Chapter 7

As winds whip past,
lightning cracks around,
the meek shall tremble,
before a deafening sound,

midst the maelstrom stands,
blood of south wind’s own,
the terrible bound wrath,
a child of the storm.

– Druidic Proverb, circa 75 E.R.

The Passing Storm

Vhalun 3rd, 648 E.R.

Kiannae tugged at the blindfold she had been told to wear.  It wasn’t terribly effective, as she still knew roughly where she was.  She could count the feeling of passing trees, and turns.  If she memorized them, getting back would be easy.  It was annoying, nonetheless.  She was nudged, she assumed by Zale for tugging at her blindfold, sighed, and put her hands back behind her.

Landri had insisted that the blindfold was not really to keep her from knowing where she was, but to help her focused on other senses.  To come to the dryad grove communed with nature.  She was communed with nature well enough, at least to make sure she did not trip, or bump into anything.  It felt to her more distracting than helpful at the moment.  She was not focused on feeling the world, but rather on not colliding with it, or those around her.  More focused on position than meaning.

She really wasn’t sure what to expect.  The memories of her suspected past acquaintance with a dryad were fleeting at best.  Long written off as a childish fancy.  There existence had been of more note in her her past instruction than their nature or behavior.  Never so interesting as ghosts, since one lingered in her tower.  Then the whispers started.  Faint, distant, and unintelligible, but growing stronger with every step.

“…child…comes…” Kiannae plucked from the growing murmur, and tried to determine if she could feel anything different.  “…beware children…”  She could hear the words, but the trees all just felt like trees to her.  The same trees she had passed for all it mattered.  Less interesting really than the houses that druids of old had shaped from living wood.  If it were not for the words on the wind it would seem almost anticlimactic, but the words, the words were troubling.

“A new one has come to us, old ones,” Landri called out.  “She wished to meet the wood of elders, to know the dryads, to seek council from you, and for us to seek council regarding her.”

“…unwelcome…” came a cold whisper.

“Do you wish us to leave?” Landri asked, her voice tinged with concern.

The group had stopped, and standing still Kiannae reached out, desperate to make sense out of the seeming lack of otherness in the place, to explain the voices.  Trees for the gifted were slightly strange hollow things.  The outside of a tree was where the aura lived, and in the middle was…  Kiannae’s cheek twitched as she felt it.  The heartwood of the tree nearest her was alive, if ever so faintly.  A fine web of life woven through the bulk, a structure so delicate that if it was not suspended in solid wood it would be impossible to imagine it enduring.

“…storm coming…” another more distinct voice wavered after an uncomfortably long pause.

“…stormwalker…”

Each fragment seemed to be in an entirely new voice, yet all were whistfull and strained.  Kiannae felt for the wind, felt the rhythm on it.  The trees existed in a state of constant communion with the wind, it answered her politely, but but like a passing stranger, and not the friend she had thought he knew.  The elements of that place were reserved to answer their visitor, as she had grown accustomed to them doing so.  They were not hers to call, and yet, she felt welcome.

“…beast comes…” emerged with a terrible hiss.

A slight thudding could be heard in the distance, and Kiannae yanked off her blindfold.  She had felt it, like a cold fire some distance away, but only trees stood in that direction.

“…unwelcome…duty….stormwalker…”

“Do you wish us to leave?” Landri repeated.  “By your will old ones.”

“…stay…” came a terse command as heavy footfalls drew everyone to look in the direction Kiannae was already staring intently.  She couldn’t however pick out what lay beyond the dense stand of living trees.

“…protect…duty…unwelcome…”

There was a loud animal growl. Followed by the deep groan of staining wood before a deafening crack that had half the druids reaching for their ears.

“…beast kill…” the whispers turned to a defining shriek.

The falling tree filled the air with the sound of snapping branches, and though the gathered druids cringed they stood firm as they saw it was falling away from the party.  When it hit the forest floor the thud seemed to wash away everything else into a moment of stillness.  

“What is it?” Kiannae demanded looking to Landri, Zale, and the two other druids with them.  She felt a weight upon her, as she had not before.  It was like the wind had suddenly answered her call, but demanded she accept its power, her communion, not fleetingly accept her as it normally might.  It made her recoil.

“I…don’t know…” Landri said nervously, as a loud snort cut through the deathly calm.  The snort repeated several times, as though something massive was sniffing, and testing the wind for scents.

“…it comes…” the whispers picked up again, and the demanding presence of the elements receded from Kiannae, but not completely.  “…stormwalker…defend…”  It was then a request, it felt as though the world around her offered her, what she had always before needed to ask.  Still, the strangeness made her heistate.

Footsteps grew louder, and the snorting more concise as the vast head of a bear several sizes too large emerged from behind the thick growth of trees.  As its one good eye came into view it visibly squinted at the small group of druids.  It turned its head to face them, and the other eye was no more than a glowing ember of red in a hollow socket.  The beast snarled, white foam dripped from its lips, and scales shimmered along its snout.

“A dire bear…” Kiannae said in some disbelief.  She had barely even seen depictions of a normal bear before, let alone one almost as large as a dragon.  The beast stepped thunderously from behind the trees.  Boney spikes protruded from it’s shoulders and spine, moving in a peculiar undulating rhythm with its stride.

“I’ve never seen him so close,” one of the druids muttered behind Kiannae.

“I’d thought you all were exaggerating,” another cut back.

“Do we run?” Kiannae demanded.

“No,” Landri said hesitantly, “it will chase us if we run.”

“Do we fight then?” Kiannae demanded as the beast eyed the party, and licked its froth covered lips.

“With what?” Zale laughed darkly.

“Back,” Landri commanded loudly, challenging the bear, which paused, sniffed, and continued towards the druids.  “Back,” Landri repeated.

“I don’t think it’s listening,” Kiannae said pulling her aura tightly around her, an old habit from magic training, quite contrary to what she had been taught of channeling.  It gave her separation from the still imposing elements.

“Dire beats are intelligent,” Lanrdi said firmly, “not as smart as a person, but they understand intent.  Back,” she repeated forcefully, as Zale and the other two druids began to back away slowly.

“I don’t think this one cares,” Kiannae said watching the beast’s foaming maw.  “It wouldn’t be the first dire creature I’ve had to fight…the last one just wasn’t a bear.”

“Dire beasts are resistant to disease, but I fear this one is rabid, somehow,” Landri said her conviction starting to falter.

“Rabid would also be new,” Kiannae added tersely.  “What do we do now?”

“We run…” Landri said firmly.  “Run, now!” she yelled, and the druids all bolted at once in different directions, as the bear charged, and looked back and forth at its options of prey to chase.

Kiannae could feel, let alone hear the bear chase her, and ducked behind a tree as it thundered past, slid, and crashed into a great pine which cracked under the force, and fell with a groaning  and another great shriek on the wind.

“…protect…stormwalker…” the voice wailed demandingly.

Kiannae began to form a charge to strike at the bear as it shook itself.  She unleashed the bolt of lightning, and the bear visibly winced in pain, but seemed largely unfazed.  Kiannae struck again to even less effect.  As the bear moved towards her, and snarled angrily, a form emerged from nowhere as a streak, and clobbered the bear across the jaw.  The bear swatted at the new offender, whose form whiffed away into mist.

“Taloe,” Kiannae yelled in shock as the mist reformed into the boy’s shape between her, and the bear.  The bear leapt at Taloe, and Kiannae rolled out of the way as the bear crashed into the tree she had been against.  The tree cracked, but did not fall, as another agonized cry echoed on the wind.

Kiannae scrambled to her feet as the bear shook itself, and glared at her.  It lunged again, and Kiannae threw herself wildly out of the way, tumbling as she landed, and struck again from where she lay.  This attack was driven by some new instinct, a blinding bolt that set the bear off balance for only a moment.

She had for a few moments reverted to mage training, but she felt the will of something new, and yet familiar.  An element that had always answered her quietly, by magic, but for the first time offered openly to be one with her.  To give itself to her, if she would do the same in turn.  She did not ask, it offered.  It was terrifying even to touch that power, to feel it echo through her.  The air crackled around her, building to something, waiting for her answer.  The bear pushed itself upright, and turned unsteadily towards her.  She blasted it again, and the beast flinched.  She still held back, she still held onto the idea of self.  Not sure what lay past the precipice she felt before her.

Zale, and Landri turned back to check on Kiannae, and watched as great gusts began to weave through the trees.  As Kiannae called on the more familiar, safer element of wind.  It was enough to stagger the beast, and even at some distance knock a grown man from his feet.  The bear strained against the power of it, digging its claws into the dirt, and striding forward.  Lightning came then up from the ground up into the bear.  Another step closer, another heartbeat from accepting, but again refused.  She clung to the wind, pulling back from crackling energy that begged her to accept.

The beast roared in agony, and lost a few inches of ground to the wind.  It recovered though, and marched forwards again, withstanding the gale, and several more dazzling strikes.  Kiannae stood firm in its path, untouched by the elements that began to topple more distant observers.

There was a great rush of air, as Kiannae swung her hand, and a howling wind whipped through the branches of the trees.  The bear staggered sideways, struck by incredible force.  Again lightning leapt from her hands, and the bear faltered, and fell to the ground.  It lay there huffing for a moment, and then struggled back up trembling where it stood.

“…mercy…stormwalker…” the voices echoed on the wind, “…end…suffering…”  Pulling just a little bit of it from her control.  That place had a will all its own, the dryads were the true masters, and yet they were a lever without a fulcrum.

Kiannae didn’t know what to do.  Magic had not been enough.  Not even channeling wind or lighting.  Not the nature she knew, or her own power seemed capable of ending the fight.  Yet the powers offered, the powers of that place.  She feared them, but feared death more.  She opened the door, and quickly started losing sight of herself.

She glimpsing another perspective.  Somewhere far below was a human girl, that she had fancied herself.  That tiny speck felt so far away.  Then she felt it, and her eyes closed.  The illusion of self fell to nothing.  The illusion of life, of earth, of solid things.  There was only energy, and one of its truest forms answered her, as it always had, but consumed her as she had never been prepared.

In a moment she was lost, and in a moment the world for miles around in all directions was her, demanded to be her.  It was not even her will, but something new rushing in.  Kiannae saw figures she would not quite remember, standing around her, nodding approval.  They were not mages, but they had woven a spell.  That place served many purposes, though she could not name them.  The spell created purpose, manifested it, prepared it, preserved, something.

Small hairs stood on end for all onlookers, even the bears fur seemed to ripple and rise.  The smell of ozone almost burned their nostrils.  The four druids watched in disbelief, and felt almost as though ants were crawling on their skin.

Then it stopped.

Everything was still, and a bear reared up, ready to bring its full weight down upon the young woman that stood defiant before it.

Perspective.  It was like it had always been there, one just needed to know exactly how to look.  She did not need to form it, to channel it, just find it, find a path.  A path that was almost available.  Blocked only by a fickle expanse of air above.  Just a little nudge, a twist in the air.  She let go of the power that demanded to consume her as surely as her adversary, and instead shifted the air.  It split, and tore up through the heavens, and it all came down.  A terrible charge between layers of the stratosphere.  It was more than a mere strike of lighting, but an entire storm in a single bolt.  It was just enough.

The flash was blinding, thunder rattled the joints of the skull, and teeth in their sockets.  The four druids who had seen it were left dazed, off balance, or on the ground rubbing their eyes, trying desperately to see again.  A great thud, and a much smaller one went unheard over the ringing in everyone’s ears.

When at last the bystanders could see through vision speckled with dazzling dots, the bear lay smoldering, and blackened.  Kiannae was crumpled on the ground before it.  A naked boy knelt beside her, and drifted away on the wind as Landri hurried to her side, cautious of any motion from the bear.

“…thank you…stormwalker…” the wind whispered, and fell silent.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“There is more than a little explaining to be done,” Ezik’s muffled voice declared as Kiannae stirred in her bed.

Her head was ringing like a bell, trying to piece together where she was.  Who she was made a fleeting stab as a question, and was gone.  Something itchy at the back of her mind, it refused to be examined.  Something she had forsaken the offer of, a power she had used without paying the price.  The thought that such a move came with its own cost, more abstract still.

There was a flash of a woman’s face, smiling, but Kiannae wasn’t sure she recognized her.  A feeling terrible, and wonderful at once.  There was another name on her lips, not her own, and yet so familiar.  She shook her head from the dreamy fog intruding, and focused on the argument in the other room.

“I knew of the elemental,” Landri offered, “the rest…I have no explanation.  I had taken her there in hopes of answers.”

“Why was I not told of your reasons?” Ezik demanded.

“We all have our secrets,” Landri snapped coldly.  “The girl offered me her confidence.  Which is more I think than you sometimes give me.”

“And you?” Ezik turned to Zale, “you have spent nearly as much time with her, what do you know?”

“As much,” Zale said cringing, “though Landri has had her doubts about the power I have witnessed her wield.”

“So tell us then?” Ezik demanded, and turned as Kiannae stumbled into the room, and leaned weakly against the door frame.  “Oh, look who is awake,” he said with a fierce glare.  “I’d commend you, from what I’ve heard, but I feel some chastising for keeping dangerous secrets might be in order first.”

“Taloe is harmless,” Kiannae declared flatly.

“So the boy has a name then?” Ezik sighed, and rubbed his face.

Landri looked at Kiannae shrewdly.  “That is a name I gave her, give or take.  A name from a story.  If it is truly his, I remain uncertain.”

“I think it is his name,” Kiannae said wearily, and looked as though she was about to slide down the door frame.

“Do help her, would you, Zale?” Ezik said scoldingly.

“I…yes, of course grandfather,” Zale said, rushed to Kiannae’s side, and helped her to a chair.

“You first Landri,” Ezik said eying Landri firmly.  “Why do you doubt this is the boy’s name?”

“It’s a name from an old story, the tale of Tethis,” Landri said.  “Or at least a close approximation.  Kiannae asked about the story some time ago, in particular the boy’s name.  Then called him that when we were first introduced.”

“I see,” Ezik said, and turned back to Kiannae.  “And why do you think the boy’s name is the same as from this story?”

“I’ll answer with a question,” Kiannae said testily. “If I am wrong, then Landri is perhaps right.  What was the name of the princess in the story?”

“It was…” Landri seemed lost in thought, “Aelee, I believe.”

“Then I say with very little doubt, though once again it is not exact,” Kiannae qualified a bit irritably, “he is in fact not just named Taloe, he is very much the one from that tale.”

“That’s…preposterous,” Landri said shaking her head.

“He said it, back when he was first learning to talk.  We had no name for him, and were calling him Water,” Zale offered understanding Kiannae’s line of reasoning. “He suddenly didn’t like it, and said, ‘The water took Aeliae.’”

“That doesn’t exactly prove,” Landri said with reservation.

“A boy who forms from, and returns to the mist,” Kiannae growled, “who I found by drinking from a pool in a wood that lies where the story implies Tethis was, and who remembers his love named Aeliae…who drowned…who when remembering her name clutched his shoulder as though pierced through it with an arrow, as the story says he met his end.”

“Point taken,” Landri muttered.

“So, that much is settled,” Ezik stated.  “As to what to do about the matter…that can wait.  The other issue at hand is more concerning.  I have multiple accounts, that all largely agree on one point.  You made relatively short work of a massive, and rabid dire bear.  Where they differ is how.”

Kiannae looked at Ezik, not sure what he expected of her.  “First I have a question of my own,” she said defiantly, “who, or what is a stormwalker?”

Ezik laughed.  “That, is in part what we are here to find out.”

“What?”  Kiannae demanded irritably, “don’t you know?”

“I know the title Stormwalker,” Ezik said sternly.  “I also know that no one has held it in centuries, quite a few even.”  He tapped his staff lightly. “This is where the difference in accounts comes in.  No one can agree for certain if you were just using magic against that bear, or something else.”

Kiannae frowned, and looked down at the table.  “At first I was…it was what I knew, what came to me immediately in desperation.”

“There is no shame in that,” Ezik said comfortingly.  “Magic is not a crime, just a risk to your health.  But you say ‘at first,’ please, explain.”

“It just came to me, suddenly I felt everything around me…” Kiannae trailed off, “the earth, the trees, the wind…the wind particularly…something else…the whispers…I barely remember the fight, mostly the end.  I remember the wind asking mercy, and I knew they meant for the poor beast.  Its fevered, pained mind needed to be put to rest, but it was too strong, so I…it’s all a blur really, till the very last moment, when I found a path up, and back down from the heavens themselves…and then nothing.  I woke up here.”

“It took over an hour to carry you back,” Zale offered.

“I felt some of what you did out there,” Landri said.  “I’m surprised you are awake even now.”

“Oh,” Kiannae said simply.  She didn’t like the answer, she wasn’t even sure she had done all that much.  It was almost more like she had not done something she was supposed to.  Like she had cheated, but to her surprise it wasn’t actually against the rules.  A move that could only be made by leaving the pieces right where they were.  “That still doesn’t explain what a Stormwalker is.”  She pressed, getting annoyed with her own thoughts.

“Possibly you,” Ezik mused.  “Though please girl, don’t let it go to your head.  Even dryad’s are not infallible.  They might have simply not known a better name for you.”

“But what is it?” Kiannae protested.

“Stormwalker is an old title,” Landri said closing her eyes, and then opening them again to stare shrewdly at Kiannae.  “Very old.  Dating back to the days of the shamans, many of whose traditions we still maintain.  They were mighty warriors who commanded not simply the power of conjurers, or mages, but who could channel the very essence of nature’s forces with almost no effort.  What you did might have been pure instinct, but it hardly seemed effortless, given your condition.”

“And I am…one of these?” Kiannae said dubiously.  She felt beaten, and drained.  Like she had been torn apart, but parts, did indeed feel like they had been almost effortless.  There was a cost though, sitting on the edge of her awareness.  Something bigger than her, far bigger, had wanted her to pay a price.  She had refused, and tricked it into doing what needed done.  Hadn’t she?  It didn’t feel like that memory belonged to that day, it felt like she had it all wrong.  She considered asking, but couldn’t even think what to say without sounding mad.

“Despite my own eyes, and senses, I have my doubts,” Landri said.  “There is only one known living line of something like Stormwalkers, the line of the Storm Queen…but they have become almost something else entirely, bound to their sacred mountain.”

The word bound hung on Kiannae.  Something was bound there in the dryad wood, she was certain of it, and willfully wanted to deny the notion at once.  Something that had wanted her, that had seen her as a doorway.  She shook her head slightly, but only Zale seemed to notice, and give her a funny look.

“Perhaps,” Ezik said distantly, “perhaps you are just a very powerful mage.  Perhaps you are even something else new entirely.  What ever you are, there will be whispers now, more than before.   Many still viewed you as a questionable outsider, this will sway a few, others will be all the more weary…depending what we tell them.”

“And what will you tell them?” Landri asked before Kiannae could.

“That she is one of us,” Ezik said.  “Nothing more, nothing less.  I do not believe the world is in need of a Stormwalker, yet that is not mine to say.  Let things fall as they will.  Though the body of that beast must be burned, if it carries disease that could overcome even a dire breed.”

“What of the boy, this Taloe if he is what she says?” Landri demanded.

“A nature spirit helped with the bear,” Ezik said, and smiled.  “Not quite a lie.  Say nothing more, and that only if asked.”  Ezik turned to Kiannae.  “He can remain out of sight I assume, he’s done well enough with that so far.”

“I…will tell him,” Kiannae said hesitantly.

“That’s it then, we just keep him a secret?” Zale said incredulously.

“Seems to have been his idea,” Ezik chided, “and it seems a wise one.  I believe we should simply encourage him to continue as he has.”

“Why the secrecy though?” Zale demanded.

“Because Kiannae will have enough eyes on her after today’s events,” Ezik said slowly standing.  “We need not add to the whispers with questions about her consorting with a ghost, spirit, elemental, whatever you wish to call it.  He’s part of her, I see that now, something I did not understand when I first met her.  There is no separating them, not without killing one or even both.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Vhalun 4th, 648 E.R.

Kiannae woke in the night.  She had been sent back to bed, even as conversation continued about what was to be done with her.  She was on many levels offended that she was left out of the extended debate, but also too tired to really fight a command to rest.  She looked to the door, but knew quickly the shadow that stood there was not Taloe.

“What do you want?” she asked fairly certain it was Zale watching her sleep.  He had a presence something like a leaf on the wind.  It had always been easily missed, and what the feeling reminded her of always had an odd reframing effect, that gave her moments of doubt each way.  He really wasn’t anything like Mercu, she didn’t think.  Presences were, what they were, ‘rhyme without reason’ Laurel had told her once.  It seemed a terrible answer.

“Nothing,” Zale sighed.  “I volunteered to take a watch over you.  Landri is concerned you may have done yourself some harm with whatever you used to take down that bear.”

“Thanks,” Kiannae said disingenuously, suspect of Zale’s motives, “but I think I’m fine.”

“You did knock yourself out for over an hour with that stunt,” Zale cut back, “and have not stirred in hours, even after going to bed in the middle of the afternoon.  You may yet live, but I am hardly convinced you are fine.”

“What ever,” Kiannae grumbled, as Zale walked into the room.  He looked down at her, his face lit clearly in the moonlight from her window.  His expression was one of genuine kindness, if not outright concern, and she suddenly felt bad for her attitude.  “I…”  She sighed.  “I’m sorry.”

“It’s been a day.” Zale laughed nervously.  “If you really want, I’ll head off to my own house and sleep.  Just so long as you back me up that you asked me to go.”

“I…think that would be best,” Kiannae said longing for a sense of privacy.

“Very well,” Zale said, set his hand on hers, leaned over, and kissed her forehead.  She wanted to protest his forwardness, but as much as it left her feeling he had ideas she was not sure she appreciated, there was a genuineness to the act that made her keep her peace.

After several minutes alone in the dark she sighed, and turned to a shadow that stood in the corner.  “Hello,” she said resisting the urge to snap at him to leave.  What was the point?  He couldn’t, not really.  Ezik’s words hung on her, there was no separating them.  She had known it deep down, but he had confirmed it.

“Do I…” Taloe started.  “Am I unwanted?”

“It’s not that,” Kiannae grumbled as she shifted slightly.  “I just…I don’t know what to do with it all.  I ran away to not face the mess that was left when…that was my fault, maybe all of this is too.  Maybe a Stormwalker is what I am, and maybe that means where I go, trouble follows.”

“No,” Taloe said simply, stepping from the shadows. “Trouble is with us all.  I have dreamed…long have I dreamed.  Long have I remembered as she slipped into the water, killed by those sworn to defend her…from me.”  He hung his head.

“You did nothing wrong,” Kiannae said firmly.

“I let her come with me,” Taloe said firmly.  “I let her choose a path that ended in death, in war, in the slaughter of my people.”

“And I let my sister chose a path that ended her,” Kiannae said defiantly, even realizing she had lost the contest of bitter ends by more than some small margin.

Taloe stepped closer, and set his hand on Kiannae’s cheek.  “I have dreamed of the rivers, and the paths they flow.  I saw worlds that never were, and a great and terrible queen, embittered by love denied.  I saw her rise to heights of great power, and then in madness snuff out as many lights as stars shine in the sky.  Though I do wonder if it was so simple as those visions could be understood…”

“I don’t understand.”

“Aeliae was kind, and good,” Taloe said smiling weakly, “she made a choice to live in happiness, and love, and a choice also to sacrifice that to prevent a war.  Our end was bitter…”  He shook his head.  “Kindness can bring tragedy, and folly can spare a world.  We chose not the ends, but the means.  We lived as we were.”

Kiannae shrunk under the weight of how much smaller her troubles suddenly felt.  Yet the cost hurt her no less.  She couldn’t find anything to say.

“Did you believe you could succeed, where others might fail, and perish?” Taloe pressed.

Kiannae wondered how much the creature could read her mind.  The vision of Laurel’s death mocked her, as did the fact she did not even known what had come of the fight.  If he had even been saved in the end, if it had all been for nothing.  “Our mentor.  We…she had a plan,” Kiannae offered, “to avoid the dragon.”

“Then she risked herself that others might not have to,” Taloe insisted.

“If only I were so noble,” Kiannae protested.

“You ran,” Taloe said somberly.  “Your dreams have told me this, and the pain, and madness that drove you from that mountain.  I have felt what struck you, and it pales to the memory of an arrow through the chest.”

“It is no excuse,” Kiannae defied him.  “She gave her life, to save him, and I ran.”

“I see something you do not,” Taloe said shrewdly.  “I see your death, your mentors, even both.  Countless worse ends on that mountain.  There is a shadow there, like a stain on the world.  Something I cannot see that knew these futures, urged you to run.  I can hear a whisper like a cry in that moment, that you do not remember.  I cannot see if he lived…but I can say that all but certainly one of you would have died, most likely more.”

“A prophecy made me run,” Kiannae growled.  “Guilt, for having forgotten it until it was too late.  All of it is prophecy, everything that happened.  Don’t tell me of prophecy.”

“Do you wish you had remembered?  Followed the other path, and not the one you did?”

“I…”  Kiannae rolled over forcefully, and cried.

“Do not close your eyes,” Taloe intoned as though it was wisdom once imparted to him.  Almost another voice.  “Seeings stones in the path before us is not what makes one stumble.”

“That is not what Laurel believed, is he…was he a fool?”

“I see before me a noble woman,” Taloe said firmly. “Whom you have loved, I must assume noble.  We have many reasons for the things we do, the ones we admit, even to ourselves, and the ones that drive us.  To trust prophecy, to show arrogance in the knowledge of something so uncertain is foolish, but to be blind is more so, because we do not choose what we know.  What drives us.”

“I want to believe that,” Kiannae sighed, “but I would rather she lived.  Rather we never went to that mountain.”

“I would rather that my Aeliae lived as well,” Taloe said.  “Your sister lived her life as she was, a small grace, but we have what comforts we do.”

“You can really read my thoughts, can’t you?” Kiannae asked, turning back over.

“I hear the whispers in dreams,” Taloe said looking away.

“That’s not an answer.”

“The whispers of you,” Taloe said obviously uncomfortable.  “They are like a song, that wakes, and lulls me to sleep.  I do not read, it is nothing like that, I feel.  Had I still bones I would say that I feel it there.  The rest is whispers and shadows.  Pasts that never were, futures that might yet be.  I cannot see those well, U was never good at futures, only the past, it…so rarely changes.”  Something clearly troubled him, something more than he was saying.

“Oh,” Kiannae said obviously uncomfortable.

Taloe rested his hand on her cheek again.  “Do…you love Zale?” Taloe asked hesitantly.

“Shouldn’t you know that?” Kiannae asked with more anger than she felt good about, and the hand was pulled from her cheek.

“I go,” he said, and as the words were spoken, he vanished in a swirl of mist.

“I barely know him,” Kiannae muttered into the darkness, not sure how much Taloe could hear when he was not incarnate.  She pulled her blanket tighter around her, rolled over, and stared absently at a moonlit wall, until sleep begrudgingly took her once more.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 12th, 648 E.R.

Ezik looked very frail that day, as Landri considered him.  She had begun to wonder why he spent so much time staring out windows.  All at once she knew how old he was, even though frailty aside, the years had been far more than kind to his features.

“What have you learned?” Landri finally asked.

“I have made enquiries through channels available to me.  Little attention as was called to her, a half Sylvan girl from Avrale was easy to hear reference to, one with a twin, no less so.  Specifics add up easily.”

“So you have learned more of our Kiannae then?” Landri pressed.

“Yes.”

“And?”  She all but growled as Ezik reminder how aggravatingly obtuse he could be.

Ezik turned, and considered Landri at length.  “She is not some simple mage’s apprentice.  She is the adopted daughter of the court mage of Avrale.”

“Should we not return her then?”

“Perhaps that is what propriety would ask of us.  There is no evidence that a Court Mage has died in battle, so it should be possible, but I have seen many things that trouble me.”

“The stormwalker, and stormchild business?”

“Yes.”

“And you are certain it is her?”

“In my bones I feel it is another.”

“The mentor lives, have you confirmed the sister’s death?”

“One lost, one missing from court,” Ezik nodded.  “It would seem so.”

“She is owed better than what things seem,” Landri said tersely.

“She is owed the chance to grow into the woman she is becoming…though I worry if she is not owed far better than that.”

“You have always been a sly one, but this is unlike even you,” Landri said with some concern.

“You do not know what I have seen,” Ezik said, and looked out the window again.  “Not simply the vision of the eye of the storm – I have seen the storm itself.  I have seen a great war ravage the land – the world shake, and crack asunder.  I have seen armies, and dragons.  I have seen a great light go out in the east, and a shadow cast across the world at the setting sun.  I have seen my own death, quietly, amongst the grove of elders.  I will not live to the dark days that come, and yet I can still feel them, like a cold wind on the breeze.”

“Do you wish to be alone?” Landri asked uneasily.

“No – but you can not provide me what I wish.”

“Shall I leave?”

“That is up to you.  I will not mind the company.”

“You may have seen visions – but you still have not seen everything,” Landri offered, her words uncharacteristically timid.

“What have I missed?”  Ezik asked.

“The past,” Landri said somberly.

“Enlighten me,” he said with a curiosity that crept into the corners of his eyes.

“When I was but a girl, I remember my first crush.  An older man, strong, and firm, and ever mysterious.  I was a child, and he was taken, but this does not always turn away a youthful eye.  Not when he entertained more than one woman already,” Landri said pointedly.

Ezik looked away, embarrassed.  He was ancient, and felt more so.

Landri stepped closer.  “I can not say with the passage of time, such youthful attractions have endured,” she said touching his cheek.  “Yet for all the rigors of age, you are still a striking figure, and even the memory holds something compelling.  Are you sure I can not offer you what you wish?”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 17th, 648 E.R.

There was light, and power.  Nothing new.  She was power, and had always been.  Eyes had glimpsed her across time, ears told only of a storm surely at the end of all things.  The mighty ocean was a pale kitten’s mewl to the roar of that moment.  Senses blinded by awe remembered only her eyes, her hair, her grace.

Those were the tales, and Ezik’s own experience.  That was till a girl bumbled into his life that bore a likeness of her face.  Yet the sadness that laden those eyes was not the same.  One the fresh pang of loss, the other filled with a joy that only the doomed can know, in the face of all the world’s sorrow, she smiled.  It was still a sad smile.

“We’ve never met,” he heard a voice with a gentle air that belied a power to rattle old bones.  It was a voice that came from nowhere, and could be heard above the din of a hurricane, and as soft as a whisper.  “Or we’ve met a thousand times before.  Who can say.”

That, was new.

“Who…” Ezik could not even quite finish.  He felt like he was sinking in thick mud, the light of that palace tried to vanish into darkness.  Shadows stood around her, such dark shadows reaching for her.  Things that wanted her power.

“You are dying,” the voice said plainly, though not without a touch of compassion.

“I am?” Ezik asked nervously.  He didn’t feel entirely right, but not as though he was dying, at least, he didn’t think so.

“From the day you were born,” the voice answered almost apologetically.  “From here I cannot even say how many heartbeats that might be away.  You are trying not to, amidst your ancient grove.”  There was a frustrated sound.  “Why is it I can only save the ones I don’t know?  Why are the ones I love always shielded from my benevolence?”

“I cannot say,” Ezik answered nervously.

“Say, no, of course you can’t.  Doing however, that is in your power.  Because you found me here, seeking your own salvation.  I fear that has already killed you.  Finding this place is not good for flesh and blood.  Much like pouring an ocean down your gullet is a poor end for your innards.”

“Oh,” Ezik said, but still didn’t feel dead.  Though he wasn’t quite sure what death might feel like exactly.

“Help me, and I will try to help you,” said the voice shrewdly.

“You would hold my life ransom?” Ezik asked of the darkness that enveloped him.

“I cannot even say it will work,” the voice offered guardedly.  “I cannot ask you, if I have already destroyed your very soul trying.  The methods at my disposal are far from fit for gentle tasks.”

“Oh,” Ezik said again.  “If it is so, then ask.  If I can do it, I will try.”

“She must not return home,” the voice said.  “Nor can she remain sheltered with you.  Find a reason, an excuse.  Send her anywhere but Avrale, and see to it she is safe.”

“Are you her sister?” Ezik pressed as it felt the moment would slip by.

“Sister?  Were anything ever half so simple, young one.”

Ezik balked at being called young.  Yet, in spite of himself he knew it was true.  “I have been asked to send a troop down to Niven,” Ezik offered.

“That will do.”

Ezik woke with a start, his eyes open, but there was only darkness.  The wind washed through his hair, and the sunlight warmed his skin.  He took a breath that lasted a season, and blinked only to find himself sitting up in bed.  He could feel his toes rooted still in the soil, the passing of centuries as he struggled to understand a single moment he had woken in the night.

He knew his beginning, his end, but all that lay between still seemed uncertain.  He stole one last kiss the morning his wife died, and one more also the morning after she had led a Sylvan woman to their bed.  He cried as he held and kissed his newborn grandson’s head, and hid those tears the last time they said goodbye.  When he could not convince him to stay.

He could see his whole life laid out before him.  He could change its direction little more than a river in the banks that held it, but he could cut his course deeper, shape the stones to never forget, and defy the rains to change a single thing he had wrought.

Then…it was gone, not more than a shadow on the wall.  It receded into the nothing from whence it had come, and hung on him like a terrible weight.  An oath he could not remember, but would abide.  A hand rested gently on his gave him both comfort and sorrow.  He glanced at her in the moonlight, still fair, so very lovely for her age.  A gift as strong as hers, she would live another forty years, Fates willing.  He doubted very much he had a tenth so many, and what solace there might have been in that moment wavered, for something told him such comfort must pass.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 20th, 648 E.R.

“You are not a king, Ezik, merely an honored elder.  Remember this,” Landri said sternly.

“Then honor me, and do as I have asked.”

“You are certain?”

“Who is certain of anything.  The very shadows stir, and though you have breathed a moment of joy into these old bones, they are no less old.”

“And you have confirmed there is no sister for her to return to?”

“Yes,” Ezik said firmly.

Landri narrowed her eyes.  She knew the man well, but she was never certain of his honesty.  “You are certain that it is right not to return her to her family?”

Landri could hear Ezik’s bones creek from how tight his grip became on his staff.

“What is right?” Ezik said darkly.  “We are past the point of right, or wrong.  All that is left is what must be.”

“What have you seen?”

“The truth of things, and the danger of that truth.”

“Always riddles.”

“I’ve nothing else left.  I tried three times to set pen to parchment, to send word to her rightful mentor.  Three times I saw visions of horrors I will not speak.  The very earth calls out for this course.”

“What of us?” Landri asked more than a bit hurt.  “Will we meet again?”

“I believe not.  Though I have a great many regrets, I assure you, this is high in their number.”

“You will not change your mind?” Landri asked tersely.

“A temptation, certainly.  Yet not one worth the cost.  This journey…it may not seem it, but it needs to be you with her, and she must go.”

“Should I be prepared for battle?”

“I am unsure, be cautious though, yes.”

There was a knock, and the two druids turned to the door.

“Enter,” Ezik called.

Kiannae opened the door cautiously.  Most of her conversations with the archdruid had been less than pleasant.

“Come in,” Ezik pressed, and Kiannae did, closing the door behind her.  She glanced to Landri, who slightly averted her gaze.

“I have asked you here to tell you of a decision that has been made,” Ezik said, his tone matter of fact.  “You are to join a group that is to arrive soon, and head on with them south to Niven”

“Why am I being sent?”

“Because you are exceptional,” Landri offered.  “And a change of scenery I think could only help your disposition.”

“Let us be honest,” Ezik said.  “It is because you are too exceptional for your own good, and there are far too many whispers about you being a Stormwalker, and what that means for us.”

“Very well,” Kiannae said with a shrug, “it matters little to me I guess.”

“From any another druid, I would take that as an unnecessary statement of the obvious, if a bit flippant,” Ezik said calmly.  “We go where we are needed, and most where the winds take us, less we see that this course needs to change.  For you, I think I must say you need learn to care again.  You have a life to live, do not let yourself die with the sister you still mourn.”

“Is that all?” Kiannae asked furiously.

Landri gave Ezik a cold glare.

“That is all, child,” Ezik said with a shake of his head.  “Landri will tell you more.  I wish you well in this journey.  I hope that it will help you find direction again.  You may both leave.”

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