“Come out, you two. He’s asleep.”

Saebrya opened the door slightly and gasped when she realized it was the monster from the ballroom. She hesitated in the doorway, and Ryan paused with her, analyzing the look on her face.

“What’s wrong?” Ryan asked.

“There’s something…wrong…with him,” Saebrya whispered. She watched the wiry orange tendrils extending in all directions from the man’s skin, reaching out for Rhydderch when the Auld drew close. One of the tendrils latched to his arm and began to suckle, silver ether sliding down the slim extension and into the wormlike creature curled within the stranger’s head, neck, and chest.

Though she had not meant to speak loud enough for him to hear, Rhydderch’s head came up. “Wrong…like what?”

“Like…” She tried to put it into words. “Like he’s got a sipper in him. But the thing is sipping from you, not from him, and it doesn’t look like anything I’ve ever seen before.”

More of the orange tendrils were plying the floor around the man’s body, flopping across it like tiny land-dwelling eels, leeching up the silver ether that was now coating it with both Ryan and Rhydderch’s combined output.

Rhydderch glanced down at the man on the floor, seemingly unperturbed at the knowledge that he had a sipper sucking at his skin. “Do you see a spell on him, girl?”

She nodded, eyes fixed on the bright green eyes that had turned in the man’s head to gaze at her. Above them, a webbing of pulsing golden ether created a cap over his skull.

“Come over here and break it,” Rhydderch said.

Saebrya balked, backing past Ryan, into the spare room. She shook her head, horrified by the thought of touching the thing. There was something about it that was a thousand times more frightening than the big, stupid sipper. This one oozed intelligence. And waiting…like it wanted her to come closer. Like it would eat her.

The green-eyed ones always tried to eat her.

“Now, child,” Rhydderch said. “This is important.”

Saebrya shook her head sharply and stayed where she was.

When he saw that she wasn’t going to do as he asked, Auld Rhydderch lost his temper. He made a disgusted sound, stood, and strode toward her. Saebrya quailed, stumbling backwards into the room.

Ryan stepped between them.

“Back off, old man.” Still pale and thin from his experience with the sipper, Ryan nonetheless stood fast. “Those things can hurt her.”

“So can I,” Rhydderch said. “Now get out of the way, pup. We both know you can barely stand.”

Ryan continued to blockade the door. “You still haven’t explained to me why you helped us.”

Rhydderch’s eyes met Saebrya’s, over Ryan’s shoulder. “I was going to let the girl tell you that. Right after she solves this little problem for me.”

“Then maybe you could tell me why you won’t let us go home,” Ryan said, arms crossing. “Or what you did to my face.” Real anger seethed from him at those words, and Saebrya shrank back, considering their answers.

Rhydderch was still watching her. “I’ll let the girl tell you. For now…” He moved forward and shoved Ryan aside with rugged ease. “Come, girl. I need your help with this.”

Ryan, stumbling, swiveled on the Auld and grabbed the leather of his coat in a fist, slopping silver ether over it, his withered body tensing to fight.

“No, Ryan!” Saebrya cried. She lunged forward, grabbed his arm. Even pitted against his six-foot frame, she easily pushed him away from the Auld. Ether sloshed as he stumbled again, then caught himself on the wall, with her help.

Ryan laughed weakly. “I can take him.”

“Maybe someday, boy,” Rhydderch said, “But for now, you’ll either stand aside or I’ll put you to sleep just as easily as I did the beggar.”

Ryan’s eyes hardened. He didn’t like the Auld. He had said as much the moment he was led into his chambers by the three houndsmen it took to haul him there. Saebrya knew his struggles then were part of what left him breathless now, and she thanked the gods for small miracles. Otherwise, she was pretty sure he would have tried to swing at the Auld.

“It’s all right,” Saebrya said, patting him on the fever-shriveled arm. “It’ll be fast. I won’t let the sipper hurt me.”

Ryan glanced back down at her, as if to say, Why did you tell him about the sippers? I thought that was our secret. But he nodded.

Still, Saebrya trembled as she followed the Auld back toward the incapacitated man. She saw the Auld’s silver ether seeping into his lungs through his nose, keeping him unconscious. Behind the veneer of the man’s face, the sipper’s big, arrow-shaped head turned and watched her as she approached, and the eel-like appendages stiffened as one when she stopped above him. The firefly-green eyes radiated anticipation.

“I just want to break the web on his head,” she told it, gnawing on her lip. “That’s all. I promise.”

She had the feeling that this sipper understood every word, and the thought left her itchy all over. Slowly, she knelt, delicately avoiding the flopping orange tendrils on the floor between them.

The thing remained motionless, though the wormy body uncoiled slightly inside his chest as it watched her.

Saebrya bit her lip, then lowered her fingers amidst the vacillating orange tendrils and touched the man’s thick blonde hair. The webbing was under it, wrapped tight against the skull. She dragged her fingertips across his head, feeling the spell catch beneath her nails, but hold fast. Biting her lip, eyes on the sipper only inches from her fingers, she reached down, held the man by the chin, and dug her nails as deeply into his scalp as she could.

The sipper watched from its perch behind his eyes, apparently willing to let her work.

Saebrya snagged a piece of the spell and yanked it free with a triumphant release of breath.

As soon as the golden veins exploded under their own pressure, the sipper’s orange tendrils jerked forth, slapping down onto her arms like a thousand tiny leeches. Saebrya shrieked and lunged backward.

The man’s body jerked as the sipper bound them together. Rhydderch’s eyes went wide and Ryan moved away from the wall.

“Oh!” Saebrya cried, trying to push the thing away with her foot. More of the tendrils latched onto her leg, boring through her clothing as if it didn’t exist, burning where the tiny mouths took hold.

Ryan grabbed her from behind and pulled, but only succeeded in dragging the stranger’s body along with her. Rhydderch kicked at the air between them, but his foot passed straight through the sipper’s flowing tendrils, which were even then burrowing deeper into her body, inches at a time. Green eyes bored into hers as it devoured her. Feeling the tendrils working their way under her skin, Saebrya screamed.

Seeing his kicking wasn’t helping, Rhydderch bent down, grabbed the man’s shoulders, and held him in place as Ryan tugged on her.

Saebrya screamed in pain. “Please!” She sobbed as the thing ate her. “Kill it like you killed the last one.”

“She’s bleeding!” Ryan snapped. “Help her!”

Rhydderch released the stranger’s body and suddenly, his ether stopped dripping from his skin. She could see it sloshing around inside, building up pressure, swirling with more and more madness, like a hurricane.

A child’s hand suddenly grabbed a fistful of the orange tendrils and yanked them free. Saebrya gasped as the strands slid from her skin. Behind her, Ryan shouted at Rhydderch to hurry. The small hand moved forward, to drag more of the tendrils out of her, but the sipper retreated on its own, sucking all of its tendrils inside of its host’s body, hiding in the safety of the physical husk.

Panting, Saebrya looked beyond the tiny human hand, at the thing that wielded it.

A sipper’s glowing violet eyes stared back at her from a child’s face, a boy of six, at most. The child grabbed her by the chin, his eyes flat. “Stop the Auld,” he said. “If you don’t, you’ll die along with it.”

Seeing the sincerity there, Saebrya tore her eyes away, at Rhydderch. Inside him, the ether was whirling like a tornado, crushed into the form of a man. For the first time, she remembered the spray of ether over everything in the alley, as if it had exploded outward with great force.

“Stop!” she cried, scrambling away from him. Ryan grabbed her and lunged away from the sipper on the floor, holding her tight in his arms. The Auld continued to swirl with ether, a frown of concentration on his face.

“Stop it!” she yelled. She reached for the nearest thing she could find—a candlestick shaped like a hound—and threw it at him.

It hit Rhydderch in the chest. Immediately, the ether-tornado splashed apart, dashed into nothingness by its own force. Rhydderch blinked at her and began to seep silver onto the floor once more. “You told me to kill it.” He sounded startled, contrite.

“I changed my mind,” Saebrya said. “I didn’t realize how you killed it.”

Rhydderch frowned, then his eyes widened as he stared at her. “Would it have…”

“Oh yes,” the boy said. “You would’ve been dead on both sides.” He was leaning back in Rhydderch’s chair, watching them. His features were too clean. Inhuman. His hair was firefly-green and glowing. His violet eyes were unlike anything she’d ever seen. Sipper’s eyes, yet a thousand times more intelligent. They cast a purple hue around the room, and they watched her with the bored interest of a rich man betting on a rat race.

The sipper within the unconscious man still remained tightly tucked into a ball, and Saebrya saw several orange strands worming across the floor, where they had been ripped loose by the boy in Rhydderch’s chair. The sipper’s eyes were locked on the boy, and the boy’s eyes were locked on her.

Saebrya’s heart stumbled in its beat.

“What do you see?” Ryan whispered in her ear, following her gaze.

“I don’t know,” she whispered back.

Rhydderch seemed to collect himself, oblivious to the child-presence that had made itself at home in his chambers. He stepped over the unconscious man and touched her arms, which were oozing blood from the tiny pinprick-sized holes the sipper had left in her skin.

“I’m sorry, little one,” Rhydderch murmured, looking ashamed. “I wasn’t thinking.”

“You’re damn right, you weren’t,” Ryan snapped. “You almost got her killed, old man. She barely saved herself.”

The boy snorted from the chair.

“I know,” the Auld said, looking humiliated. “I’ll never ask you to do something like that again. You have my word as a Ganlin.”

“He’s getting brazen,” the boy commented. Saebrya could not tear her eyes off of him. The air around the boy seemed to glow a soft blue, like the sky around the moon.

As Rhydderch held her hand between his calloused palms, a steady drip of ether slipped from his fingers and into the holes the sipper had created in her skin.

Saebrya itched as she felt the wounds seal, but she never even looked at the Auld. Her heart was thundering against her ribs, her skin doused with sweat as she watched the creature that had saved her. She knew, whatever it was, it wasn’t a boy.

She also knew, without a doubt, it could have just as easily eaten her.

And still could.

“Ryan,” she whispered. “I want to go home.”

Behind her, Ryan stiffened. “What is it, Saeby?”

The boy on the chair moved, as if to get comfortable. “There’s no way you can hide from me. Not if you take him with you. Now tell your friend you see nothing. No need to alarm good breeding stock.”

Saebrya opened her mouth. The creature oozed boredom into the room, boredom…and cold, sincere warning. It was life or death. Her life or death. And it didn’t care which.

“Nothing,” she whispered. “I was just scared, that’s all.”

The creature shifted again. “Now tell them you want some time alone. To rest.”

Saebrya balked. “I…”

Both Ryan and Rhydderch waited. Rhydderch watched her face. Ryan, who knew her better, watched the chair.

It took a force of will for Saebrya to tear her eyes away from the boy-thing. “I don’t feel very good. I think I need to sleep.”

Ryan immediately hefted her up into his arms and she could feel the scowl he gave Rhydderch as he spirited her off to her bed. He laid her down gently, touching her forehead. The weakness was gone, replaced by concern. “What did you see, Saeby?”

The boy had followed them into the room and was standing nearby, its intense violet eyes fixed on her.

“Nothing,” she managed. “Please go.” Whatever this thing was, she was sure it was more interested in Ryan than it was in her. After all, sippers usually ignored her, with such an abundance of ether sloshing from him for them to eat.

That made her a nuisance. Something it didn’t need or want around.

Ryan gave her a look that said that they would continue the conversation later, then walked from the room, tugging the door shut behind him. She heard arguing from the other side.

“Good,” the boy-thing said. “Now we can talk.”


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Bio: a.k.a. Sara King, sci-fi/fantasy/thriller writer from Alaska. Check me out on Amazon or Patreon! Email me at [email protected] to get on my beta-reader list for upcoming work, or just to say hi. :)

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