An Heir to Thorns and Steel is a serialized fantasy novel updating once a week for free on Tuesdays, and again on Thursdays and Saturdays if tips reach $15 and $20, respectively. Single reviews of existing stories posted to Amazon count for $5 toward the tip total.
Blood Ladders, Book 1
I slept that night between the two of them, wet pelts, wet clothes, the rain dripping on us. My dreams were a confusion of clamminess, velvet, teeth and aches and I woke so stiff I couldn’t move, not even to nudge the genets aside so I could attempt to rise. I struggled, but my clothing felt leaden, like weights I didn’t have the strength to lift. I could barely breathe past the layers on my chest.
As I lay there with my panic, trying not to hyperventilate, I became aware of a… feeling. I mistook it for hunger, until I realized I was not hungry. Then thirst, but the thought of drinking did not assuage it. My body whined, the very flesh beneath my skin seeming to yearn outward for something just beyond reach. I wanted to writhe in my own skin, wanted to fight the joint pain and the nausea and the exhaustion to try to slither out of myself.
Beside me, Almond yawned, little pink tongue curling between her petite fangs. She licked my shoulder and murmured in the elven tongue, “Good morning, Master.” And then, switching to Lit, “… are you well?”
“I need to get up,” I said. “Help me up.”
Startled, she rose and gripped my arm. I leaned on her and staggered to my feet. It didn’t help me feel better, so I paced. Every step sent a scream through my body. I ignored it. There were things worse than pain, and this qualified. This restlessness. This sense that I was missing something.
Almond watched me, hugging her arms and ears flagging. The sullen sky lit her poorly, made the gold dapples on her body seem dingy, like a used-up rag. It was an improvement on the rain, but only barely.
“Are you hungry?” she tried, hesitant.
Was I? “No,” I said. “Yes.” I clenched my teeth. “Nauseated.”
“It’s good to see you on your feet,” she said. “Are you sure you feel well?”
“No,” I said. I sighed. “I feel wrong.”
A sleepy Kelu opened her eye and brushed the hair from her face. To Almond, she said, “We have to get him to the port.”
Almond nodded. “Can you walk, Master?”
“What does it look like I’m doing?” I asked testily.
“That way, then,” Kelu said, pointing. “We’ll catch up.”
I thinned my eyes. “What aren’t you telling me?”
Kelu shrugged and stretched, clambered to her feet. “You won’t like it.”
“I’m shocked,” I said. “Tell me anyway.”
Kelu looked at Almond, then back at me and said, “You need the opium.”
“Excuse me?” I said.
She began walking, Almond scampering in her wake. “You’ve been overdoing it,” she said. “And now you need it.”
“A few days doesn’t make you a drug addict!” I exclaimed, limping after them.
“Not all drugs, no,” Kelu said. “But it does with poppy. And you weren’t taking a small amount. You stank of it, and there was so much in your blood you put me at risk.”
I gaped at her back, at the mud-draggled tail. “That’s not possible.”
“We should be able to find you some in the city,” Kelu said. “The shipmaster’s good with that, he can ask around. He might have some laudanum, even. That will keep you until we find something stronger.”
Almond dropped back to take my arm. I didn’t even notice leaning on her as I stumbled after Kelu. “You can’t be talking about feeding this,” I said. “If it’s even true that I’ve developed a… a dependency.”
“There’s no ‘if’,” Kelu said, her bare feet squelching on the muddy ground. “Drugs are a habit in the archipelago. We’ve both seen people go through this cycle.”
I looked down at Almond, wide-eyed, but the smaller genet refused to meet my gaze.
“This must be a joke,” I muttered.
Almond patted my arm. “You did it for understandable reasons, Master,” she said. “You are in terrible pain. That is better than for entertainment.”
“What does it matter?” I said. “Ennui or necessity, it means I’m weak.”
“The word for weak is loushel,” Kelu said.
“This is not the time for a language lesson!”
“It’s a long walk,” Kelu said. “And I’m not going to talk to you unless you talk in the Angel’s Gift.”
“You didn’t give me that much vocabulary or grammar!” I exclaimed.
“Make do,” Kelu said.
Frustrated, I said, “/why/ is it called Angel’s Gift?”
She repeated the sentence for me. I managed to parrot it back to her satisfaction. She nodded and said, “Because they say that the elves once spoke an inferior tongue, and then an angel developed and taught them to speak the language of heaven.”
“You speak in the language,” she said.
“Teacher’s privilege,” she said.
“/There is…/” I trailed off, struggling with my extremely limited vocabulary. “/The elves…/ believe in heaven?”
“Of course,” Almond said, serene. “Where else do angels come from?”
“Angels,” I said.
“If there are demons,” Almond said, “there have to be angels.”
“And there are demons,” I said, bemused.
“The words for all these concepts,” Kelu said, “listen closely. I’m not going to tell you twice.”
Dutifully I repeated them for her. “/There are/ human stories of /angels and demons/,” I said. “I didn’t think there were /elven/ ones.”
“Your accent is atrocious,” Kelu said, and translated what I’d said for me.
“/Angels,/” I said. “/Why angels?/”
“What do you mean, why?” Kelu asked.
There would be no putting this concept through my limited set of words in their language. “No culture develops a set of supernatural creatures without a reason. They exist to explain something, to serve as a metaphor, to give rise to ritual and tradition. Why do the elves have angels?”
“Because they’re real,” Almond said.
But neither of them laughed with me. Almond’s head drooped and she trudged alongside me without speaking; even Kelu fell silent. I looked from the crown of Almond’s head to the back of Kelu’s and said, “Surely you can’t tell me they exist. Have you seen an angel? A demon?”
“At least you’re as arrogant as an elf,” Kelu said. “It’s a pity you’re arrogant about the wrong things.”
“They’re not myths,” Almond said. “They’re real. Just like we’re real, and elves are real and humans and dragons and sea-snakes.”
“Stories,” I began, and Kelu corrected me. I plunged on. “/Stories./ I accept /elves,/ but /angels/?”
“They exist,” Kelu said.
“But why?” I asked.
“Because demons do,” Almond murmurs.
“Enough,” Kelu said. “He doesn’t understand. We’ll just go back to the language lesson.”
I began to protest, then shrugged. They wouldn’t admit to having never seen an angel or a demon, but badgering them about it seemed cruel. All cultures have myths for a reason, and the elves were apparently no exception. I found it charming that they believed that angels had given them their language, but not altogether surprised. It had the hallmarks of their particular arrogance.
Still, I wondered… if the elves truly couldn’t die, as the genets purported, then what did the elves need with a heaven?
Morgan is smart enough and educated enough to ask complicated questions. That’s part of the fun of knowing him.
Anyway, this should give you a hint about whether or not Morgan’s hallucinations are hallucinations…