Chapter III:15

Watch for hollow eyes and vacant stares,
clever words woven freely without a care,
misfortune follows foolish fumbled steps,
yet for every suffering they are no less,
beware the tracks of anguished tears,
trails of the soulless, who show no fear.

– The Broken-Ones, circa 30 B.E.

Borderlands

Rhaeus 26th, 655 E.R.

Scattered small towns in western Corinthia welcomed a caravan gladly, but none held them longer than a day. A pace hurried on, with an urgency to be done with the latest risky venture. Yet, wildlands seemed an exaggeration. It wasn’t a desert. No raging elementals to be seen, tearing across hill and plain. Most of it was quite lovely really. A shallow rolling countryside, interspersed with white granite mesas, carved away in some past epoch. Some even topped in dense green forests no foot could ever easily reach.

Old ruins stood along the road, many overgrown with fresh foliage. Entire ancient cities, and castles abandoned, or populated by a handful of reclusive hermits. Most had left centuries ahead of the scar, the whole region almost bled dry of people. Among those who remained, a suppressed sense of Clarion influence could be felt in most towns. Ones who did not speak openly of their faith, for Lycia controlled the region by law. While Corinthians had fled, foreigners had come. Gathered to lived near the Scar, to pilgrimage there. Even to act as guides to the doorstep of the fallen capital, and a shrine built to countless dead, and the Avatar’s rise.

A hundred miles in only five days, with healers and druids working overtime, and then one started to see why. The overgrowth grew sickly, twisted, then shriveled. Not quite to the gray nothing of the blight, but a parched withered brown that had an eerie familiarity. Like the north of Avrale during the long drought, but an ancient dryness. One that scratched at the throat, and the skin in the most unsettling of ways.

It itched, crossing even a spur of the Scarlands, and from a hill Kiannae had seen it. The form of the namesake of those lands. She could feel it more so, the shape the Blight had taken. Less clear, or defined, but she knew it was true. She had seen the maps, but to see it with her own eyes. Those paired branches, short then long. A mark she had seen in dark relief, climbing a distant hill entering Napir. Patterns that gave way to spirals, and branches in strand flow. Valleys that replicated in natural curves, what markerstones recorded so rigidly. An unmistakable shape, but like mountains raised, not valleys carved. After that, she’d opted to sit inside.

It plagued her mind. A result so similar, and so different, in a mirror opposites. She could feel the ebb and flow. Her staff had bloomed twice crossing spurs of the scar, and yet they were barren, and dying. As though life itself had become a poison, to all but the hardiest of her servants. It worried her, the idea of Thaea as a tree, and the staff she held as some true part of her. A notion as hard to dismiss as fanciful.

It was a thing no longer made of wood, but bark over diamond heartwood. Woven with living veins that actually made it stronger, and let it heal. It knew every living secret of the domain of plants, and others beyond. There was something like mageblood grown through the crystal lattice as well. Something that felt golden to her senses, and one blow she had blocked from a mage-iron sword had revealed the color underneath. A shimmering yellow orange like dawn, in crystalline form. A thing that offered her power, and seemed to grow every time she took it.

The wagon rocked down the weathered road. Kiannae sat with staff in hand, trying to tune out the sway, but it was harder so much lower in the carriage. It didn’t help her mind was on too many things, not the least of which was Lunka. A wolf who now needed to somehow play the role of a knight commander. Tock assured her the Torta would help. Somehow, that wasn’t all the comforting. Not when the wolf’s truly thinking mind made Kiannae feel like a mother, who should have stayed. Yet she was caught between laws, and loyalties.

Having given assurance of such aid, Tock had claimed half the bunk, and was curried up as a little bean of orange fur that easily escaped notice. Katrisha had gone to sleep at the head of the wagon, and Sasha had pulled a curtain at the rear for privacy. This left Sasha lying across from the two, eyes half open, with a troubled expression.

“Have you ever tried to live in a memory?” Sasha mused sleepily, and Tock perked up curiously. His tail sliding off his eyes. “One, almost happy enough to be content, forever?”

“Can’t say that I have,” Kiannae said suspiciously. She had felt something strange, and the hair on the back of her neck was raised. Maybe it was just another spur, but she wasn’t convinced.

“I thought maybe, that if I hung onto a memory, hard enough. Dug, deep enough, it would always stay. Never fade. That,” she hesitated, “nothing, could ever take it away from me.”

“What are you on about?” Kiannae sighed. She still didn’t know what to think of the woman. She was fairly sure her ambivalence came from several less than fair sources. Still, the woman’s strange, drowsy musings were doing nothing to improve her opinion.

“Have you ever built a sand castle?” Sasha asked, changing tact as suddenly as she shad tarted. She sat up, and stretched.

“No.”

“I did, one summer in Niven,” Sasha said. “I was staying by the ocean with my mother. I think, I was six? Maybe seven, but, I don’t know. It’s hard to believe it was that close to when I lost her. I was happy there, on the beach. I thought my castle was good, but I’m sure, any half decent mason would have judged it rubbish.”

“You’re an orphan?” Kiannae asked, softening slightly.

“Oh, roundabout. My father is alive… probably. Who knows. I haven’t seen him since I was eight. He never wanted me. Didn’t hate me or anything, just, the man my mother chose, and he obliged. As men most readily do. If she even asked I don’t really know. He treated me well enough, did little tricks with magic now and then, to entertain me. Mad me smile. He left me at Highvale, after mother died. I guess that hurt, but more, I don’t know, on principle than anything personal. I knew who he was, but he felt more like an uncle, or a neighbor. Even though they still snuck off together. She, was why he stuck around. You’d think, that would really bother me, but no, I get it. I’m as much like either of them, but I’m not sure I could ever make a good mother. Honestly, I’ve even forgotten his name. He didn’t claim me, so I claimed Highvale.”

“Poor Highvale,” Kiannae joked without thinking, but her expression fell as she realized too late it was in poor taste. It had come from some sudden rush of familiarity she couldn’t place, and she stewed in silence on the point.

Sasha laughed, and shook her head. “The ocean, was certainly unimpressed with my work as well. The waves came in, and washed it all flat.” She pulled her knees up in front of her on the bed, and hugged them. It seemed a more absent and childish act than anything more dire. Something that stood in contrast to every prejudice Kiannae held for the woman. Made her feel worse for her ill-considered jab, and made her suspicious there was something intentional in that.

“So I built another one, the next day,” Sasha said, and fixed her fallen gaze on the other woman’s eyes. “And the next, and the next. Then, in my frustration I dug a hole. A hole so deep I could stand in it, up to my neck. The water leaked in, and filled it, or I would have dug it even deeper. I dared the ocean to wash that mark away. That I, was something greater than the sea.”

She laughed again, a bit more darkly.

“It did, though not all at once. The next day it was a divot, and the next, it was gone. Couldn’t even tell where it had been. Even the driftwood had washed around in an overnight storm.” She took a breath, closed her eyes and sighed.

Kiannae measured her response. “What are you trying to say?”

“You remember, don’t you?”

“Remember what?” Kiannae felt an itch of memory at the words, and how they were said.

“Things, you shouldn’t. Things that never happened. You were there. Not at the end, not, what those mad prophets think is important. You, were her little girl, who she loved more than anything. Certainly more than me, she was there for you, and I love her more for it. Do you remember?”

“I remember,” Kiannae said glaring at the woman with anything but trust on the topic. It was mostly shadows, ideas, and the odd flash, but she remembered.

“I could never decide if you liked, or hated me. I wasn’t daddy, after all, but I made her happy, most of the time, and daddy never came back. You also weren’t there. Because, I remember…” She struggled slightly. “One remembers, the one you love most, tearfully telling you, her most pained secret. The one she never told her husband, before he was taken from her.”

Kiannae drew a breath, held it, and let it go. Something was wrong, more than the strain of dwelling on it all again. There was a blur around the edges. The wagon wasn’t creaking, or swaying. Everything was still, and quiet. Her eyes snapped open, but Sasha was laying down, and sleeping. The scenery slipped by past the window, the creak and groan of the wagon still there.

She could feel the spur they had passed retreating. She tried to reach into the diamond heart of her staff. It was rough, vague, not the clear image Katrisha claimed to get from her spell. There was nothing there. At least nothing obvious, and yet something she felt, was missing.

Then she found it. The smallest thing. Sasha had never moved. She turned her head to the little fox beside her. He was shifting to hide his face under his tail again, but his eyes were on her, before they disappeared.

“This isn’t now,” she whispered to herself, not sure if there was sense in it. She remembered the feeling. Remembered standing before another woman, of paler hair, and a similar presence. She heard words out of place, that the woman hadn’t said. Was it all really just about finding ways to send messages to yourself?

Yet what could have even been the meaning? What in that awkward moment was worth messing with time itself, for either of them. It finally occurred to her, the story about sandcastles, she was almost sure, it was one of Mercu’s. Though from him it had been a parable, Sasha had told it with an intensity like it was her own.

Kiannae glared at the sleeping woman, and could almost remember another lain behind her, an arm draped across her side. A face that for years, she had forgotten, half buried in crimson hair. Then seen from the vantage of little girl that had crawled into a bed, in some tower chamber, looking for her mother.

Sasha woke. In both memory and there, eyes half open. “You alright?” she asked. The memory of her had patted the bed in front of her. Reluctantly a child had accepted the motherly embrace of a surrogate, and not the sleeping mother holding her in turn.

Kiannae shook her head angrily, and glared at Sasha. “Who is Maeren to you?” she demanded tersely. It had been a tower chamber. It had been at the castle. If there was method to the madness, there had to be a reason those moments were connected.

Sasha sat up on one arm curiously at the intensity, and perhaps looked a bit offended. “A name I’m sure I’ve heard, though I’m not sure where.” She looked thoughtful.

“She’s princess consort,” Kiannae challenged, what she presumed was feigned ignorance. “Surely, that should jog your memory.”

“Red hair, a bit paler than mine. Yes. I wasn’t there for the grand wedding. Sorry, I almost forgot the name, but the rest of it, where would I know it from? Never seen her, but then again, I have, curled up next to a young dark haired lady, cozy in her tower window. Listening to her adored friend read aloud. So sweet. Young love, can be so adorable. How she nudged you towards accepting her. When it bothered you, who your mother was, and was with.”

Kiannae gave her a defiant look of denial that was far too thin, for something that had never happened. She could feel a tension building, a blur turning not gray but white around the edges. There was no sway, no bob, creak, or sound. Everything was frozen.

“What are you doing?” Kiannae demanded angrily.

“Nothing,” Sasha said, and was as suddenly, and impossibly laying down, blinking from being woken.

Kiannae slammed her staff against the floorboards, and Sasha bolted upright with a start, and Tock dove off the bed, and under the curtain. He peeked out cautiously from cover.

“It’s all my fault,” Kiannae said, and held her head. “I did something, I don’t know what. I, took something, and I remember, a cry of ‘thief.’” She was answering a question, one that hadn’t been asked. Another conversation, blurred together. It was working. Maybe even working better. It just wasn’t working the same way, and she could not pull free of the gravity of memories clearer, and far more distant. Ones that did not belong to the life she was living.

“Is it?” Sasha moved closer, sliding to the edge of the bed. Kiannae recoiled from her, but her look was not the sort she had seen her give others. It felt far more like being a child, examined by an adult that wasn’t sure if you’d done wrong. Like another mother. “I remember a world in which my love didn’t have a daughter.”

“Do we have to cover this again?” she all but screamed, and a curtain was pulled and Samantha looked between the two. Kiannae glanced to the head of the wagon, but no one was there. Who, did she think was there?

Sasha shook her head, and sighed. “We’ve been here before,” she muttered. “You remember, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Kiannae said tamping down her rage, and frustration.

“You’re looking too close at the puzzle,” Sasha said calmly. “Missing that the edges aren’t even. There is a bigger picture out there, just out of view. I remember your mother, not just in the light, but beside it. Her face, turning back to be held by me, and cry. I see another face, a shadow, I can almost make out. Tall. Not you. Who else could it have been? The one you’re looking for. The man she selflessly pulled away. I remember that much, but the rest is blur. What he was doing, or why, I don’t know. Only that moment, burned into me a dozen different ways.”

Sasha swallowed. “Your mother was a good woman, almost, selfless. I sometimes think she became who I wanted her to be. I sometimes, think it’s the other way around. Yet every selflessness has a limit. Everyone, wants something, and I remember what she wanted. Her one regret, whispered to her most faithful and kindred lover. She wanted a child. A child she had lost, and never had. A child, then born. Yet by what means? You, dear druid, have missed the forest for the trees.”

Kiannae said nothing, what was there to say. The pieces fell into place. A memory belonging to that life coming to the surface, as she placed cards atop one another on Mercu’s desk.

“You are something else,” Sasha said. “I’ve met that snake in the grass. That noble mentor. Your brother. Your mother. Oh, darling Mercu. Some have seen, some have stood, but you… I tried visiting a seer once, no, twice. The first was a charlatan who barely had any gift at all, the other…”

Sasha drew an amused breath between her teeth, smiled, and seemed to enjoy the rapt attention she held. It was blurring again. Turning white along the edges, shadows becoming luminescence, and light fading to gray.

“She said that my story could only be read with the entire Arcana, and would not try. You think, I’m a meddler, and maybe I am. I all the more feel a prisoner. I tried, to walk away. Yet Highvale, and Avrale were my home, and how could I find a place at court. I tried to be helpful, but I could see the folly from the start. I’m caught in this, just like the rest of you. Because I think I understand, she shaped us both, for one another, and I gladly let her. He’s almost like her, but, kinder, and that says more than you can imagine.” She moved to brush away a tear.

“This isn’t now,” Kiannae muttered to herself as she felt the stillness, but it lingered. The edges had gone, the wagon almost nothing, and Sasha just sat there, frozen like everything else.

A smell of smoke intruded, and Kiannae’s eyes snapped open. Everyone was asleep, the wagon swayed and creaked, and she still smelled smoke. She turned to just behind where Katrisha was sleeping, and could see brilliant light caught in wispy swirls. A hole had opened in the side of the box, and pooled on the shelf.

She jumped up, startling a sleeping fox and ran to the front, covering her face wither her robe as smoke and acrid metal fumes made her cough. She stepped aside as the wagon jerked and droplets of molten slag spilled off the shelf, and crackled across the floor.

Kiannae spun and banged on the wall over Katrisha. “Stop the wagon, stop the line!” she yelled. The others stirred, Katrisha the most startled by far, looking up at her sister almost betrayed.

“What…” Katrisha snapped drew a quick breath, and smelled the smoke. Looked past her and saw wisps of it caught in scintillating light. “Oh no.” She jumped up, and pushed past her sister. She threw on her spectacles. “Dear fates it’s spreading,” she muttered. She twisted the arrangement of glimmering enchantments. “The force lines are madness, fluctuating wildly, gaps in spectra…”

“We need to get it off the wagon,” Kiannae interrupted.

Samantha stood at the far end, Sasha moved to her side, and took her hand. The wagon wobbled to a stop, and cries echoed up and down the line.

“I don’t dare try to move it with my staff,” Katrisha shook her head, “and it is way too hot to move with just a cloth.”

A swirl of mist appeared, took the form of a man, and grabbed the box with clear agony. Taloe let go, shook his hands, cringed, became something more amorphous, yanked it free, and threw himself out the window with it like a wave.

Katrisha and Kiannae practically fought over the door latch, glared at one another, and Kiannae jumped out first. She ran to Taloe who couldn’t quite seem to hold himself together, his hands most of all. “I’m fine,” he growled when Kiannae got to his side. “I’ll be fine,” he struggled a bit more.

Katrisha glances at the pair and a now molten puddle of bubbling steel, and loose stones with a brilliant light in the middle of it. The shard burned away metal like steam where it had slumped over it.

People were gathering, and staring silently at the scene. Wren ran up, Etore close behind adjusting her scabbards, and straightening her clothes.

“What’s happening?” He saw Taloe, and dropped down to check on the wounded elemental. Not that he was at all sure what to do for the struggling being. He tried blanket living energy into one of the half formed shriveled hands. Slowly it returned to some semblance of whole.

“Heh,” Wren said with surprise. “Didn’t really expect that to work.”

No one noticed Etore as she faded into the background, glancing around suspiciously. No one except a little fox that leapt from the wagon, and looked around no less uneasy. He moved closer to the woman, whose hands were on her blades.

“I sense too,” Tock growled at her feet.

Etore drew her swords but froze as she felt something sharp press into her back.

“Now, now,” a woman said with a chuckle behind her. “Stay nice and still. Let’s not start anything I’ll have to finish, sister.”

“I don’t have a sister,” Etore said in a low spiteful challenged. She adjusted her grip, dropped and rolled, but not without feeling a terrible sting along her spine. She came up out of her dive weapons ready, but there was no one there.

She looked to Tock, who was clearly searching, then felt the trickle down her spine, and what had been a sting itched. Etore gritted her teeth, not sure how bad it was, or if she should move. Afraid to yell, not at all sure what they were up against. No one could sneak up on her like that. No one. Not even the man who trained her was that good.

“Oh fates,” she heard behind her, and resisted the urge to turn. It was Wren, and she could feel, and hear him running towards her. “What happened? Why are you bleeding?”

“There’s someone here!” she yelled aloud against her every instinct. “Someone like me, everyone on your guard.”

Wren stopped, gently grabbed her shoulder and inspected the wound through the bloody gash in her shirt. She winced as he put fingers to either side. “Fates,” he muttered again. “It’s not deep, but this will take time to heal properly. This was done with mage-iron.”

“I told her not to move,” said a woman casually leaned against a nearby wagon. She was toying with a thick coil of crimson hair, and not really looking at anyone, just absently up the line.

“Elise…” Katrisha said nervously, trying to decide which unnerving thing should have her attention.

“Hi moon-goddess,” Elise said flashing her a smile. “Sorry about the mess. Poor form, drawing blades on a road warden like that.”

“You ain’t no road warden,” Samantha challenged.

“Oh, depends who you ask,” Elise said. She pushed off the wagon, vanished, and appeared right behind Samantha. She leaned up to her ear, and made a little chuckle. “I mean, not everyone respects the reign of the Red Mage, after all,” she whispered huskily. “Still, someone needs to keep an eye on these forsaken roads. Places that dragons, emperors, and even our noble Queen have abandoned to ruin.”

“I’ll respect, anyone who does not attack members of my caravan,” Samantha said with calm reserve.

Etore grabbed Wren’s hand on her shoulder. “Don’t take for granted where she is,” she whispered when she had his attention. “Don’t be gentle with me, just seal the wound.”

Wren cringed, though not half so much as Etore. Against better instincts he drew his fingers down hard, forcing the skin to scar over with a harsh rush of energy. A technique normally reserved for life threatening bleeding. She twisted suddenly, and slipped from everyone’s vision.

Elise did as well.

“Stand down!” Samantha yelled, but the two had already locked blades, and neither was showing any sign of stopping. It was hard to keep eyes on the fight, sounds of clashing steel, ringing out from surprising shifting angles. Sparks, and red hair. Blurs of motion that we’re, and we’re not there.

There was a clatter as a broken rapier fragment bounced off some rocks.

“Stand down!” Samantha yelled again at the two women. They stood in ready stances, sizing each other up. Each considering what change in advantage damaged weapon might mean.

Elise relaxed slightly, but Etore held her guard.

“Listen to your mistress, dog,” Elise said with a smile. “You’re fair in a fight, but with that long blade cut in half…”

She vanished, Etore spun, swung wildly in front of Wren, but Elise was already behind him, with her sword to his throat. “Oh, so close,” she chided. “Now stand down or your pretty little pet, will have a very bad day.” She put her lips to his ear. “Not that I’d really hurt you, pretty boy. Not with your sister so protective, and I like her.”

Wren closed his eyes, and tried to feel potentials, as he had once with Katrisha’s staff. Something was wrong, her presence was out of position for the hand holding his shoulder. <Stop!> his voice boomed.

Everyone froze, except for him. Color, and shadow drained from the world, and Elise stumbled, and landed on her hands and knees, losing her grip on her sword. Everything smeared, blurring and losing focus. She rolled her neck, a moment, stood up, and brushed herself off. Light itself shifted in broken tracks around her, pushed away from her movements.

“Well done,” she said not even turning back to face Wren. “No training, I don’t think.” She stepped towards Etore, and Wren tried again.

“Stop.”

“No,” she said disinterestedly. “Whatever power that is, however you got here. That’s not how this works. No magic, no gifts, not in this place.” She stepped around Etore, and gently brushed the back of her fingers over her cheek. “She’s pretty, and quite good, for some Osyraen gutter rat. So the legends go.” She turned to face Wren, stepping sideways around the shadow of a woman. A careful tilt of the hip avoiding a sword point.

She peeked over Etore’s other shoulder at him. An almost playfully act, and all the more disturbing for it.

“Lucky boy.” She laughed. “Still, I like your sister. Her potential…oh I can feel it oozing off her. She’s almost here. Almost found this place all on her own. I don’t know if that’s ever happened. Even now, that staff of hers…”

She glanced at the fading shadow that was Katrisha, and her staff. The crystal glimmered, clear crisp and, though almost colorless like everything else. There was a glint of gold, caught in refraction, and Wren saw the burning aether shard just behind Katrisha’s leg.

Even Elise’s dropped weapon had lost substance, and become a dark smear on the ground that left strange repeating cracks around it. Like the shape of the scar itself.

“What is this place?” Wren demanded.

“Where all true Red Sisters find,” she said. “Where assassins found, when the masters tried to break us. Where few others, have stood this long. The moment between one and the next. The moment where the world tries to reconcile wills that see outside of time. It’s easier here, on the borders of the Scarlands. Places already halfway lost. Empty, and dead, till you reach their heart. I was shown the truth there. Why these lands are dying, and what they are becoming.”

“Why?” Wren demanded.

Elise stepped around Etore, and towards Wren who resisted taking a step back. She was unarmed, skilled, but if she was right, and gifts were not in play, strength might be his advantage. She strode across the ever more empty place, dull dirt turning to something mirror like, rippling beneath her feet.

“How long can you hold onto this?” she asked, circling him, and he turned to follow her carefully kept distance. “It is a measure of both power, and will to remain in this place for long. It will hurt when you let go.”

“I don’t know,” Wren admitted, and felt foolish, but he had never imagined himself more out of his depth. He was uncertain he even believed her, that he had anything to do with it. Playing the fool seemed the practical option, if it kept her talking.

“I wonder if you’ll be able to remember,” she mused. “Most, just see ghosts in their mind, after their first brush with the shadowed-place.”

She stepped closer, and he stepped back, a curious probing look in her eyes, her hand left shy of the gesture she had tried. The same backhanded brush of the cheek he knew so well from his time amongst women who enjoyed power. A habit, handed down from somewhere. “You can’t fight me, but I don’t intend to fight you, not today. So I think you’ll win, this time. I’ll make this simple. Tell your caravan master a toll will be paid, including that shard. We will also be liberating your sisters, the Red Sister, and your little pet. Oh, and you. You, are far too interesting to let go. There is a first time for everything.” She stepped closer again.

“Liberating?” Wren pressed, ignoring her intrusive power play.

“You will be given an offer, and if you refuse, you may go.” It was said casually, almost like a matter of formality that clashed with her tactics.

“I think I can refuse now,” Wren challenged, and brushed aside another attempt to touch his cheek.

“Not how it works, and not my offer to make.” Elise laughed. “I said, I like your sister. Scouts choice, and I can only try for one. Besides, she must refuse herself, and I think you’ll choose to follow. That look in your eye, you’re as protective of her as she is of you. Strange. She’s a fighter, you…” She pushed him suddenly, and the world twisted and snapped back into agonizing color and sound.

Wren fell as a dozen others did as well, his head screaming, light too bright became speckles through squinted eyes. There was a sound like a roaring ocean in his ears, and a pain like a spike to his forehead. Etore was standing over him a moment later, shaking her head, wincing repeatedly, and clearly searching for any sign of the intruder.

“What happened?” she demanded.

“She took me somewhere,” Wren managed. “A place where everything blurred, faded away, until it was just us.”

“You’ve seen it?” she asked nervously.

“Once before,” Wren answered. “Just a glimmer of it, on Eastroad.”

“Not good,” Etore said, and looked over the dazed members of the caravan. “I didn’t think anyone else existed who could get there for more than a moment.”

“She said, we are to be, ‘liberated.’”

“Said?” Etore asked. “How long were you there?”

“Minutes?” he said dazed. “Something about offers, and the shard. What about the shard?” He pinched his brow. “It still had color there.”

“Minutes?” Etore demanded, glaring at him. “I’ve never…moments. I’ve seen that place for moments, a dozen steps. That was a stupid move, using your power like that.”

“I could tell she had moved, and she was, moving for you. You said not to take for granted where she was.”

Etore shoved her swords in their scabbards, and offered him her hand with no less pleased of an expression.

Katrisha had turned from one, seemingly settled catastrophe to the previous. She was examining the shard, frantically adjusting her spectacle enchantments.

“How is it?” Kiannae asked, rubbing her head.

“Stable, for the moment,” Katrisha said. “Whatever just happened, it ate a lot of ambient energy, and stopped the runaway reaction…to whatever it was reacting to.”

“Could it be the spurs?” Kiannae asked.

“More than likely,” Katrisha said, and stood up. “We need something new to hold it, and probably to keep it in a window, not on a shelf, so if it flares, we can just pushed it out.”

“I can’t,” Samantha said. “I can’t ask any of you, to surrender yourselves, as part of some, toll. No one… Why did no one mention this is what those paying have been agreeing to?”

“You wouldn’t do it, right?” Etore chided. “So you say, any way. Push come to shove, life of everyone on the line, if you did, would you admit it? Would anyone admit it? Kind of thing that would ruin a caravan master.”

“The rumors would still get out,” Samantha refuted.

“They do, and I’ve heard them.” Etore sighed. “I hear the rumors people only whisper in dark corners, when they think no one is listening. I thought they were tall tales, but now I know otherwise. Still, rule out the wildest fantasies I’ve heard, and what Wren says matches. Refuse the offer, they let you go. If anyone had stayed missing, well, I think word would have spread.”

“Anything else?” Samantha said narrowing her eyes at Etore.

“Do you want to hear every wild story I’ve heard? Half those talking, were challenged by those that say no such demands were made. I wrote it off as rubbish. Men, who all claimed only women were taken. Only healers, mages, the odd very gifted enchanter. Supposedly they are very particular about Clarions. One story said a Clarion woman, and a Red Sister were traveling with the same caravan. I’d already written it off as a tall tale there, but the claim was they only took the Clarion.”

“They were pretty clear they want Sasha, and me,” Wren said.

“Well, close enough to a woman maybe,” Etore said with a sneer. “Rumors are rumors. Like I said, I thought they were nonsense till now. I thought there would be more if there was any truth to it. Still, just paying the toll is an embarrassment, if you haven’t gathered. Samantha here is the first one I’ve seen with, the gaul, to admit plainly she will pay before even faced with the choice.”

“Pride, is stupid. Stupid pride, is stupider,” Samantha muttered. “I’ll turn back, before turning any member of this caravan over as a hostage.”

“How many more spurs of the scar before we reach Dustwatch?” Kiannae asked.

“Hard to say, you can’t see all of them easily,” Samantha said.

“One we passed back there likely sent the shard over the edge,” Kiannae said plainly. “We could leave it, but that, will just be asking for it to fall into the wrong hands. We can’t take it back, towards Torchlight. Then we would be squarely in violation of Council law, and running the risk of unleashing, fates knows what if it flares up again.”

“The road moves away from the scar to the east, but the spurs get wider,” Samantha said shaking her head. “There are some old roads, rough, and harsh. Overgrown, and maybe not even passable, but they go up through abandoned northern farming towns. They might get around the spurs.”

“Around the Red Mage’s toll crossing?” Katrisha asked.

“Not if he’s watching us,” Etore chided.

“If they come, I’ll go,” Sasha said.

“You will not,” Samantha snapped, and spun to glare at the woman.

Sasha put her hand on Samantha’s cheek, shook her head, and gave her a sad smile, that clearly strained not to be tears. “I love you to, but you don’t own me. You don’t tell me what to do, or not to do. I will not have a fight on my behalf.”

“Caravan goes east,” Kiannae said. “We, the core, and everyone they want, go north.”

“That’s madness,” Samantha growled, and turned to the woman with fury.

Kiannae stood, and towered over her. “It’s, practical. Pay the toll, that was the plan. If we aren’t there, they can’t claim us. If, they find us, at worst it goes exactly as it would have, but we can’t have the lives of everyone else held over us. They will also have to split forces to intercept both parties.”

“I don’t like this,” Samantha protested thinly.

“You think I do?” Kiannae laughed nervously. “We’ll unload the wagon. It’ll make us lighter, and easier to handle on a rough road. Etore takes the roof, I’ll drive. Kat, and the rest inside, her shield up like Eastroad. Maybe we just roll right through their blockade, cause they don’t want to deal with that.”

“You all are forgetting the shadowed-place,” Etore said. “The rules there, are… I’m not even sure there are rules. Your shield may not keep them out.”

“Good thing we’ll have you to fend them off on the inside, then,” Kiannae chided. “Unless you plan to skulk out of this with the main troupe. Doesn’t seem your style.”

Sasha took Samantha by the shoulder, and turned her back to her. She hugged her, and put her lips close to her ear. “They have nothing to offer me,” she whispered. “I’ll see you at Dustwatch. If they were keeping prisoners, we would have heard.”

“Do I has say?” Tock interrupted.

“No,” several people answered at once, and the fox’s ears fell.

“Do I have any say?” Mallory asked by the door, but was nudged in the shoulder by Carter, who had been a figure of stony silence since he learned of the shard.

“Guess that’s a no.” Mallory sighed, and jumped out of the wagon.

“Then I go north,” Tock said, looking away from the door, sure he wasn’t giving the mercenary any ideas.

“My orders, were to take you to Mordove,” Samantha said.

“I not tell, if you don’t,” Tock said with what might have been a laugh. “Also, you do not has say in this. Torta do not ignore our deals. This, is as it is.”

Sasha glared at the fox, who glared back at her.

Rhaeus 27th, 655 E.R.

Wren had curled up in the back of the wagon, and pulled the curtain to try to sleep. Sasha sat opposite Katrisha as the carriage jerked, and halted down an overgrown back road. Katrisha turned the page in one Mercu’s books she had claimed. Trying to keep her mind off the risk they were taking. Not that she disagreed with her sister, that it was the lesser folly before them.

It was hard to keep the lines straight with every bump, and so many things on her mind. The least of which was the healer fussing nervously with a tiny spell orb, likely trying to distract herself as well.

Her staff sat between them, holding itself upright. A full protective barrier ready to snap into existence at the first sign of intrusion. It was tempting for Katrisha to focus her own attentions on the task, but it might take as much as a week to reach Dustwatch by those old roads. That sort of vigilance would only leave her drained if the time came. She had to put her trust in her work, and not her own attention.

She almost didn’t notice Tock sit up beside her, and stare at Sasha. The fact that the flighty little creature had determined to come with them, whether they liked it or not, had left her on edge. Something about it didn’t feel right. Nor the way Sasha kept staring back at him. Tricksters, both of them, so far as she was concerned. Any affection she had found for the funny little creature, withered under a looming cloud of doubt. Clever, and cryptic when he did not need to be. Her, intrusive and pushy, when she had nothing to gain by antagonizing.

“Yer deal,” Tock said after the staring had dragged on far too long to be ignored.

“My deal?” Sasha said coldly. “A nice girl, you said. Nice.”

“Not all tries are good,” Tock said in a hard to read tone. “Surely, yours not yet succeed.”

Katrisha looked up from her book, and ran her fingers along the edge of the page nervously. She did not like it, whatever was happening. Every hair stood on edge as she looked between the two spiteful glares.

“If what I have been told, is true, this is the worst time,” Sasha protested.

“Now, or there is no chance she can do as you think. She loses. You, lose. Your deal, is as at end. This ease, not hold. The agony return.”

Sasha screwed up her face furiously, gave Katrisha pained look, and snatched the book from her hand without warning. She spun it around, flipped some pages, and read a line aloud. “Six days, we had ridden east, along the north shore of the great sea. There our guide insisted that we had reached the lands of the Shifting-One, Lady of the Sands.”

Katrisha blinked, and was still holding her book.

“What line were you on?” Sasha demanded.

Katrisha looked down, then sat there as though frozen.

Tock looked on with great interest.

Sasha ran trembling fingers over her lips.

The wagon jerked violently, and Katrisha fell to the floor, her book tumbling from her hand. She leaned there on one arm dazed.

“What…” Katrisha managed. “What, have you done?” She rubbed her head. “What, was that?” She struggled to get her bearings in the insufferable bobbing wagon.

Sasha took several heavy breaths, and clutched her robe to her chest. “Oh thank the fates,” she muttered.

“What, did you do?” Katrisha demanded, and struggled back up. She flopped into the bed unsteadily, displacing Tock who jumped out of her way.

“Caught a creature of immense power, in humble disguise, and made her stumble,” Sasha said her expression defiant. “I never believed it was true. That such things really existed. Something so clever, that knew almost everything, but not what she needed to, in one moment. One stupid moment, torn between a hundred worries. You didn’t know what page, or line you were really on. Did you? Not if I interrupted, not if I cheated the moment. I tried a hundred other ways. Asked what you were reading, what page. I even tried that, once before. Passed it off as just being rude. I noticed you weren’t good at seeing me do it either. That, was the first time I started to believe. Powerful as you are, capable of reading battle mages in the thick of a war, but not me, just fooling around with your book.”

“I don’t understand.” Katrisha shook her head.

“You, are a Broken-One,” Sasha said. “Your whole life is plan, laid out by some future, or past self. However, that works. I don’t know. I cut your strings, little puppet. At the behest of your brother, mother, or…” she looked worried again.

“I don’t, feel different,” Katrisha protested. “Just, dizzy.”

“You are choices,” Tock offered. “Hundreds oth thousands oth choices. Endless, cannot count. Though all adds to a single girl, that is, no longer a toy on a string.” His words stung as she remembered what Cadith had said, while she was half asleep. The words that Kiannae had wanted to warn her of, but she had resisted being reminded.

“Why?” Katrisha demanded, of either of them.

“The great lady has returned,” Tock answered. “The onerous task, is no longer yours. Not, to struggle under. Your greatness, can shine, unhindered.”

“Who?” Katrisha demanded.

Tock gave a terrifying toothy grin.

“Your mother,” Sash said, though it was plain she was trying to convince herself.

“Is it?” Katrisha demanded. “Are you sure?”

“Is a god a little thing, like a girl?” Tock offered. “A thing so tiny, as a girl who had a child.”

“One, child,” Sasha said, half nervous, a little scared, and a bit defiant. “In any world I knew her, she had one child, or none. One girl with your face. How you came to be, I don’t know. You were asleep the other day, when your sister, and darling Zale had a conversation above us.” She gestured to the roof. “She isn’t telling you everything. She remembers having parts of your life. Parts she didn’t want. A young love, or two. So sweet, and so pretty. I remember, I was there when she botched things.”

“Charles…” Katrisha sighed.

“Or three.” Sasha laughed, and shrugged. “I, might recall. Some, knight’s son, yes? Tempestuous. I’d have mistaken them for enemies, but, yes, if you say so.”

Katrisha gave her a doubtful look, and then fox. “If I am the choices I made…” She swallowed. “Yet you say they were not mine.”

”A god can change all her choices,” Tock said. “Is this, that is a god. All these, again, and again. Choices, until, you are girl that you are. Choices, that are you. Your choices, hear on, are this you. Not, those another had, and handed to you. There is count, three and three and une, is this, and this, as all the tines you tried. Again, and again the count, in the count, in the count oth the count.”

“Seven,” Katrisha said. “Seven, by seven, repeating.” She had meant it to be a question, but in her bones she felt it was true.

“Yes,” Tock agreed.

“You aren’t sure,” Katrisha said, and looked to Sasha. “Tock, he is dancing around the truth, and so are you.” She set aside the rest of the mad prospect. “You, aren’t sure it was her, or him, are you?”

“It could have just been him,” Sasha said. “A him we don’t know. I like the way Zale put it. Are you sure whose turn it is? What the game even looks like with another player.”

Tock jumped from Katrisha’s side, and then up on Sasha’s lap.  She jerked with a start, and he put both paws on her shoulder, and his muzzle near her ear. “Yer deal is done,” he whispered, but pretended to sniff. “The rest is ours to arrange. Do not, change this.”

“What, did he say?” Katrisha demanded.

Sasha laid down, rolled over and stared at the wall.

Tock leapt back up on Katrisha’s bed, and stared at her.

“You, can sleep somewhere else,” Katrisha said coldly, almost yelling. “We aren’t friends any more.”

Tock looked sad, lowered his head, and his ears dejectedly. “Is as it is. Torta deals, are as they are. Do recall, not all are just two-sided. I do like, Katrisha, nice girl. Good girl.”

He hopped down, and walked delicately to the front of the bouncing wagon, where he jumped into the spare bed, and curled back up in a ball.

Katrisha fished the book off the floor, opened it, and stared at the lines, that all blurred together, and yet she knew what they were. Without reading them. It had, almost always been an act, she realized for the first time. Reading. She could, if she tried, piece together the specific words, and lines, but it was easier just to remember the meaning. She could pick a paragraph, close her eyes, and receipt it under her breath. All at once, there was no new insight, to anything else.

She growled something low, and animal, and threw the book at the wall near the foot of Sasha’s bed, and felt bad. Both for abusing what was some rare valuable old edition, and for the jerk of the woman away from her violent outburst. She had made some deal, and there, she did find an insight in it. In Wren’s words, in Tock’s, in Sasha’s. She, had not been perfect, but she had been caught up in all of it with them. Another soul swirling around the maelstrom of their lives. Another, like Charles, perhaps rebelling against the insanity she had little blame in.

Wren, had said that he had squared things with her, but what, did that really mean? He pulled the curtain, and gave her a concerned look. Likely for the yelling, and the loud thud of a thrown book. She wanted to demand answers, and doubted if he had any to give, or that he would. She was surrounded by traitors, who she had done everything to protect. She could almost do the math. How many times. How many times had someone dear to her died, any number of them died, as she tried to get it right. She couldn’t remember, but there was an outline of terrible truth there.

She curled into a ball where she sat, fighting back the tears, and struggled as Wren tried to comfort her. Did he even know for what? Was it her, or him? Mother, or brother, or even something else. Charles’s pained words haunted her. Of her sister dying to the poison. Of following her to Mordove. A little girl crying over her father’s broken, crushed body. It was all she could do not to throw Wren off of her with fury as the weight of the world crashed down on her. What, had she done? How, did it all fit together?

She looked at her staff, felt a dangerous shard in a heavy steel box, lashed to the sill behind her. Tears streamed down her cheeks. One word. One word, echoed in her mind. ‘Thief.’

Their mother had no children. Then, their mother had a child. A change, wrought with a power that could upend decades, perhaps far more of history. Centuries? Millennia? Write a face across an epoch of time. A child, born as much of that power, as by any father. A thing prophecy called the Storm. It was almost enough to make her laugh past tears, and fury, as it came together. So she settled on hugging her brother back.

Each of them, a child of the storm.

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