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 returned from Lyryma—gray, cold, overcast.
Gareth shivered and returned his attention to the border of Lyryma. 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 obviously started to wear on them, so the 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.
He sat a distance from the camp, much nearer the forest than the rest of the team, the distance between the two widening as the road curved away from Lyryma in the direction of Illyon. From where he sat, he could still see their camp through the trees, could still see the wagons and the campfire.
According to Leandros, soon, the road would twist further away from Lyryma. According to Leandros, it was only a matter of days before they reached Illyon. They’d come so far in what felt like such a short amount of time, Gareth almost couldn’t believe it.
Except, when he thought about Isobel and Ofelia, how long it had been since he’d seen them, he could.
He lifted the old locket from around his neck and clicked it open. On one side was a fuzzy photograph of Isobel. On the other, a newer photograph of Ofelia. Gareth sighed.
Gareth jumped where he was standing, hiding the locket behind his back and turning to face the speaker.
“Ah, Ms. Smith. Is it time to switch out already?”
Trinity Smith, one of the team’s diplomats, smiled at him. She was nympherai, with a hooved gait and eyes round like a fish. She had a kind smile and long, silken hair that, out of the corner of his eye, Gareth swore sometimes flowed like it was underwater. “It’s been several hours. They’ve got food cooking back at the camp—you should go get some before it gets cold.”
“I certainly will, thank you. This watch was silent – I wouldn’t expect much trouble.”
Trin nodded her thanks and the two of them switched places, Gareth heading back to the camp. There, most of the team was assembled in a circle around the fire. Aaror Thomason was on shift with Trin and Ivor was gone, probably sleeping off the watch he’d finished, but all the others were present.
“Hey Leandros,” Thea said as Gareth approached, not seeming to notice him, “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.”
Leandros frowned and folded the map in his hands, giving Thea his full attention. “Fine—fur. No offense to you, Cathwright, I just don’t think scales would suit me.”
Cathwright grinned, lips pulling back to reveal rows of sharp teeth. “No offense taken, but my scales are lovelier than any fur.”
“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.”
Thea turned to Eftychia and made a show of thinking. Thea’s eyes casted around the camp, finally settling on a squirrel in a nearby tree. “Would you rather be able to talk to rodents and have them talk back, or know every draconic language without studying?”
There was no hesitation in Eftychia’s response. “Rodents. I already know most languages, anyway.”
“Wow, okay,” Thea said. Her eyes fell to the next person in the circle. “Roman.”
Roman, who’d been waiting for this, laughed. “Yes, Thea?”
“Would you rather…be a famous hero or have an endless amount of money?”
Roman snorted. “I’d rather have money.”
“What?” Thea asked. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing, I just think being famous in any way, for anything, is more trouble than it’s worth.”
“But 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 specify,” Leandros cut in, obviously hiding a smile. “And you have to admit you see Roman’s point.”
Thea made a show of pouting, then glanced at Evelyne, who seemed to only be half-paying attention. She stood apart from the group and paced, the rest of her focus on Lyryma. “Evelyne, what do you think?” Thea asked, her voice taking on a softer, sweeter tone.
Evelyne stopped pacing and crossed her arms. “I would also take the money.”
“Really!” Thea cried. “Why?”
Evelyne shrugged and looked away. “Money is power.”
“Everyone quiet,” Roman said. He rose to his feet, his eyes on Lyryma and his body tense. “Something’s wrong.”
“Is it oanai? Trin and Aaror would alert us if anyone was coming,” Evelyne said.
Roman’s eyebrows drew together. He took a small step away from the forest. “I don’t know. Something just feels…strange.”
Gareth watched Leandros rise and say something to Roman in a low voice, standing close. Roman relaxed and nodded. Gareth smiled to himself, glad they seemed to have made up, and looked over to find a woman standing beside him.
He swore and stumbled away from the woman, nearly falling in his haste. The woman brushed past him, the bright fabrics of her dress trailing behind her.
The others subconsciously made way for her when she approached the circle, even as Evelyne drew her sword and Leandros stepped in front of Roman, blocking the woman’s way.
“Who are you?” Evelyne barked, holding her sword between herself and the woman, ready to strike. “Where did you come from?”
“It’s alright,” Leandros said, though he didn’t move from his defensive stance. Behind him, Roman glared at the woman, more hate in his eyes than Gareth had ever seen. “She’s a friend…I think.”
Evelyne didn’t look convinced.
“My lady!” Eresh squeaked when the woman finally entered the circle.
Leandros gave him a sidelong look. “Eresh, you know who this is?”
“Leandros,” the woman interrupted, her voice clear and her accent formal, unusual in a way Gareth had only heard in historical plays. “I know how things may have looked in Home, Leandros, but I am your friend.”
She had stark white hair, a sharp nose, and black eyes that made Roman’s seem warm and inviting. She reminded Gareth of living flame, mesmerizing and too bright to look at directly.
“And mine, Dev?” Roman asked.
Roman sneered at her. In response, the woman only sighed and said, “You left Home before I had a chance to 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 speak with her.”
Leandros frowned but relented. “Should if you need me.”
“Thank you, Roman,” the woman—Dev— said.
Roman didn’t answer, just jerked his head in the direction of Lyryma and stalked off, leaving the woman to follow. She did, unbothered and elegant. As she passed through the circle, Gareth noticed her hesitate when she passed Eresh, and he noticed Eresh bow, though the motion was subtle. He doubted anyone inside the circle was even able to see it. He moved closer to Leandros while Roman and the woman passed him, Roman looking like he was walking to his death. When they were gone, he asked, “Leandros, who was that?”
Leandros frowned, his eyes on Roman’s retreating back. “That was Devikra Stormsong, the Oracle of Damael.”
A ripple of motion went through the team. Evelyne scoffed, but finally put her sword away. Gareth’s mouth fell open. If he still had any doubt about Roman’s identity, this would settle it. When he could speak again, he said, “Surely, you’re joking.”
“I wish I was.”
Gareth found it hard not to believe him. Everything about the woman seemed to have come right out of story. Actually, it wasn’t that she’d come out of a story, it was that he’d been thrust into one—a story with alfar royalty, oracles, magic, and Egil.
Devikra caught up with Roman quickly, moving to walk beside him instead of behind. She certainly hadn’t changed over the years, then. She’d always been just this: a demanding, destructive force, someone who arrives just when things were going well to turn it all on its head. Roman had learned long ago that in dealing with Devikra, your only options were to find cover or get swept up in the storm to be carried somewhere wild and unknown. Roman despised and admired her for it, but this time, he wouldn’t play along.
Devikra, swept in front of him, cut him off, and in her sweetest voice, said, “I’m sorry about what happened in Home, dear.”
“Don’t,” Roman warned. “Don’t talk to me like that.”
“Like I’m still your pet.”
“You were never my—,” Devikra began, then stopped and sighed. She rested a hand on Roman’s arm, and Roman almost let himself lean into it. Besides 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 given him the meaning he’d searched for. She’d passed the Egil mask to him to hide behind when he’d needed distance, and she’d put him to work.
“It’s been lonely without you,” she said. “I’ve been a hard time keeping track of Wil’s visions without you and Leandros to help.”
Roman glanced back at the team, waiting and watching in the distance. “Yeah, I’ve met our replacement.”
“Aleksir? He’s certainly better at following directions than his predecessors.” She levelled a flat stare at him. “Are you jealous?”
“Oh, how I’ve missed your wit,” Devikra said dryly. Then she sighed, and 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 partnership is done? That you won’t work with me anymore? This isn’t something you can walk away from, Egil. Ignoring the visions won’t keep them from happening,” Devikra said, matching Roman’s sudden hostility and raising it.
“I don’t care!” Roman said. “I don’t want to know the future. It’s too much. Too much responsibility. I don’t want to work for you—you’re no better than Unity!”
“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 hurt and die and suffer because some random alfar 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 let me and Leandros hurt and suffer and see terrible things, and that didn’t matter because it was all for the greater good. And then you—did you know I was a monster, Devikra? Is that why you locked me up? If you’d just explained then, I might have agreed with you.”
“Roman, stop it,” Devikra said. Even when her tone was soft, it had an authoritative resonance that had Roman stilling involuntarily. She surprised Roman by throwing her arms around his neck and hugging him so tightly she almost broke bones. He reluctantly returned the embrace, the loose fabric of her scarves tickling his check. “I’m sorry for the way I reacted, then. When I saw the way you transformed, I…I was scared for you. Not because you’re a monster, but because you’re the opposite.”
“So you were there for that,” Roman said. “Did Wilhara see me get shot?”
Devikra pulled away. “No. The battle was supposed to go smoothly—no casualties to either you or Leandros. That’s what Wilhara saw. If she’d seen…that, of course I wouldn’t have sent you.”
“But Wilhara’s visions can’t be changed,” Roman said.
“That is what I’ve always said,” Devikra conceded. “It’s not entirely the truth.”
Roman stilled. “What?”
“They can be changed, they can be wrong—under limited circumstances.”
“What circumstances?” Roman asked, too shocked to be angry.
Devikra pursed her lips and didn’t answer the immediate question. Instead, she said, “Wilhara’s visions have been getting…let’s just say the count of times she’s been wrong has risen. Her latest batch of visions…I don’t know whether to believe them. But I couldn’t not 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, processing. “I can’t die. I’ve never been able to before. I got shot in the heart and got up and walked away—you saw that.”
Devikra didn’t even blink. “You were dead in these visions. I’m sure of it.”
Slowly, Roman asked, “But these visions can be changed?”
“Yes. That’s what I was trying to do 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 thought about it more, then glanced back at the camp, where the rest of the team sat talking quietly around the fire. “But if I don’t go, does someone else die in my place? Leandros, or Gareth, or Thea? You taught me to think about consequences. Everything is connected, and the visions are never the full picture. 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. I don’t know. I suppose.”
Roman ran his hands through his hair, mussing it up. “I have to go, then. If I do, and something worse happens, I won’t be able to live with that guilt. That’s the job, right? We know something bad will happen, but we still go and try 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 something terrible is coming and you can’t to anything to stop it. But this is my choice.”
“Not if I drag you back to Damael myself, it isn’t.”
“Dev, you can’t protect people by locking them up and ferrying them away! Denying them their choice is no way to show love—not to me, and not to Wil.”
Devikra reeled back like she’d been hit. “That is not the same thing. Wil is special. You know she can’t be out on her own.”
“No, I don’t know that.”
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, shoving Devikra behind him, and rose it just in time for a massive insect with crimson glowing beneath its trunk to rise up and launch itself at him.