The sky was gray, foreboding in its darkness. Heavy-looking clouds obscured the two suns, hanging so low Gareth imagined he could climb a tree and reach up to touch them. He didn’t consider himself a superstitious man, but even he had to admit the weather seemed a bad omen. It had been like this since Roman, Leandros, and the others had caught up from their sojourn to Lyryma—gray, cold, overcast.
Gareth shivered and returned his attention to the Lyryma border. They’d been keeping a rotating watch the last few days, making sure eyes were always on the forest. There were so few security team members that the shifts had started to wear on them, so Gareth and a few other diplomats had insisted they be put in the rotation as well. Gareth didn’t mind it. It gave him an excuse to get some privacy, to be away from the others for a while.
The distance between the road and the forest had widened some as they traveled, and Gareth sat at the halfway point between the two. He could still see the team’s wagons and campfire through the trees, but unless he looked for them or listened closely for the cadence of their voices, he could imagine he was quite alone in this forest.
According to Leandros, they wouldn’t have to keep up their watch much longer. The road would soon twist away from Lyryma, taking a final turn toward Illyon. Itt would only be a matter of days before they reached the city. They’d come so far in what felt like such a short amount of time, Gareth almost couldn’t believe it.
But when he thought of Isobel and Ofelia, of how long it had been since he’d seen them, he could. He lifted an old locket from around his neck and clicked it open. On one side was a silhouette of Isobel. On the other, one of Ofelia. Gareth sighed.
“Evening, Mr. Ranulf.”
Gareth jumped where he was standing, tucking the locket back under his collar and turning to face the speaker.
“Ah, good evening, Ms. Smith. Is it time to switch out already?”
Trinity Smith, a fellow diplomat, smiled at Gareth. She was a slim, well-spoken nympherai woman with a hoofed gait and eyes round like a fish. Her smile was kind and her hair impossibly long — she wore it down and loose without fail and sometimes, out of the corner of his eye, Gareth swore it moved as if Trin was underwater.
“It’s been several hours,” Trinity said. “They’ve got food cooking back at the camp. You should get some before it gets cold, Mr. Ranulf.”
“I certainly will, thank you,” Gareth said. He stood and stretched, several of his joints cracking embarassingly at the movement. “This watch was silent. I wouldn’t expect any trouble.”
Trinity nodded her thanks and the two of them switched places, Gareth heading back to the camp. There, he found the team assembled in a circle around the fire. Aaror was on shift with Trin and Ivor was gone, probably sleeping off the watch he’d just finished, but all others were present.
“Leandros, I have a question for you,” Thea said as Gareth approached, “Would you rather be covered in fur or scales?”
Leandros looked up over the top of his reading glasses and raised an eyebrow at Thea. “I beg your pardon?”
“You heard me. It’s a game, Leandros. You know, for fun. It beats sitting around in silence, anyway. I can ask a different question, if you like.”
Leandros frowned and folded the map in his hands, giving Thea his full attention. He stared at her until she began to fidget, then said, “Fur. No offense to you, Cathwright, I just don’t think scales would suit me.”
The largest member of their team grinned, her lips pulling back to reveal rows of sharp teeth. “No offense taken, Captain, but my scales are lovelier than any fur,” Cathwright said.
“Do me next!” Eftychia chirped, crossing the fire to kneel beside Thea. The bells and charms on her skirts jingled and chimed with the movement. “I want to play, too.”
Thea turned to Eftychia and made a show of thinking. Her eyes scanned the camp, finally settling on a squirrel in a nearby tree. “Would you rather be able to talk to animals and have them talk back, or know every language without studying?”
There was no hesitation in Eftychia’s response. “Animals. I already know most languages, anyway.”
“Wow, okay. Good for you,” Thea said. Her eyes fell to the next person in the circle. “Roman.”
Roman, who’d been watching the proceedings with amusement, laughed. “Yes, Thea?”
“Would you rather…be a famous hero or have an endless supply of money?”
Leandros laughed, the sound wilder than usual in this darkened forest. Roman hid a smile of his own. “I’d rather have the money.”
“What’s so funny?” Thea asked. “Was something wrong with that question?”
“Not at all,” Roman said. “I just think being famous in any way, for anything, is more trouble than it’s worth.”
“Even if you’re famous for being a hero? You’re helping people!”
“Why can’t I help people with all of my money?”
“Because that’s not how the game works!” Thea said.
“To be fair, you didn’t lay out any rules,” Leandros cut in, still smiling.
Thea made a show of pouting. Her gaze landed on Evelyne, who seemed to be paying little attention to the conversation. She paced at the edge of the camp, most of her focus on Lyryma.
“Evelyne,” Thea called, her voice taking on a softer, sweeter tone. “What do you think?”
Gareth frowned at the casual mode of address. He’d noticed Thea’s partiality for the captain of their security team a few times; even more shockingly, he’d noticed Evelyne’s returned attention. He’d warned Leandros that they should let Thea in on the full situation with the Enforcers — the girl didn’t know what she was getting herself into.
“I would also take the money,” Evelyne said.
“Really!” Thea cried. “Why?”
Evelyne shrugged. “Money is power.”
“Be quiet,” Roman said suddenly. He rose to his feet, his eyes on Lyryma and his body tense. The sight of him reminded Gareth of a bloodhound on the hunt. “Something’s wrong.”
“Is it oanai? Trin and Aaror would have alerted us if anyone was coming,” Evelyne said, turning toward the forest as well.
Roman’s eyebrows drew together. He backed away from the forest. “Something just feels strange.”
Evelyne stomped off toward the forest, Eftychia hopping up and skipping after her. Gareth felt safer, knowing the two of them were looking into it. Knowledge of the Enforcers’ existence had frightened him, at first — it still did, but at least they were on the same side against Lyryman foes.
Leandros said something to Roman in a low voice, standing closer than propriety might warrant. Gareth smiled to himself, glad the two of them seemed on the road to making up.
He chuckled to himself, then looked over to find a strange woman standing beside him.
He cried out and stumbled away from the woman, nearly falling in his haste. The woman took no notice of him; she swept into the camp, the bright fabrics of her dress — not at all suited for travel — trailing behind her.
The others subconsciously made way for her when she approached the circle, even Cathwright lowering her head submissively. Only Leandros actively blocked her way, stepping in front of Roman.
“Who are you?” Thea asked.
“She’s a friend…I think,” Leandros said, though he didn’t move from his protective stance. Behind him, Roman hadn’t moved. He only glared at the woman, eyes impossibly dark.
“Leandros,” the woman said, her voice clear and her accent one Gareth had only heard in historical plays. “I know how things may have looked in Home, but I am still your friend.”
The woman was certainly striking. She had stark white hair, a sharp nose, and black eyes that made Roman’s seem warm and inviting. Strange patterns trailed across her skin, unlike any he’d seen before. She reminded Gareth of living flame, mesmerizing and too bright to look at directly.
“Mine too, Dev?” Roman asked.
Evelyne ran up, having heard Gareth’s alarmed cry. She froze when she saw the woman, some sharp emotion passing quickly over her face. “Who is this? Why is she here?”
“Who is this?” the woman repeated with a cold laugh. “You think I don’t remember you, girl? After what you did last time we met?”
Evelyne glanced nervously at Leandros and Roman. Gareth realized with shock that she was nervous. “You have me confused for someone else.”
“Devikra, what are you doing here?” Roman asked.
“You left Home before I could explain. Can I speak with you alone?”
It was Leandros who answered. “Absolutely not.”
Roman, however, stepped around him. “It’s fine, Leandros. I’ll talk to her.”
Leandros didn’t look happy. “Shout if you need me,” he said.
Roman didn’t answer, just jerked his head in the direction of Lyryma and stalked off, leaving the woman to follow. As she passed through the circle, Gareth noticed Eresh give a subtle bow. He doubted anyone inside the circle was even able to see it.
Gareth inched closer to Leandros just in time to hear Thea whisper, “Leandros, that woman didn’t have an aura.”
“Who was that?” Gareth asked.
Leandros’ eyes stayed on Roman’s retreating back. “That was Devikra Stormsong, the Oracle of Damael.”
A ripple of motion went through the team. Gareth’s mouth fell open. “Surely, you’re joking.”
“I wish I was.”
Gareth believed him. The woman seemed to have come right out of story. Or perhaps it wasn’t that she’d come out of one — he’d been thrust into one. It was a story with alfar royalty, oracles, magic. Egil.
If Gareth had any lingering doubt about Roman’s identity, this would have settled it.
Devikra hadn’t changed over the years. She’d always been this: a demanding, destructive force, someone who arrives just when things were are well to turn it all on its head. Roman learned long ago that in dealing with Devikra, your only options were to find cover or get swept up in the storm. Roman despised and admired her for it.
Devikra crossed ahead and cut him off. In her sweetest voice, she said, “I’m sorry about what happened in Home, dear.”
“Don’t,” Roman warned. “Don’t talk to me like that.”
“Like I’m your pet.”
“I’m sorry,” she sighed, resting a hand on Roman’s arm.
Roman almost let himself lean into it. Beside Leandros, Devikra was still the closest thing to family he had. Orphaned at a young age, cut off from the world as an Enforcer, left alone to wander afterward in search of some sort of meaning. Devikra had picked him up, dusted him off, and gave him that meaning he’d craved. She’d held him up and put him to work.
“It’s been lonely without you,” she said. “I’ve had a hard time tracking Wil’s visions without you and Leandros to help.”
“I’ve met our replacement,” Roman said.
“Aleksir? He’s certainly better at following directions than his predecessors.” She levelled a flat stare at him. “Are you jealous?”
“I’ve missed your wit,” Devikra said dryly. Her grip on Roman’s arm loosened. “I really have. It’s been a long time.”
Roman pulled his arm free and turned on her. “It’s been a long time for a reason, Dev! I told Aleksir that—,”
“What, that our friendship is done? That you won’t work with me anymore? This isn’t something you can walk away from. Ignoring the visions won’t keep them from happening,” Devikra said.
“I don’t care!” Roman said. “I don’t want to know the future. It’s too much responsibility. I don’t work for you anymore.”
“Egil,” Devikra chided, but Roman wasn’t about to stop there.
“You claim to work for the greater good, but you have no idea what that means. You let people suffer and die because because an alfar girl locked in a basement saw it in a vision, and you don’t care so long as the ends fit into your concept of ‘good.’ You shoved me and Leandros into terrible situations, and that didn’t matter because it was all for your greater good.”
“What happened in Histrios, Dev? Did you know I was a monster? Is that why you locked me up?”
“Roman, stop,” Devikra said. Even when her tone was soft, it had an authoritative resonance that made Roman still. Then, Devikra surprised Roman by throwing her arms around him and hugging him. Roman reluctantly returned the embrace, the loose fabric of her scarves tickling his check.
“I’m sorry for the way I reacted, then,” Devikra said into his shoulder. “When I saw you transform, I was scared for you. Not because you’re a monster, but because you’re the opposite.”
“That makes no sense,” Roman muttered. “Dev, did Wil see me get shot? Is that why you came to Histrios?”
“No. If she’d seen what happened, of course I wouldn’t have sent you.”
“But that wouldn’t have prevented it. Wilhara’s visions can’t be changed,” Roman said, parroting back what he’d always been told. Wil’s visions were infallible. No matter what he did, he couldn’t stop them.
Devikra looked guilty. “That’s not entirely true.”
Roman froze. “What?”
“Wil’s visions can be changed…under limited circumstances.”
“What circumstances?” Roman asked, too shocked to be angry.
Instead of answering, Devikra said, “Wil’s visions have been getting…Well, let’s just say the count of times she’s been wrong is rising. I don’t know whether to believe her latest batch of visions, but I had to warn you.”
“What did she see?”
“Many things, many timelines. Almost all of which seemed to end with Orean destroyed and you dead.”
Roman stared at her. “But I can’t die. You know that. I got shot in the heart and woke up a day later. You saw it.”
“You were dead in Wil’s visions. I’m sure of it.”
Slowly, Roman asked, “But…these visions can still be changed?”
“Yes. I was trying to change them by keeping you in Home. If you don’t go to Orean, you can’t die there. It’s simple.”
“But…what killed me? What destroyed Orean?”
“You know how this works,” Devikra said. “I only know what Wil saw. Just an image, that’s it.”
Roman glanced back at the camp, where the team sat quietly around the fire. “But if I don’t go to Orean, does the city still get destroyed? Does someone die in my place? You always urged me to consider the consequences. Everything is connected, and Wil’s visions never show the full picture. What she saw…maybe I died saving someone else’s life, or saving Orean. If I’m not there, couldn’t something worse happen?”
“I can’t answer that,” Devikra said.
Roman ran his hands through his hair, mussing it up. “I have to go, then. If I don’t and something worse happens, I won’t be able to live with that guilt. That’s the job, right? Wil sees disaster, and we go to help as many as we can.”
“I thought you didn’t like the job,” Devikra said.
Roman laughed, the sound bitter. “I don’t. Sometimes, I think working for you was worse than working for Unity. It’s a different kind of hurt, knowing terrible things are coming and not being able to do anything. But this is my choice.”
“Not if I drag you back to Damael myself.”
“Dev, you can’t protect people by locking them up and ferrying them away!” Roman snapped. “Denying them their choice is no way to show love.”
While they bickered, a dark mass scuttled out of the forest toward them. It clicked and chittered as it twisted through the trees, the sound alerting Roman just in time. He drew his sword, shoved Devikra behind him, and raised it just as a dark creature launched itself out of the trees.
Roman blocked the creature’s attack, his blade catching between strong pincers that dripped with some dark substance. He worked his sword free with a twist and swung at the creature, forcing it back. The noises it made were horrible; it clicked and hissed, chittered and snapped. Roman grit his teeth against it, but the sounds seem to echo around his skull.
Even worse was the thing’s appearance.
Roman had never seen such a horrific creature. Shaped like a centipede but larger than a horse, glittering black in a hard casing with pincers as long as Roman’s forearm, the creature moved around on dozens of long, spindly legs covered in some sort of slime. But the strangest thing came when it stood up: instead of revealing a segmented underbelly, the entire underside of the creature was a wash of crimson glow.
The sight paralyzed Roman. It reminded him of magma, swirling in lazy streams just beneath the creature’s skin, and as he stared he felt something stir inside him, an old memory buried in pain fighting to resurface. He’d seen this glow before, somewhere.
“Egil!” Devikra shouted, snapping him out of it. Roman shook himself and braced himself for another attack. The creature circled him and Devikra, giving Roman and his sword a wide berth.
“Where did you come from, then?” Roman murmured.
“Lyryma,” Devikra said.
A scream came from the direction of the camp. Devikra and Roman both looked to see an entirely different creature — something like a large bear covered in mos — charging at the camp. It had three massive claw-shaped gashes in its side, that same crimson glow spilling out of them.
“This is impossible,” Devikra said.
“And yet, it’s happening,” Roman said. “Are you going to help?”
The creature attacked. Roman was ready for it, side-stepping at the last moment and then, before the long creature could dodge or change course, bringing his sword down in a sweeping arc to slice it in half. The severed hind legs collapsed, still twitching, still glowing, but the rest of the creature didn’t so much as falter, heading straight for Devikra.
It reached her before Roman could take even a step in her direction. As it launched itself at her, Devikra reached out toward it. Metal flashed in her hand, and as the creature’s pincers clasped around her arm, Devikra buried her dagger deep in the roof of its mouth. The creature made a pitiful wailing noise and thrashed to get free, but Devikra grabbed on to it with her free hand and held it in place.
Something strange happened, then.
Crimson droplets oozed out of the creature’s underbelly like blood, blackening when they were exposed to the air. But rather than be pulled down by gravity, the droplets instead began to travel up the creature’s long body toward Devikra’s hand. Roman stood frozen, transfixed by the sight.
When the first of the droplets touched Devikra’s skin, they lit up brighter than before and seemed to seep inside of her, setting the veins of her hand alight. Devikra held the creature still until she’d absorbed every last drop, until the glow passed her hand and lit up her entire arm beneath her sheer sleeve. Then, with a snarl, she tore her dagger free and shoved the creature away. It fell to the ground, no longer twitching, no longer glowing.
And when Roman looked, the luminescence to Devikra’s own arm had faded, leaving Roman to wonder if he’d only imagined it. He felt uneasy. There was something familiar about what he’d just witnessed, if only he knew why. He asked, “How did you do that?”
Devikra ignored him, instead studying the wound on her arm with a detached curiosity. The spread of blood on her sleeve where the creature’s pincers had pierced her skin was all too obvious.
Roman held a hand out. “Dev, let me see. That thing might be poisonous.”
“There’s no need.”
Roman was about to argue, but instead, he yelped and jumped back when something bumped into his leg. It was the creature’s lower half. It still moved. Roman brought his sword down, spearing it through and pinning it to the ground, but the creature’s lower half continued to writhe and wriggle as much as it could.
Devikra crouched beside the mutilated insect and repeated her earlier process, once again drawing the crimson glow out of the thing’s body. This close, Roman could feel the strange draw of it. For a moment, he thought to push Devikra away, take it for himself. He wanted it to be his.
Instead, he turned away, feeling as if he might be sick. When Devikra finished what she was doing, the body collapsed, motionless, and Roman’s strange urges disappeared. He breathed a sigh of relief.
“Dev, what was that?”
Before Devikra could answer, a shrill voice called out Roman’s name. He looked over to see Thea clutching her skirts and sprinting toward them. She gave both halves of the fallen creature a wide berth. “Roman, there are more of them at the camp! There are too many for the security team to take! Evelyne is fighting three on her own and—,”
Roman didn’t wait for her to finish. He pulled his sword from the ground and pushed past her, grabbing Devikra’s good arm as he did and dragging her with. He’d only seen Devikra fight a few times in the old days, but he knew that even injured, she was a formidable enemy.
But when they reached the camp, Roman stopped short.
This was a battle they couldn’t possibly win.
There were monsters everywhere. Some were familiar to him, animals that he’d encountered in Lyryma, others he’d only heard of. Thea was right—Evelyne fought three creatures on her own. Ivor had both blades in hand and was darting between opponents, keeping Eresh and Gareth out of trouble. Cathwright was lashing out at a giant elk with tooth, claw, and spiked tail. A shaari circled Leandros, who’d abandoned his gun for a sword. When Roman looked closer, he realized the shaari had multiple bullet wounds in its hide.
Roman made a move to go to Leandros, but Devikra held him back. Roman frowned at her, ready to tell her off, but the words died on his tongue when he saw her expression.
He’d never seen Devikra look so vacant. She stared out at the scene like she couldn’t process any of it, her gaze far away. She muttered something under her breath, Roman only catching the words how could he.
“Devikra?” Roman asked. When she didn’t respond, he pressed, “Dev, let me go. I need to help them.”
“No,” Devikra said, standing taller. A look of disgust stole over her features. “This is an enemy no mortals can face.”
“Mortals?” Roman repeated.
Devikra’s gaze refocused, then, honing in on Roman with such clarity it made him take a surprised step back.
“I’m sorry for what you’re about to see,” she said.
With that, she used both hands to push him away from the camp, away from the circle of strange, magical creatures. The action, which normally would have only made Roman stumble, instead sent him flying. He hit the ground hard when he landed, the air leaving his lungs in a rush. By the time he’d recovered and pushed himself to his feet, Devikra had turned to face the camp.
Whatever she’d just done — however she’d done it — called to the creatures like a beacon. They stopped what they were doing, heedless of their enemies, and turned toward her with open hunger. With their attention drawn in his direction, Roman got a better look at the creatures. Most were maimed, mauled, falling apart. Some openly decayed. But they all had one thing in common: that crimson glow.
Roman could feel a strange spark in them, one that called out to him and made his blood sing. He didn’t know what to call it other than magic — what else could this feeling be? And with shock, Roman realized that he could feel it in Devikra, too. It was purer, brighter, a thousand times stronger than the pale shadows that lived inside those creatures. He took a step toward Devikra without ever willing his feet to move, helpless to the pull.
More creatures were coming out of the forest, now. Disinterested in the camp, now, they headed directly for Devikra. Roman saw that among the animals of Lyryma, there were people.
He knew instinctively that they were dead, just as the animals were dead. Roman could only watch in horror as one woman confronted an army of twisted, mutilated monsters. He waited with bated breath for the inevitable messy end, but that end never came. Instead, Devikra continued to surprise Roman.
She raised both arms and the ground began to shake. Roman stumbled and caught himself while the creatures took no heed. Then, Devikra closed her hands into fists and a strong wind swept through the trees, slowing the creatures’ approach.
Devikra’s back was to the camp, so only Roman saw the way her eyes turned entirely black.
Brambles shot out from the ground, winding together and moving like a thousand delicate snakes. They wrapped around the creatures, pulled them down and held them fast to the forest floor. Devikra only had to snap her fingers, and the branches caught fire. Roman covered his ears, trying to block out the screeches and screams from the immolated creatures. He knew he’d never forget the sound as long as he lived, nor the smell of burning flesh mixed with decay.
When the sound died down, Devikra looked over her shoulder. “Leandros,” she called, a hollow echo to her voice. “Get your team away from this place. Don’t stop until you can see the walls of Illyon. Tellaos’ monsters will continue to come for you.”
Leandros could only nod, looking as shocked as Roman felt.
Devikra still looked like herself, Roman’s friend of several centuries, except that those strange markings adorning her skin had come to life. They’d turned to real flame, flame that danced over her skin but didn’t seem to cause her pain. A pair of iridescent dragonfly wings, orange and gold like the fire that burned all around them, unfurled behind her, casting a long shadow in the grass.
When Devikra started toward him, Roman’s knees gave out. She knelt before him, smiling apologetically when he met her gaze. “I didn’t answer your question, earlier,” she said quietly.
“Which question?” Roman asked.
“About Wilhara’s visions,” she started, her black eyes boring into Roman’s. They looked just like his did when he turned. “And the circumstances in which they can be changed. It’s the Guardians. Only the Guardians can change the course of what Wilhara has seen.”
Devikra reached out to caress his cheek and Roman flinched, fearing the fiery touch. But it didn’t hurt; her skin felt comfortably warm. “You know who I am, now? I can change these visions, dear, but I need you to trust me,” she said. “Are you still set in your course? Will you still go to Orean?”
“I have to,” Roman said.
“Very well,” Devikra said, her expression darkening. She cupped his face in both of her hands, and when Roman tried to back away, he found himself frozen in place. No matter how he tried to move his body, it didn’t listen. “I’m sorry for what I have to do now. When this is all over, I’ll fix it, if you survive.”
Roman’s eyes widened. He was able to do that much, at least. “What are you doing?”
“Changing Wilhara’s vision.” Devikra released him, then, and touched two fingers to his chest.
Roman dropped at the touch. It felt as if the flames that danced across her skin leapt straight inside of him, scorching him. With each beat of his heart it spread, stretching to the furthest reaches of his body until nothing was free from the heat. As he lay on the hard ground, unable to move and unable to think, he knew he was dying.
And then somehow, past the pain, Roman felt the pressure behind his eyes that meant they’d changed to black. He opened them and all he saw was Devikra, her face framed by fiery wings. “I’m sorry, Roman,” she whispered. “For everything.”
Ellaes, Atiuh’s nympherai Guardian, leaned down and kissed Roman’s forehead. It was a cooling balm, soothing the fire she’d started. Ellaes stood and, with a final surge of that punishing wind, disappeared into thin air.
Before Roman could even process her absence, Leandros reached him and dropped to his knees beside him. “Roman! Roman, talk to me,” he urged. “What did she do? How can I help?”
Roman only shook his head.
But already, the pain had begun to fade. Roman shoved Leandros weakly away and sprawled out in the dirt, unable to move except to convulse when a residual wave of agony coursed through him.
Leandros glanced back at the camp, then swore. “Roman, close your eyes. Gareth and Evelyne are coming.” Roman did as Leandros said, realizing his eyes must still have been black. He couldn’t feel it anymore. Leandros asked, “Can you walk?”
Roman tried to move, but the pain was still too much. He winced, felt his consciousness begin to slip away. The last thing he heard was Gareth’s worried voice and Leandros’ terse answer; the last thing he felt was Leandros’ arms around him, lifting him off the ground and carrying him back to camp.