Bound in Smoke

Coming Soon!

Chapter 1

Since this is a work in progress, everything subject to change.


Winter. The Reek, Hemlock, California.

Savaş Idix strode into Witch Way like he owned the place. This was—what?—his dozenth visit in the last six or seven months at least. Always good to have a new regular customer, especially one who dropped a lot of cash, but one of the Sinque Aelfisc? His presence was unsettling and potentially dangerous.

She gripped a bottle of Concentrate portion hard enough to hurt. It was hard to look away from someone who wore as few clothes as possible because of the inconvenience and a lack of inhibition. Like all the Sinque Aelfisc, he was compelling on just about every level. Tall and handsome in that feral way so common to the aelfisc; he was sleekly muscled you might not realize his strength until he was too close. He smelled like outdoors; forest duff, river mud, and fresh air. Not unpleasant, but very… different from humans.

The customer who’d been browsing a display of find-me charms didn’t so much as flinch or surreptitiously stare. Either would have been a normal response to one of the Sinque aelfisc. No reaction was a little odd, but whatever. He moved on to a shelf of graeftstones, small carvings instantiated to perform an action or have some specific effect.

Maybe the guy really didn’t care one of the Sinque was here. Inhabitants of the Reek were habituated to what others would find rare or unusual. Power to him if he wasn’t fascinated by Savaş.

Since the Pax Contiguity Treaty had ended entrenched hostilities a dozen years ago and as the Reek fell to the rewilding effects of vapor reek, the Sinque had begun to visit. Humans lived in what came to be called the Demise. These were lands ceded to humans by treaty. In Northern California, the Demise was mostly inland areas, but in general the Demise was anywhere vapor reek wasn’t.

The Sinque lived everywhere else. AKA the Wild; where vapor reek had returned the land to a pre-industrial state. Technically, the Reek was in the Demise but western Hemlock bordered the Wild, and vapor reek was so common, the area was rewilding. In the Reek, an encounter with a Sinque wasn’t exactly rare.

Now that he was inside, Savaş’s skin slowly changed from the greens and blues of wherever he’d been before here—water of some kind?—to a translucent gray that looked like swirling smoke trapped under his skin and looking for a way out. In natural light, sinque were chameleon-like in that they reflected their surroundings. Until the Pax Contiguity, stories about someone finding out they’d been standing inches from one of the Sinque had been standard horror fare.

Her freckled customer continued oblivious or uncaring. Ah. Not entirely. He replaced a graeftstone horse and glanced in Savaş’s direction. His freckles shifted from ochre to a lemony hue. Guess he was just pretending to be nonchalant.

As for Savaş, he’d already dismissed yellow-freckles as chaotically uninteresting as, indeed, he was. Instead, he focused on her with his impossibly teal eyes and no discernible smile. “Greetings of a glorious day, Larkin Azuria.”

“May the sun shine on all your days, Savaş Idix.” On his fourth visit to Witch Way, he’d casually given her his common name and his elemental name. An honor and a mark of his respect. Sa-VASH Idix with the last syllable of his elemental name pronounced like an english x or ck sound that landed somewhere between hard and soft.

Though her Aelfisc was bad to non-existent, like most residents of the Reek she was passing familiar with interpreting Sinque names. Savaş carried the connotation of war while Idix meant something like of fire. With greetings out of the way, she pressed the tips of her left fingers to her forehead, and he did the same.

She placed the phial of Concentrate with the others in the display while Freckles moved on to examine one of the gewrits she stocked. A gewrit was a word or symbol instantiated with some ability to affect the bearer or the surface on which it was made. Most of what she stocked were single-use paper gewrits that conveyed transitory effects such as good luck, good health, or safe travels. The dangerous ones were secured in the back room with the weapons.

Mr. I’m-too-cool-to-notice-a-Sinque was about her age, twenty-five or so, with now lemon-yellow freckles. The discolorations identified him as one of the afflicted; physically affected by exposure to vapor reek and required to live in the Reek. Whether he was cursed—able to instantiate chaos—was at this point unknown. He flipped through the sample gewrits. Those booklets with tear-out pages of various gewrits were steady sellers.

“Tea?” she asked Savaş.

“Yes, thank you.” He inclined his head.

“What about you?” she asked the freckled customer. “Something to drink?”

Freckles jumped like she’d goosed him. He lost control of the sample booklet but caught it before it hit the floor. Thank you very much. He faced her with a sneer he didn’t smooth away quite fast enough. “I’m sorry, what?”

“Something to drink. Tea, coffee? We have limeade or pomegranate juice if you’d rather. Chaos-infused if that’s your jam.”

“An oat-milk latte.”

Definitely the asshole type. Some people just couldn’t be saved. “No problem. As long as you don’t mind soy.”

Freckles tugged on the cuff of a winter jacket that had seen better days. “If I must. Infused, though.”

“Will do.” The Reek was an unforgiving place to live. Hard enough for a street witch like her, but in some ways harder for people who were considered cursed without actually having much, if any, ability to instantiate chaos. She could cut the guy a break for asking for mother-reeking oat milk, as if anybody here had that kind of money.

Savaş reached into the satchel slung across his chest and drew out a protectively wrapped packet. “I have brought Lapsang Souchong, obtained from China. Would you care to try it? I think it will be to your taste.”

“Wow.” All the way from China. Fancy. And probably a kind of tea she’d never be able to afford. “I’d love to try it.”

For the first time since he’d come in, Savaş smiled. Somehow he managed to appear both less human and especially human. He handed her the pouch. “If you like it, this is for you.”

“That’s very generous.” She touched her forehead, and he nodded and crossed his arms over his massive chest. In addition to the satchel, two leather straps criss-crossed his torso. The intersection of the straps secured an apparently blade-less sword hilt. Not, of course. In less than a second, he could instantiate a chaos blade in to that empty hilt and destroy anything living.

While she got busy with the kettle, the tea, and the latte, she raised her voice so Freckles would hear her. “I’m Larkin.” She didn’t have permission to share Savaş’s name. “Do you have a name to share with us?”

From the corner of her eye, she saw him fist his hand around one of the graeftstones. Some of them were quite delicate and likely to break under a too-firm grip. “Me?”

“No need to share if you don’t want.” She leaned back to get him in better view and nodded at his white-knuckled hand. “Store policy”—She pointed to the red warning sign with its large block letters—“You break it, you buy it.”

He opened his hand. “I’ve broken nothing.”

“Bring it to the table, and I’ll show you what it does.”

“What what does?”

“The graeftstone you’re squeezing to death.” Witch Way was a relatively new business, not even five years yet. Maybe Freckles wouldn’t buy anything, but he might tell friends the proprietor was friendly and served free drinks. And, as he would soon learn, stocked premium instantiations.

“Oh.” He stared at the object on his palm. That small graeftstone represented weeks of painstaking work she wasn’t about to let someone treat carelessly. A corner of his mouth twitched. “Sure. Love to see.”

“Bring it over, friend.”

“I’m…Rhis Wong.”

Real name or not, he sounded like he was lying and thought she was too stupid to tell. But customers she disliked spent money here so she smiled. “Nice to meet you, Rhis. Give me a sec while I deal with our drinks, then I’ll set up a demo.” She got to work with the coffee maker. She glanced at Savaş. “I have a new graeftstone to show you. Finished it yesterday.”


Witch Way occupied about half the ground floor of a house that had been grand in the days before the sinque and vapor reek. She’d cleaned up, repaired, and renovated the shop areas, her workshop, and enough other rooms to make a portion of the house livable. She’d also repaired one of the outbuildings and rented it to a weapons master. The rest of the house was in sad shape, but she was making steady progress.

Rhis took a seat and tugged on his sleeve again. Antsy much? She set out fancy teacups for her and Savaş and placed a tall, steaming chaos-infused soy latte in front of Rhis Wong of the lemon-yellow freckles. A gold mist formed and thickened over the top. Cheap coffee, but premium infusion.

“Put the horse on the floor.” He did, and she tapped its head once. The tiny graven horse reared up, hooves scraping the air, then pranced along one of the floorboards and followed Larkin when she walked to the counter and back. “Mostly for show it seems like, but there’s an embedded Protect-Me instantiation. If you’re walking home late at night, you can put it down, trigger it, and it’ll follow you and call for help if you set that up.”

“That seems complicated for the purpose.”

Savaş gazed at the horse. “It’s exquisite.”

“Thanks. Available without the Protect-Me feature for anyone who just wants pretty. Just saying.” To Rhis, she said, “Some people like complicated.”

“I don’t see the point.”

“Obviously, there’s cheaper ways to accomplish the same thing. I have plenty of regular Protect-Me charms in the shop, but I like to provide a spectrum of solutions.” She tried her tea and was blown away by the smoky taste. “Wow.” She spent a moment savoring the flavors. “This is fabulous.”

Savaş nodded, quite pleased.

“Is there something wrong with the latte, Rhis? I can remake it.”

“No, no. Nothing wrong with it at all.” Wong reached for his untouched drink with an awkward motion. His sleeve brushed the the handle just right, and coffee spilled everywhere. He jumped to his feet. “So clumsy of me!”

Larkin had already dashed to grab towels. When she returned, someone had safely moved her tea and Savaş’s out of the mess. Savaş remained seated but with his chair pushed away from the table. He’d already taken care of the chaos the spill had freed. Quick thinking. Even small amounts of chaos could trigger a reaction and injure someone.

“Regrets.” Rhis moved the teacups. Totally unnecessary since they were safely away from where she was mopping up coffee.

“No worries.” She mopped up the last of the spill. “I’ll make you another.”

“I’ll have tea, if you don’t mind. Seems a safer choice, right?” He bent over the cups and breathed in. “It smells delicious.”

When she returned with regular tea for him, he’d moved the teacups to their previous positions. Definitely awkward. Something was off about this guy.

Once everyone’s drinks were sorted, she sat and placed another graeftstone on the table; a miniature skeleton. Witch Way did fine selling a range of products to Reekers and visitors from the eastern Demise, but she’d discovered the Sinque loved objects that were beautiful as well as functional. With them, sometimes beauty alone sufficed.

Savaş wasn’t the only Sinque who’d become a customer, and she was excited to show off this new one. “Check it out.”

Savaş shifted closer to inspect the carving. “Macabre but lovely.”

“I know, right?” She’d instantiated the anatomically accurate figure using a fist-sized chunk of rutilated quartz as a source and painstakingly imbued it with motion and the ability to identify a range of toxins. She placed her samples arms length from the skeleton. “Ready?”

“What does this one do?” Rhis asked. Enough sneer carried in his words that she was starting to think he was an asshole all the time. If he didn’t have money, he better have friends who did.

She set the skeleton in motion by tapping its head twice. “Alerts you if someone poisoned your food or drink.”

Rhis froze, fixated, as was Savaş, on the skeleton’s loose-jointed rise from a cross-legged position. The quartz was an inspired choice; a clear smoke gray shot through with needles of rutile and the faint spark of chaos. The rutile inclusions in the smoky quartz were sparse enough for the bones to be strikingly translucent yet lend a sense of heft. It was, if she did say so herself, an artistic triumph.

“One of the samples is rattlesnake venom. Watch. It will test and correctly identify the toxin.”

“Range?” Savaş asked. His teal eyes were fixed on the skeleton.

“Couple of meters.” On its feet now, the skeleton shook itself head to toe and took off walking. In the wrong direction. Shit. And what the fuck?

Savaş curled his fingers around his tea. He let go when the skeleton altered course and headed for Savaş. It grabbed the rim of his cup, bent over, and submerged its head in the contents.

“Huh.” More puzzled by the malfunction than anything else, Larkin reached for the skeleton. “Sorry about that. Let me reset it.”

In a lightning fast move, Savaş pinned her wrist to the table. He’d never touched her before, and it was shocking to feel his strength. If he didn’t want to let go, she wasn’t going to dislodge him. “I want to see what happens.”

Her flashy little failure, weeks in the making, pulled its head out of Savaş’s tea and, finger bones still gripping the rim of the cup, shook itself like a demented golden retriever. The cup rattled on the table, and tea splattered everywhere. Dark brown liquid filled its eye-sockets, dripped into its mouth, and trickled down its gleaming quartz chin and sternum.

Savaş stared at her skeleton standing at attention beside the cup, a full meter from the sample agars it was supposed to have triggered on.

“Obviously, something’s gone wrong.”

“Has it?” With a glance at Rhis, Savaş tapped one long finger.

Rhis shot to his feet again, and, in the time it took for him to lean over in the beginning of a sweeping motion aimed at the skeleton, Larkin saw flecks of gold flickering around the frayed edge of his cuff and around his hand.

A very, very bad feeling formed in the pit of her stomach. The tips of his fingers were dusty with roux. How had she not noticed that before? Most humans required the use of roux to increase or even impart an ability to instantiate. The substance left a dusty, ashy residue that eventually permanently stained the skin. Why the hell had Rhis instantiated anything?

With a sharp gesture, Savaş deflected Rhis’s hand before he could send Savaş’s cup spinning off the table. Ouch.That had to have hurt. He was laser focused on the skeleton still at attention beside the cup. Ice dripped from his next words. “Its eyes are red. Why?”

She maneuvered to get a better look without leaving her side of the table. And, yeah. A definite red glow came from its now tea-less eyes. She sat again and lifted her hands in a gesture of futility. “If the instantiation was working, which it isn’t, it would mean your tea contains one of two-hundred and fifty poisons.”

“Does it?” Savaş sounded bored, but cold snaked down her spine. His gaze shot to Rhis. “If you value your life, do not move, human.”

Rhis took a step back, hands raised. “I am not moving.” He looked between Larkin and Savaş. “But I don’t understand what’s going on here, other than her little toy failed to work.”

The skeleton sat, legs crossed. A drop of tea rolled down the side of its head. Holographic letters formed in the air over its head, the letters turning so they could be read at any angle.

“Botulinum,” Savaş said.

“Huh.” She peered at the skeleton, so distracted by this new malfunction that Savaş, Rhis, and the shop faded away. Mentally, she went through the possible scenarios for her work gone so wrong and the best set of tests to uncover the cause. She muttered to herself, “Why not aflatoxin?”

“Indeed, why not?”

“I would have thought it would go alphabetically if it’s not working.” She scratched her head and rocked back and forth on her chair. Anyone who knew her would have found her abstracted state entirely familiar. “That’s what happened in the round-one tests.”

“How many rounds of testing?” Savaş asked.

Behind him, Rhis swiped his sleeve across his forehead.

“I didn’t keep count.”

“Why not?”

“Several for each iteration of the animations, then for each substance, and full set of stress and load tests—”

“A number, please.”

Okay, he was sounding bossy now, and he was definitely not her boss. No pissing off the customers, so she just said, “A thousand. Something like that.”

“How often did it malfunction?”

She shrugged. “If you mean give a false positive, never after the first round. It misidentified a few times later.”

With the tip of a finger, Savaş flicked her prepared samples toward the skeleton then circled them around each other like he was one card short in a game of three card monte. He tapped the skeleton’s head twice.

Once again, the skeleton stood and strolled toward her two agar samples, one plain, the other infused with venom. It sat cross-legged beside the samples and okay, yeah, maybe she’d overdone the effects, but that was what made the work fun.

At this point, she wan’t sure which sample was which. The skeleton stuck a finger in one sample and brought it to its mouth. A few seconds later the word rattlesnake appeared.

Savaş said, “You did say the poisoned sample was rattlesnake venom.”

“Yeah, I did.”

“What explains one failed assay and one accurate one?”

“I don’t know. I’d have to run tests to replicate the error.”

Savaş pushed his tea toward Rhis then shoved away from the table and crossed his legs. “Drink it, human.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Savaş’s attention flicked to her. “I presume you have botulinum antidote on hand.”

The bottom of her stomach dropped away, and her mouth went dry. “Hold on. You think your tea is actually poisoned?”

Rhis approached the table, one hand inside his jacket. For a moment she absolutely believed he would take a sip and that nothing would happen to him—because who in their right mind would try to poison one of the Sinque Aelfisc?

But that wasn’t what happened. At all.

Rhis drew a dagger from his coat, gripping the hilt with fingers that glowed gold. He lunged at Savaş.

Time slowed. She slid under the table and scissored a leg at the back of Rhis’s knees. One leg collapsed under him, but he grunted and maintained his balance, the mother-reeker. She rolled from under the table in time to see Rhis’s knife continue its deadly arc.

Savaş turned and gripped Rhis’s knife arm, jerking him forward to press his palm to the side of Rhis’s head. At the point of contact, the air glowed with chaos brought under control. At the same time, transforming chaos streamed from Rhis toward Savaş. She managed to disrupt Freckle’s instantiation, but she also had to handle the chaos that released so the shop wouldn’t explode.

Savaş let go of Rhis with a dismissive shove. In the blink of an eye the hilt of his chaos sword was in his hand. He locked gazes with her, and Larkin, still on the floor, froze. Every single protective spell inked on her skin flared, but there was no chance they’d protect her from a chaos-sword.

Rhis reeled backward, slack-jawed, eyes blank. His flailing arms smashed through a display of find-me charms and, amid the crash, Savaş struck. She rolled out of reach of the backswing and instantiated a barrier around her. Rhis’s body vanished in a blaze of light, consumed by chaos-fire. His shoes, clothes and the contents of his pockets fell to the floor.

Savaş returned his sword to its holster. His eyes shone pure gold, and when he spoke gold sparks flashed in his mouth. He was incandescent with rage. “Did you know he is a philosophe?”


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