Chapter III:17

Madness woven through the flesh,
no humble blush could disguise it,
a plague of desire against the sun,
shown in eyes of ones dead ‘n gone,

a harlot wove words like bitter poison,
Abyss called servants took her form,
as men of shadow courted darkness,
a Red Mage risen in such likeness,

blood they took like a feral animal,
in lusts the Assassins found no fill,
slew the righteous like ripe cattle,
in death revealed with every battle,

beware the low herbs sanguine call,
false visions plague a mind to fall,
in languid haze these were made,
sloth and dull eyes turned to rage.

– Ascension’s Fall, circa 400 E.R.

The Red Court

Everything was spinning. Spirals within spirals. Bottomless, overlapping, whirling motions in impossibly energetic entangled states. A position from which one wrong step would throw a weary traveler flailing into oblivion. All the more, no step at all would end no better. Do nothing and die. Do something, still, probably die. Not great options, but all together not a hard choice; something, it was.

Eyes opened to a world in tumbling free fall. Bright stars flew past in arcs, mirrored bellow against the surface of a fathomless frozen ocean. Yet none of this dizzying spectacle made sense. For beneath those murky depths was something like the sun. It rose and set within the passing horizon as surely as another would arc blindingly across the sky.

Kiannae thrust her staff down through the eye of a fractured false sun. The inertia was nearly enough to nudge her into escape velocity, but she clung to the staff, felt its roots form and anchor them both. A conduit for some unimagined power. For a moment hung between forces that threatened to tear a world apart. The memory wasn’t hers. Metaphor and the flaws of a human mind trying to comprehend inhuman senses, and a tiny girls fingers slipped. She tumbled away, and a woman was left limply struggling. Her fingers clutched at the hard cracked soil. It was the clearest vision she had ever had of it all. The beginning.

Illusions were slipping away, but which were the illusions? Humanity, or divinity? She’d been there before. She’d solved this puzzle once already, and it was deceptively simple. Know everything, or be someone. It wasn’t the most sensible thing, but she liked being someone. Tedious and annoying as the other someones sometimes were, but it was boring without them. Tedious or boring. It was a strange observation that they were quite opposite. Tedious, was when you got tired of endless variations on a theme. Boring, was when nothing ever happened. She blinked.

It was dark, but a strange kind of darkness. Like morning light through a forest canopy. The air was hot and muggy above dry cracked mud. An acrid smell like roasting vegetables hung over it all. Shifting dapples of sunbeams struck the textured ground around Kiannae. She was so incredibly tired. A weariness that ate at the bones. For a moment she doubted that the strange condition of light was anything more than half open eyes that couldn’t rise above the ruined land.

She looked up from the dirt, and across an all but flat plain. Cracked mud giving way to hills, and then mountains that stood against a starless midnight sky. Yet it was all so familiar. A pattern that echoed. Branches upon branches. Pairs, long then short, and on again, ever smaller in spirals. Mountains became hills. Hills became slender ridges that joined the plain. The cracked mud continued it on down. The texture of the ground beneath her stippled in the same self similar ever-changing rhythm. It was everywhere, and in everything.

Her eyes followed lines that rose from the heart of the pattern, beyond forested hills. Trees whose canopy could cast such wavering shadows, but were miles away. Above that, the dark expanse of sky was cut with the shimmer of filaments. The same pattern fanning off main trunks. She jumped up startled, only to fall onto her rear, and stare up at the majesty of it all.

Leaves, perhaps miles across wavered with swaying branches. Branches that mirrored the land below. A canopy dozens of miles thick that captured all but little beams of sunlight that danced across the world. A land in shadow from the unbridled energy of a raging inferno. A tree thriving off the energy of something hotter than fire. An aether tear that thrummed and twisted, giving a pulse to the living world, stable for eons, but not forever.

The fogginess of self came with a clarity of logic, and she could almost do the math. Horizon distance on the ocean, same as a flat plain. She he done the math for that tiny mountain of a tree in Napir. Researched for weeks to confirm her calculations, and when she ran them anew, it threatened to fracture her mind in the same pattern. It was hundreds of miles tall, and had a gravity all its own. She had a name. Perhaps given by her children, perhaps of meaning they would never comprehend. Thaea, the all-mother.

A god in the most abstract sense stood before her. A thing of will, and purpose more clear than thought. Stood before a tiny woman who had never felt a truly reverent moment in her life, till that moment. She reached a trembling hand toward the sky, and was confused by the silver wisps of long locks draped over frail fingers. The hair was longer than her, fanning out around her, flowing back along those tracks toward the source.

The tiredness at last had a name. Age. She knew the number, could see something of the structure from which it could be derived. An ancient crone still of smooth, feminine features, just a little lined, and forever pregnant with a child that never came. Three faces of the moon in one moment. She was impossibly old, among the firstborn of creation. Her fathomless pale blue gaze could make an ancient mage feel little more than an insect before her. Yet worship her they did, and she would smile. Smile, until she grew weary of their repetitive praise.

Great-mother moon, in human form, sat before Kiannae, who struggled to her feet. She was herself again. Not that queen of silver hair on her great throne. Two others sat in meditative pose at her left, and right hand. A man and a woman in simple garb before a goddess. A woman who wore shimmering prismatic white designed to display her motherly belly, and equally bare chest. Like statues of the women near the top of the Throne of Storms. A beauty that demanded to be looked upon, in absolute reverence, eyes falling in humility. The Queen smirked.

Katrisha, had always worshiped the moon, and here was the one who had claimed to own the greatest imperfect gem of the sky. So like her. Kiannae finally felt the intended effect, but her eyes did not fall. She knew this imperious woman, and how coy she could be. Weary of trite games. She knew her, and so her eyes did not fall, but rise. Past a curious expression, and up.

They stood beneath a humbler tree. The massive trunk perhaps only a mile high. Silver leaves strung in shimmering threads above, forming glorious constellations. Strands that glinted like polished silver in moonlight. Thaea’s sister and daughter. Laeune.

Moon was grandmother, the tree mother, and the queen, oh glorious granddaughter. Yet it was not the moon that hung above. Mirrors. Rhan crowned the branches of great-mother Thaea, but his brother hung above a silver spectacle of living magic. A light like the moon that shone defiant against eternal night. The true sun and moon little more than pale shadows that swept across skies dominated by boundless brilliance, and great darkness. It was all a message to herself, too early to quite make sense. Warnings, and portents, or a plan. A plan she was missing pieces of.

Kiannae had never finished the Songs of the Sun, but she’d read the index. The Garden of Laeune. A tranquil mirror to the blushing descriptions of the court of Estae. One an expression of power, the other, of desire just as plain. She turned, and realized she had swung around the world again. She watched as a golden haired girl screwed up her face in anger. Her arrogant father had turned from the needs of the people, or even to give her praise. So she demanded the attention of the people, and governed them by fickle whims. They could play by her rules, or go to the wild summer lands, if freedom meant so very much. A dangerous life in a land of raging beasts, or in the land of promises.

She shook her head, and a woman of similar likeness stood before her. Ocher skin with pale spots. Her head tilted curiously. Locks of what seemed luminous gold, hung beneath a stolen circlet that seemed pale, however pure. A burning sun behind her head. Childlike eyes, but far from innocent. The light of that sun almost shone through them. She smirked. Those eyes filled with a fury of playfulness. She knew where power lay, but why express it, it was so much more fun to be the hunted, than the hunter.

What was her name, it slipped. The others had been so obvious, words she had heard so many times. Yet there were seasons. Katrisha had said something about that woman Elise. The lucidity of the dream threatened to wake her, but she hung on. Goddess of Autumn. Estae stood before the sun, Goddess of Spring. Hiding beneath the shadow of the great tree. Laeune was as Katrisha loved to quote, of the Winter, and the Moon. The woman crouched before her, and scratched the head of a tiny red furred fox. Each tilted their head opposite ways. For the first time, not blinded by the sun Kiannae saw what were not horns, but bare branches sprouting from the woman’s forehead. They blossomed for a moment, but those flowers turned to silver thread that hung about her head. Dangling shifting bobbles like dew in a spiderweb, that jangled as bells with every move. She could not remember her name, but she knew the goddess of summer. Thaea’s chosen granddaughter.

Kiannae tried to speak, but made no sound. Her throat was parched almost beyond breath. The woman held out her hand and something like luminous molten gold flowed from her palm, and trickled out between loose fingers. Like mageblood inverted. Like what was hidden in veins of her staff. «Drink,» the woman whispered in a ghostly clamor, but the meaning was infinitely more complex. Life, water, sun, existence, pure. It was almost a command, but imparted impossibly misplaced trust, and thirst drove Kiannae to scramble to the offering.

She hesitated and stared up into the woman’s smiling golden eyes, so childlike, mirthful, and yet reproving. She made Kiannae feel like a child, who had been offered a sweet fruit for the first time, and then sniffed at it suspiciously.

«Drink,» she said again more gently, leaning close with a smile, and all doubt was washed from her mind. All ideas of mistrust, or suspicion shattered. Like a child offered food by her own mother. She drank from the woman’s tilted palm, and the flavor was indeed like a cold fresh blend of fruit. Ripe, sweet, and all at once tart. Cold, but in the wake of soothing cool was something warm that spread into the bones.

She drank until she could not take another drop, and fell to the ground full. She stared woozily up at the mesmerizing sky of one massive tree’s canopy. There was a rushing rain. A wall of hot water that washed the land beneath them, and barely stung indifferent skin. From steam rose grass, and wildflowers, some with crystal petals, or dripping nectar that drew little birds to feed.

“Who are you?” Kiannae managed, as sleep tried to take her. The woman loomed over her, now with blue eyes, slit like a cat.

«One who was, who is, who will be again.»

«I await my light, to see a truth few can bear.»

«All I will give this one, and cheat fate itself.»

If the ideas formed from the impossible sounds in order, or at once from raw meaning, she couldn’t tell. They offered such peace, and with contentment itself in her belly, sleep took her.

“Where?” Kiannae groaned. Fragmented visions still haunted her mind. She rubbed her face and stared bewildered at the passing terrain. It didn’t quite make sense at first, floaty and detached. “How…” she said scrunching up her face. She shook her head and sat up on one arm. “Why is there a giant hole in the side of the wagon? What happened!?”

Her sister sat at her feet, staff in hand, eyes closed. She wore a look of sternness Kiannae had only ever seen in a mirror. “Who, is also a valid question,” Katrisha said turning to stare at her twin. “Who, fought over the shard’s power, and who won?”

“The shard?” Kiannae said nervously. “What happened to it?”

“Let’s stick with who,” Katrisha stressed. “Who are you?”

“Your sister! Don’t play,” Kiannae said angrily. The guilt of fleeting past confusion stabbed at her heart. The seriousness of the situation made coy seem utterly disrespectful.

“It’s a fair question,” Katrisha said thin lipped. “Who are we without our memories? Who are we with someone else’s?”

Kiannae glance to the closed curtain, then back at Katrisha.

“What happened?” she asked in a measured, more deeply worried tone. “Is Wren alright?”

“Fine,” Katrisha said. “So far as I can tell. The shard reacted to him, and became something, shall we say new.”

“What do you mean, new?”

“A staff, of all things, so not so new,” she tapped her fingers on her own, then looked to the head of the wagon. “I though for a moment it was looking an awful lot like yours. Your spirit, he spoke for you. Seemed to think deep down you didn’t want it, and to have also made some kind of deal. He didn’t stick around to answer questions, but he has such trouble existing when you’re unconscious. Frankly I’m more worried about you than Wren, for the moment.”

Kiannae looked around again, at the curtain, and the glaring hole in the wall. She had a guess how that had happened. Clean as the edges were. She pursed her lips and asked another question she was no more sure she wanted an answer to. “Where’s Sasha?”

“Holding Wren, last I checked,” Katrisha answered. “He was rather traumatized, and does not seem any more happy with the obvious implications than me. That staff, he seems to be the only one who can move it. Don’t even want to think about how heavy it should be, solid diamond and all, but that’s irrelevant. It seems to be anchored to everything around it. Maybe the world itself. I wove some spells that do roughly the same work in mine. How it stands on its own, stays with the wagon, comes to my hand, but this new one is way more subtle and at once strong. Not magic at all, not as I understand it.”

Kiannae winced at that description, and the memory of her visions. “Who, wasn’t direct at me, was it?” Kiannae asked narrowing her eyes at her sister.

Katrisha gave her a look that answered her question, and cautioned her words.

Kiannae flopped back, and stared at the netting overhead. “Fine.” She sighed. “Etore driving, and are we still going north?”

“Slowly. For just about every reason. Sitting still didn’t feel wise. Turning back…” Katrisha glanced at the curtain, slid up, and leaned close. “That sword I took off Elise, it was literally a perfect catalyst to stabilize the shard. That can’t be by chance. Make of that what you will. I’ve been spinning over the implications for an hour. I think we were both right. It is mostly just mother, but there was always something else in her. Something else in all of this. You care to guess who?”

“No.” Kiannae said, not sure she wished to share the vision she had seen, or to take meaning from it.

“I actually finished your stupid book while you weren’t looking, or I remember doing that. Fates that’s weird, knowing I’m not sure if a memory is real or not. I guess they all are in a way. I finally see it, the illusion. I could have done it all without seeing. I see how the plan works, because it’s my magic. A perfectly calculated plan of near infinite depth. It’s utterly destroyed, but I see the framework, the structure.”

“Of my magic,” Kiannae said, and looked at her staff, trucked securely in a corner.

“Well, who started first. Interesting question isn’t it? Given it was neither of us.”

“Mine is more perfect,” Kiannae demanded, and remembered with clarity their childish arguments over magic. A simpler life, still bickering like competitive children well after they had married. It had never stood out, because that simple life was so uneventful, like a daydream, spent mostly at court. Like their childhood stretched out forever. “I can remember all of it, the feeling, the sense of being there.”

“Yet can you understand it? Words, sometimes get through, but more as sensation. Like hearing them. If you get any actual insight, it’s just a feeling. Do you think that’s why it has to rhyme? Repetition, builds memory. Extra connections, rhythm. Fun thought. Sure someone’s had it before.”

“Is this really all our fault?” Kiannae asked. “Fates. None of it makes sense, the end is like trying to stare into the sun. You can’t see anything unless it casts a long shadow.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Katrisha said. “I’m a backup plan I think. Just some girl made out of pieces of some convoluted scheme, that I can’t remember. Who learned to like playing the role. It was fun, once you finally learned to feel. What does that even make me? You said it. You don’t have a sister. You never had, a sister. I can’t remember any of it, just feel it. I didn’t steal your spell sister. I am your spell. Life. Saving it, is woven into my core. Whatever this is, it kills whoever it touches, but it gives them complete control of their existence, and often far beyond. The threads that made them, grow like roots. Hard to wash away…”

“Or branches standing against the sun,” Kiannae said the vision troubling her.

“I have one memory I guess, after all. Still, more a feeling. Like you say, boring. Nothing happened, not to me anyway. I was the one who was boring, and I knew it. I saw all their…games, and found them confusing at best. Talking, touching, laughing. There were things to learn though, that was interesting. By the end, I did learn. They, were interesting. These things they feel. I had been a failure. A copy without a soul, or perhaps more accurately a copy of a soul, without the animal. It was logic, plans, rules, not… inspiration, improvisation, fun. Information without meaning, like a list of every word that ever was. Laid out in alphabetical order.”

“You, are my sister,” Kiannae challenged, worried by what she was hearing.

“I am the choices of a perfect plan to an unknown end, cut loose and not even sure if I’m a person.”

“Sounds like my sister,” Kiannae chided nervously.

“I asked before, who we are without our memories. No, it wasn’t directed at you. It was directed at me. My memories, belong to a plan I no longer have. I feel, like I’m her. Like I’m real, and I rationally know I’m not.”

“We make choices,” Kiannae said. “One, after the next, until we are who we are. You are my sister, and if you claim to just be a set of plans and rules, I think we need to have a conversation about the definition. They are not, merely meant to be broken.”

Katrisha’s face strained, and she broke down laughing. “Except by the rules of breaking them, which may be broken by the rules of breaking them. There are always exceptions. Like weird moves you can make with Rooks and Kings, if the exact conditions are met, and depending where you play.”

“Fates, why is that move even a thing?” Kiannae protested, startled by her sister’s humor.

“Probably a balancing check, prevent an easily broken condition that narrowed the game.”

“This isn’t a game,” Kiannae said sternly.

“I’m not entirely sure that’s true. It would seem, no take backs, is more typically the line there.”

“And if our lives were once boring? Is this all our fault? People are dying.”

“Our, lives were boring,” Katrisha said with a cold sneer. “The world was cold, and cruel, but not to us. The chosen ones.” She took a breath. “Sorry, that’s all I remember, just a sickening feeling at the very presumption that world was better.”

“When I finally found empathy. When they cut off some poor man’s head,” Kiannae said, finding a memory that went with the sentiment. “Stealing from him all his thought, and wisdom, and the animal felt fury for her worshiped mind. She rebelled.” Kiannae said. “That was Taloe’s girl, and she became war itself. He remembers, the terror he saw. But it wasn’t her, it was me. Me, in any world where they killed you.”

“One thief, begets, another. Mothers, and mentors. Sisters, and now brothers,” Katrisha said as thought reciting a poem. “You married Charles, according to him. I don’t think he has anything to gain, imagining that, or telling me. So let’s just assume it’s true. Then his scheming father killed you, and the King and Queen. Says he traveled with me to Mordove. Says he turned his back on me at whatever end this all has, and saw his pasts, not his future.”

Kiannae drew a harsh breath. “Fates I remember that insufferable boy. Like Zale, with more spine, and worse ideas in his head. Just the right amount more pretty too. I had no qualms showing him his place, and he liked it.”

“Liked to pretend he was the one showing places.”

“So put him in his place, so he understands.”

“I don’t think I wanted him, not any more than you. I don’t know why, but I know you think I stole parts of your life you didn’t want. I’ll buy that. Hand me downs, and I treasured every one. Even him. I think maybe I made a better man of him in the end. Just a feeling, not quite a memory, and a memory of her.”

Kiannae looked away.

“Treasured them,” Katrisha pressed, put her hand on her sister’s cheek, and turned her head back towards her. “Completely. So stop feeling guilty about that, or even the jealousy. You knew they were good people, or you wouldn’t have wished…” Katrisha smiled. Even regret had a mirror. The things you regret doing, and being, and the ones you regret letting go. “It’s ok.” She laughed, and tried not to cry. “I’m ok. I’m me, and if you made me this way, I’m good with that. I will also, steal this terrible burden back from either of you. Cause it worked. Make an imperfect copy of a selfless woman, lacking self, and self, will be exactly what she finds.”

“So, we agree, you are my sister?” Kiannae pressed, half joking, much more than a little worried.

“Nah, I’m gonna start calling you mother,” Katrisha said with a smirk. “Ma Ki.”

“Oh, dear fates no.”

The wagon crawled to a stop, and outside a great hole in the wall stood a line of people, looking almost as bewildered as the twins staring out.

Elise stood in the middle with her hand on the hilt of a new sword. “What happened?” she demanded, glancing at the sheer edges of cleanly removed boards. It was a remarkably pristine kind of destruction. Better liked to deconstruction.

“Someone knows,” Katrisha stood up, and straightened herself. “Someone made that sword of yours, perfectly, for one purpose. To catalyze an unstable elemental anomaly. Who made it?”

“I don’t know,” Elise said almost offended. “We all take turns forging the weapons. We all choose our own from the stockpile as needed. I picked that one just this morning.”

“No reason, no suggestions?”

“No. I’ve always had a feel for the blade I’d like. The best ones, that can break other enchanted steel.” She shot a look up at Etore, a mocking smirk on her lips.

Wren pulled the curtain, staff in hand. He stepped to the open wall, and for just a moment so high, the little man didn’t seem small. “We don’t want what you offer.”

“Then you can walk away, very slowly. Leave the wagon, and anything you don’t want to carry as a tax,” Elise offered firmly.

Wren glanced at the crystal of his staff, and took on an expression Katrisha had never seen from him. He tossed it out of the wagon where it cut through her spell before it snapped into full defense.

It hung, just a bit short of striking the ground, angled awkwardly.

“Take it,” Wren said. “Take it, if you can. If any one of you, can even move that staff from where it stands, and wield it, I will lay no claim. I don’t want this. Yet, if not a one of you, can move that staff, you get out of our way. You clear up anything you’ve done to the road, and you just let us, ride away.”

Elise grabbed the staff, and pulled. It didn’t even budge, and her feet slipped. “Hey Red,” she called out, straightening herself. “Come make yourself useful.”

A redheaded pale man in a red cloak stepped through the line, and looked at the staff curiously. It was hard to recognize him, dry and so theatrically dressed. Kiannae struggled to believe it was true, and all the more to deny it. She stood, jumped down out of the hole in the wagon, and marched up to Katrisha’s barrier.

“You,” Kiannae said angrily, as Taloe formed at her side.

“Yes, me,” the mage said dismissively. “I’d heard enough to be sure it was you with this caravan. Seems we three have a score to settle.”

“You tried to kill me, I let you live,” Kiannae snapped. “Seems to me, you’re the one in debt.”

“A debt I intend to pay, I assure you. Whether you like the means or not, is another matter. You want us to be protectors. Fine/ That was what your cute little speech was about, wasn’t it? You have no idea, the things the Council is turning its back on. Things that were outlawed for reasons.”

“So you want to start a war?” Kiannae challenged.

“They imprison people from birth, and make them think that prison is their home. Keep them afraid, teach them that they have no value, if they leave. They cross borders, and take children. Trap them in that life. Cattle if they are women, sheperds if they are men. I hear one of you called us a death cult, was it?”

Sasha stepped out of the back, pushed past Wren, and leapt out as well. She put her hand on the Kiannae’s shoulder, and stepped in front of her.

“Do I know you girl?” the man asked with a half sneer.

“Do you?” Sasha asked. “You knew my mother quite well, and I came with the package, you had some hand in that. I heard your voice, and didn’t want to believe it, but it’s you. Red, it’s not the hair they call you that for. It’s because you always found yourself in with Red sisters, so they might as well call you out for it.”

“Sasha?” the man asked with a startled expression that almost showed his age.

“Fates, I knew, I did,” Sasha growled. “It’s happened before. It’s just not always here.”

“What in the abyss are you on about girl?”

“We’ve done this all before, so many ways. It usually works out, but I hate this part. This dance of whether you owe me something or not. You do. Just let us go. Don’t meddle in things I actually understand, and you never will. Just try, use everything you know, to move that staff. You can’t. I’ve seen this plan before, it always works. It’s just a question of how much trouble you make, for everyone else.”

“This, is your father?” Kiannae asked, and was caught somewhere between disgust, and gratitude she had spared the man.

“Such as I have one,” Sasha answered.

“Do you think I’m in charge here?” Red said with a laugh. “Oh, you have no idea how this works. Yeah, I know you know things girl, but I’m just someone to wear that old rallying cry. A distraction. So yes, all the cards on the table. There you are. My employer, who has convinced me of the cause, has gone to make sure you didn’t try to sneak the shard away. Yet here it is, as something new. I’m out of my depth.” He turned to Kiannae. “I knew that from the first time I met you.”

She resisted sneering.

“Yet I knew, when I met your caliber again,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve been told to expect, prophecy. To not underestimate you, but to do anything, in my power to keep you here. I obey, because I have seen your cause as just, and your role in it misguided. So hear the offer, have nice dinner, then reject if you will.”

“You were a brigand, who wanted to be king the last time we crossed paths,” Kiannae growled. “I don’t buy you just deciding you are the protector of the world.”

“Well, it takes more than one for that. It also takes an idea, of a world worth protecting.”

“Then who is in charge here?” Kiannae demanded.

“Only those who accept the offer, will ever learn that,” Elise answered. “Make this easy, let us offer you a warm bed, and hot meal, and a place in something greater.”

Katrisha leapt from the wagon, and pressed her sister and Sasha aside. “No. Let me make you an offer. End this now, and when I call, you join me. The Stormchild.”

Red smirked. “Move the staff.”

Katrisha grimaced. Reached through the barrier, grabbed hold, and pulled. It resisted just enough to let her know it was permitting her to play her gambit. It wasn’t hers to command.

Doubt showed on her face, because she was no more sure it belonged to Wren. ‘Summer wanted in.’ Was it Wren’s plan to prove a point, or hers, whoever she was.

“Have dinner with us,” he offered again.

Katrisha hesitated. First instincts no longer felt wise, alternatives seemed downright foolish. “Name a law you claim the Council is not upholding,” she challenged.

“Amendment Two,” Red answered.

Katrisha cringed at the implication, her hand tightening on her staff.

“Oh, but of course, indoctrinated all their lives, it’s not against their will. Little loophole there. Only the women of course, or men without gift. Nothing that prevents the breeding of more gifted to their cause. Some, even stolen from foreign lands. Made to fear desire, they welcome having temptation taken from them. It’s happening, even in Palentine, and not just the forsaken lands of the Ascension. We’ve rescued a few, healed the scars, with great difficulty. Those of the mind are more challenging.”

Katrisha closed her eyes, and took a breath. She had known there was a chance, a feeling that she would be faced with something more difficult than an enemy. Something that she could not just destroy. Not that such thoughts were easy for her to begin with.

“Yes,” she answered, and released her shield which fell in glimmering filaments. She didn’t have to turn to see the looks on the other’s faces. She wasn’t happy with herself, she had no illusions they would be.

Elise stepped forward, again that cautious approach somewhere between a saunter, and a swagger. She reached out, and gently brushed Katrisha’s cheek. “You are making the right choice,” she said in a honeyed tone.

“We are past, right choices,” Katrisha said stony faced. “So lead on.”

Elise frowned, and turned, along with half the gathered bandits toward a fortified old granary.

Kiannae grabbed her sister’s arm before she could follow. “You can’t be serious.”

“You passed your test. You even answered who sponsor for Amendment Two, and why. I guess, given that, I want to hear what they have to say.”

Kiannae glanced to Sasha not sure if she expected support, or reassurance. She got neither, as the woman turned to follow with a shake of her head. Wren got down carefully from the wagon, and moved closer. Katrisha glanced to the roof, but Etore was gone.

“You are sure about this?” he asked.

Katrisha released the crystal staff, which hung where he left it, and followed. Wren eyed it suspiciously, and snatched it from the air. It followed him, with little resistance.

To call the bandit’s ramshackle dining hall rustic, might have passed for flattery. Mismatched tables, chairs, and benches. Old sheets and curtains used as table cloths. Magical torches used for light, and not safer alternatives.

A vast feast was laid out, but eyes slowly noticed what was missing. No meat. Though there were cheeses, and eggs of varied description arrayed delicately.

“Sit, sit,” Red said, having taken a position at the head of the line of tables. “Eat what you like.”

“And how do we trust none of it is drugged?” Kiannae asked.

“Some of it is,” Red laughed. “Avoid the purple honey mead, unless you wish to have a very pleasant evening. Don’t eat too many of the little flower cookies, and you’ll only feel a little light. The rest is exactly what it appears, though the wines and ciders have the usual edge.”

Katrisha found an open seat, across from Elise. The woman sat, and Katrisha did the same. Wren hesitantly moved beside her, eyeing the woman on his left suspiciously. Well more than half the hall were women, and what few men there were, gave only passing glances. Kiannae took a seat at the end of the table, and glared down at their host. Sasha, reluctantly sat between the twins.

All who still stood took seats, and began eating without further hesitation. Though some bowed their heads, a moment, and closed their eyes.

“Who are you people, really?” Katrisha asked.

“You and your friend have it about half right,” Elise answered. “The dregs of a Clarion death cult, become a Lycian life cult. No meat, if you didn’t notice.”

“Not that Lycia, or Sylvia have ever openly encouraged such abstinence,” Katrisha challenged.

“Nor do we require it, but meat is such a waste here in the wildlands. Eggs, and some milk are more sustainable.” She took a bite of an egg half prepared with a dollop of spiced and whipped yolk. Clear pleasure crossed her face, and she bit her lip, and smiled rather than chew.

“The Red Mage of legend did die?” Katrisha pressed.

“Yes,” Red answered. “It is a title bestowed on one who is willing to be seen by the world, but held but one who lives in shadows.”

Elise swallowed. “Yet the six who stood with her, were not all who saw the truth, or the failure of Sylvia’s pacifism. Sylvia herself saw that truth, when she gave her order to a dragon. In her own words, she could not be an avatar of death. So we do not judge those, who do not have the strength to stand against the darkness in this world.”

“I think it’s strength, to restrain your hand,” Kiannae challenged.

“Tell that to my men in Niven,” Red said with a repressed sneer.

“I’ll tell it to you,” Kiannae said.

Etore was shoved suddenly into a seat next to Sasha to everyone’s surprise.

“Told you she’s a slippery one,” Elise said with a laugh to a tall woman holding a sword to Etore’s back.

“Not the most peaceful sign of your intentions,” Katrisha chided.

“Mercenaries don’t get a gentle hand,” Red answered the challenge.

“Ones already close to the path…” Elise started. “Well, we don’t actually have rules about that. Doesn’t happen often. Normally if one of our Sisters passes through, we just leave them be, but she is of another training. Some, harsher, and cruler. Some, far too gentle.” Her eyes fell on Sasha.

A blond woman across from Wren eyed him with a mischievous smile as she took a roasted corn cob from the stack he was considering, and bit into it. She licked her lips, and he looked down. They were all like Elise, and like the Red Sisters he knew. Utter confidence, and coy manners that belied the games they might play.

At the head of the table Red poured a faintly purple liquid from a silver pitcher, into a crystal goblet. He drank of the cup, and smiled. “I, like having fun evenings,” he said with a chuckle at his guests dubious expressions. “I assure you, it’s all just food, prepared in your honor. Nothing to dull your senses, more than a fine meal, if you avoid what I told you.”

About half those present poured themselves drinks of similar description. Others chose what was likely red wine, or golden ciders. Most were eating, though all seemed to linger in every small bite.

Wren took a cob of corn, which earned him a defiant look from Kiannae. He shrugged, and bit into it. The blond across raised her purple hued goblet to him at that, her lips already stained with the color.

“What is this purple honey mead?” Katrisha asked with suspicious curiosity, and no intention to eat, or drink anything.

“Extracts of sacred flowers, and honey mead,” Red answered.

“The same mixture used to alter the senses of the first assassin’s,” Elise added. “To make them pliant. Though we have chosen the herb of the mind, and the flesh will follow.” She took a sip of her own cup.

“What we will be, offered, if we accept a place in this order of yours?” Sasha asked.

“Yes,” Elise answered. “Along with a path to a place of greater being, and a role in repairing this broken world. You have seen the shadowed place, Sister. I see it in your eyes. So few do, in that pitiful excuse for the right. She learned it from us. Your great Sylvia, and we, learned her truth as well.”

“Someone did, long before you were born,” Sasha challenged her. “Someone who betrayed all that Sylvia stood for, and went to war.”

“Sylvia herself called it a war, we are in a war,” Elise said thin lipped. “A war for the hearts, and minds of the people. Yet a cancer must be destroyed, not fed. Our order is born of all that is good, and all that is unjust in this world. A light, that shines before that darkness. A defiant flame.”

“Because the Council will not act,” Katrisha interjected.

“Yes,” Elise sneered. “They exist to prevent war, at all costs, except to bring it. You said it well. We are beyond right and wrong. At the place where the choice is to do nothing, and let a wrong consume this world. That will bring war inevitably. So I say stand, and fight for what we believe, while a difference might still be made.”

“Yet you have been fighting longer than that, haven’t you?” Katrisha pressed.

“Remove the infection,” Elise said her eyes narrowed, and fell slightly, before looking up defiant. “That the body might heal. There are those who we cannot save, and whom we cannot permit to do further harm. The Assassins, were made for a purpose, and we have found it, in a great and purer form.”

“What about him?” Kiannae demanded, gesturing to the opposite head of the table. “He, was saved, or so you all claim. How are you so sure, who can be, or can’t?”

“The ones who beat their own daughters for sleeping with men. Who spit on them for crying, and tell them they are filth, unworthy even to be cast out to live as whores,” Etore said through gritted teeth. “That, was the first viper I gave a sword through the back.”

“See, she understands,” Elise said raising her glass towards Etore.

“Thieves, and bandits, have nothing on the cruelty of lords and their pitiful spawn,” Etore added, giving Katrisha an indecisive look. “Doesn’t mean I’m much for joining pitiful fools, who think they can change the world. Knock one lord down, another follows. The world loves to stay in order.” She looked around the table. “So offer me what you will, and I’ll even drink. I’m not afraid of you lot, so can I have the sword out of my back. Please?” she stressed.

The woman holding Etore at attention withdrew her blade, and shoved it in a scabbard. Etore poured from a pitcher into a metal cup, and drank from it with barely a toasting gesture, before gulping it down. She slammed it on the table, took an apple, and bit into it.

Katrisha took some corn, sniffed it still suspicious, and ate.

Sasha closed her eyes, shook her head, and reached out. She took one of the flower shaped cookies, and bit into it.

Kiannae threw her hands up, shook her head, and took one of the prepared eggs. “To the Abyss with everything,” she declared, made a mock toasting gesture as well, and ate it in one indelicate bite. She sat, and glared at the man she was again almost regretting letting go.

Sasha smiled. She was light-headed, and everything felt soft and slightly cool. A blond she had stolen away before she could convince Wren of anything, was far more lost than her. The woman had found a quiet corner to press her luck, and Sasha was not quite ready to complain. She sighed.

“You like that,” the other woman murmured.

“Of course. Why wouldn’t I?” Sasha hummed. It was very tempting, but there were things worth more than the moment. She’d never been entirely ignorant of that, much as she tried. “Doesn’t mean I want to take, what you offer.”

The woman fell suddenly to her knees under the power of Sasha’s aura.

“I found the place you lot revere, on desire alone. Not because I was cowed by needing a place to belong, but because I did.” Sasha knelt down, and cupped the woman’s cheek.

“Fates you feel good,” the woman groaned her eyes unfocused.

“Fate.” Sasha laughed. “I defy it.”

“Just because you got me, doesn’t mean someone else didn’t get your little man.”

Sasha shook her head. “You understand nothing. I want you, but not as much as I want someone else. What a gift.” She smiled. “If you think I pulled you away for jealousy, over that little man you were trying to convince…” She smiled. “Let me tell you the truth. I’m doing this for you. Do yourself a favor, and walk away. From him, from me, and most of all from this place. The Sisters, will welcome you.”

The woman was trembling. “Who are you?”

“One who was, one who is, one, who will be free.” Sasha patted the woman’s cheek, stood, and walked away.

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