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Janice's Story
by Amanda Fletcher

          Vengeance had called Allisandra to his court. He’d taken to calling her Lady Allisandra as well as Ice Princess. She wasn’t entirely certain how she felt about the first name and she hated the second. Once she arrived at the doors, the guards showed her in and announced her. A mist rose off her body and her light blue skin was barely visible in the torchlight. She really hated being in San Antonio. It was hot, and unpleasant.
          The man in the obsidian throne beckoned to her. “Lady Allisandra, always a pleasure. You’ve grown so much in power since you came to my court. It pleases me to see you so, and your blue skin, with that soft mist rising off your body is so mesmerizing. Your white hair accents it all very nicely.”
          She sighed and pulled the hood of her cloak over her head, wondering why she hadn’t done that in the first place. Vengeance rarely wanted anything good from her. She’d established her boundaries. She wouldn’t kill anyone, except maybe Jana, and she would only accept reasonable tasks from him. “Spare me the pleasantries, Vengeance. You called me. What is it you want?”
          Vengeance leaned his head back onto his throne. This woman was always so difficult and so direct. Yet something about that made her tantalizing. Her alien appearance and something about the way she carried herself. But all sorceresses were attractive and could be smooth talkers when they wanted to be. At least the good ones. Allisandra was one of the best. Her powers were even beginning to rival those of Lady Kalisa. Though he knew full well the older sorceress’s experience far outstripped Allisandra’s. The pupil could rarely defeat the teacher.
          “You know, Lady Allisandra, if only you would share my bed, you could be a princess of this land.” Vengeance began.
          Allisandra was having none of this. “If that’s all you called me here for I’ll take my leave.” Sex with Vengeance, the thought alone sent shivers up her frozen spine.
          So feisty, it added to her beauty. “I hope to one day melt the Ice Princess’s heart, but that is not why I called you here. There is a civilization to the far north. It’s nice and cold up there, so you should enjoy it, and your power will be at its peak. I hear they have some amazing technology there. I would like you to take a look for me. I could of course send anyone, but I thought you might enjoy some time away from here.”
          With her increased powers Allisandra had learned to teleport. She actually preferred the frozen north, and tried to spend time there as often as she could get away from Vengeance. He had his concubines for toys. She turned away from Vengeance “I would gladly accept this mission.” She mouthed ‘especially since it gets me far, far away from you.’
          Vengeance had left out his own details. Certainly he wished to learn about the technology, especially a certain magical deflection shield he had heard rumors about. But he had also heard Jana was making her way there. Another wish stone bearer lived there, and if he were lucky, Allisandra would kill Jana. A blue oval portal opened and Allisandra stepped through. The woman may be feisty, but she would never betray him. She wanted this world as much as he did, even if she wouldn’t tell him her reasons.
          It hardly mattered. Their goals coincided which meant she made a powerful ally.
          Jana pulled the fur lined cloak she had purchased over her head as another wave of blistering wind pummeled her. It was much colder here than anywhere she had ever been. She had covered herself in layers of clothes and she was still freezing. A new application of her golden shields allowed her bike to ride over the snow, which she otherwise would have had to push it through. Assuming she could even walk through the deep white powder
          The storm from a few days ago had quieted down. The girl in her had wanted to dance around and play in the snow. Make snowmen and get into a snowball fight. She’d heard stories about how fun it was. She’d tried that. Once. After digging herself out of waist deep snow the half frozen girl had barely made it to a town through sheer willpower. She had collapsed covered with frost and with a high fever just at the edge of town. Her fur leggings were practically frozen and her legs were a nasty shade of blue. The villagers had taken her to the inn and seen to her care. They were kind people. She had gotten feverishly sick for a week and they had seen her through it. It was the last time she tried to play in the snow out here.
          She’d felt that biting cold once before. It was when Allisandra had turned her into a popsicle. Jana missed Allisandra a little. She had been kind to an undeserving poorly behaved little girl and this biting cold reminded her of the ice sorceress with the warm heart.
          The villagers had told Jana there was a strange encampment up north. Some sort of metal monsters ran around the place, and they were too afraid to go there. One of the monsters had come to their town once, and it hadn’t hurt them, but no one wanted to go near it to find out what it wanted, and it left on its own, clanking, hissing, and making the most horrendous racket.
          It didn’t take long to find the town. A pair of smokestacks spewed black smoke into the sky, and Jana could make out brassy looking things in the distance. It had to be the place. The town was called something funny she couldn’t pronounce. Ves-par-i-tus or something like that. She somehow didn’t think they’d finf motorcycle pulling up outside of town particularly strange so she rode straight on in.
          The town was filled with strange little men and women with bulbous noses. They all dressed like they’d escaped from the old west. Cars, well more of wagons, with wooden wheels and some sort of boiler in the back were driven around by the little men. One ran out to greet her.
          “Welcome to Vesperatron, little lady. We’ve not seen a gas powered engine in a while. Could I buy that from you so I can take it apart and study the engine? How do you even get it to work? Gas is scarce you know? I’m sorry I didn’t introduce myself. Henson is the name, I’m the sheriff here. What’s your name missy?” Without waiting for an answer he babbled on about how prosperous the town was and that they had made some sort of steam powered technology. It had even stopped exploding. Most of the time. But those incidents were quickly diminishing to once a week. At the most.
          “Umm.. Excuse me.” Jana finally butted in. The explosion part had made her feel very uneasy especially with the frequency of them. “My name is Jana, I had hoped to find lodging and no you can’t buy my bike. I sort of need it to get around.”
          The little man nodded “Of course, Missy, just follow me. You know those are some funny clothes you’re wearing. I bet if you went to the tailor he could make something your size. We don’t see many humans out here, so we don’t make human sized clothes” He kept going on incessantly and Jana eventually tuned him out.
          She looked around at how the women were dressed. They wore poofy dresses that looked tight, uncomfortable, and impossible to run in. It would be a cold day in umm… it was a cold day. Well she wasn’t going to wear one anyway. She thought she saw a glimpse of a familiar woman. A blue tunic, black leggings. Jana shook her head. She was just seeing things. Allisandra couldn’t be here, she was seeing shadows because she was thinking about the icy woman.
          Finally the sheriff showed her to an inn and a stable where she could part her bike. He promised no one would steal it. Folks in this town were honest and hard working. Then he rambled on about the town. Did this guy ever shut up? She thanked him for the information and quickly got away from him.
          The lady at the saloon, as the inn was called, was no better. In what seemed like a single breath, she had told Jana her name, asked the girl if she would like a spiced mead and some turnip stew, which was the specialty of the people around here, and if she would like a room, telling her that they were the finest rooms around, and available with all the modern comforts, like an auto-dresser, steam powered maid, automatic shower with tooth brusher and shaver. Jana wasn’t real sure what half of that was but if it exploded, she didn’t want it touching her. The innkeeper had assured her no one had died from an explosion in over a week. That did little to bolster Jana’s confidence.
          Jana asked if they had any meat stew, maybe some venison. The answer didn’t excite her either. Apparently deer was scarce in these parts. But they did have moose, wooly buffalo, and grizzly bear. The little woman assured her moose when cooked right and with the right spices tasted almost like venison. She tried to steer Jana away from the meat with promises the turnip stew was superb before rattling on about how the turnips were grown in a special greenhouse made just to grow turnips. Jana blanched. She wondered if turnips were anything like asparagus.
          Another thank you got Jana a room key, and an explanation about the auto locking doors. This place was really scary. The doors hadn’t blown off the hinges in two weeks, the lady promised, so it shouldn’t be a problem. Did everything explode in this town?
          Jana started to run up the stairs to her room when the stairs hissed and began moving. Jana noticed they were made of metal and kinda looked like one of those moving stair things in the mall. She’d loved those. She’d tried to run against the moving stairs until her mom and scolded her and made her use them correctly. This one didn’t seem like it would be nearly as much fun. When it didn’t collapse, or try to eat her or anything, Jana felt relieved.
          The room was something like out of her worst nightmares. The door hissed behind her and she heard the lock clunk into place. The bed had brassy mechanical arms at its side. She didn’t want to imagine what they would do to her while she slept. The nightstand was normal but a lamp lit itself with another of those hissing noises. Why did everything hiss on top of exploding in this town? Everyone talked a mile a minute, and the furniture was insane. She looked at this shower the innkeeper had sung the praises of. Pipes lead around the room to a boiler, and then into a shower head.
          Inside the shower stall a sharp gleaming razor attached to a brass arm looked as if it might cut her face off if she got anywhere near it. The towel was attached to more of these mechanical arms. The toothbrush was also made of metal, except the bristles. She tried not to imagine what it might do to her mouth. Jana was terrified of the shower.
          Seeing nowhere else to sit, Jana gingerly sat on the bed. It didn’t attack her. Yet. She pulled out Sylvia’s box and opened it. “Sylvia. You just have to see this for yourself.” She gave Sylvia the tour of her private nightmare room.
          Sylvia said nothing at first. Jana knew sometimes Sylvia had to be poked out of her shell so she pushed the conversation a little. “You know with all the hissing you’d think snakes would be under the bed.”
          “It’s… Interesting.” Was Sylvia’s only response.
          “I wouldn’t call it that. They kept assuring me it wouldn’t explode!” Jana cried. “This place is insane! What is it about you that makes you always take me to places that try to kill me?”
          “I don’t take you anywhere. You and your wish started this mess, I’m only showing you where you have to fix things. Do you think I…..” Her voice trailed. She didn’t need her own eyes to the pain in Jana’s.
          Sylvia was so tired, she wasn’t even thinking about what she was saying anymore. “I’m… I’m so sorry Jana. I really am. I’m just tired. I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this for a while now. I think it’s time.”
          “Time for what?” Jana was confused now. What was Sylvia talking about?
          “You and I, we’ve been together for how long now Jana? I lost track, but it’s not easy to keep track of time when you’re in a box. We’ve seen so many places, and shared so much. I’ve watched you grow and mature. From an angry little brat to the wonderful, strong, capable woman you are now.” Sylvia hated this. It was a talk no parent ever wanted to have with their child. It was time for Jana to leave the nest, spread her wings, and fly on her own. Sylvia wished she could live to see it.
          “You haven’t needed me these last few weeks. You got the last wish stone on your own. All I did was guide you to the place. I’ve taught you the locator spell, so you can continue on without me. You’ve made me so proud, Jana. You can’t begin to imagine how much I’ve enjoyed watching you grow. It was just like having my own daughter at my side.” If Sylvia had tear ducts, she would have been crying at this moment. If she had arms they would be wrapped so tightly around Jana as she held her little girl in a loving embrace one last time. Then again if she had those things, this time wouldn’t need to come. At least, not like this.
          Sylvia would have closed her eyes, if she had eyelids, or eyes. “I do enjoy being with you, Jana. But you knew this day was coming. I want to rest Jana. When you take my wish, I get the peace I have longed for.”
          Jana’s eyes misted over. A single tear hot tear rolled down her cheek and fell onto her lap. “But I can’t do that!!” Jana protested. “I need you! It’s so close to the end now, and if you could wait a little longer you could see me defeat Vengeance and…” She knew she was being selfish. She’d come such a long way in so short a time it seemed. But there was so much she didn’t know. So much more ahead, and she didn’t want to go it alone. She shook her head violently back and forth. “I’m not ready, Sylvia. I can’t imagine what it must be like for you. I know it’s mean and terrible of me to want to you stay in there so you can be with me, but…”
          “But what? You don’t need me anymore. I’m dead inside, Jana. A skull in a box. I don’t have a body, or a life anymore. You’ve grown up so much but part of growing up is knowing when to let go. There’s nothing left for me, I can’t sit here like this waiting for an end that may never come. I wanted to be with you when and if you ever found my daughter, but I realize, I don’t want her to see me like this.” Sylvia was stern. Sometimes she had to be.
          Jana closed her eyes. She didn’t want to hear this. “We don’t know what happens to people who die here. You might stay dead, Sylvia. If you just held out a little longer...” Jana argued but she knew it was futile and that Sylvia was right. It was all she could to not break down in tears.
          “Maybe we’ll see each other again when this is over. Maybe we won’t. If we do end up remembering our time here, I’ll give you the big hug I’ve wanted to give you for so long. But…” Jana needed to hear this. For her own good. It hurt yet it felt good to say all of this too her. To tell her how proud she was. It was one of the best feelings a parent could have. To be proud of their child. Even if Jana wasn’t Sylvia’s biological daughter, she may as well have been.
          Sylvia sighed. “You’re a big girl now. I’ve taught you everything I can. All I am now is a crutch. And as long as I’m here you’re going to depend on me, instead of yourself. You’re capable of so much more, there’s so much you can be.”
          “But… you can’t… I…” Deep down Jana knew she was right. It didn’t make it hurt any less.. She blinked away the tears. “I’m going to miss you.”
          There was a glowing from the box. An oval shaped faded jade stone rose up, and floated near the bed. It flashed again, a vision of her mentor’s long lost body appeared in her finest purple robes. Clear blue eyes that Jana had long forgotten Sylvia had, smiled at the barbarian girl from underneath her witch’s hat. “Tyrian purple, only the finest” Jana echoed the words from so long ago with a half hearted giggle. “Oh, I’m going to miss you.”
          The quiet voice and the image of her mentor faded slowly with the light. “I’ll miss you too, but know how proud I am of you. You did something no one else could have done. You made me feel like I had a daughter again. You couldn’t ask for a better wish than that.”
          The vision was almost completely faded now, as Sylvia uttered her final goodbyes. “Be well, Jana. Always remember me.” With that the stone fell, lifeless, back into the box and the image was gone.
          Jana looked into the open box one last time. The skull had become a dull grey and no longer resonated with the life of her friend and mentor. She reached into the box to pull out her mentor’s remains, hoping she could still feel something of all the time they had spent together from the remains of her friend. But as she touched the faded lifeless skull, it collapsed, crumbling and leaving only a handful of dust and the stone in the box. The tears came and there was nothing she could do to stop them. Nor did she want to.
          After a good cry, Jana took Sylvia out to the town’s graveyard. She told the tiny man there she wanted to bury her friend. The man explained how it was against normal policy to let just anyone dig a hole, and began to blather on before Jana got too frustrated with him and just walked off. She didn’t care if he was still talking. Instead, she walked out into the snow covered bridge just outside of town where a river flowed by lazily. She opened the box and let the dust fly into the wind. “Good-bye, Sylvia.”
          Jana reached into her pack, pulling out an old tattered purple witch’s hat. She placed it gently into the river, letting the current carry it away from her sight. “I’ll make you proud. I promise.”
          A familiar voice came from behind her. “You finally let her go did you? It’s for the best you know. She was miserable. I could hear it in her voice even back then. But as long as one is remembered, they are never truly dead. At least that’s what I believe.”
          Jana whirled around and reached for her dagger. She was greeted by the familiar but not so familiar face of Allisandra. The woman was blue and her hair had turned a snowy white. The dagger tattoo over her eye had turned white. But the clothes, the voice, everything else remained the same. In her own alien way, she was even more beautiful than before.
          “I gave you that, you know. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t try to stab me with it.” Allisandra grinned. She was half joking. Besides she knew how to counter the magic of the dagger. Her magic, her rules after all.
          Jana glared at the ice witch. “What do you know about her? You weren’t there when I met her. You weren’t there… you weren’t there for anything!” The words choked in her throat as she tried to express her anger at the audacity of that woman. Jana wiped at her eyes refusing to show any further weakness.
          Allisandra laughed, it was like icicles tinkling in the wind. The laugh was kind of eerie. “That’s the Jana I remember. Angry and feisty. Child, had you not been wrapped up in your world, you would have seen it too. Or perhaps it just takes someone who knows what it’s like to be trapped in a body they didn’t want to understand. Perhaps you even knew and just didn’t want to admit it. Still, if you’re here, I assume one of your stones must be as well. Don’t worry I’m not here to interfere. I was asked to come here. Besides, it’s nice and cold.”
          Jana nodded calming a little. She supposed if anyone, Allisandra did understand what Sylvia had been going through. However, Allisandra being here meant trouble. “We’re still holding to our promise aren’t we?”
          The sorceress looked offended “Jana, do you think so little of me that you think I would break my word?”
          “No, it’s not like that… I just wanted to, I mean… Damn it. I don’t know what I mean Allisandra. Sylvia just left me and everything here is trying to explode and the people are all crazy and…” Jana began to ramble.
          The woman laughed again. “And now you’re talking like them. If you’d like something that won’t explode and to avoid some of the more exotic foods, I do have a shelter outside of town. It’ll be there as long as I am here. You are welcome to use it. But it is a little chilly inside. You’ll probably want to use one of my blankets.”
          Allisandra was hospitable again. She was so kind that way. “Thank you. If you don’t mind, I’ll accept.”
          That took Allisandra off guard a moment. “So polite, you’ve turned into a marvelous young lady. I thought I’d never see the day.” She looked around conspiratorially. “But if you’re not too old for them, I do have some cartoons back at the shelter.”
          Jana had to laugh. Allisandra liked to remind her that there was still an 8 yr old inside her. One that liked cartoons. “Alright. You win. But I don’t understand, Allisandra, I thought we’d be enemies next time we met.”
          Allisandra raised her brow. “And that’s a reason not to be hospitable to a young girl in obvious need to not be attacked by her shower? I mean I can rescind my offer and watch and see if the bed decides to make itself up with you still in it. Or perhaps if that auto-dresser will try to stuff you into a gnome sized dress.”
          Jana put her hands up. “Ok, Ok, you win. I don’t want to sleep in that house of horrors, or eat turnip stew. And I believe you. Besides you’d probably turn me into a bowl of ice cream if I tried anything.”
          This provoked an amusing thought for Allisandra. “Barbarian flavored ice cream. Do you think it would sell?” She had a grin on her face.
          “I’d rather not find out…” Jana didn’t like the idea of being sold as an ice cream flavor. It left her with an uneasy stomach. Still, Allisandra was teasing, at least she hoped so. As always Allisandra was being unnecessarily kind. She wanted to know why. Good will only went so far especially to one’s enemies.
          The interior of Allisandra’s magic shelter was just as Jana remembered it from the first time she was here. Except more like being inside a refrigerator. “Does it have to be so cold?” Jana asked with chattering teeth.
          “Mmm. I suppose not. It’ll always be comfortable to me, but I do have a guest now.” Allisandra spoke a few words and a fireplace appeared with a warm fire. Jana huddled in front of it. It wasn’t exactly what she meant, but she didn’t want to push things.
          “Can I ask you something?” Jana asked once she was warmer.
          Allisandra had to tease. “I don’t know you seem pretty capable of asking questions to me.” She sat down at the table with a cup of hot tea. “There’s some hot chocolate mix in the cabinet, and I put some hot water on, if you would like some.”
          Jana loved hot chocolate. Especially with marshmallows. Right next to the box she found some big fluffy ones, perfect for hot chocolate. “May I? Please?” She asked pointing at the marshmallows.
          “Such improvement, I have to admit, I am impressed. Of course. Who am I to deny a girl her marshmallows?” Allisandra laughed again. Jana had grown so much but there were still hints of that little girl inside. However being grown up also meant she was more dangerous now. Childish rampages would be replaced by cunning.
          After getting her hot chocolate, Jana realized Allisandra was distracting her. “You did that on purpose?”
          Looking innocently at Jana, “Did what? Offered you a warm drink?” Allisandra was testing Jana. Just to see how much the girl had learned. It was of course her ulterior motive. But the girl was still too trusting. It would be a weakness she could exploit later.
          Jana took the mug of steaming hot chocolate and dropped two marshmallows in it before cleaning up after herself. She sat down at the table across from Allisandra. “You distracted me.” She accused.
          “Did I now? Are you sure you’re not confusing kindness with paranoia? I promised I wouldn’t hurt you after all.” Allisandra watched her reactions.
          Was she just being nice? Allisandra had been that way in the past. “I guess so. I’m sorry.”
          Still naïve, good. She remembered the promise wrong too. The deal was that so long as Jana did not attack her and left her alone, Allisandra would not try to kill her. Technically, Jana had violated the deal since she had now stopped leaving the ice sorceress alone. But no need to point that out now. For now she would just keep Jana confused and off guard. She had no intentions of killing the girl, but if she could impede the young barbarian’s mission, she had no qualms about doing just that. “It’s alright child.” And she had successfully distracted Jana again. “I see that you’re doing well. I am proud of you. You’re hardly the hot-headed rude little 8 yr old in a woman’s body I remember. Have you found a boyfriend yet?”
          Jana turned a bright red. Boys were still icky. She didn’t want a boyfriend. “I think that was supposed to be a complement. Even if I did deserve a little scolding. And no, I got tricked into feeling something once, but it wasn’t my fault.”
          Another laugh from Allisandra. “You make it sound like such an awful thing. Well you will learn, in time.”
          She was pretty certain she didn’t want to learn. That would mean boring anniversaries with reptile-like food. She certainly didn’t want to go through that again. “You’re all blue now. What happened to you?”
          The sorceress smiled. “When Frozen Daggers get stronger, we become one with our element.”
          Jana felt nervous. Allisandra was stronger than before? She didn’t want to imagine what the sorceress could do now. Probably freeze a whole town with just a few words. If she was ever going to take Allisandra out, if she ever had to, it couldn’t be in a direct fight. Jana knew a little magic, but mostly protection spells and most of that went into keeping her bike filled. Making a temporary road and powering the bike had been a nightmare. “I see.” She said softly.
          “Well I believe we both have business to attend to. The portal to here will recognize you, so you may come and go as you please.” Allisandra finished her tea. “I’ll see you soon.” She stood, and left the house. Jana realized she never got the chance to ask her question about why Allisandra was helping her again.
          Still, Jana couldn’t worry about Allisandra right now. She had her own problems that didn’t involve that conniving woman. Jana bundled up and stepped back out into the biting cold. Casting the locator spell led her to an odd looking shack on the edge of town. By odd, she meant the place looked misshapen, an odd gestalt of brass plates, riveted to sheets of iron metal and some things she didn’t recognize. The roof slanted oddly in a zig-zag and seemed to conform to no roof design she’d ever seen and a old looking round black metal chimney pipe with one of the circular pointed tops rose from the right side of the roof. Jana was certain the house itself was lopsided. It looked like the guy who built that Frankenstein monster had been hired to create the look of this house.
          White smoke drifted out in a stream from the bent chimney pipe, so Jana assumed someone was home. Jana knocked gently on the door, and quickly stepped back and to the side expecting fully that it might launch off its hinges at any moment. A telescope, if it could be called that, extended out of the front door and swung around like a metal snake until it was inches from the barbarian’s face. It was made of the same cobbled materials as the rest of the house popped out of the door. A tinny voice came from somewhere. “Yes what do you want? I’m very busy you know?” it snapped.
          Well at least it was someone who didn’t ramble on all day. Jana tried to take little comfort in that. She still was waiting for it to explode. “Umm, hi, I’m…”
          “I don’t want any combulator-a-trons this week. Come back next week.” The voice cut her off and the telescope receded into the door.
          Now Jana was getting annoyed, but she pushed her feelings down and rapped on the door again. The telescope came back out. “What? I thought I told you I wasn’t buying this week. Go away now!”
          “I didn’t come here to sell you… whatever that is.” Jana responded quickly.
          If robots could sigh, Jana imagined they would sound just like the noise she heard. “Well what do you want? I don’t have time for foolish games, or strange barbarian women.”
          ‘You’re going to make time’ Jana thought to herself. “I need to talk to you about something. I believe you’re the person I’m looking for.” She kept her voice steady. She’d learned time and time again yelling and demanding got her nowhere.
          “Yes yes.. I’ll have you refibilatoramatic ready next week. I’ve almost gotten the kinks out.” The voice said annoyed.
          Jana was really beginning to lose her patience. The insane town and meeting Allisandra here had made her edgy. “I didn’t come here for a device. I came to talk to you. It’s very important.” It was getting harder to resist the urge to brave the door attacking her in some manner and just go kick it down.
          Another of the metallic sounding sighs. “Fine. I wanted to sit down to tea anyway. I suppose I can spare you a few minutes, as long as you promise to go away and leave me alone after.”
          ‘Give me the wish stone and I’ll leave you alone forever. Personally, I’ll be glad to get away from you and this death trap of a town as soon as possible.’ Jana muttered under her breath. “Thank you. I promise I won’t take much of your time” She said politely, through gritted teeth.
          The telescope snaked back into the door just before the door opened. A short woman with messy black hair stood at the door. She had the bulbous nose of all the other people, but she was at least a foot taller, and a little stocky. She wore a grease stained one piece suit that Jana would have expected a plumber or electrician to wear. Tools of all sorts some Jana didn’t even recognize stuck out of all the pockets at various angles. On her face was a pair of goggles that looked like binoculars had been attached to them, but there were a small army of lenses attached to little bronze colored wires that moved up and down with whirrs and clicks.
          The lenses switched in and out with a whirring noise. “Yes, lovely, a barbarian girl. You clearly don’t understand technology. I do hope you don’t eat my teacups. You do drink tea don’t you? If not I’m sure I can find some old dishwater for you. It should be something like drinking out of a lake. Well come in it’s cold out.” The urge to strangle the woman was rising quickly. Jana walked into the house, just barely keeping her anger in check.
          The interior of the house was no better looking than the exterior. Giant gears and robot appendages hung from the walls. A few chassis sat on the floor. The place was a total mess and Jana had to pick her way through, so she didn’t trip on anything. A large desk with blueprints of something lay on it. When Jana tried to look at it the woman quickly jumped in front of it with her arms out. “You will not look at my designs. You probably couldn’t understand them anyway. Go to the table and sit down. I’ll pour your tea.” She screeched at Jana.
          “Ok I’ll make this direct and to the point.” Jana took the tea she was offered, but she wanted to be done with this business quickly. The cup wasn’t a mechanical monstrosity that tried to force feed Jana the tea and the woman actually poured tea from a normal looking kettle. “Given you’re the only person here, I think I can safely assume you have the wish stone. If you’ll just give up your wish, I’ll be on my way and we’ll be out of each other’s hair.”
          The woman almost choked on her tea before giving off a shrill laugh. “I’d no sooner give up my wish than I would cut off my left arm.”
          Jana almost suggested that could be arranged, but decided continuing being somewhat diplomatic was in order. “Listen, please. I made a horrible mistake. You were in a diner in San Antonio when I made a wish to give everyone there what they wished for. And look what the world turned into.” She waved her hand. “It’s a mish-mash of crazy worlds all created by their various wish makers. I understand how hard it is to give up a wish….” Jana looked down and wiped at her eyes. “I lost a friend recently because she was ready to give up her wish too.” She sad solemnly.
          “Yes, well I’m very sorry about your loss” The woman’s words couldn’t have been any more insincere if she was kicking Jana in the shins while she said them. “But your little quest isn’t my problem. I’m happy here. I’m not giving up anything. And little girl, should you try to take it, you’ll find that to be a most grave mistake. You may leave now. I am finished with you.” Abruptly the woman got up from the table and walked back over to her design table. Jana could hear the whirring from the goggles again.
          “I am not finished with you.” Jana raised her voice. “I don’t want to hurt you, but I have to have that stone.”
          “That is most unfortunate child, because I have no qualms about hurting you.” She reached under the table and pulled out what looked like some sort of combination of crossbow and machine gun. She turned around and aimed it at Jana. The little gnome woman was quick. The goggles rapidly switched lenses. “Last chance.” She warned.
          Jana started towards the tiny woman, and summoned her golden shield, as a barrage of bolts came at her. Even with the shield, she was being pushed back. A crossbow bolt broke through and pierced straight through her thigh. Another into her arm. Jana ground her teeth and tears began to blur her vision but she refused scream in pain. She started to turn to find some cover but instead tripped on something as another barrage of bolts whizzed by striking the wall where Jana’s head had just been. A sudden bright flash of light surrounded her and Jana found herself in Allisandra’s house. Her leg and arm were bleeding profusely.
          “Took on the old bat did you? She’s quite a nasty one. She gave me a run for my money a few days ago. You’re lucky I was keeping an eye on you.” Allisandra stood over Jana with smirk.
          Jana wanted to slap that grin right off the mage’s face. “Thanks.” She grumbled.
          “Mmm, such gratitude to someone who just saved your life. Again. How many times is that now? Well to be fair, if I had bolts sticking out of me I wouldn’t be much more pleasant myself. I’ll draw you a comforting bath, but those bolts are going to have to come out. And it’s not going to be pleasant. I can numb your arm and thigh before I remove them though you won’t be able to use them for a bit but all you’ll feel is the jerk of the bolts coming out.” Allisandra offered.
          Jana nodded. It was better than enduring this pain. “Go ahead.” She felt the icy chill slowly pierce her flesh as if someone was using her leg as a pincushion, and then nothing but tingling. She saw Allisandra break and then pull the shaft halves out of her leg. As promised she felt nothing except the movement of the bolt as it was yanked out. The same happened to her arm. Allisandra had to help to the bath.
          “Alright. I’m taking off your clothes.” Allisandra stated. “They’re nasty anyway and need to be washed. When was the last time you did that, hmm?”
          Jana turned a bright red. “But…” She began to protest.
          “Oh stop it, Jana. We’re both women here. You’re no less squeamish about this than last time.” Allisandra wasn’t in the mood for any more of Jana’s nonsense.
          “But…” Jana began again and a look of pure death from Allisandra stopped her.
          “Jana, I want you to give me the name of a deity.” Allisandra said with an obvious edge to her voice.
          “Why?” Jana asked confused.
          “Just do it, Jana.” The sorceress’s tone was warning.
          “Umm… Gaia. Why?” Jana didn’t see what Allisandra was getting at.
          Allisandra cracked a smile. “Because I needed one to swear too every time you did something that annoyed me. Ironically you picked the one I already swear to.” Her face twisted back into one of anger “And if you ever say to me ‘but you aren’t a real woman’ I swear to Gaia I will put you back where I found you and let that little nutjob finish the what she started.”
          Jana gulped. The look in Allisandra’s eyes told her she was dead serious. “But… I didn’t attack you.”
          A devious smile came across the sorceress’s face. “And I wouldn’t be attacking you either.”
          Her jaw just dropped open and she stared at Allisandra in disbelief. “But…”
          “Yes you’ll want to clean your butt too. Now since you’re numbed you can’t take off your own clothes and I am not letting you get into my bathtub in those filthy things, so they’re coming off. We can do this one of two ways. You let me help you take them off, or I flash freeze them off your body. I think you’d probably prefer the former. So which is it going to be?” Allisandra crossed her arms and tapped her foot as she looked down at Jana like as if she were someone’s mother making her child choose to behave or accept punishment.
          “Fine you win.” Jana said exasperated. Why couldn’t she ever beat this woman at anything? No matter what Jana tried to do, Allisandra had a way of making the effort meaningless.
          “I thought I would. I didn’t want to mop up shattered leather anyway.” As she gently peeled the hides off Jana, the sorceress watched amused as Jana turned more and more red. “It’s just your body, Jana. There’s no need to be ashamed of it.”
          “I-I’m not…” Jana stuttered. “I just…” Jana didn’t know what to say that wouldn’t make Allisandra mad enough to live up to her threat so she just stopped talking.
          Allisandra playfully touched Jana’s nose with a fingertip. “And you’ve learned your first lesson about when it’s best not to say anything at all. Now into the bath with you.”
          It was embarrassing enough being naked in front of Allisandra. But now the sorceress was going to pick her up and put her into the bath? This was so humiliating. She felt herself being lifted, but nothing was touching her. A quick glance at Allisandra told her what was going on. Allisandra was mumbling something with her eyes closed. Her magic was lifting the naked girl into warm soothing waters of the bath. That was a useful trick, and it got Jana’s mind off the humiliation for a moment.
          “Stay in there a while. It’ll disinfect the wounds, unnumb your body and keep the pain down to a tolerable level. You’re lucky it was all muscle those bolts ripped through but you’re not going to be running around aggravating gnome women for a bit. Since I’m not Mee Lien and can’t sing your wounds closed, I’m going to the local temple. There’s priestesses there that will not use a bandage-mo-tron 5000 to try to fix your arm and leg, and instead break them in three places.” Allisanda had a stupid grin on her face. She felt a little bad, but this was just too much fun.
          Jana had to laugh despite the minor indignities. Allisandra was just trying to help, even if the ice witch made in clear in no uncertain terms that she was going to be of assistance, or make life even more uncomfortable than it already was. She slid down into the relaxing waters of the bath? When had been the last time she’d enjoyed something like this? It was just best to ignore the sorceress and not let the woman being amused at Jana’s expense get to her.
          Allisandra spotted one of the lower ranking members of the Frozen Daggers watching her place from a window in the inn. She hoped the automatic shaver sliced his throat open. Lady Kalisa was going to get an earful very soon. But first there was Jana to tend to. Why did she give a damn about that girl? She knew it wasn’t for the endless entertainment value Jana provided. That was just icing. It would have been simple to let the crazy engineer kill the barbarian girl on the spot, and then Allisandra’s wish would be reality. She could be a real woman forever. Instead she interfered and saved Jana’s life. Again. Vengeance was going to shit a brick when he found out.
          Then again Vengeance had lied to her. He knew damn well Jana was headed this way. He wanted to see if his pet sorceress would spare him the trouble of dealing with Jana. She had agreed to help Vengeance on her terms, not be his personal errand girl. That bastard was getting an earful when she got back too. Really only two things stopped her from killing Vengeance, aside from the fact she wasn’t entirely sure she could. The first being that they had a mutual goal and fighting each other wasn’t beneficial. Ok the second actually was that she wasn’t sure she could kill him and still get out San Antonio alive.
          The truth she didn’t want to admit to herself was that she liked Jana. The kid may be a barbarian, but she was a strong hearted kid who meant well. She was trying to clean up her mistake. How many people would have really had the strength to admit that they even made the mistake in the first place, and then to go to the trouble of tracking down a bunch of people in a diner and telling them ‘Oh by the way… that heart’s desire I just gave you. Seems there’s been a recall. Something about lead paint and China. Yeah. I’m gonna need it back now. Thanks for shopping J-Mart, and have a great day.’
          Ok that was silly, but it was close enough. The thought of Jana actually saying that made her smile. That was why she liked the kid, she was a little abrasive sometimes but she owned up to her mistake and went as far as to fix it. Her parents would have been proud of her if they could see her now.
          Allisandra had no doubts Sylvia was proud of Jana. It made Allisandra hate what she would have to do to stop Jana, all the more. Besides, it would get Vengeance off her back for not killing Jana when she had the chance. Since she was being totally honest with herself, Allisandra knew, if Jana had to die by anyone’s hand, she wanted it to be hers. If for no other reason than she could give Jana an instant, utterly painless death. There would be cold, and then nothing.
          Of course she was passing up yet another opportunity to kill Jana. The girl was naked, in a magical house, where Allisandra had total control. It would be simple to pull her under the water and freeze the entire tub. There were at least six hundred different ways Allisandra could kill the trusting little barbarian. But none of them were honorable. Jana deserved a fair fight. At least as fair as it could be between the two of them. Still, it was a different Jana than the snotty brat that had crossed her path demanding a wish stone back, oh so long ago. Allisandra was certain the barbarian could be a cunning little minx when the mood struck her. Underestimating the girl would be a deadly mistake too.
          Allisandra walked into the temple and performed the polite customary greetings before walking up to a silver tray near the back of the temple and putting a few gold coins in. “I require a healer. My friend has been injured.” She announced to whoever was listening.
          A small gnomish woman with light brown hair in a garish yellow priest’s robe walked out. Gah! Why couldn’t gnome gods have some sense of taste? Allisandra did her best to not avert her eyes. “I have heard your plea for assistance. You have made an offering to the great Gnarlatous.” The gnome gods even had stupid names. This explained their lack of fashion sense. “Is your friend here?”
          “No she’s back at my home on the edge of town.” Allisandra hoped it didn’t shock Jana too much when the modern house became an inn again. The ice sorceress considered it. What did happen when she changed the appearance of the house? No one had actually ever been inside before when she changed it. If Jana wasn’t too freaked out and pissed off at Allisandra for changing the house, with the barbarian girl in it, she would certainly have to ask later. The ice sorceress giggled at the thought of a startled Jana in the bath as the entire house began to transform.
          The priestess looked at Allisandra oddly. “What is so amusing, Miss?”
          “Hmm? Oh, nothing. Just considering a friend’s reaction to a little gift I’m giving her.” Allisandra smiled again. Oh what a gift it would be.
          Vengeance looked up. How long had that woman been in his throne room? “You can come out now. I have to admit. I am impressed with you. Very few have made it in here without me noticing.”
          Mee Lien stepped out of the shadows. “In my home land, before one is allowed to leave, they must master many arts. That is but one. I am Mee Lien. I have come to ask something of you.”
          “Impressive. But I doubt you have come to show off your talents.” Vengeance cracked a smile. “I could use someone like you.”
          “I am not interested in serving you. I came to ask you of one thing. The Song.” Mee Lien’s voice was steady but inside she was trembling. This was foolish. This was the Vengeance. She was very unlikely to take him in a straight up fight and she spoke to him as if he was an equal.
          “The interesting ones are so hard to come by. I do not know anything about your music. Ask the local bards.” Vengeance waved a hand dismissively. “I have more important matters than singing for you.”
          Mee Lien narrowed her eyes. She didn’t want to threaten. Not yet. “I’m speaking of The Song, not a bard’s tale.” She put emphasis on ‘the’. “The Song of creation, this world was your doing, you must know of the twin dragon’s song. “
          Vengeance looked at Mee Lien closely. “You’re one of them aren’t you? One of the wish stone bearers? Intriguing, so many of them have passed through here in such a short time it seems. I suspect Jana will be after you in time. But first you want to complete your quest don’t you? I don’t suppose it matters. I can offer you access to my libraries. But I want something in exchange.”
          The bard didn’t like where this was headed. “I will accept the terms only after I know what they are.”
          The armored king laughed, the laugh resounded through the room and seemed to come from everywhere at once. “You are a wise one. I could make you powerful or rich if only… Hmm, no you are not the sort to want power or riches. With your abilities you could have them already if you wished them.” Vengeance’s eyes glowed menacingly with power. “I would like you to kill Jana when she comes for you.”
          “I will not.” Mee Lien said simply. “The Song is valuable, but is not worth taking a life for. I do not even have the guarantee that what I seek is in your library.”
          Vengeance laughed again. “Shrewd and brave as well. Hmm, a more suitable task then. Lady Kalisa. She is the head of The Frozen Daggers. I am certain you know of them. While she has been, shall we say helpful, I sense her lust for power.” With a wave of his hand a sealed envelope appeared. “Seek her out, and deliver this to her. When you do so, learn of any plots she may have to move against me. Return with that information and the access to my private libraries is yours. I am certain you will find clues to what you seek there.”
          Mee Lien nodded as the envelope appeared in her hands. She knew of Lady Kalisa. She wondered if this meant she would cross paths with Allisandra again. Allisandra was an interesting woman. “I accept this task.” Besides it may give her a shot at digging though the libraries of The Frozen Daggers as well. They were known to keep many arcane secrets locked away. If nothing else it gave her something to trade in the future. With that Mee Lien set off on her task.
          Vegeance smiled. He doubted the small woman would return. If she did, he would have to make more aggressive moves to acquire her. Like Allisandra she could be a valuable resource. Tantalize her with tidbits of hope of what she sought. She would realize she was being used certainly, but would tolerate it for a time in the hopes she would find her song. It would get a few important tasks done at the very least, things where he could not send in known agents.
          “Bring in the Head Librarian.” The guards nodded, and after a short time, a short thin older man, who was hunched slightly from wasting his life in a foolish quest for knowledge he would never be able to use.
          The man looked up at Vengeance nervously, and adjusted the spectacles that sat low on his nose. He had never been called forth by Vengeance. “H-How may I serve my great lord?”
          Finally someone before him who respected his power today. After Allisandra and that strange woman, he was beginning to wonder if anyone still did. “I want you to find every scrap of knowledge I have on The Song of Creation. I am curious as to what this woman is seeking.” It was just that in fact. Idle curiosity, and to be certain this woman wasn’t seeking knowledge that could threaten his city. Vengeance didn’t need some Song of Creation. He was content with the ruler ship of his city-state. But knowing of any new potential threats was always a smart move. He watched bored as the librarian nodded and scurried away to begin his task. “What is next on the agenda for today?”
          Jana frowned as the house began to shake. Now what? Was Allisandra’s magic collapsing? Jana did not want to be thrown out of the house naked and injured. She started to stand but the pain in her thigh made her fall back down into the tub. Instead she watched helplessly as the bathroom tile turned to wood, and the marble tub began to shrink and turn to metal. At least the bathwater was still warm.
          The room seemed to spin around and around like some carnival ride. Jana became dizzy then sick to her stomach. She fell backwards from her position on her knees fully back into the bath with a small splash. Jana closed her eyes and clung to the sides of the iron tub so hard her knuckles began to turn white. Finally the insane ride stopped. She slowly opened one eye, half expecting to see some pipes and a horrible device before her like the ones at the inn that was all too willing to kill her.
          No, this was an inn, but not that one with the vile sounding turnip stew and deadly showers. She recognized it. It was the version of the house Allisandra had brought Mee Lien to. It made sense now. Allisandra was bringing in a local. Of course the interior would change to not scare the daylights out of them, they could never be sure who remembered their old lives, and who was completely absorbed into this world. Jana just wished Allisandra had warned her first. The barbarian girl settled down queasily into the tub. She was not going to give Allisandra the satisfaction of yelling at her for this stunt, though she could see that insane sorceress laughing her head off.
          Voices from downstairs told Jana that Allisandra had returned. One clearly belonged to the sorceress. The other was squeaky and high pitched. Probably that priestess her friend and rival was fetching. Jana still didn’t understand Allisandra’s motives. Her goal obviously wasn’t to kill Jana. Allisandra had ample opportunities to do that. Instead she had done the exact opposite. But yet she hinted that the truce had been violated somehow. Or was that just an idle threat of an offended sorceress?
          A knock on the door interrupted her thought processes. Allisandra called from the other side. Jana shrunk down into the bath letting the green tinted waters cover her as much as they could. “Yes?” She croaked. Allisandra was bringing more people in here to see her naked. That damned sorceress was probably enjoying every minute of tormenting her like this. Even if the torment was somewhat unavoidable, though that hardly made it any better.
          “The priestess has to see you to heal you, Jana. May we come in?” Allisandra’s voice was barely hiding the mirth.
          Her first instinct was to yell at the stupid sorceress for humiliating her, again. No, she didn’t deserve any more pleasure from this sick joke that woman was making out of helping her rival. “I suppose so” Jana tried to keep her tone even and neutral. So much for friendship.
          A horrible sight greeted Jana as the bathroom door opened. Another of those incessant talkers walked in, wearing hideous bright yellow robes. Jana had to avert her eyes. “Gah!”
          The priestess did not look amused. “Such a rude child.” She mumbled. “Still to the great Gnarlatous asks us to tend to even the unworthy.”
          Jana clapped both hands over her mouth, and her shoulder immediately made her regret it. It was that or bust out laughing at such a ridiculous name.” She glanced at the priestess who had her eyes closed and was waving her hands in the air while chanting. Her eyes moved to Allisandra who was leaning in the doorway with a smirk. The icy witch was enjoying every moment of this.
          Just as Jana forced down the laughter, she felt a soothing touch on her forehead. It spread quickly through her body, and her thigh and arm tingled. Just as quickly as it began it ended, but with it went the pain in her arm and leg. Jana moved her hand up and down her arm. Healing magic, Sylvia had taught her of it, but not any healing spells. “Thank you, priestess of Gnarlatous.” Jana bit her lower lip so she didn’t laugh just saying the ludicrous name. “You have been most gracious to this unworthy soul.”
          The priestess bowed without a word and left. As soon as they heard the door close both women began laughing until they had to stop to catch their breath, and then laughed some more. Jana splashed water at Allisandra “You did all of this on purpose!” She said playfully. “I don’t know if I should hate you or thank you.”
          Allisandra rolled with more laughter. “Oh admit it. You hate me for it, but it was damn funny.” She gasped.
          Jana had to concede that point. It was damn funny even if it was at her expense. Once the two women got past the post laugh giggles, Jana glared at Allisandra. “Get out of here so I can get dressed. At least let me have that much dignity.”
          “Mmm, yes I’ve tormented you enough for one day. I’ll hang a robe on the door so you can have something to cover yourself with until I can mend and clean those horrible skins you wear. Honestly, you need proper clothes one of these days. Once you’re ready I’ll reshape the house again, and we’ll have some food.” Allisandra was still chuckling. “It’s good to see you have a sense of humor, Jana. I was worried you were going to get all huffy again.”
          Jana took the robe Allisandra had hung on the door. Every time she thought she had the sorceress figured out, a new wrinkle was introduced. Jana went into her room and saw a t-shirt and jeans laid out on the bed. It wasn’t her skins, but at least it was something she would have worn back home. It felt comfortable. Once she was back downstairs, Allisandra warned her to sit down and close her eyes. The ride was much more bearable this time.
          It had taken Mee Lien days to get back across to Arkansas, the last known place Lady Kalisa was at. Even on horseback, it was a long journey, and she was not looking forward to going back to that dusty wasteland. The first trip had been interesting and it was where she had met Allisandra and Jana. As she got closer to the lands, she wrapped a scarf around her head and put goggles on to protect her eyes. She could remove them again once she was in town, which seemed to have its own defenses against the storms. Probably magical ones.
          Sometimes being a crafty bard had its advantages. She could intermix freely with the thieves, and not expect her to be throat slit. A few inquiries and coins got her the information she wanted. Lady Kalisa had been seen in town recently. The trick would be getting inside The Frozen Dagger stronghold. No one knew the spell that would grant her entry from the back door. The town rogues, at least the smart ones stayed away from the place. However they did know there was a front entrance, presumably for anyone brave enough to go to see the mysterious group of sorcerers. Mee Lien supposed that would have to do.
          Mee Lien strode into the small store, far more confidently than she felt. It was like going into the lion’s den with a large piece of bloody meat tied around your neck. She walked up to the counter. Behind it sat a bored looking man wearing a tabard prominently displaying the mark of The Frozen Daggers. “I have business with Lady Kalisa. Vengeance sends word.” She said softly, but firmly.
          The guy was obviously a flunky, and probably not even a mage of any talent. He displayed no tattoos. At someone asking to see Lady Kalisa and mentioning Vengeance he scrambled to his feet. “Yes ma’am right away. I-I’ll get her for you.”
          After a few moments Mee Lien was lead into a parlor, where a blue skinned woman with white hair sat. She wore a flowing icy blue and white dress, and had a most impatient look on her face. “Yes what do you want? I have no interest in Vengeance or his messenger girls” She snapped tartly.
          Mee Lien bowed politely, pulling on every ounce of her diplomatic skills. “I bring word from Vengeance.” She offered the letter with both hands, head bowed. She dared not look into the ice blue orbs that powerful woman had for eyes.
          Lady Kalisa opened the letter. Read it quickly and muttered an “I see. Well girl, I should not let you go unrewarded.” She snapped her fingers, and two men appeared. “Restrain her, and take her down to the prisons. Put a spell gag on her and into the sorcerer’s shackles. I’ll decide how to deal with her later. Be sure you take her fans as well.”
          Mee Lien got a quick glimpse of the note. It said simply. “This woman is here to spy on you. You may deal with her as you wish. Vengeance” She had been betrayed! If she ever got out of here, Vengeance was a dead man.
          Her arms were pushed behind her back and locked into place, and her ankles pinned to the floor with another pair of manacles. A rune inscribed gag was shoved into her mouth, and then she was left alone, in a dark, frozen cell. She was sitting on the insides of her legs against frozen ground. Her thin silk clothing offered little protection from the cold. Squirming revealed she was held down tight. Sorcerer’s shackles were designed to prevent all spell casting. The locks were magical. That rendered the lockpick she carried in her sleeve useless. Mee Lien was terrified. She wondered if she would die of starvation or frostbite first. Her legs were already beginning to numb. She wanted to cry but was too afraid her tears would freeze to her face.
          Lady Kalisa studied the note. What was Vengeance up to? One of her underlings came up to her. “Milady if I may speak.”
          She nodded. “That woman was seen before with Jana and Allisandra, at the town of Vito some time ago. The three parted ways there, but she was seen spying on Allisandra when Beleran approached her. It is believed she followed Allisandra back to San Antonio and then we lost track of her.” The man explained.
          “Thank you. You are dismissed.” Lady Kalisa waved a hand and the man ran off. Interesting. So this was the bard with them. Now what could she want with Vengeance. Certainly not to spy on him. That would be foolish. She didn’t seem particularly concerned with trying to convince Allisandra of the error of her ways. She had ample opportunity for that. What was she after then? And what was Vengeance up to? If he had simply wanted the strange bard disposed of he could have easily done that himself. Why waste a good horse to send her out here to die?
          A white mist rose from her fingertips as she tapped them in thought. Vengeance knew Lady Kalisa would be this week. He also knew that bard could not escape sorcerer’s shackles on her own. What was his game? A simple spell swept the small house for anything foreign, magical or otherwise. Only the girl and her fans were new to the premises. She had looked shocked when Lady Kalisa had ordered her to be dragged to the dungeon. A bard, yes, but she wasn’t acting. She was genuinely shocked. Damn Vengeance. Was she over thinking this? It was best to ask the bard.
          Lady Kalisa stood and headed down to the dungeons. She waved the guards away. “I will see to her personally.”
          Mee Lien looked up helplessly as her cell door opened and tried to speak but something forced her mouth closed. Lady Kalisa stood before her, looking down at the trapped bard, like a cat might watch a canary with a broken wing. She spoke cruelly down to the foreign woman “I know of your powers, girl. If you so much as sing a note, I shall freeze your throat into a block of ice and watch you suffocate. If you lie to me, I shall slowly freeze parts of your body, starting with your fingers, and then shatter them beyond even what the mightiest priestess could repair. Do you understand?”
          The look in Mee Lien’s eyes betrayed her feelings of terror. She nodded quickly, and the spell gag was removed. Mee Lien gasped for air as the horrible thing that held her lips closed was finally off.
          Lady Kalisa loomed over her. It wasn’t necessary to scare the younger woman anymore, but she liked making certain that prisoners knew their place before her. “Let’s start with the beginning. What was your business with Jana and Allisandra?”
          “They were captured by ogres. As was I. We helped each other escape. Jana’s skull in a box was taken, so we went back to rescue it. I was along for the ride. Nothing more.” Mee Lien couldn’t look up at the powerful sorceress towering over her. She knew when not to be defiant. This was not one of those times.
          “I see. So you went along to repay a debt?” Lady Kalisa asked. “Or perhaps just revenge on the brutes?”
          “A little of both” The bard admitted. She owed the other two, and she did want to make those ogres pay. But mostly it was a nice little distraction from hunting The Song.
          “I am told from Vito you followed Allisandra to San Antonio. Why?” While the bard girl had answered all of her questions honestly, she wasn’t learning anything useful. Lady Kalisa’s patience was wearing thin.
          “In part, I was owed payment for services rendered. I saved Jana’s box for free. The other reason is I thought Vengeance had information I want.” Mee Lien’s teeth were chattering as she spoke. She hoped it covered up the fear and desperation in her voice.
          “Just tell me everything, relevant, child. The more questions you make me ask the more irritated with you I shall become. You do not want me irritated with you. Now, What information do you want from Vengeance?”
          Mee Lien sighed. Her breath came out in a white vaporous cloud before her. “There is a legend among my people, of a song of creation that was used by the twin dragons to bring this world to life. That song brought peace and harmony to my people and we shared that with the world. Over time the song faded from our hearts and wars began. I seek the Song of Creation. So I may bring it home to my people, and share it with the world once more.”
          Now this was intriguing. A song with the power of creation? “What does this song do? How does it work?”
          Mee Lien shook her head. “I do not know. I have only heard the legends of its existence, and what it is said the song did in the past. I will not know until I have found The Song.”
          “Why did Vengeance send you here?” Lady Kalisa narrowed her eyes to slits as she watched the suffering woman.
          Mee Lien was trembling before from the cold. Now she trembled with fear. At least she was pretty sure she was trembling. She’d lost feeling in her legs and hands some time ago. “He sent me to deliver a message to you.” She paused and remembered Lady Kalisa’s words. “He told me to find out if you had any plans to move against him. I also wanted to see if I could search your libraries for information about The Song. If I did this for him, he would let me into his private libraries to search for answers.”
          Lady Kalisa laughed. It was a horrible laugh. If it could freeze and rain icicles on her head, Mee Lien was certain it would. “That is his entire feeble plot? Certainly he could have done better than sending some bard to do his dirty work. No, he would not have sent someone untalented. You managed to elude even our eyes for a time. You have answered my questions satisfactorily.” She turned to leave.
          “Are you going to let me go now?” Mee Lien asked desperately.
          “Hmm? Oh. Yes. Thank you for reminding me.” Lady Kalisa walked back over to the hopeful looking bard, and then locked the spell gag back into place. “We can’t have you singing. Be thankful for now, that I do not outright kill you.”
          No, this was too easy. Vengeance was smarter than this. What was his plan in sending the bard to her? Or was she truly over thinking this? That must be it. That bard was no threat to her. She had no secret plans against Vengeance. Fighting some fool who was content to live and rule his little worthless city/state was of no concern to her. He had to have known that. Allisandra was barely around him enough to learn anything and when she did it was rarely anything of any use. If she truly cared what Vengeance was doing she could have much better spies than Allisandra watching the armored fool.
          That reminded her, Vengeance had sent Allisandra north for some reason. Jana had arrived there a few days after her former pupil. He was probably trying to get Allisandra to kill Jana. There was little chance of that. Allisandra was too soft-hearted to kill the girl, unless the barbarian was fool enough to threaten her. Jana was too confused by Allisandra to ever even be able to consider taking action against the sorceress. It’s hard to want to kill someone who treats you well, even if she does some mostly harmless tormenting in a sense of fun. Allisandra was truly unique among the Frozen Daggers. Her warm heart belied the frozen exterior.
          Speaking of such, she needed to have Allisandra down for a talk. She wanted to know what possible interest Vengeance could have in Vesperatron. It was a horrible little gnome city that violently exploded at least once a week and the inventions had a knack for killing visitors. That was after all why she had sent Yestral up there. She told him it was to spy on Jana and Allisandra. In reality, she wanted to see how long it would take for one of those auto-shavers to kill him. She gave him a week being generous. A boiler would have exploded on him by then. He was worthless and Lady Kalisa had been forced to take him as a favor. He barely had any talent, and she could simply tell them he died in an accident. It was after all the truth.
          The only thing worthy of any note up there was that horrible little gnome Janice. She had supposedly developed an Anti-Magic shield, or was in the process of developing one. If Jana was up there it meant someone in Vesperatron had a stone. With any luck, Jana would dispose of that nasty little beast Janice. Now what to do with that bard. This song of hers was intriguing, but she’d already divulged any useful information she had about it. However, if she let her go back to Vengeance with some tasty tidbit of a plan against him… It could be an amusing distraction to toy with Vengeance. He had annoyed her by sending that odd little bard woman after all.
          She could watch him squirm for a while and then demand another favor to keep her from attacking him. Now all she had to do was allow the bard to escape, and allow her to think she’d found something. She was calling Allisandra anyway. Allisandra knew the bard, and would certainly want to help her. Allisandra was a silly girl in that while she had a level of loyalty to The Frozen Daggers, her loyalty to people she knew and trusted was greater. She would certainly help the bard escape and go about thinking she was being horribly sneaky, when in truth it was Lady Kalisa’s desire all along. It should prove an amusing distraction. In the meantime she would divert some agents to find out more about this song.
          Allisandra frowned when the message came that Lady Kalisa wanted to see her. Well no time like the present to get the agents off Jana’s back. “Jana, I have some business to take care of. I shouldn’t be gone terribly long.”
          Jana looked quizzically at the sorceress but the look on Allisandra’s face, that uncertainty made Jana think it may be a bad idea to ask where she was going. Besides it was really none of the younger girl’s business. Allisandra was free to come and go and she pleased, it was her house after all. A bright oval portal opened and Allisandra stepped through. It closed quickly behind her. Mages. Everything was too easy for them.
          Monroe. That was the last place Allisandra wanted to be. This blasted wasteland of a place. How did anyone survive out here for any length of time anyway? She quickly darted through the alleys to the door with the tiny blue dagger in the corner, and recited the incantation that allowed her to pass through it.
          Barely even glancing up from the book she was reading Lady Kalisa spoke. “It is good you came so quickly, Allisandra. I have to admit, I am curious as to why Vengeance sent you so far north.”
          That was why Allisandra had been called here? To tell Lady Kalisa why Vengeance had sent her to Vesperatron? She could have just sent a messenger for that. No, there was something else. “He simply wanted me to gather some information about the gnomish technology. To see if it was useful for anything.” She left out that Vengeance wanted to see if she might kill Jana while she was at it.
          “I see. Is that all?” Lady Kalisa sighed not even taking her eyes off the book. “How droll. Since you’re here, could you look in on the prisoner? She probably needs to be fed, and allowed into the bathroom. We can’t have her fouling the place up. Do not remove all of her protections at once. If she runs, you have my permission to kill her.”
          “Before that I have a request.” Allisandra began “By my station I am allowed them. I request that you pull your agents off Jana and leave her alone. She is mine to kill if anyone is to do it.”
          She turned the page. “I will take that under advisement.” Lady Kalisa intoned in almost a mechanical manner.
          “I am serious.” Allisandra kept her tone even. Even with her higher ranking, raising her tone to Lady Kalisa was a deadly mistake.
          Annoyed, Lady Kalisa looked up at Allisandra for the first time since the sorceress had arrived. “I said I would take it under advisement. She will not be harmed by our hand. We respect your right to her death. If there is nothing more, I have given you a task. Complete it and return to your little job for Vengeance” She spat.
          Pushing her luck any further was sure to get her killed or worse. Allisandra bowed politely and headed for the stairs. Why did Lady Kalisa have someone in the dungeon? So few people were brave or stupid enough to try to attack The Frozen Daggers. Most of them were just killed immediately. Allisandra wasn’t stupid. Lady Kalisa was up to something.
          Most of her questions were answered when Allisandra opened the cell door. Mee Lien’s eyes brightened with hope when she saw her sorceress friend. Allisandra rushed over to remove the spell gag. “Mee Lien? What are you doing here? Are you insane?”
          The bard gasped for air. Having that thing in her mouth made it harder to breathe. “Sweet Gaia you’re going to die down here. You’re half frozen as it is. Why would Lady Kalisa put you in here?”
          Once she had her breath back the bard began to speak. “Allisandra, you have to help me. Vengeance betrayed me. He sent me here to gather information under the premise of delivering a letter. The letter told Lady Kalisa that I was here to spy on her and that she could do with me as she pleased.”
          None of this made sense. Certainly Vengeance had some right to be concerned with Lady Kalisa, but why do this to Mee Lien? “What did you do to him Mee Lien?”
          The Asian woman shook her head. “Nothing. I simply entered his palace under cover of shadow, and requested information about The Song. He made a deal that should I come back with any information about any plots against him from your clan, that I would get access to his libraries.”
          Vengeance was a bastard, but Mee Lien was no threat to him. Why try to have her killed? “I don’t understand, but I won’t leave you here. I’m to see to you getting food, and allowing you into the bathroom. I’m going to have to put the gag back on for now, but I’ll release your shackles.”
          Mee Lien nodded. She assumed she would have to be restrained in one manner or another at all times when she was allowed to move. She could see Allisandra took no pleasure from doing this to her, despite that she had taken on an appearance much like Lady Kalisa’s Her increased power had not frozen her heart. This gave Mee Lien hope of freedom from this place. Once Allisandra released her from the shackles, the bard rubbed her wrists, trying to get some feeling back into them.
          Allisandra helped Mee Lien to the bathroom. Her legs being in that uncomfortable position against an icy floor with such thin pants certainly wasn’t helping the poor woman walk. Mee Lien was as stiff as a board. “I’ve got you, don’t worry.” She assured her friend.
          The guards were nowhere to be seen. As Allisandra expected, when a higher ranking member was tending to a prisoner they were relieved of their posts. It was an odd custom, but it simply implied that The Frozen Daggers could handle anyone they may imprison without any assistance.
          The bathroom was no warmer, but Mee Lien was happy that she was allowed to relieve herself in some privacy. Then again, it was Allisandra. The sorceress trusted Mee Lien. The Asian didn’t want to betray her, but it may be the only way out that might keep Allisandra safe. Treachery was worse than failure. Once she was out of the bathroom, Mee Lien pleaded with her eyes for Allisandra to remove the spell gag. Allisandra looked back and forth and nodded. “I’m trusting you with my life Mee Lien. Please don’t make me regret it.” Allisandra’s eyes told the bard she knew Mee Lien would do no such thing.
          The gag was removed, and Mee Lien felt her first twinge of freedom since she had arrived in this place. She sang a soft spell to warm her body. A song of the warmth of the heart that friendship and love can bring. Allisandra smiled at the bard’s choice. “You have to be starving. Let’s get something warm in you. For appearance’s sake, I’m going to put shackles on your wrists. They are non magical, and if your other skills are any indication they would not come close to stopping you from escaping.” Mee Lien had to smile, Allisandra knew her well. But not well enough.
          Hot stew and crusty bread never tasted so good. It was not the food from the Asian’s homeland, but right now anything that filled her stomach would be an improvement. “Thank you for your kindness, Allisandra.”
          “You should have told me you wanted to see Vengeance’s library. I could have gotten you in. You had to know I was there. I saw you at the inn in Vito.” Allisandra scolded.
          “I saw the anger in your eyes, and the darkness filling your heart. I could not assume that you would not take me for an enemy as well. It was at my request that you gave up that which was most precious to you. I am glad to see it has not changed you.” Mee Lien looked down at the empty bowl. Allisandra may be angry with her, but it was best the truth was revealed than to live the lie. “I feel guilty. I asked you to do what I could not.”
          Allisandra raised a brow in confusion and then it dawned on her “Mee Lien? You?” Anger welled up inside her, and tears formed in her eyes. “H-How could you?”
          “At the time, Allisandra, I wasn’t sure. I just knew things were different than before. Right, but wrong. But as is my knack, I gathered information, I learned. I’m sure it’s obvious that Vengeance has one as well. The fact that Jana hasn’t come for him yet, either means she does not know, or correctly assumes he’s too powerful for her.” Mee Lien paused. “And he will not have some treacherous soul to trick him into giving up his dream. I am sorry, Allisandra. I know you may never forgive me for this either.”
          Allisandra felt a soft prick on her neck, and then a whisper in her ear. “I am sorry again. I know once, you would have helped me to the ends of the earth. But this, it is for your own good. I wish I had something gentler.” Mee Lien’s soft apology was the last thing the sorceress heard before she slumped to the ground in a heap.
          Mee Lien sighed and drug Allisandra back to the cell she had been imprisoned in. “You don’t deserve this, my friend. You can endure the cold better than I. I want them to believe I overpowered you. It’s not far from the truth I suppose.” She clapped the shackles onto Allisandra’s ankles and wrists and then put the spell gag into her mouth. Allisandra’s head sagged as soon as Mee Lien let go. “One day, when we meet again, I hope you can treat me as you do Jana. A respected rival and maybe one day, a friend. I do not ever want to have to fight you though I fear it will be inevitable and a fate I brought on myself. Farewell my friend.”
          The bard ran down the hall a little stiff legged, her spell had eased the chill but had not brought her completely back, but it was functional. She could hear the call of her fans, they knew she was free, and they would lead her to them. Mee Lien never had understood the full power of her weapons. She only knew it would be revealed in time when she needed to know. As she ran up the stairs she heard the guards returning. Her poison ring only had enough in it for one dose and she’d used that on Allisandra. Still she could fight well enough
          The first guard never even saw Mee Lien as her foot swung through the air and cracked his neck. The other jumped at her and the pair tumbled down the stairs. Mee Lien cursed herself. She was still stiff and slow from her imprisonment. Now her shoulder hurt from landing on it. The guard reared back with a fist and cracked her in the jaw. Mee Lien spit out blood.
          She brought up a knee right into his crotch. The guard could barely let out a whimper as he rolled off Mee Lien, with tears in his eye. “It is most unwise to hit a lady, or a bard in the face. It is hard to sing with a broken jaw.” She brought her foot down quickly onto his neck, crushing his windpipe with her heel. That punch hurt more than she had realized, her jaw ached, and her shoulder felt dislocated. Singing a healing spell now would take too much precious time, and too much energy. It was not a risk she could take.
          Stumbling up the stairs Mee Lien took little time in finding the room with her fans. It was too easy. The door had been locked with a pitiful lock, and the fans barely hidden in a small chest also with a feeble lock. No spells no traps. Lady Kalisa knew Mee Lien was loose and she had planned for it to happen. Mee Lien cursed. She did not like being anyone’s pawn. The vile woman probably planned to follow the Asian bard right to The Song. Mee Lien would first get out of here. And then she would declare her own private war on The Frozen Daggers, Vengeance would have to wait. If it meant she had to face Allisandra, then Mee Lien knew would have to be merciless. Allisandra would not hold back either.
          Jana was getting worried. It had been hours since Allisandra left. The barbarian girl had no idea how to deal with that madwoman with the stone. She didn’t want to ask Allisandra for help, but she may not have a choice. The insane gnome’s house was likely booby trapped, and Jana was no thief. She couldn’t slip in and out of places easily despite her agility. Not even Sylvia could have helped her with this one. Sylvia said Jana didn’t need her anymore but more and more of late Jana doubted that. Allisandra had saved her life and then humiliated her. But that is what Allisandra did. There had to be another approach, another angle.
          It didn’t take her long to find her freshly cleaned and mended skins, as well as her warm fur lined coat and boots. She pulled the hood of her coat up, and stepped outside the house. She couldn’t sit around idle. She had to do something. Jana skirted around the village and up onto a bluff overlooking the ramshackle house. From the outside it didn’t look so formidable. An explosion and a scream from somewhere in town sparked an idea. Maybe should could take that crazy woman yet.
          As Allisandra awoke, she felt a strain on her arms, and her body felt weak. She tried to open her mouth to speak but a mystical force held her mouth firmly shut. She was in the sorcerer’s shackles! But why? Her head was spinning as she tired to think. Mee Lien… she had been down here, and Allisandra had been sent down to tend to her. Her guard was down because she trusted the bard. But Mee Lien had betrayed her. Has Mee Lien put her here? Or Lady Kalisa?
          Allisandra wanted to believe Mee Lien had a good reason for what she had done. But it wasn’t the first time the bard had done this to her was it? The same bard had tricked the ice mage into giving up her soul stone, while using Jana’s state of accomplishment of her goal to hide the fact Mee Lien had one as well all along. The sorceress had to applaud the Asian woman’s cunning even as she cursed Mee Lien’s name. All of her kindness to that woman had been thrown back into her face. Maybe it was some sort of karmic backlash for the way she tormented Jana in the name of kindness.
          The bard was likely long gone. She wondered how long it would be before Lady Kalisa even noticed Allisandra was down here. Assuming she cared at all or hadn’t locked her up for allowing Mee Lien to escape in the first place. Was Jana going to betray her too? Kill her in the night just to ensure that a potential rival could never thwart her plans? Allisandra had once believed Jana was above that. She had also believed that Mee Lien was her friend. Friends were becoming scarce of late it seemed. Jana was no less cunning than the bard. Maybe it was time Allisandra stopped being nice. As soon as she got out of here, the kid gloves were off.
          It had been hours since Allisandra had left to tend to the bard. How long exactly did it take for the silly girl to escape? But she had only felt one spell cast and that was from the bard. There had been no real commotion from the guards. No alarm raised, Allisandra wasn’t that good, and the bard would have to be a burden on her. She sighed. She would have to look into this herself. So troublesome.
          Lady Kalisa had barely gotten to the stairs when a shadow leapt out at her, and wrapped an arm around her throat. She could feel the heat of one of the bard’s fans at her throat. “If I fan it out, it will slice through your icy neck like butter.” The bard warned.
          “Really child? Who do you believe you are fooling?” She didn’t even move her lips before an ice lance shot backwards out of her hand and pierced Mee Lien’s side. Another spell crashed into Mee Lien’s ribs like an ice hammer sending her flying across the room and into the wall. “I am not Allisandra, and I will not be easily taken. If you desire a fight, I can give you one, but I assure you. You will not survive.”
          Blood trickled down Mee Lien’s lip. Her vision was blurred and she could see three of Lady Kalisa all of them wielding what appeared to be a hammer made from ice. The pain in her chest was intense, like she’d been set on fire. It was by sheer willpower alone that she remained conscious. “I… will… not… be… used” Mee Lien croaked as she struggled to her feet.
          “Really, child. Do stop this foolishness. I am not Vengeance, and I do not need you as a tool, nor do I need you to find your precious song. Using you to toy with Vengeance would have been a mild amusement.” Lady Kalisa’s words stung as if they were little bits of frost flying into the bard’s face. “Drag yourself out of here child, before I forget that you are bleeding all over my floor.”
          No! She had betrayed Allisandra for this? Because Lady Kalisa had wanted to toy with Vengeance? Mee Lien tried to stand but fell to her knees, weak and feeling helpless. Her arms shuddered with the strain of holding her in a kneeling position“T-tell… her… i’m sorr…” she uttered before collapsing.
          “Oh really. Such melodrama.” Lady Kalisa sighed and waved a hand. A bubble appeared around Mee Lien and then shrank and dissipated into nothingness leaving no trace of the bard. “Now, what did you do to my foolish little sorceress, hmm?” Lady Kalisa stepped over the bodies of the dead guards as if they were mere annoyances. She opened the door to the cell Mee Lien had been in, not at all surprised to see Allisandra now occupied it. “I should leave you in there. But then I’d just have to take care of you, or later pull your starved stinking carcass out of my dungeon. Both are far too much hassle.”
          Allisandra’s blood was running hot. “Where is she?” Those were the first words out of her mouth when the spell gag was off.
          “Hmm? The silly little bard? I sent her away. She was foolish enough to attack me. I’m sure once she’s recovered, assuming she does, you and her can have your pathetic little showdown.” Lady Kalisa released the shackles. “Now get out before I decide that dragging your carcass out of here in a week or so isn’t preferable to looking at you any longer.”
          Allisandra did not need further encouragement to teleport out of the dungeon. After arriving at her temporary home, Allisandra collapsed on her bed and was asleep moments later.
          Jana knew what she needed now. One of those moronic boiler based contraptions she could use to catch that insane woman off guard. They seemed to like to explode and that’s exactly what she wanted it to do. It had taken her almost an hour of wading through a sea of those chattering little pests before she finally found the one she wanted. Apparently the crazy woman up on the hill’s name was Janice. Throckmorton Geargrinder was her mortal enemy… or something. Several of the gnomes were all too ready to tell Jana the history of the rivalry, or the town, or some other irrelevant information.
          Geargrinder was no less obnoxious than Janice was. He’d just not tried to kill Jana twenty seconds after she had entered his house. “Now you say you want some sort of wheeled device to assault Janice with? Why I could build you a grand device with enormous pounding fists that belched flames from its mighty head, and howled like a mechanical demon. Next month. You see this month…” he began to rattle on about how he had things to fix around town, another boiler had exploded at the inn, and some boy had been killed, and it would take him a month at least to get it all done.
          “Well don’t you have something a little less… umm… elaborate in rolling death machines?” Jana asked getting the feeling she was about to be sorry she did.
          “LESS ELABORATE?” Geargrinder huffed. “You are going to attack my worst nemesis and you want to take less than my absolute best out there? Why this is utterly shameful! I will not allow it! Out! Now! Come back in one week!” The little man shoved with all his might at Jana’s waist to little avail. “You could, umm, maybe just let me push you out? You’re ruining the entire dramatic effect you know?”
          Jana blinked “Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t know it was important.”
          “NOT IMPORTANT!” He thundered. For such a little man he could certainly yell loudly enough. “Strange little girl you are taking on the most vile, despicable, creatuew who twisted of the fine art of high tech gnomish science into something disgusting” He spat on the floor “Even if she is quite the looker. But no matter!” Geargrinder raised a finger high into the air, which barely came up to Jana’s midsection. “This must be the grandest fight in the history of grand fights! Now!” he began to push Jana again, who shrugged and stumbled forward for him “Out! Out! OUT! I must be allowed to prepare!”
          Once Jana was back into the snowy cold the gnome man slammed his front door. That must be for dramatic effect too. It probably wasn’t all that wise to tell the little man all she wanted was a rolling bomb. It might hurt his ego. Still something stupidly elaborate might work a little better. If he could build ridiculous things like that who knows what that Janice woman might be able to create.
          As Jana arrived back at the shelter she saw one of Allisandra’s portals open up, and the sorceress practically tumbled out of it. She looked like a wreck. “Allisandra?” she gasped softly. Jana began to run through the snow towards the sorceress, but Allisandra didn’t even seem to notice the barbarian girl as she went inside her magical home.
          Jana caught a glimpse of Allisandra’s face just before she disappeared down the hallway and into her room. The woman had been crying. “Allisandra?” She called, but the sorceress never replied. By the time Jana caught up with her, Allisandra had halfway on her bed, asleep and in danger of falling off. Jana sighed and pulled the woman’s boots off. Then gently picked her rival up, and pulled back the blankets on her bed. Finally she tucked Allisandra into her bed.
          Allisandra stirred a little shaking her head “Mee Lien, why?” she cried out before falling silent again.
          Whatever this was about it involved their mutual friend Mee Lien. Allisandra was too dead to ask now. But in the morning, certainly. Jana had to spend a week here and it would be her turn to help the ice sorceress this time.
          When Allisandra didn’t awake the next day, Jana went out and got that garishly dressed priestess that had healed the barbarian woman yesterday. The gnome priestess explained that Allisandra had been poisoned with a particularly nasty, but non-fatal poison. In the first stage the victim would fall unconscious for a few hours, and then wake up groggy and a little paranoid, but feeling otherwise fine for about 2-3 hours. The second stage would hit after that, putting the victim into a fitful sleep which could last as long as a week. No magic could heal this poison. It would just have to run its course.
          Jana thanked the priestess and then spent her week that she was going to have to wait on Geargrinder anyway tending to Allisandra. The sorceress was warm, which, for Allisandra was probably a bad thing, so Jana kept ice on the mage’s forehead. Jana was no healer, but she did the best she could under the circumstances. She could get Allisandra barely awake enough to eat. The priestess had instructed her on how to do that, but it was only to be done a few times a day.
          The priestess had also given the barbarian some gnomish device, which she assured Jana was not going to explode, ever. It was to allow Allisandra’s body to perform its natural functions such as waste removal without requiring her to wake. Jana was simply to replace the bag once a day. That part was so vile. Jana hoped Allisandra appreciated everything her new nursemaid was doing for her.
          On the fourth day Allisandra’s fever broke, and she regained consciousness. Her body felt weak, like it was a wet noodle. She tried to push herself up but a hand went down onto her shoulder. “Oh no. You’re not going anywhere.” Jana looked down at the sorceress sternly. “I owe you a lot of things, Allisandra. My life several times over, and revenge for the multiple times you’ve crushed my pride. Right now, I’m going to see you through this.”
          “How long?” Allisandra asked weakly. “Has it been?”
          “Four days. The priestess said it could take up to a week for this to work its way through your system. It’s a rare magical poison. Who did this to you?” Jana was determined. Allisandra had done too much for and to her to let someone else take her friend and rival away. Whoever had done this would pay.
          Allisandra turned her head and closed her eyes. Mee Lien, why? The sorceress had seen the look in Mee Lien’s eyes just before collapsing. It was a sorrowful one, as if she hadn’t wanted to do it, but something made her. “It’s not important. That’s my personal business to settle.” She coughed. “How long… have you been here?”
          Jana sighed and sat back into the chair she had set next to Allisandra’s bed. “The entire time. I followed you in, you didn’t even notice me. When you didn’t get up the next day and you felt warm, I knew something was wrong.” Even half dead, Allisandra was still not answering her questions satisfactorily. Jana looked to the doorway. “One day, I’m going to get you to give me a straight answer. Stop dodging all my questions. Sylvia even gave me that.”
          Weakly Allisandra spoke. “I’m not Sylvia.”
          “You need your rest, Allisandra.” Jana wiped tears from her eyes. Of course Allisandra wasn’t Sylvia. But it didn’t make her any less important to the barbarian girl. She stood and seeing Allisandra was sleeping again, left the room and closed the door. Her rival was going to be ok. The priestess said she would, but Jana wanted to be sure. She’d already lost one friend since coming to this town. She wasn’t going to lose two.
          The next day Allisandra had felt strong enough to start getting out of bed, though Jana tried to keep the sorceress in it as much as she could. That had been a struggle. She’d let Allisandra take a hot bath, and go to the bathroom, but that was it. The sorceress was particularly grumpy about it at first. Fussing that a little girl had no right to boss her around. The hurt look in Jana’s eyes had made Allisandra immediately apologize.
          Jana was depressed. All of this happening to the people close to her. Sylvia had left her. Jana also knew once her business here was concluded, Allisandra would leave her too. Why? Why was everyone she cared so much about leaving her behind? She wasn’t strong enough to do this on her own.
          Allisandra. Certainly they would meet again. But who knew on which side of the battlefield they would be on when it happened? Jana pulled out the dagger Allisandra had made for her and deep into the rune covered gleaming blade, as tears formed in her eyes once more. Was she going to have to kill Allisandra with the dagger the sorceress had made for her? It seemed such a horrible thing. She wanted Allisandra to be her friend, to stay with her. Why did Allisandra have to have a stone in the first place? It wasn’t fair.
          She felt a cool hand on her shoulder. Jana didn’t even look up. “You’re supposed to be in bed.”
          “And you aren’t supposed to be feeling sorry for yourself. I suppose we’re both allowed to do things we aren’t supposed to be.” Allisandra took her hand away and shuffled into the kitchen. “Now where is that tea?”
          Jana hopped up and followed her. “Allisandra go back to bed. I’ll make you some tea.”
          “Not this tea you won’t. It’s a special tea. Ah there it is.” Allisandra pulled a small brown pouch down from the cupboard. She set a kettle on to boil while rolling the bag over in her hands. “This is a very special tea. My mother gave it to me. When I was a little girl.” She sighed. “Except I was never a little girl, was I, Jana? But it doesn’t make this tea any less real. I can hold it in my hand, I can see it. When we drink it I’ll be able to taste it. Does that make this world any less real? Or memories of our pasts here? Are they real or just a cruel game?”
          Jana had no words for Allisandra. She stared at the bag Allisandra looked at so fondly “Why is it so special?”
          “Because it was a gift. On her deathbed. She told me this tea had the power to warm the heart. And I should drink it whenever it felt life was crushing my spirit.” She glanced at Jana. “I think we could both use a cup.”
          The kettle whistled and Allisandra two down a pair of tea cups Jana didn’t even know existed, and the younger girl had taken the chance to poke through the house while Allisandra was recovering. Out of curiosity she kept telling herself. Allisandra had always kept herself a mystery, distant yet close, Jana wanted to know more. She was left with questions but no answers. It was Allisandra’s magic house. Why should it cooperate and give up the ice mage’s secrets?
          “They will bring out the full flavor of the tea.” Allisandra explained. “Just like with a good wine, the shape and texture of the cup it is put into is as important as what goes into the wine itself. These cups were my grandmother’s. I can remember her, but yet, it feels like a false memory.”
          Allisandra put a small pinch of the ground tea leaves into each cup before adding the boiling water. As she reached to pick up the cups Jana put a hand over Allisandra’s “Let me. Those cups are important to you.”
          A soft smile crossed the sorceress’s lips and she made her way to the table. Jana carefully set one of the cups before Allisandra, and then set her own on the table before sitting down. “Do you think we’ll remember everything when we leave this world? Or do you think things will be as if we never left.” Jana took a sip of the tea. It was bitter, but soothing.
          “I don’t know, Jana. We were given false memories. Fake pasts, to make our wishes more real, and to coincide with this world’s needs. I can remember my years at the magic academy, how hard I worked to master my magic, my affinity for ice spells that got me recruited by The Frozen Daggers. I could tell you exactly how happy I was when it happened. A sixteen year old girl getting accepted into one of the most prestigious magical guilds of them all.” Allisandra took a sip of her tea. “But did any of it actually happen?”
          “Or is it the old world that is the illusion?” She continued. “Maybe we’re all waking up from a dream where we longed for a world that made sense instead of this patchwork place. Who is to say what is real and what is not? We believe this world to be the real one for now. So it is.” Jana listened quietly as Allisandra talked philosophically. “When you have all the stones, what happens Jana? Do you become an 8 year old girl? Do I become Allison? Does everyone else just go on living as if this never happened? Or do you have 30-some odd people mad at an 8 year old girl for doing the right thing?”
          “I don’t know, if I can be eight year old me anymore, Allisandra.” Jana looked into her tea as if she expected to find the answers in the slightly yellow tinted liquid. “I’ve changed so much. I never even found Sylvia’s daughter. My parents. I mean, they should be out there somewhere shouldn’t they? With wish stones? What would they wish for?”
          Allisandra put a hand over Jana’s “They would wish for their little girl to be a strong woman one day.” Her eyes shone with soft warmth. “They would be proud of you, Jana, and rightfully so. I remember the angry little child that took away my stone. She was doing this because she had to. Because she messed up, and now she had to fix it. But she also hated every minute of it.”
          She pulled her hand back before she continued. “I can’t say I know what your journey has been like. But I see you as you’re nearing what I have to assume is the end of it. You are a different woman, yet the same. You’re driven, with the need to finish this task. You’ve met many people. You’ve taken away many stones. Some given willingly, some taken by force, or deals made. You’ll take the one from here by force.” Allisandra cupped her hand under the teacup as she took another drink of the bitter tea. “You won’t be given a choice.”
          “But you will come out of it stronger. Whatever life throws at you Jana, you will overcome. That is because you can.” She began to cough. “I should get back to bed. Cherish the time you spent with Sylvia, Jana. Do not cheapen her willingness to pass on because you hurt from losing her. I do believe she loved you very much, and would want you to be the strong woman she knew you could, when she felt it was time to go.”
          Jana watched Allisandra walk back to her bedroom. She almost jumped up to help the weakened sorceress, but something told her Allisandra needed to make this journey on her own. Not just to her bedroom, but her way in life. Just as the barbarian girl would have to do. She finished off her tea, and gently washed the cups, putting them back into the same cupboard Allisandra had taken them from. Allisandra’s mother had been right. The tea did warm the heart.
          By the time that word came to Jana that the thing Geargrinder had built for her was ready, Allisandra was back to full strength. “I thought you might like to come see the horrible device the crazy gnome built for me. For once, I hope it does explode. Just when, I actually want it to.” Jana said with a lopsided grin.
          Allisandra had to laugh. “So you were a busy girl. See?” She tapped Jana in the middle of the forehead. “You can think when you want to. Well let’s go see the monstrosity. I suspect it will hiss, clank, and wheeze, just like everything else in this town. I’m not certain it will explode on your timetable though”
          Geargrinder was waiting for the two women out front of his house as they walked up. “Good! Good! You’re here. This will certainly be the end of that crazed woman.” He ran around towards the back of the house excitedly yammering all the way about the amazing features of his device. The two women looked at each other, shrugged, and followed.
          Jana blinked a few times as she looked at the large metal, thing before her. Allisandra raised an eyebrow. She silently admitted she was impressed, at the thing. Geargrinder called it the Juggernaut Mark VI. It was menacing looking enough. Though that could be said of most things here, this one was just, huge and menacing.
          Jana didn’t want to imagine what had happened to Marks I-V. “It comes with all the latest features. Spiked front wheels for crushing your enemies, the best steam engine a gnome can make. That giant grimacing face isn’t just for show. It spouts fire at the mere press of a button.” He muttered something about if he could remember which one. But that was no matter. “It will crush anything in its path, and leave a nice pine scent in its wake. I mean mustn’t leave a mess when you decimate your enemies!”
          “Umm… right… we wouldn’t want… umm… messy destruction or anything.” Jana looked helplessly at Allisandra who looked like it was all she could do not to die laughing.
          “Oh and it has giant pummeling fists on the side, to pound your opponent. They can attack horizontally, and vertically!” Geargrinder proudly proclaimed. “And its treaded rear wheels will provide excellent traction on even the most slippery of surfaces.”
          Allisandra interrupted him. “Have you actually tested any of these features?”
          “Well, no.” The gnome admitted “But the lady wanted it in a week. So we didn’t have a lot of time. But I can assure you as sure as my name is Throckmorton Geargrinder that it will not fail you, or we’ll give you a nice funeral at our expense. We’ll even make your coffin and build a special grave digging device and coffin inserter for no extra charge!” He offered cheerfully.
          For a moment all Jana could do was blink in shock a few times. “What an umm… reassuring guarantee.” Allisandra couldn’t help herself anymore. She busted out laughing. Jana tried to ignore her. “How… umm easy is this thing to operate?”
          “Why the Juggernaut Mark VI is so simple to use even a human could operate it! You simply…” Geargrinder began to go into a complex explanation of how to operate the device as Allisandra stumbled off, laughing so hard her face turned purple. The gnome didn’t even seem to notice.
          Jana closed her eyes and wondered why she had thought this was a good idea. Aside from the fact she wanted the thing to explode. That was probably the one feature that was guaranteed to work though when was the question. She looked the hulking metal vehicle over. A steamroller wheel as tall as she was with small spikes all over it was attached by long brass rods to a chassis. The front of it had an angry looking gnome head, with a little hole in its clenched teeth where she guessed the fire came out. She noticed the head bore a certain resemblance to Geargrinder. Giant fists were attached on either side of the thing. At the rear a group of pipes rose several feet in the air over a pair of treaded wheels. She supposed it would have to do.
          “Umm, thank you Geargrinder. I’m certain this will be exactly what I need to crush Janice.” The little gnome looked pleased despite Jana’s obvious sarcasm. “Well no time to waste. I should attack before she’s prepared. Where do I sit?”
          “Oh just behind the head. There should be a ladder. Oh there it is. I built it human sized just for you.” He began to ramble on again, while Jana climbed into the cockpit.
          A legion of buttons, dials, and gearshifts awaited her. Jana knew how to drive a motorbike, not a piece of construction equipment disguised as a death machine. There was a more prominent red button which she assumed was the start one. “Umm does this red button start it?” She called down.
          “OH No don’t touch that! Never touch that button. That’s the self destruct button.” Geargrinder called up warningly.
          Well at least she could make it explode. Though whether or not she could get out alive was another question entirely. And why include a feature that wasn’t meant to be used? Just when Jana thought the gnomes couldn’t make any less sense, they surprised her again. After punching a few random buttons and pulling a few of the levers, the thing began to shudder to life. Steam hissed out of the pipes behind her, and the thing began to trundle forward with the clanking of gears turning. As it picked up speed, Jana wondered how exactly she was supposed to steer it.
          Allisandra finally caught her breath and stood. She had fallen over she was laughing so hard. She dusted the snow off her cloak and looked at Geargrinder. “So umm… that thing will work right?”
          “Why there’s over a 45% probability it will get right to Janice’s house without the boiler exploding! It’s much better than the Mark V. It exploded about 50 feet from here. It took me weeks to rebuild my workshop.” As he rambled on, Allisandra ran after Jana. The girl was in over her head.
          Jana heard a wheezing she didn’t like from the back of the Juggernaut Mark VI. She wasn’t certain she was ready for that free funeral service. It had taken some experimentation to learn how to steer it. There were levers on either side that seemed to slowly turn the head and front wheel in a given direction. If she pushed the left lever forward it began to turn slowly to the left. If both levers were at center position, it went straight. Pushing one lever all the way forward and one all the way back made it attempt to turn sharply. The one time she had tried that the metal beast had began to rock dangerously to the side indicating it was going to flip over. Jana had stopped that quickly. The thing was unwieldy, loud, and handled like a drunken cow.
          As the Juggernaut Mark VI roared towards Janice’s house she looked out through the telescope. “Oh that Geargrinder actually managed to get one of his deathtraps this far did he? Well we’ll see about that.” She scurried off dodging the various things left in her floor and pushed a button on the far wall.
          The ground ahead began to shudder, and what looked like cannons rose from the snow. Jana’s eyes widened. “You have got to be kidding me!” The first one fired and hit the rolling death trap right smack in the middle of the metal bulbous nose. A sharp brass ring resounded, as the spiked ball bounced off. Jana began frantically pushing buttons, until she found the one that activated the arms. Another series of levers were required to control the arms but she finally got the hang of it, not long after one of the spiked cannon balls whanged the side of the cockpit.
          “Lovely design flaw, Geargrinder. I can’t control the arms, and steer.” The juggernaut pressed on, not concerned as it crushed the one of the cannons under its wheels. Jana brought the arms up to block the cockpit from oncoming attacks. Spiked balls that would have crushed her skull bounced off each arm.
          Allisandra watched in horror as the machine kept rolling forward, under attack from cannons. She couldn’t let Jana face this alone. She summoned up an ice lance and it launched into the gears of the first cannon, freezing them solid. As it tried to swivel to hit its moving target, it began to whine, and then exploded in a cloud of steam as the barrel went flying off landing with a resounding thud in the snow a short distance away from Allisandra.
          A rumbling shook the ground and knocked Allisandra off her feet. “Now what?” She cried.
          Jana saw the left cannon fly off in a sudden explosion. Stupid gnomish technology. She felt the right cannon still blasting at her as it shook the Juggernaut Mark VI with every blow. The ground began to shudder ahead, and snow fell off two giant metal plates as they began to slowly rise up.
          Jana felt the Juggernaut stall for a moment as its front wheel began to grind its way through Janice’s house. Despite looking like a ramshackle nightmare the thing was very sturdy, but eventually it gave away to the greater mass of the Juggernaut.
          About halfway through the house the remaining cannon launched a cannonball right into the back of the Juggernaut, crushing some of the steam pipes shut. The rolling death machine began to shudder violently. Allisandra picked herself up and cried out a warning to Jana. Before she could run to help, Allisandra realized she had her own problems. The remaining cannon was spinning around to face her. “Oh no you don’t.” Allisandra conjured up an ice ball and flung it right into the barrel of the cannon, plugging it.
          The cannon shuddered in what seemed in unison with the Juggernaut, and exploded about the same time. Shrapnel went everywhere. Allisandra had to dive into the snow to avoid large chunks of metal that flew at her. She peeked up, looking at the smoldering wreckage. What had been Janice’s house was blasted across the snowy plain. The Juggernaut was a blackened mess that was wheezing and hissing as it tried to continue forward on its path of destruction before finally just falling completely apart. “Jana…” Allisandra whispered.
          She couldn’t have died. Not that easily. The sorceress was about to get up and run towards the wreckage when yet another more pressing matter made itself known. A ten foot tall, metal bronze colored giant, with a giant saw blade on one arm, and what looked to be some sort of cannon on the other, rose from the ground. Atop it was a cackling gnome. The entire thing stood on two fat legs. “Aww” She called in a booming voice. “I was hoping to crush Geargrinder’s machine myself. Where is the little twerp? I owe him for wrecking my house. Again.”
          Allisandra pulled herself up out of the snow. She knocked it off her clothes before looking up at the mechanical monstrosity. “You’re going to pay.” She breathed through clenched teeth. The gnome was unprotected. A simple ice lance would end her. Allisandra called up the necessary power and launched it at the cockpit of the new metal menace. The deadly icy lance sailed through the air swift as an arrow towards the gnome’s head. However just before reaching its intended target, a reddish shield glimmered. And then the lance was back on its way to its caster.
          The lance ripped into Allisandra’s side. She stumbled backwards clutching the wound, which oozed out blood. “That’s not going to work, sorceress. Your spells are useless against me.” Allisandra could hear the gears whining as they turned for the first time in what seemed like ages. The cannon arm was aiming for her.
          A quick spell numbed the pain, and covered her side with frost. It would stop the bleeding. She barely had time to get up a blue shimmering protective shield when the red beam blasted into her. The shield broke from the force and knocked Allisandra backwards several feet into the snow. Steam spit out of the joints as the legs began to move. The thing was slow as a turtle but armored like one too. If Allisandra had learned anything about the stupid steam based technologies besides the fact they exploded, it was that joints were weak points.
          Allisandra picked herself up again and summoned another of the ice balls. She threw it as hard as she could at the left leg of the mechanical monstrosity. Much like before the reddish shield glowed, and the ball bounced back and slammed into Allisandra’s chest, knocking the thin woman off her feet again and covering her chest in ice. Magic wasn’t going to work on it? What the hell was this thing?
          “Silly little mage. My shields are completely magic resistant. Your pitiful spells can’t penetrate my armor but you’ll feel the sting of your own magic. And my saw blade can penetrate you.” Janice cackled madly as the thing trundled forward. Allisandra had barely managed to catch her breath and roll out of the way before the giant saw blade ripped through the ground where she had just been. Allisandra could feel the steam scalding her face. There was nothing to do but run. Without her spells, she couldn’t hurt this thing.
          Jana awoke with a groan. Her body ached all over. The last thing she remembered that stupid Juggernaut had wheezed and then exploded, launching her seat into the air. She’d jumped off to the side just before the house exploded with the stupid deathtrap. She was lucky she had landed in a snow bank or she probably would have been killed. The barbarian girl pulled herself to her feet, to see Allisandra fighting for her life against some metal beast. No not a beast, some sort of steam driven clockwork battle suit. Janice.
          For some reason Allisandra wasn’t casting directly at the thing. She had created an ice patch beneath its feet, which made it slide and miss her with a blast of its cannon. Janice had seen what Allisandra could do. Why was she playing with this thing? No. Allisandra wasn’t toying. She was running scared. Did her magic not work on Janice’s creation? Jana cursed as she started to run and then instead tumbled down the snow bank into another pile of snow near the wreckage. She didn’t know what she could do to that thing, but she had to help Allisandra.
          “You can’t run forever, Sorceress!” Janice taunted.
          Allisandra knew Janice was right. She summoned a localized blizzard, which howled at Janice as the shield shimmered. It wasn’t bouncing back, but it was blinding Janice. Which is what Allisandra wanted. She darted between the things legs. She couldn’t cast at it directly. But indirectly… that should work. She concentrated her power. It would take a moment to do cast this spell. She hoped desperately the storm would keep Janice busy long enough. She wished she had time to cast the protective spells.
          Jana nodded as she saw Allisandra’s storm whip up. The sorceress was blinding Janice. Good timing! That would give Jana the opportunity she needed. She ran headlong into the storm. It was easy to find the mechanical beast. She could feel its steam scalding her. A quick protective shield spell kept the worst of it away, but she was sweating already from the heat and her protective clothes were getting soaked as well as not stopping her skin from turning red. She slashed forward with her dagger, and the blade blazed a brilliant purple. But the reddish shield fired up again, and the purple light bounced backwards and bit deep into Jana’s leg just above the knee. The barbarian girl screamed with pain.
          Allisandra’s concentration was almost broken by a girl’s scream. Jana! Well as long as she was screaming she was alive. She could worry about how terrible a thought that was later Refocusing her attention on the spell, Allisandra finished her summoning. It left her exhausted, and she fell to her knees. A mystic circle glowed blue before her, and a humanoid creature of pure ice rose before her. “State your name and your purpose in calling me.” Its voice howled with the fury of the north wind.
          “I am Allisandra. A humble sorceress of The Frozen Daggers. Please great Zin, Lord of the Ice Elementals I beg you for this favor.” She wheezed.
          “Why should I simply not crush you where you kneel before me, sorceress? You did not bind me. This was foolish. Do you wish your end to come so soon?” Zin’s eyes glowed with a dangerous blue light.
          “I did not have time. Please great king. I beg you. Fight my enemy, the gnome called Janice. You may take what you will of me. But save Jana Anderson, the barbarian girl.” She pleaded.
          “You will give of yourself to me. Something you cannot replace. You will give me a portion of your magic.” Allisandra screamed as she felt magical energy being ripped from her very being. It was like having a part of her soul torn away. Calling it pure agony was like calling a volcano hot. “You will never have the power to summon me again. But I complete the task before me.” Allisandra fell face down into the snow. She barely had the strength to breathe.
          The ice beast turned to face the clanking metal thing before it. It slammed into the back of the machine with a force of an avalanche. “I have been called forth to destroy you, Janice. I am Zin, Lord of the realm of Ice. Your end is near.”
          Janice’s device stumbled forward a few steps. She glanced at the dials. The shield was weakening. A few more hits like that and they would come down fully. She spun the torso around, and aimed her cannon at the thing. The legs carried her backwards as she fired. “You won’t get a second chance to do that monster.” She fired away, as steam blew out of the mechanical arm. The beam hit the direct center of Zin’s chest, leaving a huge hole.
          The ice king laughed. “Foolish mortal. I can not be defeated by such paltry weapons.” He clenched his frozen fists, and the air swirled around the hole. The water vapor was pulled out of the air and sealed up the damage.” Then he ran forward again and slammed a shoulder into Janice’s machine.
          The panel lit up red. One more blow and the shields would be gone completely. This thing was made of ice. So she would simply have to turn up the heat. The beam cannon wouldn’t affect it, but a concentrated blast of steam should melt that thing right out of existence. As Zin prepared to bring his fists down again, Janice flipped the switches and raised the cannon again. “Eat this, Ice King.” She cackled.
          Zin’s fists slammed down onto the cockpit cracking the red shields just as he took a faceful of concentrated stream. Zin stumbled backwards howling in pain. A second blast forced him back even further. “Too weakened.” He gasped. “Must return home.”
          Janice watched satisfied, the ice elemental melted into the snow and was gone. “The stupid sorceress’s little pet broke my shields. Well I’ll just have to break her in return. An eye for an eye after all.”
          Jana saw the machine slowly turn around and begin heading back towards the seemingly unconscious Allisandra. Jana had packed snow into the wound on her leg. It would have to be enough. Allisandra had given up something. She couldn’t hear everything the thing said, but she caught ‘you must give of yourself to me.’ She had also caught ‘Protect Jana Anderson.’ That was just before she heard Allisandra scream in such pain, Jana thought she was being tortured. Wait, when had she told Allisandra her last name? It didn’t matter now, Allisandra needed her, and Janice needed to die.
          Jana limped forward. Even at a limp she was faster than that mechanical thing. Her golden shield protected her from the worst of the steam burns, but the barbarian’s skin was beginning to blister. One of Allisandra’s herbal baths would feel great after this. She was going to live to take one. And so was Allisandra.
          Allisandra groaned in agony. Most of her spell power for the day had been taken along with her ability to tap into the strongest of the magical forces. But she could muster one more spell. She had seen Zin smash through the shield. She hoped that would give her the chance to get one more ice ball through. She summoned the icy ball as her breaths came in short pants. Feebly she made the motion of throwing it forward. It didn’t affect the spell one way or the other how hard she threw it. So long as it hit its target.
          As intended the ball flew true, freezing up one of the knee joints. It wouldn’t last long before the steam melted it. Hopefully If Jana was still somewhere out there, it would be enough. Darkness took her before she could find out.
          Jana saw the iceball fly and lock up one of the metal man thing’s knees. She took the opportunity. If Allisandra’s spells were working, her dagger should too. She leapt, cursing her aching leg, and sliced into the thing’s leg. Steam blasted her and she felt as if her skin might be burned off. The thing shrieked as if it were a wounded animal. Jana screamed as her flesh seemed to be on fire before she fell into the soothing snow.
          The contraption shuddered, with both legs hampered, and vital pipes sliced open the boiler engine began to overheat. Janice leaped out and tumbled into the snow as the thing shuddered and then exploded. “Damn you, and that sorceress girl. I can build more machines. But you, you cannot build a new body. You’ll die first then her.”
          As the auto crossbow was leveled at her, Jana tried to muster one last ounce of energy to save herself. But her body was battered, scalded, and weak. One too many explosions had weakened her. She’d barely managed to protect her face from the shrapnel that had ripped into her. The snow was already turning red with her blood.
          Before Janice got a shot off a bolt slammed into her chest. Then another, and a third. She dropped the crossbow and looked forward. “Geargrinder.” She croaked. “You bastard.” Janice stumbled a few steps backwards before her eyes rolled into the back of her head. A light shimmered over her chest, and an oval onyx stone rose up, hovered a moment, and then fell between the shafts of the bolts.
          “The stone. I need it” Jana gasped.
          “Hush now, little lady. What you need is a doctor. You’re ripped up something fierce. I’ll get your stone, and then get the priestess out here for you and your friend.” Geargrinder ran off as fast as his little legs could carry him.
          Jana awoke, naked, and in a metal bathtub, filled with a greenish water. The gnome with the unsightly yellow robes sat nearby. “I am glad to see you awakened. After I tended to your friend, she said she had business to attend to.”
          Jana glanced around. This wasn’t Allisandra’s house. Not the inn or the modern house. “Where…?”
          The priestess shushed her. “You’re at our temple. Your friend said you would panic if you awakened in the inn. She also gave us a small piece of green rock and said to put you and it in a bath. It would help you. She left one more thing for you. Once you’re dressed, you may have it.”
          Jana relaxed a while in the bath. She wanted a chance to thank Allisandra for helping her again. Without Allisandra’s sacrifice, Jana could have never defeated Janice and gotten the crazy gnome woman’s wish stone. Jana pulled herself out of the bath as it started to get cold, toweled off, and put back on her skins, and then protective clothing she had gotten in the last town. She picked up her pack, and found it was surprisingly light. In a panic she opened it. The bag with the stones, it was gone!
          Her mind raced, no the priests wouldn’t take them and that sheriff had assured her no one around here would touch anything of Jana’s. Maybe that thing Allisandra had left for her. Maybe the stones had gotten loose and Allisandra gathered them up for her. That had to be it. The box Allisandra left for the young woman was way too small to be all the stones. Jana’s heart sank. Then where were they? Tears formed in her eyes. Was everything lost?
          A handwritten note fluttered down as Jana picked up a small box wrapped in plain brown paper and tied with a white string. Jana snatched up the paper, and saw it was written in a woman’s handwriting, probably Allisandra’s. She wiped away the tears. Maybe Allisandra had just put the stones somewhere safe and the box had a key.

          I am so sorry I had to do this to you. After everything we’ve done and been through together, to take advantage of you like this, it’s cruel and underhanded. I know. I guess when it comes right down to it, I’m no better than Mee Lien. I had to take them Jana, I know you won’t or can’t understand. I know it’s selfish and foolish of me. You’ll never forgive me for this, and I deserve it. For hurting a friend and respected rival so badly. I hurt you a little many times. This is by far the worst thing I’ve ever done to you.
          I couldn’t take hers though Jana. Don’t ask me how I knew which one it was. I just did. Some things, they’re too precious to take away. I suppose the next time we meet, we’ll be enemies. I hate that, but it was the die that was cast when life put us on the opposite sides of the game. If it hadn’t of been for that, I like to think we could have been friends in this reality, Jana.
          One day, please forgive me for this. But I gave up something else for you. Something I can never replace. The scales had to be balanced. He won’t know I have them, so they’ll be safe for the day we meet again. When you come to take them from me and one of us dies in the process. I both look forward, and mourn the coming of that day. I’m so proud of what you’ve become, Jana. Become even stronger, so out final fight, will be worthy of one of Mee Lien’s songs.
          Your friend, even if you hate me,

          Jana ripped open the box, and inside was a single faded jade stone. Jana could almost see the image of Sylvia inside. She clutched it tightly to her chest and the tears began to flow. Why Allisandra? After everything, why? How could you do this? She sat for a while clutching the stone. Allisandra and her stupid backhanded gifts. She always humiliated Jana and then gave something back. Though tears clouded her vision, Jana looked down at the stone. “I’ll get them all back, Sylvia. I swear to you I will. And I’ll make her pay.”
          Allisandra hated herself. She’d committed the ultimate in underhanded vile acts. She hadn’t even been respectful enough to Jana, to let the barbarian girl see it happen. It seemed like she had barely gotten back to San Antonio, sheer willpower had let her tap into the magical energies and even after the priestess’s healing, Allisandra was completely exhausted.
          Allisandra couldn’t risk Jana coming after her. Not in this weakened state. It seemed like she had just barely had enough time to stash the gems in her pouch before Vengeance called for her. Sweet Gaia, couldn’t he let her rest first? She was tired, and pummeled from that fight with the insane gnome. A part of her soul was missing as well, and not just what she had lost when she summoned Zin.
          She dragged herself into Vengeance’s throne room. She didn’t even have the energy to be overly snarky. “You rang?” She doubted Vengeance got the reference.
          “I see she still lives. Did you at least get me some information on their technology?” Vengeance asked non-chalantly. He hadn’t actually expected Allisandra to kill Jana. What she had done surprised him greatly, yet it didn’t. However there was no need to let on that he knew anything.
          “Yeah. It explodes a lot.” Allisandra sighed tiredly. “There was one piece of it however that could turn magic back on its caster. It was destroyed, along with its creator, and likely any blueprints of it that might have existed. Probably for the best. That technology is too dangerous to be left running free. If you don’t mind, I need to sleep now.”
          Vengeance nodded in agreement. He wouldn’t be amused with his enemies learning how to make machines that turned spells back on him. He ignored her comment about sleep “If that is all to report, I thought you might like to know a little tidbit of information as a reward. I heard your, friend Mee Lien was found in Memphis. Ironically, having researched information on her song, it’s exactly where I would have ended up telling her to go.” Vengeance cocked his head. “You look, different, ice princess. More, human, your skin is normal, but your hair is still the beautiful snowy white.”
          Allisandra still hated that pet name for her. “Yeah. I had to… summon a powerful elemental. He stripped me of some of my power. When I lost my power, my skin returned to normal. I kind of like my hair this way too.”
          Vengeance laughed, that booming laugh. “I agree. It suits you ice princess. I suppose you’ll be taking off to Memphis then?”
          Allisandra looked at the floor. “In time. Maybe. I don’t know. If she’s there, Mee Lien is likely dead. The elves don’t like outsiders. If that’s where Lady Kalisa sent her, then she’s as good as dead.” Allisandra turned to leave. She wiped a tear from her eye.
          “She still lives, from what I hear. Though she is not in good shape. For some reason the Elves have taken at least a neutral stance towards her. You, well they probably won’t like you so much.” Vengeance closed his eyes a moment. “If you go, Allisandra. Be careful. Nothing I can do will protect you there.”
          Had she actually heard concern in Vengeance’s voice? Probably because he was afraid he’d lose his little ice princess. Why should he care? She wasn’t even as useful to him anymore. “Thank you. If you’ll excuse me, I need to sleep.”
          Vengeance watched her go. He was concerned about Allisandra. The woman was too kind to Jana despite taking away the stones. What was stolen could be recovered after all. She had lost so many opportunities to kill the girl. Given them up purposely. Even leaving Jana the one stone that would matter to the barbarian girl most when the sorceress had stolen the rest. If Vengeance had a little sister, he would want her to have the same kind heart. Though perhaps not the slight streak of treachery.

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