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34 – Reeon

“Imagine that,” Cyrus said behind Reeon. “Effulgence Point was Kevyn’s childhood home. But of course, you knew that, right?”

“Surprisingly, no,” Reeon replied. “Her childhood wasn’t something she liked to mention often, and we didn’t see each other much to have that conversation. I guess by the time she and I met, she’d been training in Eternia City long enough to call it her home.”

“But you knew to come here. Why?”

Reeon shrugged. “It’s the closest clerical settlement to Kioma, so naturally, I figured it was more convenient for you and Almira. Besides that, this is where the best healers and Light mages gather for their studies. The Light temple’s here, after all.”

From their places high up on the escarpments, Reeon and Cyrus could see the golden sandstone sheen of the Lighthouse below them. Massive in circumference as a castle spire, the Lighthouse stood proudly despite its darkened beacon. As far as Reeon recalled from his travels, the Lighthouse’s glory shined brightest, like a sun, at night. Ships veered from the spinning light, lest they crashed into the escarpments of the northwestern corners of Luxakari. In return, grateful captains sent contributions for restoration projects, keeping the Lighthouse standing and functioning.

Reeon admired the community efforts around the ancient relic. People lately appeared to forget the importance of such historical legacies, after all. Yet he had another worry keeping him preoccupied – a worry that rested in the grassy hillocks a distance behind the village, to the south.

Cyrus looked about uncertainly. “Ree, I know you like all sorts of melancholy, but hanging out in a cemetery’s a bit much, don’t you think? Not as bad as others I’ve seen by a long shot, but, there’s dead people here, you know.”

“Look, it’s not recreation for me either,” said Reeon. “I see and hear every little dark secret the dead have to offer.”

“Then come on, the silence of this place is really giving me the creeps. Kevyn might be up, after all!”

“What, and then have her yell at me for using my magic? Cy, I don’t mind if you take off and check on her yourself, but I’ll take the dead people over getting scolded by Kevyn any day.”

Cyrus crossed his arms. “Now what right does Kev have to get on your case? You did what you needed to do to get her out of there; you saved her life.”

“After nearly trading my own.” On cue, Reeon doubled over under a fit of coughs, hacking up a hot metallic taste that curled up in his throat and flooded his mouth. He thought to swallow it down, until he caught Cyrus’s concerned look. Get it out, Reeon told himself, and turned away to spit out a gob of blood into a small rag he pulled from his pocket.

“Sometimes I forget you two are attached to each other at the hip,” said Cyrus. “Secretly,” he quickly added at Reeon’s disapproving look. “You don’t much like to admit it, but knowing you two long enough made that clear.” He nodded to the crumpled rag in Reeon’s hand. “So yeah, I understand. She would get on your case about that, huh?”

“Get on my case? That’s on a good day. She’d force a fistful of Light magic down my throat today.”

Cyrus snorted and shrugged. “Almira did say your magic wouldn’t be a good idea, but using it was your choice.” He waved his hand to indicate their surroundings, dotted with stone markers. “So you’re not here for fun, but for a reason. What is it?”

Reeon pointed down to the eastern side of the village, a dilapidated section of smoldered and ruined houses. From his eyes and ears, a gritty gray fog seared the area, and shrieking cries punctured the air. “You see that? The shadows there come and go from this cemetery.” He nodded to the two placards closest to himself and Cyrus. “I’d seen those shadows before, Cy. On Kevyn.”

“Kevyn?” Cyrus glanced from the placards to the ruined village, then back. “Ree, the girl’s a Light mage. Why would she be associated with something from your field?”

“Her being a Light mage has nothing to do with the fact she has secrets she won’t tell even me. Same goes for you and Almira.” At Cyrus’s wary expression, Reeon smiled a little. Regardless of close relationships, a dark niche or two always lurked in people. It was no news to a Dark mage like Reeon, but as he understood, no one liked acknowledging their own darkness. It was a sore subject for many folks, and accepting its existence meant admitting to a flaw. Rather than risk drawing attention to personal sores, people turned blind eyes instead. As a person aware of his own limitations, Reeon had to admit, he liked making people examine their flaws, even for a moment. But, “I don’t pry, Cyrus, don’t worry. I don’t believe it my business, Dark Ranger or not, to know everyone’s dark little secrets. I think I’d be downright terrified to know some of them. Like Almira’s, for instance.”

Cyrus shrugged. “You can at least tell she’s been through a lot. I’ve been hanging around her for Sei knows how long, and she still won’t open up to me. So no offense, but I’d push you off this cliff if you somehow knew what was on Almira’s mind.” He breathed and waved the subject aside. “But why Kev? She’d open up to you sooner or later.”

Reeon shook his head. “Knowing her, it would be later, and later for her is too late for everyone else. Regulus needs her to come to terms with her issues, and asked me to help. And the only way I can help is by knowing what happened.” He sat down in the grass in front of the placards. “Effulgence Point is Kevyn’s childhood home. According to the villagers, Kevyn was here when that eastern side came down. And these…” Reeon brushed aside old ashes, dirt, and dried grass, revealing the names at the bottom of the markers. “These people, I think, are a big part of Kevyn’s concerns.”

Cyrus leaned in closer to read the letters. “Derek Sailon, loved father, husband, and professor of Sei’s divine light. Mara Sailon, beloved mother, wife, and the light of our lives. May she continue to dance under the Phoenix’s wing…” He blinked, shook his head, and rubbed his eyes. “Sailon,” he echoed. “Wait, so these people are…!”

“Kevyn’s and her sister’s parents,” Reeon finished. “I knew Kevyn received tutelage and support from the late Archsage of Light, but she never mentioned her parents were dead. I never assumed anything good had happened to them, considering how tight-lipped Kev was about them, but this…This is beyond anything I could have assumed.” As a person whose parents still breathed – at least, when he last saw them ten years ago – imagining the lack of their earthly presence disturbed Reeon into agitated silence. Losing his brother had been too much for him already. He couldn’t stomach the thought of losing his parents as well.

Cyrus continued Reeon’s theory. “You said the things you see between here and the ruins are the same,” he started. “So you think whatever happened down there killed Kev’s parents at the same time?”

Before Reeon expressed his agreement, a slow rustle sounded behind him and Cyrus, followed by Kevyn’s voice: “Don’t think it. Believe it.”

As Reeon stood from his seat, and Cyrus turned to meet Kevyn’s eye, she went on. “I had to ask around to find you,” she said. She really was in no condition to be walking around; Reeon recognized the tired glaze in her eyes, as well as the lethargic drag in her steps. The bandages visible under the collar of her robes reminded Reeon of the deep red trenches scored down her back. She had to have been in so much pain. “You know I’m not happy with you two scouting around like this.”

“You wouldn’t have told me yourself, Kev. It was either I figure this out on my own, or I just wouldn’t be able to help.”

She sighed, clearly too exhausted to argue. Ambling to the markers where her parents lied, she scanned the village below. “You can see the entire picture here, huh?”

“Most of it.”

“Entire,” Kevyn corrected. She nodded first to the ruins. “I used to live there. Attended the Lighthouse for school and the basics of Light magic. Dad taught most of my lessons. Then the main market areas to the west there – that’s where Mami worked. She sold herbs and plants, and books she made and wrote. Little guidebooks on the legacy of the Priestess of Light. Sis and I had our own copies Mami would read to us at night.”

She swallowed and shifted uncomfortably. “Mami also had the birthmark on her back. The rising phoenix? That thing marked her for eligibility as the next Priestess. Azariah rejected her though. From early on, our last Priestess wanted me as her vessel. Mami kept it secret though, for my sake.”

“But everyone knew Mara had the capability,” said Reeon.

“Everyone,” Kevyn agreed. “Including Eternia City.”

Cyrus voiced his and Reeon’s immediate conjecture: “Please don’t tell me the Luxakarian nobility had anything to do with this.”

Kevyn scoffed. “Nobility? If they can call themselves nobility, then I should be allowed burn down the Temple of Sei and install myself as an idol.” She sighed and hugged herself, shuddering. “But they knew.” Her voice quieted, trembling. “They knew, alright. They knew everything they needed to know about my mother. And you know what they said?

“They said they needed a purge. Azariah’s rejection of my mother meant Effulgence Point had lost its sanctity. They ‘didn’t know’ why, but they had to ‘cleanse’ the area of my mother’s taint.”

A purge? It was the same excuse Reeon had heard 16 years ago in Sephone, when they came for the acolytes of Penumbra Spire. He’d heard it again when they next went for the Sephonese. And then a third time, when they came for him, when they pinned his brother to a tree with too many lances and nails to count. A purge.

“Seven Mageknights came.” Kevyn stared at the ground, probably to stop herself from breaking down, but Reeon could see her shoulders shaking. “What could a bunch of peace-loving, affable clerics have done against seven of the best Light Mageknights? What could my mother have done against a General?”

She paused again to gather herself. “Nothing,” she finally said. “Except push me and my sister out the house, and scream at us to run for the Lighthouse. All the while choking on her own blood and a halberd through her back.”

Kevyn said this seemingly dry-eyed, but Reeon’s senses picked up on those shadows again. The more Kevyn related this story, the higher the shadows screamed and swirled around her. Pitch boiled and bubbled from the point Reeon believed was Kevyn’s heart, and if not for the one pinprick of light that fought to keep shining, he knew she would have been totally consumed.

Though Kevyn spoke no more on the issue, Reeon had enough information to piece together the remaining story. “Master Arden must have told you becoming Priestess would allow you to reap justice on Arlu. So you took up the Light Sage’s tutelage to take vengeance for your parents.”

Cyrus had a grim look. “Kev, believe me when I say you’re completely justified in wanting to make Arlu pay, but you’re supposed to the Priestess of Light. I don’t know the whole story of Order Arcana, but I do remember Almira saying if you act out of line, that’s it for you. You won’t be able to Ascend. So you don’t plan on killing Pellsi, do you?”

Kevyn glared at Cyrus with such a fierce hatred that both he and Reeon unwittingly took a step back. “Maybe I do, maybe I don’t,” she said. “But considering what that pig did to my family and everyone else who lived in that district, considering what he does now to tarnish Azariah’s name, he owes more than his life! He owes me a debt beyond anything his little cockroach heart’s worth, but I plan to make him pay back every last drop of blood he spilled that day!”

A tense silence fell over the three. Even Reeon, as affectionate of Kevyn as he was, couldn’t bring himself to approach her, as she turned back to her parents’ graves. She finally breathed deeply, and glanced over her shoulder at him. Her voice threatened to break into sobs. “Come on Reeon,” she said, “Don’t look at me like that. I know, I probably deserve it, but, you can’t blame me, can you? I’m not a monster; I know what I’m doing! So please…don’t look at me like that.”

“Let me be honest, though,” Reeon replied, “You’ve really made it clear to me why Regulus is so afraid to teach you his Artes.” The task of guiding Kevyn out of the shadows suddenly felt like lead against his shoulders. He was going to have to do this one step at a time. “But I’m going to trust you.” The words alone lightened the air around her. “I’ll help you, Kevyn, but you have to promise you won’t soil your pedigree by acting on your impulse. It’ll cost us too much.”

“I know,” said Kevyn, “I know that, Reeon. I know if I mess up, Order Arcana—”

“I’m not as concerned about the Order as you think. I’m talking about us, Kevyn. Dying isn’t the only way I can lose you.”

Cyrus nodded in agreement. “It’s a bit of a difficult discussion, but there are people who think losing yourself is worse than dying. And Reeon wouldn’t be the only one who’d be messed up if anything happened to you.”

Kevyn forced a tired smile. “What, you and Almira would be concerned?”

“Hey, we’re pals, right? Even though Almira won’t ever admit it, there’s a reason why she calls you a close friend.” Cyrus breathed once, as though he regained a second wind. “That said, you won’t mind if I tell Almira what you just told us, right? She deserves to know, not only as the Shaman of Aura, but also as your friend.”

Light steps padded through the grass behind Reeon and Cyrus, followed by Almira’s voice. “I’m curious about this information I deserve to know,” she started, “but before that, we have a problem.” Reeon turned to Almira as she went on. “Draconians,” she said. “At the Lighthouse. They’re here as part of their reconnaissance, and they’re harassing the people here for their hospitality. I would have dispatched them on my own, but there are too many people in the area, and we’re dealing with a bronze.”

A Primal Drake, Reeon mentally rephrased. Next to the black draconians, the bronzes were one of the worst to contend with. “That bronze’s partner,” he started, “and their tiers—”

“Pearl,” Almira replied without missing a beat. “The bronze is an Elite, the pearl’s a high-end Lesser. The clerics bend to their will now, but the drakes are starved for action. They’ll start killing at any moment.”

Violet lightning crackled at Cyrus’s hand, and materialized into his favorite poleax. “Then we’ll have to chase them out of here. Reeon, you can hold your lance at least?”

“Of course.” He turned to Kevyn. “Kev, you’ll stay back, right?”

“Are you kidding me?” Kevyn snapped back. “You’re telling me to step back and watch my neighbors bleed under draconian claws? Not likely!” She suddenly stopped however, and looked over her shoulder to the top of the Lighthouse. Something else had seized her attention, and judging from Kevyn’s bewildered expression, Reeon had an idea what prompted her next words. “I’ll follow you guys later. I have something to do before I go.”

“So be it,” said Almira. “But know that the longer you take, the more time the drakes have to do as they please.”

As Reeon, Cyrus, and Almira raced away and descended the cemetery steps and slopes, leaving Kevyn with her parents’ graves, Cyrus spoke again. “Reeon! What got into Kev all of a sudden?”

“You saw how confused she looked,” replied Reeon. Shadows congealed in his hand to form the diluted Shadowreave, his favorite lance. “Regulus wants to have a chat with her.”

33 – Kevyn

The wind carried the scent of the sea. As Kevyn’s eyes adjusted to the sunlight filtering through gaps in the shuttered windows, she gulped down the seawater breeze, its moisture a welcoming taste. She blinked at warm walls and birch shelves, turning her head to make sense of her surroundings – familiar surroundings.

With a groan, she slowly sat up, noting her spinning head as well as the aches of her body. Lifting a hand to massage her neck, she stopped to stare at her wrists. Since when were they so scarred? Never mind her stiffened limbs; she felt her back flush icy-hot, and barely choked back a pained yelp as she curled up against her knees. Also calloused and scarred, Kevyn realized with a grimace.

She glanced around again. From the books snugly lined against the shelves, to the herbs and jars of suspended roots, she recognized everything. Potted dock leaf plants, jarred nettles, rationed samples of nightshade, urns of plant oil, overflowing boxes of dried mushrooms and roots…This was an infirmary she knew very well: “The lighthouse…” Kevyn pulled back her covers and slid to the edge of her bed. “Effulgence Point?”

Quite right. Regulus’s voice clanged hard in Kevyn’s head. I am glad you’re awake.

Kevyn pressed a hand to her forehead and tried to ignore the Light Dragon King’s voice. She had to sort out her situation first. How and when did she get here? She remembered very little: there was a long ship voyage, and then a guarded carriage ride, some dungeon for a little while, then outside again for Sei knows how long, and Sei above her back burned! She could forget her parched tongue and empty stomach for the moment; this pain could have been nourishment!

Priestess, please. Respond to me. Are you well?

Kevyn clapped her hands to her ears and curled up against the banging headache. “I hear you just fine, Regulus, so please shut up for now, would you?! This isn’t a good time!”

Her ailed cries summoned a flurry of footsteps up the wooden stairs, followed by a curt, “Oh in Fu’s blazes, Kevyn, if you’re up, say something!”

Someone sat next to Kevyn at her bedside. Out the corner of her eye, she saw a metal rod with an orb on top: an Archsage staff. “Master Arden?”

“Oh please don’t tell me Arlu did something to your ears as well! Do I sound anything like Master Arden?” As Kevyn’s groggy mind registered the young female voice, it went on. “If you want to call me anything, ‘Master Saphir’ would probably be the best.”

Kevyn squeezed her eyes shut, fighting off the dizzying headache. Saphir. She knew a kid with “Saphir” as her last name. Old friend, in fact, with a damn good hand for Light magic. Opening her eyes again, Kevyn turned her gaze to her side. “Renaun,” she said.

“There we go! You had me worried for a moment there!” Renaun brushed her golden locks over her shoulder, then took Kevyn by her arm. “Well then, come on, back under the sheets. I’ll change those wrappings on your back and finally get you something to eat and drink.”

But Kevyn pushed back, shoving Renaun away. “What’s going on?”

Hands on her hips, Renaun tapped her foot. “What do you mean ‘what’s going on?’ You just woke up from a coma after Reeon, Almira, and Cyrus got you out of Eternia City. This is the Lighthouse, you know, at Effulgence Point, and you’re in one of its infirmaries. I’ve been looking after you for the past few days.”

Regulus was right. This was Effulgence Point.  Kevyn found herself wishing she had stayed asleep. “How did I get here?”

Renaun rolled her eyes. “I told you that already—”

“—Reeon, Almira, and Cyrus, yes, but how?” The interruption reduced Kevyn to a fit of coughs – her unused and dry tongue knotted in her throat.

After fetching a small bowl of water and prompting Kevyn to slowly drink, Renaun sighed. “You tell me. You all just appeared out of nowhere, and Reeon had the worst internal bleeding we had to take care of. It was truly the worst I’d seen; I have to admit I’m surprised he even recovered from that.”

Reeon and internal bleeding. Kevyn paused with the water at her lips. The combination meant only one thing: Reeon had used his magic, and a lot of it. She sipped at her drink as she contemplated the situation. Shadowreave. Kevyn was certain she remembered that. There was no mistaking the patterns of that spell: winding, like smoke. Sharp, like an aggravated viper. Kevyn remembered Shadowreave’s gravity weighing her breath down, as well as the accompanying sounds of splintered armor and anguished cries begging for mercy. Reeon had not let the spell go on for long, but all things considered, Shadowreave had definitely done its worst, to both wielder and targets.

So what about the instantaneous travel? By that time, Kevyn guessed, she must have been unconscious. She needed to confirm with Reeon to know for certain, but he had most likely pulled one of his tricks again: Void Cross. He did it before at Onaperse to breach the castle. No doubt he did it again to leave Eternia City. The distance he crossed, however, should have been too taxing on his body. Renaun said he recovered, but Kevyn knew better. “He’s probably swallowing it down,” she said. “I know him. He wouldn’t want to explain what’s going on with his body.”

Renaun raised a brow. “By that you mean?”

“I doubt he’s fully recovered. Reeon, I mean.” She stared at the water in her hands. “Internal bleeding’s a severe side effect of his use of magic. I’m surprised you didn’t catch that.”

Her nose twitched visibly, but instead of arguing, Renaun tightly pursed her lips.

“I don’t blame you, Renaun; Reeon’s too good at hiding. But here’s the deal: Reeon, right now, has no sylph. That should explain everything.”

“No sylph? That’s like trying to tame a wild horse with no reins or saddle!” Renaun’s expression dissolved into concern. “And considering the magnitude of Reeon’s potential, I’m more surprised he isn’t dead! From my knowledge, using his kind of unfiltered magic is like clawing his own skin off!”

Kevyn nodded. “Which is why mages usually have to pass Initiation in order to perform magic. We bind contracts with ancestral sylphs, who then act as filters to our magic. Not the case with Dark mages though.” She put her bowl of water aside, and crawled back from the edge of her bed. “Dark mages are born already bound to their sylphs. Reeon used to have one too, but it…met with some complications.”

Destroyed, she heard Reeon correcting. It vaporized the moment my brother died.

Though Kevyn remained in silence, Renaun continued the conversation as she redressed Kevyn’s wounds. Complications, you say? I’m no Dark mage so I can’t be sure what you mean, but sylphs are internalized, Kevyn! Besides that, they have no real physical form! From my knowledge, sylphs are more like constructs of our imaginations, though that would mean their connections to our ancestors can be disputed. Sylphs seem to have minds of their own, you see, and we know some choose to descend through bloodlines, while others jump from family to family – like you and Azariah, for instance! But are we simply ascribing our perceived realities to the sylphs, or are they truly sentient representations of our ancestors? I plan to answer that soon enough, you know! Master Arden’s research focused on the sylphs, after all, and I mean to continue where he left off. Did you know…?

And on she went, until Kevyn straightened against the cooling wash of her fresh bandages. She smiled and looked over her shoulder. “You’ve never known when to give it a rest, do you?”

Renaun snorted audibly. “Excuse me! I’m only doing my part by providing positive conversation! It’ll get your resilience working at full speed so you’ll be on your feet soon! You may be ignorant, but I am the next Light Sage, so I believe I know quite well what I’m talking about!”

“When was that decided, anyway?”

Renaun paused in wrapping Kevyn’s new bandages, and after a moment of silence, she continued, albeit tighter than before. “Well. Master Arden left for the Council one day. And he never returned. The orb appeared in the basement – where you keep all those stolen artifacts – and glowed only for me. There’s only one way of seeing all that, right?”

“What, that old crab kicked the bucket and passed on his title to you? Without even leaving me a message?” Kevyn let her words hang for a moment, then gazed out the window. “Yeah, I guess that’s the only way of seeing it all.”

Silence again reigned over Kevyn and Renaun. The latter bit her lip, and after finishing the new wrappings, slid off the bed and sauntered to the stairs. On her way, she stopped and turned around, her eyes glassy. “Kevyn, I’m…” But she faltered and, for once, remained speechless, until she changed the topic. “I’ll go get you something to eat. And…Almira wanted to talk to you, so…I’ll go get her.”

 

 

Upon setting a food-laden tray on Kevyn’s bedside table, Renaun refused to leave the two Order Arcana members to themselves. The young sage remained comfortably undeterred by Almira’s expectant look, and even voiced her defiance: “I look after Kevyn’s wounds,” she said, “and I am the next Archsage of Light. I have every right to stay.”

Almira, unfazed, calmly replied, “A right yes, but no permission. You’re wasting our time by staying. So leave.”

Wide-eyed Renaun moved to argue, but a warning look from Kevyn silenced and finally convinced the sage to leave. She marched away with a dangerous air, but as usual, Almira remained totally unaffected. She sat down on the bed’s edge next to Kevyn, and once Renaun’s steps faded away, Almira crossed one leg over the other. “You look like crap,” she finally said.

Kevyn laughed at this. “Oh, go on, tell me more, because I sure can’t tell myself.”

“Your hair’s a matted mess and your eyes look a little sunken in. Also your skin’s flaking.” After a small chuckle, Almira went on. “But at least you’re alive. Last I saw, your back was in ribbons and you couldn’t decide if you wanted to stay awake or in a coma. Good job keeping Reeon on edge, though. Next time, get a heart attack out of him.”

“Now I know you’re trying to be funny.” Kevyn pulled herself to the tray of food: a bowl of herb and seafood broth, a beaker of water, and a couple soft plain rolls. Not much of a feast, of course – real food had to wait until she had her health back – but at least it was food. Reminding herself to take her meal slowly, she cautiously stirred the soup about with her spoon before taking a mouthful. Satisfied with the taste, she then took one of the rolls and began tearing smaller pieces off. “You’re all about practical business. Seeing him out of commission would only piss you off.”

“Have I really become so transparent?” Almira shook her head. “I should have Cyrus deported back to Onaperse. He’s making me senile.”

“Those words are definite proof, since I heard nothing about your daggers getting themselves lodged in his skull.”

“I’ve never made such threats,” said Almira. “And doing so wouldn’t be conducive to the relationship we’ve established.”

Kevyn cooed. “A relationship, huh?”

“A business relationship, yes. He has some use in reconnaissance among the public, and though his dueling tactics still need work, he has…potential.” Before Kevyn could interject with another teasing comment, Almira went on. “I won’t let you derail the topic, Kevyn, but you’re right in saying I wouldn’t be happy if Reeon were incapacitated in any way. You need to get him on track to take care of his responsibilities.”

This discussion again. “Teaching your Archsage, right?” Receiving a nod from Almira, Kevyn sighed and threw her bread pieces back onto the tray. She hadn’t even been awake for more than an hour, and she already had to cope with difficult situations. Yes, one of Reeon’s responsibilities as the Dark Ranger was teaching Dark magic to the future Archsages. With Renaun taking Master Arden’s place, Reeon now had two, confirmed, young sages-in-training to tutor. Yet, “Almira, you would be one of the first to realize he realistically cannot mentor anyone. You know his problems.”

“He performed Shadowreave and a long-distance Void Cross before he was physically incapable of magic. You are coddling him.”

“Alright, let’s say I am. Performing those two spells still has him spitting blood all over the place. That fact hasn’t changed, and I don’t need to see him to know what magic does to his body.”

Almira shrugged. “As do I, but again, you are coddling him. I give credit where it’s due, and I can say he’s been putting these past 10 years to good use. Despite not having a sylph, the potential of his magic has increased, as well as his control over it. Still woefully limited, of course, but it’s an improvement over before.”

Kevyn knew Almira as a silent observer, and the former dared not deny Almira’s keen analyses. On top of that, acknowledgements and compliments from Almira never happened. If the Shaman of Aura acknowledged an improvement enough to voice it, the change had to have been impressively drastic. Almira saw things invisible to Kevyn’s eye, after all, and picked up on signs that normal human beings would overlook. But did that really allow Almira to push Reeon even further? Renaun expressed pessimism on Reeon’s condition, so there was no way Almira couldn’t have noticed.

As if reading Kevyn’s thoughts, Almira answered, “He’s volunteering to push himself past his limit, so now would be the best time for him to start tutoring the sages. Your concern for his condition is…noble, I suppose, but it does nothing but waste his time.”

“He needs to look after himself before–!”

“You haven’t consistently seen him these past ten years, Kevyn. He’s not the sulking indecisive boy you remember. So consider my decision to push him toward his responsibilities, while disregarding his unstable condition, a testament to my confidence in his maturation. He disappoints sometimes, yes, but in the very least, he follows through on his decisions.

“You would do well to honor his efforts.”

She felt like pouting and arguing, but this was Almira. Realistic, practical, and one of the only people able to provide effective rebuttal to Kevyn’s arguments. Kevyn still curled her lip in reproach, and sighing, slid off her bed. “I’ll have a good long talk with him then, and figure out where he stands.”

“When you do, let him know we’re running on limited time. It’s not just the Archsages we have to be mindful of anymore – draconians overran Eternia City shortly after we left.”

Kevyn groaned. “There’s just no break, is there?”

Almira uncrossed her legs and stood from her seat. “Not for us, no,” she said. “Case in point, we had best leave for Xemif soon to collect the Spirit Pillar. As I understand, the Wind Sage needs a remedial spell? You realize he doesn’t have much time left.”

This time, assuming no replies were necessary, Kevyn only nodded. Grabbing a robe out of a nearby wardrobe, she gingerly pulled it on and ambled toward the stairs.

Instead of objecting to Kevyn’s movement, Almira glanced at Kevyn’s bare feet padding across the floor and asked, “Do you really have the strength to go outside?”

“I don’t have the strength to stay inside,” Kevyn replied. “We’ve got work to do? Then let’s do it.”

32 – Marcus

“Zerenas.” Marcus had no clue how many times he said the name, but he said it enough it came out like clockwork. “Zerenas.” He shook his head and pressed his knuckles to his mouth. “Zerenas.” His voice deflated to a defeated sigh as he opened his palm and rubbed his eye. “No, I really can’t say the name rings a bell.”

Princess Selere, with her hand pressed against the small of Marcus’s back for support, bit her lip. “Are you three thousand percent sure, Master Seylo? You have never heard the name ‘Zerenas’ in your life? Even as reference to His Regnancy’s name?”

Marcus shook his head again. “No, not at all. You see, Your Highness, there were two things we Archsages theorized for fun: His Regnancy’s name and true age. None of us really know anything about him.”

“Suspicious. You’d think someone in such a leadership position would at least reveal some of those basic facts.”

“This is the Regnant Archsage you’re speaking of, the greatest Archsage to exist within the Council.” Marcus winced as Selere’s grip on his arm tightened. He appreciated the princess’s willingness to support him out of bed and into daylight, but he wished she would lighten her grip a little bit. At this rate, Selere would break him before any illness would. “He possesses knowledge, I’m certain, that he can’t allow even Order Arcana to have access to.”

“This is basic information, though! A name, an age, a little bit of history! That is not restricted knowledge! So you mean to tell me, Master Seylo, that His Regnancy’s secrecy doesn’t strike you as strange?”

Marcus scrubbed his eye again. “Your Highness, I was rarely present at the Council.”

He felt his stomach shrink at Selere’s sidelong glare. “What I mean to say is,” he hastily added, “it’s not strange to me if only because I traveled so often. The other Archsages might have agreed, and they might have known more as well, but that information was never disclosed to me. I never considered it significant enough to pursue.”

“Well I’m definitely disappointed! I thought you’d pursue anything you didn’t know!”

About theories and postulates of magic, certainly, but not about other people, Marcus answered inwardly. He sighed heavily as he sank against Selere’s support. His body felt weighted down by sacks of lead; walking even made him feel somewhat nauseated. The world spun once around him, and his legs buckled. If not for the staff in his hand, as well as Selere’s arm around him, the cobblestone ground would have been his next bed.

“Selere, if you don’t mind me asking,” said Marcus, wiping sweat off his brow, “exactly why am I out of bed?”

With a grunt, Selere pulled Marcus, swaying, upright again. “You don’t mean to tell me this sunlight bothers you, do you?”

Marcus shook his head. It wasn’t the sunlight. In fact, Marcus was grateful for the fresh air and sunlight. However, while he did appreciate the break from his chambers, Selere had yanked him out of bed still nauseously groggy and half-asleep. Consequently, Marcus’s swimming headache churned and pitched harder, thanks to Selere’s recommendations. For Marcus, this was one of those rare times he preferred to stay in bed.

“Well! Tristan and Sealiah are at the Temple of Sei right now! I figured we had all best stick together, what with those draconians flying about in the area, and the Sanctuary being…stuffy.”

Tristan’s reports had thankfully kept Marcus well-informed of the circumstances in Luxakari. Shame that Kevyn and her group disappeared so quickly, but Marcus found no fault in their situation, considering Kevyn’s condition. Marcus remembered Reeon’s furious expression, too. The eyes, especially – glowing, and oddly piercing – those were the eyes of an angry raptor. Marcus shivered. He wanted nothing to do with Reeon’s anger ever again.

On the other hand, the recent draconian activity puzzled the Archsage. Save for hearing and seeing Aislin’s encounter with one (and shame she disappeared as well; Marcus hoped to interview her for an anecdotal study on draconian personality), the draconians had kept quiet throughout the years. So why, suddenly, did they move now? There was a motive – that much, Marcus ascertained. But what?

He glanced at Selere. “We are headed to the Temple of Sei?”

“Yes; did you not hear me the first time?”

“C-clarification,” said Marcus. “I have never been in those archives, actually. Perhaps they will help with understanding…” The draconians’ movement, Marcus inwardly finished. They certainly have a motive, and they certainly shared a history with the manaketes. Given the manaketes’ absence from Luxakari for nearly twenty years, the draconians might have finally decided to move in on the vacancy.

Could the manaketes have known this was going to happen? Maybe that’s why the general was so high-strung about the validity of the Silver Vixen. The Priestess of Light was probably the only figure able to stand her ground against the draconians, and yet, she seemed disinclined to assume her responsibilities.

Out the corner of his eye, Marcus saw Selere shake her head. “Master Seylo,” she said, “While I understand you’re practically married to archives of all varieties, feeding your knowledge is not the reason we’re headed to the Temple of Sei.”

The Archsage furrowed his brow and frowned. “You said you wanted me to get some fresh air, and that we should all stick together. As long as we remain in the archives together, we’ll be fine, right?”

At this, Selere curled her lip and glared at Marcus. “I mean to say there are far more pertinent issues at hand that need addressing! This ‘Zerenas’ character is only one of them!”

“Then do tell me your other concerns, Princess.”

Selere’s voice dropped to a hiss. “Only when Tristan and Sealiah are with us, and we have some privacy. There are eyes and ears posted all over this city.”

Marcus thought to ask what the princess meant, but her rigid focus ahead kept him silent. Selere’s pursed lips told the Archsage enough about her resolve: she would say nothing until they were within the walls of the temple.

Beyond the circular plaza, a quiet road wound through residential buildings, meandering along until it ended at a clearing, shaded by overhanging wisteria. It was in this clearing the Traveler’s Spire, otherwise called the Temple of Sei, stretched high into the sky. Ivy trailed along the grooves of its aged bricks, and framed the panes of clouded crystal windows. Selere gave Marcus no time to count the windows of the tower, however, as she coaxed him toward the spire’s doors. The oak swung in willingly, allowing the pair to shuffle in with little hassle.

Wonder seized Marcus’s chest and pushed him out of his hunch to his full height. Everywhere he looked, he saw packed, overfilled bookshelves lodged snugly between floor and ceiling. Orbs of Light magic hovered in sconces on the sides of the bookcases, and hung suspended from golden chains. The red plush of tasseled carpets invited Marcus to step ahead, along the exposed, smooth sandstone bricks of the floor. He brushed aside hanging plants – medicinal flora, he realized with delight – as he wandered ahead.

Selere’s grouchy cough reeled the Archsage back, however, before he could lay a hand on the tomes lying open on the tables. She took Marcus by his arm and dragged him beyond the archives, to a corner of the first-floor library where Tristan and Sealiah sat at a table. Tristan, with a grimace, held a hand over his nose and mouth, while Sealiah leafed through a book.

Marcus raised a brow. “Is there a smell bothering you, Tristan?”

Tristan sighed and pulled his hand away. “It’s not a smell,” he sniffled. “It’s the dust.”

Without seeing Marcus’s bemused look, Sealiah added, “It’s all he has been complaining about since we set foot into these archives.”

At this, Tristan slowly shrugged, with a look of bashful shame in his features.

Selere cut off the discussion with a swift rap on the table. “Well then!” she started, “Now that we have everyone gathered in one private place, I believe we can begin to sort out our situation.” She drew back and crossed her arms. “Namely, my recent discoveries in the basement of the Sanctuary.”

Sealiah closed her book. Alarm and worry creased her lips to a frown. “The way you say that doesn’t make those discoveries sound very positive.”

“Far from it. I’ve already spoken with Master Seylo on the matter, but has anyone heard the name ‘Zerenas’ at any point of their lives?”

Marcus was not surprised to see the clueless looks in Tristan’s and Sealiah’s expressions.

Yet Selere continued. “Then how about ‘Eurami’?”

Sealiah immediately perked up at this. “I’ve heard the name,” she said. “Aislin and Jerran mentioned it a few times.”

“Of course, yet another name we don’t know,” Selere sighed. “Who in Sei’s name is Jerran?”

At this, Sealiah tensed and bit her lip, but relaxed and folded her hands on the table. “Aislin’s draconian companion. He’s the one who took her away at the plaza.”

The threads came together in Marcus’s mind. “You’ve mentioned this man as Aislin’s guardian,” he started. “It’s best to assume he was acting in Aislin’s best interest: her safety, in other words.”

“I…suppose so,” Sealiah glumly replied. “As much as I hate to admit it, their sudden absence followed immediately by the draconians’ appearances couldn’t have been a coincidence. And, going by his nature, I’m certain he’s able to sense his brethren from miles away.”

A flow of thoughts slowly twined together in Marcus’s mind, and they were going at a rate he wasn’t sure his oration could keep up. Aislin, Jerran, the draconians, Eurami, General Pellsi, Zerenas… There was a connection between these names; Marcus was certain.

He had to draw it out.

Bolting up from his seat, he rushed to the nearest stack of scratch parchment, then to a cart of ink bottles and quills. Disregarding the flecks of black dotting his scarf, he stumbled back to the table and wordlessly began his recording, with the others looking on.

Jerran was a guardian to Aislin. These two disappeared when Reeon unleashed his magic, which, according to Tristan’s reports, was immediately followed by the appearance of the draconians. Marcus looked up from his writings to Selere and Sealiah. “Eurami,” he said.

“Draconian,” Selere replied. “I never had the chance to see her face, but she had a snakelike way of speaking. That’s a characteristic of the draconians, isn’t it?”

Sealiah nodded in agreement. “Aislin’s companion hides it well, but he has that same way of speaking. I noticed it particularly when he was angry or irritated.” Before Marcus could ask how Sealiah knew this, she quickly went on. “Aislin has never concretely described Eurami to me, but I can tell there’s a poignant fear in the topic. As far as I understand, Aislin and her friend are evading Eurami.”

“Oh!” Selere clapped her hands. “There’s another thing I remember! I heard General Pellsi address this Eurami person as ‘Lord.’ Rather interesting, isn’t it?”

Marcus scribbled Eurami’s name to the side, along with her title. “Draconians have never been known to distinguish male versus female roles. The fact Eurami is hailed as a lord says a lot about her stature.”

“I’m guessing she earned it,” said Tristan. “Probably not through any means we want to be acquainted with.”

“Precisely. We may only have old legends to go by, but they do tell us draconians are a warring race. A title such as ‘Lord’ means only one thing: Eurami stands at the very top of her kind. We know she’s superior in status to Jerran, considering he wants to evade her rather than fight her.” Marcus tapped his quill on Jerran’s name. “Curious, this one. Draconians usually have a high intolerance of humans. He obviously has some profound connection with Aislin.”

“We’ll see about that if they happen to cross paths with Eurami along their way,” said Sealiah. “For all we know, he may want to save his own hide.”

“We can’t say at this point.” Marcus pushed his glasses up. Sealiah’s responses reinforced his growing theories about her connection to the late Apostle, but the Archsage quietly decided to let the subject go for now. He had to keep up with his current thoughts. “Selere, did you hear anything about Eurami’s connection to Zerenas?”

“Well,” the princess began, “she wasn’t at all nice to General Pellsi; I’ll start with that. She ridiculed him more than anything, but she listened and acquiesced to Zerenas’s commands.”

That told Marcus enough. He wrote Zerenas’s name above Eurami’s, then General Pellsi’s on the same level as Eurami. The Archsage paused in his scribblings, staring at the blank space between the two sets of names. An apparent schism separated them, but what? What was the connection between Aislin’s side and Zerenas’s side? What did Zerenas want from the others? From the Archsages? He tapped the blank space between the names. “We’re missing some vital information here,” he said. “Whatever it is that connects Aislin and Jerran with Zerenas, Eurami, and the general, it’s not going to come up in a discussion now.”

Tristan slouched against the table. “Then how are we going to figure anything out? I thought we were on to something here, but it’s really only said the same thing: we don’t know anything.”

Marcus smiled. “Nonsense. We realized there’s some connection between all of these people. And we do have a lead.” He tapped General Pellsi’s name.

While Tristan stared inconclusively, Selere quickly grasped the connection. “Order Arcana! There must be a reason beyond religious symbols that General Pellsi tried to have Kevyn executed!”

“Exactly.” Marcus drew a line away from General Pellsi’s name, and wrote Kevyn’s at the end. From Kevyn’s name, the Archsage then extended nine more lines. “One missing member of Order Arcana can mean disaster; Pellsi must know that.”

“They were also talking about disposing of Reeon,” Selere added. “Maybe they’re targeting members of the Order for their own ends?”

“It’s a likely goal,” Marcus replied. “We don’t know what that end is, but the events here in the capital have said enough; Order Arcana is in danger. And by extension, the Archsages as well. As far as I can tell, I am the last of the late Council.”

“And Zerenas plans to simply wait for you to die.” Selere clenched her fists and bit her lip. “As though I will sit quietly by and let things continue like this!”

Tristan sat up again. “Well, in order to get Mark back into shape, Kevyn said we needed her abilities, plus Reeon’s and two other people, the Spirit and Aura pillars. Almira was the Aura Pillar.”

“Meaning the Spirit Pillar should be in Xemif!” said Selere. “In that case, we should head straight for Xemif right away and meet the others there! All things considered, it would be perfect for me as well; I would like to start my training as soon as possible!”

Marcus’s mood sank again. Truth be told, he hadn’t the energy to make the journey from Luxakari to Xemif. He remembered the Xemifian rainforests from his training days well – blazing, humid, and so many critters. Back then, those rainforests were no problem for a 16-year-old, healthy Marcus. As a 24-year-old dying Archsage, however, Marcus wasn’t sure he could handle the conditions. He doubted Selere wanted to hear any objections, however, and since she seemed especially keen on progressing away from Luxakari, Marcus decided to keep his reservations quiet.

He hoped, at least, they would take the journey slow enough for his crippling condition.

31 – Selere

With the passage of a few days, some amount of calm came back to Eternia City. Only some, though. After all, Kevyn and her entourage had disappeared like shadows melting in light. Aislin was nowhere to be found. Marcus, bedridden. And now, rumors whispered of hunters prowling in the night. Princess Selere believed them – she’d seen these hunters outside the high windows. Almost always cloaked, their facial features remained invisible, but she could see them slithering about in the alleys below. The thought of their nightly creeping made her skin crawl. She could swear she felt their reptilian eyes peeping into the room sometimes.

She had a fair bit of explanation from Sealiah, who, after noticing the night-time hunters, began regularly keeping vigil, switching off with Tristan as the hours passed. The princess at first laughed at Sealiah’s conjecture: draconians. Then Sealiah guided Selere to the parapets and pointed to a winged creature in the sky, descending to the plaza. When the wings, tail, horns, and scales dissolved into a cloaked human on the ground, Selere’s amusement sharply veered into terror.

Understandably, the citizens of Eternia City kept off the streets and barred and locked their doors for those few days. Selere vowed to stay inside as well. After all, if the draconians’ existences were real, then their fabled violence must also be real, correct? She was content with staying at her dear Wind Sage’s side as he tossed and turned through fitful rest and fever, though she soon became uncertain of her ability to keep praying for Marcus’s well-being.

All in all, the circumstances were bad. The plans she had carefully concocted were now ashes in the wind, and she didn’t have a backup plan in mind. What more, her status as Princess Onaperse and Marcus’s position as Wind Sage wound them, Sealiah, and Tristan under the hospitality of General Pellsi. At least Selere wasn’t the only one who blanched at the idea – Tristan assumed an uncharacteristic cold civility in his mannerisms, keeping to the Mageknights’ code of conduct when in the general’s presence. Sealiah too, said few words to the general.

Selere, however, had no escape. Marcus, after four days, had finally stilled in his rest, when the general allowed himself into the chambers. Citing a need for Selere’s presence in deciding the council’s approach to the “fiendish creatures” in the capital, he gave the princess no choice in the matter. She had to follow him. Nodding once to Sealiah, Selere forced a smile. “Do make sure Marcus continues that peaceful rest of his. He sorely needs it.” She had no chance to see Sealiah’s response – General Pellsi quickly escorted Selere out.

The Voice Catcher’s Sanctuary, at its lower levels, reminded Selere of the castle back in Onaperse City. Massive tapestries draped the pale sandstone walls, along with framed paintings of past Apostles and their families. Immaculate wall sconces carried orbs of Light magic instead of fire, giving the corridors and high ceilings an eerie gleam. Selere only half-listened to the general prattling on about installing royal carpets to dim the echo of footsteps, and the possibility of recruiting servants to manage the halls; he couldn’t imagine how past Apostles managed the place with themselves and their families, did they really soil their own divine hands and do their own cooking and cleaning, how blasphemous.

Selere frowned and looked away from a tapestry, depicting a caricature of the Priestess of Light receiving a shining egg from a golden dragon, to the back of General Pellsi’s head. “I think it noble of the Apostle and her family to do their own housework,” said Selere. “Considering their beliefs of equality, at any rate, I don’t believe they would think themselves above the tasks everyone else undertakes. Sei knows I wish I could learn how to do my own menial work.”

The general stopped and turned to Selere, confusion knitting his brow. “Why would you wish to be the same as all else, when you clearly are meant for higher places? Take yourself, for instance. You were born as a princess to a neutral kingdom, and your lady mother was an exalted Archsage. Rumors say you are beginning to learn Spirit magic, as though you follow in Regina’s footsteps. What is to stop you from becoming both Archsage and Queen?”

“The duties of both positions clash. I know this firsthand.” Selere crossed her arms and curled her lip in reproach. “And you would do well to address my mother by her proper title, rather than her name. You were in no friendly affiliation with her, or my family, as far as I remember.”

Arlu bowed his head in apology. “A thousand pardons, Your Grace. I do remember the Queen though; she was very well-loved.”

“As a queen or as an Archsage?” Selere denied Arlu the chance to reply, with a wave of her hand. “No matter; I don’t really care for epitaphs at the moment. Your ideas of ambition unnerve me.”

“Ambition?” The general shook his head. “I only seek what is due to me.”

Selere raised a brow. “My father defines that as ambition, and I imagine your resolve has something to do with your name? Pellsi was the surname of the last Priestess of Light.”

“I am by no means a direct descendant. At most, she is a far-gone distant cousin.” The general turned and stalked off, prompting Selere to follow again. “The woman had no children of her own, after all.”

Before Selere could inquire into the hostile tone, another golden-armored knight approached and gave a short salute before handing the general a folded piece of parchment. As Arlu quickly scanned the note, Selere concocted her inquiries and rebuttal: Why the harsh tone? Do you not cite pride in your lineage? Is that not why you aim to crush the Silver Vixen, because she sullies your name with her image? The pieces were starting to come together, and looking at the opulent decorations to the Sanctuary, no doubt installed by Arlu, Selere became more and more certain of her assumptions: something foul clouded the Pellsi family.

She never got the chance to voice her arguments, however, as Arlu said, “It seems the matter of the draconians in the capital has been resolved.”

There was no hiding the surprise in Selere’s wide eyes. “That quickly? We haven’t even reached the council chambers!”

“I will have to tie up the last few loose ends,” the general replied, pocketing the note, “but your assistance, Princess, is no longer necessary.” He gave an apologetic bow. “A thousand pardons for wasting your time, but I aim to secure the city as soon as possible. If you will excuse me, I can have someone else escort you back to Master Seylo.”

Selere curled her lip again. “That will be unnecessary, thank you.”

After a muttered “By your leave,” the general turned on his heel and glided off, leaving Selere pouting angrily by herself. The matter was decided too suddenly, she thought. And that hostility toward Priestess Azariah – very curious, and very alarming for someone supposedly in charge of Luxakari. Why, Azariah Pellsi may as well be a goddess, particularly in this area she was fabled to have protected! To regard her as just a “woman”…There had to be something behind the general’s attitude. Perhaps he lied about his lineage. True, Azariah had no recorded children of her own – Selere knew that from the archives back in Onaperse – but someone could have easily tampered with that information, especially if they were someone as high in power as General Pellsi.

She wondered whether the Luxakari archives described Azariah and her life any differently. The premier person to ask for this information would have been Kevyn, since she inherited Azariah’s title, but she was nowhere nearby. Selere’s next possible course of action, then, came easily to her: “I suppose I shall have to investigate this myself!” Saying it out loud made her hold her head proudly. Somehow, independence made her feel like a queen.

But where to start? She knew nothing about the layout of the Sanctuary, and she didn’t want to ask around, in case people questioned her poking about. Fortunately there was little to no bustle in the Sanctuary, so after a glance around, Selere made her decision: it was time to explore the Voice Catcher’s Sanctuary.

Selere’s explorations took her along not only the grand reception hall, but also around the west and east wings of the Sanctuary. The sights remained the same all around: tall crystal windows, paled sandstone bricks, and the occasional tapestry depicting segments of Luxakari’s history. The guest chambers were up the slab steps of the west wing, Selere realized, as she circled back to the reception hall again. She considered the interior plain, yes, but she remained interested all the same. Everywhere she looked, after all, she discovered something new. An arched buttress here, a hidden bird’s nest there; a new tapestry here, a mouse hole there.

She still had no idea where the council chambers were located – east wing, she surmised – but her attention fell on a door in the reception hall. Unlike the rest of the oak-and-iron doors she had seen so far, this mahogany door bore gold inlays.

And it easily pushed open.

For a door of such high craftsmanship, Selere inwardly huffed, it was certainly willing to show what it hid. Beyond it, however, was only a long corridor, lit only by magic sconces hanging from the arched ceiling. Light shined at the end, and as Selere marched toward it, a breeze whispered by. From outside? She sped her steps as curiosity goaded her forward.

A gasp of wonder escaped Selere’s voice as she emerged from the corridor to a courtyard dyed with autumn colors. Truly a sanctuary, she thought, as she took careful steps through the overgrown grass. All around, leaves fell in a gentle shower, covering a small amphitheater’s terraced seats and stage, and blanketed the surface of a pond. Hedges lined the perimeter of the courtyard, blocking the entire wall save for the entrance Selere came through, and another across the yard. Even a small orchard of cherry and apple trees bloomed along the far wall, and a marble bench in the midst of the trees finished the scene.

Selere clasped her hands together as she walked along the stepping stone path to the pond. Kneeling at its bank, she dipped a finger into the water and pushed fallen leaves aside. Murky water, she glumly saw. She stood up and glanced toward the orchard, old apples and cherries littering the ground. Selere shook her head at the sight, and turned to the other entrance. A spire stretched high from this door – the main Sanctuary, discernible from the crystal windows at the very top. As far as Selere understood, that was the room the Apostle retreated to in order to receive the voice of Sei.

What did a god’s voice sound like? Selere crossed her arms as she pondered the sensation. Sei must not sound too different from a human, considering the Apostle’s ability to hear His voice. But the Apostle was a manakete, so maybe Sei spoke like a dragon. In that case, what would bar the dragons from descending and assuming the role of Apostle?

A movement from the amphitheater brought Selere out of her reverie. Not one to refuse new discoveries, she scampered to the terraced seats and gazed down at the stage. There was the movement again, on the stage. A puff of wind seemed to blow up from the stage floor, disturbing some leaves on top. After stumbling once or twice down the steps, Selere approached the stage and brushed aside the leaves, to find a hatch open ajar.

A stage prop? Bemusement made Selere purse her lips as she edged her fingers under the hatch lid. Throwing open the hidden door, she found herself staring down a deep hole, with metal rungs on its side stretching all the way down. She thought she could see a smooth cobblestone floor at the bottom, but a strange jade light made the view hard to discern.

Selere’s thoughts jumped back to her conversation with Arlu. The man obviously had some qualms about his connection to Priestess Azariah. His quick denial of direct descendence, and his tone in speaking about the last Priestess…There was something there. And maybe that something laid at the bottom of this hole. With no time to run back to Marcus, Sealiah, or Tristan, Selere resolved to figure this out herself. She swung herself over the edge and onto the first rung, then the second, and further.

The light from the courtyard above grew smaller and smaller the lower Selere descended down the hole. When her foot finally touched the floor and she looked back up, a small coin could have easily covered the entrance. Uneasy feelings crept into Selere then, but instead of reflecting on them, she shook herself and turned her back to the ladder.

The descent had wound the princess in a wide arching corridor, lit by the same magic sconces she saw before. A sickly jade light glowed in the sconces, however, and did not change no matter which way down the hall Selere looked. Where to go from here? She pressed her right hand against the wall. Deep breath. Right it was.

There was no quieting the clicks of her heels against the floor. Sometimes Selere proceeded on her toes, but this became too exhausting after a while, and she went back to hearing the echoes of her steps again. The corridor went on straight for a long time, long enough that when Selere turned around, she couldn’t find the entrance she came from. All she could do was press ahead.

After a while, the corridor made a sharp turn to the left, and descended even further. It soon became clear to Selere, however, that she wasn’t the only one in this dank passageway. Voices alerted her to back to her toes, as she inched to the open doorway she saw before her.

This was just like listening in on her father’s private conversations. All she needed to do was press herself against the doorpane, and turn her ear toward the conversation, while keeping her breath quiet. A little difficult to do now, what with her heart trembling in her chest.

“I need the draconians off the premises of the capital at once, my Lord Zerenas.” Selere knew that pompous voice: Arlu. “Their stalking about in the city has forced the Silver Vixen into hiding! I could have ended her tomorrow, at the very latest!”

Lord Zerenas? Selere had no face to match the name. Even peeking around the corner availed Selere nothing but Arlu’s back. He seemed to be staring down at something though.

“You could have ended her today.” A woman’s voice. She sounded strangely serpentine. “But what did you do instead? Stood on top of your soap box and picked your ass while screaming nonsense. And don’t try to deny it. I had eyes there in the capital even before the Dark Ranger showed.”

“Your snide remarks have no backing, Lord Eurami,” said Arlu. “Why did you not stop the Dark Ranger when he attacked?”

“Because I didn’t have an entire platoon there?” Eurami’s voice also sounded muffled, as though she were speaking through a pane of glass. “I’m not stupid, Pellsi. It takes more than one or two Lessers to have a chance against Mailera. I must admit, he’s put on some power to his magic. Might even need to send an Elite after him.”

“That doesn’t excuse your ilk from terrorizing my city! Get them out of Luxakari!”

“If you had executed the Vixen, I could have easily done that. But of course, you fucked it up again. What is this, your second time letting that little human run off on you? At least I can keep my claws around my prey.”

Arlu huffed and slammed his fist down. “You haven’t even left Rathnevia for the past 20 years! The Cataclys is as good as dead if you can’t find it!”

“Dead? Arlu, tend to those little golden baubles you call your armor before you insinuate I don’t know my own little sister! She’s alive out there in Isaiis somewhere, I know it.”

Another voice, a male’s inarguably younger voice, echoed through. “Eurami, you say you are sure of your sister’s survival?”

“Now why would I lie to you, Zerenas? Besides that, you of all people should know she’s alive.”

“Yes…but I have never seen her.”

Selere, though deafened by her own heartbeat with each second she lingered and listened to this conversation, thought she heard a twinge of sadness in this Zerenas’s voice. Did he have some kind of connection to the Eurami character’s younger sister? What was it? Why did he sound so sad? Before Selere could think on it further, however, she dismissed her ponderings to listen in again.

“You won’t have to see her at all,” Eurami said. “You want her dead, don’t you remember?”

“I never gave any command of the sort. If I want anyone dead, it’s Order Arcana. They stopped me once before, and I can’t have them intervening again. Especially the Priestess…

“As far as your sister is concerned,” Zerenas added, “I would prefer to see her at least once, and I would much rather she remain alive. She is a twin to me before a sibling to you, after all.”

Eurami groaned audibly. “Look, you’ve been alive for, what, a couple millennia? Those Archsages have been supporting you well, but you’re not up with the times, Zerenas. You’re senile.”

Arlu immediately cut in: “Curb your tongue, Eurami! How dare you even insinuate…”

“I’m making a point, human, so don’t get your feathers in a knot. I’m saying that my dear little sister shares the same capabilities as our Regnant Archsage here.”

Selere pressed her hands over her mouth at this conjecture. Zerenas, the Regnant Archsage? But His Regnancy sounded nothing like the young man speaking to Arlu and Eurami! And what was this about the Archsages supporting him? Selere tried to recall her mother’s words: something about His Regnancy being involved in the Archsages’ deaths…How did it connect? And the sister – who was this sister that shared Zerenas’s qualities? Selere’s mind reeled and swerved as she struggled to piece the information together, but nothing seemed to fit correctly.

Zerenas spoke again, after a small sigh. “I see what you mean, Eurami. You may be correct. But my wish still stands – I wish to see my twin before you do anything to her. I wish to meet her on the battlefield at least once.”

“Ha! That mewling fledgling stands no chance against you. I would be surprised if she could even fight.”

“Even still, withhold your judgment of her.”

Arlu opened his mouth. “What shall we do in the meantime then, Lord Zerenas?”

“Taking into account your failure to finish the Silver Vixen,” Zerenas began, “you will carry on as planned. Amalgam must be finished as soon as possible, as the Silver Vixen will not fall into your hands again. I daresay she will completely Ascend by the next time you see her. Use Amalgam against her.”

“As you wish.”

“Eurami.” Zerenas paused, prompting Selere to hold her breath. He continued with his soft tone, however. “Continue tracking my sister. I beg you to keep your claws off her until she starts to show signs of hindering our plans. I…I would like to show her mercy.”

Eurami sighed and answered in a sing-song tone, “It’ll be easier to kill her.”

“It would cause me much grief.”

“Whatever you say then. You don’t mind that I peel apart her guardian’s neck with my teeth, do you?”

“I don’t care about her guardian.”

“I knew we could come to an agreement somewhere.”

As Selere began slowly inching away, Arlu spoke up one last time. “What of the efforts in the other lands? Will the others need help?”

“You speak with the same compassion Azariah spoke with,” Zerenas replied with an amused snort. “The others are moving on my command, so we have nothing to fear. Time will finish off Archsage Seylo, and then once the 14th Order Arcana has been dealt with, we can continue on to the next phase.

“Take care, my friends. We cannot afford mishaps any longer.”

Keeping her steps light and her breath silent had never been so difficult for Selere. While she didn’t understand the majority of the conversation, she knew one thing for certain: Marcus had to leave the area, right away.

30 – Aislin

In case she tripped over the cloak still tightly wound around her, Aislin watched her every step. Her footfalls echoed as she descended the treehouse’s carved stairs, but a small spark of euphoria stopped her from caring about the noise she made. The smell of the tree, the texture of the smoothened bark against her fingertips, even the leaves that rustled as she passed by them all seemed too magical. Added to the fact she was alone with Jerran, and she had become fast friends with Juniper – a friendly draconian of all things – Aislin found no reason for anxiety. Her thoughts ghosted a moment to Sealiah. A dear friend, yes, but would she accept Aislin’s circumstances as safe? Of course not. But Sealiah was not around to pose her arguments or antagonize Jerran. The thought made Aislin breathe, relieved and free.

Voices reverberated around the corner from the staircase. There was no mistaking Jerran in comparison to the other voice responding to him. “Those Lessers were on to you, Jerran.” Gruffer and older, almost like Dad. “They know you’re hiding something. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were still patrolling the area now to see if you’ll reveal anything.”

“They’re not stupid, Saturnus,” replied Jerran. “They know I’ve already memorized their scent, and I already tracked around the perimeter to see if they were hiding downwind. If anything, they probably already took off to be the first to tell Eurami I’m still breathing.”

Although she felt like a child, a spike in wariness toward the stranger prompted Aislin to silently peek around the corner, rather than walk in. An older man, obviously draconian by the ears, stood with his broad back to Aislin. Despite his graying hairs, he still retained considerable bulk. A natural-born fighter who probably recently gave up the battlefield in favor of this magnificent treehouse. Jerran, separated from this older drake by a round table, looked like a boy in comparison, but he unflinchingly met the elder’s gaze.

A soft tap on Aislin’s shoulder made her turn to face Juniper. He nodded to the elder. “That’s my Pa,” he whispered. “He’s a silver draconian. Earth, you know. I think Jerran’s the only one who can look at Pa like that.”

“Like an equal.”

Juniper nodded in agreement, as Saturnus continued. “Either way, you’re running out of time, Jerran. I may be senile from living in peace for so long, but I have been keeping track of Rathnevian time. Eurami’s ascending as the next Lord Veles within the week. She’ll want your head on a pike as her first demand.”

“That’s it?” Jerran snorted and shrugged. “You are getting senile, Saturnus, don’t deny it. You don’t know that sick bitch.”

In the silence that followed, Aislin instinctively pressed herself closer to the wall. Eurami’s name, especially spoken with such hostility, was enough to make her shake.

“Eurami’s not for the results. She’s for the process.” Jerran scoffed and crossed his arms. “You think I was lucky to keep my eye? Ever occur to you Eurami didn’t carve it out just for shits and giggles? That’s how she works. If she wants to make any demands of me, it won’t be death. It’ll be me and her in the Bleeding Court. Possibly after she deals with Aislin.”

“The human?” Saturnus shook his head. “I can’t say I understand the stakes concerning a mere girl like that one you brought.”

“You never saw her with her eyes open. And speaking of which.” He nodded to Aislin and Juniper at the staircase. “How long do you plan to hide there?”

As Saturnus turned in place, Aislin, with Juniper behind her, crept out of the shadows. Saturnus was even more of a giant than she thought, as she blinked uncertainly up at him. The elder draconian held no apparent traces of reassurance or sympathy in his eyes, just stony calculation. She thought she saw his jaw clench as he turned to Jerran again. “Red,” said Saturnus. He nodded gravely. “Red eyes. Now I see the stakes.”

“Eurami of course wants her dead.” Jerran steadily met Aislin’s eyes as he said this. “Probably even dismembered and scattered across Isaiis, Athnius, and Rathnevia if possible. But, her lord father threatened to rip her spine out from her tail if she even so much as breathed smoke in Aislin’s hair.”

“So you know you’re pressed for time. The moment Eurami ascends as the new Lord Veles, she can override her father’s declarations.”

“Eurami’s not waiting until she takes the mantle; she’s sending out scouts now to pinpoint Aislin’s location. Even more than before now that she’s getting closer to kicking her own father’s decisions into a ditch.”

“The ends Draconian Lords go to, to exercise their powers. As if the current war isn’t enough.” Saturnus shot a sidelong glance in Aislin’s direction. “And yet, this one isn’t ready to fight draconians.”

Jerran grimaced, as though he suffered a headache. “Her foster father wouldn’t let me near her as she was growing up.”

At this, Saturnus raised a brow. “I’m surprised you didn’t roast him in his own household and take the fledgling for yourself. Has surface life softened even you?”

“For living up here for so goddamn long, you like to think you know everything, don’t you?”

As the silence mounted into tension, Aislin spoke up. “Jerran, I don’t know if this is the time to argue. You said before that Reeon was the reason why all the Lessers are out there now.”

“Sad to say,” Saturnus answered before Jerran opened his mouth, “your guardian here was woefully misinformed. Although true the Dark Ranger’s sudden appearance attracted the lot of them, you are their priority.”

Aislin nervously knitted her fingers together, and cast her eyes to the floor. She didn’t know what to say, other than, “I…I’m sorry. I didn’t…”

Jerran shook his head. “One more apology out of you, and I’ll tie your tongue into a knot so you can’t even think about saying it again.”

Juniper pressed a hand to Aislin’s shoulder. “I’m not sure if that’s the right thing to say, Jerran, and while I don’t exactly know what’s going on,” He flashed a smile at Aislin, “I doubt any of this is your fault, sweet pea. Eurami sounds downright zealous and unreasonable to me; why would she want to kill someone as good as you?”

These words ushered in an uneasy silence between Saturnus and Jerran. The elder growled and shook his head before he turned the younger bronze. “If you want to ready that fledgling of yours for battle against the Lessers, you’d best start now. In the very least, have her learn how to evade. Killing blows can come later.”

With a nod, Jerran walked to Aislin’s side, and lightly nudged her to the door.

Juniper chimed again. “Pa, I can at least watch, right? I’ve never seen–!”

“You are going to stay inside and listen to what I have to tell you.”

“Pa, it’s just evasion techniques! I can use that against humans too, if I ever need to!”

Saturnus’s voice dropped to a low rumble. “You asked a dangerous question, Juniper. I intend to answer it.”

Aislin stopped to turn around, to hear in on this answer, but Jerran’s clench on her shoulder prompted her out the door. She, however, didn’t fail to see the judgmental glare Saturnus shot her as Jerran escorted her out.

 

 

“Saturnus…doesn’t much like me, does he?” The thought had dogged Aislin for hours, but Jerran never gave her the chance to voice it. Maybe the pressure of imminent attack enthused him into his demonstrations of common draconian attack patterns, but Aislin considered the lessons more like corporal punishment than teachings. Bruised, sweating, and out of breath, she laid back on the floor of the forest clearing, much to Jerran’s chagrin, when she finally had no energy left to move her body.

Jerran crouched down next to Aislin. He hesitated to speak, then blowing his bangs out of his eyes, he stared ahead at the treehouse. “Don’t worry about that old lizard. He’s got issues of his own.”

“I can’t buy that. It’s not just Saturnus.” Receiving a quizzical look, Aislin shook her head. “I shouldn’t have to explain, Jerran. You know what I mean. What is it you’re so against telling me? About Eurami? About Saturnus? About all the draconians? Why do they all want me dead? It’s not…”

It’s not fair, her mind finished. I didn’t do anything to them. I didn’t even know about their animosity toward me until only recently! Fu’s blazes, if Jerran hadn’t even shown up that night so many weeks ago, Aislin would have never known about the draconians and the dissent they harbored against her. And for what? Simply living? How was it possible to garner so much hostility just for simply living?

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Jerran said. “It’ll be better if you remember that yourself. I can’t—”

“—That is one of the worst lies you’ve told, Jerran!” Aislin rolled over and despite her shaking arms, levered herself up to her knees and glared straight at her companion. “You can tell me, but you’re just avoiding my question! You have the answers I need, but you refuse to tell me! You keep going with this nonsense about me remembering on my own, but if we’re running so low on time, why would you leave me to figure that out by myself? I can’t do that, don’t you see? I need your help now more than ever, just to simply live and feel safe! But you won’t give me even that, and you leave me alone?”

Objection clearly flared in Jerran’s features then, in his wide eyes that quickly narrowed in anger. “Leave you alone? Ai, you don’t realize it at all, do you? I’ve been watching you all these years – I never left you alone.”

“That’s not what I mean; I know you’ve been around all these years. But what about all these things connected to my memory? First you take me out of a life I’ve been living comfortably in for years on end. Then your presence alone has taken my best friend away from me. Now you’re saying there are creatures out there in the world who want to kill me for no valid reason you want to give me!” She could hear her own voice climbing higher in pitch. “And you won’t tell me why. Everyone else seems to know what’s going on, but I don’t! I trusted you the most, but even you won’t tell me anything! How is that not leaving me alone?”

She watched him look away and refuse to make eye contact with her. For a few minutes, Jerran said nothing, and his silence eventually unnerved Aislin enough that she sighed and lied back down in the grass again. “I…overreacted,” she said. “I’m—“

“You ever heard of the Cataclys?”

Aislin blinked a few times. She certainly hadn’t expected to persuade Jerran into talking this easily. If anything, she had been sure he’d keep his mouth shut at least until much later. So what did it? She recalled the disbelief in Jerran’s features when she accused him of leaving her to herself. Had that really been enough to persuade him?

She decided not to question the turn in Jerran’s mood, in case he rescinded his decision to talk. “I…feel like I vaguely recall the term. I can’t say I know what you exactly mean, though.”

“I don’t mean to tell you everything now. I can’t. I really can’t, much as I want to.” He shrugged. “But I guess I can start to clue you in a little.” After a short glance, Jerran shook his head and sighed. “There was a war, a really long time ago. And in this war, supposedly, all the dragons were ripping each other apart. Alliances and factions came and went. Dragon carcasses everywhere. The oldest lizards in Rathnevia still tell stories today of when their sires witnessed it.”

Aislin stared up at the stars. She heard of this war: the Polarity Wars, dating back nearly two thousand years. “I remember studying that a little in school, when we were learning about Isaiis’s balance, how it’s founded on the ten pillars of Arcana. The dragons are the anchors to the pillars. That war…it made everything unstable, didn’t it?”

Jerran shrugged. “I wouldn’t know; I wasn’t there.”

Ever the master of snark, Jerran was.

“That’s not my point though,” he continued. “My point is what started that war. I don’t know how it happened, but supposedly, the Cataclys is what started it.” Jerran fidgeted in place, obviously uncomfortable with the amount he was talking. “Order Arcana managed to stop that war back in the day, but all they really did was make the draconians and manaketes fight it instead.”

Aislin sat up again. “Wait, so that war…it’s still going?”

“I fought in it once upon a time, before you were even a thought.

“We call it the Rift War these days,” Jerran went on. “Mostly because that’s where it’s taking place, in the Rift. Story goes, it’s an ongoing stalemate. Neither side’s going to win the war, even if one side pushes back the other. The only thing that can stop the Rift War dead in its tracks—“

“—Is the Cataclys,” said Aislin. At Jerran’s confirming nod, she thought to ask, why and how. Her own reeling mind stopped her, however, as she fought to connect the entire situation to herself. It eventually sank in, and she indicated herself. “I…Am I…?”

“You’re not the Cataclys that started the war back in the day. But the folks who know about you are pretty convinced you’re going to stop it.”

Aislin slowly shook her head. “Jerran, I…I don’t think…I can’t even…”

This is why,” Jerran growled, “I didn’t want to tell you anything.”

Silence fell over the pair for a moment as Aislin took in shuddering breaths of air. Granted, she wasn’t sure what being a Cataclys meant, but she saw there was a lot at stake. Stop a war dating back millennia? How was she supposed to do that, if such a thing were really possible? She shook herself out of her petrification. Paralysis availed no answers, after all. “Alright, fine, let’s say I really am this Cataclys that’s going to stop the wars. Why would the draconians be so against that?”

Jerran again groaned and irately muttered to himself, before he replied, “It’s how you’re going to stop the war. And I’m not going to tell you how that works. No, don’t give me that look. I’m not telling you, Ai; you already can’t accept what you are. Just know that, the way you’re supposedly going to stop the wars, is what’s driving Eurami and her ilk to turn their claws against you.” In his silence that followed, Jerran absent-mindedly dragged his nails through the grass close to his feet. Then without warning, “It’s also why I want to – no, need to, keep you alive.”

Before Aislin could inquire further though, Jerran promptly stood up from his crouch and beckoned Aislin to do the same. “Get up; that’s enough talk for now. You still have a long way to go.”

29 – Aislin

At first, she struggled and thrashed against her captor’s grasp as they shot high up into the air, and she repeatedly threatened to plummet to her death if need be, but Jerran had a sure grip, and thankfully also an inclination to reason with Aislin. He didn’t need to do much beyond prompting her to look back over his shoulder. Behind them, on the horizon, lay a small cloud of black. Aislin huffed and called it a flock of geese. Jerran said it was a draconian hunting pack.

“They haven’t noticed you yet,” clarified Jerran, in response to Aislin’s stunned silence. “Since it’s not you they’re after.” Instead, according to Jerran’s gruff explanation, a fraction of the Lesser Draconians had been active in the Luxakari area of Isaiis for the past ten years, ever since the Ranger of Darkness gave them the slip in Sephone. Enlisted to find Reeon and haul him back home, the Lessers had split into smaller hunting packs and spread across Isaiis in order to cover more ground. Reeon had his ways of keeping out of sight – ways that Jerran admitted he had no clues for – but his “little show” in Eternia City left a beacon of his energy for the Lessers to track. No doubt they would flood the city soon to find him.

“That doesn’t make sense, Jerran. They’re looking for Reeon, not me!”

“True. In the long run, though, you’re the bigger prize.”

Exhaustion suddenly overwhelmed Aislin. Too much had happened – Kevyn on the platform, General Pellsi’s speech, Reeon’s Dark magic, the stampeding crowds, Sealiah, Marcus…and now the hunting pack. She couldn’t understand any of what was going on. Lesser Draconians were hunting Reeon – she bought that easily enough. It explained Reeon’s constant wish for secrecy. But she, Aislin, the “bigger prize?” Why? She was no Order Arcana – Sei above, she didn’t even have magic!

Instead of confounding herself anymore, however, she decided to change the focus. It was the least she could do for herself, she figured. So she let the fatigue begin to creep in. Head against Jerran’s shoulder and legs limp over his arm, Aislin slumped into his grasp. “You’re awful,” she said. “You realize that, don’t you? You’re an awful man.”

“Draconian,” Jerran corrected. “And no, I wasn’t aware.”

“Those were my friends back there. I was traveling with them. They needed help, and you just…snatched me away. What if they think I abandoned them? What if they really needed my help back there? You saw Kevyn on the platform, didn’t you? And now you say they have to deal with Lesser Draconians. I should have stayed – we should have stayed!”

This time, Jerran looked directly at Aislin’s eyes. “And do what, exactly? Last I checked, you’re hardly ready to fight off even one of them, much less an entire pack.”

“You wouldn’t have any problems by yourself.”

“Also true,” Jerran said with a proud snort. “But that would be a waste of time. The point was to get you out of there before they realized you’re around.”

Aislin bit her lip in reproach. There was something awfully satisfying about laying the blame on Jerran. It probably had something to do with his casual disregard for Aislin’s cold reserve. Or maybe it had something to do with the lack of power she had in the situation. “You’re still awful. That only means you left Reeon and the others as bait for the draconians. It was a selfish thing to do.”

“Well what did you want me to do then?” He stopped and hovered as he addressed Aislin. “I was told to look out for you, Ai, and, let’s be honest, I couldn’t care less about the others. Either way, I can’t watch you and babysit your friends at the same time. Get that through your thick skull, okay?”

“We could go back now!”

“No! Just…” Growls. Deep breaths. “No. I decided I’d get you out of there alive, and I’m seeing my decision through, whether you like it or not.” He started off to the northwest again. “You’re safe. That’s all that matters.”

At this, Aislin fell silent. To say in the least, the disparity between Jerran’s actions and words confused her greatly. One moment he didn’t seem to care much for Aislin’s welfare, but in the next second, her safety meant his entire world. She thought to ask for his objectives, his motives and his goals. Why and how had he tolerated 16 years in the human world, just for her sake? From the way he worded his responses, responsibility seemed to be the only driving factor, but Aislin sensed something else, something more profound. She had no words to describe her intuition, but there was something about the way Jerran carried himself, something about his resolve…

When this realization came to Aislin, she couldn’t begrudge him for doing what he thought was the best course of action. After all, Aislin had neither the experience nor strategy to fight off the draconians. And, if Jerran had stood up against them in Eternia City, Aislin didn’t doubt he’d cause a high magnitude of damage to the capital. Though she hadn’t seen the bronze drake in complete action yet, his firm hold around her related that same resolve she sensed in his motivation. For her sake, Aislin realized, Jerran would cleave the world in half and crush it under his heel, if need be.

He kept his focus straight ahead, allowing Aislin to, for the first time she felt, closely look at him. She couldn’t see his trademark scars from her position, but instead the side of his face that wasn’t so marred. What was it like to see the world with only one eye? Didn’t it hinder him in battle too? And yet, he always gazed ahead. He deserved more credit, Aislin thought. He did more than other people would bother trying, and still remained so focused. Leaving the others left a sour taste in her mouth, but Aislin found herself quickly forgiving Jerran. Appreciating him, even.

When a nervous tickle began dancing in her stomach and threatened to creep into her cheeks, she decided she had given enough thought to the situation. Aislin let the exhaustion totally consume her, and there nestled against Jerran, she fell asleep.

 

 

When Aislin came to and sat up, she noticed a few new things. For one, Jerran was missing. For two, the weather had become excruciatingly cold. For three, she was swathed in Jerran’s cloak. And finally, there was a young man, not much older than Aislin, seated at the foot of the bed and staring in awe at her.

Aislin scrabbled back against the headboard and drew the cloak tighter against herself, prompting the other to motion wildly for quiet. “It’s okay sweet pea!” he whispered. There was an airiness, a delicate hiss, in his voice. Much like Jerran. “I won’t hurt you I promise; Jerran asked me to watch you.”

She blinked at the pet name and glanced around. It seemed to be a modest wooden abode, possibly carved into a tree – branches and leaves crept through the windows and across the ceiling, and birds flittered in to rest in nests along the far wall. Aislin licked her lips and, steadily gazing at the young man, managed to whisper back, “Who are you?”

“Juniper.”

She was taken aback by the quick response. “Come again?”

“Juniper. Like the tree.” He was only faintly visible by moonlight, but Aislin could see his wink. “Betcha can’t guess my color.”

“Color?”

“Yeah, my color! I tried to guess yours, before I figured out you didn’t have a color, and I’ve gotta say, you’re not like a lot of humans I see. They’re usually a surly bunch around here, and they never sleep so easy like you do. There’s your eyes too. Red! Never seen anything like ‘em!”

Aislin blinked again and rubbed her eyes. To say in the least, she wasn’t sure exactly how to respond to this situation. Juniper didn’t seem hostile – he was in fact the exact opposite – if not a little strange. “Sweet pea?” And what was this about guessing colors? Maybe it was Juniper’s way of breaking the ice, Aislin concluded, but she decided to not indulge his antics. “Where’s Jerran?”

He motioned for quiet again. “Downstairs,” he said. “And Jerran says you have to stay up here and stay quiet until he says it’s okay. Oh, and keep that cloak on you too. It’s supposed to mask your scent.”

She could easily deal with that. The fur on the inside of Jerran’s cloak kept her warm, and quiet was her middle name. “Why stay up here?”

“’Cause there’s people lookin’ for you.” There was a tremble to Juniper’s voice. “Jerran doesn’t want them to find you, sweet pea. They came while you were sleeping, and since this is my room, I just acted like I needed a sleep. Jerran asked me to watch you though, so that’s what I’ve been doing.”

Aislin smiled at this. “You look up to him?”

Juniper nodded. Moonlight caught a brief flash of jade hair, and an elongated pointed ear. “Jerran’s the strongest there is, I’m sure of it! I mean…I’ll never be like him in some ways, but in others, I want to be like him.” He crept forward and leaned against the wall. “But this is my first time actually talking to a human! You have to tell me about yourself – oh, and you have to guess my color too!”

She figured she had enough clues to figure out the situation, so Aislin smiled again and nodded. She introduced herself, and explained her situation: her nightmares, her amnesia, Jerran’s involvement…And Juniper appeared totally enraptured. He interjected often with whispered exclamations and stifled laughter, and in hearing about the other lands outside of the Gatepoint Forests (on the outskirts of Kioma, as Aislin found out), Juniper appeared to lapse into wistful reverie. When Aislin successfully named him as a jade draconian, Juniper silently laughed again.

“How’d you figure that out?”

A little help from the moon, Aislin said. Along with a faint recognition of the draconian colors. Someone had taught her the colors long ago – was it Jerran? No, someone else. Scarlet, azure, jade, violet, silver, white, gold, pearl, amber, black, bronze  – fire, water, wind, lightning, earth, ice, light, aura, spirit, darkness, and none.

“Right! The moon!” Juniper crept to the window and leaned against the sill as he peered outside. Moonlight caught his boyish features in forest-tanned skin, as he smiled into the night. “Y’know, I’m really glad,” he started after a moment, “that you’re not scared.”

“Well, when you know Jerran for long enough, it’s hard to be afraid of many other draconians.”

“That too. But…you don’t mind, do you, that I’m, y’know, draconian?”

The fact had escaped her since she realized it. Juniper, after all, was so different from the stories and Jerran that Aislin thought she was talking to a human. A part of her sighed in relief, that not all of the draconians were the same. Stories never told the whole truth, did they? “Not at all. It’s hard for me, to be honest, to think you’re the same species as Jerran.”

Juniper laughed, airy, relieved, and genuinely happy. “Glad I’m not the only one who thinks he’s kinda mean sometimes. I could never be like him on that part.” He brought his legs close and curled up against the windowpane. “Pa says Jerran’s like that ‘cause he was born and raised in Rathnevia. Says Jerran’s seen, heard, and done too much there. Too much of Eurami’s way.”

This piqued Aislin’s curiosity. She never considered Jerran the type to divulge information about his past, but she did want to know more about him. He was, after all, shaping up to be a long-term companion, as well as mentor and protector. “How much do you know about him, Juniper? About Jerran?”

“Only what Pa tells me, and he never tells me the details. Says knowing Jerran too much can mess up a drake’s mind, ‘cause he’s so messed up himself.” Juniper shook his head. “I don’t believe it though. He stayed here one time about 16 years ago, when I was still a fledgling, and he didn’t seem too bad.

“But Pa says Jerran’s been in the war,” Juniper went on. “He’s been fighting and killing since he was a fledgling, because he lived in Rathnevia. There, they have to do everything Eurami’s way.”

The war? Aislin echoed in her mind. Jerran had mentioned such a thing, that Eurami was away at “the war.” It confused her then, and it confused her now – there were no wars in Isaiis. The western side of the world threatened war from time to time, but it never happened. “What war are you all talking about?”

Juniper sighed and scratched his head. “I’m really not sure,” he finally said. “Pa’s been in it too, but he won’t tell me about it. Says he got out and went straight for the surface with my mother when my brother died.”

“So you were born on the surface? In Isaiis?”

“In these very forests. I’ve never left them.” Juniper made a glum smile. “Pa won’t let me. He hates the humans as much as he hates Eurami. I’m surprised he let you stay, actually. Probably because you have Jerran.”

So Juniper had never seen Rathnevia before, never seen or heard the things Jerran probably missed. All the jade draconian knew were these forests and the stories his father told him. She wondered about those stories, and wondered if Jerran would tell them any differently, if he had the patience to talk. “Do you know anything about Rathnevia?”

Again, Juniper shook his head. “It sounds pretty bad from what Pa tells me. Half of me says I wouldn’t want to go there, but another half says I should.” He pulled a contemplative look. “Do I sound crazy?”

“I don’t think so. Maybe all draconians feel a pull to go there, since that’s where they all come from, isn’t it?” For humans, Rathnevia had another name: The Astral Depths. Legend spoke of the place as the bowels of the cosmos, and the final resting place of The Shepherd, Goddess Fu. Draconians populated the Depths in order to protect the supposed sacred ground, but from what Aislin understood, The Shepherd’s name was a damning term. Speaking Her name brought Her broken and lacerated spirit to one’s doorstep, and She would collect the speaker and take him to Her Gate, where death awaited him.

Or so the story went. Since hearing it as a child in school, Aislin never believed these legends. The Shepherd, after all, had a name, didn’t she? And she was hailed a goddess; she and her creations, the draconians, couldn’t all be so vile, could they? Juniper here was a great example. Some might argue his upbringing in Isaiis influenced his personality. Aislin, however, liked to think Juniper was naturally different, a sweet drake. And maybe, Aislin thought, it was a stretch, but Jerran was different too. He wasn’t the nightmare the legends called him. True, he could soften up his edges a little bit, but he was by no means evil.

“I talked about it with Jerran before,” Juniper continued with a nod. “While you were still asleep. He says I should go, to see Rathnevia for myself instead of listening to Pa. I don’t want to worry Pa though.”

A northern chill puffed through the open window. Aislin pulled Jerran’s cloak tighter around herself, and drew the hood over her head. “Worry…It’s something I don’t think Jerran understands. At least…” Aislin’s mind went back to Jerran’s first warning, his encouragement the second time, his fresh scars the third, the hours they spent in silence at the tavern back in Luxakari, and finally their recent flight. “I don’t think he understands it like we do.”

“Yeah. But, sweet pea, it’s obvious he worries about you, y’know.” Juniper smiled. “Before the other guests came, he checked on you from time to time. He’s the one who wrapped you all up in his cloak. It looks like a blanket on you, though.”

She appreciated it even more for that. The cold bothered her, made her feel small and lonely, but there was a warmth to Jerran’s cloak that permeated through her three layers of clothing, through her skin, her blood, all the way to a little pit in her stomach. She imagined butterflies flittering about that small warm pit, heated by gentle dragonfire. That’s what Jerran’s cloak, wrapped around her shoulders, smelled like– a kindly flame, reminiscent of Konor’s forge. Its coppery scent was probably his chains and sweat, but to Aislin they were past rainy days. She smelled a certain airiness as well, most likely from his flights, but she took it as the sea breeze from Ananse Town. All those years, he’d been watching, guarding. She couldn’t deny Juniper’s words.

Her nerves started dancing again the more she curled into her thoughts and Jerran’s cloak, but she snapped out of them when a sharp rap resounded at the door. With Juniper’s permission, Jerran pushed the door open, but wouldn’t cross the threshold. Aislin felt his mismatched gaze fall on her, still tightly wrapped up in his cloak and her nervous thoughts. “You’re up,” he said. He nodded downstairs. “You can come down if you want. Should be safe now.”

“Juniper told me there were people looking for me?” She hoped he didn’t hear her voice squeak.

Jerran’s gaze went to Juniper next, who faltered and shied away. “There were. I’ll tell you about them when you come down.” He turned to leave, then with a start, looked back over his shoulder. “And bring your swords with you…We’ll get you warmed up.”

As his steps faded down the stairs and Aislin grudgingly pulled herself out of bed, another nervous thought occurred to her – she never heard Jerran coming up the stairs.

…So how long had he been listening?

28 – Marcus

Heeding the concerns of others had never been Marcus’s forte. By extension, he often ignored the warnings of others, and walked into the arms of near-death almost obligingly. Before this affliction, for instance, he once assisted a magic school in hosting its first dueling tournament. To the school’s credit, it was still young, and in its ignorant youth, had failed to explain Cancel Theory – that the crossing of two elements across from each other on the Circle Arcana resulted in a small nova explosion. The Wind Sage threw himself into a series of these explosions in order to abate them, and abate them he did, at the cost of a few days in the infirmary. When he came to, his first thoughts went to the duels that day, instead of the burns and bruises of backfired magic that rendered him incapable of even sitting up. He was unintentionally self-destructive, by nature, and this of course put him in trouble on the day of Kevyn’s trial.

The concern Marcus had to heed came from Reeon: “Don’t come into the plaza,” the Dark Ranger had said to the Archsage in private. “It doesn’t matter what happens there. Do not come into the plaza.”

Marcus’s second double-edged virtue was his inquisitive nature. “Why shouldn’t I go into the plaza?”

At this, Reeon had doubtfully eyed Marcus. “You can feel why, can’t you?”

Though Marcus never replied, the words lingered in his mind. They hung like a miasma around him, and drew thicker the moment he saw shadows snaking high from amidst the gathered crowd. Trepidation rushed into his lungs then, bringing his breath to ragged pants – and that was when he really felt it, munching. Nibbling. Chewing and swallowing, as it wriggled its way closer to his heart.

And how frightfully close it was! Luckily its writhing about meandered away from its host’s core, but Marcus couldn’t agree with the direction it took. He glanced at the rising shadows, spearing and ramming against the platform and showers of light. Bursts of white brilliance singed the air above the plaza – Cancel Theories, luckily too small to cause damage; the disparity in power between the colliding magicks was too large.

Marcus clenched a fist against his chest as he willed his breath to slow. But it was still there, squirming, eating away at him as it crept closer and closer to the sounds of screaming spirits.

He felt someone squeeze his arm. Selere, her expression a disconcerted frown. “Why are you holding yourself like that, Mark? You already look sick enough, so please don’t make it look any worse if you don’t feel like you’re going to buckle right now!”

Marcus tried to smile, but hearing his own breath, he knew his expression was nothing but forced. That thing in him, feasting away…Why was it moving so quickly? And the spirits screaming in his ears – that had to be bad. Very bad. They screeched for salvation, they clawed at his sides for refuge from the dripping dark thing coming to eat them. They wanted out. Out like his Light. Out like his Wind.

Now they were nothing but blots of darkness. A similar blackness to the shadows that ruptured golden armor and snapped glimmering weapons into dust.

“It’s him,” Marcus panted. Talking hurt. His staff was a crutch nowadays. He slid down it to one knee. “That magic…It’s catalyzing…the process!”

Through the haze of keening spirits and chewing darkness, Marcus faintly heard Aislin behind him. “I’ve never seen anything like it before…” Fascinated? Terrified? Worried? Awed? The Sage couldn’t tell anymore. “That’s Dark magic?”

“We must…get him to stop…” Marcus rasped. He pulled himself up his staff, onto his feet. “He’ll kill me…if he continues…”

Another hand pressed against his shoulder, bidding him to step back. “Master Seylo, we’ll handle this,” said Sealiah’s voice. “You shouldn’t move.”

“No! I have to see what he’s doing over there, because whatever it is, it’s making it go faster!” The burst of excitement dashed his voice into strangled coughs. He had to hurry. Not stopping to explain, Wind Sage Marcus Seylo took in one preparatory breath, and dashed into the plaza crowd. The jingle of his staff’s ornaments alarmed citizens to stand aside as he blew by, racing straight for the tendrils of shadows coiling and snapping at a figure, no doubt the source of that awful speech from before, on the platform.

Behind him, the steady patter of three women’s footsteps kept Marcus’s bleary eyes trained ahead. Many times, his breath lurched in his throat, threatening spine-shattering coughs, but the cadence let him swallow it down. It wriggled and writhed as it fattened on the dripping limbs of severed spirits, but it kept its head down, as if willing him to see the source of its activity.

But was Reeon doing this on purpose?

With the question came a sudden scream, an abrupt end to the cadence behind him. Marcus stopped and whirled around.

Sealiah: her sword was drawn. The point inclined up and threatened to dig into a man’s neck.

A man: cloaked, but his hood was down. His right eye was obviously useless, but the other, dark brown, glared down the blade pointed at his throat. He had a hand around Aislin’s wrist.

Aislin: wide-eyed, noticeably terrified. Her red eyes really showed today. She kept glancing between Sealiah and the man who held her wrist. Indecision?

Selere stood closest to Marcus. She held both hands to her mouth as she turned to pleadingly look at him. But it ended before the Archsage could mediate.

“Unhand her.” Sealiah’s voice bit the ears with icy heat. “Now.”

“If I wanted the other drakes to eat her, maybe I would.” He pulled Aislin to his side. “But I actually want to keep her alive. Like you.”

I’m nothing like you!

The moment Sealiah drew her arm back for the stab, a blast of wind made her, Selere, Marcus, and bystanders falter.  What a refreshing wind! It wasn’t magic by any means, but it was wind nonetheless, and powerful too, perhaps enough to send a man into flight! By the time Marcus overcame the whiff of nostalgia, however, a settling breeze and a bronze glint in the sky were all that remained of Aislin and her captor.

Who was that man? Where did Aislin go? Was she okay? Why did Sealiah have such a murderous flare to her eyes? What exactly happened? His confusion summoned too many questions to count. But Marcus was not about to relent. He tried to push his concern for Aislin into a far corner. Reeon. Dark magic. Focus. He left Sealiah glaring toward the northwest, hoping she would follow soon enough.

The spirits’ keening screeched higher and higher as Marcus drew closer to the center. The crowd had created a clearing once the shadows began tearing down the platform. Pieces of gold alloy armor littered the ground, along with six unconscious bodies decorated with lacerations and bruises. Golden weapons lay shattered and scattered about as well.

Tristan sat on the outskirts of the carnage, jaw hanging and eyes wide in awe. Marcus tottered to the Wind Knight’s side. “Tristan…”

“Never.” Tristan swallowed and turned to look at Marcus. “Never, make Reeon mad.”

The Wind Sage, with Selere and shortly after, Sealiah, next to him, looked back to the situation. Shadows coiled and unfurled around the Dark Ranger, who for some reason spat blood despite having no noticeable wounds. Ahead of him, stood one man, whose armor lay in pieces at his feet, carefully combed-back hair falling in front of his eyes, and tasseled halberd shaking in his hands. Who would make the next move?

Almira, apparently. Unnoticed by either of the combatants, she crept on top of the platform and wordlessly approached Kevyn’s hanging body. Signaling for quiet, she quickly worked with the chains. One length after another, the tendrils of shadow disappeared, and corroded away as she grasped the links. Kevyn was free.

Marcus, watching uncertainly, blew a relieved sigh.

But that was his undoing.  A spell of repressed coughs finally seized Marcus. His staff fell to the ground with a clatter, drawing the attentions of the duelers. He could feel Reeon’s wild-eyed glare boring into him, staring at the black thing wriggling about, listening to the screams of the spirits—

It bit.

It shattered the amber core.

Marcus’s cries echoed with the wails of his broken Spirit magic, circling around him in a whirlwind of amber-colored lights. They clawed at him, pined for him, shrieked dissatisfied farewells as they tore into the sky.

In their place, dripping black drowned his sight. The bricks of the street pavement, the terrified screams of a princess, both felt so much warmer than the blot of darkness that then froze his limbs, his heart, and finally, his breath.

Heeding the concerns of others, after all, had never been Marcus’s forte.

27 – Tristan

If one asked Tristan how the proceeding events continued, he would call it a blur. He would then shake his head and rake his hair back, and correct himself: it was a storm, a fantastic storm of shredding shadows and stampeding crowds, of screaming spirits and a princess’s tears. The calm only came in a darkened alley, when someone whispered, “We’re heading to Kioma.”

Selere (in shocked tears), Sealiah, and Aislin, burst through the doors, effectively interrupting a meeting between Reeon, Almira, and Cyrus (Marcus and Tristan listened in but felt inadequate to contribute to the discussion). The princess made the report: “Reeon, oh, Reeon, you have to…” She was breathless; all three had no breath in their words. Tristan assumed they had run a long way. “Have you seen what happened to Kevyn? Nay, would you – could you – even imagine the state she’s in? Please tell me you know something, that you’re not in total ignorance to her condition!”

“Almira tells me it’s pretty bad,” said Reeon. Uncertainty rang in his tone.

“’Pretty bad’?” Selere echoed. “Pretty bad?” She glared at Almira, who stared back with silver eyes, unfazed. “If that is your description of an accurate report, then I question whoever decided you were capable!” Without waiting for Almira to reply, Selere looked to Reeon. “She’s chained up, Reeon! Manacles cutting into her wrists, she’s bruised and beaten all over, her clothes are barely sufficient to brave the chilly nights here, and her eyes!” Selere covered her own. “Her eyes, Reeon, they’re so…so dead! She may very well be dead for all we know!”

Reeon remained silent. Turned in his seat away from Selere. Hands clenched into fists on his knees. He shook violently, but managed to take a breath. He looked at Almira Valdis and Cyrus Paraval across the table. “Neither of you told me this, why?”

His voice made Tristan hold his breath, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw Cyrus make the same reaction. The fellow, a Lightning Mageknight whose silks and decorations belied the seasoned traveler he actually was, was to Reeon a close friend, a confidant who, over the years, had spent countless nights and drinks with the Dark Ranger. Naturally, this history made Cyrus more attuned to changes in Reeon’s demeanor, and hearing the venomous dip in Reeon’s voice seemed to put Cyrus on edge. He averted his eyes from Reeon and grimaced noticeably – the accusation seemed to sting.

Almira Valdis, however, made no reaction, totally unaffected by her companion’s distress and Reeon’s deadly tone. Tristan guessed Almira’s lack of concern came from her position as Shaman of Aura – maybe she saw things that clued her into people’s feelings before they happened. What Tristan didn’t know, and probably would never understand, was Almira’s nature: threats, direct or otherwise, never scratched her cold iron nerves. Nevertheless, the Wind Knight wanted to shield his eyes from what he sensed was an oncoming confrontation, when Almira replied, “You would have lost your focus. Your passions for Kevyn would have blinded you.”

“Blinded me? Almira, that’s information I needed to know! I told you, asked you, begged you to tell me exactly how Kevyn was doing!”

“Oh? Then what would you have done? Stormed the plaza, Shadowreave blazing? No. I called myself the lesser fool and saved your hide by not telling you Kevyn’s precise condition. Result: you stayed focus on your role here, which was to map out our courses of action.”

Cyrus tried to cull the storm: “Ree, it really was for your own good. You can’t risk exposing yourself now, you know.”

Reeon’s fist crashed onto the table, sending quill pens, ink bottles, and rolled maps into furious clatters. “Don’t give me that, Cy. Don’t you dare give me that. You know better than anyone else what that girl means to me, to the rest of this country, this world, even. You know what I would give to make sure she stays safe.”

“That’s our point – you’d throw yourself into Fu’s abyssal throat if that would help Kevyn in any way! I know how you feel alright? But you can’t go risking yourself for her sake! You’re just as important to the grand scheme of things, Dark Ranger, just as she is, so you don’t have the privilege of risking anything for anyone! I know you understand that, Ree. You’re not stupid.”

Tristan wasn’t so oblivious he couldn’t see Reeon’s point, but he had to agree with Cyrus and Almira. Presently, Reeon was the only one who knew of Kevyn’s plans, and was also the only link Mark had to survival. Losing the Dark Ranger – Sei forbid that – meant losing the Wind Sage, as well as any chance to continue where Kevyn left off…if it ever came to that. Given Kevyn’s penchant for lucky escapes, though, the Wind Knight didn’t doubt the Silver Vixen would pull through. He wished he could say this to Reeon, but the Dark Ranger had his eyes cast down on the map before him, fist still balled on the table.

Gradually though, he uncurled his hand and laid it flat on the map. “How long…has she been like that?” Still had a venomous edge, Reeon’s voice, but at least it was receding to cold civility.

“Four days,” Almira responded. “She’ll receive judgment tomorrow.”

A cold knot dipped in Tristan’s gut, and he suddenly felt compelled to speak. “Do we even know what’s supposed to happen to her? Sure, we kinda know execution’s on the list, but what exactly does that mean?”

The question brought uncomfortable silence over the discussion. Tristan mentally rescinded his inquiry, and gave an apologetic look to Reeon. The Dark mage hardly noticed, though – his eyes were focused on the map before him. Poor fellow, Tristan thought. He already seemed to have a lot on his shoulders; the added threat of Kevyn’s life must have pushed his nerves over the edge. And Tristan could tell – the air around Reeon thrummed in agitation. If he went at this for too long, he was bound to lose his mind.

Before Tristan could try to usher a hopeful statement, however, Reeon sighed and rubbed his eyes. “We don’t have time,” he said. “At this rate, anyway. Arlu won’t settle for diplomacy. We’re breaking Kevyn out of there.”

 

 

The loudest cries are in silence: it wasn’t a sentiment Tristan shared with Reeon before, but standing with him in the crowd of onlookers, he suddenly understood. Autumn sunbeams keened against the blinding walls of the plaza’s buildings, as the Inhibitor Chains manacled around Kevyn’s wrists clinked, tinkled, echoed into the crowd, whose breaths quivered with the same anticipation that kept Reeon in jaw-clenched silence. The whole place vibrated, buzzed through his ears and rattled his mind.

The plan. What was Reeon’s plan? Tristan willed his mind to dampen the reverberating tremors. One breath. Deep. Slow. The comfort of the pommel of his blade. Right. Cyrus and Almira were on the opposite side. Once General Pellsi began declaring Kevyn’s sentence, they’d start moving through the crowd to the platform. Get there as quickly as possible, get the guards out of the way, break Kevyn’s chains, and break for the exit, where Marcus, Selere, Aislin, and Sealiah would cover for them. Tristan glanced west. The four should already be there. They would clear the way to the city’s exit, and they’d be home free.

But how? Tristan never heard that part of the plan.

And how about the fact he was about to commit a crime? Assisting the escape of a convicted criminal? The thought made him shift in his place. But Princess Onaperse had given her permission. The Archsage of Wind backed the idea. Two members of Order Arcana advocated the notion. Then surely this idea wouldn’t get him in trouble? Reeon’s plan never mentioned this confusion.

Reeon’s plan never mentioned the specifics.

The Wind Knight glanced a moment at the Dark Ranger. “You’ve got something planned, haven’t you?”

Reeon returned the glance before turning his gaze back to the platform. “We’re breaking Kevyn out.”

“Beyond that. You’re planning something else.”

“I don’t see how this is important.”

“Really? Well, what are we doing? What are we going to be doing? What do we know about the guards?”

“We’re setting Kevyn free,” answered Reeon. “We’re going to close in on the platform, Almira and I will break the chains while you and Cyrus distract the guards. They’re Light Knights.”

“It’s too simple.”

“Is it?”

Tristan found himself unable to match Reeon’s glare. He swallowed down his accusations. Maybe he was thinking too far into this. Almira hadn’t objected to Reeon’s plan, after all, and, Tristan figured, she would be the first to do so if she discovered any problems.

A glint of gold from the plaza’s center silenced Tristan’s wayward thoughts, as well as the pervasive thrumming in the crowd. Six more gold-plated figures joined the first around the perimeter of the raised platform as Tristan shielded his eyes from the sharp glimmer. That’s them, he heard Reeon hiss. They’re the ones who ambushed us… The Dark Ranger’s air buzzed violently again, to the point Tristan felt his hair standing on end.

The center figure took a tasseled halberd in his hand, and rammed its end into the wooden floor of the platform. Tristan had no way of seeing the figure’s features, but he glimpsed the color of the tassels: red. Tassels…Those were decorations reserved only for officers of the Guard, and red signified the highest of the ranks – General. So that was Mageknight Light General Arlu Pellsi.

“In the absence of the late Apostle,” thundered the general’s voice, “I and my colleagues have taken command of this land, in the hopes of securing it and the prosperity of its culture and people. We are as much disciples of The Traveler as the citizen next to you. Our love may be different from what you show the revered Life, but we are just as devoted.”

He stepped aside and paced about the deck. Kevyn’s ragged form, just visible at the center, made Tristan bite his lip. A nudge against his shoulder prompted him to slowly follow Reeon, as they both lightly pushed their way through the crowd. He could hear Reeon’s whispers: You’ll want to leave this area…Sorry, coming through…Get as far away from this plaza as possible, and take as many as you can with you.

Get away from the plaza? Why? What did the Dark Pillar have planned? Were Almira and Cyrus doing the same thing?

Tristan’s questions lingering at the tip of his tongue lay smothered, however, under the Light General’s continuing speech. Reeon was picking up his pace as well, leaving no room for inquiries or conversation. “It has come to my attention that many of you hail this woman—” He jabbed an accusing finger at Kevyn. “—as your Priestess. Your Priestess of Light? This thief, this vagrant, this seductress who’s known for spreading empty promises and never delivering! I ask you, citizens, why do you trust her?”

When silence answered General Pellsi’s question, he seized up a lock of Kevyn’s hair. Good thing it was so long; Tristan was sure the general meant to rip it from her scalp. “I can tell you why, citizens.” He yanked on the silver tresses. “This! This image you have all been so in love with, is why! You see these silver locks on fair shoulders and you believe!” He wrenched up on Kevyn’s hair, pulling her head back as she let out a pained yelp. “You see her golden eyes set into fair girlish features and you believe! You hear about the rising phoenix on her back, and you believe!”

Tristan could hear Reeon ahead of him: He makes her cry one more time, I swear…

“You all believe in naught but a broken image! A blasphemy of the true Light you seek!” Pellsi threw Kevyn’s head forward and dealt a savage kick to her side. Kevyn’s flinch made Tristan cringe as well. “See this? This woman is mortal! This is no Priestess! This is a fraud, a pickpocket who scavenges on the carcasses of the alleyways from which she hails, a liar who uses an image you love to steal what she desires!”

No she isn’t. Tristan didn’t stop to wonder where that thought came from. He knew why it was suddenly bubbling up from the pits of his stomach. He remembered the days before Onaperse City, when Kevyn had suddenly adopted her healer’s voice to reassure Mark. He remembered the compassionate smile she had cast at the Archsage, and he remembered her laughs from before: Submissive and compliant? she’d said. Try ‘cooperative’. The knowledge she supplied them, the power she wielded against Neonis, the lively complaints – these were the Priestess, the Silver Vixen. Kevyn.

Pellsi’s clamor continued to rattle the air. “I will not allow you to continue calling this lie your Priestess! I have shown you, for five days, her true identity! Liar!”

Reeon suddenly stopped. Something about his shaking fists made Tristan slowly back away.

“Fraud!”

Was it his Wind? No, the tremors came from something deeper, a core that belonged only to Reeon, and its vibrations quaked the very air around him.

“Cheat!”

The platform was just yards away. Tristan lifted his eyes from Reeon, some lengths ahead, to the general and his six Mageknights.

“Whore!”

The other six remained still and hooded, but the general paced about, wide shoulder plates gleaming, halberd winking, and deep-set eyes trained on Kevyn. No doubt he hardly noticed the agitated Dark Ranger standing just a short sprint away; the smiling curve in Pellsi’s closely shaven mustache and beard said enough – he was having far too much fun.

“Kevyn ‘Silver Vixen’ Sailon. Your continued heretical behavior shall not go unpunished! I, General Arlu Pellsi of the Light Division of the Mageknight Guard, and current leader of Luxakari, sentence you to the Seven Star Judgment!” The Light Knights all raised their weapons high, points glittering with flooding energy. “Your debt shall be paid with your blood!”

Something rippled. Wavered. Snapped.

Tristan willed himself to look down.

The shadow. Reeon’s shadow. It oscillated, rose in crooked tendrils as it snaked beyond its boundaries. A circling updraft billowed about as the shadows wrapped around the Dark Ranger’s forearms. The shadows were bending to his will, wrathful and vicious, and sated their appetite as they yawned wider at his feet.

Tristan, like many others around him, collapsed onto jellied knees. Mouth agape in horror as the shadows branched even further from their host and cut into the pavement and the platform. He was too awestruck to run, but he heard Reeon pass his judgment:

Dragon Arte: Shadowreave.

26 – Sealiah

She knew Eternia City.

Of course, Sealiah never voiced her familiarity with the capital city of Luxakari, but she doubted she needed to say much. She slid off her tired horse’s saddle, and absent-mindedly let the reins hang. A warm spark tickled a fist-sized spot under her breast as she took in the sight of Eternia City.

Gray bricks made up the pavement of the city’s streets, wide with white curbs on both sides. Inlaid with the gray, marble spots made arcing patterns in the streets. Wherever an arc ended on the curb, a marble light-post stood tall, surmounted by a spherical golden flare: Light magic. Most of the sandstone buildings stood narrow and high, like sentinels stretching their arms skyward in prayer. Sunlight washed the buildings in what Sealiah believed was a holy sheen, full of promise and comfort.

She wandered ahead of the group, hardly caring about the plans Reeon laid out with Marcus and Tristan. Eternia City was just so…beautiful. The spark under her breast even blanketed the dull pounds of her headache, to the point Sealiah unconsciously whispered to herself, I’m home.

As she ambled along the wide streets, she found herself repeatedly looking up to see hanging plants and vines – most of which she swore were in bloom the last time she saw them – and smiling at them as she passed. The verdant greens and full leaves seemed to unravel in her own heart, as though she shared a sentient life with the greenery. Someone told her that was the case. She pressed a hand to her forehead as a burst of pain lanced through her mind. Someone told her about Life and how it flowers within every living thing, because “we all carry the mark of The Traveler.”

The Traveler?

Sealiah stopped in her reverie and looked back over her shoulder. Aislin and Selere were not far behind, and catching Sealiah’s glance, Aislin made a meek wave. But Sealiah only nodded and looked skyward again. The Traveler. She had lessons about Him before. Lessons at a…at a…No, it wasn’t a classroom. She didn’t learn about The Traveler in a classroom; she learned about Him at…at the temple. Yes, it was the temple! Morning sunlight had been filtering in that day, through high slits of windows, and the rays had picked up clouds of dust from the old bookshelves and tables, leaving behind the scent of ancient words in musty tomes and Mother’s robes, but Sealiah never minded the scent because—

Mother?

She’d never thought about a blood maternal figure in her life. Lost to hazy memories, she was. But turning and glancing about Eternia City again, a fresh pang of longing welled in Sealiah’s heart. And yet, she couldn’t recall a face to the endearing title. Shame.

Maybe at least she could find the Temple though. Maybe Mother would be there.

Aislin and Selere finally caught up to Sealiah. The latter wore a confused frown, but Aislin filled in the silence. “Are you looking for something, Sealiah?”

Sealiah turned to blink at Aislin for a moment. Exactly how many weeks had they avoided each other again? And…why? The answer came as a brief puff of the incriminating scent, but this time, Sealiah didn’t move to cover her nose. She suddenly felt the whole ordeal with the draconian didn’t matter, and consequently, poor Aislin! Aislin who never asked for Jerran, Aislin who had always been at Sealiah’s side through their childhood together…none of her interaction with Jerran was her fault, surely! Or was that Eternia City’s holy light talking?

Perhaps, Sealiah conceded. Perhaps it is. Because a sour taste rolled up her throat again, but she quickly swallowed it down. Smoothly too, as the warm pouch under her breast took over. She smiled. “I think I am,” said Sealiah. “Aislin, I think…I think the answers may be here. My answers…”

Aislin returned the smile, adding, “Then let me help. You’ve only been dreaming about the moment you remembered everything! Do you know what exactly we’re looking for?”

Conversation. A real conversation with Aislin. Eternia City was doing wonders, restoring faith to a shriveled part of Sealiah’s heart. She had an inkling this would only be temporary, however, because she still heard that voice from those many weeks ago in Onaperse: Aislin chose Jerran… But Sealiah swallowed the sentiment down. For now, she forgave Aislin. She wasn’t sure about later on, but for now, she could confidently say they were friends again.

Sealiah turned in place again, letting her thoughts wander into words spilling from her lips. “A spire,” she started. “It shouldn’t be very difficult to find, and it’s not very imposing either, but it’s a spire of sandstone that points up, very high. It’s a temple…”

Selere cut in. “You don’t mean the Temple of Sei, do you?”

Sealiah blinked again, the unfamiliar words ringing familiarity in her ears. “Temple of Sei,” she echoed. In her mind’s eye, she clearly saw her destination: an off-white tall and narrow building, decorated with columns and long windows at each of its thirteen floors, and she wanted the library, the library at the first floor, the biggest and oldest floor, which had in the middle of a royal red carpet, an ivory carving of a dragon, the plaque at its base reading The Traveler’s Spire, Floor 1, Archives. “Yes,” Sealiah replied. “Yes, I suppose that’s what everyone else called it. The Temple of Sei.” She noticed Selere’s frown curving lower. “Why, has something happened to it?”

“Well, I haven’t heard any recent news about it,” Selere started, “but…” She stopped and waved her thoughts aside. “Never mind. Perhaps we should see it for ourselves. For all I know, my information could be significantly dated.”

Sealiah shook her head. “Princess, if there’s something you know…”

But Selere waved her hand again. “Plainly speaking, I don’t know. As I said, it would be best if we saw it for ourselves? I haven’t heard anything new about it since the catastrophe that befell it. Though, it happened only when I was three, so it’s only hearsay I heard from Father.”

“Catastrophe?”

“Yes, apparently it was set on fire? No one knows who did it, even today.” Selere shrugged. “I would imagine the repairs are finished, so we may have clearance to go inside, but…” She put her hands on her hips. “If we’re also not looking for Kevyn’s whereabouts or condition at the same time, I doubt Reeon will have anything positive to say. And these people…” The princess looked about and shook her head. “Surely they know what has happened to their Priestess, and yet they remain so nonchalant!”

“Maybe they only seem that way,” Aislin suggested. “With the right liar, it’s easy to hide fear.”

Sealiah decided to keep her inquiries to herself, though she didn’t doubt Aislin spoke from experience, and certainly not about Konor either. She felt her temporary forgiveness already waning, but with another slow inhale of the city’s holy light, she suspended her anger for a while longer. “We can look for clues, maybe, as we head to The Traveler’s Spire. We’ll have to go through the central plaza to get to it, after all.”

Aislin blinked in surprise. “You already remember that much, do you?”

“I’m not sure if it’s actual remembering,” Sealiah said with a sad smile. “I would say it’s more like…instinct. And I think we’ll be safe to follow it.”

 

 

Eternia City’s central plaza sprawled before Sealiah, Aislin, and Selere like a map of the entire world, with mountains’ nooks and crannies, along with rivers’ meanders and currents, carefully plotted. A circular area decorated only with countless light-posts and citizens, along with flocks of chirping birds, the plaza’s sheer size made Sealiah want to turn around and try a different route. She vaguely remembered the plaza being a busy place, but she had not anticipated a crowd clogging the open area.

The motif of tall white buildings continued into the plaza, Sealiah saw as she turned in place. A mental map came into focus as she recognized the largest edifice, straight north from the plaza’s dead center, as, “The Voice Catcher’s Sanctuary.” Receiving confused looks from Aislin and Selere, Sealiah nodded to the building. “That big one, right there. That’s the Voice Catcher’s Sanctuary. In other words…”

“The home of the Apostle!” Selere finished with a gasp. “My, look at that! Isn’t it grand?”

“Supposedly, the first Apostle never wanted a building so grand,” Sealiah continued, wondering what old lesson this information came from. “She only wanted a quiet place in order to receive the voice of Sei. But the people loved her so much; they not only built a sanctuary, but they also built it as tall as they could, in order to place the Apostle closer to Sei.”

Sealiah gazed past the height of the sanctuary, up at the blue sky and wispy clouds. She pressed a hand to her heart and let the familiar warmth spread, from under her breast cascading down to the hollow in her stomach. She felt a fire begin to burn, and smiled. “We offer these humble prayers to our Lord Sei, Breath in Life, Star Reborn, Continuance Eternal, Traveler of Astra.” Trained words, she thought, taught to me by Mother.

But who is Mother? And why? Why did she teach me these words?

She made a note to herself to relate this new question to Marcus. He would be doubtlessly excited to hear his theory had gained some ground. On Sealiah’s part, she was no longer afraid of a possible connection to the Apostle. Rather, after walking about in this beautiful city, she only wanted the best for Luxakari. Finally, her life had some sort of purpose, she thought.

She turned toward the southern end of the plaza, and moved to raise her hand to the spire. Look, her voice almost said, that’s The Traveler’s Spire. The Temple of Sei. Just directly south. But another sight caught her glimpse then, as well as the attentions of both Aislin and Selere. Memory’s reverie tore away from Sealiah as she stared at the plaza’s dead center.

The autumn sun beamed its holy light on the subject of its judgment. At first, the three only made out a breeze of hair, shining familiar silver. The subject’s head hung low, exhaustion rendering her hanging body – covered in black and yet exposed through tatters – lifeless. Venturing closer to the subject, her manacles became clearer to the three girls’ eyes, heavy iron manacles and chains swathed in tendrils of shadows. She hung from these chains with no support, calloused knees on the wooden slats beneath her; the manacles visibly cut into her wrists, their aftermath leaving trails of rusty brown down the undersides of her arms. The bruises on her exposed stomach, legs, and arms, all sunburned, made her viewers cringe and look away.

Worst of all, as Sealiah forced herself closer to the deck, were Kevyn’s eyes: half-open, barely alive; their usual golden amber dulled to molded bronze.

She felt Aislin’s grasp on her arm. “Come on, Sealiah,” said Aislin, her voice a frightened whisper. “We have to go. We have to tell Reeon about this; I’m not sure he’s seen this but he has to know about it, this isn’t okay…!”

Sealiah managed a weak nod. A hitched prayer. Backed away from the deck. And with Aislin and Selere, tore back through the holy city, housing in its center an unspeakably dark judgment.

25 – Jerran

An outpost about a day’s ride from Eternia City was where Jerran decided to meet Aislin again. It was a necessary stop for the humans, after all, since – as far as the draconian could smell – their horses were dying from the hard three days’ traveling.

The outpost was also an inn and a tavern, the last one before the capital, so he waited in a corner of the tavern for his charge to arrive. No one asked after him. Not that Jerran really cared; in fact he was glad the humans left him alone. Even after spending 16 years in the human world, he still couldn’t adapt a lot of the human ways of life. Why did humans love to talk so much? Couldn’t they taste the air? Didn’t their jaws get tired? A lot could be communicated just in one lick of the air, instead of the absurd amount of words they used.

But this inn seemed to get it. The humans didn’t bother him, and no one asked after his travels. They all kept to their own drinks and conversations, and though they looked in his direction from time to time, they only nodded once in acknowledgment before turning back to their own businesses. They seemed to know Jerran had his own problems to attend to, just as he knew, from lingering clouds of smoke and wine, they had their issues as well.

He shifted a little under his cloak, hiding his myriad chains and also a vial hanging from a thin leather strap around his neck. This vial’s glowing red contents, molasses-thick, were one of Jerran’s many problems, and part of the reason why he left Aislin alone for a couple of weeks at a time. Medication for the bronze crazies, he remembered his colleagues saying, double the dose for somedrake like you, Jerran. Its acquisition required Jerran to fly back to Sephone (thank Fu Turnback Ring had no effect on draconians) in order to consult his old guardian. Even on Jerran’s wings, the nonstop flight from Onaperse, southeast across Nereis Ocean, through Turnback Ring, to Sephone took him about a week to accomplish, two weeks round trip. And all for a small vial of red molasses.

Lapses in his humanity were the last things he needed, though, so Jerran never complained. It was only through a stronger potion he had managed to suppress his primal instincts (and form) for the past 16 years, so he wasn’t surprised the stuff was finally wearing off. But it was still such a bother, thus, his urgent plea to Aislin to figure out her memories. She held the key for Jerran – though what fucking key, he had no idea; he only had hints from his guardian pointing to Aislin’s memories.

Until then, ruby molasses it was.

He noticed (smelled) agitation stirring in the tavern, and lent his ear to the humans’ conversations. Something about a silver vixen light priestess person getting put on trial within the next day or two. Jerran took a moment to piece the information together. Trial. Some sort of test? Probably nothing like the draconians’ Bleeding Court ritual – humans seemed too soft to have that sort of thing. Either way, the Priestess of Light was in a spot of trouble with the law. He wasn’t sure what “silver vixen” was all about, but at least he understood the crucial information: the trial. Humans and their law business; Jerran couldn’t be bothered.

He settled back into his corner just when faint familiar scent drifted into the tavern. It was the scent he had long been tracking, the scent only he understood as Aislin’s: the scent of stars. Or so he described it as. She smelled like heat, warm ambience, toasty, like the aura of a relaxed dragon. Also consequently dangerous – another scent Jerran adored – like primed dragon-fire, a solar flare ready to burst. Apart from a few other draconians (important high and mighty ones), only he knew this scent as Aislin’s – others picked up this scent and assumed it was the sun. Stupid lizards.

His senses proved correct, as Aislin and a couple other humans walked into the inn. Some tallish gangly human: obviously some sort of Mageknight (wind hummed around him and made Jerran’s nose itch), Aislin, and the Dark Ranger (all Maileras smelled like power: iron and smoke, though this kid smelled like rust more than iron). The males went about business, but Aislin stared straight at Jerran in his corner.

As much as he adored (appreciated) Aislin’s company, Jerran never had gotten used to her eyes, especially when she stared so directly. She had that stare since she learned to toddle about, and though her matured gaze contained cycles of thought, Jerran still felt as though she peered straight into him. Uncomfortable, to say in the least. He pressed himself back against the wall, not even realizing he did it until Aislin smiled and nodded once.

Her effect stirred in Jerran a complicated haze of feelings (but this was the only time he’d put words to them): a distance he struggled to reach across, a flare that rushed up his spine and congealed in his throat, an instinct that bade him look away and forget she existed, and an itch to intimately (closely) examine the woman he recognized as the little girl from 16 years before. And also, the only feeling Jerran could accurately name: relief, that she was still safe and still smiled. Granted, she didn’t laugh as much as before, but maybe that was a human thing. Maybe they laughed less and less as they grew up.

He thought to ask her about this human phenomenon, but another female wandered in and stole Aislin’s attention. Said something about helping with tending to the horses with Selere and Master Seylo. Jerran didn’t like this female. He wished his other eye still functioned properly just so he could burn this female’s image onto his blacklist. At least she had a memorable (familiar, from the war, though she’s obviously never been to war) scent: a forge, tempering dragon steel with dragon fire. The forge’s fire was out though, and Jerran figured some time would be necessary before it was lit. He didn’t doubt a war between himself and her once the forge’s fire started, but that was another problem for another time. He wasn’t going to bother with her yet.

He watched humans come and go for the rest of the day. Males, females, and Aislin, all passed in front of Jerran, absorbed in their problems. But no one bothered him. He decided he liked these human taverns.

 

When some degree of calm befell the inn a few hours later, one human visited Jerran in his corner. He didn’t refuse her when she sat down next to him. “Not for long,” Aislin warned. “Sealiah knows you’re here. I’m not sure how…”

“Probably something innate,” said Jerran with a shrug. “Intuitive. Should ask sometime.” He wondered why Aislin refused to cut this Sealiah character off. In the long run, she would only prove to be a liability, Jerran was certain. (This had nothing to do with his sincere belief that Sealiah was only around to get in between him and Aislin. He really was looking out for Aislin’s future.)

“Maybe another time. She seems a bit distracted these past few days.”

“Given what she is, especially here in Luxakari, I’m not surprised.”

Aislin gave him a sidelong glance. Suspicion. “You talk about her like she’s one of you. What are you suspecting she is?”

“Suspecting? Ai, I know. There’s a difference.” But he wasn’t about to reveal what he knew about Sealiah. Doing so would open a whole other black box of trouble. He normally wasn’t so patient, but for Aislin’s sake, he decided to keep his mouth shut, and instead changed the subject. “You free tonight?” (For training.)

Aislin shook her head. “Reeon says we’re leaving as soon as the horses have been rested. I’m guessing we’ll be riding through the night.”

Jerran frowned, an expression that bordered glowering. “Isn’t that amazing. I make time for you, and you’re not around.”

“You had weeks and weeks of opportunities,” Aislin shot back, lips pursed. “Don’t put the blame on me.”

He shrugged and shrunk back from Aislin’s pointed glare. What she said was true, but…He sighed and reached for the vial under his cloak. Unwound it from around his neck and handed it to Aislin. “That’s why,” he said, “I couldn’t come by more often.”

He watched her turn the vial in her hands, like a curious child handed a new toy. “It should be enough for a little while,” he said. “Supposing you even remember what that stuff is.”

“It’s your medication,” Aislin swiftly answered. The vial and its syrupy contents lay still, cupped in her palms. She stared at the little container, but she also seemed to peer into the molasses-like potion, as if looking at a truth Jerran wasn’t aware existed. “You can’t control yourself when you’re fully transformed. That’s why you started taking this medication, in order to inhibit your transformation abilities.” She blinked once, returning to herself, then with a shuddering gasp, looked at Jerran again. “It was on my account,” she said. “It’s because of me you started…”

Jerran shook his head. “Not you. I was drinking that stuff long before you came along.” He wouldn’t say he started taking the stronger doses after Aislin was thrust into his life though. (Because unpleasant memories streamed into his mind then: his favorite little girl crying his name an order of separation a child chained up in the middle of the plaza still crying always crying—please stop crying; he just wanted to protect her.)

“Either way, I still feel responsible.” She sighed in defeat, and shook her head. “I’m sorry, Jerran. I haven’t remembered everything yet. I just…” She rolled the vial in one hand. “I remembered I helped make these at one point. I feel awful that I can’t remember with who, but…” A smile. “I helped make these while waiting for you to come back.”

(He remembered too—the kid had a seat of her own reserved by the window, just so she could scan the skies and leap out to greet him soon as she saw him. He couldn’t believe this woman was the same little girl.)

Aislin gripped the vial to her chest. “Jerran, I’ll hold on to this for you. It should be safer with me.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? You saying I can’t take care of my own belongings?”

“You’re a fighter,” Aislin said. “Surely the battlefield is no place for a glass vial with extremely important contents to your survival?”

He wasn’t going to argue with that.

“Also, it’ll be reassurance for me you’ll be coming back.”

“You don’t give me enough credit, Ai.”

“Trust me, I do. But I’m just a simple human, Jerran. I crave assurance.”

 

A couple hours later: “I can do with your help, you know.”

They had passed the time and each other’s company in silence, but neither had decided to leave. Jerran attributed this avoidance of separation as something instinctive, a natural adaptation of certain past memories Aislin had yet to recall. On his part, however, he wouldn’t say what stopped him from leaving (He simply didn’t want to, but what sort of reason was that?).

At that point, he was glad he decided to stay. Though he noticed Sealiah shooting death sentences in his direction, she and others in the tavern kept away from him and Aislin. An uninterrupted time of silence with her – how many years since the last time they’d sat together like this?

He turned his head, and settled his usable eye on Aislin’s hopeful smile. “My help with what?”

She still held the vial, delicately, in her palm. “You must have heard about what’s going on in the capital, right? They say Kevyn will be publicly put on trial, but many have reason to believe it won’t be fair.” She rolled the little container, and watched its contents crawl back and forth. “They say she may be executed.”

Execution. The word jarred him a little. Feeling Aislin’s gaze on him, though, Jerran choked down his tremors. That was in the past (a little girl in chains in the central plaza crying always crying), he told himself. “What does that have to do with me?”

“Reeon wants to try to solve it diplomatically, so he’s supposed to be meeting with the Aura Pillar once we get to the capital. But I thought, well, Jerran, you have wings. And you’re stronger than anyone who’ll be present at the trial.”

“You’re suggesting that I break the Priestess out of there?” He sighed and slouched in his seat. “Not happening, Ai. I don’t do rescues.”

“You rescued me,” said Aislin, curling her lip. “Why not someone as important as the Priestess of Light?”

Jerran stared at the girl next to him. “I couldn’t give two shits about Order Arcana, you know. Far as I’m concerned, they’ve nothing to do with our lot. Just another pain in the neck, really.”

“Then don’t think of Kevyn as Priestess – think of her as our friend. She needs help.”

“You can solve that problem by yourself, I’m sure.” He looked away from Aislin’s displeased frown. “Besides that, why would you want to put me in the middle of that mess? I’ve been able to get along as a human for some sixteen years. I don’t feel like messing that up.”

He made the mistake of turning back to Aislin, who wore a strange expression of both understanding and disappointment. Was she consciously doing it? Jerran never thought her capable, but she was moving him toward changing his mind. Just as he opened his mouth to acquiesce (admit defeat), someone called Aislin’s name, faintly, from outside.

She looked toward the entrance. Sighed. “I should go,” said Aislin, sliding out of her seat. “Sorry to bother you.”

“Bother me whenever you want.” He meant it, but Aislin’s amused smile meant she didn’t quite understand. Just like before. He didn’t know why he was suddenly doing it, but he felt compelled to explain himself: “Listen, Ai. There’s nothing I can do about your Priestess; she isn’t my responsibility. And I’ve managed to get away from prying eyes for a good amount of time.”

Aislin nodded. “I understand, Jerran, it’s okay. It was a bit selfish of me to ask, really.” Someone called Aislin’s name again. It was a little louder, more urgent this time, but Aislin lingered. She glanced down at Jerran. “But if I’m in a spot of trouble…”

“I’ll be there.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.” Strange. He felt he had this conversation before, with a little girl from some far-off time. He breathed down the waves of nostalgia and nodded to the vial in Aislin’s hand. “And you can keep that safe for me, right?”

Aislin laughed, as she backed away from Jerran toward the door. “Better than you can.” She turned and left, leaving Jerran with a relieving thought:

Her laugh was still the same.