The fire burns north,
‘n the ice lays south,
between these stand,
not but fear ‘n doubt,
always there’ve been,
the men of bold Osyrae,
‘n always there were,
Queens to hold storm at bay,
there was contention enough,
without dragons at each hand,
the kingdoms err between,
cling more tightly to their land.
– untitled bard song, circa 450 E.R.
Where the Dragon Lies
Coria 38th, 647 E.R.
The stables were always empty at night, save the horses. The night attendant slept deeply, and rarely needed to be woken by a soldier running in to get him in the event of unexpected arrivals. The twins none the less moved with the caution of mice sneaking through a cat bed. They had already dodged all the patrols they knew by heart, not that there were a great many.
The twins had only cursory instruction on riding, most of which they had gotten at Horence’s insistence, as he argued if he was to train them to fight, he would train them to get to a fight. Laurel had not protested the argument further. They considered the bridles, and saddles, but their instruction on them had been too cursory, and their sense of urgency too great – to get out before they were discovered. Particularly as the horses were already stirring uncomfortably over the unexpected night visitors.
“Simple harness, and bareback?” Kiannae suggested quietly.
Katrisha nodded, and each picked a horse they knew from their few times riding. Katrisha picked a black mare with white spots, whose name she had forgotten. Kiannae picked an older brown stallion named Golden, that had seemed to have a liking for her once.
The two put on the harnesses carefully, and then lead the horses out of their stalls. “Let me go first,” Katrisha whispered. She pushed open the stable doors enough for them to exit single file. “Just before I reach the gate, when the guards have noticed me, make me vanish. That should confuse them enough for you to slip through behind.
Kiannae pursed her lips doubtfully at the plan, but finally nodded agreement.
Katrisha considered the task of mounting without stirrups, carefully judged how much extra force she would need, and lept onto the horse’s back. She gently snapped the reins, once, twice, three times, and the horse was off at a gallop. She glanced back to be sure her sister was close behind.
Katrisha threw up a dim light orb. Hoping that perhaps the use of spell craft, but not providing enough light to see, could make her be mistaken even for a moment for Laurel in the dark. The guards shifted uncertainly, and then Katrisha released the orb, and vanished as she felt her sister’s spell weave around her.
The guards stepped back, both from what had been a fast approaching horse, and uncertainty as it vanished. A second horse in the first’s wake only made them more doubtful what to do. Stopping people leaving was rarely if ever their instructions, but there had been no expectation of a departure, and strange magical elements of the whole affair left them bewildered as the twins road off into the night. They argued a good half hour as to who was going to report, or at least that was the report of the nightwatch on the tower, who finally took it upon himself when the others did not.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Coria 39th, 647 E.R.
Kiannae considered a carefully copied map for some time, as her horse milled a bit at the crossroads they had stopped at. She brightened her light several times trying to make out their sloppy penmanship. Katrisha worked to soothe overworked muscles on her mare as Kiannae frowned, and glanced up the road she was fairly sure was the right one.
“We’ve been riding them hard for several hours,” Katrisha said. “You should do something for Golden, even just a little.”
Kiannae tucked the map under her arm, and ran her hands down Golden’s shoulders. She hadn’t really been trained as a healer, but she knew well what she did for her own sore shoulders after practice. Golden calmed his insesent mulling, and snorted contently. “I’m fairly sure this is the fork we want,” she said nodding her head up the left path towards the mountains.
“We should stop a good ways from the nest,” Katrisha sugested.
Kiannae checked the map. “The nest is in a broad dry ravine behind a steep ridge, we can stop, and tie up the horses at the base.” She tucked the map into her robe, and snapped the reigns twice, getting her up to a decent trot, but holding back a bit given how long they had been riding, and the territory they were headed into.
Katrisha moved to catch up, and glanced up at the hills nervously. ‘Where the dragon lays,’ crossed her mind. The words hung there quite a while on the ride. She summoned a spell to check the time, a pyramid bobbed and spun towards the sun somewhere opposite the world. It was half past one in the morning. Miles up into the foothills, three or four hours at their current rate. They would have time to work with in the dark for at least the first part of the fight.
The words wouldn’t go away as she tried to think about all the pertinent details, but what could be more important than the fact that a ‘dragon lies’ ahead. She almost stopped her horse there, her heart certainly froze. She remembered Cassandra’s eyes. She heard the words, ‘the second is born and first to die.’ Another voice all but screamed ‘head the warning,’ in her head. Which warning. Laurel dead, one of them. Katrisha started to cry. She was the one going down, Kiannae was better at the spell that the whole plan hinged upon. She would be at risk, her sister would be safe.
Beware did not mean it was the dragon that would kill one of them. Beware meant to know the risks. The risk of inaction was all but certain. The warnings had been headed, they would be headed, she would do everything she could to prevent the alternative. There was only forward, and Katrisha thought through every single book she had read. She considered every advantage she could have in that fight. Everything.
Her robe was enchanted, but really only against something sharp, fire, or spells. A crushing blow, being stepped on. If she was hit with a swipe of claw, or the crushing force of a bite it would do nothing. If she did not avoid the attacks, it did not matter if the robe kept her from being stabbed or sliced, the force would still crush her.
If there was fire? Katrisha considered worriedly. The robe would not protect her head any way. If there was fire, it was a greater dragon, and the whole plan was shot. They had already thought through the contingencies to test. Fire was not an issue. By the moment the robe felt like a liability. That had been what one book had asserted. She laughed mutedly at that, no more than two quick almost soundless huffs through her nose. Was it mad? She shook her head, and road on, catching up with her sister who was trotting just a bit faster.
It would be fine. They had a plan, and the alternative was foolish. The alternative was to be blind, and stumble forward. Her magic had sliced solid stone, she could do it. She felt battle hardened, confident. It wasn’t hers, it didn’t belong to that moment, but all at once, it was hers. She was a battle mage, because her fate was to fight. She wasn’t sure she liked that, but it came with confidence. Those kind of instinct would not come from one encounter. Kiannae had them as well. It wouldn’t be just the one fight in their future. This, was the right path.
Katrisha was certain of her course. She was afraid, the animal facing danger filled with adrenaline, but the spirit, and mind were clear. She had a destiny. Prophecy was one thing, but destiny was another in her head. They were words from stories, tales of adventure that Mercu liked to tell. ‘Prophecy is what is handed to us, destiny is what we take, in spite of it.’
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
The twins moved cautiously up the ridge in the dead of night. Weaving around thorn bushes, and avoiding scattered twigs for fear of making any sound. They had left the horses tied a few hundred yards below to keep them out of earshot, but still winced when they could make out a distant snort or clop of shuffling hooves.
So far Eran’s map had proved accurate – old trails and animal tracks winding off a little used road that lead into the mountains had brought the girls to that hesitant, breathless final stretch. Getting to their knees they moved cautiously the last few feet to peer into the moonlit ravine below. It was hard to make out clearly in the pale moonlight, but dark shimmering scales could be seen amidst the black rock. The scales moved rhythmically with each of the dragons quiet shallow breaths. Kiannae was relieved to see the creature was asleep for the moment, this would give them time to get a better vantage point.
They worked their way carefully down the crag, between sharp rocks, and through deep fissures in the stone. Their hearts stopped every time loose stones shifted, and tumbled clattering down, sometimes dislodging others along the way. At last they came to a small outcrop of rock on a ledge just above the beast. Its breaths though soft could now be heard, and the outline of its form discerned clearly by the sheen of it’s scales in the moonlight.
It was larger than any living thing the girls had ever seen, one of the horses they had road on could fit easily inside it, and leave plenty of room for the both of them. A chilling and all too likely outcome Katrisha realized, if their plans did not work out. She continued to convince herself it would. She leaned close to her sister and whispered in her ear, “See that boulder up there on the opposite cliff, I’ll nudge it loose, you turn it invisible, we’ll see what the dragon does when something it can’t see hits it.”
Kiannae nodded and closed her eyes for a moment, focusing. Katrisha watched as the bolder shimmered and disappeared, leaving only a faint magical aura revealing it was still there. She reached out and carefully formed a spell for directed force. It unleashed in a burst which briefly revealed the bolder. There was a sound of stone grinding on stone, and a loud crack as the heavy stone caught on a lip of the cliff wall, and vanished again.
The dragon’s head shot upright at the sound. It could not see the bolder coming, but heard it as it scraped down the cliff face, and struck the floor of the ravine with great force. It was not prepared as the boulder tumbled into the wing folded at its side, and let out a deafening roar with the impact as it staggered to its feet.
The great beast shuffled about cautiously, the weight of its steps producing loud thuds. It spread its vast wings almost cliff to cliff, one twitching slightly where it had been struck. It did not understand, did not see what had hit it. Katrisha watched closely as one of the dragon’s legs stumbled over the invisible stone, causing it to turn violently and look for what it had tripped over. Nothing was there, not to the dragon’s eyes at least.
The dragon sniffed the air and growled loudly. It looked about suspiciously, but saw nothing, heard nothing of merit but the wind blowing down the canyon. Slowly, cautiously it began to return to its resting spot, only to find a vexing invisible lump in its way. The creature poked with a front claw at what it could not see, and the great stone rolled slightly under the force.
Displeased and perplexed the dragon backed away, and settled farther down the ravine, closer to the edge where the land plummeted into the valley below. It lay, and stared intently at where the unseen bolder lay.
“Well that worked,” Katrisha whispered softly, “how are you holding up?”
“I’m fine,” Kiannae said softly, her eyes still clenched shut, focusing on maintaining the illusion. “I could probably keep this up a good ten, fifteen minutes easily, but I would much rather reserve such efforts for when it counts.”
The sound of stray pebbles tumbling down the far cliff caused the dragon to turn its head away from the bolder, and Katrisha softly commanded, “Let it go.” The bolder shimmered back into view at the periphery of the dragon’s vision, causing it to snap its head back and stare intently. It could see the bolder then, could see what had hit it, but still did not understand. The bolder just sat there.
Katrisha began stripping off her robe, drawing a perplexed look from her sister. “What are you doing?” Kiannae demanded in a harsh whisper.
“This robe is too heavy,” Katrisha whispered softly, “Like the book said, if I’m going to move fast enough…it would just get in my way.”
“But the enchantments…” Kiannae protested with concern.
“Won’t do a bloody thing,” Katrisha said with a grimace.
“I…” Kiannae started hesitantly, for the first time doubt in her voice, “I’m not sure about this plan any more.”
Katrisha folded her robe on the rock and considered her sister for a moment. She tried moving, but found the billowing of her undergarment worse than the robe, it was too loose, if not nearly as restrictive. She pursed her lips doubtfully, took it off, and lay it atop the robe. Kiannae gave her an even more disbelieving look as she crouched naked in the moonlight. “Can you maintain the spell?” she asked bluntly.
“Yes….yes,” Kiannae shot back defensively. “I… I’m just scared. It’s bigger, much bigger than we thought. I…don’t want to lose you…”
Katrisha leaned closer to her sister, and put her forehead to hers, “You won’t, the plan will work. The dragon couldn’t see the bolder, it won’t be able to see me – at least, not long enough to catch me.” She sighed, then half smiled. “We have to do this.” She kept all her reasoning to herself. Kiannae didn’t need more to worry about, if she hadn’t yet realized. Katrisha was fairly sure her twin hadn’t put together what she had.
“Ok,” Kiannae said reluctantly, looking her sister square in the eye. She kept feeling like she had forgotten something, something very important, but it kept just out of reach.
Katrisha nodded, and Kiannae began the spell, wrapping light around her sister, turning her invisible to mundane eyes. Katrisha was relieved that in the dark of night, the fuzzy outline of the world was almost easier to see. Carefully she began to work her way down the broken cliff face, and moved to where the bolder now stood. She could faintly see the thin slits of the dragons massive eyes reflecting light, and appearing to glow with their own brilliance. They were almost closed, the dragon almost back to sleep. It was less prepared for what was coming than it had been even for the bolder.
Gathering all of her focus Katrisha prepared the spell, and put a great deal of her power into the first shot, intending to make it count. She could feel the spell around her falter, as she knew it would, her own magic interfering with it for a moment. The dragon’s head shifted at the sight, just enough, as a spear of ice nicked its jaw, tearing scales away, and buried itself in its shoulder.
The beast’s roar of agony was deafening as it staggered to its feet, favoring its now slightly wounded front hip. It glared at the tiny pale thing that had appeared from nowhere, and with barely a moment’s hesitation barreled towards the attacker, but she was gone. Katrisha had already bolted from her position, and now stood with her bare back to the cold stone of the cliff face. She forced her breath to be steady, slow, controlled, not to let it give her away. She took comfort in the eerie world of shadowed outlines that let her know she was invisible, protected.
The spear of frozen air and water vapor boiled away slowly from the dragon’s shoulder, drawing ever more angered pained growls from the beast. Katrisha gathered her strength again, pulling power from the air, from the stone, and from the aether. Her heart was beating so fast, some part of her was afraid, but that part could gain no audience as exhilaration ruled uncontested in her mind.
Katrisha struck again, and another shimmering spear shot forth, pulling the air into a solid razor sharp lance of ice, turning heat into velocity. Even the stone hard scales of the dragon could not stop all of the force, but once again the wound was shallow, not even a foot of penetration into the immense bulk of the beast. The dragon shrieked in pain with deafening volume, and turned toward the direction the attack had come from, barely catching a glimmer of the tiny thing that had been there.
Katrisha was forced to roll out of the way as the dragon charged again for the wall she had stood against. She felt sharp stone and pebbles scratch and cut her skin, and winced. She could smell the blood of the dragon, as large drops fell to the ground from the steaming wound in its side. She crouched hesitantly, and considered moving – the dragon was far too close for comfort.
Katrisha analyzed the situation, her strikes were wounding the beast, but as much volume of blood now oozed from its wounds, these were nothing more than deep scratches to a beast its size. Sure maybe they would fester, and the creature would die of infection, but she did not have weeks to work with.
Above this contest of wills, Kiannae risked her concentration to look up when she heard loose pebbles tumble down beside her. She cursed softly and closed her eyes again when she saw four knights, Laurel, Eran, and Idolus all perched above her on the cliff.
Katrisha considered her new vantage point, the scales were layered, overlapping like shingles from head towards tail. Her previous strikes had barely cut through the scales, but from this angle she wondered if she could wedge her attack under the scales, allowing it to penetrate deeper.
Gathering her strength Katrisha struck again, the brilliant glass like shard sliding almost effortlessly between the scales. Several tore completely free under the force of the attack, and the spear disappeared entirely into the creature, only to boil forth slowly as steam from the deep wound. The dragon thrashed wildly in agony, its wings crashing carelessly against the cliff walls as Katrisha once again sought a safer vantage, and tried to dodge falling rocks that were easily as deadly as the dragon.
Laurel and Idolus had made their way down to Kiannae by this point, and Laurel’s first harshly whispered demands for answers had been completely ignored by the deeply focused girl who sat before him. The priest turned from the one sided staring contest and peered into the gorge below, perplexed at what he saw. All too quickly he realized as another spear of ice shot into the dragon’s side, and Katrisha was again revealed, that the girl fighting the dragon below was quite naked.
He moved along the narrow ridge, trying to get closer to where he could vaguely make out the moving aura. He watched in amazement as the graceful young girl struck again, her sweat soaked skin shining in the moonlight, and just as quickly vanished. He looked then to the dragon which shuffled aimlessly, growling, snorting, and groaning constantly, seeking a target, any target in its pent up rage.
Katrisha moved quickly, quietly, constantly seeking a better, less visible angle of attack. She could smell her own sweat, and dreaded for just a moment that her scent would give her away. The dragon had moved to where she had last struck, it was learning, she was sure it hadn’t even seen her that time. It sniffed at the air, turning its head back and forth.
Katrisha thought little of it as the creatures wings carelessly scraped along the top of the ridge. Little of it that is, until she heard a man’s yell, and turned to see some one slide helplessly down the steep stone cliff face and crumple to the ground amidst shattered stone.
It was instinct, something automatic, she knew without even thinking that whoever had stumbled into this was dead if she didn’t act. Katrisha struck again, wildly, recklessly this time, she put too much into the spell and was left staggered by it. The shard of ice had been nearly as large as her, and even the gust from its departure nearly pulled her over. It penetrated deeply into the dragon’s flank, drawing it back away from the trembling Idolus who lay desperately trying to heal his wounds. The power of the spell had fed back through Kiannae’s illusion and broken her concentration, leaving Katrisha exposed as the dragon barreled towards her.
The Dragon was almost upon Katrisha before Kiannae could leap up to get eyes on her sister, and reform the illusion. Katrisha was left little choice but to dive between the immense legs. Heavy crashing feet barely missed her with force that would have left her little more than a smear on the cold stone. The sound alone of each thunderous step was bone rattling, and her ears were left ringing.
Katrisha was scratched and bruised from her desperate maneuvers, but otherwise intact. The beasts vast belly was suspended mere inches above her. Part of her thought – for just a moment – of the perfect opportunity the angle presented her to strike what might be a mortal blow. Her last reckless move however had left her too weak to try, and she realized she was too close to get any good acceleration on the attack. Lastly in that moment of forced hesitation, a glimmer of sense came to her for how precarious her current position really was.
Katrisha turned her head in confusion as a bright flash of light caught her attention. She rolled and scrambled to avoid the dragon’s shuffling claws as it was also drawn to the new distraction. She had barely gotten to her feet as the dragon’s tail swept around, too low to the ground to avoid, the blow knocked the wind from her, and she heard a rib crack from the impact. She felt the acceleration, the whole world tumble.
Katrisha didn’t see that the light had been Laurel on the cliff, trying to distract the dragon. She only knew that past the pain, numbed by shock, she felt weightless. It took her a moment, perhaps an eternity, perhaps only half a second of looking up at the moonlit sky, and twinkling stars to realize she was falling. The dragon’s tail had swept her clean off the cliff at the end of the ravine. Katrisha rolled painfully in the air, and looked down in dazed terror at the oncoming rocks below.
Far above, Kiannae had lost her focus, and she watched as a wounded dragon landed precariously on a ledge not far away, sending pieces of stone tumbling into the ravine. Laurel shattered the stone beneath the dragon’s feet, causing it to lose its grip, and tumble with terrible force to the ground below. Kiannae panicked, she didn’t know where Katrisha was any more, and as she looked to the ravine floor below, and then the direction she had last been able to track her sister, she saw the cliff. Then she felt something inside her snap, like ice piercing the very center of her.
Kiannae’s face went white, her thoughts spiraled unintelligibly out of control, and she ran, scrambling up the cliff where she had previously come down. She stumbled half blind as tears formed, and blurred her vision. She ran past Knights who could not quite get hold of her, and down the path she had climbed before. It was all she could do to get onto the horse she had come on, even as someone was running after her. She burned the reins away, that held the horse to the tree it was tied to. The horse bolted from everything going on, and carried Kiannae away.
All she wanted then and there was to be anywhere else. Dark thoughts plagued her mind, half formed, as she became certain, as the only plausible reality seared into her mind. She had failed, she had not been good enough, and now, her heart broke, she couldn’t even bare to think the words she could finally remember, that she then knew to be true. The words of an old woman from years before echoed in her head.
Kiannae wondered how she had forgotten, how Katrisha had forgotten. Laurel had told them to, that was why. They had come to save him, they had done it to save him, and…she trembled as she clung to the horse, all of her wild fear and fury driving it on. They had never been completely sure which of them was born first, but now Kiannae was sure. Katrisha was born second.
Kiannae began to cry without reservation, as the words rang so loud in her head someone could have been screaming them in her pounding ears, ‘first to die.’
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Kiannae lay against her horse’s back, bathed in moonlight as trees flew by at the roadside. She had ridden for hours without direction, or clear thought, as overwhelming sorrow, weariness, and guilt plagued her delirious mind. She didn’t know where she was, she didn’t care. If the horse slowed she simply clenched her fingers into his fur tighter, and let all her sorrow and rage flow into the innocent creature as unformed wild energies spurred it on.
When exhaustion finally won the contest of wills with madness, Kiannae passed out. No longer clinging tightly she slipped from horse’s back, and was shocked awake by the cold hard ground, as tumbled several times. For a moment pain pulled her from her fevered delusions. She looked up to see the horse a dozen yards away, cautiously examining its former rider – torn between training, and the relief to have the wild creature off its back. Kiannae winced as she moved, everything hurt, and her head seemed to be ringing like a bell.
Waveringly she managed to push herself up. As she sat dazed on the road she became aware of the blood trickling over her lips, and down her chin. She brought her hand to her nose, and touched it gingerly. It was covered in blood that was almost black in the moonlight. She laughed, she didn’t know why, it was a single short laugh with no humor in it. She looked around absently, not caring for the horse that scratched at the ground and snorted a short distance away, nor the blood that still flowed from her face.
After a minute of vacantly surveying her surroundings Kiannae came enough to her senses to try to stop the bleeding from her nose. She brought both hands to her face, and focused past every other screaming muscle and joint to stop the blood. The delirious spiral of emotions that had consumed her abated for a moment, as a cold analytical state took over her shock addled mind. The horror was still there, somewhere, at the edge of her consciousness, like swirling storm clouds on the horizon. As she finished her nose she began to take stock of each cut, scrape, and strained joint. This seemed to keep larger troubles at bay for the moment.
Finding her legs mostly intact Kiannae tried to get up, but fell with a shriek on the first attempt having found that her right shoulder could bear no weight. She tried again using her left arm to help herself up, and managed to stumble to her feet. She watched apathetically as the horse backed away farther, obviously uninterested in the possibility of her remounting it.
Kiannae looked up and down the unmarked forest road. She could only guess at that point which way she had even come from. For all she knew she had tumbled fully over in the fall, and the horse had circled around. For a moment she considered returning, going back to the castle and facing the wrath of the the King, Laurel…everyone.
There was no point to it. Returning would not bring Katrisha back, there was nothing there for her any more. Not even Laurel, or Mercu – they had told her to ignore, to forget…she had, and then she hadn’t…but she wouldn’t…she was so angry, looking for anyone to blame but herself. On a level she knew that, and yet there was a righteous indignation right behind that knowledge. Why would she face their wrath…or Wren, who had lost his favored sister. She had warmed to her brother, but not fully. She wanted no part of it, not any of it.
She looked away from where she had come, or so she presumed. She considered the road ahead – another kingdom, perhaps? She was unsure where she was. She could join a merchant caravan, if perhaps she could convince them she was older. It would be a hard sell, however good she was at magic. What did it matter, what did she care for that life? She stumbled to the side of the road, leaned against a tree, and found herself staring into the forest.
What forest was it, Kiannae wondered. Had she been riding east? She must have been given the mountains she had ridden from. Was she on the edge of the great forest in which the Sylvans dwelled? Could her half forgotten father be out there somewhere? There was something to that, even as madness tried to take her again. The cold inside of her, the place that felt like a hole where her sister had always been, ached. She formed a spell that told her which way was north. It had to be where she was, it was that forest, she was convinced.
As a child Kiannae had stood at the forest’s western border. She had tried to find the courage to cross the stream that ran behind her grandparent’s crypt…long since her mother’s too. Her sister had taken her hand, and she had turned back. She had let go of her father, and the mad idea of finding him. Her sister wasn’t there to take her hand then. Never would be again, Kiannae considered darkly as tears streamed down her cheeks. She set herself to that unreasonable goal. She left the road, the horse, and her ruined life behind – cast adrift like a loose filament of a failed spell, caught in the wind.
Fate had no more power over her, it had taken all it could. From far above the vantage of mortal eyes, one could see it was so. She was indeed a loose thread, still spiraling around greater events, her purpose long lost to another. She was a wild card in a game she could not imagine the players of – a pawn just one square from the far side of the board. No threat at all, to those still learning the rules of the game.