Collin Hop

Lanky Genius | Large dreams, wings clipped | Fashion Disaster | Kind | Scared | Too many crushes to count

Collin is half Aestling, half Earther-Asien and he’s never figured out where he belongs.

He’s fallen a long way from neuroscience studies to running a NetSage clinic at the back of a bar run by his uncle. There, he gets high, dreams of all the crushes in his life, and tries hard not to think about how he is just one dose of Shimmer away from being kicked out of the Castle and left to turn into a soulless monster.

He’s terrified 99% of the time, and yet he smiles through most of it, and he’ll always let you have the last drag. But if you ask him to step foot out of the Castle, ever, he will put salt into your coffee and hide all your socks (and run crying to Varrett, who’ll probably punch you in the face for making Collin cry).

You can meet him in Aphelion, my Cyberpunk-lite, soul magic, and zombie apocalypse web serial.

Collin Hop
Character Sheet by Nikos
Read Aphelion on Ao3
Explore Aphelion on Campfire

Sophya Soulwright

Imagination | Anxiety | Don’t see me | SIN | Secrets and Lies | Sarcastic Bean | Odd | Isolation | Avoidant Attachment | Shy | I’m trying, I swear

Sophya is a Cad’his; a soultrickster. Technology whispers to her. Souls call for her. Surprising absolutely no one, she wants nothing to do with any of it. 

I’m delighted to figure out what she finds in Horizon’s Crown and if she’ll come to terms with what (and who) she is. And if you’re curious, then you can read about her journey in Aphelion, a slowly unfolding cyberpunk-lite zombie apocalypse novel with a heavy helping of romance and a dash of sassy soul cat.

Worldbuilding: Reapers, Part 1


Or, as the common folk call them, dragons. The original namesake of what’s nowadays simple referred to as Reapers and oftentimes whispered of as Guardians, though no one knows any more what they are meant to be guardians of. 

Apex is a name they’ve earned from how all other Reapers— gentle tillers to any of the rowdy Devils —submit to them. Well, almost all of them. Old tales whisper about the Grim, a type of Reaper that came and went during the Glitch, who don’t answer to anyone. Not even an Apex.

Status and Religion

Dragons are, generally, revered. For one, they are the ones who come collect the dead (man or Reaper alike) and carry them to walk the Trails forevermore — or cast those unworthy onto Hell. What constitutes unworthy is up to debate.

But they don’t only take. They also bring Reapers down, plucking them from the Trails or from Hell (if they’re Devils – seeing a pattern yet?). 

Hard to not revere something that crosses the threshold between life and death with nothing but a few wingbeats. 


Lady Death’s Servants

When Elaya courted Lady Death, her gift to her were stars she’d plucked from the skies. Not just any stars. She’d blessed them with life, and after a short while, the stars hatched the first flock of dragons, made to serve Lady Death forevermore. 


Others say that dragons were the creatures that slept at Elaya’s feet as she wove life from her dress and have since then watched over all she’s touched. And when the Rain of Fire comes, man will be judged by how they’ve treated them. Treat them wrongly and they’ll leave mankind to burn. Treat them right, and they’ll whisk everyone away in time. I’m currently taking suggestions on what the religion that spawned from this belief is called 😀


Dragons also stand out from other Reapers by not one being quite like the other. The exception being Einlings, who are even more aggressively unique, but more on those another time. Dragons vary in sizes, some just about the height of a draft horse, while others stand as tall as a two story building. 

Their skin colours range from pale grey to blood red and the wildest of pink. And their feathers can come in any colour imaginable. Sometimes all at once, because if you’re a dragon you don’t need to choose. 

Where some have horns, others don’t. Those that do may have no more than a few blunt knobs on their skulls — or sport long, intricately twisted antlers. It can go either way or anywhere between.

But there are a few things all of them have in common: Sharp teeth and sharp claws. 

Personality / Aggression 

There aren’t a lot of people out there crazy enough to seek out a dragon to pick a fight with it, or to stand in its way with harmful intent. Unless they’re waiting to die. 

Because dragons are ferocious when challenged. Territorial. And they hold a grudge. While dragon hunting is outright banned by the Ward, there are hunters who make it their life’s goal to take one down, whether its for glory alone or some promise of unimaginable wealth. Wealth that they won’t ever be able to spend, as even if they succeed in killing one, their fates are sealed. There isn’t a corner on the map they can hide in where another dragon won’t find them and pay them back in turn. 

And after that they are left to rot where they died, as the only bodies dragons won’t carry to the skies are those of the people who’ve wronged them. 

Ferocious or not though, dragons are also cited to be fair. Depending on who you ask, many will tell you that a dragon knows right from wrong. That they’re merciful. That they’ll go out of their way to answer a call for help from a child in danger and that they’ve traded old lives for youth during a Reaping. 


Dragons and marks inspired by them often represent strength and honour. Although for the most part? They are heralds of death and judgement, servants to Lady Death. 

Arrowbait – Not Enough

Chapter 4

For the rest of the night that hadn’t gone just as planned, and the day that followed, Sadja seethed. She was a bundle of nerves pulled so tight they ached, with jitters running through her that made her want to bounce off the walls of her small room on the second floor of the inn with its golden pick axe. It didn’t help that she’d cooped herself up, the only whiff of freedom the window looking out over stinking alley. So it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that there wasn’t a single piece of furniture in here that she hadn’t kicked yet at least once.

Worm diligently chattered at her every time she lashed out at an inanimate piece of wood, his little kestrel head tilted far as it would. Though sometimes he took off, since, unlike her, he could come and go as he pleased, zipping out the window to go terrorise the local tit population.

Sadja groaned and flopped down on the bed, arms splayed out wide.

Oh what she’d give to be pestering some tits of her own. But no. No, she had to confine herself up here, what with Eloh suddenly having grown teeth and fangs much unlike what she’d grown used to of the sleepy town. Everyone was talking about the break-in and the murder and the theft of Eloh’s, to quote, Greatest Treasure.


Sadja pulled the treasure from her pocket, a finger gliding over the dull edge of the wooden arrowhead as she held it up over her nose. Everything was the Greatest Treasure if it got nicked, she figured. Including useless old wood. Otherwise, there wasn’t a good enough reason to get so horribly upset about it and forget all about the shinies that had vanished alongside it.

This whole thing was a sticky, unwieldy mess.

At one point, when she had got peckish enough to bother slinking downstairs and buy a bowl of stew, a bunch of patrons had been loudly voicing their opinions about how Marks ought to send the guard and his knights out to burn down the nearest village of those, and she got back to quoting, vile and savage beastfolk. Had to teach them a lesson, they had said. For— well—

Sadja bristled. Her knees came up and her feet kicked at air.

Turned out no one really knew what they wanted vengeance for. That arrowhead was gone, yeah. Real important history gone, bla bla, but then came the bits that ticked her off the most. Supposedly, someone’d sacrificed a guard over their shinies. Violated the whole vault. Not to forget, a virgin had been strung up somewhere, didn’t you hear?

It was all a bunch of shite from the mouth of badly lying men wanting the next drink for free, and the tales only got wilder as the day continued.

Dusk came, and with it the rain. It pelted the walls, hard and relentless, and carried a chill through the window that did little to douse the fire burning in her gut. A fire that she’d cultivated over the hours, stoking it until she’d thought she’d burn up from the inside, leaving nothing but ash on the worn, dirty carpets of the room.

Unchecked, it’d keep burning, so Sadja decided to do something about it.

The rain, a tempest swelling by the minute, draped Eloh in a thick shroud of darkness— and chased even the most diligent of watchman into their alcoves, lest their torches drowned or they drowned in their own boots.

The downside to it?

Elves got wet too.

By the time she’d made it back up the sloping side of Eloh and into the narrow, fancy alleys to stand under a particular Imperial’s window, Sadja’s oilskin cloak had done all it could, but she was still drenched from the tips of her ears to the soles of her boots.

Craning her neck up, eyes blinking against the rain, she stared at the light blossoming behind the window pane of Lucilia’s bedroom. Lucilia, because squirrels, while cheeky, weren’t cunts.

She puffed air from her nose and started climbing. This was a lot less fun than the tower.

Getting the window open was easy enough. Didn’t have a lock and she had a knife, which slid in real neat. After some wiggling— and her arms straining as she hung awkwardly to the side of it —it popped open, and she slid inside, carrying a whole lake with her that pooled by her feet. That’d ruin the carpet, she thought and felt just a little smug.

Not enough to quench the burning want to jab the arrow she was carrying around into Lucilia’s throat. That burnt her up bad enough she was surprised she wasn’t boiling the water off her clothes in a cloud of thick steam.

She scanned the room with a quick sweep of her eyes. Lucilia had shinies everywhere. Rings and necklaces and earrings that winked at her from their tiny, fancy chests, the lids popped off because she didn’t need to bother hiding anything in her up-the-hill home.

But Sadja wasn’t here to lift gold and jewels. She came carrying the lot she’d stolen from the Keep the night prior, the gems sinking deep into her pockets with a weight that didn’t quite befit their size. If given the chance, she’d shove them down Lucilia’s gob one by one.

Speaking of.

“Stop fretting,” she heard Lucilia say after she’d padded halfway through the room.

Sadja tilted her head. Listened.

“She’s probably long gone.”

Her voice carried through the cracked open door, and Sadja slunk up to it, nudging it open a little further to peer out the hallway. A short set of stairs led down into what Imperials called a sitting room, even if you could really sit any bloody where, so why’d they need a special room for that?

“Gone with a key,” said a second voice. A man. A grouchy man, too. “What were you thinking hiring an elf?”

Hire. If Sadja’d had hackles, they’d have raised sky high. Odin would about as likely cut off his fluffy beard, as she would carry out someone else’s whim. She had plenty of those herself.

“I was thinking that you wanted me to get you an excuse to convince Marks to clear out some land for you, and that is what I did. Now get out of my house. It’s been a long day, you won’t believe the mess we’ve had to clean up.”

“If this comes back to—“

“It won’t.”

Whatever else the grouchy man had to say after that carried up as little more than a few annoyed noises, followed by a door slamming. Which meant it was her turn.

Sadja ducked back into the bedroom and right behind a divider. Least that was what Lucilia had called it. Those were things put into rooms so proper ladies could get into their dresses and out of them, a detail Lucilia had told her all about. Told, not shown, since mostly her dress had ended up on the floor the last few nights Sadja had been here.

No one was going to get undressed behind it tonight, either.

With her dagger out, and her shoulders pinching from all the frustration that’d been gathering in them, Sadja exercised her patience.

Didn’t take a lot of waiting until Lucilia swept into the room, bringing the thick, sweet scent of vanilla with her. The smell kicked at Sadja’s belly. Got it all confused by how the pleasant memories it ought to associate with it were replaced by dry twigs added to a fire burning out of control.

When the footsteps stopped, and Lucilia held her breath briefly, Sadja knew she’d spotted the wet footprints on the carpet, so she slipped out from behind the divider and put herself in front of the door.

“That wasn’t very clever,” Sadja said, fingers pumping around the dagger hilt and her wrist giving it a quick wiggle so the blade flicked up and down. “Gaming me like that. Underestimating me. Thinking I’d get stabbed for you. Don’t you know you shouldn’t upset my kin? We can be horribly vengeful.”

Lucilia turned to look at her, her brows pinched and lips pulled down. Gone was the clueless, innocent frown, replaced by something much more calculating as Sadja got sized up.

“As I recall, you didn’t seem to mind being wicked.” Lucilia’s eyes cut back up to meet hers after they’d got done studying her. “And you’re alive,” she added.

“I’m my wicked. Not anyone’s little attack dog or pawn to flick over on your fancy.”

Lucilia’s slender, well tended left brow slanted up and she folded her arms. “That’s why you came here? To lecture me about how I gave you exactly what you came looking for? Don’t insult me, I know you were after the key, you eager little minx.”

Sadja’s teeth clicked together. She bristled.

“Oh, come on now.” Lucilia let her arms fall by her side in an open armed gesture. But Sadja saw how one of her hands twisted closer to her back, wrist bent ready to grab for something likely sharp. “Don’t be so sore about it. We both got what we wanted. Leave Eloh, fence the gems. Go look for trouble elsewhere and we both win.”

Sadja took a step forward, eyes narrowed. “I didn’t want a part in your fricking game.”

“Then you shouldn’t have played.”

“And I won’t do as you tell.”

Lucilia came at her. So bloody obviously, she reminded Sadja of a bright pink pig with how woefully she failed at being subtle about it. Pretending to be dumb and innocent she’d been real good at, but fighting?

Maybe by some Imperial set of rules, where you stabbed at each other in turn.

Sadja slipped to the side when Lucilia tried to slash at her, the blade she’d pulled from a fold on her dress thin and wickedly curved. Three more times she tried to catch her, the edge of the knife slicing only at air. Between each lunge and each step, Lucilia worked up a blush. Not the pretty pink from the past few nights, but an unflattering, angry red.

“Hold still!”, Lucilia barked, the frustrated flush on her face deepening.

Another stab, and Sadja danced up on the bed.

Yet another, and she’d grown bored.

She hopped off the bed, ducked under a wide, infuriated sweep of the blade, and dove for the carpet Lucilia was twisting around on good as aimlessly. Grabbing the sides of it, she yanked it aside with one hard heave.

Lucilia went down with a hard thump, frilly dress going everywhere. Thought she didn’t let go of the dagger, kept it clutched in her fist all the way until Sadja stepped on her wrist hard enough to make her yelp. With a flick of Sadja’s foot, the blade slid under the bed.

And then she sunk down, put her knee right on Lucilia’s wheezing throat, and pressed her dagger down, the tip set just below her last rib. One jab and it’d slide right in. Silk dresses, pretty as they might be, made for terrible armour.

“You’re horrible at this,” Sadja said. “Don’t they teach you Imperial womenfolk how to scuffle?”

Lucilia twisted under her, mouth opening lamely, but Sadja leaned into her knee some more, right as she pushed the dagger through the silk. Eyes wide, and skin now blotchy from exertion and how fear drained the colour from it at the same time, Lucilia grew still.

“No, don’t bother answering. Instead, have a think on what you might got that’ll convince me not to end you.”

First, it was “I— take anything—“, which Sadja promptly interrupted with the dagger drawing blood.

“I’m not taking your gold. I don’t want it. Think harder.”

“A writ,” she coughed up a bunch of heartbeats later. Probably a lot more on her end than Sadja’s. “I have papers, in my ledger. Signed by Duke Arminius. About the job.”

Sadja tilted her head. Worm, bless him, had really rubbed off on her lately.

“You wrote this down? Someone let you put that on paper and then they went and signed it? Fuck me sideways, you’re all a bunch of daft bell ends.”

To her credit, Lucilia clenched her jaw and looked offended. While also looking like she’d pissed herself. That was a feat.

“So they can’t cheat me,” Lucilia said, as if that’d explain a thing.

“Uh-huh. Where is it.”

“Right bedside table, top shelf.”

Sadja’s eyes flicked that way, then back to her.

“Under it,” Lucilia added, choking on the knee shoving down again. “Under the shelf. Take it. It’s enough to get us thrown into the dungeons, if that’s what you’re after.”

Sadja tilted her head the other way.

And, with a firm, even push, ran the dagger under Lucilia’s ribs.

“Not enough for me.”

The ledger was nothing more than a simple flap of grained leather holding together loose pages and a few rolled up papers with wax seals still on them. It was light. Smelled of dry leather and vanilla and one very badly gone wrong plan.

Sadja bunched it up and shoved it into her coat, right where the gems had weighed her down before.

The same gems which now lay carelessly thrown against Lucilia’s corpse. Most of their shine had faded, smudged by the blood they’d rolled into.

Grasped in a fist held together by a gaudy necklace, because she wouldn’t keep her fingers closed otherwise, Lucilia held the wooden arrow. The shaft with its intricate carvings, anyway. A piece of wood that, history edged into it or not, ultimately didn’t have a lick more worth than any other dead piece of tree.

Except to Lucilia. Her, it’d cost quite a bit. Everything, really.

Sadja palmed the arrowhead in her pocket, her other hand grasping on the open window frame. Rain washed against her side, and, finally, the fire in her gut faded to nothing more than an irritating lump of heat.

That too would pass.


It always did.

Until then, she’d keep busy. There was one more thing left to do.

Lucilia, back when she’d still been alive and all that, had been right.

About how she’d never make it within eyesight of the castle before a guard would spot her, start ringing their little (but loud) bell, and chase her right off again.

Except tonight.

Tonight, the heavens themselves leaned down around Eloh in sheets of rain so thick, even Sadja more guessed than knew where was going. The torrents pouring from the skies concealed her scent and footsteps, made every guard hound unawares, their twitching noses and ears full of nothing but the rush of water. Which was good. Less so was how they tried washing her off the walls and the rocks. That was just plain rude, since if she’d fall, there’d be nothing left of her but a vaguely elf shaped splotch on the ground, that was how far up she was. Though lightning would have had to strike her before she’d let go, and so she climbed and she climbed and she climbed, up through the pitch black and to the blurry beads of light overhead.

Sadja had come to Eloh in search of a scratch to an itch.

Not for shinies. Not for blood. But for something that’d make her heart drum. Make her blood sing. And it’d been singing happily enough, between the Keep and the nights she’d spent getting played for a fool.

Kind of poetic of sorts how this had all started in a bedroom, and how it was about to end in one, no?

Not Lucilia’s, but in one far up the mountain, in the castle with its eyes set on Eloh day in and day out. In one considerably larger, fancier, and full of fish banners. There was more silk, too. More carpets (naturally), and also a bed so large, it’d make for a good raft to get a small army across a river.

In the bed slept two figures. One on the left somewhere, the other leagues away to the right. One was all quiet, the other sounded like someone was taking a saw to a dry tree, the loud snores halfway drowned out by how the rain relentlessly pelted the windows and the balcony door. Which was also a window. Which was, if you asked Sadja, odd. Doors were doors and windows were windows, why’d they have to put them together?

Nevermind that though and nevermind sleeping nobility, since what she’d come from lay at the side of the bed: a pair of sheepskin slippers.

No one talked about the scandalous slipper robbery. Days later, and Marks still hadn’t admitted that he’d had to walk his halls with one foot getting chilly on the stone floor.

They’d put more guards up by the castle, sure. More still than after the Keep had got itself violated by yours truly, who was convinced everyone was real upset about the loss of the slipper and just mourning it in private.

Oh, and they’d arrested a man, not to forget that. A man with a fancy title, who’d signed his name on a piece of paper because those were the rules. Paper that’d been in the ledger which’d got stuffed into Marks’ other slipper, along with the slip she’d found on the would be assassin.

Her lips pulled up at the memory of that and she wiggled her ass on the rickety high chair in front of the bar table, making the wood creak under her. All in all, she was pleased with how the stormy night had ended though. Could have gone considerably worse, yeah? Like she could have got caught. She could have fallen. She could have this and she could have that, but instead here she was, back in the inn with its golden pick axe out front.

Except now she was bored.

One hand twisting the tankard filled with stale mead, and the other palming the arrowhead right under her chin, she sat hunched over, the cowl thrown over her ears and shielding her from the noisy mess of the busy inn.

What then? What now?

Her eyes flicked to the arrowhead and the carvings she rubbed her thumb over. She’d filed off most of what’d been left of the shaft and fixed a leather string to the remaining stub. Turned out it made for a decent necklace.

Bringing Marks the ledger hadn’t made much of a difference.

Granted, a difference hadn’t been what Sadja had been looking to make. She didn’t much care if Eloh sent their guard into the valleys or the swamps over a lie, because there’d be another lie coming right after. Eloh didn’t much regret its history edged into the arrowhead, after all. Not as much as it liked repeating it.

What she’d cared for— why she’d scaled the castle and traded a slipper for the truth —had been not being a part of someone else’s game while they were having all the fun.

So, no. It’d made no difference. Everyone still hated the beastfolk. The beastfolk still hated them in return. Or the other way around, what with how Eloh’s skirts were currently on fire. That’s what the people gathering under the inn’s roof were saying anyway, while they were eating and drinking and not doing anything about the fire.

Imperials were an odd bunch.

Like that one that’d just washed up against the bar next to her. All dressed up for battle or some such thing. Not in leathers or in mail, but with metal encasing his torso, prettily made up with creatures made of gold flanking his chest. Dragons. Wings and claws and tail and all. Though dragon-boy had forgot to put sleeves on, which made him leaps and bounds more interesting than Eloh’s guards with all their heavy chain and jerkins.

Sadja slipped the arrowhead into her shirt, tucking it between her breasts, and eyed him as he stood with his back pressed to the bar top. His eyes were doing a lot of eyeing themselves, scanning the room for Freya knew what.

They were alert though, the eyes. Alert and peculiar.

Under his arm, he carried a helmet, none the like she’d ever seen. For one, there were even more dragons on it, and then there was the entire crest of long, spiky hair at the top. Horsehair, probably. Coarse and stiff.

Sadja tilted her head to the side, and, with curiously scratching at her like an eager dog digging at dirt, flicked her finger against the helmet.

Ding it went and he turned his eyes her way, fixing her in a stare of green and gold.

“You clean cobwebs off the ceiling with that thing?” she asked.

And just like that, unwittingly, she’d set herself on a path that’d take her further than slippers, further than ledgers, and further than pointless little lies.

– the end –

Thank you all for reading this.

If you want to know what happens next, then Mav will have to release her short story collection first. Then you’ll find out who the sleeveless man with all his dragons is.

Arrowbait – Switch

Chapter 3

She watched Marks Keep from her perch atop a tall building, her back pressed to a chimney and her legs stretched out. Evening gathered in slowly. Shadows stretched and reached, their dark fingers gripping at the day. Normal shadows though. Not the sort that ate the light and ate you, too.

“Almost time,” she said.


“You know, you can come with me. I can put you in a pocket. Gods know you’d fit.”

Worm hopped from her shoulder, spread his wings, and landed on her knee. She pulled it up, brought the kestrel up almost to her nose. “You would. Totally would.”

He ruffled his feathers.

Sadja shrugged, and while Worm stuck his head under a wing to nap, she pulled her pack closer to her and began rummaging around in it.

First, she dug a length of dark cloth from it, which she wrapped around her skull with a few practiced loops. Pulling it as taught as she could without making her ears ache as they got squished under it, she tied it all off with a knot, and stuffed the tail end of it into her shirt. Right alongside her long, thick braid.

Couldn’t let the hair get in the way. That’d be embarrassing, now wouldn’t it, having it caught in something and spoiling all the fun. Certainly couldn’t— or rather shouldn’t —let her ears peek out either.

Wasn’t like she had a bunch of other elves to shift the blame to.

Next came a chipped and worn tub of charcoal paint, eager fingers, and a lack of coordination and care.

When she was done, the elf was gone. What sat on the roof was a boy of ambiguous age, covered head to toe in a mix of dark leather and cloth, and his face smeared with erratic patterns of black paint.

Sadja didn’t bother with the streets at first. She kept to the roofs as far as they would carry her. The alleys below were tight. Narrow. It made it easy to dance from one to the other, sometimes climbing half a floor, sometimes landing lightly a little ways below.

It felt good. Felt right. Even if her calves often protested when she leapt and her elbows smarted when she misjudged the distance between one ledge and the other. Sometimes, it almost felt like she grew wings.

Finding her way was piss simple, too. Was hard to miss the keep, what with how it loomed up ahead like a bulky bear, squatting against a backdrop of stars and surrounded by the soft bloom of torches.

It was far from pretty, the keep. But it hadn’t been built for pretty. Once, the Marks had fended off man and beast alike from there. Now, they’d stuffed it with things to brag over. Which didn’t change at all how the whole thing had been built to make it difficult to get past it. Or into, for that matter.

Half the fun, really.

Her way in was at the back of the keep. The butt end of it, the one that faced the mountain, with two towers sticking out on each side. Like the bear’s ears poking at the night skies, and she’d be going up one of them.

She approached the one corner that sat tucked into darkness for the most part, with nothing but a bunch of shacks for company. Storage. Shitters. Those sorts of things. Things no one really gave a toss about, let alone bothered to keep lit. So what torches there were, were spaced out far and wide, their light not quite licking at the tower’s base.

She climbed it. Naturally. What else did you do with towers?

Her fingers quested for cracks and her toes wedged in wherever they’d fit, and soon enough the shacks below had shrunk considerably and all she had at her back was air.

She liked it. Loved it. Loved the subtle drag in the pit of her stomach as it told her she ought to not be up that high, especially with how the ground that’d wait at the end of that fall was tightly packed and hard.

By the time she’d reached the top, she wished the tower was taller, though her arms burnt something fierce and disagreed. She’d also only used no more than two of the metal spikes to step up a little higher.

Finally, she slipped over the tower’s toothy crest, quiet like a shadow dripping from the night sky, and hunkered low for a while to listen to the world softly creak and whisper all around.

Nothing much stirred past the light wind. There was an owl somewhere. Not too far off, and rather vocal about a thing or another, but no footsteps and no clink of swords in scabbards.

And there wasn’t much up here. Just a lot of dirt and moss and lichen and a single wooden trapdoor with metal hinges and a metal lock. She eyed it, and right away her stomach tickled with a funny sort of itch on the inside that very little could scratch.

But this’d do.

Grinning, Sadja went about tying the rope she’d packed to one of the teeth dotting the top of the tower, and then got to picking that lock.

. . .

Which really didn’t like picking.

By the time she heard it click open, she’d cursed up and down every toe on Freyja’s pretty feet a few times over. She also vowed never to tell Worm how it had given her so much trouble, and how she’d let out a small, frustrated growl, bared her teeth, and then gone and felt her patience snap. Right along with one of her picks.


Inside the tower, things were— dark and dusty, mostly. She had to rub her nose trying hard not to sneeze and crept carefully through the black, her soft soled boots finding their way down sturdy wooden steps. There was a sliver of light at the bottom. A beacon of sorts that she followed. Slowly, because tripping would be embarrassing even if no one was around to see.

She had three stories to descend— which felt like they stretched on forever —and then there was a gate. Sturdy, with thick bars too close together to slip through, and probably put in as an afterthought at some point, because while the archway was, well, arched, the gate itself was square, lodged in with a gap left at the top. It was the sort of gate no one really opened any more, because all that stood behind it was an empty tower filled with dust bunnies that’d been breeding like mad, and what self-respecting Imperial wanted to deal with that?

It was also the sort of gate that came conveniently unlocked since someone had turned the key for it before she’d gone home to sleep under her silky sheets. Mighty kind of her. Maybe Squirilla had earned herself another nut for that. For doing as she’d promised. Not an actual nut, of course.

Sadja slipped through, and immediately her feet found a carpet so soft, she stood there for a moment and stared. It was thick and red and stretched on through the entire hall laid out in front of her. There was another that went right.

Ahead, a man-shaped shadow loitered against the wall, cast by a flickering torch.

She hopped right, onto the carpet there, and followed it.

Quiet as a mouse, she scurried through the keep, following a crudely drawn map laid out in her head. Where she’d got that from? Her Imperial spy, her partner in wicked crime— even if she thought this was a dare and a laugh, bless her big nosed heart. She’d traced it on her pillow with a finger and Sadja had put it together in her head.

And it was perfectly accurate.

With a grin on her lips, Sadja approached the warmly glowing heart of the keep, locked behind yet another gate. This one was the sort of gate you couldn’t pick if you even wanted to, Squirrila had told her. That was what the key was for.

Behind it, lay a circular room, thickly covered in more soft carpets, and with banners of fishes hanging from the walls.

… why had they bothered building something made of stone, if then they’d decided Naw, this is too cold and too hard, let’s cover it in cloth.

She puffed an amused noise into the cloth over her mouth and approached the gate. Her hand set against one bar, slid down it, while her eyes scanned the inside some more. A single, large flame lit the room, trapped in a bowl that hung from the ceiling in the centre of it all. It cast lazily dancing shadows from the backs of chests and drawers and display cases set to store trinkets and riches.

But there was something else in there, too.


Sadja saw him crouched in one of those thick shadows behind a particularly fat case of sorts. Had her eyes been a little less wood elf and a little more plain old Imperial, she’d have missed him.

And if she’d been any more reasonable and a little less her, she’d have turned around.

Yeah, that was real likely, wasn’t it? That she’d listen to herself. To the obvious laid out right in front of her: This is a trap. She knew that, plain as day, the second she saw him. Men in dark clothes, tucked into shadows, didn’t spring up from the ground, after all. You had to put them there. On purpose.

She was that purpose.

It only took a bunch of chittery heartbeats, and Sadja had made up her mind on what she’d do. With defiant heat filling her chest, the swell of pressure making her think maybe it’d burst, she shoved in the key and turned it, fingers twitching all giddy like.

Applying more force than what was called for, she pushed the gate open, the hinges whining. It took a lot of effort to make that much noise too, to slap her feet down like she was some lumbering ox, and to strut up to a particular row of glass covered cabinets as if she’d come to buy carrots at the grocer’s, rather than pocket a bunch of shinies in a treasury.

All the while she felt the worn pommel of her dagger pressed into her palm.

Her would-be ambusher fell for it.

He lunged. Came right from the shadows with the glint of steel following him, and made to plunge it someplace unpleasant.

Sadja danced aside with the twist of her hip, his blade catching nought but air.

“Hi,” she said. Her arm came up soon as her foot touched down in its first step of that dance she’d been invited to, and her own blade bit into the man’s wrist.

He was taller than her. Of course he was. But she’d sliced deep enough for him to drop his blade, the metal thumping down on the soft carpet with a dull knock. She stepped in, slammed her heel down on his booted foot— leather, not steel, because he’d tried to be quiet — and snapped her elbow into his throat.

He wheezed and staggered and looked like a properly drunk jester— at least until he went for his blade on the floor to have another go at her. Sadja jumped onto his back even as he reached for it, one hand grasping thick black hair, the other driving the dagger into his neck.

He didn’t die quick and he didn’t die pretty. It took two more stabs before he stopped trying to buck her off, the air now thick with the sharp scent of coppery blood. When he finally collapsed, he did so with her still clinging to his back, and for a while, Sadja hunkered there, dragging in air.

Stabbing a man was hard work.

Messy work.

She ran the back of her hand over face. There were splatters of blood on the bridge of her nose and dappling her cheek like fat freckles, and when she was done wiping and wiping, it was probably all just a smeary mess of black dye and runny blood.

Oh well.

It’d wash off.

And then it was time for thinking.

A trap. He’d been waiting for her, had known she’d be here. Frowning, Sadja shifted around on the dead man’s back. Her fingers began frisking pockets, and that frown soon turned to a scowl. He had some paper with words on it, which did her no good, so she just pocketed it. But he also had some bibs and bobs on him, all stashed in a satchel. Those were a great deal more curious. A dagger, for one. Worn and old, the handle made of bone. It wasn’t an Imperial forged blade, but one forged by men of the north or carried by beastfolk and their allies.

There was also a necklace. A necklace that came together from— Sadja grimaced. Dried ears? Human ears, all round and soft and whatnot. Still. Her own smarted at the thought of getting touched funny, let alone cut off, and she leaned her head to the side, rubbing her shoulder against one.

The necklace also had small, hollowed out bones on it, the string running right through them, and for a second she was just horribly confused. Why-ever would an Imperial carry around… oh.

. . .

You skunk, she thought.

Squirilla had tried to trick her. Play her. Use her to frame a bunch of beastfolk, probably. Worse? It hadn’t even been a good game or a good trap, but half-arsed at best.

Scoffing, Sadja got to her feet. She kicked the corpse on the way, a burst of anger flaring in her gut.

Too bad for that Imperial cunt.

Sadja rather liked playing games and she rather liked winning. Liked to be a bigger cunt, truth be told, and so her eyes fixed on the display cases and the frown from before twitched up into a grin.

She smashed the glass with the pommel of her dagger and scooped up every single gem that’d fit into her pockets. The ones mounted to rings, the ones stuck to necklaces… the ones just prettily cut and laying there sad and alone. And then, she walked right over to the raised pedestal sort of thing that an arrow lay on.

A wooden arrow. The whole damn thing was wood. The head too, which made it really useless, come to think of it. Though it wasn’t meant to be useful, was just meant to look pretty and to tell a story, if the intricate carvings running up its shaft and along the flat arrowhead was anything to go by.

She leaned over it and squinted. The carvings must have taken quite a bit of effort, being so tiny. Especially since she could tell they were of men and beasts having a go at battling, with the men clearly winning as they drove the beasts to the back of the shaft, while they built cities on the arrowhead itself.

Sadja shrugged and snatched the whole thing up.

There was a guard in the hall this time. Standing right in front of the gate. The closed gate, naturally. Sadja sighed. Probably locked, too. She’d bet Worm’s tail feathers it was.

Huffing and squaring her shoulders, she padded over the soft carpets, not bothering to hide. The man immediately rounded to stare at her. Unlike the assassin, this one didn’t look like he was in the whole thing. He was just a plain old guard, with chain mail and leather and the Marks colours all over him.

Not shady and stuffed full of lies.

“Halt!” he shouted down the hall, sword drawn and boots thudding over the carpet into her direction.

“Excuse me wha’?” she shouted back, a hand cupped to her ear as if she was deaf, and picked up her pace a little, walking briskly.

“I said halt and drop your weapons—“

Sadja broke into a run. Right at him.

The guard stopped his advance, froze for a second, and she could see his eyes widening a little in disbelief. A disbelief that lasted just long enough, before he got ready to skewer her with his sword.

But they were all so slow. How did they ever get a thing done? She sprung to the right, one foot kicking her off the ground. The sword swung by her back. Her other foot found the wall on the right and pushed off of it hard, throwing herself back into the guard. She slammed into his side. Forceful enough to bruise her shoulder, yeah, but also with enough kick to send him crashing into the other wall.

Unlike her, he cracked his head against it. And, unlike her, he wasn’t back on his feet the next heartbeat and dashing for the gate.

Luckily for Worm, bless his pretty tail feathers, the gate was, indeed, locked.

Halt!” the guard tried again behind her, making her wonder if that sort of insistence ever worked. What was he thinking? That she’d stop? Throw her hands up? My bad, good sir, have at me.


Sadja scaled the bars. She reached the top long before he’d caught up, and squeezed through the gap at the top like a mouse might through the crack under a door.

When she landed on the other side, he was just getting started with bumbling around with a key chain. So she leaned as close as she dared, her nose almost touching the bars, and flashed him a wink.

Arrowbait – Hats and Feathers

Chapter 2

Eloh’s streets were wet from a shower that’d snuck in at the crack of dawn, now no more than a fine drizzle that wrapped the city in a cool, grey mist.
Drab mists. Drab and entirely too chilly, or so Sadja decided the moment she stepped out from Squirrila’s posh rooms, her boots snapping down on slippery cobblestone. Two steps and she threw her hood over her head, warding her cheeks from the drizzle, and her ears from the judging eyes of other early-risers.

Eloh had plenty of those. The early risers and the judgemental, superstitious alike. The sort that’d look at her funny and with an edge of fear, because they knew about as much about the vidralfar as she knew about the South.

Like… did it ever rain there? In the South? Ever? What about snow? Did it have snow? She hated snow. It was bright and it was cold and wet. And then there was more south past that south, past the Imperial Heartland and beyond. How did one wrap their elven head around that?

So she hid her ears for now, not wanting to draw attention this early, with the sun still lazily snuggled against the horizon somewhere, and mingled with the rest of the early birds.

Servants, mostly, of one sort or the other, their clothes simple and their purpose, too. Be out early. Get the washings done, draw water from the nearest well, or fill empty wicker baskets with whatever’d be for supper. So they were all headed into one direction: down Eloh’s gentle slope, away from the narrow alleys between thick stone walls, and down to where the buildings hunkered a little lower and markets opened with the rise of the day.

Did cities down South look like this, too? With keeps and castles and a temple to their oddly smooth god? She snorted. Their gods all came made from silky looking alabaster skin hewn out of pretty rock. And they had these tiny, tiny man-jewels.

Droll, those.

But their city, that wasn’t small, and Sadja wondered if the ones down South also got as big as Eloh. Maybe even bigger? Nah. Couldn’t be. What else could you possibly want to stick together? More keeps? More castles? Even more shops, like the ones she passed on the way?

Some of them had glass windows even, wide ones that threw her reflection back at her. Behind one she found thickly bound books, their pages bared as they rested on red velvet pedestals. Another had fat vials and corked bottles presented on clean, ordered shelves, and one further down, she spotted a bunch of ridiculous shawls and boots and hats.

Sadja stopped with a scuff of her soles over stone, folded her hands behind her back, and leaned forward to peer at one hat in particular. It had a brim so wide, she thought it’d make for a good roof. One big enough for a small family to huddle under, with a thick bushel of colourful feathers protruding from the back of it.

She thought it was the ugliest things she’d ever seen, and that she’d love it on her head, when something entirely else landed there. It was small and featherlight, but had claws so sharp they pierced through the thick fabric of her hood and pinched her scalp.


Sadja tilted her head. The motion got the small kestrel that’d perched on there to lean to the side, wings spread slightly. Fweep? he chirred, inquisitive, his head bobbing and chest feathers puffed. He didn’t give a lick about her right now, but only had eyes for that other bird atop the head of yet another her. Much like him, that other bird was made of a mottled mess of steel grey and light brown, with its chest a honey colour matching the reflection of Sadja’s eyes.

Naturally, Worm fell head over talon in love. Which was droll and all, but also real sad, so Sadja stood and offered him her wrist.

“You’re flirting with yourself, you daft chicken.”

Worm chirred, hopped onto her wrist, and let himself be offloaded on her shoulder. Though he kept bobbing, his tail going up and down and up and down, still hoping he’d found the love of his life and oh so ready to build a nest.

“I have us a job for tonight,” she told him and got to walking again. “And who knows. Maybe there’s a South waiting for us after that, Worm. Somewhere. A bit less of—“ Her hand came up, caught some water dripping from an awning. “—all that wet here.”

Fweep. Fwee-eep?

“Clearly it’d have beautiful lady kestrels.”


He puffed up. Feathers so thick, he’d grown to trice his size, and then got to grooming that ridiculously fluffed up chest on him.

The streets widened eventually. Made room enough for carriages, and Sadja had to step aside of one ratting by, the hollow clop of hooves on the cobblestones echoing loud and sharp probably all the way back up to where the fancy folks lived.

Noise did travel quite well between the stone buildings. Not like in the forests, where a bed of moss, fallen leaves and moist earth soaked up every step if you knew just how. Like Sadja. She knew how. Knew, too, how not to make a racket generally anywhere, thank you very much.


Tonight was going to be a bucket of fun and then some.

Sadja sidestepped a puddle, her arm swinging out to hold her balance. Then she danced around another and another. The evenly hewn cobblestones stopped being just as even. The stone walls got fewer, too. Soon it was all wood and earth and the smell of fresh bread, roasted meats, and the sharp edge of smoke and iron.

“She gave me a key,” she told Worm and fished for the thing in a pocket lining her coat. It was thick and square and looked a little odd, with carvings in it and way too many grooves. She held it up and squinted at it.

Fweep? The kestrel moved up her shoulder some, one claw snatching on the cowl, until he got just enough reach to click his beak against the key.

“It’s for a door meant to lead right into the treasury. Neat, mh? Squirrila said no one picks a proper Marks lock. That I shouldn’t even try.” She turned the key a little, studying the blocky teeth with a sideways glance. “Fair, I suppose.”

Worm clicked his beak and let out a row of chirrs that got her to roll her eyes.

“I can pick locks.”


“Some,” she added and stuffed the key back into its pocket. “Now shush before I pluck you. You’d be freezing your stubby naked chicken wings off real quick.”

The markets opened up in a wide square, its centrepiece a well. Stalls cropped up in a haphazardly pattern, like they tried to be in a neat line but failed on all accounts. Butchers, farmers, weavers. Herbalists. Clothiers. It was a buzz of colours and movement and scents all about as everyone crowded into the space best as they could. There were fat, smoked lamb legs hanging from hooks right next to brightly coloured linen, and pastries sitting side by side to fresh produce stacked in baskets.

Sadja’s stomach pinched at the smells and sights of it all. So she did some pinching of her own.

With a shrug of her shoulder and the click of her tongue, Worm took off. He was nimble and he was quick, a blur of brown feathers flitting straight up. Not like he had to hover there for long. A glance and a nod were all it took, and he darted out of the air again, straight into a burly butcher’s thick, curly hair.

“Hestia’s bleeding—” He swung at his own head. Missed Worm by a league, smacked himself right on the nose and reeled after the kestrel. “Get back here!”

Sadja snickered. Slunk forward to the edge of the stall. There was laughter. Lots of pointing, too, and Worm, his wings flapping about like he’d just came up from marinating in a wine barrel. He knocked over an entire stack of cheese, rolls of it bouncing off the ground, and got everyone to pay real good attention. By the time anyone’d got anywhere near catching him, Sadja had already vanished a few strips of meat under her coat, right along with a big, warm pie.

The square itself was surrounded by stubby, wooden two-story buildings, their dark roofs covered in lichen and moss. There was a tavern on the east side, with troughs out front and a lone horse hitched off to the side. A plaque with a golden pickaxe hung over its door, since everything— absolutely everything in Eloh had to go on about their dank, dark mines. It was probably named after them too, though not like Sadja would know. She read their language about as well as they read hers. Not at all.

Sadja sniffed, her eyes cutting right. Soap. There, under stilted awnings, stone basins attracted the local washerwomen, where they scrubbed and gossiped all day long. They were at it already, having picked Eloh’s favourite topic of the season: Beastfolk.

Beastfolk this. Beastfolk that. Did you hear about how they’ve got all cosy up in the— bla, bla, bla—

Dreadfully boring, so Sadja kept walking. Didn’t need clean clothes for tonight anyway. Needed iron spikes though. Maybe a hook. Some rope. Food in her belly.

First things first though. She stuck out her right elbow for Worm to land on, his talons pinpricks on her skin as he climbed up along her arm to perch on her shoulder again.

“You’re the best chicken ever. Anyone ever told you that?”

Fweep, he said, nipping at her cowl. Least until she offered him one of the strips of dried meat.

The pie was delicious. Messy, too. The moment she broke it open, hot meaty juices dripped over her fingers, and the first bite burnt her tongue. Was worth it though, and for a little while, Sadja stood in everyone’s way chewing through her breakfast.

“There’s a tower at the back of the keep,” she said in-between bites. “Has got no guards in it, Squirrila said, since the only way in is through the top. You can tell where this is headed, mh?”

Worm puffed up a muffled trill.

“Mh. Exactly.”

Her next stop for the day was the smithy and tool shop, and Sadja reached it with her finger still stuck in her mouth to the second knuckle. No need wasting all that gravy, no?

The place was really hard to miss, what with how it took up an entire corner and then some, and had smoke curling lazily into the overcast, damp skies. Plus, the constant clink of metal striking metal as it got hammered into some shape or the other. Sadja followed both through a door up front. Above it, a sword had been affixed to the wood. Right along with— you guessed right —a pickaxe.

She rolled her eyes.

More tools and blunted weapons lined chalk painted walls in the entrance hall, right before said hall opened up into a courtyard. The smith toiled at his forge by the back of it, while the rest of it was crowded by the organised chaos of shelves and racks holding finished and unfinished wares alike.

“Customer!” he called out while mid-swing, followed by a the CLINK of the hammer striking. It flushed a squat woman out of another doorway, plump and full from hip to chin. And the smile she wore was so damn big, Sadja feared she might get eaten by accident alone.

Sadja left the blacksmith’s uneaten, and with a linen sack weighed down by five iron spikes, a hook, and probably way more rope than she’d need.

For anchoring and building a tent, of course.