Chapter 49: Harmony

Jessica, Cinis

“Conflict was not my purpose in coming here,” said the woman. “I came to repay a debt.”

“Your debt is not with him, he’s never left Querkus,” Jessica retorted, and she held her stance. The woman’s voice washed over her and, unless she held her thoughts tightly, seemed to pick them apart, eroding them away with each syllable.

This isn’t good, she thought, extending her senses toward the lady and feeling nothing but water. I can’t feel anything. It just feels like water, straight water. Even her voice feels like it’s made of water. And thinking back, she remembered a lesson from Cesaro, a lesson that had made the hairs on her neck rise at the time and now made her spine tingle.

“Jessica,” he had said as they walked together, him leading her down a forest path, the thick trunks around them an indication of the depth into which they had travelled. Above, shafts of light pierced through the leaves, few reaching the vegetation on the ground below. “Dear, as you have learned by now, increasing your skills aids in the identification of when others are actively using magic. You could sense when your sister used Air Magic, though you were untrained at the time. The reason why is that she was clumsy—it would be similar to you slamming your fists down on piano keys, and calling it music. Even if you attempt to ignore the notes, they are still jarring, and they still stand out.”

“Yes, it did seem like that,” she said. “Or as if someone was flashing a bright light in my eyes.”

“Precisely, Jessica, precisely. However, as magical skill improves, it is no longer so staccato. Instead of out-of-place notes, it would be as if an expert musician was playing the keys. And if he was particularly skilled, you likely would not notice at all. They would blend so well with reality that they would be indiscernible from reality—more than indiscernible, some argue that it isreality itself. Magic is all around us; there is magic that keeps you alive, there is magic as fire burns, there is magic in the light that shines from the stars overhead at night. But it is so natural, soperfect, so pure, that it may as well not be there.”

“So you’re saying that I can only identify magic that is pieced together by the unskilled because it appears artificial?”

“More than appears. It is artificial. They are pushing nature’s laws, contorting them in ways that stand out because they simply are not meant to be. But a great magician, one truly talented, does not distort the laws. Instead, they use them to their advantage. They improve, rather than detract. And when magic is worked in this way, it is harmonized to such a degree that it is nearly impossible to tell it is even there at all. Recognize that, Jessica. Recognize that just because you can barely sense magic does not mean it is weak; rather, it means the opposite. That it is powerful, that its skill level is leagues above your own, and that you might be in danger. The more detail that magic has while appearing not to be magic to your senses at all, the more powerful an entity you are dealing with.”

“How can I tell if it even is magic, then? How do I know it is not natural, or something innocent?” she asked, noticing that the dirt path in front of her had turned rocky, and that there were jagged crags jutting out from the sides, stones carved long ago that formed walls as high as her knees.

“That’s the heart of the question, Jessica. But often, you’ll simply know.”

“That makes no sense,” she answered. “I think I would be able to sense whether it was magic from pretty far away, especially if it was powerful. I’d feel the disturbance. And if I can’t, then there is no way to tell.”

“Dear, you think you could tell, then, if some of the most powerful magic you’ve ever encountered was nearby?” asked Cesaro, turning to face her, an eyebrow raised.

“Definitely,” she answered, meeting his gaze. “Otherwise, it’d be like I was blind.”

“Interesting. Do you know why I brought you here, Jessica? Why we took this hike nearly ten miles into the forest, far away from any sort of town?”

“No. If I remember correctly, you refused to explain it to me when I asked and dismissed the question. I figured that you were trying to get me more in touch with life or something.”

“Close,” he said. “As you mentioned, dear, you’d be able to sense magic nearby. Can you tell me why, exactly, there is a boulder the size of a horse floating a hundred feet above your head right now?”

“Why there is a what?” she said, and she looked upward. “By Corsus!” She darted left to avoid the falling stone near the top of the trees, the granite angled down at her like a falling point. But as she moved, the stone stayed still, hovering as if it were suspended by cable.

“What? What is that?” she asked. “Are you doing that? Are you holding that up there? The weight would be astronomical!”

“If I was, shouldn’t you be able to feel it?” he asked. “But no, I am not. It’s the same as that one, thirty feet to your left, and that one, just ahead. Strange, no? Look around you Jessica—there are dozens, all held in place. Surely thatcannot be natural. Yet you feel no magic.”

“What is this place?” she breathed. Another floating rock caught her eye, this one at head level and the size of her fist. Walking over, she placed her hands against it and pushed, but it felt locked in place, as if it were cemented into a wall. Extending her senses, she found little suspicious about it. It was simply rock—rock with the dull thrum of power echoing from deep within it, which she could just barely touch, and which danced outside her perspective.

“Ruins,” answered Cesaro. “Ruins from long ago, long before you were born, Jessica. What they are I cannot say, but I can assure you that the magic that holds these in place is incredibly strong, yet you cannot sense it from mere yards away. And whoever, or whatever put these in place was a masterful artist, one whose skill was likely unmatched. His work has persisted for thousands of years, even after everything else had fallen away.”

Back on the raft, extending her senses toward the figure, Jessica felt the same sensation she had when examining the rocks—dull thrum of power behind a wall of water—and her heart rate accelerated. 

Chapter 50: Amellias

Jessica

“Who are you?” Jessica repeated.

“Amellias, Lady of the River,” came the response, and again the words pulled at Jessica’s thoughts as she looked at the detail of the dress, the stitching blending flawlessly into the woven moonlight. “And though my debt is not with this one, it is with his kind. Debts must be paid, young one, and this one is far overdue.”

“And what if he doesn’t want to accept the repayment?”

“It would be a grave insult to the Lady,” said Libus’ voice behind her, and she turned to see him deep in a bow, so low that his nose almost brushed the wood. “Forgive us, Lady. We are grateful for safe passage on your waters and most honored to be speaking to one as regal as yourself. Tell us, is there another way for the debt to be paid?”

“He was in the process of receiving payment,” answered Amellias. “He bore no resistance to this, the most suitable repayment. Tell me, young one, do you not wish to come with me?”

Yes,” said Cinis from the water, his voice slow. “No, I… I don’t know.”

“I am sure he would be excited to accept,” said Libus, holding his palms up.

“He most certainly would not,” interjected Jessica, but Libus turned toward her, and the look on his face silenced her.

“Lady,” continued Libus, “we are most honored to have you visit us. So honored, in fact, that we present you with a gift of our own. Pearls, dark as night, imbued with shadow, and claimed from the depths of your sisters.”

Swiftly, Libus’ hand reached into the crate that held the pearls, and he cast a few into the water, the orbs sinking as Amellias raised a protesting hand.

Her gaze turned to Libus, her eyes sharp and wide, her voice icy.

“Your gift is accepted,” she said, “and I am in your debt, for such a gift is most valuable. But do not pretend that I do not know the intention of your action.”

“Lady, I simply offered it as a formality, a token of friendship.”

“Then allow me to offer something back to you, something in return. I have diamonds, dropped by those who have trespassed my waters, turned azure from the touch of my presence. Should that suffice?”

“I am sorry, Lady, but I have diamonds of my own, and do not wish to dilute your offering with ones that are inferior. I wish to have a gift that I can truly remember your greatness by.”

“Perhaps a pet, then,” she said, her voice even colder. “One of those that I hold dear, a fish of brilliant color, one truly unique.”

“Alas,” said Libus, “had I a way to keep it alive on our journey, I should immediately accept. But I fear insulting you should it perish, and I wish no defamation of your character or blemish upon our relationship.”

“Then request,” said Amellias. “Request what I can offer you to match your kindness.”

“All I wish, Lady,” said Libus, bowing again, “is for you to allow Cinis to return to us and continue his journey with us. I ask that you present him with another token of your appreciation, which he will most gladly accept. And should he ever return to these waters, I promise not to keep him from you again, and that you may interact with him as you see fit.”

Amellias frowned, frost flashing across her face, though she did not approach.

“You border upon insult,” she said, “but I accept, and the debt is paid. But the age-old debt remains, and that I shall pay now.”

In the water, Cinis’ eyes widened, and he shook his head, taking a sharp breath inward.

“What? Where?” he said, suddenly alert as Jessica pulled him onto the raft. “How?”

“Just listen,” she commanded, and Amellias spoke again, pulling a bottle from a fold in her dress, a bottle the color of algae and encircled with golden writing.

“Once I was trapped, held for years and years within this bottle. Freeing me is the great favor that your ancestors performed. By returning this to you, I hope for you to remember that there are those that deserve to be free, and it is wrongful for someone to bind them. It is wrongful to devise a prison for them. Even if you have the power.” She placed the bottle into the water, and it floated to the raft. A small wave bore it onto the surface, where it rolled to Cinis. She then produced a small vial and raised it to her cheek, shedding a tear and catching it within.

“Water, water is pure, young one. You too must learn to be pure. The gift I give you now is to remind you of that, of purity. Of purity, and of debts.”

“What is it?” Cinis asked.

“Should you find yourself in great need, break it, and my tears will scatter with the wind. Anyone you have ever helped, from the tallest giant to the smallest minnow, will feel them and be compelled to come to your aid. Let this gift serve to remind you that all acts, good and bad, will someday be repaid. Let it remind you of debts.”

Then the vial floated to Cinis, who picked it out of the river and cradled it in his palm.

“Thank you, Lady, for your gifts. One day I will repay them.”

“Your forefathers have already,” she said, and she started to sink. “Now it is time for me to depart, to run with the current and follow the moon. Sleep soundly, for I will keep you safe until morning.”

“Will you not stay?”

“No. And do not try to stop me. For I am Amellias, and I will never be bound again.”

Then she descended, her voice bubbling upward as the river claimed her.

“Tread softly, young one, for I am not the only one who will recognize you for who you are.”

Chapter 51: Split

Rorcul

“Glaseus, if you have come here to waste my time with the everyday business of your organization, I encourage you to leave while you are still entitled to your wits.”

Rorcul sat in the chamber the king had reserved for him, a series of maps and books laid out before him on a round, oak table, and cold air brushing past him from a window open to the city night. His left hand fingered the silver claw that held the cloak at his neck, tarnish forming and dissolving with each brush, while his right hand rolled two black pearls across the largest of the maps, one of Querkus itself, liberated from deep in the palace libraries. He had pinned three of the corners down with needles jammed deep into the wood and the fourth with a glass of water, preventing the paper from curling after decades of being constrained to a roll.

Behind Glaseus, two guards stood at the door, guards that, by law, were technically under Glaseus’ command. But by the smell of their hot breath and the occasional grunts as they shifted position, he knew that the law would hold little weight.

“No, sir. I’m afraid… I’m afraid I bring unpleasant news.”

The words left Glaseus’ throat dry as he waited for Rorcul’s reaction, watching as he continued to roll the two pearls around the edge of the map. Just a few weeks prior, Glaseus had been third in line for command of the palace guard, idly wondering as he supervised his subordinates if the day would ever pass that he would be promoted to the top. It had taken ten years for him to reach his current position, and he had lived a life of relative comfort in it, earning enough money to buy on occasion the imported whiskey from Cratus, aged nine years in stone, instead of the gutter water that most of the guard drank. He could afford to live alone and gamble away a portion of his pay without having to worry about procuring dinner the next week. But still, he had wondered what it would be like to be captain of the guard, to have his pay doubled, and to command the safety of the city.

And now, Glaseus regretted ever having desired it.

The first of the captains was in the palace dungeons from when the armory had caught fire. Glaseus had known him well—some had called his methods cruel, his punishments unjust, but few had disobeyed the commands he barked out. Too many had seen the short, metal club at his side combined with his oversized barrel chest to speak out.

Just two days prior, Rorcul had visited him in his cell. And though no words could be discerned by the guards outside the door, the screams had echoed up to the floor level of the palace. And when Rorcul left, the guards were forced to move the former captain three levels deeper to prevent the king himself from hearing his cries during the night. There was talk that when he was released, if he was released, it would be straight to the madhouse where he would drool his days away.

The second captain had died during the assault on the palace grounds, taking a wound through his left shoulder during the commotion. Glaseus himself saw it happen and personally struck down the resistance member who wielded the bloodied spear, but the captain had urged him to pursue the resistance when they determined that the wound was not fatal.

When Glaseus returned, the mission having failed, all that was left of the captain was bones. Bones that looked as if they were scorched or charred, but had a thin layer of frost upon them and occasional strips of shredded muscle that clung frozen to the remains.

“You were saying, Glaseus?” asked Rorcul from the table, and Glaseus shivered as a gust of particularly frigid air blew through the open window. Glaseus’ thin, black beard twitched in deliberation, his mind searching for an eloquent way to deliver the news, and failing as another breeze distracted him.

“Our shipment was intercepted.”

What?” Rorcul’s voice lowered to a whisper that cut through the thin air as a bead of sweat rolled down the goosebumps on Glaseus’ neck.

“We transferred our men to search for the boy, as you instructed, instead of guarding the incoming shipment. No one should have known where it was hidden nor been there to intercept it, but the raft was hijacked early this morning, the cargo along with it.”

“And with your restructuring of resources, have you found the boy? Have your efforts been fruitful, Glaseus? Or have you manipulated your forces in such a way that I have managed to lose both?”

Again, Rorcul’s voice showed no volume increase, nor did the tone change. But Glaseus felt something behind the words, a weight to them as if they were more than simple sounds. A presence that made him doubt the lesson his mother had taught him as a child, that words could never hurt him.

“Yes, sir, we—”

“You failed is what you did!” shouted Rorcul, raising his attention for the first time, his eyes ablaze. “Failed ontwo counts, Glaseus! What do I look like to you? Do I look like the fat king you serve, ready to sweep these inadequacies under the table? Did you wait all day to inform me of this news, of an event that happened this morning?”

“We wanted to confirm that—”

“There is no time to confirm, you fool! I want to know everything that happens in this city that is abnormal, down to a stray dog dying in the streets!”

“Sir, this actually occurred outside the city, so—”

Rorcul stood, his cloak billowing about him as wind shrieked through the window, his face livid as he raised his hand, his fingers bent into a claw. Glaseus jumped away, and there was a shriek behind him as one of the demonic guards burst into flames, his howls filling the room along with thick, black smoke as his skin boiled and the fire blazed.

“Starting in Anarchen, I want every stretch of the river scoured until the shipment is found. Fail me again and you’ll wish we had never met, Glaseus, if you even have time for that thought to go through your head before I turn you to ash as well!”

Glaseus fled the room, slamming the door shut and cursing as he sprinted down the hallway. Rorcul turned to the second of the demons as the first fell to the floor, twitching.

“And you!” Rorcul shouted. “You should share the same fate as your brother, but for now you’ll have mercy. Find the boy or you will experience a pain like you have never experienced in all your years. Redouble your efforts. Damn it, you’re a predator, act like it! And take the scraps, it will suffice for dinner.”

A smile filled with canine teeth formed on the demon’s face as it wrapped its fingers around the leg of its still-smoldering brother, dragging him out into the hallway and down the stairs. Moments later, Rorcul heard him howl, summoning his brothers for the feast and the orders.

“Alretta,” Rorcul called, and a door behind him opened to reveal a sprawling bedchamber, lavishly decorated with violet linens and a spotless carpet. Alretta looked at him from the door frame, her expression bored, her posture slouched against the wall.

“News?” she asked. “I’m tired of being cooped up in this city; the Vrael is making my nerves itch.”

“It’s time to hunt,” he replied, and a smile curled upward from her lower lip. “A raft went missing this morning, a raft carrying a valuable shipment to the king. Coincidentally, Cinis has yet to be found. I’ve already sent forces to pursue by water, but should they turn to land—”

“Should they turn to land, I’ll ensure the thieves meet the fate they deserve.”

“Good,” said Rorcul, and he took one of the pearls from the map, dropping it into the water cup where it sank to the bottom with a small smash. “Cut them off and strike them down before they get too far inland. Should it be Cinis, deal with him before he has a chance to escape. Luck was on his side last time, do not let it smile upon him again. And should they still be in the city, they will never leave.”

Chapter 52: Narrowing In

Jessica, Cinis

When Cinis woke, the sun was already climbing into the midmorning sky. He yawned as the light warmed the exposed side of his face and the scratchy blanket pricked the other. He couldn’t remember falling asleep, only watching Amellias disappear as droplets of water rushed off his shirt and skin to follow her back into the river. In his pocket he felt the vial and bottle that she had given him, pushing against the ring that was already inhabiting the space and digging into his thigh.

Libus was washing himself with river water and a small towel on the other side of the raft, carefully inspecting himself with a mirror that he had taken from one of the cargo crates, turning it to view a spot just above the stubble on his left cheek. Jessica had occupied herself in the center, laying out three cloth bags, filling them with items from the cargo and mounding other useful objects around them including a new pair of boots, a small sewing kit, extra containers for water, and a collection of spice jars. But as he turned toward her, he saw her staring back and quickly sat up.

“What happened?” he said, fishing into his pocket and pulling out the jar and vial. “Who was that last night?”

“What happened is that you almost started sleeping with the fishes,” said Libus, snapping the mirror closed, “literally. You might want to check your neck for gills and your toes for webbing, because too much longer around her and they would have become fresh members of your anatomy.”

“Like Libus said,” added Jessica, “whoever that was, she was powerful, and she was trying to take you with her. It’s likely my fault, since I sped up the raft by calling fish to push it—her pets, as she called them—and she probably felt me doing it.”

“A good thing that Jessica woke up and woke me up, because otherwise we would have thought you had fled in the middle of the night. And a good thing, Jessica, that you did not try to fight her, as it would have been like trying to fight your way up a waterfall. You would have made excellent fish food. The Ladies are no force to be laughed at.”

“I could have at least escaped, Libus,” said Jessica, and he laughed.

“Only if she let you! Like I said, the Ladies are powerful. More powerful than anyone you have met. They’re pure elemental forces, and as such, their minds and beings are completely muddled by the magic of the elements. Warped, sometimes to the point of insanity. I’m sure you’ve seen Angels with wings, Jessica—the Ladies are extreme versions of that. Each of us has some of the elements within us—air in our lungs and blood, water throughout, fire in our spirits and digestion, earth in our bones, light in our minds, and darkness in our secrets. For the Ladies, and other elemental beings, that’s imbalanced to a dangerous degree.”

“If they are so powerful, how could she have been trapped in this?” asked Cinis, raising the bottle. “She wouldn’t even fit!”

“Cinis, if you were to get in a fight with a bear, no weapons of any sort allowed, who would win?”

“Well, the bear of course, but I don’t see how that applies.”

“It applies,” said Jessica, taking the bottle from Cinis as Libus nodded, “because even though a bear would rip you apart in its home territory, it can still be caged and controlled with proper preparation. See the writing on this bottle? That golden ink is atriel, a magical substance, and the writing is an enchantment to bind and contain, specifically for water. This is incrediblyhard to do, since vrael and atriel are notoriously hard to work into any shape beyond the most simple and blocky of forms. I would assume that they could trap her because the bottle traps her essence, or water—Libus?”

“Correct, or I would assume so,” he said. “They would only have to catch a few drops of her, or a strand of her hair, or a cut of her moonlit dress. And because the enchantment is primarily one of water, the worker would primarily need to design it around Water Magic, which makes the process considerably simpler.”

“Interesting,” said Cinis as he took the vial out and studied that as well. “But what was that whole bit about trading? That she said she owed me this, and you gave her pearls?”

“The Ladies, as well as other natural entities, are often extremely particular about debts,” answered Libus. “It’s a natural property. Think of it this way: Should you lift a brick, you steal it momentarily from the earth, but eventually that brick will fall and the debt will be paid. Or throughout its lifetime, a tree collects sunlight, which is released if the plant is lit on fire. The Lady felt she owed you for the actions of your ancestors, which meant that she had to repay the debt, which to her meant taking you under her wing for protection and who-knows-what-else her twisted mind dictated. So by giving her the pearls, which are quite valuable, especially to her since they are water-born objects, I placed her in my debt. A dangerous move, because she knew precisely what I was doing and could have easily just killed me for my insolence. Tricky entities, Ladies, and you should always use utmost caution around them, if you’re ever lucky enough, or unlucky enough, to meet one again.”

“Interesting,” said Jessica. “On two accounts.”

“Which are?” asked Cinis.

“One, that you know all this, Libus. Strange that a thief from the inside of the neutral city, where magic is banned, would be so well versed on theory—particularly about the Ladies, which is not formally taught.”

“Such is the life of a vagabond,” countered Libus, staring into the sky. “I pick things up here and there. All you have to do is listen when no one expects you to. Besides, Jessica, I’ve told you that Querkus was only the most recent chapter of my life. And I prefer social injustice worker to thief—the connotations are quite different.”

“I still prefer thief,” Jessica responded, her eyes moving to the pocket where Libus kept the veil that held her earrings, “and maybe liar as well. But secondly, it’s interesting because one of Cinis’ ancestors freed her, which explains why he might be hunted. Maybe there is some magic in him, after all.”

“Don’t you think I would know by now if that was the case?” asked Cinis.

“Yes, I woke up to the waters of the river splitting before him, rocks around his head, and fire spouting from this mouth, all while he flew in circles above us,” Libus mocked.

“I mean, he’s spent his whole life in Querkus, it’s not like he’s had much of a chance to exercise it.”

“There should have still been signs,” Libus responded, “Unless, hmm, well unless he was a simple mage.”

“A what?” asked Cinis, and Jessica groaned. “What does that mean? I still stand by the fact that I’d know by now if I could use magic. There are countless times I wished the tavern dishes would clean themselves.”

“A simple mage,” repeated Jessica. “Cinis, typically those gifted with magic have a specialty, which is often hereditary. For me, it should have been air. This is a certain intuition, a jump start at that particular element, though the others can be learned as well. But a mage, while being gifted, has no intuition. He has the power, but no channel to use it until he develops it on his own.”

“What she’s saying is that you’re the magical equivalent of a student who drools onto his tests instead of writing on them,” interjected Libus.

“So eloquently put,” said Jessica as Cinis’ face fell. “But it can be overcome. Still, I’ll be administering tests as we travel.” She reached into her bag and pulled forth four objects, placing them on the floor of the raft. A piece of charcoal, a vial of water, a small diamond, and a clear glass orb. “I found these in the cargo; they will help us see if you possess any sort of intuition. Plus, with that bottle with atriel writing, holding it should help amplify the effects of any dormant skill you may have.”

“Maybe,” said Cinis, staring past her and Libus, “but there’s a third thing now. I think that will have to wait.”

“And what is that?” Jessica asked, crossing her arms. “It’s important that we find this out about you so we can start training.”

“That.” Cinis pointed back upriver. “We’ve been found. That crowbar would have been useful right about now.”

Jessica turned, eyes widening as she looked behind them. Four boats, filled with eight men each, had just emerged from a distant bend in the river, each paddling forward with at least twice the raft’s speed. Unlike the raft, they were built for agility, their crescent hulls parting the water easily and allowing them to glide upon its surface.

From the lead boat a figure pointed and shouted, his voice too distant to be heard, and the speed of the oarsmen doubled as the other men dipped below the rim of the boats, returning with bows strung in their hands, nocking arrows.

Chapter 53: Scurry Away

Jessica, Cinis

“Hold on!” shouted Libus, and he steered the raft right, aiming toward the nearest bank. Thick branches extended overhead as the raft grounded against the shallow side of the river. Spaded leaves blocked the sunlight overhead as Jessica and Libus jumped into the low current, then held the raft for Cinis to disembark. But he stood motionless, his eyes turning toward the crate.

“Hurry up, boy, unless you’re ready to rejoin Amellias face down in the river!” Libus yelled, waist deep in the water. “You stand no chance against all of them, and I can guarantee you that not all of them are as they seem. Likely to be a few demons mixed in there.”

“Jessica, how good would you say your forestry skills are? Good enough to cover our tracks and our smells?” asked Cinis.

“Not if you keep standing there, but with a few minutes head start, they’ll never be able to catch us.”

“That’s what I wanted to hear,” Cinis replied. He raised his foot off the deck and planted his heel against the wood of the crate. The crate holding all the precious black pearls toppled overboard into the river, landing on its side and flowing downriver, the pearls flowing in a stream from its lip into the water.

A roar exploded from behind as their pursuants saw the crate floating away, their voices now close enough to be heard, and an arrow splashed into the water ten feet from the edge of the raft.

*Another gift for you, Amellias,* Cinis thought, watching the treasure sink down to the riverbed. *May they only increase your beauty. And may you be in my debt.*

Then he jumped after Libus and Jessica, plunging into the river, his motion kicking the raft out from underneath Libus’ arms and throwing him off balance, dunking his head momentarily underneath the water. Sputtering, Libus resurfaced as three arrows splashed next to him, an additional lodging itself in a tree trunk just behind them, far closer than Cinis would have preferred.

“Follow me, and keep close!” shouted Jessica, and she stormed into the foliage, ferns and branches parting temporarily to allow her to pass. As Cinis approached the same plants, they again bent away from him then folded behind him, as if he were wading through the forest instead of crashing through it. After three minutes of running, Jessica turned left into a small patch of flattened briars, listening as shouts originated from the riverbank.

“They’ll have landed by now,” she said, “and we can hope the stories of this forest will have them spooked enough to prevent them from following us too far. But in case Libus is right, and they have demons among them, we’ll need to make sure they can’t hunt us by smell. Quick, come here and stand still. Both of you!”

Jessica pulled a knife out from her belt and tugged at Cinis’ shirt, using the blade to remove an entire sleeve.

“Shred it into strips,” she said as the voices slowly approached, and she cut away Libus’ sleeve as well as her own. Then she closed her eyes, brought her fingers to her mouth, and whistled.

“Quiet!” said Libus. “They’ll hear us!”

But she ignored him and whistled again, this time even louder, and the shouting voices responded with shouts and yells. Then the vegetation around them began to quiver, rustling sounds circling around them in every direction.

A squirrel soared from a nearby tree, landing on all fours and sprinting toward her, then standing on its hind two legs as its whiskers twitched. Above, a hawk screeched, diving downward to land on her arm, its steely eyes regarding Cinis as it cocked its head. Then a deer jumped over a thicket to their left, trotting around her as a red fox rushed through the same thicket, and a small troupe of squeaking mice assembled at her feet.

“The strips,” she said, extending a hand, and Cinis and Libus handed them over, having ripped their sleeves apart.

“I give you these as gifts,” said Jessica, speaking quickly and dropping them to her feet, as she looked at each of the animals in turn, “For material to build your nests, for ornaments to your fur, for however you wish to use them. Take them, and go, for there are those who wish to steal them from you!”

The squirrel raised a tiny fist and scurried forward, snatching up a piece of the torn fabric, its eyes widening in paranoia as soon as it made contact with the strip. It chattered, zig-zagging away from the group and dragging the fabric behind, the material rubbing against the ground as it raced back into the forest.

Likewise, the fox snagged the cloth in its jaws, grabbing a second when it thought Jessica was not looking, and departed, the deer following it with fragments of its own. Then the mice stretched a single piece between them, circling away as each tried to chew through to separate a part from the main, their squeaks decreasing in volume with each passing second as they disappeared into the underbrush.

The hawk took the rest of the bundle in its talons, spreading its wings and launching itself back in the sky, Cinis watching as a piece of cloth fluttered to the ground far away as it accidentally dropped it.

“Remarkable,” said Libus as Jessica led them away again at a jog, his hair still wet from his fall into the river.

“Our scents will be in every corner of this wood by nightfall,” said Jessica. “Their understanding and memories are limited, but they’ll carry the fragments back to their nests or forget and leave them somewhere along the way. In either case, we’ll be long gone.”

“How much farther should we run before getting our bearings?” asked Cinis. “We don’t want to get lost or too far off track.”

“Let’s go for another hour, just in case,” replied Jessica. “I know the general direction, and once we are safe, we can worry about finding the road.”

“Agreed,” said Libus. “We’ll want to be certain that we shook them from our trail. And we’ll post careful watch tonight, just to be sure. And even if we are sure, we’ll want to watch for *other* possibilities.”

Sweat poured down Cinis’ neck as they traveled deeper, less and less sunlight reaching the forest floor while the heat and humidity seemed to increase. Around him, he heard birds calling out to one another, their song far different from those he was used to in the city. Orange centipedes rushed out of their path, accompanied by other bugs, like beetles, parting from their rushed footprints.

As promised, Jessica stopped an hour in, finding a small clearing where they could set down the packs she had made on the raft. She passed water to them as they listened, trying to pick out voices from the forest, but hearing nothing other than natural sounds. Libus received the water before Cinis, tilting his head back to drink as Cinis watched thirstily, his own tongue so dry that it was sticking to the roof of his mouth.

And Cinis’ eyes narrowed as he tried to see through the darkness, staring at a spot on Libus’ left cheek, just above the beard stubble. The same place that he had held the mirror that morning, where there seemed to be a streaking of color after his fall in the river.

“Libus,” said Cinis, laughing and pointing, “do you wear makeup?”

Libus choked on the water, sputtering as Jessica looked up and jumped to her feet, planting herself between Libus and Cinis.

“I know that mark!” she shouted, taking a fighting stance as Libus raised a hand to hide the image, but not before Cinis saw the design. It was hard to make out the entire mark, half of it still obscured by a combination of shade and cover up, but the outline was clear—an hourglass, only a few grains of sand left in the top, and the bottom nearly filled.

“What is it?” asked Cinis as Libus’ jaw tightened and he stared forward, no longer attempting to hide it, and Jessica shouted once more.

“It’s from Cratus, the boulderer city, and they only use that mark for one purpose. To mark Outcasts!”

Chapter 54

Jessica, Cinis

“It’s not as it seems,” said Libus, his voice flat, as Jessica’s voice flared up again.

“Oh, really? What did you do, then, to earn that mark? I always knew there was something strange about you, and it explains why you were in Querkus, too! You were hiding! A vagabond because you were forced to, not by choice.”

“I did nothing wrong,” said Libus. “What I did was not a crime.”

“Just like you were no thief, nor a gang leader in Querkus!”

“And was I wrong in doing either of those things?” demanded Libus, and he raised his hand to wipe away the rest of the concealment from the faded mark. “Surely I would have received a mark just the same for my deeds in escorting you from the city or aiding you now. If, that is, I lived long enough to get a mark during capture.”

“What’s so bad about it?” asked Cinis. “We already knew he was an outlaw, didn’t we?”

“No, this is different,” said Jessica as her mind flickered back to the first time she had used magic, to the flames that had lashed out toward her from the outcast’s hand back then. “Very different. Outcasts are the worst types of criminals, people who committed crimes so awful that they were supposed to be locked up for life or executed, but escaped. People who committed rape, or murder, or—”

“Or treason,” interjected Libus, and he leaned back against the trunk of a tree, giving Jessica a sidelong glance as he took another sip of the water. “Which is a term that can be quite widely interpreted.”

“Or treason!” exclaimed Jessica. The trees around them rustled, though Cinis could feel no wind. “In Cratus, which is no small act! More importantly, it means you’ve been hiding something from us, Libus, after you accused me of doing the same. It means you’re gifted, and since you’re from Cratus, it’s likely Earth Magic!”

“Well, you’re on to me now,” said Libus, and he yawned. “You do realize that you can stop shouting before the entire forest is alerted to our presence? And drop the fighting stance, if I wanted to cause you harm it would have been long ago.”

“Jessica, I think you’re overreacting,” said Cinis. “He’s already saved us multiple times. Escaping the city, for one. Without him, we never would have made it this far.”

“Sure, but why? What’s your end game, Libus? To sell us out?”

“Would’ve ran off with the pearls, then, or handed you off when we stopped,” said Libus, ticking off two fingers. “If anything, we are running from the top buyers. With the two of you combined, I can only dream about the whiskey I could have bought. I’d never spend a day sober again.”

“Why, then, are you helping us?”

“Funny thing about that is that I don’t have to tell you anything,” he said, and he yawned again, deeper this time. “No matter what I say, I can already tell you’re so worked up that it’ll fall on flat ears. In fact, I feel like taking a nap.”

“What? You can’t do that!”

“I absolutely can,” he replied, shutting his eyes. “Go on, report me to the authorities. We’ll see how that goes for you. Besides, maybe I’m enjoying this.”

“But Libus,” said Cinis. “I still want you to come with us.”

“Do you want to go to Cardinia?” fumed Jessica. “Because he won’t make it past their gates. I’m the only one who can get you there.”

“But he can still accompany us. He’s useful Jessica. Hell, you’re sounding like me now.”

“Listen to the boy, he’s spouting some sense,” said Libus, waving a lazy hand, his eyes still closed.

“Absolutely not. All I know is that you’ve had nothing but secrets since we met you, and now I’m not sure if I want to find out what they are.”

“Then quit asking.”

“Fine, I will! Come on, Cinis, we’re leaving.”

“Jessica, I don’t like how this feels,” said Cinis. “I really don’t think we should be leaving him behind. Besides, if you’re suspicious of him, wouldn’t you want him where you can keep an eye on him?”

“Again, the boy speaks sense,” said Libus. “But don’t worry about me Cinis. She’s right, if you want to go to Cardinia, she’ll take you there. And rest assured, I won’t bother you. Stay safe, you two. Let’s see how far you get.”

“Is that a threat?” asked Jessica, clenching her fists. “Maybe I should finish you off now.”

“Please, you haven’t the heart, and we both know how ugly it would get.”

“I bet you I’d find out some secrets,” she said as her eyes narrowed. “So what now, you’re just going to stay behind?”

“Suppose so,” he said. “Go along, before I change my mind.”

Jessica’s frown deepened as she shouldered her pack, and Cinis followed her. She walked backward, watching Libus as she left, but his breath came so regularly that even she thought he might have been asleep until he spoke.

“Cinis, the Ladies aren’t the only ones who feel obligated to pay their debts. And I still have a hell of one to pay.”

Jessica walked in front of Cinis for the next two hours, picking her path among thorns and ferns, refusing to turn around to even check if he was following her.

“Jessica,” he had said a quarter of the way through. “Don’t you think you might be making the wrong decision here? That maybe—”

“If you think I’m wrong, go follow him!” she snapped, and he closed his mouth, following her through the forest until she finally dropped her pack.

“We stop here for camp,” she said, “but more importantly, we stop here for lesson one. I’m done with secrets—it’s time we found some answers.”

Chapter 55

Cinis, Jessica

“I’m still not convinced I have any ability,” said Cinis as Jessica pulled the objects that she had shown him earlier from her bag and placed them on the ground in front of him. The charcoal, vial of water, diamond, and small orb.

It was oddly quiet now without Libus’ sarcastic quips or his footsteps accompanying theirs. Cinis found himself fingering the knives at his belt that Libus had given him long ago, wondering where the man had gone and whether he would find him again. Maybe Rorcul would find him, but Cinis doubted that—if Libus wanted to stay hidden, most anyone would be hard pressed to find him.

“Most people find out a young age,” Jessica said, jostling his thoughts and holding an absent-minded hand to her ear, where the earring Libus now carried had once been. “Typically they gravitate toward items they have power over and, as they grow older, realize that they can control them. But you’re different, because you have always been surrounded by vrael, which would have snuffed out any of your tries at magic. We can do our best to test you now, though.”

“But what if Libus was right, and I am just a simple mage?”

“Then that means we’ll just need to start from the bottom. All magicians have power over the elements, even simple mages. So even if you aren’t predisposed to one, you can start learning them equally. It’ll take longer, but simple mages have been some of the most powerful figures in all of history—they’re more late bloomers. Tymik himself was one.” Then she looked him over and continued speaking, her eyes flitting around the forest at any new sounds.

“But I’m not quite ready to believe that you’re a simple mage. Those showing any power beyond the simplest of party tricks are exceedingly rare. From what we know, you’re not royal, you’re not famous, and you’re certainly not rich, so I can’t think of any reason you would be on Rorcul’s list unless you possess some form of power.

“Now I want to find out for sure. Whichever of these you are able to control is what you are; it’s where you’re most likely from, and where we can find your ancestors,” she said, and she gestured to the four objects on the ground. “So we’ll try each.”

“I thought you said there were seven elements. Where are the other three?” interjected Cinis.

Jessica sighed. “Like Libus’ story said, there is no race associated with Life Magic. And as far as Light and Dark Magic go, most of their secrets are lost to time when the two races nearly eradicated each other in the wars. And you certainly don’t match the looks for either Light or Dark. No, if anything, you’re of the more bland, earthy variety.”

“Oh, thanks. I’m so happy you can complement both my nonexistent abilities and my looks in one jab.”

“Be happy that you don’t look like Brights or Shadows—it would get you killed. There’s still plenty of resentment from the wars. Now, let’s begin.”

“With which one? Earth?”

“Yes, Earth,” confirmed Jessica, her eyes bright as she pointed to the diamond. “Diamond is one of the purest forms of earth, and therefore easiest to control. We’re going to start easy, with trying to nudge it. All you need to do is make it move. You should be able to feel a connection between yourself and it. Similar to how you look at it and realize that it is a diamond in your thoughts, the magical connection should spring to your mind as well. It’s a sense, almost a vibration or weight. And once you attain that, then you can interact with it.”

“So I just focus on it? Like, what, close my eyes or something?” asked Cinis as he stared at the diamond and tried to sense it. “This feels ridiculous.”

“It should just happen. You should know it is there like you know my voice is here.”

“I’ve been around plenty of rocks, and I assure you, none of them have ever leapt out to me before,” said Cinis. He took a breath and tried again to feel it out, to push it, to do anything thing with it.

“Move,” he whispered, trying to reach out again, but he was unable to find any other presence than that of his beating heart.

The diamond sat in the dirt, defiant and mocking, catching the light from the sun on its carved edge.

“Anything?” asked Jessica.

“Apart from looking like an idiot? Nothing.”

“Fine, the vial of water, then.”

“Nothing,” he responded after a few moments. “Nothing at all.”

“Then the charcoal,” she said. “Either to move it or light it on fire. Your choice.”

“Neither,” he said, crossing his arms. “I think this is a lost cause, Jessica.”

“We still have one more element. Air. Go on.”

“It’s not worth it,” he said, but he looked down again and focused on the glass orb. “It’s useless, I might as well try to—”

But then, in the dirt, the glass wiggled and began to spin. It jiggled on its axis then shot upward in the air to hover at eye level as Cinis’ mouth dropped open and his eyelids rose.

“I, I did it?” he stuttered, reaching a hand forward to touch the orb.

“Nope, I was just getting tired of your complaining,” said Jessica as she blew a strand of blonde hair from in front of her eye, and with a flick of her hand the orb fell to the earth again as Cinis scowled. “You’re going to have to have more of an open mind if this is going to work.”

“Well it’s not going to work if you try to trick me!” Cinis shouted back, unfolding his hands and jamming them into his pockets. “See? Look! Look at the diamond right now, and tell me if you see it moving at all, if you see anything. Go on, diamond, move!”

“That’s hardly orthodox—” said Jessica, but her voice cut off as her gaze fell to the ground.

There the stone quivered in place, shaking atop the dirt as it pressed downward, a small mound of dirt growing at its edges.

“Oh, very funny, Jessica!” Cinis said. But then he looked back to her face, which was frozen in shock.

“That’s not me,” she whispered as he blinked, and with a sudden jolt the diamond shot off at an angle, embedding itself into a tree trunk in a shower of bark. Cinis stepped backward, involuntarily this time as the world tilted slightly and he grew lightheaded, catching his balance as Jessica’s fingers snagged his arm to steady him.

Then he pulled his right fist out of his pocket, and opened his hand to reveal the object that he had been holding, which now was warm to the the touch.

The ring that Dyrius had left him, with the gem stone glowing bright in the center.

Chapter 56: Whispers in the Forest

Jessica, Cinis

Night fell and starlight navigated its way through the forest canopy to their camp. Jessica had volunteered to take the first watch and sat with her back against the fire, thinking back upon the events that day. She blinked, tracing the outlines of dark shapes with her eyes, and her ears twitched as a twig snapped in the distance. She concentrated, enhancing the sensations, remembering her travels with Cesaro when squirrels had taught her hearing while wolves had taught her sight.

She stilled and focused on her own heartbeat, directing energy into her chest for a single heartbeat twice as strong as normal. Around her the world shimmered as she felt the pulse of the forest respond to her call. Dark colors brightened and sounds became more distinguished, morphing before her into streams of information. Crickets chirped. Locusts buzzed. An owl hooted, and mice squeaked.

Safety in the hollows, they whispered to her. The forest watches you tonight. Above, the tree branches swayed, restless. The darkness seeks those hidden in darkness. As always, their message was enigmatic, incomplete.

“Nature does not speak in the language of man, but rather in sensations,” Cesaro had once said to her in one of their lessons. “It speaks in feelings that offer more hunches than sense. Emotions and instincts, perceptions and insights. Beware of translating them, as much can be lost, and only in their base form can they truly be understood. Never forget that, Jessica, for as much as man thinks he has risen above nature, it still holds the greatest mysteries.”

She tensed as unease trickled through the the forest, causing the hairs on her neck to prick. Soon their trail would be discovered by more experienced hunters. Soon, but not tonight.

In addition to the anxiety resulting from her communication with the forest, a third feeling lingered in the back of her mind. A nagging feeling, the source of which she narrowed down to a single focal point on the warm body resting slightly to her left.

This boy, this boy she had spent the past few months desperately searching for, who appeared little more than a impulsive adolescent. Who she had pledged her life to protect, even though he appeared less valuable than a common soldier. He was not tall or bulky like a warrior, nor had she been impressed when she had tried to get him to repeat his magical skills. She wondered if she had been mistaken, if maybe there had been two Cinis’ and she had picked the wrong one.

But no, there were other signs. The way he could navigate the tunnels underneath the city, how he had escaped Rorcul, and most of all, the appearance of Amellias.

She had seen him practicing with the diamond before he retired for the night. His white face and the beads of sweat rolling down his brow testified to his effort, though each of his attempts had been more pitiful than the last, the diamond rocking slower and slower to his call. She had tried to help him, explaining the method repetitively to no avail.

Beside her, Cinis relaxed in his makeshift bed of leaves and a blanket stolen from the raft. Something about the forest reminded him of the city tunnels, where the air was fresh compared to below. For the first time since the tavern burned, he had had time to think about the events of the last few days without worrying about drowning or being killed. To digest, without simply acting—to regain control over himself and his emotions. Though the city itself was left behind, the memories came flooding back in a rush that caught him off guard.

He thought of Rearden. The countless hours spent taking lessons and running the tavern that now seemed so far away, as if somebody else’s memories had replaced his own. Lying stock still so Jessica would not notice, he felt the first tear slide down. Then a second, and a third. He rolled over, allowing a saline drop to arc off his face and patter against the bare ground to be absorbed instantly into the thirsty dirt. And as the dirt drank, the faint tone of a single bell rang in the darkness.

Jessica stirred, cocking an ear to better listen. There was a second bell of to her right, and she swiveled to see it, the tone lingering with no apparent source. Cinis dried his eyes with the blanket and sat up to see Jessica holding a finger across her lips. Ahead, pinpricks of blue light twinkled as they danced between the trees, drawing closer. Quieter versions of the bells played as they drew in, creating a musical entourage similar to wind chimes on a gusty day. The lights grew from dozens to hundreds as they gathered before them in a small semicircle, converging with each note and shimmering to match the frequency.

Then, with a puff of smoke, the fire was extinguished and replaced by a single blue light, brighter than all the others, that hovered atop the ashes.

Leaning forward and squinting, Cinis saw that it was not merely a light at all, but rather a tiny person with azure glowing wings. She inspected him, staring intently down a long nose in judgement as her wings hummed before she settling down to stand. And spreading her spindly arms wide, she smiled, and spoke.

“It appears,” she said, her voice melodic and excited, “that we have an audience!”

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