helping the blood to flow better, then the death magic burned off a good bit of the alcohol, then the blue was water to help hydrate her.”
“Gods, that sounds complex.”
“It took a very, very long time to figure out, and I’m the only one in this temple that can channel all three energies. It’s ‘cause I was raised learning all three just for things like this. My family has a rich and storied history of following Jaller.”
“I’ve never been in a temple to any god but Mauvenara.”
“You from out in the boonies I’m guessing? North Milakria?”
“That’d make sense. Out here, it’s much more diversified.”
The conversation stopped as Illy’s eyes fluttered open. The painted man stood up and tossed on a robe similar to the one she saw earlier, a deep forest green with violet trim.
“Wh— Where am I?”
Roy sat down in a chair beside her, still breathing a bit heavy. “How are you feeling, Illune?”
“Huh? I... I feel kinda fuzzy, my head kinda hurts. How’d you know my name?”
“That’s my fault,” Rhia piped up.
“Oh, Rhi. Hey. Where am I?”
“You’re safe in a temple of Jaller,” Roy interjected. “Your friend Rhia here made sure you got somewhere safe, and I cleaned your system out. You said your head still kind of hurts? Here, hold still.” He moved behind her again and channeled more blue energy into her neck, though Rhia noticed it was moving both up and down her neck veins.
“You were pretty far gone. You passed out just after you lost a drinking competition.”
“Oh fuck, I lost? Man, I was bragging up and down at that guy I could beat him.”
“He beat you four times in a row.”
“Mauv’ alive. Where is he?”
“Right behind you,” Roy said, eyes not moving from her neck. “How’s your head feeling?”
“Shit. Better. You’re a cleric?”
“Yeah. Not obvious by the green and purple on my chest?”
“Thought you were just weird,” she smirked up at him as he removed his hands. “So wait, you area cleric.”
“Is... Is this what you do? Undrunkify people?”
“One of our popular services. We remove hangovers, we ‘undrunkify,’ we stabilize people ODing, and we provide a safe haven for people too drunk, stoned, or whatever to return home. We also help addicts recover, and we give casual users of any substance, be it alcohol, marijuana, or anything harder, a safe environment to do it in where they know our substances are clean.”
“Gods alive. You serious?”
“Yeah. Why’re you so surprised? You’re a lady of the cloth, I’m sure you help heal, do weather rituals, et cetera.”
“Well yeah, but those are... you know, ritual; not helpful, just, like, ‘what we do,’ you know? I didn’t know there was a god that... helped people. Like...”
“Individuals, not groups,” Rhia piped in.
“Illune,” Roy smiled as he sat down beside her. “Let me tell you about our lord the lady Jaller.”