What begins poorly,
likely ends the same,
be wary the hasty course,
navigating uncharted seas,
for adversaries may yet lurk,
ever just beyond your view,
there patiently wait to strike,
and fragile plans undo.
– Palentian Proverb, circa 500 B.E.
Lauer 30th, 650 E.R.
She was a golden haired woman, likely well into her forties but it was hard to tell with a strong gift like hers. She wore her robe rather low in front, and tied quite tightly about her figure. The kind of thing that might have gone without note, if not for so much about her manner that seemed quite precise, and purposeful, and then there was the weatherl. She had an imperious quality to her really, yet it seemed more curious than judgemental. “You, are a lot more trouble to find than I would have expected.”
Kiannae considered the woman at her door, and the swirling snow falling behind her.
“Given I had really quite a lot of description to work with, and considerable resources at my disposal,” she added, and frowned. “May I enter?” she pressed. “Tis rather cold out this morning.”
“If you don’t mind the wolves,” Kiannae said almost as a challenge.
The woman’s eyes darted to the two previously unseen sets shining up at her from corners of the small hut.
“Yes, details to go on. I’d have thought they would have been of much more use in tracking you down, but I did hear at length about how they go unnoticed, and goodness, that is a strange phenomena. Yes, I won’t mind them, if I have your assurance they are safe.”
“So far,” was all Kiannae offered.
The woman nodded, and Kiannae stepped back, letting her in.
“Could you tell me why the brilliant mind behind the solution to our problems, is so willing to let others take credit for her hard, and by some tales quite perilous work?” The woman said leaning back against the door. “I was quite irritated when I learned, and then all the more fascinated to hear you had asked to be left out of reports. I doubt those two mages needed much encouragement to take all the credit for themselves. Fortunately your….fellow druids…were more honest in the matter.”
“Having Sylvan blood often makes me wish to keep a low profile,” Kiannae offered in half truth.
“We’ve no qualms with Sylvans in these lands, less trouble than the other denizens of Napir,” the woman countered. “Though do forgive me, I have not introduced myself. Caline, apprentice to the Court Mage, daughter really, but one carries more weight than the other, doesn’t it?” she added with a crooked smile.
“It does,” Kiannae agreed, instantly far more on guard.
“Can we dispense with the pretense? Please,” she gestured a bit wearily, glancing back to one of the pairs of eyes staring at her. “Our…fathers may not be on speaking terms, but guessing who you were, was marked easier than actually finding you.”
“And what do you know?” Kiannae asked, still shrewd, but somewhat deflated.
“Frustratingly little. I could take some of the blame, however unreasonable father is on the matter, if it would help, but yours shipping banned materials along our shores has undone any goodwill.”
“Banned?” Kiannae pressed.
The girl grimaced. “It really is petty, and stupid. All of it. Still, lest the walls have ears I will not name it. I hope you understand.”
“I don’t, but I’ll oblige your need for secrecy, if you’ll understand that I might have my own.”
“I don’t think either of us will be terribly satisfied with that arrangement, but father always says that such is the sign of a well struck compromise. Still, you have only wagered that I will understand, and so let us put that to the test. Why are you hiding? I can only presume that your high and mighty guardian, has no notion of your current location, or occupations.”
“No,” Kiannae answered, “and while perhaps it is time that I stopped running. I feel too strongly that I have business in the south, that Laurel would, I am sure, discourage me from further pursuing with the urgency I wish to.”
“He truly has no idea where to look. Does he? You came in through East Wash, if my reading of a string of not so little rumors is adding up correctly. If he had any reason to suspect you had come south, some leverage would have been found for us to be keeping an eye out for you.”
“As you say.”
Caline pursed her lips. “I could hold my tongue on the matter. As a favor to a…sister of similar privileged, and complicated position. Perhaps one day you will be in a position to repay me. Should you find your way back to Avrale, and a restored position. Surely you will have little trouble proving yourself, after all I have heard.”
“Perhaps you could consider it against the debt implied, instead,” Kiannae countered. “My intentions in the south are, perhaps misguided, but I seek the literal root of this trouble. I have further worries – which have met poor reception – that a dire fungus could just be a symptom of the underlying problem.”
“Not ominous at all, and will you give name or nature to your dire portents?” Caline pressed.
“You’ll likely sleep better without the notions put in your head.”
“Not with teasing like that.”
Kiannae sighed. “You’ve heard of the world spell conjecture? I hadn’t, not till I stumbled rather literally into it on my own.”
“I’ve not, no, but I can guess it might have something to do with the nature of ley lines, and marker stones.”
“Exactly.” Kiannae reconsidered the woman. “What though, do all spells do?”
Caline gave her a long dubious look, pondering possible answers to the riddle. “End? Fates, that would be a concerning proposition to start from, but as circumspect as you are being, I presume your interpretation leads somewhere worse.”
“Solid? No.” Kiannae shook her head. “I have evidence of what ley lines, and more certainly marker stones might be. Fresh entropic decay in the markings. A lot more than one could possibly expect, given the verifiable age of the stones. They would have worn to dust ages ago. Still, the very presence of entropic decay specifically in the notches. I’m surprised no one has thought of this, but I don’t think the stones are part of anything at all. I think they are a byproduct.”
“Shaped in place? Just, stones in the area. Oh what a clever thought. Why not,” the woman said a bit impressed. “Yet as you say, if the effect has changed. You think the entropic effect is simply becoming too strong?” She rubbed her nails together thoughtfully, grabbed her chin.
“No. If I’m right, and let me say something I rarely do, I hope I’m not. It could be much worse than that. We could be looking at a full on cascade collapse, with indeterminate consequences, and no immediate solutions. Alternately, whatever the dire fungus has done, it is corrosive. It is a maintained spell that has been being cast for going on, perhaps more than a decade? I can’t wager on which is the chicken or the egg, but the ramifications might be the same. We’ve only just learned how to fight it, and a whole lot of terrible coincidences are leading me in the same direction. South. Where it started.”
“And you were the one to give us what hope we have,” Caline said tapping her fingers on her crossed arms. “I can’t say I like it. Nor that my father will care much for me keeping this to myself. Presuming he does not find out on his own. Usually though, he relies on me for that kind of snooping. It is not unreasonable to imagine I could keep this from him by no more than my own silence.”
“I only aim to be of service,” Kiannae added. “I do not believe I will be put to better use being dragged preemptively north. However conventionally reasonable that might seem.”
Caline looked indecisive. “It would not do anything to help things between our nations, if it was found out you died on some fool’s errand that I might have prevented.”
“You said you had heard other rumors about me,” Kiannae offered. “Do you really think I am not capable of taking care of myself? I intend to return to Avrale. Once I have done whatever it is I am meant to in the south. Meant too…” She shook her head. “To say I do not like prophecy would be…an understatement, but this… This is more like gravity. I promise to return, so that you can take all the credit for, almost anything you please.”
“If I have your swarn promise to return, alive no less,” Caline pressed, with a hint of humor that was thin.
“On my honor as a future Queen,” Kiannae said with a laugh.
“Don’t make light,” Caline said measuredly.
“I truly wish I were. I said I don’t like prophecy, and I do have my reasons.”
“Dire portents indeed,” Caline said with pursed lips. “I would ask, but I do not want to know. Very well. Let me propose two last matters in our deal. If you do render such further service, permit my King to honor you then?” Caline asked. “Or should I say, me to use my influence to arrange such an honor, that I am sure will be given quite willingly. Do not consider this selfless on my part. Not only would it lessen tensions between nations, there has been contention if I will be permitted to replace my father when he wishes to step down. Contention that having another honored young gifted woman, held up proudly before the court, could only help to alleviate.”
“When I return. I will do you such a favor, that might, one day, place you in such position as to repay me.”
Caline laughed. “I like you.”
“Your final term?” Kiannae pressed, acknowledging the woman’s compliment only by not losing her measured expression.
“Everything you know about matters in the north. Dragons, Osyrae, politics through the vales. You lot manage so many politics for so little land. Then I will beg something of the mystery of why you are running, if you can keep the prophecy to a minimum.”
“It’s not a happy tale,” Kiannae countered. “Nor am I at all sure how much I can keep prophecy out of it.”
“Then I shall be prepared, on both counts.”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Coria 12th, 650 E.R.
Kiannae woke with a start, and glanced around at the sleeping druids. She was exhausted from several long day’s travel south, but the adrenaline flowing through her veins kept her from just laying back down. Lunka and Shadow were each curled at her sides asleep. They had barely batted an ear with her sudden waking.
She caught the eye of the druid keeping watch, who she felt spent more time watching her wolves than for anything approaching. Not that much ventured along the edges of the blight other than them. She got up delicately, so as not to disturb her sleeping companions, and walked off into the night without a word. She sat against a sickly tree and started to cry. The dream had come a few times over the years since the mountain, and never before had she seen the face. Always she had forgotten until it came again. As though if one wished to ignore prophecy, it was willing to oblige.
She closed her eyes, and made herself remember. The brilliant light, the silver hair flowing like water in a world where gravity had come to an end. She could feel it all around her, a storm like no other, a storm that wished to tear the world asunder. Then the face that turned towards her, older, a bit rounder, perhaps a bit paler than her current spring complexion, but still largely what she saw in any mirror.
“Worthless prophecy,” Kiannae muttered darkly, and felt an arm wrap around her. She looked up into Taloe’s eyes, and wondered at what she saw there.
“It is not a dream,” Taloe said distantly. “Not your dream. I have seen it through all the ages I slept.”
“They call me a stormwalker, some of them, is that to be me?” Kiannae demanded.
Taloe hesitated, many thoughts troubled him. He looked at the girl before him searchingly. She had the power, the strength to be the one he saw, but there was doubt in him. He refused to be the one to raise the specter she had never considered, less he be wrong. He never trusted the future, and it was only the thinnest shadow of doubt.
“Perhaps,” Taloe said uncertainly, “perhaps that is why you were born. Something comes. How far off I cannot say, so much nearer than all the ages in the dreaming. I have felt the coming for an eternity, and such perspective clouds any sense of scale. I know it not by name, or nature, only that it is vast beyond comprehension.”
“Would you love the child of the storm?” Kiannae laughed darkly, and looked him challengingly in the eye. Things seemed so much simpler then. She didn’t have to make a choice, just let the world show her what she already knew.
“With all my heart,” Taloe said. “I shall love the daughter of summer glades, and the passing storm. Perhaps it is you the storm brings in its wake, but perhaps it is you that shall send it on its way. Whatever the beginning or end, with you I gladly stay.”
“Like you have a choice,” Kiannae said, pulled him to her, and kissed him for the first time. Clumsily, but with determination. She wept, because at last she had someone who could never leave her. ‘An Ashton always returns.’ She blinked back tears at the thought. Startled into breaking the kiss, though she just hung there close to him.
It was a memory she could not possibly have. It was a moment beneath the Old Ash. What the Tree had said to her when she was just a tiny girl. Those words. Words she plucked a vision from her fragmented memories of communing with the blight. Her father was knelt before her grandfather, near sunset, or dawn. Her mind struggled with it. How could both be true. He was asking a question. Asking not just his daughter’s hand, but her name. Taking their name as his own. Their honor bound trust. Somewhere in those words was the Tree’s tale as well, but she could not find it. The beginning was too long before, the end still too far ahead.
“I don’t want a choice,” he answered, his forehead leaned to hers, when she remained silent so long, and clearly bothered. “However much trouble you are.”
She bit her lip, and tried to understand if that remark came from his true nature, or what he thought she wanted. She saw a smirk in the corner of his eyes that told her there was no difference, or that he might never truly give her the satisfaction of knowing. His own man, even as her devoted servant.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Coria 28th, 650 E.R.
Kiannae examined the four stranger’s that approached across the gray expanse of the blight. The druids had followed the scar south for weeks, until they came to the border, or their best guess at it. It was always hard to be sure precisely where the boundaries lay. Lunka and Shadow did not like them, and Kiannae herself was dubious. Their auras were brilliant, scintillating really, and odd in harder to define ways. Something, foreign to her experience. Their gift was profound without any question, far more than she was used to seeing, though in what form they practiced she could only guess. They were powerful though, and not to be trifled with.
“Well met,” said an elder druid that had come in the stead of the arch druid. “I am Tora, second to the Arch Druid of Evergrove Circle.”
“I am called Sah’riva,” the oldest of the four spoke as she bowed, her salt and pepper hair tumbling over her shoulders. As she rose up again Kiannae caught sight of her eyes, and their distinctly slit pupils. “I have come on behalf of the Storm Queen, to enquire of those at our borders – what their business is, and of course, names, and who you serve.”
“I have named myself, and those who are with me are much the same. Though some of this circle come to us from northern lands.” the leader responded. “We druids serve Thaea, though at present by the call of the King of Niven.”
“So you have come then about the condition of this forest?” Sah’riva asked for confirmation, and gestured all around. “Someone beyond Napir has deigned to pay the least attention to our longer suffering part in this trouble?”
“Just so,” Tora said, letting the snideness be its own affront back. “We have been tracking the flow of it, seeking the source, but found ourselves at your border, unsure if it was wise to proceed.”
“Reasonable caution,” Sah’riva said. “The lands of the Protectorate, the lands of Napir, are known as such, because they are protected. Sometimes over zealously. This blight has concerned us for years, we know its center, but not its cause.”
“Would it be acceptable, if we might go to the center, to the source?” Tora asked hesitantly.
“I believe the Queen would not object,” Sah’riva said. “We have no qualms with druids doing their duty, particularly if it might benefit us. It is still two days south however, and the worst of it will take us nearly a half days travel into the deep blight. Are you prepared?”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Coria 29th, 650 E.R.
Kiannae considered the woman who walked beside her, as she had all of the strangers since they met. Shadow followed warily at her side, keeping his mistress between him, and the strangers. Lunka would have nothing to do with the affair, and kept a great distance to the side, remaining just out of sight.
Even after making camp for the night only their leader had spoken, and she seemed largely normal aside from her eyes. Yet the way the younger trio moved was just subtly wrong. Their movements seemed graceful by virtue of reflex, but somehow unpracticed, and always on the edge of literal misstep.
This remained apparent as they set out again in the early morning of the second day. There was something simply off about their bumbling grace. Tension in glorious motion, meeting awkwardness. Expressions that shifted quickly, and attention easily distracted by any little thing.
“Do I interest you?” the younger woman finally asked, after edging closer, and keeping pace beside Kiannae for several awkward minutes.
“Yes,” she admitted, glancing away in embarrassment that she had been caught staring. “You all seem, unusual, and I could not help but notice your eyes.”
“As we have noticed yours,” the woman said, smiling kindly.
“Are you Sylvan?” Kiannae asked boldly.
“No,” the woman laughed. “Do I look like a woodwalker? Do I have the pointy fur adorned ears of the ‘children of of the wolves and cats?’”
“No,” Kiannae admitted, “though nor do I.”
“Well, that answers both of our curiosity then.” The woman laughed almost playfully. “There was some doubt, if you were half Sylvan, or half dragon. The wolves gave us pause on either count, dire, yes? Yet ever so small.”
“Oh,” Kiannae said uncertain if she had fully understood. “Yes dire, they…have abided my wish to remain small, or are simply strange. I think the prior, but I do not know for absolute certain. One tries to stay humble about their influence over the world. When…successes are mixed.”
“So curious,” the woman said with a penetrating glance to Shadow, who seemed to shift to hide more closely behind Kiannae.
Kiannae continued to try to make sense out of the whole exchange. The manner of the questions, both penetrating and light. There was a familiarness to the matter. Like she had been on the other side of it before. Absentmindedly picking someone apart with questions, without malice. Just childish curiosity. She had grown out of it though, learned to be more reserved, that it annoyed people to be pried into that way. She found she did not mind, but still found it strange.
“I can tell you are confused,” the woman laughed. “Let me start again, I am called Nor, I have no suffix to my name yet. Have not earned it, being little more than two. Not much point in a suffix if you have not earned it. Loyal, true, kind, honest, strong, wise. I think I would like wise, so that is what I will try to earn. Nor’riva – it sounds nice don’t you think?”
“Two?” Kiannae said rejecting the implied meaning, and almost blanking on the rest, searching for another. She had heard of dragon suffixing, here and there. A practice of adding roots from ancient Maji, or Osyrean – a mostly meaningless distinction – to names on ascension, or as an adornment. All the way back to Roshana’sai herself.
“Two years, since I hatched,” Nor said with a smile, already knowing her answer would set Kiannae on edge, and laughed when she was not disappointed.
“That’s…impossible,” Kiannae said with a bewildered expression.
“Have you really never heard of the dragonborn?” Nor asked curiously. “It seemed you did not, and, it was ever so funny, but no one in Napir is ever surprised. Except the kids. They are so funny when I tell them I’m younger. I’m so big after all.”
“I suppose I’ve heard…” Kiannae admitted thinking back, “but not that you were born full grown, and could talk so eloquently at only two years old…”
“Hatched full grown,” Nor corrected, clearly proud of making proper distinction on the matter. “Though few can speak quite so well, so soon. I am, Sha says, special, gifted? I learn words, and find meaning as some breath. I read everything I can find. I am told I will be a powerful mage, but to learn magic so young with my ability, would be dangerous. I need wisdom, and discipline first she says. So now that you know so much of me, what of you, child of ‘the true people?’”
“True people?” Kiannae asked obviously not understanding.
Nor sighed deeply. “So you know less of your people, than mine,” she said shaking her head. “That is what those northerns you call Sylvans, call themselves, or well, the best translation. Really I think even they cringe a bit at the translation of ‘true.’ I’ve read it may be rooted in a mythology about speaking truth, though all at once they seem to have taken the other meaning partly into their hearts. A name at least would be polite, Shad would chide me soon, if we are to continue to so discuss the methods of our beginnings.”
Kiannae winced in embarrassment again from Nor’s keen way of making her feel a fool. She was being talked in circles by what on some level should still be a child – if she could make herself believe that part. Yet things in her manner, her childish exuberance, flighty train of thought, seeming pride over the littlest things made it feel believable.
“I am Kiannae,” she finally said. “As to the method of my birth I’m not sure I could tell you much. It was a good seventeen years ago, far north, by the daughter of a farmer, and a Sylvan man I can hardly recall. Not even his name. Just pa…or something like it. I was only supposed to whisper that name though, and I forgot.”
“How sad, and yet it is almost more than I can tell you of my parents,” Nor said, herself now showing signs of embarrassment.
“Did you not know them?” Kiannae asked unsure if she should pry further.
“No,” she said. It was almost evasive, and yet she clearly wanted to speak it. It was a strange flustered reaction. Nervous. “My brothers and I hatched seven months after our mother was killed.”
“Oh…” Kiannae said uncomfortably. “I’m…sorry to hear that.”
“You see the tragedy of course,” Nor said shaking her head. “You do not guess however that my brothers and I are quite grateful.” It was hard to read how honestly the words were said. There was a want to be ernest there. A childish will to do what they were told was right. “We would likely not be alive if not for our mother’s end.” She seemed to be convincing herself, more than Kiannae.
Kiannae stared at Nor, whose words perplexed her more, and more. “Why would you not be alive, if your mother still was?”
“Our mother was feral,” Nor said. “A fallen dragon of the black flight. We do not celebrate that she had to die, no of course not. Yet we do give thanks that we live. Had she survived we might well have been eaten, starved, or died any number of other ways by her fumbling with our frail forms. I know it’s silly, but. I still would like to have known her. Even if. Some of the tamed feral dragons are very sweet.” She was crying a bit. “We know so little of the one’s who saved us too. I’ve asked to meet them. I really want to thank them, and ask, what she was like. How pretty she was, how gloriously she fought, but they live very far north, and only bits of the great tale have made it to us. I’m sure they would be terribly uncomfortable. I’m sure I would be to, and yet.” She shook her head.
Kiannae stumbled then. In she hand been in deeping shock for several moments, and kept walking absently as the pieces slid into place. In her distracted state she missed a tree root and tripped. She barely reacted in time to put out her hands and catch herself, and wound up on her knees, staring at the marks her hands had left in the featureless ground. Everyone around her stopped for a moment, and turned to watch as Nor offered to helped her back to her feet.
“Are you alright?” Nor asked kindly her hand held out with a childish sheepishness, as though she somehow felt she was to blame, but had no idea how.
“I’m…fine,” Kiannae said unsteadily, took the hand, and tremblingly spoke as she stood, “please…continue, tell me what you have heard.”
“If you wish,” Nor said hesitantly. “I know not what concern it is of yours, but I do not mind sharing. It is quite a tale.” She seemed almost excited, but gave Kiannae concerned glances. “Among the greatest I have read, which I fear I have only pieces to tell. It is said two young girls, twins of remarkable ability defied their mentor, and in the dead of night went off to slay a troublesome dragon on their own.”
Kiannae stopped, and started crying then, she tried not to, but she couldn’t believe what she was hearing, or who was walking next to her. She had thought the universe could find no new ways to mock her. She looked at Nor, who seemed as confused as Kiannae had been not long before. “And one died,” Kiannae offered tersely.
“No,” Nor said meeting Kiannae’s incredulous expression with her own. “One did not die. That is not the tale I have been told.”
“I can’t imagine there were two dragons up in Avrale,” Kiannae snapped, tears streaming down her face in fury. “That two pairs of twin girls went off in the dead of night to try…” She stopped, and failed to steady herself. The cracks spreading through her world view. Through everything she had lived her life by for three years. “I was there, one died!” She yelled for all to hear.
Nor was silent a moment, slowly realizing what was being implied, her own afront at Kiannae’s behavior receding under her own impossible picture of the young woman who stood before her. “I do not know all the details, but I can say a few with certainty. There were injuries, and illness for one daughter. The other’s fate I was always told nothing of. Unknown, lost. If I were to take your assertion… No. Because the daughter of Avrale, she was announced as a Council Mage, honored and whispered about just this winter, and could not have traveled so far south in that time. No, I have never been told one died, but only hinted that one lives most spectacularly. That she…faces the world without fear. Was how Sha said it last.”
Everyone was already staring at the scene as Kiannae faltered, and Nor caught her. She had not tripped that time, but simply given way under the strain of what she was being told. Shadow sniffed at her nervously.
“Please say it again,” Kiannae said meekly, unable to look up at Nor. Still not believing it, still wanting to hear the words clear as day, and yet all the more ready to not believe a ‘dragon that lies.’ “Say it again. That one did not die,” she demanded almost fiercely.
Sha’riva stepped closer. “One was gravely wounded in the fall, ill for some unknown time, but not dead. A sickness of mages, I have heard. One was noted missing in the east, and otherwise unmentioned,” she confirmed, as everyone gathered around. “I should say yes, the other girl lives spectacularly. Defying men and dragons without shame or fear. As some of our great Queens are so remembered. A child my Queen has joked to steal away, if such fine women are to be found, instead of the men the council keeps sending her. There is no way you are her. If not a matter of timing, then a description of a short, silver haired girl, pale and freckled. I have read the transcript of her announcement as a full fledged Mage of the Council. Though I am not clear why it was circulated, or crafted with such seeming spite.”
Kiannae looked up at the woman, but no words came to her. The vision mocked her. She glanced to Nor, who seemed to be having equal trouble coming to grips with the situation. “I give you my thanks, daughter of Avrale,” she finally said looking Kiannae in the eye. “What might have been, if not for you and your sister is unclear.” Any former apprehension about her actual feelings seemed to melt under her innocent earnestness. As so unexpectedly her feelings were put to actual test. “Perhaps more of my brood might have lived, but just as likely all of us would have been destroyed in a grander fight. I am told your sister showed my mother honor. That she fought alone, that no other lives might be lost.”
“She’s alive,” Kiannae finally said. “Katrisha is alive?” she demanded, taking hold of Nor fiercely, tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Sha never told me your names,” Nor said, holding up her hand to Sha’riva, that she might speak, “only the story. She thought it a good way to keep me from pestering others about you. Your reaction told me what I can still hardly believe. I am sorry for the grief that you must have suffered, yet I am glad to repay you in this small way. To tell you, yes – by all I know, by Sha’s word, and that of the Council, your sister lives.”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Coria 30th, 650 E.R.
Kiannae had been left in such shock as to force the whole procession to stop, and make camp for the day, and through another night. She walked tiredly the next morning, having barely slept. She had nearly run into the night many times, and had been stopped only by the keen eyes of the night watch that were always on here. When Landri had spoken to her in private she had promised, that as soon as the source had been investigated, that the course Kiannae had set them too was seen through, when it was determined if anything could be done, she would be given an escort north.
This reasoning settled into her bones. It felt necessary. That everything had brought her to that point. That everything had been for a purpose, however mad. She had convinced the others of their course, and remained certain it was the right one. Yet the specter of a part of the prophecy she thought long past hung over her with a terrible weight. One disaster at a time. Her uncertain hypotheses that the blight was a threat to the whole world was the kind of thing that such prophecy could be built upon.
She could not turn back. She could not even bring herself to have a message sent. Not until she had seen it through. In a small corner of her heart though, there was a bargain struck. A terrible one. If this was the juncture that all things lead to. If this was where prophecy was fulfilled. If she did not take the unenvied place in those dire portents, she would not accept the implication that Katrisha would.
When shock had worn off, when prophecy was for a moment set aside, fear of returning nipped at the edges of any desire to go. She dreaded returning, after the mistake she had made. After abandoning her sister for dead. She could not forgive herself, and as such could not imagine anyone else doing so. She was pulled from her trouble musings however, when the group came to a sudden stop.
For a moment Kiannae thought they had turned, but as she looked behind them, and then far west she saw they had come to a tight turn in the edge of the sacred land. More pronounced than any branch they had passed. In the west the blight could be seen cutting up the faces of foothills in several broad swaths that touched the edge of distant mountains. It looked to her eyes like a corner of a picture she had seen drawn in a book. A manifestation of a mathematical set. All at once it offered a perspective, even that more than half a month of travel could not on the scale of the blight. The gray dead land stretched to the horizon ahead, and even mountains it seem did not stop it. It stretched several horizons behind her. She swallowed, suddenly intimidated by the true majesty of her enemy, and her smallness in all things. Yet prophecy it seemed promised her a role. She did not want the one to be a queen.
She smirked at the thought of forcing fate to accept Katrisha to that role instead. A tear ran down her cheek, but she laughed silently all at once. She had not asked, and yet in her heart she knew what facing men and dragons without shame or fear had been used to disguise. She had read books on the ancient Queen’s of Storms, and their often nearly burlesque sense of fashion. A stray thought considered why then it had been so disguised, but as she caught the now sheepish, almost reverent glance of a two year old that looked like a full grown woman. She found she needed to repress a more forceful laugh. No, that would be a thing to avoid encouraging her to copy. She had seen her fair share of defiant two year old children of the court escape and run naked through the halls without such inspiration.
“From here we must cross the blight,” Sha’riva said after time to appreciate what they faced had passed. “There on the horizon, that dark line is the source. I shall not describe it, for your own eyes will tell you soon enough. It is eight miles in. Too far for you to ever do much good studying it, if to not camp at its side. Our people, I to my displeasure, have stayed at the inner boundary without harm for many nights. Come.”
“Isn’t this the inner boundary?” Kiannae asked uneasily, as the procession started again.
“No,” Sha’riva said plainly, and offered a sense she would give no more.
As they walked the marker stones became clear first. Tall spires of grey granite that rose up out a matching land, each etched with intricate lines. They were nothing like the ones Kiannae had seen before, not beneath the tower on Broken Hill, nor on their travels through the blight.
“They are like the stones in central Osyrae,” Landri said curiously, divering the party, and walking up to one. She traced one of the lines, looked at her fingers, and brushed stone dust from them. “I did not know there were any others like the Osyrean stones in the world.”
“There are a few,” Sha’riva offered.
“Where?” Landri pressed.
“Corinthia, the old capital. A circle of these stones were beneath the highest tower of the royal academy. Where Roshana herself ascended. A few others through the courtyards of the capital. They still stand, after everything. Though most are buried beneath ancient rubble. According to legend there are even stones like these built into the foundations of the city of Mordove, and the Citadel of the Sun, far north in the High City. Yet no one in living memory has seen those relics. Just legends, and rumors. Such that supposedly the seven greater pillars of the Clarion grand assembly chamber mark the stones far beneath.”
“I’d never heard,” Landri said curiously.
“We of the line of dragons maintain knowledge lost to some,” Sha’riva said measuredly. “Yet, however unusual, these are not so strange as what lies ahead.” She pointed at the distant dark shapes past more scattered stones.
The party continued, but after another mile Kiannae felt Shadow fall back, and realized than Lunka had done so some time before. She gestured for Shadow to follow, and reluctantly the wolf did. Though after only another few dozen feet she felt the wolf stop again, and turned once more only to hear murmuring behind her.
The druids had all gathered around something, and Kiannae moved to see what the commotion was. It was a pool of black, almost like a puddle, like a blob of the magic she had used to fight the fungus in the north.
“It is spreading,” the old dragonborn said deeply displeased.
Kiannae looked up again to the horizon, and realized that for some time she had been looking down, fixing her gaze unreasonably on the feet if tgise in front of her. As though afraid to look ahead. Another hundred feet was what no longer looked like a puddle, but a mound, lumpy, and amorphous. Beyond that, a taller one. From a distance they had blended in among the dark gray marker stones, but suddenly they were plain to see.
It rose all around ahead, growing spires of something terrifying, dark twisted masses that survived, or endured even at the heart of the blight, even consumed in shadowy auras of entropy. The most terrifying evolution of the fungus. A thing that defied all convention. The deathlyness of the area, the chill in the air, the pull towards the center like standing on a hill, one leaned just a bit away was palpable. It did not need to be communed with, it imposed, and opressed. All felt it, and the wolves wanted no part.
“This is an abomination,” Tora said uneasily. “I have never felt such…nothingness, and yet…”
“Such it is,” Sah’riva said. “I have been made to come here many times, with others, to seek the cause. To understand. Each time I wish to return less. The growths, if you can call them that, have begun just in the last last months, perhaps as early as the fall.””
“Have those that came before learned nothing?” Landri asked.
“Not much for certain, just theories, speculation,” Sah’riva said disheartened. “Ahead lies a great ley line nexus, one where seven meet. You must see what lies there with your own eyes.”
The party moved forward slowly. As the terrible shadowy shapes rose higher, and branches began to stretch over the path of the party. All hesitantly edged around their looming shadow, that seemed almost like they had not been there before. Tiny specks of scintillating darkness could be seen at times to wander between growths, but always in the distance. Sometimes stopping, and giving and impression they watched back if one looked at them too long.
“It is like a mockery of life,” Tora said uneasily. “As though…this darkness has copied the likeness of things that once lived here.”
Then they came upon seven spires of inky branching shadow, and seven marker stones dwarfed in their shadow, a line etched in the world between them, and lines spiraling inward to a point. Some moved hesitantly toward the line, others away.
“The center,” the guide said plainly, but with a pained expression. “It only grows north, and west,” the dragonborn said, looking south east past the blighted center, towards a high mountain peak. “Away from the Throne of Storms. One could propose that it fears her power. Certainly that is the tale she would tell. Yet this, here, is at the edge of that power. These hundred miles we’ve crossed south, a political boundary, beyond the absolute domain of our Queen. Set, by our Empress. The real reason Niven hates dragons so much. Past occupation is one thing, but an eternal decree of the Treaty of Mordove, set in stone, by an Empress who renounced her throne. That is a grudge to be held far longer.”
“So this started to appear, after I started to cure the forest in the north?” Kiannae grimaced.
“Correlation does not equal causation” the dragonborn intoned. “Yet, that such exists, yes, it is plausible from the timings I have heard.”
“It already looks like it is made out of the very focused entropy I used to cure the trees, I can’t imagine it will respond the same.”
“So that was the method, interesting. We have not yet received a full brief from the Council. To some agitation. Your method starved it out?”
“Accelerated temporarily,” Kiannae answered. “I think it starves itself out.”
“Yes, not much use there. This has already starved as you say, and yet, it has returned.” She shook her head.
“I do not like it here,” Nor said with sudden urgency, and her youth for a moment showed more plainly in her voice, and her frightened child like expression.
“Yes, we go,” Sah’riva said flatly. “There is nothing we can do here that has not been tried before, or much we can tell you we have not already, and is not quite obvious. We will leave you druids to your work. Leave if you fail, but do tell us if you find something of use.”
Tora looked as though she wished to protest the dragon’s departure, but kept her peace as they walked away. Nor, and each of her brothers stopped as they passed Kiannae, and silently nodded to her again in turn, and then walked on without further pause.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
There was a light like the setting sun, and a figure, small in stature stood before it, long dark hair cascading over a pale robe. “Did you mean for this?” It was a child’s voice, speaking into the light. Demanding answers. “Was I part of the plan? You never taught me to play this game.”
“Who?” Kiannae asked, sitting upright, and staring at the silhouette of the child.
“This is my burden. I would have fixed it.” It had such a childish quality. Like an excuse given for not cleaning one’s room.
“Wren?” Kiannae asked nervously, as birds flocked about the child’s feet, and one landed on a narrow shoulder.
“I always did like the little birds,” the child laughed, and glanced to the the fidgeting bird on their shoulder. “No, nothing so simple. You need to learn to let go. You have other burdens to bare. Someone needs to put it all back together. When this is all done. Worship cannot be where it starts, but reverence will do.”
The child turned, a flash of blue eyes, slit like a cat’s, glimmering in the shadow the figure cast. A bird fluttered off. Two short steps brought the child closer than they could have by scale, and a hand was offered. “You accepted me. Didn’t you? I know it wasn’t the answer you wanted, but please?”
“Wren?” Kiannae pressed again with tears in the corner of her eyes. It was such a small child, but she was almost sure. Almost, but not quite.
“I am, that I will be. One vessel, or the next. What is in a name?”
“Everything,” Kiannae answered with more fury than she expected. “Meaning, is in a name. The parts are more than the sum of the whole. Remembering, is more than knowing. It matters.”
A curious, clever, and yet innocent smile crept across the child’s lips. “It is good we are on the same page. Accept. Pass this mantle. Have the fate you deserve, not the one others have taken. Fates, no one sensible wants. Death has become a door, and every door has a maker. Yet here lay all the doors cast asunder. To know that all is one, has power. Remember this. Yet beware. For to know all as one, is to become nothing.”
Kiannae took the child’s hand, and felt a great power rush out of her. The child was gone, and silver hair flowed like liquid satin in a world where gravity had ceased to be. A halo danced, and arced around a woman’s head, a crescent silver moon in translucent eclipse at dawn. A shadow loomed over it all, a claw cut at runes woven so tightly they could only be seen as they tore.
“Where there is light, there are shadows. Where there is hope, there is suffering. We do not struggle to live, we live to struggle. What is done, is over, what is over, can only be remembered.” It was not clear who’s voice spoke, it seemed a discordant but placid whisper. Shadows stood around a column of light, hands, claws, so many things reaching for a power too great for any one to command. Kianane set her hand as well against the impenetrable barrier. A face turned to greet her sadly, as it always had. As she should have recognized.
“Every vision remembered, must first be seen.” It was her own voice, but she was quoting something she could not remember. Her eyes tore from the sight before her, and to a sky, cut with ribbons of light that merged to one point. Parts of a spell. A pattern like a fingerprint. Any two mages casting the same spell would be different. Her perspective pulled back, and she could almost see it. Almost begin to imagine working backwards to a function. Yet she knew the shape of her magic, and the shape of her twins, and she had seen the result of Katrisha stealing one of her spells.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Coria 31st, 650 E.R.
“No,” cried out in a tiny muted voice. It was barely a squeak, but the emotions behind it were as plain to the girl who spoke, as their reasons obtuse. She was angry. It had been a defiant refusal. A command, more than a plea.
Kiannae woke fully in the night, sat up, and looked around frantically trying to figure out why. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. Visions danced through her head, barely resolved to anything. Shadows of figures, eyes, and flowing hair blending together, the slippery substance of dream that threatened to remain, rather than retreat into nothing, as she tried her barings again on the nightmarish place she had dared to fall asleep.
The druids had reluctantly camped beneath a standing stone, and deep within the blight. Walking eight miles back out, just to reach the edge of the forest was deemed impractical. No one liked the idea of sleeping in the blight, let alone so near the heart of it. Not after what had happened to Kiannae the previous summer. Not after seeing what it was becoming. Yet every druid had resolved to the course. If they could be a part in ending the abomination, then they would take the small risk of sleeping beneath the looming specter of doom.
All was calm, and still. The night watch taking turns poking one another if they nodded off. Then came a howl on the wind. A concordant wail, that became discordant voices, from which snippets of meaning threatened to emerge. The night watch glanced around only absently at the wind.
“Can’t you hear that?” Kiannae demanded fiercely. The druids gave her funny looks, and one seemed to strain to listen, but finally shook his head, even as the whispers grew louder. Both druids were suddenly on guard when a stiff breeze rolled in from seemingly nowhere, and swept over the camp, and ribbons of fog moved among forms. Kiannae stood up, and then deathly still as the direction of the wind continued to change, and swirl about, slowly escalating.
Other druids began to wake as the breeze grew stronger, and more turbulent. “What is going on?” Tora demanded as she fully came to in the growing commotion.
“I don’t know,” one watch druid said nervously looking around.
“Don’t look at me,” the other said, and pointed at Kiannae. “It all started shortly after she woke.” Then the whispers came again, in a voice filled with hate, but words no one could identify. The other druids could clearly hear it this time, as all looked around with renewed terror.
“It’s like the sound of the dryad grove,” Landri said nervously. “Is this cursed place a forest of ancestors, taken by the abyss?”
“No,” Kiannae said, “no I recognize this voice,” she said finally certain of what she was hearing. He had said she was dying, that she had come apart, and the pieces were burning. “Please,” she whispered under her breath. “Please Taloe, don’t fight her alone. Let me help. Let me help end this. There are two of us, and one of her.”
All the druids scrambled backwards as mists blew in on the breeze towards the center of the blight, and two forms tumbled from it fully formed, and struggled in their midst. “She’s too strong,” Taloe yelled, as her form swirled away in shadows. He staggered to his feet, looking around desperately, until he was thrown face first to the ground by a mass made out of shadow, that stepped over him like a lump in the earth, and then rushed at Kiannae.
It was a mockery of a figure, striking fiercely against her with vicious but ineffective blows, holding her to the ground. It was a faceless gnawing thing of crackling shadows, and burning fissures. Ideas of gangly teeth emerging at odd angles in a snapping jaw. It hissed and wailed like the wind, and Kiannae threw it off forcefully, and stumbled back up. It swirled away, dissipated, and even as Taloe struggled back to his feet, a claw lashed across his back. His body crumpled to the ground, tattered, and torn. Gashes reached deeper than bones that were not there. His breaths, his trembling steaming form fragments of a humanity he was clinging to. That washed away on the wind. Inward, towards the center.
If a god’s dreams are worlds, which live and die. Then in their nightmares lay the things inbetween. The little horrors that never end. Wars and monsters, cruelties and failures. If a mad spirit where to cobble herself back together of the substance of all that is hate, all that represented what she had become. One could begin to describe the form that resolved from steaming black mist, at last into a twisted broken woman whose eyes were dark circles before the burning sun. Her right hand had become the claw of a dragon, made of lightning and swirling midnight seas. It was held out, pointing with hooked claw toward Kiannae. Horns coiled above her head, arcs of energy jumping about and between them. Her feet dug with talons into the dead soil, and tattered robes hung off her skeletal form.
A beak for a mouth squawked one word in a forgotten tongue, and yet every soul present understood. Even to hear it spoken nearly stopped hearts, and shook towering growths of shadowy tumors nearly from their trunks.
Her snear only deepened when this power failed to do more than stun, and intimidate. She leapt at Kiannae again with fury, who rolled quickly out of her path, lightning crackling around the spirit’s impact, the dirt buckling beneath the strike. Her power had grown, she was no longer striking like an angry child, but like a force of nature. Like an elemental made of spells, and the fury of an enraged shaman. She was the union of three, maybe more practices, a thing that had never before existed in living memory. A true master of them all. The spells were like keys and locks, closing most of the power of world to her, and her alone.
There is no more clear declaration of war, than the decree of death. To order a sentence of oblivion upon an enemy. If Landri was no warrior, it did not matter, she understood who was her enemy, and struck mercilessly with lighting. A technique she had never shown to Kiannae, but Kiannae suspected she knew, that she had found on her own, and watched quickly go awry.
Another hand struck out, and grabbed the lighting like little more than a limp whip, ripped power up through the earthing around the woman, and knocked her from her feet before striking at Kiannae who took control of the growing energy, or at least tried. A crackling ever growing orb of light hung between them, until it grew blinding even to closed eyes, before lashing into the ground, and sending a shockwave that knocked even the apparition from its feet. The spirit tumbled up more gracefully than Kiannae who felt like she had been punched in every inch of her body at once, her ears ringing as she staggered up.
Two druids rushed the spirit, and tried to take hold of it, only to be thrown off violently. Taloe charged out of the mist, grabbed hold of the spirit, lifted her above his head, and ran staggeringly into the heart of the blight, towards the great circle of dark spires, and marker stones. Lighting cracked and struck wildly off the spirit which flailed, and thrashed, turning for moments partly to mist, but caught in his grip kept falling back into her flailing form. He was using their solid shapes as an anchor, and holding her by hers, dragging her away from the camp.
Kiannae dashed after wincing, and barely deflecting random arcs of energy striking around her. Painfully aware of the reality that every strike she caught was one that had hit its mark a moment ahead, an ache that told her when, and how, as long as she could exert enough will to keep trying, she could keep going. She staggered though as a hand grabbed her arm.
“What are you doing? What have you done? How?” Landri growled, clearly staggered by what the spirit had done to her.
Kiannae ripped free, however glad she was to see Landri up, and ran after again. The flailing spirit broke free in mist as she got close, which came down like a massive claw, and crushed the boy to ribbons of swirling light that rolled away towards the center. The broiling mass twisted back into the spirit’s corrupted form, and Kiannae looked dubiously at the heart of the blight just ahead. Taloe had not just been carrying her away. He had been taking her there, to an open abyss in the world. If she had nearly been destroyed by the aether, could the nether take her?
Yet it was an even more dangerous idea. For as she had been told, ley line nexuses were places with ‘slight advantages to grand acts.’ Those words had always struck with her. Slight, but slight is relative. Potential is exponential. The tiniest amount more at the high ends, can be tremendous.
The spirit charged her again, and she charged back, throwing a risky spell through the spirit, and rolling sideways and past. She could feel it swirl back into being behind her, staggered, but confused as Kiannae charged further into the heart of the blight. Kiannae spun again to face her opponent, but the spirit strode towards her purposefully, slowly, arcs of lighting and shadow striking out along pillars that twisted and grew, branches forming a canopy, a curtain which bound the rules of that place. All magic, all elements were locked away from any command but the spirit’s.
Kiannae found herself backing towards the far trunk of one of the massive pillars of darkness. Yet there on the ground beside it lay a fragment, a fallen branch of a tree made of shadow. Broken off as it had been forced into new growth. She could feel in her bones that the elements belonged to the spirit. She did not trust magic. One set of skills seemed left. She ducked again as the spirit lunged. It collided with a shriek into a shadowed tree that split, and spilled ribbons of granular darkness. They coiled around the spirits form, lightning crackling from fissures that opened between.
Kiannae clutched the crooked branch in her hand, its icy cold reaching into her very bones, and yet she felt she could endure it. The next lunge was parried, the monstrous elemental tumbled off effortlessly, and back to her feet with easy grace.
<FOOLISH BLOOD OF VALES. TIME DOES NOT CHANGE. MEDDLE IN ALL BEYOND KEN.>
To call them mere words would belittle them. Every syllable was a spell that served only a single purpose, to be understood. This power was insidious, for in such clear understanding, it carried command. Meaning was granted by power, not the other way around.
Kiannae doubted the merits of arguing with her opponent, but she’d never been one to shy from taunting in a spar. “We are all kin. Mortal and elemental, the trees and the stones beneath our feet. Let alone two peoples, and a love that transcended such foolish lines,” she tried. The first charge the spirit brought, had been for her reviving the love of a young man, whose affections had once tipped off a genocidal war over nothing. It seemed the one thing she might taunt it with.
<ILLUSIONS.> A bolt of lighting was parried before another direct strike gripped the branch, and threw Kiannae tumbling across the ground, having lost her grip under the force she was flung.
<LITTLE DREAMS OF LITTLE SOULS.>
Kiannae rolled back to her feet, as her improvised weapon boiled off in embers and ribbons of fire and shadow. She spirit looked from this, to her. There was that prickling sense of ants crawling on skin, and the smell of ozone. It wasn’t Kiannae, and she braced herself, reaching out, trying to grab hold of what was coming. The light was blinding, Kiannae closed her eyes tightly. Holding onto the power she was attempting to wrest control of from the spirit.
The few druids, Landri included, who had dared follow to the edge of the heart looked on squinting, and holding spread fingers before their eyes. There was a ball of energy hung before Kiannae, sending out massive tendrils of lighting at prominences around her. Ribbons of plasma sometimes washing off the more enduring coils. She was a dark shadow cast in blinding light, the spirit a shimmering translucent thing that looked for once like what is was indeed a thing made of only water, polluted with inky streaks of darkness.
Kiannae felt the power from the dream. The anchor that let her stand defiant to the spirit. That let the spirit stand defiant to her. They each had the will to rip the world apart, over that power, rather than given in. Was the blight the beginning, or the end of the journey? The root or the sea. They were one thing, and neither. They were the middle. An accidental center around which the flailing dance of prophecy had unfurled. A root indeed, a lake, or a forest. Not a tree, but a vine putting down new roots. The eye of a storm, and the harshest winds at the forefront. It had built. It was the sun, driving creation, and the sea sturing beneath winds driven by such power. There were seven paths two and from that moment. Seven worlds from each of these. Seven streams. Seven children standing at every beginning and end. Roots and branches, tributaries and deltas. It spiraled into something like infinity, but it had a count, and end. It promised so many. All the better or worse worlds.
The water had not been a key in the lock. She was the key in the lock. The key to all the locks, or the lock to all the keys. The keys themselves needed to be turned. The spirit had taken them, hand used them to control the elements, but she had lost some control to attack. Kiannae understood the precipice on which she stood. She had not been specific. Friend, lover…rival, enemy…teacher.
She was furiously angry. She knew the power in the heart of her. Just a shadow, stolen. An idea that had become an element. A manifestation of hatred made of potential entropy. Debts not yet paid. Debts well past due. Like using an opponent’s inertia in a spar. A thief had stolen a tragedy, a failure in a grand design. A key in a lock in an open door. Yet the power itself was the liability. Fighting over it was all that was holding the mad thing up. Kiannae felt all that it had taught her, all that it could yet teach her. She felt it, and let it go. She threw the power from the dream out of her, into the crackling energy, thrusting all of it back upon a spirit that staggered under the blow, but seemed to grow and twist in stature.
Two wolves charged into the fray, and grabbed the arms of the stunned spirit, tearing her into two swirling masses of shadow, that flailed apart in half. The wolves were thrown off by her struggles. The halves thashed, coiled and twisted across the ground, broiled, and grotesquely stumbled back up each onto two feet. What was one, having become two.
“Oh that’s not fair,” Kiannae muttered, no longer half as convinced of her stupid plan, of her grand understanding. So much of it had gone with the power. Yet she could feel another power clinging to her hand, and up her arm. With the sweep of her wrist a smooth hooked stave of shadow formed, and crackled with energy around it. It felt like a memory, of something that had rested in her grasp for years. She barely glanced at it. It was a memory. Whatever she had given up was knowing, but that did not mean there were not memories. Feelings, ideas, insights, however fragmented.
<SUFFERING. ONLY SUFFERING IS REAL.> One spirit squawked, as the wolves became embroiled with the other. It seemed almost a direct challenge to Kiannae’s frame of mind. One clearer than she ever felt she had been. Not, clear sighted of the nature of reality. Clear of herself, who she was, who she was willing, and determined to be. There had been a tilting of the world, slowly, escalating. Like a hill growing ever steeper, and the spirit could have fallen into Kiannae almost so much as rushed her. Pushing her completely back onto the defensive as blows with claw or fist each shook her conjured staff.
The spirit caught hold of her weapon, ripped her from her feet, and the very power that had conjured the staff from her hand, throwing her tumbling over the ground towards the center. The spirit crushed the stave to dust in her claw, swirled forward, and grabbed Kiannae by the shoulder with the same terrible instrument. She squeezed fiercely, talons tearing through the enchantment of her robe, and into her flesh that fought back. The arm lifted her off the ground, letting the weight of her drive the claw deeper.
If it was magic or the elements Kiannae could not say, but she threw the spirit off with enough force to crush the base of a pillar of shadow where she hit. She felt the elements shift, creating a crack in the spirits absolute control, and a sway in Kianna’s favor as she blasted the spirit with a bolt of lightning, only to be thrown from her feet, tackled from the side as the other spirit broke free of the wolves.
The wolves charged again, and tried to tear her off Kiannae, her flailing form only partly split, but threw the dark wolf off with terrible force. He collided with a pillar of shadow to a sickening crack, and barely a yelp as the pillar broke, and fell under the impact, washing over him with darkness that consumed the land. The elements shifted again, further away from the spirits absolute control.
“Shadow,” Kiannae said with sudden tears, and furiously lashed at the spirit that still struggled under Lunka’s grasp. It tore to shreds, which woved back together, several feet away, her stance falling into what Kiannae read confusingly as a defense, not the begging of an attack. Taloe tore past her grabbed hold of the spirit and threw her to the ground, at the dead center of the blight. Where deepening lines in the dead land converged to a sinking point. Lunka tried to charge after her, but was blown back by a bolt of lighting which sent the wolf clear of the center, and Taloe a hundred feet up before crashing down far to the left side of the circle.
Kiannae charged at the spirit with a howl of her own unintelligible fury, striking with blows that carried a force of wind that could cut the monstrous form to ribbons. She staggered under the blows, and then leaped away from Kiannae at the limp spirit, only to be thrown from the air mid leap by a hulking thing of spines and shadows. The two forms were thrown apart in their tumble, and a spirit and wolf now each massive crouched toward one another, ready to strike again. The wolf that had perhaps once been Shadow now more clearly resembled the name. A thing of shimmering midnight scales, and swirling mists of darkness, that coiled over long spines that grew from joins. His eyes were blue, and glowed, slit like a cats. Those eyes spared barely a glance to the tiny girl that lay behind the massive monster who’s form ever more resembled a dragon.
The wolf’s eyes were not his own, and yet, somehow they were. Like his sisters. Like the child from the dream. It had become more idea than thing. A thing that might have had a name. A legend, a vision perhaps long past. Lycos. The wolf god. For which other legends were named. ‘The land and the faith are one.’ It was not a memory she had been meant to keep. It was supposed to be forgotten. It almost lacked context, even to know the scraps of history and story she had been told. Sorting books, Moriel, Mercu, and visions apart became impossible. It all might as well have been a single tale she had read alone on a rampart, and it brought tears to her eyes.
A tale of two Queens who rose at the dawn of Kings, and the wolf that stood by their side. Prophecies, and choices. Roots, and branches. Echos through history. It was a parting gift, a story left carlessly behind like a name. Of how a faith took the name of a land, that demanded that very faith returned. Defiance, self determination, life. Symbols have power. Names have meaning. Those wolves, that wolf, was that power. The other..others, so many things were accidental gifts. Kind follies, madness that knew precisely what it does. There were no coincidences, but there were choices. Moves matched in turn. The choices though had all been made, the moves run out, and all that was left was gravity.
The two rushed together like flailing clawing snapping monsters, till lighting and shadow, water and air, boiled around one another, and forms came apart. Plasma and ice joined rivlets of liquid silver suspended in a power collapsing in on itself. The world felt like it tumbled over on itself.
Kiannae felt like she was falling, like the world was spinning. The horizon rolled out of view, and lightning cracked across the battlefield. Every druid outside but Landri ran, but found they could not keep their footing. Great stones tore from the ground, and pillars of shadow tipped and tumbled. Crashed into each other, broke, and shattered. Kiannae tried to take hold of it all, as everything began to swirl around a common center. The eye of a storm of stolen energy trying to return to an unknown baseline.
The center of the blight buckled and sunk, lines in the dirt that had tried to shake flat etched deeper, and the the broiling mass of clashing energy crashed through the world with a terrible shuddering shockwave. The ground heaved up, great mounds of loosely separated dirt came apart at the seams cut in them, fused almost like stone, shapes like fractured black glass, and then it all fell. The center of the blight returned to grains of loose dirt that shifted and tilted inward.
Great stones crashed to the ground with reverberating thuds as gravity returned. Some tilting, some falling on their sides, a few nearly upright. Kiannae fell to the ground, and felt like she weighed five times more. Every movement sluggish, like moving through molasses under a terrible weight. She struggled up onto her hands, braced upright as a river of light formed in ribbons from her left, and others flowed in all around her. The ground was trembling, and the tilting feeling was returning, but in earnest. The great divot left in the land became steeper by the moment.
She felt for the first time since she had let go that the power was truly gone. Like her strength had been given, and yet like she had put roots down into the soil. She could feel the pit itself, a shadow on the edge of her awareness, far beneath the shifting ground. She looked past the ever recurring patterns etched in the land, and recognized the simpler shape to it. The look of the sand in an hourglass starting to run down the center. Rivers of energy flowed in along the creases, becoming streams, filaments spiraling towards the abyss. The thickets river though was to the left, and as she looked, it flowed from a limp form slumped there on the sinking hillside.
She threw herself to her feet defying a weight that felt like her bones could crack under it. She dashed across the collapsing battlefield, with lumbering steps, and grabbed hold of him, trying desperately to pull him away from the center.
“Taloe,” Kiannae yelled, her ears still ringing from the thunderous clap, and trying to drag him away, even as it became apparent she was barely keeping him in place, her own feet digging tracks in the ground as she was pulled along with him toward the pit. It all spiraled out before her. Everything that she had tried, and failed. Countless sensible options discarded because she knew they wouldn’t work. Things she had tried with far more power at her back, power she had just maddeningly given up. She couldn’t even remember more than two options, that didn’t work, and knew a hundred more wouldn’t, a thousand maybe had been tried. Having eliminated the impossible, she tried the absurd thought that remained..
She slapped Taloe, which made him stir.
“Let me go,” he protested.
“No,” Kiannae growled. “I just found out my sister is alive, and you are going to meet her. You are going to meet them all. I’m not losing you. You don’t get to go, that was the deal, and you are not allowed to break it.”
“I am part of this,” Taloe said hanging his head, but his hand dug into the soil to help stop them.
“You are not a god. You are not some force of nature. That’s my job. You are just a boy, just a stupid kid, just a man who loved two women, rightly or wrongly, only to find himself at the end of his world. I need you to be that. I need you to put all of that, the parts that are really you, into the parts of you that matter, and then I need you to be the elements I command.”
Taloe looked up dubiously at her, and she pulled him forcefully to her, and kissed him, and with the parting of their lips inhaled. The elements were squirly, like the first time she found them. Yet whatever she had lost, they still answered her call, groggily, wearily the wind grew with a breath that refused to relent, a will that defied reality itself to deny it.
A massive claw rose up out of a pit that opened wide in the center of the blight. It crackled with wild bolts of lighting that struck all around, and came down with a terrible thud, and grabbed hold of the lower half of him. He tore in half, coming apart in ribbons of mist and filaments tween two diametrically opposed forces. Parts swirling after a claw that had lost its final hold on the world, parts of him swirling into her.
The mist became water, and filled every space that could be found, weaving into her lungs, her robe, and down her gullet. She staggered up deliriously to her feet under the force of the backlash, and turned almost like she was struck away from the collapsing pit. She scrambled, and stumbled up the shifting hillside, and there at the top saw Landri her face stricken, not understanding half of what she had seen. Shadows, and light, a girl and a spirit, and a ghost tossed around. Wolves struggling with formless nightmares, and then only a girl that then remained scrambling up a collapsing pit towards her.
Kiannae got right to the lip, and caught Landri’s hand to be pulled over, hacking and coughing as biology caught up to a failing consciousness, and absolute will crumbled before human limitations. Every price and cost caught up at once. A woman that had stepped past the door of death, and stollen a single soul from oblivion. Rain fell, and joined the water that spilled from her in the soul. Rain from clouds that roiled in from all directions above a blighted land.
Landri kept dragging Kiannae away from the edge, and slapped her several times when she stopped helping. “Breath you stupid child,” she said striking her again, and Kiannae coughed and took another gasping breath before she went limp.
A light split the night in deafening silence, and Landri only looked up after its most brilliant moment. Others father away were left too blinded by the first flash of to see, even as filtered through her fingers Landri glimpsed a single silhouette, a small form with flowing hair amidst something as bright as the setting sun. Beneath dangling feet grew what looked like a small bolt of black lighting in slow motion.
Grass rolled out beneath the feet, and scrambling hands of the blind and confused druids, replacing dusty dead soil with lush soft new leaves. A bolt of lighting struck down from the sky, through a hole opened in the clouds. The soil itself so charaged it called a final burst of power from the stratosphere, another force struggling for equilibrium.
Landri hid her eyes behind her arm, and yet could see her bones as a light a thousand times brighter than the sun flared for a moment into being, as ears were rendered deaf by a roar like every crack of thunder to ever be. She saw dragons flail, and fight against a gnat that glowed like the sun in amidst twinkles of burned vision. Great claws, and maws of deadly teeth snapping back with blows that sent a scintillating champion tumbling into shatered ground.
She saw death through her own bones, and skin. Hear a terrible voice command the dead to rise, with a word that could not be refused, as the world trembled beneath another far greater power. She could not decided if she saw the face of her god Thaea, or an abomination that ran against all she could ever have before believed, and yet she worshiped that face as one in the same in the core of her heart. A truth that she could never forget, or entirely remember.
Then darkness returned, and through blinking speckled vision she adjusted to no more than a moonlit night, where a tall sapling stood amidst a vast crystal clear pool of sparkling water. There behind the limp girl in her arms.
Rain still falling on the blighted land filled tracks cut through fresh grass, forming rivers across a flat plain. Seven rivers split into seven streams, and seven tributaries, and a great arcane circle stood amidst stones that mirrored it for a mile around, amidst a dead, and barren land that stretched for miles further. Gray dirt turned to black in the rain, and then to a dark, rich, brown mud.
Landri checked Kiannae’s pulse, and breathing. A fleeting wisp of Taloe’s slipped through her vision as she found the girl was alive, however cold and motionless. She looked at the world around her, and again to the girl she so often thought a foolish child, and thought upon all she had seen, or read. The child of the storm, the world spell, the blight. Visions she had only half seen. Ghosts fighting. Dragons and other strange and fleeting forms.
Now a tree sprouted behind this mad child, amid living land that had been dead. Life returning to the heart of a place where only a mockery of it yet stood. A mage who was a druid, who was a stormwalker…
‘They might have simply not known a better name,’ the words mocked her.
Had Ezik known? What had she put herself in the middle of? Absurd conclusions were quickly drowning out reasonable ones that no longer seemed plausible. If the world was a spell, if all of living creation was magic, then a mage who was a druid, could perhaps, just maybe, be a god. It was laughable.
Yet what were the visions she had seen? Not the ones that had haunted the world since before the dawn of the Empire. Not ones that she had seen before. New visions like something seen with her own two eyes. A memory of a vision seen for the first time, and yet she had read the Black Book in her youth, and there found herself haunted by words without sense, and yet matched those vision. They were her visions.
A great flock of little birds flew in from the north, and pecked at the fresh grass, looking for sustenance in the evening of a day that had come and gone far too quickly. Finding none, and no trees to perch in for the night, they flew on, to the south.
“Every vision remembered,” Landri laughed aloud, “must first be seen.” It was the final passage of the Black Book – the Book of Entropy – and yet it was the first time the words had ever been spoken aloud. If one understands that things do not always go in the order we see them. If perhaps before that moment they had never been penned, is a mystery that will have to endure. The past does ever so rarely change, but when it happens, it is very hard to tell.