Chapter 14

There are rivers like veins,
along which all life must flow,
carry waters from icy peaks,
to boundless ocean bellow,

err streams break their bank,
‘bout bruised frostbitten soil,
when fickle vernal sun rises,
unsavory creatures doth toil.

– The Eastwash, circa 390 E.R.

Eastwash

Vhalun 29th, 649 E.R.

Soon after the spring thaw a caravan arrived in the village of Parset, and room was found for three traveling druids, affordance for two dire wolves, and none for a farmer’s daughter, try as she might.  Kiannae was of mixed emotion on the point, though hardly surprised, or bothered.  Persistence seemed the girls strong suit, and Kiannae found a moment in parting to speak her mind on the mater.

“You’ve more gift I think than you, or anyone else has realized,” Kiannae said to the rather forlorn young woman.

“Really?” she asked a bit bewildered by the turn of conversation.

“Your friendship with the racoon,” Kiannae said in way of explanation.  “Your aura shifted quite naturally to one that gave it peace.  I doubt there are many gifted professions you are strong enough for, but enchanters and alchemists do not need the strongest gift.  A pure chemist gets by without any.  The enchanter here in town seemed keen to take me on.”

“I think that had more to do with you,” Lacie protested.

“Be that as it may.  Let me suggest, if its freedom you want, stop looking for a man to take your future, and consider instead pestering one to apprentice you.   Goodness knows, they will probably do it just for a moment of peace.”

Lacie scrunched up her nose over the jab at her expense.

“I mean it,” Kiannae insisted.  “And I will miss you, since you are at the very worst the third least troublesome companion I’ve had this winter.”

Lacie laughed.  “Doubt anyone like you will be through again any time soon.”

Kiannae grimaced.  “Maybe once there might have been, but not any more.”

Lacie looked a bit confused at that.

“Nothing, sorry, gallows humor, and I’d rather not explain.”

“Fair enough,” Lacie said, stepped up, and hugged Kiannae suddenly.  “Zale likes you, you know,” she whispered getting on her tiptoes to reach her ear.

“As if a deaf and blind hermit could have missed that,” Kiannae cut back, and hugged her in return.

“I think you like him too,” she intoned in a teasing sing song.

“Yes, well, that doesn’t end well for people,” Kiannae countered.

Lacie leaned back, and held Kiannae at arm’s length giving her a stern look.  “It’ll end well for me.  You see.  I’ll take that advice, become an enchanter, then, maybe there will be room for me on one of these caravans.”

“You do that,” Kiannae nodded.

“I will, and I’ll see you again, one of these days.  Can’t be too hard to track down a half-sylvan druid-mage.”

“Maybe I’ll learn how to blend in like the wolves,” Kiannae countered.

“As if any magic could make that happen.”  Lacie shook her head.  “Go on, get in your wagon, I think I see the train moving up ahead.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Caravan travel is by no means the fastest way to move.  With all the stops, for a week or more at a time, it is in fact slightly slower than walking, but it is far more convenient, and safe.  Two direwolves in tow made it more so, earning their keep with hunting game, and watching the rear of the caravan.  There were several conspicuous encounters with men of untrustworthy baring and attire, accosted for being in the wrong place by one or both wolves.  Nothing came of these events though, and none could say for certain if anything might have otherwise.

Druids, particularly in numbers can make a caravan move quicker, by refreshing animals pushed hard in stretches that might otherwise require a stop for the night.  This is however a draining process, and rarely employed, particularly for a want of enough druids to try it.  Even then, more than the slightest extra push in a day is rare.

East Wash in the spring however is a dangerous region.  An often flooded stretch of forest this large uninhabited area is frequented by bandits, and one of the more imposing stretches of road to be found.  For if men do not get you, the wilds may.  Direbores were common in those untamed lands, and while normally uninterested in humans, they seemed to have an uncommon hatred of wagons.  Which was oft exploited by the more daring of highway robbers.  Meaning that any bore attack needed be met with extreme caution for a follow up by arrows, or armed men.

East wash was typically a four day trip.  With three druids the caravan master had aimed for two instead, but a runin with what might have just been a very large but normal bore disrupted plans, and they made the first regular stop.  Plans were made again to try for the thirty mile leg to the third waystop the next day, barring any interruptions.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 3rd, 649 E.R.

“Follow close, stay hidden, like always,” Kiannae said crouched down between the two wolves.  Each turned towards opposite sides, and were quickly lost in the forest to anyones senses other than her.

“Glad to have them out there, even if I keep forgetting they are,” a man with a crossbow said curiously trying to find where the two wolves had gone.  “Still not sure how I feel about babysitting druids though.”

“If it helps, I’m a mage too,” Kiannae said with a perked brow.  “Though I’m probably better in a fight than you, even without a spell, or elements at my beck and call.”

“Against a crossbow?” he asked with a wry grin, patting his weapon.

“One doesn’t have to be fast, if they feel the blow coming,” she held out her stave to him.  “Go on, try and hit me, hard as you can.”

The man propped his crossbow dubiously against a wagon wheel, and took the staff.  He gave it a testing swing at the air.  “You sure?  Seen mages do a lot of fancy stuff, but nothing like you say.  No spells?”

“No spells,” Kiannae said.  “Unless you are afraid.”

The man shrugged.  “Ain’t too much of a gentleman to take a swing at a girl asking for it.” He swung hard and fast, and Kiannae slipped easily out of the way, but grimaced as though disappointed.

“Again,” she said, rolled her shoulders, and closed her eyes.

He gave her a dubious look, took another testing swing, intentionally shy of the mark, and then came back around with intent.  Kiannae moved more with the staff than out of the way.  She caught the slowing stave as it passed, wrapped her arm around it, grabbed hold, spun and twisted it such as to pull it from the man’s hands, and throw him down, while catching him in a spell that prevented him from hitting the ground painfully.

“Well, you’ll forgive the one spell, to break your fall, I hope?” Kiannae said with a smirk.  She glanced up from her oponent, and saw Landri staring at the scene disapprovingly.

“Well I’ll be a bandit’s uncle,” the man muttered with the staff to his chest where Kiannae held it.

“You haven’t even seen what I can do with wind, or lighting,” she teased.

“I’ll hope I don’t need to,” the man said, took hold of the end of her staff, and she helped him up.

Kiannae nodded, and glanced to the side at a slow clap.  “Ok, so since when can you do that?”  Zale asked, and crossed his arms.

“Twelve or thirteen I think, give or take,” Kiannae said waiting for Zales expression, and being somewhat disappointed.   “Been forever since I needed to practice,” she added, and leaned on her staff.

“And who was teaching you to fight at twelve or thirteen?” Zale protested doubtfully.

Kiannae pursed her lips.  Landri already knew, it was her business what she told Zale, and his if he believed it.  She smiled mischievously at the thought.  “A Knight of the king’s guard of course, who else would train the Court Mages daughter?”  It was one of the more amusing tricks she had noticed Mercu use over the years.  When in doubt, tell a truth so absurdly no one will believe it.

“Right, fine, you keep your secrets,” Zale said with a shake of his head, and turned to climb into the wagon.

Kiannae considered the rail outside the wagon she was boarding, and climbed onto the roof instead.  She caught a displeased look from Landri as she passed, and settled in amongst some barrels strapped to the roof.

Kiannae had found the rumble, sway, and jerk of the wagon annoying the first few days, but discovered that it felt more decisive on top.  Almost an element she could commune with.  She quickly fell into meditation, and for what it was worth brought a tail wind behind the caravan.  It wasn’t really measurable in terms of travel, but Kiannae had begun to find it almost as refreshing as sleep.

Three hours into the thirty mile push they were trying that day Kiannae felt something.  A twitch in her shoulder that became an itch, an itch that became a pain, that became sharp. When it finally pulled her back into her body here eyes snapped open, her breath was a gasp, and the wind shifted violently backwards.

An arrow missed her by an inch, blown off course, and sticking in a barrel behind her shoulder.  A man screamed somewhere in the forest, and Kiannae was to her feet, off the wagon, and shed her fall almost without thinking directly through her lingering connection to the wind.  A man leapt from the woods, only to wind up flat on his face with a large grey wolf on his back.

Another man charged the wolf with a sword but found his blow parried, and took the other end of a staff hard to the side of the head before crumpling.  Kiannae heard neighing, the cracking of wood, and glanced to her side to see the wagon stopped only a little bit ahead, and both horses down, tripped on a rope, and pinned under their yoke.

A large pillar of flame erupted on the road ahead obscuring the next wagon in the line.  Kiannae followed the filaments of the spell back to an outcropping of trees, but before she could try anything clever another man emerged from the forest taking a swing at her.

He was fast but sloppy, and if not for another man joining the fray from behind her she would have had him easily.  On pure instinct she jabbed backwards, and twisted out of the way of the second assailants sword swing.  Her only partly enchanted staff was quickly chipping way under what seemed likely enchanted blades.

This realization distracted her from a swing that caught her in the shoulder, and she felt the two enchantments fight to a stalemate that felt searing, but spared her more than what would likely be a bruise.  She stepped back, trying to keep both men in view, as they tried to circle her.  She threw up her defenses, and chided herself for not being quicker on the front.  She had always been better in a fight than Katrisha, and weaker at defensive spells, it was no reason to be hobbling herself.  When they tried to attack again swept her staff, and a terrible wind whipped down over them.

There was more yelling, and cries of anguish from the forest.  Another man scrambled from the overgrowth clearly fleeing more than attacking, but Kiannae took no chances and tripped him with her staff, and a came around with a blow to the back of the head.  A flash of white took down what might have been another figure in the woods.

Kiannae redoubled her hasty barrier just in time as both an arrow and ball of fire collided with her defenses from opposite sides.  She felt her shield being torn apart and threw a wild bolt of lightning in the direction of the mage who had shown himself.

The bolt missed its mark, deflected by the mage into a nearby tree.  His own defenses came up quickly, but he retreated back into the the forest. Two of her previously downed opponents seeing her dramatic display of gift were up, and running back into the trees.  An arrow caught one in the back, the other was thrown to the ground by a white wolf that snarled down at him, then sniffed the unconscious man.

A horn split the air, and Kiannae reached out with her senses, trying to find signs of the ambushers, but only caught a fleeting sense of people retreating.  She nudged the two men she had downed herself, and the one that had taken the arrow to all to no response.  She checked the one Lunka had pinned, and then the one under shadow, who was trembling but conscious.

“Picking off the trailing coach, and hoping they abandon us after that show of pyrotechnics, that the plan?” She asked nudging the side of his head with her staff.

He huffed several times.  “That’s the plan,” he said nervously, hoping betrayal would save his life.  “Didn’t count on wolves.  Invisible cursed wolves.  Since when in the Abyss are there invisible wolves!?”

“Since now, and ever more, you remember that,” Kiannae said.  “Keep an eye on them,” she said to Shadow and Lunka, and stood back up.  She glanced up at the wagon window where the mercenary with the crossbow was scanning the forest.  “Apparently actually faster than a crossbow too,” she chided him.  He just smirked in response.

The road ahead was clear, save a massive patch of scorched earth.  There was no sign of the next wagon, as it had hurried on around a corner.  Kinnae grimaced at that.  “Are they really abandoning us?” she asked.

“No,” the man said.  “They will need to regroup though, and we aren’t going anywhere with downed horses.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Kiannae considered her gathered prisoners, of whom only two were awake.  She had killed the one she had struck in the back of the head, and wavered back and forth on how she felt about it. The one who had caught a blow to the side had yet to wake up. The one that took the crossbow bolt to the back was alive surprisingly enough, but unconscious.  Landri had spared enough gift to stabilize him, much to the protest of the mercenary, who had finally introduced himself properly as Marcus Shake.

Landri and Zale each worked to heal the horses who were in rough shape.  One had a broken leg, both had cracked ribs.  Kiannae as well as them knew she needed to save her strength in case of another attack, but that meant for the time being she was useless other than to watch the prisoners.

The one who had cooperated at first hand stopped soon after, and Landri’s slight healing of the one with a punctured lung had not helped in Kiannae’s estimation.  Nor was she entirely sure she disagreed with the choice.  Pragmatism and morality had a rather awkward sparring match, knowing these men would likely be put to death if everything went well for her side.  It seemed to her that having put any effort into the man was impractical, and not even kind.  Yet darkly there was the consideration they were worth more alive.  Which the mercenary had declared in the end as the one saving grace.

“They aren’t going anywhere,” Marcus said.

“Nor are we,” Kiannae countered.  “How long till we can expect help?”

“Depends,” Marcus answered.  “A smaller band will try and peel off a wagon, kill the horses, force it to be left, along with some goods.  A larger band though, might have bigger plans.  Disrupt the whole caravan, get us to distribute out numbers to recover the lost wagon, then strike again at the middle.  Doubt they were counting on us having an extra half a mage.”

“Hey,” Kiannae growled at him.

“Talking about Old Ben,” Marcus said with a laugh.  “He was a sight back in the day, still can put on a show to scare the odd brigand mage, but he’s getting less reliable this far into his second century.”

“Happens I guess,” Kiannae said a bit more amiably.  “To all of us.”

“Some sooner than others,” Marcus sighed, and rubbed his neck.  “I’ll be retiring by sixty, at the latest, if I’m feeling brave.  How far out you got those wolves of yours?”

“About five hundred feet, circling,” Kiannae said.  “I think.  I don’t always know exactly where they are, just sort of a sense.”

“Well, I’ll take that over nothing,” he said scanning the forest.

Kiannae nudged the man who had previously cooperated, pressing him with the end of her staff.  “What’s the plan?” she asked for the third time.  “The real plan.”

He shot her a distasteful look.

“This is me being nice,” she said.  “Do you want to see me not being nice?  I’ve hunted dragons, slain a dire bear in single combat, and have dire wolves at my beck and call.  You want a word in your favor, from someone like me.  Consider talking.  Though if you want to be on my bad side, keep sitting there looking at me like I’m the villain.”

He looked away into the forest.  “You think you have the advantage here, but all this extra flooding washing down from Thebes…  You don’t know these forests like Red.  This isn’t going to go the way you think.”

Kiannae got up, and marched towards the horses that were still being healed.  “Landri, what kind of advantage would flooding give bandits?”

Landri looked up from her task incredulously.  “I don’t know, more of a nuisance to everyone in my opinion.  Most of the year only the road is passable in these parts.  Veritable lakes caught behind old log jams, and beaver dams.”  She hesitated, and looked a bit ill.  “But with more flooding those dams will be more full.  Break the right one, and you could send a flash flood cascading down that would wash out the road, and catch the others if they are stopped ahead.”

“We aren’t the target,” Kiannae glanced between the road, and the northern forest.

“What are you thinking,” Landri said sternly, got up, and stepped towards her.

“That we don’t have much choice.  They may have more plans to keep the caravan in place.  Even if we can run a warning to them…”

“You cannot seriously be considering…”

“How can I not be?” Kiannae snapped.  “Think it through.  We are stranded here if they wash out the road, or maybe, maybe the three of us and our prisoners limp our way back to Thebes.  How many people die?”

“There’s no way of telling,” Landri said.  “It’s also just a theory, we don’t know.”

“That bandit back there, he said it.  This doesn’t end the way we think.  That the flooding is their advantage, and someone named Red knows these woods.  Tell me that doesn’t prove out your theory perfectly.”

“You are barely more than a child,” Landri snapped.  “I will not let you go running off on some foolish…”

“You think you can stop me?  How?” Kiannae growled, and ran sudenly towards the forest.  She expected to hear yelling behind her, but instead, only silence.  She nodded to herself.  Landri wasn’t wrong, it was just that there wasn’t a right answer.  She was only trying to look out for her, and knew far better than to yell after her, and possibly give away what she was trying.

Zale however caught her arm, and stopped her.

Kiannae glared at him.  “You aren’t talking me out of this.”

“Fates, I know that by now.  Just be careful out there.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Footprints through muddy sections, and log jams marked with smudges of mud that did not look natural lead the way.  Kiannae was far from a trained tracker, but one barely needed eyes to follow the trail the bandits had left.  At first she followed the signs closely, but thought better of it.  Moving tree to tree, and keeping her senses open, keeping an eye on the track, and finding another way where she could.

She dissuaded shadow from following when she felt him approach, telling him to keep watch on the waggon while she couldn’t.  The wolf did not seem to like his command, but slunk away obediently back into the woods.

A half mile into the forest she caught sight of a platform perched high up a tree.  She could sense someone was up there, and moved carefully as she could around it, only to find a new set of tracks moving farther north.  She followed the direction of the tracks, keeping her eye out for more lookout perches, but found none.

That section of forest quickly gave way to a maze of downed trees, and temporary lakes.  The damage in Thebes had been nothing, this was where the flooding had spread south, and most of it had frozen over the winter.  The initial thinning of the forest gave way to a stretch almost completely washed clear, and a massive tangle of trees holding back a lake larger than the one beneath Broken Hill.

Kiannae could see people moving along the peak of the main jam, and was certain that Landri’s speculation was right.  They were preparing to break the jam, at let the flooding wash through the forest, and catch the hobbled caravan.  They could then take what was left as salvage under dubious claim.  Much tidier than selling at full black market.

“Taloe,” Kiannae whispered under her breath.

She felt the shift in her own presence behind her.

“How close can you get with me here?”

“I don’t like this,” Taloe answered.

“You think I do?” Kiannae protested, and spared him a single irritable glance before returning to scanning the opposition.

“More than you want to admit to yourself,” he said measuredly.  “This will not bring her back.”

“No, but it will keep a whole lot of other people from not coming back,” Kiannae snapped in a harsh whisper.  “How close can you get?”

“Maybe a few hundred yards closer, I think,” Taloe said uneasily.  “I will start to fade.  I have tried before to see how far I can stray from you.  It is not far.”

“Right,” Kiannae sighed.  “I’m going to get as close as I can.  When you think you can reach a point to hear what is going on up on that dam, tell me.”

She felt him vanish again, and began picking her way along the edge of the clearing, trying to get closer.  One odd tree stood upright amidst one of the reservoirs beneath the main dam.  It seemed close enough, but it was a good fifty feet in the open to get to it.  She watched the activity on top of the damn, and when her eyes told her they were all looking another way she bolted along a log jam, and dropped into the cold water, hiding behind the drowned tree.

She shivered from the chill, and chattered her teeth.  It would be a very bad place to be she realized, if they suddenly unleashed the flood, but she saw little risk of that with them still on the logjam above.  She heard the water shift beside her, and turned to see Taloe formed up out of it, his upper torso melted with the water surface.

“From here,” he said softly.

She nodded, and his form sunk into the water, and became little more than a ripple moving along the surface, and then dissipating.  She waited, and chattered her teeth.  She sunk lower, and edged uneasily around the tree when she heard voices from the direction she had come.  She was caught in the frigid water between those above on the dam, and new arrivals from the forest.

“Red’s sure he can trigger all these from a distance?” a man asked.

“Not exactly,” another laughed.  “It’s timed.  They all go off just before sunset.  So best get them planted before that.”

“I don’t like it.”

“What’s not to like?  Would you rather fight a bunch of mercenaries, a mage or two, plus whatever those fools were going on about – invisible wolves,” he laughed incredulously.  “All to pick up a few trinkets we have to sell for almost nothing.  Nah, this is the best plan Red’s ever had.  Can’t call us robbers if its salvage.”

“All this magic.  It’s gonna get council attention, they’ll come looking for Red, and find the rest of us.”

“The council aint shit.  They won’t do shit.  They don’t even care about that giant scar growing across our kingdom.  Not going to bother with us.  Besides, other than that one little distraction, all the magic is up here, where no one will see it, and these aint even magic.  Just dynamite set off by it.  Real simple, so get going.”

“Fine.”

Silence returned, and Kiannae carefully moved back around the tree.  Whoever the other man that had been talking was, he was gone, leaving only the one, cautiously placing charges where he could secure them along the log jam.  She considered a lot of things.  Striking the man with lightning seemed dubious given he was carrying explosives.  Trying to approach him without being noticed also seemed like a bad idea.  Blowing him off with a sudden gust of wind seemed risky as well.  She felt Taloe return, and turned back to where his head had formed above the water line.

“What did you hear?” she asked in a whisper.

“Less than you I think,” Taloe answered quietly.  “They have them set all down the center.”

“We need to stop the one behind me setting those, and I want to examine the enchantment.”

Taloe nodded, and disappeared.  A moment later there was a slight yelp, and a splash that only sounded like a struggle for a moment.  Kiannae emerged around the tree, and found the man drowned, his glassy eyes staring up at the sky.  She didn’t like it, but she did not see much better of an alternative.  “I’m sorry,” she whispered sadly to thin air, and moved to take one of the charges.

It was a very simple enchantment, closely related to a spell she had once used to tell time.  She moved back to the tree to not be noticed by any wandering glances from above.  Taloe appeared again, but did not look happy.  She gave him an equally miserable glance.

“I…” Taloe said.  “I remember, now, all the times she did that for vengeance.  All those I tried to save.  I was never…it came too naturally,” he looked to her expecting judgement.

“We do what we have to today, we face who we are tomorrow,” Kiannae answered.

Taloe nodded.

“I’m not sure what I can do with this.  It’s a timed spell that will make a burst of intense heat at sunset.  I have to get closer, I can, I think, disrupt all of the enchantments if I get directly beneath the center of the dam, or at least enough to keep the whole thing from giving way at once.”

“I’ll distract them,” Taloe said, and disappeared.

Kiannae took a deep breath, and dove under the cold water, swimming towards the wall of the upper dam under the surface, and came up, and released her breath as measuredly as she could.  Her heart pounding to know how loud her gasps sounded.  She moved quickly, pulling herself along the logs.  She could feel how much the whole thing wanted to come down.  It was so unstable it barely would need the help of the charges the bandits were placing.

She felt the tiny flares of the enchantments above her as she passed, and disabled each, one at a time.  Yelps, splashes, yelling, and thrashing of water began to escalate above as she worked.

“What the hell is this thing?”

“What…” Splash.

“Dear Fates it’s fast.”

“Are we being attacked by a mage?”

“Swords don…” Splash.

The was a flash of light that pulled Kiannae up to see a burst of steam lingering overhead.

“That looked like it…aaaaie!”  A man landed in the water in front of Kiannae, floundered a moment and came up for breath looking around trying to get his bearings, and found her.  They stared at one another a moment.  He was right next to a charge at the middle of the dam.  Kiannae panicked for too long stumbling over her own instincts for how to attack, knowing the first few would set off the charge.

“MAGE!” he yelled. “MAGE!”

She didn’t know quite what to do.  Seeking the elements eluded her, and what magic to use safely on offense was a loss.  She felt the spells coming before they were even thrown, and brought up her defenses fast, stopping a shard of ice just short of her head.

The man who was yelling was swimming away quickly, and she turned her attention to the mage at the top of the dam trying to tear apart her defenses.  He was struck from the side by Taloe who swirled away on the wind, and reformed next to her, standing on the water.

The mage splashed into the water a few dozen feet away, and came up thrashing, and threw spears of ice at the pair of them wildly that missed more than were stopped by her defenses.

Kiannae tried her own attack which the mage easily deflected, his own defenses coming up.  Taloe vanished and reformed trying to drag the mage under, but his defenses burst with wild energy that tore him apart.  Before reforming into a shield Kiannae could not dismantle, not as he began to try to tear apart her own protections.

The two stopped their struggles a moment, and sized eachother up, the man still huffing from his initial impact and struggle with the water and Taloe.  He was a pale man with a mop of long ginger hair that hung in wet strands over his face.  He smiled a bit madly, and without warning threw two balls of fire at the line of charges up the dam.  Kiannae tried to dispel both, but only got the closer of the two.  She bolted even as the first explosion left her ears ringing, pure adrenaline driving her to use a technique she had not yet mastered to sprint across the water stumbling with every slippery step.

Successive blasts set off by the first staggered her, and she lost her focus falling back into the water.  Taloe reformed and thrashed with the mage, or more it seemed the mage fought with the very water around him.  His defensive spells formed a wall of continuous force holding back the waves trying to assault him.

The dam was shifting, Kiannae could feel the water starting to move as she struggled to recover.   She felt potential energy turning kinetic on a terrifying scope.  She took that power, she took the essence of it, and became one with it, and merged it with her magic in a way she would spend years trying to reverse engineer.

She leapt up out of the water again, and ran along its surface.  Water she could handle, water she could control, but the logs felt like mountains.  There were terrible splashes behind that could be heard even over ringing ears as the log jam collapsed, and a roar of rushing water drove her on.  She stopped at the edge of the lower log jam, and turned back.

The mage had somehow fought his way free of Taloe’s assault, and directed an oncoming log into the mud below.  Providing himself a brief break from the torrent that spilled around his refuge.  Yet he had nowhere to go but to climb it.

“Who in the abyss are you?” he growled, but Kiannae could barely hear him over the cacophony of the collapsing dam and her pounding ears.  She had to get ahead of what was happening.  She had to stop it or the flood would cary on south as the mage had planned all along.

She leapt from the lower damn splashing through the surface of the water below before she could scramble back to the surface.  She was struggling again.  The water seemed to have a mind of its own a single minded will that made the esoterics of walking on it unmanageable.  A roiling white water filled with massive timbers was not an opponent to face with delicacy.  The logs were interfering with her control, but they weren’t more powerful than the lake behind them.

She wasn’t sure if any force could actually stop it, but she didn’t need to stop it she realized.  She felt the energy of it, she felt the freedom of the stagnant trapped water raging free, and she willed, convinced it instead to go west, not south.  It was like herding chickens with cats.  Tumbling tree trunks were cast to the side of the diverted stream, forming new banks along the crumbling lower jam, driving the water further west.  She felt spells coming, but was too focused on her task to respond.

Spells struck a boy standing over her, staggering him, making him cry out in pain, but he was not easily killed or trully wounded, putting himself back together again and again.  The mage had found a vantage from which to assault them, and Taloe was doing what he could to buy her time.  A war of will as his form became ever less human, and finally came apart.  Kiannae threw up her defenses at the last moment, letting go of the water already directed away from its original course.

Lighting burst from her hands in rage, as the pained cries of Taloe caught up with her conscious mind.  She struck the mage, again, and again, but he deflected her attacks.  He was then stuck on the defense as her fury grew.  All he had done for greed and ambition.  She had already killed, she knew that then, she knew it and embraced it, and what was one more.  She became the power, more element than person.  Her next blast refused to be deflected, and hung between them, the mages defenses crumbling, his ability to resist such raw power wavering, but he broke through, and the lightning crackled out across the remaining log jam in every direction, and dissipated.

Both combatants were winded.  The mage perched on his rickety dam.  Kiannae barely realizing at some point she had managed to rise and stand atop the water again.  

“What are you?” he demanded.

“The one who stopped you,” Kiannae roared with the wind itself speaking her words with a howl, and the rage began to ebb.  “Walk away.  We don’t have to do this.”  She wanted to kill him, but she wanted more not to.

“That’s not how this works.”

“Isn’t it?” Kiannae demanded.  “Cowardice, hitting and running, attacking and killing merchants just trying to make a living.  Taking lives for greed.  What’s running away, one last time?”  She emphasized the deal she was striking in so few words.

“The world was meant to be ruled by people like us,” the man said.  “The Council took that from us.  Weak willed old men who signed away our birthright.”

“No,” Kiannae said, and shook her head angrily.  “Men like you did that.  People like me, we are the ones who stop you.  Who will always stop you.  I should kill you.  I should.  Maybe that would be justice.  Maybe I can live with the lives already lost.  Maybe you won’t even care.  Not even about your own men.  Yet I’ll make the offer one last time.  Walk away.”

She felt Taloe form at her side, and was relieved, though she could not spare a thought to how he might be, only keep her eyes on the mage.  “I am the storm, and every storm passes.  Do not chase what you have already been fortunate to survive.”  It was a farce of bravado stitched together from stories Mercu had told, form words that followed her.  Implied confidence she did not entirely feel, and yet a will to back it up if need be.

The mage stood there a moment, and then suddenly dove into the rapidly receeding waters behind him that surely carried him to the west.  Kiannae lost her concentration and fell back into the water up to her chest.  Taloe whiffed away, and she swam till she found what seemed a secure log to crawl up out of the cold water, and flop on her back staring up at the sky.  Her eyes closed in what she expected to be a blink, just a moment.  Sleep took her against any better judgement.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Kiannae woke with a start to a single muted explosion.  It should have made her bolt upright but she felt far to heavy for it to have such an effect.  A large tongue crossed her face barely a moment later, only faintly making her cringe, much as her body tried.  Shadow was sitting by her head, and the sky was almost dark.  A fine mist was raining down on them.  Another pop farther down dislodged a log that tumbled, and settled.

She was too numb to feel cold, shivering felt like a thing her body wanted to do, but could not even find the strength for.  She tried to get up but all it did was make every muscle hurt worse than after even the hardest spar she had ever lost.  She waited for another blast, one she might never hear.

When it didn’t come she forced the air from her lungs, and then drew a deep breath.  She tried again to get up.  Just in case another blast was yet to come.  She managed to struggle up onto one arm.  With all her might she got up onto one knee a waterlogged almost freezing wreck, and struggled to stand under the weight of her drenched robe.  Shivering finally broke through, and her teeth chattered as she wrapped her arms around her.

She glanced around, and was farther down the log jam than she remembered.  She glanced at the wolf nudging her leg forward.  She glanced that way and saw lights in the forest.  She considered the worst.  If they were bandits she was not sure she could even form a spell.  She tried to form one any way, drawing energy directly from the aether to heat the air around her, which only made her feel more cold as she felt the heat meet the cold water drenching her.  It was taking far too much energy to borrow so much from the aether, but the thought of stopping was filled with the idea of the intolerable cold that felt like it might yet break against her magic.

She struggled down the log towards the lights.  She wove some defenses into the spell she was maintaining, basic, flimsy protections that might deflect a sudden arrow.  If the mage had returned it would not work, but he had gone west, and the lights were coming from the south.  Kiannae managed to reach a standing tree the log jam was wedged against, and dropped down to lean against it.  She lost the will to keep channeling heat into the air around her, and felt the backlash of entropy cause a sudden chill that passed quickly, directed away from her by her lingering defenses and defiant aura.

She closed her eyes, trying to recover, but darkness quickly took her again, the overexertion of having tried to warm herself having been too much.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Kiannae woke again more slowly.  She didn’t feel entirely soaked, or nearly as cold, in fact she felt almost warm if a bit constricted.  She eased a moment of panic as she saw Shadow’s head appear at the edge of her vision, and realized she was wrapped tightly in blankets.  She turned her head, and looked past Lunka to the fire next to her.  Across it sat Marcus, and a man she recognized as the company commander.

There was a slight pressure on her other shoulder, and when she glanced that way she found Zale, who seemed to have fallen asleep in the dirt beside her, with his hand on her shoulder, Lunka’s head rested on his hip.

“What happened up there?” she heard, and turned back to the company commander who had moved around the fire towards her.  “We heard some of it, loud booms rolling over the forest.  Another two little ones just before we found you.”

“How did I get here?” Kiannae asked, rather than answered.

“That white wolf can be persistent, you know that?” the commander asked.  “First time I could keep my eyes on her for more than a minute, so I knew something was up.  Dragged me and two of my men up to where we found you amidst what looked like a fresh flood wash.  You were passed out leaned against a tree, the other wolf tugging on your robe.  Cold enough we thought you might have been dead.  Been two hours since we got you back to the rear wagon.  Your elder gave up twenty minutes ago, and went to sleep.”

“Did the flooding reach you?” Kiannae asked.

“No, it went west.  We saw some water rise along the road, but no threat to the wagons.”

“Good,” Kiannae said.

“What happened up there?” the Commander repeated.

Kiannae let out a long uncertain breath.  “Nothing good.”

“Can’t believe that foolish old woman let you go running off…” the Commander started, and then just grimaced, and walked back around the fire, having determined Kiannae was not going to tell him what he wanted to hear.

Kiannae considered saying something.  Some vestige of pride tried to intrude, but she didn’t feel proud of any of it.  Like she had done what was necessary, but pride, just couldn’t intrude.  She would rather no one ever know what happened.  What she had done, or what she hadn’t.  She wasn’t entirely sure if she could have defeated the mage.  She suspected, but she didn’t know.  It wasn’t the point.  Right and wrong jousted for position, but both came up empty.  She didn’t have to kill the mage, and that was good enough.  She closed her eyes again a moment focusing on that thought.

Marcus walked over, and sat down.  “I’m guessing whatever happened up there, we owe you a debt,” he said, and looked back towards the fire.  “I heard some stories, back in Parset.  Girl whipping up entier fields of flood water into frozen columns.  The strange shape of that damn break, curved so gracefully like that to the west.  I’m guessing it wasn’t nothing you did up there, to wind up like a dead woman, and barely a scratch on you.  So, you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine, but thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” Kiannae said drowsily.  She wasn’t quite sure she meant it in all earnestness, but it was polite.  Convinced things were safe she let sleep take her once more, willingly at last.

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