Chapter 18

In an opponent’s every move lies keys to their defeat,
every show of brash strength marks hidden weakness,
every over commitment an opportunity to be undone,
methods form patterns, patterns become predictable.
Do not seek merely to create your own advantage,
let your opponents show how they want to lose.

– Imperial General Varus Adessa, 68 E.R.

Fire with Fire

Coria 30th, 659 E.R.

Things were moving, the image fragmented. People were carrying her, and she was still awake. That was an improvement, wasn’t it? How many times had it happened? Landri kept worrying about her using magic, but it kept being druidic practices that brought her to the edge of, if not death, unconsciousness. Yet this felt worse. She had clung to a half conscious state, but it felt so much worse.

Shadows danced around the edges of her vision. She might have mistaken them for people, if they did not seem so much more real than those carrying her. They did not require such frail transient substance to exist, or even to exert such powers as to be noticed. Yet what were they?

“Lay her here,” she heard the local arch druid command. “Goodness. I knew I had gotten close, but I did not do half of this to myself. How can one so young commune so deeply…”

There was a pattern etched on her vision. So many patterns. She could barely separate the chemistry of an old woman’s white hair from the gossamer appearance. The structure of her superseding memory, or senses. It felt temporary, like the sense of vertigo as one steps back from a ledge, or lands on their feet at a dead stop. From up there she could see it all, and the memory of how far below the world was, still dominated her vision.

The faces of the shadows gathered behind the others took form. Mirrors, reflections of her own, and yet each bore a different expression. Some sad, some acknowledging, others curious. One stepped toward another, and merged with her. It was odd really, almost symbolic of borrowed energy tipping back towards balance.

“Close to what?” Landri demanded, drawing Kiannae’s attention from the apparitions. That was silly, she knew full well the conversation, the shape of the life of everyone around her, almost…her own was slippery. The apparitions were the one thing that seemed solid, not just patterns, and yet they were made of shadow, and stepped into each other one after another. Some paused one last time to look, others just shook their head as they vanished.

“The sun,” the old woman answered. “The girl chased the sun. I saw it there, as I communed with the deadland. There found the seven rivers, which flow out of the fires of heathen and into the pit of darkness. Each called, but I refused. Yet I lingered. Withered a while beneath the face of the sun, till sense saved me, but I did not get nearly so close as she must have. I did not think to warn, or forbid another from venturing into the blight, for I did not think another capable…”

“What are you babbling about, that almost sounds like Clarion nonsense,” Zale snapped, and wedged one of the other druids out of the way. There was another shadow standing behind him, she nodded, and stepped aside into the next. As each vanished part of the knowledge went with it. She didn’t want them to go. She wanted to remember. To know. She was quickly losing perspective on what it even was.

“Nonsense, no, but foolishness,” The arch druid chided. Kiannae could almost see the muscles work, and the angles change more than an old woman fix a young man who…loved her…with a stern glare. “We know that the things they feel are out there. Did you never imagine it possible to do what they propose? If one can simply find a place free of distractions. Of course it seems to me, it’s just another way to die, and an overly involved one at that.”

Kiannae laughed, which only drew even more concerned looks. She was still there, still conscious. That was an improvement right? Wait she had that thought already. It seemed terribly funny, and almost like she wasn’t the one laughing. One of the shadows smirked at her good humor.

“The very center of her has been..damaged.”

“No, she came to us like that,” Landri

“Not the spirit you blind child,” she grabbed Landri’s hand, and thrust it down over Kiannae’s heart.

“Oh,” Landri said wide eyed. “I could not see it, but I can feel how…thin.” She yanked her hand back, and covered her mouth fixing Kiannae’s darting eyes with an even more worried expression.

“It is almost to the core,” the old woman shook her head.

“Her core is not her though, is it?” Landri demanded. “You said it yourself, there is… How did you know?”

“The same way I saw this. You may be used to thinking Ezik some great elder Druid. The accolades of dryads, and mages do not mean he knows the world like I. I’m sure he knew it the moment he saw, and yet could not place what it was.”

The words all had too much meaning, little emotions, stray thoughts that had made them up. Ezik had once sat on the Council? This woman had been his rival, lover, friend, had lost patience with him, and sought another circle. There chiding another opposite, of whom much of the same could be said. Too much meaning to follow the simple thread of conversation, other than they were bickering about her. Seemed such a pointless waste of time, she could see so much more clearly. What were they worrying about? Though her own inability to reassure them was bothersome. Perhaps she should be worried.

She turned her head slightly to Zale. Oh yes…he loved her. Really, honestly, truly. Not in the least bit simply. Had he told her? She couldn’t quite remember silly things like words, or memories. Knowing everything was easier than remembering anything. Yet the odd little revelation that he wasn’t just infatuated – didn’t just feel like she was the only choice – was like an anchor on her thoughts. She had known he had never meant it that way, but she hadn’t wanted to believe it. So silly. Such a silly little child being petulant about the ephemeral nature of the world. A single probability, in a seemingly endless number of possible realities. She chided herself rather mercilessly about it.

She ignored her own train of thought with the same gruff indifference she would anyone lecturing her pointlessly. There was so much of even the most finite moment as to render the fickle whims of fate a bit trite. Yet all of that, she could see was noise. It existed, but it was not real. Memories. Pasts. Yet there was no linear path sideways through it all. It was receding, like the tide going out with the moon. She hadn’t drowned. What an odd thought.

There was one lone shadow left, standing over Landri’s shoulder, a sad smile on her lips. She nodded, and stepped backwards, swirling into wisps of shadow that became nothing. A single tear fell from Kiannae’s cheek. She couldn’t even remember why. “Thief,” she muttered, and forgot even that anything had been taken. Just that what was left felt so mundane.

The illusions fell away like a shattered, and strange dream one could barely remember, let alone understand. Most of it evaporated but a few glimmers condensed into pools of meaning, and annoyingly the knowledge that Zale really did love her, stuck. One disaster at a time she joked with herself, and knew that she was herself. Who she might have been she wasn’t sure, but she wasn’t. Was she? Was it a matter of time? There was a perspective on infinity there, something burned into her finite existence that felt permanent.

Kiannae covered her face, and groaned.

“Are you alright?” Landri asked sensing this more groggy reaction might represent a return to awareness.

“You tell me? What was she saying about the sun? Yes, I saw it, and… No, not the abyss, I don’t think it’s the abyss at all. I think it’s a spell. One made of entropy, if that makes any sense. The fungus is feeding on it.”

“You are still on this, girl?” Landri laughed nervously.

“On what?” the arch druid pressed.

“We were joking about mages, gods, and the marker stones, and she proposed the idea of it all being a spell, one as big as the world.”

“The World Spell Conjecture, yes, I’ve heard of it, I was second to Ezik on the druid seat of the Council. There is a fad around the notion every few centuries. Empress Roshana herself speculated at length in her younger writings. Proposed that the spell was itself the goddess Thaea. That the workings of shaper magic, the response of living things to gift by pattern, meant that all life was just one big infinitely complex spell.”

“Not so clever at all,” Kiannae muttered.

“Perhaps too clever for your own good,” the white haired old woman said, and tilted Kiannae’s head back and forth, checking her eyes. “I do not believe anyone has ever proposed the spell is made of entropy, and yet it follows sense. Rivers, flowing to the stones. Decay, that only etches itself deeper upon the world. Till it kills it.”

“Superstition,” Kiannae grumbled. “Leaping to judgement. Do we judge the fire, or the rivers for following their course?”

The old woman smiled. “No, we do not. Sky and sea indeed. So you do not propose it is made of entropy, so much as using it?”

“No, of course,” Kiannae said sitting upright, her hand in her hair. “Just like any spell, entropy is a byproduct, but put it to use…this could revolutionize the entire field of enchantment. Use lodestone decay to reinforce the spell. Increase the longevity…massively. Yes, I understand how the fungus is doing it.” Her mind was racing. What few seeds she was left with bloomed like a forest in her mind, and keeping up with the realization consciously let alone in words was difficult. She couldn’t quite remember how much of it had come to her out there. It was only the tiniest fragments of a picture she no longer had most of the pieces of, and yet they meant everything.

“Lay down girl!” Landri snapped. “Stop encouraging her Lilia.”

“I’m fine,” Kiannae said tersely and stumbled up onto her feet. She quickly regretted it, her head swimming. Zale moved to steady her.

“You most certainly are not fine, and I do not even know if I understand, or believe what I am hearing,” Landri snapped.

“I went out there trying to follow a feeling,” Kiannae said, and let herself lean on Zale slightly. “A theory that the living forest, however sickly was distracting me from something. I found it. It’s the fungus. The fungus is doing all of this. Feeding on entropy, or using it. Maintaining a spell, a spell that is following a pattern, one that matches the markings on the stone. Go out there, feel the shape of it, the flow of energy, forming rivers to the stones. The shapes are little different from the markings on the stones than any two mages casting the same spell.”

“What you are proposing would require gift,” Landri protested. “It would mean…oh you’ve thought of this already. You are really proposing that the fungus itself is…”

“Say it,” Kiannae laughed darkly.

“Dire-fungus,” Landri said irritably, and to some nervous or dersives laughter all around. “Not every problem in this world is a dire creature, girl,” Landri said throwing up her hands.

“Seems a fairly consistent pattern, particularly once you account for all the gifted, their wars, their meddling, their arrogant creation of dragons.”

“There your hypothesis meets a flaw,” Lilia said shrewdly. “The fungus is almost dim for a living thing. Not the glow of a gifted creature.  If we were to even entertain the possibility of such a thing existing.” There was an odd leading tone to it, that Kiannae mistook for a challenge.

“Dim, yes, you seem clever, so don’t…”

“Kia,” Landri said a bit taken aback by the attitude, and cutting off the snide comment.

“No, the girl is right. Her theory is self consistent. If the fungus is indeed creating focused entropy to feed on, somehow…”

“Then it would be dimmer than it should be, even for a living thing,” Kiannae said assertively. She wasn’t sure where her terse, borderline anger was coming from. It felt like the knowledge had come at a great price, and any aspersion on it was an insult to that sacrifice. She knew however she needed to remain rational. The knowledge was not itself a solution, it was only more damning evidence of intractability. Walking others through it was useful. Showing them their place in her understanding critical to establishing authority. That such was an interesting perspective, briefly registered as a secondary thought.

“Kia…” Landri started, but Lilia put her hand on her arm.

“You wish to assert authority,” Lilia said shrewdly. “Very well, I admit that I have seen with all my years these things you have, and not known the meaning of them. I cannot fault your understanding. You have brought this to us, do you offer solutions?”

“I…” Kiannae hesitated, she didn’t feel offended by being put on the spot with no answers. She oddly found herself smiling. “I do not. Still, it is said that to solve a problem, you must first know what it is. To treat a condition you must know…what not to do.”

“And what should we not do?” the woman intoned.

“Try to heal the trees,” Kiannae said with a grimace. “Use gift openly in the area. What we should not do, is anything at all, until we have a better plan.”

“And why?” she pressed, though it was not apparent if she was leading for some reason, or unclear on the implication.

Kiannae pursed her lips, a bit annoyed by the reality that they were back to square one. They were already doing the only thing they could, but that had to be a fallacy. “Nothing until we have a better plan. We are only killing the trees this way. Doesn’t seem they are dying any faster without our help.

The woman pinched the brow of her nose. “Yes, and doing nothing is not an option. At very least, it is not an impression we can give. We are not killing the trees any faster either. There is a chance this is helping, but what it is primarily doing, is giving us time to find a solution. Before a bunch of mages come in, and make it worse.”

There it was. She had brought new understanding, but it did not come with solutions. She froze, her breath caught, and something terrible rushed back to her. The center. She shook, and then ripped lose from everyone, running away into the living part of the woods. “Taloe. Taloe. Oh fates please! Taloe! Taloe! Answer me!” She yelled, almost stumbling, and leaned on her knees catching her breath. She felt the shift beside her, and spun to find the naked boy on the ground shaking slightly.

She ran to him, dropped to her knees, and swept him up in her arms, though he seemed somewhat limp, or even insubstantial. “Taloe!” she said clinging to him. Her wolves were quickly at her side, protectively circling them.

“Kia?” Zale said, and got a stern look from both wolves. He stiffened. “Is, is he alright?”

“I don’t know,” Kiannae said, her head buried in his shoulder. “Taloe, are you alright?”

He shuddered, and rolled his head slightly upward. He drew a breath, and then became mist drifting away from Kiannae who scrambled after him, though he came back together a few feet away, sitting leaned on one arm, and trembling.

“Taloe, are you alright?” Kiannae demanded.

“Ma ke,” he managed. “Oja,” he said it what almost sounded like Sylvan, but not quite. “Life, weak, mind…” his jaw went slack.

“Taloe,” Kiannae said softly, and set her hand on his cheek. “Taloe,” she said more sternly. “Taloe!” she said with a smack.

He looked up, blinked a few times. “I’m ok,” he said not in his more melodic tone, but something wistful. “I’m ok,” he said more forcefully. “Oh Abyss,” he said almost wide eyed. “I saw it. I saw. I could never use the knowledge, but I saw how it works. I saw what I could not know from a river, down which all flows, and branches. Yet the course may bend, the whole river divert. It does not flow along soil, or stone, but down the tracks of a tree. The river joins the ocean, the tree reaches for the sun, but…the sun burns. The ocean consumes, and the sun burns. Am I…am I of the abyss?”

“No,” Kiannae said fiercely, “no,” she said more measuredly. “It’s the same analogy, just, different somehow, but it is still the sea and sky. We are in between, each flowing both ways. The aether and the nether, are the same thing, so far as we ever need concern ourselves. We are just ripples above the ocean, beneath the sky.”

“There is more there,” Taloe said. “There is so much more.”

“I know there is, but it scares me, more than what was in the dryad grove. Not all power, or knowledge are worth their cost.”

“You are…right,” Taloe agreed hesitantly. “I must rest.”

“Wait!” Zale snapped suddenly. “Please?” He added less forcefully.

Taloe gave him a dubious look. “What?”

Zale took a breath. “Did…she…gain power from it?”

Taloe’s face curled into a snarl slowly. “No,” Taloe almost growled, and looked into the distance with shame. “No. I fed her to it. She reached for it like a moth for a flame, and I pushed her to it, to save me. She is fragments now, falling apart. I feel her dying, and it is not a kind or slow end. So much worse.”

“I’m sorry,” Kiannae offered uncertainty, unclear how much of it was her fault. He had implied his presence was her doing. The prophecy that followed her, the storm, the things she almost remembered the idea of seeing in the blight.

“I remember now,” Taloe said. “I remember now,” he broke down in tears clutching his face, as droplets fell and tore him apart. “I remember, my grandmother.” His tattered form unwound in filaments like it was caught on a strong breeze to the south, but the air was perfectly still.

Landri looked up from the vanishing boy to the other two. “Are you…is he alright?”

“I don’t really know,” Kiannae said. She felt it, the flow, the pull, that lead south. Her life had lead her to a river. A fate that in the words of others she had been running to. “We need to go south.”

“Why south?” Landri asked. “It only grows broader in the south, harder to fight, spreads more slowly away from its path, than northword. We need to save what is left of the headland.”

“No,” Kiannae said. “Not just south. All the way south, till we find where this begins, and ends. I’ve had it wrong, this isn’t like a river, where one might fight tributaries. This is a tree, and we must find the root.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“Absolutely not,” Lilia said sternly. “You have no plan, just a feeling, a notion. You are clever, oh I’ll give you that. You’ve given us understanding, and no solutions but those we already had. To the root of the problem, how like a mage to want to rip up roots. Yes, perhaps this is one that needs to be, but first you must tell me how. You’ve more luck cutting down an old tree, than trying to pull up the roots. This is a thing that eats ancient groves ravenously. Tell me, how, do you propose to uproot that?”

“Is it not unreasonable to assert that we must study it, to find the means,” Landri offered defensively of Kiannae’s argument.

“Whatever it is, if there is even a solution there, she cannot possibly discover it before winter would set in, and it is nearly a month’s trek to the borders of Napir. You know how fast these southern winters set. No. I will hear what she has to say, but I will not permit us to travel south. Nor offer her any official cover barging into the lands of the Storm Queen uninvited. We will fight the spread where it is most dangerous until the spring. It slows in the winter.”

Kiannae glared at her, and marched away. “Foolish,” she muttered, but wasn’t really sure if she meant the local arch druid, or herself. Zale caught up, put his hand on her shoulder, and she stopped.

“Are you ok?” Zale asked.

“I’m peachy, lovely, fine,” Kiannae growled, not even sure where her own rage was coming from. She didn’t agree with the decision, but, she did with the reasoning. Why was she so mad?

“Are you sure?” Zale pressed sternly. “Really stop, and take stock. Because I may not be as good as those two, but when they made me look for it, I saw. You were almost hollowed through, and however much of that is…him. That can’t be good. They had to drag you back to the group, and you nearly fell over on me back there.”

Kiannae put her hand on her heart searchingly, her eyes falling, and becoming distant. “I’m ok, I think. I think I’m ok,” she said a bit nervously. “I am remembering it less and less clearly. Only the things I’ve said aloud seem to remain. Some things though I am more sure of. Utterly sure of. This is all tied to entropic decay. I’m not even reall sure it is not the natural condition of the area. I’m less sure what can be done. It gets so muddled. Basic principles, back to basics.” She muttered, and took a breath.

“Entropic force is the countervailing result of trying to cheat conservation of energy,” she spoke aloud to try and hang onto it, and keep Zale from distracting her. “You can’t cheat. Energy cannot be created or destroyed, only borrowed. When order is imposed entropic decay occurs as a backlash. It breaks chemical bonds, causes elements to split into lighter ones. Doing something isn’t an option, but neither is doing nothing. If it feeds on entropy, it is feeding on its own growth. It is corrupting the leylines. It doesn’t matter if it is a spell collapsing on its own, just a natural phenomena being fed on, or just the fungus, this will accelerate. It will get stronger, and become irreversible. We can’t do nothing, but we can’t do anything except fight it physically. It can’t be that simple, it just can’t.” She stomped her foot. “It’s never that simple. If it is just the fungus… There is always a flaw in any strategy. A brute force one like this, more so.”

“Start from the top?” Zale asked nervously.

“No, no no no,” Kiannae said. “Shut up, and let me think out loud. No time for that. No, not from the top, from the end. The end result.” She ran over to a particularly deeply encrusted tree, and started to tear off a section of mushroom that clung fervently to its host.

“There are many parts of magic to learn,” she said authoritatively, nearly quoting from a book she had read once, making sure none of it slipped away again while she struggled. “Spellcraft a nearly bottomless well of convention, and invention. Yet that is mostly application, and complexity. The most basic component of spellcraft is energy conversion. Conjuration does it directly, and I’ve always been good at that. No wonder I make such a good druid. The distinction between that and evocation is literally a matter of ego.” She laughed. “Goodness knows why I’m good at that. Making a spell do the conjuration for you is another trick though, because the spell’s idea of the process and your own don’t quite match, learning the wrong thing to tell it with the right result is the trick. Takes half the effort.”

“Spell books are foolish because of this,” Kiannae said as a large chunk of mushroom finally broke loose. “Because you can’t write down the conversion. All the diagraming, all the subtleties, no matter how annotated can’t capture the basic conversions, or all their interactions. There are a dozen ways to get it right, but each behaves differently interacting with others.” She started walking towards the center of the blight again.

Zale followed her quickly. “What are you doing? You shouldn’t be going back in there.” He tried to step in front of her, and she gave him a withering glare that told him he had barely seconds to get out of her way if he knew what was good for him.

“Girl, what in the Abyss are you doing?” Landri demanded having caught up when she saw them stray towards the blight.

“Part of the trouble, even if you have an instructor right in front of you,” she said glaring at Landri, “is sorting out the part that works, from all the noise.” She pushed Zale aside, stepped over the boundary, and shuddered slightly as the stillness washed over her. “Please stay there, both of you,,” she said tersely. “I need distance from everything else.”

“Why?” Zale asked, trying to sound more curious than offended.

Landri hesitated, short of dashing in and dragging Kiannae back out. Her aura was…puzzling, it demanded one understand that she knew precisely what she was doing, and was not to be questioned. The smugness of it made Landri a bit mad, but it still stopped her. She had only encountered the like a few times. It gave her further pause at the source.

“It’s something my…father, Mercu once told me, when he was teaching me to play chess. I’m going to let the enemy show me how it wants to loose.”

She stepped farther in, until the forest, Landri, Zale, and the gathering others were distant shadows, less warm than the sun. She ran her finger over the mushroom. Dire-fungus was still an almost laughable phrase, but it seemed the key. It wasn’t just benefiting from the effect, it was more likely the cause, she was convinced. Fully convinced. Lilia hadn’t even fought the assertion. The spell was being cast, constantly, and the longer it was, the more enduring it became. Outliving the caster. That caster though, was right in her hands, teaching her its secrets by doing the only thing it knew how to. Like any teaching of the gift was trully passed on. Observation.

She could feel it, like a spell, but not all that complex at all. There were subtleties, but they weren’t important. A fine fractal pattern echoing a larger one down into the structure of the growth. The principle was much simpler, the fungus was feeding, channeling entropy from the spell. The conversion, the spell if she could call it that, seemed the most contrary thing. It didn’t do anything useful. Something had happened, what didn’t matter, not yet. A chance collision between the fungal growth learning to do something that should if anything hurt it, and finding a way to feed on it.

She smiled. Her problem was only absurd. Not s collapsing world spell. Not the shadow of the Abyss withering the world…exactly. There was still something to that, she was sure, but ignored it. It was just an errant living thing, and those could die.

She tried to convince herself of her plan. It wasn’t necessarily a good one, which had been another reason she had moved into the dead heart of the blight. Not just the clarity to feel it, but a precaution against what she was about to try. It was like a slow moving fire in more ways than a living thing. It needed the forest to live, but it was killing it. Air and fuel. Fire had been tried to burn it back, but that was counterproductive. It made entropy, but that didn’t make sense. It was a temporary effect with a backlash.

There it was, Kiannae finally realized. The organism was cheating. It was feeding on both ends. It was using entropy to create order, which produced more entropy on levels that could kill even living things slowly. Entropy was not normally considered an actual quantifiable substance however. It was a force, but it only existed in response to another. The process worked however in reverse. She had read about it. If one attempted to destroy energy, there was a backlash of energy and force with ordering properties. The fungus was playing off the energy flowing both ways.

This made her plan all the more risky, but Kiannae was convinced it had to be tried. She set the mushroom down, and started drawing spell lines around it, working to create an even distribution matrix that would put the effect inward. She made an orb then that turned an inky midnight purple, and black. The full scale manifestation of the effect she had found on a microscopic level was a bit unnerving. Nearly as cold as it was dark. A direct force of ambient energy into the nether. It had been a technique she had read about, but not one that was generally taught, or maintained, because it didn’t have obvious value, since taping the energy for some other purpose was always more useful.

“What are you doing?” Zale asked nervously behind her, having finally followed her. The others all stood back, even Landri.

“An experiment,” Kiannae said with some confidence. “This will either go well, or slightly badly, but I don’t think any more harm can be done here.”

“How badly?” Zale pressed.

Kiannae shot him an amused look. “Not that badly. It may try to grow, but without anything to feed on it…well, heh, honestly growing could be what kills it. Like forcing it to burn up all its fuel. Curses, this could work two ways, and the way it does might determine how we have to use it.”

She stepped forward, and touched the ball of shadow to her spell, and let its pattern overtake the structure. The mushroom twisted, slightly bubbled, and then quite energetically shattered into dust and a few larger fragments that went flying, lost their energy, and crumbled, caught in the effect that ate even the kinetic energy. The spell suddenly destabilized in a swirl of brilliant lights that swirled away.

“Which way was that?” Zale asked

“Honestly,” Kiannae laughed. “I’m not sure.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Twelve tests had been run in total. Fragments offered fresh twigs, larger sections of uncontaminated wood. The results were dodgy at best. It did seem to grow significantly with fresh wood, but it collapsed soon after. Landri, as much as she was glad of a solution, had expressed repeated displeasure at Kiannae’s continuous use of magic, and ultimately left over Kiannae’s counter chiding, to then go find the few mages they had encountered studying the phenomena.

Kiannae had convinced Lilia that if the mages saw no harm, they would try it on a still living tree near the inner edge of the blight. Most of the time waiting for Landri to return was spent picking the ideal specimen, one in unusually good health even as those around it were dead, or dying.

When Landri returned with two of three mages. The prospect was discussed to some dubious looks from the mages, who insisted to see a thirteenth test. Insisted further on a private argument after that, and finally agreed to observe the proposed full scale experiment.

Kiannae walked around the tree slowly, tracing lines, evening them, making the whole arrangement smooth. It was, to her mind, less risky if the process was evenly distributed such that the focus would be in the center, forcing it to wither into nothing, rather than out of the field on any side. That far into the blight the climb of the mushroom growth was a good twelve feet up. Well out of direct reach, so she first instilled a replication into her spell, copying it up over twenty feet to be sure. She checked all the safeties, all the controls that would stabilize the output as the conversion trickled through the system.

Convinced she was ready, Kiannae took a breath, and set seven orbs away from the spell equally spaced. She drew them into contact at the same moment, spreading the effect through the system evenly, replicating orbs at each tier, using some of the energy it was absorbing to structure, and shape itself perfectly. It took several seconds before the bubbling could be seen all up the trunk. The mass crept higher a moment, but Kiannae waved off the tentative question from one of the mages if they should stop. A few more seconds, and and the surface erupted in dust that swirled inside contained, by dampening of the kinetic energy. It swirled down the cylinder, and piled on the ground.

Everyone was so in awe that no one even thought to cancel the spell, which was then feeding on the backlash, maintaining itself. Kiannae was about to dispel it when she stopped at the sight of a new leaf sprouting off the tree. Grass growing up around the roots, vines, and other foliage, she waved her hand suddenly as the process seemed to accelerate, it kept going for several seconds more after the spell dissipated. Wind ruffled new green leaves.

“It…” Landri said, and stepped up to the tree, running her hands along the freshly restored bark. “It healed the tree. The spell healed the tree.”

Kiannae frowned. “I don’t think it did. I think the tree took the energy, and heald itself.”

Landri gave her a look. “These aren’t dryads. We would know if they were.”

“Have you ever considered that the dryads are not, or at least not just ghosts. That maybe they are something else, all on their own. Dire fungus, why not dire trees. They have lived on this effect so long. They don’t have to be intelligent, any more than the fungus killing them is. They have learned however, to feed on it. It’s not a flaw like I speculated, but it is an unintended effect. It’s not the spell, or the ley line, or whatever you want to call it, not at all. We would see forests like this everywhere, not just here. It’s the trees themselves. It is the living things here that are doing it for themselves. We could probably transplant them places with similar properties, and see results.”

“And risk them creating the same problem again?”

“We know how to cure that now,” Kiannae protested.

“How, yes, but who?” she spread her arms wide and swept around them. “Three mages we have, and a bunch of druids who do not know how to do this. We cannot, no, now more than ever, if you are still trying to convince me to, go south. We must stay, and fight this, now that we can.”

“Get the fire makers first,” Kiannae said. “You all have taught me your ways, it’s time I teach you mine.”

“I will learn,” Landri said. “If for no other reason than to teach the others myself, and stop you from continuing to exert yourself in this way. This cannot be good for your condition.”

“Condition?” one of the mages asked incredulously. “What condition would she be making worse with magic?”

“The one you probably will in eighty years,” Landri said crossing her arms. “Her half Syvlan heritage does not seem to like your practice.”

“Half sylvan?” the other mage asked stepping close, and considering Kiannae’s eyes for the first time. “Surely you mean quarter, or, fifth, but no, she’s not pale enough for one from Napir.”

“One?” Kiannae demanded annoyed.

“Excuse me, but I’ve only heard of three half blood of, I can only assume northern Sylvan’s in the past century. A great big scandal about some mage in Avrale adopting the girls, and a Lycian Matron the brother. All perfectly legal, and clearly against the intent of those very laws.”

“Goodness, I do not remember the names of any of them,” the man shook his head. “Are you one of them, girl?”

Kiannae pursed her lips. “For what business it is of yours.”

“What in the Light’s name are you doing down here?” the mage demanded.

“Because, of those twin girls, there is only one of us left,” Kiannae snapped.

“Forgive my friend,” the other mage said, and stepped forward, pushing the man back. “I offer my condolences. I had heard rumors of further trouble in Avrale, but not enquired deeply into it. One world threatening problem at a time after all,” the man said with a tentative smile, and gestured around, “that’s my motto. I believe Samuel here will need to learn, but I think I can begin training others myself. I’ll run a test on my own tree to be sure I am not teaching them the wrong thing.” He nodded, and turned to seek out another good candidate from the withering forest.

“You are…” Zale laughed bewilderedly. “You really are a Court Mage’s daughter, aren’t you?”

“Adopted,” She corrected. “See, you do listen, but you don’t hear,” Kiannae said fixing him with a mocking but troubled look.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Harfast 40th, 649 E.R.

Kiannae shivered, and bundled up against the cold. The first snow lay across the blighted land, and for once Kiannae had to admit it was a prettier sight. The snow hid the barren broken waste under a blanket of white. She reached out, and touched a tree that had begun to heal, slowly, but now had to fight against the frost. She was sad there was nothing to be done for the forest but cure it, it would have to mend on its own. Fortunately gifted trees seemed good enough at that.

Shadow was at her side. As the druids and mages had made any small progress, the wolves had inched in towards Kiannae whenever she was alone, but only Shadow so far had come so deep into the sickly wood.

She looked up and down the stretch of trees they had spent months trying to help with only the tiniest twinge of satisfaction. It was all so little compared to the task ahead, and the root of the cause remained uncertain. They had only accomplished as much as they had for the blessing of a warm winter, but with the coming of the late first snow it was time to retreat into civilization. Kiannae for her part would be happy to go somewhere warm.

She considered the wolf beside her again, and the other that stood out against the white snow behind her. She did not regret her fight to let the two stay at her side, but they could prove difficult through the coming months. The local constable was testy any time Kiannae entered town with one at her side. No matter how obedient they proved. At least They were easily missed, or forgotten at any great distance, but when one was by Kiannae’s side the illusion seemed to fade. Sometimes they would go off together into the wood at her command, but others Shadow would not leave her. A half wolf breed was common enough in those parts at least, and this eased some around the large wolf, but all kept their distance if they could, well away from the strange druid, and her feral pet.

Taloe formed beside her, staring to the south. “I can feel the current now, ever more clearly. I do not wish to go, and yet I know we must. This path, it is part of something greater, and yet something with a terrible cost.”

“Must you speak of prophecy?” Kiannae muttered.

“I said the future was never my gift,” Taloe said, “This though feels like the past, yet full of all the same vagueness. It is not like anything I have ever known. It is terrifying in its certainty, and yet what it is…is only a feeling.”

Kiannae sighed. “One I cannot shake either.”

“It is hard to stay together for long, the pull is strong here.”

“Then rest, and I shall do the same.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Hivern 2nd (December 18th), 649 E.R.

Kiannae sipped from a hot spiced cider she had purchased from a busy street merchant, who seemed no more pleased by the cold than her, but more than pleased by the coin he was making. She considered heading inside again, but the growing festivities, and children playing in the snow laden streets were too endearing to return to warmer shelter, where little would distract her from haunting memories.

She kept a close eye on Shadow whenever children came near, and whenever one too boldly came right up to the wolf she would put a hand on his neck, and fill him with every soothing sense she could. This had worked well enough, save when frightened parents had rushed headlong to grab their child away, earning a small growl from the wolf.

Niven it seemed celebrated the winter solstice with far more abandon than Avrale, and started earlier, perhaps in part because it did get so much colder in the south. One needed the cheer, and the remainder of life, through the long cold nights. Kiannae pondered if Napir to the south was even more extravagant by that token, or if they all sought desperate shelter, and refused to come out of their homes until spring.

Magical lights drifted through air, and adorned evergreens along the busy lane. Kiannae remembered a slightly less grand show she had helped produce many years before, and sighed. For the first time in a very long while, a memory of Katrisha was bearable, pleasant in a strange sort of way. It still hurt, she still wanted to cry, but for once she could actually relish the memory, rather than try to push it back. She closed her eyes, and smiled. She set her hand lovingly on Shadow, and for a moment was happy in spite of the melancholy.

“Well hello,” came a familiar voice, and Kiannae grimaced to be shaken from her revelry.

“Hello, Zale,” Kiannae said, and tried not to seem to put out by the interruption. She glanced at him. Every day he seemed more a man. Something in that winter it seemed was agreeing with him. That chafed at her, not because he was unpleasant, more because something in her rejected how pleasant he was to be around.

“I can leave if you would rather be alone,” Zale said picking up on her tone.

“No,” Kiannae said, and turned to him fully. “It’s fine, just, memories.”

“I thought as much,” Zale said. “It’s your birthday, and hers.”

“She would love this,” Kiannae said somberly, “the snow, the lights, the people all running around…”

“There are only two better solstice festivals, or so I hear,” Zale said taking a few steps closer. “I’ve seen the festivities in Western Palantine, and they are grand, but never have I witnessed the spectacle of Napir. They say the great halls of the Storm Queens are decorated with all the splendor you could imagine, and sculptures of ice line the streets, while dragons revel in the sky, and make a great burning midnight sun that lights the night for a hundred miles around.”

“Sounds impressive,” Kiannae said with only faint interest.

“So I hear,” Zale said again. “I have a question,” he asked with some hesitance in his voice, “do they have the tradition of the winterberries in Avrale?”

Kiannae winced slightly, and glanced up. “I’ve heard of this tradition,” she said eyeing a fruit bearing twig she had inadvertently chosen to stand beneath.

“Would I be,” Zale started stepping closer, “too presumptuous to follow through with that tradition?”

“I suppose not,” Kiannae relented, and Zale leaned in for a soft kiss. It was pleasant, he was pleasant, but she remained uncertain if she would ever be as interested as he seemed to be. She returned his kiss, she decided she would see if there was any spark there at all.

There was, much more than a twinge, but then there was Taloe, and she was torn. Was he the reason, was it knowing he was always there what kept her from finding Zale’s attempts at wooing her lackluster.

“Thank you,” Kiannae said, and gave Zale a crooked uncertain smile.

“I hear a but,” Zale said with a frown.

“It was very nice,” Kiannae said firmly.

“But…” Zale repeated raising an eyebrow.

“I just have a lot to think about,” Kiannae said flatly.

“Very well,” Zale said with obvious melancholy. “I’ll leave you to it.”

He walked away casually for a while. A large part of him was sure he was in love with Kiannae, but the rest of him knew it wasn’t going to work. He glanced back, and swore he saw something in the swirling snow for just a moment. He didn’t have to wonder what. He shook his head, kicked the snow, and walked on. There was a caravan leaving for the east in the spring. He was eighteen, and it was time he moved on.

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