Chapter III:42

It begins with a pitiful cry of despair,
not the prideful voice of the grand,
a plea for mercy never answered,
then those downtrodden stand,

the threat of pain and death fades,
if obedience is met all the same,
the cowed become dangerous,
when a king snuffs hope’s flame.

– Conquerors Folly, circa 80 B.E.

Defiance

Vernum 6th, 1 S.R.

A guard entered the common room, looked between two siblings finishing breakfast, and bore no mind to a woman in the corner, getting a drink. “You’ve a visitor,” he said to no one in particular. “I’m not exactly sure you’re allowed visitors — all things considered — but… Well, she was rather insistent she’s family. Forgive me though, I thought your names were Ashton, not Grey. Mother’s side I suppose.”

“Technically, no,” Katrisha offered. “My sister and I were adopted by the Court Mage of Avrale, which makes us, sort of family to almost anyone named Grey.”

“Well, unless you would rather I get rid of her, I suppose I’ll let her in. Seems harmless enough. Certainly more so than any of you.” He turned around to find a woman in a hood standing behind him. “Or, you know, just ignore the fact no one ever listens to the guard.” He threw up his hand, and walked out past the woman as she pulled off her hood.

She was quite old. Even well-preserved, and very gifted, there was a certain skeletal quality to her features. Her hair looked to have been slicked down with something, lest it be unruly for how fine it had become. Her eyes lacked the expected silver, a pale piercing blue that settled on Katrisha. “Well, I have no question you are one of the talks of the town, at the center of every other.” Her expression became more shrewd. “Narina Grey,” she added, and nodded in apology for her manner.

“Come in. Sit down. I’m Katrisha, this is my brother Wren, my twin is still sleeping, but I could wake her. Some others are lurking about, harder to keep track of.”

“No, don’t bother her.” The woman walked over in a stately manner, and took a very proper seat across from the two cautious siblings.

“What relation are you to Laurel?” Wren asked.

“His mother,” Narina intoned with cold reserve.

“I’m sorry,” Katrisha apologized, startled. “I should have recognized the name. In my defense, Mother was more common.”

“Understandable,” Narina said, measured, but still less than pleased. “You also don’t have to pretend he spoke of me often. I do not imagine he hates me nearly so much his father, but I did not spare him what I might have. I assure you, my husband has no idea I’m here.”

“If we are being honest then,” Katrisha said. “I think he actually only ever mentioned you once. I’ll spare you the less than flattering context he was chiding me under.”

“That boy.” Narina shook her head. “That with his proclivities he took issue with mine. If, we are being honest that is… Forgive me, but what harm is left in it. He has done far worse in the eyes of the world, and that is a challenge for the ages. I tried to be a good mother to him, but what does one do with a child beset by prophecy, who sees through everything you try to hide? Brilliant, obstinate…” She put her head in her hands and started to cry. “I’m sorry. I told myself I could keep my composure, but age has not been kind to my temperament.”

“No judgements,” Katrisha offered. “His father he mentioned little more, and always with spite. I cannot imagine it was easy, living under a strict Clarion roof, as woman with any sort of passion, or life in her.”

She looked up, and grew stiff lipped again. “I’ve heard, you are not of such faith yourself. It’s rather one of those talks of the town. ‘The Lycian pretender to prophecy.’ Fates, how did my child windup tangled in such things? He hated it, he hated it all. The tutor my husband hired said he was the most gifted seer she had encountered, and he hated it. Math, astronomy, these were the things that gave him solace. I did… what little I dared, without angering my husband too much, to give him a chance. A hope of a secure life in the city, beyond the man’s cold reach. Then he ran away from that too. A caravan mage, of all the things to worry a mother’s heart.”

Katrisha looked down. “I… don’t know that I should tell you this, but I don’t think it was for a lack of gratitude. He built this huge orrery at the top of the tower on Broken Hill. All run off an elemental core you might recognize back there. It’s been maintaining a spell for decades, tracking the planets, trying to disprove what he found.”

“You have Norbert,” the woman said with a look of sudden recognition. “I suppose that makes sense. I read the will, and never wanted to read a legal document again. Still, legally next of kin, you would have it. What do you mean though, what he found?”

“The kind of thing he wasn’t allowed to publish, as an astronomer, or otherwise. The kind of thing that would scare a man to run to the far side of the world. He never told us, but we’ve learned quite recently some of his secrets.”

She gave a sympathetic look at that, and pressed on. “No, he wouldn’t have. Telling people hard things was never my son’s strong suit, but why did he run, even from Court Mage?”

“I don’t know,” Katrisha said. “I don’t even want to wager a guess, but, I would if you pressed. For family, as it were.”

“Wager, it’s better than I have, which is just a broken heart. I’m ready to learn my son died out there, rather than know nothing any longer.”

“I’m afraid I can no more relieve that doubt for you, than myself, but as you say, we are pretenders to prophecy. Although, in truth we’ve spent most of our lives pretending not to be. Yet it’s all tied to what he found. A possible proof for a working dark-companion theory. Unfortunately all that’s left is a partly burned set of notes, and a decades old enchantment that almost seems to have a mind of its own. It all threatens to upend our very understanding of gravity. Possibly is the Storm itself foretold, and the power behind the great disruption of time.”

“Perfect,” Narina said. “Yes, that sounds like my son.”

“I do not mean to be rude,” Wren began, “but I must ask, why have you sought us out now, after we have been in the city so long?”

“My cowardice finally ran out, when I heard the latest troubles you all are tangled in. Destruction, and theft of Council property. Barging into Council chambers — untouched by most accounts. Laying accusations against the sitting Archmage that no one will even speak aloud. Then, there are the fresh rumors of last night. A growing clamor, everywhere that this whole debacle with time got much worse.”

“What?” Katrisha asked worriedly.

“Supposedly there are reports from Napir, and Osyrae of dates as late as mid six-fifty-eight.”

Katrisha balked, and looked at her brother, who had gone pale.

“You haven’t heard yet?” Narian asked with surprise.

“Fifty-eight, really?” Katrisha demanded. “We had heard an extra half year passed while we were down in the caverns, but… Another year on top of it, just overnight?”

“Rumors, may be exaggerations, but the noise this is making is hard not to hear.” She shook her head. “Forgive me. Perhaps I am a fool for coming here. I did not expect you knew anything of my son’s fate. From all I’ve heard, less than I. My husband has forbid me to have anything to do with you, but… I think I’m through listening to him. Nearly ninety years of that blighted man. I just… I had to know for certain, and…” she grew thin lipped.

Katrisha looked shrewd. “I have all manner of questions you clearly have no answers for, so I suppose we must set that aside. You implied, and then held your tongue, that you know more than us about what became of Laurel?”

She hesitated. “My son came to see me, before he was to return to Avrale. He said… It meant little to me at the time, but when he went missing I began to wonder. He apologized, for a great many things he was not all too specific about. I suppose even that should have worried me, but he said he’d been wandering all his life…”

Kiannae stepped from her room clean, refreshed, and with a look that defied anyone to make comment. She met the startled gaze of their interrupted visitor, and looked to her sister for explanation or introduction.

“Narina Grey,” Katrisha offered. “My twin, Kiannae.”

“Ah, Laurel’s mother,” Kiannae said with a nod, and walked over. “Sorry to interrupt, what were you saying when I walked in?”

Katrisha gave her a befuddled look.

“What, didn’t you know?” Kiannae asked.

Katrisha looked down, and shook her head.

Narina gave the exchange a curious look, and shook her own head. “A North Star, my son said he had been looking all his life for a North Star.”

Katrisha took a reserved breath, and did not look pleased.

“That means something to you, doesn’t it?” Narina pressed.

“Yes, and no,” Katrisha answered.

“Fates,” Kiannae groaned. “Those cursed cards, that’s the first place I ever read those words. You’ll forgive my sister being illusive, I’m sure it has something to do with the blighted seer she’s been… keeping company with of late. Very fond of such things. I haven’t seen her around since we went down into the caverns.”

Katrisha looked between the two. “Fine. In our parting argument, when she asked me not to go, she told me the North Star, reversed has been hanging over us since we met.”

“That’s quite the coincidence,” Narina said thin lipped.

“I really doubt it is,” Katrisha answered out of hand.

“What aren’t you saying?” Kiannae pressed suspiciously.

“I told you, she quoted words back to me from a morning, long ago with someone else. Words she never should have known, but did. Then implied that being near me was consuming her. Said she could forget her own name, before my fondest memories.”

Kiannae looked far more worried at this.

“Hoo,” Etore huffed, which startled their guest. “That’s quite the claim. Can’t say things ever stay boring around here for long.”

“I… I didn’t see you there,” Narina said.

“Yes, that happens,” Etore said toasting to the air. “Funny thing, being famous, but no one ever notices you.”

“Oh,” Narina said almost worriedly. “I had heard rumors one of those rebels was about, but I didn’t take them seriously. Didn’t make a lot of sense with everything else, that one of them would be keeping company with you. Not if one reads between the lines of the supposed accusations against the Archmage.”

Etore frowned, and took a deep swig. “I really must have a chat with my business partner.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 1st, 1 S.R.

Three siblings walked into the great Council chamber, escorted on both sides. They were armed with staves willfully brought against the guard’s request. Not that the guard showed much will in the mater. Wren had only reluctantly picked up the crystal one after a stern glance from both of his sisters.

The true Archmage sat in the high seat, and was distracted talking to an aide as they entered.

“Where is Amalia?” Kiannae demanded.

The old man straighten, and turned to face the three as their escorts left the floor. “My Second has taken leave, to deal with events you are well aware of. The abduction of her mother, and the injury of her fate-mother at the hands of an assassin. For which you will be answering to your roles in. Never, in all my years has it been less clear if three youth are to be commended, or arrested. I sit here considering if there need be precedent set to do both.”

The chamber was silent.

He pressed on. “Are you aware of what happened after your last ‘appearance,’ before this Council?”

“Yes,” Katrisha answered.

“Were you aware it would occur, or the costs?” His demand was harsh, and threatening.

“What… costs?” Katrisha asked with caution.

“Nohlend woke to find itself at war with the Sylvans. Months of bloodshed that no one can account for, occurred overnight. Hundreds of prisoners, and refugees, who cannot return home, nor really stay where they are. Osyrae has had its own war, waged through the capitol between desperate survivors. A populace stranded by the great calamity. More reports trickle in by the hour. Regions of the world trapped, and forced to survive by sometimes by desperate means. Cut off for months, as time merely vanished for the rest of us.”

Katrisha looked down.

“Is that a no?” he pressed.

“It… It is,” Katrisha answered, wondering what she had done.

“Yet, the reports these last three days say in all lands, the same day has dawned. That the sun is where it should be in the sky. That with this last horrible gasp it has ended, as strangely as it began. It is hard to discount as coincidence, the timing of either the end or the beginning of these events. That the disruption as best can be reconciled began the day a challenge was laid before this Council. A challenge that none of us could pass, and that in its passing, calamity struck. Yet how, gives us pause. For as impossible as these events are, it seems more unbelievable that three orphans from the humble borders of Avrale could be to blame.”

Katrisha took a breath. “That the staff, Aster, and the caverns were tied to the phenomena was, strongly considered. That calculations of a near pass of a dark-companion also coincide with these events, more so.”

There was a loud clamor, and the Archmage banged his staff for order.

“I would ask why we are just now hearing of this, but the answer is plain. Were it not for the circumstances, I would see you censured for that. Yet her we are, living in the age we now reside in. We will consider all testimony you have to offer, before passing judgement.”

Katrisha rolled her shoulders, and stepped away from her staff. It stood where she left it, as she turned around surveying the council. “A half century ago, a man well-known to this body escaped a father intent to leverage his gifts as a seer.”

“The most potential I have ever seen, in all my years,” the ancient woman of the Seer’s seat interrupted. Katrisha winced at the implication, but moved on.

“This path was not for him. Math and astronomy, were the chosen specialties of our dear adoptive father. He taught me in games as a child. Not just playing with orbital simulations, but a mixture of Helian notation, Osyraen decimal, and the Ohlier method. Pieces of a solution to n-body prediction that I have yet to fully decipher. Though I am getting close. He did all of this before he left Mordove as young man. Fled potential tenure in the astronomers guild, because he found what he could neither publish, nor disprove.”

There was a low murmur at the implication, and Katrisha was granted her dramatic pause as she put on her spectacles. All waited to see if she would go where she had promised. Kiannae clenched her fist, and glared at her sister at the mention of Helian notation. At last finding a connection between a lesson from years before to Amalia’s words. Katrisha did not notice, as she backed away from her staff further. She waved her hands, and a faint star system spiraled out across the floor.

There was an absolute roar through the chamber.

“Silence,” boomed the Archmage, and banged his staff. “How are you doing this?”

“Several ways,” Katrisha answered. “One, is the wards on the Council chamber have been weakened, by recent events.” She pointed to the rear side. “Trips, particularly towards the west in the lower bands of detection were burned out. I checked before trying. Another, is I have derived this negatively. Not my highest skill, but I have learned a great deal watching my sister experiment. Low enough energy to not trip the remaining wards. Lastly, my staff is sharing the burden, as the Torta did during their introduction to the Council.”

“What is the purpose of this charade?” the Archmage pressed. “Other than more grandstanding.”

“I do not deny a tendency for showmanship, but there is a good reason. The staff is also the source of what we are seeing here. Decades of checking Laurel’s math against actual astronomical positions, showing disruptions. He still had it wrong. I imagine that gave him solace for some time, but with the full data set, we can now project that there is not one, nor three, but seven, dark-companions.”

Another clamor, and more staff banging ensued. Arcs and paths cut through the simulation. Slingshots and spirals, hyperbolic trajectories covering decades, if not more.

“A missing piece Laurel added when we were still children — after the emergent surge in the west — has at last borne fruit. It was the same body that had a near pass before both myself, my sister, and later our brother was born.” She walked to another crossing of Thaea’s orbit. “The trouble is our equations have been wrong. The very premise by which we have been trying to track these bodies is flawed.” She waved her hands, and the paths twisted upon themselves. Thick and hollow, then thin and solid, thick again, and thin, repeating. “Here we see a representation of their actual influence over time. Not only variable, but during a phase negative. Unfortunately none of this has immediate predictive power, because we don’t know what year it is anymore. Though with time, it should be possible to sort out.”

The chamber remained silent as she walked the course.

“While I had not known before arriving — all — of the consequences of recent events, I had determined these disruptions have been going on for far longer. There are gaps in the record, little, tiny jumps in the alignments of the most distant worlds. My sister pointed it out first, when Selene was trying to determine a date. Decades ago, Laurel surely was perplexed. Perhaps imagined he had at last settled it was as nonsense, or botched the spell. Yet now, as above, so below.”

The seer’s seat laughed.

Katrisha grimaced. “We have been reliving days, years, months, and more, for all we know. It does not foul the whole model, but it does leave ranges of uncertainty. We cannot know a near miss from something more. I cringe, to make allusion to prophecy. I have wanted nothing to do with it since I was a child, and promised me only death. Yet, I do at last understand these words, ‘none may know the hour or the day of the Storm.’” She paused. “The disruption of time has made it impossible to tell more than a swarm of such crossings will continue for over a decade. Surely driving the Surge higher than it already is. If nothing worse.”

“You will share your math?” a man beside the sear’s seat asked almost nervously.

“Yes,” Katrisha said thin lipped. “No more secrets, no more games. If we are to survive what is coming, this world needs to unite, not fall upon itself in petty grabs for power. Extrapolated the math is largely stable for over three millennia. Ten times better than any other. It shows a pattern of these swarm that align with the timing of the most dramatic upheavals in our history. Adjusted for the fact we cannot be sure exactly when those events were. A pattern that would stretch back into the Age of Shamans, and likely of Myth. Even — dare I say — to the times of so called gods, when the world spell was surely forged. All except for one, a great upheaval we still stand amidst.”

The clamor was brief.

“Now your claims grow absurd,” the Clarion seat called out.

“I did say, all but one, and it is the most interesting.” Katrisha wove the whole thing backwards for some time. There was almost nothing there, as it slowed to a stop.

“What is… so interesting about this?” the Archmage asked shrewdly.

“This is a seven hundred year gap, around a thousand years ago. A great drought, that gave us the end of the Age of Shamans, and the birth of the Age of Kings. When lesser gifts excelled with magic, as practices that required too much for the world to sustain perished. The mirror of what we are living through now.” Katrisha continued to search the crowd for reaction. “So, if we did not have enough to worry about, we need to consider if magic, our great and noble art, shall wither before the coming of older practices. Ones who wield the elements, or powers we do not understand.”

The murmurs were very brief.

“I do not ask you to listen to signs, and portents. Though could you name ones more concerning than what the world has already faced, in the past… well, we don’t even know how long do we? Not prophecy, just facts. Clear, and plain, backed by both unprecedented, and irrefutable observations. That the very nature of time has been disrupted, and yet the timing of it.”

“Timed, by all more reliable evidence to the staff your brother placed in this chamber. The one you ripped out,” the Archmage countered. “This grand facade of dark-companions as likely a foil for the truth.”

Katrisha looked down. “I shall not try to defend mistakes that cannot be taken back. Yet, a tiny staff, on the scale of a world, no matter how powerful is clearly not the source of this. Do you propose that we did it? Would you give us that much credit? Nor the staff. Nothing more than a tool, in far grander schemes, that none of you could even move.”

“Hardly the best of argument to point that out,” the Archmage said with a sneer.

“I believe it no more than a conduit. One used to try to bottle, and store the energy beneath this city. If all I have seen, and been told is true, an eternity was not enough to fix one fool effort to shed this great burden. Yet these events do not begin, nor end with us. Since I have left Avrale, my home, I have seen ghosts that talk, and foxes that scheme. Humans with no Sylvan blood, shaped into prime specimens, both on Eastroad and beneath the hill. Unless anyone wishes to claim that the Western, and Eastern Sylvan’s now conspire to fool this Council? To what end, how? None had seen an Eastern Sylvan in generations, not and lived to tell the tale. What stories we have, tell of blood between them is as bad as any.”

Katrisha was tapping out a rhythm on her palm, her words falling into the rhythm. Then to the eyes of all, simply sat on the railing before the Archmage’s seat. Another uproar swept the room, and the Archmage looked anything but amused. Not nearly so startled as she would have liked, but about as much as she expected. She leaned forward. “Then again, you’ve seen this before. Your Second, has surely shown you such powers.” Few beside those nearest heard her calm accusation.

The Archmage banged his staff, and the room stilled. Katrisha swung her legs over, and slipped off the rail. She land gracefully back in the lower area of the chamber. “I wish I could claim that such cleverness is limited to myself, or my siblings. That we are at all special, but we have seen others who we struggle to hold ground against. Even when outnumbered, and armed with objects of such power that the Council schemed to take them. As you say, Amalia has left to attend to family matters of a dire nature. The results of acts by a woman who bested not only Selene, but my sister in the same fight, alone. A woman who now wields a weapon of something far worse than mage-iron. That eats magic voraciously.”

The chamber was nearly silent. Katrisha waved away her spell, and noticed Kiannae looked annoyed.

“She didn’t exactly best me,” Kiannae challenged in a loud whisper as her twin grew close.

“Permit a little humility, to sell the truth of circumstances,” Katrisha said under her breath.

“Says the woman showing off,” Kiannae growled.

Katrisha shrugged. “So, what will it be?” she demanded aloud, and turned around to the room. “Amalia, the Archmage’s, Second, told my sister she made a deal, but I’ll let her tell that tale.”

Kiannae huffed, rolled her shoulders, and stepped to the center. “Amalia claimed to have made a deal, yes. With who, I do not know, but asserted it was to take our staves for a time, and return them again, when that time was right. She said, with great certainty, that the vote of no confidence would fail. Though she is not here, given the unfortunate news I delivered that day. I fought to defend her home, and mother, but chose to save Selene rather than pursue the assailant. Still, the one who placed her as Archmage remains in his seat, as predicted. Will you fulfill the rest of the woman’s snide promise, and return these to us by law? Consider that the act is sealed, precisely so you would not have to enforce it, where inconvenient. Consider that this was by design, that it could be so rescinded, without losing too much face.”

“There is no such deal,” the Archmage boomed.

“The Torta attest the deal is struck.” Tock’s amplified voice was growling, and shrill at the same volume.

“The deal itself, I do not know, but it does match the assurances I was given.” Avery stood, and rubbed his ear uncomfortably. “Were I to have known, even the least of what would transpire, I would never have agreed to this folly at your Second’s behest.”

“Nor I,” said one of the younger councilors standing up. A man from Thebes, who looked very unhappy.

Others looked more sheepish, and less bold.

“Napir moves to strike down, and expunge all record of the amendment,” the dragon born the land’s seat declared.

“Seconded,” Niven’s seat declared. He didn’t look happy to have backed a dragonborn’s call.

“All in favor,” Avery demanded, technically out of order, but Aye’s and Nay’s circled the room. The Ayes had it by two.

There were no abstentions, except the Archmage, who in theory could veto such a narrow margin. Particularly without written legislation before them, or in such shoddy procedure. “One does not so casually erase the very record of a law from existence.”

“They do,” Kiannae countered, “when it is sealed. Sealed law may only be revealed to the extent needed to enforce it. If it is not to be enforced, it is not to be revealed. By its nature, it almost calls to be stricken from record, if so rescinded. That is, how I read the articles, any way.”

“I concur,” Katrisha obliged with a nod to her twin, who gave her a less than pleasant look for the praise.

The Archmage struck his staff once. “There is still the mater not only of the abduction of my Second’s mother, and the wounding of Selene, but your affiliation with the one responsible. You claim to have fought the assailant, but we have only your word. When Selene has bested two, or more at a time of some of the most talented fighters this city has ever produced. Even as you cast aspersions, reports of bandit contact, and your departure from the caravan through Corinthia are maters of record. Your late arrival in Dustwatch, further confirmation. Even implications that you have some… further ties to the woman responsible.”

“Yes, and those same aspersions of familiarity, could go very badly for you, Archmage. Are you sure you wish to set precedent of guilt by association.” Katrisha looked around the room, judging the faces of councilors, few friendly. Someone laughed, though it wasn’t clear who. “Though I have no doubt that proof — other than the testimony of undesirables — will be hard to come by. One, does not rise to Archmage, even in Absentia, by carelessness. Yet how many would gladly consider the prospect, for the power it might gain them. The leverage.” She looked back to the Archmage. “I have no interest in playing these games. They do nothing of value, only distract us from the real problems at hand, but do not mistake me for one unfamiliar with the rules.”

“Yet, you are directly responsible for the escape of the assassin,” the Archmage declared unmoved, and ignored her warning. “Bring forth the witness.”

A door opened, and a blond woman in simple but quality clothing walked up into the chamber. Her hands were casually behind her back, at attention like a good soldier. Her face was a mask of stern reserve. Liora did not even really look at the three, but turned to face the high seat some distance to the side.

The Archmage leaned forward. “Let the record show, the presence of one Liora Ward, of the Paladin Order. A woman confessed to one count of homicide in self defense, and cleared of all further blame. She has been called to testify to the events of that evening. Please, good woman, give us your account.”

“It was the evening of the eighteenth of Laeur, at least as judged by the city, that day. I had been aware the Ashtons’ pet Osyrean mercenary had been following me for some time. Every day too and from the Academy more punctual than a clock. That day as I prepared to return home, a bit earlier than usual, she was sparing with the younger one, and distracted. The silver haired sister followed me instead that evening, against my wishes, and with far less skill. I bid her again to leave me be. She claimed assassins — or rebels, take your pick on what words you wish to call these vermin — sought my capture. Far as I knew, she was one of them. A good explanation of how she would know of some plot. Perhaps it was remorse, or a ploy. Their companion’s techniques are much the same, and such, rare and all but unheard-of gifts do make one question the obvious.”

“Did she stop following you?” the Archmage pressed.

“It seemed, for barely a moment,” Liora answered. “Then I was beset by three assailants outside a secluded alley. They attempted to render me unconscious with some concoction soaked in cloth. I had only just broken free as she arrived, and I did not see much of what transpired with the third. I was far too busy with the other two. I’m told her tale is she fought the Osyraen in their number. A woman, who looked enough like their companion to have been her sister, or her. If not for her different styling of hair. I heard only a bit of their quarrel as I struggled. It sounded more like a lover’s spat, little as I know of such affairs. I do know the woman is fond of her own kind.”

“So, she provided no assistance?” the Archmage asked in a leading tone.

“I cannot say, for certain, but it fell to me to free myself. An act that killed one, and badly maimed the others. Some, may have heard of my gifts in combat, or even seen me practice.” She swallowed. “I cannot say I had ever inflicted the power directly on another living thing before. That the cries of my assailants brought me any comfort. One, the only one anymore a threat, was the Osyraen, her face badly burned. Lest she attack again I moved to strike. Still, well justified under the law, but the silver one blocked my blade, allowing two to escape.”

“Let the record show,” the Archmage declared, “that the Osyraen, is a woman of distinctive appearance. One matched to a Sylvan of similar description seen in the Drifts, that Katrisha’s herself claims is the same. That by all reports is the one who broke into the residence of Selene Moria, kidnapped her ward, and nearly slew her. That it was Katrisha’s, direct involvement, that let this woman escape. Left her free to terrorize this city. To rile the public, call for followers to her cult, and injure our most valued citizens.”

“I only stopped a summary execution,” Katrisha countered. “Within the law, yes, a woman could not be held to account for finishing off a wounded attacker, who she still deemed a threat. Yet, nor can I be held to account for stopping the slaying of such a woman. One I believed unable to pose any further harm in that moment, and to have great knowledge of the criminal web of activity in this city. I will not be held with contempt, for wishing her brought to proper justice. Nor for showing mercy to one already gravely wounded. I am dearly fond of Selene, and bare a weight on my heart for all that has transpired. I am one who has repeatedly learned the hard lesson in this life, of unintended consequences. Yet we cannot judge our actions by their ends. This Council, after all, are the ones who took these staves. Who called for them to be handed over. Left us at a disadvantage facing schemes that none will deny were at work — whomever is to blame. Not the least of which was the nightmare beneath the hill.”

“Nightmare… Yes, so you claim,” the Archamage intoned. “Yet, let us consider the testimony of one of our own. One who might take issue with such a description, Archdruid Dorian.” Far at the back of the chamber a man stood. “Tell us of the morning you found your daughter missing.”

The man was trembling with rage, sorrow, or likely both. “It was Jovan of last year, or whatever year it was. This city quibbles over time lost, but for a worried father, whatever years may or may not have passed, pale to how long it felt. It was the twenty-ninth, I remember that, one does not forget. I found a naked girl in the grove, sunbathing some had claimed, but it was much too early for that. It was she, who claimed to have been drugged, by my daughter’s wine. A daughter who had not come to our customary meal, who never would again.” He wept. “It was she, and her cursed sister who emerged from the caverns, soon after I found her body, left naked in a public square. Dead by a wound that pained me to even be near, but not so much as her being gone. No pain, could have ripped her from my arms, but my rage, at those responsible could.”

Kiannae’s expression hardened. “Did we level a single attack against you?” she asked without remorse. “Can a single witness be found, to say we did anything more than deflect a furious assault, that his heart gave out under. I do not belittle your pain, nor claim mine is greater, but you cannot know the sorrow I feel for your daughter’s death. How dear the memories that haunt me are. Nor dark, those of what she tried to do to me, twisted by a madness that had taken her. By your own testimony, we did not carry her from that cave. I, can only presume a dozen or more witnesses may be found to speak the same.”

Lightning crackled around his hand for a moment, but fizzled beneath the wards. He did not answer.

“He swore,” Kiannae said, turning around to face the whole Council. “He swore that morning, to destroy myself and my family. With no care for our innocence, if anything at all should happen to his daughter. I shall not fault a grieving father his rage, but nor shall I permit this Council to consider his testimony unbiased. Though factual, that we arrived — after — Aster was carried out by others.”

Dorian sat, and hung his head in his hands, his weeping carrying uncomfortably through the chamber.

“Yet who killed her?” the Archmage demanded. “Who killed this woman. One we have no proof, was anything but a woman, if shaped by her own skills. One who bore a wound, examiners say gravely resembles the one Selene still struggles with.”

“Another prisoner,” Kiannae answered. “Another, subjected to the rights of assassins. A broken shell of a man, who stood, as I was bound by her powers, unable to move. While her other servants were distracted he grabbed a lost sword, and struck her through the heart.” Kiannae’s voice became strained, and she struggled not to weep herself. “It became something tainted, and burning.”

“Such emotion, and yet so few real answers. Who was he? What was it, that you claim Aster did? What was it you claim, made her deserving of death?”

“I made no such claim,” Kiannae boomed, and the dome itself shook. Councillors, and others held their ears from the ringing. It was something beyond magic. The air all around resonating with her voice, answering her call. Her breath was ragged through gritted teeth, and only silence followed. “She was dying, as her father, the Torta, and possibly others could tell you. A shaper, yes, who had tried to change herself to escape a blight upon her heart. A cancer that would not be cured. If her father knew it still plagued her, I do not know, but it did.”

“It is true,” Tock declared.

“Yes, the testimony of one these… creatures. Ones delivered to our chambers by the lot of you,” the Archmage countered. “A great assurance.”

“She was,” Dorian answered the challenge weakly. “I spent years, fighting that horrid thing, and only she was ever able to halt it. It gave me nightmares, visions. I thought them madness, nothing more than the strain, until… Until the day the very image of prophecy walked into this chamber. I knew then, I knew, they were the cause, that their… their…” He trailed off, trembling. He jumped up, screaming with rage, and ran down the steps before being grabbed hold of by attaches near the floor.

“Lead him from the chamber,” the Archmage commanded, banging his staff. “Now.”

“Don’t,” Kiannae countered his command. “He deserves to hear this. If we are to be held trial, then I too shall call a witness. I call upon her ghost.”

Taloe swirled into being beside her. “This is not wise.”

“Wisdom has left us,” Kiannae said glaring at him. “You say you hold her leash, then call her forth, and do not hold it so tightly. Let her take her true form.”

Taloe looked down.

“Do it,” Kiannae snapped, and it echoed through the room.

Another form swirled from mist. It rose up, slow, languid, naked, and grinning. Proud boughs stood atop her head, and her hair flowed together and apart in surreal manner. The room broke out in a wild uproar, and the Archmage banged his staff, and boomed for silence to no avail. Dorian fell to he knees. The spirit tilted her head, and glanced to the man. Something like recognition softened her smile into a sadder expression.

“Quiet,” Kiannae demanded far above the volume of the Archmage, but not so loud as before. The room stilled. “I say this is her ghost, but it is far more the ghost of what she became. The so called god, that Amalia sacrificed her too. One of uncertain name, tell us, who are you today?”

“Your witness it seems,” she said with fake almost girlish sweetness, idly stroking the side of her own hip. She brought her fingers up to her lips, and looked around at all the uncomfortable stares. “I can, assure you, the girl didn’t kill me. She never had the will for that, not in this, or any other world. She loved me, after all. In so many delightful ways. Once at least I wore down her foolish resistance. Yet she grew, ever more resistant, until these three, bound me here. Imprisoned me in the younger one’s staff. She was a girl then, an eternity ago, though don’t let appearances fool you, he is now more man than I.”

She laughed as many eyes looked up unnerved to her face. “Father can tell you, that part was there since birth, wasn’t it?”

Dorian looked away.

“Oh come father, are you still ashamed of me? Never quite sure what I was. Dear to you, but such an ‘unnatural’ creature. Oh, how you argued with mother when you thought I couldn’t hear. That I should be ‘fixed.’ That there was something wrong with how I was. To the Abyss with you father, I’ll never forgive you for that. You, put a darkness in my heart, long before the cancer. Long before following a woman to the ends of this world. Where I cast a shadow, that made these tragedies forever part of who I am. Yet those, who stand before the Sun, our shadows are long. The girl has some delusion I was taken by a god.” She laughed, and it had an odd clicking quality. “That’s not quite right.”

“What does that mean?” Dorian asked trembling, stood, and stepped down further. Those restraining him no longer having the will to hold, or follow.

“Father, oh All Father, do you not recognize your girls reborn?”

“What?” Dorian demanded frozen at the last step. “You’re not my daughter.” His voice lacked conviction. “Just another twisted game these monsters are playing.”

<Wake.> It was barely more than a whisper, and her form twisted as Taloe took tighter hold of her powers.

Dorian’s face turned from sorrow, to one grim. Those around him backed away under his aura. One fell to his knees. “How?” he growled in a deep and resonant voice that carried. He looked around. “How have you called me here, amongst these pitiful sow children?”

Most of the torta around the room scurried away, and hid. Only Tock sat firm upon his seat. Though his tiny face might have looked a little worried.

“Because I made you Father,” the spirit answered through the twisted remains of her face. It transformed into something far beyond a mockery of a smile. A chasm spreading ear to ear as her form strained and wavered. Her voice a harsh whisper that made the back of the neck scratch. “Because it does not begin, at the begging, when the begging is only the end. You, tiny creatures, do not understand how insignificant you are. The great mage Council, nothing but insects before me, before ussss.” It trailed away in a trembling hiss.

Dorian looked sad. “A father’s heart… two fathers’ hearts strain against these words, but you are not my daughter. You are not the one who promised, that the darkness would not consume you. Only the remains of her failure.”

Kiannae’s eyes went wide as she understood the implication, when no other could. For the spirit had mocked her with that dream.

“I am, the one who saw the inevitable. We cannot let go of life, to live. We cannot shed these frail forms, for something greater. We can only hold on… till we become the monster.” She turned to the Clarion seat. “Your faith, is a lie.” She came apart in a dramatic explosion that swirled away in droplets that petered out into mist.

Dorian trembled, shook, and fell. Other’s rushed to catch him. Wren hurried to his side, and tried to calm a heart that seemed intent to tear itself apart. It would not be still, and he felt the muscle fibers tearing. Blood vessels swelled, and burst as the man’s body felt like it would catch fire. Those others who had moved to help backed away.

<Live.> Wren’s voice echoed, and the room gasped as one. The man arched off the floor, shot up, his eyes rolled back in his head, and then he collapsed. He was caught by the much smaller man, who set him down, still breathing, though just barely.

Wren stood. His shoulders were hunched forward, his head low, then he straightened, and turned to the chamber. His knuckles white where he gripped a staff none of them had been able to take. “Are you satisfied, that if nothing else, you are all far beyond your depth. I have felt the mere shadow of these powers, and rejected them. They are a burden, none, could wish to bear. It is the choice between life, and death, and it is not so simple as it sounds. For as my dear sister has said, this world needs to not fall again upon itself in petty ambition. Yet I refuse. I will not take ambition from you. To force peace, upon your hard hearts. If you do not believe I am capable, you are right, only because I restrain myself. Because I do not want to be your god.” Tears were streaming down his cheeks.

He turned to the Clarion seat. “Your faith, is not a lie, but your path is. Heed my words, ambition, will be all of your undoing.” He turned, and walked to the door, but was blocked by guards. “I could order you aside. Steal a tiny piece of who you are, and you would. Do you think it’s worth that? That who you are is worth this pitiful frightened show of empty valor.” His breathing was measured, and though he was a tiny, effeminate man, the fear of gods had been placed in all present.

“I have seen him bring a war mage to his knees with a word,” Katrisha offered. “Let him go, let all of us go.”

The Archmage sat down slowly, slightly trembling. “You are free,” he said with clear displeasure, “but do not leave the central city, nor cause any further, disturbances. Remain in your apartments, until we have agreed upon your fate.”

Kiannae turned, and marched out after her brother.

Katrisha spared Liora a wounded glance, then hurried after the others dumb struck. She grabbed her sister’s arm in the hall outside. Kiannae turned, and glared back into eyes far more worried and sympathetic than she was prepared for. An expression that still demanded answers.

“I didn’t tell you, because how do you tell someone that? She’s in me. She maybe has been all along. The man I love may be nothing more than a clever mask over something that wants to eat away my very heart.”

Katrisha threw her arms around her sister, and clung to her. Kiannae softened slowly under the fierce embrace. She wrapped an arm around her, and leaned her cheek into the top of her head.

Wren gave her a far more inscrutable look. Kiannae returned it well, suspicion and sympathy strange company each of their faces.

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