I ASSUME YOU HAVE NO idea what a Luhel bond is. Don’t feel bad. At this point in the story, I was concerned with trying to figure out how many different shades of orange I could wear at the same time. So we all have our priorities.
Most aether spores—like the verdant spores and the zephyr spores—don’t involve any kind of bond. Using them is a simple matter of cause and effect.
Compressed aether drops to the planet in the form of spores, and a little water encourages it to grow in an explosive burst.
Midnight spores are different—in fact, they’re closer to how the aethers are supposed to work. Bringing midnight spores to life creates a temporary bond, a kind of symbiosis between host and aether. Unlike the Nahel bond, which trades in consciousness and anchoring to reality, the Luhel bond trades in physical matter. In this case, water.
Tress felt it as a sudden thirst, a drying of her mouth. She reached for the waterskin, then paused, transfixed by the motions of the spores.
They bubbled and undulated, melting and then enlarging like an inflating balloon. In seconds the puddle of goo—though it had begun as three tiny
spores—was as large as a person’s fist. There it stopped growing, blessedly,
though it continued to writhe and distort. For a moment a tiny face appeared
— stretching out of the black pus. Then it melted back in.
Offer, a thought impressed on Tress’s mind. Trade. Water. Give water.
Without knowing what she was doing, Tress agreed.
Midnight Essence, in all its different forms, looks for a pattern, a model. It often takes a cue from its creator or host—and in this case Tress glanced at Huck, who had backed all the way across the bed to the far corner, clutching his crust of bread before him like a somewhat-snacked-upon shield.
The Midnight Essence pulsed with purpose, elongating. It formed a black tail. Four paws. A face and snout…a body like a deformed tuber. Soon Tress found herself regarding a small creature that looked almost like a rat dipped in black paint. Except the hair seemed more a texture to the skin than individual hairs, and there wasn’t enough detail on the toes and the face.
It was too smooth. Jet black and glossy, as if made of tar. Or carved from a tub of lard by a talented artist with no other way to express themself. It
scurried back and forth across the bed, trying out its legs—and again, the motions were almost ratlike.
Though her thirst was increasing—and strangely, her eyes were beginning to feel dry—Tress couldn’t stop watching it. She took a drink—and found herself slurping down the entire waterskin. She hadn’t thought there would be enough room in her stomach, but once she was refreshed, the Luhel bond strengthened. She’d given it what it wanted, and in so doing gained some measure of control over it. She lost sight of the world around her, her vision fuzzing.
Then she was the not-rat. She could direct it, see through its eyes, smell
what it smelled. She immediately made the thing jump toward Huck, who
squeaked and ran under the bed. It was fun for reasons she couldn’t explain.
But no, she had work to do. Yes, important work that involved scampering across the bed and leaping onto the floor. When she hit, her feet squished into her body, and she had to pop them out again. After that, she scrambled to the door and squeezed under, coming out as goo that oozed back into
Shadows. She liked shadows. Down here, in these corridors below-decks, she could move virtually unseen. Even on the steps, the shadows were deep. But up above, the sun was out from behind the moon. Hateful sun, though it was slinking toward the horizon, drowsy, unaware of her. Midnight Tress
crouched on the steps, listening to the footfalls of the people, smelling the old leather of their shoes.
There. A shadow from the mast as the ship turned. She leaped into it, then ran along its length—jumping over the veins of silver in the deck. It would hurt her if she touched it, she knew, but she was stronger in this shape than
common spores. Mere proximity wouldn’t harm her.
She reached the captain’s cabin, which occupied the space directly underneath the quarterdeck. She definitely shouldn’t have been able to squeeze under that tiny gap between door and deck, but she did. The
reinflation took longer this time, but her eyes re-formed faster than the rest of her, and she was able to scan the room.
Crow sat at her desk by the porthole, writing something by the waning light of the setting sun. Her hat hung on a peg by the door, her canteen was open next to her, and she wore her jacket unbuttoned.
As soon as her feet were back, Midnight Tress scrambled into the deeper shadows beneath a bench. Crow smelled wrong. Of rotten weeds, and burning flesh, and something else Midnight Tress couldn’t identify. The other humans smelled of sweat and sweet flesh. Not Crow. Crow wasn’t a person, not entirely. The parasite was winning.
Midnight Tress realized she should have waited. Waited until Crow and Laggart were meeting. She should have planned. But plans…plans were things for people who didn’t exist yet. And Tress existed now.
What was that little book Crow was writing in? Midnight Tress inched
closer. Could she keep to the shadows enough that she could read the book? She craned her neck, looking up from the floor, trying to see. But the angle was all wrong. Could she…
No. No, she’d have to get right up beside Crow to look at the book. She felt excited and eager in this body, but…but even in darkness, she wasn’t invisible.
Just a little closer. She could get a little closer.
With effort, Tress held herself back. It was like trying to keep from eating when ravenous. She wanted to do what she wanted. Didn’t she?
Crow would leave soon. Evening mess. She’d go like she always did, get food, and then return. Wait.
The call went up. Crow shut her book, took a long drink from her canteen, then stood. She took her hat off the peg, went out the door, then locked it behind her.
Midnight Tress scrambled out of the shadows. She climbed up the table leg with claws too sharp for her otherwise soft and malleable body. Then she sprang onto the top of the table, so eager to reach the book that her feet twisted and distorted as she ran, extra nubs of more legs growing like tumors at her sides.
She reached the book and bit it, pulling it open to the page that Crow had left marked. And inside was…words?
Words that smelled of dust. Dusty, dirty, boring, stupid, melty, inky words.
Why words? Why had she been so eager?
Words. Read the words.
She didn’t want to, but she did anyway, growing her eyes larger until they bulged from her face—taking in more, making the details more distinct.
Many of the words looked printed by some device. But written in the margins, in what she assumed was Crow’s handwriting, were notes.
A way to be rid of them, finally? the note said. A way to banish the spores from my blood?
Curious. Midnight Tress focused on the text.
It is clearly evident that Xisis has the power to cure any disease. In 1104, a supplicant reported being healed of cancerous tumors in a very extreme state of progression. This individual, Delph of the Zephyr Islands, is a well-known and respected scholar—and his word is trustworthy.
We have another extreme example. In 1123, Queen Bek the Fifteenth was cured of her spore gestation, and remains the only person—in thousands of years of recorded history—to survive such an infestation. Xisis was involved.
Stupid words. Stupid sawdust-in-the-eyes words. Why? She should find something to bite, something that bled warmth and liquid salt.
She fought with herself, writhing, her shape bubbling and squirming. She almost ripped herself apart in her anger. But she won, finally, and forced herself into the ragged rat shape. She bit pages, moving back through the book. She passed other notes from Crow, but most didn’t draw her attention
—until she saw two words that stuck in her mind from what Huck had said earlier.
Secret meetings with Weev indicated there should be a way to find the proper location. Too bad he turned to blackmail. Ah well. At least he showed some spine before I killed him.
That didn’t explain what Xisis was. She flipped through more pages to find the start of the chapter. What was this thing that could cure diseases? An herb? A potion?
No, a being.
Xisisrefliel lives beneath the spores in a palace that somehow exists on the bottom of the Crimson Sea. Though his age is unknown, he has lived in that same spot for at least three hundred years.
Many would, very rationally, call him a myth. However, this chapter will establish that he is undoubtedly real, as evidenced by the testimonies of trustworthy supplicants. Granted, traveling the Crimson Sea is not for the faint of heart. Indeed, there are many who would call into question the sanity of any who sail those spores. This has repeatedly been the reasoning for dismissing testimonies of the dragon’s existence.
My own efforts to locate the dragon have so far failed, but I can prove it wasn’t insanity that led them to their course, but desperation. Their words are trustworthy. Unbelievable though it may seem, Xisis the dragon is real.
Crow thought the dragon was real.
And she wanted to force her crew to sail the Crimson Sea to find the dragon and heal her affliction.
It was the first thing she’d discovered about Crow that made perfect sense.
Midnight Tress needed to know more. How did one find the dragon? She’d heard he granted wishes— everyone had heard those stories—but surely there was more to it. Was locating the dragon enough, or did you have to pay him?
But no. Words were splinters for the eyes. Stupid, useless, bloodless, saltless, flavorless, screamless words were over. No more.
The fight began again and her form disintegrated. Mush on the desk, slapping itself and writhing.
Fighting against the one who wanted words and the not of the will of being again the words.
No no no no no no no no no obey.
Crow was returning. Key in the lock. Had to—
In a flash and a burst of black smoke, Tress was cast out into her own body. She found her mouth parched, dry like it was full of sand. She couldn’t recognize the feel of her own tongue, now like a lump of cloth, and her hands were withered before her. She had collapsed sideways on the bed, and when she tried to speak she let out only a croak.
“Tress!” Huck said, squatting before her face. “Tress!” He held the silver knife awkwardly in his paws. “There was a line of darkness coming out of your mouth. I didn’t know what to do, but you were coughing and…”
“Water,” she managed to force out. She reached toward the second waterskin.
Huck scrambled over and grabbed it in his teeth, pulling it toward her. She managed to dump it into her mouth. As soon as it touched her tongue, her mouth burned. She kept drinking through the pain, choking on the water, forcing it down a throat that was dry as parchment.
After that she lay on the wet mattress, wheezing. If she had been that dehydrated normally, she would undoubtedly have died, but this was no normal effect. Timely application of liquid reversed the process, reinflating her twig arms as the burning in her mouth and throat faded.
She slumped back, enjoying the sensation of not being in pain, and thought about what she’d learned. That led her to worry. Would Crow find remnants of the midnight spores? As Tress had broken free from the bond, she thought she’d felt her body evaporating into black smoke. Had that left residue?
“Tress?” Huck asked. “Are…you all right?”
“Yes,” she said, her voice hoarse. She pushed her hair away from her face, as it had escaped its tail in her thrashing. “You might have saved my life,
Huck. Thank you.”
“Well, I guess we’re even now,” he said. “I’d be at the bottom of the Verdant Sea if you hadn’t let me out of that cage.”
He was still wringing his paws, so Tress forced herself to sit up and show him a smile. But moon of menace, she could feel a monster of a headache
coming on. Perhaps she’d be better off leaving midnight spores alone in the future.
Nevertheless, she knew what Captain Crow wanted. And—though she couldn’t be certain—it seemed the things that Huck had overheard hadn’t
been about Salay and the others. The “secret meetings” had been with Weev, and “getting rid of them” referred to the spores in her blood.
Perhaps Salay, Ann, and Fort would know what to do. Tress waited to see if Crow would come barreling in, furious about being spied upon. When that didn’t happen, Tress took a luxurious bath, then dressed and prepared to
attend the secret meeting. Hopefully the others wouldn’t be too angry at her when they found out she wasn’t a King’s Mask.
Tress, of course, underestimated the human mind’s ability to believe whatever the hell it wants.