Chapter III:2

The gift endures in soul-ward order,
the material marches on toward decay,
the flesh a fickle beastly carnivore,
the path endures if we do not stray,

great spells give way to entropy,
even suns before it cannot endure,
yet the aether burns above eternal,
to temporary desires become inured.

– The Clarion Call, Saint Darius, circa 130 B.E.

Artifacts

Vhalun 23rd, 655 E.R.

Katrisha opened her study door, and considered the overly tall bundle the man outside held. She gestured in, and Xander carried the package taller than him to the central table. He set it before Kiannae, and barely spared a curious glance to the massive orrery overhead. It was not an easy sight to look way from on first sight.

“Thank you for having this meeting here,” he said giving Kiannae a hard to read look.

“My sister is quite accustomed to climbing to her own study,” Kiannae answered. “And I have walked to northern Napir twice now. So, I assure you, the inconvenience is yours. Clearly you wished privacy, as far from prying eyes as could be found. What is it, other than the obvious?”

“Trouble,” Xander said. “The worst kind. I have talked myself in and out of this seven times, and in the end, it is I think up to you.” He began to untie the twine holding the canvas wrapping.

The two sisters gathered round the table.

“Stomwalker,” Xander said tensing. “Landri told me at the time of Ezik’s little lie, after I had stormed out that day. When he told you that no one had held the title in centuries.” He undid the last knot, unrolled the canvas, and threw it open. It was a gnarled and bowed wooden staff, covered in smooth bark, hooked, and coiled at one end. It was sitting amidst a scatter of mismatched fresh leaves, one of which still grew from the top of the staff.

Kiannae recognized it as Ezik’s staff from the time she had known him. She reached out, and touched it. “It’s alive,” she said in disbelief.

“It always was. Though it has been dormant for decades,” Xander said. “I presume no one has told you the tale of my father’s ascension to Archdruid?”

A swirl of mist formed, and solidified into the shape of a young man with vaguely translucent shimmering skin. His hair, and robe a amorphous shifting things that defied the eye to make sense of. His sudden appearance barely made Katrisha glance up, but Xander took a step back in surprise, and grimaced. He nodded to the elemental he had heard much of, but never been introduce to. Taloe nodded back to him.

“I believe the Archdruid of Evergrove mentioned he was honored by dryads,” Kiannae answered, and glanced up at the old man’s reaction. “Also once held the druid seat on the Council.”

“It’s more than alive,” Taloe said touching the staff himself, and yanked his hand back almost as if bitten.

“Honored,” Xander nodded, and relaxed.. “That’s a word for it. More than alive as well.” He took a breath. “The dryads north of Lundan have honored many over the ages. They choose every archdruid of Lundan. Typically, during the first presentation ceremony of a youth, coming of age. On such days they might be honored, or even named the successor. They had not named one in decades when Ezik was presented. Technically, they did not name one then. Did not properly until my ceremony over sixty years later. No. Instead, they named my father once, and only once, Stormwalker. Then for the first and only time in history, or legend, a dryad willfully shed a living branch. Which fell, and stuck in the soil at my father’s feet. He made a great deal of that, but never took the title. So the lie, is at least half true.”

“Why have you brought it here?” Kiannae asked uneasily.

“Because, through I cannot know for certain the tree my father stood beneath that day, I believe it was the same he passed at the root of. The same where he returned this staff, planted it again, and it took root as it was once known to do. Because when he was found dead, the title stormwalker was again heard on the wind. When in the spring the staff had grown leaves, but shed its roots, several more times that word was heard to groan through the trees. I…” He ran his hand through his hair. “It is your choice. I do not feel it is mine, or any others. I shall take this with me, far from here, when I go, or leave it to your care.” He paused, and the others said nothing. “My father could do incredible things in his youth. There are stories of his mastery of nature and the elements, with this staff in hand. If dark days are coming, then the one whom the dryads have again named Stormwalker, should be the one to wield such power. I do not even know if I could.”

Katrisha gave her sister a worried glance, and Kiannae returned it. With some defiance in her Kiannae eyes took hold of the staff, and noticeably shivered. For a moment Taloe as though he might blow away, but instead he leaned on the table for support. Rivlents of water trickled down his forehead.

“Are you alright?” Kiannae asked looking at him with sudden concern.

“Sa’jity,” he said absently, then looked startled and confused. “Sorry, I’m fine. I don’t know where that came from, but it meant I’m alright. I’ve not felt power like that since…”

“No,” Kiannae said giving him a stern look. “It is remarkably powerful. Thank you,” she looked back to Xander. “I shall do all that I can, to bring honor to what this means.”

Katrisha turned, and clenched her fists. She tried to calm herself, as she felt something terrifying, like a shift in the very world beneath her feet. Her eyes turned upward at a rattle. One of the orbs of the orrery was trembling. She tried to follow the effect to a cause, but only came back to the sun-housing at the center. The power source the whole thing ran off of, which hung above the table.

Her sister ran her fingers along the ancient living staff as though transfixed.

“Does that mean she will be Archdruid?” Katrisha asked, trying to measure her tone.

“Lest another is named,” Xander said. “I am the last in line at present. Ezik never admitted it, but I always knew he hoped for a dynasty. That Zale would be named next, but the grove never chose him. It named Kiannae instead, as it named him.  Though, with no grand gift left at her feet. Far more repetitions. Then there was her show of power against a rabid dire bear. Not an event I witnessed, for I was against the course of presenting her.”

He looked Katrisha in the eye, and nodded.  Then met Kiannae’s hurt glance with a shrug.

“I am sorry,” he offered. “None of this is lost on me. The prophecy I stand in the presence of, abundantly clear. Yet the meaning. How am I to know? Stormwalker, Stormchild. These are just words. One stands before me with silver hair, laced with mage blood. The other, the world itself seems to call out to. Blightsbane. The name given to that tree that grew from the heart of the Blight. It stands over a thousand-feet tall now. Taller by nearly five times than any tree should be. Something is coming. Not a prophecy, just a fact.”

Kiannae nodded, and Katrisha walked out, and closed the door hard behind her.

Vhalun 31st 655 E.R.

Katrisha glanced up from silent contemplation.  A messenger was scurrying into the throne room.  He hurried not to the first, but second knight he could reach. There was an animated, quiet exchange, and the knight’s expression turned to a cold smile. She had long suspected the man to be no fan of hers, and with that was all but certain. For she suspected the rumored council mage had finally arrived. Katrisha examined the man’s posture as he marched to the court herald.

“Your Majesty,” the herald said when the baron addressing the King stopped for a breath. “Sir Mathias of South Rook, has news of immediate import.”

“Speak then,” the King said considering the Knight who approached the dais.

“It would seem a man claiming to represent the Council of Mordove has arrived today, and been brought up from the village,” Mathias said with a bow.

“Bring him in then,” the King said. “We shall not have such an important traveler, having come so very far, delayed any further.”

Mathias turned to nod to the messenger that had informed him, but saw that he had already left. Moments later a tall, thin, and incredibly elegant man entered. His flowing gray robe was impeccable, and he had an air about him that struck Katrisha as the peculiar union of Laurel, Mercu, and the Lady Catherine. His aura upon approaching completed this impression. He was like an intemperate breeze caught between rigid stone walls. All at once this faded to a mirror. A facade, an uncanny trick that almost fooled ones senses into comfortable familiarity. As though they were standing in their own presence.

As he marched up to the dais he bowed in a formal, almost exaggerated fashion, until the King addressed him. “Rise, and name yourself traveler. State your business with this court,” the King commanded.

“I am called Rondal Coralis Torval,” the man said in perfect tenor. “Former attache to Grand Mage Ashander, of the Prime Council. Duly appointed to replace the young Mage known as Katrisha Ashton. I have both papers, and a replacement Amberite stone, that my appointment may be confirmed with the Council, at the leisure of this court.”

“We shall see to your claims,” the King said flatly. “At the end of this day’s affairs. For now, you are dismissed.”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” Rondal said with another faultless bow. “Such is appropriate. I will not delay due course of the kingdom’s business.” He turned cleanly on his heel, and marched from the throne room.

Katrisha just barely overheard a lady of the court remark, “I do believe Mercu has competition.”

Only a slight titter was offered in response.

Katrisha turned the new Amberite stone over in her hand. She did not like the response. Every code had been an affirmative to those delivered by messengers from Helm in past years. The appointment was official, and her position terminated.

“The likelihood of this being a ruse, is minuscule,” Katrisha said to the King. She looked to her sister, and Mercu who had each occupied a corner. “We have no reason to suspect that every set of codes has been intercepted.”

“He has requested immediate access to the tower study. To review records, and resources at Our disposal.” the King said. “Will you object that he begin his transition?”

“So long as he understands some articles are property of former occupants, and will not be left to his tenure.”

The King nodded. “Then…” he sighed. “I,” he stressed, and Katrisha was fascinated, as she had never heard the King speak in the singular tense, “shall step down. Let Darion deal with this new Court Mage. I grow too old for these games.”

“Are you certain, my King?” Mercu asked in shock.

“If no urgent reason is found to impinge this new mage’s character,” the King said flatly. “Of course it can not happen immediately. The disruption would be too great, but very soon.” He paused thoughtfully. “A tour will be arranged of the Kingdom, to look upon these lands one last time, and then a king may retire to some quiet corner. Such was the tradition before the unfortunate affair with the Elder King, and my father.”  He huffed.

“What of us?” Kiannae asked, her expression betraying her doubts.

“Before I…step down,” the King said, visibly mulling over how he felt about his attempts to drop the royal plural. “I will officially recognize you as descendants of the throne. You could likely remain at court, if it is your wish. Darion has nothing but respect for the both of you, but I suspect there are better uses of your talents in the world. As to you,” the King said turning to Mercu. “Your place is secure. Darion I have no doubts will find you as useful as I have.”

“Thank you, my King,” Mercu said, “but much as I am getting on in years myself, I wish to seek answers of Laurel’s fate… Firsthand.”

“Such is the loss to Our library, and art then,” the King said with vague humor amidst his dire tone. “It surely will not be a month before the court is reduced to drab grays, the library is a smoldering wreck, and no one has a scrap of gossip about anyone to share.”

“Too kind,” Mercu said with a half smile.

Katrisha approached the study door atop the westward tower. She considered the guard outside dubiously. Corien’s two retainers, each council mages in their own right were a quiet pair. Garet, the one standing watch over his master’s door seemed to be calculating something in notation of his own devising. Runes hung in the air, some recognizable, others not. Some scratched through, others pushed aside. He barely glanced at Katrisha as she turned the internal latch on the door, and entered.

Corien stood leaned over the central table, perusing maps, and an array of books.

“Anything I can help you find?” Katrisha asked in way of announcing herself.

“Not particularly. It seems Council records were largely in order,” Corien said almost dismissively. “It never hurts to be sure you have the lay of the land, and houses however.” He paused. “There is one thing though, this.” He pointed on the map to the north-eastern corner of Avrale. “This duchy is abandoned?”

“It was for a long time,” Katrisha answered stepping beside him. “The Duke Ashton died with no proper heir, and released his lands to the people for a loose form of representative governance. The Queen Regent, and later King of the day consented. The condition has endured. After over a century of peace, the partially rebuilt tower of Ashrook was abandoned. The horse tribes stand between us and Osyrae proper on that front. The wards were deemed enough with no outward signs of aggression. In the last decade or so we began patrolling the border again.  More recently permanent troops were stationed, and began restoring the ruins of Ashrook.”

“Those wards, have let two dragons through now,” Corien lectured with a frown. “I have another man at the border, checking them.”

“I suspect he will find nothing amiss. My sister and Laurel never did. I have not had the opportunity myself of course. I suspect a high-flying feral dragon is not enough to trip them. Whatever became of her eggs, I fought the beast. It was a bit bright in aura, easily made out under invisibility, but it could not see through the illusion hiding me.”

“I see,” he said, and looked to another map. “Which Knight?”

“Excuse me?” Katrisha said confused by the shift.

“Is in command of Ashrook.”

“Charles, of Wesrook,” Katrisha answered knowing it was a leading name.

“The son of that problem the King keeps locked up?” Corien asked curiously.  He turned to regard her more attentively.

“The same,” Katrisha nodded. “He was absolved of his father’s crimes, for his part in bringing him to justice. Though his post is not a kind one. Left to command malcontents, all his senior.”

“I see. I will be having Garet keep an eye on Ashrook then,” Corien said thoughtfully. “That name,” he started rhetorically, “Ashton – it is your family name as well, is it not?”

“There is some suspicion that we might be the Duke’s descendants, but even then the line would not be clearly legitimate,” Katrisha answered firmly.

“I see,” Corien said shrewdly. “The council was never made aware.”

“For obvious reasons,” Katrisha admitted.

“I have heard other rumors about your lineage,” Corien pressed.

“Ask, and I shall answer,” Katrisha offered measuredly.

“Your grandmother,” he began.

“Adel Somavera, daughter to Matron Renae of Highvale,” Katrisha answered.

“Who is now effective consort to the King?” Corien did not relent.

“Speak it,” Katrisha insisted, refusing to budge without a direct question.

“This is not their first affair together, correct?” Corien asked more plainly.

“No,” Katrisha nodded. “You have the right of it, and the implication.”

“I see,” Corien said, not greatly surprised, yet clearly affected by confirmation of suspicions. “Not much concern. Your lineage could hardly be fully legitimized, even if they should wed. The line proper lies with the son, Darion.  Royalty have many relatives on the Council, closer even than you.”

“Indeed,” Katrisha agreed.

“Still, you are a sordid lot, you, and your siblings. Half Sylvan. The blood of a Duke, and a King.” He shook his head, and stared at the maps again thoughtfully.

“If it is any consolation, it is only Darion you will need concern yourself with soon,” Katrisha pointed out.

“Yes, the King has made me aware of his intentions, and though I have been busy, word of your plans has not escaped me. Corien closed his eyes a moment, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He rolled up one map, and unfurled another. “A strange business, you’re missing Mentor…” he paused, “or should I call him father? I believe there was some mention of adoption. Part of the schemes which kept him, and you here.”

“Laurel did not feel that it would be more beneficial for two young girls to be dragged halfway across the continent.  Nor subjected to endless curiosity and scrutiny, over…the details of our birth.”

“You would hardly have been harmed, and I dare say had more resources at your disposal. Accounts do tell of you being remarkable. Even if you have had a tendency for, unusual theatrics, if tales are to be believed. Who knows what you, or your sister might have accomplished, or become.”

“I think we have already become more than the world knows what to do with,” Katrisha cut back

“Also, what pains you might have been spared. Your illness, your near death, her long years of separation over a misadventure with a dragon. As I understand it, that she reasonably assumed was your end. The less said of matters in the south, the better.” He gave her a look, and watched her expression.

“Our part in saving innocents being framed by the Duke of South Rook. Our run in with an errant council mage, and his unproven, but likely connection to attempts our King, Queen, and myself? Not to mention my sister turning back the Blight, or did it not concern the Council?  Yes, I think the more said of that, the better.”

Corien shook his head. “Things are what they are. I’ll admit to you, privately to be clear, that I fully suspect Oridin’s involvement as well. He was always walking in concerning circles. Seers, schemers, and the most dubious elements of Clarion influence in Mordove. There are many secret societies in the city. Such that it becomes hard to know which are real.” He tapped his finger, and turned back to her. “I will also admit, I would not strongly wish that other life on you, or your sister. The scrutiny would surely have been exhausting, however, useful. There is still so much we do not know about the Sylvan peoples, or their gifts. The nature of hybrids such as yourselves. That hair of yours…”

Katrisha nodded noncommittally to the sentiments.

“You are your own woman now,” Corien intoned. “One by all accounts of intellect, and curiosity. Do consider exploring those avenues, given your destination. Who you were alone, would have brought a stir of greater interest.  Such a familiar sight I expect to some.” He waited for a reaction, and was disappointed by little more than a narrowing of her eyes. “All that alone, but twins, identical by birth, so transformed by the fickle whims of your practices… To have observed that, or would it have even occurred? Oh the questions. Surely there is still much that might be learned from you, and your sister.  If you are willing.”

“I will consider it,” Katrisha nodded, but her glare was far less than favorable.

“That is all I can ask.” Corien paused. “Well – no, there is one more thing.”

“Yes?” Katrisha asked through gritted teeth.

“I have accounts of the battle with Oradin. There is one detail that troubles me. A boy, who appeared and disappeared, several times. Who fought naked by some fanciful accounts, though was also, insubstantial?”

Katirsha hesitated. “We have avoided official explanation of this. I will not deny he exists.”

“Who, or what is he?”

“An elemental, a ghost, half-flesh. Something else entirely. It is not my place to say much on the matter.”

“Intelligent?”

“Very.”

“May I meet him?”

“That, you must ask my sister.”

“I see…or well, I do not, but I will ask her then,” he relented. “Would you let her know I would have an audience?”

“When I see her,” Katrisha offered, and walked on to find the book she had come looking for. She lingered a good extra hour, browsing the shelves, simply to make the point she was not at his beck and call. Nor was the tower yet fully his.

Kiannae considered Corien with mixed interest.

He considered her with great curiosity.

“It is really hard to imagine that you, and your sister were once identical. Yet, the eyes, the nose, the bone structure of your face. I can see it.”

“You asked to see me?” Kiannae pressed. “I presume it was not merely to admire the physical differences I possess from my twin.”

“Oh, no. Those are a curiosity, I admit, but I am more concerned with a benefactor in the battle with Oradin. An…elemental of some sort that fought on your side?”

“My sister told me she answered truthfully about him,” Kiannae was stony faced. “I cannot fault her for the choice, though I might have erred the other way.”

“We all have our secrets, but why keep one so momentous?”

Kiannae looked away. “His existence, is not merely his affair, but mine. I am afraid our fates are quite intertwined.”

“Explain?” Corien pressed, and then softened the request. “If you would. The reports I have heard cannot shed much light, and border on contradictory.”

“Have you heard of the tale of Tethis?”

“I have not.”

“The details are…not relevant to go into. Suffice to say it is a tragedy, and a bloody one. More myth most think than history, but I fear I know otherwise.” Kiannae paused. “The place lay in what is now the border region of the Sylvan wood. Their people were kin to those, but something else entirely I believe. It was an old practice, shamanistic, powerful, primal. Things we have had little success in investigating with modern reason, but cannot always deny are out there. I have encountered more than my fair share.”

He gave her a knowing glance. “And you found this elemental there?”

“No.” Kiannae pursed her lips with some agitation. “Found is too simple a word. I drank of a pool. One cear, clean, and perfect to my parched throat that day. I could not have imagined what I had done. The boy would reveal himself to me slowly, as he himself returned.  Fragmented, with no knowledge of our modern language, and but a few scarce memories of his former life.”

“It sounds like an old folktale, even something out of myth.”

“He did not come alone. The last shaman of his tribe – a terrible fury of hatred, and pain – followed in his wake. She nearly destroyed us, before succumbing to an anomaly.”

“Blightsbane.” Corien nodded. ”I’ve heard of your involvement.” He tapped his fingers irritably. “And yet I find it all so absurd, so fanciful. Tell me, may I meet him? If this…elemental really exists?”

“It is not entirely my decision,” Kiannae said firmly. “Yet your request is heard, and my permission is given. If it is his wish, Taloe will appear.”

There was a moment of perplexed disbelief on Corien’s face. Then swirling from mist that formed from nowhere, a young man stepped into being. Corien slightly jumped back onto the table he was leaned against, before he regained himself, and settled into this new seated position. “Incredible,” he said, quickly shifting from shock, and a dash of fear, to a look of utter fascination. He hopped back down, and stepped around the new arrival.

“The structure of it is…” Corien shook his head. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s as dense as a living thing.”

“I am,” Taloe said with a restrained indignant fury.

Corien shook his head again. “Impossible…spectacular!” He was scratching at the side of his head. “So you speak?”

“It has taken time for me to become…verbos, but yes. I am told quite well.”

“And you have your own memories?”

“Many. Pieces mostly. I lost much of myself in my long slumber. More I think in my shared ordeal with my love. I remember more the essence of that life, than the details.”

“Reports I had heard said you were naked, I take it you…learned to do this?” Corien gestured at the robe.  “Love?” he added curiously.

“It was not easy, but I learned. It seemed to cause many distress, even Kiannae.. Though she has learned to appreciate me as I came,” he smirked.

Kiannae glared at Taloe, and he shrugged playfully.

“The two of you?” Corien said somewhere between befuddled curiosity, and surprise. “No. Not my business, and yet, so many question. Oh to have your permission, your cooperation, to study this phenomena. Also the time…” He furrowed his brow. “Yet you are leaving, and I have a looming war to watch over.” He tapped his foot, and looked quite distracted. He ran his hands through his hair. “If it ever comes. What is it, twenty years now since the death of King Heron, his Queen and heir?”

“More than, and I do not wish to keep you further from such affairs,” Kiannae said trying to extract herself from the situation.

Corien looked almost like a little boy who had been told it was time to go to bed, disappointment washing over his face. He took a deep breath, and nodded. “No. No you are right. Still…” he paused, he found a scrap of paper, grabbed a quill, and scrawled a name on it. “I implore you, seek this man out when you reach Mordove. He will pay you very well, simply for your time, and to answer his questions. More, surely if you might allow…further investigations.”

He handed the paper to Kiannae, who considered the offering dubiously. Then relented to take it, if for no other reason than to end the interaction.

Corien turned quickly back to Taloe. “May I shake your hand?”

Taloe seemed to consider for a moment, then held his out. Corien stepped up, took it, and then looked startled. He grabbed the hand gently with his other, and turned it back and forth.  He ran his index finger along the palm which resulted in Taloe snatching his and away and giving the man a rather displeased look.

Corien was distracted, staring at his own fingers, and rubbed his thumb and index together, looking ever more bewildered. “By the fates.  You feel like…warm, soft ice, and yet not a trace on my fingers.”

“So I have been told,” Taloe said, his posture relaxing slightly, though his expression growing little less approving.

A smile crept across Corien’s face, and he glanced at Kiannae. “That, must feel amazing.” She averted her gaze with some embarrassment. He laughed, and there was not nearly enough somberness in his tone. “My apologies, but I see. I think that I am right? No, no. Sorry, so fascinating.”

“May we go?” Kiannae asked tersely.

Corien hesitated, pursed his lips thoughtfully, and then sighed. “Yes. Much as I desperately want to keep you. I fear I have no…reasonable cause. Oh, I could raise so many issues, but I think your course of leaving Avrale is best for us all. I do ask you again to seek out my friend. He will pay you very well for your time. Very, very well.” He let out a frustrated breath. “If you like, you may go.”

Taloe vanished in a swirl of mist that quickly dissipated, and Kiannae turned to leave. Corien stood transfixed by the sight of Taloe’s exit.  He could not quite make sense out of where that much moisture came from, or went to.  He glanced back to Kiannae before she could open the study door. Something caught his eye, and he realized it was a slight absence.

“Wait,” he said, and walked after her.

She turned back, and did not like the manner of it at all. Less, as he leaned near to her. Though the imposition made her feel more a specimen than other possible interpretations.

He was a bit too distracted to notice the smell of ozone. “Your hair,” he said his face scrunched up. He leaned back when he realized the impropriety of it, but fixed her with a hard to read look.

She returned it, offering nothing, though as she released the tension the air gave a buzz of discharging static. “The dyeing,” he said, hesitated, and considered the surrounding energy. He looked nervous, but stayed the course. “From the temple there. It gave it away. I was struck with it on sight, something I couldn’t place, like, stars in the night sky. Traces of mageblood, but the dye on that section, the part with gray roots. It hides the luster, and even a bit of the aura. Just enough for me to notice the difference.”

“What of it?” She asked, well past any patience with the man’s prying.

“Don’t think me ignorant,” Corien said, his tone a bit harsh. “I was well-prepared for your sister. For her to be making some claim as the stormchild of prophecy.  Yet appearances aside, not a mention. Barely a spiteful glare recognition when I made reference. Yet here you are, hiding the beginnings of the same…” He shook his head. “This was not an aspect of the appointment I was looking forward to. I don’t care much for prophecy. Trouble enough dealing with the Seers Seat of the Council. It’s been over a century since we’ve had a strong pretender to that old book.”

“If you only think you do not like it, then you still have no concept of how my sister and I feel on the mater. With the exception of her hair, we did not choose to be what we are. I dye the lock of white I got after my injury, for her sake. So she doesn’t worry about me, like I do all the time about her.”

Corian straightened himself. “I came here prepared for everything from a battle, to a political untenable claim on the throne by a mage. I’ve never seen the vision myself. Silver hair. Of course, it makes sense. Yet no one says mageblood.  No one claims a cause when speaking of prophecy. Just the poetic allusion. Then again, who would imagine so much. Sure there are legends of Sylvans… Weavers, the ancient Maji writings call them. Terrors of unimagined power. The Osyraen war generals describe.”  He paused as though recalling. “The silver halo of terrible creatures, perhaps their better.”

He shook his head. “Yet you and your sister have done little to my notice, to resist my appointment. Made no pretenses but by your very existence to prophecy. It could almost make a cynic believe.  Think this is not some game, played to end not yet clear. You have defied all expectations.”

“We’ve been fond of doing that,” Kiannae said snidely. “She never wanted this place at court. She has only maintained it out of duty.  Your man Garet settled a great deal for her, though I remain unconvinced.”

“How so?”

“Seeking the affection of the courts resident Red Sister, at his first opportunity. To no success it seems, but the seeking was the point to her. Proof you are not here to push some Clarion agenda. That you are not our enemy. I do not know that things need be so simple. Ambition, is not the sole providence of one faith, or ideal.”

“So proving myself a man of passions will not assuage your fears?” he asked.  She wasn’t sure if it was a flirt, or just humor. “Pity, that would be easy enough.  As to Garet, I adore him as a friend, but he lacks some refinement that I find helpful in wooing more refined women.”

“I am a reasonable woman,” Kiannae said. “Convince me you have this kingdom’s best interest at heart, and set both of our fears to rest.”

“Oh, not reasonable by all accounts. I have heard so much more deeply concerning things of your exploits. A rogue court mage, with a rare illness, and possible delusions of grandeur. Concerning. Yes. Yet, signs and portents are one thing. A thousand-foot tall tree, quite another. What it proves I do not know, but all sources, and now you yourself place you there. Do not think it has escaped my grasp that Avrale was visited by the new Archdruid of Lundan.  So soon after the elder’s death. That multiple accounts claim a druid was named stormwalker by the dryads near Lundan. That none can account for the location of a once legendary object, long entrusted to the last so named.”

“What claim has the Council to it?” Kiannae demanded, seeing little point in pretense.

“Oh, the Council may think it has some claim.  They think the world is theirs.  Yet I do not speak only on behalf of the Council. My loyalty is not first to the Council. My oath not by the Sun, or the Moon. You better than most should know, there is more in this world. It is to that world I am sworn, first, and foremost. To Mother Thaea, I answer. Even if my path has been magic, and reason. I do not forget the heart she gave me, or the air I breathe. The soil beneath my feet, or the elements that shaped all living things.”

Kiannae stood silently.  He had indeed convinced her he was a man of passion, for delivery at least.

“Have I assuaged your fears?” he asked.

“I am uncertain. You are always changing tact. You play between skeptic, and believer. ”

“I am neither. Let me tell you, my fears are assuaged. If you do as you have planned that is. I came here fearing enemies, and some may yet come from the north, or lurk in this court. Yet I have not been resisted. I have not been met with force direct, or political by Avrale’s children. You and your siblings have decided to leave, for better or worse. It at least makes it clear your interests are not to defy the Council, here.”

“Better the Council, than Osyrae,” Kiannae offered in retort. “How much so, remains to be seen, but it is by the King’s will we have relented. Not my sister’s, or my own.”

“You will forgive me, if I pretended some ignorance. I have made scarce mentions of what I have been told, or by who.  Let me be plain.  At least one account was first hand.  A druid that was there for the events at Blightroot, who witnessed some of your battle with Oradin, and the powers you wield. Some turn their eyes to your sister. Some concern themselves with the Storm. My eyes look beyond that.  For whatever it is, if there is an after… If you two are, truly those of prophecy, then I stand before a mage who would be Queen. Yet, you have turned down first a place near the Seat of Storms, and now walk away from any claim here.”

“One lives a Queen, one dies. That is the prophecy, and I defy it. Yet, if I must choose, I have long made that decision. If I can convince her to walk a path away from a coming war, I will. To not start one with the Council, whatever you intend, I will. So long as my sister lives, I shall take no crown. Yet if this world demands her life, and will not take mine instead, I make no promise not to bring Thaea herself to my heel.” She said fiercely.

He smirked. “There are more Circles, and Orders in this world,” he intoned. “Some of us have realized, that if all is of nature, we do not, and cannot defy her will. We are it. Something built to guide, to shape, and to change. To adapt to what is coming, and what we will become. Dragons, the Avatar, the Storm Queen, gifted, dire beasts. There are those who worry we are abortions, yet all is of Thaea. Even lies and schemes.”

“My only scheme, is to protect my twin,” Kiannae said flatly.

“If we are of nature’s will, then elements obey, because they made us to guide them. Ambition I have, but to defy the coming fall of the order we have built in this world. In the face of inevitable decay. You need not see me as your enemy, for I have seen you. I think we see this world quite the same way.”

“If you do, then you have my pity,” Kiannae offered.

Vernum 6th, 655 E.R.

Corien ascended the last tower step, eased his weary back, and opened the study door. With surprise he considered the woman standing atop the center table. He sighed exasperatedly, and rubbed his forehead. “What are you doing?”

“Have you ever heard of Adessa Grey?” Katrisha asked.

“No.”

“Shame that. Second most famous member of the family. The immediate aunt to Sylvia. I will assume you have at least heard of her?”

“Yes, what does this have to …”

“Getting there,” she said fiddling around with the sun-housing at the center of the orrery. “I’ve not seen the books myself, but according to good Mercu – sweet exaggerating storyteller that he is – she was a rival to one Norberton Frost. A social climbing, and arrogant instructor at the imperial academy in Corinthia.”

“And?” he protested.

“Her primary fame came later, as a world explorer. A position she attained at the command of the then Princess Roshana.  Granted in recompense for the damage done to her academic career, by said rival. In the course of it all he famously called her a cold Lycian dog, and she famously retorted that he of all people was one to talk, and… Let me see if I recall the quote exactly – ‘Noone should allow holding a family name for ten generations to fool them, he was still a bastard.’”  She huffed.  “Not generally a fan of bastard jokes, but I think sometimes the point is to call people what they hate in themselves the most.  I think that might be what makes so bastards, in the pejorative sense, that way.  They hate themselves.  Just doesn’t have the same ring though.  So diplomatic.”

“Please tell me there is a point to all this.”

“Have you ever seen an intact elemental core?” Katrisha asked.

“No, they are worth fortunes. Even small ones. Held in private collections.”

Katrisha successfully unlocked the central chamber of the orrery.

His eyes went wide. “It can’t be.”

“Second largest intact elemental core on record.  Right after the Greater Wind Stone. Bound by successive wills to a chosen heir of Grey.  Norbert, it is officially named in the paperwork. I don’t think she cared really about inadvertently giving him fame, so much as making him very angry.  The story has survived, because, eventually, someone will try to figure out why.  Because, it is written in the paperwork.  The decree giving it a name.  ‘Because he’s the only thing I know colder than me.’”

“You are not a Grey,” Corien countered her assertion, and tried not to laugh.

“Technically, that gets fuzzy.” She hopped down off the table. “I never had the name forced upon me. Ashton after all, carries some weight in the north. Still, General Orders of Inheritance – was it – Twelve B? Forgive me if I’ve got it wrong. Fates, I had to learn so many to sit here as Court Mage. Laurel has no children of his own, and never placed himself in a position to have some forgotten bastard. Even If he did, an officially adopted daughter takes precedence. It is laid out plainly in precedent, at least in absence of a contradicting will or testament.”

“There is no evidence of his death, only his absence.”

“That is where law and precedent end, and the existing will begins,” she said with a pointed tone. “A will signed by one ‘Dess Grey, one Princess Roshanna, and many others. Even the Second Emperor far down on the page, in quite large script. In the event of abandonment of the artifact, it is the legal property of the immediate heir.  Permitting that they enact the will as their own.” Katrisha snatched a roll of parchment from the table, and handed it to him. “Remarkably preserved for hundreds of years old. Even the copy.”

“What…do you intend to do with it?” he said looking over the document with suspicion.

“Foci magic.  Well, in theory,” she shrugged. “It’s a dead art, once at its height in the imperial academy before the war. Mostly just spell books left. Amazing how cheap such old tomes can be.”

“Because they’re useless. That’s why dead arts, dead magic, tend to stay dead.”

“I’ve proven passable at reviving them, actually.” Katrisha said stepping closer. “You want me to prove it?”

“Prove, what?” Corien asked uneasily of the smaller but not unimposing woman before him.

“Give me your hand,” she said.  It was almost chiding, with an unnerving smirk.

The man hesitated, then reluctantly offered it too her, palm down. She laughed, shook her head, took it, and turned it palm up. She drew a circle there, slowly, some runes around it. Clearly making him uncomfortable with the lingering touch. Then the spell came to life, and his eyes went wide.

He stood there a moment, blushed, and then shook the spell away. “Living energy, with magic, impressive.  Though I worry if it’s safe.”

“Recorded in plain sight,” Katrisha said. “It only took me about two years to reconstruct from principle, and the methodology written down in the Red Book. Others have spent decades failing. That said, I’ve learned that the practice isn’t all so dead as people think. There are Red Sisters, I am told, who still know. Not here at court sadly. Would have saved me some time, maybe been fun.”  She shrugged, and could tell he did not know if he liked her, of was unnerved by her.

She tilted her head and shrugged again.  She grabbed a steel staff from beside the table. It glinted, lined with woven arcs and angles across its surface. The lines had a brighter silver shine than the staff itself. She put a pronged end into the housing above, and with a pull removed the crystal.  It sat clamped securely atop of the staff, and was nearly half the size of her head

“Lighter than I feared,” she commented with surprise, and examined the crystal. “That will make this more practical.  Though I don’t know, I was looking forward to stronger arms.  So many women love when you sweep them up in strong arms after all.  I swear it’s all half of them really care about in men.  Can’t fault them there.  I am very strong.  I have broken plenty of staves in training with my twin.”

Corien’s looked up at the orrery as an excuse to break eye contact.  Not sure if he was being threatened or flirted with.  To his surprise the celestial dance continued overhead.

“Do you know what this all is?” Katrisha asked.

“An orrery,” Corien said dismissively, and looked back down.

“It’s much more than that,” Katrisha said with a lecurting tone. “It’s an active prediction engine.”

“Astrology? Laurel did not seem the type, not from my reading. Wanted nothing to do with divination at his time in the academy. Much as the Seers Union pestered him for some reason.  Particularly with his passion for mapping stars.”

“No, more literal than that.”

“Isn’t that just what an orrery is?”  He blinked.  “Ah.”

“It isn’t one orrery, it’s dozens. All slightly different values, and equations. All enchanted into the core.”

“What is it trying to predict?”

“Missing elements.”

“The Dark Companion?”

“One, or multiple.”

“If that’s really what it’s doing, why are you interrupting the spell?”

“I’m not. It’s been running since before Laurel built this. I’m just disconnecting it from the mechanical model.  Which, just as I thought…” She pointed up.

“It’s still moving,” Corien acknowledged.

“You do know the idea of Foci magic is not just a battery, or a lens?”

“Yes.”

“It’s never really been proven, I think, well, until right now. It’s an autonomous caster. One that has been enchanting this orrery for fifteen years, while sitting on a ley nexus. This will probably keep going till it falls part from entropic decay.  No one will be missing anything, that didn’t know it was ever here.”

“And you are just going to walk off with it?”

“Well, it’s either that or forfeit it.  To his cousin, I think would be next in line. Can’t recall.” Katrisha shrugged. “Laurel spoke little of his family.  Mutual disowning.  I don’t blame him, any time I felt like he was being hypocritical, I could see it.  How easy it would be to leave them all behind, and how hard it would be to speak of those you have cut from your life.”

“Again, I will remind you, there is no proof of his death,” Corien said, dubious of her claim.

“Technically he forfeited it to me the moment he left without it. Though it could be argued he merely left it in my care, as it’s rightful heir. That would settle any ambiguity in my reading of the successive will. Read it yourself if you like.  It’s almost bad enough to be an appendix of Council law, and twice as well ratified. The documents I have are copies though,  The ones that actually have the Second Emperor’s signature are in a vault in Mordove. You can ask them to verify the original if you like.”

“Isn’t your sister the elder?” Corien protested instead, looking for flaws in her reasoning, if her claims were all true.

“We don’t know.  Not for certain, but Laurel left it in my care. Which regardless of any other wills he has, by the terms of this one, recognized me. If you want to protest to my sister, I quite suspect she will cede any claim to me just to spite you, as much as for my sake. As you have alluded, she has her own troublesome objects to deal with.”

“I came here fearing a battle for succession, and for a moment my fears were eased. Yet you two are each fighting over another fate, aren’t you? If I entertain that notion, I will be left one day to deal with the loser, won’t I?”

“Don’t let shadows blind you,” Katrisha said glaring at the man. “I have come to doubt prophecy works the way so-many think. Not visions of the future at all, but the past. Cause is not linear, that is the simplest possible implication of prophecy. Yet, so few carry it to this reasonable conclusion. Stuck in thinking of past and future from such a limited perspective. We already know history repeats itself. What is this one small leap farther? Prophecy is repetition, until it reaches resolution.”

It was Corien’s turn to shrug.

Vernum 7th, 655 E.R.

Katrisha stared intently into the massive crystal bound on her staff. It had a faint glow in the dark room. Like it refracted more light than entered. Before she could experiment with adding her own spells to the crystal, she needed to understand what was already there. Such examination however had revealed something unexpected. Etching in a tight intricate cluster near the center. Almost infinitely complex. To the naked eye it was a shimmering lattice, woven through thicker spell lines that Laurel had laid down.  Magnified even a hundred times by her enchanted spectacles, the details still spiraled down bellow perception.

They did not seem part of Laurel’s calculation, and barely related. Save where they had grown, and clustered. It was possible they were just chance decay.  Yet if she let herself believe it, it seemed almost like magic, turned inside out. Like the etching was a spell in a negative state. The thought had seemed almost to form in the wrong order. It was like the spell had picked something up.  What seemed too terrifyingly obvious.

She looked to the large stone dome behind the staff she held, It was etched with deep lines, that had always looked like magic. Her sister’s theories, and stories. What Katrisha had been able to reference of the existing world spell conjecture. All pointed to what she could feel standing there. There was an angle of sorts, a way of looking at it, in which the pattern on the marker stone matched, some small part of it. The possible interpretations were many.

More proof of the conjecture. More proof that the line between an elemental manifestation and a mage’s consciousness were thinner than she was comfortable with. It was just a fragment of the pattern that matched. That resonated, and was evident. The crystal had not just acted as an autonomous caster, it had learned, copied, attuned, and reached farther than her senses could. The pattern was operating as an offshoot of the process Laurel had overlaid on the core. Every step, drew her closer to something.

Kiannae’s stories of communing with the blight filled her with a deep caution. Yet fearing prophecy could do her no more good than trusting it. Understanding, was the only path forward. She smirked that the words of a druid, of all things, were giving her comfort. Not prophecy, just facts. Something was coming.  Though in her own words, her own reasoning, it had already been there before. The future could not be fixed in place, if the past had already changed.

It was just a question of finding the right combination. Wasn’t it? Moves in a game. There had to only be so many. Some calculation that could resolve the puzzle. Then she nervously considered the terrifying temptation, that somewhere down that path lay the power to medal with what had already happened. Undo what had already been.  Yet how could it work?

Was she the author of her fate? Celia’s words haunted her. Something had spoken to her lover, on a day she had nearly died, repeatedly. Something that looked like her beloved brother. Moves in a game, not a puzzle. A puzzle is played alone. A game is played with opponents, even allies. She wasn’t playing alone.  She couldn’t even know for certain who worked against her. All at once she had doubt. If she had stood there before, why did she not know the answer? Why did others have visions of the world ahead, and she saw only stars. It struck her, with a weight like the tower collapsing upon her.  She had not seen the vision of the dragon. Her sister had. She had lied. No, it was the truth. Her visions, they had always been of stars.  Even if she spoke of them otherwise.

It was almost a whisper, a memory from a dream. “I don’t like remembering,” she said aloud, and stepped towards the stone. It’s surface had once seemed simpler. Endless spirals were etched between the major lines. Loops, arcs, repetitions, variations, corruptions of the pattern. They weren’t corrupt though, they felt like they had meaning. A beautiful, and terrible meaning. She stepped back, and clutched her chest.

She looked up to the crystal on her staff.  Still glowing, like it was refracting more light than was there. She feared it, but the thought of it in another’s possession terrified her more. Worse in the hands of ones she might love. Her burden to bear.  If she could.

Yet the idea of perfection was in her mind.  An idea of it that could almost make something reality. It was a shape, a force that would look like wind. It was a map, of placing every particle of dust in its place. The room swirled, dust wove apart by colors. Wood into a pile, others into small mounds. Dirt, sorted by type. The stone before her restored to perfect glistening smoothness.  Then decayed again before her eyes, back into thin lines, and a rough surface. Perfection didn’t work, or wasn’t possible. She had felt herself trying to be perfect half her life, but what even was perfection? Something that got the right result? That seemed sideways.

She shook her head, and walked away from the stone. She struggled to understand that so many things in her memory were either lies, or wrong.  It couldn’t be true.  What would it even mean?

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2 thoughts on “Chapter III:2

  1. hansmassage

    Seems like the longest chapter but clearly lays out the foundation of what is to come.
    Knowing the past from the first 2 books makes it easier to see the future.

    Like

    1. It wound up a little longer than I thought it would going in (it started looking short!) That said the longest chapter is I think Follies End at 13,485 words. This one clocks in at a somewhat beefy 8988.

      My general target is around 7k historically, which is a number picked based on results of trying to maintain what felt like “good story structure” internally to chapters. 5k has come up in some other writing.

      I think Fools & Errands is currently the shortest chapter at 3,889 words.

      That all said I’m doing raw data counts, so not excluding the opening texts, title, dates, etc. It is notable that this chapter has a lot of rapid fire dialogue that might make it physically quite long due to white space.

      Like

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