I knew sympathy, and then I knew rage, and I resolved to cure the world of all of its ills. In magic, I bathed, becoming one with the world itself. In fire, I forged, molding the earth to my needs. In blood, I waded, carving a new world from the old. May my name forever be cursed.
Excerpt: “Hawk: The First Tempest”
I do not open the door. I am afraid of what I am going to find.
I am a thousand years old, and I am as terrified as a child.
I should not be here. I have no reason to know. I have no reason to have come. I should not know what lies on the other side of this door. Yet I do. The spell to which I am still linked forces me to know. I cannot turn away from truth. I am meant to act here; I am sure of it. And it is in my acting that everything will play out as it must, even though I would never have acted had my actions not later caused that which causes me to now act in the first place…
I am being forced to follow a script, but no one has bothered to tell me any of my lines.
So I stand here, trembling, afraid to open a simple door because I do not know what to do. How can I fix this? She is supposed to live, or so I thought. Did I hear wrong? Did my earlier interaction with her lead her to this? Did I change her future, or my own? What happens if I did?
My hand rests on the doorknob, enjoying the thousand excuses that keep it from actually having to turn the knob.
The shadow in the corner quivers, then grows, and slowly, slowly solidifies into the shape of a man. It’s been ten long years, but of course, the dead don’t age. He is still eighteen. He is grey, smoky, blurry, but it is definitely him. It is a specter, every bit as much a ghost as I am, but unlike me he is solid, potent, able to move and act.
He is naked, of course. If I had eyes, I would roll them. He is doing this on purpose.
He ignores me, letting me hover off in my own corner of the room, unable to move, unable to leave. He stretches and rolls his neck, taking a deep breath. Showoff. He settles back onto the balls of his feet, and then springs forward to the bedside. He kneels, and looks at the corpse there.
“I must say, love, you have looked better.”
“Bite me, husband.”
“Overcooked. Too well done. Not to our taste.”
“You took your time.”
“You killed us. We can’t just appear at a moment’s notice, not anymore. You know that. Oh. You don’t know, do you? You never gave us a chance to explain that. Yuu’s Interdiction. The reason for this entirely overly complicated plan in the first place. It’s a really funny story, actually…”
“Shove it. Send me to her, or claim me for yourself. I’m done. You win. Do whatever the hell you want.”
Even in my incorporeal state, even in his hazy form, I can see the hurt on his face. My words stun him like a physical blow. He slowly stands and turns from the corpse. He turns towards me, and looks at me for the first time since he appeared. “Was your life really so unbearable? Did we really wound you that much?” He doesn’t actually walk over and gently lay a finger across my cheek. I don’t have a cheek, and he doesn’t really have a finger. I get the image of it though, the meaning behind his words, the emotion filling them, powered by a god.
I hate it.
“You mean aside from when you tried to kill me? You mean apart from ten years waking up each morning not knowing if an insane goddess would choose today to take me over and burn the world? You mean ten years of blood after blood after blood to fill the hunger of you and your horrible cult? Don’t try to comfort me, Petyr. You no longer have the right.”
“I am tired, Petyr. Tired of all of it, and I just want to rest. Claim me for your own, or send me to her. I don’t care.”
He frowns, and a soft golden glow comes forth from the eyes of the spectre. “Fragile,” is the only word he says. He comes towards where I am floating, reaches through the space that my soul seems to occupy, and grabs something, tightly. He rips it out, and I scream in pain. It is a momentary hurt, but a shocking one. I’d not been able to feel anything since leaving my ruined body behind.
He steps back, and in his hands shines a golden thread. It hangs from his hands, running across the floor, through my old body, and through the wall. I can feel, rather than see, that it continues eastward, off into the far distance, all the way to the end of the world.
Petyr, or Gorgus, or whoever, holds the cord up to his lips and whispers “soon.” Then he releases it. It whips away, back through my corpse, out through the wall, and is gone. I can feel it rushing away, reeling in, all the way back to the taloned hand of the one holding it. And with my final connection to Lovi severed, I feel suddenly empty, much smaller, and oh, so tired.
He holds out his hand, and it is Gorgus’ voice talking. “Come with us. We will give you rest eternal. You never need fear her wrath again.” The glow in his eyes fades, and Petyr speaks. “You don’t have to worry about her, Darsé. Where we’re going, she can never touch you.”
“I want no part of godhood.”
“No, we thought not. We won’t force you. Sleep awaits you. The sleep of the dead. The long peace of night.”
I don’t have tears to sniff back, not anymore. I’m not sixteen anymore, either. I hold out my hand and whisper: “Fine, then. Take me away. I am done with this life.”
I don’t actually take his hand. I don’t have a hand, and he doesn’t really have one to take with it. The image is clear, though, behind my words, the emotion filling them, powered by the soul of a woman.
I am so ready to leave. It is all that I deserve, the best that I can hope for.
I feel his energies surround me, grab ahold of what remains of me. I feel the warmth of the idea of his arm around me, sheltering me. The room about us seems to fade, vanishing around us.
And the door opens, and my grandmother walks in.
Maivierial, forgive me! Do not smite me for my arrogance!
“A moment, mighty Gorgus Coldbreath!”
My words are not words. They are sound, and energy, and the thoughts of a dragon, once a priestess of Maivierial Skyweaver, mother of many, wife of one, daughter of nobility, child of fire and of the sky. They ring through the air, and even a god must pay notice. He does, and he is irritated. He doesn’t even let me ask my question.
“Our answer is no. She is ours. The peace of death is the last gift that we can grant her.”
“My pardon, mighty one, but I believe that her task is not yet finished. Her time is not yet spent.”
“Her body is destroyed. Her soul is freed, and with Yuu’s blessing all souls are ours to claim and grant rest, lest they overrun the world. Her time is done. We have no concern for your limited perceptions of destiny or fate or prophecy. Our duty is to the dead.”
“Not your only duty, noble lord. Forgive me for saying, but your duty brought her to this end. This is not a natural death. The normal rules do not apply.”
Oh, oh my. The smoky, spectral man turns towards me now, and his eyes are glowing. I know that the god’s disdain for mortals is somewhat tempered by the man’s love for the woman, but at the same time the boy’s youthful lust and impulsiveness is a part of the god now. This is a dangerous being, and I wonder that Yuu has allowed him to remain as god of the dead, especially now that I know that he was not the first to wear that mantle.
Oh Maivierial, please forgive my blasphemy. I cannot help myself.
He releases the hold he has on Darsena’s soul, and I can perceive her float aside, helpless; but I also can sense that she is fully aware of everything that is going on. I wonder what she thinks of all of this.
He speaks, and the voice is the voice of a god now. “She is ours by vow and by deed, by marriage and blood and by flesh. Her soul is ours. Do not interfere in our affairs, dragon.”
I position myself so that I am standing between him and the bed. Darsena’s corpse is to my back. I can feel, rather than see, that a thin silver thread, far more fragile than the golden one Gorgus just severed, is still connecting her soul to her body. I stand astride it, place my hands on my hips and tilt my chin upwards, hopefully defiantly. I try not to tremble too much.
Gorgus stares and the eyes of the specter widen. “Why do you stand between us and our prize, daughter of Maivierial? What is she to you?”
“She is my kin, and my blood. Your claim upon her was invalid from before the day she first entered your temple. You had no claim upon her, not upon her body and not upon her soul. Her death violates Yuu’s Interdiction! You cannot have her.”
His eyes erupt in golden brilliance and anger. “Nonsense! She has no more dragon in her than any of those who drink downstairs in the common room. Your claim is baseless! A thousand years have passed since your offspring first whelped! Thirty generations have passed! Their blood is thinned and diluted and spread through the lesser races and it stirs in them not. A gap as wide as the Chasm itself stands between you and this child. You are her ancestor in dry fact only, but not in truth. Do not dare speak to us of Yuu! We deny your claim of kinship.” He reaches out and I can feel his essence grab onto that of Darsena’s again, and he turns away, as if to leave.
“Then I invoke Tun Mao!”
He stops and releases her again. He turns, slowly, stiffly. He stares at me, and I think it’s in astonishment.
I press my advantage. “In the name of Maivierial, as one anointed in her service and in her name, I declare Tun Mao upon this child, and claim her as my own, as a priestess of the Skyweaver in her own right, and as a child of the Dragonhome.”
The way to defeat a god is with another god.
Gorgus staggers back. It’s true! His non-corporeal specter literally staggers back in shock, and I appreciate the detail he’s put into this apparition. In some ways, it is a compliment, not only to Darsena, but to myself, that he has maintained it thus. I bow to him in acknowledgment.
He narrows his eyes. “This is so important to you? You would perform the formalities?”
I roll my own in response. “Yes, fine, if I must.” I reach down and pull forth the small dagger that I keep hidden beneath my belt. I lay the edge firmly against my left palm, and yank the blade away. I do not wince or show my pain. Gorgus watches, hungrily.
I turn towards the blackened and ruined remains of my poor granddaughter, and whisper the words. “Tun Mao. Aethielat Uun Eraalia. Tun Mao. Tun Mao.”
Then I open my hand and sprinkle the pooled blood upon her body.
Gorgus stands, silently, for a few moments, and then speaks. His voice is flat. “So be it. She is your problem now, and your responsibility. Our claim is forfeit, until she passes from this realm through mortal injury or age. Then she will be ours, as are all mortal beings, under the blessing of Yuu.”
“Yuu be praised,” I respond, bowing low to him.
Gorgus turns as if to leave again. I ignore the terrified part of me that screams at me to quit while I’m ahead. “A moment more, if you please.”
He does not turn back. “What. Is. It. Now.” There is a slowly kindling anger behind his words. A threat.
“Begging your pardon, but under Tun Mao, these injuries were a violation of Yuu’s Interdiction. Should you not repair her?”
“You would have me respond to a violation of the Interdiction with another violation? She will live. That will be enough.” And with a wave of his hand, I can feel the spirit of Darsena violently whisked back into her body. Her chest heaves, her limbs flail and she lets out a tortured scream.
“Her body is burned and ruined! She will die without aid! This was your wife’s power! Your power must fix it!”
“She will live. We shall see to that.”
Darsena shrieks, reaching up and clutching at me with red broiled fingers, her lidless eyes wide and terrified and rolling in torment and pain in the blackened skull of her face.
Gorgus smirks. He actually has the gall to smirk at me. I defeated him, but in revenge he has left me with a ruined child, a destroyed woman who, if she does heal, will not be whole for years upon years. In the meantime, she will suffer. Her ruined body will refuse to die, because Gorgus will refuse to let it. And she will feel every moment of ceaseless agony until I am either forced to kill her out of mercy or until she someday heals, and I doubt there will be anything left of the girl I am trying to save after that. And she will die, more likely sooner than later, and be delivered right back into his arms.
Oh, yes, it is well played, but god or not, he has the gall to smirk at me.
I do not think so.
I close my eyes and tilt my chin upwards.
“Maivierial attend me! Your priestess calls upon you! The interdiction is broken and I beseech your aid!” I raise my arms and look towards the ceiling and begin to chant, slowly. “Maiva Maiva Maiva…”
“What are you doing?” Gorgus steps forward, his hand outstretched. “Do not involve her. Do not involve them. They are no part of this!”
“Maiva Maiva Maiva Maiva… uushem!”
“Stop it! Stop it!” I think that’s Petyr’s voice now. The golden glow has faded, and the look on his face is almost pleading.
“Maiva Maiva Maiva Maiva… uushem!”
“No! Cease! Alright! You win! Stop it!”
I do not lower my arms, but I turn my head towards him. All I do is quirk one eyebrow.
He covers his eyes with his hand, and lets out a long breath. “Yes. Yes. Fine.”
He steps past me, further solidifying as he walks, the glow returning to his eyes, and grips Darsena by the shoulders. She rolls and rasps in wordless fear. He grips her tightly, and whispers. I do not hear the words. I block them away. This is not meant for me, or for any mortal ears.
After a time, he steps away again, and I turn to look upon her. She lies, sleeping, but whole. I can detect no obvious wounds upon her, though she still bears numerous old scars all across her legs, her arms, her back. She has a darkening black eye on the right side of her face. I force open her mouth just to verify that her tongue is in one piece. She is bald, her hair having burned away. Its remains lie scattered about her head, like a pillow of burnt pine needles.
“Quite. You do fine work, when you set your mind to it.”
“DO NOT TEMPT OUR PATIENCE, PRIESTESS. ”
“I apologize, sincerely. It is a shame about her hair, though…”
“Yes. Let it stand as a warning to all who would meddle in the affairs of gods.”
I don’t respond. I know when I’ve pushed too far.
Slowly, he fades from view, and I can feel the moment when he is finally gone. The room feels suddenly empty. It is just the girl and me. I turn towards her, and am surprised to see her eyes open, focused on me.
“Why?” she croaks. “Why did you do this to me? Why didn’t you just let me die?”
I sit on the edge of the bed and hold my arms out to her. She grabs me, fiercely, and buries her head into my shoulder. She doesn’t cry. She just holds on, breathing softly. I hold her in silence.
I had thought up an entire lecture while I walked here, about how I told her not to stray from the path, about murder, and killing people and why it was wrong and how foolish it was to enter into deals with gods without knowing all of the details. I look down at my granddaughter, naked and bald and cradled in my arms.
I decide to save it for later.
And now, they are all here.
The mage enters first. His robes are as black as his beard which, like his hair, is closely cropped, the sign of a student. He is as heavy as a post-graduate, though, and he walks with the posture of one who possesses real power, and who expects others to respect it. The woman who walks in behind him also wears the robes and the girth of a powerful mage, her hair as white as the man’s is black. They find an empty table and sit, and I have already poured two glasses of red wine of exceptional vintage from the valleys north of Orb’s Rest by the time Julia walks up with their order. Julia shakes her head with a smile, mutters “I still don’t understand how you do it,” and carries the glasses over to the table.
It’s only moments later that the second group arrives. A middle-aged woman in fine robes enters, trailed by a morbidly obese man in even finer robes. They both wear lord’s chains around their necks. Following them, staring with wide eyes at everything around him is an unremarkable youth, and bringing up the rear is a…
Goddess of Swords, is that a Red Pilgrim?
The man in the grinning red mask walks straight over to me at the bar while the others find an open table. He leans in close, and speaks softly.
“Please, no riddles and formalities. I accept your hospitality, and all that. Are we alright? I have a schedule to keep.”
I frown, but nod, slowly. I look at him a moment, then back at the group at the table. “Keep violence out of my pub, and we will have no quarrel. My hospitality and hearth are open to you.” I point at the youth, seated next to the two Lords. “If you have time, I’d love for you to explain how you…”
One red-gloved hand strikes out across the bar and grabs me by the arm. I spill some of the extremely dry white wine that I knew his group would enjoy. He leans in even closer than before, his face an inch from my own.
“Another word, and I will burn this pub to the ground.”
I don’t like threats, but then, I don’t like legendary ancient horrors standing inches away from me either. I stare back into his eyes.
“Please, release my arm, sir.”
He immediately releases me, steps back, and pulls a silver coin from somewhere under his robes. He lays it on the bar. He whispers, and the voice is suddenly different. It’s softer, and much younger. “I’m sorry. Please, I just need some discretion. It’s important. For all of their sake.” If I didn’t know better, I’d think I heard a note of desperation in his voice.
I carefully pick up the coin, and place it under the bar. “As I said before, keep violence out of here, and we will have no quarrel. You will do well to remember that before overreacting to innocent questions. I might also point out that grabbing random bartenders is hardly the act of someone looking to be discrete.”
“I am sorry. Please accept my apology.” His voice seems even smaller, and younger than before.
“Of course, and I will not meddle in your business.”
He stares at me for a moment longer through that ridiculous mask, then nods, and heads back to where his friends are sitting. Jake catches my eye from the end of the bar, and raises one eyebrow, his hands tightly gripping something under the bar. I shake my head, and wave Julia over. Jake releases his grip on his ax, and goes back to his tinkering, Julia brings the white wine over to their table, and I start cleaning glasses, looking over occasionally at the door and waiting for the last group to arrive. I half-listen to the gossip of the drinkers at the bar while I work.
“…flying overhead. Some sort of witch!”
“…killed a dozen men…”
“…army of assassins!”
The door opens, and the last two people walk in. Both are wearing the white robes of a priestess of Maivierial. They appear the same age, but the taller woman wears the robes of a Mother, and the air of someone far older. Her hair is flowing, green and gold. The girl in Novice’s robes is bald, with a black eye. Her head is lowered, her shoulders slumped, and she somehow seems smaller, more fragile, and far younger than the last time I saw her.
Yes, it is her. I watch them select a table, while pouring two glasses of the new ale. I tell Julia to take a break, and I carry the glasses over myself.
I place the drinks in front of the women, then pull a chair up and sit down. The woman with green hair (dragon, whatever she is under that human guise) bristles, but I ignore her, and stare at Darsé until she is forced to look up at me.
“You have stirred up a real hornet’s nest. Everyone is talking about you.”
She flinches. “What are they saying?”
“Lots of things. Most of it contradictory. Most of it impossible. The only thing that everyone agrees on is that Franklin Arthot, a businessman of our community with ties to the underworld, was killed, along with several of his guards. Of course, some of us know that he was far more than a businessman, and that his reputation was an illusion.”
Darsé flinches, and lowers her head.
I lean in close, and lower my voice so that only the two women can hear me. “The only witness described the assassin, and she looked remarkably like a woman I know who comes in here to drink sometimes. The witness was very upset, and is afraid for her life, and for the future of all of her friends. That witness happens to be a very good friend of mine.”
Darsé goes very pale, and seems to shrink even further into her chair. She buries her head in her hands. “I’m sorry... I’m sorry… sorry…” she whispers, over and over again.
The other woman grabs me by my shoulder. “Enough. She has been through hell. Her sins will be addressed, but now is not the time. Are you going to summon the town guards?”
I very carefully remove her hand, and stand up. “No. Keep violence out of my pub, and we have no quarrel. But understand this.” I point at Darsé. “We are no longer friends. There are many people, people who I care about deeply, who will suffer greatly because of what she did today, and I will not forget that. I expect you both to leave once your business here is concluded.”
The woman with the green hair stands and bows. “Of course. We will not abuse your hospitality.”
I grunt, and return to the bar, whispered prayers of “sorry… sorry… sorry…” following me the entire way.KIRON
I nudge Marjorique as the Lady with the Green Hair walks in. “That’s her.”
Marjie glares at me, but then takes a long look at her. I can hear her breath catch in her throat. “You weren’t kidding. There’s some real power there. I can feel it from here. Who’s the girl with her?”
“The bald one? I don’t know. Looks like some kind of…”
And I stop, and I ignore Marjorique’s questioning “what?”, then her angrily accusatory “what?” and even her sullen silence that follows it. I am too busy watching, enjoying, being hypnotized by the swirling lines of destiny that I can see converging on, passing through, flowing outward from, the bald woman sitting next to the Lady of the Green Hair. I barely notice the troll leave the bar, sit down beside them, talk for a moment, and then leave. Everything is the girl. Everything is about her, revolves around her, depends on her. She is the center of the world.
“Kiron! Kiron! Damnit, Kiron, look at me!”
I realize that Marjorique is shaking me, and I blink, and shake my head, and manage to close my inner eye with a pang of regret. “Sorry… I… sorry, I saw… my mind saw…”
“Are we going over there, or not?”
She grabs my head, and forcefully turns me so I am looking back at the Lady of the Green Hair. She is waving back at us, and motions for us to join her table.
“I’ve been trying to get your attention for a couple minutes now. You need to learn to control this already.”
I mutter something apologetic, and stand, grabbing up my glass. Marjorique takes hers and we make our way over to sit with the two women in white robes. The Lady of the Green Hair smiles, and bows her head towards both of us. “I’m so glad you came. You are right on time.”
We make introductions, and Kiron studiously ignores the bald girl, as if that wasn’t making the whole thing all the more obvious. Honestly!
I try to keep everyone’s names straight.
The bald girl is Darsé, and the Lady of the Green Hair is Erin (that cannot be her full name.) The lad at another table who wouldn’t stop staring at us (it seems to be an epidemic here) and who only came over after Erin waved, beckoned, and finally physically walked over to him is Dex. Erin told him that she was the one he was looking for (she certainly seems to get around a lot, doesn’t she?) For some reason, the lad is travelling with two Lords, a stern looking Lady and a man who’d I’d mistake for a mage in his corpulence, if I couldn’t sense his complete lack of any magical power. His name is Haven. The Lady with him introduced herself as Pegason.
And yes, sitting with them was a real, live, honest-to-the-goddess Red Pilgrim.
What in the seven prisons have you gotten us into, Kiron?
The bartender, a massive troll named Ralph (and that cannot be his real name either) suddenly appears, and offers to let us all use a private room in the back. We slowly file in, find seats at the large table in the center of the room, and stare at each other in awkward silence. Kiron seems about to talk several times, but stops himself. The young lad, Dex sits with wide-eyes darting back and forth at everyone. The Red Pilgrim and Lady Pegason both sit silently, watching, as if observing and learning about all of us, even from our silence. Darsé sits, shrinking into her chair, avoiding everyone else’s eyes, staring at the floor in silence. Erin sits smiling, larger than life, her eyes slowly moving around the table from person to person.
And no one says anything. The silence grows palpable. I still don’t understand why we are here; what it is, exactly, that we’ve come here for. I’m about to ask if anyone else knows what we are all doing sitting around this table, but before I can, Haven, the Lord, stands, loudly exploding in fury.
“Will someone here explain just what is going on? Who, exactly, are all of you people? Why am I meeting with you?” He rounds on Pegason. “Why have we followed this boy’s delusions all the way down here? I thought we were going to find reinforcements and support to turn back the imminent invasion? Who are these, these, travelers?”
Erin merely raises a hand, and Haven splutters to a halt. She bows her head, slightly, and then speaks. “You came to this place seeking a solution to the problems facing your people. I came here, along with these two mages,” she gestures towards Kiron and me, “to offer my assistance with your problem.”
Wait, we did what? I look at Kiron, but he’s nodding, slowly, as if in sudden realization.
Pegason, silent until now, her face hidden between her steepled hands, leans forward. “You are not human, as we are.” It’s less a question than an observation.
Erin merely inclines her head in reply.
“Am I to understand, then, that the dragons of New Synon are offering their help in turning back the invasion?”
Erin frowns, and stares at her hands for a moment. “Unfortunately, no. We have… rules… regarding such things. I cannot explain all of it to you. But I have not been personally forbidden to act, and I have some allies I can call upon to assist you. I cannot promise you the full might of the Dragonhome, but I can deliver a company of Synonian knights, as well as the help of these two mages, and my granddaughter here.”
Haven slams his hand down on the table. “There are thousands of Kyzanthe roaming out there. One company of knights, with or without mages, will not be able to hold back the horde coming west. Her lands,” and he waves towards Pegason, “have already been overrun. Mine could be next. What you are offering is not enough to protect them!”
“No, but it should be enough to strike at the generals leading the invasion, those driving the horde forward. Eliminate them, and the rest of the invasion should crumble.”
“Yes, the Kyzanthe have complicated methods of selecting leaders. They will most likely fall to fighting among themselves for control, and head back north to press their various claims for leadership.”
“Most likely? And how are we supposed to find these leaders?”
“Oh, that’s the easy part. They’re currently camped with a massive force besieging the city of Kazio.”
“Kazio? Why did you make us come all the way down here then? Why didn’t you send your Company of knights north to meet us? Wait... you said Kazio? How can the Council of Lords not be aware that one of the major cities of the North is currently under siege? They may have refused to defend Pegason’s manor, but they sure as hell would have called up a militia to defend Kazio.”
“An untrained militia, and the Kyzanthe have no doubt fortified the roads against any such force coming from the south. Lady Pegason,” she turns towards the woman seated across from her. “Your’s was not the only land struck, nor the first. No news has come south of the invasion because no one has been able to escape the siege in the north. The people of Regotia are suffering as badly, if not worse, than your own people. Should we leave this to the Council of Lords to solve, you would have to wait weeks while the various villages and towns sent recruits, and by then it would be too late for the people of Regotia and for your own villagers. You must head north, now, with what force I can offer, and strike quickly at their leaders, before there is any more needless bloodshed.”
Pegason slowly lowers her hands and places them on the table. “I sympathize with the people living outside of the city. I am certain they are just as defenseless as my own people were when the Kyzathe swept through. But arriving with a tiny force in a week’s time, instead of a substantial force in a month, will not save them. Waiting until we can assemble a greater force of men and arms might mean that that we can put down this invasion decisively, and rout the Kyzanthe such that they will remember the price of war for generations. Kazio is a formidable city. They have held out against sieges before, sometimes for years. They can hold out until we can gather a true army to relieve them.”
Erin leans forward, placing her own hands on the table. “What of your people? If you wait, if you take a month to gather your ‘substantial force,’ every villager who still survives, everyone you once ruled over, will be dead. You are so willing to sacrifice them? ”
“If their sacrifice will save the countless thousands of others in Orb’s Rest, Haven, Kazio, even here in the South? I hate it, but I am a Lord of the Once Kingdom of Eight, and I will do what I must to defend all of these lands, not merely my own. Kazio will hold out against the Kyzanthe horde. I mourn every life lost while we stumble about down here, but the Kyzanthe will pay for each one when we bring war upon them.”
Erin looks for a moment to the side, towards the bald girl, before returning her gaze to Pegason. “War is what they want. They desire greater bloodshed. It is why they are marching those few from the Hyth-Tao who yet survive all the way north. War, total war, is their aim. There are players behind this conflict who desire only destruction and bloodshed, and the more who die in the shadow of Kazio, the closer they are towards achieving their goal.”
Haven seems about to explode again, but Pegason forestalls him, raising one hand herself. “What goal? I have had enough of riddles and vague prophecies. I do not like this, dragon, or whatever you are. My people are dying out there, and you are offering only cryptic warnings as to why I shouldn’t convene the council and reform the Army of Eight. On horseback, without my retainers, I could reach Orb’s Rest in a couple of days. Within a week, I could provide them with confirmation of what is happening at Kazio. Within a month, I could have the beginnings of an army, at least enough bodies to force my way north.”
“There are things you would not understand, child,” Erin holds up her hand again as Lady Pegason bristles at that, “but I swear to you, by everything I hold dear, this is a matter of life and death. If you wait a month to strike, more than your people will perish. You wish to defend these lands. In a month’s time, there will no longer be one city-state, no less Eight Kingdoms, to save.”
They stare at each other for several moments, and I suddenly am aware of something. My own inner-eye opens, slightly, and I feel the power crackling between the two of them. It’s not only radiating from the woman with the green hair. Lady Pegason, the human, mundane Lord, is radiating a power of her own. And in a sudden shock of realization, I see the swirling lines of destiny and connection flowing between, around, and through almost everyone in the room, and all originating from… her.
“They’re all your grandchildren!” I blurt out, not yet realizing that I’d stood until I noticed Kiron staring up at me from his own chair.
Both women turn their heads sharply towards me, and I sit back down under the force of their glares. But Erin’s eyes shine, and both Kiron and Pegason both look back at Erin at the same time, simultaneously emitting little gasps of realization. Kiron whispers “Of course!” to himself, and I can see Pegason nod as it all clicks into place in her own mind.
Erin smiles. “Yes. Thirty generations have passed, but we are all kin. My children long ago intermarried with human-kind, and down the long years their children’s children became fully human. Yet I still feel kinship to you, and am moved to aid you. You are all my grandchildren, and cousins to each other, albeit distant ones.”
Haven looks up and stares at Erin. “You mean to tell me that far back in my family tree, I am descended from a dragon?”
“No,” I whisper, clearly seeing the two calm eddies in the sea of interconnections passing through everyone else at the table. “Not you. And not me.”
Haven sinks back into his chair, disappointed at not being able to change his coat of arms to include a dragon. I turn to Kiron, who’s staring at me with wonder. “You can see it too!”
“Yes,” I whisper in wonder and a little bit of terror. “The power has returned.”
Pegason has sat, watching me with narrowed eyes, and finally turns back to Erin. “So be it. I will accept your offer, grandmother, and trust that you are being honest. But I want an explanation for all of this. We will play this your way, but I want answers. No more riddles.”
“Of course. I do not have all of them yet, myself. I plan on addressing that shortly, and we can discuss all of this on the ride north. We should all set forth for the Dragonhome this evening. Young lady,” and she turned to face me. “You are welcome to come, as well, if you wish to aid our cause. Any friend of my grandson is a friend of mine. And Lord Haven, you as well can…”
Lady Pegason rises, silencing Erin. She turns to Lord Haven. “My Lord, there is a task that only you can accomplish, and I must beg your aid in this. Ride back with your militia, and rally the Council of Lords. Carry word of Kazio’s plight to the other Lords, and force them to act. Your influence and respect among the other Lords will go a long way towards meeting this threat. If we fail in our task, your lands will be defended. I can trust no other to do this thing.”
And she bows, low. Haven blushes and quickly gets to his feet. “My Lady, I have every faith that you will succeed, but I will do as you ask. I’ll get the army reformed if I have to whip every lord from here to Orb’s Rest myself!”
Pegason smiles, taking Haven’s hand. “I knew I could count on you. You’ve never let me down, old friend. You’ve given me one less thing to worry about.”
They hug, and Haven walks out, already shouting orders to some of his men that were sitting out in the main room of the tavern. The door closes behind him and Erin rises herself. “That was well-played. He would have been of little use on your journey, and now he is engaged where he cannot cause too much trouble…”
“He is my friend.” Pegason's words cut Erin off. Her voice is low, but filled with rage. “He may not be a great warrior, but he is a well-respected Lord, and beloved by his people. He is also a master of political theatre. He is respected for a reason, he rules his lands well, and he has powerful friends who listen to his suggestions because they more often than not turn out to be correct. He is the only person who was willing to even listen to my story, and he rode all of this way down here with me on nothing more than a vague prophecy, all because he takes friendship that seriously. I’m glad he’ll be out of danger while we go off on this fool’s errand, but I didn’t sent him off to rally the Lords to get him out of our hair. I sent him because he actually is the best man to do it. I wasn’t stroking his ego. I don’t need to lie to my friends.”
Pegason turns and stalks from the room, slamming the door behind her. Erin sits, heavily, and begins massaging her temples. The Red Pilgrim leans over and nudges the boy, Dex. “Awkward, huh?”
I stare, realizing for the first time that, as far as my inner-eye is concerned, that man does not exist.
Everyone is gathering supplies for the trip north. Babaiya told me to wait in my hotel room, out of sight and out of potential trouble. I sit and stare at the white robes, soft and cool against my skin. I rummage through my pack, looking at items I’ve held and used a thousand times, feeling as if I’m looking at them for the first time.
I sit on the bed, holding the bracers, Petyr’s gift to me. They were left behind in my pack when I became Sho; they are untouched by fire. I don’t know whether or not to put them back on. I no longer know who I am.
The voice that has always been there, that I never really noticed until it was gone, is silent. The future that has always been well-marked, the path with clear sign-posts, is hidden in fog. I reach for nahhu without even meaning to, and my fingers clutch at the empty air. There is nothing there to grab.
My thoughts no longer stumble and trip over themselves. Each thought is its own. My mind is no longer the raging river racing towards the ocean. I miss it. Goddess, I miss it. I hated it, and I cursed it, and I miss it.
The door opens, and my grandmother walks in, green hair and power and whirlwind and an uncertain future. She sits beside me on the bed.
“There are questions to answer.” She doesn’t look at me, but stares at the wall, choosing her words with care. “First is the matter of your disposition.”
“Do with me what you will. I was once the river, now I am merely carried upon it.”
“I’m offering you a set of oars, child. You must chart your own course. You do not have to decide now. When we reach the Dragonhome, you will be welcomed as a child of the Skyweaver. You can serve as a Priestess of Maivierial, and live out your days in peace and quiet service to our goddess. None will bother you there, and you may find shelter from your sins, and their consequences.”
I nod. It is appealing.
“You might instead accompany your cousins north, and try to counter Gorgus’ latest scheme.”
“Gorgus? What does he have to do with this?”
She snorts. “Do you think he isn’t completely wrapped up in this entire thing? The stoneskins have invaded, without any real goal or strategy, for the first time in hundreds of years. Survivors are being kept alive and marched north, despite the long tradition of the Kyzanthe to never take an enemy alive. Skirmishing with Regotia is nothing new, but actually besieging Kazio itself? These aren’t raiding parties. Someone powerful is directing all of this, and who else would benefit from this much bloodshed? I think that someone doesn’t want to wait another thousand years for his plan to be fulfilled.”
I shake my head. “Random death, war, that won’t work to bring Gorgus back. Decreed murders, actual sacrifices to Gorgus, have to be done in a certain way. The power of life itself has to be redirected through rituals and ceremony, or else it is simply wasted, returned to the earth to be reborn. Only specially trained priests carry out such assassinations. I was to be one of them, but they don’t trust me with that sort of responsibility anymore. I get the less important assignments, the purely political murders.” I hear the disgust in my voice, the longing, the envy, and I am shocked by it.
She puts her arm around me. “Well, you won’t be getting any more assignments. You belong to another god now.”
She rises and moves to the dresser, adjusting her hair in the mirror. “Regardless, I think there is more going on here than simple war. I’m worried about those people being marched north, and the people holed up in the city of Kazio. I’m terrified that something terrible is about to happen to all of them, and Gorgus is behind it.”
She turns back to face me. “That’s not the only thing I’m worried about. After your first kill, your priests told you that the Unnamed were responsible for the cataclysm, that they split the world, and that Lovi was lost when their prison was sealed once again.”
“How do you know… are you able to read my mind?”
“Yes, now stop interrupting. Here’s what bothers me. You were told that Lovi was lost in the cataclysm. Well, I was born before the cataclysm. I was a child when it happened, but already a priestess in training. I was taught the names and ways of the gods all before that dark day. And yet even before the cataclysm, I knew nothing of Lovi. We who served as priestesses sang the names of all of the gods, and she was not one of them. We sang of Gorgus, the god of death, of which there was no other. If Lovi truly was lost sealing up the Unnamed, then it happened long before I was born, and long before the cataclysm, because I have spoken with our oldest Priestesses, and none can remember even having heard of her.”
“I don’t understand. Lovi is real. I’ve felt her. I’ve been her. I know what she is, and what she was. I’ve seen the Unnamed. She is trapped there, in their prison…”
“Yes, that much is true, but however that happened, it was long before the cataclysm.”
“So the priests of Gorgus are wrong? Or are they lying? And if the Unnamed’s escape didn’t cause the world to split, then what did?”
She shrugs, and kneels before me. She takes one of the bracers, and gently places it on my right arm, securing the leather straps. “I think that we have all been lied to for a very long time.” She begins securing the other bracer to my left arm. “I don’t think it really matters right now. I don’t know what is happening, or why, but there are people being hurt, right now, and we still have a duty to protect our world. Hiding away in a cave somewhere is not going to help anyone. Our sins will still be there with us.”
She tightens the last strap, stands, bends forward and kisses my forehead, then hugs me tightly. “I cannot make any decisions for you, child. Going out and facing your fears, and your sins, is harder than just performing silent penance in seclusion for the rest of your life. There is no clearly marked road, no secret power for you to call on to tell you what to do.”
She straightens, and moves to the door. “Sitting in a cave won’t protect anyone. It won’t help people like Ta’lah from those that know only hunger, only lust. You have a refuge, if you want it, but I think you are strong enough not to need it. If you travel north, you can do some real good, and fight for something larger than just your old god. I think you’ll find that you can create a purpose and a destiny without a god showing it to you.”
She opens the door and steps out. I blurt out, “How can I know what to do? How do I start walking on a road without any signs?”
“Child, you place one foot in front of the other and you start walking. Eventually, you’ll get where you are going.”
She closes the door behind her, and leaves me alone. I absently finger the leather of the bracers on my wrists. I stare at them, and move my arms in the ways I was taught. Blades come forth, and I watch as the light glints off of their edges. I move my arms again, and the blades hide themselves away. My tools, fangs, steel still respond to my commands, nahhu or no.
I pack my things, then call for a servant to carry them down to the stables. My travel clothes, my hat, my swords, my rucksack, all go down. I keep on the white acolyte’s robes and my bracers. When the room is empty, I take it all in for a moment. The sheets are slightly singed. A mass of straw that I know used to be hair is piled on the pillow. Otherwise, there is no evidence that a woman once stayed in this room, and burned to death.
There is nothing left to do, and no more ways to put this off. The door is closed, and beyond it is the road, wherever it leads.
I imagine my grandmother’s voice, admonishing me. “The road is dark, but it will still lead you wherever it is you are going.”
I finger my bracers, absently, and look into the mirror above the dresser.
I don’t recognize the girl there. She looks like a girl I used to know, but years have changed her. The girl looks back at me, just as puzzled as I am.
She shrugs as I shrug in return.
We smile at each other, then frown, then ask together the question that neither knows the answer to.
“Where am I going?”