Chapter VI:14

What whispers in the dark,
those things we’d never do,
passing frightful impulse,
to our own selves untrue,

what lurks in the shadows,
fear of a fate at hands unclear,
where eyes flit ‘n heads turn,
oh there’s nothing there to fear,

it should give no quiet or respite,
only an ever sinking, seeping dread,
where one casts light into shadows,
and so learns, it was all in their head.

– The Lurker, 523 E.R.

The Sun, The Moon, and the Sea

It was snowing. That wasn’t right.

Katrisha saw her breath swirl around her. A twin the same height, and with the same dark hair stood across, already in a fighting stance. A broad shouldered, stocky man sat on a short fence at the edge of the training ring. It looked a bit bad for the railing.

The man’s hair, as always not quite enough to do anything with, did as it pleased. Katrisha’s heart sank, but she couldn’t think why. She turned to a tall man pacing, graying brown hair, and silver eyes, a brown robe in silver trim.

She tried to say his name, and wasn’t sure why. The word wouldn’t quite form. She shook her head, and looked back to Kiannae, who was not above an early start if she got distracted.

“Do not look first for an opponent’s weaknesses,” Laurel spoke. “These are not the threat, and the obvious opening, may be a trap.”

“So what?” Kiannae chided, and leaned on her staff, losing her fighting stance.

“Look for their strengths, for what they have practiced. Look for their overconfidence, their crutches. For what they are protecting, but also what you need to guard. Defense, must always come first. Survival. This is as true in magic, as it is in a physical fight, in war, as in a game. A brash strategy may win the day, but will lose wars. Be wary of your own commitment, of what you guard, of how you tip your hand with your intent.”

“Well, that’s as true in politics, as it is in fighting,” Horence offered. “Fates, I hate I know that now.”

Katrisha laughed, but wiped away a sudden tear. “Is something wrong?” Laurel asked.

“Nothing,” Katrisha said, and resumed her stance, challenging her sister to do the same. Something wasn’t right.

She felt wind coil across her cheek, and opened almost with a startle. The swings were fast, faster than usual. They’d been at it for ages. She was almost used to moments where one outcome clear as day, wound up in another, to either of their advantage. High, low, mid, a hooked swing that she took, and let it move her around.

“Good, good,” Laurel encouraged.

A blow from the left — no, the right — under, another hooked sweep around. A blow coming for Katrisha’s leg as Kiannae’s staff came around. Katrisha dropped sideways, catching her weight on her own staff to get it into place fast enough. Let the ground brace against the blow. Kiannae pushed her back head on in a quick thrust, again trying to capture, and twist her sister’s guard down.

Katrisha backed off, and the two circled. Kiannae was being patient, for once. Katrisha pushed her, trying to get her to do it again. There it was, on third swing, a roll out of the block, pulling the staff around. The other end came around trying for the leg. Katrisha jumped this, but it didn’t come, Kiannae brought the staff down on her sister’s back mid leap. Hard enough to sting, and leave her staggering forward. She wound up leaning on her staff on her knees huffing, the fog boiling up around her face.

“Good thing she likes you, or you would be lot more bruised,” Horence offered.

Katrisha glanced, at him, and wiped away another tear, she wasn’t sure why, it didn’t hurt that much.

Laurel knelt down, and checked her back, a little healing into the bruise. “That was a bit hard,” Laurel chided Kiannae. “Good work though. Used her following my advice against her. Nothing’s perfect, every move can be countered, but every move can be feinted.”

Katrisha stood up, annoyed, and glancing again to Horence, to Laurel, something wasn’t right. Like she hadn’t seen them in years. A dream started to smudge around the edges.

“Yeah, guess I’m just the animal,” Kiannae teased.

Katrisha resumed her fighting stance, her face a mask of anger, and Laurel backed up.

“Keep it civil,” Laurel warned.

Katrisha gave him a thin lipped glare, and set into her sister with a fury Kiannae usually only offered her. Feint, strike, block, feint, strike, counter, feint, block. Kiannae was matching her blow for blow, and getting out of control. Katrisha was pushed back on defense. As she met a strike Kiannae’s stave splintered, and gave. Katrisha took the opening, swept her sister’s leg, and put her soundly on her rear.

Laurel gave this a worried look, but neither seemed harmed. “Well, guess that one goes to Kat.”

“Doesn’t count,” Kiannae protested. “Staff broke,” she tossed it away with annoyance, and sat up.

“In battle, equipment failure will still get you killed,” Horence offered. “Gotta know the limits of your weapon, as much as your own.”

Katrisha helped her sister up, and Kiannae gave her a look. “Fine, you win, for once. Don’t get full of yourself about it.” She patted her on the shoulder.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 1st, 1 S.R.

Katrisha blinked, and shielded her eyes from a beam of sunlight.

“Come on, we’ve got things to do,” Kiannae said nudging her in the shoulder again. “Seriously, even imprisoned on an island by pirates, and you can still sleep in.”

Katrisha rolled out of her hammock, and looked around. It took a moment to remind herself when, and where she was.

“Come on,” Kiannae repeated, and walked away, staff in hand. Katrisha grabbed hers, and followed.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Kiannae stood before Rihonae’s throne, the others at her back.

“Let me guess, this morning you wish to ask, again, how long we intend to keep you?”

“It would suffice as a question,” Kiannae countered in no less weary of a tone.

Rihonae leaned her head back against her throne, and drew a breath. “We’ve picked through your cargo, and selected our tax, for room, board, and passage through our waters. You may even struggle to determine precisely what we took. Nothing personal, though we did take stock. Very curious things you carry. Obscure books, and artifacts of inestimable import, we would not wish to quarrel over. That is the actual shield of the Avatar, yes? I asked Mayari to identify it, but she was… coy.”

“I merely implied I have never seen it, personally. Outside of visions,” Mayari chided. “Shadows of former lives. Born so long after the war I did not have the pleasure to see the great paladin in action. Nor have I never been so far east as the Ascension. Not a friendly land, to women, or dragonborn.”

Rihonae looked over the silent company, and huffed. “I shall take the looks on your faces, and silence as confirmation. We seek allegiance, and so we shall let you pass, as an offer of goodwill. If you wish any of your personal possessions carried down, just ask, and the men will see to it. How often does one get to have pirates as valets?”

“Taking things from our hold is hardly the act of allies,” Sund demanded. A silver hand on his shoulder drew an distrustful glance.

“It is the order of this world. Ask and liege and their vassals. Any king, demanding toll for his roads, that are in need of maintenance,” Rihonae intoned.

“You maintain the seas?” Ambrush cut back.

“As it were,” Rihonae inclined her head toward Laset.

“Might I question then, the large… pothole, that drove us so near your coast,” Ambrush pressed.

Rihonae seemed slightly amused, but remained reserved. “You can see, how we may need to work very hard at our task.”

“The very Council laws that might support such assertions,” Katrisha began, “would imply we are due compensation. A failure to control pirates, and damages by delay to our passage, along the route you maintain.”

“They are not pirates, but my navy, and quite well controlled. They fly the red sails of my domain, and the sign of our new order. Though you are right, you were delayed a few days in our port. What damages for such a minor inconvenience, would you claim?”

“How about a year late?” Sund pressed.

Rihonae sat up at this.

“We were delayed a year, mired in the waters you maintain. A year lost to the world, if a month, or days by our vantage, we returned so late home. If ever home,” Sund clarified.

Rihonae glanced to Mayari.

“It has happened, that the crew that comes to us, is of another world. Slipped into our own.” She eyed Mara suspiciously, but Dahlia stepped in front of her. The dragonborn smirked.

“You did not mention this was possible,” Rihonae chided.

“If I were to tell you all the things possible, my good Queen, you would be so white haired as I, by the time we were through.”

“Fine, keep your sugar, silver, and gold. Let this be also a sign of good will. Along with a captain now immortal, and empowered. A gift, of such inestimable worth, as what else you carry with you.”

“When then, can we leave, can our ship be returned to the sea?” Kiannae demanded. “It has been days.”

Laset closed her eyes. “I should find the strength by the next morning.”

“Your cargo, and possessions you wish returned will be in place by then. Does this suffice?” Rihonae asked. “Would you all join us again for lunch, dinner, or both?” She eyed Katrisha. “One of my girls has been asking about you. Her mother told her that silver hair is a mark of greatness amongst the high-born of her people. Your people too, I suppose.”

“No thank you,” Katrisha said, and turned away. The others followed.

“Stay a moment, good Orwell,” Rihonae spoke up.

Sund also stopped, but Orwell urged him on with a gentle silver hand.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Sund stood in a door frame, staring down the lane. There a silver man circled a woman in white, in slow, peculiar dance. It had regal plodding, and moves for changing partners of some formal ball mixer. Adapted for two, as Orwell would swirl to be in position for the exchange. The woman laughed each time, and oft covered her mouth as though embarrassed by her reaction.

“Jealous?” Etore asked, and leaned against the wall behind him.

“More than that,” Sund answered. “For what concern it is of yours.”

“Everything is my concern, around this lot. Every little thing, since I joined company with these fools, seems a sign, or portent to be watched. So, what, other than jealousy, has you concerned?”

“It’s not jealousy, or it should be. He doesn’t like women, other than the odd dance,” Sund said. “Rather, he didn’t. Not the version I know, but he’s told me… things. Stories to compare with your… companions… employers, whatever your true relation. Other lives, ones where he was a woman, or more… freely attracted. One, at least he says we were married, man and wife. I find that hard to believe. Of all things, I find that, hard to believe. I’ve caught him still, staring in the mirror, in that other form. If he catches me looking, he tries to distract me, with what he calls the gifts of this life. Fates… can you imagine how he feels? I don’t have to.”

Etore grimaced.

“Hmm. Yeah, you do judge what I am, a little, don’t you?”

“There’s what I like picturing, and there isn’t,” Etore offered. “I’ve seen what you men get up to, and how much some men like… to treat women… that way. I don’t understand the appeal. I can better grasp the quirks of women, for in truth, so few men are fit to fill our needs. Our parts seem far more well suited to a man’s, however pitiful the task oft is. So, tell me, what does a man offer a man, that a woman doesn’t?”

“I’ve never claimed there was sense in it.” Sund crossed his arms. “It just is, and he… is he still him? You all have danced around the troubles of your druid, and her ephemeral companion. The god who haunted her, and her borrowed form. Is that what he is now? Should I not be afraid to take him back with us to sea? He seems happy… but for me. For my disquiet. I feel like an anchor around his neck, that he bends, and twists to my wishes, that they are not his. Except that he wishes to please me, above all else.”

“Do you know why I mock my little bird?” Etore asked with some intensity.

Sund gave her an incredulous look, and returned to staring up the lane where Orwell had the woman’s cheek in his hand. Her eyes rapturously caught in a mirrored face.

“It might have started what you think,” Etore offered without an answer. “That’s still there underneath, but… he is a girl. He really is. I catch him staring in the mirror, adjusting that long hair. Trying to find a way it falls to cover any evidence to the contrary. The things that show him as a man. He claims to be content, with what he is. I mock him still, because the fool, if all these mad things are real, bent over backwards to be what I want. Because I can’t believe the sense in that. He could have anyone, far as I can tell. He could have been a woman, and had one I struggle to tell from myself in the mirror. As good as me, in every way, more than once got the better of me in a fight. Yet for some reason he’s here.”

“Well, you are a princess, by all claims,” Sund chided with annoyance.

Etore huffed. “If he wanted royalty, he’s surely got better options, who are a lot closer to their thrones. He doesn’t, if anything the path ahead of me is a terrible burden that he struggles to be fit for. To learn to fight, no matter how many times I knock him down to teach him. To defy his gentle nature… to what end?”

“So I should be honored?” Sund asked. “Fates, how do you all live like this? This is your life, isn’t it? Running from one mad thing to the next. With all the stories you’ve told, and all the ones you haven’t.”

“Honored, or terrified,” Etore said. “You should embrace it, or you should run. Run and not stop, till you find the most landlocked, quiet corner of Thebes, where the wars to come will fall last. If this dance you are watching troubles you, confront it. Confront him, or let him go. Have the will to be what you are, or hide. Don’t expect me to stop twisting the knife though, it’s kind of… what I do.” Etore pushed off the wall, and walked deeper back into the house.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Orwell lay a hand on Sund’s cheek. “What’s troubling you?”

“Everything.” Sund swatted the arm away.

Orwell frowned, though it did not carry well in the mirrored surface of those lips. “You still do not trust what I am?” He had dispensed with nakedness soon after assuming his new form. Wore an appearance of fine clothes. Ruffles at his chest reflecting a world warped in their folded surfaces. It looked just a bit more like how Ambrush dressed, than how the captain had.

“You aren’t the man I knew,” Sund challenged, and stepped away to pace the room they shared.

“I am,” Orwell countered, “and the boy you never knew, and the woman you’ve forgotten. I am simply more. In time, in time, I will see to it, you have these gifts.”

“I don’t want your gifts,” Sund growled.

Orwell turned, and melted out of his clothed form into a bed so much as laid down. His fingers tracing a forehead wearily, he turned over, and stared out the window. “So you will grow old, and die, and leave me?”

“Fate’s you’re older than me, that wasn’t supposed to be the problem! That was supposed to be my burden!” Sund snapped.

“So, you will curse me, for wanting life?” Orwell gave him an unfriendly look.

“At what cost?”

“Knowing,” Orwell answered, and closed his eyes.

“Knowing what? What, do you know, that is a cost?”

The form flowed up into standing again, and strode towards Orwell. Again placed a hand on his cheek, but he’d lost his manly appearance, and become feminine again. “That all things end, even eternity. They change, and if we do not grow, we perish with the old.”

“You’re doing it again,” Sund said through gritted teeth.

Orwell looked down, withdrew the hand, and resumed a clothed, and masculine form. His hand remained more dainty than they had once been.

“What are you? Really. What do you want? What did those cursed women want to talk to you about?”

Orwell turned back to the window, and clenched his fist. “They asked me to stay.”

“Do you want to?” Sund asked.

Orwell toyed with ruffles that were as much him as any other part. Ran his fingers through hair that he could feel every fiber of. “Yes.”

“Well I’m not staying,” Sund snapped. “Do as you will.”

“I want you more,” Orwell pleaded. “I’ve given myself to you. I needed her to open the door, but I’ve stepped through. I’m yours. In any, and every way.” He turned back, and his youthful face gave way to an older one. “Is this what you need? Does this make you believe I’m me? Old, wrinkled, aching, dreading the day I can’t go to sea. That I must wither away on the land. No, you’re right, it was to be you, outliving me. The burden of a younger, more gifted man.”

“You seem to like women, or being one, well enough now, find someone else. One of these broken white things that wants your ascension. Ascension, that’s what took my father away. Chasing it into the east like some fool. Listing to the promises of pale priests, who came to spread their cursed faith.”

“I am not of their faith,” Orwell countered thin lipped.

“Aren’t you? Ascension, ascension, you wanted ascension, just not at their price.”

“Their price is a lie, it will never work.”

“What about the Avatar?”

“His days are numbered.” Sund shook his head.

“The Avatar… is dying?” Orwell asked incredulous.

“Not as such,” Orwell answered. “I can hear… the whispers. A darkness is coming to eat the Sun. A hunger without end, that would twist the world in its image, and all that was, or would ever be. Yet which… darkness do we choose?”

“Which?” Sund stepped back, unnerved, and unsure what to make of any of it.”

“A mirror walks amongst us. The other half of a god torn in half, for the jealous seed that took root in soil, where the tree had failed to cast a shadow.”

“One of them?” Sund asked. “The Ashtons?”

Orwell turned back, a look unreadable on his face. He stepped closer, and reached for Sund’s chest. His hand slipped through fibers to bare flesh, and such that the man could not pull away. A warm caress to his heart left it beating faster, and his conviction to flee faltered.

“Why dwell on the darkness, when the sun yet shines?” Orwell asked, and leaned closer. “I am yours, in any way you please.” His face became young man’s again, though the features were different. “I even remember your first. The one who wed that girl, and broke your heart. I am so much more, if you can only trust me, I would show you every joy.”

Sund reached up his hand, and ran his fingers along that impossibly smooth warm cheek. He started to cry, and fell into the creature’s embrace.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 2nd, 1 S.R.

“Why do you keep glaring at me like that?” Wren asked of Orwell. They gathered before the house, checking that they had all that had not yet been returned to their ship.

Orwell simply smiled in the unfriendly way that kept catching Wren’s eyes. Wren’s face grew furious as it so rarely did.

Etore put her hand on his arm, and the two exchanged looks. Hers one incredulous that they found themselves in such reversed position.

Orwell laughed, and let out a long weighty sigh. “Oh child, you don’t even know what you are. A solution, or a dilution? If you downed all the blood of history in the salty sea, would it wash away?”

Wren pulled his arm free, and stepped towards Orwell. That same smug smile met his challenge on the taller figure. The white of his robe reflecting in the mirrored surface.

Wren froze, as Orwell reached for his cheek intrusively. “You would be the death of men, who do not learn to ascend. Your daughters, will consume this world, if they are born, as mine once tried.”

Katrisha pushed her shocked brother aside, and glared up at the creature. “Laset said Amir had only daughters, and not a son amongst them. Why?”

“Why did an Emperor have only daughters?” Orwell countered. “When man’s purpose is to have a son, for it is this, that makes a man, is it not?” Orwell stepped back. “What makes a man? Is it a role, or a form? Is it to sire young, or sire sons? For if his part is lost, then he is dead. If he keeps the seed of men from falling, where it might grow, is he the wall, raised to keep the wolves at the gate? The canopy of the forest, that chokes out the things that might grow beneath?”

“Why are you acting like this?” Sund demanded.

Orwell hesitated, the expression on his face softening, his gaze cast down, and away.

“Are you the man I loved, or are you something else?”

The look that followed was hard to read. “Yes.”

“That’s not an answer,” Sund snapped. “You keep saying that you are him, and more, but are you really him?”

“So many voices,” Orwell said, wistful, eyes closing, and leaned his head to the sky. “So many answers, and you asked two that were true. I am so many things. I’ve lied, and told the truth in the same breath. Wars, they always come because of man.”

“I take exception at that,” Etore said, her hand very much at the hilt of her sword.

Orwell turned that dark smile to her. “Is it not men, that have brought you to this path? Who slew those, whose blood calls out for vengeance? Does it not begin with man’s jealousy, of finer soil to plow, or the small tract of land he holds? Do not his daughters learn too, the value of his violence, and her own?”

Dahlia stepped between him and the others, and assumed some semblance of a ready stance. One she had learned following Liora’s instruction in a few lessons. Liora herself peeled back the edge of the cloth on her returned shield.

“Oh, the son stands before the mother, to defend her?” Orwell chided with humor.

“What are you talking about?” Katrisha demanded, and tried to pull Dahlia back, but the woman stood firm.

“A trap is laid, and man will be consumed,” Orwell intoned in a frightful voice. “Am I man, or his end? Is it not my purpose, to protect the seed yet unsown?” His brow furrowed, and became ripples, the illusions of his form faltered. A hand reached for a round belly, and was deflected by Dahlia who’s training proved enough to manage this.

Orwell sneered. “Another daughter. Another, another, another. We are the end of men, or are we to end? A plague is born, oh child of the Sun. A son, no more in your belly, shall be as a daughter born. A poisoned soil, as her mother before, as all sons of the fallen one.”

“You are the one who whispers in shadow,” Dahlia challenged with a sneer such as none had seen cross her face. “You are the abyss promised, that we are to cast our animal in. That we sate, the hunger in the dark. You, are the darkness of lords.”

“I am, the twilight,” Orwell said with a weary confusion. “The end, or the beginning.” He looked confused. “What am I saying?” His arm drew back almost as though it moved of its own accord, a strange disjointed motion relative to his body. It did not match, a man recoiling in confusion and an arm that moved in a most unnatural way as though to strike.

Liora charged in front of Dahlia, pushing her aside even as a silver spike struck her shield, and splashed off it. She smashed the shield into Orwell who staggered back. His face twisted around itself. Half looked afraid the other sneered. “No, no, no, no…” He repeated and grabbed hold of his twisting visage with both hands.

Etore drew her blades even as Orwell crumpled to his knees. “What… what… what…” escaped twisting lips on the likeness of a head that fingers tore at.

The head snapped to the side twisting, and amorphous. The form rushed Dahlia who threw up a barrier of light that none had seen her to have such skills as to have formed. Katrisha recognized the spell, but could make no sense to see it then, or there. Could not imagine where she could have learned it.

Liora again bashed the form off with her shield, but a great claw grabbed hold by the golden bulwark. She was tossed in the air by it, like she weighed nothing but landed hard nonetheless.

The form shuttered, and leapt towards her. A great shriek filled the air as two arms became a massive bludgeon. A shield was forced almost flush with the ground under the blow. A far smaller more human cry answered as one massive blow turned to a pummeling onslaught. A furious mad thrashing.

Katrisha rushed in, but dove away from spikes that branched off an arm that swung for her. They were sliced, and cut by sword or staff to no avail. The form retreated from Liora engaging the others. It’s movements a more clumsy, but surely deadly likeness to Laset’s attacks. Though some thrust that seemed sure to have struck appeared pulled off their mark as if by an unseen hand.

He rushed Dahlia, whose barrier weathered his blows. Faltering, and shrinking in collapsing steps, as others tried to intervene. She fell to her knees cringing in agony as the last of the barrier failed. The creature however tore near in half, and staggered back. Incoherent cries cutting the air as people started to peer out of shelter at what was happening.

Ambrush dove in to help drag Dahlia to her feet, who was clutching her belly. Kiannae grimaced, and struck the struggling figure with lighting that vanished uselessly. Katrisha came at him with a blast of frozen air in the opening where others had dodged back. Left a sizzling cone of frozen air, that the creature had swirled around the spikes of. It did seem a bit more sluggish, hard angles appeared for a moment in the wavering reflection.

“Help me… help me…” came a trailing cry of Orwell’s voice. It stumbled almost like drunkard, or one winded. Pleading words from a frightful maw, even as it turned on Katrisha. Her defensive wards struggled worse than Dahlia’s had, letting spurs through she had to dodge.

Sweeping cuts with mage-iron passed uselessly through the form. Stepping through shadow barely kept Etore shy of counter attacks. Nothing seemed to work against the creature. Wren fell back feeling by far the least useful combatant. He turned, and ran after Dahlia at another cry, who he saw crumple shy of the cover of the house. Ambrush trying to help her uselessly. Sund had fallen on his rear and stared on in stricken horror.

Etore sneered, but intervened as the creature chased, and Sund dove aside. All she knew of fighting bent her body around deadly strikes. Rolling, twisting, her face a mask of desperation, and fear as nothing she did seemed enough. A wide sweep of an arm sent her tumbling across the lane.

Kiannae had also stepped back, and there was a rumble in the ground. Taloe set upon the ever shifting monstrous silver mass. He grappled with it, spikes cutting through him as useless as mage-iron had been against it. The two became and ever more threaded framework of a man growing more hollow, and vast.

Though the figure struggled with the waters clinging to it, Taloe was cast off in a moment more. A stone tore from the ground large as the twelve-foot monster. He splashed in a rain of silver globules that fell in puddles everywhere. Combatants dodging them as best they could.

A moment of stillness was answered by these shrinking into the soil, and between cracks in the stone. Everyone backed up, looking around, sure it was not over. Katrisha looked to Dahlia down the lane who Wren was tending to, she moved for Liora who was still under her shield.

Katrisha tried to pull the shield up but was met with pained roar of, “No!” She backed up.

“My arm is broken,” Liora growled, muffled under the heavy armament. “I can’t get it out, and I can’t lift the shield.”

“Alright, I’ll lift with you,” Katrisha said, and grabbed hold again. “On three… one, two, three.”

It was heavy, but not so much between the two. Moving it so delicately was another matter. Liora’s grunt of pain left a sneer of sympathy on Katrisha’s lips to almost match the other woman as she came into view. Though Liora was clearly crying, and it seemed from more than pain. Her forehead was also bloodied where the shield had been knocked against it. Liora reached over, and unstrapped the shield, which Katrisha lugged to the side.

Delicate fingers checked first her head with her good hand, but moved quickly to the other arm. Katrisha also reached for the forehead, but Liora stepped back. “It’s fine! If you must help, worry about the arm.”

Laset emerged from a building, her face looking twisted with sorrow, agony, or a growing fury. It earned her no trust from those who backed away from a new possible threat. Silver swirled from the ground out of the hole Kiannae had left. “Help me…” came a plea upon the wind so much as from the form. It fractured down the middle for a moment again. Something like it’s hand pulled it back together with strain, and force.

Laset rushed the form that had only begun to look a man again. They became two waves at war that twined, and twisted around each other. Crashing again, and again with a roar like the ocean. Singers emerged from doors around the lane. They looked like frightened children that had seen a ghost.

Etore grabbed one of them, though her grip threatened to slip from the arm. “What’s happening?” she demanded.

“He is the mirror. The abyss. The winds of the storm.”

Katrisha looked between the growing fight, and Liora, and started checking her arm.

“I’ll be fine, go help,” Liora snapped. “I’m a fully competent healer.”

Katrisha had half worked out the spell, drawn two straight lines down the main bones. She had almost worked out the correct forces to align them gently. She waved her hand away, and the spell finished even as she turned.

Fragments of bone snapped into place forced, and bound by magic. A powerful deep warmth filled Liora’s arm with life. A sensation that threatened to spread everywhere through her. She had yelped in pain, but her expression softened to the bewildered opposite. Left clutching the arm.

Katrisha saw none of this having turned, and assumed a ready stance again, unsure what to do. She tilted her head.

The silver seemed to dissolve through the twisting waters that bound it, and became like a dust on the wind. A wind that came down the lane, and grew.

“My weakness is my strength,” Laset roared above the tumult of the thrashing form. Part of her appeared wrestling with something man like. It didn’t sound like a battle cry so much as a plea.

Katrisha glanced to her staff. Her strength, was her form, how tightly it bound together, how hard it was to disrupt, but she was water. So mostly was he, degenerate as the mater might have been. It was pretending to be water, and most of it actually had been. It had slowed the creature before when she tried, if only a moment.

The creature had evaded before, but Laset had him bound. A third figure emerged from the twisting chaos. Orwell’s was briefly seen grappling from behind, grasping at what might have been the throat. They fell as a crashing wave, that roiled across the ground, and rose up again. The thing grabbing hold of another’s face blurring it into the mass, even as Laset tried to pull it off.

Katrisha trust her staff at the figure in the center. It twisted around the strike, almost coming apart as Laset let it roll her off into the blow. Her face contorted in agony, and a piercing shriek cut the air. Ice spread through Laset, as Katrisha pulled back from a counter attack leveled at her. The silver form wrestled back up like a wave lifting the raging battle off the ground. Yet gripped the figure, and the ice spread, the silver slowed, and crystallized in hard facets.

“I’m sorry,” Orwell gasped one last time, turning his face from where his hands stilled with the rest. A cold fog rolled off what remained. A sculpture of textured ice and silver, of three figures frozen in a vicious battle. It was as beautiful as horrible, like a monument to war itself. An arm of the monster struck across Laset’s face, almost throwing her off. The figure in the center gouging out the eye on Orwell’s stricken face. A face contorted so much in fear, sorrow, shame, as twisted in agony.

Singers fell as puddles, or washed away as mist. A few stumbled towards fright white women who had been seen to drink of Laset. They fell at the women’s feet, and embraced them before they faded.

“No,” Rihonae snapped, stepping from the central building. “No, no, that was not…” She turned to Katrisha. “How dare you,” she fumed.

Mayari grabbed her arm before she could take a swing at Katrisha, who already had her wards, and staff at the ready. “Did you not hear her ask? Did you not hear her cry out her weakness as a plea, and see her take, the strike that was offered? To use it.”

“You saw this coming?” Rihonae demanded, stepping back, and tearing her arm free. “You let this happen.”

“It oft does. Her heart is in the right place. Perhaps in some future world, her ambitions will be possible. In this world, in this we have, the mirrors, always twist. No line is straight. Ascension lies beyond a circle.”

“Is she dead!?” Rihonae demanded, her voice trembling with rage. She took a step back, and glanced to the frozen remains.

“Of course she’s dead,” Mayari answered incredulously. “She died a thousand years before you knew her. Heart, and organs stopped with man’s hands around her throat. Tightening, till she stopped fighting, or breathing. At the moment, she’s just still, but every winter ends, when the spring sun comes.”

“When the storm comes?” Katrisha pressed.

“They will be free, but then, perhaps Orwell can rid himself of the madness, or perhaps it will break loose. Perhaps it already did.”

“Already did?” Katrisha looked doubtful. “The parts that blew away?”

“Perhaps, perhaps, but are we the shadows we cast?” Mayari shook her head. “Even the wars in our hearts, reflected in our world.” She glanced to Sund who knelt weeping before the frozen figures.

Another cry from Dahlia turned all’s eyes, and Sund stumbled up, towards her with one last glance back. Kiannae moved after. Etore, kept her eye squarely on Rihonae and Mayari. Katrisha looked torn, and back to Liora nursing her wounds.

“Is she hurt?” Rihonae asked.

“No one laid a hand on her, so, I can only presume her wound is almost six or seven months on now.”

“Her child?” Rihonae snapped, and stepped after the others, but was held back at sword point. She pursed her lips, and pushed the flat of the blade away with two careful fingers. “I’ve delivered my fair share, you know. Now out of my way, I mean no harm.”

Etore withdrew her blade, and Rihonae marched past, glancing to a steaming statue. Liora stepped after, but limped slightly, and set to healing herself the strain in her knee. She dropped down, braced herself on her good arm, and started weeping, covering her face.

Katrisha stared at this a moment, but turned toward the others who seemed in more actual distress. She spared one more glance back though.

“Step back,” Rihonae commanded. “Let me get her more comfortable.”

This earned only the most doubtful glares. Scarves bolted from her sleeves, and scattered the gathering. Left only Wren, Sund, and Dahlia whose face was contorted in agony, her breathing rapid. The cloth spiraled in, under, and lifted the woman from the ground supporting her in the air.

Wren stood, gave Rihonae another questioning look, but turned back to Dahlia. He grimaced. “Anyone else ever delivered a child?”

The ring of a blade shoved into a scabbard turned a few eyes. “More or less,” Etore answered. She gave Rihonae a look. “I’ll play catch, you lot do your healer thing. Can we take her inside though? I doubt this is going to be easy or quick.”

Wren lay his hand to Dahlia’s belly, and gave her a most sympathetic look.

“It’s ok,” Dahlia managed between pants. “The flower blooms, that fruit is born.”

Wren closed his eyes, and resumed what he had been trying before. He’d only done the practice twice, and once had been a horse. Dahlia’s breathing eased, and her head rested against cupping cloth.

“Alright, let’s move her,” Wren said with authority.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Over two hours passed. Those without direct roles to play took turns guiding the curious to the new statue in the middle of the lane. Ambrush stepped out between Katrisha and Kiannae. She looked to the spectacle for a bit herself, unnerving in her silence. There had not been many cries since Wren had started his work in earnest.

“Well?” Katrisha asked.

“It’s a girl,” Ambrush answered. “More or less.”

“What do you mean, ‘more or less?’” Kiannae demanded.

“Not first girl I’ve seen like her,” Ambrush obliged. “Though only the second. I’d think less of it, but, you knew Aster, you say she was the likeness that thing haunting you took?”

“How well did you know her?” Kiannae pressed.

“Well enough, that I wouldn’t be shocked, if it wasn’t for what Orwell — or whatever that was — said. All those… pronouns crossed up, particularly about the child in her.” She huffed. “Like a lord,” she muttered quietly, and shook her head.

“So she…” Kiannae started, and seemed bothered by something.

“Yes, a little extra below the waist.”

“Not a tail?” Kiannae pressed.

“No,” Ambrush looked bemused.

“She had one of those too.” Kiannae sighed.

“I’m well aware,” Ambrush demanded, “she’s a strange girl, but not a Faun. Human, as any of you at least, so that doesn’t say much.”

Wren pushed his way between, and stopped in the middle of the lane, looking up and down it.

“You alright?” Katrisha asked.

“Where’s Mayari? I want answers,” Wren growled.

“Last I saw… she went into the central building,” Kiannae answered. Katrisha seemed too startled by his tone.

Wren tromped down the lane, and through a door.

“Should one us go after him?” Kiannae asked.

Katrisha hesitated. “You go.”

Kiannae held a moment as though second guessing, but walked up the lane after him.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Mayari was seated in Rihonae’s throne below, as Wren entered.

“Did I do it?” Wren demanded.

“Do what?” Mayari asked in a casual, pleasant tone.

“Did I make her son, a girl?” Wren growled, and strode down the steps with fury.

Mayari laughed, even as the shorter man stepped up the dais, loomed over where she sat.

“It’s not funny,” Wren said his knuckles turning white around his staff.

“Oh, I beg to differ, ask it again, so your sister can hear?”

He glanced up to the stairs to Kiannae. He looked away.

“Ask what?” Kiannae pressed, when the silence dragged on, and descended the steps herself.

“Did I… make her son, a girl?” Wren asked. His cheeks were red with some mixture of anger, and embarrassment. His eyes tightly closed.

“No,” Mayari answered out of hand, and casual.

Wren looked doubtful, but relieved.

“Yes,” Mayari added with a smugness to make a stone angry.

He shifted almost into a fighting stance, and looked ready to take a swing. A moment of this tense pose, the dragonborn unmoved, and he threw the staff away. It struck the stone with a loud clatter, hard enough to chip a step.

“Is that even something he could do?” Kiannae demanded, not sure she would trust any answer.

“Oh, certainly,” Mayari said with a wave of her hand. “You have no idea how powerful you two shadows are. More powerful than her, but it does not mean, she could not do the deed.” The woman sat up straighter in the throne.

“Why, can’t you just answer my question?” Wren demanded. “Plainly.”

Mayari got up, and he stepped back. She stepped around the throne, almost as if to give him some sense of security in her position. There tapper her finger along the back in time with the rhythm of the clockwork. “How plainly would you like me to explain the machinery of cells, or the clockwork of the heavens? The birth of a world, or the end of a cycle? Of all we have known.”

“As plainly as you can,” Kiannae answered, stepped up, and put her hand on her brother’s shoulder.

“You are as contagious as life, little bird,” Mayari answered. “Your gifts, come with extras. You speak in the languages of life itself, but words matter, and so does what lies between.”

“He called me the death of men,” Wren said through gritted teeth. “What did he mean?”

“All men die,” Mayari answered. “All that is living, dies. That which does not produce an heir, becomes extinct. That which loses its place, to one more well fit, dwindles. Species die, just like people. Men more than most.”

“Still not very plain,” Kiannae challenged.

“He, is his own seed,” Mayari answered, as though a quotation. “It is written, from before the time of the Third Emperor. Hidden amongst the lesser known scrawlings of Saint Darius, but it turned out he was right.” She pursed her lips, and spoke again as quoting. “He has twisted her in his own mirror, but she has twisted back. It did not begin with us.”

Mayari stepped around again, and sat back down. A look on her face like a weary instructor dealing with two dense students. “Another will tell you soon enough, but you will doubt anything I tell you. Should I fill you with doubt, for one you might trust? Well, none of you, should trust seers, least of all me. I always took it… as a love note, of sorts. That one that came before, the sister neither of you are, telling all those seers of old that a dragon would lie.”

“Why must you lie?” Wren demanded.

“We… all of us, only ever tell lies. Stories, simplifications, if you will. There are no innocents. I’m old enough to see the sins of every babe, every doting mother. I have seen their crimes in their own heart. You think you know, who amongst you is the others mirror, reflection, or shadow? Whose plan, you are each pawns in? ”

“Not really,” Kiannae admitted. “I’ve every reason to doubt which of us… is the copy my sister insists she is, but I’m not so sure it’s her. I’m the boring one, after all, the one uncomfortable in my own skin. The one who recreates forgotten spell crafts, lurking on the borders of foreign lands.”

“See, you lie,” Mayari threw her hands up as though her point was made.

“I was being rather plainly honest,” Kiannae protested.

“Copy.” Mayari shook her head. “That plan went out the window so long ago it might as well have been the dust on the wind, escaping poor Orwell. A bird trying to balance a tree big enough to crush a continent. What you fought this day, was a man torn in half by the truths he would learn. By a betrayal not yet manifest. A past, a future, it’s all the same, and it all changes. The world is mad, and we seers know it better than most.”

“Or you just are mad,” Kiannae challenged.

“Some cackle, and play the game. Be it a bluff or fool’s final defiant hurrah. Some, hold their cards close to the chest. Some though, tip half our hand, but is that pinnacle you can see, the only one? The lowest card, or the highest. The beginning, or the end.”

Wren turned, stopped, and fumed. He stepped over, and grabbed his staff before marching up the stairs.

“Who’s plan are you little bird?” Mayari called after him. “Whose pawn, or which player? I’ll tell you, one thing for free. There are those who would do away with this contest. One player, against herself, a line crossed like a leg. Where’s the fun in that?” She threw her own leg over her left knee casually.

Wren tilted his head slowly in anger, but walked the rest of the way out without another word.

Kiannae gave the dragonborn a distasteful glare, but didn’t turn to leave.

“What do you want to ask? Hmm. What comfort can the one promised to lie, whisper with sweet honey, for your ears alone?”

“Why didn’t you stop that happening up there?” Kiannae demanded.

Mayari shook her head. “I didn’t warn, because sometimes he is useful, and sometimes, he stays… mostly sane. Though, ever more mumbling of what he has seen. Even this, I fear, is useful.”

“How?” Kiannae snapped. “How could this possibly be help anyone?”

“A measure, like a barometer, may warn you of a coming storm.”

“As if we needed another warning,” Kiannae growled, and loomed over her.

“A storm always comes, so long as there is a world, and a people to see it. Yet, when… well that is harder to say, but for to watch for the signs. The Storm is near, perhaps, already here. He’s usually half-way down the mountain, and that child being born, before it all goes wrong, if it all goes wrong.”

“How could the storm be here?” Kiannae demanded.

“Hurricanes, sometimes pass inland. Strike our mountain homes,” Mayari answered with a circling gesture. “When the storm comes, there is a great wall of wind, and clouds, but in the eye, there is…”

“Calm,” Kiannae said, and furrowed her brow closing her eyes.

Mayari nodded. “Foolish whelps oft wish to crawl from our dens in that deathly still. They must be restrained below, for if the storm does not break, it brings new winds as it passes.”

“Have you heard the reports of what Katrisha found?” Kiannae demanded, uncertain if she might be tipping her own hand.

Mayari drew a circle in the air. Only faint ring left behind, that quickly faded as she poked at the center. “Where does it begin, or end? Now ask, your real question. Not some thin pretense to prove your moral high ground. That you care all that much about the poor old captain, who’s not even dead. In some senses… more alive. Just a little too much of the darkest shadows.”

“Are they more alive, or dead?” Kiannae demanded.

“You see, I lie. I simplify. I chose the words that best convey, to those that need to hear. What is life and death, to ones that have seen the truth? A minor inconvenience, either way.”

Kiannae shifted her hand on her staff. “What do I have to do to save him?”

Mayari smiled. “Well, I guess your ears are not only your own. No, not worried about your brother, or the captain so much. Your little pet? The drop you stole from the ocean? Naughty girl. The Sun has a way of drying up the world if you leave water splashed about.”

“Fine, don’t answer,” Kiannae turned, but didn’t step away.

“You already saved him,” Mayari answered in due time, when Kiannae knew she had over played her bluff to walk away. “But all things change. He wants to give you the world, and whatever follies lie within, are the desire by which he lives. Can I say, if they are truly those of a man? I’ve appetites to make poor old Estae blush, and leave most men on their knees like puppy dogs. Wolves, and whelps are far more easily tamed than some think. Just have to give them what they want, and be much stronger than them.”

Kiannae turned back, and glared at her.

Mayari stood up, and stepped forward. “That much is free. Do you want to know more?” She reached for Kiannae’s cheek, and brushed the backs of her fingers there.

“Not at your price,” Kiannae pried the hand away calmly with her staff, turned and marched out.

“If you are looking for an order, you’ve still got it backwards,” Mayari called after her. “So backwards.” She added with a mocking laugh.

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