Chapter III:4

Oh watch your words wisely,
oh do stay your offered hand,
don’t shake till it’s quite settled,
in bargains there are no friends,

watch the eyes they tell tales,
watch the lips they always lie,
those clever like to think they are,
restrained smirks seeming shy.

oh some deals you cannot lose,
oh often this is the earnest sale,
don’t give up the upper hand,
you could get more, do not fail.

– The Haggle, Alexander Durandal, circa 390 E.R.

Bargains

Coria 12th, 655 E.R.

In the Grey Lamb tavern, on the eastern end of the village of Brokhal. No eyes were upon a woman with deep red hair, and striking bronze skin. She resided by herself at a small table, in a quiet corner. Her only company a few scattered tankards of ale. It was a busy night, and every table was full, save hers. Surely this striking Osyraen woman, sitting alone, should have drawn some attention. If only for a place to sit, if not suspicion. Yet the patrons seemed oblivious to her presence.

Occasionally a waitress would be startled as the woman flagged her down, then convinced her the drink she carried was for her. It might not have seemed the most fair of moves, but she had in fact ordered every time, and the waitress kept forgetting. One took the good with the bad, and company was not something she sought.

The woman herself was startled as a man in tattered robes sat down heavily across from her, without even announcing himself. He stared at her from beneath a deep hood. Initial surprise shifted quickly to returning the shrewd gaze.

“Yes, I see you child,” the man said after a moment. “I gather you are not, used to that.”

“Not exceptionally, but it happens,” she said with a dismissive wave, and ran her finger along the half empty tankard in front of her. “Usually the worst sort. Seers, and prophets. Mad men, and fools. Which are you?”

“I am to understand your name is Etore,” the man said. With a loud clack he placed a gold sovereign on the table, and pushed it back and forth almost tauntingly with one finger.

“I have been called such,” the woman said with reservation. She liked the man less by the moment.

“You could be none other,” he resounded. An unpleasant smile crept from the shadow of his hood. “I remember what the man told me as he died. How he wished the ‘Shadow Rose’ had been there. That the bandits would have never seen their fate coming.”

“What man?” Etore asked her fingers toying with a sword hilt at her side, and flicked a strap gently loose.

“A merchant in a ransacked caravan, out east. He did not give a name. A wonder he could still speak, really,” the man said indifferently. “Was a kindness to let him pass. Ascend from this cursed life. He never would have walked again, save into the light of the heavens.” He grew almost wistful, but spite tinged every word.

“What do you want?” Etore demanded, growing impatient with his threatening ramblings.

“Two women, and perhaps others will soon leave the castle,” he said. “You will know them by the silver haired one. She is impossible to miss.”

“And what are they to me?” Etore asked. “Or you. I may be a mercenary, but I am no assassin. If that is what you seek, look elsewhere,” she added in a harsh whisper, and drank again. He titled his head, and did look away a moment, before fixing her with his shrouded gaze again.

“Nothing so final,” the man laughed in an all the more clearly unhinged way. “I merely wish them, watched.” He flicked the gold coin across the table to her.

“For this?” Etore balked. “Who would bother.”

“For that, and a forty more like it,” the man said glancing about suspiciously. “And four times as many more, when I collect what you find.”

“Are you sure you don’t want them killed?” Etore asked, narrowing her eyes, her expression hard to read. “For that, I might just consider it.” Her smirk gave no confidence in the offer. Her fingers still tracing her sword hilt.

“No,” the man said snidely. “I’ve no love for them, and perhaps I should wish the silver one dead, but, no. I merely want them watched. I will know what part it is they are yet to play.”

“Yet to play in what?” Etore asked, cautious of the man’s mystical insinuations almost more than the rest of him. She did not like seers, but they seemed to loved to trouble her.

“That is what you are to watch for.” He laughed darkly, and leaned forward. A gold medallion dangled from the loose neck of his robe. It was a Clarion sun sigil, and seemed more than a little out of place. Likely worth as much as his proposed down payment.

“Fine,” Etore said irritably. “How long am I to watch?”

“Until I contact you again,” he said with reserved calm. “Be careful. None of them are what they appear, and those drawn in their wake may be nearly so dangerous.”

“What is your name, at least?” Etore asked.

The man laughed again, and threw a sack of coins across the table. Etore caught the bag, and examined its contents as her mysterious patron walked away without another word. She counted the coins, tested a few. It was real, and what was the harm? If they really were going her way, it was mostly money for nothing.

There was a clatter behind her. “What do you mean you don’t have my tankard?” a large drunk man slurred at a terrified waitress behind her. “That’s three tonight. Three times, you forgot, you cow.”

Etore grimaced. She tested the pouch itself, found it sturdy enough, retied the top, and spun, smashing it across the man’s face. All eyes were on her, not a single person could look away as the man fell hard on his back, and hit his head.

“You know, I expect this sometimes from the mercenaries, Frank, violent lot they are. Yet you, a merchant’s son, just not very good at business, so you lift things.” She crouched down over the man rubbing his head. “Does that make you feel small, Frank? Well, you’re not small, and I’m not letting a man in my caravan bully the locals, because he feels worthless.”

“It ain’t your caravan ya red dog,” Frank spat up from where he was on the ground.

“Ya know the problem with princes, and kings,” Etore said leaning closer, and grabbing his chin. “Even little black sheep baron’s sons, who think they are something. You all believe you are in charge, that you have ever been. Everything you have, rests on the agreement of others, that it’s yours. Think about that a bit,” she said, and patted his cheek rather hard.

She stood, and opened the pouch again. She extracted a gold sovereign, and handed it to the waitress. “Sorry about that, it happens sometimes,” she said.

The woman looked a bit dazed as most people returned to their tables, and former conversations. “It’s…thank you. What is this for? There are no damages.”

“I always pay my debts,” Etore said. “Including for the inconvenience.”

“What, debt, miss,” the waitress said shaking her head, and lost track of the woman. Wasn’t quite sure she could recognize her in the crowd. She considered the gold coin some girl without a tab had given her, and threw it in with the rest of her tips. One doesn’t question such good fortune too deeply. Not on a busy night with blustering clumsy blowhards.

Etore sat back down at her table, and watched Frank sit up, and rub his head. There were people snickering at him. He was clearly looking for her to no avail. Maybe thinking he could try something. She finished her drink in relative peace.

Coria 13th, 655 E.R.

Katrisha entered Mercu’s chamber to find him perched precariously upon a narrow stool, examining books along a top shelf.

“Really,” Kiannae called from a window seat in a corner, “how many books do you intend to bring?”

“Only the rarest, which I’m fortunate enough to have duplicates of,” Mercu said irritably. “If I am to travel with merchants, I will have something in the way of wears.”

“You are used to traveling by foot, Kia,” Katrisha chided. “While some degree of efficiency is surely good, we need not be able to carry everything we bring.”

“Have you seen the pile?” Kiannae said gesturing to stacks of books Wren was browsing curiously.

“I’ll admit, that does seem a lot.” Katrisha laughed.

“I wouldn’t want to lift, let alone carry that,” Kiannae cut back on her sister’s prior point. “I also have traveled by caravan, unlike you, and he’ll have to pay for space. Weight too.”

There was a crack, a yelp, and all turned as Mercu dangled off his bookshelf for a second before it over. Kiannae blew it back against the wall with great force, causing Mercu to lose his grip, and land on his rear, his hat swept off his head, and landing on a shelf. Books that had not fallen in the initial teetering, were knocked free by the sudden jolt. Wren rushed to Mercu’s side, who sat dazed, and rubbing his back.

“Ok,” Mercu said, “that was not the most clever thing I’ve ever done.”

“Hardly the first time,” Katrisha chided. “Usually, you don’t even have good sense to use a stool in the first place.”

“I made him,” Kiannae offered slipping down from her seat to join the others.

“I enchanted the damn thing to stick to the wall the last time it nearly fell on me,” Katrisha said giving the bookshelf a spiteful look. “Guess that finally wore out.” She shook her head, and started to gather some scattered books. One caught her eye, the subtle aura of enchantment clear, and she recognized it as the one Mercu had in the library days before. She lifted it, and curiously examined the cover before opening it. She did not notice as a scrap of paper fell out, and was transfixed by the odd diagrams of spells, and passages of mostly illegible text. It all looked familiar, and yet utterly foreign.

“Mercu,” Katrisha started, “what is this? It looks like some kind of attempt at a spell book…but, the runes, and lettering are so strange.”

Kiannae moved to pick up the scrap of paper that had fallen, just as Mercu leapt to his feet, and winced. Displacing Wren from his work, who gave an annoyed glare to his patient.

“That is more trouble than it’s worth,” Mercu said sternly.

“Oh?” Katrisha at once intrigued, and concerned.

“Please,” Mercu implored, “trust me on this… it’s nothing but trouble.”

Katrisha considered the spell diagrams on the page before her, she frowned. “Very well,” she said closing the book. “I’ll trust you have you reasons, though I would prefer if you shared them.”

“Prophetic ramblings,” Mercu said and snatched the book from her. “Besides, you know how impractical spell books are.”

“What if I promise to, ignore any lengthy rambling sections?” Katrisha offered, her attention drawn back to the delicacy of the enchantment in the leather. “I’ve been able to make some sense out of written spells before. Even that enchantment bares examining. I don’t think I’ve seen the like of it. Almost a lace more than a spell.”

Mercu did not look pleased, and glared at the book he held. “You will stick to that promise?” He asked, looking up to gauge her expression.

“Hardly a temptation,” Katrisha said. “All things considered.” She picked up several books, walked to the shelf, and returned them. She glanced back over her shoulder, trying to make sense of Mercu’s exaggerated reaction.

“I would rather talk you out of this,” he said.

She walked up to him, and set her hand on the book. “I promise,” she repeated.

“How’s your ancient Vale Speak?” he asked not quite relenting.

“Terrible,” Katrisha admited. “Never had patience for the way they wrote.”

Mercu looked a bit defeated, and handed her the tome. “Stick to the spells, ignore the rest, but I’m taking it back when we reach Mordove. It may be worth more than I will ever get out of the Council for it.”

Katrisha hugged him suddenly.

Kiannae considered the piece of paper she held, and tucked it into her robe.

Coria 14th, 655 E.R.

It was a cool spring morning as a small procession of court members descended from the upper courtyard. The affair was highly informal, and there were far more present than had been invited. The extras cordially kept their distance, but listened intently.

As the King reached the bottom steps, he gave a glance to the uninvited guests, and smiled with a certain extra satisfaction. He turned back to the others. “Kneel,” he bid Kiannae and Katrisha. They exchanged the strangest of looks, but promptly did as they were commanded.

“It has been many generations,” the King said firmly, “and too long We think, since the Ashton name has born the honor of Knights.”

“My King,” Katrisha said uneasily, “the Council…”

“Quiet,” the King commanded softly. “We have studied the treaty extensively. No mage may rule. No mage may command armies, save in times of war against those who do not abide the treaty. The honor may be bestowed, We have confirmed even with Corien, who was not pleased.  So long as the conditions I shall name are upheld.”

“As you will my King,” Katrisha said, swallowed, and bowed her head.

“Katrisha, daughter of Meliae,” the King said drawing his sword, and lay the flat of the blade on her left shoulder. “We name the Katrisha, of Ashton, Dame and Knight of the Winter Frost.” He raised the blade, and set it to her right, “Defender, and Herald of Avrale, Keeper of the Sacred Trust. May you earn honor for our court, in lands far and wide.”

The King turned to Kiannae, and began in turn, “Kiannae, daughter of Meliae.” He lay the flat of the blade to her left shoulder. “We name the Kiannae of Ashton, Knight and Dame of the Passing Storm.” He set the blade to her right. “Defender, and Herald of Avrale, Keeper of the Sacred Trust. May your path bring us allies, in times of coming need.”

“Rise,” the King said placing his sword back in its scabbard. “You bear these titles in honor, as Knights Adorned, as shall your heirs. Though you may not command troops, you are to be given all difference afforded Knight of the highest rank in the realm, and to afford our good will upon our neighbors. Till the day that Osyrae turns her greedy eyes at last beyond our borders. Then, you may be called to serve, as full Knight Commanders of the Royal Army.”

“We are honored, my King,” Kiannae offered, and stood.

Katrisha was about to echo her sister’s sentiment, when she was distracted by a sudden pop of white, and spiraling filaments as buds sprouted, and blossomed from her sister’s staff. She glanced around at a murmur from the crowd, and to Corien who looked at the two with renewed doubt. She shrugged.

“When were there Knights in the Ashton line?” Wren asked of Mercu as a carriage bore the four across the last bridge on the road to Brokhal.

“Before the dragon war there was a Duke,” Katrisha answered. “We’ve largely kept quiet about that though.  It’s nothing but trouble. Honorary adorned knighthoods may be one thing, but if any of us were to start overtly playing the role of Duke, it would, well, at very least make the Council quite unhappy.”

“It’s a bit blurry any way,” Mercu interjected. “Duke Ashton, of Ashrook started life as a common farmer. He had been found reportedly by accident to have strong gift, emergent, as it had not been in his line before.”

“So we are descendants of his, relatives then?” Wren interrupted curiously.

“Perhaps, yes. Probably. There is almost proof enough,” Mercu gestured absently. “Official records say that after his sons died in the war, he was left heirless. He passed the family name, and one very large farm to the son of his second wife. A woman who had long worked the farm where he was born. The Dukedom was not recognized to pass of course, but the dispensation of land was accepted through those rocky years, and stuck ever after. That’s how the north came to be as it is. Surely something to do also with the wealth your grandfather held in other’s debts upon his death.”

“That all seems rather, odd,” Wren said shrewdly.

“No official records could clear it up,” Mercu smiled, “but I’ve read something of the Duke Ashton. He was at least twenty when he was pulled away to be a Knight, and later Duke. He was too old to become a proper mage, but his gift, heavy lifting, and farm work made him spectacularly strong. By twenty though, it’s more than possible he had fallen in love, or otherwise dallied. Whatever romance he did or didn’t have, it was more than likely not ideal to his new position.”

“So you think he had a son by his first love?” Kiannae asked curiously. “The second wife’s son? His first?”

“Yes, I think that would tie the story up nicely, and fit the accounts.” Mercu shrugged. “Certainly the tale I would choose to record, given what has come of the line.”

“And you told all this to the King,” Katrisha mused, “which gave him more fodder to make our knighthood acceptable. I wish you had told me the rest sooner.”

“Along those lines, yes,” Mercu said with a smirk. “As you say, it’s trouble. I thought it best to play those cards a bit closer to the chest.  Departing as we are, and leaving the lands to stewards it seemed no further harm.  Right, and proper.  Establishes firmer claim for you three on the lands.”

The carriage came to an unexpected stop, and Mercu pulled aside the curtain on a window. It seemed unlikely they had yet reached their destination so soon. Outside stood the wagons of the caravan that had arrived the prior morning. Those they intended to join east. There was the sound of protest from their official escort, and Mercu pinched his brow as he listened.

“I have already been informed of the intended guests to my charge,” a woman’s voice said plainly.

Mercu leapt from the carriage, hat in hand, and balked, as the woman finished.

“I’ve no intention to allow them, or myself to be inconvenienced by you dragging them into town, when a meeting is more practical here and now.”

“Samantha,” Mercu said coming back to his senses.

“The one, and only Master Samantha Peregrine, at your service,” the woman said with a bow, a hand to the side, the other on her heart.

“I had not received word it was to be your caravan,” Mercu said putting his hat back on.

“Yes, I did ask that be kept quiet, when I learned of events here,” Samantha shrugged, but a smirk crept across her lips.

“But how,” Mercu demanded as Katrisha helped Wren out of the carriage behind her. “This was to be another caravan, we had received word from Niven.”

“My doing,” Samantha offered. “When I heard of a mysterious Council mage headed west, I…made convincing arguments to trade routes with another master in Niven. It wasn’t till I arrived that I learned the whole story, or at least a rough approximation. I’m sure there are far more interesting details you all can share.”

“It’s been a long time,” Katrisha said, walked up, and threw her arms around Samantha.

“Yes, I believe you were hold up in a Cloister last time I came through,” Samantha said embracing the smaller woman firmly.

“Yes, you must forgive Mercu.” Kiannae laughed. “He can be quite rude when he is surprised.”

“Oh,” Samantha said with a chuckle. “I know more than you of how rude my brother can be. Come, let us talk business, and of the services my caravan can provide you, and you to my caravan. Surely the infamous Druid Dame, and a former Court Mage of Avrale can be of some use.”

“You’ve heard?” Katrisha stepped back, and gave Samantha a funny look. “We were just knighted, not two hours ago at the castle. There is no way a messenger got down here ahead of us.”

“Twice adorned, even,” Samantha gave Kiannae a curious look, and a nod of her head. “I’m honored indeed. Seems quite the company to have when risking the east road.”

Katrisha turned, and glared at Kiannae.

“Some debts are paid in strange ways,” Kiannae said with a shrug. “I didn’t want it. If word hadn’t reached you, I wasn’t about to share it. Frankly, I find it embarrassing. I fumbled my way through Niven’s problems like an arrogant child, and then thanks to the political schemes of the court mages daughter, I was Adorned. Officially as a druid, for political expediency. They actually wrote the record as Druid Dame, of all things.”

Wren stood back, observing the whole scene curiously, he had only briefly met Mercu’s sister once very long before. Something red caught his attention out of the corner of his eye, and he almost turned to see who was standing nearby. Mercu waved for him to follow, and Kiannae took his hand. It was almost forgotten.

“So, it’s settled,” Samantha said waving her half full glass of wine precariously for emphasis. “A mage, a druid, a healer, and a portion taken out of your collective wages for the transport of one useless bard. Along with his pile of books. I’d ask for proof of your competence, but I’ve heard stories enough to know you are worlds better than half the hires I’ve made over the years.”

“I’m not useless,” Mercu muttered.

“In a fight dear brother,” Samantha laughed. “You are about two rungs lower than me. ‘Bout the level of an old toothless guard dog.” She leaned closer for emphasis. “Half of that generous assessment is for the enemy laughing themselves into submission.”

“Very funny, dear sister.” Mercu sighed, and sipped from his own glass.

“You’ll have to meet the mercenary commander of course,” Samantha said and took a sip, “or more importantly his little shadow. That is, if she is anywhere to be found. Frankly I think she should be in charge of the company, but I don’t think she wants it, otherwise she’d have it.”

“A woman mercenary?” Katrisha asked curiously.

“Seen her work,” Samantha said with a laugh, “or the aftermath any way. I swear, one minute I’ve got the man down on my left with an arrow to the chest, and a bandit coming for me swinging wildly. No help in sight. Then the next he’s down, a gash cross his cheek, and Etore standing over him, making some snide remark or another. We took the other survivors into custody, but she insisted we let that one go. Funny thing, after he was healed up he had matching scars, one on each cheek.”

“Interesting,” Kiannae said in a half-hearted tone, and sipped her wine. “So she makes a habit out of scarring her foes?”

“Better than most of them deserve,” Samantha said plainly, “but I think I understand her plan. Make a name for herself, discourage others, why she wanted the man set free.”

“I look forward to meeting her,” Katrisha laughed, “sounds like an interesting character.”

“One of the best,” Samantha said insistently, “don’t think the rest of her company is worth half as much as her alone.”

A man dressed in light armor stood suddenly, pushing off the wagon step he was leaned on. “Oh you have got to be kidding me,” the man said marching towards the group, his eyes fixed firmly on Katrisha and Kiannae. Samantha stepped past him, and held up her hand.

“These two look like extras out of a Palentian stage play. Maybe the Aria of the Spellsong. You cannot be asking me to look after these…posers. Are those staves just costume props?” His face scrunched up, and he stepped closer. “That’s alive,” he said incredulously, his expression shifting to deep bewilderment. He spun. “A living staff? Really. Samantha you cannot be doing this to me.”

“You’re a mage,” Kiannae said dubiously, catching a hint of remarkably subtle spell-work woven around him.

“Yes, a proper battle mage,” he said turning back to her fiercely. “One who knows robes are rubbish in a fight, and if you are going to have a staff for defense, at least that monstrosity,” he gestured at Katrisha. “At least that is steel, and enchanted. Horribly imbalance for fighting, but at least it’s not some shaper parlor trick. That thing looks likely snap at the first sword swing.”

“This,” Kiannae said tersely, “is the staff of Ezek Mar. A living branch of a dryad, not some parlor trick. I’m told there are legends of his deeds with it. He was only named Stormwalker once, whereas the title seems intent to follow me everywhere I go.”

“Great,” he threw up his hands. “It’s worse. They’are full of themselves, and really do think they are out of some old stage play, or myth. Yes, I’ve heard of the forsaken thing, and the supposed feats of that old fool. I don’t put stock in tall tales. Nor people who walk around trying to look the part of some ancient prophecy.” He glanced disdainfully to Katrisha, then back to Kiannae. “I’ve never once met a druid half as useful as a mage. I refuse to believe some wood-priest from Lundan did anything more significant than throw lighting at a stray bandit. One who surely could have been taken down far more safely.”

“Do you want to test us? I’ve fought better than you,” Kiannae challenged him. “My sister is also the former Court Mage, who you may have heard of.”

“In far too much detail,” he said giving Katrisha another dubious look. “Let me entertain for a moment the very thought you two are, what you propose. That just seems more reason I should be worried to travel in your company, and really, fighting naked?” He turned to Katrisha properly. “I’m not impressed by idiotic bravado, not from men, certainly not from women.”

“You’ve heard of the East Wash flood capture?” Kiannae countered, narrowing her eyes.

“Ah, so the rumors are true,” he glanced back. “You are the damn girl who ran off, and abandoned her wagon to chase after some hunch.”

“A hunch that was right,” Kiannae growled.

“I don’t respect people just because they are lucky,” the man said leaning towards the slightly taller woman. “Fates, are you even wearing heels of all things?”

“No,” Kiannae said with an amused smile, doing all she could to loom over him in turn, if only an inch.

A hand set on the man’s shoulder, and he spun promptly, brushing it off forcefully.  The glare he gave the man behind him withered, and he tilted his head confusion. “What in the Abyss,” he muttered.

“I’ve been there and back,” Taloe offered. “Do not belittle the woman I love. I offer you this, warning, not because I need defend her honor, but I wouldn’t want her to hurt you too much.”

The man covered his face, stepped out of the uncomfortable position he found himself in, and then glanced back at them. “You want a test. To pretend this is some Council trial, fine. Duel each other, put on a show like a bunch of pretentious actors. Make it big and flashy for all I care. I’ll prepare like I’m looking after a pair of spoiled, pampered, hedge mages. Because as far as I’m concerned, I am.”

He walked away.

“Well…that went…almost better than expected,” Samantha said with a laugh.

Coria 20th, 655 E.R.

Katrisha glanced around at the large field of Helmsbloom she strode through. She’d mostly overheard the deal her sister had struck. They could use the field, preferably if it wound up cleared in the process, perhaps unspoken that the owner could sell a show to villagers. She glanced back over her shoulder at the mixed crowd gathering nearby.

She set her staff, stepped towards her sister, and left it balanced effortlessly. A massive shield spell came up around the pair, and expanded, pressing the onlookers back from the pair. She pursed her lips, almost surprised it had worked. She tried plucking the spell structure experimentally. She could take it down by will, through her connection to the staff, but not easily dismantle it more directly. Nearly as good as her own work.

“Nice trick,” Kiannae said, still holding her own staff. “Seems a bit cocky though, giving me the advantage.”

“I’m not giving you an advantage, I’m keeping this safe,” she gestured at the crowd. “Besides, presuming Taloe isn’t involving himself, it only seems fair. What’s more, I haven’t really practiced using it quickly, and from what I can tell, it might be hard to control if I used it offensively.”

Kiannae frowned. “You’re right,” she said, stepped to the side of the shield, and tested it. She set her staff into the soil outside where it immediately sprouted leaves, and a few buds. She could feel it root beneath her feet, and shook her head. “Too much power, untested, in a duel, would be bad idea.”

“Are we really doing this?” Katrisha asked.

“Neither of us has been in a real fight in almost five years now. Forget proving anything. We need to do this, if we are going to be heading out through a road where two caravans have been completely destroyed, and a royal convoy briefly sacked. With our luck…”

“Prophecy, really?” Katrisha chided.

“No, just patterns,” Kiannae countered.

“Fine, put up your inner shield,” Katrisha said summoning two layers of her own.

“You know I don’t fight like that,” Kiannae said.

“And I am not dueling you without precautions,” she glared at her twin. “Fine! You don’t want the disadvantage, I’ll take it. Here is your shield, if I even touch it, you lose. So keep it up, because I will beat you senseless if you let me hurt you.”

“Worry about yourself. I promise to only bruise your ego.”

“My threat stands. Lose safely, or I will make you regret it. After I’m done healing you.”

Kiannae took control of the shield, and let it draw on some of her power. It was a just a backup, and she wouldn’t need it anyway.

The two almost absently assumed fighting stances that might have made more sense with staves, then adjusted to their absence. “I really have always wondered,” Kiannae said, and struck with lighting suddenly.

It grounded into the soil evenly around Katrish, leaving a smoldering circle, and showing no signs of disruption to her outer defenses. Katrisha went for Kiannae’s shield, a direct assault on the spell she had place, but found her attacks themselves weave into useless spirals. She had never felt anything like it, and Kiannae formed charges around her that struck at eleven points, leaving one structure untouched.  The unloaded segment of her spell burst as power redistributed, and the shield collapsed inward, before stabilizing.

“Nice trick,” Katrisha said, and adjusted to the tactic, even as a second strike caused the shield to expand, restoring its former size. She wove icicles of frozen air in an instant of blinding streaks that flew towards Kiannae. Being sure they were well within the tolerances of the shield, even if everyone struck.

They swirled unexpectedly off course, and stuck in the soil harmlessly around her feet, wind whipping up Kiannae’s hair into arcs that fell back across her shoulders.  She smirked.

Katrisha put on her spectacles, and spell lines spun up as she had long enchanted them to. Eyes did not see aura or filaments, they were felt, and interpreted in the mind as a blurry distorted image. With magic, she had learned to turn the same energy into light, and examined the structures around Kiannae. The shape of her aura, and the forces that controlled the next bolt that struck her shield with a blinding flash.

It was all made of coils, and spirals, even the sharpest angles seemed to be a twist. She took control of the next strike, and suspended it in an orb, wrapped in a shield, and pushed it back towards her sister with a forceful wave of her hand.  As an actual attack it wasn’t much use, but as a move under the rules of the duel it might work. If Kiannae could even tear the shield apart, she would likely unleash the energy, and her backup shield would be struck.

Katrisha watched with fascination as Kiannae’s control wove around the spell, and took hold of the lightning within. She used it to short the spell out from the inside, where it was more vulnerable. Katrisha tried lighting herself, amidst a shower of frozen air that again swerved off course, forming a sloppier ring. Kiannae took hold of the lighting, formed as a spell, and subverted it with her will. Just as Katrisha expected she tried to use it to bypass her outer shield, and attack the inner directly. Katrisha grounded this into the outer defense, even as the lighting spiked in intensity blinding everyone momentarily.

“What are you doing!? This is way past tolerance!” Katrisha growled and covered her eyes.  She tried to take hold of the power with a new containment spell as her outer defense crumbled. “This is supposed to be about skill, not raw power.”

“Over tolerance for your final barrier, but not both together, besides, I knew you would catch it.”

“Stop.”

“I can’t,” Kiannae said her voice suddenly uneasy.  She tried to pull her hands back, but they felt paralyzed. “This…I can’t stop it. It…won’t.”

Katrisha did the math quickly, judged the grounding tolerance of all shields still in play, including the one protecting the crowd. No way she ran the numbers in her head didn’t end badly. She needed both a power source and a sink.

She spun and yanked her staff in through the outer shield, sacrificing her remaining barrier to absorb a bolt that might have escaped. A dozen new spell membranes formed through the dome, and she channeled the energy into the sinks she had created. What was left she channeled in different directions, most up into the main dome, some of it straight down into the ground.

The dome filled with blinding plasma for a moment, and only a thin choking vapor remained above the sizzling razed patch of ground. Kiannae fell to her knees, winded, and coughing. She had lost far more energy to the attack than she expected. Katrisha staggered slightly, and leaned on her staff before a breath sent her into a coughing fit. She sunk to the middle of her untouched little island, and tried to recover.

Carter glared at Samantha. “Well, at least any bandits will die along with us,” he said before turning to walk away.

Coria 21st, 655 E.R.

Katrisha waited for Kiannae to make her move, and watched Mercu try to insure the security of books that lined one of the packed shelves of the wagon. She wondered what most of the wrapped wares were. Most likely miscellaneous items entrusted with the new hires. Certainly nothing of phenomenal value, but enough to warrant packing away in the last nook or cranny.

Kiannae took Katrisha’s knight with her queen, and turned to Wren, who was still curled up around a pillow on one of the wagons four cramped beds. He’d fussed over them well into the evening after their duel, and gone to bed exhausted. Wren stirred as the wagon started to move, and Kiannae returned her gaze to her twin, who carefully considered the trap she had laid for her.

“Any new thoughts on what happened in the duel?” Kiannae asked.

“Other than my sister being a reckless idiot, no,” Katrisha said, and made her move without looking back down. She stopped her mage one square short of expected.

The move superficially made little sense, but certainly undermined Kiannae plans. she reconsidered her strategy. “How many punches do you want me to pull? I’m not you, Kat. I don’t just get by on good enough. You have always been capable of more, I can feel it. You never give it your all, unless I push you.” She took the mage with her rook.

“Fine, I’ve had a thought,” she said, and took the rook with her remaining knight, putting it in jeopardy from one of Kiannae’s. “When was the last time we really fought each other? Directly.”

“I think we sparred a few times before I went back to Niven,” Kiannae considered. She saw a direction her sister could be trying to maneuver her, and took the bait any way. Eliminating her second knight.

“With magic. Directly, not just some outside projection. Not staves. Not practice. Magic, against magic. You and me.” Katrisha made the expected move with her remaining mage.

“Not that what I do is exactly magic anymore,” Kiannae countered, and left Katrisha’s opening dangling, moving a pawn forward instead.

“Just answer the question,” Katrisha snapped, and Wren sat up to look at the two worriedly.

“I don’t know, never maybe,” Kiannae said defensively.

“No, it happened. You remember, because there is no way either of us will ever forget.”

“Oh,” Kiannae said.

“You were being reckless Ki. I don’t know how it works, but that was, feedback. Building on itself. Growing. A run away aether tear,” she moved one of her own pawns, and the dangling opening seemed more tempting.

The pawn move had shut one of Katrisha’s options down, and Kiannae thought she saw an out. “Those are only theoretical, the energy required…”

“About seven times a stratospheric lightning strike, and just the right conditions. It is theoretically what happened to the spell towers in the dragon war. What Vhale used to destroy Corinthia. Not that there was much left to investigate. Still, it is what they think is burned into the ley line there, expanding to make the scar, stirring up elementals. Turning the place into a wasteland.”

“Even if I were to admit I got carried away, that was barely half as much as an average cloud strike, at least when I started. I’ve measured those.  At least the ones I can make happen.”

“Not if it was feeding on itself. A feedback loop. Just like our first fight.”

“What did you fight about?” Wren interupted. “I’ve asked before, and every time, I feel like you’ve dodged the question.”

Kiannae went a bit pale.

“Nothing worth mentioning,” Katrisha said. “It was just precognitive, runaway emotions. We are past that now, aren’t we, Ki?”

Kiannae looked away having gone from pale to flushed.

Wren gave a concerned, knowing look to Katrisha. She closed her eyes, and shook her head. “She was just jealous,” Katrisha said. “It was stupid, and nothing but precognitive rubbish, run out of control. We know how to control it now. Even if it can make us a bit terse with each other.”

Wren turned, marched to the back of the wagon, and yanked a curtain closed.

“Thanks,” Kiannae muttered irritably.

“I don’t feel right lying to him,” Katrisha said, “and I’m not. I know you love him as much as I do.”

“I owe him, for not loving him as much as I should,” Kiannae snapped. “It’s not the same, and I don’t like you making me feel guilty about it.”

“That’s not what I’m trying to do,” Katrisha said measuredly.

“I almost killed you, Kat, because I was so angry, to think you loved him more than me.”

“I almost killed you, because you lost control,” Katrisha countered.

“I threw you hard enough to break every bone in your body.”

“I didn’t even hit the wall, but if it wasn’t for Laurel, that spear of ice might have torn your shoulder clean off.”

“Are we really arguing about who was more at fault, again?” Kiannae said through gritted teeth.

“Yes,” Katrisha grumbled. “Not like it would be the first, third, or even sixth time.”

“Say it,” Kiannae said. “It would be the seventh time. Fates, that cursed number.”

“You know, I’ve counted, I don’t have forty-nine freckles. No matter how you add them up, and neither do you. That prince was being cute.”

“Allow a girl her illusions,” Kiannae sighed, and softened. “I don’t like this. I don’t like rehashing all, this. Fate, destiny, prophecy, it can all take a long walk off a cliff. Yet here we are. Can’t even practice against each other, when I can’t help but think practice is what need more than anything.”

Wren lay in the back of the wagon, trying to ignore his sister’s argument. He’d known, he’d always felt it. An instinct, from somewhere deep inside. He knew his sisters relationship the way only a mother could. He had known when they were diverting him. It wasn’t his fault, he got that. Nothing was his fault, but it still happened because of him. How did one separate those?  How did one separate the truth from facts.

He pulled a stone from a hidden pocket in his robe, and considered the glinting veins of quartz. Prophecy. One brush with how it could go wrong, and he had never wanted any more to do with it. No one came telling him he had some place in it all. There was comfort in that, and a sense of obligation as well. Which parts of that feeling were his? What was his burden in it all?  For the first time he saw a glimmer of the guilt he had always felt, wasn’t his.

He was distracted by a rattle, and a scratching sound outside the wagon. He frowned at the roof of the wagon for a moment, then buried his face in the pillow, and tried to go back to sleep.

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