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Dusty Magic

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Marithyda Skyelorn's cave was about as glamorous as Paolin's barn. She tended a small fire in the middle of the rocky crevice while Paolin examined a questionable leafy bed in a dark corner. Smoke began to fill and warm the cramped space, and he soon came across the heaped carcass of a scrawny moose. It must have been the source of the blood from outside. It pained him to look at the dead animal any longer, so he turned away. Marithyda was watching him carefully.

"Still a vegetarian?" She drawled. He sighed and trudged over to where Tulip was resting near the fire. It hadn't been difficult for him to summon the horse, although it took a while to convince her that she could trust the witch, plastered as she was in animal gore.

"Why do you say that like it's a bad thing?"

"Because animal meat is one of the only things on this planet worth living for." Paolin covered his horse's ears.

"Don't listen to her, baby. I won't let her eat you." Marithyda cracked a small smile, despite herself. It reminded Paolin -- just for a moment -- of the girl he knew from years ago. By the Seas, she must be twenty-one now. Maybe older. The revelation struck him harder than he knew it should. Paolin didn't think that he'd changed too much since their last meeting -- he was sure he'd always be a roguish, strikingly-handsome brute.

But she had grown into a formidable woman; gorgeous even, despite the scars. The gentle creases had disappeared between her eyes, and she'd filled out in every sense of the term. She was tall, lean, and sallow. But there was also a new darkness about her that he didn't remember – a tacit warning to get away as soon as possible or have something vital removed.

"How did you find me?" She asked, frowning. The expression twisted her lips gruesomely, and she carefully fixed her gaze on the fire. Paolin finally sat and leaned against Tulip's enormous flank. The mare was trembling with unease.

"I've heard rumors," he admitted, choosing his words carefully. She raised her eyebrows. "And I figured that if you went into hiding, you'd end up here. The Blades offer protection as well as isolation."

"True enough." Marithyda groaned and trudged over to the moose carcass, drawing her stone dagger. Paolin bit his lip as she began to carve into it. When she finished, she placed a few chunks of stringy meat onto a thin rock over the fire.

"Things have gotten worse in the Kingdom," he blurted out. Marithyda turned her head just enough that he could tell she was listening. "The King is showing no mercy towards the Touched. Ever since you escaped ..." He had to stop himself.

"Go on," she muttered, jaw taut.

"After you escaped, he mandated the creation of forced labor camps throughout the provinces. All of the Exposition performers were denied their freedom at the end of the event, and I bet you can figure out who the slaves are."

"Why are you telling me this?" She spat, glaring at him. He was alarmed to notice, by the firelight, another jagged scar that crossed her collarbone and disappeared into her furs. "Are you trying to grieve me? Don't you think I've endured enough?"

"Marithyda, I was just trying --"

"I don't care what you were trying to do." She rose to her feet, and her eyes recalled a savage glitter that nearly sent Paolin scooting backwards. Tulip's energy spiked fearfully. "I've heard the stories: I know what people say about me. That I'm a hideous monster. That I'm a prince killer. That I'm a murderous thief. That I possess magic no human has the right to." She bared glittering white teeth in a grotesque grin. "Well, they're right, aren't they?"

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by Cammie Conn
When powerful witch Marithyda Skyelorn becomes a participant of the R...
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