A/N: Too many warnings to count. If you cannot handle a story which deals with the subject matter of incest, pedophilia, rape, gore, mutilation, irreverent humour, and a really biting sense of sarcasm about most of the aforementioned subjects (perhaps this is most offensive of all), then do not read.

I have already written this novel. It stands at somewhere above 200K words, and somewhere below 300K. I shall be posting it tiny bit by tiny bit so as not to make your brains implode with overly long reading. The tone of the prologue is one of severity and some melancholy. It differs drastically from most of the rest of the story, which has a different viewpoint character. For some reason, I have an aversion to putting my main viewpoint character in the prologue, but he is in the second half of this prologue (which I shall post shortly).

Enjoy! Oh, and do be mindful that I'm not one to make action happen particularly quickly. I love action, but I'd much rather build tapestries of characterization, so if you absolutely have to have magic flying around in the first chapter or characters engaging in quick conflicts with one another immediately, then this story might not be for you. I am sorry, but I care far more about characters interacting than characters being thrown into magical quests or whatever.


CHAPTER ONE (part 1)

The winter was always such a melancholy beast. Fyree sighed to herself, wishing she had a stick of mrhhala to suck upon. It would warm her lips with its heat, burning toward its eventual destination and staining her fingers when it was finished.

Of course, Snooks would hate that. "Makes your mouth taste like stale, dry shit," he loved to say.

Not that he knew what stale, dry shit tasted like. She hoped not, at least. Just wanted to make use of a random insult, Fyree supposed. He had gained something of a talent for insulting her in small, ambiguous ways--ways that made her eyes raise and her lips part for retort. When he saw the coming response, he in turn was quick to say that she was being foolish, seeing offense where there was none to be taken.

What did it matter what her mouth tasted like? She wondered. It was not as though he had been particularly fascinated with kissing her in some years. Still, his expression never failed to become wry whenever he glimpsed her inhaling a breath of mrhhala. She forgave him his idiosyncrasies. The gods knew that she had her own hang-ups, and most of those were equally irrational. Fyree was seldom one to condemn. She had long ago lost that right.

She grunted beneath her breath and shifted her position, watching the clearing. She knew that this silly angsting was idiotic. It would accomplish nothing. She had realized this, and on most occasions, Fyree prided herself on having made her peace with life, the gods, and even her husband. Yet, when the blackness of winter came, when the sun hid for months on end, then she could not help but feel somewhat grim and increasingly lonely.

Not that there was time to ponder that now.

Leaves rustled, and the smaller moon, Csika, shone through the trees. Scant light, but enough for her needs. She had seen the creature now. It meandered in the slight basin below her, edging forward. An inborn sense of cautiousness made it hesitant, but from so far down, it could not see Fyree. Her fingers stroked the gun at her hip.

The misyntiath twitched, sniffing the air, its proud head raising at the presence of an unusual, potentially dangerous scent. It reared upon its hind legs, claws poised, ready to strike if necessary. Thin lips pulled back, revealing rows of small, cruel teeth. Aside from its pretty white fur, it was a ratty, nasty little creature. It slipped into houses, invaded trash cans, and spread diseases. This one would do that no more, though.

A bullet struck the misyntiath's head, sending the creature to the ground. As a coiled, indistinguishable mass, it writhed in its final spasms, screeching noises departing from its mouth. Mercifully, this lasted for only a few seconds.

Fyree had never liked how the creatures looked in death, or the throes of dying. Returning her gun to its holster, she leapt out from behind the bushes and crossed the clearing to examine her kill. This late in winter, a misyntiath's coat should have been at its fullest length. This one was no exception. Surrounded by inches of soft white fur, the vermin was a beauty.

Fyree grimaced. Beautiful, yet malicious. She had known more than a few such creatures over the years.

"It's not quite like killing a human, is it?"

Snooks stepped forward, leaves and patches of snow crunching beneath his feet.

"Not quite." Fyree smiled at her prey. "It's better. Less guilt, you know."

Still crouching, she turned to face her husband. "Well, I guess you wouldn't know. Guilt has never been your strongest point."

A dry laugh escaped her lips. A cloud shrouded the moon, leaving Snooks's fret barely visible in the darkness.

No matter. Fyree knew him well enough to know that he would have been fretting.

"Insulting me?" he asked, his voice somber. Somber was better than mocking, at least.

"You may take it as an insult, if you wish." She shrugged, lifting the corpse as she arose. "I was only stating a fact."

"Better not to have guilt than to waste away in a miserable past, Fyree." Snooks raised his head, elegant neck stretching. "Maybe you should try living in the present sometime. It's plenty of fun here. I'll be waitin' for you."

"I'll keep that in mind. Hand me a bag." She was in no mood to share his sarcasm. Licking her broken lips, she watched her breath condense into white clouds of steam. As she bagged the misyntiath to take its pelt, she eyed Snooks critically. A question had been on her mind. She hated to ask it, but-- "Are you having an affair?"

His mouth was immediately open.

"Be honest," Fyree added, cutting off whatever excuse he might issue.

Not surprisingly, Snooks smiled, rolling his eyes. "Anyone ever told you that you're paranoid, Fyree?"

"Sometimes paranoias are based upon truths, Snooks. And Fasia--"

"Fasia!" Snooks scoffed. "She can be a real bitch. Don't even think of it, darlin'."

"'A real bitch' who is drop-dead gorgeous," Fyree mumbled, incredulous.

"Like you?" His smile deepened. "Let's not argue. Suspicion breaks relationships. And if you wanted a man you could've trusted, then darlin', you should not have wed an assassin. Secrets are in my trade."

"And suspicion." Fyree turned, several caramel locks of her multi-coloured hair framing her lowered face. "I was an assassin, too, Snooks, so if you wanted a wife who would not have suspected you, then you should have married someone whose employment opportunities were somewhat different. I suppose that neither of us thought that far ahead. Anyway, it's a little unfair to blame me for wondering, and I notice that you still have not answered my question directly."

"Nah. I wouldn't stick it in Fasia, sexy or not. She's crazy." Snooks chuckled lightly, disregarding Fyree's fears. "Guess two like minds shouldn't be together, according to your theory. Saying our marriage is doomed?"

"Doesn't have to be," Fyree answered quickly. She was surprised that Snooks would ask such a question. Even when their union's problems had reached a zenith, Fyree had never considered ending her relationship. Some would have called her foolish for that, she knew, but she firmly believed in giving the relationship as many chances as were reasonable. Even if she found out that he was cheating--which she suspected, despite his semi-denial--then she would give him a final chance to cease. If he then refused, she would have to leave. There would be no other option.

"We were very alike when we married, Snooks, at least in our professions." Sighing, she walked to stand near him. "Our job titles have since changed. Perhaps our personalities have likewise altered. Ten years can change a person considerably. I do not think we are so similar these days, not so much so that we must be at one another's throats."

"I don't think so either, Fyree. Feeling kind of distant from you lately, though." Snooks stepped back, long strides carrying him away from the trees. "Don't know. Maybe it's just my imagination."

"Since the sun was lost, I've felt rather distant from everyone." She paused, brushing stray strands away from her face. "I wish that Shnoll Alnai-ta did not bother me, but living around so many other people and feeling so removed from their lives can upset a person, especially if that person is a woman who wants her own family and cannot supply it. They are a family, for the most part. I am not in that family. Not even in all of your family, including the one place where I should be."

"You know I'm sorry about that," Snooks replied with haste.

"I know you are." Fyree ran her fingers along her gun.

In a way, that made it worse, though she did not wish to tell him this.

"Someday, you're just going to have to stop blaming yourself, Fyree." Snooks shook his head. "You can't be happy with anyone or anything else until you do. Can't be happy around people, either. That's why Shnoll Alnai-ta really bothers you. You're just that determined to punish yourself. Won't even join a family because you refuse to let yourself belong anywhere. That's you, Fyree. Wasn't always so, but it is now. Funny. I've never heard of an assassin taking her own life."

She wiped her almond-shaped dark eyes, determined not to be affected by this "Oh, but such a profession does take your life, Snooks. However, it does so slowly, one day at a time. It devours your insides and your soul. But you're right. The more I see families enjoying one another's company, the more I think what could have been, were I different. Maybe someday I can get past this. Largely, I have done so. It does not mean that I do not grow wistful every now and then. When the winter comes, when even the day offers no light, I sometimes become a little sorrowful, husband. I'm sorry."

"Pity." Snooks turned, casting his wife a final glance. "Done for the night?"

"I believe so." Fyree's eyes met Snooks's own. "I will follow in due time."

"Fair enough." Shrugging, and so saying, Snooks walked away, footfalls loud as they struck the snow and the blankets of leaves. Fyree watched his vanishing body, an aquamarine silhouetted form waning in her sight.

"So," she began, turning to the other form, who stood all but hidden by the forest. "how much did you hear?"

"Too much, I'm afraid," Egewe confessed, stepping out. "I'm sorry. Truly. I was coming for the children. I--"

Fyree held up a hand, cutting the man's speech short.

"It's fine." Her gaze found that of her friend's.

Egewe stood in a patch of light partially cast by one moon, more wholly cast by the other. His pale, sky blue eyes sparkled, as did his matching hair. The amiable, porcelain white face expressed sadness, as well as regret and uncertainty.

"I do not think you are terrible at all, Fyree," said Egewe, voice barely above a whisper. "You have done things I think terrible, yes, but you have repented. If the gods have any mercy, then you shall be forgiven. I think you have been."

"If the gods have more forgiveness than I do, perhaps." A mirthless smile brushed her lips. "The worsening state of my body suggests otherwise, however, Egewe. My vision has become so sensitive that I may not enjoy much light any longer. Eyes burn easily. And, well, you know of the other thing, I'm certain. I am quite transparent on that subject."

"I know that you wished to have a family with your husband. That is a very human craving." Egewe walked forward lightly, long hair brushing his hips. He placed a gentle hand upon Fyree's shoulder. The woman blinked, unmoving in surprise. "You can have a family, though, whether your body is capable of providing it or not. A family is not made by blood, but by compassion. I have recently learned this lesson myself, Fyree. And I truly do not think the gods have cursed you, dearest woman. Come now. Those are superstitions."

"Why? I have sinned considerably. I do not deny this, and I accept the gods' punishment." She shrugged Egewe's hand off, stepping backward. "Or I could have cursed myself, putting my body through the strain of using magic and fighting with weapons. I've taken blows from knives, even. Who's to say that some strain didn't injure my insides, as well?"

"I cannot answer your question." Egewe smiled reassuringly, eyes glittering with light. "You can't change your body's failures. You can, however, stop believing that this is something you deserve. Whatever your past crimes, I know you to be a fine woman now. You are welcome at my house and the house of my daughter anytime. Fasia welcomes you, too, or else you would not be living in Shnoll Alnai-ta."

"I doubt that." Fyree adjusted her coat, tightening it around her shoulders for warmth. A breeze was stirring about the evening air, giving the night a chill that felt unnatural, even for winter in the Wilds. Many years old, stained with both animal and human blood, the coat was nonetheless comfortable. In Fyree's mind, there was some use for well-worn things.

"I think she allows me to live on Shnoll Alnai-ta because I take her children out to hunt every so often. A caretaker for her brood, more or less." Pausing, Fyree reconsidered, and amended. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't speak in spite."

"There is no need to be sorry for your emotions." Egewe smirked, looking strangely delighted.

"Not sorry for the emotions, though I should be. I'm apologizing for words that are nothing but senseless emotion."

"That is fair, I suppose." Egewe tilted forward, raising himself upon his toes to scan the basin that lay behind Fyree. "Would you like to visit me tonight, after the children have finished their hunt? I understand that you have some grievances when it comes to associating with families. I sympathize. That has to be hard for you. It would be for me, as well. Nonetheless, I want to help you as much as I can. Maybe it would do you well to visit a friend? If not, I understand."

Fyree's mouth opened slightly, almond eyes blinking. "You truly are such a kind man," she murmured, awed and impressed. "Thank you."

"It is nothing to be thanked for. It is nothing at all, really." Egewe pushed his lengthy bangs away, placing the hair behind ears that were long, pointed, and covered with shiny silver earrings. "I take it you are not used to simple human kindness? We shall have to change that. Growing up in the Wilds, I felt alone, too."

"There is not much kindness in the Wilds, friend. I cannot say that I brought any goodness to these lands, either."

"No more of that." Egewe raised a slender finger to his lips, silencing Fyree's self-deprecation.

Fyree forced a smile. "All right. The blood is washed from my hands."

"Sarcasm?" Egewe's eyes flickered with unspoken emotion.

"Not at all. My hands are excellent, even if other parts of my body are not." She displayed her bag proudly. "Cleaning and skinning kills is respectable, practical work. More importantly, it keeps my mind from wandering. As long as I don't have time for all the damned self-pitying, then I cannot pause to pity myself. It's as simple as that. I think I'll always be a killer, Egewe."

"If you'll always be a killer, then I'll always be an exile." Egewe sighed. "I was a very lonely person for many years, Fyree. I know what you're going through. I blamed myself for everything. But don't you see? Lady Fasia is kindness. She took me in, despite the fact that my own city did not want me. I would have been left to the terrors of the Wilds, had Lady Fasia not been gracious. And now we have a little daughter, too." His eyes lit up. Then, abruptly, the sparkles fell away from them. "Oh, I mean, I'm sorry. I guess that was insensitive of me."

"Insensitive? No, sir." Fyree chuckled sadly. "A parent's pride is a beautiful thing."

She did not have the heart to tell him more of her suspicions as to who and what the "gracious" Lady Fasia was. Nor did she have the heart to remind him that Lady Fasia was with quite a few men, and women as well, such that her ties to Egewe were not exactly unique. He knew that, surely. But he was so gentle, so hopeful. Fyree kept her silence.

"Speaking of children, who is accompanying you tonight?" Egewe shrugged, leaning upon a tree. "I heard that Vikashar was coming too. Isn't that a bit unusual? I thought that Fasia was worried for his health and did not wish for him to go out of the house more than necessary."

"House? Palace, you mean." Fyree shook her head. "But yes, she generally is a little overprotective of that boy, though I think he was feeling glum, isolated, and bored. I certainly empathize. I suppose his feelings reached her enough so that she let him come with his brothers tonight. Well, I don't really know the boy, but I think that what Fasia is doing seems a little wrong to me. Putting so much pressure on a child, that is. Look at that one daughter of hers--what is her name--Nollika--?"

Egewe looked a little distraught. "I do agree with you that having high expectations for a child can do more harm than good, but it is natural for parents to want their offspring to embody the best possible virtues, and for them to go as far in life as they can."

Fyree was not thoroughly satisfied by his explanation. "Yes, this is true. However, what Fasia is doing seems to go beyond that. I think it's unfair of me to judge her actions completely because I do not entirely know what she intends, but, from what I see, I think that she expects a little too much out of those children. I don't know. It's probably not right of me to even comment upon something I know so little about."

"It is good to be so humble, Fyree, but I do think that you should be a little more confident in your opinions." Egewe cocked his head. "Well, the important thing is that I think you're on the path to doing so, and I want to help. We've never really known each other too well, but you seem to be an intelligent, mature, respectable woman. You can visit me and I shall be glad to speak with you whenever you need someone to talk to. I know that this may sound like I'm just trying to put myself where you are, but I really do understand loneliness. Believe me."

"And you sensed that I was distraught, I take it?" Fyree gave a genuine smile at that. "Earlier, you said that you came for the children. That was horseshit, wasn't it? Don't look so surprised. I had my suspicions. Your secret is safe with me."

"It is hardly a secret to many, but I thank you for not spreading the information," said Egewe wearily. "It has caused me considerable grief in the past, but I'm through being bothered by it. No one here cares that I'm different. Well, hell, I'm not really that different here. Fasia is married to an eight-headed dragon and half of the people here are sorcerers or psychos. No one is really looking at me and judging me as the weird clairvoyant Nymph guy. I'm just another face in the crowd."

Fyree laughed and offered her bag to Egewe. "Will you take this to my cabin, please? I need to go locate those children. The night is a cold one, far colder than I like. And truly, very dark as well." She glanced upward at the stars. "A fine night for killing. Of course, I'm not in that business any longer."

"Certainly not." Egewe accepted the bag, holding it near his chest.

Fyree inhaled sharply. The air did not entirely smell proper. There was a quality about it which set her instincts ablaze with agitation. Egewe, grinning broadly, seemed not to sense anything. He had the extra-sensory perception. He should have known what was going on, if anyone did, and if anything unusual was transpiring. Fyree wondered if she were imagining things.

Looking throughout the trees, Fyree was suddenly conscious of every shadow and stirring. She walked away, snow continuing to crunch beneath her feet, owls and other animals crying out in the world around her.