Read The Artifact of Foex Online
Authors: James L. Wolf
Tags: #erotica, #fantasy, #magic, #science fiction, #glbt, #mm, #archeology, #shapeshifting, #gender fluid, #ffp
Journey sighed and glanced at Professor
Tibbets, who spread his hands as if to say,
It’s up to
Journey reached up and swept off her... her wig. She
removed the holding cap, too. She was completely bald beneath it.
The mark of a Flame.
Chet felt the blood drain from his face.
Reactions up and down the table varied, but most people leaned
away, as if being Flame was something they could catch. Von Sampson
even scooted his chair back from the table. Though shocked, Chet
was surprised at his colleague’s disgust. He’d thought Von Sampson
would love to pursue a Flame, not run from the possibility. It
seemed not. Perhaps the fact that Flame could—and did, if rumors
were true—change sex made a difference to Von Sampson. Chet didn’t
Professor Tibbets gestured amicably. “Come
now, come now. We’re all friends here. Most of us are affiliated to
Philapo, and of course Rory is bound to the goddess Aiena. Our gods
are members of the Tutelary Party; by the gods’ grace, all of us at
this table are political allies. The goddess Pelin and her Flame
affiliates are on our side. Why should the opinion of unaffiliated
idiots matter to us? No offense, Chet.”
“None taken, sir.” In the company of god
made a comment like that once a
day. At least Professor Tibbets didn’t mean it.
Chet tried to figure out how he felt about
Journey being Flame. He’d never met a Flame before and certainly
hadn’t expected to find one here. Wetshul had been a primary hub of
slavery back in the old days, when the nearby continent Palister
had been emptied of native coteries and their Flame leaders. No one
would want to live where their forerunners had been boxed, masked,
Her affiliation might hold the answer to one
of his most pressing questions, though. Chet eyed Journey with new
curiosity, swallowing his knee-jerk prejudice in favor of a more
scholarly attitude. “Pardon me, but in
An Epic of Eicha
The Foex Chronicles
, there are claims that Flame
reincarnate over and over again at the behest of Pelin. Are you—I
mean, have you...”
Journey shot him a grateful, amused glance.
Lack of hair did not change her femininity one bit, he noted,
though it still felt shocking to be confronted by an intensely
feminine woman with a bald head. She really could be an actress—or,
um, an actor. “Yes, I’m one of Pelin’s older souls. Not the oldest,
though, not by far.”
“You’re being modest, my dear. Journey is a
member of the Flame Council, also known as the Council of Six,”
Professor Tibbets put in, his habitual after-supper glass of aran
in hand. Chet eyed it longingly. He loved the popular,
licorice-flavored alcohol, but he dared not tap Professor
Clementina’s supply. He didn’t want to draw her negative
attention—or attention at all—in any way.
Tibbets continued, “Tell them what that
Chet noticed that Rory had stiffened, her
nostrils flared. Journey, however, rubbed her face with tips of her
fingers. “Oh, Veyaon. Must I?”
“Of course you don’t. But it might help them
understand why I asked you here.”
“The Flame Council is the internal regulatory
body among the Flame. We do not have a hierarchy, but we do need to
order ourselves. Anarchy is not a helpful system when you want
consensus-based decision making.”
“No, no,” Professor Tibbets interrupted,
waving his free hand. “Not the deadly dull parts. Tell them about
when you were first initiated to Pelin.”
“Ah, I see what you’re driving at. Very well.
The Council of Six is by definition comprised of some of the oldest
reincarnating souls that Pelin keeps in her stable, so to speak. My
colleague Doyen Quor is nearly the oldest of us, originally born in
Foex 980, as the Pantheon count the millennia. I’m a youngster by
comparison: my first life began in Resoan 198.”
Murmurs rose up and down the table; people
whispered to one another, their eyes wide. Chet sat back and did
the math. It wasn’t easy unless one had the Pantheon calendar
memorized, which he did, though he hated how egotistical the thing
was. At the end of each millennium, the Pantheon voted on which one
of them had made the biggest impact during those thousand years.
Whichever god won had the millennium named after them. Chet
couldn’t help but feel it was a pissing contest, and resented
having to acknowledge Pantheon members while studying historic
facts that had nothing to do with them. His opinion wasn’t shared
by many: popular culture mavens loved contesting which god would
own the current millennia, the 7000s. Personally, Chet didn’t care.
But he did care that Journey could remember over 2400 years of
history. More than two thousand years!
He tucked his chin, feeling vulnerable for no
reason he could discern. “That’s why you know so much about what
we’re digging up at the site. You lived during those times.”
“That’s right.” The nod she gave him was a
shade more respectful.
Chet wasn’t sure he wanted her respect,
but... she’d originally been born in Resoan 198. Maybe should could
tell him what it had been like back then. During the days he wished
he’d been alive.
People were rising from their seats. The
student on dishes duty was gathering the used plates and spoons,
signaling the end of the meal. Usually they lingered in the large
living room and well-appointed library. Tonight, however, people
drifted back to their rooms. It was an unorganized, unofficial
Chet followed Journey and Professor Tibbets
into the living room, hoping to learn more, but Rory beat him to
the punch. As everyone maneuvered through the hallway, she leaned
close to Journey and muttered, “Why are you
“You heard the professor,” Journey said
Rory scowled, but she refrained from saying
more—more of what?—as Tibbets turned to say, “Please forgive my
students, Journey. They’ll come around. Eventually.”
“Not a problem. You could say I’m used to
“Nevertheless, it’s a shame that...” Tibbets
paused as the doorbell rang.
Chet, who was closest to the front hall,
ducked out to answer it. A tall, rail-thin man stood there. He was
bistre colored, like Rory, and wore a neat suit. The sort of man
who looked like he’d be at home with a mixed drink on the rocks,
though the only item in his hand was a small suitcase. His pressed
suit trousers were tucked into wicked-looking boots: knee-high
leather, brown with decorative stitching. Alert to the
possibilities, Chet studied his head. Beneath his tweed cap there
were no sideburns or stubble. He was bald. Just like Journey.
“Knife!” Journey cried out from behind him.
She leapt into his arms, and he swung her around, laughing. They
giggled like school children and kissed. It was a friendly, warm,
Chet looked away, his face hot. His groin
“You came,” Journey continued. “I didn’t know
if you would come.”
“Yes, well, I got your message.” The new
Flame looked sober and didn’t say more.
Journey ushered him inside and introduced him
around. Knife was well named, Chet decided—he looked like a weapon,
all sharp edges and keen glances. Nothing wasted in that spare
figure. He was clearly unconcerned about local views. Though his
head was covered, he wore no wig.
Journey was bubbling on, her whole face
animated. “Knife is another member of the Council of Six,
professor. He also knows something about what’s buried under all
“Splendid, splendid,” Tibbets said, warm and
welcoming as always.
Rory, however, looked sullen, even murderous.
Chet had only seen her look that way once, when a fellow graduate
student had edged her out on a pet project. Why did she seem to
feel the Flame were infringing on her territory? She excused
herself curtly and went upstairs.
Some hours later, Chet was coming out of the
hall bathroom and was about to go upstairs himself when he noticed
the two Flame whispering to one another near the staircase. They
were speaking the language of Tache. Chet, who had learned the
language at his father’s insistence, eavesdropped shamelessly.
“... I figured he’s your meat, or I’d leave
them to it,” Journey was saying.
“No, you were right to call me out. It
heartening that the Shadow Dancers are keeping an eye
on the proceedings; a very good thing for us, all things
considered. Have they found anything?”
“They’re getting close. Tomorrow, I think, if
we both pitch in. I wonder if that young woman will give us
trouble. I hate not trusting our allies, but their failure was
pretty spectacular last time.”
The whispering stopped; they were both
staring in his direction. Chet smiled blankly, as if he hadn’t
understood a word, and ascended the stairs. Whatever Knife meant,
was down in the dust. Something important to
both the Flame and Rory’s people. It seemed tomorrow would be
Chet woke with the salient question,
Which pit would Journey and Knife volunteer to
help dig? The carriage with its buried ceroses? The gaudy
grandfather clock? More pertinent, however, was the tension between
Journey and Rory. Chet trusted that Rory had good reason to be
suspicious, and indeed, the Flame did seem to be up to something
nefarious, or at least clandestine.
Alas, it was Rory’s turn to drive their
collective finds back up to the university. It was an hour's drive
each way, with unloading and documenting to do besides. Chet
regretted not seeing more fireworks between Rory and the Flame, or
at least finding out more about her issue with them.
Rory cornered him after breakfast with a
put-upon expression. “Could I trade shuttling duty with you? I
should be at the dig site this morning.”
“Then no thanks.”
“Look, just trade with me! It matters.”
Chet frowned. “If it really mattered, you’d
tell me why. I just did it three days ago. Besides, Tibbets put
in charge of looking after Journey.” He was afraid he
sounded whiny, but he didn’t want to miss out on the action. This
was just too exciting. He felt like he’d fallen into a pulp novel
filled with affiliate intrigue. Working on the find of the century
was fun, sure, but it was also dull and monotonous. “Why were you
were making scary eyes at the Flame last night, anyway? What do you
think they’re up to?”
“I can’t tell you that.” Rory crossed her
arms tight, her expression thunderous. “It’s none of your business.
Besides, you wouldn’t understand.”
“Thanks a lot.”
“Come on. You have to trade with me,
“Hey, we’re not going out anymore. You can’t
lean on me for favors.”
“I was asking as a friend,” she hissed.
“You don’t sound very friendly.”
“Fine! You’re nothing but a snotty,
He glared. “And you're a stuck-up affiliate
who doesn’t care about anything but your little political
“Screw you, Chet Baikson.” Rory wasn’t the
kind of woman who flounced. Instead, she stalked away with the air
of a predator denied a kill.
At the dig site, Chet hung back, hands behind
his back, watching the two Flame intently. No one else was looking
in their direction. The other students had avoided looking at or
speaking to either Flame at breakfast.
Journey was dressed more sensibly today, her
makeup toned down. She had donned khakis and a broad-brimmed hat,
though she still wore the wig. She smelled fantastic. Well, both
Flame did, really. Chet had noticed the scent again this morning at
breakfast, especially since the intensity was double what it had
been before. Chet’s involuntary, half-formed erections were
becoming embarrassing. Somehow—he didn’t know why—he was vaguely
reminded of his friend and former roommate, Steve. Which was funny,
because Steve was the exact opposite of sensual in every way.
Knife, too, was kitted out in heavy canvas
clothing. His still looked dapper, though. Chet had a feeling he
would look dapper while naked and covered with blood. He didn’t
know what Knife did for a living, but he couldn’t quite see the
Flame riding the train every morning to a desk job, then coming
home to pot roast. Anyway, who would cook Knife a pot roast? He was
, a pervert and sexual deviant.
Idly, Chet wondered why both Flame had
decided to keep the same faces as they’d had yesterday. Didn’t
shapeshifters shift their shape more often?
Both Flame chose flat-edged trowels from the
tool table and wandered with seeming purposeless between dig areas.
Chet grabbed a trowel and followed. To his surprise, they stopped
at the upside-down pair of boots that Journey had commented on