“I wonder if it is youth that affords you such bark, Lord Caius,” Kayled answered, his face a careful mask of controlled twitches. As soon as Caius had begun speaking, the Inquisitor had watched him. Such dark and careful eyes, deliberate in their skulk, a-skitter from his posture to the shapes of his fists balled behind pockets. “A man like me, my Lord, who serves highborn nobles like yourself must watch his words carefully. You suffer no such restriction, sired by such virtuous lines, and you are not so accustomed to authority.” Breathing into his hands, he swept around Caius back to the feet of the Andaris statue. There was no malice in his posture, nor expectation. In the silence that drew longer between them, Kayled Wine seemed to measure the words as though a merchant appraising a trade.
“I believe…” here he trailed off, reconsidering his words before carefully continuing, “In order.” Placing a hand on the cool stone he stared up into the gloom at the face of the Judge, lost in shadow. “You believe in knowledge, truth. I can respect your ideals, even if they are rather naïve.” Turning his face sideways, not fully facing Caius, he smiled. “You’ll forgive me that impertinence, will you not, My lord?”
Outside, the distant chime of metal against metal reminded Caius that the guards he had come with were likely not far away. The Inquisitor did not threaten, not in so many words, but his mannerisms were curiously predatory. The cold domain of Khrome was etched into the thin man’s personality. Here he would bait, scamper back, step in again. The whole situation set the young noble’s teeth to grind, that he could be so easily speared from his home and dragged out before a demagogue. With the King’s blessing, however, there was little that Kayled Wine could not do. That sort of power was dangerous, certainly nothing to be handed to someone so easily.
“We cannot escape the realities of our duty. May we rise to meet them.” Wheeling back on Caius he crossed to the young man in the space of two strides, locking eyes. Caius was close enough to detect garlic, a whiff of a meal recently past. “You are not here under any suspicion, quite the opposite.” DuKette, the mustachioed man leaning against a pillar, shifted and coughed lightly. If Kayled noticed, he gave it no great import. “Tomorrow there will be a burning, the first sanctioned by the Crown for the penalty of magic.” He spaced the last word into almost two, lingering on both syllables. “Thomas Theodore Terrance, a Professor of Archeology at the Rynmere University has been revealed as a practitioner of arcane powers while his compatriots have gone to ground. You…heard most of the report, I trust?” Deliberate. He meant for Caius to listen. “Our organization is a new one, of course, formed by order of the King to handle the infestation of sorcerers.” Kayled smiled, small, fleeting, as if entertaining a personal joke. “The Venora have taken interest, of course, seeking to distance themselves from the shame of the mage, Alistair, and his cursed traitor of a sister.” He indicated the Venora tabard and sigil marked on his uniform, gently tracing along the rose with one finger. “But I find something of their ardor to be selfishly motivated, striving more to appear fervent in order to save face with the other royal families. I have been offered one of their name to join me in leading my Inquisitorial force and yet…I have not returned their letter.”
Finally he took a step back, giving Caius the room he needed. Gone was the lingering smell of garlic, only the snake-like figure of Kayled. “I have followed your work, what little of it that can be followed, and spoken to your professors. In spite of your willful tongue, you have garnered respect for the quality of work you produce and the insight you discover.” Wine drew himself up, his lanky frame swaying slightly under the weight of both the armor, the tabard, and heavy cloak he wore about his shoulders. For a moment, it was hard to imagine a man like this in the harsh Chrome forests. A heavy breeze might knock his balance asunder and save for the hungry diligence in which he pursued his thoughts, little physically suggested that the skill necessary to subsist in such a harsh environment existed. “I require your insight, that insolent tongue you can so freely wag at nobles, and your name. The recognition of a Noble from such an illustrious house will lend this unit the weight it needs to ease the mind of the people. Our Regal King did not think his will alone would be sufficient to win the love of his subjects, and so he asked me to find a noble who would assist me in my work.” Here he lifted a hand out to Caius, presenting the noble to himself, “And you are that man.” A smile now, fiercely bright, “Together we will study the minds of these wizards, understand their hearts, and assure our King where his fears are unfounded.” Kayled crossed both hands behind his back, clasping them and offering a small bow, “Such ideals as yours, My Lord, of Truth and Justice, I should like to see how you might apply them to the difficult responsibility we are charged with undertaking.”
Striding past Caius, Kayled walked toward the entrance of the Temple, staring out at the scaffolding and pillar still being constructed. “Sometimes, the Seven ask of us such dreadful things. We must remember to keep the faith, especially in times like these. Even the nobility has not been spared this occult spread and so we must dig deep, deeper than any of us are comfortable being, and examine. We stand on the ledge of great and terrible change, My Lord Caius, and I would see as many of our citizens spared the violence that fear and chaos brings.” Indicating the dark shape of the prison that rose before the castle, Wine motioned Caius should approach. “I will not throw you to the wolves. Your position may begin and end with such nocturnal summons and the occasional trial. I do not sense you have the zeal for blood, nor the deliberation to shed it in any cause besides your own…so I will not ask you compromise that. However, your ability to influence this moment, our cause, relies on your participation. You may be as influential or aloof as you wish.”
Kayled left no room for a rebuttal, stoking rebellious indignation into a low fury. “Shall we speak to our condemned, then, Lord Caius?” He asked rubbing one hand over the other, “Before we consign a man to the flame, as we are ordered to do, we should at least hear out his final requests.” Wine smiled faintly, stepping down the stairs of the temple and off towards the dungeon. He did not turn to beckon Caius, simply expecting him to follow and voice his concerns as they traveled. Alan waited for them at the edge of the town square, his armor still dark-stained a shade blacker than armor Caius had seen the like of before. DuKette followed behind at a respectful distance, still shrouded in a vague air of insufferable mystery Caius decided was at least partially deliberate.
Into the Inquisition went, passing beneath the shadow of the solitary pole, a wooden candle, awaiting the dawn to light.
Ralaith’s smile was a soft caress upon her very soul. When he smiled, it felt like the world smiled as well. She felt light, giddy, almost swept away by the most simple of approvals. Patiently he listened and in the skin he wore, it seemed both ill-fitting and perfect. There was an element of paradox to these begins, Edalene had seen enough to know. How uncomfortable it must be, to fold a being of such multiplicity into this single facet. Here her Lord interacted on a level she could empathize with, and yet it was such a tiny aspect of all that he was. The enormity was staggering, its implications vast. But her mind quieted when he spoke, as though there were no thought more important than his tender words.
“Beautiful,” He said, clapping both hands lightly together, “You Are So Beautifully Human, Edalene.” Atrurius paced quietly around the pyre, snuffling at its edges disdainfully, aware of the pain it was causing his partner. Lifting his huge shaggy head, he seemed to reflect on the single pole for a moment before sitting, crossing both paws and laying his shimmering head down upon them. “Humans Defy Order, They Are Marvelous, Emotional, Passionate Beings. They Wear Their Mistakes Like Badges And Loudly Herald Their Failures. I Believe There Is Something Perfect In That, Something My Kin Do Not Possess.” The shadow of a rotund man appeared, lashed and bound to the pole. Edalene stepped back from it, her heart thudding loudly, incessantly, inside her. Ralaith looked upon this figure as well, wistful and sad. “You Know, Of Course, He Would Not Have Wanted This.” Lifting a tanned hand to the hazy outline of Thomas’ chin, Ralaith gently clasped it, “The Danger You Face, On His Behalf, He Would Never Approve.” The figure vanished, but the rough smell of smoke and flesh hovered in the air, an echo of what may come. “Ashen Children,” he said it sadly, “You Will Walk Into A Fire If It Suits You.”
The world shifted, tipped on its axis suddenly and Edalene felt sick. She grasped for something, anything, to hold her balance but found her hands empty. Stumbling, she skinned her knee on the dirt, face inches from the cobblestone. When she looked up, Ralaith was standing in the warm glow of a window, looking in on a small cottage. Gingerly, wincing, Edalene stood as well and made her way over to him. She dared not reach out and touch him, but the urge to grasp his hand was nearly overwhelming. To her surprise, he took hers in his. His grip was warm and calloused, careful and ginger, as if he was afraid of hurting her. She gripped his hand hard, her mind awash in adoration.
Inside, a brown haired child fussed with a small pale flute, pressing it to his plump lips and blowing, shrieking discordance. A lithe woman, pale as cream with hair like ribbons, smiled politely and plucked the tiny flute away, much to the squalling of the tyke. She tried to mollify him with a small bird, a little lumpy, clearly sown of fabric and stuffed with flattened wool. He couldn’t be more than a few arcs old, but already he was a tangle of grasping fingers and wild limbs, trying to climb his way up to his prize. The woman laughed, collapsing backward with the child, both blazing bright by the fire glow.
“We Sometimes Forget,” Ralaith said softly, “How Small We Once Were. How Simple Life Could Seem.” Reaching out with his free hand, he lay it gently on the window. “The Curse Of Perspective, Edalene, Is In Knowledge. Imagine Each Action A Person Could Take As A Match Hurled Into A Dark Forest. We Need The Light To See The Way, But We Cannot Know If The Match Will Strike A Flame. The Simplest Of Events Cause Such Potential.” Edalene pressed forward to look inside, watching the young woman wrestle with the child. Her own heart swelled to see such moments of joy. It was the sound of hooves behind her that drew her eyes away from the cottage, to the four figures on horseback with torches. In the light they cast, their eyes were hard as marbles, frozen in hatred and fear. The first, a large man with a purple-black scar stretched across half his face lifted his arm back and hurled the torch onto the cottage’s straw roof, followed quickly by the others. Flames roared suddenly, easily devouring the offering left. Eerily fast, the big man had leaped off his horse, followed by the others. As the fire roared above, they pounded nails into boards over the window and door. Edalene tensed, ready to leap forward and strike the hammer from the arsonists’ hands but Ralaith gently held her back, resting a gentle but insistent arm over her shoulder.
Together they stepped forward again and now stood amidst the flames and smoke of the cottage. Edalene took quick breath, fearing the embers that would find its home in her throat, but found she could breathe easily. The air was cool, despite the chaos that enveloped the home. The young woman cowered, shielding the child from the debris and showers of sparks that fell down around them. Quickly, she crawled across the room and tore her fingers through the air. Just as Ninacky had done, a hole growled open in the fire-light, wide enough for both to escape.
With a howl, the roof collapsed, heavy burning timbers pinning the woman to the floor, shattering her shoulder and tearing open her brow. The white of bone shone through the blood and the child screamed, desperately trying to push the wound closed with his tiny chubby hands.
Edalene could not stop herself and rushed forward, reaching for the timber as though she might hurl it off the woman and let them both escape from her, from this horror. But she did not reach her in time.
“Sing of me,” She said to her child, stroking his ash streaked face, “Never let them change you.” And with a sudden, ferocious rush, she pushed the child headlong into the portal, snapping shut behind him and slicing away his terrified wail.
Edalene knelt where the child vanished, looking down at the woman. She was beautiful, even dying, crushed beneath the flames and timbers. It was too much, too much to watch someone die in this way. Edalene reached up to grab the timber, to desperately push it off her but stopped. The woman had grabbed her hand, inches from the blaze, enough to sear her hand. She led it away and Edalene looked into the eyes of the dying mother. There was confusion there, yes, but as they slipped off her and to the shadow of Ralaith standing behind Edalene, there was understanding. She squeezed Edalene’s hand, hard, and pressed something into her palm, closing her hand over it. Above, the fire roared again as the roof fractured and fell inward.
Edalene was back in the town square.
“Sometimes,” Ralaith said softly behind her, his voice so melancholy, so sad, “We Must Allow Awful Things To Occur, For The Changes They Will Bring.” Edalene stared down at her scorched hand, the fire all too real, and what the nameless mother had pressed into her palm before leaving. It was the bird, a little scorched, lumpy, sparrow-small.
“Tomorrow,” Ralaith said, “You Will Have To Let Someone Die.”
The flames raged around Aeodan and subsided, devouring his doubts and insecurities. At least here, in this dream, he was baptized anew with a zeal not easily tarnished. Ninacky was watching him when he turned back to her, up on her elbows as though offering her body to the horizon. Her expression was troubled and as he walked back towards her, settling on the calm water of his somber gaze and glancing off. It was her dream, Aeodan knew this. It would only end when she was ready to wake, or perhaps when she had no choice but to stir. He offered a hand down to her, marveling for a moment. A lifetime ago he would have been the one on the ground, disabled not by his cursed legs but by the indecisions of his path. Although less than an Arc had passed since he and Edalene were drawn together, it felt like years. Burned, bruised, broken, shattered they had crawled from the wreckage of all their misadventures, miraculous and alive. In some ways, Aeodan wondered if he could die. Certainly he felt the bite of steel or the chill of cold, he KNEW danger, but he had stared down a god and now was a traitor in the land of his birth, hunted from alley to alley. Funny. Before all this, he might have balked at such tales of adventure. They were beyond him, beyond the realm of yellowed pages he had entrenched himself with. But now? Now he wasn’t sure if he could go back. Restless now, yes, there was a restlessness as potent as poison coursing within him. Edalene’s heart was a stone from ancient worlds past and he was bound to a creature he did not understand, gathering the tongues of Idalos for one important message.
So much of himself had been parceled away to adventure, as though he were little more than a paper boat racing down rain-choked gutters. But now? Now he chose to be here. He chose to throw himself headlong into the danger and the flames. He wasn’t here because Thomas had dragged him. He was here because he would be the one to drag Thomas out. His own father, something of a bitter taste on the palette of his mind, had not in all the Arcs Aeodan knew him, measured to a tenth of what Thomas had brought him in the short Cycles they had known each other.
Father. Perhaps he was, in a way, a surrogate patriarch to the life that Aeodan had found. Without the mage’s guidance, would he have ever told Edalene how he felt? No. He knew in his heart he would have remained silent, maybe forever, content to simply exist in her space as a protector, as her charge, but not as anything more.
But Thomas had brought them both somewhere new. He had given them new life.
Aeodan could not repay that, but perhaps saving the life Thomas already possessed would be a start.
Aeodan said nothing, watching Ninacky’s sparking eyes shimmer with unshed tears. “The gods speak to you, don’t they, Aeodan? They guide you.” She swiped a hand across her face and the water steamed off it, faint smoke. “When you lost her, and…” She blushed, suddenly and completely, “I read his letters.” Aeodan nodded, not entirely surprised. “When she died, for most everyone else in Idalos, that is the end. No gods will drift down from on high to save them, no miracle of stone and magic will bring them to you again.” She gritted her teeth and the grass whispered dryly
Burn, Burn, Burn
“You have the luxury of being Chosen, of being special. Your love is WORTH protecting to them.” She cast a hateful glare up at the sky. It rumbled in response. “Fear of loss is all we Aukari have, it keeps us rooted.” Balancing on her left, she lifted her right arm and the skin there shifted, twisted. No, no not like skin. Aeodan took an instinctive step back as the shape of her skin simply blurred with the same leaping abandon he had left behind in the wreckage of the house. She was fire, a pallid, pale fire…slightly bronzed by the sun she had soaked in Rynmere. And Aeodan was suddenly aghast he had never noticed before, how she was fire all around, that all of her was that mercurial fury. “If we let go, even for a moment, we are lost.” She said it quietly, like a prayer, or old words said to her from long ago. Staring at the way her hand lost its shape in that fleshy blaze, tears ran rivers down her cheeks.
“What…do you mean?” Aeodan was surprised he had spoken. It had felt like he left all his words back at the fire but here was his curiosity, although some part of him knew. Needed her to speak it, to SAY it into being.
“We are the fire Faldrun made us from,” She laughed, dry and heartless, “We are his embers and to ashes we return. It is agony to love, Aeodan, the fire would burn me up inside, burn HIM up if I…if…” She sniffled, the flames creeping up to her shoulder. “Fires live such short lives. Sputtering, guttering, blazing sometimes but we all end so quickly. My family already…I…” She buried her head against her knees, folding almost over herself and despite the risk of the flame, Aeodan reached out and put a hand gently on her head.
Her hair was soft, kitten soft, and warm like a blanket warmed near the hearth. Aeodan could feel her sorrow, the morbid finality fraying off her. What must it be like, he wondered, to be like her. They were all so transient but she felt it more clearly than most. Aukari were the walking metaphor of life. What must it be like, for your body to dissolve into ashes? To make fiery love to the passionless sky and be no more?
“You don’t understand your fragility anymore. The gods took that from you.” She looked up at him, red-rimmed eyes, “You don’t even realize it. You don’t think you CAN lose her anymore. But I’m not special! No one talks to Ninacky. No one cares about-“
Aeodan swallowed her words with his chest, wrapping his arms around the girl as firmly as he was able, pulling her close to his chest, against his beating heart. He felt her stiffen for a moment and then relax, muffled sobs drowning in his tunic. “You won’t die, Ninacky,” He said to her, breathed the words into her hair, her ember-thin skin, “I promise. I’ll protect you. I’ll protect all of you. Fie to the gods if they can’t SEE you like I do, like we all do.” Aeodan looked up at the ocean grey sky above him. “And when we rescue Thomas, tell him how you feel.” He thought of Edalene, of her face against the campfire, of her expression when he revealed his truth, “You can’t waste time being afraid, Ninacky, or you’ll be like I was…a spectator.”
There was so much of her in him and so much of him in her. Maybe this was both of their dreams.
Ninacky’s sobbing subsided, enough for her to gently push back from Aeodan and look up at him. Had he ever seen eyes as sparkle-bright as hers? No, not with the fire raging within. He had a fire of his own, he could feel it now as clearly as he could feel Ninacky’s. It had always been there, smoldering. She smiled, and that small expression lightened the darkness around Aeodan’s heart. Yes, there was suffering, and yes there was pain, but he had found the family he had been cheated of so many Arcs ago. He wouldn’t dare let anything happen to them, not so soon after finding them.
“Do you swear?” She asked him, and the flames subsided their fury, slipping back into her skin which settled and was still. Ninacky held his gaze and around them, the hill and fire had receded into the distant hooting of children as they dragged wooden swords against fenceposts on their way to the Burnett house…on their way to Aeodan.
“Do you swear?”