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The sacred has been twisted.

Vythica has been reduced to a prize—a moment of paid conquest for those who can afford her. Freedom is just beyond her grasp and she’s grown wary of any who promise it to her. The world has taught her that kindness is seldom genuine.
After a chance encounter ends with her being attacked by shadows, Vythica is forced to risk trusting the latest person who was willing to trade her for gold. This stranger seems to know the secrets of her soul and it’s quickly evident that he’s running from something.
Knots tighten while life unravels on the course to the gateways.



Chapter 1

Chapter 1

“Please forgive my clumsiness.” Gavin bowed his head and took a step back from the man who turned and glared at him. He bowed again and retreated further. “Your disguise is so well put together that I thought you were one with us peasants.”

The man’s eyes softened and he smiled proudly. “On your way,” he stated and chuckled. 

Gavin bowed again and turned from the man, smiling to himself as he hurried deeper into the crowd. Easy prey, he thought, unable to keep the smirk from his lips. After shifting the contents of the velvet pouch into his pack, he smoothly discarded the stolen sack on a vacant windowsill.

Next, he thought, scanning the carnival crowd for another mark. Decisions, decisions.

Catching sight of a large woman dressed in silk and wearing a modest mask, Gavin smiled. He took a few steps toward her but realized that there were four men who seemed to match her every move and rethought his plans. I suppose, if I ran a place like this, I would set traps too. Shaking his head, he continued to move away from the woman before narrowing his green eyes at yet another obvious person of wealth.

Making his way through the crowd, he prepared to snatch the jewelled dagger that seemed to be hanging carelessly off the man’s belt when he became aware of someone within the crowd humming. Gavin paused, listening to the melody and ignoring the obvious question in his mind, before forcing his way forward in a frantic search for the sound.


Vythica smiled at the bright colours in the distance and the laughter of children that radiated from somewhere ahead of her. Moving through the crowds, she could not help the melody that was erupting from within her, though she did keep it so quiet that not a single person around her seemed to have noticed the hum.

“I didn’t realize that Madam Keelfream was permitting her rivals to enter her territory.”

Vythica’s steps faltered and she paused briefly before compelling herself to continue forward. She had only made it a few steps when someone grabbed her wrist and forced her to turn.

“Do you think that I can’t recognize you? A little less paint and a little more cloth do not hide you within this crowd.”

“I’m just here to take in the festivities,” she answered. “I am not crossing territories. The madams respect each other’s boundaries.”

“Oh, on regular days that might be true but this is carnival time when rules are not as rigidly enforced.” He gripped her wrist tighter.

“As a soldier, that must make your day easier.” She shrugged, glancing down at his firm grasp. “Please let me go.”

“You won’t make a scene. You know it won’t end well for someone like you. The classes might pretend for a few days that they are equal but your kind will always fall short of even that,” he mocked. “Besides, I can still arrest people. I think it’s best we take you from this crowd.”

“I’m not here to cause trouble between the madams. I am not for sale,” she said as firmly as she dared.


Carnelian stared at the thick black line snaking up the side of his brother’s neck and watched as he pushed away a tremor. “It might be advisable that you take this first night off,” he said worriedly. “That storm did us all a disfavour.”

The old man shook his head.

“Mikali, I can look for the soul just as well as you can. You don’t need to be on stage.”

“This isn’t your burden,” he stated and rolled his shoulders. “I’ve already asked enough of you.”

Carnelian sighed and pulled a long robe over his head.

“You need to have that altered—again. It’s too large.”

Carnelian looked into the mirror. “It’s not too bad. It will be fine for tonight.”

Mikali shook his head again. “There isn’t much left of you to wither away.”

Carnelian took a breath and forced a smile. “My heart will not stop beating until you can find peace. I won’t fail you.”

“If I had known the future, I would never have come to you.” He sighed. “My burden will be your demise.”

“I’m not dead yet,” he shrugged and stared into Mikali’s eyes. “Limit your activities tonight. At least do that much. Allow my powers to lead this performance.”

Mikali nodded and managed a smile. “To buy us some time, I will follow your lead, so long as you keep yourself in check this time.”

Carnelian laughed and watched his brother begin to paint over the black line on his neck, slowly hiding it beneath flesh-coloured pigment before moving on to the brightly coloured paint palate next to him. While Mikali painted whimsical patterns onto his skin, Carnelian moved toward the doorway to their tent and peered outside, glancing up toward the late afternoon sun. He took a breath, closing his eyes and scanning the crowds around them.

“Anything?” Mikali kept his focus on the mirror.

“No.” He sighed.

“Then don’t waste your strength. The soul will be given to us when the time is right. We will recognize the new host.”

Carnelian shook his head. “I don’t have your confidence in this and we are running out of time.”

“Have faith,” Mikali answered. “You will not be burdened with me much longer.”

“My doubt is not a wish to be free of you, Mikali. It is a wish to see you able to rest as you deserve.”


Gavin stopped abruptly, the melody gone from the crowd. He stood still, listening intently and attempting to sift through the noise but there was nothing. After taking a breath he attempted to shift his thoughts away from the melody but the event had left him unsettled. He looked around again and shook his head before moving toward the edge of the crowd. Reaching the outskirts of the sea of people, he moved toward a stone building and climbed onto a bin before pulling himself onto a nearby balcony. He leaned against the rail and continued to observe the crowd, hopeful that his focus would soon return and allow him to pick up where he left off.

Spread out ahead of him, the classes continued to mingle. From his vantage point, he was able to make out gaps in the crowd that had been invisible to him before. It seemed that he wasn’t the only one who could tell the nobility from the lower classes. The carnival might be a time for them to pretend they were the same, but it seemed that most didn’t dare push that idea too far. Within the crowd, he could also make out soldiers who seemed to be making a failed attempt to blend in. He shifted his focus to the colourful tents in the distance and shrugged his shoulders. “I guess if I’m not working I might as well see what the draw of this thing is.”

Preparing to leap down from the balcony, Gavin’s attention was caught by the abrupt and jerky movement of a soldier not far from him. He seemed to be forcing a tall hooded figure forward, pulling them roughly through the masses toward the edge of the carnival-goers. He pushed the image away and refocused on the colourful tents but doing so brought the city’s dungeons into his line of sight and he realized that the soldier was headed in a different direction.


Vythica struggled to discreetly remove her wrist from the soldier’s grasp as he continued to pull her through the crowd. She knew that making a scene would not end well for her, it would be his word against hers, and a soldier would be believed long before she would. She would find herself arrested and taken to the dungeon if she wasn’t careful. Not to mention the trouble she could find herself in if Madam Barra caught word of her current interactions. 

Nearing the edge of the crowds, she twisted abruptly and managed to get herself free, falling onto her hands and knees as she lost her balance.

The soldier spun and glared down at her, kicking her in the side just hard enough to cause her to fall onto her stomach. He reached down, gripping her long blond hair and pulling her back to her feet. “Do you really want to see what the dungeons of this city look like?” he questioned and shoved her deeper into the alley.

Vythica fell against a crate within the shadows. Her mind was racing, jumping between thoughts of the trouble she would face if Madam Keelfream saw her or if she was taken to the dungeons. Any interaction outside of Madam Barra’s establishment was expressly forbidden and she had been reminded of that fact before she left. “I don’t want any trouble. I am simply trying to visit the carnival like everyone else,” she said as she turned to face him.

“Is that so?” He cocked his head. “Do you have a letter of permission from Madam Barra?”

Vythica shook her head.

The guard pointed toward the gentle glow beneath her shirt. “Property, such as yourself, is not permitted to travel alone without a letter.”

Vythica looked down at her chest, realizing that the shadows of the alley made the usually subtle glow far more noticeable. “I am working toward my freedom,” she answered. “I have paid for this night.”

“I’m afraid you’re not headed to the carnival tonight. The only place you are destined is the dungeons.”

“For what?” she gasped. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”

“You are out without permission,” he stated. “Be grateful that I am not going to take you to see Madam Keelfream. Such a meeting would be unpleasant for you. Do you intend to come quietly or cause further issues for yourself?”

Vythica stared at the ground in disbelief, attempting to take a step back but striking the crate behind her. With the guard now taking a step toward her, her mind turned to the trouble she was going to be in if Madam Barra had to retrieve her from the dungeons and she looked up sharply toward the guard. “Just let me go.”

The guard hesitated then shook his head. “The law is the law.”

Vythica took a breath and nodded at the guard. “Very well,” she whispered and flicked her wrist, sending him tumbling backward into a nearby wall where he struck his head and sunk to the ground. Watching the man lay motionless she forced a breath and placed her hand on her chest as a flash of pain ran through her.

“Are you all right?” a voice asked from the end of the alleyway.

Vythica held her breath and looked toward the figure blocking her exit.

“I’m not here for trouble,” he added quickly.

She nodded and looked back toward the guard.

“I would suggest you get moving. You’re not going to be in less trouble being found near a guard’s body.” Gavin shrugged.

“What do you want?” she questioned, moving hesitantly toward him.

“I saw the guard pulling you through the crowd. I thought you might need help,” he answered and looked past her. “I was wrong.”

Vythica nodded and took another step toward him finding that he was still blocking her path. “How long were you standing there?”

“Just at the end,” he answered.

She took another step toward the man, now close enough to whisper. “Are you sure you want to stay in my way?”

Gavin looked into the woman’s honey-coloured eyes and cocked his head before stepping out of the way. He glanced at the guard again and shrugged his shoulders, looking around to find that the woman had vanished.


“I need your papers before I can let you enter,” the guard said flatly. “No exceptions.”

Vythica shook her head in frustration. “I told you, I don’t have anything like that. I don’t have anything with me at all.”

The guard shrugged.

“Miss,” a voice said gently, “you dropped this.”

Vythica turned and stared at the man from the alleyway and looked at the rolled papers in his hand. “Excuse me?”

Gavin moved beside her, handing the papers to the guard. “She was jostled in the streets and I saw this fall from her cloak.”

“She’s not wearing a cloak,” the guard stated suspiciously.

“Thieves everywhere.” He shrugged. “You can tell the man you were robbed. Such things happen. It’s not your fault.”

Vythica looked from the stranger to the guard who was looking over the papers.

“These seem to be in order,” he said, handing them to Vythica. “Can’t be too careful. Some of your kind attempt to hide away with these carnivals.”

“I see,” Vythica answered.

“Be careful in there,” the guard added. “It’s packed even tighter through the gates. A rampant place for theft.”

“Thank you for the warning,” she answered and turned to the stranger. “And thank you for finding this.”

“My pleasure to help such a lovely woman.” He smiled and handed the guard another set of papers.

“Yours seem to be in order as well,” he answered. “Far too many merchants coming through these days for my liking.”

“We’ll leave with the carnival.” Gavin smiled, gently ushering Vythica through the gate. “Enjoy the festivities.” He smiled at her and continued into the crowds, moving deeper into the chaos.

Gavin looked around at the bright colours, the extra torches that seemed to burn brighter than any torch should, and the crowds of people milling about. Watching them briefly pouring over the items set out on the tables by the merchants who travelled with the carnival before turning his focus ahead and moving decidedly toward one of the more crowded stalls after discreetly pocketing a small broach, he took a step back and was startled to find a large man standing right behind him.

“We travel all across this world,” the man said slowly. “Everyone gets one warning and only one.” He held his hand out toward Gavin who glanced at the stall and nodded, placing the broach in the man’s hand. “That warning applies to everything within the perimeter of this carnival.”

Gavin nodded.

“Enjoy the festivities,” he stated and moved away.

“Where the hell did he come from?” Gavin muttered.

“He followed you the moment you entered,” Vythica answered.

Gavin turned and looked at the woman. “Hello again.”

“Is someone else going to have a terrible time seeing as you stole this?” she questioned, handing the crumpled paper to him.

Gavin shook his head. “The guards look for symbols on these things.” He shrugged. “They don’t read them. I have one for just about every occasion.”

“That’s dishonest.” She shook her head. “I suppose for someone like you it’s all the same.”

“Someone like me?” He cocked his head. “Meaning what exactly?”

Vythica rolled her eyes.

“You mean a thief?” He smiled and saw her nod with obvious disapproval. “Come on, you think what I do is worse than what you do? I’m just trying to survive, the same as you.”

“I didn’t choose my path,” she said softly. “I don’t have a choice.”

“How could you not have a choice? You work for one of the brothels, right? How could anyone force you to do such things?”

Vythica shook her head. “Look, I just wanted to thank you for helping me at the gate. I was starting to realize that I was never going to see inside the perimeter of the carnival.”

“Why don’t you have your papers?”

“I didn’t know that I needed anything.” She shrugged. “I’ve never been free for a night before.”

Gavin stared at the woman and nodded. “I see,” he said slowly. “Seems to me that you were set up to fail tonight.”

Vythica stared at the ground and nodded. “I am starting to realize that as well.”

“Well, you’re here now. Might as well enjoy yourself, right?”

She nodded and sighed. “Not much else to do I suppose.”

“Care to accompany me?” He smiled warmly. “You seem a little out of place.”

Vythica became rigid.

Gavin nodded and took a step back. “It’s been my experience that we are only as captive as our minds allow us to be.”

“You don’t understand captivity.” She closed her eyes and took another step back from him. “I suppose most don’t unless they’ve been enslaved. It would be best that I make my own way from here. Being seen accompanied by anyone will cause me trouble.”


Chapter 2

A loud pop erupted and the stage lit up as two old men with long white beards moved into the centre, one of them stumbling as he walked. The crowd was hushed as the magician picked himself up, straightening his clothes and tossing a handful of flower petals into the air. Attention turned to the second magician as he cleared his throat and the first hurried ahead.

The performance was a spectacle like nothing Gavin had ever seen before. Bright flashes of light, feats of acrobatics that had the crowd holding their breath, images created by magic that caused gasps of amazement and fear. Accompanying the obvious skills of the sorcerer was the bumbling magician who had stumbled during his entrance.

Like the rest of the crowd, Gavin was fascinated by the two old men and he found himself closely observing each one. It wasn’t long before he realized that the bumbling magician was putting on just as well of a choreographed show as the more competent one. As the performance neared its end, the flower petals that the magician had thrown onto the stage started to glow and lifted slowly into the air where they began to dance and swirl rhythmically. Feeling himself growing dizzy, he looked away and realized that the crowd had grown silent.

Gavin glanced around nervously. The petals had stopped moving and seemed to simply be sitting suspended in the air and the crowd had grown completely still as if they were in a shared trance. He looked up toward the stage and caught sight of a glow on the bumbling magician’s chest, watching as the old man sunk to his knees. He glanced around again and met the startled gaze of a set of honey-coloured eyes. After a moment, Gavin moved carefully through the crowd toward Vythica.

“Do you know what’s going on?” she questioned, looking around at the frozen crowd. “What’s happened to them?”

“I think the bigger questions might be why aren’t you and I affected?” He looked around again, peering through the crowd. “I don’t see anyone else moving.”

“Other than them?” Vythica pointed toward the stage.

“Seeing as the sorcerers likely did this—”

“Not them,” she interrupted, “the other figures.”

Gavin looked toward the stage. “I don’t see anyone,” he stated, looking back toward her and realizing that her eyes were glowing slightly.

Vythica glanced at Gavin. “There are four shadowy figures. They’re moving toward the sorcerers.” She swallowed nervously and touched her hand to the ache growing in her chest. “You can’t see them?”

Gavin looked into Vythica’s glowing eyes and shook his head before focusing on the stage. “I don’t think the sorcerers see them either,” he said hesitantly.

Vythica’s eyes grew wide, watching as two of the figures set upon one of the old men who immediately let out a cry of pain.

“Did they attack?” Gavin gasped.

Vythica nodded, her eyes still wide and focused on the stage.

Watching her starting to shake, Gavin grabbed her hand and moved between her and the stage, blocking her view. With the stage behind him, he saw the glow diminish and watched the woman gasp and sink to her knees, grabbing at her chest. “Are you all right?”

She kept her eyes focused on the ground in front of her, fighting back tears as she nodded.

Gavin looked over his shoulder at the stage, watching as the sorcerers seemed to be attempting to defend themselves against the attackers that they obviously could not see. “They don’t stand a chance.”

Vythica shuddered and looked up, startled to see Gavin take a step away from her. “What are you doing?”

“I’m not going to stand here and watch them get slaughtered.”

“But you said you can’t see them,” she exclaimed.

Gavin shrugged. “A temporary issue.”

Watching him vanish into the crowd, Vythica forced herself back to her feet. Keeping her eyes low, she hurried forward and quickly reached the stage where she glanced up and met eyes with one of the shadows. Staring into the fiery gaze she found herself gasping for breath and unable to look away.


“Mikali!” Carnelian gasped, rushing toward his brother and pulling him back. “I can’t see them.”

“Nor can I.” Mikali forced a breath. “They’re here though. Can you sense them? Anything?”

Carnelian shook his head and gasped as something struck his chest.

“Brother?” Mikali fought to get back to his feet but was again shoved to the ground and pinned. “Get off me,” he snapped.

“Mikali, don’t,” Carnelian managed. “Save your strength. I will figure this out.”

“It’s over,” a voice growled around them. “We’ll find this one before you.”

Carnelian forced himself to his feet, glancing frantically toward the crowd and seeing a young woman with glowing eyes standing near the stage. “No.” He gasped, fighting his way forward as he saw blood beginning to drip from the corner of the woman’s mouth. “Look away,” he snapped and was startled to see a man grab her and pull her away.

“Don’t look into their eyes,” Gavin stated, kneeling in front of Vythica who had crumbled. “Breathe, damnit, breathe.”

Vythica gasped, tears streaming down her face. She nodded at the ground and glanced up at Gavin. “Behind you,” she whispered.

Gavin turned and tossed a small orb above himself where it flashed, causing the figure closest to him to become momentarily illuminated. Able to see the creature, Gavin turned and pulled Vythica away from the path of the shadow’s attack. Blocking her from the shadow, he tossed another orb into the air, illuminating the creature again and striking it with an arrow from his crossbow. While the creature shrieked in death, Gavin gasped as a wave of pain struck him. He stared at the crossbow in his hand and shook slightly as he loaded another arrow.

“Keep your eyes low so they can’t trap you again,” he said firmly, pulling himself onto the stage and reaching down for her.

“What are you doing?”

“These creatures know you now,” he said hesitantly. “We either deal with them or they hunt you.”

Vythica swallowed and took his hand, pulling herself onto the stage.

“Be careful not to make eye contact,” he stated and looked across the stage and sighed. “I need you to tell me where they are.”

She nodded and glanced around, seeing one of them standing over the sorcerer nearest to them. “Right there.” She pointed ahead and watched as Gavin tossed an orb toward it that illuminated the stage before quickly aiming his crossbow and striking the creature.

Gavin dropped to one knee, forcing a breath. “That’s two,” he said as firmly as he could. “You said four, right?”

Vythica nodded. “What are you . . . ?” She stared at him and glanced at the crossbow, noticing that his hand was bleeding. She hurriedly looked around, seeing another of the shadows atop one of the sorcerers and glancing back at Gavin.

“Where is he?” he questioned and became firm. “I can tell you saw one. Why are you—”

“You’re bleeding,” she interrupted.

Gavin looked at the blood on his hand and shrugged his shoulders.

She looked around again, catching the eyes of the creature standing over the sorcerer and struggling to pull her gaze away.

“Don’t look into its eyes,” he gasped, tossing an orb in the direction of her gaze as he moved hurriedly toward her.


Mikali struggled toward his brother who seemed to be laying completely still. As the orb erupted into light overhead, he was able to see a figure standing over Carnelian with his hand deep in the man’s chest. “Carnelian!” he called, anger flashing in his grey eyes as he struck out at the creature with a bolt of red light. Crawling forward, his oversized robes discarded as he moved, he listened to the creature’s guttural voice as it cried out in pain and saw his brother gasp for breath. “Are you all right?”

Carnelian opened his eyes and did his best to nod though he found the pain within him still substantial.

“Do you see the other one?” Gavin questioned as he and Vythica moved toward the sorcerers.

Mikali looked up toward the two, noticing a small orb in Gavin’s hand and a crossbow that glowed slightly blue in his blood-stained hand. He looked toward the woman, her golden eyes glowing in the dim light. “You can see them?” he questioned, looking at Vythica.

Vythica looked down at the old man and nodded hesitantly. “What are they?”

“Umbra-onna. They belong in the shadow realm but our realms sometimes grow close enough for them to cross over.”

“Shadow beasts.” Gavin sighed and looked toward Vythica. “What do they want with you?”

Vythica shook her head and took a step back.

“I understand how she’s standing up here but you shouldn’t be.” Mikali stared at Gavin before glancing again at the crossbow. “I don’t think you’re meant to wield that.”

Gavin looked down at the weapon and shrugged. “Not everyone is so easily silenced, magician.” He looked around at the entranced crowd. “Why did you do this?”

“We didn’t mean to put anyone in danger,” Carnelian answered weakly. 

“It seems you two were the only ones meant to be attacked by those creatures,” Vythica said. “I just happened to be here.”

“Fate brought you here,” Mikali answered as he got onto unsteady feet and moved toward her. He opened his mouth to speak again but instead let out a gasp as something struck him. His eyes grew wide as he fell toward Vythica who managed to catch him.

“There’s the other one.” Vythica stared up at the creature who was reaching toward her. Her body shook as she tried to move back from it, feeling herself growing faint as it stared into her eyes.

“Not this time,” Mikali snapped, forcing himself to sit up and gasping as he felt the creature’s hand enter his body. He looked forward into Vythica’s glowing eyes, glancing at his own hands as they started to blacken. “You can . . . I’m sorry,” he whispered, gripping her shoulders and locking his gaze with hers. 


Vythica shifted her legs over the edge of her bed, sitting up before hunching over as she did her best to ignore the pounding in her head. She took a breath and rubbed her eyes.

“Are you all right?” a woman asked from somewhere ahead of her.

She nodded slowly and shrugged. “Nightmares.”

“You were late last night. Did you enjoy the carnival?”

Vythica looked up at the woman and managed a smile. “It was an interesting night.”

“I’ve never gone.” Maral smiled. “I’m not one for such things.”

Vythica nodded, moving to the table at the opposite end of the small room where she stared into the mirror. Her eyes seemed foreign to her and she swallowed the lump in her throat as she attempted to replay the previous night’s events. Maybe the images she woke with hadn’t been from a nightmare after all.

“Someone touched you,” she said worriedly and pointed at the bruise on Vythica’s wrist.

Vythica nodded and proceeded to apply violet dust to her eyelids. “A guard tried to insist that I was trespassing,” she answered, “then I was attacked during the magician’s performance.”


She nodded slowly and bit her lip. “I’m in trouble, aren’t I?”

Maral’s face fell and she looked back as the door opened. “Don’t lie to her. Tell her everything that happened,” she said hurriedly.

“Vythica,” Madam Barra growled from the doorway. “You were past curfew.”

“Yes, Madam,” she answered. “It will have no effect on my abilities, I promise you.”

“You were seen with a man,” she continued.

“Yes, Madam.”

“We respect the boundaries of our neighbours,” she stated. “You told me you understood the rules when I allowed you to leave last night. Come with me.”

“She was attacked,” Maral said.

“This does not concern you,” Madam Barra snapped. “Do not tempt me to turn you loose. You know few have use for someone as aged as you.”

“It’s all right, Maral.” Vythica got to her feet, keeping her gaze focused on the ground. “I was touched, Madam, and I did not resist strongly enough. I was not as careful as you instructed.”

“Come with me.”

Vythica glanced back at Maral before following behind Madam Barra who moved swiftly down the hall and was standing agitated at a large door.

“Inside!” she snapped.

Vythica looked at the door and took a breath before moving past the stern woman and entering the small dark room. She jumped as the door was closed behind her and turned to see that Madam Barra was also inside the room. Though it was lit by little more than the light that came through a few cracks in the walls, Vythica could see the glowing object in the madam’s hand and she shuddered.

“You were warned about placing yourself in such positions,” she growled, gripping the small orb. “Do you understand the position you have placed me in?”

“I’m sorry, Madam.” She gasped for breath, sinking to her knees as pain began to ripple out from her chest. Vythica took a shallow breath and placed her hands on the ground in front of her.

“Get up,” the woman ordered, placing the orb in her pocket. “Hold out your hands.”

Vythica was silent as she struggled back to her feet and did her best not to react as she felt cold steel cuffs attached to her wrists. She listened as Madam Barra moved across the small room and bit her lip at the sound of the chain being wound on a pulley near the door, pulling her arms taught above her.

“Your clients will go to the others tonight and until I decide that you are fit to leave this room,” she growled, cracking a whip across Vythica’s back. 

“Yas, Madam,” she answered.

“Your room and board will be added to your debt to me, do you understand?” She cracked the whip again.

“Yes, Madam.” Vythica forced back sobs as the madam continued her assault.

“I free you from that abusive servitude you were in, give you the opportunity to earn your freedom, and you soil my name,” she snapped. “This is how you repay me?”

“Please, forgive me,” she answered, no longer able to keep the sobs from erupting. “I’m sorry.”

“I will free you from this room when I see fit,” she answered, moving in front of Vythica. “Spend time reflecting. You will not see clients again until you can ensure that you do not bleed on my linens.”


“How are you feeling, old man?” Gavin looked across the fire at the sorcerer as he saw the man slowly sitting up. “Not sure I caught your name during the performance.”

“Carnelian,” he answered, looking around the camp. “Where am I?”

“Away from the carnival but not too far from Lithal,” he stated simply. “When your spell wore off, there was panic and chaos. Some of the people rushed the stage trying to find another way out. I thought it best we leave.”

“Mikali?” he questioned, looking around. “What of my brother?”

“He did something to the woman then turned to dust,” he answered. “Whatever he did, she bolted before he even crumbled.”

“The woman?” he whispered. “But she wasn’t the one.”

“You two were looking for someone, weren’t you?”

Carnelian laid back and closed his eyes. “Who are you? Why didn’t our spell affect you?” he questioned and added. “Those spells that you used against the umbra-onna—they weren’t like anything I’ve seen before.”

“Your spell made me feel dizzy but not much more.”

“I see.” The old sorcerer sighed. “What do you want from me?”

“Nothing,” he stated.

“Everyone wants something,” he answered.

Gavin shrugged. “If I want something, I take it. I don’t need anyone to give me anything. This world doesn’t reward compliance.”

Carnelian nodded. “That’s unfortunately true.”

“Speaking of taking things.” Gavin got to his feet and moved to the sorcerer’s side, taking the old man’s hand and placing a stone in his palm. “I’m fairly certain that you’ll want this.”

Carnelian opened his eyes and stared at the gently glowing stone, wrapping his fingers around it before looking toward the young man. “You know what this is, don’t you? You wouldn’t have picked it up otherwise.”

He nodded. “I’ve seen them before. It’s a power stone.”

“A soul stone,” he answered softly.

Gavin nodded. “You should free him, Carnelian, the moment you are strong enough. You wouldn’t want that falling into the wrong hands.”

The old man sighed. “If only that were within my abilities.”

“What do you mean?” Gavin focused on the man across from him. “That performance was certainly something else. You demonstrated a great deal of power and control.”

Carnelian smiled and gripped the stone. “Power isn’t equal in magic. While I’m not weak, I’m not able to break this stone either. There are few who can.”

“I see. So what’s next?” he questioned. “I get the feeling that those shadow beasts forced your brother’s hand and he did something that he didn’t want to do to that woman.”

“Who was she?”

“I’m not entirely sure,” he answered. “A local pleasure worker that I crossed paths with on my way to see your performance. I don’t know much more though. I didn’t even catch her name.”

“I need to find her,” he said firmly, sitting up and gripping his chest.

“I’d venture to say that you need rest, old man,” he stated. “What do you need from her? What has your brother done?”


Chapter 3

“You need to get up,” Maral whispered, touching Vythica’s shoulder. “I know it hurts and I know you’re scared but the longer you lay here the harder it’s going to be to move.”

Vythica opened her eyes and looked up at the woman standing over her.

“Madam Barra will want you back to work very quickly, no matter what she’s said.”

Vythica nodded and accepted Maral’s hand as she reached down to her.

“Let me take a look.” Maral helped Vythica shift on the bed, lifting her shirt and surveying the lash marks. She took a breath and sighed. “You’ve been struck before.”

Vythica nodded. “Yes,” she whispered, “I—”

“You don’t need to explain anything to me.” Maral gently gripped the young woman’s shoulder, kneeling in front of her. “Vythica, you’re still young. You don’t have to let someone do this to you. You aren’t anyone’s property. You can run.”

Vythica looked into the woman’s eyes and shook her head. “You stay.”

“By choice,” she answered. “I have only known this life and at my age, I choose not to leave. I stay because I have found a way to be an asset to Madam Barra. I help you girls to learn how to keep your patrons pleased and try to keep you out of trouble. I thought at first that you didn’t resist her because you didn’t know what was coming but that look in your eyes—I feared what it meant.”

“You don’t understand, Maral. I am property, Madam Barra bought me. She took me and promised me freedom if I gave freely of my body to earn the gold to pay off my debt.” Vythica took a breath. “I will earn my freedom from this bondage.”

“Your only chains linger in your mind. I can see strength in you, Vythica. I can see more than what you show us.”

Vythica shook her head and forced herself to her feet, moving to the mirror at the end of the room where she began to clean the dirt from her face. She stared into the mirror and took a breath before dipping the cloth into the basin in front of her and methodically washing her arms. She looked up as Maral moved behind her and bit her lip when the woman began to wash her back, carefully cleansing her wounds.

Once she was washed, Maral tightly wrapped bandages around Vythica’s torso and helped her into a snug black undershirt, carefully adjusting it to keep the bandages in place. As Maral finished, Vythica continued with her own preparations, painting her eyes and lips before slowly beginning to pin her hair. After stepping into a dress, she stood and stared at herself in the mirror, wincing as Maral tightened the laces behind her.

“What did happen to you that night?” Maral whispered.

Vythica shook her head. “I don’t know.” She continued to stare into the mirror before forcing herself to take a deep breath and wincing from the pain it caused her. She turned and started toward the door only to have Maral move in front of her, grabbing her and staring into her eyes.

“Vythica,” she said firmly, leaning in close before carefully hugging her. “You do not belong here.”

“Does anyone?” She shrugged.

“I mean it,” she stated, pushing her back and looking into her eyes. “You either need to run or you will die here.”

She stared into the woman’s eyes. “Maral?”

“Vythica, you have been requested,” Madam Barra snapped as she threw the door open and cocked her head. “I did not expect to see you prepared.”

Vythica nodded and stared at the ground. “I am ready, Madam.”


Vythica moved as smoothly as she could into the room, approaching the man who was seated in the large chair. She paused a few steps behind him, focusing her gaze on the floor. “I am here at your request,” she whispered.

The man remained seated. “You mustn’t have many people who come to see you outside of typical business,” he said slowly.

Vythica looked toward the chair uncertainly.

“Is it possible to have a word without paying?”

“A word?” she stuttered and watched the man stand and turn to face her. “You?”

“Gavin.” He bowed his head. “We never exchanged names. That made it interesting when I was trying to find you.”

“Trying to find me? Why?”

Gavin looked her over. “You certainly don’t look the same as you did at the carnival. I’m not sure I’d recognize you if not for the fact that your eyes are not a common colour.”

“Why are you here?” She swallowed nervously and focused on the ground. “What do you ask of me?”

Gavin shook his head. “Not that.” He shrugged. “Don’t get me wrong, I understand why you’re sought after but that’s not why I’m here.”

Vythica sighed and shook her head.

“The sorcerer gave you something that night on the stage,” he said slowly.

She looked around. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she stuttered, turning from him.

“I’ve paid for my time with you,” he stated, raising an eyebrow. “You’re expensive. Are you walking away from that contract?”

Vythica swallowed nervously, pausing mid-step and cringing as he touched her shoulder.

Feeling her tense beneath his hand, Gavin took his hand back. “Look, what you saw on the stage was real—you didn’t dream it. You didn’t imagine it. Living as you do, it was likely frightening and you probably don’t understand most of it but—”

“The sorcerer was undead. A lich,” she answered, looking into his eyes a moment. “And you’re in possession of things that you likely stole because judging by the injuries they cause you, you should not be wielding them.”

Gavin took a step back, staring wide-eyed at Vythica.

“Don’t make assumptions about people, Gavin,” she stated. “Things aren’t as simple as they seem.”

“I’m sorry,” he said slowly. “I didn’t mean to—”

“Keep your voice down,” she said urgently.

Gavin nodded. 

Vythica moved closer to him, taking his hand and leading him through a doorway and into a candle-lit room. She quickly shifted the curtains to block out the entry and turned back to face him.

“I said I’m not here—”

“I understand that,” she answered, “but she can see us out there.”


Vythica shook her head. “Just sit,” she stated and, seeing him hesitate, gently flicked her wrist, sending a small gust of wind that knocked him back onto the bed.

“Did you just use magic?” he questioned.

Vythica nodded.

“That explains what happened to the guard. I had wondered how you had managed to knock a man that size unconscious.” He looked around the room. “Why are you here? What could possibly keep you in a life like this?”

“What makes you think I don’t want to be here?” She shrugged.

Gavin cocked his head in disbelief.

“I don’t have a choice. Things might look simple to you but they aren’t.”

“What did the sorcerer give you. Do you know? Do you understand what happened?”

Vythica shook her head.

“Carnelian is waiting for you.”


“The other sorcerer,” he answered. “He’ll explain everything to you.”

Vythica shook her head. “I can’t leave here,” she stated, looking toward the candle. “Your time is nearly up. The candle is almost gone.”

“You need to speak to him,” Gavin said firmly. “You are in danger. Mikali chose you out of desperation.”

The woman gingerly shrugged her shoulders. “You don’t understand the world that I live in.” She bowed her head and moved toward the door, pausing without turning to face him. “Please, don’t say a word to anyone when you leave—you’ll only cause trouble.”


“Vythica,” Maral gently shook the woman’s shoulder, “wake up.”

Vythica opened her eyes and looked up into Maral’s firm expression, sitting up as quickly as she could. “What is it?”

“You’re leaving,” she whispered. “I didn’t want to believe it so I never told you but rumour spread throughout the city about what happened at the carnival. Madam Barra received an offer for you—you’ve been sold,” the woman’s voice broke and a tear rolled down her cheek.

“Sold?” her voice quivered. “But she promised me . . . ?”

“You have to find your own freedom.” Maral gripped her tightly. “You have to fight to get free. You can’t trust anyone who’s willing to pay to own you. Even when they say they want to help you.”

Vythica bit her lip and unwrapped the package, her hands trembling as she removed the clothing from within. She stared at the items, they were sturdy and well made and similar to what she had worn to attend the carnival.

“No doubt they have money.” Maral took the shirt in her hands.

“I just wish it wasn’t white,” she said worriedly.

The older woman nodded and helped Vythica out of her robe, carefully cleansing the lash wounds. “They are healing,” she said gently. “I pray there will be someone who can help you with these wounds wherever you’re going. They still need to be tended to.”

Vythica nodded. “I’ll survive, Maral. I always have. This has been my life for a long time now.”

Maral wrapped bandages around Vythica’s body, using extra pieces of linen to secure everything in place. “Madam won’t miss the cloth scraps but she will notice missing clothing so I can’t—”

“I know.” She bit her lip. “I’m going to ruin this shirt.”

Maral nodded. “I’m sorry, Vythica.”

The young woman shook her head and pulled on the skirt that had come in the package, staring into the mirror at her reflection. She pulled her long hair back and secured it before turning back to Maral. “It’s the middle of the night,” she said softly. “No good comes from being sold overnight.”

Maral nodded and wrapped her arms around her. “Run,” she whispered. “The moment you can, you need to run.”

Vythica allowed a tear to fall, burying her head into Maral’s shoulder. “I’ll survive,” she whispered and pulled back, wiping her face and straightening her clothes. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for me. I haven’t known such kindness in a long time.”


Vythica followed in silence behind Madam Barra as the two moved through the dark and vacant streets and into the center of the city.

“Wait here,” the woman ordered and disappeared into the inn.

Vythica stood rigid, looking up at the imposing structure then down at her own clothing as she wondered what awaited her within. 

“Come,” Madam Barra ordered impatiently.

Vythica nodded, moving behind the stern woman. The two moved through the vacant tavern and up a set of stairs in the back of the inn. Vythica could feel twinges of pain in her back as she did her best to keep up with the madam’s rushed pace. She knew the woman did not appreciate being out during the early hours and no doubt whoever had bought her had paid for the inconvenience.

Reaching an unmarked door, Madam Barra opened it and pulled Vythica inside, closing the door behind them. “Do not move.”

Vythica watched the woman move deeper into the room and saw her place a small box on the table near the window before returning to her side. “Your new master will arrive shortly. He has paid handsomely for you, do you understand? Do not cause trouble for me while you wait or those you have left behind will pay for it. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, Madam,” she whispered, not looking up as the woman left the room.

Vythica stood rigid, peering into the darkness. She stared numbly at the box on the table, her senses telling her that it contained her key to freedom. After a moment, she glanced briefly toward the door as Maral’s words echoed in her mind but Madam Barra’s warning was far louder.

“I would have run,” a voice said from somewhere in the darkness. “She said you were obedient but I didn’t expect that to be true.”

Vythica nodded, watching the figure move toward the table and pick up the box.

“Have you nothing to say?”

She shook her head.

“Very well then,” he stated, moving past her. “It’s time to go.”

Vythica followed behind the man in silence, doing her best to keep up with his swift steps. The two moved out of the inn through the back door and hurried down a long dark alleyway before emerging into the vacant square and continuing toward one of the northern gates.

“It’s an unusual hour to be leaving the city.” The guard eyed the two suspiciously. “State your business.”

“I am a travelling merchant. I have completed my business within the city and will now continue to Sydest.” He stated and handed the guard a rolled parchment. “I’m behind schedule and need to make up time.”

The guard opened the paper and scanned it. “I’ve seen enough of these of late to last a lifetime. The carnival must be days ahead of you.”

“You understand my haste,” he answered, taking the paper back and bowing his head.

“On your way.” He nodded.

Vythica continued to follow behind the hooded man but as they hurried down the road the ache in her body steadily grew and she became aware that the bandages on her back were slipping. Attempting to reach back and secure the linen, she miss-stepped and stumbled, falling to the ground.

“Are you all right?” he questioned, kneeling in front of her, his voice no longer stern.

Vythica nodded and was startled when he reached out and took her hand, helping her to her feet. For a moment she could do nothing but stare at the ground in silence. “You?”

“I told you, the sorcerer wants to see you.”

“So you bought me?” she questioned, her voice quivering.

Gavin shifted the hood away from his face, shaking his head. “I paid your debt. I did not buy you,” he said firmly. “You are not my property. You’re free to do as you wish.”

“What if I don’t wish to speak to the sorcerer?”

Gavin sighed and took the wooden box in hand. “The woman said this could be used to keep you under control,” he said, opening the box and peering at the small orb before frowning and shaking his head. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“For saying that your captivity was a choice. You were right, I haven’t any idea what it’s like to be in your position.” Gavin closed the box and looked firmly into her eyes. “I know what this is.”

Vythica focused on the ground and was startled as he moved closer to her, taking her hand and placing the box in her palm.

“Until you find a way to be truly free, be careful with this,” he said flatly and took a few steps back from her. “What actions you take next are up to you.”

Vythica’s hands shook as she opened the box and looked at the orb. “You’re giving this to me freely?” she said suspiciously.

Gavin shrugged. “It’s not of any use to me.”

“You likely paid a great deal of gold to simply hand me my freedom,” she stated and shook her head. “I don’t trust you.”

“Look, Vythica, I have little more than my word to give you,” he answered. “Do not go anywhere that you’ve been captive until you are free of that orb. Your kind are rare and that makes you easily recognizable.

“My kind?” She cocked her head. “What do you mean by that?”

Gavin shook his head. “Daemons,” he said slowly. “Look, I won’t attempt to force you to do anything but I do think you should speak with the sorcerer. Your life isn’t going to get any easier until you do.”

“You can’t honestly think that it’s going to get better when I do.” Vythica stared into Gavin’s eyes. “Everything has gotten worse since I ventured into the city that day.”

Chapter 2
Chapter 3


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