The wet wood creaked underfoot as I crept along the rain-slicked boardwalk. The dark waves beneath were barely visible; the guide torches unable to illuminate much in heavy fog. The houses I passed were quiet, the inhabitants within having retired for the night.
I would have preferred a less exposed approach, but Natolin was mostly built over a shallow stretch of sea, allowing the scarce soil in the region to be used for farmland. Fortunately, the cold air from the north provided enough fog cover I might be able to slip past the storehouse guards undetected.
The gods were in my favor tonight. Two of the torches near the west side of the building were out, likely from the downpour earlier. A quick wave of my hand extinguished the third, darkening the path.
I reached out with my magic, searching for the body heat of the guards. The moisture in the air made sensing their precise location difficult, but from what I could determine, I was up against three opponents. Two of them were near the main entrance on the east side, the third was on my side but walking towards the back. I probably wasn’t going to get a better opportunity than this.
I made my way to the western wall, letting my eyes adjust to the lack of torchlight. It wasn’t completely dark. The largest moon had yet to rise, but Leandra was in the first quarter phase tonight, her soft white light glowing from behind the clouds. It was enough to make out a window on the wall, one that apparently hadn’t been properly closed. Reaching it proved more of a challenge, between the slick windowsill and the small gap between the boardwalk and the storehouse. After some painful stretching, I managed to pull myself up and into the building, landing head-first with a thud.
Pressing a hand against my bruised skull, I wondered if I should’ve become a wind-shaper instead. Of course, this wouldn’t have been a problem if I’d stayed in retirement. After all, my days of serving the King were long past. But I owed Elysia a favor, and she had seemed particularly upset about some artifact smugglers up North.
When my head cleared I was able to take stock of my surroundings. Rows of stacked crates and barrels filled the storehouse, leaving just enough space to walk between rows. I could smell fish from some of the barrels, see straw and wool from some of the open boxes. None of that seemed particularly dangerous, much less illegal.
I ran my hand along the wood of the containers as I worked my way towards the back. Hopefully there was something obvious in here; I didn’t really want to start unpacking boxes. Grain, rice, wood, oil, it was all the usual fare you’d expect from a trading house.
Space had been left at the back of the room for a small desk that was covered in a stack of papers. I moved closer, hoping to catch sight of a shipping manifest when I noticed a small wooden fox figurine dutifully holding the papers down. I picked it up, feeling the smoothness of the wood, and the warmth that revealed a power trapped within. The fox stared back at me, watching as I set it back on the table. So there were artifacts here, though I couldn’t prove they were being shipped illegally.
Elysia wouldn’t see it that way. All trade of magical devices was heavily regulated and licenses to sell were rarely granted given the potentially dangerous nature of the enchantments involved. With a sigh, I knelt to look at the open crate on the ground. The straw within had an oval-shaped depression, probably where the fox statuette had lain. I checked the sides of the box and found a small black lotus emblazoned on one face. Not a trading company I recognized.
I stood, intending to check for other containers with the same sigil when the door to my right banged open. A tall, burly man froze with one foot in the doorway as his torchlight fell upon me. I straightened, banishing the surprise from my face.
“Hi there!” I waved at him.
The man remained frozen for just a second before raising two fingers to his bearded mouth and letting out a loud whistle. Before his compatriots could respond, I rushed forward. Grabbing some crates for support, I swing both of my feet into the burly man’s chest. The blow forced him back a step, but he was still blocking the doorway. He swung his torch, the heat from the fire flashing in front of my face. As he began to advance, a shout rose up outside. So much for stealth.
I backed up, staying beyond the reach of the man’s swings. My leg bumped against the corner of the desk and I blindly reached out, looking for something I could use. My fingers brushed against the fox statuette. The wood was hot, and I jerked my hand back in surprise. Glancing down at it, it didn’t look any different than before, but the magic within was definitely active. I seized the statuette, intending to use it as a diversion, and found myself distracted instead.
A small girl of about eight summers stood on top of a cliff, watching the frigid ocean crash onto the rocks below. Her black hair hung down to her waist, swaying in a breeze I could not feel. She turned to me, looked up with pleading blue eyes, and said simply, “I’m hungry.”
A door slammed open and I was back in the storehouse. Two more men were entering from my right, through the main entrance on the far side of the building.
I threw the fox statuette at the burly man, bouncing it off of his cheek. He stopped advancing to nurse the burn just long enough for me to reach down and scoop up a large handful of straw. I threw the straw at him, the clump scattering in the air. Before he could react, I seized the heat of his torch with my magic and ignited the straw. A hundred strands burst into flame, causing the man to cry out and keel backwards, clutching his face.
The man neutralized, I turned to confront my new assailants. The man in front charged forward. I threw my weight into a barrel, toppling it over and covering the ground in a flood of fish. The man slipped and went down. A heavy kick helped ensure he stayed down.
His partner approached cautiously, knife drawn. I was tempted to hit him with fire, but some of those containers held oil. I didn’t want to burn the storehouse down. Much of the village’s supplies were stashed in here. Instead, I drew my own belt knife and readied a strike.
I never got a chance. Big hands wrapped around my throat, slamming me into the wall. My knife slipped out of my grasp and fell to the floor. The burly man had me pinned and I struggled to prevent him from crushing my windpipe. I kneed him in the abdomen, but his grip was relentless. His shadowed face filled my vision, dark against the glowing mist behind him. How odd, had there been this much fog inside the room before?
A tortured scream caught both of our attention. The man with the knife was frozen halfway around the room. Pale purple tendrils of mist were wrapped around his neck and arms, with more tendrils emerging from the fog behind him. He twitched, eyes wide, as the mist engulfed him, choking off his scream.
The burly man relaxed his grip and I slumped to the floor. Following his gaze, I could see we were trapped, purple mist flowing through both entrances and the open window. The man backed up, stumbling into the desk, but the mist kept approaching. A tendril reached out, wrapping around his forearm, and he went rigid from the shock.
Regaining my feet, I unleashed a short burst of flame, severing the tendril and clearing a small space around us. The mist recoiled, pulling back a few feet before resuming its advance. Another couple of bursts kept it at bay.
My assailant recovered, watching as the fire warded off the mist. In the flickering light from the fire, I could make out a large welt on his forearm. I saw him glance at the torch he had dropped near the door, realized his intent too late.
“Wait!” I called out, but he was already diving forward. I moved to help, only to discover the mist was coming through the cracks between wall planks. I spun, burning away the tendril that was inches from my face. Then I remembered the storehouse was built over the water and scrambled onto the desk to get away from the pale purple fog oozing up through the floorboards.
The man let out an agonizing cry, but the mist was closing all around me now, and I was burning through my reserves at a rapid rate. I needed to get out of here fast. But I couldn’t go outside, not into the heart of the mist. I’d never make it back onto shore.
In one of my first classes at the Academy, they taught us about the Lifestream; the river of energy connecting this world to Ascalon, the realm of the dead. The Sixth Division had a strict rule forbidding all access to the spiritual plane, for our safety as much as the realm’s. Many a cocky mage had sought to tap into that immense power, only to find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer volume of flowing aether. Their minds had been scattered, unable to hold against the strain. Their souls left to drift towards oblivion.
With one hand keeping the mist at bay, I finished the final touches on my hastily scrawled spell. Floating runes glowed red as they activated, surrounding me. Just touching the Lifestream would be like trying to swim against a flood.
I was about to plunge myself fully into it.
The experience was akin to trying to embrace a waterfall. A massive force pounded at me, dragging me along with the current. But this wasn’t a river of water. Memories, experiences, regrets, and desires assailed me, the last vestiges of the recently departed. Were the scenes I glimpsed from of my own past, or someone else’s? It was rapidly becoming difficult to tell. Each new vision, each new remembered emotion left me doubting the veracity of my own history.
It was temping to just let go. To be swept away, carried off to oblivion. But then she would never know. I owed her better than that.
A dark shape swirled past and I latched onto it. It was rough on my fingers, yet firm and unyielding, I pulled myself closer and saw more dark shapes emerge through the cloudy stream. My feet found purchase and I crawled my way upward, one handhold at a time. I fought against the unrelenting current, tried to shut out the visions tempting me with the rest of an unending sleep. Then suddenly, I broke free.
I found myself clinging to a rocky outcropping at the edge of a small island. My legs were still dangling into the raging clouds streaming by, a river of deep cool colors that stretched wider than I could see. Trails of vapor and energy swirled above, ranging from a bright fuchsia upstream to the dark indigo that lay beyond the final bend of the river. Ascalon. The lightless horizon didn’t feel ominous; it was simply The End.
Having caught my breath, I dipped my hand back into the Lifestream. From up on the rocks, it was a gentle flow, like dipping my hand into a creek. I took a deep breath, steadied myself, and slowly ran through my history. Every memory I could recall, in sequence. I needed to ensure I hadn’t lost part of myself. It wasn’t perfect, I couldn’t know what I didn’t remember, but by traversing my past in order I could at least make sure everything was coherent. Now and then I would glimpse something in the Lifestream that seemed to fill one of my gaps or that looked like something I had done. I scooped those memories out, fused them into myself. The process was long and arduous and near the end I might have gotten a little impatient, but eventually I reached my last moments in Natolin. My mind was whole again. I think.
I pulled myself fully out of the river and climbed up the rocks to uncover the rest of the island. My earlier estimate was right. It was small, about the size of a hamlet. The center held a small pond of what appeared to be actual water, fed from a small stream that bounded down from a mist-shrouded waterfall. On the opposite end rose an ivory-colored tower, topped by a rotating beacon of light. Beneath it was a small pier with no boats. The wooden walkway simply stopped at the edge of the Lifestream.
The whole island was uninhabited. It was hard to tell how long it had lain undisturbed, but with no sun, no night, I couldn’t discern whether time was even moving at all.
Sensing I was out of any immediate danger, I rested on the soft sand near the pond. I needed energy to travel back, and I thought I knew a way to borrow some from the Lifestream. I might even be able to control my exit point, saving a month of travel across the mountains.
But for the moment, more than anything else, I just wanted a nice, long nap.
I stood staring at the painted door in front of me. Like all the other houses in Gallington, this one had whitewashed walls capped by a brown roof. Only the doors were distinct, this one a simple-but-functional solid green.
I knew the people that lived here, but that didn’t make it any easier to knock. I’d been standing on the porch long enough I was starting to sweat. The sunny humidity of the southern coast was a far cry from the rain-swept villages of the north.
With a sigh I reached out to knock, only to have the door jerk open with a squeak. A freckled young woman with long, dark hair stared back at me.
“Were you planning on standing there all day?” she asked, folding her arms into her simple dress.
“Hi Brienne,” I said warily. “Is ‘Sia home?”
Brienne broke into a wide grin. “I finally put her to work in the back,” she said, grabbing my sleeve. “Come on in!”
The hallway was much cooler. I bent to remove my shoes, but stopped when I realized everyone else still had theirs on.
“So, were you just admiring my handiwork?” she asked.
“The paint job was immaculate. Right down to the non-overlapping brush strokes.”
She stuck her tongue out. “I tried to get my husband to take up painting instead of shoemaking, but you know how that turned out.” She led me to the sitting room, where I plopped down on a nice, cushioned chair. “Wait here and I’ll go fetch my sister.”
“What nightmarish task did you heft onto her?”
“Cooking.” She grinned mischievously before ducking out.
“Cooking?” I asked the empty room. “How did she manage that?”
I glanced around the place while I waited. A few simple furnishings here and there. One bookshelf was decorated with little animals Brienne’s husband had sewn with spare leather scraps. The floor by the window was covered in all kinds of miscellaneous clutter. It wasn’t a pretty house by any means, but it had a cozy lived-in feeling. I wouldn’t mind having a house like this.
I turned to the voice, rising to my feet before I knew it. Elysia was standing in the doorway, the elder image of her sister. I noticed even in retirement she clung to her hatred of dresses, though her hair was unbraided, flowing over her shoulders. She looked fatigued and judging by the way she was holding her hand, I suspected she was nursing a fresh burn.
“You’re early,” she said, walking into the room. She paused a few paces from me, looking like she couldn’t decide between hugging me, shaking my hand, or sitting down.
“I uh, took a shortcut,” I said, scratching the back of my neck. “Not a very pleasant one at that.”
“Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, I just…” Since neither of us were moving closer, I sat down again. “You were right, ‘Sia. There is a group smuggling magical contraband out of Natolin. Though, I only found one box.”
She collapsed into a chair and exhaled loudly. “Natolin is well out of the Guard’s reach. And with two mountain ranges in the way, a trip over land would take longer than my unit could afford. Former unit,” she corrected herself with a grimace.
“I doubt the northern tribes would welcome Tioman’s colors marching through their land.”
She nodded in assent. “We shouldn’t repeat our neighbor’s mistake.” Leaning forward, she folded her hands. “Well, what else did you find?”
“The box was marked with a black lotus. Any group you recognize?”
“No, but I can ask around. Did you learn where the shipment was headed?”
I shook my head.
“Method of transportation?”
“Probably a boat.”
“Probably?” She arched an eyebrow.
“Well, Spring there is pretty wet and the only mountain pass was too muddy for a caravan. Besides, a boat would offer access to ports all over.” I shrugged. “If I was selling dangerous artifacts, I’d want them shipped as far away from me as possible.”
“But you don’t know for sure.” A note of annoyance crept into her voice.
“I didn’t have time!” I protested. “The guards found out, and then we were all ambushed by some kind of creepy killer mist.”
She gave me a flat stare.
“It’s true!” I lowered my voice. “I watched three people die right in front of me. Touch it and you become a lifeless lump on the floor.”
“Heavens, Tiernan!” Her mask was gone, replaced with shock and concern. “How did you escape?”
I froze. If I told her about the Lifestream, it would likely make her even more concerned.
Fortunately, her sister chose that moment to swoop into the room, carrying a small tray of pastries. Brienne paused, glanced at the two of us sitting on opposite sides of the room, and let out a small harrumph. She set the tray on the table between us, picked up one of the treats, and sat on the arm of my chair.
“Brienne…” Elysia narrowed her eyes.
“So, has my sister told you she got thrown out of the guardhouse?” Brienne bit into the pastry to cover her smile, flaky crumbs falling to the floor.
I tore my eyes away from the black silk folds covering the slender back of the woman right next to me and cleared my throat. “I thought you ‘retired’ months ago?”
“She did,” Brienne said, tilting her head back. “And she’s been moping around like a lost puppy ever since.”
“I wasn’t moping,” Elysia retorted. “I was keeping up with current events.”
“The local captain sure thought–”
I poked her in the back, cutting her off as she squirmed away. She gave me an indignant look as she settled into her own chair and grabbed a new pastry to replace the one she had dropped.
“The King might not want my help anymore, but the people didn’t choose their king,” Elysia continued. “Do you expect me to sit idly by while they are terrorized by forces out of their control?”
“You don’t have to justify yourself to me,” I told her.
That comment sent Brienne into a fit of giggles. I kicked her in the shin to silence her.
Elysia had loyally served Tioman for almost twenty years, only for the King to cast her out when his own brother was implicated in an investigation into the disappearing Treasury funds. If you weren’t willing to hear the answer, then you shouldn’t send people out to research the question. It was a sore topic, and one I’m sure Brienne teased her mercilessly about because it was one of the few ways she could get under her sister’s skin.
“Do we have any tea?” Elysia asked.
“Yeah, in the top cabinet,” Brienne replied, wiping her eyes. When her sister didn’t move, she sat up straight with an, “Oh. Ohhh! ” and leapt to her feet. A smile creeping back onto her face, she informed us it might take a while to prepare as she practically pranced her way back to the kitchen.
That left the two of us alone. Elysia was staring at the now-unoccupied chair her sister had been in and at the crumbs left all over the seat.
“I don’t know if she’ll ever grow up,” I said, trying to fill the silence.
“We could go to Laesander,” came her quiet reply.
“It’s the largest trading nexus on the continent. If you wanted to ship to the isles or the southern lands, you have to go through Laesander.” She looked directly at me. “Andris is there. He can help us track down this black lotus you saw.”
“You still intend to…” It was a stupid question.
“I’m not going to sit by while people get hurt,” she said defensively. “And if what you say about this mist is true, then this group is even more dangerous than I thought.” She cocked her head. “Are you coming with me?”
I hadn’t been planning on it. Life had gotten much quieter after leaving the Guard. Hunting down lost cats or nabbing a common purse thief was a lot less stressful than almost having your life sucked out of you.
“Will you come with me?” she asked. Her brown eyes held hope, determination, trust.
“Please,” she begged. “I can handle the cutthroats and sell-swords. But I can’t fight against magic.”
“Sure, I’ll go,” I relented. I suppose it sometimes felt nice to do the right thing.
“Great!” she said, rising to her feet, purpose burning in her eyes again. “I hope you’re still packed. We leave tomorrow.”
I found myself in a large, square room. Bookshelves were stacked against the gray stone walls, teeming with all sorts of muted-colored tomes. Above them, evenly placed around the room, small recesses held glowing crystals, the primary sources of light in this windowless chamber.
Four rows of tables and a lectern comprised the interior space. The other tables were empty, chairs tucked in. Mine had an assortment of books strewn about, open to pages detailing how to use magic. None of them were any help. You can’t cast magic if you have no talent for it.
A hand on my shoulder jolted me awake. Bright sunlight was glinting off of blue waves, blinding me. I wiped my eyes in confusion and found myself sitting on a grassy hill leading down towards the shore.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” Elysia said. Her cloak was hung over her shoulder, and her other hand was carrying our now-empty lunch basket. She looked at me in concern. “Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, I…must have dozed off?” I stood and stretched. The Azure Sea glittered below. I looked around for my pack, found it stashed near a rock.
She turned her attention back up the hill. “The carriage is waiting for us. We’ll want to get back on the road soon.”
“I never figured you’d be a carriage-rider.”
“I’m not taking one of my horses into that town!” she wrinkled her nose in disgust. “Besides, if our journey leads us over water, they’d have no place to stay.” With that, she began climbing up the hill.
I grabbed my pack, intending to perform a quick inventory of my things. When I opened it however, I found an unpleasant surprise.
Sitting atop my folded cloak, grinning back up at me, was the wooden fox statuette.
I reached down and picked it up, weighing it in my hand. The statuette was mildly warm, pulsing with a powerful energy. “Don’t need this,” I said, throwing it into the sea. I replaced my cloak and closed my pack.
That wasn’t very nice.
A girl’s voice? I spun around, but didn’t see anyone. Elysia had already crested the hill. I glanced back down at the water. The waves kept peacefully rolling in, as if nothing had changed. Shrugging, I leaned down to grab my pack, only to find the fox statuette sitting on top of it.
“Great. I’m cursed,” I muttered. I carefully picked the fox up and set it on top of the rock where I had been sitting. Then I shouldered my pack and marched up the hill. I kept forcing myself to stare ahead, fearing if I were to look back, the fox would be gone again. I almost made it.
At the crest of the hill, my willpower slipped and I snuck a glance back. The wooden fox remained where I had set it. With a sigh of relief, I climbed into the carriage, drawing a questioning look from Elysia.
The carriage started up and our picnic site faded into the distance. The road down the peninsula was bumpy, but being this close to the Katalan border, nobody wanted to risk their crew to repair it. In time I adjusted to the jostling of the road and the sound of creaking wood. I don’t even remember closing my eyes, though I must have at some point.
When I woke, I was greeted by the fox figurine.
Jolting upright, my movement caught Elysia’s attention. She had been watching out the window, but now she was looking at the fox.
“That’s pretty. Where did you find that?” she asked.
“Up north,” I said, picking the statuette up. I suppose there was no getting rid of it through normal means.
Why would you want to get rid of it? The girl’s voice again.
I glanced around, but as expected, I didn’t find any other stowaways.
“I don’t like things that keep showing up uninvited,” I muttered as I shoved the statuette into my pack.
We disembarked into the muddy streets of the Farmer’s Quarter. I would have preferred to ride past the stench, but the road had deteriorated so badly, the carriage couldn’t continue.
Back when Katalan still controlled this cape, the nobility relegated the poorer folk into the low-lying wetlands on the east end of town, away from the docks and the main markets. After Laesander defected to Tioman, the eastern road suddenly became the primary land route into town, but by then it was too late. Sixty years of haphazard building had left a warren of winding streets not meant for heavy travel. As a result, it remained easier to just ship in goods from the east than to try and squeeze a caravan through.
Every few years, someone on the Merchant’s Council would propose a new plan to establish a workable trade road through the Farmer’s Quarter, and all the other councilors, and trade commissioners, and merchant companies would nod in agreement right up until the moment someone returned with the tally of just how many buildings would need to be torn down. With half the city still sore about the secession, razing a large swath of town would only encourage more rioting, and as the Council already had discovered, riots are bad for business.
Thus, we found ourselves trudging through the mud. Deep, thick mud that rose halfway up my boots with every step. The worst part was without an organized sanitation system, I couldn’t be sure all of this mud was actually mud.
Yuck! The fox girl’s reaction was similar to my own.
Ten years ago this wouldn’t have bothered me, but I’d gotten picky with old age. One trip to the elvish isles revealed a world of difference. I could be on that beautiful white sand instead of this disgusting mud.
You aren’t that old! She protested.
It was also unnerving to have someone reading my thoughts. Having to focus carefully on each step helped distract me from that line of thinking.
Elysia led the way, her blue cloak standing out among the dreary browns and grays of our surroundings. Officially, she wasn’t allowed to wear it anymore, but I doubted anyone here would try to stop her. It certainly made our passage easier, as people scrambled to get out of the way.
We passed a herbalist with blue, red, and black flowers out front. Their window had been broken and the door smashed in. Inside, I could glimpse overturned pots and dried herbs scattered around the floor.
Who would do such a thing? The fox girl asked.
“Probably the Separatists,” I replied. “Those are Katalan’s colors, but Katalan hasn’t ruled here in a dozen years.”
That’s still no reason to be cruel.
“The Loyalists aren’t much better.” I shrugged. “I bet you can find a vandalized shop with Tioman’s colors around the corner. Tensions between the two countries have been high ever since the war.”
Is what why the knight lady is mad?
I glanced at Elysia. She kept her gaze on the path forward. She had also been deathly silent since the moment we rolled into town.
“Yeah,” I replied. “The two groups are so busy squabbling with each other, neither of them cares to try and improve things around here.”
My eyes drifted to the ragged clothing on the people passing by. To the side, I glimpsed the grime-streaked face of a young boy with an upturned cap lying in front of him. With so many faces worn down, it was easier to focus on stepping around the worst of the mud.
You don’t seem to care. The girl seemed disappointed.
“I do care,” I sighed. “But I’ve learned you can’t win every battle.”
She was quiet after that.
We pushed onward through the slums. The muddy roads turned to packed dirt, then the dirt was replaced with cobblestone. Before long, we rounded a corner and found ourselves on the main promenade.
Gray and white were everywhere. From the paved streets to the brick and mortar bridges over the main canal, even the limestone buildings in the Merchant District lent themselves to the washed-out hues. To compensate, the various merchant stalls and shops were saturated in bright textiles, each with a unique color scheme to separate them from their neighbors.
On the northern side of the canal, the buildings of the Pleasure District took a different approach. The taverns, inns, and other less savory establishments there were all made of wood, but quality browns and reds rather than the ragged mishmash used in the Farmer’s Quarter.
I had thought the streets behind us were crowded, but the throngs of people here in the heart of the city were something else entirely. People from all over the known world milled about, haggled at shops, watched the boats drifting down the canal. Their clothing was a whirlwind of styles, ranging from the long-robed garbs of the south to the low-cut elven silks, from the conservative dress of Tioman to the armless tunics and knee-length pants common in Katalan. I could even spot the occasional heavy fur robes from a northerner, though I suspect most of them donned something lighter to wear in the tropical heat.
“Well, I guess we’ll have no problem blending in,” I said when Elysia stopped to gather her bearings.
“This way,” she said simply, leading us across one of the large bridges to the northern side.
My attempt at conversation foiled, I trudged along behind her. In reality, there wasn’t much to discuss. Both of us had been in Laesander before, and even children far away had heard tales of the trading port. True, I was taken aback by how many people were around, but then again, the last time I had been here was shortly after the war.
Elysia led the way to a building about a third of the way down the main thoroughfare. An inn, one of the cleaner ones, with a pair of cedar trees out front. She pushed the door open and I followed her inside.
We entered a large common room, full of small, circular tables surrounded by wooden chairs. A dozen patrons were scattered about, some with cards, some with drinks, a few finishing a late lunch. A few of them glanced our way, but quickly lost interest. The temperature here was much cooler than outside, the windows shuttered just enough to block out most of the sun while still illuminating the room with natural light. I was pleased to note that it smelled more of wood and baked bread than smoke and filth.
Elysia wound her way to the bar and waved down the proprietor. A pudgy older man with a beard, his tanned skin suggested he had lived here for years. She handed him some silver and ordered a room with two beds.
While they were talking, I peeked around the corner and saw the cooking staff already hard at work preparing some kind of roast dinner. A side door was propped open and through it I could glimpse the stables. Elysia was right. Even if I had brought Anwea, I wouldn’t want to ride her around with this many people about.
Her business concluded, she gestured towards the stairs. In contrast to the open lounge, the stairs and hallway above were narrow enough only one person could pass at a time. Fortunately, we only needed to go halfway before she found and unlocked our room.
It was a bit small, the beds on each side taking up most of the space. On the far end, we had a short desk beneath a window that opened out on the stables. Some unlit candles were held in a sconce against the wall to help navigate around in the dark, especially given the hallway was only lit by a single window on the north-facing end.
I placed my pack in the narrow space next to the desk. Elysia had unclasped her cloak and was folding it over the frame of the bed she had claimed. She rummaged through her pack and pulled out a new set of clothes.
I pulled off my boots and lay down on my bed. When she began unbuttoning her tunic, I turned to face the wall.
“Do you need me?” I asked her.
“We need to contact Andris,” she said in a low voice. “I thought you were here to help.”
“I didn’t sleep well on the ride in. Figure it would be good to save my strength,” I said.
I heard her pants hit the floor. She leaned over and shoved them roughly into her pack.
“Fine,” Elysia said. She didn’t sound angry, but I could tell she was still upset. The sound of rustling clothes filled the silence.
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. “It’s not your fault,” I said.
The rustling stopped. “I know.”
Cloth rustled once more. I waited until it stopped before glancing over. Elysia was finishing up the final buttons on her new outfit, a looser blue silk that was more suited to the heat. She paused on the topmost button, fiddling with the polished wood.
“I don’t know what I’m doing.” Her voice was quiet enough I had to strain to listen. “I pledged my life to serving the people, but it hasn’t made a difference. Everything is just as corrupt as before.”
“You’re tracking down a purveyor of dangerous magic. If the other enchantments are anything like that mist I saw, you’ll make a difference.”
“If you say so.” She shouldered a small bag and walked toward the door. “I’ll be back by nightfall,” she said, and then she was gone.
With a sigh I rolled onto my back and studied the swirling wood patterns on the ceiling. It didn’t take long before my eyes felt heavy and I succumbed to exhaustion.
I was in a cave with others. We were fleeing, trying to keep a sword from the watery demons in pursuit. My brother was there, looking unafraid as he held the rear guard with another. I wanted to stay and help, but my magic was too unreliable. I had already caused enough trouble.
I saw him, the stoic look on his face as he held his weapon ready. The three demons in pursuit began to morph, to take on a more liquid form. But Toreon was still calm. Him and the other man did not run.
Then the ceiling collapsed and the next time I saw him, he wasn’t calm anymore. His arm had been cut, his chest run through, and his dried blood mixed in with the rubble.
My brother was dead.
I woke to find myself lying on my bed in the inn. The sun had shifted and now shone through our window. On the desk sat the little fox statuette, grinning happily at me.
“Okay, this is getting old,” I grumbled as I rolled off the bed and picked up the statuette, tying it to my belt. I was in Laesander, trade capital of the largest continent in the known world. If anyone could break this curse, I would find them here. There were still a couple hours until sunset.
Where are we going? The girl in my head asked.
“Market,” I replied, fastening my sheath. I climbed down the stairs and found the lounge had gotten a lot more crowded. Out of habit I turned away and slipped out the side door. A young boy sat on an overturned bucket propped against the open door. Though glancing at the rust on the exposed hinges, I wondered if the innkeeper ever closed that door.
To my dismay, but not my surprise, the crowd outside was about the same. Large throngs of people milled about, smaller groups hurried here and there. The Merchant District was to the south, so I needed to find a bridge across the canal.
This is because of the dream, isn’t it. She sounded defeated, like someone in desperate need of a hug.
“I don’t like it when something follows me around without my permission,” I grumbled. There was a wide stone bridge a few dozen paces away.
You think I would wish this upon anyone?
“Magical enchantments don’t really have the freedom of choice.” I was only half listening as I glanced down at the water below. The arc of the bridge was too shallow for a topmast, so the large ships must be confined to the docks.
The south end was largely like the north. Large throngs of people, traffic crowding the merchant stalls. I spotted a group loitering about in the green, blue, and white of Tioman and kept my distance. People only dressed like that here if they were looking for a fight.
I glanced at the tents and stalls along the promenade. The goods here looked more the fancy overpriced souvenir type: gem necklaces and over-dyed fabrics. I needed to find the market proper.
I had to travel a substantial distance west before I found an entrance. Clearly not the main entrance, rather a small alley that led down a half-flight of stairs before dumping me out into a large block of shops. Most of the stores here were older, permanent, but here and there a tent was set up in whatever space they could fit. One such tent drew my attention, a purple tent with silver stars embroidered on it.
The occupant was an elderly woman with amethyst eyes. Her long hair had mostly faded to white, but I could see a few streaks of lavender mixed in. She wore a green silk robe decorated in white birds and flowers, none of which I recognized. A tiny ruby sparkled at the center of a golden necklace draped over her neck, a sparkle that matched the look in her eyes as I ducked into her tent.
“Come to hear your future?” she asked, gesturing to the felted table in the center.
“I’m here to buy a…uh…” I paused to glance around outside. No one was paying the tent any mind, but I lowered my voice anyway. “I need an exorcism.”
The woman arched an eyebrow and smiled. She walked around to the entrance and untied the tent flaps, letting them fall closed behind me.
“Exorcisms are dangerous. Who knows what demons you might set free?” she asked as she walked back to her side of the table and settled down on her stool.
“I know,” I said, unfastening the fox statuette from my belt. I set it gently on the table between us. “I seem to have gotten caught up in a curse, and I’d like it to go away now.”
She reached out with her wrinkled hand and gently brushed the fox. “This creature is alive!” she whispered ominously, probably for dramatic effect.
“I’m aware,” I said. “So, do you think you can help me, Miss…?”
“Shi’nayae.” She withdrew her hand and fixed her gaze upon me. “Yes, I can help you. Are you prepared to face the consequences?”
“I am.” I reached down and grabbed my coin purse. “When can we begin?”
Shi’nayae leaned forward and covered my hands with one of her own. Her other hand she set atop the fox statuette. “We begin now.”
I felt a warm energy flow into me through her hand. The walls of the tent darkened, blocking out the exterior light, but the statuette on the table began to glow. A soft, pale blue emanated forth, and I was drawn back to my time on the northern seas.
I stood on a cliff. The black-haired girl was with me, watching the waves beneath crash violently upon the rocks. She looked calm, peaceful, until another pulse of energy flowed through us. The girl dropped to her knees, clutching her head. She opened her mouth and screamed, a long tortured wail that rang in my ears.
I tried to move towards her but someone was holding my hand. I glanced over and saw a young woman with brown hair holding onto me. “You’re hurting her!” she cried out, tears spilling onto the ground.
Another pulse and the little girl wailed even louder, a painful cry. I wrenched my hand free so I could cover my ears, but her shrieks cut through anyway.
“Enough!” I shouted.
I pulled away and fell against the back of my chair. I wiped the sweat off my forehead and tried to calm my rapid breathing. When had it gotten so hot in here? I looked around, found Shi’nayae studying me from across the table. The fox statuette remained between us, silent, but radiating an angry heat.
“What was that?” I gasped.
“That was more trouble than you can afford.” The old woman leaned forward, her gaze still boring into my soul. “If I were you, I’d hurry home before that spirit decides to get even.” She gently wrapped the fox statuette in a cloth and handed it to me. I wasted no time tying it onto my belt. Even through the fabric, the statuette burned uncomfortably warm.
“Is there anything you can tell me about her?” I asked.
Shi’nayae began packing up her things, collapsing the table and placing it next to a box of knickknacks. “She’s hungry. Ravenous.” The woman held up the tablecloth and smoothed out the wrinkles before folding it neatly and placing it on top of the table. She turned to look at me. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?” she shooed me out of the tent.
Bewildered, I stepped back out into the market. The sky was orange. That had taken far longer than I’d thought. Elysia should be back at the inn by now. With one last look back at the purple tent, currently in the process of being dismantled, I headed back out onto the promenade. Men were already lighting the torches lining the roads and bridges.
The exorcism failed. I hadn’t anticipated that. There was a hungry little girl possessing the statuette. And … someone else.
“Was that you? With the brown hair?”
The voice in my head didn’t respond. But that voice had sounded familiar.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I assumed that because you showed up when the fox did that you were the one following me around. But you’re someone else, aren’t you?”
I figured she could read my thoughts and was listening, but I had to turn my attention elsewhere as a man in black and red silks crashed to the ground in front of me. Apparently the Separatists I passed earlier had found some Katalan sympathizers to terrorize. One of the Separatists glared at me, a tall man in a green and white tunic a size too small.
I held up my hands defensively. “Just passing through,” I said, stepping around the man on the ground. I didn’t wait for a reply, I wasn’t here to break up fights. I heard the sound of wood splinter as something heavy smashed into it but resisted the urge to look. Already I could see a squad of guards rushing over. They paid me no mind as they raced past, their shouts adding to the commotion. This is why I hated big cities.
I felt a warmth near my waist. Glancing down, the fox statuette was glowing again, the blue light dwarfed by the setting sun but still visible to anyone looking close enough.
She’s hungry. The voice startled me. So hungry…
“Hungry for what? Isn’t she dead?”
I looked around and noticed I was starting to attract attention. People were pointing at the glowing statuette, at me. Magic in the open was highly frowned upon in most places, but doubly so in Laesander. Some superstitions remained, even after the secession. A pair of guards on their way to the brawl slowed, one of them called out but I didn’t hear.
It took me a moment to understand. The girl on the cliff had told me she was hungry before.
A gloved hand grabbed my arm, but I wrenched away and spun to look around. There, above the orange sun on the horizon, dark clouds were gathering. They grew, expanding in size faster than any storm I had seen, but the clouds weren’t just getting bigger. They were approaching. Fast.
I turned to the guard trying to seize me and pointed up at the sky. “Get everyone inside, now.” I told him.
He blinked for a minute and glanced at his partner. Only once the sky darkened, the sun obscured by the brewing storm, did they begin to take my words seriously. The mist was coming, descending upon a thousand unsuspecting people.
And I had let it right to them.
“FIND SHELTER!” I screamed, tearing off at a run. “GET INSIDE!” Some people took the hint, others stood around and gawked. I reached inward and summoned forth a few loud sparks. Harmless concussions, but enough to scare them into action.
If that wasn’t enough, the screaming was. It began as a wail from the west and rose quickly to a fever pitch. A look over the shoulder confirmed my worst fears. The mist had arrived, a giant shadow blanketing the town.
I could see the bridge across the canal up ahead, a few dozen paces away. Navigating there was proving difficult in the mass hysteria I had unleashed upon the streets. People shoved past, tripping over each other, discarding anything that was too heavy to carry as they scrambled towards the buildings open on the south end. By the time I made it to the corner of the bridge, the mist had already covered up the site of the brawl.
I looked across the stone bridge and came to a halt. It was a bit over a hundred paces across, then a few dozen more to the inn. I wasn’t going to make it. The mist was approaching too fast.
Elysia was in that inn. She had no idea what she was about to face. I had to try.
I yanked the guide torch out of its post and began to cross. It was an eerie sight, seeing this opaque wall of clouds drift towards me, towering far above. The screams quieted as it approached, even the sounds of the dying were consumed by the all-encompassing mist.
I made it halfway. I was standing on the apex of the bridge when the mist caught up with me. One minute I could see the lights in the buildings around me. The next, everything was obscured as the wave of purple clouds crashed into the bridge with a loud rush of wind.
I stood there, holding my torch up as the mist parted around me and passed me by, leaving a bubble of calm about ten feet across as chaos raged by. Somewhat confused, I looked up at the torch in my hand. My fire had dispersed the mist in Natolin, perhaps the fire was keeping it at bay here too.
The clouds rushing past me glowed a pale blue. I glanced down to see the fox statuette shining brightly. With my free hand I reached down and seized it. The wood was hot to the touch.
“This is all your fault!” I said as I hurled it as far as I could into the canal below. The mist parted for the statuette, leaving behind a tunnel of undisturbed air for a brief moment as the fox figurine passed by. Then the tunnel closed in on itself and the mist swarmed forward, shrinking the free space around me to a third of what it had been.
I waved the torch about in front of me, watching the flame part the mist, only for it to coil back in once the heat had passed. It was uncomfortably close now but still not touching me, and that gave me hope that I could make it across.
I resumed my walk across the bridge, slower now, needing to wait for the torch to burn a safe path. The crossing was agonizingly slow, made worse by the fact I could no longer see any landmarks, so I had no idea how much I had left to cross. The best I could do was follow the railing.
A square pillar materialized through the howling fog and I stepped onto the northern bank. I paused to orient myself in the last direction I had spotted the inn. Or so I hoped. Leaving the bridge behind, I fumbled my way forward. I counted each step trying to judge the distance I had crossed. I reached forty, forty-five, fifty, and there was still no sign of the inn. Had I misjudged? There had been a side street on the eastern side, so if my angle was wrong I wouldn’t find out until I was completely lost.
At sixty steps a wooden fence materialized in front of me. I latched on and followed it to the side. To my relief, the fence ended at an open gate and I found myself near the stables entrance. The slower pace must have thrown off my judgment. Up ahead I could make out a glow, likely from the kitchens, and headed towards that.
The side door was still open. The two stableboys were frantically trying to pull it closed but the hinge was stuck. Either through dumb luck or keen observation, one of them had placed an open-air lantern near the door. The mist howled past, but gave the open door enough of a berth the two boys were untouched. One of them spotted me and his mouth gaped open, clearly not expecting anyone to navigate this fog.
“Hold this,” I said, handing him my torch. I lent my strength and with the help of the older boy we managed to dislodge the door from its open position. It began swinging inward with a load groan and I ushered the boys inside before pulling it closed and throwing the lock. I took my torch back from the kid and told him to make sure all the windows were closed and to use fire to keep back the mist.
The common room was quiet panic as people huddled as far away from the shuttered windows as they could. A quick glance showed there were enough lanterns near the wall to keep the mist at bay, though they were originally intended to light up the room. I turned aside and headed for the stairs.
The narrow staircase went on longer than I remembered. I was in a hurry to get back to the room, but with the uneven footing I could only take one step at a time. I told myself she would be fine. The rest of the inn had been spared.
As I reached the top of the stairs, my confidence fled. The hallway was dark, lit only by my torch. In front of me, I could see cloudy wisps in the air. I rushed forward, found our room. The fog spilling out from under the door was ominous, but the flame dispersed it. I fumbled with the key, dreading what I would find inside. The latch clicked and I pushed the door open hard enough to swing it into the wall.
Mist swirled throughout the room, flooding in from the open window. A jet of flame from my fingertips burned it out of the air and I rushed forward to slam the window shut. I lit the candelabrum on the desk and the lantern by the door before snuffing out the torch so I wouldn’t choke on the fumes.
Elysia’s bed was rumpled as if used, her blue cloak discarded on the floor. Had she been here when the mist attacked? I vaguely recalled the bodies disintegrating in the storeroom as everything was drained away by the vapor creature.
This was all my fault. I collapsed onto my bunk. I knew I was cursed, so why did I bring the statuette into the city? Well, I knew the answer to that. This mission was important to her and I didn’t want to sound like I was finding another excuse to weasel out of it. But why hadn’t I told her about the curse? Wouldn’t she have listened?
Didn’t I trust her?
There was nothing left to do but wait for the mist to pass. That left me alone with my thoughts, and a lot of time to question my choices.
I don’t recall drifting off, but it was light out when a loud noise jolted me awake. Someone was fumbling with the lock. I suspected I had overslept and the innkeeper was coming to demand more payment. I rolled out of bed and rubbed my eyes, trying to think of what I should say to him. Sorry for bringing a life-sucking mist demon to your town?
The lock clicked and the door swung inward. A weary looking Elysia took two steps into the room and stopped.
“Heavens Tiernan, you’re alive!”
I glanced blearily at the crumpled blue cloak on the ground, then back at the woman gawking at me. I was confused. “You’re not dead?”
She rushed forward and wrapped me in a tight embrace. I could feel the warmth of her body mould against mine. Either this was an amazing dream or she was definitely alive.
A man cleared his throat and I looked past her to see a large man with a bushy mustache standing awkwardly in the hallway.
“For a retired man, you don’t have very much gray in your hair,” I said to Andris while Elysia disentangled herself from me.
“You’ve barely been in town a day and you’re already stirring up trouble,” he grinned while he clapped me on the shoulder.
“Yeah, well,” I sat back on the bed. “There’s more truth to that than you know.”
Elysia shot me a quizzical look. I gestured for Andris to close the door.
“You see that thing on the desk?” I pointed at the fox statuette I knew would be there. “That’s what brought the mist.”
“What are you saying?” Elysia sunk onto her bed and stared at me in shock.
“I picked it up in Natolin. Or rather, that’s where it picked me up. I didn’t realize…I didn’t make the connection until it was too late.” I slumped forward, defeated.
You told them even though you knew they would hate you for it? The voice in my head sounded amazed. I didn’t have the energy to respond.
“We were out by the docks when it descended,” Andris said, filling the silence. “It passed over us, but the promenade got the worst of it.”
“They will recover.” Andris looked me in the eye, placed an arm on Elysia’s shoulder. “I know you’re both wanting to make amends, but the city has been torn apart before. It will rebound. The best way to help now is to prevent it from happening again.”
Elysia swallowed, but when she spoke next, her tone was all business. “Andris managed to trace the insignia you found to a barony in Highwater. Travel north is harder now with the raids from Katalan, but we think we found a captain willing to make the trip.”
“She’s probably itching to leave after what happened,” Andris added. “We won’t have long.”
I looked up to find the two of them staring at me. Confused, I asked, “You really think it’s a good idea for me to come along? Where I go, that thing follows.”
“And you can’t disentangle yourself from it?” Elysia asked.
I shook my head. “The enchantment is beyond me. I tried getting help from a Witch Doctor, but…that may have helped instigate the incident.” I sighed. “This is why I wanted out. Why I hate getting involved.”
She narrowed her eyes. “This is precisely why you should become even more involved. If you hadn’t been left here alone, you might not have gotten the stupid idea to provoke a deadly spirit in the center of town.” She rose to her feet. “Now grab your things. You’re coming with us.”
You made a terrible mistake and your friends didn’t outright reject you? The voice was surprised.
“Not yet anyway,” I muttered under my breath. I grabbed my pack, made sure everything I needed was stashed inside.
I didn’t bother picking up the fox statuette. It was just going to follow along anyway.
“You hired a pirate ship?” I asked, staring up at the vessel.
“An elvish pirate ship,” Andris corrected. “Much faster than an ordinary pirate ship. And they’re closer to illicit traders than pirates anyway.“
“And she was okay with this?” I nodded towards Elysia, who was currently on the deck negotiating with the lady I presumed was the captain.
“It was her idea. Most merchants don’t want to make the run. Not enough value to be worth the risk.”
I studied the captain. Despite the tanned skin common to the sea elves, despite the blue tattoos on her face marking her a Windseeker, something about her seemed off. Especially in comparison to the rest of her crew. I turned back to Andris. “Are you sure she’s helmed a ship before?”
“Well, we can’t be too picky about the opportunities life offers.” Andris grinned. He saw Elysia wave at us and stepped onto the gangplank. “I’m sure it can’t be any worse than the surprise you’re carrying.”
“Thanks for the words of encouragement,” I muttered as I followed him on board.
On the deck, the couple dozen crewmen were busy making final preparations to cast off. Nobody spoke about it, at least not in a language I understood, but I could see the tension in their movements, the nervous fear in every step.
While we were appraising the crew, the captain was studying us. She looked rather young for her position, and the sternness of her expression suggested she was frequently reminded of that.
“I am Dheiva,” she introduced herself. No elvish bow of propriety, though I suppose we were the ones intruding on her ship. “If you are finished here, we shall leave within the hour.”
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” I asked Elysia after the captain had left.
“Dheiva says she can get us to Highwater in under two weeks. That’s far better than anyone else could offer.” A faint smile crept onto her face. “Besides, where else would I get to watch shirtless elves?”
“I’m going belowdecks,” I said, adjusting my pack.
Two weeks. Could we make it that long without another mist attack?
I was in a room with some kind of large metal contraption. Pictures were displayed in boxes. Windows into other people’s lives, other places. I ignored them. I was here for a purpose and short on time.
I fiddled with some of the devices. There were buttons to push, levers to pull, a knob to turn. I could read the labels, but I didn’t understand the terminology. All I knew was this specific combination was the one I wanted. What my experiments had shown.
An elderly man entered the room. He saw what I was doing and narrowed his eyes.
Thank you for taking care of me the last couple of weeks. The woman in my head spoke.
“This is your dream, isn’t it?” I asked her. The man smiled, but I missed his reply.
I’ve only ever been a burden on my friends, and if I went back, I’d just continue to fail at everything.
I figured she wasn’t addressing me. I was just witnessing one of her memories. Like with the dead boy.
Dream-me was squeezing my hands together. Something bad was about to happen.
The best thing would be… I reached towards one of the buttons.
The man’s eyes went wide. He rushed forward with a shout. “RETSY! NO!”
…if I never existed…
I lay on my bed, if you could call it a bed, staring up at the wooden planks above me. My room was small as I’d expected, but at least I didn’t have to share. That left me plenty of time with my thoughts. And hers.
“So, your name is Retsy?”
I didn’t really expect her to reply. She always went silent when the topic turned to herself.
“Well, Retsy, I think that was a dramatic overreaction on your part. Nobody messes up bad enough to be worth erasing from existence.” Then again, I recently unleashed a deadly being upon a crowded town. Who knows how many people would still be alive if I was erased from existence.
That’s not the same.
“Isn’t it?” I sighed. “Look, I don’t know what you think you’re guilty of, but from what I’ve seen, it can’t be that bad.”
You don’t know that. I’m a failure.
“Making a mistake doesn’t make you a failure. We all make mistakes. We learn from them and grow and move on.”
Then why do you always feel so guilty around Elysia?
“Because I–” I took a deep breath. “You know, it’s not a fair fight if you can just read my mind.
“Elysia always wants to jump in and fix things,” I continued. “I don’t. I mean, I sympathize and understand. It’s just whenever I get involved, people tend to get hurt. I figure if I stay on the sidelines, keep to myself, I won’t be responsible for anything that happens.”
How is that different than what I did?
“I’m not so sure that is true anymore. I mean, yes I was too callous with the fox spirit, yes I got a lot of people killed. But before I picked it up, it was destined to be shipped to who knows where. I think the mist still would be out there, devouring cities. Is it really okay for me to brush off those problems simply because they aren’t centered around me?”
I swung my feet off the bed and sat up. “Elysia is always telling me ‘those with the power to act have the responsibility to do so.’ Is it worse to try and fail or to not try at all?”
Retsy didn’t respond.
“Give me a moment,” I said, rising to my feet. The hall outside my quarters was dark. There wasn’t any need to illuminate half the ship at night. I didn’t wait for my eyes to adjust. I knew which direction led above decks and pressed my hand against the wall to guide the way.
Outside, a few people from the night crew were active. I’m sure the ship would run fine by itself, but it didn’t hurt to have extra eyes watching for unwelcome visitors. I wasn’t here to socialize though, so I found a quiet place by the stern and lay down.
A thousand points of light stared back at me. Here and there a wisp of a cloud would obscure part of the view, but the rest of the endless expanse stretched out in all directions.
“You ever look up at the stars?” It was something I didn’t get to do enough, especially with all the running around of late. “Our astrologians theorize each one of those is a sun like ours, casting out their light from far away.”
“We tend to think ourselves significant, special. But if you stop and look around, you’d realize we’re not. Whatever mistakes you made, whatever failings I have, in the grand scheme of things I’m not sure they matter. The world – the universe is so much bigger than that.”
Is this supposed to cheer me up?
“If there are other stars, then it stands to reason there are other worlds. Maybe some of those worlds have people on them. Maybe, if you look hard enough, you could even find another Retsy.”
“Is it though?” I grinned. “You saw the Lifestream, how massive it was. A river that big must be flowing with a lot of souls. Is it beyond reason to think that some of those might come from other places?
“What if there was another Retsy out there?” I continued. “What would you want her to be like?”
It doesn’t matter. I’ll never meet her anyway.
“If you had the chance to remake your life, to pick different choices, what would you change? What kind of person would you want to be? And before you answer, actually think about it.”
Retsy was quiet for a moment before finally admitting, I don’t know. Why?
“I want to know what you would do if you could have a second chance.”
The sound of the waves splashing against the hull was the only reply.
“So, are you able to sense her in some way?” I asked.
The afternoon sun shone through the porthole, illuminating the bare room. Aside from the narrow bed, there was a small walking area running the length of the room, giving me about eight feet to pace back and forth.
Why not go upstairs?
It was kind of annoying to have someone read your mind, picking up and fixating on any stray thought that wandered across. A point I made sure to focus on for several seconds.
You’re hiding from her, aren’t you?
I glanced at the fox figurine sitting on my bed. “I’m not hiding. I know that even if I could get rid of it, it would just go torment someone else.”
You know who I mean.
I stopped, finding myself face-to-face with the door. “Well, I’m sure she’s busy enjoying the company of that ravishing first mate and not presently wanting to be reminded of the creepy death statuette she hasn’t told them about.”
You think she despises you now.
“And you didn’t answer my question.” I resumed my pacing. “You seem to have some sort of connection. You told me she was hungry.”
Yes. She was in pain after that woman hurt her, but then when we stumbled across the brawl she started to get really hungry.
“A bunch of people fighting made her hungry?” I was skeptical.
That’s when it started. Then it kept growing and growing, making me hungry.
“And then the mist came.” I paused, thinking back to my night in Natolin. I vaguely recalled hallucinating a hungry girl. Then the mist showed up and ended a brawl there too.
“Do you think she feeds on aggression?” I asked. It could be a coincidence, but it was a commonality between the two encounters.
So if nobody is fighting…there would be no mist. For the first time, it sounded like Retsy was genuinely excited about something.
I could relate. If there was a way to control the mist, to prevent another catastrophe, then that was one less burden to bear.
“There’s just one problem,” I said, snapping us back to reality.
“We’re making great headway, but…” Andris smoothed his mustache. “As you know, the hardest part is going to be the next few days.”
What’s the matter?
“Katalan,” I said.
“Katalan,” Andris agreed. “If Dheiva’s observations are correct, we’re passing the coastal range now, which means we’ll be alongside the heartland by tomorrow.”
I peered over the railing. An endless expanse of blue stretched out before me beneath another cloudless sky. “Well, I assume the captain knows her own ship, so I’ll take her word for it. As long as we can avoid any patrols.” I retreated to the shade and sat down.
Why are you so worried about Katalan?
“Because they lost the war,” I answered quietly so Andris wouldn’t hear. “That put them into a lot of debt, compounded by the loss of their best trading port. So now their navy patrols the waters off their coast, demanding a tithe from any ships they catch.”
Couldn’t we just pay them?
“Well, normally, yes. Though it would be expensive. But the three of us fought for Tioman against Katalan, and Elysia is especially well-known, so they may not just settle for money.”
Andris sat down beside me. “I wish we could put more distance between us and the capital, but the winds are bad. We’ll have to take what we can get.”
“How is she?” I turned to him.
He looked over at the elf captain pointing something out to the helmsman. “Headstrong. A little naive, but capable enough. She’s actually a good Windseeker, got us here faster than I expected.” He glanced back and lowered his voice. “I’m a little worried about her hold on the crew though. I think she got someone else’s promotion.”
“I meant Elysia.”
He snorted. “Same as always. I almost think she’s enjoying her time away from the mainland. Although, she’s a bit unhappy about our extra cargo.”
“Ah, well perhaps this will alleviate some of her concerns.” I turned to Andris. “I think the mist feeds on aggression.”
“So, just don’t start any fights?”
He glanced at the grumbling helmsman. I looked back at the horizon.
“That’ll be easy enough, right?”
“What can you tell me about Highwater?” I asked the room.
Andris was seated on a barrel near our makeshift table. To his side, Elysia occupied the sole chair in our cramped meeting space.
It was the first time we had spoken in four days. Not intentionally, I’m sure. She was engrossed in studying the workings of the ship, perhaps because she’d spent most of her life confined to the continent. I’d been preoccupied with experimenting whether Retsy could communicate with the spirit in the fox figurine. My work kept me inside, lest one of the crew catch my mutterings to myself and think me insane. Surely, it was natural that we hadn’t crossed paths in a while.
“It’s owned by the Kang family,” Andris said. “They’ve had a small barony on the bluffs for the better part of a century.”
“Back when the north was still part of Katalan,” Elysia added.
“Do you think the Baron is involved?” I asked.
“Baroness, actually.” Andris stroked his mustache. “And most definitely. The Black Lotus is her family crest. Or rather, the one she adopted when she took over.”
“Family dispute?” I frowned.
Elysia shook her head. “Plague. Wiped out the previous Baron and both his sons.”
“The former baron was a bit of a spendthrift,” he continued. “Even before the plague, their family was on the decline. Wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t find much left.”
“Where does the fox statuette come into play?” I looked at him.
“Our Baroness is a bit of an entrepreneur.” He smiled. “Started her own trading company. You’ve already seen one of their storehouses.”
“So, she’s found a market for smuggled artifacts.” I frowned. “Any idea who is her biggest trading partner?”
“That’s what you were supposed to find out,” Elysia said. She wasn’t looking at me, choosing to focus instead on her folded hands.
“Did Andris tell you about the–?”
“I see.” I had hoped the news would improve her mood.
“It is likely she will be uncooperative.”
“I figured.” That’s why I hoped Retsy could break through to the spirit girl.
You might be hoping for too much.
“Well, all we can do is try.”
A loud boom jolted me awake. I rubbed my eyes and glanced at the window. It was bright outside, but not late enough in the day for the sun to shine in. Part of me wanted to lay there and go back to sleep, but I’d already overslept.
“Suppose there’s no helping it.” I rolled off the bed and began pulling on my boots.
Three booms in the distance were followed a few seconds later by the sound of wood splintering. The ship lurched and I nearly fell forward.
“What is going on?” I jammed my other boot on and pushed open the door. Two elves ran by chattering in a language I could not understand. I watched them pass, heading up to the deck. It sounded like a lot of shouting above.
I glanced back the way they had came. A dozen paces from my door it looked like someone had punctured a large hole in the hallway, tearing the wood open in the process. Peering through, I could see the ocean through a gap where the hull should’ve been.
“Oh no.” I ran back to my room and grabbed my knives. Our ship’s cannons had begun returning fire, adding to the growing cacophony of noise.
We were struck again as I was climbing the stairs, the impact sent me tumbling back down them. My second try I made it up and pushed open the door to the deck. Blinking away tears from the harsh sun, I could see my worst fear confirmed.
Our enemy was a frigate bearing towards us from the southeast. Men scurried about on its deck, priming the cannons for another volley. Above them, flapping in the wind were the colors of Katalan.
The elves were making preparations of their own. I ignored them and located Elysia. She was standing calmly in the center of the deck. She had her sword belt on, but the blade was still in its sheath.
“We need to end this quick,” I told her.
“Can you give us some fire?”
I glanced up at our sails, studied the elven insignia etched into the two masts. “The elves won’t like it. Let me ask the captain.”
I found Dheiva atop the quarterdeck discussing plans with the first mate. I held back until they were finished. Elves weren’t fond of human magic and the side-effects it wrought. He already regarded me with suspicion, I didn’t need to give him another reason to ostracize me.
Finding she was not alone, Dheiva turned to me. She did not seem pleased.
“I’m a pyromancer,” I said. “Do you want my help?”
She frowned, causing the blue tattoo on her forehead to scrunch up. “We can do without human ‘magic’. If you want to help, use that.” She nodded towards the knife in my belt. “Otherwise, I suggest you seek shelter.”
Crewmen with longbows began filing onto the deck, taking up position. The Katalan ship was much closer now. I didn’t know how they were doing it, but they’d be alongside us in moments.
A long horn rang out from the other ship. A call to surrender. They wanted a tithe after all.
Dheiva hastily barked instructions to her archers, then signaled the helmsman. “Bring us around for a broadside!” she commanded, and the ship began to turn.
Our cannons let loose, scoring only a marginal strike. With them still approaching us head-on they were too narrow a target. But they had gotten the message. Seeing we wanted a fight, their ship adjusted course, and now we found ourselves the target of a volley.
Cannonballs splashed down all around us, sending sea spray into the air. Two of them struck home, the ship shuddering under their impacts.
Do we have to stand out in the open?
Sensing the elves still wanted to do things their way, I dropped down to the main deck and sought out Elysia. A shake of my head answered her question before she could ask. Andris had joined her, his greatsword looking out of place in a naval battle.
“She won’t go for it,” I told them. “We’ll need some other way to get rid of that ship.”
Andris looked at me. “You can’t blast it?”
I pointed up at the masts. “Fire aether would disrupt their wind-catcher. We’d be dead in the water until they could rebind it. And since only a Windseeker can do that, the captain isn’t ready to commit to hours of work in front of her crew.”
“We have gunpowder,” Elysia said. It was subtle, but there was a sudden energy brimming under her reserved expression. She glanced at the two of us. “Katalan needs money. That’s why the patrol is here. They’ll want to board us, and when they come in close we can attach explosives to the hull.”
Andris ran his fingers through his mustache. “I saw them loading resin amongst the cargo for the Northern Isles. We’ll just need some containers and fuses–”
Another exchange of cannon-fire cut him off. A loud shout broke out and the archers began unleashing their arrows. The other ship was almost upon us.
Elysia turned to Andris. “Ensure the Windseeker makes it through this. Without her, we go nowhere. Tiernan, you’re with me.”
I snuck one last glance at the sky. Still no sign of any clouds, but neither had there been any in the city. “Let me know the moment you sense anything from the fox girl,” I told Retsy. If the past was any indication, we wouldn’t have much warning. A minute or two at most.
It didn’t take long to locate the resin, and a number of empty bottles that would suffice as a container. I set about stuffing them with gunpowder while Elysia obtained some paper and wax for a makeshift fuse. I knew from the cries above that the other ship had caught up with us. We all felt it when their harpoons latched their teeth into our ship and started dragging us along.
“How are we going to get across?” I asked Elysia.
She finished wiring up the last explosive and smiled. “Same way they did.”
Scooping the bottles up into my arms, I carefully followed her down through the kitchens and a damaged mess hall before ending up in one of the starboard gun decks. I had expected to see elves here, but the place was deserted. Now that Katalan’s soldiers were on board, I guess everyone had been called up to fight.
Elysia set her share of the bottles on the ground and pointed at one of the cannons. “Load that,” she said, heading over to grab a harpoon and rope.
We primed the harpoon in the cannon and secured the rope to the ship. With the naval vessel as close as it was, accuracy wouldn’t be a problem. We just needed a path hidden away from the chaos. I covered my ears for the boom and watched the hook sink into the enemy hull.
“Don’t get this wet,” Elysia said, looping a bag over my shoulder. Our bottles of fiery doom clinked inside.
I tested the rope, making sure it was taut and could hold my weight. Looking over the edge, I figured it was about a twenty foot gap to the other ship. Nobody above was paying us any attention. The clangs of metal and screams and shouts indicated they were plenty occupied.
“Any sign of her?” I asked Retsy. I would be awfully exposed out on that rope.
“Then we’d best hurry.”
I lifted myself up and began to cross. I shut out the cries from above, tried to ignore the churning water below, and focused on placing one hand in front of the other. The rope bit into my hands but I grit my teeth and pushed onward. Both ships rocked with the waves, first one then the other, causing the rope to move up and down as the distance between vessels changed.
Finally, I reached the other hull and latched on to the metal bordering a nearby porthole. Safely across, I turned and waited for Elysia. She made it over in about half the time.
I pulled out one of the bottles and she lathered resin onto it. The goal was to sink the ship, so the hole had to be low enough for water to flow in. I pressed the bottle against the hull just above the waterline. It seemed to stay in place, so I let go and reached for the next one.
The bottle was sliding, already out of my reach. I watched helplessly as it slid off the hull and dropped into the water below.
“You’ll have to hold it longer,” Elysia said. “We don’t have time to wait for it to dry, but it just needs to stay in place for a few minutes.”
The next bottle I pressed against the hull for a count of thirty. Carefully, I lightened my grip and waited for a few more seconds. The bottle slid an inch, but held.
“We’re not going to have time for all of these,” I said.
She pursed her lips. “Three will have to suffice. Four would be better.”
We set about attaching another explosive to the ship, a small distance away from the first one. I waited until I was satisfied the resin would hold, then moved back to prepare another bottle.
Those fuses look awfully short. How do you plan to light these?
I looked at the bottle in my hand. She was right, we’d have ten seconds at best. I asked Elysia.
“Still working on it,” she replied.
I was in the middle of attaching the third bottle when Retsy broke the news.
Tiernan, she’s waking up!
“Head back,” I waved at Elysia. “We’re out of time!”
She looked at me questioningly but began making her way across. I finished my count and started to climb towards the rope, but I saw the bottle start to slide. I managed to grab it before it fell and held it back in place. The resin wasn’t holding. It must’ve lost some stickiness when it came in contact with the wet wood.
She’s real hungry. And in pain.
“How long do we have?” Elysia called out from back on our boat.
“A minute, maybe two.”
I let go and watched the bottle fall into the water. Two explosives was less than I wanted. Now that the mist was coming, it was less important, but the Katalan crew still far outnumbered ours. I made my way to the rope and started crossing as fast as I dared. There was still the din of battle, but it wasn’t as loud as before.
It felt like a long journey, but my feet finally touched down on the elvish ship. Looking back at the enemy hull I could see the two remaining bottles still held in place. And I hoped it was my imagination, but it seemed darker outside than before.
I glanced around the gun deck. There were too many exposed parts, too much structural damage to take refuge here. We needed a sealed room.
“Get to the captain’s quarters,” I told Elysia. “And pray they’re still intact.”
While she turned and fled up the stairs, I took one last look at our explosives.
Tiernan, she’s almost here!
“Should’ve done this in the first place,” I muttered. With a snap of my fingers, I drew on the heat in the air and sent out two sparks. Both fuses lit and began burning down. I took off after Elysia, not waiting to watch.
I had to pause halfway up the staircase to steady myself against the wall as the boat rocked from the force of the dual explosions. When I felt I could stand, I took the steps two at a time, racing towards the topdeck.
I burst out onto a scene of chaos. There were a lot of bodies everywhere, pockets of fighting all over, but I didn’t have time to discern which side they all belonged to. The mist was close, just beginning to envelop the bow of the ship, tendrils reaching out as it sought fresh life. Most of the combatants were oblivious, a few turned and froze in horror. I pushed past them all, trying to spot Elysia’s long hair.
She was near the quarterdeck, holding the door to the captain’s room open. A cursory glance showed the walls and windows were intact, no visible damage. I headed towards her, ignoring the growing chorus of screams. I couldn’t run, the ship was beginning to tilt starboard as the sinking Katalan ship began to drag us down with it.
“We need the Windseeker!” I called out. She gestured to the side and I saw Andris dragging an irate Dheiva towards the open door. But the mist was moving too fast.
Right before it enveloped us, I threw up a wall of fire, just briefly so as to not burn our ship. It was enough, forming a temporary bubble around the door. Andris reached the captain’s room and threw Dheiva inside. I was a few steps behind him, but before ducking in, I had something to take care of first.
I mixed fire with wind, forming a fiery blade and sliced it through the air, severing the ropes connecting the two ships. Suddenly unburdened, the elvish vessel rocked in the opposite direction and I lost my footing.
Someone grabbed my arm and I looked up to see Elysia drag me inside. The second we were through the door, Andris pulled it closed and threw the latch.
“Let me out!” Dheiva wrenched herself free. “My crew needs me!”
“Your crew is dead,” he said calmly, positioning himself between her and the door. The screams outside had already grown quieter. Perhaps it was a mercy the windows didn’t face the ship.
“How can they be dead? It is only–” she fell silent as she noticed our faces. The last of the cries died off, leaving only the howling gusts outside. “Is it a weapon?”
“Some kind of creature that consumes energy,” I told her. “It might be intended as a weapon. By the time it passes by, the only thing left of your men will be dust.”
She steadied herself against the desk in the center of the room. “This creature attacked the town, yes? How did it get here?”
I pointed at the fox statuette sitting happily on top of a pile of charts, glowing a soft blue color.
“You brought this on board?” Her expression darkened. “You put my crew at risk?”
“Technically, it brought itself–”
“Tiernan, shut up,” Elysia cut me off. She moved to stand between me and Dheiva. “The mist feeds on aggression. If Katalan hadn’t attacked, your crew wouldn’t have been caught up in this. They brought the mist.”
She lowered her voice and continued, “We’re on our way now to a former Katalan barony to find the one responsible. For all we know, this could be a weapon they intend to unleash on the world in retaliation for the war.”
It’s also a little girl, I thought to myself. That reminded me, we wanted to see if Retsy could communicate with her.
_She’s frightened and angry and in pain all at once. I don’t know if I can get through to her, even if she can hear me.
Still worth a try.
I’ll see what I can do.
I missed the rest of what Elysia said, but it seemed to have mollified Dheiva. For now. With that settled, we could–
“Andris, get away from the door!” I called out.
He turned and backed up, just missing the purple tendrils snaking their way through the cracks.
“I thought you said it was safe inside?” Elysia said.
“We should be fine as long as we’re near this.” I picked up the statuette and stepped towards the door. When I had thrown it from the bridge, the mist recoiled away. I waved the statuette near the tendrils as a demonstration, but to my surprise they didn’t react at all. The mist kept pouring in, unhindered, and I was forced to retreat.
“Doesn’t look very safe to me,” Dheiva remarked.
“I’m not sure what’s different. I know fire will work, but…” I glanced around the room, estimating the size. “We might suffocate before the mist goes away.” Mentally, I called out to Retsy, encouraging her to try harder.
_I can see, you know.
I think she can sense me, but I might be making things worse._
“Well, keep working on it,” I muttered.
“From behind,” Elysia said. Sure enough, the mist was squeezing up through a small gap in the floorboards at the back of the room.
The four of us huddled around the desk as the mist swirled in a circle around us. A circle that was steadily growing smaller.
_Any time now.
I don’t see you talking to her,_ Retsy complained.
_I can barely even sense her! We’re all counting on you.
Well, you shouldn’t! I was a failure in life, and now I’m a failure as a ghost too.
“Retsy!” I grumbled. I didn’t realize I had spoken out loud until Elysia asked me what I was talking about.
We were running out of space. The mist was dangerously close now. I ignited a ball of fire and used it to push the mist out of my face.
“Windseeker, can you use your aeromancy?” Elysia asked.
“My what?” Dheiva blinked. She looked at the ball of fire in my hand and seemed to understand. She closed her eyes to concentrate. “This is no ordinary fog, but I think I can–”
The air around us moved like a gentle spring breeze, blowing the mist back and forming a pocket of safety. I extinguished my fire so it wouldn’t burn up all our breathable air.
“This won’t last,” the elf warned. “I can feel the pressure all around, pushing back at me.”
_Retsy, we need you. Everybody else is giving it their all, just trying to survive.
What if I want to die? _ she bit back.
_Do you want us to die too?
The air around us whirled faster, became more frantic.
I’m trying, okay?_
“I can’t…hold…” Dheiva grit through her teeth. The wind whipped around us harshly, blowing papers and charts off the desk and scattering them throughout the room.
Dheiva shrieked and with a loud pop the bubble burst. The mist rushed forward like a river unleashed from a broken dam. I moved to ignite my fire again, but knew I’d be too slow.
The purple mist washed over us, covering us in a cold fog. Colder than ice.
And then, the fog dissipated.
All around us, the color changed from purple to gray and the thick mist became nothing more than wisps of vapor lingering in the air.
Elysia reached up and gently pushed the hand holding a ball of fire away from her hair. I sheepishly stepped away, giving her some space.
“Is it gone?” Dheiva was slumped over the desk, breathing heavily. Andris moved to assist her.
The room brightened and I could see light outside the windows. I glanced at Elysia and after a nod cautiously approached the door. Opening it, I didn’t see any sign of the mist. Still wary, I held my fire aloft and stepped through.
The midday sun beamed down from a cloudless sky. The air was hot and heavy. There was no breeze, the humidity clung to me as if I was still in the tropics.
“I think you did it.” I breathed a sigh of relief.
Not that it will help.
I dropped my fire and looked around. There was no sign of the crew, no bodies of our pursuers. The other ship was gone. It almost seemed like a dream, if not for the damage to the ship.
The starboard railing was broken in multiple parts. A line of metal hooks attached to burnt rope were jammed into the deck and hull. One of our masts had broken off, the sail damaged beyond repair. And if I wasn’t mistaken, we were sailing closer to the waves than we should’ve been.
“My ship!” Dheiva’s voice came from behind me. She rushed over to the broken mast, and knelt, gingerly feeling the splintered wood. “Do you know how long I waited, how hard I tried to get my own ship?”
I decided someone other than me should be the first person to say something, but it didn’t help.
“And you!” She stood and pointed at me. “I told you none of your magics! Look at that!” She gestured up at the one intact sail. The runes were gone and the sail hung limp. “Now how are we supposed to get out of here?”
“Can’t you just summon up some wind?” I asked and immediately regretted it.
“You know nothing of the sea! Look at this weather!” She held out her hands as if embracing the humid air. “Notice something missing, hmm?”
“Then how did we get here? We seemed to be doing just fine earlier.”
“That was the wind from the shore town. When the enchantment broke, it got free and left us behind. Now we have to wait.”
“Well, while you’re doing that, you might want to do something about the sinking.”
She looked out at the looming ocean and frowned. With an exasperated sigh she said, “You stay here and figure out our heading. I’ll take the big man below and patch my ship before we all drown.”
Once the elf and Andris were gone, Elysia approached me.
“Have you ever navigated a ship before?” She held the captain’s sextant in her hands.
“Once, a while ago.” I took the sextant from her and studied the markings. The numbers were written in Elvish, but I could guess what they were.
“We need to get to Highwater,” she stressed. “Before something else goes wrong.”
“Well, this isn’t going to do much good right now.”
Elysia looked confused. Right, her first time on a ship.
I pointed up at the sun. “It’s noon. No stars visible. I won’t be able to see anything until after dusk. At the very least we need to wait until the afternoon so I can tell which way is west.”
“Isn’t that way–?”
“Don’t assume we’re still facing the same direction. We got turned around in the battle, the mist blew us off course, and we’ve been drifting in the waves for who knows how long.”
“I see.” She looked at the open door leading belowdecks. “I’m going to see if they need my help.”
“I’ll just…stand here, I guess,” I said to myself after she left.
What did she mean she can’t summon wind? She certainly made some inside.
“I think it has to do with volume. Blowing the air around in a room is one thing, but you need a lot more air to push a ship. Just like how I can conjure flame, but I can’t use it to cook dinner. Takes too much energy to sustain it for that long.”
I see. You sure know a lot about magic, don’t you?
“I’m theorizing based off of what I know about one type. I’m not that familiar with air, even less so with water and earth.” I sat down in the doorway to the captain’s quarters. I didn’t really want to go back in there, but I needed some shade from this heat.
Then it occurred to me what she was getting at.
“Oh, you wanted to learn magic, didn’t you? Do you want me to teach you?”
You would do that? Her mood seemed to brighten. But it didn’t last. I can’t really practice while I’m dead.
“Well, no, not really. But if hypothetically there was a way, would you want to learn?”
Certainly! Though I don’t know if I’m worth the trouble.
“You saved our lives back there. Consider it paying you back a favor.”
If you say so. The words were gloomy, but I could still sense the hope hiding in them.
“You did good, Retsy. Thank you.”
The two of us sat and watched the waves, while I began to explain the basics. With nothing else to do, might as well get the boring important theory stuff out of the way. And before we knew it, it was almost nightfall.
The seaside cliffs were tall and imposing. The keep on top of them was plain in comparison. A tall gray box, made out of stone that had seen better days. There were a number of supplementary buildings outside the keep, most of which were abandoned. Our arrival was observed only by a trio of goats and they quickly lost interest.
“When you said their family had fallen on hard times, you weren’t kidding,” I said, pausing to catch my breath. Climbing hundreds of feet in elevation wasn’t something I did often, and being pent up on a boat for two weeks didn’t help my endurance.
“You think they did this for money?” Dheiva asked. With her boat in shambles, there wasn’t a reason to leave her behind. Somehow she had made the climb without even breaking a sweat, and they didn’t even have mountains like this on the elvish isles.
“Not many opportunities out here,” Andris said from beside her. Despite being almost ten years older than me, he didn’t seem bothered by the climb either. “We’re on the northwestern tip of the mainland. Nobody ventures out here without a reason.”
“Then why make their home here?”
“You saw those rocks,” I said. “Every ship destined for the northern villages has to either pass here or head a hundred miles to the west to find deep enough water. This is as good a place as any to keep a small outpost and somebody has to do it.” I frowned at Dheiva. “Haven’t you been up north before?”
She tilted her head. “There was no need. Plenty of good trades down in the south. I thought this would be an opportunity to expand our reach, but instead, it cost me my ship. On its first voyage.”
“Welcome to Highwater,” I said, shrugging off her glare.
I thought the keep was unoccupied at first, but a young man with the hint of a beard greeted us as we reached the gate. He escorted us inside, leading us to a large dining room full of plain wooden tables and chairs. The walls at least had some furnishings – tapestries woven in deep reds, golds, and blacks – even if the stone support pillars did not. I was studying them so intently I almost tripped over one of the lines chiseled into the stone floor, a hand-crafted pattern to compensate for not being able to afford something more elaborate. The man told us to take a seat before ducking out of the room.
You seem suspicious.
“He didn’t even ask our names,” I said. “You’d think that would be important information for a Baroness.”
“I don’t like this,” Dheiva said. “Something here smells wrong.” After a pause and a glance at me, she added, “I don’t mean humans.”
I brushed my fingers against the fox figurine tied to my belt. The wood felt warm, but the statuette wasn’t glowing.
Can you sense anything? I asked Retsy. _Is she awake?
She feels at peace, though sad. Nostalgic maybe? I think this is her home.
Keep an eye out for trouble.
I don’t have any eyes._
Ignoring the retort, I looked up just as a young woman entered the room. She looked nineteen, maybe twenty, but carried herself with a weight beyond her years. There were no dresses or skirts for her, rather a blood-red tunic and black trousers. Her dark hair was pinned up with the one ornament she wore, a hairpin adorned with a black lotus.
In contrast to the surprisingly good quality of her clothes, her face was smudged with dirt and her nails trimmed unevenly, almost as if they had been chewed on. Our Baronness was quite the mixture of personalities.
I also discovered as we rose that she was rather short.
“This is a surprise,” she said in a light, flowery tone. Placing a hand on her chest, she bowed. “I am Yuh Kang, the owner of this humble abode. Please, take a seat.”
I saw her glance at me, caught her eyes darting down to my belt. For the briefest moment, her smile flickered.
_Something’s not right. Do you feel anything, Retsy?
There’s all kinds of…memories bottled up in this place. It kind of reminds me of the river next to that island with the lighthouse.
The Lifestream?_ I frowned.
Yeah, the place you found me. I think. That’s the first thing I remember after pressing the button. Waking up as you climbed out of the river, other peoples’ memories tearing at you.
I didn’t sense any magic coming from the Baronness, but then my specialty was in elemental magic. I only had a vague understanding of spiritual magic, like the enchantment that summoned the mist.
I looked at my companions. Elysia was beginning her explanation of why we’d come. Andris was too busy watching Dheiva and Miss Kang to notice. But Dheiva, the only one of us who had sat down again, was massaging her temples. Elves were sensitive to human magic – put off by it.
I took another look around the room. The tapestries depicted scenes from mythology about punishment, death, and rebirth, but there was nothing extraordinary about them. I didn’t see any metal embedded in the walls. The fox figurine was humming along quietly, but otherwise inactive for the moment. And the floor was only covered with…a stone-etched pattern forming a giant magical rune.
Yuh Kang hadn’t been paying any attention to the former knight. The moment her eyes widened, I knew she knew I had discovered what was about to happen.
I didn’t shout a warning. There wasn’t any time. I reached forward and grabbed Elysia’s arm, yanked her towards me while she was in mid sentence. At the same time, a snap of fingers from my free hand sent a burst of sparks and smoke into the air, like cheap fireworks at a festival.
The Baronness was quick. In the time it had taken me to pull Elysia two steps, she had yanked out her hair pin, sending her hair cascading down to her shoulders. She pressed her thumb to the black lotus and the floor rune lit up with a bright maroon glow.
I had barely managed to get Elysia and myself across the outer circle of the rune when her spell hit me. My movements became sluggish and limbs unresponsive. Instead of smashing my face into a pillar, I opted to drag us to the floor, landing hard on my shoulder. We bounced once, slid to a stop, and laid still.
Andris and Dheiva hadn’t had time to react. The two of them were frozen in mid-movement. Dheiva recognizing the symptoms too late, Andris moving to shield her.
The Baronness, of course, was unaffected by her own spell. Wiping the smoke out of her eyes, she ignored the two people at the table and walked over to us.
I felt her nudge my ribs with her boot, but tried to avoid any reaction at all. The aftereffects of the spell helped, and I hoped we appeared as immobile as she expected.
“Prepare the room,” she told the young man from earlier. “We’ll take their essence like the others.”
The man nodded and vanished through one of the side doors. When he was gone, Yuh Kang knelt and picked up the fox statuette.
“Come Essa, let’s see how much you’ve collected,” she said, stroking the figurine. “More than I’d hoped. I’m proud of you.” She held the figurine up to her ear as she left. “Enough for a year. I know. I’m sorry, but we need more.”
What a weird conversation, Retsy said.
I tried to speak, but it took too much effort just to move my jaw. Even thinking felt slow, like I was drugged or something.
You’re not drugged. You were caught in a time trap, she stated, matter-of-factly.
_What do you know about time traps?
My friend was a – well, he knew about time magic. She must be really powerful if she can stop it in a whole room like that. Takes a lot of energy. Like pushing a boulder up a river.
You’re lucky you got out of the center in time._ She giggled at her own joke. _Since we’re still able to communicate it means we weren’t frozen. It should wear off soon.
So much for being useless at magic.
I could never do something like this!_
I would’ve rolled my eyes if I could’ve moved. _You’re more talented and knowledgeable than you give yourself credit for. Now, did you hear or feel anything from…Essa?
She’s tired and hungry and wants to stay. They’re gathering energy for something. Something big, but they don’t have nearly enough._
I tested my arm. It responded, but it felt like dragging a stick through deep mud. I managed to turn my head to check on Elysia. I could see her breathing slowly, her fingers twitching, but she looked as immobile as I felt.
I heard a noise from the side room and the young man returned. He stood over us, probably debating which one of us to drag off first. Apparently I won because he knelt down and lifted me up, bracing me over his shoulder. I let my hand dangle helplessly near his face as he tried to carry my weight into the side room. At least he wasn’t dragging me across the floor, and I almost felt bad for what I was about to do, but his mistress had struck first.
While he was distracted with opening the door, I inched my hand closer, pretending it was a result of all the jostling. If I could still think, then I should be able to…
The man let out a loud cry as a sizzling sound filled the air. He jerked back and touched his singed beard, dropping my body to the ground in the process. Perhaps not knowing what happened, he rushed off to find something for his face, leaving me unoccupied.
Ugh, that smells disgusting, Retsy complained.
Tell me about it.
Motion was slowly coming back and I was able to pull myself to a sitting position. I waited for my head to clear, then crawled my way to Elysia. She was also starting to recover, and I managed to help her off the floor.
“What happened?” she asked groggily.
“The witch cast a spell. We were standing right on her trap. The others are–” I glanced over at Andris and Dheiva. “Not going to be joining us any time soon. We’re on our own.”
As if climbing the bluffs hadn’t been enough, now we had to scale four flights of stairs. I struggled with the uneven steps, but Elysia was there to keep me on my feet. The stairwell ended at a pair of heavy double doors. We pushed them open and stepped inside.
The top floor was one large room. Aside from our wall and the opposite one, large doors filled the space between the outer pillars, all of them closed save for one. The sole opening provided a crack of sunlight, but most of the room was lit by braziers stationed around the room.
Yuh Kang was kneeling next to a bed on the far side of the room. Lying on the bed was a little girl with long black hair wrapped in a glowing blue cocoon. Her eyes were closed and she did not move, not even to breathe. Next to her on a small table sat the fox statuette, also glowing.
Tiernan, that’s her!
The girl from my visions.
“I knew you weren’t to be underestimated,” Yuh Kang said, rising to her feet. The flowery voice had hardened into something more sinister. “My sister here tells me you’ve been pretty resilient. Or extremely lucky.”
“You killed countless people to power that? ” Elysia asked, advancing with her sword drawn.
“Hardly innocent ones. The mist feeds on aggression.” The Baroness stepped away from the table. “If blood was going to be spilt anyway, why not harvest that into something more useful?”
“Your mist runs unchecked, not caring whom it consumes. But I suppose that’s all right for you if it weakens the enemies of Katalan.”
“ Katalan is my enemy!” Yuh Kang spat. “That shipment you stole? It was destined for their capital!”
Her fingers squeezed the hilt of the knife at her belt. “After my worthless uncle ran this estate into the ground, after the plague came and took him and all of his rotten ilk, do you know what Katalan did? They cut ties, abandoned us. A hundred years of servitude meant nothing to them!”
Her anger faded, her voice became sorrowful. “A dying girl meant nothing to them.”
“You seek to turn back time,” I said, stepping forward. “To save your sister.”
“Yes. If I can take her body back to before the infection…” The grief faded, her face hardened once more. “I cannot turn aside from this path. Not now, not while there is still hope.” She drew her knife and leveled it at us, the light from a brazier reflecting off the blade. “Nor can I abide interference.”
Elysia charged the remaining distance and brought her sword down. The knife deflected the blow just enough for the Baroness to sidestep. She ducked in to counter, but the former knight was ready with an armored fist.
While the two of them battled it out, I glanced at the bed halfway across the room. I could end this…
You’re not going to hurt her, are you?
“I’m still figuring that part out,” I said, rushing forward.
Yuh Kang must’ve spotted my movement. She threw her left arm in the air and all the doors in the room blew open, exposing us to a sudden crosswind. The braziers in the center flickered, some of them going out, but the light from the setting sun made up for it.
I turned and sent a trio of arcane missiles her way. She dodged at the last second and they slammed into the pillar behind her, sending shards of stone flying. Continuing her movement, as graceful as a dancer, she spun and brought her knife up to meet Elysia’s next blow. The sword struck hard, wrenching the knife out of her grasp, but it didn’t matter. As she was falling, she brought up her left hand and unleashed a blast of air that sent the knight flying backwards. Elysia struck a pillar and bounced off, landing in a heap on the ground.
I paused, torn between heading back to help or closing the rest of the distance to the bed. Elysia stirred, trying to rise to her feet, and I opted to trust she could take care of herself.
Tiernan, she’s summoning the mist! Retsy cried out.
I looked over at Yuh Kang. The Baroness was tracing something in the air, the three long shadows cast by the sun making it seem particularly ominous.
Can you shut it down? I asked Retsy.
_I’m having a hard time reaching her. Maybe we’re too far away?
Then I hope you’re right._ Pushing my hair out of my face, I ran the dozen or so steps to the bed. As I reached it, the room began to darken. The materializing clouds were blocking the sun.
A shard of ice zipped by in front of me, smashing against the wall. I instinctively brought up a shield of flame and deflected two more. I tried to counter with a ball of fire, but my shot went wide. I could see the mist outside the windows now, a wall of purple fog racing closer.
There was a girlish squeal and the fourth ice shard crashed harmlessly into the ceiling. Elysia had grabbed hold of the Baroness from behind and was holding her own knife up against the girl’s neck.
“Fool, the mist will kill you!” she hissed.
“If she’s your sister, I don’t think she’ll hurt you,” the ex-knight calmly replied.
“That won’t stop her from taking you!”
“If the mist touches me, this blade sinks into your neck.” Elysia looked at me and gestured toward the bed.
One problem dealt with, I turned to study the glowing cocoon. Already I could tell it was a more complicated spell than I had time to puzzle out. Up close, I also couldn’t help but notice the girl’s skin was not just pale and sickly. It looked like she was already dead.
Leaving the bed, I rushed over to the table and picked up the fox figurine. It burned hot, hot enough I almost dropped it.
That was when the mist arrived.
As I wrapped myself in a fiery shield, I prayed I had made the right choice. That Elysia was right about Yuh Kang. It was too late to back down now. Purple fog flooded the room, rushing through the openings and filling the space in seconds.
“Anything?” I asked Retsy.
She doesn’t want to do this anymore.
It’s hard to say. It’s not like talking to a person. I just get figments of memories and feelings.
“Because she’s a child?”
The wind picked up in intensity, the mist buffeting my shield. I was burning mana at an alarming rate. I knelt beside the bed, using it to block most of the air rushing by.
I’m hurrying! You don’t need to keep reminding me!
“I didn’t say anything.”
But you can’t stop thinking it!
I tried looking through the fog to see if I could spot the women, but it was far too dense. I hated feeling helpless like this. What could I do against such an opponent?
To distract myself from my diminishing reserves, I went back to studying the weaves on the stasis spell. It was well-crafted, tying together magical constructs I didn’t know existed. Yet something seemed off. I couldn’t be sure, but it seemed like only the body would be reversed. The body before me now was lifeless, an empty husk. Even if the damage to it could be undone, and rewinding six years was no easy feat, her soul – the part that made her her would still be missing.
Perhaps that’s what was embedded in the fox carving. But if that was the case, if this girl had spent nearly half her life living as a disembodied spirit, how much of her was still left?
I’ve been wondering the same. I think…I think the Essa she knew is gone and this is nothing but a shadow of her thoughts.
“What does she think?”
We can’t communicate like that.
My shield wavered. My nerves were burning from keeping the conduit of magic open for so long and my energy was almost spent.
I think I can get her to stop, but…it might stop her for good.
“It’s your call Retsy. I can’t force you to do this.”
The shield of fire was shrinking, unraveling. I felt a rush of nausea as my body caught up with how far I had overtaxed it.
I don’t know if I can do this!
My hands were trembling and I couldn’t hold on any longer. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes.
“I believe in you, Retsy.”
The barrier fell and I was engulfed in mist. It was cold, colder than ice, but where it touched me my skin burned. I felt it wrapping around me, my legs going limp. I was falling. Falling forward.
And then the fox statuette cracked open.
I slumped on the dirt and stared up at the ivory tower. The beacon of light on top swiveled around, penetrating the reddish-pink fog lifting off the Lifestream. Whether that tower had been built long ago to search for the souls of the dead or guide them beyond, I couldn’t be certain. But it had served both purposes tonight.
Next to me lay the body of a young woman, her long brown hair tied up in a braid. A woman whose voice I had heard but had to go diving into the memories of others to see. I couldn’t be certain I had gotten everything, but then even in life, we forget parts of our past. She stirred, her eyes opening for the first time in who knows how long.
“Hi,” I said, holding up my hand.
She blinked in confusion, then held up her hands in front of her face. “What–?” she began.
“I wanted to thank you in person.”
“For what?” she scrunched up her face. It looked rather cute.
“For saving my life,” I said. “And that of my friends.”
“You did it. You stopped the mist.”
“Dead?” I looked down at my arms. “No, but I would’ve been.”
“Then why are we here?”
“I mentioned it before. When we were on the boat. It got me to thinking, what if you encountered someone who was dying. Would it be possible to bring them back? To give them another chance?”
She fumbled with her braid, pulling the segments apart. “Is that why my hair is full of knots?”
“Sorry, I don’t have a lot of practice with braiding hair.”
The braid unraveled, covering part of her face with a wall of hair. “What about…”
I hugged my knees. “I tried. But there wasn’t enough of her left.”
“So she’s gone?”
I nodded. “Six years was too much.”
“And her sister?”
“Headed back to the elves to stand trial for murdering Dheiva’s crew.” Since she wouldn’t know, I continued my explanation. “Elysia doesn’t actually have any authority in Tioman anymore, so she and Andris agreed to bring Yuh Kang back to the elves. It’ll help our Windseeker captain save some face as well.”
“Does she know?”
“That her sister is gone? I think deep down she’s always known.”
Retsy shook her head. “Does Elysia know you’re here?”
“Sort of.” I held up my hand to forestall her protest. “I didn’t want to get into the technical details with somebody that wouldn’t understand him. But when she’s done with the elves and I’ve recovered enough to travel, we’re both intending to meet up again. And harass her sister for a bit.”
For a brief moment I glimpsed a smile on her face. It quickly faded when her gaze returned to her hands.
“What about me?” she asked.
“Well, I have some time, so if you’d like we can continue your magic lessons. After that…it’s up to you. Do you want to give living another chance?”
“I…suppose I can try.”
I placed my hand on her head, ran my fingers through her hair.
“That’s all we can ever do.”