Chapter III:41

The means shall never match the ends,
a complacent world only stirs ambition,
lambs at peace invite the wolves of war,
the conquers one day shall fall, it’s sure,

what we intend may bear fruit this day,
but fields not left fallow shall wither away,
a once hearty grain for years, blight strains,
the convenient path, always comes again.

– Consequences, 312 E.R.

The Failures of Gods

The Lost Winter, some would call it, though others persisted it was Summer, Fall, or Spring. There were months of each that never were, or were, for some. A year gone almost before it began, or that felt like it would never end. The bakers still woke, and made their bread. Servants still shined shoes, and sorted beds. Kings sat upon their thrones, and a Council bickered, and made moves for power.

It had begun amongst such moves, as a staff was wedged in a ley line nexus. It had ended, much the same, as its great power was ripped away, at the last rays of sun on the Council dome. The moment of the lowest potential, there between the highs of midday, and night, on the eve of the equinox. If that was truly important, no consensus was ever reached. A quirk in grander schemes, or crucial to all that transpired.

That the world itself did not tremble was strange, for the peoples surely would. Though the city was nearly untouched, reports in the morning show others had lost anything from a few more days, to another year. An event radiating out from Mordove in a pattern like broken glass. Even within the city a few did wake thinking it was the wrong week.

It would not have been so bad, if all the time had only vanished. While some neighbors would argue over the month, others were less fortunate. Stranded islands of fragmented time carried on. People trapped, looking out on a world running in mad loops, short or long. Panic made little things go unnoticed at first.

Sylvans and humans fell into conflict along the eastern border of the great west forest. The consequence of isolated groups, and unable to fend fully for themselves. Hunger came, the stores depleted, slower than perhaps they should have been, but fast enough to drive rash actions. Intrusions, and skirmishes turned to raids, and battles. Too few who spoke both languages, to even arrange the possibility of negotiated peace.

It took weeks to realize that they were fighting the same people, again and again. Those sure someone had died, often found them alive another day. Doing the most mundane of things, like nothing had ever happened.

Far worse, the living sometimes vanished without a trace. An exact number of those lost was never settled. No records could account for the birth of half so many as those remembered. Hundreds, the history books would have to suffice to say.

The Osyraen capital would wake to one of its richest quarters, pillaged by one of the poorest. Lords reduced to slaves, and merchants turned warlords. Troops were pulled back from many outer garrisons to restore order, and the rhyme or reason left to the judgements of a king. A man impressed by the resolve of some, and dismayed by failure of others.

In Napir, the great tree Blightsbane’s turned silver in its boughs. A nation largely unscathed, but confused by events, had a very unsettled Queen. A new devout Cult of Laeun had claimed the roots of the great tree as home. Stranded for nearly a year they were led by druids, and a northern woman who claimed no title, but great sway. They had wrung the mage-blood from fallen leaves, and soaked the soil. Such to grew crops that fruited the day planted, for anything left to the night never was, or withered.

No matter the rippling consequences, it all ended as suddenly as it began. The seasons resumed, caught up, and went on. The alignment of stars, and planets, and the length of the day gave a date of the spring equinox, of an unknown year. Many near the center, would wake that morning not knowing anything new had changed. The city of Mordove, left behind the farthest of all.

Though the year of 656 E.R. appears in many records, and the next more rarely, it made no sense to continue the imperial calendar. When the world found time to reconcile, all dates after the vernal equinox would later be place in a new year, of a new era.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Vernum 5th, Year 1, Stormfall

It was early morning, just after dawn as Kiannae put on a heavy, but nondescript cloak. She pulled up the hood and walked out the apartments. Her staff was in hand, to the protest of a guard, who quickly stood down at a single sidelong glance from the woman. He almost knelt under the fury of her presence, as he had on the path to the Council chamber.

She could have just sent a letter, to warn Selene of what Taloe had told her. That the heralds would seek a mirror. She worried in her troubled state that she should have, if she was going to delay even till morning. So she hurried.

There was not a lot reasonable in her worry, and yet there was not a lot of reasonable left in her life. It made the unreasonable haunting. The heralds would surely seek to protect anyone they thought a shadow of their god, but that had gone poorly for Aster. Thinking on the woman left an empty ache inside of her. Loss and anger tangled up in a bitter knot in her stomach. For who on either count, she could not decide. None of it was sensible.

The weather seemed warm that morning, as though the terrible entropic winter had finally ended, and an early summer moved to catch up. It seemed likely. What that meant for the world she was not sure. Would everything return to normal? Whatever normal looked like after all that had transpired, and remained unresolved. A powder keg had been missed by a lightning strike, but fires raged nearby. She worried that Aster’s ominous omens might have been all that was holding the world back. Preventing the plummet over an inevitable precipice.

She pressed on through the streets stewing upon everything. That it was only going to get worse, a constant refrain in her mind, before she had even learned it already had.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

An Osyrae woman in a long white nightgown stepped from the shadows of a shuttered room. Her hair was messy, and dark, though a few fading strands peppered it’s curly length. She looked more a girl than woman if not for this sign of age. Her expression one of almost childlike wonder at what she saw.

Another Osyraen with thick locks of red knelt before her. Even ungifted eyes could see the glow bleeding through her scabbard. Though not even the gifted had seen her sneak in. Except the one fascinated woman before her, who had never see a sylvan.

“My Lady,” Elise said trembling.

The woman reached out, and patted her on the head. “Good kitty,” she said in an almost childlike voice, stroking the woman’s hair. “It’s ok kitty, she hears you.” The woman held her other hand clutched over her heart. Her eyes drifted to a little box on a nightstand, and she bit her lip.

The door burst open, and Selene looked terrified. “Get away from her!”

Elise stood, turned, and swiftly drew her glowing blade. “I am her servant, to the death. I will not leave her side, I will not let another fall. You, are not worthy to guard her, traitor.”

“Fall?” Selene demanded with worry. She had been in seclusion for a day of rest, and meditation. To calm frayed nerves from all she seemed powerless to address. That was loss in an instant, as she realized it had clearly been a very bad day to pick. A servant had just informed her of an instant visitor, but she had sent them on, noticing a door that shouldn’t have been open. There heard voices inside. “You will move away, or die where you stand,” Selene said, assuming a defensive posture, unarmed.

Elise lunged, and Selene slipped effortlessly out of the strike. She grabbed Elise’s arm, and kneed he in the stomach, but the blade swung too close, and forced her to retreat. She pulled a decorative sword from the wall, but it chipped, snapped, and broke after only two strikes. Sizzling sparks of metal, and shards struck the floor. Spells broke over Elise harmlessly.

The barefoot woman backed away from the struggle, and both combatants seemed determined to stand between each other and her. The first furniture took blows from the glowing sword, drawers, and tables thrown in Elise’s face were deflected, or sliced in half. The sword stuck for a moment in an armoire, and Elise ducked out of a tackle, came back up and yanked pulled free of a smoldering hole.

Selene caught Elise’s arm again, and struck her hand, but barely escaped a twist that brought the blade close to her face. She let go, and evaded another series of deadly sweeps. The woman was far better than Selene had ever been led to believe, and that said a great deal. If she was armed with real weapons, she might have stood a chance. The power burning off the sword gave Selene pause if even mage-iron could withstand it. It was almost unlike anything she had ever seen, but only almost.

She managed to direct another table into a thrust, catching the sword again. Kiannae burst into the room, even as servant outside screamed, and ran. Elise came around with a swing into a staff. Kiannae cringed with a twinge of pain. Taloe appeared, grabbing hold of Elise from behind, and tried to hold onto her. She flipped the blade in her hand, and stabbed backwards catching his leg which. A sudden pain in Kiannae’s brought to her knees, and he came apart. Elise swung back up with incredible backhanded grace into a desperate block.

Selene tried for a tackle again, dodged a sword swing, and fell. Elise came back at Kiannae even as Selene grabbed her ankle, and tried to pull her off balance. The blade struck a mushroom on the staff which burst in luminous spores as Elise staggered into it. She was left coughing, and swinging wildly. The stave sent shocks of pain through Kiannae as she parried blows. The staff took the strikes, even if golden flares showed through chipped bark.

Elise rolled out of a counter, saw an opening on Selene, and thrust her sword with deadly intent. Selene tried to dodge, but even through shadow only got off center. She took the searing blade through her shoulder, and screamed. The sword was yanked out, and absorbed a lightning strike harmlessly. To both remaining combatant’s surprise.

The woman in the nightgown had backed up to her nightstand. She had her hand on the little box, and snatched it up as she ran to Selene. She put her hand over the gushing wound, as Kiannae and Elise fell upon each other. Ignoring their furious parries, ripostes, and dodges. Elise stepped through shadow effortlessly, but Kiannae always managed to catch the strike. She had mastered feeling the steps, but not entering.

Searing light burst from Selene’s shoulder under the woman’s hand. The shaking girlish figure stood up with momentary conviction, and her voice boomed. <Stop.>

Everything did. Kiannae froze, and Elise stumbled backwards, fell, and turned dazed to the woman in her white gown.

“I’ll go,” the woman said in a childlike way again.

Elise leapt up, snatched the woman’s hand, and pulled her from the room. Kiannae struggled free of the power binding her, lost her balance and caught herself on her staff. She looked out the door where the others had ran, and to Selene convulsing on the floor. She moved to her side, and checked the wound. It burned to get near it, and the look of agony on the Selene’s face said plainly that it was far worse for her.

Kiannae thrust her arms under, lifted, and carried her out. Rushing to find a servant, and directions to healers.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“Why?” Kiannae growled, standing behind Amalia looking out over the city in the late morning sun. “Why did you do it. I need to know why, to know if you are worth destroying.”

Amalia laughed. “Oh, do I want to be worth that, or not?” she asked mockingly. She half turned her head over her shoulder. “Is this what you call lying low? No mater. The reason, is every reason. You will never understand, until you at last realize why you hate me. It’s something so much more, than you have ever once imagined, or proclaimed aloud before the Council.”

“Why?” Kiannae demanded. “If you know, then tell me.”

“Oh, you’ll see it, one day. Feel, what it is you’ve been missing all along,” she hummed something to herself absently. “The world is full of mirrors, for a goddess to gaze into, and see herself. You think, you know what this means, but you have not begun to understand, if you still don’t know why you hate me.”

“Are you her?” Kiannae said gripping her staff.

“Do you know the story of the veiled women?” Amalia asked absently.

“No,” Kiannae answered guardedly. She at the woman like she might be mad, or just trying to distract her.

“This world does love to forget inconvenient truths. That alongside the great Father of Clarion faith, was a Matron in White. It was not men who placed the veils upon the faces of orthodox women, to protect them from men’s desires, or hide their own shame. Helio the Veiled, whose brilliance and love affair with a young prince cost her greatly. I always admired her, in spite of every contrary reason. A jealous man burned her work, raped her, and took her eye. When he was punished, she spared his life. She said to take from him all that he took from her, and to let him live with all the pains that she would long endure.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” Kiannae snarled.

“Nothing, really, just where my mind is. No, I am not Estae, or Rhaea, or even Aster. Poor Aster, I did hope she would win.” There was a slight sadness in her voice. “I knew she wouldn’t, but hope does springs eternal. How did you even find me here? No, I don’t care, just leave child. You are wasting both of our time. You don’t want to see the truth.” She turned and glared at Kiannae, her face a mask of pity more than anything.

“Try me,” Kiannae said.

“I made a bargain. To take your staves, which I would have any way, but to give them back when the time was right. In a few hours the Council will have a change of heart, after their vote to oust me fails, again. I magnanimously will consent they are too dangerous, too… volatile, and we will demand they all be taken away. Far away, from this city.”

“What does that have to do with what you are?” Kiannae demanded, bewildered.

“Do you know the difference between a pawn and a queen?”

“Don’t give me trite platitudes.”

“Ah, but the common saying is not the point. No, some of us are born Queens, but we are all just pieces in the game to a player. Only the king must be saved. You are looking at the wrong game, and have seen the wrong pieces. Funny that, you Lycian women make things so much more complicated, when reading prophecy.”

Kiannae just stood there, as though still demanding a real answer.

Amalia shook her head, disappointed. “I have an impossible promise to keep, and then, we shall see what other things are then surely doable.”

“What does that mean?” Kiannae demanded.

“Ask her,” Amalia said.

Kiannae dug her nails into her palms, and Amalia ignored her, and turned back out over the city.

“Ask who?”

“Your sister, if she is your sister.”

“You’ve failed at something,” Kiannae said vengefully, and ignored the dig at her confidence. One that spoke of knowing far more than she should. “You want to know why I’m here, why or how I tracked you down? Your mother, has been taken. The ‘King,’ you wanted to protect, by betraying. Oh, we read prophecy just fine. The acolytes of your fallen god, clung to the last vestige of her they could find, and took her.”

Amalia’s tense pose shifted, and she leaned on the rail.

“I’m here, because I saw the cost. I saw the broken shell you were trying to save. I had to know, however wrong you are, if at there was anything noble in you. If you would cry, to hear your fate-mother was run through with the same sword that killed Aster. That healers struggle to save her even now. It has become something accursed, worse than mage-iron, and you know what such wounds can do.”

Amalia was trembling.

“The answer is yes, then,” Kiannae said, emotions she could not reconcile bubbling up. She looked down, and turned away. “You were worth destroying, with that news. I wish you all the luck in the world, surviving the path you are determined to walk. No worse than your enemies, and certainly no better. I hope that you save the few you actually love. I hope the body count does not one day, at last darken your hardened heart. Whoever, or whatever you are. Do not threaten my family again, or I will burn this city to the ground, if it’s what it takes to end you.”

Amalia had no answer, and Kiannae walked away.

There was a loud, uproarious crash. Banging, and series of clatters before Kiannae left the halls outside. She bore them no mind. Guards burst in, and she gestured behind her. She was past her hatred, but could feel no pity for the woman, only those who had gotten in her way.

“I wouldn’t if I were you,” she warned, lest others did, and a piece of railing tore through a door.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Kiannae strode into the commons, and Wren was the first to his feet as he noticed the blood on her sleeve. “It’s not mine,” Kiannae said waving him off.

“Whose is it?” Katrisha demanded on her feet next.

Kiannae walked over, and dropped into a chair. She took a long breath, not ready to deliver the news. “Selene.”

“Where is she?” Katrisha snapped.

“North section of the academy, with the healing guild,” Kiannae answered. “They won’t let you near her, she’s in very rough shape. Took the sword that killed Aster to the shoulder, nearly to the heart.”

Katrisha sat down, slowly. “Elise?” she asked.

“Yes, while taking Amalia’s mother captive, for whatever mad reason. She mostly just seemed broken, and child like. Though she did something to stop the bleeding from Selene’s shoulder. It’s hard to imagine she’s anything like what became of Aster, but she surely has Wren’s power of voice.”

“So far as we know, doesn’t that mean someone gave her their whole life?” Wren asked, and sat back down.

“There, is some correlation,” Katrisha obliged.

“So, the question is, is Elise the real threat, or, whatever’s her name?” Wren pressed.

“Rowana Rosecrest,” Kiannae answered. “That’s what the records said. She really didn’t seem like much, truly like a frightened child, and Selene was in no condition to answer questions.”

“This is getting worse, isn’t it?” Katrisha pressed.

“I don’t know,” Kiannae said. “Probably. I informed Amalia,” she added nervously.

“You did what?” Katrisha demanded.

“I went looking for her, for a lot bad reasons, but when I told the guards what had happened, I was told where I could find her. Before I broke the news, she claimed she is releasing the staves back to us, but assured me the vote of no confidence will fail.”

“What did she say, exactly?” Katrisha pressed.

Kiannae grimaced. “That she has an impossible promise to fulfill, and that then, she would see what else is doable.”

Katrisha threw her face into her hands.

“What does that mean to you?” Kiannae demanded, leaning forward at the reaction. “She implied you would know, but I didn’t really believe it.”

“It’s…” Katrisha huffed, and flopped back into the couch she was sitting on. “It’s something from a morning with Maeren, long ago. It slipped out the other day, just before…” She shook her head. “Adria quoted the rest back to me, which she shouldn’t have known, but she is a seer. There is no way, no way Amalia should know those words.”

“Oh, there are ways,” Kiannae said. “Your lover could be a traitor, or, in spite of her claims, Amalia could be another shadow of what took Aster. She seemed denied it, insisting she was something else, but I don’t trust either of them to tell the through. Is this all part of your plan? What are you trying to do you cursed woman?”

“I don’t know,” Katrisha said exhausted. “What ever I’ve done, I’ve hidden it from all of us — even myself — and I can’t even guess why. Unless it’s just that I have faith, that if I placed us where we needed to be, we would make the right choices, for the rights reasons.”

“Well, it didn’t work, did it? Aster’s dead, Selene gravely wounded, and some poor childlike woman taken captive. Who knows how much worse it will get.”

“You said,” Katrisha stressed through gritted teeth. “That Selene, just felt like loss to you, but she’s alive, right? Gravely wounded, yes, but the best healers in this world are with her.”

“That is some thin pretense to put any more faith in your invisible plan, that you don’t even know. Aster, is dead!” Kiannae repeated furiously, leaned back and covered her face.

“Have you considered, that might have been inevitable? That what was happening to her was by all accounts fatal,” Katrisha said uneasily.

“One account, if we are to believe Lota, where is that cursed fox?” Kiannae demanded.

“Sleeping,” Wren answered. “Along with Shadow, or whatever you’re calling him.”

“Not now,” Lota complained, as she slunk out of a half open bedroom door. “Aster is not dead.”

“I saw her die,” Kiannae protested.

“I saw the body too,” Katrisha offered sadly. “Did none of us mention it? I’m, sorry you’re learning this way.”

“I saw it too,” Lota answered. “Unlady die, Aster not. She take Shadow out oth Thaea, she take Aster out oth Thaea. Not all he deals untrue, I think.”

“No,” Kiannae muttered. “You mean that white woman, the one who was pregnant? Zale… I was led to believe is the father, but Aster?”

“Is change child, as Shadow. Is hers, though not oth essence, no darkness inside.” Lota strode closer, and sat between chairs.

Kiannae rubbed her face. “I don’t know that counts as not dead,” she said almost pleadingly.

“Know it count, as dead?” Lota pressed.

“Thin, distinctions, to trust that any of this is according to a good plan,” Kiannae groaned, and crossed her arms. At once desperately wanting to believe the claim, and refute it.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t there,” Katrisha offered. “Mother, or whatever that girl is, pulled me away. She said it was not my pain, and that she would take the blame, but I’m sorry.”

“You were there Kat, because I was there, because she was there, because I’ve seen so many lives, that I don’t know who I am anymore. You were right, we faced it together, just on different days, in different worlds. She also confirmed again, I’m the real one.” Her words were snide, and mocking. “Only, the real one trips in that cursed burrow, after all. Seems so convenient, that Adria, and the nightmare, both confirmed this. So simple, to presume she was in league with them all along.”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” Katrisha said. “What do you want me to tell you? You tell me, which one am I? The original, or the copy? Which do you want to be? Who, do you want, to be?”

Kiannae looked down, and found a fox sniffing her leg. A bit of a distraction in the midst of everything. Lota trotted over, and sniffed Katrisha. She sat, and tilted head. “Is not alike, is not so unalike. Dies, and scents. Is girls, is Sylthn, has no children. Should has children, is good.”

“So, helpful,” Kiannae said exasperatedly, and rubbed her eyes.

“So, as far as you can tell, you don’t know which one of us is just a copy, a living spell made flesh and blood?” Katrisha pressed.

“Is these things. Is skin, and structure, skill, and thought. Is like Torta, each, changed.”

“Changed how?” Kiannae demanded, sitting up.

“Like Aster, like dire thing, stronger. Changed. All do it, a little.”

“So, who do you want to be?” Katrisha repeated. “Are you Kiannae, the woman you’ve been all your life, or will you persist to quibble over some idea I’ve tricked you?”

“You have, if not this time, another.”

“That’s not an answer to my question, what do you want?”

“To just feel human again,” Kiannae resisted sobbing. “I don’t want any of this. I’m so tired of prophecy, and fate, life and death hanging on my shoulders. Going to warn someone, only to find her fighting to the death with a bloody assassin. I don’t want to be either of us. Not a god, Not queen. Not some cursed footnote, in the ravings of madmen. I just want to go away, far away, and be forgotten.”

Katrisha looked down, then up again. “Then do it. Take the foxes, go back to Helm. Find Lunka, and live your life there in the Westwood. I’m sure you’re capable. No one will bother you. I don’t even imagine if Osyrae invades the whole world, that they will trouble themselves with some underdeveloped forest of little strategic import. If that is what you want, then do it.”

Kiannae gave her sister a wounded look.

“It’s what I want you to do,” Katrisha said. “Not permission. Take it as a blighted request. Because then I don’t need to worry about you anymore. Then I can know you’re safe, somewhere no one is going to be able to hurt you. Or don’t. Continue down this mad path beside me, and whoever else is fool enough to follow. These are your choices, and not even your only ones. The whole world, everywhere, you could go anywhere, and be anyone, do anything. I know you don’t want to hear it, but you are choosing the paths you are walking. So what path is it going be?”

Kiannae stood up, fumed, and then marched into her room, and slammed the door.

“Well, that was honest,” Wren offered.

“But necessary,” Katrisha answered. “I don’t think she’ll take the advice, I know my sister better than that, and myself, for whatever it’s worth.” Katrisha rubbed her neck. “For all her quibbling, she’s not wrong.” She gave Wren a torn look. “The same goes for double for you. You’ve only just begun to learn to fight, and curse you are learning quick. That is not, a good sign. It’s really not. I know you’ve held this, in the end, whatever it is, even if you’ve hidden it from yourself. You don’t have to walk this path. There’s a girl out there somewhere, who might be your daughter, or your mother. Fates this family.”

Etore laughed, mostly ignored till then in her corner chair. Nothing to add, just watching the show. She’d taken to often having a drink in hand, for all her stoic acceptance of the way their lives went.

Wren glanced to her, and back to his sister. “I won’t say it isn’t tempting, but, then I’d have to worry about you. Also, I think I’m more use to some, where I am, and that is a consideration.”

Katrisha eyed Etore herself. “I’ve got a line for that writer of yours.”

“I wouldn’t call him, mine,” Etore said on guard.

“Of course not,” Katrisha obliged. “Don’t put your faith in prophecy, or gods, the past, or the Council. Put your faith in this family, in us.” She turned to the fox. “Lota, seven, to the seventh power, that is how long Tock claims we’ve been at this. Is it true?”

“As Lota knows it,” the torta said without conviction. “Is only as the Torta are told. All think it is true, cannot count this high, nor say.”

“We, have survived, where gods of myth have fallen. We, have come this far, against war mages, specters of regret, Council plots, assassins, woken gods, and forces of nature made flesh. Do not place your faith in yourselves, but in each other, and we will do impossible things. I know it.”

“I’m not sure, I signed up for impossible,” Etore offered halfhearted. “Maybe a little cabin in the Westwood is sounding better.”

“No, you signed up for doing the impossible, not failing at it. You want to be Queen of Osyrae. Let’s make that happen. Let’s upend the world, and turn all their schemes against them.”

“Oh, as soon as I hear a good plan.”

“I’m working on it.” Katrisha flopped back.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Leaves were falling. Red, yellow, and orange — the colors of fire, in a world turned cold. Kiannae pulled her cloak tighter, and willed a warmth into her skin. Her breath swirled before her. Everything felt soft, and yet bitter, an ache she could not name had hold of her heart.

She looked around trying to tell where she was. There were ghosts wandering through an orchard. This seemed like it should have been concerning, but felt normal. Someone stood by a tree a ways down. Kiannae tensed, but couldn’t say why the only other living person in that place troubled her. She rolled her neck, calmed herself, and walked closer, her every footstep growing slower. Her eyes darted to the distant phantoms, wondering if she would see a face she knew. She almost lost her footing as a short, broad shouldered, and balding ghost stepped forward. He dropped to a kneel beside her. She looked away, unable to bear the sight of him, and the guilt she felt, but the name seemed fragmented in her head.

“Horence,” she managed under her breath and hurried her steps, till she stopped before the woman by the tree. She did not recognize her, not until she looked up. Kiannae’s breath caught with emotions that did not belong.

Celia brushed back a lock of her hair, and looked sheepish. “Hi,” she finally said.

“I’m sorry,” Kiannae answered, with no idea why, and yet could not quite recall having said the words more earnestly.

Celia turned away almost angrily. “Did you really, come all this way…” She let out a heavy breath that swirled in the evening air. Spirals a bit too defined held Kiannae’s eye.

“Yes… No… What’s, the right answer? What answer makes the past ok?” What past eluded her. It was all foggy, and out of place.

“Why?” Celia answered. “Why her, and not me?”

Kiannae swallowed. “You… were like a sister,” she answered, but it felt like a lie. Certainly came out like one.

“Just the little Sister, the broken little Sister of Highvale, who wanted to be a mage.” It sounded almost more mocking than hurt.

“You aren’t broken,” Kiannae assured her, stepped forward, and put her hand on her shoulder.

“I know that,” Celia said, and pulled back. “Do you? My faith is sure, yours is the one in question. You are the one caught up in ideas of their world.” There was something else there, an anger turned inward.

<Hiding.>

Kiannae looked around, not even sure she had heard it. “Is something wrong?” she asked, trying to focus. Everything was blurring around the edges, the softness encroaching further.

“It’s nothing,” Celia said, turned, hesitated, then started walking.

Kiannae moved to catch up. “The least I can do, is be a friend to listen. At least dissuade me off any fool delusions that it’s all about me. That you haven’t been pinning all these years over some silly girl, who couldn’t see the treasure before her.”

Celia turned smartly, glared, and then softened. Her face was touched with little flares, like rain on a window, refracting lights somewhere outside through blurry eyes. “No, she said, it’s not about you. I fell in love, I moved on. She’s wonderful, adoring, everything a girl could want. I’m even sure she’ll be a wonderful mother.”

“Mother?” Kiannae asked, blinked, and the woman almost looked right. “Unless Lycian’s have upended all I know, in the fear years I’ve been away, I think, I can imagine what troubles you.”

“No, you can’t,” Celia said with a sneer. “My faith is pure, it’s just my heart that is errant, and only a little.”

“Oh, I understand that all too well,” Kiannae said. “My heart, and my faith told me one thing, but my body did not oblige, and my mind rebelled. It wasn’t you. It wasn’t that you were like a sister. An easy lie, because we were that close. It was my mother. It was painful to think I was like her, even if I wanted to believe there was nothing wrong in it. It felt still like betrayal, it still felt like her giving up that father would ever come back.”

Celia stepped closer, reached out her hand, and though Kiannae tensed, she did not pull away as she reached up, and traced a silver lock. Kiannae tilted instinctually into the palm, as it came down to her cheek. They had been so close, and all at once she knew she had never known the girl, it was coming apart.

“It suits you,” Celia offered.

<Kiss her.> It echoed in Kiannae’s head, and she wanted again to look for a source. <This, could be now,> followed in a wistful offer too implausible to believe.

Kiannae grabbed Celia’s hand, kissed the back of her palm, and looked into her eyes. “I love you,” she said. It felt at once necessary and hollow. She turned, and strode away with a torn heart. Something wasn’t right, but her mind rebelled to tell her what. She wasn’t even sure who she was, and that deepened as she realized, she didn’t know her own name.

Celia stammered, and then marched after her. She moved to speak, but everything stopped, and a leaf hung half-way down. It lost its color ever so slowly. Kiannae turned back on a woman holding up a finger as though ready to give her a piece of her mind.

“She’s even prettier when she’s angry.” The voice was close. Kiannae spun again, and stepped back, her defensive pose obscuring the smaller woman.

It looked like Aster, dressed as she had been that night at her house. Barely an improvement over the naked creature she had faced in the caverns. Aster shook her head. “I mean the girl no harm, nor you… Mostly.”

“I don’t believe you,” Kiannae snapped, but her gift would not obey, betraying her.

The faun smiled. “Such a beautiful sorrow, but you could change it. Fill her heart with joy, until another tragic end. Better, than to waste time on fear, and doubt, and the lies you tell yourself. That these rules, are your own.”

“So much for you having no power,” Kiannae challenged ignoring the bitter words.

“In your world? Over flesh and bone? None. When you broke our bond, your pet caught me on an unbreakable leash. The one you made, out of bits and pieces, wishes and dreams of failed men. Here though, in dreams, knowledge is another thing, and as that ghost said, I know a lot.”

“Are we still in the cave?” Kiannae glanced around, frightened. Feeling more herself.

“We could be, if you like.” The orchard fell dark. Mushrooms burst from the bark of trees, providing light into a fading night. Tangled vines clung floor to ceiling, and replaced the trunks. Leaves turned to dangling moss, strung with glimmering gems.

The faun had disappeared, and then Kiannae felt her pressed against her from behind. Warm, soft, horribly uninvited, and terribly inviting. Her heart trembled with fear, and a sudden misplaced ache only the least unpleasant. Arms wrapped around her, and hands wandered at once improperly, and shy of greater impropriety. Gift pulled at every nerve-ending like a delightful spider web, plucked behind languid fingers. Her body betrayed her, and arched for the touch. She felt her cheeks flush, her lips hang open, then broke free furiously.

She turned, gasping, and Aster was looking away, stroking a woman’s cheek with the back of her hand. The figure dangled, bound in spells, and flowing water. Aster looked up at a Kiannae with a smile. “You do good work,” she said in honest praise, that felt all the more mocking for it.

It blurred around the edges again, but Kiannae felt her connection to it all. She gave a startled wave of her hand, and the water, and spells unwound. The groaning woman set gently on the ground, and Kiannae could feel herself undo it. A shadow of what the spirit claimed was her work echoing back upon her. Making her shiver that it was not the least, unpleasant. She moved to the woman’s side, eyeing Aster cautiously. Her boughs were again strung with flowing golden thread, that jangled as she shook her head.

Kiannae put her hand to the woman’s cheek, and glassy eyes blinked, as the woman turned to her weakly. “Why?” she asked almost horse, which tore a panicked fear and guilt through Kiannae. “I’m sorry I said… I didn’t mean it… Why did you stop? I’m ready.” She trembled. “Show me the shadowed place,” she sobbed, begging. “Don’t… listen to me when I panic.”

Kiannae pulled back, and turned away. She wrapped her arms around herself. She felt a hand on her shoulder. “It’s ok,” Aster said softly. “I know the things you’ve imagined, and that to you, this is almost worse. I don’t want pain, nor like it. I only accept that is. That on every path from these dark places we are imprisoned, there will be pain. We are broken, and though the gift can numb it with pleasures, there will always be suffering. It is better to move past it, until you can let it go. Unless it is too beautiful, and becomes joy.” There was a clear amusement at that, and a shiver in both.

Kiannae felt hot breath on her neck, and wanted to hate everything about the creature, but she felt its pity. She hated it for pitying her, and yet felt comforted. “Such kindness I’ve shown you, but all you want to remember, is the suffering others put in your heart. It makes me want to hate you, and break you. To mend you again, but I won’t be your monster, your one to blame. Not anymore. If you must feel the pain to heal, so be it. My shadow will stand behind you, until at last you let go, or embrace the truth.”

It was a heavy, stifling presence. Kiannae’s heart beating fast for every reason. “Oh, calm little bird, trapped in a cage. I like this game, keeping you on the edge. Too much excitement and you wake, but I want you excited. Thrilled, and crying my name. Maybe like other things, I can teach you to hang on. Teach you to be here with me, where he can’t interfere. Do you think he’ll be jealous? Knowing what you feel, how tempted you are. He holds my leash, but you hold his. You could free me.”

An arm wrapped around her, a hand slid over her belly. It was an embrace Taloe had given her a hundred times. She wanted to hate how it felt, and to surrender her last breath.

“I can show you who you really are. Me.” The last word was a harsh whisper that sent a jolt down her spine.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Kiannae woke with frantic gasps, and sat up curling protectively as she had in the dream. When she realized where she was, she pounded her bed furiously, and collapsed sobbing. She felt the shift, and tensed but could not react more than that. Nothing until she looked up with tear stained cheeks, and glared at Taloe with spite. “You didn’t tell me, she could haunt my dreams.”

“I didn’t know.”

“Oh, yes, keep claiming that,” she growled.

“I’m still who I always was,” he said reaching out. “Just a little more.”

She winced, eyes squeezed shut, but did not pull away. “Who you were, was a lie,” Kiannae challenged. It was undercut by leaning her head into his touch, and crying when she wanted to be stoic and angry. He was as magnetic as the spirit in the dream, but exuded a gentleness the specter did not.

“You’re one to talk, Goddess of the Storm,” he offered in turn. It was not the least apologetic, or spiteful. A mocking jab said with such love.

She looked up again, everything warring inside. It felt like trust, was letting it win. It felt like fear, was letting it win. A third path lay open, but it screamed of no lesser folly.

She grabbed him, kissed him, and had him with furry, tears, and love. Her body needing his presence, and her heart needing anything, as her pride needed simply to win. Her power unleashed, her rage, her hope, her fear, her worst and best self. If anyone could survive her, it was him, and perhaps, she could stop being afraid of her own shadow.

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