Measured was she of shepherdess staff,
slow ever her anger but also her laugh,
oh kind was she of autumn’s placid land,
oh stern to reprove the every lost lamb,
saw purpose to men but laid them low,
a pride ever wounded a mortal blow,
oh wise the Queen Elise of the sun,
though in evening, she could be fun,
harvest, harvest through glorious light,
oh revel proudly ‘midst this pale night.
– Elise of Autumn, 32 B.E.
Rhaeus 28th, 655 E.R.
“You’re early,” Etore said without taking her eyes off a line of rolling hills.
“Couldn’t sleep,” Katrisha answered. She climbed over the mollycroft, and sat facing the same direction. “Anything suspicious?”
Etore just gestured into the distance. A few specks of light there were out of place. Easily mistaken for stars, but just below the horizon.
Katrisha put on her spectacles, and adjusted till she had to steady her breathing to keep the lights in view. “Hmm,” she said. “Yeah, could just be locals, but few as there were along the road… It would take a real hermit to be this far north. Still, good farmland around here. I could imagine someone just living off the land where no one would bother them. I really could,” she muttered more to herself.
“How many lights do you see?” Etore asked. “I count five.”
“There are a couple more dimly lit windows. Old grainery maybe, or small fort. I think I just saw someone walking along a roof, carrying… I don’t know. Something burning, I think, but too small to be a torch.”
“Yeah, not reassuring.”
Katrisha sighed, flipped her spectacles off and leaned back on the skylight. She was tired, but everything kept running through her head. “So, how much did you hear?” she finally asked.
“Yer not the one paying me,” Etore answered.
“He’s not paying you enough,” Katrisha countered. “Getting you mixed up in all this. Kind of thing to make a woman question where her loyalties should be.” She gestured a bit absently at the sky, or perhaps her faint spellwork surrounding the wagon.
“Won’t say you’re wrong on that,” Etore offered, though gave the woman a suspicious look.
“How much was the offer?”
“Going out bid him by one?” Etore challenged mockingly.
“Hundred sovs,” Katrisha threw out. “It’ll sting, but I can afford that, all on my own. I’ll send word to Avrale once we reach Dustwatch. It will be held in your name, till you pass through. I’m a dame, they’ll honor it. I’ll give you a letter, for identification even.”
“The nonsense I’ve heard really worth that much?” Etore asked.
“If I’m your employer, you tell me.”
“Fine,” Etore said, and held out her hand. “I may not always be the most honorable sort, but I usually know who is. Shake, and I’m your woman, if you’ll cover his down payment as well. Have a feeling he’ll demand that back.”
“Let’s say half again,” Etore said thin lipped.
“So, a bit less,” Katrisha pressed, but got no response. “One-forty, we good?” she held out her hand.
Etore eyed it, and the slight glimmer of her half human eyes in the moonlight, sitting safe within a web of magic she controlled. She was already gambling a lot on the woman’s honor, just being there. She shook the hand.
“Take it from the top,” Katrisha pressed.
“Well, if I were reporting to that mad fool, I’d tell him he owed me that pretty gold sun around his neck. As combat pay, if he wanted another word out of me.”
“I think I just covered that,” Katrisha chided.
“Eh, maybe. Alright, my take; you lot are dangerous, and more of a walking powder keg than that gem Sam’s been hiding. No way I slice it, is that thing not somehow your fault.”
“Bout right so far,” Katrisha agreed.
“Your brother… I’m sure he’s more of an affront to my, now ex–client, than either of his proud sisters. Boy like him. Girl, really, in all but about two technical senses. Don’t always know how I feel about that. Abomination against any Clarion idea, and yet, honestly, he reminds me of some men back home. Nicer though. Except when he needs to be.” She laughed to herself at that, but then shook her head. “Good distraction for a while, but I’m getting away from the lot of you, the moment I can. No man, is worth this much trouble, and certainly not to me.”
“Almost wish I was more broken up about that,” Katrisha offered. Her face grew more stern. “Today has, tempered my feelings on the mater. Anything to tell me about their little schemes?”
“It’s got something to do with my own opinion,” she said, which seemed a half jest. “Caught those two conspiring, and kissing goodbye. I didn’t hear much, nothing she didn’t tell you, but his voice changed. Not that power of his, something more, subtle.”
“Sorry,” Katrisha offered, and set a consoling hand on the woman’s where it rested on the roof. Etore gave the hand a suspicious glance with her eyes, but made no other move.
“It’s not like I had some illusion…” She took a breath, sighed, and just shook her head.
“So why are you still…”
“Sleeping with him?”
“I was going to say, here.” Katrisha laughed awkwardly, retracted her hand and rubbed the back of her neck.
“One in the same. I’m still here because I have a contract. I’m keeping him close, because I’m not afraid of him. Maybe I should be, but I’m not. So, may as well have some fun. I’m here, on this forsaken road, with a bunch of abyss bound fools, because I can’t hide from these people. I don’t even know what they are, but I can guess.”
“Not much guess,” Katrisha said. “Wren said it, not a clear claim, but one doesn’t weave assassin into their threats without trying to imply something, and, it’s not just pretense. From his little tale, from your reaction, there must be something to that claim.”
“Guess you overpaid.” Etore shrugged.
“How about Tock?”
“Eh. Saw him trying to get the attention of that Elise woman. Those foxes are quite good, but, really, trying to grab attention, and go unnoticed, not a good mix.”
“Why her though? The Torta with the Red Mage too?”
“I doubt it. She was a pretty sort, flirting with women,” Etore offered dismissively. “Not much other reason I think, but I don’t trust it. She seemed very nervous when she finally noticed, but who wouldn’t. Talking foxes, still getting over that myself. Maybe it is just what it appears, a botched attempt at matchmaking, maybe not. Didn’t catch exactly what the fox told her, but ‘nice girl.’ Those are words I’ve heard a couple times, from your little friend. Who isn’t, any more.”
Katrisha winced. “Fates, it was like yelling at a puppy, with the mind of a very clever child. Even if he has, bought into some plan to ruin my life.” She slipped into the same snide hurt tone as she had over Wren.
“Well, I doubt they are trying to destroy you, exactly. Seems the opposite,” she shifted both position, and tone, and a more kind, but still stern expression crossed her face. “If those you trust are conspiring against you… Well, I’m a cynical sort. I’ve trusted the wrong kind before, but then again, maybe you, are the problem. The one being handled. Yeah, I doubled back around on you two, because as much as I wanted away from that woman, I wanted to know what you would say. So maybe, they think they know better than you. That whatever this is, is better off in one of their hands. I’ve heard enough to know it’s the kind of power I wouldn’t trust someone else with.”
“Both seem cynical to me.”
“Experience is what it is.” Etore leaned back as well.
“Care to clue me in on any of that?”
“Not really. You paid for your own secrets. Mine, some of mine, don’t even have a price.”
“How about the man who trained you?” Katrisha pressed, but got nothing. “He was a tymen Sylvan, wasn’t he?”
Etore ran her fingers along a sword hilt, more a nervous tick than anything intentional, though the effect was the same. Ready, if she needed to be. “Pretty good. I’ll give you that one, because you got the right word, on account I used the wrong one. Temyn, would be a true–skin, Tymyn would be acceptable skin. Which… That’s why.” She laughed. “I always thought he was saying Torta sarcastically, he was sneaking a y into the o. It was an insult. I knew it.”
“And he was an unka. A, shadow, Tock called them both. Something like the assassins of legend, or what we are dealing with. Lesser-light, funny language lots of little roots, but as far as I can tell we don’t have a full set recorded. I take it your mentor is the one who taught you the phrase that has my brother’s heart all aflutter?”
Etore laughed. “That was funny, froze the little bastard stiff when I said it the first time.”
“No need to be rude.”
“No need to find the word rude,” Etore said. “Some of my best friends were bastards.”
“I left Osyrae for a lot of reasons. Not having any to stay, was second on the list.”
“How about you then. Is Elise right, you just some kid from the streets?”
“Gutter-rat, is the word you are looking for. Spent my first few years there, yeah. Kind of people who are invisible, that no one sees. That people go out of their way, not to see. Like snakes and rats in the walls. Just part of how things are and work, for better or worse. So bastard, is a little personal to me. Cause the only man I could have called pa, I wouldn’t, and he isn’t.”
“Snakes in the walls?” Katrisha asked, caught on the expression. “Wait, wait, I know this. Constrictors right? To keep the vipers out, rats to keep the constrictors happy. Strangest thing I ever read about Osyrae.”
“Then yer more sheltered than I thought. Cause in my experience, that’s how just about everything works, anywhere you go. Those lights out there, those are the vipers. Lords and ladies, rats and dogs, thieves and royalty. It’s all the same, everywhere you go, just the words change, and you start to lose track of which one is which.”
“Guessing in that analogy, that makes you one of the good snakes.”
“Good, is a very relative term. When I was a girl, I made a pet of a little rat. Snake ate it. Tried to make a pet of the snake, but, that meant catching more rats. Mother wasn’t happy when she found out, but for the most part, everyone knows, better the constrictors than the vipers. Still, I was forbid from luring more rats, and eventually, when I didn’t have anything for him, my snake stopped coming around.”
“Fates. I’d say that’s messed up, but I hardly have context. Mar caught a mouse, I think all of once. Didn’t even hurt it much. He didn’t even seem to know what to do with it, so I healed it up, and let it go in the east field. That cat is Fates only know how old, and if we didn’t feed him, I’m pretty sure he’d starve. Hope Maeren is taking good care of the old pest.”
“I haven’t quite decided,” Etore said. “If you’re a lady, or one of the real people.”
“In my experience, the lords and ladies are real people, whatever they’d like to think.”
Etore chuckled slightly at that. “Problems usually come when they start to doubt those things they’d like to think.”
“I never wanted anything all that much. Pretty bauble or two, my books, and some company to keep my bed warm. World, has always seemed to have other plans.”
“What do you want?” Katrisha asked.
“I really don’t know,” Etore answered. “So I settle for as much as I can take. I envy people who’ve got the conviction to carve out a place for themselves, and say, this is mine.”
“So why not just do that?”
Etore patted the short sword on her hip, then reconsidered. She eyed Katrisha suspiciously, then shook her head. “This was his sword. That man, who wasn’t my father. I keep it, to remind myself that no one I think is better than me, can’t be beaten. Also, cause it hasn’t failed me yet, unlike anyone or anything else.” She patted her rapier scabbard.
“So you’ve started then at least?” Katrisha teased.
Etore rolled her eyes. “It’s too much work. Besides that brave defiant face of ownership. Yeah, it buys you about five seconds when some lord swoops in, and takes everything you can’t carry quickly. Also, once you start killing their pet vipers, and wolves in ram-skins, you don’t get to be anything but a hunter, or dead.”
“Lots of reasons for leaving Osyrae?” Katrisha pressed.
“That’s the idea.”
“What if they think they’re the good ones?” Katrisha pressed. “Rebellion, gets kicked around for this lot. As much as bandits, or highway robbers any way. Go out of their way to minimize casualties by most reports.”
“Tell that to my spine.”
Katrisha gave Etore a half apologetic glance. “Forgive me, some cold calculating logic, oh noble mercenary. It’s the kind of thing that makes one wonder, who they think they really are. Either of you. You, I think, are looking for something to hang onto. If only for a moment. I know that feeling.”
“Itching to hear your offer? You were quite friendly with their little spy.”
“Curious,” Katrisha obliged. “Aren’t you? If only to understand our enemies better, and know what illusions they have, to shatter them. Maybe, be convinced to choose a war. One way or the other. Not that I think I would, but it’s coming to this any way. Clarions, Osyraens, they’re all the same in my book. A bunch of men who want to run the world, and who think they do. They’re nothing without us. Maybe I should give up, let those two fight over something prophecy calls death, and be the Queen it promises instead.”
“Learned one lesson early on; don’t join the ones who ask. The ones worth your time, are the kind that make you ask.”
“How ‘bout family?” Katrisha pressed.
“I stand by what I said.” She got up, stretched, and looked down at Katrisha. “If you are up anyway, I’m going to go get some sleep.” She moved to cross over the skylights, but Katrisha caught her hand, which earned a very sharp look.
“Just be honest with him, about your intentions. He’s got the back of the wagon, curtain and all that, some little bit of privacy. It doesn’t have to be forever, to be more than…fun. Take it from me. Remember, the ones worth your time. Well, you said it, not me.”
Etore yanked her hand away, glared at her a moment. She shook her head slightly, and climbed down.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
As roadblocks went it was simple, effective, and a bit more permanent than most. Three deep, rough troughs cut across the road at harsh angles. Not something that would do all that much to slow a horse, but a caravan wagon was another mater.
It could have been almost been mistaken for decades of weather damage, if not for fresh rough edges, and a redhead leaned against an old crossroad post. The signs had long fallen off, except one weathered beyond reading, that dangled straight down, pointing at the woman.
Elise was tossing a small stone in the air as she waited. Giving almost no sign she heard the wagon and horses approaching. Just watching the arc of it with every toss, and catching it again. As the wagon rolled to a creaking stop she flung the rock at the carriage. It drop just short of the horses as bright lines snapped into glimmering being along the ethereal traces of Katrisha’s spell.
“Nice work, very nice. Never seen better. Can’t do much magic myself, but I do appreciate the craft.”
“Just you?” Kiannae asked.
“For now.” Elise pushed off the post, and crossed her arms. “Even if I walk away, and let you lot clear the way, and go on. How long do you think that will take? We can do this all the way back to the main road, on both sides of you. A lot faster than you can fill them up, or ease the wagon through. Not here to fight, just take what we said. Y’all can leave the wagon, we’ll fix up the road. Bring the shard, hand it over, hear our offer.”
Katrisha jumped out of the wagon, staff in hand, and walked up beside the nervous horses. She put a hand on the neck of one, and glared at the woman ahead of her. “Why don’t you just start with the offer. No one here, but those you plan to make it too. Why not make this easy, talk us into it here, and stop playing games.”
Elise raised an eyebrow, and gingerly stepped across one of the ditches in the road, somehow, though it was well wider than her stride. She sauntered up to the barrier near Katrisha cautiously. “Step through your little shell here, and I’ll make my offer. Right to you, like those sweet nothings I whispered in your ear the other night.”
Katrisha glanced over her shoulder at her sister, who gave her a bewildered look that she was even thinking of taking that suggestion. She set her staff hard against the ground, and slipped through her barrier before Kiannae could believe her eyes enough to protest.
Elise edged closer, hand on the hilt of her sword, her lower lip between her teeth. She stepped right up to Katrisha, who suddenly grabbed her, and growled in her ear. “Red Sisters, and Assasins, Red Mages, Red Women. A rebellion that calls Lycia her Queen, and strives to spark a war with Palentine, while ‘saving,’ any Clarion woman they can get their hands on. I’m a student of history, the ones people want forgotten, most of all. I know what you are, and what you offer.”
Elise was breathing hard, tense, but her sword hand strayed to Katrisha’s hip, and the other grabbed her shoulder back in kind. “I knew I liked you,” she said hotly in her ear.
Katrisha snatched the unguarded sword, and tossed it through her sheild where it clattered across the old packed earth. Elise stepped back with a start, and was as suddenly behind the ditch as having even taken half a step.
“Forty-eight, probabilities,” Katrisha said walking along the edge of the ditch. “I’ll keep it to the interesting ones. First, I laid down a ring of fire around where you stood. Harmless, but it startled you to make a move. Talking, that came next, that’s still a bit blurry, but got nowhere. Enough to suss out my suspicions though. Always flirting. Always, always, flirting. It’s ingrained in every fiber of your being. Twenty three I think tries next. I just started sparing with you in the open. Had to burn like seven to get a good feel for that. You are quite skilled. They taught you well. More talking, just to throw you off. Seven, eight times, before you didn’t even draw your weapon. Then let you make your offer. Six times. Working you up, feeling out your, weaknesses. What you normally I’m sure think of as strengths. Get you confident, then, take your sword. ‘Cause you’re no mage, and no threat to me unarmed, but mostly, to make a point.”
“I didn’t…” she stammered, and looked confused.
“Feel anything?” Katrisha asked. “I wasn’t trying to hurt you. Just understand you, and you, were having fun. If we flirted, or if we fought. Is that what they’ve made you? Your masters.”
“No. No, no. You’ve got that wrong,” she laughed. “If you are going to go on history, then you’ve read what was written by the victors, and those with things to hide. You’ve got your choice. Forge on, till you grow weary dealing with our ditches, or go north. We’ll make you a lovely meal, have a little chat, take that shard off your hands, and let you go. That is, if you still want to go.”
She stepped towards the post, and slipped from sight infuriatingly.
Katrisha stepped back through the barrier, grabbed her staff, and looked up at her sister’s disapproving glare. “Were’ going north,” she said plainly.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Kiannae yelled.
“North,” Etore added her vote perched above on the canopy. “After that little stunt, I’d believe you really are some kind of god, Old Tom would be proud.”
Katrisha stooped down, and picked up the sword curiously. “You want this?” she asked looking up at Etore.
“Long as it comes with the job, boss.”
Katrisha held the hilt up by the roof where Etore could grab it.
She checked the balance. “Not the reach I usually like for my offhand, but better than a broken rapier. Better enchanted at least, though, this mage-iron feels weird. Even for mage iron, it’s almost warm, not cold.”
Wren had climbed down out of the wagon, and was looking between his sisters, and Etore dubiously. “Why north?” he finally demanded in uncharacteristically assertive tone.
“Anyone know what seven to the seventh power is?” Katrisha asked.
Sasha looked away, but the others only seemed confused.
“The number of times I’ve tried this all before. Supposedly. That is, until someone decided to fracture the pattern I’ve been perfecting,” she gave her brother a spiteful look. “I don’t, remember the plan, not really, but I don’t think going east is the answer, just now. I know who these people are pretending to be, and that means, we either need to stop them, or change their minds.”
“And that is?” Kiannae snapped.
“The dregs of a Clarion death cult,” Sasha answered to everyone’s surprise. “One that thought it would be clever to weed out vulnerable men and women. Use a pattern of seduction and conversion, to make pawns to destroy political futures, entrap, and manipulate. That’s how it began. Until the corruption it already was, became even more twisted.”
“Why us?” Kiannae glared at her sister.
“You seem to know the answers,” Katrisha said ignoring her sister, and fixing an accusatory gaze on Sasha.
“Not everything a full Red Sister knows is joy. We have our dark secrets, burdens of past failures, and enduring flaws.”
“Red, is Clarion symbolism,” Katrisha challenged her dodge of an answer. “A symbol of carnality, but the animal has many sides. Cruel, hungry, indifferent. I’ve spent years trying to find a text that ties together the obvious. The Red Mage, the only name that survives for an Assassin. One with only a few allies, slew thirty high clerics, dozens of barons, and land owners. Then cut down, most, of a paladin army. Most that is, before falling at the end of one of the bloodiest battles of the Dragon War. That no dragon fought in, any way.”
“I am sworn to secrecy on the specifics,” Sasha said thin lipped. “I would break that oath, if I imagined it could help, but that history, written by the victors, is close enough to the truth. The Red Mage is dead. Centuries gone, whoever is scheming in her name.”
“I didn’t say it was a woman. Those histories, as you say, written by the victors were indecisive. Half cast him as a man, a fallen man. The others, the filthiest harlot who ever lived. To defame fallen women as monsters, or to hide the shame that so few, could slay so many great paladins. Couldn’t even make up their mind if there were thirty, or only six to the Red Sisterhood, that’s another that gets tossed around. Just an insult to your order, or a slight on your honor?”
“Yet every rumor, swirling around this brigand says he’s a man,” Sasha challenged. “My vote, is East. I’ve spent enough of my life, caught up in other’s mad games of power. Even the sisterhood tends to devolve into that. Women who like power, in all its forms. A game played mercilessly, however gentle the means.” She gave Wren an apologetic glance.
Wren looked away.
When Katrisha’s expression remained defiant Sasha jumped down, and strode towards her. “I knew what I heard, when Wren described his encounter with Elise. I have seen the shadowed-place, for a moment, in my final right of the order. The one we must pass, to learn the last secrets. Those, I will not tell you. They want us, to convert us. To break us, like they were broken, and make us soldiers in…some war. I’m not interested. I know who I am, better than any person alive. Because I am older than you girl, I was here, when…” She kicked the dirt childishly.
“East,” Wren cast his vote.
Katrisha looked to her sister, her twin, or something else. Here expression was genuinely torn. She wasn’t sure what their true bond was. Taloe had woven into a hole in her soul. A hole left by what? She said she had felt a terrible pain, the day Katrisha had fallen from the cliff. Wounded by a sweep of a dragon tail, maybe killed in a dozen worlds where she got it wrong. How far had they ever been apart before that day. Their mother had one daughter, in any world she had lived to see either of them grow up. Surely worlds that neared the count Katrisha had tried. Their powers combined, could create an aether tear by accident, and awaken the instincts of battle mages in children. Was she her sister, or was she herself something else? Who’s game were they playing. What even were the rules.
“Give me one reason,” Kiannae demanded. “One good reason, we should walk right into that den of thieves, and actual assassins.”
“The vow we made when we were twelve,” Katrisha said plainly. “To always protect.”
“How is this, protecting anyone?”
“Like I said, one way or another, we put an end to this. This is another war, trying to happen. One that could tear the east apart, and then, what? What aid will there be, when Osyrae finally moves? Then whoever wins this war, beaten and bloodied, is ripe for the taking. It’s almost too convenient, don’t you think? There are hands at work here, and ignoring them is not the answer. Not any more. It’s not a puzzle you can’t win, it’s a game, someone can lose.”
“If I cast the deciding vote, are you going to abide it?” Kiannae demanded.
“Depends on the vote,” Katrisha answered. “If those conspiring against me are right, I’ve been at this a very long time. There is no running from this any more. No more fear. No more fate. No more bowing down, and letting others define our course, or following the easiest path. Someone here, wants me to shine, or to out shine me? Then I’ll shine.”
“Isn’t north, literally, the easier path?” Sasha tapped her forehead, and then gestured at the broken up road.
“Which way do you want to go? Which way, do you fear?” Katrisha challenged. “If they are determined, to force our hand, then let us force theirs.”
“East,” Kiannae said fiercely.
Katrisha closed her eyes, and gripped her staff hard enough to hurt.
There were several harsh breaths. “North,” Sasha recanted, though she looked more dismayed by her answer than either Kiannae, or Wren.
“Why?” he demanded.
“Because,” Sasha said, turned, and set her hand on his shoulder. “I’m through being a pawn. A scared, girl, running from the things that made me. If you will take this peace from me, then I will still be free. For I will love neither of you anymore. She’s right. Running, is what they expect. To wear us down, and drain our reserves, fighting obstacles, and not them.”
“Do I has say?” Tock asked with a half sneer, standing in the wagon door.
“No,” four of them said in unison.
He pulled his ears back, jumped from the wagon, and walked to the east side of the barrier. He sat, and waited.
“What about your deal?” Katrisha asked coldly.
“A deal ends, as it ends. Done, or not. There is not to do. Not here, and a road, I can yet tread, to keep others.”
Katrisha reset her defenses to standby for the little fox to pass. He stepped out cautiously, sniffed the air, and looked back over his shoulder. His ears fell dejected, he half turned away, hesitated, shook his head, and then ran. He slipped from their eyes mid leap over a ditch, and was gone.
“Anyone else?” Katrisha demanded. “Split the gamble again. Go east, probably get captured, or go north, and stand your ground. These are your choices, and I’m sorry they are what they are. That if this is somehow my plan, you are all stuck with it.”
“North,” Wren said, gave Sasha a hurt look, and got back in the wagon.
“Well, I’m sure not abandoning you idiots.” Kiannae took an angry breath, and snapped the reigns lightly. She pulled left, and the horses turned toward the north fork.
Katrisha hopped on the ladder, and climbed in.
Wren and Sasha sat opposite one another, looking anywhere but across the wagon. Katrisha flopped into the bed at the front, and rubbed her forehead. She‘d talked everyone else into believing it was the better move. Convincing herself, was feeling like a taller order. It felt like the plan, but that plan had shattered to a thousand little stars in her head. They sometimes glimmered, but were getting fewer, and father between.
“What happened?” Wren asked after minutes of awkward silence, cut only by the creaking wagon. He turned to glare at Sasha. “What did you do to her? That had her so upset, and she wouldn’t tell me.”
“Presuming you are not pretending,” Katrisha said thin lipped. “You, or mother have been scheming, and making deals to upend prophecy, or at very least, the carefully laid plans of some past version of myself. That, of course, just being what I know about.”
“I…” Wren started. “I missed something, didn’t I. The day, we had our talk.” He gave Sasha a softer look.
“Yes,” she answered with annoyance. “It wasn’t the first time. Our first, and last fight, that morning back in Highvale. A voice came over you, and your aura grew bright. Back then, I just imagined you were losing control of your power, in a moment of frustration. You told me…” She let out a breath, and took another. “You told me I was meddling in things I didn’t understand. You were so young, and sweet, that I tried to convince myself, you meant love. Which hurt, but was less frightening than believing it was something else.”
“Then, twice that day?” Wren pressed.
“Yes.” She hung her head. “At first, I thought, it was her. A voice so, womanly. You made an offer, to set me free. Then I thought it was you, or rather, the you I’ve not met in this life. A creature more fierce and demanding than your mother ever was. A girl, who wore your face, but not your kind eyes. Then, I was almost convinced, it was just you. The you I’d drawn out a few times, with just the right nudge.”
“What did I say?”
“That your sister was broken. Caught in a rut, a hole so deep she couldn’t see out of it any more. A plan so perfect she had forgotten the cost. A broken-one, you called her. You promised that you would free me, if I freed her. I knew the legend. A storyteller in Palentine told me once, but how you knew, I haven’t a clue. I wasn’t even sure I believed, but you kept the bargain, ahead of time, and more. Such kindness you found. Her, at her best, or all you. You made my love for you, almost, selfless. A new feeling, I must admit.”
“I knew the last part. It was, given to me in the moment, by something with Sylvan eyes. A face almost like a mirror, except the eyes, and just the slightest bit softer in features.”
“I don’t know her name, but all at once, that was you. A girl who could make me, blush. Who I’ve felt in your touch, when I pushed you to let go. Who would have been a Red Sister, but could not shake her jealousy for Audrey, or me.”
Wren furrowed his brow, and hung his head. He could almost feel the outline of her, in all of it. A shadow on his heart, that had always been him. A presence, hiding behind his own eyes. He had felt so often in his life like he was just along for the ride, but she, he realized was the one who held that feeling. She, was the one who had felt free in those rare moments he let go, and he could feel her, like a whisper in the back of his mind to let go. Almost see those mocking eyes. Plans within plans, but a patience that had long run thin.
He could feel the shard, sitting behind him. Locked in an enchanted box, feel it surge slightly in power, and almost here her hush that terrible burning fury. ‘Soon.’ It was said with such longing, and she could not hide the truth. The power that he held, the voice that could bring mortals to their knees. It was hers, and when he had brought Cadith to his knees, she had made the shard. Enforcing her will upon his runaway creation.
He looked up, and into Sasha’s eyes. Kind, but in some ways without sympathy. Forgiving, but not forgetting. She had been caught in this dance longer than him. With a creature that had lived behind his mother’s eyes, before his. Something ancient, and intemperate. Not cruel, but far from kind. Who loved life, free and wild, and at last he saw the facture. Mother feared her, because she was what mother became with that terrible power. What an innocent playful being had become with infinite potential. At once it was backwards. There were names that had no sound, but meaning. A goddess, a matirach that played with mortals like toys. Taught them to be her servants, and obey her endlessly complex rules. A sister, who a goddess left behind to be free, and live in a wildland innocent, but careless.
He wanted to tell them what he saw, but he feared to give them power. To make them real, these images he held of goddesses who’s domains he could see, in the shadows of a great tree, in the light of the sun, and in the autumn lands. Where she at last found her peace. He started to cry, and Sasha’s stern expression fell. She slid forward, reached tentatively for his cheek, but held back, her eyes questioning.
He moved his head, indecisively, not a nod, or a shake but not a refusal if she wished to show her sympathy for his plight. In that moment, he finally lost the illusion. He had believed they were not all one, yet they were. A soul made of so many lives, and paths. Choices changed. A goddess caught in the will of a scared young man, who could not tell where they began, and he ended. There were fractures, but they weren’t boundaries. He was not himself, without them, and they were ideas, more that separate voices. Yet the shard, belonged to her, it made her voice louder, and stand out. A thing that strode the world like a crackling storm, and yet loved to play in shadows.
He could almost remember when she spoke to Tock. An outline of instructions given, by the Torta’s creator, their goddess reborn. He saw her, a perfect mirror to himself. A thing almost a man, trapped by her own love of her form, but who delighted in power over women, and to taunt men, almost like brothers in arms. The peoples of the wolf, and the lynx. Like Mercu’s story. She was almost Autumn with wolf, and nearly Summer with Lynx, and yet Yaeun, he knew with certainty from Mercu’s story all those years ago. The ideas of seasons seemed out of order, and blended.
Lavender eyed, and dark skinned. When the storm met her, she became winter at last, and brought a great snow to the lands. The power had become the light of a moon goddess, and not the sun, who commanded the great powers of the storm. It was impossible to sort it out. A history of peoples, or just people. Animals, or even trees of so many forms. He saw what the first eyes of mortal kind saw. A bird like the sun, perching upon a tree limb, and then a stag that carried the weary sunbird.
He had barely felt Sasha touch his cheek, but her fierce embrace, and his sister’s hand on his shoulder registered. It fought with a memory trying to unfold the path, and a new faith that had always been his. Yet there was a truth, that pushed away what felt like it mattered, the humanity of it all. The understanding of the symbolism of the morning star. There had always been morning stars, bright shimmering lights that heralded the sun, but envied, or pitied its place. The impulses blended. A want to take the burden, a want to take the power, and a want to run from the great call. That bowed her head, and accepted the greater part of her will. To cling, to self, even if that self, was someone who could not refuse. Both a call to power, and kindness were in her, and her freedom, was the sacrifice she would make.
Yet there was a fracture. A war within this mind, for they did not want it. Kindness could not be the thief, only accept the burden. Freedom without the other voices wept. She mourned her, for power took the great light. That was until her will to be herself made her forsake her core desire for power. For power without self, is meaningless.
He took a breath. How long had that been? He could feel a fire inside his heart. Katrisha ripped him away from the box on the window sill behind him. Wren fell limply into Sasha’s arms who pulled him back against the wall away from the growing aura of the shard.
“What even is this?” he half heard Katrisha yell. It wasn’t her though, wrong sister. Kiannae spun, and glared at him. “What are you doing?” Her hair was wrong, fully black, no stripe of white.
No, it was Sasha, but she was holding him. No, it was Laurel, and then it was, mother. There was a flash of darkness, in a castle hall, as a little girl grabbed his staff. As…he knew the face. A priest, a lover, a friend. Who sorrowfully looked away, and yet he was power’s thirst, and weakness. So to had he been. Jealous of the power, until he understood its weight, and kindness won.
“Wren, snap out of it,” Katrisha yelled, shaking him. She threw on her spectacles. “Fates, I wish I had this part of the enchantment when Kiannae first touched her staff. This feels like that, magnified a thousand times, but I didn’t have this granularity in filament tracing. I can’t say it’s true. Move him to the back, away from the shard.
Sasha pulled Wren from the side bunk, and lifted him up onto the rear bed. Katrisha turned, and glared at the box. Patterns, fractured patterns of light. A ball of infinite possibilities unfurling, branching, seeking stability, but never finding it. Exponential potential bound by an exponential counter force. She glanced at her staff. Fire, and ice were too simple. It was entropy waring with order as near equal opposites. Mage-iron, when she had examined it had similar properties, but perhaps in opposite composition.
She half leapt out the window, and got up where she could see the roof. “I’m gonna need the sword.”
Etore glared at her. “What’s going on down there?” she said giving her a look that said no.
“It’s Wren,” Katrisha said fiercely.
Etore grimaced, flipped the sword over, and handed it to Katrisha with a look that said she owed her. Katrisha didn’t mention that what she was about to do was incredibly unwise, but so was doing nothing, or trying anything. Etore had said the enchantment felt wrong, and she was right. But the feeling was an illusion. It felt warm in the way something too cold might. It erred on the side of entropy. Making it far more effective against the ordered opposite. It would slowly etch the blade, but only grow stronger till it finally became something else entirely.
She really didn’t like the implication springing to her mind. It was like it had been made, for the exact purpose, but by who, why? Stolen off the enemy. It felt like a perfect trap in a game of chess. Where there were two moves, and both set you up for the loss. It was the moment before check, but, no, there was another move. One that put everything sideways for the whole game. A stalemate, maybe? She’d seen that far ahead once, but it was gone. This was the last one, that last glimmer of the plan. An obviously bad move, that didn’t seem advantageous at all, but got out of the trap. She sliced through the box straight down, striking the growing crystal. The sword yanked from her hand, as it fell into a swirling ball of light and shadow. The darkness cast waves as it dissipated.
The wagon finally rolled to a halt, and she heard Etore calling slow. He wasn’t the only one. Katrisha hadn’t even thought of Kiannae not stopping over the comotion. She dove towards the head of the wagon as she felt the tearing power caught between the two. Souls fighting over what had become a coiled line that ripped away the wood, and substance around it. Taloe appeared behind her, and put his hand on her shoulder.
“She does not want this,” he said, “and yet, I want her to have it. Her wish, not mine. Yet she is not thinking of the consequences, are you? You stood between, and you chose a side. Yet which side is it really? I remember my deal, winter goddess. Protect her from her own greatness, and I would betray that deal, if it destroys me, if I did not know in her heart, the truth she won’t admit. She doesn’t want this.”
Katrisha laughed. It was too funny. The whole thing, because she didn’t remember, and she felt like she was being too clever by half. Like she’d made it work, but what it was, she couldn’t be sure. She disrupted the pull her sister had on the raging fracture of near perfect order. She understood, it was just a symptom, an echo that had become so terribly important. She’d invented this game. Well, made those sneaky angled thoughts, which had just been more marker stones. Made the game so much more interesting. That didn’t fit, and she smiled. She was going to have to play along.
A light that had tried to curl into a likeness of Kiannae’s staff became perfectly straight. It’s incredible brightness flashed, and froze into crystalline clarity. Though something like orange thunderstorms still shimmered along its intricate facets. In places rounded, in others woven. It even had a red ribbon tied around it, a long slender thread of satin caught in a swirling breeze.
It flew to the back of the wagon, and into the hand of a young man who stared at it, curiously. “Funny, I only have pieces of it. The perfect message to myself. My absolute meaning. Except, fates, pieces are missing. Why?” He narrowed his eyes. “Did she take them? I thought I got her to give the rest of the power back.”
“Are you the spirit?” Katrisha demanded, straightening herself, and grew stern.
“No,” he said in a voice almost feminine, and winced on one side. “She was just a mirror, one I have been trying to correct. Pure madness, every flaw magnified. I think she was your fault really. Your little games, and schemes to take it back.”
“Have you really made it better?” Katrisha asked.
“The Order is stronger than ever. The second genocide would have already happened. If not for me. I’ve bought enough time for a world caught between Lycia and Clarion, to accept a new god, without the worst coming to pass, again.”
Katrisha screwed up her face, but wasn’t sure she was following.
“I gave the men back, just enough power to keep them happy. Means I also had to become this, and more like him. I never liked men, and being one less. Now he’s in here, pouting about it not being all so bad, because of this, meddlesome imp.” He gestured over his shoulder. “However much I love her.”
“Who are you?” Katrisha demanded.
“So you don’t know?” He looked suspicious. “Usually you say something by now, that gives up the game. That you didn’t break, little puppet.”
He stepped closer, gently over a gap in the floor, and walked up to Katrisha, who reluctantly resisted an urge to protect herself. He put his hand on her cheek, grabbed her chin, and rotated her face. For the first time she noticed his eyes were fully slit.
“Did it actually work?” he pressed.
“If you mean, what Sasha and your little pawn fox claimed, yes, I can only assume it did.”
“I knew there couldn’t be two of us forever, well, three. It gets so complicated.” He looked suspicious for a moment, and shook his head.
“Yet you don’t remember everything?” Katrisha asked.
“No,” Wren answered. He glared at his staff. “Summer, wants back in. She’s stolen some of the power.”
He spun around, and glared at Sasha. “You, and her. Meddler. You did this. You made me like being this, male thing, if only a little. Showed me they could feel jealousy, just the same. Even, for another woman they loved. Are you happy?”
“Not a scheme,” Sasha said, furrowing her brow. “Just being what you made me, the two of you. I wanted to be free, you gave me that, but not a lack of love for you. I’m glad, because if you love someone enough, to be selfless, then you can teach them the lessons they need to learn. Even the hard ones. How long have you been male? Not just the once, is it? I was suspicious, of that. A little too perfect, too repetitive. Not fixing your mistakes. My memories of you were strong, but they did not drown out the others. There is the tiniest difference from the world where she took it back, and you stole it away. The tiniest difference, and you were forever frozen in this. I love you, but it wasn’t me I was trying to set free, not any more, but something pure as you. It’s not like her, you remember being this thing. Like your sister, almost, remembers becoming it. Break you, and you are still you. Still aware, if it even takes. I can feel it, that tension building. No, too many plans.”
“So the spirit was your fault?” Wren demanded. “No. No,” he shook his head. “She is the regret, every regret, every pain we have all carried in. Madness, bound for the abyss. So long ago, a root, growing into the soil opposite the sun. Yet I fixed that. Was that a mistake?” He spun and looked to the head of the wagon, glaring at his sister. “Is this a decoy? The timing is wrong.”
Wren fell to his knees, and held his head, leaning on his staff, and huffed. “I was supposed to take this, back from the Council. Ascend before all of them, the little brother no one thought anything of. Oh, you did incredible work on that. Framing yourself before the dawn of the empire as the stormchild.”
“There were two of us,” Katrisha gambled her understanding. Working from memory of prophecies she had always wanted to ignore. To play a game by it’s rules, not a predetermined outcome. She could lose, or win, but wasn’t sure which was which.
“Almost a good plan, but it makes such a grand show, when they don’t see it coming. Oh well, I still can, just a little more to the back, till the time is right.”
Everything was turning white around the edges, the door creaked open, and the moment reset.
Wren, stood confused, leaned on a staff before the bed. “What happened?” He glared at the crystal rod taller than him. “What, in the fates is this.”
It had gone perfectly shimmering clear, a staff of pure diamond, with elaborate webs of flaws, and an intricate cut. He could almost feel the weight of it, but it obeyed will, moved light as a feather, though caught in molasses, something his body pushed on before it obeyed.
“Dangerous,” Katrisha said, though it seemed perfectly stable. It still had a brilliant aura, a scintillating glow of oddly humble power. She put on her spectacles, and leapt over the gap in the floorboards. Playing along. Playing by the new rules, meant playing along. That was all she could remember, just a sense, an instinct. If you are cheating in a game of cheaters, play honest, they’ll never see it coming.
She examined the structure, twisting and nudging her intricate spellwork to see what could be seen. The flaws were the source of the glow, a record, but she could see where pieces were missing, an incomplete web. Even gaps. She glanced at her own staff crystal at the head of the wagon, oh that was cleverly hidden. Woven in with the entropic etching created by Laurel’s spell work. Almost perfectly hidden, if she could keep up the facade. Clever, was dangerous, it made it very hard to keep secrets from yourself.
Diamond core, she’d felt that. What Kiannae had used to fix the axle. The pattern was right out of her staff. She’d hidden part of the pattern there too, she was sure, or was it her sister’s plan. She spared her sister a moments thought, but she was surely fine. Etore had her. That was some undue trust, and yet it stuck.
It was the only plan she had. Play along, pay attention to the rules. Sort it out, figure out what answer she even wanted. He was still Wren. Wasn’t he? Whoever he was, he was just Wren, many ages older, and wiser. Wren, was good, so he had to be. She tried to trust that, but a phrase haunted her. ‘Summer, wants back in.‘ Who was that? Mother was in there too, was it her somehow, could she be trusted? Who were the players in the game, and far more importantly what was the game? ‘Decoy.‘ That was worrisome.
She stepped back, and took off her spectacles. “It’s stable. A little warm, but clearly not hot.”
“The shard?” Wren said staring at the staff, and let it go with a start, but it just stood there.
Katrisha reached out, and tried to move it, but could feel it was anchored to the very world, and did not belong to her. “Fraid you may be the only one who can wield that.” She glanced to Sasha. “Unless you care to try?”
Sasha shook her head. “I’ve touched that power. I don’t want more, just to keep what I have.”
Wren looked between the two, and reluctantly grabbed hold of the staff that followed his will. He felt the weight of something, a terrible weight on his shoulders, and gave his sister a look that demanded she tell him the truth. “I’ve become the one at the end, haven’t I?”
“The past, is the past,” Katrisha offered, and pursed her lips shrewdly. “It seems however the choice may be yours.”
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