There is always a Key to a Door
You just have to have the resilience to find it
A Messenger does not deliver a message,
Without bearing a sword with which to strike,
A shield to hide behind,
And a friend to lean against…
When both sword and shield have failed.
High Moons – Sundate 8611DC
Zinkx gripped his bow between fingers calloused from welding armaments. The gloves that encased his worn palms squeaked against the wood of the fine weapon. His clothes, though intended for long, hazardous travel, were tatty and dirtied by battle and constant exposure to the elements. Olive-green paint ran in striped patterns over his tanned skin, mimicking the shadows cast by the canopy of the giant trees, their glittering leaves fiddling in the dawn zephyr. The chill of the night still lingered, and he could see his breath fogging before him. His slow inhalation matched the forest’s mesmerizing melody.
Every ounce of his lethal body moved with the forest beneath the twisted roots of the colossal evergreens, damp vegetation nibbled by fungi hiding his Human scent. Twigs nicked at his leather armor and caught in his long damp hair.
The pve’pt he had been pursuing darted past him.
He gave chase, weaving through the mammoth ferns and leaping gracefully over roots. From childhood he had been trained in the art of gravity-control, manipulating the law that bound other creatures. Easily he kept pace with the creature, his feet tapping the moss-covered surfaces over which the animal raced.
Their chase stopped as suddenly as it had begun.
The high-hoofed mammal paused atop a large flattened root. It flicked its long ears, large black eyes observing the shrouded ferns.
Zinkx sunk into the murk, watching as the pve’pt waited. He eased himself forward, his boots leaving imprints in the dampness of the moss. Carefully he shifted his weight, making no sound as he slipped an arrow from the quiver across his shoulders. He raised the bow in line with the hunted animal’s neck. The cool breeze of the morning nipped his fingers as he drew back the bow-string. He took a deep breath, tightened, and fired.
The arrow buried itself in the flesh of a tree.
With a startled leap the pve’pt skittered away into the lifting mist. “Interesting…” A deep voice announced. “You’ve let it live.”
“I see no sense in killing it.” Zinkx lowered his bow. “There is a village half a day’s walk away. If I take the skins we’ve been collecting I can trade them for food.”
“I see.” A golden beast leapt from the blanketing ferns, landing gracefully on its hind legs.
Zinkx glanced at the overbearing form of his Khwaja, Denvy Maz. The creature towered higher than six feet, an average height for male Kattamonts. His feline features had an eerie quality to them that was still disconcerting. Even after sol-cycles of being raised by the aged beast, Zinkx found it somewhat baffling how the Kattamont seemed to switch with unnatural ease between walking upright and his far more natural four-legged state.
“If I trade the skins, the pve’pt can live in freedom another day.”
With humanoid fingers, the Kattamont tugged his shaggy air-gills, draped over his shoulders like a crowning tousled mane. “Its freedom will be short lived…and your compassion will come to naught.” In the sunlight, graying hairs could be seen throughout the creature’s fur, his tangled beard glistening with silver beads.
“Allow me to trade the skins, Khwaja. What harm is there in this?” Spreading his hands, Zinkx implored.
A deep bass chuckle purred from the beast. He tilted his head to one side, folding broad arms together pensively.
“All right, Zinkx, you may do as you wish. I warn you though…” He turned, blending into the shadows. His long tail flicked through the undergrowth, fan-tip alight with ignited freckles illuminating radiant patterns through golden fur. “You’ve been away from Pennadot for many long sol-cycles. Customs could have changed.”
“I’ll be careful,” Zinkx called back.
The old lion smirked. “I fear that word isn’t in your vocabulary, my aiv’a.”
Brightly colored prayer flags fluttered between the tightly clustered thatch-roofed houses. The Pulza region of Pennadot was a vast forest province, back-dropped by smudges of gray mountains. Since the dawn of Human memory Pennadot had been guarded by a circumference of highlands known as the Ovin-tu. The beastly-shaped pinnacles were the silver crown for the mammoth land of rolling plains and carpeted forests. Zinkx breathed deeply the air of his birth-land, its sweet taste a marvelous change to the toxic fumes that swamped the Trenches of War he had been raised in. Eight months he had travelled, ordered by his superiors to leave the House of Flames. The Dreamathics Who Dreamed had said the Key could be found in Pennadot. Now he and his Khwaja wandered the ruins of long forgotten technologies in search of the illusive object that would aid in turning the tide of their war and mayhap even save the lands of Livila.
His dreams were haunted by the rumbles of distant thunder, the cries of the earth as the borders between lands were gradually torn asunder. A magnetic pull had once kept the Northlands welded together in the vague hope that as one continent they would be enough to create a physical spin. The continuous rotation was needed to sustain the existence of life upon Livila. He understood little of the incomprehensible technical analysis of the situation, indeed, he doubted anyone truthfully did. Undeniably, though, he knew that the world was dying.
Part of him missed war, the addictive adrenalin of battle and the companionship with his brethren. Beyond the Ovin-tu Mountains a battle was being waged, played daily like a game of gods. Pennadot had been safe, its people left to grow ignorant of the suffering war brought. Yet one could almost feel it in the air; the time of peace was slowly ending. The Overlord of the Dragon was gaining political power, manipulating events within Pennadot. Refugees were secretly being sent over the Ovin-tu alps to be processed into the Dragon’s armies.
He had his appointed task.
Even if no one knew what it was, or whether it was a tangible object, he had to find the Key before the Dragon and his minions did. If they gained control of the technology it would allow the terrible creature to spread his dominion over all the Lands of Livila, and there would be no hope.
Zinkx slid his hands into the pockets of his hip-bags as he joined the caravans and traders moving toward the opening gates of the village ahead. Sodden walls had been carved out of mangled roots surrounding the perimeter of the town. Trees grew to unimaginable heights and breadths in Pennadot, due to its low gravity and thin atmosphere, creating a world within a world, Human civilization was lost in the enormity. Yet, Humans and their internal drive for conquest had penetrated the mammoth forest with sheer determination.
He glanced around, admiring the work that had been achieved by hands alone; Humans had an inability to admit defeat. Streets had been crafted into thick roots, leading to small pockets of houses and market areas.
Color was abundant, the village bright and festive as he strolled into the welcoming hubbub of an established trading network.
Through large fungi sprouting between lavishly decorated stalls naked Kelib children, their green-skinned bodies painted in tribal oils of reds and yellows, darted after glittering sky-dragon kites. He had missed the sound of laughter; in the Trenches they were too deeply engaged in a war to find time to laugh, but here the children could squeal with glee. There was no fear of a death doomed upon them; unlike the children of his homeland who grew up knowing that their conscription into the armies would lead to dying young.
Zinkx scrubbed at his bristled chin and looked up toward the more obviously Human stone dwellings. Far up the twisted roots that twirled around each other in a spiral of roads, the sturdy castle of the region’s province lord loomed over the smaller, muddier homes of the Kelibs.
While Humans stood out like weeds, the aboriginal Kelibs naturally blended with Pennadot’s rich colors, their emerald skin and woven clothes mimicking the hues of their vast land. Though Kelibs were humanoid, they were shorter and stockier than Humans, yet far stronger. Their stalwartness stemmed from the naturally occurring high density within their skeletons, their near unbreakable bones often used in clan weapons after death. Effectively Kelibs were heavier in Pennadot’s weak gravity; unlike Humans they walked without a spring to their steps. They were a race of warriors, their Nine Clans in a constant state of war.
It was rare to see Kelib women in village life, yet he glimpsed a few wandering in their robes of threaded gold. Prized for their beauty, yet herded like cattle, Kelib females were a sad example of repression amongst the proud race. They were born for breeding, kept for their milk, and sold as prostituted slaves. It was distasteful to know they were considered no more intelligent than a mere animal.
He turned away. It was impossible to change a society deeply steeped in its beliefs and values. For now, the society worked, and it kept itself from civil war, even if peace had a price. He should not complain. It was, after all, still peace.
Bartering was a subtle skill, and Zinkx, being a commander of war used to bellowing out orders over a battlefield, found his communication skills rusty. The Kelib men behind the stalls gave him strange looks and refused his skins, despite their high quality. Dishearteningly he approached the final booth amongst the markets. He gave a warm smile to the young Kelib boy behind the counter and placed the cleaned skins upon the wooden surface. The boy blinked at him then gave a sudden wave and shout of alarm.
Zinkx froze as he felt a bag cast over his head, and his twin blades pulled from their straps. He went slack at the angry voices despite his body raring to move in swift, practiced action. He dared not cause a scene in the middle of the village; it would draw unwanted attention and possible deaths of civilians. Pain exploded in the back of his head as a swift blow brought him to his knees. He felt blood trickling down his neck and he cursed inwardly as his arms were bound from behind and he was dragged by the ropes along the muddied road. He heard Human voices, speaking Human tongue, and he could only presume that he was under arrest.
His Khwaja always had to have the last laugh.
With ruthless vigor he was dragged through the village. Slowly he sensed a change. No longer was he outdoors but within the solid walls of the wealthier Human dwellings. Two men hauled him down into underground cellars that smelt of rich wines. A door was unbolted, and the bag ripped from his head as he was thrown into a dark cell. He slid over the sodden ground. Laughter sounded from outside as the door was slammed shut.
“The Lord will deal with you later.”
Groaning, Zinkx rolled in a puddle of foul water. “Wait…” He pounded the pad of his boot upon the metal door. “What did I do wrong?”
A roar of amusement made him cringe.
“No one hunts on the Lord’s lands, boy!”
“Should have seen that one coming,” Zinkx muttered. He pealed himself off the grime-encrusted stones. His skin burned as he brushed dirt from the bloody abrasions where the ground had shredded his threadbare clothes. He sat up gingerly, pressing his back against the surface of the damp wall. Slowly his racing heartbeat calmed, allowing the dizziness from the influx of blood to drift away.
The air was muggy, the cell clearly one that was rarely aired out. As his eyes adjusted, small phosphorescent fungi became visible in patterns across the walls. He focused on them, grateful for the meager light. It was the silence, though, that revealed just how far underground he had been carried, the layers of dirt and limestone causing an eerie sensation of lifelessness.
But he was not alone. In the stillness he noticed the fluttering of wings. A tiny flying pin-lizard whizzed past his nose and he watched it dart away. The little creatures that infested the forests were clustering around something in the darkness of the cell. Their brightly glowing wings made a faint halo around a figure. The pin-lizards were drawn to the salty sweat and blood of whomever the poor soul was.
The figure’s ribs were cracked, he realized, hearing breathing that was pained and shallow. It reminded him of a traumatized child he had once found, long ago. He gave a sharp breath as the pin-lizards’ glow brightened, giving him more than a shadow.
He caught a glimpse of her.
She sat, bound to a stake rising from the floor; her robust arms raised high above her head. Her long black hair, with blue strands that coruscated in the light from the pin-lizards, was tangled and matted. Someone had ruthlessly beaten her. The coppery scent of her blood was in the air. He could see the red gleam of it on her naked green skin. The pin lizards’ were nibbling at the fresh liquid.
“Kelib…” he whispered, and she cringed at the sound.
She let out a whimper, yet, despite her obvious fear, she glared at him in stark defiance.
Zinkx clicked his tongue, stumbling over the Kelib native language. It was rough and rubbery on his lips instead of smooth and slick like Human dialect.
“I won’t hurt you.”
“Liar,” she hissed back. “And you dirty your tongue with my foul language, Human.”
“Your language is not foul.” Zinkx managed the sentence with slow ease, “Just difficult to manage. I haven’t spoken it in a while, that is all.”
He gave a small bow of his head in the customary greeting of the region. “I am Zuksk.”
She raised an eyebrow at the oddity of his name. In Kelib tongue it sounded muddled but it was the best he could provide.
“Shan’ta’lee Shir-Hara of the Eighth Clan.”
“Shanty…Eighth Clan.” Zinkx repeated slowly. He eased away from the wall. Of the Nine major clans of Kelibs spread over Pennadot’s Human provinces, the Eighth was the largest and produced the best quality female Kelibs in their Breeding Farms. They were usually prized highly in the markets, and treated with care for fear of damaging their beauty and productivity.
So why had one been savagely beaten and locked deep underground? Zinkx watched a tear trickle down her cheek. The glow of the blue strands of hair reflected off bruises and wounds now carved into her strong features. Even in the dim light he could sense that the strength that had kept her alive was beginning to wane.
“I have prayed to the gods for another to join me in my solitude. Yet I find you, Human,” she scoffed. “They have not answered me.”
“No, wooden gods usually don’t…” Zinkx muttered, looking down at the chains around his wrists with some disdain. “Still, I think a deity has heard your prayers.” He shuffled over the muddy stones toward her. The closer he crawled, the worse she appeared in the muted light. His throat dried at the sight of her mangled body. Such beauty in heavily-boned limbs and silken, emerald skin, long beaten into submission. Cuts lined her inner thighs and ran up her arms, joining tattoos engraved into the flesh with poisonous ink that shined in the darkness to display her as someone’s property. Up close, the sheen of the ink was breathtaking, enhancing her curved form with the twists and twirls that enveloped her entire form.
“Do you want to get out of here?” he asked.
She curled her upper lip. “Aye, but why should you care? You are Human and Humans have no care for Kelibs.”
Zinkx struggled to his feet. “Yes, it would appear that way to you. You’re right. Most Humans don’t care, but I’m not from around these parts. Things are different for me, and no one, Human or Kelib, should be tied up in the position you are in now. Let me help you.”
She snorted derisively. “I was cursed with this body. If I had been born thin and sickly like a Human female, mayhap I’d have been better off.”
“Maybe so.” Zinkx came to stand directly in front of her. For a moment fear shone in her eyes. He turned away from the haunted expression. “But you weren’t born Human. You are Kelib and you should not be ashamed of that. Here—” he lifted onto his toes. “Can you reach into the back of my pants? There should be a small pouch in there. I can’t grab it with my hands chained.”
He heard her sigh bitterly and he flinched as her hands began searching. Her fingers smeared his skin, cool with the blood that stained them. She yanked on a belt and pulled a tiny leather box free, dropping it on the ground.
Zinkx knelt beside it. “See, that wasn’t hard, was it?”
She snorted again, watching acutely as he opened the small pouch and slipped out a tiny silver stick. Carefully Zinkx pressed a slim switch on the side of the device. A heated beam of light flared to life, burning through the chains connected to his shackles. They fell apart, clanking to the floor. He sighed and rubbed his raw wrists.
“What is that thing?” Shanty inquired softly. Zinkx could see her curiosity piquing at the odd revelation of something new.
“A match-stick.” He waved it in the air. “Old piece of technology left over by a very ancient and talented race. Here, let me get your chains.” He stood over her. The air filled with the scent of phosphorus until finally the chains gave way. The Kelib woman collapsed in a heap. She lay, panting heavily as life returned to her abused limbs. Crouching beside her, Zinkx reached out, cupping her cheeks in his worn hands and smiling slightly as her large hazel eyes sought his briefly before looking away.
His smile faded. “Come with me. I can get you out of here.”
“Go with a Human male? I should not even be looking upon you nor speaking with you.”
“If you don’t want to look at my hideous face, then don’t. But if you remain here, you will die, and it would be a sure shame for that to happen.”
She seemed to hesitate, and then turned, looking directly up into his face, as if searching for something within his features to grasp hold of. He gave her a forced smile, and slowly the sides of her puffed lips twitched, her eyes shadowing in relief.
He reached out, taking up her hands, aiding her in standing. She staggered in pain.
“Your feet…” Zinkx glanced down in concern. He should have realized that the soles had been worn raw from torture.
The Kelib woman’s chin lifted in a defiant gesture. “They are fine.”
With one arm enfolding her sturdy waist, Zinkx led her to the iron door and rested her against the wall beside it.
“Give me a few minutes,” he whispered, pulling out the stick device and igniting it. It flared, becoming brighter as he held it to the steel of the door, pointing it to the hinge on the other side. It broke through the metal with a snap. He kneeled and applied it to the last hinge through the gap, cursing when it died away with a little whine only half way through. He opened the tiny box where it had been kept and cussed.
“That was my last one.” He searched for a new tool and pulled out a thin tube of faintly glowing liquid. He carefully tugged off the cap, and the air of the cell began to fill with a fetid stench. With a thin piece of wood he began to apply the liquid to the door. As the two came in contact, the corroding metal began to dissolve, hissing softly. The intense smell increased, until it ate at the tender flesh of his nose.
“Tell me if you see someone coming,” he muttered.
The Kelib woman nodded. She stood on her toes and peered out through the five small bars of the iron door.
“Who are you?” Her voice sounded raw and Zinkx glanced up at her.
She was rubbing at her throat. “Zinkx Maz.”
“No, I mean, who are you to have such knowledge and such tools? Why did they not take them from you?”
Zinkx paused, sitting back on his heels. “The guards took my hip-bags and my swords, but they did not strip me naked. You should always strip your prisoner. Not that it would have been a particularly pretty sight for you if they had.” The note of humor was small in his dark tone as he tried to ease the tension.
The woman seemed not to notice. “Tell me who you are.”
“Would you believe me if I did?”
“I am a Kelib woman; we are not stupid, despite what is said.”
“I wasn’t implying that you were.” Zinkx peered at her again. “I’m a Messenger.”
Her mouth opened but no words formed. Zinkx shrugged, looking back at the dissolving metal he was finally managing to penetrate.
He could feel her staring at him. He had heard some of the tales the travelling bards told of Messengers; fabricated ballads about murderous warriors, merciless and bloodthirsty in battle. Children would be scared to bed with such silly stories. For generations they had been considered myths and nothing more. Did she think him a cruel fiend from a story heard in her childhood?
“I don’t believe you.”
“Told you so.” He clicked his tongue as the metal hole he worked on gave way, cracking the hinge on the other side of the door with a soft snap. He stood with a slight groan of discomfort and returned the small pouch to the pocket in the back of his pants.
Then he leaned on the door and gave a heave, grunting as his boots skidded on the slimy floor. Slowly the door shifted, sliding gradually open. Light streamed into the dark cell.
“Think you can get through that?” He motioned at the small gap.
Shanty nodded. Zinkx slid his way through the opening and took her hand to help her through. Finally, in the full light of the tree-tar lanterns, he was given a clearer view of her, and she too turned toward him curiously. For a moment, they both stood in the corridor, staring at each other in slight astonishment.
Like all Kelibs, she barely reached his shoulders. She was forced to look up to his face and, from her gaze, she was obviously fascinated by his pale blue eyes. Despite her small stature, she managed to appear tall and aloof with her fierce, wild glare. The length of her inky hair trailed down her back and tumbled on the ground. He had to hitch his breath to keep his dismay from showing at the devastation done to her stocky limbs. Blood had caked itself over her skin, gluing together older wounds that were beginning to heal skewed. She barely seemed to notice the pin-lizards still pecking at the blood.
Her brow furrowed.
“You…you paint yourself green?” She whispered in awe and Zinkx touched his cheeks, feeling the war paint he had forgotten about. It was little wonder that she was staring. His wild, knotted, ebony hair and unshaven face painted to camouflage himself must have appeared rather beastly to her.
He shrugged. “It’s easier to hunt in the forests if you don’t stand out.”
“What color are you really?” A hint of interest was evident in her tone.
She stepped forward, wincing, as if trying to bridge the gap to touch his strange alien skin.
“Kind of brownish…like my…breed…ah…please tell me you’ve seen a Human before, right?”
Her stare was unnerving; she seemed to be studying every inch of him. “You do not look like the Humans I have seen. Your nose is wrong and your color is too light.”
Zinkx frowned, touching his nose self-consciously. “I am of the colored northern breed, a Wynnila. You would know the Soatrins; they live in the forests…”
“There are other kinds of Humans? How is that possible?”
Zinkx sighed heavily, his breath puffing back his bangs. “Okay…well, maybe we could have this…conversation later…at a more…appropriate time.”
“But you must see now what I am. You still wish to aid me?” Her hands gestured at her near naked form under the bloodied rags she wore. For a moment he made a movement to respond, then stopped midway and shook his head. He turned his gaze away from the woman bathed in lantern-light that revealed how every curve of her stout frame had been broken and beaten into false submission.
“Come on,” he finally tugged her hand, ignoring her question. “Let’s go. Stay close to me. If I tell you to drop, drop on the spot.”
He rushed her through the corridors, pausing when they reached a stairway leading from the dungeons into the castle’s upper wards. He breathed deeply as he listened.
“Two guards,” he hissed softly into Shanty’s ear, “Human, armored in…leather, not chain-mail…that’s interesting, must not be getting the funds for a blacksmith.”
“How do you know that?”
“Leather makes an odd sound when you move.” He crept back a few paces. “I need my swords. I won’t be able to deal with them with you in tow. One could grab you…ah, this way.” He turned, pulling her down another passageway. A door stood ajar between twisted roots. From within he could hear the sound of shuffling. He paused in the dim light and peered into the room, taking note of the weapons hanging on the walls and lining the tables. A Human man was polishing spear heads and smoking a stick wedged between his lips.
“Stay here,” Zinkx whispered.
He burst through the door and manipulated the gravity surrounding him with a mental command, using the momentum to sweep himself inwards, running swiftly up the wall with astounding speed. The guard’s mouth opened to call out and Zinkx lunged, smashing down upon him. With a twist he cracked the man’s neck and dropped his body onto the floor. He spun through the room and grabbed his hip-bags, reattaching the belts strapping his twin blades across his shoulders. Shanty stood at the threshold, eyes upon the slain guard. Zinkx grasped her hand and dragged her back to the winding staircase leading out of the sunken dungeons.
The walls morphed from slugged mud to solid limestone as they climbed, set together with nothing by the physical weight of the perfectly aligned bricks. Zinkx pressed Shanty against the smooth wall, one finger against his lips.
Cautiously, he released one of his thin blades, marking the passing of the soldiers he had heard. He could feel Shanty’s eyes on the weapon. He doubted she had ever seen such an elegantly crafted sword, for the smithing of birth elemental weaponry had been outlawed in Pennadot centuries ago. He was sure that, to her, the slender blade would have seemed something out of a myth.
He sent a spark of lightning gliding down the sword to puff at the tip as it met air.
“How do you expect us to escape?” Shanty whispered. “You can’t kill everyone. You are but one man.”
“Slaughter is not my approach here.”
“Then how do we escape, Human?”
Zinkx ignored her jibing. “Just stay close to me.” He twirled his blade expertly as he ran free of the stairwell, taking care to slow his pace enough to allow the injured Shanty to keep up with him. They burst into a hall that gleamed in the sunlight filtering in through long windows.
The two Human soldiers standing alert at either side of the doorway gave startled shouts at their sudden appearance, and grabbed for swords at their hips. Zinkx spun on his heel, pushing Shanty behind him as he curled his blade in a loop and thrust it into the marble flooring as though it was nothing more than clay. The leverage hoisted him into the air and he swung both legs upward and into a split, spinning in mid-flight. The iron soles of his boots shattered the skulls of the soldiers.
They collapsed into unconscious piles of arms and legs. Zinkx somersaulted, landed upright, and snatched his sword from the floor, the metal twanging. He grabbed Shanty’s hand and pulled her onward, winding his way around alabaster pillars holding up high ceilings.
“Move, come on!”
The sound of pursuit echoed through the castle’s halls. Zinkx threw aside anything in their path to block their pursuers. He navigated up a flight of stairs, his hand strengthening around hers in reassurance as she lagged.
“Just a bit further,” he added breathlessly. His feet, though booted with heavy iron on their soles, barely touched the surface of the cool marble. Shanty was slowing him, her weight keeping him grounded, and he could only imagine what she thought of their current pace. He doubted she realized that he was controlling her gravity as well as his own to speed their escape.
They turned a corner and Zinkx jolted to a sudden stop. Shanty thudded into his back, sending his far lighter body stumbling forward.
He missed the sweep of a guard’s sword by a hair’s breadth. Shanty’s lips spread into a cry as she was snagged by her hair. The guard sneered as his blade came down again in a heavy swing.
“Ca vanka,” Zinkx shouted the curse.
Swiftly he dashed before the blow of the sword. His twin blades collided with the broader weapon with a shattering resonance. Zinkx twisted his full body. His twin blades slid up the enemy’s sword as he lashed out with a foot. The momentum of the thrust landed squarely in the heavily-armored man’s stomach and he tumbled down. His sword remained upright; its tip sliced across Zinkx’s unprotected back.
Shanty cowered as Zinkx’s face contorted in pain. A pulse rippled through him, like a sudden boiling of his blood, and his movements were no longer his own. He turned to the fallen man and dealt a blow through his plated leather armor. He slid the limp body off his blades, kicked the man to one side, and heaved open the doors to the hall beyond.
“Get in, now!” he barked.
Shanty obeyed. He slammed the bars down on the doors and shoved a desk in front of it. He paused, panting, feeling blood trickle down his back. He could see the red trail he was leaving on the luscious woolen rug as he moved around the ornate room.
“Human…” Shanty clutched her hands together as Zinkx returned to the desk and flicked through the files he found there. “You just saved my life.”
He glanced up.
She was looking directly at his eyes, as though seeing someone new in them. Quickly he scrubbed his thumbs into the sockets, trying to wipe whatever she saw away. He forced a reassuring smile.
“I took a life in return for yours.” He gathered a stack of papers, stuffing them into his hip-bags.
“What are you doing?” Shanty winced as a loud crash sounded against the door, followed by angry voices, the province soldiers finally alerted to their escape.
“These are files on refugees. I’m taking information that could be useful in my search.” Zinkx scanned the room and grabbed a robe hanging on a wall rack. He threw it to Shanty.
“Put it on. Can’t have you running around near bare. If we get back to camp, I’m sure my Khwaja can dream you up more clothing.”
“What is a Khwaja?” She slipped into the garment, watching Zinkx stalk the room.
“Khwaja.” He clicked his tongue, searching for the Kelib equivalent. “Means teacher, or lord.” He waved a hand in frustration. “Or father? I don’t know the Kelib equivalent. He is my master.”
A thundering crack echoed in the hall as the wood of the door shattered under the force of something hammering against it. Zinkx picked up a paper weight and threw it at the hall’s massive window. Glass rained around him, and for a moment the illusion that his skin shone like molten gold reflected within the sparkling shards.
He turned and held out a hand to Shanty. “Do you trust me?”
“Well, I suppose that doesn’t matter. I don’t trust me either.” He gave a wiry grin as he hooked an arm around her waist. He lifted her heavier form with ease and bounded onto the ledge of the window. Shanty gasped as he bent and leapt.
No scream escaped the Kelib woman’s mouth as they sailed downward toward a tiled roof. Zinkx’s legs struck it first and he twisted, catching her weight with his own as the surface cracked. Shanty clutched at him as he ran up the tiles. He felt her bury her face into the curve of his neck and he tightened his grip on her.
A soft grunt escaped his lips as they landed, awkwardly, within the outer ward of the castle. Like walls the colossal roots of the evergreens surrounded them.
Shanty slid from his arms, pointing toward a pile of hay. “We need to reach the stables. The soldiers will find us.”
“Good point.” He seized her hand and pulled her across the courtyard. Shouts echoed from above. Zinkx glanced up at the windows of the castle; he gave Shanty a heavy shove into the stables as a multitude of arrows rained down. Horses reared high in their stalls in sudden fright at the battering of noise and their abrupt appearance. Zinkx pushed open the separate stalls, shouting at the horses and stirring them into a frenzy as they rushed from their shelter. Shanty cowered against a wall as the steeds cantered into the outer ward, the commotion that was already afire outside amplified as voices and the sound of stampeding hooves echoed off the stone compound.
The scattering of arrows stopped. The guards could not fire on their own animals; horses were far more valuable than escapees.
“Wait!” she cried as the last horse made for the stable door. “Take that horse!”
Zinkx bellowed back to her, “No, a horse would get tangled in the forest. We need a diabond!” He rushed down the corridor of the stable.
He shoved open the door to the last stall, revealing a caged booth, the beast within asleep on a mat of hay. Its silky coat of melded gray and white gleamed with the motion of its deep breathing.
Fingers to his lips, Zinkx whistled loudly. The creature jerked awake, snarling aggressively. It leapt up, wolf-like in its elegance, a shimmer of flames glistening down its mane.
Zinkx stared into its keen red eyes; they studied his every movement, alive with intelligence. The language of animals was not something he had studied religiously, but what little he knew would hopefully gain him the trust of the magnificent creature. Lowering his tone Zinkx began to growl from the depths of his throat until the large hound whimpered and backed up.
“Let us ride you.” He held out a hand. “Let me set you free.”
It crouched against the hay, lowering itself in permission. Zinkx stepped forward and hoisted himself onto the curve of its back. He felt its muscles loosen as it rose and bounded out of the stall. Shanty gave a cry at the sudden emergence of the beast.
Zinkx grabbed her hand, pulling her before him onto the creatures back. He wrapped one arm firmly around her, gripping the mane of the diabond with his other hand. He felt the creature’s adrenalin as it leapt out of the stables into the outer ward of the castle grounds.
“We’re going bare back?” Shanty wailed.
All around them shouts of astonishment reverberated. The clanging of swords and shields resonated from all sides. The chaos swelled like a symphony and Zinkx could not help but let out a facetious laugh. Shanty twisted to look up into his face. He barely registered the terror of realization in her features as the familiar thrill of combat engulfed him. All the evidence she needed to see that he had spoken the truth reflected in his eyes.
He was a Messenger. He was real.
 Pve’pt [pahy–pit]: Pennadotian animal, killed for its meat, pelt, and stone-like bones.
 A desert dwelling race that live over the northern border of Pennadot in the land of Utillia. Very little is known of their nomadic kind, but they are said to be both man and beast, pertaining to their ability to both be bipedal and quadruped.
 An affectionate word used for a Human by any other race, a translation of it in Basic is ‘alien one’.
 Often referred to as the ‘Trenches’ or ‘Trenches of War’ – used to describe the battlegrounds between the Messengers’ and the Dragon’s armies.
 A direct translation of Zinkx’s name in Kelib tongue is Zuksk, meaning ‘boy-clad-in-iron’. In Human tongue Zinkx means ‘ironclad son’.
 Name meaning ‘Sun-through-trees’ in Kelib.
 Also referred to as ‘Clan House’ or ‘Family Hall’. The place where female Kelibs raise the young in mass numbers, separating males from females.
 A hound used instead of a horse by many of the higher class due to their elemental shifting and ability to move though the dense forest regions of Pennadot. Acutely intelligent, a diabond will form an attachment to its master if treated well, and will protect whom its master wishes upon command.