QUEEN OF THE SYLPHS
Sylph Series #3
Life in the Valley is mostly peaceful, and newcomer Gabralina is settling in happily with her Battle Sylph Wat. The only problem is, not everyone in the Valley is interested in letting things stay the way they are and the council that advises the Queen is being targeted.
Tensions mount when even the Battle Sylphs can’t find the culprit, and a creature no one was ever expecting starts to study the Gate from the other side.
The battle sylphs watched.
It was market day in Sylph Valley, and a large caravan had arrived with merchants from Eferem and Yed. There were several hundred new people in the town, all jostling and shouting their way through the myriad merchant stalls and that brought the Valley’s defenders out. Above the crush, sixteen battle sylphs crouched atop poles bearing the Valley’s unlit night lanterns, each perched like a giant blue and gold bird. Used to the outwardly human creatures, the people of the Valley went on their way, only glancing up periodically. The newcomers, however, gaped in amazement.
In turn, the battlers didn’t appear to pay attention to any of the humans, but that wasn’t true. They watched the outsiders with an intentness that bordered on obsession. They didn’t like change and given their own way, no one new would be allowed into the Valley unless they were cleared first; but that would limit trade. Without commerce, the town couldn’t grow, and if the town didn’t grow, it wouldn’t survive. They had no allies. Theirs was a settlement against the world.
Seated on his heels with his hands resting lightly on his knees, Mace studied the main street and considered their position. There were those who would trade with Sylph Valley, certainly, but other kingdoms who agreed with their queen’s philosophy? So far, none even acknowledged her. The merchants who came to this place weren’t the representatives of their kings, after all. In the case of Eferem, Mace had no doubt that they were coming directly against their king’s command. The Valley was a good place to trade, for their queen made sure everything was kept fair. No one was cheated in the Valley. No one tried. Not with battlers watching.
Mace shifted on his pole, watching the crowd with more than his eyes. To anyone who saw him like this, he was a tall, heavy-boned man of indeterminate age with short, thinning hair and a face not given to smiling. His form held more power than beauty, he knew, but had a certain hard confidence that appealed to women. He never took advantage of that, not anymore. His loyalty was unquestioned—to the queen, who commanded him before all, and to the Widow Lily Blackwell, who owned both his body and his love. Each of the battlers had a woman, and they would take no other while that woman lived. It was for the women that the battlers guarded the Valley. For the hive.
As the day wore on, Mace studied everyone making his or her way down the street and felt their emotions. Amusement, contentment, impatience, worry: a tapestry of feelings. A thousand washed through him but left him unmoved. Empathy was something battle sylphs had in abundance. Compassion they had not at all.
Mace searched for anger, for violence and hate. A man about to cause harm would broadcast that, giving himself away to any sylph. The elemental and healer sylphs wouldn’t react except to run, but battlers would attack. If a man felt rage, they came. If a woman felt fear, they came. Even the queen wouldn’t deny them that for it was their deepest instinct. Battlers protected their hive. It had always been that way.
Below, in an ordinary travel tunic with a pack on his back, a man passed through the market without noticing Mace’s silent perch. The man felt…determined. He was eyeing the elemental sylphs who walked in the form of children. First came surprise, then contempt. He viewed with disgust the women who wore clothes like men and bartered or sold as equals.
Mace leaned forward, balanced unnaturally on his toes. He glanced over at the other battlers, who were watching the newcomer as well, their emotions interested. Mace nodded at the closest, a blue-haired and nervous creature named Claw.
We follow, he said silently into his fellow battler’s mind.
Claw nodded spastically. He was a shivering, broken creature who’d been ruined by years of slavery. Mace would never send him on a mission alone, but even if Lily hadn’t said to include him, Claw still had his uses. He was a battle sylph and nothing would change that.
Mace jumped down, landing easily before a woman carrying a basket of potatoes. She yelped and nearly dropped it, staring up at him in fright. Mace just nodded and set off, making his way through the crowd.
Whether they knew him or not, people got out of his way. The battlers here all wore the same clothes, a gold-trimmed blue uniform that made it easy for them to be identified. The queen felt it was kinder than the aura of hatred they otherwise projected, which she believed wasn’t needed, not in the Valley. Mace wasn’t inclined to argue, even if arguing with a queen or a master were comprehensible to him. People here knew what the uniforms meant. Those who didn’t quickly learned.
Several passersby started to speak, perhaps to say hello, but they stopped when they saw the look in his eye and Claw at his heel. Mace felt their fear and kept going.
His mark was easy to catch, having to push his way through the crowd that parted for the battlers, but the sylphs held back, instead just following. It was not yet time. One of the queen’s rules was that they not attack on instinct. They needed a reason. Not much of one, perhaps, but a reason nonetheless. The man reached the end of the wide road and headed into a square. Everything from food to tools to jewelry was being sold here, but the man didn’t care. Mace didn’t either. Above, a battle sylph named Wat perched on the edge of a building.
He feels like he’s looking for something, Claw sent to Mace.
Yes. The man did, and it was nothing these merchants were selling. The stranger stared at the faces of the women he passed, and Mace could feel his annoyance: He wasn’t finding what he wanted, and his determination was veering toward violence. He felt like a predator, and Mace let a low growl escape his throat.
A little girl toddled out of the crowd. She grabbed Mace’s leg, beaming up at him. “Play with me!” she cried, her happiness a dizzying salve.
Mace scooped the girl up, tickling her under the chin. He passed her to Claw, ordering, Take her to her mother. The woman was not far away. She was one of the original Community members, there since the Valley was settled, and her emotions were content, trusting the battlers with her child.
As Claw hurried over to the smiling woman, Mace turned back to his target—and found him nowhere in sight, lost in the emotions of an excited, happy crowd watching a street performer with a dozen juggling balls. Mace snarled, looking around and reaching out with his senses. A moment later he glared up at Wat on the rooftops.
Where? he demanded.
The battler, dark-haired, slim, and gorgeous by any human standard, stared right back. Huh?
Mace growled and shifted, dropping the human shape he’d chosen years before and returning to his original form of dense black smoke. He had swirling eyes of ball lightning and teeth of pure electricity. Black, drifting wings spread out, and he rose dozens of feet in moments. People who saw him screamed in fright, even those who knew him. Some of those screamed even louder. Battlers only took this shape to travel long distances—or to attack.
Mace had no proof, but he knew exactly where his quarry was headed. Determined, violent, searching for a woman; not expecting to find her in the market but watching regardless, just in case…
He rose higher and confirmed his suspicion. On the other side of the square was another road that led eventually to a stone building, its walls as thin and delicate as candy floss, its windows tall with colored glass. It rose high in the air, a creamy white tower. Wide stairs led to great double doors, both open as they always were when the queen held court. Mace spotted the stranger already nearing the stairs just inside, since the building itself was nothing but a front for a grand stairwell into the underground complex below the town.
He roared. PROTECT THE QUEEN.
His call was a command to every sylph, whether battler or otherwise. The battlers answered, immediately taking to the air. The other sylphs shrieked, changing forms to escape, many dragging their human masters to safety. Those Valley dwellers without sylphs saw the others retreating, heard the battlers roar and fled themselves, all hurrying to stairwells at the corners of each square. These also led into the corridors below. Strangers to the Valley didn’t know to follow, but Mace didn’t care, not anywhere near as much as he cared about the safety of the human queen who was master to them all.
The interloper froze at the foot of the stairs, staring up at Mace in fear—at all of the battlers, while others rose behind him and created a storm many layers high. The doors to the tower closed, sealed shut by the touch of an earth sylph, and Mace opened his jaws wide, hissing. He couldn’t speak in this form, could only project his voice to other sylphs, his master, or his queen. He projected to her now.
There is danger, Solie. A man has come to kill you. We have him.
Don’t kill him, she sent back immediately. Bring him to me.
Mace hated it, but he obeyed.
Mace hated it, but he obeyed.