Chapter III:19

Mordove, Mordove the call was made,
they came in flocks and cast their shade,
sit there among every high windowsill,
oh sing of peace while blood is spilled,

Mordove, Moredove oh sprawling mother state,
gave place to common folk, till it was too late,
such inhumble artisans will not be stilled,
even street cleaners wears fancy frills,

Mordove, Mordove great city of learned mages,
theatrical performances, not restrained to stages,
blind eyes turned to the world’s sickly ills,
till king and popper have had their fill.

– More Doves, circa 500 E.R.

City of Mages

Rhaeus 42nd, 655 E.R.

Wren lay on his back, staring at a ceiling, Etore half asleep beside him. She had curled up around blankets rather than under them, or to him. It was an unreasonably warm evening, and on some levels he was glad of the tendency just that moment.

“I won’t hold it against you,” he started, “if you are thinking of changing your mind.”

“You think I’ve gone sensible on you?” Etore murmured not wanting wake fully.

“You were hardly yourself that night,” Wren offered.

“Self is overrated.”

“Eh?” Wren said shaking his head, and rolled over to stare at her in the dark.

She sighed, shifted, and glared back at him, rubbing her face and wanting to go back to sleep. “Pride, and rules. A bunch of things other people told you, praised you for, and scars that never healed. Self… I’ve had that cursed stuff a few times. It’s good, for about two things; what we did that night, and thinking far too much. If prefer getting drunk, makes you think less. Still, I’ve never found it makes me anyone else. Just care a lot less about what other people think, and I rarely give a shit about that to start with.”

Wren laughed, and reached out to brush her cheek.

“You just have to realize, this means you get to put up with me now, and I’m right awful beast. You screw me over, I will kill you. Oh, no, don’t you smile at me, boy. I will stick a mage-iron blade, right through that pretty chest of yours. You got me?”

Wren pulled himself close, and smiled. “Oh, I’ve got you.”

Etore groaned. “In the morning, I’m tired.” She rolled over, but didn’t complain for the warmth of him curling up behind her.

Jovan 1st, 655 E.R.

Etore straightened her scabbards outside her room. She tried to ignore that Sasha was leaned on a wall several doors down, and moved to walk past. She cringed at the woman’s voice.

“You take good care of him,” Sasha intoned. “You take very good care of him. He’s not only more powerful than you can imagine, but far more vulnerable as well.”

“I don’t answer to you,” Etore said not even looking back.

“No, but you will answer my wrath, if you betray these people. Your little smile with my father. I don’t trust it, your explanation of just playing along. You found your way here by the gold. Gold, tainted by something dark.”

“Clarions would say the same of you,” Etore challenged, but did not walk away.

“Mirrors,” Sasha answered.

“Am I making the wrong choice? Is staying with these fools going to destroy me?”

“Yes,” Sasha answered. “As much as every choice you make, destroys who you were. I paid greatly for the freedom I have, and yet I could almost give it all up, to stay. There isn’t a right choice, just a choice. The one you want to be. I’m done, but I will avenge, if I have misjudged you to take my place.”

“I’m not afraid of you,” Etore answered.

“Maybe you should be,” Sasha said calmly. “For I have seen what I was meant to be, and walked away. Become something new, and very old. I am the heir to autumn, in world gone backwards. Refused a greater path, to walk one wiser.”

“How nice for you,” Etore snidely, and walked away.

Jovan 4th, 655 E.R.

A wagon bumped and swayed along a more tended northern road. Though the towns grew slowly more prosperous, it gave little comfort. It was so much of the same as the rest of western Corinthia, and so felt like nothing but the calm before the next storm. It was early morning, and only one or two from the night watch were asleep in the entire caravan. Two sisters shared a wagon alone, packed tight with cargo.

Katrisha flipped through the pages of an old book, and pinched her brow as she slammed it shut.

“Careful,” Kiannae said with annoyance. “The enchantment on that thing is not very good, if the condition wasn’t a clue. I’ve been meaning to put new load-stones in the binding and restore it.”

Katrisha shot her sister wounded look. “I’m sorry, but…” She grimaced. “I haven’t told you everything. I started, and then there were the bandits, and their offers, and I’ve just been angry ever since. What Sasha did, was the most absurdly innocuous thing. She caught me not reading. I guess I never really did, or did so rarely. It’s so strange to know it’s true, but not remember it that way. I still can read, but it takes…effort.”

“What?” Kiannae pinched her own brow. “Moriel said you were better at it than me.” A more worried struck her, as she remembered what Cadith had implied. That her sister only pretended to read.

“Oh, better at remembering, really. Fates. Who knows how many times I read those books before. Countless lives we’ve lived. I remember reading things, but that doesn’t mean I did. It bothered me when you said the mythology didn’t mention a silver tree, a mirror to Thaea. Like I said, I finished your book, just, apparently not in this life.”

Katrisha opened it again, and flipped only a dozen odd pages in. She closed her eyes, and read aloud.

Oh silver shone her crown,

oh little sister of mother tree,

oh in her shade she stood,

before the sun could not be,

there alighted first great Rhan,

withered her mighty silver bough,

roots like great stalks held high,

the mother of proud pale sows.

Katrisha handed the book to her sister.  “Read it.”

Oh silver where her crown,

oh daughter of mother born,

pale as shining satin grown,

before the morningstar torn,

a lone child she bore to the sun,

of great mother gave her name,

when mighty stag she refused,

good mother Thae did remain.

“What you said, is what you remember?” Kiannae asked suspiciously.

“I almost corrected you in front of that old prat. Glad I didn’t. Would have made a fool of us both.”

“Fates,” Kiannae muttered, and closed the book rather hard herself. She glared at it, and tossed it onto the bed beside her. “You, said Cadith was just a poison, but he knew.”

“Poisons are real,” Katrisha said with a sneer. “Doesn’t mean you drink them knowingly. Also, fairly sure that deflection, planned. There is a gap in my memory, of the fight, or rather, was a gap in my staff’s record of when Wren held it.”

“You don’t think…” Kiannae said shaken by the implication.

“Who knows how many outcomes he’s really seen. Now he’s, what I was, or more, and you… I interrupted you taking the shard, if that wasn’t clear. What that makes you in all this now, who knows. I have it from one source this is all in play. That anyone could take it.”

“Clearly, not anyone”.

“Don’t be so literal. Either about who, or how. All practices can be understood, they all have rules, and I doubt very much they say who wins.”

“Then why tell me?”

Katrisha smiled. “Because when I die in your place, or whatever this cycle truly promises the victor. I want you to know, it was fair and square.”

“If you’re wrong?”

“Then, it is what it is.” Katrisha closed her eyes. “I think, I’ve done something very dangerous. Can you even imagine what seven to the seventh power actually is?”

“I can calculate it.” Kiannae did some quick scratches of notation in the air. “Might take me a bit. I think somewhere up near a million, at an estimate.”

“Close enough. Now, imagine counting to that number. The first few hundred are easy, but as the numbers get longer, just counting the next takes seconds, and as you get tired… It would take, what, days? Longer probably. If Tock is right, and I am all but certain he was, it wasn’t in seconds. It was in decades. Just, my iterations would amount to tens of millions of years, at the very least. Even then, that’s assuming they only accounted for my lifetime… or that this all ends any time soon. It only gets longer from there. This prophecy put our faces in visions at the dawn of recorded history. So, throw in at least the occasional thousand or more year iteration. Then, how many came before? How many times did they try? It boggles the mind, and surely approaches eternity.”

“What are you trying to get at?” Kiannae demanded, though her face belied a suspicion.

“I said it myself, and I’m an idiot.” Katrisha put her head in her hands. “The difference between a game, and reality. No take backs. I think…” She shook her head, and looked up stricken. “I think this is it. I think I made a move that seals this fate, however it plays out. No more stalemate. Because if it’s taken this long, then there isn’t a right answer. Not, some solution that solves everything.”

Kiannae took a breath. “Like everything was spinning. Cycles within cycles, and one wrong step would destroy…everything, but no step at all surely would.”

“Yes,” Katrisha said. “Like that.”

There was a shuffling sound, and a tiny fox squeezed out from between two crates the rear of the wagon. Tock stretched, glanced their way, and sat. He stared at the two, who looked to each other with equal suspicion.

“Not all deals are two-sided?” Katrisha finally asked the fox.

He nodded.

“Did I make a deal?” Katrisha pressed.

Tock tilted and lowered his head. “Cannot say. Secrets are key. To know all, is to not exist.”

Kiannae cringed. “You can’t even tell those you have made a deal with?”

Tock tilted his head again indecisively.

Katrisha stood up, and stepped towards the little fox. His eyes glance to his hidey hole, but he stayed put. She knelt down before him. Stared at him, and then swept him up in her arms. She held him to her chest, and his little head rested on her shoulder.

“It is, as it is,” Tock said. “Is long to tread to Dust. Short legs. I can has treat?”

Katrisha laughed, and tried not to cry. “Can you tell me anything?”

“A darkness has risen,” Tock whispered in her ear. “A thing to eat the sun, and shatter Laeune. Hate and regret, has learned to think, and turned a heart once kind, cold. You has seen this. It is, as it is. There is not another try. Is three, to one, or so. Is good odds. I think.”

“Thank you,” Katrisha whispered in kind, and knew in only the vaguest terms what he spoke was true. For Tock had never lied. Their creator had made a devious creature that used the truth to good advantage. “You can has all the treats, until you’re a fat little fox that can’t move.”

Jovan 9th, 655 E.R.

To ungifted eyes, Mordove was not visible at any great distance. Hidden within a maze of high hills, between three great lands. That said there was no mistaking the way. All roads lead to Mordove. The hub around which the lands of a former Empire turned. At the heart of a civilization that had outlived any given name, the roads were wide, proud, and grand. Suburbs and well tended farms occupying every nook, and cranny.

To those with the gift, one could feel the direction of the city miles away. Beacons of magic shining above distant hills that a great city had long since subsumed. One was inside the borders of Mordove long before one could really see it. Dense buildings stood perched above cliffs, and off their faces. These were the not quite slums of the city. Where the most powerful, sometimes kept grand second homes. Living like kings among the poor and ungifted, where they clung to the edges.

Then a bend came, and the great heart of the city rose before their eyes. A mountain of weathered stone, and ancient walls. A great city state nestled at the heart of high hills. Lofty spires, and grand domes standing definitely above deep meandering streets. Hollows that could be mistaken for ravines cut by ancient rivers. So much of the city stood in one vast tone of pale granite. A landscape dotted with green, and other monuments to fads of epochs come and gone. Architectural rebellion against the sameness that came from passing ages of tradition.

To gifted eyes, the rivers still flowed. There was magic everywhere. Surging along the ley lines that converged on the city. A method emerged to the madness, or perhaps it was the other way around. A city built by mages over a millennium, her foundations set centuries before the dawn of the Empire. It had grown roots along the natural grooves of potential. Aqueducts flowed uphill. Magic on a grand industrious scale, and purpose. Magic giving a faint rippling shimmer even from miles away.

Yet a tree well over a thousand feet tall, almost made that vast sprawling city look small. Immense boughs cast a looming shadow over a forested park in the late afternoon sun. To Kiannae, that great tree had a pull. A tug that she could feel through her staff. That legend and fact agreed had created that great wonder amidst so many others. An unnatural echo of a natural world. That could almost make those lands torn by the order and chaos of mortal endeavor, seem humble. If not for the way the city itself in turn consumed every hill, or other place the eye could turn.

Beyond this distraction, atop the mount of the city stood a grand black dome. The center of it all, from which spokes radiated in every direction. The spider in that great web.

“Wow.” Katrisha’s offered in almost underwhelming response, and cut the silence.

“Told you it would be worth it,” Etore said with a smirk.

“I can see a history written in this place,” Kiannae chimed in. “Why, every street came to be. It’s unnerving. Like the seasons that shaped an old tree. Harsh winters and summers, rich harvests and poor. I’ve never felt such…” She drew a breath. “I’ve never felt such life, from cold stone.”

“Fates, don’t go all weepy on us,” Katrisha chided.

Kiannae laughed. “How, could I. It’s so beautiful. Even nature has found a place here. Look, it’s not just the great tree and its park. There are trees, and gardens everywhere. That grassy hill.” She pointed. “It’s over another dome, where people argue, orate, and put on plays. I just, know that, looking at it. The structure on top, it leads down to an extra balcony hung above it all.”

“Yes, and the Council Dome, and the walls between the three lands. We read about it all, when we were ten,” Katrisha chided her. “One of Moriel’s assignments.”

Kiannae shrugged. “Yes, I remember, but I feel it more. Don’t you? You say Charles followed you here. That you’ve seen it.”

“He claimed. I, don’t remember, just know it was true.”

Etore shook her head. “I shouldn’t have let either of you ride with me.”

“It’s not your wagon,” Katrisha said thin lipped.

“Nor is it yours,” Etore countered. “I’m on duty. Guarding that damn staff. Official orders, and all.” She seemed quite amused to have that over them. She made no mention of overhearing Darrin muse they should be order to be nowhere near it, since he hadn’t made it official.

The road the Caravan followed cut a gray line through the city to the base of the great tree that. Then only the third largest in all the world. It soon hung over head like an oppressive green cloud. They rolled in and out of a valley, and up again toward the base of the tree. It became clear that another caravan, or maybe three were present around the great loop. They rolled past dozens of wagons till an opening presented itself. Temporary shops were being pulled out, and guards were waving people on.

Kiannae almost couldn’t bare to look up, and see the vast tree above. Its presence cast a shadow both literal, and figurative, from a dream. It made her feel incredibly small. Looming over buildings that lined the lane. The park had grown greatly over the past century, since the tree had risen. Still, a popular place to walk, and relax. A forest of safe living splendor within a secure city. Claimed mostly by druids of the council, and others drawn to nature. Those comfortable to live in the path of an ever expanding root system.

A large contingent of mages and well armed city guards stood in wait off the main road towards the city’s heart. “Is this the Peregrine Caravan?” one of the men asked.

“Aye, it is,” Samantha called out her window. “You hear for the shard I found on Eastroad. I’ve expenses to report for its transport, damages, and risk to my caravan, made in good faith. Several destroyed wagons, one, half disassembled by a magical anomaly. Combat pay for facing foreign armies, and rogue princes you aren’t restraining.”

“The Council, is not responsible for losses of a caravan. Least of all one paying wanted bandits, for security,” another man snapped.

Katrisha and Kiannae jumped down, and looked ready to speak.

The first man held up his hand. “Show us, what you have brought, and we will consider.”

“Name yourself,” Kiannae challenged.

“Highmage Orestes,” the man declared. “Enchanters Seat of the Council.”

Wren stepped out from behind the wagon, and threw his staff before the mages. Half stepped back suspiciously. “Three times now, I have asked,” he said and looked annoyed. “Someone, take this. Someone, take the burden if you can. For I leave it here, and I lay no claim.”

“Attache’s, deal with this,” Orestes called out. “These, representatives of Avrale will accompany me to Council chambers. Their, Representative is waiting.” He turned, and marched up the lane, two guards at his sides. Two more stepped around the three siblings, and gestured after the man.

They did not travel far before coming to a line of open elaborately styled wagons. Each was set in a chain along a glowing groove in the road up the main city mount. They were lead into an open carriage, and the whole thing jerked with a slight start to accelerate up the lane. It came to speed just a bit short of a run. People jumped off in places from other cars looking annoyed the vehicle wasn’t stopping. Some managed to jump on cars, but others looked annoyed as the carriages passed.

“We do try not disrupt the main lines often,” Orestes said. “Causes people such inconvenience. The Council has demanded you lot be delivered to chambers promptly. We’ve been holding the line for twenty minutes. It’ll still take at least ten to reach the Council complex, get comfortable if you like.”

Avery Anders was a reasonably tall man, though a bit pale for those of the northern region his name implied. He sat at a large desk in a very small room, as three sibling were urged in. The door was closed behind his visitors.

The man’s hands were folded before him, and he shook his head. “You lot have caused me a great deal of fuss over the years. Perpetual official decrees I am asked co-sign as your representative. Announcements that two mages, have been knighted, on the fringes of legal precedent. One of you, though, also a druid, yes? Knighted under such title, before that in Niven. Now some whelp of a brother, leaving learned mages running around like chickens without heads. All over some staff, reportedly only he can move. What, in the fates, am I supposed to do with you all?”

“Councilman Avery,” Katrisha said. “I fear we’ve barely spoken before, by stone. I’m, sorry we are meeting under these circumstances.”

“Yes. We should have spoken a great deal, in your many years of service, but nothing, seems to have gone according to plans. Even that such years in the roll came to pass. That your stone was somehow sabotaged. You particularly, have done nothing to make my life easy.”

“Did you take the job, because it was easy?” Katrisha asked.

The man grimaced, and then smiled. “You have taken well, after Laurel. I only knew him little before he left the academy. The Rogue Astronomer, some called him. Our correspondence over the years left me familiar with his dry sense of humor. No, I took it, because it is an honor to sit, and you, by some more charitable accounts, took your role out of duty. So for the moment, I shall oblige the idea that all you may have done, has been in good faith.”

He glanced to Kiannae, and shook his head. “You, however I know less of. Just stories. Blightsbane, and East Wash. Clearing flooded fields with mixtures of magic and druidic practice. Refusing a spot at the Court of Storms. Knightings, and quarrels with inhuman spirits. Your sister’s, penchant for heroic deeds in the nude, have given me fewer headaches than your interventions. That is, once they were all tied together. Some, are blaming you for the Council being kicked out of Napir. Others, would not dream to give you such credit.”

He shook his head again, and looked between the two, to the young man just inside his door. “Now, I have some Lycian boy from Highvale, making Darrin of all people loose his nerve. Oh, he put on a brave line around your sisters making allusions to prophecy. Analyzing their strange magic and gifts, but your staff, truly had him worried. Such… dramatic words, I have never known him to use. Not in ten years of tutelage under the man, or decades of correspondence.”

Wren shrugged awkwardly.

“We have all, only acted in good faith,” Katrisha answered. “I have only claimed, to a few bandits, to be a goddess, and I will attest there is no truth in it. Just a convenient point of leverage, in a dangerous situation.”

“I must say, I found some accounts of that amusing.” Avery pursed his lips. “Claims that you created a massive healing field with magic. One that was… far too pleasant to be touched by, however, beneficial.”

Katrisha shrugged, but her smile was coy.

“That’s Ezik’s staff, isn’t it?” he said turning back to Kiannae. “Did you know it has a name? Same the tree in Napir has been given. If you listen to the old stage play about his duel over creating this city’s great tree, you might hear reference. I don’t think he ever used the name himself, just a popular part of legend. Something that poets like to build up around any prominent story. That mentor of yours was trouble too.”

“He wasn’t really,” Kiannae said. “My mentor that is. I was more pupil to his second in the circle, she was with me at Blightsroot.”

“Whatever.” Avrey stood, and looked back and forth across them.

“The Council had initially voted to have you presented immediately. Then devolved into quarrels over Lycia, Corinthia, and Palentine. I was called away to greet you, and thankful for it. It’s an endless loop of intractable inaction. Three camps. Those who want to hand western Corinthian to Southern Palentine. The ones who support Lycia’s historic claim. Then of course those who are calling for the Green Fight to take action. To route these bandits that by some reports are members of the cult of Alara. Even that coalition is fractured. Torn between those who want Lycia and the Flight sanctioned, and those actually seeking action by dragons. That would at minimum skirt the bounds of treaties.”

“Cult of Alara?” Katrisha asked.

“Splinter of the Lycian Order, more specifically of the Red Sisterhood,” Avery said with a sneer. “Numbers unknown. The Order does not openly claim them. What few, unofficial spokeswomen the cult maintains, disavow this Red Mage Rebellion nonsense. Quite a mess really, more tangled politics than usual, and that says a lot.”

“So what now?” Kiannae pressed.

“Your interviews before the Council have been rescheduled.” Avery checked a calendar on the wall, marked with many little notations, some crossed out. “Day of the Moon, fourteenth of Jovan. Till then, I will have a junior attache introduce you to quarters, and facilities. Any questions?”

“Where’s the best place to get lunch?” Kiannae asked.

The man shook his head.

Anice was a somewhat officious young woman, with auburn hair and a complexion of some mixed heritage. She had indicated points of interest on the way back out of the lower Council complex. Things that had been a rushed past on the way in. On the outside, she gestured down the hill.

“Short term quarters for special guests are below, but I believe you asked about food?”

“Most fancy meal we’ve had in weeks was as captives,” Katrisha offered. “Dustwatch was a bit, primitive. Even caravan fair tends to be better, and that says something.”

“Palentian food across the main road here,” she said and lead the way down the steps. “A bit pricey normally but, guests of interest often eat free the first few times. Of course the Council will be billed, just above cost, usually paid. Risk there is if the Council opts not to pay. Can get you blacklisted from most of the nicer inner city establishment, unless you want to pay even more. Good odds though, for a group like you. It’s a very unofficial arrangement, so, always a gamble. Just don’t order anything too expensive.”

Kiannae stopped, and glanced some distance down a side path. Zale was sitting on a short stone wall looking out over the city. She tapped their guide on the shoulder, gestured that way, and got an annoyed shrug. She walked over to check in on him.

“What are you doing all the way up here already?”

“Caught the second line back up, found out the registrar’s office closed early this afternoon. I need to renew my citizenship. Shouldn’t be a big deal, given I had papers a few years back. Still could take a couple weeks, and it helps to get on stipend quickly while setting up residence. Learned that the hard way. Not a lot pays quite a living wage by itself, unless you are high up in the guilds, or very senior in some service jobs. I’m only skilled enough for apprenticeships, and enchanting didn’t work out last time. Rather not get stuck in with the druids just to make ends meet.”

“Join us for lunch then.”

Zale glanced up at the looming domed above them. Something plainly bothering him. “Alright.”

It was late afternoon, and the sun was setting. Lunch had indeed been free, but as with such arrangements there were other prices. Introductions, questions, prodding patrons. Some kept at bay, others let preferentially through by hovering servers. The sun was threatening to set over a high western hill, though it was hours from any true nightfall.

“This is the suit that was offered up when your arrival was certain.” Anice gestured off the stair they had climbed, and into an open westward facing lounge area.

“There are seven rooms,” Kiannae said dubiously.

“The Council asks, and we get what we get. This is usually reserved for dignitary entourages. There are three floors like it, and only the top is currently occupied, by a Nohlend delegation.”

“Nicer than I’ve seen,” Zale said, “and while I was here, and I managed invites to a few of the nicer parties. Grandfather’s name was worth something,” he added a bit dryly, and met an accusatory look from Kiannae with defiance.

“How you use the extra space,” Anice offered, “is up to you. Just bear in mind, damages are billable, and the Council is not known for patience.” She glanced to Katrisha. “Now, I’m sure Avery forgot, he’s never been good with details. The stones. The old one from Avrale, and Oradin’s. Where are they?”

“In our possessions last I saw,” Katrisha answered. “Which have been shuffled, and repacked, and moved around the caravan a few times. I expect it may take a while to sort out where the crate got to.”

“Of course.” Anice sighed. “Get it to me soon, because once someone realizes they haven’t been delivered… Again, patience, not a strong suit of many around here.”

“Of course,” Kiannae offered.

“Good, good,” Anice intoned. “What else? If you go wandering, be very careful. It can be hard to tell a good neighborhood from a bad one in Mordove. In part because there isn’t always much difference. Most of the time there won’t be a lot of risk. Of course by all accounts, you lot can take care of yourselves, but do consider, more trouble is not something any of you need just now. Stick to the inner blocks of the hill, and you should be fine. As, family of a registered Council mage, and former sitting Court mage. Known gifted, you will have stipend, and credit, but try not to go over. Becomes a bad habit, and not many merchants or proprietors will hold you to account till you are very well in their debt. I’ll see all proper papers are delivered by morning. The house kitchen will come by within the hour to take requests for dinner. If you are going to seek a red district, seek the west one, strictly Lycian, very discrete and well tempered. The local Matron keeps things well in line. Please avoid the one in the north city, lots of trouble. Have to break up a brawl of one sort or another three, four times a year.”

“We won’t,” Kiannae assured her, then gave Katrisha look.

She just shrugged.

“Not my business, just, again, please, no more trouble. Cousin Avery does not handle the stress well.”

“You two are related?” Katrisha asked curiously.

“Grandfather, on my father’s side. Bastard twice, gamble by my grandmother, getting pregnant. Barely any gift herself, but oh, how quickly a woman can move up with a more gifted child in this city. Names Easthill. Charming, isn’t it? The path to power here.”

“Charming,” Kiannae said with measured agreement to the woman’s own disapproval. “Better than some ways things are managed,” she said leadingly.

“You testing us to see what attitudes we might have picked up from our recent captors?” Katrisha challenged.

“I am,” Anice said plainly. “I’ve had my offer, while returning from assignment out west. They can be very, convincing.”

“And refused?” Katrisha asked.

“Yes,” Anice said sharply.

“What everyone, who has ever returned from an ‘invitation’ has claimed,” Kiannae noted. “So, we will claim the same.”

Anice smiled a bit thinly. “Of course they claim to have spies everywhere. Who to trust?”

“No one,” Kiannae answered. Taloe formed at her side.

Anice restrained her surprise. “So, the fabled spirit.”

“I am bound to her at the soul, and she barely trusts me. Don’t think you’ll get what you want easily out of her. What ever it is you want.”

“We refused,” Wren added. “Though each of us have listened to their claims. What is your opinion. Is Amendment Two being violated in Palentine?”

“The fact, is traditions are being carried out, and technically there is no evidence the Amendment is being violated. Sticky point that. Opinion only enters into what to be done about it, and how much the law is worth. Most here, value law, rather highly. It keeps this city stable, and prosperous. This world, from devolving into a war, those people want.”

“So, do nothing, status quo?” Kiannae pressed.

“The Ascension coalition is losing seats, and sway over this. It’s not as though the harm done is permanent. Even this so called rebellion, has claimed to heal the scars.”

“Yet, if it does eventually come to a war,” Katrisha intoned. “They have been doing a very good job of breeding, and training a gifted army. Enchanters, in their ranks, but not mages. Skilled at fighting them by all accounts. Met a knight of the Empire who trained under one, she was quite capable with even parts of the full technique.”

“Ah, I had heard Alindra had taken up with some man in Avrale,” Anice said with a knowing smile. “Prince, I believe. Politically complicated that, but not, forbidden. Much like you lot. Half Sylvan orphans, who should have been brought to the Council as children. Oh, but there was a great-grandmother, and a Court Mage, who moved swiftly to circumvent the spirit of the law.”

“I’ve learned the laws thoroughly,” Katrisha said. “They manage some good, often enough in spite of their true intentions. Spirit of the law must always be taken with a grain of salt, and the Council does prefer the letter of it, when it suits them.”

“Indeed,” Anice said, and walked to the door. “You’ve your quarters. Check with the front desk if you have needs. You’ll have your own funds to work with by late morning. I can be reached by messenger, as can Avery. If you wish to check in with your caravan, who I understand you have some personal connection with, by all means. I expect they will be here a few days.”

She moved to open the door, and jumped back with a start to find it open, and a tall Osyraen woman standing next to it. “How long have you been there?”

“The whole time,” Etore said with a smirk.

Anice looked dubious. “So, you are the famous Shadow Rose, Etore, what was it, Laen?”

“Bastard name, just like yours,” Etore chided her insinuation.

“More shame in some societies than others,” Anice countered.

“Indeed.” Etore leaned closer, and then whispered, “I believe your friend Elise would agree.”

Anice sneered, stepped out, and slammed the door.

“What was that about?” Kiannae asked suspiciously.

“Oh, nothing much. I may not have taken my offer, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t learn a few things.”

Jovan 12th, 655 E.R.

“Hard woman to find,” Mallory said behind Katrisha, who turned from staring out across the city on a high wall.

“I doubt much harder than anyone else,” Katrisha offered in lieu of any form apology.

“Not properly registered with a residence yet, so a bit harder,” Mallory said. “Had to follow the breadcrumbs of rumor and gossip. I doubt if you weren’t so singular I’d have found you at all.”

“I’m guessing you wanted to say goodbye?” Katrisha asked a bit awkwardly.

“We are leaving on good terms aren’t we?”

“Are we?” Katrisha asked, and leaned back against the crenelation of the wall.

“I’ve nothing to hold against you,” Mallory offered. “I hope you can say the same of me.”

“I’m sorry.” Katrisha shook her head. “I hate goodbyes. Even the stupidest ones hurt more than they should.”

“So on the scale of stupid, how hard is this one?”

“Utterly,” Katrisha tried, but looked a bit bashful about the joke. “I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean it that way. I, thought maybe I could be coy, and play this by the letter of our agreement. To, Mordove, and then just disappear. It was dumb. I’m glad you found me, for what that’s worth.”

Mallory stepped closer, and put his hand on her cheek. She gave him a crooked half smile, and looked up. He was a handsome enough man, once she’d patched up the scar from Eastroad. Still, just the faintest mark off his natural tone. She’d never gotten perfect at that. “You really should get yourself a helmet, and that enchanted mail you were talking about. This has to be the cheapest place to get it.”

“You’d be surprised.” Mallory laughed.

“You take care of yourself,” Katrisha said, and kissed him. “I mean that, but don’t let anyone tell you how to live, or who to be.”

“I won’t.”

“I suppose I should say goodbye to Samantha too, shouldn’t I?”

“Who am I to say?”

“Lycia, Eastern Palentine, High City, then along the coast. Calm trip down through Nohlend, Helm, Western Thebes, Niven, and Napir. Guaranteed. Six months of the safest roads, ten percent profits, or twenty gold, whichever is higher.” Samantha was in fine form, making her case to three weathered old traders. “Even if the roads prove just a little challenging, three skilled and Council trained mages. A company of seven mercenaries under three veterans of the East Road incursion.”

“Don’t have room for one more?” Katrisha asked, hands behind her back.

“Consider, you won’t find a better route this year,” Samantha finished. She turned, and gave Katrisha an appraising glance. “Ready to leave already?”

“Almost, the way they are being about things. Two more days before the Council – that demanded my presence – is even seeing us.”

“I’ll probably be in the middle of pulling out that day,” Samantha said with a half frown. “Eh, well, you are staying here, safe and sound, and I’m taking my… payment for services rendered. Damages, plus some pressure that got me a sweetheart run on which – even if you were coming with – I don’t imagine anything going wrong.”

“Well, fortunate we won’t be tempting fate with that, then,” Katrisha nodded.

Samantha stepped up, and hugged Katrisha hard. “You and I, are going for a drink somewhere tonight.”

“I’ll be glad to keep you company, but I’ve decided I don’t care for it.” Katrisha hugged her back.

“I’ll make you a bargain,” Samantha said with a smirk. “I’ll buy you something utterly sweet, every stop we go. I know the best taverns, and drinks in this city. If I can’t find the one, perfect drink for you, the whole night is on me.”

“And if you do?”

“Well, then it’s on you, isn’t it?”

“I’ll ask if anyone else wants to come,” Katrisha offered.

“Oh, everyone on one tab?”

“You’ll have to find a drink I actually like. Tall bet.”

Samantha stepped back, considered Katrisha, and held out her hand. They shook, just as Sasha sauntered up, and threw her arms around the woman, and her chin on her shoulder. “What mischief are you two up to?”

Katrisha laughed with a bit of a snort, and covered her mouth. Samantha shrugged the woman off, and gave her a reproving look for her familiarity, though it lacked much fire.

“I swear, everyone, always thinks I’m the one with a dirty mind,” Sasha said with a sigh, but smiled.

“Samantha is hosting a tour of all the finest taverns of Mordove tonight. Her tab, if she can’t find a drink I like.”

“Sounds like fun,” Sasha said. “You drinking everything she doesn’t finish?”

“If I do?” Samantha challenged.

“Then I’ll sober you up, exactly as much as you want to be, but you’ll owe me if for every little bit.”

Samantha bit her lip, and held out her hand. Sasha grabbed it, and kissed the knuckles rather than shake, and the two exchanged a very intent glare.

Jovan 13th, 655 E.R.

Katrisha danced up the lane, partly lost her balance, and caught a lamppost. She leaned against it a bit, getting her feet back under her. At a sip a piece she’d not found a single drink she liked of the alcoholic variety, and gotten quite overly tipsy any way. She stared up at the moon, and stars overhead. They were so pale, with all the lights of the city below. Made her rather sad.

She sighed, and pushed off the lamppost, took several steps with her eyes closed just trying to feel her balance. It was one of the safest parts of the city, and she wasn’t worried getting back to the apartments. Etore had been the only other to join the expedition on account of free drinks, but had wandered off halfway through the evening.

Samantha had offered to walk Katrisha home to be sure, along with Sasha, but had been far too drunk, and unwilling to be sobered to walk that far. Katrisha opened her eyes as she felt a presence, and stopped just short of colliding with a woman walking the other way. She had blond hair that was almost white in the moon light, and golden eyes, set in a stern face.

“Sorry,” Katrisha said with a start, stepped aside, tripped on a loose stone, and fell into the woman.

She caught her, though with a far from pleased expression.

“Oh, thank you,” Katrisha said looking up, bit her lip and giggled, but the woman did not look the least amused. “Have I met you somewhere before?”

“I doubt it very much,” the woman said. She helped Katrisha upright, and moved to walk past.

“It’s a lovely light, I…” Katrisha coughed. “I mean night, though not half so lovely as you madam. Thank you for catching me.” She put her fingers lightly to her chest, and toyed with the trim of her robe.

The woman turned back, and considered Katrisha reprovingly. She seemed to get distracted by her hair glinting in moonlight. “It is what a proper Clarion does. Catch those, on the verge of falling. You should abstain from letting yourself become so inebriated. It’s not good for you.”

“I agree,” Katrisha said. “Don’t even like the stuff, just a stupid bet.” She hiccuped, and covered her mouth. “Sorry, sorry, so embarrassing.”

“Gambling, is also a vice of little merit. Perhaps, consider giving that up as well. Good night to you,” the woman said without much warmth, and turned back down the hill.

“To you as well,” Katrisha called out, “my lovely golden haired savior.” She laughed, and continued her previous dance up the hill. She didn’t like the taste, but she supposed there was something to feeling light and stupid, and forgetting every horrible thing. Even the woman’s cold Clarion attitude had not bothered her. She stopped, and glanced back down the hill. She could not shake the feeling she had met that woman somewhere before.

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Chapter III:18

It starts with not but a thought,
a gesture delicately woven,
lines of force and gift align,
the wills of fate are stolen,

oh waves of hand so dramatic,
runes so bright ‘n shimmering,
a grand illusion for the stage,
or is it you, they’re fooling,

foolish superstitions so abound,
squandered gift in sloppy work,
could have been a storied mage,
not some fumbling ancient jerk,

oh silly learned magely craft,
some fool invented for a laugh,
what need have I in such device,
when the storm in my palm alights.

– The Duel of Ezik and Lamar, 613 E.R.

Plans to Dust

Dinner was a mixture of feast and flirtation. All woven with the political and historical argument of the moment. To everyone’s surprise Kiannae was the most obliging through the meal. Save to avoid the most risky libation, and the little flower cookies. Taloe had eventually been convinced to appear. He stood at her right shoulder like a dutiful guard. The occasional intrusive attempt to draw him away to a seat down the table all failed.

By the end of the evening she was holding court over four blurry eyed women, and a man half asleep in one of their arms. Most had lost track early in her mathematical musings over the shape of the Blight and Scar. For that matter how she had calculated the height of the great tree Blightsbane. The only one who seemed to be following at that point was an elegant woman of some indeterminate age. Her head lay rested on one arm like some starry eyed girl, but her eyes belied plans. Particularly when glancing to the dutiful elemental at Kiannae’s side.

Katrisha had been the first to walk away, and settle the pattern to be expected. Elise had cornered her before she could reach the door. What precisely transpired between the two was not clear, but had challenged any illusions of personal space. The end result was one very annoyed woman sulking in a corner, as Katrisha strode into the night.

Etore’s attempt to escape the feast had devolved into something between a dance and a spar. A quite energetic row with the woman who had dragged her in. There had been cheers and catcalls through it all, mostly from the women of the hall, but a few men chimed in. The last anyone else had seen of either, Etore had the woman’s pinned face first to a wall, a hand caught behind her back. The woman had been smiling far too much for Etore’s tastes, and only laughed when pressed harder to prove who had won.

It was nearly midnight, and Wren still sat at a table, eyes closed. A great many things were on his mind. The all too familiar leer of the blond across the table among them, but easily shut out by not seeing her. He was weary, but not thrilled to face the inevitable consequence of trying to escape. Sasha had been silent for some time, and he saw little hope that either she, or his sister would make the next move.

He tensed, got up, and grabbed his staff from where it hung in the air. He was not the least surprised to find the blond at his side in a flash, her fingers tracing his arm.

“Time for my offer?” he asked snidely.

The woman made a pleased little sound of confirmation, and leaned closer. She smelled of musky purple mead, sweet and sour in a not altogether unpleasant way. Her presence was a fire, like few he had felt. A clawing want that begged to be answered in kind. Yet so small, and harmless the woman seemed, no matter how predatory her gaze and touch.

He swallowed, and stepped back, and found a wall before his senses came to him. She was very good, or perhaps cheating. He had heard rumors of the sacred flowers used in the east. Their many sometimes contradictory uses, and ties to the creation of assassins. Desire, he knew all too well must be felt, to impart on another. The rumors and Red’s claims about the concoction gave him the missing piece. She was using her own intoxication to wither him under an altered state of desire. One unfamiliar to him, but comfortable to her.

Knowing was not enough. He’d never tried to resist such an influence. Never had a reason to say no to a desirable and imposing woman. A common man of Clarion ideals would have struggled, and a man of Wren’s gift’s, and faith felt it all the more. Life, was strong in his blood. The thread of desire woven through his existence. Lifetimes not always remembered, but deeply felt were willing to her imposition. Parts of him that found those people agreeable. Even what he imagined his true self, felt a certain obligation to serve, as though it were his proper role, to be of use to her. Almost a matter of belief.

The thought could have almost been a whisper in his ear, ‘It is an option.’ He glanced at his staff with suspicion. Second guessed the origin of such an impulse. She almost had a name, but surely a season.

The woman pressed her hip firmly into his, to insure she had his attention, and ran her fingers along his cheek. She held his gaze as though he belonged to her, or would. That was new for him, though he had seen such a look given to another. It gave him no comfort. That beginning of the slow end for his love affair with Audrey, and her path as a Red Sister. The woman tilted her head like he was such a funny little thing for resisting. She could feel his body betray his reluctance, and smiled all the more knowingly. As though she could tell the life he had lived, and the path he had walked.

“Why, is this the offer?” he demanded with far less fire than he wished, his breath catching. He could feel her presence burrowing a warmth into his chest. Like being filled with the sun, so much as desire.

“Because it is who we are, and how we began,” the woman said in a honeyed tone, and moved her lips to his ear. “The first bond, and oldest pact. For if the flesh is willing, the mind and spirit, may be convinced.” She rubbed her cheek against his and hummed. “You know this feeling well, don’t you?” She laughed. “A Lycian man of proper and agreeable temperament. Already trained, and more attuned to a woman’s influence than most here. That’s impressive. You may be offered a true place, not just among the rebellion, but with those who lead.”

“You know those women are chasing a fool’s errand with Kiannae, don’t you?” he asked, trying to distract either of them.

“Yes,” she said with some annoyance. “There are rules. Those who may, or may not make the offer. She has a high price on her head, that one, and ol’ Malinda has turned White Sisters already stolen of their joy. She, has never lost such contest, which is good. It would be a waste for anyone to refuse her attentions.”

Knowing was not enough, but learning from women such as her from the day he had been judged a man, was. He knew such influence well, and though he had never resisted, he found he knew how. By the same means as learning to wield such a power. He felt the fire in him turn from desire, to command, and he could have spoken those words of power to any end he wished. Brought her to her knees, in reverence to him. Ended their rebellion, and made all swear loyalty to him. The scope of such power, and the impulse terrified him.

“No,” he said simply, and she stepped back. Her face fell into a dejected pout, and her aura of desire turned to a pitiable ache of disappointment. A strange, unfamiliar technique that pulled at his heart strings. It was likely just another ploy, and if not, a condition of her own making. A gamble that so rarely lost. This impression foiled the effect, but smug warred with empathy.

“You are beautiful, delightful, and frightening in all the right ways, but I am not a pawn. I will not be drawn into the schemes you and your people represent. I fear,” and he let her feel a bit of that fear. “I fear, that I have found myself above this conflict.” He could feel a new presence in him for the first time. An imperious shadow in his soul, above mortal concerns. He shook his head of the feeling, because it demanded it was him.

The woman looked ready to make some argument, but was startled as Sasha snatched her hand. They spun away in a flirting dance across the room, like fools. Wren laughed at the antic, and nervous relief as humor pushed aside this new presence. He caught a smile from Sasha as they twirled. The most knowing he had ever seen the woman give. He ran his fingers along the staff. A twinge of something, he couldn’t quite put words to. A sense, that she had long prepared him for that moment. That she had chosen to disrupt the attempt to sway him, when he had proved he could defy such temptation.

He did not notice as another stepped from the shadows, and gasped as she leaned over him. “Said no, did we?” Etore asked, smelling of the same musky concoction. “Had my offer, but it didn’t work before. Why would it now?” She laughed. “Fun little dance putting her in her place though.” She toyed with his collar, her arm blocking the most practical way out.

“You’ve met these people before?” Wren asked soberly. Etore, unlike the other woman was not trying to impose her presence on him, but she was succeeding. He had long learned the difference. The feel of an effort, and a woman who had let go of control.

“Eh, who can say. Secret orders can be so fractious at times. I knew a woman who certainly enjoyed the trappings of these ideas. Who played games, seeing what she could make people do. This noble act, is an interesting twist, whether it’s true or not.” She pressed herself against Wren, curious how he would react.

“You knew what this would do to you, but you drank it anyway?” He demanded.

“Sometimes, one needs to prove a point.” She brought her lips to his ear. “They could make their little offer, and even like this I could still say no. However much fun it sounds. Someone who could put up a real fight. Why did you? I thought you liked, dangerous women.” She seemed all too amused. “Was it for her? That tramp who snatched their temptress off you. Who held you, when you were feeling pitiful. Seems misguided to me. If anyone stays, I’ll bet it’s her.” She pulled back, and stared into his eyes. A mixture of emotions warning across her face. Smug, defiant, wanton, offended.

“Why didn’t you?” Wren asked. “Seem like your kind of people.”

“My kind of people, aren’t joiners. We don’t do fools errands, or play with prophecy. I also don’t like women, though I might keep making an exception for you.” She laughed, and ran her fingers along his jaw. “Yer red girl would make a good one of these people. Pale shadows of what I learned to be by will, not submission. Defiance, to ever be lesser. I was half tempted to prove, just who would break, but you gave me doubt I would win such a contest. So, thank you, for that.”

“Still, makes it hard to be alone — I’m guessing — that feeling this stuff has given you?”

“Eh. You are free, and I am…” She hummed. “I still don’t know what your game is, but I like it. Oh, noble, little bird. I trust you, and I know I shouldn’t. You are far more dangerous than these fools ever could be. Because…” she leaned in, and drew a breath up his neck. “I’m not always sure I’d say no to you, but you don’t ask. Usually make me come to you. Like you already know my every secret, and yet…” Her fingers slid down his neck, and under his collar. “She said be honest with you. That sister of yours. Mood I’m in, I’m yours, until I can get away from you all. Then, you’re on your own. Keep your own bed warm, or find someone else.”

“No,” Wren said a bit stricken. It was a soft, sad refusal, but it just came out. He meant it, though it felt contrary to every instinct.

Etore pulled back, looked cross, and almost confused. “Why now? Why, after everything? You win, you’ve proven your influence over me.”

“I’ve never done, whatever you think I have.” Wren answered. His eyes glanced to his staff, trying to convince himself of that. He knew well the difference between having desire imparted by intent, or accident. He was less sure if he knew the other side so well. If he wanted, he finally realized, others near him felt it. Something beyond his ability to control. He’d win her over, if he let her stay close to him. She wanted out, but he wanted her. Her choice. “I’m done with games. In, or out. You stay with us, and you are as good as family, or I’m done. You want me to ask, there it is. You, are worth asking. Are you with me, or are you free?”

Etore shook her head. “Fates. I can’t even believe it.”

“What?” Wren pressed unsure what to expect.

“That I’m not just saying no.” She gave him a torn look. “Give me tonight, let me consider,” she shivered, “when I’m sober.”

“Consider all you want,” Wren answered. He touched her cheek, and ducked out from under her imposing posture. He took a step, tensed, and let out a breath before walking away.

Etore turned, and flopped back against the wall to watch him go. Her irritation turned to a sneer as the man styled as the Red Mage strolled casually towards her.

“Not interested, old man,” she said.

He turned, and leaned against the wall beside her. “Who says I am?”

Etore huffed. “You have an actual name? ‘Cause between you, me, yer girl, and yer little dog, calling you Red is too cute by half.”

“Emmett,” the man said with a half chuckle, and flicked a finger over something held between two others. It sparked to life, and he put it to his lips. He drew deeply.

“Didn’t have enough of the mead?” Etore asked.

“Doesn’t work as well on me,” he said letting out a wispy cloud he twirled into spirals with magic, and a swaying hand. He drew another long breath, and smiled. “You lot are leaving so many disappointed ladies. Figure I should be nice and ready, to be swept away on one, or several of their every little whim.”

“That how things work here?”

“Most days.” He chuckled.

Etore sighed and rolled her head back. She felt warm, and cool. Everything was so soft, and Wren had felt so very nice, until he said no. That was bothering her. “You’re Napiraen, a man far from home. You really in this little rebellion for some noble cause, or for the company it lets you keep?”

“Can’t it be both?” he asked.

“You hardly seem like a true believer.”

“Oh, but I am.” He laughed. “Deep down I believe in the same thing they do. What feels good. So yeah, it means something to me. What the Clarions are doing in the name of destroying desire. Disgusting, horrible. Twisting people against any kind of joy. I’m a greedy bastard, but I still enjoy living, and loving, and think others have every right for the chance to do the same.”

“Doesn’t sound like you always had such high ideals about letting them live,” Etore mused snidely. She fussed with an empty scabbard, angry, they had taken her swords.

“As if a little flooding would have been all that deadly.” He sneered. “That girl,” he gestured to the head of the table. “She probably killed more people that day, then we would have.” He took another drag, and made swirls all the more intricate. “Not all of my men were so noble minded on the point, but bandits are what they are. Let the ones itching to kill out front, and if they die, well, simpler that. More for the rest of us. Force a caravan to abandon its wears, and salvage it. With the road flooded, those wares are worth more for a while. I was a mercenary once, like you. I’ve seen enough of this world to know how cruel, cold, and twisted it really is. How, unjust it can truly be”

“Sasha’s mother have anything to do with that?” Etore pressed looking for advantage over their hosts.

He shook his head, but it seemed more a refusal to answer, touched with sadness. “I join people like these, and keep them on a leash. Cause they will always be there. Sure, I like feeling, on the right side of things. When I can manage, but I guess I’m flexible about it. Good causes, or just honest ones. Nothing more honest than a thief. You want, you take. Like royalty really, and now that’s what we will be. In a world ready to be freed of this corrupt line of descendants, preachers, and prophets.”

Etore rolled down the wall, and leaned over him. A power play as much as settling something in her own mind. He was just a little shorter, but it didn’t show at their angle. Almost pretty enough. More what she was used to.

“What’s it like, being caught up in prophecy?” he asked casually, as though her move meant nothing.

“Not what it’s cracked up to be, and let me tell you, that isn’t much.”

“I could be a distraction for the night,” he offered. “If your little man is being fussy, and the ladies aren’t to your liking. Rare, is the woman, let alone man I’ve seen who can resist their charms. Though he had help, didn’t he? Technically, that means another could go after him, if they’re not too distracted with skunk stripe over there. Now, that all said, there are no rules saying I can’t offer, once a woman is already imposing herself on me.”

Etore raised an eyebrow at that. “Not my type, but nice try. I wish you all the luck in the world, ‘liberating’ women, to keep you company. I’ll admit, I’m curious very who’s really in charge here, but not nearly enough to stick around.”

She pushed off the wall, and strode after Wren with swift long steps. She caught him, at the door, grabbed his hand, and pulled him around a corner. His staff slipped his grasp, and was left hanging in the walkway.

“Fine,” she said breathing quickly, and slowing into a shallow huff. “I’m in. Now stop wasting my time.” She kissed him, and found a room to pull him into.

Sasha sat down at the head of the wagon, and stared at Katrisha. She was sitting across from the open wall, her staff in hand, face like furious granite. The moon was glinting off the crystal of her staff, as she turned it between her fingers. She could have passed for a moon goddess. Her aura sparkling like stars through an enchanted black robe. Her hair a glimmering silver shawl, worth more than its weight in gold. A crown restored in a month after having created an artifact of uncertain power. She was silver and shadow, bathed in moonlight.

“What do you want?” Katrisha demanded. “I’ve turned down far more convincing women than you tonight. Something I never imagined would be easy, and yet I am so angry, that it was.”

“I’ll admit, I once entertained the thought. You, are fascinating. Not my dear Meliae’s girl, or one I ever knew, but I’ve come to other conclusions. You, are not a factor in my plans. Not anymore.”

“Scheming with whoever is pulling my brother’s strings?” Katrisha asked.

“Not exactly,” Sasha offered. “Debts, are settled there, and I think I finally see how it all works. We are shadows, cast against a setting sun.”

“Or a rising one?” Katrisha challenged. “Why is always about the end, with all of you? It’s cycles, isn’t it? One day ends, the next begins.”

“Yet are we sure, to be in it?” Sasha pressed. “Your mother, lost that gamble.” Her cheek twitched. “More or less. I’ve accepted that. I can love her memory, without cling to it. She chose her children, over me. Whether she knew it or not, even over life itself.”

“Yet are you one who’s walking away?” Katrisha pressed.

“Yes,” Sasha said sternly, and then faltered. “I know what I want, if she’ll have me.”

“Samantha?” Katrisha said with half amused surprise.

Sasha laughed. “I’m not giving up on who I am, but I think there is a path, that works. Somewhere, out in this, wild world, it could work. If not, well, I tried something new.” She looked rather sad at the thought.

“Mischief is fun, even when it’s only one way?” Katrisha asked evenly, but a slight smile cracked on her lips. “Yeah, I remember. Think I borrowed that line, at least twice, after I figured out what it meant. I found it’s rather true.”

Sasha gave a seated bow, with an elaborate mocking gracious wave.

Katrisha only looked more suspicious. “The question occurs to me, shadows of who?”

“Does it matter?” Sasha asked. “I think you understand. A shadow is not what cast it, but we may be more. I haven’t seen enough to piece it all together, but there is a method to the madness. A plan far above the schemes of you, or me. A purpose, I can’t help but feel beholden to. Sometimes, you have to listen to the things people don’t say, as much as what they do. Not all deals, are two-sided. Not all betrayals, are what they appear.”

Katrisha shook her head. “Nor all attempts to offer comfort.”

“I’m just a girl, in the wrong place, as the right time,” Sasha said somberly. “I knew someone, very well, as dear a friend as I can recall in any life, but I always knew on some level, that wasn’t the answer for me. Was that true foresight? Something, more than seeing what was before, but perhaps where it all really goes? A feeling, that tells us who we really are, and holds us back, from making mistakes we might regret…or just luck.”

“Was I, the third party to Tock’s deal?” Katrisha asked.

“A good question,” Sasha obliged. “Maybe. I think it would fit. You are, whoever you are, now. Right?”

“I want to believe that.”

“It’s a gift being free.” Sasha leaned back. “Being free, to try being someone new.”

“Can we ever really be?” Katrisha asked dubiously. “If what they say is true, aren’t we all just echoes of the ones who came before?”

“If we can’t, then it doesn’t matter, does it?” Sasha asked rhetorically. “If we don’t have choices, then we don’t exist. I’m sorry, what I had to do was harsh, but, if you did not have choices, then I wouldn’t have really been harming?”

“I don’t know it to be true, but thank you,” Katrisha said. “Because I feel it, however angry I am about it. I’ve, been trying to break free of it all for years. I was, ready, for you to set free me. So, thank you.”

“I just hope there is enough of this life left, for me to enjoy,” Sasha mused. “None, know the day or the hour of the storm, and I can’t be sure, with all I know, if the next world will even have me. This is all in play. I’m telling you, because I owe you that much. Because you are the only other one I can be sure is free.”

“One trouble at a time. You think these people will really just let us go?”

“Usually,” Sasha answered.

“When don’t they?”

“Sometimes, when I don’t stay.” She looked very torn. “I know what I said before, back at the caravan, but if you feel you owe me something, then I’ll take that debt. I want out, and I’m willing to consider, options to make that happen.”

“I’ll make sure of it. You have my word,” Katrisha swore.

Rhaeus 29th, 655 E.R.

Emmett walked up and down his line of guests.  “None of you?”

“None,” Kiannae answered. “Though I had a lovely chat.  Have plans, to work against the same enemies, but not by the same means.”

“None?” he stressed again. “That doesn’t sit well, out of so much potential. Kind of thing that could make trouble.” He grimaced slightly. “Some of you…there were specifics about.”

“Not my concern if your master is pleased,” Katrisha said plainly, and gave Elise a look, which made the woman cross her arms.

“We’ve all refused.  You will stand by your word.” Kiannae challenged.

“There is a first time for everything,” Emmett said thin lipped, and none were quite sure which way to take it.  “You are sure, none of you can be convinced.  Not everyone here need be a soldier, there are other roles.”

“How about diplomat?” Katrisha asked. “You lot stand for something, and while I question your motives, and your means, if what you claim, is true… “ She shook her head. “Surely there is some merit in trying to change things from within the Council.”

“You’ll have no luck there,” Emmett said folding his hands behind his back.  “We have agents in the highest places of Mordove. There are those on the Council already moved, and those, it is all too clear never will be.  There are not the numbers, who have the will.”

“Then we each, have our impossible task,” Katrisha answered.

Emmett stopped, and considered Sasha with a mixed expression.  “You won’t stay?” he asked. “There are plenty here, who can keep you company. A woman of tastes, I think much like your mother. I was wrong, to leave you all those years ago. To think that a man does not need know his own child.”

“Then do, someday,” Sasha answered. “Come find me out there, and we’ll have a long talk. A proper one. For now, I have a promise to keep, and plan to do so.”

“Send word,” he called out. “Clear the road, and let them pass.”

“Those aren’t our orders,” Elise challenged.

“Yet they are, your morals,” Emmett said staring at her with cold fury.

“It’s not your daughter, that the paladins took,” Elise countered.

“Nor, yours,” Emmett said almost offended. “You’ve never been with a man, to have one. I may not be much of a father, but I am.  Let them go.  If there is to be trouble, it can be on my head.” He turned to Kiannae. “Take the second fork east.  You’ll most likely miss the others returning, and I’ll do my best, to convince them not to follow you.”

Elise did not look happy, but nodded to one of the other women, who ran off, and fetched the horses.  The bandits worked quickly to hitch them back up to the wagon.

“I’ll ask, one last time.  Just to be sure.  Is there nothing, that could keep any of you here?” He stopped in front of Etore, and tilted his head. “Not even a way out, of whatever you have already found yourself in?”

“I’m with them,” Etore answered with less conviction that she seemed to want.

He leaned close to her, and Etore tensed, reach for a blade that wasn’t there. “I need something to work with,” he whispered. “A smile will do, knowing as you can. You know how these things are played. Give me that, and I can buy you time.”  He stepped back, and glanced at a fidgeting hand, but she gave him a nod and a smile.  “For fates sake, give the woman back her swords.  They aren’t worth much to us. If we wanted to make money selling swords, we could.” There was some laughter.

He glanced over his shoulder at the horses, almost fully hitched.  “The wagon is yours, and the road, shall not be blocked.  I tried half the night to move that staff from where you left it.  I see no way I can keep it, without keeping you.  So, to the abyss, with orders.  There’s little I can do for you about the others, save the path I suggested.  If you encounter them, you’ll have to make your case again.”

Rhaeus 39th, 655 E.R.

It was a tense ride for ten next days, but an uneventful one. Dustwatch was less a city or a town, as a large fortress with a few residential blocks packed around it. It sat on a hill above a desert that threatened to consume it. A land swept with tendrils of shifting sand, dissolving, and forming new dunes below. The winds staid very low to the ground, smoothing a land slowly away to dust. The place had once had another name, no one bothered to remember what.

A lone wagon rolling into town drew looks, it’s missing side certainly more so. Most were bewildered, but one also utterly furious.

“What, in the Abyss happened to my wagon?” Samantha demanded marching past the hole, and staring at those inside. “What?” she gestured emphatically at the damage.

“The shard,” Katrisha answered from her seat in the opening.

Samantha winced, but looked doubtful. “It’s not burned.”

“Yeah, about that…” Katrisha said, and her brother stepped into view. A clear glimmering diamond staff in hand.

Samantha looked confused, or at least, refused to accept the implication out of hand. “That?” she asked.

Katrisha nodded.

“Are you, all at least alright?” Samantha asked straightening herself, and feeling bad about her attitude.

Sasha stepped up to the hole, leapt from the wagon, and marched up to Samantha. She clasped her hands between her own. “We, are all fine,” she said softly. “We all chose, to return to you. I’m glad you waited.”

“Don’t, think it was for you,” Samantha protested, and eyed her hands suspiciously. “Any more than any member of my caravan. Certainly, not more than for me brother’s girls. I was not, going to leave, until we had word, at very least.”

“Sure,” Sasha said with a smile, that made Samantha look a bit defeated.

A large group robed men drew their eyes, and Samantha grimaced. “The Council’s representatives have been waiting for word, since I delivered my report. Sorry about this, I can’t imagine it will go pleasantly.”

The man at the lead was a strikingly tall slender fellow of dark skin, short curled gray hair, and long features. “I am told, an unstable elemental core has been dragged to my doorstep?”

“It’s stable now,” Katrisha said, and looked the man up and down in a mirror of his appraising glance.

“I’ll be the judge of that, where is it?”

“May I introduce, Darrin Amar,” Samantha intoned drolly, and took a breath.

Wren jumped down, stepped forward, and held out his staff. He left it hovering before the man.

“You have to be kidding me?” Darrin said with a sneer.

“Afraid not,” Katrisha answered. “I don’t particularly have the impression my brother wants it. So, if you can manage to move it. I doubt there will be much argument.”

“All yours,” Wren said, and walked away.

Mallory sat at a bar, drinking as Katrisha walked up and sat beside him. “How’s the local fair?”

“The women, or the beer?” Mallory asked absently.

“Which ever you’ve got more to say about I guess,” Katrisha offered. “Something sweet,” she said to the bartender who stopped before her. “Surprise me.”

“Only available women in a town like this, are the sort that you’ll find anywhere there aren’t enough. Enterprising sorts, with high prices.”

“So, not on account of waiting for me,” Katrisha said snidely, as a glass tankard was set before her. She ran her finger along the top.

“Didn’t give me much impression there was a reason for that, one way or another. We’d been, flirting about sharing, among other ambiguities.”

“Yeah. Yeah, we had,” Katrisha agreed. “Yet, you made a bit of a show back on the road. Like you wanted some kind of say in it. So, I’m not quite sure what you have in mind.”

“Fates, never start something on the caravan,” Mallory said, took a large swig, and rubbed his neck.

“Regrets?” Katrisha asked.

“No, just, nothing I planned for.” Mallory turned, and gave her a dubious look. “I’ll wager it fair to say, neither one of us were very clear.”

Katrisha took a drink. “You, have no idea,” she said after she swallowed. “Thing of it is, I don’t even know if I’m sure who I am anymore. I know, we’ve met before this life. Just a feeling, no memories. Not like my siblings, or Sasha. I know, it didn’t work, for one reason or another. Probably a few. I’ve spent my life, thinking I was the rebel, but really, I’ve spent my life, trying to be what others wanted. The ones I liked any way.” She glanced at him. “The perfect friend, with benefits, loving, but not possessive, amiable but not decisive.” She looked back to her drink, and took a swig. “Fates, I still don’t even really like this stuff. Even sweet. Just a habit, a pattern of expectation. A leftover of some, plan, like everything else.”

“I think, I understood most of that,” Mallory said.

“Doing better than me then,” Katrisha joked halfheartedly.

“So, what is this then?”

“I’ll give it a go, up to Morodove,” Katrisha answered. “See how I’m feeling, or, we can call it here. Up to you. I just, can’t promise you who I am, or will be. Only that following me, would be among the least wise things you’ve ever done.”

“Well, that would be right impressive,” Mallory said with a smile. “Though, I don’t doubt you’re right, after all I’ve seen. So yeah. Let’s give it a go, to Mordove. See how either of us feel about it then.”

She pushed her drink down the bar. “You want this? Cause I’m through pretending, and I just don’t like it.”

Katrisha lay with her head on Mallory’s shoulder, and her fingers tracing through the hair on his chest.

“So. Anything else you’ve decided you don’t like?”

“Strong words,” Katrisha said absently. “I like this.  I like the feel of it, being held by someone big and strong.  The hair, I could take or leave, an animal impulse that doesn’t mind, an aesthetic that does, just a little.”  She sat up, and looked down at him.  “Not that you’ll ever be half as strong as me, but the big, makes for a nice illusion.”

“Thanks,” Mallory said snidely.

“It’s fun. Being with you. It feels good, but I don’t know.  Something is missing. I stand by the deal. Mordove, but I think I’m done there. You’ve a contract, and I’ve a destiny, stolen or otherwise. So, it’s better that way, don’t you think?”

“Best make good use of the time we have then,” he tried, though not with some sadness.  He reached up to stroke her cheek.

She leaned into it. “Sounds like a plan.”

Rhaeus 41st, 655 E.R.

Katrisha stood on a rampart looking south.

“I don’t know how you can bear staring at it,” Kiannae said as she walked up behind her.

“Because it’s magic,” Katrisha said. “If it’s magic, it can be understood. If it can be understood, it can be fixed. Besides, it’s not what it appears, here, look at this.” She held out her spectacles.

“I don’t have your eyes.”

Katrisha bit her lip, tweaked the spell, and shook them at her sister again. “That should counter the adjustments. Take a look.”

Kiannae took the spectacles, put them on, and squinted at the horizon. “Is that a jungle?”

“Certainly looks like one,” Katrisha said, and took the spectacles back.

“How have we not heard?”

“Wren did say Elise made claims about the heart of the scar.”

“It’s a mirage,” Darrin said arriving behind Kiannae. “So we try to keep it quiet, because people get terribly confused. I’ve been out there myself. It looks like that from miles away, but the closer you get, the deader it appears. Course marriages are simple optical phenomena, changes in the refractive index of the air. They don’t generally stand up under magnification, or show detailed leaves. Even if it is somehow light bent over the horizon from near Thebes, that’s not what it looks like down there. Strangest thing.”

“What if it’s a matter of time?” Katrisha offered.

“It’s been proposed,” Darrin said with a shrug. “Doesn’t explain it any better, and requires new theories for how. Why would we get light from another time out here, but not in there.”

“Maybe the effect isn’t on the inside,” Kiannae proposed. “Maybe the effect, is out here. Maybe it’s more like the Blight than we are giving it credit for. A dead zone, a disruption of an effect, not the effect itself.”

“World spell conjecture?” he asked. “I heard you two talking; implying what’s out there is magic. Setting aside distinctions in terminology. I still have my doubts, even after examining that staff.”

“Any luck?” Katrisha asked.

“Nothing. I’ve got nothing,” Darrin said with frustration. “We literally couldn’t even remove the sash, which, whatever it appears, is not made of satin, or tied on. It’s literally woven into the grooves of the staff. It’s also not even all that energetic, unlike reports of this so called shard. If it wasn’t for the fact that we cannot move it, or even figure out why, I would presume that it was some kind of hoax. An attempt to hide paying off to bandits with a dangerous artifact. Which, well, it’s hard to say it isn’t dangerous. It is just not the kind dangerous the Council would object to having dragged into the heart of the city, and handed over in chambers. So they will be quite cross, that it hasn’t already been delivered. Do me a favor, just so my report doesn’t make me a laughingstock. When you, or I suppose your brother, hand it over, leave it dead center of some official place. Maybe the main assembly hall. Just leave it there, but don’t tell them I asked.”

“I’ll pass it along,” Kiannae offered.

“Were you really there at the formation of Blightsbane?” Darrin asked.

“I was,” Kiannae answered. “I’ve also deciphered the spell on the marker stones.” She waved her hand around her staff, and it came into bloom in the midst of strange rune like formations.

The man stepped closer, and examined it. “Living energy, but it’s not magic, nor anything I’ve seen before. Nor is it any pattern on marker stones I’m familiar with.”

“It’s Weaving,” Katrisha said. “I can’t tell you why I know that, but I do. The Sylvan practice, and the lost art of witches, that blended out to more accessible magic.” She put on her spectacles, and stepped closer. “Infinitely more complex or simple than it appears. It’s literally alive, and I don’t just mean the staff.”

Kiannae gave her sister a dubious look.

“Have you tried weaving it in the negative?” Katrisha asked.

“Once,” Kiannae said tight lipped. “It…the stone literally caught on fire.”

“I think you should try again, inside the scar boundary.”

Kiannae looked anything but pleased by the prospect, and Darrin utterly suspect.

Kiannae traced it out from memory, and found it disturbingly easy to do so. It was part rune structure, part recursive spirals, and on a deeper level she knew the branching continued. The stone was etching remarkably fast under the effect before she even finished. Slight gusts blowing away tracks of dust around her work.

Darrin and his entourage looked on from well across the boundary, though it still itched to stand so near. Katrisha stood closer, and Kiannae hesitated. She held a conjured sphere of darkness that she set into a notch at the top of the stone. A shadowy spell turned to brilliant light, and a harsh wind burst outward. Sprouts rose from dry soil, struggled, withered, twisted, and became glimmering crystal. Blades like green glass swept up to the boundary of the scar, and stopped.

The five men stepped back, and Katrisha just watched curiously. A sapling burst from the ground next to the stone, bark black as onyx, leaves that glimmered like gems.

“What in the fates is it?” Darrin demanded, took a step toward the boundary, and leaned down to pluck a blade of grass.

“Life,” Kiannae said, and knelt down to touch a crystal petaled flower, like one from her dream.

Katrisha put on her spectacles, and got down next to the new wild growth. “Though not as we know it, an earlier form I think. Less dependent on water. More crystalline. Workable for plants, but not things that need to really move.”

“Earlier form?” Darrin demanded.

“Prophecy,” Katrisha said. “The natural plain implication of prophecy. Iteration. Repetition. Ever changing. Go back far enough, and it might not look at all like what we would recognize. Not just, kingdoms and empires, societies and peoples, but even the forms of living things.”

Kiannae laughed. “My staff knows how the scales of dragon are formed. I can see it in my mind. A dire creature itself, it, like any other, could adapt however it needs. One of the oldest mysteries about Sylvans, is why or how they appear to have been shaped a part ca. Somehow ages before magic as we know it existed. Weaving, as Katrisha says, is one answer, but what if that presumption is backwards. What if they became more like us? Started as cats, and wolves. Lynx and Lycos. I know a dire wolf that’s learning to write, and now stands as a knight of the court of helm. You’ve heard, that the Torta have shown themselves, I am sure.”

“Preposterous,” Darrin said with a sneer. “Not these oddities you are clinging to, that I have sufficient report of. No, I mean your theory.”

“The mythology is all so mixed, and yet parts of it seem to be true,” Kiannae challenged. Consider, the myths that say Vhale was a stag, or a man, or even a tree. The place where the great sunbird Rhan perched. I have seen a vision of Laeune, as a mirror of the half forgotten myth of the great tree Thaea. A silver tree that stood beneath the mirror of the sun god, his brother the Abyss. Yet, none of the mythologies quite mention this. Not that I’ve read, and yet I’ve seen it, and know it was true.”

“What you think, is immaterial,” Darrin said with a nervous but imperious look.

“What we can do, is not.” Katrisha stood, and turned to face him.

“Gods and prophecy?” Darrin sneered.

“No, facts, and methodology,” Katrisha answered. “Think of six things, random as you can,” she demanded, and waited as he looked indignant, and then finally appeared to oblige the request. “Now, tell me if I am right; rock, light, fool, duck, ball, and ram. Maybe sea, you can’t seem to make up your mind between the last two. Seventeen tries, you are remarkably consistent.”

“Mind reading?” Darrin asked dubiously.

“No, just simple precognition, clarified through an elemental core, with delicate spell work.”

Kiannae stepped out of the little patch of crystalline life, giving it one last nervous look. “I’m not sure that’s going to stop. The spell is etching into the rock, growing stronger. Should I dispel it?”

“I’m sure we can manage if needed,” Darrin said dismissively. “I would like to study it. As to you, Ms. Katrisha, I’ve traveled quite a lot. Met a man who could pull the parlor trick, down in Napir. I’m not impressed, though your sister’s discoveries are interesting.”

Katrisha handed him a note.

He took it, and read the words he had just spoken.

“When…” he looked startled.

“I wrote it, while Kiannae was finishing her spell. I’ve been over the whole thing seventeen times. Actually, that all grows slightly differently with each, but you don’t.” She gestured behind her. “That’s the most curious part. I can do about seven minutes, forty-eight times. I’ve tested it flirting, it all falls apart after that. Turns into, a jumbled mess. Kiannae likes to brag about Prince Carmine’s efforts to woo her. What was it sister? Four times. A few minutes a piece.”

“That he could keep clear in his head,” Kiannae answered, rather amused by her sister’s tact.

“So, you are finally making a claim to prophecy?” Darrin demanded. “Though there are rumors about Eastroad.”

“Things have happened before, yes,” Katrisha answered. “My only claim, is that we have a great many things to worry about, and burying our heads in the sand will solve nothing. Presumptions, that this future we face cannot be controlled are as useless as letting it dictate our actions. If we have seen it, it is the past, but as the saying goes, past is prologue. History repeats. Wars, and petty squabbles. Human nature, is informative. If futures have been seen that bear such resemblance to past visions, if we can feel moves of our enemies before they happen, then this is it. Prophecy is real, but only as meaningful as we let it be. Not some random chain of events, but moves that follow rules. A wise woman told me, we either, have choices, or we aren’t real. The pawns, or the players.”

Darrin pinched the brow of his nose. “I wish you luck, if you intend to take that position before the Council. I have worked in those chambers. Half of them would not believe a duck was brown, without seeing the duck themselves. Even with its feathers all over their office.”

“That seems awfully specific,” Kiannae said with restrained humor.

“Yes, and I’ll tell you the same. I like your logic, but I remain suspect of the assertion. You are still laying claim to prophecy, and others have tried before.”

“Am I?” Katrisha asked. “I asked you, to take that staff from my brother. He, asked you to take it from him. Not to prove some point. We don’t want this. We want out of this, but, I want you to consider the scope of what this prophecy implies. Seven minutes, forty-eight times. That’s about my limit. Even once, over a thousand years… Could you even imagine the power involved? The impact of sending even one message that far back in time. Whoever sent it or why, we have been chased through this life by people who know our faces. Who have seen us in visions, and are drawn to the Black Book’s ramblings, after meeting us. I, claim nothing but the facts before me, and that I will not shirk the responsibility I face.”

“Responsibility?” Darrin asked with distaste.

“Power, is responsibility,” Katrisha said drawing a breath. “We gifted have squandered our great potential on petty games of destruction and avarice, pride and ambition. It is as much time we answer for our inaction, as our own misdeeds.”

“Proud, and ambitious words,” Darrin chided her.

Katrisha struck her staff against the ground in frustration, and everything stopped. She looked around with confusion. Everything was fading to white, and gray, particularly at the edges of her vision. Her attempt to try again had failed, into something new. She stepped around Darrin curiously. Tried to nudge a smudge that was his fading sleeve, but found it at once intangible and immovable. She glanced up to a light shining from the square on the hill. A golden beacon in a world losing all color.

She had seen hints of it before. Moments in memory, where she could look very close. Branching points in possible outcomes, at once blurrier, and more real. Their importance seemed intrinsic. A matter of timing more than meaning. Useful, but hard to understand. Curious and concerning, but if this was the place. The one Wren described, then this was how they did it. Crossing distances without crossing the space in between, or rather doing so outside of time, shifting everyone to one side at once. A gap in which they one stack extra moments. The world snapped back to color, but she was still standing behind Darrin.

He jumped with a start, and spun to find her standing there. An impossible thing, that at once tried to make sense.

“I claim, nothing,” Katrisha said plainly, and turned to walk away. “What will you?”

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Chapter III:17

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

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

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

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

– Ascension’s Fall, circa 400 E.R.

The Red Court

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

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Chapter III:16

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.

Summer’s Shadow

Rhaeus 28th, 655 E.R.

“You’re early,” Etore said without taking her eyes off a line of rolling hills.

Continue reading “Chapter III:16”

Chapter III:15

Watch for hollow eyes and vacant stares,
clever words woven freely without a care,
misfortune follows foolish fumbled steps,
yet for every suffering they are no less,
beware the tracks of anguished tears,
trails of the soulless, who show no fear.

– The Broken-Ones, circa 30 B.E.

Borderlands

Rhaeus 26th, 655 E.R.

Scattered small towns in western Corinthia welcomed a caravan gladly, but none held them longer than a day. A pace hurried on, with an urgency to be done with the latest risky venture. Yet, wildlands seemed an exaggeration. It wasn’t a desert. No raging elementals to be seen, tearing across hill and plain. Most of it was quite lovely really. A shallow rolling countryside, interspersed with white granite mesas, carved away in some past epoch. Some even topped in dense green forests no foot could ever easily reach.

Old ruins stood along the road, many overgrown with fresh foliage. Entire ancient cities, and castles abandoned, or populated by a handful of reclusive hermits. Most had left centuries ahead of the scar, the whole region almost bled dry of people. Among those who remained, a suppressed sense of Clarion influence could be felt in most towns. Ones who did not speak openly of their faith, for Lycia controlled the region by law. While Corinthians had fled, foreigners had come. Gathered to lived near the Scar, to pilgrimage there. Even to act as guides to the doorstep of the fallen capital, and a shrine built to countless dead, and the Avatar’s rise.

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Chapter III:14

A light there stands ‘bove eastern plain,
a timeless testament to hope and pain,

cold stone in likeness of a noble hand,
by flame calls the weary time ‘n again,

oh such pride that ancient mixing pot,
where downtrodden found new lot,

a statue stands where towers never fell,
in Torchlight the lost my at last be well.

– Roshanara, 93 E.R.

Roshanara’s Call

Rhaeus 16th, 655 E.R.

Zale sighed.

Kiannae was sitting among cargo crates at the rear of a wagon roof, and he was riding backwards halfway to the front. He had followed her up after noticing her climb on an unexpected coach. Questions as to why she was riding that one, were met only with deflection. Claims she just liked riding there, and the roof of her wagon was full. A lie, he was fairly sure, and nothing to say why she had chosen the caravan master’s. Though he’d caught enough to know they were acquaintances of some sort.

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Chapter III:13

Oh let us not have a magely king,
oh better to let a mad fool to reign,

oh enumerate, contemplate, enunciate,
oh bicker, and procliamate, it’s all too late,

yes let us not have a magely king,
what else could be so terrible a thing.

– The Fool Prince, 546 E.R.

If All Else Fails

Rhaeus 5th, 655 E.R.

Helms Hollow was only a hundred miles from the border with Avrale, and most of that was the wild Westwood. On the other side it was over three hundred to the Corinthian border. Halfway there forest roads gave way to wide swaths of open plain. Ever flatter stretches of farmland stretching to the horizon. Not unlike Thebes to the south, but spotted with large islands of forest, and vast orchards.

Over a month come and gone just to reach Forks. A journey hastened, more than hindered by one terrible spring day. Maybe ten miles a day on average, when you factored in layovers in every town, or viable crossroads. The largest would get a week, and then a hard push to make up time. It was slow. It felt glacial. Yet it was hard to imagine keeping up a faster pace. Towns still flew by, and blurred together. The size of villages, and changing backdrops stood out more than names.

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