Order and Entropy

Chapter 19

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Not only the rose has thorns,
so to blooms fruit of the storm,
herald of ever greater doom,
our champion of life in truth,
one player for the good of all,
many more to bring her fall,
yet there is further shadow,
an avatar midst mortal battle,
what blood binds storm ‘n man,
and brings to play a final hand.

– The Book of Entropy, circa 30 B.E.

Pieces In Motion

Vhalun 13th, 646 E.R.

It had long became apparent to the twins that training under Laurel was, and would remain more grueling than Horence had already been on them.  All of it came in addition to their existing sparring practice, save that Laurel was often an opponent in addition to Horence, and each other.

It was an unfair match that morning.  A thirteen year old against a grey haired old mage who had seen a fair share of battles, and had kept up his sparing practices going on two decades of relative peace as Court Mage.  In normal instruction, as Horence had provided, it was a simple matter of holding back, for Laurel it was a deeper riddle; that wouldn’t work.

Kiannae was – by a measurable margin – the better of the twins.  She came closest to challenging Laurel, and had only twice lost a proper match against her sister.  If Laurel held much back from his blows they were easily deflected.  Yet this was all reaction, and physical skill.  On the other side there was no blow Kiannae could hope to land against Laurel, he blocked attacks before she even made them.  This had gone on over two months, and fifteen minutes into yet another bout Horence called it.

Laurel seemed unphased, but Kiannae was clearly winded as she leaned on her staff, her breath forming swirling clouds in the cold morning air.  She had been putting everything, perhaps too violently into landing blows out of frustration.  Horence had partly called the match for seeing some splintering of the staves.  They had trained all through the winter, much to Kiannae’s displeasure.  Katrisha had been at her best when the other three had struggled with the cold, completely unphased, and seemingly better for it.  It had still only won her a single new match against Kiannae, in part because she had nearly lost her footing.

“You still aren’t reacting ahead,” Laurel noted.

“I don’t see how I can,” Kiannae protested.

“Horence,” Laurel called.  “Grab a staff, would you?”

“Sure,” Horence said, and picked up the one laying next to him.

Laurel held his staff in front of him, and closed his eyes.  “Alright,” he said, “watch very closely.”  He bowed to Horence, and assumed a ready stance.  The two began exchanging testing blows, which quickly escalated into real tries.  On rare occasion the twins had caught the two sparring before they began their training, but not often as before they had begun training they were rarely awake early enough.

Both combatants were fast, and seemingly evenly matched.  The show got very interesting quickly, and yet what the twins were watching for they were not sure.  It was all the techniques they had already been shown, and while the two reacted almost fast enough to seem like they were reacting before, it was clear that it was just from reading each others bodies.

This quickly devolved into feints, and counter feints, and moves that were above the twins skill level, and almost before anyone could see it coming Horence was flat on his rear, and Laurel was leaned on his staff, and offering him a hand.  Horence took the offer, and got back to his feet.

“That was impressive,” Kiannae said, “but I didn’t see anything specific.”

“Me either,” Katrisha added.

“That’s because there wasn’t anything to see,” Laurel chided.  “I forced myself not to use my gift in that fight.”

“Oi,” Horence said.  “No need to add insult to injury.”

“I’m not,” Laurel said dismissively.  “Again – this time I won’t hold back.”  Horence did not look at all encouraged.  “Trust me,” Laurel said with a knowing nod.

Horence rolled his shoulders, nodded, and assumed a fighting stance.  At first it didn’t look all that different.   The moves were in a different order, the staves seemed to connect with much more force.  Slowly though it became apparent that while Laurel was moving quicker, and hitting harder, Horence was blocking his blows with greater ease.  In fact he was quickly a step ahead, found an opening, and caught Laurel in the shoulder.

“Alright,” Horence said, “I don’t get it.  That was easier.”

“Did it look easier?” Laurel asked, tending to his shoulder.

“No,” Katrisha said.

“You were both moving much faster,” Kiannae said.

“We were?” Horence looked legitimately confused.

“Well, Laurel was,” Katrisha said.  “It was more like Horence was moving first.”

“Good,” Laurel said.  “He was.”

Horence only looked more confounded.

“Sorry friend,” Laurel laughed.  “I never let on because I wasn’t sure what the result would be.  You’ve got a gift – a weak one, but somehow you figured out who to read what people will do with theirs.  At first I was curious if it was intentional, but eventually I determined it was all instinct.”

“You are kidding?” Horence looked absolutely dumbfounded.

“I always thought you were gifted hun,” Alice said having walked up on the group.  She held a small boy cradled in her arms, and the curve of her belly hinted at another child on the way.

“Thanks love,” Horence laughed.  “Still not sure I buy what Laurel is selling.”

“It’s what I’m trying to teach these two,” Laurel said with an emphatic gesture.  “They already did it once, and nearly killed each other because of it.  Pure instinct.  Have you ever noticed I can beat most of those you can’t?  Yet you and I are usually a close fight?”

“Suppose I have,” Horence nodded.  “Guess it is strange.  Thought maybe you were going easy on me.”

“Think about the ones I can’t beat,” Laurel said.

Horence looked funny for a moment.  “I usually beat them.”

“Consider the lineages,” Laurel pressed.

“Knights mostly, duke’s sons,” Horence thought.

“All have minor gifts.  None seem to have your particular talent, but they still use it to fight, on instinct.”

“But then why can’t you beat them just as well?” Horence said.

“Because you are better at it,” Laurel shrugged.

“Hey hun, the mage says I’m better at magic than him,” Horence laughed.

“Oh, you are magic, dear,” Alice called back.

“Only at reading gifted actions,” Laurel glowered.

“Still sounds like magic to me,” Horence taunted, and assumed a fighting stance again.

The sparing resumed, and Katrisha, and Kianne were a bit perplexed by what they saw.  It was a blend of the first and second bout, and just when it looked like Horence might get ahead again Laurel’s blow caught him completely unaware, and staggered him, while his attempt to slip under what he expected to be an open guard was completely blocked.

“Alright,” Horence winced, “so not better than you?”

“Chess,” Laurel laughed.  “I’ve been feigning you for years, it’s how I win when I do.  Now that you know, I expect things to get more interesting in future bouts.  Or maybe knowing will foul the whole instinct you’ve had going.  Interesting experiment.”

“I sure hope not,” Horence growled.  “Not keen to have my fighting skill be the sacrifice to get these two sorted.”

“I hope not as well,” Laurel said.  “I’d offer you another round to be fair, but the girls are the point.”

“Aye,” Horence agreed.

Alice walked up, and kissed her husband on the cheek.  “I still love you.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Ultimately the trouble proved that replicating the instincts that had caused problems in the first place, required Laurel to go against his own more cautious judgements.  He had to stop pulling his blows, which lead to more than a few delays for heeling over the first few weeks as the twins struggled to tap into the sense Laurel insisted they had.

Katrisha was actually the first to break through, it didn’t win her the match, but it did push Laurel very hard.  Before she could win with her new found talent, Kiannae made her own breakthrough, and as the already more skilled combatant won a match against Laurel within the day.  Laurel showed less often for training after that, and the twins were left to focus on each other, and Horence.  Learning to feign with their gifts was ultimately more difficult still.

Katrisha had more success overall achieving the faints themselves, Kiannae proved more successful in profiting from them.  The result was that the two remained a tight match, but Kiannae almost always won.  Something she was inclined to remind her sister of frequently.  Though any damage to Katrisha’s ego paled to the number of broken staves from their sparing.

If they had not expected sparing to remain so large a part of training to be battle mages, less did they account for all the additional reading.  Where Laurel dredged up some of the hefty tomes begged questions, which often had exhausting answers.  One such book was an antique.  An imperial age print that Mercu was almost aghast to permit actual educational use of.

The book was not only thick, but very stringent in its language.  It was a treatise written by one of the highest generals of Emperor Corinth, who had formed, and ruled the imperial war college with a literal iron fist.  There was even a chapter written on enchanted prosthetics, written in part from personal experience as the man had lost both a hand, and a leg in his long military career.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Vhalun 25th, 646 E.R.

Katrisha sat reading a lengthy chapter on practical armor, and enchantments.  Mar was curled up at her side dozing comfortably.  The book had put her half to sleep, and she rubbed her face, before turning another page:

Robes – practical, comfortable attire for domestic, city, and regal life.  A symbol of intellectual affinity, harkening to kings on their thrones, and scholars in their libraries.  Let me tell you they are rubbish, a travesty, and a fad that I will not endure to permit on the battlefield.  The mage that wears a robe into battle has sacrificed mobility, for identifiability – the most misguided exchange imaginable.

To fight in a robe is no more than an act of bravado, less sensible than the legend of so-called berserkers, who would wade naked into combat.  This was meant to intimidate, to defy, to signify that they were so far above mortal men, as to think armor a hindrance, and I will say that truly, no matter how well enchanted, that is what a robe represents – a hinderance.  Were I forced to choose between fighting naked, or in a robe, I would chose to stand as nature made me, and free to move.

More realistically…

Katrisha started laughing, and then groaned from the effort.  She flopped back on the bed, and laughed some more anyway.  Mar lifted his head groggily from the disturbance, and moved away from her hip, displeased with the impertinent back warmer that had disturbed him.  He stretched, and looked around a moment.

“Surely there is nothing so funny in that book,” Kiannae glared at her sister.

“Oh not so much the book,” Katrisha said.  “Just…this was written by a man, and I started imagining a woman making the same claim.  Striding across the battlefield nude, rather than in a robe.  I’m sure that would confound a few people.”

“Oh, that bit,” Kiannae laughed slightly as she started to imagine it as well.  “Yes, I’d pay to see the looks on their faces.”

Mercu entered then.  “The looks on who’s faces?”

“Just imagine a bunch of Paladins,” Katrisha snickered.

Katrisha and Kiannae gave each other another look, and laughed even harder.  Mercu walked over, and lifted up the cover of what Katrisha was reading, and frowned.  “What possibly could be so funny in that dusty – valuable,” he said irritably, “old thing.”  Mar saw Mercu’s arm nearby as an offer to be petted, and started rubbing against it.

“Oh just imagine, Mercu.  Some great mage – a woman mind you – striding out into the battlefield nude, throwing down the spells and arrows of her enemies…”

“And their jaws,” Mercu laughed, and gave into the demands of the persistent ball of fluff that had moved to rub against his side when he hadn’t taken the initial hint.  “Yes that would be a sight.”

“I could never,” Kiannae laughed.  “I’d die of embarrassment before anything else could do me the favor.”

“I don’t know,” Katrisha said. “I think I could…maybe.  I’d need the right motivation though.  I’d need to want to mock the whole blighted world.”

“Has anyone ever done that?” Kiannae asked.  “In a real battle?”

“Well, there are legends of berserks of course,” Mercu frowned, “but I’m guessing the book mentioned them.”  He picked up the cat that seemed less than content to merely have his head scratched, and curled up in his arms satisfied to finally be getting an acceptable amount of attention.

“Yeah.”  Katrisha sat back up, and stretched.

“Historically I don’t know that I can think of an instance,” Mercu thought.  “I mean plenty of people have gone into battle wearing little to no meaningful armor, but utterly nude…outside of those legends…no I’ve never heard of it, and I doubt I’d have missed that story if it was out there to be had.”

“That’s a shame,” Katrisha sighed.

“No,” Mercu chuckled, “I do believe it would require a lack of shame.”

Katrisha fell over giggling again.  Kiannae merely shook her head, but was plainly trying to hide her amusement.

“Do you disagree?” Mercu pressed, and assumed something of a pompous pose.  Mar disliking this decided that he wanted a higher perch, and lept onto Mercu’s shoulder, then threw his tail across the man’s face doing everything for the absurdity of his antic.

“Oh no…I agree,” Kiannae laughed.  “You’d do it in a heartbeat, wouldn’t you?”

“Damned right,” Mercu said, blowing on the tail with the hopes it would move away from his nose.  It curled up instead, momentarily giving him a laughable mustache until he sneezed.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Vhalun 28th, 646 E.R.

“So,” Laurel said.  “Back where this all started.”

They were standing on the archery range, though on the northern edge near the cliff.  There hadn’t been much explaining, rather their morning practice had been cut off with Laurel’s arrival, and the two girls had been ordered to follow Laurel.

“You won’t be hitting target dummies today though,” Laurel said.  He threw up his hands, and a complex spell wove behind him.  Most obviously it formed two sets of target rings, but there were far more intricate parts to the spell.  Certainly it was a barrier, a very involved one, filled with triggers, not unlike the ones the girls had tried to catch Navi with.

“In the unlikely event either of you can overpower this, your spells will sail harmlessly into the northern hills.  Now impress me, overpower it,” he said moving well out of the way.

Katrisha, and Kiannae glanced at eachother, and then back at Laurel who stood to the side expectantly.  “Go on,” he said.  “Everything you’ve got.”

Katrisha bit her lip, and then thrust out her hand, sending a spear of ice hurtling at the target where it hung for a moment in a middle ring before suddenly evaporating.

“Oh, I know that is not your best,” Laurel chided.  “I’ve seen the holes you made, unless all of that was Kiannae.”

Katrisha threw several more spears, some faster, some larger, some both.  She gathered herself, and put a lot of effort into one both large and very fast.  The gust of it ripping away from from her blew her hair about wildly.  It stopped harmlessly as the others had.

“Much better,” Laurel said.  “Don’t be shy Kiannae.”

Kiannae bit her lip, and struggled a moment.  “It’s not solid,” she said.  “I can’t…use lightning on it.”

“Try,” Laurel said, “Focus on the filaments, they are meant to dissipate energy.  It should actually make accuracy a little easier.”

Kiannae held up her hand, and lightning crackled over her fingers for a moment before finally several bolts arced to the target, striking wildly at first, and then finally focusing repeatedly on the bullseye.”

“Don’t hold back now,” Laurel said.

Kiannae grimaced in irritation, and threw everything she had into the target, changing hands, back, and forth, and then finally she tensed, and her hair stood a bit on end before a blinding flash made Katrisha, and Laurel cover their faces.

Laurel’s spell fizzled, and parts of the target dissolved before the whole thing came apart.

“That was not a spell,” Laurel said a bit perplexed, “or well, most of it wasn’t.  What was that?”

“I’m not sure,” Kiannae said, a bit winded. “I just…rather than forming the spell, I just did…what the spell would.”

Laurel stroked his beard.  “I’d say you conjured that, but…I’ve seen a conjurer do lightning before.  A druid I fought alongside once, it didn’t look like that.  Can you do it again?  Doesn’t have to be as strong.”  He waved a hand, and the target spell reformed.

Kiannae tried, but it slipped away from her repeatedly.  She did the spells again, trying to build up to it, but it eluded her.  “No, I don’t think I can,” she seemed a little weary.

Laurel frowned.  “Surely you can do something else?”

Kiannae stooped down, and picked up a handful of rocks, and pebbles.  She proceeded to send them flying in rapid succession, stopped, and then made a spell holding the remainder in the air in front of her.  She put her hand behind them, and they proceeded to zip away at progressively more blinding speed till they stopped appearing to move at all, and simply disappeared from before her hand, and stopped at the barrier.

When that was through Kiannae summoned the biggest ball of fire she could control, and sent it hurtling into the target where it destabilized, and exploded in a plume of fire which was mostly sucked up into Laurel’s spell that barely seemed to register it.

“Katrisha?” Laurel said.  “I remember hearing that you did some of the burning of the targets.  Anything else up your sleeve?”

Katrisha bit her lip, she had an idea, but she had only partly tried it before.  She began by throwing spears of ice at the target, all blindingly fast, but some of the energy absorbed in turning the air to ice was being stored rather than accelerating her projectiles.  On the end of this she unleashed quite suddenly a ball of broiling plasma that struck the target, and seemed to momentarily give Laurel’s spell some trouble to absorb it.

“Good technique,” Laurel nodded.  “An effective switch like that could catch a lesser mage off guard.”  He refreshed his spell.  “Now then, throw whatever you want at it.  Go until you are absolutely spent, if either of you have strength enough to stand when you are done, I will be disappointed.”  The two hesitated.  “Get to it,” he said firmly.

The twins began throwing everything they could at the target.  Kiannae again attempted to recreate her brilliant blast of lightning, but never quite found the spark of insight that had allowed the first.  Katrisha tried everything, but kept coming back to her most basic spell.  It felt natural, she could wield the sharp lances of ice fairly easily.  Which did little to fulfil her command to drain herself.

Kiannae began seeing if arcing her lighting around within the spell could overwhelm it’s design, she did see flickers, and straining, but nothing to approach the effect the one bolt had caused.  Katrisha began using the swinging technique she had tried before, building excess energy, and then releasing it in balls of fire.  She tried larger, faster, and more powerful lances, which were more taxing, and took longer to form, and control.

Eventually Kiannae tired of lighting.  She tried other spells, fire, ice as her sister was using primarily, and all were successful, but none felt natural.  She experimented with a spell on the ground before her.  This ripped up stones a few at a time, which she then sent flying at the target.  Getting bored of this Kiannae started examining Laurel’s spell, she looked where it was grounding out the energy, and tapped into it, stealing the power Katrisha continued to pour into her target.  Just containing the bundle of energy she was siphoning off quickly became taxing.

Laurel did not miss Kiannae’s move, and watched cautiously what she was trying.  The spell she was forming was a conversion to pure kinetic force.  He almost stopped her before he saw that she was correctly accounting for the forward thrust this would have on her, but prepared for emergency correction if she got it wrong.

When Kiannae thrust her arms out a column of air blasted away from her, even as she was thrown slightly back.  Her hair whipped forward in the tremendous gust of wind.   She had misjudged the necessary counterforce, but not enough to quiet knock her from her feet.  Katrisha on the other hand was knocked forward, and lost her balance from the outermost halo of the blast.

Laurels spell struggled with the force, and nature of the spell.  Designed to handle raw energy, and solid objects the fluid nature of a column of air that would have sent an armored man sailing a hundred feet mostly bypassed the spell’s design.  Even then what little energy could be absorbed strained the delicate latticework nearly to its limit.

“What in the abyss…” Katrisha growled up from where she lay on the ground.

Kiannae looked down.  “Uh…sorry, I didn’t mean to.”

“Impressive,” Laurel said. “I didn’t account for the side splash that would create either.  You ok Kat?”

“I’m fine,” Katrisha muttered, and got back to her feet.  “What did she do?”

“Used everything you were throwing at your target to fuel her own spell,” Laurel laughed.

“Cheating,” Katrisha said.

“Oh, I quite agree,” Laurel seemed amused.  “And the first rule of combat magic, always cheat.”  He refreshed his spell.  “Resume.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Vhalun 31st, 646 E.R.

Two more days of sparing, and then back to the archery range.  Yet it seemed Laurel had another lesson in mind, and stopped them in front of the target dummies.  “Today,” he began, “the two of you will be trying to destroy these target dummies.”

Both twins looked incredulously at their mentor.  Doing exactly that had been part of what sparked trouble they had been in for nearly a year.  He smiled.  “You will be taking turns.  It will be the job of one to destroy the target, and the job of the other to do everything in her power to protect it.  The winner, since you two like to compete, will be gauged on who has the most still standing targets by the end.  Five minutes each, then switch.  Kiannae, you will be on defense first.”

Kiannae did not seem overly happy with the starting position on their tasks, but took up a spot well to the side of one of the targets, as Katrisha took a place at a mark away from one.  She started with a bolt of ice, which Kiannae deflected such that it struck the dirt some distance away.  This repeated, several times, until Katrisha slipped a second in on the tail of a first which struck the target splintering it significantly.

The next attempt at the same trick failed, as did a third.  A ball of fire did little better, but being deflected sent it into another target which burst into flames.  Kiannae quickly snuffed the fire, but the target was quite blackened.

“You need not only protect yourself,” Laurel chided, “but bystanders, and allies.  A blow deflected carelessly can still undermine the battle.”

As the round resumed Katrisha became much quicker with her lances of ice, and Kiannae tired of trying to control where they wound up, she tried to stop them instead.  This however proved more difficult.  She changed her approach and blasted them from the air with lighting, vaporizing them, though a few slipped through as small slivers that did little or no damage.  At one point she managed to arc between two Katrisha unleashed almost simultaneously using a single bolt.

Katrisha followed that attack however with a direct burst of flame that surrounded the target.  Kiannae quickly put out the flames, but a very large shard of ice slipped through while she was distracted shattering the target completely, and it fell away.

“One down,” Laurel declared over the blackened bail of hay, and broken target board.  “To make things interesting,” Laurel said, “Katrisha will be defending the one she already scorched earlier.”

“Not fair,” Katrisha protested.

“Switch,” Laurel said ignoring the complaint.

As soon as they were in position Kiannae struck with a bolt of lighting that set the target aflame.  Katrisha stopped the flames without difficulty, but another bolt followed reigniting the already blackened target.  Katrisha formed a field of intense cold around the target.  This did nothing to stop the lighting strikes which did little more damage, but kept the remainder of the target from burning.  Kiannae picked up some stones, and sent them flying at the already fragile target, but the field quite effectively stopped them.  She tried ice, which also was stopped.

Frustrated Kiannae went back to lighting, intent to destroy the board by attrition if nothing else.  After only a few more strikes Katrisha managed to form some rudimentary grounding spells into her barrier which pulled the lighting off, and into the ground making small smoldering patches of glass.  Kiannae first tried to circumvent these, and then began tearing them down as quickly as Katrisha could put them back up.  She tried to dismantle the field itself several times as well, and at one point managed to overload it, directing the released energy into the target which went flying, and smashed against the castle wall in a shower of charred wood splinters, and blackened straw.

“Zero, and Nil,” Laurel said.

This went on for three more targets.  The techniques grew more complex, but the results less dramatic as both girls grew weary.  Each target was however completely destroyed before time.  On the final target however Kiannae failed to get completely past Katrisha’s defenses.  The target, though slightly scorched still stood, and Katrisha got to take her shot at it.

Kiannae had managed by then to copy much of Katrisha’s defensive techniques, but proved slower at them.  Katrisha remained lacking when it came to lighting, and this was the most effective at getting through.  It finally came down to a battle over spellcraft, and Katrisha got clever.  She added to the spears of ice, and though it took several tries to get one wedged harmlessly in the target board she had the setup she needed.  From there she worked on the shield Kiannae was maintaining.

Time was almost up, and Kiannae focused fervently on keeping up her barrier.  Katrisha however was no longer trying to tear down the barrier, but tap into all the energy it had stored.  Laurel had raised his hand to call time just as the target suddenly exploded, shredding itself within the barrier that protected it.  The fragments stopped, and hung for only a moment before dropping to the ground.

“How did…” Kiannae protested.

“That one shard I got through, the spell was the important part, not the ice itself,” Katrisha said winded.  “I designed the spell to detonate outward, but I needed energy to trip it.  The shield provided that, you were so busy keeping it up you missed me tapping into it.”

Kiannae huffed, and flopped onto the ground tiredly.  Katrisha did the same a moment later.

“Winner, Katrisha,” Laurel shrugged.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 16th, 646 E.R.

Wren had seemed distant since his arrival.  He had listened with some interest to his sisters recount their ever escalating sparring, and training, though made no mention of their near fatal falling out.  None of it had seemed to hold his attention, and all through the story he had seemed distracted.  When Mercu left the three alone Wren had retired to one of the window seats, and began staring out over the valley.

Katrisha’s first instinct was to hug her brother, and demand to know what was wrong, but she tried her hand instead at pressing Kiannae to do so.  Though reluctant, Kiannae begrudgingly wandered over to sit by her brother in the window, and after giving several pleading glances to Katrisha to be the one to press the issue finally did so herself.

“Are you alright?”

Wren was silent for a moment, and other than a slight freeze almost appeared not to have heard the question.  He finally relented to look at Kiannae, who had been sitting beside him for some time.  He wasn’t comfortable with the topic to begin with, and he had always had a feeling that Kiannae did not like him much.  Still, the topic he did not even dare discuss with the two in his life that knew the truth nagged at him.

“I did something,” Wren said.  “I didn’t mean to, I don’t know how…but…”

Kiannae set her hand on her brother’s in an attempt to be reassuring, and it seemed to have some effect.

“In South Rook, it was me,” he said.

“It was…you…” Kiannae seemed to say more than ask, her expression puzzled.  It was as though she had understood instantly, and rejected it could have been what he meant.

“The voice?” Katrisha offered stepping up to the window, and adding her own hand to the pile.

“Yes,” Wren said looking down, “people were going to die, it was going to get worse, I knew it, and I…I made it stop.  I made everything stop,” he let out a long breath, and took another, “just for a moment.”

“Everything didn’t…” Kiannae protested.

“No I think he’s right,” Katrisha said.  “It was just a moment, but we weren’t just dazed, we all stopped.  I saw it, I think…”

“I didn’t, I saw no such thing,” Kiannae said defiantly.

“Think,” Katrisha said, “if you really stopped, you might not have known.”

“But you did?” Kiannae shook her head.

“I didn’t understand it till just now,” Katrisha said, “what I felt like I saw, or maybe just felt.  It felt borrowed, and I easily took it back.”

“Well, I still don’t remember it,” Kiannae refuted.

Wren pulled his hand away, and retreated against the wall.  “I did it.  Whatever I did, I did it,” he said on the edge of sobbing.

“I’m sorry,” Kiannae offered.  “I didn’t mean to doubt you.  Whatever you did…it was a good thing.  It stopped the fighting.”

“That wasn’t the only time,” Wren said pleadingly.

Katrisha put her hand on Wren’s shoulder.  “What was the other time?”

“Andrew…he…” Wren shook angrily, “he was scaring me, he pushed Celia, he was shaking me…and I told him…I made him…he can’t talk any more.”  He looked at each of his sisters in turn, begging them to understand, forgive, even to believe.

“You are sure?” Katrisha asked.

“He doesn’t talk, not at all,” Wren protested.  “He has to write now, he can’t say a word.  No one can find anything physically wrong.”

“And he hasn’t told anyone, blamed you?” Kiannae asked.

“No…I don’t know why, maybe he’s afraid, maybe…maybe he doesn’t even remember?”

“And no one else knows?” Katrisha asked.

“Celia and Audry do.  Celia was there, she believes me, Audry…mostly believes me.”

“You haven’t even told Renae?” Katrisha asked.

“I can’t…and…she doesn’t even want to believe about the ghosts.”

“Ghosts?” Kiannae pressed.

“Four of them, four of them in the cemetery.  They talked to me, just like Navi…so many voices in the cemetery.  Renae doesn’t want to believe it, but I think she does a little…just like Audry believes…a little.”

Katrisha forced her arm behind her brother, and hugged him tightly to her.  “I believe you,” Katrisha said.  “At Wesrook, you remember Varmun?”

“Yes,” Wren said softly.

“You remember about that girl he knew.  The one like you?”

“Yes,” Wren answered sadly.

“He told me more that night on the balcony, while you were asleep.  Everything he said, she was like you.  He loved her, he thought the world of her, there is nothing wrong with what you are, even if it scares you.”

“But I hurt him,” Wren protested.

“Did you really?” Katrisha pressed.

“He can’t talk,” Wren said somewhat angrily.

“Was he doing anything particularly useful with his talking?” Kiannae tried in ill humor.

Wren looked almost like he wanted to smile, he was still too bothered with what he had done, but his sisters jab at Andrew broke through a bit.  “No,” he said with mixed reservations.  “It still wasn’t right.”

“Doesn’t sound like what he was doing was very right either,” Kiannae countered.  She closed her eyes.  “Some time ago…Kat…she and I had a squabble,” she pursed her lips, and looked at her twin.  “Never mind what it was about, it came to blows, and I almost…”

“We,” Katrisha cut her sister off, “almost did each other a great deal of harm.”

Wren looked disbelievingly between the two, then something else crossed his face, hard to read.  “Why?” he finally asked.

“Laurel says it was precognitive, that we were caught in a loop, escalating beyond our control,” Kiannae offered.  “It makes me feel no less guilty about what I did.”

“Andrew has always,” Wren hesitated.  “I was going to say hated me, but it’s far less simple than that.  I’ve always felt like he was afraid of me.”

“You think…” Kiannae began thoughtfully.

“I don’t know, but I’ve heard rumors that he had nightmares about me,” Wren answered.

“Do you think you can help him?” Katrisha asked.

“I don’t know…”

“When you think you are ready,” Kiannae offered, “try then, but not until you are really ready.”

“Thank you,” Wren said, and grabbed Kiannae’s hand again.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Styver 16th, 646 E.R.

Jeoffrey wore a beleaguered look as he entered the King’s Antechamber, and considered the others around him.  He had returned to Avrale on orders late that afternoon, and been allowed to clean up a bit from days of travel while court finished out its day.

“Sit,” the King offered kindly.

Jeoffrey took a seat opposite the King, and steeled himself very obviously.

“Are you well?” the King asked.

Joeffrey hesitated, and looked down.  “I have been better,” he admitted.

“Your communications, while valuable, have also been perplexing for some years,” Laurel offered.  “It took us some time to conclude what your more cryptic statements have regarded, but dare I wager that you believe your niece to be alive?”

“I do,” Joeffrey began, “or did.  I do not know.  I think perhaps I have gone mad.  When the dragon first came to the capital I had a runnin with a cut purse.  I caught her in the act, but only briefly saw her eyes before she escaped.  I dare say I nearly cried at the sight of those eyes, for my heart told me they were my dear sister’s.”

“Yet you have had no fortune in finding the would be thief?” the King pressed.

“Only rumors of a ‘shadow,’ a thief that is never caught, or seen.”  Joeffrey threw his face into his hands, and braced his elbows on his knees.

“If this thief is never seen, what makes you connect her with the cutpurse?” Arlen asked incredulously.

“The stories say that one’s eyes slip right off her,” Jeoffrey said looking up.  “That you might catch a flash of fingers, or long red hair, but never the face of the girl.”

“Yet you say you saw her eyes?” Laurel asked, all the more dubious of the internal logic of the claim.

“Only with great difficulty,” Jeoffrey said.  “Even having caught both of her hands…it was as though everything else was more important than her.  People stomping about, bumping into us.  It was the strangest thing, and save the eyes, the eyes burned into my heart, the memory of the event tries desperately to vanish.  Almost like it did not happen, like an image from a dream.”

“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” Laurel shook his head.

“I have from a dozen sources,” Jeoffrey protested.  “It isn’t just me.  Whatever that mystery girl is, she…exists, I am sure of that.  If she is my niece I do not know.  Everyone believes her dead, and I have seen no obvious interest by Vharen, or his officials in the ‘Shadow Rose,’ as some have started calling her.  She’s a matter for law enforcement, and they mostly consider her a tall tale, a myth for drunks with overactive imaginations.”

“You have returned before your last report would have been sent,” the King changed the subject.  “Is there any more news worth sharing?”

“Yes,” Jeoffrey answered.  “I meant it to be the first thing I said, before I was questioned about…never mind.  There was another dragon outside the city.  I was penning the news even as I received word I had been recalled.”

“Another?” Laurel asked with displeasure.

“Or the same,” Jeoffrey shook his head.  “I’m no expert in identifying dragons.  It well could have been the same – it was big enough.  It came to the city on its own late one evening, and though it caused quite a stir, it did nothing but below – there is no other word for it – mournfully towards the city until Vharen himself came forth surrounded by his men late in the night.”  Jeoffrey shook his head.  “Vharen had his men stand back, and approached the dragon alone.  No one could see precisely what transpired, but the dragon flew off towards the south.”

“You are certain?” the King pressed.

“Yes,” Jeoffrey said.  “I saw the way the dragon flew with my own eyes.  Yet I could not tell you to where it has gone.  Has there been word of any sightings in the north?”

“No,” Laurel said.  “Nothing as yet, but this will bear careful watching.”

“I do not doubt,” Arlen said, “that a dragon, particularly of such size will have some difficulty going unnoticed for long.”

“Perhaps,” Laure countered, “but there are high mountains between Nohrook, and the northern plains.  Were it a greater dragon, clever, or perhaps just very lucky, and flew in by night, it might evade detection for a while.”

“To what end though?” the King shook his head.  “Unless this is to be an attack, a test of our resolve, the councils, even Roshana herself?”

“The others will not act,” Laurel said, “not unless there is proof it is a greater dragon in play.  A clever one could easily play the part of a fallen beast.  Fire, and speech are all that could prove such a thing.  And considered no more than a stray beast?  No, we will be all but told to deal with it ourselves, I am certain.  The council did nothing about that young drake, after all.”

The group exchanged glances silently for a moment, none quite sure what to say.  The council had done nothing to help before, that was true.  Not that there had been a great deal of time involved.  A few months of the initial attacks, then Adel’s part, and the wounded dragon was hunted down easily enough after that.

Laurel growled, breaking the silence.  “They posture, and move like a nation ready for war,” he said distastefully.  “Bandits, dragons, armies shifting along borders, and yet year after year they do not move, save these games of cloak and shadow.  Should I be grateful?  I do not want war, and yet the constant threat makes me wish for the inevitable to come.”

“Do you really?” Jeoffrey asked.

“So long as Vheren sits on that throne…It will come.  Be it years, or days.  It must.  Everything points to a man that hungers for war, for the chance to conquer.  He did not depose his brother to sit idly.  Surely you of all people cannot think he did that just to reign?  That he would kill his own brother, and your sister for nothing more than political gain?  Not that we have proof.  Fire, indeed…”

Jeoffrey glanced away.  He had been far too concerned with the past, with the loss of his sister, to be looking forward to intention.  It hadn’t quite gotten him the wrong answer, but he had none the less been distracted.  Could he blame himself?

“This can not carry on forever,” Laurel added in the man’s silence, and with every passing year the Council grows more complacent, not less.  It pains me to say it, but the sooner a war comes, the better our chances.  Though they are already slim to none as it stands.”

“Death is inevitable as well, it comes in days, or years.  Yet We do not wish it to come sooner,” the King countered.

“I tire of this sword hanging over our heads,” Arlen offered, having listened quietly from the corner for some time.

It gave Laurel little comfort to have Arlen arguing on his side.  He frowned.  “Perhaps the smallest part of me wants the satisfaction of going out in a blaze of glory, while I am still young enough to be a presence on that battlefield.”

“You are a good man, and a great mage – but We doubt you would even slow them down,” the King shook his head.  “We know them to have an army of mages, all trained to be warriors, not guards, and politicians.”

“You are right of course,” Laurel shook his head, “but need you speak the truth?”  It was a thin gest, with an ill laugh.

“If it helps, I doubt a one of them could manage a day in that court without frying at least one petty baron,” Jeoffrey offered.

“Or survive those two girls of yours,” the King added.

“So my great, and unmatched power is patience?” Laurel laughed.  “Have we not established that runs thin?”

“Or a lack of murderous rage,” the King suggested.

“So helpful, yes, thank you,” Laurel shook his head.  He looked thoughtful though, and then furrowed his brow.  “Jeoffrey, Vharen’s uncle, I forget his name, but he had long absences from court, enough that you made note of them.  Also there were the prisoners being sent to work camps.”

“It would match, yes,” Jeoffrey agreed dubiously.  “Yet…it makes as little sense as anything else.  Cadith is a proud, and powerful mage – he makes Vharen look like a puppy.  Which I guess fits with them calling him The Wolf.  I do not see him submitting to such menial shadow play.”

“He is also trouble though, even for Vharen?” Laurel pressed.

“He was locked up for a number of years after the terrible business with the mad king,” Jeoffrey answered.  “He’d been on the wrong side after all, no surprise there.”

“And since?” Laurel pressed.

“Vharen had him released soon after his ascension.  Other than that, I’m not sure.  Little things,” Jeoffrey shook his head, “all rumors, and speculation.  Hints of a battle…or two in the throne room.  Publicly they present a united face, but yes, there are many whispers of descent.  There are hardliners who chomp at the bit even as Vharen pushes against any border the Council will not defend…and those, they do love Cadith.”

“What does it give us to speculate who leads the attacks?” Arlen asked.

“It would explain the signs of battle at the first camp,” Laurel considered.  “That was no hedge mage.  A battle mage of that lineage,” he shook his head.  “I’m almost more terrified that the Sylvans could even press him into retreating.  I have always understood their practices can be devastating, but they are more closely related to the shamans of old, or so I was taught.”

The King considered.  “Perhaps something can be twisted between Vharen, and Cadith.  If it is true he is being thrown around like a lowly underling to do the dirty work.  The dragon is the pressing concern however, we need eyes in the north.  Yet that need not concern you, Jeoffrey.  We will ask, are you fit to return to your duty, can you focus and not chase shadows?”

“Yes,” Jeoffrey answered.  “Yes, but I will not turn a blind eye either.  I will keep my ears open, not merely because she is my niece, but because if somehow she does live…”

“Then she could prove very useful,” the King agreed.

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