A/N: Thank you all for reading so far! This chapter’s a long one and a very important one, definitely fitting for the end of Book 1. Lots of pieces click together and some BIG players are introduced. Please comment your thoughts and theories below and, if you’re enjoying the story so far, share it with a friend!
Roman shivered and rubbed his hands together to generate friction. They faced the first real autumn chill, made more bitingly cold by the unexpectedness of it. The cold stung Roman’s fingers and cheeks, and when he breathed, it clawed into his lungs, painful and purifying. Summer had lost its footing, and because the universe was cruel, it had done so the very day they’d left Gallontea. Perhaps Atiuh saw what they were doing and disapproved of their mission.
Roman snorted at the thought.
The others didn’t seem bothered by the cold, but they all sat nearer the fire than Roman. He kept his distance, watching and thinking. Their camp stood around them, with small tents for the diplomats and the Captain’s trailer parked nearby. The trees of Lyryma towered over them on one side, but despite their looming presence, spirits around the fire ran high. They always did, at the start of journeys like this. Even the coldest among them, Evelyne and Aaror, smiled as they listened to Eresh tell a story about Magistrate Biro tripping at Unity’s last spring ball.
As Eresh’s story reached its end, Trinity Jones— one of the diplomats— said, “Gareth, aren’t you a writer? Won’t you give us a story as well?”
Gareth jumped at suddenly being addressed, and Roman scooted closer to the circle around the fire. He knew what – who – Gareth wrote about and could fairly guess at the subject he’d choose.
“Oh, my writing is mostly nonfiction, you see,” Gareth said. “Not very suited to this sort of setting.”
“You study Egil, don’t you? I saw all those books in your library,” Thea said. “I bet you know an Egil story we don’t.”
At enthusiastic encouragement from the others— particularly Trinity and Eftychia— he finally conceded. “Oh, very well. I suppose I do know an Egil story or two.”
Across the fire, Leandros met Roman’s eye. The Captain sat between Gareth and Thea on a fallen log and had to shift back for room to pass his hand across his face, hiding a smile.
“Ah, I know,” Gareth finally said. “In honor of our mission, what about a story about Illyon? Or Ehloran, it was called in those days…”
It began as most Egil stories do, in the halls of Devikra Stormsong, the Great Western Oracle. She’d summoned Egil, as she did whenever her visions posed a problem that only he could fix. He strode into her gilded halls, the air heavy with the smell of incense and cleansing herbs, and bowed low.
“My lady,” he said, kissing the hand she offered to him, “How may I assist you?”
The Oracle waved a hand, and her servants left them alone. She reclined on a bed of lavish crimson pillows and regarded Egil carefully. “Heed my words well,” she said, “And do exactly as I ask. Lives depend on it.”
“Of course, my lady,” Egil said, for consequences always followed disobeying the Oracle.
“Go to the city of Ehloran. When you reach the white tree at the center of the city, travel north. Continue north and do not stop.”
“Why?” Egil asked, unable to stop the question.
Rather than answer, the Oracle said, “You will know when you have reached your destination.”
Egil halted his tongue, though more questions burned on its tip. This was the way of the Oracle’s prophecies—they were glimpses, snapshots. They created more questions than they answered. Egil had seen them fulfilled enough times to know that. He also knew that the Oracle was never wrong, so he bowed again and left to prepare for the journey. He made all haste to Ehloran, and he found the white tree, whose petals had just begun to fall.
He turned north and, on foot— as he knew not how far he had to journey— he began to walk. He walked up and down the hilly streets of Ehloran, always pointing due north. Many distractions threatened to break his pace as he walked. He passed through a market, and the smells of the foods there taunted him. A beautiful woman in glittering fabrics danced in the street to swift music, and he longed to stay and watch. When he reached a tall fence, he paused, but the time he would lose finding a way around would cost too much, so he climbed.
Finally, at the city gates, he was forced to stop when a man dressed in rich robes laden with jewelry fell at his feet.
“Please, Egil!” the man cried. “I am Trym Bech, leader of this city. I ran as soon as I heard you were here. My daughter Rylia has gone missing. Please, I need your help finding her. I fear something terrible has happened.”
Egil thought about the Oracle’s words. You will know when you have reached your destination. Egil did not yet know, so he said, “I am sorry, I cannot. If your daughter is still missing when I return, I will help you find her.”
Egil did not know that, the day before her disappearance, the Lady Rylia’s father announced she would be married. The intended prince, who’d come from Alfheim for the lady’s hand, was a kind man, but Rylia loved another, a young woman of humble birth. Confronted with the choice to marry someone she did not love or break her father’s heart, Rylia chose to flee into Lyryma. But distraught and alone, confused by the darkness, she lost her way. A witch who lived in the forest, a daughter of Tellaos, found her and spirited her to Tellaos’ realm, intending to feed the pretty young noble to the soulless beasts who roamed the dead forest there.
Egil stepped around Rylia’s father and left Ehloran, continuing down into the grassy fields of the Valley of Creae. He walked until he reached the borders of Lyryma, and then he walked further yet. He walked until his feet ached and his eyes drooped, and finally he reached his destination.
As the Oracle had said, he knew it immediately. On the strange, winding path before him, Egil saw the swirling of dark magics. Shadows swelled and sharp branches hung low, and Egil knew— for Egil knew many things about magic— that if he continued down this path, it would lead him to the place between worlds. Egil thought quickly. He pulled the winding vines from the tall Lyryma trees, tied a thousand together to make a rope. He tied one end of the rope to a tree root and the other around his waist, so that he would be able to find his way back.
Thus secured, Egil started down the path. Slowly and somehow all at once, the trees changed. He found himself in Tellaos’ dead forest, completely silent except for the sounds he himself made. No birds sang up high, no creeks bubbled in the distance, no wind rustled the decaying leaves under his feet. Egil continued through the forest until he heard a woman’s cries for help. He followed the sound until he found her weeping at the base of a twisted tree.
“Who are you?” she asked when she saw him.
“I am Egil. Your father sent me to find you,” answered Egil, and Rylia knew she was safe. She took Egil’s hand when he held it out and he helped her to stand.
With his rope made of vines, he began leading her back to their world, but a voice stopped them, crying out, “Stop! You will not take her! Stop!”
It was the witch who’d brought Rylia to this realm.
Egil instructed Rylia to follow the rope back. Then he turned to face the witch, and she shot lightning from her palms, meaning to kill him with her magic. The lightning struck Egil in the chest. The witch cackled, sure she had won, but when the lightning died Egil had not fallen, nor had he even moved. He had not been harmed.
“Are you a child of Tellaos, too?” the witch asked him. For if he had magic, he must have been born of the Guardians.
“I am Egil. My magic is my own,” Egil said. He drew his sword and pointed it at the witch. “I am taking the lady back to her home.”
“You cannot!” the witch wailed. “The beasts of the forest have been promised a meal! They will become violent if they do not have it!”
“Then you shall be their meal,” Egil said. Leaving the witch among the shifting shadows, he followed the reeds back to Lyryma Forest, where he found Lady Rylia waiting. Together, they returned to Ehloran, and the Lord of the city thanked Egil with a grand celebration.
When Gareth finished his story, everyone clapped but Roman. Roman stared into the fire, his mind far away. He closed his eyes and saw the shapes of the flames burned into his eyelids, multicolored and sharp. Among them he saw Devikra’s face, disappointed and pitying.
Gareth’s story had gotten it all wrong.
Roman hadn’t been working for Devikra long when this happened. It came not long after they’d met in Damael, not long after he’d fled Unity and spent years hiding in Lyryma. He hadn’t been any sort of functional person, then. He’d been damaged and angry, but Devikra had given him the chance to turn that into something good— to reclaim the title Unity had given him: Egil.
She had her premonitions, pointed him where to go to stop bad things from happening. She’d had a vision of the Lady Rylia being kidnapped, that part was true, but she’d ordered Roman not to go. Conscience heavy with the weight of his past sins, desperate to do anything he could to offset it, he’d gone anyway, and he’d found Rylia safe at home. It was his arrival, and the chaos that followed— Egil was beginning to be a recognizable name, by that point— that had created an opening for Rylia to be kidnapped. Finding her hadn’t been so easy as Gareth made it out to be. It had taken weeks and a heavy ransom, but Roman managed to track them. To get Rylia back, he had to kill them.
He’d returned to Devikra with more guilt added to the weight on his shoulders and the blood of petty extortionists on his clothes. It was then that Devikra had given him that look, half disappointed and half pitying.
“If I hadn’t gone, she might have died,” he’d told her.
She’d replied, “If you hadn’t gone, she wouldn’t have gone missing.”
Roman still couldn’t decide whether he regretted it. He’d learned not to play with fate, though, and he’d learned that the Oracle’s visions always came with tricks.
Roman jumped, snapping back to the present to find Leandros and half the team staring at him. Leandros’ brow was creased with concern. How many times had he called Roman’s name?
“I asked if you’d tell a story. I seem to remember you being quite good at it,” Leandros said.
Gareth joined him. “Yes, come on, Roman. Put that stage voice of yours to use.”
“Well,” Roman hedged, looking around at the expectant group. He didn’t much feel like storytelling, but of course Leandros knew that. It would probably help draw Roman out of his painful reminiscing, at least. Of course, Leandros knew that, too. “Alright, fine.”
Thea whooped, and a few others provided encouragements. Before Roman could start, Evelyne stood abruptly. She shot him a glare and with that, stormed off.
“Don’t mind her,” Ivor drawled, sitting back on his hands. He looked like he might fall asleep at any moment, but his gaze was at least vaguely directed toward Roman. “She’s always grumpy.”
“Right,” Roman said with a frown, watching Evelyne walk away. He forced himself to turn back to the first. “I’ll stick with Gareth’s theme and tell a story about Creae Valley. How many of you have heard Runderath’s story?”
Today, Calaidia knows peace – or at least something like it. It hasn’t always been like this. From the day the world was created until the end of the Great War, pain and violence and tragedy were all anyone knew. During the Great War, bloodshed became a way of life and death a price to be paid. We fought, we died, and we fought still.
Unity didn’t exist, then— there was no regulation, no government. No one could ever stay in power long enough to create one. As soon as the ones in charge showed weakness, someone else rose up to overthrow them. And behind it all was Tellaos, one of the Guardians Atiuh made to protect Calaidia. Tellaos believed the world would do better without its greedy, selfish mortals, so he pitted everyone against each other and stoked the flames of the Great War.
And where were the other Guardians? Why weren’t they stopping him? No one had seen them since the Great War began, but one day, someone did.
Runderath was a young alfar Captain, a fierce fighter and a small-name hero. It happened during a rare stalemate – the suns hung crimson in the sky and Runderath picked his way through a bloody battlefield, searching the faces of the fallen for the men he’d lost. No other commanders bothered; there were too many dead, and the nameless faces were just that— memories that would fade. Runderath thought differently. Memories they may be, but they were memories he would honor.
Aside from a lone dragon flying off in the distance, its mournful keening echoing through the valley, Runderath believed himself the only one on the field, so he was surprised when he came upon two figures who stood with their backs to him.
“Ho there!” Runderath called, approaching them. “The alfar army will be coming through soon! They won’t be happy to see outsiders on their land, so you’d best go, for your own sake.”
The figures turned toward Runderath, and Runderath stopped short, the hairs on the back of his neck standing. The figure on the right, a human in black armor with silver streaked hair, kept his eyes on the horizon. He wiped them like he’d been crying.
When the other turned to look at him, Runderath saw that the ground beneath her feet was charred. Her eyes, flat black with specks that glowed like smoldering sparks of a dying flame, bored into him. Her skin, golden-red like a sunset, was covered in swirling patterns that flickered, twisted, and glowed like tongues of fire. Long wings, shimmering and incandescent like a dragonfly’s, stretched behind her.
“Why would you warn us?” she asked. “You are alfar.”
The man beside her finally met Runderath’s gaze. Though he looked not nearly as alien as his companion, he unsettled Runderath more. He was solid, weighty, eternal. His eyes had seen many things and the weight of them all shrouded him like a cloak.
“I am not cruel. I would not see two nonviolent creatures harmed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Runderath.
“And how do you know we are nonviolent?” the woman asked with a dangerous smile.
“I am unarmed; you are not. You could have killed me on sight.”
The man inclined his head in acknowledgment. “And what are you doing here alone, unarmed?”
“Searching for my fallen men, that I may administer last rites,” Runderath answered. He had been through so much, felt so much pain and seen so much death, that he no longer feared either. So he asked, “And you?”
The man and the woman looked at each other and, at once, began to circle Runderath in slow, concentric circles.
“We are trying to decide how to stop our brother,” said the woman.
“We cannot oppose him directly – both out of love for him and because of the laws our God laid upon us,” the man continued.
“But we can no longer stand by while he destroys the world our Father made for you,” the woman said, passing in front of Runderath in her circling.
“Tellaos must die,” the man said.
“If he does, the war will end.”
The man stopped in front of Runderath. “We need a champion who will fight him in our name. I look into your soul and I see light, Runderath id Kamar. Will you be our champion?”
Runderath opened his mouth and found he could speak no words, for he finally knew whose presence he stood in. Atuos and Ellaes, Atiuh’s Guardians. He bowed by way of answer, and when he straightened, Atuos smiled.
Ellaes pressed a kiss that burned like fire to Runderath’s forehead and said, “With this I give you a taste of our magic, that you may meet Tellaos as an equal.”
Atuos drew his sword, made of the same fathomless black as his armor, and offered it up to Runderath. “With this, I give you our blessing. Face Tellaos with courage and heart, and you will not fail.”
Runderath took the sword and felt some light emotion rise in his chest. He realized that it was hope. “Thank you. I will not fail,” he repeated.
“Be brave, Runderath. We will be with you in spirit,” said Ellaes. With that, they were gone, vanishing in the time it took Runderath to blink. Without the weight of Atuos’ sword in his hand, or the fire of Ellaes’ magic in his heart, Runderath would have feared he’d imagined them.
Runderath did not return to his army’s camp. Instead, he turned east and began the long journey to Tellaos’ mountain. On this mountain was a castle the third Guardian loved most of all, which sat overlooking a bloody battlefield. Its walls were darker than the nights in Rhycr and stronger than the scales of the dragon who lived inside. Anyone who entered— aside from the great serpent himself— never left.
This castle stands today, in the heart of Orean. This is the bloody history of Creae Valley.
Runderath fought his way through the valley to the base of the mountain. He climbed it, Atuos’ sword strapped to his back, and burst into Tellaos’ castle. He climbed the winding stairs to Tellaos’ watchtower, confident in himself and his mission. There, Runderath faced the large black dragon.
“Tellaos!” he called, “I have come to end your reign! No longer will the people of Calaidia fall prey to your games!”
The dragon’s eyes widened. He laughed, loud and terrible. “Is that so, little hero? What’s to stop me from killing you where you stand?”
“I have magic, that I may meet you as an equal, and I have this sword, a blessing from those who would see you defeated.”
Tellaos stopped laughing. He knew those words, and suddenly he recognized Ellaes’ magic in Runderath. For the first time, he felt fear. In his rage, he blew a jet of flame at Runderath. But when the flames cleared, Runderath stood in the same spot, unharmed. Runderath raised Atuos’ sword and charged.
On the battlefield below, soldiers of every species paused their fighting to gaze in wonder at Tellaos’ castle, which rumbled and shook in great waves. Then, the dragon’s watchtower began to crumble, and all anyone could do was watch as it collapsed, leaving the southwest corner of the castle open and exposed. As if a spell was lifted, all dropped their weapons and began to cheer. They knew, in their hearts, that Tellaos was dead.
Later that day, a party went up the mountain to search the rubble. Stories were already circulating about the hero who’d been seen fighting his way to the mountain, and they hoped to find him alive so they may thank him. But Neither Runderath nor Tellaos were to be found.
From that day on, the Story of Runderath the Mighty, the hero who stripped Tellaos of his power but perished in the process, was told across the content.
A few around the fire began to clap, expecting Roman had reached the end of his story, but Roman held a hand up to stop them. “It’s not finished.”
The night after Tellaos’ defeat, while the people down below celebrated, the great dragon clawed his way out of the rubble and found two figures waiting.
“Your plan failed,” Tellaos snarled at them, “I’m not dead.”
“We did not mean to kill you,” Ellaes said. Soft flames flickered across her skin, their glow the only light on the dark mountainside. “Only to punish you, and humiliate you.”
Atuos took Ellaes’ hand and said, in a voice harder than diamonds, “And now, to bind you.”
Together, Atuos and Ellaes bound Tellaos’ magic within him, and they trapped him in a weak mortal form so he would no longer have power over the people of Calaidia. Then, with heavy hearts, they denounced him as a Guardian and left him to live the rest of his mortal life alone.
When Roman finally fell silent, Eresh blurted, “That’s not how the story goes! Tellaos can’t live!”
Roman stood and stretched. “It’s the story I’ve always been told. You really think it’s so easy to kill a Guardian?”
“Either way, it’s just a story,” Roman said with a shrug. “I’m tired. I think I’m going to retire for the evening.”
While he was walking away from the fire, Roman paused at the sound of his name. He turned to find Gareth approaching, his shadowy form silhouetted by the fire behind him.
“What did you think of my story?” he asked.
Roman raised an eyebrow. “It was fine, I guess. I told you, I don’t really like Egil stories.”
“Yes, I’ve been wondering about that. I think I might know why.”
Roman turned away. “You’re probably right, but I don’t want to talk about this now.”
Gareth huffed. He was practically vibrating with excitement and did a bad job of hiding it. “If I leave you alone now, can I ask about it more later?”
“I can’t help but feel I’d be breaking your heart if I said no,” Roman said with a small smile. “I’ll think about it.”
An orinian woman with glowing scars carved into her skin stood on the bridge to Unity. She pressed herself against the stone wall to better look down into the swirling water below. For longer than she could remember, she’d been chased by something, a feeling she couldn’t name. A creeping feeling, like the brush of fingers on the back of her neck, or shadows shifting at the corner of her vision. The black waves reminded her of the feeling— angry, insistent, inviting. They called to her, just like the grasping darkness.
But she couldn’t give in to it. There was a closer call, even more insistent. It was near. She pushed herself away from the rail and turned to face it.
A man walked across the bridge toward her, the hard soles of his snakeskin boots clicking on the cobblestones with each deliberate step. He looked human – handsome in a broad, hard-edged sort of way. His pupils, sideways and rectangular like a goat’s, were on the Unity clock tower above and behind Mercy.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he asked as he neared. There was no one beside the two of them on the bridge. He looked at Mercy and smiled, his teeth too many and too sharp. If Mercy’s heart still worked, the sight would have stopped it. The man’s smile dropped as he took in the fading glow behind Mercy’s skin, and he cupped her cheeks between his hands. “Oh, I’ve left you alone for too long. You’re almost out. Mercy, are you alright? Are you still with me?”
Mercy shivered and covered his hands with her own. His hands, the only things keeping her tethered in this world. Instead of answering, she asked, “Why are we here, love? Why did we come to this awful place?”
“Mercy,” he warned, voice low. She pouted. It made him lean down to kiss her forehead. “I know it’s awful, but I needed to see it, just once. I needed to see it before I could destroy it,” he explained, softly. He looked up at the clock tower again. “The Guardians’ pride and joy, their solution to everything. It meant so much to them. To him.”
He took her hand and began pulling her toward the Island. “Come, let’s get a closer look.”
They hadn’t moved more than twenty feet before Mercy pulled her hand back, saying, “I can’t.” When he kept walking, she called, “Tellaos! We can see it from here, darling. Please, I don’t want to go any further.”
“Yes,” Tellaos said, his voice like the slither of a snake through tall grass. “Yes, you’re right. Mercy, come here, and then we won’t have to move any closer. I swear it.”
It was then that the two of them noticed a woman approaching from the Island. She was on the older end of middle-aged and she carried herself rigidly, slowing as she approached Mercy and Tellaos. Tellaos, who stood closest to her, she eyed suspiciously, her eyes lingering on the black scales peeking over the top of his shirt collar.
Tellaos began to scratch the scales. He hadn’t wanted to be seen, Mercy knew. She looked between her lover and the woman with wide eyes. “Who are you, then?” Tellaos asked impatiently.
The woman blinked at him, taken aback. “Moira Ranulf, one of your representatives. I could have you thrown in prison for speaking to me that way.”
Tellaos sneered. “You’re no representative of mine. Mercy, would you…?”
Mercy approached, and Moira looked at her for the first time. She took in Mercy’s orinian features, the glow of her birthmarks, and something like recognition flitted across her face. “You’re the one the Nochdvors saw.”
Tellaos held a hand up to stop Mercy, and Mercy stopped. “Pardon?” he asked. “What was that?”
Moira was already hastening to back away, though. “I’m calling the guard,” she warned.
Tellaos sighed, then signaled Mercy to continue. He looked away as Mercy killed the woman, cringed when he heard her bones snap. He began scratching his arms, the small mortal body Atuos and Ellaes trapped him in not enough to contain the emotions swirling inside of him.
“I hate having to do that,” he said.
Mercy didn’t respond, instead staring curiously down at the human.
“Mercy, was there any chance someone in that throne room survived? When you grabbed Nochdvor?”
Mercy frowned, her delicate features twisting in thought. “I don’t remember. The magic was too overwhelming.”
“We’re going to have to find out.” Tellaos continued to scratch, then stamped his foot. “Damn Atuos! Damn Ellaes! Damn this body! Mercy, come here.”
Mercy approached, but when Tellaos held a hand out to her, she skittered back. “No, wait. Tellaos, I don’t want to feel it again so soon. There’s something wrong with it.”
Tellaos kept his hand out. “I won’t force you, Mercy, but if you do this one last thing for me, everything will get better. I have a plan, but I need your help. I need my body back, love.”
Mercy reluctantly approached. “What do you want me to do?”
Tellaos whispered the answer in her ear. When she nodded, eyes wide, he said, “Now, open up.”
Tellaos put something in Mercy’s mouth. Mercy didn’t get much of a look at it before he did, but it was insubstantial like smoke, yet solid enough that he could hold it between his fingers. It was alive— alive, but not living. It that writhed and squirmed in his fingers like an angry black centipede.
The warped, twisted power of the thing hit Mercy immediately, spreading warmth all the way down to her toes. The glowing in her veins flared bright, so bright that she watched Tellaos’ pupils shrink. She’d been cold earlier, but this was too hot. It was too much, not enough. Burning, freezing. She couldn’t contain it. She must.
Tellaos watched her through it all. Finally, she breathed in deep. That other call, the one that echoed the crashing black waves, felt much further away.
“There you go,” Tellaos murmured. “Perfect, Mercy. It’s almost over now.”
He wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her to him. She raised an arm, used the magic Tellaos had given her just as she had when she’d stolen Amos Nochdvor away.
Around them, Unity’s bridge began to collapse. It started at the ends, crumbling inward, the heavy rocks falling down to the water. The bridge tore itself apart stone by stone, but the small patch Tellaos and Mercy stood on remained intact, hovering above the water and supported by nothing.
Tellaos laughed, pulled Mercy tighter, and kissed her. Mercy snapped her fingers and like that, they disappeared as the last of the bridge fell.
Aleksir Bardon sat stiller than he had in his life, eyes wide and fixed on the white dragon in the center of the room. The dragon was bowed low, unable or unwilling to look at the recipient of his message. But Aleksir looked at her. She sat upright and rigid, her face an impassive mask. Aleksir had worked with her long enough to recognize things others would not, though— the subtle pursing of her full lips, the flare of her nostrils. She was angry.
“What did you just say?” she asked.
The dragon bowed, if possible, lower. His long snout nearly touched the ground. “Unity Bridge has collapsed, my lady. No one was harmed, but one Representative seems to be missing. I flew here as soon as I heard the news.”
“Thank you for bringing this to my attention,” she said. All around her, her courtiers whispered and shifted. The looks they shared with each other all held the same question: Why hadn’t the Oracle foreseen this?
Devikra Stormsong stood and the whispers fell silent. “I predicted this long ago, of course,” she lied, with so much confidence that even Aleksir nearly believed her despite knowing better. “Unfortunately, there’s nothing even I can do to prevent natural disasters such as this, and I hadn’t seen when the incident would occur. I am glad no one got hurt. Please, someone see our messenger to a spare room, and get him whatever comforts he requests. I feel another vision coming on, so I’m afraid I must retire to my chambers. Aleksir?”
Aleksir followed Devikra out of the hall. Once it was just the two of them, Devikra began to pace, rubbing her temples as she passed back and forth in front of Aleksir, who remained silent and watched her warily.
“The entire bridge?” she hissed. “Bridges don’t just collapse!”
“What do you think happened?” Aleksir asked.
“I’m more concerned about why we didn’t see it coming. Aleksir, dear, will you go ask Wil about it? I have something I need to do first, but I’ll meet you upstairs.”
“Yeah, sure. You alright, Dev? You seem sort of…worried,” Aleksir said. It was out of character for her.
Devikra took one of Aleksir’s hands in both of her own and kissed it. “I’m fine. Don’t you worry about me – I’ll be with you shortly.”
Reluctantly, Aleksir left Devikra standing in the hallway. He wove through the palace and down long, winding stairways and finally found himself in a cool basement. He knocked on a heavy door before entering and finding himself in a large room, everything about it orchestrated to make the space comfortable for the Oracle.
The Oracle herself sat in the room’s small kitchen space, and Aleksir dove to catch the door before it slammed, instead guiding it shut with just a soft click.
Aleksir slipped his shoes off, let the room’s calming atmosphere do what it was supposed to do. The colors were cool, manifesting in lots of soft, heavy fabrics— sofas that looked like they’d swallow you whole, pillows on the sofas and grounds and anywhere they could feasibly go, paisley patterned curtains that diffused the suns’ rays and set the room alight with a cool blue glow. Aleksir padded over to the small kitchenette.
“Wilhara,” he called gently. The Oracle ignored him, tapping her charcoal against the counter and squinting at the sketchbook in front of her. “Wilhara?”
When she still didn’t respond, Aleksir said more firmly, “Wil.”
Wilhara looked up, apparently surprised to find Aleksir standing there.
An alfar with orinian blood, Wilhara inherited the graceful qualities of both races. Until her, Aleksir had thought that alfar came in translucent, slightly-not-pale, or almost-tan, but her skin was dark and her hair almost white – darker than Devikra’s, a natural gray instead. Because of her mixed blood, her ears were pointed and expressive like an orinian’s— almost expressive as her eyes, always tired and frightened. The set of her mouth, in contrast, made her look constantly annoyed.
Aleksir knew she was generally neither tired nor frightened, but almost always annoyed. He was very fond of her. Wilhara was the true visionary behind the Oracle’s persona. Devikra taking public credit was a front that worked well for both of them— they knew their strengths and their weaknesses. For Wilhara, dealing with people was one of the latter.
“Good morning, Aleksir.” Wilhara spared Aleksir an effusive smile and the time it took to sip her tea, then went back to studying her drawing book. Aleksir recognized the bitter smell of that brew. It never meant good things for Wilhara’s headspace.
“Did you have a vision?” Aleksir asked.
After a minute of consternated silence, Wilhara asked, “Hmm?”
Aleksir glanced at the drawing book, where Wilhara recorded her visions. It was easier to draw than describe, she’d found, because her visions usually contained an array of people and places she’d never met nor visited. She drew her visions, and Devikra, who’d seen more of the world, interpreted. Aleksir provided the moral support and ran the confidential errands.
“Are you having a bad day?” Aleksir asked, rephrasing the question.
“Oh, very. The visions won’t seem to stop.”
“What do you mean?” Aleksir asked.
“I’ve had a dozen today, at least.”
“A dozen?” Aleksir asked. It was usually considered huge if Wilhara had more than three visions in a week. Aleksir pointed to her book. “May I?”
“I suppose you might as well.” Wilhara pushed the book at Aleksir. “I don’t know what any of it means.”
Aleksir flipped through the newest pages with a frown. There were a lot, and they all seemed to be similar— or at least related— to each other. There was Orean, wonderfully sketched, with a dragon flying above it. The next page was almost the same— same city, same view— but things were peaceful. In the next, everything was on fire and a giant smudge blocked out a third of a page. Aleksir peered closer— not a smudge, but frantic scribbles. That explained the charcoal all over Wil’s fingers and face, then.
“It was like living shadow,” Wilhara said quietly. “I didn’t know how to draw it.”
The next page made Aleksir gasp. It was Unity Bridge, falling into the water. “When did you do this one?” he asked Wilhara.
Not picking up on his urgency, Wilhara regarded it and tugged at her skirts, smoothing them out only to tug them into wrinkles again. “This morning, I think. No— wait, yes. Yes, right after breakfast.”
Aleksir stared at her. According to the dragon’s report, that would’ve been around the time that it happened. He turned the page again and blinked in surprise. It was Egil— a dozen sketches of Egil smiling, frowning, crying. His eyes, his mouth, his hands. There were others, too— a scarred alfar, an orinian girl, a dancer – no, an actress? Then Aleksir stilled. There was even a drawing of himself in here. He looked up at Wil. “What is this?”
Wilhara rubbed her eyes. “I don’t know. I just kept seeing your faces, one after the other, and the visions are so blurry. They change so fast. That’s not the last of them.”
Aleksir turned the page again, then quickly shut the book. He felt like he might be sick. “That’s impossible. How did he…?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t see. I just see him over and over again like that. I don’t know! I—,”
Aleksir grabbed Wil’s hands and rubbed soothing circles into the backs of them. “Hey, hey, it’s alright. We’ll talk to Devikra about it. I’m sure she’ll have answers.”
Wilhara nodded. “Yes. Okay. Where is she?”
“She went to— Oh, shit. Wil, I meant to tell you. Unity’s bridge is gone.”
“The bridge is gone,” she repeated slowly. “Like my vision.”
“But I saw it this morning!” She shook her head. She clenched her hands in her skirts then grabbed her head. “I usually get more warning than that! First, I missed Nochdvor, now this. What’s happening to me?”
Aleksir shrugged and was saved from having to answer when the door flew open. It struck the wall, and Wilhara flinched at the sound. Devikra stormed in, all righteous fury and terrible beauty, looking significantly more tired than she had downstairs. When she noticed Aleksir and Wilhara staring, the tension drained from her like she’d sprung a leak. “Wilhara, dear, I wasn’t sure you’d be up. I’m sorry about the noise.”
“I understand. Aleksir told me what happened.”
Devikra joined them at the table and dropped into the seat across from Wilhara. “How strange this all is. Wil, you didn’t see anything about this, did you? Something we might have missed?”
Without prompting, Aleksir opened the drawing book up to the page with the falling bridge and showed Devikra.
“This morning,” Wilhara said.
Without looking up, sensing more than seeing Wilhara’s distressed look, Devikra said, “Don’t fret, Wil. There’s nothing wrong on your end. I think I know what’s happening.”
“You do?” Aleksir asked.
“Wilhara is rosanin. According to the old stories, rosanin abilities don’t work on the Guardians.”
“The Guardians?” Aleksir asked. He waved a hand. “Like, Ellaes and them?”
“Ellaes, Tellaos, and Atuos, yes.”
“But they’re not real.”
“They’re as real as you or I, dear.”
“It’s true,” Wilhara said. “I forgot about— I mean, it’s happened before. Tellaos has changed my visions.” She met Devikra’s eye, then quickly looked away. “It was a long time ago.”
Devikra nodded. “I’m afraid it’s Tellaos again. Your visions have been acting up since Nochdvor’s kidnapping, right? I fear he had a hand in that, too.”
“What does he want?” Aleksir asked.
“That’s a good question. I could only theorize.”
“So if Wil’s visions can change, what about the other ones she drew today?”
Devikra looked sharply at Wil, who passed the book back to her. Devikra spent more time on each drawing than Aleksir had, her eyebrows drawing closer together with each page she turned. Normally, Wilhara’s drawings were clear and logical, not frantic and chaotic like these. Devikra ran her fingers over two almost identical drawings of Aleksir— identical except for his expressions, one happy, one anguished.
She said, “Your visions are so inconsistent because you’re seeing the different possibilities. Every time Tellaos changes course, he changes the futures you see. He must have been doing a lot of thinking this morning.”
Wilhara flipped to the page of Egil drawings and tapped at it insistently.
Devikra eyed the pages, then Wilhara. “You want me to help him?”
Wilhara sighed, relieved, and nodded. She turned the page. “This was the only one that was clear.
Devikra studied this last image for a long time. Wilhara fidgeted; Aleksir looked away. He didn’t like Egil much. He couldn’t get over their first uncomfortable meeting. But still, Egil had been one of his heroes. He didn’t want to see the man like that.
“I’m sorry,” Wilhara said. “That was the only one that was clear.”
“It’s not your fault, Wil,” Devikra said. “I have to warn him.”
Devikra stood, and Aleksir and Wilhara shared a look. “Will that help?” Aleksir asked. “I thought there was no changing Wil’s visions.”
“With Tellaos getting involved, every future Wil sees is subject to change. Aleksir, are you coming?”
“To see Egil?” Aleksir asked. “I dunno, he’s sort of creepy.”
Devikra gave him a strange look. “How so?”
“I dunno, just…not normal. I swear, the first time we talked, his eyes turned all black like some sort of monster. There was just something…wrong about him. Dev?”
Devikra had gone still and was staring at Aleksir in horror. “What did you just say?”
“We have to go. Now,” Devikra announced. “Wil, you’ll be alright while we’re gone, won’t you? We’ll be back soon.”
After they left, Wilhara continued to stare at the final drawing, the drawing of Egil laying dead among the ruins of Orean. She ran her fingers lightly over the charcoal figure and sent a quick prayer to Atiuh.
Maybe Devikra could still prevent this.