I’ve seen a path that winds,
that goes, all the way down,
stood upon backs of giants,
who bore each great crowns,
there are not left but shadows,
attested to all that once was,
yet with every umbra cast,
there is a little less of the sun.
– All The Way Down, circa 80 E.R.
The south spire of the academy was one of the proudest monuments of the skyline. Even perched halfway down the slope, it still rivaled the great dome of the mount. A structure determined to reach the sky. It had been the domain of enchanters long before the academy, and grown over centuries. Floors not always of the same width, irregular heights, large open areas, and libraries. A testament to time, and change, defiantly elegant in the face of such organic growth.
At over three times the height of the west tower on Broken Hill, it would have been more than a bit of a climb. For the initiated though, there were tricks. James wove through libraries and passageways with the confidence of years of experience. He paused only to let Katrisha catch up as she became distracted. Sometimes he would take a moment to explain the history of one oddity or another.
Enchanted lifts made short work between library levels. Saving miles of stairs if one knew where to look. The occasional sleepy guard would nod to James, or hold them a moment to ask who she was. Others eyed Katrisha with suspicious recognition of the obvious, and said nothing.
The largest of those libraries comprised the top five floors of the great tower. Catwalks crisscrossed, and in places spiraled above. Spokes of high bookshelves fanned off, capped with inward facing stacks. A solid ring shelves filled the center forming a great column that climbed to the rafters. It seemed part curio collection, or museum. Half the shelves filled with strange, or even unidentified objects. Each floor also seemed near double height. Ladders provided access to upper shelves in most places.
Everything was ringed, and lined in magic. Katrisha threw on her spectacles to admire the ordered, precise nature of it all. It was clear there were many things going on. Force lines flowing in tracks and webs everywhere. Most of it almost undetectable without tooling, save a hum on the skin. Enchantments for the convenience of enchanters. Powerful and subtle. Arcane beauty from which one could almost read the rules and conventions.
It all seemed excessive to any obvious function. Most of it anchoring, and connecting force. Structural support perhaps, but that seemed wrong, too many variable catches, everywhere. Growing densities of certain impressions converged toward areas above. Almost, at a guess like categorization.
She took off her spectacles when the detail of it all became overwhelming. A few platforms hung suspended in it all. More lifts, left free floating between floors. At once out of the way, and showy a display of the powers in play.
Then Katrisha saw the greater spectacle, and her jaw dropped. The least spectacular thing about her was her appearance, and yet it begged to be taken in. Faint streaks of white were peppered through blond hair, set against warm, dark skin. Clearly a woman of northern, and Osyraen decent. She was glorious. She was also by all appearances flying.
This might have been undercut by the grandeur of the place, if not for the grace of her movements. She was caught in a web of just visible, shifting spell lines. Darting about with ease, three floors up, like a bee between flowers in a garden. She stopped to peek into high shelves, and fiddled with enchanted spectacles. She plucked out an intricate, semi-spherical construct, twisted, turned, and flipped various parts. With pursed lips she adjusted her glasses again.
The woman stopped, half turned her head, set the contraption aside, and shoved off the shelves. As she drifted into the center of the chamber, she dropped. A motion so sudden Katrisha almost moved to catch her in a spell, but the tower beat to it. The woman came to a bobbing rest a mere foot off the floor, then settled.
“How?” Katrisha asked, then tilted her head. “It’s what you’re wearing isn’t it? The bracelets and the belt, something in the coat. Not the suspension points though, just alignment, and transference. You were being lifted about by the calcium in your bones, weren’t you?”
“Very good,” the woman said. “James,” she added, turning to address Katrisha’s guide. “What delightful little friend have you brought me? Surely, this can’t be the one I’ve heard so very much about.”
“The notorious, Dame, Katrisha Ashton,” he began in introduction. “Former Courtmage of Avrale, and adopted daughter of your favorite mystery man of the academy.”
Katrisha glanced at James, then back to the woman. “You knew Laurel?”
“Hardly,” the woman said. “Bout as well as anyone though, which wasn’t much. For a court member I’d expect a more proper etiquette of formal introductions. Though I’ve heard you are not always one for protocol. No matter, I’m used to having to deal with visiting royalty. Tiresome, really. We shall be more casual as prefer.” She wandered off towards a table, almost turning her back on them. “The name is Selene, Moria. Before you ask, yes, I am a distant relation. Not that I have met my great, great, oh however many times uncle more than the once as a little girl. Frightful thing, encountering a ghost who can speak as a small child.”
“Ours did once or twice,” Katrisha obliged with piqued interest. “More a fan of mischief and smiles though.”
Selene turned back, and cocked her head. “Navi, that’s the ghost on Broken Hill, isn’t it? Something of a fascination, ghosts. She has never been reported to speak though, not that I am aware of.”
“The first few times were through my brother. He seemingly can hear ghosts. Conjure, and perhaps even dismiss them.”
“Necromancy?” Selene perked up. “That’s a bold claim. I’ve only met but the one credible case. Young man, frightfully charming. Quite a way with women that one. Could almost make a lady three times his age forget herself. Tragic, sorry story too. Plucks at the heart strings. Oh, he’s very good. Some legends say it is a trait of those who commune with the dead. That even with in the living, they speak to the soul, and whisper wants into one’s very being. How’s your brother’s way with women?”
“Bout as good as mine,” Katrisha answered, deflecting the topic from Wren.
Selene laughed. “Oh, I’ve heard about you, troublesome creature that you are. Fighting dragons naked, not to mention cruel old men. I take no pleasure to hear he perished, but, if he did play a part in that horrible mater…” She shook her head. “Then I will take no pause to speak ill of the dead. He was a horrible man. My mentor however, considered him a friend. Be very cautious of the Enchanter’s seat, and representatives. Except me of course.” She placed her hand fleetingly over her heart. I’m just fascinated to meet the stormchild.”
“I’m honored,” Katrisha obliged. “I am, but I do not lay any claim to such title, and would rather be rid of the whole affair. Whatever it is. It has brought nothing but strife to my life, to even be accused of some part in it.”
“Well played.” Selene stepped closer, and held out her hand as though to shake.
Katrisha took it, and kissed the knuckles.
“Ah, there’s the courtly manner I expected.” Selene seemed amused. “Used to the least conventional ends, with that look in your eyes. I’m flattered as well. Let me be clear however, I’m quite satisfied with my current arrangements. We on for dinner tonight, James?”
“Something of a friend?” Katrisha gave him an entertained, but accusing glance, and let go of the woman’s hand.
“She’s never been entirely clear on the exact arrangement.” James shrugged.
“Whatever I say it is, at the moment. Now, I presume you’ve brought this girl before me, because she is outside of testing protocols.”
“Immensely.” James nodded.
“Shoo then, let me get to work.” She waved him away.
James bowed, backed up, turned, and left the way they had come.
“Oh,” Selene said. “This will be tricky, particularly since my cursed mentor will not let me near your staff.” Her eyes fell to Katrisha’s shoulder, and followed a silver chain down to a pair of spectacles. She snatched them up without warning, unclasping the chain with the skill of a pickpocket.
Katrisha almost protested, but held her tongue.
Selene examined them through her own. “Oh, no, this is, marvelous. Utterly wrong of course, but… No, oh that is very clever.” She began fiddling with the faint outlying spell lines that provided control. “Lets see, this counters astigmatism correction. Just kind of patched in, an override on magnification. You did this to let other people use them didn’t you? Just, worked it in, on the fly from the look of it, then never took it out. Never took anything out. Elegant for how utterly sloppy it is. The whole thing is just amazing.”
She fiddled some more, and put them on. She examined her own spectacles and smiled. “No, dear me, one cannot argue with results. These are better than mine.” She took them off, looked them over again, and handed them back. “I think we have a great deal to learn from one another. Consider that lovely piece of work as passing my test with full honors. Will you join me, as my, unofficial apprentice? At least until we can sort out arrangements more legally.”
“Unofficially, seems, a reasonable starting place.”
“I do warn you, be very careful of my mentor. He’s as cold, and calculating a man as I’ve ever met, and rarely shows real emotion. He’s proud of that. Brilliant thought, utterly brilliant. He almost keeps up with me, and I’m not always sure even I can do that. There are at least seven contraptions up there.” She gestured above. “Ones that no one knows exactly what they are supposed to do, but clearly do something. I’ve made three of them.”
“How does that come about?”
“Sleepwalking, when I was younger mostly. Sleep enchanting I suppose. That old saying of I can do this in my sleep? I did. Had a dream about flying in my thirties, woke up the next morning to find I’d made this, and been using it. So, do keep up.”
Katrisha smiled. “I’ll do my best.”
“One question to start though. How did you know I was being suspended by my bones?”
“Most practical way to anchor a body for any extended period. I also recognized the spell structure. Very closely related to Sylvia’s diagrams. I’ve extracted a few from the Red Book myself.”
“The best things are sometimes hidden in plain sight.” Selene smiled.
“The main enchantments were already here. Stabilizing for the shelves, tracks for the lifts. Seemingly designed to move to specified subjects, at a guess. You just tapped in, but they were already meant to hold immense things in position, what is one fair lady?”
Selene obliged her with a smile. “Looks like I’ll need to do my best as well.”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Jovan 18th, 655 E.R.
A book slammed into a wall, and landed open on the floor. A few shed pages fluttered down in its wake. Anice glared fiercely from behind her desk at Avery. He had entered after a second unanswered knock, and just as the book had been thrown. Anice finally looked away in a huff, shaking her head.
Avery bent down, and retrieved the open journal, filled with all manner of arcane scribbles. “One might take offense to have a book thrown at them upon entering a room, but it did seem to already be in flight. I assume whatever this is, is the greater source of your ire than my presence?”
“None of your business,” Anice growled. “What do you want?”
“As the assistant to the seat of Avrale, your business is my business. Unless of course this collection of runes and diagrams is some childish journal of love affairs.” He snapped it shut when he could make no sense of what he was looking at. He leaned down once more to fish up stray pages and see if they offered any further clues.
“I have heard that cursed boy utter True Speech.” Anice glared at him expectantly.
“I’ll presume you intend that to mean something to me,” Avery challenged and poured over pages that were no more help. “I’m afraid I must inform you, it does not.”
“A thing of legend,” Anice said, and looked down. “Though some assert it is a well documented power of storm-monks. Words, that hold sway far beyond meaning, or sound. To have heard one I am not even sure they are uttered at all. One, he spoke one word, and it is driving me mad, for it was a command that claws at my mind. A riddle that is its own answer, and yet I fear will remain beyond me.”
Avery took a breath, opened the book, placed the loose leaves in, and kicked the door closed. “Now you are spouting nonsense? You, of all people?”
“You didn’t hear it!” Anice growled through gritted teeth. “One word, a gift, and a curse. Understand, that was what I heard, along with every sound that ever was or will be. It was like he handed me a spell book, that outlined the very nature of reality, written in a language forgotten to the dawn of time. All in a single word. Understand. I am sure the very stones of the Council library now conspire to form consciousness and obey.” She threw her head back against her chair, and stared at the ceiling.
Her face was a tight knot of seeming agony, that showed her age and weariness. “Yet all day, as I have tried to make sense of the equations that unfold in my mind, I keep coming back to the verses of a song.”
Avery walked to the chair opposite Anice, set the book back on her desk, and dropped into the seat. “Alright, let me humor this. Enough impossible things have already intruded on my life, what’s one more? Tell me this, lyric.”
Anice glanced at him, and laughed a bit unnervingly. “You ever seen the Maji’s Farce?”
“That a play?”
“More a musical comedy.” Anice shrugged. “Quite bawdy, and utterly irreverent. Popular, mostly out in the outer quarters, among the ungifted. Not surprised an inner city man such as yourself has never heard of it. It’s rather old I think, about some pompous maji and a bard, each trying to woo a princess.”
“Who wins?” Avery asked with dry humor.
“The princess.” Anice smirked.
Avery raised an eyebrow.
“I told you, it’s very bawdy.” She shook her head. “That’s not the point, or well… Fates I’m only mostly sure I’m remembering it right.” She closed her eyes. “You think the lot of you are oh so clever, oh yet move a mountain with a song, you can’t, I bet ya. A king hell yield to you it’s true, but we make him like it, how about you?”
“Ok.” Avery gave no indication he had taken anything meaningful from it.
“The pen she’s mightier than any sword, commands the armies to go to war. A song we sing, and set to rhythm, the spells that fly, all in time. Your magic is not but a clumsy instrument, untuned, and all around impotent.”
“Bards,” Avery muttered.
“Oh, yes, I always thought it was that.” Anice shook her head. “Bards do love to praise themselves, and their art. At the climax of the play, some hedge mage performer fizzles a vast useless spell. Shattered, supposedly by the striking of a powerful cord.”
“There is a point to all this?”
“I’ve only seen two performances of the show,” Anice said with an absent gesture. “Once, when I was a little girl, still consigned to the outer city. It left such a warm feeling in my heart, the comeuppance of the commoner over the great mage. Even, when I could count myself among the latter, I still remembered the show fondly.”
She glanced to Avery, who clearly was growing less patient for her to reach a point.
Anice sat straight again, and glared at him. “I watched it again, a few years ago. Didn’t hold up well. I figured I was older, and wiser. That the juvenile humor just didn’t appeal with the maturity of time. Still, as I think back on it, there was a certain, magic, to that first showing. A different performer. One who I’ve heard sing a few times of late. Common man, who’s taken up residence in the inner city. Not many of those. Barely holds a note, swear he’s never had his instrument tuned, and yet, charming. Ladies fawn over him. Even I, had to restrain a more, foolish instinct when I had the chance to converse with the old duffer.”
“You’re implying bardic practice,” Avery said with surprise. “You can’t be serious. There is no evidence it exists, beyond simple art, and well practiced manipulation of the gullible.”
“You want me to help you read my notation?” Anice asked. She reached out, grabbed the book, and shuffled around the loose pages. “Some of it I can’t even explain, but this here is a sequence. A seventh, a sixth, a seventh, a sixth, and so on, seven times or so, but it all breaks down.” She tapped a pencil on her desk in a rhythm.
“It does have a certain, appeal to it,” Avery admitted cautiously.
“Does it?” Anice asked. “Are you sure, or is that just an illusion? A side effect of something starting to take hold. I have some musical training, and it is rubbish by any rules or convention I know.”
“It gets old fast,” Avery obliged wearily.
“Seven,” Anice said. “That was just after seven repetitions, when you said that. It loses its hold there, every time. I almost fall into the rhythm doing it, and then I want to throw things cause I lose it.” She flipped through pages farther into the book to a branching spiral pattern. “This, you should at least recognize.”
“Of course.” Avery rolled his eyes.
She did the tapping again, this time on each of the branches in sequence. Long, then short, then long again.
“No,” Avery said bewildered.
“There have been no end to those that speculate this fractum is part of the world spell. The same one we see expressed in the form of the blight, and the scar, and now this…rhythm, and math that came with the boy’s gift. They are all too uncannily similar. Yet all, incomplete. It always works to a point, then falls apart. The sacred geometry nuts are going to have a field day with this.”
“You are really proposing that there are some bards out there, who have cracked this, who are exploiting it?”
“Let me tell you what that decrepit old bard was singing about, the last time I heard him play. Young gifted women gazing at him star struck. No, let me offer you a guess, and a hint. It has to do with roses.”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Even checking back the next day Kiannae had walked away with the same recommendation; introduce herself to the druid circle. A reasonable suggestion, if one knew only parts of her history. Druidic training, and an affinity for nature, did not make them her people. Not when the local Archdruid had conspired to take her staff. She tried to measure that against the longer context of history. It was an artifact of some larger scheme, that she felt ever more disconnected from. Her sister, had been called to meet some important enchanter. Her brother wielded a staff that let him fly. She had never really wanted any part of it, and then it was all taken away.
Such indignities had not been the only things to give her pause. Since arriving in the city, she had found herself constantly on balconies. Those facing the looming emerald specter of a tree many sizes too large. Still, oddly small in her experience. Having lost her staff, had not severed the terrible feeling of being drawn to it. A pale shadow of something that in her bones she knew was real, but could not fully understand. It terrified her, and called to her. A nightmarish pull, an echo of the mother of all things. A tiny spec compared to the monster she had been party to the creation of, or the vision still haunting her dreams.
It was just after noon as she set foot in the spiraling maze of forested park. A sunlit and flowered path that wound and meandered, quickly giving the illusion of being lost, until one looked up. It was very simple to guide one’s steps in or out by the ever present reminder. If she closed her eyes, it was a simple mater, to walk blind toward or away from the feel of it. Instead, she walked around.
A long arcing path took her past little open areas of grass, benches, gardens, and milling people. All arranged in a familiar, but abstract pattern, coiling, branching. A meticulously tended work of art, though she knew that the living things provided the form, and the druids just maintained it. Brought clarity to what was already there.
It was easy to skirt the edge of the of Heartwood’s frightful shadow. It drew, and repelled her, an inky twilight ahead in midday. Dapples of sunlight sweeping, shifting, and changing as winds high above swayed great boughs, and the sun arced across the sky. It was a mesmerizing place that wanted her to enter. That called a daughter of the wood home. Which seemed to her a foolish thought, and all at once, none who lived were not children of Mother Thaea. That had been Landri’s old refrain. If all she had seen was true, then so was that claim. All life was cast in the shadow of a great tree.
She closed her eyes, and let the vision return to her. Standing beneath the terrifying canopy of a tree that split the stratosphere. Roots that dwarfed mountains, and branched into foothills. A plain repeating a pattern, spiraling into ever finer details. Ever repetitious, ever-changing. A woman stood before her, ocher skin with pale spots. Golden hair, and eyes like setting suns. Lips that curled into a curious smile with an outstretched hand.
It was maddening and foolish. A thing that defied her to call it real or illusion. Something lost between what was, and what might have been. She opened her eyes, and definitely stepped into the tree’s eerie shadow. Nothing of note happened, or changed. She felt foolish for thinking it would. It was just a shadow, whatever cast it.
Moving inward to the central park was more of the same. More passing people, more open areas, flowered paths, and gardens. It was a beautiful, calm place, that bellied any sense in lingering dread. A final bend brought her into the Heartwood Glade. Permanent structures stood nestled between massive tree roots, and small amphitheaters.
Kiannae circled the outer path until she came upon a large gathering of mostly young druids in meditative possess. A woman in flowing robes was leaned over one, giving some kind of instruction. Kiannae stepped up the path, trying to place what was strange about it all.
As the woman stood Kiannae froze in her tracks, and stared at tall antlers that rose above bright blond hair. They tilted exaggeratedly as the woman tipped her head, and turned back to stare at Kiannae in turn.
“Hello,” she offered questioningly. “Can I help you?”
Kiannae stood transfixed, her face slack.
“I don’t bite,” the woman said with a toothy grin, “much.”
Her skin was olive, her eyes blue, a good three inches shorter than Kiannae. Such differences could offer to comfort. The antlers sprouted from her brow, and hair even of conventional blond were still like a phantom stepped from a dream. It did not help she’d hung a few sparkling baubles amidst the proud array.
“You…” Kiannae muttered.
“Have we met?” the woman asked, and held out her hand.
“How?” Kiannae demanded.
“One does. It’s a small city, on the scale of things. One meets all manner of people.”
When this was met with silence, the woman smirked. She stepped forward, and brushed back her hair. Her fingers leisurely traced an antler like branch. “Oh, these? Mother told me how. Well, not my birth mother, of course. Sweet woman, but no skill in shaping. My true mother told me such secrets.”
“What are you?”
“A faun, more or less. Part woman, part stag… part dragon.” She laughed, and Kiannae caught a flash of eyes just a bit too large and colorful, with oblong pupils, not quite slit. “Part,” she stressed with an unnerving but playful lean forward, “of the great tree. The mother of all.” She straightened suddenly, and tilted her head curiously. “Yer a half Sylvan. You must be the one who took up Blightsbane. Father has been fuming about you.” Her tone seemed amused.
“I was asked,” Kiannae answered the charge. She remained suspect of how readily she had been identified.
“Father’s issues, are not mine.” The woman offered her hand. “I am Aster, Borael.”
“How did you know I was half Sylvan?” Kiannae asked, and relented to shake. “Most can’t tell unless they catch my eyes in bright sunlight.”
“The strong color is a clue, but not certain. Many gifted have striking eyes after all. Many ungifted, for what that’s worth. The rest was simple, rare as your kind are in the world. In truth, I simply knew. My father may be Archdruid of the Council, but I am Archshaper of the Guild. A title he lost to me years ago. Less than willingly.”
The two released each other’s hands when it had grown awkward.
“You give the impression you and your father are not always in agreement.”
“What daughter has ever, always been in agreement with her father?”
“Fair,” Kiannae obliged. “Though your situation sounds more contentious than most.”
“Jealousy really. I am not a full dragonborn. Not gifted with all the uncanny foreknowledge of language, but I learned quickly. Surpassed him at a very young age.”
“It is strange,” Kiannae agreed. “I met a full-grown woman once, all of two years old. One whose mother I played some part in the end of. She thanked me…for that. I’ve lived through strange things in my life, but few to compare. How does one even comprehend such a perspective?”
“Ah,” Aster said. “Yes, I think I’ve heard about this. Muddled business with Osyrae’s rogue king. A naked girl fighting an abnormally massive feral dragon. Rescued eggs, smuggled along the shore of Niven, causing something of a political incident.”
“More or less.” Kiannae sized the woman up curiously, and tried not to stare at the large rack on her head. “So, if you don’t mind me asking, how did this come about?”
“Last year, on my thirtieth birthday. As I communed with Heartwood, I saw my ascension. Not as a dragon, as grandmother was, but something older. The seeds of lost peoples called out to me. That, has caused my father nothing but trouble. Nearly cost his seat on the Council.”
“But didn’t.” Kiannae showed some signs of her bias on the matter.
“Ultimately the law collapsed under its own convoluted weight. Exceptions have a way of breeding more. Now there is great debate, at least once a month, if self-shaping as dire creatures are known to do, is an intrinsic, and unavoidable right. Well, it is for dragonborn at very least. Everyone else remains an open question under the law.”
Aster reached out, and was about to touch Kiannae’s chin, but she stepped back from the strange woman.
The hand was withdrawn. “Sorry, bad habit. So many are used to my intrusive tendencies. Touch, lets me read the traits of another most clearly.”
“Is there an advantage to having branches growing out of one’s head?” Kiannae refused to feel impertinent, given the absent intrusion.
“They are more like ears, or eyes, really,” Aster answered unfazed. “Hands too. My gift flows readily through them. More like diamond than wood underneath. It’s slowly spreading through my bones. Hard stuff, but it bends before it breaks.”
“Like Blightsbane,” Kiannae obliged.
“Fascinating.” Aster tilted her head. “Yet not altogether surprising, if what my father insists is true.”
“And what does he insist?”
“Oh, he varies in the language he is willing to use, of course. His most wild assertions though, have found their way into rumor.”
Kiannae crossed her arms at the dodge.
“I quite agree of course, that it’s possible, at the very least. Given what I have become. Between you, me, and the gossips, he thinks it’s a fragment of Thaea herself, reborn. He touched the staff once as a young man, says it put him on the path of shaping, but Ezik would let him have no part in it.”
“So that’s why he wants it?”
“Oh, raw ambition is a factor of course. Jealousy of my closeness with such powers.” She held out her arm to the side oddly, as though expecting something.
A striped furry creature perked up out of the grass. It bounded across the well tended field. Without stopping, it wound up her leg, around her body like a streak of brown and gray, and came to rest on the outstretched arm. At first glance it was a squirrel, but it’s body was a bit too long, feet and paws more like little hands, with ears and eyes a size to large. The fur was not merely striped, but formed off into little branched and swirling patterns. Spirals decorating extremities, eyes, and two little nub horns.
“This is Nihm.” Aster brought her arm to her chest, and the creature nuzzle up against her, never taking its eyes off Kiannae.
“What, is it?”
“My pet.” Aster scratched the little creature’s head, and it wiggled bristled with clear joy. “She, was such an old squirrel when I found her. Ill, and half dead. Nursed her back to health. Made her faster, stronger, smarter, longer lived.”
“I’ve always wondered how that works,” Kiannae said eyeing the strange little creature. “How do you make something live longer? We have a cat back home that, well, it’s been a kitten much longer than I’ve been alive. Sleepy old thing, but you’d be forgiven for thinking he was immortal.”
“There are known traits that control most of the aging process,” Aster said with a new curious tilt of the head. “Not all. Gift, is required to wind back the remaining decay. Life itself, is, after all, nearly immortal. Children do not inherit their parents age. The seed sprouts a tree that may live as long as the one it fell from. All our observations say that it is just a matter of larger scale entropy. Eventually beyond repair.”
“Gift, can’t be imparted though.” Kiannae felt foolish immediately. Having defaulted to the official position of most books on the subject.
“I can tell you know that isn’t entirely true. As you should, from what I’ve heard of your brother.”
“You, are still alive.” Kiannae clearly struggled to hold back a wave of anger.
“Shaping, is the key.” Aster nodded her head, perhaps in apology. “Shaping, by all examinations and experiments, filaments the traits it changes. Nihm, and all shaped creatures, are by extensions arguably dire. As a dragonborn, I might have lived into my mid second century, as this, who can say.”
“It requires change?” Kiannae pressed.
“The alternative is, fleeting. Healing, and similar techniques provide energy that is consumed, or dissipates over hours or days. Shaping weaves the power into the heart of every cell. Creates new high-dominant, often heritable traits. Self perpetuating effects. Living magic, if you will.”
Aster pursed, and touched her lips suddenly, as though a thought had finally caught up. “Did you imply you have a seemingly immortal kitten? Oh, that is curious. There have been rumors of one floating about. Changing hands, owner to owner for centuries.”
“Mar is nothing all that special,” Kiannae said dismissively. “Just a cat, mostly.”
“Mar?” Aster perked a brow. “As in Mar’etten?”
“How…” Kiannae looked all the more suspicious.
“If the creature is the one of rumor, the stories say he was a gift to the woman Alara, by the Empress herself, greatest shaper too ever live.”
“Preposterous,” Kiannae protested.
“Rumors are what they are.” Aster shrugged. “I’ve found they understate the truth half so often as they exaggerate.”
“Makes no sense. How would he wind up named… I mean they did… That seems all kinds of backwards.”
Aster laughed. “Says a girl of prophecy.”
“Fair.” Kiannae rubbed her forehead.
“Alas, you say the creature remained in, Avrale, wasn’t it?”
“Pity, I would have loved to examine that work, regardless of origin. Even a few decades is excellent quality, particularly remaining as a kitten. Nihm, for all her spiritedly speed, is starting to show her age again. I keep having to add little changes to buy her time. The last was to make her bones as mine are becoming. Which was wise, given how she loves to be under foot.”
The strange squirrel have her mistress a funny look.
“Did she just understand you?”
“Perhaps, as all dire creatures she may grasp intention. Most particularly mine, as her maker. She comes at my whim, most days. I hear rumors you have a… companion of similar tendency.”
“I’ve begun to suspect my, companion is shy,” Kiannae obliged. “Still, he tends to come when called. Should I?”
“If you wouldn’t mind, it sounds like an utterly fascinating phenomena.”
“You wouldn’t be the first to say so.” Kiannae pursed her lips. “I worry to make a scene, but after my brother’s recent stunts, I doubt anyone could accuse me of much for it.”
“Is it true he flew?” Aster asked, but Kiannae had closed her eyes.
“Yes,” Taloe answered, swirling into being at her side.
Aster’s jaw dropped open, and Hihm jumped onto her shoulder, and hid behind her neck, peaking out. Aster stepped forward without hesitation, and grabbed his cheek. “Spectacular,” she all but whispered. “Condensation, and mass transmutation, held together with…immense strand density. Gift woven in place of all the missing elements.” She grabbed hold of his robe. “This is different, simpler. He’s making it intentionally isn’t he?”
“I am,” Taloe pulled his robe from her grasp. “You may also speak to me directly, if you wish my presence.” He was thin lipped, glaring at her.
Many of the meditating druids had looked up at the scene, some even stood, and started to gather around.
Aster touched his cheek again more gently, and he tensed in what seemed far less agitation, as his lips parted slightly, and his eyes widened. She smiled giddily, and slid her fingers up to his temple. “You even respond like a man. Neurology, gray matter, oh you are delightful.” She glanced to Kiannae. “I’m utterly jealous, or do you share this charming being with others?”
“No,” Kiannae said a bit angrily at the feeling of the woman’s presence, mostly reflected through Taloe. She glared at him, because she could sense he did not entirely object to the idea.
Aster stepped back, and the feeling went away. “Sorry,” she said again. “Shame though. Such a wonder of nature, both of you. Where do you even get the power?”
“I’ve always had a strong gift,” Kiannae obliged, still weary of the woman.
“How long can he manifest like this?”
“Hours,” Taloe answered.
“Apologies,” Aster said giving him a mixed glance. “I really must ask this of her, because I wish to know if she finds it draining.”
“Only slightly,” Kiannae obliged. “I barely notice. When he first came around I did not even understand his nature, or our connection.”
“That, is impossible. Utterly impossible,” Aster stressed. “Do you have any idea the sheer power his manifestation implies? I could accept everything else, but you barely notice? No, no, no. Please, forgive me, I must touch you. Your hand will do, forgive any insinuations, or insinuations before. My intentions are now entirely intellectual. Because I cannot believe, or explain what you are saying.”
Kiannae pursed her lips, and at last held out her hand. She was growing wary of the gathering crowd, not to mention everything else. She was free of it all, she was feeling released from the whole mad shadow over her life. They had taken it from her, and she had deep down been glad. Yet it felt like a great wave had gathered to crash down upon her. A dread in the center of her being that seemed beyond any good reason.
Aster took the hand, turned it over, and traced its contours with her finger tips, then partly up the arm. Her eyes went markedly wider. “Have you ever had a broken bone?”
“No,” Kiannae said. “Never, I guess by some fortune, in all I’ve been through, it’s just never happened. I’m good at catching myself when I fall. Even when jumping off walls and hills.”
“You never slipped, never once landed much too hard?”
Kiannae frowned. “I fell off a horse once. I’d passed out from exhaustion, and distress… Only time I can recall. It hurt horribly, and I had to heal my nose, and some joints, but no bones.”
“Your bones are…” Aster stopped and looked around. “Leave.” Her command was firm, and cold. It sent a chill up the spine, and though a few hesitated all quickly filed away from the trio. She held Kiannae’s hand to insure she did not mistake her intention.
Aster smirked. “Why go somewhere more private, when you can tell everyone else to go.”
She tried to reach for Kiannae’s head, but thought better of it and withdrew her hand. “Your bones are like mine are becoming, but unless I miss my guess, your transformation is complete. I’m not even sure it is a transformation, and not how you have always been. It’s amazing how subtle it is. Without, touching you, prodding into you, or knowing the structure as I do, I would not have noticed.”
“Diamond?” Kiannae asked.
“Oh, much more than that. A woven lattice many times stronger, still laced with calcium for practical purposes.” She narrowed her eyes. “Do you suffer from mageblood poisoning, like your sister?”
“A vial or two can be extracted every few years,” Kiannae obliged, having insured the last of the crowd had departed.
“You were twins at birth, identical in every way, or so the stories go. Yet changed, night and day, yes? Has she ever broken a bone?”
“A few, I think.” Kiannae looked down. “She was struck by a sweep of a dragon tail, and thrown from a cliff. Nearly killed her. I… thought it had. I ran away from home, thinking she was dead. How I came to fall from that horse.”
“Yes,” Aster said. “Other reports I’ve heard pieces of. Your missing years were public record, since there was some active searching for you. Not much, thinking you were in Sylvan lands.”
Kiannae ran her fingers along her own arm. It had always been there, but it was like a veil had been lifted from her eyes. “It’s like the heart of Blightsbane,” she said. “I never noticed, because I think as you say, it’s always been that way. Blightsbane glows with aura, but it contains more power than I can comprehend.”
“Your gift is…” Aster shook her head. “Incalculable. The reason my transformation is incomplete, is forming these,” she tapped her head, “nearly killed me. Also, left a dead patch in the forest that has taken a year to half recover. It has only spread part-way through my skull since. It’s not the diamond that takes such energy, but what I’ve taken to calling it sunblood, laced through them. Only my father knows. Now you. I knew he was acting suspicious, when ever I let him examine my antlers. You say this is what Blightsbane is made of?”
“Yes,” Kiannae answered. “I don’t know why I never noticed, just a sense of familiarity.”
Aster threw her arms around Kiannae without warning, and held her fiercely. “Sister!” she said wistfully, tears streaming down her cheeks. “You are a true daughter of mother Thaea. A creature of infinite glory, in humble disguise. I feel, that I should bow before you, and offer my undying loyalty.”
“I’ll settle, for being let go,” Kiannae offered, every muscle tense.
Aster stepped back, and her gaze fell. “I’m sorry, the scope of your nature overwhelmed me. Yet your sister, she… So many more rumors about her. Mageblood poured from her palm onto the chamber floor on a whim. I beg you, may I meet her as well?”
“I can ask,” Kiannae said with reservation. “I imagine she might like you. Seem like her type.”
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